Wednesday, March 14, 2018

CD Review: Josh Sinton - krasa

Josh Sinton

When Jon Irabagon released his album of solo sopranino saxophone performances in 2015 (Inaction is an Action), one scribe went so far as to ponder whether the challenging set of pieces represented the worst album of that year (unlike Irabagon's full-band album Behind the Sky, released at the same time, which the writer decreed as one of the year's best). Inaction was an intense listen, what with Irabagon's skilled extended techniques running wild on the pee wee horn. It seems only fitting that Irabagon's label would up the ante and  release Josh Sinton's set of improvisations on solo contrabass clarinet.

Sinton plays in a series of contexts, including Ideal Bread, a group dedicated to the music of Steve Lacy, in which he plays baritone saxophone. For krasa, which translates to "beauty" in Czech or "color" in Latvia, Sinton recorded at the studio Menegroth the Thousand Caves with metal bassist Colin Marston at the control board. On a few tracks, Sinton uses pick-up microphones and runs the clarinet through a couple amplifiers. This maneuver gives it the visceral sound of a free improv guitar, which only sounds more barbed as Sinton blows overtones and squonks on it. He even produces some feedback two minutes into the opening "Sound."

Without a doubt, krasa gets brutal, ripping a layer or two of skin as it proceeds. Sinton often luxuriates in long notes, enjoying the resonance of his instrument and what the amplification does to it. He also vocalizes through it. But anyone investigating to this type of music doesn't expect sweet lines and will discover the nuances of the performance. Shorter melodic blasts appear in "(prelude to)," which acts like an undistorted balm after the 16-minute opening of "Sounds." "And" starts soft and low, moving in waves before Sinton unleashes a sound like a bowed bass.

So maybe krasa isn't meant for casual listening, but it definitely makes for fascinating listening. The album contributes a new chapter to canon of solo reed albums, in the tradition that goes from Inaction is an Action back to Roscoe Mitchell's Solo Saxophone Concerts.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Live Shows in Review: Ilgenfritz, Moran, Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, Code Girl

Playing right now: Mary Halvorson Quartet Plays Masada Book Two

Back when I started this blog, most of the entries began with the name of whatever I was listening to at the moment that I was writing. Back then I could fire off a set of words while music was playing in the background. These days, not so much. That's due in large part to the fact that I'm usually reviewing an album and I feel like I can't do that while listening to something else. Or even listen the album in question, because my cautious nature makes me feel like I might be missing something if I listen with half an ear....

Anyhow, I have a backlog of photos from the past few weeks of shows, so it was time to post them. First of all, back on Thursday, February 22, bassist James Ilgenfritz came back to town, along with drummer Brian Chase and woodwind multi-instrumentalist Robbie Lee. The performance was presented by Alia Musica and took place at the Mattress Factory.  

The space's high ceilings are hardwood floors served as a good spot, acoustically, for the trio. Unfortunately, I got there late and missed about half of the performance. Right as I was walking in, Lee was setting down an oversized recorder-type instrument. (Later that night, Ben Opie pulled out a picture of Michael Pestel playing such an instrument during the 2008 performance at the National Aviary with Opie, Anthony Braxton and a few other musicians.) 

Before the set was through, though, Lee also played some flute and sopranino sax. Chase, who has also played with local native Andrea Parkins and with groups like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, has some great splatter effect moments on the drum kit. Ilgenfritz, playing a five-string upright bass (with a removable neck, to boot) played some great bowed drones and exciting runs all over his instrument. If only there had been a second set.

Nine days later, Jason Moran and Bandwagon played at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, in a show presented by Kente Arts Alliance. The group began the set in darkness, with Moran setting up the introduction of "Feed the Fire," a Geri Allen composition. Having heard the trio on several albums, it was exciting seeing them live. Nasheet Waits is the type of drummer that propels any group in which he plays. Tarus Mateen, on bass guitar not upright bass, can play rapid lines on his instrument without ever overpowering the group or sounding too busy. Then there's Moran who like his mentor the late Jaki Byard, is well-versed in numerous styles of piano and can draw on any number of them at a moment's notice. Like Byard, this isn't mere mimicry either. He went from Earl "Fatha" Hines to Cecil Taylor and back throughout their evening.

During the set, and afterwards during the talk back with Kente's Mensah Wali, Moran's reverence for Pittsburgh's jazz history continued. "Pittsburgh takes care of its legacy," he said later, offering a reminder not to take the city's musical history for granted. His set included several originals but it also featured revised versions of some classics. He played Thelonious Monk's "Thelonious" with blistering speed. "Body and Soul," a song done umpteen times over the years sounded fresh and different, and nothing like any "Body and Soul" you've ever heard.

A short time later in Lawrenceville, the smaller room in Cattivo (aka the one right above where Goth Night was loudly taking place) was the space to catch the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. This time drummer/percussionist Kahil El'Zabar played with trumpeter Corey Wilkes and baritone saxophonist Alex Harding. Wilkes has been a fairly regular member of the group on visits here, and though Harding came with the group once last year, this was my first time seeing him in Pittsburgh. Several years ago he knocked my socks off as a soloist in David Murray's Big Band at the Detroit Jazz Festival. (When I found out who he was that night, I realized he was a member of the group Grass Roots with saxophonist Darius Jones, bassist Sean Conly and drummer Chad Taylor, who released a great album on AUM Fidelity.)

