Thursday, December 27, 2012

CD Review: Marc Riordan Quartet - Binoculars

Marc Riordan Quartet
(Club Nerodia)

Anyone familiar with Marc Riordan's name outside of Chicago probably knows him as a drummer, a role he filled with the Aram Shelton Quartet and Josh Berman's Old Idea, among others. Binoculars introduces him as a pianist, in a set of seven originals and one cover that show him to be equally as skilled in the melodic world as he is behind the traps.

Riordan's composing owes a great deal to Thelonious Monk. So much so that a couple tracks seem to use phrases from Monk standards as springboards to new directions. The opening phrases of "Lesson Learned" could have ushered in "Monk's Mood," with a few teases of "Crepuscule with Nellie" on the side. "On the 6th" bears has a passing resemblance to "Pannonica." Yet neither example reduces the music, or Riordan, to a mere imitator. With alto saxophonist Peter Hanson upfront, and bassist Daniel Thatcher and drummer Tim Daisy holding the rhythm together, the quartet's sound takes the spirit of '50s angular bop and puts a unique stamp on it. Riordan also cites Herbie Nichols as an influence, which can be felt in "I'll Text You."

Then when it comes to covering an actual Monk song, Riordan goes the extra mile by playing "A Merrier Christmas," which would be known only to scholars or fans who read Robin D. G. Kelley's engrossing Monk biography, since the composer never officially recorded it. Don't look at the CD cover and it's hard to tell which track is the cover, another mark in the quartet's favor.

They also break away from straight four tempo with "Little Dog," a catchy number that translates Ornette Coleman's electric compositions to a loose limbed acoustic setting. The alto theme in "Magnetic Personality" almost sounds like an exercise, but the rhythm section's punctuation keeps it from sounding mechanical. Hanson and Riordan began to solo simultaneously and create some compelling tension in the process. The saxophonist's tone ranges from sharp-tongued to clear-and-crisp throughout the session. Riordan sounds assured and inventive as well, whether he's contributing to a fast melody line, adding some nervous Cecil Taylor-esque trills or comping.

It's still strange to me that so many musicians stay stuck in the "Golden Age" of jazz (post-WWII to the early 1960s) and do nothing but replay that era without adding anything to the canon. But get a group of guys together who are normally associated with more avant-garde leanings and they swing harder and more creatively than the traditionalists. Marc Riordan now has proven his skills on two instruments, so it's understandable if he's in a quandry about which one to pursue. Just keep your eye on him.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

CD Review: Iron Dog - Interactive Rock Album

Iron Dog
Interactive Album Rock
(Phase Frame)

Poetry and jazz make strange and often wrongheaded bedfellows. Like comedy, a lot of it has to do with the delivery. The poet's voice can blunt a decent set of words by using the cliched rising in pitch at the end of a phrase or, in contrast, taking on a self-important or self-conscious/heh-heh-what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here tone, which is usually speaks to the level of the words they're speaking. And I'm sorry, but the poet's who think it's a good idea to verbalize the sound of free improvisation? They make me run the other way.

Sarah Bernstein, violinist and one-third of Brooklyn's Iron Dog, adds poetry to the group's free improvisation and none of the bad trappings mentioned above factor into her work. In fact, it adds to the forward motion of the group's sound, spiking the energy up a bit. Typically her voice acts less like the center of the music, and more as an addition to the sound. Her delivery isn't animated, though it's not flat either.

Some of her texts consists of two short phrases, others get more extensive and manipulated. The latter example comes in "Love Segment" where a series of "love" phrases (love entity, love surface, love cursive) get repeated, sometimes without the "love" in front of them, slower and faster, making the 13-minute track simultaneously fascinating and abrasive. In "Pain Glorious" she fires off a series of scraps reminiscent of Beat poets  ("Pain glorious/ sunk-eyed furious/ pills, fun/ curious distraction/ allowed to keep the color/ keep the flame") so quickly that it's hard to follow the lyric sheet along with her. As she repeats them, Bernstein manipulates her voice through a delay/reverb pedal, so even as she slows down the verbal delivery, the package still has a mystery code put on them, which seems to imply that the sound serves a more important role than the words themselves.

