Friday, July 28, 2017

Spoon and New Pornographers in Pittsburgh

I know I still owe a dispatch on the Johnny Mathis show last week, but I wanted to write about last night's Spoon and New Pornographers show at Stage AE while it was fresh in my head. 

"So who's headlining?"

"Is it a split bill?"

I heard that a couple times before the show started, and they were legitimate questions. Both Spoon and the New Pornographers could top a bill. Stage AE seemed like a much bigger venue for each band, compared to where they both played the last time they were here. (The NPs sold out Small's in 2015; Spoon was last here in 2014 at the Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead.) 


But the New Pornographers kicked things off. At 8:00 pm, they launched into "Moves," which goes back seven years to the Together album, which it also kicked off. No Neko Case this time around, but instead we were introduced to Simi Stone, who played violin, a bit of percussion and handled Case's vocal parts with ease. Longstanding drummer Kurt Dahle has moved on, but his successor Joe Seiders was aptly described by a friend as the band's secret weapon and I can't argue. He was in-the-pocket the whole night and sang harmonies on top of that.

Carl Newman (seen above) didn't have much to say between songs, which was fine because they only had 50 minutes to do their thing and they gave us a baker's dozen of their hookiest songs from all seven albums. At one point, it seemed like the set list had been written to incorporate all the songs that featured "uh-uh-oh-oh" vocals parts and the like, which was a fine recurring theme. It was great hearing all the layers of vocals in "Dancehall Domine" in person.


Among the surprises in the set, Newman introduced an "old prog rock song," which gave the impression a cover was on the way. Instead, they slammed into "The Jessica Numbers" from Twin Cinemas, which spends most of the time in 11/8 (I was able to count it last night) though it shifts towards the end of the verses. Again, kudos to Seiders for making it sound like he's been playing it for years and making sure that it rocked. Or swung, depending on how it's considered. Guitarist Todd Fancey did some shredding during this one as well.

Even though Dan Bejar was absent from the new Whiteout Conditions album and the show, Newman pulled off a powerful reading of the enigmatic one's "Testament to Youth in Verse," complete with its bell-like coda, which Stone and keyboardist/vocalist Katherine Calder made pure bliss. Speaking of Whiteout Conditions, the recent album contains some of Newman's strongest writing in years, blending major/minor chord hooks and sharp lyrics. Some of the best were in the set, including "Colosseums" and "High Ticket Attractions."

While they would've had me screaming like a Beatlemaniac in 1964 had "The Bleeding Heart Show" been on the list (click here if you want to see my true feelings about that song), they ended with "Mass Romantic," the title track of their debut album, with Calder singing the lead in the first half. Ecstasy had been reached. (Below: Stone, bassist John Collins, Calder)


After that, I could've gone home happy. Anything short of another set might seem anti-climatic to my head. But I was curious to hear Spoon. I haven't followed them anywhere near as religiously as I have with the NPs, and the last album I bought by them didn't quite do it for me. But I'm of the mind that a live performance can make all the difference, even in a big cavernous not-quite-arena as Stage AE. (Locals take note: I thought the show was going to be outside, which would have been cool with me, but it was inside.)

Spoon's set was more of a production. It began with Alex Fischel playing a long Fender Rhodes introduction in the dark. One almost expected flashes to go off, making the band magically appear next to him. Instead, the other four members of the band casually strolled onstage, and they launched into "Do I Have To Talk You Into It."

For most of the show, the band was back lit, with strobes going off and bright lights exploding at key points during some choruses. Britt Daniel even stalked to either end of the stage mid-song, though nowhere near as dramatically as Nick Cave did a month ago (not that it's fair to make a comparison). I don't want to deny Spoon any accolades for their success and longevity after 20 years, but the presentation seemed more in line with a band like Interpol - or another band that seems more serious.

The first half of the set leaned more on the band's riff songs, built on one or two note vamps, in the mid-tempo range. "I Turned My Camera On" sounded good but Jim Eno's beat was almost identical to "Inside Out" which preceded it, and took away some of the edge. But as things moved on, the energy and the mood picked up. When the bass was making my throat vibrate, the after-chorus blind flashes weren't as bad.  In one song during the encore, it seemed like they borrowed a trick from Mission of Burma, looping Daniel's voice and panning it between the speaker columns for a dizzying effect. While I would've preferred to hear more of Daniel's brittle guitar sound more often, the blend of Rhodes and keyboard-generated vibes brought some great nuance to the songs too.

