Monday, January 20, 2020

Tales from New York: The Stone and the Village Vanguard

It is forbidden to take pictures at the Stone, the New York venue founded by John Zorn that is devoted to experimental music. So you'll just have to take my word for it that I was there this past Tuesday, January 14. 

The venue used to be located on Avenue C in a storefront that was very easy to miss, even if you weren't looking for it. Since early 2018, it's been located in the New Glass Box Theater on the campus of the New School.

Drummer/percussionist Ches Smith had a week-long residency there last week. On Tuesday, he performed with pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri, a group that released The Bell on ECM a few years ago. The trio also had a special unannounced guest that a lot of people in the know seemed to be expecting - guitarist Bill Frisell. (He has shown up the night before on a Winter Jazz Fest bill too, from what I heard.) 

When Smith, Taborn and Maneri recorded The Bell, and in two shows I caught around the time of that 2016 release, the music was very loose and open. In Pittsburgh, Taborn used an electric piano instead of an acoustic, and he was able to manipulate the sound a little more. On Tuesday, the music was still pretty loose and open but there was more movement within it. There were times that the sound would put focus on particular players, but then it would shift the action to somewhere else at a moment's notice. Smith started off playing vibes, sometimes bowing them. Not being able to see everyone's hands clearly, meant that it wasn't always possible to tell if Maneri or Frisell was providing more ambiance or atmosphere to the sound. Some low end bass notes wound their way into mix too, and then it was clear that Maneri was responsible for that.(He utilized some of those octave-dropping effects when the trio played Pittsburgh).

Then Frisell would start with his trademark volume pedal work which gave everything a dreamy sheen. When Smith sat at the drum kit, he frequently played grooves, sometimes in odd meters, sometimes in more measured tempos. Either way it came as a surprise because it added more of a shape to the sound. The whole thing made me forsake my notebook, and just get lost in the music, hoping my memory would hold me. Sometimes things moved glacially, but the music - which Smith told me afterwards were all newer pieces - had more direction and action built into them.

Until Wednesday night of this past week, I had never set foot in the Village Vanguard. It was a hard thing to admit, and one friend couldn't resist poking me about it. In a way that razzing is warranted: What's keeping me from going?

Well, the venue doesn't take part in Winter Jazz Fest so I'm usually hopping from one place to another during the marathon nights to catch several different sets. Since Wednesday night was a night off from WJF events, it felt like the right time to go to the legendary space that appeared on so many equally legendary album titles.

Guitarist Julian Lage was in the middle of a week-long residency, with a trio of Bad Plus drummer Dave King and bassist Jorge Roeder. I showed up around 9:45 hoping to get into the 10:30 set and I'm glad I didn't come a minute later because there was a line forming next to the awning. And that was just the line of people with tickets. A smaller "stand by" line was queued up on the opposite side of the awning. Luckily it wasn't cold or rainy.

Note: there is a number "1" right where the flash appears in the picture above. More than 23 people are allowed in the Vanguard but 123 people seems like a small crowd for such a place. If you're going there, you're probably walking in thinking that money is no object. But just so you out-of-towners know, the cover was $35 and there's a one drink minimum. If you don't have a ticket, you just pay later at your table, where you'll likely to be in close quarters with someone you don't know. Me, I was lucky because I squoze into an aisle chair in front of a table and no one was sitting next to me. On top of that, the minimum drink was THE BEST TASTING GIN AND SHANLEYS I'VE EVER HAD. ("Gin and Shanleys" is the nickname given to my usual drink of gin and club soda. There's more to that story but now isn't the place.) It was the unnamed house gin too. I ended up having two.

It's true that there isn't a bad seat in the Vanguard. At first it felt like the room was triangular because the two side walls seem to come to a point at the stage. But the stage, with its red curtain backdrop, has its own fairly long wall behind it too. Everything can be heard and seen. Those side walls are adorned with pictures of legendary jazz musicians.

After the set I had to get one of my beloved Cecil Taylor. There are also a couple sousaphones mounted of both of the side walls. The look of the place seems historical without looking like it's in need of renovation. You do get a sense of the history naturally. There doesn't need to be a plaque to explain it.

The set began with Roeder hitting a vamp in the upper register of his bass and King playing his kit with one hand and one stick. Lage plays amazingly rich melodic lines, peeling off fast runs in a manner that reminds me of something I've heard in Joe Negri, where he soars an octave and a half up the fretboard and only then starts a proper phrase he hears in his head. He began one tune unaccompanied, going through a series of complex figures with that rapid approach. There were some tortured guitar faces but consider what he was conjuring with his instrument, he can look any way he wants. When the opening salvo was over, it was pretty impressive that the song that followed this testimony was "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You." It wasn't a wry statement or anything flashy. Lage was figuring out how to make this chestnut still sound current after all this time. And he succeeded.