Sound is something that Bernstein and her trio mates Stuart Popejoy (bass guitar, synthesizer) and Andrew Drury (drums) build especially well. Each one of them stretches the uses of their respective instruments to a point where it's often hard to tell who's doing what. "Like the Slow Train" mysteriously opens the album with what sounds like a banjo loop, an instrument that no one plays. In "Pain Glorious" Bernstein's effects make her violin sound somewhere between Mary Halvorson's guitar skronk and Taylor Ho Bynum's half-valve cornet blasts. In this track especially the trio really listens to each other, with the violin playing shards of melody as the rhythm section creates a churning drone beneath her, marked by Drury's array of bows and mallets on a dustpan and on the drums (he mentions several items such items in the liner notes).

The reason the group decided to call this Interactive Album Rock is not blatantly clear, but I'm guessing it might have something to do with the effect it can have on listeners with open ears. These three make a solid improvisation unit and they've succeeded in the admirable task of removing the bad stigma of the poetry-and-jazz combination. Those qualities can make us feel like we can get involved in the music.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Thinning the Pile

Now that it's getting to the end of the year, the mailbox isn't filling up with promotional CDs. That means I finally have time to catch up on some things that I've wanted to review here over the past couple of months. Truly I would have liked to have started catching up a week or two ago, but last week I had the Franklin Bruno story due for Blurt and it really sucked up a lot of time, both literally and mentally. Then there was holiday preparation - like putting up a Christmas tree that had been sitting on our front porch for a week. (Crazy, isn't it? Turns out you do turn into your parents after a while.)

So here we are right now. I wrote Scott Boni a few days ago, and Living by Lanterns yesterday. Then a new review ought to be here tomorrow morning. Right now it's time for late night festivities.

Friday, December 21, 2012

CD Review: Living By Lanterns - New Myth/Old Science

Living by Lanterns
New Myth/Old Science

Experimental Sound Studio commissioned drummer Mike Reed to create some music inspired by Sun Ra and, as inspiration, they loaned him an iPod filled with unreleased tapes of the eccentric composer - 700 hours of them. Do the math. Figure out how long it would be before your head would swim after getting into the music.

According Terri Kapsalis' liner notes, it wasn't just music contained on those tapes, which began in 1948 and ran until 1985. (Which means Ra was probably doing this long before Andy Warhol got into the act.) They also included recordings of a tv show that included Duke Ellington (complete with commercial breaks), a radio show about acupuncturism and a tape about self-hypnosis, all of which were considered "research." You have to wonder if Ra ever returned to these recordings for reference or forgot about them.

The springboard for New Myth/Old Science came from a 1961 tape of Ra, tenor saxophonist John Gilmore and bassist Ronnie Boykins playing what sounded like song sketches. Vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz worked with Reed to create some structured tunes out of them and then they assembled a five-star group of players to bring it to life. In the studio during September 2011 came Reed's Loose Assembly members Greg Ward (alto saxophone), Tomeka Reid (cello) and Joshua Abrams (bass). Bringing further dimension to the music are Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet), Mary Halvorson (guitar), Ingrid Laubrock (tenor saxophone), Tomas Fujiwara (drums) and Nick Butcher (electronics on two tracks). Reed and Adasiewicz both appear too, and both drummers play together without ever sounding overbearing, or even like two drummers except for the times when different rolls or fills start coming out of each speaker.

New Myth/Old Science works so well because the seven tracks can evoke Sun Ra's Arkestra if one listens with that in mind, while at the same time they come across as highly original. Listen to the music without knowing the background and it feels like a solid album on its own merits. It opens with the one-minute "New Myth" which has the Arkestra leader himself ushering us in with some philosophical questions over a static of lo-fi tape noise and instrument growls (the latter of which could be either from 1961 or 2011). Then "Think Tank" kicks in for over 11 minutes of quick group statements surrounding solos by Halvorson (who gives things an idiosyncratic touch by playing with distortion), Adasiewicz (adding a lot of tonal color, here and throughout the album) and Bynum (who disregards the background riff for something loose and puckish, and takes the rhythm section with him).

