Thursday, June 22, 2017

Reports on the Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival 2017

A few days ago, Facebook sent me a memory post, one of those "On this day, X years ago," where I suggested that anyone reading the post should go down to the Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival and check out the trio of Geri Allen, David Murray & Terri Lynn Carrington. I read it and thought, "Why the hell didn't I go to that show?!" The answer was probably related to my retail job of that time, where Saturday was one of the busiest days of the week and getting off was not done without the residual guilt and suspicion. These days, being underemployed has its advantages.

I was pretty stoked about this year's JazzLive Fest (which ran last weekend, Friday-Sunday) because in addition to ticketed shows by David Sanborn and Angelique Kidjo, there were plenty of free shows. Plus, the schedule included both straightahead acts like vocalist Jazzmeia Horn and bold groups like Odean Pope's Saxophone Choir, as well as tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman and bassist Linda May Han Oh.

A brief preview of the event ran in CP, where I interviewed Linda May Han Oh and wrote a little about Odean Pope. I would have liked to interview David Sanborn, and ask about his wide-ranging work (he's worked with Tim Berne, grew up with the Black Artists Group and covered the Velvet Underground, in addition to the more accessible stuff for which he's known). But my night began at the closing party for the Non Punk Pittsburgh show at SPACE Gallery, just down the street from where Sanborn was playing. Steve Sciulli of Carsickness just released a solo CD, so he was playing, along with a few other acts on the Get Hip label.

After that, it was up to La Lyonnais, a restaurant down and around the corner where a jam session was in progress, hosted by drummer Roger Humphries. Events like this can be a crapshoot - sometimes it's a bunch of musicians blowing the roof off the place, sometimes there are up-and-comers playing the tried-and-true blowing session classics who sound.... promising. 

There were a couple of young bucks onstage (i.e. in the corner where the band could fit) when I arrived. And by young, I mean these fellows looked like they still had a few years of high school left. I should have been ambitious and got the name of the young tenor player who only played on one tune while I was there. But he tore things up - good ideas, good execution. Dr. Nelson Harrison got out his trombetto and - as the picture below shows, Sean Jones also joined in, with saxophonist Lou Stellute and keyboardist Howie Alexander. Things were still going strong past 1:00, but I decided I'd reached my limit by that point.



For the rest of the weekend, the majority of the performances took place outdoors, on two stages set up at either end of  Penn Avenue (The UPMC stage and the Spirit Airlines stage) with the 9th Street Stage in between them. For the most part the weather behaved itself. There was some rain, but not when I was there.


Saturday afternoon, Odean Pope's Saxophone Choir sounded amazing - a mix of Ellingtonian lyricism and World Saxophone Quartet aggression. Or maybe that thrust could be attributed to Philadelphia, his stomping ground for most of his life. There was a moment during the ballad "Cis," a tune dedicated to Pope's late wife, where the voices of all six saxophones were all easily distinguishable, each bringing a personal tone to the music. Later, Pope warned the audience, "This one is on the edge," before launching into a tune where he pushed to the upper register of his horn, the rest of the group occasionally riffing behind him.

The rest of the saxophonists got plenty of solo space too. Julian Pressley (the alto player with the great hair below) had a tart tone that contrasted with the rest of the players, while fellow alto man Louis Taylor was also on fire.


Jazzmeia Horn won the 2015 Thelonious Monk International Vocal Jazz Competition, and as she was performing on Saturday, her album A Social Call was #1 on the Billboard jazz charts. It was clear to see why. As her piano trio vamped behind her on the UPMC stage, she unleashed a strong scat solo in "East of the Sun (West of the Moon)." 

Like many jazz musicians in the wake of the new administration, Horn added some politically charged moments to the set. Marking Juneteenth, she sang "Lift Every Voice" ("the Black National Anthem," she called it) and segued that into "Moanin'," the Bobby Timmons classic that got lyrics from Jon Hendricks. It was easy to miss but it sounded like she substituted "life" in the line "Life's a losing gamble to me," with the name of the current president. 

What took away from the performance was Horn's habit of oversinging the words, as if squeezing the life out of "Moanin'" was going to get it more depth. In the intro to another song, she squealed and caterwauled in the upper register, which also felt a bit excessive. What was strange was hearing her contrast the heavy stuff (which seemed to evoke Abbey Lincoln's intense performances on We Insist! Freedom Now Suite) with lighter, overdone fare like "I Remember You" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." She definitely has talent and needs to be followed because she could head in a number of different directions.

