Sunday, August 16, 2015

CD Review: Kris Davis Infrasound - Save Your Breath

Kris Davis Infrasound
Save Your Breath
(Clean Feed)

The cover of Save Your Breath features an underwater diver standing at the bottom of a body of water, bubbles emanating from their helmet, looking a bit like smoke. The image offers a rather sly take on the title, which in this case acts as a suggestion to the person in the diving suit.

The album's title track, which closes the program, last nearly 15 minutes, with the first two-thirds of it recreating the natural sounds that might be heard by the person in the picture. Long notes flow along in waves, gently and quietly, coming from Gary Versace's organ and Nate Radley's guitar. It could easily pass for a release on the space rock/post-rock imprint Kranky Records. Davis's piano and Infrasound's clarinet section slowly make their entrance at the halfway mark, with no one disturbing the waves. Like a few other tracks, this one requires a quick use of the volume knob. With three minutes to go, a sleepy rubato theme floats to the surface (sorry I couldn't resist), played by the clarinets.

While the setup sounds interesting, "Save Your Breath" is actually something of a letdown after a strong set of compositions from an equally strong, unique band. At the same time it doesn't detract from the rest of it, since the four preceding tracks all come in around 10 minutes a piece, holding up the rest of the album. And then there's the subject of who's playing here, which gives Infrasound a lot of its heft.

Ben Goldberg, Oscar Noreiga, Joachim Badenhorst and Andrew Bishop all play B-flat clarinet on the album. Bishop doubles on contrabass clarinet, while the other three double on bass clarinet and Goldberg also adds contra alto clarinet. Along with Davis, Versace and Radley, Jim Black's drums round out the group. The album was mixed by Ron Saint Germain, who works with rock bands and had a hand in albums by Sonic Youth and Bad Brains. His work adds a more visceral quality to the music. Without a bassist, Versace's organ pedals handle the low end and they can pass for a real bassist. The clarinets have an added muscle as well, whether Bishop is roaring through his massive contrabass contraption or Noriega is wailing on the much smaller B-flat cousin.

Two of the tracks were originally recorded by Davis on different trio sessions. "Union Forever" begins quietly, serving almost as an introduction to the octet, which rises into an anthemic theme before closing out the way it began, with a quick snaky line. The other remake, "Whirly Swirly," also has a snaky quality, in its bass line, over which Radley plunks out lines that recall punk-jazz guitarist Joe Baiza, while the rhythm stops and starts in wild fits.

Like a few of the pieces "Whirly Swirly" almost seems like a self-contained suite, which goes through slightly structured  sections and free sections. In this case, Badenhorst leads the pack with a growling clarinet solo. Beneath him, some ominous organ and contrabass clarinet image of the Loch Ness Monster waking up. (When that image popped up, I hadn't thought about continuing the underwater theme. It just fit. But Davis has described this album as the sound of a "living, breathing animal," so I'm not too far off.) A slow, written melody takes shape after five minutes, getting heavier and more dissonant as it moves to a climax, amidst more bass clarinet shrieks.

"The Ghost of Your Previous Fuckup" has a similar free-blowing-to-structure-to-crescendo direction to it, this one being the sole piece in which Davis gets to take her own solo. While her spotlight may be comparatively brief, her shots up the keyboard, combined with the leadership on this whole album, are enough to leave a strong impression. The final track might not be as rewarding as what preceded it, but maybe it can act more as a comedown.

Friday, August 14, 2015

CD Review: Jon Lundbom's Big Five Chord - Jeremiah

Jon Lundbom and Big Five Chord
(Hot Cup)

Another in a continuing list of albums that have been sitting around for several months that I've been meaning to write about because you need to hear them.....

By now, guitarist Jon Lundbom should be getting more extensive attention. I've reviewed two of his Big Five Chord albums on this blog, but was pleasantly surprised to find out that Jeremiah is actually his seventh album with the band, which dates back to 2003. (Not only was I late to the party. A few slipped past me in between those that I've heard.) That doesn't even take into account his other projects of various styles and shapes, which can be found on the Hot Cup website.