King and Roeder were enjoying themselves as much as Lage was. They went in a free direction where King was doing the driving. Earlier in the set, the drummer also proved how hard he can swing when the situation calls for it. Roeder added some beautiful bow scraping to a ballad without getting too heavy. In one intriguing moment during said ballad, Lage landed on a tritone and bent the note far enough that it quickly went back in tune. The guitarist didn't back announce much of the set but after this one, he mentioned Peter Ivers and the film Eraserhead, so maybe it was "In Heaven (The Lady In the Radiator Song)"? There's an interesting choice for you. Regardless, I'll take it.

Some of the tunes that night felt a little poppy and folk-like, built on some very major changes. But even when the heads seemed a little light, the interplay between these three lifting things higher.

Nels Cline came into the Vanguard prior to the show with a guitar strapped on his back, so I thought he was going to sit in. No such luck. He was just there checking things out. He wasn't the only one from what I could tell. At the bar, in the back of the room, Cline and several other musicians were hanging out, checking out the music. I guess that can be a typical Wednesday night at this place.

It was a short walk back to the hotel, which gave me time to really soak in the music and the space.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Almost Forgot to Include This

As I went to post a link to the last write-up on Twitter, I saw the faces of Kris Davis, Val Jeanty and Terri Lyne Carrington staring at me, in a link to the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, for which Davis' album Diatom Ribbons took top honors. "I saw them play on Sunday night," I thought. "Why didn't I include that in that last post?" Dumbass strikes again.

After I threw my suitcase on the bed in the hotel room on Sunday, I ran out to the Sultan Room in Brooklyn and caught probably about half of their set. Wish I could've seen all of it (again with the bad planning) but it was enough to satiate me at least a little. Tony Malaby roared on the tenor. Davis (in the trippy picture above) made an upright piano sound like a baby grand and Jeanty (seen below) added some wild textures. This is the same Val Jeanty who came to the Andy Warhol Museum with Ravish Momin early last year. It was interesting how there were moments when Davis started a groove going in "Reflections" which got Malaby improvising. But at the same time, Davis' variations on that riff made her the center of attention in the piece.

My Visit to New York, Part One

Right now I'm sitting in my hotel room in Manhattan, where I've been, off and on, since Sunday night. January means it's time for the annual trek to the Big Apple for both the Jazz Congress conference and Winter Jazz Fest. This year, however I was a couple days late and beaucoup dollars short.

Last year, the festival kicked into full marathon gear - with two nights of shows happening throughout Manhattan - a few days after Jazz Congress. There were a few stand-alone shows in between. This year, though, the Manhattan marathon started last week, preceding the conference. I realized this only after the Megabus ticket and hotel room had been booked and after the days off from work had been requested. The silver lining is there is another marathon night happening tomorrow in Brooklyn, and I'll be there for that.

But I was here in plenty of time for the Jazz Congress, from which the badge up above came from. Not sure why they didn't put "JazzTimes/Pittsburgh Current" on the badge. Maybe press is press. Maybe I should've done what Curly did in the one Three Stooges film where he, Moe and Larry pretend they're members of the press to get into an event: Moe and Larry get "Press" buttons from the men's room. Curly, ever the resourceful one, has a badge that says, "Pull."

Is this thing on?

One of the panels at Jazz Congress saluted Charlie Parker: "Bird at Beyond: Celebrating Charlie Parker at 100." The panelists included drummers Will Calhoun and Terri Lyne Carrington, saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and (pictured above) Charles McPherson. Rather than rehashing stories about Bird, they helped get to the essence of why Charlie Parker is still relevant and inspirational all these years later. The one thing that the panelists really pondered but I don't think anyone could really answer was what Parker might have accomplished had he lived longer. It's nice to imagine that, but you never really know. He could have turned more pop or he could have gone more experimental. He could have invented Third Stream. But who can really say? Not me, so I'll stop there. (I'm going to write at length about the Congress in the next week. So a full report is forthcoming.)

The Bushwick Public House's weekly Monday Night Improvised Music Series was not part of the Winter Jazz Fest, but it was on my list of shows to check out. Hosted by tenor saxophonist Stephen Gauci, the event features six bands (!) every week. 

Multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter (seen above) played with two groups on Monday. One included bassist Francesco Marcocci, saxophonist Dan Blake and drummer Francisco Mela. The other featured him together with baritone saxophonist Dave Sewelson and a second baritone player, Josh Sinton, who also doubled on bass clarinet. I like all these guys anyway but hearing them together was really great. Sinton initiated a couple of ideas, Sewelson picked up on them and Carter added great textures to them.

