Thursday, May 27, 2021

CD Review: James Brandon Lewis/Red Lily Quintet - Jesup Wagon

James Brandon Lewis/Red Lily Quintet
Jesup Wagon

While exploring Jesup Wagon - both the music and the concept behind it - one idea rises to the surface: A good education can introduce young students to new ideas and historical figures in stimulating way,  help them tap into things about themselves that they didn't know were there. 

While typing the paragraph above, it seems like an obvious idea. But too often, these opportunities don't reveal themselves. (Read the section of William Parker's biography about what he was told in high school and you'll see what I mean.) This could also be a personal reaction, having had a mediocre elementary school science teacher who totally soured me on that subject, making me feel like it was over my head. 

But saxophonist James Brandon Lewis was fascinated by George Washington Carver once he read about him. Carver, who is best known as a scientist, was also a musician and he saw art and science as inseparable. He died in 1943 at the age of 79, and probably never got to hear bebop or the music that followed it. But much like John Coltrane or William Parker, the good doctor knew that artists, like scientists, were both on a quest for truth.

Lewis might have a made a good scientist had he not pursued music as his main vocation. Luckily for everyone listening, he stuck with the saxophone. His interest in Carver's life serves as the underlying concept to Jesup Wagon. The connection between the music and the inspiration of all seven tracks might not always be apparent to the listener, but Robin D. G. Kelley (author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original) penned the liner notes to offer context. Coupled with a band that includes the aforementioned Parker (bass, gimbri), Kirk Knuffke (cornet), Chris Hoffman (cello) and Chad Taylor (drums, mbira), Lewis has created a high caliber concept album.

The quintet creates a sound that acknowledges adventurous jazz from the past and uses these lessons to create something that's very much of the moment - accessible while it possibly stretching the size of your comfort zone. Lewis sometimes plays with the gritty tone of vintage Archie Shepp but his ideas have a longer flow to them. Rather than emitting some shorter bursts of energy, he develops extended ideas that seem to keep unfolding. After the subdued opening of "Arachis" he plays freely but spins some detailed lines of thought. 

Several tracks feature some swirling grooves that are built on layers of counterpoint. In "Lowlands of Sorrow," Parker plucks the gimbri behind Hoffman's cello, while Taylor sounds like two or three players going at once, trap kit and percussion. Taylor switches to mbira (finger piano) in "Seer" that makes this groove feel like the trance-inducing work that Sun Ra could create with the Arkestra (with pieces like "Exotic Forest"). The closing "Chemurgy" begins with a yearning melody that nods towards Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" but gets into another groove, which this time feels a little looser. Knuffke, who plays dynamically throughout, inspires Lewis to add some aggressive riffing behind the cornet solo. The saxophonist does this type of riffing, or looping, earlier in the album, and it serves the music well, building the intensity and indicating that things are about to move up a notch.

"Fallen Flowers" and "Chemurgy" conclude with Lewis reciting some original poetry, which brings the focus back to Carver. His voice avoids any clich├ęs of "jazz poetry," reading with an honest tone that leaves the listener with more ideas about the music and its inspiration. It serves as a reminder that further exploration of this music (and Kelley's vibrant notes) will be explored in greater detail on future listens.

Jesup Wagon is available on CD and vinyl (though earlier this week, it seemed that copies being touted on social media were being snatched up quickly). The album should be explored in tactile form, much like the way Dr. Carver got to know his plants by reaching into the soil and experiencing them up close and personal. 

Saturday, May 22, 2021

DL Reviews: Dead Cat Bounce - Lucky & Live in STL / Matty Stecks & Persiflage - Night Cravings

Matthew Steckler - or Matty Stecks as he has also known these days - has been a productive saxophonist, composer and bandleader for quite a while. But the past couple years have seen him on a creative streak with albums. In 2019, he released Long Time Ago Rumble, a double-CD that he recorded during a residency in Manitoba. Among other things, it included a new musical score for Charlie Chaplin's 1914 short Musical Tramps, as well as more straight jazz and more contemporary sounds.

This year, Steckler has release a live 2003 set by Dead Cat Bounce, his four-saxophone/bass/drums group, which follows several other albums that more people should still be talking about now. He has also released a new studio sess by his post-DCB group Persiflage. Both are available as downloads through Bandcamp. 

Dead Cat Bounce
Lucky & Live in STL
(Matty Stecks Music)

The "STL" in Lucky and Live in STL refers to St. Louis, specifically Washington University in that Missouri city. In February 2003, Dead Cat Bounce performed the eight tracks from their debut Lucky By Association on campus, in the order which the music first appeared on the album. The lineup had changed a bit since they had recorded the album in 1998. Saxophonists Charlie Kohlhase (a veteran of the Boston jazz scene) and Jared Sims joined Steckler and Felipe Salles in the saxophone section. Drummer Bill Carbone carries over from the album but bassist Gary Wicks was new to the fold. In '03, this lineup was having a great night. 