At the jam session the night before, a woman sat in on drums and awed everyone who was listening. "Who was that," we kept asking. The drummer in question was Shirazette Tinnin, who played with her band Sonic Wallpaper followed Horn's set. Tinnin's c.v. includes everyone from WuTang Klan to DIVA and Hugh Masakela. The group had an intriguing instrumentation, with alto saxophone, cello, trombone, keyboards (Rhodes and acoustic piano), guitar, bass and her drums. 

A lineup like that could confuse the sound engineer and that seemed to happen. The keyboards moved in and out of the mix, the trombone (which had a wah-wah effect on it during a solo) dropped out during a dramatic moment. But Tinnin had some strong grooves going, in what might be considered fusiony funk. It had the chops and electronics of the former style and the grease of the latter.


I've written enough about Sean Jones that most people know that he is an astounding trumpet player. One difference in his playing at the jam session at on the Spirit stage was that he seems to have moved away from his approach from a few years ago, where a solo would start low and build in intensity, like a preacher's sermon (his words). He did a little bit of that but it was great to hear him continuing to evolve as a player.

But what might not be obvious to those what haven't seen Jones live all that often is what an engaging performer he is. He sounded so happy to be back in Pittsburgh again, playing for people that he treated like friends. He was so casual, like he was hanging out in someone's living room. His song introductions remind me of the easygoing talks that were a big part of Cannonball Adderley's live albums.

Sean likes to explain the back story with the tunes so there is something to think about that while the group is playing. When introducing "The Ungentrified Blues" he made light humor about neighborhoods that are losing their character as they're rebuilt. For the closing "BJ's Tune" he offered a song of hope and unity, and a plea to "forget all the things that separate us." The quartet rolled to a climax and when they finally got there, Jones still wasn't done. His obbligato included "Danny Boy" and "Amazing Grace." Mark Whitfield, Jr. (drums) and Ben Williams (bass) were a solid rhythm section while Jones' good friend and longtime collaborator Orrin Evans sounded stellar on the piano, especially when he smacked some low notes during "The Ungentrified Blues."



Public Service Announcement to future JazzLive attendees: Don't forget your sunblock or your sunglasses. And if you invest in a portable chair that you can tote easily, you won't regret it. Sitting on the curb, you don't know what you'll kind of view or shelter from the sun you'll get, or who will be sitting next to you. The roped off VIP sections are never that full. A lot of people groused to me about them, saying dollars could be spent better on tents or some kind of shelter from the sun for the regular folks.  

Linda May Han Oh started off Sunday afternoon on the 9th Street Stage with her quartet. The way she handled her instrument made her tower over it, even if it was a few inches taller than her. "Walk Against Wind" is the title track to her new album and it contains a few different movements, starting minor and snaky, where drummer Eric Doob recalled Paul Motian in his use of space. In my notes I wrote "What's going through her mind," during her out of tempo bass solo. It felt dramatic and really original, and then she shifted into the background so Ben Wendel could play a tenor solo that was gruff around the edges.  For the songs "Speech Impediment" and "Perpuzzle" Oh moved to bass guitar. 





It's kind of hard to imagine tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman as one of the "young lions" of the 1980s, along with Wynton Marsalis. His genes (his father was the astounding-but-under-the-radar tenor man Von Freeman) and his Chicago roots (he taught at the AACM and recorded in the Leaders with Lester Bowie) indicate that he's someone that respects the tradition but insists on pushing it forward. That's exactly what his Plus+Tet did on Sunday at the Spirit Airlines Stage.

Freeman plays with a bold, rich tenor sound. "To Hear a Teardrop in the Rain" was a gentle waltz that could sound smooth  if it wasn't for the way he played a solo, tonguing the notes more often than merely slurring them together. Pianist Anthony Wonsey did the same thing during his solo, striking the keys and fragments of a line individually instead of smoothly constructing somthing. The approach gave the tune more edge. For "Soft Pedal Blues," the Plus+tet avoided the shouting blues designed to rile up a crowd. This rendition was slow, a little dirty and really soulful. Freeman's lines were spare but very heavy. "Blues for a Hot Summer Day" was more like it.

