Friday, February 27, 2015

Here Comes da Fudge, and a few other assignments

Playing right now: Vanilla Fudge - Rock & Roll

I bought this Vanilla Fudge album about a month ago, along with their debut album. I wanted to get back to it in part because this Monday, I'm interviewing Fudge organist/vocalist Mark Stein for an article on the band. Yes, they're still together and in fact they have a new album out.

Around the beginning of the year, I told myself that I should be a little more ambitious about writing, like I haven't been in a long time. The combination of getting the Love Letters record together and my dad passing away left me feeling like I wasn't into doing much more than the basics. (In case any of my editors read this, the previous comment should not be confused with the idea of "phoning it in." I merely didn't feel like trying to go above and beyond the journalistic path.) Hell, I haven't written anything for Blurt in months. Now I'm doing this Vanilla Fudge piece for them, along with a couple record reviews.

Yesterday, I also did an interview with Arcade Fire's Will Butler, who has a solo album coming out in a couple weeks, and who is also coming here around the same time. The timing of the interview got a little screwed up but it all shook out okay, and Will was a pretty nice bloke. I managed to squeeze that in between dinner and band practice, not to mention picking up the kid from his friend's house in the meantime.

Plus the deluge of live music in Pittsburgh starts this Sunday with the Westerlies at Carnegie Library. I'll blot about that, and offer a list of upcoming shows in the next entry.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

CD Reviews: Andrew Drury - Content Provider & The Drum

Andrew Drury
Content Provider

Andrew Drury
The Drum

Drummer Andrew Drury's two self-released albums display vastly different sides to his approach to the kit. Content Provider features a quartet of two saxophones, guitar and drums playing Drury's compositions (and a completely reimagined Clifford Brown tune). The Drum is just how it sounds: Drury and a floor tom, with a few accessories. But both of those descriptions barely scratch the surface of what appears on each disc.

It helps to know that Drury studied with the late Ed Blackwell, leaving his home in Seattle at 18 and heading to Connecticut to meet the one-time Ornette Coleman sideman. Blackwell's liberated approach to the kit affected Drury, opening him up to infinite possibilities. He went on to play with Wadada Leo Smith, John Tchicai and Brad Mehldau, to name just a few. His current projects include 10³²K, a sort of repertory group who pay homage to people like Albert Ayler, Charles Mingus and Roswell Rudd. They released the solid That Which Is Planted last year, and they're about to perform a commissioned suite at the Lincoln Center Rubenstein Atrium.

The jagged riff under pinning "Keep the Fool" makes a great opening for Content Provider, and sounds like a drum line transcribed to guitar. Hearing it delivered by skronk-and-burn guitarist Brandon Seabrook only adds to the execution. On top of him, tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and alto saxophonist Briggan Krauss alternate between countermelodies and combining with Seabrook.

The title track, after a red herring intro that could have been "Also Sprach Zarathustra," introduces a brief long-toned theme that connects passages of free blowing from the quartet, resulting in 14 minutes that fly by quickly. Drury's fills and rolls, not only on this track but throughout the whole album, bolster the theme and offer foundation that his companions use as a springboard for their own furious solo work. Seabrook reinforces why he keeps showing up in rock and jazz situations, since he balances melody and noise (in "The Commune of Brooklyn" he sounds like he's imitating a truck's back-up warning). If the six Drury originals weren't enough, they take Clifford Brown's upbeat bop classic "Daahoud" and slow it down, turning it into something closer to "Harlem Nocturne," making the chord changes more prominent in the process. Much like Ches Smith's These Arches, this band highlights a drummer with a personal approach to the kit, an engaging melodic mind and skill at band leading. If this album doesn't start getting a buzz soon, something's wrong.

And speaking of buzz, that's part of what can be found on The Drum.

Albums devoted to one instrument are nothing new in creative music. In fact Count Basie drummer Papa Jo Jones even made a solo album (The Drums) as far back as 1973. That album had an impact on Drury, but what he creates with just a floor tom, abetted by an aluminum sheet, bell and faucet escutcheon, frequently doesn't even sound percussive.

