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 na├»ve 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. 

Thursday, September 01, 2022

CD Reviews: Kirk Knuffke Trio - Gravity Without Airs / Whit Dickey Quartet - Astral Long Forms: Staircase In Space

Kirk Knuffke Trio
Gravity Without Airs

Gravity Without Airs can't be described as a typical trio album, as if anything cornetist Kirk Knuffke plays could be mistaken for typical. This is a guy who impressively pared down Charles Mingus tunes to a duo setting (2011's Orange Was the Color, with pianist Jesse Stacken). His last two trio albums, both from 2020, got him together with drums and tuba (Tight Like This) as well as drums and bass (Brightness: Live in Amsterdam). Both were variations on the slightly standard horn-and-rhythm-section set-up. But on these two Gravity discs, Knuffke convenes a trio with bassist Michael Bisio (a longtime collaborator) and pianist Matthew Shipp, the latter playing with the cornetist for the first time. 

In some ways, the album - more than half of it improvised - could be heard as the longtime Shipp/Bisio duo bringing a third element into their musical world. Or Knuffke and Bisio adding a heavy extra element to their duo. No matter which way you spin it, the sessions end up feeling more like some deep three-way conversations than merely two-plus-one meetings.

Each disc features seven tracks, with the first, third and seventh on each based on Knuffke compositions. Everything in between is spontaneous. Sometimes the writing asserts itself, like the pedal point foundation of "The Water Will Win," giving it a distinct direction. But even an improvised track like "Stars Go Up" sounds like it could be based on a tune, in light of the way the piano and bass sound like they're moving together over a structure. Here, and throughout the album, Shipp and Knuffke meet and react to each other in ways that pushes the music further.

"Between Today and May" shows off Shipp's flexibility in a manner not always associated with his own albums. While the pianist can have a soft touch, especially on more recent work, he really gets caught up in the ballad quality of this piece, sounding especially gentle. Bisio, who begins playing arco, shows facility that goes far beyond the role of accompanist or a spark to start a free fire. Here, he sounds like another horn, playing counter to Knuffke's warm, deep tone. A few songs later, the cornet beautifully leads "Paint Pale Silver," rendering it like a tone poem.

The album also features plenty of open-ended blowing too. Knuffke relishes getting into the upper register and twisting the notes until they grasp for air. Bisio's plucking under the bass's bridge kicks off "Shadows to Dance" and his bent notes set an exciting course in "June Stretched." Shipp, who sounds more and more distinct as a pianist, plays in a manner than can be heavy without ever feeling dense. He also knows when to stop playing and let his friends have time to themselves. Hopefully these three will get back together again sometime soon.

Whit Dickey Quartet
Astral Long Form: Staircase in Space

Drummer Whit Dickey, the man behind TAO Forms, could have been the ideal fourth element on Gravity Without Airs if that session needed a drummer. He doesn't play in an overbearing manner, preferring to approach his trap kit in a manner that might be simple but adds significant elements to the music. In the opening of "The Pendulum Turns," he pumps the hi-hat and adds single hits on the toms, moving casually but with a flow. 

The other members of the quartet - Rob Brown (alto saxophone), Mat Maneri (viola), Brandon Lopez (bass) - play like they've absorbed Dickey's concept into their playing. There is a period in "Blue Circuit," the album's 19-minute opener, when they all seem to be collectively trying to negotiate which direction to take next. Eventually Maneri and Lopez lock in together, blurring the sonic lines between the strings, making it hard to tell who is bowing some upper harmonics and who is playing some fast lines. As engaging as the whole quartet gets, it's easy to imagine listening to a whole set of these two string players by themselves.

But Brown, one of the most distinctive free blowing alto players around, adds welcome energy any time he jumps into the fray. His tone continues to thrill, with a punchy execution and an endless supply of  harmonic ideas. 

All the tracks flow freely but each has a distinct feel to it rather than sounding like slight variations on fire music. "Space Quadrant" begins with strings alone, evoking creaking suspense and tension before building to a boiling point than includes the whole band. "Staircase In Space" moves a bit slower, with Brown digging into some long tones and Maneri bowing in kind. In "Signify" things finally get fully unhinged and frenzied, until Lopez and Dickey take their own duet that creates even more power in its shift.

The one time Dickey comes across as a leader/director might be a coincidence. The aforementioned "The Pendulum Turns" also includes a portion where the whole band sounds like they're swapping ideas and reacting to one another before they take off again. Like Art Blakey warning a horn player that his second chorus is almost up, Dickey starts striking one of his toms and the rim of another drum. It could be a call to a climax since it comes in the final 60 seconds of the tune. Or maybe it's justwhat the song called for. Regardless, this must be what William Parker means in his liner notes when he talks about "human music that will stand up to any dark forces in any universe." Emphasis on the "human" part.