Wednesday, April 10, 2019

CD Review: Michaël Attias - échos la nuit/ Larry Grenadier - The Gleaners



Michaël Attias
échos la nuit
(Our Of Your Head) www.outofyourheadrecords.com

Larry Grenadier
The Gleaners
(ECM) www.ecmrecords.com

Michaël Attias and Larry Grenadier each went into the recording studio alone for these albums. The similarity between these albums really ends there, although both of them captured the qualities that can make a solo album as rewarding a listen as any session with a group.

For échos la nuit, Attias plays both alto saxophone and piano, often simultaneously. He didn't overdub in the session. His left hand played alto while his right handled the keys. In some ways, it's almost as if he took Rahsaan Roland Kirk's two- or three-horn approach and expanded upon it. The piano often acts as an accompaniment to his crisp saxophone lines, confirming them in "Echoes I Mauve" and returning to the main phrase introduced by the horn. They also move together in the angular "Trinité," clashing on an interval at the end of a phrase and sticking to their respective notes, like a left/right battle of wits. The piano strings reverberate when Attias hits a certain note in sax-only"Circles," sustaining and echoing the sound.

Attias shows dexterity and ease when playing both instruments together. If things sound rigid, the music calls for it, not for lack of ideas. Some tracks are based on snippets Attias had in his head for a dozen years but the session was largely improvised in just over an hour. So even if he forgoes the piano and gets introspective or stuck on an idea (the repetitive "Rue Oberkampf" is based on his studies of the Schillinger Technique), he adds something to the music to keep it from merely sounding like an exercise and gives it a proper payoff.

Solo bass albums can be some of the more challenging of the single instrument solo performances, due to its stark soundscape and the way frequency range where it lives. As on any album devoted to one instrument, a player can forget about songs and get lost in a display of various techniques (pizzicato/arco, low and eerie/high and shrill). But that hasn't stopped ECM from releasing numerous albums devoted to the instrument, starting with Dave Holland and Gary Peacock, leading up to last year's exemplary End to End by Barre Phillips, which I kept meaning to write about here.

Larry Grenadier could arguably called ubiquitous. His name appears frequently on albums, from his long tenure in Brad Mehldau's trio to time with Paul Motian and Pat Metheny and the cooperative trio Fly. The Gleaners comes off like a well-organized recital because each track feels like a developed composition.

"Pettiford" might be a largely improvised homage to the bebop legend, but Grenadier lays out his lines, flowing from short phrases to boppish riffs, in an extended complete work. The way he strikes his instrument, heavily but not heavy-handed, is spellbinding, and lets the wood resonate. The wood can be heard too when he uses his bow, especially when he spends time in the upper register ("Oceanic"), playing with rich clarity. One of two bagatelles composed by guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel features Grenadier's strings gracefully harmonizing, bringing out the power of the brief track's slow melody. In the countryfied "Woebegone" he plays rhythm and accompaniment simultaneously, overdubbing a second bass track.

I've often said that solo albums give a chance to get inside the head of a musician and find out what goes on. If these two albums are any indication, Attias and Grenadier's minds are hubs of activity with constant movement and development happening.

Monday, April 08, 2019

CD Review: Anna Webber - Clockwise


Anna Webber
Clockwise
(Pi) www.pirecordings.com

Anna Webber came to Pittsburgh last fall with bassist Adam Hopkins' Crickets band, in which her tenor acted as one-third of a saxophone section that added to the free jazz-cum-indie rock style of the music. But that set offered no indication of what appears on Clockwise, Webber's tenth album under her own name.

These compositions were inspired by percussion works of 20th-century composers, among them Iannis Xenakis, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Edgard Varése and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Rather than appropriating their music, she extracted ideas from them, often creating works that begin with rigid, almost minimal movement. They're executed by a septet that moves beyond the percussive foundation of the work, while frequently maintaining a stark, unsettling quality to the writing.

Things get off to an unsettling start with a literal clockwise grouping of instruments in "Korē II." Cello (Christopher Hoffman), bass (Chris Tordini) and Webber's tenor overtone honk create a rhythmic cycle that skips every so often. Gradually Matt Mitchell (piano), Jeremy Viner (clarinet), Jacob Garchik (trombone) and Ches Smith (drums) flesh things out by cutting in with another segment, making it sound like the whole thing was created through editing and looping. It wasn't, as indicated by some added clarinet and cello noise, and Smith's fills. Like its bookend, "Korē I" the addition of these slight embellishments (in "I" they come when Tordini adds some passing tones) keep things from sounding stiff.

But the jerkiness of "Korē II" is no preparation for the abrasive blend of Webber and Viner's tenors that continue for the first two minutes of "Idiom II." When they finally break and Hoffman moves into a solo, it almost sounds like he's apologizing for the horns' imitation of whiny children.

Beyond that, Clockwise features a pretty compelling blend of adventurous writing and playing. It might be the instrumentation but Webber's writing sometimes evokes thoughts of Henry Threadgill. The movement of the music might not be apparent but the players move with clear direction. A piece like "Array" goes into different sections and where it lands comes as a complete surprise, one that begs for further examination.

Webber only gives herself one opportunity to show off her tenor skills, in  the 1:39 "Hologram Best." Much of the time she plays flute, alto flute or bass flute, contributing layers to this intriguing music instead of acting as an improviser. Viner takes the tenor solo in "Loper" a piece that builds up slowly for ten minutes, following the opening blast in "King of Denmark I." The other two "King" tracks on the album are short improvisations by Smith and Tordini respectively which Webber edited and reconstructed.

The methods Webber used on Clockwise - transferring percussive ideas to melodic instruments, emphasizing timbre - aren't explained in liner notes. Without any road map, listeners might be left scratching their heads at the music. Like the composers from which took inspiration, this set comes off more like contemporary new music rather than jazz. Improvisation factors into it, but often it sounds more like something pre-composed but played with a spontaneous feeling. At the same time, much of requires repeated examination and, for the most part, the music inspires that feeling - as well as a desire to hear the 10 albums that Webber released prior to Clockwise.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

CD Review: Moppa Elliott - Jazz Band/ Rock Band/ Dance Band


Moppa Elliott
Jazz Band/Rock Band/Dance Band
(Hot Cup) www.hotcuprecords.com

Moppa Elliott is not one to shy away from a big concept. The bassist, after all, took part in a note-for-note recreation of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue with the release of Blue by his band Mostly Other People Do the Killing. That band's m.o. from their earliest days was to be able to both play free and be able to a "genuinely convincing version of rhythm changes if we want to," as he told me a couple years ago. Elliott, and by extension the group which otherwise played his compositions almost exclusively, might have been a little provocative at times, and perhaps a bit ironic, but the guy knows the music inside and out. He know what he's talking about.

The scope of Jazz Band/Rock Band/ Dance Band brings forth a triumvirate of bands, each executed separately. Spread over two discs (or three records, according to the press kit) Elliott convenes three groups that live up to the album title: Advancing on a Wild Pitch, a straight ahead jazz quintet; Unspeakable Garbage, a quintet that plays instrumental rock; and Acceleration Due to Gravity, a nine-piece group that might not exactly be a dance band in a modern or traditional sense, but nevertheless produces a strong set.

Jazz Band features Sam Kulik's trombone and Charles Evans' baritone sax in front of a rhythm section consisting of Elliott, pianist Danny Fox and drummer Christian Coleman. This album features compositions from the MOPDtK book taken in a largely straightforward direction. ("Slab" is the only new composition.) The blend of the two lower horns gives the session a particularly rich sound.

While the arrangements of the slow waltz "Can't Tell Shipp from Shohola" approximates the version that appeared on Slippery Rock, hearing it without Kevin Shea's gargantuan press rolls allows it to become more like a ballad. "Herminie," dedicated to pianist Sonny Clark, settles more into the Horace Silver-esque bass line (think of "Que Pasa"), and, like a number of these tracks, creates music that would have sounded right at home on a '60s Blue Note album. Note - that's much different that an album that tries to sound like or recreates the feeling of an album like that. Furthermore, Moppa the band leader, Moppa the record label owner and Moppa the bassist have been recognized. This disc pays special attention to Moppa the composer.

