Thursday, December 31, 2015

And The Year Winds Down...

Playing right now: the live disc of the 2002 edition of A Love Supreme. I'm thinking of drinking the Kool Aid on the new edition and getting it - bringing my number of copies of the original album up to four - because I got some nice Christmas money and because of the bonus sextet tracks.

So it's the last day of the year. Where the hell have I been? Where has the time gone? Christmas Day would have been a perfect day to sit at the laptop and just blog away. But I think I gave myself the day off. No - I know I did. Also, the start of this week had a different assignment due each day: a feature for JazzTimes on Nate Wooley, a set of CD reviews for them and a piece for City Paper about the new CD-EP by City Steps. I spent what little free time I had listening to those CDs, transcribing my talk with Nate, eating, working (I got a lot of hours last week), getting a little under the weather, trying to roll with it and then travelling out of town.

One of the musical highlights since the last post was seeing the "ChrisParkermas" show at the Thunderbird during the weekly Space Exchange series on Tuesday. That night gets its name from the fact that guitarist Chris Parker (a curator emeritus of the series) was born on Christmas Day. Years ago, bassist Paul Thompson did a spot-on Bob Dorough imitation in "Nothing Like You," during a night of Miles Davis music. Each year I think it'd be great if he did the Dorough/Miles holiday song "Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern" but I never think to suggest it until it's too late.

This year, I suggested it early enough and Paul sang it with the band at ChrisParkerMas. I don't know about anyone else, but I thought it was hilarious. Plus, that song has a number of tricky stops and tempo shifts, which the band figured out and played perfectly. The rest of the evening featured other holiday fare and Chris also had great arrangements for a bunch of chestnuts, including "Sleigh Ride" (one of my faves) and "Little Drummer Boy," (not one of my faves but it sounded awesome that night, due in no small part to Dave Throckmorton).

Tomorrow, my head willing, I think I'll get up and do quick posts about a few albums that might have flown under the radar and didn't make any Best-of lists. In the meantime, if you want to see my list of favorite jazz albums of the past year, check out the NPR jazz critic list here. There's a spot for individual lists too if you scroll down and follow a link.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Billy Harper in Pittsburgh

This past Saturday at the New Hazlett Theater, Billy Harper's Sextet put on one of the best jazz shows in a year that's been full of a lot of them. (Click here to read my preview at City Paper.) Harper played like a keeper of the Coltrane flame, with a fiery tone that can't be ignored and an exploratory nature that kept taking the energy down new avenues. And because of the latter quality, he was clearly doing more than paying tribute to his mighty peer. (Harper landed in New York in 1966, so he can be considered a contemporary of Trane.)

"Illumination" kicked off the evening and proved this was no ordinary show. The stop-start theme of the song sounded tense and edgy with the whole band playing it rigidly. It created suspense, waiting for the rhythm to kick in. When it did, Harper was ready to put off some heat. Trumpeter Freddie Hendrix did the same, playing a call and response with himself during a solo.

Unfortunately the sound mix preferred Aaron Scott's cymbals over the piano of Harper's longtime bandmate Francesca Tanksley, so the wild accents overshadowed a lot of her playing. It took a few songs for the balance to be reached. Alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw didn't fare as well. His solos could be heard for the most part, but it was hard to really feel them throughout the evening.

But magically, the so-so mix didn't diminish the impact of the sextet's performance. Harper spoke during our interview about the healing power of music, and while I might not have been in need of healing per se, there was definitely a moving quality to the band. "This is what happens when you have a good audience," Harper said.

Some of the tunes are things he's recorded and returned to on a few albums, but they all felt new that night: the massive "Thy Will Be Done," which closed the first set; "Africa Revisited," the groove-heavy piece that featured poetry by Amiri Baraka when it was released a few years ago on Blueprints of Jazz; and "Harper's Funny Val" (at least that's what it sounded like he called it) took the old warhorse "My Funny Valentine," slowed it down and made it more spiritual. These were just a few of the high points.

30 years ago, the Shadyside Balcony - a landmark on Walnut Street during the '80s and '90s as an eatery and a place to hear jazz - presented a concert series that included shows by the World Saxophone Quartet, James "Blood" Ulmer and Archie Shepp. I was there for those shows because my brother worked at the Balcony, and its sister restaurant Hot Licks, which was located downstairs. I didn't know until last Saturday that the first of these performances (which were produced by a production company called Kokopelli) was none other than Billy Harper, who was touring as Black Saint at the time. That was the name of one of his albums, which was the first record released by the Italian label Black Saint. The picture on the label of all their records is Billy Harper, by the way.

I wish I had been at that show back then and I can't understand how it flew under my radar. Who knows what kind of impact his set might have had on me then? Nevertheless I did see him last week and for that I'm glad.

Monday, December 14, 2015

CD Reviews: Tom Rainey Trio- Hotel Grief and Ingrid Laubrock - Ubatuba

Tom Rainey Trio
Hotel Grief 

Ingrid Laubrock

2015 has been a fruitful year for the Intakt label. While the CD industry is considered dead in this country, this Swiss label has cranked out a number of releases this year, all valuing artistic statement over commercial potential. Piano/drums duo performances by Marilyn Crispell & Gerry Hemingway and Irene Schweizer & Han Bennink; the duo of Mary Halvorson and Stephan Crump (known as Secret Keeper); as well as a blistering free improv romp by Katharina Weber (piano) Fred Frith (guitar) and Fredy Studer (drums): these are just some of the discs that washed up on our shores. 

Tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock has also shown up a few times on Intakt in 2015, together with a circle of friends. Roulette of the Cradle was released last spring by her group Anti-House, which included Halvorson and drummer Tom Rainey. The more recent Hotel Grief album credits Rainey's name first on the cover, but Laubrock and Halvorson are both listed in the same point size, giving them equal star value. (This is actually the second Rainey trio disc on Intakt. The group has toured quite a bit and Rainey and Laubrock have also toured as a duo. And - just for the sake of completion, not a comment on the performance - it should be noted that the latter two are married too.)

This egalitarian layout reflects the music, which comes from a totally improvised performance at the Cornelia Street Cafe in New York. No one calls the shots. One improvised section morphs into another, with Rainey's drums alternately providing shape to Laubrock's tenor lines or attempting to chop them up. Halvorson strums some mangled clusters of notes, or plucks away as her instrument sounds like it's melting. During one section of "Proud Achievements in Botany" she strums passionately and suddenly turns the volume pedal down, so all that's heard is the unamplified sound of plectrum on strings, captured by ambient mics. 

Although this is definitely free music, in terms of meter and melody, the comfort level and understanding between these three players makes the album sound as if at least some of it could have been composed or predetermined in some way. Three of the five tracks last between 13 and 18 minutes, which allows them all plenty of time to explore the space (and giving Laubrock the chance to switch to soprano sax on one of them). There are moments on the album that resemble a Tim Berne session, where one musician starts on a different path while the rest of the band backs away at first, allowing the piece to take on a different shape or sound. The musicians are highly engaged in conversation on this album and it's easy to feel that from the listener's standpoint.

Ubatuba features Laubrock (this time playing alto as well as tenor) and Rainey, together with Tim Berne (alto), Ben Gerstein (trombone) and Dan Peck (tuba). When Laubrock composed the material for the session, she wrote on the saxophone rather than the piano. This approach lends a starkness to some of the music, creating suspense as sounds layer over one another. 

"Any Breathing Organism" opens the album with the horns blowing low, long tones ever so softly, the sound of air nearly taking on as much significance as the clashes of notes. In the second half of the piece, Berne adds an animated solo to the backdrop but it never moves beyond the slow drone, so the suspense isn't completely dispelled.

The next track, "Homo Diluvi," begins with the horns playing warmer harmonies. The melody of this one moves in parallel lines, though the voicings stay pretty edgy and tense. After a wild alto solo, the track climaxes with a wall of high, shrill notes. This blast is nothing compared to the opening of "Any Many," in which each player coaxes the most rabid sounds out of their instrument, from somewhat flatulent tuba pops to saxophone growls. Laubrock, however, has more in mind that just the abrasives. Before the track ends, the quintet has dabbled in a more focused group improvisation and then a set of countermelodies that spill over one another and still maintain focus. All this, from one of Ubatuba's shorter tracks. 

Laubrock uses silence or open space in many of these tracks, which on the first few listens can be off-putting. "Any Breathing Organism" and "Any Many" have pregnant pauses galore. Then the final track "Hypnic Jerk" [sic] in fact sounds very much like it's over after seven minutes, when it's actually just reached the midway point. Laubrock begins with a pointed an alto solo backed by tuba and drums that gradually bring in the rest of the band.  Berne offers another solo, then things pull back, as Gerstein and Peck play softly off in the distance while Rainey taps on his rims and cymbals.  The dynamics rise back up, but things end with a twist: a fade-out on the drums. 

