Monday, July 30, 2012

Don't Forget to Write

I still make it out to a few shows on a regular basis, but sometimes I forget to write about them. Unlike some bloggers whose very moves seem to be fodder for their blogs, I don't always get around to posting. But Saturday night, after the Love Letters played at Gooski's, and while City Steps was playing I was prodded by a friend of mine to make sure that I didn't forget to post about that show. It had nothing to do with the fact that it was our show. She was more interested in seeing me write more live reviews of locals gigs. Point well taken.

It's always great to have a large audience come out to see you, but I'd be lying if I thought that the Love Letters were a huge draw at this point. But sometimes it doesn't take a big crowd to make me feel positive about the night. Just seeing new faces in the crowd - friends and acquaintances who've never seen us before, who come to check us out - can get me going. And that's what happened at Gooski's on Saturday night. The bar was really thin, especially for Gooski's standards. There was a lot going on that night - a few other shows, some parties - but a handful of friends from work came out for the first time, which was really encouraging.

Our set went pretty well. I did something I don't usually do before a set: I had a shot of Bullet (to keep the throat loosened up) and it was gone before we even hit the stage so I figured why not get another one. It didn't totally throw me, but it did make my hands a little loose early on. I felt like I sang really well though. We added an old Mystery Date song to our set called "The Mysterious Stranger," and we thought it would be cool to have Erin come out from behind the drums to sing lead. That way Aimee would have a chance to whack away at the drums, like she did when we were in Mystery Date together.

Then City Steps went on. I love that band. Michael is a great songwriter, with a knack for catchy, ear-tugging chord changes, the likes of which remind me of classic British Invasion pop, with a dose of Belle & Sebastian thrown in. With Bill and Kate, late of the Hi-Frequencies, making up half the band, it's very easy to get an authentic '60s vibe from them, since their hearts lie with that stuff. Not to mention the fact that they're great musicians. And Joe the drummer (who's also Joe the bass player in Neighbours) is also a really great listener so he keeps everything in the pocket.

The band has been recording an album. In fact they were a bit late in getting there because they were finishing up some tracking that evening. I can't wait to hear it to see what they decide to do production-wise with their songs.

Michael plays acoustic guitar exclusively and wears it pretty high, which always makes me think of British Invasion players (Gerry & the Pacemakers especially). It made me want to yell out Herman's Hermits songs too because I can see these guys pulling off a good cover of something like "A Must To Avoid," one of HH's more credible songs. Maybe we ought to have a British invasion night somewhere. Neighbours should get involved too. (I can see their drummer Andy as Dave Clark in the Dave Clark Five.)

My friend who reminded me to post this also said City Steps sounded a bit like the '90s band Material Issue. I can't for the life of me remember them, instead getting them mixed up with Material, the revolving door funk-jazz project of Bill Laswell in the '80s. But she sent a link to me so we'll see.

Friday, July 27, 2012

CD Review: Don Cherry - Organic Music

Don Cherry
Organic Music

When the British punk jazz group Rip Rig and Panic got Don Cherry to join them on their second album I Am Cold it was more than a family favor (the trumpeter's step-daughter Neneh was one of the band's vocalists). Like their debut album, I Am Cold changed moods with virtually every track, from tranquil piano interludes to free funky jazz, with an emphasis throughout on African-inspired grooves.

Thinking back on the number of tracks where members of the band chatter in what sounds like gravelly scat syllables over mellow bass and melodica melodies, I have to wonder if those guys were taking a cue from Cherry's Organic Music album, which was originally released in 1973. It too moves all over the place, although with much less brevity than RR+P would display a decade later. And even when the music wanders away from its direction, the inspiration still carries it.

Long before "world music" became a catch-all phrase forWestern music that incoporated non-Western influences (usually sanitizing it by playing it slickly over 4/4), it could have been defined more by a desire to just play different kinds of music at different times. Rather than putting everything together, Cherry seemed more interested in exploring music of different countries. With that sense of experimentation comes a certain excitement with these recordings.

Cherry had recorded a duet with drummer Ed Blackwell in 1969 called MU which has been considered his watershed moment. Organic Music went all out, with four sides of music, much of recorded outside the confines of the studio, when Cherry was being his inquisitive self. The illustrated cover (the front and back are reproduced at the top of this review since they make one big picture) goes along with this, and it also recalls some ESP albums from a few years prior.

The 12-minute "North Brazilian Ceremonial Hymn" gets the album off to a challenging start. It contains interesting elements though, not the least of which is the time of the recording - 6 a.m. in the morning - and the combination of adults and children chanting over a drone, including a crying baby in the final minutes. Like the new liner notes suggest, the piece sounds like a cross between a Delta blues moan and a Buddhist mantra thanks to the stringed instruments that occasionally punctuate the chant.

