Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Interview with Eleanor Friedberger

Eleanor Friedberger
Opening for the Decemberists
Thursday, May 31
Benedum Centre, Downtown Pittsburgh
8 p.m. 412-456-6666

Doing an interview while on tour can be a challenge to any musician. The potential lack of sleep, road food and who knows else can make a musician clam up in the face of a prodding questions.

But when Eleanor Friedberger took my call on Tuesday afternoon, not only was she between dates, she was waiting to hear a prognosis of her car, which broke down the night before. When she mentioned the impending call would come from “the transmission guy,” I felt a deep sense of empathy. She, on the other hand, was taking it in stride. “I’m not in the greatest mood to talk, but we can talk a little bit. It’s fine. A lot of things could be much worse,” she says. She still managed to laugh a few times during our conversation.

Friedberger is on tour in support of her fourth solo album, Rebound, opening several shows for the Decemberists, including a stop in Pittsburgh this Thursday, May 30 at the Benedum Center. The new album is a radical turn after 2016’s New View. On it, the one-time singer of the Fiery Furnaces delivered her purest singer-songwriter. This time, she goes virtually solo, playing guitar and keyboards herself (with help from producer Clemens Knieper).

The album title comes from a club she frequented during a stay in Athens, Greece. Like all of her work both on her own and with the Fiery Furnaces (the band she founded with her brother Matthew), Rebound displays her skill at unique storytelling, Each song comes off like novella, to the extent that it was tempting to try and uncover the backstory. At first blush, the ten tracks could be scenes from her time in Athens. But when asked too much, Friedberger, understandably, didn’t want to strip away some of the mystique that drives her work. Plus there were other things to talk about, like why she loves Pittsburgh so much, and how it should be discussed in the same breath as other big cities. (And always remember to stick with the open-ended questions, not the yes-or-no ones.)

How long were you in Greece?

It’s funny, I was in this bind [with the car] last night. This couple at the show in Montreal, maybe because of the press around the album or whatever, this woman said, “We’re Greek!” I stayed with them. They drove me to my car this morning.

In some ways it’s funny because when I went to Greece I met all these musicians and started playing with these guys. It was weird to be in a band with people who look like you could be related to. It’s a strange sensation, but it’s also — what’s the word? It’s not a positive word. Where it’s like, am I racist, feeling so connected to these people who are like me? It’s a funny feeling.

Anyways. I have a deep connection to the place. It was only made more real when I spent time living there in the winter in Athens. It wasn’t just like a holiday vibe.

Did you write the album while you were there?

No, I didn’t write any of it while I was there. That was the idea. I met all these musicians and formed a new band and played a few shows. But it wasn’t until I came home that I really sat down and got to work.

Had you thought about staying since you got a band together?

Yeah, I wasn’t ready to leave. And I thought about recording the album there too. About four years ago I bought a house in upstate New York, and so that’s kind of tied me to that place. I feel like I can’t go away for months and months on end. I feel like I have some responsibilities at the house. But it’s good to have a real home base. But yeah, I could have stayed longer.

The album is a bit of a departure from the last one because it’s you and Clemens playing everything, right?

The album started with these elaborate demos. Elaborate for me because I played everything and then we tried to keep as much as we could. Some things we started over from scratch. Some things we just did the demos and replaced and added some things. But yes, it was the two of us that played everything.

I feel more insecure about this record than I have any other because my hands are all over it. The last album I made [was] with these guys that I’ve been touring with. I didn’t play a single note on the album. This is the polar opposite.

I wondered, going in, if you were looking for a departure. The last album seemed like the most straight-ahead rock thing for you.

Yeah, for sure. Which is what I was trying to do. I love it. I think {New View] sounds great. And it sounds like I was trying to be on this trajectory of a ’70s singer-songwriter-y thing that I’ve been emulating all this time. That was like the pinnacle of what I could do in that vein. It sounds like five people recording live to tape in a barn in upstate New York and that’s what we did. And that’s how it sounds.

For [Rebound] I thought, I don’t ever need to ever do that again. So that’s why I was willing to do the opposite.

Is there any kind of concept to the album from beginning to end?

No, I never go into anything… It starts out as a bunch of songs and it ends up a bunch of songs. I can make up a story after the fact. Or you can because that’s what you do. But it’s not really for me to say, I don’t think. I can say that it sounds like someone feeling alienated, maybe feeling a little disappointed. There are certain emotions attached to it, but I don’t know about overriding concepts.

