Thursday, May 06, 2021

CD Review: Steve Tintweiss & the Purple Why - MarksTown

Steve Tintweiss and the Purple Why

Bassist Steve Tintweiss was involved with many of the free jazz artists of the '60s whose albums are now considered canonical. He appeared on Patty Waters' radical, cathartic version of "Black Is the Color Of My True Love's Hair" (on Sings) and the equally loose "Wild Is the Wind (College Tour). He also worked with pianist Burton Green and saxophonists Marzette Watts and Frank Wright. When Albert Ayler toured Europe in 1970, Tintweiss was the man behind the bass.

Considering his regular appearances with artists on the ESP label, it's surprising that Bernard Stollman didn't release an album by the Purple Why, the group that Tintweiss helmed. The group had the outspoken politics of bands like the Fugs and the free jazz vision of their other labelmates. As these recordings attest, they played some pretty solid compositions too.

Along with Tintweiss (who also blows some melodica and sings), the group features tenor saxophonist Mark Whitecage (who played and recorded with a number of bands in New York before passing away in March 2021), trumpeter James DuBoise, drummer Laurence Cook and vocalists Judy Stuart and Amy Sheffer. Baritone saxophonist Trevor Koehler (who played on Erica Pomerance's ESP album and also played in the Insect Trust) appears briefly as well. 

MarksTown features two live sets from 1968. While the fidelity leaves a little something to be desired, the instruments cut through clearly enough that most ESP fans will enjoy it. The first half of finds the band at St. Marks Church at a rally for Operation Biafra Airlift, a weeklong set of concerts that raised funds for that African nation. The group was limited to a 20-minute set so they played a medley of five compositions as a suite. 

The Purple Why combined free meter with composed themes rather than going for all-out free blowing. This blend of structure and looseness sounds like few of their peers from that era, save perhaps the New York Contemporary Five. When Whitecage and DuBoise play counterpoint in the somber "Ramona I Love You," they predict what groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago would do in coming years. "Contrapuntal" begins with some bowed bass, but moves into a theme that almost sounds through-composed and doesn't lose any edge when Tintweiss picks up a slide whistle. 

Less than a month later, the group showed up at New York's Town Hall for an even more impassioned set. While vocalists in free jazz groups often attempt to emulate their instrumental bandmates (with disastrous results) or sing bad poetry, Sheffer and Stuart almost function like a Greek chorus here, adding some angelic whoops in the background which suit the music and make the space of the room come through the tape. Tintweiss, on the other hand, wails away in the foreground on a few tracks, like the 10-minute "Monogamy Is Out." The lyrics consist of little more than the title repeated between solos and he sounds closer to a punk poet than a jazz singer. But his enthusiasm is infectious, a gateway to the mindframe of wilder era, so don't fight the feeling. 

"Space Rocks" ends the second performance majestically, with a thunderous drum intro leading to counterpoint horn lines and a dramatic bass solo (bowed and plucked) that cues an intense climax of wails.

The Purple Why stayed together until the mid 1970s but this is the first release of any material by the band. Tintweiss, who is now 74, continues to play in a variety of projects. Why the world has never heard anything by this group remains a head scratcher. But the liner to MarksTown lists upcoming Inky Dot releases, which includes a performance by the band at Tompkins Square Park, so there is more to come.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

CD & DL Review: New Works from the Out Of Your Head Label

In a fairly short time - I'm talking two years and change - the Out of Your Head label has managed to release a handful of strong physical albums as well as a batch of digital-only live releases, all of which document some exploratory jazz musicians. The name originated from a series of concerts that bassist Adam Hopkins first staged in Baltimore, and the releases have focused on up-and-coming players and peers that he and co-curator Scott Clark have know. But OOYH has also released works by Tim Berne & Matt Mitchell, as well as bassist Michael Formanek, as seen here. Sometimes it's hard keeping up with them, but then again, that's a good challenge to have. 

Below are two recent physical releases and two more digital works from the Untamed series. All can be found on the label's website ( or their Bandcamp page

Michael & Peter Formanek 

Michael Formanek has been pretty prolific on his own lately, what with a new album by the trio Thumbscrew, a new solo bass album and this series of duets with his son, tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Peter. Father and son both compose for this session (four tunes by Pops, two by Sonny Boy) with the remaining seven tracks attributed to both of them. Those tracks sound like spontaneous works where family ties help the musical conversations take on a deeper meaning, such as when they both take a slow descending line on "How Was the Drive." 

Of Peter's compositions, "Two, Not One" begins with a rubato melody and goes into a strong groove. "After You" is a bit like a call-and-response where the rhythmic center seems to volley between the tenor and the bass.  He possesses a strong, inventive voice on tenor, able to make a line ebb and flow with drama. But his clarinet playing offers some of his best moments on the disc. Thick and brawny, he imbues it with the same weight as his saxophone. Considering the clarinet isn't heard enough with this type of music, he could really find his niche if he continues to devote proper album space to it. 

The intimate setting gives Michael a chance to reveal his vast technique moreso that he might in some of his other groups. The recording feels relaxed and emphasizes the clear, driving attack on the bass. His "Ballad of the Weak" is full of emotion and in "Wavy Lines," his bowing beautifully mimics feedback or altissimo horn sounds.

As a side note, the Formaneks performed in Pittsburgh just a few weeks before recording Dyads. They played in a quartet that also featured saxophonist/clarinetist Patrick Breiner (a Pittsburgh resident who has played in groups like Battle Trance) and drummer Carter Freije. Tragically, Freije, who sounded excellent that night, took his life not long after the performance. Below is a photo of the group from that evening. 

