Saturday, January 23, 2016

Going to The Stone to see Matana Roberts, Nate Wooley & Evan Rapport

My review of this year's NYC Winter Jazzfest is now up on the Pittsburgh City Paper website. Find it here.  Two of my colleagues wrote a review of the event on the JazzTimes website, and it made me realize that there's really no way to do a comprehensive rundown of everything that happened there if you're one person. Or if you do, it means that you can't see whole sets or expect to catch a set by a favorite musician if their set conflicts with your big plans. Then again, those writers live in New York and one of them told me that the roster of acts wasn't anything really new for a New Yorker.

The photo above a section of the wall inside the Stone, the Lower East Side performance venue where John Zorn serves as artistic director. (How many performers can you identify?) Musicians usually curate a weeklong residency, with the freedom to present different things each night.

I went to the Stone last Thursday evening to see saxophonist Matana Roberts. (It wasn't part of Winter Jazzfest.) Being directionally challenged, it took me a while to get there, and besides, the place is easy to miss. The entrance is right at the corner of Avenue C at East 2nd Street, with the only indication being a small (as in 3"X1") sticker right at the handle of the glass door with the name. I'm not sure if I walked past it the first three times or if the metal gate was down when I first walked by.

The website mentioned that there are no refreshments served at the Stone, "only music," which I can understand. But for some reason I thought the place would be...bigger. There were several rows of chairs facing the "stage area" (nothing so much as a stage) with about three more rows behind the band. Back here in Pittsburgh, we used to have art/performance venues like Garfield Artworks and the Turmoil Room, which were storefronts in a past life and revitalized by sheer will of the participants. The only difference between them and the Stone really is the New York spot was a little cleaner, had proper acoustics and had a grand piano in the corner. Not only is there no booze, someone told me they don't allow you to BYOB. This way, all the attention is given to the music. Sure, it cuts down on any potential tourists, but if someone is going to the Stone, logic follows that they're not there to pay $15 and just hang out. Everyone sat quietly waiting for the show to start, not unlike patrons in an adult theater.

By the time Matana Roberts (alto saxophone), Nate Wooley (trumpet) and Evan Rapport (alto saxophone) walked up from the basement, there were more than 20 and probably close to 30 patrons in the room. Without much more than an introduction of the players, they launched into an improvisation, riding waves of sound, blowing long tones together and taking turns riding on top of the other two.

At one point between improvisations, Roberts commented that there was a lot of psychic energy between her, Wooley and Rapport, and she couldn't have been more accurate. Rapport sounded calm during one section, later breaking into some wild fluttering. Wooley, armed with a few mutes including devices for a pure wah-wah sound, volleyed a riff between the two saxes, breaking into splats and smears at other times. Roberts moved between supportive long tones and vibrato, switching when it was time to let her companions take a more prominent role. I could've listened to her original, sharp melodic lines all night.

This is going to sound very much like a tourist - and really, I was to a great extent - but it felt like this was the ideal New York free improvising situation that probably happens on a regular basis on the Lower East Side. It might be common, this-is-who-we-are playing for the musicians or the volunteer taking the $15 cover at the door (all of which goes to the performers). But to someone who is used to seeing musicians like this play to one hand's worth of people back home, wishing that more people would investigate this music, it had a magic quality. Magic because the music was great, and magic knowing that somewhere this music is commonplace and that 30 people think nothing of shelling out $15 to spend an hour listening to it.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Jazz Connect & Winter Jazzfest. Were you there?

I just returned from the Jazz Connect Conference and Winter Jazzfest 2016 in New York, yesterday. I didn't take my laptop, knowing that there really wasn't going to be enough time to blog in between events. And it was one less thing to worry about.

There will be several recaps about the events and music, though. I'm doing a couple things for City Paper about it. And they will be linked here as they appear.

If you're a first time visitor to Shanleyonmusic, let me know you've stop by. Leave a comment!

Gotta go make some coffee now.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

What David Bowie Means To Me

The whole interweb has been overloaded with David Bowie tributes over the last 36 hours, so I feel like I need to put out a few of my own.


1. On one Sunday night, when I was at my folks' house for dinner, my dad and I were talking about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductions. Pop was not a fan of the rock, to put it mildly. He was a Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker-type of guy who dug lush harmonies and songs with bouncy riffs (see Bud Shank's "Shanks Pranks").

