Saturday, March 25, 2017

CD Review: Lisa Mezzacappa - avantNOIR

Lisa Mezzacappa
(Clean Feed)

Maybe it can be attributed to a 21st-century perception of it, but the film noir genre holds a great number of charms: the stark quality of black and white cinema; the mix of characters, who are usually painted in broad strokes; the suspense that holds a story together; the ability of the characters to express a great deal in a minimum of words, a lot of it coming from facial responses. And when they talk - ooh, the sharp dialogue!

It lends itself to music, which can evoke much of the above characteristics with dry, vibrato-free vibes, honking saxophones, chunky guitars and propulsive rhythm sections. Lisa Mezzacappa immerses us in the thick of it on avantNOIR. She might live in the Bay Area, but the music would seem to depict pure and gritty Downtown Manhattan, where she grew up.

However, the eight tracks on the disc were actually inspired by novels, rather than the cinema. Further, Dashiell Hammett's 1920s crime fiction took place in San Francisco, so the images of private dicks scouring the Bowery is slightly inaccurate, at least for some of these tracks. Paul Auster's New York Trilogy also inspired the bassist's writing, although those stories were penned in the 1980s, years after the heyday of film noir. Regardless of their origins, Mezzacappa has used the source material to create the soundtrack to a film that hasn't been shot yet.

Along with her acoustic bass, Mezzacappa's gang includes Aaron Bennett (tenor saxophone), John Finkbeiner (guitar), William Winant (vibraphone, percussion, Foley sound effects), Jordan Glenn (drums) and Tim Perkis (electronics). The first four tracks are grouped together to feature characters and locations out of Hammett's work. "Fillmore Street" functions like an economical, opening salvo. It's followed by "The Ballad of Big Flora," which opens with a foreboding bass solo, evoking the notorious dame with a quality that puts Mezzacappa's instrument off in the distance, peeking out of an alley, before a stop-start mood begins.

Both of these tracks recall the equally sleazy undercurrent of the Lounge Lizards or the Jazz Passengers. Finkbeiner's guitar recalls Marc Ribot's dry attack, though his tone avoids the brittle, sawed off quality. And Mezzacappa's crew stakes out their own territory thanks to the inclusion of samples and electronics. The static in these tracks often adds a percussive quality to the music. And if you listen to "Medley on the Big Knockover" while driving, beware of the blaring car horn in the first 30 seconds. It's mixed in such a way that it sounds like it's coming right at you. Not since the opening scream in John Zorn's "Spillane" has a sound effect had such a deceptive feel.

"A Bird in the Hand" takes the connection to the source material a step further by including dialogue from The Maltese Falcon in the piece. Whether it's actually Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Greenstreet is hard to say. But the inclusion serves a purpose. "Ghosts (Black and White, then Blue)" features Winant using one of those Foley effects - a manual typewriter (he also uses a rotary phone and hotel desk bells elsewhere). Together with the tune's slow, ominous spy riff, it creates the idea of the story - and by extension, the whole album - reaching a denouement, with a detective typing up his final reports. But it gets loud five minutes in, with Finkbeiner finding room to wail once more. And things aren't over until the group gets through "Babel," which features some disembodied backwards voices reminding us that noir usually doesn't end up wrapped in pretty bows.

While the sound of other dark lounge bands recur through the album, the comparison feels more like a mark in Mezzacappa's favor, proving her skill at storytelling through music. The band seems to be having a blast too. Saxophonist Bennett often gets to lay back and set the scene but "Quinn's Serenade" gives him a chance to cut loose. Winant continually works well with him and Finkbeiner, for that incisive noirish mood. Aside from her solo in "Big Flora," Mezzacappa stays out of the spotlight most of the time, offering strong support and letting the group as a whole get noticed.

The bassist plays in a number of projects in the Bay Area, of which I've heard two: Bristle, a wild chamber group; and Cylinder, a quartet with Darren Johnston (trumpet), Aram Shelton (reeds) and Kjell Nordeson (drums), who released an excellent album on Clean Feed in 2011 and are probably disbanded since Shelton left the country. More on her vast c.v can be found at Her latest effort shows the diverse of her skills as a writer and leader, and should be investigated.