The evening combined straight ahead tunes like "Bebop," adapted to fit the stripped down sound of the trio, as well as El'Zabar standard's like "Can You Find a Place," where he plays finger piano and keeps a pulse with ankle bells, mixing spirituality with AACM-style soloing. Harding proved that deserves a lot more attention. He can utilize the low down weight of his instrument or lift into the upper register, creating light and graceful moments as needed. He did both that night. Wilkes was gets better and better each time he comes to town. (I took pictures but they got lost when transferring data to a new phone.) PS - Alex Harding is set to come back to Pittsburgh on Friday, April 19.

Mary Halvorson brought her Code Girl project to the Warhol Museum last Wednesday, March 7. The group, as stated in an earlier post, includes the guitarist's Thumbscrew bandmates Michael Formanek (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums), adding Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet) and Amirtha Kidanbi. 

The inclusion of vocals, which frequently veered into torrid wails similar to Shelley Hirsch or Jeanne Lee, occasionally felt a little too unhinged, Kidambi gave a dynamic performance. During "And" she unleashed a long tone with the power of an opera singer, an image that was confirmed by her stance at an angle in front of her microphone. As the set wore, Kidambi's voice seemed to function more as a third voice between Halvorson and Akinmusire, and she easily handled the task of standing between those two.

Akinmusire's part in "And" began with a warm tone that is typically heard from a flugelhorn. But he quickly traded that warmth for some intense tonguing. Later in the set, he straddled a sweet sound with one that sounded like it was coming through a fuzz pedal. I knew he was a great player, but he really blew the lid of the place.

As far as Halvorson herself, the set has to be one of the best performances I've heard from her, up there with her Septet's performance at the 2014 Winter Jazz Fest. (I've seen her other times in Pittsburgh and New York, but these were my favorites.) Her playing was especially intense, whether it was the finger picking of "Pretty Mountain," the indie rock-style of "Storm Cloud" or the raw solos she unleashed during the set. Code Girl was a heavy listen with changes coming at the ears left and right. But seeing the quintet put it all together live (the first show of the tour, to boot), it made a lot of sense.

Monday, March 12, 2018

CD Review: Sylvie Courvoisier Trio - D'Agala

Sylvie Courvoisier Trio

Sylvie Courvoisier dedicated each of the nine tracks on her latest album to nine individuals from different walks of life, including a French politician, artists, musicians and her father. As it often goes with these homages, it's not a requirement to hear the tracks as direct representations of the honoree. Although in some cases the similarity might seem a bit intentional.

"Bourgeois's Spiders," named for artist Louis Bourgeois' arachnid sculptures, features Courvoisier shifting the focus away from the keys of her piano. She plays the frame of the instrument, or the strings themselves, as Drew Gress (bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums) stealthily vamp beneath her, which evokes spiders.

Wolleson begins the eight-minute title track, dedicated to the late pianist Geri Allen, with a batch of arrhythmical sounds, which serve as ambiance rather than pulse. In the background, it sounds like a faucet drips, birds roost and what sounds like a rusty high hat cymbal adds irregular squeaks. (Some of that is pure metaphor.) In the foreground, Courvoisier and Gress play the rubato melody, the latter up the neck of his instrument. Though they move together, Gress follows a micro-second behind, giving it room to breathe.

At this point, D’Agala creates the temptation to scrutinize all the tracks, comparing and contrasting the way the pianist does or doesn’t evoke, for instance, Ornette Coleman in “Éclats for Ornette” (sort of) or the one-named honoree Charlie in the knotted “Pierino Porcospino” (who knows). “Fly Whisk” might not evoke Intakt regular Irène Schweizer (who’s recent Live! with drummer Joey Baron should also be checked out) but with quick staccato playing by Gress and Courvoisier, her labelmate would surely enjoy the track.

Bypass the names and D’Agala stands as a strong, varied set of music; all nine pieces explore different ideas, each as thought-provoking as the previous one. “Imprint Double” starts off with a low boogie riff (taught to Courvoisier by her father) with the rhythm of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” But before there is a chance to dig into either that song or to turn it more sinister, the trio moves onto something open and free. That ability to turn a corner and sustain focus, which a rhythm section that’s clearly in tune with her thoughts, makes Courvoisier’s latest effort a consistently rewarding listen.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Show Preview: Mary Halvorson's Code Girl +

Left to right: Mary Halvorson, Amirtha Kidambi, Ambrose
Akinmusire, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara 

This is the cover of the CD

Mary Halvorson - Code Girl
Wednesday, March 7
Andy Warhol Museum, North Side
8 p.m. $20 ($15 for members and students)

There's lots of timely things to be talking about now, but this one rises to the top of the list. Along with Jason Moran's show tomorrow (with a set by the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble later at a different venue*) this particular show is one people should make serious plans to see. It marks the return to Pittsburgh by guitarist Mary Halvorson with yet another project. Also, the album Code Girl was released today and, for once, Pittsburgh happens to be the first stop on their tour.

The core of the Code Girl quintet is basically the collaborative Thumbscrew trio: guitarist Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. If there was ever a familiarity to that group, it evaporates thanks to the two additional members of the band, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and vocalist Amirtha Kidanbi. Halvorson composed both music and lyrics for the album. No stranger to lyrics she's previously written and sung with People (a mangled jazz-punk project with drummer Kevin Shea) and in duets with violist Jessica Pavone.

The lyrics read like fragmented beat poetry, and following along is recommended (at least at home) because Kidambi often sucks on and savors vowel sounds, often making any underlying theme even more obtuse. Sometimes her vocalizing sounds like a darker version of Robert Wyatt's style, while at other times her melodic path recalls some of the more operatic moments on Carla Bley's Escalator Over the Hill. And much like the latter album, so much is happening in the songs that any abrasive qualities are overlooked and placed to side for further investigation later.

