Friday, December 30, 2016

Remembering Richard Schnap

In the last post, I mentioned that a good deal of this year sucked something fierce. Well, it dug itself even deeper over the past couple of days. I'm not even talking about the death of Carrie Fisher and her poor mother Debbie Reynolds who, in all seriousness, seems to have died of a broken heart.

No. It's personal.

Last night, while looking at Facebook on my phone for the umpteenth time, I discovered that my longtime friend Richard Schnap had died. At this point, I don't know the details surrounding his death. I'm not exactly sure how old he was, though I think he was 58.

People on the Pittsburgh music scene, especially those who were around in the mid-to-late '80s, might recall Richard as a member of the Cynics, playing guitar and keyboards. He was with them when original singer Mark Keresman was still in the band, and also when he was replaced by Michael Kastelic. He added a great dynamic to the band, balancing the raw garage fuzz with some jangly Byrds-y kind of influence.

But prior to joining the Cynics, he played in a band called Toxic Shock that started life as an all-female punk band that actually got shut-off at the Electric Banana. When Richard and his friend Larry Anderson joined the band, the group was more of a scruffy Velvet Underground-influenced band with male/female harmonies -- and a lot of great songs.

Following his time with the Cynics (which I found out tonight was only a year - a virtual blip on the radar, considering the Cynics' 30+ year existence), Rich was involved with a handful of other groups, which often had a wild conglomeration of people, culled together more by friendship than anything else, again playing some pretty interesting songs: The Third Mind (which only last one show, in a set that opened with version of "The 39 Lashes" from Jesus Christ Superstar, in which vocalist Jeff Masko began with a Morrison-esque recitation before counting off the lashes); Graceland (with vocalist Dean Novotny, a natural showman with an operatic voice like Klaus Nomi, drummer/artist Scott Turri and metal bassist/funnyman Greg Bloom); the Shroud (which included Bloom and man about town Steve Heineman at one point); and the Side Orders (a duo with vocalist Alice Winn).

While some of these bands left people wondering what the hell was happening onstage, that query was often balanced out by the songs they played, which was written largely or altogether by Richard. He was a poet who had a knack for stringing together hooks and great stories when he put his mind to it. There were a few Toxic Shock songs that resurfaced in the Cynics, and probably in later bands as well.

I met Richard when I was in high school. Nine years my senior, he knew my brother John from Pitt, and he was also a fixture at the Record Recycler, a used record store in Squirrel Hill that was run by Keresman. (Richard and I were a few of the folks who would sit behind the counter when Mark needed to go out.) We hit it off immediately because we both loved talking about music and we were both interested in a lot of it. Back in those pre-internet days, one got their musical knowledge from magazines, books (the beloved Rolling Stone Record Guide, love it or hate it), college radio, in addition to good old fashioned crate digging. One day he played me a practice tape of Toxic Shock in the Recycler. I was really transfixed. They weren't punk, but they had a rawness that they balanced with some great songs. Not sure if this is revisionism, but I felt like they were closer to the ideas I had in my head.

All I wanted to do back then was be in a band, and Rich encouraged me every step of the way. Not only that, he helped me connect with some people that became very valuable in my life. Barb Madaus, who played/plays in Bone of Contention with me, had been the drummer of Toxic Shock. Not only was she a drummer, she was a singing drummer, a plus in my book. I only saw Toxic Shock once, but that was enough to convince me that, when looking for drummers, that Barb could be the one. Richard connected us, and I never looked back.

A few months after getting together with Barb, Richard came up to me and said, "I have a guitar player for you - Patty Pisula." We hadn't found a guitar player yet, and this Patty person, who also worked as the music director at Pitt's WPTS, played guitar but had never been in a band. Sign her up. More on her in a moment.

Not only did Richard help me connect with these people (and subsequently, with Lila Shaara, the missing fourth piece of the BoC puzzle back then), he became my running buddy of sorts. I was underage in the fall of 1985, but, don't worry, you'll be able to get into the Upstage, he said. Long before the 61C Cafe existed at the corner of Murray and Bartlett, Richard was convincing me to meet him there - at the epitomy of greasy spoons, George Aiken's - for coffee and talk about music and plans and hopes for the future.We'd also take in the local old gents from the neighborhood, pondering what their life stories might be.

Then the big thing came in early 1986. A telemarketing place had opened in Oakland, where he, Mark and about three other dudes from bands found work. They were calling for a few liberal organizations. By Christmas of '85, I was flat-broke, dropping out of Duquesne University and in bad need of a job. I wasn't eager to talk on the phone, but I was desperate to make money. Next thing I knew, this insecure kid from Squirrel Hill was working side-by-side with these cool music guys. A month later Patty started working there. Richard and I were hanging around each other three or four nights a week, starting at work and often ending up at Chief's Cafe, down the street. Or maybe we'd end up at Patty's apartment in Panther Hollow, till the wee hours of the morning. Six years later, I started dating a woman from Ohio who started working the same office, marrying her four years after that.

Most people don't last in telemarketing that long. Somehow I did it for 12 years, until greener pastures finally came along. And earlier this year - almost 30 years to the day that I started working there - I went back because times were tough. The other guys are all distant office memories, though Patty is there as office manager, and seeing her every morning makes the day go better.

I owe all of that to Richard. He talked the place up and built me up to believe that I could do it too.

I never believe that "everything happens for a reason" malarkey. But I do really believe that where you are on a particular day at a particular time can impact you life in long-term ways. And I think that Richard did that for me.

I once started an entry with my favorite quote from It's a Wonderful Life, which comes from Clarence, right when George is realizing what would happen if he had never been born. Now it seems appropriate to place it at the end of this post. "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"

Thanks, Richard.

Friday, December 23, 2016

And now the Year in Music

I've got a few particular albums that I want to write about, but I've been busy getting together an article about Andrea Parkins (found here in City Paper and in a show tonight) and working on a JazzTimes piece.

But the NPR Music Jazz Critic's Poll came out this week too. Since I participated I have to link it here. Suffice to say, 2016 was a good year for jazz releases, even if almost everything else this year sucked something fierce.

Take a moment to check out the list, along with the color commentary by Francis Davis. Then buy some of this music with the money you get for Christmas.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Past Week in Music

In the past seven days, I saw locals Thoth Trio in an unfortunately too rare show, the Ritual Trio (David Murray, Kahil El'Zabar & Harrison Bankhead, above, left to right) and William Parker & Patricia Nicholson. Pretty good week for music, methinks.

Thoth played at a space that's actually called the Space Upstairs, a really nice looking loft that's apparently being hosting performances for ten years. Granted, ten years ago I was off the local music grid (Pulp was two years gone and I wouldn't start writing for City Paper for another year) but this is the first time I'd heard of the place. Dance seems to be a big part of what the locale is all about. Throughout Thoth's two sets difference dancers would move across the hardwood floor, responding to the music. It wasn't like cliched "jazzzzzz" dance. The women and men doing it were really graceful and their movement seemed to pay attention to what was being played. Ben Opie (saxophones), Paul Thompson (bass) and Dave Throckmorton (drums) were in fine form. Plus there was coffee, although it took them awhile to brew it.

Last Sunday, the Ritual Trio played at the James Street Gastropub. Locals will understand the raised eyebrow by the combination of venue and music. James Street is a strong supporter of jazz and a great space, but rarely does it host a group so avant as these three. The reason in this case is the guy who brought them to town couldn't get into any other space.

David Murray and I had a late night chat for an article the week before the show.After resigning myself to the idea that I'd have to write the article based on memories (albeit strong ones) of Murray's previous Pittsburgh appearances, as well as his records, my phone rang at 10:00 pm the night before the article was due. Our conversation went so well, David being very loquacious, that I scrapped what I had written and started over, the morning after we talked. The results are here. 

