Saturday, February 29, 2020

RIP David Roback

Pittsburgh Current polled its contributing writers for last year's Valentines Day issue, asking each of us for what we considered the "Sexiest Song." (Proving how one letter can make a world of difference, my original email accidentally asked for the most sexist song, which naturally was Burt Bacharach & Hal David's "Wives and Lovers.") Rushed to come up with one quickly, I chose the Stooges' "We Will Fall," a long, sensual and somewhat dangerous sounding number about loving and leaving (I hope).

A year and a couple weeks later I realized the drastic oversight I made. "We Will Fall" is pretty steamy, but kiss for kiss and sigh for sigh, I think side two of Opal's Happy Nightmare, Baby takes the love cake. That's actually four songs total, but after "Supernova," it's hard to stop. Layers of guitars, droning organs, some dirty riffs and that ever-so-seductive deadpan voice of Kendra Smith is hard to resist.

Sadly, all this came to me because I pulled the album off the shelf this week after hearing about the death of David Roback, the other half, with Smith, of the brains behind Opal. The guitarist was a mere 61 years old. Although the cause of death wasn't immediately released, Roback's mother confirmed that it was metastatic cancer, according to the New York Times.

Roback came to prominence first in connection with the so-called Paisley Underground, the community of California bands that borrowed heavily from '60s bands of both the pop and psychedelic sides of things. He was a founding member of the Rain Parade and also appeared on the highly collectible compilation Rainy Day, playing songs by Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix with kindred spirits from the Dream Syndicate, Three O'Clock and the Bangles.

He found his greatest attention with Mazzy Star, who had some mild mainstream success in the early '90s with their second album So Tonight That I Might See and the single "Fade Into You." But that group's template was set in place by Opal, which began under the name Clay Allison. (Pittsburgh history note - Clay Allison's sole Pittsburgh appearance in 1984 at the Electric Banana was also the debut of the original Cynics.) Happy Nightmare Baby, the group's one album released during their lifetime (a compilation of singles followed later) has more of a raw, visceral feel, giving the feeling that the group is still discovering what is possible for them. "Rocket Machine" opens it with a riff straight out of a T. Rex song. "Magick Power" follows, built on a slinky groove that gets pushed in an Eastern direction courtesy of the organ, before breaking into a double-time freak out.

And then there's side two. The title track is the album's understatement. Aside from a few slide guitar leads from Roback, all ears are on Smith, who could be either cruel or loving, judging from the lyrics. Two other songs prove that sometimes you can lean heavily on just one or two chords as long they occasionally change into a powerful release that heightens the mood. That happens in the sensual "Supernova" which bounces between C# and D, with only a short break that leads back in.

"Soul Giver" is essentially a guitar freak out, closing the album in much the same way So Tonight That I Might See's title track would do the same six years later. But while the latter tune beat one riff into the ground, "Soul Giver" has guitars and organs tumbling over one chord, some of them never sure if the song is major or minor. Then every time Smith returns to sing a verse, it's followed by a chord change that keeps things from ever getting tedious. When it ends, eight-and-a-half minutes later, there's no climax. It feels right when it suddenly halts.

Released by SST Records in 1987, the album has been hard to find in the ensuing years. Part of that could be Roback's doing, as he was supposedly stubborn about letting his work get reissued. (Hence Rainy Day's collectablility too.) One story about his passing mentioned that both Happy Nightmare Baby and the Early Singles compilation might finally be re-released. If so, it would be a good way to rediscover the elusive, creative Mr. Roback.

Thanks for the loving, David.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

CD Review: The Westerlies - Wherein Lies the Good

The Westerlies
Wherein Lies the Good

The Mamas and the Papas used to say that when they harmonized together, their overtones added a fifth voice to their sound. That same sort of harmonic reaction seems to happen at various spots during Wherein Lies the Good, the third album by the brass quartet the Westerlies. The rich sound feels like the result of more than just two trumpets and two trombones. It doesn't feel the group overdubbed extra tracks either. Sections where it seems like flutes are creeping in the background is built on another technique where they let air escape from the sides of their mouths while playing (a process which is called "fluting"). The music just expands with sound, in a delightful, ear-tugging manner.

