Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What's Wrong with Music? Well, I'll Tell Ya....

It's been hard to write. Not only finding the time, but finding the energy. I don't feel like I should be Pollyanna-ish with this blog, but I don't just want to spew piss and vinegar. There's plenty of that out there already.

Aw, who am I kidding? Maybe I can add some nuance to the grouchiness that's out there anyway.

First point of business: Have you ever gone to an art exhibition in an independent gallery - where you have no more than a few degrees of separation from the artist, or know them personally? And have you ever taken a picture of their work, and said to the artist with a smile, "Cool! Now I don't have to buy it! I have a copy."

Would you say that? Would that ever sound anything less than insulting and inconsiderate when said to someone who's spent numerous hours working on their particular media?

If your answer is "yes, I do it all that time/I would never pay a $100 for art anyway," you might as well stop reading, because there's no chance of penetrating your thick skull. For the rest of you, the next question is - well, why do you do that to musicians? Sure, there are a lot of musicians out there who didn't go to school to learn how to play and just picked up a guitar or bass or something and decided to do it. But they, or someone who believes in their work, decided to pony up a serious amount of cash to put out their music. And maybe they aren't in it to get rich, but they should get some kind of return on their efforts for a job well done. It's become clear that streaming sites have become the new go-to for music now, and with the further death of the tactile listening experience, they've become more of the standard. Musicians, who weren't getting rich in the first place, are getting little more than a bone for their efforts. That's everyone from David Byrne to Marc Ribot to Sean Lally. And some of these musicians DID put in a lot of equity (sweat or otherwise) into their work.

About 12 years ago, I did a piece for InPgh about Napster, where I asked a bunch of local musicians for their position on the topic, and printed their block quotes. People like Justin Sane from Anti-Flag and Michael Kastelic from the Cynics seemed to think sites like Napster weren't completely evil because it helped get music out to people who wouldn't normally hear it. At the time, I took a stance closer to that too. Paul from Pauls CD's (which has morphed into Sound Cat) said that a lot of customers would come in his store looking for things that they heard on Napster and would buy it.

But times change. Paul got out of the business a few years ago. (I'm not going to speculate why, but you have to wonder about that.) In the intervening years, Pandora and Spotify have sprouted up, and there's a good chance you can hear a song on youtube if you look it up. There are always going to be those people who loooove music and will go to a record store (or an online store, but that's another matter) to pick up a CD. Or an album. Or they'll buy a download from a touring musician. But those numbers are dwindling. Like I said, the listening experience has really changed over that time and my thoughts have too.

 I know plenty of 40-something folks who feel like they don't have time to invest or really care about exploring albums anymore. Just shrug your shoulders, say "Oh well," and listen to the new Wye Oak single on Spotify. Or never mind a band like that which might require more concentration. You keep hearing about Pharrell Williams, so why not just listen to that song so you know what all the fuss is about? And it's a hit anyway, so it's okay if he just gets the equivalent of a few pennies from me.

Do I have a solution? Well, not exactly. I could suggest that you all go out and buy a couple new CD/albums, and remember the good old days when we all had time to sit in our bedrooms and brood while [fill in the blank with the name of your favorite band when you were 18] played on the stereo. Then again, how many people listen to music on something resembling a old-fashioned receiver/speakers/turntable/disc player/hi-fi system anyhow. Isn't it just a couple of piddly-to-decent speakers in front of the computer? Or something in your ears when you're getting coffee?

But the better solution would be to get all the streaming services to pony up and make a better royalty system to the artists they play. Radio stations have to do that, but oh yeah, that reminds me.......

It's getting close for another one of those concerts that's going to make history - a promise the ads make even though the concert isn't happening for another couple months. Yeah - the good folks at I Heart Radio with their let's-put-everyone-on-the-bill-to-try-to-appeal-to-everyone methodology are at it again. It's another indication of what's wrong with radio now. Putting Taylor Swift together with Motley Crue and Josh Grobin and Big & Rich and Hank Williams III and Prince and Clarence Williams III and Jack Johnson and Blind Melon and Third Eye Blind and Steppenwolf and Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett and Gogi Grant and Bread and Justin Bieber and Barbra Streisand and Pink Floyd and Slim Whitman DOES NOT make history simply because you're putting all these acts together on the same bill. (NOTE: THIS ROSTER DOES NOT REFLECT THE ACTUAL SCHEDULE OF PERFORMERS AT THE I HEART RADIO FESTIVAL. IT WAS CREATED TO PROVE A POINT, WHICH I WILL GET TO NOW.)

I don't like to repeat myself, but I have to re-use a metaphor from about a year ago. (I"m not good with them, so I stick with them when I find one that works). This festival reminds me of when, as a kid, we'd finish dying Easter eggs and I'd mix the colors all together, thinking it would make one big, beautiful blend of colors.

All it did was turn brown.