Christopher Hoffman
Asp Nimbus

On one hand, the instrumentation on Christopher Hoffman's Asp Nimbus feels unusual - the leader's cello together with vibes (Bryan Carrott), bass (Rahsaan Carter) and drums (Craig Weinrib). (Pianist David Virelles appears on "Dylan George" where his own inventive lines push Hoffman in a frenetic, exciting direction.) Hoffman frequently stays in the background, plucking a bit while Carrott takes center stage. At other times, the group sounds like the Out to Lunch rhythm section if a cello took the place of the horns - and the music had a bit more of a conventional groove to it.

But this is a cellist who has spent a great deal of time in Henry Threadgill's various ensembles, understanding and bringing life to the composer's intensive material. For Asp Nimbus, Hoffman took inspiration from Bobby Hutcherson's Oblique and Threadgill's Every Mouth's a Book, which results in eight relatively brief compositions that take melodically dense ideas and blend them with infectious sense of swing. The introductory vibes part that opens "Discretionary" sounds downright conventional, until Hoffman makes his entrance, plucking a counterpoint to the vibes, before he bows a rapid melody. Later, "Angles of Influence" finds him producing a lovely melody brought to life with some slow bowing.

Like a Threadgill album, the layers to the music become clearer with close, repeated listens. But unlike the work of his musical boss, the character of Hoffman's own writing leaps forward enthusiastically. And, with very little in the way of breaks between tracks, it keeps coming for a solid 32 minutes. This album will likely be on a lot of year end lists.

Goldberger/ Jermyn/ Maneri/Cleaver
Live at Scholes

Live at Scholes consists of a 36-minute performance by Jonathan Goldberger (guitar), Simon Jermyn (electric bass), Mat Maneri (viola) and Gerald Cleaver (drums) at the Scholes Street Studio. (An additional four-minute excerpt also came in the download.) In general, the group is just as likely to improvise for an extended period as they are to throw short composed ideas into the mix. Whether they're combining the two here isn't exactly clear, but that's part of their appeal and it speaks a great deal about how cohesively they play.

A groove gradually takes shape in the first third of the performance, which feels like it a borrows a bit from the randomness of harmolodics and the focus of prog rock. Goldberger (who has played with Adam Hopkins' projects and lead several of his own, one of the best being the Visitors album with JP Schlegelmilch and Jim Black) again proves himself to be a guitarist that more people need to hear, getting noisy and aggressive in an exciting manner. 

Eventually the groove gets a little self-conscious and slowly melts into some knob twiddling, or maybe it's just viola scraping or guitar scratch. Maneri uses effects but he also plays clean and crisp lines early on that present a candid glimpse to his technique. The only sonic setbacks come in the latter section of the track, where one of the electric instruments sound like it's playing through a broken speaker, adding an unsettling amount of buzz to certain blasts of the music. The rhythm section could have benefited from a little more body in the mix.Cleaver in particular can be heard but he isn't felt as much as he should be. Regardless, the piece keeps progressing. Just as it seems like they're winding down in a long coda, the quartet builds things back up again.

Nick Mazzarealla/ Quin Kirchner
See or Seem: Live at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival

Last September, most of us were still sitting at home, wondering if the quarantine was going to wind down any time soon. In Chicago, saxophonist Nick Mazzarella and drummer Quin Kirchner set up safely at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival and played to a small but seemingly enthusiastic crowd. The results now exist for the everyone to hear. 

If the desire for things to get back to normal and the wish to interact with a group of people could both be translated into a musical performance, it would sound like what these two played on September 27 last year. Mazzarella blows some tight melodies, partially in a spirit that recalls Ornette Coleman's early work, though he gets into something more complex on a tune like "Axiom." Kirchner drives the music, reinforcing the saxophonist's ideas and adding sparks to it, which in turns elevates Mazzarella's playing to higher levels. The recording sounds a tad lo-fi, but no matter, the power of the performance comes through clearly. Thinking in terms of tension and release that fuels music like this, the pandemic had already presented plenty of tension. Mazzarella and Kirchner deliver the release.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Jon Irabagon Quartet Live in Pittsburgh: A Recap

The Jon Irabagon Quartet breezed into Alphabet City/City of Asylum last night for a livestream performance. Booked a year ago, the quartet's tour dwindled from a two-week jaunt down to six nights of performances. Of course, any live performances anywhere are a treat these days so we should salute the band for doing what they're doing this week. And thanks to the good folks at Alphabet City for allowing this member of the press to check out the show from a safe distance in the same room.

Irabagon, who has played saxophones ranging from alto to sopranino and the rare mezzo-soprano, stuck to tenor last night. Chris Lightcap, who is also skilled on upright bass, played bass guitar (and even used a pick on a couple songs!). The group was rounded out by pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Dan Weiss. Overall - four players who are strong leaders in their own rights, as well as top notch support players. 

The quartet played a batch of new material, which they will be recording once this tour is over. The opening "Sun Dance" (assuming it's two words) could have been a suite of a few tunes segued together but it was actually one extended work several different parts. The opening rhythm was taut and staccato, as Irabagon sailed rapidly over the rhythm section. What originally sounded a little tense eventually became a little more slinky, as Lightcap held down the groove. Irabagon always likes to keep listeners' attention, and Weiss' delayed accents on the ride cymbal, later in the piece, helped with that. The drummer really heated things up as Irabagon started to pull things towards a conclusion.

Weiss, whose own group Starebaby reveals that he's one of the most exploratory drummers in improvised music, threw some more off-kilter fills into "Rising Sun" as if he was trying to throw Irabagon off. Naturally it didn't work but it was fun hearing the interaction. In person, Lightcap's bass overpowered the piano a bit, but it didn't seem to deter Mitchell, who got a little eerie in the freer section towards the start of the piece. There were moments when Lightcap's finger work brought to mind Hugh Hopper's work in Soft Machine, with a dexterity that make those knotty ostinatos seem easy. 

