Saturday, December 21, 2013

And Then There's Nellie McKay

And how could I forget to mention Nellie McKay's excellent show last week at the Warhol? I was high on that show all weekend. I suppose getting sick erased it from my brain, along with the cool chat that Nellie and I had at the end of the night. (I was the last person in line at the meet and greet table, so I had her and her mother all to myself.)

Well, if you want to know what I thought of the actual show, here's my report.

Incidentally, it was announced at that show, and released earlier in the week in the paper, that Neutral Milk Hotel is coming here in March.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

New article and a big time critic's poll

I was polled as part of the 2013 NPR Music Jazz Critic's Poll. Read about it here.

Also, Blurt posted my article about Dot Wiggin from the Shaggs. Here it is

Beyond that, I was sidelined with the flu, or something like it, earlier this week so there's not much else I have creatively. But this is something to chew on.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Remembering Bobby Jackson

The first year I attended the Detroit Jazz Festival, I really felt like the new kid on the block and tried to get to know as many people as possible. The first morning there, I went on a chartered tour of the Motown Museum, the actual "Home of the Hits" building on West Grand Blvd. One of my fellow travelers was a guy with his wife and young son, who seemed to know a lot about music history, not only at Motown, but with an all-encompassing knowledge. And he wasn't high-and-mighty about it either. He was very enthusiastic about sharing his knowledge with people. That guy's name was Bobby Jackson, and it turns out, he didn't live too far from me. He lived in Cleveland.

Last night I was perusing Facebook and saw a link to a JazzTimes obit on guitarist Jim Hall. When I clicked on that link and started reading it, my eyes caught another link in the corner about "Veteran Jazz Broadcaster Bobby Jackson dies."

No, I thought. It can't be him. That guy is too full of life to die.

And as you can probably guess by now, it was him.

More than the passing of Jim Hall, more than the passing of Pittsburgh trombonist bandleader Jack Purcell, Bobby's death shook me. He was too young. Too influential. 57 is too young to go. His son is now only 10-years old.

That's about all I can say about it. My coping mechanism is to remember the good things about a person and to how many people he touched. So if you haven't seen the article or didn't know who he was until now, please read this. If nothing else, it shows how much he did and how he took that knowledge of music and put it to good use, sharing it with as many people as he could.

Rest in peace, Bobby.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

CD Review: Mascott - Cost/Amount


Another one that's been sitting around for a couple months, waiting for attention...

In the early days of this blog, I wrote a very effusive post about Mascott's Dreamer's Book album which you can find here. In case you don't follow that link (which you should, as a buildup for what follows), suffice to say I loved that album. Unfortunately I never got around to getting that album's followup, but now there's finally a chance to hear what Mascott (which is essentially Kendall Jane Meade with friends) is up to.

Cost/Amount has just four songs, all of which are much more stripped down sonically than the rich layers of guitars and keyboards that Meade constructed all those years ago. But they also offer perfect examples of pop songs that can be brainy and even fairly accessible at the same time. The title track offers a fresh take on broken relationships, tallying up a series of numbers over a bright, chugging guitar riff: "There's 52 weeks in a year, that's 52 Saturdays/ I've seen 52 sadder ways to spend the night alone," she begins, eventually giving four-figure numbers and a clever, somewhat economic assessment of love before the song ends too soon at just over two minutes.

The sweet "Our Life" is tailor made to be a hit, full of ringing acoustic guitars and high register "ooh"s in the chorus. With its recurring reference to Pink Floyd's most famous album in the chorus, it goes a little deeper to set up the hopeful flip side to the previous song. "By the Book" recalls earlier Mascott recordings, since it's built around an electric piano riff and features Meade singing in a lower register.

Kirsty MacColl wrote "They Don't Know" and Tracey Ullmann had a hit with a version that took inspiration from '60s girl groups, with chiming keyboards and layers of vocal harmonies. Hearing it stripped down to just Meade and a few casually strummed guitar is a bit of a shock on first blush. But it leaves all the important elements intact: the strong melody and the power of love in the face of discouragement. 

All told, Cost/Amount wraps up in less than 12 minutes, which feels far too soon and might be a reason to buy it as a download rather than a physical copy. It needs to be heard, though, and hopefully this is just an appetizer for a longer work that Meade has up her sleeve.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

CD Review: Matthew Shipp - Piano Sutras

Matthew Shipp
Piano Sutras
(Thirsty Ear)

Piano Sutras came out over two months ago, and the desire to write about it has been in the back of my mind the whole time. Part of the reason it's taken me awhile to sit down and write is the trouble finding the words to describe why I like it.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, Matthew Shipp's piano playing, in recent years especially, always flows with a sure sense of direction, especially his solo performances (of which Piano Sutras is one). The opening title track unfolds with a series of cascading lines that feel contemplative but clear in their execution. "Space Bubble" begins with a series of short lines (or broken chords) that hang in the air, creating suspense for what will follow, and he develops pensive lines that do not disappoint.

Even in the pieces with blasts of thunderous low notes with a sustain pedal ("Uncreated Light"), they aren't the whole thought but authoritative blasts that lead to quiet lines. There is more low end rumbling than Shipp has done on recent albums and he uses it as strong punctuation here and in "Angelic Brain Cell." In "The Indivisible," he left hand stays at the bottom of the keyboard, emphasizing and echoing the melody in the right hand.

On Shipp's Piano Vortex album, one track featured a brief quote from John Coltrane's "Giant Steps." On the current album, Trane's classic gets a whole track, sort of. He plays the melody, slowly almost like a ballad, and stops. It comes off more like an interlude between tracks. Later, he also offers a brief take on Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti," which the saxophonist infamously played with Miles Davis in a recording where the horns just repeated the melody while the rhythm section got more obtuse. Shipp reshapes the theme, almost giving it some funky syncopation, keeping it to just over two minutes in length.

The piano pedals can be heard during a couple of songs on the album, getting held and released. Some might consider this a technical defect, but with Shipp's approach to the keyboard (using the whole range of it, in all forms of consonance and dissonance, light and darkness), it reminds these ears of being able to hear the pads of Sonny Rollins' tenor sax opening and closing on his albums. It's a sign of quality.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Delicious Pastries, Triggers and the aura of the Harlan Twins

Totally blanked on more interesting stuff than the previous post.....

Last Friday, Brillobox was sold out when I got there, as I had predicted. The Harlan Twins, Delicious Pastries and Triggers were playing for Triggers' EP release. Luckily, I ran into a friend visiting from out-of-town who talked me into coming in to the downstairs bar with him for a round or two and to hang out. By the time I had sucked down my drink and bumped into people while getting out of the way for  people who were bumping into other people, I had gotten a text from James of the Harlan Twins, that yes, they were probably letting more people in. Delicious Pastries were onstage at that time too.

So up the stairs I sped, and managed to get in with no problem. I missed the Harlan Twins, who had played first, but caught a fair amount of the DPs. I really enjoy those guys. They write great songs, play them with a lot of energy and give off a warm, inclusive vibe. They also remind me (forgive me if I've said it before) of Olivia Tremor Control, playing a slightly scrappy but well executed version of psychedelic pop. Like OTC, they have a lot of people onstage, but unlike OTC they don't sound quite as much like they're could careen out of control at any minute.

I forgot that I had seen Triggers before, probably on a bill with the Harlan Twins and definitely at Brillobox. They have a guitar-bass-keys-drums lineup with a couple of them trading off on singing. They played their new EP all the way through and since it was only $5, I knew I HAD to get it (though I've yet to play it, I will soon). They put a lot of thought into their arrangements and they're writing. Fleshing out a simple riff can work in songwriting, but these guys take it to another level and they play as a unit, not just as four guys playing at the same time. I was getting tired before they were done, so I bought a CD from a woman who seemed like the parents of one of the band members (how cool is that, keeping the folks out past 1 a.m.?) and cut out before the end of the set. Can't wait to play it.

The whole evening left me in a good mood.

Progress Report

The new issue of Blurt arrived in the mail yesterday. I only have one thing in it, but that's cool because it's the Robert Wyatt Q&A that I did. A longer version will eventually go up online, but in the meantime, hopefully people will buy this hard copy. People my age who still like the tactile experience of holding a print magazine, thumbing through it and getting distracted by one page on the way to another - that's who I'm talking about. Find out more about it here.

