Thursday, January 25, 2018

CD Review: Nick Fraser - Is Life Long?

Nick Fraser
Is Life Long?
(Clean Feed)

Toronto drummer Nick Fraser has visited Pittsburgh three times with trumpeter Lina Allemano. In one of those appearances, with Allemano's Titanium Riot, Fraser played his kit very delicately, eyes closed, adding what was needed but never adding too much. Is Life Long? contains many moments like that, where Fraser could very easily cut loose amid some jagged free improvisation. But he holds back, adding color, or in some ways, echoing melodies on the drums.

Along with Fraser, this quartet includes Tony Malaby (tenor and soprano saxophones), Andrew Downing (cello), and Rob Cutter (bass, also a member of Titanium Riot). All three recorded with Fraser on 2013's Towns and Villages (Barnyard) as well.  Together they create a remarkable sound. Downing's cello sometimes works closely with Malaby's horns, but it also feels also operates comfortably in close proximity with Cutter. Combined with those varying textures, the six Fraser originals often find the musicians playing rhythms that contrast and clash with each other. The nervy soprano saxophone melody on "Disclosure" slides across the rhythm section's slow steady pulse. In it, Malaby never really clicks with the band, but with Downing's part complementing him, locking in clearly isn't the point.

But it makes for a dark, minor feel that continues for awhile on the album. Things kick off with four minutes of long, sustained wails ("Quicksand"), recalling heavier moments of AACM history, before Malaby switches from soprano to tenor to move in tandem with Downing over a bowed bass drone. This blend of free jazz and avant classical chamber sounds, with Fraser's loose-limbed accompaniment in the background, make it worth sitting through the unsettling first third of the track, especially to hear Malaby's tenor get a little vicious towards the end.

"Empathy" continues the mournful feeling with counter-melodies from Downing and Malaby. But the second half moves into brighter territory with "Skeleton" and "Arachnid," the latter with a staccato melody that tenor and cello keep in close proximity during the solos. By the time they get into formation for the march that Fraser gradually builds up in "The Predictor," the quartet hits a tense but powerful conclusion that sounds forthright and triumphant. The road to get to that point was a little dark and rough at times, but by the end it has proven to be a worthwhile journey.  

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

CD Review: Stephen Dydo & Alan Sondheim - Dragon and Phoenix

Stephen Dydo & Alan Sondheim
Dragon and Phoenix

ESP-Disk' made the world safe for outsider musicians. Albert Ayler, the Fugs, the Godz, Erica Pomerance, Frank Lowe -  they were all given a platform by the late Bernard Stollman to present their art to a populace that would listen. Even after having talked to Mr. Stollman for a substantial amount of time, I'm not totally sure why he released such a massive discography equally stocked with great things and questionable works by people like folk singer Tony Snell or a studio-only noisy project called Cromagnon. But he did, and we're all the better for it.

Alan Sondheim got in on the ground floor with ESP, releasing Ritual All 7-70 in 1967. He played an array of instruments (including koto, English horn and percussion) in a series of improvisations by a small ensemble. A second album apparently focused on electronic music and oscillations. Not exactly a jazz music, and more like someone with a eye toward what would later be called world music, Sondheim was just the kind of iconoclast for an imprint like ESP.

When the label came back to life, Sondheim was there, releasing Cutting Board in 2014. Accompanied by two saxophonists, he improvised on 13 different instruments that ranged from chromatic harmonica to sarangi and cura (stringed instruments from India and Turkey, respectively). And there were only 13 tracks on the album.

Dragon and Phoenix reduces the instrumental arsenal to seven, with emphasis on the qin, a Chinese stringed instrument with a history that can be traced back three millennia, according to some literature. Stephen Dydo, former president of the New Yokr Qin Society, bonded with Sondheim over each gentleman's collection of exotic instruments, and they decided to record a series of duets. Dydo plays viola and banjo as well as qin on the 16 tracks. Sondheim also picks them up, along with guzheng, rababa, erhu and madal.

