Wednesday, October 31, 2012

CD Review: Nadje Noorduis

Nadje Noordhuis
(Little Mystery)

Nadje Noordhuis utilizes a rich, warm tone on trumpet and, especially, flugelhorn. The Australian-born graduate of the Manhattan School of Music can play sparely and make a few notes count for a lot, as she does on the ballad "Big Footprint." She conjures a calm, soothing texture throughout the album, yet for much of her debut as a leader, Noordhuis doesn't let the music rise above that subdued feeling.

The eight tracks, all written by Noorduis, suggest soundtrack to a film with expansive scenery - vast grassy plains, ocean shores, mountainsides. But without the cinematic images to go with it tracks like "Water Crossing" which seems content to simply evoke about a scene without really developing on it. It's telling without showing and feels nice without really utilizing a melodic palette to start a little bit of a fire. Sara Caswell's violin acts as the second voice to Noorduis' trumpet, but it comes off as a little too sweet and polite.

A member of Darcy James Argue's Secret Society and the Diva Jazz Orchestra, Noorduis is clearly no young lion just learning the ropes. And there are buds of ideas here. "Le Hameau Omi" has a tango rhythm behind it. "Le Fin" heads in a straightahead jazz direction, although bassist Joe Martin and drummer Obed Calvaire are stuck in a slow, rather unsyncopated 4/4 which brings it down. "Mayfair" moves with a more of lively clip than most of the set, showing potential for her future endeavors. From here, she could go in any number of different directions, with an ECM-esque approach possibly being the best tact. Hopefully she'll stay away from the lure of electronics and ambiance.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

CD Review: Rob Mazurek Pulsar Quartet - Stellar Pulsations

Rob Mazurek Pulsar Quartet
Stellar Pulsations

After the long spacey drones he created with the Exploding Star Orchesra and Chicago Underground Duo and the paired down trio attack of Starlicker, cornetist Rob Mazurek has pulled together another project with some longtime associates, and sometimes it almost feels like his interpretation of hard bop. Stellar Pulsations begins with a thumping one-chord vamp and before it's over, Mazurek has played two ballads with the Harmon mute in the bell, which naturally sounds a little like... that guy who made everyone swoon when he did it half a century ago.

Naturally, it's nothing so simple as Mazurek playing it safe. Also, some sections don't sound anything like straightahead at all too. "Spiritual Mars" flows freely with no set tempo. Drummer John Herndon and pianist Angela Sanchez make the music bob and weave while Matthew Lux's bass guitar begins takes the melody initially. He doesn't play a fretless bass either, so his sound is closer to Soft Machine's Hugh Hopper than someone like Skuli Sverrisson. When Mazurek joins in, he almost acts as a support player to Lux's lead, which makes a great alternative perspective on the roles of the band. It's more like a progressive rock band with cornet.

All the songs feature one of the planets in the title (Earth and not-really-a-planet Pluto are omitted). "Spanish Venus" has some delicate exchanges between Mazurek and Sanchez while the rhythm section repeats an ostinato that sounds like a close cousin to a clave. "Primitive Jupiter" is the opening boppish groove which Lux holds down while everyone, including the propulsive Herndon takes off with it. The drummer actually gets many opportunities to lift off, which makes this whole set stay exciting the whole time. Mazurek as usual shows a lot of melodic depth whether he's doing some Cherry-esque runs on "Twister Uranus" or going for the calmer moments in the ballads.

Longtime followers of the cornetist will eat this up, but any newcomes unsure where to start with Mazurek's diverse catalog are encouraged to begin here as well.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Dinosaur Jr in Pittsburgh

Playing right now: AZITA - Disturbing the Air
(I'm interviewing Azita tonight so I've been trying to go back and listen to all of her albums again.)

J. Mascis alone has more amps than my whole band combined, times two. Three sets of double-stacked Marshalls, which are taller than him. And Lou Barlow has almost as much so that he can keep up. (He had to jump up to tweak the volume settings.)

