Monday, October 30, 2017

Jason Stein & Paul Giallorenzo Came to Town!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Arto Lindsay, Beauty Pill at the Warhol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 13, 2017

CD Review - Jason Stein Quartet - Lucille!

Jason Stein Quartet

I'd like to say that Lucille features that same-named Little Richard song as the title track. Jason Stein's bass clarinet could do some great intervallic leaps to recreate the rock and roll pianist's phrasing, which turned that name into a three-syllable yelp. Keefe Jackson could burn it up, blowing the walking bass line on his contrabass clarinet. But let's be realistic. As someone who has an affection for that song largely because I heard it before I could read (the version on Okeh, fyi), I'm probably the only person who would really like to hear Stein's take on it.

Lucille! (named for Stein's daughter, in fact) revisits the lineup of his solid 2011 Delmark album The Story This Time. Jackson returns, playing tenor saxophone most of the time, with a couple songs featuring his large clarinet. Joshua Abrams is also back again on bass, but Tom Rainey handles drum duties previously covered by Frank Rosaly. It also revisits some composers that Stein also covered on the previous album - Lennie Tristano (and his student Warne Marsh) and Thelonious Monk. The quartet also covers a Charlie Parker piece and one by modern bassist Robert Hurst. Stein composed the remaining three tracks.

Make no mistake, this quartet's tenor-and-bass-clarinet pairing has its own unique sound. But the rhythm section's swinging freedom in Marsh's "Marshmellow," followed by the entrance of those horns, still evokes the bright moments of Ornette Coleman's earliest quartets. Rainey throws in some off-center accents that put the 4/4 concept in jeopardy, but Stein and Jackson plant it down easily. Tristano's "Wow" is marked by some rugged terrain which they peel off with ease, Rainey joining in to make it double-time. Although Stein can make his instrument (which he plays exclusively) wail and squeal, Lucille! and "Wow" in particular reveal how skilled he can be at laying out an expansive, melodic solo. He and Jackson stretch out simultaneously but never get in the other one's way. When they return to the closing theme right on the mark, it speaks a great deal about the rapport between them.

Jackson utilized the contrabass clarinet for a Monk tune on The Story This Time and does again for a version of "Little Rootie Tootie" that begins with a blast of free squonk. Returning to this horn arrangement for bop doesn't sound like a formula but the quartet misses some of the composition's contours by taking the tempo just a little too briskly. Charlie Parker's "Dexterity" comes off stronger, taking the melody into the sub-basement but keeping the momentum in flight.

The bass clarinetist's originals bring some of the strongest variety to the set. Jackson sits out on "I Know You Were,"where the trio creates a rich tone poem that builds from the bowed bass. Stein's full personality is on display here, running up and down the instrument, his accents making all the difference. While players like David Murray and Eric Dolphy to some extent would add some percussive slap-tongued moments to a solo, Stein is all about exploring the possibilities of melody. It's sometimes hard to get a handle on "Halls and Rooms" in terms of time, which appears to shift frequently. But this approach puts the focus on the reed solos, rather than losing clarity. Jackson contributes an extremely rich solo, combining his crisp tone with a rugged imagination, which Rainey and Abrams follow.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Belated Reports on Tim Berne, Broken Social Scene, with photos

The last weekend of September was another jam-packed couple of days. I thought I'd get to it on the following Monday or Tuesday, but it wasn't happening. Part of the time was taken up by getting ready for my birthday show, which is happened on Sunday, October 8 (although my birthday is actually the day before, October 7). In case you're one of the few that hadn't seen me going on ad nauseum about it on social media, I turned 50. So Bone of Contention (my first band) reunited, as did the Smoking Pets, a fave local band from the '90s. That dispatch will come in another post, hopefully soon.

But back to last week. This entry was started before the birthday festivities, but postponed due to what could only be called self-induced mental exhaustion. I sat at the laptop but couldn't bring myself to write.

Tim Berne finally made it back to Pittsburgh! As mentioned in the previous post, he played at Alphabet City with his Snake Oil bandmate Matt Mitchell on piano and Kate Gentile on drums. The last time he came to Pittsburgh was 1998, when the trio Paraphrase played at the Decade. Prior to that show, he appeared here with Bloodcount and in a duo setting with bassist Michael Formanek. Maybe more people than me and a few friends were stoked for the saxophonist's return, but the reservations for the show filled up a few weeks prior. I heard an unconfirmed report that there was a 60-person waiting list. 

The trio's whole set consisted of new material. One sounded like it could have come from Incidentals, the most recent Snake Oil disc on ECM. Mitchell has become a strong musical partner for Berne, able to use his left hand to establish a harmonic framework to the saxophonist's complex pieces, while his right hand is completely removed, adding a complementary line to what Berne is playing. Gentile was moving constantly, playing on a closed snare, setting her sticks down and putting her hands on the skins, and even letting a sound hang in the air and decay before she continued. The video screens - which were projected behind the group (see above) and on either side so those with not-ideal seats could still catch the action -helped to reveal the nuances of Gentile's approach. 

