Friday, September 29, 2017

Interview with Tim Berne

“Pittsburgh – I haven’t been there in a long time,” Tim Berne said, midway through our conversation. To be exact , it’s been 19 years since he came to town. The band that time was Paraphrase, which featured drummer Tom Rainey and bassist Drew Gress. Despite all the years, the alto saxophonist remembered hitting his head on the low ceiling at the Decade, a long-gone bar known more for blue collar rock (The Boss stopped there after several local appearances) than for avant jazz.

Berne and I spoke in anticipation of his return to Pittsburgh this weekend for two nights at Alphabet City. Pianist Matt Mitchell of Snake Oil will be with him on Saturday, along with drummer Kate Gentile, who is also a budding composer whose music takes angular ideas from Berne’s style of writing. It can be heard on Mannequins, which features several lengthy (i.e. 12 minutes or more), multi-section pieces, as well as some brief ones. As the picture up above indicates, Mitchell has a new album under his own name, as of this weekend. Out on Pi Recordings, A Pouting Grimace places him in the midst of a large ensemble of horn players and percussionists.

Saturday’s show (with Mitchell and Gentile) has a waiting list for people wanting to attend. At press time, Sunday night’s show (where Berne and Mitchell will play solo sets and accompany poets) still had room for RSVPs. (It’s a free show!) Click here to find out more about Alphabet City, where they're playing, and how to stream it live during the show

What follows are the highlights of our conversation, in which Berne discussed how Snake Oil came together and wound up recording four albums for ECM, including the new Incidentals, as well as the way he approaches compositions.

Didn’t you just play the Newport Jazz Festival?

Yeah. It was my first time as a leader. I played there with the Bad Plus in an Ornette Coleman Science Fiction [album tribute] a year ago.

How did Snake Oil go over?

It was great. It was a lot of fun. Last year was a little weird, being on the big stage at noon.  This was a blast. We played a smaller venue. We played at noon but there were a lot of people. It seemed like I ran into everybody who was there afterwards. And the sound was good.

Isn’t Matt Mitchell that guy who bought sheet music from you years before you started playing together?

He wrote me a letter which I found the other day, amazingly. He was in college at Eastman. I think he was getting his masters. He was in his early 20s and he asked me for two scores, I think, of two of the longest tunes I ever did. At the time I didn’t really do scores because I did everything by hand so I just did parts. No one ever asked me for scores. It was one of the first times. So I was determined to fulfill it.

It meant going through stacks of music looking for these parts. And then sending him 40 pages of music, probably more. And then I remember calling him and I said, “I’ll figure something out.” I sent it to him and I never heard from him again. And apparently he lived in New York for a year. He was in Philadelphia for a year, then he moved to New York, but he never talked to me. I said, “Man, we could’ve been playing!” He said, “No, I would’ve driven you crazy.”  So whatever that meant, he kept his distance and I met him 10 years later maybe. Then the second we played I said, “Do you want to start a band?” And that’s how Snake Oil started.

After Science Friction [his group with Craig Taborn, Tom Rainey and Marc Ducret], I got bummed about [how] every time a band got rolling, everyone would get super busy. We’d never rehearse and it became exactly what I didn’t want it to become. So I stopped doing bands for a while I started doing improv stuff and [playing as a] sideman. That went on for probably from Hard Cell [with Taborn and Rainey] for a good four or five years. Then all of a sudden I met Matt and instantly wanted to start a band.

What did you like about his playing?

Well, for one thing he could read anything I wrote, which was interesting. For a piano player that was pretty unusual. But also he was enthusiastic. He was ready to throw down. And Ches {Smith, percussion] and Oscar [Noreiga, bass clarinet and clarinet] too - they were into rehearsing and working on complicated shit. That’s kind of how Bloodcount started too. That was the premise - I wanted to rehearse a lot.

Now it’s a little harder but that attitude is still there. So I think it’ll keep going as long as there are some gigs to get. We’ve been lucky we’ve done a lot of records in the last few years. That helps keep a band together.

