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 H├ębert, 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: