Thursday, June 22, 2017

Reports on the Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival 2017

A few days ago, Facebook sent me a memory post, one of those "On this day, X years ago," where I suggested that anyone reading the post should go down to the Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival and check out the trio of Geri Allen, David Murray & Terri Lynn Carrington. I read it and thought, "Why the hell didn't I go to that show?!" The answer was probably related to my retail job of that time, where Saturday was one of the busiest days of the week and getting off was not done without the residual guilt and suspicion. These days, being underemployed has its advantages.

I was pretty stoked about this year's JazzLive Fest (which ran last weekend, Friday-Sunday) because in addition to ticketed shows by David Sanborn and Angelique Kidjo, there were plenty of free shows. Plus, the schedule included both straightahead acts like vocalist Jazzmeia Horn and bold groups like Odean Pope's Saxophone Choir, as well as tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman and bassist Linda May Han Oh.

A brief preview of the event ran in CP, where I interviewed Linda May Han Oh and wrote a little about Odean Pope. I would have liked to interview David Sanborn, and ask about his wide-ranging work (he's worked with Tim Berne, grew up with the Black Artists Group and covered the Velvet Underground, in addition to the more accessible stuff for which he's known). But my night began at the closing party for the Non Punk Pittsburgh show at SPACE Gallery, just down the street from where Sanborn was playing. Steve Sciulli of Carsickness just released a solo CD, so he was playing, along with a few other acts on the Get Hip label.

After that, it was up to La Lyonnais, a restaurant down and around the corner where a jam session was in progress, hosted by drummer Roger Humphries. Events like this can be a crapshoot - sometimes it's a bunch of musicians blowing the roof off the place, sometimes there are up-and-comers playing the tried-and-true blowing session classics who sound.... promising. 

There were a couple of young bucks onstage (i.e. in the corner where the band could fit) when I arrived. And by young, I mean these fellows looked like they still had a few years of high school left. I should have been ambitious and got the name of the young tenor player who only played on one tune while I was there. But he tore things up - good ideas, good execution. Dr. Nelson Harrison got out his trombetto and - as the picture below shows, Sean Jones also joined in, with saxophonist Lou Stellute and keyboardist Howie Alexander. Things were still going strong past 1:00, but I decided I'd reached my limit by that point.

For the rest of the weekend, the majority of the performances took place outdoors, on two stages set up at either end of  Penn Avenue (The UPMC stage and the Spirit Airlines stage) with the 9th Street Stage in between them. For the most part the weather behaved itself. There was some rain, but not when I was there.

Saturday afternoon, Odean Pope's Saxophone Choir sounded amazing - a mix of Ellingtonian lyricism and World Saxophone Quartet aggression. Or maybe that thrust could be attributed to Philadelphia, his stomping ground for most of his life. There was a moment during the ballad "Cis," a tune dedicated to Pope's late wife, where the voices of all six saxophones were all easily distinguishable, each bringing a personal tone to the music. Later, Pope warned the audience, "This one is on the edge," before launching into a tune where he pushed to the upper register of his horn, the rest of the group occasionally riffing behind him.

The rest of the saxophonists got plenty of solo space too. Julian Pressley (the alto player with the great hair below) had a tart tone that contrasted with the rest of the players, while fellow alto man Louis Taylor was also on fire.

Jazzmeia Horn won the 2015 Thelonious Monk International Vocal Jazz Competition, and as she was performing on Saturday, her album A Social Call was #1 on the Billboard jazz charts. It was clear to see why. As her piano trio vamped behind her on the UPMC stage, she unleashed a strong scat solo in "East of the Sun (West of the Moon)." 

Like many jazz musicians in the wake of the new administration, Horn added some politically charged moments to the set. Marking Juneteenth, she sang "Lift Every Voice" ("the Black National Anthem," she called it) and segued that into "Moanin'," the Bobby Timmons classic that got lyrics from Jon Hendricks. It was easy to miss but it sounded like she substituted "life" in the line "Life's a losing gamble to me," with the name of the current president. 

What took away from the performance was Horn's habit of oversinging the words, as if squeezing the life out of "Moanin'" was going to get it more depth. In the intro to another song, she squealed and caterwauled in the upper register, which also felt a bit excessive. What was strange was hearing her contrast the heavy stuff (which seemed to evoke Abbey Lincoln's intense performances on We Insist! Freedom Now Suite) with lighter, overdone fare like "I Remember You" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." She definitely has talent and needs to be followed because she could head in a number of different directions.

At the jam session the night before, a woman sat in on drums and awed everyone who was listening. "Who was that," we kept asking. The drummer in question was Shirazette Tinnin, who played with her band Sonic Wallpaper followed Horn's set. Tinnin's c.v. includes everyone from WuTang Klan to DIVA and Hugh Masakela. The group had an intriguing instrumentation, with alto saxophone, cello, trombone, keyboards (Rhodes and acoustic piano), guitar, bass and her drums. 

A lineup like that could confuse the sound engineer and that seemed to happen. The keyboards moved in and out of the mix, the trombone (which had a wah-wah effect on it during a solo) dropped out during a dramatic moment. But Tinnin had some strong grooves going, in what might be considered fusiony funk. It had the chops and electronics of the former style and the grease of the latter.

I've written enough about Sean Jones that most people know that he is an astounding trumpet player. One difference in his playing at the jam session at on the Spirit stage was that he seems to have moved away from his approach from a few years ago, where a solo would start low and build in intensity, like a preacher's sermon (his words). He did a little bit of that but it was great to hear him continuing to evolve as a player.

But what might not be obvious to those what haven't seen Jones live all that often is what an engaging performer he is. He sounded so happy to be back in Pittsburgh again, playing for people that he treated like friends. He was so casual, like he was hanging out in someone's living room. His song introductions remind me of the easygoing talks that were a big part of Cannonball Adderley's live albums.

Sean likes to explain the back story with the tunes so there is something to think about that while the group is playing. When introducing "The Ungentrified Blues" he made light humor about neighborhoods that are losing their character as they're rebuilt. For the closing "BJ's Tune" he offered a song of hope and unity, and a plea to "forget all the things that separate us." The quartet rolled to a climax and when they finally got there, Jones still wasn't done. His obbligato included "Danny Boy" and "Amazing Grace." Mark Whitfield, Jr. (drums) and Ben Williams (bass) were a solid rhythm section while Jones' good friend and longtime collaborator Orrin Evans sounded stellar on the piano, especially when he smacked some low notes during "The Ungentrified Blues."

Public Service Announcement to future JazzLive attendees: Don't forget your sunblock or your sunglasses. And if you invest in a portable chair that you can tote easily, you won't regret it. Sitting on the curb, you don't know what you'll kind of view or shelter from the sun you'll get, or who will be sitting next to you. The roped off VIP sections are never that full. A lot of people groused to me about them, saying dollars could be spent better on tents or some kind of shelter from the sun for the regular folks.  