Ra's drones can be imagined in "Shadow Boxer," which has a 7/4 ostinato and a theme that creates an exotic melody through the use of the horns and cello. Reid gets the spotlight here. "Grow Lights" features another vamp, after some long tones from Bynum's anxious cornet and Abrams' bowed bass. This time, the cello plucks out a call that's answered with a two-note response from Halvorson that almost sounds mischevious due to its dissonance.

But the album also includes an equal amount of straight-forward blowing time too. "2000 West Erie" includes hot solos by Ward and Laubrock, showing the kind of depth once displayed by Gilmore, beginning on the ground and gradually going off. Dueling solos occur in "Old Science" over a riff that sounds like spy surf music. The final ensemble section of this piece ends the album with a triumphant feeling that encapsulates the success of the whole project.

(UPDATE: This review has drawn a lot of spam, so I've dismantle the comments. If you want to tell me something about this album, try another entry. If you're a spammer, go to hell.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

CD Review: Scott Boni Trio

Scott Boni Trio

Scott Boni and I go back a few years. Originally from Washington, PA, the alto saxophonist went to the Berklee College of Music (back when it was the "School" of music, I believe) and came back to Pittsburgh around the early '00s. He caught my ear because he could play jazz classics and they sounded like more than just tributes to a golden era. It helps with you have bassist Paul Thompson and drummer Dave Throckmorton driving the rhythm section, but Boni had a lot of invention in his playing as well.

During the early '00s, Pittsburgh was a challenging place for a guy going the acoustic jazz route and we had several phone conversations about it and the state of music journalism in Pittsburgh. He had an appreciation for all manner of music, even more commercial pop stuff and it wouldn't have surprised me if he went in that direction. For awhile he played tenor with the surf-groove instrumental band the New Alcindors, which was a good example of my worlds colliding upon seeing him at the Quiet Storm coffee shop, back when they had bands. Then there was a period where it seemed like he was going to pack his horn away for good.

Luckily that didn't happen. A few years ago, Boni moved back to the Boston area and a few months ago this CD showed up on my doorstep. It's impressive first of all because the sax-bass-drums context can be a fairly bold setting for someone who hasn't totally abandoned playing over changes. Not only does Boni put forth a convincing performance, the set is made up entirely of original pieces, including three reconstituted classical or "contemporary classical" works, in which he's pushing himself and his bandmates to creative heights.

Bassist Mark Zaleski and drummer Mike Connors (any relation to the same-named star of Mannix?) are a malleable rhythm section that gives each piece a distinct personality. On the bright opener "Miss Iowa" Connors lays out at first, eventually joining Zaleski to put a spring in Boni's step. A track later in "For a Friend" they're playing loose and rubato, allowing Boni to contemplate in phrases that unfold slowly and swoop around. Maybe mid-'60s Coltrane would be a touchstone here, but these are Boni's thoughts now. Around 4:30, he uses the lower register as some punctuation in a sharp manner that shows how far his approach has come in recent years.

On the subject of touchstones, the saxophonist has borrowed from Beethoven, Chopin and Glass (Philip, that is) for the pieces "Ludwig," "Nocturne" and "Glass" respectively. "Ludwig" comes from the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, but this is no third stream attempt at swing. Zaleski walks through a beat that Connors constantly fires up with tasteful fills. Boni's tone often has the clarity of a classical which works in the opening minutes when he sticks with long, clean lines but he eventually opens up the melody, later handing it off to Zaleski for a brief but effective solo. Without knowing the source material, or even the source, it's still easy to get caught up in the music.

Philip Glass' music has always struck my ears as the equivalent of little more than hitting the arpeggiator on an '80s keyboard, and "Glass" (based on his third String Quartet) has some of that going on. But on the saxophone, the rapid arpeggios, going up into the upper register and presumably requiring either circular breathing or some fast, carefully placed gasps of oxygen, sounds kind of pretty and more emotional. During the solo section Boni breaks away from the repetition, later sneaking in some fragments of it back in, and it all works.