Side Two of the original album was taken up by the two-part "Relativity Suite," basically two different grooves created by African and Indian instruments that Cherry uses for vocalizing and chanting. Sometimes he seems to search for inspiration, but he also lays out his philosophy in Part 1, the desire not to be in tune with time or a slave to time to attempt to catch time but "to flow with time. This is the organic way. This is the way of the organic society."  Along with that guidance, the group sustains momentum in the way that the instruments create different rhythms and textures beneath him and his whoops and wails.

The third quarter of the album was recorded in a geodesic dome that was built behind the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm. There's a little more of Cherry the jazz musician in this part, which includes a brief Terry Riley piece, an impromptu version of "The Creator Has a Master Plan" (with Cherry on piano and vocals) and a piece named for the museum's installation, "Utopia & Visions," which recalls Alice Coltrane's flowing music. The sound quality of these tracks is on the lo-fi side but the music, driven hard by drummer Okay Temiz, is not. The same can be said for two tracks that come from Cherry's brief time teaching at the Bollnas Folk high school. This raw but compelling performance puts Cherry and Temiz together with 50 teenage musicians which tackle Terry Riley and Dollar Brand works.

Sure Organic Music is a bit repetitive and underdeveloped, but that's part of its charm. This is the sound of discoveries being made while tapes just happened to be rolling. This reissue is available both on disc and double-album. Seeing the handwritten credits in a full-size gatefold probably drives home the feeling of the album. But the disc also has a deluxe booklet with new and original liner notes.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

CD Review: Linda Oh - Initial Here

Linda Oh
Initial Here
(Greenleaf Music)

Bassist Linda Oh's life has been one of extensive journeys. She was born in Malaysia to Chinese parents, who moved their family to Australia when young Linda was three years old. After spending her teenage years playing in rock bands, she headed to New York to study jazz and eventually appeared with artists like Dave Douglas, JD Allen and Ambrose Akinmusire. The latter played on Oh's 2009 debut Entry.

Initial Here is inspired by the way the journeys have impacted her, but her writing reflects this pensively rather than trying to put across a concept album or by trying go to a different world with each song.  Oh alternates between acoustic and electric basses (with pianist Fabian Almazan doing the same with acoustic and electric pianos). She has a tone on the upright that feels immediately engaging and authoritative, especially on "Mr. M" which pays homage to Charles Mingus both in its solo and in a melody that recalls his more reflective writing.

"Thicker than Water" brings in Oh's other instrument, the bassoon, which duets with the bowed bass behind vocalist Jen Shyu who sings in both Mandarin Chinese and English. With a melody as close to opera as jazz, this track's lyrics address Oh's mother and female forebears. While it includes questionable phrases like "satiate your soul" the overall message and Shyu's strong delivery lend a lot of weight to the message.

Throughout the album Oh shows a knack for turning unusual rhythmic features into strong grooves. "Ultimate Persona" is based on an Indian polyrhythm which keeps changing slightly over four (or maybe eight) repetitions. Drummer Rudy Royston drives this, as well as "Deeper than Happy" which is full of stop-start figures. Along with a strong reading of Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday," the quartet pulls off a brilliant medley of West Side Story's "Something Coming" - playing it in an urgent 4/4 clip - that segues in the climax into Igor Stravinsky's "Les Cinq Doigts," a piece that sounds very similar melodically.

The closing "Deeper Than Sad" ends things on a melancholy note which comes as something of a surprise considering the way the rest of the album seemed to be more on the upswing. But the quartet's performance, which follows a dirge-y figure and builds in dynamics to include some melodica bursts and some haunting backing vocals, ends up feeling uplifting in its own way.  There are a lot of ideas moving around on this album, but none of the tracks feel busy.

Monday, July 23, 2012

CD Review: Ravi Coltrane - Spirit Fiction

Ravi Coltrane
Spirit Fiction
(Blue Note)

Ravi Coltrane's first album for Blue Note Records as a leader does not put him in a setting that either relies on the label's golden years nor does it lean on the family name and heritage. While the latter situation is unlikely anyhow, given the saxophonist's weighty discography, some people might have expected the former since Coltrane played with the Blue Note 7, an all-star group that released an album and toured to mark the 70th anniversary of Alfred Lion's creation of the label.

Spirit Fiction has some compositions that come from outside the band, but instead of Horace Silver, Lee Morgan or Coltrane's father (Blue Train might be his only album on the label but it's probably in their Top 10), he tackles Ornette Coleman and Paul Motian, with no less than album producer Joe Lovano joining him on both. The rest of the tunes come from Coltrane or his longtime bandmate Ralph Alessi (trumpet) and while they appear to aim in a straight forward direction, they get more adventurous the deeper that they are investigated.