Linda May Han Oh started off Sunday afternoon on the 9th Street Stage with her quartet. The way she handled her instrument made her tower over it, even if it was a few inches taller than her. "Walk Against Wind" is the title track to her new album and it contains a few different movements, starting minor and snaky, where drummer Eric Doob recalled Paul Motian in his use of space. In my notes I wrote "What's going through her mind," during her out of tempo bass solo. It felt dramatic and really original, and then she shifted into the background so Ben Wendel could play a tenor solo that was gruff around the edges.  For the songs "Speech Impediment" and "Perpuzzle" Oh moved to bass guitar. 

It's kind of hard to imagine tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman as one of the "young lions" of the 1980s, along with Wynton Marsalis. His genes (his father was the astounding-but-under-the-radar tenor man Von Freeman) and his Chicago roots (he taught at the AACM and recorded in the Leaders with Lester Bowie) indicate that he's someone that respects the tradition but insists on pushing it forward. That's exactly what his Plus+Tet did on Sunday at the Spirit Airlines Stage.

Freeman plays with a bold, rich tenor sound. "To Hear a Teardrop in the Rain" was a gentle waltz that could sound smooth  if it wasn't for the way he played a solo, tonguing the notes more often than merely slurring them together. Pianist Anthony Wonsey did the same thing during his solo, striking the keys and fragments of a line individually instead of smoothly constructing somthing. The approach gave the tune more edge. For "Soft Pedal Blues," the Plus+tet avoided the shouting blues designed to rile up a crowd. This rendition was slow, a little dirty and really soulful. Freeman's lines were spare but very heavy. "Blues for a Hot Summer Day" was more like it.

Vibraphonist Warren Wolf has become a reputable leader in his own right, but he served as the perfect foil to Freeman on the frontline. In some ways it evoked Freeman's work with the late vibist Bobby Hutcherson, who recorded "Crossing the Sudan," a 7/4 the Plus+tet played early in the set. Some vibes players use the double mallet approach, with two in each hand to help with harmonies. Wolf doesn't need that. He gets plenty of energy with one in each hand, especially when he's wailing over a minor vamp in 6/8.

Father's Day commitments kept me from seeing the Bad Plus, Tia Fuller, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra or Hudson (the new supergroup that's on the cover of the next issue of JazzTimes!!). But this was an extremely stellar set of acts. Hopefully the newfound sponsorship will grow and next year will be even bigger.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

CD Review: Nicole Mitchell - Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds

Nicole Mitchell
Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds

There are a few different angles I considered taking when opening up a discussion of Nicole Mitchell's latest album. After pulling myself away from some links on social media about what happened to Senator Kamala Harris yesterday when she was trying to ask Jeff "Shush, little lady" Sessions yesterday, a new opening line hit me:

This album could scare the living hell out of people like Sessions and maybe even our current leader.

Not only does it have many unhinged qualities that we can expect from someone affiliated with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds is also built on an underlying story line about a couple from the decaying World Union society who discover Mandorla, an island in the Atlantic where, unknown to the rest of the world, people like in an egalitarian society, in peace and harmony. The couple has to decide whether to continue in their "dystopic" world or move to a "utopic" one. The music (and words) tell how the decision is not so easy or clear cut.

Ideas like this seem like just the thing to make our leaders uncomfortable. Cooperative (and peaceful) societies going up against aggressive, hierarchical societies. It seems to shake up the status quo, asking for common sense and cooler heads to prevail. It forces people to reexamine their  perspectives.

Mitchell's music has gone to the dark side before, using Afrofuturist author Octavia E. Butler as an inspiration for albums like Xeogenesis Suite. Musically she takes things even further with a version of her Black Earth Ensemble that features shakuhachi (Kojiro Umezaki), violin (Renee Baker), electric guitar/oud/theremin (Alex Wing), bass/shamisen/talko (Tatsu Aoki) and percussion (Jovia Armstrong). Three tracks include vocals by poet/scholar avery r young.

The players often work in different combinations. "Egoes War" opens with free percussion that betrays the AACM influence on Mitchell, before Wing adds some frenzied guitar. "Dance of Many Hands" starts out sounding like a folk tune, albeit one in 5/4, with guitar plucking out a melody while the flutes float over it, climaxing with a passionate cello solo. It's followed by "Listening Embrace" a multi-tiered track which includes Reid on banjo and a duet between Mitchell's expressive flute and the raw, nasal drone of Aoki's shamisen.

The vocal tracks don't come until more than halfway through the album, making it feel more like an intense set of instrumental music up to that point. They can be a challenge, with young delivering them with heavy enunciation to make sure the points aren't missed. Upon hearing them cold, without any knowledge of the album's concept, they felt a little hard to swallow. But reading Mitchell's program notes, and using the lyric sheet for reference, things make a bit more sense. Music like this is supposed to challenge listeners, even as it leaves them spellbound.

Yes, this is intense music but the times require sounds like this to keep us awake and aware of what's reallly going on around us.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Nick Cave, David Murray & Kahil El'Zabar

Last week, I attempted, in vain, to try and transcribe my November 2016 interview with David Murray. The intention was to post a last-minute preview for his appearance with Kahil El'Zabar, which happened last Sunday, June 4 at the James Street Gastropub. For technical reasons, let's say, it didn't happen. I'm pretty sure this idea popped up last on Thursday, less than 24 hours before the big fundraiser/carnival at my son's school, which I assisted in putting together - and, like everything else, had me all stressed out. My focus wasn't there so it never got done.

Back in early December, bassist Harrison Bankhead came to town with Murray and El'Zabar, but last week, it was just the two of them. If any two guys can make a big show out of a duo, it's these two.

The format of their two sets followed a similar path as most of El'Zabar's appearances with his other groups, like the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. It began with El'Zabar plucking out a slow drone on the kalimba, keeping a pulse on bells attached to his right ankle. Murray played all over it, eventually joining El'Zabar vocally. Then El'Zabar switched to the trap kit, which seemed to be tuned to play a drone underneath the tenor. The third piece moved the percussionist to the hand drum, a cajon, or something like it. Murray also played bass clarinet in both sets. I love the percussive thunk he gets out of the instrument, in addition to the ease with which he peels off some great, emotional lines.

At the beginning of the evening, I was standing out in the stairwell of James Street, talking to local guitarist Colter Harper about Chasing Trane, the John Coltrane documentary that had just finished a run here. Murray was walking downstairs mid-way through our conversation, and chimed in, knowing what the topic was. He said Bill Clinton made one of the most profound statements in the film. "Do you remember what he said," Murray inquired. I had seen the movie twice, but couldn't recall what he was referring to. Clinton, he reminded me, said that Coltrane did, for music, the same thing Pablo Picasso did for art, in 50 less years. "I thought that was really profound," he said. I wished I would've remembered that more than Carlos Santana's ridiculous hippie-metaphor about Trane's music.


I wrote a preview for Nick Cave's Pittsburgh show for City Paper, even though the concert was already sold out. Since Cave wasn't doing interviews, and since I only had 500 words to fill, I pulled a few quotes from another interview. It ended up running online only, not in the print issue. For that reason, I didn't feel like pushing for a comp. So I resigned myself to skipping the show.

At 5:00 on Thursday afternoon, Jennie called me saying that the cousin of a friend of ours had an extra ticket, and that I should get in touch with him. (She was okay with me going without her.) So connections were made and - wham - there I was in the first balcony, left center, taking in the show that everyone will probably be talking about for years to come.