When you write out music, do you notate it fully with time signatures or is it a little more rough than that?

I put time signatures in. Sometimes it’s arbitrary.  It makes it easier to read. People like Matt and Ches are more rhythmically sophisticated than I am. They might have wanted to write it differently in terms of how it sounds metrically, but I try to write things so they’re easier to digest and the clearest way to write it.

Ultimately, it’s more about phrasing anyway. You have to be able to hear these phrases, how I phrase them. Then the accents and the way things land  kind of determine rhythmically what it sounds like more so than the bars and the metric stuff. Just because it’s a five bar doesn’t mean we’re playing in five. It just means I’m just accommodating the way I wrote. I would say the metric thing is overrated in our music. It’s more about the phrasing. And momemtum.

Do you put the music in front of them at rehearsal for the first time?

I always give them the music beforehand. It’s all notated accurately and then most of the time, they learn it at home and then that 5% which involves sort of idiosyncratic phrasing, they’ll get it right away when they hear me play. In the old days it might have taken a little longer. There’s stuff that goes across the bar in weird ways. Once you get used to my language then it’s pretty consistently weird in an understandable way. It’s kind of second nature to me so I don’t know what it’s like to encounter it for the first time.

What instrument do you compose on?

Piano, mostly. 90% of the time. Sometimes I’ll make outlines. I’ll be sitting on a train and I’ll outline a piece- just the shape for something. So when I start writing I’ll have a specific thing in mind so I can get started. So I’m not sitting there thinking, “What do I do, what do I do?”

Sideshow [from Snake Oil’s new Incidentals that was a long one [it’s a 26-minute track].

That was part of an hour long piece. We used to play that and then the piece on You’ve Been Watching Me [“Small World in a Small Town”], a 25 minute tune on there. They were part of one thing and I split them up at the recording. I didn’t want to make a record with just one long piece. I wanted to have some different stuff on there. So we just did it at the session. I said, “Let’s just stop here. We’ll start the other one here. We’ll do them as two separate pieces.”

When you’re writing them, do you have a sense of how long they might be?

I do know they’re going to be really long. I write them in sections and I just keep adding sections. Eventually I say oh yeah this is going to be an hour. We used to play [both of those pieces] as a whole set. Lately things have been getting shorter. Partially I react to what I’ve been doing. I like to change it once in a while and do something that’s hard for me to do, like write a short tune. It’s also a function of not having a ton of time to write. So I might write a bunch of little things and then develop them over time. Sometimes they become little suites or they change or I play a couple of them together. This tour we’ve got a lot of new music so I’m waiting to see how it evolves.

When you come here you’re doing new stuff?

I’m doing all new stuff but some of the same music with Snake Oil. I didn’t write music for this group. It’s music that no one has heard because none of it’s been recorded.

When you played at Winter Jazzfest in 2016 [with Mitchell, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, bassist John Hebert, drummer Dan Weiss] and it was called…


Did you play that piece that night?

No. And that was the only gig we ever did. It’s hard to get work, hard enough to get gigs for Snake Oil and we’ve got four or five records out.

How long has Snake Oil been around?

I think it was 2009 our first gig, possibly. So it’s bordering on… it’s probably the longest band I ever had, probably longer than Bloodcount. I’m not sure if we’ve worked as much but in terms of recorded stuff, it’s getting there. We have a lot of material. Somehow I have to do something.

Is Ryan [Ferreira, guitar] still with you?

He’s on the records but I can’t afford it. He lives in Seattle. When I write a ton of new music it’s kind of impractical. He’s very content to get inside the sound. If he was soloist player, it wouldn’t really work. Same with [David] Torn [the guitarist who produces most of Berne’s recent work and has used him in his band. Torn also cameos on Incidentals.] When David takes a solo, it doesn’t sound like he’s taking a solo. So that’s the kind of people I’m attracted to in terms of guitar players: people who are not looking to get too much attention all the time.

You don’t use bass players that much in your work, and when you do it seems like you don’t think of it as something that just keeps the music grounded.