Vibraphonist Warren Wolf has become a reputable leader in his own right, but he served as the perfect foil to Freeman on the frontline. In some ways it evoked Freeman's work with the late vibist Bobby Hutcherson, who recorded "Crossing the Sudan," a 7/4 the Plus+tet played early in the set. Some vibes players use the double mallet approach, with two in each hand to help with harmonies. Wolf doesn't need that. He gets plenty of energy with one in each hand, especially when he's wailing over a minor vamp in 6/8.

Father's Day commitments kept me from seeing the Bad Plus, Tia Fuller, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra or Hudson (the new supergroup that's on the cover of the next issue of JazzTimes!!). But this was an extremely stellar set of acts. Hopefully the newfound sponsorship will grow and next year will be even bigger.





Thursday, June 15, 2017

CD Review: Nicole Mitchell - Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds


Nicole Mitchell
Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds
(FPE) www.fperecs.com

There are a few different angles I considered taking when opening up a discussion of Nicole Mitchell's latest album. After pulling myself away from some links on social media about what happened to Senator Kamala Harris yesterday when she was trying to ask Jeff "Shush, little lady" Sessions yesterday, a new opening line hit me:

This album could scare the living hell out of people like Sessions and maybe even our current leader.

Not only does it have many unhinged qualities that we can expect from someone affiliated with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds is also built on an underlying story line about a couple from the decaying World Union society who discover Mandorla, an island in the Atlantic where, unknown to the rest of the world, people like in an egalitarian society, in peace and harmony. The couple has to decide whether to continue in their "dystopic" world or move to a "utopic" one. The music (and words) tell how the decision is not so easy or clear cut.

Ideas like this seem like just the thing to make our leaders uncomfortable. Cooperative (and peaceful) societies going up against aggressive, hierarchical societies. It seems to shake up the status quo, asking for common sense and cooler heads to prevail. It forces people to reexamine their  perspectives.

Mitchell's music has gone to the dark side before, using Afrofuturist author Octavia E. Butler as an inspiration for albums like Xeogenesis Suite. Musically she takes things even further with a version of her Black Earth Ensemble that features shakuhachi (Kojiro Umezaki), violin (Renee Baker), electric guitar/oud/theremin (Alex Wing), bass/shamisen/talko (Tatsu Aoki) and percussion (Jovia Armstrong). Three tracks include vocals by poet/scholar avery r young.

The players often work in different combinations. "Egoes War" opens with free percussion that betrays the AACM influence on Mitchell, before Wing adds some frenzied guitar. "Dance of Many Hands" starts out sounding like a folk tune, albeit one in 5/4, with guitar plucking out a melody while the flutes float over it, climaxing with a passionate cello solo. It's followed by "Listening Embrace" a multi-tiered track which includes Reid on banjo and a duet between Mitchell's expressive flute and the raw, nasal drone of Aoki's shamisen.

The vocal tracks don't come until more than halfway through the album, making it feel more like an intense set of instrumental music up to that point. They can be a challenge, with young delivering them with heavy enunciation to make sure the points aren't missed. Upon hearing them cold, without any knowledge of the album's concept, they felt a little hard to swallow. But reading Mitchell's program notes, and using the lyric sheet for reference, things make a bit more sense. Music like this is supposed to challenge listeners, even as it leaves them spellbound.

Yes, this is intense music but the times require sounds like this to keep us awake and aware of what's reallly going on around us.


Saturday, June 10, 2017

Nick Cave, David Murray & Kahil El'Zabar

Last week, I attempted, in vain, to try and transcribe my November 2016 interview with David Murray. The intention was to post a last-minute preview for his appearance with Kahil El'Zabar, which happened last Sunday, June 4 at the James Street Gastropub. For technical reasons, let's say, it didn't happen. I'm pretty sure this idea popped up last on Thursday, less than 24 hours before the big fundraiser/carnival at my son's school, which I assisted in putting together - and, like everything else, had me all stressed out. My focus wasn't there so it never got done.

Back in early December, bassist Harrison Bankhead came to town with Murray and El'Zabar, but last week, it was just the two of them. If any two guys can make a big show out of a duo, it's these two.

The format of their two sets followed a similar path as most of El'Zabar's appearances with his other groups, like the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. It began with El'Zabar plucking out a slow drone on the kalimba, keeping a pulse on bells attached to his right ankle. Murray played all over it, eventually joining El'Zabar vocally. Then El'Zabar switched to the trap kit, which seemed to be tuned to play a drone underneath the tenor. The third piece moved the percussionist to the hand drum, a cajon, or something like it. Murray also played bass clarinet in both sets. I love the percussive thunk he gets out of the instrument, in addition to the ease with which he peels off some great, emotional lines.