I was thinking even, if there is a concept it does dart around anyway. “It’s Hard” seems like it could be a journal entry about hanging out at Rebound.

Yeah, with that song in particular, I sat down: I want to write a song about going to this bar called Rebound and that’s what the song is about. That’s what it feels like being there. What the environment [was like]… when I have the second verse it’s kind of like the nostalgia that that place created. The second verse reflects that sort of nostalgia. It’s about different dances. So that’s kind of unusual for me to sit down and write a song about something as specific as that.

The idea of “It’s Hard” – what’s the “it” in this case?

(Laughs) Well that’s left open. I mean… yeah. By mentioning [Rebound], it’s a very specific place. But because… it’s also a little bit of a joke. There’s a Who album called It’s Hard that I kind of grew up with. (Pauses). It’s all hard! So that’s my joke. It’s all.

That’s reflecting a lot of things. Maybe mostly, in terms of the other stuff that the album is about: living in Greece, living in Athens. It’s a really difficult place to be a live right now. Because of the economic situation. But obviously it’s much more broad that that too.

It’s funny. That place, the club, has this darkness about it. Literal and figurative darkness. The music and the dancing wasn’t like a party scene at all. It was like everybody dancing alone. It was a hard place.

And it’s like an afterhours place?

Yeah. It doesn’t even open until 3 a.m.

Do they close bars over there at 2 a.m.?

It depends. Most people, similar to Spain, don’t eat dinner until 10 p.m. So, it’s a very much late night culture. So it’s really typical to stay up all night on the weekends, if you’re going out.
But even if you’re not going out, dinner doesn’t usually start until 9 or 10 p.m.

For me it’s a very different culture.  It’s interesting to go in the winter because it’s so… for me, going to spend time in Greece is always a holiday-type of thing. You go to the beach and you’re there in the summer. Being there in the winter you forget, oh it actually snows in Greece and it’s cold. It gets dark early like anywhere else. I had to really adjust my whole mode, you know? I’m not a night owl. So it was funny to see me switch, and stay up until three or  four a.m. every night.

How long did it take you to adjust to that?

Maybe a couple weeks, and that’s why it was hard to leave. I was acclimated to living there and living that way. The friends I had were all artists and musicians, who didn’t have normal jobs.

Showy Early Spring” seems like you’re talking about the thaw coming.

I wrote that back when I was at home.

The part that you go into at the end is almost mysterious, almost like a cliffhanger. [“Whatcha gonna do when it’s all overand you’ve got nothing to show for it/take a look around and you’ll see that/you’ve already found what you came for/ it’s here for the taking/ it’s mine.” The song ends rather abruptly after those lines.]

Yeah. Mm-hmm.

Is that what you were going for?

Yeah. I’ve talked about this a lot recently and I’m reluctant to give away too much of the specifics, the lyrics and the meanings behind that stuff. I feel like it’s not fun for people. And I think it’s pretty obvious. It’s not so opaque. It’s easy to get some meaning from it. I don’t need to give the exact details, you know?

When you come here, it’s just you playing alone?

Yeah, the week the album came out I played some shows with my band. I’m doing these shows opening for the Decemberists alone. In the fall, I’ll be going on a much larger tour with the band again. It’s something I’ve been doing a lot in the last few years: switching off between playing by myself and playing with the band.

It’s fun and obviously, economically it’s more feasible to do a set by myself. It allows me to play more too, which is good. But it’s not my preferred way of playing, I think. But I’m enjoying it more and more. Especially getting to play these shows with the Decemberists, where we’re playing pretty big theaters. They have a very… I don’t know what the word is – generous or loyal or open kind of audience. It’s not like they’re streaming in. They’re there when I start playing, which I think is kind of incredible. Most of them don’t know who I am. So [there’s] no pressure. It’s kind of a weird exercise, playing for 30 minutes in front of, sometimes 1000, 2000  people that are listening to you. And they don’t know what to expect and they don’t have any [expectations]. It’s kind of bizarre. It’s not like playing my own show at all.

Are you up there playing guitar with backing tracks, or how does it work?

I’m mostly just playing guitar and singing. And then I do a few songs with backing tracks too.

What kind of set up do you have?

