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) www.singlespeedmusic.org

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.