Saturday, March 28, 2020

CD Review: Bobby Previte/Jamie Saft/Nels Cline - Music from the 21st Century

Bobby Previte/Jamie Saft/Nels Cline
Music from the 21st Century

(I realize this is the third album featuring Nels Cline which I've blogged about in the less than 10 days. But it does present him in a different context, one that shows up his rocking side a little more.)

When a non-jazz playing group gets together for rehearsal, the following scenario is not too out of the ordinary. Each member of the band starts setting up, testing levels, effects pedals, hardware, etc. Inevitably one member of the band starts warming up on a riff or some sort of idea. As the rest of the band gets situated, someone else joins in. It keeps happening until everyone is playing together.

That first "tune" of rehearsal can be exhilarating. Volumes are set to the ideal level that the player wants. Without an audience or sound person or even a clock to interrupt the moment, there are no expectations to be fulfilled, only a riff to get lost in. The potential and excitement of the rest of practice can come to light in that first spontaneous song.

I've been in that situation many times at practices. Sometimes completed songs have sprouted from those riffs but there have also been many times where the initial magic of those uninhibited moments can't be replicated in the exact same manner. Close to it, yes, but never with the same unbridled spirit.

Bobby Previte (drums), Jamie Saft (Hammond Organ, Fender Rhodes, MiniMoog) and Nels Cline (guitars, effects) are no run of the mill trio though. So when they launch into "Photobomb," it might be a spontaneous riff, but it's a riff that takes that practice space warm-up scenario and multiplies it by ten. "Photobomb," which opens this album, has a two-chord vamp, though the first chord is played over seven beats, with the second one only hanging for the eighth beat, so it's almost a one-chord groove. But repetition is always stronger when it's built on an extended series of notes like that. Saft's organ bares its sharp teeth, with an overdriven bass line and a mix of drawbar settings that fall somewhere between Larry Young and Rod Argent. Before long, Cline is wailing and Previte is pushing his brothers as hard as he can. And that's just the first track.

Music from the 21st Century contains an almost equal amount of vamps or jams - whatever you want to call them - and free wailing. The ten tracks come from a mini-tour the trio took in May of last year through Upstate New York and Central Pennsylvania.

It was the first time Cline and Previte had come together in an improvised setting (the guitarist played on two of the drummer's composed projects). Vin Cin recorded and mastered the sessions, which has the clarity of a pure studio session, until the last few seconds, when the group ends together and the audience can be heard. Previte pared down the prime moments into tracks that, for the most part, maintain focus. Rarely does the band just spins their wheels, waiting for the inspiration to hit. Even the 14-minute "Occession," which only takes shape mid-way through the track, has an interesting build.

While Cline's fretwork conjures some of the most outlandish textures - going from clean jazz to metallic crunch to effects-heavy snowstorms - Saft's Hammond gives the music the sonic glue. He sounds downright monstrous in a track like "Paywall," where he captures the spirit of Deep Purple's Jon Lord, only to go into a walking bass pedal line as the track fades. "Parkour," which follows, picks up on the same idea, but it's hard to tell if the tracks came from different nights of the tour.

While listening to the album, Saft continually reminded my ears of Rod Argent's sound with his post-Zombies band Argent, best known for "Hold Your Head Up." Ironically, Saft, Cline & Previte threw some covers into their sets during the tour, which included the Zombies' "She's Not There" and Led Zeppelin's keyboard-heavy "No Quarter."

If this album gets a buzz, maybe they'll follow it up with a set the cover tunes and call it Music from the 20th Century.

Friday, March 27, 2020

CD Review: Todd Marcus - Trio+

Todd Marcus
(Stricker Street)

When jazz melodies are compared to folk music, it usually means the music in question is built on a more simplistic set of notes. Rather than relying on complex chords and chromatic melodies, the building blocks are drawn on a scale similar to  I-IV-V changes without necessarily falling into a 12-bar blues pattern. Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman both wrote music that could be hummed easily and they were also some of the few who could take these simple patterns and build something unique off of it. The problem with some other performers who stick to patterns like this is the music can sound predictable and almost safe.

Todd Marcus draws on some basic harmonic patterns on Trio+ but there's nothing safe or staid on the album. Instead, the bass clarinetist shines a light on new possibilities that exist in time-honored styles, and he uses it to come up with something fresh. "Cantata," the one track where he swaps out his bass clarinet for its smaller B-flat cousin, builds on a rubato melody that has a somewhat folkloric structure. But his execution, and that of bassist Jeff Reed, never sounds maudlin. This is rapturous and adventurous music that takes its time unfolding, all of that time well spent.  "Amy Pookie" might have a cutesy title (it's dedicated to his wife) but its stop-start feeling evokes Ornette Coleman's "Congeniality," an inspiration that fuels the trio, who are joined on this track and few others by trumpeter Sean Jones.

