Monday, December 22, 2014

CD Review: Phil Haynes-No Fast Food - In Concert

Phil Haynes - No Fast Food
In Concert

Drummer Phil Haynes drew inspiration for the No Fast Food trio from Elvin Jones' post-Coltrane trios, which featured bassist Jimmy Garrison and saxophonist Joe Farrell. On two albums, that trio kept one foot on the ground while pushing the limits of piano-less, horn driven jazz. 

The name No Fast Food implies that these guys aren't going to settle for mass producing something lacking in quality ingredients or nutrition, which would be easy to consume and forget about once that moment is over. Quite the contrary. If names alone establish credibility, saxophonist David Leibman (who played with Elvin Jones a few years after said albums) and bassist Drew Gress (a leader as well as one-time bandmate to Tim Berne, Fred Hersch and Ravi Coltrane) take the cake. Together with Haynes  - himself a 30-year vet who has worked with Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas and others - these guys operate on the same plain, with the ability to shift from pensive to wild, ballad to free squonk. 

Most of the two-disc set was recorded at Rochester, New York's Bop Shop, with a few tracks coming from Elk Creek Cafe & Aleworks in Millheim, PA. (It's good to know that a place like that caters to this kind of adventurous music. The audience seems to agree.) Haynes receives credit for all the compositions, but many could very easily have been spontaneous group efforts. "Zen Lieb" opens the second disc with a bowed bass and wooden flutes, making it one of the more esoteric pieces of the set. Haynes sounds content to keep his efforts to the cymbals, rolling and bowing as needed, making the whole thing a unique tone poem. 

The leader's unique approach to his kit factors into the music's impact. In "West Virginia Blues," his mix of kick drum accents and stick work almost sounds like two drummers intertwined. Liebman, who projects authority from the first note he plays, whether on disc or in person, begins the track with an unaccompanied tenor solo. The jagged melody that cues in the group recalls Tim Berne's Bloodcount, establishing order out of limitless freedom. 

Gress is one of those musicians who shows up on numerous albums by an array of leaders, and In Concert offers plenty of reasons why. "Together," which probably comes the closest to those early Elvin Jones trio sides, has a bass solo marked by some fine double-stops. On his own in "Out of the Bowels," Gress produces some wonderfully jarring harmonies, that shift into fast runs and bits of disjointed melodies that actually convergence into a richer picture. 

Despite coming from two different sources, the music on In Concert was recorded only two days apart and the whole thing has the feeling of two complete sets. From the moment the trio hits on the first track, the engagement of a live performance comes across.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Me and the 2014 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll

For about the past five years, I've been polled as part of a national survey of jazz critics for the best albums of the year. The results have run on a few different websites, and this year, it's on NPR. The results were posted this past Friday, and can be found here.

Often times, I feel like the odd man out. The albums that top the charts are ones that I either haven't heard yet or that fly under my radar. Not so this year. Four of the Top 10 albums were things that I picked, including #1 and #2! Does it mean that I'm keeping up with the big guys, or that my tastes are finally gaining wider acceptance? I'll let you answer that.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

I'll Have a Bland Christmas...

I've never really cared either way for the holiday perennial "Santa Baby." Eartha Kitt's original version was fine, complete with male "ba-boom" vocals in the background and Henri Rene's sly swinging bachelor pad accompaniment. Recorded in 1953, when Ms. Kitt's shopping list ('54 convertible, yacht, a big fancy ring) was mildly amusing, as few gals really expected to get that. Still as far as Christmas songs about riches go, I prefer Pearl Bailey's "Five Pound Box of Money," for its sheer audacity, not to mention the singer's easygoing honesty, as opposed to Ms. Kitt's iciness.

When Madonna covered "Santa Baby," it came as no surprise. After all she was known as the Material Girl, and who better to make like she was entitled to the fancy wish list (or should that be "demand" list.). From what I recall, her version is pretty much a carbon copy of the original, which begs the question, what's the point?

But, it's all in the delivery, right?

Now, granted I'm behind the times by about seven years on this. But I was forced to hear Taylor Swift's version of "Santa Baby" recently, not knowing it was her or that it'sold news. Yes, everyone does a Christmas album these days, because it practically guarantees that no matter how bad your career goes, you at least get some airplay one month out of the year. (I"m talking about you, Wilson Phillips)
The thing that's so annoying about Ms. Swift's "Santa Baby," is that the modern country arrangement of the song was done completely by the numbers. They got the chord changes right. But there's no feeling. There's no camp to this song. There's not even any, um, sexy quality to it. Swift was 18 when the song came out, so she can be excused for not giving it that quality.

So all we're left with is a big-voiced gal belting out a shopping list for Santa, which in post-millennial years doesn't sound as outrageous because we expect to see pop stars with all sorts of bling, like a fancy ring and a convertible. And Taylor already has the deed that gets mentioned in the song. Which is probably why she doesn't sound any more believable singing this song than some 7-year old big voiced kid who you'd find on America's Got Talent. But she really doesn't (or didn't) have the credibiliy to pull it off. She would have been better off singing "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas."

But then again, what do I know? I never get tired of the Singing Dogs doing "Jingle Bells."

Friday, December 05, 2014

CD Review: Bud Powell - Live at the Blue Note Cafe Paris 1961

Bud Powell
Live at the Blue Note Cafe, Paris 1961

This album marks the second reissue by ESP of live Bud Powell recordings this year, following the three-disc Birdland 1953 set of radio recordings that appeared earlier. While the pianist's output after 1954 is considered inconsistent, thanks in part to his mental instability, here he shows no signs on weakness, playing with sympathetic musicians (French bassist Pierre Michelot and American expatriate Kenny Clarke) who know how to lock in with him. Additionally, several tracks capture him stretching out, which is exciting to anyone used to hearing Powell in the three- to five-minute format.

The same year as these performances, Cannonball Adderley produced a Powell session for Columbia Records called A Portrait of Thelonious that featured four compositions by his good friend. Monk was clearly on his mind and in his set that year. "Thelonious" sounds particularly compelling because of the way Clarke accents the melody so tightly, right in the pocket with Powell, who adds the appropriate spark to the simple melody. While the composer recorded that tune several times, it rarely possessed this kind of interaction in tandem with his musical personality.

"Monk's Mood," a lesser known ballad with an equally lush and deceptive line, sounds strong too. "Round Midnight" was well on its way to becoming a jazz standard, but Powell keeps it fresh by attacking the chords with gravity.

The first three tracks on the album augment the trio with tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims. They stretch out on "Groovin' High," which includes two separate solos by Powell. "Taking a Chance on Love" gives everyone blowing time, with the pianist's melodic ideas sounding especially crisp and concise. Sims' subdued, somewhat smoky tone fits right in with the trio, most notably on the "Bud Blues," a mid-tempo 12-bar workout that segues into the set-closer "52nd Street Theme," another Monk tune. Bebop vehicle "Shaw Nuff" was the rapid tune that proved the mettle of players during this time, and Powell definitely flies here.

The sound quality is strong throughout the set, which is a good part of the reason this session sounds so rewarding: Michelot's strong walking line is heard clearly in a track like "Bud Blues," Clarke's bomb drops put Powell's creativity in high relief and, overall, the leader seems to have an unending, focused well of ideas. More than simply another collection of jazz evergreens, this album provides another worthy addition to the Powell canon from a time when he was still firing on all cylinders.

Monday, November 24, 2014

In Memory of John P. Shanley, Sr

Last Thursday, my dad, John P. Shanley, passed away at the age of 79. Without going into details, it was an illness that came on fairly quickly. The last couple weeks were really painful for him, which was hard to witness. I'm glad he's at peace, though I wish he was still here.

There were a lot of layers to my dad. He could be reserved and soft spoken. He could be loud and opinionated. He loved his spy novels, but he also loved vintage comedy, which seemed as funny to him in the moment as it did when he first saw it decades ago. Almost every situation was ripe for a wry comment or observation.  I remember him telling me that on his final day of work, when he finally retired from United Mental Health, Inc., he marked the end of the day – and really, the end of an era – by marching a toy robot out of his office to indicate that he was about to leave.

If he really found something hilarious, he would let fly with a raspy laugh that sounded like metal rake being dragged across cement – a Shanley family trait which I heard coming from my aunt Mary Jeanne many times as well.

When I was in college I frequently came over for Sunday dinner and Pop often slipped me a couple dollars. “Don’t tell your mother,” he’d say. And he didn't say this because Mum would object to me getting the money. It might have been her idea, for all I know. “Don’t tell you mother,” was a line from a comedy routine by Shelley Berman, based on a conversation he had with his father.