The Drum is not for the faint of heart. While Drury could have parlayed his teachings from Blackwell into rhythmic excursions on the skin, he instead employs the ol' artillery of extended techniques: scraping textures on the drum head that sometimes squeal, sometimes rumble and often do both. "Hidden Voices" could be mistaken for wild brass notes that Peter Evans or Wadada Leo Smith might emit. "Aluminum Donkey Dance" sounds like his Content Provider compadre Seabrook, or Jimi Hendrix, imitating UFOs in "EXP."

Once the mind is freed from any preconceived ideas about this performance, parts of The Drum sounds pretty fascinating.  "Control and Let Go" sounds like a squeal sustained for four minutes, and gets a little old. And the whole disc might appeal more to fans of Merzbow than to jazz. But the ways in which Drury produces these noises - both the abrasive and the hypnotic - give this album staying power.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Clark Terry - a salute

It takes the wind out of your sails when you go on Facebook to link a post, and you see a bunch of posts about Clark Terry passing away. I probably can't say anything that hasn't already been said, but I owe it to this great artist to say something anyway.

Clark Terry was one of those musicians who seemed to always be around. My dad had an eight-track tape of him when I was a kid. I'd see his records in stores all the time. Buck Bryce probably played him regularly on WYEP back in the day. I knew he was in the Count Basie band for awhile too. So I kind of took him for granted.

When I saw him play at the University of Pittsburgh Jazz Concert one year, within one chorus of a solo, I thought, "Yeah, now I see why he's so omnipresent. He's incredible. Talk about playing at the top of your game."

There have been several pieces I've written over the years for JazzTimes about jazz education, and Clark's name popped up a lot in them. You want to see the personification of the word "tireless," look at him. The guy was 94 years old, and even when he was confined to a wheelchair, he was still active.

Are there any people left that can measure up like that?

Bless you, Clark Terry. RIP.

CD Review: Red Garland Trio - Swingin' on the Korner

Red Garland Trio
Swingin' on the Korner

In discovering this double-set of live recordings by pianist Red Garland, it's interesting to parallel the state of his career with that of his former "boss, " Miles Davis. By 1977, the trumpeter had pioneered electric jazz, added funk to it and had retreated from the performance sector. Garland too, had disappeared from the stage for a few years, but when he returned, his approach to the piano sounded virtually the same as it did nearly two decades prior when he anchored the Davis quintet that included John Coltrane. The set list could have come from the late '50s/early '60s period, with his take on "Billly Boy" (borrowed from Ahmad Jamal), "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Dear Old Stockholm," all of which he recorded with Davis.

Yet none of the music sounds out of date, either from a 1970s perspective or a 2015 perspective. It has an air of authority to it. This is how these songs should be played if you want to affect listeners. Not only that, since there are no horns sharing the spotlight with Garland, Swingin' at the Korner reveals what an influential pianist he was.  He could move from heavy blues to light ballad, all of it containing some serious weight. Garland was occasionally dismissed as a "cocktail pianist" playing little more than background music, but even lighter fare like "It's Impossible" or "On a Clear Day" never sounds mawkish in his block-chord-playing hands. This style still fuels budding pianists to this day.

The title refers to San Francisco's Keystone Korner, where these performances were recorded in early December 1977. It reunites Garland with his fellow Davis bandmate Philly Joe Jones, who also plays with plenty of swing and fire. In fact, the drummer gets plenty of solo space, even in tunes like "Autumn Leaves" (taken at a brisk pace after a gentle opening), indicating the rapport and fun that both players we're having onstage. Bassist Leroy Vinegar had never joined forces with but of these guys - and never would again - but his solid walking, always enthralling and never cliched, makes a perfect piece to this puzzle.