"Is David Bowie in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? I mean, he should be. I don't really care for his music, but he's done enough that he should be in there," Pop opined over a cocktail. I can't recall when this conversation took place, but the Thin White Duke was inducted in 1996, so it must have been a few years prior that we had the talk.

My wife also reminded me that during the days of MTV and "Let's Dance," my late father-in-law remembered Bowie as "that guy with two different colored eyes," which was followed by, "now HE can sing!" I doubt either of these gents were fully swayed by Bowie's duet with Bing Crosby - in fact, when that song resurfaced again in the '90s, it wouldn't have gotten caught in their draintraps - but that wouldn't have hurt him.

2. "'Heroes.'" Remember, the song has quotes around the title, so when citing it, you need to do a quote within a quote. The reason being, the protagonists in this song are not really heroes, they're tragic lovers. But they're savoring that last moment they can spend together, kissing and dreaming about how life would be, if only things were different. When you can feel that in the face of adversity, that is what love is all about. It's tragic. It rips your heart out. And you feel it when Bowie starts yelling the words. (The song doesn't loose any impact even when it's pointed out that it was inspired by a secret affair that Tony Visconti was having at the time.)

When that song came out on a single, the first two verses were edited out. That ruins the song. Yes, it ruins it. Strong words? Well, dig: it sets up the whole plot of the song. "I, I would be king/ and you, you would be queen...." He sounds so hopeful, wistful. The line "Cuz we're lovers," solidifies the story, putting a shadow of doubt on it since it follows lines about being mean and drinking all the time. Without that part, you don't have the set-up, and even though he repeats the first verse later when he yells, it doesn't register in the same way, tracing the hopeful-to-tragic arc. You need the whole six-minute song.

I've always believed that if you're going to cover a song, know it well. If you're going to rework it, that's fine, but work out, from the core of the song to your own statement. Lester Young used to learn the lyrics to every song he played, thinking that it would help inspire his improvisations on the saxophone. That is what I'm talking about.

When I heard the Wallflowers version of it, I thought the phoned-in quality was bad enough. Then I realized that they started from the opening line of the edited version. And it made me think, they didn't even bother to go back to the full-length version to learn it. It took one of the most heartwrenching songs about love and just chucked all the emotion out of it. But I'm not here to elevate someone by putting someone else down. I just - as you might have guessed - have a lot attached to that song.

3. In 1981, that pivotal year that I've mentioned often in this blog, I found semi-beat up copies of Hunky Dory, Station to Station and Young Americans in a free box at the Record Recycler, a Squirrel Hill shop where I was spending more and more time. I had also purchased Diamond Dogs earlier that year at a flea market. Heroes was purchased about six months later.

I was in 9th grade that fall and I was trying to catch up all the important music that was already out there - Velvet Underground, Bowie, Syd Barrett, Brian Eno, Captain Beefheart (though that took another year). The thing I remember about those albums - Hunky Dory especially - is that they came with the expectation of being something really significant and important - and they lived up to it. The distorted riff of "Queen Bitch," the way he shoots up the octave to sing, "SAIL-ors fighting in the dance hall," and then follows it up with a reference to the novelty song, "Alley Oop." That octave jump still makes me tear up. This stuff was brilliant. It was exciting and David was sharing the excitement with us.

4. Around 2000, there was a David Bowie tribute show staged at the late, great Beehive Theater here in Pittsburgh. It included a house band (organized by Dewey Gurall) with a slew of guest singers. One of the most memorable moments came when Ed Masley (Post-Gazette music critic and frontman of the Frampton Brothers) got up onstage wearing the Scary Monsters-Bowie clown suit. As an homage to Bowie's infamous Saturday Night Live performance, where he had to be carried offstage since his outfit immobilized him during one song, Ed was hoisted into the arms of my friend Mike Moran afterwards. A true mix of homage and parody. Also that night, Michael Kastelic, of the Cynics, sang the whole Ziggy Stardust  album (sans the cover of "It Ain't Easy") with the band, in playing order. It sounded awesome.

4. One of my dreams has always been to be the hired gun, who shows up when someone says, "We need a bass player that can learn some tunes on the fly. Who can do it?" A couple years after that Bowie show, I got to do just that.

