Thursday, December 31, 2020

CD Review: Geof Bradfield/ Ben Goldberg/ Dana Hall - General Semantics



Geof Bradfield/ Ben Goldberg/ Dana Hall Trio
General Semantics

When Cecil Taylor performed "Air," it might have swung in the pianist's own way, but it never swung like the opening track of General Semantics. The trio of Geof Bradfield, Ben Goldberg and Dana Hall are working more from the arrangement Steve Lacy used on his Straight Horn Of Steve Lacy album, where he smoothed out the melody into longer tones, which came from opposite registers in Lacy's soprano and Charles Davis' baritone. But this tenor/contra-alto clarinet/drum trio kicks the tempo up a notch, pulsed by Hall's fleet brush work, taking the melody closer to the swing standard "Cherokee." After completing the head, the two horns step lively around one another, soloing in relation to the melody but not feeling constrained by it.

Ben Goldberg is no stranger to pared down groups like this. He has played in duos with drummer Hamir Atwal and keyboardist Michael Coleman - and in a trio with both of them. On Unfold Ordinary Mind, Goldberg's contra-alto clarinet filled in for the lack of a bass, while acting as the third horn, together with saxophonists Ellery Eskelin and Rob Sudduth. On the other hand, Geof Bradfield's 2018 album for Delmark (Yes, and ...Music for Nine Improvisors) put him at the helm of a larger group (including Dana Hall as the drummer), playing a suite that features some free excursions as well as big band-style moments. Here, Goldberg alternates between the contra-alto and the B-flat clarinet; Bradfield switches between bass clarinet, tenor saxophone and soprano saxophone. 

General Semantics lives in an area where early jazz improvisation - heavy on counterpoint with parallel lines that respect the path of the other players - combines with an approach that isn't afraid of pursuing greater rhythmic and melodic freedom. Goldberg alternates between the contra-alto and the B-flat clarinets; Bradfield switches between bass clarinet, tenor saxophone and soprano saxophone. Because of that, textures change regularly. In "Tioga Street Zenith" the two clarinets weave around one another while Hall uses the brushes behind them, out of tempo. "Lamentation" features more parallel improvisation but this time, they conclude by stating the theme over a straight ahead 4/4 groove, keeping the swing going.

The title track begins with some husky tenor sax playing, but quickly adds a heavy backbeat, and Goldberg proves to be the best substitute for a raunchy bass guitar. Duke Ellington's "Half the Fun" scales down to contra-alto and soprano sax, and it becomes clear that this trio interacts so well that they don't leave any time to miss a regular bassist or other harmonic accompanist. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

CD Review: Sonny Rollins - Rollins In Holland

Sonny Rollins
Rollins In Holland

The first Sonny Rollins performance that really knocked my socks off was his version of "Everything Happens To Me" from On Impulse. During my first summer in college, I did an overnight jazz show on the college radio station and discovered that album one night in the library. I figured you couldn't miss with Sonny Rollins and this track was 11 minutes long, leaving plenty of time before the next track needed to be cued up.

The most incredible thing about "Everything Happens to Me" was Rollins' tone. It felt warm and deep, wistful and romantic. The path of his solo isn't what got me - I can't recall it at the moment but I'm sure it was also deep - it was the delivery. That song alone might have been the tune that inspired me to program the 2 a.m. hour with nothing but ballads. On a warm summer night, that's what the world needed to hear.

The opening seconds of Rollins In Holland brought back the same feeling of euphoria. "Blue Room" (another song that from On Impulse) comes from a Rollins recording made at a Dutch television studio with bassist Ruud Jacobs and drummer Han Bennink. His tenor resonates, using the natural reverb of the room to emphasize the richness of the horn. The trio, which assembled for the first just two night earlier at a club, work together like they've been interacting for months. The sound quality throughout Rollins In Holland might not be as powerful as "Blue Room" and the other three tracks recorded at VARA Studio5, but the creative spark makes up for any sonic shortcomings. 

This two-disc set from Resonance Records tells the story of these 1967 recordings in vivid, sometimes repetitious, detail. Sonny Rollins hadn't recorded an album in a year (the last being East Broadway Run Down, the followup to On Impulse!) and wouldn't release another until 1972. He jumped at an offer to play the Academy of Visual Arts in Arnheim in May of '67. Intent of playing in a trio setting, he made arrangements for Jacobs and Bennink to accompany him. Bennink had played with Eric Dolphy in the months before the multi-reedist passed away, and would go on to become one of the most creative, and inventive free jazz drummers in Europe. Jacobs was more of a traditional player, whose track record included work with Louis Armstrong and Bill Evans. Longtime friends, their divergent styles didn't keep them from meshing with Rollins. 

Their May 3 performance at the Academy fills the second disc of this set. The first piece of the set - a 22-minute version of "Three Little Words" - wraps up Disc One, following the VARA Studio 5 television recording and two more tracks recorded live for a television show. According to all parties involved, there were no rehearsals for the performances, nor was there any verbal directions. 

The trio hit the ground running, ears wide open following the saxophonist. To say they keep up is an understatement. After stating the theme on "On Green Dolphin Street," Rollins jumps into "There Will Never Be Another You," his mates right there with him. Throughout the set, Rollins throws in quotes from other songs, including remote selections like Wilson Pickett's "Land of 1000 Dances" and Chopin's "Funeral March." When he inserts Miles Davis' "Four," it's hard to tell if it's an instruction to trade fours with him or a reference to a song that will come later in the set. As a whole, his paraphrases come off less like a musicians showing off his musical knowledge and more like someone who has the opportunity to muse with depth before moving onto another idea.

Jacobs gets a little lost in the mix of the Academy set, drowned out a bit by Bennink's drums, which swing hard and hint at the freedom he could see coming down the pike. While the bassist might not be felt, he can be heard a bit, and the quality doesn't distract from the music's power. He does comes through clearly on the previous sets, which were actually recorded later, by which time the trio has developed even more of a rapport. 

This being a Resonance package, the 100-page booklet offers almost as much value as the music. Interviews with Bennink together with Jacobs (who died in 2019 after a long battle with cancer) as well Rollins himself are flanked by essays by Rollins biographer Aidan Levy and Frank Jochemsen, the latter who helped unearth and identify some of these recordings.

Sonny Rollins has always been his own harshest critic, never quite satisfied with his performances. He also seems very humble, which might have something to do with his self-examination. Yet, his thoughts in the booklet's interview betray feelings of excitement at hearing this music again. (He also raves about Jacobs' bass tone, which means another close listen is in order, in case I missed something.) That's probably the best endorsement of all.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

CD Review: Nate Wooley - Seven Storey Mountain VI

Nate Wooley
Seven Storey Mountains VI

One of the first shows in Pittsburgh that was cancelled in the early days of the pandemic was to feature saxophonist Ken Vandermark, trumpeter Nate Wooley and drummer Paul Nilssen-Love. The two horn men had come to town before, creating music that was both lyrical and sonically intense, utilizing upper register wails that could, literally, vibrate the wax in your ears. 

In addition to his intense technique and perspective on his horn, Wooley also released something that avant-jazz fans might never expect in a million years: (Dance To) The Early Music (2015), a relatively straightforward tribute to Wynton Marsalis' Black Codes for the Underground and J Mood. (When interviewing Wooley for a JazzTimes article on that album, we both shared our fondness for Blood, Sweat & Tears' blockbuster self-titled album too.) These are just but a few of the many things the prolific trumpeter has done, but it reveals the vast vision that factors into his work.

Seven Storey Mountain is an extended piece - a song-cycle, in a way - that has evolved through six different iterations, with various musicians working with the trumpeter each time. This sixth one features a group of improvisors, a choir of women and an underlying message of courage and strength that filters through it. Folksinger Peggy Seeger's song "Reclaim the Night" is incorporated into the work. The album presents the music in one 45-minute track. Along with Wooley's liner notes, the CD edition comes with a graphic chart, laying out the flow of the piece and when musicians come and go. All of these present a greater perspective to what is an intense piece of work.

