Wednesday, January 29, 2014

CD Reviews: Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd, Myra Melford

First of all, I didn't watch the Grammys. And I don't care. Well, I suppose that's not true because I read about them the next day, and listened to the reports on WDVE on their morning show. The idea of having Robin Thicke play with Chicago just seemed asinine. And pointless. I mean, why? Did I read correctly that Peter Cetera was with Chicago? If so wasn't that news enough for a washed-up band? I thought Cetera refused to even speak about them 10-15 years ago.

The only good that came from that pairing was that it inspired 'DVE DJ Val Porter to do her excellent fake trumpet noise over the air on Monday morning. She does it well. If you ever meet her, politely ask her to do it.

I've decided to go take some albums from a few months ago and write about them now, not exactly as full blown reviews but capsules. These are things that I liked and meant to write about at the time, yet I never placed them in a publication, but liked them enough that, even though there have probably been beaucoup write-ups of them already, they were worthy of one more. I'm also hoping that this might get me back in the saddle and write about newer things more consistently.

Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd
Holding It Down: The Veteran's Dreams Project
(Pi Recordings)

This album came out right around the time that Vijay Iyer received his MacArthur Fellowship (known as the "Genius Grant"). It marks the third album in which the pianist has collaborated with poet Mike Ladd, after In What Language? (2004) and Still Life with Commentator (2007). While I still haven't heard the former, I really wasn't feeling it for Still Life. It seemed too bogged down in its "message" about the 24-hour news culture, how we really don't communicate, etc. There were also too many references to pop culture products used in an attempt to make points.

Holding It Down is a whole different ballgame, taking a concept that could really go south but coming up with something that can get listeners to think long and hard about its topic. Iyer and Ladd collaborated with veterans of color who were served in Iraq and Afghanistan, interviewing them and getting them to talk about their dreams. Potentially it could have wound up as one of those projects which is noble (since it gives voice to people we don't hear about) but not much beyond that. Instead the words really get to heart of the way these vets feel - what they felt while serving and how that shapes the way they try to make it through day-to-day civilian life.

"Capacity," which consists partially of Ladd interviewing Lynn Hill (who serves as one of the key voices on the disc) drives home this point. Hill, who piloted drones over Afghanistan, casually talks about "trying to deal with the guilt of what I did that day; and hoping that when I put the car in drive that it didn't feel like a joystick that I had been flying all day...when I was in bed, the last thing I would think about was the families of these other people, and how they look like me." When you hear about raw emotion like that, how such an experience can keep someone from doing an everyday thing like driving a car, it makes the whole concept of flag-waving and we'll-show-them armed force aggression seem appalling.

Holding It Down is not a brutal album that requires great stamina to hear in its entirety. (Within that same track, Hill even laughs casually as she compares herself to Linus from Peanuts, who is followed by a dark cloud.) Iyer plays with a group of equally creative musicians - guitarist Liberty Ellman, cellist Okkyung Lee and drummer Kassa Overall. He also gets a few chances to flex his improvisational skills in addition to setting the ambiance. Ladd adds some synthesizer and delivers lyrics, as do Maurice Decauf (another veteran, as well as a poet), Pamela Z and Thiefs' Guillermo E. Brown. Together they've created an important album that should remind people, once the wars are over, another part of the hard work really starts: making sure our vets get the support they need to feel normal again. (Considering last night's State of the Union address touched on this, it's good to be reminded of this album again.)

Myra Melford
Life Carries Me This Way
(Firehouse 12)

I always try to live with an album for a while before writing about it. Sometimes the most striking parts of the music don't come out until the fourth or fifth listen, or during one of those times when you're listening with headphones on, giving it your complete attention. Sometimes the packaging needs to be experienced along with the music inside.

For Life Carries Me This Way, pianist Myra Melford received a series of drawings and paintings by artist Don Reich to use as inspiration. For her first ever solo disc, she came up with 11 pieces, each titled for a different Reich work. Each piece is recreated in the accompanying CD booklet. It allows listeners to look at each painting and find the musical connection between the late artist's work (he died in 2010 before the recording was made). Some patterns can be found. The brief "Barcelona" is similar to the opening of "Sagrada Familia" which follows it. The first moves quickly, like a series of falling water droplets, and the second starts at the bottom of the piano that way. But the odd angles of "Piano Music" may or may not be linked to the Cecil Taylor-esque attack Melford displays in that piece.

