Friday, January 13, 2017

Preamble to Winter Jazz Fest and the Jazz Connect Conference

This time last week, I was sawing logs in a friend's living room in Brooklyn, with a day of the Jazz Connect Conference under my belt. Following day two, the Winter Jazz Fest would be in full swing, along with walks all over the New School campus and subway rides down to the Village and back.

I'm not ready to write up all the details of the trip yet, but I felt like I needed to do some sort of quick post to say, keep watching this space. The whole festival diary is going to appear on the City Paper's FFW blog site, but it'll, of course, take some doing.

The weather was good - until Saturday morning, when the snow started falling. And it didn't stop until about 6:00 that night. But unlike Pittsburgh, New York doesn't slow down because of the elements. Everyone just walks with their heads down, which I hated doing because you miss out on discovering all of the surrounding scenery.

Speaking of observations, I rode to and from New York on the Megabus, as I did last year. I splurged on a front row seat on the upper level, where my face was about three feet from the windshield. It's probably the best seat on the whole bus because even if someone sits next to you (I only had company for half the trip back, none on the way up), you still have plenty of room to stretch out, and you don't really have to deal with anyone else. The view on the way up was sunnier, but the view while leaving the city wasn't all that shabby either.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

CD Review: Ravi Shankar - In Hollywood, 1971

Ravi Shankar
In Hollywood, 1971
(Northern Spy/East Meets West)

This double-disc set of sitar master Ravi Shankar contains just four tracks. One clocks in at 10 minutes, two come close to a half-hour each and one goes on for 52 minutes. To some, this might seem like way more Ravi Shankar than anyone needs. In truth, the set serves as a great way to get immersed in Shankar's music, listening for nuances, discovering them and realizing that the whole performance has a hypnotic quality.

In Hollywood was recorded at Shankar's home on Highland Avenue, where it was not unusual for him to invite friends over and play a morning concert. What time of morning is not specified, but another allure of the performance comes when thinking about Shankar playing while the sky is dark and continuing as the sun came up, combining the tranquility of the music and nature.

The performance happened on June 12, 1971, so it's likely that George Harrison was one of the people in attendance. That period coincides with the time that the sitar master started talking to Harrison about the effect of Cyclone Bhola on East Pakistan (aka Bangla Desh), which lead to the Beatle's landmark Concert for Bangla Desh that August.

History aside, the album is far from a lo-fi home recording. Without any real post-production qualities added, it captures all the elements of the music, with Shankar, Alla Rakha (tabla) and Kamala Chakravarty (tanpura) recorded at close range. "Hollywood Raga Vibhas" opesn with some low, bent sitar notes, which, to Western ears, can draw a comparison between this music and American blues. The intimate recording adds some good bite to this passage. Shankar and the group move through rhythmic and tempo changes naturally, which still sounds impressive considering this is not music that could be written down. (Shankar once explained this to me in a phone interview, and I'm still trying to comprehend all of it. Sukanya Shankar [his wife, and mother of Anoushka] explains ragas in great detail in the liner notes, which add to the quality of the whole package.

For people looking to explore Shankar's music and legacy, In Hollywood offers a great starting point. Longtime fans should also revel in the spirited performances on it.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Remembering Richard Schnap

In the last post, I mentioned that a good deal of this year sucked something fierce. Well, it dug itself even deeper over the past couple of days. I'm not even talking about the death of Carrie Fisher and her poor mother Debbie Reynolds who, in all seriousness, seems to have died of a broken heart.

No. It's personal.

Last night, while looking at Facebook on my phone for the umpteenth time, I discovered that my longtime friend Richard Schnap had died. At this point, I don't know the details surrounding his death. I'm not exactly sure how old he was, though I think he was 58.

People on the Pittsburgh music scene, especially those who were around in the mid-to-late '80s, might recall Richard as a member of the Cynics, playing guitar and keyboards. He was with them when original singer Mark Keresman was still in the band, and also when he was replaced by Michael Kastelic. He added a great dynamic to the band, balancing the raw garage fuzz with some jangly Byrds-y kind of influence.

But prior to joining the Cynics, he played in a band called Toxic Shock that started life as an all-female punk band that actually got shut-off at the Electric Banana. When Richard and his friend Larry Anderson joined the band, the group was more of a scruffy Velvet Underground-influenced band with male/female harmonies -- and a lot of great songs.

