Wednesday, July 29, 2015

CD Review: Henry Threadgill Zooid - In for a Penny, In for a Pound

Henry Threadgill Zooid
In for a Penny, In for a Pound
(Pi Recordings)

In Ashley Kahn's book A Love Supreme: The Making of John Coltrane's Signature Album, one of Coltrane's peers talks about how the saxophonist told him to listen to an album. Focus on a different musician each time you play it, Trane said. Listen to, for instance, the saxophonist, first. Then go back and listen to the bassist, then the pianist, etc.

If I personally gleaned any wisdom from Coltrane that I could use, that was it. Not that I listen to every album that way, but I attempt it because it can give you a greater understanding of the music, especially if the music is dense and packed with information. And if any album fit that description, it's In for a Penny, In for a Pound.

This two-disc album consists of a four-movement "epic," as Threadgill calls it, along with an opening piece and an exordium, which comes in the middle of it, i e. at the start of disc two. Each movement was written to feature a different member of Zooid: "Ceroepic" features drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee; "Dosepic" features cellist Christopher Hoffman; "Tresepic" for both Jose Davila's tuba and trombone; and "Unoepic" for guitarist Liberty Ellman.

Not the pieces and their soloists are clearly defined. Everybody plays throughout each section, moving in and out, and occasionally playing in harmony with one or two other bandmates. "Unoepic" features as many solo drum interludes - where Kavee executes a fill and lets the drums resonate before continuing - as his own "Ceroepic." Threadgill uses a cue that has each soloist utilize a predetermined three-note interval as their launching point, but that isn't easily discernible either as it's hard to tell when the "soloist" actually enters and when they're playing an ensemble piece.

The best thing to do is throw out the manual, figuratively, and dive in. Threadgill (who selflessly didn't include a piece to focus on himself) provides an interesting focal point, with his alto saxophone, flute and bass flute. He often moves in short phrases, while the background players employ long lines or phrases. This album feels like it has the most alto work from him in quite awhile. His tart tone sounds like a throwback not to his days with Air, but goes back even further to an earlier era when the instrument had more of a comical side. Threadgill once lead a band called Very Very Circus and his tone seems to fit right in with that kind of music, especially when Davila's tuba is walking - sauntering, actually - behind him.

Kavee provides a lot of direction to the music, setting a pace that holds everything together even when it seems like guitar and cello are playing solos on top of one another. While there's usually a lot happening at once, things never get too busy and no one steps on anyone else's feet. The four movements average around 17 minutes each, with tempos and textures shifting at a moment's notice. Threadgill uses dynamics a lot to emphasize this, not to mention pregnant pauses within the sections. The final "Uneopic" has many of these stops and shifts and it ends with little fanfare rather than bringing things to any kind of roaring climax.

In for a Penny makes for a sprawling listen, and one that's best taken all at once. The members of Zooid have worked with Threadgill long enough to fully understand his approach and bring energy to his music. Taking the time to single them out and listening closely to their parts  might be asking a bit, but it's the best way to fully appreciate this composer.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


I'm torn between trying to write a CD review tonight and trying to finish reading Your Band Sucks by Jon Fine. I think I'm going to read the book and listen to music.

Or else take out the garbage.

Banal stuff, but that's where I'm at tonight.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Reviews of Miles Davis, Dave Douglas & Eleventh Dream Day on Blurt

Today (by the time you read this) is supposed to be the official release date of the next installment of the Miles Davis Bootleg Series, this one collecting all of his appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival and Newport-related appearances. This week, Blurt posted my review of the set, in tandem with a new album by Dave Douglas. Follow this link to check them both out.

And if you're curious as to what the new Eleventh Dream Day album sounds like, here's your chance to read my two cents on it. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

CD Review: Atomic - Lucidity


The Scandinavian quintet Atomic comes on like a forward-thinking chamber group, all tranquil and calm, only to unleash a torrent of wild blowing on the unsuspecting listener. They're willing to pull back just as quickly and restate the calm as they are to keep it untethered, or, more likely, to journey off to a different place altogether.