By the time Spoon said its final goodbye, at almost exactly 11:00, they had been on the stage for 90 minutes, so there's no denying they know how to put on a strong, moving set. And now I do want to hear Hot Thoughts.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Johnny Mathis Interview




Johnny Mathis at a recording session in the 1960s, Photo courtesy of Columbia Archives.
Saturday, July 22
Johnny Mathis: The Voice of Romance Tour 2015
With the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Heinz Hall, Downtown. 8 p.m. 
412-392-4900

Frank Sinatra might have been The Voice, but Johnny Mathis has The Voice. A few months shy of his 82nd birthday, Mr. Mathis sounds as youthful on the phone as he did on the recordings he made in the majestic-sounding Columbia 30th Street Recording Studios, starting in the late 1950s. Mitch Miller, the head of Columbia Records' pop music department, has gone down in history as one of the squarest figures in the music industry. Back then, though, he was right on the money, taking this self-described "jazzer" from San Francisco and pairing him with lush, orchestral arrangements.

Mathis was discovered at the Black Hawk by George Avakian, who ran Columbia's jazz department. The 19-year old singer soon made a life-altering decision, scrapping a chance to join the USA Olympic Team in favor of a trip to New York to record an album. Johnny Mathis - A New Sound in Popular Song (1956) paired him up with arrangers like Gil Evans, Teo Macero and the Modern Jazz Quartet's John Lewis for a set that included "Star Eyes," "It Might As Well Be Spring" and "Babalu." Listening back today, it's impressive to hear his distinct vibrato with some often swinging charts, and to hear him cut loose on "Angel Eyes," normally taken as a dark blue, cry-in-your-cocktail number. But the album only had moderate success. Soon Miller took over, trading the bands for the orchestras of Ray Conniff or Ray Ellis. And Mathis never looked back.

In advance of Mathis' appearance this weekend with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, I spoke with to him this past Monday. When I asked, "How are you," at the top of the call, he replied, "Old!" He then left fly with the first of many laughs I heard during the talk. We covered a myriad of topics, from his voice to current recordings, to his experience with Mitch Miller and the way the acoustics of the Columbia Studio helped him to deliver an important note in one of his biggest songs. I only wish the audio would be included here. His speaking voice sounded as crisp as his singing voice and he often emphasized his words as if they were lyrics.

I saw you perform here five years ago. Within a few syllables I was completely blown away. So I wonder - how do you keep your voice in such good shape? Is there some regimen that you follow?

I was wondering that. I'm 81, I'll be 82 in a couple months. My voice teacher was really my godsend. My dad insisted that if i wanted to sing - and he was a singer, a very good singer but he had a big family so nobody ever heard him other than us. He insisted that we find a voice teacher. I said, "Dad, I don't need a teacher. I can sing!" But he was adamant about it. and fortunately we found a wonderful woman who taught me.

In some ways she might have been the catalyst not only because she taught me about the physical proprieties of singing - how to keep your throat open when you're singing, how to support your tones from the diaphragm, that sort of thing - which most opera singers know backwards and forwards. But she was an opera singer and she insisted that that's what would help me over the years. Just learn how to do it so you won't injure your vocal chords. And of course she was absolutely right.

As you were starting to perform, did you feel like you were coming up with your own style? Jazz musicians are always told, "Find your own voice." Your style with the vibrato - was that something you came into on your own?

The vibrato is a natural, physical occurrence. Ask Eartha Kitt. You can't control it. So no, I never thought of anything like that. Other than the fact that I didn't really like it. I thought it was girlish sounding, or something. I started singing at such an early age. Under [my teacher's] tutelage, I got a chance to go to the opera quite a lot. Living in San Francisco, I got a chance to meet a lot of singers who came through at the local jazz clubs. There were a myriad of jazz clubs in San Francisco.

I listened to all these people. Along the way I was concerned about my vibrato. But I learned over a period of time how to control it. And then [laughs] I forgot about it and said, "Well, that's the way I sound!"

I was listening to some new stuff that I'm doing with Babyface [Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds]. A lot of popular songs of the day. There it is! That vibrato that I've always been hearing. But you get used to anything. [laughs]

What songs are you working on? You're going to call it The New American Songbook right?

Yeah, Clive Davis is an old pal of mine. He was of course, for many years, the president of Columbia Records. He still advises me on a lot of things. He is the guy who decided he would like to produce my new album, he and Babyface. They came up with the songs. And a lot of them are good songs. It was kind of hard to find good songs in today's market that I really wanted to sing. But the kids like what they like, and of course that's the way that we grew up too, playing the songs. They came up with the Keith Urban song, "Blue Ain't Your Color." Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

Wow! That's got to be great.

I love that! It's quite a project! We did "Hello" by Adele. "I Believe I Can Fly," R. Kelly. "Once Before I Go," Peter Allen. "Remember When," Allen Jackson. "Run to You," a Whitney Houston song. They're all songs the public are familiar with. It goes back to when I first started making albums at a very young age. I did it with Mitch Miller. We also sang songs that the audience were familiar with. Most of the songs I chose in the beginning were popular standards. You know I started singing int the '50s and '60s and there were a lot of novelty songs. Very much like nowadays. But that's kind of what I fall back on when I do my concerts. People like to hear songs that are familiar to them.

