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.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

CD Review: Chris Kelsey & What I Say - The Electric Miles Project

Chris Kelsey & What I Say
The Electric Miles Project

From the way Dave Liebman described his time with Miles Davis in the '70s, there was not a lot of group interaction. It was very much a case of "play when I give you the cue, stop playing when I give you another cue." It's not the way some jazz musicians wanted to roll, but when you have a solid electric rhythm section churning out a fat riff and you know your time is limited, it forces you to really put on a good showing.

That's what saxophonist Chris Kelsey channels on The Electric Miles Project, a set of tunes from Davis's funky electric period, along with two improvisations inspired by that era. The songs he picked to play in his quintet are more like riffs or, at best, sketches with a melody to occasionally restate to know where you are. The rhythm section is responsible for starting a fire and keeping it burning at a high level, in order for the soloist to take flight.

Because of this approach, the album doesn't become #246 in an unending series of fawning tributes to a jazz god, nor does try to put the music in a new-and-ridiculously-incompatible context. It finds inspiration in the original sources and calls on the band to come up with something new and vital. Which is exactly what happens for the majority of the album.

One thing that immediately makes this album stand out is that it's a Miles Davis tribute album with no trumpet. Nor are there any keyboards. There is however Kelsey (on soprano sax and straight alto), guitarists Rolf Sturm and Jack DeSalvo, six-string bass guitarist Joe Gallant and drummer Dean Sharp. Everyone storms out of the gate on "Agharta Prelude," with Gallant holding down the vamp with his bassline. But it's really Sharp who keeps things exciting with his variations, going from ride cymbal to high hat for example, or bashing hard. His accents are a key part of this album. Following one of the sudden stops in "Directions," Sharp reenters with an urgent flurry of eighth-notes on the hi-hat that takes the whole thing up a notch without varying the pitch or tempo.

Sometimes Kelsey seems content to make a statement and step back to let the band take over rather than have himself come across as the leader. Which is to say the guitars get as much if not more of the spotlight as him. Not to say that he's overshadowed. In "Directions" while the rhythm section sounds locked in and focused, Kelsey is free to fly all over the place, knowing that he can get chaotic and always have a place to land. This session does have some of the heaviest sounds to come from a soprano sax in quite some time.

Of the guitarists, both Rolf Sturm and Jack DeSalvo balance frenzied solos and wild atmospheres. Each has their own channel, though there's at least one instance where the high volume seems to bleed through into both channels. (Which is mentioned here more to cover the chances of getting them mixed up.) In the beginning of "Directions," Sturm's rhythm playing adds to this tense piece with an atmospheric quality that sounds like a rattled sheet metal. When he takes a solo later in the track, he unleashes some fantastic howls.

DeSalvo's wah-wah gets the whole set whipped up when he takes the first solo in "Agharta Prelude." He also gets to slowly open "Ife," bridging the gap between Pete Cosey and David Gilmour. He slowly evolves from atmospherics to structure before Gallant cues the two-note bass line. At 16 minutes, this track is the one piece on the album that doesn't completely sustain itself. Gallant does insinuate some chord changes and variety at some points, but the tempo and space in the riff lack a little of the staying power heard in the other tracks. Fortunately, it's followed by the extremely funky "Sivad" which captures the snare crack and elastic bass like it could have come straight out of 1972 (give or take a year).

Mention should also be made of the two "Mad Love" tracks, excerpts from a bigger improvisation, which like Miles' electric work, is cut into smaller pieces. Kelsey states accurately in the liner notes that the trumpeter never gets credit for his contributions to ambient music, which can be traced to albums like Get Up With It. Whether he cared to or not, the Prince of Darkness knew how to use space in music as well as someone like Brian Eno and these two tracks find the band doing the same. Part One is three minutes of free, atmospheric group play. By Part Two, which closes the album, they've settled into a groove, which relates as much to Miles as it does to progressive rock (I hear remnants of a Gong bass line in there).

Some tribute albums seem to tread lightly as they go about their business, almost worried about what the honoree would think. Kelsey explains in the notes how he came to this music (very well, it should be noted), but when the tapes began rolling, he and the band cut to the chase. Just like Miles.

