Tuesday, December 26, 2023


After I write a post, I often check the tally to see how many posts I've written in total for the year, and compare it to where I was 12 months ago.  Most of the time, those numbers are relatively close. Sometimes, I catch up or figure I will within a months time, or before the year is out. 

But I really fell hard off the wagon in November, writing one piece and then disappearing from this spot. This month, as you can see below, I finally posted my lost article on Steve Tintweiss. Beyond that, nothing. 

Part of the reason for no blog content is related to some good news. I started freelancing for New York City Jazz Record. My debut had me hit the ground running: I was assigned to write three reviews for the December issue, each one on two albums, with a pretty quick turnaround. (I don't know how other scribes do it, but I'm used to giving an album several listens, and scribbling some notes before I start on a review. Call me crazy.) There was a bit of scrambling going on in preparation (mostly internally) but I got it done. And I even went back and wrote a few things for the January issue of NYCJR too.

November was also a big music month for me. On Friday the 10th, I made it to Brillobox in time to catch Creedmoors, who released one side of a split single on Igor Records (my label) earlier this year. This was the band's third show since their debut at the release party earlier this year and on this night, they really sounded like A BAND. What I mean by that was that they were all working in unison, playing songs in which they had worked on parts that took the song's concept and elevated it, as opposed to being four people on stage playing the singer's songs, adding their thing to it and just having a good time. Not that I have anything against the latter approach, which can be a blast as well. But virtually every song in Creedmoors' set felt like it could be on album - a good album. 

Unfortunately, the timer was set on my phone camera and in the pic above, bassist Mike Athey and guitarist Tammy Wallace both look like they were under a sun lamp too long. But this was a good group action shot. Gato Gateau and the Hi-Frequencies both played that night also, but since I was coming from my work, I missed all but the last minute of the Hi-Freq's set. 

The next day I drove to Philadelphia (stopping in King of Prussia before and after, hanging with my brother) for only the second time in my life. The first trip occurred back in 2004 when I went to see Mission of Burma. This time, the reason was once again musical - to see my dear friend Barbara Manning open for Codeine. 

The last time I saw Barbara perform was in the last century, at a show where my band at the time got to open for her. She was great then but the turnout was embarrassingly low, for which I felt really bad. Especially since I knew deep down that my band was on its last legs, though I tried to put on a good face. 

Barbara took several years off from recording and performing, going back to school and becoming a teacher, and getting married along the way. It almost seemed like she was retired from music, which is understandable, considering how she released several albums for a high profile independent label and didn't seem to get beyond categories like "critic's darling" or "cult figure" or things like that. But now she's playing a few shows here and there, and dadgum, she sounds great. Her voice is still really powerful, her onstage patter is great and engaging. And... I'm planning to release a single on Igor Records by her in the coming year. This will follow the recently released CD Charm of Yesterday...Convenience of Tomorrow. 

Below is a picture of me and Barbara, at the end of the night at Underground Arts, where she and Codeine played last month.

A week later, the Harry Von Zells, my current band, finally played another show since the record release, which we did with Creedmoors. We have a firm new lineup, with my former workmate Erik Worth joining us on Moog. He really adds some extra energy, not to mention sonic wildness, to what we do and it was really great to actually have people cheering and whooping for us. 

I don't have any pictures of the HVZs but here are shots of the other bands on the bill, Frazé-Frazénko & the Happy Lovers, who combined stark, brittle post-punk with an adventurous jazz rhythm section.

Following them, Bat Radar delivered a solid set that reminded me a bit of the Feelies, with an extra dash of raw power, and - dare I say it - Television, due to the way guitarists Will Simmons and Paul Labrise delivered some dual leads. 

I took out an ad in the long-standing magazine The Big Takeover and they also found someone to review the Harry Von Zells album in the same issue. That arrived in the mail at the beginning of December. The review really blew me away because it's not often that someone seems to have really listened to my songs, or at least given them a cursory listen while checking out the lyric sheet to see what I'm talking about, and critiquing what they hear. The writer compared my voice to Stan Ridgeway (Wall of Vooddoo) and Keith Morris (Circle Jerks) - which I think is pretty on the money. I'll take it!

After all that, one might think I'd be inspired to do more blogging, digging into this pile of music that surrounds me and - while not thinking that I can get ahead of it - just simply getting thoughts out about a few things. But it's been hard. Not simply to find the time but to find the focus to do it. Especially after the demise of that other jazz magazine where I freelanced for over two decades, my confidence is a little shaky. As I came up with the reviews for  NYCJR, I was worried that my style or thoughts might not fit in with their other writers. (My reviews all ended up running with little or no changes to them, so perhaps I was overthinking it.) 

Blogging always feels like something I should be doing only after all the real important things are out of the way, like laundry and the dishes and vacuuming. Sometimes I feel like I have ADD while writing because I get lured away from the keyboard by the least little things, and it can often take a whole afternoon to get a post together.

But, looking back at a post from almost this exact week last year, I was lamenting in almost the same way about all this stuff, and that time, the feeling wasn't part of a longer post that started with a tale of musical journeys like this one did. So perhaps I need to just remind myself that I got through this slow period once before, so just do it again. And I should quit writing about not being able to write. There are better subject to cover. 

Saturday, December 16, 2023

My Lost Article on Steve Tintweiss

First an introduction: Back at the start of the year, JazzTimes finally took me up on my pitch to do a story on bassist Steve Tintweiss. An interview was conducted, the story was written but then the magazine was sold. The story was left in limbo. When I wasn't feeling shy about approaching a few other magazines, I sent them the story and patiently waited to see if they were interested. After a while it became clear that, despite the story being a bit of an evergreen, it wasn't going to run anytime soon. So if I'm not going to get paid for my work, I might as well put it up here on the blog. Hopefully anyone reading it will realize why I was interested in talking to Steve in the first place. 

An hour into a conversation, Steve Tintweiss makes an astute observation. “I’ve been producing almost as long as I’ve been playing,” the 77-year old bassist says, on the phone from his home in Queens, New York. Production in this case comes in several different forms. He staged concerts at the Forest Park Bandshell and Music Grove in Queens from 1969 to 2003¸ which included both free jazz and rock acts. He also played and helped produce albums by experimental vocalists Amy Sheffer and the late Judy Stuart.

Yet Tintweiss might be better known for appearances on several albums in the free jazz canon of the ’60s. As a member of pianist Burton Greene’s trio, he played on Patty Waters’ 1966 debut album on ESP-Disk’, Patty Waters Sings, in a cathartic version of “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair.” The singer’s College Tour album featured a track with the Greene trio, who also recorded and released an album made during that same New York City State College tour.

One of Tintweiss’ favorite of his recordings also appeared on ESP a year later — saxophonist Frank Wright’s Your Prayer. At a time when a lot of free recordings lose the low end amidst wailing horns and percussion, that 1967 session has a good recording of his bass. He also admits another secret about the session. “We were all on LSD except for Jacques [Coursil, trumpet]. In those days, we were kind of experimenting with LSD. It was a challenge to discipline yourself when you’re that high to channel it musically,” he says.