I had a few overdue reviews to Blurt that I finally filed on Monday. Actually on Sunday night. Typically I sleep on them, do a final read in the morning, tweek 'em and shoot 'em off. This time, I wanted them in the editor's hands right away. Not sure if they're up yet because I'm typing from a computer that has trouble navigating the Blurt website. My review of  the Saint Rich album should be up there, though. Hopefully the Dot Wiggin article will be up soon too. I got that done last week. Now I'm just waiting to see if I have any upcoming review assignments elsewhere, or if I'm going to get to interview Nellie McKay before she comes to town in a couple weeks.

It'd be great if I could get up early on Thanksgiving and do some writing. We'll see if that'll happen.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Sebadoh and CACAW, caught live

Last Friday's Sebadoh show at Club Cafe sold out. I don't know if I can take any responsibility for that, but it was sold out the day that my City Paper article hit the street. So maybe.

Waiting outside for my friend Megan to show up, I could hear openers Octa#Grape rocking out inside. The bass lines reminded me of Sebadoh, with those thunderous, low end double stops anchoring the music. When I got inside, I understood why: Jake Loewenstein from Sebadoh was the man thundering away on the bass. The band played a brand of knotty, twisted indie rock that had a little bit of math and a lot of punk rock fueling them. There was some Sonic Youth-style breaks thrown in. Meanwhile guitarist/main singer Glen Galloway played a Silvertone guitar with no strap, holding it close to his chin, which reminds both of Gerry Marsden (of British Invasion footnote Gerry & the Pacemakers) and Don Cab/Storm & Stress guitarist Ian Williams (who, by sheer coincidence, I ran into earlier in the week since he is back in Pittsburgh temporarily).

Anyhow, it turns out Galloway and one other member (I forget which one) used to play in '90s indie rock band Truman's Water, who I saw on at least one occasion. Octa#grape put on a solid show, sweating profusely and churning out a heavy set that showed their own thing on.

While they were playing, Lou Barlow was in the back of the room working the merchandise table. It was a noble deed because he was likely deluged by gushing fans ready to pump his arm (myself included). For their new songs on his, Barlow played a four-string tenor guitar, which explains the unique sound of the band. One thing that the new album, Defend Yourself, reminded me was that Sebadoh rarely goes for the simple power chord approach in their songs, where guitar and bass copy each other. The guitar fleshes out the bass, which often doubles as a rhythm guitar when Loewenstein hits those double stops. And if they end up doing the post-hardcore attack in a song, it's usually one of Loewenstein's songs, which avoids going for the simple approach anyway.

This show (last Friday, Nov. 15) was the last night of their tour and the band - filled out by drummer Bob D'Amico - was cohesive and comfortable onstage. Barlow admitted his childhood love of Fred Rogers, wondering if he ever visited Club Cafe back when it was a jazz club. (He probably didn't because that was back in late '80s/early '90s.) Later he started singing jingles from '70s commercials for baby dolls (Baby Alive, Rub-a-dub Dolly). He also drew snickers from some audience members when he admitted that he was flying back home the next morning because "I love my children more [than Pittsburgh]." Screw all the hipsters who can't relate.

But on to the music. The set drew heavily from their previous work, with about half of Defend Yourself showing up in between. I opted to sit at the bar, where my view was obstructed, save for the heads of the singers. But the sound was really good and they were full of energy. Early on they seemed to be getting used to the sound but after awhile they ready to take up a notch, or three. It would have been cool to hear "The Freed Pig" or my favorite Loewenstein song from the new album, "Can't Depend," but there was plenty to sink the teeth into.

Something told me to take my earplugs with me to Thunderbird Cafe on Sunday and I was glad I did. CACAW was playing that night, a New York trio lead by keyboardist Landon Knoblock, with alto saxophonist Oscar Noriega (also a member of Tim Berne's Snake Oil) and drummer Jeff Davis. 

Knoblock has a plethora of keyboards, including some sort of electric piano, synth and some bass keyboard that was so loud that I was sure would vibrate my glass off of the table. Their music falls somewhere between solid post-rock, prog and free jazz. (Disclaimer - I feel a little funny rattling off that lingo-istic description, despite its accuracy.) 

Knoblock seems interested in ridding his instruments of their bad rep (cheesiness, for-fusion-only) and this band does a good job of that. The music pulls you in with a steady melody or groove, stretches it till if falls apart, then picks it back up again to close it out. On their Stellar Power CD, Noreiga's alto seems to be kind of restrained for the much of it. But he was on fire the other night, squealing and wailing as things picked up. (And he was still audible through the p.a. over that din of keys.) Davis did a lot to push the music too, with only a snare, floor tom, kick drums and various cymbals and things. 

I was really tempted to buy the vinyl version of the album, even though I already have the CD of it, so taken was I with the music. But it worked out because I just discovered that their label, Skirl, recently released another album by Endangered Blood, a band that also features Noreiga, as well as Chris Speed, Trevor Dunn and Jim Black. Their last album was one of my favorites of that year.

For a quick snippet of what the band is about, according to Knoblock, check this out

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Pitt Jazz Seminar Concert - a week later

It's been over a week since the 43rd Pitt Jazz Seminar Concert, but no one else that I've seen has printed a review. So it's still worth bringing up the concert. Besides, moments from that night are still stuck in my head.

The banner on the back of the stage called the evening "A Tribute to Nathan Davis." This founder of the concert was lauded numerous times throughout the evening, not the least of which was a short film chronicling his career in Paris and the work he did to keep this seminar and concert going each year once he came to the University of Pittsburgh. The man himself, though, was nowhere to be found in the Carnegie Music Hall that night. Which felt odd.

When the music finally started nearly after the film, pianist Geri Allen (soon to be Davis' successor at Pitt and organizer of the seminar this year) announced that the band would begin the evening with one of Davis' compositions, "If." After years of seminar concerts that began with uptempo hardbop classics like "Killer Joe," things started with a low-down swampy groove that was closer to Bitches Brew. Bassist Kenny Davis played a spare double-stop riff with the two drummers building on the groove together. Kassa Overall played on the toms while Jeff "Tain" Watts stayed on the snare side of his kit. With Allen on Fender Rhodes, all the evening needed was a bass clarinet and would've sounded like the classic Miles album. Instead there was Vincent Chandler - doing some rapid lines, all tongued - and vocalist Carmen Lundy - who would sing later but worked her voice like another instrument here, in a manner that worked. Even when the band broke into a steady 4/4 funk groove, it was clear that even though they were playing Davis' music, the Seminar had a new leader at the controls.

Jazz Seminar concerts typically had break-out groups following the first tune, with a ballad medley with various players each getting a solo song. Aside from tap percussionist Brinae Ali, who didn't come out until the second set, everyone stayed onstage the whole time (this is one of the first times I remember seeing chairs for all the musicians). Ernie Watts got a solo spot in "Invitation" where his unaccompanied intro and outro had fast lines (like Eddie Van Halen's "Eruption" transposed to tenor) and some upper register squeaks that could've come from an Albert Ayler solo. They nevertheless drew cheers from the crowd. Next, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave sat down center stage for a rich version of "Violets for Your Furs," which epitomized the overused description lyrical. The trumpeter moved slowly but played with the strength of a young player, tempered of course by the lyrical wisdom of a veteran.

Lundy sang two songs, neither of them standards, that weren't identified by name. The first began with her conducting the ensemble, who built up a wave of wildness before the tune kicked in. The second had a spoken word section that worked. Ravi Coltrane finally got a solo spot, with his rendition of Monk's "Epistrophy." It was similar to the version he recorded on Changing Times a few years ago, taking the A part of the song in a slightly non-4/4 time signature and going straight in the bridge. It seemed to confuse bassist Davis and drummer Overall during the head but they eventually locked in for his solo. (More often than not, Overall and Watts didn't play together for most of the evening.)

One of the reasons I was hoping to see a review of the concert was that in years past, the music typically veered towards the familiar. Granted, it was usually quality blowing, with a bit of showboating mixed in from some flashy soloists, but you always knew where you were. Plus, the set of tunes would be announced before they began. That wasn't the case on this night and further, the first tune of the second set didn't go into the theme until Watts opened up with some heavy rolls. It was easy to wonder what the traditionalists thought of the new format. Coltrane got complex, playing over a funky riff and then heading into double-time, while Allen's solo had some impressive voicings in the chords.

