Monday, April 30, 2012

Hunting Vinyl on Melwood Avenue

As I mentioned last week, I didn't hit the streets for National Record Store Day. But on this past Saturday, the Pittsburgh Vinyl Convention took place in, of all places, the galleries of Pittsburgh Filmmakers on Melwood Avenue. I hadn't been to a record show like this in a while so it seemed like a good time to get back on that horse.

I felt like even if I didn't buy one thing, it would be cool to look around and see what was there. The event was spread out over three rooms of the gallery and hallway, in a manner that made me realize I never knew how the building was laid out. (Of course, I think it's been renovated since I was last there too.)

It was about 5:30 by the time I got there, which sounds late, but the whole shindig ran from noon until 8, so it was still a fairly prime time. A seller in the first room made me wonder what I was in for, though when I saw a copy of Nina Simone's I Put a Spell on You marked at $80. Come on, brother, what the crap? I didn't look at it, but even if it was brand spanking new, with vinyl that shone like a star, how can you justify pricing something that high? He also had a copy of the live Pharoah Sanders album on Impulse, which I used to see at Jerry's back in the late '80s and never bought because for some reason I got it in my head that it was a double album that was missing a record. It's not. Hmm, maybe this will be my first purchase of the day.

Not for $40. Everything at that table seemed to be priced according to what it went for on eBay. Not the best way to go if you ask me. Maybe the guy expected people to haggle a little and talk him down, but I wasn't in the mood.

One other guy had a copy of Coltrane's Ascension, original mono, priced at $40, which is something I can understand. My inner geek started coming out because I have a copy of the second version of that album and started thinking that maybe I should have Version One as well. (I have both on cassette dub too, but that doesn't really count - even though it gives you a chance to hear the whole thing without a fade out in the middle.) But I was smart - sort of - in that I only brought about $40 and didn't feel right blowing it all at once.

In the end, I picked up The Max Roach 4 Plays Charlie Parker on Mercury, in part because it had two magic words on it: Hank Mobley. I have an ongoing fascination with Mr. Round Sound. It didn't have a price tag, but the seller quoted me $20, which was actually less than I thought so I felt like I couldn't pass it up. The same guy also had a Muhal Richard Abrams album I've seen for years, and when he told me that would be $5, I decided I shouldn't live without it any longer.

With those bought, I ambled around a little more, flipping past all kinds of racks, seeing a stash of jazz albums that were all priced high, some justifiably. My dilemma is that the things that I want are pretty high ticket items, so if I can just spend carelessly, I won't get totally satiated.

On the way out, I decided I needed the sealed $5 David Murray album I saw there, which I haven't listened to yet. Since today is a day off, it might be the day for it.

I wonder if the guy with Ascension sold it, because if he didn't, I'd give $30 for it now.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

CD Review: Jessica Lurie Ensemble - Megaphone Heart

Jessica Lurie Ensemble
Megaphone Heart
(Zipa! Music)

Jessica Lurie's name showed up on my radar in the mid '90s when she played in the Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet. Named for a band leader whose true gender was only discovered upon death (she has lived most of her live as a man, which allowed her to lead bands at that time when it was virtually impossible to be a female band leader) the group that honored her played pieces that spanned danceable ethnic styles to freer pieces and tone poems. Lurie, who plays alto, tenor and baritone saxophones as well as flute, continues in a newer version of that group now known simply as the Tiptons Saxophone Quartet, and has performed with everyone from Bill Frisell to Chuck D and the Indigo Girls.

Still, it was surprise to hear vocals taking the focus on the opening songs of Megaphone Heart. Not that she's a slack in the pipes department, but with all those horns listed next to her name in the credits, one might think this is going to be more of a saxophone album.

Lurie has a bit of the singer-songwriter bug in her too, and it keeps the expectations surprised as she makes her way through the album. Brandon Seabrook adds his guitar and banjo to the music, offering necessary roughness when needed or adding some frenetic banjo strums that bridge the gap between traditional Eastern European colors and modern skronk. Keyboardist Erik Deutsch plays electric and acoustic pianos and organ, the latter making a delightfully weird partner with Seabrook in the Balkan-flavored "Boot Heels," where cheesy organ and distorted axe trade licks. Bassist Todd Sickafoose (who also co-produces) and drummer Allison Miller round the group in a tight manner, and cellist Marika Hughes adds extra depth on three tracks.

