Saturday, January 13, 2018

Charlie Parker, broken windows, bad weather

Two Thursdays ago, when it was really cold, the back passenger's side window of my car got smashed. The car was parked in a lot while my son and I were having dinner in Eat N Park. Locals beware: It was the lot between Bartlett and Beacon Streets in Squirrel Hill. A friend of mine was mugged there in broad daylight a couple years ago, which I should have taken as a tip to keep away. Don't park there. I heard there have also been a rash of broken car windows near Frick Park as well.

At first I thought, well this sucks but at least there was nothing in the car. Then I started remembering what was in the car: I had an ECM tote bag (from Winter JazzFest 2016). Eh, just a few issues of JazzTimes and downbeat were in there and they're replaceable.  But... [cue the tragic music] the 8-CD Charlie Parker Complete Savoy and Dial Session box was in the bag, except for Disc 4, which was in the car's CD player. I left the booklet at home (a very important part of that set), thinking that with any snow and ice that might get into the car, I didn't want that to get damaged. If only it had just gotten wet.

There's more. Donovan's piano lesson books were in the bag too. After filling out a report with the police, getting ready to drive home, I also realized the kid's backpack was taken too. I hope the bastard that took it liked his shoes. (Thank God his drum practice pad from school hadn't been in there as well.) A day later I was reaching for my new calendar/appointment book when...gone. Santa was nice enough to reorder one for me, which I got earlier this week.

Tips - If this happens to you, the heavy duty vacuum at most car washes/gas stations can suck up the glass. My car is a 2015 and the glass shattered in chunks so there weren't very  many small shards around. Putting a garbage bag over the window is okay for overnight parking but driving with it is ridiculous. (After driving about five blocks, it was practically off the door, so I just ripped it all the way off.) Getting it on was probably the most frustrating part of Thursday night. The roll of duct tape we have is pretty old and brittle anyway, and getting it to stick in the freezing cold was a big challenge.

The good news was insurance hooked me up with Safe Lite, who got a new one in the following day. All that was left to do was mourn the losses.

That Parker box hurts on a number of levels, the biggest one at the moment being that I was just started to get back into a Bird kick, listening to more of his music. Recently, I started organizing all of my Parker albums chronologically, both the studio albums and the live recordings. Someday, I want to look at all of them and see how closely I can track his life - week to week, month to month, season to season?

I got that eight-disc set used and it was a really smart purchase, both as a reference and for the music and info it provides. I have a Savoy two-fer with all the masters on vinyl, and a best of the Dial sessions, but this had all that and more, sequenced an order that made sense. Each session presents all the master takes in a row, followed by the alternate takes. It welcomes casual listening but makes it easy to do the analytical listen for those who so desire.

The box is out of print, so I started asking around if any friends have it. If I copy it, all I need is the booklet really. The cover was nice, but I can live without it. One friend rummaged through a box of stuff and realized he does, so I'm set. Although, I did see a used copy pop up for a great price online. I'm tempted....

Prior to the break-in, I was contemplating Mosaic's set of Dean Benedetti's Parker recordings. These are the ones recorded with often no trace of fidelity and only capture Bird's groups when he was playing. (Once he's done soloing, Benedetti stopped the recorder.) Bad sound, but important music. I think part of my sudden desire to get it was related to the set being on Mosaic's "Running Low" list. It's getting hard to get, so I must have it!

Trying to buy it right now is out of the question since it costs a little over $100 and I just bought a couple fancy records online. Then I discovered that the Penn Hills library has a copy and the Carnegie Library in Oakland could get it for me. So I requested it.

When I woke up this morning, I saw an email that it's waiting for me at the library. Pity then that all this blakenty-blank snow is going to keep me from getting over there today.

I'm looking forward to the spring.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

LP Reviews: Greg Goodman, John Gruntfest & Derek Bailey Return on the Beak Doctor



John Gruntfest & Greg Goodman
In This Land All the Birds Wore Hats and Spurs

Derek Bailey & Greg Goodman
Extracting Fish-Bones from the Back of the Despoiler

(Beak Doctor) www.thebeakdoctor.com

It's tempting to compare In This Land All Birds Wore Hats and Spurs to a box set from Mosaic Records. Although it's single album, it comes on a beautiful 12X12 box, assembled with love and care, much like the elaborate Mosaic sets. A 12X12 four-page booklet features pictures and credits. Another insert features thumbnail reproductions of other releases on the label. If that wasn't enough, each of the 100 limited edition releases includes a painting by John Gruntfest, signed by the artist, as well as an additional insert with thumbnails of all 100 paintings.No wonder a ribbon is attached on the inside.

