Wednesday, June 29, 2022

4LP Review - Hasaan Ibn Ali - Retrospect In Retirement of Delay: The Solo Recordings

Hasaan Ibn Ali
Retrospect in Retirement of Delay: The Solo Recordings

Stop me if you're heard this one before. Or skip ahead to the next paragraph. Normally I'm not one to get excited about Record Store Day items. Typically there is nothing available on that day that is brand new. If there is, chances are I won't be able to nab a copy in time. And I'm not fighting crowds in the wee hours of the morning to get something like that. I don't do that for estate sales (at least not now) or for pricey new things. 

But at the Illegal Crowns show (covered in the previous post), a friend reminded me of the set of newly discovered solo performances by the elusive, late pianist Hassan Ibn Ali. The music had been released digitally last November, but on Saturday, June 18 the four-record edition of the Ibn Ali set was available as part of an RSD Drop Day, when some RSD releases were made available. When I realized I had that day off from work, I decided to try my luck, not at 6:00 a.m., but around 9:30 a.m. at the Attic in Millvale. Sure enough, several copies of Retrospect in Retirement of Delay: The Solo Recordings were still available. So I grabbed it. Yes, it was pricey but it might be the best $85 I've spent on one release. And that includes The Complete Lee Morgan Live at the Lighthouse

Hassan Ibn Ali barely registers as a footnote in jazz history, at least outside of his hometown of Philadelphia. Though he was widely admired as a pianist and composer, he only released one album in his lifetime, and that one piggybacked on the established drummer who helped make it happen: The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan (Atlantic, 1965). A second album was recorded, but Atlantic shelved it when Ibn Ali was arrested on a narcotics charge. It finally saw the light of day last year as Metaphysics, a wholly unique quartet set that featured Odean Pope on tenor. Unfortunately, the pianist died 40 years prior, never living to see recognition for his playing.

Retrospect in Retirement of Delay comes as a revelation, one that could actually elevate Hasaan Ibn Ali's stature far beyond the scope of jazz critics and collectors. These solo piano performances were recorded informally by Alan Sukoenig, a friend of Ibn Ali's, between 1962 and 1965 in lounges on the University of Pennsylvania campus and at a few apartments around the city of Brotherly Love. They are to the pianist what Dean Benedetti's tapes were to Charlie Parker - except with much better sound quality (raw as it often is) and complete performances. They provide a greater understanding of a truly unprecedented player. As Matthew Shipp says in the accompanying booklet, "Here we get a full look at his poetic vision and imagination as it manifests as an alternative post-bop universe of sorts, and as a pianistic orchestral complex slab of dense beauty."

The recordings include both originals and jazz standards, which, side-by-side, work together to provide a deeper look at the pianist. Nowhere is better exemplified than the sequence of "Body and Soul" and Thelonious Monk's "Off Minor." The former lasts close to 14 minutes, with Ibn Ali unleashing chorus after chorus without any break in the flow of ideas. He seems to utilize the entire range of the piano for the piece too. "Off Minor" was one of Monk's most characteristically swinging tunes, which inverted a classic chord pattern and produced one of his most hummable melodies. Ibn Ali treats it with respect but, as Shipp points out, bends the song to his own will in a very natural way, something that doesn't always occur in a Monk cover.

Ibn Ali's percussive attack in "Sweet and Lovely" hints at another iconoclastic pianist - Cecil Taylor, who also played this tune on his debut album. Between this and some of the rapid stop-start waves that almost evoke Bud Powell (one might almost expect to hear Ibn Ali quote "Glass Enclosures" in a few spots), the pianist puts himself in league with the major players that preceded him. His torrents of notes also recall Art Tatum (his "On Green Dolphin Street" almost gets a little too heavy), as well as Monk, Powell and Taylor. It's a stature the Hasaan Ibn Ali rightly deserves. 

In reading through the rest of the booklet, penned by Sukoenig with extensive quotes from others who knew the pianist, it's hard not to feel bad for the way for the way the man born William Henry Lankford, Jr. ended up. His odd personality (these days, he might be considered on the spectrum) made it hard for him to get gigs, so he stayed at home with his parents, playing piano all day. If he went visiting friends, he often sat down at their piano and kept playing. When a fire destroyed the Lankford home, eventually taking the lives of both parents, Ibn Ali was devastated and sent to live in a home. Yet, while he was there, Odean Pope visited frequently and his friend was still coherent enough to discuss music with him. 

Too often the word "genius" is thrown around at people who do groundbreaking work that impresses others. Sometimes they get recognition, sometimes they die before a major crowd knows what they've accomplished. Retrospect in Retirement of Delay - both the music and liner notes - might lead some people to call Hasaan Ibn Ali a genius, and maybe they'd be right. But every so-called genius is likely to be a guy from the neighborhood who just happens to be really damn good at what he does. So good that another neighborhood guy named John Coltrane might pick something up from him. Forget about the accolades and just listen, because you might not be the same after you do. 

Yes. It's that good. 

PS Although if your record store doesn't have the four-record set, there are several copies for sale on Discogs as of this writing, all for a bit less than what I paid. 

