Sunday, May 26, 2024

CD Reviews: Matthew Shipp Trio - New Concepts in Piano Trio Jazz, Rich Halley - Fire Within

Some time last year, I hatched a plan to write a piece about ESP-Disk's reissue of Matthew Shipp's 1990 debut album, Circular Temple, in tandem with his then-new solo piano disc The Intrinsic Nature of Matthew Shipp (Mahakala). The blog post was also going to discuss music journalist Clifford Allen's book Singularity Codex - Matthew Shipp on RogueArt, which covered his subject's extensive releases on that French imprint and offered insight into the pianist's work through interviews with people who have played with him, recorded him and released his work. For whatever reason - procrastination, malaise over the state of jazz journalism in early 2023, worry that I couldn't find a way to talk about Shipp's work - the piece never materialized. 

The good thing about Matthew Shipp is that, despite any talk that he might retire, his studio output has yet to slow down. Here we are with two examples.

Before we get to that, a few words about Allen's book, which is still as relevant today as it was in 2023. At just over 200 pages, with slightly less than half of it devoted to examinations of Shipp's RogueArt albums, Singularity Codex still delivers a good look at the pianist as a whole. Discussions with bassist William Parker, saxophonist Rob Brown and guitarist/bassist Joe Morris come in strict Q&A layouts, which can sometimes make assumptions about the readers' background knowledge and skip on details. But Allen makes sure details are covered. 

Some of the conversations might get into minutiae, but presumably, the people picking up the book are Shipp fans who enjoy that. Considering how Shipp can be a little reticent in interviews (his voice only appears in the back cover endorsement), the words of his peers  make up for it. The third section, on the albums themselves, might even make the reader want to find a particular session that is not already on their personal shelf. 


Matthew Shipp Trio
New Concepts in Piano Trio Jazz

If the title of the latest disc by Shipp's piano trio seems a little bold, it follows a trajectory of some of his previous ones, like the aforementioned Intrinsic Nature of Matthew Shipp or The Conduct of Jazz (2015) and a track called "When the Curtain Falls on the Jazz Theatre" (from 2009's Harmonic Disorder). But it also holds true in describing the eight performances on the album. 

One of the new concepts seems to be the approach drummer Newman Taylor Baker takes on in the band. On this session, he comes off as a master of restrain and someone who fills in the background cautiously and freely. In a few tracks, his contributions seem limited to a few cymbal crashes or washes. There have been numerous drummers who have played freely behind the piano and drums, but Baker's performance often sounds closer to a third voice, rather than a rhythmic instrument.

"Sea Song" begins with 34 seconds of brushes on drum heads, nearly impossible to hear at first. When Shipp and bassist Michael Bisio join him, Baker continues to act as the waves drifting in the background, only getting a bit more animated in the last couple minutes.. Bisio, playing below his instrument's usual range, comes off like a rugged on hull on the high seas. Shipp doesn't stick to a set of changes, but flows with a continuous set of ideas that also evoke the openness of the sea. 

A steady walking bass in "The Function" gives Shipp and Baker room to spin whatever ideas strike them. The pianist casually throws in some Monk-like filigrees and accents and some of his signature low-end, sustained strikes, all of them usually lasting a few brief bars. Meanwhile Baker seems to tinker with his kit, tapping out ideas and leaving space wide open between them. 

To be clear, none of these qualities detract from the power of the album. If anything, they add a level of intrigue. The upper strata of this intrigue is of course Shipp, who continues on a musical path that becomes more idiosyncratic as he goes. He and Bisio have worked together so closely that the sparse movement of "Tone IQ" sounds full. "Brain Work" is a detailed solo piano piece, beginning with notes collapsing onto one another without any feeling of clutter. It actually feels like one large idea that requires three minutes to play. 