Ubatuba at times recalls the idiosyncratic compositions on some Art Ensemble of Chicago albums. (The opening track especially evokes Roscoe Mitchell's "Tnoona.") But the similarity seems more coincidental or it works more like a quick acknowledgement as she heads down her own path. While parts of the album don't come off as strongly, as a whole, she has created an interesting work with a strong band to elevate it. Also, her own solo on "Hiccups," backed only by Rainey, stands as one of the highlights and an example of the vision and energy from Hotel Grief working its way into a composed set. 

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Two Sides to Every Story or My Last Reference to my John Lydon Interview

My entire interview with John Lydon, complete with the sound effects (in parenthesis, of course) just went up on Blurt's website this week. You can find it here, along with some words about the Pittsburgh show, and some links to videos. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

CD Review: Ben Monder - Amorphae

Thanksgiving, a story about Tim Berne and Steve Byram's book (for JazzTimes), a story for City Paper to preview Billy Harper's show next week, getting a cold, drinking to make the cold go away (it worked!), not to mention the fact that I'm actually going to be working again (albeit part-time) starting tomorrow... the preparations and anxieties all kept me from blogging lately. But this album has been stuck in my drain trap lately....

Ben Monder

I once saw Ben Monder play guitar with the Maria Schneider Orchestra and was struck by the fact that he was playing at a low volume, yet the sound produced by his guitar sounded really full, as if he was playing it a lot louder. Maybe it could be called visceral understatement. It was intense without rattling the skull, or disrupting the flow of Schneider's large ensemble.

For that reason, he fits naturally with Paul Motian's loose-limbed approach to the drums wherein a minimum of wrist action can have an overwhelming effect. Two of the eight tracks on Amorphae come from a duo session the guitarist and drummer made in 2010, a year before Motian died. The rest of the album pairs Monder up with drummer Andrew Cyrille on four tracks, two of which add Pete Rende on synthesizer, and two other tracks feature Monder on his own.

Thematically, it flows together, with smooth transitions between tracks. Sonically, it feels less like an album affiliated with jazz than one aligned with space rock, in particular one that could be heard on the label Kranky. (This similarity has cropped up with a few other albums that have come out this year.) Melodies exist here, carved out of chords that ring out for measure upon measure, if it's even worth counting bar lines. Often, the sound of fingers or plectrum on strings isn't heard, just the sustained tone that results from this kind of attack. The tracks with Rende really move into the atmospherics because the wide, reverberating sound alludes to tones bouncing through an intergalactic sky. Cyrille is here, gently tapping in the background, acting as the cable that keeps you attached to the ground. It's loose and slow-moving, but it's also gorgeous.

Of the Motian tunes, "Oh What A Beautiful Morning" opens with a loud powerchord, a wake-up call after Monder's Frisellian solo "Tendrils." Like "Zythum," the second of the trio pieces, it slowly unfolds, giving the song from Oklahoma a brand new coat of paint, before building to a roaring climax, literally: Monder builds up a layer of chords and shrieks which sound like a lear jet, with some bass notes that overload and threaten the speakers. While it's close to space rock, none of that kind music has ever been this expansive and lush.

"Triffids," the other track with Motian, is slightly more conventional, sounds a little closer to the drummer's work with guitarist Bill Frisell. Despite its brevity (less than three minutes) it offers a good deal of shifting dynamics and attacks to the fretboard. If only it was longer.

Monder has a habit of plucking sounds and letting them just hang in the air until they decay. Non-guitar playing listeners might find it tedious. But he creates suspense with his melodies and laconic phrasing, making it hard to turn the ears away from it, even when he might be noodling.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Public Image Ltd in Pittsburgh

Playing right now: John Coltrane/Wilbur Harden - Countdown, The Savoy Sessions
(I have one of the Coltrane/Harden albums but I always forget which one it is when I see others in the store. Luckily I knew it wasn't this one, which I recently picked up. It's okay, post-Monk 'Trane, but he's still figuring out his vision.)

When the Cowardly Lion sings "If I Were King of the Forest" in The Wizard of Oz, actor Bert Lahr chews up the scenery for humor's sake, but it's clear that he has a pretty strong set of pipes.

That thought raced through my mind on Thursday night while watching John Lydon onstage. He really lives his words as he's onstage, his voice rising and falling in octaves as he goes. He frequently let out a high yelp that, in all honesty, sounded like Jon King's call to arms in Gang of Four's "To Hell With Poverty," which had me wondering who emulated who. After over an hour and a half of this, it's clear that the former Johnny Rotten has a strong set of pipes. And he can get an audience to rise up and obey his command. But he's also a ham, with a dark sense of humor.

"Religion," the scathing condemnation of the church (or as he once stated, the people who have corrupted it) took on a greater meaning in the desanctified church turned nightclub Altar Bar. He began and ended by chanting, "Here come the priests," which gets a little creepy if you try too hard to interpret it. He dropped his voice to a low growl as he went on: "Why should I call you Father? You're not my daddy." Later he yelled, "Turn up the bass," and my nasal passages will tell you that the soundman definitely obliged.

Of course, Lydon was slated to play King Herod in a touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar and you can't pull that off with just a dramatic sneer. Who knows, perhaps he has actually taken some voice training to give his vocal chords more stamina.

Dressed like either an old-school convict or a fellow who just rolled out of bed, still in his PJs, Lydon greeted us with his usual candor: "I have diarrhea. I hope the Imodium works. Bare with me." If he was telling the truth, it didn't show in his performance. He jumped around, used his trademark vibrato (by both shaking his whole head and occasionally tugging on his Adam's apple) and poured everything into the words, which must've have been what was on the music stand in front of him. 

Lydon swears he never panders, and he's right. Though it was a little funny seeing him milk the audience for applause a few times. doing the hand gesture normally see by arena rock bigshots who need to hear the love. Of course maybe he is a bigshot of a different sort. 

Lydon chafed when a friend at the Post-Gazette compared the sound of new PiL album What the World Needs Now... to older PiL albums, but the current lineup does work with that approach. Simon Firth rattled the building's foundation with his bass lines, even without the volume boost in "Religion." Lu Edmonds' guitar, by contrast, was high and trebly, with a bit of chorus, not at all unlike Keith Levene. Drummer Bruce Smith started out playing with punk-jazz bands the Pop Group and Rip, Rig and Panic so he could have very easily built on the grooves, but his timing keeping almost resembled Nick Mason most of the evening, albeit with a little more swing and some subtle dub coloring at certain points.

The evening drew heavily from the new album, but there were a couple old favorites thrown in. Metal Box was represented by "Death Disco" (or "Swan Lake" as it's called on the album). As Lydon told me, it did sound a little stronger than the original version, but it added a breakdown that sounded a little slick as well. "This Is Not a Love Song," from the post-Levene '80s era, also showed up. 

The band was tight and Lydon was fun, but somewhere past the 60-minute mark, they got stuck in mid-tempo territory and even those "ah-ah-OWWW" whoops started to blend together. The newer songs have more verse/chorus structures so there are breaks in them, but we needed a boost. Luckily it came with "Religion." 

For encores, they returned with two songs that I had forgotten about until then. (All that bass made me fuzzy. It was the first time in ages that I wore earplugs that protect from the low end). They blasted into their first single, "Public Image," with Lydon flipping lines in the chorus (the "monopoly" and "property" parts) but this was the money shot, I realized. After all these years of listening to that song at home, I was hearing it live and it sounded awesome.

I hadn't thought about "Rise," which was probably the first exposure to Lydon for most people my age, but that followed, amidst huge cheers. Now, thanks to his new book, we understand that "Anger is an energy" is more than just a slogan, so hearing that live too, was something of a thrill.

Having given us a farewell blessing, and politely introducing his bandmates, Mr. L took off into the night.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

CD Review: David S. Ware/ Apogee - Birth of a Being

David S. Ware/Apogee
Birth of a Being
(AUM Fidelity)

Birth of a Being was originally issued in 1979 by hat Hut Records, making it David S. Ware's first release as a leader. Apogee, however, was originally conceived as a collective trio, with pianist Cooper-Moore and drummer Marc Edwards, who all crossed paths at the Berklee School (now College) of Music in the late '60s, all interested in playing free music. While much of the music indeed sounds like group improvisation, Ware comes across as the leader. With one exception, Cooper-Moore and Edwards don't play unless Ware is playing, and the tenor saxophonist never stops. What's most interesting about the album - which now includes a second disc of previously unreleased material - relates to the focus in Ware's performance. The assuredness he displayed up until his death in 2012 was already in place in 1977, when these recordings were made.

