Thursday, July 29, 2021

CD Review: Devin Gray/ Ralph Alessi/ Angelica Sanchez - Melt All The Guns

Devin Gray/ Ralph Alessi/ Angelica Sanchez
Melt All The Guns

Social commentary has been a part of jazz music since the beginning. Granted, it can offer an escape from the bleakness of the world around us, but from "Black and Blue" to bebop to We Insist: Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite to Mike Reed's Flesh and Bone, the music has also served as a call to arms, a reminder of what needs to be done to make the world a better place.

Drummer Devin Gray wrote the five tracks on Melt All the Guns in late 2019, following several incidents of gun violence. He could very easily have written it in the last month or two, since the issue continues. The album was officially issued on June 7, the Seventh National Gun Awareness Day. 

Potent though his intentions might be, Gray does not produce a set of songs that attempt to translate the issue of gun violence directly into chaotic, free music. The EP (the entire set lasts just 20 minutes) concludes with "Protect Our Environment," which might be the one blatant effort to deliver a musical message, and it comes across like a prayer of hope for the future. 

Prior to that Gray, trumpeter Ralph Alessi and pianist Angelica Sanchez work together to create melodies that often have all three playing in unison, even the drums. The music, for the most part, doesn't seem to rely on standard solos. It leans on trio interaction where everyone might be improvising but the results feel like a three-way presentation. When Sanchez and Alessi play a theme, Gray often rolls freely but he never sounds thunderous. He focuses a lot of his sound on his snare and the dynamics he creates have a more deliberate impact, raising the intensity of a piece. Sanchez adds left hand chords that flesh out the harmonic structure. "Micro Waves" features the pianist digging into an extended riff that features open space as well as chords. Alessi can sound tough and direct (the kind of voice needed to address this subject, perhaps), adding some upper register yelps in the title track which, on further thought, might be part of the message. 

Regarding the number of tracks, one can come away from the set feeling like the group is just warming up as "Protect Our Environment" winds down. Nothing lasts longer than 4-1/2 minutes, which reveals an admirable sense of economy as it delivers a message. More music might have diluted the message of the release, though it surely would have produced equally strong tunes. This way, the message is clear,  tight and articulate.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

LP/CD Review: Liz Phair - Soberish


Liz Phair

What impressed me most about Liz Phair's debut, Exile in Guyville, was not the candid sexuality of the lyrics or the supposed track-by-track takedown of the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main St. (to this day, I still don't know the '70s classic as an album, never having gotten around to it in its entirety). Instead, Phair's songwriting style, which didn't follow standard conventions and varied with almost every track, stood out from the first cut. On "6'1"," the thought in that first line stretched out over an unusually long set of bars and chords. The cascade of vocal lines in "Johnny Sunshine" offered another great example of her musical ear. Phair definitely had a way with words but she also had a way with changing a chord pattern at an unexpected moment to make a sharp left turn ("X-Ray Man" on the equally solid sophomore release Whip-Smart).

It's been a long time since I've heard a new Liz Phair album. That can be attributed to her self-titled 2003 album. Maybe that comes as no surprise. Legions of listeners felt the same way about an album that brought in the production team The Matrix, who had worked with pop singer Avril Lavigne and Britney Spears. They only worked on four of the 14 tracks but what they did left a stain on the whole disc, an aural spraypaint that said, "Don't expect anything close to Exile In Guyville here." 

And no, you can't fault Phair for wanting to do something that did not replicate her past glories, but Liz Phair felt like the equivalent of a creative friend throwing themselves into a new style without really knowing what they were getting into. That move resulted in an album that tried very hard to present an image or identity, something that the post-college grad who wrote on her four-track would never do.

The Hot Mom look (spread-eagle on the cover, straddling a guitar, hair in her face) seemed awkward. (The CD also came with more posed photos that could be downloaded as wallpaper or screensavers.) Then there was the song "H.W.C." which sounded more like a Phair imitator who hadn't mastered much more than raunchiness. (The song's initials stood for "Hot White Come," which I spell out for clarity's sake but feel icky in the process.) Or worse, it sounded like a dude's idea of  Phair lyric.

I meant to check out the albums that followed Liz Phair, but never felt the urgency. When a review compared her next album, Somebody's Miracle, to Sheryl Crow that's all that was needed to keep walking. Seeing Dave Matthews' name in the credits on 2010's Funstyle didn't assuage any concerns. Nor did the mention of a rap track on the album.