Ali came out and tapped on a square of wood that was miked to capture all the nuances of her shoes. She had an amazing feel for tempo, keeping it steady with Overall's brush work, in what sounded "Lover Man." Brecker also got a spotlight tune, playing his own "There's a Mingus A Monk Us," an idea of what would've happened if Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk had collaborated. He recorded the song in the '80s, which makes it a relative newbie in this case. Guitarist Russell Malone, who worked as support player through most of the evening, got a chance to stretch out with a fluid show piece during the second set too.

The evening closed with another Nathan Davis tune, "I Want to Be Free." Kenny Davis lead the proceedings again, soloing over funk before shaping things into a 4/4 groove with blues changes. Belgrave let fly with some serious blowing, Lundy freestyled a couple choruses impressively and Watts testified again in the upper register. The whole evening ran late, but no one was complaining. It seemed like the audience for the most part was happy to see what the future of the Seminar sounded like.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

CD Review: Tim Berne's Snakeoil - Shadow Man

Tim Berne's Snakeoil
Shadow Man

If Snakeoil, Tim Berne's 2012 debut for ECM, allowed label head Manfred Eicher and the alto saxophonist to reach a mutual agreement on how to combine the label's sound and the artist's rugged approach, #Shadow Man# puts the reins back in Berne's hand. This is classic Berne: jagged compositions with independent lines moving simultaneously, solos that shriek and continue while the foundation changes behind them (always evoking a soliloquy delivered along onstage as the set is shifted behind the speaker), passages that evoke beauty even when they feel ominous, and, as always, tight group interaction.

The writing can remind longtime Berne fans of other melodies from previous albums, but the difference comes in the direction the Snakeoil quartet takes them. Pianist Matt Mitchell has a strong presence, doing as much as Berne to frame the pieces. His challenging album of etudes, Fiction, makes more sense as a warmup exercise after hearing the rolling, fast piano opening to "Socket." Like the previous album, Shadow Man opens not with Berne, but with Mitchell giving a long exposition of phrases that hang in the air during "Son Of Not So Sure," before the structure slowly reveals itself.

Oscar Noriega's bass clarinet sounds great in this setting, stepping up in "Socket" and "Static" with only Mitchell to accompany him. In the latter, he really rises to a fevered pitch, while the former has him working through Mitchell's combination of stabbing chords and what sounds like chopped-up Bach phrases. Noriega also plays b-flat clarinet on the album as well.

Drummer Ches Smith creates an instant party whenever he turns up, but he adds even further to music by playing vibes on a few tunes. On "Son of Not So Sure," he sounds like he's distorting the instrument and getting a sustained tremolo out of it. "Cornered (Duck)" prove just how much this instrument can do to give Berne some extra edge. Further, there's rarely been a drummer on ECM that has bashed away like Smith does on "Socket."

Berne usually sticks with his own compositions or perhaps those of his bandmates. But Shadow Man includes a reading of Paul Motian's "Psalm." It's a short track among a sea of fairly long ones ("OC/DC" lasts 23 worthwhile minutes) and reveals both the saxophonist's reflective side in performance and a nod to his predecessors.

Monday, October 28, 2013

My Lou Reed Story

Sometime around 1983 or 1984, the National Record Mart in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood (which houses the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, Carlow College and was the inspiration for the setting of Michael Chabon's Mysteries of Pittsburgh) hosted a few in-store autograph appearances by musicians who were performing later that night. When X came to town, I took the bus to Oakland after school (I was still in high school at the time) armed with their first four albums and had them sign them. They were gracious and when I audaciously joked with John Doe to sign Wild Gift to "Darby Crash II," he responded by saying, "You've got a lot to live up to," and did it anyway.

Some time after that, Lou Reed came to town on tour for the New Sensations tour and did an in-store there. I came armed with two Velvets albums and two solo albums. When my turn came I handed him the stack and he asked, "What's your name?" I told him and he signed VU and Nico (with the banana peeled) "TO MIKE - Best Lou Reed."

"So, do you ever talk to John Cale anymore," asked our intrepid teenager.

"No," he shot back, scaring the bejesus out of me and making me realize how dumb a question it was.

As I trembled in my sneakers, his autograph reduced to a scribble on Metal Machine Music and Berlin, looking more like "Lou Lil" on both. After doing the same to my copy of White Light/White Heat - second or third generation, without the skull in the lower left corner (this comes into play in a minute; trust me) - he looked up.

"You know, there's a picture hidden on here. If you hold it under a light, you can see a skull right here," he said, pointing to the lower RIGHT corner.

"Uh-huh," I said, wanting to correct him, but fearing that he might jump up and grab me by my denim jacket and head-butt me or something. I probably ended with some big compliment, knowing that I had better get going before I got kicked out. Years later I heard that some people asked him to autograph skateboards and  a tennis shoe (the latter which was filled with autographs of other musicians) and he said, "I can't do that." Maybe I got off easy.

I also heard that when he came to town in 1990 for some show at Metropol that promoted Songs for Drella, he insisted that a couple he just met be allowed into the VIP room because "they're really sweet." Not a word you'd expect Lou to throw at anyone, let alone new friends.

A few years prior to the NRM experience, I bought my first Velvet Underground record: a budget compilation that MGM compiled from the first three albums. For a time, the chorus of "Sunday Morning" really sent me, when I heard Lou cooing the line, "Watch out/ the world's behind you." It sounded so innocent, yet truthful, the sweetness beneath all that piss and vinegar that I would meet head on a few years later. It was the summer before I started high school and I probably tried to attach some deeper meaning to it.

It doesn't seem possible that Lou Reed could die. But he has. He'd probably get annoyed with all the posthumous praise - especially everyone who thinks it's okay to say "he took one last walk on the wild side" - so I'll just act like he's still here.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Randy Weston in Pittsburgh

Watching Randy Weston play last night, it was easy to feel like the audience had a direct connection to the masters of this music. The pianist talked about his journeys to Africa, where he insisted on each stop that he meet the oldest musicians that we around. "Because, if you go to Africa to see what it's like now, what's the point," he said. By doing that, it clued him in to the origins of all music, which has been passed on from generation to generation, up until now.

But on my end, his attack at the piano sounded at times like his late friend, Thelonious Monk. And it's different than seeing a good pianist who's listened to a lot of Monk albums and digested them and been shaped by them. Not to discount anyone who does that, but Weston was there, hanging out with Monk in New York learning directly from him. So when he played "A Ballad for T" as an homage to him, complete with some allusions to "Ruby My Dear," you could sense the direct line. It was one of the many moments last night at the New Hazlett Theater that felt pretty heavy.

Weston came with his African Rhythm Quartet - bassist Alex Blake, alto saxophonist TK Blue, trombonist Robert Trowers and percussionist Neil Clark. The sound mix was a bit of an issue early on. Clark had trouble hearing the piano, which could have been a little louder in the main mix too. But the group was still tight. Blake sat down during the whole set, leaning his bass towards him, and strumming it much of the time like it was a bass guitar, getting a series of double-stops going. He probably had all four strings ringing a lot too. Clark's performance alone provided enough to visual qualities to the show. He had three conga drums, a few splash cymbals (that he most often played with his hands), one other type of drum and a battery of percussion. Blue and Trowers were both great soloists too. The saxophonist playing with a bright, tart tone that went into a soulful high wail during "African Sunrise" after stirring the crowd up with a circular breathing riff that built in suspense. Trowers was great a helping the mood shift in dynamics when he had to follow Blue or Weston. The Weston classic "Hi Fly" was played like a ballad and Trowers got plenty of space to make it move.

Then there was the pianist himself, still a tall drink of water at 6'9" (according to his book). He knees practically came up to the same level as the keyboard when he was sitting down. He is one of those rare pianists who can hit a chord a certain way and fill the room with a musical authority. The electricity was present. During his "Hi Fly" solo, the guys in the band stood at the opposite edge, watching the pianist intently.

Weston introduced all of the songs, and despite the potential to let the stories go on and get in a dialogue with the audience, he kept things concise. As he said to both me and the interviewer in the Post-Gazette, "The music is the star, not Randy Weston."