Last night, Dinosaur Jr. played at Mr. Small's and I got to see the trio for the first time ever. I've always been a little more of a Sebadoh fan, and only own one Dinosaur Jr record (the first one), although I think I have a promo of Without a Sound, which I seem to remember reviewing. But I've always liked them, and my friend Megan talked me into it.

As usual, Smalls was crowded with a flock of socially inept and occasionally graceful fans, bumping and shoving past one another. Two friends from work (both named Megan) met me there and we managed to stand in a few different places among the sea of bodies. Honestly the band's sound was so huge that it felt like Surround-sound after a few songs and I felt like I didn't really need to see them onstage. It felt like I could already see the music. Everything about J Mascis's guitar playing is true. He was truly amazing, spinning out a solo in the first song that sounded like Neil Young with a greater musical vocabulary. His battery of effects gave him a sound that felt more psychedelic than anyone else who ever gets that adjective thrown at them.

But I was rather shocked that Mascis used a capo at least once during the evening. Nothing against capos. Some people get a lot of good mileage out of them. But I never thought this guy would need one. I guess we all have our secret artillery.

Most of the song titles were lost on me, as I don't have any of the reunited albums. After awhile I just decided it wasn't important to try and keep track with the hope of eventually finding out the name of the one "like 'Down by the River' and last song on first album.'" Better to simply revel in what they're doing.

Surprises: the proper set ended with my jam from the first album, "Forget the Swan." That song still takes me back to Summer 1985 when I felt like hard rock was merging with punk rock - and it was good.

*Lou Barlow plays a Rickenbacker! Just like me! And he used to look like me! OH MY...... [don't take this seriously]

*Lou was the m.c. of sorts, chatting to the audience, getting us stirred up and appreciative. Mascis might've noticed we were there. I'm not sure.

*They played a tune by Deep Wound, J and Lou's pre-Dinosaur hardcore band. It was allegedly one of their slower songs, which means it was like Minor Threat tempo and a little longer than 30 seconds.

*I knew they have been closing with their cover of "Just Like Heaven" on this tour but what I didn't realize is how Mascis would recreate the tremolo of the keyboard line first with his wah pedal and then with a tremelo effect pedal. Loose but impressive.

PS. Murph rocked hard too. I felt like he should get some mention. When we were standing right up front the thud of the drums coming through the floor speaker could've knocked a weak person over.

PPS Thanks to Smalls' for giving out free earplugs. I found an old pair in my sock drawer but the new ones were better.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Mike Watt: Club-Cafe Man

I spent most of today writing a few reviews for JazzTimes. Speaking of published stuff, my Laetitia Sadier piece is up on the Blurt website right here. I was about to type "I don't have anything coming up," but I just realized I do. I actually have two things coming up that I need to get cracking on.

But before I do that, let me tell you about Mike Watt. Specifically, Mike Watt at Club Cafe on Saturday night. Two tours ago he played there and I missed it, in part because I was still turned off by his previous album The Secondman's Middle Stand. I had seen a tour of that band and album a few years prior and it was okay live, but once was enough. But after last year's show at Brillobox, I felt like the old bass man was back on his horse and I didn't feel like missing this one.

South Side has become a haven of drunken idiots and that means it's hard to park then and when you're walking five blocks to Club Cafe, you're likely to hear couples fighting in the street, which I did. Getting the Club Cafe, the timing worked in my favor because the opening band was wrapping up their set, which was a sincere but fairly generic set of pop punk.

FOOD, the trio fronted by the former Ed fROMOHIO (Crawford, that is) was up second. I lucked out and got a table with a crew of friends that I've known since the Minutemen days, including my friend Lee, who just moved back to Pittsburgh from San Francisco. Buck, from the Love Letters, showed up a little bit after I got there. Turns out, we were right in the firing line of Crawford's guitar, which was good and loud.