When Irabagon played in the group Mostly Other People Do the Killing, they often thumbed their noses at jazz stodginess even while embracing the music's history. So it wasn't a complete surprise to hear Irabagon play Dizzy Gillespie's "Bebop." As the saxophonist tore into that tune's rapid theme and kept the velocity at a high level, it served as a reminder of how varied and consistent his career has been so far, encompassing both noisy sopranino recitals and solid straightahead sessions.

"Mammoth" started off with another slinky bass groove that eventually morphed into a 5/4 vamp at the end. In between, Weiss played with the snares on his drum turned off, so things never got too heavy. The group wrapped up the evening with "Alliance," another knotty tune that reached a peak when Mitchell cleverly wedged a couple quotes from Thelonious Monk's "Crepuscule With Nellie" in sideways during his solo.

Hopefully it sounded just as good on computer speakers as it did in person. Looking forward to the new album. (If I heard Lightcap correctly, the group has a few more tunes they didn't get to play last night.)

Friday, March 26, 2021

CD Review: Joe Lovano/Trio Tapestry - Garden of Expression

Joe Lovano/Trio Tapestry
Garden of Expression

If a track from this album were used in a Blindfold listening test, it might be hard to figure out that Joe Lovano is the saxophonist in question. Throughout Garden of Expression, he doesn't quite come across as the muscular tenor saxophonist player for which he is known. Which is not meant as a put down. He moves through the album thoughtfully, preferring long, drawn out lines over more complex harmonic developments. Sometimes it sounds simplistic, but his focus in this music gives it the added force to lift it up. 
Trio Tapestry first came together on a 2019Lovano album of that brought the saxophonist together with pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Carmen Castaldi. Crispell might seem like an odd pairing with Lovano, considering her works that took many hints from Cecil Taylor. But the two of them crossed paths when the pianist played with Anthony Braxton, and both of them spent much time playing with the late Paul Motian. Crispell's recent, more introspective-sounding work also goes well with Lovano's searching side. Castaldi and Lovano have a history that goes back to their younger days in Cleveland, where both grew up and continue when they both attended Berklee. 

Space serves as a key element to this music, as is often the case with ECM albums. The group allows the music to breathe and reflect. That way, when "Night Creatures" modulates from its single flowing chord to a new one, the harmonic focus takes on even greater dimension. Here, and on many other tracks, Castaldi is perfectly content hold back, letting his cymbals ring, with a few accents from the toms, rather than adding louder fills. 

This type of approach works with music like this, which often flows languidly rather then working with a strict tempo. The title track, with its hesitant feel, recalls Duke Ellington's "Fleurette Africaine," which he recorded on Money Jungle. "Sacred Chant" begins feeling like a rubato Coltrane ballad, with Manfred Eicher's production creating the atmosphere of a windswept spring morning. It's surprising then, that this track - and the more angular "Dream On That" which follows it - both slip away after less than four minutes each, providing an abbreviated but vivid sketch of a song. 

"Zen Like" closes the album with a longer (read: 10 minutes) meditation that begins with Lovano tolling some exquisitely bell-like gongs. (They also show up in "Garden of Expression.") He sticks to a lot of simple, long tones here on soprano. Crispell and Castaldi contribute punctuation in the form of occasional short chords and gentle brushes on the skins. In lesser hands, this spare type of performance could create restlessness, but the presence that these three bring to music adds a sense of direction and command to the whole thing. This is gentle but very captivating music.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

CD Review: Alan Sondheim & Azure Carter - Plaguesong

Alan Sondheim & Azure Carter

"I don't know what kind of music this is, but it's a kind that suits me, and suits Azure as well," Alan Sondheim writes in Plaguesong's liner notes. "It's certainly music that goes closer to the edge than anything I've done before."

That represents a pretty major claim, considering Sondheim output began on ESP in 1967 with a series of improvisations that weren't exactly free jazz but fit comfortably next to them in the catalog. Since ESP sprung back to life in the early 21st century, Sondheim has been the one artist from the early days who has returned to the nest to release more music. (Plaguesong is his third album since that time.)

Much like those early albums, this one finds our hero picking up a plethora of instruments for each of the 25 tracks. Perhaps to avoid distraction, he intentionally left the names of his arsenal off the cover. A perusal of his previous albums (check out a review of 2018 collaboration with Stephen Dydo, Dragon and Phoenix here) offers possibilities for some of the non-Western instruments: qin, erhu, rababa, guzheng. Others are easier to identify, such as harmonica, banjo and acoustic guitar.

Sondheim and Carter created Plaguesong in one room of their Providence, Rhode Island home, as the Corona virus quarantine shut the world down. Sometimes the music sounds like a field recording, like when the street sounds spill into the harmonica-and-vocal spiritual of "As Aboves So O As Below" [sic]. Many songs have a warm natural reverb that pushes aside the anxiety that fueled the music, giving way to hope. Case in point - "Plague Hymn" might refer to something else, but this solo harmonica piece comes off like a fully-formed spiritual, rather than a spontaneous blow of the harp.

While Sondheim might not play all of his instruments in the "traditional" or "correct" way, he brings a distinct focus to each one. This occasionally results in a unique hybrid of cultures like when his performance on "Guqin" casts a bent blues vocabulary to the namesake instrument, with the results in resembling Appalachian folk music. "Musima" sounds like a guitar song with a performance that sounds like free flamenco, or something closer to what Gary Lucas played with Captain Beefheart.

Although 10 of the 25 tracks are instrumentals, the rest include Carter adding her vocal color to the array of strings and tones. Sometimes she just rambles, like in "MNO" or "Lada" whose words don't quite go beyond the titles. The vignettes "Temperature" and "Pulse" are more amusing, as she reads both of those numbers to the accompaniment of her partner's manic strumming. Her mood on "My Life" contrasts with its downer message, while closer "World" seems like a thoughtful reflection of everything that has preceded it on the album. 

At 79 minutes, Plaguesong could have benefited from a bit of editing, but as a document of two people trying to cope with a quarantine, one can't blame them for an extended program. Rarely does a track sound like the one that preceded it, and when it does, it serves as a continuation of an idea not a mere repetition. 

