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 "OlĂ©" 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.