That got started with Bloodcount. I talked to [bassist Michael] Formanek about that before we started the band.  I said I want this thing to be more collective sounding. I’m not really into having a rhythm section-type situation where the bass player and the drummer kind of hook it up and the other guys solo. I like it when the whole thing is kind of a mess. And Mike was all really up for that. He played really fucking weird and that’s what made it happen for me. He definitely didn’t play like a bass player.

One of the reasons I don’t use bass a lot is it frees up the drums timbrally, and in a lot of other ways. I like the fact that it’s interesting. There are some nice spaces and also they can fill up spaces that were filled. You can go chamber-lly or you can hit pretty hard. Now with the vibes [which Ches Smith plays in Snake Oil], it’s totally nuts. I couldn’t have predicted that but that ended up being cool.

Who decided whether Ches is going to move from drums to vibes?

It’s all him. He learns all the music on vibes and he makes these choices in the moment. He never does it the same way on a given tune. The record is probably the first time he did it that way. He’ll just jump up and start playing vibes. I never say anything. I don’t think I’ve ever said, “Could you play drums here instead?” But it’s great. I love it. I never would have guessed I’d like the vibes but it ended up being really cool.

Ches is the kind of guy where, I’ll say, “Hey, have you ever played banjo,” and he’d go, “Aw, man, I can’t play banjo.” Then the next day, he’d say, “Hey, can you show me some banjo parts?” Then next thing you know, he’d be playing banjo on the gig. And that’s what he’s like.

Or the tympani – we had a tympani on the first record and we’ve been using it quite a bit.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Another Wild Weekend of Sounds (Wacław Zimpel, The Spectres and friends)

Much like weekend of September 16, and the upcoming weekend, there was plenty to see and hear on Friday and Saturday. Alphabet City's Jazz and Poetry Month continued with two sets by Polish clarinetist Wacław Zimpel, that included performances in the second half by a few poets. 

City of Asylum, the organization that assembles these performances at Alphabet City, has had each of the month's shows introduced by an exiled poet who addresses the audience by Skype from a screen on the stage. Having been to three performances this month, the introduction has made me start to think more about the notion of writers being jailed, exiled or in some cases killed because of the words they publish. The concept of "fake news" - which is especially at the front of my mind now, having skimmed an article in the New York Times Magazine about the power of Russian media - and the way it can take off has me wondering about the future of free press in this country.

Midway through each performance this month, the audience is asked to hold up a placard (actually an 17x22 piece of paper) with the name of an exiled writer on it , as a symbolic remembrance of all the people punished for putting pen to paper. Over time, it has started to less like a simple gesture, and more of a serious reminder that we could be next, if our leaders continue on the crash course they're on now.

Zimpel had a series of keyboards and samplers onstage, in addition to his alto clarinet. The set began with a gentle drone that kept building in layers: a harmony appeared on top of the first drone, then a bass drone slid in underneath. After a few minutes, he started blowing his clarinet. His lines were spare at first, but the directness of them sounded like something from a later John Coltrane piece, with dramatic long tones flowing out of tempo over the undulating sound. His first set lasted about 30 minutes. The keyboards got most of the focus, with the drones getting reshaped, with a beat eventually getting added and the overall sound getting a little more psychedelic when Zimpel played melodies on them. But the clarinet sections were the high points.

In the second set, Zimpel accompanied readings by author Osama Alomar (City of Asylum's writer in residence) and poets Maung Day (from Myanmar) and Toi Derricote (of Pittsburgh). The combination worked well, with the artists interacting, letting the music accentuate or punctuate the text. Zimpel played a little more by himself after that.

The highlight of this part happened when he pulled out the khaen, an instrument that was invented by a woman in Laos. (Zimpel made a point of mentioning this, since female inventors often get short shrift.) The instrument looked like a giant set of pan pipes, or a section of a railing pulled off a flight of steps. However, as the picture above shows, he didn't blow on them from the top or bottom, but on the side. And the sound they made was otherworldly, like a trumpet or a soprano sax, with a tone that sounded like the creation of a synthesizer or pipe organ. (If you're friends with me on Facebook, look for the video I posted.)