Rock Band was inspired by a love of '80s rock music by members of the group that play on this session. Although they appear with era-appropriate pseudonyms on the cover, it consists of Elliott, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, drummer Dan Monaghan, keyboardist Ron Stabinsky and guitarist Nick Millevoi. On first examination, this set evokes one clear thought to someone who grew up in the not-always-awesome decade that it evokes: television theme songs. In the previous decade, funk made its way into living rooms via Sanford & Son and Barney Miller. In the '80s, the studios were merging big band charts  - and strings - with distorted guitars in a crossover attempt, much as the network brass was trying to lure viewers.. Catchy melodies were still there, but Magnum P.I.  and the sax-heavy opening to Cagney & Lacey added some steroids to the sound.

It's not hard to imagine a freeze frame on a smiling supporting cast member while listening to the anthemic "Stone Hill." "Big Rock," the final track, even moves with the farewell of a closing theme, as the credits role. During the themes of these cuts, Irabagon could very well be Tom Scott, belting away as if he's afraid of being drown out by the amplifiers.

But....

Listen a few more times and you realize Scott would never unleash a torrent of altissimo wails and make a complete statement with them like Irabagon does in "Rocks, MD." (James Carter might, but that's another story.) Scott would also never get into a battle of noisy wits with a Farfisa organ as it happens in the punchy "Punxsutawney." Once the culture shock wears off, the charm sets in. This is no novelty. Elliott means it. Or if he doesn't, I'm still watching. Um... listening.

Dance Band features the bassist along with Ava Mendoza (guitar), Bryan Murray (soprano, tenor and his own balto! saxophone), Matt Murray (alto, soprano), Kyle Saunier (baritone), Nate Wooley (trumpet), Dave Taylor (trombone),  George Burton (piano) and Mike Pride (drums). It also has some of the wildest performances of the whole set.

This set features the one non-Elliott piece in the form of Kanye West's "Power." The arrangement will most likely leave its author scratching his head. In addition to regular interjections for King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man," it includes a pungent alto solo by Murray, followed by an absolutely searing trumpet solo from Wooley, a harmonized soprano duet that could have been lifted from the last track and a final statement from Mendoza. The rest of the set is equally dense, coming off sometimes as heavy but also highly layered.

It all makes you wonder how Moppa Elliott can follow a magnum opus like this.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Saying Goodbye to Juke Records and Bill Oliver

Yesterday was a rare Saturday for me because I wasn't scheduled to work. (The weekend is prime work time when you're in retail.) In thinking about what I could do, if I got beyond all the commitments I had for the day, the natural thought of going to a record store made its way to my mental surface. (Even though I have plenty of new music to keep me occupied at the moment.)

At that point it occurred to me that it was the first time in the last 38 years that I couldn't do any record shopping at 4526 Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield. Juke Records closed their doors last weekend, a little more than a month after they announced that the end was near.  The shop was the final iteration of a storefront that began in the late '70s as Jim's Records, which became Paul's CDs in the mid '90s. The late Karl Hendricks bought the business in 2012 and rechristened it Sound Cat Records. When his illness got worse, he sold it to Jeff Gallagher who ran Juke.

I actually wrote a column about it for Pittsburgh Current several weeks ago, kind of meditating on the end of it. It can be found here. I'm rather happy with how it turned out so please give it a read.

Another loss this week came when I heard about the passing of Pittsburgh musician Bill Oliver. He had been battling MS for several years and had been unable to get around for the last few years. Michael from the Cynics said he visited him a few times and encouraged me to come along. It was a noble idea but as usual I overthought it, wondering if work and family and the search for work (when that was an issue) would allow it. In the last year or so, Bill was more active on Facebook. I often woke up to 4 a.m. messages from him with links to Beatles videos. He was often engaged in conversations with people online which made me think that maybe he was making some sort of rebound. One of the last times I spoke to him in person he mentioned some sort of treatment that might help him. Sadly it was not to be.

Bill and I first around the same time that I started going to Jim's Records. He had a band called Blue Collar whose single was produced by my brother's friend Michael Butscher. Considering the connection, and my desire to find out about cool Pittsburgh bands, I bought a copy (which I still own). Thing was, Bill wasn't really a punk rocker. He was a rocker who was just fine with pure pop and wearing his Beatles influence on his sleeve. But he could hang with punks and was always willing to engage them - or a precocious teenage kid like me - in a meaningful conversation about music. He might not have dug all the crazy post-punk stuff that was happening, but he kept up with it.

He also did one thing for me which I'll always remember: He got me drunk for the first time. As in woah-I've-never-felt-this-way-before-I-am-soooooo-loopy drunk. And it happened at a radio station. Just shy of my 17th birthday.

I regularly dropped by WYEP-FM in the early '80s when it was still in the basement of a garage in South Oakland. I befriended the Friday DJ who went by the name Concrete Window (see the link to the PC story above). On one September evening, Bill was there with Conc, pouring gin and grapefruit soda drinks. My closest friends will know this combination later became known as "gin and shanleys" but which technically is called "gin and sours." I had a nip of it for the first time at a show about a year earlier, courtesy of an older punk gal that I knew. Unlike beer, which I wouldn't enjoy for another year or so, this bit of hooch was good and fruity.

Bill had a few extra cups and offered me one. Being my first real time imbibing, I put away a few of them, drinking them like pop. He and Conc later had to pour me out on the sidewalk in front of my house after the radio show was over. If I was in a bad state, I didn't feel it. I was having a good time. If my dad knew I was snockered (I think he did), he didn't give me a hard time about it. Talking too loud on the street, that was a problem though.

Well that sort of sealed the deal with me and Bill. He would later blur that story together with the time that he and Conc played Yoko Ono's "Don't Worry Kyoko" repeatedly in order to get people to pledge to WYEP, even though that happened on another night, probably several years earlier. But why nitpick?

Even though that Blue Collar 45 wasn't really punk rock, there was some serious heft to it. In particular, the B-side, "First Snows." Lyrically, it touched on the plight of working class people who were struggling to get by in those early days of Reaganomics and the crumbling steel industry. He dedicated it to Yoko and Sean Lennon, which I didn't quite understand, wondering back then if I was missing something.

In addition to sounding really pissed off in the song (maybe punk rockers were rubbing off on him) Bill's guitar playing really slashed hard. He repeatedly told me how the original version was too long for the single so Butscher deftly queued up the tape so it would skip the intro and begin where the band all kicked in. When he compiled a CD overview of his career, Bill included the uncut version, where you can get it all. The other thing I really like is that during the guitar solo, it sounds like one track of guitars is interrupted by another one, which gets more chopping and antagonistic. It should be a classic in Pittsburgh music history. I meant to dig it out when I heard the news but haven't gotten to it yet. Maybe tonight.

Thanks, Bill. Wherever you are I hope there's a guitar and maybe a hero or two of yours standing around.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Sun of Goldfinger Hits Pittsburgh


Thursday was Sun of Goldfinger day- and night - in Pittsburgh. The group consists of David Torn (guitar), Tim Berne (alto saxophone) and Ches Smith (drums, electronics). They just released an album on ECM that's credited to all three of them but titled Sun of Goldfinger. So the album title is pretty much the name of the group. For more details, check out my interview with Berne and Torn here.

On the afternoon prior to the show, the guitarist and saxophonist came to the University of Pittsburgh and held an informal chat in a recording studio on campus. I was free for the afternoon and stopped by. The night before, they had played in Madison, Wisconsin where my friend/former bandmate Grant helped present them. So when Berne saw me in the room he said, "I have a message from Grant that I'm supposed to deliver to you."

For almost two hours, the two of them took questions about their music and they expounded on things like how they approach free improvisation in general and in this group. They also played one whole track from Sun of Goldfinger (a 22-minute piece) and an excerpt from another. Berne talked a lot about studying with Julius Hemphill. Having spoken with them already, I was familiar with a lot of the topics they covered but it was cool hearing it in person and seeing their willingness to share their approaches with people.

