Thursday, December 27, 2012

CD Review: Marc Riordan Quartet - Binoculars

Marc Riordan Quartet
(Club Nerodia)

Anyone familiar with Marc Riordan's name outside of Chicago probably knows him as a drummer, a role he filled with the Aram Shelton Quartet and Josh Berman's Old Idea, among others. Binoculars introduces him as a pianist, in a set of seven originals and one cover that show him to be equally as skilled in the melodic world as he is behind the traps.

Riordan's composing owes a great deal to Thelonious Monk. So much so that a couple tracks seem to use phrases from Monk standards as springboards to new directions. The opening phrases of "Lesson Learned" could have ushered in "Monk's Mood," with a few teases of "Crepuscule with Nellie" on the side. "On the 6th" bears has a passing resemblance to "Pannonica." Yet neither example reduces the music, or Riordan, to a mere imitator. With alto saxophonist Peter Hanson upfront, and bassist Daniel Thatcher and drummer Tim Daisy holding the rhythm together, the quartet's sound takes the spirit of '50s angular bop and puts a unique stamp on it. Riordan also cites Herbie Nichols as an influence, which can be felt in "I'll Text You."

Then when it comes to covering an actual Monk song, Riordan goes the extra mile by playing "A Merrier Christmas," which would be known only to scholars or fans who read Robin D. G. Kelley's engrossing Monk biography, since the composer never officially recorded it. Don't look at the CD cover and it's hard to tell which track is the cover, another mark in the quartet's favor.

They also break away from straight four tempo with "Little Dog," a catchy number that translates Ornette Coleman's electric compositions to a loose limbed acoustic setting. The alto theme in "Magnetic Personality" almost sounds like an exercise, but the rhythm section's punctuation keeps it from sounding mechanical. Hanson and Riordan began to solo simultaneously and create some compelling tension in the process. The saxophonist's tone ranges from sharp-tongued to clear-and-crisp throughout the session. Riordan sounds assured and inventive as well, whether he's contributing to a fast melody line, adding some nervous Cecil Taylor-esque trills or comping.

It's still strange to me that so many musicians stay stuck in the "Golden Age" of jazz (post-WWII to the early 1960s) and do nothing but replay that era without adding anything to the canon. But get a group of guys together who are normally associated with more avant-garde leanings and they swing harder and more creatively than the traditionalists. Marc Riordan now has proven his skills on two instruments, so it's understandable if he's in a quandry about which one to pursue. Just keep your eye on him.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

CD Review: Iron Dog - Interactive Rock Album

Iron Dog
Interactive Album Rock
(Phase Frame)

Poetry and jazz make strange and often wrongheaded bedfellows. Like comedy, a lot of it has to do with the delivery. The poet's voice can blunt a decent set of words by using the cliched rising in pitch at the end of a phrase or, in contrast, taking on a self-important or self-conscious/heh-heh-what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here tone, which is usually speaks to the level of the words they're speaking. And I'm sorry, but the poet's who think it's a good idea to verbalize the sound of free improvisation? They make me run the other way.

Sarah Bernstein, violinist and one-third of Brooklyn's Iron Dog, adds poetry to the group's free improvisation and none of the bad trappings mentioned above factor into her work. In fact, it adds to the forward motion of the group's sound, spiking the energy up a bit. Typically her voice acts less like the center of the music, and more as an addition to the sound. Her delivery isn't animated, though it's not flat either.

Some of her texts consists of two short phrases, others get more extensive and manipulated. The latter example comes in "Love Segment" where a series of "love" phrases (love entity, love surface, love cursive) get repeated, sometimes without the "love" in front of them, slower and faster, making the 13-minute track simultaneously fascinating and abrasive. In "Pain Glorious" she fires off a series of scraps reminiscent of Beat poets  ("Pain glorious/ sunk-eyed furious/ pills, fun/ curious distraction/ allowed to keep the color/ keep the flame") so quickly that it's hard to follow the lyric sheet along with her. As she repeats them, Bernstein manipulates her voice through a delay/reverb pedal, so even as she slows down the verbal delivery, the package still has a mystery code put on them, which seems to imply that the sound serves a more important role than the words themselves.

Sound is something that Bernstein and her trio mates Stuart Popejoy (bass guitar, synthesizer) and Andrew Drury (drums) build especially well. Each one of them stretches the uses of their respective instruments to a point where it's often hard to tell who's doing what. "Like the Slow Train" mysteriously opens the album with what sounds like a banjo loop, an instrument that no one plays. In "Pain Glorious" Bernstein's effects make her violin sound somewhere between Mary Halvorson's guitar skronk and Taylor Ho Bynum's half-valve cornet blasts. In this track especially the trio really listens to each other, with the violin playing shards of melody as the rhythm section creates a churning drone beneath her, marked by Drury's array of bows and mallets on a dustpan and on the drums (he mentions several items such items in the liner notes).

The reason the group decided to call this Interactive Album Rock is not blatantly clear, but I'm guessing it might have something to do with the effect it can have on listeners with open ears. These three make a solid improvisation unit and they've succeeded in the admirable task of removing the bad stigma of the poetry-and-jazz combination. Those qualities can make us feel like we can get involved in the music.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Thinning the Pile

Now that it's getting to the end of the year, the mailbox isn't filling up with promotional CDs. That means I finally have time to catch up on some things that I've wanted to review here over the past couple of months. Truly I would have liked to have started catching up a week or two ago, but last week I had the Franklin Bruno story due for Blurt and it really sucked up a lot of time, both literally and mentally. Then there was holiday preparation - like putting up a Christmas tree that had been sitting on our front porch for a week. (Crazy, isn't it? Turns out you do turn into your parents after a while.)

So here we are right now. I wrote Scott Boni a few days ago, and Living by Lanterns yesterday. Then a new review ought to be here tomorrow morning. Right now it's time for late night festivities.

Friday, December 21, 2012

CD Review: Living By Lanterns - New Myth/Old Science

Living by Lanterns
New Myth/Old Science

Experimental Sound Studio commissioned drummer Mike Reed to create some music inspired by Sun Ra and, as inspiration, they loaned him an iPod filled with unreleased tapes of the eccentric composer - 700 hours of them. Do the math. Figure out how long it would be before your head would swim after getting into the music.

According Terri Kapsalis' liner notes, it wasn't just music contained on those tapes, which began in 1948 and ran until 1985. (Which means Ra was probably doing this long before Andy Warhol got into the act.) They also included recordings of a tv show that included Duke Ellington (complete with commercial breaks), a radio show about acupuncturism and a tape about self-hypnosis, all of which were considered "research." You have to wonder if Ra ever returned to these recordings for reference or forgot about them.

The springboard for New Myth/Old Science came from a 1961 tape of Ra, tenor saxophonist John Gilmore and bassist Ronnie Boykins playing what sounded like song sketches. Vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz worked with Reed to create some structured tunes out of them and then they assembled a five-star group of players to bring it to life. In the studio during September 2011 came Reed's Loose Assembly members Greg Ward (alto saxophone), Tomeka Reid (cello) and Joshua Abrams (bass). Bringing further dimension to the music are Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet), Mary Halvorson (guitar), Ingrid Laubrock (tenor saxophone), Tomas Fujiwara (drums) and Nick Butcher (electronics on two tracks). Reed and Adasiewicz both appear too, and both drummers play together without ever sounding overbearing, or even like two drummers except for the times when different rolls or fills start coming out of each speaker.

New Myth/Old Science works so well because the seven tracks can evoke Sun Ra's Arkestra if one listens with that in mind, while at the same time they come across as highly original. Listen to the music without knowing the background and it feels like a solid album on its own merits. It opens with the one-minute "New Myth" which has the Arkestra leader himself ushering us in with some philosophical questions over a static of lo-fi tape noise and instrument growls (the latter of which could be either from 1961 or 2011). Then "Think Tank" kicks in for over 11 minutes of quick group statements surrounding solos by Halvorson (who gives things an idiosyncratic touch by playing with distortion), Adasiewicz (adding a lot of tonal color, here and throughout the album) and Bynum (who disregards the background riff for something loose and puckish, and takes the rhythm section with him).

Ra's drones can be imagined in "Shadow Boxer," which has a 7/4 ostinato and a theme that creates an exotic melody through the use of the horns and cello. Reid gets the spotlight here. "Grow Lights" features another vamp, after some long tones from Bynum's anxious cornet and Abrams' bowed bass. This time, the cello plucks out a call that's answered with a two-note response from Halvorson that almost sounds mischevious due to its dissonance.

But the album also includes an equal amount of straight-forward blowing time too. "2000 West Erie" includes hot solos by Ward and Laubrock, showing the kind of depth once displayed by Gilmore, beginning on the ground and gradually going off. Dueling solos occur in "Old Science" over a riff that sounds like spy surf music. The final ensemble section of this piece ends the album with a triumphant feeling that encapsulates the success of the whole project.

