Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Week in Review

Oh, what a week it's been! Everyday there was some writing project going on.

Monday - Tweaked an interview with Will Cullen Hart of Olivia Tremor Control for Blurt. Transcribed an interview with In One Wind leader Angelo Spagnolo (graduate of Pittsburgh CAPA). Interviewed Ben Opie, his former teacher. Nodded off at the laptop.

Tuesday - Woke up early, finished transcribing (always a good feeling; writing an article never has the same burden as transcribing). Had Love Letters practice for the first time in a month. We sounded pretty good for a band who hasn't practiced in that long. Started writing the In One Wind article for City Paper. Nodded off again at the laptop, but not before making some good progress.

Wednesday - Woke up around 5:15 and finished article. Went to baseball game with a bunch of people from work. Good times, bad game. Wrote a CD review for JazzTimes.

Thursday - Wrote another review for JazzTimes. Started getting pissy that I hadn't gotten replies to a set of emailed questions submitted to Kathryn Calder (New Pornographers keyboardist who makes great solo albums). I KNOW she's on tour in Europe, but my deadline is tomorrow, mannnnnn. Went to the Olivia Tremor Control show. Woooooooooooooo! (Specifics to come.)

Friday - Scrambled to write an intro for the Olivia Tremor Control piece for Blurt. Still went over the word count, though not by much. Received Kathryn's answers via email by mid-day, while on break at work. Read them at night. Nodded off while listening to Azita (nothing personal). Listened to it again after waking up.

Saturday - Woke up at 6, and banged out the Calder piece. Worked. Nodded off while listening to St. Vincent, came to a few songs later, wondering, "What CD is on now? What was I listening to before this?" (Note: I was listening to the vinyl version of the album.)

Still have three CD reviews due to Blurt, which I'll work on tomorrow morning before work.

Olivia Tremor Control was awesome. Much like my memory of seeing them in 1999, they played these amazing pop songs that always seemed to be on the brink of collapsing into chaos, under the weight of having eight, and occasionally nine, guys onstage at once. Three guitars (tho Will didn't seen to be playing chords a lot of the time), good ol' Julian Koster bowing a banjo and making it sound like a gypsy violin, keys, drums and trumpet. There was one moment where a song fell apart, but by and large they were pretty tight. And nice guys. On the way out, Peter Erchik spied my newly purchased Dusk at Cubist Castle 2LP under my arm and thanked me for coming, adding how great he thought the turnout was. That was swell. So's the record.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The last day of the Festival

Playing right now: St. Vincent - Strange Mercy (arrived yesterday in the mail. I pre-ordered it because it was only $13 from the label, plus shipping. White vinyl too!)

After I got back from the Festival, I was back into the world of deadlines for articles, the day job, the family life, and how-am-I-going-to-get-this-done-and-sleep-too? My condensed, overarching piece for JazzTimes is on their website now right here. I also wrote a preview for the Olivia Tremor Control show that's happening at the Hazlett on Thursday. So I never got to blog about the last day of the Detroit Jazz Festival until now.

Before I talk about the acts on Labor Day, I need to go back to Saturday. Before all the chaos of the rain and the wildness of the performance by the Dave Holland Octet, I saw the Sean Jones Quintet play in the afternoon and they were truly one of the best acts of the whole event. I sincerely hope that their set is one that most people will talk about when rattling off their favorite moments from the weekend. And believe me, this isn't local bias for a Pittsburgh artist coming through. (He's from Youngstown, but he lives here, or at least he did until recently.) The band was amazingly tight in a way that happens when you've played together for a long time and get to know each other and trust the music.

When I got to the Carharrt stage, they were into the first tune, "Look and See," and Brian Hogans was flying through an alto solo. When Jones took his solo, he did that thing I always notice that he does when I've heard him at the Ava jam sessions: The band pulls back and gets quiet and reserved and he starts that way too. As time goes on, he slowly ratchets up the mood until he's finally wailing and screaming. It's not a formula. It works every time. When I asked him about it, he compared it to a preacher doing a sermon.