Later that night, they played at the Spirit Lodge. Being an improvisational group, they time between setting up and starting the proper set blurred a little. Having seen Torn live a couple times, it's clear that the twisting of knobs on his sampler/effects arsenal is often part of the performance as a whole. It can be better to focus on the sound and not the visuals. The surprise came early on when I noticed that one of the sounds coming from the stage was not generated by Torn. It was Smith, who had a table with electronics that were making the noise in question. At least five, and maybe ten, minutes, went by before he picked up his sticks and started flailing. Things had been rolling along already, but his work on the kit really get it off the ground. Smith is amazing in general and would probably be just as powerful playing a solo set.

There were times during the set where Smith's electronics were too loud in the mix, definitely overpowering Berne and sometimes threatening to do the same to Torn. As a whole, though, the 60- to 70-minute set they played felt pretty mind blowing. Eventually Smith started to bang out a groove and everyone came together, only to tear things back down and rebuild.



Once during one of these instances, Berne was playing practically unaccompanied and pulled out a long line of ideas that almost sounded like something out of a Bloodcount performance. Torn tapped into some dirty blues riffs that took him back to the early days that he had mentioned at the lecture, when he used to be all about the blues. While it had traditional elements in it, the delivery made it more of a passing reference and not an attempt to push his comrades into da blooz. Smith astounding all night, playing drums with one hand while manipulating electronics with the other, playing something that sounded like a drum loop but was actually live. My last bit of chicken scratch notes from that night reads, "Funk groove?" It must have felt kind of like that. All sorts of wild stuff happened that night.

White Hole - the quartet of guitarists Dave Bernabo & Erik Cirelli, saxophonist Patrick Breiner & drummer PJ Roduta - opened the next with a set of four originals that ranged from super spare and quiet to raucous and sharp.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

CD Review: Phillip Johnston & the Coolerators - Diggin' Bones/ Phillip Johnston - The Adventures of Prince Achmed



Phillip Johnston & the Coolerators
Diggin' Bones

Phillip Johnston
The Adventures of Prince Achmed

(Asynchronous) www.phillipjohnston.com

My dad once quipped that B3 organ players put a lot of bassists out of work. A bass player himself, Pop was known for exaggerating a little bit with his stories but there was a slight element of truth there. With all those organists playing with strong left feet, they had the low end in the pocket.

Conversely, if an organ player employs a living bassist, the session in question might generates some skepticism. It makes you wonder if the organist is capable enough. Or, as one piece of lore goes, if someone doesn't trust the organist. One Pittsburgh musician talked about how skillfully Shirley Scott's leg bounced around the pedals, but that many of her albums nevertheless featured bassists. When he asked her, she it all came down to the producer insisting that the low end on Scott's recordings shouldn't be left to left foot.

Diggin' Bones, the first release by saxophonist Phillip Johnston's Australia-based group the Coolerators, finds the Microscopic Sextet figurehead leading a group that includes both an organist and bassist. But before any eyebrows go up in suspicion, there are a few things to consider. The man at the bass isn't your average four-to-the-bar joe. He's Lloyd Swanton, of Down Under's long lasting improvisation trio the Necks. A few bars into the title track and it's clear why Johnston has Swanton on the session: the bass line is not a walking line that's easy to play along with some organ chords. It moves with the alto saxophone's jumpy melody. This is not a typical horn and organ trio session.

Johnston switches between alto and soprano saxophones throughout Diggin' Bones. He specializes in catchy lines that latch onto the brain. Sometimes they come with a whimsical air, like "Frankly" which seems like it's going to break into "42nd Street" as it resolves. (This line also reappears during the other disc.) "Later" begins with a stop-start soprano line before morphing something that sounds more like legato tango. This then leads to a rubato organ breakdown, a drop-tuned bass solo and a final statement from drummer Nic Cecire. Swanton also gets some room to stretch out over some organ drones in the ska-flavored "The Revenant."

Klezmer influence shows up in some of Johnston's writing on Diggin' Bones. He's always catchy and exudes a feeling of good times. But sometimes the songs rely a bit too much on melody repetition at the expense of time that could have be spent stretching out.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed consists of music Johnston composed for the 1926 silent film of the same name, the first full-length silhouette animated film, which was created by Charlotte "Lotte" Reiniger. In addition to the composer's soprano sax, this group forgoes a bassist in favor of trombone (James Greening), two keyboardists (Alister Spence and Casey Golden) and drums (Cecire). Based on the One Thousand and One Nights collection of Middle Eastern folk tales,  the work was written as a continuous 65-minute work that, for this CD, has been banded into 12 tracks.

The blend of trombone and soprano sax immediately makes a good sonic pairing for the music, giving it an exotic blend even as they play Western-based melodies. Considering the age of the film, the voices used on the keyboards push it towards the other end of the 20th century, or maybe into the millennium. They don't sound slick but the turntable scratching noise and the occasional dirty synth groove puts modern technology at the forefront.

In a dark theater, the blend of ancient cinema techniques and modern composition must surely add to the suspense of the story. (The plot does not appear on the cover but the track titles hint at magicians, a kidnapping, witches, Aladdin's magic lamp and a battle.) Without the visuals to carry it as an album, the music varies. Johnston always keeps things moving, sometimes changing textures every few measures.  Yet, his frequent use of Philip Glass-like arpeggios or having the horns repeat one note in rhythmic variations gets to be a bit much. Often times something breaks through the repetition, like Greening mimicking a police car siren on his horn. But there were many instances where seeing the on-screen drama could have carried the music a little further.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

CD Review: Tiger Hatchery - Breathing in the Walls



Tiger Hatchery
Breathing In The Walls
(ESP) www.espdisk.com

One of the most intense and well-crafted sets I ever saw happened at the Oakland Beehive in December of 1991. That's a long time ago, for sure, but certain things stick in my mind all these years later. The band was UFO Or Die, a trio fronted by Yamatsuka Eye of the Boredoms. That band's drummer, Yoshimmy P-We also played in this trio. Although the band's Discogs profile doesn't mention him anywhere, I believe Railroad Jerk's bassist Tony Lee completed the lineup.

Armed with a guitar and a microphone, Eye kicked off the set with a call to arms: "U! F! O! Or! Die!" Then - wham! - they were into it. Melody had no place that night. Instead the trio delivered rhythmic blasts in groups of three, four, five or seven beats. The order and number changed a lot, and this is only an approximation. But whatever the attack called for, all three of them made it together, like clockwork.

Then, after about 12 minutes - again, an estimate - it was over. Eye put down his guitar and walked off. They had played about five "songs." And that was all they needed to do. We were satiated. Anything more would've been too much.

Those thoughts came back while listening to Breathing In the Walls, the second album on ESP by the jazz-noise trio Tiger Hatchery. Toward the end of i,t saxophonist Mike Forbes yells through his horn with an agonized sound that recalls Eye's fury. At the other end of the album, Andrew Scott Young begins the album with some distorted bass noise that sets the chaotic tone for what will come. The answer comes in a sheet of drum clatter from Ben Billington and some sax wails that may or may not resemble a theme but pulls you into an exciting adventure.

The trio is all about free blowing but they do offer some contrast throughout the set. In "Drawing Down the Moon," Forbes - whose credits list merely "sax" - switches from tenor (?) to bass sax and the trio as a whole sounds more inquisitive. Young even drop tunes as low as he can go by the end of the piece. "Breathing Down the Walls," Parts One and Two (the latter with vocalizing) stand as the ambient calm among the storms at the middle and end of the set."Triple Penny" alternates on-the-bridge string plinking with full band skronks.