(UPDATE: This review has drawn a lot of spam, so I've dismantle the comments. If you want to tell me something about this album, try another entry. If you're a spammer, go to hell.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

CD Review: Scott Boni Trio

Scott Boni Trio

Scott Boni and I go back a few years. Originally from Washington, PA, the alto saxophonist went to the Berklee College of Music (back when it was the "School" of music, I believe) and came back to Pittsburgh around the early '00s. He caught my ear because he could play jazz classics and they sounded like more than just tributes to a golden era. It helps with you have bassist Paul Thompson and drummer Dave Throckmorton driving the rhythm section, but Boni had a lot of invention in his playing as well.

During the early '00s, Pittsburgh was a challenging place for a guy going the acoustic jazz route and we had several phone conversations about it and the state of music journalism in Pittsburgh. He had an appreciation for all manner of music, even more commercial pop stuff and it wouldn't have surprised me if he went in that direction. For awhile he played tenor with the surf-groove instrumental band the New Alcindors, which was a good example of my worlds colliding upon seeing him at the Quiet Storm coffee shop, back when they had bands. Then there was a period where it seemed like he was going to pack his horn away for good.

Luckily that didn't happen. A few years ago, Boni moved back to the Boston area and a few months ago this CD showed up on my doorstep. It's impressive first of all because the sax-bass-drums context can be a fairly bold setting for someone who hasn't totally abandoned playing over changes. Not only does Boni put forth a convincing performance, the set is made up entirely of original pieces, including three reconstituted classical or "contemporary classical" works, in which he's pushing himself and his bandmates to creative heights.

Bassist Mark Zaleski and drummer Mike Connors (any relation to the same-named star of Mannix?) are a malleable rhythm section that gives each piece a distinct personality. On the bright opener "Miss Iowa" Connors lays out at first, eventually joining Zaleski to put a spring in Boni's step. A track later in "For a Friend" they're playing loose and rubato, allowing Boni to contemplate in phrases that unfold slowly and swoop around. Maybe mid-'60s Coltrane would be a touchstone here, but these are Boni's thoughts now. Around 4:30, he uses the lower register as some punctuation in a sharp manner that shows how far his approach has come in recent years.

On the subject of touchstones, the saxophonist has borrowed from Beethoven, Chopin and Glass (Philip, that is) for the pieces "Ludwig," "Nocturne" and "Glass" respectively. "Ludwig" comes from the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, but this is no third stream attempt at swing. Zaleski walks through a beat that Connors constantly fires up with tasteful fills. Boni's tone often has the clarity of a classical which works in the opening minutes when he sticks with long, clean lines but he eventually opens up the melody, later handing it off to Zaleski for a brief but effective solo. Without knowing the source material, or even the source, it's still easy to get caught up in the music.

Philip Glass' music has always struck my ears as the equivalent of little more than hitting the arpeggiator on an '80s keyboard, and "Glass" (based on his third String Quartet) has some of that going on. But on the saxophone, the rapid arpeggios, going up into the upper register and presumably requiring either circular breathing or some fast, carefully placed gasps of oxygen, sounds kind of pretty and more emotional. During the solo section Boni breaks away from the repetition, later sneaking in some fragments of it back in, and it all works.

"Nocturne" might be based on Chopin's #20 in C# Minor, but this no pastoral music either. Not to say that it isn't gentle but Zaleski goes a few steps beyond simple accompaniment here and it gives it a little more spark and helps to color in the texture, without a need for additional players. The piece fades with Boni repeating a riff that starts at the bottom of the horn and ends on a rather Dolphy-esque high note. He plays it faster and faster sounding a little more gruff with each one. If nothing else, this is the signal of a new phase in his career.

As I write this, it feels more like I'm writing liner notes than a review. But I'm a little close to the subject in this case and don't mind getting a little effusive. That's what blogs are for.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

New record store in town

I think I've crossed a certain threshold in my life. I'm sitting here listening to a Dave Frishberg album that I bought with my own money. I'm really not that big on jazz vocalists, especially one that is so self-consciously witty. But I've always kind of liked "I'm Hip," which is the first song on the album. Buck Bryce used to play this on WYEP back in the '80s when I was in high school, delivering the Post-Gazette and listening to his show each morning.

Speaking of that time of my life, there was a brief period back in 9th grade when I used to get a catalog from a record store in the Bay Area called Rather Ripped Records. It was a BIG DEAL because it always had a mix of new, sealed stuff along with occasionally rare things. There were several good used record stores in Pittsburgh at the time, but getting a list from one in another city had a certain level of intrigue.

At the time I first discovered it, I hadn't fully dove into punk rock and was still heavily into catching up on '60s music that I had missed. As an example, my favorite bands at the time were probably Spirit, Traffic and Moby Grape. (Although I did see the Pretenders that fall.) I think the first thing I tried to order from RRR was something by Iron Butterfly, either Heavy or Metamorphosis. That was already bought so I got my alternatives instead: the Bonzo Dog Band compilation History of... which I still have, and Vanilla Fudge's Renaissance, which even then I thought was pretty lousy, save for "Season of the Witch." On Christmas Eve that year, my second RRR package arrived: Moby Grape's Grape Jam and Talking Heads '77. Exciting times. Some time in early '82, the catalog stopped coming because RRR had a fire and flood and lost a lot of inventory.

The reason for mentioning all this is that last week, Russ - the man who started the store - opened a new shop in, of all places, Lawrenceville, just five minutes from my house. He and his wife moved back here a few years ago to take care of his parents and after selling out at a flea market he opened a storefront. And that's where the Dave Frishberg album came from, as well as a Phineas Newborn album on Contemporary and a couple of CDs.

Strange how things work out. I often think about when I got those albums because it was such a turning point in my adolescent life. There's another elaborate entry about Christmas 1981 on the blog somewhere. And now the man who helped set those memories is back here, in the town I had no clue where he grew up. Funny I never knew that at time.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

CD Reviews: James Ilgenfritz & Maroney/Ilgenfritz/Niescier/Drury

James Ilgenfritz
Compositions (Braxton) 2011
(Infrequent Seams)

Next to solo drum albums, solo bass albums can be the most challenging of the lone-instrument albums. Solitary horns seem to have a wealth of sonic possibilities, and the piano and guitar can be whole bands unto themselves, but the timbre of the bass can prove limiting for all but the most devoted listeners. With that in mind, New York-based James Ilgenfritz gave himself twice the challenge when he went into the studio armed with his bass and a sheaf of compositions by Anthony Braxton. Presumably, it's hard enough to play the composer's music convincingly with an ensemble. Left to your own devices, there's myriad roads to travel.

Ilgenfritz has succeeded in this challenging project. Listeners don't need to be Braxton-philes to enjoy the album either, although I'm sure that helps. The bassist states in the liner notes that during the recordings, he typically had three music stands spread out in front of him, with at least 15 pages of music to draw on for inspiration. As a result, the six tracks typically feature pieces of at least four compositions, Language Music and/or Ghost Trance Material. One track includes a blend of 13 different pieces in the space of 19 minutes. While he moves from section to section, it never sounds like a case of jumping to something else simply because the going gets rough. For the most part, the segues sound planned and natural.

To the nascent Braxton fan, hearing a familiar strain, like the descending/ascending melody of "Composition 40F" acts like a beacon in a sonic fog. And it hangs around just long enough to leave its mark before disappearing into the more recent "Composition 223." This also functions in a manner similar to a Braxton performance, at least the one that occurred in Pittsburgh nearly five years ago, where he frequently wrote numbers on a chalk board and gave them as cues to members of his band. Incidentally, one of those heard that night pops up in the 19-minute epic, the written-through "23C," that appeared on the composer's first Arista album in the 1970s. (A recording of Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway came out on Tzadik this year that also includes "23C.")

While the compositions themselves sound engaging in their own right, Ilgenfritz offers ample proof that his performance skills should be getting more recognition. He tackles the music like a solo bass recitation of Braxton is second nature, and he keeps the energy level high with extended technique that draws some great noises from his instrument. His bowed harmonics never digress into nails-on-the-chalkboard scraping. Instead, they sometimes sound like a great blast of feedback. Elsewhere he gets some hypnotic low droning going. In one track that includes a transcription of the first trumpet cadenza from "Composition 103" (the third candenza shows up in a later track) Ilgenfritz begins with the grace of a cello and goes on to evoke the sound of an air raid siren.

Incidentally, Ilgenfritz chose not to include the visual representations of the compositions, opting instead to go with the numbers. Considering how many pieces he plays and what that would mean in terms of space on the cover, it was a wise decision.


The bassist also plays in a number of different projects including this quartet, referred to as the acronym MiND, with bassist Denman Maroney, alto saxophonist Angelika Niescier and drummer Andrew Drury. Their disc alternates between free improvised tracks attributed to all four, and compositions by Maroney, Niescier and Ilgenfritz.

The first, spare group piece "Ledia House" unfolds gently, giving the impression that the session will lean heavily towards obtuse fragments of sound that bounce off each other as much as it will connect. Bowed scrapings, percussive waves and gentle saxophone trills ebb and flow for three tight minutes. But although the rest of the group pieces favor a spare type of improvisation where understatement is key (rather than going for cathartic blowing) the mood shifts immediately with the next track. Maroney's "One Off or Two" sounds comparatively like a bright, conventional sounding piece even though the pianist doesn't let you feel like you're on solid ground. The two-chord vamp and Niescier's crisp alto are underscored by a rhythm that keeps changing ever so slightly. Just when you think it's a waltzy stride, it shifts a little towards a choppy 4/4 and you wonder if you just heard it wrong initially. Then it feels like it's speeding up. Suffice to say, the title rings true.