I discovered this comedy bit through my folks. In it, Berman recounts how he wanted to join his friends at acting school and needed to ask his dad for the money to do it. Too afraid to ask him in person, he calls his day at work – at a delicatessen. On a Saturday, the busiest day of the week. 

You hear the phone conversation only on the father’s side. He’s already mad that he’s being pulled away from work, and he gets even madder when he hears that his son wants money for acting school - something he consider frivolous.

But as the conversation goes on, he gets his son to commit to working in the shop and he’ll give him the money, including “a Christmas bonus,” which is why the Jewish father tells him, “don’t tell you mother.”
In the set-up of the routine, Berman jokes about his dad but also defends him, saying he’s a good person. And you hear that as the bit proceeds. The father’s anger turns to support – even if he thinks his son is crazy, he’ll be there for him, reminding him, “No matter what happens, here, you’ll always a home.” I love this comedy routine because in addition to being funny it’s also poignant – a homage to his dad.

I once had a phone call with Pop that I feel paralleled Berman’s. I was taking a class in college that I thought I was going to fail and I wanted to drop it. But I was worried about how that was going to affect my financial aid. So I figured I’d call the house and get some perspective – from my mother. If I talked to Pop, I figured I’d be in trouble.

I called my parents’ house – and Pop picked up. Here it comes, I thought. He’s going to give it to me.

I told him what was going on. I couldn’t hack the class. I was afraid I was going to fail. What do I do?
Much to my surprise – and relief – Pop was cool. And empathetic. Don’t give up. Talk to your professor. If you’re straight with her, she ought to understand. 

He went on to explain that when he was going to Duquesne, he had a similar experience. He was working overnights at the J&L mill, going to school by day and needed to talk to a prof, and the two worked things out. In talking about his combination of school and work, he had to lighten the mood with a joke, “You get a difference perspective on things when you have three squealers at home,” which affectionately referred to my three older brothers.

I knew that he had worked overnights and had gone to school during the day. But it never occurred to me why up until that point. That was what you did to support your family. The weekend performances at Churchill Valley Country Club – it wasn’t just a music gig, even if the band really swung. It was to support the family.

The impact of what he said on the phone that day might not have been immediate but I did realize at some point that if he could do all that, one anthropology class is nothing for me. I could pull myself up by my bootstraps and work a little harder. And I did. And I got an A. When I told him that, he said, “See I told ya.” And it wasn't a patronizing thing. It was said with that mischievous look in his eye, that had wisdom with it.

Sometimes the things that you learn from your parents are not the things they say to you directly. They’re the things you discover after they’ve put you on the path of your life. The in-between things that you don’t even realize at the time.

There were a lot qualities that my dad possessed. One of the biggest ones was that he was deep. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

CD Review: Charles Lloyd- Manhattan Stories

Charles Lloyd
Manhattan Stories

2014 will probably be seen as a banner year for Resonance Records. Within a few months of each other they released John Coltrane's Offering: Live at Temple University (which is probably the most talked-about album of the year, other than Mostly Other People Do the Killing's Blue) and this two-disc set of two newly discovered live recordings by saxophonist Charles Lloyd. Like the Coltrane set, Manhattan Stories also comes with a huge booklet of photos and essays, including an interview with Lloyd, all of it added to the set.

Both performances occurred during the summer and early autumn of 1965 and they represent an exciting "in-between" time for the tenor saxophonist. Lloyd had already logged time with the groups of Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderley (the latter considered by many to be "mismatch," as Michael Cuscuna mentions in this liner notes). He also finished sessions for Of Course Of Course, his second Columbia album earlier that year with guitarist Gabor Szabo, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. By the summer, Williams was gone, replaced by Pete LaRoca, whose performances can inspire one to search out the few albums he made as a leader, to get a greater dose of his powerful, unsung playing.

One disc comes from a set the group played at the Festival of the Avant-Garde at Judson Hall. The other comes from a gig recorded at the infamous Lower East Side club Slugs' Saloon. The sound quality of both sets is impeccable, capturing the excitement of these four at a time before they became revered jazz legends, but clearly revealing why such designations eventually came along, at least for a couple of them.

Considering the direction of jazz in 1965 and the name of the Festival of the Avant-Garde, disc one doesn't find the Lloyd quartet heading outward in any extreme direction. But even with their feet remaining on the ground, the three lengthy tracks have plenty of fire power. "Sweet Georgia Bright," from his Columbia debut Discovery! (all these exclamatory statements!) goes on for nearly 18 minutes, none of it excessive, from Lloyd's somewhat throaty tenor to Sims' propulsive work all over his kit. The tender ballad "How Can I Tell You" stretches out for over 11 minutes, and Szabo's "Lady Gabor" has the leader on flute for the first of two versions of this 6/4 vamp.

Despite its fertile ground for musical innovation, Slugs' had a seedy reputation too. This was a place where pushers and hustlers co-mingled with musicians like Jackie McLean and Sun Ra, or Salvador Dali, who showed up at least once with an entourage. For better or worse, the space has gone down in history as the locale where trumpeter Lee Morgan was shot and killed by his ex-girlfriend in 1972, which eventually put the kibosh on the joint. So it comes as no surprise that audience chatter can be heard during the Lloyd set recorded there. But if anything, the rugged nature of the room brought out the best in the band.

Also consisting of three lengthy tunes, disc two begins with "Slugs' Blues" which Lloyd supposedly wrote virtually on the spot. While adhering to the traditional structure, the group mixes it up as they go. Most impressive is Carter who walks a bit, switches to rich double stops and then, in his own solo adds some flatted fifth to make it sound even richer. No wonder someone (maybe a band member, maybe an audience member) repeated yells, "Yeah," throughout the set. La Roca really drives the second "Lady Szabo," which gets all manner of ideas out of Lloyd, including a moment where he predicts the vocal style of Leon Thomas. "Dream Weaver," later to be the title track of high-regarded album, is heard here in its early, but clearly set, stages.

A year later, Lloyd would form his own "classic" quartet with Jack DeJohnette, Cecil McBee and Keith Jarrett, and the Lloyd band heard here would be remembered only by a few. Thankfully, a few people had the foresight to document this work, which serves as a reminder that legends have to start somewhere.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Loss of Another Friend

Death is a natural part of our day-to-day existence. We get older, our bodies don't work like they used to. All that carefree living catches up with us. And, of course, unforeseen things happen. That doesn't make it any easier to deal with loss.

I just found out last night, via Facebook, that my friend and former bandmate (very briefly) Erin Hutter (known affectionately to many as "Scratchy") died. Even as I type this, I wish I could be proven wrong. Details are sketchy at this point about what exactly happened. All I know is she was about my age, maybe a year or two older, which is too young to go.

Erin played violin and sang in the band the Deliberate Strangers, who were playing punk-influenced country long before there was a bandwagon to jump on. They knew their roots and their instruments. We got to know each other fairly well from their shows. Then, briefly we both played in the band Boxstep, although I didn't last that long in the band. That's when we became tight. When feeling frustrated, Erin was an empathetic voice. She was a school music teacher by day, which is probably where that patience and compassion came from.

I honestly can't remember the last time I saw her, and that's the part that really bothers me. As life goes on, your circles of friends overlap and shift gradually. It usually has little to do with rapport with people and everything to do with responsibilities we accumulate. But you always figure that you'll see someone again and be able to smack them on the arm when you say hi, and that warm feeling from the good old days will start up again instantly. I'm not one to quote James Taylor, but the reason I don't completely despise the song "Fire and Rain" is because the first verse and the chorus really nail that sense of loss on the head, with just a few simple words. "....but I always thought I'd see you again." (As far as I'm concerned, the song can stop right there.)

There's probably more I could say on the subject, but that's it for now. Goodbye, Scratchy. XO

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

CD Review: Mostly Other People Do the Killing - Blue

Mostly Other People Do the Killing
(Hot Cup)

I once attended a local jazz competition, where three groups were competing for different packages of studio time and the cost of a CD pressing. One of the group consisted of four (maybe five) guys, who looked to be around the age of undergraduates, give or take a year. They knew the ins and outs of their instruments and it showed in their demeanor, which for a few of them bordered on cocksure, especially the bass player, who donned shades even in the darkness of the club.

They opened their set with Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk." No simple task - especially when you consider how hard it can be to breath during that tune while blowing the saxophone - they nailed it, tightly recreating Brubeck's original arrangement. After doing the alternating 9/8 and 4/4 sections, the saxophonist and pianist probably played their own solos rather than recreating what Brubeck and Paul Desmond played on the original recording. But by that point, it didn't really matter. The guys had achieved their goal: they showed their roots and they showed their facility. And really, that's why anyone would play "Blue Rondo a la Turk." It's not a blowing vehicle. ("Take Five" presents more of a challenge that way, and that's even more of a crowd-pleaser in a general sense.)