Being an Elemental release, Swingin' on the Korner comes with a deluxe booklet, not only with appreciations from Keystone Korner owner Todd Barkan and Nat Hentoff, but interviews with Don Schlitten (who worked with Garland at Prestige and later MPS Records), drummer Kenny Washington and Ira Gitler. Pianist Benny Green reminisces too, and an informative 1979 article by Doug Ramsey that appeared in Texas Monthly also offers great insight into the pianist. In addition to being a great listen, albums like this make you want to go back and rediscover Garland's past glories, with a better perspective on them.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Punk Meets the (New) Pornographer

Playing right now: Prism Quartet - Heritage/Evolution Volume 1 (Innova)
Note: Since this was posted originally, it's been edited to include the set list

Okay, so I suppose I was wrong. A few weeks ago I stated that everything I've done with the Love Letters culminated on the night of our record release show on January 31. But really, I felt like the moment of truth came this past Friday when the New Pornographers played at Mr. Small's Theatre. 

I felt that way largely because throughout the time that we were making the record, and prior, I never met John Collins in person. There were phone calls, emails, even an interview (where the whole scheme for the record germinated in my head). But that night we were going to meet face to face.

Yes, he's just a guy. A guy who plays bass (and a million other instruments too, if you check his credits on several NPs albums) and just happens to have a recording studio and a good ear. So I shouldn't act all star-struck. But throughout all the time that I dealt with him, I was pretty tenacious, not wanting to let this opportunity slip through. With that in mind, who knew what he'd have to say. Maybe he'd tell me how much of a pest I was. Maybe he was doing this out of obligation. 

Turns out it was neither. After staring at another guy, wondering if it was John (it wasn't), a few minutes later, a soft-spoken guy slid up and casually said, "Hey." And he was soft-spoken to the point that my damaged ears sometimes had trouble hearing what he was saying. Erin (Love Letters drummer) and I chatted with him for a few minutes, gave him a record and gave him the band update. He was interested in all of it. 

Jaill was the opening act, and they were playing while we talked. Their set was pretty good: Guitar-driven pop with keyboards and a singer that sounded a little like Arcade Fire's Win Butler or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's Alec Ounsworth, albeit not quite as whiny, just in terms of register. I later picked up their album There is No Sky (Oh My My) which is even better than their set indicated.

While Jaill was playing, Erin and I made our way back to the bar, where the sound was really good and visibility was good enough. So we decided to stay put instead of eventually going to the front of the room. Plus there was something to lean on, rather than having to stand in a sea of people. (The show was sold-out.) If I felt like having a drink, I didn't have to go anywhere either. 

They hit the stage with "Brill Bruisers" and the energy didn't waver the whole time. It's been almost six years since I've seen the band live, so naturally I built up the excitement in my head about what it should be. And I wasn't disappointed.

Neko Case wasn't with the band. (Don't dwell on this, people. Yes, she's great but it might hurt Carl's feelings.) But Dan Bejar was - something that's NEVER happened when they've come to Pittsburgh before. We finally got to hear "Jackie's Dressed in Cobras," "Testament to Youth in Verse" and several others. He didn't play the whole set, coming and going, strapping an acoustic guitar on and off. 

The set dipped as far back as album #1, with title track "Mass Romantic" inspiring some frenzied pogoing and yelling from me. The Brill Bruisers songs all sounded really strong too, recreating the layers of the album (it helps having two keyboard players) with lots of guitars on top. In addition to Carl Newman's steady rhythm work, and Bejar's coming and going, mainstay Todd Fancey was there in the corner of stage right. At least I think it was him, from where I was standing. 

Erin wondered if they'd play "The Bleeding Heart" show, to which I replied, "They have to." It reminds me of an interview with one of the original Temptations who said they once tried to do a show without singing "My Girl" and took some serious heat for it afterwards. That song became the final one of the evening during the encore. ("Bleeding Heart" not "My Girl.") I was a little surprised they didn't do ELO's "Don't Bring Me Down" as they have in the past. But it's a good idea to keep us guessing. 

I told John earlier that I would like to say hi to Kathryn Calder, their one keyboardist and vocalist. When she put out her second album, I did a so-so email interview with her that became a small feature in Blurt. But I really love her albums, including a new self-titled one that's coming out in a couple months. (I heard an advance of it this week.) He texted me before their set and said to hang around after and he'd introduce us.