Ilgenfritz's compositions feature shifting structures and points of focus. "Social Hypochondria" bounces back and forth between bowed bass and pretty alto and piano voicings. Maroney, who is known for playing "hyperpiano," utilizes some of those effects behind Niescier, bending notes and giving his instrument a more "prepared" percussive sound. "Canter," the bassist's other piece, sounds both beautiful and puzzling, with pregnant pauses from the piano which gets more and more in tune with Drury's unique approach to the drum kit. (He doesn't appear to use sticks for several songs, using instead bows and other items to create vibrations.) Although everyone is moving in parallel lines, it's easy to feel the focus and structure at the core of this music.

Niescier's "Warm Bist du Gekommen?" closes the album with 18 minutes that begin feeling quiet and loose but eventually settle into something that almost straightforward. With the composer virtually taking a backseat to her bandmates until the last five minutes, they almost sound like an exploratory straightahead jazz trio - albeit one on a record that's been a little warped (again, thanks to Maroney's reinvention of his piano's innards.) Not to give the pianist all the glory, but tweaking a mammoth instrument like the piano is no small feat. And it sounds good.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Sunday Morning

Last week, I had five reviews to write for JazzTimes. One of them was a three-disc set, one was a two-disc set. So that kept me busy for several days. When I am reviewing something I tend to try listening to it over and over again, because unfortunately my memory doesn't always retain details the way it used to. I tend to feel like I'm not being descriptive enough either. I should be writing something for here right now, but first wanted to play catch-up.

Blurt uploaded my Azita feature: I also have a serious amount of reviews in the latest issue of JazzTimes. Then tomorrow I'm interviewing Franklin Bruno for a Blurt article. That should be fun. I should be listening to the Human Hearts album now to make sure I don't just ask questions about 15 years ago.

OK, got nothing else to say now. Gonna get to writing work. Or preliminaries.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thoughts on Magnetic Fields show

Playing right now: Hospitality's self-titled album. It was in the CD tray right after Charles Gayle, which makes for quite a transition of sound and sound quality.

Here it is, Thanksgiving morning. It's such a novelty to be drinking coffee and sitting in pj's at 8:48 in the morning and not having to be anywhere - not work, not church, not dropping the kid off at school. And not having any frantic deadlines hanging over my head. I filed a story on AZITA with Blurt earlier this week, which accounts for my lack of activity here. As soon as that's posted, a link will be provided here.

Last week's Magnetic Fields show was a really enjoyable experience, aside from the overwhelming heat of the Carnegie Lecture Hall, which only exacerbated my already bad tendency to get droopy eyelids. Jennie and I sat behind my sister and her wife, who had just gotten into town a few hours earlier. Seeing her added to the excitement. We just got to talk a little bit before the show started.

The band's merch gal Emma Straub opened the show doing a reading. First she read an essay about going to see former New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre which was really well constructed. It was not heavily ironic, it wasn't fawning or yearning about the early days, it had a really good perspective on the whole scene - which consisted of him doing standards that a lot of his no longer young fans understood. She also read an excerpt from her book Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures which was also really good.

In what seems like true Magnetic Fields form, they were introduced a few minutes before they made their way to the stage. It seems like Stephin Merritt doesn't mind making people wait, and wouldn't see what the problem with that was. But then out they came, announcing themselves as "The Carnegie Five." Merritt played a few different keyboards - harmonium (pump organ/accordion looking thing), melodica/hooter. Along with him were the sweet yang to his grumbly yin Claudia Gonson (piano), Shirley Simms (ukulele), John Woo (guitar) and Sam David (cello).

For an instrumentation that seems really spare on paper, they got an incredibly rich sound. Woo used several effects on his guitar, giving it a really psychedelic sound, which helped with that. But the use of the uke and the way it blended with the keyboards were really exquisite. Gonson and Simms sang a lot of the songs. When Merritt sang he sounded really strong. A lot of people harp on his low, toneless voice, but I'm here to tell you that he really does have a strong voice that has a lot of power to it. With a little more training, he could be a bit operatic. No lie.

And the hits kept coming. I counted 25 songs in the proper set. (We had to leave just before the encore so they could've topped 30 by the end. If that's the case, we got our money's worth, at about a buck a song.)

I feel rather lucky, as I mentioned here previously, that when I interviewed him for City Paper, I had a good chat with Mr. Merritt and he seemed rather friendly and nice. So I took his onstage grumblings to not be that bothersome. It seemed more like a way of showing how friendly Gonson is compared to his shortness. She repeatedly tried to help members of the sold-out crown find seats so they wouldn't have to stand in the back aisles. This didn't take too long between songs but long enough for Merritt to ask if the lights could be turned down so that Gonson couldn't see out there anymore. Way to go, Grumpy McGrumpsalot.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Return of Franklin Bruno

Playing right now: Thomas Chapin - Quartets '95 & '96

On Monday, Donovan and I were getting ready to go out when I realized that I hadn't sent my Best of 2012 list to JazzTimes. After quickly dispatching that - and feeling that, this year, I actually had a better grasp of the albums that merited such a distinction - I thought I'd quickly check my personal email account just to see if there was anything important there.

As fate would have it, my good friend Will sent me a very important email, letting me know that Franklin Bruno - once and forever the frontman of Nothing Painted Blue and a big inspiration to my songwriting over the past 15 years or so - was going to be appearing at Sound Cat, the record store in Bloomfield. FRANKLIN BRUNO IN PITTSBURGH! FOR FREE! AT 6 O'CLOCK! HOLY COW!

I had been thinking about him recently because during my interview with Stephin Merritt, I brought up Bruno's name, and Merritt mentioned how he remembered a song Bruno sang at CMJ in 1993 - and he proceeded to sing "Growth Spurt" to me, melody and crucial lyrics intact. I hadn't heard hide or hare from Mr. Bruno in several years. About 10 years ago he played at Quiet Storm in support of a solo album, and a few years later there was a posthumous final Nothing Painted Blue album, which is not exactly reviewed but expounded up in this early entry.

Well not only is Bruno still playing music, mid-set he mentioned that he now lives in New York, rather than back in California where he originated. And he was appearing not as himself but as part of a two-piece band called the Human Hearts, who just released an album called Another. His partner in crime is drummer Matt Houser who pounds like a monster, and occasionally came close to drowning out the guitar in the louder moments of the songs.

Any longtime fan of Bruno's will appreciate the songs from Another, as they have the same brand of guitar pop with a sprinkling of jazzy chords to spice up the music. And then of course there's Bruno's gift as a lyricist for which he's virtually in a class by himself. There was one song he did that really reminded me of separate parts of a couple songs that I wrote several years ago (not that he would've ever heard them since they were never released). But that was cool with me because I think I subconsciously lifted pieces of his work in one of my songs - on top of thinking WWFD when I wrote the lyrics.

The crowd was small. I could probably count them on two hands. But if I had no idea one of my faves was in town, how's the rest of the fair city to know? But of course this simply meant that there was a small very appreciative flock of people hanging out and listening intently.

Another is available both as a CD and a double-10" vinyl. The packaging and the general festive mood of the evening made me decide that I needed to get the double 10" of course. Bruno plugged the vinyl by explaining that the previous day he had them all set up in his apartment, assembling them (they come in two separate handmade covers, with a cardboard insert and a band to hold them together). This was before he mentioned living in Queens, so he had me puzzling how he did the production yesterday and got to Pittsburgh so quickly. "He must've flown here," I thought. The packaging and the general festive mood of the evening made me decide that I needed to get the double 10" of course.

Years ago, I interviewed NPB for my fanzine Discourse and I remember Bruno talking about how impossible it seemed to try to attempt a career in music playing the style that he did. He didn't seem interested in any compromise and was going to school for a doctorate in philosophy. (Drummer Kyle Broudie had just taken the bar exam prior to the tour.) The way they talked about it made it sound like there was limit placed on how long they'd be doing this. That was about 18 years ago and while it might have held true for Broudie, it does my heart good to know that Bruno is still doing it.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

CD Review: Ron Miles - Quiver

Ron Miles

This is a beautiful album. With only trumpet, guitar and drums, Ron Miles, Bill Frisell and Brian Blade respectively create a sound that is simultaneously spare but very full. The results don't ever sound like something is missing from the group but rather enthralls with the way they use what they have.

Frisell is no stranger to this kind of set-up, having playing in Paul Motian's trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano. But Brian Blade is no Motian, which is to say he's his own man. He keeps tempo even as he adds impressionistic colors the music. His bass drum accents on "Just Married" give the song's two-step an infectious punch that drives it along with Frisell's countryfied picking, the latter instructed by Miles to evoke "Big Buckle Elvis." This follows a slow, 10-minute reading of 1920s obscurity "There Ain't No Sweet Man That's Worth the Salt of My Tears," which doesn't waste a minute of time and includes some thunderous mallet work from Blade.

Hearing recordings like this reminds of why Frisell won me over the first time I heard him. The mood that he creates on these sessions, balancing accompaniment and lead voicing, is hard to replicate. Notes from chords scatter over the drums and between the trumpet in "Queen B" and work double-duty in Duke Ellington's "Doin' the Voom Voom."

