Thursday, December 19, 2019

Antonio Hart in Pittsburgh, and Records

I sold some vinyl last Sunday at the Pittsburgh Record Fest #23, which happened in the afternoon at Spirit. It went really well, with a lot of vendors and a lot of buyers. Plus, I went in with four boxes of albums and a box of singles, and left with just two boxes of albums and a thinner box of singles. I naturally came home with a few things, but they were all pretty inexpensive. In fact, I obtained three of these albums in a trade for two A Certain Ratio albums, which is a pretty good deal, methinks.

The thing about a Record Fest though is that it takes time to prepare for it, if you're going to do it right. That means pricing things, which often means doing some research to figure what's a good price to fan impulse buys, without making things too inexpensive. (I didn't take anything high ticket stuff because most people aren't going there expecting to drop megabucks on a single record.) Because of all that, the time that I spent getting ready was time that I didn't spend right here, talking about new records and shows.

It was a foregone conclusion that alto saxophonist Antonio Hart would offer a good time to everyone who came out to his show on December 7. But his sextet took it even further at the New Hazlett Theater. They pumped up their straight-swinging sound with some deep melodic exploration and energy in two exciting sets.

Hart was flanked by trumpeter Freddie Hendrix and trombonist Robin Eubanks. Hendrix came to town with Billy Harper back in 2015 and released his own Jersey Cat album in the months following that show. If he hasn't made a name for his own self yet, his performance with Hart made him a name to remember. Eubanks has been around for quite some time, releasing albums on his own as well as supporting people like Dave Holland. Hart referred to him as a supportive older brother, who met the saxophonist when the latter was a Berklee student.

The rhythm section was a little  younger than the frontline but it consisted of players that give a listener hope for the future of this music. In particular, pianist Miki Yamanaka really fit that description, due to the way she comped aggressively behind the soloists, building up the music without intruding on anyone. She attended Hart's jazz program at Queens College and he joked that she wasn't his best student since late nights hanging out in jazz clubs made her miss a lot of classes. Clearly he knew, though, that her field work paid off, and so did the audience. Bassist  Alex Ayala and drummer Vince Ector also did a lot to create musical nets that pushed the horns forward.

Beginning the evening with the brief invocation "Peace, Harmony and Love," the group dove into a set that included "Black Children," a Hart composition that dates back to one of his earliest albums, Don't You Know I Care. The saxophonist's tone was a blend of crispness with a thick, beefy quality that comes from his early Cannonball Adderley influence. Hendrix also sounded bright and crisp.
But everyone in the sextet has worked to develop their own personality in their playing. Ayala's solos were extremely melodic. During "Down and Up," he spun a web with Ector during Hart's solo, and switched to walking when it was Eubanks' turn. 

The second set offered the most rewarding moments of the night. "Nine Weeks" was inspired a tour of that length that Hart endured a few years ago in Europe. This slinky number, in which Hart played soprano, eventually pushed towards freedom as everyone soloed together, expressing the tedium of long tour, but doing it in a way that was a blast to listeners. Eubanks' "Sum of All Parts" gave him a chance to show off his trademark blend of blowing and growling vocally during his solo. Yamanaka's "Early Morning" began pensively, with harmonies that created the sound of phantom horns early in the theme. It was a tender piece though it had enough aggression to consider it a ballad.

It was another fine evening presented by the Kente Arts Alliance.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Appreciating Caroll Spinney

By the time Sesame Street aired the segment that talked about store owner Mr. Hooper's death, I was in high school. I kept watching the show long after I aged out of it, but by that time, it was more of a joke. And I recall laughing with some friends about the segment - without, of course, having watched it. The thought of Big Bird dealing with death just seemed like it had to come off as maudlin.

Then, around the time that youtube was running whole hog, I saw the segment. And it crushed me. By just thinking about it, I have the same reaction I get when thinking about, or seeing, George Bailey pleading to Clarence that he wants to live again in It's A Wonderful Life. (When his brother Harry toasts him in the final minutes of the film, I have the same reaction.)

The writers of the Mr. Hooper story are largely responsible for pulling off a smart but difficult task, but a lot of the credit goes to Caroll Spinney, who portrayed Big Bird from the very beginning of Sesame Street. He conveys the reaction a typical six-year old might have while coming to grips with death. "Why can't things be like they were," he demands. It's the heaviest line in the whole scene because it sounds real. The whole segment was done with skill and grace. It doesn't dumb it down for the kids. The first time I saw it, I was bothered that Gordon explains it away with "just because." But I later saw an interview with Roscoe Orman, who played Gordon. That "just because" refers to a previous segment where Big Bird explains while he's doing a funny walk down the street: "just because." It was seen as something a kid would say when they're just doing what they want without any cares. Maybe it oversimplified the discussion of death, but it's done in a way that kids could understand.

Now Caroll Spinney has joined Jim Henson and Jerry Nelson at the Television Workshop in the sky. It's the end of an era.

Full disclosure: Big Bird was never my favorite character on the show.  That distinction probably goes to Cookie Monster. Yet his constant flubbing of Mr. Hooper's name, while the shop keeper was still on the show, was comedy gold to me. Especially since Big Bird carried on blissfully even when Mr. H barked out the correct way to say his name.

Besides, Spinney also voiced another fave on the show: Oscar the Grouch. I loved that Spinney based the voice on a grumpy cab driver who asked, "Where to, mac?" on his first day of work on Sesame Street. And Oscar's low, "heh-heh-heh" laugh was something that I took away from that character. I also thought it was hilarious when Oscar called Big Bird an "overstuffed bag of giblets." I didn't know what giblets were as a kid, but I didn't need to. It was funny.

All of these anecdotes from the show date back at least 35 years. Maybe I'm just the unusual type to keep these things in my memory bank, instead using that brain space for more productive things. Or maybe Caroll Spinney was really good at what he did and knew how to make an impression on viewers.

Either way, I salute and thank him for his work.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Where Have the Last 4 Weeks Gone? or The Harry Von Zells Make Their Debut

Shameful. Awkward. It's been a month since I've done a damn post about anything, let alone new releases or previews. The more I thought about it, the worse I felt about it, rather than channeling those emotions into action and that action into words. Not that I'm beholden to anyone with the blog but me. Maybe that's the problem. 

Not that there hasn't been a lot going on. There's been plenty. I have been writing for Pittsburgh Current over the last few weeks and getting a review or two penned for JazzTimes. Then there's the holidaze. Thanksgiving usually takes a lot out of me. In fact, that happened literally a couple years ago. My asthma was acting up so bad that after dinner, I drove myself to the ER because I felt short of breath and my inhaler wasn't doing it for me. (The wine with dinner didn't seem to help.) Plus, Thanksgiving is equated with loss in my brain. When I was 14, my great-aunt - who was like a surrogate grandmother on my mom's side - passed away the day before Thanksgiving. The way I found out made it even worse. I was out collecting the weekly fees for my paper route from customers. I got to the house where my aunt lived on the top floor, and my mom met me at the door and told me they found my aunt, who had apparently had a heart attack and died. Her sister, who lived with her for years, had passed five months earlier. 

Then five years ago, my dad passed the week before Thanksgiving. I think I've covered that in other blog posts, so I won't revisit that too much. I might have also talked at length about my aunt too. 

A few weeks before this Thanksgiving, I got word that a local jazz drummer, Carter Freije took his life. I had just seen him play with Michael and Peter Formanek and Patrick Breiner. Five days later he was gone. From what I've heard, he had been doing everything he could to keep himself from falling off the edge. It's hard. Let's look out for one another.

On a brighter note.....

....I finally got back onstage with a new band last week!! Yeah, that's me up above for anyone who might not realize it.

The Harry Von Zells made their debut at Howlers on Black Friday. The band is named for the late great radio announcer Harry Von Zell who also appeared on TV on the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. In broadcast history, one of his big claims to fame was that he accidentally referred to President Herbert Hoover as "Hoobert Heever." I know him from a record of radio broadcasts featuring the Marx Brothers, in which Von Zell cut up with Groucho on Birds Eye Open House. My wife and I both thought it would be a hilarious band. Knowing that it might just be us that liked it, I was pleasantly surprised when I ran it by the band and they were cool with it. There's another local band called the Zells, but one of them works with me, and he gave me the okay when I ran the name past him.