Sometimes the edge to which Sondheim alludes is more obvious, such as when he's flailing away on guitar and Carter floats over him. But other times, they seem to be assuring each other - and everyone who listens - that we can make it through these dark days. That makes Plaguesong another worthy entry into the ESP catalog of valuable time pieces.

Friday, March 05, 2021

CD Reviews: Scott Clark - This Darkness / Devin Gray & Gerald Cleaver - 27 Licks

Ah, the solo album, where one improvisor- or instrument as you shall see in a moment - takes center stage all by themselves. This type of recital holds a special fascination for me. It requires that a listener check their preconceptions at the door and surrender to one person's approach. What are they hearing in their mind? The same thing you hear, or their music accompanied by other musicians? 

A solo piano album might not be too much of a stretch due the amount of harmonic possibilities that the keyboard offers. A solo saxophone or trumpet album ups the ante. But a solo drum album is a whole other exercise altogether. The melodic palette doesn't really come into play here, just the rhythmic and visceral sounds it offers. 

It's not completely out of the ordinary. The great Milford Graves - who we just lost a few weeks ago - recorded at least one solo album (and probably more). He also played with other drummers like Andrew Cyrille. Papa Jo Jones and modern drummer Chris Corsano both sat alone at the kit in a recording studio. Andrew Drury recorded an album with just a floor tom and a few accoutrements, pushing the sonic limits of such a performance. (Go here for a review of it.) 

The second album in today's selection is not actually a solo record, but a duet record. However it is a duet of two drummers, therefore it felt appropriate to group it thematically with an album by a solo drummer.
Scott Clark
This Darkness

Scott Clark is a fixture on the jazz and improvised music scene in Richmond, Virginia and co-curates the Out Of Your Head imprint with Adam Hopkins. At the same time, The Darkness could almost be heard as a distant strain of ambient music. As much as the sustained percussives recall spare sections of an Art Ensemble of Chicago album, the album's determined, gentle pace evokes thoughts of Fripp & Eno albums, or post-rockers Stars of the Lid. You might want it to move faster but Clark, in a sense, is saying, "No. Just listen."

This becomes obvious as the opener "Quiet Friend," takes over the room. A sustained harmonica slowly fades in, blowing a chord that begins with the upper harmonics and reverberates down to its lower notes, languidly. (So it's not actually just a drum album.) The drone continues unaccompanied for seven minutes, with at least two harmonicas keeping it flowing without a pause for air. Around the eight-minute mark the sound of brushes on the drums enter, eventually give way to mallets. After all those sustained harp notes, the drums offer a contrast that's almost melodic since one of the skins adds a  tuned pitch as the harmonicas continue unabated. It is moves slowly and continues in this manner for 15 minutes, with Clark alternating rhythms of 4/4, 5/8 and 6/8. But once adjusted to the tranquility, it's hard to get away.

The remaining five tracks, with one exception, are significantly shorter. Each finds Clark digging into one aspect of his kit. "Who" features cymbals and other percussion that produces resonating sounds. It never gets very busy and in fact features as much open space as space filled with rings. "Be a Bell Tower" adds some cymbal scrapes to a slightly more rapid strikes to these same chimes. The repetition can try the patience but just as it seems to be too much, Clark moves back to the drum heads, getting a primal but dynamic beat going, in waves of volume. 

"And You The Bell" acts as the album's climax, to which Clark has been building for the last 40-plus minutes. It feels like a drum solo, not in the flashy sense or the type that's based on a structure, but a free flowing one that seems to incorporate everything that came before it. Considering that he recorded the one album in one continuous piece, this final passage adds a little more sense to everything that came before. 

The Rainer Maria Rilke poem "Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower" inspired this performance, and the track titles came from its first stanza. Perhaps that might explain why the album ends almost as enigmatically as it began, not with a crashing finale but a fade. It might not be an easy listen and might be a performance best enjoyed in person, but it comes with a Zen-like clarity that lingers after it ends. 

Devin Gray & Gerald Cleaver
27 Licks

By contrast, drummer Devin Gray and Gerald Cleaver begin 27 Licks with a groove that remains constant while each of them varies their attack, playing on rims, heads, a woodblock or two and a cowbell. A ride cymbal early on depicts the sound of the street, adding an earthy quality to the sound. "F Train Ride" evokes that subway journey, beginning with percussion clatter, moving into press rolls and thunderous crashes. These are the kind of breaks that bring exciting contrast to free improvisation sessions with a band, using the dynamics to ramp up music that's already at a high level of intensity. Hearing them removed from a band, they still maintain that fire.

Drummers are often maligned for playing in a manner that prefers to lead rather than follow. Gray and Cleaver of course disprove that in their other projects, where communication between band members is paramount. Likewise, "Headed to Barbès" comes off like a conversation where one drummer throws out a roll or a movement across the kit which the other (it's hard to tell who's who) answers and expands upon. Other tracks get a little more minimal, with shakers and cymbal noise, and titles like "Love Conquers Hate," "The Long Roll Ahead" and "One for Bernie" hint at the political climate that was going on while this was recorded. 

"Headbangers" presents the entire recital in one 20-minute piece but I almost prefer the bite-sized chunks, which put each one in an independent light. While this might make the entire album seem a little slim, it shows that Gray and Cleaver know that brevity can make a percussion recital. Always leave them wanting more.

Monday, February 15, 2021

CD Review: Archie Shepp & Jason Moran - Let My People Go

Archie Shepp & Jason Moran
Let My People Go

Archie Shepp's duets with the late pianist Horace Parlan, found on albums that include Goin' Home and Trouble In Mind, arguably contain performances that rank with the tenor saxophonist's best-known early work for the Impulse! label. When recording some of the spirituals on the former album, Shepp told this writer, he was overcome with emotion. "The history, the suffering that those songs connoted was very much part of the performance itself," Shepp said in 2017. "I think we both knew and felt …it’s like two ex-slaves getting together. We didn’t have to discuss our experiences because we were deeply and profoundly aware of the implication. When [Parlan] touched the piano, I could feel history."