The opening sequence of the 58-second "Steady Drum" into the full-blown "A Million Pieces All in One" bears a sound that makes the group sound like they could back up Tom Waits on a current tour. Lurie's sings without any rasp, of course, but her mid-range voice has a striking quality here, especially when it's punctuated by the horns. The pensive title track has more ethereal power too, capturing the longing expressed in the lyrics, and the musicians build to an extended, noisy coda that's worth every second.

The whole disc alternates vocal tracks and instrumentals. Some of the former don't quite measure up to the above entries. The bluesy "Maps" and the meditative "Once" are fine songs although they rely a little much on lyrical metaphors often heard in songs dealing with relationships and changes in the landscape. Her inspirations for "Once" -  a flood in Iowa and memories of how Lurie's parents planted corn in their Seattle yard to block out their neighbors - sounds more interesting than the song, which gets marred a little further by some Joni-esque trills toward the end.

Although she plays three saxes, Lurie's alto seems to be her main instrument, taking leads while the others embellish more. Her tone is strong and diverse, crisp and direct in some places, gruff and growling in others. She and Hughes create a strong texture in "Zasto" and the leader gets some good time to stretch out in the jaunty "Bells."

Megaphone Heart comes across as one of those albums that doesn't fit comfortably into one style. It's the kind of album that, for better or worse, some scribes will celebrate because it's "a little bit jazz, a little bit songwriter, a little bit Eastern European," etc. CBS Sunday Morning could have a field day with her. [That's not a criticism either, people. I'm giving you ideas.]

Unlike some albums that dabble in varieties like that - and despite what I said about a couple of the songs - Lurie can pull off all those styles without seeming like a dilettante. So much so that when on the second listen to the album, it made me think how challenging it can be to promote an album like this effectively.

Then I thought if Lurie really bothered herself with issues like that, she might never make this album. Better to encourage her to do her thing and hope the people with open ears will find it.

Monday, April 23, 2012

CD Review: Eyvind Opsvik - Overseas IV

Eivind Opsvik
Overseas IV
(Loyal Label)

Norwegian bassist Eivind Opsvik resides in New York City, playing with a cast of musicians that has included Paul Motian, Skuli Sverrisson and Tony Malaby. He has also released several albums as a co-leader (with Aaron Jennings) and leader, of which this one comes as the fourth in a series that seems loosely tied to history and closely aligned with the goal of blending jazz with progressive rock, classical and ambient musics. Opsvik has referred to this album as "experimental cinematic music," and in that regard, he's hugely successful. The scoring of the music, coupled with haunting melodies that often rely on sustained notes and steady beats, implies that some visual imagery should go with it. It doesn't hurt that the cover photo of the bassist looks like it could have been taken in some historical mansion/museum, but that's a personal bias.

The 1700s and 1800s provided the inspiration for Overseas IV and to that end, keyboardist Jacob Sacks takes us to that era by playing harpsichord just as much as he plays piano and Farfisa organ. The old instrument provides an ingenious contrast throughout the album with Brandon Seabrook's electric guitar, which often gets noisy and scratchy. Together with Kenny Wolleson's tympani, Sacks create something of an opening overture with "They Will Hear the Drums - and They Will Answer." Malaby, Opsvik's frequent leader, lends his tenor saxophone to the proceedings, although much of his work on the album creates textures with simple figures.

By continually shifting the melodic focus of the pieces to unexpected instruments or by delaying what might be a "theme," the album can be a bit disorienting initially, requiring some extra scrutiny to fully discover where it's going and where it's been. "1786" (so named because it predated "great upheavels") begins with a drum and harpsichord duet that morphs into a churning groove that lets Malaby sit on the stovetop and gradually come to a boil, in one of the album's few sax solos. It's an abrasive nine minutes, but the way it unfolds is not. In a brilliant sequencing move, Opsvik follows this track with "Silkweavers' Song" where the harpsichord joins up with bowed bass (sounding like a cello at first) and Wolleson's vibes for the ambience of chamber music.