One doesn't have to be fan of old time radio shows like Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar or tv classics like Darren McGavin's portrayal of Mike Hammer. But as a fan of both, I was slayed by these cats.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Live Shows in Pittsburgh from the Last 10 Days

This past weekend was relatively low key as far as shows that I got to see. But the weekend of March 10 was pretty full, with music and adventure. Allow me to hit "Rewind."

On Friday the 10th, Kente Arts Alliance presented the Whitfield Family Band, lead by guitarist Mark Whitfield. His son Davis played piano, with Mark Jr., on drums. Luques Curtis played bass, though he wasn't the bassist on the recent Grace album.

They work in a fairly straightahead style, heavy on energy and strong chops from all parties. Pop Mark excels at long, clear guitar lines, occasionally going into Grant Green-style locked riffs, though he does it a lot faster than Green did. Davis Whitfield was really impressive on piano, soloing over vamps in a way with heavy, chordal melodies. He frequently switched over to an electric keyboard for some Fender Rhodes ambience, but it never sounded pre-fab. Mark Jr., swings with a real elastic style, stretching the beat and giving it spark.

Local guitarist Mark Strickland opened the night with a classic lineup by Pittsburgh veterans Lou Stellute (tenor), Keith Stebler (B3 organ-via-keyboard) and drums (Roger Humphries). Their set had a lot of meat and grease, including a good choice to celebrate Thelonious Monk's upcoming 100th birthday: "Well You Needn't."

From there, I headed over to Gooski's for the tribute to Dave V(ucenich). Since Dave's funeral was closer to his hometown in Harrisburg, friends Eric Vermillion and Max Terasauro put together an evening that saluted him. In his spirit, there were DJs spinning garage and psych rock singles that he loved so much. Gregg Kostelich from the Cynics had DJ'd first so I missed him. Tara Dactyl was playing slow, heavy psych, one of Dave's favorite styles, according to Vermillion.

After awhile, Joe (drums) and Kurt (guitar) from Dave's former band the Mt. McKinleys got up and played a set. At their largest, the group was a quintet, complete with bass, another guitar and theremin. But on this night, they had all they needed to rip it up. It can be hard to play high energy music like that when there are reminders all around that your musical conspirator is gone. But Joe and Kurt played like their lives depended on it, living for the moment, pouring everything into it. And the mood was anything but sad while they did it. That's the way all shows should be, not just a memorial one.

Another part of the evening was an auction for Dave's Hofner Beatle Bass. That would have been so tempting because it's one of two basses that I'd like own in addition to my Rickenbacher. But I don't have the dough for it, and since all the proceeds were going to the Vucenich family (or to an animal shelter of their choice), it wouldn't have been right to skimp on the money for the instrument. Right before the McKinleys' set, the amount was up to about $300. Whoever got it really made out.

Distro is a new "space" located in Bloomfield, upstairs of a former beer distributor. And when I say "space," I do mean a room with some seats, a p.a., a big rug to designate a performance area and not much else. (There's a piano there too, but that's off limits, as some of us found out the hard way.) However, being there the following evening took me back to shows that I saw at CMU around 1991 or 1992. A bunch of folks were milling about, talking amongst each other, checking out music, cheering on the performers.

On Saturday night, the 11th, Distro hosted the Duke of Knee Festival: Unread Records Release #201. The Unread imprint has been around for 20 years, run from different cities by Chris Fischer, with 200 releases coming in the form of albums, 7"s and cassettes. In Pittsburgh (where Chris now lives), Will Simmons & the Upholsterers are but one act that's appeared on the label. Simmons took it upon himself to organize a show that brought Unread family members from as far away at Portland to our fair city to celebrate the imprint's 200th release. A three-cassette compilation was also assembled to mark the occasion. The label's homespun approach might be another reason why I felt transported back to the early '90s - it recalled the heyday of K Records, back when they'd print their catalog on newsprint and mail it out every few months. Several people had music for sale. One guy was even selling a delectable box of '90s indie rock for insanely good prices. I picked up the Meat Puppets for album for $3 and a Bitch Magnet album for $4. I would've bought more had I not been short on cash.