The improvisations are titled using characters from the Chi'ien Tzu Wen. In addition to a symbol, each has a word, with a complementary term in the following track that combines to form an abstract poem ("Heaven and earth/ black and yellow/ space and time...") Each piece has a gentle quality, even in the rare instances where the strings get a little frantic. Dydo and Sondheim play melodies built on the same root,.and even though the time feels loose and free, their parallel melodies move in conjunction with one another. When they bend notes, the music often sounds closer to blues than to a more microtonal music. At the same time, the timbre of the instruments really give the music a lot of its intrigue. The best example comes in the cross-pollination of the banjo and qin in "Yu."

The big question lingers through most of the album is who's playing what. Both musicians are panned to separate channels, perhaps not severely, but enough to notice. With Sondheim playing everything that Dydo plays, and more, it's hard to find a solid answer to the question. Dydo might be a more traditional qin player, but Sondheim is no dilettante on it either. Finally, the mystery is solved in track 15, "Lie," when Sondheim plays the madal, a hand drum. It almost feels like they've been toying with us the whole time and only through patient listening does the answer come.

Dragon and Phoenix, named for the sound holes in the qin, might not be an easy album to digest, at least initially. It has the raw, immediate quality of ESP releases of yore, but there are sonic and harmonic nuances rise to the surface with deeper investigation.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Finding Uncle Wiggly, more Charlie Parker obsessions

Tuesday afternoon was a golden day at the mailbox. Not one, but two records arrived in the mail for me. One was a copy of Mary Halvorson's Illusionary Sea, which I've already written about here. (Click here to read it or just see the cover.) The other was a record for which I've pined for many years, never able to find it and when I did, never able to quite afford it.

The record in question is the debut album by Uncle Wiggly, He Went There So Why Don't We Go. The title is such an oddity that I still don't have it accurately committed to memory and had to grab the cover to make sure I got it right.

I discovered Uncle Wiggly during college when I was deeply obsessed with everything on the Shimmy-Disc label, who released their sophomore Across the Room and Into Your Lap in 1992. The trio had a thing for dreamy psychedelic pop songs that might lope along at Spacemen 3 tempos before kicking into a double-time wig out. (This often happened in the same song.) Sometimes they'd play three chords for eight minutes, occasionally adding a lead guitar melody and the vocal phrase which gave the song its title: "Ba Ba Ba." Kramer gave the album the echoey sheen in much the same way he did for Galaxie 500.

Turns our the band didn't dig that. A few years later, I interviewed them for my zine Discourse. By that time, they were through with him and while they didn't trash the infamous indie recorder, I have a feeling they probably didn't like being in Discourse's Kramer issue, which focused on bands that were affiliated with him. (For the cover we doctored a picture of the sunrise and superimposed a pic of Kramer looming over the mountain side.)

When getting in touch with Wiggly bassist Michael Anzalone for the interview, he said He Went There was only released in Austria, but they had a few copies to sell.... for $30 each. In 1994, pre-eBay and pre-Discogs, that was a lot of scratch for an indie rock album, especially for a poor recent college graduate. The good news is, the album has stayed about the same price in the ensuing years. The bad news is, $30 is still $30.

I've been following copies of it on Discogs, waiting for the best looking version and the right time to feel that I can plunk down the money. A few weeks ago, one popped up that was in good shape and it also came from the collection of late Wiggly guitarist Wm. "Bill" Berger, who passed away last fall. Many more people might know his name due to his affiliation with WFMU-FM, where he hosted a show there for several years. I actually found out he died due to a Facebook post by a friend whose band had been played by Berger on the radio. To my friend, it was the equivalent of being played by John Peel.

With the connection to Berger, and a price tag that was just under $30, it was time to jump. The seller was a great guy who had a few exchanges with me as we were making the transaction. It needed to be cleaned once I got it, but it was everything I hoped it would be.