Jones spoke after every song, explaining the idea behind the songs, since they all came from his No Need for Words album, which all deal with some dynamic involving love. His mood was relaxed as the band joked with him and audience members casually yelled back at the stage. At one point he stopped in his introduction and said, "Y'all don't wanna hear me talk!" But he kept going anyway. The whole band was great. Obed Calvaire used his whole kit constantly. Luques Curtis' bass was like a rock. And Orrin Evans show a whole range of styles and feelings throughout the set, banging piano keys with his forearm if the mood called for it, getting funky or playing off of the rhythm section. Boy, were they good.

I got to their set late because I was checking out Curtis Fuller across the way. He has a really unique trombone tone, which avoids the classic bright, brassy sound you might expect for something a little darker. He's still very fast with his slide, blowing fast lines on his own "The Clan" and Freddie Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring." The young looking tenor playing with his band was pretty astounding. Then they announced that it was Eric Alexander, and I thought, well no wonder. That guy's hot.

Speaking of hot, oy was it bad at that time of day. I have that written on my notebook somewhere between those two sets. That wouldn't last.

On to Monday. There's something about the last day of the festival that makes me feel a little melancholy. The feeling that there's just a few hours left before we go back to reality. The chill in the air didn't help much. Then after going back and forth, I decided to skip trying to stop by People's Records. I had talked to the owner the day before and he said he might be open that day. But it was too far of a walk and I would've spent the whole time wondering if I'd be back in time for music.

The New Gary Burton Quartet played that afternoon and while I've never really kept up with the vibist, I want to check out more of his stuff now. His new album The Common Ground has some really great blend of his four-mallet approach and Julian Lage's guitar, so I wanted to hear it live. Lage plays a hollow-body which was both amped and miked, giving it a sound that was very clean but also very bassy.

Back Downtown, Karriem Riggins played a show that got out the younger, not-necessarily-jazz-crowd because the rapper Common was with him. Maybe it was the wild wind getting to me as I waited for them to start, but the set was kind of disappointing. Before Common came out, Riggins' group played a couple tunes, the opener being a piece that Gene Perla played with Elvin Jones. What I thought might have been something from wild Blue Note albums that Jones did, actually turned out to be more like '70s soul fusion, with no trace of Jones until Riggins took a solo to segue into the next tune. Guitarist Perry Hughes sounded good, doing the Wes Montgomery style of finger picking, but the band couldn't seem to really cut loose from the grooves. Common sounded great, bringing some good energy to the set, although the dj's sampled overpowered the band in the mix.

Back over at Mack Avenue stage, pianist Helen Sung was wailing the hell out of some boppish tune when I got there. Turns out it was "In Walked Bud," and though her trio missed some of the subtleties of the theme as played the closing head, it was still a good time. Then she invited vocalist Carolyn Leonhardt to join them for the "Helen Sung with Words" portion of the set. This began with a version of "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," which was everything bad about modern jazz vocals, with all the goofy note bends and interval leaps. They got better next with a poem by former NEA chairman Dana Gioia. The music was thoughful and the lyrics had a sense of optimism that didn't get saccharine. The closing Wayne Shorter piece, "When You Dream," had Leonhardt asking the audience to "la la la" along with her, and it made me think it was time to go home.

Walking back across the park, Terri Pontremoli was on the Carharrt stage giving an impassioned thank you to the audience, preparing to bring on the final performance of the festival, the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra. Sitting down with a lamb gyro, I checked this set out and was glad I did because it was pretty triumphant. First they played a series of arrangements that Christian McBride wrote of his pieces, on which they all wailed. Then vocalist Ernie Andrews came out and proved that you can still slay a crowd with an Ellington medley at age 83. A guy sitting in front of me, who saw my notebook, said, "He wants you to believe that it's still 1945," and he was right. While I get bothered by younger cats who get caught up in paying tribute to the older material, there's something about seeing someone from that era singing that does take you back there. Ernie is a treasure.

For the very last piece, "Detroit Chanson," violinist Regina Carter and clarinetist Anat Cohen joined the group, McBride and Rodney Whitaker traded bass solos and in the most triumphant moment, the University of Michigan Trombone Ensemble played from the back of the amphitheatre with the orchestra, finally joining them in front of the stage. That's the way to send us home.

That, and a cup of coffee (which I finally found at one of the vending booths that afternoon!) blew away my end-of-the-festival blues.