The strength of Tiger Hatchery is their brevity. Much like Sun Worship, their previous ESP album, the whole thing lasts exactly 30 minutes, with most tracks coming in around the three-minute mark. They understand the need to making a strong point in a short space and get out

If fire music was the sound of the '60s, Tiger Hatchery is making scorched earth music for the current times, to rework one of their song titles.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

CD Review: Brötzmann/Leigh-Sparrow Nights


Peter Brötzmann/Heather Leigh
Sparrow Nights
(Trost) www.trost.at

In the photo spread across the gatefold of Sparrow Nights, Peter Brötzmann stands with his hands in his pockets, looking at Heather Leigh, who sits at her pedal steel guitar. He doesn't have any of his instruments within view and it's hard to tell if his eyes are focused on Leigh or her instrument. But he looks thoughtful, as if he's trying to figure how his approach to reeds could work with an instrument that's usually found in country music.

Brötzmann is known for his aggressive approach to horns, mainly on tenor saxophone but also on bass sax, clarinets and taragato. Any casual listener knows that his work can be brutal at times. But he does adapt his sound, depending on the group. I heard him a few years ago in a duet with vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, and the meeting drew out some subtle lines from his partner.  Maybe it was just the subject matter but his album Never Too Late But Always Too Early, dedicated to the late bassist Peter Kowald, felt more reflective as he meditated on the loss of his friend.

Of course, Leigh is no stranger to Brötzmann. They've released three other albums of live performances. Sparrow Nights documents their first time working in a studio. She also has a unique approach to her instrument, making it drone or howl like a conventional guitar. Only when she bends the pitch does it come close to resembling a standard pedal steel.

"Summer Rain" starts the album with Brötzmann ruminating on tenor in a warm tone that points towards more traditional players of that instrument. Leigh fades in towards the end of the two-minute piece, sounding like an organ upon first entry. "This Word Love" follows, with Leigh repeating a two-note vamp, setting a mood that would fit perfectly on a label like Kranky. When Brötzmann enters, the crisp recording invites the opportunity to imagine what his embouchure might be like. (It wasn't that last time I thought about this during the album.) Although soprano sax isn't listed as one of his many instruments on Sparrow Nights, this track's horn sounds a lot like one. Notes squeeze their way out of the bell, sounding like the air narrowly escaped getting trapped on the reed in his mouth. They're rough and scratchy but make an interesting combination with Leigh's droning background.

Leigh begins alone in "It's Almost Dark," plucking out notes and creating ripples of strings. After five minutes, the niceties are gone. Brötzmann unleashes a swarm of wails from his horn and Leigh bends pitches. Rather than end on vicious blasts, they bring the mood back down, sounding pensive and just a little bit eerie.

Brötzmann switches between tenor, alto and bass saxophones, along with B-flat, bass and contra-alto clarinets, so things never get too predictable. Of the ten tracks on the disc (six on vinyl), four go on for ten minutes or more. Although things can get pretty dense, these improvisations often change shape rather than staying in one spot and attempting to blow down the walls. This becomes especially clear in "My Empty Heart," where the ambient strings and wailing clarinet reach a particular sweet spot, shimmering and wailing at the same time.

Sparrow Nights might not be easy listening but it reveals how two seemingly opposite instruments (and players) take cues from each other and how those ideas can finfluence the way they respond.

Monday, February 25, 2019

A Salute to Peter Tork, Who Tears the Top Right Off My Head

The first time I heard the Monkees' "Your Auntie Grizelda," I don't think I liked it. It didn't bother my young ears as much as Davy Jones' sappy, spoken word lyrics in "The Day We Fall In Love." In reaction to the latter song, I took a pencil, crossed out the title as best I could on the record label and wrote "BOO!" next to it. "Auntie Grizelda" got under my (approximately) seven-year old skin because of Peter Tork's goofy noises during the lead break. It felt too close to some sort of baby talk noises. It wasn't funny to me.

But different qualities float to the surface of Monkees songs as time goes on that offer a deeper appreciation. In the final verse of the song, the comedy almost makes way for melancholy. The first two verses have set up the song's title character as a comedic character, a stuffy "normal." Now, Peter Tork is warning the person in the song to break away from her, "or, just like her, you'll have to make it alone." As he sings those final words, Peter's voice always seemed to take on a sadder tone. It explained why Grizelda is so stodgy - she's lonely, and more of a tragic figure. Even in the early days, the Monkees were good for drama. Think about the way that Micky sings, "And I don't know if I'm ever coming home," in "Last Train to Clarksville." It sounds nervous, truly like a guy who doesn't want to leave his girlfriend for Viet Nam. (Years later, it was admitted that the song was about that.)

I say all this while I remember what a former co-worker once told me after reading an article of mine that explained the depth of the Monkees bubble gum music. He told me, "I don't know if I'm just missing something or if you're full of shit." It could be that I'm over analyzing their work, though I doubt it. Regardless, it seems like a good way to start a salute to Peter Tork, who died last week at the age of 77. Peter was typecast as the dumb member of the band, on both their tv show and to some extent onstage. When he finally got a song, on the second Monkees album, it was "Your Auntie Grizelda," a joke tune. Sort of. But he managed to elevate it beyond that before it was over. He did quite a bit to elevate the band's music, in fact.

One album later, on Headquarters, his talents really added to the work, when the band took artistic control of the recording sessions. His banjo fueled the drive of Mike Nesmith's "You Told Me," blending country and rock perhaps a few steps ahead of the Byrds. Tork also did the finger-picking guitar work in Nesmith's "Sunny Girlfriend" which it's author did the rhythm part.

If that weren't enough, Peter co-wrote one of the album's cornerstone songs. "For Pete's Sake" is not only catchy, built on a guitar lick with a lot of snap, it also has a strong call for love and unity. Maybe it comes off as a little more simplistic than other things that came out during the Summer of Love, but damned if the whole thing doesn't hit hard. Micky Dolenz sings the whole thing, but Peter put the words in his mouth, knowing that the drummer would leave a greater impression as he wails, "We gotta be freeeee." So effective was this song that it became the closing theme to The Monkees during the second tv season.

Peter only sang about two lines on Headquarters but they were significant. He delivers the start of the second verse of "Shades of Gray," which already sounds sad due to the somber piano intro. After Davy Jones sings the first verse in a near-whisper, Peter takes the second one, with his voice, with a bit of echo on it, almost sounding like it's about to crack. Not to forget the title line of the song, which he sings all by his vulnerable self, except during the final chorus. Not to belabor the point, but it reinforces the meaning of the song, which, perhaps in retrospect, spoke legions for what the country was going through at the time.

The next couple Monkees album shortchanged Peter. On Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., his sole contribution was "Peter Percival Patterson's Pet Pig Porky," which played into his role from the show. Instrumentally, he did contribute a lot to the songs though. But The Birds, The Bees & the Monkees has nothing by him. The CD version has a short song called "Alvin." "Tear the Top Right Off My Head" was a strong one that didn't see legit release until the late '90s. There were a few others that he recorded around that time, including the haunting "Merry Go Round." I once played that for a former bandmate, who was appalled at the keyboard-heavy, drumless song. "He's not even singing into tune!" Yeah, but This Mortal Coil should've covered it on one of their albums.

Head, the movie and album, set the record straight, with two solid Tork songs, "Can You Dig It" and "Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again." The Monkees brought the latter back into their stage show in the early 2000s, I believe it was, which I was happy to hear. If nothing else, that song, with its frantic pace and arty time signature changes during the solo, should be enough to solidify Peter's credentials.

Then he left the band. Of course, he returned, left and returned again. He also did other things, like teach high school and start a blues band, Suede Shoe Blues. He also fought a battle with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer of the head and neck. He seemed to be doing well when he went back on tour with Dolenz and Nesmith in 2014.

In the weeks prior to that tour, I got to interview Tork by phone. There wasn't a chance for me to publish an article anywhere but one doesn't turn down a chance to talk to this guy, who sounded strong and healthy. And I posted the interview on this blog in two entries: Part One and Part Two. We only had 15 minutes, so I did my best to avoid all the typical questions and cover a few things that he wouldn't normally get to talk about. Peter was gracious, serious when he needed to be and witty when it was called for. I've always hoped that there would be a chance for a follow-up, where we could pick up our previous conversations. Life had other ideas.

In closing, here's an odd story.