Like a film with an oblique plotline, Overseas IV can perplex you if your mind wanders. "Robbers and Fairground Folk" sounds like a four-note sax lick over a rock rhythm section, until it becomes clear that the direction comes from Seabrook, whose caterwauling, post-Ribot fretwork solos seem to get stronger with each new session he plays. He also brings energy to the spy surf feel of "Michelle Marie," when the repetitive Farfisa starts to sound too clever.

Opsvik also seems to act as the main voice in a couple tunes, which is easy to miss because his bass sometimes lacks the presence or volume it needs in the mix. He leads the way in the pensive "White Armour," over droning chords. In the closing "Youth Hopeth All Things, Believeth All Things" he gets a chance to stand front and center and take off. The setting is just as significant to the overall sound, though: the rhythm evokes prison chain gangs with what sounds like claps from hands and pieces of wood (presumably the "marching machine" for which Wolleson receives credit) and the rest of the band plays slow, ugly chords, closing the album with a long, keyboard drone, not unlike something from vintage Soft Machine.

Moments occur during this album where the band seems to wander or plod along. But by reserving judgement until a track has played through, you're likely to admire the way Opsvik creates rich soundscapes out of what initially sounds like simple harmonic material. Together with players like saxophonist/composer Jeremy Udden (who has used some of these guys in his bands), Eyvind Opsvik is charting a new course for this music that is more accurately described for the images that it can evoke than for what kind of category it belongs to.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

There Was a Lot Happening Over the Last 48 Hours

Playing right now: Neighbours debut single, on Get Hip - RED VINYL!

Neighbours played a single release show last night at Gooski's, and damn was it good. I don't think it was the hooch talking last night. (In fact the drink in my head seemed kind of unnecessary by the time the lads went on.) I've described them as mod pop in the past, and they've even progressed further  so that they're not merely emulating a style. Ross' guitar playing recreates that unsustained, hopped-up Jam sound but he's not afraid to make some good noise during a guitar solo or a chorus. Joe's bass playing is really melodic, uses vibrato well and since he's playing some sort of Precision copy [I think] it had a bit of a dirty sound to it. Andy's the most in-the-pocket drummer I've heard in ages, and of course Michael... well he slayed me ages ago as Mr. White Soul Belter.

The night before, I was late yet again  for a show I really wanted to see. Cornetist Josh Berman and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm were playing at the Shop with tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist Christoph Erb. [A quick Google search revealed that the trio is going by the name Bererberg.] I got there for the last 10 minutes of their wild free improv, which sounded great. Each guy really had something going on: Josh with his amazing range and great tone; Fred with his skillful use of effects on his instrument; Christoph switching between horns and doing some fine, percussive slap tonguing.

I bought a CD from Fred of his trio with Jason Roebke and Frank Rosaly, called Other Valentines. I've always enjoyed his work, but last night I listened to it and was really loving it. His tone is really strong and emotional, with maybe a touch of vibrato. In addition to originals, he covers Sun Ra, Pink Floyd ("Arnold Layne"!) and Gil Scott-Heron.

No Record Store Day shenanigans for me yesterday. I was tempted to wake up early, as I usually do, and take a trip across the river to the Attic, since they opened at midnight on Saturday morning/Friday night. Last year, they had a line snaking around the corner before they even opened, which made the narrow aisles impossible to negotiate inside. By 6 a.m., I figured there probably wouldn't be a huge crowd there so that would be an ideal time to go. But I was lucky I got up when I did, considering what a few highballs at the Brillobox did to me the night before.

I'll say it right now: I don't need to buy any new records at the moment.

[Note the qualifier there.]

PS On the walk home from Gooski's, I heard that Benny Golson played at the August Wilson Center. What the hay? Where was the publicity for that? Nobody told me!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Last night (Thursday) and tonight (Friday)

Hmmm, I was worried the day would come when the template for the blog would be revamped. I guess it's here. And it's off-putting.