Ware and Edwards had joined Cecil Taylor's group prior to these recordings, which actually served as more of a reunion of Apogee. After playing throughout Boston and relocating to New York (where they opened for Ware's former teacher Sonny Rollins), the trio concept was put on hold, and Cooper-Moore had moved back to Virginia, where he began a long career of making his own instruments. Back together in the studio, the group reignites the fires that got them started nearly a decade earlier.

Considering it that way, it's easy to hear the joy these three friends felt. Edwards sounds especially vicious, frequently pounding away in a machine-gun-style attack. Cooper-Moore straddles Taylor-esque runs on the piano, but lets a melodic sense run through as well.

Ware sounds especially enthralling because, while his vocabulary is set, he spends a little more time on the ground, rather than just lifting off into the stratosphere. The best example actually comes at the end of disc two in "Solo," nearly seven minutes of exploration on a theme that reveals his kinship to Rollins.

But the first piece to greet listeners is "Prayer," a gorgeous testimony of all that would come in his lifetime. Cooper-Moore plays the sanctified rubato chords, as Ware builds from the throaty theme to sanctification. Disc two contains an alternate take of the tune, well worth it since the saxophonist always excelled when he started with a structure and gradually pulled away from its gravitational force. (Memories of "Aquarian Sound," on 1992's Flight of i, my introduction to Ware's oeuvre.) Even as the group spends a good deal of time blowing freely, some sort of melodic base runs through the tracks, usually a melody line from Ware, which belts out in his authoritative tone.

"Stop Start" plays on the jazz tradition tradition of "trading fours," though in this case, the musicians aren't limited to four bars in which to strut their stuff. Each member takes turns in an unrestricted solo space, before they come together and Ware signs off. He and Cooper-Moore would revisit this idea years later on Planetary Unknown with bassist William Parker and drummer Muhammad Ali. Cooper-Moore also gets a solo track with the newly discovered "Ain't Nobody Going to Turn Me Around, listed on the cover as "Ashimba," the name given to a marimba the musician built himself.

More than just a bookend in the David S. Ware discography, Birth of a Being introduces a musician who apparently knew what lay in his future before he was even a teenager. It's mandatory listening not just for fans of the tenor saxophonist but for anyone interested in the trajectory of '70s free/loft jazz.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

CD Review: Hugo Carvalhais - Grand Valis

Hugo Carvalhais
Grand Valis
(Clean Feed)

If  "Anamnesis" has been played by an acoustic bass, saxophone and piano, it could be appropriate to consider it a new strain of free jazz. However the track - number four on the latest from upright bassist Hugo Carvalhais - features the leader's instrument together with violin and a pipe organ, or at the very least a type of organ that sounds very close to the type heard in churches and classical recital halls. Under the hands of Gabriel Pinto, the instrument isn't weighed down. On this track, it plays a short unison line worthy of an AACM composer, before all three musicians start a three-way conversation, violinist Dominique Pifarely doing most of the talking. A bit of static pops up quickly, sounding like the disc is skipping. We have been tricked again. It's the fourth member of the group, Jeremiah Cymerman, who receives credit for "electronic manipulation," which frequently gives the music the dimension implied by the image on the front cover.

This sound epitomizes Grand Valis, which affects a midnight dream sequence in a cathedral or the wild experiments of a chamber group cutting loose while their director is out of the room. Pinto's instruments frame the mood of the music since they sound so odd in a setting where tempos run free. But they also provide a tranquil backdrop that feels relaxing and ultimately makes you shift your focus to the playing of Carvalhais and Pifarely. Pinto's rapid opening salvo on "Logos" is one of the most intriguing blends of timbre and melody that I've heard this year, especially in light of what follows: spastic violin bowing and a bass that walks rapidly - in elliptical patterns. But Carvalhais isn't done yet. For the final two minutes he slows down to a steady four-to-the-bar progression, like some mutant prog-like idea that frames an organ solo.

As Pifarely wildly leads the way in "Decoding Maya," Pinto eventually settles into a odd-metered but steady line. "Amigdala Waves" features chimes that sound like mutant music boxes or marimba playing in reverse (Carvalhais is credited with "electronics" on this track, which are likely the source). Carvalhais uses his bow in a few places, but he plays arco most of the time, producing a rich wooden tone that links the music back to jazz. One particular lick, where plucks all four strings, evokes Charlie Haden. Although sounds move amorphously, all but one of the 10 tracks are less than six minutes long, which gives everything a sense of direction.

The album's title comes from Philip K. Dick's Valis and the album supposedly serves as a "meditation suite upon the world." In keeping with that, the elements that come together in the music can make one contemplate the vast expanse of the universe.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Saturday: The 45th Annual University of Pittsburgh Jazz Seminar

Geri Allen has now played host to the University of Pittsburgh Jazz Seminar and Concert three times, taking the place of Dr. Nathan Davis, who started the annual event 45 years ago. Allen has held onto the basic format of the event, staging free seminars by the guest musicians, with a concert at the Carnegie Music Hall culminating a week of events. The concert itself, though, starting moving beyond its tried-and-true template almost immediately in the opening of the 2013 concert.

Another change came this year with the structure of the program. Everything came in one continuous set which flowed better than two sets and an intermission, which made the evening run pretty late. Awards were bestowed before the performances, rather than in the middle, with Jimmy Cobb and Pharoah Sanders each receiving Lifetime Achievement Awards from Allen herself. The drawn-out introductions of the musicians from bygone days were thankfully replaced by a concise, enthusiastic announcements by Pitt professors Terrence Hayward and Yona Harvey.

That being said, it seemed to take the musicians a few songs to really get into a groove. Part of the problem could be attributed to a lackluster sound mix. "Get Happy" wasn't exactly the tune that could get the ball rolling, and tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders' microphone didn't have a lot of juice. The same could be said about Tineke Postma (who started out on soprano sax) and the double-piano attack of Ms. Allen and Kenny Barron. (By the end of the night, Postma pointed her microphone at Sanders' bell to make sure he came through loud and clear.) Luckily trumpeter Jimmy Owens and trombonist Robin Eubanks had no trouble being heard, the former sounding especially bright and crisp.

Allen, who frequently relinquished the stage to her guests, let each one pick a tune for their particular spotlight. Three songs in, bassist Robert Hurst's "Optimism," ("written during the Obama campaign") had a bright, folk-like melody that got everyone on track, which was especially evident in Postma's soprano solo. A few songs later, Owens's contribution, which he called "Elated Joyful Happy Blues" found Postma entering on her alto with leaps akin to Eric Dolphy. Sanders, who sat out for many of the ensemble passages during the evening, produced one of his trademark shrieks during the tune. His solo spot, like most of them throughout the evening, was on the shorter side and didn't really give him a chance to spiral up into his gritty, trademark sound, or do his other idiosyncratic thing of producing a melody by popping the pads on his horn.

Regardless, when Sanders stood up for his reading of "Say It (Over and Over Again)," it wasn't screeches that he produced but a spot-on imitation of John Coltrane. This wasn't some Trane apostle copping his lines, this was the guy who stood next to him for two years onstage. And if anyone objected to Sanders' style in the '60s, he was here to prove that there's much more to him that the fire music that he created. Barron offered a nice McCoy Tyner-esque solo, and Hurst added some fire by double-timing over the changes.

Since Jimmy Cobb is the last surviving member of the Miles Davis Kind of Blue session, and since there were four NEA Jazz Masters on the stage, Allen had the drummer play "So What" from that famous album, aided by Owens, Barron, Sanders and Hurst. Everyone sounded solid, Owens most prominently, Sanders again having to play the role once occupied by Trane, though his solo stuck more with his throaty side.

Cobb came across throughout the evening as a more subdued drummer, which again could be attributed to the mix. Last year his Original Mob (Smoke Session) made clear that he still has a lot of hard swing left in him, but that wasn't quite on display at the Carnegie Music Hall. When local institution Roger Humphries joined the band for a few songs, though, Cobb held his own. The two drummers engaged in a drum duel that never digressed into excessive showmanship, and kept things geared towards solid solos. Percussionist Mino Cinelu (probably best known for his tenure in Miles' '80s band and with Weather Report) added color and extra texture to the music throughout the evening too.

In the end, the Pitt Jazz Seminar concert still offered a good time. If the band didn't really click immediately, it was still good seeing this individuals come together find common ground where they could collectively tear it up.

One question - what was the guitar doing at stage right? It was near Cinelu's chair but the only time he touched it was to move it out of the way.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Friday: Going to a record show and Polyphonic Spree

My friend James Pertusi came to Mr. Small's on Friday night, playing with a band called Sharp Things, who were opening for Polyphonic Spree. I hadn't planned on going to see Polyphonic Spree - I simply haven't gotten around to them yet, which I realize is crazy since it's been 15 years - but James set me up so I couldn't say no. He and I got to know each other when he played in Fake Brain, who played several times with my band the Mofones in the early-to-mid aughts. They stayed at my house and there were plans for world domination. Which, sadly, never came to be.

