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.



Monday, December 11, 2017

Sunny Murray - An Appreciation

A longer version of a story that I mentioned on Facebook recently....

Dateline: June 13, 1998. In Room 322 of Duquesne University's Music School - not even an auditorium, just a study room - one of the legends of free jazz drumming blew into town, along with a lesser-known but equally significant practitioner of "the new thing" on alto saxophone. The drummer was Sunny Murray, the saxophonist was Sonny Simmons.

Six years earlier, I told my brother John that, on a recent visit to a used record store, the woman behind the counter was playing an album by Albert Ayler, and it was the most annoying thing I ever heard. Because I have a memory for things from that era, I can tell you that we had this conversation at a Burning Spear concert at the Stanley Theater, waiting for the headliner to come on.

"Albert Ayler is bad, man," John told me. "What you need to do is get one of his albums, read the liner notes and really listen to it." Back then, John's word was a good as gold when it came to music. I lucked out soon after, finding a copy of Ayler's Vibrations album, which is probably the only record by the saxophonist at that time that had insightful liner notes. (They were written by future Mosaic Records founder/Grand Poobah of jazz reissues Michael Cuscuna.)

John's advice worked and the album caused a seismic wave in my thinnking, which it took me years to put into words. One of the key elements on that album was Sunny Murray's drumming, which had nothing to do with time keeping. It consisted of spastic snare cracks and cymbal splashes but it had an internal logic. A few years later, I found Murray's ESP album as a leader. It was even more anarchic (or should I say liberated from tradition) than any Ayler album where he played. As crazy as it sounded, I knew I needed it to own it.

Back then (1985), there was still a lot of mystery around this music. I listened to it as much as I could. Heck, I was more familiar with Murray's work with Ayler than I was with Elvin Jones' playing with John Coltrane. Several years would pass before I finally heard Murray with Cecil Taylor. (A friend made me a cassette of the Cafe Montmartre single album on Fantasy, which I played non-stop until it started to make sense to me.) It wasn't easy to come across a Sunny Murray album on ESP. Most of the Ayler records were being reissued on labels from other countries, but it was still on the fringe. Most people I knew didn't understand it and didn't want to give it any time. I read what little I could find about him to see what other people thought of him. His name dropped in the liner notes of Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch, which proved that he was someone to take seriously.

So when it was announced that Murray was coming to town, I considered it a big deal. This guy was a legend. Played with one of the big groundbreakers.

But here he was, touring in a van with Simmons and a young guy (who was probably the driver) and playing in a student room at Duquesne. Did he jam econo like the Minutemen or was this musical injustice?

It gets better.

Two local duos opened the show - Ben Opie & John Purse, and Anne LeBaron & David Keberle. (With apologies to both, my memories of their sets are fuzzy.) After the second one finished, I was talking to the guy who put the show together, Murray approached him. He said the drum kit provided for him was not the size that he requested.  "It was the only one I could get," the guy said.

"It's not a question of what you could get, it's what you're supposed to get," Murray told him, and stormed off.

Back in Room 322, Murray started to grouse to all who would listen about the turn of events. I can't recall how long it went on, but I would guess it was 20 minutes. "If that happened to Paul Motian, he'd say, 'I'm going back to the hotel,'" he said, imitate Motian's walk. It wasn't clear at first if he was going to follow Motian's lead and split or if the show was going to happen or not. The owner of the drums set them up while Sunny ranted on. Sonny Simmons, dressed in what I recall being a brown suit, stood there, cradling his alto and looking on, not saying a word.

Over the years, a few people who were there said that Murray was an arrogant asshole. He wasn't amusing to them, and he turned the whole thing into a rant about racial injustice, which they weren't buying. If he didn't like the U.S., why didn't he just stay in Europe? He also took a snarky swipe at drummer Susie Ibarra, who had just come into prominence a year or two prior.

Aside from the cheap shot at Ibarra, I've always felt that he had every right to be pissed off that night. Just because he's touring like an indie rocker doesn't mean he should be shafted. I mean, in the hierarchy of free jazz drummers, Sunny Murray is somewhere in the Top 5. He should  have the drum kit he requested. You wouldn't pull that on Elvin Jones. Or Art Blakey. Or Tony Williams. If I was written about in such high praise, I'd be pissed too that I couldn't the gear I wanted.

Eventually, he sat down and the duo hit. The opening monologue seemed to add some extra combustion to their set, which was built on Simmons' American Jungle album that had come out within the previous year. I was finally able to see that signature drum style happen, mere feet from where I was sitting. Being able to watch Murray play, it sounded familiar but the visuals helped it all make sense. It didn't just seem like anarchy. The high-hat cymbal trembled while he was playing. It might have even fallen over once or twice.

After they were done playing, Murray immediately walked away from the kit into the adjacent student room and shut the door. I asked the young guy from the tour if he might be coming out to meet people and sign albums. He gave me an exhausted shake of the head. "Well, tell him we love him," I said. Dude seemed surprised by this statement but said he would. With that, I caught a bus home.

Sunny Murray was on my list of musicians that I hoped to meet someday. I don't know how receptive he would have been to a conversation, but it would have been worth a try. (I heard interview excerpts with him on the ESP website so he could be straight forward in conversation.) But at least I got to see him perform. And, man, did he perform.

Rest in peace, Mr. Murray. Thanks for blowing my mind.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Talking to Nels Cline

I'm the lucky writer to have two pages of copy bestowed on me in the current issue of Pittsburgh City Paper. That is, everything I wrote this week is spread over the first two pages of the arts section. First, there is a column about the release of guitarist Chris Brokaw's Canaris on vinyl by Pittsburgh's Omentum label. Then I wrote a double-feature about upcoming appearances by drummer Louis Hayes and, two days later, by Nels Cline. (Prior to interviewing the latter two guys, I did an interview on Thanksgiving night for a different article: I spoke with Archie Shepp. But that's another story.)