It's no surprise that a track appears on Lucidity, their eleventh record, called "Start/Stop," as the music does just that. Quick blasts from Fredrik Ljungkvist's clarinet and Magnus Broo's trumpet recall similar interjections from the Art Ensemble, The title track offers a bit of a contradiction. Broo blows gruffly in the beginning, over an odd-time ostinato. Ljunkvist, now on tenor, has pianist Hävard Wiik joining him, with bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flåten's bass lingering in the background. By the end, the entire quintet reconvenes for a roaring climax.

As detailed as the pieces (written by either Ljunkvist or Wiik), the group is also capable of playing it simple. When "A MacGuffin's Tale" opens up for solos,  Flåten holds it together with a one-note vamp. Earlier in the album, on "A New Junction," he plucks a bass solo with an aggression that tests the strength of his strings, to the accompaniment of woodblocks.

In the past Atomic has come off sounding a little closer to a rollicking modern jazz unit similar to the ones blazing out of Chicago. That approach probably explains their close association with the Vandermark 5, with whom they toured the US in the early '00s. (Original Atomic drummer Paal Nilssen-Love also played in a few Vandermark projects.) The current band - with Hans Hulbœkmo replacing Nilssen-Love - has moved into a musical realm that's not as easy to define, but it piques the interest in a way that keeps you coming back again to figure out what's going on, whether motifs in "Laterna Interfruit" reocurr at the end or if they're just a passing memory.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The In-Between Post

I'm in the midst of writing a feature for JazzTimes and while I could very possibly come up with a full length post about something else, I don't think I have it in me right now.

The best time of the morning for me to write is between the hours of 5:30 and 7:00, before the rest of the house is up. Twice this week, I set my alarm for 5:00, knowing I'd hit the snooze button at least twice. With the coffee pot all programmed to go, it proved to be pretty efficient. As long as I didn't start scrolling up and down Facebook.

Today I don't have to be at work until noon, so there should be time for some serious transcribing, possibly followed by a few minutes of getting an outline together.

Blurt has a couple new reviews in the can from me. So far this is one that ran most recently. Yes, a little off the Shanley track, but it was sent to me, so why not review it?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Day After Deutschtown

Coming down off of the Deutschtown Music Festival, which happened all day yesterday in the Deutschtown neighborhood on the North Side. Before I go any further, I want to make sure that folks know that I am appreciative that the Love Letters were able to play the event. There were about 125 bands that performed yesterday, and it was cool to be part of that. It was also nice that there was a "green room" set up in one of the venues where the bands were fed. And fed mighty well.

That being said, it feels frustrating when the band that immediately precedes you draws such a big crowd that you can't even see them (in a tiny venue) and as soon as they're done, the majority of those people standing there are gone, gone, gone like roaches in the light. I mean, sure some of them are going to leave. But don't a handful of them want to see what the next band is like? Catch a few of their songs?

We had just 15 minutes between bands for the last group to break down and for us to set up. Grand Piano - the group that played the great set before us - was off stage in record time and we were ready to jump on and hit the downbeat right at 3:00 pm. The set went pretty well, although Mike broke a string in the middle of his song that has a pretty significant guitar showcase. Then he accidentally restrung it with the wrong string and had to redo it. But things flowed pretty well.

There were a few who hung around to see us. A few of Erin's Timbeleza bandmates showed up too. And the owner of the James Street Gastropub, where we played, complimented me after our set, and seemed genuine about it. But it would have been cool to have a person or two from the audience ask about the record or when we were playing next.

It's hard with a festival set-up like this. All these bands, all these venues, spread throughout the neighborhood. There were a few outdoor stages but most of the shows were inside, in our case on the bottom floor of the venue, which was actually a great idea because it felt in a way like playing a basement party, to me tha'ts sort of the ideal setting in which to see a band.

