Tuesday, May 22, 2018

CD Review: Dave Liebman/Tatsuya Nakatani/Adam Rudolph - The Unknowable

Dave Liebman/Tatsuya Nakatani/Adam Rudolph
The Unknowable
(RareNoise) www.rarenoiserecords.com

When Dave Liebman's name last appeared on this site, it came with two releases - a tribute to John Coltrane in a quintet with saxophonist Joe Lovano and in a duet with pianist Martial Solal, the latter bringing vitality to standards that have no doubt been played hundreds of times. The Unknowable puts the saxophonist in a completely different setting, bringing the same level of skill and energy: an improvised set of tracks with two percussionists.

Tatsuya Nakatani and Adam Rudolph are not your average percussionists either. Nakatani - who utilizes gongs, metal percussion, standard percussion and, on one track, a trap kit - has played with numerous free jazz improvisers and as a solo artist. Adam Rudolph is an expert hand drummer who leads the electric Moving Pictures octet and Go: Organic Orchestra, which has included upwards of 30 players. Both bring different concepts to the table. Rudolph often plays flowing pulses while Nakatani contributes more atmospheric sounds, sometimes in the form of scraping metal. That can often have the effect of nails on the chalkboard but here it lends a sense of intrigue to the music. With Rudolph also doing live electronic processing and picking up a thumb piano, Fender Rhodes (Liebman does too on one track) and strings that add a groove in a few places, the sounds never stay in one place.

Liebman gets ample opportunity to cut loose and he makes the most of it. With some delay effects on his soprano, he wails with abandon during the title track while one of his co-horts plays what sounds like a gamelan. In addition to blowing free, he constructs a deeply melodic tenor line in "Present Time" while Rudolph attacks his congas and Nakatani scrapes up some industrial clatter behind them. For contrast, this is immediately followed by the tranquil "Distant Twilight." Nothing on The Unknowable exceeds five minutes, guaranteeing that everything lasts as long as the inspiration continues. Even in the wilder pieces, like the percussion-only romp "Transmutations" the forward direction is always clear.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

CD Review: Ben LaMar Gay - Downtown Castles Never Block The Sun

Ben LaMar Gay
Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun
(International Anthem) www.intlanthem.com

Ben LaMar Gay first showed up on my radar as a member of Mike Reed's Flesh and Bone, appearing on the landmark album named for the group that came out on 482 Music last year. But the Chicago cornetist, like many in that city, stays active in a several different projects. Among them, he's worked with Makaya McCraven, Nicole Reed, Matthew Lux and the future funk project Bottle Tree.

On top of all that, Gay recorded seven complete solo albums on his own, which have apparently been sitting dormant on his home computer until now. Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun serves as both a solo debut for him and something of a compilation, gathering tracks from this elusive septet of releases-to-be. Anyone looking for a direct line from his work with Reed or Jaimie Branch (he guested on her Fly or Die album last year) will be left scratching their head. ("Muhal" may or may not be a tribute to Muhal Richard Abrams but it doesn't sound anything like one. Anyone who likes to say, "what the hell is this," as they lean in closer to the speakers to hear the answer to that question will have their intrigue satisfied.

If Downtown Castles feels like a compilation, it recalls collections from the early '80s when labels thought nothing of putting sonic experimentation next to music with a groove. My memory of college radio is colored by albums like the Cherry Red label's Perspectives and Distortion which followed that path. Diversity was the order of the day and it made sense.

Beyond that, this album  sounds like the catholic interests of a musician unafraid to jump from style to style. Keyboards and loops factor heavily into the music. Sometimes, like "Jubilee," the dizzying layers of clipped loops only link up because the samples run in sync. What they run in sync sounds chaotic, but Gay nevertheless finds room for one of the album's infrequent brass solos. Just prior to this track "Music for 18 Hairdressers" is built on layers of rhythms that evoke percussive hair cutting. "Galveston" has a long loop reminiscent of Eno's Music for Airports, along with strings that sound like they're transmitted via walkie-talkie.

Elsewhere, Gay adds some vocals to the spare instrumentation of "A Seasoning Called Primavera" whose lyrics combine romance and cooking - and some noises that sound like laptop alarms. "Swim Swim" also features laidback vocals over a poly-rhythms that don't make it easy to feel the downbeat.