Then the most unlikely media (at least for this writer) came calling: music videos. Phair made videos for "Spanish Doors" and "The Game," the two songs that open Soberish. What came across in the former was the riff in the chorus that gives it one of those unexpected turns just like her early work. "The Game" includes an anthemic power-chord chorus that also tugs on the ear, and overrides the metronomic synths in the introduction. Speaking of electronics, the chorus of "Spanish Doors" has some back-up vocals that sound auto-tuned and threaten to drown out the main lyrics. Thanks to the lyric sheet, they don't, but it's hard to tell of the effect is used for irony or not. Regardless of the intention (maybe it's not even auto-tune) "Spanish Doors" makes a strong opening, which "The Game" continues. 

Soberish reunites Phair with Brad Wood, who produced and played on Guyville and Whip-smart. Guitarist Casey Rice, who also appeared on them, shows up to play some guitar and co-write "Hey Lou," a puzzling if catchy song that takes the late Velvet Underground singer to task for his irascible attitude. (The third verse seems to take aim at his late partner Laurie Anderson, though she gets off a bit easier.) 

Whether or not Wood and Rice had any direct influence on her, Phair sounds rejuvenated and focused. She always was a good storyteller and while many of the songs deal with relationships on the rocks, each comes with its own angle on the topic. They could all be of a piece or they could stand separately. Speaking as someone who's only a few months younger than Phair and continues to try and write songs, it can be easier to sing convincingly about romantic tension than romantic bliss. The reflective mood of "Sheridan Rd.," feels poignant without being too dramatic ("Winding down Sheridan/ the wind in our hair/ we notice the new but the old is still there"). 

Aside from the repetitive "Soul Sucker" she never lets anything go on too long. She couldn't go without getting a bit raunchy but "Bad Kitty" couches it in a slightly witty metaphor ("My pussy in a big dumb cat/ it lies around lazy and fat/ But when it gets a taste for a man/ it goes out hunting for him anyway it can"). Plus it's anchored by a solid guitar groove. The big surprise here is that her son James receives credit for "additional engineering" on this and one other track. 

Musical textures change with almost every song. Several tracks could fit in with more commercial electronic pop, taking a streamlined, clean sound and adding something to it that is rarely heard in popular music anymore. That element in this case is Phair herself - a somewhat understated vocalist who knows how to spin a yarn better than most people in her position. She's still got it. 


Monday, July 12, 2021

Getting My Hands On A Unsung Classic (Marion Brown), Checking Out Two New Things (Ocelot, Maria Grand): Quick Takes, Relatively Speaking

Not that anyone seems to notice (I've checked the number of hits I get on each post) but I want to get back into the habit of posting more often. I really fell off the wagon last month in part because I was getting ready for a Record Fest and had a lot of stuff to prep for it. There was also some time that I was sidelined with a summer cold, which really zapped my focus. After writing the assigned stuff (album reviews) that I had during the month too, I just couldn't psyche myself up to do any posts. There was plenty I could've have written about but the question of where to start just overwhelmed me, made me feel completely unprepared and just sort of bummed me out. Then I sought refuge in albums that I've listened to a million times. Or worse, I'd spend time poking around on social media. I got really hooked on what I call "jazz porn": the search for original pressings of classic albums, posts from people who have them, what differentiates one pressing from another, how much they're worth and if a copy can't be found for sale. 

All of that kind of leads into this post, which I decided did NOT need to be a full blown review of a new release, complete with critical insight and description. It's a more personal piece about one person's quest, along with a few random thoughts on two other current releases. 

Sometime ago, I got it in my head that I really wanted a copy of alto saxophonist Marion Brown's Three For Shepp. Not just any copy, like the reissue on Superior Viaduct that is fairly easy to come by (at least in my sphere). I wanted an original orange label copy on Impulse! Records. Yes, it's one of those first world quests of people my age. But - with all due respect to the people at Superior Viaduct, who I'm sure do a great job - there's something about reissues that make me suspicious. Blame it on way off-center pressings on Actuel albums (I had to return one, it was so bad) and Blue Notes (I still have it them but they make me grumble). The act of picking up a first pressing also makes me feel a connection with the person who bought it when it first came out, creating wonder in my head about how this music affected them. 

The problem is Three For Shepp (which does include three compositions penned by Archie Shepp and three by the leader - a tip of the hat to Shepp's own Four for Trane album) doesn't come easy. Or cheap. A copy sitting on Discogs is going for the bottom end of three figures. A copy on eBay was a little less, but the seller lives in Japan, which means the postage is through the roof. 