At the beginning of the evening, I was standing out in the stairwell of James Street, talking to local guitarist Colter Harper about Chasing Trane, the John Coltrane documentary that had just finished a run here. Murray was walking downstairs mid-way through our conversation, and chimed in, knowing what the topic was. He said Bill Clinton made one of the most profound statements in the film. "Do you remember what he said," Murray inquired. I had seen the movie twice, but couldn't recall what he was referring to. Clinton, he reminded me, said that Coltrane did, for music, the same thing Pablo Picasso did for art, in 50 less years. "I thought that was really profound," he said. I wished I would've remembered that more than Carlos Santana's ridiculous hippie-metaphor about Trane's music.

*

I wrote a preview for Nick Cave's Pittsburgh show for City Paper, even though the concert was already sold out. Since Cave wasn't doing interviews, and since I only had 500 words to fill, I pulled a few quotes from another interview. It ended up running online only, not in the print issue. For that reason, I didn't feel like pushing for a comp. So I resigned myself to skipping the show.

At 5:00 on Thursday afternoon, Jennie called me saying that the cousin of a friend of ours had an extra ticket, and that I should get in touch with him. (She was okay with me going without her.) So connections were made and - wham - there I was in the first balcony, left center, taking in the show that everyone will probably be talking about for years to come.

I'm sure there are naysayers out there. You know, the ones who never liked Nick Cave in the first place or thought he was overly dramatic or cheesy. But for the rest of us - it was like going to church. If I said that about Patti Smith's concert in the same venue earlier this year, well... this was a different kind of church. This was fire and brimstone. This was Jesus walking on water. There were no bodies of water in the Carnegie Music Hall, but if there were, brothers and sisters, he probably would have walked on them. Instead, Cave just walked across the seats in the first few rows, singing to people, getting lifted up by others (or at least supported by them, as some friends of mine confessed online) and finally inviting a whole slew of folks onstage to sing with him.

Before the show started, it was kind of funny at first to see a chair set up center stage with a microphone in front of it, as if Nick was going to sit casually for the whole set, maybe having a drink and talking to us between songs. But that lasted for just one song, "Anthrocene." Once it was done he could've just chucked the seat but he politely moved it to the side so it was easier for him to pace the stage as he sang. The next few songs, which also came from Skeleton Tree or Push the Sky Away, were all mid-tempo and simple, but this format is Cave's bread and butter. No one can make turn a plodding groove into a masterful story like this guy.

So when he finally kicked up the mood with "From Her to Eternity," we were more than ready. Having listened to this song so many times at home on the album of the same name, I had certain expectations and hopes for what it would sound like live. Warren Ellis started ravaging his violin, creating the same kind of racket as Blixa Bargeld's guitar does in the original version, and it nearly blew my head off. He was plinking it like a guitar and kicking pedals on and off, making it explode with feedback. Behind him, the group pounded away on the monochord beat and vibraphone counterpoint which, I discovered after 32 years, is in 5/4. All this time, I thought they were just hoping for the best, and that if all went well, they'd interlock on instinct.

That's the interesting thing about Cave's music. It's pretty simple on the surface: two chords (give or take) repeated over and over, eventually changing to a third chord. But it takes good ears and skill to make sure you make those changes. A few times they didn't. Or else Cave improvised a little bit and the band got to change before he did. During one song, he called out to the band to back things up to the break, and repeat from there. Another time, he called out bassist Martyn Casey, good-naturedly.

A performer as well-known as Nick Cave probably has some, shall we say, crack-pot fans. (The late, great Pittsburgh scenester Lee Conley was an obsessive, but he was more as an enthusiast, in the best sense.) There were people in the audience who thought Cave was having a one-on-one conversation with them, and couldn't let it go after shouting one or two things. That's more annoying than anything else. But what slayed me was the guy's lack of inhibition when it came stepping off the stage into the audience. He's opening himself up for all sorts of danger, and he has no fear as he does it. (Of course, any nut who would harm a hair on Nick Cave's head would probably get beaten to death immediately by the audience.)

