Tuesday, April 16, 2024

LP Review: Church Chords - elvis, he was a Schlager + Anthony Pirog

Church Chords
elvis, he was a Schlager

Perhaps Church Chords are akin to a 21st-century version of Golden Palominos, i.e. a band with a rotating lineup of disparate players coming together to create some warped pop music. Or maybe Stephen Buono is more like a modern day band leader/catalyst like Kip Hanrahan, the New York musician who released several albums under his own name on which he often took a backseat to rich lineup of musicians with ties to Latin music, jazz and no wave. 

In regards to the first prospect, the personnel on elvis, he was a Schlager changes on every song, with guitarists like Jeff Parker, Brandon Seabrook and Nels Cline coloring the moody surroundings while vocals come from Kristin Slipp (of the Dirty Projectors), Genevieve Artadi (of Knower) and Ricardo Dias Gomes (who also lays down some thick bass grooves on several tracks). 

As far as the second prospect goes, Buono (who has played in the band Split/Red and seems to have a finger on several different musical pulsebeats at a time) receives credits for composing the music on all ten tracks but no instrumental credit. Some songs have as many as six names listed for music composition, not all of them playing in the song. Though the Hanrahan connection might be apt, a better one (which Buono in fact has used) might be Teo Macero, the producer who used the studio as an instrument for so many of Miles Davis electric albums. To be clear, Church Chords don't try to fusion jazz, no wave or Latin music - at least not outwardly.

From the opening moments, elvis has a deep, dreamy quality that offers enough space to accommodate ethereal vocals in several languages, ripping guitar solos and rhythm sections that work like piledrivers that create a steady base around which everything rallies. Sometimes it evokes the stark pop of Stereolab where vocal countermelodies and chugging guitars move over a steady groove ("Recent Mineral"). 

In "Warriors of Playtime," we could be crashing a recording session by the floating Exploding Star Orchestra, since Parker's guitar goes from crisp to tremolo-heavy, and vocalist Thalma de Freitas (Kamasi Washington, Madlib) steps in between the fret work. It doesn't seem like a stretch because Tortoise/occasional ESO drummer John Herndon appears on this track.

The monochord attack of "She Lays On a Leaf" recalls Suicide, but it takes on more bizarre features when the vocal duo of Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham (Finom) and Cline's guitar almost get derailed by an attack from Nate Walcott's trumpet. The guitarist returns with some manic above-the-fretboard yowling in "Owned by Lust," in which Gomes sings in tandem the vocalist zzzahara. The former also sings offers English counterpoint lyrics to Takako Minekawa's breathy vocals on the smoother "Then Awake."

elvis, he was a Schlager sounds a little jumbled during the first spin, but by the end, things have settled into place. A further examination reveals a multi-layered album that actually proves how disparate genres can mingle with the results creating something that retains the edge of those individual styles that cross-fertilized here. It's not merely heady dance music nor is it improvisation that can make it in prime time. It's a lot deeper than that. 

Incidentally, the album title comes from a a documentary about Krautrock in which Moebius (known for his work with Cluster) dismissed the king of Rock and Roll as a "schlager," referring to a type of music popular in Germany which seems to have been bland and unexciting. Buono, let the record show, has nothing against Elvis. But the term suddenly makes the joke clear in the Beatles' "You Know My Name (Look Up My Number" when John Lennon introduces the loungey section of the song as if he were in a club called Schlagers. It also explains why the Warner Bros' Loss Leaders compilation in the '70s full of easy listening music was called Schlagers

It's worth mentioning that Otherly Love has also released guitarist Anthony Pirog's The Nepenthe Series Vol. 1. This set of eight duets and one solo track finds him in the company of guitarists Nels Cline, Andy Summers (yes, that Andy Summers), John Frusciante (credited as playing "monomachine"), Brandon Ross, Wendy Eisenberg and Ryan Ferriera. Luke Stewart joins him on bass for one track. Pirog's wife and musical collaborator Janel Leppin plays pedal steel guitar on another. 

These meetings of the minds are heavily ambient, where the sounds of strings being struck are rarely heard, only the tones that resonate afterward. Some tracks could be mistaken from releases on the kranky label, while others have a prog feel or evoke the Bowie/Eno collaborations.  

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Show Review: Pharoah Sanders Tribute Band with Azar Lawrence

Last Saturday's Kente Arts program was billed as a Tribute to Pharaoh Sanders but it wound up being more than that. At moments, it also felt like a tribute to John Coltrane, at others it felt very much in the moment, less a tribute to anyone in particular and more about five A-list players coming together and creating a  two-hour set that will be talked about for a long time.

The quintet at the New Hazlett Theater was led by tenor saxophonist Azar Lawrence, a close friend of Sanders who once played with pianist McCoy Tyner before creating a reputation as a leader in his own right. Fellow tenor player Isaiah Collier was his foil, drawing on a table of whistles to add to the sound of his horn. The rhythm section of Billy Hart (drums), Nat Reeves (bass) and George Cables (piano) completed the band.

Before the set started, Akmed Khalifa, who helped bring Sanders to Pittsburgh in 1969 for the Black Arts Festival, reminisced about that event, and how the late saxophonist's music was such a part of the Harambee Book Store in Homewood. So many people attended that outdoor festival that it was hard to move through the crowd, Khalifa remembered. The image of such a huge throng of people might be hard to image today at a "free jazz" show, but the sense of community could be felt in the theater. Throughout the evening, audience members responded verbally to the playing onstage. It felt like a bit much at first....until I felt compelled to do the same thing. 

The group opened with a version of the Coltrane classic "Naima," starting it out of tempo and stretching the melody before Hart steered it into a 6/8 groove. Before the end of the night, the quintet also played "Say It (Over and Over Again)" which appeared on the Coltrane Ballads album, "Afro Blue" and a version of "Body and Soul" that evokes his classic quartet sound. 

