Saturday, March 25, 2017

CD Review: Lisa Mezzacappa - avantNOIR

Lisa Mezzacappa
(Clean Feed)

Maybe it can be attributed to a 21st-century perception of it, but the film noir genre holds a great number of charms: the stark quality of black and white cinema; the mix of characters, who are usually painted in broad strokes; the suspense that holds a story together; the ability of the characters to express a great deal in a minimum of words, a lot of it coming from facial responses. And when they talk - ooh, the sharp dialogue!

It lends itself to music, which can evoke much of the above characteristics with dry, vibrato-free vibes, honking saxophones, chunky guitars and propulsive rhythm sections. Lisa Mezzacappa immerses us in the thick of it on avantNOIR. She might live in the Bay Area, but the music would seem to depict pure and gritty Downtown Manhattan, where she grew up.

However, the eight tracks on the disc were actually inspired by novels, rather than the cinema. Further, Dashiell Hammett's 1920s crime fiction took place in San Francisco, so the images of private dicks scouring the Bowery is slightly inaccurate, at least for some of these tracks. Paul Auster's New York Trilogy also inspired the bassist's writing, although those stories were penned in the 1980s, years after the heyday of film noir. Regardless of their origins, Mezzacappa has used the source material to create the soundtrack to a film that hasn't been shot yet.

Along with her acoustic bass, Mezzacappa's gang includes Aaron Bennett (tenor saxophone), John Finkbeiner (guitar), William Winant (vibraphone, percussion, Foley sound effects), Jordan Glenn (drums) and Tim Perkis (electronics). The first four tracks are grouped together to feature characters and locations out of Hammett's work. "Fillmore Street" functions like an economical, opening salvo. It's followed by "The Ballad of Big Flora," which opens with a foreboding bass solo, evoking the notorious dame with a quality that puts Mezzacappa's instrument off in the distance, peeking out of an alley, before a stop-start mood begins.

Both of these tracks recall the equally sleazy undercurrent of the Lounge Lizards or the Jazz Passengers. Finkbeiner's guitar recalls Marc Ribot's dry attack, though his tone avoids the brittle, sawed off quality. And Mezzacappa's crew stakes out their own territory thanks to the inclusion of samples and electronics. The static in these tracks often adds a percussive quality to the music. And if you listen to "Medley on the Big Knockover" while driving, beware of the blaring car horn in the first 30 seconds. It's mixed in such a way that it sounds like it's coming right at you. Not since the opening scream in John Zorn's "Spillane" has a sound effect had such a deceptive feel.

"A Bird in the Hand" takes the connection to the source material a step further by including dialogue from The Maltese Falcon in the piece. Whether it's actually Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Greenstreet is hard to say. But the inclusion serves a purpose. "Ghosts (Black and White, then Blue)" features Winant using one of those Foley effects - a manual typewriter (he also uses a rotary phone and hotel desk bells elsewhere). Together with the tune's slow, ominous spy riff, it creates the idea of the story - and by extension, the whole album - reaching a denouement, with a detective typing up his final reports. But it gets loud five minutes in, with Finkbeiner finding room to wail once more. And things aren't over until the group gets through "Babel," which features some disembodied backwards voices reminding us that noir usually doesn't end up wrapped in pretty bows.

While the sound of other dark lounge bands recur through the album, the comparison feels more like a mark in Mezzacappa's favor, proving her skill at storytelling through music. The band seems to be having a blast too. Saxophonist Bennett often gets to lay back and set the scene but "Quinn's Serenade" gives him a chance to cut loose. Winant continually works well with him and Finkbeiner, for that incisive noirish mood. Aside from her solo in "Big Flora," Mezzacappa stays out of the spotlight most of the time, offering strong support and letting the group as a whole get noticed.

