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 im.pro.vise 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
(Matador) www.matadorrecords.com

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.)