Friday, October 25, 2013


This was the first week back to work after a two-week staycation. Although I wish I would've been more visible here during that time, and I wish I also would've spent more time doing yard work, it was a pretty busy time on the writing front. I interviewed Randy Weston, Jake Loewenstein (of Sebadoh), Geri Allen and Robert Wyatt during that time (although the last two were done via email). Next week I'm scheduled to interview Ravi Coltrane and Dot Wiggin (of the Shaggs) on Monday. And I just realized - right as I typed - that I have band practice immediately following the interview with Dot. Oh well, that's life as a freelancer I guess.

The Coltrane interview might be published here. Wiggin is for Blurt. And the Randy Weston and Geri Allen chats are in the current issue of Pittsburgh City Paper. Go here and you can find both under the music column. Oh yeah, New York free jazz player Daniel Carter is coming to the Thunderbird next Wednesday. I have to check that out. Hope I can. I mean, the Bloomfield Halloween Parade is happening that night too. I'd feel like a bad parent if I didn't take the kid there. Unless it's pouring down rain, of course.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

CD Reviews: Albert Ayler, Paul Bley & Burton Greene Trio on ESP

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the infamous ESP label. They've been rereleasing more of their historical catalog, two of which are here, along with a new release. Find more info on all of them at
Albert Ayler 
Live on the Riviera

Less than five months after this performance at the Maeght Foundation, tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler was found dead in the East River. A year earlier, he recorded Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe, arguably the most misguided of all of his attempts at more accessible music. (More tracks from the same session came out later on The Last Album.) 

This performance, from July of that year, included some pieces from both albums, though Ayler was working with a trio format similar to his earliest 1960s days.  Allen Blairman (drums) and Steve Tintweiss (bass) might not exactly be Sunny Murray and Gary Peacock, but they support the saxophonist with great understanding and empathy. After umpteen live Ayler recordings where Michel Sampson's out of tune violin saws away at the music and spoils it (see the Revenant Holy Ghost box set for many details), it's refreshing to hear Ayler in an uncluttered setting. 

His girlfriend Mary Maria (Parks) is a steady presence here too, singing on a few tracks and blowing soprano sax with the group. Her performances are an acquired taste, especially in the pieces where she sounds like she's off-mike. The spoken word passages in "Music Is the Healing Force" recall the sincere but somewhat awkward messages of the era. Ayler's duet with her on "Heart Love" sounds like something out of an experimental musical and works for that reason. But her faux-calypso delivery on "Island Harvest," complete with the ad nauseum repetition of the chorus, can be avoided. Her rabid soprano blowing on "Oh! Love of Life" sounds closer to Captain Beefheart than her man.

Ayler's performance finds him at an interesting crossroads. Tracks like "Birth of Mirth," which included overdubbed bagpipes in the studio, captures him in his wailing glory on the tenor. But the later tracks, including his famous "Ghosts" which gets applause when the theme kicks in, sound much more grounded, as if he's trying to draw on his gutbucket blues side for solo ideas. 

Tintweiss provides some enthusiastic and vivid liner notes that recall the concert and the one that followed. Apparently keyboardist Call Cobbs was supposed to be with the band and didn't make it until the next show. The bassist also seems to make reference to the infamous hidden track on Holy Ghost where Parks tried to get the band's flight bumped up, claiming an Ed Sullivan Show appearance. 

Paul Bley

It doesn't seem like Closer has been out of print since ESP revamped itself in the '00s. So this copy is not much of a surprise, but it should be mandatory listening. Accompanied by Steve Swallow (bass) and Barry Altschul (drums), Bley - a unique pianist if there ever was one - explores the equally idiosyncratic works of his then-wife Carla Bley, along with one tune each by Ornette Coleman ("Crossroads"), future wife Annette Peacock ("Cartoon") and the pianist himself ("Figfoot"). In an unusual nod to brevity (or maybe it was hope for radio airplay; who knows) all of the 10 tracks clock in under three-and-a-half minutes. No time is wasted on these strong performances. A mandatory piece of the ESP canon.

Burton Greene Trio
On Tour

Pianist Greene's second album from ESP is the type that should be heard on disc instead of on a scratchy used copy you might find online somewhere. These live performances weren't recorded very loudly and there are a lot of sections where the music could get lost in sea of surface noise. The opening "Bloom in the Commune" includes three minutes that almost digress into John Cage silence. What's actually happening is the pianist is working the inside of his instrument, which isn't clear unless the volume is cranked up. (Greene is credited with "piano harp" in addition to plain old "piano.") Steve Tintweiss is the bassist here who's strong solo in "Ascent" also requires some volume tweaks. 

These four tracks come from the New York State College Tour from April 1966, which featured Sun Ra's Arkestra (yielding ESP's Nothing Is album, and a more recent two-disc set of an entire evening), Giuseppi Logan, Patty Waters (her College Tour album) and Ran Blake. While Greene's self-titled ESP debut benefited from the addition of Marion Brown's tart alto, this trio produced an impressible and rather varied set. After the rollicking freedom of the first two songs mentioned above, "Tree Theme" maintains a steady pulse as Greene and Tintweiss solo simultaneously.  Eventually the piece moves into a free section that reveals how these players can be delicate when they desired. "Transcendence" runs from pensive to thunderous with some more soft harp plinks from the leader.

Really Discovering Oscar Pettiford

On Friday, the Third Man Rolling Record Store was parked in my neighborhood, right by Mind Cure Records. Donovan and I went down to check it out, but changed our minds when we saw how long the line was. Actually, I changed minds for both of us, knowing that he's still not into all things connected to records yet.

Instead we walked up to the third floor of the building to the Copacetic Comic Book Store. He likes getting old comic books of Disney characters or the occasional Warner Bros cartoon characters. While he was looking around, Bill, who owns the store, started expounding to me about the Oscar Pettiford box set seen above. Bill's an enthusiastic guy so when he said the first two discs of this Proper set were incredible, it occurred to me that I don't have any Pettiford stuff. So I bought it. He was right.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

CD Review: Mostly Other People Do the Killing - Red Hot

Mostly Other People Do the Killing
Red Hot
(Hot Cup)

"Gum Stump," the penultimate song on Red Hot, begins with a duet/argument/conversation between trumpeter Peter Evans and saxophonist Jon Irabagon (on soprano this time). This feels like vintage Mostly Other People Do the Killing: beginning with a low volume of brass-induced feedback with soprano probes and growls that rise into a torrential downpour. When the duo cues in the rest of the band, the tune is not a hyper post-bop theme but a slow, dirty blues. Robert Johnson is sighted as an inspiration, but it also bears a resemblance to Jimmie Lunceford's classic take on "Blues in the Night" in tempo and gait.

MOPDtK leader/bassist/composer Moppa Elliot has targeted different periods of jazz on the band's previous albums. Less than a year ago, the quartet set their sights on smooth jazz with Slippery Rock. Rather than succumb to that music's trappings, Elliot borrowed elements from it that didn't resort to parody and made it their strongest effort in a while. For Red Hot he looks towards jazz of the '20s and '30s and comes up with another winner - maintaining his level of satire and a strong level of writing.

If the album cover didn't offer a definite indication, MOPDtK sprouted three more members for this session - bass trombonist David Taylor, pianist Ron Stabinsky and banjoist Brandon Seabrook. The additions simultaneously give the music a sound that recalls the early jazz era and twists it in just the right way. Nobody will ever mistake Seabrook for a staid plucker and his frenetic strumming is just right for the album's rapid changes in tempo and texture. Taylor, the veteran of this set who looks like the part on the album's cover, can blow the roof off the music or sound like a drunk victrola that needs to be wound up a couple times. Stabinsky takes a hint from drummer Kevin Shea, who once threw elements of classic drum solos into his own. In "King of Prussia," the pianist drops in "The Entertainer," Paul McCartney's awful "Let 'Em In," Joe Jackson's "Stepping Out" and a wild cluster that could be a direct quote from Cecil Taylor if not an homage.

The core group, and the writing of Elliott, should not be overlooked, of course. "The Shickshimmy Shimmy" begins with pep, but keeps alternating with a minor two-chord vamp, shifting things back and forth between the '20s and the Modal period. "Orange is the Name of the Town" picks up on the latter element when Stanbinsky evokes a McCoy Tyner or, more vividly, Lonnie Liston Smith thanks to the shimmer he puts on the heavy chord. The title track allegedly incorporates several songs by the Red Hot Chili Peppers (sorry, I'm not that hip) into a stomp with some double-time stride piano and, for the first minute, an ear-abusing wall of banjo feedback.