A total of 16 acts were slated to play on Saturday, each for a total of 20 minutes. What I caught while I was there stuck pretty close to the time limit. Chauchat was getting underway with a set of gentle acoustic indie pop, with random sounds floating over top of the harmonies. Andy Cigarettes - once he blew our eardrums with his accidentally too-loud backing tracks - sang a great set of new wave-y pop. For a guy who traveled all the way from the Pacific Northwest, he still looked sharp in a red suit (or was he wearing a red shirt with a black suit?). Will and the Upholsterers took the Husker Du/Minutemen approach and played 10 songs in 20 minutes. In fact he said they nailed them 18 minutes. Talk about jamming econo!

Monday evening, I headed over to Mr. Smalls, not to see Tortoise but to conduct a Before and After listening test with their guitarist Jeff Parker. I did get to hear a bit of their sound check and admire their stage set up: two drum kits center stage, flanked on a set of vibes at stage left, keyboard behind the other trap kit, table of laptops behind the drums, bass and guitar towards the back. Jeff and I made our way out to the tour bus after sound check, and sat for about 90 minutes listening to music and talking. We had a great time, which you'll be able to read about in a few months. Much as I would've liked to stay, I was back to Oakland to the Carnegie Music Hall for..........


As I made my way up the stairs to my seat, I could hear the chorus of "Gloria" spilling out of the concert hall. Between driving from Millvale and trying to park in Oakland, I felt damn lucky that I hadn't missed more. Have to say the tempo seemed a tad slower than the version on the album, but you know - Patti just turned 70 so again (to use my grandmother's phrase), we should be damn lucky she was there. And that we were!

I don't think I need to do a play-by-play of the show. Scott Mervis at the Post-Gazette already did that last week. And if you weren't there, reading about it might just make you sad you missed it. In my preview to the show, I mentioned in passing that Patti might draw on her love Johnny Carson in her between-song banter. (She has admitted to several people that she admired the Tonight Show host's delivery.) She did, to some extent. When she was feeling exhausted between songs, she chalked it up to the impending snow storm (which never came, by the way) and took a brief stroll offstage for some air.

"Birdland" has always been a special piece to me, for years before I related to the protagonist. I had to shush a friend sitting next to me for talking during this tune. First of all because, why would you pay $39 or more to see Patti Smith and talk through the show?! Second of all, hearing Horses in its entirety (played in order) is akin to going to church. Just listen. Soak it in. Thankfully, she did.

For her encore, she and the band ripped through the Who's "My Generation," which she first covered as the B-side to the "Gloria" single. As the song moved towards a free-for-all coda, Patti strapped on a guitar and played it the way I like to play it - like a noise maker. She also spat fire about her generation wanting to change the world with love, "and what do we get?! Donald F&^*ing T----!" You could have seen it coming a mile away, but who can blame her. Of course the audience roared. She eventually yanked what seemed like all six strings off her guitar, providing the fitting ending to the evening. I took a video of some of that, but it's just a tad to big to appear here. FIE!

Five days later, on Friday the 17th, bassist James Ilgenfritz came to Distro for a solo bass performance. That might sound like quite a specialized type of show, but he played four pieces by other composers that were written for him. He didn't say that the first piece required him to retune his instrument to get the arco drones of the piece just right, so it was really fascinating to watch what he pulled out of the instrument. The music seemed to go on for awhile but it got pretty hypnotic. I'll admit I was a bit exhausted by the end of the night but the set helped me relax and start to hallucinate sleepy dreams. (Luckily I didn't fall out of my chair.)

Ben Opie, who also played solo, joined Ilgenfritz for a few Anthony Braxton tunes after the bassist's proper set. (James released a disc of Braxton pieces for solo bass in 2012.) The evening also included short but sweet sets by the tenor/bass clarinet and drums duo of Snake Pilson and guitar/saxophone solo act Nevhar Anhar.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

CD Review: Idrees Sulieman Quartet ft. Oscar Dennard - The 4 American Jazz Men in Tangier

Idrees Sulieman Quartet featuring Oscar Dennard
The 4 American Jazz Men in Tangier
(Groovin' High/Sunnyside)

Knowing not only the names but the output of unsung musicians can put a listener in a rarefied group. Idrees Sulieman ranks as under-the-radar player. He might be best known as the trumpeter on Thelonious Monk's first Blue Note session, but he also recorded with Coleman Hawkins and Randy Weston before moving to Stockholm and later to Copenhagen. He worked with several studio orchestras there and the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band before he passed away in 2012. An inventive player in the Dizzy Gillespie style, he likely would have gone on to greater fame in the U.S. had he stayed here. He was also supposedly one of the first jazz musicians to convert to Islam.

