Friday, December 30, 2022

When They Play Donald Byrd In the Courtroom

Before we jump into another set from the Ivo Perelman album, a story...

On Wednesday of this week, I had a hearing in Traffic Court. I was pulled over back in early October because I hadn't renewed the registration on my car. I've heard The Man has special technology now where they can check your license to see if you're unregistered or not. My registration expired back in February. 

Despite my slang up above, the cop that pulled me over didn't come off like The Man. He was actually pretty laid back about it, perhaps because I was too. Hey, I goofed so, why get defensive? Since it had been several months, he said he had to write me up, but made it seem like no big deal. Plead not guilty, go to court and it would get straightened out. 

Wednesday morning, I took the bus downtown (why pay a big parking fee or risk getting a ticket) and walked the long walk down the courthouse. (It's waaay down on First Avenue, near the jail.) The last time I was there (where I got off!), there were several people in front of me at the information window, before the 9:00 a.m. opening and I had to wait awhile to plead my case. On this day, arriving around the same time, there were only four people ahead in line. 

Once I checked it and headed to the courtroom, I saw that the judge at the bench was Gene Ricciardi. This was interesting to me for a few reasons. First of all, the judge I had at my last hearing was a gruff guy who busted people's chops for doing dumb stuff but also seemed to understand the difference between that and a simple mistake. He was a wiseguy who seemed to like his authority, but if you could role with his jokes, you were okay. Not so for the woman who didn't understand something he said and responded with a very casual "What?!" He had to remind her that it's better to address such questions to as "Excuse me, your honor?" (He also cut her a break for doing something stupid and she kept getting argumentative.)

Judge Gene Ricciardi wouldn't remember it, but 30 years ago when he was on City Council, an Intro to Journalism student called his office to get clarification on a measure that was passed on the day that this kid was covering the Council meeting for his class. I was the kid. The future judge was very nice on the phone, though the details of that measure were still pretty puzzling. 

Little did I know, the Judge was also a swinging cat.

As he was plugging in his microphone on Wednesday, he said something casually that seemed to address us defendants. I thought he mentioned Donald Byrd. Then told his assistant, "They're probably all too young to know Donald Byrd." A few seconds later, it became clear he was talking about the late trumpet player. One of Donald Byrd's '70s crossover songs started playing through the courtroom sound system. I couldn't resist raising my hand and saying I knew who he was. "Oh, that guy must be older," the judge quipped. 

The song played for less than a minute before the pile of cases was brought before the judge. He looked at the first one. "Shanley." 

As I made my way to the bench, I started wondering if I should say something further about Donald Byrd and when. "You know, there was a tribute to him at the Pittsburgh International...." No, no, no, Too many syllables. Take it easy.

The judge asked if I had taken care of my registration, which I had, immediately after getting home back in October. The case was dismissed and I was directed to see the person at the window out in the hallway. 

"Thanks. By the way, I saw Donald Byrd at Pitt back in 1989." I think he responded with an amused, "Really?!" I can't quite remember, but I did get a positive reaction. By then I wanted to get out of there.

If you ever have to go to Traffic Court, just take it in stride. A few people I talked to grumbled beforehand :Yeah you'll probably get dismissed but it sucks that you have to go Downtown and go through all of that. Yeah, but my case was dismissed. And the judge played Donald Byrd in the courtroom!

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

DL Review: Ivo Perelman - Reed Rapture In Brooklyn, Part Two - With Tim Berne

Ivo Perelman
Reed Rapture In Brooklyn

Part Two - With Tim Berne

This is the second passage in what I hope will be a 12-entry write up that focuses on the sessions on Perelman's digital album, on which he duets with a dozen different reed players.

Unlike the tenor saxophonist's session with Joe Lovano - 14 tracks that didn't last longer than eight minutes, with most coming in well below the five-minute mark - this hour-and-change session with Tim Berne is devoted to longer conversations. Of the five of them, one goes on for 22 minutes, two for about 13 minutes each and another two for seven. 

Neither saxophonist is out of place in longer tracks. Perelman's Live at Nuremberg album with Matthew Shipp consisted of a continuous performance full of ripples and nuances. Alto saxophonist Berne is probably the musician who really made me appreciate extended compositions. His albums with the quartet Bloodcount included works that went on upwards of 40 minutes, taking all kinds of turns, detours and regenerative passages, which often seemed to come out of nowhere. The way "What Are the Odds" on the Unwound disc goes from solo to composition stands out as particularly memorable.

While Berne's compositions are engrossing, he hasn't always had the same impact when working in a purely improvisational situation. Granted, his recent work with guitarist David Torn and drummer Ches Smith has been an exception to that. Albums and live performances have been pretty fiery. But his Paraphrase trio seemed to wander. The Veil - a CD by the trio of Berne, guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Jim Black - was a strong set overall, but there were many times where Berne seemed to stick to raw growls and overtones when one of his flowing lines could have added more to the music.

So I'm breaking my own rule again. Originally I said I'd listen to each Reed Rapture session just once, treating it like a live performance and then writing about it. This piece is being composed while the music is playing again because I think I was doing a few things while listening to the first time, not giving it total attention.

My takeaway from the first listen was that Perelman and Berne spent a lot of time imitating whistling tea kettles, squealing in that upper register. In fact they hit that shrill spot at about the time in the first two tracks, right around 2:30.  Altissimo wails are fine but a little can go a long way. 

But Perelman and Berne seem to realize that. As often as they go high, they don't ever reside in that space for too long. They're ready to jump onto something else after making their point. In addition to that, their duets really sound like involved conversations. They listen closely to each other, leading Perelman to echo phrases from Berne, replicating dynamics and lines. In "2," a moment comes three-quarters in where it sounds like they're playing a Berne composition; Perelman joins in and it works, with Berne even bending his line to meet the tenor saxophonist's melody. At one point, their quick exchanges almost sound like, 

The final track, "5," even finds them delving into some musical drama. Berne blows low while Perelman seems to coo in response. It might be too much to call it a ballad, but it has a pensive quality to it. In the end, while the duo might have given into their wilder instincts a few times, they likely came away knowing a great deal about each other as players. 

Monday, December 26, 2022

DL Review: Ivo Perelman- Reed Rapture In Brooklyn Part 1 - With Joe Lovano

Ivo Perelman
Reed Rapture In Brooklyn

Part One - With Joe Lovano

One way to force yourself to see an idea through to fruition is to talk about it in the space online where it should appear. That way, an expectation is created for the follow-through. Otherwise, you look like you can't keep your word. And nobody wants to do that. At least I don't. 

So here we are. In my last post, I mused about doing entries for Ivo Perelman's Reed Rapture in Brooklyn, with separate posts for each of the twelve saxophonists who appear with his tenor. It seemed like the best way to explore such a lengthy project and a way to dig into each duet without getting bogged down somewhere along the way and reducing certain sessions to a phrase or two. That being said, I'm going to start writing about Reed Rapture and see where it takes me. Maybe I'll do it in 12 days, taking inspiration from my friend Steve Michener's Album A Day Facebook group or Pittsburgh saxophonist Ben Opie's entries about Ennio Morricone. 

