Wednesday, February 26, 2014

CD Review: Jon Irabagon - It Takes All Kinds

Jon Irabagon
It Takes All Kinds

When listeners got past Rahsaan Roland Kirk's skill at playing two or three saxophones at once, only then would they pick up on his biggest talent: the ability to draw on an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz that would fit in any musical situation. He could pay homage to any of the saxophonists in the Ellington band. He probably could've stood up to Ben Webster in a cutting session.  He could also pick up what Coltrane was laying down (at least to a certain extent). In a way he did both of the last two in "From Bechet, Byas and Fats" on the Rip, Rig and Panic album.

Maybe it's a bit of a stretch, but Jon Irabagon is gearing up to be a new generation version of Kirk, in terms of scope and skill. After winning the Thelonious Monk Institutte Competition a few years ago, he released a solid, straight ahead album on Concord. Concurrently, he was already playing with Mostly Other People Do the Killing (and continues to), who respect their forefathers but aren't confined by them. On his recent albums as a leader he's released blistering free improvisation and orchestrated compositions.

But before scrambling to catch up with his back catalog, the curious listeners can discover several facets of his personality on It Takes All Kinds. Recorded live at the German Jazzwerkstatt Peitz Festival last year, he performs an original set with drummer Barry Altschul and bassist Mark Helias. In a sense, the set presents a history of the tenor saxophone and where it's come since 1965 (an arbitrary date, offered just for reference). The unaccompanied intro to "Quintessential Kitten" begins in a manner akin to Sonny Rollins. The honking groove in the middle of "Wherewithal" recalls Archie Shepp. When Irabagon really starts to wail later in the set, there's some David S. Ware in his execution.

However, these comparisons happen in passing and don't literally reflect Irabagon's approach to the tenor. He has digested all of this music and reworking it to shape his own desires. Altschul (who had Irabagon on his excellent The 3dom Factor last year) and Helias help him take his new ideas and develop them, whether holding back on "Unconditional" or twisting the time on "Pause and Flip." Together they create a fascinating blend of solid swing and free abandon.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Not the Beatles, But an Incredible Simulation Without the Soul

Sunday night I watched the show marking the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. I went into it half-heartedly, figuring that it'd be something to have on while I was going through albums, figuring out what to sell and what to throw in the Goodwill pile. Also, it was clear before the show even started that there would be a bunch of modern musicians "interpreting" Beatles songs. But still I thought a good portion of it would be devoted to Sir Paul and Richie (I feel like the time has come to start calling him by his proper name again) reminiscing about that monumental event. And yes - I did want to see them play together again, I will freely admit.

All those preconceptions aside, it came as a surprise that when I turned on the telly at about 8:02, I was not seeing the opening scene of the lads playing "All My Loving" on Ed's stage, but in fact some average looking joes doing it. Turns out it was Maroon 5, who did a passable version of the song - editing out the guitar solo and the repeated version, probably for the sake of timing - which had all the personality of a bar band. It was bland. And much of what followed was a bunch of homages - some touching and passionate, others by-the-numbers - performed in a glitzy, room full of beautiful-people getting off on being part of a show that they thought was supposed to be as historical as the event that they were remembering.

Don't youuuuuu beeeeeeeeeeelieve it.

Of course the show rebounded by having Stevie Wonder follow Maroon 5, dusting off his clavinet for a funky version of "We Can Work It Out." Jeff Lynne did an admirable version of "Something" with Joe Walsh (who got all the leads down, although I've seen rumblings online that claimed he was syncing) and Dhani Harrison, the son of the man who wrote it. Dave Grohl tore up "Hey Bulldog," a nice deep cut choice, which he sent out to his mum and his daughter.

But I turned down the sound when Katy Perry did "Yesterday" and Imagine Dragons (a band I never even heard of until two weeks ago) doing "Revolution." Actually "Revolution 1," if you want to get technical. You'd think that if Eurythmics was reuniting just for this show, they'd pick a better song that "The Fool on the Hill."

As far as reflections on that fateful day in 1964, it was cool that they tracked down some of the women in the audience who were teenagers at the time and were caught on film screaming. One of them still has a strong Bronx accent that only added to her talk of "Pole." They also had some of the production crew from the Sullivan show talking about work on the show. More of that would've been a lot more interesting than Brad Paisley and Pharell Williams do "Here Comes the Sun" or John Mayer and Keith Urban doing "Don't Let Me Down."

Then of course, they kept teasing us before the commercial breaks about Paulie and Ring playing together! Oooooo! Like we haven't seen it already in all the previews and the teasers. When it finally happened, after each of them sang some songs with just the backing band, Paul sang "Sgt. Pepper" and it segued into "With a Little Help From My Friends" which brought up his companion. The show ended with "Hey Jude," which brought everybody back onstage to sing the coda.