James Street was standing room only for these guys, which was really exciting since shows like that (especially on a Sunday night) don't always draw well. All three members of the trio had been to Pittsburgh within the last 13 months. Murray came with the World Saxophone Quartet in September. Bankhead came to the Thunderbird with a bass and drums quartet called the Turbine! back in November of 2015. Kahil El'Zabar was here in the spring with the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble.

El'Zabar uses the same template each time he's come to town: playing on song on the amplified kalimba/mbria, one on the trap kit, one on a hand drum - set one; set two might be close to that with some variation in order. It's always a great show, but it's set up the same way.

Putting David Murray into the equation and a bassist (EHE has two horn players) throws some key elements into it. Murray's strong personality fit right in with El'Zabar's vision. The tenor saxophonist stayed close to straight-ahead jazz at first, complete with chord changes. But he quickly tore them up and rebuilt them. With the droning mbira songs, he made sure that things never waned, especially when he was playing bass clarinet. "One World Family," a song Murray and El'Zabar have returned to several times over the years, was a  powerful groove number with a hope for a better world. Bankhead played the anchor of the group, adding some of his own strong solo technique to the music in a few instances too.

City of Asylum brought in bassist William Parker and dancer/concert organizer/artist/poet Patricia Nicholson Parker (husband and wife too) on Wednesday of this week. CoA is still putting the finishing touches on Alphabet City, a space on the North Side which will host a restaurant, book store and performance space. But despite the almost-but-not-quite-there aspect, this is where they hosted the couple and the intimate space presented a good vibe for the event.

The evening began with a performance - Parker on bass, Nicholson dancing and reading poetry. I'll admit that I'm more a fan of the music. Especially Parker, who epitomizes the ability to project your life experiences through a performance on an instrument. His command of his whole instrument is something to watch. Without any other musicians to cover up his nuances, you hear a lot more of what he's doing.

Like the dancers at Space Upstairs, Nicholson moved very expressively onstage, bending and reacting to the music. During the nearly one-hour continuous performance, she read poetry that could be both pensive and hopeful as well as energizing.

After the performance, the duo took questions from the audience. They wanted to keep the discussion on the topic of what role the artist has in society. The work these two in New York is admirable. Nicholson organizes the VISION Festival each year. Parker plays consistantly with a number of different musicians, having released over 150 albums.

That being said, Q&A sessions involved such detailed questions like "what's the artist's role" are things that I'd rather miss, in large part because there are usually detailed but ultimately vague questions by audience members. That did happen on Wednesday, though not all that much. It was good to hear them talk, although some references to the new administration brought back some of the dread I've been trying to keep at bay.

Of course it was great being up close and personal with the two of them. Plus, the event was free. And over by 10 pm!

Friday, December 09, 2016

It Was 36 Years Ago Today..... and Today

Playing right now: Ravi Shankar - In Hollywood, 1971 (Northern Spy)

[Written as Thursday night became Friday morning, which explains the use of words like "tonight" and "today."]

As if this hasn't already been a year when a huge number of influential musicians have died, I read this morning that Greg Lake has joined the list. My initial reaction was to curse to the heavens: NOT ANOTHER ONE. Yeah, I was never the biggest Greg Lake fan. He seemed like he was the one member of Emerson, Lake and Palmer who was still on a high horse after all the years of excess have fallen by the wayside. But, damn, that doesn't mean you have to take him too. And so soon after Keith Emerson's death.

And what about poor Carl Palmer? Is anyone rushing to his side to offer solace?

When Keith Emerson took his life earlier this year, I posted an appreciation of him and of the way that ELP's music impacted me. Greg Lake was part of that, of course. He was the voice of the band. He provided some levity after all the heaviness. Plus he was the voice of King Crimson, roaring through distorted speakers in "21st Century Schizoid Man," a thunderous debut if there ever was one. Not to mention "In the Court of the Crimson King," with its majestic chorus and sea of voices. I played that album earlier this evening (even the meandering "Moonchild") and it felt really good. You can feel the intensity of this young band, finding their sea legs and channeling their excitement into the music. You step back from the music, away from everything that followed it, all the stigma that's attached to it, and try to imagine the band itself. What comes through is that first-time energy.

That's why, despite the pompous quotes that I've read over the years from Mr. Lake, that I feel the loss. The way that music hits you - encapsulating that certain time that you remember really discovering it, coupled with that feeling of what it must've been like to play it - means you'll never completely forsake it. It's almost like the feeling you may have for a sibling: You might go through periods where you don't see each other. You might really dislike them. They might have said something to you decades ago that still burns you to this day. But you'll always come back to them because of that connection you have.

On top of all that, I was reminded that 36 years ago tonight, John Lennon was killed. A friend commented that it might not exactly be a "Where were you when Kennedy was shot" moment, but I think that it is INDEED that moment for people my age. At least those who are really into music. Sure, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and even Elvis had already died. But none of them were shot by a deranged fan. THAT was the game changer, even if it took several years to realize what it meant.

I was in bed on Monday, December 8, 1980. I can't remember if I had fallen asleep yet or not, but my brother Tom came into my room. Being a somewhat jerky/wiseguy of a 13-year old, I got mad at him for bothering me. Then he told me why: they had just announced on tv that Lennon had been shot. Tom said they hadn't confirmed his death yet. Or maybe he soft-pedaled it, saying things were up in the air. But I recall laying there in bed, thinking, What if he is dead?

The next morning, I remembering hearing the phone ring while I was still in bed. It was my CCD teacher who was fairly young (at least younger than my folks) and pretty hip with us kids. She wanted to make sure I knew. Before long, I came down for breakfast (it would be a couple more months before I became part of the alleged Dawn Patrol and started delivering the Post-Gazette and had to wake up early) and got the word. Yes, John was dead. All day WDVE, the only station I listened to back then, was playing Beatles and solo Lennon music.

I had a reputation for being a Beatles fanatic at school, although by that time, my enthusiasm for them had waned a bit, replaced by the adolescent obsession with the Doors, which would die down in a few months as I discovered weirder strains of psychedelic rock, and eventually headed into punk rock. But years later, a woman who had ridden the school bus with me, recalled in a complimentary way that on that school day, December 9, I wrote "Lennon Forever" in the condensation of the bus windows. The respect was a bit too late to boost my insecure ego, but in retrospect, it was nice that someone noticed.

Because when you're in 8th grade - surrounded by kids who act like assholes because they're too afraid to admit that they're just as confused about life changes as you are - writing a name on a window is sometimes the only way you know how to express your gratitude to a musician who will never get to hear it from you directly.

Thanks, Greg. Thanks, John.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

CD Review: Mark Dresser Seven - Sedimental You

Mark Dresser Seven
Sedimental You
(Clean Feed)

UPDATE: This review has been removed because I wrote another review that will be appearing in JazzTimes magazine in an upcoming issue.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

CD Review: Wadada Leo Smith - America's National Parks

Wadada Leo Smith
America's National Parks

"The parks are really something fantastic. The idea is purely American. It came out of American ideals. Preservation. But right now those right are being violated by Congress because Congress controls it and they use it as political hay to raise money. They sign out huge areas of it underneath to companies for wheat and all kinds of food growing things. So it’s a commercialization that we can’t really afford to have...It belongs to all Americans, living and dead and those that have come before."

Wadada Leo Smith told me all of that last spring, prior to his appearance at the Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival. He was in the midst of recording America's National Parks, a two-disc set that features his latest suite, in six parts. It continues in a line of large scale compositions like Ten Freedom Summers (2012) and The Great Lakes (2014)  The current one pays tribute to three of the country's actual national parks along with three places or people that Smith considers to have merit equal to the parks themselves. 

His Golden Quintet for the session includes longtime bandmates Anthony Davis (piano), John Lindberg (bass) and Pheeroan akLaff (drums), along with newcomer Ashley Walters (cello), who adds a dynamic color to the music, working together with Smith's clarion trumpet work. While the concept of the music relating directly the subjects could be scrutinized and detailed, even without the titles and/or a background of each subject, America's National Parks maintains Smith's stature as a composer of powerful music that blurs the line between modern chamber music and free improvisation.