Let My People Go finds the 83-year old saxophonist teaming up with pianist Jason Moran for a series of live performances, some reprising the music Shepp made with Parlan, with takes on a few classics jazz compositions by John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. 

Shepp plays soprano saxophone on three of the album's seven tracks. Although his work on the smaller horn might not be as compelling as the gruff, rugged tenor tone, his reflective approach can be felt on both horns. At the end of both "Wise One" and "Round Midnight," he replicates the soprano by flying into the altissimo register of the tenor. He moves at a more measured pace with this music, never erupting in the manner that he did in his early days. But the way he ends some phrases with dissonant passages in the high register indicates that he could breathe more fire if he felt the need. A highlight comes in "Lush Life" as he cues the in-tempo section with some low honks from the tenor. It sets up a groove that Moran runs with, going into a slightly Latin rhythm.

A few tracks feature the saxophonist adding vocals in the final chorus. His baritone voice also has an understated quality, which might come across as a little ragged. But to my ears, he adds to the music, giving the lyrics to "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" some extra credibility. In "Lush Life" he scales the song's unique melody with ease, adding vibrato to his voice, making this contribution a key element to the whole arrangement.

Moran shows a strong rapport with the elder statesmen, playing spare when Shepp needs room to open up and adding heavy blues accents and upper register flourishes to "Motherless Child." His solo in "Wise One" - essentially the album's centerpiece at 13 minutes - relies heavily on chords rather than single line melodies and the energy is contagious. 

"Round Midnight" has been played umpteen times by umpteen jazz musicians. Shepp and Moran clearly realize that and make sure to give it their own collective stamp. A few later tracks  in the album feature audience applause from two European jazz festivals where these recordings were made. "Round Midnight" on the other hand, closes this album tightly with no room or need for the audience to respond. After all that, the applause would really be superfluous. 

Shepp and Moran seem to have a kindred connection that might be similar to what the former had with the late Horace Parlan. Things might move slowly and deliberately on this album, but sometimes deeper conversations work that way. 

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Barbie Likes To Die...again

Sometimes I forget to toot my own horn on all forums. Two weeks ago, the first vinyl album I ever was ever part of (come to think of it, the only vinyl album I've been part of) was remastered and re-released digitally on Bandcamp - exactly 31 years to the day after its original release. 

Bone of Contention was my first band. Playing in a band was a lifelong dream, at least from the time I was about six, but it didn't happen until I was 18. The recording took a little bit longer, We recorded 48 Points of View when I was 21 and it finally came out a few months after my 22nd birthday. It was a self-released album, on Igor Records, the name coming from guitarist Lila Shaara's ornery but loveable cat. When you're in charge of releasing your own music, you can make crazy decisions like that. 

When you're in charge of your musical fate like that, you can also determine whose ears come in contact with the music. We did send copies to radio stations around the country and a few publications, who had some pretty complimentary things to say about it. Some radio stations latched onto a song called "Barbie Likes to Die," a spoken-word-and-music tale about the hapless Mattel character. The Bone - as we called ourselves - weren't a joke band, but we did swing widely between wry humor and dead serious subjects. "Barbie" did have a small but enthusiastic group of fans. I know because some of them have tracked me down through this blog, looking for a copy of the song. Now that the song - along with the other 12 from the album - are up on Bandcamp, maybe we can make a connection with them. Probably not, because that's the way the internet works (anonymity), but you never know. Here's where you can find it. 

I don't want to ramble on at length about why I think the album is wonderful. But it was the first time I had been involved in something like this (notwithstanding a made-in-the-basement 4-track cassette from two years prior). For that reason it occupies a special place in my life. The band was kind of unique too because there weren't many bands around then where everyone wrote and sang. If you need anymore thoughts on it, there are a few on the Bandcamp set. Check it out and give a listen. 

Thursday, January 28, 2021

CD Review: The Warriors of the Wonderful Sound - Soundpath

The Warriors of the Wonderful Sound
(Clean Feed/Ars Nova Workshop)

Muhal Richard Abrams literally became the founding father of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a musical institution in Chicago that lives on even after the pianist/composer's death in 2017. The AACM might immediately evoke thoughts of abstract music or the blends of various artistic disciplines, but this album serves as a reminder that the AACM grew out of  rehearsals that Abrams hosted for his orchestra.

Soundpath was composed by Abrams on a commission by alto saxophonist Bobby Zankel, who leads the Philadelphia ensemble known as Warriors of the Wonderful Sound. With the composer conducting, the Warriors premiered it in 2012 in a performance where the piece lasted 90 minutes. This recording came together in 2018, with saxophonist Marty Ehrlich conducting the group. It lasts a "mere" 40 minutes, and reveals how Abrams' writing, even in his later years, still sounds unique and hard to summarize easily as it references various approaches to music.

Although "Soundpath" has composed passages, the music depends just as much - if not more - on its soloists to shape the sound of the piece. This version of Warriors of the Wonderful Sound includes 17 musicians and everyone gets a solo, many of them concise and direct. In an effort to make sure listeners pay close attention, each player's solo is designated by letters A through I under personnel listing, though that guide doesn't appear anywhere else on the disc or the package, leaving it unclear exactly where one section ends and another begins.

Among the highlights, pianist Tom Lawton does an admirable job of filling the seat of the composer, leading early on into an intriguing alto saxophone trio of Zankel, Ehrlich and Julian Pressley. The latter gets his solo later in the piece, with a mix of squeaks and reed biting that touches on AACM adventure. The opening ensemble passage begin with a fanfare that combines two harmonic directions and later they feature the horns creating harmonies that can't be found on the piano. The tempo moves from free to loosely rhythmic throughout the piece, climaxing with a drum solo by Chad Taylor.