The funny thing about FOOD is that the other two guys in the band are Pittsburgh music veterans. Mike Quinlan played drums in Da Shunts with Evan Knauer (who was sitting with me). Mark Urbano played guitar with bands like White Wreckage and Six Gun Jury. He and I both played together when I was about 17 and hanging out with Mark's buddy's roommate Steve. So we go way back. As an aside, they played at Gooski's on my birthday a couple weeks ago, and it was rather touching hearing some favorite fIREHOSE songs played by a band of friends that I had known as long as those songs.

Back to Club Cafe........... the band was pretty tight. Urbano is a solid bass player, always delivers, nothin' fancy but right on the money. Quinlan is tight too. Ed was pealing off power chords and twang. He seemed a little nervous when doing the between-song chatter but no need to worry. The 12" edition of their EP is staring at me from across the room. I need to play it as soon as I'm done typing.

A Love Supreme began playing over the p.a. after FOOD was done, which is the cue that Watt is on the way. He's played John Coltrane as warm-up music ever since the Minutemen days. Drummer Raul Morales and guitarist Tom Watson started setting up the equipment in that tight Watt-style that I had forgotten about: drums center stage, turned to the right, facing Watt; Watson behind the drum kit.

It almost seemed like on cue that Watt made it to the stage during the final section of A Love Supreme since that's the triumphant part. He looked like he had just rolled out of bed, which might have been the case. Even so, he tore into his bass like a demon, like he was wide awake. Again, our table was mere feet from him so we saw everything up close. (I recalled after a few minutes that I could barely see him at Brillobox because it had been so crowded so this was a nice change.) They played the hyphenated-man album from start to finish, stopping only to chastise the loud talkers in the crowd during the quiet sections.

After they were done, Watt thanked the audience "for letting us do that to you," meaning playing one 45-minute song (actually 30 songs that are under two minutes). I suppose if you didn't know the album, it would have been pretty brutal. And there are still lyrical subtleties that I'm missing but it was a lot of fun. The encores weren't as bountiful this time and there were no Minutemen tunes sung by Watson. But, of course, it wouldn't be a Mike Watt show without a breakneck take on "The Red and the Black," and Ed made it back up to the stage and strapped on his guitar by the second verse and was there dueling with Watson during the solos.

Afterwards, while Watt was selling merchandise from the stage to overly eager fans who were probably still in training pants when I saw the Minutemen at the Electric Banana, Evan was puzzling over the Captain Beefheart guitarist that Watson was reminding him of. After running through a series Magic Band names, I hit on the one that I should've said first: Zoot Horn Rollo. That was it. And I told Evan it would probably make Watson's night if he heard that.

I was right. I went up and said hi to him too. He didn't remember meeting me a handful of times, but he DID remember the year that his great band Slovenly played the Banana with fIREHOSE (1987). I wasn't offended that he didn't remember me. There are a lot of guys like me on the road. Watt was busy so I decided to skip a greeting and head home.

Friday, October 19, 2012

David S. Ware has left us

Last night I logged onto Facebook and the very first post that I saw mentioned that David S. Ware had died. That's a serious tragedy for a number of reasons. The first reason relates to Ware's incredible musical skills. He had such a massive sound on the tenor saxophone, really in a direct lineage from John Coltrane, where a gruff tone was driven by a searching quality, a desire to keep moving forward. At the same time it could be really delicate too. He covered "The Way We Were," for Pete's sake! On a couple albums, no less. Of course, that tune still got some heavy treatment, but there was a sensitivity to it. He wasn't mocking the song or trying to stomp all over it.

The first time Ware brought his quartet to Pittsburgh, I was stoked. During college I heard his album Flight of i and it really seemed to me like a new chapter in the Coltrane Quartet style of music. There were basic structures to the tunes, from which they lifted off the ground and took to great heights. It was a few years later that they came to CMU, and the show was really disappointing. It sounded like one big cacaphony with everyone soloing at once and not connecting. The show had been co-sponsored by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, and I was psyched that my sixth grade teacher was in the audience. I wanted to talk to her afterwards about the show, but she was gone before the band finished. The volume had scared her and something other, older patrons off, I guess.

