Wednesday, September 29, 2021

CD/Blu-Ray Review: Anthony Braxton - 12 COMP (ZIM) 2017

Anthony Braxton
12 COMP (ZIM) 2017

When The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker was released in 1990, a reviewer for Musician magazine admitted that he put several of the discs (out of seven) into his CD player and let them spin while he was sleeping. The idea was that, perhaps subliminally, he would receive further insight into the myriad lo-fi recordings of Parker. Benedetti didn't have enough space to record entire tunes so he settled for the crucial parts - the solos.

The writer's approach made sense. This was a box of seven CDs, which have become known as the Dead Sea Scrolls of jazz. In those pre-internet days, writers still depended on getting a hard copy of a release by mail. Deadlines were tight, so chances are there wasn't time to really dig hard into a massive work like that. Or else, I totally missed the artistic license that the writer took in describing the music. We're going back 31 years, after all.

As hard as it might be to penetrate the Benedetti set, it has nothing on 12 COMP (ZIM) 2017, a dozen new compositions by Anthony Braxton, each anywhere between 40 and 70 minutes each. (The physical edition of the set presents all the compositions on one Blu-Ray Disc. The link above offers the chance to purchase high-resolution digital files.) 

12 COMP (ZIM) 2017 came out in June and while they're have been some pieces written about it, neither of the two main domestic jazz publications have printed a review. Perhaps my peers have been spending the past several months trying to delve into the work, figuring out how to say more than a few over-arching descriptions of the music. It's quite a bit more involved than, for instance, Braxton's own massive Charlie Parker homage, the 11-disc Sextet (Parker) 1993. But the thought of listening to Mr. Braxton's work while sleeping doesn't really seem like a good idea for anyone who already has regular anxiety dreams. The better approach - copious notes, taken while listening.

ZIM Music is Braxton's newest system based on his Language Musics. It derives from gradient logics, which are aspects of music that continually change, such as tempo or color (brighter and brighter or darker and darker). The notation of the music includes "extraction notation" which is technically impossible to play and requires the musicians to "extract" something from the music in their improvisation. How the players react is what makes a gradient process out of the performance.

The instrumentation on the dozen compositions ranges from a sextet (two of the pieces), septet (six of them) and nonet (four pieces). None of the lineups include bass, drums or any percussion instrument. They do all include tuba (Dan Peck), which offers low end foundation and another voice to interact or clamor with the other players. All of them feature two harpists (Jacqui Kerrod with either Brandee Younger, Shelley Burgon or Miriam Overlach). Accordion (Adam Matlock), cello (Tomeka Reid) and violin (Jean Cook) also show up.

As far as fellow horns, longtime Braxton member Taylor Ho Bynum (brass) is a mainstay, but the nonet tracks also feature Stephanie Richards on trumpet and additional saxophonist  Ingrid Laubrock. Braxton himself plays his usual artillery of reeds - sopranino, alto and bass saxophones, contra-bass clarinet and probably a few others. When the dynamics change in a piece, he is often the first to come to the sonic surface, brandishing a different instrument than he had moments prior.

The music features many sonic shifts along the way. At various times, the harps create textures that sound like music boxes. They also play in a manner that was once used in film soundtracks to evoke a screen shift into a dream sequence. These pieces all seem to be united with the regular use of group crescendos and the use of long pauses or breaks in the middle of a piece. The latter seems like the silence that comes between movements of a symphony, though the music doesn't always follow that trajectory. Those elements present what could be considered recurring themes between each piece, but it's unclear whether that was Braxton's intention. 

A 16-page booklet comes with the Blu-ray, in which the composer tries to explain his methods. This often proves to be as enigmatic as the music, especially when Braxton presents numbered points that describe "a five part decision construct" used to play the music. The most illuminated point comes in #1111: "The page order in the ZIM MUSIC can be rearranged to keep the music fresh. This is possible because every notated page is two measures long..." Others directions are even more vague, the best being: "The train in the tunnel is getting closer and closer - in other words get out of the way fool [sic]." Challenging yes, but Braxton wants to have fun too.

"Composition 402," the first track, feels like it has the most sense of direction. (Although this one likely had a decent amount of rehearsal since it premiered in Poland before being recorded at Wake Forest University in 2017.) Braxton plays powerfully, as he does throughout the album, especially on alto, where his rapid technique still sounds jaw-dropping. Here it sounds like the group is "accompanying" him in a more traditional way. In "Composition 419" his alto sounds gentle and a bit lyrical. "Composition 415" might be the most memorable track since it holds together like a piece, with different movements or textures (or gradients) sprouting out of it. Like the others, it's marked by a lot of those pregnant pauses.