Dead Cat Bounce always had a habit of bridging the gap between fun and gravity, free wailing and rich section work. This happens frequently during Lucky and Live. In "Mentes Flexivies" some of the most rabid soprano saxophone lines to come down the pike in ages (courtesy of Salles) lead to a rich tenor solo from Sims before the four saxes dive into a harmonized section that sounds like a post-modern Four Brothers from Some Other Mother. "Pendulum Switch" features a similar quick cut section, with a tempo change on top of that. On this track, Salles plays baritone sax, going off the rails as his solo climaxes before the other saxes catch him.

Taking liberties with Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" can be a slippery slope. The group's heavily syncopated 6/4 groove works though, adding to it without sounding precocious and maintaining the melody's sense of loss. A re-arrangement of their studio version (which is well worth revisiting too), it climaxes with a canon-like arrangement for the horns. "Hot Peas and Butter" closes things in a manner that channels Mingus, with shouted vocals that sound pretty electrifying and seasoned for a bunch of (at the time) young fellers. Having seen them do this piece live, Steckler, a thin red-haired guy, suddenly became possessed with the spirit of Mingus or a church deacon. 

On a side note, I made Steckler late for that show, which took place in Pittsburgh. Interviewing him for a JazzTimes article, we ducked into the tour van and the band, not being to find him, started the set without him. 

Matty Stecks & Persiflage
Night Cravings
(Matty Stecks Music)

Steckler (I'm not ready to jettison the last syllable of his name) released the first album under the Persiflage banner in 2006, with a quintet that included trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and drummer Pheeroan akLaff. The band on Night Cravings features an entirely different lineup with a slight alteration to the rhythm section. 

The leader (on alto, soprano and flute) is joined on the frontline by trombonist Curtis Hasselbring. Satoshi Takeishi (drums) and Dave Ambrosio (bass) helm the rhythm section along with Todd Neufeld who plays both electric and acoustic guitars. The latter axe adding an alluring sonority to several tracks, like the reflective "What Seems Eternity In Salem." Persiflage feels a little more grounded that Dead Cat Bounce's zaniness but the music is never lacking in the surprises that it might be hiding around the corner.

Titles like "Do the Betty Rubble" indicate that Steckler hasn't completely left the subtle humor behind, though this noirish structure with close horn harmonies isn't not what the title might indicate. "Agiturismo" could be described as a march that moves sideways before collapsing into break where the acoustic guitar thinks out loud over ticking percussion, leading to a 'bone and bowed bass duet before a lone soprano starts to rage. On the subject of rage, the leader's alto has a downright searing tone on the title track. 

Considering these recordings came out of Steckler's "Windsor Terrace" (Brooklyn) period which dates back at least six years, there's no telling where his musical head might be now. Regardless, the compositions alone on Night Cravings indicate that it's best to keep a close eye on him. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Extra Curricular Blog Links

Playing right now: Matty Stecks & Persiflage - Night Cravings
(Soon to be reviewed here....)

One of the reasons my number of posts here has dwindled relates to writing I'm ... doing for another blog I'm not abandoning this one, though. There will be more musings about the jazz and things soon.This other writing is done sort of on spec. My dear friend Will Simmons has created a blog called The Gullible Ear, in which a pool of writers take turns doing a post about a song. That's right - a full post devoted to one song. Well, sort of. Some of the writers have taken liberties with that concept, but it's all in the interest of celebrating music, and musical memories, so dig in. 

My posts, so far, have come straight from my youth, literally. My earliest musical memories, when I memorized records (and tapes) not because of the words on them, but the pictures and shapes and colors. I don't think I've written about anything yet that I heard after I could read. Maybe it's the age I'm getting to be. 

In reverse chronological order, here they are. Most recently, I talked about Little Richard's "Lucille." Not just the song, but a very specific version of it and the quest to find it. 

Back in early April, the song of choice was Herbie Mann's "Comin' Home Baby," which was the second installment (though it wasn't touted that way) of "Tales from Pop Shanley's Tape Box." 

My maiden voyage for the Gullible Ear was one that still hits me right there: The Fifth Dimension's great medley of "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In," a tune that touched young Mike before he could read and it still takes me back to those carefree days 

I think I owe Will another piece within a week or two, so check back. It won't be "Baby Elephant Walk," though that song ranks high in my world. I've expressed the wish to have it played at my funeral, to ensure that the event won't be a total downer. (I don't plan on dying anytime soon, lest you wonder. I know people jump to conclusions and I felt the need to say that.) 

If anyone does read this post and you check out any of the links, please let me know. Sometimes it gets quiet over here. 

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.