Both Hayes (who comes to town this Saturday, the same night as Brokaw) and Cline (next Monday) were a blast to speak to. Cline in particular was something because we spoke for nearly an hour - and the first twenty minutes had nothing to do with the trio that is coming to town (him, ROVA saxophonist Larry Ochs, drummer Gerald Cleaver). We covered a lot of ground, which makes sense considering the wide scope of his music, from his free improv excursions up through his spot in Wilco, with whom he's played for 13 years. If you want to travel on the bridge from experimental jazz to punk rock, check out "Confection" on the Nels Cline Singers' 2007 album Draw Breath. He likes Pittsburgh too.

Because of that, I'm doing my usual thing of reprinting sections of our conversation that either didn't make it to CP or got abbreviated in the process.

How far back do you and Larry go? 

It goes back to the '90s, I guess. But I’ve been aware of Larry and ROVA since they began. I didn't actually come to play with them until around 2000, sometime like that. The first time I ever played with the ROVA guys was a concert they were doing in San Francisco. And I could be wrong about this. It was ROVA members interacting in different combinations with various improvisers. In a little theater sorta near the M. Carla Bozulich [of the Geraldine Fibbers] and I went and joined them, along with [drummer]Ches Smith.

Then I started the Singers. I started playing in the Bay Area with [drummer] Scott Amendola a lot, either with the Singers or with his band. We would do shows with ROVA. And ROVA would sit in. Kinda like a less structured, more accidental events. Then we did the Celestial Septet, which was ROVA plus the Singers. I think the first time I officially played with ROVA was the Electric Ascension concert in San Francisco that became a compact disc [This recreation of John Coltrane's Ascension was recorded in 2003, released in 2005].

What do you like about playing with Larry?

I hate to sound like this, because he’s not a young guy. He’s actually older than me, which is a rare event in my musical life these days. He’s old school in that he can refer to a certain vernacular on the saxophone that one doesn’t hear very often, at this point . Particularly in the way that he can reference Albert Ayler in his playing, I think. And his awareness of his antecedents, not just Ayler and Coltrane but Archie Shepp. I would think that a lot of these people have somehow gone through Larry’s aesthetic world. Aside from the fact that he’s a personable guy and he plays his butt off, that’s what I like about him.

This seems like our third winter that we're going to do these little tours. This is the longest of the three. But the first time we played,  I don’t remember what time of year it was but I think it was wintery. It was at a place here in Brooklyn called Jack. Larry just happened to be in town and said, "Hey, do you want to do a trio with me and Gerald Cleaver?" And Gerald and I had talked about the possibility of someday playing together so it worked out. We just went and played for- I don’t know, 30 people - and had a blast.
Larry decided that since he tends to come out this time of year, maybe we should try to play some gigs. It’s really that simple. And then he books the gigs. I try to get the minivan and that’s it. We just do it. We don’t have a recorded document yet, although there’s a live recording from last year that Larry said he’s pondering doing something with. We don’t have a moniker and for some reason we can still get gigs! (Laughs)

It’s really fun. It’s pretty unpredictable in part because Gerald is a really unpredictable player. Some nights – I think it’s the recording that Larry likes – Gerald is playing beats almost the whole time. I think a lot of people probably wouldn’t expect that. They’d expect free jazz drumming etc etc. Gerald might just play a 4/4 beat for 10 minutes. He is completely unpredictable in that way. But it always seems to be some really great decision.

I love playing with Gerald because he can do so many different things. But his own aesthetic is quite  unpredictable. It’s challenging and it’s really cool. I wish I could say something more articulate about it. but I’m still learning about his playing and digging it. [Cline mentions a show where he and Cleaver played Pat Metheny songs, in front of Metheny] That was a little unnerving. But my point in mentioning it is how incredible Gerald sounds playing that music too. I'm just really learning how much Gerald can bring. And I also like his own music, his composed music.

So when Gerald does something like playing a 4/4 beat, how would you respond to it? Would you lock into a groove, would you go against it?

It’s such a good question. It’s one that I can’t answer. I guess sometimes I do tend to go with it, knowing that Larry is not going to, all of a sudden, start playing Junior Walker. He’s not going into his King Curtis bag. So why not? I can just play or create some sort of loop that might almost be in time and that usually sounds pretty cool against a groove.

But it depends on the dynamic level that we are accumulating or working from, the mood of the moment. There’s no set strategy. The strategy is to react with some kind of salient ideas that will push the music forward without me trying to steer it or bend it to my will.

I don’t know. I can’t answer your question succinctly. All I can do is say that, yeah, sometimes going with the groove and locking with it can be really cool, especially if Larry decides to smear crazy arrhythmic stuff over top of it. That could be a really good sound. Conversely. if he decides to play a rhythmic figure, that could free me up to not play rhythmically. We have to be on the groove, is what I’m saying. I really love free improvisation. It’s probably the only area of music that I guess I feel confident or relaxed. Music generally tends to be pretty hard for me. But just starting from zero and going, is my fave zone. Particularly with individuals that one can  feel, at the end, that something satisfactory or inspiring has been created [with them].

It surprises me that you'd say that music is hard for you, considering you have such a command of different styles.

Well, I’m a polymath and I’ve done that. Certainly it was not my goal when I was younger. When I was younger, because it was the '60s through the '70s, all I wanted to do was my own music, which involved improvising but also involved composing. That’s what everybody was doing that I was listening to. Progressive rock, jazz-rock fusion, free jazz, I think that I and my friends, from that era, were all working towards creating our own music. Instead, over time that became untenable to being in Southern California doing that  - or any major American city other than New York, Brooklyn and Queens.

You have to start doing other things in order to keep playing. I worked retail jobs for 18 years. But I was still playing and trying to do just what I wanted to do. With the resurgence of interest in rock music - after losing interest in the early to mid '70s - I just sort of realized that, in order to feel like I was doing what I wanted to do, liking the guitar in particular, I ended up being more of a stylistic chameleon person. But that sort of was an accident. I think it was because of a desire to play with a lot of different kinds of people and finding it satisfactory or inspiring to get into their aesthetic world and make their music come to life.
It’s just a challenge that I try to lead because I love music. I love playing. That doesn't mean I'm confidant doing it!

