Saturday, June 30, 2012

Read these articles, too.

Whenever I end up getting some writing assignments, my posted output slows down. Last week I had the cover story in City Paper on the Beagle Brothers, my first ever cover for them. Then on Tuesday, Blurt posted my Man Forever piece. I also got an assignment from JazzTimes to write about the band Positive Catastrophe, which includes Taylor Ho Bynum, who I spoke with last week.

After finally publishing the Alexander Tucker piece (right below this post), I'm feeling really productive and wish I had a couple more hours, because I'd happily bang out another review. But today's a work day. And the dishes are staring me down in the kitchen. Maybe tomorrow morning.

Oh wait - the Love Letters have a show tonight so I should probably sleep that off in the a.m.

In the meantime, check out the links above, if you haven't already.

CD Review: Alexander Tucker - Third Mouth

Alexander Tucker
Third Mouth
(Thrill Jockey)

When I reviewed Alexander Tucker's album Dorwytch nearly a year ago (see post on July 6, 2011), it struck me not only because I was expecting something a little more along the lines of, uh, traditional warped pop, but also because what he actually created was a very dense, churning sound often built around simple vamps. That latter point ultimately created some interesting textures but often brought the music down because too many of the songs sounded undeveloped, with instruments just piled onto a spare framework. (Tucker has been doing this rather prolifically since the early '00s, but this was my first introduction to him.)

On Third Mouth this English bard for the new millenium sounds more focused. Things are as spacey as ever, but there's more direction to these tracks. As a vocalist, Tucker evokes Robert Wyatt, with a high tenor that has a lot of impact even if the words aren't immediately discernable. Acoustic guitars provide the foundation of many tracks with cellos and keyboards filling things out, with backwards electric guitars and other effects added for finishing touches.

The combination makes a song like "The Glass Axe" sound like a subdued prog rock, playing for the first few minutes on a haunting droney riff, only to shift midway into a different section where guitar, keys and vocals move together on the melody. "Window Sill" also has a lot of  strings and accented acoustic guitar picking, before it collapses into a sound collage of droning keyboards and found sounds that might be clocks, dripping water and chimes. Later on "Amon Hen," he branches out into territory that recalls Tom Waits, courtesy of some scraping guitar noise and saxophones that don't comfortably fit with the surroundings but still manage to complement them.

"Andromeon" follows "Window Sill," turning up the volume a bit to make things a bit more dynamic. Like a couple previous tracks, Tucker begins playing a slow waltz, this time with wall of droning guitars (electric, this time) and cellos. The vocals get doubled with two voices singing within an octave of each other, again sounding like Wyatt in his prime prog era. Rather than giving in to the temptation to let the music rise like tidal wave and slowly ebb, the song lasts just over three minutes, hitting hard and stopping before it can wear out its welcome.

That is probably the strongest qualities on Third Mouth. Tucker never lets things carry on too long. "Amon Hen" and "Sitting on a Bardo Pond" (the latter a tongue-in-cheek homage to that band) are under two minutes, acting more as interludes. Most of the songs last somewhere between three and four minutes and when "The Glass Axe" does push seven, it's with good reason as it has two distinct parts. The closing "Rh" also lasts as long but it's going for a loopy, trance feel anyway so it serves its purpose. This sense of economy departs from Dorwytch which seems to take its time getting to where it wanted to go. Dreamscapes can be cool but it feels like Tucker realized that he doesn't need to stop and survey everything as he rolls along, and the album is all the better for it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Make it Look Like a Tux

This morning, my wife banged on the bathroom door pretty urgently and when I opened up, she was holding the section of the paper with the obits in it. "I thought you should see this." My beloved godfather/piano teacher and bandmate of my Dad, Teddy Zee as he was known professionally, died on Sunday. He was 87.

Teddy had a larger than life personality that impacted our whole family. I'm not sure exactly when Pop met him, but by the time I came around, they were playing gigs on what seemed like every weekend, usually at Churchill Valley Country Club, or just "Churchill," as we called it in our house. It was just part of the family life - Pop was "going to play," and often me or one of my brothers shined his shoes for him and/or loaded his bass and amp into the car while he was getting ready. If the band's suits had to look especially spiffy, the order from Teddy was to "make it look like tux."

At the club, they'd play a continuous set, seguing one song into another. I mentioned this once to a sax player I met who had played with Teddy and he referred to the band's groove as "the businessman's bounce," where the tempo stayed the same but the melodies would change. It's a tradition that dates back to the lavish clubs in New York, like the El Morroco. (We have an album where the band does just this - going from one song to the next.) Years later it occurred to me how there's a skill that the band needs to keep this music swinging and not make it just bland background music. These cats had it going on.