I'm sure there are naysayers out there. You know, the ones who never liked Nick Cave in the first place or thought he was overly dramatic or cheesy. But for the rest of us - it was like going to church. If I said that about Patti Smith's concert in the same venue earlier this year, well... this was a different kind of church. This was fire and brimstone. This was Jesus walking on water. There were no bodies of water in the Carnegie Music Hall, but if there were, brothers and sisters, he probably would have walked on them. Instead, Cave just walked across the seats in the first few rows, singing to people, getting lifted up by others (or at least supported by them, as some friends of mine confessed online) and finally inviting a whole slew of folks onstage to sing with him.

Before the show started, it was kind of funny at first to see a chair set up center stage with a microphone in front of it, as if Nick was going to sit casually for the whole set, maybe having a drink and talking to us between songs. But that lasted for just one song, "Anthrocene." Once it was done he could've just chucked the seat but he politely moved it to the side so it was easier for him to pace the stage as he sang. The next few songs, which also came from Skeleton Tree or Push the Sky Away, were all mid-tempo and simple, but this format is Cave's bread and butter. No one can make turn a plodding groove into a masterful story like this guy.

So when he finally kicked up the mood with "From Her to Eternity," we were more than ready. Having listened to this song so many times at home on the album of the same name, I had certain expectations and hopes for what it would sound like live. Warren Ellis started ravaging his violin, creating the same kind of racket as Blixa Bargeld's guitar does in the original version, and it nearly blew my head off. He was plinking it like a guitar and kicking pedals on and off, making it explode with feedback. Behind him, the group pounded away on the monochord beat and vibraphone counterpoint which, I discovered after 32 years, is in 5/4. All this time, I thought they were just hoping for the best, and that if all went well, they'd interlock on instinct.

That's the interesting thing about Cave's music. It's pretty simple on the surface: two chords (give or take) repeated over and over, eventually changing to a third chord. But it takes good ears and skill to make sure you make those changes. A few times they didn't. Or else Cave improvised a little bit and the band got to change before he did. During one song, he called out to the band to back things up to the break, and repeat from there. Another time, he called out bassist Martyn Casey, good-naturedly.

A performer as well-known as Nick Cave probably has some, shall we say, crack-pot fans. (The late, great Pittsburgh scenester Lee Conley was an obsessive, but he was more as an enthusiast, in the best sense.) There were people in the audience who thought Cave was having a one-on-one conversation with them, and couldn't let it go after shouting one or two things. That's more annoying than anything else. But what slayed me was the guy's lack of inhibition when it came stepping off the stage into the audience. He's opening himself up for all sorts of danger, and he has no fear as he does it. (Of course, any nut who would harm a hair on Nick Cave's head would probably get beaten to death immediately by the audience.)

This might burst some people's bubble, but in a recent GQ article, Cave said there "a banal, practical" aspect to his habit of singing to the first 50 people: his eyesight isn't too good, so he can't see much beyond the first two rows. He might not be quite as connected with the audience as it seemed. On the other hand, the article makes it sound like the most Cave does is walk to the edge of the stage. Last week, he was offstage, in the aisle, walking across the seats that were now empty because everyone was in the aisles, hoping to get their hands on him. Maybe he really does love us more, who knows?

Then for the encore, he invited a few people onstage, and then a few more. And a few more. Then a few more followed suit. How many, I can't tell you. I was thinking maybe 75-80. The Post-Gazette estimated closer to 100. (Incidentally, Scott Mervis wrote a fine review that gives more specifics about what they played and how it sounded. Check it out here.) Everyone sang along for "Pushing the Sky Away," a touching song that sent us all home in awe.

While Cave is certainly a dramatic performer, who isn't opposed to raising his hands towards the audience to get a reaction, the gesture wasn't mere showbiz. This wasn't the cliched gesture of a singer acting pointing towards himself during the adulation, arrogantly (or ironically) meaning, "Give me more." Cave seemed to be in a sharing mood, like we were all part of the show, and that's why everyone seemed so blown away by the whole thing. We're with him. During the loud section at the end of the organ solo in "Red Right Hand," he ran into the crowd quickly and ran back onstage to sing the next verse. It felt like he had just run the living room at a party, yelled a wild salutation, and ran right back out.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

CD Review: Anthony Braxton Quintet, Albert Ayler

Anthony Braxton
Quintet (Basel) 1977

Albert Ayler Quartet
Copenhagen Live 1964

Both releases: 

Hat Hut, the great Swiss label that has been releasing top-notch experimental jazz since God knows when, continues in their hatOLOGY series to bring some older recordings back into the limelight. In addition to these, they've also just released Matthew Shipp's solo performance Invisible Touch at Taktios Zurich.

Quintet (Basel) 1977 is a remarkable piece of Anthony Braxton's history for several reasons. First, as Art Lange indicates in the liner notes, the saxophonist/composer was in a period of fluctuation, having dissolved his first quartet with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Barry Altschul and trombonist George Lewis (who had replaced trumpeter Kenny Wheeler). A new quartet was around the corner, but first came this quintet - a set of instruments that Braxton hadn't used much (if at all) up to this point. The real surprise comes from the addition of AACM stalwart Muhal Richard Abrams on piano. Lewis returns on trombone, Mark Helias plays bass and Charles "Bobo" Show plays drums. Braxton uses just three of his many reeds: alto and sopranino saxophones and B-flat clarinet.

With small-print CD covers, we miss out on the illustrated titles of Braxton's pieces. But the speakable titles assign four of the five tracks lettered sections of his "Composition 69." "Composition 40 B" closes the set. 

The rapport between the members of the quintet can be felt from the opening moments. Anyone better acquainted with Lewis' computer music and software need to hear him cut loose. In "Composition 69 J" he takes Braxton's ideas and shows he can blow just as wildly, tonguing the notes rather than relying on the slide. The physical part of his playing is on clear display. Abrams follows Lewis with his own aggressive solo.

This isn't all serious music either. After a particularly rabid sopranino solo in "Composition 69 M," a vocal whine sounds like it's offering commentary on Braxton. Actually, it's Lewis again, entering with growl through a mute which surely was meant to evoke some old curmudgeon. 

Further, the quintet doesn't shy away from semi-straight jazz either. "Composition 40 B" begins with a line that feels like sped-up bop. Helias starts walking and inspires a clean solo from Abrams before time eventually slips away, leaving the pianist playing at opposite ends of the keyboard. Along with some great propulsion from Shaw, who passed away in January, Quintet (Basel) 1977 serves as a good entry into the Braxton catalog for newcomers.

In a review last year of Albert Ayler's Bells/Prophecy collection, I also mentioned Vibrations, my favorite Ayler album. I won't rewrite the opinion (that's what the link is for) but I will say that Don Cherry was a big part of it. Seeing the trumpeter's face on the cover of Copenhagen Live: 1964 got me excited to hear the disc. It was only when doing a little research for this review that I discovered I already have this set. The 44-minute performance appeared in the 10-disc Holy Ghost box that came out in 2004. (I also realized that rarely-heard second half of the Prophecy disc also came on Holy Ghost.)