Monday, August 19, 2013

CD Review: Roscoe Mitchell Quartet - Live at "A Space" & Roscoe Mitchell - Not Yet

Roscoe Mitchell Quartet
Live at "A Space" 1975

2013 has seen the release of a few albums that elevate Roscoe Mitchell beyond his main identity as a jazz musician and founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago to that of someone equally fluent as an classical-avant garde composer. Earlier this year, percussionist Alex Cline released an album-length reimagining of "People in Sorrow," that took the Art Ensemble piece and turnied it into an orchestral multi-media epic. (I thought it worked well, as you can read here, though a Downbeat writer did not.) Now there are these two discs, one a reissue of 1975 performance, the other a new one of other musicians performing Mitchell's compositions. Both pose the idea that Mitchell's m.o. has always been more than that of an adventurous jazz man.

"A Space" is the actual name of a performance venue in Toronto which hosted performers like Mitchell throughout the '70s. His group for this October 1975 date consisted of AACM co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams (piano), George Lewis (trombone, in his first recorded performance) and Spencer Barefield (guitar). 

The bonus cuts on Live at "A Space"  indicate that Sackville's original release didn't contain much in the way of jazz references. This edition begins with an atonal ballad (of sorts) titled "Prelude to Naima" which leads into a one-chorus reading of John Coltrane's "Naima." Strip away that track and all signs point to something new and different. And challenging, even to devoted fans.

Mitchell recorded two of these pieces with the Art Ensemble (aided by Abrams) in 1973 for the Fanfare for the Warriors album. "Tnonna" is a study in tension, with low sounds (in volume and pitch) flowing along. The AEC version included heavy breathing through the horns and a thunderous climax, which made all that suspense pay off. This version has some of the air, but no final thunder, which is something of a surprise. Still elements like Barefield's tremelo fretwork gives it extra color. "Nonaah," which Mitchell wrote as a solo saxophone piece before the AEC played it, is another bonus track, ending the set with a brief blast that gives the quartet a chance to wail. 

Everything beyond that is rocky terrain. Lewis' 14-minute "Music for Trombone & B-Flat Soprano" sounds like spontaneous exchanges between the two horns, but they frequently finish a thought together, indicating that more is going on. "Cards" may or may not be a game piece, in which the musicians play ideas taken from a deck. But it's marked by some of Mitchell's more abrasive writing techniques, where everyone plays in short outbursts, and if anyone plays for more than a few seconds, they're holding one note. Abrams in particular seems to rumble the same low piano notes over and over, sounded like a cue for a change that doesn't really come. Better are "Olobo," a solo trombone recitation, and the final bonus, "Dastura," where Barefield has a chance to be heard clearly as he duets tenderly with Mitchell. 

Roscoe Mitchell
Not Yet - Six Compositions
(Mutable Music)

Not Yet actually contains five compositions, since "Nonaah" appears twice, in vastly different arrangements. The mood and sound change with each track, as they all came from a March 2012 concert at Mills College (where Mitchell teaches) saluting the composer. (Mitchell plays on none of them.)

One of the surprising things is hearing Mitchell's work played on alto saxophones with the clear tone of a classical performer, rather than the gruff, scratchy feel of his playing. This is most noticeable in "Not Yet" where Jacob Zimmerman is accompanied by pianist Dan VanHassel. Zimmerman is also one of the four altos in the James Fei Quartet (which includes Aram Shelton) who blend that tonal clarity with the appropriate squonk on their reading of "Nonaah."  Although their version uses the staccato melody as an entry point, the version by the chamber orchestra (directed by Petr Kotik) begins in a more relaxed manner and seems to only reference the theme as the end. Where they go in between gets rather fascinating.

Mitchell must have approved of the album's sequencing as it begins in a way that forces you to drop expectations immediately. "Bells for New Orleans" has eight minutes of William Winant played tubular and orchestral bells. Once past the idea that these tones are not just marking the time but are playing an engaging melody, it can have a hypnotic effect.

"9/9/99 with Cards" could be a reference to "Cards" from the earlier album, but the Eclipse Quartet is harder to latch onto than the Mitchell Quartet, because the strings don't sound focused or cohesive. "Would You Wear My Eyes?" puts an emotional Bob Kaufman poem to a chamber orchestra accompaniment, but the words get buried in Thomas Buckner's heavy vocal vibrato, which doesn't waver throughout the whole piece.

