Tuesday, December 28, 2021

A Look Back at 2021 Albums on Aerophonic with Dave Rempis

In spite of everything, 2021 could be considered a productive year for Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis. His Aerophonic imprint released a handful of physical CDs of various projects that came together over the prior year, with some from the early part of this year as well. Of the discs discussed here, two came out early in 2021, one dropped just a few months ago and one isn't officially out yet, though Rempis has offered pre-orders on the Aerophonic site. The final days of the year always serve as a good time to both look back at what came out and look ahead to what's coming. Incidentally, the site is offering a special deal through the end of this month - 3 in-print CDs for $30, with a special deal for a vinyl edition of the Rempis/ Ra album.

Rempis - Reid- Abrams - Daisy - Damon
Solos, Duos & Trios - The COVID Tapes

Like many musicians, Dave Rempis (alto, tenor, baritone) had his livelihood put on hold when the country went into lockdown in early 2020. One thing to remedy the situation was the weekly release of digital Aerophonic albums that featured recordings from various projects dating back over 20 years. Each release was launched with a live solo performance from his practice space. The COVID Tapes features six of those solos interspersed with performances in duos and trios that happened later that year in live outdoor shows. 

The two discs offer a revealing profile of Rempis' musical scope. Known more as a cutting edge free improvisor (as revealed by some of the other releases included here), he's clearly in touch with tradition too. The solo pieces range from Joe McPhee's bluesy "Knox" to standards like "The Song Is You," "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Just a Gigolo." These tracks  are compact, none lasting much more than six minutes each. Faithful to the original tunes, he zeros in on what makes them so essential, adding his personal touch to them.

The live performances stretch things further, with the various groups getting time to open up, explore the space and use it to their advantage. Rempis mentions in the liner notes how doesn't relish outdoor performances, due to sonic limitations. Yet he sounds comfortable moving from spare long tones to a more developed piece with drummer Tim Daisy. A trio with cellist Tomeka Reid and bassist Joshua Abrams captures his alto darting around the foundation set by the lower strings. Drummer Tyler Damon sets up an aggressive mix of trap kit and sustained percussion rings (almost sounding like two players going at once) and Rempis responds with the most aggressive performance of the album, bending and wailing notes. These recordings lack any major post-production work (and include faint street sounds like barking dogs and a truck's back-up noise if you listen closely), but the immediacy of the music makes any sound "improvements" unnecessary.


The Rempis Percussion Quartet
Sud Des Alpes

The Rempis Percussion Quartet gets its name from the fact that it includes two drummers (Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaly) in addition to bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Rempis. Together since 2004, they create a sound where the two drummers work together and sound like one, even in the freest situations, never overpowering the rest of the group. In fact, Rempis' tenor saxophone is the loudest element in the music on the freewheeling "Late Arrival," second only to Flaten. 

The three tracks on Sud Des Alpes comes from a 2019 performance in Geneva. While all of these albums offer a good introduction to Rempis' saxophone style, this one presents one of the most compelling. He begins opener "There's a Jam On the Line" (a title inspired by the group's delayed travel by train) with visceral growls, and moves on to include fragments of melody, heavy vibrato and overtones, moving from each one for a fascinating voice. The group plays the Art Ensemble of Chicago's "Theme for Yoyo," beginning it just as spontaneously, it seems, before moving into a drum break and - eventually - their own furious groove.

All Your Ghosts In One Corner

Kuzu brings Rempis together again with drummer Taylor Damon and adds guitarist Tashi Dorji. The latter makes a strong addition to this group's uninhibited free improv sound with a sonic palette that ranges from wild skronk to mutant surf tones, going from twang and buzz. It makes a perfect third element to go along with Rempis' altissimo shrieks and Damon's thundering clatter. For what it's worth, Dorji is probably also the reason that this album wound up on my Best of 2021 list. (They also released an album for Astral Works earlier in the year, The Grand Delusion.)

"Scythe" is a 40-minute performance recorded at Chicago's Elastic Arts at the end of a March 2020 tour, just as things were starting to close down everywhere. The continuous performance is divided into three tracks, breaking where the dynamics shift reach a fevered pitch. Catching a band at the end of a tour usually means hearing at them when they can get involved in a deep discussion, and "Scythe" is no exception. Dorji's harmonics or quick exclamations add punch to the alto wails. In part two, an oud-like tone turns out to be a loop and some fast strumming comes out of nowhere to land on top of it. The drum solo sections could continue for another couple minutes and not loose any momentum. Rempis begins on alto, switching to tenor in the second part and rips up the final section with some monstrous baritone work. 

The extended performance is bookended by two shorter tracks recorded one night later in Milwaukee. They serve as a good preview and comedown after "Scythe." "One Fell Swoop" features a lot of heavy drum rolls, wide vibrato and guitar twangs, coalescing more like a composed piece than a spontaneous one. "Year of the Rat" features more baritone madness against a relatively spare groove that comes from percussives and fretwork. Maybe "comedown" isn't quite accurate in this case as this one can knock you backwards.

Dave Rempis/Avreeayl Ra Duo

After the grit and growl that capped off All Your Ghosts In One Corner, the sax/drums duets on Bennu feel relatively subdued. But that is far from a bad thing. The three tracks, recorded in February 2021, find two friends getting together after not having played with anyone throughout the winter season. It also feels like they're waking from a musical hibernation in real time, Ra laying down grooves on his kit, with cowbells adding to the sound along with the low-pitched toms. Rempis often gives him space before he begins to blow.

At the start of the 20-minute "Divisions of Time" Ra plays with mallets, freely moving around the kit, singing wordlessly, capturing the spirit of being able to play again. After the free intro, in which Rempis eventually enters on alto, Ra goes into a low volume groove that sustains, with slight variation, for the whole piece. It feels hypnotic after awhile, which makes the repetition and low dynamics rewarding in the end. 

The album opens with "Persea" which gives Rempis a chance to show off a beefy tenor tone, slipping in some growls on the side. "Fire and Ash" also features his tenor over a rolling sound of toms and tight snare, moving at a deliberate but focused pace.

Rempis and Ra took the name Bennu from an ancient Egyptian deity or symbol that created itself out of darkness at the beginning of time, much like the Phoenix in Greek mythology. Considering when this music was created, the name makes a good comparison. 

Bennu will be officially released in January 2021, but Aerophonic is already shipping advance orders - especially ones on a gray/blue ripple-colored vinyl - now. In case you missed mention of it earlier in this piece, the label is offering a special 3 for $30 deal on any in-print CDs. 

Monday, December 27, 2021

A Salute to Mary Jo Coll


There's a lot of sadness in Pittsburgh right now. We lost Mary Jo Coll, a truly badass woman who booked shows at Howlers and Hambone's, two clubs that were shuttered in the past year or so. Jo, or Mama Jo as she was often called, gave a lot of bands a break. believing in them when the bands might not have been too sure about themselves. If the band was pulling their weight, plugging their show and putting everything they had into their performance, they got her approval. If the cash register wasn't ringing constantly with hordes of drunks, no problem. Maybe next time. And as one friend put it, you still might be good enough to play on a Thursday night, opening for a band from Cincinnati.

Jo went into the hospital not too long ago with stomach pains and "came out with stomach cancer," as she posted on Facebook. Without much in the way of health insurance, friends rallied around and staged a benefit for her earlier this month at The Funhouse at Mr. Smalls. 

Originally there was talk of doing it at a later date, but it was pushed up. She wanted to be there and the photo at the top of this page is from that night. I got in as one of the last paying customers before it was sold out. Karla Doolittle, who organized the event, snapped this photo of the two of us. I wanted to talk to Jo but I didn't want to overwhelm her either. She looked weary but appreciative. So I gave her a hug and kissed her on the forehead. I hoped that would express my feelings for her. 