A couple weeks ago I had a pretty vivid dream about playing at an open stage at Pittsburgh's Club Cafe where Peter and Mike Nesmith were also on the bill. That's a weird set-up for me because I never do open mike nights. And it seems funny to think about either of them doing them as well. Like many dreams, I didn't actually see either one perform. In fact I think that provided part of the tension: Mike and I were chatting after the show, shaking our heads at the soundman who was being kind of rough with the microphones as he tried to strike the set. Rather than taking the mike out of the stand, he was yanking the cable, making the stand fall over, and smashing the valuable equipment on the stage.

It looked like I was going to get away without admitting that I missed his set, so I looked at Mike and said, "Well, I'm going to get going. It was great seeing you, Peter. Uh, WAIT, I can't believe I just called you Peter. I mean....I know which one you are. I really do...." He looked at me with the understanding face of a guy who's been in awkward situations like this before, not really believing me but trying to be polite.

On the way out, I saw Peter and told him what had happened. He laughed it off.

The next thing I knew I was on Craig Street in Oakland where I ran into my high school friend Priscilla, who as it happens was a Monkees fan too. In fact the whole dream might have transpired because she recently posted a picture on Facebook of Nesmith holding a Monkees t-shirt. But she was walking up to use a payphone, which could only mean the year in this dream was somewhere around 1988, so I didn't tell her what happened.

And that's what Peter Tork means to me. I salute you, sir. Did you know my uncle was on your show twice?

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Nellie McKay's Show at the Andy Warhol Museum

There's a lot to unload from the past week or so: Peter Tork's death; the announcement that Juke Records will be closing in a few months; a pile of records that I bought as a result of that announcement; my son getting braces; Nellie McKay's show at the Warhol last week.

I'll probably devote a whole post to Peter before long. Pittsburgh Current posted a piece I wrote opining on Juke's closing right here. If you click on it, you'll see that not just the store but the storefront has been a big part of Pittsburgh music for quite some time. So, with all due respect to my son, that leaves Nellie.


Leading up to the show, she and I talked by phone, covering a range of topics from how she wound up covering Moby Grape's "Murder In My Heart for the Judge" (her mom turned her on to it) to the activist tendencies we all have at the root of beings. (She didn't put it that way. I'm just sort of paraphrasing.) Some of those highlights can be found here.

At the theater in the Andy Warhol Museum, the performer has to enter the room through the doors in the back, the same way the audience does, which means they potentially have to run the gauntlet of fans. Or someone is likely to say, "Look, there she is!" McKay came in without fanfare but instead of being introduced, she went up to the soundboard and spoke through a mike, saying that she was Andy Warhol's mother. She then went on a long explanation that asked that patrons turn off their cellphones. Then Mama Warhol introduced the evening's entertainer and Nellie and ukuleles made their way to the stage, starting the set off with the Paul Simon-penned hit (for the Cyrkle) "Red Rubber Ball." When it came time for the key change in the final verse, she modulated with ease, like it was second nature. This strong sense of technique would factor heavily during the next 75 minutes or so.

The last time McKay played the Warhol, there were several moments during the set where she started one song and stopped before completing it. She also expressed doubt about playing something, going forward only after getting encouragement from the crowd. It could have been a shtick or maybe she was off (it was still a great show) but none of that doubt happened this time around.

McKay, alternating between the piano and the ukuleles, leaned heavily on interpretations, downplaying her own songs. But that was no easy covers set because her choices provided their own challenges. Les McCann's fired-up R&B hit "Compared to What" needs to be delivered with a punch, and Nellie used two fists for her version. She even recreated the modulation through every key that McCann did in his version. She dove into the Beatles' "If I Fell" on uke, taking it in what seemed like a pretty high register. Nevertheless, it showed the extent of her vocal range, pulling off the song without the need for a harmony partner like John and Paul did.

Among the clever moments of the night, she chose "High Anxiety," from the Mel Brooks movie of the same name. She also added a song from her upcoming stage show about Joan Rivers. The standard "Where Or When," which appears on last year's Sister Orchid album, started off with the rarely-heard verse. "A-Tisket A-Tasket" came at a pretty brisk pace, with McKay handling the lead vocals and the shout-vocals that usually come from the band. Tempos like that one never deterred McKay's piano chops,  even while she rapped in double-time.

When she welcomed requests during the encore, calls went up for "Dog Song" and "David," which almost makes you wonder how well the audience knows albums like Pretty Little Head or even her Doris Day tribute album Normal As Blueberry Pie. (Somehow "Murder In My Heart for the Judge" felt like too much of a mouthful to yell as a request.) But it seems like "Dog Song" is one of the obligatory parts of her set. The verse done in Tom Waits voice worked well because she also had the lower range for that.


Afterwards, Nellie graciously signed numerous album covers (see above) and posed for pictures, including the top shot in this entry. I handed her the Pittsburgh Current issue with her preview in it, thinking she might want to check it out. Before I could explain, she and her sharpie were signing it for me: "Keep one eye closed at all times. Lots of love, Nellie. xox." Sigh

Friday, February 08, 2019

New Things on the Stereo and Around Town

Playing right now: Bob Mould - Sunshine Rock

If this album is any indication, Bob's upcoming appearance in town (February 19) will blow away fans from all parts of his career. This album rocks hard. It's sequenced like a great live show, with very little break between songs. Dynamic shifts or variations in tempo are strategically inserted for best impact. Lotta heavy power chords, with no high-gloss sheen or phase on them. The vocals are mixed almost evenly with the guitars too, almost like those classic Mission of Burma records. Luckily there's a lyric sheet that comes along with the record.

Why, oh why didn't I request to have off on the 19th? That's the same night Ben Opie is playing a set of Ornette Coleman songs at Alphabet City too. Someone could play their cards right and see both shows.

And speaking of Ben Opie....


That's him on the left, sort of in the shadow, Dave Throckmorton on drums and Tony DePaolis on bass. Tony was filling in for Paul Thompson, so technically the group was not the Thoth Trio. But they kicked off a new weekly series at a brand new establishment in the Strip District called Kingfly Spirits. This series, curated by Ben, will pick up where Space Exchange left off. That was the weekly Tuesday series at the Thunderbird Cafe, up the road in Lawrenceville, which closed for remodeling a few years ago but appears to be ready to reopen in the next month or so.

Stop me if I've told you this before. But Space Exchange was a great gathering place for musicians and listeners. Sometimes the music was straightahead, right out of the book of Monk or featuring an organ trio. Sometimes it took a world music turn or went right into minimalist experimental noise. Maybe it wasn't always what you were in the mood for, but with no cover, a great bartender and a chance to catch up on what was happening in a variety of scenes....I don't know, I'd like to imagine it as being like the city's version of the Knitting Factory, a Venn diagram of musicians coming together.

So now Kingfly is doing it on Thursdays. Next week, Patrick Breiner (who has played in Battle Trance) is playing with a quartet. The following Thursday, Jeff Berman is there with his group BLINK, with Tom Wendt playing the last Thursday in February. The venue is really big and vast, with a bar toward the front and an area in the back for the band. Acoustic were good. Other than a few patrons who had no regard for the band playing mere feet from them (but who thankfully either left or moved after the second song), the audience grew as the evening progressed and they were into it. In fact, I think it was during one of Tony's bass solos, it felt like the whole building fell silent. 

Saturday, February 02, 2019

CD Review: Devin Gray - Dirigo Rataplan II


Devin Gray
Dirigo Rataplan II
(Skirl) www.skirlrecords.com

Drummer Devin Gray gets around, working the kit for a great number of projects in the U.S. and Europe. That partially explains why it's been seven years since his first album with his Dirigo Rataplan quartet. The group includes Ellery Eskelin (tenor saxophone), Dave Ballou (trumpet) and Michael Formanek (bass) along with Gray.

The album's production has some sonic qualities akin to an ECM release. There is a lot of space between the musicians. In fact Eskelin and Ballou are panned into separate channels and though their sound is crisp, their attack feels subtle. The wood of Formanek's bass resonates, especially when he plucks heavily on it. But Gray sits in the background to all of this. It's not that he's lost in the mix but his energetic ideas could have been boosted a little because the group is clearly involved in some interactive conversations.