But first, I had to stop at the record show happening at Spirit, a new club in Lawrenceville that was once a Moose Lodge. It was one of those events where all manner of people set up and sell albums. (I've done it a couple times in the past.) One of the guys from my old job said he was setting up there, so I wanted to see what he had, because he's a jazz head.

Turns out it was a former WYEP DJ who helped me strike paydirt: Cecil Taylor's Garden, Gil Evans' Into the Hot (which has no Gil but three tracks each by Cecil Taylor and Johnny Carisi) and Steppenwolf's The Second (because mine is beat and needs to be replaced). He also had a mono copy of Steppenwolf's debut which I should've bought because it's pretty rare. I also found a $3 copy of 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, which I couldn't pass up.

Then I picked up my friend Dana and we headed for Small's, which is just across the river.

Sharp Things are a far cry from Fake Brain. The latter were high energy, zany (in the best possible way) post punk. The latter are gentle and more meditative. They reminded me in a way of the Pernice Brothers, though that could be because I was listening to that band in the car on the ride over. But Perry Serpa (at the keys, above) writes some lyrically-driven stuff. It was a relaxed set, but the band kept my attention, finishing with a  strong cover of "The Ghost In You."

Of course Polyphonic Spree was epic. Everything they do is epic. I counted 17 people onstage and even that could be off a little. You can't see her in the picture, but they had a harp player on far stage left. On top of that, violin, cello (who was doing the rocking-out-while-playing thing which was okay is small doses but gets excessive very easily, like in the video that keeps floating around FB of the dudes headbanging while they play "Smells Like Teen Spirit"; classical people, please stop; sorry for the parenthetical tangent), flute, trumpet, trombone, two guitars, keys, percussion, drummer, four back-up singers who had synchronized moves and lead singer Tim DeLaughter, looking a bit like John Lydon with that short hair. Not really knowing their songs, it was my first excursion into their music. The videos I took on my phone made everything sound clearer than I discerned live, but the visuals and the sounds were pretty enthralling the whole time.

They came out in white robes which they wore for the duration of the first "set," which consisted of the entire first album, played in order (or so I've been told). After a five-minute break, they came back for more, the band in their street clothes and the choir now wearing striped mini-robes, which looked like they were red and green, depending on the way the lights hit them.

By then, a little more than an hour had passed, and Dana and I were both feeling like it was time to go. Luckily Sharp Things didn't have to leave as soon as they were done, as James had implied in a text earlier in the evening. (They were driving overnight to Milwaukee.) So we got to chat a little bit and made plans to meet again in the new year.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Now you can read my John Lydon interview

I've been talking about it endlessly, and now it's finally available: my Public Image Ltd., article. If you're in Pittsburgh, pick up a print copy too. If you're not, just follow the link.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Four Sides of Matthew Shipp, Michael Bisio's Shining Hour

Matthew Shipp Trio
The Conduct of Jazz
(Thirsty Ear)

The Uppercut: Matthew Shipp/Mat Walerian Duo
Live at Okuden

Matthew Shipp Quintet
Our Lady of the Flowers

Matthew Shipp Trio
To Duke

Michael Bisio

Matthew Shipp said that, after he released I've Been To Many Places last year, it might be his last album for awhile. Then came The Gospel According to Matthew and Michael, a trio session with bassist Michael Bisio and violist Mat Maneri. That was followed by two vastly different disks for Rogue Art, a duo with a new collaborator on ESP and, within the past couple months, a new trio album on Thirsty Ear. 

"Don’t listen to what I say when it comes to recording," Shipp told me back in the spring. "I meant it. But I’m still in this vortex of recording. I just can’t seem to get out of it." Well, if the inspiration is there, better to roll with it than to ignore it. Still, this isn't music that can truly be appreciated and understood over dinner. 

The artwork on The Conduct of Jazz resembles the somewhat slick homages to Blue Note albums which might have been seen on album covers in the 1990s. After years of abstract artwork on all those Thirsty Ear albums, that is kind of a surprise.

Shipp's right-hand man/bassist Michael Bisio is back with him on this album, the newest of this batch of releases. Rather than regular drummer Whit Dickey, Newman Taylor Baker sits behind the kit, playing with an understated pulse that can shift easily between keeping the tempo and blurring it. The title track is one of Shipp's catchier themes, with an AABA structure that shifts between 7/4 in the A and 5/4 in the B. Bisio walks through it and Baker gives it a swing that liberates it from the potential rigidity of the signatures. "Blue Abyss" finds the group working on a dark groove, with Shipp providing the contrast with variations on the main chord. In "Streams of Light" the pianist plays alone, with an engaging solo that puts his inquisitive manner on display, made all the more enjoyable by his unique phrasing and stresses. "The Bridge Across" rolls on for 12 minutes, a length that Shipp rarely commits to on disc.

Shipp has recorded duo albums with several reed players, like saxophonists Rob Brown, Darius Jones and Ivo Perelman. Poland native Mat Walerian actually plays a Dolphy-esque arsenal of reeds on his meeting with Shipp: bass clarinet, alto saxophone, soprano clarinet and flute. This is an album where the line between improvisation and composition blurs, due in part to the way the two communicate.

The tracks titled "Free Bop Statement One" and "...Two" are credited to both men, implying an improvisation. Yet Shipp provides a bit of grounded structure to both (they appear concurrently with breaks between them that are only detectable when watching the CD counter) while Walerian blows a dry-toned, inquisitive alto that resides in the mid-range with a few quick squeals. The title surely likely came as an afterthought and is in keeping with Shipp titles that approach the tradition with some irreverence.

Walerian's clarinets create some of the album's finest moments. "Blues for Acid Cold" (which doesn't resemble a traditional blues) begins with an introspective Shipp solo before Walerian's b-flat reed makes its entrance. (The latter receives sole writing credit on this one, for the record.) The 16-minute "Black Rain" finds the duo so comfortable with each other that they nearly stretch out into a chamber music duo. Those looking for a new diversion in Shipp's ever-growing discography are encouraged to start here.

Of course. To Duke takes him in a surprising direction too. Yes, the pianist - along with Bisio and Dickey - pay tribute to the beloved Mr. Ellington. But yes, they do it on their own terms which means bass and drums bob and weave behind the piano that plays "In a Sentimental Mood" and "Solitude," the Ellington compositions that bookend the album. In between they also add a couple Shipp originals that relate, at least in title and spirit, to the interpretations.

While Ellington salutes are often too reverent to have meaning to anyone but the performer, it's nice to hear the overplayed "Satin Doll" bounced off the wall like a Monk solo, with the bass and drums keeping a steady 4/4 within arm's reach if they need to bring it back up. "Prelude to a Kiss" also has a Monk-like approach, due to Shipp's two choruses playing the theme with just enough embellishment to give it new character. After all these decades, the kiss has taken on different qualities. And so does a ride on the A Train.

There will never be another tenor saxophonist like the late David S. Ware, with whom Shipp played extensively. "From the Beyond," the fourth track on Our Lady of the Flowers comes off like an accidental tribute to the master, the tenor eruptions coming from Sabir Mateen. Bassist William Parker, another longtime Ware bandmate, creates the rolling thunder with Shipp, giving Mateen the bed for heavy vibrato, low growls and high-pitched exclamations. Drummer Gerald Cleaver gets the final word, not with multi-directional shots across his kit but a steady bash on toms and cymbal, which finishes off the track for a solid two minutes. 

"From the Beyond" epitomizes the quartet on Our Lady of the Flowers but the disc features much more than that. The group breaks into duos (piano and drums, piano and clarinet), solos (bass) and even a trio without piano. Some of it gets brutal, some of it sounds exploratory, but all of it sounds consistent. Proof that changing one or two musicians in a band can take the entire sound in completely new directions.

Michael Bisio says that Accortet "chronicles thirty-plus years of my life as a composer in song form and otherwise." Nevertheless, the bright melody of "AM," which kicks off the album, still comes out of right field. After hearing him with Shipp numerous times, and on a recent disc of solo bass (the self-released Travel Music, circa 2011), the bright 6/8 folk melody indicates that Bisio's scope is wider than what might be expected. He's joined by cornetist Kirk Knuffke, drummer Michael Wimberley and, in the role that inspired the album title, accordionist Art Bailey.

While the opening piece sounds bright and engaging thanks to all parties involved, Bailey also puts to rest the question of whether a squeezebox can blow free jazz. "Giant Chase" sounds just like what its name implies, and Bailey gets a chance to wail freely as the rhythm section cuts loose. "Charles Too!" begins at a slow tempo, morphing into a brisk pace that gives him a chance to do it again.