Susie Ibarra had just joined the band (I had previewed the show and interviewed Ware, and thought Whit Dickey was going to be with them, until I got there) and she was drowned out by the rest of the band. It was a while before I realized that the real culprits of this mess were the two idiot soundmen from CMU. (I distinctly remember one of them unplugging the main speakers at the end of the night while the p.a. was turned on, created a loud, low register hum.) When Ware and the band (Ibarra, Matthew Shipp and William Parker) came back a year or two later, it was like night and day. They were on and sounded wonderful. Still wild and turbulent at times, but great.

Last year, Ware released an album with Parker, pianist Cooper-Moore and rarely-heard drummer Muhammad Ali (brother of the late Rashied Ali), which I was kind of lukewarm on. The band itself was great, but the improvisations were a mixed bag. Well now there's a live release by the same band out on AUM Fidelity and I feel like I need to hear it. That's the thing about Ware: there will always be a strong quality to his work that keeps you coming back to it, knowing that there is always something strong and intense to grab you. Ever since an illness over the past couple years that had him actually doing self-dialysis due to a bad kidney (what is this world coming to when an artist has to go through that?) he style changed a little, getting more focused and a little less bombastic. Which explains why his solo saxophone albums are also such an enjoyable listen.

Grab as many of his releases as you can now and enjoy them. Rest is peace, David. Whereever you are, I hope John Tchicai greeted you there and that you're playing some far out music together. Tell John I'm sorry I only heard about his October 8 passing last night too. I had a rough week too.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The Younger Set Checks Out Willem Breuker

Last Saturday, the Willem Breuker Kollektief came to Pittsburgh and I took my five-year old son to the show with me. I wanted to check out the show and didn't want to just see Donovan for an hour between work and the show, so the night before, I casually asked if he wanted to go. It was taking place at the First Unitarian Church, which we attend pretty regularly. Further, the kid just got a pair of headphones that block out excess volume, so if things got too free, the volume wouldn't be an issue.

Much to my surprise, he said he'd come. Someday he'll get mad at me for saying this, but the fact that he said that doesn't really mean anything. He's just as likely to admit he "changed his mind," and to freak out. But sure enough, we got there right as things were starting and he was cool. Well, he didn't have the headphones on by the time the band hit the downbeat, so there was a little bit of scrambling.

If anyone reading this has a chance to check out the Kollektief as they finish up their final tour, do it. Breuker himself passed away a few years ago and the ensemble is taking one final tour to pay tribute to this unique voice from the Netherlands. His music draws on traditional big band (the saxophones were frequently harmonized in a way that sounded like a swing band), free settings and more classical approaches to composition. And they do it without sounding like a patchwork of styles. It sounds really unique.

The first piece had the swing feel going for it, although it was definitely an example of "swinging hard," rather than something that my folks would get into. The second piece had more of a Mingus feel, like something connected to "The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady." Frans Vermeerssen played an amazing alto solo full of skronks and growls like I've never heard before, all held together by some miraculous circular breathing. The soloists were all pretty loud because they came to the center stage where there was a microphone, which really boosted the already clear volume. Even when the headphones on, this seemed to effect the kid.

It was hard to tell during the next few pieces if they were seguing several compositions together or if we were hearing a long, multi-part suite because they didn't take an actual break between songs for close to half an hour. They played over a 6/8 vamp and Henk de Jonge soloed in a way that went from low and calm into loud and thunderous, quoting Beethoven and Bach along the way(the former being a conspicuous "Fur Elise" quote, while the latter I only recognized because the Fugs borrowed it too). Later in the set, speaking of quotes, bassist Arjen Gorter threw in the riff to Mingus's "Haitian Fight Song" during his solo. It seemed less like a crowd-pleasing gesture than a sly wink, so it worked.