On Saturday night, James Street Gastropub hosted the release of a split single by the Pittsburgh bands the Spectres (pictured below) and the Me Toos. However, the Me Toos had to bail on their set that morning due to family issues, which was too bad because drummer Kevin Koch was celebrating his 40th birthday that night, in addition to playing.

Maybe I was just really jonesing for guitar-centric rock after the previous evening to balance out the weekend, but I really had a blast listening to everyone. The Park Plan started the evening off, playing a handful of new songs in their set (at least there were some that I didn't recognize). The upstairs room, where the music happened, is a great, wide-open banquet-hall kind of space but it's not exactly built for rock and roll. If you mic everything, you take a chance on destroying everyone's ears and killing any nuance. Mic only the basics and some elements might get lost. Jenn's bass in the Park Plan got a little lost, but the vocals were prominent. So were the guitar leads, which, when Adam took them, had a rather George Harrison-quality during a song that was otherwise heavier than the Beatles. Good blend.

Bass wasn't a concern with the Spectres. Drummer James uses kick pedals to play both snare and bass drum, freeing his hands up to play guitar. Dan plays guitar and baritone guitar, the latter sounding really appropriate for their music, giving sort of a phantom bassline, as well as leads. Both of them take turns singing lead. They reminded me of the Flat Duo Jets, but with James' double duty on strings and skins, it was clear that Pittsburgh yet again has someone taking a bigger act's delivery and upping the ante. On a sidenote, I had forgotten that I met both of these guys last year while working on the Heroineburgh episode where I was the villain. They were both extras. 

Since the Me Toos couldn't play, LoFi Delphi filled in for them. Jumping in at the last minute didn't mean they were shaky. The band just finished tracking their new EP about a week earlier, so things were plenty tight - harmonies, hooks, crunch. It was all there.

All that, and I was home at a decent hour, as the (family) saying goes.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

CD Review: Dave Liebman/Joe Lovano - Compassion; Martial Solal & Dave Liebman - Masters in Bordeaux

Dave Liebman/Joe Lovano
Compassion - The Music of John Coltrane

Martial Solal & Dave Liebman
Masters in Bordeaux

David Murray heard me talking about Chasing Trane, the recent John Coltrane documentary, back in the spring, as he walked past me at the James Street Gastropub. He was in town with Kahil El'Zabar and about to head down a flight of steps when he stopped and joined the conversation. "Do you remember what Bill Clinton said about him," Murray asked me. At that moment, I was about to scoff to a friend about Carlos Santana's ridiculous comment about Trane, which I did recall. All I remembered about Clinton was that he came across as really knowledgeable about his subject. Specifics, I forgot, and I felt like I blew a chance to share a moment with this saxophone giant.

"Bill Clinton said that Coltrane did what Picasso did for art, but he did it in 10 years instead of 50 years. I thought that was pretty profound," he said, and made off down the steps.

That aspect of Coltrane's career is easy to overlook if you're not thinking about the chronology of his work. Leaving Miles' quintet, joining Monk, rejoining Miles, making Kind of Blue, sheets of sound (Giant Steps was recorded a few weeks later!), A Love Supreme, all those wild sets with Pharoah Sanders and then death - that all happened between 1957 and 1967. How many times have you shaped history in the past 10 years?

As I type, it's Coltrane's birthday. He would have been 90 had he not died 50 years ago this past July. The decision to write about Compassion today was actually a coincidence (like many of these reviews, it's been on my mind for quite some time). Tributes to musicians on par with Coltrane often give me pause because they become a pitfall where the performer gets caught up in reverence and doesn't make a lasting impression. (It's like paying tribute to ice cream. Who doesn't like ice cream, aside from some Gloomy Gus?) Or the original music gets dropped into a new setting, with mixed results.

