Wednesday, January 30, 2013

CD Review: Ben Holmes Quartet - Anvil of the Lord

Ben Holmes Quartet
Anvil of the Lord

You never know when you're going to cross paths with random musicians who, years later, will be seen in a completely different light than the first experience. Several years ago, the back room of my neighborhood bar/live venue Gooski's was stuffed probably way past the fire code with all manner of people interested in checking out the good time that would be laid down by Slavic Soul Party! (Despite the excessive cigarette smoke,  still legal in some places in the Keystone State, the group did not disappoint.) Everyone in that band probably had at least one other musical venture besides SSP!, but the frenzy of the evening made it hard to find out anyone's individual story.

It's hard to say if Ben Holmes was part of the trumpet section that night, but it's pretty likely. Holmes has an ongoing interest in Balkan music as well as modern jazz, and has played with a great number of bands and projects that feature both styles. Anvil of the Lord - a title that gets more amusing the more you think of it as the counterpoint to Led Zeppelin's classic biography Hammer of the Gods - cites Holmes' Eastern European influences, but this isn't simply good time party music with some improv in it. These nine originals are fairly straight forward (at least for an album on Skirl) tunes with subtle harmonic movement that comes with deeper listening.

The quartet's instrumentation gives it a unique sound. The rhythm section of Matt Pavolka (bass) and Vinnie Sperrazza (drums) back up Holmes and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, the end result being both a little spare  and keeping the focus on the horns. Pavolka and Sperrazza don't play with flash but their steadiness adds some fire to "Doodle for Rhapsody," the opening salvo which grooves in a syncopated, uneven meter. Nearly all the songs have specific inspirations and this one takes a cue from a Romanian singer Gabi Lunca, which can be felt in the harmonies of the brass.

At other times the muse isn't too obvious, like "Nada v. Armitage," a fairly calm homage to a fight scene in the film They Live between those two characters, portrayed by Roddy Piper and Keith David respectively. "Malach Hamovi" (Hebrew for "Angel of Death") has a noirish feel with slinky bass behind a plaintive, melancholy line. Holmes wrote this in response to Chopin's Prelude No. 2, which is know as the "Presentiment of Death." If Chopin hung out in Downtown New York, maybe it would have sounded like this as well.

Sometimes a Miles Davis vibe creeps slowly into the music. With "Song for Creel Thompson," the melody starts off sounding a little like "Nefertiti" but moves on to greater development as well as solos with some quick double-time licks from Hasselbring and great intervals from Holmes. The more pensive "Moved Like a Fog" contains some of that vibrato-less honesty that recalls the Prince of Darkness.

If any criticism can be made of Anvil of the God it would be that Holmes and the crew almost sound too relaxed, and nice without a lot of bite initially. They clearly all know the nuances of Holmes' writing but some push and pull could have given it a little more edge. Still, it's a fine set of work from a guy who can  get a room of hipsters dancing or get a bunch of modern beatniks to lean in close and listen.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Music that I Play Sounds Like...

Playing right now: a recording of the Love Letters show at Club Cafe, made a week ago last Friday

It says it in a couple places here on the blog, but the Love Letters are the band of which I am a part these days, in case you didn't know. The night of this last show Bob Loiselle, from opening band Junk Fingers, told me that he thought we sounded like a cross between They Might Be Giants and the Human Switchboard. I love one of those bands and, while I don't hate the other one, I still look upon them with a bit of suspicion.

Funny thing is, in listening to this recording, I can hear exactly what he's talking about.

At least on my songs.

In other news, I'm trying to be prolific in terms of CD reviews these days. I have a stack of assignments for Blurt and JazzTimes but I banged out two for the former today. (One submitted, one to be submitted in the a.m. after I've have some distance from it to give it a final read.) I'm hoping this productivity will continue and that I can drop one on the blog in between these two.

Friday, January 25, 2013

CD Review: Jason Robinson - Tiresian Symmetry

Jason Robinson
Tiresian Symmetry

This is the time of year when I usually hit upon albums that I completely missed during the previous year. These are things that flew under my radar for any number of reasons (the biggest usually being, "That looks cool, I'll have to check it out sometime soon"), only to find it in near the top of the year end lists. Granted it's a rare breed of writer who can keep up with everything. On the Rhapsody website, critic Tom Hull said he reviewed 535 new jazz albums last year. That is both admirable and - when you do the math - exhausting, especially if you factor in box sets. I think last year Peter Margasak had a Top 40 of 2011.