"Nocturne" might be based on Chopin's #20 in C# Minor, but this no pastoral music either. Not to say that it isn't gentle but Zaleski goes a few steps beyond simple accompaniment here and it gives it a little more spark and helps to color in the texture, without a need for additional players. The piece fades with Boni repeating a riff that starts at the bottom of the horn and ends on a rather Dolphy-esque high note. He plays it faster and faster sounding a little more gruff with each one. If nothing else, this is the signal of a new phase in his career.

As I write this, it feels more like I'm writing liner notes than a review. But I'm a little close to the subject in this case and don't mind getting a little effusive. That's what blogs are for.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

New record store in town

I think I've crossed a certain threshold in my life. I'm sitting here listening to a Dave Frishberg album that I bought with my own money. I'm really not that big on jazz vocalists, especially one that is so self-consciously witty. But I've always kind of liked "I'm Hip," which is the first song on the album. Buck Bryce used to play this on WYEP back in the '80s when I was in high school, delivering the Post-Gazette and listening to his show each morning.

Speaking of that time of my life, there was a brief period back in 9th grade when I used to get a catalog from a record store in the Bay Area called Rather Ripped Records. It was a BIG DEAL because it always had a mix of new, sealed stuff along with occasionally rare things. There were several good used record stores in Pittsburgh at the time, but getting a list from one in another city had a certain level of intrigue.

At the time I first discovered it, I hadn't fully dove into punk rock and was still heavily into catching up on '60s music that I had missed. As an example, my favorite bands at the time were probably Spirit, Traffic and Moby Grape. (Although I did see the Pretenders that fall.) I think the first thing I tried to order from RRR was something by Iron Butterfly, either Heavy or Metamorphosis. That was already bought so I got my alternatives instead: the Bonzo Dog Band compilation History of... which I still have, and Vanilla Fudge's Renaissance, which even then I thought was pretty lousy, save for "Season of the Witch." On Christmas Eve that year, my second RRR package arrived: Moby Grape's Grape Jam and Talking Heads '77. Exciting times. Some time in early '82, the catalog stopped coming because RRR had a fire and flood and lost a lot of inventory.

The reason for mentioning all this is that last week, Russ - the man who started the store - opened a new shop in, of all places, Lawrenceville, just five minutes from my house. He and his wife moved back here a few years ago to take care of his parents and after selling out at a flea market he opened a storefront. And that's where the Dave Frishberg album came from, as well as a Phineas Newborn album on Contemporary and a couple of CDs.

Strange how things work out. I often think about when I got those albums because it was such a turning point in my adolescent life. There's another elaborate entry about Christmas 1981 on the blog somewhere. And now the man who helped set those memories is back here, in the town I had no clue where he grew up. Funny I never knew that at time.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

CD Reviews: James Ilgenfritz & Maroney/Ilgenfritz/Niescier/Drury

James Ilgenfritz
Compositions (Braxton) 2011
(Infrequent Seams)

Next to solo drum albums, solo bass albums can be the most challenging of the lone-instrument albums. Solitary horns seem to have a wealth of sonic possibilities, and the piano and guitar can be whole bands unto themselves, but the timbre of the bass can prove limiting for all but the most devoted listeners. With that in mind, New York-based James Ilgenfritz gave himself twice the challenge when he went into the studio armed with his bass and a sheaf of compositions by Anthony Braxton. Presumably, it's hard enough to play the composer's music convincingly with an ensemble. Left to your own devices, there's myriad roads to travel.

Ilgenfritz has succeeded in this challenging project. Listeners don't need to be Braxton-philes to enjoy the album either, although I'm sure that helps. The bassist states in the liner notes that during the recordings, he typically had three music stands spread out in front of him, with at least 15 pages of music to draw on for inspiration. As a result, the six tracks typically feature pieces of at least four compositions, Language Music and/or Ghost Trance Material. One track includes a blend of 13 different pieces in the space of 19 minutes. While he moves from section to section, it never sounds like a case of jumping to something else simply because the going gets rough. For the most part, the segues sound planned and natural.