With a slightly more primitive production than their other albums, it's full of cleanly strummed power chords, stop-start rhythms and a simple-but-solid attack that reminds me of New Zealand bands just prior to that same time period (late '80s/early '90s). James Kavoussi (who alternated drums and guitar with Berger) was also a member of the New York band Fly Ashtray who had a similar mutant pop aesthetic. (Anzalone had also been in Fly Ashtray but bowed out before their first album). The connection seems a little clearer here. Both bands were into long titles (in addition to the album title, they also have songs like "The King's Loyal Moustache Clippings" and "Oatmeal Goddess") and the fast-to-slow shifts in tempo. I think I'll be playing this one for a while.

Furthermore, Fly Ashtray is still together and seems to have released an album in the past year or so. I sent Kavoussi a friend request on FB. (We actually met at CMJ back in the '80s on a night when both of his bands were playing at different clubs in New York. Doubt he'll remember me, though.) I think I need to comment on his page and inquire about the record. Though I worry a little because Fly Ashtray also had a thing for sampler/noise pieces on their albums too. But I'm still curious enough to ask.

And then....... the Charlie Parker obsession continues! The Penn Hills library had this copy of the Dean Benedetti box! For those who don't know, Benedetti was an aspiring saxophone player who, for a few months, recorded Charlie Parker in concert. And I mean just Charlie Parker. Armed with a 78 record cutter and later a paper-based reel-to-reel tape player, Benedetti recorded while Bird was soloing, and turned the machine off when he wasn't.

This seven-CD set is a collection of lo-fi Charlie Parker solos. It begins right after the saxophonist's release from Camarillo Hospital, when he was getting back on his feet again in Los Angeles, and then picks up a few months later back in New York in a quintet with young Miles Davis and Max Roach. It's obsessive, it's sometimes hard to listen to, it's a lot of the same songs over and over again - but if you're fascinated by history and the early development of bebop, you have to hear it.

Not only that, being a Mosaic set, it has a deluxe book with a bio on Benedetti, a breakdown of each set of recordings (which don't run chronologically but by a system devised by producer Phil Schaap) and an analysis of Parker's approach to the horn, via detailed descriptions of the music.

I borrowed this beast from the library about 20 years ago, but I guess I didn't have the obsessive desire to dig through all of this at that time. I have a feeling I didn't even make it through the whole set, because I never recall hearing Bird play "Well You Needn't" with Thelonious Monk sitting in with the band. If I had, the history of the moment might have impacted me more. It might only be a couple choruses of it, but you have to wonder - how many times in life did those two ever play that song?

Uh-oh, I'm feeling the urge to grab Robin D. G. Kelley's Monk biography and see if there's an answer for the question. Or even some reference to the night in 1948 when it happened. (I often pick up that book and just skim it for fun.)

Before I do that, I want to add that I also found an affordable copy of the Parker Savoy/Dial box that had been stolen from my car, as mentioned in the last post. I was hoping to just dub it from a friend who had it, but I'm happy to be getting the real thing again.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Charlie Parker, broken windows, bad weather

Two Thursdays ago, when it was really cold, the back passenger's side window of my car got smashed. The car was parked in a lot while my son and I were having dinner in Eat N Park. Locals beware: It was the lot between Bartlett and Beacon Streets in Squirrel Hill. A friend of mine was mugged there in broad daylight a couple years ago, which I should have taken as a tip to keep away. Don't park there. I heard there have also been a rash of broken car windows near Frick Park as well.

At first I thought, well this sucks but at least there was nothing in the car. Then I started remembering what was in the car: I had an ECM tote bag (from Winter JazzFest 2016). Eh, just a few issues of JazzTimes and downbeat were in there and they're replaceable.  But... [cue the tragic music] the 8-CD Charlie Parker Complete Savoy and Dial Session box was in the bag, except for Disc 4, which was in the car's CD player. I left the booklet at home (a very important part of that set), thinking that with any snow and ice that might get into the car, I didn't want that to get damaged. If only it had just gotten wet.

There's more. Donovan's piano lesson books were in the bag too. After filling out a report with the police, getting ready to drive home, I also realized the kid's backpack was taken too. I hope the bastard that took it liked his shoes. (Thank God his drum practice pad from school hadn't been in there as well.) A day later I was reaching for my new calendar/appointment book when...gone. Santa was nice enough to reorder one for me, which I got earlier this week.