Oscar Dennard didn't live long enough to secure his status as jazz pianist with the record buying jazz folks. But before he died at 32 due to typhoid fever, he made a great impression on Weston, Ahmad Jamal and Harold Mabern who knew him personally. Aside from a few recordings with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, this two-disc set is really the only document of his work as a formidable pianist.

The first of the two discs has been previously issued in Japan while the second sees the light of day for the first time. In 1959, Dennard was convinced by bassist Jamil Nasser to join him in a trio that also included Sulieman and drummer Earl "Buster" Smith for a tour of  Europe and North Africa. When they reached Tangier, Radio Tangier International producer Jacques Muyal quickly assembled a recording session with his friend at the competing Radio Africa Tangier studios. The seven tracks, recorded all in single takes on a single microphone, come from that session.

In the some ways, the raw quality makes the group come off like a typical bebop unit. They tackle two Charlie Parker tunes ("Visa," "Confirmation") with skill, trading fours just a little two long on the former. Two standards get worked over ("All of You," "Stella By Starlight"). The quartet swaggers through the slow "Tangier Blues," in which Sulieman displays his circular breathing skill, unfortunately less like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and more like Kenny G, since he merely holds one note for three choruses before he releases it.

But there are moments that reveal what Dennard might have been had he not passed away a year later. In "Stella by Starlight" his solo seems to combine Errol Garner's rapturous way with harmony together with a rhythmic freedom that would become the call of the day just a few years into the next decade. His chordal solo in "Tour De Force" also hints at an advanced rhythmic sense, akin to Dave Brubeck's big-handed approach. Nasser, who would go on to play with Jamal extensively, is under-recorded but should be turned up during his solos, including an out-of-tempo-into-funk intro to "Stella" and another groovy one in "Tour de Force." When Sulieman uses the mute, he really displays his Gillespie influence. Without it, his bright sound is infectious and clearly the reason he's cited as a big influence on Clifford Brown.

Disc Two was recorded at a party in New York before the quartet went on tour. It provides some revelations. Dennard's lengthy introduction to Branislaw Kaper's "Invitation" is arresting; in "Round Midnight" he seems to channel Charlie Parker as well as the tune's composer. But the recording quality, despite the liner notes' claim that it's been cleaned up, still sounds like one of the Dean Benedetti recordings of Parker - interesting for the historian but not too appealing for the casual listener. Further, knowing how skilled Dennard could be, it's frustrating that the closing "Piano Improvisations" finds him playing variations on "Three Blind Mice." The quality makes the opening seconds sound like a music box as well.

It's inappropriate to slag The 4 American Jazz Men in Tangier since it stands as a singular document of this group, which thereby gives it some intrinsic value. Yet, it's sound quality seems like it might be of value more for historical purposes and not much for repeat programs.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Shows I Saw in the Past Few Weeks

I was on a good roll for a while, posting reviews and album purchases. Then it all fell by the wayside again. The past two months have been marked by various degrees of sickness (and the lack of motivation they bring on), as well as what felt like a healthy dose of winter doldrums. AND, I was one of the ringmasters behind a talent show at my son's school last week. No wonder my doctor told me my blood pressure was up last week. 

Things look better now. Besides, during all that, I did have a good run of articles in Pittsburgh City Paper. In fact, this week, I have no less than three things in the arts section: a profile of jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield; the Local Beat column, which mentions the salute to Dave Vucenich and the Unread Records show; and a preview of Patti Smith's Horses show. Follow the links and you can see what I'm talking about.

After seeing Battle Trance over the weekend, I realized I never mentioned anything about the last show I saw at City of Asylum's Alphabet City venue, which is now up and running in full effect. So here's a little something on both. 