Which is not a condemnation of the set. Presumably a good number of Ayler fans didn't plunk down the dough for that set when it came out. (Mine was not a promo, in case anyone wonders.) So those folks are hereby encouraged to find this disc, which represents one of highest points in the Ayler canon.

Cherry knew how to react, respond and compliment the elements of Ayler's playing - the wide vibrato, the altissimo wails (where the melodies were in full bloom) and the way they delivered his unique compositions. Recorded at Club Montmartre, the six tracks also present elements of Ayler's writing that didn't always come out on other records. (The set draws on all the tracks from Vibrations, with the glaring exception of "Ghosts," which is actually a nice surprise.) Gary Peacock's bass cuts through Sunny Murray's liberated drumming, and the interaction of the bass and horns elevate the impact of the writing.

So the story goes, Cherry drifted away from the Ayler group shortly thereafter, staying in Europe and eventually discovering his taste for world music. It's hard to tell what would have happened had they stayed together. But this session, which is issued on its own for the first time, gives a good taste of what they accomplished during their period together.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

CD Review: Linda May Han Oh - Walk Against Wind

Linda May Han Oh
Walk Against Wind

I don't like mimes. Maybe this feeling can be attributed to growing up during a time when Shields & Yarnell were part of primetime variety tv shows. Or maybe the site of too many theater students stuck in an invisible box, full of forced facial expression, creeped me out. Marcel Marceau was an innovator but I'm simply not feeling it. His progeny can stay away.

Linda May Han Oh, whose birthname now follows the Westernized first name that has graced her previous solo albums and appearances with people like Dave Douglas, has found inspiration in Marceau's oeuvre. The bassist appropriated the late French performer's most famous routine, "Walking Against the Wind," as the title track for her latest release. It enters deceptively with Matthew Stevens' guitar playing a metronomic figure while Ben Wendel's tenor adds a high melody over it and Oh follows Stevens underneath. When Justin Brown's drums officially declare themselves around two minutes, he shakes things up, like a Mersey Beat groove just dropped out of the sky. Before long, he's stepped back and things sound pensive again. The leader, whose thick toned attack is a large part of the intrigue here, takes a brief solo which redirects the whole tune, leading into an edgy statement from Wendel, with the band getting tense underneath him before they return to the opening groove.

Oh hasn't changed my mind about those non-speaking Simpsons punchlines, but they sure inspired her to come up with an absorbing composition. Besides, the music won me over before I read the liner notes in Walk Against Wind's unique packaging. But more about that later.

The rest of the album continues the exploratory direction that marked Oh's previous albums. But even as things can change shape quickly, sometimes within the confines of one track, the overall feeling has a strong sense of direction, from the writing to the way the band develops it. The angular jumps in "Perpuzzle" features Oh adding wordless vocals to the fray. Often this device can be a distraction but her syllabic choices never get in the way, working more as a melody than a percussive addition. "Speech Impediment," which proceeds it, also includes vocals, in a piece that starts slow and subtle, but gets jerky as things move on.

Oh's compositions demand that you listen closely until the very end, because she's likely to add some surprise in the final moments rather than simply letting the band go into a coda or closing vamp. In "Lucid Lullaby" Wendell plays a line that sounds very close to Charles Mingus' "Canon" in the final moments. "Midnight" features keyboardist Fabian Almazan adding some overdriven electric piano that pushes Stevens and Oh (who switches to electric bass on a few tunes) into a prog rock direction. "Deepsea Dancers" was inspired by tragedy but the steady undercurrent leads to counterpoint and a warm feeling of reassurance, as different players take turns restating the melody and soloing over it.

Biophilia, a label that Almazan created, doesn't press CDs. Instead the label prints a two-sided cover on FSC-certified (Forest Stewardship Council) paper and plant-based ink that unfolds into 20 panels like origami, which contains all the traditional elements of an album cover and a download code. The idea behind the label delivers the tactile element of music buying along with the ease of digital downloading.

Walk Against Wind began receiving attention before it even hit the street (if that phrase still applies to an album in this format). But Oh and her band deliver once they're given the attention, gathering an array of moods and blending them into what's likely her strongest release yet.


Saturday, May 06, 2017

Clap Your Hands Say... Thelonious Monk

I've come to regard Record Store Day as a whole lot of meh, meaning - nothing. Nothing except supposed "collectible" pieces of vinyl that are often nothing more than reissues of music I already own, or don't really need. (That's oversimplifying it, but I'm trying to get to another story.)

This year, there was actually something coming out on RSD that I wanted, the previously unreleased soundtrack that Thelonious Monk did for Roger Vadim's Les liaison dangereuses which he recorded in 1959. As mentioned in a previous entry, I stood in line at Juke Records the morning of Record Store Day, only to be beaten to the Monk record by the first guy who walked in the door. However, when I was leaving, I was told that the store might be able to get additional copies. Call in a week, they said. 

Fast-forward to yesterday, a few phone calls and visits to Juke later. One copy was left. If my life was a Warner Brothers cartoon, I probably would have dashed into the store while Red Bob was still saying, "Hello? Mike?" into the phone. Instead I came in after work a few hours later. 

The above photo originally had me peering over the top of the cover, not gloating (I'm not that kind of record enthusiast, folks) but just beaming. However my eyes seemed creepy so I cropped myself out. 

The box was expensive, but, man, what a box it is. Not simply a holder for two records in paper sleeves, the box houses two sealed album covers and a 50-page 12"X12" booklet of essays about the recording sessions, the film and Monk's relationship with Paris. There are also photos from the sessions and the film. Musically, the only brand new, never-recorded-anywhere-else by-Monk track is the hymn "We'll Understand It Better By and By," which is less than 90 seconds. There are multiple takes of the other seven tunes. "Six In One" appeared under another name a few months later on Thelonious Alone in San Francisco.

But there are several points of interest. First of all, Monk's band features Charlie Rouse, who had just joined him recently and was still in the process of developing an attack that he maintained for years with Monk. Sam Jones (bass) and Arthur Taylor (drums) had come aboard recently as well, appearing along with Rouse at the first Town Hall Concert, with a large ensemble. They'd also appear, along with Thad Jones (cornet) on Five By Monk By Five, a prime Riverside album. Sam Jones especially was a great bassist for Monk, giving him a solid bounce. Taylor had played with Monk during his Prestige era and complimented the pianist well. A few tracks also feature French tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen joining the group. His additional voice on "Crepuscule with Nellie" gives it more depth.

Most of Side Four of the album is taken up by the real discovery on the album - a fly-on-the-wall recording of Monk trying to teach Taylor the appropriate beat for "Light Blue." Of all the pianist's tricky songs, "Light Blue" ranks up there because its lumbering rhythm and tempo make it a challenge to get the feel right. The 14-minute track reveals the pianist working Taylor, chastising him ("Dumb motherf***er") and keeping to the task. Maybe the whole thing is for completists, but the booklet and that track assured me that I made the right choice. A CD version will be released in a month or so.

I was wondering if I'd make it out to see Clap Your Hands Say Yeah last night, now that I had the new Monk set to digest. However, I made it through three of the four sides, so I figured that would hold me until the next morning. Off into the pouring rain I went, to check out Alec Ounsworth and company.