Has playing with Wilco helped boost the profile for your own music, or do they operate on parallel lines? 

Definitely helped, there's no doubt about it. Playing with Wilco changed my entire life. I was going through quite a struggle to survive, prior to joining Wilco. But it's interesting, the year I [joined, 2004] was the year I started playing a lot more playing in general with people that had no inkling of Wilco, no knowledge of my so called avant-rock side. A lot of stuff started happening. But there’s no doubt that the awareness of me or my playing exponentially exploded with Wilco.

And the direct effect of that happening or people knowing me on the street  - which happens quite a lot - is that when I play concerts with Larry and Gerald, the number of audience members that show up is probably twice as much than otherwise. And it’s not because all Wilco fans are into everything I do. I always think that they’re curious and also supportive of me. They’ll come out even if they don’t think they’re going to like it, they’ll come out and see what it is I’m going to do. That changed dramatically. If you’re on tour in your minivan in Cleveland, the different between 50 and 100 is huge. And since joining Wilco, it’ll be 100 people rather than 50.

Without pandering, I love Pittsburgh.  It’s been a long time since I’ve played anything other than a Wilco show in Pittsburgh. I’m looking forward to it.

I remember seeing you with Mike Watt in the '90s, and you played your guitar with a whisk.

A lot of people remember the whisk. I don’t use it anymore. But I still have it. I've gotten it down to a roughed up bottle neck and a spring. That’s pretty much the two main items [I use], outside of making false bridges with chopsticks and alligator clips to change the overtones. But primarily just down to the spring and bottle neck. I’ve got a little bag f tricks that I carry around.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

CD Review: Wadada Leo Smith- Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk/Najwa



Wadada Leo Smith
Solo: Reflections And Meditations On Monk
Najwa
(TUM) www.tumrecords.com

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith continues to produce new works at steady clip, paying tribute to past masters through original compositions which, in the case of the first album, are balanced by select works by Thelonious Monk. Leave it to him to interpret the great pianist in a solo trumpet recital. The second album, while deeply rooted in the sound of electric jazz from an earlier period, also rises high in both execution and energy.

An entire album of just one instrument will always challenge the listener, unless the instrument is the piano. My attraction to them lies in the wonder of how the performer is operating - whether they hear a rhythm section or any kind of accompanist in their head, whether the path forward is clear or tangled. With the four Monk compositions on Solo, the listener has the advantage of knowing how the music could sound, and to investigate how Smith works with it.

He picks four of Monk's ballads for examination: "Ruby My Dear," "Reflections," "Crepuscule with Nellie" and the old classic "'Round Midnight." Smith, like Monk a very economical player in terms of how many notes are needed, takes his time with these themes. "Ruby My Dear" sounds like an intimate, romantic conversation. For as many times as we've heard "'Round Midnight," Smith's honest rendition comes feels passionate and gives it with an original stamp. Knowing that he's all alone with the other two tracks, at least one of which ranks as my personal favorite, the trumpeter unleashes all the nuances that make them such great songs.

Monk was always praised for the way he used space in his solos and Smith follows the pianist's lead in the four originals. Each has a typically lengthy Smith title, touching on different aspects of Monk's colorful life. The best of these would have to be "Monk and His Five Point Ring at the Five Spot Cafe" and "Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium - A Mystery." The latter - inspired by a dream Smith had about the two pianists visiting the ballpark during a return visit Powell made to New York after it had been built - moves along steadily, straddling open space with as Smith follows a course he has charted, eventually reaching some high long tones, which he naturally executes with his impeccable tone. In the "Five Spot Cafe" piece, he moves between low and high flutters, with more long tones in the upper register. It might not put the listener in the Five Spot, back when Monk and John Coltrane were coming into their own, but that's not the idea. Maybe it's not an easy listen either, but Solo certainly has an absorbing quality overall.

It says a great deal about Smith's skill as a bandleader that he can include four guitar players in a band that compliment and add to the sound rather than getting too busy or turning the sound into a harmolodic mudbath. Najwa features Michael Gregory Jackson (who once released an album on ESP that included Smith), Henry Kaiser, Brandon Ross and Smith's grandson Lamar Smith all on guitars. Pheeroan akLaff is on drums, with Adam Rudolph on percussion.

The most eccentric element of the group is not the leader's brash trumpet, cutting a path through all those strings and multi-directional rhythms, but bassist Bill Laswell. His flanger effect takes things back to the '80s, with a sound that evokes both the fusion albums of that era as well as English punk bands that were playing what would officially be considered goth music in the following years. It isn't the type of bass one might expect piece paying homage to John Coltrane, and while it makes sense in works dedicated to Ornette Coleman and Ronald Shannon Jackson, the rubbery sound takes some getting used to.

But what a sound it is. Aside from the title track - a three-minute work with muted trumpet and droning backgrounds, dedicated to a lost love - each work has a lengthy title and lasts at least 10 minutes, moving through different sections. "Ohnedaruth John Coltrane: The Master of Kosmic Musi and His Spirituality in a Love Supreme" begins free, later reshaping into a mid-tempo funky vamp. One of the guitars sounds like a phantom saxophone flutter-tonguing from beyond. Several brief guitar solos pop up, with each player respecting the space among the others.

The tribute to drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson delivers some of the album's strongest music. Drummer akLaff sounds at first like he's playing freely but as it proceeds, it becomes clear that he's setting a tempo, albeit one with a highly complex foundation. Smith and one of the guitars state a theme while the rest of the band rolls along underneath them. After this energetic display, "The Empress, Lady Day: In a Rainbow Garden, with Yellow-Gold Hot Springs, Surrounded by Exotic Plants and Flowers" works as the perfect closing statement, a subdued tribute to Billie Holiday with some acoustic guitars in it.

Najwa can be just as challenging as Solo and even more enthralling. Both need to be heard.




