Sunday, December 31, 2017

Christmas Break 1980

A few years ago, I wrote a post about Christmas 1981, when I was a freshman in high school. It was a time of major transition for me, not just because of high school, but because of the way my musical tastes were evolving and how that related to my personal identity. I think about that particular year every Christmas, because of the excitement I felt as I was making new discoveries. There were also some big losses around that time. My buddy Gene and his family had moved to Baltimore a few months earlier. (More on him in a minute.) Most significantly, there was the sudden passing of my great aunt Annie, just five months after the passing of her sister Mary. Both of them were like surrogate grandmothers to me because my maternal grandmother (and grandfather for that matter) died before I was born. Annie had actually passed the day before Thanksgiving, but it wasn't until Christmas break that we went down to empty out her apartment. That felt really weird to me, being in that place that had been the locale of so much fun (and junk food and cans of pop) and suddenly having to adopt a utilitarian approach to cleaning it out.

The feeling of loss has come back again in recent days because my mother-in-law passed away two days after Christmas. It was a peaceful departure, since she laid down for a nap and slipped away. The woman was a saint, and that's really all I feel able to say on that subject at this point. Well, there's one other thing: Several years back, there were a few young girls who lived next door to her that she liked. One day, they started calling her "Mrs. Santa Claus" from their porch to hers. Helen didn't like that. Which is funny because she did look like Mrs. Claus in a way.

But before that turn of events, I had been thinking back to Christmas 1980. Oddly enough, one of the things that got me reminiscing was a picture that my pal Gene had posted on Facebook earlier this month. It showed a budget line blank cassette that I had used to make him a mixtape right around late 1981. He had just moved when I sent it to him - and the family's phone was disconnected not too long before the holidays. So letters and tapes were our sole means of communication for awhile. I made several for him, and he said he still has all of them. It would be exciting to hear them again.

Gene and I met the previous year in our eighth grade class at Reizenstein Middle School and we bonded over music. The memories of that year are still pretty vivid after all this time. In December of 1980, of course, John Lennon was killed. The day after it happened, I remember sitting in my room listening to WDVE, which was playing nothing but Beatles and solo John songs. (Though they also added in Yoko's "I'm Your Angel," which was a pretty impressive song choice in retrospect.) Double Fantasy was the album gift that Santa brought me (though one detail that escapes me is whether Mary and Annie got it for me or if it was on the chair of gifts from Santa that morning).

On Christmas morning that year, DVE, which still believed in having live DJs on the air during the holidays, played the Beatles' Christmas fan club records, one each hour. (To be accurate, only one-half of the Jimmy and Steve Morning Show was on that morning - Steve Hansen - but he was there live.) I wasn't able to get my tape recorder in front of the stereo console in the living room until the hour that they played the 1966 Christmas record. It was just as well since that might year's pantomime performance might be the best one. Unless the charm of the earlier years (where you can still hear the innocence in the Beatles' voices as they read the canned copy that Eppy put in front of them) makes them more compelling. In the records they sent out in the later years of the band, the division between the members becomes more obvious, as they contribute individual sections that are bizarre (John, reading his word-play heavy texts about himself and Yoko; George inviting Tiny Tim, who plays a terrible version of "Nowhere Man"). Ringo actually comes off sounding the wittiest on these parts.

When Lennon died, I got it into my head that I needed to buy his Walls and Bridges album. A neighbor had played me a copy of it a year or two earlier, and I really liked the way the gatefold cover was cut into strips with pictures of his illustrations on them. Plus there was a lyric book in which John credited himself with all kinds of wacky pseudonyms like Rev. Thumbs Gherkin. (I didn't pick up on the joke when looking at my neighbor's copy but I read about it in Nicholas Schaffner's Beatles Forever book.) But of course, in the weeks after John's death, it was virtually impossible to find any of his albums in record stores.

I was friends with two brothers, Dave and Mike, who had shared my Beatles obsession through grade school. By eighth grade, they were probably just putting up with it, preferring to focus on things like George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, which Dave in particular loved. They told me about a store on Pittsburgh's North Side that sold comics and records, which had every Beatle record that anyone could ever want. When Dave called me over Christmas break that year and invited me along on a trip to that store, I jumped at the prospect.