Like much of Abrams' work, the music deepens with each listening and it certainly encourages repeated, close examinations. That says as much about Abrams as it does the whole ensemble, which in addition to the aforementioned players, includes: Robert Debillis (soprano and tenor saxophones); Hafez Modirzadeh (tenor saxophone); Mark Allen (baritone saxophone); Dave Ballou, Duane Eubanks, Josh Evans (trumpet); Graham Haynes (cornet); Steve Swell, Michael Dessen, Alfred Patterson (trombone); Jose Davila (bass trombone); and Michael Formanek (bass). 

Saturday, January 16, 2021

CD Review: Ingrid Laubrock - Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt

First things first: I mentioned that the NPR Jazz Critics Poll for 2020 wasn't up in my last post and, sure enough, it popped up a few hours later. Here is the list of albums of the year. More significantly, check out what Francis Davis has to say (his personal story is a hoot, and a little tragic) and look at what your favorite jazz scribe has to say. Or just follow this link and scroll down a bit to see what Mike "He Only Likes Stuff that No One Else Knows" Shanley said.

The following album already made its way onto the list which probably means it's "old" but now, but this is about the time of year that I catch up on albums anyway, So without further tangential yammering...

Ingrid Laubrock
Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt

Dreams have provided inspiration for music probably since the beginning of time. Saxophonist/composer Ingrid Laubrock has been keeping a dream journal (at the behest of friend and collaborator Mary Halvorson) for over a decade, having become very fascinated with the things she recalls from her subconscious state. The five compositions on this album were inspired by entries from the journal, as an attempt to "re-enter the dream to compose from that state of mind." The two discs present the music in two very different settings: the first with the EOS Chamber Orchestra, the other with an ensemble ranging from three to six people.

Like dreams, the music often moves slowly, content to stay in one place. The orchestra's version of "Drilling" has an almost minimalist nine-minute opening, with long brass tones and piano notes acting as sounds outside a window, coalescing to influence the direction of a dream. But the small ensemble version of "Drilling" begins with an drone of accordion (Adam Matlock) and electronics (Sam Pluta) that might seem nightmarish by comparison it if didn't evoke the roar of a B3 organ flexing its way through a Leslie cabinet.

But Laubrock insists that the different versions aren't meant to be used for simple compare and contrast. In fact, the music get a little too involved to do that. What's clear is the larger group seems to bear some influence of Laubrock's bandmate from Paradoxical Frog, Tyshawn Sorey. Like Sorey's own compositions, the music's open space provide as much significance as the space filled with sound. Laubrock also uses the sonorities of the orchestra to create a rich color. In "Snorkel Runs" the tones of strings, reeds and brass become clearer and as they repeat a long tone passage. 

Sometimes it feels like the journey becomes more important than the destination, as some of the music on Disc One seems to build to a climax that never exactly arrives. After 12 minutes - the average length of the tracks on Disc One - sometimes a little more could have helped, although Laubrock does often step in for a tenor or soprano solo. Drummer Tom Rainey and bassist Richard Landfermann also liven things up with solos as well.

Pluta appears with the orchestra and the small ensemble as does Cory Smythe (piano, quarter-tone keyboard). Matlock joins them on three of the five small group tracks, along with Zeena Parkins (electric harp) and, on two tracks, Josh Modney (violin). Things are generally more raucous on this disc, going for the darker side of dreams. A piano run at the start of "Snorkel Runs" gets sampled and distorted by Pluta, who shoots it back into the piece, moments after Smythe plays it. He does the same with Laubrock's tenor later in this track, adding to the energy. "Down the Mountain, Down the Mountain" sprouts some added microtonal melodies that add to the tension. 

"Twice Dreaming" closes the album with sustained piano chords, held until they fully decay (again evoking Sorey), abetted by dark accordion notes, all of it finally overpowered by distorted skronk from Parkins. While Laubrock insists that the music shouldn't be heard as a whole piece spread over two discs, it's easy to view this foreboding piece as a bookend to Disc One's opening "Dreamt Twice." By the end, it's nearly a surrealistic sound piece showing all manner of what can be found in dreams.  

Spoiler alert - it cuts off abruptly, again like a crazy dream. If it was a dream that made Laubrock bolt up in bed, it seems that she was less freaked out by the dream and more motivated to get it down in the journal before she forgot about it.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

One Further Point to Add to Last Night

This morning, I started looking through emails that come to my freelance writing account and realized there was another point I wanted to make in my previous entry that I totally forgot. I just casually mentioned the idea of starting to hate music, which of course was a strong way of saying that I'm souring on the sheer amount of music that I read about each day, which is sent to me under the naïve idea (clueless?) that it's something that I'd be interested in writing about. 

Several years ago, I wrote for Blurt, which started out as a print magazine that rose from the ashes of Harp, a magazine dedicated to a more progressive/indie rock-plus-more type of music. It was a little closer to Magnet than Alternative Press. Anyhow - Blurt published a few issues and then moved to web-only. It's still alive, and as far as I know, it's helmed at least in part by the great Fred Mills, a writer who seems to have an unending enthusiasm for music, which kept me going during those times when checks or recognition were in short supply. 

I haven't written for Blurt in about five years, not due to any animosity but because it was hard keeping another freelance hustle going. The door was still open as far as I could tell. And, I'm still on their masthead, which leads me to my next point.

I know I'm still on the masthead because I continue to receive emails addressed "Dear Blurt," occasionally. The ones I receive the most often start off with "Hi, Shanley." Don't get me wrong - I'm used to being called by my last name. There are plenty of Mikes out there and if you're not going to call me "Mike Shanley," I'm fine with being addressed by the last name. Having worked at a place where last names don't really exist - or they get switched out for the name of the department in which you work - being called "Shanley" feels like someone knows me a little more and  we've made a few steps  in our friendship. 