Anyhow those issues are for naught because not only do Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano dig into this music with strong command, they deliver a complete portrait of Coltrane, from the ballads to the unhinged wailing. These six tracks were actually recorded in 2007 for a BBC Radio concert marking the 40th anniversary of Coltrane's passing. Ravi Coltrane, the third horn in Saxophone Summit, couldn't make the session, and Ron McClure fills in for regular Summit bassist Cecil McBee. Pianist Phil Markowitz and Billy Hart complete the group.

The other strength of Compassion derives from their choice of material, which intentionally veers away from the obvious works associated with Coltrane. Instead of "Blue Train," they opted for "Locomotion," a blues-with-a-bridge tune from that same album. "Equinox," from the Crescent album, is a little more familiar as is the touching "Central Park West" which they combine with "Dear Lord," making a ballad medley that offers solos from Lovano and Liebman respectively.

"Reverend King" will be familiar to Coltrane completists who know the posthumous Cosmic Music album. But here they put down the saxophones in favor of flute (Liebman) and alto clarinet (Lovano) which gives the thoughtful theme a strong, ruminative sound. Liebman also plays some wooden flute at the beginning of "Olé" before he picks up the soprano and goes to town with his compadre. In a great sense of contrast, the piece concludes with a thick solo from McClure.

By the time they get to the title track, the final song, the fur is flying. Hart gets the group going with an extended solo before cuing in this movement from the Meditations album. Liebman's tenor hits some of high register cries that were synonymous with Coltrane, amidst his own fiery solo. Not to be outdone, Lovano busts out his aulochrome, a double-soprano sax which evokes both Rahsaan Roland Kirk and the AACM's "little instruments," adding a bit of aggression to the sound that only makes it more exciting.

Each saxophone gets his own channel with no clear indication in the notes or credits who is where. With both players starting off on tenor in "Locomotion" it makes an interesting listening game to figure out who is closer to Trane in terms of rawness and who is taking his lessons to carve out his own version of it. The answer is settled a track later when Liebman switches to soprano, which can make you question your guesses on the previous track and of course, make repeat listens mandatory.

Since this is a Resonance release, the disc comes with a 24-page book with insight from all the musicians, as well as esteemed Coltrane expert Ashley Kahn and Resonance's Zev Feldman. Listen to this as a download and you miss out on vital info - and love - that can be felt with this package.

Some quick tenor wails, which would've fit in on Compassion, appear in the middle of Liebman's "Night and Day" solo on Masters in Bordeaux. Blink and you'll miss them. Moments like that - coupled with some almost Monkish trickery later in the piece by pianist Martial Solal - indicate why this is no ordinary set of standards. These are tunes have been heard umpteem times before: "All The Things You Are," "What Is This Thing Called Love, "On Green Dolphin Street," "Lover Man" and one that hasn't been played to death yet, Miles Davis' "Solar." Not merely a blowing session, the material serves as the foundation of a summit meeting that took place at the Jazz and Wine Festival Bordeaux last year.

Solal and Liebman use the tunes as templates for deep conversations, finding new things in each one. Solal (who turned 90 last month) approaches the piano with a propulsive mind that generates excitement even in the more subdued moments. He moves gracefully from laidback to aggressive with little or no transition and makes it work.

Liebman can exude authority with even the most simple sets of notes. (Upon seeing him live for the first time a few years ago, I felt like I had been missing out until then, due to his command of his tenor and soprano work. Luckily I saw him with two more groups that weekend.) The vulnerability he projects in "Lover Man" gets to the heart of the lyrics. Performances like these make you realize why these compositions are still standards: Players of this caliber can still find plenty of new conceptions within them.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Music Never Stopped Over the Weekend (René Marie, Oliver Lake & more)

I was occupied with live shows all weekend. This month is pretty jam packed, with more coming up. 

Friday night, I played at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern. Every time I've mentioned playing there, before and after the show, variations on the same thing are heard: "I thought it was closing;" "Wait - it's not closed?" No, not yet, or else I wouldn't have played there. The last show is October 22, or thereabouts. Get your fill of pierogies and haluski while you can because everyone and they're mother are doing that now, keeping the kitchen staff running. 