The bassist plays in a number of projects in the Bay Area, of which I've heard two: Bristle, a wild chamber group; and Cylinder, a quartet with Darren Johnston (trumpet), Aram Shelton (reeds) and Kjell Nordeson (drums), who released an excellent album on Clean Feed in 2011 and are probably disbanded since Shelton left the country. More on her vast c.v can be found at Her latest effort shows the diverse of her skills as a writer and leader, and should be investigated.

One doesn't have to be fan of old time radio shows like Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar or tv classics like Darren McGavin's portrayal of Mike Hammer. But as a fan of both, I was slayed by these cats.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Live Shows in Pittsburgh from the Last 10 Days

This past weekend was relatively low key as far as shows that I got to see. But the weekend of March 10 was pretty full, with music and adventure. Allow me to hit "Rewind."

On Friday the 10th, Kente Arts Alliance presented the Whitfield Family Band, lead by guitarist Mark Whitfield. His son Davis played piano, with Mark Jr., on drums. Luques Curtis played bass, though he wasn't the bassist on the recent Grace album.

They work in a fairly straightahead style, heavy on energy and strong chops from all parties. Pop Mark excels at long, clear guitar lines, occasionally going into Grant Green-style locked riffs, though he does it a lot faster than Green did. Davis Whitfield was really impressive on piano, soloing over vamps in a way with heavy, chordal melodies. He frequently switched over to an electric keyboard for some Fender Rhodes ambience, but it never sounded pre-fab. Mark Jr., swings with a real elastic style, stretching the beat and giving it spark.

Local guitarist Mark Strickland opened the night with a classic lineup by Pittsburgh veterans Lou Stellute (tenor), Keith Stebler (B3 organ-via-keyboard) and drums (Roger Humphries). Their set had a lot of meat and grease, including a good choice to celebrate Thelonious Monk's upcoming 100th birthday: "Well You Needn't."

From there, I headed over to Gooski's for the tribute to Dave V(ucenich). Since Dave's funeral was closer to his hometown in Harrisburg, friends Eric Vermillion and Max Terasauro put together an evening that saluted him. In his spirit, there were DJs spinning garage and psych rock singles that he loved so much. Gregg Kostelich from the Cynics had DJ'd first so I missed him. Tara Dactyl was playing slow, heavy psych, one of Dave's favorite styles, according to Vermillion.

After awhile, Joe (drums) and Kurt (guitar) from Dave's former band the Mt. McKinleys got up and played a set. At their largest, the group was a quintet, complete with bass, another guitar and theremin. But on this night, they had all they needed to rip it up. It can be hard to play high energy music like that when there are reminders all around that your musical conspirator is gone. But Joe and Kurt played like their lives depended on it, living for the moment, pouring everything into it. And the mood was anything but sad while they did it. That's the way all shows should be, not just a memorial one.

Another part of the evening was an auction for Dave's Hofner Beatle Bass. That would have been so tempting because it's one of two basses that I'd like own in addition to my Rickenbacher. But I don't have the dough for it, and since all the proceeds were going to the Vucenich family (or to an animal shelter of their choice), it wouldn't have been right to skimp on the money for the instrument. Right before the McKinleys' set, the amount was up to about $300. Whoever got it really made out.

Distro is a new "space" located in Bloomfield, upstairs of a former beer distributor. And when I say "space," I do mean a room with some seats, a p.a., a big rug to designate a performance area and not much else. (There's a piano there too, but that's off limits, as some of us found out the hard way.) However, being there the following evening took me back to shows that I saw at CMU around 1991 or 1992. A bunch of folks were milling about, talking amongst each other, checking out music, cheering on the performers.

