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.