And, saving the best for last, there's Ron Miles, whose vision is responsible for all of this. His compositions reveal a vast knowledge of music. Some of these roots get referenced in his own writing, such as "Bruise," which has the off-beat style of Monk's "Evidence," before it opens up into an angular swing, wrapping up with a blues groove. Miles' unaccompanied opening to "Mr. Kevin" sounds so rich that a solo trumpet album doesn't seem out of the question from him. Another long track comes with "Days of Wine and Roses," in which all three players stretch their own way, never clearly stating the song's melody until they're done with it. By that time it's almost hard to believe that they've gotten something so emotionally deep out of a song that can often sound so maudlin.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Back in the Studio

I stepped into a recording studio yesterday for the first time in about six years. The Love Letters laid down basic tracks for four songs at Machine Age Studios. We've been together about three years but the urge to record never really came along until recently. And by recently I mean the idea probably came to light in the past nine months or so because it takes us a while to get from thinking to doing.

I've recorded with most of my bands and in several cases, released albums (CDs) only to have somebody leave the band or see the band breakup a few months after we put out the album, leaving us with no way to unload all of the product. The Mofones had the right idea: we recorded an EP and burned copies of it as we went so we only had as many leftover discs as we needed. The Love Letters have moved along a little slower than most bands, since we all have other things going on beside the band, so it didn't seen like we were ready for quite a while.

I was actually a little nervous heading in, for some reason. Recording always seems to be a tense process for me. Sure you can go back and rerecord flubbed notes, but it's much more rewarding when you can get it right on the first try. Which never happens. But today, we had a good engineer who encouraged us to go back and record an extra take or two of songs, even if we thought the one we just finished was good. And usually the next one did have something strong going for it, either in spirit or technicality.

For the first time ever, I played to a click track. We have one song that doesn't have any drums in it for the first verse and we always seem to get a little wobbly, so the click was good for that (Dave the engineer shut it off as soon as the drums kicked in). And we're doing a Monkees song that is not only drumless until the very end, but is in 5/4 during the verses and 6/8 in chorus. Dave also made me bass sound really great. I love my Rickenbacker but the low end can disappear on the E string, leaving it to sound a mid-range and buzzy. But it sounded beautiful and rich in playback.

Once we get the songs done, a couple of them are going to be sent out to John Collins of the New Pornographers to mix and, I guess, produce. It seemed like a wild idea - the band has some direct influence from the NPs so I emailed John to see if he does things like this. And he does so why not? I think we can only afford to have him do two songs right now.

But before that, we need to get the overdubs done.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Two Interviews Go Well

Yesterday I interviewed Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields. After all I'd heard about him being a little prickly, I was really nervous about it. Once upon a time I would've been saying, "Yeah, bring it on," like I did when I desperately tried to score an interview with the late great organ maestro Jimmy Smith (who had a rep for being nasty with reporters). Those bold days are gone, however.

But as it turns out, Stephin was a nice guy. We had a great conversation, veering back and forth between questions about the band and tangents where we discussed rhyming dictionaries and the scarcity of Lawrence Welk records. I have to write a piece for City Paper to preview their show in mid-November so I think I should have some good fodder for that. I just have to transcribe the damn thing, which might take a while.

One week earlier I had another interview that I was apprehensive about. (At this point I should probably indicate that in the hours leading up to phone interviews, I'm almost always really anxious. There's the fear that the tape player might not work, the batteries might die, not to mention that the interview might bomb.) But the person I was interviewing was Azita, the pianist/songwriter on Drag City. I sort of wondered, based on her intense music, if she was going to be a tough, serious interview subject. Alas she was not and another good conversation ensued.

Maybe it pays to be a nervous wreck because when you are and things go smoothly you feel twice as relieved.  

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

CD Review: Nadje Noorduis

Nadje Noordhuis
(Little Mystery)

Nadje Noordhuis utilizes a rich, warm tone on trumpet and, especially, flugelhorn. The Australian-born graduate of the Manhattan School of Music can play sparely and make a few notes count for a lot, as she does on the ballad "Big Footprint." She conjures a calm, soothing texture throughout the album, yet for much of her debut as a leader, Noordhuis doesn't let the music rise above that subdued feeling.

The eight tracks, all written by Noorduis, suggest soundtrack to a film with expansive scenery - vast grassy plains, ocean shores, mountainsides. But without the cinematic images to go with it tracks like "Water Crossing" which seems content to simply evoke about a scene without really developing on it. It's telling without showing and feels nice without really utilizing a melodic palette to start a little bit of a fire. Sara Caswell's violin acts as the second voice to Noorduis' trumpet, but it comes off as a little too sweet and polite.

A member of Darcy James Argue's Secret Society and the Diva Jazz Orchestra, Noorduis is clearly no young lion just learning the ropes. And there are buds of ideas here. "Le Hameau Omi" has a tango rhythm behind it. "Le Fin" heads in a straightahead jazz direction, although bassist Joe Martin and drummer Obed Calvaire are stuck in a slow, rather unsyncopated 4/4 which brings it down. "Mayfair" moves with a more of lively clip than most of the set, showing potential for her future endeavors. From here, she could go in any number of different directions, with an ECM-esque approach possibly being the best tact. Hopefully she'll stay away from the lure of electronics and ambiance.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

CD Review: Rob Mazurek Pulsar Quartet - Stellar Pulsations

Rob Mazurek Pulsar Quartet
Stellar Pulsations

After the long spacey drones he created with the Exploding Star Orchesra and Chicago Underground Duo and the paired down trio attack of Starlicker, cornetist Rob Mazurek has pulled together another project with some longtime associates, and sometimes it almost feels like his interpretation of hard bop. Stellar Pulsations begins with a thumping one-chord vamp and before it's over, Mazurek has played two ballads with the Harmon mute in the bell, which naturally sounds a little like... that guy who made everyone swoon when he did it half a century ago.

Naturally, it's nothing so simple as Mazurek playing it safe. Also, some sections don't sound anything like straightahead at all too. "Spiritual Mars" flows freely with no set tempo. Drummer John Herndon and pianist Angela Sanchez make the music bob and weave while Matthew Lux's bass guitar begins takes the melody initially. He doesn't play a fretless bass either, so his sound is closer to Soft Machine's Hugh Hopper than someone like Skuli Sverrisson. When Mazurek joins in, he almost acts as a support player to Lux's lead, which makes a great alternative perspective on the roles of the band. It's more like a progressive rock band with cornet.

All the songs feature one of the planets in the title (Earth and not-really-a-planet Pluto are omitted). "Spanish Venus" has some delicate exchanges between Mazurek and Sanchez while the rhythm section repeats an ostinato that sounds like a close cousin to a clave. "Primitive Jupiter" is the opening boppish groove which Lux holds down while everyone, including the propulsive Herndon takes off with it. The drummer actually gets many opportunities to lift off, which makes this whole set stay exciting the whole time. Mazurek as usual shows a lot of melodic depth whether he's doing some Cherry-esque runs on "Twister Uranus" or going for the calmer moments in the ballads.

Longtime followers of the cornetist will eat this up, but any newcomes unsure where to start with Mazurek's diverse catalog are encouraged to begin here as well.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Dinosaur Jr in Pittsburgh

Playing right now: AZITA - Disturbing the Air
(I'm interviewing Azita tonight so I've been trying to go back and listen to all of her albums again.)

J. Mascis alone has more amps than my whole band combined, times two. Three sets of double-stacked Marshalls, which are taller than him. And Lou Barlow has almost as much so that he can keep up. (He had to jump up to tweak the volume settings.)

Last night, Dinosaur Jr. played at Mr. Small's and I got to see the trio for the first time ever. I've always been a little more of a Sebadoh fan, and only own one Dinosaur Jr record (the first one), although I think I have a promo of Without a Sound, which I seem to remember reviewing. But I've always liked them, and my friend Megan talked me into it.

As usual, Smalls was crowded with a flock of socially inept and occasionally graceful fans, bumping and shoving past one another. Two friends from work (both named Megan) met me there and we managed to stand in a few different places among the sea of bodies. Honestly the band's sound was so huge that it felt like Surround-sound after a few songs and I felt like I didn't really need to see them onstage. It felt like I could already see the music. Everything about J Mascis's guitar playing is true. He was truly amazing, spinning out a solo in the first song that sounded like Neil Young with a greater musical vocabulary. His battery of effects gave him a sound that felt more psychedelic than anyone else who ever gets that adjective thrown at them.

But I was rather shocked that Mascis used a capo at least once during the evening. Nothing against capos. Some people get a lot of good mileage out of them. But I never thought this guy would need one. I guess we all have our secret artillery.

Most of the song titles were lost on me, as I don't have any of the reunited albums. After awhile I just decided it wasn't important to try and keep track with the hope of eventually finding out the name of the one "like 'Down by the River' and last song on first album.'" Better to simply revel in what they're doing.

Surprises: the proper set ended with my jam from the first album, "Forget the Swan." That song still takes me back to Summer 1985 when I felt like hard rock was merging with punk rock - and it was good.