"New Orleans The National Culture Park USA 1718" opens the album with a multi-sectioned 20-minute opus. A rigid groove eventually gets more steady as Smith's muted trumpet solos over it, followed by cello and piano. His crisp horn work could keep going, but just past the half-way mark, following a Lindberg solo, the groove break into free time, which Davis, Lindberg and Walter all use with vitality, before restating the opening theme. 

"Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park" takes its inspiration from the African-American musicologist who founded the journal The Black Perspective in Music, from which Smith has written. While not as long as the preceding track, its nine minutes still arrive with great detail, with beginning with rich long tones that are Smith's calling card. 

"The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River - a National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC," which begins the second disc, is the longest section, with over 30 minutes of ruminations. The first half of the track feels slow and contemplative with steady drum crashes, droning and then searing cello and bass, then spareness. Midway in, the band sets up a vamp, and Smith jumps on top of it, blowing powerfully. 

The three other tracks take their names from actual parks: Yellowstone, Kings Canyon and Yosemite. Of these, the closing "Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill 1890" (all the titles are a mouthful and must frustrate writers who have to abide by a word count) has some of the most exciting moments of the whole disc. Smith stands alone following the opening theme, playing what almost sounds like an elegy, asking listeners to take his beliefs to heart, like the ones stated in the quote above. After some ringing piano chords and droning cello, akLaff takes an extended solo that also feels thunderous and joyous. The visceral and complex solo can make you want to hear more of the drummer's work.

Wadada Leo Smith's work asks quite a bit from listeners: time, open ears, understanding of, and empathy for, the inspiration for the material. But by following this lead, he not only delivers music heavy with a message and content, he shows how his compositions connect to things beyond the performance stage or the CD player. "Music is like air, you know. It pervades the whole space around the earth," he said in our interview. 

America's National Parks is proof positive of that deep connection between air and music. While that might sound like flaky idealism to a cynic, it rings true in light of the way our environment is treated these days too.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

When A Plan Comes Together

When the payoff is good, that's all that matters.

I realized that this morning as I was finishing a quick preview article on saxophonist David Murray. I had been trying to get in touch with him for a couple weeks. Well, I started putting in a sincere effort maybe about a week ago. Murray had been on tour with Terri Lyne Carrington and Geri Allen in Europe and the only number I had for him was an overseas cell number. I'm always reticent to do interviews on people's cell phones as it is. The sound quality can be hit or miss and that can make me miss some subtleties of the conversation, which normally can deepen the discussion when they're heard. Then there's the time change difference, coupled with not knowing when someone might be asleep or not.

After a few attempts to leave texts at the international number, and a voicemail left on the same number (at least I think it was his, but I'm unsure since the outgoing message was a French female voice), I got Murray's domestic cell number from Kahil El'Zabar, with whom Murray will be playing next weekend. At the start of this week, Murray was back in the states. No luck. My deadline was already stretched and I was starting to pull something together last night, based on my knowledge of Murray's career.

Then, at 10:00 pm, the phone rang. There he was!

We wound up talking for half an hour, him being very candid about his partner El'Zabar (bassist Harrison Bankhead will be with them too, on Sunday, Dec. 11), about being a musician with an original voice and massive discography, among other things. So I scrapped the whole article I had started and began fresh. It was much better as a result. It'll run in Pittsburgh City Paper next Wednesday. Check it out, and check out the group that weekend. No one had to pay to see the World Saxophone Quartet back in September, so it shouldn't hurt to pay to see Murray, El'Zabar and Bankhead. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

CD Review: Charlie Haden/Liberation Music Orchestra - Time/Life (Song for the Whales and Other Beings)

Charlie Haden/Liberation Music Orchestra
Time/Life (Song for the Whales and Other Beings)

"The whales represent all living creatures. They're so precious and so wonderful. Just like this universe is, like this planet is, and like you are. You have to never forget that. You're a part of it. We're here for a reason. And that's to make sure this universe stays beautiful. And wonderful. And brilliant. And it's so important to remember how precious this life is. Thank you so much."

Those words conclude Time/Life (Song for the Whales and Other Beings). They come from Charlie Haden himself, at a performance of "Song for the Whales," recorded in 2011. The message has weighed heavy on my mind over this past month, when considering the turn of political events in this country, not to mention the attitudes towards people and land in North Dakota. It's left me wondering, what would Charlie Haden think of all this?

Haden, who passed away in 2014, was not only an amazing bass player and composer, he was a guy with a big heart, who had a genuine care for humanity. Actually, he cared for all living creatures, as his words prove. I found this out first hand when I talked to him in 2003 prior to a Pittsburgh appearance. (You can find that here, along with some other thoughts about Haden and Ornette.) When he speaks on the recording, his voice sounds a little frail, but his thoughts are so strong and determined, it's easy to be moved by them.

Of course the Liberation Music Orchestra has always been about such things. In the notes to their debut (recorded in 1969) Haden dedicated the album "to creating a better world; a world without war and killing; without poverty and exploitation; a world where men of all governments realize the vital importance of life and strive to protect rather than to destroy it.We hope to see a new society of enlightenment and wisdom where creative thought becomes the most dominant force in all people's lives."

On the record there were moments of joy, humor and honor. They were also dark moments, the biggest being "Circus '68 '69" where the group recreated the chaos of the 1968 Democratic Convention, dividing into two sections which each blew like crazy. At the height of the noise, an organ starts playing "We Shall Overcome." After it all fades, the group reconvenes for a short ending theme, which sounds bleak. The closing track follows it: a one-chorus reading of "We Shall Overcome," as if to remind us that there is hope for a better future, if we follow what Haden said in his notes.

While that album - which no jazz collection should be without - had its darker moments, the LMO albums that followed it in 1982, 1990 and 2005 were more somber and thoughtful - ultimately hopeful. It felt as if Haden, his musical partner in crime and arrangements Carla Bley and all the members of the group, were done reminding of us of bleakness or hostility and they decided to move forward with the part about making the world a better place.

Which now leads us to Time/Life. Haden only appears on two tracks, "Song for the Whales" and its bookend at the start of the album, a version of the Miles Davis/Bill Evans classic "Blue in Green." Both come from the same concert at the Middelheim Festival in Belgium, recorded for Belgian Public Radio. Three lengthy studio pieces between the two live ones, recorded a day after a memorial for Haden last year. Steve Swallow takes over the bass duties on these tracks. Although they all have a pensive quality, they're also woven with the powerful lyrical quality that Haden projected in his work with his quartet with David Sanchez and Gonzalo Rubalcalba.

"Blue in Green," which was immortalized by its appearance on Kind of Blue, gets some strong ensemble coloring from Bley, who makes sure the group sounds lush but not lightweight. It features a Haden solo that sounds thoughtful and conversational, followed by lithe solo by Chris Cheek.

The three post-Haden pieces that follow all have a somber feeling to them, but it's never mournful, even in "Time/Life," which Bley wrote as a requiem to her friend. Tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby takes the spotlight for half of the piece, opening with the melody (which has faint traces of some old standard that I can't recall by name) and soloing for seven minutes. He builds slowly, moving into double time, as the Orchestra builds up under him. Drummer Matt Wilson takes over with a spare solo that almost feels like a chant or invocation. From there, 10 of the players each take an eight-bar solo, with the mood getting brighter and louder around the time of Seneca Black's trumpet solo. It may be a requiem but it concludes by sounding joyful.

"Silent Spring,"  a Bley piece that dates back to the '60s, opens with acoustic guitar solo by Steve Cardenas, then goes into minor dirge like something out of Sketches of Spain. That comparison is heightened by the way Michael Rodriguez's trumpet has a slow burning quality, much like Miles Davis used on that album.