On one level, it was impressive, and it was clear these guys had spent a great deal of time practicing and working together as a unit. But on the other hand - what's the point? It's almost better to play the theme of "Now's the Time," a much simpler melody, and show what you can do over blues changes (the same type of changes used in the solo section of "Blue Rondo" anyway).

Mostly Other People Do the Killing are known as jazz provocateurs, paying homage to their forefathers as they spoof the seriousness of jazz. Their early albums recreated cover art of classics by the Jazz Messengers, Ornette Coleman and Roy Haynes. The liner notes, often attributed to one Leonard Featherweight (and actually penned by the band's bassist and mastermind Moppa Elliot) play along straight-faced, sometimes taking the joke a tad too far, which has both amused and bugged me. When covering the iconic "A Night in Tunisia" drummer Kevin Shea not only referenced Art Blakey's drum licks but the entire history of drum solos, up through Led Zeppelin's John Bonham, with a little disco thrown in too, if I remember correctly.

But beyond the shtick, the band cooks, to borrow a phrase Featherweight, or Leonard Feather, might use. Elliot is a sharp composer who, throughout the band's first six albums, has penned music that picks up where Ornette Coleman left off, took inspiration from '20s and 30s' jazz and even claimed to honor smooth jazz on one album (it didn't, literally, but it was a strong album). Yes, irony seems to be a factor, even though they stated their cover of Billy Joel's "Allentown" was both sincere and in keeping with Elliot's early habit of naming songs after city's in his native Pennsylvania. (I'm still waiting for "Pittsburgh," Moppa.)

After all the big projects they've tackled, it seems like the logical next step would be to take on an iconic album. And what better album is there to tackle than Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, which routinely appears at the top of lists of great jazz albums? And what would be more audacious than to play the album note for note, exactly the way Miles, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb played it in 1959? The MOPDtK quartet - Elliot, Shea, trumpeter Peter Evans, saxophonist Jon Irabagon - plus pianist Ron Stabinsky did just that.

Somewhere, I read that the band has gone so far as to recreate the tape hiss of the originals. I haven't geeked out enough to check to see if they pitched the "side one" portion of the album a half-step faster, as all releases of Kind of Blue did until the '90s, but I am curious. They do effectively capture the warm echo of Columbia's 30th Street Studios.

They do it to a T. No surprises in the fadeouts. No crazy horn squonks. No drum splatters from Shea.  Hell, I even wondered if they'd recreate the false start of "Freddie Freeloader," where one of them would use the Miles rasp on Stabinsky, "Don't play no chord on the a-flat." Nope.

This album is pissing off a lot of people. A few days ago, someone on Facebook went so far as to say the estates of the original performers should sue because their solos are being recreated without royalties. Others are saying, "Why bother?"

The answer - to make a statement. Jazz has been called "America's classical music," and classical music is played the same way each time, in most situations. So no one should be surprised when jazz is played the same way. (I haven't even delved into the liner notes, a fake scholarly article by Spanish writer Jorge Luis Borges, which metaphorically explains an author's rewriting of Cervantes' Don Quixote.)

All around the country there are aspiring jazz musicians who think of Kind of Blue as jazz's brass ring and devote themselves to learning it inside out. Or maybe they're figuring out "Blue Rondo a la Turk." Where do you go after that? Does that prepare you for the jazz world? Elliot and the gang seem to be saying "no."

Maybe this album is a wake-up call, not just to those students (Elliot is a teacher) but to jazz musicians and critics everywhere. If we put jazz on a shelf, this is what we're going to wind up with eventually - something that sounds great, feels great but that ultimately sounds the same as what we've heard before. There's nothing wrong with learning an album backwards and forwards, but it's not a means to an end. (On a side note, I'd venture to say that if somebody attempted to learn an album like Andrew Hill's Point of Departure or Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch inside out, methinks that musician would probably come away with some of their own new ideas about how to play music. But that's a debate for another day.)

Some records deserve the highest credit (you know - five stars) due to their mere existence, either for the message they send or for their audacity. (My favorite example is here.) I'm not ready to give MOPDtK such praise. The album just came out yesterday, after all. Special kudos should be given to Jon Irabagon, however, because he has the formidable task of playing both Coltrane and Cannonball's solos, one of which must have been overdubbed to achieve such a seamless flow.

But the band deserves credit for have the guts to make that statement. Blue was released by Hot Cup, Elliot's own label, so no one can grouse about some label ignoring aspiring musicians in favor of this. He's putting his money where his mouth is. Further, this is just one dot on the MOPDtK map, of which there have already been several, with more to come.

Long may you run, Mr. Elliot. You and the guys never cease to impress me, even when I feel like some of the stuff you do goes a little too far.

Although you should've given Bill Evans co-writing credit for "Blue in Green."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I Almost Died Last Week

Well, maybe that's a slight exaggeration but there were a few scary moments last Friday. Throughout the week I had been dealing with a bit of a cold and was also getting winded really easily (going up the steps in our house). I have an inhaler but it wasn't doing squat. (I found out later it was a for-everyday-use inhaler, which is really lame because it's 1/3 the size of a fast-acting one AND THREE TIMES TO CO-PAY). So I was hoping the over-the-counter Bronkaid would help. Plus I found an albuterol inhaler that expired last year but seemed to have a few puffs left in it.

Friday night, I used both, pill and inhaler, and still I couldn't catch my breath. The bus that stops about 100 feet from my house goes right by West Penn Hospital, so I got on and road over there. By this time, I had a little relief but my chest felt tight. I worried that if I took another albuterol hit, I'd have a heart attack and die. (A few days later, I was reminded that the drummer from Ladybug Transistor died of an asthma attack.)

I got in at the ER within minutes, and they made me drink two quarts of water and huff on a nebulizer about four times. (The first two times I didn't do it right.) By 4:30 I felt pretty normal. Normal enough to walk home. I was more worried about walking through Bloomfield  - having heard about people getting attacked recently - more than I was worried about keeling over on Liberty Avenue.

I had to work the next day because we were having a big event, and I only got two hours of sleep. But I honestly have to say that I felt great in the morning. I hadn't had coffee in about two days and it went straight to my head. Oxygen seemed to be flowing to my head too, because I felt more energetic at work. I still have a bit of a cough, but it's helping me get rid of stuff, if you know what I mean.

Damn, I turned 47 last week and was worried that this new age was bringing with it some serious ailments.

The night of my birthday, I went to see Mike Watt at Brillobox. He was performing with Il Sogno Del Marinaio ("the dream of the sailor"), a trio with two Italian guys, drummer Andrea Belfi and guitarist Stefano Pilla. I didn't know much about them, other than how they met. I figured it was another Watt "opera" with a new backing band. Their selt felt similar to Watt's last tour, a bigger piece made of up smaller songs. But it's largely instrumental, and Belfi and Pilla do as much of the writing as he does.

Pilla really seems to have studied his D. Boon and Nels Cline licks but rather than spewing out the same thing, he really make it his own. Same with Belfi, though he had some little gongs set up on the side, and seems like he'd be just as comfortable doing free improvisation on his kit. They played for about an hour. One encore, no Minutemen songs. No "The Red and the Black." Ed fROMOHIO was there but he stayed in the crowd. Unfortunately I missed the Sicks because I was downstairs having drinks with my friend Will, and they only gave the band about 25 minutes to play (or so it seemed).

Sicks member Sam Matthews used to be in the Bats, who I wrote about in last week's City Paper. You can read that here. The band also featured Michael Chabon briefly, long before he wrote The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and other novels.

Now it's time to face the day.

Monday, October 13, 2014

CD Review: Trio 3 with Vijay Iyer - Wiring

Trio 3 & Vijay Iyer

To call Trio 3 a supergroup affixes an overused label to the band. But at the same time these three musicians have been at the forefront of innovative jazz, going as far back as the 1960s. Drummer Andrew Cyrille was a key member of the Cecil Taylor Unit, bassist Reggie Workman was the first bassist with John Coltrane's Quartet (and played with numerous other heavy hitters) and alto saxophonist Oliver Lake was and still is a driving force in the World Saxophone Quartet.

The band has welcomed pianists like Geri Allen and Jason Moran on previous discs for Intakt. So bringing on Vijay Iyer seemed like a natural choice. Each of them brought compositions to the session, Iyer with the most ambitious one, the three-part "Suite for Trayvon (and Thousands More)," which is dark and ominous, parts sounding written-through while others sections open up a little more.

