Saturday, November 24, 2018

Upcoming in PIttsburgh

Earlier this week I appeared on 91.3 WYEP-FM, talking about upcoming shows in Pittsburgh. It's a regular thing I'm doing every other Tuesday morning, in connection with my writing for Pittsburgh Current. I finally remembered to give this blog a plug at the end of the bit. So if you are reading this after hearing about it on the radio, thanks for stopping by. Please let me know if you do that by leaving a comment.

If you wound up here by some other reason, here is a link to a story I have in the current issue of PC, about bassist Adam Hopkins, who's coming to town this week. It's an early (7 p.m.) FREE show, so you should come. Here it is.

And here's a picture because visuals always help.

Friday, November 23, 2018

CD Review: Wendy Einsenberg - Its Shape is in Your Touch; The Machinic Unconscious

Wendy Eisenberg
Its Shape Is In Your Touch

Wendy Eisenberg
The Machinic Unconscious

Wendy Eisenberg might be the most liberating guitarist since Derek Bailey. Few players coax such a vast array of sounds from those six strings, all of it coming in a torrent that has no regard for whether the lines connect easily or not. They come rapidly, leaving the listener to wonder what the hell just happened and to find out more by exploring it further. Which leads to more details coming to light. When considering the background inspirations for some of the music, even greater dimensions start to arise.

Based in Western Massachusetts, Eisenberg has played with an array of adventurous musicians and was part of the "brainy noisy punk" (NPR) band Birthing Hips. As a poet, their writing has been turned into large scale works and they have also written extensively about music and theory. These two albums present two different sides of Eisenberg's guitar playing: Its Shape is In Your Touch is a series of solo acoustic improvisations; The Machinic Unconscious presents them in an electric trio with bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Ches Smith.

In the opening seconds of Its Shape Is In Your Touch, as a stark tritone hangs in the air, the clarity of Eisenberg's playing already presents itself. Even in a spare setting their crisp tone can be felt. Soon they're hitting harmonics, and bending notes and getting sustained rings where they normally wouldn't exist. Until the final seconds, Eisenberg moves at a slow, thoughtful pace that isn't afraid of pregnant pauses.

This contemplative feeling continues through the album, which gets its name from a Richard Brautigan poem and an idea from novelist William Gaddis that "you can change a line without touching it." Eisenberg plays with an uninhibited quality that allows things to move at a relaxed pace, without ever getting lost in the exploration of the thought process. Sometimes a delicate line gets slashed by the introduction of a dissonant interval, but the mood is never disturbed. A track like "Early November" sounds at times like acoustic folk of someone like John Fahey, but that might say more about the music they have absorbed because the final creation comes across as something highly original. Even "All Saints" - a somewhat unsettling six-minute track of string scrapes and plinks where nearly all of the playing happens beneath the bridge  - fits right in since it serves as the final statement of the album.

In direct contrast to that album's opening sound, The Machinic Unconscious opens with the explosion of an effects pedal. It takes a moment to realize that it comes not from Eisenberg but from Trevor Dunn, who plays a lot of fuzz bass throughout the album. Eisenberg uses similar effects at various points but they never alters the clarity of their tone.

In some free music, the musicians move together in parallel lines, making it feel like they're playing as a unit even if they're not following bar lines or chord changes. At times on The Machinic Unconscious the trio feels like three separate elements pulling away from one another. "Frayed, Knotted and Unshorn" could be the preamble to a soundcheck where the fuzz bass noodles, guitar skronk and drum fills were played to test levels. "Foresworn" begins like a fading transmission, plagued by bad guitar cables.

But if all the attention is focused on Eisenberg while listening, the perspective changes. Suddenly, their melodic choices and what they plays on top of their bandmates reveal themselves. After two tracks of pure freedom, they provide a funky backbeat in "Parataxis," and Eisenberg chews it up, locking into an ascending/descending riff towards the end. In "Kiln," the melodic quality of the guitarist's work approximates the best raw moments of fusion while "Dangerous Red" sounds like a distant cousin to the guitars on Trout Mask Replica.