And when you try to cram all these acts together, you don't get a glorious harmonic convergence of acts who join hands and sing "Poker Face" and the best of Fugazi. You get something watered down and bland.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

CD Review: Kyle Bruckmann's WRACK - ...Awaits Silent Tristero's Empire

Kyle Bruckman's WRACK
...Awaits Silent Tristero's Empire
(Single Speed)

Full disclosure: I haven't read any of Thomas Pynchon's work. However, after listening to Kyle Bruckman's suite ...Awaits Silent Tristero's Empire, described as "a musical phantasmagoria" inspired by Pynchon's novels VThe Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow, maybe the time has come.

Bruckman plays oboe and English horn, two challenging double reed instruments rarely heard in jazz or improvisation. In the liner note he explains that Pynchon often has his characters burst into song, with show tunes, sea shanties, drinking songs and vaudeville providing the foundation for frequently racy lyrics that appear in the text. This explains why, two minutes into Part One, the rhythm section launches into a two-step of carnival music, with trumpeter Darren Johnston and trombonist Jeb Bishop sounding plucky over the bounce of the beat.

Before this movement concludes, it includes a few passages of group squonks, some noisy oboe exchanges with plucked viola (from Jen Clare Paulson) and a few more trombone solos, most notably one where Bishop uses a plunger mute and the group plays a bluesy shout behind him.

Bruckmann describes the music as a "cracked funhouse mirror Great American Songbook," and that does capture the essence of the whole piece. A great deal of ground is covered, in fits and starts. The third section starts out sounding more subdued than the aforementioned part, only to get faster, before Jason Stein unleashes a vocal bass clarinet solo. The final section begins with free blowing, including Bruckmann growling on the oboe, and later shifts into something that feels like soft shoe, with a chorus of "Red River Valley" inserted quickly.

This mash-up of adventurous jazz and Americana holds a lot of intriguing moments, but as a whole it sometimes feels a little too ambitious. It doesn't have the John Zorn brevity-for-brevity's-sake penchant for gear shifting. But sometimes it feels like Bruckmann tries to incorporate a little too much into the music. Of course, I might be at a disadvantage, not having read any of the novels.

The members of the group keep the energy on track when things get a little more involved. Although one can't really call it a "front line" since it's not straight jazz, the use of double reeds, bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone and viola creates a unique texture. Chicago regulars Anton Hatwich (bass) and Tim Daisy (drums) complete the lineup.

Bruckmann was able to complete the piece through support from Chamber Music America's 2012 New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development Program. With any hope, this won't be a one-off project for him. On top of that, his oboe and English horn work also brings an underutilized pair of sounds to the world of adventurous jazz.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Charlie Haden Remembered

The anticipation that I feel before doing an interview often has a debilitating effect on me. Bad connections, bad recording devices - both are possibilities, even when I test them beforehand. Then there's always the prospect that the subject will turn out to be less than friendly. I went into an interview with a certain punk rock icon, who I had casually meet on a few occasions and found to be sweet as pie, who was prickly and intimidating.

But there's always the hope of having a breakthrough with a subject. You ask a question, or more likely make an observation that will really open them up. That happened when I interviewed Charlie Haden in 2003. We talked about his music, the term "jazz," about teaching music, whether or not you can teach what he did with Ornette Coleman's quartet, and how to reach an audience with what you do.

Being so close to 9/11, and right around the time that W. declared "mission accomplished," I wondered if he was considering doing another Liberation Music Orchestra album. The first had been recorded in 1969, in the wake of the Democratic Convention in Chicago which had erupted in riots. The album's penultimate track attempted to recreate those particular events, by dividing the ensemble in two and letting them blow their brains out, following a jaunty Haden solo. Right at the height of the frenzy, Carla Bley began playing "We Shall Overcome" on the organ. The track juxtaposed chaos and hope of that era all at once. And while the track ends sounding bleak, it's followed by a one-chorus version of "We Shall Overcome," blown by Roswell Rudd's trombone. I took the message as one to be just what the song said: no matter how bleak, we will overcome.

When asked, Haden wasn't sure about another LMO album (the fourth, following Ballad of the Fallen, which came out in the '80s, and Dream Keeper in 1990). But sure enough, he released another one, Not In Our Name, in 2005. I was happy to see it and even happier when it drew piss and vinegar in the letters section of jazz magazines, due to its fearless comments about the country's politics.

But back to that interview...

I searched and found the article I wrote for Pulp back then, but I didn't include one key exchange Charlie and I had. He was telling me something that went kind of like this: he liked to tell his audiences how he'd like to multiple them by one million because with more people like that in existence, the world would be a better place.

Hm. That's cool, I thought. Now what do I say? "Well," I finally replied, you've given me a lot to think about." It felt like the most wishy-washy thing to say.