I just use an iPod with tracks on it.

I don’t know if this is something that you want to give away, but the writing at the bottom of the lyric sheet, is that Greek?

Yeah. [Laughs]

What does it say?

Oh, it just says, “Thank you and lots of love to you.” It’s [for] friends of mine in Athens. It’s nothing too mysterious.

Yeah, but there’s a level of intrigue when you can’t figure out what it is. Is there anything else you want to add before you go back to waiting to hear about your car repair?

I like Pittsburgh. I’m excited to come back to Pittsburgh. Doing the show that I did with the Warhol has made me really… I don’t know, I have an affinity…I love Pittsburgh now. I didn’t have that feeling four years ago but now I really love it.

What do you like about it?

I love the way that it looks. I think that it’s incredibly beautiful. You guys all know that. Just the way the city is laid out. I get lost there which I think is kind of unusual. I’m a thrift store junkie, a vintage clothing junkie and there’s lots of good places to buy clothes there. I’ve been to baseball games there.

I just think it’s nice, especially in the summer. It’s just pleasant. There are some great places where you can just get a beer and eat. There aren’t that many places that feel different. And Pittsburgh is one of them. I would put it with New Orleans and San Francisco. It has an identity.

That’s good to hear. Because people always put it down. Thanks for taking the time today. Considering what you’re going through with your car, I’d be gnashing my teeth if I was in the same positions.

Well I’ll start doing that as soon as we hang up. No, I’m kidding. I’m in a pleasant suburb of Montreal. The sun is out. Things could be a lot worse.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

CD Review: Dave Liebman/Tatsuya Nakatani/Adam Rudolph - The Unknowable

Dave Liebman/Tatsuya Nakatani/Adam Rudolph
The Unknowable

When Dave Liebman's name last appeared on this site, it came with two releases - a tribute to John Coltrane in a quintet with saxophonist Joe Lovano and in a duet with pianist Martial Solal, the latter bringing vitality to standards that have no doubt been played hundreds of times. The Unknowable puts the saxophonist in a completely different setting, bringing the same level of skill and energy: an improvised set of tracks with two percussionists.

Tatsuya Nakatani and Adam Rudolph are not your average percussionists either. Nakatani - who utilizes gongs, metal percussion, standard percussion and, on one track, a trap kit - has played with numerous free jazz improvisers and as a solo artist. Adam Rudolph is an expert hand drummer who leads the electric Moving Pictures octet and Go: Organic Orchestra, which has included upwards of 30 players. Both bring different concepts to the table. Rudolph often plays flowing pulses while Nakatani contributes more atmospheric sounds, sometimes in the form of scraping metal. That can often have the effect of nails on the chalkboard but here it lends a sense of intrigue to the music. With Rudolph also doing live electronic processing and picking up a thumb piano, Fender Rhodes (Liebman does too on one track) and strings that add a groove in a few places, the sounds never stay in one place.

Liebman gets ample opportunity to cut loose and he makes the most of it. With some delay effects on his soprano, he wails with abandon during the title track while one of his co-horts plays what sounds like a gamelan. In addition to blowing free, he constructs a deeply melodic tenor line in "Present Time" while Rudolph attacks his congas and Nakatani scrapes up some industrial clatter behind them. For contrast, this is immediately followed by the tranquil "Distant Twilight." Nothing on The Unknowable exceeds five minutes, guaranteeing that everything lasts as long as the inspiration continues. Even in the wilder pieces, like the percussion-only romp "Transmutations" the forward direction is always clear.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

CD Review: Ben LaMar Gay - Downtown Castles Never Block The Sun

Ben LaMar Gay
Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun
(International Anthem)

Ben LaMar Gay first showed up on my radar as a member of Mike Reed's Flesh and Bone, appearing on the landmark album named for the group that came out on 482 Music last year. But the Chicago cornetist, like many in that city, stays active in a several different projects. Among them, he's worked with Makaya McCraven, Nicole Reed, Matthew Lux and the future funk project Bottle Tree.

On top of all that, Gay recorded seven complete solo albums on his own, which have apparently been sitting dormant on his home computer until now. Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun serves as both a solo debut for him and something of a compilation, gathering tracks from this elusive septet of releases-to-be. Anyone looking for a direct line from his work with Reed or Jaimie Branch (he guested on her Fly or Die album last year) will be left scratching their head. ("Muhal" may or may not be a tribute to Muhal Richard Abrams but it doesn't sound anything like one. Anyone who likes to say, "what the hell is this," as they lean in closer to the speakers to hear the answer to that question will have their intrigue satisfied.