In between those directions, Bisio comes up with one of the best titles of all time, "I Want To Do To You What Spring Does to Cherry Trees," it being a modern ballad (lyrics could fit the melody) that puts Knuffke's warm cornet in the spotlight, with strong punctuation from Bailey and the composer. "Times That Bond" starts free, but by the end Bisio picks out the riff of A Love Supreme's "Acknowledgement," which seems to be a tip of the hat, albeit out of tempo. Strong stuff.

Friday, October 30, 2015

How to Talk to John Lydon

This time last week it seemed like I wasn't going to be writing an article to preview Public Image Ltd's upcoming Pittsburgh show (November 12, in case you need to know). I was warned early on that getting an interview with John Lydon was dicey because they were in Europe on tour. But that was the word a couple weeks earlier. No updates had come through, and my deadline was coming at the beginning of this week. Without an interview, there was no point. Hell, I hadn't even heard the new album yet.

Late Friday morning, I checked email and saw that, at 1:00 a.m., a message had come through saying that the interview would happen at 12:30 pm EST - which was about 45 minutes from the time that I saw this message.

Hole. Lee. Crap.

I flipped. John Lydon was on my interview bucket list, and the only person left on it, after having successfully interviewed Ginger Baker a few months ago. (Jimmy Smith died before I could get a chance with him. Alex Chilton... no way I was going to get him on the phone. Besides he's dead now too.) Remembering how he hung up on my colleague at the Post-Gazette the last time PiL was due in town, I knew I had to prepare questions that wouldn't rankle him, and that weren't yes-or-no in format.

I started scrambling, trying to put my long-term thoughts into coherent questions, while listening to the download of What the World Needs Now..., the new PiL album that arrived with the interview confirmation.

Then I waited.

When the phone didn't ring, I waited another 20 minutes before sending an email. "Mixup. How about Sunday at 1:30? By the way, you have to call John in England." Okay. A sigh of relief, followed by 48 hours of suspense.

That also gave time to listen to a few Lydon interviews online, including a recent one on World Cafe. Instead of the snotty kid that wouldn't give Tom Snyder more than a few words back in 1979, here was a guy whose cheeky sense of humor was balanced by a willingness to talk freely and reflect on the trials of his life - most significantly the impact of childhood meningitis on his relationship with his parents and the way he viewed the world. In one interview, he gets a bit teary-eyed as he talks about it.

Is this my brother's John Lydon?

"‘allo Pittsburgh! I was expecting you," Mr. Lydon greeted me. "Well, sort of. The times got a bit changed 'cuz there’s daylight savings time in Europe. Fun town! Gonna be made even more fun once Public Image rolls through!" Not exactly the confidant message I was expecting, but like most famous people I've interviewed, you realize that they're regular human beings when you sit down and talk to them that way.

I don't want to give anything away just yet. The Pittsburgh City Paper article will hit the street next Wednesday (online too). By that time, there will likely be a link here to it. If not, I'm a damn fool not to blow more horn a little more.

What I will say now is that we had a great 15-minute chat, which definitely would have been longer had he been at his other home in the U.S. When I tried to get him to talk about music history - like whether he knew current PiL drummer Bruce Smith when he was in the Pop Group - then he gave a rather quick affirmative answer, adding that guitarist Lu Edmonds was also around during that period. He was ready to move on to other topics. 

Also, when he mentioned the work "reunion" in passing, I tried to ask if he'd ever work with Keith Levene or Jah Wobble again, and before I could get halfway through the sentence, the idea was gunned down in a hail of "no"s. It made me wonder if I he thought I was going to say the Sex Pistols or not. (I hadn't asked anything specific about the band.) Had I pressed, maybe the receiver would've returned to the phone cradle. But I'm not that kind of guy. Sometimes it's best to let your interview subject do the driving, especially when he's showing you such beautiful verbal scenery. (And he gave me plenty in the time.)

Besides, he signed off with what sounded like a tongue-in-cheek but genuine Irish blessing, which I've still yet to decipher on the interview tape. (Goddam that cellphone delay.) And he thanked me for a good conversation. That made it all the more worthwhile.

Friday, October 23, 2015

CD Review: Last Exit - Iron Path

Last Exit
Iron Path

There wasn't much fanfare made when ESP reissued this 1988 album, the only Last Exit session recorded in the studio, back in the spring. It deserves the attention because it captured the raucous quartet coming together in ways that their sprawling improvisations often simply hinted at.

Of course, Last Exit was a ball of sonic fire. Any group with saxophonist Peter Brotzmann will never be mistaken for a lounge act. But combine him with guitarist Sonny Sharrock (whose days with Herbie Mann were a distant memory by this time), drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson (who had come off a stint with Cecil Taylor and was leading the avant-funk Decoding Society around the same time) and bassist Bill Laswell (he of Material, the original Golden Palominos and all things iconoclastic), and the results are a band of jazz guys who could reduce any of that era's metal bands to a pile of hair gel and splinters.

While I'll admit I don't know the bulk of the band's catalog, pieces I've heard over the years struck me more as a group of wild improvisers playing at the same time, but not necessarily playing together. It resided more in the zone between the exhilaration of free-blowing chaos and nasty grooves. Heavy, for sure, but hard to grab onto. The studio gave them time to focus and that's apparent immediately. "Prayer" brings it all together. Opening the album solemnly, it catches fire with an E chord roaring over a wave of drums, with space for a chord change in between. The music doesn't need a backbeat to rock. It flows out of the speakers like an angry tide.

Typically, Sharrock sets up the melodic scenery with Laswell, before going off into some six-string chaos, with the bassist maintaining a link between the guitar and drums. Brotzmann adds to the wildness on top, screaming and shrieking on tenor or bass clarinet. On "Eye for an Eye" it sounds like he's matching wits with Laswell, unleashing gargantuan honks now on the bass saxophone. As brutal as the band could be, they could offer brief respites with brighter moments. "Sand Dancer" offers a brief riff from Laswell's upper register, which sounds close to a soul idea.

Less than four years later, Sharrock would release Ask the Ages, one of the highlights of his career, with Pharoah Sanders, Elvin Jones and Charnett Moffatt fleshing out his vision of heavy jazz. While it came off like a more song-oriented version of Last Exit (and even included a tender ballad). it's likely it never would have occurred without the experiments he made with Last Exit.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

CD Review : Dave Douglas Quintet - Brazen Heart

Dave Douglas Quintet
Brazen Heart

It wasn't too long ago that Dave Douglas released High Risk, an album that placed his trumpet in the company of electronic musicians from the bands Ghostly International and Groove Collective. (The mix of company worked really well too. My review can be found here.) Now, the trumpeter has returned less than six months later with the third release from his quintet, with Matt Mitchell (piano), Linda Oh (bass), Jon Irabagon (tenor saxophone) and Rudy Royston (drums).

On first blush, it might sound a little...standard, especially after the last one. Douglas and Irabagon play a few melodies together that Wayne Shorter might have written in the '60s. A line similar to one by Thelonious Monk begins one piece - before moving off into more unique waters. At that point, a closer listen becomes mandatory and it reveals a wealth of original playing and writing.

The unexpected moments give Brazen Heart much of its staying power. "Miracle Gro" starts off with a backbeat, which Douglas digs into. Out of nowhere, the group shifts into a rubato interlude making everything come to a pensive halt. Then it's back to the changes for an Irabagon solo that uses the tenor's whole range, with a shriek or two for added emphasis. Royston, here and throughout, pushes his bandmates hard, never quite overplaying, but definitely starting fires. 

"Inure Phase" (say it out loud), is based on a Steve Reich concept where everyone plays in a different time signature. It gives the tune an anxious quality that makes it sound like it could pull apart at any minute. Yet everyone solos over changes so everything remains in focus, again bolstered by Royston.

Special mention should be made of Linda Oh's work on the album. A solid accompanist to be sure, her lines frequently grab the ear for the inventive way they serve the music and add more color. She, like the equally bold Matt Mitchell, gets a fair amount of solo space throughout the album.

Some of the music on Brazen Heart was inspired by personal loss. Readings of the traditional "Deep River" and "There Is a Balm in Gilead" convey a sense of reflection too. But without digging into the background, the album comes off with a sense of excitement rather than sorrow. The rapid-fire "Wake Up Claire" ends the set and drives this point home.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Paul, George, Yoko and...Clifford + Zakir Hussain + Palindromes at Space Exchange

Playing right now: Josh Berman's new CD A Dance and a Hop on Delmark. Just him on cornet, with Jason Roebke (bass) and Frank Rosaly (drums).

I saw three shows at three different venues last night.

I needed to talk to bassist Paul Thompson for a column I'm writing and it just so happens that he was leading a quartet at the Backstage Bar downtown for the Jazz Happy Hour thingy. Inspiring the title of this entry, the group also included George Heid III (drums), Yoko Suzuki (alto saxophone) and Clifford Barnes (keyboard).

