Sunday, April 30, 2017

Tommy Keene & Ivan Julian at Club Cafe

This past week wasn't as much of a whirlwind of shows and crazy deadlines as the week before. I had a talk with Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah on Monday afternoon. He was calling from the road and I was worried that the signal was going to die at any moment. It had that feeble high whine on the line that I hear on calls right before the dreaded "click" of hang-up or disconnect. Lucklily, the connection held for the duration of our talk.

When City Paper came out on Wednesday, more people seemed to notice my Back Page column, titled "My Life as a Supervillain," than they ever do for my previews. Of course my photo appeared in it too, so that helped. If you read this in time, come out to Row House Cinemas tonight to see the first four chapters of Heroineburgh. 

Tuesday night, my good pal John Young and his compadre Steve Morrison (who's also a friend - though JDY is my proxy-brother) opened for Tommy Keene and Ivan Julian at Club Cafe. I didn't get any photos of John and Steve but enjoyed their set. They're playing together electrically in the Optimists, but tonight it was just them and acoustic guitars (well, Steve had pedals so he might have been electric). Their set included some songs that dated back to when John and I were roommates, which were good to hear. They still hold up as solid tunes. Plus the new ones are strong too because those two are both good for lyrics that set a scene or tell a story.

I've blown the minds of a couple this week of people who didn't know about Ivan Julian's past. Most people know him as the guitarist with Richard Hell & the Voidoids that wasn't Robert Quine. But few, it seems, know that he was in the Foundations, the '60s band that had a hit with "Build Me Up Butttercup." I think he might have been a teenager at that point. In 2011, he released the album The Naked Flame which, among other things, indicated that Quine was not responsible for all the wild guitar noise on Blank Generation. 

He opened his set with (early) Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well" which showed off his guitar chops (and made me wonder how he was tuned) and also made me wonder what direction he'd take in his set. They consisted pretty much of originals after that, and included a guest appearance by Pittsburgh drummer Dave Klug (also of the Optimists) on djembe when Julian asked for a drummer from the audience. For that one, he switched to an instrument which was kind of like a lap steel with buttons to hold down chords. He finished up with "Hardwired," which includes the immortal line, "It's going to be my day/just to piss it away." A quick look around the internet seems to want to put Julian in league with Jimi Hendrix, but in the end he came off more like a combination of his friend Richard Hell with a little bit of Arthur Lee of Love.

Tommy Keene is one of those guys who's been around forever. John Young profiled him in Discourse, the zine that we did together in the '90s. But I've never gotten around to fully investigate Keene's music. Going into his music virtually cold on Tuesday, though, there was plenty to latch onto. With that 12-string guitar and strong voice, and lyrics that went somewhere, he had me and the whole audience in rapt attention. For an encore, Julian joined him onstage and the duo traded verses on the Rolling Stones "Mother's Little Helper."

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Concert Preview - Terell Stafford Interview

Saturday, April 29
8 p.m. $30.

This weekend, Kente Arts Alliance continues their impressive series of concerts by national jazz acts, the likes of which don’t often get to Pittsburgh – or at least haven’t in quite some time. Terell Stafford plays the trumpet with the kind of edge and authority that comes from his predecessors, like Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown. But while Stafford is deeply steeped in tradition, he’s not consumed by it. The most recent recording under his own name was Brotherlee Love (Capri), a tribute to hard bop legend Morgan. While it goes for the same spirit of the man responsible for “The Sidewinder,” Stafford and his quintet make sure that they’re not merely bowing down to the masters and copying the originals. He and his longtime collaborator Tim Warfield (tenor saxophone) bring plenty of modern spark to the Morgan classics. That came a four years after This Side of Strayhorn, his salute to Pittsburgh’s native son who became Duke Ellington’s right hand man.  Stafford also recently took part in Forgive and Forget, an album composed entirely by saxophonist Herb Harris, and the second in Harris’ Jazz Masters Unlimited Series.

In addition to his work as a performer, he works in academia. At Temple University’s Bayer College of Music, he serves as Director of Jazz Studies and Chair of Instrumental Studies. He’s also the Managing and Artistic Director of the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia.  If all that wasn’t enough of a c.v., go to and check out the list of people he's played with, from McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Heath, just to name a couple.

He and I spoke by phone last week. Our conversation is here.

When you come to Pittsburgh, are Tim Warfield (tenor saxophone) and Bruce Barth (piano) going to be with you?

They sure will. On bass will be David Wong and on drums, Billy Williams.

You and Tim go back quite a way. How far, exactly?

Probably 24, 25 years ago.

What’s it like playing with someone and having such a deep rapport with them?

Actually it’s amazing how many people don’t know when I became interested in playing jazz, because I have two degrees in classical trumpet. Tim was the one that invited me to his house and said, “Let’s check out some records.” We transcribed together. He was just so gracious and he showed me so much. From that point, he and I started to travel in the Harrisburg area to local clubs to play together. These club owners would hear us and hire us as a team to play with local rhythm sections. And that was his game plan.
And we’ve done that for 25 years or so. Whether he works in my band or I work in his band, if we read a tune together or if we haven’t played something in a while, it doesn’t take long for us to connect, immediately, and sound like one of— whatever, one thing.

Playing with someone like Tim is like being in a great relationship, or marriage. You think you know your spouse really well but everyday you’re finding more and more and more. Tim is undoubtedly my best friend. And I love making music – and I love hanging out with him. We both love to cook. So we’re always sending each other our new dishes. It’s a great relationship.

What does Lee Morgan mean to you?

In so many ways, he was such a genius on the trumpet. I don’t feel enough people knew about Lee Morgan because he had a short time on this earth. [Morgan was shot by his common-law wife Helen More in 1972, when the trumpeter was 33 years old.] I feel like everything he played —from fiery things to ballads, the full spectrum — he always played with heart.
I remember when I joined [alto saxophonist] Bobby Watson’s band, Bobby made a statement: Every time you step on the bandstand, you should play like it’s your last opportunity to play, because you just never know. When he said that, it always reminded me of Lee Morgan because I always felt that Lee Morgan gave 150% every time he would play the music. I always admired that about him.