If Downtown Castles feels like a compilation, it recalls collections from the early '80s when labels thought nothing of putting sonic experimentation next to music with a groove. My memory of college radio is colored by albums like the Cherry Red label's Perspectives and Distortion which followed that path. Diversity was the order of the day and it made sense.

Beyond that, this album  sounds like the catholic interests of a musician unafraid to jump from style to style. Keyboards and loops factor heavily into the music. Sometimes, like "Jubilee," the dizzying layers of clipped loops only link up because the samples run in sync. What they run in sync sounds chaotic, but Gay nevertheless finds room for one of the album's infrequent brass solos. Just prior to this track "Music for 18 Hairdressers" is built on layers of rhythms that evoke percussive hair cutting. "Galveston" has a long loop reminiscent of Eno's Music for Airports, along with strings that sound like they're transmitted via walkie-talkie.

Elsewhere, Gay adds some vocals to the spare instrumentation of "A Seasoning Called Primavera" whose lyrics combine romance and cooking - and some noises that sound like laptop alarms. "Swim Swim" also features laidback vocals over a poly-rhythms that don't make it easy to feel the downbeat.

He doesn't complete abandon his cornet either. "Miss Nealie Burns" has an old time feel, with banjo and squawky, muted trumpet. The long tones of "Me, Jayve & the Big Bee" feature cornet and saxophone, with an end that sounds like the track might have come from a street recording. (At 1:45 it almost feels like more a tease than anything else.) The closing "Oh no...not again!" includes drums and tuba playing a funky groove for cornet and vocals, which, after falling apart, finds the guitar riff going into 7/4, along with either a melodica or accordion and a wild drumming.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Ben LaMar Gay might be surprised by the contents of Downtown Castles (the title coming from a lyric on one of the seven albums, which may or may not appear herein). But that's quite the idea that fuels this collection. You never know what will come next.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

More Thoughts on Record Collecting, after the Pittsburgh Record Fest

Now that I'm working full time again, I feel a little better about going out and by records impulsively. Not that I really had to stop over the past year or so. But I definitely curbed my spending habits. Trips to used record stores were often just browsing sessions, or moments of anxiety over whether or not I should plunk down money that should go somewhere else.

My series of Bud Shank purchases, documented in a post recently, should offer some indication of where my head is. But also, there's another feeling I've had recently. It's not exactly hoarding but... well, maybe it is.

Jerry Weber, the former owner of Jerry's Records, is now doing online auctions at Since selling the business (the store remains open under new management), and getting knee surgery last year, he started the auction site about the beginning of 2018. In one of his first auctions, he was offering a Clifford Brown/Max Roach album on EmArcy. The exact title escapes but it was probably Brown and Roach Incorporated. I own an original copy of the album, having bought it online. It's great; I highly recommend it, and pretty much anything with Clifford Brown's name on it. Even though I already have it, I thought it would be cool to own another copy. Mine is a little worn. I don't think Mercury - EmArcy's parent company - pressed very good vinyl. Many of mine have a bad hiss on them. Album covers at that time weren't really built to last, in terms of spine and seams. In EmArcy's case, the laminate on the album looks quite weather beaten.

The latter criteria is really what probably tempted me. I like a good album cover. While I did relish the idea of owning another copy, I bid relatively low, knowing in the back of my mind that it was a crazy purchase. And I didn't get it anyway, which is a good life lesson. Hopefully the winner appreciates both the physical item and the music therein.

Pittsburgh Record Fest #19 took place last Friday night at Spirit Hall & Lodge. I sold records at #18 back in December but that wasn't going to happen last week. In fact, I was running the Talent Show at my son's school, so whether I made it all was up in the air until the time came. I arrived nearly three hours into the Fest. In some ways, an event like this can be compared to a good garage sale: Get there early to get first dibs on all the good stuff, or don't go at all. The upshot is, go late and people are willing to make deals so they can carry less weight back to the car.