Following his time with the Cynics (which I found out tonight was only a year - a virtual blip on the radar, considering the Cynics' 30+ year existence), Rich was involved with a handful of other groups, which often had a wild conglomeration of people, culled together more by friendship than anything else, again playing some pretty interesting songs: The Third Mind (which only last one show, in a set that opened with version of "The 39 Lashes" from Jesus Christ Superstar, in which vocalist Jeff Masko began with a Morrison-esque recitation before counting off the lashes); Graceland (with vocalist Dean Novotny, a natural showman with an operatic voice like Klaus Nomi, drummer/artist Scott Turri and metal bassist/funnyman Greg Bloom); the Shroud (which included Bloom and man about town Steve Heineman at one point); and the Side Orders (a duo with vocalist Alice Winn).

While some of these bands left people wondering what the hell was happening onstage, that query was often balanced out by the songs they played, which was written largely or altogether by Richard. He was a poet who had a knack for stringing together hooks and great stories when he put his mind to it. There were a few Toxic Shock songs that resurfaced in the Cynics, and probably in later bands as well.

I met Richard when I was in high school. Nine years my senior, he knew my brother John from Pitt, and he was also a fixture at the Record Recycler, a used record store in Squirrel Hill that was run by Keresman. (Richard and I were a few of the folks who would sit behind the counter when Mark needed to go out.) We hit it off immediately because we both loved talking about music and we were both interested in a lot of it. Back in those pre-internet days, one got their musical knowledge from magazines, books (the beloved Rolling Stone Record Guide, love it or hate it), college radio, in addition to good old fashioned crate digging. One day he played me a practice tape of Toxic Shock in the Recycler. I was really transfixed. They weren't punk, but they had a rawness that they balanced with some great songs. Not sure if this is revisionism, but I felt like they were closer to the ideas I had in my head.

All I wanted to do back then was be in a band, and Rich encouraged me every step of the way. Not only that, he helped me connect with some people that became very valuable in my life. Barb Madaus, who played/plays in Bone of Contention with me, had been the drummer of Toxic Shock. Not only was she a drummer, she was a singing drummer, a plus in my book. I only saw Toxic Shock once, but that was enough to convince me that, when looking for drummers, that Barb could be the one. Richard connected us, and I never looked back.

A few months after getting together with Barb, Richard came up to me and said, "I have a guitar player for you - Patty Pisula." We hadn't found a guitar player yet, and this Patty person, who also worked as the music director at Pitt's WPTS, played guitar but had never been in a band. Sign her up. More on her in a moment.

Not only did Richard help me connect with these people (and subsequently, with Lila Shaara, the missing fourth piece of the BoC puzzle back then), he became my running buddy of sorts. I was underage in the fall of 1985, but, don't worry, you'll be able to get into the Upstage, he said. Long before the 61C Cafe existed at the corner of Murray and Bartlett, Richard was convincing me to meet him there - at the epitomy of greasy spoons, George Aiken's - for coffee and talk about music and plans and hopes for the future.We'd also take in the local old gents from the neighborhood, pondering what their life stories might be.

Then the big thing came in early 1986. A telemarketing place had opened in Oakland, where he, Mark and about three other dudes from bands found work. They were calling for a few liberal organizations. By Christmas of '85, I was flat-broke, dropping out of Duquesne University and in bad need of a job. I wasn't eager to talk on the phone, but I was desperate to make money. Next thing I knew, this insecure kid from Squirrel Hill was working side-by-side with these cool music guys. A month later Patty started working there. Richard and I were hanging around each other three or four nights a week, starting at work and often ending up at Chief's Cafe, down the street. Or maybe we'd end up at Patty's apartment in Panther Hollow, till the wee hours of the morning. Six years later, I started dating a woman from Ohio who started working the same office, marrying her four years after that.

Most people don't last in telemarketing that long. Somehow I did it for 12 years, until greener pastures finally came along. And earlier this year - almost 30 years to the day that I started working there - I went back because times were tough. The other guys are all distant office memories, though Patty is there as office manager, and seeing her every morning makes the day go better.

I owe all of that to Richard. He talked the place up and built me up to believe that I could do it too.

I never believe that "everything happens for a reason" malarkey. But I do really believe that where you are on a particular day at a particular time can impact you life in long-term ways. And I think that Richard did that for me.

I once started an entry with my favorite quote from It's a Wonderful Life, which comes from Clarence, right when George is realizing what would happen if he had never been born. Now it seems appropriate to place it at the end of this post. "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"

Thanks, Richard.