The years I played with Shirley Scott, she could do mothing but talk about Lee Morgan constantly. It was amazing. She and I did Bill Cosby’s show, You Bet Your Life, and we did that for three years. We’d drive together from West Chester, Pennsylvania and we both taught at this college, Cheyney University and our offices were two doors down. We’d hang out all the time and listen to records. She just loved everything that Lee Morgan did. And that was really influential. I really started to study his articulation and phrasing and how he would manipulate chord changes and the use of the diminished.

Of all the people I love and admire like Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard, I want to sound like them because they’ve influenced me, not just to be a carbon copy of these great artists. That’s what I really wanted to do with this project with Lee. I didn’t want to come in and just sound like Lee Morgan. I wanted to bring that spirit and intent in which he played and the intent in which I interpret his playing and put that into a CD.

Was it easy to pick the songs for the album?

Yes. There are songs that you hear that you like. The risk that you take is because some of them aren’t like the more popular songs. But they’re the songs that are fun to play over. There are songs that are fun to listen to. Choosing wasn’t so hard. I know he had a lot of great material. But this material always hit home, the songs that we picked. We probably had about eight or 10 others that we didn’t record. And of the songs that we did record, there were about two or three others that we couldn’t put on the CD because there was not enough space. So with what we chose, there was some deliberation. That’s when you lean to your producers. And [bassist/bandleader] John Clayton produced it. We sat down and decided so it wasn’t so bad.

Was “The Sidewinder” in the running, or did you avoid that one?

That was one on the list. We recorded it but there wasn’t room on the record.

Do you think you’ll do a follow-up?

It’s really funny that you say that. After I did my Strayhorn record, the Strayhorn family and I were close before we did it. After I did it, that’s when the relationship really began. Because they started to send me tunes that he had, that they really wanted me to play. They wanted me to do some vocal charts and they had suggested vocal things.
I pretty much have a second Strayhorn record because the Strayhorn family is so into it. And the same thing with Lee Morgan. I met a gentleman — I can’t remember his name right now — in D.C. He has pretty much everything Lee had ever done. He’s a total trumpet geek. He’s like, “You’ve got to do more.”

I’m torn. Do I keep pursuing the path of creating all this music that’s been lost? Do I say okay, I’m going to sit down and write some tunes? Part of me wants to keep recreating because it’s great music. That’s an area where I have to really sit down and figure out what’s the next step. 

What kind of teaching are you doing these days? Classroom settings?

15-16 years ago, I did a lot of classroom things. But then the Dean came to me and said, “We want you to continue your performing and maintain a high profile as a performer. The only way you can do that is if you became Director of these programs. It’ll give you some freedom. It’s a little more paperwork, but you have freedom and you can travel as much as you want.”

When he dangled that carrot in front of me I went, woah! So I did that and I became Director of Jazz Studies. That program has grown. It’s doing really well. Then six years ago, [I became] Chair of Instrumental Studies. It’s growing. It’s a great program. That’s the more challenging out of the two. A lot more personalities to deal with.
But as far as what I teach, I teach trumpet students and I conduct a top big band. And there are five big bands at this school.

What’s it like teaching now, with kids who have a chance to be exposed to so much music before the come in? Do they know what they want, or are they looking for direction?

The ones that know what they want are usually deficient in other areas because, it’s like tunnelvision. They know what they’re pursuing, this – I can’t say false reality – but this dream to be a famous jazz musician. I always let them know that I think the outcome should be of you someday being a famous jazz musician. But on the way there, I think maybe you should get your fundamentals on the instrument together so that you can play all [the music] and not just a few things. Make sure you study the history of your instrument. Those two are the biggest [issues] when it comes to a lot of students. Many of them have studied modern players of their time. The Nicholas Paytons, and Sean Jones, who are all my favorites. But none of them have taken the time to go back and check out Cootie Williams and Roy Eldridge and Louis Armstrong or anyone of those guys. So there’s a deficient part of their playing.
A lot of trumpet players these days put that “jazz” label on their forehead and they don’t spend time with [different chord changes]. And they should because maintaining your fundamentals allows you to get over the instrument with as much ease as you can.

It seems like now there’s so much music readily available that you can explore.

They do. They come in with more knowledge than I came in with. But sometimes with all that at your fingertips, it can make you somewhat lazy. We had to work finding a recording or getting this or getting that. They have a lot there. They need a good strong work ethic. It’s something that I see necessary.

Now, you’re involved with the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia – is it four years old?

Yes. My title is artistic and managing director of it. We’ve been trying to program a couple concerts a year at the Kimmel [Center for the Performing Arts]  and then we play two or three times outside the Kimmel, at different venues. This year we’re going to be doing the International Trumpet Guild, but that’ll be in Hershey, PA. Every trumpet player in the world will be at this trumpet conference.

Sounds like heaven!

Yeah, well…. It depends on how much you like the trumpet!

How many trumpet players are we talking?

Thousands. It’s a four-day conference, people fly in from all over the world. There’s tons of performances. It’s crazy, absolutely crazy. That happens the first week in June.
Then we’re doing our program on June 10,  A Night in Havana. It’s going to celebrate Cuban music and it’s also going to celebration the merging of Afro-Cuban music. Things seem to be going well, there’s always a need for more funding. But we’ve made it through a few years now so we’re doing alright.

I did wonder if the current administration has you worrying about your funding.

Absolutely. But what I say for everything is, if the Jazz Orchestra is meant to be, it’ll make it through even this administration. If it’s not, then it was good while it lasted.

Does Philadelphia have a built-in support system for the music – audience?

You know what, we have. For every concert that we’ve done, they’ve been sold out. There’s a good amount of people that come out and support it. They’re very loyal, they’re very educated and they’re sophisticated listeners. They appreciate the artists that come in. From that perspective it’s great.

In Philly now there’s a couple clubs who get an international artist, national. And they’re smaller, more local clubs. So from that perspective things are starting to come back. For a while it was really, really dismal. It feels pretty good right now.