She was a really generous person, which is even more impressive because she didn't have a whole lot herself. Many times, I saw posts on Facebook about a bunch of food that she was cooking up at her home. "Who's coming over," she'd ask. I wanted to drop by or meet her for coffee sometime just to chaw. She was older than me, but just by 10 years, making her more like a big sister than the "Mama" that she might be to other musicians. Along with music, we would occasionally talk family stuff, which seemed to deepen the rapport between us. And she was never one to say "No" to a show request. If the date I hoped to land wasn't open, she'd have a counter offer. There was never any hard sell, any warning that we needed to draw a big crowd or else. It's all about having a good time. 

I can recall at least one show at Howlers where she corralled all the band members at the start of the evening to lay down the rules. All of it was reasonable (get the door person your guest list, no extra drink tickets, etc.). Once that was out of the way, she wanted to make sure everyone had fun. Then she'd park herself at the end of the bar where it turned a corner so she's see everyone who went into the music room. 

For Jo's 60th birthday, she organized a show with a bunch of bands playing music from the '60s, specifically music that came from the Nuggets garage rock compilations. The Love Letters were lucky enough that we got on that bill. It just so happens the show took place the night before the 45th presidential inauguration. In other words, the day before the world was about to get a little darker. (Karl Hendricks would also pass away that night.) We could all sense the change for the worse that was coming (though we had no idea how bad it would be). 

Jo wasn't going to let that ruin her party. She barged onstage in the middle of our set to make a few announcements and thank yous. With all of that out of the way, she issued a decree: "Let's have a good time. Let's forget all the other bullshit that's goin' on right now. Tomorrow is another day. For tonight - fuck the bullshit. Let's have fun."

We did, and it lasted all night. 

Thanks, Jo. I'm sorry I never brought you coffee, but we'll have it someday. 

Saturday, December 18, 2021

LP Reviews: Bridge of Flowers - A Soft Day's Night/ ATTITUDE! - Pause and Effect

Of course, ESP-Disk' has always been about more than just avant-garde jazz. It's very likely that some fans of Beat-poets-turned-songsmiths the Fugs, primitive rockers the Godz or folkies Pearls Before Swine might have memorized those bands' albums for the label while knowing Albert Ayler or Sonny Simmons in name only. Throughout the label's original run in the '60s and early '70s, founder Bernard Stollman released everything from bluegrass to... whatever the hell you would consider the band Cromagnon. (Don't underestimate MIJ the Yodeling Astrologer either.)

Part of the label's current agenda includes a Drive to Revive Weird Rock. (The capitalization comes from the label.) The project began in 2019 with Painted Faces' Tales from the Skinny Apartment and continued last year with OPTO S's Human Indictive/Live. Two new vinyl/download releases continue the weird, with one of them simultaneously sharing space with the label's jazz canon.


Bridge of Flowers
A Soft Day's Night

Don't let the lampoon of a Beatles song turn you off. Bridge of Flowers are a band made for ESP. They don't sound tight in the traditional sense, but these guys are tuned in with one another and create music that feels tight, even when it might sound like the lead guitar is playing a different song ("Aloe Vera") or one of the strings on Shane Bruno's bass could use a tuning. Things never fall apart on A Soft Day's Night - unless these four lads want it to. Things crumble during the climax of "Year Without A Summer" but the mood calls for a dramatic slow down like that. 

Bridge of Flowers reminds me of many bands I've had the pleasure of sharing the stage with, especially in those days before Nevermind came along. These bands never had any regard for the Big Time. Instead they channeled everything into having a memorial 45-minute performance. If a string broke, no problem. If the audience was indifferent, that was their problem. There was rock to be had, if you were smart enough to listen. 

The production on A Soft Day's Night even feels like the mix at such a live show or, even better, at a basement party. Jeff Gallagher's vocals sound like they're coming through an amp that doubles as a vocal p.a. It could have been boosted a bit more in the mix, but it makes curious ears listen closer to try to figure out what "Vinegar and Salt" or "Tambo" are all about.. (Since this entry was originally posted, I found that the album includes a lyric sheet.) The instruments themselves are captured as they were, with little post-production, making these ten songs feel like they could be happening in front of you.

The Massachusetts band has (only) been around since 2016, but had they existed in New York a decade and a half earlier, they probably would have wound up on Shimmy-Disc, who would have provided a perfect home for their lo-fi garage rock. Maybe they would have hit the road and come to town for a show that a select few would be talking about years later. These days, it's hard to tell if the band is a local project that doesn't stray from their backyard or if, someday when it's safe, they might play on a Wednesday night in your town. In the meantime, it's best to get in on the ground floor and dig it. 

Pause and Reflect

The trio ATTITUDE! wants to be part of both styles of ESP. Side One of Pause and Effect presents them as a noise trio ranting against sexual stereotypes and racism, the pandemic and politics. The flip features a side-long track of flowing free jazz improvisation. They excel in both situations.

All three women in the group hail from different Asian countries. Guitarist/pianist Rose Tang is a Mongol from Sichuan. Tenor saxophonist Ayumi Ishito hails from Japan. Drummer Wen-Tin Wu was born in Taiwan. Each plays in a numerous other projects in New York. Pause and Reflect happened after they came together to play one song at an event. ESP, knowing their individual works, wanted an album.

Tang, who does most of the vocals, makes it clear that she has no tolerance for submissive Asian stereotypes in "Who Flung Dung." "Flames with No Names" salutes Asian protesters (she was there at Tiananmen Square) with honesty and immediacy. As she attacks her guitar, Ishito and Wu weave around her words, integrating with them rather than filling up the background. The saxophone especially acts as punctuation to the spoken performance. "Gimme the Mic," something of an opening manifesto, finds Tang positing, "The world is a theater of the absurd. The space?" Her bandmates immediately answer that question with her: "Ours!" In "8 Steps/7 O'Clock," those bandmates step up the mic following some thrash jazz that morphs into free percussion with echo-heavy vocals. 

For "Conversation," a 24-minute track, Tang switches to piano. Other than some wordless vocalizing at certain points, the trio becomes a free improvisation group. Things are loose but directed. Ishito avoids wild shrieking in favor of a more contemplative flow of lines, often in the midrange. Wu plays in waves that complement Tang's cascading lines. Not since Patty Waters' Sings has ESP presented two vastly different sides of one performer on an album. Although a comparison like that says more about ESP's everlasting sense of adventure than it does about ATTITUDE!, who proudly proclaim they're "starting a revolution with culture." 

Monday, December 13, 2021

Missing Mike Nesmith


Before I decided I wanted to be John Lennon, long before I decided I wanted emulate Mike Watt or Clint Conley (note the change in verbiage that differentiates the teenage years from elementary school days), Mike Nesmith was the guy who I wanted to be. I figured I was halfway there, namewise. Besides, he had an aura that was more inviting than the two other guys on the first Monkees album with the "plays guitar and sings" credits. (The album cover must have been based on the pilot episode of The Monkees, in which Davy Jones played guitar. And that thing that Peter Tork played was almost a guitar, so the p.r. flacks must have thought.)

Copies of the first three Monkees albums landed in our house around the time I was five or so, in the early '70s. I can make the approximation because I remember not being able to read a lot just yet, which made a song title like "Pape Gene's Blues" kind of confusing since the title didn't appear in the lyrics. It seemed like it should called "I Love You and I Know You Love Me." 

But one thing I did discern was that Mike's name appeared next to this weird title on the label, which at the very least meant that his voice was the one in the song. He also sang "Sweet Young Thing" on the other side, belting out the words over an overdrive wall of Wrecking Crew guitars and a violin. That was heavy. 