The mood shifts greatly with each track, playing up the depth of the players. Iyer's "The Prowl" builds on a steady bass vamp with a staccato theme on piano and alto. Immediately following is "Synapse II" which begins with an alto shriek and stays pretty free and loose. Workman, who penned that one, also wrote "Willow Song," a rubato set of bowed bass and stormy piano, with plenty of dramatic beauty.

Lake's two compositions have loose sketches of themes that quickly slide into loose improvisation. A snare crack regularly cues things back around during the title track. "Shave" gets dark and stormy, with rolls and crashes again between band statements, with Iyer exploring some Cecil Taylor key strikes and Lake raising the excitement with some fast squonks and wails.

Cyrille might have spent the '60s proving that jazz could survive without a steady 4/4 groove, but "Tribute to Bu" proves that he can lay down a solid Art Blakey groove as good as anyone else. Each of his bandmates briefly pop up during the track for a dialogue during the track.

On the subject of straight ahead jazz, "Chiara" (written by pianist Curtis Clark) proves they know as much about this style as any young lion, and maybe a little more. While Workman lays down a 3/4 tempo, Cyrille toys with it and Iyer makes some original choices about what to do with the changes. Anyone who thinks that free players don't have an appreciation for tradition needs to pipe down and listen up.

Wiring doesn't sound like a band-with-special-guest album or a leader-with-a-guest-band session. These are four minds working together for the common good, which this disc definitely is.

Friday, October 10, 2014

CD Review: Wadada Leo Smith - The Great Lakes Suites

Wadada Leo Smith
The Great Lakes Suites

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has recently been composing large scale works. Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012) was a four-disc set of compositions dedicated to the civil rights movement of the US. Last year, he released Occupy the World (TUM), which was written for a TUMO, a 22-piece improvising orchestra.

His latest takes as its subject matter the Great Lakes, located in the northern part of the United States: Michigan, Ontario, Superior, Huron and Erie. He has also composed a piece for Lake St. Clair, a smaller body of water in that area that is considered to be a great lake contender. The piece is also dedicated to saxophonist Oliver Lake, who Smith considers "another Great Lake."

The two-disc set doesn't attempt to capture the qualities of each lake in composition, so much as use the idea as a launching point. Besides, the significant thing about this music is the band that the trumpeter assembled to play it: Henry Threadgill (alto saxophone, flute, bass flute), John Lindberg (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums). Hearing an A-list group like this is a rarity and everyone brings a great level of excitement to the work.

Smith, who has also lead a band devoted to Miles Davis' electric period, plays in a manner that recalls that trumpeter's approach, where simple, dramatic phrases can have as great an impact as faster, complex lines. He regularly blows long tones, occasionally splitting notes for extra dynamics. Whatever he plays demands attention.

Threadgill, who hasn't stretched out as much on his own recent albums, gets plenty of room to put his unique alto voice on display. His crisp tone combines with a gravelly set of ideas. His flutes add extra depth to the music, especially in "Lake Ontario," which is the one moment that seems to evoke a flowing body of water. The bass flute in "Lake Erie" begins with a rusty shriek, going on into rich solo filled with vibrato.

Lindberg often acts as the anchor to the music, keeping things together as his co-horts cut loose. But he also gets in some wild bowing, especially in "Lake Ontario." "Lake Huron" also gives him a chance to put down a groove, later in the piece.

Forget for a moment that Jack DeJohnette is behind the drum kit and his free flowing percussive work could be attributed to Famadou Don Moye or the late Phillip Wilson. While he's better known for his work as a leader and for holding down the tempo on classic albums by Miles Davis and Charles Lloyd, DeJohnette was involved with the AACM early on and he is fluent in this aspect of playing too. He impressively plays his first solo in "Lake Michigan" just on the rims, later moving across the whole kit with a frenzy, as Lindberg bows behind him.

The six compositions each last anywhere from 10 to over 20 minutes. They come with a loose, flowing feel, making them sound pretty spontaneous upon first examination. But each consists of different sections, with different instruments coming together or stepping back, moving into dynamic shifts that keep the energy at a high level. It evokes the spirit of the best AACM works, but with a newer focus or perspective on where the music is headed. Smith continues to be an engaging improviser, bandleader and composer.

Monday, October 06, 2014

CD Review: The Group - The Feed Back

The Group
The Feed-Back

Sometime around 1970, soundtrack maven Ennio Morricone and a group of musicians known as Gruppo D'Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza tumbled into a studio full of instruments, picked them up and let tapes capture what happened. A mere 27 minutes of music was released on Italy's RCA imprint that year, and has become an extremely collectible album. Recently, originals have gone for between $700 and $1700 on eBay and Discogs.

Schema has reissued it both on vinyl (which comes with a CD version) and a stand-alone CD, complete with a gatefold cover. At the time of its release, a freely improvising ensemble was a new "trend," according to the translated liner notes. It goes on to say most groups like that would either come at it from a jazz perspective or a classical perspective. Presumably the Group was there to bring a new approach to it. Awkward translation aside, this sentiment seems awfully quaint 44 years later.

Today, the music sounds very close to a band like Can, thanks to Renzo Restuccia's steady drumming, which adds form to these tracks. In "The Feed Back," Morricone squirts and squeals on trumpet, in the manner of Lester Bowie or Bill Dixon, a comparison that was probably coincidental. The intention here seems to be getting unconventional sounds out of conventional instruments (which has come to be known as "extended technique"). A squeaky violin highlights "Quasars," along with a percussive noise that sounds like a guitar with an effects pedal being shifted on and off, creating feedback for seconds at a time. Just when the whole thing starts to get really unbearable, the drums kick in.

"Kumbalo," the 14-minute piece that took up the second side, gets more sonically interesting. Cross-fading is the standard here, with a sitar (or something very close) buzzing away as it moves from channel to channel. Additional percussion moves in and out, mixed in a way that makes you wonder if the sounds are coming from the speakers or from a stack of boxes falling down in the next room. Like the other side of the album, a prominent bass line could have complemented the drums and elevated the music.

Fans of '70s Kraut-rock should be interested to hear an Italian counterpoint to those bands. But, brief as they are, the tracks feel a little closer to Moby Grape's meandering Grape Jam album where there's not a lot happening. The Feed Back shows what happens when you let a bunch of musicians ran amok in a studio: Playing this way is often more fun than listening to it, and what might have been new and uncharted at that time was bypassed in the ensuing years.

Hopefully my thoughts are shared by the person who paid four figures for an original copy.

Friday, October 03, 2014

CD/LP Review: John Coltrane - Offering: Live at Temple University

John Coltrane
Offering - Live at Temple University
(Impulse! - Resonance)

It's all Allen Ginsburg's fault.

If the beat poet hadn't been performing on the campus of Temple University on November 11, 1966, more people might have gone to the concert at the university's Mitten Hall that night, where John Coltrane performed to a relatively small crowd, many of whom didn't dig what he was doing and left before it was over. If it weren't for Ginsberg, maybe an audience of more appreciative people could have gotten into the music and the show would have been a success, artistically and financially. Then there'd be more free jazz fans in the world. Maybe.

But you can't unring a bell. And now, finally, after nearly 48 years, the rest of us can hear the results of this performance.

Offering - Live at Temple University delivers the full concert from that night, which was recorded for broadcast by WRTI, the school's radio station. Coltrane - who would succumb to liver cancer in July of 1967 - was turning yet another corner in a career marked by forward motion, taking his music further away from conventional jazz. In fact, prior to the  performance, Coltrane apparently said that the event shouldn't be considered a jazz concert.

So what was it? Coltrane brought a quintet of his wife/pianist Alice Coltrane, drummer Rashied Ali, tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and, subbing for regular bassist Jimmy Garrison, Sonny Johnson to Temple. In addition, he invited four percussionists to join the music. On top of that, he invited a free-thinking alto saxophonist to take a solo and another one took the liberty to jump onstage and join them. Maybe it should be considered a mind-expanding event because that's what it sounds like.

To anyone who's heard Coltrane's music leading up to that period, the expectation, after reading several preview articles over the past month, is that this music might burn your skin off, in low fidelity to boot. (Memories of the original LP release of Concert in Japan bring to mind extended, blistering solos that weren't recorded very well, and therefore hard to really wrap the head around.) But don't you believe it.

For starters, the sound on the recording might not be stellar, but it's a far cry from the lo-fi sound on The Olatunji Concert,a 2001 release that was recorded in April 1967. One mike was set up onstage to record the show. When Coltrane or Sanders are soloing, they're the predominant instrument in the mix. When they step away, the rhythm section comes into greater relief. Not ideal, but not too shabby.