The Forgive and Forget album – all the tunes were by Herb Harris?

Yeah. Very interesting proposition – he called me and said, “I wrote a bunch of tunes and I want you to play them.” I said sure. So Tim Warfield and Kevin Hays [piano], Rodney Green [drums] and Greg Williams [bass], we all came to the studio. We recorded it. When he said he wanted me to record his tunes, I totally envisioned he’d be the leader of the session. I thought it would be “Herb Harris featuring these guys.” But it’s my record! My father called me and say, “Hey, you didn’t tell me you had a new record out.” I said, “I don’t think I do!” Then he took a picture of it and I said, “Oh I guess I do!”

That was probably one of the most challenging record dates I’ve done, in many ways. I have this philosophy like a lot of people: You play the material for a week or two and then you go into the studio. Pretty much with all that material, we walked into the studio that morning, got it, played it. Nine hours later that record was done.
[Herb] had a concept. He picked the guys in the band. He did it all. He picked the studio. He decided on the solos, the lengths of the solo. The only thing I did for this record was I came in and played. Which is like a vacation compared to my other records!

Are you working any of that into your live set?

We’re sticking with our own stuff for now. That stuff would take a lot of rehearsal to get it together. It’s hard to assemble the ensemble that recorded it. But maybe we’ll work a couple tunes up and play them in the future.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Last Week - A Recap of Selected Live Shows

Last week was surely the Week of Music. (The Week in Rock sounds better, but it wasn't all rock, as the following will bear out.)

Sebadoh played at Club Cafe last Wednesday to a sold-out crowd. It seemed like they were thrilled with the fact that the place was sold-out, as if it didn't happen to them normally. Because of that, they were in a good mood and very talkative onstage. Well, Jason Loewenstein always seems to be a good mood, but Lou Barlow was the same way - very engaged. 
Lou still looks pretty shaggy these days, with a mop of hair and plenty of facial hair. It was hard getting a good shot of him during the show. I'm always self-conscious about using the flash.

They played for about 75 minutes, including encores. Loewenstein moved to guitar midway through the set and got to sing a good number of his songs. The way he and Barlow fret chords on the guitar, it looks as if some feeble, plinkety sound should be coming from their amps. But the results always came off with a roar. Lou's secret was probably due to some unique guitar tunings. The one pictured above looks like a 12-string with six of the tuning pegs removed. Same with their respective bass duties. Both were putting their thumbs over the neck which is not "traditional" technique (which I'm sure they don't care about), and it can really make it harder to play. Even when Loewenstein played up the neck, the results were full and loud.
Drummer Bob D'Amico kicked butt too.

Thursday night, my musical week continued when my son played with All City Band at the August Wilson Center, Downtown. There were a few All City ensembles playing but - this is not just a proud Dad talking - the group he was in sounded the strongest. He was playing percussion, in this case a practice pad filling in for a snare drum. Those things carry a distinct sound too. They aren't just piddly things built to keep parents from going crazy while listening to drum practice. 

Friday night, it was on to the Carsickness reunion! Folks outside of Pittsburgh might not know, but Carsickness was a reputable arty punk band in town from about 1979 to 1988. (I wrote about this reunion and their recent compilation reissue for City Paper). They performed at SPACE Gallery, also Downtown, surrounded by pictures in the Non Punk Pittsburgh exhibition, making it the first Carsickness show in almost 30 years. (Several of the band members were also in Ploughman's Lunch, which shifted in the direction of an Irish-Celtic feel.) Along with guitarist Karl Mullen, drummer Dennis Childers (co-curator of the art show) and keyboardist Steve Sciulli, the group was rounded out by bassist Paul Michael Ferraro and vocalist Maura Mullen (Karl's daughter). 

The night before this show, I walked past SPACE with my mother and wife, on the way to the August Wilson Center. Childers was sitting inside and we chatted for a minute. Mullen was supposed to have flown in that afternoon and practice was that night. However, the flight was delayed and the only practice they got happened a few hours before the show. All things told, they still sounded pretty good, channeling their youth rather than letting their age keep them from doing something they used to do. It helped that Childers was acting like the gravity pole, holding it all together. The Full Counts and the Nox Boys played prior to Carsickness but family obligations didn't allow me to get down to see them. Apologies.

But the evening wasn't over yet! Up the road, and over to the Brillobox, where once-and-forever Guided by Voices guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Tobin Sprout was appearing with his band. Arriving right as he was getting onstage, I was surprised that I was able to move around in the second floor performance space. I thought for sure the place would be packed, and perhaps even sold out. Instead, there was plenty of room to move around. 

Maybe it was the excitement of the evening, or maybe Sprout is the amazing songwriter I feel like I was hearing that night. But his hour-long (75 minutes, maybe?), 27-song set was one hit after another. He writes in a very traditional pop song format, strumming out those barre chords, but sometimes when a chord is attached to a strong melody, the combination of those two creates a feeling of suspense for where the melody will go next. Will it follow a 1-4-5 progression? Will it just bounce on this one chord for 90 seconds and then stop? No - they banged on a D chord for a while and shifted to C! What a release! What a hook! Yeah, I might have heard it before, but these guys keep it exciting, making me feel like it's brand new.

Incidentally, the above picture was taken with the flash on. While standing pretty close to Sprout, I still couldn't really see his face. There were no lights on the stage pointing at the guys' mugs. So I didn't really see him until I looked at this picture. Then there was the question of Sprout's guitar amp. The speaker looked like an old time box fan and the head looked like a sewing kit or something, with two lights on it. 

The next morning was Record Store Day. I decided I wanted to try to get the unearthed Thelonious Monk soundtrack album so I got up early and waited in line at Juke Records. They had one copy of it, and I didn't get it. I bought two CDs and went home.

That night, Michael Bisio and Avram Fefer played at Polanzo's, which I suppose is now the name of the Liberty Avenue venue, after a brief moment of being called Distro. (It used to be Polanzo's Beer Distributor.)