Donovan watched and listened intently for about 15 minutes, which is pretty admirable for a kid his age. We brought along his backpack which had a book in, so after awhile he sat and read Green Eggs and Ham. When that was done, he took my note pad and started sketching on it. Then he pulled out his piano lesson notebook from the backpack. His teacher draws pictures for each song that he has to practice, resulting in a lamb for "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and a broken bridge for "London Bridge." So he spent more time looking at the lambs and drawing them onto another page.

By the time he decided he had had enough, and I felt that I had gotten my money's worth, we headed for the door - and as fate would have it, the Kollektief finished their last song. (The set was about an hour and 20 minutes.) So everybody won. Well, sort of.

Him: I did NOT like it.
Me: Well, that's okay. At least you were a good boy during the show.
Him: I was NOT a good boy.

As I said earlier, you can't always gauge the truth from what he tells you. Maybe he really did like it. I do know he liked the Kollektief CD that I bought at the show and played yesterday.

Friday, October 05, 2012

CD Review: Sam Rivers/ Dave Holland/ Barry Altschul - Reunion: Live in New York

Sam Rivers/ Dave Holland/ Barry Altschul
Reunion: Live In New York

In the liner notes to Reunion, drummer Barry Altschul says that when he, Dave Holland (bass) and Sam Rivers (reeds) joined forces in the 1970s, they typically played all day. "If we had to go to the bathroom, then it was a duo. If we had to eat, there was maybe a solo. But the music continued from eleven to five," he says. That's the kind of musical devotion that creates a unit that really knows how to interact. Further, if you've established a rapport that way, and sustained a group for six years, then there is a good chance that 25 years of separation may seem more like 25 days.

That's the way it came off in May 2007 when the trio reconvened at Columbia University's Miller Theatre to cap off the week-long Sam Rivers Festival presented by WKCR, the school's radio station. They hadn't played together since the summer of 1978, and the only preparation they made for the performance was a brief soundcheck. But it's clear that was all they needed because the two sets they played (resulting in two discs) were shining examples of free improvisation where everything moves forward. Both sets were continuous performances, which Pi has conveniently banded into five and four tracks, respectively, for easier listening. Of course anyone listening probably will want to hear both sets in their entirety each time, rather than skipping around.

Rivers begins on tenor, butting up against Holland before the bassist starts walking. While the saxophonist plays over the 4/4, it's easy to imagine his lines coming across like an actual conversation with his mates. These guys are taking the time to catch up with each other. As the first set moves forward, Rivers never settles down since he has an unending flow of musical ideas, none of which, for the record, involve off-the-handle screams either. Rivers, who passed away last year on the day after Christmas, considered "free" music to be what was played when a musician's mind is completely free of preconceptions. "No preconceived idea, no preconceived melodies or harmonic attitude," as the liner notes state it. It looks all those long days of woodshedding paid off.

One of the most satisfying moments of the whole set can be found at the beginning of the second disc. After a bass solo that shows off Holland's speed and penchant for dramatic accents, he is joined by Altschul and Rivers, the latter on flute. The way they play sounds so electric, so driven in a way that feels rare on jazz albums these days.

There are moments on both discs when Holland hits upon a riff that he sticks to for awhile. It's never done to get groove going or a vamp, it simply makes sense for the band to see how they can use it generate excitement. And they always deliver. Rivers also sits down at the piano for a while (as well as soprano sax), warming up with some strange melodies that lead into a section that almost feels like a ballad.