First, some background. Tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman is one prolific player. He releases a lot of albums. In fact, by the time I reach the end of this project, it's likely that he'll have a few more sessions in the can or on the street. Within months of Reed Rapture being released (digitally only, at this point), he also released another set of duets with pianist Matthew Shipp on ESP-Disk', Fruition

All of Perelman's work in completely spontaneous, never working from pre-conceived compositions. While he can be a pretty intense performer, spending a lot of time in the upper register of his horn, he doesn't merely blow to fill up space. He's also not one to get locked into one ugly sound, which he repeats until all life is wrung from it. The saxophonist can use the altissimo range to create some challenging melodies. Plus, he's also likely to dive into some rich, smoky tones from the his horn's lower register, as this set proves.

Because of his approach to performance, which in a way makes each album somewhat akin to a live set, I want to consider these sessions as if they were 12 different live sets, trying to listen to them closely just once and describe them that way. That being said, I'm starting by breaking that rule and giving the session with Joe Lovano a second examination. I first listened to it about a month ago and didn't write down any notes about it, so a second view is needed. 

Rather than tenor, Lovano plays the C Melody and F Soprano saxophones here. The former is pitched a whole tone above the tenor, which makes it a bit easy to mistake for his typical horn. Like the other guests on this set, Lovano resides in the right channel while Perelman plays in the left. 

Of all the combinations on Reed Rapture, the meeting with Joe Lovano might seem like the one least likely to succeed. Lovano is a strong improviser though not someone known for eschewing chord changes and structure for all-out blowing. But he and Perelman had some interesting exchanges. Like the whole album, their 14 tracks are identified by numbers rather than song titles. Many of them end with the two players landing together on the same low note, concluding with a smoky, subdued feeling. That husky blend occurs frequently here, but they never stay with any mood for two long.  Perelman seems to challenge his guest to an altissimo shriek-off in "11" but Lovano jumps between the high register and more grounded lines. When he does wail away in "1," it elevates the melody that is Perelman playing. 

Throughout, they simultaneously bend the same pitch in different ways, imitate birds in quick two-beat/one-note exchanges and, in two tracks, even touch on a ballad or torch song mood. All but three tracks last less than five minutes, making brevity a key factor. When things clock in around seven or eight minutes, it still feels like time well spent. When they sound like they're playing on parallel lines, both saxophonists still manage to complement each other. It's easy to imagine that, after the tape stopped running, the two of them looked at each other and let out a laugh of excitement over what they created. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Just Keep Doing It. Eh, Why? No One Cares

As long as I hit "Send" after this post is completed (which I must have done if you're reading this now), this will be post #43 for 2022. That means I've posted exactly as many times as I did in 2021. But I'm not bragging about that. Last year's totals were a poor showing. In previous years, I've at least gotten into the 50 and 60-post range. 2019 was the exception but I think that was because I had a massive record collection that I was dealing with. Not an excuse. Just sayin'. 

This year has been a crazy one. I recorded an album with my band, though the band itself doesn't really exist outside the studio now. The album got mastered recently and soon I will be sending it off to a pressing plant to have it turned into shiny pieces of plastic. I ordered a split single, each side devoted to the basement projects of two friends of mine. (That's right - I'm not on the record at all.) If all goes well with the universe, both of these records will be out in the spring. 

While all that was going on, I came into another pile of records and I'm still working through the last one, which can take time. My place of work takes a lot out of me too, though much of that might be due to my headspace. 

All of that doesn't leave much time for writing. Sure there's the occasional, pretty much monthly reviews for JazzTimes but that's really all there is. I think it dawned on me this year, though it's been the case for longer, that I don't have a local outlet to cover music in Pittsburgh. Besides this blog. When you combine that realization with the low numbers of people who check out the blog, add a sprinkle of mental exhaustion after a day of work, and the siren call of records that would like to be sold online so they don't take up space anymore... is there motivation to write? Can I even think critically? Can I listen critically to music? Can I listen without nodding off, not as a reflection of the music but of me?

As I leave those rhetorical questions hanging in the air for the moment, there was another thing that prevented me from posting anything in the last few weeks. I finally caught the big C. 

Yes, I wear a mask at work 40 hours a week, pledging that I will keep doing that until the number of COVID cases in Allegheny County drops to 100 in a week (last week's report had 880 cases, down from the week before from the total of 914. Yay, Pittsburgh).  But the day after Thanksgiving I attended the reunion show of first-wave punks Carsickness and the Cynics. By Monday I was feeling like two miles of bad road. Tuesday, I figured out why when I took a home test. 

Thankfully, the lousy feeling didn't last too long. By Thursday, I had some energy back and was up and around in the house, though still being careful to keep my distance from the family. But in the thick of it, with all the fever dreams going on, there was a thin layer of depression on top of that. Wondering why I was dumb enough to get myself into that mess. Pissed that I was going to have to cancel a car inspection that was almost overdue. Panicked at the prospect of having to do that because who knows when I would be able to get it taken care of? (Answer- this week.) Car inspection has always been a source of great anxiety.

It was also giving me second thoughts about attending Winter Jazz Fest in New York next month. That was usually my big blow-out trip for the year (I don't really travel much otherwise.) I haven't been to a Winter Fest since 2020, when we were on the eve of the pandemic. Early this year, I was all set to go WJF '22, with passes purchased, bus tickets and hotel rooms booked, only to hear that it wasn't happening. Now, I'm kind of apprehensive about being around that many people and risking getting sick again. More significantly, I don't feel the drive that I once had to get to NYC and immerse myself in the shows, seeing everyone I know and would like to know. That part really feels sad. 

We go through periods of our life where things that we used to do aren't as fun as they used to be. Sometimes that's for the better. I never had a taste for recreational substances so that passed me by. One day a few months ago, I had a thought: Drinking just makes me sleepy. I haven't stopped drinking altogether but I don't do it as much. When I do, it's almost always at home, so I feel like I'm being responsible. Coffee, on the other hand, has become part of my routine at several points of the day. I have a feeling that when co-workers see me at work, I almost always have my travel mug close by. 

Hopefully writing about music won't be the next thing that gets cast by the wayside. Smaller freelancing opportunities, low blog readership and - most significantly - having to be both the writer and the one who imposes the deadline when something should be submitted to this blog, all tend to feel overwhelming and zap the energy these days. Listen to an album? Closely? Okay, which album? This one looks wait, how about this one? Wait - that's one I have been meaning to listen to. Along with those others. This one came out five months ago? Dammit. (In case any of my JT associates are reading this, I still relish any chance I get to write for them and the assignments still recharge my enthusiasm.)

In conclusion, this post might be more of a way for me to blow off the cobwebs and get back on the horse, so to speak. I had it in my head to do almost daily posts, going through Ivo Perelman's massive Reed Rapture In Brooklyn set, where he duets with a dozen reed players. I started listening to it, thought about smaller posts and then.....