Yes, things get wild. But not on the level of something like Frank Lowe's Black Beings or other such sounds that were emanating out of Lower East Side New York at the time. In fact, Sanders doesn't even appear on opener "Naima," one of Coltrane's best-known ballads. The rhythm is loose and Coltrane's tenor sax is much more aggressive, shaping and re-shaping little phrases (what Ravi Coltrane refers to as "cells"). Alice contributes a piano solo full of cascading runs and lines. Maybe it jarred some in the audience, but they probably still thought they were getting their money's worth ($2.50 per ticket). Anyone who might have picked up Live at the Village Vanguard Again that year might feel this performance was in keeping with the "Naima" that appeared on it.

"Crescent" picks up the intensity a bit more. Coltrane gets a little more aggressive, barking and wailing at times. Sanders growls and shrieks in his typical manner, but he also sounds on top of his game, pushing himself to create more musical nuances out of his personal approach to the tenor. It must have worked, because he gets shouts of encouragement from someone, probably onstage.

At some point during this tune, four percussionist join the group, at Coltrane's behest. From here until the end of the set, their groove is steady, something that might not seem to jibe with the rubato feel of the music, or with Ali's loose-limbed approach to the kit. But the addition works, adding to a trance-like feeling to the music and keeping it grounded. Also during this the piece, alto saxophonist Arnold Joyner decided to leap onstage and join the group after Alice's solo. Despite his audacity, he holds his own, unleashing a free solo that's frenetic but directed. It's not all reed biting and wide vibrato.

Then things get crazy. "Leo" was a newer piece, similar to "Sun Ship" if only because its theme was short and staccato. This is the piece that must have started driving the audience away. This is also the piece that gets talked about first when the concert is discussed. Because Coltrane starts beating his chest and singing in the middle of it. Usually, free jazz and vocals are not good bedfellows. Albert Ayler's ululating on "Oh Love of Life" offers the perfect example. It doesn't matter if he was trying to sing in a manner similar to his sax player. It sounds amateurish.

Coltrane's voice had been heard on record before. Aside from him speaking the title of A Love Supreme during that album's first section, he began wailing on Live in Seattle, in a way that almost sounded painful and definitely a bit eerie.

"Leo" doesn't sound like either of those. Here, Coltrane proves yet again that he was in total command of his musical vision and if he wanted to vocalize, he would do it and do it... pretty well. He has a strong baritone voice and his wordless chanting adds to the urgency of the music. The concert kicks into full-blown frenzy by now, but the group maintains it for all 21 minutes of this track.

After all that tumult, it seems almost appropriate that "Leo" ends cold, due to the tape machine running out.  "Offering," which he would later record in the studio, acts as sort of a come-down, a rubato ballad that begins with a wave of vibrato. He goes on to explore more cells, sounding stunning the way he adapts them slightly but effectively. At four minutes, it's significantly shorter than everything else the band played that night.

A bass solo by Sonny Jackson leads into "My Favorite Things," which had arguably become one of Coltrane's signature tunes by then. Even so, the blissful version he recorded for Atlantic has been replaced by waves of wild solos. During Alice's rolling and tumbling, Coltrane asked Steve Knoblauch, another alto saxophonist who he met earlier in the evening, to take his place in front of the mike. Like Joyner, Knoblauch blows wild and free, in a manner that doesn't seem out of place or primitive in comparison to the seasoned pros onstage. When Coltrane takes his own solo on soprano sax, the singing and chest-beating resume, the whole thing sounding more like a celebration of joie de vivre, to ensure that the evening ends at a high level.

Offering is an important document of this period of Coltrane's life, made all that more significant in part due to Ashley Kahn's extensive liner notes, which describe the scene of the performance, the music itself and the effects that it had on those who witnessed it. (Among them were then teenage saxophonist Michael Brecker and Temple student and future jazz writer Francis Davis.)

Books have been written about how Coltrane wanted to perform with several percussionists. At least one column was written that disparaged late period Coltrane shows where he beat his chest and wailed. Now is the chance to experience all of this and put the speculation to rest. The former idea wasn't overly ambitious and the latter wasn't just some flaky idea, comparable to many experimental performances from that period. John Coltrane was determined to do something new each time he played and this album proves that.

While the CD edition of the album looks exquisite, with a 24-page book full of pictures, the vinyl version is really a treat. Not only does it include the classic orange and black Impulse! spine and the record label with the exploding "i", it has a gatefold sleeve and a four-panel booklet with Kahn's notes, as well as the article from Temple's college newspaper about the money that was lost on the show. A series of photos by Frank Kofsky are reproduced on postcards too. If you're going to buy it, go all the way and get the records.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

My Trip to Chicago

Last week, the family had to go to Chicago for a wedding. It was the furthest west I've ever traveled in my life, and for that reason alone, the whole trip became kind of a four-day vacation. The deal was sealed when we finally made it into Chicago - after getting in the wrong lane for an exit and having the google map app go haywire on us (giving directions and then jumping ahead before I could drive to the next instruction) - and found out valet parking at the hotel was both expensive and the only real option for dealing with the car. After that, room service was the only viable option for a late night dinner.

The good news was that our window looked right down onto Chicago's fabled Jazz Record Mart. I knew it was around the corner from us, but I didn't think it was that close. Friday afternoon, after going to the Art Institute of Chicago to see the Magritte exhibition, I broke away from the family to get to the store. You want to talk about a kid in a candy store - this place personifies the cliche. I kept running back and forth between names in the racks, between CDs and vinyl. Grabbing albums as soon as I saw them.

And who else did I happen to see that but Sean Jones, who I wrote about in the soon-to-be-released issue of JazzTimes. I knew he was playing in Chicago that night, but who'd'a thunk that we'd see each other in the Jazz Record Mart? He introduced me to Ken, the manager, who also happens to be from Meadville, PA.

After picking up a couple albums, I starting thinking of things that I can't find back here in Pittsburgh, and things that I'm always thinking that I'd like to order online, but never do. So I looked for a Steve Lehman section and found his album On Meaning. Score. I figured I probably had every Vijay Iyer album, but sure enough, I found Blood Sutra. Upon looking at the Rudresh Mahanthappa section, I found The Beautiful Enabler CD by Mauger, the trio of him, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway. That's on Clean Feed, which is based in Europe so I really felt like I had to get that right away. Better to stick with three things, than go completely hog wild. Besides, I was hoping that a certain double Coltrane LP would greet me back at home when I returned. It's important to make sure there's enough time to listen to all of this. (Didn't really feel right blasting any of that with the wife and kid in the car during the driving.)

Friday night, after going back and forth in my mind, I decided to hoof it to the Jazz Showcase to see Sean play a set. It was a bit of a walk, and me being me, I got a little lost and made a wrong turn on the way. But I still got there in plenty of time to say hi to him and the band and check them out.

The second set at a Chicago jazz club - a legendary one at that, which has been presenting this kind of music since the mid 1940s - was still only filled to about 25% of its 170 seat capacity. But maybe since Sean was there for a few nights, it's different with each set and evening. Nevertheless, I was kind of surprised that it wasn't too different from what I see back home.

The quartet casually made their way to the stage and drummer Mark Whitfield., Jr. - in place of Obed Calvaire - started up the beat of a new Jones original, the name of which escapes me right now. But it was inspired, Jones said, by the realization that Art Blakey and John Coltrane didn't record much together. It might be "Art and the Mitigating Factor," but don't hold me to it.

Jones is gifted at that between-song discussions, cracking jokes as he explains songs. He took his time introducing the next song, which was written for a couple that won an auction where the prize was to have a song written for them by the trumpeter. His description of the couple, and the set-up of the song, played into the "men are from mars, women are from venus" cliche, but the song sure felt good.

Throughout the night, I felt so happy to hear Orrin Evans playing in person. His style of attack on the piano, as well as his chordal ideas, are really energizing and exciting. Most of the set consisted of songs that were newer and didn't appear on the recent album, so the glory of the second set made it fun. The only damper on the evening was the middle aged woman who drank her martini too fast, got snockered and thought it was cute to keep rattling off cutesy comments and sounds during one of Jones' obbligatos. There's always one in every crowd: someone who thinks the band is playing to an audience of one. Oy.

The Jazz Showcase has a lot of pictures of musicians on the wall. The stage itself has an eight-foot poster of a classic young Charlie Parker on the back wall. Along the side walls  of the club are flyers from bygone years, advertising engagements. This one proved to be a great study in contrasts:

(For those who don't recognize the bottom name, he was the butter-toned trumpeter on all the lush Jackie Gleason albums.)