Based in the Baltimore/DC area, Marcus has released several CDs already which show him as a devotee of the bass clarinet. They vary in instrumentation and concept, his most recent one being 2018's On These Streets (A Baltimore Story), which combined his music with spoken thoughts from people in the west Baltimore area. (By day, Marcus works as a community activist.) For Trio+ he scales it back to a trio, with Jones sitting in for a quarter of the set and both bassists from the set's two trios coming together in a reading of Bennie Maupin's "Neophilia."

Most of the album features drummer Ralph Peterson with bassist Ameen Saleem. This group kicks off the album in high gear with the four-part "Something Suite." The first movement finds Marcus flying over a driving rhythm that switches from half-time to a walking bass line beneath him. While the word "lyrical" is often overused to describe the way a player sounds during a ballad, it feels appropriate for the third movement because the melody sounds like it could have come from a set of lyrics. This section, especially, is where Marcus uses a folk-like structure and finds great power in it.

Any bass clarinet player worth their salt will think of Eric Dolphy when they play and Marcus pays homage in the liner notes. He takes his predecessor's cue in an intro to "How Deep Is the Ocean" by playing a duet with Reed that has the same impact as Dolphy's work with Richard Davis. They blend so well that they almost sound like one instrument at times during the track. If that weren't enough, the trio (here with Eric Kennedy on drums) plays the standard in a swinging 5/4.

The bass clarinet might still be on the fringes of jazz, known more as an instrument that a sax player doubles on instead of a primary ax. A player like Jason Stein devotes all his time to the low woody instrument but while he might be more associated with freer music, Todd Marcus sees himself more as a straight ahead player. (Sonny Rollins' Freedom Suite inspired his "Something Suite.") If Trio+  is a more straightforward jazz album it still comes with an aggressive delivery not unlike a free group that has something to prove. For all of these reasons, it shouldn't be missed.

Monday, March 23, 2020

CD Review: Le Rex - Escape of the Fire Ants

Le Rex
Escape of the Fire Ants

Escape of the Fire Ants was released almost a year ago but the 12 tracks deserve another batch of words in their honor, in part because one particular track feels especially timely right now: "Ballad for an Optimist." It's kind of hard to be optimistic when we're cut off from each other except in virtual ways and this song understands that. For starters, it's not a ballad. It begins in a somber mood with trombonist Andreas Tschopp playing a mournful melody, first in unison with tubaist Marc Undernährer, then an octave above. After Benedikt Reising's alto saxophone steps in, the rest of the group eventually slides into a 4/4 groove that loses a beat every few bars. Then Tschopp returns for a solo over the tuba and drums, with some coloring coming from Marc Stucki's tenor saxophone. The piece's gradual shift from mournful to danceable does come across as optimistic and can offer some hope for the future.

Of course any time you listen to "Ballad For an Optimist," it's going to be good.

Le Rex hails from Switzerland though their music and musical experiences have taken them all over the place. The quintet gets a deep sound out of just two saxophones, trombone, tuba and drums. (The only member that hasn't been mentioned yet is drummer Rico Baumann.)

During some of the tracks, one of the players hits a harmony note that suddenly expands the sound into an even richer territory than they've already created. The constant shifts in "Bändumeh Landing" includes a part in which Reising and Tschopp each play half of an ostinato beneath the brass, the two horns flowing seamlessly into one another like one extended phrase.

5/4 can become a rigid time signature in the wrong hands, but in the title track, Baumann adds a syncopated accent on his high hat that feels so tight and in the pocket, it makes the whole thing swing like crazy. As the opening cut, it also serves as a strong introduction for what will come. Undernährer (who came to Pittsburgh with the Chicago Luzern Exchange, who recorded for Delmark) uses his instrument to both carry the low end and act as a fourth voice in the melodies, cutting quickly between both roles.

Throughout the album, the group's all-original set includes more choppy time signatures, Cape Town moods and a little bit of rock. When recording, they went to Studio Mecanique because it had an indie rock aesthetic more than a jazz one. They also went in to the without charts, having committed all these musical surprises to memory through performances that included many on the streets of Switzerland. The preparation made them both prepared for the music and loose enough to keep it sounding fresh.

And it still sounds fresh several months later.

PS If the Westerlies are reading this, you all should team up with Le Rex for a tour together!