Well, part of what happened was that two Sundays ago, there was a record fair in town. I had been hoping and waiting for the event for quite awhile. Pricing records for the show took several weeks. In order for me to release two records, I have to unload some too, which is what I did. I tested negative a few days prior, so I was in the clear, though my mask was on my face most of the time. 

Now that the event is over, maybe I could focus on some writing. 

Then again, Christmas is only five days away now. So we'll see. 

In closing, here are photos of Karl Mullen of Carsickness (who also came down with COVID following the show) and Gregg Kostelich from the Cynics. 

Thursday, November 17, 2022

CD Review: Chris Pitsiokos - Art of the Alto

Chris Pitsiokos
Art of the Alto

Relative Pitch is a New York-based label that specializes in a wide array of avant garde jazz and free improvisation. Their extensive catalog includes groups that swing while they break new ground, as well as skin-searing recitals in which "extended technique" barely scratches the surface of what comes in the recording. The label posts videos frequently on Instagram of the latter style of playing too.

A while back, I took a dive into some new releases on the label and, at the time, I couldn't hack them. Normally raucous free improv like that yanks me right in, especially if I'm seeing it live. It might have been around this time in 2020, when my sensibilities seemed a little vulnerable. But the sound of two trumpets creating some visceral un-trumpet like sounds was so far beyond extended that the technique seemed to split down the middle and become something else entirely. I wasn't feeling it. I was reminded of an experimental musician once talking about how music like that is fun to play but not always fun to listen to.

Chris Pitsiokos' solo alto saxophone album seemed like a good place to dive back into to this kind of music. I have a fondness for solo instrument albums and what better instrument than my former horn of choice. "Dolomite" begins the album with a blast - a harsh metallic blast that last about three seconds and repeats after a two-second pause. This continues for several minutes, evolving from a sound that doesn't resemble an alto to a pattern where Pitsiokos alternates altissimo squeals and low honks, while his circular breathing sustains the sound. Eight minutes in, he's blowing a tart line that gets picks up speed, eventually moving faster than Anthony Braxton did in a similar setting, without forsaking his melody line for wails. What started brutally ends with some soft multiphonics and some semblance of music order, rather than cathartic wailing.

That might be a lot of insight into one track, but "Dolomite" does last 14 minutes, and it sets the tone for the rest of the album. In fact "Obsidian," which appears later in the album, begins almost the same way as "Dolomite," to the point where it eventually sounds like Pitsiokos is playing along with the earlier track. "Basalt" and "Sandstone" find the saxophonist delivering one high shriek for their duration of each track, which last one- and two-minutes respectively. 

As often as Pitsiokos seems to lock into a cluster of notes, he also displays the chops to expand on the line, often incorporating another pitch from the bottom range of his horn. Yet again he does it all without taking a breath, but making it all flow. This happens in "Shale" which also includes a moment that sounds authentically like a skipping CD. (I was listening to a download so it was clearly him.) 

"Anthracite" ends the album like a ballad, compared to what preceded it. Pitsiokos blows long tones at a hushed volume, and although things get a little tense, it ends with a growl floating to the surface over a wave of sustained notes. 

Art of the Alto is a challenging listen. But anyone who comes in contact with the album probably already knows that. When given the time, it becomes more than merely feral technique on parade. Pitsiokos uses that technique to creates some unique sonic sculptures.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

LP/DL Review: Jackson/Hoogland/Abrams/Avery - These Things Happen / Slow Bell Trio - When the Circle Was Closed

Keefe Jackson/ Oscar Jan Hoogland/Joshua Abrams/ Mikel Patrick Avery
These Things Happen

Slow Bell Trio
When the Circle Was Closed

Saxophonist/clarinetist Keefe Jackson often turns up in a variety of different musical projects, not only in his Chicago home area but abroad as well. These two releases from the past few months reveal the opposite ends of the spectrum with Jackson and his collaborators, each with its own brand of sonic lure.

These Things Happen features Jackson's tenor saxophone together with Chicago comrades Joshua Abrams (bass) and Mikel Patrick Avery (drums), as well as Dutch pianist Oscar Jan Hoogland. The quartet interprets two Thelonious Monk compositions, one by Dewey Redman, one by Herbie Nichols and two by Hoogland. 

The zeal displayed on this all-too-short release can bring to mind the ICP Orchestra, a group that seems to be at the crossroads of the hardest swinging jazz ever and a desire to blow it all into sonic smithereens - while still keeping some semblance of order in the music. Hoogland's "Wimpel" begins several times like a rich tenor ballad, but the rubato set up keeps splattering into little blasts of freedom. Then it starts over again for another go at it. A two-chorus version of Monk's "Bemsha Swing" comes with stuttered notes that make it almost unidentifiable to those who don't already know the source. "Epistrophy" by contrast, swings with reckless abandon, with Avery's crashes stoking the fire. "Aanhanghuis," the other Hoogland original, pits a 30s style piano vamp against some icy sopranino sax lines. 

Along with a devoted reading of Nichols' "The Happenings," These Things Too only has one flaw - its brevity. The entire album (their term, not mine) lasts a measly 22 minutes. That's not an album. It's a tease. Where's the rest, gentlemen?

This would be a good place to point out that here I am, in less than a month, covering a new release on cassette. But since the Slow Bell Trio released When the Circle Was Closed this past summer, the cassette has sold out, at least on their Bandcamp site. If that's where you're looking, it's download city.

This trio presents Jackson in a setting far removed from Monk or Herbie Nichols. His clarinets (bass and contrabass) and sopranino team up this time with the drums and electronics of both Steven Hess and Mike Weis. Each of them has an extensive c.v. playing in more rock-centric bands as well as ambient and electronic settings, at their sensitivities come into play here.

When the Circle Was Closed is the sound of understatement combined with unspoken communication between players. Much of the six tracks feels like they could be attempts to recreate the blend of disparate sounds heard on a Chicago street in the wee hours of the morning. "Abandoned by language" evokes the sound on a subway platform. Drums echo in the background but they sound heavily processed, almost dreamlike. Jackson's bass clarinet imitates water flowing down a drain. 

Although each piece is spare, all six contains elements that keep a flow going, like a droning electronic tone, metallic or wooden percussion, or a percussive hit on a drum that sets a pulse, if not a steady beat. Ghost sounds lurk in the background, sometimes sounding like another bass clarinet track ("Without face, without name, without saying I have come"). Sometimes it hard to discern one of the lower reeds from the electronics. The sound of static in "On their long boats" starts to feel more like rain, adding more of a visual feeling the music.

At times, it feels like the trio could build into something. After all the gentle drones and bass clarinet squeals, it would be great to hear the two drummers and Jackson kick into a wild free improvisation, with some drones adding to it. But it never happens. For that reason, the 37-minute set resides in the same dynamic range for its entirety. That in itself feels impressive, since Jackson, Hess and Weis really interact with each other with the textures they develop. But it would be nice to have some storm along with the calm that precedes it. 

Friday, November 04, 2022

A Few Nights of the 52nd Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert

I begin today with a tangential rant.