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Mail, Matthew Shipp, the Love Letters

Yesterday was a banner day for the mail. I received the October issue of JazzTimes (which has my profile of Sean Jones in it), a TIAA-CREF check and the John Coltrane CD Offering - Live at Temple University. Normally I would've ripped open the Trane disc, put the rest of my world on hold and started to listen to it. But about a week ago, I ordered the vinyl edition of it online, so I feel like I should hear it for the first time on record. I'm torn. Plus I have a couple albums to review by Monday so I feel like I should be listening to nothing but them right now.  

The week started with a performance in town by Matthew Shipp and Michael Bisio at the Frick Fine Arts Building on Pitt's campus. As usual for this town, it was sparsely attended but also as usual, these two guys were stunning. The last few times they've come to town, I've sat in a place where I can really see Shipp's hands on the piano, but this time I sat close to stage right, where the view was perfect. His arms move in a way that make it look like he's dusting off the keys as he plays. Sometimes they look like they're flailing, but they know right where to go.

The duo played for about an hour - one long series of tunes seguing into once another, with a short encore. It's clear that they're really tuned into each other after having played together for so long. Bisio could get inside of Shipp's sound and stretch it out, as Shipp played with a full-speed-ahead focus. Sometimes things flowed into the next tune, sometimes there was a great abrupt shift to the music which was exciting as well.

After the show, I ended up hanging out with the two of them, along with Manny and Nathan, who put on the show. Shipp has a reputation in print for being a firebrand, but seems like a pretty cool dude to me. Also of note was that Pitt's director of jazz studies, none other than Geri Allen, put in an appearance at the show. Anyone reading this outside of Pittsburgh might think that's cool but not exactly a big deal. Pittsburghers will know that her predecessor not only would not darken the door of a show like this, but he'd oppose any jazz show on campus that he wasn't involved with.

Thursday night, my band the Love Letters played a show at the Thunderbird Cafe. It was cool to be back there, especially since we made our official debut on that stage about five years ago. And we haven't been back since. (Not for any particular reason, other than we haven't pursued getting a show there since that time.)

We were third on a bill of three, which could have been a curse. Pittsburghers do best in the "coveted second slot" because the early arrivals are still there and a little liquored up, and the late arrivals have gotten settled in by that point. Slim Forsythe played first with a huge array of bandmates, including two singers, a trumpet player, a washboard man etc. They all managed to fit onstage and sound good, if a bit undermixed at times. Hellwood played next. They featured a core of cats from the Rickety scene, with a few relatively newer folks. Kind of eerie and spacey, with a solid rhythm section and some foreboding keyboards and vocals.

Then we got on. At this point, we're still a trio, but an impending fourth member was in the audience that night. He said he took notes on the songs we played and he later took the setlist too. We felt pretty tight and energized, despite the late hour. (I was exhausted early in the evening but rallied myself.) On the first song, my cables were giving me trouble but luckily I quickly remedied that before we continued. Another weird thing was that as I was switching out cables, I heard music emanating from my pocket. Somehow my phone had started to play the iTunes and Hospitality was blasting away.

It was kind of hard to see past the lights onstage, but what I did see was encouraging. A few people were dancing (something rare), a few were whooping and we even got called back for an encore. Next show is in November. In the meantime, we're working on getting the record released.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Oliver Lake Big Band at City of Asylum

Each September the organization City of Asylum hosts an event on the North Side that combines poets (who are usually exiled from another country) and jazz music (which almost always involves alto saxophonist Oliver Lake). In previous years, the event has happened on Sampsonia Way, the street that looks like an alley where museum/installation space the Mattress Factory is located. The street was closed off and a stage was set up at one end. This blend of close residential buildings and businesses made for an interesting production a few years ago. On the balcony of one of the houses, a Chinese poet shouted his prose in his native tongue while locally-born actor David Conrad translated across the alley on another building. Lake performed that year with the World Saxophone Quartet.

This year, the event was moved to Allegheny Commons West Park, right next to the National Aviary, where a huge tent was set up, with a pretty clear view of the stage wherever you sat, with numerous video screens all around the space too.

Lake brought his big band this time, who released a really solid album called Wheels about a year ago. Among other people, the band includes Darius Jones, the wild and woolly alto player who has released a few albums on AUM Fidelity and recently did a second album with pianist Matthew Shipp. I just reviewed the latter release so I felt like I needed to check out the show to see him in particular and also because I haven't gone to these events in probably about five years.

Knowing that I might be complicating things, I took my seven-year old son with me. He's no stranger to live music. A few weeks ago, he accompanied me to JJ Wright's local performance. And he did see Anthony Braxton perform at the Aviary at the ripe old age of 10 months (sleeping through a lot of it). Plus he has been to a bunch of Pittsburgh Symphony concerts for kids, and has headphones to wear when things get too loud. But all of that doesn't necessarily mean that he'll sit through a whole concert.

This marked the 10th anniversary of City of Asylum, which was given much fanfare to start the show. Then Lake came out and recited his own piece called "You Look Marvelous" which was an homage to the late Amiri Baraka. He called the band onstage by holding a droning note that everyone echoed as they made a procession through the audience to the stage.

"Plan" opened the set, letting everyone know this wasn't your typical big band. The stop-start lines of the theme gave way to a solo by Lake that was marked by some strong high shrieks that weren't always on mike.

Lake has cited Oliver Nelson and Duke Ellington as influences and "Sometimes" bore that out. The horn voices sounded rich, slowly moving into a more soulful mood before moving into some heavy swinging by the end. The contrast between this more traditional backdrop and soloists like Lake and Jones made the whole thing sound more unique. Lake's World Saxophone bandmate David Murray also leads a big band too, but when they brought on Macy Gray as a singer (seen last year at the Detroit Jazz Fest) the band sort of reduced to a large scale vamp band. Lake did nothing of the sort.

Even when the band covered OutKast's "The Whole World," and the backbeat got a little rigid, the heat was still there. The same goes for "Is It Real," where everyone was taking a few bars to stand up and wail.

After the band played those four tunes, they took a break so some of the poets could get up and do their thing. It was about an hour into the show and by then the kid's mind was gone. Actually his focus never made it into the tent after he saw a playground a few feet away. While he's getting to be old enough to leave unattended at a playground, I wasn't ready to do that on the North Side.

So we took our leave, via that playground, as the sponsors was saying their thing and as the poets got ready to do theirs.

Friday, September 05, 2014

CD Review: The New Pornographers - Brill Bruisers

The New Pornographers
Brill Bruisers

A review of the New Pornographers on this blog - it's like shooting fish in a barrel, yes? Search this blog and you'll find numerous entries mentioning them, and it might come close to fawning. Or maybe I'm giving myself too much credit.

Yes, I'm a fan but I'm not an everything-this-band-does-is-awesome-because-of-who-they-are fan. As much as The Electric Version restored, or confirmed, my faith in everything musical (part of it was the timing of the release and where my head was), which continued through Twin Cinema (with the still-amazing "The Bleeding Heart Show"), the albums that followed didn't immediately knock my socks off in the same way. I have grown to really like both of them, and to pick up on the subtleties at work on them. But Challengers was heavy on the mid-tempo songs and Together moved away from pure pop towards nuances that aren't exactly immediate.

But Carl Newman's so-so day still beats that pants of a lot of people's greatest days.

Most of the time, I feel like I have no idea what Newman (or Neko Case or Kathryn Calder, all of whom share lead vocal chores) are singing about. Phrases come to the surface but overall concept isn't always clear. Though maybe he's singing about the same thing. And maybe that same thing is the power of music. That's what it seemed like "The Electric Version" and "Out From Blown Speakers" were about. It always seemed like he was singing, "Just as long as it sounds right," in the former.

But each time I listen to the title track of Brill Bruisers, I change my mind about what the band is singing: is a serious on nonsense syllables or is it some approximation of "go back, b-b-back"? Also, I can't tell if all the articles that say the album pays homage to the Brill Building are accurate or just lazy journalistic connections.

The conclusion is, it doesn't really matter because this is the strongest New Pornographers album to come down the pike in quite sometime. It has the layers of arrangements that have built up on the last couple albums. Instruments come and go in an almost orchestral manner. "Wall of sound" doesn't really get to the heart of it. There's something richer happening. The back-up vocals and the guitar (acoustic? dobro? acoustic baritone?) solo in "Champions of Wine" don't fly right out into your ears. They sort of linger on the sidelines, waiting to be discovered. When that happens, it brings greater depth to the song. And it perks your ears to find more things like it.