Mostly Other People Do the Killing hadn't come to town since about 2009 or 2010. At that time, the group featured bassist Moppa Elliot, drummer Kevin Shea, saxophonist Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Peter Evans. In the studio, the band has grown to include pianist Ron Stabinsky, bass trombonist Dave Taylor and banjo player Brandon Seabrook. Evans has left the band, with Steven Bernstein assuming trumpet duties on the new Loafer's Hollow

When the group pulled up at Alphabet City on February 22, the lineup was reduced to the trio of Elliot, Shea and Stabinsky. After the frenetic interplay between Irabagon and Evans, not to mention the expanded arrangements with the larger group, the trio almost sounded like a different band. Even Shea, who specializes in careening drum crashes that always catch themselves before they fall completely down the stairs, sounded a little more subdued. This was a piano trio, albeit one that still lives life on the musical edge. 

And while the band's zaniness always made for a good time in the past, the new lineup gives more attention to Elliot's compositions, which have gotten more elaborate even as he chooses to throw a quote from "Mercy Mercy Mercy" or "Misty" into them. Now that they've been at it for over a decade, some of the "how dare they" dust has settled, and there is time to catch up with the back catalog and fully appreciate them. 

Last week was a banner week for touring bands that play adventurous music. Australia's the Necks came to town last Friday. I totally missed them due to the aforementioned Talent Show. But I did make it back over to Alphabet City to check out Battle Trance on Sunday. (Prior to the shows, I wrote a double-preview of them in City Paper.

Battle Trance played "Blade of Love,"  the same piece 45-minute piece that I saw them play in New York back in January. Hearing it again made me realize that I pretty much walked in to the New York show without missing much more than seeing them stand on stage quietly for two minutes, somewhat entranced, before the piece began.

Anyone who has gone to see a symphony and picked up on the full sound of, for instance, four upright bassists can understand the power of several musicians playing the same note. (The same can be said for works by Glenn Branca or Rhys Chatham too, I'm sure.) The sound starts to swell and slight variations on it can make a big difference. Travis Laplante (the composer, on the far right picture) knows that and exploits it with their music. One of the best part of the piece came in the final third of it, where all four of them shifted from altissimos to high register wails, which they adapted with various levels of vibrato. The other favorite part for me, since I knew it was on the way, occurs about 15 minutes in, when all of their swirling arpeggios suddenly turn into low honks, which they land on together, seemingly out of nowhere. It was extra suspenseful for me, since I knew it was coming, but I wasn't sure exactly when.

A couple sitting in front of me left after about 20 minutes. Or they at least walked over to the restaurant section of the place. I was in the second row, so I can't say how many other people followed them. Granted it is intense music, that requires a little more patience and a willingness to explore the possibilities of sound, rather than following melody lines or chord changes. But you have to give it a chance.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Cruel Frederick and Greg Hawkes - Two Albums I've Needed for Awhile

In the past two weeks, I picked up two albums that have always intrigued me from a distance. One was an album that was hard to find. In fact, prior to purchasing it, I only saw a physical copy once, and that was in the library of WRCT-FM, the radio station at Carnegie Mellon University. (Who knows if the record is there anymore?) The other is an album I've read about and heard about from friends, who gave it mixed reviews: It isn't all that good, it's fun, it's OK. Nevertheless, I decided I could no longer live without it.

Here are their stories.

The first record I mentioned was Cruel Frederick's Birth of the Cruel. The band was something of an off-shoot of the San Francisco group Slovenly. They started life as Slovenly Peter, a character in a European folk tale that also included a character named Cruel Frederick. So it only follows that the horn section of Slovenly (Peter) would go off on their own, recording under the name Cruel Frederick.

The group consisted of Lynn Johnston (saxophones, clarinets), Jacob Cohn (alto sax), Guy Bennett (bass, trombone) and Jason Kahn (drums). Johnston continued to appear on Slovenly's albums on SST Records (which also released Birth of the Cruel). In fact all three of them got some blowing space in "What's It Called" on the triumphant We Shoot for the Moon album. They also guested on a couple albums by Universal Congress Of, the best of the punk jazz groups on SST, which also featured Kahn (also a member of Trotsky Icepick for a time) and guitarist Joe Baiza.