That puts the attention on Halvorson and Akinmusire. The guitarist takes her signature clean-but-warped sound in a number of different directions. "Accurate Hit" strips the group down to just guitar and vocals. Halvorson bangs out a pattern that would sound like anthemic rock in the hands of the average joe. But her tone-bending pedal twists the standard sound at random moments, motivating Kidambi to respond in kind. By the final verse, she's wailing much like her accomplice's instrument. "Off the Record" begins in a tranquil mood, briefly shifting into a straight chord pattern than almost sounds like Count Basie's Freddie Green, finally featuring a solo where the delay pedal grabs the notes and bends them after they have left the guitar. It's a strange way in which Halvorson sounds like she's manipulating real time.

Akinmusire sounds quite at home in this melange of improvisation and arty composition. He and Formanek engage in a great duet to open "In the Second Before," with the trumpeter emitting some low smears and growls. His puckish tone is a driving force in "And" as well. There are other moments too when he and Kidambi seem to be inspiring and driving each other's work.

Usually Pittsburgh doesn't get a band like this so early into their formation. The young age of Code Girl (the band) isn't apparent by listening to the music, which is another reason to take advantage of an opportunity to see them in person. Hard to say when they might come back, especially considering how many other projects all of them have going on.

*For information on Jason Moran and Bandwagon's show on Saturday, here's a preview I wrote for City Paper. Also, Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble plays tomorrow night as well at Cattivo, 146 44th Street, Lawrenceville. Along with trumpeter Corey Wilkes, El'Zabar will have baritone saxophonist Alex Harding. I saw him play with David Murray's Big Band and he practically stole the show. Things start at 10 pm, following the Moran show. $20 at the door.

Monday, February 26, 2018

CD Review: Wayne Escoffery - Vortex

Wayne Escoffery

Tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery's latest album was born out of the social/political climate of the previous year, as he is raising a young son in the midst of "an age of unconscious white privilege and empowered white nationalists, in an age of increased gun violence and brutality against children and young black men, and in an age where the people leading the country are the ones exemplifying  the worst in men and scaring youth rather than inspiring them," as he states in the liner notes. (One can only imagine how he felt two weeks ago, following the shootings in Parkland, Florida.) When Escoffery grew up, born in England of Jamaican descent and living in the United States, he dealt with issues of racism and not being "black enough," so the fact that he was having to deal with these issues all over again as a parent was troubling.

It makes an intense topic which Escoffery uses it to release passion and conviction in his playing. Vortex features his first recordings with pianist David Kikoski, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr. They have been playing together for two years, though the saxophonist also worked with Peterson and Okegwo in other settings.

The group's cohesion is evident in the album's opening moments. "Vortex" is propelled by a rapid tenor line. Both Escoffery and Kikoski seem right at home, firing off solos at this blurry tempo. The instrumentation for the majority of the album, as well as the musical execution, evokes the classic John Coltrane Quartet.  "Judgement," which serves as an intro to Peterson's "Acceptance," adds to that. Without sounding like an imitation to their forefathers, the brief rubato theme, with piano runs and loose drums fills, has a contemplative quality even as it pushes forward. "Acceptance" follow immediately, rolling along in 15/4, emphasizing one rhythm in the theme and another beneath the solos. The quartet takes to the groove naturally, revealing the depth of their unique rapport. Escoffery's solo features him taking a scalar line, reshaping it through repetition and pushing himself further.

For an update of "To the Ends of the Earth," a standard done by Nat "King" Cole," Escoffery consciously puts it in Coltrane context. Kikoski begins by playing the vamp from "My Favorite Things" to ground the melody. When the group proceeds with the theme, it recalls the way Coltrane himself reshaped "Out of This World" in a similar manner. It includes a few Trane-style wails in the solo but again, Escoffery uses them more as a tip of the hat on the way with his own solo.

Vortex also includes trumpeter Jeremy Pelt on "In His Eyes," adding warmth to a mid-tempo Escoffery original. The track is one of two where Peterson gives the kit over to young drummer Kush Abadey. The regular quartet is also joined by percussionist Jaquelene Acevedo on three tracks. Both Abadey and Acevedo appear on "The Devil's Den," a minor key piece inspired by the current administration. Heard in that context, the wails from Escoffery's soprano and the chord that the band punctuates at the end of each chorus both make sense. Which is another way of saying that the song's back story doesn't need to be known to fully appreciate it, but it can make the listener more conscious of the structure when it does. Tense times have once again created a strong piece of art.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Savage Young Dü Reminds Me Why I Love the Hüskers

Sometimes it takes a while for a band to get their sound together, figuring out their focus and what they want to achieve. The CD edition of Hüsker Dü's Everything Falls Apart album (their first studio album but second full-length release) included, among its bonus tracks, their debut single, "Statues" b/w "Amusement." Following the tight, sometimes violent songs from the album and the equally fantastic "In A Free Land" single, these early songs feature little of what was too come. Grant Hart's "Statues," presented in an uncut eight-minute version when the single version was already two minutes longer than it needed to be, sounded like PiL without the rumbling bass (Greg Norton was playing higher on the neck than Jah Wobble ever dared). Bob Mould's "Amusement" lumbered on for too many verses, angry without a way to channel it. Perhaps Hüsker Dü was just another band in their earliest days.

Boy was I wrong on that count.

Yesterday, after reading about it and hearing people coo over it, I picked up Savage Young Dü (Numero Group), the four-record and hardcover book box set that chronicles the earliest activity of Grant Hart, Bob Mould and Greg Norton. Maybe it's not Zen Arcade but the music here - and, full disclosure, I still have one more record to listen to - just pops with excitement. While their official album debut, Land Speed Record, made the band sound like a simple hardcore band, and Everything Falls Apart refined the sound, the trio already had plenty of ideas of what they could do from the early days. The poppier elements, which came to the fore on Flip Your Wig and the two Warner Brothers albums, were already in the mix from the early days. Mould's yowling approach to the guitar was already there, and he could straddle that with some sharp hooks from the get-go.