Of course, brothers and sister, this ain't no Mosaic. By a long shot.

To understand the Beak Doctor imprint means going back to 1978. Pianist Greg Goodman, saxophonist Larry Ochs and guitarist Henry Kaiser co-founded Beak Doctor/Metalanguage Records that year to spotlight international improvisers, among them Fred Frith, Evan Parker and the ones on these two releases. It was the first independent label of its kind on the West Coast devoted to free improvisation, taking a cue from Bailey and Parker's Incus label and acting in tandem with Horace Tapscott's Nimbus West label as well as the New York-based Parachute label.

The last Beak Doctor album appeared in 2003, by which time the label had transitioned to CD releases. These two new albums find them going back to vinyl, with digital downloads available with the package. Both feature artwork by Jean de Bosschère, which evokes Edward Gorey, though these come from the 1920 work The City Curious, pre-dating Mr. Gorey.

In This Land All the Birds Wore Hats and Spurs begins with a look back at Beak Doctor's early days (side one comes from performances in 1984 and 1986), before it jumps ahead to more recent times (side two was recorded in 2008). John Gruntfest is credited as playing tenor saxophone, but the tone of his horn and the way the low notes resonate really sounds more like an alto. Goodman plays "every thing else" [sic], which in his case means piano, playing the inside by hand occasionally in addition to striking the keys.

"Pure Mind" begins in a minimal, tranquil mood. Goodman lets a pedal note drone work hypnotically while Gruntfest builds simple but engaging melodies over it. "Great Bird" begins more casually. Goodman's upper register notes glisten and his partner casually moves in and out. The way the pianist varies the rhythm of his basic notes does evoke birds in flight. Halfway through the 16-minute track,the meandering aspect is replaced by more focus. Goodman moves down a few octaves, guiding some stronger ideas from Gruntfest, with the piano even answering him on a few.

Of the two players, Gruntfest has also worked as a poet and visual artist. That back story is good to keep in mind while perusing the extensive notes on the album. Perhaps this is just free improvisation with thoughts such is "There really is no reason to doubt there is no reason to doubt," added afterwards with a chuckle. (I checked my typing and that's how it appears.) Or maybe Side Two's three-act title piece is actually an opera with a story line and a complete score that "cannot reasonably be presented." The long-winded aspect of the booklet is a bit much, but it makes me think of equally long-winded notes on other free improv albums that go into ridiculous non-musical, universal detail to explain why the sounds on the disc are not noise but something more... important. Remember that, I appreciate the lighter tone a little more.

As far as the three "acts" on side two are concerned, the relaxed mood heard earlier is replaced by a bit more freedom. In a revealing moment, Gruntfest adopts the tone of a 1920s style jazz saxophonist, tart with big vibrato at hand, though it's easy to miss due to its brevity. Elsewhere he sounds ready to cut loose with wild squonking, especially in "Act III" where he toys with overtones. Goodman uses the strings of the piano for some metallic percussion, he also rumbles down the low end of the keys and plucks the insides as well. While things get wilder during these tracks, they also feel like they have more forward momentum. The duo also has a knack for stopping right at a climax, when there might be a temptation to get even wilder. That's discipline. That's also a way to chart their growth since the '80s, I suppose.

Extracting Fish-Bones from the Back of the Despoiler comes in a heavy cardboard album cover, rather than a box, but the black and while layout is the same, with a de Bosschère illustration and credits on the back. The music was made at a 1992 performance in Eugene, Oregon by Goodman and guitarist Derek Bailey. The back cover describes the two 20-plus minute tracks as "two sides that, while specifically titled, move around, arrive, and depart differently on occasion." If you listen closely, that's true.

This time the pianist is credited for objets d'intérieur, and he does spend a good deal of time inside the frame of the 88s, extracting sounds comparable to vibes, harp or guitar, even getting a great boing effect possibly from the use of a slide. He's not opposed to chords either, playing some tentative notes when Bailey pulls back from the melee.