To be sure, Coltrane hits the ground.... probing. His soprano saxophone enters "Roads Cross" testing the waters before a spirited free improvisation is stirred up by his quartet (pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress, drummer E.J. Strickland). If devotees of Blue Note are meeting Coltrane for the first time, they're getting an audacious opening salvo, albeit one that won't disappoint anyone with open ears.

Just past the album's midpoint, the quartet revisits the scenario with "Cross Roads" which sounds a little more urgent but just as exploratory. It provides an interesting comparison to the title track, which is equally free flowing for another reason: the quartet was split into two duos which recorded separately from the other and was superimposed after the fact. Perhaps they played it safe by limiting themselves to 2:28, but in doing so they arrive at a complete statement with no room for filler.

The quartet plays on six of the albums 11 tracks. The remainder reunites Coltrane with the band that performed on his 2000 album From the Round Box - Alessi, Geri Allen (piano), James Genus (bass) and Eric Harland (drums). This group also sounds so in tune with each other that they can keep it loose at the same time. The two horns begin "Who Wants Ice Cream" unaccompanied, sounding like they're completing one thought. Harland's accents really drive this one too.

The quintet is also the group that interprets "Check Out Time," the Coleman tune that comes from his Love Call album. The idea of adding a piano to the track seems odd but Allen was the first pianist to play with Ornette (on both of his Sound Museum albums in 1996) in over four decades. The two tenors, trumpet and piano create an especially rich sound on the theme and after some far-flung solos, they explode the theme in about four directions before bringing it back home. Motian's "Phantasm" recreates the warm bliss that could be felt when Lovano played with just the composer and Bill Frisell. Here, the two tenors work magic joined only by strong participation from Allen.

Coltrane's last album, 2009's Blending Times, stuck with me because he played with a rather cerebral sense of exploration that gave him a unique voice. That sense continues with Spirit Fiction which features two whole bands that share that are looking for new discoveries. This album has a lot of them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

CD Review: Arts and Sciences - New You

Arts & Sciences
New You
(Singlespeed Music)

The members of the Oakland, CA quartet Arts & Sciences all spent time in a conservatory or two. In addition to learning their instruments on campus, nearly all having logged time in the odd pop band tUnE-yArDs. They also all have an affinity for prog-flavord free improv and composition. In particular, they seem to have digested a good bit of Tim Berne's oeuvre. Admittedly they cite the alto saxophonist's Bloodcount band in their bio, but the quartet seems closer to Science Friction, his more electric group. It could attributed to Michael Coleman's electric keyboards which build structures for Jacob Zimmerman (alto) and Matt Nelson (tenor) to develop, or knock down, depending on the situation. Drummer Jordan Glenn completes the band and adds aggresive feeling to the playing, sometimes like Jim Black.

No specific songwriting credits are listed anywhere on the cover, although Coleman's name appears with "ASCAP" next to it. Zimmerman actually penned one of the 10 tracks but by leaving the specifics off the cover, Arts & Sciences comes across like a unit rather than a band led by one particular player.

New You includes a few instances of conservatory geek humor. Case in point: "Baby Boner," a title which the band hopefully will come to regret and re-name. This suite-like episode, like opener "People Really Like Me," also proves that the quartet enjoys abrasive repetition. The latter drifts off with Zimmerman blowing a two-note loop, while one-third of the 10-minute former track gets stuck on an odd-meter lick that only changes in texture and dynamics. Abrasive? Yes. Unlistenable? Not really. Maybe just on the first listen.

Before "Baby Boner" gets to that point, it borrows what I like to call the "scenery changing" solo approach from Berne, where the background changes while a solo happens. The twist comes in who appears to be soloing. In this case, it's Coleman and Glenn, while the two saxmen work and rework the setting. "Scientology" adds guitar and three extra horns (including Singlespeed head honcho Aram Shelton) but the out of tempo piece sticks a little too closely to its slow theme, with just a brief spot for a keyboard/drum break. Better is "Shunting" which starts out free and furious, shapes into a heavy groove and then breaks down again.

The longer tracks are punctuated by shorter pieces that serve like interludes. In fact, the 31-second "Missed Opportunity" feels like the acoustic piano exposition for "Scram,"' which immediately follows and begins with Coleman rapidly spinning a nervy synth cluster. Other times, they hang around long enough to get a choppy melody out there ("Poodle," another tip of hat to Berne angularity), prove that they can play chamber music relatively straightly  ("Step Child") or go through several prog-y shapes in a less than three minutes, including one that sounds like a tripped out quote from Raymond Scott ("Those Lepers").