"Coherent System" is the album's closing epic, at 11 minutes significantly longer than the 10 preceding tracks. It constantly morphs into different shapes, with tempos rising and falling naturally. Baker takes a cue from the low end of the piano and plays on the snare almost like a march. Without much transition, Shipp into waltz time, before returning to the march, stopping at some point to add a classical flourish.

If it all sounds a little hard to imagine, that is because a piano trio has never come off this way before.

Rich Halley
Fire Within

Tenor saxophonist Rich Halley resides in Portland, Oregon where he has worked extensively as a band leader (releasing 25 albums) and founder of the state's Creative Music Guild. He has also played Vinny Golia, Nels Cline and Andrew Hill, to name a few. Fire Within is his third album with all three members of the Matthew Shipp Trio (following 2020's The Shape Of Things). All five tracks are credited to each player, which implies that this was a spontaneous session, although there are moments where Halley hits on a line that could be a pre-determined theme.

He opens the title track with a lick that acts as a fanfare and when the group joins him, there's no doubt that Shipp is the pianist, performing his familiar staccato dance on the keys, as Bisio and Baker roll behind him. This is no session where the trio bends to the wishes of the leader. Baker, quiet on the previous album, comes alive with a solo on this track that relies on drama and dynamics and builds to a crescendo. 

While things definitely feel free and unwound at times, these moments are balanced by tracks like "Angular Logic" where Shipp's chordal vamp moves in tandem with Halley, whose rich tone builds to frantic levels. "Through Still Air," where Bisio's high bowing meets Halley on an even level, almost feels like a ballad, but something unsuspecting is in the water. There might be an old standard quote courtesy of Halley, and the whole piece ultimately brings Andrew Hill to mind. 

The quartet excels best in the longer pieces where they take time to work through ideas. "Inferred" is one of the best, beginning with a bass solo that starts in a contemplative mood, working into a mournful tune before Shipp creates a tornado and lifts Halley up, going through different shapes before returning to the pensive feeling from early in the track. 

Fire Within has a different set up than New Concepts In Piano Trio Jazz but Shipp's unique approach is still recognizable. It's also nice to hear him in the company of a strong tenor saxophonist like Halley again.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Messthetics & James Brandon Lewis Lift the Bandstand; Thoughts on Steve Albini

The past week was filled with some sad music news, not to mention a personal deadline to write about a particular jazz box set. But the week began with some really uplifting music, so our story is going to begin there. 

The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis album on Impulse! has been in heavy rotation at home since it came out in March so the anticipation for the group's return to Pittsburgh was pretty high. When they came to Club Café last year, Lewis played a set with his trio and then joined the Messthetics for the end of theirs. But on Monday, May 6, the quartet was onstage the whole time.  

Punk rock and jazz have come together before several times. Saccharine Trust began as an arty punk band who went on to meld beat poetry and jazz riffs, before members of that band went on to form Universal Congress Of, who went even more in a mostly instrumental, improvisational direction. But both of those bands were heavy on feeling, which made up for a more primal approach to improvisation.

The Messthetics feature Joe Lally (bass) and Brandon Canty (drums), the rhythm section of one of the best known punk bands of all time - Fugazi. It's not an exaggeration to say that, since the band set a gold standard for honesty and integrity with their music, which inspired legions of musicians. Guitarist Anthony Pirog straddles all kinds of styles of jazz and rock. James Brandon Lewis is, quite simply, one of the most inventive tenor saxophonists around right now. 

With all four of these guys together, it's like a confluence of punk rock and jazz. That's obvious, but when they hit on Monday, suddenly there were no musical boundaries, no need to put a label on what they do, no chance to boil it down into easy to digest categories. If you have to ask, you'll never understand.