Thursday, November 16, 2017

Matthew Shipp Trio & Thoth Trio at the Andy Warhol Museum

$15 for a national touring jazz group, with a strong local opener. Imagine that: $7.50 for the Matthew Shipp Trio and $7.50 for Thoth Trio. (One could say you're paying for Shipp and getting Thoth for free, but that sort of shortchanges the locals, implying the "hey, I can't pay you but imagine the exposure you'll get" idea, which WAS NOT the case anyway). What a deal!

And people came to the Andy Warhol Museum for it, selling out the room within 30 minutes of the start of the show. I felt bad because one of my friends to whom I sent an email, telling them about it, was one of the folks who had been turned away. But it was encouraging that there were around 130 people who came out to check out the music. (The couple next to me left after about 30 minutes of Shipp's set, so maybe a few people didn't get into it, but getting bodies in seats is arguably most of the battle.)



Shipp comes to town with bassist Michael Bisio on a fairly consistent, annual basis, but it's been several years since he played here in the trio setting. And it's been 10 years since he played at the Warhol. (That 2007 appearance was a solo show.) Last Friday was the first time he came with both Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, who has played on his last two trio discs. They sat down without a word, dove into the music and didn't stop for an hour, playing a set drawn from his original material, seguing each piece into a long suite. 

The pianist strikes the keyboard using his whole arm, making it look more physical that most pianists. Even with that method, his sound remains graceful, able to go from delicate phrases to hard thunder easily, but always with the same amount of exertion. During the snaky "Instinctive Touch" he played with head down, barely looking at the keys, still managing to product an endless flow of thoughts. 

Baker is an ideal third piece of the Shipp puzzle. Beginning on brushes, his style added an extra sound that almost served as a melodic addition to the music. Anyone who thinks this music doesn't require communication between the players would have changed their mind during a moment later in the set when Shipp and Baker hit The One together, in the middle of what sounded like wild, free bop. Listen closely and the conversation becomes clear.


The moment when Shipp pauses and Bisio gets a chance to stretch out always stands as one of the highlights of the set. The bassist offers strong support during the group interaction but his solos call attention to the grace and lyrical qualities at the root of his playing. Without an amp, and only one microphone on his instrument, Bisio filled the room (even creating a loud, but still appropriate, scrape when his bridge made contact with the mike), especially when he took the bow off of his belt (see the picture above) and drew it across the strings. 


I could only shoot Baker at the very end of the set due to the cymbal obstructing my view, and even then the blue lights in the room made it a challenge. It turns out, Baker had played with Billy Bang when he came to the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater back in 2008, which was right around the corner from where the trio stayed after this show, at the Ace Hotel.


Hopefully someday some bigshot label rep will come to town and realize that they need to release the next Thoth Trio CD. Until then, it's good to know that a sold-out crowd got to check out their set of material. Saxophonist Ben Opie told me a few days later that several people asked him about the ballad in their set, a slow, thoughtful line that some mistook for an Ornette Coleman piece.


Unlike Michael Bisio, Paul Thompson amplified his bass and there were times when it was hard to hear it, especially when Dave Throckmorton was rolling across his toms. I could feel the bass though, and picked up on Thompson's accents. He also cranked it up a bit as the set moved on. Throck, much like Newman Taylor Baker, was hard to capture on film, his head being obscured by a cymbal.

Hopefully some of those in the crowd who had never heard the trio will check them out again. In fact, all interested parties should go to City of Asylum this Sunday at six. The trio, plus guitarist Chris Parker, will be playing an all-Ornette set. It's free but they request online reservations to make sure they can seat everyone.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

DL/LP Review: Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition - Agrima



Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition
Agrima
(Rudreshm) www.rudreshm.com

Speed isn't everything. Many people can play spray a bushelful of notes at listeners and not say anything. When a musician can combine speed with intriguing melodic lines, and tweak those ideas as they're taking shape, that's the sign of a gifted player. Rudresh Mahanthappa's performance has been developing to such a degree that he is now arguably one of the most creative alto saxophonists to ever blow that horn. (Yes, up there with the big guys.) The way he manipulates pitch and executes with an often acidic tone definitely makes him the most unique alto player to come along in quite awhile. He often emits a rapid-fire arsenal of notes, which serve to expand his ideas, never stopping to grandstand. This has been going on for a while in his music, and the approach is on full display in his Indo-Pak Coalition, a trio with guitarist Rez Abbasi and tabla player/trap drummer Dan Weiss.

The trio's debut, Apti (2008), combined jazz improvisation with ideas from traditional Indian music, stripping it down to bare essentials. Weiss played tabla exclusively, Abbasi worked double-duty as soloist and keeper of the groundwork, and Mahanthappa surged forward. For Agrima ("next" or "following" in Sanskrit), Weiss incorporates the drum kit into the music with his tabla. The approach offers surprises throughout the album. Sometimes they come in simple ways, as cymbal crashes punctuating his tabla parts. In "Snap" he begins on tabla and cymbals, only to reemerge on drums following Abbasi's solo. "Showcase," which begins sounding like a blues riff, recreates the approach Weiss used in live performances, having the tabla and drums together.

Mahanthappa wanted the trio to imagine they were making a rock album as they recorded Agrima, homing in on group interaction as opposed to thinking about combining Indian music with western music. The suggestion worked because they play with a visceral passion. Both Abbasi and Mahanthappa get a little maniacal with their complexity in "Rasikapriya." The saxophonist's double-timing lines in "Revati" are jaw-dropping, though never short of serious substance.

Electronics have shown up in the saxophonist's work since 2011's Samdhi, and they creep up here as well. "Take-Turns" includes effects that echo the alto saxophone note for note, turning it into a buzzing replication of Mahanthappa. "Agrima" begins with a Philip Glass-style loop, which gets swallowed by Abbasi's heavy power chords. This piece veers perhaps a little too close to progressive rock, introducing a flowing theme and then restating it at half-time as a slow funk romp. But the force of the band's performance keeps it from stagnating. It presents one of several moments where they sound bigger than a trio. Here especially, Abbasi's guitar effects always give his attack extra edge and color.

