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.