Well, that and the party at the hotel bar that night.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Comin' down..... comin' down...

I got home from Detroit at about noon today and while I was waiting for my anti-virus software to get installed (long story, but it's okay), I had a craving for the Monkees. I've listened to two of them in a row.

Maybe I needed a break from jazz.

Recap of Monday will be up sometime tonight.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Recap of Sunday

This morning I went out for breakfast to a diner around the corner from the hotel. Walking back, I had to wait to cross the street due to the Labor Day parade that was marching down one of my cross streets. Then when I got to the hotel, two cops, one after another, made me show my room card at the driveway of the hotel before they'd let me pass. Obama is speaking at a rally just down the road from here. I wish I had packed my coat with me because I would've taken the extra time to find a record store that's up the road from here. Oh well.

Yesterday, I went to a brunch where I met a few cool guys who are involved in internet radio and jazz media. They were all really great guys who are passionate about what they do and love the music, which was encouragement I need to keep doing this thing.

I had that in-between feeling yesterday because I couldn't figure out what to do with myself in the early afternoon. There were shows to see but not until a little later in the afternoon. So I got on the people mover, which is what us Pittsburghers might call a skybus or what Simpsons fans might call a monorail, and rode it in a complete circle.

Jeff "Tain" Watts played a set with the Michigan State University Jazz Band. They did a pretty hot take on Oliver Nelson's "Down by the Riverside," which featured all five of the trumpets taking a short solo. A lot of them entered seamlessly, picking up on the last guys' idea and running with it. It started raining during the last tune, Herbie Hancock's "Eye of the Hurricane," and I walked back behind the stage for shelter. Unfortunately I missed seeing who took the alto solo because whoever it was had some Dolphy influence going on. That's not something you hear very often in this context. I mean the band was strong and tight, but I wish some of these bands would get a little more adventurous with their repetoire and try to some Mingus charts, or maybe Hall Overton's arrangements for Monk. Or maybe even some Sun Ra. Some of his grooves would get the audience moving. Nevertheless, Tain set this band on fire.

Speaking of big bands, there was a tribute to the late drummer J.C. Heard on the same stage a little bit later. I only got to see a couple songs before running off to another stage, but Walt Szymanski, who played with Heard, had that band swinging really hard and he also blew some delicate flugelhorn solos.

Wish I would've stuck around to see more of them because Anat Cohen was late getting started. By the time I thought about it, I was already situated in a spot out of the rain and didn't feel like getting up.

Anat was worth the wait. "Anat's Dance" opened the set almost sounding like an early '60s Miles Davis tune with clarinet in the place of his horn. She was using space to create suspense, and threw in a couple fast chromatic runs. That piece was written by her pianist Jason Lindner, but several of the tunes she played were by Brazilian composers like Milton Nascimento (whose tune almost sounded like a soul number) and Ernesto Lecuona. But the way the band played didn't adhere to any strict Brazilian style, good or otherwise. They were straight ahead and looking forward.
Drummer Daniel Freedman pushed the songs in all different directions, making "Anat's Dance" a little elastic and taking a ballad into stronger territory. Cohen was smiling the whole time, dancing around the stage to the music, or else she was having trouble balancing on those heels. Either way she was graceful.

It was interesting seeing the Jeff "Tain" Watts 4 back to back with the Vijay Iyer Trio. Both groups were astounding but in completely different ways. In fact at the end of the night I started wondering if I knew how to write about music anymore, since most of my adjectives seemed to be overused in my notepad.

After playing all weekend, it's safe to say that Watts was all fired up and ready to go to town in his own quartet. With Christian McBride on bass, how could he not? Plus he had Marcus Strickland on tenor and soprano and Lawrence Fields on piano. It seems like an easy comparison to describe a tenor-and-rhythm lineup to John Coltrane's classic quartet. But with the fire power coming off the stage last night, these guys rank as players with the same level of skill and passion. Although you'd never imagine Elvin Jones making a joke about the show being a celebration only to have his bassist launch into the Kool and the Gang song of the same name. Yes, there was good humor mixed in with the band. Tain had the quartet play their take on "May 15, 2011," the ballad he premiered with his Drum Club on Friday night. It wasn't as much of a ballad with this group, meaning it hit a little harder, but it still sounded strong. "Attainment," which begins like the best transition period Trane tunes with a rubato theme, brought the house down thanks to Tain's thunderous mallet work and Strickland's screams in the climax of his solo.