I wanted to ask you about Mitch Miller. Throughout history he's gotten a bad rap but he had a vision that really worked for you. What was your working relationship like with him?

The thing about Mitch was he was a classical oboist for one of the symphonies in New York, I can't remember which one. But he was absolutely adamant about wanting, as most classical musicians are...their whole life is spent learning their craft. And very few of them make a lot of money. Including Mitch Miller, so he wanted to make money.

So somehow he became head of popular music at Columbia Records. He worked with all of us: Vic Damone, Rosemary Clooney. And they were very boisterous about his ability. And he had none! He hadn't a clue as to what to do in the studio. BUT, he wanted to make popular songs. So he would give us these songs to sing. Most of them were trivial. I'll never forget Rosemary, when he gave her [starts singing Clooney's classic "Come On-a My House"]. But it ended up being a hit record for her. So we had that little thing going on with Mitch.

I was 19 years old, maybe 20 at the time. I was looking for somebody to guide me. George Avakian - God bless him, he's still alive and almost 100 years old now [NOTE: Avakian turned 98 this year] - signed me. We tried a little bit of jazz orientated first album that didn't impress anyone, other than some vocal pyrotechnics here and there on my part. We met Mitch Miller and I said, "Yeah, let's do something." So he came up with a pile of songs and handed them to me. It was as tall is I was. I picked out four songs. "It's Not for Me To Say," "Wonderful Wonderful," "When Sunny Gets Blue," and a song a new kid brought him, "Warm and Tender" by Burt Bacharach.

That was what I did in the studio. Mitch was there. He did nothing but stand next to me while I'm singing. While I'm singing, if you can imagine that, patting me on the back to [speaks rhythmically] make. Sure. That. I. Sang. On. The-beat. Be-cause. Jazz. Music. Does. Not. Sell. [We both laugh.]

And I was a jazzer, you know? He had to knock that out of my head. that's what he did. He was next to me and he went, "Sing. On. The-beat. Don't. Do. Anything. Otherthanthat." We got lucky.

And I've nothing but good things to say about Mitch. Other than all of the things that you've heard are true. Everybody hated him. Rosemary hated him. Tony Bennett hated him. Vic Damone hated him. Because he didn't know what he was doing and he got lucky with me.

Was that at a time when you didn't dare stand up to Mitch? Did you feel like you needed to listen to him?

I listened to anybody who... people who didn't even know what they were talking about, I listened to them. I was a kid! Wide-eyed, And also I have a very flexible voice. I could do whatever they asked me to do, vocally. It wasn't a big deal. I'm a jazz-orientated singer. Jazzers don't care what you do, you just do it! I was good fodder for them.

Mitch was just one of the many people..... I'll tell you this: I thought I was going to have more oversight when I went into the studio. But when I was singing and making my recordings, everybody was adamant about getting the instrumentation correct or hearing the sound of their voice right. But absolutely zero kind of help that I could get vocally. It was nonexistent. It just was not there because I guess they felt that if I was a signed, contract singer that I knew what I was doing. But I certainly didn't. And I needed all the help I could get. and the first person that gave me any parameters about singing was Mitch Miller.

Prior to that, would you be waiting for feedback, only to be told, "Great! Let's go to the next song"?

Well, mostly I listened to the people who did the charts, some of the great jazz artists were on my first album.

Like Gil Evans and Teo Macero.

And John Lewis, of the Modern Jazz Quartet. They were very nice and they were concerned about getting the arrangement done. Not a peep as far as what to sing or how to sing it. I was really quite on my own. All my great vocal heroes at the time - you have to remember that I was 13, 14 years old when I was heard by George -they were all girl singers. And jazz singers. I was really unstructured as far as singing on the beat, and singing with an orchestration. I was all over the place, and that's the way the first album turned out. I would sing pretty well and towards the end of the song, I would think, "Ahhh, this is BORing!" Then I'd go [yells out a high note], running off the melody.

Most of my vocal heroes at the time were girl singers. Chris Connor, June Christie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne. For some reason, those were the voices that I liked. I tried to emulate them.

I copied what I thought I really liked as far as vocalizing on a song. If I liked one person's rendition of i then ...[that's what I emulated]. As far as "Angel Eyes" was concerned, I remember falling in love with a version I heard which was quite different from the way the song was written. But you were guessing all the time! I never had anything I was adamant about when I was making those first recording.

George Avakian... was just interested in the fact that I was very young and I sang jazzy stuff. Because he was the head of jazz at the time. Eventually the fact of my youth and my inexperience showed up on that first album. I was really kind of happy when Mitch gave me some direction, vocally. [Laughs] And then it got kind of boring [for Mitch]. I said, "Now I know what to do!" And he wouldn't go away. Finally he did.