Anyhow, the Love Letters played there, in our first show as a five-piece band, since Amy Kline has joined us on keyboards. We played third, so by then the evening was in full swing. The thing about the BBT is that the stage set-up is at the back of the room and the only things that get miked are the vocals. It's up to the band to adjust the stage volume appropriately. It wasn't until we were a couple songs into the set that I realized Amy's keyboard amp should have been set up on her right side, shooting the sound into the audience, rather than on her left, tucked behind Mike Prosser's guitar amp. Oh well, we had a good time. There were new people in the audience and they said they dug our set! Success on both counts!

Before our set, I climbed onstage with John Young and Kip Ruefle to become Husker Don't, the city's premiere Husker Du cover band. This had been planned long before Husker drummer Grant Hart died (the day before the show) so the evening was a celebration of the band and of his spirit. We were practiced just enough to know what we were doing, but loose enough that some of it was going to be left up to chance. In short, great time. If you want the set list, I'll put it in the comments.

John, from Husker Don't, played with his band the Optimists to kick off the show. Their sound is more power pop than the Love Letters, but they still put a lot of kick into their delivery, which might be due in part to new drummer Tyler. He, guitarist Steve Morrison and bassist Rick Gercak harmonize really well, so it got me energized for the whole evening. 

Saturday night, René Marie performed at the New Hazlett Theater. (For my preview of the show, click here.

It's pretty impressive when a singer can fill up a room with only the accompaniment of her bassist. Marie did that in her opening number - and she did it with a personalized version of no less than Bob Seger's "Turn the Page." Yes, her introduction made me think, "Uh oh," but she and Elias Bailey avoided the heavy-handedness of the original, making it swing and feel dramatic.

Marie told me during our interview that she took some inspiration from Nina Simone and, like the High Priestess of Soul, she wasn't afraid to blur genres during her set. From "Turn the Page" she went into her own "Black Lace Freudian Slip," a bluesy number that overflowed with sensuality. The set also included "It Might As Well Be Spring," Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark" and "Rimshot," an original inspired by a desire to get drummer Quentin E. Baxter to give her that drum trick in a song. The easygoing rapport between Marie and Baxter made the singer crack up repeatedly during the song (maybe a few times too many) but it added to the singer's casual, friendly manner. (Which of course was not something you'd get from Nina Simone.)

There were no songs from Marie's Eartha Kitt tribute album I Want to Be Evil, nor did she sing "Blessings," the heartfelt, gospel-driven anthem that closed last year's Sound of Red. The latter song weighed heavy on my mind as I was writing the preview, in light of all the turmoil that has gone done in places like Charlottesville in the last month.

Regardless, Marie still left the audience in a good mood after her solid 90-minute set. Special appreciation should be given to Allyn Johnson, who substituted for the trio/s regular pianist. He might have learned the music on the fly, but his comping and solos were in the pocket, picking up on the Marie's vibe and groove.

The René Marie show ran from 7:00 to about 8:30 in part because Oliver Lake was performing with Jump Up, right around the corner and up the street at Alphabet City, the performance space connected to City of Asylum. All month, the space is hosting performances with jazz and poetry, which started when Lake was first brought to town in 2005 to perform with Chinese poet Huang Xiang. (That whole story can be found here.)

I didn't make it to Jump Up, still feeling like I needed some time at home to relax after the previous night's jumps around the stage. But I did catch Lake's set on Sunday evening, in a trio with Pittsburgh bassist Dwayne Dolphin and New York-based drummer Pheeroan akLaff (who also played in Jump Up). The music was pretty free and loose, and often times very spare. Dolphin coaxed gentle double-stops with just his left hand, while Lake emitted high shrieks and barbed low-end growls. There were times when I wished he cut loose a little more,  developing a more lengthy statement. Still, the atmosphere he created was strong, especially in the opening of the set, when the trio accompanied a video projection (behind them) of Lake reading a poem about the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.

AkLaff fit right in with Lake and Dolphin when it came to keeping things open, but two pieces also found him playing variations on a Second Line groove. This approach wasn't meant to merely lighten the mood with something happy. It added more dimension to the whole performance.