The notes assist in large part because it can be hard to tell how the sounds are being produced. After an opening vocal passage with the voices humming the melody, Susan Alcorn's pedal steel guitar drones gently, as a series of keyboard sounds and loops (some lifted from previous performances of SSM) resonate in the background. The first half moves languidly, with the soundscape getting wider, with more organ loops and violins (Samara Lubelski, C. Spencer Yeh) creating a feeling of anticipation as their bowing grows more intense.

By the 26-minute mark, things have reached a full boil. Drummers Chris Corsano, Ben Hall and Ryan Sawyer, who were simply brushing earlier, have begun moving over their whole kit. Guitarist Julien Desprez begins wailing like a jackhammer, with sounds panning from channel to channel. Ava Mendoza's guitar also kicks in around this time, though she isn't quite as close to the forefront as Desprez. The whole ensemble moves rapidly but together. They create a sound that resonates deeply, achieving Wooley's intention that he expressed to the players during rehearsals - "to make the room vibrate in a different way, and to make the room continue to vibrate long after we're gone." The collective vibration might sound chaotic or dense, but it's nothing compared that what comes later.

As the drummers drop out, followed by the guitarists, leaving Alcorn playing "gentle sounds" over keyboard loops, the 21 women of the choir began to rise up, first in ghostly chorus of "ah," then moving into the chorus of Seeger's song, the text of which appears on the disc's front cover. They repeat it seven times, with an echo beginning on the sixth to make it like a canon. 

Without any musical support, they begin to repeat a new line, from the folk song "Union Maid," ten times - "You can't scare me." As they reach the final repetition, the natural reverb has been stripped away, putting the women right in the face of the listener. After all the sonic frenzy, this is the most intense moment of the album, which Wooley had intended. In his liner notes, he explains that SSM6, which premiere in November 2019, was fueled by anger. "I was fucking angry watching the government attempt to wrest control of women's bodies and angry watching Black people be incarcerated and killed with impunity," he explains. The voices work as a way towards liberation from this oppresion. Wooley also is donating a portion of the royalties to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). 

Seven Storey Mountain VI might not be an easy listen. It's definitely not one that can be put on while working around the house. My first listen came during a long car ride and parts of it sounded completely different than it did while listening on earbuds, with the booklet in front of me. And the latter setting is the way it should be experienced because these 11 musicians created something deeply engrossing that will resonate long after the disc is finished.

And, like I often say at this point, it makes me want to track down the first five installments of SSM, which incidentally derives its name from the writings of Thomas Merton. 

Friday, December 11, 2020

CD Review: The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Time OutTakes

The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Time OutTakes 

Dave Brubeck's Time Out wasn't the first jazz album to break away from 4/4 time, but it was the album that took the farthest away from "standard" swing - without sacrificing the swing in the process. Its centerpiece, "Take Five" became a hit single and, arguably, one of the best known songs in jazz, all while it resided in what could be one of the most rigid time signatures of all - 5/4. "Blue Rondo A La Turk" crossed the blues with a Turkish rhythm and proved that if you could hum the melody, it didn't seem so odd after all.

Time OutTakes, released within days of what would have been Brubeck's 100th birthday, presents something that the general public has never heard since Time Out's original 1959 release - alternate takes of that album's music. According to Chris Brubeck - Dave's bass and trombone playing son - there exists more than 12 hours of music from the original sessions. "Take Five," which was credited to alto saxophonist Paul Desmond rather than the pianist, took a while to take shape, so the story goes. Drummer Joe Morello worked hard to get a good groove underneath it before he eventually felt comfortable enough to create a groovy solo built on melody as much as rhythm.

The chance to hear the song slowly take shape might be akin to hearing Bud Powell arrive at a definitive version of "Un Poco Loco," a song which always appeared in three takes when it was released on album. But the complete evolution of "Take Five" will have to wait for another day. Time OutTakes sticks to an LP-length format, with one alternate of each song from the album, save for "Pick Up Sticks" and "Everybody's Jumpin'" (both completed in one take). In their place comes a version of "I'm In A Dancing Mood" - arranged to maintain the album's theme of radical time shifts - and "Watusi Jam," an improv that is based on "Watusi Drums," which the band recorded a year prior on their In Europe album. The album ends with a four-minute collage of studio banter from the original sessions. 

Although the album isn't a deluxe boxset with myriad takes and false starts (though the Brubeck siblings offer inciteful notes), it is the first ever chance to peak behind the masters and get some clue on how they came to be the gold standards. What's here should tantalize everyone who has memorized the record. "Take Five" catches the band before Morello solidified his groove. Interestingly, Desmond sounds like he's struggling to find a place to catch his breath during the opening chorus. Unlike the master, in which Brubeck and bassist Eugene Wright continue their ostinato during the drum solo, they drop off. Perhaps as a result, Morello gets wild during this solo instead of displaying economical swing. 

An equal amount of jazz quartet aggression comes in "Blue Rondo A La Turk." The transitions between 9/8 and 4/4 have more punch. Both Desmond and Brubeck draw on more of a blues vocabulary here than they do in the master. Dave even sounds at times like Thelonious Monk, with quotes from the 9/8 theme sprinkled over his much longer solo. The lyrical "Strange Meadowlark" also has more jazz licks and syncopation from both soloists.

"Three To Get Ready" can be a little unsettling with its alternating two bars of 3/4 and two of 4/4, but Desmond bridges the transition smoothly while Brubeck, perhaps in response, utilizes his trademark habit of stretching the time over the group. In "Cathy's Waltz" - named from Brubeck's daughter who corrects the spelling in her notes from what "Kolumbia" Records used on the cover - Morello and Wright seem to move along with Brubeck as he shifts toward 4, rather than maintaining the waltz beneath him.

The track of studio banter is fun though it ultimately feels like a teaser. Chatter leads into a songs, which fade into the next bit of talk. Anyone who thinks this group was too serious will be surprised by the regular laughter between tracks, as when Brubeck flubs the "Strange Meadlowlark" introduction, saying he couldn't play it perfectly as he did on a previous take. Bits of "Take Five" again hint at what went on, but still only offer a fleeting glimpse. Maybe Sony would only allow a certain amount of music and talk to leave their vaults for this album. (This release is by the family-owned Brubeck Editions, not Columbia or Sony). But a whole disc devoted to "The Evolution of 'Take Five'' would surely be devoured by all manner of fans.

In the meantime, dig in. Happy Centennial, Dave.

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

CD Review: Charles Mingus - At Bremen 1964 & 1975

Charles Mingus
At Bremen 1964 & 1975

It's very possible that every concert Charles Mingus performed during his April 1964 trip to Europe was recorded by some person or organization. Mosaic's The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-65 (2012) included the entire April 10 set in Amsterdam. Sue Mingus' Revenge imprint took back a bootleg recording from Paris show from April 17 for a 1996 double-disc release. The Great Concert of Charles Mingus, first released in 1971, presented a three-record set of another Paris show on April 19. Enja released two volumes of Mingus In Europe that came from April 26 in Germany. The questionably legal Unique Jazz label released highlights from a performance in Stuttgart from later in the month, April 28.

Sunnyside's new four-disc set At Bremen 1964 & 1975 adds to the canon with a performance in that German city on April 16, 1964, coupling it together with the bassist's July 9, 1975 return with a new quintet. Both groups take up two discs each in the set. (Unique Jazz released portions of the '64 on vinyl previously.)

Mingus's 1964 sextet is considered one of his best ensembles, because they were able to understand the vast influences and personality that shaped his music. Eric Dolphy (flute, alto saxophone, bass clarinet), Jaki Byard (piano), Clifford Jordan (tenor saxophone), Johnny Coles (trumpet) and Mingus' right hand man Dannie Richmond (drums) all made the trip. Coles missed a few dates when he fell ill later in the month and Dolphy, who had planned on staying in Europe before the tour began, died tragically in June due to untreated diabetes.