I think he was in the studio on occasion after that, when I did my first few albums. Actually I remember he was. Because Percy Faith hated him. Percy did my first few albums. He was a wonderful, wonderful composer and arranger. He was an artist in residence on the label at the time. So he was doing a big favor to accompany me with his orchestra at the time. And it was a big boost to my career at the time. God bless Percy Faith.

The Columbia 30th Street Studios - everything I've heard out of that place sounded wonderful. As you were recording it, did you get a feel for how rich it made the sound?

Absolutely. It was a church, and the record company bought the church and turned it into a recording studio. And it was absolutely the most wonderful place to sing in. I remember how Mahalia Jackson loved it. Because I used to follow her. For some reason, we got booked one after another. she just loved it. And I did too.

I did so many things in that studio that I could've never done any place else. For instance, the high note  in the middle of my recording of "Misty," I started singing in the hallway. And I walked into the studio [singing], "Onnnnnnnnnnnnn my own." [In the studio you could do] all sorts of crazy things like that! Because you felt so comfortable with the sound in the studio because it reverberated. And singers love to sing when the sound is reverberating.

I'm going to remember that every time I hear the high-note in "Misty" now.

Ha ha ha! I started in the hallway!

And back then, everything was recorded completely live with everyone in the same studio, right? You didn't do overdubs did you?

No, we didn't. And I did four songs in three hours for 20, 25, 30 years. Get or no get! You know - sometimes you didn't "get it" but it came out anyway.

I was wondering about that because I was looking at the discography on your website. 1964 was an especially big year because you have seven albums come out. I wondered if you did more than one album in one session. But you said it was...

Four songs in three hours. It was always that way. I'll never forget it. And God bless [arranger/conductors] Glenn Osser and Percy Faith and all the other extraordinary arrangers that I've worked with over the years. They had to come up with these ideas, you know? So many of the songs were standard songs. Quite beautiful, but very well known songs. So they had to do their take on a song better than [what had been] recorded thousands of times. I give them a great deal of credit. And they were working with a young, unknown singer!

But things took off within a few years, right?

Yeah, and after the success of my single recordings, [pauses] I had all my knowledge of songs instilled in me by listening to all these jazzers over the years that I had mentioned to you earlier. And they sang all standard songs. So all of my repertoire at that time, being so young, was all the songs I had heard all these jazz singers sing - Ella, Sarah, all the rest. That was my trunkfull of songs.

Then when I asked to make albums, Mitch was at a loss because he didn't know any of these songs. At least he sat in the studio and listened. Because when people like Percy Faith, who was a working artist himself, had a very little patience with someone like Mitch Miller who knew nothing about what he was doing. Shot in the dark all the time, all the time. He was quite a little bit intrusive and not very polite about it.

He was just looking to find successful songs. It didn't matter the quality of songs, or how it came about, or how it was recorded. But he was very much interested in making money. Which isn't a bad idea. A lot of people are that way. But Mitch was doing it with very little knowledge of what he was talking about. That's what got under the skin of all these learned musicians. He was a wonderful musician. He certainly knew nothing about making records.

After awhile, getting into the 1960s, would you be the one who picked everything - the concept for the album and the songs?

Yes. Along the way, I met people like Bob Prince, who very early on was in the studio as a young, aspiring producer. [Prince arranges and plays a few songs on A New Sound In Popular Song] He was also a wonderful musician. And he liked my singing. He helped me in so many ways. He was my liaison between the record company and the orchestra that was going to accompany me on my next project. I always have to remember to give him credit because I was at the mercy of the people who were in this building that I had never met. But they were the business people of the record.

So when it was time for me to make an album, because basically that's what I did a lot. The single records were kind of [the case where] I'd run in do something but I never thought too much about it because the songs were all new. They were all written by local songwriters, [who gave] me a little idea about the song. But other than that, it seemed that because I could really learn some of these songs really fast and go into the studio, record them according to their likes. The writer was always there saying, "Okay, that's very good. I like that."

One final, off-the-wall question. Since you came up in an era when albums were popular, do you have a preference in the vinyl vs. digital debate? Do you prefer records to CDs?

Oh, gosh. I never thought about it too much. There are people who have brought it to my attention, the differences. But I really don't. I know when I hear music and it's reproduced beautifully.

The only thing I noticed was the early recordings that I did at the studio in New York, the old church, how wonderful [it sounds]. And I never, ever was able to reproduce that sound or hear that sound on my voice after we stopped recording there. Everything sounded very flat. They lost the roundness because, of course, it was a church. Evidently it was just the right amount of reverberation in the walls and what have you. Because we've never been able to get that sound again.
*

By that time, we had hit the 30-minute mark. I still had a handful of questions (any artists you listen to that might surprise your fans?; will you please sing "When Sunny Gets Blue" this weekend?) but they'll have to wait for another time.



