Friday, April 29, 2022

Jason Stein, Damon Smith, Adam Shead and Friends at Alphabet City

From the moment that Jason Stein, Damon Smith and Adam Shead started playing this past Monday at Alphabet City, they were engaged in a rollicking three-way conversation. Bass clarinet, bass and drums, respectively, hit the opening note like they were playing a composition but was followed was built on pure improvisation. 

Stein has come to Pittsburgh several times, including several visits with keyboardist Paul Giallorenzo. The trio with Smith and Shead felt like the most exciting performance so far, bringing out some of his most inspired playing. He mixed rapid clips of melodies with growls and slap-tongued moments that could have gone on all night. 

Behind him, Smith attacked his bass, sometimes literally. After playing with knuckles on the neck and plucking rapidly with his right thumb, he had a whole arsenal of bows which he jammed under the strings when he wasn't doing any arco work.  He also weaved a stick, Sonic Youth-style, among the strings, detuned his low E-string and rattled a plastic chain on the instrument. There are physical players out there, and people like William Parker often brandish two bows, but Smith really seems like the most visceral bassist of them all. Again, despite the spontaneous nature of the music, he displayed a drive that knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish. 

Then there was drummer Adam Shead. The Buster Keaton of the group. Well, that's not really true because he didn't do any physical comedy during the set. But Shead maintained a deadpan expression throughout the set while he walked offstage with ringing bells in his hands, placed electric toothbrushes on his drum heads for a sustained tone and blew into his snare drum (see above). He also sat down at the house piano for some prepared piano work. He and his bandmates eventually moved into what felt like some free bop, with Stein showing no shortage of sonic options from his instrument.

When the trio paused after playing for about 30 minutes, they brought up three additional musicians. Bassist Eli Namay used to live in Chicago, where he knew Shead. He now lives in Pittsburgh and plays with pianist Mark Michelli and vocalist Mai Khoi, who also joined them onstage. 

The sound, naturally, took on a completely different shape. Michelli did some prepared piano techniques in addition to clean playing, which made the music more expansive. The addition of a second bassist didn't muddle the sound at all, since both players were listening closely to one another and complementing the sound. 

Personally, I'm very particular about vocals in free improvisation (one might say "fussy"), even when they take on the role of an additional instrument. Khoi did a lot of drawn out, low growling but she worked in tandem with the rest of the group rather than floating over them. A friend seated more in the center of the room, which  picked up more of Khoi's voice through the p.a., really liked it. So perhaps my seat on stage left cut me off from the sound. While I was partial to the trio's opening set, the sextet's part had a lot of energy, inspiring Shead to gradually dismantle his trap kit, putting various drums in different places in the performance space, many with the electric toothbrushes vibrating in them. 

In addition to the performance itself, it pointed to the fact that there seems to be a new batch of players around town who are into free improvisation. Namay mentioned weekend sessions at Kingfly Spirits and a couple other gatherings. When you're not out very all the time, it can be hard to keep up with this.(Thanks, day job.) Hopefully it continues, with even some crossover to some of the most established free-thinking players around town. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

CD Box Review: Lennie Tristano - Personal Recordings 1946-1970

Lennie Tristano
Personal Recordings 1946-1970

Not long ago I was listening to another Mosaic set, their massive collection of Charlie Parker recordings made by Bird fanatic Dean Benedetti. For anyone who doesn't recall, that box consists of nothing but Parker alto solos - in other words, incomplete songs - recorded in clubs with extremely lo-fi means, paper recorders and record cutters. Some of it sounds awful, some of it sounds not bad. 

One definitely has to be in the right frame of mind of enjoy the set. (The late Phil Schaap's detailed notes helps fire up the obsessive minds by setting the scene, musically and historically.) But what got my ears that day was to imagine what it might have sounded like right in the room when Parker was playing, thinking past the limited recording to imagine witnessing those revolutionary lines emanating from his horn. Even without the whole performance, you come away with an appreciation for how great Bird was.

Charlie Parker loved Lennie Tristano and the feeling was mutual. They understood each other. While the pianist's career was markedly different from his saxophone colleague, a similar feeling of history can be felt with Personal Recordings 1946-1970. The music on these six discs was never intended to be released. The varying sound quality and the similarity between tracks in some sessions bear this out. They were merely recorded to document performances, maybe to offer reference or personal critiques during playback. Though he played in very conventional jazz situations (relatively speaking), a greater appreciation of Tristano's technique comes with deep listens rather than casual ones. One inside the music, things get pretty fascinating.