After they were done, John came out and took me backstage where Kathryn was waiting. Much like John, she too was totally laidback and friendly. We talked about loosing parents and the effect it can have on writing and recording. I'm hoping to do a real interview with her for the album in a few months. The only downside is that she said her solo tour probably won't come to Pittsburgh because it's too expensive. I didn't ask if that meant the distance or our city's entertainment tax or what. I just let it slide, even though it burst my bubble a little. 

Then I went home. No pictures. It never entered my mind to get some while we were talking. Guess you'll have to just take my word for it. 

Here's the setlist:
Brill Bruisers
Myriad Harbor
Slow Descent into Alcoholism
War on the East Coast
Dancehall Domine
Use It
Jackie Dressed in Cobras
Another Drug Deal of the Heart
The Laws Have Changed
You Tell Me Where
All the Old Show Stoppers
Adventures in Solitude
Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk
Champions of Red Wine
Born with a Sound
Mass Romantic

[something by Dan Bejar; can't read my writing]
Sing Me Spanish Techno
The Bleeding Heart Show

Thursday, February 12, 2015

New Release!

Playing right now: Kathryn Calder - s/t album

If it wasn't enough that the New Pornographers are coming to town this Friday, their keyboardist/vocalist Kathryn Calder has a new album coming out in a few months. I love her previous two LPs and so far, this one is really great too. So excited. I must convince her to come to Pittsburgh on her solo tour.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Two Years in the Making

It was more than two years ago that the Love Letters first went into to studio to lay down the basic tracks for four songs. We wouldn't finish recording, adding the last overdub, until the following summer. Before we even went in, I had been in contact with John Collins about producing us. That came about for a few reasons.

For starters, I don't exactly trust my own ears to get the mix/production I really like. For as long as I have been recording, I'm still not sure how to pinpoint what should be done. During this time, I was listening to the first New Pornographers album, Mass Romantic, and thought, That is what we should sound like. Male/female harmonies, keyboards blending with raw guitars, hooks galore. There was also the story Mr. Collins told me during a phone interview several years ago, about mixing one of the NPs' songs for a commercial and emailing the finished product to the people making the ad. I figured if he could do that by mail, maybe he could take raw tracks and polish them up.

He said he'd be willing to do it, but once we finally got things done, he was in the midst of traveling from Vancouver to New York to mix what would become the New Pornographers' latest Brill Bruisers album. This just happened to coincide with Aimee's departure from the Love Letters. Oh, the times that try men's souls. (And women's too.)

Well, tenacity paid off and over this past weekend, the Love Letters FINALLY had a record release show for a double 7" record. There are 4 songs, one on each side. Two of them were produced by Collins. Two were painstakingly mixed by the band and studio whiz Dave Cerminara to make sure they didn't completely pale in comparison. After awhile I just wanted to get it out so I resigned myself to the idea of revamping the record "label" of my previous band, Igor Records.

The show took place at Club Cafe, a nice as place as any to have such a shindig. (I should also add that the weather held up really nicely.) In honor of the special occasion, Aimee rejoined the band for the night and we became a quintet. My ears were clogged, as a result of walking pneumonia that I think I had for about two weeks prior. So it was hard to tell exactly how loud I was (really freaking loud, apparently), but things held together really well. There were people there taking pictures, though the only time I showed up in one was in a group shot. I guess I'm not that interesting to shoot as a performer.

Great Silence, a band made of up co-workers past and present, also played. I think it might've been their second (maybe third) show. Their one singer didn't have any pipes that night so they did mostly instrumental stuff, which sounded like My Bloody Valentine or Bowery Electric: droney riffs with a lot of spacey guitar textures. Though things sounded tentative, it was a good time. Can't wait to hear more from these cats.

The picture at the top of this entry is our record cover inside Sound Cat Records. They have copies of it, as does the Attic Record Store and Desolation Row (which is inside Caliban Books). If you're in Pittsburgh, check out the records there. If not, email me and I can get you a copy.

I realized earlier in the day, that everything I've done with the band over the past two years was building up to that evening. It kind of freaked me out. Now - what's next?