Virtually any Derek Bailey release can be considered a wild ride, and Fish-Bones is no exception. The guitar sounds that open the album, with no sustain, sound dissonant and atonal, but so perfect at the same time. He never stops for air during the first six or seven minutes, but the ideas keep flowing from his instrument in great detail. When the dynamics eventually shift, it sounds like there could be some bits of composition happening here. Or it could be that Goodman knows what kind of harmony and embellishment to put forth. Whatever might be happening, the rapport between never flags. Even during moments that seem like Bailey and Goodman are trying to figure out what happens next, the knowledge of a payoff keeps things alive.

Along with the attention to detail that comes with both of these albums, it should be noted that both of the 180-gram records are pressed well too. At a time when off-center vinyl is, sadly, a distinct possibility, these two slabs play smoothly.

The Beak Doctor is in. Pay a visit.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Christmas Break 1980

A few years ago, I wrote a post about Christmas 1981, when I was a freshman in high school. It was a time of major transition for me, not just because of high school, but because of the way my musical tastes were evolving and how that related to my personal identity. I think about that particular year every Christmas, because of the excitement I felt as I was making new discoveries. There were also some big losses around that time. My buddy Gene and his family had moved to Baltimore a few months earlier. (More on him in a minute.) Most significantly, there was the sudden passing of my great aunt Annie, just five months after the passing of her sister Mary. Both of them were like surrogate grandmothers to me because my maternal grandmother (and grandfather for that matter) died before I was born. Annie had actually passed the day before Thanksgiving, but it wasn't until Christmas break that we went down to empty out her apartment. That felt really weird to me, being in that place that had been the locale of so much fun (and junk food and cans of pop) and suddenly having to adopt a utilitarian approach to cleaning it out.

The feeling of loss has come back again in recent days because my mother-in-law passed away two days after Christmas. It was a peaceful departure, since she laid down for a nap and slipped away. The woman was a saint, and that's really all I feel able to say on that subject at this point. Well, there's one other thing: Several years back, there were a few young girls who lived next door to her that she liked. One day, they started calling her "Mrs. Santa Claus" from their porch to hers. Helen didn't like that. Which is funny because she did look like Mrs. Claus in a way.

But before that turn of events, I had been thinking back to Christmas 1980. Oddly enough, one of the things that got me reminiscing was a picture that my pal Gene had posted on Facebook earlier this month. It showed a budget line blank cassette that I had used to make him a mixtape right around late 1981. He had just moved when I sent it to him - and the family's phone was disconnected not too long before the holidays. So letters and tapes were our sole means of communication for awhile. I made several for him, and he said he still has all of them. It would be exciting to hear them again.

Gene and I met the previous year in our eighth grade class at Reizenstein Middle School and we bonded over music. The memories of that year are still pretty vivid after all this time. In December of 1980, of course, John Lennon was killed. The day after it happened, I remember sitting in my room listening to WDVE, which was playing nothing but Beatles and solo John songs. (Though they also added in Yoko's "I'm Your Angel," which was a pretty impressive song choice in retrospect.) Double Fantasy was the album gift that Santa brought me (though one detail that escapes me is whether Mary and Annie got it for me or if it was on the chair of gifts from Santa that morning).

On Christmas morning that year, DVE, which still believed in having live DJs on the air during the holidays, played the Beatles' Christmas fan club records, one each hour. (To be accurate, only one-half of the Jimmy and Steve Morning Show was on that morning - Steve Hansen - but he was there live.) I wasn't able to get my tape recorder in front of the stereo console in the living room until the hour that they played the 1966 Christmas record. It was just as well since that might year's pantomime performance might be the best one. Unless the charm of the earlier years (where you can still hear the innocence in the Beatles' voices as they read the canned copy that Eppy put in front of them) makes them more compelling. In the records they sent out in the later years of the band, the division between the members becomes more obvious, as they contribute individual sections that are bizarre (John, reading his word-play heavy texts about himself and Yoko; George inviting Tiny Tim, who plays a terrible version of "Nowhere Man"). Ringo actually comes off sounding the wittiest on these parts.

When Lennon died, I got it into my head that I needed to buy his Walls and Bridges album. A neighbor had played me a copy of it a year or two earlier, and I really liked the way the gatefold cover was cut into strips with pictures of his illustrations on them. Plus there was a lyric book in which John credited himself with all kinds of wacky pseudonyms like Rev. Thumbs Gherkin. (I didn't pick up on the joke when looking at my neighbor's copy but I read about it in Nicholas Schaffner's Beatles Forever book.) But of course, in the weeks after John's death, it was virtually impossible to find any of his albums in record stores.