The Monkees was broadcast in reruns on Saturday mornings somewhere around that time, but my real memories of the show began when I was in 6th grade and a new UHF station, Channel 22, came along and programmed the boys to appear five days a week. Our UHF reception was bad, with ghost images and usually a lot of static, but I was committed. Mike was still the coolest to me, not as zany as Micky, just as charming as Davy and definitely smarter than Peter. His deadpan comic delivery often wound up with some of the best lines. Plus, he wore a hat, something that appealed to me even back then. 

In those days, those early Monkees albums were a dime a dozen, always to be found at flea markets and Goodwills, condition be damned. A friend gave me a copy of the slightly lesser known The Birds, The Bees and the Monkees, on which Mike went crazy, both in terms of genre and artistry. The lo-fi hillbilly tune "Magnolia Sims" was cute, with its built in surface noise and the moment where it appeared to skip (or "get stuck" as we said in our house) but "Tapioca Tundra" and "Writing Wrongs" were real stand-outs. 

The former was Mike at his most psychedelic, thanks to a healthy dose of reverb and the crazy lyrics (which, again, don't include the title). "Writing Wrongs" was a slow, equally reverb-drenched piece, with a long instrumental break, which resulted in the whole thing sounding kind of dark. Mike's fourth contribution, "Auntie's Municipal Court," pre-dated his country-rock flair with another wall of guitars (some courtesy of co-writer Keith Allison) and a mysterious vocal delivered by Micky. To make things even weirder, all three of these bold songs appeared right after the more sappy, accessible Davy Jones tunes. Well, "Daydream Believer" wasn't quite as sappy, but it was sandwiched between "Tapioca Tundra" and "Writing Wrongs" so all things are relative.

The album that was most elusive back then was one that I had only seen on the inner sleeve of other RCA records: Head. I had no idea what it was all about, with its silver cover that featured the band name written in three sides surrounding the album title. It wasn't until after high school that I'd see the Monkees movie Head at the Pittsburgh Playhouse (whose film repertory program exposed so many people to classics and cult faves). Around that same time, Rhino began reissuing the entire Monkees catalog, so I bought it and listened to it constantly. I later bought an original Colgems copy for the hell of it, and a friend gave me a CD edition. 

Mike only has one song on Head but it's one of his best Monkees tunes - the Bo-Diddley in the garage vamp "Circle Sky" which the band plays live in the film. (The version on the album comes from a studio session. Each has its own merits.) When I started playing in Mystery Date, I turned guitarist Bridget Jakub onto that song, thinking that she'd be perfect to sing it. I do believe I was right. Incidentally I did the same thing to Head's "As We Go Along" with the Love Letters, knowing that drummer Erin Dawes would make it her own. (It was a Carole King/Toni Stern song sung by Micky, to clarify.) But my Monkees sense started back in Bone of Contention when I convinced Patty Killi (nee Pisula) to try out "Daily Nightly," Nesmith's deeply metaphorical take on the Sunset Strip riots. She sounded perfect and we used to stretch it out with an extended guitar solo, during which I'd often slowly lay down onstage, because it felt like the right thing to do. (I was 19 at the time and didn't know better.) 

All that Nesmith music, deeply ingrained in my head. 

It's so ingrained that it has often become my pick-up music when I need a positive boost. Cue up "The Girl That I Knew Somewhere" and it'll put a spring in my step. Maybe I can't separate the song from the image of the band leaping around a hotel in the "Monkees, Manhattan Style" episode, which borrows from the fast-paced romp feeling of A Hard Day's Night. But that choppy 12-string guitar riff and the opening drum rolls (which were actually Micky Dolenz, not Hal Blaine) have some pent up energy as well. Things like this have become so deep-rooted in my head that it's easy to forget where they began and how important their source - Mr. Nesmith, that is - has shaped my world. 

I never met Mike Nesmith, though I did get to interview him via email in 2013 to preview a solo concert. (My uncle, Rege Cordic, appeared in two episodes of The Monkees, but that's another story.) Normally I loathe email interviews but I wasn't going to say no to this one. 

After asking him several questions about his career, his approach to songwriting and one or two things about the Monkees, I went out a limb. Always fascinated by the legacy of Lyndon Johnson, I asked Nesmith, a Dallas native, if the fact that LBJ was from Texas had any impact on how he felt about the 36th president.

All the previous questions garnered a sentence or two. This one went on longer. "I was very unhappy about the Viet Nam war," he said. "It was a real conflict for me because I felt a lot of compassion and sorrow for the fighters -- I lost a close friend there -- one day he was sending letters and cheery -- the next he was gone when his chopper was shot down. I blamed LBJ for the continuance of that war -- but this was before I came to understand that politicians have almost nothing to say about anything -- they are like leaves on a raging river. I have released LBJ and the others." [The dashes are Nesmith's, not mine.]

I've told that story so many times that I thought for sure that it was published in the paper with my preview, if not here. But I was wrong. This is the first time I've printed it. 

When the article ran, I heard from a friend who was doing p.r. for the Nesmith concert. She told me that Mike's management really liked my questions and that they were much better than other things he had been asked. All I know is I'm probably the only person to ask him about LBJ in recent years.

The other Nesmith anecdote that's been in my head lately is his soliloquy in the Monkees episode The Devil and Peter Tork. In the episode, Peter - who this time seems more innocent this time than dense - buys and learns how to play a harp from the devil, in exchange for his soul. A long scene trial scene follows, with several comic references to court scenes in movies. Eventually things turn somber when Mike tells Mr. Zero, the devil, that he never gave Peter the ability to play the harp. His love of music made him play the instrument. "The power of that love was inside of him...And it was that kind of power that made Peter able to play the harp." 

Maybe Mike was just a really good actor but the way he speaks his mind, working the thought out in his mind as he speaks, sounds like it comes off the top of his head, ending with the hip statement, "Baby, in the final analysis, love is power." Some might find the scene cloying. Some might see it as a metaphor for what the band was going through, struggling for credibility when they didn't play their own instruments. Maybe Mike's passing is bringing out the sap in me, but that whole scene feels like a message that I received not  only from that episode but from all the Monkees records: If you love music, you can play music. 

But I'm still taking his death harder than I thought.

Monday, December 06, 2021

Box Set Review: Kramer - Make Art, Make Love, Die (2020 Artist in Residence)

When it was announced that Joyful Noise made Kramer their artist-in-residence last year, which would generate the release of a five-record box set that was limited to 500 copies, I had to have it. The item stirred up feelings that have been dormant for a few decades, taking me back to the time when I waited for what seemed like an eternity to buy his three-record solo album The Guilt Trip (1993) or back even further to the time that I drove the music director at WPTS-FM crazy by asking her constantly if the new Bongwater album had been released yet. 

Like many college radio kids in the late '80s and early '90s, I found Kramer fascinating. Too poor to buy a whole lot of records, I utilized the radio station library to explore the Shimmy-Disc catalog, which all seemed to have his name listed as producer and very often as a musician as well. His work was driven by serious musical chops with a fondness for shtick, which often came in the use of random samples (back then they were simply referred to as "tapes" in his personnel credits) that might appear in his songs. After seeing B.A.L.L. (his most rock-oriented band, which included future members of Gumball) and Bongwater live, this zany bass playing/record-label-owning guy seemed like what I wanted to be. 

Tzadik, John Zorn's label, released two Kramer discs: The Brill Building and The Brill Building Book Two in 2012 and 2017 respectively, each devoted to classic pop songs that were associated with the album's title. But there haven't been many Kramer solo albums of original material in recent years. "I haven’t written too many happy songs," he told me in 2013, on the eve of B.A.L.L.'s reunion show. "Creativity for me as a solo artist has never really come from a place of great contentment or joy. It always comes from trouble. It always comes from decay and decline. A marriage or a relationship or some terrible things that have happened." He went on to say that he works better in collaborations, as his discography indicates, from Bongwater and B.A.L.L. to projects like Milksop Holly and Glen or Glenda to albums made with friends like Jad Fair, Dogbowl, Daevid Allen and/or Hugh Hopper.