Free improvisation factors into a lot of the album's 10 tracks, in a variety of ways. "Congruently" follows more of a theme-solos-theme format while others begin with no structure and eventually morph into a groove. "Trends of Trending" takes this direction, following some trumpet and tenor discussions over some rolls and crashes from the leader. In "Texicate" the real action seems to be coming from the bass and drums, but that doesn't stop Eskelin and Ballou from scattering a series of ideas out front. This one also concludes with a theme, in this case a stop-start idea where the whole quartet moves as one.

The time apart clearly did nothing to loosen the connection between the Dirigo Rataplan group. Eskelin unleashes a great solo in "The Wire" while the rhythm section goes wild behind him. When Ballou takes his turn, he picks up on that energy, with big trills and long tones as Gray and Formanek shift into a double-stop vamp. When Formanek scrapes the strings with a bow in "The Feeling of Heeling" it adds a kick to the music that doesn't quite appear in other tracks. While the music sounds tight, much of it resides in the same dynamic level. In person, this music surely catches fire. (Gray came off like a powerhouse when he came to town with Adam Hopkins' Crickets sextet a few months ago.) Hopefully these four can find the time to convene more often in the future.



Friday, February 01, 2019

CD Review: 10³²K -The Law of Vibration


10³²K
The Law of Vibration
(Self-released) 1032k.bandcamp.com/album/the-law-of-vibration

These days it's not surprising to see a saxophone player backed by just a bassist and drummer. Sometimes a trumpeter even joins forces with just the core rhythm section. Seeing a trombonist working in this format remains something of a rarity. Ray Anderson did it with BassDrumBone in the  '80s and '90s, and perhaps there are a few out there flying under the radar. But 10³²K should be on everyone's radar at this point. Not only do they utilize the 'bone/bull fiddle/skins format, they pay homage to their avant-peers/forefathers by interpreting past works that might have originally felt more like seemed more like personal sketches. In their hands the music becomes their own personal expression.

10³²K, named for the Planck temperature at which matter starts to break down, features Ku-umba Frank Lacy (trombone, flumpet), Kevin Ray (bass) and Andrew Drury (drums). Following in the direction they began on 2014's That Which is Planted, the group interprets two pieces originally done by the band Air and one by John Coltrane. But this time, Lacy also contributes two originals and trombonist Roswell Rudd drops by to join the band in his lively "Yankee No-How" in a recording made a few years before his passing.

Even without the addition of Rudd, these guys fill up the room with their sound. Lacy, who added some gravelly vocals to an album by the Mingus Big Band in 2015, blows with a clarion tone whether the music calls for the feeling of a free ballad, like his own "All The While...Forgiveness," or something more abstract, such as Fred Hopkins' "RB" which features percussion tolls in between passages by Lacy's "flumpet."

Drury and Ray sound equally as pliable, able to go from out of tempo introductions to grooves, creating something solid every time. The whole group seems to be having a joyous time with Rudd on "Yankee No-How," making the guest trombonist's death feel like an even greater loss. In Coltrane's "Living Space" bass and drums create a rolling boil beneath Lacy, whose trombone implies the idea of space through an echo, double-tracked effect. Even when they're playing the works of other musicians, they're using those templates as a way to present their own ideas. In fact, other than "Living Space," it might only be clear to the most die-hard avant-jazz listener which of these tracks are originals. They all sound like their originals.

Sometimes in writing about albums, I feel like I've come across something that should draw some wide-ranging attention. That did happen with Jaimie Branch's debut album two years ago. Several people I knowalso dug into Wendy Eisenberg's music after reading about it here. But those are really the exceptions. Not that I'm trying to be a tastemaker here, but when my socks get knocked off by an album, I just kind of assume that, being a small time writer, I shouldn't be the only whose digging it. The Law of Vibration gives me this same kind of feeling. The guys in the band aren't exactly new kids to the scene either. (For more about Andrew Drury's work as a leader, click here.)

Albums like this can convert people who might be reticent about free music, hearing in it a connection to more grounded work, while getting off on the energy of the group. People who already appreciate this music will likewise be enthralled by it. And perhaps they'll have a better understanding of their Air albums when they go back them after hearing "RB" (and "BK," which they played on That Which is Planted).


Monday, January 28, 2019

What I Heard at Winter Jazz Fest 2019




Yes, I was really there. I spent a whole week in New York, arriving Sunday evening January 6 and coming back to town the following Sunday. At the beginning of the week, Jazz Congress took place for two days at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Winter Jazz Fest had kicked off during the previous weekend, with a few stand-alone shows happening, eventually leading to the two-day blitz of performances at a dozen venues around the Village, all accessible on Friday and Saturday (January 11 & 12) to those who purchased a two-day pass.

Pittsburgh Current published my report on Jazz Congress and the background of Winter Jazz Fest on their website, which can be found here. This blog post will focus on the events that I attended during the week, getting into a little more detail about the performances. 



First, a report from Jazz Congress 2019. Jazz, Swing, Race and Culture proved to be a pretty thought-provoking panel with (left to right), pianist Myra Melford, bassist Christian McBride, panel moderator Andre Guess, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and trumpeter Nicholas Payton.


That night at Nublu 151, clarinetist Ben Goldberg lead a quintet through music that came predominantly from his album Unfold Ordinary Mind. Guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Ches Smith both appeared on the album and at the show. The lanky, bespectacled guy on tenor sax looked kind of familiar but I couldn't place him at first. Then Goldberg announced him as his longtime friend Donny McCaslin, who has become well-known over the last year for his performance on David Bowie's swan song Blackstar. John Ellis was the other tenor player, seen here in the foreground.

Like Unfold Ordinary Mind, this group had no bassist, with the low end coming, rather ingeniously, from Goldberg's contra-alto clarinet. The set had a lot of sonic adventure moving playing out over some strong rhythmic foundation. There were canons of drones, and moments where Cline seemed to question the 4/4 beat of the tune and attempted to rip it apart. In my notes, one scribble described a dirty 6/8 descending line as the Beatles' 'I Want You (She's So Heavy)' at church."

Tuesday night, following the final panel talks at JALC, the lobby of the fifth floor auditorium was mobbed with people there to hear a tribute to the last trumpeter Roy Hargrove. This show was free to the public so everyone in town was there. I quickly gave up on the attempts to find the end of the line, which curled around a corner and reversed at another auditorium door. It was a wise choice since the whole concert was broadcast over the jumbo-trons in the lobby with very high fidelity. And the whole thing went on for about four hours. Emcee Christian McBride said there were about 200 people backstage, ready to honor Hargrove's memory and talent. Being able to move around made it more relaxing. (Plus, there was a Whole Foods beneath the building, so that Team Member discount came in handy.)

Wednesday night was an adventure, traveling out into Brooklyn to a venue called Brooklyn Steel to check out Medeski, Martin & Wood, who were performing with Alarm Will Sound, the 18-piece ensemble (one might say "orchestra" since they have a lot of strings). The first few nights I'm in New York, it usually takes me a while to figure out which direction to take when I'm traveling. That was the case on this evening, when I headed south instead of north, only discovering that after about 15 minutes of walking and umpteen checks of the map on my phone. Duh. 

Pittsburghers will understand this comparison: Brooklyn Steel is comparable to Mr. Small's Funhouse - if it were multiplied about three times. This cavernous venue was once a steel manufacturing plant and now boasts a capacity of 1800 and lot of open space - which you can't really see when you arrive at the end of the first set, when the room is dark and there are hordes of people clustered right inside the performance space. The only perk of getting there as the first set concluded was being able to stake out a spot before the music started up again. Of course I ended up sitting to the left of Dude who texted the whole evening, just a few feet behind a gaggle of music geeks who yelled encouragement to the band all night. 

