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.