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. 

Saturday, August 24, 2019

CD Review: Anthony Braxton - Quartet (New Haven) 2014

Anthony Braxton
Quartet (New Haven) 2014
(Firehouse 12)

A recent article about Anthony Braxton that appeared on Rolling Stone's website provides some good insight into the saxophonist's mindset and serves as a good primer for this four-disc set. (The interview subject and the monolithic magazine might seem totally incompatible, but writer Hank Shteamer has been taking great steps to change that.) Braxton has always been open about his wide-ranging musical tastes, my favorite one being Johnny Mathis. That topic kicks off the article, with Braxton espousing his appreciation for the work of Captain Beefheart, which impressed him so much that friends often called him "Anthony 'Beefheart Boy' Braxton." Considering his fondness for adventurous rock, it should come as no surprise that a new Braxton box set features him playing with two musicians known for their work in rock bands.

Quartet (New Haven) 2014 consists of four nearly hour long improvisations with Braxton and his long-standing bandmate Taylor Ho Bynum (trumpet) together with Nels Cline (guitar) and Greg Saunier (drums). Cline of course has a lengthy c.v. with free improvisation and jazz in addition to his tenure with the rock band Wilco. Saunier, on the other hand, is probably known best for his work with the indie rock band Deerhoof. Although the latter is more song oriented, their approach to song structure does give the impression that Saunier might be compatible in a free improv context. And he does.

The four tracks are dedicated to popular musical icons: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, James Brown and Merle Haggard. (Braxton claims to be a fan of all four.) Like some dedications, the music doesn't attempt to evoke the honoree's style, but to simply salute their spirit. Any detected quotes from the "Ball and Chain" feedback squall or the groove of "I Got You (I Feel Good)" are purely coincidental.

The rapport between these players is established almost immediately. Things seem to really catch fire around the 20th minute of each piece, when they seem to have a feel for the space in the music and they start to dig in. Things move along loosely but the group builds enough dynamics into the music that it never stays in one place for too long. Even moments when things start to fragment a little, the players still work in a forward motion.

Braxton switches saxophones regularly. As beautiful as his contrabass saxophone moments are - and he definitely produces a rich tone from the beast, capable of both low melodies or foundation-shaking noise - he only gives himself about two minutes at a time on the instrument. Then, with no transition,  he's suddenly onto the sopranino, soprano, alto and "regular" bass sax.. He also be a baritone sax in "Improvisation 3"while Cline plays some surf guitar.. One of other Cline's shining moments comes about 27 minutes into "Improvisation 2" when his guitar sounds like it's playing backward, measuring up against some of gruff alto saxophone. By the end of this one, the collective sound almost sounds a little nightmarish.

That being said, "Improvisation 3" might be the noisiest of the four tracks. Of the more abrasive moments, Bynum keeps repeating a shrill chromatic line ad nauseum around the mid-way mark. But in the grand scheme of the piece, it's a quick stop along the way. Later on he growls in tandem with some sopranino whinnies.

In "Improvisation 4"- which would likely leave Merle Haggard scratching his head, unless his musical tastes are as catholic as those of Braxton - Saunier seems to borrow Bynum's method at the start of the piece and whacks a rim shot repeatedly, almost sounding like his tinkering with some carpenter work while his friends play on. Before long, though, he spreads himself out across his whole kit. Cline seems conspicuously absent in the first quarter of this one, only adding some electronic freak out noises intermittently. But he eventually spends a good deal of the track running his guitar through an octave pedal, so it sounds like a bass which gives the whole thing a bit more of a center.

Braxton has collaborated with countless musicians throughout his career and has lead some groups that disbanded or altered lineups after just a short time. He initially planned to have this group play composed works. That might have been an equally productive session, but these four tracks offer a more involved answer for a "what if" question regarding such a diverse meeting of the minds.This might be a hard set to digest in a sitting or two but it's also one that needs to be heard.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Shane Parish & Wendy Eisenberg in Pittsburgh

Just got back from seeing Shane Parish and Wendy Eisenberg play at Acoustic Music Works, a music store in Squirrel Hill.  I've been intrigued by Wendy's playing since I first heard her albums The Machinic Unconscious and Its Shape Is In Your Touch last fall. (Read about them here.) There's a lot more that she's done before and since those two albums and I haven't had the chance to keep up with it, but that makes me all the more intrigued. So I was pretty stoked that she was coming to town on a night that I wasn't working. (She breezed through town in the Flying Luttenbachers a few months ago, and the only reason I found out was when some friends posted it on Facebook.)

Shane Parish's name is new to me but clearly these two work really well together and I wish I had been able to pick up both their duet album and a solo Wendy album, but I only had a enough for the latter.

Free improv guitar can get lost in the visceral qualities of the act of playing but these two really flowed well together. Tonight there were no electric guitars in sight. The duo's tour stayed in keeping with the name of the space. The set began with Wendy playing softly, with Shane joining her after a few seconds. They kept the volume low in these opening moment, prompting one Acoustic Music Works guys to turn off the air conditioner when it came on and threatened the muffle the sound.