He doesn't complete abandon his cornet either. "Miss Nealie Burns" has an old time feel, with banjo and squawky, muted trumpet. The long tones of "Me, Jayve & the Big Bee" feature cornet and saxophone, with an end that sounds like the track might have come from a street recording. (At 1:45 it almost feels like more a tease than anything else.) The closing "Oh no...not again!" includes drums and tuba playing a funky groove for cornet and vocals, which, after falling apart, finds the guitar riff going into 7/4, along with either a melodica or accordion and a wild drumming.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Ben LaMar Gay might be surprised by the contents of Downtown Castles (the title coming from a lyric on one of the seven albums, which may or may not appear herein). But that's quite the idea that fuels this collection. You never know what will come next.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

More Thoughts on Record Collecting, after the Pittsburgh Record Fest

Now that I'm working full time again, I feel a little better about going out and by records impulsively. Not that I really had to stop over the past year or so. But I definitely curbed my spending habits. Trips to used record stores were often just browsing sessions, or moments of anxiety over whether or not I should plunk down money that should go somewhere else.

My series of Bud Shank purchases, documented in a post recently, should offer some indication of where my head is. But also, there's another feeling I've had recently. It's not exactly hoarding but... well, maybe it is.

Jerry Weber, the former owner of Jerry's Records, is now doing online auctions at vinyl-man.com. Since selling the business (the store remains open under new management), and getting knee surgery last year, he started the auction site about the beginning of 2018. In one of his first auctions, he was offering a Clifford Brown/Max Roach album on EmArcy. The exact title escapes but it was probably Brown and Roach Incorporated. I own an original copy of the album, having bought it online. It's great; I highly recommend it, and pretty much anything with Clifford Brown's name on it. Even though I already have it, I thought it would be cool to own another copy. Mine is a little worn. I don't think Mercury - EmArcy's parent company - pressed very good vinyl. Many of mine have a bad hiss on them. Album covers at that time weren't really built to last, in terms of spine and seams. In EmArcy's case, the laminate on the album looks quite weather beaten.

The latter criteria is really what probably tempted me. I like a good album cover. While I did relish the idea of owning another copy, I bid relatively low, knowing in the back of my mind that it was a crazy purchase. And I didn't get it anyway, which is a good life lesson. Hopefully the winner appreciates both the physical item and the music therein.

Pittsburgh Record Fest #19 took place last Friday night at Spirit Hall & Lodge. I sold records at #18 back in December but that wasn't going to happen last week. In fact, I was running the Talent Show at my son's school, so whether I made it all was up in the air until the time came. I arrived nearly three hours into the Fest. In some ways, an event like this can be compared to a good garage sale: Get there early to get first dibs on all the good stuff, or don't go at all. The upshot is, go late and people are willing to make deals so they can carry less weight back to the car.

Since it was late, I decided to gravitate only to the boxes that said "Jazz" on them. I could really run a risk of blowing what money I had with me in a matter of minutes, if I looked through everything. I also wouldn't get anywhere quickly. My thoughts from the top of this entry came back to me because the first thing I considered was a copy of Roland Kirk's Slightly Latin. Yes, I already have it, but my copy doesn't have the gatefold sleeve with the cool booklet pasted inside. It was tempting.

But it's not one of Roland's best albums. And I can't remember the price tag but it was either too high for a duplicate buy or low enough to mean that the record was trashed. Back it went.

The picture above shows what I came away with. The Jazz Abstractions album seemed like a no-brainer. I have the two Ornette Coleman tracks on a cassette somewhere but they take on a different life in the context of the whole album. My jury is still out on the idea of Third Stream music. Plus, "Abstraction," the opening track which also has Ornette, sounds about as crazy any large-scale AACM piece. Maybe even more deranged. Thank you, Gunther Schuller! The side-long variants on Monk's "Criss Cross" already sound cool so this is going to be worth coming back to.

The vendor next to the one who had Jazz Abstractions pointed me right to his jazz box, where he started giving me the hard sell on A Story Tale, an album on Jazzland (an offshoot of Riverside) that was co-led by tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan and alto saxophonist Sonny Red. The band included Elvin Jones and Tommy Flanagan. Dude was virtually foaming at the mouth over this one, insisting that he'd cut me a deal since the cover was water-damaged.

I had heard about The Jazz Modes album a while ago, a group with the frontline of French Horn player Julius Watkins and tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. It too had some water damage but looked to be in decent shape, especially for an Atlantic album with a black label. The album has some pretty interesting writing by Watkins, with a few by Rouse. Sadly, it also has soprano vocalist Eileen Gilbert as the stereotypical fish out of water, wordlessly singing over three of the seven songs.

The same guy also had a Chris Connor album on Bethlehem that caught my eye. I'm not much for vocalists, but Connor does something to me. Her version of "Lush Life" is my favorite interpretation, because she really imbues the words with drama that brings them to life. The first time I ever heard her was on a 10" that my parents owned. Her voice, to my ears at that time, was like a cross between Chet Baker and my mother (who wasn't a professional singer, by the way).

