Monday, February 26, 2018

CD Review: Wayne Escoffery - Vortex

Wayne Escoffery

Tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery's latest album was born out of the social/political climate of the previous year, as he is raising a young son in the midst of "an age of unconscious white privilege and empowered white nationalists, in an age of increased gun violence and brutality against children and young black men, and in an age where the people leading the country are the ones exemplifying  the worst in men and scaring youth rather than inspiring them," as he states in the liner notes. (One can only imagine how he felt two weeks ago, following the shootings in Parkland, Florida.) When Escoffery grew up, born in England of Jamaican descent and living in the United States, he dealt with issues of racism and not being "black enough," so the fact that he was having to deal with these issues all over again as a parent was troubling.

It makes an intense topic which Escoffery uses it to release passion and conviction in his playing. Vortex features his first recordings with pianist David Kikoski, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr. They have been playing together for two years, though the saxophonist also worked with Peterson and Okegwo in other settings.

The group's cohesion is evident in the album's opening moments. "Vortex" is propelled by a rapid tenor line. Both Escoffery and Kikoski seem right at home, firing off solos at this blurry tempo. The instrumentation for the majority of the album, as well as the musical execution, evokes the classic John Coltrane Quartet.  "Judgement," which serves as an intro to Peterson's "Acceptance," adds to that. Without sounding like an imitation to their forefathers, the brief rubato theme, with piano runs and loose drums fills, has a contemplative quality even as it pushes forward. "Acceptance" follow immediately, rolling along in 15/4, emphasizing one rhythm in the theme and another beneath the solos. The quartet takes to the groove naturally, revealing the depth of their unique rapport. Escoffery's solo features him taking a scalar line, reshaping it through repetition and pushing himself further.

For an update of "To the Ends of the Earth," a standard done by Nat "King" Cole," Escoffery consciously puts it in Coltrane context. Kikoski begins by playing the vamp from "My Favorite Things" to ground the melody. When the group proceeds with the theme, it recalls the way Coltrane himself reshaped "Out of This World" in a similar manner. It includes a few Trane-style wails in the solo but again, Escoffery uses them more as a tip of the hat on the way with his own solo.

Vortex also includes trumpeter Jeremy Pelt on "In His Eyes," adding warmth to a mid-tempo Escoffery original. The track is one of two where Peterson gives the kit over to young drummer Kush Abadey. The regular quartet is also joined by percussionist Jaquelene Acevedo on three tracks. Both Abadey and Acevedo appear on "The Devil's Den," a minor key piece inspired by the current administration. Heard in that context, the wails from Escoffery's soprano and the chord that the band punctuates at the end of each chorus both make sense. Which is another way of saying that the song's back story doesn't need to be known to fully appreciate it, but it can make the listener more conscious of the structure when it does. Tense times have once again created a strong piece of art.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Savage Young Dü Reminds Me Why I Love the Hüskers

Sometimes it takes a while for a band to get their sound together, figuring out their focus and what they want to achieve. The CD edition of Hüsker Dü's Everything Falls Apart album (their first studio album but second full-length release) included, among its bonus tracks, their debut single, "Statues" b/w "Amusement." Following the tight, sometimes violent songs from the album and the equally fantastic "In A Free Land" single, these early songs feature little of what was too come. Grant Hart's "Statues," presented in an uncut eight-minute version when the single version was already two minutes longer than it needed to be, sounded like PiL without the rumbling bass (Greg Norton was playing higher on the neck than Jah Wobble ever dared). Bob Mould's "Amusement" lumbered on for too many verses, angry without a way to channel it. Perhaps Hüsker Dü was just another band in their earliest days.

Boy was I wrong on that count.

Yesterday, after reading about it and hearing people coo over it, I picked up Savage Young Dü (Numero Group), the four-record and hardcover book box set that chronicles the earliest activity of Grant Hart, Bob Mould and Greg Norton. Maybe it's not Zen Arcade but the music here - and, full disclosure, I still have one more record to listen to - just pops with excitement. While their official album debut, Land Speed Record, made the band sound like a simple hardcore band, and Everything Falls Apart refined the sound, the trio already had plenty of ideas of what they could do from the early days. The poppier elements, which came to the fore on Flip Your Wig and the two Warner Brothers albums, were already in the mix from the early days. Mould's yowling approach to the guitar was already there, and he could straddle that with some sharp hooks from the get-go.

