Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Matthew Shipp & Michael Bisio Are Coming To Town

Pianist Matthew Shipp (left) and bassist Michael Bisio (right) are coming to Pittsburgh tomorrow night (that's Wednesday, April 1) and performing at the First Unitarian Church at Ellsworth and Morewood Avenues. I talked to Matthew a couple weeks ago, and parts of the conversation are appearing tomorrow in Pittsburgh City Paper as part of a bigger article about shows happening here this month. Considering how the show is tomorrow, and how Matt only gets a few good quotes in, I figured I'd run the whole interview here. Matt has a bit of a reputation as being a firebrand but he's always been nothing but nice to me. Plus, his performances are amazing. He and Michael came to town last fall as a duo and it was astounding. So if a few more people are motivated to check them out based on this, that will be a good thing.

Q: So did I read that you have an album coming out on ESP-Disk?

It’s the sax player’s CD [Polish tenor saxophonist Mat Walerian] but they put my name on it because it’s his first cd. And I have an Ellington album [To Duke] out too on a French label, Rogue Art.

Q: But didn’t you say I’ve Been to Many Places might be your last album.

I know what I said. Don’t listen to what I say when it comes to recording. [Laughs} I meant it. But I’m still in this vortex of recording. I just can’t seem to get out of it.

Q: Is it still fun?
Yeah. I love the process but I would rather….

Q: Why’d you say it?

I’ve been with [the label] Thirsty Ear for a long time. And I’m not going to keep doing it forever where I keep putting out Thirsty Ear albums now. And probably, when I end my relationship with Thirsty Ear, unless something sweet comes along, where it’s involved with some patronage type of thing, I’m not gonna keep generating albums on other labels too. It’ll be obvious when it’s time.  And I thought it was, but it wasn’t quite.

Q: How long you and Michael [Bisio, bass] been playing together?

The first gig with the trio was probably 5 to 6 years ago. We have a real feel for each other and a real friendship apart from the music. And a real feeling of destiny for this part of our life as far as being a team. We have a real sense of purpose with this. I feel it does show in the music.

Q: How does playing in a duo setting differ from the trio [which had included drummer Whit Dickey]?

It’s more intimate. The trio – this might sound weird – it’s more of a commercial jazz setting and people are more used to that format. You can kind of do it with the veneer that it’s a regular jazz trio no matter how modern the music is. And with the duo, you do away with that pretense altogether, just doing pure communication.

Q: How does playing with Michael compare with playing with William Parker?

It’s two different structures altogether. They both are utter monsters and they both are strong personalities. And they both are great bassists and they both are totally different also. i’ve been blessed to have both of them in my life. I feel very lucky.

Q: Do you still get to play with William?

I have breakfast with him most every day. I do stuff with him occasionally. I’ve done a couple different things that he’s been involved in, in the last year. I mean he’s so busy with his own stuff.

Q: So, the new album [The Gospel According to Matthew & Michael (Relative Pitch) with Bisio and violist Mat Maneri] – how spontaneous was that?

I want that to be the mystery. I’m not going to say. There are definitely some composed parts but it’s also a lot of improv. The percentage – I want to sit back and see what everyeone guesses with that….there’s definitely some compositions in there. This is an experiment for me. I want to see what people project on it. So I’m not going to answer that.

Q: Tell me about the Robert D. Bielecki grant.
In my case, he gives out different grants for different things but he just gave me a certain amount of money ($15,000) and told me to do whatever I want with it. I used some of this for this project. He’s a foundation and he gives away money to people he thinks will do something with it. And he happens to be a fan of my music. So that worked out well.

Q: How did it come together? Did you have to apply for it?
I knew he was doing a foundation and I put out feelers. I had seen him sneaking around at a couple of my concerts in the past. I started talking to him and he asked, If I gave this amount of money, what would you do with it? And I said, I don’t know… pay off credit card debts? [Laughs] But I used that money to fund this project. I haven’t done anything with Mat Maneri for a while, and I wanted to get back with him and do something with him also.

Q: How is touring going? Is your audience growing?
Every gig’s different in every place. We’ve had some really good turnouts for some things recently. I actually played at Jazz at Lincoln Center. It was the Ellington project. We had two sold out sets. I recently played in Washington DC and the organization we played had the biggest audience they ever had. But on any given night, you can have an off night. Nothing is a straight line in this. But we’ve been doing pretty well on the road.