They weren't sure what the name of the place was. It looked like "Eddie's," like the Squirrel Hill newsstand where we all bought comic books. But it might be pronounced "Edie's," or - and this sounded weird to us - "Ides," though it wasn't spelled that way.

As Pittsburghers know, it was Eide's, pronounced like the latter word in that paragraph. The shop was just over the 6th Street Bridge from downtown Pittsburgh, though Dave and Mike's mom drove us there that day so I wasn't sure exactly how to find it on my own. It sat in a row of storefronts that were leveled years later to make room for PNC Park. (The store moved into Downtown, right on the edge of the Strip District, where it still operates today.) Where Eide's once stood, there is now a statue of Roberto Clemente.

Everything Dave and Mike told me about the place was right. Beatle records as far as the eye could see. Bootlegs. Singles. With the picture sleeves! There were copies of rare solo albums like George's Electronic Sound and Wonderwall Music. I didn't realize at the time that they were reissue imports rather than the originals, which all the books told me were so hard to find. It didn't matter because I could see them and touch them for the first time. I had just started to become a semi-regular visitor to the Record Graveyard, a used store located in Oakland upstairs of the Panther Hollow Inn bar, down the street from the Carnegie Museums. But that place was nothing like this. My mind was thoroughly blown.

I bought Walls and Bridges along with a Beatles quiz book that was sitting in the Beatles section. It wasn't the tongue-in-cheek Compleat Beatles Quiz Book (I had already worn that out) but a more serious, actually challenging book. When I got home, I tore the shrink wrap off of Walls and Bridges, and it became clear that this reissue did not have the segmented cover. To add insult to injury, there was no lyric book! I could've lived without the Apple label (this was a purple Capitol one) but this was letdown. It never occurred to me until writing all this now, but that might have been the day when my record buying mind decided that original pressings had more appeal that reissues. Yes, I buy them for the music, ultimately. But the originals get you closer to what the artist envisioned as their statement, whether we're talking running order or packaging.

A month later, Gene and I got an early dismissal from Reizenstein. Our class was going on an ice skating trip, but we thought our time would be better spent on a bus trip to Eide's. We caught a bus across the street from the school (which I always think of every time I pass that intersection of Penn Avenue and East Liberty Blvd.), got off downtown and walked across the 6th Street Bridge. I bought George's Electronic Sound that day. Yes, it was as mediocre as Schaffner made it sound in The Beatles Forever but now I knew for sure. Before long, I started delivering the Post-Gazette in the mornings, which meant I had more free cash to blow on records and I didn't need to wait for the occasional dollars from Mary and Annie to accumulate. And I knew how to get to Eide's on my own.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The NPR Jazz Critics Poll for 2017

By now, perhaps, all the people who care about such things have read the results of the NPR Jazz Critics Poll, who looks back on the high water marks of the previous year (from about November 2016 to November 2017, really). However, if you haven't seen the poll results yet, click here to check it out.

Of the 137 critics who weighed in on the list, I was one of them, for which I am thankful to Francis Davis for inclusion. As usual, there are several stacks of CDs on the desk where I'm typing right now, the vast majority of them I haven't had the chance to hear yet. Some of them illicit groans from me when I shuffle through a particular pile, a sound that signifies the memory that I still haven't gotten to a particular disc that looks really interesting for any number of reasons.

But on the positive side, I feel like my diligence has improved slightly, and I've been able to keep track of, and maybe even write about, more albums than I have in years past - albeit on an incremental level. This year, I know most of the albums that landed in the Top 10, some of which are in agreement with my list. If you want to see what showed up on my list, that link can be found here. Just scroll down a bit to find my name. 

Francis also wrote a good overview of the year, which included some significant info for albums that some musicians only released digitally that really flew under the radar. That piece should also be checked out, and it's here.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

CD Reviews: Mostly Other People Do the Killing - Paint / Talibam! with Matt Nelson & Ron Stabinsky - Hard Vibe/ Talibam! - Endgame of the Anthropocene

Mostly Other People Do the Killing
(Hot Cup)

Talibam! + Matt Nelson + Ron Stabinsky
Hard Vibe

Endgame of the Anthropocene

Some jazz musicians might use a major lineup as an opportunity to introduce a new band, or at least a band name (naming them after the album title on forthcoming releases). Not bassist Moppa Elliot. He and drummer Kevin Shea remain the only members from the original quartet Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Pianist Ron Stabinsky has been with them for several albums now. But going from a pianoless/two-horn quartet to a septet with both piano and banjo (Loafer's Hollow, earlier this year) to now a piano trio, it's a sonic jump for the band. Though minutes into Paint, there's little mistaking who's responsible for the music.