Since it was late, I decided to gravitate only to the boxes that said "Jazz" on them. I could really run a risk of blowing what money I had with me in a matter of minutes, if I looked through everything. I also wouldn't get anywhere quickly. My thoughts from the top of this entry came back to me because the first thing I considered was a copy of Roland Kirk's Slightly Latin. Yes, I already have it, but my copy doesn't have the gatefold sleeve with the cool booklet pasted inside. It was tempting.

But it's not one of Roland's best albums. And I can't remember the price tag but it was either too high for a duplicate buy or low enough to mean that the record was trashed. Back it went.

The picture above shows what I came away with. The Jazz Abstractions album seemed like a no-brainer. I have the two Ornette Coleman tracks on a cassette somewhere but they take on a different life in the context of the whole album. My jury is still out on the idea of Third Stream music. Plus, "Abstraction," the opening track which also has Ornette, sounds about as crazy any large-scale AACM piece. Maybe even more deranged. Thank you, Gunther Schuller! The side-long variants on Monk's "Criss Cross" already sound cool so this is going to be worth coming back to.

The vendor next to the one who had Jazz Abstractions pointed me right to his jazz box, where he started giving me the hard sell on A Story Tale, an album on Jazzland (an offshoot of Riverside) that was co-led by tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan and alto saxophonist Sonny Red. The band included Elvin Jones and Tommy Flanagan. Dude was virtually foaming at the mouth over this one, insisting that he'd cut me a deal since the cover was water-damaged.

I had heard about The Jazz Modes album a while ago, a group with the frontline of French Horn player Julius Watkins and tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. It too had some water damage but looked to be in decent shape, especially for an Atlantic album with a black label. The album has some pretty interesting writing by Watkins, with a few by Rouse. Sadly, it also has soprano vocalist Eileen Gilbert as the stereotypical fish out of water, wordlessly singing over three of the seven songs.

The same guy also had a Chris Connor album on Bethlehem that caught my eye. I'm not much for vocalists, but Connor does something to me. Her version of "Lush Life" is my favorite interpretation, because she really imbues the words with drama that brings them to life. The first time I ever heard her was on a 10" that my parents owned. Her voice, to my ears at that time, was like a cross between Chet Baker and my mother (who wasn't a professional singer, by the way).

I put This Is Chris back in the box. "Lush Life" is on the equally plainly titled CHRIS which I already own. I asked the guy how much for the other two. "$20. But you have to take Chris Connor with you." I wasn't going to argue there. I like deals.

For the remainder of my time there, I floated around, saying hi to vendors I knew, including my co-worker Neil, who I didn't even know was selling. I could have picked up a copy of Nirvana's Bleached for $11, making my first Nirvana purchase even. But I blew it off. (If I'm really jonesing for it, I have his email.)

Another old friend, who specializes in garage and psych rock, had a copy of Rock and Roll Disco with Fat Albert and the Junkyard Gang. One Fat Albert album has become a coveted item online, because it contains the songs that were used on the Saturday morning cartoon show. Not sure if this was it, I started looking at it. "You can just take that," my friend said. It looked pretty beat and soon it was clear that it wasn't the rare one, but I figured why not. One less thing for him to pack. However when I tried to play it yesterday, I think I heard my stylus yelp at all the scratches. That is why kids records can fetch so much money when they're in pristine shape: it's impossible to find one that's been treated so gently.

Monday, May 14, 2018

CD Review: Dan Weiss - Starebaby

Dan Weiss

After recording a suite that was built upon particular drum breaks played by Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Ed Blackwell, Kenny Clarke, Tony Williams and Philly Joe Jones, Dan Weiss has created a vastly different album. Starebaby combines the visceral, weighty attack of heavy metal together with the influence electronic music and improvisation. His skill with Indian beat cycles, coming from his experience as a tabla player, factors into the compositions, as does his interest in music from the Twin Peaks television series. In fact much of Starebaby's eight tracks sound like soundtrack music, developing slowly, as if they're keeping pace with visuals. (I often hear music that way, but this time, it's not just me.)

The more intriguing aspects of the album comes with the kindred spirits who join Weiss (who has played with Rudresh Mahanthappa, Chris Potter and Jen Shyu, to name a few). All are well known as progressive improvisers in various styles, and they all apparently share Weiss' affinity for the heavy stuff. Bassist Trevor Dunn's inclusion might not be a surprise, as he's played in harder rock bands like Mr. Bungle and appeared in some of John Zorn's heavier groups. Guitarist Ben Monder has always been skilled at peeling off guitar lines that sound loud even at a low volume, so he feels like a natural for this set. But also along for the ride are both Craig Taborn and Matt Mitchell, both on piano and electric keyboards. The album utilizes their respective skills at creating musical scenes, but they can clearly shred with the best of them.