*Lou Barlow plays a Rickenbacker! Just like me! And he used to look like me! OH MY...... [don't take this seriously]

*Lou was the m.c. of sorts, chatting to the audience, getting us stirred up and appreciative. Mascis might've noticed we were there. I'm not sure.

*They played a tune by Deep Wound, J and Lou's pre-Dinosaur hardcore band. It was allegedly one of their slower songs, which means it was like Minor Threat tempo and a little longer than 30 seconds.

*I knew they have been closing with their cover of "Just Like Heaven" on this tour but what I didn't realize is how Mascis would recreate the tremolo of the keyboard line first with his wah pedal and then with a tremelo effect pedal. Loose but impressive.

PS. Murph rocked hard too. I felt like he should get some mention. When we were standing right up front the thud of the drums coming through the floor speaker could've knocked a weak person over.

PPS Thanks to Smalls' for giving out free earplugs. I found an old pair in my sock drawer but the new ones were better.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Mike Watt: Club-Cafe Man

I spent most of today writing a few reviews for JazzTimes. Speaking of published stuff, my Laetitia Sadier piece is up on the Blurt website right here. I was about to type "I don't have anything coming up," but I just realized I do. I actually have two things coming up that I need to get cracking on.

But before I do that, let me tell you about Mike Watt. Specifically, Mike Watt at Club Cafe on Saturday night. Two tours ago he played there and I missed it, in part because I was still turned off by his previous album The Secondman's Middle Stand. I had seen a tour of that band and album a few years prior and it was okay live, but once was enough. But after last year's show at Brillobox, I felt like the old bass man was back on his horse and I didn't feel like missing this one.

South Side has become a haven of drunken idiots and that means it's hard to park then and when you're walking five blocks to Club Cafe, you're likely to hear couples fighting in the street, which I did. Getting the Club Cafe, the timing worked in my favor because the opening band was wrapping up their set, which was a sincere but fairly generic set of pop punk.

FOOD, the trio fronted by the former Ed fROMOHIO (Crawford, that is) was up second. I lucked out and got a table with a crew of friends that I've known since the Minutemen days, including my friend Lee, who just moved back to Pittsburgh from San Francisco. Buck, from the Love Letters, showed up a little bit after I got there. Turns out, we were right in the firing line of Crawford's guitar, which was good and loud.

The funny thing about FOOD is that the other two guys in the band are Pittsburgh music veterans. Mike Quinlan played drums in Da Shunts with Evan Knauer (who was sitting with me). Mark Urbano played guitar with bands like White Wreckage and Six Gun Jury. He and I both played together when I was about 17 and hanging out with Mark's buddy's roommate Steve. So we go way back. As an aside, they played at Gooski's on my birthday a couple weeks ago, and it was rather touching hearing some favorite fIREHOSE songs played by a band of friends that I had known as long as those songs.

Back to Club Cafe........... the band was pretty tight. Urbano is a solid bass player, always delivers, nothin' fancy but right on the money. Quinlan is tight too. Ed was pealing off power chords and twang. He seemed a little nervous when doing the between-song chatter but no need to worry. The 12" edition of their EP is staring at me from across the room. I need to play it as soon as I'm done typing.

A Love Supreme began playing over the p.a. after FOOD was done, which is the cue that Watt is on the way. He's played John Coltrane as warm-up music ever since the Minutemen days. Drummer Raul Morales and guitarist Tom Watson started setting up the equipment in that tight Watt-style that I had forgotten about: drums center stage, turned to the right, facing Watt; Watson behind the drum kit.

It almost seemed like on cue that Watt made it to the stage during the final section of A Love Supreme since that's the triumphant part. He looked like he had just rolled out of bed, which might have been the case. Even so, he tore into his bass like a demon, like he was wide awake. Again, our table was mere feet from him so we saw everything up close. (I recalled after a few minutes that I could barely see him at Brillobox because it had been so crowded so this was a nice change.) They played the hyphenated-man album from start to finish, stopping only to chastise the loud talkers in the crowd during the quiet sections.

After they were done, Watt thanked the audience "for letting us do that to you," meaning playing one 45-minute song (actually 30 songs that are under two minutes). I suppose if you didn't know the album, it would have been pretty brutal. And there are still lyrical subtleties that I'm missing but it was a lot of fun. The encores weren't as bountiful this time and there were no Minutemen tunes sung by Watson. But, of course, it wouldn't be a Mike Watt show without a breakneck take on "The Red and the Black," and Ed made it back up to the stage and strapped on his guitar by the second verse and was there dueling with Watson during the solos.

Afterwards, while Watt was selling merchandise from the stage to overly eager fans who were probably still in training pants when I saw the Minutemen at the Electric Banana, Evan was puzzling over the Captain Beefheart guitarist that Watson was reminding him of. After running through a series Magic Band names, I hit on the one that I should've said first: Zoot Horn Rollo. That was it. And I told Evan it would probably make Watson's night if he heard that.

I was right. I went up and said hi to him too. He didn't remember meeting me a handful of times, but he DID remember the year that his great band Slovenly played the Banana with fIREHOSE (1987). I wasn't offended that he didn't remember me. There are a lot of guys like me on the road. Watt was busy so I decided to skip a greeting and head home.

Friday, October 19, 2012

David S. Ware has left us

Last night I logged onto Facebook and the very first post that I saw mentioned that David S. Ware had died. That's a serious tragedy for a number of reasons. The first reason relates to Ware's incredible musical skills. He had such a massive sound on the tenor saxophone, really in a direct lineage from John Coltrane, where a gruff tone was driven by a searching quality, a desire to keep moving forward. At the same time it could be really delicate too. He covered "The Way We Were," for Pete's sake! On a couple albums, no less. Of course, that tune still got some heavy treatment, but there was a sensitivity to it. He wasn't mocking the song or trying to stomp all over it.

The first time Ware brought his quartet to Pittsburgh, I was stoked. During college I heard his album Flight of i and it really seemed to me like a new chapter in the Coltrane Quartet style of music. There were basic structures to the tunes, from which they lifted off the ground and took to great heights. It was a few years later that they came to CMU, and the show was really disappointing. It sounded like one big cacaphony with everyone soloing at once and not connecting. The show had been co-sponsored by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, and I was psyched that my sixth grade teacher was in the audience. I wanted to talk to her afterwards about the show, but she was gone before the band finished. The volume had scared her and something other, older patrons off, I guess.

Susie Ibarra had just joined the band (I had previewed the show and interviewed Ware, and thought Whit Dickey was going to be with them, until I got there) and she was drowned out by the rest of the band. It was a while before I realized that the real culprits of this mess were the two idiot soundmen from CMU. (I distinctly remember one of them unplugging the main speakers at the end of the night while the p.a. was turned on, created a loud, low register hum.) When Ware and the band (Ibarra, Matthew Shipp and William Parker) came back a year or two later, it was like night and day. They were on and sounded wonderful. Still wild and turbulent at times, but great.

Last year, Ware released an album with Parker, pianist Cooper-Moore and rarely-heard drummer Muhammad Ali (brother of the late Rashied Ali), which I was kind of lukewarm on. The band itself was great, but the improvisations were a mixed bag. Well now there's a live release by the same band out on AUM Fidelity and I feel like I need to hear it. That's the thing about Ware: there will always be a strong quality to his work that keeps you coming back to it, knowing that there is always something strong and intense to grab you. Ever since an illness over the past couple years that had him actually doing self-dialysis due to a bad kidney (what is this world coming to when an artist has to go through that?) he style changed a little, getting more focused and a little less bombastic. Which explains why his solo saxophone albums are also such an enjoyable listen.

Grab as many of his releases as you can now and enjoy them. Rest is peace, David. Whereever you are, I hope John Tchicai greeted you there and that you're playing some far out music together. Tell John I'm sorry I only heard about his October 8 passing last night too. I had a rough week too.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The Younger Set Checks Out Willem Breuker

Last Saturday, the Willem Breuker Kollektief came to Pittsburgh and I took my five-year old son to the show with me. I wanted to check out the show and didn't want to just see Donovan for an hour between work and the show, so the night before, I casually asked if he wanted to go. It was taking place at the First Unitarian Church, which we attend pretty regularly. Further, the kid just got a pair of headphones that block out excess volume, so if things got too free, the volume wouldn't be an issue.

Much to my surprise, he said he'd come. Someday he'll get mad at me for saying this, but the fact that he said that doesn't really mean anything. He's just as likely to admit he "changed his mind," and to freak out. But sure enough, we got there right as things were starting and he was cool. Well, he didn't have the headphones on by the time the band hit the downbeat, so there was a little bit of scrambling.

If anyone reading this has a chance to check out the Kollektief as they finish up their final tour, do it. Breuker himself passed away a few years ago and the ensemble is taking one final tour to pay tribute to this unique voice from the Netherlands. His music draws on traditional big band (the saxophones were frequently harmonized in a way that sounded like a swing band), free settings and more classical approaches to composition. And they do it without sounding like a patchwork of styles. It sounds really unique.