While the sets were pretty similar on each night of the tour, the music took on different shapes every night. Mingus completists will revel in the new versions of "Meditations on Integration" and "Fables of Faubus," two of the six lengthy tracks from that evening, but this isn't simply music for jazz theorists, who want to compare and contrast shows.

The concert started late and the liner notes make light of the bassist's confrontational attitude that he had when he barreled into Radio Bremen's Studio F, a performance venue that has sold out all 220 seats. But the bad Mingus attitude doesn't come across in the performances. In fact, he even thanks the audience between tunes. Along with the two compositions mentioned above, the group also plays "Hope So Eric," (the blues usually titled "So Long Eric"), Byard's "AT-FW-YOU" (here, simply "Piano Solo"), Ellington's "Sophisticated Ladies" and "Parkeriana," a complex blend of Charlie Parker tunes and original solos. 

Other than the piano solo and Ellington piece, everything lasts at least 21 minutes, with "Faubus" going on for 32. In other versions of the politically charged tune from the tour, soloists would play freely and the group would slowly morph into a groove similar to the Spanish-flavored bassline from "Ysabel's Table Dance," building in intensity until things collapsed and the theme cued the next soloist. This happens during Dolphy's bass clarinet solo, but not with Coles, Jordan or Byard. Instead, Mingus throws in a little bit of "Haitian Fight Song" and Byard quotes "Yankee Doodle" with the takeaway feeling new and equally as bold. 

"Parkeriana" also comes off more like a complex composition with jarring tempo shifts and blowing space, rather than simply a parade of Bird lines. Jordan rules the roost here, with Dolphy adding some commentary which is unfortunately off mike. The other surprise is the coda to "Meditations on Integration." While the group often the extended composition until it became a ball of fire, the last seven minutes find Mingus (with his bow) and Byard in a more reflective mood, with Dolphy adding some color with his flute. If the crowd didn't know what to think, time has revealed how deeply attuned this group was their leader's vision.

Eleven years later Mingus was back in Bremen at the Post-Aula Auditorium. Along with Richmond, the new quintet included Jack Walrath (trumpet), George Adams (tenor saxophone) and Don Pullen (piano). Many of the bassist's '70s albums were built on larger groups and compositions, but this appearance draws on music that would come out a year later on Changes One and Changes Two, two of his last triumphs with a smaller group. 

Mingus often referred to a new album as "one of the best things I've done," and he was pretty much on the mark with the Changes albums. Adams and Pullen could pivot between the rich Ellington influence in Mingus's writing and bring the aggression of free jazz to bear on wilder moments. All of this can be found in the 32 minutes of "Sue's Changes." Pullen solos alone and then goes into some two-fisted jabs behind the band. Adams adds some Ayler-esque honks to his solo. Walrath precedes both of them with a free passage that moves into a set of rich trills over a band vamp. A single-chorus romp through "Cherokee" could either be a send-up of free jazz attacks or just a fun moment, working either way.

The 1975 recording feels superb (as does the 1964) although it sounds as if Mingus was playing through an amplifier rather than being miked directly, the latter being that standard by that time. Although he can be heard clearly, the process eliminates some of his signature sound - of big fingers plucking the strings, making the wood of the bass resonate so personally. The other surprise is that "Devil Blues," which features Adams's hyper-animated vocals, almost sounds like it was aimed more at wooing the crowd than extending the personality of the band. It's not bad, just a tad anti-climatic. Of course it's hard to follow such a unique, charged statement as "Remember Rockefeller At Attica."

Saturday, November 28, 2020

CD Review: Angelica Sanchez & Marilyn Crispell - How To Turn the Moon

Angelica Sanchez & Marilyn Crispell
How To Turn the Moon

When Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer released their two-piano album The Transitory Poems (2019), I had already heard some of the album performed live during Winter Jazz Fest. Onstage and on album, their interactions were deep and involved. But I never wrote about the album because, much as I liked it, I didn't know how to talk about it. No matter how I approached it, other than tried and true technical terms, I felt like I couldn't really express what was going on. (It's probably just me. Here's my review of that album, nearly two years later: You should really check it out.)

Like The Transitory PoemsHow To Turn the Moon features the same instruments - two sets of 88s, played by two creative pianists. Marilyn Crispell is a prolific soloist, leader of groups of various sizes and former member of other revered bands, the best known probably being Anthony Braxton's quartet. She has played with the velocity of Cecil Taylor but can also ring drama out of stark, gentle works as well. Comparatively, Angelica Sanchez is a newcomer, coming to New York from Arizona in the early '90s, but has made a strong impression with a number of albums of her own and with other artists. In addition to performing, she also lectures at Princeton University.  Crispell and Sanchez are equally as capable of creating rich, hard-to-summarize duets as Iyer and Taborn, but the descriptions flow a little easier music this time around.

Sanchez composed the pieces on How To Turn the Moon, save three improvisations for which both receive credit. In a telling example of their rapport, they explore vastly different moods in these spontaneous tracks, playing inside the piano on the strings ("Space Junk"), exploring a ballad-like feeling ("Windfall Light") and engaging in some more aggressive key stabbing ("Rain In Web"). 

Sanchez is panned to the left channel, and Crispell to the right, which brings clarity to the question of who plays what. But once the places are set, the performance becomes more about how Crispell and Sanchez become one in the music. In "Ceiba Portal" they alternate choruses, coming together to double the melody, with a coda building on a descending line that volleys between the two of them. "Calyces of Held" begins with Sanchez alone for a few minutes, before she switches to arpeggios that support Crispell's melody, then the latter goes it alone. By the end of this one, they're playing on top of one another, in the same range of the keyboard, but their lines never get in each other's way.

Much of the music has a cerebral feeling. Stark lines or chords reverberate, making way for the next one, which often creates melodies slowly and deliberately. It can be gentle music but a closer listen reveals connections between the sections that make a larger structure. Then when Sanchez and Crispell have us tuned in to their unique chemistry, the album closes with "Fires In Space" where they solo over an ostinato, the first time this more "straightforward" structure is used. It feels like an appropriate closer to their multi-faceted journey.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

CD Review: Mantic Trio - Neighborhood Changed Fast

Mantic Trio
Neighborhood Changed Fast

Mantic Trio is what happens when the drummer of '80s punks Negative Approach gets together with a jazz pianist-turned-songwriter and an improvising guitarist. Respectively, Chris Moore, Lee Feldman and Rob Price create 10 spontaneous tracks that span tranquility and bedlam, often morphing from one to the other often in the space of one track. The trio's album has drawn comparisons to the Butthole Surfers, Eno and Psychic TV. While these touchstones are not completely off base, their interactions as improvisors also recall the loose, anything-goes feeling of Australian improvisors the Necks with the Dirty Three's ragged beauty also coming to mind when the Mantic Trio comes together on an idea.

The latter comparison has a lot to do with the sound of Moore's drums. His kit is mixed like a rock kit, with a powerful low boom that doesn't come with jazz improvisation. When "Gangly" opens the album, Feldman's piano is caught in a "Tubular Bells" type of riff, until Moore explodes onto it, shattering any sense of eerie calm. Moore also drives the VU meters into the red during "Clipped," a title which describes Feldman's Cecil Taylor-esque attack. Price's guitar sounds a bit restrained on this one, which is good because when he does play, he's plenty loud. 

The 73-second title track is all chaos, with wailing feedback and crashing drums and a piano in there somewhere. Since the album was created from a marathon studio session, there was probably more where this came from, but the brevity works in the band's favor. Besides, it follows the 11-minute "Crest" which features a slow build of roaring piano and one-string guitar riffs with a sense of calm coming at the end. 

Throughout the album, the trio strikes a good balance between lyricism and frenzy. The quiet electric keyboard in the interlude "Mannerist" is shattered by Price's effects-heavy guitar in "Pesky Orbs" the next track, where it jousts with the piano. "That Club Spirit" begins with an industrial 4/4 pulse, and while a steady tempo is maintained, it ends up somewhere else by the end, evoking a pile of smoking speakers and splintered drum sticks. And that poor piano. 