But Sanders was also represented with "Thembi" and "The Creator Has a Master Plan" (the original recording of which featured Hart). For the latter piece, Collier took on the admirable task of singing Leon Thomas' vocal line, impressively channeling the unique yodel style that is synonymous with the song. Collier, whose wraparound white shades gave him a look a bit like Sun Ra, continually channeled Sanders' throaty style of playing, usually taking things higher after Lawrence took the initial solos, which drew on some fierce melodies that he executed with extra punch. In many of the standards they played, Lawrence took the first part of the melody, with Collier picking up at the bridge.

Cables, who could be called the consummate sideman for how many sessions he's done throughout his career, thrilled the audience with every solo (though his comping was pretty dazzling too), with an ending rush of deep ideas that he blended with the right amount of thunder. Reeves knew how to keep a vamp exciting in Lawrence's original "All In Love" and Coltrane's "Olé" in which the leader switched to soprano saxophone and the quintet  nearly blew the roof off the theater, thanks to Hart's propulsive work. 

At the end of the night, it was announced that Collier, who is only in his mid 20s, will be coming to town with his own group in October. After what he did last week, the show in the fall has a high level of expectation coming with it.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

LP Reviews: Shelly Manne & His Men - At The Black Hawk. Vol. 1, Pete Jolly - Seasons

West Coast jazz was maligned from the get-go, accused to being a more flaccid version of what was happening on the East Coast. It was "Birth of the Cool" with the sonorities all smoothed out. There was nothing hard about their bop. 

But after awhile, certain West Coast musicians began to be recognized as players who, even if they couldn't stand to toe with their East Coast brethren, could still hold their own and blow something hot. It was only those other players that personified the blandness. As time went on, more and more respect seemed to come to these players, with even the - gasp - flute and oboe jazz albums by Bud Shank and Bob Cooper considered worthy enough for reissue in a distinguished Mosaic Select box. 

Now that many decades have passed, and most of those players have passed on, an abundance of West Coast jazz albums have been subject to reissue and they can be heard with cleaner, unbiased ears for what they are: performances that have some serious bite to them even if they don't have the grit of a Rudy Van Gelder session. 

Submitted for evidence are two vastly different albums from rather different musical periods that both offer some insights into what was happening on the Coast. 

Shelly Manne & His Men
At the Blackhawk, Vol. 1

Any question about the sound on the newest entry in to Craft Recordings' Contemporary Records Acoustic Sounds Series is dispelled in the opening moments of "Summertime," the first cut on this 1959 live session. As bassist Monty Budwig plucks a ripe double stop in the upper register, Shelly Manne plays two quick rolls on his hi-hat cymbal. They're faint but they cut through with rich clarity. It creates a moment of suspense that starts to release when Joe Gordon starts playing the melody through a Harmon mute. The Miles Davis influence is there (it was everywhere a trumpet was in 1959) but the arrangement is different that Davis' version of the Porgy and Bess classic with Gil Evans. 

Richie Kamuca had a relatively long career on the West Coast, though he was on a lower tier than other tenor saxophonists of that period. Here, he has a smoky sound comparable to Stan Getz with less of an airy quality and more grit. His solo on Tadd Dameron's "Our Delight" (a track that, like "Summertime," lasts nearly 12 minutes) stretches out, getting creative with the rhythm of his lines. 

On side two, the quintet takes "Poinciana" at a brisk pace. Again, Kamuca, delivers some twisted knots of ideas and leader Manne finally gets some space here to stretch out with snare rolls and fast triplets. "Blue Daniel," a waltz written by trombonist Frank Rosolino, finds Gordon channeling Clifford Brown and Manne digging into the accents afforded by the time signature. Victor Feldman might play chords like Red Garland but he also hammers them with a hard gospel feel at times, in some ways like Bobby Timmons.

Manne's September '59 stay at the Black Hawk was documented in three more albums at the time, with a fifth volume surfacing during the OJC CD period. (All had the same design, with a different colored letters on the front). Hopefully the series will reintroduce the others because the performance, sound and packaging (classic, heavy tip-on cover) are worth a rediscovery. 

Pete Jolly

All it takes are a few key people to discover an overlooked gem. When that happens, a set of lite but slightly edgy jazz that was once taking up space at the thrift store next to the Baja Marimba Band and the Sandpipers can be transformed into a record that fetches $200 on Discogs. 

Pete Jolly was a West Coast pianist who was part of the same scene as Manne's Men. Like them, Jolly was no Pacific Coast slouch. He played with fire. A 1956 session with Chet Baker and Art Pepper (which also included Kamuca) gave plenty of proof. Pepper's Smack Up, which was reissued by Craft earlier this year, also offers some prime piano.

During the '60s, Jolly signed to A&M Records, who released two albums that tried to straddle the pianist's blowing tendencies with commercial airplay. In other words, shorter tracks and jazzy readings of pop tunes like Spanky and Our Gang's "Give A Damn," which also became the title of his second album.

For his third A&M release, 1970's Seasons, Jolly went into the studio with longtime bassist Chuck Berghofer, drummer Paul Humphrey, Tijuana Brass guitarist John Pisano and percussionists Emil Richards and Milt Holland. Rather than  relying on an acoustic piano, Jolly played a Wurlitzer Electric Piano most of the time, along with accordion musette, Hammond organ and a device called Sano Vox. Aside from two composed songs, everything was improvised on the spot and cut into radio-friendly pieces by Jolly and producer Herb Alpert. One track goes on for four minutes but most come in around three minutes or less. 