The first piece had the swing feel going for it, although it was definitely an example of "swinging hard," rather than something that my folks would get into. The second piece had more of a Mingus feel, like something connected to "The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady." Frans Vermeerssen played an amazing alto solo full of skronks and growls like I've never heard before, all held together by some miraculous circular breathing. The soloists were all pretty loud because they came to the center stage where there was a microphone, which really boosted the already clear volume. Even when the headphones on, this seemed to effect the kid.

It was hard to tell during the next few pieces if they were seguing several compositions together or if we were hearing a long, multi-part suite because they didn't take an actual break between songs for close to half an hour. They played over a 6/8 vamp and Henk de Jonge soloed in a way that went from low and calm into loud and thunderous, quoting Beethoven and Bach along the way(the former being a conspicuous "Fur Elise" quote, while the latter I only recognized because the Fugs borrowed it too). Later in the set, speaking of quotes, bassist Arjen Gorter threw in the riff to Mingus's "Haitian Fight Song" during his solo. It seemed less like a crowd-pleasing gesture than a sly wink, so it worked.

Donovan watched and listened intently for about 15 minutes, which is pretty admirable for a kid his age. We brought along his backpack which had a book in, so after awhile he sat and read Green Eggs and Ham. When that was done, he took my note pad and started sketching on it. Then he pulled out his piano lesson notebook from the backpack. His teacher draws pictures for each song that he has to practice, resulting in a lamb for "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and a broken bridge for "London Bridge." So he spent more time looking at the lambs and drawing them onto another page.

By the time he decided he had had enough, and I felt that I had gotten my money's worth, we headed for the door - and as fate would have it, the Kollektief finished their last song. (The set was about an hour and 20 minutes.) So everybody won. Well, sort of.

Him: I did NOT like it.
Me: Well, that's okay. At least you were a good boy during the show.
Him: I was NOT a good boy.

As I said earlier, you can't always gauge the truth from what he tells you. Maybe he really did like it. I do know he liked the Kollektief CD that I bought at the show and played yesterday.

Friday, October 05, 2012

CD Review: Sam Rivers/ Dave Holland/ Barry Altschul - Reunion: Live in New York

Sam Rivers/ Dave Holland/ Barry Altschul
Reunion: Live In New York

In the liner notes to Reunion, drummer Barry Altschul says that when he, Dave Holland (bass) and Sam Rivers (reeds) joined forces in the 1970s, they typically played all day. "If we had to go to the bathroom, then it was a duo. If we had to eat, there was maybe a solo. But the music continued from eleven to five," he says. That's the kind of musical devotion that creates a unit that really knows how to interact. Further, if you've established a rapport that way, and sustained a group for six years, then there is a good chance that 25 years of separation may seem more like 25 days.

That's the way it came off in May 2007 when the trio reconvened at Columbia University's Miller Theatre to cap off the week-long Sam Rivers Festival presented by WKCR, the school's radio station. They hadn't played together since the summer of 1978, and the only preparation they made for the performance was a brief soundcheck. But it's clear that was all they needed because the two sets they played (resulting in two discs) were shining examples of free improvisation where everything moves forward. Both sets were continuous performances, which Pi has conveniently banded into five and four tracks, respectively, for easier listening. Of course anyone listening probably will want to hear both sets in their entirety each time, rather than skipping around.

Rivers begins on tenor, butting up against Holland before the bassist starts walking. While the saxophonist plays over the 4/4, it's easy to imagine his lines coming across like an actual conversation with his mates. These guys are taking the time to catch up with each other. As the first set moves forward, Rivers never settles down since he has an unending flow of musical ideas, none of which, for the record, involve off-the-handle screams either. Rivers, who passed away last year on the day after Christmas, considered "free" music to be what was played when a musician's mind is completely free of preconceptions. "No preconceived idea, no preconceived melodies or harmonic attitude," as the liner notes state it. It looks all those long days of woodshedding paid off.

One of the most satisfying moments of the whole set can be found at the beginning of the second disc. After a bass solo that shows off Holland's speed and penchant for dramatic accents, he is joined by Altschul and Rivers, the latter on flute. The way they play sounds so electric, so driven in a way that feels rare on jazz albums these days.

There are moments on both discs when Holland hits upon a riff that he sticks to for awhile. It's never done to get groove going or a vamp, it simply makes sense for the band to see how they can use it generate excitement. And they always deliver. Rivers also sits down at the piano for a while (as well as soprano sax), warming up with some strange melodies that lead into a section that almost feels like a ballad.

Altschul manages to sound relaxed but forceful throughout the whole performance too. After a drum solo towards the end of the first set he sets things up for his bandmates to join him. The first time I heard it, I felt the downbeat in the wrong place, and had to reevaluate the position once Holland kicked it. It made me wonder if Holland too might have been feeling it in the wrong spot. But if that was the case, you wouldn't know it because they create something powerful regardless of where it the band landed.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Report on the Pittsburgh Record Fest 8.0

Last week, I took three days off of work. I figured I needed some mental health days. Good time to clean up around the house, blog some reviews and to get ready for the Pittsburgh Record Fest, which was taking place last Friday, and where I was going to do some selling. Well, it sort of turned out to be two days off because I didn't realize the kid had no school on one of those days. Then the other two days turned into scrambling to get ready for the record show: cleaning some albums, looking at them and wondering if they were worth anything and finally pricing them. And I still wasn't ready when I got there. Some things weren't priced. Others were shoved in a different crate, out of order, almost lost. Oy. And while I wrote this, I realized I didn't pack the Thurston Moore album I wanted to sell.

Having said that, it was a pretty good night at the ol' record show. I didn't want to speculate how much I'd sell, or what take-home dollar amount would make me happy. I just hoped for the best. And when some of those generic looking '70s R&B albums sold early on, I was pretty pleased. Now a sizeable chunk of my sales came from records I was selling for a friend, meaning that I just got a percentage of his total price, and I could be all Irish and regret that I didn't make more. But that's not a good way to go.

There was a fairly low percentage of jag-offs there. In fact I only dealt with one. I had a Bonzo Dog Band album priced at $10 that was of interest to friend of mine who was selling next to me. Some oaf was interested in it too and asked if he could look at it. I figured why not and handed it to him. A minute later, he hands it back to me, record out of cover on top of the jacket. "Here, you can put it back in the cover," he said. I guess he was trying to send me a message about the condition of the record, which I saw was a little scratched. I got the message: I sold it to my friend for $5. Etiquette - put the record back in the damn sleeve yourself next time.

I have a feeling that the people who come through one of these shows reach saturation point really quickly. You want to look at everything but you don't have the attention span. So eventually you flip through one person's crate and if you don't see anything you like early on, you quickly move onto the next instead of working your way through the whole table. I actually had things separated by genre and running fairly alphabetically. I got one compliment on that, so I'm sure there were others who appreciated it. But no one wants to wade through piles and piles of stuff anymore. I haven't since high school, back when there used to be record shows at Monroeville Mall every few months. (I thought my dad was going to kill after I dropped $75 at my first one. This was $75 in 1981, by the way. I think I only have one of those albums from that day - Mr. Fantasy by Traffic. But I'm digressing.)

Most of the sellers I talked to were pretty upbeat, sorta wiseguy record nerds, but still cool. And I made some pretty good scores:

Sam Rivers - Contours, which I've been playing while writing. A little scratched but I couldn't pass it up for $7.
Moby Grape - Wow, orig 360 sound. Used to have it but sold it when I was hard up for money. Most of it is on my Grape two-disc but I needed it for the vinyl collection, since I still have the first one and '69. $5.
Robyn Trower- Bridge of Sighs. I love "Day of the Eagle" and couldn't live without that song any longer. $3.
Larry Young - Groove Street. First purchase of the night. At $10, it was a little steep but it's Larry Young and it's an original Prestige. Nuf said.
Ken Nordine - Son of Word Jazz. I saw a "comedy and spoken word" box from across the way and this was the only thing of note in it. $1.
Big Black - Lungs. Touch and Go version for $10. Either I got something hot or got took. But I figured I ought to take the chance.
Billy Bang Quartet - Rainbow Gladiator. $5. The impulse buy that these events are made for.

So I have a ton of albums by the Weavers that I refused to tote with me, except for the ones that I used to tape the section headers to ("rock," "jazz" etc). No one is going to buy that stuff. Knowing that, I couldn't believe that I saw albums by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir there. I also saw Englebert Humperdinck albums for $4. COME ON! How can you fool yourself like that? No one's going to buy that for any price, even for irony's sake. Save yourself the trouble. I have a whole crate of Burl Ives and Limelighters albums I'm ready to send to Goodwill because it's taking up space.

Unless anyone reading this wants them. I'll throw in those Weavers records too.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I have to go to bed, so read this

Playing right now: Sam Rivers/Dave Holland/Barry Altschul live reunion disc on Pi

Today, and last night really, I had to finish four reviews for JazzTimes which took me into the last morning/early afternoon. But by thunder, I got them done. There's been a lot hanging over my head over the past few weeks. I had two articles in the recent Pittsburgh City Paper: a feature on Roy Haynes and a Q&A with Laetitia Sadier. Roy played at the Hazlett on Saturday and Laetitia's here in a few days.