It was Glam Rock Cabaret, produced at the Rex Theater by my dear friend Sheryl, who for years had staged New Wave Cabarets to coincide with her birthday. After playing three songs by my own band (it was the Mofones, but without our singer Sharon Spell, we defaulted back to the name of our previous band Mystery Date), I ended up getting asked to sub for the ailing bassist in another band. Mike Cunningham, would start the band Neighbors a few years later, walked me over to the piano in the lobby of the Rex and showed me the songs. One was "Rebel Rebel," one of my favorite Bowie tunes. By the time I got up onstage, I had forgotten the middle-8 change, but I knew the two-chord that made up 75% of the song. I whomped that riff within an inch of its life and it felt really good. At the end of the night, Sheryl fronted a group that played "All the Young Dudes," a song that Bowie penned for Mott the Hoople.

These are all pretty personal stories, and they probably say more about me than they do about David Bowie, when all is said and done. But none of it would have happened, and these people wouldn't have converged together without Mr. B. There have been plenty of legendary musicians that have united fans around the world through music. But Bowie's way of uniting us motivated us to come together in a way that embraced our diversity, our freakiness, our unique qualities. We're all weirder for it, and we should all thank him for that.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

CD Review - Josh Berman - A Dance and a Hop

Josh Berman
A Dance and A Hop

A formidable challenge faces the horn player whose has only bass and drums to accompany them. The music could be spare. It could be completely interactive, with the roles of leader and rhythm section erased in favor of something more egalitarian. Or said horn player could play his posterior off and make you forget there could ever be any shortcomings to such a setting.

That's exactly what cornetist Josh Berman has done with A Dance and A Hop. Granted, his familiarity with bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Frank Rosaly runs deep, and they're with him every step of the way. But Berman really works out on his third disc as a leader, easing from composition to improvisation. The length of all 11 tracks stay in radio-friendly territory, so no one stretches out too far. But they also say more in four minutes that a lot of musicians do in thrice that time.

Berman has been a strong voice on the Chicago jazz scene for about 15 years. To mention just a few pieces of his c.v., he's played in the spontaneous Chicago Luzern Exchange, the revolving leadership ensemble Fast Citizens (both of which include Rosaly) and he has released two other vastly different albums as a leader on Delmark. Regarding the latter two, Old Idea (which it wasn't) featured original compositions played by a quintet, (read about it here). There Now reimagined '20s chestnuts like "I've Found a New Baby" and "Love Is Just Around the Corner."

Besides generating a bit of head scratching, There Now proved that Berman's scope went back further than, say, Don Cherry and Lester Bowie, and, as indicated by the album's liner notes, includes reverence for the smooth brass of the late Ruby Braff. He might not usually play in that romantic, lyrical territory but his knowledge has boosted his arsenal of sounds so that he constantly generates deep emotion, whether he's yowling or creating something a little more grounded. He always has a deep thought that he's ready to share.

In "Time/Trouble," he uses his prowess to slide wildly from squirts into solid notes, a deft way of blending extended technique and melody. "Today's Date"'s solo is all about shooting air through the bell, with some gassy sounds thrown in for good measure. It may be one of the album's more extreme tracks, but it follows a few songs that find him cutting a more straightforward path, with just a bit ruggedness thrown in along the way.  

While Berman seems fine in the spotlight, Roebke and Rosaly don't merely fade into the background either. The bassist's solid playing runs parallel to or bolsters the plucky brass tone, as needed. Rosaly frequently uses brushes, which in his hands have the same authority as sticks, providing a heavy backdrop during a bass solo in "Your Uncle" and ending ""Time/Trouble" with a might crash.

This album won some accolades at the end of the year (it came out in September), but it warrants a second look by anyone who hasn't heard it yet. Find it, and Berman's other two albums.

CD Review: Sonny Sharrock - Ask the Ages

Sonny Sharrock
Ask the Ages
(M.O.D. Technologies)

Sonny Sharrock's Ask the Ages was nothing short of a landmark when it was originally released in 1991. The lineup alone was enough to get people's attention. Drummer Elvin Jones was still playing regularly, though his Jazz Machine might not have had the gale-force power of his earlier work. By then, tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders' music had softened from his frenzied shrieks to levels that were a bit more standard at best, and slick at worst. Bassist Charnett Moffett (son of Ornette Coleman's associate Charles) had played with the Marsalises but could clearly rise to the occasion with these guys.