Wednesday, July 05, 2017

CD Review: Steve Coleman's Natal Eclipse - Morphogenesis/ Miles Okazaki - Trickster


Steve Coleman's Natal Eclipse
Morphogenesis
(Pi Recordings) www.pirecordings.com

Steve Coleman stepped away from his long-standing band Five Elements for his latest release. It doesn't mark a radical departure from his idiosyncratic rhythmic cycles. Natal Eclipse also includes Five Elements members Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet), Jen Shyu (vocal) and Maria Grand (tenor saxophone). Conspicuously absent from the set is a trap drummer, after previous releases that included upwards of two of them, in addition to a percussionist. Neeraj Mehta adds percussion to half the album, sometimes setting a tempo, while other times it adds extra coloring to the music. All ears move towards the melodic landscape, which is rich, dense and alluring, to say the least.

The musicians above, and Coleman's alto saxophone, are joined by Matt Mitchell (piano), Rane Moore (clarinet), Kristin Lee (violin) and Greg Chudzik (bass). (Note: the personnel gives the session an equal gender balance.) Mitchell's name should be familiar from work with Tim Berne and Rudresh Mahanthappa and his own albums (more recently, a solo disc of Berne's music on piano).

The remaining three play classical music, though they fit right in with the improvisational nature of this work. Moore's clarinet adds a rich quality together with Coleman and Grand. Lee's violin brings a bit of mystery to the set. Chudzik has the most challenging task of all: keeping the tempos steady and secure. Often he's plucking a single note through the shifting rhythms, which could be tediously simple but more likely requires the discipline and focus of his conservatory background. In "Shoulder Roll," he finally gets a chance to "solo" and he executes the work so clearly, it's hard to tell if it was spontaneous or composed. Either way, it must be heard.

Coleman found inspiration for Morphogenesis in the moves utilized by boxers. Titles like "Inside Game," "Dancing and Jabbing" and "Shoulder Roll" bear this out. Musically, Coleman's crisp alto begins "Pull Counter" in a manner that evokes both the sport and ballet, playing against the strings and reeds, before Shyu joins him the staccato pops of the melody, and Mitchell and Chudzik add some angular but firm accompaniment.

The album's title, Coleman says, is used to define the "process that causes an organism to develop its form." It epitomizes the way he composes the music and explains "Morphing" a 14-minute track that unfolds through Coleman's playing, with his bandmates alternately grabbing the line from him and accentuating his thoughts. By the final quarter, Coleman and Finlayson play one line together while Shyu sings a counter melody (if it can be called that) and Moore's clarinet adds shades of sound in the background.

Not all of Morphogenesis is built on multiple layers. "NOH" and "SPAN" were improvised in the studio, the latter creating an especially tight vamp with counterpoint and accents that shift on and off the beat. Shyu , who also uses her voice like a skillful insftumentalist, adds more "Horda" is composed but built on an electric bit of group improvisation.

All of this description might give the false impression of Coleman being impenetrable or as challenging as the heaviest modern new music. Quite the contrary. His alto cuts through with a welcoming, warm quality and his arrangements, jumpy as they might be, compel listeners to follow the melody to see where it leads, who will take and to remember what to further explore on the next listen.


Miles Okazaki
Trickster
(Pi Recordings) www.pirecordings.com

Speaking of Five Elements, guitarist Miles Okazaki has been a member of that group for eight years, in addition to work as a leader. Trickster (his Pi debut) came out back in March and this seemed like the best time to finally put words down about this interesting release.

The guitarist has a similar sort of quest as Coleman, finding inspiration for his writing in non-musical settings. In this case, Okazaki was inspired by tricksters from literature, who "disrupt the state of things and break taboos and conventions," much like he and Coleman do in their writing. Like the saxophonist, Okazaki thrives in unusual rhythms, going so far to say the approach represents the nature of the tricksters. Each track depicts a different troublemaker, with explanations in each track covered in the liner notes.

It's surprising that all of the pieces are built on groups of 12 or 16 bar structures played in either 4/4 or 3/4. Inside those structures are "folds" or twists that can trip up the listener. Okazaki's writing often turns on a dime, rhythmically, but when he or pianist Craig Taborn take solos, they often do it over a vamp created by the song's central rhythm. When this happens, the quartet sounds steady but never rigid. The guitar has a clean, sleek tone that comes to life during the solos. Bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman, both also Five Elements members, offer the perfect support, firm yet groovy.

Taborn and Okazaki create a very "classic" '50s style guitar/piano blend on "Kudzu," which they channel into a very modern melody. Later in the piece Tidd slips into the bass's sub-register, making it sound like the instrument is coming unspooled even as it holds down the fort. Rickman gets his chance to work in multiple rhythms on top of one another in the tense "The West."