The driving groove that helms "Yellow House" starts the album with a nod towards hard bop piano classics. But before long the rhythm section is taking liberties with the backbeat that was there at the start. Shea is up to his usual tricks, evoking Animal (as in The Muppet Show) during "Orangeville," knowing that his bandmates don't need him to guide them through a 5/4 vamp. In fact, in the hands of this trio, the song feels looser than the restrictive time signature might have otherwise indicate.

MOPDtK isn't necessarily above playing a ballad but "Golden Hill" presents the closesr thing to one in their 13-year history. This lush, triple-meter theme has a romantic quality to it. My ears kept expecting it to go into John Barry's poignant "Midnight Cowboy" but that feels more like a personal wish than Elliot's habit of referencing other songs. With the bass playing melody early on, it builds into a gust of tom rolls. Stanbinsky's right hand gets louder without losing the lyric sense of the tune in his left.

In "Whitehall" they try everything on for size to see what fits, and it all does, even the press rolls and cymbal crashes that come in "early." There might be a classic rock quote in there that can't be identified, but it succeeds in tugging at the ear, which is all that matters. "Whitehall" was originally named "Blue Goose," until Elliot discovered Duke Ellington had already used the title. The trio pays tribute to the original composition (also a town in Pennsylvania, like all MOPDtK song titles) with a version here that gives Elliot a chance to bow the melody, Stanbinsky a chance to add some Ellingtonian flourishes and Shea the opportunity to show that he can swing in the traditional sense if he feels so inclined.

With his Talibam! accomplice Matt Mottel (keyboards), Shea has often cut loose to an even greater degree than he does with MOPDtK.  When Mottel joined Shea and guitarist Mary Halvorson to turn that duo's People into People 3X a few years back, art rock, punk rock and improvisation got mashed up even further. If any of this bugs listeners, too bad about them. Mottel and Shea don't care, presumably.

On Hard Vibe, they're joined by Stabinsky (on Hammond C3 Organ) and Battle Trance member Matt Nelson (tenor saxophone). Mottel sticks to Fender Rhodes and synths. It consists of two tracks, "Infinite Vibe" Parts 1 and 2, totaling 40 minutes. Three-quarters of it finds the group playing over a fusion-type groove that modulates in each chorus, adding an additional key each time. Although sometimes it seems like they might not add as many modulations to certain chorus.

Over top of Shea, Mottel and Stabinsky, Nelson wails with a gritty tenor tone that never runs short of ideas. It's impressive because after awhile the groove feels both unsettling and intriguing, much like - and I know this is a remote comparison to all jazz fans - Flipper's "Brainwashed," which repeated the same idea ten times in a row, ultimately suckering listeners who were waiting for a change to come. Released on vinyl, it resolves at the end of Part 1, but picks up right at a new chorus at the start of Part 2. It continues much like it has for 10 minutes. At that point, Mottel locks into a one-chord groove and Stabinsky goes wild on the organ. Soon, Nelson joins them, adding some electric effects to his horn. In some ways, the break in the suspense serves as a welcome relief that makes it all worthwhile, especially when they proceed further into a groove that recalls electric Miles Davis. In another way, the change comes a little too late into the game.

Endgame of the Anthropocene leaves Mottel and Shea to their own devices. It evokes the thought of two pals having fun in the studio, going wild and not worrying about the results until editing time. Nothing lasts too long, which is good when Mottel sets his keyboard for the Space Invaders voice but disappointing when they kick off a heavy '80s synth riff but let it get swallowed up by electronic noise and drums. But sometimes the frenzy is fun, like when it sounds like bedlam in a keyboard shop, or when they approximate the riff to the Seeds' "Pushin' Too Hard."