Some of the early songs might sound a little quaint at first blush. "Can't See You Anymore," with its age-old tale of "your Mom and Dad don't like me" is somewhat amusing, as are tracks like "Insects Rule the World" and "Industrial Grocery Store." But they're delivered with the same fire power that was the group's m.o. during their SST days, so it carries this music. The songs - and there are plenty here that the lads worked up only to scrap them just as quickly - convey the excitement a band feels when new songs are brought in and everyone realizes that they're on to something: Maybe things aren't totally together yet, but it's already clear that things will gel before too long. In the meantime, it feels really exciting.

I tried to get a shot of the spine to convey how thick the box is.
That's Record one on the side of it. Records 2-4 and the book are in the box.

Growing up in the early to mid '80s, I didn't fully discover Hüsker Dü until Zen Arcade. I knew about them and heard that they were more than a thrash band, but I hadn't gotten around to them yet. Of course I devoured that album and New Day Rising, which seemed to come out mere months after its predecessor. At the same time, they couldn't top the Minutemen, who seemed to be tuned into weirder stuff that struck a chord with me. Today, it's apples and oranges, of course. But the Minutemen also seemed to confuse most of the young punks I knew, which only sent me on more of a crusade.

Ironically, while the Minutemen were the ones who I wanted to be, there was no way I felt like I'd ever play the bass like Mike Watt. When I saw them live, I swore he didn't touch the E string for the first half of the set, so busy was he walking all over the rest of the neck.

Hüsker Dü, on the other hand, was the band that - to some degree - I felt like I aspire to be. I might be able to play bass like Greg Norton, simply but heavily. I could certainly yell like Bob Mould. And Grant Hart wrote the kinds of songs that I wanted to write, taking punk sensibilities and wrapping them in catchy hooks. There was hope for me.

The music reminds me of all of that. The story conveyed in the book tells how it came together, out of necessity and out of a huge desire to create. As their friend Terry Katzman says in the booklet, "They weren't onstage to talk, play games and tune their guitars. They were there to play, and play as smart and as hard as they could."

And to top it all off, in listening to "Statues" and "Amusement" amidst all the other songs, they have an urgency and power that I didn't catch on Everything Falls Apart and More disc. Good mastering job, guys!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Jason Roebke In Pittsburgh, A Night of Brevity

The last time Jason Roebke played in Pittsburgh, it happened on the stage at the Consol Energy Center (now the PPG Paints Arena). He was a member of Locksmith Isidore, a trio led by bass clarinetist Jason Stein, the brother of that evening's headlining act, Amy Schumer. This past Friday, Roebke appeared by himself in a more intimate setting - the White Whale Bookstore in Bloomfield, the neighborhood a few miles up the road the arena. 

The bassist was between shows. A date with Tomeka Reid was coming up in Cleveland so he was trying to pick up a few things in between and this one came together easily. Luckily a friend of mine got wind of it and told me about it in enough time that I was able to make it. Roebke is an incredible bassist, who has recorded with most of the Chicago players that I follow (Stein, Mike Reed, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Frank Rosaly). He's also recorded a number of great albums under his own name, including High/Red/Center and Cinema Spiral. 

The evening's performances were conspicuous in their brevity. Susan Kuo and David Bernabo opened the night was a set of quiet improvisation. And by quiet, I mean if everyone hadn't been sitting in silent, rapt attention, you might not have been able to hear it. Bernabo bowed and occasionally plucked an acoustic guitar. Kuo played a thumb piano and added some vocals. From the back row of folding chairs, it was hard to see clearly, which made it interesting to figure out what was happening.

Music took a backseat next, since the following two performers were authors. Matthew Newton read an essay about growing up in the mid-'80s in Braddock, the once-thriving steel town that was falling apart at that time. His story of getting picked up after school by his Viet Nam vet uncle and his wild friend told a was really evocative in its detail about his memories of that time, and poignant as well. Rachel Ann Bricker played an audio piece next that spoofed computer apps, this one about finding your inner child. It incorporated movie samples including the inevitable Star Wars reference. 