Too many creative composers seem to get their due recognition after they've died. We can be grateful that Roscoe Mitchell has been able to chronicle his unique music during his lifetime. Even better, he's continuing to create to this day.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

CD Review: Han Bennink/Uri Caine - Sonic Boom

Han Bennink/Uri Caine
Sonic Boom
(816 Music)

It's kind of a surprise that no one else has spoofed the title of Miles Davis' most famous album and come up with "Grind of Blue." Maybe a band of metal head music majors out there used it without taking it beyond the campus. But until then, the brilliant title will be credited to pianist Uri Caine and drummer Han Bennink, for a track on this live set of improvisations, recorded at Amsterdam's the Bimhuis. This piece actually begins with Caine sounding like he wants to play a ballad, until Bennink adds some thunder to the scene, making the dynamics rise and fall.

Bennink, of course, stands as one of the most (if not the most) wide-ranging drummer in jazz and improvised music, able to go from the most chaotic free flights to the hardest 4/4 swing at the drop of a hat. He can be equally zany or sensitive. Caine also balances different musical worlds in his playing. He's combined a vast knowledge of classical music with a keen sense of improvisation, not to mention funk and fusion.

Onstage they're aware of how to utilize their skills and work with each other. The title track begins like a personal introduction, Bennink taking a brief free solo, Caine following with some pointillist piano before they both cut loose. Yet the piece still has some lyrical moments. "Furious Urious" lives up to its title too, since the pianist displays some fury, but that doesn't stop him from shifting into a hard stomping, bluesy groove before its done.

Without looking at the track listing, it's possible to miss the inclusion of a Thelonious Monk composition. The melody to "'Round Midnight" gets stretched and extended, with a few phrases standing out so as to perk your ears, indicating something familiar is lurking. And it retains some gentle qualities, proving these guys not only know the tune, but understand that by playing such a famous song, it's important to bring some individual stamp to it.

Albums like Sonic Boom prove that free improvisation is not always an alienating, self-indulgent type of music. It can accessible and more importantly fun if the ears open up and listen well.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

I H8 Radio

Playing right now: John Coltrane - Sun Ship: The Complete Session
(I thought about getting Mosaic's 3LP edition of this set because I'm sure it's beautiful and elaborate. But I could use the extra $60 I saved by going with the CD version, and put it towards the Mingus box that Mosaic released a while ago. Besides, I'll get to play the CDs in the car or other places so I'll get to explore it more.)

I heard a radio ad for the I Heart Radio music festival that's coming in a couple months. The voiceover stated that the show is making history. It hasn't even happened yet. How the hell can it be making history? I've really had it with this whole notion of writing the history books before the historical event even occurs. There are many examples of that happening, but as far as music goes, the shining example of this dubious act happened in the late '90s when there were new Woodstock festivals. The promoters felt entitled to compare their shows to the original 1969 event simply because they were staging a big outdoor concert with a myriad of different performers in roughly the same area. Now all that anyone remembers from those concerts is the event in, I think it was 1999, when flocks of concertgoers set fire to overpriced vendor stands and assaulted fellow concertgoers. Everyone seemed to forget that the reason the original Woodstock is held in such high regard is that no one had done something on that scale and that no one had any idea how huge it was going to be. Those three days probably invented the phrase "logistical nightmare."

But anyway, about this I Heart Radio show - the other thing that's so annoying about the show is they're crowing about ALL THE ACTS THAT ARE GOING TO BE THERE. Usually the commercial switches to a flat, emotionless woman's voice that sounds computer generated, who rattles them off in a manner that doesn't relay any excitement. [I'd rattle off some of them but a. I don't really care about accuracy right now and b. when I did try to look up the website, it made Coltrane freeze up and stop by playing.] Point is: You've got your hard rock, you're got your hip-hop, you've got your Top 40, you've got your R&B AND IT'S ALLLL GOING TO BE IN THE SAME PLACE!

Wow - isn't that great?! All these people who like all this different music will get to hear it all in the same place! Maybe Aerosmith will bring Kei$ha up for a song. Maybe Gwen Stefani will do a song with Lil Wayne. But why stop there?  How about Carly Rae Jepsen and the Fleet Foxes? Maybe Lady Gaga should do a set with Anthony Braxton! I mean really, she's admired by people beyond the Top 40 field, and she's uh, experimental, I bet she could make weird vocal noises for 40 minutes over a Ghost Trance piece. And if you put all this music together on one stage it means that everyone's going to like it, doesn't it?