The album also brings back the duo's flair for overly long track titles, like "Cost-Effective Drilling Enabled by Pionnering Technologies and Warmer Climates in the Southern Ocean" and "'Antarctica Shall Be Used for Peaceful Purposes Only' (Article 1)." So Endgame is a concept album. But it's up to listeners to figure it how it proceeds. Or better yet, check out the page for the album on the ESP website.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Nels Cline/Larry Ochs/Gerald Cleaver in Pittsburgh

On Monday, December 11, Nels Cline, Larry Ochs and Gerald Cleaver blew into Pittsburgh to play two nearly hour-long sets at Spirit, an evening that ranks as one of the top concerts of 2017. This year was a pretty good for free/experimental/improvised jazz in the Steel City too. The show was originally booked at James Street Gastropub, but was moved when it was announced that the original space was closing.

The downstairs intimate room at Spirit, with more table and chairs set up than usual, proved to be a great locale, for both the crowd and the sound of the band. As Cline told me a few weeks earlier, what would normally have been an audience of 50 was doubled that night, in part because of his recognition as a member of Wilco. The report I heard put the turnout at around 120, all of whom seemed to be taken with the work of the trio.

The first set began with Cline twiddling a few knobs on his bank of effects, setting in motion a low bass drone and a loop that sounded like an organ. Cleaver starts a gentle 6/8 groove that didn't restrict the rest of the band, but added an appropriate foundation to the music. This would continue throughout both sets, so when he broke from the pulse and went free, the feeling was exhilarating as he used his whole kit to kick up the energy.

Larry Ochs' tenor playing had a unique sound. Though it was strong and clear, his blowing had a bit of softness to it in the first set, like he was trying to muffle it a little. It made him sound more intriguing, wanting to lean in and figure out what he was thinking, and it made for a nice collision with Cline's guitar when the latter played below the bridge.

As the first set moved on, the trio explored a variety of sound shapes. When Cline caressed the pickup of his guitar, Cleaver's beat moved to a slow 4/4, which turned into a dirty rock riff (so say my notes). Moments later they went in a free direction. Cleaver then dropped out leaving Ochs' tenor to duel with Cline's guitar, which he was manipulating with a metal spring. But even this morphed into something thoughtful, with clean guitar chords.

That clean guitar sound launched the second set, but it quickly gave way to some free, mutant melody lines, with Ochs on sopranino sax and Cline manipulating his pedal boards (more often with him forearm than his feet) and looping some backwards noises that almost sounded too eerily human, getting under the skin easily.

Cline hit on some guitar lines that were rapid and aggressive but still seemed to follow a pattern, instead of just careening all over the fretboard. Later he hit the strings and subterranean waves came out of the amp. Ochs echoed similar waves on tenor, with Cleaver playing his kit with just his hands.

The band seemed to reach a climax a few time where they could have stopped playing. But they kept going. At first, it felt like it was starting to flag, but this is music that requires trust from the listeners to realize they know what they're doing. The final minutes evoked the calmer moments of Sonic Youth, ending beautifully with Ochs first blowing air through his tenor and closing on some overtones. If I had felt restless a few minutes prior, I was glad I stayed put, taking all this in.

This trio has done mini-tours together for a few years now, around the winter season. Hopefully, they'll make Pittsburgh a stop on the tour the next time they're out.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

CD Reviews: Vinnie Sperrazza Apocryphal - Hide Ye Idols/ Tomas Fujiwara - Triple Double

Vinnie Sperrazza Apocryphal
Hide Ye Idols
(Loyal Label)

Tomas Fujiwara
Triple Double
(Firehouse 12)

This year in particular, it feels like there have been more drummer/composer/leader albums worthy of serious attention. There was a time when a drummer's session might have focused more on drum-centric creations, with the exception of albums by Art Blakey, who stocked his band with players who all the writing anyway. Bobby Previte really changed that in the '80s, with albums like my fave Pushing the Envelope. But in addition to people like Tyshawn Sorey, players like Vinnie Sperrazza and Tomas Fujiwara are all coming up with strong works that aren't focused on trap kit experiments.