Thursday, March 19, 2020

CD Review: Thollem/Parker/Cline - Gowanus Sessions II & Radical Empathy Trio - Reality and Other Imaginary Places

Gowanus Sessions II

Radical Empathy Trio
Reality and Other Imaginary Places

Part of free improvisation's appeal (for those who dig it) arguably comes from the immediacy of a performance. Whether it explodes without inhibitions or sits in its place slowly and comes to life, the music is alive and sprouting up before your ears. That also explains why seeing a live performance can offer sensory experiences can sometimes be missed when listening to a recording, where other distractions get in the way of the listening experience.

Gowanus Sessions II finds the trio of Thollem McDonas (piano), William Parker (bass) and Nels Cline (guitar/effects) creating two spontaneous tracks, each clocking in just under 19 minutes, which in some ways is a relatively short time span for this kind of music. McDonas has appeared on ESP in several settings, including the Radical Empathy Trio (more on them below) and the excellent Live In Our Time, an equally free session with drummer Tim DuRoche and the late bassist Andre Stjames.

Like other ESP artists such as Alan Sondheim, McDonas isn't exactly a jazz improviser but that's no slag against his musical mind. "Life In the World" opens with some inquisitive piano chords while the bass moves on the outer edges and Cline's guitar unleashes sounds that go beyond the neck's highest register. Some free sessions tend to capture a group's sound without any production filters, but there are moments in the track - when either the bass or the frame of the piano are struck percussively - where an echo resonates. It sounds like a post-production move and it adds to the music, giving the whole thing some extra depth and making it feel more like a piece than three musicians playing in a room. Coupled with a moment towards the end, where McDonas immediately follows Cline's string scratch with a piano crash, it gives "Life In the World" a unified sound.

"World In a Life," the second track, moves with heavier force, compared to the subdued previous track. Tremolo piano keys combine with bowed bass while guitar scratches and feedback ease in behind them. Parker and Cline really complement each other, making it hard to say who's really distorted. Cline also sounds as if he barely touches his fretboard for the first nine minutes, relying on controlled feedback and effects. Things are loose but not so loose that the musicians get lost in their own world.

Gowanus Sessions II was actually recorded in 2012, along with Sessions I which was released by Porter Records that same year. Radical Empathy Trio's Reality and Other Imaginary Places came out earlier (last October) but it comes from 2017 during McDonas' residency at Brooklyn's multi-discipline locale Pioneer Works. This time, he and Cline join forces with drummer Michael Wimberly (who has played with Charles Gayle and Steve Coleman & Five Elements).

Again, they play two 18-minute tracks (ideal for the vinyl format) and freedom is key. But McDonas doesn't stick to acoustic piano exclusively. "Collective Tunnels" features electronic keyboards that evoke noises straight out of a horror movie in the first half, while Cline adds some metal wails on top. The whole thing reaches a fevered pitch right around nine minutes, and once again, roles aren't always clear: Sometimes it's hard to tell Cline from McDonas, until things reveal themselves by the end of track.

"Conscious Tunnels" begins with acoustic piano, single notes in the right hand and chordal patterns in the left. When McDonas gets electric again, the trio sounds like Stereolab playing "In a Silent Way," if just for a moment. Wimberly works himself into the discussion tastefully, never succumbing to free freakouts but working all over his kit when it feels best. The track closes with something that might seem unthinkable on either of these albums: McDonas' keyboard plays a fragment of a melody while Cline adds a shell of a chord change underneath. In other words, they close with a riff! This final touch gives an element of surprise that reevaluates all that preceded it. Adventurous ears will be piqued for a second examination.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Remembering McCoy Tyner

It just hit me that I never wrote a post saluting McCoy Tyner, after he passed away on March 6. Many other people have spoken more eloquently about the great pianist's legacy but if I'm going to salute Andy Gill and David Roback, I need to say a few words about Tyner. His music probably has as great an impact on my perspective as the other two, non-jazz players.

Matthew Shipp posted on Facebook recently, pondering what the world might have been like had John Coltrane not gotten Tyner in his quartet. They inspired each other to develop a musical that would not have come out the same way in a different context, Shipp explained. It's a perfect example of how jazz requires a musician to both interact with the players around you and to also develop your own strong individual voice, which feeds back into the group interaction, making it a powerful loop.

The first John Coltrane song I remember hearing, and knowing what it was him, was "My Favorite Things." It was the early '80s and I heard it on one of the evening jazz shows on WYEP-FM. It might have been the show "Fat Tuesday," the name of whose host escapes me. The choice of that song in a jazz context came as kind of a surprise to me - a lightweight tune from The Sound of Music that somehow got lumped in with the Christmas season. But the vamp that the rhythm section played underneath Coltrane gave it a more serious quality. I feel like the version I heard was the single version, because I have a vague recollection of the DJ talking about how he didn't have time to the whole 14-minute version. The idea that this tune could be played so long intrigued me. Someday I would need to check it out, I thought.