This is the result of a collaboration with guitarist Erik Cirelli that goes back over about a year. He and I first got together to do some free improvisations. Then I thought it'd be cool to play rock with him. As the Love Letters came to an unceremonious close, Erik and I started looking for people to play with. We lucked out because Michael Cunningham, who sang and played keys in the band Neighbours, was interested in getting back in the saddle too. Then Erik remembered a cat named Nathan Figlar, who had played with in a few sessions.

Practices were dicey because we're all adults with adult responsibilities (I'm guilty of having the most inhibiting work schedule too) and gone are the days when live revolved around getting to the practice space, come hell or high water. Speaking of which, we realized that it would be better to have a practice space rather than do it in my basement, where we would be limited by my son's sleeping hours and where I'd have to do battle with laundry piles prior to having the guys over. It's been over 20 years since I've rented a space but it's nice to have one again. We're at a Guardian Storage building, which means that in my mind, that company make my brain automatically think about music, since the record collection I bought over the summer was being stored at a Guardian building. Now here I am making music at one of those places, able to crank up to an uninhibited volume level. The dopamine is flowing in my brain.

After a show, I usually find some element of it that gives me some sort of let down: turnout, mix, something about the way one chorus sounded, etc. That didn't happen last week. None of it. Some friends, from far-flung corners of my life, came out for the set, which always puts me in a good frame of mind. Plus there were others that I didn't know who were there. (I think our volume cleared the room for a bit, but hey, I'm okay with that.) And we played really well.

It was an eight-song set, which ended up being about 35 minutes total. We kicked off with a cover, though only about two people in the room probably recognized Big Dipper's "Stardom Because." I've wanted to cover that song for several years, and even got an accurate set of lyrics from Big Dipper's Gary Waleik and Steve Michener. Years ago, I might have been superstitious or self-conscious about launching a new band with other people's tunes, but I've always had a fondness for the song's musical question, "What ever became of all of the famous, who never got started?" I relate to that line - not because I have delusions of fame but because I feel like the bands I've been in have always kind of missed the boat. I also feel it encompasses Big Dipper, not to mention the co-composer of the song, Michael Cudahy, who played in the greatly underrated band Christmas, in the '80s/early '90s.

So, yeah, it was a good start to a new band. No upcoming gigs scheduled yet. At this point I'm gearing up for the Pittsburgh Record Fest #23, which is happening a week from today. For the first time in two years, I'm going to be selling at it., with a bunch of things from the big purchase of the summer. That preparation has been another thing swallowing up time. Hopefully more posts will come though.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

CD Review: Jon Irabagon - Invisible Horizon

Jon Irabagon
Invisible Horizon
(Irabbagast) www,

Sometimes it's hard to tell if Jon Irabagon is simply one of the most creative minds in modern music or if he's a nut with no filter. Maybe he's both. To wit - As the saxophonist of Mostly Other People Do the Killing, he took part in - among other things - the group's note-for-note version of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. (Irabagon played the roles of both Trane and Cannonball.) But he also released a fine, straightahead album on Concord. On a different album, Unhinged, he invited 28 musicians to walk all over his slow jam "Silent Smile," which didn't deter from the beauty of the piece as it added a dose of musical surrealism.

While the list of accomplishments and dichotomies could go on and on, the final one that should be mentioned is Inaction is an Action, an album of solo sopranino sax pieces that explores nearly all sonic possibilities on the tiny horn. It was extended technique par excellence, albeit something one might not pull off the shelf on a regular basis.

Invisible Guests consists of two vastly different discs but both have a similar thread running through them. Both sessions are guided and inspired by superstitions, specters and spirits. The title piece takes up the majority of Disc One, in a recital inspired by Mahjong, a game which was played in Flipino community gatherings which Irabagon's family attended when he was a child. The saxophonist does not play in the six-part suite. The Mivos Quartet - two violinists, a violist and cellist - assume the role of the Mahjong players and pianist Matt Mitchell joins them, acting much like Luck and Ill Will factor in the game, as Irabagon explains.

What this means musically is the strings often seem to chatter with one another, one starting a line that gets echoed by each player, while Mitchell hammers chords beneath them. Sometimes tranquility is undermined by minor string harmonies. Tempos often accelerate, shifting into a tango rhythm in one section. When Mitchell's piano evokes a billowing wind storm, it feels like he's knocking the players' Mahjong tiles over.

After Irabagon explains the game and the performance in the liner notes, he casually says the music can be heard without "the contextual clothing." It does hold up on its own, avoiding the pitfall of some avant classical string works, which can sound rigid and shrill. But his notes help the true goal of the piece to emerge.

Before and after the suite, Irabagon performs with Mivos on sopranino saxophone. The opening piece forgoes the instrument's mouthpiece, allowing Irabagon to make all sorts of percussive, guttural and even recorder-like sounds on the instrument, while the quartet surges forward. The outro restores the mouthpiece for a completely different, richer performance.

For Dark Horizon, Disk Two of the set, Irabagon presents a extremely rare instrument in an unlikely performance space. The Conn saxophone created a mezzo-soprano saxophone (pitched in F) during the 1920s. With the Great Depression around the corner and no repertoire for the mutant horn, it went away as quickly as it arrived. Armed with one of the few of the dozen that weren't scrapped, Irabagon took it into Tomba Emmanuelle, a mausoleum in Oslo, Norway with a 13-second natural reverb. There he performed some rich melodies that beautifully waft into the air ("Dark Horizon," "Holy Smoke"), checks out how the mezzo-soprano responds to extended technique ("Eternal Rest") and makes some really annoying sounds ("Forest and Field"). The fascination lies in the way natural saxophone tones seem to waft in the background while Irabagon is blowing static on the horn. The spirits were speaking.

In the middle of it all, he peels off the least expected interpretation of such a set - "Good Old Days," which served as the recurring theme for the Little Rascals. Even if he comes up with some batshit ideas, this track alone proves that Irabagon's work still falls on the side of heavily creative.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Looking Back at the 49th Pitt Jazz Seminar

Nicole Mitchell said, during the summer, that the Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert would be shaken up this year. After Saturday night's performance at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, one might say she understated things. The flutist, who now heads the Jazz Studies program at the University of Pittsburgh, gave a shout-out to the late Dr. Nathan Davis, who began the musical tradition in 1970. But from there, she took things in a direction that was miles from the blowing sessions and myriad soloists that was a standard fare.

The evening featured one group with Mitchell on flutes and Moog, Jason Moran on piano, Rufus Reid on bass, Marcus Gilmore on drums and sampler, Roscoe Mitchell on soprano and sopranino saxophones and percussion and Moor Mother doing spoken word. Everyone stayed on stage during the whole show, which lasted just over 90 minutes. Although the performance was bookended by pieces that had a definite groove to them, the group itself took sometime to really get into their own groove for the evening. In a way, that feeling seemed to click after Roscoe Mitchell unleashed some vicious call to arms on his soprano sax.

The theme of the evening was "At the Edge of Beauty: Performing Creative Resistance." Mitchell kicked off the set with "Jumping in the Sugar Bowl," a tune by Amina Claudine Myers, the pianist/organist who had performed the previous evening and also received an Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award from Pitt at the start of the concert.  The spry piece, with Mitchell and Moor Mother singing, got the evening off to a festive start. From there, things moved into freer territory. Gilmore and Mitchell engaged in a dialogue of press rolls and flute wails. Mitchell switched to bass flute for added intensity.

After a while it felt like Gilmore was doing most of the heavy lifting during the night, coaxing and directing from his kit. Roscoe Mitchell blew a variety of intense sounds on his horns, which were occasionally hard to hear fully when he sitting away from his microphone. He switched to percussion regularly. At the other end of the stage, Jason Moran sat listening intently, almost as often as he played. Rufus Reid also showed restrain, resting when he wasn't bowing a foundation.

Moor Mother, on the other hand, participated perhaps a little too much when it might have been better to give these A-list musicians some room. A dynamic performer and clearly a strong writer, her work often consisted of a litany of phrases ("The feeling....the gathering...the way to it..") repeated with no conclusion or one that lost listeners by the time it arrived. In a piece dedicated to Toni Morrison, she kept repeating the statement "I remember" over and over and over.