Then Roebke carried his bass out from behind one of the shelves of books, along with his bow. From the moment he started playing, Roebke was deeply involved in the creation. When he set his bow on the podium next to the stage, or reached to pick it up, he never took his eyes off his instrument, reaching almost blindly for what he needed, without slowing the performance. He sometimes looked agitated or upset, like he was trying to figure out the best move to make. At first, his playing was sort of spare, using the bow over and under the bridge. At one point, Roebke even wedged the bow under the A string (I couldn't get my camera out in time). His technique was astounding, producing all sorts of rich, somewhat roaring sounds out of his instrument.

But after about 20 minutes, it was over. In fact, he played for about 10 minutes and set his instrument down. Then he seemed to get a nod from someone in the back of the room that it was okay to keep going, so he went back for more. I've seen Henry Grimes go on for an hour or more with just a bass and a violin. I would had gladly soaked up another 10 or 15 minutes from Roebke. However, he's coming back in April with Tomeka Reid, Mary Halvorson and Tomas Fujiwara. (The latter two are here in a few weeks at the Warhol with Halvorson's Code Girl band too.) So the pump has been primed.

There was a show happening down the street at Howler's so I headed down their next. That show was also a night of short, concise sets, as late., Clara Kent and Garter Shake (below) all played 30-minute sets.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

CD Review: Richard X. Bennett - Experiments With Truth/ What Is Now

Richard X. Bennett
Experiments With Truth
What Is Now

Pianist Richard X. Bennett has played all manner of music in New York since he moved there from Toronto in the '90s. These two albums marks his first stateside releases, though he's been fairly productive in the ensuing years. His previous work has been released in India, albeit on one of the country's largest imprints, Times Music, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Having lived in Mumbai as well as New York City, Bennett has become familiar with Indian ragas and, in the past, has combined traditional Indian classical musicians with jazz improvisation. That approach drives the compositions on Experiments with Truth, which are played by an open-eared jazz group. Bassist Adam Armstrong and drummer Alex Wyatt hold down the grooves with Bennett. On top of them, baritone saxophonist Lisa Parrott and tenor saxophonist Matt Parker bring the melodies to life. The two-horn attack sounds especially heavy when they stick to the lower registers of their horns. The opening honk of "Say Om 108 Times" hits especially hard, tipping the hat towards another aspect of Bennett's early inspirations: the World Saxophone Quartet and traditional New Orleans jazz. Armstrong often embellishes the grooves with counter-melodies that play up the group's funky quality.

Several tracks are subtitled with the ragas that Bennett used as a launching point. "The Fabulist (Raga Malakauns)" initially feels minimal, with a simple spare from Bennett. When the group eventually breaks into a chord change, it feels like the initial groove has been part of a tension-and-release set up and the group a lot of mileage out of it. "Portrait In Sepia" has a noirish feel to it, with a slippery bass line which could be  a lost soundtrack that Henry Mancini wrote for Peter Gunn, thanks to the romantic feel major key shift in the bridge. Parrott picks up this blend of darkness and intrigue.

Bennett has called himself a minimalistic player who nevertheless finds inspiration in the extended melodies lines that vocalists improvise. Both of these aspects are present on What Is Now, which jettisons the saxophonists for a trio outing. By narrowing the scope of the sound, the album doesn't have the same impact as Experiments. The trio kicks up some compelling grooves that hint at soul-jazz, compounded by the authoritative way that Bennett stabs at the chords.

But many of the tracks come in under five minutes, setting a mood without really getting a chance to develop it before things fade out. Armstrong again takes some strong solos, doubling up the tempo over his comrades. A new take on that old standard "Over the Rainbow" gives it a 6/8 gospel feel, but it buries the melody in favor of the rich chords. This epitomizes the shortcomings of What Is Now: it features a lot of ear-catching harmonies but it lacks the key elements (more blowing, another lead instrument/voice) that get it to its destination. Bennett has the dexterity to get a couple ideas rolling with both hands. There could be a little more of that here.