Then there's Vijay. The music from the Carharrt Amphitheatre was echoing up to his stage, and there was some river boat on the water about 50 feet away that kept booming calls of "Work it out!" and "Come on!" thorough a tinny p.a. periodically through the set. I couldn't tell if it was a gambling boat or an exercise cruise. But I didn't let it bug me and neither did the trio.

Iyer has a distinct touch on the piano. As he played I realized that he's the only player outside of maybe Monk or Cecil Taylor that I think I could identify easily. Of all the offbeat song choices he often digs out, he threw in a song by the '70s R&B band Heatwave. Not "Boogie Nights" or "Always and Forever" (though I could hear him doing something swell to the latter tune) but "The Star Of a Story." It was hard to tell where that one started and the one prior ended but the group was tinkering with where they were playing in relation to the beat. Drummer Marcus Gilmore was playing straight 4, Iyer was getting choppy and Stephan Crump was bowing his bass, making his trademark (?) weird faces and singing along with what he was playing. The way that guy plays in the context of this band seems so innovative. He doesn't just support the trio, he becomes another lead voice along with Iyer. Later on in a tune Iyer said they call "Lude," since it's not a pre- or a post-lude, I thought I was hearing the downbeat in one place, until the drums dropped out and Iyer just followed Crump with his right hand. It made me think the center had shifted. Or maybe I shifted.

I did have a couple moments last night in Iyer's and Watts' set where I couldn't keep track of the beat. Now that I recall it harder, I think it was Watts' version of Bjork's "107 Steps" that really did it for me. McBride and Fields were holding down the riff while Watts played like he was trying his best to throw those two off, with a torrent of crashes and fills and beautiful clatter all over the drums. It didn't confuse his bandmates, but it convinced me to stop counting and listen.

The guy sitting next to me during Iyer's set kept asking about him and, being the supporter that I am, I kept feeding him info about Iyer's albums. Hopefully he'll pick them up.

I was hoping Iyer and crew would pop by the hotel bar after the set but I didn't see them. I did get to talk to Stephan about the review I wrote here of the album he did with Steve Lehman though.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

CD Review: Seabrook Power Plant - Seabrook Power Plant II

Seabrook Power Plant

Seabrook Power Plant II

(Loyal Label)

Brandon Seabrook's banjo technique sounds astounding. He plucks the strings so rapidly that sometimes it has the sound of a harp glissando. At other times his attack sounds like he's playing a percussion instrument. When your instrument has little in the way of sustain, you do what you can to work beyond those limitations. He's carving out a whole new niche.

The problem with the first Seabrook Power Plant album (reviewed here back in December 2009) is that the tunes didn't match up with the level of playing on the album. A lot of them sounded like riffs or simple irreverance. Or to be diplomatic, Seabrook (whose band includes his brother Jared on drums and Tom Blancarte on bass) were still figuring out where to take the band. Seabrooke Power Plant II indicates that they're on their way.

The album is just as wild and wooly as its predecessor but this time it seems like there is less done for mere yuks. It's still a little unnerving. "Lamborghini Helicopter" has double-tracked string boxes flailing away in what would probably be thrash metal if it was played on guitar (more on that instrument later). Halfway through the song vocalist Judith Berkson adds some soprano whoops and ahs, which cut in and out like they were random notes struck on a keyboard. Where SBB started their last album off with an idea (a tribute to Pete Townshend that amounted to a few minutes of raked banjo) this is complete concept that rocks.

Seabrook gets his guitar out for "The Night Shift," playing some dramtic minor chords for about a minute, before he launches into what sounds like Zoot Horn Rollo playing a Beefheart lick on 78. This quality, where a song never exactly sticks with one idea, shows how the group has evolved as a unit and how Seabrook has evolved as a composer. And while metal, especially progressive metal, might be an influence on the trio, they execute it in a way that makes sure it rocks hard.

I have to admit I was a little hesitant to put this disc on after the previous one, but I'm glad I did.