It's hard to imagine what the record buying public thought of Seasons in 1970. It begins with a dreamy solo Wurlitzer introduction before launching into a version of "Younger Than Springtime" (from the music South Pacific) that fits in perfectly with A&M's roster of easy listening fare. But from there the ripples start to build. Humphrey gets a bossa nova groove going in "Bees" and cues a fuzzy chromatic keyboard line that evokes soundtracks to kids' educational films, clips from the early days of Sesame Street and all manner of commercials made in the years following the release. Jolly's sound pre-dates Stereolab's keys, while Berghofer and Humphrey carve out some serious funk at different tempos. 

Sometimes the fade-ins seem to capture the group in the middle of a jam, and it cross-fades into another bossa groove. Many of the tracks segue into one another (especially on side two) so it can be hard to tell where the proper song breaks exist. Instead of a vamp like most of the album, the title track, written by Roger Nichols, adds a few chord changes to broaden the sound, even as Jolly keeps it simple. Anyone wanting to hear Pisano blow will get frustrated by his low level in the mix or the fade-outs. 

Nevertheless, the scenes that are set by each track, brief as they may be, can't be beat thanks to the swell of keyboards, congas. and the rhythm section. Even though the album might not as vicious as the electric Miles Davis' groups of that time, for instance, these ten cuts could've gotten some heads wagging at a love-in.

Seasons never brought A&M or Jolly the cross-over appeal that they desired, but different tracks from the album were sampled by De La Soul, Cypress Hill and Busta Rhymes to name just a few. Coupled with the fact that it went out of print a year after its release, and has only been released once on CD (on Dusty Grooves, 2007), the intrigue of the music has increased exponentially over the last 54 years. Whether the new vinyl reissue, on clear amber and clear green and coming out at the end of this week, will bring Jolly some post-humous love or will simply be snatched up by DJs hoping to copy their heroes is up for grabs. 

But it should bring some life to any party where it's played.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

CD Review: Anthony Michael Ambroso - Mercy Killer

Anthony Michael Ambroso
Mercy Killer

Anthony Ambroso's origins start in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, continue up to the New England Conservatory of Music (where he studied jazz), and double back to the Steel City, where he currently plays in the heavy rock band Rated Eye, with the occasional jazz gig popping up here and there. He plays all the instruments on Mercy Killer, which leans more to his rock side with breaks for some acoustic picking, which he showed off recently at an Experimental Guitar Night.

It's a brief set, with 10 tracks clocking in at 26 minutes, but a great deal happens within that time. Although the album features a few instrumental interludes, the bulk of Mercy Killer consists of songs with vocals, verses and choruses, some of which seem to tap into ideas about structure and composition that he likely picked up at the conservatory. For a solo album, it rocks like a band, avoiding any self-indulgent pitfalls that can pop up when one creates all the sounds.

The fuzzed out guitar that introduces "Anger Games" sounds like it's emanating from a transistor radio, but it quickly kicks into a rich sound that harkens back to edgy Chicago indie rock, adding a strange non-sequitur of a bridge in the middle that works perfectly. This style continues for a few tracks, with a break for a John Fahey-esque acoustic solo in "En Route to Life" and the electric folk balladry of "Lot Weeps," the latter adding a guest accordionist to expand an already intriguing texture. 

The title track also begins with a wall of feedback and drop-tuned chords, but Ambroso isn't happy simply creating a tone poem of thunder. A top layer of acoustic guitars adds some extra subtlety, making it a complete statement in less than two minutes. From there, the mood seems to turn a turn with every track without losing a flow. Parts of "Integrated Sickness" evoke Bakesale era Sebadoh, but neither Lou Barlow nor Jason Loewenstein would have come up with a finger-picked guitar line like this one or jumped between time signatures with such ease. 

As this review went to press, word came out that Rated Eye also has a full length album out. That album will likely get attention and a record release show and hopefully it'll also shine a light on Mercy Killer. Ambroso is the kind of player who could split town and find a seat in a band like Dan Weiss' Starebaby (that's me opining, not something that's in the works), so check him out while you can. 

Monday, March 18, 2024

Box Set Review: Charles Mingus - Mingus Takes Manhattan- The Complete Birdland Dates 1961-1962

Charles Mingus
Mingus Takes Manhattan- The Complete Birdland Dates 1961-1962

Stories have been told over the years, many probably growing in mythology over time, of the way Charles Mingus treated people in his band. His Jazz Workshop gigs would function more like a rehearsal than a live performance, with songs being stopped suddenly if the sound didn't meet Mingus' exacting standards. He would chew out musicians on stage. Eric Dolphy and Ted Curson, according to one story, left the legendary 1960 Mingus quartet because they couldn't take the verbal abuse - and lack of pay - anymore. A Pittsburgh musician once told me that during a residency at the Crawford Grill, Mingus fired his band on the first night, smashed his bass and played piano the rest of the week.

Nothing resembling that kind of volatility comes across on Mingus Takes Manhattan: The Complete Birdland Dates 1961-1962, a four-record limited edition (1,000) box set. Perhaps knowing that the performances were being broadcast on the radio live from Birdland, Mingus kept his cool. Or maybe he was afraid of drawing the wrath of club management or MC Symphony Sid's radio bosses. Or maybe Mingus and his crew, which changes a bit during each broadcast, felt really inspired each night. That's how they come across - capturing the fire that Mingus craved in his music.

Several legitimate live Mingus sets have surfaced in recent years, with many focusing on 1964-65, which encompassed Dolphy's final months with the band and later, when the bassist began working with larger ensembles. The 1964 European tour has been documented extensively, which makes sense as it was Dolphy's last and included a stellar band. If they have any setbacks (which might be a sacrilege to say), it relates to the limited repertoire of those albums.