Roscoe Mitchell put much effort into his sound production, gesticulating with saxophones, all the while blowing some otherworldly sounds. In a piece that began with Nicole Mitchell playing Moog synthesizer (or sampler), the elder Mitchell unleashed a pack of barbed squonks, eventually cuing in the rhythm section one by one. Reid bowed a pedal point, sounding more like the Necks' Lloyd Swanton than the decorated jazz veteran that he is. Nearly 70 minutes into the performance, Mitchell's wake up call got the group on the same page, though Moor Mother still could have given the group a little more space.

Ten minutes later, as that piece concluded, the first two rows in the center section had enough and left. A friend sitting in one of the upper balconies also saw several people depart throughout the evening. A couple seated behind had no qualms with talking the whole night throughout the set. I can only imagine how many people were thinking, "That's not jazz." Oh well.

But the ones that stayed showed their appreciation by giving the group a standing ovation. Afterwards, I heard a mix of opinions. "Sometimes you need to keep your mind open while listening." "That was rough." One friend greeted me with a scream of joy and enthusiasm, in large part because the concert looked toward the future rather than simply reveling in the past.  Sure it was a little dicey at times, and some players could have flexed their personalities a little more. But it was great to see Mitchell begin her time in Pittsburgh with such a bold move.

Speaking of bold, Amina Claudine Myers kicked off the concert weekend the night before with a solo set at Bellefield Hall, just around the corner from the Carnegie Music Hall. She began on piano, singing and playing "Down On Me," a blues that might - for better or worse- be best known for the version that Janis Joplin adapted when she was in Big Brother and the Holding Company. Myers delivered it much like Nina Simone might have done, with a rich, emotional voice and style that made musical categorization useless. This delivery set the standard for what followed.

The first half of the set featured Myers playing rippling piano chords, swaying back and forth on the bench, singing in tongues, playing a two-chord riff in the left hand while her right moved over the keys. Then she sat down at the B3 organ, firing up the Leslie speaker. From my seat, I could see the horn in the cabinet rotating and could see Myers' left foot working the bass pedals. If she had stopped after the first organ chord, I would have been satiated. But she went on to play some blues, the dark broken-hearted classic "Angel Eyes" and the original "Have Mercy Upon Us." The latter included some outer space melodies in her right hand, while the bass pedals held it together.

All this for $10. Ten freaking dollars. When was the last time you had that much excitement for $10?

On Saturday morning, I also attended the free seminars of Jason Moran and Roscoe Mitchell. While Mitchell talked at length about the history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Moran talked about his discovery of Thelonious Monk and how it affected his young, piano-playing mind.

Focusing on Monk's 1959 Town Hall Concert, the real surprises were the excerpts Moran played of Monk's rehearsals at W. Eugene Smith's loft where, though the sound quality was rough, we got to hear the pianist talking with arranger Hall Overton about the music Plus, when Moran played the section of "Little Rootie Tootie" where the Orchestra plays Monk's transcribed piano solo, Moran leaned over the piano onstage and joined in. If that wasn't worth getting out of bed early on a Saturday morning, nothing is.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

CD Reviews: William Parker/In Order to Survive & Whit Dickey/Tao Quartets

William Parker/ In Order to Survive

Whit Dickey Tao Quartets
Peace Planet/Box of Light

(AUM Fidelity)

This pair of two-CD releases from AUM Fidelity continues the label's unwavering devotion to freely improvised music that finds its strength in group interaction and deep communication. One album chronicles a live evening with bassist William Parker's quartet In Order to Survive, the other gives drummer Whit Dickey - a longtime sideman to people like Matthew Shipp and David S. Ware - the opportunity to lead two different quartets.

Before long, William Parker might start to rival Ron Carter as the most-recorded bassist in jazz. If that's a slight exaggeration, the bassist is still one of the busiest musicians around, playing in groups of various sizes and helping to drive the Vision Festival with his wife, Patricia Nicholson Parker. In Order to Survive is one of his longest-lasting bands, having formed back in 1993. While the drum chair has shifted a little and the frontline once included trombonist Grachan Moncur III, the band has always included Cooper-Moore (piano) and Rob Brown (alto saxophone). Hamid Drake handles drums for these two sets, which were recorded at Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn to celebrate the release of their previous album, 2017's Meditation/Resurrection.

Both discs of Live/Shapeshifter feature continuous, nearly hour-long performances, banded into separate tracks. Disc One is considered a suite, "Eternal Is the Voice Of Love," which is subdivided into five movements. Brown's unique alto voice acts as a beacon during the opening section, "Entrance to the Tone World." His style recalls Jimmy Lyons, Cecil Taylor's longstanding musical partner, in that Brown has the traditional jazz vocabulary down pat, but shuffles it around in a way to shape it into something different that makes him hard to ignore. He really takes off during the fourth movement, "A Situation," only then digging into some of the horn's noisier tricks.

Parker lets everyone drive here, but he also changes directions a couple times by going into some heavy bass vamps. When he shifts to shakuhachi mid-way through the set, it brings some strong contrast to the music. Likewise, his bowed melody in the final section, "Birth of the Sunset" creates something that is equal parts rugged and lyrical.

Disc two features distinct tracks which still segue together. "Demons Living in the Halls of Justice" shows that even when IOTS doesn't work with band grooves, they can each operate on parallel grooves that work together. However Parker and Drake do some fine interlocking work in "Drum and Bass Interlude" as well. It's only when the vocals come up, in the track named for the band, that the energy flags. The sentiment of the lyric is inarguable: "In order to survive/ we must keep hope alive." But for 14:45, Parker, with help from Dave Sewelson, repeats the words ad nauseum, with little room left for instrumental breaks. It becomes an endurance test. Or something better experienced live.

Whit Dickey admits that he drums with his eyes closed, as a way to help focus on his performance. It's a testament to his skills that he can excel at an instrument that requires specific physical contact. Dickey doesn't play with flash and bombast, preferring to churn and stoke fires from behind. As such, Peace Planet, the first set of the double set, sounds like could have been lead by Rob Brown or pianist Matthew Shipp. Behind them, joined by William Parker, Dickey adds color to the music with cymbal crashes and tom work. This quartet of longtime musical friends get involved in many four-way discussions. "Seventh Sun" finds Parker playing a walking bass line in the early part, but in the final minutes it almost becomes a ballad, at least in terms of tempo. "Suite for DSW" pays tribute to David S. Ware with a varied set of moods that never attempts to outwardly imitate the later tenor giant, but to reflect on his deep spirit.

Box Of Light also includes Brown, but this time Michael Bisio handles bass and trombonist Steve Swell rounds out the quartet. In the liner notes, Dickey describes this set as the rollicking Yang to Peace Planet's flowing Yin. The drummer sounds more aggressive in the presence of the two horns and Bisio's wild bass. He even takes a solo in "Ellipse: Passage Through," starting with cymbal washes and rolling through his whole kit. After an rich bowed solo from Bisio, the horns reemerge very much in sync with one another. The music was created spontaneously but Swell's skill at drawing out Brown's thoughts makes it feel like a composed work. In "Jungle Suite," Swell also gets in some great muted effects on his horn.

AUM released a Dickey trio album two years ago, Vessel In Orbit with violist Mat Maneri and Shipp. These sessions with the Tao Quartets offers reasons to go back and find that one. Hopefully it also means that Dickey will continue to work as a leader as well as a sideman.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Rova Saxophone Quartet's show in Pittsburgh

Steve Adams

Bruce Ackley, Jon Raskin

Larry Ochs
The Rova Saxophone Quartet returned to Pittsburgh for the first time in 25 years on Sunday, October 20. Pittsburghers had chances to see tenor saxophonist Larry Ochs in the time between, with drummer Gerald Cleaver and guitarist Nels Cline (2017) and with the trio What We Live sometime in the late '90s. But this visit was long overdue.

The Quartet's set in the basement of the First Unitarian Church did not disappoint. Each of the players can produce a wealth of sounds from their instruments, going from chamber group clarity to celebratory squonk in the time it takes to breathe. After 42 years with only one lineup change (which came about a decade into the group's existence), they have a rapport that can be felt as they move through even the loosest material.