During the second set, the trio accompanied poetry readings by Román Antopolsky (whose Spanish poems were translated on the screen), Dawn Lundy Martin and Jericho Brown. The musicians seemed to be holding back quite a bit, perhaps not to overpower the readers, so the combination was a little off balance. But the poets themselves were all dynamic readers.

Jazz Poetry month continues this week. Polish clarinetist Waclaw Zimpel appears solo on Friday, with writer Osama Alomar and poets Toi Derricote and Maung Day. All of these shows are free but reservations are required (and seats seem to be going fast!). Visit for details.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

RIP Grant Hart

Right around the beginning of my senior year in high school, in the fall of 1984, I picked up Husker Du's Zen Arcade. Prior to that, I didn't know a whole lot about them. The previous summer, I worked in a used record store and the owner told me about seeing them at the Electric Banana, probably on some weeknight. I remember him describing Grant Hart in a way like, "this drummer with really long hair that was hanging in his face while he sang. And most of the time he was screaming." Remember, in 1983, a guy in a punk band with long hair was a rarity. Henry Rollins might have been growing his out by that time, but he was one of the few.

Then I heard a song from Zen Arcade (possibly "Chartered Trips") on Concrete Window's Friday night show on WYEP. Up until then I thought Husker Du was just a hardcore band (maybe I was mixing them up with the Meat Puppets early work, which was going over my head), but there was something else going on here. It was time to check them out.

Taking the double album home and throwing it on the turntable, there was so much to investigate: Greg Norton's chugging bass under Grant's giiddyup drumming that opened the album; Bob Mould's brutal but compelling set that opened Side Two, followed by the long and equally painful (because of all that screaming) Grant opus "What's Going On"; not to mention Side 4, which had a Grant song that - forgive me, man - reminded me of a band climbing up the charts at that time: Twisted Sister. It was followed by a 13-minute instrumental that seemed to drag on and on but was still compelling enough to make me come back and investigate it even further.

Punk rock was evolving in ways that I wouldn't fully grasp for a few years. I'm pretty sure that, on the same day I bought Zen Arcade at Jim's Records, I picked up a copy of the zine Matter which featured several people opining on the album and whether or not it made sense. Clearly, this was a big deal.

Looking back now, it's obvious that Grant, Bob and Greg couldn't care less about aligning themselves with any particular style. They were simply following their muses. (Grant would probably make fun of that assessment, but at the moment, it works.) Years later, Grant would talk in an interview about how punk rock was becoming limiting around that time and how he hated seeing the "uniforms" associated with it (anyone seen a black t-shirt with a band name on it and black jeans lately?). Say what you want about those guys, but they were brash enough to do what they wanted and let everyone catch up to them later. And we did.

While I was making this morning's coffee at 6:30, I heard the text alert go off on my phone. I figured it was something from Twitter or a reminder about how many texts I've sent in the last 30 days. Instead it was message from my pal/bandmate John Young, commenting on a previous text that I hadn't seen yet. "No no no," was John's message, which I figured was some joke about a show we're playing tomorrow.

But the inspiration for his message came from Kip Ruefle,  also a bandmate, who told us that Grant had died. I reacted the same way as John. It can't be. It's a rumor. It was all too close to home because the three of us are doing a gig tomorrow as Husker Don't - a tribute band to our Minneapolis heroes.

Of course these things are rarely wrong, thanks to the information superhighway. Although there were no details, other than the fact that Grant had been suffering from cancer, it was true. He was a mere 56. Damn.

There are plenty of Grant stories I could add to this: meeting them at Jim's Records a few months after buying Zen Arcade and having them autograph it with a ballpoint pen; only getting to see them once, on the Warehouse tour, at the point when they were playing that album all the way through (which they stopped doing a little later in the tour); and of course there's Grant's return to Pittsburgh when he played Howler's in 2009, but you can read about here.