The band took off in different directions after our set. We kind of hung around to see the next band, the John Tremaine Show, who were pretty cool. But then we had to get our equipment out of there and it only made sense to take it back home.

Later that night, I returned to the North Side to check out City Steps, who had Pam Hanlin from Dumplings as a guest bassist filling in for regular guy, Ross.

The Modern Cafe (or was it Cafe Modern) wasn't  really built for live music. Tile floors, high ceilings for the sound to bounce off of. And three big screen tvs to flank the band, on those walls alone. But they played a spirited set, Pam playing like she's been in the band for months. Michael was animated too. Apparently, Weird Paul's set earlier in the evening didn't go over well. He was told he was too loud, which was surprising because the band right before City Steps was REALLY LOUD. Thank God for my earplugs.

Today it's back to reality. And work.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Mudhoney in Pittsburgh

I didn't expect Mudhoney to play all the songs that I knew and loved from 25 years ago, but they did. Well they didn't play "This Gift," but about three times they played something that sounded a helluva lot like it. So between that, and getting to hear "Touch Me I'm Sick," "Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More" and the favorite of my household in 1989/1990, "You Got It," it was a great night. The band came to Mr. Small's Theatre last night, with locals the Cynics and the Nox Boys opening for them.

Personally, Mudhoney always personified all that was good and wild about music coming out of the Pacific Northwest. Most of it came down to Mark Arm's off-the-rails vocals, which were always at the brink of hysteria, without sounding like a metal screamer. Then there were those power chords, which the blending with hot riffs, like the lick to "You Got It" or the tremolo in "This Gift." After all these years, one can't expect most bands from a quarter-century ago to maintain a wild-eyed visage without looking like either a bunch of screw-ups or dudes who don't realize the Peter Pan frame of mind isn't fooling any of us. Just age, and then rock.

I mention all this because Arm and guitarist Steve Turner looked relatively clean cut from where I was standing. In fact, they looked they could've been in Big Star, circa 1973. Shorter hair, white guy 'fro. They had it. It was strange to see, but I think there was something in the gin last night.

Their set stretched on to about 90 minutes, encores included, and when you consider most of their songs last about three minutes, that makes for a dense set. They hit the stage with the same fury they put out back in the day, kicking off with "Suck You Dry" and it stayed at a high level.

The Cynics played right before them, getting kudos from the headliners, who reminisced about seeing our hometown garage heroes back in their hometown way back when. Our locals also took us way back, opening the set with "Blue Train Station" the title track to their 1986 album. They went on to kick out "No Way" and another number of two from the '80s. But unlike memories of days gone by, they rocked these oldies to prove they were still relevant. After falling off the stage at a show in another city, vocalist Michael Kastelic looked fine and played as if nothing had happened.

The evening began with young Get Hip labelmates the Nox Boys opening the show. Vocalist Zack Keim's guitar was pretty buried in the mix, so it was hard to fully get into the hooks of their songs. But Bob Powers' slide guitar added a lot to the music, and the band sounded really tight. Things sounded catchy.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Thumbscrew was here. Did you know?

Last night Thumbscrew played a show to cap off their two-week residency in Pittsburgh. The group consists of Michael Formanek (bass), Tomas Fujiwara (drums) and Mary Halvorson (guitar). It's a cooperative group where all three of them bring in compositions. They put out an album on Cuneiform, which I reviewed in JazzTimes last year. As part of their residency here, they wrote music for a new album and recorded it at Smalls studio (which is not located in the same building as Mr. Small's Theatre anymore, but in the former site of Audiomation on the North Side.)

If you're a Pittsburgher who didn't know about the show, I'm guessing you're not alone. I suppose, as the main voice of jazz for Pittsburgh City Paper (I'm not trying to brag; I don't know if anyone else picks up the slack), maybe it was partially my fault. I knew they were coming to town, but forgot exactly when it was happening. Coming off about three weeks of Monday deadlines for CP and JT, not to mention some new work for Blurt, I felt like I needed a day where I wasn't either working the dayjob or scrambling for a deadline or hustling a story. So I didn't start chasing the info right away. Nor had anyone contacted me in advance.