Q: How are shows in Europe?

I’m not going to say it’s dried up. But it’s not as rich as it once was.  But yeah it’s cool.

Q: A few days ago, you started a debate on Facebook at the San Francisco Jazz Festival.

Oh, that’s still going on. [Shipp’s issue was that a large number of performances during the festival were tributes to older artists or albums, like A Love Supreme, at the expense of current artists playing their own music]

Q: Well, here’s your chance to expound on it.

I would just say, ah… all jazz needs to be organic. And by organic I mean, just let people do what they do, whether it’s straight ahead, avant-garde…I would say there’s an over- degree of conceptualization going on in programming at major festivals that’s not conducive to having a beautiful organic evening. A lot of it seems to be very calculated – calculated for tourists. And in that way, it’s doesn’t seem to be a vibrant music. The way a lot of major festivals are presenting it, they got corporate sponsorships and it seems like they almost program things in ways that they think mirror the corporate sponsorship. There’s something so plastic about so much of it.

Q: That’s everything I wanted to ask. Is there anything you wanted to add?

I’m just trying to play some music. I’m trying to really be organic these days and try to do my thing. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Will Butler, Hypercolor in Pittsburgh

But first, before I get to the titular subjects, I have to do a what-I've-been-up-to introduction, because it's been a handful. I'm not one of those bloggers who can give immediate updates at the drop of a hat.

Yesterday was the first Monday in a few weeks where I didn't have a story to work on or an interview to conduct. Or both, which I think might have been the case recently. Last week, I returned to Blurt after a long hiatus of writing for them. I reviewed the new album by Australia's Dick Diver which you can find here. It has yet to run, but I also interviewed Mark Stein, organist for Vanilla Fudge. With SXSW coming up this week, Blurt will probably go on hold for a spell. But as soon as I can say, "here comes the Fudge," I will let you know when that article drops.

Mr. Stein was a good egg too. Turns out the band is still loathe to talk about the sophomore slump LP The Beat Goes On, but like a trooper, he did anyhow. We also discussed the start of the band, as well as the making of their new album - yes, they're still at it - Spirit of '67.

Last week Arcade Fire's Will Butler played a sold-out show at Brillobox, which I believe I was the only person to preview in the local press.  Maybe it was clear it was going to sell out, so no hype was necessary. But, dang, was anyone curious what it was going to sound like?

Butler put on a good show, with a four-piece band of himself on guitar and keyboards, drummer, second keyboardist and back-up vocalist. His album (if you can call it that because it only has eight songs, most of them under four minutes apiece) Policy runs the gamut, stylistically, as did the show. "What I Want" had the power chord attack of the Buzzcocks while, one song later, "Anna" sounded like Suicide, with an unrelenting keyboard riff. The album had only been released two days prior, but the audience - which probably numbered in the high 100s, whatever the capacity is at Brillo' - seemed familiar enough with it and ate it up.

The UK newspaper The Guardian struck a deal with Butler a couple weeks ago where he wrote a song a day for five days, based on articles he read on their masthead. Results were then posted on Soundcloud. The idea might sound dubious, but the results are actually pretty strong. Among the ones he played at the show, "Madonna Won't Save You," is one of the most memorable, if nothing else for its opening line of "You can spend all day/ breaking hearts with a/ sledgehammer and a glass of milk." Weird lyrical non-sequiturs like that also show up on the album too and act as some of the more memorable aspects of the release.

Even though he might only have scant material available now, Butler and the crew weren't lacking for a set. They plowed from one song into another, with little time left for banter, though Butler gave a shout-out to former Pirate Andy Van Slyke later in the set. The back-up vocalist and keyboardist had some dance moves going later in the evening. The fact that they weren't quite synchronized added to the charm, making it seem more like the inspiration of the moment got them moving.

Two nights prior to that show, avant/prog-rock/noise/experimental jazz trio Hypercolor played at Howler's. They were touring behind a new self-titled release on Tzadik. Drummer Lukas Ligeti, guitarist Eyal Maoz and bassist James Ilgenfritz play music that gets heavy at times but never bombastic. Ligeti's drumming sounded especially propulsive early in the set, getting things off to a strong start. Maoz, who sits while playing, worked a bunch of pedals to keep the textures evolving, while Ilgenfritz used the six-string bass in a manner that you don't see very often. He jammed econo on it, to put it one way.

