Monday, July 15, 2013

Belle and Sebastian visit Highland Park

Let's see if blogging will get the Verizon guy - now 2 hours and 22 minutes past his window of arrival time - to show up.

Belle and Sebastian played in Pittsburgh on Saturday. It was their first time in town, and my first time ever at Stage AE. Decent place, I suppose. They get you coming and going the way other big outdoor venues do, but it didn't seen as rigid and staffed by meatheads the way that place in Burgettstown is. (I"m not even sure of the name of that place anymore.)

After driving all the way over there to find that all of the overpriced parking garages and lots were full, Jennie and I rode over to the far side of the North Side, past the Warhol Museum, up and around the corner, near East Ohio Street and the Priory (if the latter is still there, anymore). Then we walked back.

We missed maybe the first 15-20 minutes of Yo La Tengo but still got a heavy, heavvvvvvvvvy dose of droning rock. We heard the drone in E, the drone in A, the long riff in D.... Seriously, it was a pretty decent time. I think I was just wiped out after a day of work, not having dinner before I left and the struggle of getting there. (The Pirates were playing too, which explains the lack of parking.) And every song started to sound like the grand finale of the set, with all the surging, churning chords and feedback. Maybe it's like a Cecil Taylor performance, where you must be there for the beginning because it won't make as much sense entering late.

But when Belle and Sebastian hit the stage, they had the audience from the first high register chug of the bass. Yo La Tengo had been a slow build up to what was now going into overdrive. The sound was great, the band was tight - seven of them, along with four string players and a trumpet/French horn player. Most significantly, Stuart Murdoch was incredibly charming. Very light-hearted and engaging.

He broke the ice by making cracks about the flashing Bayer sign on the side of Mt. Washington, which kept flashing "instructions" as he called them. "Wear your safety goggles" was the one that got the first laugh. "When should you wear your safety googles," he wondered. "During a sexual experience?" (I'm paraphrasing.) Earlier in the day, he jumped on a PAT bus to see where it would take him, because he likes getting lost and trying to find his way back. He wound up in Highland Park, where he came across a lot of yard sales, though he didn't buy anything. Kind of makes me wonder what most B&S fans would do if they spotted him walking about Highland Park. Probably nothing because they wouldn't recognize him.

Another cool moment came when he started talking baseball, and appreciating the Pirates, leading to a two-chorus rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," complete with keyboardist Chris Geddes using a ballpark organ voice on his keyboard. In someone else's hands, this would have been cheesy, but it only made Murdoch an even more likable person.

I'm not completely up on the post-Isobel Campbell run of albums that B&S did, so I don't know how much they played from Dear Catastrophe Waitress and Sing About Love. Also, when I interviewed Geddes for City Paper he mentioned that they might be doing a few new, as-of-yet-unreleased songs. So they might have shown up too. Regardless, the group energy and fun never dissipated.

By the time they did "The Boy With the Arab Strap," Murdoch has already gone into the audience to sing with people, who sounded like they were singing along into the mike (shades of old punk rock shows!). So for this jaunty number, between 20 and 30 people jumped onstage and started dancing along to the song. It was mostly young ladies who were more of the oh-my-gawd-I-can't-believe-I'm-up-here type than hip kids who didn't want to betray their excitement. Nevertheless it was a good time. Even on my caffeine-deprived, empty-but-not-yet-hungry stomach, there was no cynicism coming out. The band played for at least 90 minutes, starting at 9:30 and doing the first encore ("Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying") around 11:00. We started making our way out of the venue at that point because I didn't want to get too caught up in traffic and I wanted to make sure there was enough time to pick up some wings at Gooki's.

That faraway parking spot turned out to be the right choice after all. The Pirates game was letting out (WE WON!) as we were walking against the throng of baseball fans, including myriad seniors who had come down in charted buses. The way back didn't seem quite as awful as the walk down, and after calling in an order for my dinner, I was able to get some take-out on the way home. No time or energy for a high ball though (and as I found out a night later - no gin either!).