On Saturday night, the 11th, Distro hosted the Duke of Knee Festival: Unread Records Release #201. The Unread imprint has been around for 20 years, run from different cities by Chris Fischer, with 200 releases coming in the form of albums, 7"s and cassettes. In Pittsburgh (where Chris now lives), Will Simmons & the Upholsterers are but one act that's appeared on the label. Simmons took it upon himself to organize a show that brought Unread family members from as far away at Portland to our fair city to celebrate the imprint's 200th release. A three-cassette compilation was also assembled to mark the occasion. The label's homespun approach might be another reason why I felt transported back to the early '90s - it recalled the heyday of K Records, back when they'd print their catalog on newsprint and mail it out every few months. Several people had music for sale. One guy was even selling a delectable box of '90s indie rock for insanely good prices. I picked up the Meat Puppets for album for $3 and a Bitch Magnet album for $4. I would've bought more had I not been short on cash.

A total of 16 acts were slated to play on Saturday, each for a total of 20 minutes. What I caught while I was there stuck pretty close to the time limit. Chauchat was getting underway with a set of gentle acoustic indie pop, with random sounds floating over top of the harmonies. Andy Cigarettes - once he blew our eardrums with his accidentally too-loud backing tracks - sang a great set of new wave-y pop. For a guy who traveled all the way from the Pacific Northwest, he still looked sharp in a red suit (or was he wearing a red shirt with a black suit?). Will and the Upholsterers took the Husker Du/Minutemen approach and played 10 songs in 20 minutes. In fact he said they nailed them 18 minutes. Talk about jamming econo!

Monday evening, I headed over to Mr. Smalls, not to see Tortoise but to conduct a Before and After listening test with their guitarist Jeff Parker. I did get to hear a bit of their sound check and admire their stage set up: two drum kits center stage, flanked on a set of vibes at stage left, keyboard behind the other trap kit, table of laptops behind the drums, bass and guitar towards the back. Jeff and I made our way out to the tour bus after sound check, and sat for about 90 minutes listening to music and talking. We had a great time, which you'll be able to read about in a few months. Much as I would've liked to stay, I was back to Oakland to the Carnegie Music Hall for..........


As I made my way up the stairs to my seat, I could hear the chorus of "Gloria" spilling out of the concert hall. Between driving from Millvale and trying to park in Oakland, I felt damn lucky that I hadn't missed more. Have to say the tempo seemed a tad slower than the version on the album, but you know - Patti just turned 70 so again (to use my grandmother's phrase), we should be damn lucky she was there. And that we were!

I don't think I need to do a play-by-play of the show. Scott Mervis at the Post-Gazette already did that last week. And if you weren't there, reading about it might just make you sad you missed it. In my preview to the show, I mentioned in passing that Patti might draw on her love Johnny Carson in her between-song banter. (She has admitted to several people that she admired the Tonight Show host's delivery.) She did, to some extent. When she was feeling exhausted between songs, she chalked it up to the impending snow storm (which never came, by the way) and took a brief stroll offstage for some air.

"Birdland" has always been a special piece to me, for years before I related to the protagonist. I had to shush a friend sitting next to me for talking during this tune. First of all because, why would you pay $39 or more to see Patti Smith and talk through the show?! Second of all, hearing Horses in its entirety (played in order) is akin to going to church. Just listen. Soak it in. Thankfully, she did.

For her encore, she and the band ripped through the Who's "My Generation," which she first covered as the B-side to the "Gloria" single. As the song moved towards a free-for-all coda, Patti strapped on a guitar and played it the way I like to play it - like a noise maker. She also spat fire about her generation wanting to change the world with love, "and what do we get?! Donald F&^*ing T----!" You could have seen it coming a mile away, but who can blame her. Of course the audience roared. She eventually yanked what seemed like all six strings off her guitar, providing the fitting ending to the evening. I took a video of some of that, but it's just a tad to big to appear here. FIE!

Five days later, on Friday the 17th, bassist James Ilgenfritz came to Distro for a solo bass performance. That might sound like quite a specialized type of show, but he played four pieces by other composers that were written for him. He didn't say that the first piece required him to retune his instrument to get the arco drones of the piece just right, so it was really fascinating to watch what he pulled out of the instrument. The music seemed to go on for awhile but it got pretty hypnotic. I'll admit I was a bit exhausted by the end of the night but the set helped me relax and start to hallucinate sleepy dreams. (Luckily I didn't fall out of my chair.)