Some of the early songs might sound a little quaint at first blush. "Can't See You Anymore," with its age-old tale of "your Mom and Dad don't like me" is somewhat amusing, as are tracks like "Insects Rule the World" and "Industrial Grocery Store." But they're delivered with the same fire power that was the group's m.o. during their SST days, so it carries this music. The songs - and there are plenty here that the lads worked up only to scrap them just as quickly - convey the excitement a band feels when new songs are brought in and everyone realizes that they're on to something: Maybe things aren't totally together yet, but it's already clear that things will gel before too long. In the meantime, it feels really exciting.

I tried to get a shot of the spine to convey how thick the box is.
That's Record one on the side of it. Records 2-4 and the book are in the box.

Growing up in the early to mid '80s, I didn't fully discover Hüsker Dü until Zen Arcade. I knew about them and heard that they were more than a thrash band, but I hadn't gotten around to them yet. Of course I devoured that album and New Day Rising, which seemed to come out mere months after its predecessor. At the same time, they couldn't top the Minutemen, who seemed to be tuned into weirder stuff that struck a chord with me. Today, it's apples and oranges, of course. But the Minutemen also seemed to confuse most of the young punks I knew, which only sent me on more of a crusade.

Ironically, while the Minutemen were the ones who I wanted to be, there was no way I felt like I'd ever play the bass like Mike Watt. When I saw them live, I swore he didn't touch the E string for the first half of the set, so busy was he walking all over the rest of the neck.

Hüsker Dü, on the other hand, was the band that - to some degree - I felt like I aspire to be. I might be able to play bass like Greg Norton, simply but heavily. I could certainly yell like Bob Mould. And Grant Hart wrote the kinds of songs that I wanted to write, taking punk sensibilities and wrapping them in catchy hooks. There was hope for me.

The music reminds me of all of that. The story conveyed in the book tells how it came together, out of necessity and out of a huge desire to create. As their friend Terry Katzman says in the booklet, "They weren't onstage to talk, play games and tune their guitars. They were there to play, and play as smart and as hard as they could."

And to top it all off, in listening to "Statues" and "Amusement" amidst all the other songs, they have an urgency and power that I didn't catch on Everything Falls Apart and More disc. Good mastering job, guys!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Jason Roebke In Pittsburgh, A Night of Brevity

The last time Jason Roebke played in Pittsburgh, he was on the stage at the Consol Energy Center (now the PPG Paints Arena). He was a member of Locksmith Isidore, a trio led by bass clarinetist Jason Stein, the brother of that evening's headlining act, Amy Schumer. This past Friday, Roebke was by himself in a more intimate setting - the White Whale Bookstore in Bloomfield, the neighborhood a few miles up the road the arena. 

The bassist was between shows. A date with Tomeka Reid was coming up in Cleveland so he was trying to pick up a few things in between and this one came together easily. Luckily a friend of mine got wind of it and told me about it in enough time that I was able to make it. Roebke is an incredible bassist, who has recorded with most of the Chicago players that I follow (Stein, Mike Reed, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Frank Rosaly). He's also recorded a number of great albums under his own name, including High/Red/Center and Cinema Spiral. 

The evening's performances were conspicuous in their brevity. Susan Kuo and David Bernabo opened the night was a set of quiet improvisation. And by quiet, I mean if everyone hadn't been sitting in silent, rapt attention, you might not have been able to hear it. Bernabo bowed and occasionally plucked an acoustic guitar. Kuo played a thumb piano and added some vocals. From the back row of folding chairs, it was hard to see clearly, which made it interesting to figure out what was happening.

Music took a backseat next, since the following two performers were authors. Matthew Newton read an essay about growing up in the mid-'80s in Braddock, the once-thriving steel town that was falling apart at that time. His story of getting picked up after school by his Viet Nam vet uncle and his wild friend told a was really evocative in its detail about his memories of that time, and poignant as well. Rachel Ann Bricker played an audio piece next that spoofed computer apps, this one about finding your inner child. It incorporated movie samples including the inevitable Star Wars reference. 

Then Roebke carried his bass out from behind one of the shelves of books, along with his bow. From the moment he started playing, Roebke was deeply involved in the creation. When he set his bow on the podium next to the stage, or reached to pick it up, he never took his eyes off his instrument, reaching almost blindly for what he needed, without slowing the performance. He sometimes looked agitated or upset, like he was trying to figure out the best move to make. At first, his playing was sort of spare, using the bow over and under the bridge. At one point, Roebke even wedged the bow under the A string (I couldn't get my camera out in time). His technique was astounding, producing all sorts of rich, somewhat roaring sounds out of his instrument.

But after about 20 minutes, it was over. In fact, he played for about 10 minutes and set his instrument down. Then he seemed to get a nod from someone in the back of the room that it was okay to keep going, so he went back for more. I've seen Henry Grimes go on for an hour or more with just a bass and a violin. I would had gladly soaked up another 10 or 15 minutes from Roebke. However, he's coming back in April with Tomeka Reid, Mary Halvorson and Tomas Fujiwara. (The latter two are here in a few weeks at the Warhol with Halvorson's Code Girl band too.) So the pump has been primed.