To the nascent Braxton fan, hearing a familiar strain, like the descending/ascending melody of "Composition 40F" acts like a beacon in a sonic fog. And it hangs around just long enough to leave its mark before disappearing into the more recent "Composition 223." This also functions in a manner similar to a Braxton performance, at least the one that occurred in Pittsburgh nearly five years ago, where he frequently wrote numbers on a chalk board and gave them as cues to members of his band. Incidentally, one of those heard that night pops up in the 19-minute epic, the written-through "23C," that appeared on the composer's first Arista album in the 1970s. (A recording of Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway came out on Tzadik this year that also includes "23C.")

While the compositions themselves sound engaging in their own right, Ilgenfritz offers ample proof that his performance skills should be getting more recognition. He tackles the music like a solo bass recitation of Braxton is second nature, and he keeps the energy level high with extended technique that draws some great noises from his instrument. His bowed harmonics never digress into nails-on-the-chalkboard scraping. Instead, they sometimes sound like a great blast of feedback. Elsewhere he gets some hypnotic low droning going. In one track that includes a transcription of the first trumpet cadenza from "Composition 103" (the third candenza shows up in a later track) Ilgenfritz begins with the grace of a cello and goes on to evoke the sound of an air raid siren.

Incidentally, Ilgenfritz chose not to include the visual representations of the compositions, opting instead to go with the numbers. Considering how many pieces he plays and what that would mean in terms of space on the cover, it was a wise decision.


The bassist also plays in a number of different projects including this quartet, referred to as the acronym MiND, with bassist Denman Maroney, alto saxophonist Angelika Niescier and drummer Andrew Drury. Their disc alternates between free improvised tracks attributed to all four, and compositions by Maroney, Niescier and Ilgenfritz.

The first, spare group piece "Ledia House" unfolds gently, giving the impression that the session will lean heavily towards obtuse fragments of sound that bounce off each other as much as it will connect. Bowed scrapings, percussive waves and gentle saxophone trills ebb and flow for three tight minutes. But although the rest of the group pieces favor a spare type of improvisation where understatement is key (rather than going for cathartic blowing) the mood shifts immediately with the next track. Maroney's "One Off or Two" sounds comparatively like a bright, conventional sounding piece even though the pianist doesn't let you feel like you're on solid ground. The two-chord vamp and Niescier's crisp alto are underscored by a rhythm that keeps changing ever so slightly. Just when you think it's a waltzy stride, it shifts a little towards a choppy 4/4 and you wonder if you just heard it wrong initially. Then it feels like it's speeding up. Suffice to say, the title rings true.

Ilgenfritz's compositions feature shifting structures and points of focus. "Social Hypochondria" bounces back and forth between bowed bass and pretty alto and piano voicings. Maroney, who is known for playing "hyperpiano," utilizes some of those effects behind Niescier, bending notes and giving his instrument a more "prepared" percussive sound. "Canter," the bassist's other piece, sounds both beautiful and puzzling, with pregnant pauses from the piano which gets more and more in tune with Drury's unique approach to the drum kit. (He doesn't appear to use sticks for several songs, using instead bows and other items to create vibrations.) Although everyone is moving in parallel lines, it's easy to feel the focus and structure at the core of this music.

Niescier's "Warm Bist du Gekommen?" closes the album with 18 minutes that begin feeling quiet and loose but eventually settle into something that almost straightforward. With the composer virtually taking a backseat to her bandmates until the last five minutes, they almost sound like an exploratory straightahead jazz trio - albeit one on a record that's been a little warped (again, thanks to Maroney's reinvention of his piano's innards.) Not to give the pianist all the glory, but tweaking a mammoth instrument like the piano is no small feat. And it sounds good.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Sunday Morning

Last week, I had five reviews to write for JazzTimes. One of them was a three-disc set, one was a two-disc set. So that kept me busy for several days. When I am reviewing something I tend to try listening to it over and over again, because unfortunately my memory doesn't always retain details the way it used to. I tend to feel like I'm not being descriptive enough either. I should be writing something for here right now, but first wanted to play catch-up.

Blurt uploaded my Azita feature: I also have a serious amount of reviews in the latest issue of JazzTimes. Then tomorrow I'm interviewing Franklin Bruno for a Blurt article. That should be fun. I should be listening to the Human Hearts album now to make sure I don't just ask questions about 15 years ago.

OK, got nothing else to say now. Gonna get to writing work. Or preliminaries.