"Ùtviklingssang" - "development song" according to an online translation - features trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and alto saxophonist Loren Stillman each playing the folk-like theme separately, with the Orchestra easing their way in with Stillman. Both of them solo over another minor vamp, creating some stunning performances, especially Stillman who gets a little more space.

Any free jazz enthusiast who yearned to hear Charlie Haden really cut loose will relish "Song for the Whales." It begins with the bassist bowing and scraping out a song that evokes whale noises, not in a ham-fisted or ridiculous way but in a manner that brings gravity to subject. He then starts the group on a rubato theme which recreates the spirit of Liberation Music Orchestra's original version of Haden's "Song for Che." This is due in no small part to a wild tenor solo from Malaby, who adds gruffness and shrieks to heighten the intensity. After Haden's final spoken words, Time/Life might leaves the listener missing the bassist even more, but the album also provides a celebration of his spirit, ultimately making it an uplifting experience.

Which can only be concluded with the word Haden used to show his enthusiasm: Solid.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

CD Review: Barry Guy - The Blue Shroud & Guy/Crispell/Lytton - Deep Memory

Barry Guy
The Blue Shroud

Barry Guy/Marilyn Crispell/Paul Lytton
Deep Memory

Bassist Barry Guy's two new albums for Intakt both take inspiration from works of art. In the case of the first one, it also incorporates the way a work of art can be presented and the resulting way in which the work is interpreted, with possible political motives coming out in the process. Vastly different in structure and instrumentation, both mine the visual medium to create strong, enduring works. 

When Colin Powell went on t.v. from the United Nations to present a case for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, he stood near a reproduction of Pablo Picasso's Guernica. The painting was inspired by the 1937 bombing of that city, and due to the nature of it, Picasso's work was draped in a blue shroud prior to Powell's talk. Presumably the images of war were too much for the public to see as a declaration of a new war was being made.

When writing The Blue Shroud, a 71-minute piece presented in 11 sections on disc, Guy was inspired by all of the acts - the bombing itself, Guernica and the act of shrouding it before Powell's speech. To bring it to life he assembled a 14-piece band, including a vocalist, strings, reeds, low and high brass and two drummers. Along with his original score, he incorporates pieces by classical composers H.I.F. Biber and J.S. Bach.

The work gets wild and there are moments of full blown chaos, but those are fleeting sections amidst bigger pieces. Ben Dwyer's guitar evokes flamenco as he strums furiously over a droning, bowed bass. Saxophones pop furiously, leading to vocals, quickly followed by piano clatter and low chattering strings. The overall feeling is minor, although hope feels like it could be on the horizon. This is especially true when the ensemble plays the Biber's pieces (which refer to Stations of the Cross) and Bach's "Agnus Dei."

Irish poet Kerry Hardie composed "Symbols of Guernica" which vocalist Savina Yannatou recites in sections throughout the piece. The use of voice and intense imagery never makes the work polemic or bombastic. Rather it elevates the feeling of the work. Since the liner notes, like all Intakt releases, appear in both German and English, it was hard to tell at first if Yannatou's recitation was in English or not, since it, wisely, was not pushed to far forward in the mix. This added to the overall impact of The Blue Shroud, making this element just one piece of a stronger whole.

The seven tracks on Deep Memory all derive titles from works by British painter Hughie O'Donoghue, from a 2007 Berlin exhibition titled Lost Poems. Though Guy didn't attempt to transform each canvas into music there can be parallels drawn between the vast, sometimes dark, swaths of color and Guy's performance with longtime collaborators Marilyn Crispell (piano) and Paul Lytton (percussion).

More than anything else, this collection reveals that wide array of moods this trio can create. After the opening "Spirit" - a tranquil rubato piece that unfolds slowly with gentle piano and a plucked bass solo - the group explodes, quite literally, in the opening seconds of "Fallen Angel," with furious bowing and crashes on the keys. The mood of the track also turns calm, but builds up to a climax a few more times, sustaining energy all along.

"Return of Ulysses" proves why Crispell is so highly regarded as a post-Cecil Taylor proponent of energy and technique. She unleashes blocks of sound over some furious bass scrapes that might have put the future of Guy's bow in jeopardy. "Dark Days" begins with her firing repeatedly on one note before taking off across the whole keyboard.

Yet for all of the wildness, Crispell draws on her deeply meditative side as well, which is felt in "Silenced Music" as well as the aforementioned opening track. Lytton colors the music perfectly, whether he's sitting back or adding some hard rolls to the stop-start theme of "Sleeper." And Guy, who composed everything, sounds great, especially in his "Spirit" solo which made my car's speakers vibrate wonderfully during a recent listen. Which proves that the best way to listen is by sitting right in front of two strong speakers.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

CD Review: Don Friedman - Strength and Sanity

Don Friedman
Strength and Sanity

Last summer I found a used copy of Out Front by Booker Little. I knew the trumpeter largely for the three albums that collected a performances at the Five Spot in Eric Dolphy's quintet, as well as Max Roach's Percussion Bitter Sweet. On all of these recordings, Little displays a voice unlike any other in the hard bop era. He had the technique of Lee Morgan or Freddie Hubbard, but his sense of melodic possibilities was closer to the avant-garde, or really to Dolphy. Like his reed playing partner, he wasn't blowing free. He was bringing a new perspective to chordal music and making it work powerfully.

Little died in 1961 of complications from uremia, at the age of 23. The potential he had, coupled with the death at such a young age, puts him in a rarefied league of jazz musicians that should have been, right up there with fellow trumpeter Clifford Brown, bassist Scott LaFaro and pianist Richard Twardzik. Dolphy could also be lumped in with this group, although he managed to release a vast number of albums before passing away in 1964. Booker Little only recorded a couple.

For Out Front, Little essentially recruited his bandmates from the Roach group: Dolphy, Roach (who plays tympani and vibes as well as traps), Julian Priester (trombone) and Art Davis, alternating with Ron Carter (bass). A 25-year old pianist named Don Friedman completed the group. That name will pop up again in a moment.

Upon listening to the seven original pieces on Out Front, I wondered how I had lived this long without it. The originality and power of this music is comparable to hard-to-describe classics like Dolphy's Out to Lunch or Andrew Hill's Point of Departure. You can hear new ground being broken as the music proceeds. While Hill's album had "Dedication," a mournful but powerful dirge (which changed the mood of the session from happy to pensive), Out Front has two pieces like that: "Moods in Free Time" and "Man of Words," which appear back to back. Throughout the album, these musicians dig into Little's ideas, which involve not only melodic jumps but leaps in time signatures, never once making them sound heavy handed. 

Friedman, the pianist on Out Front, passed away in June of this year, at the age of 81. (For an overview of his life, check out Nate Chinen's column in the November issue of JazzTimes.) Last fall he went into the studio and recorded Strength and Sanity, eight Little compositions, five of them from the album on which he originally played. Rather than trying to recreate the sonorous blend of Little, Dolphy and Priester with other musicians, he does it all on the piano. Bassist Phil Palombi and drummer Shinnosuke Takahasi accompany him.

The impact of these performances makes you wonder if Friedman had been waiting his whole life to revisit the material. While a side-by-side comparison is an exercise in futility, it's nonetheless interesting to listen to the way the pianist brings them to life. "Moods In Free Time," the first of the dark pieces from the original album, kicks off the album with a slow bass ostinato, over which Friedman spills out bursts of notes, in a pensive but more celebratory manner. Takahashi cues the tempo change which goes from a bright 5/4 to 4/4, both swinging wildly.

"Man of Words," perhaps tellingly, closes the album. Palombi slowly bows the trombone melody from the original, making it sound like the bridge of Ornette Coleman's "Peace" in the process. Gentler than the 1961 version, but still moving.