Around the end of September, I was hanging out with a friend of mine who I knew from my college radio days. He remarked that the evening that we were together was the 31st anniversary of Nirvana's Pittsburgh show at Graffiti. (This, of course, is the one that Nirvana fans and native Pittsburghers all remember as the night when the band set the couch in the dressing room on fire, quite possibly in retaliation to the booking agent who wanted a cut of their merchandise sales. You can't mention that show in Pittsburgh without that adjacent story.)

That show has gone down in history because, of course, it happened right as Nirvana was hitting it big - really big. Big enough for punk rock to "break" as a film about several bands from that period would later opine. I know many people who were there but I was not one of them. I had just played a show with my long time favorite band Trotsky Icepick and in a few weeks would see Sebadoh, who unexpectedly blew my mind in a way that hasn't been the same since. (I was also dealing with relationship issues, but that's irrelevant right now.)

Besides, at that time no one would have predicted that a band who was part of the grunge scene - which was still pretty much a catch-all term for Pacific Northwest bands - would take their major label debut and knock it out of the stratosphere, unlike anyone else up to that point. In September 1991, Nirvana was just another band on their way up. People who liked them were ready to check them out but no one had any idea that they were witnessing legends in the making. . 

And that's the reason why it's important to go out to shows and check out live music. You never know where an artist is going to be in a few months. You never know how moved you might be by someone's set. Sure, the specter of COVID-19 still lurks in every corner, but people and venues are playing it safe. If you bring your mask, you should be in a good shape. There's no guarantee you walk out of a show feeling like you're reached nirvana (pun intended), but you have a greater chance of witnessing some legend in the making just be being out and about. And as many people have said, you've got to dig it to dig it.

Which brings us to the 52nd Annual Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert, which started this week and continues for the next few days. In years past, the seminar welcomed jazz musicians to the University of Pittsburgh, where they gave free lectures on topics ranging from their careers to the industry to the music itself. It would culminate in a Saturday evening concert that was reminiscent of the Jazz at the Philharmonic shows: a blowing session that put together musicians that may or may not have ever been on the same stage at the same time.

The whole thing was spearheaded by the late Dr. Nathan Davis in 1970, who brought in a pretty high caliber group of friends, some of which who showed up fairly regularly over the years. When Geri Allen took over the position in 2013, the template remained, though the shows started to think outside the box a bit more. Then in 2019, Nicole Mitchell became director of Jazz Studies and presented a concert that included more grounded players like Rufus Reid (bass) and Jason Moran (piano) together with outliers Roscoe Mitchell (saxophones) and Moor Mother (spoken word). Some friends described the evening as a train wreck and audience members expecting to hear a group blow on something like "Killer Joe" left en masse before things were done. (My take on the night can be found here.

Post-pandemic, things are a little different for Year 52 of the event, which has the title "We Are All Jazz Messengers." First of all, IT'S ALL TOTALLY FREE! Not in style, but in dollar amount. None of the performances cost anything! Anyone curious to see a pianist who's played with Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders and David Murray? Well, you could have seen him this week, without even touching your wallet. 

Dave Burrell, the pianist in question, played at the Bellefield Hall at the University of Pittsburgh on Tuesday, November 1. His appearance coincides with the donation of his archives to the Center for American Music, part of the University of Pittsburgh Library System, which also houses Errol Garner's archives. To kick off the Tuesday night show, Ed Galloway, Associate University Librarian for Archives and Special Collections, presented Burrell with a plaque commemorating his career and donation to the university (below). 

The evening featured Burrell in a trio with bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Hamid Drake, with flutist Nicole Mitchell joining them. (Mitchell just announced her departure from Pitt for the University of Virginia about a month ago. Aaron J. Johnson is now the Acting Director of Jazz Studies at Pitt). But before the whole group played, Burrell sat down at the piano for a long, flowing medley. While he has played with the fiery intensity of someone like Cecil Taylor - reaching his left hand over his right to literally stab the upper register of the keyboard during a solo - the pianist can also reveal a delicate, if no less deep, side by exploring some standards. For about 15 minutes, my ears heard traces of "Autumn Leaves," "Here's that Rainy Day," "How Deep Is the Ocean" and "My Melancholy Baby."  The latter two featured some solid stride work in the left hand, pushing the music forward.

The evening had a pretty casual feel to it, as if the band might have been coming up with ideas on the fly. The whole group came out onstage but Burrell announced that he and drummer Drake would begin with a duet, which sent Mitchell and Abrams backstage again. The two players dug into a tune with a boogie groove to it, with Drake emphasizing the offbeats at one point and playing double-time the next. After a few minutes, Burrell decided it was time for Drake to go it alone, and the pianist himself left the stage.

This move was something that Thelonious Monk used to pull on drummers that got on his bad side, but Drake hadn't done anything to offend the evening's honoree, as far as we could tell. Besides, Drake had more than enough ideas to keep the audience eyes glued to the stage, with a brilliant range of press rolls. hi-hat whacks and more use of offbeats.  

Mitchell and Abrams had their duo time next with the flutist vocalizing as she blew and Abrams producing a series of thick double stops, alternating between bowing and plucking. Despite the casual feeling of the show, the rapport between the players was on display. Drake, Mitchell and Abrams all know each other from their time in Chicago in and around the AACM so that kept things flowing.

With Burrell back with them, a free, open section eventually morphed into "Come Rain Or Come Shine" which the group took their time digging into, exploring it to a great degree. That song especially is one that's been performed thousands of times, but the quartet approached it with that understanding. They weren't there to simply get a rise from the audience by playing something familiar, nor did they turn it inside-out. They presented in a way that proved why it's such a lasting classic.

Last night (Thursday, 11/3), Burrell appeared in a panel discussing his career, along with his wife, the poet/author Monika Larsson and Pitt Associate Professor of Jazz Studies and author Michael Heller (the latter whom kept pronouncing the pianist's surname "BYOR-ell" rather than "BOOR-ell" as everyone else seems to have said it; maybe he's on to something we don't know?). Via Zoom, the discussion also included trumpeter Ted Daniel (seen below), saxophonist David Murray and jazz author John Szwed. 

Heller presented a few shots of items from the Burrell archive, as seen above here in the one shot I got of the overhead projection. The image on the right is actually an early resume that Burrell put together. 

Though the Zoom connection sometimes make things a little hard to hear or contextualize, it provided some fun insight into Burrell's wide-reaching connection with the different players. Daniel (seen above) recalled meeting him at the Berklee School of Music in the early '60s, where Burrell showed "determination and consistency with practicing," and introduced the young trumpet player to the Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns by Nicholas Slonimsky, a book which he said he still owns to this day. The two players also reminisced about a trip to Europe that took them to a festival "in a cow pasture in Belgium" where they shared a bill with not only the Art Ensemble of Chicago but also Pink Floyd, the Mothers of Invention and Cream.

Larsson talked about writing a libretto for Burrell's music and how a midnight cup of coffee lured her away from her then-husband to the pianist. Murray discusses the duo shows he and the pianist performed, along with the latter's tenure in Murray's octet. Burrell chuckled as he remembered what he would say to drummer Ralph Peterson before a performance: "Time to make the donuts!" 