Last weekend, someone I follow on Instagram posted about the album and, responding to a comment I made, mentioned that Reckless Records in Chicago had an OG pressing for $75. I jumped at the prospect, contacted an old friend who worked for the store, inquiring how to see if it's still there for sale. 

It was, but it wasn't OG. The copy was an Impulse/ABC pressing which came a few years later. But I was fixated on this album, talking to friends about it enough that they were probably going to smack me if I didn't shut up about it. "Near mint" too? Why not. 

The package arrived on Saturday. I had to sweat it out through a busy work shift and a few post-work errands before I could get home and open it. But, man, it was beautiful. Like the first press, it still has the trademark Impulse! laminated cover. The pinhole (why do so many Impulse! albums have them?) is noticeable in the photo above, but I can live with that. And the music itself - awesome. I forgot that trombonist Grachan Moncur III is the second horn on it, which makes it even better. I played the record last night and then first thing this morning as I made coffee. 

One album I had been meaning to write about over the past couple months is the self-titled debut from Ocelot, the trio of Yuma Uesaka (tenor, clarinets), Cat Toren (piano, nord) and Colin Hinton (drums, percussion). Toren's late 2020 release with her Human Kind group, Scintillating Beauty, was a strong, unique session that gave this trio's album on 577 some strong anticipation.

All three musicians write for the group, creating music where open space has as much value as the moments that are filled with sound. To that end, they recall the trio Paradoxical Frog, in both instrumentation and sound, more specifically the works of that group's composer/drummer Tyshawn Sorey. 

The problem with Ocelot is the long, drawn out reed tones and piano clusters take a long time to land after circling the air. Specifically, three of Hinton's compositions last between eight and 10 minutes and spend three-quarters of that time slowly moving towards a cohesive theme, and the sparsity doesn't always justify the wait. Uesaka stirs up some fire in  his "Iterations I," aided by Hinton, while Toren thunders underneath him. His other contribution "Post" is built on a tense trill, played by all three members. The length of time that  Uesaka blows without breathing is impressive, but beyond that it's pretty grating. 

Toren's two offerings have some of the album's strongest moments. "Crocus," which closes the set, begins like a straightforward piano ballad (in the beset way possible) rising up and getting a bit spiritual even as Hinton maintains a relatively steady 4/4 beat. "Anemone" combines free tempo and dynamics (along with mid-song horn changes, something Uesaka does throughout the album) with good results. 

In live performance the sparse quality of the music could fill a room with suspense. But on album, at least this time, it leaves a little more to be desired.   Go or to check it out. 

Usually when I'm going to review an album, I listen to it several times, making sure I have an idea of what's happening on it. Tenor saxophonist Maria Grand's album Reciprocity (Biophilia) has been out for a while and I finally gave it a spin last week. After just one listen, it was clear I needed to write something about it soon because it's a powerful album. With bassist Kanoa Mendenhall and drummer Savannah Harris accompanying her, Grand turns in a set of original works that groove and push the rhythmic envelope as well. 

Reciprocity was recorded while Grand was pregnant with her son and that fact overshadows the album in a way, like the whole thing could be considered a conversation between the two of them. In her liner notes, Grand talks about playing shows while pregnant, saying that baby AnyĆ­ danced in utero during the performances. Several tracks have vocals from all three members of the group, the most impressive being the arresting harmonies on "Now, Take, Your, Day," which recalls the Haden Triplets in its rich blend of voices. As a soloist and composer, Grand reminds of JD Allen's approach to the trio setting, getting a wide swath of ideas out of what could be a limited harmonic setting. Look for this one on the End of the Year lists, or raise cain if you don't. 

PS the photo above is just one side of the origami-style fold-out cover that has become Biophilia Records' environmentally-conscious trademark look. Visit Grand's Bandcamp page or the Biophilia page for more info. 

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

CD Review: Wadada Leo Smith with Milford Graves & Bill Laswell - Sacred Ceremonies/ Wadada Leo Smith - Trumpet

Wadada Leo Smith with Milford Gravers & Bill Laswell
Sacred Ceremonies

Wadada Leo Smith

Wadada Leo Smith likes to create works on a large scale. Looking back over the last decade or so, he released Ten Freedom Summers (2012), which took up for four discs. America's National Parks (2016) consisted of two discs. There were also several two-disc works by his Golden Quartet, a duet with Vijay Iyer and an album for a 22-piece improvising orchestra. Smith has also released six albums of solo trumpet works, including one that paid tribute to Thelonious Monk. (In addition to creating new works, Smith is very reverent to past masters.) 