In between those two, the trio succeeds and recreating Little's melodies. Rich chords drive "Looking Ahead"
with its walking bass line. "Quiet Please" straddles full piano voicings in the theme with single-note lines in Friedman's solo. Throughout the album, Palombi's bass has the bright, fat sound of a vintage instrument, which could be attributed to an acoustic being miked at the strings, rather than recorded via a pickup and amp. The sound and tenor of this session create a joyful feeling, like a rediscovery of lost art.

Which brings us to the label that released Strength and Sanity. Don't expect to find it on CD or at your friendly neighborhood download site. The French Newville imprint releases vinyl only, via subscriptions at that. They launched earlier this year, with a discography that includes a Frank Kimbrough session and Jack DeJohnette's first album of solo piano.

Undertaking a subscription to their series costs a pretty penny, but the product is nothing short of astounding, justifying the expense (especially when considering it includes overseas shipping). The day the record arrived on my porch took me back to the magic morning when my first Mosaic set fell into my sweaty 17-year-old hands (The Complete Blue Note Thelonious Monk, in case you were wondering.) Newvelle Records evoke the same feelings in music lovers. Housed in a heavy, smooth cover, with a gatefold, the record comes in a sleeve printed with a poem by Tracy K. Smith. And if you haven't noticed by the picture yet, the record itself is pressed on clear vinyl.

This is music produced by people who care about music and want to present it in a way that expresses their love for it. It presents a modern take on music from a golden era, and it recalls a time when discovering new musical adventures was as much of a tactile experience as it was an aural one.

Friday, October 28, 2016

CD Review: Hearts & Minds

Hearts & Minds
(Astral Spirits/Monofonus Press)

Behind some basic packaging - two-sided, non-gatefold cover card, the list of tracks on the back, personnel but no songwriting credits - lurks a strong debut from a trio of guys who have been around the block, but never on record in a setting like this. Jason Stein (bass clarinet), Paul Giallorenzo (synthesizer, E Planet) and Frank Rosaly (drums, electronics) have all been part of the Chicago experimental scene for quite awhile. Together, they can get noisy, swing and evoke film noir all within a short space of time. They can also pull the musical rug out from under and stop when right when they set a mood.

Giallorenzo's synthesizer often sounds like an electric piano, setting up bass lines and some dreamy chords to accompany Stein's curious melodies that inspires the bass clarinet to simulate feedback at one point ("The Western Situation"). Sometimes the band starts off blowing free skronk, only to gradually allow a groove to take shape ("Old Balance"). Just as they settle into "The Western Situation," things end abruptly like the tape ran out or someone accidentally hit the pause button.

Sometimes their racket has some structure to it, like "Stocky," which is built on a series of atonal blasts. Later in "An Unfortunate Lack of Role Models" Stein and Rosaly pop in and out with staccato bursts while Giallorenzo noodles in the background like Sun Ra. For contrast, "Models" follows it, sounding like a completely different band, playing spy soundtrack music, with the keyboard doubling as bass and Rhodes. If Matt Bauder's trio Hearing Things is the jazz group to play surf music, Hearts & Minds should be re-scoring episodes of Peter Gunn or Johnny Staccato.

Stein is a rarity in the bass clarinet is his sole instrument, rather than one he alternates with another reed. His devotion results in one of the most vibrant voices on the low reed, with voice-like explosions and rasps that can suddenly turn sweet a moment later. (If you haven't heard his Locksmith Isidore trio, they have been opening for comedian Amy Schumer, who just happens to be Stein's sister. Follow that band.) Rosaly continues to be one of the more ingenious players on the Chicago scene, always creating excitement as he crashes freely, sets tempi and adds his own electronic sounds to the scene.

The trio's self-titled disc is broken up into Side One and Side Two on the back cover listing, and in keeping with the vinyl feeling, all nine tracks could fill both sides of a platter.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

CD Review: Blue Mitchell & Sonny Red - Baltimore 1966

Blue Mitchell & Sonny Red
Baltimore 1966

The New Thing might have been happening all over New York City in 1966, but 180 miles away in Baltimore, the Left Bank Jazz Society kept things straight and hard swinging. History shows that John Coltrane would make his final public performance with the Society a little more than a year later, but by and large the Society hosted groups like the quintet fronted by trumpeter Blue Mitchell and alto saxophonist Sonny Red.

Mitchell played with a bright tone that took inspiration from Clifford Brown. Not quite as fiery as Freddie Hubbard or groundbreaking a soloist or composer as Lee Morgan, perhaps, he still blew with a good deal of power. After playing with Horace Silver's quintet on albums like Song for My Father, Mitchell released several albums for Blue Note during this time that fit in firmly with the label's post-Sidewinder sound.

Sonny Red, born Sylvester Kyner in Detroit, also recorded one album for Blue Note and a few for Jazzland, but never achieved even mid-level notoriety beyond the jazz connoisseurs. (My first exposure to him came with a questionable live CD by Bobby Timmons in the '90s.) It's a shame because, as this performance shows, Red was clearly coming out of the Charlie Parker mold but working beyond that template, putting on an exciting performance as he went.

With John Hicks (piano), Gene Taylor (bass, also of the same Silver group as Mitchell) and Joe Chambers (drums) in the rhythm section, this quintet was clearly having a good time on March 20 of that year. Only one of the five tracks lasts less than 10 minutes, with two surpassing fourteen. In Jimmy Heath's "All Members," Mitchell still sounds like he's warming up, staying largely in the mid-range of his horn. Hicks, who would go on to play with people like David Murray, sticks to chords in the left hand here and throughout the night, feeding Powell-esque ideas to his right hand. But Red's slashing lines pump this up and Chambers plays several machine gun drum rolls and makes his crash cymbal ring like a bell. Everyone must have inspired Mitchell because a song later, in his calypso "Fungii Mama," he plays some squirts and explores some choice riffs. His energy keeps increasing with each track too.

Red's alto has a beefy tone, with a thickness similar to Cannonball Adderley. Throughout the evening, he throws some outlandish quotes into his solos. In "All Members" he references Raymond Scott's "The Toy Trumpet," while he borrows from Horace Silver in "Fungii Mama." "I Can't Get Started," the altoist's solo piece, includes snatches of  "I Get Along Without You Very Well" (twice), "Pop Goes the Weasel" and "Irish Washerwoman" which seemed to be a staple of hard boppers. While excessive quotes can get bothersome, it should be noted that Red is adding these to a lengthy solo, which he shifts into double-time, as something of a bridge between his own ideas, so they don't quite come off sounding hokey.

The disc ends with another ballad, with Mitchell getting featured on Nat "King" Cole's "Portrait of Jennie" (spelled "Jenny" here). Chambers sits this one out, but Taylor adds bounce to it and keeps it flowing, inspiring some more bright Blue lines, including a half-valve squawk. While live sets usually conclude with a rousing piece designed to bring the audience to their feet, Baltimore 1966 does the complete opposite, ending gently. But we're left feeling that this band of seemingly diverse players (if you look at the directions in which they all went) created something greater than the sum of their parts, so a big ending is not necessary. Uptown has continually unearthed "lost" performances where on any random night. as tapes were rolling, a band might have been simply working a gig, or they might have really lifted the bandstand. This one belongs in the latter category.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

I Have the Best Idea for What Obama and Biden Should Do in January

After watching a link to Hillary Clinton and that bum both cracking jokes yesterday at Al Smith Charity Dinner, I started riffing with a friend of mine, taking ancient one-liners from the likes of Henny Youngman and updating them for the current candidates. This was inspired in part by the accusation that Drumpf plagiarized a joke about Melania plagiarizing her speech. (I don't know if I truly believe that. It's an obvious joke that would be easy for a lot of people to make. But that's not why I'm here.)

I started wondering if Orange Head would also say, "Take my wife, please," and act like it's his own.