After the panel discussion, members of the Pitt Chamber Ensemble performed some of Burrell's work for strings and piano, followed by trumpet and piano. After Tuesday night's performance, these modern pieces with flowing melodies offered another take of what the pianist has created. 

If you read this in time, the Pitt Jazz Faculty will present the final on-campus concert on Saturday, November 5. The show will consist of music by Art Blakey. 7:30 pm at Bellefield Hall. It's free! Be there to dig it!

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

CD Reviews: Max Johnson - Hermit Music / Max Johnson Trio - Orbit of Sound

Max Johnson
Hermit Music

Max Johnson Trio
Orbit of Sound

The story has been told over and over during the past two years. The pandemic set in and everything halted - any kind of live performances, not to mention tours. Recording sessions were limited too. This was especially hard for creative improvising (also known as "jazz") musicians, who depend on such things for their livelihood and mental well being. In response, a lot of these players became resourceful, posting live shows online or doing them on porches of their houses or under bridges. These creative types became even more creative to deal with the times. 

That was all well and good but it overlooks a more vulnerable group of musicians - those of us who felt depressed throughout 2020. It can be hard to roll with those punches if you don't have a strong will.

New York-based bassist Max Johnson felt that way. "...When New York shut down in March of 2020, I became deeply depressed and couldn't bear to play my instrument for months," he frankly states in the liner notes to Hermit Music. "While I watched musicians talk about how great it was to take time off, or how productive they were being, I struggled to get out of bed each day and found it hard to put on my positive face."

The five improvised tracks of solo bass on Hermit Music feel cathartic. Rapid plucking launches the title track, sounding in part like a wake-up call and a CD that's stuck. (It's not, but it's impressive that Johnson can evoke that frenetic sound with his instrument). It continues with a drive and focus, stopping to pluck all four strings midway through, sounding more composed than spontaneous. Of course, Johnson had a lot of time to consider what to pull out of his instrument so he's making up for lost time.

A similar sense of direction continues through the other four tracks. Wide open spaces during "Ghost Whistle," where Johnson stops to reflect on his next move, bridge the gap between heavy bowed passages and a plucked section that feels like a theme coming out of the fog. The low rumbles of all four strings returns at the start of "Haystacks," making it less like a visceral gesture and more like a continuation of a theme between tracks. 

Like other solo bass albums, Hermit Music might take a little effort to get into, but the payoff is there, such as when Johnson's bowed overtones reach a cathartic level in "Glass Lungs," moving into more thematic areas. He concludes his notes by saying the music "symbolizes my struggle with self, reality, purpose and mental health." While it might not have been an easy session, what comes across in his playing is a renewed sense of purpose. 

Johnson released Orbit of Sound during this past summer. This session features him in a trio with tenor saxophonist/flutist Anna Webber and drummer Michael Sarin,  working through five detailed pieces. The album title feels appropriate because the group comes up with new ways of utilizing the sax/bass/drums format, with the focal point of the music orbiting around the different players. 

This struck me most significantly during "The Professor." The 16-minute track begins with some free flowing sounds, with everyone in close contact. But somewhere around six minutes, as things unravel, Webber gets fixated on long, plaintive multiphonics. This could get tedious at first, but after awhile it becomes apparent that the action is happening with the bass and drums. She's more of an accompanist while Sarin and Johnson build up a torrent of arco lines and rolling cymbals. It never gets to a chaotic level either, which make the nuances of the flowing music stand out.

Earlier in the album, "Over/Under" takes ample to stretch out too, building from bowed bass noise into carefully delivered plucked notes, peppered by bird sounds and what sounds like shortwave radio static (both from Webber). A pedaled bass note leads to a choppy theme over a 4/4 beat, with Sarin playing the melody as much as he drives it. The drummer gets more animated and lifts off as Webber begins to solo but before long all three reconvene for a closing melody.

Hopefully Johnson will have a chance to get this trio out in the public again. (His Facebook page has a performance from last year at Conveyer in Brooklyn.) He also played recently at Downtown Music Gallery with saxophonist Erin Rogers (a clip appears on Instagram), so it's good to know he's back at it again. 

Thursday, October 20, 2022

The Age of Tapes or What Do Barnacle Choir, Christmas and Pond Hockey Have In Common?

I'll fully admit that when I've heard about bands releasing recordings on cassettes over the last ten years or so, I've rolled my eyes (inwardly, at least). Yes, it's much more affordable than getting a record or CD pressed, and the physical format leaves much more of an impression than a pack of songs that exist online only. But in a time where, as I've discovered recently from talking to people, a lot of people under 40 don't even own CD players (though, in a remarkable twist, they might own turntables), the chance of people owning tape players seems even less likely. That makes the whole format seem even more intentionally esoteric. One of the people I'm about to write about doesn't even own one, so he can't even listen to his own album!

Now I have to eat some crow. In the past week, I've come into possession of no less than three cassette-only albums. Granted, two of them are more than 30 years old, and one is new but I have to get off my high horse because it's been kind of fun popping these things into the machine, hoping the tape won't break and hearing the music in a different format. 

These purchases all started with Barnacle Choir. Occasionally I revisit the great '80s compilation At Dianne's Place, which I've talked about here in previous entries. Right around the time that I dug into the bands on that comp that were on Pitch-A-Tent, I also tried to hunt down any music by Barnacle Choir, a Santa Cruz quartet that kicked off side two of the album. "You're Gonna Crawl" was a weird hybrid of elements that all worked - post-punk rhythm section, semi-psychedelic guitar that played some dreamy arpeggios and a vocalist who sang/barked lyrics in a non-stop barrage that recalled both Devo and any snotty punk guy you might catch at a show in 1987.

Barnacle Choir's discography consisted of a couple cassettes that we released by Warpt West Music. Not merely a two-shot operation, the label released a handful of other tapes, including one by Box O' Laffs, a pre-Camper Van Beethoven band (they sang "Ice Cream Every Day" before CVB did it). Both Barnacle Choir tapes were re-released on CDs at some point but they have never showed up on Discogs, The original tape of Trendy Candy for Happy Tourists, however, did show up, with one copy of Germany and the other here in the US. I made an offer on it and it was accepted. 

As I waited for the tape to arrive, I had to wonder what I had gotten myself into. I only knew one of their songs. With track titles like "Bullshit" and "Eat Shit," could the rest of the tape compare to the three minutes of bliss in "You're Gonna Crawl"? 

Upon opening the package, I felt like I had been transported back to the time when DIY tapes were a big deal and when people took pride in their packaging. This is no mere dub onto a stack of TDKs or Maxells. This baby looks, and sounds, professionally copied. The labels are meticulously applied to the tape - listing all the songs on them. And then, there's the lyric sheet, folded up perfectly so it fit in the case comfortably next to the tape. If you don't feel like following along with the tiny lyrics, the J-card lists all the song titles. 