Agrima is available exclusively as both a download (for just $2.50!) and limited edition double LP. The latter comes in a beautiful, full color package with a gatefold sleeve and liner notes by the saxophonist. Downloads are fine, but anyone who has a turntable should take the plunge for the vinyl. A download card comes with it and besides, it gives Mahanthappa some positive reinforcement for a strong effort and for self-releasing an actual record.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Pere Ubu in Pittsburgh

David Thomas waits while Michele Temple pours the foundation.

"We're not legends. We're myths," David Thomas said. "I was born a myth."

Pere Ubu is one of those bands that attracts rabid fans. They're the type of fanatics that think nothing of yelling to the band between songs, telling them, "You're legendary." That happened earlier this evening at Club Cafe, and Thomas responded immediately and sharply with the above quote. Another guy yelled that he loved the band - but that he was leaving. As if everyone needed to know, because it was all about Dude. Thomas replied to that one by wondering what someone that loves him would do for him. A song later he apologized for the crassness of his comment, and he went on to regale us with the story of how he met his girlfriend, who was working the merch table. Kirsty (I believe that's her name, though I can guarantee the spelling) approached him after a spoken word show and told Thomas his performance was so good, it made her cry. He responded, "Why should I care what you think." (She corroborated the story from the back of the room.)

My advice to Pere Ubu fanatics - shut up. Thomas doesn't really care what you think, either. We were lucky because he seemed to be in a good mood tonight, and he let the banal comments slide. Except at the start of the set, when he was getting situated onstage and a casual, "Alright," garnered a too-enthusiastic "Yeah!" from someone. He didn't like that.



The six-piece version of Ubu played for roughly 70 minutes, leaning heavily on this year's album 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo, a fine batch of material. It lets the band do what it does best, churn out heavy no-nonsense riffs, which actually do rock pretty hard. Michelle Temple is still a solid bassist, straddling the foundation of the songs and playing thick double- or triple-stops across the neck. Guitarist Gary Siperko was joined by pedal steel player Kristof Hahn (of the Swans). When the latter botched the beginning of a song, Thomas swore he wasn't mad at Hahn, jabbing him playfully. But he did make the band repeat the song.

On top of it, longtime Ubu member Robert Wheeler wreaked havoc on the EML-101 synthesizer, as well as a theremin, adding the eerie quality that's been as much a part of their music as Thomas' voice. It should be mentioned though that, these days, Thomas shows a great deal of variety from song to song. Sometimes he has the naive man-child squeaks of the early days, but sometimes he takes inspiration from gravelly-voiced blues singers. Though his patter can sometimes seem nasty or gruff onstage, it seems like he's going more for comic relief when he yells or barks at a band member.

Before the encore portion of the set, he wanted to step outside of Club Cafe and grab a smoke. That idea was dashed apparently, when he nearly fell off the stage as he tried to step down. He yelled some obscenities and quoted James Brown, of all people, as if to regain his focus. Next thing we knew, the five-minute interlude before the last few songs had been erased. The evening ended with "I Can't Believe It," a song which dates back to the band's very early days, heard on 390 Degrees of Simulated Stereo. Other than "We Have the Technology," from 1986's The Tenement Year, it was the only song in the set that went deep into the band's earlier archives.

Johnny Dowd opened the show, though I arrived late and missed most of his set. Had I seen it all I might have appreciated the five-minute take on "Freddie's Dead," which didn't seem to have much loyalty to Curtis Mayfield's original. Other cities get to see Minibeast, which features Mission of Burma's Peter Prescott. When I heard that, I felt shortchanged.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Review of the 47th Pitt Jazz Seminar Concert - Remembering Geri Allen

Kurt Rosenwinkel, Tia Fuller, Kenny Davis, Nicholas Payton
In an interview to preview the 47th Annual Pitt Jazz Concert, Ravi Coltrane told me, "I almost wish that we could have had at least one moment to say, 'Geri, thank you. We love you and thank you for everything you’ve done in music [and for all the] music that you put in to the world."

That sentiment was repeated many times during the concert this past Saturday, although Coltrane was absent, having cancelled due to an illness. The eight remaining musicians and emcee S. Epatha Merkerson each recounted anecdotes about Allen as a performer and an educator. A brief video was also shown, which included comments from musicians like Coltrane, Teri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding as well as Pitt faculty.

For the first time in 47 years, the evening wasn't directed, passively or otherwise, by the university head of jazz studies. Under Dr. Nathan Davis, the concert (which usually concluded a week of seminars, talks and films on campus) operated like a jam session, with a wealth of A-list jazz musicians coming to town, blowing a few tunes together and breaking off into smaller groups that would spotlight individuals. Allen continued the basic template when she took the reins in 2013, but mixed new elements in with some of the well-trodden standards. (The most memorable moment was the opening tune in her first year, Nathan Davis' "If" which was a 20-minute, swampy, Bitches-Brew-style arrangement that heralded Allen's arrival.)

Saturday's performance, consisting predominantly of works by Allen, had a loose quality and felt somewhat more casual that the usual organization of these events. After the video, Nicholas Payton sat down at the piano and, without a word, began playing a riff. As he played, a recording of Allen's voice came over the sound system, as it did several times throughout the night. The rest of the musicians took the stage as Payton (who played trumpet later in the set) vamped: guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, bassist Kenny Davis, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, alto/soprano saxophonist Tia Fuller and drummers Kassa Overall and Victor Lewis. Written by Payton, "Geri" was a mid-tempo meditation that set the mood appropriately, though his chanting of the late pianist's name and the call for the audience to join him, felt a little cloying.

