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.