The rapport came into play during a group piece titled "NC-17." When I talked to Ochs for a story in Pittsburgh Current, he explained that the composition is based on a set of instructions or directions for each player. Any member of the group can cue a change during the performance, sending the players down a subset of directions or suggestions. The results can vary with each performance. Ochs did a lot of the cuing that night, with soprano saxophonist Bruce Ackley and baritone saxophonist Jon Raskin beginning the piece before the latter began a duet with Steve Adams, who switched from alto to sopranino. Raskin later got a wild gurgling noise out of his horn. After it built to a climax, Steve Adams commented that even they seemed to be impressed with the shape "NC-17" had just taken.

Another personal favorite that night came with Raskin's "Valley Winter Cloud." It began wild and free, with all four players at different musical angles. Eventually it settled into a baritone melody that could be considered a ballad, with Ackley answering Raskin's lead.

Throughout the night, Ackley's technique slayed the audience, producing a growl that isn't normally associated with the soprano sax but needs to be heard more often. Adams, who wrote a number of the set's tunes, also displayed a killer tone that had grit and razor-sharp clarity. Ochs as well had moments where his sound was vocal and raw. I took earplugs to the show, so my hearing wouldn't be further damaged by four-part altissimo shrieks. Turns out I had nothing to dread.

The evening began with a set by saxophonist Ben Opie and guitarist Josh Wulff. Opie utilized tenor, soprano and alto throughout thir improvisations, really interlocking with Wulff when he played alto. Wulff created some rich textures and leads, occasionally giving the music shape via loops while at other times he kept it free flowing with a blend of pedal effects and rich leads. The guitarist can be seen around town in the prog-jazz/rock trio Smash Your Wagon with Dave Throckmorton, but those two have also raised a ruckus with Opie in their Sound/Unsound project as well.

The Most Expensive Album I've Ever Bought

I've written a few entries where I expressed my feelings about why original copies of albums can have convey more excitement than a reissue. It has nothing to do with monetary value (well, not primarily) or CD vs. vinyl.  The first copies of an album can get you closer to what a musician was hoping to convey to listeners, not withstanding the possible overbearing influence of a producer or the brass at the record label. There is also a fleeting idea that the copy of a record that came out several decades ago also had some sort of impact on a listener at that time - maybe blowing their mind, maybe puzzling them, maybe infuriating them because they didn't understand what was going on. We've all heard stories about opening used double albums and finding the remains of pot in the center where joints were rolled many moons ago. There are all kind of scenarios that could have unfolded while that record was playing.

Back when I was in high school, I used to frequent a local used record store and became friends with the owner. (I even worked there, under the table, one summer.) Among the albums he told me about was one on ESP-Disk' by Erica Pomerance, who he compared to Lydia Lunch, in her less shrieky moments. When he told me this, the CD reissue boom was a good decade away. Some ESP albums might pop up that way occasionally, like the Fugs or Pearls Before Swine and maybe some Albert Ayler if you're lucky. At that time the Base label was reissuing a lot of the more popular items on that imprint as well. Pomerance was not one of them. The only way to hear old, out of print albums like hers was to find them in a used record store, thrift store, flea market or some other place that might qualify as a fluke.

By the early '90s, the ZYX label began issuing CDs of virtually everything on the label (except the Fugs, who owned the rights to their music following a bad break up with ESP founder Bernard Stollman). I found a copy of Pomerance's You Used to Think on disc, excited to finally hear one of the strange albums about which I had heard only a few choice words. (Skip Spence's Oar kind of falls into the same category of Unheard Music). 

Like many ESP releases, You Used to Think made me wonder what the hell Stollman was thinking when he decided to release it. The music is ragged folk, with some jazz influences (meandering saxophone and way-busy flute noodling), and some doodly sitar thrown in for good measure. While a new band can convey a certain enthusiasm that outweighs their tentative sound, the players on this record just sound like musicians who are meeting for the first time and can't quite figure out how to work together. 

And there on top of all of it is Pomerance herself, wailing her lyrics like a stereotypical beatnik gal, albeit an articulate one. Two lines into one song ("Julius") she hits an extremely bad note, but continues unabated. When she coughs during another song, she quips, "That's from smoking too much."

The notes in the ZYX release featured interview excerpts with Pomerance, who had moved back to Canada where she was born and became a documentary filmmaker. She admits that prior to catching the subway to one of the album's recording session, she - and her bandmates, presumably - took a hit of LSD. This led to such golden tracks as "Anything Goes," which includes her chanting, "Hello, tello-visssss/ jello...mellovissss-." When someone picks up a pair of bongos (because what's an acid trip without them), she begins sing/chanting like she's evoking a Native American ceremony. 

But that's not the best moment of that track. Acting as the guru of the performance, which falls into silence several times, Erica picks it with the invocation: "Take us to a new site.... with trees."

"Oh, and water," Gail Pollard adds enthusiastically, revealing a New York accent on the second word. "And sand."

"Have you noticed the grains," Pomerance asks, sounding very serious. "They're so immaculate."

Not all of the album sounds that loose. "Burn Baby Burn" puts a poem by Lee N. Bridges to some acoustic folk. It might not be "Subterranean Homesick Blues" but it flows much better than the Fugs' attempt to do the same for Allen Ginsburg's "Howl" on their Virgin Fugs album. The best part of this track comes when a break in the music coincides with Pomerance belting out the line, "And the raaaaaaaaaaaats ate up the pussy cat."

My wife has always been very cool and tolerant with the wild free jazz albums that I've listened to over the years. She admits that in all the time we've been together, she's only asked me to turn off a few things. One was a bad Monkees song. One was Patty Waters. The third was Waters' labelmate Erica Pomerance. I'm pretty sure the request came following the aforementioned golden line from "Burn Baby Burn."

I eventually dubbed "Burn Baby Burn" and the title track of You Used to Think onto a cassette and traded the CD in at the place where I bought it. I finally heard the whole thing and didn't think I'd want to hear it again or keep around for those moments when I'd want to amuse and shock houseguests.

Fast forward to the new millennium, when eBay and Discogs popped up and it was easy to track original copies of old albums. You Used to Think, which I found out was originally credited to just "Erica" on the cover and spine, was a high ticket item, if it could be found at all. It became such a frequent object of my search that the eBay algorithm eventually searched for it down for me with a few keystrokes.

As much as I've mocked it - and made it a running joke in the house, as a purchase that would drive my wife crazy and put us in the poor house - there were things about the album that I did like, in spite of its raggedness. The vocals on the title track, double tracks of Pomerance singing an octave apart, were kind of catchy. Lyrically, the song seems to have a proto-feminist stance in the face of dealing with the free lovin' dudes of the day. "To Leonard From the Hospital" was actually based on a letter to her friend from back home, Leonard Cohen. It would be cool to have the original record someday, I thought, as long as it wouldn't break the bank.

Maybe it would sound better on vinyl anyway.

Back in this last summer, I received a bonus from my place of work, which meant I had a little bit of scratch to do something stupid with. I had gone back and forth in my mind about this album. It seemed ridiculous to buy it if - considering how many things I listen to for work and pleasure -  I would just shelve it after a couple spins. On the other hand, it's such a unique artifact. It's been years since I heard all of it. My tastes have changed so maybe I'll like it.

About two weeks ago, the decision was made for me. A copy of the album that appeared to be in good shape had popped up on Discogs. The price was less than three figures, which made it about $40 less than the one I had been wishing on for a long time. I don't need my used records to be pristine. In fact I like when they feel lived in and loved, as long as that doesn't result in serious scratches or skips on the vinyl or heavy shelfware on the cover. This one seemed to have neither, so I jumped.

Last Friday, after a particularly frustrating day at work (for reasons that escape me now), I came home and my wife said there was a record mailer waiting for me. It was a surprise because the tracking info said it wouldn't show up until the following Monday. But there it was in all its splendor.