This might burst some people's bubble, but in a recent GQ article, Cave said there "a banal, practical" aspect to his habit of singing to the first 50 people: his eyesight isn't too good, so he can't see much beyond the first two rows. He might not be quite as connected with the audience as it seemed. On the other hand, the article makes it sound like the most Cave does is walk to the edge of the stage. Last week, he was offstage, in the aisle, walking across the seats that were now empty because everyone was in the aisles, hoping to get their hands on him. Maybe he really does love us more, who knows?

Then for the encore, he invited a few people onstage, and then a few more. And a few more. Then a few more followed suit. How many, I can't tell you. I was thinking maybe 75-80. The Post-Gazette estimated closer to 100. (Incidentally, Scott Mervis wrote a fine review that gives more specifics about what they played and how it sounded. Check it out here.) Everyone sang along for "Pushing the Sky Away," a touching song that sent us all home in awe.

While Cave is certainly a dramatic performer, who isn't opposed to raising his hands towards the audience to get a reaction, the gesture wasn't mere showbiz. This wasn't the cliched gesture of a singer acting pointing towards himself during the adulation, arrogantly (or ironically) meaning, "Give me more." Cave seemed to be in a sharing mood, like we were all part of the show, and that's why everyone seemed so blown away by the whole thing. We're with him. During the loud section at the end of the organ solo in "Red Right Hand," he ran into the crowd quickly and ran back onstage to sing the next verse. It felt like he had just run the living room at a party, yelled a wild salutation, and ran right back out.




Tuesday, May 23, 2017

CD Review: Anthony Braxton Quintet, Albert Ayler

Anthony Braxton
Quintet (Basel) 1977

Albert Ayler Quartet
Copenhagen Live 1964

Both releases: 
(HAT HUT) www.hathut.com

Hat Hut, the great Swiss label that has been releasing top-notch experimental jazz since God knows when, continues in their hatOLOGY series to bring some older recordings back into the limelight. In addition to these, they've also just released Matthew Shipp's solo performance Invisible Touch at Taktios Zurich.


Quintet (Basel) 1977 is a remarkable piece of Anthony Braxton's history for several reasons. First, as Art Lange indicates in the liner notes, the saxophonist/composer was in a period of fluctuation, having dissolved his first quartet with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Barry Altschul and trombonist George Lewis (who had replaced trumpeter Kenny Wheeler). A new quartet was around the corner, but first came this quintet - a set of instruments that Braxton hadn't used much (if at all) up to this point. The real surprise comes from the addition of AACM stalwart Muhal Richard Abrams on piano. Lewis returns on trombone, Mark Helias plays bass and Charles "Bobo" Show plays drums. Braxton uses just three of his many reeds: alto and sopranino saxophones and B-flat clarinet.

With small-print CD covers, we miss out on the illustrated titles of Braxton's pieces. But the speakable titles assign four of the five tracks lettered sections of his "Composition 69." "Composition 40 B" closes the set. 

The rapport between the members of the quintet can be felt from the opening moments. Anyone better acquainted with Lewis' computer music and software need to hear him cut loose. In "Composition 69 J" he takes Braxton's ideas and shows he can blow just as wildly, tonguing the notes rather than relying on the slide. The physical part of his playing is on clear display. Abrams follows Lewis with his own aggressive solo.

This isn't all serious music either. After a particularly rabid sopranino solo in "Composition 69 M," a vocal whine sounds like it's offering commentary on Braxton. Actually, it's Lewis again, entering with growl through a mute which surely was meant to evoke some old curmudgeon. 

Further, the quintet doesn't shy away from semi-straight jazz either. "Composition 40 B" begins with a line that feels like sped-up bop. Helias starts walking and inspires a clean solo from Abrams before time eventually slips away, leaving the pianist playing at opposite ends of the keyboard. Along with some great propulsion from Shaw, who passed away in January, Quintet (Basel) 1977 serves as a good entry into the Braxton catalog for newcomers.



In a review last year of Albert Ayler's Bells/Prophecy collection, I also mentioned Vibrations, my favorite Ayler album. I won't rewrite the opinion (that's what the link is for) but I will say that Don Cherry was a big part of it. Seeing the trumpeter's face on the cover of Copenhagen Live: 1964 got me excited to hear the disc. It was only when doing a little research for this review that I discovered I already have this set. The 44-minute performance appeared in the 10-disc Holy Ghost box that came out in 2004. (I also realized that rarely-heard second half of the Prophecy disc also came on Holy Ghost.)