A dozen album-length compositions might be something that draws the attention of Braxton fanatics exclusively. But the musicians on this work - not all of them avant players - understand the gradient logics and bring a lot of contagious energy to the proceedings. One good example comes in "Composition 414" where the nonet sounds like they're playing backwards in the opening minutes. Elsewhere it's interesting to try and discern Braxton from Laubrock or Bynum from Richards, so close in spirit do they play. 12 Comp might be a major investment, but it's one that yields many dividends. 

Just don't put it on before bed.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Bob Mould Takes Pittsburgh

When a friend texted me the list of Hüsker Dü songs that Bob Mould played at his 2019 Pittsburgh show, I swore that I would never miss him again. Not simply because I wanted to hear the oldies. Those songs (which included "In A Free Land," which we had played in our tribute band Hüsker Don't) were the icing on the cake that was Sunshine Rock, the solid album that he was supporting on that tour. 

Then Bob released Blue Hearts last year, on which he sounded just as pissed off as he had 40 years ago on Everything Falls Apart. I don't blame him one bit. It came out early last fall, at a time that I was feeling pretty down about the world and worried about the impending doom that was facing us in the election. He wasn't specifically addressing that on the album, but his fury helped lift me up and remember to do that we can to help us all survive. (For a better idea of what drove that album, check out this link to his FB page and read the plaque that he has pictured. It's more illuminating that I realized. Thanks, Bob, for continuing to enlighten me.) 

Having said all that, I was ready, willing and eager to see him this past Tuesday at Small's Theatre. As the tour started, Mould posted regularly on Facebook about how masking was required at his shows and how he wanted everyone to be safe. He could have lashed out at the idiots for posted snarky comments against masking but he kept his cool about it, and held firm. He might be angry, but he has class.

The trio Kestrels opened the show was a tight set of heavy pop. Some of their songs recalled Sebadoh, especially when they dropped some gonzo basslines, driving the power chords of the tunes. They mentioned that J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., helped them with one of their singles and that influence was noticeable as well, in the best way. 

Then Bob Mould's trio hit the stage. True to his beliefs, the man walked out with his mask on, hanging it on his mic stand before things started. He wasn't preachy about it, nor was he dead serious, but very matter-of-fact. Or, a better way to look at it might be that he was showing common sense. And courtesy. 

Then we were off. A whole slew of songs from Blue Hearts came out in full force, with very little time to breathe between them. That album should be experienced with lyric sheet in hand, since the vocals are mixed low. In person, my crazy ears couldn't always make out everything but the power of the group (with bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster) carried it.

From there, the band jumped all over the place through the Mould catalog. At least two songs from Workbook, his first solo album, factored into it - "Sinners and Their Repentences" and "See A Little Light," the latter with a message that seems especially true after what the last 18 months have been like.

Then it started. The band kicked into a stop-start intro that could only mean one thing - the moody Hüsker epic "Celebrated Summer." It seems a little maudlin to say that it made me a little misty but I only got to see Hüsker Dü once, and they weren't at their best (playing the entire Warehouse album from top to bottom.) So hearing this baby sung by the man himself was a little overwhelming. Even if he couldn't quit hit the high notes like he used to. (He knows his limits. Gotta dig that.)

The hits just kept coming. "Something I Learned Today" (a song which takes me back to September of 1984 when I bought Zen Arcade). "Hardly Getting Over It," the pensive not-quite ballad from Candy Apple Grey. "I Apologize." Hearing "Flip Your Wig" was meaningful too, since this was a song where Mould and Grant Hart traded vocals in the original. Narducy, who helped with harmonies and high notes throughout the evening, took care of the Grant lines well. When the evening finally wrapped up after about 75 minutes (longer than his last set, according to my accomplice for the night), "Makes No Sense At All" closed it up. Like everything, it still sounds plenty relevant today. 

I have to wonder how Bob feels since everything he sang in "Divide and Conquer" has become true. But that's a thought for another time. It was a great night, and like the jazz festival (see previous post), it was great to be among kindred spirits. 

Friday, September 24, 2021

2021 Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival - A Slight Recap

The Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival took place last weekend, spread over three days. One ticketed concert was staged on Friday at the Benedum (Chaka Khan) and the rest - aside from post-festival jam sessions - took place outdoors on Saturday and Sunday at Highmark Stadium at the far end of Station Square. 

In previous years, most of the performances were free to the public, taking place on stages set up around Downtown's Cultural District. This time, the outdoor events came with an admission price, which, considering what came with the purchase (and comparing it to similar events in other cities), was still a good value. It was also a way to make up for the lost revenue of 2020. Attendees could purchase VIP tickets to sit in a roped-in center-stage area, or a field seat, where you were free to roam across the whole field, or get a bleacher seat, which was from a distance from the stage but good for shade.