Friday, December 23, 2016

And now the Year in Music

I've got a few particular albums that I want to write about, but I've been busy getting together an article about Andrea Parkins (found here in City Paper and in a show tonight) and working on a JazzTimes piece.

But the NPR Music Jazz Critic's Poll came out this week too. Since I participated I have to link it here. Suffice to say, 2016 was a good year for jazz releases, even if almost everything else this year sucked something fierce.

Take a moment to check out the list, along with the color commentary by Francis Davis. Then buy some of this music with the money you get for Christmas.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Past Week in Music

In the past seven days, I saw locals Thoth Trio in an unfortunately too rare show, the Ritual Trio (David Murray, Kahil El'Zabar & Harrison Bankhead, above, left to right) and William Parker & Patricia Nicholson. Pretty good week for music, methinks.

Thoth played at a space that's actually called the Space Upstairs, a really nice looking loft that's apparently being hosting performances for ten years. Granted, ten years ago I was off the local music grid (Pulp was two years gone and I wouldn't start writing for City Paper for another year) but this is the first time I'd heard of the place. Dance seems to be a big part of what the locale is all about. Throughout Thoth's two sets difference dancers would move across the hardwood floor, responding to the music. It wasn't like cliched "jazzzzzz" dance. The women and men doing it were really graceful and their movement seemed to pay attention to what was being played. Ben Opie (saxophones), Paul Thompson (bass) and Dave Throckmorton (drums) were in fine form. Plus there was coffee, although it took them awhile to brew it.

Last Sunday, the Ritual Trio played at the James Street Gastropub. Locals will understand the raised eyebrow by the combination of venue and music. James Street is a strong supporter of jazz and a great space, but rarely does it host a group so avant as these three. The reason in this case is the guy who brought them to town couldn't get into any other space.

David Murray and I had a late night chat for an article the week before the show.After resigning myself to the idea that I'd have to write the article based on memories (albeit strong ones) of Murray's previous Pittsburgh appearances, as well as his records, my phone rang at 10:00 pm the night before the article was due. Our conversation went so well, David being very loquacious, that I scrapped what I had written and started over, the morning after we talked. The results are here. 

James Street was standing room only for these guys, which was really exciting since shows like that (especially on a Sunday night) don't always draw well. All three members of the trio had been to Pittsburgh within the last 13 months. Murray came with the World Saxophone Quartet in September. Bankhead came to the Thunderbird with a bass and drums quartet called the Turbine! back in November of 2015. Kahil El'Zabar was here in the spring with the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble.

El'Zabar uses the same template each time he's come to town: playing on song on the amplified kalimba/mbria, one on the trap kit, one on a hand drum - set one; set two might be close to that with some variation in order. It's always a great show, but it's set up the same way.

Putting David Murray into the equation and a bassist (EHE has two horn players) throws some key elements into it. Murray's strong personality fit right in with El'Zabar's vision. The tenor saxophonist stayed close to straight-ahead jazz at first, complete with chord changes. But he quickly tore them up and rebuilt them. With the droning mbira songs, he made sure that things never waned, especially when he was playing bass clarinet. "One World Family," a song Murray and El'Zabar have returned to several times over the years, was a  powerful groove number with a hope for a better world. Bankhead played the anchor of the group, adding some of his own strong solo technique to the music in a few instances too.

City of Asylum brought in bassist William Parker and dancer/concert organizer/artist/poet Patricia Nicholson Parker (husband and wife too) on Wednesday of this week. CoA is still putting the finishing touches on Alphabet City, a space on the North Side which will host a restaurant, book store and performance space. But despite the almost-but-not-quite-there aspect, this is where they hosted the couple and the intimate space presented a good vibe for the event.

The evening began with a performance - Parker on bass, Nicholson dancing and reading poetry. I'll admit that I'm more a fan of the music. Especially Parker, who epitomizes the ability to project your life experiences through a performance on an instrument. His command of his whole instrument is something to watch. Without any other musicians to cover up his nuances, you hear a lot more of what he's doing.

Like the dancers at Space Upstairs, Nicholson moved very expressively onstage, bending and reacting to the music. During the nearly one-hour continuous performance, she read poetry that could be both pensive and hopeful as well as energizing.

After the performance, the duo took questions from the audience. They wanted to keep the discussion on the topic of what role the artist has in society. The work these two in New York is admirable. Nicholson organizes the VISION Festival each year. Parker plays consistantly with a number of different musicians, having released over 150 albums.