Through Wright, the bassist met Albert Ayler, who later enlisted Tintweiss to perform with him at the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul de Vence, France. Those concerts there were released in their entirety last year as Revelations – The Complete ORTF 1970 Fondation Maeght Recordings, a five-record/four-CD package by INA/Elemental Music. Remastered for the release, the music also features greater clarity to his bass work.

But only recently has Tintweiss’ name appeared on any albums as a leader. In 2018, he launched Inky DoT Media, an imprint that draws from his personal collection of live performances, practices and radio broadcasts. With the entire archive now digitized, he’s finally put his name up front, offering snapshots of a nearly 60-year career and overlooked chapters from the heyday of what was then called “the new thing.”

By the time he was a teenager, the Queens native was hanging out in Greenwich Village. “There were a bunch of these coffeehouses that had all night jam sessions,” Tintweiss recalls. “There was no alcohol there so even as a 16-year old, I was able to hang out and catch a lot of music. I got to see Roswell Rudd and that whole school, Milford Graves and, before he even changed his name, Farrell Sanders.”

Tintweiss attended Queens College off and on, where he started a weekly improvisation session with saxophonist Dave Liebman and keyboardist Martin Reverby, who would become known as Martin Rev a few years later in the pre-punk duo Suicide. But eventually work with players like Greene put school on hold. 

During a Burton Greene set at Slug’s Saloon in 1966, Albert Ayler sat in with the band. (An excerpt of the performance appears on the 2004 Ayler box set Holy Ghost.) Tintweiss, who broke a string in the heat of the moment, must have made an impression on the tenor saxophonist because he received a call in 1970 asking the bassist to travel with him to Europe – in a matter of days. “I had to get an emergency passport,” Tintweiss says. “I had never even been on a plane before!”

The group arrived in France just hours before their first performance, leaving no time for rehearsal. Without any sheet music, Ayler gave Tintweiss one direction. “We’re playing in this geodesic dome, maybe 10 miles outside of Nice. It was in the woods, on top of a mountain,” the bassist recalls. “Before we played, we went behind the dome, into the woods. Albert said to me, ‘You start out with the bow and we’ll take it from there.’ That was it!” Both evenings went so well that the group wound up playing a free show at the resort where they were staying nearby.

As he remembers Ayler, Tintweiss says recordings never fully captured the saxophonist’s sound. “You could feel the room vibrate, the sound was so huge,” he says. “His sound was bigger than anyone I’ve ever heard. Not just in jazz. I’d have to compare it to the power of large symphony orchestras.”

In the years since Ayler’s death, which occurred just months after the Fondation Maeght trip, Tintweiss became a regular guest during Albert Ayler Day on Columbia University’s radio station WKCR-FM. There, the bassist met Ben Young, at the time the station’s Director of Broadcasting and Operations. Along with Joe Lizzi, Young took on the three-year task of digitizing nearly 400 of Tintweiss’ reels, cassettes and DATs. With the results recorded on a spreadsheet, the bassist launched Inky DoT Media to release the music.

Among the first releases was a 10” single by vocalist Judy Stuart accompanied by a group that included Burton Greene and cellist Calo Scott. (Tintweiss acted as music director, adding some vocals and tambourine.) The 1969 session seemed to bridge the gap between adventurous jazz and wild folk. MarksTown (2021) captures two 1968 performances by Tintweiss’ band Purple Why, one coming from a benefit for Operation Airlift Biafra, a concert that included folk singers Joan Baez and Phil Ochs. With vocalists Stuart and Amy Sheffer sounding a bit like a Greek chorus behind three horns, the ensemble moves from loose song structures to wild improvisations. A similar aesthetic comes across in last year’s Live at NYU 1980 by the Spacelight Band, which includes the late saxophonists Charles Brackeen and Byard Lancaster, drummer Lou Grassi and vocalist Genie Sherman.

By contrast, Ave B Free Jam takes the listener to a 1967 practice when Tintweiss, drummer Lawrence Cook, trumpeters Jacques Coursil and Warren Gale and clarinetist Perry Robinson (in a rare moment on bass clarinet) blow freely for 80 minutes. The music is definitely loose but never too manic. Two vastly different Inky DoT albums are due in the near future: Electronic Music of Steve Tintweiss consists of solo music realized at Queens College’s Electronic Music Studio in the mid-1970s; and another Purple Why performance from August 1967 “really captures the time and the flavor of the Lower East Side’s psychedelic era."

Coming from an era when fire music could have scorching results, Tintweiss’ archive reveals that nuances existed in free music as well. He placed equal emphasis on his composed work. “What I was interested in was a lot more personal to me, which involved a lot more structuring the framework for free form improvisation around my pieces,” Tintweiss says. “I always valued the power of a melody, [the way] you can impress somebody so that they remember the tune.” As Inky DoT increases its catalog, so too will it shine a light on these more unique moments of that period.

More info on Inky DoT Media releases can be found here

Friday, November 03, 2023

The Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert - Still Kicking in Year 53

The last time the University of Pittsburgh's Music Department presented the Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert in the tradition established by the late Dr. Nathan Davis,  the world was pre-pandemic and people flocked to the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland without fear of becoming ill. That was November 2, 2019. Nicole Mitchell was spending her first school year as the new head of Jazz Studies at the university. The one-time president of Chicago's heralded Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Mitchell had told this writer a few months earlier during an interview that the concert would "shake things up" this year.

That description turned out to be a bit of an understatement, as my post from a few days later would indicate. The avant-garde had finally found an academic home in Oakland, and the locals were not happy. Suffice to say, jazz can be like that. 

The pandemic threw a monkey wrench into the annual event after that, though last year featured a series of talks and a concert honoring pianist Dave Burrell, which simultaneously served as a farewell to Nicole Mitchell, who had left the city for the University of Virginia. 

But after a few years of suspense - and rumbles that we might not ever see a big concert event like it again - the Pitt Jazz Concert is back for its 53rd year, with an all star lineup of veteran players and newer, equally cutting edge players sharing the stage. The show takes place Saturday, November 4. The venue has changed this time, apparently due to construction happening at the Carnegie Music Hall. The music is moving Downtown to the Point Park University's Pittsburgh Playhouse, 350 Forbes Avenue. Things kick off at 8 p.m.  Like years past, there are also free seminars on the afternoon of the show, which I'll get to in a minute.

First the lineup.

Dr. A. J. Johnson (trombone) has been the interim head of Jazz Studies at Pitt since Mitchell left and in addition to his work at the school, he has also been active on the local jazz scene, crossing a line that previous leaders didn't do as often as they could have. Among other things, Johnson staged four separate recitals of Charles Mingus compositions at Alphabet City. The lineup he has assembled for the Pitt Jazz Concert includes some exciting players, some of whom might be widely known, others who might be under the radar, waiting to bring listeners to their feet. 