Paul is a man for all seasons, able to fit in with everyone from Ben Opie to Maynard Ferguson (yeah, he's played with both). The group was straight forward, nothing too wild for this crowd, mixing some well-known classics like "Autumn Leaves" and "Cherokee" in with a Sade cover and a couple pieces by bassist Paul Chambers. Suzuki has a really strong tone which made her pretty distinctive. There were a couple tunes where her long tones were astounding. On an old warhorse like "Cherokee" she was pushing herself too. Barnes stretched out impressively as well, evoking Errol Garner at one point with his attack, which sounded cool. Heid, whose dad is a Pittsburgh jazz veteran, swung with authority. And of course Paul was solid as a rock, especially when he was plucking out those rapid Chambers themes.

From there, it was down to the Byham Theater. A friend said he had an extra ticket to the Zakir Hussain show. Dave Holland was playing bass with him, and I wanted to try and check it out, so I couldn't say no. I only really know Hussain's name in passing so I wasn't sure what I was in for.

Hussain came out onstage first, talking about how jazz musicians took a lot of influence from Indian music, but prior to that, Indians were inspired by jazz music that was around in the '20s and '30s. At some point during the show, he added that the music they were playing couldn't simply be called jazz or Indian classical music. It had a little of each.

But before that happened, Holland had to mark the birthday of Pittsburgh native and jazz bass pioneer Ray Brown. Dave claimed that it was the sound of Brown's bass on an Oscar Peterson record that made him decide to switch from bass guitar to upright and start playing jazz. So he treated us to a solo version of "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," complete with some rich double-stops.

Had the concert lasted about 90 minutes, I would've been happy. Instead it lasted about 2 hours and 10 minutes. Don't get me wrong, Hussain was totally amazing on the tablas, getting slides out of town, playing melodies and just being percussive. There was also one drum that resonated like a kick drum and filled out the band's sound. Vocalist Shankar Mahadevan was also a great performer too, singing what amounted to a blend of Western blue tones and traditional Indian scales. The first song he performed was slow and dreamy and extended. Pianist Louiz Banks and guitarist Sanjay Divecha really added to highlights like this. It was really interesting to hear the audience, largely Indian, roar with approval when Mahadevan starting singing a song they knew. My friend Daryl and I both wondered what it was, and found it interesting to be out of the loop.

But some of the evening seemed to digress into grandstanding, with Hussain doing on his instruments what metal guitarists do on their axes. Okay, maybe that's a little harsh, but it was showy. And while the cohesion in that band was astounding when they made all those tricky time changes together, I got really restless with all the tacka-tacka-deeka-DEEka-tacka vocalizations. Forgive me if it sounds ethnocentric. I respect it. I'm just not feeling it.

Plus I hadn't had a proper dinner yet....

Off I went to the Thunderbird for Space Exchange. This week, bassist Matt Booth was calling the set with Palindrones, which consisted of Space Exchange curators Ben Opie (saxophones) and Dave Throckmorton (drums), Space-Exchange-ex-pat-but-still-here-when-he-can guitarist Chris Parker and tenor saxophonist John Petrucelli. (Matt now lives in New Orleans but makes it back every so often too.) The first set was over when I got there and they were getting ready for the second.

It might have been the gin hitting my overly caffeinated body (I had a lot of joe at the Backstage Bar, knowing it'd be a long night), but these guys were astounding. They started out with a Paul Motian tune (can't recall the title) that was loud as hell and just as visceral. Throckmorton does an amazing job on Motian tunes anyway but Opie set himself on fire, and Petrucelli knew just how to enter after him - soft and fluttering, and building up gradually. Parker got louder as the set went on but I was loving the grooves he was banging out.

A few people commented on the small crowd for the evening but as the band played (and I dug into a couple pulled pork sliders), a few more interested people started crowding around and checking out the band. Maybe not the full crowd they would have liked, but it did expand a little.

Hopefully they'll all turn out next week when Lina Allemano, who you might have read about here, comes back to town, this time with her regular quartet. It's a free show, people! Give her the Pittsburgh welcome, because there's a chance she won't be back again - or at least not for a looooooooooong time.

Monday, October 12, 2015

CD Review: Liberty Ellman - Radiate

Liberty Ellman

In a way, it comes as kind of a surprise that guitarist Liberty Ellman hasn't released an album under his own name in nine years. But on further thought, he's so busy popping up in other places as a support player that he might not have the time.

Ellman's best-known connection is a nearly 15-year tenure with Henry Threadgill's band Zooid, the longest lasting band of the reedist/composer's career. But Ellman's guitar has also been heard on albums by Stephan Crump's Rosetta Trio, on Steve Lehman and Rudresh Mahanthappa's Dual Identity album and performances with everyone from Butch Morris to Joe Lovano. As a mixing engineer, his name seems even more ubiquitous, having turned knobs for Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd and Gregory Porter just to name a few.

For his first album since 2006's Ophiuchus Butterfly, Ellman cashed in his chips and assembled an A-list group of friends. Lehman and Crump are here, as well as Zooid bandmate Jose Davila (tuba, trombone), Five Elements' Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) and man about town Damion Reid (drums).

Not to downplay the skills at work in this ensemble - who mesh incredibly in these intricate pieces - but Ellman is the kind of guitarist that could pull off something just as enthralling with only the rhythm section to back him. His plays using vocabulary that's just off\kilter enough and delivers it with one of the most enchanting tones since Bill Frisell patented his signature volume pedal-fueled attack. "Moment Twice" almost acts like a tease, with guitar, bass and drums playing a theme statement for just under two minutes. "Furthermore" has a rubato rolling accompaniment from Crump and Reid, which Ellman uses to produce a dream soundtrack, picking clean lines that speed up and slow down at will. The horns eventually join him, but only to add color in the background. The focus remains on the guitar.

Ellman's writing gets rather knotty, with patterns that morph just when Reid's snare hits start to make it easy to find the structure. Threadgill might be an influence but a comparison could be made to Steve Coleman's angular writing, though Ellman stays closer to the groove end of things. The horns never sound constricted by the time signature. Davila's role alternates between rhythm section member ("Supercell') and soloist ("Rhinocerisms," where the low horn fits the name, and "A Motive," where he switches to trombone).

Lehman's rapid technique is put to good use, most notably in "Vibrograph," where he fires off some descending lines, throwing off clusters of five, almost as a passing thought. Between that song and the preceding "Skeletope," Crump plays a bass solo that, conversely, offers open space for reflection, similar to Charlie Haden in its pensiveness.

For the closing "Enigmatic Runner" Ellman gives himself the chance to cut loose. Storming in like a distorted, progressive rocker, he tears through a rugged, extended line that is either one of the best guitar solos of the year or one of the most astounding through-composed sections in longer. On cue, Finlayson and Lehman come in right as Ellman concludes his statement.

Will this group ever perform live and, if so, will it ever happen beyond the borders of New York? Probably not, considering all the schedules that come into play. In the meantime, grab this and get lost in it.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

CD Review: Jon Irabagon - Behind the Sky & Inaction Is an Action


Jon Irabagon
Behind the Sky

Jon Irabagon
Inaction is An Action

Jon Irabagon has released two vastly divergent albums simultaneously before. 2013 saw the releases of Unhinged, by the saxophonist's slightly more conventional group Outright, while I Don't Hear Nothing But the Blues Volume 2 featured a rather abrasive 40-minute free improvisation with guitarist Mick Barr and drummer Mike Pride.

But when talking about polar opposites, go no further than these two discs. Behind the Sky is the long awaited followup to The Observer, a straightahead album that Irabagon made for Concord Records following his victory at the 2008 Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition. Inaction Is An Action presents the Mostly Other People Do the Killing band member playing eight tracks of solo saxophone - on the rarely heard sopranino horn. There are musicians who can play it straight and fit just as comfortably in free settings, but most of them choose one over the other as a career move. Irabagon might be the first to take both paths without apologies to either, and he brings the same amount of conviction to each setting.

The group on Behind the Sky features the rhythm section of Luis Perdomo (piano), Yasushi Nakamara (bass) and Rudy Royston (drums). Tom Harrell joins them on three tracks, adding trumpet and flugelhorn. Irabagon, who has played various saxophones with his bands, plays tenor and a bit of soprano, and, on the quartet pieces, he moves in a Coltrane direction. "100 Summers" bears this out, since the rhythm section flows over him, Royston rolling and crashing with mallets in hand and Irabagon starting his solo with cells of notes that he shapes and reshapes before moving onto the next cluster.

"Cost of Modern Living" also gives Royston the chance to thunder away, especially when the group locks into a riff on the coda. Prior to that, Irabagon plays a solo that proves he isn't here to simply pay homage. He unleashes a series of complex lines that go into double-time and, as this is the second song of the album, keeps the bar high for the rest of the album.