Which is not a condemnation of the set. Presumably a good number of Ayler fans didn't plunk down the dough for that set when it came out. (Mine was not a promo, in case anyone wonders.) So those folks are hereby encouraged to find this disc, which represents one of highest points in the Ayler canon.

Cherry knew how to react, respond and compliment the elements of Ayler's playing - the wide vibrato, the altissimo wails (where the melodies were in full bloom) and the way they delivered his unique compositions. Recorded at Club Montmartre, the six tracks also present elements of Ayler's writing that didn't always come out on other records. (The set draws on all the tracks from Vibrations, with the glaring exception of "Ghosts," which is actually a nice surprise.) Gary Peacock's bass cuts through Sunny Murray's liberated drumming, and the interaction of the bass and horns elevate the impact of the writing.

So the story goes, Cherry drifted away from the Ayler group shortly thereafter, staying in Europe and eventually discovering his taste for world music. It's hard to tell what would have happened had they stayed together. But this session, which is issued on its own for the first time, gives a good taste of what they accomplished during their period together.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

CD Review: Linda May Han Oh - Walk Against Wind


Linda May Han Oh
Walk Against Wind
(Biophilia) www.biophiliarecords.com

I don't like mimes. Maybe this feeling can be attributed to growing up during a time when Shields & Yarnell were part of primetime variety tv shows. Or maybe the site of too many theater students stuck in an invisible box, full of forced facial expression, creeped me out. Marcel Marceau was an innovator but I'm simply not feeling it. His progeny can stay away.

Linda May Han Oh, whose birthname now follows the Westernized first name that has graced her previous solo albums and appearances with people like Dave Douglas, has found inspiration in Marceau's oeuvre. The bassist appropriated the late French performer's most famous routine, "Walking Against the Wind," as the title track for her latest release. It enters deceptively with Matthew Stevens' guitar playing a metronomic figure while Ben Wendel's tenor adds a high melody over it and Oh follows Stevens underneath. When Justin Brown's drums officially declare themselves around two minutes, he shakes things up, like a Mersey Beat groove just dropped out of the sky. Before long, he's stepped back and things sound pensive again. The leader, whose thick toned attack is a large part of the intrigue here, takes a brief solo which redirects the whole tune, leading into an edgy statement from Wendel, with the band getting tense underneath him before they return to the opening groove.

Oh hasn't changed my mind about those non-speaking Simpsons punchlines, but they sure inspired her to come up with an absorbing composition. Besides, the music won me over before I read the liner notes in Walk Against Wind's unique packaging. But more about that later.

The rest of the album continues the exploratory direction that marked Oh's previous albums. But even as things can change shape quickly, sometimes within the confines of one track, the overall feeling has a strong sense of direction, from the writing to the way the band develops it. The angular jumps in "Perpuzzle" features Oh adding wordless vocals to the fray. Often this device can be a distraction but her syllabic choices never get in the way, working more as a melody than a percussive addition. "Speech Impediment," which proceeds it, also includes vocals, in a piece that starts slow and subtle, but gets jerky as things move on.

Oh's compositions demand that you listen closely until the very end, because she's likely to add some surprise in the final moments rather than simply letting the band go into a coda or closing vamp. In "Lucid Lullaby" Wendell plays a line that sounds very close to Charles Mingus' "Canon" in the final moments. "Midnight" features keyboardist Fabian Almazan adding some overdriven electric piano that pushes Stevens and Oh (who switches to electric bass on a few tunes) into a prog rock direction. "Deepsea Dancers" was inspired by tragedy but the steady undercurrent leads to counterpoint and a warm feeling of reassurance, as different players take turns restating the melody and soloing over it.

Biophilia, a label that Almazan created, doesn't press CDs. Instead the label prints a two-sided cover on FSC-certified (Forest Stewardship Council) paper and plant-based ink that unfolds into 20 panels like origami, which contains all the traditional elements of an album cover and a download code. The idea behind the label delivers the tactile element of music buying along with the ease of digital downloading.

Walk Against Wind began receiving attention before it even hit the street (if that phrase still applies to an album in this format). But Oh and her band deliver once they're given the attention, gathering an array of moods and blending them into what's likely her strongest release yet.



 


Saturday, May 06, 2017

Clap Your Hands Say... Thelonious Monk


I've come to regard Record Store Day as a whole lot of meh, meaning - nothing. Nothing except supposed "collectible" pieces of vinyl that are often nothing more than reissues of music I already own, or don't really need. (That's oversimplifying it, but I'm trying to get to another story.)