I was friends with two brothers, Dave and Mike, who had shared my Beatles obsession through grade school. By eighth grade, they were probably just putting up with it, preferring to focus on things like George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, which Dave in particular loved. They told me about a store on Pittsburgh's North Side that sold comics and records, which had every Beatle record that anyone could ever want. When Dave called me over Christmas break that year and invited me along on a trip to that store, I jumped at the prospect.

They weren't sure what the name of the place was. It looked like "Eddie's," like the Squirrel Hill newsstand where we all bought comic books. But it might be pronounced "Edie's," or - and this sounded weird to us - "Ides," though it wasn't spelled that way.

As Pittsburghers know, it was Eide's, pronounced like the latter word in that paragraph. The shop was just over the 6th Street Bridge from downtown Pittsburgh, though Dave and Mike's mom drove us there that day so I wasn't sure exactly how to find it on my own. It sat in a row of storefronts that were leveled years later to make room for PNC Park. (The store moved into Downtown, right on the edge of the Strip District, where it still operates today.) Where Eide's once stood, there is now a statue of Roberto Clemente.

Everything Dave and Mike told me about the place was right. Beatle records as far as the eye could see. Bootlegs. Singles. With the picture sleeves! There were copies of rare solo albums like George's Electronic Sound and Wonderwall Music. I didn't realize at the time that they were reissue imports rather than the originals, which all the books told me were so hard to find. It didn't matter because I could see them and touch them for the first time. I had just started to become a semi-regular visitor to the Record Graveyard, a used store located in Oakland upstairs of the Panther Hollow Inn bar, down the street from the Carnegie Museums. But that place was nothing like this. My mind was thoroughly blown.

I bought Walls and Bridges along with a Beatles quiz book that was sitting in the Beatles section. It wasn't the tongue-in-cheek Compleat Beatles Quiz Book (I had already worn that out) but a more serious, actually challenging book. When I got home, I tore the shrink wrap off of Walls and Bridges, and it became clear that this reissue did not have the segmented cover. To add insult to injury, there was no lyric book! I could've lived without the Apple label (this was a purple Capitol one) but this was letdown. It never occurred to me until writing all this now, but that might have been the day when my record buying mind decided that original pressings had more appeal that reissues. Yes, I buy them for the music, ultimately. But the originals get you closer to what the artist envisioned as their statement, whether we're talking running order or packaging.

A month later, Gene and I got an early dismissal from Reizenstein. Our class was going on an ice skating trip, but we thought our time would be better spent on a bus trip to Eide's. We caught a bus across the street from the school (which I always think of every time I pass that intersection of Penn Avenue and East Liberty Blvd.), got off downtown and walked across the 6th Street Bridge. I bought George's Electronic Sound that day. Yes, it was as mediocre as Schaffner made it sound in The Beatles Forever but now I knew for sure. Before long, I started delivering the Post-Gazette in the mornings, which meant I had more free cash to blow on records and I didn't need to wait for the occasional dollars from Mary and Annie to accumulate. And I knew how to get to Eide's on my own.



Saturday, December 30, 2017

The NPR Jazz Critics Poll for 2017

By now, perhaps, all the people who care about such things have read the results of the NPR Jazz Critics Poll, who looks back on the high water marks of the previous year (from about November 2016 to November 2017, really). However, if you haven't seen the poll results yet, click here to check it out.

Of the 137 critics who weighed in on the list, I was one of them, for which I am thankful to Francis Davis for inclusion. As usual, there are several stacks of CDs on the desk where I'm typing right now, the vast majority of them I haven't had the chance to hear yet. Some of them illicit groans from me when I shuffle through a particular pile, a sound that signifies the memory that I still haven't gotten to a particular disc that looks really interesting for any number of reasons.

But on the positive side, I feel like my diligence has improved slightly, and I've been able to keep track of, and maybe even write about, more albums than I have in years past - albeit on an incremental level. This year, I know most of the albums that landed in the Top 10, some of which are in agreement with my list. If you want to see what showed up on my list, that link can be found here. Just scroll down a bit to find my name. 

Francis also wrote a good overview of the year, which included some significant info for albums that some musicians only released digitally that really flew under the radar. That piece should also be checked out, and it's here.