On the subject of "conventional," Tristano preferred rhythm sections that kept strict time, rather than swinging hard. In some ways it made perfect sense, giving the pianist the chance to lift off in whatever rhythmic grouping that struck him. Bassists like Arnold Fishkin, Peter Ind and Sonny Dallas (Pittsburgh's own!) hold the tempo down with some steady walking, often without the help of a drummer. 

Disc One features a series of live recordings with guitarist Billy Bauer. Fishkin appears on many of them, though the bassist is unknown on several tracks. The performances, at least some of them coming from wire recordings, vary widely in sound quality. Many have a lot of hiss, and several are marked by distracting quick fades that fade back up seconds later. Regardless, we're dropped in immediately into the creative mind of a pianist who seems like he could spin endless variations on some familiar chord sequences. "Surrender" finds Tristano getting a little exotic. "Three for Tea" (there are many title variations on classics, with changes under the surface offering hints) finds Butler on equal ground with the pianist. 

Disc two presents the pianist on his own, mostly in his home studio. The exception is the all-too-brief "Spectrum" recorded with overdubs by Rudy Van Gelder. Here, upper register lines cascade over a melody, with ideas that were pretty advanced for 1952. Several of the other tracks sound rather similar on the surface, with Tristano in the same key (probably C) walking at various paces in the left hand. His right hand gets pretty rich melodically and each track has a lot going for it. "Studio Time Melody" breaks away from this standard, adding an almost classical touch while maintaining plenty of jazz edge. These recordings incorporate the span of time listed in the album title, including the few tracks made as late as 1970. 

Disc three returns to the live setting from 1949 and 1950. Tristano and Bauer are joined by Lee Konitz (alto saxophone), Warne Marsh (tenor saxophone), Jeff Morton (drums) and either Fishkin or Joe Shulman (bass). This was a fertile period for everyone involved, coming right around the time that Konitz recorded several tracks for Prestige, many of which appear here: "Ice Cream Konitz," "Sound-Lee," "Fishin' Around" among them. It also includes a two-minute track titled "Live Free" in which the sextet does actually play freely before eventually shifting into a chordless tempo. (Around this time, Tristano also recorded "Intuition" and "Digression," the first document of jazz musicians playing free.) Aside from what sounds like varying pitch on "Ice Cream Konitz" and the multiple fades that make "Band Excerpt" a little frustrating, this is arguably the strongest music in the set. Over the steady rhythms, the horns, piano and guitar spin a steady web of melodic lines that are fascinating. 

Disc four features trios with Ind and either Tom Wayburn or Al Levitt on drums in recordings from the mid ''50s. While the sonic contrasts of the horns is missed after the last disc, this session benefits from the improved sound quality of Tristano's recording in his 32nd Street studio. In this setting, Ind gets some time to solo in addition to the leader, with "Oceans Deep" and "You Go To My Head" proving him to be an economical soloist who makes it count. Dallas also does a lot of walking on Disc five, but he gets a few opportunities to stretch out as well. "You Got To My Head" was clearly a favorite vehicle for Tristano, as this set features its third appearance.

Disc six begins with a session from Tristano's Hollis, New York home with Konitz, Bauer and Marsh. Recorded in 1948, it features seven tracks of free playing. Although things definitely sound loose and unstructured, each of the brief pieces (only two last more than three minutes) sound as if a tonal center is established, making them nothing like the adventures that Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman would take in the following decades. Sometimes things sound more like examples of musical counterpoint as the group stays fairly neat, never stepping on any toes and ending neatly. But each player clearly relishes the freedom, knowing exactly what direction they'd like to take, and balancing those choices with the contributions of everyone else.

The second half of the final disc takes it back to the clubs for a few songs with Dallas and drummer Nick Stabulas. The energy that Tristano puts forth in "Smiling Groove" almost seems like it has been brewing throughout the entire box set, reaching a climax. He thunders on his keys, feeling even more inspired to add some dynamics range that aren't always there in earlier tracks. The set closes 10-minute reading of "How Deep Is the Ocean" that brings Konitz back, along with tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, for a solid send-off. Konitz's tone really approximates Bird, but the way he utilizes pauses during his solo proves how he took Tristano's lessons to heart to find his own voice.