The reason heavy metal doesn't get much respect can be attributed to the excess that has become part and parcel over the years. The big hair, the rapid guitar solos (which, after awhile, start to sound like cartoon characters singing, "Figaro, Figaro" too fast), and the Cookie Monster vocals - they've all contributed to the comic value. If a band can do all that in 5/8, just remember my old tenet: it ain't what time signature you play it, it's what you play in that time signature. But strip away all that excess, and the best part still remains - the weight of the sound. Like Bobby Previte's Mass album from last year, Starebaby avoids the excessive pitfalls here.

Weiss doesn't use this material as a chance to show off his flashy drum skills. In fact, he almost prefers to sit back and let his playing add color to the work of his bandmates. Many of his parts are built predominantly on snare drum whacks, which are pushed in the mix to make sure they land between the listener's eyes. When he does play solos, they aren't solos so much as beat cycles. This is noticeable during what sounds like a free passage in "Episode 8." In "The Memory of My Memory" the cycle of beats keeps shifting, ratcheting the intensity each time, especially when Monder grabs onto the section.

The aforementioned tracks move slowly but with a sense of determination, as the sections rise and fall in volume and velocity. "Episode 8," over 14 minutes in length, does this particularly well. Other parts of the album almost feel too focused on riffs and suspense, at the expense of resolve. Granted, an album like this is most definitely going to have a foreboding, murky feel to it most of the time, but it could use more moments like the brutal coda of "The Memory of My Memory" or Monder's freak out in "Depredation." However the jazz-metal heads (who are out there) will no doubt eat this up.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Looking Back Over a Few Weeks: Ben Goldberg/Michael Coleman, Nathan Davis

In the print media world, it's no big deal if an article about an event runs 10 days after the event happened. In the online world, it feels like I'm behind the times if it takes me that long to blog about something. But I'm here and you're here and you should know what you missed anyway.

On Saturday, April 28, clarinetist Ben Goldberg and keyboardist Michael Coleman played a show at Hambone's, in the neighborhood of Lawrenceville. Hambone's isn't exactly a bastion of free improvised music, but it's still a great joint, with a good sound system and plenty of seating. And bar food, for those who are so inclined. 

It was clear, walking through the door that the line between the bar room and the music room was going to be a serious dividing line that night. No one in the bar was rowdy, but during the quieter moments of the music, conversations could be hearing spilling through the doorway, even though a plastic shade was strategically hung over the doorway to cut out the sound.

Apologies to Mortis, who opened the show. I arrived 10 minutes into Goldberg and Coleman's set. There have been a handful of clarinet players involved in adventurous jazz but Goldberg is one who really makes me want to hear more clarinets in this setting. He plays with such a strong, deep tone on his B-flat instrument, making it resonate in all sorts of warm ways that I can't get enough of it.

He and Coleman recently released Practitioner, an album of works by Steve Lacy. Taken from the late soprano saxophonist's Hocus Pocus - Book H of Practitioners, the pieces were composed to be used as complex exercises, built on challenging lines. Watching Goldberg play, it was clear they could be quite the workout, with rapid lines that contained convoluted melodies. Not only did he dig into them, he used them as gateways to improvisation. Along with his clarinet, he used his contra-alto clarinet, which has a tone that could be mistaken for a bass clarinet or a contra-bass clarinet, for those who don't know their low reeds or forgot what they read on the back of CD covers.

Coleman was surrounded by a bank of keyboards and mixers. He accompanied Goldberg's playing with atmospheric swirls and sounds and he worked as a second melodic instrument, playing his own lines built out of a good melodic sense and a dexterity that helped him reshape the lines as he created them. During one particularly inspired moment, Coleman kept repeating a melody as his instruments seemed to make it melt and get lower with each repetition.

Not only does Practitioner include six Lacy works, it also includes baseball cards, one for each of the musicians who either played or wrote the music (the duo, Lacy, etc.) and the artists who inspired it and created the artwork for the cover and recorded it. Alas there is no flat, hard piece of bubblegum to go with it, like the Topps baseball cards of bygone days. But Goldberg and Coleman provide enough to chew on otherwise, pun intended but true anyway.