There was a show happening down the street at Howler's so I headed down their next. That show was also a night of short, concise sets, as late., Clara Kent and Garter Shake (below) all played 30-minute sets.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

CD Review: Richard X. Bennett - Experiments With Truth/ What Is Now

Richard X. Bennett
Experiments With Truth
What Is Now

Pianist Richard X. Bennett has played all manner of music in New York since he moved there from Toronto in the '90s. These two albums marks his first stateside releases, though he's been fairly productive in the ensuing years. His previous work has been released in India, albeit on one of the country's largest imprints, Times Music, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Having lived in Mumbai as well as New York City, Bennett has become familiar with Indian ragas and, in the past, has combined traditional Indian classical musicians with jazz improvisation. That approach drives the compositions on Experiments with Truth, which are played by an open-eared jazz group. Bassist Adam Armstrong and drummer Alex Wyatt hold down the grooves with Bennett. On top of them, baritone saxophonist Lisa Parrott and tenor saxophonist Matt Parker bring the melodies to life. The two-horn attack sounds especially heavy when they stick to the lower registers of their horns. The opening honk of "Say Om 108 Times" hits especially hard, tipping the hat towards another aspect of Bennett's early inspirations: the World Saxophone Quartet and traditional New Orleans jazz. Armstrong often embellishes the grooves with counter-melodies that play up the group's funky quality.

Several tracks are subtitled with the ragas that Bennett used as a launching point. "The Fabulist (Raga Malakauns)" initially feels minimal, with a simple spare from Bennett. When the group eventually breaks into a chord change, it feels like the initial groove has been part of a tension-and-release set up and the group a lot of mileage out of it. "Portrait In Sepia" has a noirish feel to it, with a slippery bass line which could be  a lost soundtrack that Henry Mancini wrote for Peter Gunn, thanks to the romantic feel major key shift in the bridge. Parrott picks up this blend of darkness and intrigue.

Bennett has called himself a minimalistic player who nevertheless finds inspiration in the extended melodies lines that vocalists improvise. Both of these aspects are present on What Is Now, which jettisons the saxophonists for a trio outing. By narrowing the scope of the sound, the album doesn't have the same impact as Experiments. The trio kicks up some compelling grooves that hint at soul-jazz, compounded by the authoritative way that Bennett stabs at the chords.

But many of the tracks come in under five minutes, setting a mood without really getting a chance to develop it before things fade out. Armstrong again takes some strong solos, doubling up the tempo over his comrades. A new take on that old standard "Over the Rainbow" gives it a 6/8 gospel feel, but it buries the melody in favor of the rich chords. This epitomizes the shortcomings of What Is Now: it features a lot of ear-catching harmonies but it lacks the key elements (more blowing, another lead instrument/voice) that get it to its destination. Bennett has the dexterity to get a couple ideas rolling with both hands. There could be a little more of that here.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

CD Review: Nick Fraser - Is Life Long?

Nick Fraser
Is Life Long?
(Clean Feed)

Toronto drummer Nick Fraser has visited Pittsburgh three times with trumpeter Lina Allemano. In one of those appearances, with Allemano's Titanium Riot, Fraser played his kit very delicately, eyes closed, adding what was needed but never adding too much. Is Life Long? contains many moments like that, where Fraser could very easily cut loose amid some jagged free improvisation. But he holds back, adding color, or in some ways, echoing melodies on the drums.

Along with Fraser, this quartet includes Tony Malaby (tenor and soprano saxophones), Andrew Downing (cello), and Rob Cutter (bass, also a member of Titanium Riot). All three recorded with Fraser on 2013's Towns and Villages (Barnyard) as well.  Together they create a remarkable sound. Downing's cello sometimes works closely with Malaby's horns, but it also feels also operates comfortably in close proximity with Cutter. Combined with those varying textures, the six Fraser originals often find the musicians playing rhythms that contrast and clash with each other. The nervy soprano saxophone melody on "Disclosure" slides across the rhythm section's slow steady pulse. In it, Malaby never really clicks with the band, but with Downing's part complementing him, locking in clearly isn't the point.

But it makes for a dark, minor feel that continues for awhile on the album. Things kick off with four minutes of long, sustained wails ("Quicksand"), recalling heavier moments of AACM history, before Malaby switches from soprano to tenor to move in tandem with Downing over a bowed bass drone. This blend of free jazz and avant classical chamber sounds, with Fraser's loose-limbed accompaniment in the background, make it worth sitting through the unsettling first third of the track, especially to hear Malaby's tenor get a little vicious towards the end.

"Empathy" continues the mournful feeling with counter-melodies from Downing and Malaby. But the second half moves into brighter territory with "Skeleton" and "Arachnid," the latter with a staccato melody that tenor and cello keep in close proximity during the solos. By the time they get into formation for the march that Fraser gradually builds up in "The Predictor," the quartet hits a tense but powerful conclusion that sounds forthright and triumphant. The road to get to that point was a little dark and rough at times, but by the end it has proven to be a worthwhile journey.  

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

CD Review: Stephen Dydo & Alan Sondheim - Dragon and Phoenix

Stephen Dydo & Alan Sondheim
Dragon and Phoenix

ESP-Disk' made the world safe for outsider musicians. Albert Ayler, the Fugs, the Godz, Erica Pomerance, Frank Lowe -  they were all given a platform by the late Bernard Stollman to present their art to a populace that would listen. Even after having talked to Mr. Stollman for a substantial amount of time, I'm not totally sure why he released such a massive discography equally stocked with great things and questionable works by people like folk singer Tony Snell or a studio-only noisy project called Cromagnon. But he did, and we're all the better for it.

Alan Sondheim got in on the ground floor with ESP, releasing Ritual All 7-70 in 1967. He played an array of instruments (including koto, English horn and percussion) in a series of improvisations by a small ensemble. A second album apparently focused on electronic music and oscillations. Not exactly a jazz music, and more like someone with a eye toward what would later be called world music, Sondheim was just the kind of iconoclast for an imprint like ESP.