Ben Opie, who also played solo, joined Ilgenfritz for a few Anthony Braxton tunes after the bassist's proper set. (James released a disc of Braxton pieces for solo bass in 2012.) The evening also included short but sweet sets by the tenor/bass clarinet and drums duo of Snake Pilson and guitar/saxophone solo act Nevhar Anhar.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

CD Review: Idrees Sulieman Quartet ft. Oscar Dennard - The 4 American Jazz Men in Tangier

Idrees Sulieman Quartet featuring Oscar Dennard
The 4 American Jazz Men in Tangier
(Groovin' High/Sunnyside)

Knowing not only the names but the output of unsung musicians can put a listener in a rarefied group. Idrees Sulieman ranks as under-the-radar player. He might be best known as the trumpeter on Thelonious Monk's first Blue Note session, but he also recorded with Coleman Hawkins and Randy Weston before moving to Stockholm and later to Copenhagen. He worked with several studio orchestras there and the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band before he passed away in 2012. An inventive player in the Dizzy Gillespie style, he likely would have gone on to greater fame in the U.S. had he stayed here. He was also supposedly one of the first jazz musicians to convert to Islam.

Oscar Dennard didn't live long enough to secure his status as jazz pianist with the record buying jazz folks. But before he died at 32 due to typhoid fever, he made a great impression on Weston, Ahmad Jamal and Harold Mabern who knew him personally. Aside from a few recordings with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, this two-disc set is really the only document of his work as a formidable pianist.

The first of the two discs has been previously issued in Japan while the second sees the light of day for the first time. In 1959, Dennard was convinced by bassist Jamil Nasser to join him in a trio that also included Sulieman and drummer Earl "Buster" Smith for a tour of  Europe and North Africa. When they reached Tangier, Radio Tangier International producer Jacques Muyal quickly assembled a recording session with his friend at the competing Radio Africa Tangier studios. The seven tracks, recorded all in single takes on a single microphone, come from that session.

In the some ways, the raw quality makes the group come off like a typical bebop unit. They tackle two Charlie Parker tunes ("Visa," "Confirmation") with skill, trading fours just a little two long on the former. Two standards get worked over ("All of You," "Stella By Starlight"). The quartet swaggers through the slow "Tangier Blues," in which Sulieman displays his circular breathing skill, unfortunately less like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and more like Kenny G, since he merely holds one note for three choruses before he releases it.

But there are moments that reveal what Dennard might have been had he not passed away a year later. In "Stella by Starlight" his solo seems to combine Errol Garner's rapturous way with harmony together with a rhythmic freedom that would become the call of the day just a few years into the next decade. His chordal solo in "Tour De Force" also hints at an advanced rhythmic sense, akin to Dave Brubeck's big-handed approach. Nasser, who would go on to play with Jamal extensively, is under-recorded but should be turned up during his solos, including an out-of-tempo-into-funk intro to "Stella" and another groovy one in "Tour de Force." When Sulieman uses the mute, he really displays his Gillespie influence. Without it, his bright sound is infectious and clearly the reason he's cited as a big influence on Clifford Brown.

Disc Two was recorded at a party in New York before the quartet went on tour. It provides some revelations. Dennard's lengthy introduction to Branislaw Kaper's "Invitation" is arresting; in "Round Midnight" he seems to channel Charlie Parker as well as the tune's composer. But the recording quality, despite the liner notes' claim that it's been cleaned up, still sounds like one of the Dean Benedetti recordings of Parker - interesting for the historian but not too appealing for the casual listener. Further, knowing how skilled Dennard could be, it's frustrating that the closing "Piano Improvisations" finds him playing variations on "Three Blind Mice." The quality makes the opening seconds sound like a music box as well.