While that might be the case, the long sprawling epic of The Guilt Trip had some amazing moments that still hold up. Its followup, The Secret of Comedy, might have been uneven but when he put his heartbreak on display ("I Can Watch"), Kramer was pretty convincing. Therefore, I had to hear this new set of albums. especially when it was announced that he was revamping Shimmy-Disc as a living label. (Pittsburgher Emily Rodgers released her album I Will Be Gone  on the label earlier this year. Kramer produced it, here in town.)

Worried that I might miss out the Make Art, Make Love, Die box set, I advance-ordered it in November 2020. It finally arrived on November 13, 2021.

Each of the five records is a project independent of the others. Although the vinyl box set is now sold out, all five can be purchased as downloads or individual records from Joyful Noise. Two of them include vocals, including a new collaboration with a singer, two are instrumental and one features music combined with recordings of poets.

Let It Come Down
Songs We Sang In Our Dreams

Let It Come Down evolved from a solo album into a duo collaboration after Kramer met vocalist Xan Taylor (who has been in the bands Mission Control and Technique). Our intrepid multi-instrumentalist has said he heard Taylor's voice in his dreams for years and was beside himself when he heard her while awake and producing a recording for her. Although he wrote most of the album's songs, it begins with a track written by both of them, and also includes one written solely by Taylor. 

These days, Kramer prefers slow tempos where songs take their time getting settled. Let It Come Down feels a bit closer to vintage 4AD releases than vintage Shimmy-Disc, but there's nothing wrong with that. Taylor's voice beams in over a blend of keyboards and acoustic guitars. Most of it feels slow and dreamy, but "Fingers" also moves into bossa nova, complete with a sampled guica adding the asthmatic dog/percussion sound. The four instrumentals also recall vintage Kramer, combining found tapes with the music. The most impressive one is "Three Wishes" which includes the tape of a woman expressing her trio of desires. 


Music for Films Edited by Moths

On Side 4 of The Guilt Trip (starting with song number two on the disc two of the CD), Kramer went down an instrumental spacey rabbit hole for a few songs. "The Seven Seizures" started off this section with a blend of Eno sensibilities and a keyboard sound that tipped the hat to Pink Floyd's Richard Wright. Music for Films Edited by Moths revisits this style, with 10 tracks that could easily be paired with cinematic images. 

It can be easy to get lost in a loop of sustained notes and loops, but Kramer comes up with a varied set of moods and tempos. The first couple tracks could have easily appeared on the Kranky label, with long tones that expand vertically or move through a three-chord pattern at a snail's pace. But then "Stars Will Die Tonight" moves at a quicker tempo, with a pedal point bass note that has melodies flowing on top. A few tracks add (electronic) drums, which takes "Ladder to the Moon" closer to actual rock than post-rock. The pinging keyboard in "Burial at Sea" helps to evoke a nearby submarine, adding to the scene set by the title.

Words & Music Book One

Dedicated to the late Hal Wilner, a visionary producer of unique tributes to Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill and Nino Rota to name just a few, Words & Music Book One might be the strongest album of the pack, and a good example of what Kramer does as a producer and sound sculptor. Each track features a different author reading their work, with musical accompaniment provided by Mr K. The bards range from original Beats Gregory Corso (reading "Army" in 1959) and Allen Ginsberg ("At Apollinaire's Grave, also 1959) to Terry Southern (reading two vignettes) to more recent writers Tina May Hall,  Sam Lipsyte, Christine Schutt, Gary Lutz, Dawn Raffel, Jason Schwartz, Kathryn Scanlan and Scott MacLanahan.

The opening minute of the Corso track provides some tension, as Kramer's organ is mixed as loudly as Corso's voice, but once the latter begins reading, the music steps back and the words are front and center. The same thing goes for the rest of the album. Throughout, Kramer elevates the words rather than distracting from them. Even when he adds vibes, it never comes across with the whimsy that can be felt during an NPR story. In fact, it helps take away from the rather monotone delivery of the Ginsberg piece. While a good deal of Kramer's output might be too idiosyncratic for prime time, this one should be heard and appreciated by a bigger audience.

Music for Pianos and Sunflowers

Like all of the albums, this one comes with a beautifully printed cover and inner sleeve, which both have photos and credits on them. The liner for Music explains that it was created with three different pianos and three "vintage tape echo machines. All the sounds were generated by the strings of the piano." That being said, the sound of the keys being struck can only be detected once, at the very the start of Side One, when the 22-minute track ("Before") begins the way "A Day in the Life" ends - with a single chord that rings out. In this case, it never decays, leading instead to an ever-evolving pile of sounds, It might be minimal but it's also quite rich in its scope. 

Side Two's single track, "After," continues the mood but sounds like its original source is being played in reverse. This could be an homage to Eno and Robert Fripp's No Pussyfooting, which infamously and accidentally was played entirely in reverse by John Peel when he first received a tape of it. The effect is a little unsettling for the entire 22 minutes though still enjoyable. And it's not merely the preceding side played in reverse either, because it doesn't end with that long chord sucking itself back into the keys.

And The Wind Blew It All Away

The front cover and one inner sleeve photo of And The Wind Blew It All Away feature stills from Buster Keaton's 1928 film Steamboat Bill, Jr. A master of deadpan physical comedy, Keaton leans against the wind on the front cover, as everything else blows around him, swept up in a tornado. The liner photo shows him and a woman being blown to the ground as a house falls apart behind them.

Context is everything. On the silver screen in 1928 (when it might have still been silver), the idea was to laugh at the character's misfortunes. The film contains one of Keaton's best known stunts, where the façade of a house falls around him but misses hitting him directly because the attic window leaves enough room for his body. Slapped onto the front of an album of sad songs by Kramer, it's hard not to feel sympathy for the  Bill, Jr,, making us look beyond the eyes of the character and wonder what he's really thinking. Poor fellow.

True to Kramer's words in the above quote, the 10 songs all feel dark and tragic. Song titles like "The Rain," "The Wind," "The Crying," "The Heartache" and "The Killing" hint that they were born out of of some unhappy times. Of course, it was recorded between this year and last year, when the whole world seemed to be falling apart, so the feeling is understandable. 

Things move at a snail's pace, often sticking with a couple of chords that receive embellishments on top. Aside from a short interlude, only one song lasts less than four minutes, with several coming close to six. It might be interminable if the lyrics weren't so poetic and engrossing. (They're printed on the inner sleeve in a micro-mini font.) Kramer's voice, heavily effected at first for a gruff delivery, eventually comes into focus, revealing that he still possesses the reedy sound of troubadours like Nick Drake, Donovan and John Lennon. The blend of his pipes and a steady acoustic guitar on "The Rain" recalls the moody folk of Pearls Before Swine on their first ESP-Disk' album. 

Between the effort needed to read the lyrics and take in the sound of his voice, Kramer has again hooked his devoted followers, who understand the sonic benefits of deep listens (with headphones) to his '90s work. His sound has changed in the three decades since Shimmy-Disc popped to the surface, but this is a good thing. It's better than he has evolved rather than stayed in the same place all these years later. 

Incidentally, Steamboat Bill, Jr., has a relatively happy ending, so maybe I'm interpreting And The Wind the wrong way. Or maybe it just means there's hope for Kramer in the end. 

Go to Joyfulnoise.com to find out more about any of these albums. 