I spoke with Ounsworth for a City Paper article to preview the show, in which he said that the lineup of the band was completely different than last time they were here. What I wasn't expecting was the heavy roar that the new four-piece lineup produced.

When writing the article, I didn't have the guts or the conviction to compare the new CYHSY album to the Cure or New Order. During my 20s, I couldn't stand the Cure. They were too whiny, mopey and just too caught up in an image to me. Years later, I've come to a little more of an appreciation of them, noticing the catchy elements of their songs, and a dry wit that underlies the mopiest (if that's a word) of their lyrics. The Tourist does have a bit of that Seventeen Seconds-era Cure going for it, with the right combination of guitar and keys scrambling on top of driving beats. Occasionally they also have some of the primitive jangle of New Order too.

But if CYHSY can sound like the Cure in the studio, in person they come on twice as strong without needing of the bands accouterments. Sure, Ounsworth casually rubbed his eyes during "Better Off" but it was hard to tell if that was an affectation or whether the brim of his ever-present hat couldn't keep the bright light out of his eyes. After a few songs, he engaged in a little small talk, which got as far as thanking us for being there before he admitted that's all he could think of saying.

He later told us that Pittsburgh was the penultimate show on the tour, and the band was clearly tight and ready before they hit Club Cafe. More often than not, one song segued quickly into the next, such as when the almost-hit from their debut album, "Is This Love," slammed right into the drum-machine-powered title track of sophomore album Some Loud Thunder. Ounsworth turnedout to be a pretty vicious guitarist too, peeling off some caterwauling leads. His fellow players (whose names I didn't get) were no slouches either.

The 17-song set included five songs from the new album, drawing the rest from the band's previous four. Selections from the debut seemed to get the best response. Ounsworth might have even cracked a grin when someone voiced loud approval for "Over and Over Again (Lost and Found)." It was hard to tell definitively, but he appeared to be chewing gum throughout the set.

Before writing this review, I went through the set list (snatched off the stage at the end of the night), picking out what song came from which album. I decided to compare the version of "Heavy Metal" on the first album with my memory of last night's final song. While the recording does have some overdriven bass, the upper frequencies of the song sound relatively lo-fi. Last the band attacked it like the Volcano Suns in their prime, churning up a big roaring sound that maintained a catchy, hooky quality. The band's previous visit to Pittsburgh was good, but the memory of that lineup seemed to have more to do with atmospherics, which were a big part of 2014's Only Run. While they started with the opening track from that album ("As Always") it served as a jumping-off point for the rest of the set. Last night was about the Rock. And it sounded fantastic.

Solo guitarist/vocalist Laura Gibson opened the evening on a more subdued note. Her first song gave me pause, as she sang in a very affected cat-watching-a-bird-voice, over sparse chords. A few songs in, she won me over with some haunting finger picking and great story in the title track to her album Empire Builder.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

CD Review: The Microscopic Septet - Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down To Me

There's a big stack of new CDs piling up the desk, a lot of which I really want to hear and write about. It'd would be a great day to take off from reality and dig into them, armed with a pot of coffee and a scoop pad full of notes on the best tracks. But first, something I've been listening to for a couple months, waiting for the right moment to expound....

The Microscopic Septet
Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down To Me: The Micros Play the Blues

Sometimes the blues can sound very simple and effective, hitting the ears like comfort food, with an exhilarating rush coming around bar 9 or 10 of a 12-bar pattern. Sometimes the structure is more deceptive. After listening to Charlie Parker's "Kim" for several years, it was only when I dug into the Parker Omnibook that I realized it was built on the blues, so lost was I in the melody. The same goes for Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." It's only when you play the chords alone (available in the More Than a Fake Book collection of his tunes) that it becomes clear that Mingus was stretching the harmonic possibilities of the blues for something greater.

The Microscopic Septet doesn't set out to redefine the blues on their latest album, but neither are they content to revel in the parlor tricks of the blues either. This band has always approached tradition with an experimental aesthetic, with a lineup that features soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophonists and a three-piece rhythm section. The bottom line: swing it like crazy.

Not all of the tracks on Been Up So Long adhere to the blues structure either, and even some that do are deceptive. Like "Kim," they place the emphasis on the melody, so the changes might not be noticed right away. "PJ In the '60s" refers to soprano saxophonist Philip Johnston during the decade that birthed the New Thing (so to speak), and in doing so opens with tenor saxophonist Mike Hashim unleashing some free squonk. But that's just a red herring intro, which is followed by a straight, four-sax AABA melody that makes the band sound bigger than a septet. If you're looking for wild blowing, it comes one tune later in "When It's Getting Dark," a Batman-esque blues with gruff pronouncements from baritone man Dave Sewelson.

Throughout the horns contrast with each other in terms of attack and delivery, with alto (Don Davis) and tenor sharing space in some choruses, followed with soprano and baritone doing the same. In "Cat Toys" Hashim almost sounds like a few different tenor players, going from dry and reedy to a more liquid, dreamy swing, with even a sprinkle of growling - all within a few choruses. Drawing on different styles of blues, they offer a great Ellington-style sound on "12 Angry Birds."

The wildest moment comes when the Septet re-imagines the old Christmas hymn "Silent Night" as a blues with an opening chorus that sounds like it got tangled in Thelonious Monk's "Crepuscule With Nellie." In doing so, it makes it feel acceptable to be listening to the song during the other 11 months of the year.

The Microscopic Septet first came to life during the early 1980s, bridging the gap between Uptown and Downtown New York jazz. (Pianist Joel Forrester composed the theme for Fresh Air with Terry Gross.) They hung it up in 1992 and four albums, only to pick up again 14 years later and they continue to forge ahead. And the blues continues to grow as well.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Live Report: Terell Stafford Quintet

I can get rather particular about what I like when it comes to modern jazz groups paying tribute to some bygone era of jazz. If the music seems more devoted to recreating some classic album instead of using the songs to create something new, my skepticism comes on. On the other hand, if a group tips their respective hats to a jazz legend and plays it with the same high level of energy that their predecessors did, they're bound to push it forward and bring new life to it.

That's the way it felt last Saturday at the New Hazlett Theater when Terell ("TEHR-el," as I found out that night) Stafford's quintet came to town. More than anything, this group played like a unit - five guys all on the same wavelength, working together and driving each other. Their two sets leaned heavily on the music of Lee Morgan, but they weren't simply bowing down to the master. Stafford clearly realized that if he is going to play these tunes, he needs to play them with fire. His solos, and those of tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield, Jr. seemed to be lighting a fire under drummer Billy Williams because there were several times that Williams seemed to be adding fills to the music in response to what the horns were playing. During "Mr. Kenyatta," Warfield broke into some Coltrane-like riffs and growls toward the end of his solo, proving that in addition to being a strong melodic player, he can get wild too. Stafford responded by shaping his solo in a way that Sean Jones often does: starting low and subdued and rising up into a frenzy.

Pianist Bruce Barth's name pops up a lot on recording sessions with various people. In person, it's clear why. He shapes chords in a manner that adds a great deal to the music, expanding the melody and tugging on the ear. In a duo version of "Candy" with Stafford, they took the bright melody and turned it into a muted ballad, with Barth adding stride piano, along with touches of Errol Garner and Monk.