On top of that, there was the leader/guitarist, who had played in both commercial settings with people like Herbie Mann, and on wild free jazz sessions, the latter which he once brushed off in an interview, saying it was too self-indulgent. A year or two prior to this album, Sharrock appeared on one of the Live at the Knitting Factory compilations released by A&M, playing wild licks over funky backbeats, so anything was likely.

While Sharrock helped bring a rock feeling to the free improvisation in Last Exit (a group whose instrumentation was close to this one), Ask the Ages was a song-oriented album, and a strong one at that. Each track kicks off with a melody that tugs at the ear, from the tender "Who Does She Hope to Be" to the churning 6/8 groove of "Many Mansions" (which I swear Sharrock recorded with Byard Lancaster on his It's Not Up to Us album in 1966).

All-star sessions can often be a crapshoot, but everyone came to session ready to live up to the reputation associated with them. Jones constantly adds spark, not to mention a number of his thunderous pressrolls. Sanders emits some wild shrieks and also thrives during the more balanced sections of the tunes, switching to soprano on a few tracks. Moffatt gets a few solo moments, but mostly provides the solid foundation that enables the rest of the crew to lift off.

1991 was a transitional year for music, since Nirvana broke down the Billboard barriers for punk rock. On the jazz front, the CD reissue industry was letting us college radio kids discover the wealth of music that originally came out on Blue Note and Impulse! Then, with Ask the Ages, here was a group of veterans pointing ahead to the future of jazz, in a way that also appealed to our indie rock/hard rock sensibilities.

Sharrock would only live three more years, dying suddenly of a heart attack at age 53. This album was a defining moment in a short but diverse career, and is arguably the strongest rock-jazz album since Tony Williams Lifetime's Turn It Over album from the late '60s. While that album was a product of its time and bares a certain amount of chaos to it, Ask the Ages comes across with a clear focus and sounds as powerful today as it did a quarter century ago.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Stuff You Might Have Missed: Jen Shyu, Chris Kelsey/Lewis Porter, Darts & Arrows

One of the reasons that it takes me a while to post album reviews stems from the rather obsessive way that I feel like I need to really know an album inside-out, up and down, before writing about it. As a result I have to listen to things numerous times, with close attention, which doesn't come easy to me. Add to that a pile of discs which grows exponentially before I can review but one, stir in my listening dilemma ("Hmmm, what should it be today? This? No. Maybe that. No, I think if I give this another listen maybe I'll stick to me.") and you see why I'm neurotic

Now that 2015 is over, and all the Critic's Lists have been out for a couple weeks, I have decided to double back and talk briefly about a couple albums that you might have missed over the past 12 months and should be reexamined. 

Jen Shyu & Jade Tongue
Sounds and Cries of the World

It was a good year for Pi, in terms of their releases. New albums by Henry Threadgill and Steve Coleman have been heralded in year-end polls, and rightly so because they both released fascinating and challenging music. Pianist Matt Mitchell also released a double-disc album, which is nothing like the hot mess of his 2013 Pi debut. It does, however, evoke his current bandleader Tim Berne, in terms of composition and because it features Chris Speed, who played tenor and clarinet in Berne's Bloodcount group. And then there's vocalist Jen Shyu, who returns to Pi after four-year hiatus, following an album of duets with bassist Mark Dresser.

Full disclosure- I'm not big on jazz vocalists. Sure the legends are fine, but hand me an album with a current artist doing "My Funny Valentine" or anything associated with Frank Sinatra, and watch my enthusiasm wane. (I was quite disappointed to find out that the mediocre version of the mediocre Paul McCartney song "Bluebird," which I kept hearing at my old job, was recorded by a highly regarded jazz vocalist. Why spend time on such a lackluster song, and why soften the "b"s on the title to make it sound like "voo-vird"? It ain't sexy. At least when it's piped into a store.) At the other end of the jazz spectrum, I'm not really into vocalists who try to use their voice like a free jazz instrument either. It reminds me of annoying kids at the cafeteria table during junior high. Or bad Tourette's Syndrome imitations.