Birth of the Cruel came out in 1988 and didn't get much distribution by some accounts. Maybe Greg Ginn figured most college stations and record stores, wouldn't know what to do with it. It could be due to the fact that, unlike Universal Congress Of, this wasn't groove-based jazz. This was free jazz squonk, plain and simple. And it was delivered with punk rock aesthetics, meaning things were loose and kind of sloppy. In an overall sincere take on "Moon River," Johnson's alto flubs the melody in a way that casts it more in a minor key,  not really following the arc of the Henry Mancini classic. In "The East is Red" he attempts to blow the melody in the register above his horn's natural key - and doesn't quite pull it off.

But for all its frenzy, time has been kind to Birth of the Cruel. There is a great deal of fun to be gathered from the album. "Jukebox in the East River" takes its name from the item that was allegedly tied to Albert Ayler when his body was pulled from that body of water, and Johnston utilizes the wide vibrato approach of his forefather. (This melody also sounds remarkably like the unlisted coda on UCO's Prosperous and Qualified though I could be wrong.)

The group's cover material, more than half of the album, puts their influences on display. Along with Mancini, they tackle Ornette Coleman ("Lonely Woman"), two by Ayler ("Ghosts," "Bells") and an explosive "Amazing Grace." In some ways, these seem like obvious choices, the "greatest hits" of free jazz. But remember that back in 1988, this music wasn't all readily available. Ornette's The Shape of Jazz to Come was, but one had to dig for Ayler recordings, hoping to make a score in a used record bin or on a questionable import reissue of an ESP album.

A few years before the CD boom reissued everything, these tunes still had some faint allure. It was an indication that these.... cats... were hip to something a little more esoteric. They all strike a chord with me because, at the time, I was still weighing the idea of being an alto saxophonist with a punk streak. (As opposed to a bassist in a post-punk band.) I, too, knew how to play "Lonely Woman" and "Ghosts." Had I heard this album, I might've pushed more for the punk-jazz side, trying to find these guys and play with them.(A couple years earlier, Saccharine Trust came to Pittsburgh on their final tour and got stoked when Joe Baiza and I got into a conversation about jazz. To a 18- or 19-year old music school dropout, it was good to know he was a kindred spirit.)

Or maybe not. Nevertheless, Birth of the Cruel is a fun album, due in no small part to the way Jason Kahn keeps things in focus. When I saw the album on Discogs, I knew it was time to pick it up, especially since it was only $5, and in beautiful shape.

Every nine months or so, I get on a Cars kick and pull out one for their first three albums. Panorama is my favorite. I thought for sure I had done an entry about it, talking about how it's an unheralded classic, with Ric Ocasek taking a sharp left turn, going for the weird blend of lyrics, new wave ideas and rock hooks, before he cashed in his chips and went all pop with Shake It Up and Heartbeat City.

I got Panorama for my birthday in 8th grade, a few months after it came out. My brother Tom had the first two albums on 8-track (!) so I knew their stuff really well and felt like we were keeping up with them. By the time Shake It Up came out, my tastes were changing, it was low on my priority list and I never bought it. (I did buy in for $1 about 15 years ago, but never got around to listening to it.)

This is a lot of back story, but it's worth it.

During college, my friend Joel was on a Cars kick and he and my friend John got me to fully appreciate  Panorama for the artistic work that it was. Up until then, you could say I was just taking it for granted. As we expounded on it, I remember the subject veering towards Niagra Falls, the solo album by Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes. I recalled a lukewarm review in Creem when it came out, and everyone in the room seemed indifferent to the idea.

Well, the Cars kick resurfaced several weeks ago, and was still going strong last week. Really strong, as in listening closely to these songs I've heard dozens of times (I pulled out the first album and Candy-O too) and marveling at the song arrangements. Greg Hawkes' keyboard parts really stuck out so on a whim, I looked him up on Facebook. Why not strike up a friendly - not creepy or smug - conversation with him. A quick search of youtube yielded a video interview where he seems pretty down to earth, and funny. HE PLAYS THE UKULELE!