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Some Thoughts on Parts 2 and 3 of "Get Back" - or The Long and Winding Documentary (Heavy on the Long)

 At times, I thought it would never end. At other times, I wished it wouldn't end. 

Man, I still love the Beatles but two hours and 45 minutes for one part out of three is a lot to ask of a fan, especially when a lot of that time is spent watching them noodle around and avoid making big decisions. Unless the decision involves whether or not to travel to Tripoli and put on a concert there. 

I didn't finish watching all of the Beatles' Get Back documentary until this afternoon - three days after the last part premiered. I had fully expected to watch each one on the day that it was available, and to write about it soon after. But Part Two took more than two sittings for me to watch. After two of those sittings, I needed a Beatles break.

Peter Jackson did a good job of playing up the drama in the start of Part Two. When we last left the lads at the end of the last part, George had walked out on them. A meeting at his house "did not go well" as it was explained on the screen. Back at Twickenham Studios on the following Monday, Ringo was the only person -  at first. (Yes, folks, the drummer was the one you could depend on to arrive early!) During a long, drawn out sequence Paul finally arrives. Peter Sellers (who would start filming The Magic Christian with Ringo in a few weeks) drops in for an uncomfortable visit. We see Ringo appearing to tear up as everyone sits and waits anxiously. Paul just stares off into space, probably feeling nervous that there's nothing to do but wait for John to show up.

This issue isn't addressed but by this point in time, the Beatles have gotten so big, scaled so many artistic peaks, that they really have no idea how to proceed without being prodded. The whole impetus behind this project was that they enjoyed playing "Hey Jude" on a tv show so much that they decided it was time to get back onstage again. But they had no idea how to really do it. 

There was a time when they could record a whole album in a few days but that was because Eppy wouldn't let them out of the studio until they were done. (Don't take that statement literally, Beatle fanatics.) But now, the prospect of writing and learning 14 songs in a few weeks, with a big concert at the end seems preposterous. This was before the Music Industry (insert trademark sign here) was fully developed, with promoters who could jump in and set all of that up for them. They might have been the biggest thing since sliced bread in 1969 but when it came to business stuff, they were no more focused than an indie rock band.

The story eventually moves along to Apple, where an eight-track studio is jerry-rigged to record the band, who has scrapped the television show by now. With that weight lifted, they work on songs. And ham it up. Ringo seems to be most aware of the cameras in the room and he continually mugs into them throughout the next few days. 

Get Back doesn't capture full songs, if there were any played, but many fragments of them. Between Part Two and Part Three, there are umpteen versions of "Two of Us" which John and Paul sing in a variety of accents. One or two would have been enough. Yes, those cheeky Beatles can be funny but anyone whose been in a band will probably grow weary of the way the songs get continually sabotaged by John's tomfoolery. 

But there are great moments, many of them coming when Billy Preston shows up. The stories have abounded over the years that George invited the pianist/organist to come over but the film makes it look like Preston just happened to be in London and just dropped by. Maybe it's a coincidence that, just a few days earlier, George was raving to the band about how great a player Preston was. Now we see it on film. He sits down and elevates the music, holding a cigarette in one hand while he's playing with that same hand! I thought only Thelonious Monk could do that. It's kind of funny to hear the band talk about how they "should probably pay" Preston, but no one knows how much. 

Therein lies part of the problem here. Without Brian Epstein there to steer the ship, there's little consensus to be made by all the cooks in the kitchen. Paul seems more than willing to call the shots, but he doesn't want to be seen as the dictator. Plus, the whole project was unraveling as they continued and no one knew how to fix it. 

Get Back clears up the misconception that the band was breaking up and that they were miserable when the cameras were on. There are plenty of moments when they are having a good time. The Billy Preston moments were part of that. Linda Eastman's daughter Heather runs wild through the studio, grabbing microphones and wailing into them, but no one seems to phased by it. They seem happy to have her.

Part Two again ends with suspense, with the idea being floated of the band playing on the roof of Apple Studios, so the final installment slowly moves towards that end that we all know will come. An interesting risk comes up - about whether the roof can withstand the weight of all the people and equipment. But then the decision is made..... and they noodle around more, as they try to figure out what they'll play. Billy Preston shows up again and even takes a vocal break in a jam that would eventually become "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" which at that time was built on a Lennon vocal riff based on Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. ("He could have been president," the Chief Beatle opines at one point.) During planning talks, George Martin pulls out a list of songs that they've  been working on. Throughout the project, 14 songs has always been the goal (the number of songs on a British Beatles LP) and though I didn't count, Martin's tally comes close.

The payoff to watching this whole thing comes in the final hour of Part 3. If you ever need to point to an example of why the Beatles are so revered 50 years after they broke up - and you don't have time for a long oratory - point to the rooftop concert. It was freezing up there. At least one of them (George) didn't relish the idea of doing it. They left any animosity or anger inside, came out of the building, still probably wondering what would happen, and they rock so hard. So hard, the Irish blood in me gets teary just typing about it. 

Even before they play, the energy is infectious. Paul does a jump before the music starts and his body language says, "Oh my god, we're going to play live again. I can't believe it." If he was uncertain about doing it, that inhibition blew away in the cold wind. Incidentally, that bass line to "I Dig A Pony" is crazy. It's fast with a lot of jumps and Paulie plays it with ease, like it's an open E boom-boom line. This is probably naïve to say, but after that, you'd think they'd want to stay together and play out more.

The concert portion is where Jackson's skills come into play. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg used 10 cameras to film that day - five on the roof, three on the street, one on the building across the street and one hidden in the lobby of Apple. Jackson uses that to create a triple screen effect, giving us the performance and the two hapless bobbies (who look they're about 14 years old) coming into the office and politely trying to shut things down.  These gentlemen are even ID'ed when they first appear. The older ladies who are interviewed on the street are a hoot too, several of them calling the Beatles "very nice, indeed."

The synchronicity of the police in the lobby and the show on the roof adds some comic relief to the program. The Beatles aren't maliciously ignoring the authorities. In fact they seem like they had no idea they would disrupt things so much. (Later, when they're listening to playbacks inside, George is heard asking what, exactly, was the reason the concert had to be stopped.) If they did know, they were still charming about the whole thing. 

A few random thoughts after seeing the whole thing: Mal Evans deserves special kudos for being the guy who was always there for the Beatles, bringing them food and drink, transcribing lyrics that John or Paul would dictate to them, and dealing with the fuzz during the concert. 

Glyn Johns, who was recording and overseeing most of the project, might be the sharpest dressed dude in the whole picture. A friend online said he looks a lot like Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell, the whacked out character in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls portrayed by John LaZar and he's right. His shag, big round shades and fuzzy coat would have Mick Jagger green with envy.

In Part One, George sells himself short by saying that all three of his new songs are really slow. It's funny when you consider the title track of the album that would eventually come out of these sessions, not to mention "The Long and Winding Road," which even with Phil Spector's string section, is still lugubrious. George brings in "Old Brown Shoe" in Part 3, playing it on the piano. Despite his limited keys skills, it sounds awesome.

SPOILER ALERT, sort of. The epilogue of the concert comes a day later when the band was filmed inside again playing "Let It Be," "Two of Us" and "The Long and Winding Road."  These highlights play on one side of the screen while the credits roll on the other. When they finish last song, John says he thinks they finally has a master take. Paul, on the other hand, thinks they should give it one more shot. Then it ends.

Fading after that difference of opinion had to be intentional.

Friday, November 26, 2021

A Few Thoughts On Part One of the "Get Back" Documentary

There was a time when the Beatles Let It Be film could be found on YouTube in about nine separate segments. I had seen the film on the big screen once before, when I was about 13. It was less than a year after John Lennon had been killed, and the thrill of finally getting the chance (after missing it at the Pittsburgh Playhouse's film screenings, several months prior) ensured that it was a great film in my young mind. One memory of that screening was that the snare drum break in "Two of Us" sounded like a synthesizer, as it reverberated off the walls of the old Stanley Theater.