We Jazz Econo

So after posting the previous entry, I figured it was time to definitely find out if the rain had shut everything down and, if so, it was time to start drinking. I asked a couple people here around the lobby if anything was happening outside and the answer was, "No, but the guy was going to play such-and-such is going to play in hotel lounge." Who could it be? Jason Moran? Mandrill?

After returning my laptop to the room I came down and saw Jordy and Don sitting in what I like to call a Sinatra booth (a semi-circle booth that rises up in the back) with Sammy Figueroa, with Joe Lovano leaning over the back of it.

A few minutes later Terri Pontremoli, one of the key festival organizers, was running around telling everyone that, yes, there was going to be music here in the bar, which was already getting crowded. First it was going to be Jason Moran, followed by the Dave Holland Octet, then the Deacon Jones Blues Band.

The room started filling up and they had to move a lot of equipment around, and it made me think of when punk bands couldn't get regular clubs dates or got shut down and they'd just set up wherever they could and play. This was especially apparent when the Holland Octet was setting up. It turns out Jason Moran "didn't feel comfortable" playing there. I can understand that. It was a crazy spot and the emcee kept stressing that we needed to be respectful and not talk throughout the sets tonight.

I staked out a spot with a good view of the stage and stood there for about an hour (seemed like it) while the band set up. The other DIY/jam econo aspect to the evening is seeing Dave Holland take his bass out of the case and set it up himself while we all watch. There's always something that adds to the excitement of the music when you see that. I think it takes me back to seeing Sonic Youth in the '80s at the Electric Banana, tuning up a dozen guitars before they started their set. Last night especially, it proved that these guys really wanted to play more than anything else. Holland - who while we're on the subject of DIY guys, looks a bit like an older mellower Mike Watt - said as much: "My friends and I said we ain't leaving town till we play some music."

The sound was a little ramshackle. Gary Smulyan's baritone sax got a little lost during his solo on "Pathways" and there were times when the vibes and bass were coming close to drowning out the saxes in general, but ultimately it was a tight amazing set. The intimacy of the evening really seemed to charge things up.

After standing still that long, I felt spent for the rest of the night. Apologies to the Deacon Jones Blues Band, who sounded pretty tight in their first couple songs.

Making my way to the elevator, I saw Marshall Allen from the Sun Ra Arkestra. Considering he was first break into JazzTimes after I interviewed him nine years ago, I had to say hi. I heard the group tried to play as the rain started, but I missed them and expressed my regrets. Mellow sage that he is, he told me that you just have to roll with whatever happens because you can't control something like the weather. Or something like that. With that, it was off to bed.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Rain is stronger than Jazz, alas

Here's a word of advice: When the wind is almost knocking you over as you walk toward a jazz festival, and hordes of people are walking towards you (i.e. away from the festival), follow their lead. Because it's very likely that a. the heavy wind has postponed the performances and b. that ran is about to come and you're going to get soaked if you try to keep going.

Right now I'm in the lobby, missing the Sun Ra Arkestra and God knows what else. They were supposed to go on at 7 p.m.

That was some serious wind, I'll tell you what. I did feel like it could've knocked me over if it had been just a tad faster. And when the rain comes, there's nothing worse than blowing rain.

First night in Detroit

I’m sitting in my room as I write, although when you read this I will in the lobby of the Marriot since there is free wireless there, but not in the room. Who knows maybe I’ll splurge for the $12/day DSL in my room. It’s a little pricey, but think of the freedom.

Anyhow, with that out of the way…things are off to a good start in the ol’ Motor City. The flight was fine, no major hassles at the airport. It was a little bit of a challenge hooking up with the shuttle but it happened eventually. Met up with my press pal Jordy, got into my room and went to check out the opening VIP reception. I found out one of my musical journalist role models is not coming this year [name withdrawn to avoid embarrassment on my part and uncomfortable feeling for him if ever saw this blog]. But I did hook up with Gary Graff, a writer who lives in Detroit but grew up just a few blocks from me in Squirrel Hill. He writes about all manner of music so we ended talking less about jazz and more about things as remote as the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

Just around the corner, in the middle of Downtown, stands the JP Morgan Chase Main Stage where Jeff “Tain” Watts (the Artist in Residence of the festival) was leading his Drum Club. What a club that was! Susie Ibarra moving from percussion to trap kit, Joe Locke on vibes, Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez on trap kit, Pedro Martinez on congas and, for the last couple tunes, Tony Allen the former co-hort of Fela Kuti. Bassist Robert Hudson [not totally sure if that name is accurate at presstime] anchored the sound.