Between every couple songs, one of the musicians stepped up to the microphone to back-announce or introduce song titles (which is a good way to explore Allen's work further) and to share a story about their time with her. Tap dancer Maurice Chestnut talked Allen's group Timeline, which put his talent on equal ground with Davis and Overall. Harris recalled meeting Allen on the bandstand, where he had to immediately jump into a take on "I Got Rhythm" changes in B-flat - in which no B-flats were played. That unspoken message of "You better swim" has stayed with him, as his solos were some of the most dynamic of the evening, in terms of complex melody and rhythm.

Harris also created an arresting sonic blend with Fuller's alto and Payton's trumpet on Lewis' "Hey It's Me You're Talkin' To" and Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free," the latter recreating the joyful snap of a group like Cannonball Adderley's band, augmented by vibes and tap dancing. Chestnut, lest anyone doubt it, moved like percussionist, reacting to the band, doubling and tripling the beat with a performance that added to the music.

With Pitt Ph.D. student Irene Monteverde on piano (alto saxophonist Yoku Suzuki, another Pitt student, also sat in earlier), the group ended the evening with another Allen piece, "In Appreciation." Its hard bop drive, and solos that included Harris attack on his marimba with reckless abandon, turned the room into revival meeting. But Fuller, who had already conjured a bright-toned, bluesy solo earlier in the song, wasn't done yet. As the rhythm section played a descending riff, she read what could only be called an invocation, beginning as a call to women, repeating with intensity, "This space is a sacred space." She made the audience join with the closing credo that came from Allen: "Jazz is a way of life, a way to be in the world but not of the world - walking, seeing and feeling time." This call for audience participation felt necessary, a way to carry Allen's vision with us, after the last notes had evaporated.


Saturday, November 04, 2017

Ravi Coltrane Extras

Last week, I was able to get some time with Ravi Coltrane, who is coming to town tonight for the Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert. Most of our conversation can be found in this article from City Paper. But there was some good stuff that wound up on the cutting room floor including one topic in particular. 

When I saw Coltrane at the Detroit Jazz Festival several years ago, he played a few songs on the sopranino saxophone. The last time he came to town for the Seminar, he didn't bring it, but said that he might "next time." Turns out that subject served as a good ice breaker for our talk.

First question - are you bringing the sopranino this time?

Coltrane: [Laughs] It's possible. I've been traveling with it pretty regularly. Did I have it last time?

No, but you told me that you'd bring it when you came back.

Well, I guess it's a must!

You don't see many people playing it, outside of Roscoe Mitchell or Anthony Braxton. There's someone else, but I forget who.{I think Jon Irabagon was the name that was escaping me.] What do you like about it?

I bought the instrument from Roberto’s Winds in New York, kind of on a lark. I was in there for either some repairs or reeds. And Roberto, who I’ve known for decades, asked me if I had ever played a sopranino before. He had just gotten some horns in. I tried it in the shop and thought it was fun to play. It was so difficult to play it in tune that it never left my house for about five years! It was just something that I had around the house to noodle on. I remember having a jam session at my place and taking it out and trying it with the group and immediately putting it back down! The intonation was very difficult to play in tune. But I always play it, I play it for fun.

The first time I played it in public was with Jack DeJohnette and Matt Garrison. The situation was almost calling for it. It was a trio setting, right at the beginning when we started working together as a trio. Jack wanted a lot of different sounds and elements. Matt was using some electronics and Jack had a few electric drums. I didn’t want to show up with just one instrument, show up with the tenor. I ended up bringing the sopranino with me to the rehearsal at the Matt’s club, the Shape Shifter, here in Brooklyn. I had a chance, playing without a chordal instrument, to kind of fudge the tuning a little bit. But there was something about the projection of the instrument. It felt like I was playing a trumpet or something. It had a very brassy, brash kind of …. It’s not a fancy instrument. It has some grit to it. It rattles a little bit, and squawks and has some balls to it. I started playing it in Jack's group and I started playing it in my own group. And the intonation starting coming together!

You can hear the difference in it. It's distinct but I'm not sure exactly how to describe it.

Squirrely!

Yeah, that's it!



CD Review: Barry Altschul & the 3Dom Factor - Live in Krakow


Barry Altschul & the 3Dom Factor
Live in Krakow
(Not Two) www.nottwo.com

I once decided that I would limit myself to a hyperbolic outbursts just once every six months. If I was going to foam at the mouth about a musician or a band, it had better be good, and I wanted to prove that someone that good doesn't come along more than twice a year, if at that. While that motto still stands, the need for hyperbole hasn't been used much over the last year or two. (Maybe these blog entries say otherwise.)

My main goal in getting so wound up about a particular album or artist is not merely to satisfy the hyperbole quotient, but to motivate someone to action. Rather than just reading some words and having them give the one-handed brush-off, the hope is that a person will say, "What?! Just a second, let me hear that thing." After they take a listen, hopefully the person would conclude one of the following: "Well, I wouldn't go that far with your assessment, but - yeah - it's pretty damn good." Or [taking a line from a '40s film character], "Say, this IS some pretty amazing stuff."

Either way, I made you look. Listen, that is.

Live in Krakow is the album worthy of the superlatives this time around. In truth, the previous two albums by drummer Barry Altschul's trio (with saxophonist Jon Irabagon and bassist Joe Fonda) have all been worthy of such high praise. The reason for the kudos falls squarely on the members of the trio themselves. The interaction between these three creates a feeling and a sound that puts them in the ranks with some of the best working jazz groups around. Why this particular trio isn't heralded as one of just a few bands that will knock you on your posterior is hard to fathom. They possess the fury that drove the best bop bands, playing with the same kind of conviction that knew the music was important and that no corners were cut in the presentation. They also play free because that's where the music leads them, before it might bring them back to a structure.

Altschul has been around the musical block so many times, he should own a share in the real estate. The album opens up with a three-minute drum solo, which might alienate radio programmers but will make true listeners sit in rapt attention. Like a pianist, he uses quiet space in his solo to build the energy. Outside of the late Paul Motian, Altschul is probably the only drummer who make a statement with just a cymbal tap, letting it decay before he continues. By the time the solo concludes and Fonda begins the riff for "Martin's Stew," things are moving at a fast pace, and the group is cruising at that tempo.