The inspiration behind the music adds some more perspective to it as well. Commissioned by John Zorn for the Tzadik label, the title comes from a critical theory by Gilles Deleuze that poses the idea that the unconscious can release an expansive, radical imagination process on the poetic landscape. The track that opens the album with a blast, "The Descent of Alette," takes its name from an Alice Notley poem which is marked by "formal disruptions," like the excessive use of quotes. Eisenberg presumably is transferring this process to the music.

Two release shows coming up for both albums for those in a couple lucky cities. On November 30, a performance at the State House in New Haven, CT celebrates the release of Its Shape Is In Your Touch. The show for The Machinic Unconscious takes place on December 11 at Nublu in New York City. If only I could travel to both of them, I'd get to see this music unfold in front of me, getting an even deeper grasp of this guitarist's work.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

CD Review: Four from Out Now Recordings

Yoni Kretzmer's New Dilemma
Months, Weeks and Days

Thomas Heberer/Yoni Kretzmer/Christian Weber

Shay Hazan Quintet
Domestic Peace

Eric Plaks

(Out Now)

Out Now, the imprint spearheaded by saxophonist Yoni Kretzmer, released these four albums throughout 2018. Although several months have gone by since the music hit the streets, it's still worth talking about them, as they continue the label's track record of challenging, but quite impressive jazz.

Kretzmer brings a heightened level of intensity to a performance any time he picks up his tenor saxophone. During one solo of Months, Weeks and Days he yells in between sax wails, in the place where lesser players would simply take a breath. 

His New Dilemma project expands the scope of his work by adding cellist Christopher Hoffman and violist Frantz Loriot to the ensemble. Strings in free jazz can often result in shrill dissonance or metallic scrapes, but Loriot and Hoffman add some strong color to the music. "June 14th" starts with free frenzy but evolves like a Tim Berne piece, with cello, viola and bass (Pascal Niggenkemper) uniting in a powerful riff beneath Kretzmer and Josh Sinton, whose bass clarinet is a strong foil to the leader's tenor. This opens the second of two CDs in the set, while the previous disc ended with "June 20th," where the horns provide the drone and the strings play the melody. The music might feel dense and unrelentless but bright moments (the relatively soulful changes in "Jan 19th 2015") do exist in tandem with the heaving blowing. The cohesion of the group, rounded out by drummer Flin Van Hemmen, is astounding too.

Kretzmer is right at home on Big, which presumably was a freely improvised set, since all six tracks are credited to him, trumpeter Thomas Heberer and bassist Christian Weber. In this setting the saxophonist shows off the great range of his playing. While he can peel off some intense altissimo lines, he also contributes some smoky mid-range work, as evidenced in "Spine."

All three players are attentive listeners, creating in the moment something that sounds pre-determined ("Bait and Tackle") pushing each other towards upper levels of intensity or keeping it understated when required. The only minus with the set comes from Heberer's occasional vocalizations which probably attempt to imitate his horn but sound closer to insipid babytalk. Luckily once he stops, "Everybody in the Cemetery is Dead" becomes another spiritied three-way conversation.

Domestic Peace is the only disc of these four that wasn't recorded in the US. Bassist Shay Hazan took his group into a studio in Tel Aviv, which is also Yoni Kretzmer's birthplace. The quintet's music is a blend of tradition and free blowing, each track revealing a different approach. 

"New Year's Eve" opens the set with a slow, rubato melody. The only soloist is drummer Haim E. Peskoff who moves freely across his kit, marking a solo with dynamic pauses and thunder, thanks in part to a production that make him sound like a rock drummer. "Cycles" begins very much in the vein of Crescent-era John Coltrane before Tal Avraham takes it somewhere else entirely but reaching to the bottom of her trumpet's register for some grit.  "Hybrus," which comes in two consecutive parts begins with a free Cecil Taylor-esque romp before moving into a pedal point drone and finally a 7/4 groove, which again is driven by Peskoff's fire. Hazan doesn't put his own playing on much display here, but his compositions, solid accompaniment and, therefore, his leadership do all of that for him. 

Pianist Eric Plaks decided a few years ago to create a book of 100 themes that could be used as material for improvisations. Ideas would range from free flights to more structured approaches. At the time of Chrysalis was being assembled, he had worked out 34 such themes. Six of them appear on the disc, along with three improvisations. He is joined by Andrew Hadro (baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, B-flat clarinet), Leonid Galaganov (drums) and on three tracks Evan Crane (bass). 