These performances zero in on a period that might be considered a transitional for the bass-cum-pianist. He had just recorded Oh Yeah, a gutbucket bluesy album where he sat at the piano bench for the whole session. Tunes from that album, rarely heard in other Mingus live recordings, factor heavily into the programs. "Eat That Chicken," a rollicking number inspired by Fats Waller, serves as the band's sign-off at the end of the set and appears a total of seven times throughout the box. 

The October 21, 1961 set opens the box audaciously. A month prior to the Oh Yeah sessions, the group includes Roland Kirk (tenor sax, manzello, stritch), Yusef Lateef (credited with flute, though he seems to play tenor some, if not all, of the time) and devotee Jimmy Knepper (trombone). Mingus plays piano the whole time so Doug Watkins handles bass, as he would in the studio. Drum duties, like all but one set here, come from long-time partner Dannie Richmond. 

The first October track is titled "Nouroog," though it's not the older song with that title (which later became the final movement of "Open Letter to Duke") and though Mingus announces it as "Blue Cee," it's also not the composition of that title he recorded. Instead it's a complex new piece with some interesting tempo shifts. "Ecclusiastics" follows, sounding a little more pronounced than the studio version. Unfortunately a rollicking version of the vampy "Hog Callin' Blues" fades out just as things were starting to get wild. (Apparently the source tape ran out during this song.) At least we get to hear Lateef paraphrase "Wade in the Water." 

By March 1962, the lineup had changed. Mingus was back on bass, with Toshiko Akiyoshi at the keys, where she would stay until the fall. Booker Ervin (tenor saxophone), Charles McPherson (alto saxophone) and Richard Williams (trumpet) filled the horn duties. Like most sides of the set, it features two lengthy pieces plus a short "Eat That Chicken." With that, it delivers quite a contrast in moods: a driving "Take the A Train" (which includes a bowed bass solo) and "Fables of Faubus." None of these sets give Mingus a vocal mike so the biting lyrics of the latter song aren't clear. What becomes clear is Richmond bellowing his responses to the boss's questions in the lyrics. It's a clear case of feeling the words while not hearing them.

The other broadcasts have some song overlaps (aside from "Eat That Chicken," which gets stretched out into a fuller song at least once). "Monk, Funk Or Vice Versa," which never made it into the studio, appears four times. While the March 31 reading goes on a bit too far with the trades between trumpeter Williams and Ervin,  the October versions streamline that trick and benefit from pianist Jaki Byard adding some rather Monk-like accents to his solos.

Speaking of the October broadcasts, Brian Priestly points out in his notes that one of the shows comes a week after Mingus' infamous Town Hall concert. That event is widely considered a low point in Mingus' career, as he attempted to lead a 30-piece ensemble through an extended piece (later known as "Epitaph") that was barely even transcribed, under-rehearsed and abruptly shut down by the stage crew before things were completed. If that disaster did indeed devastate Mingus, it didn't come across when he returned to Birdland seven days later. 

More intrigue comes when bassist Henry Grimes sits in with the band, allowing Mingus to jump over to the piano or create a bigger sound with two low-end instruments. Though it's not always easy to detect when both men are on bass, their dual sound is audible on "Tijuana Table Dance," which later became "Ysabel's Table Dance" when it was released around the time of these performances on Tijuana Moods. Considering that studio version was created through several splices, hearing the multi-part piece executed live adds some gravity to the set. "O.P.," an homage to bassist Oscar Pettiford which was also never recorded in the studio, sounds pretty fast for the ears, but not for the band, who seems comfortable at a bebop tempo.

The live tapes come from the estate of Boris Rose, who fanatically recorded many such live broadcasts over the years. (The Mingus estate gave its blessing to this set too.) A few dates did not come from the original reels and their sound quality is a bit muddy. (Edward Armour's trumpet distorts a little) But even the slightly lo-fi sounds are overridden by the power of the band. Richmond deserves a lot of credit for kicking things along, though even the session where he is absent (and no one sits in) still ranks high, bringing out the sonorities of Mingus' scope. MCs Symphony Sid and, on the first side, Pee Wee Marquette pop up regularly but thankfully their chatter is kept to a minimum. 

Like any good box set, Mingus Takes Manhattan comes with a deluxe booklet (40 pages) that includes performance details, an interview with McPherson and intro by Christian McBride. The short bios on all the players might not have been necessary but the background on Rose and the Birdland broadcasts is illuminating. 

While this set is a pricey undertaking, even by normal jazz box set standards these days, the music provides a valuable snapshot of one of jazz's most original voices. Most significantly it moves away from the legend and mythology to show what listeners might have heard on a "regular" night from him during an overlooked period of a prolific life. 

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Mary Timony and youbet Rock the Andy Warhol Museum

Just kind of a quick post about a show, but with more thoughts that your typical social media post:

Everything that's been written about Mary Timony's skills as a guitarist are true. Sure Rolling Stone ranked her as 95 out of the 250 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. It's cool that somebody in their hallowed halls is paying attention, but those lists don't really say anything. They only really exist to sell special edition magazines and piss off fans of Page, Zappa and Hendrix, who haven't heard a new guitarist in decades. More appropriate, perhaps, was the quote from Carrie Brownstein, the Sleater-Kinney guitarist who played in Wild Flag with Timony, who referred to her as "Mary Shelley with a guitar." She's a groundbreaker. 

Proof of all this came this past Wednesday night at the Andy Warhol Museum when Timony played a set that drew heavily from her brand new album Untame the Tiger (Merge). Her guitar playing isn't brash, noisy or flashy, but it exudes a dynamic style that really lifts her songwriting. Starting with the not-always-chordal strumming that sort of defines the best indie rock, Timony added stinging leads, and long drones (courtesy of her e-bow) that indicated an understated mastery of her instrument. 