Which brings us to his two latest releases, which each contain three discs of music. Sacred Ceremonies contains a disc's worth of duets with the late drummer/percussionist Milford Graves, one with bassist Bill Laswell and a third with all three players coming together. Trumpet, is another set of works by Smith, alone with his horn. All this from a man who turned 80 this year. 

Both sets require commitments, not merely of time but of attention. However, once the music begins, it pulls the listener deeply, piquing the curiosity.

One interesting characteristic of the first two discs of Sacred Ceremonies relates to the way that the instrumentation, which might be considered "spare," actually fills up the space. Smith alone can fill the room with his bold trumpet tone, even when he uses a mute. But Milford Graves (who passed away right as this set was released earlier this year) occupies a unique space in the music with his unique style.

His kit alone, photographed several times in the album's booklet, is a hybrid of various types of drums, none of which have bottom heads on them. The sound resonates differently than other kits and Graves approached his artillery in a way that met at the crossroads of rhythmic foundation and freedom, creating something much more flowing. In the middle of "Baby Dodds At Congo Square," Graves sounds like he's playing tablas, bending notes out of the skins of his drums, while Smith works first with a mute and then without. The drummer's hi-hat can be heard tapping in the background, almost like a human pulse.

Laswell's bass has a signature sound, both limited in range and vast in scope. The heavy attack that he utilized in groups like Last Exit is traded for something much more subdued and reflective here. He lets Smith lead the way most of the time, creating a foundation under him that never gets in the way. Smith responds during Disc Two by blowing some wild multiphonics. Although the music might be loose rhythmically, a connection can be detected between both players as they pay tribute to Prince, Donald Ayler, Tony Williams and Minnie Riperton in their unique way. (Laswell almost gets a riff going in "Earth - A Morning Song.") Throughout the set, some phantom instruments (overdubs presumably) float up between both players to add some more depth.

On Disc Three, it's sometimes hard to hear the connection between the three players, as opposed to three random sounds going at once. But when Graves begins unaccompanied on "The Healer's Direct Journey," he creates an energy that makes the whole thing sound full and connected when Laswell and Smith join in. Muted trumpet and bass do the same thing in "Waves of Elevated Forces," bringing the energy to a high level. Graves starts a polyrhythmical groove which sounds like he's doing it all with his hands and no sticks. 

Considering the impact that Smith's trumpet can have on a room with good acoustics, it makes perfect sense that he recorded the three discs of Trumpet in a church. The sessions took place over four days at St. Mary's Church in Pohja, Finland. From the opening notes of "Albert Ayler" on Disc One, it's clear that every note has significant weight and any growls will be even more dramatic.

All the music on the set pays tribute to friends and artists who have impacted the trumpeter throughout his life. Musicians like Reggie Workman, Steve McCall, Amina Claudine Myers receive their due, along with James Baldwin, Malik al-Shabazz (Malcolm X), as well as family and the film Rashomon. As he explains in the accompanying booklet, in reference to "Howard and Miles - A Photographic Image," it's not Howard McGhee and Miles Davis he's specifically evoking in the music: "What I am referencing is the idea of a creative language, which is the real energy that defines the dynamics of musical traditions."

Likewise, "Albert Ayler" doesn't feature wide vibrato. (On the contrary, that track actually contains a few melodic fragments that touch on "Nature Boy.") In fact, nowhere throughout the whole set does Smith engage heavily in extended techniques at either end of his instrument's register. He throws in a few growls and some high shouts, but these act as added emphasis rather than the main focus. One of his graceful skills comes when he continues to blow his horn while moving the mute in and out of the bell. It creates an almost ghostlike effect, sounding like another trumpet flittering in the background. 

Smith's playing has always utilized open space for dramatic effect and he never overplays with a more simplified line can deliver his message. For that reason, it can be a challenge to listen to a lot of Trumpet in one sitting. Without any accompanying instrument to play off of, much of the music seems to reside in a slow tempo. 

However, each disc lasts an average of 45 minutes, a reasonable amount to absorb in one sitting. There are moments of contrast as well. "Festival of Breaths," from Disc Three's suite "Discourses on the Sufi Path - A Remembrance of  Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh," gets a little more upbeat, with some upper register trips getting equal time with the open space. A later passage also feels fast and finds Smith smearing his notes a bit. 

Like most TUM releases, Sacred Ceremonies and Trumpet come with full color booklets filled with biographies of the artists, Smith's poetry and liner notes about the music. The music might be challenging but the packaging makes it easy to grasp and well worth the exploration.