Lundbom plays and writes like a guy who's digested a lot of different styles and can draw on them easily without being too obvious or referential with them. Big Five Chord again includes Mostly Other People Do the Killing's Jon Irabagon (strictly on soprano saxophone this time) and Moppa Elliot (bass) along with Bryan Murray (tenor and balto! saxophones) and drummer Dan Monaghan. Several tracks also add Justin Wood (alto saxophone, flute) and Sam Kulik (trombone). All of these players fit into Lundbom's vision where strong post-bop melodies and rich voicings co-mingle with solos that aren't afraid to kick up a cloud of dust.

This time around, Lundbom the leader cedes a lot of the solo space to his bandmates rather that building the songs around himself. There are notable exceptions, the biggest coming in opener "The Bottle," where his warm tone floats counter to Monaghan's loose pulse. Lundbom's solo also offers contrast after a theme that sounds a bit Dolphy-esque due to the sharp blend of the tenor and soprano saxes. It's one of those fascinating solos in which the guitar unleashes a long series of ideas without pausing for nearly a minute. But the guitar solo is a brief calm before Murray's solo on the balto! sax, an alto furnished with a baritone sax mouthpiece that gives certain notes a squall like an angry bird. (If you're curious to found out what it's all about, Murray provides insight in this video.)

Big Five Chord can play it loud and wild but they have a lush quality as well. Wood and Kulik each contribute an arrangement of a tradition Wiccan song. "First Harvest" (arranged by Wood) sounds like a ballad and wonders how would Ellington handle such a challenge. He and Murray each turn in smart, uncharted solos that elevate the music, the latter with the other horns supporting him.

Kulik's "Wiccan Prayer Song Medley" lives up to its name, as all the horns layer different prayer melodies on top of one other. It begins with Monaghan and Murray playing a melody in repetition, joined by Kulik and eventually the rest of the band. It sounds dense but never busy, some of the best moments coming when Irabagon and Lundbom skirt around the rest of the band. Elliot gets a chance for a solo that contains some vicious double-stop strums that ultimately lead back into the themes.

Jeremiah includes plenty of wilder moments too. Most notable is Kulik's three-minute solo that begins "Lick Skillet." Someday it will be revered a study in the nuances of "extended technique," as it begins softly like a helicopter off in the distance, building to impressively long growls and some flatulent (why not?) gasps. Wood also gets a chance to show off his flute skills, playing with a tone that can only be described as muscular, which also needs to be heard more often.

A jazz pundit (I honestly don't remember who) once said that Kind of Blue is a great place to start listening to jazz not only because of the program, but because everyone who played on that album went on to different things on their own, making it easy to discover more about jazz. The same thing can be said about all of the names on Jeremiah. Some of them are already pretty well known (Irabagon, Elliot) while others should be. Everyone here is cutting new paths for modern improvisation. They aren't bowing down to the past, but they aren't ignoring it either. If the conservatories churn out more wide-eyed musicians like these guys, who are able to release albums on their own labels, the future of this music will be in really good shape.

Or maybe it's just that Lundbom is a really dynamic leader and catalyst. In either case, his time has come. Jump on this bandwagon.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Remember Going to Estate Sales? or Things Ain't Like They Used to Be

When I started this blog nine years ago (geez oh pete), I was heavily into getting up early and checking out estate sales for records. I got lucky a few times so I kept it up for awhile, pushing myself to get rise up, on the off chance that there was some golden treasure waiting for me in Upper St. Clair, or Fox Chapel. Or even West Mifflin.

I've pretty much gotten out of the estate sale/record hunting racket over the past few years. I'm not saying I'm not as greedy as the next guy when it comes to this stuff, but there was one time when I got to a sale 15 minutes before it opened and overheard three guys at the head of the line offering tales from the trenches. They seemed to have more of an obsessive streak to their tone,a hardcore devotion that I wasn't ready to adopt. Plus I had the feeling that between the three of them, they'd pick over whatever I might want before I even found the room with the records. It kind of took the fun out of the hunt.

Not only that, I acquired a collection about four years ago that I'm only now pretty close to paring down to the bare essentials.

But every so often something comes up that makes me thing, yeah I have to go check it out. A couple weeks ago at work, my friend Linda introduced me to a friend who was having a moving sale that was part of a bigger, neighborhood house sale, and mentioned there were records involved. I was casually piqued. A few texts to a wrong number (reply: "Stop texting me") and some Facebook messages later, I arranged to check out the records the night before the sale. Don't hate me for that, folks. I have to work almost every Saturday so I miss out on the good stuff.