Sure, that's not exactly true. But the excitement that these guys delivered was on par with what Fugazi gave us, combined with the rich harmonic ideas that Lewis' Red Lily Quintet plays. There were times when Lewis was honking at the low end of his tenor, but it wasn't like the bar walking tenor players of bygone days, who were simply honking to get a reaction out of inebriated listeners. "The Time Is the Place" had urgency in the tenor solo, like Lewis had a message or an emotion he wanted to unleash. He knew what we needed

"That Thang," as the name might imply, had a hearty funk groove, backed up by some equally heavy chord work. Pirog's harmonic approach was also a quality that gave things an extra kick, with chords or melodies that expanded the sound. Canty's trademark bell, mounted on a cymbal stand, sat quiet for much of the set but when it was struck, you felt it. 

Lally was not a flashy player ,but he was solid, keeping it together with Canty, who rocked more than swung, which served the music well. As they were barreling through "Fourth Wall," which is built largely on a repeating figure that kind of stretches a triple meter over a backbeat, it occurred to me that this was probably what the MC5 was trying to do years ago, after listening to Coltrane and Sun Ra and hoping to incorporate their ideas into their music. Only this time, there were more than good intentions going on here. These cats have the vision and the skill to really pull it off and write the next chapter. 

Canty was the voice of the group, offering introductions and general info between songs. When one fellow in a corner of Club Café kept yelling out enthusiastic compliments, the drummer kept the mood positive and asked his name. "Steve," Canty told him upon learning it, "we love you." No lectures, no shushing, just love. It added to the camaraderie of the show and we all felt a little more connected to Steve. 

The local trio Else Collective opened the evening. Their guitar/bass/drums set up started off minimal and tense, with counter grooves making it a challenge to find a downbeat, if there really was a proper one. Parts of it sounded a little too rigid, but most of their pieces tended to open up as they continued, and that's when they created some heat. 

When a friend texted me that Steve Albini had died this week, I almost hit the floor. It wasn't that I was the hugest Albini fan or that I had some wild encounter with him somewhere along the way. I actually had mixed feelings about him as a person. He knew a lot about the music industry and wasn't afraid to call people out who he knew were shysters. 

He didn't suffer fools, but he didn't suffer the uninformed either. I still remember him getting prickly with a local writer who dared to use the word "producer" in relation to his work on an album. And Steverino ripped into him. He loathed being called a producer, believing that producers are the people who take over recording sessions and try to change a band's sound to fit someone else's needs. (I"m paraphrasing here.) I could see what he meant, but having dealt with so many indie rock folks that fly off the handle due to semantics, the response made me eyes roll a little.

Of course, I made sure other people knew how he felt about it too, if there were times that the p-word came up in relation to him. 

But there was that sound Albini created. It had the immediacy of a band playing in a basement party (to me, the ideal setting), with added clarity. Everything was alive and leaped out at you. Whether you wanted it coming at you was your choice.  The first artist that comes to mind is not Nirvana. It's PJ Harvey. I was both terrified and intrigued by "Rid of Me," which ends with her singing a capella, like she's gasping for breath after being held under water. 

When it comes to the whole "producing" thing, Shimmy-Disc founder/musician Kramer had the best take on it, posted on Instagram this week: "Steve was always right, about everything......with one very important exception: all that nonsense he loved to spout about not being a record producer. What a complete load of horse shit. Any debate over the evidence supporting that statement would just seem like comedy, to me. Artists trusted him, and he returned their trust by protecting them from harm in the studio. He did so simply by making sure that their recordings sounded like who they actually were. Sure, maybe it begins with "engineering", but...THAT, is 'producing.'"

The idea behind that is what breaks my heart. Albini, might have seemed like a self-righteous, smug little pud, but he cared. He really cared. He was committed to protecting artists from becoming what they weren't. Sometimes when you care about something, it might seem like you're on a mission, which not everyone understands, and it gets frustrating, so you lash out. And Albini realized that he was a jagoff, confessing to it in a now famous article from The Guardian last year. You rarely see that kind of honesty anymore.

But what's really sobering is that the guy was a mere 61 years old and died of a heart attack. That is too damn close to where I am now. It could happen to any of us tomorrow. I hope it doesn't. The world needs us.

Now go start your own band. And go to other people's gigs too.