Clearly Arts & Sciences has a variety of backgrounds and influences to draw on with their work. Sometimes when the ideas get thrown together in a somewhat reckless fashion, the results feel a little scattered. In their case, the uninhibited qualities of these guys work to their advantage.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Pharoah Sanders addendum & more writings

Playing right now: Josh Berman & His Gang - There Now (Delmark)
More to come on this. Later

After posting the Pharoah Sanders review it occurred to me that I didn't make a fuss over the Pittsburgh contingent on the album. In fact, the Don Cherry session had two Pittsburgh natives in the rhythm section: bassist David Izenzon and drummer J.C. Moses. Izenzon also showed up on the Paul Bley session too. These are two guys you never hear about when locals rattle off the names of musicians who grew up here. Them, and Beaver Harris.

Here are some recent reviews of mine that are on the JazzTimes website: Tomas Fujiwara & the Hook up and Jerome Sabbagh

In the current print issue (August), I reviewed albums by Henry Threadgill's Zooid and Ballister, the latter a free improv trio consisting of Fred Lonberg-Holm, Dave Rempis and Paal Nilssen-Love. Look for it and buy it. John Pizzarelli is on the cover. Last week I was working on a piece for the magazine, the first thing bigger than a review I've written for them in a while. With that out of the way, I'm hoping to concentrate more time here in the next week. I hope, I hope.

Tonight is Karl Hendricks' album release at Gooski's. I'm hoping to make it there. The new album's out on vinyl and disc!

Friday, July 06, 2012

CD Review- Pharoah Sanders - In the Beginning 1963-1964

Pharoah Sanders
In the Beginning 1963-1964

Before Mosaic started their three-disc Mosaic Select series, they released a few boxsets that pushed the limits of what belonged in a deluxe set. Combining Lennie Tristano sessions with those by his students Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh kind of made sense, as did the Vee Jay sessions by Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter (which only intersected on one album). Peggy Lee and June Christie seemed to be a set of convenience: "Two girl singers, both on Capitol!"

ESP's retrospective of pre-Impulse! works by tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders contains an interesting batch of music, as well as some interview snippets throughout. But most of the music in the box has been readily available in reissued form for quite some time - mostly by the reactivated label itself. Considering that half the four-disc collection is taken up by performances by the Sun Ra Arkestra (which included Sanders) and that many of the interviews don't deal with this boxset's main subject, it has a rather thrown-together feeling. And while it provides a great introduction to both the saxophonist and the Saturn expatriate for whom he played, a set like this is geared more towards the longtime collectors than the novices.

Sanders is best known for his searing tenor work that came to fruition during his time with John Coltrane's quintet, from 1965 until Coltrane's death two years later. But Sanders was far from one-dimensional as the early sessions with Don Cherry and Paul Bley reveal on the first disc. A brief interview with Sanders (like all the interviews, no date is given) begins the set, setting the scene for his arrival in New York. The Cherry session comes from 1963 (possibly a year later) and includes bassist David Izenzon (who would soon join Cherry's former bandleader Ornette Coleman), drummer J.C. Moses (who played with the cornetist in the New York Contemporary Five) and pianist Joe Scianni.

The music feels loose with simple composed structures, much like Coleman and also like the compositions Cherry recorded with Blue Note (and that have appeared on live discs released after the fact by ESP). Sanders had yet to tap into the frenzy of his later work and favors a tone very much like Coltrane, though his melodic choices don't make him a copycat. Only three different compositions come from this set, two have alternate takes which vary from each other. Another track credited as Thelonious Monk medley finds Cherry nooldling at the piano on four Monk melodies. Considering that Izenzon rambles softly on top of them, it's likely this track came from during downtime between takes while the tape was rolling.

The session is followed by four minutes of an interview with Don Cherry talking about... Ornette Coleman. Pianist Paul Bley follows with a few minutes of discussion of his instrument's changing role as the avant garde movement took root. Yes, these are both interesting interviews but this has nothing to do with Pharoah Sanders or his work with either of these musicians.

The 1964 Bley session also features just three compositions (all by Carla Bley), again with two alternate takes. With Paul Motian on drums and Izenzon in the bass chair again, it presents an interesting take on this music, Sanders virtually predicting a direction that his future leader would be taking over the next year. It would have been interesting if this quartet had released a whole album. Instead, Bley would re-record two of these a few months later in a session that included Marshall Allen from the Sun Ra Arkestra.