However, someone who yanked my contact info must have thought Shanley was my first name, and Writer was my last name. (It's my email address.) They didn't bother to get to know me, or figure out who I am. Overall, not a big deal. It generates an internal chuckle when I see it. Occasionally, I'll write back and tell them my full name, which usually generates a quick apology. Still, that's not enough to raise the hackles and make me start to hate the music industry. 

What kills me is the endless parade of oh-so-personal, trying-to-be-deep stories of artists who have had music save their lives, writing songs about being in a dark place after a relationship fell apart but finally realizing that you need to let go and once you let go, you can fly in the sky and see sunshine and hope. And maybe a unicorn or two, which will take you on a magical ride. The last part was completely made up on my part, but I've seen countless variations on the other themes in a lot of promotional emails. This is not to say that these people haven't suffered through dark times or felt worthless when they were abandoned by a lover, or when things didn't work out as we planned. We have all felt that way at one time or another. Which is exactly my point. These p.r. flacks need to stop peddling these stories like they're unique, and haven't been heard a million times before.

I'm not trying to be heartless and cold. When you have these feelings, life sucks. It's hard to get you back up on your feet again. But somewhere I feel like there is a fleet of p.r. people hustling aspiring performers into paying them all kinds of money with the promise that they will get their song (and it's usually a song, rarely an album, since today's attention span can handle that) out to people and get it a million plays on Spotify. Which means they'll have enough money to order extra toppings on their pizza on Friday, if they're lucky.

During the '90s and early '00s, a lot of independent p.r. companies sprouted up as more and more  bands started releasing material. A lot of them were really good at their jobs, having come to this work out of college radio, indie fanzines and/or their own bands. Their passion came across in their releases and they helped get the word out about bands that deserved greater attention. While working at a couple local alternative press weeklies, I started paying closer attention to mailings from certain companies, figuring that what they sent me must be pretty good, or at least worth a listen, given their roster of artists.

As time goes on, there are more people making music and more people clamoring for attention. And more people see the opportunity to push these young hopefuls. But the quality of the p.r. seems to cater more to Cosmopolitan readers than to readers of Blurt. It's much more generic and less about individuality. Even before COVID made it impossible to go out and perform live, a whole lot more people were doing home recordings before they really had anything to say. Part of me feels like these musicians and singers are being tricked into thinking they're something that they're not.

If you read the previous blog post, you'll see that I admitted that I'm less informed on independent pop/rock music that I am about jazz these days. So maybe I'm off base about this. Or maybe my age is just showing. Or it could be that this general shift toward "My music is powerful because I'm passionate about what I do" has pushed me away from that music in the first place. 

Looking Back, Looking Ahead, Looking into My Head

Once my dad retired and was home all the time, it always puzzled me that he didn't have music playing during his every waking hour. After all, he was a music fan. The house was full of plenty of albums that he hadn't played in years, in addition to a plethora of CDs that we kids bought him for birthdays and holidays. With all the time in the world, why not have music going while doing crosswords puzzles, reading the paper or writing out the bills? 

Somewhere along the way, my mom set me straight: Pop didn't dig having music run in the background. It should be upfront, observed pretty closely, though not analytically. Sure, when we would come over for dinner, it was okay to have something on in the background. But a constant stream of music? No way. 

Over the past few years, I've come to feel the same way. Part of relates to my being a music writer. (My dad wasn't, though he was a bass player.) Maybe there are some reviewers who can put on an ECM album while loading the dishwasher or running to the basement to clean the litter box, and still zero in on what Manfred Eicher's production skills brought out in a session. Or maybe they picked up on the way Sonny Rollins locked in with Han Bennink on Rollins in Holland while making Sunday breakfast. 

Not me. I have to listen to an album a few times - closely - before I feel like I can write about it. And I usually scribble down some notes to make sure that I recall the finer points of an album  In fact, one of the things I concluded in 2020 is that I rarely like an album on the first listen. It takes time to get used to it. Sometimes there's a too much expectation built into it and I can't enjoy the music right off the bat. (I remember buying the the Beatles' Anthology albums when they came out. During the first listen, my mind would wander onto the next song when I hadn't even gotten more than a verse and a half into the previous one.) 

It isn't just new albums that make me feel this way. It can just as easily happen with a new-to-me album from some bygone era that I never heard before. There are plenty of jazz albums that I still would like to discover. I don't always feel like I can just put them on and get into it without giving them full attention. Listening with half an ear can make something sound quaint and not very exciting. Some people might be appalled to hear that Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else sounded pretty dull to me when I first heard it. 

When I'm writing about an album or an artist, I feel like I need to take a lot of time to make sure I'm getting details right. The beauty of a blog is that it's easy to go back and change any mistakes. So if I somehow carelessly mistake a trombone for a baritone horn or a rhumba for a clave, it's an easy fix. Sometimes I wonder if that's part of the reason why I feel so comfortable writing about free improvisation - the performance isn't usually weighed down with traditional stylistic descriptions. It's easier to write about the emotional and visceral qualities of the music. 

Another factor that came up, thanks to the mess of 2020: there were a lot of times where I didn't feel like trying to take in something new. Even though I might have time to myself in the morning while making coffee, the events of the day left me wanting things to be predictable. 

Besides, it can be hard to put the new music receptors on when there's something like a favorite album from my 20s or an easy listening album still still on the turntable after last night's dinner. I don't have a man cave (and I still don't really like that word) where I go to hear music. The main turntable is just off of the kitchen, with an extra set of speakers in the kitchen. So if I'm listening to some wild free improv stuff and I don't feel like I can blast it, that album will be put on hold. Or get lost in a sea of other albums and CDs, whichever comes first.