Caleb Gamble and Joel Kennedy opened the night with some trumpet/drums free improv duets, which were interesting in part because the drum kit (I think that was Joel playing it) had the snare and floor tom reversed, and he wasn't playing in reverse. He also had two roto toms and a kick drum that was tuned to deliver a low drone note. The trumpet lines were good too - not just breathy smears, but fragments of melody and long tones.

Bisio and Fefer was great. Avram started out on bass clarinet, with tenor and alto saxophones waiting in queue. A few of the opening themes sounded familiar. I thought I recognized "BC Reverie" from their Painting Breath, Stoking Fire disc from 2005 that I rediscovered last week. There were several sections like this, where they'd come out of a wild, free improvisation and jump into a fast melody that had Bisio moving all over the neck of his instrument, bowing or plucking as the situation called for it.

I was fully planning to head out after their set, back over to Brillobox to catch the Full Counts CD release show. But things got sidetracked with Michael Bisio asked if I wanted to grab a drink with him and Fefer. It's not often that I get invited out for a round with fellows like this, so I couldn't say no. Then, when they asked where to go, I suggested Brillobox anyway, hoping the first floor wouldn't be too jam-packed with people carousing and colliding into each other. I suppose because there were about three other shows going on concurrently, the place was also easy to manuever and we got a booth, along with openers Caleb and Joel, and my friend Toby.

Everyone was content with a single round, so we said our goodbyes and I made it upstairs just as the Full Counts were getting ready to kick off the first song. As I said in City Paper last week, bassist Eric Vermillion is a belter and was wailing away through their set. While I've heard him do faster, shorter songs, the Full Counts get pretty meaty, with regards to tempo and wailing guitar leads from Rich Hirsch.

It's hard to get a good amateur shot at Brillobox. I got lucky the night before with Tobin Sprout but half the pictures of the Full Counts were kind of smoky, which is funny because the place is smoke-free.

Since I was coming back to the neighborhood, I decided to pop into Gooski's to see if the Carsickness show was still going on. It wasn't but there were still plenty of folks hanging around, including my long-lost friend Mike Michalski, who I haven't seen in ages, since he moved out of town. I knew there was a reason to wander in there that night.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Interview with Michael Bisio - Preview for April 22 Show

With Caleb Gamble & Joel Kennedy (duo)
Saturday, April 22  
8 pm   $15
Distro, 4614 Liberty Ave, Bloomfield   412-682-0591

Bassist Michael Bisio and I talked by phone at the beginning of this week. Anyone who has seen Matthew Shipp over the past eight years or so probably knows Bisio as the pianist's right hand man, developing an amazing musical rapport that's both visceral and melodic. This Saturday, he comes to town with saxophonist Avram Fefer, who hasn't been to Pittsburgh since about 2005, when he came with pianist Bobby Few.
Michael has led an interesting life, as I found out from our conversation, which follows. I realize there are 1001 things happening tomorrow night, but this show is a good way to kick off the evening. And for anyone reading in other cities, there's mention below of other shows Bisio has coming up with Joe McPhee.
You’re originally from New York and then you went out west. Were you studying classical bass or jazz?

I started life as a classical player. Somewhat late as a professional player, I started playing when I was 17. My first teacher was a very inspirational guy, so I used to practice a lot. At one point after about a year or two, he said ,okay you’re ready to go up and study with Henry Portnoy, who was the principal bassist in BSO [Boston Symphony Orchestra] at the time.. I went up and auditioned. He accepted me but he scared the life out of me at the same time. I didn’t really grow up with that music. I took a lot of time into it in a very condensed space. 

So that summer I was on a scholarship to Chatauaqua Institution, which is on the western boarder of New York State. And I met and studied with the principal bassist of the Seattle Symphony [Jim Harnett], who not only was every bit as good as Henry —I mean, I don’t know if I can say that — but I got along with him. And I needed a change because of life habits I had. So I moved to Seattle. I studied with Jim Harnett.
Like I said I didn’t grow up with that music and there were a lot of social things I didn’t get.

What music did you grow up with?

Jimi Hendrix. The Rolling Stones. My brother was the local Hendrix clone. So I was around a lot of that music a lot of the time, and a lot of what were underground bands at the time like Ultimate Spinach and the Velvet Underground, I always knew who Mingus was. And there were some Albert Ayler records at that time which had a crossover audience. So I heard New Grass. It was a huge influence.

So I went out and studied with Jim. At the same time I studied composition and improvisation with Bill Smith. [Smith inspired Bisio’s CD with Kirk Knuffke,Row for William O] I studied with him and Stuart Dempster, the great trombonist.

When I graduated I was a sub in the symphony. I was a sub in the opera. I was a freelancer. And I was playing jazz music all along as well. Then I got a contract with the ballet. Then it came to a point where I really had to make a decision. Once I knew my family was cool, I walked away from that, in a way. Shortly after that, people couldn’t believe I actually had a career that way. I changed everything I could. In more recent times I’ve reintroduced some of that stuff in a different way.

When you say you walked away from that, was it in the early ‘80s? I know around that time you played with [trumpeter] Barbara Donald

Barbara was really the first person of note to take an interest in me. And Barbara was awesome. And so much so that I probably wasn’t as appreciative as I should have been. …She would fight with me a lot. I was stupid enough to fight back. [Laugh] I guess she heard something in me and she was trying to push those things.

You know, she was married to Sonny Simmons. [Note: Donald passed away in 2013. More info on her life can be found here.] When I played with Sonny…he would say things like, “You’re in the steel foundry of love and I’m going to work you to death, motherfucker!” Smart man, brilliant musician.
[fading in from another discussion} And I was a sucker for all that stuff anyway. A good story? Man, you got me. And Sonny had a billion good stories. 

But ultimately I just…I can’t deal like that anymore. I’m too old for it. I know what I want to do. If it could just be me, Matthew [Shipp, piano] and Newman [Taylor Baker, drums] my whole life, I’d be happy. Because you know what’s going to happen in a business sense, all the time. The music’s always new, always wonderful, always there. 

