Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Remembering Tom, Don and Charlie

After church on Sunday, my mom would often make a quick stop at a convenience store to pick up something she needed for dinner that night. The time period I'm envisioning is late '70s/early '80s, before the term "convenience store" was actually a standard term. In Pittsburgh, we had Open Pantry, and my brothers John and Tom both worked at a few of them. 

One Sunday, we were making the trip and Mom had the AM radio on. It was must have late '70s because KDKA and WTAE were still playing music. There was a song playing where the guy kept saying, "I like beer." He had a weird voice and something about it made me think it could be the actor Harry Morgan, best known as Col. Potter on MASH or Bill Gannon, Joe Friday's partner on Dragnet. I knew Morgan wasn't a singer but that's all I could think of. Besides, I liked the way he proudly proclaimed his love of the suds, following the sound of a chorus.

Several  years later I discovered the real voice behind the song - Tom T. Hall. When I came across his Greatest Hits., Vol. 2 at a Carnegie Library record sale, I would have been a fool to pass it up. Not only does it contain "I Like Beer," it also has "I Love" and a beautiful musical question: "Who's Gonna Feed Them Hogs?" Damn - if Volume 2 was this crammed with goodies, what was Volume One like? Hall also penned the liner notes, which he titled "My Garbage" ("Before anyone gets the wrong idea, this is not an album review."), a hilarious list of items that can't be done justice in this short space.

The songs on this album struck some common ground with friends of mine from different backgrounds, like a local musician who knew exactly when to join the back-up singers during the "awwww" in "I Like Beer"'s third verse, or the friend who still gets really animated at the mention of "Sneaky Snake." But the biggest connection between me and these songs was when I played "I Like Beer," "I Love" and "Who's Gonna Feed Them Hogs" with my pal Sharon Spell in her comedy cabaret. Not sure if it was my idea or her idea, but it worked really well, especially when the gender change required her to change the line "It makes me a jolly good fellow" to include her stage name: "It makes me a much better Mama."

I came to the Everly Brothers a little later than most. Their music was always around but it wasn't until I found a greatest hits album that I came to fully appreciate them. The big hits were familiar but I was slayed by "Till I Kissed You," in large part because of the drum roll that followed the titular line. It acted almost like a rim shot. Then there was "Bird Dog" which had a little bit of punch to the intro, not to mention the low-voiced commentary between the lines. I liked the song so much that I talked the Pundits - a power-pop band I was in at the time, fronted by my pal John Young, a bigtime Everly fan - to cover it. We played it a couple times though I don't recall if we had some harmonies going. (Harmony wasn't my strong point and John could sing the pants off of me.) All I know is I got to deadpan, "He's a bird.... he's a dawwwg."

But the biggest way that the late Don Everly and his brother Phil affected me comes with "Devoted to You." It was clear the first time I heard that song that there was something really deep about it, lyrically and harmonically. When Jennie and I got married, that had to the The Song. Lila from Bone of Contention and her husband Rob (who for all intents and purposes was part of the band too, if you know our history) sang it from the rafters of the Homewood Cemetery chapel as we made our way down the aisle. It was swell.

I don't have a Charlie Watts story but I do have an observation about him, which begins with someone else. Even when I was into punk rock during high school, I could still dig the Count Basie Orchestra with my parents. We often joked about guitarist Freddie Green, who sat there throughout the set, plunk-plunk-plunking on his guitar, never taking a solo. (I seem to recall there was a joke that Basie would make during a show about Freddie finally taking a solo, which was followed by the man playing one note. Ho ho ho.)

My folks and I used to think that Freddie had the easiest job in the world, just playing those chords. Then it became clear that Freddie played a chord in every bar. And he was never off, making sure that there was indeed rhythm in the rhythm section. He was in the pocket, or to use the title of a song that Freddie wrote for the band, he was in the "Corner Pocket." 

To me, that's the kind of player that Charlie Watts was. He wasn't flashy, he wasn't bombastic. When he launched his own big band, he wasn't even the only drummer. He enlisted two others! (He also had the likes of Evan Parker, Alan Skidmore, Annie Whitehead and Jack Bruce [on cello!] in the personnel]. 

But if you wanted someone who was reliable and always there, elevating what you were playing, he was the man. It's great to have wild-ass drummers kicking you along, but you also want to have a drummer who listens to you and plays with the intention of lifting the music up. That was a big part of what made the Rolling Stones what they were. 

Thanks, Tom. Really got a kick out of your work.

Thanks, Don. Everybody probably tells you how music wouldn't be the same without you and Phil, but for me, it was personal too. 

Thanks, Charlie. Everyone knew that Mick was your singer. But it's good that you reminded him in such a classy way. 

Saturday, August 14, 2021

CD Review: Anna Webber - Idiom

Anna Webber

The term "extended technique" pops up on this blog often (hopefully not too excessively). It describes a non-traditional approach to getting sounds out of an instrument. Noticeable examples include a trumpet player getting some sub-basement tuba growls on the horn or a saxophonist creating some banshee wails beyond the high F key (where the range of all saxophones, in the formal sense, end). But extended technique can be used in more subtle ways too, such as the use of alternate fingering on an instrument, which creates buzzes or microtonal shifts in pitch.