The ZYX reissue had reversed the black and white colors on the front cover of You Used to Think, for reasons that were never made clear. Maybe it downplayed the fornication happening in the dead center of the photo (go ahead, look at it). The CD had also added the artist's (full) name and the album title to the cover, which sullied the artistic intent of the cover. As you can see from the photos here, the artwork didn't end with the cover. It continued on the labels, which poked a spindle through Pomerance's eye on Side One and popped through her painted face on the other side. I don't think any of this design was recreated in the ZYX booklet, including the dramatic back cover pic. But if I'm simply forgetting it, that means it didn't do her justice.

But how does it sound, one might wonder? Well... it's still pretty shambolic. I'm still puzzled because Trevor Koehler is credited with playing alto sax, but the horn throughout side two sounds a lot more like a baritone, or at least a tenor. Maybe Pomerance should be considered under the same banner as outside musicians like Jandek or Jad Fair. Or maybe she was just a diamond in the rough who could have sounded a little more cohesive if her band had practiced a little more. In some ways, listening to You Used to Think might be the equivalent to eavesdropping on a flock of 1968 Lower East Side musicians who are messing around with song ideas and don't care about cleaning up for major label big wig. Which explains a large part of the beauty of the ESP catalog.

You Used to Think is now the most expensive used album I've ever purchased. (New box sets have been more expensive, for obvious reasons.) One of the most expensive albums in my collection, until now, was another ESP classic, The East Village Other compilation. A few years ago, I received a copy of the reissue, which I reviewed here. It was a fine package (in part because it restored the entire original album unlike other reissues) but it doesn't have half the charm of the original. You can really sense the statement the label was trying to make with it.

The most expensive album I ever bought prior to You Used to Think was a copy of the Pop Group's Y, complete with the lyric sheet. I used to have that during high school but somewhere along the way it got sold to make some grocery money or bill money. Part of the reason it was so expensive was because the seller was in the UK and on top of the cost of the record there was $15 shipping. Oddly enough, within days of purchasing Erica, I received an email that talked about a deluxe reissue plan for Y. Oh if only I had waited 12 years.

Just kidding.

Now I have Erica. It was an investment but it makes me happy.

If you've read this far and are curious about what became of Pomerance, I found a few articles online about her. There aren't many, but this one offer some insight into her connection to Leonard Cohen.
This one talks about the creation of the album.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

CD Review: Tyshawn Sorey and Marilyn Crispell - The Adornment of Time

Tyshawn Sorey and Marilyn Crispell
The Adornment of Time

This statement could probably have been in any of the last couple years, but 2019 has been an especially fruitful year for Pi Recordings. They released the bold, two-disc set from the revamped Art Ensemble of Chicago, a strong disc from Steve Lehman's trio, a bold direction from pianist David Virelles (though that might have come out at the tail end of 2018), a Matt Mitchell set that's equal parts challenging and enthralling. A new Miles Okazaki disc is sitting next to me, demanding to be opened too.

But first, we have The Adornment of Time, a meeting of two artists that had this writer turning into a fanboy and yelling, "Oh boy!" upon hearing about its release. It consists of a single, 64-minute performance that the drummer/percussionist and pianist created spontaneously at the Kitchen in October of last year. (It'll be one year ago exactly, two days after this post appears.) The performance space was completely dark, save for a couple dim lights on both of the musicians and imagining that visual aspect adds to the feeling created by the music.

Upon first listen, the album almost felt like it was divided evenly between the influences of both composers. The first half recalls Sorey's extended compositions with his piano trio, where space and silence serve as equal partners with sound and notes. Around the 30-minute mark, Crispell begins unleashing some aggressive lines from piano, shaping the direction. But a further listen indicated that it's not a simple delineation. Dynamics rise and fall with both players at the wheel, giving each other's ideas the chance to come across.

The Adornment of Time begins casually with an exploratory exposition marked by knocks (possibly from the piano frame), low toms, bells and a few stray piano notes. Sorey and Crispell take their time getting their bearings and it gives listeners the chance to get inside their minds while this happens. When the 21st minute is almost totally silent, save from some drum taps that can be heard only when the volume is cranked, it creates suspense instead of impatience for something more tangible to happen. The payoff comes eight minutes later when Sorey pounds a drum head and Crispell aggressively digs into some two-handed chords.

While that level doesn't last throughout the rest of the piece, there are turns and shifts in the structure as it moves. When Crispell begins scraping the strings of her instrument, it almost sounds like it could be Sorey playing some percussion, if he wasn't already using two hands on his kit. In the final minutes, a gale-force rumble starts building in the bottom range of the piano. Although Crispell moves into the upper range, this isn't a mere climax for the sake of ending the set on a wild note. It's a little deeper than that.

The disc ends before the audience applause happens. More than hearing that, it would have been interesting to see the expressions on the performer's faces as they finished. Thrilled smiles, surprise? We can only imagine, the next time we cue up the disc.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Ravi Coltrane and Mike Watt In Pittsburgh Within Days of Each Other

On October 5, the Ravi Coltrane Quartet blew into town. It marked the first time that the saxophonist came to town with his own band. He appeared with the Blue Note 7 at the Manchester Craftmen's Guild in the mid aughts and twice he was scheduled for the Pitt Jazz Seminar, though he only made it once, due to a last minute cancellation in 2017.

Coltrane, who is the son of the late John and Alice Coltrane, has been playing saxophone professionally for around 20 years. If the family name has helped him get his foot in the door, he has worked hard in the meantime to be his own person on the tenor saxophone, and doesn't try to copy anything his father does. He also plays soprano sax, but he also is getting stronger and stronger on the sopranino, an instrument that he told me can be hard to play due to its intonation issues. I could hear that in last week's performance at the New Hazlett Theater, but if some of the notes were a little out of tune in the traditional sense, it lent more edge to the music, much like Eric Dolphy's high notes on the alto did.

The quartet consisted of Coltrane, Orrin Evans (piano), Dezron Douglas (bass) and Kush Abadey (drums). They opened the set with "Cobb Hill," a composition by Coltrane's friend and frequent collaborator, trumpeter Ralph Alessi. (They recorded this song on Alessi's Wiry Strong album in 2011.) Everyone was playing at the top of their game. Coltrane explored the whole range of his tenor. Evans started his solo in the middle range of his piano, going on to lock into some taut grooves. Douglas proved why he is a force of nature on his bass. Abadey locked in with the bassist, in the first of many moments when he nearly stole the show.

I've made several references to Coltrane's sopranino playing since the instrument is so rare outside of AACM-related circles (and '70s Jethro Tull albums, when Ian Anderson played it). A question about it helped start off a good interview with him a few years ago, which was referenced in my preview in Pittsburgh Current prior to this show. So not only did I feel vindicated to see him bring it on stage, his second tune of the night was a bold piece of the bebop canon, Charlie Parker's "Segment." Coltrane was clearly putting a lot of effort into the tiny instrument, working though the occasional intonation issue for an inventive solo.

They followed that with "For Turiya," a piece by bassist Charlie Haden (Coltrane's mentor during college) which was dedicated to, and played with, Ravi's mother Alice. While the band rolled in a rubato feel behind him, Coltrane dug into some long tones that had a languid, meditative power that indeed evoked his mother.

Evans, Douglas and Abadey provided strong support for Coltrane, and each got plenty of room to stretch out, elevating the saxophonist's performance even further. Evans strikes the piano with one of the most distinct attacks in jazz, creating a sound that makes him easy to spot. It makes me think of McCoy Tyner's approach to the keyboard, and that has nothing to do with who the saxophonist is onstage. That was a feeling I had when seeing him with Sean Jones.

Coltrane didn't make a big deal out of playing one of his dad's songs, mentioning him quickly before a version of "Giant Steps," which was interesting for the moment during his solo when Evans decided to lay out. More impressive was the encore, a version of "Lush Life" played on the sopranino. In a song like that, where every note counts, Coltrane delivered.

Following the show, I ventured over to Con Alma, a new jazz club in Shadyside that I hadn't visited yet. Thoth Trio was playing, so it seemed like a good night to check it out. Coming through the front door, I felt like I was walking in onto the stage, as the band sets up next to the door. It made me wonder if the Five Spot was this intimate. Luckily a seat opened up at the bar and I eventually parked myself there for the rest of the night. The Coltrane Quartet had the same idea because they showed up later too. Evans and Abadey sat in for a few songs but Coltrane himself did not.