Much of the album's initial strength relates to the songs having more pronounced guitar hooks. Dan Bejar's "War on the East Coast" (which has a darkly humorous, apocalyptic video) is built on chunky power chords. "Dancehall Domine" begins with a relentless synth beat with slashing accents from the guitars. "Marching Orders" has a marching beat and a bassline groove.

Synthesizers, of the bloopy, '80s variety, appear in a number of songs. But they aren't used as cheesy novelties nor are they exploited for their retro sound. In fact the arrangements almost give their sound more credibility.

Layers of harmonies are on tap too, most notably in the album's finale, "You Tell Me Where" which sounds like a sea of voices doing calls and responses. The blend of Newman, Case and Calder in "Wide Eyes" is pure Pornographers bliss, which also comes into play during "Backstairs." 

It's a keeper, especially on the vinyl format which, as seen above, has a beautiful design as well as a download code, which is sometimes good for bringing some clarity to the vocals that vinyl might miss. Which makes me wonder if I should have referred to that before writing.....


(PS. Full disclosure: NPs bassist John Collins produced a couple songs for my band, the Love Letters. Though, if anything, this albums confirms why we wanted to work with him.)

Saturday, August 30, 2014

CD Review: Lee Konitz/Dan Tepfer/Michael Janisch/Jeff Williams - First Meeting: Live In London Vol. 1

Lee Konitz/Dan Tepfer/Michael Jansch/Jeff Williams
First Meeting: Live in London Volume 1

Lee Konitz has a fairly limited repertoire for a guy who's been playing music for over half a century. But that doesn't mean his performances are stale or predictable. Much of the time, he skips past the theme of the song and heads straight to the improvisation. Sometimes what he plays walks such a fine line between solo and theme that it could very easily lapse from one into the other. But he never does. Sometimes it's hard to tell exactly what song he's playing, or maybe more accurately, what he's playing off of.

While Konitz might be considered more of a straight-ahead player, there is a great sense of experimentation in what he does. Chestnuts like "Body and Soul" and "Along Together" are tunes that can easily win over a crowd, due to their familiarity. Konitz believes that there are still fresh ideas to mine from them, regardless of how many times he's played them before.

And if you're going to play them with him, don't talk about it. Don't plan ahead. Just get up there and play. That was his directive four years ago when he got onstage in London with his longtime piano co-hort Dan Tepfer, bassist Michael Janisch and drummer Jeff Williams. The four of them had never been onstage together. No matter, they worked to let the music guide them and bring them together. And it did.

It's easy to feel the foundation of some songs, like when Tepfer and Konitz (on one of the three tracks where he plays soprano saxophone) play "Body and Soul" without the rhythm section. "All the Things You Are," has a familiar movement to it, even with Tepfer opting to sit out. "Billie's Bounce" actually begins the album with head intact, and manages to feel extremely loose while maintaining its blues structure.

But when the saxophonist sits out on "Giant Steps" the trio doesn't make it obvious that they're playing the John Coltrane classic. The rhythm gets a little more elastic, with Tepfer's left hand getting wrapped up in conversation with the right. The pianist begins "Stella by Starlight" with a series of quick cascading phrases that actually sound close to Cecil Taylor's earliest work on Jazz Advance. When he moves into the changes, Konitz enters in the upper range of his alto (to the point where it sounds like a soprano) and bends a bit out of pitch. Rather than marring the performance, it adds some rugged feeling to the mood. For nearly 10 minutes the pulse moves along freely but the quartet is clearly in tune with each other. Tracks like these could be used in Before & After tests to stump listeners.

Jeff Williams' approach to his drums recalls Paul Motian's loose-limbed feeling. While a tempo is set, he sounds like he's playing off of it, adding color rather than simply keeping time. Michael Janisch keeps the foundation on most tracks and gets a two-minute solo at the beginning of "Alone Together," which has a dynamic, searching quality that sets the tone for the 14-minute track, never losing energy that whole time.

First Meeting was taken from six sets recorded over a two-night engagement. Apparently there were moments, in addition to these tunes, where the quartet got even more experimental and adventurous. Although it would have been nice to hear those moments in tandem with the more grounded pieces, so to speak, this album's running order sustains energy like a strong set, even as dynamics and instrumentation shift slightly with each one. Hopefully Volume 2 will feature more of the outward moments from these performances.

In some ways, this group sounds like they're getting to know each other for the first time as they play, testing the waters as they go. But the fact that they can strike up a non-verbal kinship and develop deep discussions are qualities that speak to the power of these players. If it sounds noodly and aimless, you're not listening closely.

Friday, August 22, 2014

J.J. Wright In Pittsburgh

Listening to WDVE-FM right now, relieved that Randy Baumann is back on the air today. I was starting to worry that his "vacation" might be something more permanent. That's sort of how it played out when Jim Krenn left the station a few years ago, and after losing WJAS-AM a few weeks ago, I don't really trust the bean counters in commercial radio to do the right thing.

There is a series of jazz shows happening at the Frick Fine Arts Building on Pitt's campus. Wednesday night, it was pianist JJ Wright (seen here, photo from his webpage not by me). The day before his show, he released his album Inward Looking Outward on Ropeadope. His music has an understated quality to it, staying in one harmonic place for a while but really developing what he's doing.

Having heard the album a few weeks ago, it seemed like it would be okay to bring my son along with me. It wasn't going to be a Matthew Shipp thunderfest (he's coming here on September 15 by the way). I was right. We got there right as Wright and his trio were in their first song. Donovan had his soundproof headphones with him, just in case it got loud. It didn't, really, but he kept them on during everything except the quiet, solo piano passages, at which point he took them off and looked inquisitively at Wright. After about 20 minutes, he asked if I packed any snacks (I hadn't) and asked if he could play with my phone. That's still a pretty good length of time, for a seven year old.

The auditorium in the Frick Fine Arts Building has good acoustics and nothing was miked. Onstage, drummer Nate Wood's kick drum was almost over-powering Wright's piano. At first it seemed like Ike Sturm's bass guitar was the volume culprit because the kick drum was operating in the same frequency. The piano was audible but not completely clear all of the time. Wright also seemed to have a preference for the middle register of the instrument too.

Still, it was a great performance. The group was tight, the tunes were kind of lengthy, moving on through different sections, not relying on head-solo constructs, or at least nothing that was obvious. But there was a movement to it, which makes me want to go back and reexamine the album.  In addition to a five-part suite, which is not in numerical order and not in succession on the disc, the album includes covers of Jon Brion, Sufjan Stevens and - one that ended the set on Wednesday - Phil Collins' "Take Me Home." I'm not a fan of Phil (far from it, in fact) but it was a good number, with a groovy beat (sort of like "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover") that would appeal to the Bad Plus fans.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Uh Oh, Jazz is Dead Again...Wait - It's Not. But WJAS Is

Originally the title of this post was going to stop at the ellipsis, but I didn't get to post it in time. The last week included a wedding, a furious hunt for a CD that needed to be reviewed, some illness and finally, the writing of a couple reviews, which of course brings with it, a whole lot of listening.

So I'm merging a couple thoughts.

First of all, in the wake of the Sonny Rollins imbroglio, some wise-ass wrote a piece for The Washington Post about how jazz has become irrelevant and boring. The tone of the piece didn't exactly state, "The stuff in that fake Sonny Rollins piece was right," but that was the gist of it. Dude actually went to Wesleyan University and knew of Anthony Braxton, but he didn't really know Braxton. Or at least he didn't try to understand him. Or maybe Braxton failed him in class.

Rather than offer my own rebuttal to this piece, I'd rather you check out Chris Richards' response to the piece. He makes several really good points about why Justin Moyer's original piece is full of holes.

What I would like to gripe about is the fact that Moyer's piece went to print in the first place. There are a lot of underpaid, under-appreciated music journalists out there who are hell-bent on informing the public about the good stuff that's coming out. People who would love to have a mere 500 words in a place like The Washington Post. Why the hell are they letting schlubs like Moyer write lazy, reactionary pieces like this? (Said Shanley, who used to hate the use of rhetorical questions in print.)

There are a couple answers that can be given. First, since people don't read as much as they once did, the media has to get people's attention via trumped-up alleged hot-button pieces like this. Secondly, the internet needs a constant new stream of news to keep people's attention. Hence pieces like this or "What happened to those '80s tv stars you don't really care about" or "Let's Pick 10 Legendary Musicians and Say Why They Were Assholes." It's cheap, it's abundant and it'll get more hits than a review of a Steve Lehman album.