Harrell, a straightahead but always dynamic player, proves to be a good frontline partner who is capable of thriving outside of his usual comfort zone. After an intriguing entrance on "Still Water" where his tone has a unique quiver to it, he digs into the song's changes with series of short but direct lines. The haunting "Obelisk" is marked by some dissonant intervals, to which Perdomo adds some great color, before the horns improvise collectively. "Eternal Springs" opens with one of the most muscular-sounding soprano saxophone solos to come down the pike in a long time. It sets the standard for the 6/8 groove that follows with Perdomo and Harrell delivering strong work.

Behind the Sky was inspired by the deaths of loved ones and mentors and when that is considered, a reflective quality can be noticed throughout the album, and not just when Irabagon and Perdomo duet on "Lost Ship at the Edge of the Sea." While musicians can't depend on tragedies to fuel their music, in this case, Irabagon seems to have taken a bad situation as a mandate to push himself to a higher level. So even if he does take cues from Coltrane, he's putting his unique stamp on it. This album features 11 tracks, a big number of a jazz album, and all of them should be heard.

A recent review of Behind the Sky in a big jazz publication put the album at the front of the section, but it didn't review it in tandem with Inaction is an Action. (It might have mentioned it in the article, but I try not to read reviews of things I've about to review.) Why? Because it's not an easy album to digest, to put it mildly. The term "extended technique" was invented for albums like this. Here, our maestro shows all the different ways to emit sounds with this pee-wee instrument. Putting lips on the mouthpiece and blowing is only the beginning.

The opening sound of the album comes closer to synthesizer noise, sort of a moan which may or may not be the end result of blowing into the bell, or blowing without a mouthpiece. This track, appropriately entitled "Revvvv," also creates the sound of flowing water courtesy of the rapid closing of the saxophone pads. As the album goes on, Irabagon evokes guttural stomach noises, bends and twists long tones and hits upper register squeals that make volume knob adjustments necessary. He also blows some intriguing melodies and even uses the acoustics of the Chicago's Lakeview Presbyterian Church (where it was recorded) to impact the sound, as he walks away from the microphone.

Yes, it's a challenging listen, not something you put on while doing the dishes. (More likely it's the thing to put on to clear the party of the last few stragglers.) But it's a strong work and a groundbreaking one, considering few saxophonists outside of Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and Ravi Coltrane regularly blow the sopranino.

And this dual release helps to present a deep profile of Jon Irabagon.

Monday, September 28, 2015

CD Review: Mike Reed's People, Places & Things - A New Kind of Dance

Mike Reed's People Places & Things
A New Kind of Dance

"...[A]ll the music I assembled for this recording was intended to inspire or allude to dancing; albeit maybe an abstract style," says drummer Mike Reed in the liner notes to A New Kind of Dance.

Sure enough, Reed launches the title track and the sixth People, Places & Things album with a swinging, syncopated-funk backbeat. It won't be mistaken for an attempt at mainstream jazz, though, since the tune also has pianist Matthew Shipp sitting in with the Chicago group, stretching and rolling over his keys. In fact it takes a few measures to find the One in Reed's groove. Right as that happens, saxophonists Greg Ward (alto) and Tim Haldeman (tenor) fire the staccato theme of the head and disappear just as quickly, letting Shipp take the first solo.

I've only heard half of PP&T's discography, but if conclusions can be drawn from that amount of exposure, they are one of the most exciting groups in a city overcrowded with exciting bands. Reed started the band to pay tribute to overlooked Chicago jazz players like John Jenkins, Wilbur Ware and Frank Strozier. 2010's Stories and Negotiations even brought veterans Art Hoyle, Ira Sullivan and Julian Priester into the fold. (Reviews of those PPT albums and one other Reed project can be found here.)

Shipp and trumpeter Marquis Hill each join the quartet (which includes bassist Jason Roebke) on a set that splits evenly between Reed compositions and a few well-picked covers that reach beyond the group's original source of inspiration. The results yield a set that shifts gears on every track without letting the energy or focus wane. It indeed can inspire dancing, if only in your head.

The group follows the opener with "Markovsko Horo," a traditional Bulgarian folk dance that sounds like rubato klezmer music. Hill adds color to the music that recalls Don Cherry's tartness. Rather than opening it up for solos, Reed ingeniously cuts it short, wrapping up after the theme and an accelerando that gives the horns a few quick moments to blow. The music goes to South Africa for the bright "Kwela for Taylor," written by reedist Michael Moore (of ICP, Clusone Trio and others). The late South African musician Sean Bergin is remembered with his "AKA Reib Letsma," where the backbeat gets even more pronounced and the saxophonists blow in unison and in shrieks of joy that dance around each other. The only problem with this track comes with the abrupt ending, right as Roebke and Reed seemed to be getting into a heavy breakdown.

Before they get to that number, they also do some serious business to "Fear Not of Men," originally done by the rapper Mos Def, and "Star Crossed Lovers," an Ellington/Strayhorn number in which Ward, Haldeman and Hill are left on their own for two minutes, largely playing off the theme, with gentle backing from Roebke.

As good as the interpretations sound, Reed's own writing should not be overlooked. "Candyland," Ornette-ish in both the theme's delivery and brevity, brings out the best of the quartet with some blowing that sounds like a throwback to the original era of the New Thing - complete with new excitement. Both do the same on the free-wheeling "Wonderland." Shipp gets his Andrew Hill on in "Jackie's Tune," stopping you in your tracks to consider where these great ideas are coming from.

To make a short story long, there isn't a dud on this album. Far from it.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Television in Pittsburgh

Yesterday afternoon, a co-worker asked me how the Love Letters' show went this past Wednesday at Arsenal Lanes. Really well, I recalled, although there were a few big goof-ups. We stopped one song a few bars into it and had to restart it. "Oooh," my friend replied. "You can't do that. You gotta keep it going!" I agreed, clarifying that it wasn't me that did it.

A few hours later, Tom Verlaine did the same thing during Television's show at the Carnegie Music Hall. Granted his situation was different. He didn't realize they were playing "Venus" next and he had retuned for a different song. In this case, there's no way of faking your way through a song, or retuning as you're playing, unless you have some super skill - and a good tuning pedal. The point is, if he can do it, I guess we can too.

But that's only a minor quibble that I had, and it's a more appropriate opening thought that doesn't give away the big feeling I had during the band's set, which I will mention in a moment.

Taking in the opulence of the Carnegie Music Hall, with a stage that was alternately bathed in blue or what felt like pink lights, my co-hort mentioned that this was a long way from CBGB, which the band helped put on the map and vice versa. The stage was huge, with plenty of room for all four members, who walked out casually, giving a wave or a nod to the audience. And then they tuned.

After a swirling, almost soundcheck/stage volume check intro, Tom Verlaine hit the opening riff of "See No Evil." Everything feel into place. Jimmy Rip, who has played in Verlaine's solo band since the early 1980s, played the countermelody precisely. As the evening continued, he would replicate all of Richard Lloyd's solos, as if he transcribed them and committed them to memory. It's not a criticism, just an observation.

Television stuck with songs from their landmark Marquee Moon album, going in a running order different than the album, without adding any other songs to the set as they proceeded. Each break between songs brought suspense with it. What would be next? Will it sound as great as the last song? "Friction" contained one of the best guitar solos of the evening, with Verlaine skronking up the fretwork rapidly, making it look like it was easy.

After "Guiding Light," there was only one song left from the album - the 10-minute title track. Verlaine and Rip dropped tuned. (The tuning breaks threatened to kill momentum a couple times and made me think of my brother saying how a bandmate of his did it incessantly. Glad he missed that part of the evening.) Then that plink-plink intro of "Marquee Moon" started. And the crowd went wild.

And then I saw God.

Let me back up a little. Although said brother bought Marquee Moon when it came out, I didn't hear and appreciate it until five years later. That started to happen when I heard the title track on the radio, and I got so lost in it that I was calling WRCT everyday for about a week because I needed to hear it on a daily basis.

After the third verse, right before Verlaine launches his guitar solo and Richard Lloyd is banging out that riff, I always had this feeling of Here it comes, the magic is about to start. Like the way I feel when the Jack Rabbit pulls out of the station and around the corner at Kennywood.

Verlaine started the solo in a very similar manner to the record, low and casual, fiddling with his volume with his left hand as his right hand picked away. Then he threw in some wild harmonics that kicked it up a few notches. Then it happened. I don't know exactly what, and I'm not going to try and explain it theoretically or viscerally but the sounds he was pulling out of that guitar hit me like no other show I've ever seen. I've heard people say that they've felt like they've seen God at a show and maybe that was the result of a chemically altered brain, but mine had no alterations. Just a typical amount of caffeine and not quite enough dinner. But it was perfect. It was the built-up hope of how you want to hear a song after hearing at home for over 30 years, knowing how you want it to sound, and HAVING IT SOUND EVEN BETTER THAN THAT.