The second set opened with Morgan's "Petty Larceny", another raunchy piece of funk, which perhaps not coincidentally found Warfield quoting Hank Mobley's "Funk in the Deep Freeze" during his solo. The tune also let bassist David Wong really stretch out for an impressive solo. When Stafford brought it back together it almost had the feeling of a revival meeting.

Stafford introduced the next song as one of the most beautiful songs he's ever heard, and I was hoping that he'd go back to his Billy Strayhorn tribute and do "Lush Life," which is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Instead they did Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma," which was both lyrical and swinging with a solid Afro-Latin beat, though after the intensity of "Petty Larceny," it was the one time during the night the energy crested. That changed when the group played "Yes I Can, No You Can't" next.

On the way in, I talked with Gail Austin and Mensah Wali of Kente Arts Alliance, who brought the Stafford band to town. The word was that their sound check alone was worth the price of admission. While making announcements between sets, Wali asked the audience to "trust us," meaning that the Alliance (now in it's tenth year) always works hard to present a good show, something worth coming out for. It got me thinking that the people in attendance already trust them but it's the ones who didn't come out who need to keep that in mind. While Stafford might not exactly be a household name, you don't need to know his whole catalog because, in person, he'll blow you away. Following that line, he's also the kind of performer that should make more jazz fans remember Kente Arts down the line, realizing that a show of theirs is worth the investment. With a fall schedule coming up that includes vocalist Rene Marie and drummer Louis Hayes, keep your eyes peeled for their schedule.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Tommy Keene & Ivan Julian at Club Cafe

This past week wasn't as much of a whirlwind of shows and crazy deadlines as the week before. I had a talk with Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah on Monday afternoon. He was calling from the road and I was worried that the signal was going to die at any moment. It had that feeble high whine on the line that I hear on calls right before the dreaded "click" of hang-up or disconnect. Lucklily, the connection held for the duration of our talk.

When City Paper came out on Wednesday, more people seemed to notice my Back Page column, titled "My Life as a Supervillain," than they ever do for my previews. Of course my photo appeared in it too, so that helped. If you read this in time, come out to Row House Cinemas tonight to see the first four chapters of Heroineburgh. 

Tuesday night, my good pal John Young and his compadre Steve Morrison (who's also a friend - though JDY is my proxy-brother) opened for Tommy Keene and Ivan Julian at Club Cafe. I didn't get any photos of John and Steve but enjoyed their set. They're playing together electrically in the Optimists, but tonight it was just them and acoustic guitars (well, Steve had pedals so he might have been electric). Their set included some songs that dated back to when John and I were roommates, which were good to hear. They still hold up as solid tunes. Plus the new ones are strong too because those two are both good for lyrics that set a scene or tell a story.

I've blown the minds of a couple this week of people who didn't know about Ivan Julian's past. Most people know him as the guitarist with Richard Hell & the Voidoids that wasn't Robert Quine. But few, it seems, know that he was in the Foundations, the '60s band that had a hit with "Build Me Up Butttercup." I think he might have been a teenager at that point. In 2011, he released the album The Naked Flame which, among other things, indicated that Quine was not responsible for all the wild guitar noise on Blank Generation. 

He opened his set with (early) Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well" which showed off his guitar chops (and made me wonder how he was tuned) and also made me wonder what direction he'd take in his set. They consisted pretty much of originals after that, and included a guest appearance by Pittsburgh drummer Dave Klug (also of the Optimists) on djembe when Julian asked for a drummer from the audience. For that one, he switched to an instrument which was kind of like a lap steel with buttons to hold down chords. He finished up with "Hardwired," which includes the immortal line, "It's going to be my day/just to piss it away." A quick look around the internet seems to want to put Julian in league with Jimi Hendrix, but in the end he came off more like a combination of his friend Richard Hell with a little bit of Arthur Lee of Love.

Tommy Keene is one of those guys who's been around forever. John Young profiled him in Discourse, the zine that we did together in the '90s. But I've never gotten around to fully investigate Keene's music. Going into his music virtually cold on Tuesday, though, there was plenty to latch onto. With that 12-string guitar and strong voice, and lyrics that went somewhere, he had me and the whole audience in rapt attention. For an encore, Julian joined him onstage and the duo traded verses on the Rolling Stones "Mother's Little Helper."

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Concert Preview - Terell Stafford Interview

Saturday, April 29
8 p.m. $30.

This weekend, Kente Arts Alliance continues their impressive series of concerts by national jazz acts, the likes of which don’t often get to Pittsburgh – or at least haven’t in quite some time. Terell Stafford plays the trumpet with the kind of edge and authority that comes from his predecessors, like Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown. But while Stafford is deeply steeped in tradition, he’s not consumed by it. The most recent recording under his own name was Brotherlee Love (Capri), a tribute to hard bop legend Morgan. While it goes for the same spirit of the man responsible for “The Sidewinder,” Stafford and his quintet make sure that they’re not merely bowing down to the masters and copying the originals. He and his longtime collaborator Tim Warfield (tenor saxophone) bring plenty of modern spark to the Morgan classics. That came a four years after This Side of Strayhorn, his salute to Pittsburgh’s native son who became Duke Ellington’s right hand man.  Stafford also recently took part in Forgive and Forget, an album composed entirely by saxophonist Herb Harris, and the second in Harris’ Jazz Masters Unlimited Series.

In addition to his work as a performer, he works in academia. At Temple University’s Bayer College of Music, he serves as Director of Jazz Studies and Chair of Instrumental Studies. He’s also the Managing and Artistic Director of the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia.  If all that wasn’t enough of a c.v., go to and check out the list of people he's played with, from McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Heath, just to name a couple.

He and I spoke by phone last week. Our conversation is here.

When you come to Pittsburgh, are Tim Warfield (tenor saxophone) and Bruce Barth (piano) going to be with you?

They sure will. On bass will be David Wong and on drums, Billy Williams.

You and Tim go back quite a way. How far, exactly?

Probably 24, 25 years ago.

What’s it like playing with someone and having such a deep rapport with them?

Actually it’s amazing how many people don’t know when I became interested in playing jazz, because I have two degrees in classical trumpet. Tim was the one that invited me to his house and said, “Let’s check out some records.” We transcribed together. He was just so gracious and he showed me so much. From that point, he and I started to travel in the Harrisburg area to local clubs to play together. These club owners would hear us and hire us as a team to play with local rhythm sections. And that was his game plan.
And we’ve done that for 25 years or so. Whether he works in my band or I work in his band, if we read a tune together or if we haven’t played something in a while, it doesn’t take long for us to connect, immediately, and sound like one of— whatever, one thing.

Playing with someone like Tim is like being in a great relationship, or marriage. You think you know your spouse really well but everyday you’re finding more and more and more. Tim is undoubtedly my best friend. And I love making music – and I love hanging out with him. We both love to cook. So we’re always sending each other our new dishes. It’s a great relationship.

What does Lee Morgan mean to you?