Last night I got to Garfield Artworks 20 minutes into Chris Corsano's set. I could've left the house earlier and caught it all, but nooooooooooo. Anyhow what I saw was astounding. And I don't use that word loosely. Corsano has an amazing technique and a wealth of ideas. He had two mallets in his right hand, one was hitting the ride cymbal and the other was hitting the floor tom. Then he did what looked like a magic trick - one of the mallets disappeared! And with the greatest of ease, he switched out that mallet for a stick.

Not only that - the guy can circular breathe! He started blowing on some plastic hose thing but I didn't realize he was going without breathing until he picked up some instrument with a sax mouthpiece on it and looked like either an Eastern reed instrument [I won't try to approximate the spelling of it] or some toy horn and pressed it to the head of the floor tom. The final piece also involved some device made of metal keys and a pick-up mike which he alternately held in his mouth and wedged in the high hat, getting some overdriven, metallic groove to the music. After melting my brain with that, he drove it home with an amazing solo all over his kit.

Around seven years ago, Corsano left an impression on me when I saw him with saxophonist Paul Flaherty. Last night reminded me that all the memories I have of his crazy technique are still accurate.

Late last night I got a message that Josh Berman and Fred Lonberg-Holm are playing at the Shop here in town. While I wish I had known sooner - in order to tell more people - I'm glad I know. If you're in Pittsburgh and reading this, check this out!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

CD Review: Pete Robbins Transatlantic Quartet - Live In Basel

Pete Robbins Transatlantic Quartet
Live in Basel
(Hate Laugh Music)

In the first track of Live in Basel Pete Robbins' alto has that "dry as a martini" tone. Not that he's a Paul Desmond disciple, but he has that no-nonsense sound that doesn't hide behind any sweet vibrato. He uses an adventurous vocabulary that keeps your surprised. It's not exactly the Steve Coleman-esque mathematical complexity, but he probably appreciates that style as well as a Desmond attack.

Still, he's going somewhere else with his own work.

This album seems to be something of a digression for the New York-based saxophonist, as he typically plays in the freer Unnamed Quartet and siLENT Z, and has hung with the likes of John Zorn, Craig Taborn and Mark Dresser. The Transatlantic Quartet includes guitarist Mikkel Ploug, bassist Simon Jermyn and drummer Kevin Brow, a mix of Europeans living in the U.S. and Americans living abroad.

Not knowing Robbins' back story, this set - recorded at the end of a 2010 tour in Switzerland - comes off a bit like a band wrestling with edgy arrangements and the urge to smooth things out. Ploug's guitar sounds clean with a little bit of bite one moment, then chorus-y and a little too devoted to atmospheric a few tracks later. "Hope Tober" which closes the album, relies a little too much on a simple rhythmic displacement as a hook that plays over an anthemic progression.

However, deeper investigation proves that the shortcomings might just be due to the way the band was recorded (i.e. just a tad too far on the clean side). The quartet has a lot of spark under the surface. "Eliotsong" starts things off with a kick, mainly due to the way Brow adds an extra shuffle to the beat he plays on the snare. Jermyn takes the first solo here, an unusual start which works and sets the scene for Ploug and Robbins. "There There" almost feels like a ballad but the group keeps kicking up a gentle storm, Robbins especially as he throws all kinds of moving lines into his solo. Jermyn's intro sounds especially fluid on this track, tossing off cascades of notes with the ease of a guitar. And when Ploug enters, their instruments blend beautifully.

Live in Basel might front-loaded with stronger material, but the energy never wavers and keeps you coming back. It makes these ears want to hear more of this alto player and wonder why I haven't yet.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Matthew Shipp Storms Pittsburgh

I was happily surprised on Saturday night when I walked into the gallery at the First Unitarian Church and saw the sizable crowd for the Matthew Shipp show. Meaning there was close to 50 people there. That might not sound like much but when you compare it to the crowd for a typical free/avant garde show, which you can often count on one hand, this was a success.

I had been geeked and eagerly awaiting this show since I heard about it a few months ago. (Not to toot my own horn but I feel like I was something of a catalyst because I got Matt in touch with Manny who booked it, since the pianist had lost his phone number.) But seeing a sea of faces - both young and older - in the audience was encouraging. It made me wish I had printed up handbills about this blog to get some sort of a network going.