The Westerlies - Riley Mulherkar and newest member Chloe Rowlands on trumpet, Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch on trombones - reside at the corner of chamber group and jazz. They play composed pieces and, although improvisation might not be a major part of their work, they nevertheless depend on personal approaches to the instruments to bring their scores to life. On top of that, the four of them  can move like a single unit, as needed. The best example of that comes in "Golden Gate Gospel Train" where they create a singular wail of joy, building up to it and popping the cork with jaw-dropping precision.

That particular track introduces a five-song suite of gospel songs originally performed by the Golden Gate Quartet, a vocal group from the 1930s. All but one of the tunes lasts under two minutes, and while the melodies are built on bright, cheery lines, the Westerlies give them depth. This suite appears after another extended piece, the title track which was written by pianist Robin Holcomb, a long-time supporter of the group since their young days in Seattle. Consisting of 11 movements, "Wherein Lies the Good" includes quick fanfares, warm trombone melodies and moments where the group sounds like they're inhaling and exhaling as one, creating some effective dissonance as they go.

Along with other interpretations that speak volumes about the band's scope - two by Charles Ives, one by obscure singer-songwriter Judee Sill, one by avant pop singer Arthur Russell which they punctuate with dirty growls - each of the Westerlies contribute originals. Clausen's "Robert Henry," inspired by his nephew, features a minimal trumpet below the melody that eventually gives way to a slow section where a whine edges up before returning to the first part. Rowlands' "Laurie" expresses love for the late trumpeter and teacher Laurie Frink. De Koch's "Chickendog and Woodylocks" playfully recreates a childhood story from his grandmother and Mulkerhar's three-part "Entropy" closes the album with power.

Monday, February 03, 2020

CD Review: Johnny Griffin & Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis - Ow! Live at the Penthouse

Johnny Griffin & Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis
Ow! Live at the Penthouse
(Reel to Real)

When two charismatic tenor saxophonists get together in a band, it doesn't have to follow that they'll engage in nothing but battles or cutting sessions. It can also result in a sharing of ideas, or as a way for peers to politely push each other to higher levels that bring out their individuality. That seems to have been the case in the quintet that put tenor saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis side by side during the early 1960s. Their discography speaks a great deal about their work ethic: in a mere two years the "Tough Tenors" cur nine albums, including four that captured them live at Minton's

Ow! is a newly released performance by their quintet live during two shows at Seattle's Penthouse Club in 1962. The rhythm section driving the music consists of Horace Parlan (piano), Buddy Catlett (bass) and Art Taylor (drums). No mere lo-fi historical document, the disc (which also appeared on vinyl on Record Store Day last fall) was recorded for broadcast live on radio station KING-FM. Taken from the original tapes that were in the possession Charlie Puzzo, Jr. - whose father ran the Penthouse - they feature sound akin to classic Village Vanguard recordings, down to the crystal clear sound of Catlett's walking bass lines.

Following a brief radio introduction and a chorus of "Intermission Riff," the quintet kicks into the jaunty "Blues Up and Down" (originally a Gene Ammons/Sonny Stitt workout, but one that became the title track of a Griffin/Davis album too). The performance can give one the feeling of discovering some long-lost treasure, eliciting a "where have they been all my life" response. Davis takes the opening solo - which he does throughout, making it easy to distinguish him from Griffin - playing with a gruff tone that he uses to deliver a torrent of ideas, stopping on a dime, wailing and adding vibrato in appropriate places. If that wasn't enough, Griffin jumps in and spends most of the time playing double-time, like it was a simple undertaking. And the momentum doesn't wane a bit during the following 50 minutes.

No pianist sounded like Horace Parlan, due largely to the way he overcame the effects of polio, which robbed the strength from a few of his fingers. To compensate, Parlan developing his own unique voicings which add some bright spirit to this music, and evokes the feeling he delivered a few years earlier on Charles Mingus' Mingus Ah Um. The faster pieces, like the closing "Tickle Toe" are no problem for him.