Which is musically how Avram and I operate too. It’s very stream of consciousness. The tunes we play are mostly Avram’s. He has quite a few memorable things we can refer to in the midst of a set. And so that’s what happens.

Avram and I met in Seattle but neither of us can pinpoint when or where that was. We’ve been playing a loooong time. And Avram was in my Bisio Quartet, when it was Jay Rosen (drums) and Stephen Gauci (saxophone) as well. There are for our five CIMP records with that configuration. Which is also around the time that the duo session happened. Because one time it was a combined session where there was one quartet record and one duo record. There are a couple records on some other labels too.

When you come here are you doing compositions or will it be strictly improvisation?

The compositions have a lot of open space for sure. Hopefully we’ll play a couple tunes of mine. But that doesn’t always happen. I don’t know why [laughs] but it does. So, in bass solos I’ll play my own compositions.

But it’s pretty open. I don’t exactly know what he has planned for this trip. But more times than not, we play in that suite format that Matthew and I do: Everything runs into everything else. You stand up and you start. There’s really no silences, except in rests. It’s not like I’m going to play a tune and stop it and tell jokes or something.   

When did you move back east?

August 2005. Avram and I had played in Seattle, and in the Northwest. Matthew and I met out there but we didn’t play until I came back. We played first in 2007, though I used to live just down the street from Matthew when I first got back.

Prior to moving back, were you doing a lot of traveling across the country, stopping in New York?

I was. Starting in the '90s I had this wonderful association with [saxophonist and trumpeter] Joe McPhee which is… I wouldn’t be me without Joe. He’s one of these people I am eternally grateful to, and is a pleasure to be around, every second of every day. We met about 1994, maybe. He started inviting me back and he would come out west. Starting in the '90s I did come back more and more. Around the time I moved back, my first marriage dissolved and my son was living in Brooklyn. So I was working more on the East Coast than on the West Coast so it made sense to move back.

Joe and I, last time I counted, we were on 18-20 records together. Now I live in the Hudson Valley, so I see Joe quite a bit again. When I get back, we’re playing this club with me, him, Joe Giardullo (saxophones), Billly Stein (guitar) and a painter, Nancy Ostrovsky, are playing on April 27 at the Falcon (find details here). And on April 29 Joe and I doing a memorial service for a children’s book author [Nancy Willard, at Friends Meeting House in Poughkeepsie]. 

Where does Avram life?

Avram’s on the Lower East Side. I live in Kingston, New York.

Do you get to play with him often?

We play three or four times a year. It depends, sometimes more sometimes less. He has a lot of interests. Some of his bands are more rock oriented. Obviously my commitment is to Matthew. That’s about it, as far as playing together.

When you get together is it easy to settle in with him, since you known him so long?

Well, Avram tells a good story, so it’s always pretty easy. Our history is so long that we know each other well. There are not a lot of bad parts about getting older. One [good thing] is the relationships you keep just keep getting stronger. That’s certainly the case with Avram and I. We don’t have to think. I sit at home and I think. And I like to practice. Not everybody likes to practice. Not everybody needs to practice. But I like to practice.

But when I get up to play, it’s not the same process at all. I think for some people it is, but to me it’s just about letting it go. The more I can do that, the more satisfied I am. I don’t even like people to put a lot of demands on me, unless… if someone is going to pay me $1000 a night, yeah they can say what they want. But for the money we’re making, it’s just get up and go. That’s what makes the best music too.

Rich Halley, a great, great tenor player from Portland, Oregon, was just here. Rich and I haven’t
played in 20 years, easily, though it’s probably more like 25 or 30. It was just like we saw each other yesterday. That’s what I look for. 

The choices I’ve made in my life, I’ve realized, a. are my choices, and b. it lead me to a point where I want to be, musically. I’m no longer a hired gun, haven’t been that in a lot of years. All that was doing was preparing me for this, but at the same time it was also teaching me how to hate music. 

My first wife used to say to me, “You always come home angry.” Of course that would just start a fight. But one day, sometime around 2010, I woke up one morning and I thought, Wow, I don’t remember the last time I was angry. So I called her up and I said, “You know what? You were right. I’m sorry.” 

I have this thing: I love music. Yet I hated going to work! And I hated it for various reasons, some of which I didn’t even know. My life has been about cutting things out until I just have this left, which is a whole universe as far as I’m concerned. And it’s great. I love to be able to do it. And I love to play. I’m lucky that I’ve lived long enough to [pause] say this to you! [Laughs] 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Concert Preview: Tobin Sprout in Pittsburgh, the Girlie Show

Friday, April 21
Brillobox, 4104 Penn Avenue, Garfield
8 p.m. $14

With so much happening this week, I have a lot I'd like to talk about. So I'm previewing some shows here.

I've used this comparison before, but it bears repeating due to the universal quality of it. A certain level of energy can be felt in a band that is hitting upon something. It could be a new song, it could be the right combination of people locking in with one another for the first time or it could be the feeling a group gets when it realizes that an audience is reacting positively to the music, when they initially thought no one was listening. The music might not be "perfect," whatever that means, but the feeling the band puts forth more than makes up for it.

This is the reason Skip Spence's Oar can sound so liberating. Fresh out of Bellevue, with no producers or bandmates leaning on him, Spence was free to create whatever he felt. It's the way a band feels in the practice space, on numerous occasions. Everyone is setting up and the first person to get behind the kit, or turn on the amp, hits on a riff. Slowly everyone picks up on it and it builds. It could be something pedestrian as the riff to "Gloria" or it could be "Little Johnny Jewel." Maybe half the people in the room don't even know the source material. Whatever it is, it belongs to them, if just for a couple minutes.

This same version of enthusiasm, this sonic je nais se quoi, bursts from the speakers in the opening seconds of Tobin Sprout's first solo album in seven years, and the first since he left Guided By Voices after the reunion of "classic lineup." "Future Boy Today/Man of Tomorrow" doesn't even begin neatly, since a second or two of guitar intro gets cut off. And it almost falls apart as it surges towards a coda, with lagging drums. But with a four-power-chord riff like this one, it doesn't really matter because it feels great.