When the label came back to life, Sondheim was there, releasing Cutting Board in 2014. Accompanied by two saxophonists, he improvised on 13 different instruments that ranged from chromatic harmonica to sarangi and cura (stringed instruments from India and Turkey, respectively). And there were only 13 tracks on the album.

Dragon and Phoenix reduces the instrumental arsenal to seven, with emphasis on the qin, a Chinese stringed instrument with a history that can be traced back three millennia, according to some literature. Stephen Dydo, former president of the New Yokr Qin Society, bonded with Sondheim over each gentleman's collection of exotic instruments, and they decided to record a series of duets. Dydo plays viola and banjo as well as qin on the 16 tracks. Sondheim also picks them up, along with guzheng, rababa, erhu and madal.

The improvisations are titled using characters from the Chi'ien Tzu Wen. In addition to a symbol, each has a word, with a complementary term in the following track that combines to form an abstract poem ("Heaven and earth/ black and yellow/ space and time...") Each piece has a gentle quality, even in the rare instances where the strings get a little frantic. Dydo and Sondheim play melodies built on the same root,.and even though the time feels loose and free, their parallel melodies move in conjunction with one another. When they bend notes, the music often sounds closer to blues than to a more microtonal music. At the same time, the timbre of the instruments really give the music a lot of its intrigue. The best example comes in the cross-pollination of the banjo and qin in "Yu."

The big question lingers through most of the album is who's playing what. Both musicians are panned to separate channels, perhaps not severely, but enough to notice. With Sondheim playing everything that Dydo plays, and more, it's hard to find a solid answer to the question. Dydo might be a more traditional qin player, but Sondheim is no dilettante on it either. Finally, the mystery is solved in track 15, "Lie," when Sondheim plays the madal, a hand drum. It almost feels like they've been toying with us the whole time and only through patient listening does the answer come.

Dragon and Phoenix, named for the sound holes in the qin, might not be an easy album to digest, at least initially. It has the raw, immediate quality of ESP releases of yore, but there are sonic and harmonic nuances rise to the surface with deeper investigation.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Finding Uncle Wiggly, more Charlie Parker obsessions

Tuesday afternoon was a golden day at the mailbox. Not one, but two records arrived in the mail for me. One was a copy of Mary Halvorson's Illusionary Sea, which I've already written about here. (Click here to read it or just see the cover.) The other was a record for which I've pined for many years, never able to find it and when I did, never able to quite afford it.

The record in question is the debut album by Uncle Wiggly, He Went There So Why Don't We Go. The title is such an oddity that I still don't have it accurately committed to memory and had to grab the cover to make sure I got it right.

I discovered Uncle Wiggly during college when I was deeply obsessed with everything on the Shimmy-Disc label, who released their sophomore Across the Room and Into Your Lap in 1992. The trio had a thing for dreamy psychedelic pop songs that might lope along at Spacemen 3 tempos before kicking into a double-time wig out. (This often happened in the same song.) Sometimes they'd play three chords for eight minutes, occasionally adding a lead guitar melody and the vocal phrase which gave the song its title: "Ba Ba Ba." Kramer gave the album the echoey sheen in much the same way he did for Galaxie 500.

Turns our the band didn't dig that. A few years later, I interviewed them for my zine Discourse. By that time, they were through with him and while they didn't trash the infamous indie recorder, I have a feeling they probably didn't like being in Discourse's Kramer issue, which focused on bands that were affiliated with him. (For the cover we doctored a picture of the sunrise and superimposed a pic of Kramer looming over the mountain side.)

When getting in touch with Wiggly bassist Michael Anzalone for the interview, he said He Went There was only released in Austria, but they had a few copies to sell.... for $30 each. In 1994, pre-eBay and pre-Discogs, that was a lot of scratch for an indie rock album, especially for a poor recent college graduate. The good news is, the album has stayed about the same price in the ensuing years. The bad news is, $30 is still $30.

I've been following copies of it on Discogs, waiting for the best looking version and the right time to feel that I can plunk down the money. A few weeks ago, one popped up that was in good shape and it also came from the collection of late Wiggly guitarist Wm. "Bill" Berger, who passed away last fall. Many more people might know his name due to his affiliation with WFMU-FM, where he hosted a show there for several years. I actually found out he died due to a Facebook post by a friend whose band had been played by Berger on the radio. To my friend, it was the equivalent of being played by John Peel.

With the connection to Berger, and a price tag that was just under $30, it was time to jump. The seller was a great guy who had a few exchanges with me as we were making the transaction. It needed to be cleaned once I got it, but it was everything I hoped it would be.

With a slightly more primitive production than their other albums, it's full of cleanly strummed power chords, stop-start rhythms and a simple-but-solid attack that reminds me of New Zealand bands just prior to that same time period (late '80s/early '90s). James Kavoussi (who alternated drums and guitar with Berger) was also a member of the New York band Fly Ashtray who had a similar mutant pop aesthetic. (Anzalone had also been in Fly Ashtray but bowed out before their first album). The connection seems a little clearer here. Both bands were into long titles (in addition to the album title, they also have songs like "The King's Loyal Moustache Clippings" and "Oatmeal Goddess") and the fast-to-slow shifts in tempo. I think I'll be playing this one for a while.

Furthermore, Fly Ashtray is still together and seems to have released an album in the past year or so. I sent Kavoussi a friend request on FB. (We actually met at CMJ back in the '80s on a night when both of his bands were playing at different clubs in New York. Doubt he'll remember me, though.) I think I need to comment on his page and inquire about the record. Though I worry a little because Fly Ashtray also had a thing for sampler/noise pieces on their albums too. But I'm still curious enough to ask.