Her voice has a startling quality, like she's confiding secrets while singing, and she has always weaved some great stories with her words. Having seen her in the early '00s, primarily playing keyboards if ther memory serves (a friend once saw her another time playing viola while singing), the Warhol show was very much a rock show, in the best sense - full of grooves, harmonies and hooks.

Betsy Wright (who, in researching this post, I realized was the same singer who came to town last year in Bat Fangs, opening for Quasi) added the perfect foil as second guitarist and vocal harmonizer. Chad Molter (bass) and Job Cain (drums) completed the lineup. (One-time Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks plays on the album but he didn't tour with the band.)

Opening acts can often get shortchanged if the audience decides to arrive just before the headliner, or if they stand around and talk, ignoring the band's set. On Wednesday, the crowd in the Warhol's entrance way, where the stage was set up, seemed so intrigued by openers youbet that the band assured everyone between songs that it was okay to talk to one another.

The Brooklyn trio also played a sharp brand of indie pop that had its share of rhythm nuances, bolstered a bit by guitarist/vocalist Nick Llobet's [sic] occasional retunings, that seemed to take things in expanded melodic directions. The band's newest album won't be released until May (on the Hardly Art label) but I couldn't resist the temptation of getting one of their shirts at the merch table, along with a copy of Untame the Tiger, which I hadn't heard in its entirety prior to the show. 

 Keep an eye out for youbet's next album, Way to Be. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

CD Review: Angelica Sanchez Nonet - Nighttime Creatures

Angelica Sanchez Nonet
Nighttime Creatures

Angelica Sanchez says she composed the music on Nighttime Creatures for the eight musicians that join her on the album and it definitely sounds that way. There are many tracks where the musicians seem to play their personalities. In the multi-part "Astral Lights of Alarid," everyone is used for distinct voicings in the theme, after they create a series of diminished chords with Sanchez's piano. The title track begins with a series of crescendos where half the horns answer the other half as the melody connects. Michaël Attias (alto saxophone), Ben Goldberg (contra alto clarinet) and Chris Speed (tenor saxophone, clarinet) stand out distinctly in one channel while Thomas Heberer (quarter-tone trumpet) and Kenny Warren (cornet) respond in the other channel. If anything is hard to discern, it might be the difference between the two brass instruments.

Even if Sanchez issn't exactly pulling a Duke Ellington, building her parts around specific musicians, the scope of her writing still has unique ebbs and flows to it. "Wrong Door For Rocket Fuel" begins with a three-way melody from Attias, Goldberg and either Heberer or Warren. The way they layer on each other still provides plenty of space to keep their parts distinct. "Land Here" starts free, with everyone waking up to the sound of Sanchez's jaunty playing. This continues for over three and a half minutes until a tight theme takes shape. Once again, they trade off, half of them playing sustained notes to shorter ones from the other half. 

Throughout the album Goldberg and Attias get a big cut of the solo space. Highlights include the former weaving around Sanchez's chords in the title track, and the latter engaging drummer Sam Ospovat in a duet during "Ringleader." Guitarist Oscar Tamez straddles incisive comp parts and quick solo space. Bassist John Hébert gets some room for double stops during a reworked version of "Tristeza," a piece by Chilean composer Armando Carvajal.

With Sanchez's skill at writing for specific players, it comes as a surprise that her interpretation of Duke Ellington's "Lady of the Lavendar Mist" comes up a bit short. While nothing feels wrong about it, and she again scores it well, the tune, which dates back to Duke's late '40s era, feels a little tranquil compared to the rest of the album. 

Nevertheless, Nighttime Creatures presents a strong evidence of how Sanchez's writing skills are creating a unique body of work.

Monday, February 19, 2024

CD Review: Jeremy Udden - Wishing Flower

Jeremy Udden
Wishing Flower

Saxophonist Jeremy Udden's albums, with groups like Plainville, seem to might have taken inspiration from both jazz and post-rock. The alto saxophonist clearly brings the melodic and improvisational perspective to his work from the former category. From there, he has often rendered his ideas in spare, very deliberate songs, which recall the slow-core bands of the past two decades. Space is often left wide-open in the rhythm section and even in Udden's own alto work; sometimes his minimal choice of notes and use of middle and lower range of his horn might make it hard to tell if he plays alto or tenor. 

The simplicity of the arrangements have frequently created some enchanting music. Much of the Plainville catalog could double as soundtracks for films of travels down long Americana highways. Udden skillfully imples that the destination plays second fiddle to the actual journey. 

Wishing Flower continues in that vein, although the inspiration to this album is decidedly urban. The music was inspired by walks with his daughters through their neighborhood of Brooklyn, taking in site of dandelions growing through sidewalk cracks, earning them the designation of "wishing flowers." While Plainville included guitarist/banjoist Brandon Seabrook and keyboardist Pete Rende, this album features a different quartet of longtime friends: Ben Monder (guitar), Ziv Ravitz (drums) and Jorge Roeder (bass).  

The production of Wishing Flower is very dry, with no echo or sustain. This benefits the band in most cases. Ben Monder never needs excessive volume to state his case. In "Pendulum," he sets fire from his corner of the room, as the rest of the band interacts in a vamp that might have gotten lost in a heavier production. The gentle "Lullaby" feels like a Paul Motian piece, moving gently in a free time.  

In addition to his alto, Udden switches to Lyricon for a few tracks. This 1970s electronic wind instrument is associated with recordings by Steely Dan, Michael Jackson and Weather Report, which should give an idea of how it sounds: sometimes intriguing (it frequently takes a moment to realize it's not an effects-heavy guitar), a little dated and something of a novelty. It fits in the funky lilt of "1971" in which Udden pulls a weird solo out of it. In "Car Radio" the instrument plays into the song's laidback feel perhaps a bit too much. Here, the production hampers the delivery a little; Ravitz seems to be laying down a groove by bashing away but the overall hit doesn't quite come across.