By the time I reached out to Halvorson via email they were already here, scouting studios and trying to get on with the business. As it turns out, they were also doing seminars while they were here. That I didn't know about. A few days later I heard from City of Asylum, who was sponsoring the event, along with BNY Mellon. But by then, the deadline to preview the concert had pretty much passed.

The FREE SHOW happened last night on Sampsonia Way, just down the street from the Mattress Factory and from City of Asylum HQ. That's right, free free free. How much do you have to pay to see Michael Formanek - he who has received not one but TWO five-star album reviews in downbeat for his last two albums as a leader? Tomas Fujiwara is also a mother of a drummer, attacking back beats and freedom with the same level of enthusiasm. And anyone who has read anything on this blog knows how I feel about Mary Halvorson. (For you first-time visitors, I think she's extremely inventive as a musician and composer.)

I was getting back into town after visiting family yesterday, so I missed the first 30 minutes of the set. The good news is, I saw the remaining 90 minutes.

Formanek introduced a new piece which he called "Danse en Sense," (I think) asking for any French-speaking audience members to help with the correct pronunciation, having taken it from Google translate. The idea he was going for meant "nonsense dance," and true to the title, the trio played independent lines that were wild yet still worked together, especially Fujiwara's woodblocks, strategically placed on his snare and floor tom. I had half a mind to ask him if his part was written out or if he was just following an idea. But I never got around to it.

Having listened to their debut, it was more exciting seeing them in action, watching the various parts intersect in the music, from more rock-oriented foundations to freedom. The audience seemed to dig it too, giving them a standing ovation. It was great to see so many people out for an adventurous show. I wish they would intersect with the jazz audience at shows when Lina Allemano or William Parker come to town. Or even at the weekly Tuesday night Space Exchange shows at the Thunderbird. The latter events are free shows too.

I'd be curious to know what got people out to this particular event. The 6pm start time? The lack of a cover charge? Getting email blasts about it? This inquiring mind would like to know.

How many people read this blog and thought, wow, I would've gone had I know about it.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

It's the Fourth of July

Playing right now: the new Exploding Star Orchestra album
I've been asked to write about Rob Mazurek, the leader of ESO, so I'm digging into this mammoth new release by them.

It's the Fourth of July and I'm working today. Just for a few hours, though. First time I've ever done that. And I figure since my dayjob involves retail, and I like the people I work with, I should help out. Then it's off to Ohio for a day.

In other news, the band Thumbscrew (Michael Formanek, Mary Halvorson, Tomas Fujiwara) have been in Pittsburgh for over a week, doing a residency at City of Asylum and tomorrow evening is their free show over on the North Side. Here's info on it, for the benefit of anyone who is in town tomorrow and wants to go.  I'm hoping to make it back in time.

So much music going on around here. Of course there was Ginger Baker a few weeks ago. I took copious notes but never got to report on the show. Here's the feature. I found out a few days before the show that no one else in Pittsburgh got to interview him, and I got a bit of a head rush. Then at the show, Ginger mentioned he had been sidelined two weeks prior to the show with pneumonia, and was in the hospital. I did the math quickly and figure it must have happened right after we talked. That might also explain why no one else did.

Considering his frail state, it was impressive that he made it to the show at all. It was a good night. Not spellbinding, but definitely tight. He and percusssionist Abass Dodoo definitely have a strong rapport and are locked in tight together. Ironically, while Ginger was swinging hard with his band, just about a mile across the river, his mate Charlie Watts was playing with the Rolling Stones, who by all accounts really rose to the occasion that night.

The incessant rain and, again, work kept me from checking out more of the Pittsburgh JazzLive Festival which went on all weekend downtown. But as I walked to Penn Avenue from the parking garage to the Byham Theater, Joey DeFrancesco was tearing it up on the B3 on one of the stages. A little rain will never slow down a B3.