Sprout, who now lives in Michigan, still utilizes the same lo-fi technique that he used on GBV records (the opening song was supposed to be a GBV song). Guitars overmodulate in some places, while others sound like they were recorded down a hallway, several feet from the microphone. That particular effect makes "I Fall You Fall" and "Tomorrow From Heaven" especially dreamy.

And then there's the piano, which factors into many of The Universe and Me's songs. The recording quality and use of reverb makes it sound like John Lennon's "Imagine" piano deep in the bathtub. Not only does this add to the hazy, dreamy quality of the music, it draws out the wistfulness of the lyrics. In "When I Was a Boy," Sprout tables his more surreal imagery for some honest reflection that dang near comes close to '70s mellow rock. Does that comparison make you uncomfortable? Don't worry, you'll like this. The man has moved into his sixth decade so he has every right to look back as he rocks ahead.

More than one writer has opined that Sprout was often George Harrison to Robert Pollard's Lennon and McCartney in Guided by Voices. His tracks were often an interlude between Bob's massive output, a nice riposte that made you yearn for more. In addition to the opening track, any number of these could have fit on a GBV album. But 14 of them in a row proves that, after all this time, Sprout can still hold his own. Hearing them live can only make them better.

PS In addition to Tobin Sprout's show, just down the hill and around the corner, Hambone's is hosting The Girlie Show: Olde Guarde, with Jenny Morgan, Joanna Lowe, Liss Victory and Sarah Halter. Morgan (who plays Americana) and Lowe (spoken word) founded the Girlie Show four years ago. Victory (of Victory at the Crossroads, playing solo acoustic tonight) and Halter (acoustic prog, also in the heavy Blue Clutch) are newcomers/heirs apparent.

This shindig starts at 9 p.m, with a $5 cover. Hambone's is located at 4207 Butler Street in Lawrenceville.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Last Week: Peter Evans Septet, Jared Sims CD Release

Well, this week, everyone and their mother are coming to town. I'm checking out a lot of shows and previewing a few things in City Paper too. I'll also be preview a few things here over the next few days, so be sure to check back. 

But before I look ahead, I want to write about a couple shows that I saw last week.

Peter Evans, the adventurous trumpet player who played in Mostly Other People Do the Killing, came to the Andy Warhol Museum last Tuesday, April 11. He has recorded with a quintet on the recent Genesis disc, but they expanded to a sextet for the Winter Jazz Fest a few months ago. Now the group is a septet. Left to right in the picture below are Sam Pluta (electronics), Ron Stabinsky (keyboards, electronics), Evans, Jim Black  (drums), Mazz Swift (violin), Tom Blancarte (bass) and Levy Lorenzo (percussion, electronics).

Apologies to Ron, for being obscured in a panorama shot I hastily took at the start of the set. Tom was blocked out by music stands and stood at the back of the stage. But here's a better shot of Swift and Lorenzo. 

The Evans septet only played 45 minutes, but it was a dense set of action crammed into that time. Swift began the set, bowing her violin roughly and Pluta picked up samples of the instrument, twisting and turning it in a manner that look equally visceral and musical. The theater at the Warhol has ideal acoustics and it served the music well. The electronic samples were bouncing off the walls, making it hard to trace it to the source. Lorenzo toyed with Evans's trumpet sounds, which were vicious to begin with.

The music - which flowed as one continuous piece - often had Braxton-esque feeling, with multi-direction playing. But there were breaks in the intensity. Evans muted his horn and Swift added some gentle strums. A slow section featured a lot of reverberated tones moving across the stage. Black, whose facial expressions alternately implied surprise, frustration and fatigue throughout the set, utilized a bow for his cymbals and played, at another time, with a mallet in one hand and brush in the other. A solo that he took sounded like a composition more so than a spontaneous idea. Then again, it could have gone either way.

As a bandleader, Evans is not one to spend most of the time in the spotlight, although he's perfectly capable. He gave Pluta and Swift plenty of room at the start of the piece before the whole band jumped in, with his trumpet steering the course. Swift and Blancarte later played a duet which was equally intense, in part because it was hard to tell one from the other. One started calm, the other frantic and then both went crazy. Evans quickly explored all the sonic potential of his horns (he also played a four-valve piccolo trumpet) during the set, from pops and growls to beautifully rough melody lines. We could have used another 20 minutes of music after a short break.

Friday night I went over to James Street Gastropub to check out Jared Sims, whose CD I wrote about early that morning. He had a different band with him than the one that played on the album, which makes sense because he recorded it in Boston. But these guys were no slouches, to put it mildly. Drummer Brian Wolfe, who is also from West Virginia, played with Sharon Jones and replaced local Dave Throckmorton in Maynard Ferguson's band. Bassist Nathan Peck used to live here, and has lived in New York for over decade. I don't know much about Randraiz Wharton (keyboards) or Ryan Salisbury (guitar), but they were heavy players too. Wharton created some great Fender Rhodes and B-3 sounds on his keyboards, and Salisbury was equally sharp with solos and with chunky rhythm parts, especially when the group covered the Meters' "Cissy Strut." That song could easily loose its mojo if a band uses it to showboat or simply create a party mood. But this quintet stood still and burned, proving that you need precision if you want this to sound bad ass.

The two sets that I saw leaned heavily on Sims' tunes from Change of Address. "Seeds of Shihab" paid tribute to baritone forefather Sahib Shihab (who was also an alto player on one of Monk's Blue Note sessions), combining his playing with electric piano-driven heavy funk. But being a band that knows how to groove, Sims had them run through Lou Donaldson's "Alligator Boogaloo." Like "Cissy Strut" one set later, this group took this music seriously. Sims blew some serious lines, which were tongued, not slurred or honked (as tempting as that might be on the big sax). During Peck's bass solo he based one chorus on chords, moving up the neck with them.