Then I feel like I'm not doing my due diligence as a writer. I can't keep up with new things, I don't know all the right vintage things and the end result is I spend more time worrying about what I'm not writing about than actually writing it. It's amazing that I don't just abandon music altogether. 

Then I remember that getting started is the hardest part. With "maintaining an attention span to see it through to completion" being the second hardest part. 

As time goes on, I feel like I'm moving further and further away from the typical indie rock/pop that I like, with all my time and mental space getting taken up by jazz of all sorts. Last year, I feel like I only bought three indie rock albums, one of them being sort of relative. 

Destroyer's Have We Met was the first one. Dan Bejar (who is Destroyer for all intents and purposes, though many of the same people play on the albums) is a pretty prolific songwriter, churning out a new album about every two years or so. I feel compelled to get them when they come out. (As a writer, I probably could get a promo download of them, but since I'm not always going to write about them, I don't always feel right doing that.)

When I get these Destroyer albums, sometimes my first reaction is buyer's remorse. Do I need every album? Are they all the same after awhile? (Sometimes it seems like the same three or four chords.) But then "Crimson Tide," the first song on Have We Met, opens this way: 
"I was like the laziest river
A vulture predisposed to eating off floors
No wait, I take that back
I was more like an ocean
Stuck inside hospital corridors"

That set of lyrics, with its verbal editing and revision, made me realize, yes, I do need this album. Nobody weaves a twisted narrative like Bejar. And the album's arrangements recall the best elements of '80s new wave and synth pop, with some heavier underlying grooves courtesy of bassist John Collins.

Bob Mould's Blue Hearts was the second rock album on my list. I really loved Sunshine Rock and was crushed that I didn't get to catch him on that tour. His playing on that album had more bite to it than I, as a casual fan, had heard in a while. But geez oh pete, Blue Hearts adds a heavy dose of bile to that bite. It sounds as if someone told Bob to write an album that reacts to all the shit that's gone down over the past few years, react to it and.... make a statement or two while you're at it. 

He did that and he did it really well. "You can see how the lies divide us/ world turning darker every day in a fucked up USA/ can you look in the mirror and tell me everything's alright?" He hasn't sounded this pissed off - and on the money - since Everything Falls Apart.

I bought Blue Hearts in mid October, weeks before the election, after a horrible summer of unrest, leaving me in a state of high anxiety. The album doesn't really offer solutions. Spoiler alert - the narrator seems to kill himself in the final song by walking off into the waves. But it was nice to know that someone else felt the same way I did, and was raging about it. 

The final offering in my list is Wendy Eisenberg's Auto. The guitarist is someone I've written about here on a couple of occasions, usually as an improvisor, a potentially noisy one at that. Auto on the other hand finds her going into more of a free-folk direction. Apparently, it was somewhat inspired by Joni Mitchell (someone who I can never get into) but to these ears, Eisenberg almost sounds like the wilder, more imaginative younger sister of Mary Timony. The songs occasionally move in a linear fashion but more often they're marked by twists and turns. Like the other two albums, Auto comes with a lyric sheet (which much like Mould's lyric sheet, is a challenge to follow due to its layout). But it's worth the effort in the end. 

Speaking of year-end reflections, it's usually time to the NPR Jazz Critic Poll to pop up around this time, but I've yet to see it. That's ironic too since I got my tally in on time. 

Saturday, January 09, 2021

CD Review: What Happens In A Year - cérémonie/musique

What Happens In A Year

What Happens in A Year consists three improvisors, Josh Sinton (baritone saxophone, bass clarinet), Todd Neufeld (guitar) and Giacamo Merega (bass guitar). Their album cérémonie/musique is both their debut and the first release for Sinton's FiP (Form Is Possibility) label, which will document the reed player's various projects. 

Sinton/s work never stays in one place. The quartet Ideal Bread paid tribute to Steve Lacy, the Predicate Trio includes drummer Tom Rainey and cellist Christropher Hoffman, balancing compositions and free improv. He has also released a few albums of his solo improvisations, of which krasa is one to seek out, as his contra-bass clarinet performance often compares to a guitar noise recital, since he runs the instrument through a distortion pedal. Right around this time last year, I also saw him in a trio with fellow baritone saxophonist Dave Sewelson and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter. 

The seven tracks on cérémonie/musique come in complete contrast to albums like krasa. The group's approach to free improvisation moves at a more relaxed and thought pace. The first minute of "Algernon," for example, is fairly silent, save for the resonance of Neufeld's guitar strings that come when he taps the neck of the instrument. The trio never rises much in volume beyond that, preferring to explore the open space of the moment. "La Politique de Auteurs," which precedes "Algernon" and opens the album, almost sounds composed. Merega joins Sinton's baritone at what feels like a perfect entry point, after the saxophonist has opened up the sound. Neufeld waits before he comes in, almost echoing the saxophone when he does, but going off on a parallel line, playing in a way that often seems to respond to the waves of sound Sinton blows.

In some ways, the communication revealed on the opening track does not come across the same way throughout the album. The trio plays more in a loose manner, only occasionally building up into a three-part climax. With three melodic instruments and nothing to imply any sense of rhythm or tempo (free or otherwise), it opens the sound up to more possibilities, which can make it a challenge on where to focus attention. In some ways, Merega does some like an anchor, or an accompaniment to the ideas that Sinton and Neufeld present. Then in "Netherland," Sinton's bass clarinet starts out droning underneath, listening to what his partners play before rising up to add some slap-tonguing lines and grumblings. Neufeld can be heard singing along with his guitar here, while Merega walks on his instrument, not exactly in the traditional manner.

Several years ago in a review, I repurposed Whitney Balliett's old description of jazz, from "the sound of surprise" saying the music was also "the sound of trust." While we can - and should be - surprised by what an improvisor plays, there should also be trust involved on the part of the listener: trust that they know what they are doing as they take us on this personal journey with them. It might not seem easy at first, but it's worth the trip. What Happens In A Year plays that kind of music.