Sunday, December 24, 2017

CD Reviews: Mostly Other People Do the Killing - Paint / Talibam! with Matt Nelson & Ron Stabinsky - Hard Vibe/ Talibam! - Endgame of the Anthropocene




Mostly Other People Do the Killing
Paint
(Hot Cup) www.hotcuprecords.com

Talibam! + Matt Nelson + Ron Stabinsky
Hard Vibe
(ESP-Disk') www.espdisk.com

Talibam!
Endgame of the Anthropocene
(ESP-Disk') www.espdisk.com

Some jazz musicians might use a major lineup as an opportunity to introduce a new band, or at least a band name (naming them after the album title on forthcoming releases). Not bassist Moppa Elliot. He and drummer Kevin Shea remain the only members from the original quartet Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Pianist Ron Stabinsky has been with them for several albums now. But going from a pianoless/two-horn quartet to a septet with both piano and banjo (Loafer's Hollow, earlier this year) to now a piano trio, it's a sonic jump for the band. Though minutes into Paint, there's little mistaking who's responsible for the music.

The driving groove that helms "Yellow House" starts the album with a nod towards hard bop piano classics. But before long the rhythm section is taking liberties with the backbeat that was there at the start. Shea is up to his usual tricks, evoking Animal (as in The Muppet Show) during "Orangeville," knowing that his bandmates don't need him to guide them through a 5/4 vamp. In fact, in the hands of this trio, the song feels looser than the restrictive time signature might have otherwise indicate.

MOPDtK isn't necessarily above playing a ballad but "Golden Hill" presents the closesr thing to one in their 13-year history. This lush, triple-meter theme has a romantic quality to it. My ears kept expecting it to go into John Barry's poignant "Midnight Cowboy" but that feels more like a personal wish than Elliot's habit of referencing other songs. With the bass playing melody early on, it builds into a gust of tom rolls. Stanbinsky's right hand gets louder without losing the lyric sense of the tune in his left.

In "Whitehall" they try everything on for size to see what fits, and it all does, even the press rolls and cymbal crashes that come in "early." There might be a classic rock quote in there that can't be identified, but it succeeds in tugging at the ear, which is all that matters. "Whitehall" was originally named "Blue Goose," until Elliot discovered Duke Ellington had already used the title. The trio pays tribute to the original composition (also a town in Pennsylvania, like all MOPDtK song titles) with a version here that gives Elliot a chance to bow the melody, Stanbinsky a chance to add some Ellingtonian flourishes and Shea the opportunity to show that he can swing in the traditional sense if he feels so inclined.

With his Talibam! accomplice Matt Mottel (keyboards), Shea has often cut loose to an even greater degree than he does with MOPDtK.  When Mottel joined Shea and guitarist Mary Halvorson to turn that duo's People into People 3X a few years back, art rock, punk rock and improvisation got mashed up even further. If any of this bugs listeners, too bad about them. Mottel and Shea don't care, presumably.

On Hard Vibe, they're joined by Stabinsky (on Hammond C3 Organ) and Battle Trance member Matt Nelson (tenor saxophone). Mottel sticks to Fender Rhodes and synths. It consists of two tracks, "Infinite Vibe" Parts 1 and 2, totaling 40 minutes. Three-quarters of it finds the group playing over a fusion-type groove that modulates in each chorus, adding an additional key each time. Although sometimes it seems like they might not add as many modulations to certain chorus.

Over top of Shea, Mottel and Stabinsky, Nelson wails with a gritty tenor tone that never runs short of ideas. It's impressive because after awhile the groove feels both unsettling and intriguing, much like - and I know this is a remote comparison to all jazz fans - Flipper's "Brainwashed," which repeated the same idea ten times in a row, ultimately suckering listeners who were waiting for a change to come. Released on vinyl, it resolves at the end of Part 1, but picks up right at a new chorus at the start of Part 2. It continues much like it has for 10 minutes. At that point, Mottel locks into a one-chord groove and Stabinsky goes wild on the organ. Soon, Nelson joins them, adding some electric effects to his horn. In some ways, the break in the suspense serves as a welcome relief that makes it all worthwhile, especially when they proceed further into a groove that recalls electric Miles Davis. In another way, the change comes a little too late into the game.