The dynamics got louder as they played, not in a gradual build but shifting quickly when it felt right. Shane hit a loud chord but it was a pronouncement along the way instead of a cue to go someplace else. Even when they seemed to be playing in opposite directions, their guitars still worked together, making them almost feel like sounds in nature that do their own thing independently, while creating music together at the same time. Wendy stopped playing a few times to simply caress her instrument, getting sounds from the wood. Or maybe this is her way of taking a pause. Shane didn't quite do that, but he did tap on the instrument and got a similar feeling going.

By the end of the set, the ten or so of us that were there all forgot that the air conditioner had been turned off.

Eric Weidenhoff, Jeff Weston and Jim Storch opened the evening with a free improv set on cello, bass and percussion, respectively. Equally quiet and restrained for most of it, the music got pretty spare and open at times.

Monday, August 05, 2019

When Will I Get to Play All Those Records?

Okay, maybe no one else notices but it's gotten ridiculous in terms of how long it's been since I posted here. A month?! Jiminy crap. Not a day goes by when I don't think about an album I'd like to write about or a show that I went to, or an article that I wrote about. And I just joined the Jazz Journalists Association at long last too. What kind of flake am I?

A busy flake, let's just say.

Since the last post, I finished a story on Joe Fiedler, the Pittsburgh native and Taylor Allderdice grad (who, it turns out, was there as a senior when I was a freshman) who is now a musical director on Sesame Street. Earlier this year he released an album called Open Sesame, interpreting some prime (read: from the '70s) tunes from Sesame Street in a jazz quartet/quintet. I listened to that on the way up to Winter Jazz Fest and knew I had to write something about him. I filed the piece with JazzTimes and I think it might be going in their October issue.

I also started working on a piece about flutist Nicole Mitchell who is now the head of Jazz Department at the University of Pittsburgh. Several interviews have been conducted on that subject and I have to start transcribing and getting my thinking cap on soon as to how the piece will go. That's also going in JazzTimes, in their education issue.

Throughout that time, I still wrote a couple stories for Pittsburgh Current on local folks like Weird Paul and Madame Dolores (aka Christiane D). I missed the Deutschtown Music Festival because of work, since I close at work all the time. But the crowds sounded pretty huge at that event so maybe it was just as well.

But there was another big thing that happened in July. One that I've been rather guarded about, at least at first. I bought a record collection. A fairly sizable one of quality stuff too. It's something I always wanted to do but never really had the opportunity. It belonged to a guy who was a colleague of a friend of mine. They were both lawyers and my friend was the lawyer for this guy's estate. (He passed away sometime last year, I think.) A lot of the things in the collection look like they might have been played once or twice and then shelved, especially the singles, which almost all date back the first wave of punk rock. They don't have the early British punk stuff (Pistols, Clash, Damned) but there is a lot of weird New York stuff and some other things from the Pacific Northwest that are only remarkable in my mind because they include a guy who went on to play in the SF jazz group Splatter Trio.

When I first saw the collection I didn't take the time to look through everything. There were certain things that sealed the deal for me: Impulse Records spines, some Blue Note stuff ('70s pressings), prog rock, Mosaic boxes, a single by Pittsburgh's the Five. So when I got it home, I was still making new discoveries a few days, and sometimes a week, later.

Why be so secretive about this, one might ask. It's quite the coup. The answer to that is twofold. For one thing, the paranoid part of me knows that records can make people crazy. Crazy driven by desire. The desire to want some of the action.

But the other thing is, I bought this collection with the idea of reselling a lot of that. I have been selling records off and on for over a dozen years now. The earliest posts here chronicle trips to estate sales and some of the things I picked up. I rarely posted about reselling things because I didn't want to look like a big shot and I didn't want to get on the bad side of local used store people. Or people who like to have some of the things I sold.

As a record buyer, I have mixed feelings about reselling too. I don't like the way the price of used things has skyrocketed in the last 15 years either. I don't want to be part of the problem. I'm not going to rationalize my selling by saying, it's okay because it's me, a nice guy trying to supplement my family's income, rather than some guy who travels across the country paying a dime a dozen  for records owned by widows and selling them for obscene prices.

Which leaves me........ in the middle, I guess. I am a Libra, after all. That's when the hording feeling comes in. Or wait - it's not hoarding if I think that I'm holding onto them as a reference that I might need sometime when I'm writing an article and need to hear Willem Breuker (yes, one of his albums is in the collection). And maybe I'll need to someday figure out if my CD of Cecil Taylor's Unit Structures sounds better than the '70s vinyl pressing. Same goes for Mingus Plays Piano. That reissue I bought sounds nice, but that Impulse label sure looks good. And all those Henry Cow records? Maybe I should see if I do really like them.

But what to listen to now?  Something from the collection? Maybe something I want to blog about. But what? Then the frustration sets in.

So that's why I haven't blogged in a while. Hopefully this post will get me back in gear.