Melford uses three words to compare his approach to her muse's: lyricism, abstraction and rhythmic mobility. All three can be felt in the music. She can begin in a calm mood, ushering in listeners and then stopping with a gentle jolt. The theme of  "Attic" begins and ends with both hands moving together in staccato lines, but adds some invigorating chord changes when it moves beyond that. "Curtain" is marked by slow waves of chords that move in a steady rhythm up the piano. In last 45 seconds, the volume must be cranked to reveal that Melford is not actually sitting silently but continuing the flow on the very highest keys.

Although this is her first solo piano disc, my first exposure to Melford was a solo piece on a Live at the Knitting Factory compilation in the early '90s. When a trio album was released a short time later, it was interesting how the same piece, "Some Kind of Blues," maintained the same shape, with bass and drums coming in at just the right spots to boost it. This is worth mentioning because Melford always plays with a sure sense of direction and that is true here as well, from the sweetness of "Park Mechanics" to the almost lonely feeling in "Moonless Night."    

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

And about Jazz Connect...

In addition to the blog entry on CP's website, the Local Notes column in today's issue was penned by me, reporting on Pittsburgh's representation at the Jazz Connect Conference. Here it is.

The thing about jazz, especially in this city, is it seems so stuck in the era prior to 1970. If you want to quibble about it, you could probably take it back a few years earlier, to when Miles Davis started spacing out on Filles de Kilamanjaro or prior to Ornette Coleman's arrival in New York. You get the idea, the time was jazz was a steady 4/4 tempo with discernable themes, a few solos, traded 4's and then out.

And that music is good. Great, in some cases. Earth shattering. But that's not all there is. It's like saying you like guitar music and citing the Beatles as the be-all and end all. A performance of Beatles music will probably be more successful than a performance by the band Hospitality, but that doesn't mean we should overlook Hospitality and stick with the Fab Four.

I'm going way off subject here to build up to some things that I heard at the Jazz Connect conference last week. In a panel called "Jazz in the Future Tense: Looking Into the Fractured Crystal Ball," James Donio of the Music Business Association cited a report on  jazz albums sales from 2013*. The best selling artist was Michael Buble, who - I shouldn't need to say - isn't really a jazz musician. The panel also included Kristen Thomson from the Future of Music Coalition (and former member of Tsunami and a driving force behind Simple Machines records).

To make sure that the discussion wouldn't digress into dry stats and projections, guitarist Vernon Reid and pianist Jason Moran were also on the panel. So while Donio talked about strategies that jazz musicians could use to reach a wider audience - which included the idea of recording songs that were familiar to more listeners - Reid and Moran stressed the necessity for musicians to have their own unique voice and to put that out there. One great moment came when Moran recalled, as a 20-year-old, asking his piano teacher Jaki Byard when he should make a demo. "Why do you want to cut a demo, you don't have anything to say," was the response he got. While Moran got signed to Blue Note two years later, he says he came to the label knowing he should not take the opportunity lightly.

I felt like running up to Reid after the discussion and saying, "Thank you," because I grow so weary of people with a limited idea of what jazz is and what it should be. Plus Donio's comments flew in the face of what Mark Ruffin of Sirius/XM said earlier that morning in a panel radio programming: a female jazz vocalist is not doing herself any favors by recording "Good Morning Heartache." "I already have Billie Holiday singing that, I don't need to hear you do it."

It's good to know that there are some people who realize that it's important to shake up the status quo every so often. People tend to forget that it wasn't an easy life for the people who are now revered as gods of the music like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. And John Coltrane. Plus Ornette and Cecil are highly regarded by some, but not to the extent that they should be.

(*I left my scoop pad at home, which is why I don't have a lot of specifics from last week. Stay tuned for more.)

Winter JazzFest reflections

It's been a few days since Winter JazzFest wrapped up and I returned to Pittsburgh. I did get to see a lot of acts but of course there's always the feeling that I should have tried to see a few more. After all, it's rare that I ever have that many performers at the same time that I can see. (For a working diary of who I saw, check out City Paper's FFW blog here.)

But then again, Saturday night it was raining pretty steadily in Manhattan and the walk from Subculture to Judson Church and back made my feet start to hurt. By the end of the evening, I was really exhausted too, to the point where I was starting to nod off during the sets of people that I really like.

Now I'm waiting for the renewed enthusiasm for my writing work to kick in. It hasn't quite happened yet, but that might just be last night's nightcap talking right now.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Dispatch from New York

First off, the bad news. During the keynote address today at the Jazz Connect Conference, I saw a Facebook post from Matthew Shipp saying that trumpeter Roy Campbell has died. I remember hearing Roy's album New Kingdom when I did a jazz show at WPTS, and I knew he was a master. That album was a great blend of music with a grounded rhythm section and wild solos. Beautiful stuff. Then a few years later, I saw him perform with Nu Band, living up to all the expectations. Rest is peace, Roy. We'll miss you.