Altschul manages to sound relaxed but forceful throughout the whole performance too. After a drum solo towards the end of the first set he sets things up for his bandmates to join him. The first time I heard it, I felt the downbeat in the wrong place, and had to reevaluate the position once Holland kicked it. It made me wonder if Holland too might have been feeling it in the wrong spot. But if that was the case, you wouldn't know it because they create something powerful regardless of where it the band landed.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Report on the Pittsburgh Record Fest 8.0

Last week, I took three days off of work. I figured I needed some mental health days. Good time to clean up around the house, blog some reviews and to get ready for the Pittsburgh Record Fest, which was taking place last Friday, and where I was going to do some selling. Well, it sort of turned out to be two days off because I didn't realize the kid had no school on one of those days. Then the other two days turned into scrambling to get ready for the record show: cleaning some albums, looking at them and wondering if they were worth anything and finally pricing them. And I still wasn't ready when I got there. Some things weren't priced. Others were shoved in a different crate, out of order, almost lost. Oy. And while I wrote this, I realized I didn't pack the Thurston Moore album I wanted to sell.

Having said that, it was a pretty good night at the ol' record show. I didn't want to speculate how much I'd sell, or what take-home dollar amount would make me happy. I just hoped for the best. And when some of those generic looking '70s R&B albums sold early on, I was pretty pleased. Now a sizeable chunk of my sales came from records I was selling for a friend, meaning that I just got a percentage of his total price, and I could be all Irish and regret that I didn't make more. But that's not a good way to go.

There was a fairly low percentage of jag-offs there. In fact I only dealt with one. I had a Bonzo Dog Band album priced at $10 that was of interest to friend of mine who was selling next to me. Some oaf was interested in it too and asked if he could look at it. I figured why not and handed it to him. A minute later, he hands it back to me, record out of cover on top of the jacket. "Here, you can put it back in the cover," he said. I guess he was trying to send me a message about the condition of the record, which I saw was a little scratched. I got the message: I sold it to my friend for $5. Etiquette - put the record back in the damn sleeve yourself next time.

I have a feeling that the people who come through one of these shows reach saturation point really quickly. You want to look at everything but you don't have the attention span. So eventually you flip through one person's crate and if you don't see anything you like early on, you quickly move onto the next instead of working your way through the whole table. I actually had things separated by genre and running fairly alphabetically. I got one compliment on that, so I'm sure there were others who appreciated it. But no one wants to wade through piles and piles of stuff anymore. I haven't since high school, back when there used to be record shows at Monroeville Mall every few months. (I thought my dad was going to kill after I dropped $75 at my first one. This was $75 in 1981, by the way. I think I only have one of those albums from that day - Mr. Fantasy by Traffic. But I'm digressing.)

Most of the sellers I talked to were pretty upbeat, sorta wiseguy record nerds, but still cool. And I made some pretty good scores:

Sam Rivers - Contours, which I've been playing while writing. A little scratched but I couldn't pass it up for $7.
Moby Grape - Wow, orig 360 sound. Used to have it but sold it when I was hard up for money. Most of it is on my Grape two-disc but I needed it for the vinyl collection, since I still have the first one and '69. $5.
Robyn Trower- Bridge of Sighs. I love "Day of the Eagle" and couldn't live without that song any longer. $3.
Larry Young - Groove Street. First purchase of the night. At $10, it was a little steep but it's Larry Young and it's an original Prestige. Nuf said.
Ken Nordine - Son of Word Jazz. I saw a "comedy and spoken word" box from across the way and this was the only thing of note in it. $1.
Big Black - Lungs. Touch and Go version for $10. Either I got something hot or got took. But I figured I ought to take the chance.
Billy Bang Quartet - Rainbow Gladiator. $5. The impulse buy that these events are made for.

So I have a ton of albums by the Weavers that I refused to tote with me, except for the ones that I used to tape the section headers to ("rock," "jazz" etc). No one is going to buy that stuff. Knowing that, I couldn't believe that I saw albums by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir there. I also saw Englebert Humperdinck albums for $4. COME ON! How can you fool yourself like that? No one's going to buy that for any price, even for irony's sake. Save yourself the trouble. I have a whole crate of Burl Ives and Limelighters albums I'm ready to send to Goodwill because it's taking up space.

Unless anyone reading this wants them. I'll throw in those Weavers records too.