THEN, I started thinking about how our current leaders - Barack Obama and Joe Biden - are both naturally funny and sharp, and I imagined them as Dan Rowan and Dick Martin on Laugh-In. It occurred to me that would be a brilliant thing for them to do once their out of the White House. Barack could smoke again. He could be the straight man, trying to talk straight talk while Joe acts the part of his screwball sidekick. Laugh-In was always slightly political, so who better to bring it back to life than the man who could be politically astute and funny at the same time.

Bernie Sanders would be the perfect to come and say, "Sock it to me." But Jennie had an even better idea: he could be the guy riding the tricycle that keeps falling over. AND FOR ONCE, IT WOULD BE FUNNY!

The part of Ruth Buzzi's Gladys character could be played by Madeline Albright. Maybe Capitol Steps could be guest stars and they could be blown up. Or arrested for being so unfunny it's a crime. Mark Russell could be one each week too, being blown up. (Although I do kind of like him.)

This thing's practically writing itself. If the president sees this, please tell him to contact me. He knows where to find me.

Say goodnight, Joe.

Goodnight, Joe.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

CD Review: Kris Davis - Duopoly

Kris Davis

For her newest album, pianist Kris Davis hit upon the idea of performing a series of duets with specific types of instrumentalists: two different guitarists (Bill Frisell, Julian Lage), two pianists (Craig Taborn, Angelica Sanchez), two drummers (Billy Drummond, Marcus Gilmore) and two reeds (saxophonist Tim Berne, clarinetist Don Byron). With each pairing, they played one composition (five by Davis, one by Sanchez, one by Thelonious Monk, one by Duke Ellington) along with one brief improvisation.

In remarkable display of sequencing, the compositions play in order of the performers listed above (and pictured left to right on the cover, between pictures of Davis' inverted face). The improvisations run in reverse order of performers, making the final album something like an artistic palindrome. For those interested in watching the music come to life, Duopoly comes with an accompanying DVD that was filmed by two cameras in the studio, one pointing at each subject.

At first blush, the DVD almost acts like a distraction. Not simply because of technical things - such as when the camera stays on Lage's face during "Surf Curl," cropping out his musical activities - or the questions it can raise - like whether Drummond's facial expressions come from his passion for the music or uncertainty about where to play. After watching the performances, though, a return to the CD felt more rewarding. This is often gentle music and the visual almost took away attention from what is being created.

The composed pieces often feel as skeletal as the improvisations (which are each titled for Davis' guests). The interplay between Davis and Sanchez on "Angelica Sanchez" betrays more connection and interlocking of ideas than "Beneath the Leaves," though the latter sounds equally lyrical. "Fox Fire," with Taborn, begins slowly, with the alluring suspense that he created on his Avenging Angel disc: Things might begin glacially, but stick with it and you'll be rewarded as things open up. This pairing is one of the best on the whole session. It should come as no surprise that they have played a few shows together, marking the release of this set.

The two non-originals get stretched out beyond simple recognition. Davis takes "Eronel," a song associated with Thelonious Monk that was actually written largely by Sadik Hakim and Idrees Sulieman, and breaks down the theme into choppy pieces, while Drummond gradually builds from cymbal splashes to the full kit, ending in tandem with her like he knew where he was all along. Byron joins the pianist for "Prelude to a Kiss" which also takes the romantic theme and slows it to molasses-esque pour, giving a new type of romantic quality.

All of the improvisations average around four minutes, give or take a few seconds. That length of time doesn't offer much chance to create more than some fleeting sonic imagery that would not be out of place on an ECM album. They're compelling, though they don't always offer something to latch onto. Lage, on acoustic guitar, provides one of the few moments of free frenzy, when he skronks on his instrument. Coming as the penultimate track, it's a welcome jolt and leads into the final statement with Frisell, right where we came in.

The evershifting sound of Duopoly provide a challenge to maintain focus, but Davis' own performance offers consistency and direction in the moments that often feel loose, whether she's plinking prepared notes, slamming the low end or echoing her partner's high octave plinks. Although the music, and the studio footage, might come across a bit serious, the additional shots of the musicians included in the CD booklet indicate that everyone was having a good time. Davis continues to be one of the most fascinating new pianists in adventurous jazz.

Friday, October 14, 2016

CD Reviews: Four Albums on OutNow Recordings

At the beginning of the year, this blog featured a review of Yoni Kretzmer's 2 Bass Quartet. A few months later, another package arrived from Mr. K, the Brooklyn-based tenor player, and it contained these four discs. All appear on the same imprint as Kretzmer's last disc, OutNow, which keeps the packaging spare, but artistic (all but one are done in black and white, only one features liner notes from the leader). The music resides in the more adventurous realm of jazz, with plenty of exciting free improvisation, along with some thought-provoking compositions that bring out the best in these players. While all eyes are usually on New York City for the best in this type of music, Out Now seems to be saying Brooklyn is Now, to rework Ornette Coleman's declaration (and answer his co-hort Don Cherry's question about the borough). 

Yoni Kretmzer/Jason Ajemian/Kevin Shea
Until Your Throat Is Dry

It wouldn't be surprising if this title came as a response to the question, "How long should I play?" Here, Kretzmer's wild tenor joins forces with a bassist and drummer well-suited for zero-to-sixty free improvisation. Bassist Jason Ajemian played in several bands in Chicago and released two albums for Delmark that showcased his compositions (The Art of Dying) and some spacey jams inspired by Sun Ra (Folklords). He also led an ensemble that seemed to gather everyone on the Chicago jazz circuit to play a sort of collision of free jazz and freaky folk music (the bizarrely compelling Who Cares How Long You Sink). Drummer Kevin Shea is the wild man of Mostly Other People Do the Killing and numerous other bands, who provides the closest link between Han Bennink and Animal from The Muppet Show.

The disc features four tracks of unadulterated blowing. As wild as it gets, the trio also shows restraint so that it never gets one-dimensional. Ajemian begins the set with a solo that he plucks so hard, the strings could come unwound. (I've seen him play solo bass sets, in which he's held his own, so he's well suited for this setting.) Kretzmer can wail passionately at either end of his horn's register, but his solos carefully work their way to the bottom or top, exploring all the possibilities in between first, using a low honk or high shriek as punctuation for what he's already played. Shea, in some ways, operates in much the same way - never slowing down as he works over his kit and any type of additional hardware he has along with him. 

Yoni Kretzmer

The track titles on Five imply a rudimentary reference, which would provide reference to another set of improvisations ("July 19," "Quintet I," "Quintet II," etc.). But while there's plenty of free blowing here, this quintet works off of a series of sketches that Kretzmer brought to the session. Steve Swell (trombone) and Thomas Heberer (cornet) join Kretzmer on the front line while Chad Taylor (drums) and Max Johnson (bass) split time between playing vamps and acting as the rubato foil to the horns.

Sometimes they recall a more brass-heavy version of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, creating infectious excitement as they wail. "Quintet I" has an almost conventional, albeit out of tempo, theme for the horns, while the rhythm section twists around it. "Feb 23" starts off with just Taylor and Johnson accompanying Kretzmer's gruff tenor. But the brass eventually comes in playing shout lines behind him. This type of structure shows up in other tracks too, giving the quintet just enough of a foundation to really lift their music. While the previous disc's wild abandon was fun, Five is even stronger while hearing the band move between inside and outside.

Ehran Elisha
Kindred Spirit: Quintets

In 2013 drummer Ehran Elisha recorded two sets of quintets each playing a different suite of his at IBeam in Brooklyn. Each set takes up a whole disc. "Kindred Soul" features his father Haim Elisha (piano), Sam Bardfeld (violin), Dave Phillips (bass) and Roy Campbell (trumpet), in what would be his final collaboration with Elisha. The instrumentation creates some intriguing sonic results. Despite playing a somewhat out-of-tune piano, the elder Elisha helps bring his son's free flowing ideas to life, alternating between meditative passages and Taylor-esque crashes. Campbell's clarion tone sounds authoritative, even as he plummets down into his instrument's guttural depths.