Drummer Lenny White might be one of the most visible members of this year's lineup. At the young age of 20, he made an auspicious debut as one of the drummers of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, playing on the title track. That album ushered in the blend of jazz and rock that became known as fusion, and White became one of the foremost drummers in that style. 

Most significantly, he held the drum seat in Return To Forever, one of the most successful groups in that style, if not overall during the '70s. White has since gone on to have a successful solo career, in addition to sideman work with artists ranging from Geri Allen to Ron Carter and Andrew Hill.  The drummer has also worked with bassist Buster Williams - a prolific artist and sideman in his own right, who also appears in the Pitt Jazz concert this weekend.

There always seems to be one guest at the Pitt Jazz concert who can make an attendee stop in their tracks, put aside any second thoughts about going and proclaim, "I'm there." My selection this year is trumpeter Charles Tolliver. He might not be well-known to the casual jazz listener but over the last half-century, he has made great strides for the both the music and the artists playing it. As a performer, he first showed up on albums like It's Time and Action by saxophonist Jackie McLean. The fire power in his playing paired perfectly with the leader's tart alto tone. Tolliver contributed some strong composition on those albums too.  

The trumpet player started a group in the early '70s with pianist Stanley Cowell, but the duo also launched the independent label Strata-East together. It might not have been the first label launched by jazz musicians, but it quickly garnered a reputation that continues to this day with listeners and collectors. Among the releases, the label had a hit with Gil Scott-Heron's "The Bottle."

Tolliver continues to play and record. In the '00s, Blue Note released With Love, a live big band album which revealed that time had not mellowed his musical outlook. When Gary Bartz performed his entire Another Earth album at the 2019 Winter Jazz Fest,  Tolliver joined him onstage, blowing in a manner that rivaled the late Pharoah Sanders, who was onstage that night as well. Connect, Tolliver's most recent album (2020) was a small group setting that also featured strong writing and playing. 

The concert's lineup also includes Keyon Harrold (trumpet), who came to town in 2019 during the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival, playing an emotionally-charged set Downtown on Liberty Avenue. In addition to his own work, Harrold played the trumpet parts in the Miles Davis film Miles Ahead and has worked with a number of pop and hip-hop artists ranging from Beyoncé to Mac Miller. Once called a "mugician" by filmmaker Don Cheadle, ("musician" + "magician") during the filming of Miles Ahead, Harrold considers Tolliver a mentor, so the combination of the two should set off some sparks.

Pianist Victor Gould, saxophonist/vocalist Camille Thurman as well as host Dr. Johnson complete the lineup.

As part of the weekend's events, three free seminars will take place on Saturday at the Frick Fine Arts building in Oakland. Nicole Mitchell will return to speak at 1 pm, followed by Gould at 2 p.m., and Harrold at 3 p.m. Thurman will host a seminar at the Afro American Music Institute (7131 Hamilton Avenue) at 2 p.m. 

For those who read this article in a timely manner, pianist Benito Gonzalez will perform a solo concert at Bellefield Auditorium in Oakland (315 S. Bellefield Avenue). 

Information and tickets to Saturday night's concert can be found at https://www.jazz.pitt.edu/jazzseminar.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Catching Up With ESP-Disk' - Albums by Painted Faces and Allen Lowe

A few new releases from ESP-Disk' arrived in the mail recently. Before I get to them, I want to do some quick takes on a few things that the long-standing label released a little while ago. 

Painted Faces
Normal Street

Painted Faces is the performing and recording moniker used by David Drucker. Though he hails from Florida, he has no connection to THE Painted Faces, a short-lived '60s garage band who coincidentally hailed from the same state. Drucker has been a resident of New York for over a decade now as well.

Normal Street not only continues ESP's crusade to keep rock weird, it continues in the spirit of everyone from the label's early sound pioneers like Cromagnon to artists like Jandek, who turn on the tape and let things flow naturally. Whatever happens becomes the end piece, with extra trimmings added on top as they go. If the players are still warming up (the guitar and guest harmonica in "Paranoid Dollhouse") so be it. "An American Werewolf in Ridgewood" begins with a wall of guitars that recall Eno's "Here Come the Warm Jets." The vocals sound like J. Mascis wandered in, though it also feels like we might be listening on a radio that will collapse into static if the antenna is moved just a few inches. (Anyone who grew up listening to low-watt radio knows what I mean.)
No two tracks are alike. In fact, the first half of one track might be completely different from what happens at the end. "Xea" almost feels like an epic, starting with distorted piano and vocals with delay effects before other voices (protesters?) overpower the song, eventually ending up with droning bass. The electronics that hum in many tracks also recall early Throbbing Gristle.

It's unclear whether underground or college radio still functions with the same purpose of previous decades, which motivates DJs to play the strange and unusual releases, hoping to both unnerve and blow minds of listeners. Normal Street (named for an actual street near a DIY space in Worcester, Mass.) belongs in that category of albums. Maybe this isn't casual listening but the sounds on this record can reel you in, wondering who the hell this is, leading you to keep listening to answer that question and to find out what will happen next. Take this record and play it. For everyone

Allen Lowe
America: The Rough Cut

In The Dark

A composer, author, guitarist and saxophonist, Allen Lowe know a lot about a lot. He's not afraid to let you know either. And if your perspective doesn't jibe with his, watch out. A quick look at his Facebook feed indicates that "cantankerous" might be an understatement when it comes to his opinions on certain topics. I once felt compelled to reach through the screen and backhand him after he went after some friends of mine - who he hadn't met - when they opined on the subject of Art Pepper's salacious memoir. (To his credit, Allen later apologized.)

This is not to say that Lowe thinks everyone is wrong and that his is the final word. He's just very passionate about what he does and thinks. Even if you get rankled by his rants ("No mention of Jo Jones in the recent Max Roach documentary?! What's wrong with people!"), anyone with a lick of sense can walk away saying, "Well, the man has a point."

Lowe is also the type of composer who doesn't let things like major surgery or insomnia get in the way of his muse. In fact, it virtually opened the door to a wealth of productivity in the past couple years. Along with throat cancer surgery, he had a cancerous tumor removed from his sinus, which left it hard for him to sleep. (In another example of not holding anything back, a thumbnail picture of his post-surgery face appears on America: The Rough Cut and it ain't pretty, bless his heart.) But in the move that should motivate all of us to pursue our visions, he penned four discs worth of music that ESP released this year.

America: The Rough Cut, Lowe explains in the liner notes "is my statement not only on American music and American song, but also my commentary on the way American musicians of all styles handle that old time music and those old song forms." Most of it features the leader on tenor or alto saxophone, along with guitarist Ray Suhy (who also plays banjo), bassist Alex Tremblay and drummer Kresten Osgood. 