Monday, October 7 was my birthday, #52 in case anyone is wondering. Mike Watt has been hitting Pittsburgh sometime in October since the days of the Minutemen and this year, for maybe the third time in all of that, he did it on my birthday. Last year I had to work when he came, with the Meat Puppets in tow, so I decided I couldn't miss my Bass Hero this time around. Thankfully, my shift was over at 8 p.m., just as the show was starting. That only meant that I missed my co-worker Gordy's band Bat Zuppel open the show. I got there right as Edhoculi were getting ready for their tight, brutal set.

Watt ambled onstage a bit later, with the Missingmen - long-standing guitarist Tom Watson (ex-Slovenly, from the SST salad days) and drummer Nick Aguilar, the latter who would've done George Hurley proud but looked like he was several years too young to be in the club (though he is legal).

They opened with the Last's "She Don't Know Why I'm Here," one of several salutes to the musicians that came up at the same time as Watt and/or inspired his work. Before the end of the night, the trio would rip through Blue Oyster Cult's "ETI," Roky Erickson's "I Have Always Been Here Before" (a super-quiet song that had feedback issues and got Watt cussing) and a ripping, vicious version of the Pop Group's "We Are Time."

But most of the set consisted of Minutemen songs. From all corners of the catalog. Not just "popular" ones like "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing" and "Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs," but the two songs that followed the latter on What Makes a Man Start Fires and my favorite song from Politics of Time, "The Big Lounge Scene." Turning another year older, and hearing these songs played the same passion and intensity as they were 30+ years ago, it's enough to make a guy get all wistful. That would have happened if the group wasn't so tight, moving from song to song so quickly that I didn't have time get choked up about anything.

Watt of course was amazing. He seemed to be busting Aguilar's chops during the set, or maybe he was just firmly giving him direction. The feedback came during the quiet moments of the set, when the band got extremely quiet. I heard later that the soundman tried to get them to do a quiet song during the soundcheck to tweak things but Watt doesn't do that, sticking with a few particular soundcheck tunes. Oh well, it didn't bother me none.

Figured I'd shoot this for posterity, and leave the hard copy for some other fan who might want it.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

John Coltrane, Meet the New Pornographers. New Pornographers, Meet John Coltrane

Last Friday was a banner day for album releases. In terms of popular creative music, you'd arguably be hard pressed to find two acts that could generate as much anticipation for new releases as the New Pornographers and John Coltrane. That's not some baseless claim either. It's not meant to hold them up to the same measure as someone like Taylor Swift either, who I think might have also released something last Friday. Note the use of the word "creative" there.

Anyhow, I had a day off last Friday so I ran off to Government Center, a newer record store on Pittsburgh's North Side, and snatched up both of these. (I also picked up an empty cover of Peggy Lipton's self-titled album out of the free bin. Although it would have been cool to have the record, the cover alone will suffice, as this link to a previous post will explain.)

Blue World qualifies as a Coltrane "lost session" to some degree, though not quite to the extent of last year's windfall Both Directions At Once. Recorded in 1964, Coltrane revisited a few of his Atlantic tunes as something of a favor to Canadian film director Gilles Groulx. A fan of the tenor saxophonist, and a friend of Jimmy Garrison, Groulx wanted to use Coltrane's music as the soundtrack to a film he was making about two young lovers, Le chat dans le sac. Unlike Thelonious Monk's labored efforts to record music for Les Liasons Dangeruses (which was released a few years ago), Coltrane took his classic quartet into Rudy Van Gelder's studio, banged out eight tracks and Groulx had what he needed.

Although there are eight tracks, there are only five different compositions. The quartet runs through "Naima" twice. In Take two, Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones eschew the slow tempo of the song for a beat that almost goes against the melody, taking it in a loose direction that Coltrane would explore further in the coming years. Three takes of "Village Blues" appear on the album, each coming in under four minutes and featuring pianist McCoy Tyner as much as Coltrane. The title track is a reconstituted version of the standard "Out of This World," the only track that Coltrane had recorded with this exact lineup, and the only one to appear on Impulse, rather than Atlantic, Records.

The revelation of the set comes with "Traneing In," which dates back to 1957 and the saxophonist's tenure on Prestige. It opens with a Jimmy Garrison solo different than the style that he became known for (out of tempo, with thoughtful double-stops). Garrison, who is usually buried in the mixes of Coltrane albums, plays in tempo here, sounding bright and maybe even a little funky. At 7:38, and one of only two cuts that last more than five minutes, it kicks the band into an aggressive mood after giving the bassist some overdue props.

Coltrane fanatics will surely want to grab this one for yet another glimpse of the amazing quartet. But even casual fans - especially ones who don't revel in the long solos - will find value in the performances. Considering how Coltrane's live performances were beginning to take on longer lengths, Blue World also proves that he could still be concise in a chorus or two.

The New Pornographers set the bar especially high for themselves with their first two albums, which go back almost 20 years. Recently I was making a mix CD for a friend who had never heard them (there are still a few out there, hard to believe) and upon hearing the intro to "The Electric Version," the majesty of that song hit me all over again - plucked chords (a la "Friday On My Mind") over a riff over eight (!) chords that eventually spills into a Beatle-esque climax. No wonder it realigned my universe at the time. And as I've stated far too many times on this blog, "The Bleeding Heart Show" from Twin Cinema is one of the most powerful songs ever, giving me chills when simply thinking about the coda.

Every New Pornographers album since then (as of last week, there are now eight in total) has been at least good, and more often than not, really good. A few years ago it hit me than one thing that wasn't as prominent on recent albums as past ones were the guitars. Not that they've forsaken them, but the group's sound often downplays them in favor to the layers of vocals and the keyboard atmosphere.  A.C. Newman (he doesn't seem to be going by "Carl" on the albums anymore) has made the '80s keyboards sound respectable when combining with his pop smarts, but sometimes the pre-programmed arpeggiated feel of them takes something away from the music. Which is not to say that a so-so New Pornographers can't beat the pants off of most bands on a given day.

In the Morse Code of Brake Lights (their second album for Concord, a label that was once known primarily for distinguished jazz vets like Mel Torme and George Shearing).feels like this might be the strongest set of Newman's songs in a while. It features similar expansive, Sensearound production as its predecessor Whiteout Conditions, even adding a string section on several tracks, but the writing also feels a little sharper. Newman has a very personal way of arranging harmonies, pairing his voice with Neko Case, keyboardist Kathryn Calder and new addition (on album at least) violinist Simi Stone that sounds like no one else. This happens right out of the gate with "You'll Need a Backseat Driver," which like The Electric Version's opening title track knocks you backwards in bliss. Melodically, he also takes left turns at the end of choruses that give the music unexpected boosts.

Dan Bejar, the Destroyer frontman who contributed three songs to most of the band's albums, was MIA on Whiteout Conditions, off recording his own album. He hasn't officially returned to the fold but he and Newman co-wrote "Need Some Giants," which leaves a Bejar footprint due to its catchy riff, complete with a key change in the chorus that's just unsettling enough to be enjoyable. The keyboards still play a heavy roll  throughout, but while the previous album's sound sometimes programmed, In the Morse Code has a more organic feel.

For the first time, the album liner lists what everyone plays on each track. Perhaps it's just a personal preference but it serves as a good guide to how the songs are built. Maybe next time, they'll even include a lyric sheet, although Newman's production does push the words more to forefront this time, anyway. You won't be hearing "Higher Dreams" on the airwaves anytime soon.

Yeah, records are little more expensive these days, but these were a worthy investment.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Oliver Lake, Graham Haynes, Joe Fonda & Barry Altschul at Alphabet City

I went out of order again, posting about the Steve Lehman Trio's Sunday night show before talking about the OGJB Quartet show which happened last week at Alphabet City.

Every September for the last 15 years, saxophonist Oliver Lake has gotten together with City of Asylum to present a program of jazz and poetry with music and poets, many of whom are exiled from their native countries. In the past, he brought in the World Saxophone Quartet, Vijay Iyer and Jump Up. The one-night event has grown to a whole month of performances, where poets perform with live music, usually following a set that the band plays by itself.