Watching the film online - several years after the Anthology series had come out, incidentally - there were some cool moments in it, but the film quality and the lack of energy through most of it made it a little... dull. Not as dull as Magical Mystery Tour but not really all that captivating. I don't buy the whole idea of "you can tell they're about to break up" but it doesn't capture them at their best. Not until the rooftop concert. 

But that's another entry. 

Today, I'm here to discuss Part One of the Get Back documentary that's airing this weekend on Disney+. I started watching it last night, following a Thanksgiving meal that couldn't be beat, foolishly thinking that I could make it through two and a half hours of watching a screen because it's the Beatles. That proved to be untrue. In fact, it started to feel a little tedious again, despite the crisp quality of the film. But when I returned to the final hour this morning, it was interesting again. 

First, here are the distractions. I was bothered by the continual use of audio that doesn't match up with the visuals onscreen. Sure there was a huge amount of footage for Peter Jackson to utilize, but this gets a little annoying when the camera is on George plaing while John or Paul are doing the talking, and they aren't speaking to George. If he had used this device once in a while, it would have been a little better. But he relies on it a lot and feels like cheating.

Second, the idea that the band gave themselves is pretty preposterous, even for the Biggest Band in the World. They want to put on a big concert - in less than a few weeks times because Ringo has a prior commitment that started at the end of the month - but they're going in to rehearsal with no idea where they'll do it or what they'll play. When they look tired or bored, that's not necessarily how they feel. They're under a whole lot of pressure to figure out this big concept in a short amount of time. On top of that, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (whose nasal voice reminds me Inspector Fenwick for the Dudley Do-Right cartoons) keeps suggesting they perform an open-air concert in Libya. The idea is floated in one segment to have the band and a bunch of the fans sail on a ship to the place where they will perform.

Get Back is probably a film for Beatle fanatics only. Despite the quick cuts, watching it compares a lot to watching any band's rehearsal, where things move slowly. You don't always get complete songs. (In fact, it feels like you don't get them most of the time.) There is a lot of hamming up during the songs, not for the camera but for each other. 

At the same time, therein lies a lot of the charm. It's the Beatles rehearsing for Pete's sake. The footage strips away the mythology and the legend and reveals them acting like a "normal" band, talking about chord changes and where to put little tags at the end of a phrase, and what to take out because it sounds corny. 

Most significantly, there is a section where Paul McCartney is riffing on his bass, trying to come up with an idea for a song. As he continues playing, you can actually see the gears click as he comes up with "Get Back." Whether or not you consider it one of his best songs, the moment is fun to see. It's also great hearing the lads take a shot at George's "All Things Must Pass," in which Paul adds a harmony and John plays organ. The harmony is an especially telling moment, revealing how these guys were so in sync with each other than Paul knew exactly what note to choose. 

The Yoko haters will probably be out in full force despite the fact that today's installment should rewrite the record. At the end of this secction, following George Harrison's walk-out, the other three take part in a noisy jam, with Yoko wailing away into the mike. After a major curveball that George threw them, it was good to see them having some fun, which included Paul leaning into his amp trying to get some feedback going. So while Yoko was at John's arm through most of it, she was hardly disrupting the band. And she was also seen talking and smiling with Linda Eastman (soon to be McCartney) after Linda makes her entrance.

Being a Beatle fanatic, I am enjoying the way Jackson presents the chronology of the event, indicating the start of each day by depicting a calendar and zooming in on the date. The climax of this episode leaves us in suspense. George has walked out, telling the others, "I'll see you at the clubs." I think his walk-out came as a result of a fist-fight or near fist-fight that he had with John, which was not captured on film. (I'm vaguely remembering a passage from a book about these sessions.) Jackson does employ some slow-motion techniques during this part to play up the drama, which seems a bit excessive. But if the cameras were stopped when the whole thing went down, I suppose it makes sense.

Looking forward to Part Two.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

CD Review: Jessica Pavone - Lull

Jessica Pavone

When giving Lull a deep listen, the ears became very attuned to fine details in the performance. The wood of the string instruments, resonating deeply. How loud upright basses can be when two are bowing together. The way all eight players create a flowing sound even if they're each playing one single note. The way Brian Chase's amplified cymbal goes in and out of phase as it moves after he strikes it. Finally, there are several moments when each string player's part can be heard distinctively among all the others, even as they blend together to create a bigger sound. 

Jessica Pavone - who composed the four-section piece and plays viola on it - wanted to explore the way sounds affect emotions, and drew on the work of sound healers to figure out how certain combinations can work together. The music can be jarring when certain combinations of notes are repeated over and over by the two violins, for instance. But the repetition never lasts too long before another instrument is added or the overall shape of the sound changes. "Indolent" begins that way, with the upper strings playing two clashing notes back and forth for 90 seconds. At that point, other strings join them, almost overpowering the initial clashing sounds and creating faster movement in the lower register. At one point, the strings stop sounding like string instruments and more like a droning organ, if only for a moment.

Along with the string octet (violinists Aimée Newman and Charlotte Munn-Wood, violists Pavone and Abby Swidler, cellists Christopher Hoffman and Meaghan Burke, basissts Shayna Dulberger and Nicholas Jozwiak), two additional players pop up in surprising places. Brian Chase (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) opens "Holt" with a series of random whacks on a closely miked snare drum, which, like his later cymbal work, allows for close scrutiny of the resonance that occurs when hitting the skin on the outer edges of the head. 

Trumpeter Nate Wooley adds some splatter to the final minute of "Holt" together with Chase. He stays for "Ingot," adding sustained tones that create some lush overtones with the strings. The performance feels in some ways like a continuation of Wooley's Seven Storey Mountain VI from last year, albeit with a little less storm. This piece eventually morphs into some scrapes and steady bowing before stopping with little fanfare. "Midmost" alternates between unsettling bits where everyone bows together - either in quick pitches or longer crescendos - and long beautiful drones, before the whole thing comes full circle, with the violins wrapping things up.

Lull is not an easy listen but part of the allure lies in figuring out where the music is going. The clashes of pitches and rigid delivery feels abrasive at first blush but this music should be given time, largely due to the fact that nothing else sounds like it. There are moments that might recall the tranquility of post-rock or the repetition of a composer like Morton Feldman but rarely do both of those elements come together in one work, if at all.

Sunday, November 07, 2021

CD Review: Steph Richards with Joshua White - Zephyr

Steph Richards with Joshua White
(Relative Pitch) stephrichards.bandcamp.com/album/zephyr

Steph Richards blows her trumpet in water vessels on some of Zephyr's tracks. (It's unclear what kind of water vessels she employs, though it's not exactly important either.) When she makes bubbles during "Sacred Sea," snatches of pitch occasionally come to the surface, as if the bubbles hold the sound and release it when they pop. 

The piece has a lot of open space, including several seconds where neither she nor pianist Joshua White play their instruments. Richards just taps her water bowls. As the piece goes on, her trills and runs sound like fragments of adventurous predecessors on the horn: Miles Davis, if his track on "He Loved Him Madly" was isolated; Bill Dixon exploring a room's acoustics with his extended technique; Lester Bowie having fun with his horn.

Zephyr features three suites, consisting of between three to five separately banded sections. Richards was six months pregnant when she recorded Zephyr. While that isn't quite a central theme to the whole album, the use of water acts as a link in some of the tracks. Two suites are inspired by environmental topics, and the idea of raising a child while such issues taken on greater significance; the other is influenced by the idea of a baby living in water. 