Although he doesn't attempt to chart the entire history of American music, Lowe cooks up 13 tracks that follow a trail blazed by all manner of blues, country and jazz forefathers, blowing with a gritty, vast line of tenor ideas, bolstered by Suhy's often vicious, fiery fretwork ("Blues In Shreds," Metallic Taste"), making the latter a player who should be heard more often. In "Cold Was the Night, Dark Was the Ground," Lowe picks up the axe himself but although he references Blind Willie Johnson in the liners, his vocalizing sounds more a bad Tom-Waits-on-a-bender voice. (That's probably going to draw some Lowe wrath.) The album closes with "At A Baptist Meeting," a 2014 live recording of a band with a five-piece horn section including alto saxophonist Darius Jones and the late trombonist Roswell Rudd, who leaves us some beautiful growls. The sound (band and recording) makes a dramatic shift with this finale but the piece is worth it.

In The Dark is textbook Lowe: three discs of music with his sprawling tenor lines in company with some strong fellow horn players: Aaron Johnson (alto, clarinet), Ken Peplowski (clarinet), Lisa Parrott (baritone), Brian Simontacchi (trombone), Kellin Hannas (trumpet). Lest anyone forget, Lowe was voted 2021 Artist of the Year in JazzTimes (the same month in which the magazine ran my feature on him) and this album offers plenty of evidence why he deserved such that recognition. His writing is heavy on detail with unexpected turns in melody, and he knows how to score his works for a larger group. (Not all of the horns play one each of the 30 tracks; each disc sort of divides different sections up, with at least a few of them joining the leader each time.) 

At times, I can't help thinking of Mingus Ah Um or Blues and Roots while spinning In the Dark. Not that Lowe is trying to be Mingus, but like the bassist, he's drawing on familiar forms and using them as a springboard for new ideas. Playing in a more straightahead style is not a crime, unless a player thinks that by playing in that way, it alone will carry them. Lowe understands that it's crucial to make it count - in other words, to bring something new to the table besides reverences. Of course, if a wild label like ESP is the label releasing the music, one can't expect a staid set of swing either.

Part of his approach involves irreverence, with titles like "Out To Brunch," "Innuendo In Blue" and "Do You Know What It Means To Leave New Orleans," but that's only the start. For every clever title, he also has ones like "Goodbye Barry Harris" and "Memories of Jaki," which get reflective in the best way. He and Johnson work so well together that it's sometimes easy to miss one passing the solo baton to the other. At other times, it's quite obvious, like when Johnson incorporates some Dolphy-esque bite into his playing, which includes at least one moment when he throws in the Classic Dolphy Alto Line (anyone who's listened to even a small portion of the late multi-instrumentalist's work should know the mangled melody). 

As good as both of these Lowe albums are, listeners would be well-advised to snatch up his forthcoming epic, called  A Love Supine. I discussed the album at length in my JT piece, as it features an especially strong set of original material played by a powerful band (many of whom show up here). But its release was back-burnered in favor of these two. Supposedly, it's still in the ESP hopper, with a album number and all, so hopefully it will appear sometime soon. 

In the meantime, there is plenty to explore here, with all three of these albums presenting both ends of the ESP-Disk' musical spectrum

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

CD/LP Review: James Brandon Lewis/Red Lily Quintet - For Mahalia, With Love

James Brandon Lewis/ Red Lily Quintet
For Mahalia, With Love

It's the time of year when the in-box is flooded with email requests to keep albums "for your consideration" when nominating albums for Grammys. I'm not, nor have I ever been, on any committee that had the (dis)pleasure of picking nominees for such things, but those folks hoping for a nomination don't want to leave any stone unturned, so the missives keep coming.

Among the pleasant surprises in the emails were requests to remember James Brandon Lewis' Eye of I, which came out earlier this year on the not-exactly-jazz imprint Anti-. That album, with its groove-based tunes from the tenor saxophonist and a guest appearance by ex-Fugazi members now in the Messthetics, is truly a worthy contender. But as good as that album is, Lewis has returned to the New Release bins with his Red Lily Quintet for an even deeper release, paying homage to the First Woman of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson.

Most of the album consists of traditional gospel songs connected to Jackson. But "Sparrow" opens the album boldly with a Lewis original ("Even the Sparrow") combined with the traditional "His Eye Is On the Sparrow."  The rubato opening sets the bar high for the rest of the set, introducing the way Lewis' tenor combines with Kirk Knuffke's cornet, with a solid foundation from William Parker (bass), Chad Taylor (drums) and Chris Hoffman (cello). 

The group stretches out on most of the tracks, taking classics "Swing Low," "Go Down Moses" and "Wade In the Water" for journeys that last close to nine or ten minutes each. Although they have the prowess to turn this material into fire music, this is not merely a set of gospel themes that cue free blowing once the head has been played. "Calvary" with a steady drone from the strings, seems to fuse the gospel with Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman." The interaction among the quintet during this track in particular fully establishes their reputation as one of the strongest groups around.

Lewis' utilizes his throaty tone, with occasional wails, but he also digs into the music for rich melodies. In the opening to "Swing Low," he virtually offers his own accompaniment, adding quick low register notes to the theme, almost like a congregant expressing approval during a sermon. In "Go Down Moses," Parker takes a solo that begins with the melody out of tempo while Taylor plays a bit of boogaloo. Before thing are done, Parker has hit a vamp that drives things home. Throughout the session, he and Hoffman work skillfully with each other, never muddling the sound; Hoffman splits his time acting as a third horn too.

The first pressing of For Mahalia, With Love, both on CD and LP, also includes "These Are Soulful Days," a six-part piece that features Lewis together with the Lutosławski Quartet. The group hails from Poland, where the commissioned piece was recorded in 2021, at the Jazztopad Festival. The majesty of the writing comes across immediately during "Prologue - Humility" when the saxophonist's warm tone blends with the lush sound of the strings, who use a simple melody to rise up around him. At least one of Mahalia Jackson's pieces from the previous album reappears here as well.

While jazz composers sometimes use strings for harsh, visceral clashes of tone, Lewis finds a good balance between ostinatos (creating interesting stereo effects with pizzicato during one movement), rich jazz voicings and the sonic power of a chamber quartet. Of course they aren't above some wild tangents either, as the nearly 12-minute second movement indicates. Just when things seem to be laid back, Lewis really jolts the ears with the brusk "Epilogue - Resilience" which features rapid bowing over his tense blowing. It's presents a strong compliment to the previous disc.

Whether or not there is a Grammy in his future, the performances on this album, like Eye of I, proves that it should be a part of everyone's 2023 purchases.

Sunday, October 08, 2023

CD Review: Steve Lehman & Orchestre National de Jazz - Ex Machina

Steve Lehman & Orchestre National de Jazz
Ex Machina
(Pi) www.pirecordings.com

Any Steve Lehman recording always make some sort of sonic advances in the world of alto saxophone. His astounding technique (where speed and clarity are represented equally) and original approach toward composition yield fascinating results, whether he's sitting in a car blowing solo (the COVID-era EP Xenakis & the Valedictorian) or working with a  trio, octet or the international rap/improv group Sélébéyone.