Trendy Candies for Happy Tourists is listed as a C-90 and that's no exaggeration. This is a long tape, with 22 tracks in total. Barnacle Choir didn't adhere strictly to the faster-shorter rule of punk rock either. They weren't averse to letting a song last 7:17, whether or not that was good for the song. 

It's hard to pin them down stylistically too because these guys - vocalist Gary Gray, alternating guitar & bass men Dan Bottrell and Anatol Sucher (which is one of the coolest names in rock, if you ask me), drummer Dave Ward - had a variety of ideas going on. And they weren't afraid to give them all a good shot. They often sound a bit like a less polemic version of Dead Kennedys, with guitar lines that avoid power chords as lean a bit more towards surf without really landing there. Gray goes from rabid loudmouth to basso profundo crooner. These days, a mock country tune like "Alcohol Alcohol" has been done to death, but back in 1986 that type of parody was probably a bit fresher. Instrumentals like "Grooving On the Mellow Tunes" and "Floating Down the Nile" are repetitive but almost in an Eno-esque way. A track like "Self-Fulfilling Prophecy," in which Ward shows off his roto toms, has the kind of exciting primitive drive that could be heard in a band like Pylon. 

And "Eat Shit" ain't a bad tune. It comes of out a lounge act spoof - again, something that wasn't as much of a cliché  - and it kicks pretty hard. It's also a set up for "Easter" the best song on the album, coming as a reward for those who listened to the whole tape. The whole set contains some sharp lyrics from Gray, but this might have one of the best couplets: 
"Jesus Christ is playing golf
With Mao and Job and Tonto
Computer stars have gone too far
And Disneyland's moved to Toronto"

It has a lack of inhibitions - unafraid of sounding goofy yet coming across as deep, if ambiguous, at the same time, ultimately leaving the listener to figure it out. 

Trendy Candies might be overstuffed, but it reminds me of the way I listened to college radio as a teen: Even if you don't like the song that's on now, chances are the next one will be better. 

I jumped on the Barnacle Choir tape because the seller had also had another tape that I had been eyeballing but didn't jump on it, since the price seemed a tad steep. That tape was Christmas' Yin/Yang, which probably doesn't qualify as an official release. It's more like a set of demos for their second album, Ultraprophets of Thee Psykick Revolution, another album I've expounded on at length. Because of that, I figured it would never show up online, but there it was - for $30. Hmmm, I do love Christmas but am I that much of a fanatic, I wondered. That questioned was answered when someone else snagged the tape. 

Short story long, the guy with the BC tape had another copy of Yin/Yang that he was willing to part with, so I got both! Of the 10 songs on the tape, six wound up on Ultraprophets. Opener "Stupid Kids," in fact, sounds like the same basic track without the extra layers of guitars and harmonies. It's kind of cool hearing some of the songs stripped down, getting different found sounds in the breakdown of "My Operator" and the lack of tuned bowls in "Great Wall of China." Plus there's four new-to-me songs! "The Curse" sounds really familiar though it never wound up on any release that I could find. "I Wanna Be Your Albatross" has a riff that sounds close to Devo's "Freedom of Choice" and a crazy cheerleading vocal. For a set of demos, it's a good album. Now I've crossed the threshold into big fan into aspiring completist. 

Finally, we're back to the current times. Pond Hockey was a local band that shared the stage with my band the Love Letters at least once. I thought it was more but maybe I just went to see them as often as I could. They would have been right at home on a bill with Barnacle Choir back in the late '80s. Their sound was raw, fast and catchy, if Wire had come up listening to American garage rock and then created punk rock.

From the opening moments of Age of Anxiety, the levels are in the red on the tape deck, which means the sessions captured the reckless abandon of Pond Hockey's live shows. The guitars are in your face, pounding out trebly power chords. The drums are across the garage, but you can feel them as they push everything forward, with the bass in tow. Somewhere amidst all of this, Bob Pajich and Scott Silsbee add vocals to the songs. They get pretty buried to the point where I can't tell if "Shark" is an instrumental or if it has "oooh" vocals. But no matter, you feel like you're there with the band, who delivers 13 songs in about half an hour. 

Plus the cover art features a relief of the Ghost Ship, a dark ride at Kennywood Park that burned down in the '70s, and serves as the title of a Pond Hockey song. It was my favorite ride from the time I was old enough to go to Kennywood. Baldinger told me the limited number of tapes, released by Under the Quasar tape imprint, have sold out. But the album can be heard on Soundcloud.  

Post-script: After making my way through the Barnacle Choir tape, I went back on Discogs and noticed that the entry for its CD reissue listed contact info and a website, which seems to be run by vocalist Gray. Who knows if it's still functioning (I haven't tried to contact him yet). But if I can get the band's 84 BC that way, I'm game. 

So Ive come away with a better appreciation for the tapes. But even though these purchases make me think about grabbing, for instance, the Velvet Monkeys' tape Everything Is Right that I saw on Discogs recently, I'll probably just spring for the remastered version of Bandcamp that showed up recently. 

Thursday, September 29, 2022

CD Review: Ches Smith - Interpret It Well

Ches Smith
Interpret It Well

Ches Smith explains, in the liner notes to Interpret It Well, how he invited guitarist Bill Frisell to play a show with Smith's trio (pianist Craig Taborn, violist Mat Maneri and Smith on drums and vibes). The trio had been together for a few years with an ECM release (The Bell, 2016) to their credit and Smith was trying to make the trio his "road" band. After Frisell called asking about the music, the drummer invited him to play a show with the trio, which took about a year to schedule. . But "as we played the show, Bill felt like a natural part of the band," Smith says.

I can back him up on this. I was there when the group played at the Stone in January 2020. The music still had amorphous moments - similar to The Bell  - where it moved slowly, with direction coming gradually, from anyone of the four players at any given time. The guitarist's gestures felt like the most galvanizing moments too.

Interpret It Well brings that open feeling into the studio, with more than half the tracks lasting between 11 and 16 minutes each. What might start out feeling noodly and directionless gradually locks into a structure, or in some cases, feels like it reveals a structure that's been there all along but only begins to make sense after awhile. Don't blink or you'll miss something. The title track progresses in this manner, from a lone, snaky vibraphone line that gets joined by everyone else, leading to Smith to jump to the trap kit, with Taborn eventually ushering in a final movement, which grows out of a choppy solo.

"Mixed Metaphor" has an equally sprawling relief map of sound. Frisell begins alone in minor tranquility, joined by Taborn and Smith, whose vibes have the vibrato cranked on them. Around 7:30, the vibes lock into a 9/8 ostinato that Taborn picks up so Smith can return to the kit. Maneri bobs and weaves on top, bending notes and generally toying with the pitch. Eventually, the rhythm shifts to 5/8 which Taborn devours before things come to a close.

Throughout the album, the group stays true to Smith's assessment that they were a quartet, rather than a trio with a guest. The blend of viola and guitar in "Clear Major" flows over a two-note piano vamp and free drums. Everything breaks loose for a while, until Taborn whips up a stop-start piano riff, aided by Smith. There's no leader here but there is direction. In "Morbid," Frisell's harmonics inspire Maneri to bow some melancholia, which leads to vibes and whooping electronics before the guitarist brings in some of his trademark Americana twang. 