Considering the baby, though, explains the hushed moments of the Sacred Sea suite. Richards often blows freely, but she isn't always loud, per se. White plays in the title section as if he's trying not to disturb the baby. But on the rest of the album, the pianist doesn't worry about such things. He frequently uses prepared piano as a percussive counterpoint to Richards, imitating a rusty ride cymbal in some moments, adding both pulse and pitch elsewhere. He also does some Cecil Taylor-esque accompaniment in "Nixie," gathering fire as he moves forward. 

But the focus remains on Richards, and she spends her time producing a wide variety of textures that keep the program varied. The Sacred Sea suite is followed by Sequoia, which shifts away from the restless sound to a cleaner tone in "Cicada" before diving into some aggressive wah-wah mute squawks. "Sequoia" almost has a buttery classic sound, which contrasts delightfully with White, who sounds like two pianists playing at once.

The four "Aurora" segments of Northern Lights feature plenty of contrasting moods, from White's emphatic percussive beat in part one - adding fire power to Richards' bent, twisted notes - to the finale, where trumpeter briefly breaks away from some more quick, darting lines to approximate the roar of guitar feedback. It offers an emphatic conclusion to this varied musical journey.

Thursday, November 04, 2021

What Happens When I Go Back Into the Recording Studio

A Facebook memory from nine years ago popped up in my profile today, in which I talked about playing along with a click track for the first time ever, while working at Machine Age Studios. That means my previous band, the Love Letters, had our first recording session a good two years and change before our double 7" single was released in 2015. There were many sessions involved with the four songs that we recorded, including several where we worked laboriously with engineer Dave Cerminara (now a Grammy-winning studio guy in California) to make sure two of the songs sounded as good as the two songs that were mixed by John Collins (New Pornographers, Destroyer, many others). But I couldn't believe the first session was that far back in time. 

Fast-forward to last weekend. Well, first, some context. 

The Love Letters drifted apart several years ago. Eventually I found a few guys who wanted to play together and we became the Harry Von Zells. (Despite being named after a guy who I consider to be a funny radio man from the '40s who was later on The Burns and Allen Show on tv, we weren't meant to be a joke band.) The band played one show, back on Thanksgiving weekend, 2019. Other shows were planned in 2020, but like everything else, they were cancelled. 

Somewhere along the way last summer, I hatched a scheme: Let's record an album. We can take our time with it and by the time the pandemic is over, whenever that may be, we can have a release show! We got together and practiced a few times (without using microphones) during the pandemic so we knew the songs pretty well. But then a month would go by and we'd miss practices, or someone wouldn't be able to show up. When we did reconvene, after we were all vaccinated, we were just spending time making sure we retained everything that we had learned in the past. Sadly, there was never enough time to devote to our cover of Van Halen's "Romeo Delight." (Don't knock it. These guys could pull it off.)

As I've gotten older, band practices and studio time become different things. I started wondering how hard it must be to record an album, getting the time to shack up in a studio to fine tune those things. How do you do it anymore? Personally, my psyche feels a big gravitational pull when it's time to leave the house for something other than work. Should I be doing this? Don't I need to stay around the house? The pandemic probably has a lot to do with that. But there are also other things that I feel like should come first. 

Plus the band was starting to unravel as I booked the studio time for us. Prior to our show on October 15, the four of us hadn't been in the same room for at least four months, probably closer to six months. We had one practice before that show, which pretty much came off without a hitch. It was a good night. But it was also the last.

However, the studio session was going to happen anyway. 

That being said, I was nervous about the whole prospect. It's been so long since I've done this. Things are so fragmented, bandwise. I don't have the confidence in myself that I once had. What's the point? I started putting it around that I'm done playing out, anyway.

So this is really where the story starts. Erik, our guitar player, was occupied getting ready for another album session with his wife Emily, which once again was going to take place at their house with none other than Kramer producing and playing on it again. (Emily is Emily Rodgers, incidentally, and Kramer's newly-revamped Shimmy-Disc label just released her album I Will Be Gone this year. It was recorded the same way.) Michael, our keyboard player, said he was available, but it seemed to make more sense to add keys after the basic tracks were down. That left me and Nathan, drummer extraordinaire.

It might be hard to tell, but
Nathan is twirling his stick here.

The two of us had a few practices with just bass and drums prior to the session, albeit it more than a month beforehand. The big takeaway from those practices was how much we both seemed to have the songs down. We knew what worked, knew all the changes, and we barreled through a whole set in one of those nights at the practice space. Maybe this wouldn't be so fearful after all.

We booked last Friday and Saturday night at Ice House Studios, a cool space tucked away in Lawrenceville. Drums could not be recorded until after 7 pm since there are neighbors in the building, but I had requested both days off from work, so my time was pretty open. Then Jon Miller, the owner of the studio, offered to let us set up on Thursday evening. We could set recording levels so we'd be ready to go on Friday. I had to work until 7 that night, but by the time I would get there, I figured Nathan might still be getting levels on his drums, so why not.

Jon (who has his back to the camera in the first photo in this post) made the whole evening feel relaxed and easy-going. He and Nate had the drums levels set by the time I got there, and we got my bass set up pretty quickly. Then the suggestion was made to try a song to see how it felt. It took a couple takes to get the feeling down, but it was there. Try another song? Sure. A few run-throughs later, we had the basic track for song number two. And we still got home at a decent hour.

Since I didn't work on Friday, I was able to have dinner and some coffee before heading back to the studio. (The coffee is the monkey on my back, these days.) Nathan and I were both ready to get some serious work done. Which is exactly what happened. We laid down parts for seven more songs, making sure we were happy with the performance before moving onto the next song. Having just two people playing also cuts down on the number of possibilities of a song screwing up. 

There was even time to do some fine tuning on a song. One of my songs sounds best if I use a pick on the verses, because I'm strumming to strings like a guitar. Anyone who knows me know that I never use a pick. Or at least I haven't since that fateful night in 1986 when Bone of Contention played on Flagstaff Hill and my fingers were bleeding so bad that I needed to use a pick. 

But that doesn't really count. "The Ultimate Treason" (named for a term Mike Watt was used to describe when a bassist leaves a band and starts another one where they play guitar) needs the strum, but I couldn't recreate my walking lines in the chorus with a pick. So we punched in the fingered chorus part after getting the whole track down. 

In another song where I play with distortion (Turbo Rat, for those of you who care), I added a second bass track, so I could do some feedback skronk at the end. That section starts with the second bass mimicking the first, and hearing the tracks back later, it sounded like an angry Moog synthesizer. Nate had only played that song a handful of times, but I think we nailed it in two, or maybe three takes. 

Once that was done, we had pretty much run out of material. There was one song I could have pushed Nate to do, but the time didn't feel right. And really, the nine songs we did seem like the ideal length for an album. (My songs are never as short as I hope they'll be anymore.) At that point it was clear, we didn't need to come back on Saturday after all.

Some of the songs that we did have been around the block many times. Like, through a couple different bands. I go through periods where I'm proud of them and other times when I think that maybe I should just put them out to pasture, and that maybe the quality of my songs are why it's hard to find people to play with me. Maybe they aren't that good. People have reminded me to just do what I want to do, musically. Do it for yourself. That's a good motto - but it begs the question, why even bother renting a practice space and working to get musicians together when you can just hear the songs in your head? 

That sounds bleak or sad sack-like. But that's not where I am. Now I'm at the point where I think, it's time to get these songs documented. Maybe I'll work on these recordings the rest of my life, like my own version of Orson Welles' Inherit the Wind. In the months leading up this session, I wondered if I'd have the focus for a song where I played almost everything, or a song where I got several friends to sing back-up on the songs. Anything is possible. 

But at least the first step has been taken, which seemed unlikely to happen for the longest time. 