But in all of his releases, bigger seems to work better with Lehman. As strong as his trio work is, for instance, the work that's grabbed me the most has been on albums like Travail, Transformation, and Flow and Mise en Abime. With these larger groups, he expands on his ideas of tonalities and soundscapes a little more, creating a wild backdrop for the solos by him and bandmates like trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson. This pattern continues with Ex Machina, a collaboration with France's Orchestre National de Jazz and its artistic director Frédéric Maurin. The 14-piece ensemble joins Lehman, Finlayson and Chris Dingman for three pieces by Maurin and six by the saxophonist.

The ONJ incorporates interactive software in the music along with live instruments, so that the soloists draw reactions from the electronic sounds, ultimately adding to the performance and blurring the sonic lines between the players and software. For every moment where a tuba cuts through the fray or the reeds create a bizarre upper register harmony that sounds like a real-time version of what Frank Zappa once did with speed manipulation ("Jeux d'Anches"), there is a passage that could either be Lehman revisiting some of the sounds he conjured on the Xenakis disc, or a computer-manipulated version of him (the intro to "Ode to AkLaff," which goes on to salute drummer Pheeroan akLaff).

"Los Angeles Imaginary" sets up the relationship between players and electronics early on. Pianist Bruno Ruder plays an ostinato that changes shape slightly every fourth time, while drummer Rafaël Koerner maintains a metronomic beat that meets Ruder every few passages. After this gets established, an otherworldly chord drops into the fray, sounding exotic and eerie, and hard to trace in origin. Finlayson, Lehman and tenor saxophonist Julien Soro get involved in some rapid fire exchanges, not only working together with the multiple layers behind them but virtually playing double-time on top. Everything fits together, like clockwork and sounds very lifelike.

After Lehman's multi-hued tracks, the two pieces penned by Maurin which appear at the end of the album lack some of the drive of the previous pieces. Maurin's "39" opens the album with some exciting dark textures that Lehman and bassist Sarah Murcia dig into. Later the two-part "Speed-Freeze" begins strong with some gruff clarinet from Catherine Delaunay but slips into an atmospheric mood where it stays for nearly nine minutes, punctuated by little more than a recurring line.  The second half, which comes in a separate, eight-minute band, kicks in a little more, but it feels like there could have been more orchestral low end to anchor Fabien Debellefontaine's baritone saxophone.

"Le Seull" which also comes in two parts, features a lot of crescendos mixed with sustained notes, low in volume and pitch. Things coalesce a little more in the second part, Maurin using the entire ensemble to create a rich layer of sound. Even if it doesn't have the impact of the previous tracks, it still feels like Lehman and Maurin have made some serious leaps in the world of orchestral jazz improvisation.

Friday, October 06, 2023

CD Review: SLUGish Ensemble - In Solitude

SLUGish Ensemble
In Solitude

The term "sluggish" should not be confused with "plodding." The latter term can refer to music that moves at a slow pace with no sense of direction or deliberation along the way. The former term, which in this case drops a letter from the spelling as it defines this group, indicates an approach that slows things down to a point where minor details suddenly become major. 

Steven Lugerner (bass clarinet, baritone saxophone, alto flute) leads the SLUGish Ensemble, who have released two other albums prior to In Solitude. The six piece band includes two keyboardists (Javier Santiago on piano and Steve Blum on synthesizer), guitar (Justin Rock), bass (Giulio Xavier Cetto) and drums (Michael Mitchell). Lugerner, 35, serves as Faculty Director of the Stanford Jazz Workshop and has performed with a long list of jazz heavyweights, from Albert "Tootie" Heath to Myra Melford. His other ensemble, Jacknife, plays the music of Jackie McLean.

With a list of jazz bonafides like that, Lugerner heads down a completely different avenue with SLUGish Ensemble, creating music built on a sparse sound more closer to indie rock than jazz. The approach recalls some work by Jeremy Udden's Plainville group, who also got a lot out of simple settings. But while Udden's work often felt like a soundtrack to scenes of Middle American landscapes, Lugerner's approach is more urban. The seven tracks, in fact, were inspired by walks through his San Francisco neighborhood during the pandemic. 

Cetto and Mitchell set up a groove in "Del Sur" and they barely deviate from it. In fact, five minutes go by before the bass lines gets some variation. Everyone gets some solo space, always returning to the bass clarinet melody. "Portola" is also built on riffs, with everyone layering on top of it for variety. Lugerner swtiches to baritone here, sounding more like a tenor initially because of the range and economical batch of notes he chooses. 

By "Moraga" the repetitive quality seems like it might be wearing thin, until guitarist Rock steps in. His clean sound is the foundation for some sharp rhythmic lines and movement across the range of the fretboard. It keeps things lively while also making the band sound like a strange collision of the CTI and Matador labels - creating ambience and basic grooves. 

"No Justice No Peace," which is dedicated to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbury, creates tension first with Lugerner's aggressive bass clarinet and then Santiago's feverish piano. What's interesting is the way both soloists pull this off without disrupting the flow of the rhythm section. Similarly, towards the end of "La Bica" the baritone sax and some background noise seem to conjure a busy street scene. When the music ends and the sound of sirens are all that remains, it's clear that sound collage wasn't imagined.

In Solitude is yet another album brought to us by the lockdown of the pandemic. But the loneliness many felt during that time is something Lugerner reshapes into a feeling of solitude, "the acceptance of being on your own and being at peace with it." In that peace he has found a way to appreciate his surroundings and use them as inspiration.

Monday, October 02, 2023

Sam Rivers Centennial Concert in Pittsburgh

Monday, September 25 marked the 100th birthday of the late great saxophonist/ flutist/ pianist/ composer/ loft activist Sam Rivers. Many articles appeared about his legacy in the days leading up to it, from the New York Times on down, and a few concerts and events happened in different cities over the weekend prior to the big day. But Pittsburgh appears to have been the only place to stage a centennial salute and performance to Rivers on the actual day of his birth. 

With the Sam Rivers Archive now being processed at the University of Pittsburgh, bassist Dylan Zeh and saxophonist Derek Bendel (full disclosure - a good friend of mine) have started putting together a set of Rivers music, with a recording project coming soon. The two of them have a regular trio with drummer Ross Antonich; last Monday they were joined by flutist Trē Abalos, because you should have a flute when playing Sam Rivers music, since he often switched to that instrument, mid-performance, from tenor saxophone.

Before the Rivers set started, Matt Aelmore and Vicky Davide opened the evening with a set of free improvisations. Aelmore started out on trumpet while Davide played flute. The combination of the two started off sounding spare and gentle and built up. At first it was purely acoustic, but after awhile Davide looped a few flute lines which gave the music a little texture and shape. She also used some extended technique like just blowing air through the instrument without hitting pitches. It added an earthy almost sensual feeling to the sound, and avoided turning it into an avant hat trick. 

The duo switched it up a bit too, when Aelmore picked up his bass guitar (which he plays with Emily Rodgers Band, among others) and Davide switched to what looked like a penny whistle or a wooden flute. When they were done playing, it felt like they had just warmed up and could've gone on another 15 minutes or so. Maybe next time.