Tristano - and Konitz as well - improvises in a way that's often been called "cerebral," which ruffles the feathers of the pianist's followers. Taken as an insult, it's interpreted to mean that Tristano's approach to the piano is more about technique than feeling. I've always felt that "cerebral" implies deep thought, which results in engrossing solos, which is exactly what comes across on this set. The tapes might have been rolling, but the pianist wasn't concerned with recording history. He was simply working things out, or playing for the people. It was swung but it had a lot of depth, so calling it "cerebral" isn't a crime.

Lenny Popkin's liner notes go a long way towards saluting the pianist. While he is justified in the work, as Tristano is misunderstood to this day,  he sometimes goes pretty far on the defensive side, with continual references to the "Intuition" and "Digression" sessions, and how they predated all the other free jazz recordings.  He also emphatically states that Konitz and Marsh were not disciples of Tristano. "In fact, they are two distinct originals," he says. That's true, but the difference seems to be a more about semantics than cold hard facts.

Popkin, who played tenor with Tristano, also derides critics who have reviewed Tristano albums in the past, saying they follow a particular formula that says very little about the music. Hopefully this review doesn't include the same oversight but, as one of my teachers once told me, you can't write everything. 

The truly unique artists are often misunderstood. Like the Benedetti box  - with much better sound -  Personal Recordings definitely offers greater insight into this player who fell victim to that. Time for new discoveries.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

To The Bop Stop to See Ballister and Vandermark/Wooley/Lytton

This past Tuesday (April 19), it was time for a road trip to Cleveland. The Bop Stop was presenting Ballister, the trio of Dave Rempis (saxophones), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello) and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums). I was already mentally committed to the trip, having gotten way into Rempis last year after hearing several of his album. Then at some point, the trio of Ken Vandermark (reeds), Nate Wooley (trumpet) and Paul Lytton were added to the bill. Talk about a double-whammy! Vandermark & Wooley were slated to come to Pittsburgh in March of 2020 and I had even written a preview about it, one of my last pieces for Pittsburgh Current. But it was one of the first shows to be cancelled. I wasn't going to miss them this time.

It was encouraging to see that the Bop Stop's small parking lot was filled up when I arrived, about 10 minutes from the start of the show. This was the first time I've been to the venue and seen it pretty crowded. Glad to know that Cleveland's free jazz crowd still goes out to dig the music. Of course, things were starting at 6 pm, so no one would be out too late either. 

Vandermark, Wooley & Lytton's began with the drummer clattering on his snare. Throughout the set, he pulled a number of accessories out, placing them on the drum. In fact, his floor tom served more like a table for tiny cymbals, chains of what looked like paper clips and sticks as thin as pipe-cleaners. It was fascinating how much sound he produced by manipulating these items on the snare head. Early on Wooley began droning with his horn, producing a phase shifting sound - approximating a flanger pedal - just with his mouth. Vandermark's tenor sax was trembling in his hands and he wrenched some growls out of it, building in intensity. 

The music was totally free and may or may have been completely spontaneous. I add that qualifier because there were several pieces that ended with Vandermark and Wooley landing on a unison pitch or melody together. It could say simply be evidence of the rapport between these two or a bit of composition. Regardess, the blend of free moving sounds and a gentle conclusions kept things exciting.

For the second piece, Vandermark switched to clarinet and Wooley began by holding a piece of metal to the side of his bell, producing extra vibrations. He also used the piece as a mute, which created more jarring sounds. This part of the set in particular felt like a real three-way conversation. Lytton's approach to the drums felt less like a percussive role and closer to something melodic that fit in with what his bandmates were playing. By the end of the set, now that the floor tom was clear, he was swinging all over the kit.

Ballister started their set sounding slow and tense. Rempis had all three saxophones ready but began with tenor. Thing were free but as they proceeded, they opened up until they sounded like a rock trio. Maybe that had a lot to do with Lonberg-Holm's effects pedals, which were out of my sight-line as he sat sideways on stage, but that added to the mystery of the set. While I scribbled several pages of notes for the previous set, I spent most of Ballister's set just watching in fascination.

There were several peaks and valleys in the music. Rempis blew some lines that felt like the notes were melting as they left the tenor, Then he switched to baritone during a transition. Lonberg-Holm turned off the effects and bowed a clean sound, making things meditative. Nilssen-Love picked up a few shakers, using them when it felt right, pumping the kick pedal for accents, and eventually getting his own solo space, with dual floor toms on either side of him.