Gauci's trio with drummer Kevin Shea and bassist Adam Lane was just setting up when I got there, They unleashed some intense, sometimes brutal free jazz, but it had a lot of momentum to carry it forward. Or should I say, the delivery shoved the music forward. Following that group, before Marcocci's group, drummer Jeremy Carlstadt and guitarist Anders Nillson offered a spacey respite from the squonk.

To be continued...

Monday, January 06, 2020

Catching Up With Kris Davis, Dave Douglas and Avram Fefer

Pittsburgh Current posted a few thoughts from its staff writers reflecting on the music that happened during 2019. Click here and scroll down to read some of my thoughts about shows I really liked last year. 

It's been awhile since I penned a proper album review here - and I'm still not ready to do that. These three albums have been out for a while anyway. But at the same time, they all have some great things going for them so another mention or two can't hurt. If it gets one more person to check them out, then I've done a good deed. 

Kris Davis
Diatom Ribbons

With every album she makes, pianist Kris Davis seems to create something entirely different from what preceded it. Diatom Ribbons' title track opens the album with some clanking prepared piano and a voice. Not just any voice but that of Cecil Taylor, offering some philosophy about his music. For a person who thrived by being intentionally vague and obtuse, this excerpt gets to the heart of his work. And it's nothing compared to the performances of both JD Allen and Tony Malaby that follow him.  The whole arrangement creates a blend of adventurous jazz with turntable sampling work (Val Jeanty works the decks here and throughout the album). 

The album features an assortment of players coming and going throughout the album. Besides Davis, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington is the one constant. Esperanza Spaulding appears on two tracks but  she left her bass at home and uses her voice. She sings MichaĆ«l Attias' "The Very Thing" and, in "Certain Cells," she recites Gwendolyn Brooks' poem "To Prisoners." Trevor Dunn plays on most of the tracks, alternating acoustic and electric basses. In addition to putting Allen and Malaby together on a few tracks (including a phantasmagorical 12-minute reading of Julius Hemphill's "Reflections"), both Nels Cline and Marc Ribot also pop up, separately and in tandem on "Golgi Complex." Sometimes things get spare and wide-open, while other tracks like "Reflections" move along at full speed.   

Dave Douglas

Within minutes of playing Engage, it felt like it was headed to my Best of 2019 list. For what it's worth, Douglas often ends up faring impressively in such lists, but "Showing Up" has something really magical in the three-chord riff that drives the song. It moves almost like an Americana indie rock song, driven by Jeff Parker's guitar. (He is something of an indie rocker anyway, what with his role in Tortoise.) Douglas' trumpet uses that foundation to create one of those yearning moods that just tugs at the end. The circular riff doesn't seem to resolve exactly, so maybe that's part of the allure.

The rest of Engage lives up to its name too. "In It Together" features some strong group improvisation. "One Sun, A Million Rays" has Anna Webber playing some moody flute lines before the piece eventually fades with an ominous march. "Where Do We Go From Here" is built on a tense 6/4 vamp that almost unravels during Webber's tenor solo. With titles like "Free Libraries" (where Douglas plays some languid lines and Parker takes a clean, "jazzy" solo) and "Faith Alliance," with its overdriven guitar, Douglas is clearly working to motivate people to take action through his music. It can be hard to take that step but Douglas is a good motivator. 

Avran Fefer Quartet
(Clean Feed)

Listening to "Song for Dyani," from Testament, brings to mind Ask the Ages, the late Sonny Sharrock's summit meeting with Elvin Jones, Pharoah Sanders and Charnett Moffett, where that quartet sounded like they were playing heavy rock. The pedal drone of "Dyani" inspires that comparison in saxophonist Avram Fefer's quartet, though they race along at twice the speed of Sharrock's band, driven by the multi-directional playing of Chad Taylor, who composed the tune, and bassist Eric Revis, who gets aggressive here.

But Testament has more happening than just this particular moment moment. Fefer, alternating on tenor and alto, finds a good foil in guitarist Marc Ribot, who digs into the boppish swing of "Dean St. Hustle." The leader plays it cool for the straightforward theme of "Essaouria" and then adds a strong growl to his tone during his solo. "African Interlude" gives Taylor a chance to swing really hard too.

Fefer has worked with Taylor and Revis on previous albums but this was the first time he and Ribot worked together on the saxophonist's originals. Hopefully this won't be just a one-off event.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

It's New Year's Day and I'm Feeling... I need to get things in order. Though I'm not sure where to start. That particular brand of agoraphobia is the thing that cripples my brain on a regular basis: "It's a day off and there's a lot that I want to do around the house. Let me figure out what to do first. I'll put on some music. Oh, I don't know what to put on. I should listen to something I want to write about. But I don't want it on in the background......" Half an hour goes by and I haven't gotten anything done and I put on some album that I played from my college days.

But anyway, 2019 is over.