I put This Is Chris back in the box. "Lush Life" is on the equally plainly titled CHRIS which I already own. I asked the guy how much for the other two. "$20. But you have to take Chris Connor with you." I wasn't going to argue there. I like deals.

For the remainder of my time there, I floated around, saying hi to vendors I knew, including my co-worker Neil, who I didn't even know was selling. I could have picked up a copy of Nirvana's Bleached for $11, making my first Nirvana purchase even. But I blew it off. (If I'm really jonesing for it, I have his email.)

Another old friend, who specializes in garage and psych rock, had a copy of Rock and Roll Disco with Fat Albert and the Junkyard Gang. One Fat Albert album has become a coveted item online, because it contains the songs that were used on the Saturday morning cartoon show. Not sure if this was it, I started looking at it. "You can just take that," my friend said. It looked pretty beat and soon it was clear that it wasn't the rare one, but I figured why not. One less thing for him to pack. However when I tried to play it yesterday, I think I heard my stylus yelp at all the scratches. That is why kids records can fetch so much money when they're in pristine shape: it's impossible to find one that's been treated so gently.

Monday, May 14, 2018

CD Review: Dan Weiss - Starebaby

Dan Weiss
(Pi) www.pirecordings.com

After recording a suite that was built upon particular drum breaks played by Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Ed Blackwell, Kenny Clarke, Tony Williams and Philly Joe Jones, Dan Weiss has created a vastly different album. Starebaby combines the visceral, weighty attack of heavy metal together with the influence electronic music and improvisation. His skill with Indian beat cycles, coming from his experience as a tabla player, factors into the compositions, as does his interest in music from the Twin Peaks television series. In fact much of Starebaby's eight tracks sound like soundtrack music, developing slowly, as if they're keeping pace with visuals. (I often hear music that way, but this time, it's not just me.)

The more intriguing aspects of the album comes with the kindred spirits who join Weiss (who has played with Rudresh Mahanthappa, Chris Potter and Jen Shyu, to name a few). All are well known as progressive improvisers in various styles, and they all apparently share Weiss' affinity for the heavy stuff. Bassist Trevor Dunn's inclusion might not be a surprise, as he's played in harder rock bands like Mr. Bungle and appeared in some of John Zorn's heavier groups. Guitarist Ben Monder has always been skilled at peeling off guitar lines that sound loud even at a low volume, so he feels like a natural for this set. But also along for the ride are both Craig Taborn and Matt Mitchell, both on piano and electric keyboards. The album utilizes their respective skills at creating musical scenes, but they can clearly shred with the best of them.

The reason heavy metal doesn't get much respect can be attributed to the excess that has become part and parcel over the years. The big hair, the rapid guitar solos (which, after awhile, start to sound like cartoon characters singing, "Figaro, Figaro" too fast), and the Cookie Monster vocals - they've all contributed to the comic value. If a band can do all that in 5/8, just remember my old tenet: it ain't what time signature you play it, it's what you play in that time signature.  (If this sounds like the thoughts of an ill-informed codger, you might be in the wrong place.) But strip away all that excess, and the best part still remains - the weight of the sound. Like Bobby Previte's Mass album from last year, Starebaby avoids the excessive pitfalls here.

Weiss doesn't use this material as a chance to show off his flashy drum skills. In fact, he almost prefers to sit back and let his playing add color to the work of his bandmates. Many of his parts are built predominantly on snare drum whacks, which are pushed in the mix to make sure they land between the listener's eyes. When he does play solos, they aren't solos so much as beat cycles. This is noticeable during what sounds like a free passage in "Episode 8." In "The Memory of My Memory" the cycle of beats keeps shifting, ratcheting the intensity each time, especially when Monder grabs onto the section.

The aforementioned tracks move slowly but with a sense of determination, as the sections rise and fall in volume and velocity. "Episode 8," over 14 minutes in length, does this particularly well. Other parts of the album almost feel too focused on riffs and suspense, at the expense of resolve. Granted, an album like this is most definitely going to have a foreboding, murky feel to it most of the time, but it could use more moments like the brutal coda of "The Memory of My Memory" or Monder's freak out in "Depredation." However the jazz-metal heads (who are out there) will no doubt eat this up.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Looking Back Over a Few Weeks: Ben Goldberg/Michael Coleman, Nathan Davis

In the print media world, it's no big deal if an article about an event runs 10 days after the event happened. In the online world, it feels like I'm behind the times if it takes me that long to blog about something. But I'm here and you're here and you should know what you missed anyway.