In addition to soprano, Irabagon also plays the C-melody saxophone on several tunes, getting the authentic sound which comes with a staccato attack and some choice vibrato. Shea maintains his manic personality on his kit (which this time around is a 1930s Slingerland set) getting a chance to provide a clattering solo in "Zelienople" before they group hits the swinging beat.

One of the things that attracted Elliott to the early style of jazz was the music's willingness to modulate when least expected, go into stop-time sections and have soloists all going at once - all of which could accurately describe modern, freer types of this music. By bridging the divide between these decades and styles, MOPDtK have topped themselves.

On top of that, the lengthy work of fiction that is the liner notes is a hoot too. Nuf said on that.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Meditations on Mingus

I'm on a two-week staycation from work. One of the goals of this break is to listen to and write about more music, here and elsewhere. Though there are a few CDs I'm almost ready to review here, I wanted to take an entry to talk about Charles Mingus. I bought the Mosaic Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-65 box right before Labor Day and I feel like it's given me an even greater perspective of its subject.

I've always loved Mingus and I have some of the stuff in the box, like the two long tracks that wound up on Town Hall Concert and the double-album Mingus at Monterey, which doesn't fade at the end of each side so much as end abruptly. Hearing these pieces along with the rest of the evening's performance (in the case of Town Hall) and without having to deal with cuts of any sort during the songs, is kind of illuminating. Mingus was always known for incorporating the influence of Duke Ellington, the passion of blues and the influence of the church all into his music. Early pieces like "Half Mast Inhibition" hinted at classical influence but it almost seemed like an aberration.

Through the seven discs of this set, Mingus does all that but there's also something bigger going on with the music. "Parkeriana" puts tribute to Charlie Parker by cramming as many Bird tunes in a small space as possible, but it's done with a reverential zaniness that is akin to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, or perhaps Mostly Other People Do the Killing. The musicians know this music inside-out. We're talking about Eric Dolphy, Clifford Jordan, Johnny Coles and later Charles McPherson and Lonnie Hillyer. Jaki Byard is the pianist throughout the box, and he's synonymous with a vast music history. So the groups manage to take these things to another level in a way that didn't otherwise happen on a bigger scale until a few decades later. It makes you understand why Mingus was bitter about not getting more recognition at the time.

Then there's "Meditations on Integration" aka "Praying with Eric" aka "Meditations on a Pair of Wire Cutters," the lengthy epic which begins with a stirring flute melody with goes on to several horn solos and tense riffs and haunting rubato moments. "Fables of Faubus" is a great tune off of Mingus Ah Um and the vocal version on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (on Candid) might have turned it into something with a bit of novelty (yes, the subject of the racist governor of Arkansas is no laughing matter but the exchanges between Mingus and drummer Dannie Richmond were on the light side). But here it gets stretched out to 30 minutes, with each soloist getting an extended section to cut loose. You want free jazz that's two inches from careening off the rails? Here's your chance.

Although I haven't listened to the 1965 Monterey set as much as the rest, it has some dense compositions that also clue you in that Mingus was trying to push himself beyond "Meditations" into something even bigger. As his widow writes in the booklet, the performances get a little sloppy but it still leaves a strong impression. This set was cut short was an earlier act ran overtime (Mingus' former saxophonist John Handy, ironically). A few nights later the whole set was played, recorded and later released as Music Written for Monterey, 1965, Not Heard...Played in Its Entirety at UCLA. Now I want to find a copy of that.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Matt Mitchell - Fiction

Matt Mitchell

The first time I played Fiction, I came to it blindly, listening while I did some unrelated work without knowing the music's origins. Before the six-minute opener "Veins" was even complete, my teeth were gnashing. It was a complex, highly dissonant set of piano clusters that kept changing time signatures, but still kept repeating in its own unique knot. The tracks that followed were equally abrasive, with Mitchell's piano banging away and Ches Smith aiding and abetting him on drums and occasionally vibes. Was this contemporary new music mixed with free jazz and a healthy dose of irreverence?

As it turns out, Mitchell composed these brief numbers (most clock in around four minutes) not as performance pieces but as etudes to practice in order to get his chops warmed up. There are a lot of intervallic leaps and they require deep concentration, so they succeed in that regard. Drummer Smith, who plays with Mitchell in Tim Berne's Snakeoil band, started playing along with Mitchell during pre-show warmups so it was a natural that he join the pianist in the studio.

Hearing the music in context, it makes more sense. Practice pieces can be go either way for the listener, as something dazzling in its virtuosity or technical and unexciting for the listener. The locked-hands ugly chords of "Brain Color" sound intriguing. While the brief "Tether" seems like a mutant strain on "Epistrophy," "Action Field" goes on for nearly 11 minutes, rising to a climax and staying there for a couple minutes before finishing. The presence of Smith adds shape to the music, as if to prove this isn't just a series of spontaneous thoughts coming from Mitchell's head. Smith's accompaniment varies too, going from full-kit crashes and gentle rim taps to the use of the vibes to add to the melody. Sometimes Smith moves between both settings, like in "Commas," where he gets a distorted, tremelo sound on the vibes briefly.

Mitchell clearly has an impressive command of his instrument but in the end, the 15 tracks here are still exercises. If he went into any improvisations on the forms, they are hard to discern. What's easier to notice is the repetition. "Narcotic Bases" breaks from the pack with a melody in the upper register of the piano, but it comes with no variation on the melody in four minutes.

In the end, it's interesting to hear how Mitchell prepares himself for a performance with a rigourous workout. But the warm-up would be more interesting in small doses, preferably interspersed with the main event.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

MacArthur Genius Grant Award - The Masses Gripe

Playing right now: Living By Lanterns
The good news is I accidentally figured out that all my music IS on my phone and ready to play. This morning I was using my phone to try and find something in the dark when somehow the "music" application got triggered. No music started blasting, luckily, a la what you'd see in a cartoon, but I saw a bunch of playlists. Hooray for me and my happy accidents.

The band news is that the bile has started flowing on Facebook about the fact that Vijay Iyer getting a MacArthur Genius grant. Now I love me some Vijay Iyer. I don't need to go into detail here because there are plenty of posts on this blog that talk about him. But one pissed off pianist said that he had never heard Iyer so he checked out a youtube video of him and thought he didn't swing, there was no melody, blah blah blah.

Has it come to this, that we're basing a musician's quality on how a youtube video sounds? It's bad enough that no one has the time to listen to music on a decent stereo anymore - but a goddam youtube video? That's like saying "I heard Funkadelic on my transistor radio and they weren't that interesting." And then there are posts saying, "Well, we don't really know what the criteria is with the MacArthur grant so you know there's really no way of knowing he deserves the award or not."

It's reasons like this that I try to stay off Facebook. People love to complain. About everything. Without social media, it can be easy to miss. With Facebook there's a good chance that the piss and vinegar will clog up your news feed and you feel like you're driving past a train wreck and your base instincts just have see how bad the carnage looks. Suddenly 20 minutes go by, you've wrestled with the thought of adding a comment, but you're worried a. about getting 20 emails with followup comments to yours and b. about getting angry thoughts from some musician who doesn't know you.

Of course, when I say, "you," I mean "me."

Friday, September 27, 2013

Waste of Time

Playing right now: Matthew Shipp - Piano Sutras

Every morning I've tried to get up early and do my usual thing of getting some writing done or at least listen to some music and take notes for a review. Over the past couple days I've tried to get iTunes all set up on my phone so that I can listen to music all the time without having to deal with the discman.

Well, it ain't working. I'm alternating between looking up instructions online and winging it. A few nights ago I had to download iTunes onto my laptop THREE TIMES before I finally got the "right" one. Now all of the songs are in iTunes on the laptop (which is good cuz I like it better the Windows Media). But I still can't get them onto the phone.

The week after next I'm taking two weeks off from work and I'm really looking forward to the possibility of getting a bunch of writing done. Writing here as well as yardwork and laundry. You know - mundane crap that's not really interesting to read about but fulfilling to me.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

CD Review: Mary Halvorson Septet- Illusionary Sea

Mary Halvorson Septet
Illusionary Sea
(Firehouse 12),

After recording one album with her trio (bassist John Hébert, drummer Ches Smith), guitarist Mary Halvorson expanded the group to a quintet by adding Jon Irabagon (saxophone) and Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) on the next two. The addition brought more contour and texture to her already thoughtful music, that blended a unique strain of progressive rock sounds with a vocabulary influenced by her studies and work with Anthony Braxton.