I suppose it was a historic moment since the Beatles never played either song in front of an audience. But the warmth wasn't there. I wanted to get verklempt and feel like I was witnessing something historic, the closest that we'd ever get to seeing the Fab Four all together again - which was a dream I held for a couple years in grade school. Instead it felt like a slick show, complete with dancers from Cirque du Soleil. As if the music wasn't enough.

Then I just read a moment ago about how long it's been since Ringo and Paul performed together. A whopping...... four years ago, when the bassist crashed his ex-bandmate's birthday party. (No prizes for guessing what song he played that night.) Maybe that reunion was a little different, like when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were reunited on the Labor Day Telethon: in front of all those people, you're not going to be the shlub who tells your ex-partner to go to hell and storm off. You'll roll with it and be charming.

And that's what disappointed me about the show. I was hoping that these two would step down from the entertainer roles and just be two blokes for a brief moment, who might have been as blown away by the frenzy as the rest of the world was.

Nah. That'd never sell.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

In support of WZUM-AM

"I've got a '79 only gets AM/talk shows that piss you off/do you wanna ride?"
-from "Dean Complex," an unreleased song by the Smoking Pets which was written by Rico Gagliano of American Public Media's The Dinner Party.

When that song was written in the '90s, and even now, AM radio seemed like something of a wasteland, populated by nothing but conservative talk radio and the occasional ethnic heritage show on the weekends. While much of those types of shows and formats continue to live on with the AM dial, there are a few treasures among all the garbage. At least in Pittsburgh.

First and foremost is the resurgence of WZUM-AM 1550. The station has history in Pittsburgh that dates back to the early days of rock and roll in the pre-Beatles '60s. My brother's late father-in-law Mad Mike Metro was a DJ throughout its life. (For the details of the station's ups and downs, check out this Post-Gazette article.)

The station's current format is classic R&B. There are plenty of hits by the Temptations and Gladys Knight & the Pips that also get airtime on better known oldies stations like 3WS. But WZUM also plays a lot of deep cut soul songs that you would never hear on the bigger stations. These are the kind of songs that might have been small time hits, big in 1972 on little local stations that never might it to the mainstream for more than a spin or two. I've heard a lot of songs that sound like '70s Philly soul/Gamble & Huff productions with both strings and wah-wah guitars. The combination of instruments comes off sounding a little slick, and perhaps not as greasy as what Motown was doing at the time. But they still have a craft to them, from the vocal arrangements to the way the lyrics provide a new metaphorical spin on boy-meets-girl scenarios, that makes them hard to resist. In the end, listening to the station is like discovering a stack of 45s and just spinning all of them:  you know some of them really well, others perhaps not so much, some of them aren't as great but they're still fun to hear. And in three minutes, a new one will come on that might be a lot better, so don't let that short attention span get the best of you.

Right now, the station is automated, with no live DJs or commercial breaks, so the music pretty much flows without interruption, save for an occasional public service announcement. They have a series of IDs from the station's heyday, with a chorus of bright, perky voices singing the call letters and a catchphrase or two. This element of radio has gotten to the point where it's been parodied endlessly so to hear it done with sincerity gives it some extra entertainment quality.

It's funny that there are so many radio stations now that are pre-programmed, with many (or perhaps most) on the commercial band stations recording DJs breaks in advance so that there's no one actually broadcasting live in the city during the evening hours. Yet even though WZUM has no on-air personalities at all, their playlist gives them a natural and lifelike quality, like there's someone there picking out a good playlist.

The station, of course, has some setbacks currently. You can't expect a commercial station to just keep chugging on infinitely either. As much as I love the lack of advertising getting in the way of the music, I hope that they're able to generate some ad revenue so they can sustain themselves.

Also, they have to reduce their transmitter output around 6:00 pm each night as part of their license. (I think that's the reasoning. I only heard that announcement once when I was driving around, so my memory might be a little fuzzy on the exact wording.) So once the evening hits, it's reduced to AM fuzz. They stream online 24 hours, so they can be heard that way too, but anything can be found online these days. The beauty of 1550 is turning on the out-of-touch AM band and suddenly feeling like you've tapped into some lost treasure. Besides, this is the way to really hear this music: coming through a speaker or two with the low-end reduced and the tinny high-end pushed up a little higher. If it can put a listener in a better mood during the commute, offering a chuckle during "I'll Always Love My Mama" or "Bustin' Loose" (name the performers of both songs), the station has performed a noble deed.