One of the things that kept it lively was Teddy. My dad has tapes from the gigs and you can hear Teddy makes cracks mid-song, keeping the music lively, cheering on dancers and simply creating a festive atmosphere. He was like that offstage, too, lighting up a room when he came in. His laugh became part of the repetoire with me and my brother Tom, a two-syllable "huh-HUH!" that was sort of like an Ed Norton chuckle.

Because of that spirit, I remember always feeling like I should be cutting up when I had piano lessons with him. I was always looking for a joke and feeling hyper - something I see in Donovan when he takes forever between songs as he practices the piano. Teddy once recorded a piano lesson (there was always a tape recorder around) where I was especially wound up, and Tom and I listened to it a lot. We were especially amused with a section where I stood up and pointed at the metronome. "SIT DOWN," Teddy barked. "You're not going to use the metronome for quite a bit." [It's all in the delivery. I can still hear it in my head.]

He later bought me a metronome. He also gave me a lot of albums, including a Mongo Santamaria album and a Gerry Mulligan 10" which I still own.

When one of my cousins got married in 1998, the reception was at Churchill and Teddy played solo during the dinner. He was walked through the room before his set started, Pop stopped him and I talked to him. It was the first time I had seen him in over a decade, and the band with Pop had broken up about that long ago.  Later we made eye contact as I walked past the piano and he stopped the tune he was playing and launched into "The Way We Were" with a big smile on his face.

I later asked him if he could play "La Vie en Rose," which had been one of the songs at my wedding. "How'zat go," he asked. After I hummed about six notes, he said, "oh yeah," and launched into it.

His wife, who our family always referred to as "Chip" back in the day, passed away about two months ago and I stopped by the funeral home to pay respects. He seemed pretty lost without her and he wasn't in the best of health. But the thing that I took away from that was that he still encouraged me to sit down and the piano and run scales to keep my chops up. A few days later I did, and I'm glad because it wasn't as easy as I thought.

That's how I'll remember him.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Another Hit from the Folks' Record Cabinet

On Sunday, we went to my folks' house for Father's Day and I asked to borrow the Four Freshman album In a Class by Themselves. This is another one of those albums that played a big roll in my childhood. There was a period of time, probably only about a week or two but it felt like longer, when I needed to hear this album every night before bed, as my sister and I had our glass of Quik.

My folks were both very big Four Freshman fans, to the point that I wonder if I would be here right now typing about this if the group hadn't been around. Once, when they came to town, Mum met them after the show and invited them to a party at her house (she still lived at home, but there were always parties there) and two of them showed up. A few years ago, she retold the story and said that it was only years later that she wondered if they showed up hoping to get lucky. (They didn't, by the way.)

Anyhow, this album came out at a time when the vocal group was attempting to remain current amidst the pop music boom of the '60s. Their vocal arrangements were really unique and were a huge influence on the Beach Boys, who were now supplanting them. So this album includes standards like "Canadian Sunset" and "Girl Talk," as well as dubious choices like Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" and the New Vaudeville Band's "Winchester Cathedral." It was the latter two songs that really stood out to my ears as a kid, especially "Winchester Cathedral," because Ross Barbour delivers it in what was known as his "Leroy" voice, something akin to Donald Duck. And ironically the delivery makes it pretty impossible to make out the words.

That song comes at the end of side one, and follows an absolutely eerie take on Paul Simon's "Old Friends." The latter number is done fairly rubato with a lot of a cappella sequences, interspersed with some sawing strings, similar to Psycho though not as shrill. In short, it really goes a long way towards capturing the song's underlying messasge about the fear of growing old, especially when one of the guys, with a lower voice, practically whispers, "How terribly strange to be 70." (In what seems like a connection, the liner notes mention the fact that the band was 40 years old at the time of the recording). I'm sure someone at Liberty Records insisted they needed to really lighten things up following that song.

The cover of the album always puzzled me. A dame in feather boas, laying on a table next to a pile of grapes and a bucket of champagne. At the top of the hill behind her sat a Mercedes. How is she going to get to her car, I used to wonder. Where are the steps?

Yes, I looked at this cover a lot. It's a miracle the record still plays. Along with the Fifth Dimension's Greatest Hits, Equinox by Sergio Mendes and a couple Herb Alpert albums, this was probably one of the albums that gave me ideas about how melodies and harmonies should sound - prior to discovering and being smitten by the Beatles and Alice Cooper.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Latest

Playing right now: Aram Shelton Quartet - Everything for Somebody (Singlespeed)
I don't think it's out yet, so maybe I shouldn't say anything about it. Except that I'm digging it and it might get in the way of writing because I'd rather pay attention to it.