For her fourth album, Halvorson has blown out the group even further with the addition of Ingrid Laubrock (tenor saxophone) and Jacob Garchik (trombone). It's hard to tell if the instrumentation abetted the creation of the music or the music gains new perspective through the instrumentation, but Illusionary Sea undoubtedly in the strongest release yet from the Halvorson unit so far.

One thing that gives the album such a wide sound can be attributed to the way the horns are panned between the speakers. Finlayson and Irabagon sit in the left channel, Halvorson is in the middle with Laubrock close to her, and Garchik to the right. They sometimes feel very orchestral, with various combinations of instruments playing lines that are answered or developed by other players. Some pieces have a lyrical ballad quality ("Red Sky Still Sea," "Fourth Dimensional Confession"), which are just as likely to sound written-through as they are to go into guitar solos with psychedelic sounds and a pedal drone.

Illusionary Sea is an album that can leave you feeling both satisfied and intrigued after the first listen or two, knowing that more nuances are going to reveal themselves with each return to it. Halvorson's playing has gotten more unique, leaping from chords to single line solos that bend and crinkle in little places ("Smiles of Great Men") with ease that reveal added skill in the use of her effects. When she kicks on the distortion and bends the pitch in the final moments of "Four Pages of Robots" the sounds are used as a strong reinforcement of the piece, perhaps alluding to what the title represents.

The album ends with a cover of guitarist Philip Catherine's "Nairam," which Robert Wyatt recorded as "Mary Anne" on his excellent Shleep album. Halvorson based her arrangement on that version, picking out the foundation on the guitar while the horns play a melody that is both tranquil and slightly off-kilter with a mix of sweet harmonies and gentle clashes. Lest anyone get other ideas about her intentions, she begins with an almost mischievous intro of tones that she scrambles and transforms into satellite noise with her effects pedals. It's a perfect way to end this unique ride.

Anyone new to Halvorson who doesn't know where to begin exploring her work as both a leader and supporting player should start with this album, which has all her best traits on display.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

You Should've Seen Lina Allemano

Lina Allemano's quartet played a great show last night at the Thunderbird. I previewed them in City Paper last week and had talked to this Toronto-based trumpet player, who was well-spoken and funny. But the set they played kind of exceeded expectations that I had after hearing their recent live CD.

While the lineup seems like it could be compared to Ornette Coleman's original quartet (trumpet, alto, bass, drums) Allemano's writing really isn't like that. When they moved past the themes, they sounded a little closer to Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch anyway. Allemano liked to blast out some high notes that would hang in the air and it reminded me of what Freddie Hubbard did on that album. (All you armchair Freddie fans will know that Out to Lunch is pretty much an aberration in his career.) Brodie West had a great approach to the alto too, mixing crisp lines with upper register wails that were added as necessary. If I had kept with that horn, it might have been the way I would have played.

There was a good attentive crowd for the Thunderbird's Space Exchange event, which hosted the band. Typically the weekly thing hosts one of four local guys who bring a project of their own, or "sponsor" another musician. Ben Opie brought Allemano in since it was his week. (He sat in for an Ornette song in both sets which, incidentally, still didn't make them sound too much like Mr. Harmolodic's past. Guess they do it differently in Toronto). It was good to see a fair number of people there checking out the show, including some who didn't look like "typical" fans of adventurous jazz.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Too Late for the Show

I was out of town in Baltimore for work until last night. It was a good time but I completely missed Mission of Burma last night. That's the second time they've come to Pittsburgh and I've missed them. The last time happened when I was in Detroit for the first time at the Jazz Festival. I'm crushed and disappointed. Now that I've got it out of my system, maybe I'll start feeling a little better.

Monday, September 09, 2013

CD Review: Revolutionary Ensemble - Counterparts

Revolutionary Ensemble

From their earliest recordings in the 1970s to this - their final performance in 2005 - the trio of Leroy Jenkins (violin), Sirone (bass) and Jerome Cooper (drums and for this performance, balaphone, chiramia and Yamaha synth) were pretty revolutionary. Their music fit under the broad term of avant-garde jazz, but it wasn't simply free blowing (or "bowing" as the case was). Jenkins might have played a lot in the upper register but he rarely resorted to scraping and scratching to make a point. Between Sirone and Cooper, there was usually some sort of pulse moving things along too. Plus, their compositions (all of them wrote) drew from beyond jazz to other exotic styles of music.

That being said, this live set from Teatro Gustavo Modena in Genoa, Italy is not for the casual listener. They dynamics and frequencies alone put the music in a different light. Cooper's trap kit also sounds like it was recorded from overhead microphones, giving emphasis to his ride cymbals at the expense of the whole kit.

Sirone begins his "Configuration" with a bass vamp, which is picked up by Cooper. Jenkins enters and proceeds to dance all over the music, taking liberties with time but still interacting with his comrades. In the violinist's "Sufi Tales" he spins a sweet melody slowly over the rhythm section.

The 16-minute "My Birds" begins with composer Cooper on balaphone, an African version of the xylophone, with Jenkins plucking staccato notes. Through its time, it moves through several sections. Cooper moves to the drums and on to the reedy sounding chiramia. Sirone keeps a low profile while the violinist goes into a descending melody line and later takes a free, loose solo. The keyboard sounds pre-programmed since it keeps reappearing while Cooper is occupied somewhere else, adding a section like droning strings. The instrument has a little more weight than what's normally heard from these keyboards in their kinds of settings.

With that piece conquered, they cut loose on the wild "Berlin Ertarhung." "Fulfillment," credited to all three of them, sounds like a group improv, complete with a bit of noisy bowing from Jenkins. At just four minutes, it serves as a rousing conclusion to a performance and, sadly, to the group itself, since Jenkins passed away in 2007, followed by Sirone in 2009.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Freedom for the moment

It took all week but I finally finished a recap of Detroit for JazzTimes. Actually it didn't take all week, it several days. But in addition to that, I had to immediately start working on a City Paper story as soon as I got back on Tuesday. I meant to take my recorder with me to Detroit and transcribe an interview with Toronto trumpeter Lina Allemano. She's coming to Pittsburgh (FOR A FREE SHOW!) on September 17 and I didn't think hard enough about the timing of my deadline. It would've been perfect because I had a lot of downtime on the last day. Oh well.

So I whipped up that piece by Wednesday morning. And now the Festival recap is done. It's too bad I have to work today. Now I can get through more of the Mingus box.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Detroit Jazz Festival - Monday

Well, I made the final walk of the season from Hart Plaza (where the festival stages are located) back to the Marriott. The next time I leave the premises, I'll be in a shuttle headed to the airport tomorrow. Kinda bittersweet. I went up to my room to get the laptop (because there's only free wireless in the lobby, where I am now) and on the way past the front desk I ran into Lee Konitz. Last night I told Jennie that if I crossed paths with him, I'd tell him that I love him.

I didn't.

But I did tell him I love his work. And that he was great tonight. I do love him, by the way. If you see him, tell him.

JazzTimes hosted a great talk this afternoon about the history of Detroit, with James Carter, JD Allen, Geri Allen and George Bohannon talking about growing up here, what the school atmosphere was like, how they were exposed to all kinds of music. It was a great talk, but I had to split to catch most of Quest's set. Mssrs. Liebman and Beirach were at it again, this time with bassist Ron McClure and drummer Billy Hart in tow. During "Redial," Liebman seemed so swept up in Beirach's piano solo that he leaned his head back into the piano (he was sitting at the time). The saxophonist blew my mind when I recognized that melody he was playing on the bamboo flute - a slow, deliberate version of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman."

Terrell Stafford's quintet was the epitome of tightness. Solid chops, good arrangements. Plus they were doing Billy Strayhorn tunes. But it wasn't anything that I haven't heard before: head, horn solo, piano solo, bass solo, trading fours with the drums. They were good but it made me restless. So I trekked back up Woodward to the stage where the Robert Glasper Experiment was scheduled to play.

