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.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Week's News

Playing right now: Marilyn Crispell/Mark Dresser/Gerry Hemingway - Play Braxton (Tzadik)
Picked this up a couple weeks ago on a whim, mainly because I'm a Crispell fan. I'm not a Braxton buff, but I actually recognize one of the pieces on it!

Filed three reviews with JazzTimes yesterday, which explains why I haven't blogged about any new releases for over a week: I was getting to know the ones I had to write about.

On top of that, the Love Letters played the Rock 'n Bowl night at Arsenal Lanes on Wednesday. We didn't have the best turnout: three friends of mine, plus another three or four bowlers. But the friends made all the difference, and we played a good set. Once again, we had people figuire out our setlist by grabbing song titles from a pile of strips of paper (I forgot to bring the hat I normally put them in.) The evening felt so laid back that it didn't matter that we took forever between songs.

Then yesterday afternoon, I got an email offering us the opening slot for Chain and the Gang's Pittsburgh show on September 26. Ha cha! The Love Letters' first big show opening for an established out of town band! We did play with one touring act at Gooski's, but that was a case of someone wanting to get on our bill since they were on the road. This time, we asked if we could get on and they said yes. I never pursued this in the past with other touring bands because it always seemed like you had to stand on your head, play an audition and then sell two dozen tickets in order to be considered by the promoter as the opening act.

In other news, I also picked up the album by Spectrum Road, the tribute to the Tony Williams Lifetime that includes Vernon Reid, Cindy Blackman Santana, John Medeski and Jack Bruce. I'd read about it and lately I've been getting back into older Lifetime stuff, even though some of it sounds a bit overblown and a little unfocused. Despite that, I think they were an amazing band, the rare jazz band that really played rock with the same focus as the jazz they had played.

It was a sales incentive that the SR album is out on vinyl, and only a dollar more than the CD. It's also encouraging that my favorite Lifetime song kicks off the album, "Vuelta Abajo," which was originally on Turn it Over. I was pretty surprised how faithful this group is to the original and also how the production didn't go for a state of the art cleanliness. It almost sounds as muddy and raw as the original albums.

The rest the album is pretty strong too. I always skipped John McLaughlin's "One Word" on the TWL compilation I have because the vocals (by Bruce) always sounded too flaky and overblown. Here it sounds a lot more solid, and the changes in the middle section are more pronounced. Throughout the album Vernon Reid keeps his metallic indulgences low. He shreds, for sure, but it never gets excessive. These guys could've taught the revamped Return to Forever a thing or two. Of course part of the reason they got together is their belief that, unlike RTF, Williams never got due credit for the ground he broke with Lifetime, for which I agree. They were first and they did it best. Especially Larry Young, who I've always loved.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

CD Review: Devin Gray - Dirigo Rataplan

Devin Gray
Dirigo Rataplan

Dear Skirl,
Good to hear from you again. I always look forward to hearing new releases on your label.Those 5X7 soft covers that you use really stick out in a crowd.

Now you might remember that I've groused on this very blog about the artwork on your CD covers. Well, not so much the artwork as the point size of the type. On previous releases, it was usually pretty hard to read the credits, which are important on albums like yours. We have to make sure credit is given to the artists. I never cared for the Wes Wilson-esque idea that the look of the information was more important than the information itself, which had to be dug out of the concert posters he designed in the mid '60s.

I'm not going to conclude that it was my opinion that led to this, but I was glad to see that, on Devin Gray's debut CD, the writing is much bigger. So thanks. And I hate to sound like I'll never be happy, but geez, man - black print on a dark red background that fades into black? It's just as much of a challenge trying to read the song titles. One day after listening to Dirigo Rataplan in the car, I held up the cover in direct sunlight and only then could I see the titles on the back cover (I scanned the front and back above because it's important to see the look of the whole package) but you can't really expect most of you listeners to arrive at such conclusions.

With that out of the way, I have to say drummer Gray has put together a really strong debut as a leader. On the first couple listens, tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and trumpeter Dave Ballou sounded like they were doing a lot of blowing without really connecting. But the more I zoomed in on them, it became clear they interact a lot throughout the album. They're virtually spinning phrases together in "Quadraphonically" first during the theme, and as the tune opens up when Ballou keeps ending Eskelin's thoughts with a high chirp. In the freer "Otaku" they offer dual commentary that  adds to the way Gray stirs up a free direction from his kit.

"Down Time" has a steady 4/4 backbeat and Michael Formanek's bass line almost sounds like "Day Tripper." Ballou plays over the steady groove then it slows down for Eskelin who goes completely solo for a significant portion of his melodic solo. Knowing the saxophonist from his earlier trio recordings, this feels a little subdued but it's still a great work."Thickets," dedicated to Gray's mentor Gerald Cleaver, gives Ballou the chance to briefly play solo. There is a great moment of synchronicity when he enters at 3:15 after a few silent seconds. Gray gets a high pitch on a cymbal right on top of a high trumpet blast, with the result almost sounds like a keyboard blast. Kudos to Formanek for some excellent bowing work in this track too.

Sometimes it was easy to forget that the leader of the group was Gray, which is to say he's not an overbearing player and neither are these eight tracks focused on the drums. He does provide some exciting moments, full of great splatters and crashes. In his homage to Charles Ives, "Prospect Park in the Dark," his use of mallets on the cymbals gives the piece a lot of color.

So Skirl, please excuse the lateness of my reply. And if the format of this review bugs you, forgive me and let's just chalk it up to an early morning experiment based on a crazy idea. I'm not trying to be sanctimonious, just trying a slightly different take on the opinion format.