One of the reasons Neighborhood Changed Fast works so well, aside from the way the edits create different tunes, relates to the way the trio never seems settles into musical styles or limitations. This could be a punk band or it could be an avant jazz group, or maybe a free prog group. But rather than decide themselves, they let the music make the decision.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Loss in October

The fall season, and specifically October, used to be my favorite time of the year, bar none. Part of it related to my birthday coming in October, but there was always a sense of renewal closely linked to this time of the year: new school year, new apartments, a sense of adventure that came with it. Plus the October temperatures have a certain romanticism to me. These days if I drive to my mom's house on a Friday in the late afternoon, it takes me back to the days of have a paper route and "going collecting" (getting my customers to pay for the week's paper) and going on some adventure that night.

But as time goes on, the fall season has become synonymous with loss and tragedy. InPittsburgh, the first alt-weekly paper where I worked on staff, was bought out and shut down at the end of September 2001. My position at Whole Foods was eliminated right around the same time in 2005. (I'm back there again, so things come around, but it was a hard couple of years, mentally, in between.) 

Thanks to good old Facebook memories, I was reminded that, in October 2014, I had a seriously bad asthma attack that led to a trip to emergency room - which I got to by hopping on the bus down the street from my house. That had a happy ending too, in a way, but the night it happened, I was worried that my continual huffs off of old albuterol inhalers might result in a heart attack. Thankfully I was well enough to walk home from the hospital that night, which was a far cry from the trip there, when I could barely walk the block from the bus stop to the ER without stopping to catch my breath.

I'm okay. And this really isn't about me. It's about the people around us. 

Again the memories reminded me that six years ago today, Pittsburgh musician Erin Hutter died mysteriously. I had seen her play numerous times with punks-turned-genuine-country-blues players the Deliberate Strangers and we even played together briefly in the band Boxstep. While we were never extremely close, we were always happy to see each other when we crossed paths, usually at a show or a watering hole (or both). She usually had a story about teaching or some music she had heard. It had been awhile since I had seen her and knowing that she was really gone hit sort of hard. Especially because at the time I was dealing with my dad's stint in the hospital which would drag on until he passed in mid-November. 

But everyone in Pittsburgh with a heart knows that today is the second anniversary of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill. It's an atrocity that is still hard to come to terms with. You think that hate at that kind of level is something that went away with World War II but tragically, it isn't. And that's what makes it so horrible. So horrible that I feel like me sitting here typing about it doesn't do anyone any good. It feels self-serving.

Then I think about how Squirrel Hill is near where I grew up. Even though our house was over a mile away from Tree of Life, I feel a community connection. Until I started typing, I forgot that my personal doctor's partner - Jerry Rabinowitz - was one of the people killed that day. When I finally saw my doctor a few months later and offered my condolences, he stopped me before I got it all out, thanking me and brushing it off. It made me realize that it's probably on his mind constantly. Everywhere he looks, he sees remnants of his colleague. That kind of feeling could send you into a tailspin and want to retreat from society, yet here he is still practicing and seeing patients. Maybe that also helps him through.

The day before the shooting, I had a band practice for a show with a pickup band that was playing REM songs at a night of tributes called "Smothered and Covered." Our singer, Justin, had just flown into town and was practicing with the three of us for the first time. (We had been working up the set for about a month.) Because of my work schedule, we could only practice in the late morning/early afternoon before I had to take off for work. Thankfully, the guys obliged and they rocked, first thing after waking up.

Between songs, our drummer Joe left the room to take a call. When he came back he told us that Jesse Flati, half the local band the Lopez with his wife Steph, had suffered a heart attack and died. He was only 40. Joe was close to Jesse's friends and asked us to keep it under our hats because it had happened so recently. Naturally, we agreed.

Jesse and I played on a bill together several years earlier, but we had just spoken for an interview a few months before he died. (The conversation worked into an article in the first issue of Pittsburgh Current.) I knew Steph a little better than I knew Jesse but he was the kind of guy that you warmed up to right away. There were several things he said in describing music that have stuck with me since that conversation. 

It was hard enough going to the Smothered and Covered show the next night knowing the sad news about Jesse, but feelings were magnified 1000% after Tree of Life. What do you do? It was hard for me because that night was the first time I was to go on stage since the previous February. I had no band though I was trying desperately to get one together. I wanted to play but wondered if I should be doing something else.

One thing that helped came when Benefits played a set as the Cure. Mike Baltzer, who organized the show and put me together with the REM guys was all done up like Robert Smith with the delivery to match. He introduced a song by saying words to the effect of, "Find the person close to you [maybe he said on your right side or left ide] and give them a hug. Whether you know them or not." Then they played "Close To Me." I hugged a dude in a baseball cap that I didn't know and my friend Greg (who had also played in Boxstep with me and Erin Hutter). It might have been more of a bro-hug and yeah, me and the guy I didn't know were a little awkward but it helped. Because it brought us all together. 

I think us REM guys played after them, but I can't say for sure. Which is funny because I usually remember this stuff. We did have a good set. Although I do recall that part of "It's The End of The World As We Know It" got a little botched up. 

But there were more important things to remember that night. Like being close to people, complete strangers even, and knowing that sometimes music and those hugs can help in times of need and make you realize that there is still some brightness to October. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

CD Review: Dan Weiss Starebaby - Natural Selection


Dan Weiss Starebaby
Natural Selection

On a bill stacked with innovative players, Dan Weiss' Starebaby quintet nearly stole the show  at Brooklyn's Sultan Room during last January's Winter Jazz Fest . The music was heavy, loud and full of ever-shifting time signature quick cuts, but it never felt bombastic or flashy. Coming shortly after the death of Neal Peart, Weiss' technique as a drummer and composer were on full display, making him a good candidate for the next generation to emulate, much as he did for the Rush drummer.

Most, if not all, of their set drew on the material that appears on their new album. Natural Selection consists of a series of tulpas, "beings that are created through spiritual or mental powers that take on similar forms as the original," according to Weiss. With inspiration coming from David Lynch's Twin Peaks series and a love of heavy rock, "Episode 18" comes out of the gate shredding, with Ben Monder's guitar in the front, sounding like every metal dude's ideal. The track alternates between these taut moments and slow atmospheric breaks. When Monder takes a solo towards the end, he sounds less like a metal player than a prog master, laying down sustained, rich tones rather than some fast pyrotechnics. Trevor Dunn kicks on the fuzz to dirty up his bass, which blends well with the dual keyboards of Matt Mitchell and Craig Taborn. Two seconds shy of 13 minutes, "Episode 18" doesn't waste any of that time, expertly splitting weight and ambiance.

Progressive rock is nowhere near as repetitive as pop music, but there's a certain strain of repetition that can come up with the music. A certain form gets repeated, which is good for the listener because it makes a choppy rhythm more familiar as it proceeds, usually continuing to add more sonic dimension as it goes. King Crimson did something like this on the Red album on the title track and in "Starless," but honestly the idea of repetition plus increased dynamics goes back at least as far as Stan Kenton. 

I'm going off on this tangent because Weiss writes this way throughout Natural Selection. It happens during "Episode 18," where it adds to the phantasmagoria of the music. "A Taste of Memory," however, has almost half of its 14 minutes devoted to a piano motif. After an opening, where Monder gets a great fuzz sound like he's playing through a blown speaker, things break down to a piano part. As it repeats, the rest of the band joins in, slowly building it up, but it never leads to anything further, just the end.

"Today Is Wednesday Tomorrow?" feels like six minutes of an intro. Weiss even adds some tablas and like many tracks, it features acoustic piano (though it's hard to tell Taborn from Mitchell; and Weiss also gets a piano credit!). But once everyone is playing, the piece is over without much climax.