Berne, whose tone and angular writing can make him easy to identify within a few measures, was in fine form. In the second piece of the set, he started playing short licks, embellishing them as he went, and building on what was already a tricky line. During the final piece, introduced by Berne as "Deception and Petulance," Mitchell was making the piano shake as he soloed. Gentile, who wore an excited smile during some of the set, joined in the moment with some hard, left-handed whacks on the high hat.

The standard during all the September Jazz and Poetry shows at Alphabet City had been to bring on two poets in the second set to read while the band improvised behind them. Then the group played another set. But poets Tuhin Das (a writer in residence from Bangladesh) and Tracy K. Smith (the United States poet laureate) didn't play with the Berne Trio. (The saxophonist diplomatically told me later that he didn't feel comfortable doing that part of the evening.)

The writers instead read with two locals: guitarist Eric Susoeff and conga player George Jones. The spare instrumentation worked well, complementing the words without distracting from them. However, it wasn't clear that the Berne Trio was done for the night. Susoeff and Jones stayed on stage and finished the night with a few lyrical tunes. But it just felt a tad confusing for those of us expecting to hear more from Berne, Gentile and Mitchell. 

I had been in a quandary for a week about Sunday night. Berne and Mitchell were performing solo sets while, around the corner and across a bridge in Downtown Pittsburgh, Broken Social Scene were playing at the Byham Theater. I hadn't seen the latter since about 2003, but I was tempted to see the piano and saxophone solo sets too.  After the format of Saturday night's show, it looked like I could do both.

When Berne took the stage, a water bottle was lodged in the bell of his horn. I'd seen local Ben Opie manipulate his alto this way, trapping certain tones in the instrument and Berne also used this to bend the sound into soft squeals that eventually gave way to a melody in the mid-range, along with some high interval leaps and some foghorn noises. His roughly 20-minute solo set featured a lot of sound explorations like this, though as engaging as it was, it wasn't quite as fulfilling as his compositions.

Matt Mitchell released an album earlier this year called FØRAGE, a set of solo piano improvisations blended with compositions by Berne. His set presumably drew on that (I only bought the disc on Saturday night and heard a little between both evenings) during his nearly 30-minute performance. During most of that time (except perhaps in the above photo), he sat hunched over the keys, smiling frequently and shaking his head as if he and his instrument were having a deep conversation that continually impressed him.

The ideas came consistently, flowing from one in another during the continuous set. Broken chords floated gracefully into clusters, leading to moments were both of Mitchell's hands were at opposite ends of the piano, notes slowly decaying into the air. Mitchell has clearly spent a lot of time developing his own voice on the piano, consuming ideas from people like Berne and others. Now he sounds like no one else. It makes me think that after my initial hesitation with Fiction, his debut where he played his personal piano exercises with accompaniment by drummer Ches Smith, it might be time to reexamine it.

Then it was on to the Byham, in time to see openers Frightened Rabbit finish up their last two songs. Like the band for whom they were opening, the group had a fair number of guitars onstage (three) and several of them had keyboards set up too, switching to them during a few songs. Between the shift from acoustic jazz to the Byham being a huge theater, the sound took a little bit of aural adjustment.

The last time I saw Broken Social Scene, at least one song featured five members of the cooperative group on guitar. The effect didn't turn into a wash of electric mud, nor did it pin the audience against the wall. It actually created a rich texture of sound. BSS member Charles Spearin told me a few weeks earlier that the band would have "at least eight" people onstage by the time they came to town. Reading through my chicken scratch notes from the show, I can't find proof of how many they had total, but 9 or 10 sounds right. They began the set as a sextet, quickly adding vocalist/occasional guitarist Ariel Engle on the second song, "7/4 (Shoreline)," and gaining horn players a few more songs in, including a trombonist named Jeff who they found here in Pittsburgh.

Even though Engle sang a good deal of the set, guitarist/keyboardist Kevin Drew served as more of the ringleader for the evening. He repeatedly heaped praise on the audience, saying the band "wanted to tour America to say thank you." With some people, this might seem like a slick way to get applause from the audience, but Drew seemed to mean it. For proof, during one of the final songs, he brought the sound down low, delivering a rallying speech and asking everyone to "scream for positivity."  The primal therapy moment worked, with the whole theater erupting in a yell. After the kinds of malarkey we've seen over the last couple months, it was nice of these Canadians to bring us together.

One amazing thing about Broken Social Scene is the way the band holds things together. They're not like the New Pornographers, where one person steers the ship. (Bassist Brendan Canning sang a little too. On record, Leslie Feist and Emily Haines [of Metric] sing lead a good deal of the time.) The other group that comes to mind when seeing so many people onstage is Olivia Tremor Control. However that group - in the greatest possible way - always seems to teeter on the brink of falling apart, even while playing their elaborate teenage symphonies to God. Broken Social Scene doesn't have that chaotic element, offering instead some well-orchestrated art pop.