This year Lake brought in his cooperative group that includes Graham Haynes (cornet, dousn' gouni), Joe Fonda (bass) and Barry Altschul (drums). (The name derives from their first initials.) TUM released their CD Bamako this year, presenting a great set of composed works and group improvisations by these veteran players.

Live, they were just as tight. One audience member seemed bothered by the fact that Oliver Lake seemed to stick to long tones on his alto, but the sustained notes just seemed to give Joe Fonda and Barry Altschul more freedom to roll and tumble around. Their contributions to the set were the highlights of it. But Haynes' switch to dousn' gouni (a stringed instrument) added to the other wordly sound of the performance, bringing some more sustained drones to it.

Poets Alicia Ostriker, Osama Alomar, Batsirai Easther Chigama, Efe Duyan and Takako Arai each performed with the group. Some of the poems were short and involved the whole group going into a walking groove behind them. Other ones were longer and more impressionistic with just one or two musicians.. Not all of the poets write in English, so translations were provided on the screen behind the band. While poetry and jazz can head down a slippery slope, succumbing to bad stereotypes about poets over-emoting, getting lost in the music, or just drowned out by it, the performers tonight worked really well  to integrate both words and music. It looked like Fonda had the words on his music stand - or maybe it was a music chart. So the group knew when to stop and made each reading stand alone as a unique piece, rather than just creating a backdrop for the poets.

(Note: the first picture here is a shot of the monitor on one side of the room. I was sitting near the back and couldn't get a good shot of the whole band otherwise.)

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Steve Lehman Trio in Cleveland

I've been a fan of Steve Lehman since I heard his 2009 album Travail, Transformation and Flow. The alto saxophonist recorded it with an octet, creating some of the most unique post-millennium jazz I felt I had ever heard. Plus his alto technique is pretty staggering, with lines that attack with lightning speed and still manage to stop on a dime, mid-thought, twisting the melody even more creatively into some time signature that gets too distracting to try and count. He has a wild tone as well, blunt and a little gruff but crystal clear at the same time.

Lehman has recorded a few albums with a trio of drummer Damion Reid and bassist Matt Brewer. The latest, The People I Love, adds pianist Craig Taborn to the trio and was released by Pi just recently. A few years ago, he brought hit octet to Oberlin College, including drummer Tyshawn Sorey. Having missed that show, I made it my mission to get to Cleveland to see the trio at the Bop Stop this past Sunday, September 22. It was worth the trip

First of all, the Bop Stop is a beautiful place. A few friends of mine head down there regularly (and in fact where there on Friday to see Miles Okazaki) but I didn't know what kind of space it was, jazz club vs. just a room with a p.a. It is a beautiful room with great acoustics, tables down front near the stage, a bar in the back and a great view of Lake Erie out the windows. (Locals might not call it "great," but this out-of-towner dug it.) Once a free-standing club, it's now a non-profit space connected to the Music Settlement, which provides music therapy and instruction.

Midway through a seven-day tour that started in California, the trio was extremely tight. You have to be for the kind of jagged music that they play, but they were comfortable with the nuances of it to take it to a level that generated excitement. 

Reid was a perfect example of this comfort level because he never looked at his kit while he was playing, but knew exactly when to hit, tearing off fills like they were nothing. It seemed like Lehman didn't stop to take a breath at all during the first piece, circular breathing to keep the notes flying. A few times, Brewer looked to his left and it seemed like he was keeping casual eye contact going with Reid. But after awhile, it started to look more like he was eyeing up the neck of his bass, as if he was getting into a deep conversation with his instrument about how to drive the music. Sitting right in front on center stage, it was sometimes hard to hear Brewer's playing clearly, but you could definitely feel it. His solo in "Fumba Rebel" provided plenty of evidence that he was working hard. A few tunes later, Reid opened a song with drum solo that hit hard as thunder.

Lehman didn't make light of it being the day before John Coltrane's birthday, but he did play two of the tenor giant's pieces. "Moment's Notice" was recorded on the trio's Dialect Flourescent and like that version, the theme proper didn't appear until the end of the song. Until the point, it was a detailed, pointillistic exploration of the melody. Earlier in the set, they played Coltrane's "Satellite," taking it in 7/8, which Reid swung like crazy.

On disc, I've been partial to Lehman's octet work but The People I Love is changing that. The trio has really grown and developed into a remarkable group. Instead of laying a foundation for the saxophonist's playing, Reid and Brewer play in a way that's deeply connected to Lehman, helping it stretch and retract as one.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

CD Review: Russ Lossing - Motian Music

Russ Lossing
Motian Music

This album came out in the early part of the year, and I've been listening to it a lot since then, waiting for the right moment to write about it, when the music is clear enough in my head to yield some coherent thoughts. Now's the time, it seems.

I've said this many times and, for that reason, this should probably be the last time it appears in print, true as it is: Paul Motian always seemed like he could express more feeling in one tap of the ride cymbal than most drummers could say in a whole solo. His approach to the drum kit sounded so personal, like thoughts flowing from the mind of a deep thinker.

By the same token, his compositions had much of that immediacy. They sprouted from the same focus on simplistic, but fertile, ideas. In Motian Music's liner notes, pianist Russ Lossing recounts the experience of reading through the drummer's compositions at his apartment as he finished them. "I play while he alternately hovers over me and walks around the apartment listening. 'It's slooooow,' he says... After I play the bare melody, Paul asks the inevitable question: 'What chords would you put under it?' A complicated question. to be sure; so many possibilities, so many directions."

Regardless of the possibilities, this set of of Motian's tunes gives credence to the idea that players shouldn't rush through the composition to focus on improvisation. In "Asia," which opens the album, Lossing doesn't stray far beyond the written theme. Instead, bassist Masa Kamaguchi and drummer Billy Mintz open up a little, while the pianist repeats the theme with a bit more emphasis each time. It's not exactly the approach Thelonious Monk took, but his likeminded idea of keeping the melody close at hand comes through.

Mintz adds some very Motian-esque cymbal taps in "Introduction" which underscores Kamaguchi's simple pulse and Lossing's melody. A whole track of this would be enough, but they open it up into a detailed three-way conversation. "Etude" also begins gently, with Kamaguchi playing the melody, before Lossing picks it up and the trio rolls into it thoughtfully. When the song reaches a climax, the trio sounds like they're leading to a roaring finale, only to pull back and end as gently as they begin.

In addition to producing a stellar set, the trio's work also left me wondering how these tunes sounded when Motian played them, a sign of quality in any tribute album. While listening to it one night, I wrote down the original albums on which each track appears. Most of them are on ECM and are part of a six-album box set that the label released a few years ago. That list got lost in a sea of papers somewhere around here, but that just means that it's time to revisit the whole box. Or just play Motian Music again.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

CD Review: Ben Goldberg - Good Day for Cloud Fishing

Ben Goldberg
Good Day for Cloud Fishing

Ben Goldberg has incorporated poetry into his music on previous albums. His group the Tin Hat Trio drew from e. e. cummings for The Rain Is a Handsome Animal. The poetic musings of Allen Grossman, a writer and former teacher of Goldberg, were combined with music on Goldberg's expansive Orphic Machine. Good Day for Cloud Fishing takes the creative process deeper, creating a work that must be experienced physically.

The clarinetist wrote 12 pieces inspired by particular poems by Dean Young. When he recorded them with guitarist Nels Cline and trumpeter Ron Miles, Young came to the sessions and sat in an isolation booth, listening to the music. Not knowing which of his poems inspired the tunes being played, he in turn reacted to the trio by writing a new poem on the spot. The resulting 24 poems - the "entry" ones that lead to the music and the "exit" poetry that were born in the studio - are printed on cards that come in a clamshell box that houses the CD and a 16-page booklet.

The music on Good Day for Cloud Fishing can be approached from several angles. Overlook the poetic aspect of the album, and the attention zeroes in on a unique chamber group. It opens with a slow, whole note melody by Miles and Goldberg (who sounds like he overdubbed his contra-alto clarinet behind his B-flat clarinet). After the simple melody, which acts like a literal entrance, they turn the floor over to Cline, whose effects-heavy playing gives it a bit of a carnival-esque feel. All this serenity in a piece titled "Demonic Possession is 9/10s of The Law."