But enough of a set-up. Jason Robinson's Tiresian Symmetry is my this-is-amazing-how'd-I'd-put-this-off-you-need-to-check-it-out-ASAP release. It comes from Cuneiform, the long-standing adventurous label that had a banner year overall (to name few: Wadada Leo Smith's four-disc Ten Freedom Summers  and Living by Lanterns' New Myth/Old Science which I reviewed here). I listened to it several times without checking out the liner notes so his concept of the myth of Tiresias and the numerical relationship didn't affect my listening at first. (According to Greek myth, this soothsayer lived for seven generations, both as a man and a woman, giving Robinson the idea to explore relationships between 7 and 2.) What caught my attention are the different sections of the title track and "Radiate" which each continue for 10 engaging minutes each.

Sometimes Robinson's writing reminds of me of Tim Berne's more subdued tunes, where things move gently but the horns feel like they're ready to go wild, and time signatures change on a dime. This happens a lot in the last couple songs, but "Saros" not only has that going for it, it starts with JD Parran doing some great contra-bass clarinet squonking. After the nine-piece band states the theme, things move into a tuba (or maybe bass trombone) solo, and when Robinson takes a solo spot, one of the lower brass guys starts wailing through his horn behind him.

The instrumentation is intriguing enough, but the personnel is the kind that should pull people in too. Robinson plays alto flute and soprano sax. Allan also handles alto clarinet and tenor. Along with them on the front line is Marty Ehrlich (alto sax, bass clarinet, C flute). Marcus Rojas and Bill Lowe both play tuba, creating some beautiful harmonies on the level of French horns on "Radiate." (Lowe doubles on bass trombone.) Drew Gress handles bass, Liberty Ellman adds some guitar solos, and the double-team of Ches Smith and George Schuller both play drums (Smith also plays glockenspeil) without getting too busy or thunderous.

This album was released back around September, but if you missed it then, now is the time to discover it. Not being familiar with Robinson's work, this disc makes me want to explore his back catalog too.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Playing right now: The Mau Maus - Scorched Earth Policies: Then & Now

Harrison Bankhead's Kickstarter project was successfully funded! I was really glad to see that. Hooray for music.

Blurt posted my Franklin Bruno piece a couple days ago. Here it is.

I was lucky enough to get a download of Wayne Shorter's new album, which is cool because when the end of the year comes, I'll be able to opine on whether it deserves to be in the Top 10 or not. I made CD-r of it  because I wanted to hear it with good fidelity, not just on lo-fi computer speakers. Turns out the burn wasn't totally successful, and at the end of the 23-minute "Pegasus" it keeps skipping back two minutes to the end of the song, and won't go further. Conspiracy theorist that I am, I was starting to wonder if this is some elaborate trick the brass at Blue Note did to make sure that I won't share the music with anyone. Guys - don't worry. I won't give it to anyone. But if you keep this up I might not even feel compelled to write about it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Jeff Mangum review, new sax in town, Harrison Bankhead Kickstart

Blurt published my Jeff Mangum review yesterday. You can find it here, along with some video links although I would like to go on record and assure you it was not me who filmed them. The piece was written over several days, which was a good idea because it helped me figure out how I wanted to talk about him. There were actually a couple different ideas in my head about how to start and finish it.

Last night I went to the Thunderbird Cafe for the weekly Space Exchange sometimes jazz/sometimes something else series. Saxophonist Erik Lawrence just moved to town pretty recently and last night he led a trio with drummer Dave Throckmorton (one of the SE curators) and bassist Paul Thompson. Lawrence plays/played with the Honey Ear Trio (who I reviewed here a while ago), Steven Bernstein and the late Levon Helm. He was playing baritone, tenor and alto last night, although I missed most of the baritone playing because I got there late. It was great stuff and a bit on-the-fly, with Erik explaining arrangements to Paul and Dave before they played tunes, yet sounded remarkably together and exciting. There were a lot of vamps that the bass held down while Lawrence moved all over the horn, pushing into the upper limits when necessary.

Lawrence said he likes our town, so let's show the man some support. We don't want to loose him like we've lost other heavy hitters. Next Tuesday, he's sitting in with at Thunderbird with Book Exchange, Ben Opie's trio that plays Monk, Braxton and Coleman. That should be a blast.

And finally, I got an email from Stephen at Engine Records about a Kickstarter campaign he has to help record and release a new album by bassist Harrison Bankhead. The goal is to raise $1500, of which $720 has been raised as of this morning.