When the band walked offstage following that song, they had only played about an hour, and I would've been satisfied at that point. I wondered if they were going to do an intermission, come back and play all of Adventure, wrapping that set up with "Little Johnny Jewel."

But they came back on and hit right away with "Little Johnny Jewel," which was taut, though not quite as frantic as the original single. That was followed by a ballad of sorts that could have been a '50s love song, though it was a little too Verlaine-ish for that. A version of Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction" followed, with a rave up in the middle that left both Count Five and the Yardbirds (the song's original inspiration) in the dust. A strange coda was slow and trippy, almost a stand-alone different song, butit linked to the preceding tune by Verlaine repeating the lyrics.

I was cool with that. Hell, I had seen God. Or Coltrane.

Monday, September 21, 2015

CD Review: Wes Montgomery - In the Beginning

Wes Montgomery
In the Beginning

This one has been out for a while, but it's worth another go-around because it shouldn't be missed.

There have been early recordings of Wes Montgomery performing in his hometown of Indianapolis. And there are live recordings by other artists where the historical impact sometimes outweighs the sonic aspects. This is definitely the former, but not the latter. The history is there and so is the sound quality. And the sound will  make a casual Wes Montgomery fan, with just a working knowledge of his recordings, want to go out and dive into all of them. Even the latter day more commercial ones, for completion.

Most of In the Beginning dates back to 1955 and 1956. Wes's guitar is heard in a quintet with his brothers Monk (bass) and Buddy (piano), with tenor saxophonist Albert "Pookie" Johnson and drummer Sonny Johnson. The Johnsons were not related but they sound like it, due to the way they blend with the Brothers Montgomery. The guitar, tenor and piano harmonize in a rapid and  incredibly rich intro to "Fascinating Rhythm," where the piano almost sounds like an organ when it combines with the other two instruments. In this setting, Wes's tone starts out sounding round and smooth, but there are moments where he cuts loose and sounds like he's shooting sparks, with the wild tone he gets from his guitar. What's even more of a shock is a lot of this magic happened at the Turf Club, a venue that would allow the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet to play but would only admit white patrons, at least initially. It's hard to imagine such inspiration coming from a rather oppressive space.

The quintet recorded five songs in New York City around that same time, with Quincy Jones producing the session for the fledgling Epic label. All five are included on the second disc, all of them showing the group to be as tight in the studio as they were onstage. Some of it could have easily made its way on to Blue Note, but only "Love for Sale" has been previously released (on a 1983 album of unreleased tracks from the Columbia vaults).

Also included is a reading of Benny Goodman's "Soft Winds" where Wes stretches out, as does Mel Rhyne, on piano rather than his trademark B3 organ. A recording made at Wes' sister's house finds her brother picking up the bass for "Ralph's New Blues," a spotlight for Buddy's vibes. Three long-lost 78s by a group called Gene Morris & the Hamptones also appear, dating back to 1949, two of them coming through travels that took Resonance's Zev Feldman to Austria to find them.

Being a Resonance package, In the Beginning is festooned with a 56-page booklet that overflows with: track-by-track credits; observations by Bill Milkowski and Ashley Kahn; and interviews with Quincy Jones, bassist Dr. Larry Ridley and photojournalist Duncan Schiedt, the latter two who lived in Indianapolis. An excerpt from Buddy Montgomery's unpublished book offers further insight into the rapport among the Montgomery family members. If that wasn't enough, Pete Townshend penned a touching essay about the significance of Wes Montgomery's music to both the pre-Who guitarist and his father. While contributions like this often rest on their star power, Townshend hits the emotional nerve directly, doing Montgomery a great service while talking largely about the guitarist's impact.

The sense of history with the set is almost overpowering. It's tempting to get existential about the whole thing and ponder what would have happened if the Montgomerys never strayed beyond their hometown, etc. etc. Rather than take that route, just put the music on and get lost in it, which is easy to do, especially during moments when the crowd goes wild during a "Night in Tunisia" guitar solo that includes a sideways quote from another tune. Soak up the music and then remember to support your local musicians because if this group could make musical history in the mid-'50s in front of a select few, that means you might be hearing history today. And it's important not to miss anything.

PS Resonance is going to be releasing package by the late organist Larry Young before too long. I can't wait!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Last Night's Dr. Lonnie Smith Show, in which Donny meets Dr. Lonnie

I took Donovan with me last night to see Dr. Lonnie Smith. It felt like a risk because the kid is not really a jazz fan, at least not yet. And the last time I took him to a jazz show, he got pretty restless halfway through, when the snacks ran out.

But the previous show didn't involve a Hammond B3 organ, which I somehow managed to get him interested in. And Dr. Lonnie Smith is probably the last of the prime B3 masters so Donny needed to see this. Someday, he'll thank me.

The New Hazlett Theater, on the North Side, piqued Donny's interest immediately. He remembered being there for Ben Opie's large scale performance in the spring of 2014, and he ran up to the building pretty excitedly. He wanted to sit on the upper level, so we sat stage right, which was perfect because we could look down and see Dr. Lonnie's whole arsenal clearly: the B3 keys, pedals, TWO Leslie cabinets, plus a sampler that had a huge circle and the sound of a conga. He also had two small (like vintage Casio size) keyboards on top of his organ and a Yamaha Motif XF8. These keys had pre-programmed sounds, the former two sounding like an Enchanted forest noises, while the XF8 had percussive loops. It seemed like we had the perfect spot.

We did. The good Doctor made his entrance, with guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Kendrick Scott, decked out in a long flowing white outfit and his trademark turban. As he got his bearings he mentioned the Hurricane Lounge - the long gone Hill District club that featured organ players in the '50s and '60s - and naturally he got a rise out of the audience. After a quick talk about owner Birdie Dunlap and about Smith's hookup with George Benson, they dug into the music.

"Back Track" began with slow suspense, Smith hitting the conga trigger, Scott scraping a stick on a cymbal and Kreisberg using a wah effect. The lengthy theme hit a roaring climax near the end of the chorus, which Kreisberg and Smith used with skill to wow the audience.

I've noticed that a number of B3 organists let their sideman solo first, which lets the organ have the final say without being followed by anyone. Smith was no exception, giving Kreisberg the first solo most of the time, then tearing things up. Early on, he showed a visceral, rhythmic approach that went beyond the keyboard: playing, clapping, hitting the conga trigger and - most significantly - singing along with what he was playing. We were treated to some standard B3 sounds - a lot of runs up and down the keyboard, along with some extended trilling - which never sounded routine. It was all placed skillfully and exciting to see and hear live. "Mellow Mood," a Jimmy Smith tune, sounded like a Latin boogaloo, with a fast, boppish line.

Smith knew how to put on a show, from the way he played to the way he talked between sets. That made total sense, as he had family and some old friends in the audience. At one point, he flubbed the name of a song, which led to jokes about his old age, and pretending to forget where he was. So he repeatedly joked, "I don't know the name of this song, but you don't either," which in turn became more of a joke when the song in question was "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," naturally a showcase for Scott in the introduction. And don't laugh, because the break in that song serves as a good blowing vehicle for the guitar and organ.

But while he acted as a showman, Smith also worked adventure into the second set of the evening. A version of Thelonious Monk's "Straight No Chaser" superimposed the melody line (peeled off rapidly by Kreisberg) over a organ swirl that sounded like Miles Davis' "It's About that Time." Smith proved that the blues doesn't have to sound the same each time.

"My Favorite Things" has been done by many jazz musicians since John Coltrane gave it some jazz cred, but the trio took it further than most. They gave it the kind of intensity one would expect from Trane. Smith's organ lines even seemed to go for Trane-like vocabulary, as Scott pushed the intensity up further than further. When they reached the song's coda and held it furiously, it felt like we had reached lift-off.

There were a few more tunes after that. What looked like Smith's metal walking stick became a diddly bo in Smith's hands, an instrument that emitted low - and sub-basement low - sounds when Smith whacked it with his thumb. Walking around the stage, pausing to hit a stomp box for distortion and imitate Jimi Hendrix (his words), he eventually made his way back to the organ for one more tune. But that "My Favorite Things" coda wasn't going to be topped.

During intermission, Donny decided he wanted to try to meet Dr. Lonnie. We didn't get close to him then, because he was sitting at a table signing CDs and shaking hands. But after the second set, we headed back to the table quickly and I helped ease the boy up to the good doctor, who gracefully shook his hand. Both seemed to be impressed with one another. You have to admire a guy in his 70s who can play that intensely and then get deluged by fans immediately after a set. What a trooper.