Sunday, March 31, 2019

Saying Goodbye to Juke Records and Bill Oliver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Sun of Goldfinger Hits Pittsburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

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

Phillip Johnston & the Coolerators
Diggin' Bones

Phillip Johnston
The Adventures of Prince Achmed


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 07, 2019

CD Review: Tiger Hatchery - Breathing in the Walls

Tiger Hatchery
Breathing In The Walls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 03, 2019

CD Review: Brötzmann/Leigh-Sparrow Nights

Peter Brötzmann/Heather Leigh
Sparrow Nights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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