Friday, June 17, 2022

Live Reports: Editrix and Illegal Crowns in PIttsburgh

Not sure why, but my activity on this blog seems to take a nosedive when June comes along. Last year, I did one post in June. In 2020, I did three. Now here it is, 16 days into the month (as I type) and this is the first activity I've done this month. Full disclosure, I have a JazzTimes assignment and there have been some family activities going on (kid off to camp for two weeks), so that's taken up time. And in less than seven days, two amazing guitarists have come to town with some great bands and I caught both of them. So before I run off to listen to a CD that I'll actually spend the night trying to unearth from the multitude of stacks around the laptop, here's my flash on those shows.

I kept my cards close to my chest about it, but Wendy Eisenberg (pictured above) came to Pittsburgh back in February and added one guitar track and two banjo tracks to the album I'm in process of recording. I really love Wendy's style so I was beyond psyched to hear that their band Editrix was coming to Pittsburgh. The trio was scheduled to come back in February, which was when Wendy was originally going to record the tracks, but the tour was cancelled at the last minute. (They came anyway a few weeks later, without the band, to do the session.)

Wendy's musical output is really varied. Some of it is closer to singer-songwriter with a warped, post-jazz approach to melody and time. Some of it as free and unhinged. The trio Editrix just rocks. In some ways, they sound a bit like early Minutemen - tense and aggressive, ready to stop or shift gears on a dime. But as good as D. Boon was, he didn't have the chops that Eisenberg has. And on top of all that  somewhat heavy thrash, there's Eisenberg's voice - high and a bit sweet, but jarring in a way that fits perfectly with the music. 

The band's sophomore release is titled Editrix II: Editrix Goes to Hell and their set at the Government Center record store (Saturday, June 11) kicked off with the title track (the second part of it the title) which in turn kicked off with Eisenberg creating the sound of a melting guitar without even using a whammy bar. It was like mutant surf guitar that stayed out in the sun too long. While Wendy wailed on guitar, Steve Cameron played some solid double stop bass lines and Josh Daniel pushed it along behind the drums. The three of them fit the well-oiled machine description, going from song to song with a barely a nod of acknowledgement from one to the others.

Their set skewed towards the tracks from the new album. But they also made room for the great thrasher "Tell Me I'm Bad," the title track to their 2021 album. Eisenberg announced a medley that would evoke Broadway (if I remember correctly) but actually combined the newer "Heiroglyphics" with last year's "Torture," the former sounding both unsettling and relaxing with whispered vocals. Sometimes when you look forward to a show, you build it up in your mind so much that the real thing can be a letdown. Not so last week. Editrix raised the bar. 

Both local openers deserve some shout-outs too. The trio Emptier started the night off with what was apparently their debut gig. If that's true, these fellas are off to a great start. They recalled a style of '90s indie rock, with guitar lines that were fairly melodic, built on single string riffs as well as chords. Vocals were tense, not in the lung-shredding way but with a sense of dynamics and drama. 

Sometimes, long-standing Pittsburghers microwaves have been a little too heavy for me, but on this night, I was ready to be mowed down by their power. Heavy guitars, sub-bass bass, some weird electronic loops going in the background, screamed vocals that felt like they actually meant something. It all hooked me in. Only the accidental feedback squalls made me head to the other room for a break. 

I wanted to look around at the vinyl selection at the store but, between bands, the attention span was just not there. I'll be back over soon.

Illegal Crowns were supposed to tour the US in June of last year. But pianist BenoƮt Delbecq couldn't get into the US so the remaining members of the group - Mary Halvorson (guitar), Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet, flugelhorn) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums) - went on tour anyway, coming as close to Pittsburgh as Cleveland's Bop Stop (see photos here). But last night (Wednesday, June 15), Pittsburgh got lucky because all four members of Illegal Crowns came to City of Asylum's Alphabet City venue on just the second night of their long overdue tour.

It was clear from the start that this group was different from the other projects I've seen by some of these players, including the trio of them last summer in Ohio. Delbecq has stealthily prepared the strings of the piano using a set of small sticks with tacks in them. For the opening piece, it made the piano resonate more like a marimba. (After the set, Delbecq showed a few of us what he uses on the strings, telling up how he doesn't use metal, in part because metal on metal piano strings can cause damage.) 

Throughout the set, the music had a subdued quality too it. Bynum cut loose during a few solos, but it wasn't until the final tune of the night that the whole band really got loud. Fujiwara played at a relaxed level, using brushes frequently. Whacking was not necessary, and the approach worked for the 6/8 foundations of several tunes. There were also a couple pieces that could be considered ballads.

The group didn't back announce any titles, so I can't connect the set to any particular tunes. I could've taken some extra steps to get details, but the unknown quality felt right the way it was. There were some moments where things began to take off, like when Halvorson added a skittery solo later in the set. Delbecq approximated gamelans in another tune where Bynum's cornet and Halvorson's strings played lines together than went against the "vamp" that the other two were laying down. 

After the set, I picked up the band's The No-Nosed Puppet album on RogueArt (it was the first time I've ever seen RogueArt vinyl). In the album's liner notes, guitarist Joe Morris says, "I could listen to one minute [of the album] over and over and still find things that I didn't hear before." Here's right. On my second listen today, I heard things that I didn't pick up on the first time. (Which is why, as I feel I state in every review, it's important to keep coming back to albums rather than expecting to have it all revealed on the first spin.) In a similar way, last night there was a whole lot to take in - new sound combinations, new ways of interacting, new compositions.