She had a small pile in the living room and said there was another box in the basement that was pretty water damaged but it might have some good new wave stuff. Fair enough. Upstairs I found Julie London's Calendar Girl, Jimmy Nelson's Instant Ventriloquism (which was sampled on a Nothing Painted Blue record, and which I had as a kid, leading to a long-standing in-joke with my siblings), a Billy May album and a handful of 45s. Nothing great, but not too shabby.

Downstairs was pay dirt, though. Yes there was dirt. Yes, there were records that made that sticky sound when you tried to peel them off one another. But those were the classical records. Within the dusty crate I found Au Pairs' Playing with a Different Sex, two James White & the Blacks albums, two Talking Heads albums, a Billie Holiday Verve compilation and a World Saxophone Quartet album which I figured I needed in spite of the musty cover.

Yesterday was Saturday and it was also the annual birthday party that my son attends for his friend Lucy and her three siblings, who all have birthdays during the summer. It takes place out on the way to the suburbs, so I always end up taking off work for it, which means my morning is free. So I decided to check out a couple estate sales in the early morning, driving 20 minutes out to Bridgeville to a place that listed records in their classified ad.

Seeing "records" in the ad usually means they're worthless, and so far that theory holds true. Several Richard Clayderman albums, Kenny Rogers, some Christmas albums and a Beatles knockoff album on Wyncote Records - the latter priced at $10. You gotta be kidding me.

There were two more sales closer to home and an additional one that I saw signs for, while driving to one. At one, the guy said he had some "old" Spanish records, which he brought out - eight 78s, wrapped in a plastic bag, with a few records sporting some chips and several looking cracked. At another, one of the guys said he had some late 70s/early 80s r&b at his home (it wasn't his house), but he could send pictures if I was interested in Earth, Wind & Fire. I politely declined.

At least I had some time to listen to a whole CD while driving around. And the suspense was kind of fun.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

My Band Sucks or Your Band Could Be My Band

"Punk ain't no religious cult/ punk means thinking for yourself."

It was during the winter of 1992-1993. Maybe the early months of the latter. My friend Ian, my friend Mike and I got together in Ian's basement to try and play music.(We would never call it "jamming," because we couldn't do that.) Mike was always scheming to start a project with me, usually something that involved his skronky guitar and my primitive saxophone wailings. But this time, I was going to be playing bass. Ian had played drums in a trio and would later shift to guitar, but I think he was between bands at this point.

Ian and I had messed around with just the two of us a few weeks prior. We toyed with a math-y groove where we started out playing in 5/4 and he switched to 4/4. With Mike in tow, we were going to try to recreate that riff. Before we started, Ian said, mainly to me, "And remember, don't look at each other and smile if it comes together." I can't recall his exact words, but it was clear he found that "cheesy." And even when he backpedaled and said he was kidding, I still felt like he was partially serious.

Things went downhill from there. I felt like the hard bopper trying to hang with musicians high on Albert Ayler. (They are two to three years younger than me, which mattered more at the time.) Mike skronked for sure, and it didn't seem to matter what we were playing. There was no connection between us. Plus he was bugged that I was playing a modal/bastardized 12-bar structure on the bass.

That memory came back to me while reading Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock's Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear), by Jon Fine. He was the guitarist and founding member of Bitch Magnet, who released albums in the late '80s and early '90s, and reunited recently for tours in the US, Europe and Asia.

It wasn't the part about the lack of compatibility that I remembered first, but the part about not smiling. Fine devotes a whole chapter to the reasons why he didn't smile during a Bitch Magnet show. Along the way, he recalls a more recent reunion show where he felt appalled to see a woman in the audience essentially rocking out to one of the catchier Bitch Magnet songs. "I immediately thought, Shit, ugh, failure. Pop songs - songs that ingratiate - elicit this blandly pleasant side-to-side bop. Songs that hit harder make an audience snap heads up and down: the headbanger's response. That's what I wanted to see."