In so many ways, he was such a genius on the trumpet. I don’t feel enough people knew about Lee Morgan because he had a short time on this earth. [Morgan was shot by his common-law wife Helen More in 1972, when the trumpeter was 33 years old.] I feel like everything he played —from fiery things to ballads, the full spectrum — he always played with heart.
I remember when I joined [alto saxophonist] Bobby Watson’s band, Bobby made a statement: Every time you step on the bandstand, you should play like it’s your last opportunity to play, because you just never know. When he said that, it always reminded me of Lee Morgan because I always felt that Lee Morgan gave 150% every time he would play the music. I always admired that about him.

The years I played with Shirley Scott, she could do mothing but talk about Lee Morgan constantly. It was amazing. She and I did Bill Cosby’s show, You Bet Your Life, and we did that for three years. We’d drive together from West Chester, Pennsylvania and we both taught at this college, Cheyney University and our offices were two doors down. We’d hang out all the time and listen to records. She just loved everything that Lee Morgan did. And that was really influential. I really started to study his articulation and phrasing and how he would manipulate chord changes and the use of the diminished.

Of all the people I love and admire like Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard, I want to sound like them because they’ve influenced me, not just to be a carbon copy of these great artists. That’s what I really wanted to do with this project with Lee. I didn’t want to come in and just sound like Lee Morgan. I wanted to bring that spirit and intent in which he played and the intent in which I interpret his playing and put that into a CD.

Was it easy to pick the songs for the album?

Yes. There are songs that you hear that you like. The risk that you take is because some of them aren’t like the more popular songs. But they’re the songs that are fun to play over. There are songs that are fun to listen to. Choosing wasn’t so hard. I know he had a lot of great material. But this material always hit home, the songs that we picked. We probably had about eight or 10 others that we didn’t record. And of the songs that we did record, there were about two or three others that we couldn’t put on the CD because there was not enough space. So with what we chose, there was some deliberation. That’s when you lean to your producers. And [bassist/bandleader] John Clayton produced it. We sat down and decided so it wasn’t so bad.

Was “The Sidewinder” in the running, or did you avoid that one?

That was one on the list. We recorded it but there wasn’t room on the record.

Do you think you’ll do a follow-up?

It’s really funny that you say that. After I did my Strayhorn record, the Strayhorn family and I were close before we did it. After I did it, that’s when the relationship really began. Because they started to send me tunes that he had, that they really wanted me to play. They wanted me to do some vocal charts and they had suggested vocal things.
I pretty much have a second Strayhorn record because the Strayhorn family is so into it. And the same thing with Lee Morgan. I met a gentleman — I can’t remember his name right now — in D.C. He has pretty much everything Lee had ever done. He’s a total trumpet geek. He’s like, “You’ve got to do more.”

I’m torn. Do I keep pursuing the path of creating all this music that’s been lost? Do I say okay, I’m going to sit down and write some tunes? Part of me wants to keep recreating because it’s great music. That’s an area where I have to really sit down and figure out what’s the next step. 

What kind of teaching are you doing these days? Classroom settings?

15-16 years ago, I did a lot of classroom things. But then the Dean came to me and said, “We want you to continue your performing and maintain a high profile as a performer. The only way you can do that is if you became Director of these programs. It’ll give you some freedom. It’s a little more paperwork, but you have freedom and you can travel as much as you want.”

When he dangled that carrot in front of me I went, woah! So I did that and I became Director of Jazz Studies. That program has grown. It’s doing really well. Then six years ago, [I became] Chair of Instrumental Studies. It’s growing. It’s a great program. That’s the more challenging out of the two. A lot more personalities to deal with.
But as far as what I teach, I teach trumpet students and I conduct a top big band. And there are five big bands at this school.

What’s it like teaching now, with kids who have a chance to be exposed to so much music before the come in? Do they know what they want, or are they looking for direction?

The ones that know what they want are usually deficient in other areas because, it’s like tunnelvision. They know what they’re pursuing, this – I can’t say false reality – but this dream to be a famous jazz musician. I always let them know that I think the outcome should be of you someday being a famous jazz musician. But on the way there, I think maybe you should get your fundamentals on the instrument together so that you can play all [the music] and not just a few things. Make sure you study the history of your instrument. Those two are the biggest [issues] when it comes to a lot of students. Many of them have studied modern players of their time. The Nicholas Paytons, and Sean Jones, who are all my favorites. But none of them have taken the time to go back and check out Cootie Williams and Roy Eldridge and Louis Armstrong or anyone of those guys. So there’s a deficient part of their playing.
A lot of trumpet players these days put that “jazz” label on their forehead and they don’t spend time with [different chord changes]. And they should because maintaining your fundamentals allows you to get over the instrument with as much ease as you can.

It seems like now there’s so much music readily available that you can explore.

They do. They come in with more knowledge than I came in with. But sometimes with all that at your fingertips, it can make you somewhat lazy. We had to work finding a recording or getting this or getting that. They have a lot there. They need a good strong work ethic. It’s something that I see necessary.

Now, you’re involved with the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia – is it four years old?

Yes. My title is artistic and managing director of it. We’ve been trying to program a couple concerts a year at the Kimmel [Center for the Performing Arts]  and then we play two or three times outside the Kimmel, at different venues. This year we’re going to be doing the International Trumpet Guild, but that’ll be in Hershey, PA. Every trumpet player in the world will be at this trumpet conference.

Sounds like heaven!

Yeah, well…. It depends on how much you like the trumpet!

How many trumpet players are we talking?

Thousands. It’s a four-day conference, people fly in from all over the world. There’s tons of performances. It’s crazy, absolutely crazy. That happens the first week in June.
Then we’re doing our program on June 10,  A Night in Havana. It’s going to celebrate Cuban music and it’s also going to celebration the merging of Afro-Cuban music. Things seem to be going well, there’s always a need for more funding. But we’ve made it through a few years now so we’re doing alright.

I did wonder if the current administration has you worrying about your funding.

Absolutely. But what I say for everything is, if the Jazz Orchestra is meant to be, it’ll make it through even this administration. If it’s not, then it was good while it lasted.

Does Philadelphia have a built-in support system for the music – audience?

You know what, we have. For every concert that we’ve done, they’ve been sold out. There’s a good amount of people that come out and support it. They’re very loyal, they’re very educated and they’re sophisticated listeners. They appreciate the artists that come in. From that perspective it’s great.

In Philly now there’s a couple clubs who get an international artist, national. And they’re smaller, more local clubs. So from that perspective things are starting to come back. For a while it was really, really dismal. It feels pretty good right now.

The Forgive and Forget album – all the tunes were by Herb Harris?

Yeah. Very interesting proposition – he called me and said, “I wrote a bunch of tunes and I want you to play them.” I said sure. So Tim Warfield and Kevin Hays [piano], Rodney Green [drums] and Greg Williams [bass], we all came to the studio. We recorded it. When he said he wanted me to record his tunes, I totally envisioned he’d be the leader of the session. I thought it would be “Herb Harris featuring these guys.” But it’s my record! My father called me and say, “Hey, you didn’t tell me you had a new record out.” I said, “I don’t think I do!” Then he took a picture of it and I said, “Oh I guess I do!”

That was probably one of the most challenging record dates I’ve done, in many ways. I have this philosophy like a lot of people: You play the material for a week or two and then you go into the studio. Pretty much with all that material, we walked into the studio that morning, got it, played it. Nine hours later that record was done.
[Herb] had a concept. He picked the guys in the band. He did it all. He picked the studio. He decided on the solos, the lengths of the solo. The only thing I did for this record was I came in and played. Which is like a vacation compared to my other records!