As a fan of untethered free improv, I can get into sounds created this way - most of the time. A while back, I explored an album by two trumpeters going at it whole hog, growling, whispering, splatting and generally sounding a little flatulent, and I had to turn it off after a quick preview of a few tracks. It was probably the moment, but it sounded like a free jazz equivalent to metal hammering on the fretboard and it soured me on the idea for a while. 

Saxophonist/flutist/composer Anna Webber based all of Idiom on specific extended techniques played on woodwinds. One of the pieces, "Idiom II," appeared on her 2019 album Clockwise. The other five pieces appear here, along with interludes. Once again, there are moments that feel pretty jarring but the forward motion of music pulls you in even when things feel tense.

The first of the two discs features Webber in a trio with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer John Hollenbeck. "Idiom I" kicks things off with Webber's flute playing a rapid 7/8 ostinato which makes her breathing technique alone impressive. While the riff alone could be a bit much, the fascination lies in the way things keep shifting underneath it and the way the trio seems to volley the seven-note line around.

By contrast "Idiom IV" sounds spare, at least initially.. Mitchell plinks alone for 96 seconds before Webber enters with a single buzzing tenor note. Just shy of the three minute mark, the trio launches into an angular piece with Webber playing a series of lost notes. When Hollenbeck breaks away, it sounds like an extension of the tenor sounds. 

Running order is crucial on Disc One. Heard in numerical order the Idioms might sound similar in pitch, but Webber scrambles the set, breaking from the program with "Forgotten Best." The center track sounds the closest to a pure "jazz" piece, at times sounds like a ballad but never long enough settle easily into that, or any description. Like everything else, the point seems to be to keep the sounds flowing. "Idiom III" highlights several static techniques on tenor, with rhythms providing the variations. As Mitchell hammers on the lower end of the piano - and adding striking colors at the opposite end - it rocks, sounding much larger than a trio.

A 12-piece ensemble, of jazz musicians and new music players, join Webber on Disc Two to play "Idiom VI," a piece broken into six movements, with four interludes. With brass, reeds, strings, bass, drums and a synthesizer joining the leader (on tenor, flute and bass flute) dissonant clusters of sound bounce around, What sounds a bit abrasive and repetitive at the start of "Movement I" slowly comes together as an oddly engaging riff. The instruments rumbling beneath the proceedings provide the forward momentum this time. As one technique evokes the shower scene music from Psycho, the vibrations between pitches becomes more noticeable and add to the intrigue.

Only "Movement IV" gets to be too much, with the repetition of high synth note, that again recalls a cinematic moment, this time an eerie scene when a Theremin ratchets up the suspense. Here the note lasts less than a second and it repeats ad nauseum. 

Several players from the ensemble get solo spotlights. Unlike her part in "Movement IV" synth player Liz Kozack rips things apart in "Movement I." Trumpeter Adam O'Farrill also contributes a lot to one movement and to one of the interludes, the series of passages which create some rather beautiful moments of low drones in between. It all leads up to the final movement, where everyone seems to take an individual extended technique idea and creates a rolling wave of sound. 

Building a book of compositions from a set of extended techniques might sound like an effort with limited results. But Anna Webber has managed to take the edginess of these sounds and build a wide dimension of music from them. 

PS Anyone interested in Idiom is advised to check out Rectangles, a 34-minute piece by a Webber quartet released last year on Out Of Your Head's digital-only Untamed series. Quite different in many ways, but quite good.

Monday, August 09, 2021

CD Review: Broken Shadows: Tim Berne, Chris Speed, Reid Anderson, Dave King

Tim Berne/ Chris Speed/ Reid Anderson/ Dave King
Broken Shadows
(Intakt) (for digital album) or (for CD orders in US)

The release of Broken Shadows marks a major collision of worlds, two of which run in close proximity to one another, yet never seem to meet. I mean, here's an album on the Swiss Intakt label by two-thirds of the Bad Plus, along with Tim Berne and Chris Speed - AND BRANFORD MARSALIS WROTE THE LINER NOTES FOR IT! Woah! 

Don't get me wrong, I think this meeting of the worlds is great. I'm just kind of surprised that the opinionated member of that family would be interested in checking this music out, let alone penning a set of liner notes about it. Kudos to you, Mr. Marsalis. 

Broken Shadows captures Berne (alto), Speed (tenor), Reid Anderson (bass) and Dave King (drums) digging into a set of works by Ornette Coleman, Julius Hemphill, Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden. The quartet began as a gathering of friends doing gigs in Brooklyn only, with no rehearsal, playing other people's music. In other words, the ground rules were very similar to what might be found at a weekly jam session in days of yore, with the additional rule of keeping the solos short and concise. (Only two tracks last longer than five minutes and one is Hemphill's "Dogon A.D.," which requires a little more time anyway.) Ten of the 12 tracks originally appeared on the vinyl-only Newvelle label in 2019 with a different running order.