MM&W started set two by themselves. John Medeski hit a funky, dirty groove that drove the crowd wild. I was yearning for an extra chord or two in there, but about ten minutes into the groove, the trio took it out into free territory, which made up for the repetition. With Alarm Will Sound, they played music from their collaboration album Omnisphere. Some of it lumbered a little, getting a little too locked into a 7/4 riff in some points, but the voicings were often pretty compelling, setting things like strings, bassoon and tuba against Medeski's keys. 




On Thursday, alto saxophonist Gary Bartz celebrated the 50th anniversary of his album Another Earth by playing it in its entirety at Le Poisson Rouge. Beginning the set auspiciously with a reading of the "Star Trek" theme (which wasn't part of the original album) Bartz lead a quartet of guitarist Bruce Edwards, bassist James King and drummer Nasheet Waits (whose father, Freddie, played on the original album) through some brawny, two chord vamps that had the room in a frenzy.

Things really picked up though when the group was joined by tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and trumpeter Charles Tolliver, who both appeared on the original album. Sanders moved slowly around the stage and sat when he wasn't playing, but he was in excellent form, unleashing some of his signature wails. As great as he sounded, Tolliver nearly stole the show, playing with fire and imagination that makes me wish that we'd hear from him more often.


Wristbands were available for pick-up Friday afternoon, so after getting mine at SubCulture, it was time to head back to LPR for the start of ECM Records night. First on the bill was Michael Formanek's Very Practical Trio. The sound fits the group as the bassist's bandmates are guitarist Mary Halvorson and alto saxophonist Tim Berne. The trio, which was leaving for a European tour the next day, didn't announce more than one song title but some of the early ones sounded like Berne compositions: long flowing melodies with some intervallic leaps. Formanek started one piece with long line, while guitar and alto played together on top of him. Then Berne added another counter melody that had the delicacy of a flute, if but for a moment. Can't wait for the album.


Following a quick dash for dinner, I made it back in time to see trumpeter Ralph Alessi and This Against That. I just reviewed their new ECM disc so I was familiar with the set. Still seeing it live was great. Alessi can play anything from warm and lush to shrill and vicious. Ravi Coltrane has a great rapport with him on the album and onstage, but the whole group (bassist Drew Gress, pianist Andy Milne, drummer Mark Ferber) all moved together. When Coltrane switched to sopranino for the closer "Melee," he began with short phrases, extending them gradually and even getting a sound out of that sounded like a backwards recording. He and I talked a bit about this instrument when he was scheduled to come to the Pitt Jazz Seminar in 2017. Any reluctance he felt for that tiny horn seems to be a thing of the past.


You can't see everything at Winter Jazz Fest. Over at the Soho Theater, the Messthetics - guitarist Anthony Pirog & the Fugazi rhythm section of Brendan Canty and Joe Lally - had just wrapped up. But up next was guitarist Miles Okazaki. In the wake of releasing his album Work: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Monk, Vols. 1-6, he played a set that a friend called "Monk In a Blender." Beginning with "Crepescule with Nellie," Okazaki stitched together numerous Monk tunes, many of which made sense next to each other, with similar twists or patterns, while others digressed. "Well You Needn't" (sounding taut and accusatory), "Skippy," "Four In One," "'Round Midnight." It wasn't a mere show of his Monk knowledge either. This extended piece, which frequently returned to "Crepescule" as a touchstone, was put together thoughtfully, in a way that proves that not only does Okazaki know the tunes, he's gotten inside them.

Crystal Palace is gin that I discovered as poor college student in the '90s. A liquor store employee could tell I wanted something cheap so he handed the $5.99 bottle to me. As of this evening, 28 years later, it's still the same price at the store. I mention this because Zinc Bar poured that brand of rotgut into my gin & club soda (my drink of choice). And they charged $11 for it. However it was damn strong, so down the hatch it went.

Zinc Bar is an intimate space with a narrow bar along the left side of the room, with the stage at the far end, and tables lined up in front of it. If you get a seat, there's a one-drink minimum. Since I already ordered my usual libation at the bar, I opted to stand back by the line separating the spaces while Avram Fefer's Calling All Spirits Trio started to play.

If Ben Goldberg's set had been the one to reinforce the feeling that I was in a new city at a festival and that the magic had started, Fefer's set was just what I needed as Friday evening started to wind down. His tenor and alto playing were both energetic, with playful melodies and wild solos. Bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Michael Wimberly helped him lift the bandstand, ready to fly off at any point, though they waited, boiling under, for the right moment.

Tomas Fujiwara's Triple Double was up next, starting a tad later than the 1:20 a.m. slot listed in the schedule. Many people my age would lament that a show would continue at such a gawdawful late time, but this added to the fun of the evening. However, the second drink was catching up to me and I thankfully didn't go for #3. Two drummers (Fujiwara and Gerald Cleaver), two guitars (Brandon Seabrook and Mary Halvorson, in her third show of the night) and two trumpeters (Taylor Ho Bynum and Adam O'Farrill) put on a great set that got loose but never lost its focus.


Seeing either Vijay Iyer or Craig Taborn perform solo would make an amazing set but the two of them together can really make your brain melt. That was how Saturday started with Night 2 at the ECM showcase at Le Poisson Rouge. The duo, who played together in Roscoe Mitchell's Note Factory and probably other times as well, moved like one brain. While Iyer crossed hands over the keyboard, Taborn played countermelodies several octaves apart. When one locked into an ostinato, the other took a solo and then - with little time for a formal transition - they switched roles. One movement, if their performance could be described as a set of movements, flowed into the next. The picture above was taken during the final quarter of their set, after they switched pianos. Up close, Taborn appeared to take a more visceral approach to his instrument, leaping all over the keys - and he kept that up even when he had his legs crossed.

One good thing about Winter Jazz Fest is their website kept an accurate account of what venues were at capacity and which still had room. Sadly, Nellie McKay's show at the Greenwich House Music School was filled a couple hours before her set. Much as I wanted to see it, my friend Erica suggested SOB's where Anteloper was playing. It was a solid consolation - and the loudest set I had seen all week. (MM&W had nothing on this duo.) 

Anteloper consists of Jaimie Branch (trumpet) and Jason Nazary (drums). Both also dabble in electronics. In fact, Nazary spent a good portion of the set playing his trap kit with one hand and twiddling knobs with the other. Branch also had some sort of keyboard and bank of electronics too. Their sound nearly made Miles Davis albums like Agarta sound tame by comparison. Sped up samples crackled through the p.a., accompanied by seizure-inducing strobes, with Branch adding some rich long tones on top. Occasionally, those trumpet sounds returned in loops. A set like this might be labeled non-jazz by some people, but it certainly set the brain throbbing.

Over at Sheen Center, which was near capacity, the audience was getting seated for a set called "Impressions of Pepper Round Robin," inspired by a new compilation on Impulse! called A Day in the Life: Impressions of Pepper and round-robin turns at improvisation. My tolerance for tributes like this, and really anything involving the Beatles and jazz, is limited but I thought I'd check it out. Liberty Ellman's variations on "With a Little Help From My Friends" sounded nice, as did David Virelles' piano spot, on which trumpeter Keyon Harrold joined in. But it wasn't clear everyone was going through the album, song by song, which turned it into a distraction. Besides, my heart was into another show at another venue, with another fairly lengthy walk coming before it.


Jon Irabagon's album Dr. Quixotic's Traveling Exotics made it onto my Top 10 list of 2018 so the chance to hear this group live pulled me back to the Soho Theater. Instead of an acoustic piano, Luis Perdomo played a Fender Rhodes, which made things funky but fiery. He and bassist Chris Lightcap held the music together while Irabagon and trumpeter Tim Hagans went off. Drummer Rudy Royston gave the music a solid swing but he played like he wanted to add another level of complexity to the music. It only made Irabagon play more furiously, even when he was ripping into the changes of "All the Things You Are," which is retitled "The Things" on the album and combined with his own "Emotional Physics" a term which epitomizes the fire this group started.