And then there’s Tain. I mention him last because what was interesting is that he almost took a backseat to his bandmates, literally. I was sitting stage left and his trap kit was in the back corner, so when he was back there it was hard to see him. I feel like that said something about him as a leader: that he doesn’t have to be in the spotlight the whole time. He was also playing tympani early in the set too.

Joe Locke really seemed to be in the solo spotlight a lot of the time. That makes sense since he had one of the few fully melodic instruments on stage. His double-mallet work was pretty astounding. Saxophonist Rafael Stanton [not totally sure on him either; factchecking in progress] blew some pretty strong solos, on soprano, alto and tenor. On “May 15, 2011” (which Tain said was a working title and invited anyone to offer a better one) his soprano sounded kind of Wayne Shorter-like. But his alto on “Coolie Blue” was really strong, with a gruff tone. Allen joined the group on that tune, which definitely had a different feel to groove, although he seemed to be holding back a little. Maybe that’s part of his mystique though: doing a lot when it looks like you’re doing the minimum. It was definitely solid. That tune wrapped up with a quote from Charlie Parker’s “Cool Blues” over what was now a funk beat, hence the title.

My quest for coffee made me lose my seat and while I met up with another good friend of mine briefly, I never did find that elusive cup of joe. But I did wind up in the very first row for Sing the Truth!, the collaborative unit of singers Dianne Reeves, Angelique Kidjo and Lizz Wright. (Their backing band featured Geri Allen on Rhodes and piano, and Teri Lynn Carrington on drums.) It’s almost intimidating being that close to these three dynamic women, who throw everything into the performance and leave a crowd screaming. They did a few songs together but mostly each one had a solo, while the other two looked on in awe and/or sang harmonies. They were fun, but the looooooooooong, stretched out treatment of “From Both Sides Now,” was something I could’ve done without. They did it well but it wasn’t my thing. Plus, the whole audience participation thing, complete with “C’mon, I know you can do better than that” ain’t my bag either. In fact I feel lucky that Kidjo didn’t catch me nodding off in the front row. She might’ve made an example out of me.

I headed back to the hotel bar to beat the crowd, but before I did, the Sing the Truth! set was the moment when I knew that I had really arrived in Detroit.

Today is chock full of shows including the Sun Ra Arkestra, Dave Holland, Jason Moran and the band Mandrill who I’ve been told is not a show to miss.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

24 hours till takeoff

Tomorrow, I leave for Detroit, to check out the city's 32nd Annual Jazz Festival. (I'll be getting on an airplane for about the sixth or seventh time in my life.) It's going to be a great event. Among the people I'm going to see are Vijay Iyer, the Sun Ra Arkestra and Dave Holland. Not to mention Sean Jones and Artist-in-Residence and Pittsburgh native Jeff "Tain" Watts. I'll be there straight through until till the end, Monday night. Flying back the next morning.

This time, I'll have a laptop with me, so I'm hoping.....really hoping that I'll have some discipline and get some writing done in the mornings when I wake up. I have two assignments due for City Paper on the day I get back. One is a review that I might write tomorrow when I wake up before I leave. But of course there are more albums I'd like to review here. Plus there's the whole concept of gin-infused blog entries the night after each set of shows.

I've been off work all week to spend more time with the kid (who's between the end of summer camp and the start of school) and actually did a preliminary packing job last night! That's a first. Now I just have to figure out what CDs I'm taking with me and when I'll listen to them. (This sounds anal, but it's true because if I don't have it mapped out, I'll just end up listening to Charlie Parker the whole time.)

Speaking of the kid, yesterday I gave him a crash course in open chords on the guitar. He wanted to bang away on my old Kay acoustic so first I tuned it to an open D chord. He put me on the organ while he went crazy on the strings, so we had a raga going on. After a quick change to an open G (his favorite chord) I went back to an open E and showed him how to play bottleneck slide with an empty Bombay gin bottle. Don't tell CYS.