Tips - If this happens to you, the heavy duty vacuum at most car washes/gas stations can suck up the glass. My car is a 2015 and the glass shattered in chunks so there weren't very  many small shards around. Putting a garbage bag over the window is okay for overnight parking but driving with it is ridiculous. (After driving about five blocks, it was practically off the door, so I just ripped it all the way off.) Getting it on was probably the most frustrating part of Thursday night. The roll of duct tape we have is pretty old and brittle anyway, and getting it to stick in the freezing cold was a big challenge.

The good news was insurance hooked me up with Safe Lite, who got a new one in the following day. All that was left to do was mourn the losses.

That Parker box hurts on a number of levels, the biggest one at the moment being that I was just started to get back into a Bird kick, listening to more of his music. Recently, I started organizing all of my Parker albums chronologically, both the studio albums and the live recordings. Someday, I want to look at all of them and see how closely I can track his life - week to week, month to month, season to season?

I got that eight-disc set used and it was a really smart purchase, both as a reference and for the music and info it provides. I have a Savoy two-fer with all the masters on vinyl, and a best of the Dial sessions, but this had all that and more, sequenced an order that made sense. Each session presents all the master takes in a row, followed by the alternate takes. It welcomes casual listening but makes it easy to do the analytical listen for those who so desire.

The box is out of print, so I started asking around if any friends have it. If I copy it, all I need is the booklet really. The cover was nice, but I can live without it. One friend rummaged through a box of stuff and realized he does, so I'm set. Although, I did see a used copy pop up for a great price online. I'm tempted....

Prior to the break-in, I was contemplating Mosaic's set of Dean Benedetti's Parker recordings. These are the ones recorded with often no trace of fidelity and only capture Bird's groups when he was playing. (Once he's done soloing, Benedetti stopped the recorder.) Bad sound, but important music. I think part of my sudden desire to get it was related to the set being on Mosaic's "Running Low" list. It's getting hard to get, so I must have it!

Trying to buy it right now is out of the question since it costs a little over $100 and I just bought a couple fancy records online. Then I discovered that the Penn Hills library has a copy and the Carnegie Library in Oakland could get it for me. So I requested it.

When I woke up this morning, I saw an email that it's waiting for me at the library. Pity then that all this blakenty-blank snow is going to keep me from getting over there today.

I'm looking forward to the spring.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

LP Reviews: Greg Goodman, John Gruntfest & Derek Bailey Return on the Beak Doctor

John Gruntfest & Greg Goodman
In This Land All the Birds Wore Hats and Spurs

Derek Bailey & Greg Goodman
Extracting Fish-Bones from the Back of the Despoiler

(Beak Doctor)

It's tempting to compare In This Land All Birds Wore Hats and Spurs to a box set from Mosaic Records. Although it's single album, it comes on a beautiful 12X12 box, assembled with love and care, much like the elaborate Mosaic sets. A 12X12 four-page booklet features pictures and credits. Another insert features thumbnail reproductions of other releases on the label. If that wasn't enough, each of the 100 limited edition releases includes a painting by John Gruntfest, signed by the artist, as well as an additional insert with thumbnails of all 100 paintings. No wonder a ribbon is attached on the inside.

Of course, brothers and sister, this ain't no Mosaic. By a long shot.

To understand the Beak Doctor imprint means going back to 1978. Pianist Greg Goodman, saxophonist Larry Ochs and guitarist Henry Kaiser co-founded Beak Doctor/Metalanguage Records that year to spotlight international improvisers, among them Fred Frith, Evan Parker and the ones on these two releases. It was the first independent label of its kind on the West Coast devoted to free improvisation, taking a cue from Bailey and Parker's Incus label and acting in tandem with Horace Tapscott's Nimbus West label as well as the New York-based Parachute label.

The last Beak Doctor album appeared in 2003, by which time the label had transitioned to CD releases. These two new albums find them going back to vinyl, with digital downloads available with the package. Both feature artwork by Jean de Bosschère, which evokes Edward Gorey, though these come from the 1920 work The City Curious, pre-dating Mr. Gorey.