Without looking at the titles, it can be hard to discern the improvised tracks from the ones built on the Themes. Plaks and his crew do a good job blending the two approaches. "Ashes to Ashes" opens with a mutant boogie woogie riff, and features Hadro playing all three of his reeds. "Theme 1," based on a transcription of a Plaks solo, comes off like a thoughtful meditation, with linear changes built into it, as well a feeling that evokes ragtime. Dedicated to the late David S. Ware, "Theme 18" almost feels like a tango,, while a dedication to Cecil Taylor, "Theme 11," incorporates some of the embellishment techniques that pianist used in his '60s recordings. This Book of Themes concept is off to a strong start.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

CD Review: Aram Shelton & Håkon Berre - Dormancy/ Aram Shelton & Ole Mofjell - Uncovered

Aram Shelton & Håkon Berre

Aram Shelton & Ole Mofjell

Aram Shelton was becoming a significant part of the Chicago jazz scene in the early 2000s. Then he moved to San Francisco. He continued to perform at a brisk pace there, playing with several different projects and running his Single Speed label. Then he moved to Copenhagen. Even then, the alto saxophonist hasn't slowed down, recording two discs with two different drummers that he met while living there.

The alto/drum set-up is nothing new to Shelton, who released a set of improvisations with drummer Kjell Nordeson in 2012. In this context, he is just as likely to revel in the sonic possibilities of his instrument as he is to blow some choice, fragmented melodies. Shelton's co-conspirators on both albums incite different ideas from him, helping him choose how to utilize his horn.

Dormancy, recorded in last January in Copenhagen with Norwegian drummer Håkon Berre might be the more visceral album of the two. Shelton draws on techniques such as multiphonics - creating two saxophone notes simultaneously -  slapping the saxophone pads, making his horn growl like guitar feedback and creating a strong drone of overtones which he holds through circular breathing. Berre is a responsive player, sometimes holding back and clattering on metal and cymbals, and other times lighting a fire that gets the duo moving toward an intense climax. This sense of adventure can sometimes wear thin during a whole session but Shelton and Berre never get lost in their technique. The album features more than free squonk as well. "New Growth" opens with the saxophonist blowing pensive lines that add up to a great thought, while Berre calmly moves across his kit.

In contrast to Berre, Ole Mofjell's moves at a much faster pace even when he plays freely. His rapid rolls and movement across his kit don't relent for the first four minutes of Uncovered's opening title track. Shelton's contribution here comes in a line that he delivers with an equal amounts of speed and definition. Another lengthy track, the 12-minute "Aspect," builds like a piece with different sections built into it due to the way Shelton's phrases take different shapes. "Frame" has a bluesy quality that could be a reference to Ornette Coleman, while Mofjell's steady groove on "Bomba" recalls Ed Blackwell's tom-heavy work with that saxophonist. The connection between these two players makes this disc the stronger of the two, although Dormancy still has a strong blast of energy music.

Around the time that Shelton released these discs earlier this year, he was moving yet again, this time to Hungary. Hopefully he's found some like-minded collaborators there too.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Thoughts About Pittsburgh

I try to avoid starting a post with "It's been awhile since I've written." In the early days of the blog I did that a lot and it just comes across as overly apologetic in a way. I don't really think there is anyone coming here on a regular basis (i.e. not after seeing a link on social media) who is saying, "Aw, man!" when I haven't added anything in a couple weeks. 

But the events of the past week or so have sort of thrown me for a loop and put me in a frame of mind where I didn't feel ready to delve into an analysis of a new album, or talk about shows that have happened.

Pittsburgh made the national headlines last week when a gunman went into the Tree of Life synagogue and killed 11 people and wounded several others. This happened in Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where I grew up. My childhood home is a little more than a mile down the hill from Tree of Life. The late Fred Rogers lived about two blocks from the scene of the crime. When the incident happened, my wife was at work, at the cemetery that's a couple blocks from Tree of Life. Our son was with her too. They were on lockdown for most of the afternoon. Of the people that died, one was the partner of my personal doctor. The father of a good friend of mine was badly injured and is still in the hospital. My friend has always been an easy living musician-type of guy. From the posts I've seen of his online, he's suddenly hit with a reality that he never dreamed of, having someone precious hanging in limbo. It's really changed his perception on the world around him.