I wished there had been more of a crowd for the Sims Quintet, but it didn't seem to phase them. They gave it their all.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A 21st-Century Look at Art Pepper's Straight Life

It took me about six weeks but I finally finished Art Pepper's memoir Straight Life, which he co-wrote with his wife Laurie Pepper in 1979. It's not that it was so dense that it took me six weeks to finish. My ability to pop open a book and plow through it is severely limited these days. And I'm one of those people who falls asleep while reading, which bugs the hell out of me.

But to sum Straight Life up in one word: zheesh. Pepper was a driving force on West Coast jazz during the 1950s, the premiere alto saxophonist of that scene. He was also the product of a loveless marriage by two people who really didn't know how to raise a child. And like many of his peers, he succumbed to a live of heroin addiction, which was interrupted by stints in the Los Angeles County Jail and San Quentin.

Pepper doesn't spare the reader of any details of his drug use, his sex life, his prison life or his attitudes about people (which get fairly racist and sexist). It's all there in graphic detail. I remember seeing my dad reading this book (chances are, he read the same copy, as we both checked it out of the Carnegie Library, and this copy still has the card pocket on the inside page) and it makes me wonder what Pop thought about all those graphic sexual escapades and drug use. And the anger. This was the '70s, back when men were accepted as toughs, who could freely admit the physical abuse they practiced on women. A particular target comes with Pepper's second wife Diane, who joined him in the world of drugs just to be closer to him. He repeatedly talks about the way she screwed up his life and screwed up on him. Frequent references are made to things that happened "before she died," without ever mentioning when she died, how or how he found out.

These days we're accustomed to the Behind the Music story arc where the fame precedes by a fall to rock bottom, followed by redemption and sobriety along with the greater perspective on what came before. Spoiler alert: that doesn't happen in Straight Life. (The name comes more from one of his best songs, more than his outlook.) It just kind of stops, with some final commentary from friends on how Pepper must have heart because otherwise he couldn't play the way he did. But really, years in prison, failed marriages, even cirrhosis of the liver, a hernia... none of stops him from getting a bottle on his way out of Synannon, back into the world, with more drugs on the way. In listening to his amazing Village Vanguard sessions or Blues for the Fisherman, the latter the sixth two-disc set that's part of Laurie's "Unreleased Art Pepper" series, I thought that he was clean by the time of the recordings. Maybe things had changed by the time of Fisherman (1980), but in the book he says he barely made it to the last night of performances at the Vanguard.

But maybe I'm looking at all of this with a 21st-century perspective on drug addiction. Maybe we know a lot more know about how to deal with addiction issues than we did back then. Maybe people didn't want to face them or really know how. Or to take into account the way childhood affects what comes after. I almost wish my dad, who worked in the mental health industry for a few years and hospital administration prior to that, was here so we could dissect it.

All that being said, one quote that really killed me and made me think, "What are you talking about," comes from drummer Shelly Manne at the end of the book:
"Musicians should really sit down by themselves and realize what a great life they have. They're doing something they want to do. They're being creative. Very few people have an outlet for their creativity. They're getting paid for it, and, when gifted, get paid very well for it. they can travel all over the world, expenses paid. They eat the best food in the world. They have it made, especially when they have talent and they're available and working. To destroy that by being irresponsible, unreliable, which are the main reasons that guys end up down the tubes..."

Say what?! Who is Manne talking about? Sinatra? Dave Brubeck? Miles Davis? Three Dog Night? Maybe musicians that played at Shelly's Manne Hole, the late drummer's club in California, got treated like royalty. But the stories I've read about every jazz musician who has fought to push the envelope, who has really worked on creating something new, always includes the unhappy tales of hustling for gigs, the shady record label people, club owners, managers, booking agents, to name few. Not to forget racial prejudice that is usually there too. Shelly seems a little naive, especially following all the candor that Pepper has laid down, up to this point, which comes about three pages from the end of the book.

In conclusion, the book has made me want to go back and listen to more of Art's work. Despite the demons he was fighting at any given time, he almost always manages to create some really amazing music. And I'm thinking of reading Laurie Pepper's more recent memoir, Art: Why I Stuck With a Junkie Jazzman.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Jared Sims CD Release Show - Friday, April 14

Friday, April 14
James Street Gastropub, 422 Foreland St., North Side
7 pm

Jared Sims keeps interesting company. While living in Boston, he roomed with Charlie Kohlhase, the top-notch composer and bandleader who plays the same instrument at Sims - baritone saxophone.While studying at the New England Conservatory, he and his mentor Allan Chase, formed a band called Blow-up, which is dedicated to the music of Serge Chaloff, who also played the big horn.A list of Sims' collaborators runs the diverse gamut from Han Bennink to Anat Cohen to the Temptations. On his last album, Layers, he kept himself company, layering a range of saxes and other reeds in a set of Ellington, Monk and Mingus.

Change of Address finds him in a more contemporary bag, but that's no slight against the man or the music. Again, he's in interesting company. Drummer Jared Seabrook is the sibling of guitar and banjo maverick Brandon Seabrook, and a part of Seabrook Power Plant. Bassist Chris Lopes plays with guitarist Jeff Parker in the trio that recorded Blue Light In Winter and Like-Coping. His also married to this album's organist, Nina Ott. Guitarist Steve Fell, another Boston resident, rounds out the group.

The core of Fell, Lopes and Seabrook start out keeping the sound lean and groovy, but they're not here to sit back and relax. They move with Sims, who comes up with a diverse set that takes advantage of the baritone's range, without spending too much time in the bottom end. Ott does an excellent job of straddling atmospheric tones and greasy chords.

The line to "Ghost Guest 1979" has a mysterious air that could have played on tenor. But the crisp baritone delivery gives the minor tune more bite, and makes a great contrast to Fell's wah-wah guitar line. Sims throws in a harmonic twist to the theme of "Lights and Colors" that's simple, but it bends the ear in a catchy manner that deepens the feel of the track. The meditative flow of "Leap of Faith" delivers the most compelling moment of the album, with a rubato baritone melody backed by guitar and organ - two instruments not usually heard in a loose setting - that sounds at times reversed and evocative of space transmissions.