There are plenty of saxophonists who have gone through the conservatory and, simultaneously, digested and memorized as much classic jazz as they could. Many of them play pretty well too. Jon Irabagon stands beyond the the pack because he plays like he's lived in the music. He knows the classics, he knows the tone but most importantly he seems to constantly be thinking about how to take all of these ideas and use them to take the music one step deeper. Irabagon's discography proves that, but without even having to binge on his back catalog, his scope can be felt here. Monk's "Ask Me Now" can be a potential minefield for any musician, with its constant chord changes and the need to maintain its slow tempo. Irabagon's phrasing in the theme takes liberties with the rhythm, but he feels right in sync with Altschul's rolls. The saxophonist only takes a brief solo on this track. When he does, he never loses site of Monk's angular personality, a crucial part in any Monk interpretation. He also plays his sopranino on a couple tracks, including the lovely "Irina" where the little horn fits right in.

The other two give Joe Fonda plenty of room. Being a modern trio, he takes a wealth of solos, from an easy going mood, punctuated by double stops in "Ask Me Now" to one that includes moments of resonance from his instrument and even a bit of low feedback in "The 3Dom Factor." In some ways, he serves as a frontline foil to Irabagon, but he never neglects his rhythm section responsibilities, prodding Altschul to take his work to greater levels of intensity. The way Fonda starts "Martin's Stew" on the path towards its theme reveals the take-charge level of his work.

There's probably a reason 3Dom Factor isn't topping polls or making headlines already. Maybe they're simply not out there playing as often as they like. But now there's no reason to bypass their albums. This is one of the year's best.


Wednesday, November 01, 2017

CD Review: Black Butterflies feat. Gato Barbieri - Luisa


The Black Butterflies ft. Gato Barbieri
Luisa
(Self-released) mercedesfigueras.com/release/luisa/

Mercedes Figueras reveals a few different personalities on the alto saxophone. Sometimes she plays with a thick, brawny tone, preferring the horn's mid-range. A song later, she reveals a clear, crisp delivery normally heard in the work of a classical saxophonist. Her music has a festive, happy mood that acknowledges her South American upbringing. (Figueras hails from Argentina.) But there are moments on Luisa when she's ready to break off into some wild blowing, especially when she shares the front line with the late tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri. She also sings on the title track, in a whispered voice that almost sounds raspy and a bit spooky despite the heartfelt lyrics. The saxophonist covers a lot of ground here.

Figueras moved to New York in 2007, playing for a time with drummer Kenny Wollesen and vibraphonist Karl Berger. While there, she formed the Black Butterflies, which included both of them, along with saxophonist/percussionist Tony Larokko. For Luisa, recorded in 2013, the group invited fellow Argentinian Barbieri to stop by. The session marked a reunion of sorts with Berger, since he and Barbieri played together in Don Cherry's mid '60s group that recorded Symphony for Improvisers and performed at the Cafe Montmartre (which were recorded and are now available on ESP). He appears on three of the seven tracks.

The veteran tenor saxophonist picks up on the upbeat mood of "Gato's Hat," displaying his trademark vibrato, adding a few squeaks, perhaps unintentionally, which nevertheless energize the already vibrant mood. "Merceditas" begins out of tempo with a gritty tenor line before Figueras and the group joins in. The two saxophonists dance around one another, with Berger adding to the exotic quality by switching to melodica. The only setback is that the percussion section (Larokko, Wollesen and percussionists Bopa King Carre and Fred Berryhill) doesn't feel as prominent in the mix as they could have been.

Larokko switches to soprano saxophone to join Figueras in an infectious take on McCoy Tyner's "Love Samba," in which Berger also stretches out. The drum-and-sax man also kicks off the album with a brief take on the ancient "Hambone." Figueras' response to his lyrics make a little more sense once she segues it into the second half of the opening medley - Astor Piazzolla's slow, tango "Adios Nonino." It feels inappropriate to say it sounds sensual, since it was written in homage to the composer's late father, but it is. This track also features one of the best of Figueras' solos on the album, especially in the second half where she bends and blasts some tart notes. Another tango, "Por Una Cabeza" closes the album, with Berger's melodica serving as a good substitute for an accordion. This time, the percussionists make their way to the forefront too.

Figueras has relocated to Spain since Luisa was recorded, which might make this the final chapter of the Black Butterflies. If that's the case, considering that the three songs with Barbieri were his last studio recordings, they ended things on a celebratory note.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Jason Stein & Paul Giallorenzo Came to Town!


No sooner had I posted a review of Jason Stein's Lucille album (two blog entries ago) when I got a post from Mr. Bass Clarinet himself saying that he was coming to town with keyboardist Paul Giallorenzo. The fan boy in me bounced off the walls.(I think I was out at another show when I got the message, so that might have been part of it.) 

The two of them, along with drummer Frank Rosaly,  released an album last year under the name Hearts and Minds which I reviewed almost exactly a year ago. Rosaly has since moved to Amsterdam and Chad Taylor has been playing with them, but for Pittsburgh it would be just them. Fine with me. Giallorenzo came to town a few years ago, a show I unfortunately missed because my dad died the same day. So I was looking forward to seeing both of these guys.

Upon hearing about the show, I made a point of telling everyone and anyone who might be interested in seeing them. If Stein hadn't emailed me about it, I might have missed because I didn't see any flyers or hear about any promotion. (Even the guy who typically brings people like this town wasn't hip to it.) I mean - geez, Stein alone is a pretty high profile player as far as Chicago guys go. Plus there's his devotion to one instrument, the bass clarinet. Giallorenzo is no slack either, as a composer and performer. Between the two of them, that's some serious music. You'd think a little publicity would be in order. (That being said, there might have been flyers that I missed.)