How do you even begin to deal with that? How do you unpack the thought of someone going into a place of worship and killing people simply because they are there? What do you tell your kid? "Kid, the world is fucked up." And once you get beyond that, what can you say? Even before this happened, I often tell him to make the world a better place.

That night there was a vigil in Squirrel Hill. I didn't go because among other things I had a show that night. The wife and kid had gotten home and were a little exhausted so we all needed downtime. Then I felt guilty for not going to the vigil, like I wasn't doing my part, whatever little part that could be. I sat down and wrote a letter to the editor of the Post-Gazette. In it, I pointed out how, during the campaign trail, our current president encouraged supporters to "beat the hell" out of protesters. That attitude is more than prevalent these days: Don't like someone? Just kick their ass. Get rid of them. And that's how we got to where we are now. 

I didn't sent the letter. After doing so much internet research to make sure I wasn't misquoting the president, I was getting weary. And you know the old saying: you should never send an angry letter. It should be noted that I used the word "malarkey," so if it had run, maybe readers would think an old man wrote it. 

That night (Saturday), I got onstage for the first time since February. It wasn't with the Love Letters but with a pick-up group that played REM songs in a night of tribute bands doing whole sets by other groups. Everyone in the room had a heavy heart because, on top of the Tree of Life shooting, the word had gotten around that two nights earlier, there was another loss in music community. Jess Flati, who made up one half of the Lopez, had died suddenly from a heart attack. He was 40. 

I didn't know Jesse too well. The Lopez once played a show with the Love Letters a few years ago. His bandmate/wife Steph Wolf and I often ran into each other at shows and talked. But I interviewed Jesse for my first assignment at Pittsburgh Current over the summer. He was a sweet guy, gregarious, ambitious and really down to earth. The type of person we need more of in this world. 

At the show, people were hugging each other, crying a little (me included) but we were there for each other and the music lifted us. During the band Benefits' set of songs by the Cure (which was fabulous and made me think even more about burying my age-old resentment for that band), singer/show organizer Michael Baltzer asked us to look at the people around us and - only if we felt comfortable doing it - saying hi and, if appropriate, give each other a hug. I hugged my friend Greg Cislon, who was close to me. Oh yeah, and then the band played "Close to Me."

Our REM set went well. I got into this band because I was in the right place at the right time on the right night. Baltzer saw me at Howlers one night and said some friends of his needed a bass player to do the set. I said, sure why not. The next morning, he connected the four of us via Messenger. I have heard Joe Melba's name for a long time and saw him years ago in a band, but I never officially met him until I stepped onto his porch for the first practice. He was Bill Berry. Anthony Schiappa was Peter Buck and was great at figuring out all the guitar nuances of the songs. And he was patient while I caught up. Justin Cimba was our Michael Stipe. In a wild act of boldness, he flew up from New Orleans to do the show, arriving Thursday night before the show. We had time for one practice, which, thanks to my work schedule happened at 9:30 on Friday morning. During that practice, Joe got a call about Jesse Flati.

Tuesday morning was Jesse's funeral. There had been a viewing the day before. Since it was in Aliquippa, which is out past the airport, I was hesitant to go then, because I wanted to be home when my son got back from school and I knew traffic would be awful at rush hour. Still, I wrestled with myself over this, feeling like I making excuses when I should be showing some kind of support. So I made plans to go to the funeral, which was held in the funeral home itself. RIP Jesse. You drew an SRO crowd that day. 

In closing, I want to post a couple pics from shows that happened several weeks ago that I upoloaded but never got around to posting. The first comes from the CD release show Paddy the Wanderer's new album. I got there in time to hear the last song and a half (Grrrrrrrrr). But I love the expression on Chet Vincent's face as he looks at singer Joey Troupe. (Chet joined them for the last song.) 

And then there was the great show by Hearts & Minds, the trio of (left to right) Paul Giallorenzo, Jason Stein and Chad Taylor, one of my favorite nights of the year.