Starebaby brings back the energy of the Sultan Room on the album's last two tracks. "Accina" begins with a rolling rubato, again lead by piano, before slamming into a heavy riff, which the crew continually revisits through these 15 minutes. In between, Monder plays another solo that's sounds just a bit off-mike, which means his tone drapes the rest of the band as he plays. The pianos go off into a section that keeps threatening to go back to a walking straight 4, but never does. After returning to the song's main riff (following a few open seconds of tense silence each time), Weiss tricks listeners with this ending by splitting instead of going back to it.

"Head Wreck," though not quite as lengthy, has plenty of the same strong elements:  power chords. keyboard breaks, plus atonal banging that could be keys or guitar plonks. Not only that, it ends with the closest thing to a drum solo, which either means Weiss overdubbed some extra cymbal crashes or he played like a four-handed drummer, rolling on his kit while unleashing said crashes. Either way, it's a solid closing statement. 

One thing that's clear throughout Natural Selection is how tight Starebaby sounds. The album was made following a tour, so the music was deeply ingrained by then. All eight tracks have some moments that feel electrifying and their atmospheric moments sound pretty eerie and evocative. But the band is best when they're rocking out, keeping it heavy and fleet at the same time. 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Catching Up on Free Improvisation Albums on OutNow Recordings, Gauci Music and ESP-Disk'

Sometimes I wonder if this blog could serve as place that helps to spread the word about about free improvisation music, the radical kind that pushes the limits sonically. There very likely are bigger, more established, more consistant blogs out there that do a more extensive job of covering this noisy stuff. But it would cool to play some part in it: turning someone on to a musician or label, giving the player some more attention, having a couple CDs exchange hands, providing some encouragement to keep going. 

I'm not fishing for effusive comments here. (If you're so inclined, I'll take them, but I'm not hoping to get the equivalent of a bunch of "We LUVVVV you" messages like you see on FB anytime someone is down in the dumps.) The reason I bring this up is because sometimes I get a stack of CDs from independent musicians or label reps and I want to do my part to help spread the word about their efforts. That's really what I started blogging in the first place. I had more to write about than outlets for it. Having put out independent releases myself that got little or no press (except for the first one), I could relate too. 

One of the things about a forum like this is you don't have to worry about timeliness. It's cool when you're one of the first to write about a release, but if there's something that's been out for a while and you really like it, don't worry about the lag. An album can always use a bit of praise a few months down the line (though publicist might disagree).  I might be saying all this to myself to rationalize this post, but it's working so I shouldn't stop now. 

With all that, I give you three albums of frenzied free improvisation, two of which aren't new but are worthy of a belated perusal.

Tyshawn Sorey/Nadav Remez/Antonin Tri Hoang

OutNow Recordings is a label run by saxophonist Yoni Kretzmer, out of Brooklyn. A number of their albums have been reviewed on this blog, and can be found here. The label has released a lot of free blowing groups, often with Kretzmer's strong tenor as a featured soloist. His 2 Bass Quartet has done some strong work but there are others.

ELK3 arrived amongst a batch of new ones during the summer of 2019 and sat on my desk, calling to me. It comes from a 2014 performance by Tyshawn Sorey (drums, piano), Nadav Remez (guitar) and Antonin Tri Hoang (alto saxophone, bass clarinet) at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. The album bands a continuous 39-minute performance into nine tracks, with breaks usually coming with a change in dynamics or sounds. The trio begins at a high intensity level, with Hoang bleating a single note over Sorey's spastic drums and Remez's guitar skronk that gradually blends together with the horn. 

The group never lets an idea get worn out and clearly responds to one another as things develop. In "Wapiti," Remez plays a cascading guitar line that sounds like the intro to Television's "Friction" but before long he builds some feedback in duet with Hoang's wailing alto. Sorey's use of open space in his own compositions plays out here too, allowing things to gently transition between movements. When he switches to piano during the last third of the set, he utilizes prepared effects for a percussive attack, with Hoang's bass clarinet latching on to it. Remez frequently plays with a bright twang, like the spirit of a surf guitarist is trying to overpower his instrument.

The trio exemplifies everything that makes free improvisation fun - strong interaction, equal amounts of frenzy and calm, exploration of all sonic possibilities. No wonder the audience waited a full 30 seconds after things died down before roaring theie approval.

Sean Conly/Michaël Attias/Tom Rainey
Live at the Bushwick Series
(Gauci Music) or on Bandcamp

Assuming that someday we will return to some normal state where it will be safe to visit a small performance space to see a band, I hope the Bushwick Public House in Brooklyn will still be thriving. Every Monday night saxophonist Stephen Gauci hosts about five or six bands (no lie) who each blow a short but usually sweet set of free music. 

Back in January I visited the Public House to check out one such night. At first I had trouble finding the entrance to the basement/lower level room where Gauci and his friends set up. It was as DIY as DIY comes but it was fun too. (Some details can be found here.) 

In addition to chronicling every week online, Gauci has also released several CDs of performances from the Bushwick series, as well as some studio sessions by some regulars. (A review of some earlier ones can be found here.)  Among the last batch that arrived on my desk before I saw the event live, the trio of Sean Conly (bass), Michaël Attias (alto saxophone) and Tom Rainey (drums) was one that hit the CD player and intrigued me. 

It captures the trio's set from a January 2019 performance, beginning like a composition where Conly embarks on a melodic line and Attias joins him in a countermelody. Unlike the ELK3 group, this trio sets out to take ideas and expand on them and seeing what kind of potential they have. The final piece of their set (banded together in track two, which is labeled "Improvisation 2" on your CD player) climaxes with the band going into a heavy 4/4 groove. Don't say that these guys can't swing.

Owl Xounds Exploding Galaxy
The Coalescence

Bassist Gene Janas and drummer Adam Kriney first starting performing under the name Owl Xounds in the early 2000s, producing a series of small run releases (cassettes, CDrs) and garnering a name for themselves among New York free fans. Janas is something of a veteran free player, having come up in the '60s, eventually playing with guitarist Bern Nix and trumpeter Dewey Johnson in the Sedition Ensemble. Kriney came to New York a bit later but proved an apt foil for Janas.

The addition of "Exploding Galaxy" to the Owl Xounds moniker has been likened to Sun Ra's frequent augmentation of his Arkestra name with addition syllables. In addition to words, the duo is also joined by second bassist Shayna Dulberger and saxophonist Mario Rechtern in a 2007 session which yielded a previous album, Splintered Visions on Blackest Rainbow Records.

Compared to the two above albums, The Coalescence is the most frenzied of the three. (It's also the shortest, clocking in at exactly 30 minutes, with three tracks.) There is a moment on "Aghast at Last" where one of the bassists attempts to lay down something of a two-note line, but that's clearly an exception. Kriney plays explosively from starts to finish, moving across his whole kit in a multi-directional Rashied Ali kind of way, slowing down only in the final moments with some cymbal crashes serving as final proclamations. He serves as the element to follow, holding things together in a way. Rechtern moves in and out of the music, usually beginning in a flurry of rabid notes on alto or soprano. It's only when he steps back that it becomes easier to discern that two basses are playing, with one usually plucking and the other bowing, often rattling it on the strings or scraping viciously.

On the first couple listens, the music just sounds chaotic; four people playing at the same time, though not necessarily together. But listening on earbuds brings out the subtleties of the music. Kriney's performance keeps the music flowing with a high level of energy. Before "Distillation" suddenly stops, Rechtern trades his wild tone for a sound closer to a swing player, with a plucky tone. He plays some unidentifiable instrument at the end of "Cavernous Ode" that might be an electronic reed instrument. The reverb on that track also plays up the divergent sounds of the two bassists. If you can't see this group live, block out everything else and give a close listen, imagining what it would look like in a live setting.

ESP originally released The Coalescence as an extremely limited edition LP. That's sold out but CDs and digital copies can be found on the label's Bandcamp page or website. 