It's inappropriate to slag The 4 American Jazz Men in Tangier since it stands as a singular document of this group, which thereby gives it some intrinsic value. Yet, it's sound quality seems like it might be of value more for historical purposes and not much for repeat programs.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Shows I Saw in the Past Few Weeks

I was on a good roll for a while, posting reviews and album purchases. Then it all fell by the wayside again. The past two months have been marked by various degrees of sickness (and the lack of motivation they bring on), as well as what felt like a healthy dose of winter doldrums. AND, I was one of the ringmasters behind a talent show at my son's school last week. No wonder my doctor told me my blood pressure was up last week. 

Things look better now. Besides, during all that, I did have a good run of articles in Pittsburgh City Paper. In fact, this week, I have no less than three things in the arts section: a profile of jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield; the Local Beat column, which mentions the salute to Dave Vucenich and the Unread Records show; and a preview of Patti Smith's Horses show. Follow the links and you can see what I'm talking about.

After seeing Battle Trance over the weekend, I realized I never mentioned anything about the last show I saw at City of Asylum's Alphabet City venue, which is now up and running in full effect. So here's a little something on both. 


Mostly Other People Do the Killing hadn't come to town since about 2009 or 2010. At that time, the group featured bassist Moppa Elliot, drummer Kevin Shea, saxophonist Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Peter Evans. In the studio, the band has grown to include pianist Ron Stabinsky, bass trombonist Dave Taylor and banjo player Brandon Seabrook. Evans has left the band, with Steven Bernstein assuming trumpet duties on the new Loafer's Hollow

When the group pulled up at Alphabet City on February 22, the lineup was reduced to the trio of Elliot, Shea and Stabinsky. After the frenetic interplay between Irabagon and Evans, not to mention the expanded arrangements with the larger group, the trio almost sounded like a different band. Even Shea, who specializes in careening drum crashes that always catch themselves before they fall completely down the stairs, sounded a little more subdued. This was a piano trio, albeit one that still lives life on the musical edge. 

And while the band's zaniness always made for a good time in the past, the new lineup gives more attention to Elliot's compositions, which have gotten more elaborate even as he chooses to throw a quote from "Mercy Mercy Mercy" or "Misty" into them. Now that they've been at it for over a decade, some of the "how dare they" dust has settled, and there is time to catch up with the back catalog and fully appreciate them. 

Last week was a banner week for touring bands that play adventurous music. Australia's the Necks came to town last Friday. I totally missed them due to the aforementioned Talent Show. But I did make it back over to Alphabet City to check out Battle Trance on Sunday. (Prior to the shows, I wrote a double-preview of them in City Paper.

Battle Trance played "Blade of Love,"  the same piece 45-minute piece that I saw them play in New York back in January. Hearing it again made me realize that I pretty much walked in to the New York show without missing much more than seeing them stand on stage quietly for two minutes, somewhat entranced, before the piece began.

Anyone who has gone to see a symphony and picked up on the full sound of, for instance, four upright bassists can understand the power of several musicians playing the same note. (The same can be said for works by Glenn Branca or Rhys Chatham too, I'm sure.) The sound starts to swell and slight variations on it can make a big difference. Travis Laplante (the composer, on the far right picture) knows that and exploits it with their music. One of the best part of the piece came in the final third of it, where all four of them shifted from altissimos to high register wails, which they adapted with various levels of vibrato. The other favorite part for me, since I knew it was on the way, occurs about 15 minutes in, when all of their swirling arpeggios suddenly turn into low honks, which they land on together, seemingly out of nowhere. It was extra suspenseful for me, since I knew it was coming, but I wasn't sure exactly when.

A couple sitting in front of me left after about 20 minutes. Or they at least walked over to the restaurant section of the place. I was in the second row, so I can't say how many other people followed them. Granted it is intense music, that requires a little more patience and a willingness to explore the possibilities of sound, rather than following melody lines or chord changes. But you have to give it a chance.