A big question looms at a performance like this - What Sam Rivers tunes will the group play? Will there be discernable compositions or quick ideas, following by unique free blowing? Dare the group try to pull off one continuous piece for a set, like Sam did on album like Streams in the '70s?  Well, I was pondering these questions.

Zeh explained during the set that he grew up in Orlando, Florida, where Rivers lived out the last fruitful years of his life, leading bands of various sizes and writing prolifically. This, after many years of living in New York where his RivBea loft was a flagship locale during the loft jazz scene of the '70s and music happened almost non-stop. 

Three of the group's pieces came from Rivers' debut, Fuchsia Swing Song. They launched into the set with "Cyclic Episode" which has a strong, forward-pulling melody line. Without a piano to guide with chords (Rivers had Jaki Byard on his recording) the Zeh group was liberated a bit but still kept to the changes. Throughout the set, the blend of Bendel's tenor and Abalos' flute created an otherworldly sound, nearly making the latter instrument sound more like a set of vibes. 

Although most of the set featured compositions, Zeh and Bendel played a tenor/bass duet that was built on/inspired by "Cascades" from a 1976 album by Rivers and Dave Holland on IAI Records. (They did at least two for that label, and both had tracks with water-based titles.) Like the rest of the set, the duet proved that these guys have been working on this material in earnest. It didn't go off into rabid free territory, instead carving their own ideas from what Sam and Dave once did. Nor did it drag on. Everything had a sense of economy to it. 

But everyone still had plenty of room to stretch out. Abalos, who Zeh told me later does not usually play jazz or improvised music, seemed a natural at it. Antonich played with a laid back swing that still has plenty of drive; I'm pretty sure it was "Sprung," one of Rivers' later compositions recorded with his Orlando trio, in which he really kicked it hard. Zeh also got plenty of solo space, balancing sharp thoughts and groove. Bendel was in the hot seat, since he was playing the role of Rivers, in a way. But his performance delivered a good balance of brawn and twisted melodies. 

I could've gone for a second set. In fact I was hoping they might play a little more. Aside from that, the only distraction came from a photographer who took pictures throught the whole set. With a flash. I don't expect a photographer to be like Teenie Harris, taking one shot and being done. But jeez, oh pete, that flash was a bit much during the 60-minute (at least) set.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Thinking About the Birthday Party and the "Mutiny In Heaven" Documentary

It occurred to me, in the days leading up to seeing Mutiny In Heaven, that the Birthday Party broke up 40 years ago. I'm not sure which came first, hearing that the band had broken up or the release of the Mutiny EP. But I associate both of them with the fall of 1993, when I was in 11th grade, which is easy for me to track because my son, who is basically 40 years younger than me, is now a junior in high school. 

Since it's been so long, and having heard so many wide-ranging Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds album since then, and finally seeing the man himself live a few years ago, I had forgotten how much the Birthday Party's visceral sound was such a big part of my life during those high school years. I tend to look back and think about how the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü were the bands that inspired the music I played because they were active at that time. But those bands were around when I finally started making music seriously. The Birthday Party were gone by then and besides, there was no way I could come close to approximating that sound and feeling, especially when playing with high school kids who routinely thought I was nuts when I went off a little in the music. But few bands rivaled them in my book at that time.

Mutiny In Heaven starts off with a warning about flashing lights appearing in the film. They should have included a warning about thick Australian accents being part of it too. Of course I might be too used to running the subtitles on the screen when I'm watching movies at home, to ensure I don't miss anything. The sound on our home tv really varies with sudden drops and increases at times. 

The film screened at the Harris Theater downtown, so there was no chance of getting subtitles, but after awhile, I got used to the accents and leaned in harder to hear the parts that were playing overtime of performances. The only problem was the voiceovers weren't introduced at the start and Mick Harvey, Phill Calvert (the band's original drummer) and Nick Cave and, to some degree Rowland S. Howard were hard to distinguish in the early sequences. As the movie proceeded, Howard was often onscreen in interviews when speaking, so that made it a little easier. 

Director Ian White did an impressive job of digging up ancient footage of the band from their late teenage years when the group was known as the Boys Next Door.  It's kind of charming to see a very young Nick Cave looking closer to a fresh-faced new wave kid than to the demonic performer that he would become. (For a good example of the former, and one that doesn't appear in the film, click here.) 

When making a documentary like this, the director runs the risk of relying on a bunch of talking heads  to tell the story, with breaks for live footage, hopefully. Several documentaries (Beware Mr. Baker, Chasing Trane) use animated sequences to break things up. In the case of Mutiny In Heaven, several pen and ink animations creep up throughout the film, depicting Cave's introduction to Howard (I think it was Rowland), heroin use, and bassist Tracy Pew's car theft that landed him in jail briefly while the band was still together. These segments don't exactly camp it up but it came a little close.

The real payoff comes with all the live footage, even if it was often synced up with the studio recordings. (I've heard them enough to know the subtle mixes of a lot of them.) The use of the two didn't detract from the intended effect, however. It kind of plays up how manic - and dangerous - the group could be live. Granted, every band likes to describe themselves as dangerous when they get onstage, but watching the footage of the band - Howard stalking the stage as he made his guitar scream, Cave bopping up and down while singing frantically, Pew grinding his body, eventually laying down in one scene, still gyrating - goes a long way towards proving that a Birthday Party gig could actually be dangerous, for the band and audience.

Despite all of that, the band never comes off as assholes. I'm sure there were people around that time who can probably say otherwise, but unlike the Butthole Surfers, for instance, a band that definitely put their audience at risk and were rather abusive in general, the Birthday Party still seems rather charming. Maybe it's because they seemed a little smarter than most punks. Several times people remember Pew as the kind of guy who could be seen reading both porn magazines and Plato. After the band broke up, he eventually went to college to study literature and philosophy. He died in 1986 of a brain hemorrhage. 

It's not a spoiler to mention that the film doesn't attempt to wrap everything up nice and neat in the end, after the band breaks up. In fact, I felt like it left a few details out, such as the name of the drummer who replaced Mick Harvey on the final tour (Des Hefner) and whether or not Blixa Bargeld's appearance on the Mutiny EP served to fill in for a departed Rowland Howard (still not sure). Regardless, it ends without anyone feeling the need to give an overview of the mess the band left behind. Or how crushed we young yanks were when it was over. 

Mutiny always felt like an anti-climatic ending to me. Of course nothing could top the insanity of The Bad Seed, the EP that came out earlier that year. Right as that record came out, my 10th grade English teacher Mrs. Kogut had explained what catharsis was. I knew exactly what she was talking about because that's what I felt every time I cued up that record and "Sonny's Burning" came on. 