The album title Change of Address refers to Sims' move back from the Boston area to his alma mater West Virginia University in Morgantown, where he serves as Director of Jazz Studies. Being so close to Pittsburgh, he might be on his way to becoming a fixture here. (Maybe he already is, and I've just missed him.) I'm not sure who will be with him for his CD release, but regardless, check it out.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Last Night: Non-Punk Pittsburgh, Rock Against Trump

Last night was a bit of a whirlwind, in which I started off feeling tense and anxious, but ended up feeling energized and positive about a number of things.

The "Non-Punk Pittsburgh" art show opened last night at the gallery SPACE in Downtown Pittsburgh. Curated by local musician Dennis Childers and photographer Larry Rippel, it featured blown up reproductions of photos that Larry and a cast of dozens took during the first wave of the local punk scene, from 1979 to about 1983. Many of the pictures appeared in a zine that Bill Bored aka Bill Von Hagen published back around that time. (Bill was in one of the earliest bands, the Puke, and later the Cardboards and the Cynics). At some of the RePunk events, slides shows were set up to show the pictures. But it was great seeing them in such high definition.

Plus, it's also great to see these photos again and to run into some of the people who were in the pictures. The friends that have died this year already have made me think harder about, and appreciate, works like this. It makes me think of how mortal we all are. In fact I was supposed to interview Dennis Childers earlier this week and he never showed up.At first, he didn't reply to my voicemail or texts. Thinking about some serious surgery he had last year, part of me started to worry a little. I hope he's okay and that there's nothing seriously wrong.

A few hours later, I received an apologetic text. Turns out he got hit hard by the flu bug, went home and fell asleep, missing our time. So it was serious, but not deadly serious.

There was some music provided by Zach Keim (of the Nox Boys, soon to be a solo artist on Get Hip) and a band featuring Childers, his former Carsickness bandmate Steve Sciulli and a few other people. But I had to get over to the Funhouse at Mr. Smalls to play a Love Letters show. Also, I had to get some food and coffee in me. Naturally I stayed at SPACE longer than I should have, talking to folks about the photos (pointing out my brother to people, one of whom said his youthful look resembles my son; see below), hearing stories about what these photos mean to people, and swapping stories about records from that era.

Prior to showing up at SPACE, as I mentioned I was edgy. I meant to bring a Love Letters record along to give to Gregg Kostelich (Get Hip/The Cynics) who was DJ'ing. When I realized I left it in the car, I was walking under an overpass and my expletive echoed down the street, and was probably heard by the folks coming out of the Amtrak lot.

The conversations at SPACE helped swing me in a more positive direction, though. From there, the drive across the Allegheny River and up Route 28 wasn't too bad or too long. But upon entering the Funhouse (the more intimate, upstairs room of the concert hall located in a former church), I was greeting by a weird sensory experience. In the past it was usually cigarette smoke that hit the nose upon entry. Last night, it was the smoke of cooked ground beef. Strange times.

The event was the first Rock Against Trump show, organized by Evan Knauer of ATS. Along with them and us Love Letters, the bill featured Raised by Wolves and Qlitterati. Jen Saffron, local activist and arts educator, served as our enthusiastic emcee. Raised by Wolves features Evan's wife Melissa and guitarist Chris Carnevali, who both played in the Fuzzy Comets, along with bassist Justin Brown (who I think might've been a Comet at one point) and drummer Tracey Whorton. Their music focused on Melissa's vocals, but the songs were pretty dynamic. Chris was playing an electrified acoustic, which sometimes wasn't loud enough to match Justin's bass, but it was a good time.

Our set went really well. I had thrown the idea to the band of seguing nearly the whole set together, making it more like a suite. That is, a suite inspired by the likes of the Minutemen or Husker Du. To hit a little closer to home in terms of style, my touchstone would probably be the Volcano Suns. I saw them several times and while they might not have played one big set like those other two bands, I always loved to hear their first song roar out of the gate, to be followed immediately by the next one. Those first two revealed a good bit of confidence and cohesion on their part, which set the standard for the rest of the set. And that's the way a good set should feel.

There were a few gaps amidst the songs we were trying to segue, but that still meant they came off as having minimal breaks in between. When I started the songs, they were definitely coming one after another. After our last show, I wasn't too sure how I was feeling about the whole idea of playing out again, but tonight made it worth it. We even had a decent crowd of people listening. Before our first song, Mike did a little introduction about how we're against Trump but we're also for a lot of other things. He mentioned Dave V and Karl Hendricks and the passing 24 hours earlier of Don Rickles. Along with that I was thinking back on seeing Evan play with Da Shunts at a Rock Against Reagan show in 1983. That in turn made me wonder how much of my writing and onstage delivery was inspired by seeing Evan with ATS during all those formative years.

While ATS headlined, the evening really belongs to Qlitterati, a supergroup of sorts featuring three charismatic vocalists - Phat Man Dee, Christiane D and Gena [there should be a tilde over the n, but I can't get it to work] Musica. Highly charged, politically and socially, their set was funny, racy, intense and really tight. One audience member thought some of the music was like Frank Zappa, which might be true, but it added the wild force of the Slits, in the vocal department. Add to that some incisive, wry observations that you'll only get in Pittsburgh, and you might have half an idea of what they're about.

By the time ATS hit the stage I think I was on my third drink, but even if I hadn't been, they still probably would've sounded great. With Steve Seel on board semi-permanently as second guitarist, and Downtown Steve Brown playing trumpet for most of the set, they banged out a bunch of newer songs, some written in the wake of #45 taking office. Plus, Evan pulled out "Dream Song," or whatever it's actually called. It dates back to Da Shunts but the surreal, apocalyptic/metaphorical imagery of the US Steel Building falling across the Allegheny River seems just as relevant today. 32 years after their inception, ATS is still writing new chapters.

Incidentally, Evan is organizing a Rock Against Trump show every first Friday of the month. The next one is Friday, May 5 at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern.

As I was writing this I realized that I never closed out my bar tab, so that kind of sucks, but oh well. I'll do it soon.