Are you working any of that into your live set?

We’re sticking with our own stuff for now. That stuff would take a lot of rehearsal to get it together. It’s hard to assemble the ensemble that recorded it. But maybe we’ll work a couple tunes up and play them in the future.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Last Week - A Recap of Selected Live Shows

Last week was surely the Week of Music. (The Week in Rock sounds better, but it wasn't all rock, as the following will bear out.)

Sebadoh played at Club Cafe last Wednesday to a sold-out crowd. It seemed like they were thrilled with the fact that the place was sold-out, as if it didn't happen to them normally. Because of that, they were in a good mood and very talkative onstage. Well, Jason Loewenstein always seems to be a good mood, but Lou Barlow was the same way - very engaged. 
Lou still looks pretty shaggy these days, with a mop of hair and plenty of facial hair. It was hard getting a good shot of him during the show. I'm always self-conscious about using the flash.

They played for about 75 minutes, including encores. Loewenstein moved to guitar midway through the set and got to sing a good number of his songs. The way he and Barlow fret chords on the guitar, it looks as if some feeble, plinkety sound should be coming from their amps. But the results always came off with a roar. Lou's secret was probably due to some unique guitar tunings. The one pictured above looks like a 12-string with six of the tuning pegs removed. Same with their respective bass duties. Both were putting their thumbs over the neck which is not "traditional" technique (which I'm sure they don't care about), and it can really make it harder to play. Even when Loewenstein played up the neck, the results were full and loud.
Drummer Bob D'Amico kicked butt too.

Thursday night, my musical week continued when my son played with All City Band at the August Wilson Center, Downtown. There were a few All City ensembles playing but - this is not just a proud Dad talking - the group he was in sounded the strongest. He was playing percussion, in this case a practice pad filling in for a snare drum. Those things carry a distinct sound too. They aren't just piddly things built to keep parents from going crazy while listening to drum practice. 

Friday night, it was on to the Carsickness reunion! Folks outside of Pittsburgh might not know, but Carsickness was a reputable arty punk band in town from about 1979 to 1988. (I wrote about this reunion and their recent compilation reissue for City Paper). They performed at SPACE Gallery, also Downtown, surrounded by pictures in the Non Punk Pittsburgh exhibition, making it the first Carsickness show in almost 30 years. (Several of the band members were also in Ploughman's Lunch, which shifted in the direction of an Irish-Celtic feel.) Along with guitarist Karl Mullen, drummer Dennis Childers (co-curator of the art show) and keyboardist Steve Sciulli, the group was rounded out by bassist Paul Michael Ferraro and vocalist Maura Mullen (Karl's daughter). 

The night before this show, I walked past SPACE with my mother and wife, on the way to the August Wilson Center. Childers was sitting inside and we chatted for a minute. Mullen was supposed to have flown in that afternoon and practice was that night. However, the flight was delayed and the only practice they got happened a few hours before the show. All things told, they still sounded pretty good, channeling their youth rather than letting their age keep them from doing something they used to do. It helped that Childers was acting like the gravity pole, holding it all together. The Full Counts and the Nox Boys played prior to Carsickness but family obligations didn't allow me to get down to see them. Apologies.

But the evening wasn't over yet! Up the road, and over to the Brillobox, where once-and-forever Guided by Voices guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Tobin Sprout was appearing with his band. Arriving right as he was getting onstage, I was surprised that I was able to move around in the second floor performance space. I thought for sure the place would be packed, and perhaps even sold out. Instead, there was plenty of room to move around. 

Maybe it was the excitement of the evening, or maybe Sprout is the amazing songwriter I feel like I was hearing that night. But his hour-long (75 minutes, maybe?), 27-song set was one hit after another. He writes in a very traditional pop song format, strumming out those barre chords, but sometimes when a chord is attached to a strong melody, the combination of those two creates a feeling of suspense for where the melody will go next. Will it follow a 1-4-5 progression? Will it just bounce on this one chord for 90 seconds and then stop? No - they banged on a D chord for a while and shifted to C! What a release! What a hook! Yeah, I might have heard it before, but these guys keep it exciting, making me feel like it's brand new.

Incidentally, the above picture was taken with the flash on. While standing pretty close to Sprout, I still couldn't really see his face. There were no lights on the stage pointing at the guys' mugs. So I didn't really see him until I looked at this picture. Then there was the question of Sprout's guitar amp. The speaker looked like an old time box fan and the head looked like a sewing kit or something, with two lights on it. 

The next morning was Record Store Day. I decided I wanted to try to get the unearthed Thelonious Monk soundtrack album so I got up early and waited in line at Juke Records. They had one copy of it, and I didn't get it. I bought two CDs and went home.

That night, Michael Bisio and Avram Fefer played at Polanzo's, which I suppose is now the name of the Liberty Avenue venue, after a brief moment of being called Distro. (It used to be Polanzo's Beer Distributor.)

Caleb Gamble and Joel Kennedy opened the night with some trumpet/drums free improv duets, which were interesting in part because the drum kit (I think that was Joel playing it) had the snare and floor tom reversed, and he wasn't playing in reverse. He also had two roto toms and a kick drum that was tuned to deliver a low drone note. The trumpet lines were good too - not just breathy smears, but fragments of melody and long tones.

Bisio and Fefer was great. Avram started out on bass clarinet, with tenor and alto saxophones waiting in queue. A few of the opening themes sounded familiar. I thought I recognized "BC Reverie" from their Painting Breath, Stoking Fire disc from 2005 that I rediscovered last week. There were several sections like this, where they'd come out of a wild, free improvisation and jump into a fast melody that had Bisio moving all over the neck of his instrument, bowing or plucking as the situation called for it.

I was fully planning to head out after their set, back over to Brillobox to catch the Full Counts CD release show. But things got sidetracked with Michael Bisio asked if I wanted to grab a drink with him and Fefer. It's not often that I get invited out for a round with fellows like this, so I couldn't say no. Then, when they asked where to go, I suggested Brillobox anyway, hoping the first floor wouldn't be too jam-packed with people carousing and colliding into each other. I suppose because there were about three other shows going on concurrently, the place was also easy to manuever and we got a booth, along with openers Caleb and Joel, and my friend Toby.

Everyone was content with a single round, so we said our goodbyes and I made it upstairs just as the Full Counts were getting ready to kick off the first song. As I said in City Paper last week, bassist Eric Vermillion is a belter and was wailing away through their set. While I've heard him do faster, shorter songs, the Full Counts get pretty meaty, with regards to tempo and wailing guitar leads from Rich Hirsch.

It's hard to get a good amateur shot at Brillobox. I got lucky the night before with Tobin Sprout but half the pictures of the Full Counts were kind of smoky, which is funny because the place is smoke-free.

Since I was coming back to the neighborhood, I decided to pop into Gooski's to see if the Carsickness show was still going on. It wasn't but there were still plenty of folks hanging around, including my long-lost friend Mike Michalski, who I haven't seen in ages, since he moved out of town. I knew there was a reason to wander in there that night.