Sure enough, he has a personal profile. But my hopes of being a friend were thwarted because he couldn't accept any more requests. FIE!

This course of events made me all the more curious to get a copy of his solo album, Niagra Falls. Surely Jerry's Record would have a copy or two of it. The answer is yes, but it took some hunting. In the Cars section - nothing. The H section - definitely nothing. I think I even scoured the new wave H section. One option remained - Back stock.

Sure enough, right next to Richie Havens, there was Mr. Hawkes, four copies of him in fact. And they went back to the days when Jerry priced his records at $2.83, since tax took it up to $3 exactly. I opted for the copy still in shrink wrap with a sticker on it (as seen in the picture.)

Time has also been good this record. While it might not be a gem that was unfairly neglected at the time, it's nevertheless a fun listen. Hawkes plays everything on the album - keys, a little guitar, drum machines, a few vocals, sadly no saxophones - but it's more than a bunch of sketches with a bunch of overdubs piled onto them (the solo album syndrome). These are instrumental songs. "Ants In Your Pants" has a bit of a videogame sound, but it's catchy too. The vocoder vocals on "Voyage Into Space" beg the question: Does Tobacco, the reclusive Pittsburgh musician who also records with Black Moth Super Rainbow, know about this album? Did it inspire him? If not, he should get up to Jerry's and grab one of the other copies.

Even the lyrics on "Jet Lag" ("Jet lag/ it's a real drag," and that's it) are forgiveable. While he might have been slagged at the time as "no Ric Ocasek in the lyric department," today it sounds more like Greg knew what he was doing. Part of the fun was that it was so ridiculous a couplet.

On the same day I bought Niagra Falls I found the Cars' reunion CD Move Like This at the library, which is also really great, just like one might hope. And I also finally listened to Shake It Up. It was time.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Mostly Other People Do the Killing - Bonus Tracks, um, I mean Bonus Quotes

You can't print everything. That's a valuable lesson I learned from a journalism teacher during college. It's something I think about a lot after doing a great interview and knowing that only a few, choice quotes will make it into the article.

This week, Pittsburgh City Paper ran my interview with Moppa Elliot, the bassist of the jazz group Mostly Other People Do the Killing, who are coming to town next week. With a 500-word limit, I could only put so much in the article, and tried not to delve too deep into technical details of their music. So I figured it's time to bring out some thoughts that were left on the cutting room floor. In particular, I wanted to spotlight Elliot's thoughts on Blue, MOPDtK's note-for-note recreation of Kind of Blue, Miles Davis' revered classic. In some ways, Elliot had a lot to say about it, but I also wish that I had gotten him to open up a little more, and that I had asked a few devil's advocate questions. I also included his thoughts on why he names his compositions after Pennsylvania towns (though not the "big" ones like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh). Details on the show can be found in the CP link.

Tell me about Blue. How did it come about? Were you guys just sitting around and somebody said that it was a cool thing to do?

Elliot: That's actually exactly what happened. We do a lot of sitting around talking about a lot of crazy random things to do, 90% of which we don’t do because they’re stupid. [Blue] was one where we came up with an idea and some time went by, and we brought it up again. Instead of sounding stupider and stupider like many of our ideas do, it sounded better and better. The more we thought about it, the more interesting it revealed itself to be. 

And it’s proven to be this never-ending wormhole of… I think it’s a really good piece of art in that it means all kinds of stuff to all kinds of people. And it facilitates all kinds of thinking about all kinds of things. Everywhere I go, that’s what everyone wants to talk to me about. And everybody wants to talk about it for a different reason. Which I think is a testament to the fact that it was a good idea. Everybody has a strong opinion and very few people’s opinions about it overlap and I think that’s all good.
We thought about it for years before we did it and it took us four years to do it. So that idea was floating around for a very, very long time. Which was part of making sure this was a good idea before we actually did it.

Why did it take four years - for accuracy?

Elliot: Well, that’s a whole angle right there, where it’s like, we could keep working on it the rest of our lives and it would never be right. It’s literally impossible to do.

The document that we released was as good as we could get it right then. We’ve also jokingly – and this does not seem like as good an idea as a joke -  of doing it again. It would be, you know, better but still not the thing. The thing that’s out, that people can listen to, is the document of the best we could do right then, given the constraints of time and having lives and the whole thing.