To close the album, Udden picks a tune far removed from his genre, though not from his mood: "Fade Into You," the 1993 dreamy, psych-folk hit by Mazzy Star. Already a slow song, Roeder plays the four-chord vamp at tempo that's barely awake. His bandmates take liberties around him, so Mazzy Star fans might only recognize the tune through close scrutiny. Udden plays the melody on Lyricon. Monder starts out sounding like cars hissing past on a highway and ends up stealing the show by the second verse. Eventually, the Lyricon transforms into something like an ornery clavinet, rising up without exactly disturbing the languid core of the tune. It's a successful and rather bold interpretation, though it can leave you wondering what might have happened had Udden switched over to alto at some point. 

Although some tracks on Wishing Flower could have benefited from a little more spring in the step, Jeremy Udden continues to create sonic landscapes that can motivate listeners to stop and appreciate things in the cracks like the dandelions. Why he hasn't been pulled into the world of film soundtracks is anyone's guess.

Monday, January 29, 2024

LP Review: Joseph Branciforte & Theo Bleckmann - LP2

Joseph Branciforte & Theo Bleckmann
LP 2
(Greyfade) www.greyfade.com

The cover of LP2 recalls the stark artwork on records from Factory, the UK label whose heyday occurred around the late '70s/early '80s with bands like Joy Division or A Certain Ratio. A band of one-inch lines in various colors runs the length of the cover, towards the left; the catalog number and release date appear on the front in the lower right corner, next to what looks like a UPC code but is actually a set of bars with Greyfade website beneath it. The album title appears sideways, opposite the bands of color.

The label might share a sense of independence with Factory, but Greyfade is no post-punk imprint. It specializes in "processed-based music, electronic & acoustic minimalism, alternate tuning systems and algorithmic composition." Vocalist Theo Bleckmann has become known in jazz circles with  performances that can be either soothing or unsettling as a leader and collaborator (with groups like the brass quartet Westerlies, drummer John Hollenbeck and composer Meredith Monk among others). Joseph Branciforte has worked as an engineer and producer for numerous musicians (Tim Berne, Ben Monder, Steve Lehman) in addition to recording his own music. LP2 is the second effort by this duo, following LP1 (2019). 

While their previous collaboration was purely spontaneous, the duo took liberties in the studio this time, utilizing "prompts" to guide the music, and overdubbing more instruments. The preparation serves to blur lines between improvisation and composition, which gets further extended by the works themselves when heard in analogue form. The record is pressed on clear vinyl, making it hard to discern the breaks between tracks. All eight have numerical titles ("1.13," "10.11.5") with no time durations listed for any of them. The point, seemingly: forget typical conventions and just listen.

Branciforte and Bleckmann immediately create a rich sound on "1.13" with vocals that feel awash in subterranean reverberations, like an angel singing at the far end of a subway platform. While this happens, the sounds of the city (actually Branciforte) provide a soothing backdrop to the voice. At other times, Branciforte's modular keyboards fold in so well with Bleckmann's voice that distinguishing one from the other can be a challenge. The ten-minute "11.15" unfolds like a dream soundtrack with several voices, high and low, adding to the non-verbal conversation while the toll of an electronic bell sets a gentle tempo.

The second side of the album brings to mind some David Bowie-Brian Eno collaborations, specifically the second half of the "Heroes" album, in which the music unfolds slowly, setting a scene. Different textures pop up, with voices coming and going. It can also feel like Bleckmann's different parts have all been part of the soundscape the entire time, and just coming into clarity at various moments. Therein lies the depth of this music. 

Along with the longer tracks, the album includes a few pieces that last just over a minute, offering quick bites of static, choirs of voices or percussive clatter. A few even add what amounts to surface noise, in case the pristine vinyl might need it. The brevity of these pieces doesn't give the music time to get too abrasive; it acts more like an interlude between the bigger works. 

Thursday, January 25, 2024

LP Review: The Human Hearts - Viable

Another album I've been meaning to write about for a few months.

The Human Hearts

Nothing Painted Blue's Emotional Discipline (Scat, 1997) could be considered as the indie rock equivalent of  Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady. Like the British band's collection of eight 7" releases, the Upland, CA group compiled singles that appeared on a variety of different labels, profiling a group that could deliver graduate school-level post-punk lyrics while rocking out at the same time. With more music on it than the Buzzcocks' release, the tidal wave of hits keep coming for about an hour. Why that album isn't recognized in tandem with all the other oft-lauded albums from that period is beyond me. 

Now Franklin Bruno, the voice and wit from ∅PB, has undertaken a similar effort with his current band, the Human Hearts. Viable commits previously released material to vinyl, some for the first time, with a handful of singles, a digital EP and a few solo songs that were available through a Kickstarter campaign; all 14 tracks came out between 2011 and 2015. In addition to proving that Bruno is still a songwriter with a skill at great couplets, the seemingly random assortment of tracks reveal the wide range of his writing skills.

Songs like the darkly humorous "Flag Pin" and driving "Art Books" play to his skillful rock tendencies. At the same time, "Last Words of Her Lover," with lyrics taken from a poem by Helen Adam and sung by Bruno's wife Bree Benton, wouldn't sound out of place in a current musical or pithy supper club setting. Accompanied by some lonely piano chords and melancholy violas, Bruno himself sings "Nick Cave" with a certain in-the-spotlight pathos usually reserved for the theater (which, naturally, he counters with the song's wry tale of fan worship aimed at the subject). 

Among the rotating group of  bandmates, Bruno's longtime friend Jenny Toomey (Tsunami, Simple Machines Records) handles the vocals on a couple songs. The tradition continues in covering a song by a peer, in this case the band Wckr Spgt's odd and somewhat unsettling "Terrible Criminal" gets the Bruno treatment. "June Is As Cold As December" originally done by the Everly Brothers, also gets a faithful rendition, complete with some harmonies from longtime Human Hearts drummer Matt Houser.