Never mind that she might have actually liked the song. She didn't like it in the right way. Or she didn't have the right reaction to that particular part of the Bitch Magnet canon.

From what I can tell Fine and I are the same age, give or take a year. I too look back on that era fondly, because there were so much new stuff happening in music, which could only be discovered through college radio, trips to the independent record store, all ages shows (which were usually hardcore gigs) and conversations with people in between. Luckily for me, I dipped into that during my freshman year of high school. Fine didn't discover it until he attended college at Oberlin which, if we did graduate the same year as me, means that it was just a few months before D. Boon died,  and Husker Du signed with Warner Brothers. (You do the man, folks.)

And like Fine, I treasured the idea of being in a band more than having a girlfriend. (Though I wanted both, to be honest.) So his stories of how this wild new punk music shaped him, and the excitement of seeing bands in cramped, non-traditional live spaces on Oberlin's campus all strike a chord with me. When he recreates those moments that you feel when you know you're band is actually coming together, the feeling is infectious. Fine is a sharp writer, able to revisit the physical space and his mental space from that era.

What also comes across is how rigid his parameters are, and how pissed off he still seems about it 30 years on. It's fine to be a self-righteous 19-year-old. We all were. But one thing that becomes clear with time is that the world isn't really black and white, with people divided into two camps: those who understand your music and the rest of the world. Yes, there are a lot of squares out there, but if you give people the opportunity to try and understand what you were doing, maybe - just maybe - they'd see things differently. Or maybe people in Pittsburgh are, god forbid, a little more open-minded about this than people in New York.

One of the liberating things about the early days of punk rock was that there wasn't supposed to be a rule book. Anything could happen. It eventually lead to indie rock, a term which didn't really become viable until after Sebadoh released the satirical "Gimme Indie Rock" in 1991. (Humor doesn't factor into Fine's worldview unless it's of the screwed-up kind.) He takes great issue with a song by Tsunami that states, "You say punk rock means asshole/ I say punk rock means cuddle." "Actually: no, not at all," he counters. "Punk rock means - pick one - self-determined or self-sufficient or individual or steadfast in the face of opposition, not asshole and definitely not cuddle. But you already knew that, right?"

Sure, I find the word "cuddle," a little insipid too. But I did like the band Tiger Trap. And having been dissed by a skinhead dude because he thought I was Jewish, I can relate to the former.

By making his statement, Fine overlooks the idea that maybe there were other perspectives on punk rock, ones that aren't all meek dude finally proves that he's tough. I'd also say that any of those positives apply to Jenny Toomey and Kristen Thomson of Tsunami and the Simple Machines label too. One of the more appalling parts of the book comes when Fine recalls a reunion show when his slide falls off the stage and a woman hands it back to him between songs. "Yeah. Obedient," he says. He might not like Frank Zappa, but he certainly thinks like him. By the way, there's no, "C''s a joke," following that statement, not that it would excuse it. When he rants about the mid '90s indie rockers who don't rock and don't seem to care, he just sounds bitter. (Of course he already dismissed two of my favorite bands at the start of the book, Salem 66 and Big Dipper, so what do I know?)

Image is a big thing too. Without his long hair flying from side to side as he plays, Fine says he practiced not thrashing his head back and forth, thinking that when a balding guy does that, it looks bad. (Answer: if I like your band and you're pouring your heart into your music, it doesn't matter how you look.) Later in the book he talks about attending a wedding where an awkward looking guy talks about being unpopular in high school, and later starting a band. Fine's perspective on this dork changes when he realizes he's not someone from Oingo Boingo, but East Bay Ray of the Dead Kennedys.

I guess I kept waiting for the moment where Fine threw himself under the bus, took himself down a few notches and/or got a little sentimental about it. Maybe he felt the whole book was sentimental that it comes through a filter of whining a lot of the time. (The long stories about live in New York during the years between bands ramble on a bit.) He always seems on the defensive about things, stopping himself from talking romantically about his experiences because, well, there's a certain breed of indie rocker that takes this very seriously and would make fun of you for getting too excited. I've been derisively laughed when I've gotten too excited about music, myself.

But Fine delivers. On the last page. And actually, he set it all up in the introduction too, which I reread before writing this blog. So it makes a good read, about one guy's perspective on music.