While disc one's quintet was familiar with Elisha's writing, disc two's "Spirit Suite" is played a group new to the composer/drummer's approach: Kretzmer, Michael Attias (alto and baritone saxes), Rick Parker (trombone) and Sean Conly (bass). Elisha finally gives himself a chance to solo, rolling and tumbling in multiple directions during the free "Two By Five," the second movement. Throughout the set, Kretzmer's tenor gets plenty of room and he frequently recalls Archie Shepp, thanks to the gruff tone he plays. To this style, though, he also pops on the reed, something Shepp never did. Attias' alto follows suit with him, but he spends more time on baritone, which he uses to blow long tones with Parker over the rhythm section's rolling boil in the opening "Spirit Serenade." The closing "Outrise" begins with a trombone solo over a drop-tuned bass, the whole thing getting low and ugly (in a good way) before coming to a calm resolve.

Frantz Loriot - Systematic Distortion Orchestra
The Assembly

If the previous three discs didn't suggest an idea of what to expect from labelmates known as the Systematic Distortion Orchestra, a glance at the instrumentation might offer one: The 11-piece group includes three drummers and two bassists, in addition to four brass, one reed and leader Frantz Loriot on viola.

That lineup seems like the type of ensemble to create dense, murky sound sculptures. That's exactly what they do. Some of the time. Two of the four compositions are credited to the whole group, but two are credited to Loriot alone. One of the latter is "Echo," which opens The Assembly like an eerie film soundtrack. The basses rumble in as the horns play a simple melody of sustained notes. Everything rises in waves, with the drums crashing behind them, and Loriot's viola (or maybe Nathaniel Morgan's alto saxophone) riding on top. A voice sings and yells briefly in the middle, and it's easy to see why. The fury this band unleashes is powerful. Nearly 10 minutes in length, it passes before you notice it.

Of the two group compositions, the title track works the same formula as "Echo," incorporating a heavy dose of extended technique and getting a little more dense in the process. "...Maybe...Still..." includes a spoken text by bassist Sean Ali, reciting a circular poem that complements that loose improvisation going behind him.

"Le Relais," Loriot's other "composition" goes heavy on percussion for its first three minutes, recalling more Art Ensemble shenanigans. Things begin slowly - none of the tracks on the album seem in a hurry to get started  - and the rest of the group enters in waves over the next 10 minutes. Loriot sounds, in some ways, like phantom bagpipes on the horizon, and the brass creates layers of kissing sounds and rumbles. The sound remains thick and hard to penetrate, but the momentum never stops.

Hopefully, the Systematic Distortion Orchestra can be found playing in some loft or DIY space in Brooklyn. In person, they could easily transfix a small but devoted group of listeners. The music on The Assembly  is best experienced in person, but this album maintains some of the electricity in the translation to disc.

All of these discs and more can be found at

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Destroyer at Club Cafe - Dan Bejar, That Is

There is something bizarrely fascinating about Dan Bejar's music that he's recorded under the name Destroyer. Sometimes his high voice and dramatic delivery make him sound like some bard who has just stumbled into some indie rock band's practice space and decided to join them. The Your Blues album put his words to some of the most synthetic of synthesizers, which really made for a challenging listen. Poison Summer, the most recent Destroyer album, includes a serious dose of strings and horns, for music that he himself is still trying to process.

This past Monday, though, it was just Mr. Bejar and his acoustic guitar onstage at Club Cafe. We had talked a few weeks earlier for an article that appeared in Pittsburgh City Paper. He mentioned then that he had a batch of new songs that he was going to mix with some of the 150 songs from the Destroyer back catalog that he could pull off in a solo set. For a little over an hour, he chose about 10-percent of that catalog, easily going from one song to the next, talking between songs in a voice so calm and gentle that it was almost too hard to hear him through the sold-out throng of people. Not that the crowd was rowdy. On the contrary, everyone was listening in silence with rapt attention.

Sometime into the set, an epiphany popped up. It doesn't really matter what chord progressions he's playing, when he singing these evocative story-song lyrics overtop of them. The fact that songs like "A Light Travels Down the Catwalk" or "Watercolours Into the Ocean" have sweet backdrops - like the latter's "Femme Fatale"-esque riff - adds to the allure of the strangely poetic nature of his words. One new song climaxed with the line "I'm working on the new Oliver Twist," which doesn't sound like it should fit comfortably into a pop song. Sure enough, Bejar makes it fit.

"Your Blood," from the 2006 album Destroyer's Rubies, got a little manic or overly dramatic in the original, but in concert it veered in the opposite direction, getting more quiet and inviting close listening. "Don't Become the Thing You Hated" left all the Your Blues trappings in the dust, and served as the rousing end to the set, with words to live by. Of course, there was an encore, this one being "Virgin With a Memory." This one too ended with a beautifully rhetorical question: "Was it a movie of the making of Fitzcarraldo/ where someone learned to love again?"

On a parting note, I have to mention the crowd, which as previously mentioned, sold out Club Cafe's 140-person capacity. Besides my co-hort Erin, I didn't recognize anyone there until after the set, when I ran into two people I knew. Where do these people come from? Are they diehard Destroyer fans who drove in from out of town? Do they live here? Do they check out local bands in local clubs? They shouldn't miss out on these opportunities.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Birthday Highlights

Friday, October 7 was my birthday. Typical of most days, I had a full  list of things to do, leading up to a show at the end of the night. Playing on my birthday seemed like a good idea, so why not.

The day started the photo below, which I saw when I walked into work:

Not one, but two cakes. And since they came from the place where I used to work, damn good cakes. But before I had a chance to really get settled into the day, the power went out in the office. That was around 10:45. Duquesne Light, when we were finally able to get through to a live person, said it could be close to 1:00 before it came back on. The staff said that if it didn't come on at 1:00, we could go home. 

After getting a cake, which we cut into soon after the power outage (luckily there are a lot of tall windows and it was sunny at that point so we weren't in the dark), getting a free day off would have been too good to be true, and too much to expect. And it was, because it came back on at about 12:15.

The rest of the day was a typical Friday: get home, meet Donovan at the bus stop, take him to his piano lesson. Grab a Mineo's pizza for dinner. It wasn't the OFFICIAL birthday dinner but a good one. Besides I had to run out quickly to see Mary Halvorson at a City of Asylum performance.

Mary is in town all weekend. Friday was a solo set, last night she played with Tomas Fujiwara's the Hook Up. Tonight she's playing with Thumbscrew, the trio with Fujiwara and bassist Michael Formanek. As a side note, Esperanza Spaulding was also playing in town the same night, just a few miles away. Ben Folds was also in town. In the wildest addition to that don't-tell-me-nothing-happens-in-Pittsburgh moment, the band ESG (yes, THE ESG with the Scroggins sisters) was playing here at the VIA Festival. 

But I was at the Halvorson show because I was asked to present her with an award for Guitarist of the Year from the Jazz Journalists Association. The call came a few weeks ago and at first it threw me off: On the same night as a gig, and the same night I had intended to celebrate my birthday with my family, I was asked to do this too? What's a guy to do? Answer: Do it, because I'd be stupid not to.

So I was told that, as Mary was making her way to the stage, I should follow her up and make the announcement. Never having done this kind of thing before, I felt funny, wondering how much she actually knew about this, if she remembered me from previous visits, interviews, etc, as the guy who'd be doing it. 

Then when I got up there, I was nervous, worrying about talking too much, getting too effusive and not making any sense. So I just ad libbed  a little bit, recalling seeing her for the first time with Anthony Braxton here in 2008, hopefully got the message across, made sure the JJA got some good props and handed her the award. 