Art Taylor comes across as a solid journeyman, driving the tenors. Buddy Catlett might not be as well-known and the other players, but he became a Seattle fixture after playing with Ben Webster (whose influence is felt in this set), Louis Armstrong and Quincy Jones. He delivers some solid work  that drives pieces like "Bahia."

Ow! represents a significant find for a few reasons. First is the obvious fact: The album unearths a top-notch performance that might have otherwise been lost to the ether. Co-released with Resonance Records, its elaborate packing includes detailed notes about the Griffin-Davis quintet's history, reminiscences by people involved with the live session and interviews with musicians who offer a greater perspective on the players. But it also serves as a motivation to track down the other recordings the Tough Tenors made at that time. Because we could use more.

Here's hoping that Reel to Real also has access to John Coltrane's mid-'60s performance at the Penthouse which came out a few years ago on a imported, probably illegitimate and definitely muddy sounding CD. 

Andy Gill RIP

While listing some albums for sale tonight, I figure Gang of Four's Solid Gold album should playing. So it is. For some reason, I know Entertainment and Songs of the Free really well, in terms of  full albums, but not this one. It has nothing to do with what I think of the album. Hell, I'm really digging the steady, unflinching groove of "What We All Want" right now. But by the time I got the album (I think someone gave it to me when I was in college), I put it away, thinking that there would be some other time when I'd immerse myself in it.

Andy Gill was one of maybe three touchstone guitars who epitomized a certain sound for me. (For the record, the other two are D. Boon and Roger Miller.) He could make a lot of noise on the guitar without going over the edge or forsaking the groove. I think the only person who ever had that brittle sound is Marc Ribot.

I haven't seen Gang of Four live since their reunion in the early '00s but like many people I still hold the band dear to my heart. The first time I saw them was in early 1983 at Pittsburgh's Stanley Theater, with locals the Five opening for them. My brother John took me, which was cool in and of itself, being the 10th grader hanging out with the older punks. The show was great, with several encores, which irritated me at the time because I understand how that worked at the time (the idea of the band leaving the stage and letting the crowd hoot and holler before they'd come back onstage). By this time Sara Lee was playing with them and she was funky as hell.

The show was on a Sunday night and got done close to 11:00 pm, which was not cool for a kid who didn't want to deal with parents who would chew him out when he got home. But John insisted we grab some food first on the way home. It turned out to be Primanti's, a Pittsburgh institution which is know for putting french fries and cole slaw on their sandwiches. (Any Pittsburgher worth their salt knows exactly what I'm talking about).

About eight years later, my friend Steve and I were drinking past closing time at Chief's Cafe, a local dive that was always filled with characters, most of whom were in bands or went to see bands. As Steve and I made our way out some time after 2:00, we noticed a guy who looked like Andy Gill coming out a few steps behind us. When we heard his English accent we realize it was Andy Gill. I think they had played at Graffiti, which was just down the street, earlier that evening. I'm not even sure if it was a Gang of Four show or not.

Steve went up to Andy and introduced himself, thanking him for his music and saying it had been an inspiration to him. Andy was gracious and thanked him. I was too inebriated to say something to him. Instead, after we walked out to the street, we started thinking of similarities between Andy and Davey Williams, the guitarist in the prog-jazz band Curlew. Only I got the name wrong and referred to Davey Johnstone, the guitarist who played with Elton John in the '70s. It was all very hilarious to my snockered mind. You had to be there.

All music nerd wisecracks aside, thank you for everything, Andy.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Who Did I See at Winter Jazz Fest? Well.....

Yesterday I penned a report on Jazz Congress for Pittsburgh Current which should be up on their website soon. They asked for 500 words. I delivered about 850. It was that kind of event - hard to sum up in a small space without oversimplifying everything. With that completed, I figured I better talk a bit about the events at Winter Jazz Fest that I was able to check out. Specifically the marathon night that took place in Brooklyn. Luckily for me, everyone I wanted to see was performing at the same venue, the Sultan Room on Starr Street.