This year, there was actually something coming out on RSD that I wanted, the previously unreleased soundtrack that Thelonious Monk did for Roger Vadim's Les liaison dangereuses which he recorded in 1959. As mentioned in a previous entry, I stood in line at Juke Records the morning of Record Store Day, only to be beaten to the Monk record by the first guy who walked in the door. However, when I was leaving, I was told that the store might be able to get additional copies. Call in a week, they said. 

Fast-forward to yesterday, a few phone calls and visits to Juke later. One copy was left. If my life was a Warner Brothers cartoon, I probably would have dashed into the store while Red Bob was still saying, "Hello? Mike?" into the phone. Instead I came in after work a few hours later. 

The above photo originally had me peering over the top of the cover, not gloating (I'm not that kind of record enthusiast, folks) but just beaming. However my eyes seemed creepy so I cropped myself out. 

The box was expensive, but, man, what a box it is. Not simply a holder for two records in paper sleeves, the box houses two sealed album covers and a 50-page 12"X12" booklet of essays about the recording sessions, the film and Monk's relationship with Paris. There are also photos from the sessions and the film. Musically, the only brand new, never-recorded-anywhere-else by-Monk track is the hymn "We'll Understand It Better By and By," which is less than 90 seconds. There are multiple takes of the other seven tunes. "Six In One" appeared under another name a few months later on Thelonious Alone in San Francisco.

But there are several points of interest. First of all, Monk's band features Charlie Rouse, who had just joined him recently and was still in the process of developing an attack that he maintained for years with Monk. Sam Jones (bass) and Arthur Taylor (drums) had come aboard recently as well, appearing along with Rouse at the first Town Hall Concert, with a large ensemble. They'd also appear, along with Thad Jones (cornet) on Five By Monk By Five, a prime Riverside album. Sam Jones especially was a great bassist for Monk, giving him a solid bounce. Taylor had played with Monk during his Prestige era and complimented the pianist well. A few tracks also feature French tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen joining the group. His additional voice on "Crepuscule with Nellie" gives it more depth.

Most of Side Four of the album is taken up by the real discovery on the album - a fly-on-the-wall recording of Monk trying to teach Taylor the appropriate beat for "Light Blue." Of all the pianist's tricky songs, "Light Blue" ranks up there because its lumbering rhythm and tempo make it a challenge to get the feel right. The 14-minute track reveals the pianist working Taylor, chastising him ("Dumb motherf***er") and keeping to the task. Maybe the whole thing is for completists, but the booklet and that track assured me that I made the right choice. A CD version will be released in a month or so.

I was wondering if I'd make it out to see Clap Your Hands Say Yeah last night, now that I had the new Monk set to digest. However, I made it through three of the four sides, so I figured that would hold me until the next morning. Off into the pouring rain I went, to check out Alec Ounsworth and company.

I spoke with Ounsworth for a City Paper article to preview the show, in which he said that the lineup of the band was completely different than last time they were here. What I wasn't expecting was the heavy roar that the new four-piece lineup produced.

When writing the article, I didn't have the guts or the conviction to compare the new CYHSY album to the Cure or New Order. During my 20s, I couldn't stand the Cure. They were too whiny, mopey and just too caught up in an image to me. Years later, I've come to a little more of an appreciation of them, noticing the catchy elements of their songs, and a dry wit that underlies the mopiest (if that's a word) of their lyrics. The Tourist does have a bit of that Seventeen Seconds-era Cure going for it, with the right combination of guitar and keys scrambling on top of driving beats. Occasionally they also have some of the primitive jangle of New Order too.

But if CYHSY can sound like the Cure in the studio, in person they come on twice as strong without needing of the bands accouterments. Sure, Ounsworth casually rubbed his eyes during "Better Off" but it was hard to tell if that was an affectation or whether the brim of his ever-present hat couldn't keep the bright light out of his eyes. After a few songs, he engaged in a little small talk, which got as far as thanking us for being there before he admitted that's all he could think of saying.

He later told us that Pittsburgh was the penultimate show on the tour, and the band was clearly tight and ready before they hit Club Cafe. More often than not, one song segued quickly into the next, such as when the almost-hit from their debut album, "Is This Love," slammed right into the drum-machine-powered title track of sophomore album Some Loud Thunder. Ounsworth turnedout to be a pretty vicious guitarist too, peeling off some caterwauling leads. His fellow players (whose names I didn't get) were no slouches either.