Time went by before I bought my first Coltrane album, but when I did, it was My Favorite Things. It was one of those moments where I felt like I had been given the keys to enter a new musical world that only certain people could understand. That vamp on the title track was every more exciting now. Plus, Tyner tempered that with some his own solo that had an almost regal feel to it.

I didn't quite grasp everything on the album at first. "Summertime" took great liberties with the melody and had a lot of tension and release that kept me scratching my head. But Tyner offered the one part of that song that kept me coming back. Following Steve Davis' bass solo, Tyner introduces a two-chord lick that offers a break for Elvin Jones to add some fills. That lick was so funky that it kept me coming back, realizing that the whole thing might not make sense to me yet, but it was slowly unfold. That album also made me appreciate the way subtle touches can make a great song go over the top in terms of excellent. The example I think of Jones' press roll at the end of "My Favorite Things." The way he releases it with a cymbal crash at the end absolutely slayed me. The same goes for the closing of "Everytime We Say Goodbye," which follows it on Side One. It says these guys are on to something and they're letting you in on it.

Tyner came to Pittsburgh in the summer of 1986. It was a Sunday night and he played some ballroom in Station Square because the tent where he was supposed to play outside had blown down, or something like that. I was worried that I wouldn't get in (I was a mere 18 at the time), but there was no problem. At this point my recollections of the show aren't too detailed. Emily Remler (living in town at the time) opened the show. Tyner played with a trio that I think had Louis Hayes on drums and Avery Sharpe on bass guitar. He was a big fellow with a deep voice. And he played with a thunderous attack on the piano. (Someone later told me that a piano has to be tuned both before and after Tyner plays it, due to his force on the keys.)

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary only has a brief soundbyte of talking from Tyner, interspersed with a live performance. When he speaks, he explains that the quartet played the way they did because they had to, as if playing that way was required in order to live. That devotion to music is something to which we should all aspire.

Thanks, Mr. Tyner. I hope the Quartet has reunited and you're all playing together again. 

Sunday, March 15, 2020

CD Review: Tim Berne's Snakeoil - The Fantastic Mrs. 10

Tim Berne's Snakeoil
The Fantastic Mrs. 10

Charles Mingus called several of his albums "the best thing I've ever done," as a session was being committed to vinyl. The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Changes One and Two both have this assessment stated in their liner notes and there are several others that escape me at the moment. On one hand, it seems funny that the great bassist and composer would say this every few albums, as if he either changed his mind about the previous release, or that he was simply speaking in the moment.. Yet it could also be seen as proof that Mingus always challenged himself to build on past accomplishments. (He certainly challenged his musicians that way.)

The Fantastic Mrs. 10 brings Tim Berne's Snakeoil to the Swiss label Intakt after four albums for ECM. He made his first Intakt appearance last year with Michael Formanek's Practical Trio. Along with Berne, Oscar Noriega (bass clarinet, B-flat clarinet), Matt Mitchell (piano) and Ches Smith (drums, percussion), the group includes Marc Ducret (guitar), Berne's bandmate from several projects, the most significant being Bloodcount.

The feeling of Bloodcount (Berne's '90s group with Formanek, Jim Black and Chris Speed) is in the air early on, and not merely because of Ducret's presence. The title track has asymmetrical line, with Berne and Noriega winding through the rest of the group in a way that recalls the previous ensemble. Listening closely, it sounds like Ducret and Mitchell might be adding quickly to the theme while also adding side comments (the guitarist) and playing chordal foundations (the pianist) at the same time.

Behind everything, Ches Smith is almost settling into a backbeat, focusing on the snare and high-hat  that grooves even though it isn't exactly in 4/4. This is where they leave the Bloodcount comparison behind. Had Jim Black been behind the kit, he would be splattering percussives in all directions. Consider the whole thing a new wrinkle in the Berne canon, and a strong opening to boot.

As with many Berne pieces, the aforementioned scene is really just one section that quickly changes before one can settle easily into it. The same thing happens in "Surface Noise." The first half of this 11-minute track feature the quintet creating a large almost choral sound, with Smith's vibes adding to the melody. The second half  pits Noreiga's bass clarinet against some sharp interjections from Ducret before Berne's free solo gradually pulls the group together into a theme, eventually ending abruptly. Smith does some more groove permutations in "The Amazing Mr. 7," later in the set, after playing a series of gongs, more vibes and Haitian tanbou (a barrel drum that sounds like conga).