The deadline for it is this Friday, so I realize this mention is last minute. Check it out right here. Bankhead has played with a lot of great Chicago musicians like Roscoe Mitchell, Von Freeman, Hamid Drake and the Windy City's last guru Fred Anderson (that's my description, not common terminology). It'd be really amazing if we could help this project happen.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Jeff Mangum and Jazz Critic's Polls

Jeff Mangum played in Pittsburgh two nights ago, and it was one of those rare instances where the evening was exactly what I would had hoped it would be. Sometimes the anticipation you build up in your head can create this image of how things will go, and when it isn't exactly like that, it can be disappointing, like seeing a band you like play mostly new songs that you don't know, or there is a lackluster sound mix. Not so at the Carnegie Music Hall on Thursday. I'd expound at length here, but I'm going to write about it for Blurt so I'll link it when that happens.

In other news, my opinions were requested for the Jazz Critic's poll, regarding the best albums of 2012. You can find it here. If you want to skip right ahead to the list of albums, this is the place to go. Maybe I shouldn't be so gee-whiz about the whole thing since I've been writing for JazzTimes now for 10 years - in fact my first feature appeared at the very end of 2002, now that I think about it - but that work is done primarily in isolation. So it is kind of wild to see my name rubbing elbows with the likes of Peter Margasak, John Litweiler, John Szwed and Scott Yanow, all writers of distinction to me. Not to mention the fact that this poll, which began at The Village Voice, is assembled each year by Francis Davis, another great writer (and spouse of Terri Gross too). 

Monday, January 07, 2013

CD Reviews: The Whammies and Jeb Bishop/Jorrit Dykstra

The Whammies
Play the Music of Steve Lacy
Next to Paul Motian, Steve Lacy might be the one instrumentalist who is starting to be saluted for his compositions, posthumously. The quartet Ideal Bread is devoted to the late soprano saxophonist's work, and now come the Whammies, a wild sextet of musicians hailing from Amsterdam, Chicago and Boston. The most famous name on this disc is that of drummer Han Bennink, who played with Lacy in the 1980s. But the group is the vision of Driff Records founders Jorrit Dijkstra (alto saxophone) and Pandelis Karayorgis (piano),who are based now in the Boston area. Joining them are Chicagoans Nate McBride (bass) and Jeb Bishop (trombone) and, for four tracks, Bennink's Instant Composer's Pool associate Mary Oliver (violin, viola).
The group pays attention to details of the compositions, some having more apparent structures while others come across more like sketches to toss off before jumping into the fire. Each title is accompanied by a dedication, something Lacy didn't always indicate on the original releases, but which Dijkstra unearthed while researching the composer. They offer some insight into the work too, explaining the loose movement of "The Wire," dedicated to Albert Ayler, and giving a hint about the work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian in the Monk-like shuffle of "As Usual," in which Oliver plays in the upper register of her instrument while Dijkstra joins her on lyricon, an antiquated wind synthisizer which sounds more like static-y noise. "Ducks," dedicated to Ben Webster, could go either way, evoking the title more than its honoree (unless personality is considered, perhaps). Regardless, it's a fun romp. In "I Feel a Draft" the horns repeat a simple two-note melody while the rest of the band jumps around, Oliver getting close to nails on the chalkboard again. It's hard to believe that this tune was dedicated to Lacy's close friend and longtime collaborator Mal Waldron.
But the group settles down and swings too. "Bone" and "Dutch Masters" reveal some unique scoops and turns to Lacy's writing, reminding us that it might be time to dig into his voluminous catalog of work. Bennink might be known for his wild approach to his drums, which is often as visually wild as it is musically, but these two tracks remind us that he's also an excellent timekeeper who can light a fire under soloists with his carefully placed accents. Karayorgis plays some spiky tri-tone accompaniment behind the soloists in "Bone." It too feels much like Monk, which makes sense since Lacy was one of the legend's biggest advocates. It should also be no surprise that the Whammies end with a Monk tune that's not often heard, "Locomotive," a riff tune which he recorded for Prestige and Columbia. McBride takes the first solo - plucking with more frenzy than this song ever heard from someone like John Ore - before Dijkstra's cool understatement takes over, He begins his own way but remembers Monk's style reincorporating the theme into the solo. Karayoris has the same idea and the album ends triumphantly.
According to this album's press release, the Whammies are scheduled to tour the Northeast this month. I could really use a dose of live music like this in person.