And then....... the Charlie Parker obsession continues! The Penn Hills library had this copy of the Dean Benedetti box! For those who don't know, Benedetti was an aspiring saxophone player who, for a few months, recorded Charlie Parker in concert. And I mean just Charlie Parker. Armed with a 78 record cutter and later a paper-based reel-to-reel tape player, Benedetti recorded while Bird was soloing, and turned the machine off when he wasn't.

This seven-CD set is a collection of lo-fi Charlie Parker solos. It begins right after the saxophonist's release from Camarillo Hospital, when he was getting back on his feet again in Los Angeles, and then picks up a few months later back in New York in a quintet with young Miles Davis and Max Roach. It's obsessive, it's sometimes hard to listen to, it's a lot of the same songs over and over again - but if you're fascinated by history and the early development of bebop, you have to hear it.

Not only that, being a Mosaic set, it has a deluxe book with a bio on Benedetti, a breakdown of each set of recordings (which don't run chronologically but by a system devised by producer Phil Schaap) and an analysis of Parker's approach to the horn, via detailed descriptions of the music.

I borrowed this beast from the library about 20 years ago, but I guess I didn't have the obsessive desire to dig through all of this at that time. I have a feeling I didn't even make it through the whole set, because I never recall hearing Bird play "Well You Needn't" with Thelonious Monk sitting in with the band. If I had, the history of the moment might have impacted me more. It might only be a couple choruses of it, but you have to wonder - how many times in life did those two ever play that song?

Uh-oh, I'm feeling the urge to grab Robin D. G. Kelley's Monk biography and see if there's an answer for the question. Or even some reference to the night in 1948 when it happened. (I often pick up that book and just skim it for fun.)

Before I do that, I want to add that I also found an affordable copy of the Parker Savoy/Dial box that had been stolen from my car, as mentioned in the last post. I was hoping to just dub it from a friend who had it, but I'm happy to be getting the real thing again.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Charlie Parker, broken windows, bad weather

Two Thursdays ago, when it was really cold, the back passenger's side window of my car got smashed. The car was parked in a lot while my son and I were having dinner in Eat N Park. Locals beware: It was the lot between Bartlett and Beacon Streets in Squirrel Hill. A friend of mine was mugged there in broad daylight a couple years ago, which I should have taken as a tip to keep away. Don't park there. I heard there have also been a rash of broken car windows near Frick Park as well.

At first I thought, well this sucks but at least there was nothing in the car. Then I started remembering what was in the car: I had an ECM tote bag (from Winter JazzFest 2016). Eh, just a few issues of JazzTimes and downbeat were in there and they're replaceable.  But... [cue the tragic music] the 8-CD Charlie Parker Complete Savoy and Dial Session box was in the bag, except for Disc 4, which was in the car's CD player. I left the booklet at home (a very important part of that set), thinking that with any snow and ice that might get into the car, I didn't want that to get damaged. If only it had just gotten wet.

There's more. Donovan's piano lesson books were in the bag too. After filling out a report with the police, getting ready to drive home, I also realized the kid's backpack was taken too. I hope the bastard that took it liked his shoes. (Thank God his drum practice pad from school hadn't been in there as well.) A day later I was reaching for my new calendar/appointment book when...gone. Santa was nice enough to reorder one for me, which I got earlier this week.

Tips - If this happens to you, the heavy duty vacuum at most car washes/gas stations can suck up the glass. My car is a 2015 and the glass shattered in chunks so there weren't very  many small shards around. Putting a garbage bag over the window is okay for overnight parking but driving with it is ridiculous. (After driving about five blocks, it was practically off the door, so I just ripped it all the way off.) Getting it on was probably the most frustrating part of Thursday night. The roll of duct tape we have is pretty old and brittle anyway, and getting it to stick in the freezing cold was a big challenge.

The good news was insurance hooked me up with Safe Lite, who got a new one in the following day. All that was left to do was mourn the losses.

That Parker box hurts on a number of levels, the biggest one at the moment being that I was just started to get back into a Bird kick, listening to more of his music. Recently, I started organizing all of my Parker albums chronologically, both the studio albums and the live recordings. Someday, I want to look at all of them and see how closely I can track his life - week to week, month to month, season to season?

I got that eight-disc set used and it was a really smart purchase, both as a reference and for the music and info it provides. I have a Savoy two-fer with all the masters on vinyl, and a best of the Dial sessions, but this had all that and more, sequenced an order that made sense. Each session presents all the master takes in a row, followed by the alternate takes. It welcomes casual listening but makes it easy to do the analytical listen for those who so desire.

The box is out of print, so I started asking around if any friends have it. If I copy it, all I need is the booklet really. The cover was nice, but I can live without it. One friend rummaged through a box of stuff and realized he does, so I'm set. Although, I did see a used copy pop up for a great price online. I'm tempted....

Prior to the break-in, I was contemplating Mosaic's set of Dean Benedetti's Parker recordings. These are the ones recorded with often no trace of fidelity and only capture Bird's groups when he was playing. (Once he's done soloing, Benedetti stopped the recorder.) Bad sound, but important music. I think part of my sudden desire to get it was related to the set being on Mosaic's "Running Low" list. It's getting hard to get, so I must have it!

Trying to buy it right now is out of the question since it costs a little over $100 and I just bought a couple fancy records online. Then I discovered that the Penn Hills library has a copy and the Carnegie Library in Oakland could get it for me. So I requested it.

When I woke up this morning, I saw an email that it's waiting for me at the library. Pity then that all this blakenty-blank snow is going to keep me from getting over there today.