That being said, Q&A sessions involved such detailed questions like "what's the artist's role" are things that I'd rather miss, in large part because there are usually detailed but ultimately vague questions by audience members. That did happen on Wednesday, though not all that much. It was good to hear them talk, although some references to the new administration brought back some of the dread I've been trying to keep at bay.

Of course it was great being up close and personal with the two of them. Plus, the event was free. And over by 10 pm!

Friday, December 09, 2016

It Was 36 Years Ago Today..... and Today

Playing right now: Ravi Shankar - In Hollywood, 1971 (Northern Spy)

[Written as Thursday night became Friday morning, which explains the use of words like "tonight" and "today."]

As if this hasn't already been a year when a huge number of influential musicians have died, I read this morning that Greg Lake has joined the list. My initial reaction was to curse to the heavens: NOT ANOTHER ONE. Yeah, I was never the biggest Greg Lake fan. He seemed like he was the one member of Emerson, Lake and Palmer who was still on a high horse after all the years of excess have fallen by the wayside. But, damn, that doesn't mean you have to take him too. And so soon after Keith Emerson's death.

And what about poor Carl Palmer? Is anyone rushing to his side to offer solace?

When Keith Emerson took his life earlier this year, I posted an appreciation of him and of the way that ELP's music impacted me. Greg Lake was part of that, of course. He was the voice of the band. He provided some levity after all the heaviness. Plus he was the voice of King Crimson, roaring through distorted speakers in "21st Century Schizoid Man," a thunderous debut if there ever was one. Not to mention "In the Court of the Crimson King," with its majestic chorus and sea of voices. I played that album earlier this evening (even the meandering "Moonchild") and it felt really good. You can feel the intensity of this young band, finding their sea legs and channeling their excitement into the music. You step back from the music, away from everything that followed it, all the stigma that's attached to it, and try to imagine the band itself. What comes through is that first-time energy.

That's why, despite the pompous quotes that I've read over the years from Mr. Lake, that I feel the loss. The way that music hits you - encapsulating that certain time that you remember really discovering it, coupled with that feeling of what it must've been like to play it - means you'll never completely forsake it. It's almost like the feeling you may have for a sibling: You might go through periods where you don't see each other. You might really dislike them. They might have said something to you decades ago that still burns you to this day. But you'll always come back to them because of that connection you have.

On top of all that, I was reminded that 36 years ago tonight, John Lennon was killed. A friend commented that it might not exactly be a "Where were you when Kennedy was shot" moment, but I think that it is INDEED that moment for people my age. At least those who are really into music. Sure, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and even Elvis had already died. But none of them were shot by a deranged fan. THAT was the game changer, even if it took several years to realize what it meant.

I was in bed on Monday, December 8, 1980. I can't remember if I had fallen asleep yet or not, but my brother Tom came into my room. Being a somewhat jerky/wiseguy of a 13-year old, I got mad at him for bothering me. Then he told me why: they had just announced on tv that Lennon had been shot. Tom said they hadn't confirmed his death yet. Or maybe he soft-pedaled it, saying things were up in the air. But I recall laying there in bed, thinking, What if he is dead?

The next morning, I remembering hearing the phone ring while I was still in bed. It was my CCD teacher who was fairly young (at least younger than my folks) and pretty hip with us kids. She wanted to make sure I knew. Before long, I came down for breakfast (it would be a couple more months before I became part of the alleged Dawn Patrol and started delivering the Post-Gazette and had to wake up early) and got the word. Yes, John was dead. All day WDVE, the only station I listened to back then, was playing Beatles and solo Lennon music.

I had a reputation for being a Beatles fanatic at school, although by that time, my enthusiasm for them had waned a bit, replaced by the adolescent obsession with the Doors, which would die down in a few months as I discovered weirder strains of psychedelic rock, and eventually headed into punk rock. But years later, a woman who had ridden the school bus with me, recalled in a complimentary way that on that school day, December 9, I wrote "Lennon Forever" in the condensation of the bus windows. The respect was a bit too late to boost my insecure ego, but in retrospect, it was nice that someone noticed.

Because when you're in 8th grade - surrounded by kids who act like assholes because they're too afraid to admit that they're just as confused about life changes as you are - writing a name on a window is sometimes the only way you know how to express your gratitude to a musician who will never get to hear it from you directly.

Thanks, Greg. Thanks, John.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

CD Review: Mark Dresser Seven - Sedimental You

Mark Dresser Seven
Sedimental You
(Clean Feed)

UPDATE: This review has been removed because I wrote another review that will be appearing in JazzTimes magazine in an upcoming issue.