On Saturday, April 28, clarinetist Ben Goldberg and keyboardist Michael Coleman played a show at Hambone's, in the neighborhood of Lawrenceville. Hambone's isn't exactly a bastion of free improvised music, but it's still a great joint, with a good sound system and plenty of seating. And bar food, for those who are so inclined. 

It was clear, walking through the door that the line between the bar room and the music room was going to be a serious dividing line that night. No one in the bar was rowdy, but during the quieter moments of the music, conversations could be hearing spilling through the doorway, even though a plastic shade was strategically hung over the doorway to cut out the sound.

Apologies to Mortis, who opened the show. I arrived 10 minutes into Goldberg and Coleman's set. There have been a handful of clarinet players involved in adventurous jazz but Goldberg is one who really makes me want to hear more clarinets in this setting. He plays with such a strong, deep tone on his B-flat instrument, making it resonate in all sorts of warm ways that I can't get enough of it.

He and Coleman recently released Practitioner, an album of works by Steve Lacy. Taken from the late soprano saxophonist's Hocus Pocus - Book H of Practitioners, the pieces were composed to be used as complex exercises, built on challenging lines. Watching Goldberg play, it was clear they could be quite the workout, with rapid lines that contained convoluted melodies. Not only did he dig into them, he used them as gateways to improvisation. Along with his clarinet, he used his contra-alto clarinet, which has a tone that could be mistaken for a bass clarinet or a contra-bass clarinet, for those who don't know their low reeds or forgot what they read on the back of CD covers.

Coleman was surrounded by a bank of keyboards and mixers. He accompanied Goldberg's playing with atmospheric swirls and sounds and he worked as a second melodic instrument, playing his own lines built out of a good melodic sense and a dexterity that helped him reshape the lines as he created them. During one particularly inspired moment, Coleman kept repeating a melody as his instruments seemed to make it melt and get lower with each repetition.

Not only does Practitioner include six Lacy works, it also includes baseball cards, one for each of the musicians who either played or wrote the music (the duo, Lacy, etc.) and the artists who inspired it and created the artwork for the cover and recorded it. Alas there is no flat, hard piece of bubblegum to go with it, like the Topps baseball cards of bygone days. But Goldberg and Coleman provide enough to chew on otherwise, pun intended but true anyway.


By now it's common knowledge that saxophonist Nathan Davis died on April 8, but his passing is not something I feel I should have overlooked. The saxophonist was a fixture in Pittsburgh,  almost to the point where he was taken for granted. But his creation of a Jazz Studies department at the University of Pittsburgh in 1969 was pretty groundbreaking, coming at a time when jazz musicians weren't often held in higher regard than hippie groups. I remember Davis telling us in his History of Jazz class about walking across campus and running into people who were surprised that he was a clean-cut well dressed guy and not someone more raggedy.

Hopefully the Pitt Jazz Seminar that he started - and which was continued by Geri Allen before she too passed last year - will still be maintained in coming years. I often bemoaned that Davis often drew from the same circle of players each year, with only a few wild cards thrown in on occasion. But I also realized that it gave aspiring musicians and fans a chance to hear these players speak at informal seminars, allowing us all to get close to them and bask in their history. And all the seminars were free!

Finally, at several of those Seminar concerts. Davis got a chance to really perform on tenor and soprano saxophone. Maybe it was the idea that he was among heavy hitters that spurred him onto higher levels, or maybe he just didn't get a chance to blow like that very often. Whatever it was, it left me with a greater appreciation for his technique. That musicianship, and his verbal insight, were a big part of Resonance's CD set Larry Young In Paris The ORTF Recordings that came out in 2016. Davis talks a great deal in the liner notes about how he connected in Paris with both trumpeter Woody Shaw and organist Young, who he was reticent to hire until he heard him play.

RIP Nathan. Um - I mean, Dr. Davis.

Monday, May 07, 2018

CD Review: Ceramic Dog - YRU Still Here?

Ceramic Dog
YRU Still Here?
(Northern Spy) www.northernspyrecs.com

One of guitarist Marc Ribot's strongest qualities is the diversity of his work. As a sideman, his unique sense of melody and dry tone can bring life to a session. As a leader, his catalog includes delicate solo performances, self-indulgent noodling, faithful-but-brand-new takes on everything from disco classics to John Coltrane and Albert Ayler (to name few) and avant-rock that might touch on all of the above.

Ceramic Dog could be considered his punk, or perhaps no wave, band. Their third album is built on the fury of current times and Ribot spits out bile upon leaving the gate. Considering both the state of our union and the guitarist's activism with musician's rights and streaming, one should expect nothing less than fury. Feeling that way is, tragically, pretty easy. The challenge lies in channeling that into convincing music.