The Roy Haynes show was pretty amazing. May I have that much of a spring in my step when I'm 87 years old. And may I be able to swing that hard and so easily. The man is amazing, playing challenging tunes like Monk's "Trinkle Tinkle" like it's a piece of cake. His band was pretty solid too: Jaleel Shaw on alto and soprano saxes, David Wong on bass and Martin Bejerano on piano. Frequently, Haynes stepped out from behind his kit while one of the other guys was taking a solo. Sometimes he'd grab the sticks in time to whack out an accent on the beat. But he also did a little bit of dancing too, which was also delivered with ease.

The only time his age showed was when he took time to talk to the audience. He moved at a slower pace, answering some of the more vocal audience members who shouted comments back to him. At first it was sort of endearing and brought him closer to us. This was the case at the start of the night when he talked, as he tweaked his kit, about how many great drummers have come from Pittsburgh. It turns out a few of them were in the audience, including Joe Harris, who he invited down (the stage at the Hazlett is on the ground level, with the seats raised up, row by row). I think he just wanted him to come down to say hi, but Harris would not be denied, and he played a quick, tasteful solo, ending with a "shave and a haircut" accent on snare and kick.

But in the second set, Haynes lost track a bit when he had his bandmates speak to the audience briefly. It took a few minutes to get him back behind the kit. Regardless, he was still amazing. It was incredible to see some play with such thunder without really hammering on his kit.

Speaking of great musicians, the night before Opek played at Club Cafe in a tribute to their late trumpet player Chuck Austin, who passed away a few months ago, tragically the morning after an Opek gig at the Hazlett. He wasn't there, having been too ill to perform.

Tributes like this can either get maudlin or leave them bawling in the aisles, but this night was neither. It was just astounding. The band roared from the start, playing one of Sun Ra's "Discipline" pieces, which used to feature Austin as a soloist. Ben Opie had introductions for each song, but Dr. Harry Clark, the founding principal of CAPA High School and a friend of Austin, also got up to speak. This was the way a tribute should be: a little sad, a lot of funny and a big celebration of a person's life.

The only time my emotions almost got the best of me was when the band did "Mood Indigo," very much in the spirit of the original. (I joked with Ben about doing the Mingus version with the raunchy alto solo and scream from the leader, but that wasn't necessary.) It was lush and a little blue. And when the band did "Boogie Stop Shuffle," they were doing what Monk once described as "lifting the bandstand."

A couple hours earlier, the Sao Paulo Underground had played at the Warhol Museum, which explains a little why I haven't had time to blog in quite a while. (Too much going on!) Chicago cornetist Rob Mazurek is part of this band, along with drummer Mauricio Takara and keyboardist Guilherme Granado. It was a dreamy set, full of swirling sounds, coming from all three players. Mazurek had several effects for his cornet, Takara pulled out the cavaquinho (the miniature guitar of Brazil that looked like a ukelele) and Granado did all sorts of sonic tricks.

And much to my surprise, the SPU had a remarkable turnout. Last year when Mazurek came with the excellent Starlicker trio, the room was only half-full. On Friday, it was close to full. Granted there were at least two jagoff guys who insisted on talking to their dates throughout the set, but everyone else seemed into it.

Just to prove to you how much has been going on lately, the previous Saturday was the night Guided By Voices came to town. You can read my two cents on that right here.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Harlan Twins + Sonny Simmons = Wild Weekend

Oh, what a weekend it was. Friday night was the Harlan Twins album release party. And when I say album I mean a 12" slab of black vinyl in a cover with some shrink wrap. They released Old Familiar both as a record and as a download, no CDs, which I think is a pretty smart move.

Their show was at Belvedere's, which despite its vast amount of space, reached its capacity at about 11:00. Glad I showed up when I did, but my friend Marta wasn't so lucky. Since I walked her back to her car, I missed a good amount of the set by the Delicious Cakes, the second band of the evening. What I did see sounded really good. They come from the Elephant 6/Olivia Tremor Control neighborhood, with a slightly shambolic delivery of really great pop songs, played on jangly guitars, with a few auxiliary people (well, maybe just one) with them onstage banging on extra drums and adding to the festivities.

But before them, the show started with Outsideinside, a trio project by guitarist Dave Wheeler, also of Carousel. Like that band, this trio churned out some heavy '70s style rock, with a little more of a streamlined feel as Carousel's twin-lead assault. They made me think of the obscure Epic label band Tin House, but that might just be me.

I didn't write about the Harlan Twins show for City Paper in part because I already have a full plate this month. But if I had, I was going to lead by recalling the band's first CD release show. That night I told James Hart he absolutely had to keep that lineup of the band together because there was so much power there. "If anyone wants to quit," I told him, "make like Charles Mingus and punch them in the mouth."

These days, he and fellow guitarist/vocalist Carrie Battle are the only remaining members of that lineup and there was no punching going on. But the group is still amazing. The songs are well crafted, the arrangements are tight, and they've evolved beyond their habit of doing the slow rise in dynamics to a rousing climax. Not to put that habit down, because they did it well. But they have more tricks up their sleeve.

Two-thirds of the way through the set, the band brought up the former members Jules (bass), Neal (drums) and Paul (keyboards) and they brought the house down. At least they brought down my house. When they slammed into the rave-up "Get Gone" it was like they never stopped playing together. I nearly screamed myself hoarse. There's just something about that lineup. And I swear Jules plays the songs the way I'd play them, although he has more chops and great vibrato.

I listened to Old Familiar yesterday. Somebody that night said it was better than the first album, which made me skeptical. I'm not ready to pass judgment either way, but it is damn good. In part because you can really hear the way Greg's keyboards work with the guitars, which doesn't always come across live.

After a day at work where my legs were really sore from bouncing around (luckily my head felt fine...)

.....I headed to the Thunderbird to see Sonny Simmons play with the Cosmosamatics. My interview with Sonny ran in last week's City Paper and you can read it here.

Like most times when some adventurous jazz guys come to town, I went on a bit of a crusade to make sure there would be more than 10 people in the audience. So I was really pleased to see a whole crowd of people at the top of the steps leading to the stage area, with more sitting at the upper deck.

Charles Wallace, a local band that featured six guys that evening none named Charles, opened the show with a set of fairly straight ahead but heavily swinging tunes. It looked like the crowd thinned a little after their set was done so I grabbed a seat up front.

It took awhile for Sonny and the crew to start their set, but his warm-up on alto and English horn was pretty tuneful in its own way. I wasn't even sure if he still got out the double reed, but he played it like he's never set it down. And he was LOUD, on both instruments.

The first tune lasted pretty close to 30 minutes. (When they announced it later, it sounded like the title was "Avant Garde Destruct," a track from one of their albums.) Michael Marcus was playing clarinet and keyboards, and Jay Rosen rounded out the group on drums. After a theme full of hold and release notes, Marcus and Simmons blew fire together and then Rosen kicked into a free flowing thing to accompany Simmons.

And the man didn't stop blowing the alto the whole time. His tone was impeccable, all the way up to the top register of his horn. He was blowing long notes and embellishing them with Bird-like flurries. After awhile Marcus started playing some chords on the keyboard, which gave the some some extra shape and it almost seemed like a cue for Simmons. If Marcus was trying to get him to make room for some clarinet, Simmons wasn't buying it. He blew straight through. The inspiration might have wavered a little bit, but the energy did not.

Although I could've done without the women who were whooping and hollering regularly during the solo, like we were at some dance club. There were also some people behind me talking during the set, even during the quieter moments. I can't understand how you could look away from music like this long enough, without fearing that you'll miss something. Some of the yellers had started yelling, "C'mon, Sonny, we are READY," while they were setting up, which seemed kind of inconsiderate when a musician is fine-tuning their sound. But they left before the first tune was done.

And I digress....

"Dance of the Zentrons" was up next, with the English horn coming out. Again the tone on that instrument was pretty astounding. Marcus got his chance to show his stuff too, which by this time I had been eagerly anticipating. I've seen the two-horn-and-drums set up and almost would've preferred if Marcus stuck to the reeds all night. ("Reed" I should say because he didn't have his tenor.) The shifting back and forth to keyboard and clarinet kept taking away from the sound: should it sound full or spare?

After brief solo pieces by Marcus and Rosen (while Simmons had a drink off to the side), the trio wrapped up with slow blues, complete with some vocals. It was a good way to end the set. Actually I think it ended with some free wailing ("Free" is written on my note pad) so that must have been the last statement of the evening.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

CD Review: Aram Shelton Quartet - Everything for Somebody

Aram Shelton Quartet
Everything for Somebody
(Singlespeed Music)

Aram Shelton's latest presents another strong set of material from an alto saxophonist who should be getting more recognition for his prolific output and busy schedule. While his release earlier this year of duets with drummer Kjell Nordeson might have been more of a specialized interest, Shelton's quartet presents a full picture of his inventive writing and spunky soloing.

The band includes tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson - who compliments Shelton so well that it's sometimes hard to tell who's who when their ranges overlap (they're panned towards different channels) - bassist Anton Hatwich and drummer Tim Daisy (who replaces original quartet member Marc Riordan). Shelton cites Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus as influences on the group but it's more a case of taking inspiration from them rather than trying to copy those particular players. "Anticipation" presents the first such example, beginning with a Coleman-style folky waltz that shifts to a stretched-out rubato feeling for the middle eight, before shifting back to the first section. This structure recurs during parts of the solos too, which adds a good tension when the horns join together. Shelton also delivers a remarkable, frequently vocal solo.