With just a couple exceptions the Ornette pieces hail from his late '60s/early '70s albums like Ornette at 12, Science Fiction and Crisis. "Una Muy Bonita" and "Ecars" go back to the Atlantic days. Berne, of course, ripped through a wealth of the Ornette book on John Zorn's Spy Vs. Spy project, so he's no stranger to this work. But it's interesting to hear his distinct tone (by now, a great blend of crisp and gruff) in the middle of these bright melodies. 

Speed frequently blows in a way that sounds like he's squeezing his reed hard, letting only the minimum amount of air get through. The rugged sound recalls Dewey Redman's blend of singing and blowing on albums like Ornette at 12 or the tenor player's own "Walls-Bridges." But Speed also tightens up on Hemphill's funky "Body."

Speaking of funky, Anderson and King know how to groove on this music, when to hold back and when to lock in with the horns on the themes. Known once for interpreting other people with tongue somewhat in cheek, they take this music seriously, even as they sound like they're having a blast. For a group that doesn't believe in rehearsing, the members of Broken Shadows really know the contours of this music. Only "Una Muy Bonita" seemed to miss a bit of the groove of the original.

If this was supposed to be a casual gathering of friends, the players came with a set of discipline. Playing works by the masters can have a stigmatizing effect when you're committed to original music,  ("I really like it when you play something I know"). The quartet is careful to keep the focus on the original without resorting to fawning over the work (a pitfall with many tributes) while simultaneously revealing their own personalities. It leaves you with a greater appreciation of both the source material and the people who played it. Maybe that's what Branford appreciated about it.

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

CD Review: Roy Brooks - Understanding

Roy Brooks
(Reel to Real)

In an interview with Cecil McBee that appears in the Understanding booklet, the bassist says that the group on this album - much like the similar lineup on the 1972 release The Free Slave - was not a regular working band. It was a simply a group of musicians which drummer Roy Brooks assembled and rehearsed for specific gigs, in this case for Baltimore's Left Bank Jazz Society at the Famous Ballroom. This tidbit of information says a great deal about the music on these two discs because the quintet works like a well-established group that knows how to lift each other up at the right moments. 

Brooks might be best known as a consummate sidemen. He appeared most notably on several Horace Silver albums (including Song for My Father, where drumming duties were split between him and Pittsburgh's Roger Humphries), Yusef Lateef and Chet Baker, to name just a few. Sadly, his name came up in more recent years due to his bout with mental illness. He passed in 2005 at the age of 67.

Understanding serves as an appropriate title for this two-disc set (which was also a three-album set released on Record Store Day) since it provides a deeper appreciation of Brooks' creativity. Not only was he a powerhouse behind the drum kit, the set's myriad interviews with McBee, saxophonist Carlos Garnett and others talk about his various project around Detroit, which could be compared to multi-discipline events staged by AACM members in Chicago.

Then there is the music. Two discs contain just six tracks, in which Brooks, Garnett, trumpeter Woody Shaw and pianist Harold Mabern dig into the music, exploring all facets without worrying about how long they take to do that. It wasn't a recording session, where time was a consideration. (The fact that it was taped, not withstanding.) First and foremost, this was a gig for people who came to hear serious explorations. 

The performance took place in November 1970, a few months after The Free Slave was recorded at the same place, at a time when jazz was being pulled in different directions. For the most part, the Brooks quintet plays it straight, guided by chord changes, though there are moments when free fire also seeps into the music. This comes most notably from Garnett's tenor, which frequently explores some low register overtones, influenced by Coltrane but using the ideas in his own rhythmical way. The group stretches his "Taurus Woman" out the longest, delivering 32 minutes of passion. Built largely on a vamp, the tune has a turnaround straight out of hard bop that comes just frequently enough to give it a hook and the right amount of contrast. Like most of the set, Harold Mabern's driving piano work really pushes the band.

Woody Shaw, at the time a month shy of his 26th birthday, plays with astounding clarity and ideas throughout the set, His "Zoltan," previously recorded with organist Larry Young on Unity, is played with extra speed and aggression. The album's opening track "Prelude to Understanding" forgoes any opening theme. Instead the group (sans Garnett) explores a modal vamp. Another 21-miute track, 11 of them find Shaw holding the floor, whose his use of vast intervals and melodies is nothing short of jaw-dropping. 

McBee (whose name Brooks pronounces "MAC-bee" rather than "mick-BEE," by the way) is a bit low in the mix, but when some of his careening lines cut through, it indicates how memorable this evening must have been. (Further proving how rewarding "just another night" must have been when a group like this got together.) Brooks' accompaniment to the other soloist sounds exciting enough but he also gets plenty of room to stretch out once everyone else has said their pieces. 

As time goes on, more recordings from the Left Band Jazz Society are being released, and each one has the high level of quality, showing what was possible on a Sunday afternoon in Baltimore. In retrospect, it shows how important gatherings like this were too. This one also shines a much-needed light on an artist whose commitment as a band leader might not be as recognized as other parts of his life. Dig in.