Her set consisted of the music she recorded on Meltframe, a group of reimagined songs by everyone from Ornette Coleman to French guitarist Noël Akchoté. (She actually segued these respective composers' pieces together, "Sadness" and "Cheshire Hotel" respectively.) Other composers that she did before I left included Annette Peacock and Oliver Nelson. (I wonder what the latter would have thought of her fuzzy version of "Cascades.")

I was only able to catch about 25 or 30 minutes before heading back across the Allegheny to Hambone's, via a stop for coffee. A handful of better-suited words about Mary came to me as soon as she started playing, so I was feeling moody and caffeine was the only cure. After waiting for the family in front of me to get three desserts, trying to find a place to park near Hambone's and walking in the rain, the drink felt even better. (The good news was we were sharing bass amps at the show, so I only had to haul my bass, tool kit full of cables and various sundries.)

Good friends Will Simmons and the Upholsterers opened the show, which to me also means Instant Party. Those guys know how to balance solid pop hooks with some zany elan. In my honor, they covered two Monkees songs in a medley, "Randy Scouse Git" and "Love Is Only Sleeping." The latter is a pretty bold move since it hops from 7/4 to 4/4. 

The Love Letters' last few shows found us playing slightly shorter sets to make sure that everyone on the bill got their space. (Well, Britsburgh was a little longer, but that's a different story.) We decided to aim for closer to 45 minutes tonight, though we probably went a bit over, thanks to some good shtick at the beginning of the set. Furthermore, I caused some delay in a quest to find some lost equipment, which was right under my nose the whole time. (Sorry, guys.)

We threw in a fair number of covers tonight, some part of our regular set, some newer. The big one was one of my favorite songs from childhood, the McCoys' "Hang on Sloopy." I think we did a pretty spirited version of it. There were some amp/guitar problems in the set, but we rebounded pretty well and I got to segue a few songs together.

Old Soles and Seedy Players went on after us. I hadn't seen them before but I knew keyboardist/vocalist Dan Styslinger from his guitar playing in delicious pastries. After hearing a few songs online, I thought they'd be cool. Normally they have a horn section, but on this night they were just a quartet. It was different from what I expected: these guys really have chops. Dan's keys unfortunately got lost in the mix a bit, but he was really going at it. Guitarist Frank had an octave effect pedal that he used during solos, which gave his instrument this weird, flute-like sound. The first time he did, I wasn't sure where the sound was coming from. I liked the way the rhythm section made the songs move because it kept the edge in it, so it didn't get too smooth. I want to check these guys out again because I'm still wrapping my head around them. And I want to hear horns!

Thursday, October 06, 2016

CD Review: Slavic Soul Party! - Plays Duke Ellington's Far East Suite

Slavic Soul Party!
Plays Duke Ellington's Far East Suite

Sometimes, making a comparison between a tribute/re-imagining album and its source material can cause some serious distraction, especially when the composers in question are Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. (And especially when the reviewer isn't initially familiar with the original material.) The whole angle of the piece starts to be shaped before the words start hitting the page: What's more important, the way the new version compares to the original, or whether the new one stands on its own?

It's senseless to take the former approach, since anyone will fall like a house of cards when stacked up to Ellington's original. But a little bit of background is in order. Duke and his band participated in a "jazz diplomacy" mission in 1963 when they traveled through Middle East, South Asia and the Balkans, to now-treacherous places like Syrian, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq. Members of the band would later grouse that they played less for the everyday people of these countries and more for the high-ranking officials.

Ironically, they never actually made it to the Far East proper, as the tour was halted after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November of that year. But the trip was enough to inspire the writing of Ellington and Strayhorn, who created a total of nine tracks for the 1966 album. It would be some of the last music Strayhorn would write before loosing a battle with esophageal cancer a year later.

Slavic Soul Party! originates in New York City, the product of a group of musicians affiliated with the experimental jazz scene who go back to the music of Balkan brass bands, injecting it with the adventure they've developed in their own circle of music. Their heritage, so to speak, brings Far East Suite full circle, back to the music that inspired it. Ellington's use of a full reed and brass section brought the music West. SSP!, on the other hand has only one reed player (Peter Hess, who doubles on saxophones and clarinet), five brass (two trumpets, two trombones, tuba), two drummers and an accordionist. The last instrument is particularly key in creating this Balkan feel, most notably in "Amad" and the closing "Ad Lib On Nippon," where Peter Stan gets some guttural noises out of his squeezebox.

"Isfahan" originally served as a feature for Johnny Hodges' regal alto sax. That role is taken by the trumpet (either John Carlson or Kenny Warren) which plays over a slinky beat  accustomed to a New Orleans marching band. That feeling pops up throughout many songs, especially when Ron Caswell's tuba plays some funky bass lines. He and his lower brass mates get pushed to the front of "Bluebird of Delhi" giving the song a more sinister feeling that contrasts with the light clarinet part (intact from Ellington) that represents the bird. Later on, the band adds some klezmer color to "Depk" though Caswell still keeps the Big Easy at arm's length.

This recording was made at Barbès in Brooklyn in front of an audience, which reacts enthusiastically to the performance. It's easy to see why: the energy never wavers, even when things get more reflection ("Agra"). In the end that means prior knowledge of Far East Suite is not required before checking out Slavic Soul Party!'s homage. Don't be surprised if it inspires curious listeners to search for the original, though, to prolong the pleasure.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

CD Review: Jason Roebke Octet - Cinema Spiral

Jason Roebke Octet
Cinema Spiral
(No Business)

Whereas Jason Roebke's last octet album, High/Red/Center (Delmark, 2014), began with some tense but swinging Sun Ra-esque harmonies, Cinema Spiral begins with an atonal, out-of-tempo call from the horn-heavy ensemble. It doesn't attempt to copy the opening wail of Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, but "Looking Directly Into the Camera" contains a similar loose-cum-focused feel, an announcement that the group is about to begin. And like that other landmark session, this theme will recur, providing a break between sections that might otherwise be missed.

Cinema Spiral consists of seven tracks, but it's actually one continuous 52-minute piece with no proper pauses. Like High/Red/Center, bassist Roebke corralled his close associates from the Chicago music scene to bring it to life: Greg Ward (alto saxophone), Keefe Jackson (tenor & sopranino saxophones, contrabass clarinet), Jason Stein (bass clarinet), Josh Berman (cornet), Jeb Bishop (trombone), Jason Adasiewicz (vibes) and Mike Reed (drums). Any chance to hear that lineup together in one place surely means a good time will be had by listeners and participants.

But while the octet's previous session featured a combination of written parts and a grounded rhythm section working together with unwound solos, Cinema Spiral as a whole feels much looser. "Looking Directly" moves right from the opening line to a thoughtful, probing solo from the leader. Long tones eventually come in, but it feels more like exposition. "Focusing" follows with Stein's bass clarinet and Bishop's trombone beginning a bit of group improvisation. The second real ensemble passage comes toward the end, prior to a restatement of the opening call.

This loose framework continues for most of the album. A short theme at the end of "Getting High" acts more like a chance to regroup before everyone goes for broke in "People Laughing." That track begins with everyone wailing at their wildest. Structure, and intrigue, comes less from written sections than pure dynamics, though. After three minutes of squonk, everyone drops out except Roebke, Adasiewicz and Reed, who grind to almost dead silence a couple minutes later. In "Waiting" Roebke adds a bit more structure by riffing behind the 'bone, cornet and contrabass clarinet interjections. The foundation feels event more buoyant in "L’acmé" which ends with bright group theme.

In some ways Cinema Spiral could have benefited from a little more structure, since several moments seem like the octet is trying to move towards a resolve that never really comes. It leads instead to more wild blowing. At the same time, these players knows how to take it out and take people with them, maintaining a good deal of energy at all times. Bass clarinetist Stein in particular seems to get a good deal of lead time. The album is not a complete squonk fest either, as Berman and Roebke prove when they get room to shine on their own. 

No Business Records reside in Lithuania, so the album might not be quite as easy to find as High/Red/Center. Contact them directly to check it out.