"Joints and Tendons" leans closer to homage with a theme reminiscent of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It features a very AACM approach of roughly five or six staccato notes followed by brief silence... then a sustained, often dissonant, harmony. Arty (no pun intended) and a little spare, it still offers intrigue for Daisy's brief spastic solo and the fact that Jackson and Shelton on harmonize in crisp tones closer to West Coast cool cats than Chicago revolutionaries.

"Barely Talking" has a simple, catchy melody and a solo from Johnson that sounds free, especially in connection with Daisy, but maintains a focus and direction throughout. Hatwich also gets his moment in the spotlight too. "Deadfall" gives the leader his chance to go it alone for the first two-and-a-half minutes.

After last year's impressive albums on Clean Feed with the groups Cylinder and Arrive, and the most recent Fast Citizens album on Delmark, Shelton is coming at it from all angles with a strong voice and engaging material. Everything for Somebody adds to that, and hopefully he's starting to catch on so that the title won't just refer to a limited set of listeners and appreciators.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Looking Ahead to September

September looks to be a big musical month for Pittsburgh. Or should I say, bigger than usual because there's always stuff going on here. Next weekend, the Harlan Twins release their second album on Friday and the following night veteran alto sax player Sonny Simmons is in town. The weekend after that, Guided by Voice are coming to town, and I think Paul Labrise is releasing his new album the night before. Wye Oak is returning to town that Thursday (the 13th I think). Then, the week after that, Sao Paulo Underground is coming to the Warhol, followed the next night by Roy Haynes' show. Then the week after THAT, the Love Letters are opening for Chain and the Gang, the band that includes Ian Svenonious. Laetitia Sadier (formerly of Stereolab) is also in town, I think the night before. Two nights later, the Pittsburgh Record Convention is happening and I'm going to be selling stuff there.

It all kind of makes my head hurt.

This past Monday, I had back-to-back phone interviews with Laetitia Sadier and Sonny Simmons, both conducted while Donovan was sequestered up in the office watching a DVD of The Electric Company. Laetitia was in England and as much as I would've preferred not making an overseas call, I was excited to talk to her. City Paper is going to run a quick Q&A with her, but I think Blurt wants something too. So I might actually break even with the cost of the call.

We started off the conversation talking about Pittsburgh, which she actually remembered from a Stereolab show close to 10 years ago. She remembered the layout of the late Club Laga, which is pretty impressive considering how she's probably travelled the world several times over. We also talked briefly about the film Diabolique, the remake of which was filmed here at my old church. I was supposed to have 25 minutes with her but we actually went over because she never said anything and the conversation was going to well that I was going to take my chances.

Sonny Simmons' manager warned me that he "isn't very good on the phone, so I'll be on other line," which made me wonder if I was going to get another one of those interviews where the answer to every question was "man, I just want to play." On the contrary, Sonny was pretty animated and chatty, and willing to answer all of my questions. I really really really hope that a lot of people come out of the woodwork for his show here. I just found out that he's here the same night that the Mattress Factory is doing their annual jazz and poetry show with Oliver Lake on the North Side.

On this day a year ago, and two years prior to that, I was getting ready to catch a plane to Detroit for their Jazz Festival. Naturally I'd love to go this year, representing JazzTimes again but I decided that I wanted to be home Labor Day weekend this year, so I didn't volunteer myself this year. Oh well, maybe next year. It's a shame because this year, I actually have business cards made up with this blog's email address on it. Almost professional.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

CD Review: Marco Cappelli's Italian Surf Academy - The American Dream

Marco Cappelli's Italian Surf Academy
The American Dream

In Italy the sound of twangy guitars didn't exactly correspond with images of the beach in the 1960s. It was often the sound that accompanied suspenseful or grisly scenes in films by Sergios Leone or Carbucci, with the score coming from the pens of Luis Bacalov or Ennio Morricone instead of the Ventures. Guitarist Marco Cappelli, an Italian native now living in New York, decided to pay homage to the music of his country. The American Dream comes alive with visual cues which the guitarist blends with the sense of free form experimentation he picked up his new country. But what comes across predominantly is the compositional strength of these pieces and the way Cappelli arranges them.

The guitarist works with a trio setting, joined by bassist Luca Lo Bianco and drummer Francesco Cusa. As quickly as they set the tone, they're just as likely to break it down and reshape it. "Django" begins pensively enough, but it soon goes in a free direction, climaxing with bent surf notes and finally fading out with a wah-wah reggae power chord. Morricone's "The Sundown/S. Antonio Mission" has the pathos for which the composer became famous. From there, though, the trio breaks into free jazz in which the rhythm section almost sounds like free metal, except for the fact that the production cuts down on the low end bombast. "Blood and Black Lace," composed by Carlo Rustichelli, has the minimal accompaniment that leaves the guitar swinging naked in the breeze, with a prime descriptor of this kind of music.

Vocalist Gaia Matteuzzi joins the Academy on two songs with greatly different results. Anyone who heard John Zorn's take on "Erotico (The Burglars)" from his Morricone tribute The Big Gundown remembers Shelley Hirsch's yelping vocals, and might think of it when hearing Matteuzzi on Armando Trovajoli's "Sesso Matto." The difference is Matteuzzi seems to be going for more of a fake orgasm feel - double-tracked at that - while Hirsch seemed to be lampooning that concept. In other words, it's a bit much. (Of course, some, uh, dudes might think it's a good accompaniment to The American Dream's cover.) Better is "Deep Deep Down" which almost sounds like a pop song, with leaping intervals that offer another impressive point in Mr. Morricone's favor.

Closing the album with "Secret Agent Man" brings the album back to our shores, beginning with a shout-out to ol' James Bond. Cappelli gets rid of the syncopation in the melody which make it sound a little square at first. But upon further thought, it feels like the way one of the previous composers might have scored it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

CD Reviews: Harris Eisenstadt - Canada Day III & Canada Day Octet

Harris Eisenstadt
Canada Day III

Harris Eisenstadt
Canada Day Octet
(482 Music)

The descriptor drummer/composer/bandleader no longer seems that unusual. There are more and more players who lead from behind the trap kit, composing more than just rhythmic outings over the easy changes. But Harris Eisenstadt seems to spend a lot of time working on his compositions. His notes for Canada Day III make several references to first drafts of the music or how a couple pieces began as sections of other compositions that ended up on the cutting room floor. It proves that you should never throw away any ideas. It also proves that Eisenstadt is pretty productive musician. Less than a year ago, I reviewed his September Trio album from Clean Feed, which featured an entirely different personnel than either of these albums.

Canada Day III was recorded by his quintet: Nate Wooley (trumpet), Matt Bauder (tenor saxophone), Chris Dingman (vibes), Garth Stevenson (bass) and Eisenstadt. The pieces are marked by subtle rhythmic tricks and melodic turns that don't loose any impact if you don't read about them in the CD cover. The quintet recorded them following a tour which means they are very familiar with the ins and outs and it sounds natural. "Slow and Steady" has a feel of intrigue and a slight touch of "Misterioso" thanks to Dingman's coloring. Two of the melodic instruments play in four while the other two play is six, both changing sides before the relatively brief (3:45) tune wraps up. Again, without knowing the basis of the structure, it's easy to just get lost in the mood. It's also a good way to open the set.

Upon hearing sustained vibes notes over a walking bass line, it's hard for me to not think of "Hat and Beard," from Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch. "The Magician of Lublin" really sounds nothing like that tune, but the feeling is there in the opening moments, following some high register bowing from Stevenson and before the horns play the brief melody. Dingman plays remarkably throughout the album with a very astute way of backing the soloists or taking one on his own. Wooley can live up to his name, sounding downright feral ("Nosey Parker") or bright and sharp ("Magician") at will. Bauder also balances no-nonsense blowing with a gruff side, the latter coming in the opening of "Shuttle off This Mortal Coil." That title and several others betray Eisenstadt's influences, which go beyond music to literary sources and account for the unique stylings of his work.

Speaking of which, he added alto (Jason Mears), trombone (Ray Anderson) and tuba (Dan Peck) to the quintet for a performance that lead to the recording of the four part "The Ombudsman" suite on Canada Day Octet. Eisenstadt has recorded no less than four large scale groups in the last 10 years (does this guy ever stop?) so he's no stranger to a group this size. The term ombudsman might be familiar to the NPR-listening crowd since they've had one who serves as a go-between for their staff and listeners. Eisenstadt sees this ombudsman as a mediator between "those for creative music and those who are mystified by it." It begins with free drumming and a rubato theme, with all manner of different shapes coming and going. The three new guys to the fold all get a lot of space, Peck getting some of the more interesting parts. In the 14-minute first part, he sounds like he's humming as he blows. This track also ends with a feeling of group improvisation where everyone minds their p's and q's to make sure things don't sound too busy.

"Ballad for 10.6.7" closes the album, an homage to computer problems that slowed up Eisenstadt's writing. Naturally, such man-made delays didn't keep this good composer down and like the ballad on the previous album that he dedicated to his wife, this one isn't your typical sweet ballad, but something with a bit of bite to it.