Last summer, Bruno suffered a heart attack while vacationing in France. Thanks largely to the health care system in that country, the singer/guitarist was able to receive immediate treatment and was performing again before the year was out. As a fan and something of an acquaintance of Mr. B, it was scary to imagine someone so gifted being taken from us like that. I'm glad that he's better and hope that the new Human Hearts album will be in our hands before too long. 

Finally, the cover of Viable presents another homage - a hat tip to the new wave-era colors and cover art that were prevalent around 1980, specifically Epic Records' Nu-Disk series. 

Friday, January 19, 2024

You Won't Enjoy Fugazi On As Many Levels As I Do

Back during my college days, when the WPTS-FM office was my second home, I went to a party at an apartment where I used to live with a few guys from the station. At one point, a bunch of dudes standing around the keg starting hollering along with the song that was blasting from the stereo: "It's the End of the World As We Know It." These guys weren't bros in the way we think of "bros" in 2024. They were just some guys who had had a few beers and were trying to keep up with the rapid-fire lyrics of the song. (And I believe they did pretty well.)

I had already jumped off the REM bandwagon a few years earlier, in part because their more recent stuff had bored and in part because their audience soured me on them after the crowd booed Camper Van Beethoven when they opened for the Athens guys. I was at that age where things like that meant too much to me. 

Deep down, I knew "It's the End of the World" was a good song. (These days hits me heart in a special place, in fact.) But back then it was NOT THE KIND OF THING YOU SING DRUNKENLY WHILE YOU'RE STANDING AROUND A BEER KEG. That's not how you appreciate a song like this. You just.... you just... stop. Just stop, dammit. Do you even really appreciate the song, dudes?! I said that in my head, not out loud. I just rolled my eyes.

I thought of this scene recently and laughed at myself for being such a tight ass, recalling Professor Frink in that episode of The Simpsons when he scientifically explains the way a kindergarten toy works. One of the tykes asks if she can play with it. "No, you can't play with it," he snaps. "You won't enjoy it on as many levels as I do." 

There was no reason to get so bugged. After all, they were just having a good time. No, they weren't listening to Big Dipper but they weren't treating "We Didn't Start the Fire" or "I'll Be Lovin' You (Forever)" with the same enthusiasm either. Let the dudes have their fun, my current self thinks.

The reason I was taken back to this time (aside from a memory for things like this) has to do with a video I saw on Instagram earlier this week. It was a 45-second clip of kids from the Cleveland School of Rock performing live. Specifically, it was a group of teenagers, mostly young women, singing the Fugazi song "Waiting Room." These weren't serious looking straight edge kids either. These were all American looking girls in sundresses with spaghetti straps jumping all over the stage. In other words, not the types of kids you'd expect to be singing Fugazi. 

But they sounded really good. The music was tight, with the right amount of staccato buzz in the guitars. (Not sure if the kid on the cowbell was really necessary but why leave anyone out?) The singers were barking out the words with the same kind of urgency that you'd expect from Ian MacKaye. They did their homework.

But go the comments, and people were NOT happy. "Punk is dead." Random comments about suburban kids having the gall to sing Fugazi songs. There were probably more about the group of predominantly young ladies performing the song and how wrong that is. (Even though the bassist was playing a Rickenbacker! Salute!) 

I realize people love going on social media and pissing on the parade. When 20 people have talked about how much they like an album, there's got to be one schlub who say it sucks. Even though EVERYBODY ALREADY KNOW IT, it's important to remind readers how awful Morrissey's politics are. Or how John Lydon supports Donald Trmpf (which I still have trouble believing, seriously.) 

Social media allows us to legitimize these ornery positions too. Which classic songs do you hate? What music do you intentionally ignore? The latter category - which, granted is rare - is one that gets under my skin and gets to the heart of this situation. "I've heard it done before - and much better." Why are these things always a competition? Why does one song/band/version have to be evaluated next to another one? I used to hear this from musicians. "We can play it better than the original." In a lot of situations, that wasn't the case, having been the person doing the singing (and hearing live recordings on which me and the correct pitch were across the room from each other.) Just because a group of musicians has more chops than, say, the Adverts, does that mean their version of "Gary Gilmore's Eyes" will sound better? If Toto played "God Save the Queen" how would it sound? It's not a competition.

A lot of times a band that is accused of trying to "rip off" some predecessor isn't doing that either. Maybe I'm naive, but it seems like homage or inspiration is at work more than "oh, they're just trying to sound like [pick a band]." There are only 12 notes in the Western scale. If a band is banging an E chord than a G chord, maybe there's a good chance their trying to rewrite the Stooges' "1970" but maybe they just stumbled upon an easy, raunchy sounding progression on their own. Listen to how they play, and how they might look as they're playing it. Does they seemed charged up? That's what matters. Those Cleveland kids were ripping into "Waiting Room" like they had just seen Fugazi. They weren't ripping them off. Maybe they weren't as dead serious as Ian and Guy and the band was, but let them have their fun. Maybe they will change the world for the better, if not with music with their actions.

In doing further investigation, I found out that clip is several years old and has passed around IG a few times. (Chances are, someone has already written this exact post about it.) The posted version that caught my eye earlier this week, with all the grouchy comments, can't be found. If the one I just found is the same post, all but a few comments have been taken down, including one I made. I paraphrased a song by MacKaye's previous band, Minor Threat. "At least they're trying... what the f*** have you done?!"

Years after rolling my eyes at my college brethen for singing REM, I had two chances to play that song live. One came at a Halloween-time show where I played in a pick-up group doing REM tunes. The other one I ended up missing because I was sidelined with COVID: the band at the Unitarian-Universalist Church that I attend played it as part of a sermon. (They found a fill-in.)