Friday, July 05, 2013

CD Review: Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense - Moment & the Message

Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense
Moment & the Message
(Pi Recordings)

Trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson begins his leadership debut in a mood that sounds awfully close to the composer with whom he regularly plays: Steve Coleman. "Circus" begins with some staccato funk, always reshaping the bar line so it's hard to count. Everyone works together creating something tight and intriguing.
Suddenly, about half-way into the tune, Finlayson changes his mind. The tempo slows down and he starts blowing long tones on his trumpet. An ascending chord progression starts to add suspense to the music. He's clearly doing more than paying homage.

This oversimplifies Finlayson's m.o., of course. And as it turns out, "Circus" was inspired by another unique bandleader/composer, Henry Threadgill, anyway. Playing with either musician is going to leave a big impression on how you project your own thoughts, and the trumpeter is getting pretty clear ideas about how to execute them. The name Sicilian Defense comes from an opening move in chess, and that sort of deep thinking carries through the album. Melodies don't always resolve clearly, and the band seems to be looking ahead to their next move. Like Coleman, it isn't meant for casual listening, but it's definitely an engaging listen.

Sicilian Defense includes Miles Okazaki (guitar), David Virelles (piano, who had Finlayson on his Pi release last year), Keith Witty (bass) and Damon Reid (drums). Despite having two chordal instruments in the band, things never get lost in clusters of notes. In "Lo Haze" Witty and Virelles interact while Okazaki adds some spare comments behind them. As the song goes on, Reid (who has played with Steve Lehman and Rudresh Mahanthappa) gets a chance to go wild. "Ruy Lopez," an actual transcription of the first eight moves of a chess game, is slower, with trumpet and guitar engaging in a twist on what sounds like a call and response.

"Fives and Pennies," the penultimate track on the album, last 12 minutes, all of it put to good use. The piece slowly develops, keeping the spotlight on Finlayson's bright tone, which has also been heard with Mary Halvorson's band and on Steve Leman's Travail, Transformation and Flow (2009). Moment and the Message might not completely reveal itself on the first couple hearings, but it will lure you back to figure out what is going on with this bold voice.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

CD Review: Blue Cranes - Swim

Blue Cranes

Portland's Blue Cranes might not be thought of as group that plays jazz, despite their two-saxes-and-rhythm-section lineup. There are some horn solos on Swim, but the first "real" one doesn't come until track five, "Great Dane Small Horse." The sax screams in "Beautiful Winners" serve as a parting comment instead of a gateway to extended blowing.

But the quintet comes off a bit like Jeremy Udden's Plainville group, playing what might be called post-rock had it been played on guitars. The textures of the music could lend themselves to visuals, and it's constantly moving, exploring the way the group and the band-and-a-half of guest musicians create something that sounds big and vast.

Alto saxophonist Reed Wallsmith and tenor saxophonist Joe Cunningham frequently play lines full of sustained notes, in the range where their horns cross over, so it's easy to mistake one for the other. Even when Wallsmith plays a raspy solo in "Soldier," it lures you closer to make sure you know what you're hearing. This track is one of five that includes a string trio adds to the texture, with violist Eyvind Kang sitting in on two more of them.

The group sprouts five more horns in "Cass Corridor" though they don't appear until the very end. During the whole song, drummer Ji Tanzer thumps a metronomic beat with help from Rebecca Sanborn, who adds a single electric piano note to the foundation, leaving Wallsmith and Cunningham to unravel a line of whole notes. After a countermelody from the strings, the extra horns (some hailing from Los Lobos and tUnEyArDs) join in for some pedal point chaos to take it out. It sounds both grating and hypnotic.

Swim was created amid some lifechanging events, both good and bad for the band, and knowing that makes the reflective quality of the music a little more obvious. The ballad "For Chris" seems like a sweet eulogy. "Painted Birds," which gives the group a chance to open up and blow free for a bit, points toward the desire to carry on, with hope for the future. The album closes with "Goldfinches," another slow shuffle which gets some levity from the guest saw of Cooper McBean (of The Devil Makes Three). Each chorus adds more instruments gets more expansive.

With Nate Query of the Decemberists producing Swim, the group seems to have harnessed some of his band's je nais se quoi. They take what might sound simple in lesser hands and make it dense and intriguing.