By now it's common knowledge that saxophonist Nathan Davis died on April 8, but his passing is not something I feel I should have overlooked. The saxophonist was a fixture in Pittsburgh,  almost to the point where he was taken for granted. But his creation of a Jazz Studies department at the University of Pittsburgh in 1969 was pretty groundbreaking, coming at a time when jazz musicians weren't often held in higher regard than hippie groups. I remember Davis telling us in his History of Jazz class about walking across campus and running into people who were surprised that he was a clean-cut well dressed guy and not someone more raggedy.

Hopefully the Pitt Jazz Seminar that he started - and which was continued by Geri Allen before she too passed last year - will still be maintained in coming years. I often bemoaned that Davis often drew from the same circle of players each year, with only a few wild cards thrown in on occasion. But I also realized that it gave aspiring musicians and fans a chance to hear these players speak at informal seminars, allowing us all to get close to them and bask in their history. And all the seminars were free!

Finally, at several of those Seminar concerts. Davis got a chance to really perform on tenor and soprano saxophone. Maybe it was the idea that he was among heavy hitters that spurred him onto higher levels, or maybe he just didn't get a chance to blow like that very often. Whatever it was, it left me with a greater appreciation for his technique. That musicianship, and his verbal insight, were a big part of Resonance's CD set Larry Young In Paris The ORTF Recordings that came out in 2016. Davis talks a great deal in the liner notes about how he connected in Paris with both trumpeter Woody Shaw and organist Young, who he was reticent to hire until he heard him play.

RIP Nathan. Um - I mean, Dr. Davis.

Monday, May 07, 2018

CD Review: Ceramic Dog - YRU Still Here?

Ceramic Dog
YRU Still Here?
(Northern Spy)

One of guitarist Marc Ribot's strongest qualities is the diversity of his work. As a sideman, his unique sense of melody and dry tone can bring life to a session. As a leader, his catalog includes delicate solo performances, self-indulgent noodling, faithful-but-brand-new takes on everything from disco classics to John Coltrane and Albert Ayler (to name few) and avant-rock that might touch on all of the above.

Ceramic Dog could be considered his punk, or perhaps no wave, band. Their third album is built on the fury of current times and Ribot spits out bile upon leaving the gate. Considering both the state of our union and the guitarist's activism with musician's rights and streaming, one should expect nothing less than fury. Feeling that way is, tragically, pretty easy. The challenge lies in channeling that into convincing music.

"Muslim Jewish Resistance" is built largely on a call and response lyric - "Muslim Jewish/ resistance/ we say never again/ we mean it!" While it gets repetitive, Briggan Krauss' screaming alto saxophone break keeps the energy from waning. "Fuck La Migra" tackles the immigration subject with lyrics that nearly fly by too rapidly over the thrash noise. One line sticks out in shining glory, though: "I think the President is dumber than an artichoke." It offers proof that Ribot, bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith make a better punk band than most punk bands.

Sandwiched between those two tracks, the trio seems conscious of their weight of their words. The eight-minute "Shut the Kid Up" forgoes lyrics in favor of a mind-melting instrumental of slow power chords that build to a psychedelic crescendo. It couldn't have come at a better moment and it helps provide additional evidence of the group's skills.

That track also adds direction to a set that doesn't always have it in the first half.  In "Personal Nancy," Ribot opens the album by barking, among other rights, "I got a right to say, 'fuck you,'" but simply saying isn't always enough. "Pennsylvania 6 6666" blends a slinky jazz groove with a lyric about brutal treatment in the state, where "everybody is white." The song's back story, pulled from the album's press release, explains that Ismaily was a victim of racist attacks in the commonwealth. (Shazad, on behalf of my state, I want to apologize and let you know you're always welcome in Pittsburgh.) Without that info, however, the six-minute track just drags without really expanding on the concept.

YRU Still Here picks up energy as it goes. The second half also includes "Orthodoxy," an Eastern European-style instrumental and "Freak Freak Freak on the Peripherique," a rubbery funk romp with juvenile lyrics that still sound funny thanks to their distorted delivery. Ceramic Dog changes style with nearly every track by then, giving the album plenty of scope. Now if only they could be experienced in a nearby dive bar or DIY space. That would bring this music to life.