The band had been upping the ante with each release prior to that. When Cave screamed for 14 seconds straight in "Blast Off" (the B-side to "Release the Bats"), he knocked me against the wall. The live version of "King Ink" on Drunk On the Pope's Blood takes it further; he sounds like he's being crucified. (I loved it then but these days I might have preferred he calmed down a little.) After that lung-shredding scream in "Big Jesus Trash Can" where could he go? Everything about "Sonny's Burning" put me on edge, the relentless snare beats, the guitar (even if it sounded a tad like metal), and the way it nearly fell apart after each verse. I wanted to break shit each time it came on. That summer I worked in a record store and when I copy of The Bad Seed came in, you can bet I played it, in hopes of scaring the hell out of the squares who were in the shop at that time. 

That being said, Mutiny felt like a retread. "Jennifer's Veil" felt like a simpler "Wild World" with more primitive drumming. Swampland" felt half-baked and even though Howard's "Say A Spell" was a cool, slinky thing, it seemed to leave listeners hanging. Is that it? "Mutiny In Heaven" was great but it closed off the first side.

Turns out, running order can change everything. When both EPs were released together, the Mutiny sessions added two more tunes, the murky "Pleasure Avalanche" and the dirty "Six Strings that Drew Blood" (the latter I knew from a few live tapes), adding a little more bite to that was absent on the four-song record. The disc also flips the original sequence on its head, putting "Say A Spell" after "Jennifer's Veil." "Mutiny In Heaven" comes last, which makes a lot more sense. Instead of the casual swagger exit to stage left, Nick and the boys set the building on fire and walk out through the one open doorway, leaving it to collapse in their wake. 

When that song plays during the closing credits (don't call it a spoiler because you saw it coming) I almost got choked up. Not for sentimental reasons but for cathartic reasons.

Incidentally, I listened to "Sonny's Burning" on the way to the theater and it STILL makes me want to break shit.

This entry is dedicated to the memory of Lee Connelly, who was the biggest Birthday Party fanatic in Pittsburgh back in the day. 

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Thumbscrew Comes Back to Pittsburgh For Round 5

Thumbscrew came back to Alphabet City (the physical space connected to City of Asylum; I think I've been lax here and make them sound like one and the same, which isn't exactly accurate) on Monday, September 18. It marked the trio's fifth performance at the space and, like several others, it culminated a long visit that also included recording a new album at Small's, the recording studio down the road from Alphabet City.

The trio hit the stage and spoke not a word but went right into the set. I kept waiting for one of them to pick up the microphone and back announce a couple song titles so we'd know these new pieces. But no go. They were too far in the zone, I suppose. 

On their last visit or two, the group played a few things that I recall getting pretty free and unhinged. Michael Formanek even switched from upright bass to bass guitar. Not so tonight. There was plenty of energy on display but, perhaps due to the material being a bit new, they never got too wild.

The first couple pieces were interesting because Mary Halvorson's guitar and Formanek's bass both took turns being the focal point of the melodies. In the first piece, Formanek was in the lead, playing loudly, as the group went into a relaxed 6/8 meter. The bassist really tore into the second track. Just when it felt like the form of the piece was hard to see, drummer Tomas Fujiwara got it all in line. One of these days, I'll get to see Halvorson's left hand while she's playing, but tonight it was hidden behind the music stand, only seen occasionally. Her signature sound of warped/bent notes continues to expand with different nuances rather than becoming predictable. As focused as she looks during the set, she still delivers in a way that seems effortless (even if the opposite is true). 

Fujiwara switched from his drum kit to vibes for a couple pieces, walking across the stage to the spot where the instrument was set up. One of them felt like a Thumbscrew take on the blues, leaning on what sounded like minor thirds in the melody. (I could be wrong, as I'm going from notes that I took during the show.) Another vibes-based piece had a lot of drive to it, with some propulsive guitar lines. Another, later in the set, had a dreamy feeling and moved in a manner that could have been completely composed or just offered a moment to show exactly how mentally in tune the players are with one another.

The one time during the set that Formanek took the mike and talked to us, he introduced a version of Charles Mingus' "Orange Was the Color Of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues." When the Baron did it originally, he relied on two and often three horns to voice the melody. Thumbscrew did an impressive job of delivering the kick of the song (with its multiple shifts to double-time and back) and the melody with just these three. It really put the trio into high gear for the last two tunes of the set, which climaxed with some furious power from Fujiwara. 

Whenever that new album comes out, maybe we can say we heard it first in Pittsburgh.

Monday, September 18, 2023

CD Review: Greenlief/Raskin 2 + 2 With Jen Baker & Liz Allbee


2 + 2
2 + 2 With Jen Baker & Liz Allbee

Rova Saxophone Quartet member Jon Raskin (alto, baritone saxophones) and Phillip Greenlief (soprano, alto and tenor saxophones) created 2 + 2 with the idea of combining their reeds with two other "like" instruments. In this recently released 2006 session, they enlisted Liz Allbee (trumpet) and Jen Baker (trombone) for a set of group improvisations mixed with some composed graphic scores. 
Without a rhythm section to keep the ground in sight, this quartet is free to take to the skies, paying heed only to the sounds emanating around them. 

An album like this can make the listener wonder what is greater, the whole or the sum of the parts. The question comes to mind because there are many moments through the 38-minute session where Allbee's trumpet doesn't sound prominent. It could be that she's waiting for the right moment to come in. Conversely, it could mean that she's blending really well with her bandmates, blurring the reed/brass line. In "Tableaux," the opening group improvisation, her muted playing is noticeable after a few minutes, in subtle contrast to the Baker's brawny exhortations and the contrasting saxophones (soprano and baritone). 

However, "Night Town," the nearly 20-minute centerpiece of the album (a score by Greenlief), is where Allbee makes her presence known. She begins unaccompanied and continues for nearly five minutes, with a tone and ideas that feel like a trumpet oratorio cut up into smaller pieces and delivered that way, with some  notes bent or rumpled for dynamics. As she fades naturally, her companions enter with a blend of blown air, pad flutters and percussive sounds that evoke brushes on a snare drum. As things build, the overtones ring out almost like gamelans.

So maybe the whole is greater in this case. Perhaps it's better not to pick things apart, trying to figure out which saxophonist is on alto or what horns about being used, for instance. Better to notice the way the quartet interacts. In "2 + 2" (the other scored piece, by Raskin) everyone moves their own way, but the sound is never cluttered. Also, at that moment when Allbee is noticeable in "Tableaux" everyone has landed together on a chord, or an approximation of one. That kind of confluence contributes to the excitement in improvisation, just as much as Greenlief's call to arms at the start of "Light Bending" elicits a variety of wails and moans from everyone.

The sound of 2 + 2 adds to the vitality of the performance. Recorded at the 21 Grand DIY space, the acoustics put the listener there, noticing the way the natural reverb affects the horns, doing things like adding more bite to the staccato notes from the saxophones.

Monday, September 04, 2023

Julian Lage Comes to Pittsburgh, Sept. 6

Labor Day Weekend has always been a time when I think back to where I was on that same day in years gone by. Sitting around the house all day as a kid, watching the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon (no idea why, except that maybe I bought into the hype); times when I felt a sense of renewal with a new school year and, later, usually a new apartment; a sense of regret in high school that, once again, summer came and went and I didn't have a band together yet, or one that could make it all the way through a song that had a change in it.