Midway through the album, Berne cleverly includes a quick reading of "Dear Friend," a piece by his alto saxophone mentor, the late Julius Hemphill. At just three minutes, it offers a compelling break from the multi-leveled originals that surround it, and provides a reminder of the sensitivity that exists in this music even when things get noisy.

The liner notes to The Fantastic Mrs. 10, which are book-ended by two limericks about the band (not merely cute but actually truthful), consist of block quotes from each band member about the group. As I reached the end of them while spinning the album, Berne's final quote stood out: "I think this is the best one yet. That's a stupid thing to say, but it's kind of a culmination."

Maybe he and I were thinking on the same level or maybe I read that a while ago and only recalled it subliminally while thinking about the album. But Berne is right on the mark. The Fantastic Mrs. 10 has the bite and fury of his Bloodcount combined with the expansive sonic quality that has been a big part of the Snakeoil albums. If Berne pulls a Mingus and says the same thing a few albums from now, I wouldn't doubt him either.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Covid-19 Cancellations

This week I wrote a story about saxophonist Ken Vandermark to preview his show on Monday, March 16. Now that show is cancelled because of the Covid-19. Here's the story to read anyway.  Check it out because Ken is a pretty fascinating artist.

Earlier this week, I interviewed Roger Miller, the great guitarist from Mission of Burma. He was going to play a solo show of music based on excerpts from a dream book that he keeps. That interview was going to turn into an article that I was going to publish here on the blog. His April 3 appearance at the Andy Warhol Museum has been cancelled, with a possible rescheduling in October. During our talk, he casually mentioned that Mission of Burma is no longer together, by the way.

Jonathan Richman took part in an email interview with me a few weeks ago, with the intention of previewing his March 25 show. I hadn't written it yet, but I had a few good headlines up my sleeve for that piece. (Since the piece could happen at a later date, up my sleeve they will stay.)

I want everyone to be safe. But it's really hard dealing with these cancellations and the feelings in general of not being around people. I miss people already.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

CD Review: David S. Ware New Quartet - Théȃtre Garonne, 2008

David S. Ware New Quartet
Théȃtre Garonne, 2008

David S. Ware wasn't in the best health when his quartet journeyed to Toulouse, France in 2008. In his liner notes, guitarist Joe Morris says that Ware reluctantly accepted rides on carts and wheelchairs though the airport on the trip, even if it meant he was acknowledging that his kidney problems were taking a greater toll on his day-to-day activities. It was surely a hard realization to make, but it meant that Ware was saving his strength for his performance, which doesn't hint at any indication of what the brawny tenor saxophonist might have been dealing with offstage.

Ware's New Quartet was documented on the studio album Shakti, but that group is arguably overshadowed by the number of releases the tenor saxophonist made with his longstanding group of pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker and drummers that included Whit Dickey and Susie Ibarra. Théȃtre Garonne, 2008 catches the band road testing the material they recorded just a few weeks prior for Shakti

Along with bassist Parker and guitarist Morris, the group is completed by veteran drummer Warren Smith. Whereas Matthew Shipp's piano filled vast areas of sonic space in the original group, the new quartet has more of a sonically open feel with Morris as the second melodic foil. His clean lines reinforce the groove of "Crossing Samsara," a 26-minute performance that gets divided into two tracks to give equal space to the two themes.

Morris might not play with distortion but he doesn't play it safe, either. He responds to Ware's initiative with some aggressive lines in the upper register that fit right in "during the first "Samsara." The same thing happens in "Durga." After stating the theme with Morris, the saxophonist steps back to let the guitarist explore the possibilities of the line. He responds passionately, occasionally touching back down on the melody to clarify. Smith's fleet movement across his kit keeps the music moving rapidly. He and Parker, heavy as always but never overbearing, get some quality duo time at the opening of "Namah." 

Ware always had a way with overtones and he certainly did on that May evening in 2008. The final solo in "Reflection" finds him working with several overtone combinations, manipulating his horn like a guitarist would with feedback, keeping the intensity flowing. The results might intense in execution but Ware never forgets that he's playing a ballad. Elsewhere during the set he reveals his skill with gruffer tenor sounds, akin to R&B honkers. Considering what he was dealing with at the time - giving himself dialysis treatments in hotel rooms after the show - it's all the more impressive.

Of course Théȃtre Garonne, 2008 shouldn't be regarded as an album that's good despite Ware's health issues. The quartet was inspired that night because they were all thinking on the same wavelength. While Morris states that he didn't get to hang out with Ware much offstage aside from airport rides, they clearly had some deep discussions on the bandstand.