Like a goof, or someone who hasn't had the chance to going back to shaping the day job around live events like this one, I missed several chunks of the festival due to work. Chaka Khan isn't really my thing so I was okay with missing her show but it was kind of disappointing having to miss most of Saturday. (Though I could missed all of it, had my boss not switched me off the evening schedule, which was appreciated.) But enough about me. What follows is my dispatch on what I saw. 

Saturday September 17 was a beautiful evening. Not hot, not chilly as dusk started to fall. The perfect kind of evening to walk onto a field and set up a folding chair and listen to music. Gregory Porter was well into his set when I got there and my first thought upon walking onto the field was, It's so great to be around a bunch of people again. Most had masks and nearly everyone seemed safely distant. Within minutes, I ran into Gail and Mensah from the Kente Arts Alliance, two great people who always seem to cross paths with me at the right moment. 

The second thought was how great the set-up of the show was. Two huge stages were set up on the field, which meant there only had to be about 30 minutes between sets. That gave the audience enough time to shift their seats from one part of the field to another. This was really well-thought out and it won't surprise me if they stick to this locale and set-up for future fests.  Field seats were perfect because the line of vision was solid and the sound was great.

Gregory Porter (pictured above) is quite the dynamic performer, with a voice that makes you sit up and listen. That explains why he has become such a highly regarded and well known singer. And his set kind of takes some liberties with what fits into the jazz repertoire. There's a good deal of soul and contemporary R&B mixed in, without watering down the mood of the set. "No Love Dying" from his Liquid Spirit album, turned into a tribute to his brother, who passed away earlier into the COVID-19 pandemic. Porter's insistence that the audience join him in singing the chorus was an uplifting moment rather than a showbiz trick. It was also another reminder of how great it was to be among a flock of music enthusiasts again.

Bassist Marcus Miller closed out the night, following Porter. His set was heavy on grooves and massive bass lines, but his group didn't skimp on jazz chops either. One of the highlights of the set was when he brought out tenor saxophonist Winston Bell, the son of Poogie Bell, who drummed with Miller's band. The younger Bell (who is 18 years old, if my online research proves accurate) already has a rich, throaty tone on the tenor and fit right in with the band, especially on a reading of "Tutu," which Miller wrote for Miles Davis. 

The Sunday afternoon sun was beating down on Highmark Stadium as Jeff "Tain" Watts' group was tearing up the stage. Speaking of beating down, Tain's dear Steelers were in the midst of getting a beatdown across the river during his set. In hopes of cheering them on, he changed the last tune of the set on the fly, switching out a new piece for a groovy tune called "Steely McBlue," inspired by 'that mascot no one likes," he said referring to poor Steely McBeam. The groovy number included a sideways insertion of the city's infamous "Here We Go Steelers" cheer. It was clever and solid but alas, it didn't help the team.

Watts' set was titled "Pittsburgh Suite," as it paid tribute to his hometown. His group featured hometown native David Budway on piano, along with guitarist Paul Bollenback, bassist Robert Hurst III and tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane.  The group had a strong blend of acoustic sounds (piano, tenor) with more electronic effects (guitar) which really added to the weight of the music.

There's something spellbinding about hearing Eddie Palmieri's Afro Caribbean Jazz Septet in a setting like this. There are a lot of groups that incorporate Latin music with jazz. Some do it pretty well. But hearing the 84-year old pianist leading a group with two drummers (neither behind a trap kit; timbales and congas here), it feels like we're getting an unfiltered version of this music. It's tight and full of excitement, so much so that a few people in the audience got up to dance during the set, stealing Palmieri's heart in the process. (It says something that these two women didn't dance for the whole set. Moving like that can take it out of you.)    

Forgive the faraway picture of Branford Marsalis' quartet. The sun wasn't blaring down on us by the time they took the stage but it was still hard to look at my phone and see if the photo was good or not. And it was hard to get out of my chair. By now, you can see that I didn't exactly feel like my ambitious Scoop Shanley personality. (Then again, my day started at about 6 a.m. with seven hours on my feet.)

Marsalis was joined by longtime quartet members Joey Calderazzo (piano), Eric Revis (bass) and Jason Faulkner (drums). The driving energy of "The Mighty Sword," opened the set, with Marsalis on soprano. Two songs later he switched to tenor for a tune where he seemed to evoke the dry-toned leaps of Charlie Rouse. It made sense because the song in question was "Teo," a Thelonious Monk tune which the pianist recorded when Rouse was in the band. When Marsalis traded fours with Faulkner, the drummer's attack felt good and taut. Overall, though, it seemed like the saxophonist was playing it rather safe, opting for long, flowing tones when something with a little more rhythmic and melodic adventure would have lifted things up a little more. Things did get more exciting during a reading of Jeff "Tain" Watt's "Blue Tain." The drummer himself slid into Faulkner's chair and trumpeter Brian Lynch (from the Palmieri band) dropped in too.