"THAT'S COOL, MAN" he exclaimed. It seemed like he felt like I got where he was coming from. A minute later, he was telling me that we ought to get together when he came into town. Charlie Haden wanted to hand out with me, an indie rock geek who was just starting to think he was a jazz writer. How could that be? (My first JazzTimes article had just been published two months prior.) I gave him my phone number and he wrapped up the interview with the word that I will forever associate with him: "Solid!"

Haden was supposed to get into town on a Wednesday for a weekend stand at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. I had given up on hearing from him when I finally got a voicemail either Friday or Saturday afternoon. Yes, he was still interested in hanging out. Maybe we could check out the Crawford Grill (still open at that point) where he played with Ornette several decades prior. We made plans to meet up after the Sunday matinee show at the Guild.

Pittsburgh was hit with a pretty heavy snowstorm that day, but my partner in crime Shawn Brackbill had grown up in eastern PA and knew how to maneuver the roads. After checking out the subdued but really enthralling set by Haden's quartet (which included pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and pianist David Sanchez), Haden, Shawn and I made plans to meet at his hotel downtown and find a place to eat.

Things started off rather bleakly. The snow was getting bad. Charlie seemed hungry and a little irritated. The mix tape that Shawn made for the trip wasn't having the desired effect. "Could you turn that off," Charlie asked, just about a minute into it.

But once we got to Palomino, the only place that seemed both open and accessible, he warmed up. We heard some great stories. A Pat Metheny song was playing in the restaurant. "I think I'm on this," he said, casually.

Yes, I did feel star struck, but I also felt like I was hanging out with a regular guy who just happened to be one of the most groundbreaking bassists in jazz music. I loved it for both reasons. And when I look back on the, uh, charmed life I briefly lead as an alt-weekly editor, making that connection with Charlie Haden is always the first thing I think of. And when I hear one of those early Ornette Coleman albums on Atlantic, I always think of how genuine a guy Charlie Haden is, and how I would to multiply him by one million. The world would be a better place.

Thanks, Charlie. I hope that you, Don Cherry, Eddie Blackwell and Scott LaFaro are hanging out together, laying down some drum and bass grooves.


Sunday, July 06, 2014

Pest 5000 - Whatever became of...

Here's another one for the "What Ever Happened To" files: Pest Five Thousand (or Pest 5000).

I bought this single (Harriet Records, #043) when the band played at the 31st Street Pub here in Pittsburgh in the late '90s. The record is dated 1997, so the show would've happened either that year or a year later. The selling point for me was the B-side, "Astromental," a keyboard-driven instrumental with a bounce and lines traded between a blooping synth and some kind of analog organ. When they played it live, there was a really great chord change in the "chorus" part, which doesn't exactly come across on the single. Still it's pretty fun. The a-side "Page 43" is pretty good, but my money is on the flip, which still runs through my head occasionally when I'm running around at work.

The band hailed from Montreal. On the inside of the cover, one of them wrote down their contact info, either because I was hoping they might be able to set me up with some Canadian distribution for records I was releasing, or perhaps because I was under the naive assumption that maybe, just maybe I might try to embark on a tour that took me to Canada.

None of that happened, and I never heard a peep from the band again. They're probably easy to find out about online, unlike Thank You Super, another band who played the Pub, sold me a killer single and disappeared.

Dear ex-Pest 5000 members, if you read this, stop and say hi.

Saturday, July 05, 2014


Last week the total number of visits to this page was 1. And it was probably by me.

Since it's been several weeks since the last post, maybe it's a good idea for me to get back up here. I had all intentions of posting during the weekend of the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival. Even thought about doing it the night of the jam session that I saw. Sonoma Grille was so crowded that I decided not to fight my way to the bar for a drink. The less I had to drink, the more stamina I would have throughout the evening.

It was a good move because I was able to stand and watch the band play for about two straight hours, and there were no breaks. In fact it got to the point where instruments were getting new musicians mid-song. The perfect example of that came when none other than Reggie Workman came up mid-song and had the bass handed to him by Paul Thompson. Both are extremely good bass players, but when Reggie took over, things shot into the stratosphere. He played in a way that made you think, Okay we are now in the presence of a heavy dude.

That week I was assigned to write a piece for JazzTimes on Sean Jones, and luckily I got his number from him between solos. That was the only way I was going to do it because he was running the whole thing. We sat down for an interview this past week.

This is my first big profile for JT in about 10 years. I've done a couple articles for the college issue, but it's been a looooooooooooong time since there's been a long story on one person. Of course I'm feeling apprehensive, even though things are clicking into place.

In other news, more mixing is being done by the Love Letters. We got another mix of "Semi Dark Crush Museum" back from John Collins. Then Buck, Aimee and I went into Machine Age to start a mix on "Champagne Lady." That still needs some tweaking but it's on the way. Just have to find the time to book another session.

And then we might have a worthy candidate to join the band and fill the spot vacated by Aimee. The new person isn't a keyboard player. Or a dame.