Endgame of the Anthropocene leaves Mottel and Shea to their own devices. It evokes the thought of two pals having fun in the studio, going wild and not worrying about the results until editing time. Nothing lasts too long, which is good when Mottel sets his keyboard for the Space Invaders voice but disappointing when they kick off a heavy '80s synth riff but let it get swallowed up by electronic noise and drums. But sometimes the frenzy is fun, like when it sounds like bedlam in a keyboard shop, or when they approximate the riff to the Seeds' "Pushin' Too Hard."

The album also brings back the duo's flair for overly long track titles, like "Cost-Effective Drilling Enabled by Pionnering Technologies and Warmer Climates in the Southern Ocean" and "'Antarctica Shall Be Used for Peaceful Purposes Only' (Article 1)." So Endgame is a concept album. But it's up to listeners to figure it how it proceeds. Or better yet, check out the page for the album on the ESP website.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Nels Cline/Larry Ochs/Gerald Cleaver in Pittsburgh


On Monday, December 11, Nels Cline, Larry Ochs and Gerald Cleaver blew into Pittsburgh to play two nearly hour-long sets at Spirit, an evening that ranks as one of the top concerts of 2017. This year was a pretty good for free/experimental/improvised jazz in the Steel City too. The show was originally booked at James Street Gastropub, but was moved when it was announced that the original space was closing.

The downstairs intimate room at Spirit, with more table and chairs set up than usual, proved to be a great locale, for both the crowd and the sound of the band. As Cline told me a few weeks earlier, what would normally have been an audience of 50 was doubled that night, in part because of his recognition as a member of Wilco. The report I heard put the turnout at around 120, all of whom seemed to be taken with the work of the trio.


The first set began with Cline twiddling a few knobs on his bank of effects, setting in motion a low bass drone and a loop that sounded like an organ. Cleaver starts a gentle 6/8 groove that didn't restrict the rest of the band, but added an appropriate foundation to the music. This would continue throughout both sets, so when he broke from the pulse and went free, the feeling was exhilarating as he used his whole kit to kick up the energy.

Larry Ochs' tenor playing had a unique sound. Though it was strong and clear, his blowing had a bit of softness to it in the first set, like he was trying to muffle it a little. It made him sound more intriguing, wanting to lean in and figure out what he was thinking, and it made for a nice collision with Cline's guitar when the latter played below the bridge.

As the first set moved on, the trio explored a variety of sound shapes. When Cline caressed the pickup of his guitar, Cleaver's beat moved to a slow 4/4, which turned into a dirty rock riff (so say my notes). Moments later they went in a free direction. Cleaver then dropped out leaving Ochs' tenor to duel with Cline's guitar, which he was manipulating with a metal spring. But even this morphed into something thoughtful, with clean guitar chords.



That clean guitar sound launched the second set, but it quickly gave way to some free, mutant melody lines, with Ochs on sopranino sax and Cline manipulating his pedal boards (more often with him forearm than his feet) and looping some backwards noises that almost sounded too eerily human, getting under the skin easily.

Cline hit on some guitar lines that were rapid and aggressive but still seemed to follow a pattern, instead of just careening all over the fretboard. Later he hit the strings and subterranean waves came out of the amp. Ochs echoed similar waves on tenor, with Cleaver playing his kit with just his hands.

The band seemed to reach a climax a few time where they could have stopped playing. But they kept going. At first, it felt like it was starting to flag, but this is music that requires trust from the listeners to realize they know what they're doing. The final minutes evoked the calmer moments of Sonic Youth, ending beautifully with Ochs first blowing air through his tenor and closing on some overtones. If I had felt restless a few minutes prior, I was glad I stayed put, taking all this in.

This trio has done mini-tours together for a few years now, around the winter season. Hopefully, they'll make Pittsburgh a stop on the tour the next time they're out.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

CD Reviews: Vinnie Sperrazza Apocryphal - Hide Ye Idols/ Tomas Fujiwara - Triple Double




Vinnie Sperrazza Apocryphal
Hide Ye Idols
(Loyal Label) www.loyallabel.com

Tomas Fujiwara
Triple Double
(Firehouse 12) www.firehouse12records.com

This year in particular, it feels like there have been more drummer/composer/leader albums worthy of serious attention. There was a time when a drummer's session might have focused more on drum-centric creations, with the exception of albums by Art Blakey, who stocked his band with players who all the writing anyway. Bobby Previte really changed that in the '80s, with albums like my fave Pushing the Envelope. But in addition to people like Tyshawn Sorey, players like Vinnie Sperrazza and Tomas Fujiwara are all coming up with strong works that aren't focused on trap kit experiments.