There was good stuff that happened to me. After trying for over a year to get something together, I'm finally part of a new band, the Harry Von Zells. We played our first show the day after Thanksgiving, and it went really well.

I transferred back to the Whole Foods where I worked for 11 years until I got laid off. In early 2018 I came back to company via the South Hills store but the commute started to kill me. I was also missing out on shows that I alternately wanted and needed to see. (Biggest regret of 2019 was missing Bob Mould. I was always a casual fan of his solo career but that recent album hinted at a great show.) So I'm literally right back in the place where I was 15 years ago. But I'm okay with that. Work is fine.

Pittsburgh Current continues to chug along. The paper is small but it's mighty.

Then there is that batch of albums that I bought over the summer. I know that one should not find their life affirmations in material objects, but records can do that for a person.

But there were definite downsides to the past year. For one thing, this year had the smallest number of blog entries since I started doing it. Even less than the year my son was born. I'm realizing part of that is related to how I approach writing now - feeling like I can't dive into it without a significant amount of preparation. When it comes to albums, that means I need to do a lot of listening (four or five spins) and usually taking notes. Listening to music, sadly, is not what it was in my 20s where it was easy for me to sit in my bedroom and just get absorbed in music, liner notes and any press releases that came with an album. Now listening is something I tend to do on the fly. In the car, where I've realized the sonic range can be pretty limited. I'll listen on the laptop but that usually means being trapped in a seat for a long period of time, which makes me restless. I want to hear everything through the good speakers on the full system at home. (I don't know what you call that anymore. I like Hi-Fi, though.) It all sends me a vicious circle where nothing gets done.

I resolve to be a better listener, who isn't too neurotic and is able to write without over-preparing.

Maybe that will help me discover me more music too. I looked through the list of Best Albums of the Year in JazzTimes and felt out of touch. I didn't know any in the Top 10. None of albums on my list showed up until about #14. Just in case anyone wonders, no I'm not that type that intentionally lists obscure albums for the sake of throwing a monkey wrench into the tally. This is what I like.

One really big downside to the year was the number of musicians who died. Yes, we've all got to go sometime and many of them were up in years, but jeez oh pete, it was a rough one. I paid tribute to my late friend Ed Boytim in a post during the summer, but I will raise my mug to him again.

I was again reminded of Ed because we were both serious fans of Neil Innes, who died on Sunday, December 29 at the age of 75. Innes is up there with the Beatles, Minutemen and Charlie Parker as someone who had a profound musical impact on me. It all started when I saw All You Need Is Cash the mockumentary about the Rutles, a Beatles parody in which Innes played the John Lennon character and wrote all the songs. I was in fifth grade at the time and the Beatles were all I lived for. Rather than seeing the Rutles as a band that made fun of my faves, I picked up on the humor of the whole thing.

A few years later, I bought a compilation of the Bonzo Dog Band's career, and discovered where Innes came from. Half the time, I wasn't sure what was going on with that band, which sounded like a collision of 20s jazz and Monty Python humor, which of course it was. In addition to Vivian Stanshall's zany frontman performance, Innes would jump in with a song or two that had excellent pop sense with a lyrical outlook that could be charming or dryly hilarious. He wrote the band's one hit "I'm the Urban Spaceman," but as good as that one was, he wrote several that were even better. Also, it became a hit in part because the song's producer, Apollo C. Vermouth, was none other than Paul McCartney.

One more word about the Bonzos and Ed. Ed was always coming with ideas for songs or shows, many of which were just pipedreams. When Viv Stanshall died in 1995, he joked about doing a Bonzos tribute show. That was all I needed to hear. I recruited a bunch of horn players and started transcribing Bonzos songs from the records as best I could. Ed and Rob Rayshich, who had a duo called the Minimalist Love Gods, were the rhythm section. At the time I had a copy of the Bonzos' Gorilla album that was warped and could only be played on my '70s turntable that was normally reserved for 78s. But I used it to figure out how to play "I'm Bored" and "The Equestrian Statue." Everyone was into the project, which fueled my obsessive nature.

The first time we staged the Vivian Stanshall Memorial Orchestra it didn't go that well, mainly because things started late and we got cut off after just about five songs. That was also the night of the final Bone Of Contention show. But a few months later, when the Minimalist Love Gods released their CD, the Orchestra opened the show and played a whole set. It was the first time I ever pulled off some big project and, as my first real band was organically wrapping things up, it gave me the courage to pursue other things. It also gave me the bandmates with which to do it, as future Mystery Date members Aimee DeFoe and Bridget Jakub were in the Viv Orchestra.

Speaking of future endeavors, it's time to figure some out now, which means this is a good place to stop. Actually I have to get ready to work today, but that's usually when I remember things I want to do anyhow. So I'll just try to keep my calendar book nearby and make lists for myself.

Happy New Year everyone.