I didn't dig the Glasper crew's album but they sounded great on the Lettermen show so I thought I'd give them another chance. I wish I had given Stafford more time because Glasper was way late setting up. I only got to hear two songs. Glasper introduced the first as Bette Midler's "The Rose." After a couple seconds he said he was only kidding. A couple people in the crowd had gotten excited and he had to razz them about that. The first song was okay, groovy and repetitive but it made me want to hear TV on the The Radio. When Casey Benjamin stopped doing the vocoder singing and picked up the alto - which was going through a harmonizer that added an extra note - things started to take off. Unfortunately I did too, because I had to see Konitz.

Glad I did. It was pretty astounding how he can not only take standards and make them new, he makes them brand new songs. He probably draws from a set of about 10 songs but I swear they're different each time. His tone is so vocal and romantic - definitely not schmaltzy as he stated yesterday. I love "Out of Nowhere" anyway, but hearing him and Tepfer play Lennie Tristano's "317 East 32nd Street" really blew me away. Ray Drummond was a solid bassist and Matt Wilson was a great accompanist and slight humorist, playing with two brushes and one stick during "Body and Soul" or something like that. If only the sun hadn't been so damn hot.

There were a few shows that closed the evening out, but I decided to torture my backside and stay on the stone steps of the Absopure Pyramid Stage and catch Marcus Belgrave's Trumpet Call. Belgrave is a longtime Detroit fixture (though I didn't realize until tonight that he wasn't born here.) Since mentoring and remembering roots seemed to be a recurring theme all weekend, I figured this gravelly voiced guru was the person to wrap up the festival for me.

Not only did he have six trumpets (including himself) paying homage to Pops, Dizzy, Thad Jones and Clifford Brown, he had plenty of long stories to add between the songs. I'm not judging. Definitely not hating because it was cool hearing about what happened when Belgrave crossed paths with Bud Powell and worked with Clifford Brown before Brownie became the amazing player that he was.

The only damper to the whole day was that after being here all this time, I finally decided to take my discman with me, and listen to music as I walked around. Sure enough, the first place I stopped, I dropped in on the concrete and messed up the face of it, so I can't see what track is on or how much time is left. Sure it plays, but without that info, it might as well be broken. Oh well.

Time for some hooch before I get ready for a 7:15 lobby call.

Detroit Jazz Festival - Sunday

Translating pop music into jazz is dangerous territory. The source material isn't always built for greater harmonic or melodic interpretation. The result often lead to a few choruses of a simple melody with a little bit of embellishment and a hope that listeners will remember the original songs.

Several jazz musicians have interpreted the Beatles and they usually fall short. Unfortunately, guitarist Bill Frisell fell into that category yesterday as well. His All We Are Saying Project, an exploration of John Lennon tunes, had some moments of bliss, but too much of it was stuck in a slow, Pink Floyd-like tempo in which drummer Kenny Wolleson was content to do the Ringo shtick (bobbing in his seat like the affable drummer as well) instead of putting more of his own thing into it.

Every song had a long, undulating intro which was fine initially, when the group unfolded "Across the Universe." But a slow 6/8 riff had me worrying for a couple minutes, "Oh, no, they're not doing 'Working Class Hero,' are they?!" (It turned out to be "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away.") Then it seemed to happen with every song. "Come Together" felt turgid, "In My Life," not much greater.

When the group (filled out by violinist Jenny Scheinman, bassist Tony Scherr, pedal steel whiz Greg Leisz) did the post-Beatles song "#9 Dream" things clicked, since the song has several distinctly weird parts and a melody that's dreamy and rich. Leisz did some nice howling too. The same held true for "Strawberry Fields Forever" which like the opening of the set, had Frisell imitating the backwards guitar sound of that John and George perfected the old-fashioned way. Frisell cleverly closed the set with a rubato take on the project's complete lyric rather than launching into a whole "Give Peace A Chance." It provided a suitable ending, but too much in between felt a little thin.

Prior to their set, the Carhartt Amphitheater hosted a tribute to a Detroit native son, baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams. Three baritones shared the stage: Gary Smulyan, Howard Johnson and Frank Basile. The set focused on solo spotlights and unison themes, but it was great hearing those three horns coming together. Highlights included a Duke Ellington medley of "Lotus Blossom," "Chelsea Bridge" and "Sophisticated Lady," with each guy taking a turn. Basile was clearly the youngest guy of the bunch, Johnson know not only for his baritone but for his tuba work on hundreds (maybe) of albums. Smulyan is becoming synonymous with this festival in my eyes, probably because of 2011's Dave Holland Big Band show in the Marriott bar.

Then it was off to see Warren Wolf, who was astounding on the vibes and marimba. The part of his set that I saw drew on classical and the influence of the Modern Jazz Quartet, but there was plenty of space for some rapid runs down the vibes. "Wolfgang" was a highlight, where he brought up pianist Aaron Diehl. Things started slow and pensive before shifting to a blue and syncopated groove.

Dave Liebman was back, this time with his friend/pianist Richie Beirach. More about them after today, because they're playing with their band Quest. Lee Konitz was a gruff but engaging fella in a talk and performance with his collaborator Dan Tepfer, in the Jazz Talk Tent. When it sounded like someone was tapdancing outside the booth, Konitz stopped what he was doing, walked to the back of the tent to go out and find the offender and silence them. He didn't find them but the noise did stop.

Later in the evening, I tried to get back to the below ground Pyramid Stage to see the Cookers, but couldn't get close enough to even see the band. I was tempted to hang out and just listen because they hit with a bang and sounded solid. But I really wanted to get a good seat for Ravi Coltrane so sitting there and waiting seemed like the best bet.

And Coltrane was great. He had Dezron Douglas on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums, and those two were locked into each other. David Virelles, who keeps popping up everywhere (his own Pi album, on Chris Potter's last ECM disc) and he was good here. Their set seemed to fly by, and I could've gone for more. The final piece of the evening was a crazy re-imaging of Charlie Parker's "Segment," which not only had Coltrane on sopranino, but had the bass and drums playing a 5/4 ostinato. Nuts.

Speaking of nuts, that was the scene at Volt, the Marriott bar last night. There were too many people here and the fire marshall came. They seemed pretty cool and laidback, but the music was shut down and everyone drifted back to their room after midnight.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

CD Review: John Coltrane - Sun Ship: The Complete Session

John Coltrane
Sun Ship: The Complete Sessions

When listening to John Coltrane’s individual albums, each stage of his evolution seems like a quantum leap. It was as if he was doing something different every time he went into the studio. But upon hearing The Classic Quartet: The Complete Impulse Recordings, which placed all of the studio session from their most innovative period in chronological order, it was easier to pick up on the way their sound made a gradual evolution. It didn’t necessarily take away from the idea that Coltrane was a musical genius. Rather it proved that a genius doesn't earn that distinction without taking the human steps to get there.

Sun Ship: The Complete Sessions develops this idea a little further. It gathers together the entire session that would be released in 1971, four years after Coltrane’s death. Along with alternate takes of Sun Ship’s five tracks, it includes “inserts,” where the band plays from a certain point in the song with the idea that they’d be edited into the master performance after the fact. Four years before Miles Davis and Teo Macero started taking a razor blade to studio performances and editing them, Coltrane was already envisioning something like this for his own work. Sometimes it’s nice to see the human side to a musical deity.

Sun Ship was not one Coltrane’s strongest sessions, though it’s far from lackluster. It shows how the quartet's "tunes" often were, as one of the band members once said, little more than scales that Coltrane put in front of the band. "Dearly Beloved," the first song they recorded, is a flowing minor scale, or mode, that begins with an impassioned cry and finds him building on these ideas. Done in four takes, there are two complete versions, along with a breakdown and a false start.  

"Attaining," which follows, has a similar rubato feel at the beginning but switches to another mode after Elvin Jones' typically exciting drum break. The piece eventually locks into a medium tempo swing with a strong solo from pianist McCoy Tyner. These selections offer some intrigue to Coltrane buffs as the version that appeared on the original album began with the second of the two complete takes, and finished with an insert - which itself was edited for the release. While both of these two pieces are good, it shows running order can elevate the music. ("Attaining" and "Dearly Beloved" were on different sides of the album.)

The rather intense staccato title track had a slightly different execution in the complete alternate take, and the master from the original album restores a loud closing statement from Jones. "Ascent" took a little more work, as Jimmy Garrison wanted to devote more time to his stop-start bass solo, and Coltrane had the group do several inserts that capture him in a pretty intense mood. As it turned out, Take 1 was the best they did, although they left off about 90 seconds of solo bass, which of course gets restored here. 