Many of these pieces change shape every few minutes, like free improvisation that's guided by some higher power with good ideas about how things should sound. In some ways, it's hard to talk about the album without giving the blow-by-blow details. When a piano part gets a little repetitious or it sounds like there's no theme in sight, the group always confounds expectations and delivers something that brings cohesion to both elements. 

In an interesting confluence of jazz and punk rock, the album's title and cover art come from Raymond Pettibon, whose often provocative illustrations graced the covers of many releases on SST Records, the label started by his brother Greg Ginn (Black Flag). 

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Remembering Anton Fier & Pharoah Sanders, plus other things from this month

What a month it's been - good and bad. First the good. After 11 months in the making, my album is finally all recorded and mixed. When I say "my album," I don't mean it's a solo album. It includes all four members of the Harry Von Zells, plus a few friends. It'll likely be another 12 months until you can hold it, as I want to get it pressed on vinyl once it's mastered. But keep this info in your memory bank. 

Back on September 10, vocalist Catherine Russell came to the New Hazlett Theater for a show presented by the Kente Arts Alliance. I wasn't familiar with Russell before that night, but Kente shows are always a good time, so I felt like I had to check it out.

Russell said she likes music from "the 19-teens to the 1960s - that's it," and she knows how to keep the older material fresh. Along with standards like "You Stepped Out of a Dream" and "East of the Sun (West of the Moon)," she got the theater jumping with "Swing Cats Ball" - a number written by her dad, Luis Russell, and recorded by Louis Jordan - and "Swing, Brother, Swing," her opening number, recorded previously by Billie Holiday. 

The four-piece band accompanying Russell was tight and spare, never overplaying when direct simplicity was the way to go. Drummer Mark McLean (pictured above along with Russell and bassist Tal Ronen) was a master of restraint. Every time it seemed like he would end a tune with a big run across his kit, he instead concluded with a simple crash, which elevated the whole band. 

One weekend later, the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival came to town. I covered it for JazzTimes and the dispatch might be available only to people with a subscription but here's a link to it. If you can't read it, the short answer is, it was a great time. 

Then there was the bad news, which of course is common knowledge at this point. Along with the passing of Anton Fier and Pharoah Sanders, I just read this afternoon that Sue Mingus, the fourth wife of Charles Mingus and gatekeeper of his music, died on September 24 (location and cause of death haven't been announced yet.) She was 92. 

Certain albums could be considered watersheds in my collection, meaning they turned me on to people or music that I might not have discovered otherwise. The self-titled debut by the Golden Palominos was one such album. By 1983, I was fascinated by anything that included guitarist/vocalist Arto Lindsay. I had finally gotten into his band DNA earlier that year and wanted to hear everything he was doing. To add to the intrigue, a review in downbeat gave the album a rare five-star review, calling it a new classic or words to that effect. I wish I had that issue with me (it's probably still at my mom's house) to quote it directly. 

Lindsay's name was all over this album, along with a rotating list of names like Bill Laswell, Jamaaladeen Tacuma and John Zorn, who not only play alto saxophone (my instrument!) but something called "game calls." The other constant musician on all seven tracks was drummer Anton Fier, who had played in the first Lounge Lizards with Lindsay. Fier played on every track on the Palominos debut, while Lindsay sat out "Cookout," an amazing blend of drum machine, live drums from Fier and turntable scratching and bass from Laswell. (It was likely the first time scratching appeared outside the context of rap music. Laswell had it down too.) 

Opening track "Clean Plate" lived up to the downbeat praise, but the rest of the album was a head-scratcher. It was hard to make heads or tails of things, or who was playing what. Could Arto really play or was he just making a racket? What were those game calls that Zorn had, and did he know what he was doing? So I kept on listening. Becoming obsessed with Zorn, I soon followed him onto That's the Way I Feel Now, a Thelonious Monk tribute album and my entrance to the magical world of that pianist. 

I'm getting off track here but the point it, if it weren't for Anton Fier's vision of the Golden Palominos, I wouldn't have discovered all this music. The album has been combined to work by Material, the band helmed by Laswell and Michael Beinhorn, which also had musicians coming and going from track to track. But in 2017, Lindsay told me:

Those songs were totally built in the studio. I was so naïve coming out of DNA. I had no notion of musical structure. Anton, on the other hand, was a budding indie rock producer who was really clear on that. We really butted heads. We wanted to form this band together because in the Lounge Lizards, we had kind of wanted to make a rock band. And we wanted to call the Lounge Lizards 'The Golden Palominos' at one point. 

"Anton and I went to a motel upstate to write these songs. And we, basically, couldn’t really write together. That record was kind of stitched together in a way. The structures, that’s really Anton...Like he’d do a rhythm track and he’d kind of structure everything together. But the way that he put together the grooves and the improvisors, that’s pretty much him." 

Of course, that album was lightening in a bottle, never to be captured again in the studio (though I have a live tape of the core lineup playing some of that music.) The Palominos are better known for their songs with Syd Straw on vocals, or Michael Stipe singing the Moby Grape classic "Omaha," For my money, though, that first album - and the Feelies' Crazy Rhythm - are Fier's finest works.  

In reading about his passing, a friend of a friend on FB said he met Fier later in life, after the drummer had stopped playing music and got some (unspecified) day job. I couldn't believe it. Sure the Golden Palominos, the Feelies and Lounge Lizards might not be huge but this guy was in Sugar with Bob Mould too, and probably had myriad contacts in music. And he gives it up for a day job?! I can only hope that he left us with some inkling about the impact he had on adventurous ears. 

It's very likely that I heard Pharoah Sanders' "The Creator Has a Master Plan" on the radio around the same time that I read about the Golden Palominos. WYEP-FM had a number of jazz shows in the early '80s, including a weeknight one called Fat Tuesday. I'm not sure if that was where I heard  "The Creator" but the title was already familiar to me. Pharoah's albums were printed on the inner sleeve to my Steppenwolf albums, since both were on ABC-affiliated labels (Impulse! and Dunhill, respectively). Other titles like "Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah" and "Summun Bukmun Umyun (Deaf Dumb Blind)" stuck in my head from a young age, making me wonder what they meant or what they sounded like. I'm not sure if that radio show was my introduction to Pharoah's hair-raising altissimo shrieks on the tenor, but a few years later, I was snatching up the few used albums of his that floated my way. 

Kente brought him to town in 2010, and I knew that it was my mission to interview the great saxophonist. It wasn't easy. I called him at several specific times but only got his answering machine. When I finally did get him on the line, he was a man of few words, despite my meticulous way of phrasing questions so they wouldn't sound like the same old inquiries. I felt a little vindicated upon hearing that another local scribe had the same difficulty. I also felt privileged because I got him to talk about John Coltrane, and that's when he opened up.