Honestly I've heard nearly all of Shipp's recent albums but can't connect titles with tunes precisely, so this is going to be something of an overview of the evening. Perhaps, I should just say this:

It was a really, really good show. Trust me.

That's probably not even funny as you're reading it, so.... onward...(to borrow a Mort Sahl-ism).

The trio made their way to the stage and immediately launched into a tune that had a boppish feel to the melody even though the tempo was free and floating. For most of the evening, drummer Whit Dickey was staring down towards his snare drum, without needing to look at his arms or the rest of his kit. A few times he started swaying his head, though, getting caught up in the music. What he played never turned into excessive free clatter, but kept it flowing and taut. Bassist Michael Bisio periodically took a whack at his open strings. He was sometimes hard to hear clearly, so this could have been done out of frustration or plain old punctuation. Hard to tell. There were several times throughout the night where he leaned his bass back at an angle and struck the strings that way. I think he was being miked, so another thought is that he didn't want to overdrive the p.a.

And then there was Mr. Shipp. His arms move at the piano in a way that it looks like they're slipping off the keys, like he's brushing off dust. It's a look that contrasts with the rich sound he produces, that has really come to encompass all manner of styles - Monk-like angularity, the bop phrasing, an almost classical sense of melody (which makes perfect sense because that's what he played before jazz). Briefly, he dug into a piano melody that had a strong vocal quality to it, meaning it sounded like an actual voice.

The trio played two sets, each one about 45 minutes. Both included a few minutes where the free flowing sound got a little noodly, but both times, it didn't last too long and they snapped back into something tight. In the first set, Bisio did an amazing bowed solo, moving all over the instrument, including some great metallic squeaks that came from bowing the tail piece. That set also included snatches of "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Someday My Prince Will Come," though I have to admit, I only thought I heard the former and completely missed the latter. (I don't doubt it though because Shipp has recorded "Prince.")

The second set was even more charged up, with the dense and driving "The New Fact" kicking things off. Dickey took a solo during a later piece that had the approach similar to Rashied Ali, going in multiple directions, with snare rolls and cymbal crashes intersecting with power from the rest of his kit. Shipp's minor, doomy take on "Frere Jacques" was pulled out too, which sounds stronger in person than it has on disc, most likely because it doesn't put as much attention on the source material. There was an adolescent boy in the audience who was clearly grooving during this set - which offers proof that this music is accessible to listeners who keep their minds and ears open.

Shipp's 2009 album Harmonic Disorder ends with a track called "When the Curtain Falls on the Jazz Theatre" which I recall has a pretty heavy series of pounding chords (making it a bold and somewhat satirical statement together with the title). Can't say for sure since my copy of Harmonic is buried in a pile somewhere, but that might have been the final piece the trio played. And they received a standing ovation for the whole performance. I hope to see more of these appreciative clappers at other shows like this. Shoot - I want to see more shows like this!

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Diamond Terrfier & Patrick Higgins in town

I had an attack of panic last night because this here laptop was moving really slow and was in limbo between going into sleep mode, with a dark screen, and not really going into sleep mode. So it was stuck. Until I woke up this morning and thought about disconnecting the battery and the AC adaptor. It all started when I looked at Judy Henske's website. I think she messed me up. Never thought that woman would do me wrong. So far, everything works.

Now that that's out of the way, I can talk about the Diamond Terrifier show last night at Garfield Artworks. This is the solo saxophone project of Sam Hillner of the Zs. He was on the bill with solo guitarist Patrick Higgins and a handful of local hip hop MCs. Go figure. That's the way things roll at Garfield Artworks. Not that the acts were really compatible. Plus Sam and Patrick were off grabbing dinner or something before the show, which inspired one of the MCs to talk smack on how they weren't cool because they weren't hanging out, and how they're acting like rock stars. I buried my nose in an issue of The Wire while waiting for the rapping to be done. Not that it was bad. It seemed pretty together, and the guys all had tight control over the samples, and their songs were seguing together smoothly.