The band played continuously for about 25 before stopping to catch their breath. When they resumed, Rempis was on alto, which I could have listened to all night, with or without the rest of the group. He told me later that alto was his first saxophone, so that might have something to do with it.) But his melodic imagination was on full display, in a duet with Lonberg-Holm that again drew on clean sound and advanced lines rather than the visceral aspects. They were equally skilled at both ends of the sound spectrum. 

Before long, they were rocking out again though. It seems like a crazy comparison but their energy reminded my ears of the Stooges, not just their wile "L.A. Blues," either. By that point, loose hairs could be seen hanging from Lonberg-Holm's bow and Rempis was blowng some repetitive altissimo lines, while Nilssen-Love was windmilling with his shakers.

There were hints that both groups might play together for an encore, but that was dashed when the sound tech was removing microphones and the drummers were taking their kits apart. Not too much of a disappointment though, as this scribe needed to find some dinner and hit the road. Sometimes the drive home can feel tedious, but I left the Bop Stop feeling pretty refreshed ready to hit the road. 

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Recap of Vanessa Rubin & Her All-Star Octet (From April 9)

One night after the mssv show (see entry below), Vanessa Rubin and her All-Star Octet performed at the New Hazlett Theater. Like previous shows presented by the Kente Arts Alliance (The Cookers, Charles McPherson), everyone had to present their vaccination card to gain entry to the theater. We also had to keep our masks on during the show. 

Perhaps knowing that the show would not be completely sold out, the staff closed off the balconies on stage right and stage left at the Hazlett, which was the perfect place for patrons like me, who arrived just as things were starting. I wound up squeezing into a seat in front of center stage, next to some friends who had an empty seat between them and another patron. I appreciated the offer but it meant I felt too self-conscious about moving around during the performance, trying to work both my phone and scoop pad (which I use to take notes). Hence, I wasn't able to sneak a photo or two. My notes were scribbled in the dark but at least some were legible.

I'm rather particular about jazz singers. Fussy, one might say. I prefer instrumentalists when it comes to jazz. But I was piqued both by Vanessa Rubin's set - a tribute to composer/bandleader Tadd Dameron - and the group backing her up. The octet lived up to its name, with a saxophone section alone that consisted of Antonio Hart (alto, flute), Patience Riggins (tenor, flute) and Alex Harding (baritone). (The latter player has visited Pittsburgh in several different groups, from Oliver Lake's big band to Kahil ElZabar's trio.) 

The horn section was rounded out by Eddie Allen (trumpet) and Dion Tucker (trombone). The rhythm section consisted featured Brandon McCune (piano), Kenny Davis (bass) and Carl Allen (drums). The group was under the direction of veteran bandleader/trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, who conducted them. After a brief but rich medley of Dameron tunes, Ms. Rubin joined them onstage.

There are many musicians in jazz who could be considered forgotten or whose work is overlooked.  Pianist Tadd Dameron ranks pretty high on the list. Many people might not know his name, but hum a few bars of  that bebop classic "Hot House" and the lightbulb will go off above people's heads. (I did that very thing to someone a few hours before the concert.) He wrote several other songs that were really popular with his peers during the bebop era ("Good Bait," "Lady Bird") and the period soon after. He also wrote and arranged in a way that could make a small group come alive like a big band.

All of that happened on April 9 with Rubin's set. "Lady Bird" came to life with strong solos by trumpeter Allen and pianist McCune before Rubin went off on a scat solo that swung as hard as her bandmates' work. She also added some scatting to "Kitchenette Across the Hall," a deeper Dameron cut, that included some baritone shouts from Harding. The weight of Dameron's voicing skills was in full effect during "If You Could See Me Now." 

There were also moments where things got a little lush but the music never lost any of its impact. "You're a Joy" featured flute work from the sax section, which added a dreamy quality to the sound. Both Higgins and Hart doubled on flute at different times during the night and both of them blew with power. 

The stage layout included a table with flowers near where Rubin was standing. It seemed like it might have been there to help set a scene for some of the lyrics, giving them some more drama. But in the end, Rubin didn't go for such anything forced because she was too caught up in the music itself. Her ballads were tender without being flashy. She didn't need to over emphasize any of the lyrics because her sense of swing gave her an air of authority. Really, her performance proved she was just as much a musician as everyone else onstage.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Thoughts On Seeing mssv (Watt, Baggetta, Hodges) Live

This article contains corrections since it was originally posted. 

