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.