Last year, one of my Winter Jazz Fest evenings began with Tim Berne in a trio setting (with Michael Formanek's Very Practical Trio) and the same thing happened this year. And much like last year's show, Berne began the set with a plastic bottle in the bell of his horn. From there, the similarities end. Big Terminal was a whole different sonic dish, with Berne's paison David Torn on guitar and Aurora Nealand on accordion. Dressed in a hoodie for most of the performance, Nealand also seemed to have a microphone mounted on her instrument and added some vocals. She also banged on a few mental cans with a whisk.

Big Terminal's set recalled some of the frenzy of Sun of Goldfinger, the album Torn and Berne did with Ches Smith. After some barbed growls, Berne was playing some rapid lines that recalled his Bloodcount work (a quick listen to the new Snake Oil album features that too). Torn alternated between joining the saxophonist's melodies and mucking it up with his always entrancing effects work. Nealand proved to be a strong contributor to the group. She often supported Berne by shaping the structure with rich drones. At other times she pumped out staccato notes on the keys and rapidly tugged on the bellows with her left. It's not a disservice to say that it was sometimes hard to distinguish her playing from that of Torn. Except when Torn let fly some ear-splitting harmonics. 

Jessica Pavone's Quartet performed their set without amplification. No pickups on the string instruments and no microphones pointed in the direction of the two violins and two violas. Their unfiltered sound of their instruments' wood could be felt in the whole room. The audience was quiet too, save for the clicking cameramen who were omnipresent at the edge of the stage.

Pavone, who came to Pittsburgh in 2008 with Anthony Braxton, lead the group through pieces that were built on simple figures spread out among the players (Pavone and Abby Swindle on viola, Ericka Dicker and Angela Morris on violin). The first piece was built on arpeggios that were repeated and staggered between the players. Sometimes the quartet coalesced and sounded like a droning chorale. But other pieces got too repetitive, relying on sliding notes that didn't have as much of a payoff.

Wayne Horvitz's composed his 2015 album Some Places Are Forever Afternoon inspired by the poems of Richard Hugo. It was an amazing song cycle that included bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck in a group that also included cello, cornet and guitar. Hearing the pianist and the bassoonist together in duo brought back the power of that album during their set. Together they were graceful and lyrical, yet still penetrating at the same time. Any preconceptions about what a bassoon should sound like go out the window when Schoenbeck starts playing. It almost sounded like a bass clarinet, as she could easily go from guttural growls to lighter melodic moments. With Horvitz's strong writing and equally arresting approach to the piano, the duo had the audience sitting on the Sultan Room's concrete floor in rapt attention.

With Neil Peart's passing at the beginning of the year, it made me wonder who young aspiring drummers will admire and emulate in years to come. The answer came with the next set: Dan Weiss. His Starebaby band followed Horvitz and Schoenbeck, with a set that was both heavy and whip smart, in terms of technical facility. Ben Monder (guitar), Matt Mitchell (keyboards) and Trevor Dunn (bass guitar) joined him, introducing a set that leaned heavily on an album coming out this spring on Pi Recordings.

Weiss' knowledge of Indian beat cycles again seems to play a major role in his composing. But the group peeled off the time signatures like they were nothing. Monder and Mitchell added some heavy solos, throughout. The latter player had a voicing that sounded like a clavinet and it worked in a situation like this. The self-titled Starebaby album from 2018 was a tad dark for me. But after this set, I'm looking forward to their next release.

A late dinner kept me from most of the set by Salami Rose Joe Louis, the stage name of keyboardist Lindsay Olsen. Her quartet, who appeared to be in the 20s, played a funky groovy set with vocals, bass, drums and horns. After Starebaby, anything would probably seem anti-climactic but Olsen's set seemed a little closer to a lighter, ambient groove pop. Heads were bobbing in the audience, so the vibe was being felt, but nevertheless, they seemed like an odd addition to Winter Jazz Fest.