The 17-song set included five songs from the new album, drawing the rest from the band's previous four. Selections from the debut seemed to get the best response. Ounsworth might have even cracked a grin when someone voiced loud approval for "Over and Over Again (Lost and Found)." It was hard to tell definitively, but he appeared to be chewing gum throughout the set.

Before writing this review, I went through the set list (snatched off the stage at the end of the night), picking out what song came from which album. I decided to compare the version of "Heavy Metal" on the first album with my memory of last night's final song. While the recording does have some overdriven bass, the upper frequencies of the song sound relatively lo-fi. Last the band attacked it like the Volcano Suns in their prime, churning up a big roaring sound that maintained a catchy, hooky quality. The band's previous visit to Pittsburgh was good, but the memory of that lineup seemed to have more to do with atmospherics, which were a big part of 2014's Only Run. While they started with the opening track from that album ("As Always") it served as a jumping-off point for the rest of the set. Last night was about the Rock. And it sounded fantastic.

Solo guitarist/vocalist Laura Gibson opened the evening on a more subdued note. Her first song gave me pause, as she sang in a very affected cat-watching-a-bird-voice, over sparse chords. A few songs in, she won me over with some haunting finger picking and great story in the title track to her album Empire Builder.


Wednesday, May 03, 2017

CD Review: The Microscopic Septet - Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down To Me

There's a big stack of new CDs piling up the desk, a lot of which I really want to hear and write about. It'd would be a great day to take off from reality and dig into them, armed with a pot of coffee and a scoop pad full of notes on the best tracks. But first, something I've been listening to for a couple months, waiting for the right moment to expound....


The Microscopic Septet
Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down To Me: The Micros Play the Blues
(Cuneiform) www.cuneiformrecords.com

Sometimes the blues can sound very simple and effective, hitting the ears like comfort food, with an exhilarating rush coming around bar 9 or 10 of a 12-bar pattern. Sometimes the structure is more deceptive. After listening to Charlie Parker's "Kim" for several years, it was only when I dug into the Parker Omnibook that I realized it was built on the blues, so lost was I in the melody. The same goes for Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." It's only when you play the chords alone (available in the More Than a Fake Book collection of his tunes) that it becomes clear that Mingus was stretching the harmonic possibilities of the blues for something greater.

The Microscopic Septet doesn't set out to redefine the blues on their latest album, but neither are they content to revel in the parlor tricks of the blues either. This band has always approached tradition with an experimental aesthetic, with a lineup that features soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophonists and a three-piece rhythm section. The bottom line: swing it like crazy.

Not all of the tracks on Been Up So Long adhere to the blues structure either, and even some that do are deceptive. Like "Kim," they place the emphasis on the melody, so the changes might not be noticed right away. "PJ In the '60s" refers to soprano saxophonist Philip Johnston during the decade that birthed the New Thing (so to speak), and in doing so opens with tenor saxophonist Mike Hashim unleashing some free squonk. But that's just a red herring intro, which is followed by a straight, four-sax AABA melody that makes the band sound bigger than a septet. If you're looking for wild blowing, it comes one tune later in "When It's Getting Dark," a Batman-esque blues with gruff pronouncements from baritone man Dave Sewelson.

Throughout the horns contrast with each other in terms of attack and delivery, with alto (Don Davis) and tenor sharing space in some choruses, followed with soprano and baritone doing the same. In "Cat Toys" Hashim almost sounds like a few different tenor players, going from dry and reedy to a more liquid, dreamy swing, with even a sprinkle of growling - all within a few choruses. Drawing on different styles of blues, they offer a great Ellington-style sound on "12 Angry Birds."

The wildest moment comes when the Septet re-imagines the old Christmas hymn "Silent Night" as a blues with an opening chorus that sounds like it got tangled in Thelonious Monk's "Crepuscule With Nellie." In doing so, it makes it feel acceptable to be listening to the song during the other 11 months of the year.

The Microscopic Septet first came to life during the early 1980s, bridging the gap between Uptown and Downtown New York jazz. (Pianist Joel Forrester composed the theme for Fresh Air with Terry Gross.) They hung it up in 1992 and four albums, only to pick up again 14 years later and they continue to forge ahead. And the blues continues to grow as well.