I'm looking forward to the spring.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

LP Reviews: Greg Goodman, John Gruntfest & Derek Bailey Return on the Beak Doctor

John Gruntfest & Greg Goodman
In This Land All the Birds Wore Hats and Spurs

Derek Bailey & Greg Goodman
Extracting Fish-Bones from the Back of the Despoiler

(Beak Doctor)

It's tempting to compare In This Land All Birds Wore Hats and Spurs to a box set from Mosaic Records. Although it's single album, it comes on a beautiful 12X12 box, assembled with love and care, much like the elaborate Mosaic sets. A 12X12 four-page booklet features pictures and credits. Another insert features thumbnail reproductions of other releases on the label. If that wasn't enough, each of the 100 limited edition releases includes a painting by John Gruntfest, signed by the artist, as well as an additional insert with thumbnails of all 100 paintings.No wonder a ribbon is attached on the inside.

Of course, brothers and sister, this ain't no Mosaic. By a long shot.

To understand the Beak Doctor imprint means going back to 1978. Pianist Greg Goodman, saxophonist Larry Ochs and guitarist Henry Kaiser co-founded Beak Doctor/Metalanguage Records that year to spotlight international improvisers, among them Fred Frith, Evan Parker and the ones on these two releases. It was the first independent label of its kind on the West Coast devoted to free improvisation, taking a cue from Bailey and Parker's Incus label and acting in tandem with Horace Tapscott's Nimbus West label as well as the New York-based Parachute label.

The last Beak Doctor album appeared in 2003, by which time the label had transitioned to CD releases. These two new albums find them going back to vinyl, with digital downloads available with the package. Both feature artwork by Jean de Bosschère, which evokes Edward Gorey, though these come from the 1920 work The City Curious, pre-dating Mr. Gorey.

In This Land All the Birds Wore Hats and Spurs begins with a look back at Beak Doctor's early days (side one comes from performances in 1984 and 1986), before it jumps ahead to more recent times (side two was recorded in 2008). John Gruntfest is credited as playing tenor saxophone, but the tone of his horn and the way the low notes resonate really sounds more like an alto. Goodman plays "every thing else" [sic], which in his case means piano, playing the inside by hand occasionally in addition to striking the keys.

"Pure Mind" begins in a minimal, tranquil mood. Goodman lets a pedal note drone work hypnotically while Gruntfest builds simple but engaging melodies over it. "Great Bird" begins more casually. Goodman's upper register notes glisten and his partner casually moves in and out. The way the pianist varies the rhythm of his basic notes does evoke birds in flight. Halfway through the 16-minute track,the meandering aspect is replaced by more focus. Goodman moves down a few octaves, guiding some stronger ideas from Gruntfest, with the piano even answering him on a few.

Of the two players, Gruntfest has also worked as a poet and visual artist. That back story is good to keep in mind while perusing the extensive notes on the album. Perhaps this is just free improvisation with thoughts such is "There really is no reason to doubt there is no reason to doubt," added afterwards with a chuckle. (I checked my typing and that's how it appears.) Or maybe Side Two's three-act title piece is actually an opera with a story line and a complete score that "cannot reasonably be presented." The long-winded aspect of the booklet is a bit much, but it makes me think of equally long-winded notes on other free improv albums that go into ridiculous non-musical, universal detail to explain why the sounds on the disc are not noise but something more... important. Remember that, I appreciate the lighter tone a little more.

As far as the three "acts" on side two are concerned, the relaxed mood heard earlier is replaced by a bit more freedom. In a revealing moment, Gruntfest adopts the tone of a 1920s style jazz saxophonist, tart with big vibrato at hand, though it's easy to miss due to its brevity. Elsewhere he sounds ready to cut loose with wild squonking, especially in "Act III" where he toys with overtones. Goodman uses the strings of the piano for some metallic percussion, he also rumbles down the low end of the keys and plucks the insides as well. While things get wilder during these tracks, they also feel like they have more forward momentum. The duo also has a knack for stopping right at a climax, when there might be a temptation to get even wilder. That's discipline. That's also a way to chart their growth since the '80s, I suppose.

Extracting Fish-Bones from the Back of the Despoiler comes in a heavy cardboard album cover, rather than a box, but the black and while layout is the same, with a de Bosschère illustration and credits on the back. The music was made at a 1992 performance in Eugene, Oregon by Goodman and guitarist Derek Bailey. The back cover describes the two 20-plus minute tracks as "two sides that, while specifically titled, move around, arrive, and depart differently on occasion." If you listen closely, that's true.

This time the pianist is credited for objets d'intérieur, and he does spend a good deal of time inside the frame of the 88s, extracting sounds comparable to vibes, harp or guitar, even getting a great boing effect possibly from the use of a slide. He's not opposed to chords either, playing some tentative notes when Bailey pulls back from the melee.

Virtually any Derek Bailey release can be considered a wild ride, and Fish-Bones is no exception. The guitar sounds that open the album, with no sustain, sound dissonant and atonal, but so perfect at the same time. He never stops for air during the first six or seven minutes, but the ideas keep flowing from his instrument in great detail. When the dynamics eventually shift, it sounds like there could be some bits of composition happening here. Or it could be that Goodman knows what kind of harmony and embellishment to put forth. Whatever might be happening, the rapport between never flags. Even during moments that seem like Bailey and Goodman are trying to figure out what happens next, the knowledge of a payoff keeps things alive.

Along with the attention to detail that comes with both of these albums, it should be noted that both of the 180-gram records are pressed well too. At a time when off-center vinyl is, sadly, a distinct possibility, these two slabs play smoothly.

The Beak Doctor is in. Pay a visit.