Hide Ye Idols features the same quartet that Sperrazza convened on 2014's Apocryphal: guitarist Brandon Seabrook, alto saxophonist Loren Stillman and bassist Eivind Opsvik. The combination of Seabrook and Stillman offers plenty of opportunities for contrast between the former's exquisite skill at noisy skronk and the latter's gentle, pensive tones. "Sun Ra" practically guarantees that the album begins with several adjustments of the volume before it finishes. A slow drone leads to a calm alto melody before the wildness begins. What's interesting is that the source of these wild sounds can be hard to pinpoint. It could be Seabrook working his magic (vocalizing into his pickups?), or Opsvik could be doing it on the bass. Whether or not the piece was meant as a full-blown homage to its namesake, it delivers a strong opening statement.

The Apocryphal quartet doesn't stay set in one role for the whole set, however. In "People's History" Stillman's tone turns jagged and raw on the staccato theme. With an opening that sounds like synth bass and a lengthy coda that recalls an air raid siren and pure static, the track makes the Brooklyn group sound like they're bringing their jazz chops to bear on a fearless indie rock sensibility. (The album's grainy cover photo and minuscule text on a navy blue background adds to this indie quality.)

And again, like any smart band, they don't stay there for long either. The raucous Mr. Seabrook, who sounds like he's cutting in and out on "St. Jerome," plays clean, beautiful chords on the ballad "Bulwer Lytton." The title track continues this mood, putting an echo delay on Stillman's horn.

Sperrazza already has a diverse c.v. that includes time with trumpeters Dave Douglas and Ralph Alessi. He came to Pittsburgh a few years ago in Hearing Things, a trio with saxophonist Matt Bauder and keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch, that played surf instrumentals that weren't ironic but right on the money. His work as a composer continues to grow too, with a group that brings great momentum to it.

The link between Hide Yr Idols and Triple Double is Brandon Seabrook. On Fujiwara's session, he is paired up with guitarist Mary Halvorson. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum provide two perspectives on their brass. Behind it, Fujiwara and Gerald Cleaver both sit behind the kits. "Triple Double" in this case means two trios of the same instruments, or three duos, depending on how you look at it. Each guitar/drums/brass trio is panned to a separate channel, offering some ability to distinguish between the players. "Diving for Quarters" opens with  the guitarists engaging in a languid for turbulent duet, making it easy to separate the two most distinct voices. As each player gradually enters the composition slowly takes shape and by the time they finish, it's hard to believe that nearly 11 minutes have gone by.

A few "break-out" pieces contribute to the album's diversity. In "Hurry Home B/G" and "Hurry Home M/T" the same compositions is played by Seabrook and Cleaver first, Halvorson and Fujiwara second. "B/G" moves languidly, with slow guitar notes flavored by the occasional effect bend and waves of cymbal rolls from Cleaver. The second version sounds more turbulent. Halvorson plays at a quicker pace, with her guitar bathed in tremolo throughout. Fujiwara plays all over the kit.

"For Alan" features the two drummers creating waves of sounds, bookended by a recording of a lesson given by jazz drummer Alan Dawson (Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins) to a then 10-year-old Fujiwara. In the recording, the young drummer is uncomfortable with the task of improvising and Dawson explains it, later offering some insight into the foundation of syncopation. The way that the drums weave into the recording, and vice-versa, makes an intriguing listen that takes it beyond a simple "drum duet" idea.

The ability to get mileage out of smaller building blocks makes Triple Double a strong work. In the big picture, the lack of a bassist or any other low end, or chordal, instrument, never becomes a handicap. In his writing, Fujiwara builds "To Hours" on a rigid 5/8 riff that continues through the piece but it never feels stiff, due to the way the players add contrast and embellish it. "Decisive Shadow" is built on an even trickier 13/8 rhythm, which comes in a snaky blend of three 3s plus four (if I'm counting right) from guitars and drums.

"Love and Protest" might be the album's most dramatic piece. Both drummers roll and crash feverishly, with Seabrook sustaining a pedal point under the horns' pensive melody. The drumming never sounds busy or excessive as they fuel the energy of the piece. The album might take a few listeners to pick up on everything, but it's also the kind of album that keeps drawing you back for more anyway.