"The Calendar" provides the album's most beautiful moment, and it lasts over nine minutes. Built on the trickster myth of the Egyptian god Thoth, who played a game of dice with the moon, it feels repetitive though the bass and piano shift underneath it and the crack of Rickman's snare drum never stays in the same place. The blend of the group feels pretty hypnotic.

The cover of Trickster depicts two origami sculptures, a fox and a raven, each made from a single piece of paper. On the back cover, both sheets are unfolded to show how complexity came from simple means. Okazaki did this because it explains the music so well. It also proves the importance of listening closely and discovering how all those folds and contours work.


Monday, July 03, 2017

Geri Allen, remembered by George Lewis

I wrote a short piece about Geri Allen's passing, which will run in City Paper this week. Not knowing that I would only have a little bit of space to reflect on the pianist's death last week, I reached out to composer/trombonist/professor at Columbia University George Lewis, who Allen brought to town last year for a few performances. 

There have been many tributes to Allen popping up in publications and on Facebook, all of which have captured the depth and spirit of her work. Lewis adds to that, so I thought it appropriate to reprint his words from the email he sent me:

"...We just lost one of the leading musicians of our time. Playing with Geri was a dream, and I was privileged to live that dream more than once. As you know, we worked on software interactivity performances (at least three), and she understood interactivity at a philosophically deep level because she could read minds while she played.

"Around the time of our telematic collaboration at Pitt, we were talking animatedly about all the new things she was doing and planning. She was taking the Jazz Studies program at Pitt in directions that were unimaginably great, and she could do this because of her extremely open mind and her ability to understand and support diverse viewpoints, which was also why she was able to perform with the widest range of creative people. She was a creative musician of the very highest order, and our loss is incalculable."

George also included this link to performance with Allen from 2012. This is another Interactive Trio one that is a little longer.

RIP, Geri.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

CD Review: Roscoe Mitchell - Bells for the South Side


Roscoe Mitchell
Bells for the South Side
(ECM) www.ecmrecords.com

Roscoe Mitchell's new album begins with "Spatial Aspects of the Sound," a 12-minute piece full of open spaces between sustained piano chords and rings of tubular bells. Sometimes the notes hang in the air, decaying organically. Sometimes they're muffled and dissipate as soon as they're struck. Craig Taborn and Tyshawn Sorey play the pianos and William Winant handles the bells. Around 8:30 into it, Kikanju Baku dances, literally, into the piece, wearing ankle bells and sleigh bells, though the visual aspect is only clear because Mitchell mentioned it in a New York Times interview last week. These bells add a flowing sound to the still spare pianos, which pick up in intensity but for a few fleeting moments. It all feels unsettling and suspenseful. In the final minute a tempo is settled and Mitchell plays a simple melody of long notes on the piccolo. With that, the piece is complete.

This track alone proves why Mitchell can't be contained or epitomized as "an experimental jazz music" or "radical composer." Those words only begin to scrape the surface of his work. Bells for the South Side provides an even deeper look into Mitchell's mind, spread out over two CDs that can be challenging but will also be extremely rewarding listens.

The music on the album was written to presented as part of "The Freedom Principle," the 2015 exhibition at the Museum for Contemporary Art in Chicago that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the group of musicians that included the multi-reedist and his fellow Art Ensemble of Chicago members. The Art Ensemble's percussion cage, on display at the exhibition, was played during the performance, providing the wide-ranging sounds that bring both clatter and melody to the set.

For the performance, Mitchell (on five different saxophones, flute, piccolo, bass recorder and percussion) works with four different trios, who often co-mingle on different tracks, bringing together unusual instrumentation. The trio with percussionist Winant also includes James Fei (sopranino and alto saxophones, contra-alto clarinet, electronics), both fellow teachers at Mills College with their leader. Sorey (who also plays trombone and percussion) plays in a trio with Mitchell and Hugh Ragin (trumpet). Taborn and Baku join Mitchell in the third trio. Jaribu Shahid (bass) and Tani Tabbal (drums) make up the final one, representing the longest grouping of all.

To describe the rest of the album succinctly makes a formidable task, but the scope of the work almost requires it. "Panoply" (named for a painting that graces the CD's booklet) features the horns in fits and starts, blowing wildly, sustaining notes and darting over drums and percussion (which come from at least three percussionists). This mood continues into "Prelude to a Rose" an oddly beautiful work by Sorey (this time on trombone) with Mitchell (who includes a few blows on the bass saxophone) and Ragin. "Dancing in the Canyon" is the album's one purely improvised piece, with Taborn's spare electronics and Mitchell's reeds testing the waters with Baku. Taborn eventually switches to piano and all three finally dive in for some free blowing. "EP 7849" features Shahid on bass guitar, making some drop-tuned noise that might be expected from a free metal group. The title track features what it says: chiming bells, with Ragin playing off them.