But Pharoah wasn't the type of guy who would suddenly be loquacious with an interviewer whom he had just met minutes before. A few stories I heard over the years offered a great understanding of the enigmatic musician, who was nowhere near as fierce as the cover shot on The Village of the Pharoahs might have implied. One story came from a session that he did with a significantly younger group of adventurous musicians. When I wondered what the conversation was like, a person close to the band said that topics that would get Pharoah going usually involved subjects like what people were planting in their garden that season.

The other story came from New York trumpeter/bass & alto clarinetist Matt Lavelle. Several years ago, he and Pharoah were walking through Times Square in bitter cold weather. When Lavelle expressed the desire to get out of the cold, Pharoah protested: "No, man, this is nature. And I want to feel it, cold or not." 

Thank you, Pharoah.

Thank you, Anton.

Thank you, Sue.

Thursday, September 08, 2022

CD Review: Ethan Philion - Meditations on Mingus / Harry Skoler - Living in Sound: The Music of Charles Mingus

Ethan Philion
Meditations on Mingus

Harry Skoler
Living in Sound: The Music of Charles Mingus

With this being the centennial of Charles Mingus' birth (on April 22, 1922) there has been much effort spent celebrating and opining about the great bassist, composer and occasional pianist. And no milestone birthday is complete without a tribute album. Or two.

Tribute albums can be a slippery slope, and a salute to Mingus proves more challenging than most. It isn't enough to blow his tune and perhaps improvise over the changes. The participants need to understand Mingus the personality or, to put it another way, try to consider all the layers that made the man - volatile at one moment, sensitive and gentle the next. It can almost be like taking on an acting role. 

Unlike his hero Duke Ellington, Mingus didn't make music geared towards mere entertainment; he forced his listeners to feel something. Stephanie Nilles understood that when making I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag - the While Flag, her 2021 album of  Mingus tunes for solo piano. As mentioned in another post recently, Kirk Knuffke and Jesse Stacken pulled off a tribute to the Baron with just cornet and piano (Orange Was the Color, 2011).. Ku'Umba Frank Lacy created a set of Mingus vocal pieces in 2015 on Mingus Sings which was successful for the most part, as long as Joni Mitchell or Elvis Costello's lyrics weren't involved. It helped that his Mingus Big Band friends were on hand. Not to forget Hal Wilner's sprawling Weird Nightmare (Meditations on Mingus).

Coincidentally, two of the albums above were released on Sunnyside, the same label that has released two new Mingus tribute albums. (The label was also responsible for the live Mingus album At Bremen 1964 & 1975 last year.) Both approach the music from different angles, bringing out different qualities in the music. 


For his eight-song set, bassist Ethan Philion's chose compositions that touch on social and economic issues still as relevant today as they were when Mingus composed them, up to half a century ago. Philion assembled a 10-piece band for Meditation on Mingus. The lineup harkens back to the groups that appeared on Mingus Ah Um in 1959 and, more specifically, Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus which featured a similar large ensemble four years later. The size of the group launches the rich sonorities of "Once Upon A Time There Was a Holding Corporation Called Old America" (later retitled "The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers" when it was released). One of the bassist's more composed works, Philion still leaves room for members of the band to blow a bit, some doing it all at once.

"Self Portrait in 3 Colors" was originally presented in three layered choruses with no improvisation. Philion's arrangement expands on the theme, having saxophonists Geof Bradfield, Max Bessesen and Rajiv Halim play the melody each with a slight delay in the opening chorus for a lush effect, then giving trumpeter Russ Johnson the rare chance to solo on the great ballad, which he does gracefully. 

"Haitian Fight Song" was one of Mingus' hard hitting pieces both in message and delivery, built simply on a vamp and a single line played in canon form, with the expectation that the players would lift the bandstand as it proceeded. Mingus' remake of it as "II BS" added extra punch, due in large part to drummer Walter Perkins. Philion's band plays skillfully here but their execution lacks some of the visceral quality of the original. This could be attributed to a production that underplays Dana Hall's drumming.  Punch can be heard in "Prayer for Passive Resistance," though, which features a biting solo from Halim's alto. 

Perhaps the most ambitious undertaking was the multi-sectioned "Meditation on a Pair of Wirecutters" which often blurs the line between written and improvised, with precision playing second fiddle to drama. The group captures the fury that Mingus strove for in the original. Special mention should also be made for "Better Git It In Your Soul," which concludes the album with the coda from the Mingus Mingus version, a stomping blues that takes it home. It has a good time feeling to it, but Philion and his comrades make sure that gravity comes along with the upbeat mood.

Clarinetist Henry Skoler's first exposure to Mingus on record was 1974's Mingus Moves, a transitional and somewhat overlooked piece in the bassist's extensive catalog. The album included a female vocalist on the title track and a rare instance of compositions by other members of the bassist's quintet. This gateway helps provide a more unique perspective for Skoler's tribute, which was assembled with help from tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III (who produces but does not play on the album). 

Along with Skoler's rich clarinet playing, Living In Sound includes only one other horn, Nicholas Payton's trumpet. Instead, the music relies on a string quartet along with an A-list rhythm section (pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Christian McBride, drummer Johnathan Blake). Vocalist Jazzmeia Horn sings the vocal on "Moves."  The album concludes boldly with an Skoler original, "Underdog," the name referencing Mingus' infamous book Beneath the Underdog.

If clarinet might seem like a questionable instrument to lead a Mingus tribute, Skoler casts aside any doubt in the opening moments of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." He plays with a muscular tone that gets to the heart of the piece. Skoler, a professor at the Berklee College of Music, understands the efforts needed to produce convincing versions of the music.

The arrangements are divided between Darcy James Argue, Ambrose Akinmusire and Fabian Almazan. Argue adds some Psycho-style strings to the intro of "Peggy's Blue Skylight." Even if it serves as a red herring, it offers a good gateway to the tune. Akinmusire's take on Don Pullen's "Newcomer" (from Mingus Moves) turns it into a haunting chamber piece that brings new life to unheralded work. He brings a similar type of misterioso to "Invisible Lady." 

"Moves," which was penned by Doug Hammond, the trumpeter with Mingus in 1974, also gets a new lease on life. Almazan's arrangement leaves the strings out, and Horn gives an understated performance, with McBride, Payton and Skoler (with some high register wails) convincing listeners that it might be time to reexamine the original album.

Although the strings never really veer into sweet territory, they don't always seem to fit the mood either. "Remember Rockefeller at Attica" (the one tune that overlaps both of these albums) benefits from Skoler's out of tempo interludes, with Payton adding a strong counterpart, but the piece might have been better had it just been the quintet. Moments like this also compare to Philion's set, where the group plays well but the crisp recording doesn't capture the rugged atmosphere of a Mingus session. The success of "Newcomer" and "Moves" almost begs for Skoler and Smith to dig deeper into Mingus' more orchestral works like "Eclipse" or "Weird Nightmare" which would benefit from this sonic backdrop.  

But like Mingus, the album offers new discoveries with each listen. The clarinetist's original "Underdog" wraps things up with a free moving piece that leans into the duality of its inspiration, both turbulent and gentle at the same time.