Gauci continues to post music from previous Bushwick Public House shows on youtube, linking them on his FB page. There's even another set by Conly, Attias & Rainey on youtube. Pretty much all of the albums can be found on the Bandcamp page linked above.

The OutNow discography also seems to be up on Bandcamp now as well. 

Go find them. Tell them I sent you.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

CD Review: Fumi Tomita - Celebrating Bird / A Tribute To Charlie Parker & The Claire Daly Band - Rah! Rah!

Ah, the jazz tribute album. A way to ensure that a musician's debt to the forefathers will be acknowledged, while at the same time, giving a player an extra boost of attention via association with said the masters. 

Cynicism aside, it's hard to blame a musician for going down this path. It's hard to get one's name out there, to a level where us jaded critics will say, "Oh! A new album by them. Better put that at the top of the pile." (I know they're not player for just for us, really.) Like everything, it's all in how the music is performed. Lean too close to the original and what's the point? Transpose it into a different setting and it feels like a (musical) fish out of water. Besides, after playing your own music, it can be fun to do someone's tunes, so why not give it a shot?

Fumi Tomita featuring David Detweiler
Celebrating Bird/A Tribute to Charlie Parker

August 29 marked the centennial of Charlie Parker's birth, which has been on everyone's radar since January. Bassist Fumi Tomita celebrates the occasion by doing something that Parker himself did in his prime: appropriating the chord changes of some tunes - in this case written by Bird - and using them as the canvas for new melodies. These are a little more grounded in tradition than Rudresh Mahanthappa's bold Bird Calls but it's still a good way of paying tribute and putting your ideas out there simultaneously. Not all them are obvious and neither aren't drawn just from Parker's signature works. I'm still not sure of the origin of "Waltz Of the Moon," but Art Hirahara leaps into the upbeat ballad, left-hand chords inspiring his right hand, so by then the source is secondary.

Writing credits are split evenly between Tomita and tenor saxophonist David Detweiler. The bassist enjoys playing the melody lines with the tenor, which he does in the two blues, "Oceanology" and "Alice Changes" (the latter an easy source giveaway for Bird fans). "Like Sigmund," a contrafact of "Segment," has a cool minor slink to it, that leads right into a bass solo that's heavy on melody with a good use of space. When Detweiler gets his solo time in this track, he adopts a smoky tone that makes sure he stands out after Tomita and Hirahara. 

Along with "Waltz," the saxophonist also recasts Neal Hefti's "Repetition" with a mid-tempo Latin groove, eating up the changes and rising above a performance by the rhythm section that feels a bit placid. Tomita's performance on the whole album never lets listeners forget who's leading the session, but his instrument could have been a little more present in the mix. The same goes for drummer Jimmy Macbride. He finally gets the spotlight in the closing "Bird Dreams" but he support work sits a little far in the background when a little push forward could have added some extra bite. Still it's good to hear a group think outside the box when it comes to Charlie Parker. 

The Claire Daly Band
Rah! Rah!

Bird isn't the only one who would have celebrated a milestone birthday this year. Had he lived, Rahsaan Roland Kirk would have marked 75 trips around the sun. Baritone saxophonist/flutist Claire Daly sees it as a good reason to celebrates the eccentric musician's life. 

Kirk's ability to play two or three saxophones at once, sing while blowing the flute, and other flamboyant tricks sometimes distracted audiences from the amazing technique and encyclopedic musical knowledge that he possessed. (Or at least that has been written about him in retrospect. Modern liner notes go out at length about Kirk being misunderstood but it seems like dispatches at the time had an appreciation for Kirk's talent.) Rather than attempt to recreate his instrumentation, Daly sticks to one horn and a flute, preferring to salute his compositions.

She opens with her own "Blue Lady" which reworks Kirk's "Lady's Blues." It's a languid opener, with a straightforward swing that evokes a Count Basie groove. On flute, she transforms "Bright Moments" into "Momentus Brighticus," a solid waltz driven by bassist Dave Hofstra's steady groove. Daly puts her spin on the original's call-and-response toward the end but the group seems to approach it cautiously when a little reckless abandon would have been in order. 

Among the Kirk originals, she comes close to singing into the flute on "Serenade to Cuckoo" but just for a second, preferring to develop a melodic solo. "Volunteered Slavery" was originally a semi-gospel/soul tune with a vocal that went into a full band groove, borrowing a melody from the Beatles (the same group Kirk would decry a few years later for coming into the US and "taking all the bread," but that's another story). Daly and the band dig into the song's boogaloo potential and her baritone cuts loose here. But instead of going into a rave-up, they detour into a version of Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People," with the saxophonist singing a chorus. The group could have really dug harder into the song's one-chord vamp but again they hold back. Daly hasn't a decent of pipes, but her take on "Alfie," later in the album, puts them to better use. 

Yet the group kicks up some fire in other places. Frank Foster's "Simone" and Charlie Parker's "Blues for Alice" both feature some meaty baritone work, with pianist Eli Yamin providing good contrast with Daly. "Funk Underneath" (originally a lowdown blues recorded with Jack McDuff) and "Theme for the Eulipions" (from his later period) are two deeper Kirk cuts that give Daly a little more time to show some grit on flute and baritone, respectively.  By closing with "I'll Be Seeing You" she really taps into the duality of Kirk - taking an old tune and polishing it to show off its charm while making the song feel like a personal message to listeners. Nice wrap-up.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

CD Review: Charlotte Greve/ Vinnie Sperrazza/ Chris Tordini - The Choir Invisible

Charlotte Greve/Vinnie Sperrazza/Chris Tordini
The Choir Invisible

Tom Lehrer, the great satirical composer and pianist, once quipped that most folks songs are so atrocious because they were written by "the people." Although it was said for a laugh (which it rightfully received) it implies that folk music is synonymous with simple forms, which can be utilized by the most amateur musician. When a jazz song is described as having a folk melody, the same thing is implied. The composition isn't based on a complex set of bebop changes. More likely it has to do with a simple melody (maybe built on a pentatonic scale, though I can't say for sure) and a 1-IV-V set of chords, if that. Simple building blocks, but depending on how they're used, they can still form some great music.

These thoughts came to mind while listening to the collaborative trio of Charlotte Greve (alto saxophone), Vinnie Sperrazza (drums) and Chris Tordini (bass), in which all three compose. Several of these pieces sounds simple, built on a vamp or an arpeggio. But their cohesive skill makes sure that even an ostinato like "Chant," which opens the album, kicks things off with immediate direction. Simple or not, the trio makes things sound full and infectious.

Tordini, who plays in a number of sax/bass/drums trios, shows his flexibility here. He might hold down a solid groove with Sperrazza in "Low," but he also joins Greve in playing a melody on "Change Your Name" and "Daily Task." The bassist's "Zuppio" has a stop-start melody that, to these ears, recalls Thelonious Monk's rarely heard "Gallop's Gallop," at least in the version played solo by Steve Lacy. Yet, it moves somewhere else entirely when the trio moves past the theme. Greve's lines never get too complex and even sound spare at times, yet that's just what the music seems to call for in "Low." Her tone is unique - inquisitive like Lee Konitz but fuller, with a smoothness that she maintains in the lower register.

While The Choir Invisible sometimes recalls the lively openness of Ornette Coleman's trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffatt, the closing title track evokes another practitioner of simple but deep writing: Paul Motian. (I'm not just saying that because Sperrazza wrote the tune either.) Greve and Tordini play the melody, not perfectly in sync but with a slight delay for more drama. Sperrazza rubs his brushes on the snare, adding more color by gradually moving around the kit, finally delivering some cymbal crashes that stop short of overpowering the group. The whole thing sounds through-composed though, by the time we get to this part of the album, it could be that the trio's rapport has developed so much that they can improvise together as easily as they can play a theme.  

While this trio (who will probably be called the Choir Invisible on future releases) are serious about what they play, they also seem like they enjoy each other's company, which comes through in their performance. 