Yeah, the 22-year old me would have said the latter one was cheesy, but he needs to shut up.  

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Playing Catch Up: Jason Adasiewicz Returned in 2023 With Two Unique Albums

The first blog post of the year finally comes down the pike, more than halfway into the month. In the past, this month has been a time of renewed excitement, with the look back at the previous year all being done in the first couple days of the new year.

There are a wealth of new releases coming out too but there are also too many things that I didn't get to expound upon before 2023 wrapped up. I couldn't get it together then, but I can now. So I'll try to be quick and concise and tell you what I liked that you might have missed.

Jason Adasiewicz 
Roy's World

Jason Adasiewicz
Roscoe Village - The Music of Roscoe Mitchell

Jason Adasiewicz's approach to the vibraphone has always possessed a magical quality, taking an instrument with a very distinct personality and using it in ways that blow any pre-determined ideas about it out of the window. There are precedents for what he does, like Bobby Hutcherson's performance on Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch. But it's hard to imagine Hutcherson blending with the late Peter Brötzmann, and nurturing a more delicate performance with the burly saxophonist. Adasiewicz did that one year at Winter Jazz Fest. On top of that, and a role as one-third or Rob Mazurek's Starlicker trio, there were three albums by Adasiewicz's Sun Rooms trio, where his sustain pedal stayed in constant use, and he created flowing lines, accompanied by bass and drums.

Then he disappeared. Or at least, he fell off my radar. No new sessions, no side gigs, nothing. Maybe I wasn't looking in the right places but I worried a little. Maybe he dropped out of music, frustrated that only bloggers were talking about him all the time. Maybe family stuff took precedence. Or maybe COVID knocked him down. (Hence the worry.) I tried asking around to people who seemed like they would know but the only responses were the equivalent of shoulder shrugs.

Then last fall, somehow I stumbled across an Instagram post by the Corbett Vs. Dempsey label, talking about the second (!) Adasiewicz album they released in 2023. Suddenly my prayers have been answered. Or I was finally looking in the right place. (Those few months with no real writing gig took its toll.) The Bandcamp listing for Roscoe Village even explains his absence. He took a five-year sabbatical, became a carpenter and built himself a recording studio/practice space. 

Which brings us to my favorite album of 2023....

The tracks on Roy's World were composed as a soundtrack for the film Roy's World: Barry Gifford's Chicago, based on a Gifford's collection of short stories. However, the music was made before there was film on which to set it. With Josh Berman (cornet), Jonathan Doyle (saxophones), Joshua Abrams (bass) and Hamid Drake (drums), Adasiewicz composed eight pieces that all evoke some cinematic moods, working strongly as a soundtrack but ultimately stand solidly on their own as an album of concise music. 

The instrumentation recalls the late '60s Blue Note era when players like Andrew Hill or Grachan Moncur III were pushing against staid musical structures without completely sacrificing them. "River Blindness (Full)" opens the album with a slinky blues structure, with cornet and tenor playing in unison with the vibes. It has edge and it has a solid bottom. Like in many tracks, solos are limited to just a few choruses. Sometimes one of the horns only plays on the theme. 

On "Do More," things flow freely with cymbals crashes and rolls, while Doyle, this time on alto, plays pointed spare notes that would leave room for narration in the final cut. By contrast he switches to baritone in "Sand" and doubles Abrams part, while Adasiewicz gets a chance to play some lines, utilizing the sustain pedal. Berman lights up the scene anytime he blows and his bent, conversational work in "Walking to Clinton" presents some of the highlights.  The leader switches to balafon on "Blue People" adding to the already rhythmical groove of the song, with horns lines that evoke an African melody. 

With an A-list group like this and a sound that brings together the ideal blend of adventure and structure, it's puzzling why this album didn't get more love upon its release last summer. Now's the time to catch up.

A solo vibraphone album can be a bit of a challenge, regardless of who's holding the mallets. Combine that setting with the compositions of Roscoe Mitchell, where space, atmosphere and extended technique can all factor into a piece, and the level of intrigue increases tenfold.

Adasiewicz transcribed eight Mitchell pieces for the album, along with a one written by Roscoe Mitchell, Sr. and one by R&B singer Otis Blackwell. While his approach to his instrument has been a bit aggressive at times (on some of his other records, it sounds like he's hitting so hard that the vibes bleed through one of the other studio microphones), he plays with a delicate attack on many of these tracks, slowly teasing melodies up through the vibrato of the instrument. It might be the first time a set of Mitchell's work could be considered lyrical, and that doesn't mean the music has been simplified by any means. 

Album opener "The Waltz" (an early Art Ensemble of Chicago piece) creates an aural version of entering a dimly light room: the setting might be hard to make out initially but as time passes, it starts to make sense. From there, it's easy to get caught up in the sound of instrument. "Toro," another AEC piece from the Paris days, maintains the groove of the original, even with just one instrument playing it. 

Throughout Roscoe Village, the selection of music and the pacing assures that the tracks never start to sound the same or run together. The elder Mitchell's "Walking In the Moonlight" is built on a bluesy foundation, which Adasiewicz toys with as he goes. At the same time, the groove of Blackwell's "Daddy Rollin' Stone" (one of Mitchell's favorite songs) can be felt throughout his playing. Both those tracks present some contrast, as does "The Cartoon March," which has never been recorded before. True to its name (and perhaps, some thoughts of Carl Stalling) the mood changes shape frequently, with stops, starts and dynamic drops, but it never meanders. 

Like any good Roscoe Mitchell album, repeated listens will yield more understanding of what's happening in the music. A whole recital on vibes feel like the gateway to deeper exploration anyway.

Jason, if you're reading this - glad to hear you playing again.