Wednesday, May 01, 2024

GBV in Pittsburgh, April 27

GBV vocalist Robert Pollard, with drummer Kevin March and guitarist Doug Gillard
While waiting to get through the security check point at Mr. Small's on Saturday, my friend Tim and I met a couple of polite gents from Ottawa who had traveled to our fair town to see Guided By Voices. One of them asked how many times we'd seen them. I rolled my eyes and tried to think of an answer, and one of our new friends took that to mean "too many times to get an accurate number." But that wasn't the case. I just couldn't recall how long it's been since I last saw them. 

Checking past blog entries, the only show mentioned is the 2014 appearance, where Death of Samantha opened for them. I know I saw them at least once more before the pandemic. There was the one night I was milling through the crowd, scoop pad in my hand, writing down song titles, and two people asked me, "Are you [Post-Gazette writer] Scott Mervis?" At least they recognized my line of work.

Whenever the last show was, I recall GBV figurehead Robert Pollard seeming really snockered (more so than usual) but being impressed that the set ended after exactly 90 minutes, as he predicted. It was a good night of music, but his rambling between-song patter, coupled with the wall-to-wall GBV bros, made me wonder if I needed to see them again. The last GBV album I bought was....good. But I haven't been compelled to pull it off the shelf for a couple years.

Last Saturday, April 27, peer pressure started to weigh on me. (Though the peers that talked about going are actually much younger than me.) Besides, live shows give you something that you don't get sitting at home, listening while doing something else or nodding off in your easy chair. 

Mr. Pollard and the band delivered too. By the time the houselights and the p.a. music came on, approximately 135 minutes had passed since their set began. Pollard definitely had a few in him before he hit the stage (and speaking of hitting, he also took a drag off a joint that was passed to him by an audience member, after talking about the good old days of doing drugs at shows), but the desire to rock hard overpowered the desire to fall into his cups and perform that way. If you're going to sing for that long, even with breaks, it's important to maintain stamina and pace oneself, and Pollard did.

The set, naturally, cut a wide path through the band's songbook. Several Bee Thousand songs were pulled up, along with a few others from their days on Matador Records. If I was a good journalist, I might have kept count of how many songs they played, but it was hard enough maintain a spot in the crowd, amidst all the dudes raising index fingers and beer cans in the air when recognizing a song. (They'd kill me for saying this, but the way the diehard fans reacted to lyrics reminded me of the time I saw the Indigo Girls and members of the audience were acting out the words to songs.) 

But I shouldn't disparage some guys who were merely having the time of their lives. No one was slamming into innocent bystanders. And, thankfully, no dudes were groping ladies during the set, at least not what I saw. (I heard reports of that at prevous shows.)

Parts of the set took me back to seeing GBV in late 1993 at the CMJ Music Marathon, just prior to the release of Bee Thousand. There was a lot buzz surrounding the band and hoi polloi like Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore were in the audience. Onstage the music made me think of an indie rock take of A Hard Day's Night. Everything was short, concise and amazing. Last week, it was fascinating to hear so many songs all in a row, all sounding tight and well-written, all of them sequenced in the set so they didn't blend together or sound like "just another GBV song." Running order is crucial in these cases, and GBV takes that seriously.

The evening also reminded me of seeing GBV mainstay Doug Gillard's band Gem a few years later at CMJ, but for another reason. That band's set made me rue the choice to forego earplugs, as Gillard and Tim Tobias played some loud guitar with a healthy dose of high end. Gillard was equally loud last Saturday and as the evening wore on, these ears got a little more sensitive to all those power chords, as well as the roars of the crowd. In my defense, it had been a long day that started early that morning, included a full day of work, dinner with Mum and little less caffeine that I would have preferred prior to getting to the show.  

But it was a good time.

Due to the security line, openers the Gotobeds were, quite literally, playing the final chord of their set as I walked in the door. When Eli Kasan, their singer, asked me how that final chord sounded, I couldn't lie: it rocked.