Friday, October 02, 2020

LP Review: Thelonious Monk - Palo Alto

Thelonious Monk
Palo Alto

After a delay of a few months that almost seemed to put the release in jeopardy, it's finally here!

The story of Palo Alto runs the risk of overshadowing the music that came about through this unique turn of events. Most Monk fans know the tale but it bears repeating. It all started with a teenager and a vision. That teen was Danny Scher, who was a senior at Palo Alto High School in the fall of 1968. A jazz fan, he had already brought Vince Guaraldi, Jon Hendricks and Cal Tjader to Paly for concerts that benefited the school's International Club. Through good connections and luck, he contacted Jules Columby, Monk's manager, and secured a date for his hero. Then he started promoting the show. 

The fall of '68 was not a bright time for America, which was reeling after the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, as well as the chaos that erupted at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. (The more things change....) The predominantly African-American neighborhood East Palo Alto was trying get their name changed to Nairobi to instill a sense of pride in the community. The residents of Palo Alto proper fell on the liberal side but it still didn't seem like the typical place where you'd find Thelonious Monk So when Scher ventured into of East Palo Alto to put up flyers, the cops told him to stay away and the residents wondered if this kid was serious.

Scher was serious and what happened next is almost something out of a Frank Capra film. When the budding concert promoter reached Monk at San Francisco's Jazz Workshop a few days before the Paly gig was to occur, Monk said he knew nothing about the show. Columby never returned a signed contract to Scher. Monk, who wasn't in the greatest physical shape, could have just hung up and crushed a young kid's dreams. But somehow they came to an agreement. Scher told him that his older brother would whisk the band from San Francisco to Palo Alto for the afternoon gig, getting them back for their Jazz Workshop set that night. 

And he did. The audience, most of which was lined up in the Paly parking lot and most of them coming from East Palo Alto, paid for tickets as soon as they saw the group pull up in the Scher station wagon, with Larry Gales' bass sticking out of the back. Danny Scher and Monk, whose record label was trying to rebrand him in hopes of reaching a younger market, brought two communities together for the night.

It's a great story but it doesn't answer the question - How is the music? Numerous live Monk sets continue to surface from the '60s, with the pianist leading a quartet, usually with tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse and a few different bassists and drummers that appeared on his Columbia albums. They're all good, but often seem interchangeable, with a limited setlist. Monk at the time was criticized as being predictable and it wasn't always incorrect. 

It's October 27. 1968 and the quartet is on fire. Monk, Rouse, Gales and Ben Riley play like they realize the once-in-a-lifetime series of events that transpired. A now-unknown janitor recorded the show, with a mix that pushes up the rhythm section in a manner we're not used to hearing from a Monk quartet. The sound quality puts Gales in the driver's seat. He takes lengthy, inspired solos in "Well, You Needn't" and "Blue Monk," using a bow in the former, which is rare since Monk apparently disliked arco solos. 

Monk draws on some of his signature solo licks, playing with the rhythm and utilizing open space. But he spends just as much time moving beyond his comfort zone and digging deeper. The transition from theme to first chorus in his solo version of "Don't Blame Me" possesses a real bounce where his right hand digs into a melody completely independent from the stride he's playing in the left hand, even as both figures complement each other.

The whole set lasts roughly 45 minutes. Rather than signing off with a snatch of "Epistrophy," the group digs in for a few choruses. With no time for a real encore, Monk plays the theme of "I Love You Sweetheart Of All My Dreams," ending with a gorgeously dissonant bang on the keys. Before things fade out, we get to hear him quickly explain why need to get going.

Palo Alto, the first time Monk has ever appeared on the Impulse! label, is packaged exquisitely with a gatefold sleeve, booklet with liner notes by Scher and Monk biographer Robin D. G. Kelley., along with a reproduction of the concert's original program (complete with the sold adverts) and poster. My vinyl had a small warp in it, though it played without skipping or making noise. As far as unearthed Monk concerts go, this one ranks up there Live at Carnegie Hall

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

CD Review: Bob James - Once Upon A Time: The Lost 1965 New York Studio Sessions

Bob James
Once Upon A Time: The Lost 1965 New York Studio Sessions

The Eric Dolphy boxset Musical Prophet (released in 2018) solved a mystery over a track that first appeared on the album Other Aspects. "Jim Crow" was the opening track on that collection of unreleased Dolphy works, in the early 1990s, presenting his reeds together with a piano trio in an avant garde piece complete with operatic vocals. 

Other Aspects didn't credit the personnel on the recording. That information came to light on Musical Prophet, which listed the proper title of the piece, "A Personal Statement." The more revealing factoid was that the composer and pianist of the group was none other than Bob James, who would go on to become the unofficial king of Smooth Jazz. (If you've ever watched an episode of Taxi, you know his opening theme song, "Angela," which probably makes him the most heard jazz musician on television, aside from Mister Rogers Neighborhood pianist Johnny Costa.)

"A Personal Statement" sounds today like a curious time piece, combining free jazz, new music and opera along with a Message, delivering it all with little subtlety. But it proves that James had a keen sense of adventure during his college days and wasn't just traveling the yellow brick road to pop-jazz stardom.

The sessions on Once Upon A Time happened two years after "A Personal Statement." James, by then living in New York, was approached by a Columbia University freshman and budding engineer named George Klabin. He wanted to record the pianist and play the results on his radio show at WKCR-FM. They ended up recording two sessions with two different trios, which varied a bit in their approach. An honorable man who launched Resonance years later, Klabin never let the recordings slip out of his care, so they're being released on his label for the first time.

The first four tracks were made in January of that year at Columbia's Wollman Auditorium. Bassist Larry Rockwell and drummer Robert Pozer complete the trio. After a straightforward, brisk reading of "Serenata," the group pushes forward on the other tracks. "Once a Upon a Time," a James original rather than the ballad done by Tony Bennett and others, has a fairly loose structure, allowing the group to toy with the space, never leaping off into freedom but enjoying the possibilities. 

Joe Zawinul's "Lateef Minor 7th" introduces pre-recorded tapes of piano string noise, breaking the tempo apart. The sound of the tapes - seeping in from the background, as if the player was onstage with them instead of run directly into the recording system - gives the music a surreal layer. James frequently blurts out nonsense words, like a beat poet. Thankfully they're not cutesy, insipid or an attempt to incorporate the music into language. Free though it is, it still has a lyrical quality, even with James gets heavy at the piano. "Variations" begins as a pastoral solo piece but James is soon joined by more tapes and his bandmates join him. The open space and quick exclamations recall a George Crumb composition. The piano melody returns, and its pensive quality makes the whole thing feel like it could have worked as a soundtrack. 

That same year, James would record Explosions for ESP-Disk', a deal which came about supposedly after Bernard Stollman heard these recordings, though some of those music-and-tape combinations got a little heavy handed. (A few years later, a similar musique concrete experiment for Phil Ochs' "The Crucifixion" rendered one of the folk singer's most intense songs unlistenable, in an attempt to add apocalyptic effects to the lyrics.)

When James and Klabin returned to Wollman that October, the pianist had a new rhythm section and a more streamlined attitude. Bill Wood (bass) and Otis Clay (drums) were in the trio, who sound a bit closer perhaps to a Bill Evans group. They tear through Sonny Rollins' "Airegin" at a rapid pace without forsaking any of the tune's nuances. The ballad "Indian Summer" feels a little too relaxed without as much spark carrying through the wide open spaces. Miles Davis' "Solar" and the uncredited "Long Forgotten Blues" give Wood and Clay a chance to stretch out a little more, the latter adding a subtle groove akin to Vernell Fournier in Ahmad Jamal's group - not aggressive but grooving with subtlety.

The second session really seems to capture James at a crossroads. He got the avant garde out of his system with the first session and Explosions, as was now playing it straight. Of course, that's oversimplifying it, but the second session coincided with the start of four years with Sarah Vaughn as her music director, a band which included Clay on drums. 