Hide Ye Idols features the same quartet that Sperrazza convened on 2014's Apocryphal: guitarist Brandon Seabrook, alto saxophonist Loren Stillman and bassist Eivind Opsvik. The combination of Seabrook and Stillman offers plenty of opportunities for contrast between the former's exquisite skill at noisy skronk and the latter's gentle, pensive tones. "Sun Ra" practically guarantees that the album begins with several adjustments of the volume before it finishes. A slow drone leads to a calm alto melody before the wildness begins. What's interesting is that the source of these wild sounds can be hard to pinpoint. It could be Seabrook working his magic (vocalizing into his pickups?), or Opsvik could be doing it on the bass. Whether or not the piece was meant as a full-blown homage to its namesake, it delivers a strong opening statement.

The Apocryphal quartet doesn't stay set in one role for the whole set, however. In "People's History" Stillman's tone turns jagged and raw on the staccato theme. With an opening that sounds like synth bass and a lengthy coda that recalls an air raid siren and pure static, the track makes the Brooklyn group sound like they're bringing their jazz chops to bear on a fearless indie rock sensibility. (The album's grainy cover photo and minuscule text on a navy blue background adds to this indie quality.)

And again, like any smart band, they don't stay there for long either. The raucous Mr. Seabrook, who sounds like he's cutting in and out on "St. Jerome," plays clean, beautiful chords on the ballad "Bulwer Lytton." The title track continues this mood, putting an echo delay on Stillman's horn.

Sperrazza already has a diverse c.v. that includes time with trumpeters Dave Douglas and Ralph Alessi. He came to Pittsburgh a few years ago in Hearing Things, a trio with saxophonist Matt Bauder and keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch, that played surf instrumentals that weren't ironic but right on the money. His work as a composer continues to grow too, with a group that brings great momentum to it.

The link between Hide Yr Idols and Triple Double is Brandon Seabrook. On Fujiwara's session, he is paired up with guitarist Mary Halvorson. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum provide two perspectives on their brass. Behind it, Fujiwara and Gerald Cleaver both sit behind the kits. "Triple Double" in this case means two trios of the same instruments, or three duos, depending on how you look at it. Each guitar/drums/brass trio is panned to a separate channel, offering some ability to distinguish between the players. "Diving for Quarters" opens with  the guitarists engaging in a languid for turbulent duet, making it easy to separate the two most distinct voices. As each player gradually enters the composition slowly takes shape and by the time they finish, it's hard to believe that nearly 11 minutes have gone by.

A few "break-out" pieces contribute to the album's diversity. In "Hurry Home B/G" and "Hurry Home M/T" the same compositions is played by Seabrook and Cleaver first, Halvorson and Fujiwara second. "B/G" moves languidly, with slow guitar notes flavored by the occasional effect bend and waves of cymbal rolls from Cleaver. The second version sounds more turbulent. Halvorson plays at a quicker pace, with her guitar bathed in tremolo throughout. Fujiwara plays all over the kit.

"For Alan" features the two drummers creating waves of sounds, bookended by a recording of a lesson given by jazz drummer Alan Dawson (Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins) to a then 10-year-old Fujiwara. In the recording, the young drummer is uncomfortable with the task of improvising and Dawson explains it, later offering some insight into the foundation of syncopation. The way that the drums weave into the recording, and vice-versa, makes an intriguing listen that takes it beyond a simple "drum duet" idea.

The ability to get mileage out of smaller building blocks makes Triple Double a strong work. In the big picture, the lack of a bassist or any other low end, or chordal, instrument, never becomes a handicap. In his writing, Fujiwara builds "To Hours" on a rigid 5/8 riff that continues through the piece but it never feels stiff, due to the way the players add contrast and embellish it. "Decisive Shadow" is built on an even trickier 13/8 rhythm, which comes in a snaky blend of three 3s plus four (if I'm counting right) from guitars and drums.

"Love and Protest" might be the album's most dramatic piece. Both drummers roll and crash feverishly, with Seabrook sustaining a pedal point under the horns' pensive melody. The drumming never sounds busy or excessive as they fuel the energy of the piece. The album might take a few listeners to pick up on everything, but it's also the kind of album that keeps drawing you back for more anyway.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Sunny Murray - An Appreciation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It gets better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Talking to Nels Cline

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

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

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

How far back do you and Larry go? 

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

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

What do you like about playing with Larry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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