All three of these cats have numerous projects going on, so there was a plethora of CDs to peruse after the show. Ilgenfritz, who has released a solo-bass disc of Anthony Braxton compositions, had a disc that came out that day of an opera he wrote based on William S. Burroughs' The Ticket That Exploded. I also picked up a disc of a project called Colonic Youth, which includes drummer Kevin Shea on it.

Hypercolor's showkicks off a pretty intense six-week slew of jazz performances in Pittsburgh. To be self-serving for a moment, I'll only list one - Hearing Things, a trio of Matt Bauder/Vinnie Sperrazza/JP Schlegelmilch, who play something closer to '60s instrumental. They're playing at Howlers on Sunday, March 22 with my band, the Love Letters.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Yesterday's Errands & the weekend of the Westerlies

Monday is typically a day where I can blog about the weekend's events since it's usually a day off. But yesterday was so action-packed that I didn't get a chance. In the morning, the city was a sheet of ice (and it still is in front of my house because there's no rock salt to be had in all of the Pittsburgh; apologies to my neighbors) so there was a two-hour delay for the kid's school. The weather also killed a coffee date I had with a friend of mine. 

Later that afternoon, I went to Donny's school for Read Across America Day, armed with Ezra Jack Keats' John Henry. I chose that book because, when I was a second grade, the Arrow Book Club (from whom we ordered books at school) had a record of James Earl Jones reading the story, which I ordered. His voice still resonates in my head when looking at the words on the page. I'm no James Earl Jones when it comes to orating, but I did a pretty convincing read for the class.

At 4:30, the phone rang and on the other end was Mark Stein, organist extraordinaire of Vanilla Fudge. We talked for about half an hour and I felt like it could've gone on longer. Much of what he told me is probably subject matter he has to rehash over and over, so it was nice of him to do that. He said upfront that he doesn't like talking about The Beat Goes On, their second album and a failed concept album. Still, he spoke his mind about it, and about the new stuff the band is doing. The results of that interview will appear on the Blurt website hopefully sooner rather than later, because Vanilla Fudge's new album comes out this week. 

Finally, yesterday, Ma Shanley got back into town and I had to meet her at the train station at 8:00 to get her home. She had a good time with brother and his family outside of Philadelphia. 

Rewinding back to Sunday afternoon, the Westerlies performed at Carnegie Library, essentially kicking off what I consider to be two months of serious jazz shows. Below is a picture of the band, left to right - Zubin Hensler, Riley Mulkerkar, Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch. (Remember that thing that's in the background? A good, old fashioned card catalog. Not sure if it's still in use or if it's just moved to this room to be dealt with at a later time.)

Last year the Westerlies released an album titled Wish the Children Would Come On Home, on which they played a whole set of compositions by Wayne Horvitz. He might be known to many as "the guy who played keyboards in John Zorn's Naked City" or as a former downtown New Yorker. But he taught the guys when they were living in Seattle, before they all ended up moving to New York for college.

Horvitz's writing starts with a bunch of musical strains and winds up being something pretty unique. Jazz, Americana, modern classical - it also seems to factor into it, but you can't lay a finger on one particular element. (A few years ago, an article in JazzTimes mentioned that there was some particular descriptor that sent him through the roof. I think it was "iconoclast." It's easy to see why it could be affixed to him, but also why he didn't approve.)

As rapturous as the Westerlies album is, seeing them in person was even more exciting. The way the four of them blend together creates a full sound that goes beyond what could be expected from a quartet. Not only are their harmonies really tightly voiced (especially with the trombones, who handle harmony and a lot of rhythmic stuff in de Koch's parts), but the pitches catch your ear in a way that seems to get between the notes. Thoughts of the Microtonal Festival (which had also been going on all weekend) might have been influencing my thoughts during the set.

When the group invited up a former teacher and the head of the concert series to sing with them, things sounded even richer, the voices blending with the horns, occasionally getting overpowered by the brass but still sounding strong. Donovan, my seven-year-old companion, who seemed pretty interested throughout the one-hour set, said he liked this part best. Because he was with me, and because we needed to get a book before the library closed, there wasn't time to hang out and chat too much with the group. But hopefully they'll be back again.