Disc two continues to blend jazz and chamber music, all filtered through Mitchell's unique perspective. After a lengthy duet between his raw, emotional alto and Shahid's bowed bass in "Prelude to the Card Game," Tabbal gets room for an extended solo in "Card for Drums" that provides a new dissertation on how to create a compelling drum solo. This disc's final 25-minute track begins with "Red Moon in the Sky" a blend of wild electronics, bells and piano that practically begs for visuals from the "Freedom Principle" exhibition, as it too evolves into a collective blowing session. One gets the impression that Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors are looking down on the music with approval.

To bring things full circle, "Red Moon" segues into "Odwalla," Mitchell's closing theme from the Art Ensemble days. While the music was all recorded either in the museum's theater or in the exhibition space itself, this performance puts the whole ensemble in front of a hither to unheard audience, to whom Mitchell introduces each member, who gets a chance to blow over the song's vamp.

Hearing the leader's voice warmly announcing everyone, and the reaction of the audience, serves as reminder of the human quality behind this music. While it forces the listener to leave their preconceptions at the door - indeed from the opening seconds of disc one - the final moments prove that this is music build on emotion and communication. Like all great music, it leaves you anticipating what will be discovered the next time you hit the play button.

Mitchell's vast discography under his name and the Art Ensemble's banner all feature many bold and significant works. Time will tell for sure, but it's likely that Bells for the South Side ranks with the strongest due its depth and subject matter.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Thumbscrew, Lindsey Horner/Jeff Berman, Ouds and more

Last Monday, I received an email from a friend asking if I was planning to see Thumbscrew at City of Asylum two days later. I replied that I didn't know they were coming but, now that I was informed, yes I would be there. About an hour later I received an email from Alphabet City/City of Asylum about it. Stop last-minuting me, people! 


The last time Thumbscrew (left to right above: Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara) came here, they were part of a three-night residency that featured Halvorson in three different settings - solo, as part of Fujiwara's the Hook Up band and with Thumbscrew. The trio's set started an hour earlier than originally planned and an email was sent out that afternoon about three hours before start time. Not having checked that email (the one I use for writing), I didn't know, so I missed all but about 20 minutes of the show. (There was a silver lining though, because I met a fellow jazz enthusiast from Erie who knows my family up there.)

I'm mentioning all this because it meant I was really looking forward to Wednesday's show. The trio had already been in town for about a week, once again working on new material and preparing to record it at Mr. Small's. (Their sophomore album, Convallaria, was recorded here under the same circumstances). The set consisted of brand new material they had been workshopping, three songs by each member of the group.)

Thumbscrew is an captivating group because each member of the group has a distinct musical personality that comes through, even if the compositions sound a little more conventional that what they've done elsewhere. Sometimes it's hard to figure out where to focus your attention. That doesn't mean things sound busy. There is just a lot of activity happening.

One piece later in the set (which didn't get announced) sounded like a ballad, yet there were still spots where Halvorson used her pedal to bend the notes. It was easy to identify her as the composer of "Thumbprint" due to the characteristic bright lines that guided it. Fujiwara worked all over his kit, incorporating woodblocks, switching cymbals between tunes to get a particular tone - always managing to create a groove, even if he played a little more abstractly, or followed the melody on his kit. And Formanek slayed, as always, running up and down the neck with ease, stopping to create a double (or was it triple) stop that sounded rich and mighty. At the end of the night, I picked up his solo bass disc, Am I Bothering You?, and I'm looking forward to hearing it.

Another strong quality about this trio is the comfort level they exude. They were having a good time and felt familiar with us. I regret not writing down the entire title of the final track of the set but I thought Formanek was kidding at first. It begins with "Nine Words that Rhyme with Spangle..." and he rattled them all off. Look for it on the sleeve when the disc finally comes out.

They encored with a piece by a Brazilian composer because, in addition to writing new works, they're also doing an album of other people's music. The blend of that style of writing and this group showed them in a different light, really digging into the rhythm and harmony of that work. Great encore.

Speaking of solo basses, I never got to post about the return of bassist Lindsey Horner to Pittsburgh for a show that happened two weeks ago today.


Horner set up with drummer Jeff Berman at the Point Breeze, an intimate little eatery which is in the 'hood of its name. He recently released an album One More Forever, which is half solo and half of the duo of him and Berman and they played a number of the tunes on that disc.

In the early 2000s, Horner lived in Pittsburgh playing with a number of different groups. One I recall was Always Know, with Ben Opie, Dave Throckmorton and Jay Willis, where they played compositions from the later periods of Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus. But prior to coming to town, he played in New York doing a variety of musics, from jazz to traditional Irish/Celtic music. He appeared on the title track of one of my favorite albums, Bobby Previte's Pushing the Envelope.