Chris Lightcap's SuperBigmouth brought things back around with a group that had to work to get everyone onstage. With two drummers, two guitarists, two tenor saxophones, keyboards and the leader's basses (upright and electric guitar), they brought together both of Lightcap's other bands, Superette and Big Mouth. This music might have had some progressive rock coursing through its veins but there was plenty of room for blowing too. Plus the way Lightcap used the instrumentation made things sound bigger.

The group didn't get on until close to 1:00 AM but once they did it was hard to leave, even though I was feeling dog tired. (Lightcap is pretty much a homeboy, having grown up in Latrobe, and since I never see him in town, I felt like I needed stick it out.) The majestic opening and rolling rubato drums of "False Equivalency" and layered voicings in "Zero Point Five" were worth the effort.

Getting home that night seemed a tide dicey. The L train into Manhattan was only going so far into Brooklyn before heading back to the city, so there were shuttles taking people to that subway stop. That late at night, it felt like we were going all over Hell's half acre - turning left, turning right, turning left again but not necessarily going in a circle. Luckily I wasn't the only one in the same predicament and I finally got on the train.


Saturday night, Winter Jazz Fest was winding down. One week, a lot of subway rides, a bunch of donuts and coffee later, the bus ride home was just around the corner. The Beat Music Improvisations at Nublu didn't seem quite my thing but it featured the festival's artist in residence, drummer Mark Guiliana, who has played with everyone from David Bowie to Brad Mehldau. Considering I missed the Manhattan Marathon, I figured I better check this show out.

When I got to Nublu, on Avenue C, the first set had already started and the room was at capacity. But the doorman said if I went to the room upstairs I could hang out and they'd let us know when space opened up. Good deal.

Upstairs, a tenor trio was playing to about a crowd of at least a dozen and maybe upwards of 20 people. Some were listening, others were in the corner talking. The trio was on fire. When they finished one tune and went immediately into the next, I started to wonder: this guy is doing what JD Allen does. He's also playing off a groove but drawing on some sort of post-Coltrane tenor stylings. Is this JD Allen?

Sure enough, it was. One of the best blankety-blank tenor players in jazz is playing to a room of less than 20 people during a jazz festival. What the hell is up with that? People should be leaning on every note this guy plays. A lot of people. I realized later than night I should have asked if he had CDs for sale because I need to get caught up on his last one or two. But at the time, I felt like the only thing I'd end up saying to him would have been, "Oh my God, you're JD Allen?! Wow, man!" I only caught about 15 minutes of his set before they wrapped up. From the looks of things, they were packing up for the night too. Before long, we were told that we could get in to the lower floor.

A short time later, I was in Nublu with a bunch of other young folks and the band kicked into a heavy 4/4 groove with some samples floating around it. I couldn't see if Guiliana was behind the drum kit, if Nate Smith was or if both of them were playing together. What I could see were Jason Lindner and Big Yuki laying down some ambient sounds while Stu Brooks started a groove going on bass. A lot of heads were wagging along with the beat but it felt more like - and maybe this description shows I'm a little out of touch - a techno show with some live instrumentation. If there was improvisation going on, it wasn't being felt. And it probably wasn't the point either.

Over those last seven days, a wealth of events transpired. The NPR Jazz poll finally came out, and the results favored a number of artists that took musical risks, rather than handing the kudos to more traditional performers. At the same time, Rolling Stone unearthed an internal memo from IHeartMedia that discussed massive layoffs from the monolithic broadcast company, again furthering the idea that commercial radio is moving towards a bland, limp landscape.

At Jazz Congress, a panel on the balance of art and commerce leaned more towards the commerce side, without drawing on the imput of, say, ESP-Disk Records - a label that has spent more than half a century releasing wild albums and just happened to be set up around the corner from the panel - or Pi Recordings or Sunnyside, two labels that show up frequently in the NPR poll.

I'm not trying to put down Guiliana and Co for their set. Or anybody. A lot of it could have been the mood I was in by that time of the week. But when JD Allen - no hyperbole here, one of the best in the business - can't draw a big crowd on a Saturday, it kind of makes you wonder about the audience for this music and what they'll really go out of their way to hear.

But, really, I had a good time.

Here's a pic of JD Allen. Take a good look and then go find one of his albums.