In This Land All the Birds Wore Hats and Spurs begins with a look back at Beak Doctor's early days (side one comes from performances in 1984 and 1986), before it jumps ahead to more recent times (side two was recorded in 2008). John Gruntfest is credited as playing tenor saxophone, but the tone of his horn and the way the low notes resonate really sounds more like an alto. Goodman plays "every thing else" [sic], which in his case means piano, playing the inside by hand occasionally in addition to striking the keys.

"Pure Mind" begins in a minimal, tranquil mood. Goodman lets a pedal note drone work hypnotically while Gruntfest builds simple but engaging melodies over it. "Great Bird" begins more casually. Goodman's upper register notes glisten and his partner casually moves in and out. The way the pianist varies the rhythm of his basic notes does evoke birds in flight. Halfway through the 16-minute track, the meandering aspect is replaced by more focus. Goodman moves down a few octaves, guiding some stronger ideas from Gruntfest, with the piano even answering him on a few.

Of the two players, Gruntfest has also worked as a poet and visual artist. That back story is good to keep in mind while perusing the extensive notes on the album. Perhaps this is just free improvisation with thoughts such as, "There really is no reason to doubt there is no reason to doubt," added afterwards with a chuckle. (I checked my typing and that's how it appears.) Or maybe Side Two's three-act title piece is actually an opera with a story line and a complete score that "cannot reasonably be presented." The long-winded aspect of the booklet is a bit much, but it makes me think of equally long-winded notes on other free improv albums that go into ridiculous non-musical, universal detail to explain why the sounds on the disc are not noise but something more... important. Remember that I appreciate the lighter tone a little more.

As far as the three "acts" on side two are concerned, the relaxed mood heard earlier is replaced by a bit more freedom. In a revealing moment, Gruntfest adopts the tone of a 1920s style jazz saxophonist, tart with big vibrato at hand, though it's easy to miss due to its brevity. Elsewhere he sounds ready to cut loose with wild squonking, especially in "Act III" where he toys with overtones. Goodman uses the strings of the piano for some metallic percussion, he also rumbles down the low end of the keys and plucks the insides as well. While things get wilder during these tracks, they also feel like they have more forward momentum. The duo also has a knack for stopping right at a climax, when there might be a temptation to get even wilder. That's discipline. That's also a way to chart their growth since the '80s, I suppose.

Extracting Fish-Bones from the Back of the Despoiler comes in a heavy cardboard album cover, rather than a box, but the black and while layout is the same, with a de Bosschère illustration and credits on the back. The music was made at a 1992 performance in Eugene, Oregon by Goodman and guitarist Derek Bailey. The back cover describes the two 20-plus minute tracks as "two sides that, while specifically titled, move around, arrive, and depart differently on occasion." If you listen closely, that's true.

This time the pianist is credited for objets d'intérieur, and he does spend a good deal of time inside the frame of the 88s, extracting sounds comparable to vibes, harp or guitar, even getting a great boing effect possibly from the use of a slide. He's not opposed to chords either, playing some tentative notes when Bailey pulls back from the melee.

Virtually any Derek Bailey release can be considered a wild ride, and Fish-Bones is no exception. The guitar sounds that open the album, with no sustain, sound dissonant and atonal, but so perfect at the same time. He never stops for air during the first six or seven minutes, but the ideas keep flowing from his instrument in great detail. When the dynamics eventually shift, it sounds like there could be some bits of composition happening here. Or it could be that Goodman knows what kind of harmony and embellishment to put forth. Whatever might be happening, the rapport between never flags. Even during moments that seem like Bailey and Goodman are trying to figure out what happens next, the knowledge of a payoff keeps things alive.

Along with the attention to detail that comes with both of these albums, it should be noted that both of the 180-gram records are pressed well too. At a time when off-center vinyl is, sadly, a distinct possibility, these two slabs play smoothly.

The Beak Doctor is in. Pay a visit.