Jeb Bishop/ Jorrit Dijkstra
1000 Words
Before they recorded with the Whammies, Bishop and Dijkstra met up for a series of trombone and alto duets in Chicago, where the former has played with umpteen bands under his own name and that of people like Ken Vandermark. Anyone expecting a series of pointillist free improvs that feature a lot of "extended technique" won't be disappointed - but they won't hear it right away either. 1000 Words features tone poems, counterpoints and near-ballads as much as the wild stuff. So it's not your average avant garde duo session.
The arrangement of the title track makes them actually sound like more than two horns since they play at opposite ends of their range at first. "Bone Narrow" throws you off balance with a call-and-response melody which keeps shifting between who starts the phrase.
In light of both these albums, Dijkstra is becoming a saxophonist to watch, thanks to a bell-like tone and an inventive mind. But he ups the ante with his playing here, slap-tonguing so sharply that he sounds like closed snare drum adding accents ("Klopgeest") before he starts into some Braxton brittleness. Bishop also shines, especially with his artillery of mutes. He opens "Standpipe" sounding like a free fretless bass guitar and even when this tune sounds rather monstruous, the changes played underneath it sound a bit sweet.
The first paragraph's statement about free improv wasn't meant to knock it. But some albums of it that sound great on the first listen don't always hold up under, or motivate, repeated listens. Bishop and Dijkstra have a lot of variety to this set, in all but one track keeping things under six minutes. So 1000 Words  has a lot to bring people back.
The Driff imprint is off to a strong start.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Where Did the Time Go?

Well here we are, nearly a week into 2013 and I've taken something of a vacation for the blog. Or so it seemed. I decided it's better that I start the year with a personal essay rather than another review, although I have a steady stream of things that I want to review. But I was reading the Riff column in the Sunday New York Times magazine today where Hugo Lindgren talked about how all the great ideas he's had for stories, sitcoms, musicals and what-have-you have died on the vine. He went on to site a Times article written about cab drivers who were aspiring to be poets, playwrights, actors, you-name-it. As time went on, that story went, the even split between making a living and doing what you want starts tipping towards the former category with very little left for the latter.

I've been feeling that a lot lately. A whole lot. I'll get up at 6 a.m., or even at 5:30 a.m., with the coffee pot already full, since I programmed it the night before. My plan is to get in an hour of writing before everyone else wakes up and I have to get involved with insiginificant things like breakfast, a shower and getting dressed. What happens is I feel like I need to take just one more listen to a disc I'm supposed to review. Or check email first. Or remember there was one thing related to work or the band that I need to take care of. Or the worst - Facebook. A quick check of my FB messages can easily digress into the scrolling down of overnight posts. Then - WHAM! - the first cup of coffee is gone, I'm hungry and there's no time to even start a decent review so why bother. Yesterday morning, our water pressure was really low, so I put on the a.m. news hoping to find info. When that was a dead end, I finally called Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, who didn't really know anything. Then as I was walking out the door to work, remembering activities for the band I hadn't done and now feeling TWICE as surly, the water pressure was restored anyway.

One resolution I did make this year was to not let Facebook suck up too much of my time. So far, I've been mildly successful. Tomorrow is the first day off I've had since before the holidays where I'll have some time to myself and I plan to devote at least some of that time to here. Because I don't have any freelance work due either.

Last week I had to get an extension on a story about Jeff Mangum, who's coming to town on Thursday. Mangum, the reclusive voice of Neutral Milk Hotel has made something of a comeback which has made fans of his band's 1998 indie classic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea sob in the aisles whenever he shows up. But he's not doing interviews. Not that this is new. He's been refusing them for a while, and won't let either Joe Indie-Elite or NPR record a second of any of his performances. No, no, I knew that going in. But I had it in my head to write an article titled "Searching for Jeff Mangum," bolstered by quotes from bandmates and friends and associates, all giving a picture of what he's all about, summarizing the majesty of his music at the same time.

Nope. My sources dwindled, politely declined or changed minds. It was looking like it was going to be all me, with references to quotes from NPR and Magnet. (Though in retrospect, perhaps I should've interviewed my editor at Blurt, the esteemed Fred Mills.)

One wildcard source came through, though, and he had great recollections. For details, pick up Pittsburgh City Paper on Wednesday. And if you're thinking of coming to Pittsburgh to see Jeff on Thursday, grab you ticket like now. (How am I doing with these italics? Too much?)

With that out of the way, it's time for my annual self-flogging entry on my participation in "Best of the Year" lists. Actually, I'll leave you with this thought and nothing else: Blurt did a freakin' Top 75 albums of the year. I don't know anything about #1, and I haven't heard anything on the list until #9. Don't axe me, Fred. Here's the list.