I wondered if it was supposed to be a piece of artistic commentary, relating to jazz as "America's classical music" and what that would mean if you really stuck to that idea.

Elliot: That is one very solid angle that I’ve thought a lot about: Taking certain aspects of the jazz world and pushing them to their logical extreme, and then everyone freaks out. And you you think, "Oh, okay, cool. So where’s the line?" At what point between here and, you know, Branford Marsalis redoing A Love Supreme or Chick Corea redoing Return to Forever, or …. I could list any number of tribute projects right here. Where does it stop being okay? That, I think is an incredibly interesting conversation because everyone will give different answers. But I think a lot of the other things I mentioned are equally stupid. But obviously not everyone agrees with me and that’s awesome!

Are you always going to name your songs after cities in Pennsylvania?

Elliot: I’m in no danger of running out. I think trying to give profound titles to instrumental compositions is a little bit silly. It’s a little bit manipulative because you're telling the audience what to think before they hear the music. Titles create association. I wanted to have something completely unrelated and arbitrary as a titling system so that anyone trying to read into meaning in the titles is clearly barking up the wrong tree because they’re just dumb names of Pennsylvania towns. So that way there is no connection and now we can just listen to music. Either that or you do the [Anthony] Braxton thing where you give [the compositions] weird codes and numbers that mean something to you but no one else. That’s another good strategy. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

CD Review: Rodrigo Amado Motion Trio - Desire & Freedom

Rodrigo Amado Motion Trio
Desire & Freedom
(Not Two)

"Freedom is a two-edged sword of which one edge is liberty and the other is responsibility, on which both edges are exceedingly sharp."

That excerpt from Jack Parsons' Freedom Is A Two-Edged Sword appears on the liner of Rodrigo Amado's new CD. It was published was in 1946, a good decade and a half before free jazz of any type came into its own. Parsons most likely wasn't talking specifically about music when he wrote it, but of course it does speak directly to the music. While some might think disparagingly that free improvisation does away with any type of listening skills and just goes for broke, the best examples of it betray an unspoken understanding between the participants. They have a responsibility to each other and the music to use their musical liberation in a way that leads to some new conclusion.

Rodrigo Amado understands that connection. The tenor saxophonist is a native of Lisbon, Portugal where he's been an active part of the free jazz scene, taking part in the earliest releases on the Clean Feed label. (More biographical info can be found here.) I reviewed a previous disc by the Motion Trio that added Jeb Bishop back in 2014. They've also performed with trumpeter Peter Evans. Desire and Freedom features the trio - Amado, cellist Miguel Mira, drummer Gabriel Ferrandini - stretching out on three tracks which take their names from ideas in Parsons' treatise.

"Freedom Is a Two-Edged Sword" sounds spontaneous yet it begins with Amado working on an idea that he reshapes and bends, returning regularly to a center. His tone is clear, not rough and noisy, but after about four minutes he starts blowing staccato altissimo notes. The trio never gets too frenetic, though Mira consistently plucks rapid countermelodies behind Amado, and Ferrandini does cut loose.

"Liberty" comes at it from a different angle. Cello and drums begin with upper register plucking and clattering respectively, while the tenor eventually slides in, ruminating with long, tender tones. The contrast between the rhythm section and the saxophone keeps things exciting. Eleven minutes in, the trio starts to get a bit wild but Amado still resides in a melodic area rather than going from shrieks.

"Responsibility," the longest track at 20 minutes, begins with a two-note tenor line that sounds vaguely reminiscent of an Albert Ayler theme. Amado doesn't go for that over-the-top delivery but the trio delivers the disc's wildest moments here. But even when they sound free, all their lines still feel connected, like their rapport can be heard, even on a recording. Interestingly, they sound like they reach a crossroads around 11 minutes, as if they could wrap things up right there. Instead they reconvene and assess - going back in for another excursion that includes a cello solo and more tenor wails. It was well worth it.

In addition to a compelling set, Desire & Freedom comes, like other Not Two discs, in a heavy cardboard gatefold sleeve similar to the layout of the US International Phonograph label.