"Muslim Jewish Resistance" is built largely on a call and response lyric - "Muslim Jewish/ resistance/ we say never again/ we mean it!" While it gets repetitive, Briggan Krauss' screaming alto saxophone break keeps the energy from waning. "Fuck La Migra" tackles the immigration subject with lyrics that nearly fly by too rapidly over the thrash noise. One line sticks out in shining glory, though: "I think the President is dumber than an artichoke." It offers proof that Ribot, bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith make a better punk band than most punk bands.

Sandwiched between those two tracks, the trio seems conscious of their weight of their words. The eight-minute "Shut the Kid Up" forgoes lyrics in favor of a mind-melting instrumental of slow power chords that build to a psychedelic crescendo. It couldn't have come at a better moment and it helps provide additional evidence of the group's skills.

That track also adds direction to a set that doesn't always have it in the first half.  In "Personal Nancy," Ribot opens the album by barking, among other rights, "I got a right to say, 'fuck you,'" but simply saying isn't always enough. "Pennsylvania 6 6666" blends a slinky jazz groove with a lyric about brutal treatment in the state, where "everybody is white." The song's back story, pulled from the album's press release, explains that Ismaily was a victim of racist attacks in the commonwealth. (Shazad, on behalf of my state, I want to apologize and let you know you're always welcome in Pittsburgh.) Without that info, however, the six-minute track just drags without really expanding on the concept.

YRU Still Here picks up energy as it goes. The second half also includes "Orthodoxy," an Eastern European-style instrumental and "Freak Freak Freak on the Peripherique," a rubbery funk romp with juvenile lyrics that still sound funny thanks to their distorted delivery. Ceramic Dog changes style with nearly every track by then, giving the album plenty of scope. Now if only they could be experienced in a nearby dive bar or DIY space. That would bring this music to life.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

CD Review: Gunhild Seim/Marilyn Crispell/David Rothenberg - Grenseland

Gunhild Seim/Marilyn Crispell/David Rothenberg
(Drolehhålå) www.musikoperatorene.no

"I feel like you can hear us wondering about the world." - Gunhild Seim, talking about this album, on her blog.

Spring is arriving in Pittsburgh late, in fits and starts at that. If the belated start of this season needed a soundtrack (or some sort of sonic motivation), it could be found in the title of track of this set of performances by trumpeter Gunhild Seim, pianist Marilyn Crispell and clarinetist/bass clarinetist David Rothenberg. Seim and Rothenberg also use electronics throughout the album, which accounts for the bird-like chirps that accompany Seim's long tones, which initially sound like a shakuhachi. A bass note drones beneath while Crispell (credited with percussion) clicks sticks in the background. She plays a few pensive chords too, just to add to the ambiance. After nearly six minutes, Rothenberg picks up his bass clarinet, joining Seim with his own morning call. The whole 10-minute track comes across like sunrise on a marsh, with calls of birds not exactly blending together but creating a full song regardless.

Crispell and Rothenberg released an album of engaging duets on ECM in 2010, One Dark Night I Left My Silent House. The pianist played both her standard instrument and a piano soundboard that was in the studio, which provided percussive scrapes and drones. Rothenberg switched between Bb clarinet and bass clarinet, expressive on both.

One Dark Night worked like a set of conversations but Grenseland sounds more like three people getting to know each other. (Seim implies in the blog entry that she knew Crispell but was only introduced to Rothenberg prior to the session.) Her observation at the top of this page proves to be pretty accurate. As a result, there is a tentative feeling to many of the tracks. In fact, Crispell doesn't play piano in earnest (as opposed to fits and starts) until the fourth track. Prior to that, she adds percussion and, in "Tundra" she sings over a drone, while more electronic "birds" join her in the background. Her vocalizing adds color to the mood, and offers a surprise to any longtime listeners curious to hear her. But there is still a lingering desire for more piano.

Seim, a Norwegian composer and trumpet player who already has a sizable discography, stands forward throughout the album. Her strong tone and uncomplicated lines recall Wadada Leo Smith (if not Miles Davis, thanks to the inclusion of electronics). Although she and her friends take their time getting to know each other, the two tracks that follow "Grenseland" take things forward a great deal, especially "Lines and Angles" where the bass clarinet and trumpet really coalesce and move together.

Grenseland sits in that unique realm between free improvisation and ambient music. Sometimes one note creates a page of depth, while at other times it could use some support. In this case, the music ponders what the next meeting of these three minds will yield.