Upon meeting Lightcap after the set, I found out that he grew up in Latrobe, PA and knew all about Pittsburghese, which we bantered about back and forth for a bit. Irabagon convinced me that I should indeed try to get into SubCulture to see JD Allen and David Murray, despite the WJF site saying it was filled to capacity. I took his advice, made the walk and got in...just in time to hear them leave the stage.

Much as I wanted the excitement to continue, I had a bus to catch the next day and since the subway I needed was right outside of SubCulture, I took it as a hint to get to bed. So it felt appropriate that Winter Jazz Fest 2019 ended for me in a flood of Pittsburghese and a discussion of Donnie Iris' "Ah! Leah!" As I said in the Pittsburgh Current article, the further you get from Pittsburgh the closer it seems.


(I waited until I got home to cut off my wristband.)

Friday, January 11, 2019

Breakfast Near a Beatle or How I Met Sir Paul in a New York Diner

Everything does NOT happen for a reason, but being at a certain place at a certain time can have an impact on a person. Sometimes it's good to just roll with things. I found that out yesterday.

I've been in New York since Sunday night. Monda and Tuesday were the two days that the conference known as Jazz Congress took place. Winter Jazz Fest officially started last weekend and there have been a few days of shows already that I've seen. The big, multiple shows/venues night kicks off tonight. I'll be writing about that for Pittsburgh Current so stay tuned. For now, there's another story to tell.

Wednesday, my wife and son came up to meet me. During the days, we're checking out museums and at night, they're whooping it up in a hotel while I go to hear music. Yesterday, we decided to check out a diner called the Lexington Candy Shop, because we liked the name. As we were leaving, I looked it up on a map. We're at 56th and Lexington. It was at the corner of Lexington and 83rd Street. That's a walk, I thought, but why not. Towards the end of the journey I realized there was a subway that we could've taken, which would've gotten us within a few blocks of it. But we got to check out the storefronts and the general populace of the Upper East Side, an area I knew even less than the area with the clubs that I frequent during the festival.

Everyone was a good sport and by that I mean my 11-year old son. In fact, when the thought came up of stopping somewhere else, Donovan said no, that we should keep going.

Finally we got to the Candy Shop which is a tiny, narrow diner with booths going down one side and around the corner. It's a diner from a bygone area, apparently one that's been around since 1925. The nice but no-nonsense waitress seated us and as she said down, my wife Jennie gave me a look. At first I thought it meant, "We finally made it." But she said, "Do you see who that is?" Then she gestured toward the booth behind us, which was kind of wedged into a corner, away from everyone.

And there was Paul McCartney talking on the phone as he ate.

We took all this time to walk up to this place and not only was it as cool and as quaint as I would've hoped, but Sir Paul is sitting behind us. I know anything's possible but that's not something I would've expected on a trip to New York for a jazz festival.

I'm the type of guy who will say hi to artists I like but Jennie is not. But I wasn't about to say anything to this guy, especially while he was in the middle of a phone call. So we just remained calm (outwardly), taking in the whole idea. Plus it was 11:00 and I really needed to eat. I tried to make out a bit of what he was saying on the phone, but it was impossible. Not because he was talking in a thick accent, but just because. It didn't sound all that enticing to the average tourist anyway. Perhaps some dry business stuff.

I have to say that Paul was extremely polite and gracious to the waitress, who was a professional. It was amusing when she came back to the table, telling him the credit card that he had given her needed a PIN to go through. He had to go up to the counter to type it in.

As Paul and the people with him, including I later found out a new wife, were putting their coats on, he turned towards us and I said hi. He asked how we were doing and I said something like, "Great," and little more. Then I went on to tell him we were visiting from Pittsburgh and wanted to stop in. He replied, "We're kind of like the local celebrities here." It felt more like a joke than a serious statement and I felt like I saw the everyday Paul, which I was something I always hoped I would see. With that, he put on his knit hat and they were on their way. No photos, other than one Jennie took of me and Donovan, where you can see a tuft of gray hair popping up behind us. But it felt better that way.

"Who was that," Donovan asked. I told him and he didn't seem exactly blown away by the fact that he had met one of the biggest names in music. Which is fine. We didn't tell him while Paul was there because I didn't know how he would react. As the day wore on, it seemed to have more of an impact.

The waitress asked if we had noticed Paul back there in the corner. She said he's been something of a regular there for years, having started to come in when he was with Linda, who lived across the street.

I've always felt that a meal would be the way to meet "legendary" musicians. If I wanted to get a good interview with, say, John Cale, maybe he would be put at ease if we talked over food instead of talking over the phone or in some office. My breakfast a few feet from Sir Paul isn't exactly the way I imagined that we would meet, but I'll take it.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Getting Back on Track/ Remembering Bart Wise/ Where Am I?

There should have been a 2018 wrap-up here, not to mention a few more album reviews and stories about shows. But...the holidays kept me busy. At the time, I thought they were driving me crazy, but they weren't. It was just business as usual in the retail world. Now that it's over, I'm in New York, getting ready for the Jazz Congress conference which starts in the morning. Winter Jazz Fest is already underway and there's stuff that I'm going to check out, beginning tomorrow night. This post is coming to you courtesy of my friend Sharon's apartment in Astoria. I rode up here on the Megabus this afternoon.

While I missed adding my two cents to JazzTimes' Albums of the Year list, I did get to sound off in the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, which was organized by the venerable Francis Davis. The results can be read here. 

But before I move forward with the events of this trip, I start with bad news. My former Bone of Contention bandmate Bart Wise passed away on December 30, after a battle with pancreatic cancer. I was lucky to see Bart back in 2016 when the Bone got back together to play at RePunk 3. It was a momentous occasion not only because I never thought it would happen, but also because both he and Sean Lally were playing in the band. That was the first and only time they were onstage together, Bart having joined the band after Sean left in 1990.

The Bone's first album, 48 Points of View (recorded when Sean was in the band), might still be the most magical one to me, since it fulfilled my lifelong dream of putting out an actual record. But the lineup with Bart (1990-1993) might have been a more creative, fertile period. It's hard to say definitively. We recorded both a single and a CD (Stay Calm), wrote a lot of songs (the ones I wrote were some of the ones for which I'm most proud) and we played the Knitting Factory, one of just a few out of town trips we made.

The thing to remember in all of this was the band was pretty egalitarian. There was no front person. We all wrote and sang. Well, Bart's token song contribution was an instrumental, and he only did a little back-up singing, but he definitely had a hand in the arrangements. But he brought energy and enthusiasm to the band. If Lila, Barb or I had the song ideas, Bart was the one to say, "Okay, let's do it." And that often meant he wanted to run through a song one more time at practice to make sure we were where we needed to be.

After a certain point, we were getting tired of "Barbie Likes to Die," a song from 48 POV that was the closest thing we had to a hit. By the time the record came out, we had been playing it for two years. But Bart had an idea. Rather than adding the occasional guitar skronk to the riff (like Sean had), Bart offered to get out his trumpet, something he knew how to play just enough to add some well-placed blats to the song. Perfect.

There comes a certain time in a band's life when they reach the limit of what they can accomplish without taking a huge leap of faith to take it to the next level. Some bands don't want to do that, preferring to quit while they're ahead or while it's still fun. Sometimes reality sits you straight about things like this. Bart left the Bone when his doctorate studies at CMU began to take up more time and the shows were quite as exciting as they once were. I, of course, felt like we needed to ramp things up if Stay Calm was going to go anywhere, but deep down I knew Bart was right. I couldn't fault him for throwing in the towel when you've got all that work coming up for you. Clearly he was on a track because he later did post-doc work and got courted to go for a law degree.

His wife Nancy went to high school with me and we were in marching band together. Funny thing is, she didn't meet Bart until they were out in San Francisco together. They have two kids, a son and daughter. Lila and Barb are probably going to the funeral this weekend. If I wasn't here I'd be there too. The guy were a mere 54 years old. I hope he's looking down at me and helping me follow the right path. Maybe he and Pop Shanley are hanging out. I can only hope. Even when you don't see someone very often, just knowing that they're walking the same earth as you can keep you on track. When they're gone, you can feel the loss.