When I discovered, a few days prior, who I was going to miss in the festival, I started wondering if I still wanted to go. Lakecia Benjamin (who did an online performance via Kente Arts Alliance earlier this year), Christian Scott A Tunde Adjuah, Christian McBride and Kenny Garrett were all people who I wanted to see, all but one of them appearing on Saturday afternoon. 

But part of the reason I still attended was to check out people I normally might not see. The thought I frequently have when listening to any new album, whether I like it or not, is usually, "I wonder how they sound live." For that reason, I thought I should check out keyboardist Patrice Rushen, who followed Marsalis. No doubt, she has chops to spare but I wondered if her sound might be a little slick for these ears. 

Turns out it was a little from Column A and a little from Column B. Rushen's sextet kicked off their set with a funky groove, delivered with enough volume to make Rayford Griffin's kick drum rattle your sternum. It might have been on the contemporary side, but that was a jazz piano solo that Rushen ripped off once the group got past the theme. Her clavinet sound in "The Hump" sounded like it was referencing either "Rock It" or "Chameleon" but it maintained some grit, as did the Rhodes break that followed. Alto saxophonist Eric Marienthal - who's had a lot of success on the smoother side of jazz - took the spotlight later in a tune that was in keeping with his track record, and Rushen opted for some rather moist sounding keys to back him. Marienthal's unaccompanied coda pulled out all the stops to wow the crowd: fast flurries of notes, long high wails. A little too showbiz for me, but I had to admire his range on that horn.

Dianne Reeves closed out the evening, but a pending deadline for JazzTimes pulled me out of there early. By that time, it had felt like a good investment anyway. Again, it was great to be around a bunch of jazz fans again. Here's hoping that more people will be smart enough to help squash this pandemic so that events like this will continue in the coming year. Hey, New York Winter Jazz Fest, any thoughts?


Wednesday, September 01, 2021

CD Review: Barry Altschul's 3Dom Factor - Long Tall Sunshine

Barry Altschul's 3Dom Factor
Long Tall Sunshine
(Not Two)

Of the five tracks on Barry Altschul's latest release, four of them appeared on the debut release by 3Dom Factor. My thoughts on the album can be found here, but for those whose attention is staying on this page, suffice to say it was my favorite album of 2013. A few years later, on their Live at Krakow album, they revisited three of those four tracks and, once again, knocked it out of the time zone

Which brings us to Long Tall Sunshine, named for the one composition that is making its debut on disc. In explaining the recurring set list, Altschul has stated that he believes more in "fresh" than "new" ideas that improvisations can create. He also admits being a little lazy. But, hell, when you're playing with the kind of gusto and invention that has always been a part of his work, the lazy factor clearly isn't hampering the music. There's nothing wrong with Altschul (who's just a few months shy of 80, anyway), Jon Irabagon and Joe Fonda taking another swing at "Martin's Stew."

That aforementioned Altschul composition appears at the end of the set, introduced and concluded by the leader's  drum solo. After all these years, he's still unique and dynamic, never totally out, always discovering new ways of making his kit sound fresh and vital. As many times as they might have released "Martin's Stew," this one has its own unique fire, from the way Fonda's bass enters in the wake of the drum solo to the way Irabagon lets loose with a non-stop flurry of tenor lines that seems like he could go for hours and never wane.

Earlier, the group revisits "Irina" with Irabagon switching to clarinet. At first, his attack sounds very close to his sopranino, which he played on the earlier 3Dom Factor version. Here, he puts some brawn into the b-flat instrument, keeping it gentle at the same time. 

In "Be Out S'cool," after a hard driving, elastic solo by Fonda, Irabagon trades his tenor for another another red headed stepchild of the saxophone family - the soprillo. It sounds like a sopranino at double speed (akin to the pitch-riding tricks Frank Zappa performed on Bunk Gardner's horns on Mothers albums like Uncle Meat). Once the initial jolt of the instrument's tone settles, Irabagon uses it for more adventurous tears through the music, highlighted by some rapid tongue action and some reed squeezing that sounds like it creates some high multiphonics. 

On top of being a propulsive drummer and leader, Altschul continues to excel in the composition department. The band's namesake tune, a rapid-but-catchy line among some wild three way chases in the music (some popping harmonics from Fonda, some too-smoochy noises sans mouthpiece from Irabagon), offers a reminder. But "Long Tall Sunshine" also gives the band a grooving AABA form that they devour with enthusiasm that can be felt by listeners. 

The performance features occasional audience applause, although the CD liner doesn't list what audience was lucky to be there that night, or what night it was. Turns out the band forget to document the date of this show. Oh well. It's nice to have a little bit of mystery after all that.