Throughout the set, the trio proves they could be a good accompaniment to Tom Waits ("A Rhyhtmia," "Ant-Head Sutures"), creates noirish soundtracks ("Because She Missed a Test, She Introduces Me to Her Boa"), get delicate ("Reality") and mix shrill and skronk ("Sub Club Punch Card"). Between Goldberg's contra-alto taking the role of a bassist, and Cline's rhythmic picking, it's easy to forget that the percussive feel in a track like "A Rhythmia" is not coming from a percussionist.

After exploring the music on its own, it's best to take a secondary listen with the poems in hand, understanding the way Young shaped the music, directly or indirectly. Goldberg didn't necessarily attempt to transfer a poem like "Surprised Again by Rain" into notes. But it, and the other poems, deepen the experience, in some way making the nuances in Goldberg's work more noticeable when they're discovered in tandem with the words. 

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Three Shows and a Tribute

The end of another month has come and I'm feeling deficient in blog posts. It seems like when I'm at work or in the car driving somewhere, I have plenty of inspiration for what I could write about. Thoughts on old albums. New things that I like. Shows I've been to. Even just a paragraph or two will do it. Then when I'm home, there's always something to keep me from doing it - another household project, a flurry of emails. Or more likely - the desire to sleep.

Since it's the last day of August, I figured I'd look back at some shows I checked out this month and beyond. Before I do that, though. I have to pay some homage.

My dear friend Ed Boytim passed away earlier this month. Ed was the drummer in the Minimalist Love Gods, a duo with guitarist Rob Rayshich. Prior to that, he also played in the great prog-punk (I think that's an apt description) band Special Ed and their predecessor Window Pain. We also played together in the Purple Lady Arts Ensemble, a music and dance project that he and his wife Sara put together for an arts festival in Homestead. It was essentially Bone of Contention and the MLGs plus a few other folks. Ed probably played in several other projects in between as well. 

Ed's musical knowledge was vast. If there was a prog rock band from the '70s that you were wondering about, he could give you an authoritative assessment of them. I was sort of a charter member of the Love Gods off and on, mostly playing keyboards with the band. My keyboard chops couldn't keep up with the ideas I had in my head, but I can recall times when the three of us attempted to do a Soft Machine imitation in the basement. Or the time we did a digest version of side one of Roxy Music's For Your Pleasure

But most significantly, Ed voiced an idea that I took and ran with. When Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Band passed away, Ed casually suggested doing a tribute show. He was always full of good ideas, but didn't always have the time to see them through. On other hand, I would run with an idea before someone could say, "Mike, I was only half-serious." I recruited five friends who played reeds and could read music. Then I set about transcribing Bonzo Dog Band songs by ear and writing out parts for the horn players. (I still have them too.) Rob and Ed didn't read music but they knew the songs so well that it didn't matter. 

That was a big experience for me because it was really the first time I created a project and directed it, with people who trusted my lead. (I asked the horn players if they'd stand there wearing lampshades during the first song, since they didn't play. They said sure.) It took us two shows to get the whole performance done, but that's another story. I feel like I owe the growth I made at that time to Ed. There are also a lot of albums that automatically make me think of him, which was kind of heartbreaking in the days after he suddenly passed. I hope wherever he is, he has a good stack of albums and books to read while he's listening. 

If you ever see a copy of the Devolver CD seen above, grab it. Trust me. It's a wonderful set of songs, as is their cassette debut Deconstruct the Id.

The first show to mention actually took place at the end of July. Drummer Kid Millions (possibly best known for his work in the band Oneida) and saxophonist Jim Sauter (of Borbetomagus) played a raucous set at Collision, a performance space way in the nether regions between Point Breeze and Wilkinsburg. My bandmate Erik Cirelli was playing that night with Skeletonized and luckily he met me out front of the place, because if he hadn't I would probably have driven past it. It literally has some sort of canopy over the doorway with no indication of it being a performance space. Inside it's a hollowed-out warehouse of a building and thank God the heat of the previous few weeks had broken. Otherwise it would have been unbearable. 

I was never much of a fan of Borbetomagus. A Downbeat article about them piqued my interest in the '80s, but everything I heard just felt like balls-to-the-wall extreme screeching that didn't go beyond that. But it had been long enough, and I liked Kid Millions' projects, so I felt it was time to check out what Mr. Sauter was up to. Let me tell you, he hasn't started playing ballads. Along with his tenor sax, he had an array of effects pedals that he used to manipulate his horn. The sound was just as rowdy as he's always been. What wasn't lost to the echoes of the building sounded like a lot of fun. Kid Millions rolled out some powerful free drumming and smiled joyfully almost the whole time. Their solid set - which lasted somewhere around 20-30 minutes though I didn't check my watch - was a blast. It made me recall what either Sauter or his sax partner Don Dietrich said in that Downbeat article regarding the sounds they produced: "It's a scream of joy." 

My work schedule has precluded me from seeing a lot of shows over the past several months. That's likely going to change pretty soon, but last weekend, I actually worked the opening shift and had both evenings free. I was on the fence all day about going out on Saturday but when I finally got off my duff, I made it to the Thunderbird right as the Working Breed were kicking off the set for their CD release show. (Check out my article here for more info about the band.) As I was walking down the steps of the huge and newly revamped music venue, I thought I recognized the opening of the album and I was right. Maybe my timing wasn't totally spot on (there was supposed to be some opening ceremony to the set, and I missed Cello Fury), but I'm sure glad I got there when I did.

Erika Laing plays an array of instruments during one set, in addition to fronting the Working Breed. Her trombone and trumpets chops are on-the-money, but she's really carving out her own niche by incorporating the singing saw into their art rock sound (see photo above). She plays it with a bow (with her left hand rather than right) and gets some amazing vibrato and tone from it.

But that's not all...

It only appears briefly in one song, but she also plays the sheng, a Chinese polyphonic instrument. This was the one element of her artillery I didn't get to cover in the article, but apparently the instrument has reeds in it that are dipped in mercury. In China, there is a story about old men who play the sheng who kind of loose their minds as they get older, having inhaled mercury over the years. The more expensive shengs aren't like that, but the one Erika plays (which a friend brought back for her) is on the lower end. So a blow here there is.... okay, I guess.

Their whole set was pretty theatrical and high-spirited. They had an obelisk onstage that was built specifically for the show, as well as a huge "W" and "B." " We didn't steal these from Warner Brothers. They were built for us," Erika said. I had a premonition the final song from the album would bring some other visual explosion and I was right. Confetti bombs went off in the balcony at the climax of "Orange Fluff," raining down during the final chords. 

For their encore, they played Kansas' "Carry On Wayward Son." I don't like that song at all but this was no ironic, jokey take on it. The Working Breed did a tight version of it. And that song ain't simple, musically or vocally. So I was impressed.

In that same issue of Pittsburgh Current with the Working Breed in it, I also previewed the appearance by Thumbscrew, who came to City of Asylum this past Wednesday. They've come to Pittsburgh several times, so an article on them was long overdue, especially since their Pittsburgh visits have been pretty productive, yielding three CDs so far, recorded at Mr. Smalls. 

The trio - guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, drummer Tomas Fujiwara - had actually been in town for a week and a half by the time of the show. They were working through a set of new material and some pieces by Anthony Braxton, in anticipation of a performance at the composer's 75th birthday next year. 

Maybe it was the fact that they were stoked to play brand new pieces but the whole set revealed that their writing and their musical interaction are really growing and maturing. Things moved between more straight ahead, jazzy tunes and slower mood pieces that erupted into a wonderful chaos. 

Formanek put down the upright bass few a few tunes and played bass guitar, with a pedal board that rivaled that of Mary Halvorson's. In the bassist's "Scam Likely," he started off sounding like Moog while Halvorson's effects gave her the sound of an '80s Casio synth (that's a good thing). Through the whole set, Fujiwara was stealth. One minute he was maintaining a steady tempo, the next he was switching from sticks to mallets without a break in his playing. And then he was lifting the bandstand, wailing away as Halvorson looped a wild noise and added below-the-bridge plunks. I almost screamed in enthusiasm, but thankfully I didn't.