Part Two of the title

Last Thursday, I came home and put on the radio in our bathroom that's usually tuned to 1320 WJAS-AM. For those of you outside of Pittsburgh (who have never seen my ad nauseum mentions in other posts), the station features a playlist that runs from Johnny Mathis, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra, along with Rod Stewart's American Songbook tripe, Celine Dion and Phantom of the Opera highlights. During the day, Pittsburgh institutions Jack Bogut and "Chilly Billy" Cardille added folksy announcements geared towards the blue-hair crowd. At night the playlist had cut-ins from John Tesh, spouting "intelligence for your life," rehashed from Redbook and Dr. Oz. (The latter is something I've often pointed to as a nail in the coffin of real radio. But my son gets some weird kick out of it.)

Instead of hearing afternoon DJ Chris Shovlin spinning tunes, the station was playing what sounded like an infomercial. Strange, I thought. They usually don't play this stuff until the wee hours of the morning. Was I on the right station?

Then it came.

An ad for Glenn Beck. Not JUST an add for him, an ad that threw salt on my rapidly growing wound, since the song "Sunshine Lollipops and Rainbows" had a male voice intoning "Yummy yummy yummy" overtop the obnoxious sound collage. (I f***ing hate that word).

A quick online check revealed that my old WJAS was gone. In its place was conservative talk radio. A new company bought the station a few months ago and expressed the desire to get rid of "the old music," mentioning Patti Page specifically. Meanwhile, that part of the playlist made the station unique, fun to listen to and to some extent novel.

The Pittsburgh AM radio band is dying a quick death. Instead of trying to generate interest in a place that needs new life, all they're doing is catering to the lowest common denominator. Between WJAS and WZUM (see a post from last fall), there was a chance that the AM could prove that there's still edge and excitement in this music, especially if you're hearing some of it for the first time.

But the owners care more about profits that innovation.

Fear and conservative talks shows sell revenue. Perry Como doesn't.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Sonny Rollins - Our Guru

Last night Sonny Rollins went live online to speak about the New Yorker piece that appeared last week, consisting of made-up quotes by him. (See previous post if you don't know.)

My first reaction to his talk was that I hope I'm that eloquent and deep when I hit my 80s. I know people 20 years younger than Sonny who aren't nearly as quick-witted as him. There he was, quoting Aldous Huxley ("one of my heroes") and comparing the New Yorker piece to something that would run in Mad Magazine, of which he's also a fan.

To just touch on the half-hour discussion, he made the good point that if you didn't know the piece was satire and made up - WHICH A GREAT DEAL OF PEOPLE DIDN'T KNOW SINCE IT WASN'T MADE CLEAR UNTIL YESTERDAY, WHEN THERE WERE EXPLANATIONS PUT AT THE BEGINNING AND END - is that the piece could disillusion aspiring musicians, who could read it and think something to the effect of "if Sonny feels this way, why should I bother playing jazz?"

You came away feeling that Sonny's no fool, and he's wiser than you think.

So don't mess with him, even in the name of satire.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Sonny Rollins Didn't Say That

On Friday, Sonny Rollins tweeted the following: "Hey, folks, this is some guy's idea of a joke." No explanation, no anger, just our beloved Sonny giving it to us straight.

You have to admire him for that because, as I finally discovered last night, he was referring to a piece that ran on The New Yorker's website a day earlier, an "In His Own Words" piece that consisted of several quotes attributed to him, all putting down jazz music and his career. The biggest one that keeps getting mentioned begins, "Jazz might be the stupidest thing that anybody's ever come up with." It goes on to disparage the way the music starts, then falls apart as people noodle around on their instruments. You know - the way non-jazz fans talk about it. All that's missing is the cliche "too many notes."

It's shocking. It's out of character, and --- it's not Sonny. The whole thing is made up. In case you don't see this - and a lot of people didn't - it's under the humor section of the website.

One other thing: it's not funny. That's not to say that jazz isn't above criticism or irreverence. There are a lot of things, and a lot of people, who should be taken down a notch just to give them a dose of humility. Sonny Rollins isn't one of those people. Read any recent article about him and what comes across is a guy who's really taken to his Zen-like studies, whose always reaching for something higher in music. In short he seems just as touched by the love he receives as his listeners feel about his music.

So, as one writer who I follow on Facebook pointed out, why throw this genuine 84-year-old example-of-what-we-can-all-aspire-to, under the bus? There are plenty of punching bags in jazz music, none of which I need to mention because my point is not to find someone to beat up. Pick your own. Sonny has never done anything, at least in recent times, to piss people off enough to deserve this treatment.

Besides, who is the article aimed at? Is the average New Yorker website reader going to get the piece? Are they going to get the references? Do they know much jazz beyond Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme and a Billie Holiday compilation they heard in college? OK, I'm getting into cheap shot territory...

One final thought: the author will probably defend himself with the casual, "C'mon, it's a joke" reply. I've found that when people throw that out there, it's often damage control for a lack of consideration. Kind of like "I'm sorry you got mad when I said those awful things about you." Not really an apology. Not really sorry.

The guy supposedly writes for The Onion, which does satire really well, but if that's the case, the piece should have run there. Context is everything. Stick with The Onion and leave the big dogs like Sonny Rollins alone. It makes you look cheap and petty.

And for those of you who want to see the offending train wreck and the level of carnage, here it is.

Friday, August 01, 2014

CD Review: Steve Lehman Octet - Mise en Abime

Well, a lot of encouraging reaction came after the previous post about music streaming, but now I'm back to the esoteric jazz albums...

Steve Lehman Octet
Mise en Abime
(Pi Recordings)

The last time Steve Lehman convened an octet session, the result was nothing short of astounding. Travail, Transformation and Flow (2009) took the idea of groove and combined it with off-kilter textures and a view of harmony that didn't get bogged down by the theoretical approach to it. It was a bit of a surprise to me that alto saxophonist Lehman didn't become more widely known - a star, as much as there are stars in edgy jazz. Then again, he did receive a 2014 Doris Duke Artist Award, and praise from, among others, Pat Metheny.

Lehman has gone on to collaborate with fellow alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, bassist Stephan Crump and to record an album with a trio. All of these combinations yielded worthwhile music but none really came close to the feeling of Travail. This might have something to do with Lehman's focus on spectral music, which takes overtones of source to make microtonal harmonies that are organized by frequency relationships instead of by intervals in a musical scale. The feeling of the music can be felt and appreciated more when eight musicians are playing it, and this otherwordly sound begins from the opening seconds of the album.

The previous paragraph might make Mise en Abime sound a little egg-headed and scholarly, but the Lehman Octet has plenty of life and feeling to it. The rhythm section of Drew Gress (bass) and Tyshawn Sorey (drums) straddle grooves and foundations to the music while they also get a chance to play off of the structures. Storey especially sounds like he's playing free time quite a bit, but he serves to punctuate the structure of the piece while he moves it along.

Chris Dingman's vibraphone has an strange harmonic resonance, because Lehman had the instrument custom built with alternate tunings. (Labelmate Hafez Modirzadeh did the same with the piano used on his 2012 Post-Chromodal Out! album, played by Vijay Iyer.) The sustained notes in "Segregated and Sequential" and "13 Colors" provides a broad quality to the music that evokes visuals as much as harmonies. That feeling is especially true in the opening of "Autumn Interlude" when the low brass and vibes form a cluster that serves as the musical equivalent of an oncoming October rainfall amidst piles of leaves. And that's only the introduction. As it proceeds, Lehman and tenor saxophonist Mark Shim trade lines with speed and clarity.

The album includes some reconstructions of compositions by pianist Bud Powell. His "Glass Enclosures" becomes even more angular and pointed in the hands of the group. "Parisian Thoroughfare Transcription" sounds nothing like Powell's classic trio version or the Clifford Brown/Max Roach version of "Parisian Thoroughfare." For two and a half minutes, Lehman sits at the piano and the alto, sketches out some kind of framework with accompaniment. In the background, samples of an interview with Powell play, with his name and Hank Jones' name occasionally coming to the surface of the recording. Full disclosure: I didn't undercover this on my own. It was only when I read a recent JazzTimes piece on Lehman that it came out. Of course, in this same blog I was taken to task by a reader after not being able to feel the foundation of Lehman's version of the John Coltrane piece "Moment's Notice" on the trio album. So maybe I need to listen harder.

Regardless, the piece closes the album with intrigue, like the blend of college practice rooms, a dream sequence and the opening of a hip-hop song (you can imagine a programmed beat kicking up after the piece finishes). The latter doesn't sound out of line since Lehman adds a cover of hip-hop duo Camp Lo's "Luchini" to his own "Chimera."

Throughout Mise en Abime, the lines between composition and improvisation get blurred - in a good way - and though "heads" of the tracks seem simple or minimal, there always seems to be bigger structure at work with them. Taking apart the various section of it makes for an intriguing listen.