Thursday, January 12, 2012

Rhapsody Jazz Critic's Poll

Here's a link to the Rhapsody Jazz Critic's Poll, of which I was a part.

You can view each critic's individual Top 10 at the end of the piece. Mine is there but for some reason they didn't list my affiliation with JazzTimes or this blog. FIE!

Up until about 10 minutes ago, I swore today was Friday.

Herculaneum Came to Pittsburgh

Playing right now: Herculaneum - Uchu

I got to see the above Chicago-based band and thought it fit to spin their album while writing about them this morning. They played at AVA, which hosts a Monday night jazz jam each week but doesn't usually have live bands. Most of the time, they present d.j.s.

There had been some confusion about this show, because at first I wasn't sure if it was going to happen at the Shadow Lounge (the older venue that's connected to AVA) or here. Then, not seeing any listing for it anywhere, I wondered if it was still happening. But I heard from the band's drummer Dylan Ryan that yes, it was going to happen and things would start at 7 p.m. Which of course meant 8 p.m., which is also fine, since that allowed for me to run across the street and get some pizza. (I hadn't had dinner.)

Herculaneum consists of four horns - trombone (Nick Broste), alto sax (David McDonnell), tenor sax/flute (Nate Lepine), and trumpet (Patrick Newbery) - plus Ryan on drums and Greg Danek on bass. A review in NPR described them as "like Charles Mingus if he lived in the 21st century" which gets to the heart of the matter, I suppose. But their tendency to play in non-4/4 time made me think of Dave Holland's larger bands, or something in league with another great horn-heavy band, Dead Cat Bounce.

Their tunes, many written by Ryan, with some by McDonell, Lepine and Newbery, often have simple chordal structures, with Danek holding things together with a steady riff, which leaves the horns to play melodies and countermelodies and harmonies on top of them. Things never got too free, though it was often at arms length. I especially liked McDonell's approach on alto, since he sounded pretty melodic but he wasn't after to overblow a little or get into a high trill for dramatic sake. There simply aren't enough trombone players doing this kind of music so I always seem to get caught up what they do. Broste was no exception. I thought of Roswell Rudd during one of his solos and I'm not sure if that's an accurate assessment or if it came to mind because he sounded gruff. Ryan really kept things swinging too, especially in the 5/4 tunes. Every so often he'd let fly with some killer accent during a solo. One time he even started a song sounding like George Hurley. (I heard he's actually from California, so maybe that's why.)

Uchu, the album I'm playing, is out on vinyl, so I had to buy it. I had a no-cover advance sent to me that didn't even have the song titles on the one-sheet, so it was a necessary purchase. I also got a copy of a previous disc that Clean Feed put out. Look these cats up at

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Best of 2011? I forget

Before we get too involved in 2012, I want to weigh in on the subject of "Best of 2011" lists. And I have a feeling that this commentary will be very similar to what I wrote about a year ago on the subject.

I was asked to participate not only in the JazzTimes Best Of tabulations but also the Jazz List for what used to run in conjunction with the Village Voice, but this year will be posted on next week. This year, I felt like I was a lot more familiar with more albums and would have a more vast opinion on the subject. Compared to last year, when I bought two of the Top 10 albums after reading about the list (Jason Moran's Ten and Paul Motian's Lost in a Dream, which both deserved their accolades, by the way). But I did a lot of hemming and hawing anyway: "Yeah, I heard that and it's good, but, ah........ I don't know if it'd go in my Top 10. What about this? I'm not sure about that either."

Much to my surprise, when I looked at downbeat's round-up of all the albums that received five-, four-and-a-half and four-star reviews, I didn't even know the albums that got five. Maybe I shouldn't confess all this in a public forum, because it might lead my editors to question my opinion on the subject. Or maybe it indicates that it's good to have a guy like me, whose tastes don't always cater to the status quo, adding some extra titles to the fray.

Here's the JazzTimes list. It doesn't surprise me that Sonny Rollins made #1. It shouldn't surprise you that I plan on buying that album today after work. The first album on this list that appeared on my list is #4. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that my personal #1 actually made the cut as #36 all around. (By the way, I realize I always unapologetically say, "Buy JazzTimes," to help keep print media going, and this is no exception. However the other good reason to do it is because the current issue has a great article on Vijay Iyer.)

I inadvertently blew off writing a Best Of list for Blurt in part because I didn't pay attention to when we were supposed to submit one. Besides, I feel like my rock list is full of even more holes than my jazz list. And when I saw their tabulations........woah, I really felt out of touch. Every year around this time, I tell myself, "This is why you shouldn't feel inhibited about asking for promos of stuff that you might not review anywhere: Because those labels should realize this one extra copy might actually get them into a Best Of list at the end of the year." Or I might just blog about them.

These end of the year lists are really for readers. People love checking them out. I know I do. I just don't like compiling them. They're also for the p.r. brass. I'm sure Sonny Rollins doesn't care, although I'm sure he'd express some appreciation.

Now before I make breakfast, I'm going to fire off an email to a friend of mine who usually sends an email out to me and some other friends of his, which triggers a discussion of releases from the year. That made contradict everything I concluded a moment ago, but I'm doing it more as a way to keep in touch with these guys.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Space Exchange in Pittsburgh

Last night was the first installment of Space Exchange, a new weekly series at the Thunderbird Cafe. Each week it's hosted by a different musician, all of which plays some strain of modern jazz, be it electric, acoustic, traditional or somewhere on the outs. Here's an article explaining it.