Pharoah's First, Sanders' debut and sole release on ESP during their original run, makes up the bulk of disc two. The two 20-plus minute tracks have been maligned for placing the wild tenor in a more straightforward setting, but the saxophonist doesn't exactly sound confined. If anything he might have been better off skimming a few minutes of solos off both tracks. Still, this album can be found in the ESP catalog on its own.

Three years ago, ESP released Sun Ra featuring Pharoah Sanders and Black Harold, a recording from the Four Days in December concert series staged by the Jazz Composers Orchestra in the final days of 1964 which featured many of the musicians moving in a newer, freer direction. Half the album had been released by Ra's Saturn label, while the first five tracks were new to the public on that release. In the Beginning clarifies that the unreleased tracks actually came from the December 30 performance, while the remainder were recorded the next day, along with an additional 25 minutes of outer space wildness.

The sound quality on both discs is on the quiet side - which is not the case with the 2009 release - and not just because one set is mono and the other stereo. While there are numerous live recordings of the Arkestra, this one might not have much appeal beyond the diehard collector. Sanders, who supposedly made the transition from birthname Farrell to "Pharoah" courtesy of Sun Ra, can be heard blowing his trademark overtones but he doesn't get a lot of solo space.

Disc four is bookended by more interviews, this time with Sun Ra himself as well as Sanders. The latter begins that disc with a dissertation about how major labels neglected him, which may be more entertaining than accurate. He later adds a recollection of John Coltrane, though nothing about Sanders. The saxophonist closes his disc, sounding relaxed and willing to talk about meeting Coltrane, which draws a chuckle from the normally staid Sanders. Here, as he has in the various interview segments, he speaks about his music not as a revolutionary but as someone who would interesting in expressing beauty and art in his work.

Considering how much of this music is in print in other formats, it might have been more interesting to release the music on disc one in tandem with the unedited interviews. As it stands In the Beginning loses some focus and comes off as a bit of a shoddy collection.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Love Letters, Will Simmons & the Bundt Cake Bunch, Paul Labrise

Last night the Love Letters played at Hambone's, along with Paul Labrise and Will Simmons & the Bundt Cake Bunch (who were listed incorrectly as "the Bundt Cake Gang" on the flyer; my bad). Things got off to an auspicious start because the Bundt Cake Dudes actually showed up with real bundt cakes. Two in fact: one chocolate and one carrot cake. The latter was the winner in my book with a great consistancy and that delicious cream cheese icing that could've been a tad thicker but really was just fine as it was. The chocolate was equally good, but a bit rich and a bit heavy for that heat. Jo, the angel that books the shows there, set me up with a cup of coffee which was the perfect compliment to the pre-gig snacks. (When we play last I really try to go light on the booze, since gin kills what little vocal range I have.)

Paul was originally going to play with a bass player but said four-string guy was unable to make it so it was just Mr. Labrise and his acoustic guitar. He's a really great guitarist and a pretty clever songwriter so he put on a solid set of his own - catchy, pithy, good blend of chords that were picked and strummed with a few little lead-y things in there.

The audience size was fairly thin at that point and I felt it starting to bother me towards the end of Paul's set. One of my friends from work showed up, although she showed up in part because she's friends with Bill from the BCB. And two other friends texted that they wouldn't be able to make it.

But Will & the Gang snapped the mood into a postive groove from song one. He, bassist Greg and trombonist Bill used to play together in the Hope-Harveys and now they're bolstered by the addition of Red Bob, my former bandmate in Amoeba Knievel (with whom he still plays). Will was playing a Telecaster through a Fender twin, which really took me back to LA circa 1968 (key psychedelic era is what I was thinking of). But when they did one of his instrumentals that has a polka kind of feel, it took me to Redlands, CA circa '85, i.e. Camper Van Beethoven territory. Light-hearted and good timey but definitely not joke rock. Plus, they covered the great Al Hirt/New Orleans chestnut "Java."

Then us Love Letters took the stage. I felt like it was a good night. By then the lack of a larger audience didn't bother me too much. I was there to play. And we were pretty together from the start. Sandwiched between Aimee and Buck, I was getting a good dose of both organ and guitar. I was actually having a hard time hearing the snare drum, though. So there was one song where I think the tempo was a little slippery at first - but that's because there aren't any drums in it just yet. The show centerpiece, again, was "As We Go Along," the Monkees deep cut from Head sung by our drummer Erin. It was pretty exciting. Then I had to follow that, since I was singing the next song. In a move that could never have been planned for real, Erin lost a drum stick and it hit my leg during the next song. Luckily things didn't fall apart.

We have another show coming up on July 28, this time at Gooski's. Hopefully we'll get a better turnout for that.