And this is enough for now. He touched a lot of us, and because of the time that music came out and where I was, it still hits me the same way. "New Day Rising" still sounds like a song of optimism mixed with fury. "Keep Hanging On" is a simple message with a basic structure, but - goddam- with the passion that Grant has as he screams it at you, HOW COULD YOU NOT FIND THE POWER TO KEEP HANGING ON?

Thanks, Grant.

PS - "The Baby Song"? Hilarious, man. Loved that!

Saturday, September 02, 2017

CD Review: Mike Reed - Flesh & Bone

Mike Reed
Flesh & Bone
(482 Music)

Anytime I've taken a trip to another city for a jazz festival, there is usually one performance that makes me think I have become fully immersed in the whole event, or it makes something go off in my head that says, "This is the reason you came here." That voice starting screaming enthusiastically upon seeing Mike Reed's Flesh & Bone at Winter Jazz Fest back in January.

In the relatively intimate confines of the Glass Box Theater on the campus of the New School, drummer Reed's sextet played an intense set that was rhythmically straight forward with plenty of drive and room for four horns to go wild or calm down as the mood called for it. Marvin Tate stood silent throughout most of the set, but during a few transitions in the music, he added some pointed spoken word passages to the proceedings. Normally on the fence about this blend of disciplines because of the way the delivery can upset the flow, I walked away thinking, "I wish they used him more. That really added to the intensity." Speaking of intensity, I concluded my notes from that show with the scribble, "This is like Mingus, turbo-charged."

But the music they played that night, which appears on the Flesh and Bone album, has a back story. In 2009 Reed was touring Europe with his People, Places and Things quartet (with alto saxophonist Greg Ward, bassist Jason Roebke and tenor saxophonist Tim Haldeman, who all appear here). Traveling by train from the Czech Republic to Krakow, Poland, a conductor told them they needed to transfer trains in the Czech city of Prevov. It turned out to be wrong information which the conductor intentionally told them, because it put the band (which included two African-Americans) right in the middle of neo-Nazi rally that had been planned for that afternoon. For several hours, the quartet was trapped in the train station, fearing for their safety, before a stranger found some riot police to help them.

Flesh and Bone doesn't try to chronicle the event specifically through its 11 tracks. (At the Glass Box Theater, there was no mention made of it at the show itself.) But it does have a sense of urgency and fire that runs through it, even in the tender sections. In addition to Reed's PP&P members, the group features bass clarinetist Jason Stein and trumpeter Ben Lamar Gay.

Back in January, I scribbled that Gay "just swore at us" with horn, after a particularly biting moment in "Conversation Music." He doesn't quite do that on this version, but this track offers plenty of dynamics during an opening section where Stein gurgles and grumbles and the rest of the horns play a minor riff behind him. This title comes from the term Duke Ellington used for music he once played, which allowed people to talk over it. In this case, the conversation takes a more ominous turn. By the end, Ward and Stein are weaving countermelodies around each other, not sounding sinister but still intriguing.

Along with the frenzy of "My Imaginary Friend," with a climax that gets some great screams from all the horns, Reed gets more subdued in the folk-like "Watching the Boats." He sits this one out, but Roebke makes an opening statement before he laying the groundwork for the horns to co-mingle. Tate raises the intensity of the whole performance, with long, vivid imagery that might not fully register on the first or second listen. Like the music, each new listen illuminates more of his points. His assessment of how "freedom" is spelled backwards ("Call of Tomorrow [My Life Up Until the Present]") is mandatory listening.

"Scenes From the Next Life" ends the album with a sound collage of bass playing (by Reed) and disembodied voices. It doesn't so much wrap up the album as simply bring it to an end. But after all that came before, and the subject, it's appropriate.

Flesh and Bone would have been considered an important album regardless, for both the powerful interactions of the musicians, the events that led to its creation and what it says about the state of the world. (For years, the common thought was that jazz musicians were treated better in Europe than they were in the States.) At Winter Jazz Fest, everyone was thinking about the way art reflects on life, and there almost seemed to be a heavy uncertainty for what the future might hold. In the last month, things have gotten even more divisive with the events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Now, it feels like the album feels has taken on a greater significance, serving as a reminder that there is more we need to do.