Among the good memories, there's the Detroit Jazz Festival, which takes place every Labor Day weekend. JazzTimes sent me there to cover it a few times. The most exciting trip was the first time I was flown to the Motor City, in 2009, right when the magazine had come back to life after a few dark months where it looked like the lights weren't going to come on again. I had only traveled for an article once before, and never to an event like this, where strangers seemed excited to meet me - and all this freaking music was mine for the taking. I was leaving my wife and two-year old son for several days, and they were okay with it!

I believe it was the last day of the 2009 festival (which would have been Labor Day) that Gary Burton was playing at one of the bigger stages. (My original article was written on two or three computers back and is long gone, as is my article for the website, so I have no notes from which to refer.) The vibraphonist had Julian Lage playing guitar with him. Lage was clearly much younger than the rest of the band, only 21 at the time. But he was playing with technique and imagination well beyond his years. His ideas seemed really advanced. (Only later did I find out that he was a child prodigy who was the subject of a documentary [Jules at Eight] and played at the Grammys when he was 12.) Despite all that, he lacked any sense of a cocksure young jazz guy who might be stone-faced serious about what he did. To the contrary, when introduced to him, Lage had more of a "gosh, thanks" attitude that made him even more likeable. 

A lot of time has passed since that day, with a lot of music flowing out from Mr. Lage. Through legendary jazz guitarist Jim Hall, Lage met Nels Cline, the iconoclastic guitarist who has been a longstanding member of Wilco in addition to releasing numerous albums that draw on uninhibited improvisation, compositions that draw on jazz and rock and a strong sense of tradition. The combination of these two players might seem odd on paper, but on disc (Room), they brought out the best in each other. 

When Lage came here to Pittsburgh in 2016, we spoke in advance of the show about musicians have a strong, identifiable voice. "It reminds me of Nels, and also of someone like Roy Haynes who plays with everybody. People who tend to play well with a lot of people, they kind of always do the same thing, in a certain way," he said. "And that’s what’s reliable. If you play with five different bands and play five different ways, you really diffuse your sound. But if you more or less have a similar take on proportions – tension/release, ballads, drama, humor – if you stay true to those principles but adjust the touch of your instrument and also the decision of the people you're playing with. I think you can have your cake and eat it too. 

"When the context changes, it’ll shine a different light on you. But if you also change, then the spotlight doesn’t really know where to look." 

Following 2022's View With A Room (his second album as a leader on Blue Note Records),  Lage released the EP The Layers earlier this year. In addition to his regular rhythm section of Jorge Roeder (bass) and Dave "Bad Plus" King (drums) (who I caught at the Village Vanguard with Lage in 2020), the six tracks include veteran guitarist Bill Frisell as a frontline partner. The tracks are by turns tranquil ("This World"), dreamy and ambient with these two very distinct guitars echoing off one another ("Missing Voices") and sweet with unexpected chromatic changes adding an edge to the theme (the title track).

This week's show in town will be a solo performance but rest assured that Lage excels just as well by himself as he does in the company of his peers.

Julian Lage comes to Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland as part of the Andy Warhol Museum's Sound Series. Songwriter Elijah Wolf opens the show. Wednesday, September 6. 8 pm. Click here for more details. 

Final Four For Mingus - A Live Report

Dr. AJ Johnson has hosted four programs at City of Asylum in recent months, all devoted to the music of Charles Mingus. I missed the first three so I made sure not to the miss the final one. 
"The Final Four For Mingus" took place on Thursday, August 31.  

The instrumentation was put together to ensure that the group would be able to create the feel for a Mingus score, with a cast of familiar faces and a few surprises. Dr. Johnson lead the group and played trombone and tuba. The saxophone section featured Opek/Thoth Trio leader Ben Opie (on tenor exclusively tonight) and Rick Matt (baritone sax, flute) along with relative newcomer Ini Oguntola, who almost stood out with his alto solos that both acknowledged the Mingus work and blew with passion. Tommy Lehman, who came on a recommendation from Sean Jones, held the trumpet seat, getting a good jagged tone that Mingus liked, especially when his mute was in use. The rhythm section consisted of Mark Michelli (piano), Jeff Grubbs (bass) and James Johnson III (drums).  

Material for the evening emphasized Mingus' love for Duke Ellington, directly or indirectly. The group opened with "Love Chant," a relatively deep cut from Pithecanthroput Erectus, which gave everyone a chance to stretch out. Johnson is a good host who offered some good information about the pieces, which also included "Fleurette Africaine (African Flower)," a rhythm section showcase that originated on Money Jungle, the legendary meeting of Ellington, Mingus and Max Roach. 

The evening also included a few video excerpts with words from Mingus about Duke and from Ellington members talking about how a scuffle with trombonist Juan Tizol ended Mingus' brief tenure in Duke's band. I think both clips came from the film Triumph of the Underdog, though there were also clips from the black and white 1968 film Mingus about his eviction from his New York loft. The context for including the latter scene was that low point in high life was followed by a high point of the bassist getting asked to play in a jazz festival to honor his hero. 

"Us It Two" was another surprise in the set, as it was not a standard part of the Mingus canon. In fact it's relatively hard to find, appearing only on Charles Mingus and Friends In Concert. This one featured Johnson on tuba, proving, in the tradition of players like Howard Johnson and Bob Stewart, that that big old instrument can swing with the best. 

It seemed like only a matter of time before the group would play "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love," which Mingus recorded for both of his '70s albums Changes, one with vocals and one without. And it was great to hear it again. The lush ballad is a testament to the power of the bassist's later albums, which shouldn't be overlooked. Matt also got a chance to stretch out on the Changes track "For Harry Carney," the homage to Ellington's career-long baritone player.

"Open Letter to Duke" seemed like an obvious choice too, especially with Ben Opie involved, since it comes from the classic album Mingus Ah Um, one of his favorites. What is not obvious is how much the soloists on that album (tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin, alto saxophonist John Handy in the unedited version) are so crucial to that tune. In other words, it can be a challenge to pull it off. But Opie and Oguntola sounded amazing in the solo sections and the lush, slower sections. Johnson also captured the spirit of Dannie Richmond's idiosyncratic drum style, which can be hard to get right. 

Then there was "Tonight At Noon." This rapid fire melody had everyone sweating bullets and seemed like it was close to pulling the rhythm section apart from the horns. But it didn't. It was on fire the whole time. While everyone in the rhythm section stayed tough, mention should be made of Michelli's visceral approach to the piano. I've seen him do free improvisation, hulking over his instrument. He brought the same intensity to the 88s that night. The standing ovation the group received at the end of the set was well deserved, for song choice and execution.

After the set, when Opie rattled off the names of some tunes that were played in the previous shows ("Hora Decubitus," "Boogie Stop Shuffle" and a few that he said he had never played before), it filled me with a twinge of regret for missing those nights. Mark your calendars and make plans with you hear about shows! Don't miss them!