But Jen Shyu continues to rise above any vocal pitfalls. She frequently uses her voice like an instrument without the need for sibilant noises or warbles. Her delivery is fueled by passion for her material. Even when she sings in a non-English language, it's not necessary to understand the words to be won over by the performance.

Sounds and Cries of the World nevertheless makes for a challenging listen in terms of both compositional background and delivery. The lyrics come in English, Korean, Indonesian, Javanese and Tetum. All are printed in an accompanying book, with contextual information and translations. Half the album's tracks comes from a performance piece Solo Rites: Seven Breaths and most of the album's most intense moments are found there. Shyu accompanies herself on stringed instruments from Taiwan, Korea and Java.

On other tracks she's accompanied by Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), Mat Maneri (viola), Thomas Morgan (bass) and Dan Weiss (drums). Much of it sounds loose and free, some almost blending together. But the interactions of the musicians, and the source material, gives the album its strength. Shyu occasionally goes into some upper register trills that some have compared to that Canadian-born folksinger that wrote "Woodstock" (another roadblock for me) but that's more of a generalization than a direct comparison. Shyu's performance is really unprecedented, going beyond easy categories and - with the closing "Thoughts of Light and Freedom" - reaches an intensity level that can't be contained.

Chris Kelsey/Lewis Porter
Free: Kelsey/Porter Duo Plays Ornette, Vol. 1
(Tzazz Krytyk)

Saxophonist Chris Kelsey was putting the finishing touches on this album of Ornette Coleman tunes, recorded with pianist Lewis Porter, when the legendary harmolodic progenitor passed away. So don't accuse Kelsey of jumping on the bandwagon. 

The idea of piano in an Ornette song is still something of a rarity these days, or at least worthy of a raised eyebrow. (Geri Allen played on his Sound Museum discs, breaking a moratorium of over 30 years since Walter Norris played on Something Else!!). But Lewis Porter knew him personally so if anyone else should have an appreciation for the way this music transfers to the piano, it should be him. 

Kelsey plays a straight alto saxophone on this session, which has a bit of a gruff tone. At times he sounds close to growling through his instrument, peeling off lines that are much more rapid than those of Ornette. Porter's melodic choices prove interesting as well. In "Free," he starts to play a walking bassline for just a few bars, as if to test the waters, or to see if his co-conspirator is paying attention. It's a clever move that vanishes as quickly as it appears, and this type of camaraderie runs through the album. The two of them get a little turbulent on "Harlem's Manhanttan," touch on more serious blues in "Airborne" and sound like they're having a genuine discussion on "Forerunner."

Free features a number of Coleman tunes that dig into the deeper reaches of his discography. A strong work on its own (which I'm sure the honoree would've dug), it also makes you want to rediscover the originals. (Incidentally, this disc came out around the same time as Duets NYC Woodstock, an album of free improvisations by Kelsey [on soprano sax] and guitarist Dom Minasi, 

Darts & Arrows

Guitarist Bill MacKay grew up in Pittsburgh, but we never crossed paths, as far as I can recall. But I wish I had heard him. As the leader of Chicago's Darts & Arrows, he too isn't settling easily into a specific style of music. Instead, his work has a pensive beauty that brings a little bit of jazz harmonies together with an execution that is similar to composers like Jeremy Udden or Wayne Horvitz (at least on his last album), evoking the wide-open plains of America and the suspense that comes when surveying it.

If that sounds convoluted, drop everything and find "Evergreen," the opening track on Altamira. The lonely chords of the song sound like the riff to "Hey Joe" spilled on the floor in arhythmical groupings. It has a yearning quality, bolstered by the addition of Nick Mazzarella's alto and Renee Baker's viola to the D&A quartet (which features keyboardist Ben Boye, bassist Kyle Hernanadez and drummer Quin Kirchner). Over the past couple of months, I couldn't get enough of this song.

As the disc moves on, the Dirty Three's style of delivery comes to mind, with mid-tempos and suspense built into dynamic shifts. But MacKay isn't one to beat out one riff ad nauseum. These songs move and breathe freely. "The Well-Wishers," originally a string quartet piece that MacKay composed for one of Baker's projects, has some of the same dark suspense to it. "Look Out" also goes in a rollicking direction of Ask the Ages-era Sonny Sharrock.

Anytime you come back to visit, Bill, let me know.