Because this album comes from Resonance, it features a deluxe package with a 40-page booklet loaded with an interview with James, an excerpt of an interview with Robert "Cleve" Pozar and recollections by Klabin and pianist Makoto Ozone. James makes an interesting observation in his interview. He hadn't heard these tapes in decades and was surprised to hear his younger self playing some piano licks that still factor into his music more than half a century later. It goes a long way toward showing that this music was just as much a part of him as what he played in the ensuing years, even if "Angela" sounds light years removed "Lateef Minor 7th." 

Monday, September 21, 2020

CD Review: Joe Fielder's Big Sackbut - Live In Graz

Joe Fielder's Big Sackbut
Live in Graz
(Multiphonics Music)

A choir requires more than four people to produce a big, impressive sound. Yet while listening to Live in Graz, the latest by trombonist Joe Fiedler's three 'bones/one tuba group, the sound produced by just a quartet of brass sounds rich and expansive, like it emanated for a bigger group. 

Even more impressive is that the player with the foundational responsibility, Jon Sass, was filling in for Big Sackbut's regular tuba player Marcus Rojas. He sounds like a natural as he supports the other players, grooves along or takes a solo. (The album begins with an unaccompanied solo from him.) 

Although it's tempting to draw numerous parallels between the group and choirs, Joe Fiedler's intention with Big Sackbut is more concerned with the sum of the parts (i.e. each player's musical personality) than the whole (the one big sound). Live in Graz also acts as a tribute to the late Roswell Rudd, a trombonist whose sense of adventure is reflected in Big Sackbut. Three of the nine tracks were Rudd compositions. Among the others, Fielder's "Tonal Proportions" was inspired by lessons from Rudd, and the group tackles a track from Charles Mingus' gutsy Oh Yeah album.

Ryan Keberle and Luis Bonilla are Fielder's 'bone brothers in the group. Each gets to put his personality on display. Fiedler sounds especially astounding in "Yankee No-How" during a rapidly-executed ran across his instrument's range, much of tongued and not slurred, following already solid work by Keberle and Bonilla. The latter opens Mingus' "Devil Woman" with a raunchy, unaccompanied solo that has some vocal qualities due his deft use of a mute. At times he approximates a distortion pedal, a characteristic that shows up in "Su Blah Blah Buh Sibi," another Rudd tune with a low deep groove from Sass.

The group's tone experiments could digress into parlor tricks, but Big Sackbut will have none of that. Fiedler's upper register solo in "Peekskill" keeps things serious, never digressing into squawks. His tonguing skills are put on display again in "Ways" as he engages in high swoops. For Bonilla's work, he uses space expertly during "Bethesda Fountain," adding to the impact of the band. 

Whether or not a listener chooses to track which trombonist is soloing when (the cover provides an order), the group itself comes across as a strong and powerful, spilling from one tightly arranged section into solos with ease and energy.

Monday, September 14, 2020

But I Always Thought I'd See You Again (Reflections on My High School Friend and Gary Peacock)

I'm not much of a James Taylor fan but I've always felt the the first verse and chorus of "Fire and Rain" do a really good job of poetically capturing the feeling of losing someone. Having a letter and not knowing where to send it, now that the person can't receive it; thinking that you'd always see someone again - and coming to the realization that you won't anymore - it's kind heartbreaking. If the song just stopped there after "But I always thought I'd see you again," leaving you dangling, it would have been perfect. It leaves it to the listener to figure out the implication themselves. The hardest thing about losing someone is figuring out what to do next.

Those thoughts about "Fire and Rain" have been going through my head off and on for the past 48 hours. On Saturday, Facebook reminded me that it was the birthday of my middle and high school pal Mark Wilson. (Taylor Allderdice, Class of 1985) I went on his personal FB page to leave him a message. We aren't really closely in touch, but we keep tabs on each other and get together every few years when he gets to town. 

Like most FB profiles, it was filled with birthday wishes for Mark, but some of them followed it with "you will be missed." I scrolled through and thought that can't possible mean what I think it means. After a few, there was confirmation - Mark had died. No explanation. No foreshadowing in posts from him. Nothing. He had surgery on his vertebrae back in June and there were some complications from it. He had gone into rehab for a bit, but the last time he wrote, he was headed home. 

Yesterday morning a friend of his in Fort Worth (where he's lived for the last few years) replied to my post where I asked what happened. It turned out Mark had a pulmonary embolism and died in his sleep at home. I'm not sure how soon it happened after he got home but it seemed to be within a couple weeks. 

As if this year couldn't get more depressing.

Mark and I met in eighth grade at Reizenstein Middle school. We weren't in the same class but he was in one of the two scholars classes in House B at the school (the school was divided into three "houses") and so was I, so we saw each other pretty often. I think we were in the same gym class. We became tighter friends in high school. He probably didn't know what to think about my crazy musical tastes back then, but he put up with them and seemed vaguely interested at times. When I discovered William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller, it gave us something to talk about, since he was a book person too. He was really freakin' smart too. I remember him saying he was reading the dictionary to prepare for the SATs. I thought that was a little extreme but then again, I had no clue on how to prep for the tests, and I bombed them. Mark got into Johns Hopkins. 

Over the years, Mark and I would lose touch and then get back in touch. When we did, things always seemed to pick up where they left off. There was never any awkwardness about how we had changed in different ways or grew apart from one another. He did come out to me at some point but I was fine with that and respected him for telling me and felt even more supportive of him. 

He reconnected with me about 10 years ago after his mother had died. When he and his brother were cleaning out his Mom's house, he came across a stash of her records and thought about giving me a call. Time was of the essence in getting the place cleared so the vinyl ended up going in the dumpster. We laughed about it because I remembered the collection from my high school years. In included a Fugs album as well as a couple Miles Davis albums on Prestige. Hard to give your grieving friend a hard time for not getting them too me, but oh well. 

The last time I saw him, we met up at Gooski's, the bar around the corner from my house. Mark was glad that he could smoke in the bar, but I can't remember if he had a drink or not. (I certainly did.) But he was happy to be in place where you could light up. Plus, the bar was owned by a guy who had gone to school with us. 

One of the consolations to all this is that Mark's other high school friends didn't know that he had died either, until they saw my post on our class' FB page. Some reached out and we're talking about doing a Zoom chat to reminiscence about him. Hopefully we'll find closure that way.


When Gary Peacock took a solo on the second version of "Ghosts" on Albert Ayler's Vibrations album, he works his bow roughly over the strings. Initially it sounds like some non-musical scrapes, but as he continues, the melody of "Ghosts" takes shape. To my 15-year-old ears, things were being to make more musical sense to me. I began hearing connections to things that would have seemed simply like noodling before. 

After much speculation and retracted statements by some people, it was confirmed that Peacock did indeed pass away on September 4. He was 85.

Peacock has a remarkably varied musical life. He was the first simpatico bassist that Albert Ayler played with, and he appeared on several of his albums, including the aforementioned Vibrations as well as groundbreakers like Spirits Rejoice and Spiritual Unity. The bassist went on to work closely with pianist Paul Bley, who married Annette Peacock, Gary's ex-wife. Their work together helped to usher in the classic sound of ECM Records, leading to his work as one-third of Keith Jarrett's trio with drummer Jack DeJohnette.

But what really rounds his musical life out for me is something no one seems to be bothered to list in the obits. He played on a couple pretty solid Bud Shank albums on Pacific Jazz before he made it to New York and hooked up with Ayler. (My love of Shank came from my dad and I have written about him here too.) Maybe that part of his career is too vanilla for Ayler or Jarrett fans but the album New Groove isn't just standard West Coast jazz lite. It even features a tune written by Peacock, "Liddledabllduya," which is more impressive than the title might imply. 

Back in high school, I probably tried to get Mark to listen to Albert Ayler, fearing the worst. But maybe he would have heard something in Gary Peacock's playing. (Mark played the cello in orchestra.) Maybe somewhere, they'll cross paths with each other and talk music. Or philosophy. Or something. I just wish I was there with them.