In case you're not picking up on my sarcasm, I'll put it another way. Do you know what happens when you mix all the Easter dyes together, in hopes of getting a color that's just as beautiful as all those Paas dyes that you have on the table? You get brown. A mediocre result of too many things thrown together.

I was once part of a well-intentioned group of people in Pittsburgh who tried to start an organization that brought all the diverse musicians in town together, the idea that it was for a greater good. I came away realizing that this doesn't need to happen. AND IT'S OKAY. If metalheads want to hear rap, they'll explore it on their own. If jazz musicians think indie rockers have no talent and mope, don't try to force them to change their mind by forcing them listen to it.

And I Heart Radio isn't making history by putting all kinds of acts together. They're not going to turn anyone on to something new and different. People will see the acts they want to see and when someone comes on that they don't know, they'll go get a beer and start scoping the crowd and texting their friends.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

CD Review: Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette - Somewhere

Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette

This album, and pianist Keith Jarrett in particular, have been a hot topic of discussion over the past few weeks. Matthew Shipp sounded off on this album in what was actually a pretty fair and even-handed assessment of it. That's not to say he liked it, but he was well-spoken on it. At least one person on Facebook had to comment, "Matthew Shipp is just jealous." That's about as asinine as saying... well, I have a metaphor but I don't want to start a different kind of debate here. Anyhow, if you want to know what Shipp said, it's right here. Read it because it's pretty articulate and reveals some things about himself that are surprising.

Jarrett also generated some head shaking himself with his return to the Umbria Jazz Festival, from which he was banned a few years ago, after a crabby outburst. That's right here.

On top of all that, Somewhere, the reason for this entry, got a Five-star review in Downbeat. (Jarrett's also on the cover of the newest issue.) That's right - five stars. Instant classic. A Love Supreme. The only other person who's gotten five-star reviews from them, and is still alive to read them, is Michael Formanek. I haven't read the review yet, because one of my journalism teachers suggested a long time ago that you never read a review of something that you're about to review yourself. (My good intentions cause me to miss a lot of critiques that way.)

So anyhow, about the album...

It's not bad.

Seriously,  playing nothing but standards - two from West Side Story, no less - can come off like a tired, phoned-in concept for an album but these three musicians (whose rapport goes back three decades) bring a spark to the program. Even when they space out and play two chords for more than 10 minutes, a level of energy keeps it moving.

Sure, Jarrett's playing can get sort of spacey, meaning tangentially, content to just let sounds ring out. "Stars Fell on Alabama" moves along laguidly, with a lot of open space in it theme. But he's not squeezing the life out of the words like an overwrought vocalist. He's letting them breathe. Jack DeJohnette's brush work and cymbal rolls help to open it up with their accents. (For better or worse, there's Jarrett's trademark growling acting as another intrusive punctuation while really comes out in a whiny way during the solid swing of "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea." And to think, he's distracted by flashbulbs or crowd noise.) Gary Peacock plays a laidback yet grooving solo in "Stars," which is fine follow-up to the brisk one he plays in Miles Davis' "Solar." After another bass solo in "Devil," Jarrett trades fours with DeJohnette, who has really been kicking him forward throughout the tune.

"Somewhere" can come across as a rather sappy song, aside from the version Tom Waits recorded on Blue Valentine where his gruffness lent new depth to the hopeful message of the song. Not until Vijay Iyer recorded it a few years ago did the mush start falling away. Now, Jarrett manages to keep the song's sensitivity intact while keeping the mood of the trio's arrangement on the gentle side. After playing the tune for about five minutes, Jarrett locks into a two-chord vamp - and stays there for about another 14 minutes. Titled "Anywhere," it finds the group exploring every way they can sustain the energy over such a simple structure and for at least 10 of those minutes, it works. (By that point, it's easy to get restless but you figure, you've come this far, why not keep going.) This is what's meant by a musical journey, Jarrett holding down the fort, DeJohnette adding color to it, with Peacock adding some trimming. This isn't showboating riffing, played just to get an audience's reaction to technical tricks. This is about getting lost in the moment and seeing what happens.

So this writer wouldn't give the whole album five stars, but I still had a good time listening.