If that wasn't enough, I just read that Amiri Baraka died too. He was quite the polarizing fellow (I have a Sunny Murray album where he reads a poem that makes to not-so-flattering references to Jewish people) but he was a bold poet nonetheless.

Now the good news. First day of the Jazz Connect Conference was a good time! Pittsburgh was well represented here by members of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. Marty from MCG raised some thought-provoking comments regarding how to archive and care for performances that have been documented by an institution like his. The question got my brain going.

Janis Burley Wilson from the Trust spoke too, as part of the keynote address, talking about how she's assembled the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival that's been happening downtown. She was one of five panelists who spoke about their work. That panel was unfortunately marred by the sound of a fire alarm that went off during the presentation. It kind of freaked everyone out though most of us didn't care enough to leave the building.

Tomorrow and Saturday are the big music days, but I still caught some good stuff tonight. La Poisson Rouge had a show with the Wallace Roney big band playing some unreleased Wayne Shorter songs. The band had at least 20 people from what I could see, and at first it almost sounded more like a Gil Evans work than something by Wayne Shorter, dense and swirling, with strings and reeds (flutes, oboe, bassoon) playing different things than the brass. But it was still a good time. When they reached the fourth and final piece, things were a little more in the 4/4 realm.

I walked a few blocks to the Cornelia Street Cafe, picking up a large coffee on the way, which gave me the first major happy buzz of the day. CSC had the Claudia Quintet, a band whose CD I've listened to once and have been trying to get back to ever since. They're lead by drummer John Hollenbeck and it's hard to pin them down. The first tune, "September 18: Lemons" reminded me a helluva lot of a Bobby Previte song I love called "1958." The rhythm was different but the chord changes seems very close. "September 29, 1936" relied heavily on some pre-recorded speech that Hollenbeck imitated on his drums, before the whole band came in. The tune bugged me too much when I played the first time, and I had to skip over the repetition. Now I think I'm ready to give it another try.

Then I took the train back to Williamsburg, where I am now, falling asleep at the laptop.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

New York, Here I Come. In a few hours.

Playing right now: Cecil Taylor Ensemble - Always a Pleasure

The cold isn't getting me down. It better not keep my plane down, either. The test I had to take at work happened yesterday, so I'll be leaving the building at 1:00 today, which leaves plenty of time to get ready for the trip to the airport. No more brain crippled with anxiety. My folks called last night too, saying that they'd take me to the airport. So far things are going smoothly. Now I just need to make sure that I know where to go for Jazz Connect tomorrow morning, meaning getting to the Hilton in Manhattan on time. I hope typing this doesn't jinx it.

If anyone reading this is going to be at the Jazz Connect Conference or any of the shows that are part of Winter Jazzfest in NY, drop me a line. I'll be around. Although tonight I won't get into town until around 7:30 (God willing and the plane don't stall), and I'll be hanging around with sisters Claire and Heather in Williamsburg instead of looking for music.

I should really do some packing.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Opposite of Doldrums, Sort Of

Day Four of the New Year and here I am. I'm trying to make this a year where there's more focus and more productivity on my part. Those sound like buzz words or something that's heard in a conference room, but it applies to my situation. It's like this: I'd always rather be writing, but there's always something else that seems like it should be done first - dishes, laundry, trying to organize that pile of albums in the other room, deciding what should be sold and what should just go to Goodwill. Then all of a sudden time has slipped away and it's time to go to work. Or bed.

Right now my brain is being crippled with anxiety because on Wednesday, I'm flying to New York for the Jazz Connect Conference and Winter Jazz Fest. It's not flying or the events themselves that have me freaked out. There's a test going on at work that day that I need to finish quickly so that I can get out to the airport on time to catch my flight. And I don't know how smoothly the timing is going to go. If I think about it too much, I'm just going to stare out the window and start at the screen, running in circles in my head.

Back in the fall when I went to Detroit, I came to the realization that going to one jazz festival every other year just wasn't cutting it. Five years ago, I was a newbie there and was welcomed by everyone. Last fall, on my third trip, I felt like "that guy from Pittsburgh" (if I got even that) who just hangs around when he can, and isn't always sure what's going on. I'm hoping to get around a little more, maybe find a story idea or two and get a better profile. Plus I'm covering Jazz Connect for City Paper since there are a few local folks who are going to be there.

Now that all the year end stuff is over, it's time to focus on moving forward. Oh damn - that reminds me: I have two reviews due on Monday morning. That's usually a day off from work but not this week, since I'll be off at the end of the week. See - there it goes again.