Friday, October 29, 2021

CD Review: David Leon - Aire De Aqua

David Leon
Aire De Agua

In the weeks just before Aire De Agua came out, David Leon had already landed on my radar for his flute performance on Jason Nazary's Spring Collection album. His debut album as a leader, however, finds him sticking strictly to alto saxophone with a set of varied originals.

Debut albums often serve as the place where a musician introduces themselves by saying a good deal, either stylistically or as a soloist. To that end, Leon comes across as something of an anomaly. He doesn't sound tentative in the least, but he doesn't want to say too much. The eight tracks are short. with concise solos. Several of them have surprise endings, foregoing a closing theme in favor of letting a solo serve as the final word  Leon is more than willing to step backward or, in the the case of "A Hug Every Day" step offstage altogether and make sure the rest of the band gets equal time. It gives the music a bit of intrigue that offers a counterbalance to a few instances where the ambition outweighs the execution.

Leon's writing sometimes feels rhythmically free, with some element of structure keeping everything grounded, with allusions felt to the classics. The rapid, clipped melody of "Strange and Charmed" recalls the stop-start urge of John Coltrane's "Sun Ship," while "First You Must Learn The Grip" begins like a bebop homage before it jumps the track into a world that includes some reed shrieks and an authoritative piano solo from Sonya Belaya. 

Thanks largely to Leon's desire for everyone in his quartet to get equal emphasis, Belaya repeatedly deserves her attention, from the free, hornless "A Hug a Day" to "Bluest Blue," in which the way she strikes the keys has an emotional impact, and coaxes Leon back to take some deserved space. The two also play a melody together in "Horrible, Horrible Service" that eventually splits into separate melodies that each utilize bassist Florian Herzog and drummer Stephen Boegehold.

Although this rhythm section deserves its own space, the title track could have benefited from more of Leon, who limits himself largely to melody line, "Expressive Jargon II" gives each player a simple set of notes or beats which they repeat with slight variations. At seven minutes, it's the album's longest track and the least successful, feeling more like a chamber music experiment that needs some other element to liven it up.

Those details aside, Leon comes across as a performer well on the way to developing a unique voice. Crisp on some tracks like Lee Konitz, but just as willing to flutter- and slap-tongue the reed amidst some enjoyable squeaks a track later, this debut reveals a lot of his ideas are being put to work already.

Monday, October 25, 2021

CD/LP Review: John Coltrane - A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle

John Coltrane
A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle

When the first Beatles on the BBC set was officially released, it was a revelation to hear "new" versions of their songs after considering their original studio releases as the only versions out there. Granted there are live recordings of the Beatles playing the songs. Thanks to YouTube (which didn't exist with the first BEEB set appeared), it's now easy to find concert performances by the band. But these recordings can't touch the sonic quality, precision or excitement of the studio sessions the band produced in those early days,. Not merely because of all the screaming that overpowered the band either. To put it another way, live segments give you a show, while Live at the BBC gives you a band performance. And once you hit Revolver, well there is only one version of each song.

A similar feeling came to mind upon hear John Coltrane's A Love Supreme; Live In Seattle. The four-part suite is considered the high-water mark in his extensive catalogue. So much has been written on the work, especially over this past week, that there's no need to restate its backstory here. Anyone unfamiliar with the whats and whys of A Love Supreme is encouraged to enter it into Google or, better yet, find a copy of Ashley Kahn's book A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album, which offers a great deal of insight into the recording and keeps the reader excited throughout. Suffice to say, this piece of music - in which Coltrane devoted his faith to God (though not a specific one) - has taken on a sacred quality in and of itself.

Once he recorded the album in December 1964, Coltrane rarely played the suite live. One performance, at the French jazz festival at Antibes in July 1965, was finally released in 2002, presenting an extended take on the piece to an audience that responded in some parts with boos. He also reportedly played it at a fundraiser for a Brooklyn church, which was not recorded. Only a select few people knew that when Coltrane set up at Seattle's Penthouse in the fall of 1965 that A Love Supreme was performed in its entirety on his final night, and that his friend Joe Brazil recorded the performance and held onto the tape until his death in 2008. 

The Antibes performance definitely added a new perspective to A Love Supreme, but in some ways, a jazz festival seems like the obvious place that Coltrane would revisit such a landmark piece. Hearing it in the intimate confines of a nightclub, the forum where Coltrane did most of his evolving as a musician brings the music down to the rootsy level  As Kahn says in one of the album's essays, "This was not just message music, it was community music." (Italics are his.)

That feeling comes early in "Acknowledgement," the first movement of the suite. Anyone used to the studio version's opening gong crash, followed by the tenor saxophonist's declarative four-note fanfare might be surprised by the casual launch at the Penthouse. More surprising is that the band doesn't immediately go into the tune. Quartet bassist Jimmy Garrison is joined by second bassist Donald Rafael Garrett, who bows while Garrison plucks. They intertwine, not getting in each other's way, adding an earthy groove that eventually morphs into the three-note vamp. Coltrane doesn't re-enter for several minutes, letting a relaxed mood take place. When does join in, the band raises the dynamics, showing that its time to get down to business. Nearly three times as long as the studio version, this "Acknowledgement" reveals a little more grit, and not just because Pharoah Sanders is along for the ride.

The two-microphone set up gives the recording a stereo separation that was naturally created by the stage but it also pushes Coltrane down in the mix. He can be heard, but he's definitely getting edged out by drummer Elvin Jones and pianist McCoy Tyner. Even Pharoah Sanders, who had just become a member of the Coltrane band following the sessions for Ascension a few months earlier, can't wail and shriek over Jones thunderous drum kit. That night the group was also joined by alto saxophonist Carlos Ward. He solos during "Resolution," playing with a hard tone that somewhat recalls Eric Dolphy (making him a good addition to the group) but playing in a completely different melodic area. The final section of his solo seems to quote or draw on a disparate melodic form that almost pulls the music in a more straightahead melodic direction.

Coltrane would engage in a deeply cathartic chant of "Om" during his stay at the Penthouse during "Evolution" which appears on the posthumous Live in Seattle album. .(Another posthumous album, Coltrane's Om, was recorded that same weekend as this Penthouse engagement and included Joe Brazil on flute.) But A Love Supreme didn't involve any verbal incantations, such as the chant of the suite's title during "Acknowledgement." Surprisingly, he doesn't even solo in part three, the raucous "Pursuance," after stating the theme (which had shown up in his "Acknowledgement" solo, incidentally). Instead, he lets Sanders and Tyner take over. After the younger tenor saxophonist unleashes a stream of wails, the pianist creates his own tidal wave of music that must have been mind-blowing to everyone in the room. Maybe Coltrane decided he couldn't follow Tyner and decided to step aside. 

Jimmy Garrison's bass solos were probably one of the few times during a set that the audience was able to hear him clearly, due to the velocity going around him. His solo after "Pursuance" provided a respite from the frenzy and this version has more edge and electricity than his studio performance. Garrison's signature strumming technique appears but he also plays with more focus that retains the feel from what occurred prior to it.

Likewise, "Psalm," the piece built around the poem that in the gatefold of the original album, moves with more passion and drive, without giving into the temptation to add some wails to the scene. (Sanders and Ward don't participate here either.) 

The moment that takes A Love Supreme off of the altar and into the hands of the people (so to speak) comes in the final moments of the performance. After Coltrane finishes his final statement and the audience applauds, the bassists keep on going. One of them asks, "Is that the end," to which Coltrane replies, "It better be! It better be, baby! Yeah!" 

The fact that the one of the most revered pieces of jazz music can end ambiguously, with the mighty John Coltrane casually calling one of his bandmates "baby," proves that this music could be revered and admired from a distance, but it was not so holy that  it couldn't be lived in and revisited and reshaped.