It was a good week for CD arrivals. A good 10 days actually. I got two Singlespeed CDs, a Pharoah Sanders set on ESP, three other ESP releases which I have to review for JazzTimes (which I hadn't realized were sitting here), another Don Cherry reissue, plus the Beagle Brothers CD. The latter isn't jazz but a local country-type band that I have to write about for City Paper, which leads me to what else has been going this week. And why I haven't been able to completely delve into all this music...

I interviewed the Beagle Brothers on Wednesday night for the upcoming article. I called them "country-type" in the previous paragraph because they don't comfortably fit in that genre. They're not "new country" like the tripe you see on that country music video channel. Nor are they ironic punks playing country.

So I went there straight from work, talked to the boys for about an hour, then ran home for what we still call baby duty at the house, even though the baby in this case is a five-year-old. To everyone else this might be called "bed-time duty."

Then it was off to Gooski's, where Man Forever was playing. You remember Man Forever, right? I wrote about them in this very space a few months ago, after I saw them in the very same venue where they played on Wednesday. This time, I'm approaching it as a guy who's writing a story about the band, or actually about their leader/driving force/one solid member among hired guys - Kid Millions (aka John Colpitts). Also, I knew what to expect this time out.

The performance consisted of the same "piece," "Surface Patterns" (FYI, I guessed incorrectly at the title in the previous piece). This time it was just Kid and one other drummer both playing on one snare drum instead of four drummers. Single stroke rolls (pronounced "budda budda budda budda" in quick succesion) for 30 minutes while the rest of the band slowly came in and played slowly. It was kind of cool hearing the vibrations in the sound slow down and speed up. I timed it, in part to take notes that I'd consult for the article.

When I discovered that they were 29 minutes into it, I knew the end was coming and I also knew how he cued the rest of the band to stop. So when he raised his sticks briefly and making them crash down on the snare, I was so into it that I screamed.

But now I have to write about him and write about the Beagle Brothers, and I haven't even transcribed their interview yet. I have the next two days off of work, so there will be sometime in there. Although tomorrow I might be reunited with my long lost first friend, after not seeing him for 30 years.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

CD Review: Mike Reed's People, Places & Things - Clean on the Corner

Mike Reed's People, Places & Things
Clean on the Corner
(482 Music)

I have often said that I allow myself one or two moments a year to get hyperbolic in print. Consider this one of them because Clean on the Corner should be considered 2012's album of the year. Mike Reed is a busy guy that leads two ensembles (Loose Assembly being the other) plays with a handful of others (including Jason Adasiewicz's Sun Rooms to name but one) and still finds to time to organize events in Chicago like the Hungry Brain's Sunday Transmission Series, which he co-hosts with cornetist Josh Berman. He's also a director of the Pitchfork Music Festival.

With all those irons in the fire, he still finds time to compose creatively and lead a group that, like many others from Chicago, is not afraid of the musical past but still insists on being firmly rooted in the now. With alto saxophonist Greg Ward, tenor saxophonist Tim Haldeman and bassist Jason Roebke - and two guest spots each by Berman and pianist Craig Taborn - PP&T plays in a forceful manner that at times creates a feeling of elation, due to their rapport and their individual power.

"The Lady Has a Bomb" begins with a rubato theme that has sort of a playful Ornette Coleman quality to the theme, which Reed punctuates with press rolls. Once they make the opening statement though, he kicks them into a 4/4 tempo that swings fiercely. Ward's alto solo is especially compelling in the way he plays behind and around the beat. He and Haldeman both rasp and tweet comments during Roebke's solo in "Old," a Roscoe Mitchell tune that has the feeling of a Monk blues.

Reed also writes compelling ballads. The brief "December?" sounds like a free ballad, save for some scraping noises from Roebke. It's followed by the slow, long-toned "Where the Story Ends," which seems to earn its title from the way it never settles down in one place. "House of Three Smiles" touches on Ellington richness thanks to the way the two saxes get a rich sound with the addition of Berman's cornet. The latter plays a solo that manages to start buttery and conclude with a more plucky tone. Reed wrote the piece based on a solo his other bandmate Adasiewicz takes in one of the vibe maestro's own pieces.

PP&T's 2010 album Stories and Negotiations paid tribute to unsung Chicago composers while bringing a few surviving Windy City vets into the fold (look for a review on this blog from early 2011). Here, they again revisit the work of the late alto saxophonist John Jenkins with "Sharon." Taborn joins in and the group takes off in a way that could potentially start a Jenkins revival. The piece is an odd slab of bop that switches from minor to major, never settling into a predictable head-solo-head format. By the end, as they're trading fours, it has the aggressive quality of the Sun Ra Arkestra or Charles Mingus' similar excursions that pushed the bop envelope.

When some musicians spread themselves over different efforts, it can result in music that also gets a little thin. That's far from the case here. Reed sounds like he's just getting warmed up, and what he's doing is not to be missed.