Two takes of "Amen" were recorded, Take 1 being chosen and released with no edits. The only reason it seems that one was chosen over the other might have to do with the fact that Trane uses a couple licks in Take 2 that he had already used in "Vigil," a fiery drums-and-tenor duet (one of my personal favorite Coltrane tracks) that had been recorded a month earlier. You can't blame a guy for throwing them in (heck, Eric Dolphy did it every time he played alto) and it proves yet again that this music did not spring from the horn of its own accord but was the result of careful preparation.

Though they're brief, Coltrane fans will probably get a rise out of the studio talk between tracks and during breakdowns. Known for his seriousness, we hear Coltrane laughing a bit with producer Bob Thiele, who references the title "Ascension" when the saxophonist announces "Ascent." Before "Sun Ship" had a title, they jokingly refer to it as "Yeah," after Coltrane says as much. Interesting also that he refers to Garrison as "James" rather than "Jimmy" as all the albums listed him.

Besides Charlie Parker, John Coltrane is probably one of the few jazz musicians that people love to analyze closely. This two-disc set (or three records if you splurge for the $90 Mosaic set) will definitely satiate those fans. The casual listener, who doesn't feel the need to own everything he ever did, can probably live without it. But it's still pretty enjoyable.

Detroit Jazz Festival: Saturday

While walking up Woodward Avenue yesterday toward one of the Jazz Festival stages, a busking saxophonist was playing Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk." Coming back down the street a little later, a different saxophonist was playing "Take Five." I walked the block several times yesterday and was wondering if I'd pass another guy playing "Pick Up Sticks," but no such luck.

Every year when I come here, it seems like there's a set or two that gets me really caught up in the moment, like, "Okay, now I've arrived." This time it came yesterday with saxophonist JD Allen and his trio. This guy was amazing, playing tunes that had a sort of repetitive groove to them, but he and his bandmates took them to really complex places. At times it was almost like a hybrid of Motown grooviness and a Coltrane-style vision that constantly reshaped the ideas. Considering that Allen is from Detroit, maybe that's not too far off.

They played for about 75 minutes and it was almost too much of a good thing. Allen didn't stop. One tune segued into another. Drummer Jonathan Barber was an integral part of what made the group so powerful. He constantly played the whole kit, moving over it, keeping the music at a high level, spurring Allen on. Dezron Douglas gave it a strong foundation too, with some beautiful double-stops. Note to self: pick up Allen's latest album Grace.

Prior to Allen, I went to a talk by Peter Pullman, who just published a biography about Bud Powell called Wail. He was a really great speaker who helped to convey the energy of Powell's playing and talked frankly about his life. During the Q&A section, I asked a question about how long it took to write the book and how he narrowed his scope, and he complemented me on my good questions.

Pianists Renee Rosnes and Bill Charlap (who are also husband and wife) played a set of duos, which had a lot of impressive interplay. They were swapping soloist and accompanist roles not just between choruses but within a few bars of each other. I particularly liked their version of Monk's "Off Minor," which kept a good feeling for the composer throughout the piece and also had the roar of his big band version of the song when they got to the bridge of the tune.

For my parent's sake, I had to check out the Four Freshman, since they are fans from way back when. If my mother was here (in Detroit, that is; she's style alive and well in Pittsburgh), she would have loved the fact that the trademark Freshman harmony was resonating off the buildings in downtown. None of the guys in the group are original Freshman. In fact none of the originals are alive anymore. But these guys have the sound down pat. So much so that I ended up catching a lot more of their set that I had anticipated.

Charles Lloyd with Bill Frisell was after that. That set provided an example of how somebody can sound understated but still play with a lot of fire. Lloyd has a unique, rich tone and plays in a kind of understated way, but it's still heavy. Getting to see Bill Frisell after years of hearing him on record was a treat. All that guy has to do is hit a chord and he has you, thanks to his unique tone.

I should have known that McCoy Tyner would draw a massive crowd and that finding a seat would be next to impossible. But immediately after Lloyd, I made the trek back down Woodward to Hart Plaza. I had to squat down by the barricade to the VIP section to get a decent view. Tyner was thundering away over a "Love Supreme"-type bass vamp. Then he brought out Savion Glover to dance with the group. It was an interesting combination, Glover's feet acting like a percussion instrument. By my legs were hurting and the trio was playing the same riff as the last song. So I kept moving.

The Saxophone Summit group was the last official group of the evening and while they were a good time, it wasn't quite what I hoped. At times the rhythm section didn't seem all together. Dave Leibman was amazing every time he soloed, but I was expected a little more from Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane. The final tune they did was John Coltrane's "India" with the younger Trane blowing some sopranino, which provided a nice contrast with Leibman. But the tempo just seemed a little too fast after awhile. That tune feels like it should be a little more languid. I'll chalk it up to sound mix on stage. Maybe they couldn't hear each other too well.

During one of the trips down Woodward, I was walking with one of the promoters and some other guy who looked like he might be a writer for some magazine. Turns out he's my editor for JazzTimes, Lee Mergner. I've written for him for about 11 years and this was the first we met. Later in the evening, I found him in the corner where I'm sitting right now and we got acquainted.

Here's JD's trio:

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Detroit Jazz Festival - Friday Night

The “cool” jazz fan has become something of a cliché at this point in time. The laidback attitude, the mumbled thoughts, the generally subdued delivery — it all represents a fan who doesn’t feel the need to go crazy about the music, at least externally.

So it got a little old last night at the opening ceremony for the 34th Annual Detroit Jazz Festival when mc’s repeatedly told the audience, “C’mon, I can’t hear you,” or “What?!” We’re here. We dig it. We don’t need to yell any louder than we already have. And maybe we’re worried about the rain. (More on that later.)
The first time I came to the Detroit Jazz Festival four years ago, pianist Danilo Perez was here with Wayne Shorter’s Quartet. Later that evening, I was privy to the info that he signed with the Mack Avenue label just prior to performing. Fast forward to this year and Perez is the festival’s Artist-in-residence, who has spent the last year teaching workshops and master classes. His group Panama 500 premiered a series of pieces blending his Panamanian roots with African counter rhythms (two percussionists in addition to trap player) and Asian melodies (violin and, later in the set, alto saxophone) played the melodies.

With audience participation being a recurring theme of the evening, the pianist insisted on having everyone sing “one note” to begin a piece, which created a chorus of atonal droning, with a few people adding operatic notes into the morass. He didn’t explain his reasoning for this, but kept pointing at us, somewhat like Harpo Marx, which kept it from getting ridiculous. At times things seemed a little tentative. Perez even admitted a few of the pieces weren’t rehearsed. But when they got into a groove, they really got into it with ferocity. Even when things were on shaky ground, the group’s energy ran high.

The idea of tenor saxophonist David Murray performing with Macy Gray might seem incredulous on paper, but these two work pretty well together. Although mention was made of them having done Ellington tunes together, the band took the stage playing music that was pure Murray. In the 10-piece horn section, the first tenor soloist (names forthcoming) squonked with the same fire as the band leader. Trumpet and trombone solos were equally far out. And after an unaccompanied baritone sax solo, the tune morphed into a blues, with Murray taking a wild and wooly solo to show how it’s done.

Then out came, Ms. Gray, a sight to see with all that hair, a red boa and a purple sleeveless dress with gloves to match. Her hit “Try” was revamped for the band and given a solid swing treatment. She sang three songs with the band, each of them reaching close to 10 minutes. While it seems a little long to keep the groove going, it did leave some decent blowing time for the horn section. With Jaribu Shahid (bass) and Nasheet Waits (drums) in the rhythm section, it was no surprise either. Some of the old folks in the audience didn’t seem to dig it, as they split after the first tune.

More people made the exodus after Gray left the stage, with probably had less to do with the show and more to do with the lightning flashes which were getting closer to us. It was their loss because the band got really funky with a piece Murray back-announced as a James Blood Ulmer tune, “Talk About Jesus,” which was one of the most exciting things to be put down all evening.

As they prepared to go into the next tune, the rain hit. As I was making my way out, it sounded like they were making an announcement that the set was going to stop. But by then, it was already starting to pour and the quarter mile walk to the hotel seemed like an eternity

Weatherwise, things look cloudy but hopeful this morning. I bought a poncho just in case.