Higgins took the stage with a small acoustic guitar and an armful of effects pedals. It was clear from the way he was playing his instrument that he had genuine technique. He wasn't just some noise maker. But he did get some good racket going right away, with some dreamy loops and a lot of delay. I thought I had read that he was playing works by Bach and he did make some comment early on about how he was playing "really old shit." Then all of a sudden I recognized ol' Johann Sebastian's "Bouree." (Which I admit I know of thanks to Jethro Tull.) With all the effects on his guitar, it sounded like the music was being transmitted from a satellite and sent around the earth twice before it was broadcast to my ears. It gave a really new creative spin to some old tunes. Before he was done, he also played "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" with all sorts of loops and warped notes weaving through it. Combined with the fact that he kept his set to about 20 minutes - or maybe less - it was a pretty excellent production.

Then Mr. Diamond Terrifier hit the stage. (If you're wondering about the name, you can check out my piece about him in City Paper right here. Actually, he hit the floor, because he set up his line of effects pedals on the floor in front of the stage, putting a microphone in the bell of his tenor and plugging it into said pedals. He began by turning up one of the boxes, which had a loop of a split-second of sound creating a drone, over which he started blowing long tones. Things gradually built in energy, escalating into a flurry of notes, with harmonies and short lines coming through. The collective sound of his tenor and the added pitches from the boxes gave the set a feeling of both beauty and impending doom.

When he started blowing in the low register of his horn, it sounded like a storm was on the horizon. The loop changed from a calm drone to something that sounded like plinking strings or keyboard sounds. Suddenly it was all high tenor shrieks, and the pitches got bent through the pedals, giving it an other worldly sound. The drone gradually shifted again to more of a guitar sound with bent notes. By now, DT was playing a two-note theme, built on low notes from the horn. He went on to embellish the idea, stopping back to revisit it every so often. It was pretty hypnotic. I tried to follow how long the whole performance, but I lost track of time and just listened. Crazy.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

I Should Buy This Album, it's on sale

Playing right now: John Coltrane - Standard Coltrane

Yesterday was the last day of Paul's CDs. The landmark music store is closing, but Paul's employee Karl Hendricks is carrying the tradition on in the same storefront on Liberty Avenue with Sound Cat Music. In fact, both "stores" have been running concurrently since January. Don't ask how or why, it just did, and it worked.

Paul gradually marked down his inventory further and further until it was down to 60% about a week ago, where it stayed through yesterday. I combed through the racks several times over the past couple months, especially when he went down to 40- and 50%. So yesterday with the shelves looking bare in the jazz section, I felt like grabbing anything that looked of interest to me. I had hoped I might be able to get a recent Miles Davis box set, and when I found out that it was gone, I started to examine the one remaining Miles set - Seven Steps to Heaven. I don't even have that album, and this one also including the live albums from that in-between era. I also picked up the Roscoe Mitchell solo saxophone album. And FMP's Cecil Taylor and Han Bennink duet album.

After awhile I reached saturation point. And reality kicked in - am I really interested in all of this stuff in my huge pile? When will I get time to listen to all of it? By listening to it, as I've said ad nauseum here, that means getting to know the music, becoming familiar with the solos or the hooks or the running order - and the song titles. I want to hear all of it. But hearing things is different, slightly, than owning it, and putting it on the pile of other albums that cause you to feel really baffled and ultimately frustrating when you wake up in the morning and want to play something but can't decide what. And in the case of the Miles set, 60% of $106 is still over $40 - a lot of eggs in one basket.

So I narrowed my pile down to 10 things that I needed. The CD playing now was one of them. Then:
John Coltrane - Dakar
Andrew Hill - Dusk
Roland Kirk - Kirk in Copenhagen
Archie Shepp & Roswell Rudd - Live in New York
Bonzo Dog Band - Gorilla (because my vinyl is severely warped)
Mary Celeste - Our Guernica (Local band I missed out on in the mid-'00s; only $6 originally so I couldn't say no any longer)
Louis Armstrong - Hot Fives and Sevens Vols. 1 and 2.
Bo Diddley - Gold (with the family in mind)

Looking at it now, my choices of non-jazz are pretty arbitrary. Oh well, as I said, there was a point where I reached saturation and couldn't take the digging through the racks any longer. I had initially thought of purchasing a couple box sets and flipping them online, but then common sense reminded me that I'd be pretty pissed if they didn't sell.

Coltrane's done so I have to decide what's next.