There was much hang wringing at first on my end, because the annual Halloween Parade (in the Bloomfield, up and around the corner from the show) was happening the same night, Thursday, October 26. For the first time, my son's school was invited to march in it, so I needed to be able to do that and get to the show. The listing on the website of the Glitterbox Theater (the locale) stated things would run from 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm and didn't mention opening acts. A few exchanges from Stein later, it became clear that there would be at least one opener, so Halloween hijinks would not be missed.

The Glitterbox Theater is a beautiful space to which I have a distant connection. I used to live down the street from it and my landlord worked in a warehouse across the street. Glitterbox used to be the corporate offices of the warehouse and my beloved landlord said he worried that The Boss would see him talking to people at the door (me, delivering the rent check) and get mad. Well, he told me that half the time. Enough to make me feel funny about it. So it's nice to see that not only has the building transformed into a space that houses difference arts-related groups, but that it's put together really well, not in a ramshackle way.

When I got there, Brian Riordan and Matt Alemore, a trumpet-and-sampler duo - were in the midst of creating a soundscape that went from warm and calm to murky to noisy. While that was happening Stein and Giallorenzo were conked out on the couch in the back of the room. The music kind of fit with that, even if it did get a little loud. But when you play free improvisation like this, it's possible to zoom in on the tranquility of it.

Up next was the JonGen├ęt Ramsey Lewis Trio, a wild act featuring locals Greg Pierce, Ed Bucholtz and Jim Lingo. In the dark of the room, it was sometimes hard to see what was going on. Lingo was easy to miss, as he spent part of the set on the floor with his back to the audience, messing with knobs, I think. A pile of folding chairs added some percussion while his comrades both blew trumpets (maybe a pocket trumpet in one case) and created a general soundscape that ended peacefully.



It was hard to get a good picture in the dimly lit room, as these shots indicate, although a friend of mine sitting a row or two behind got a good shot of both Giallorenzo and Stein together. The Hearts and Minds album straddles set grooves with free sound, but the duo maintained the feeling of the evening by keeping things free and noisy. But, man, do those guys really know how to create a sound. All of Stein's chops were on display, getting wild noises out of his reed through a combination of breathing techniques and fingering that seemed to turn the instrument inside out. Giallorenzo leaned over his keyboard (which might have been a synth or a sampler, it was hard to tell), hands moving constantly and creating noisy or chopped-up lines.

The two of them always felt in sync with each other. Even when things got really free, you could feel a connection between the two of them. As it often happens to me (especially after corralling rambunctious kids in a parade), my eyelids got heavy a few times and when I slipped quickly into hallucination sleep, I started hearing lyrics from Stein's bass clarinet. I wish I could remember them now to mention some, but they floated away once my eyes opened. They were good, though.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Arto Lindsay, Beauty Pill at the Warhol



Arto Lindsay finally made his first trip to Pittsburgh on Wednesday, October 18. Touring in support of his album Cuidado Madame, which came out earlier this year on Northern Spy, he played with a quintet of longtime collaborator Melvin Gibbs (bass), Paul Wilson (keyboards), Cinque Kemp (drums) and Gustavo Didaova (percussion). The album is a delicate balance of Brazilian song structures, polyrhythms and Lindsay's sensual voice, complemented by - and sometimes in direction collision with - the noisier sensibilities that he's honed since his days in DNA. (For more detail on the origins of his music, check out my conversation with him here.)


Yet, the live Lindsay was just as wild and frenzied as the fans of his early stuff might wish for. Soundcheck ran a little late, and the sounds seeping out of the Warhol's auditorium were high on volume for starters and hinted at a heavy dose of skronk along with the smoother tones of bass and keyboards. Yes, it's hard to write about Arto without using the word "skronk". But this bit of onomatopoeia belongs to him. Other guitar players like Fred Frith might have massacred their guitars before no wave was a blip on the radar. But no one else has encapsulated that sound so consistently as Arto, lo these many years.

During our conversation he confessed that the reason he played a 12-string Danelectro had nothing to do with preference and everything to do with opportunity. In other words, a co-worker had a 12-string Danelectro that he wanted to sell, so Arto bought it. Simple as that.

As far as his approach to playing and tuning, he explained it this way: "In the beginning, I used to tune it. The shtick is, I tune for tension. In other words, it’s comfortable to play, for me to fit in my style of running my hand up and down the neck. But if I’m alone in the dressing room, I’ll make up a little melody with the strings, see what they sound like all together. And for having done it for so many years, I can pretty much find some of the basic notes on the guitar by ear. But there’s no secret tuning. There’s no fit. I found that… the thing is, I had to learn how to sing over this noise without any harmony instrument. When I started doing all these solo [shows], I found that even though it’s not in tune, it stays where it is. It doesn’t change tunings significantly during a set. Then it’s a reference. Even though it’s kind of a blot or a blob or a formless cluster… it’s still a reference and that helps."



For as frantic as he often sounds on record, Lindsay sure seemed to be having a good time onstage at the Warhol. He smiled a lot, walking around the stage with an expression that made him look a little lost. Lest anyone think he was actually gone, mentally,  he always snapped by quickly knowing exactly where he was. Watching him produce the guitar sounds I've heard for all these years was exciting. It seems so otherworldly and random, but the way he moved around his instrument looked methodical, like he was going for a blend of a percussive snap and a little bit of a dissonant crunch.

Gibbs and Wilson alternated the bass roles. Sometimes Gibbs would take a lead, with heavy effects on his instrument, so it came off more like a guitar. Other times Wilson's keys added extra color to the sound. Didaova and Kemp emphasized the multi-directional rhythms of the music, the former adding different accents to the songs with a batterie of hand-held percussion and what seemed like a marching bass drum whose rims were employed as much if not more than the head. Gibbs gave Kemp a lot of direction and cues, so he might have been a newer addition to the band. Kassa Overall played drums on Cuidado Madame.


Beauty Pill, who hail from Washington, D.C., opened the evening with a set that went from Cocteau Twins-style flanged guitar to electronics that were almost too loud for the room to Beefheartian dissonance over a solid rhythm section. The songs were took their time but made sure to keep your ears on them for all of it.