It's always good to be around people again, especially at a show and in particular when the show involves Mike Watt. My timing proved to be really on last Friday (April 8), as I arrived at Spirit right as mssv ("Main Steam Stop Valve") was getting onstage. My tardiness came because I had been in the studio overseeing the recording of keyboard parts for an upcoming album. I probably should have done a few blog posts about the previous recording sessions for it. In particular there was a day in February when I had none other than Wendy Eisenberg add a total stun guitar solo to one song and banjo parts to a couple other tracks. But those details will all come later. 

Back to Watt....

It should be said that mssv features Watt on bass, but it's led by guitarist Mike Baggetta, who writes most of the material. Drummer Stephen Hodges might be better known as Stephen Taylor Arvizu Hodges to anyone who owns Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones album. He's also played with Mavis Staples and with Watt on his Contemplating The Engine Room album. Baggetta has been called a "guitar poet" by Nels Cline and like that axe-slinger, he seems equally adept at improvisation and blasts of punk rock.

About a month ago, veteran music writer Jeff Tamarkin posted a comment on Facebook expressing his distaste for ongoing memes and comments that say certain bands and people of a certain age should hang it up because they're too old to rock. Getting old is a natural process, he said and "if you feel an artist should hang it up and stop performing, maybe the problem is with you, not them."

I thought about this as mssv tore into "The Mystery Of" because it was some of the heaviest stuff I've heard in a while, with Watt's thundering bass line complemented by the drums, with some mutant twang guitar overtop of it. If my online source is correct, Baggetta is in his early 40s, but Watt is 64 and Hodges is 70. And the sound they were churning up could leave people half their age in the dust. Not only that, they're playing 48 gigs in 48 days and traveling by van - at a time when it's still not exactly safe to be doing such a thing. (See below.) 

Looking at Watt and Hodges, with their thick glasses, I also remembered a friend telling me about seeing the late trombonist Jimmy Knepper perform once and how his non-descript features gave him more the look of a math teacher than a guy who played with Mingus. He defied that look and these guys did too. It was also wild to see Hodges playing what looked like a ramshackle kit, with a tom that wasn't connected to the kick drum and a towel over it. Sometimes it sounded like he needed new heads, but then on closer listening, the crack he produced from them seemed perfect for the music. 

Not being familiar with mssv's work, the whole set was a surprise to these ears. Three songs in, they went into "June 16th," a Minutemen instrumental from Double Nickels on the Dime. Their version was a tad slower than the original and much more deliberate: one section got extremely quiet and gentle, as if to consciously make it different from the original. This kind of dynamic shift showed up in a few of the songs (much of the set was instrumental) and it pushed the music feel a little more technical than visceral at times. 

But for every moment like that, they sprung back with rock. The rhythm section held things down while Baggetta toyed with his effects to twist the sound. They encored with a version of the Stooges' "Little Doll" that contained a stretched out, rubato version of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" and Pharoah Sanders' "Upper and Lower Egypt." I didn't quite detect the jazz tunes but since this post originally appeared, Baggetta messaged me and clarified that not only were they all in there, but the Sanders song was the source of Dave Alexander's bassline for "Little Doll." (How's that for worlds colliding?) Ben Opie, who played with openers Weekend Pants, posted a brief video on FB of the "Lonely Woman" portion that made it clear too. After they finished, Tauhid, the Sanders album with "Upper and Lower Egypt" played through the p.a.

Watt seemed a little more frail than usual, with a softer speaking voice than his usual gruff bark between songs. His walk seemed a little more labored too. We can't fault him for doing what he wants to do. I just hope he's not pushing himself too hard.

Which leads me to the PSA portion of this post. Within a few days of the show, a few friends posted online in the days following the show that they had COVID. They were all there, and to honest, none of us were wearing masks. Sure, it was a bar and you can't have a drink while you're wearing a mask, but we all should have been more careful. Last fall, Bob Mould pissed off a lot of his fans by insisting that everyone at his show needed to be masked. Of course, that was a different time and numbers have gone down since then. But this week, the numbers in Allegheny County went up again by about 50%. We should have been more careful. 

I was lucky. By getting there late, and not talking to anyone for more than a few minutes at a time, I somehow managed to avoid getting sick. (I've taken two tests this week.) We aren't out of the woods yet, even when Watt is involved. Be safe and smart, people. I want to do this again with you. 

Watt often ended shows in the past by saying, "Start your own band." Last week, my personal takeaway was, "Start playing again."