Last night Dave Throckmorton, drummer extraordinaire, sort of played host in a trio with guitarist Chris Parker (also one of the Space Exchange hosts) and bass guitarist Jeremy McDonald. Dave was his usual powerful self, throwing all sorts of accents in and strrrretching the tempo for just a few beats, like he was trying to slow it down, only to pull it back. Chris and Jeremy seemed to be playing with restrain at first. The tunes (no titles were mentioned) were chordally pretty simple and kind of repetitive. But Chris has two banks of pedals, and two amps too. He was playing a Silvertone which gave the music a great sharp sound. Plus he had some effect that made it sound like there was some keyboard backing up what they were playing.

Jeremy's playing really anchored the group. Occasionally he let loose a bit with some melodic lines, and I really envied both his tone and his bass - a Fender Precision. (I've never been one of those musicians who knows squat about different instruments and what different pickups do. But I love the sound of a Precision. I think Mike Watt had one the first time the Minutemen came to town. I also think that John Wetton played one in King Crimson, and a few years ago I realized that Wetton's attack and slightly distorted sound was something I tried to emulate in my playing.)

Anyhow, they played two sets. After the first I started getting a little restless. Might've been the hooch. They also seemed to be veering just a tad towards New Tony Williams Lifetime sounds, without dipping into something as badass as "Snake Oil." It was good but it didn't grab me as much. But I stayed the whole night and was glad I did.

On top of that, there was a really decent, attentive crowd there. That was really encouraging and I hope it'll sustain itself over the coming weeks.

There's actually a number of good shows coming up this month. In addition to all the Space Exchange shows, a Chicago jazz group called Herculaneum are coming to AVA next Wednesday, and a new Merge band called Hospitality are playing at the Brillobox on January 17, which wouldn't you know it, is the night Ben Opie's Flexure group is playing the Thunderbird.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

On Jim Krenn

Somebody searched this blog in the past week using the phrase, "Where's Jim Krenn." And while I didn't have any information to answer that question, then or now, I felt like it was a good idea to start off the new year by opining on the situation with at-least-until-recently, longtime WDVE DJ Mr. Krenn.

I am a fan of the morning show hosted by Krenn and Randy Baumann. I'm not sure how long I've been listening to it, but I know it's been at least the last five years (basing that on when my son was born, which will be five years in a few months). The reason I like these two is because they're clearly pretty sharp guys. They're sharp in their commentary, because they don't cater to lunkhead responses to issues, unlike say the morning team on WJAS-AM, Jack Bogut or whoever is anchoring. (Yes, I listen to them too. We have the bathroom radio tuned to WJAS, though I'm getting less and less enamored as time goes on. But that's a different story.)

Granted, the latter team's curmudgeon responses to what us young folks and what that crazy liberal president does, caters to their target crowd, which is the retiree crowd. But by the same token, it would be easy for Krenn and Baumann to go for the blue collar, knee jerk response of the Pittsburghese crowd. And they don't. I'll even go farther and say they're pretty progressive in terms of their politics. They balance their opinions in such a way that they don't alienate guys like me, or the other crowd who want to hear AC/DC every morning and want to hear more opinions about how Troy or Sid the Kid played last night. To go out on a limb, they virtually carry on in the fine tradition of Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, who clearly had more liberal ideas about the world, rather than dismissing all the freaks as such, but they love good cheap sex joke once in a while. I can dig that.

Further, their skits are hilarious and have a level of thought that Saturday Night Live could really use. (I thought that show was through with their "let's take one sorta of funny joke and just repeat it through the skit" formula, but once Amy Pohler left, that seemed to be their m.o.) For one thing, Jim and Randy know that brevity is the soul of wit. I've never heard a skit of theirs drag on too long. Many times, I've wished they wouldn't end. That, my friend, seems to be rare in comedy, and they deserve an award for that.

This might seem to contradict my SNL bash in the last 'graph, but as much as the variations on the Pittsburgh Prom Kings might follow the same pattern, they put enough of a spin on each one that it never sounds like a rehash. And the Wilfred Brimley bit... they manage to make that funny every time. Bad puns and everything.

As the relative of a Pittsburgh Morning Radio originator (Rege Cordic, FYI), I'm well familiar with the issue of local stereotypes used in this format. Rege said in interviews that what he and his team did was never mean spirited, and I feel the same way about most of Jim and Randy's stuff. It walks the line, but it never crosses it.

A year or two ago, Whirl did a profile on the guys and there was a section where they asked each guy to list some albums they'd been listening to lately. Jim listed a bunch of classic rock stuff and Randy listed a bunch of things that looked similar to my playlist of the time. (The only thing I can remember now is the Arcade Fire, so you get the idea.) So maybe Jimmy and I would disagree on some points. But I'm sure he would join me in rocking out to Deep Purple's "Child In Time" (studio version from In Rock).

So what the hell is going on with him and WDVE? I can't tell you the many times I've said to my wife, "Man, those guys must be the station's meal ticket, since they replay their bits so much." Is he tired of getting up so early, after doing it for two decades? Is the station putting the screws to him in the name of numbers? Is he okay? The PG said today that he's still employed by the station, which is probably because they want to be able to keep playing the skits.

Losing that morning duo is bad for this city. And not just him. I know the PG said today that Randy will be back on Tuesday, along with Val Porter and Mike Prisuta (who always seems like the voice that balances out the others' progressives). I can only imagine how challenging it could be to be in their shoes, having to conduct business as usual with all this going down, plus having to field calls or comments from people who either just want to know the truth or be jagoffs about it.

Whatever is going on, I doubt we'll ever hear the truth.