His set, and the new album, casts a wide net that touches on people he's played with (there are dedications) or inspired him, and some representative covers. "What Might Have Been" was really lyrical, with a melodic fragment that reminded me of the descending opening line of "La Vie en Rose," though Horner said that was coincidental. "Long Time Comin'/Long Time Gone" paid tribute to the great Milt Hinton with a deep groove. For Monk's "Let's Cool One," they took it in 7/4, which kept me guessing thanks to the way Berman was spreading the groove over the bar line. Throughout both sets, Berman was a skilled partner in crime. In one tune, he played just a shaker and a brush and it sounded awesome.

One More Forever was released by Upshot Records. Go to lindseyhorner.com to check it out. Solo bass albums, bad jokes aside, might not be something people don't regard that seriously but Formanek and Horner know how to keep you riveted to the music. I recently purchased the four-disc version of John Coltrane's Concert in Japan which has more Jimmy Garrison solos on it and it has helped me appreciate when the instrument stands alone.

In other weekend music news -- I've been out several nights this week -- there was something of an Oud Fest at Hambone's on Friday night. Tomchess, from New York, came with his trio, playing the 11-string instrument in a setting that incorporated jazz improvisation and Middle Eastern vamps. He was bookended by Tom Moran, playing solo in a manner that evoked spaghetti westerns and meditation,frequently letting notes hang in the air and slowly decay. King Fez closed the evening out, with a show that combined hand percussion, electric guitars and bass and a bellydancer. Their oud was electrified (like Moran's) and had some qualities of surf guitar.

Moran told me later in the evening that it isn't a remote comparison. Dick Dale grew up playing this type of music and it was a key part in his brand of surf rock. As time goes on, I keep finding proof that different types of music, and the people who play, have closer connections that we might initially think.

Last night, I was over at the offices of Get Hip Records, in their performance space to check out the release part of Zack Heim. Normally found fronting the Nox Boys, Heim has a solo acoustic album out now on Get Hip's new folk series. His story is going to be in City Paper in a few weeks so more about him later.

Friday, June 23, 2017

CD Review: Jaimie Branch - Fly or Die


Jaimie Branch
Fly or Die
(International Anthem) www.intlanthem.com

If there's one album to buy this year on impulse, or based on a review, this is the one.

Trumpeter Jaimie Branch has played with William Parker and Matana Roberts as well as TV on the Radio and Spoon. Fly or Die is her first release as a leader and she wastes no time ingratiating herself to listeners. After some brief, low blasts from Branch's horn, Tomeka Reid (cello) and Jason Ajemian (bass) set up the vamp of "Theme 001," grooving and playing off each other and Chad Taylor (drums). Branch enters with a bright tone that quickly engages, playing a theme and embellishing with some flutters and bent notes.

The tune could have gone on for another five minutes, with the strings dancing off each other and Taylor straddling a groove and incisive fills. But after less than four minutes, the tempo slips away and they segue into  "Meanwhile," an interlude of string scrapes and free drums. "Theme 002" builds out of this (don't look at the disc as it's playing and it all feels like one multi-themed piece), like a hopped up reggae groove, with Branch playing long high tones and pensive mid-range lines as well. In some ways, she recalls Wadada Leo Smith's ability to put across a great deal within a batch of crisply executed notes.

In "Leaves of Glass" Branch is joined by cornetists Josh Berman and  Ben Lamar Gay, who echo and embellish her melody, which build in dynamics and reverb like some ghost of Gil Evans got captured by the tape in the studio. The echo remains for "The Storm" a spacey tone poem with cello glissandos and tympani.

The music keeps moving forward throughout, climaxing with the stop-start "Theme Nothing," where Taylor breaks into an explosive solo over the song's one-chord groove. "...Back at the Ranch" closes the album with a non-sequitur: a solo acoustic guitar rendering, not quite classical, not quite spaghetti western, but with echoes of both.

Branch has a lot going for her: the strong tone of a classical trumpeter, the imagination that can be expected from a Chicago player, writing skills that bring life to simple grooves and great choices for band members. Hopefully more people are listening to this album right now and feeling the same way.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Reports on the Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival 2017

A few days ago, Facebook sent me a memory post, one of those "On this day, X years ago," where I suggested that anyone reading the post should go down to the Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival and check out the trio of Geri Allen, David Murray & Terri Lynn Carrington. I read it and thought, "Why the hell didn't I go to that show?!" The answer was probably related to my retail job of that time, where Saturday was one of the busiest days of the week and getting off was not done without the residual guilt and suspicion. These days, being underemployed has its advantages.

I was pretty stoked about this year's JazzLive Fest (which ran last weekend, Friday-Sunday) because in addition to ticketed shows by David Sanborn and Angelique Kidjo, there were plenty of free shows. Plus, the schedule included both straightahead acts like vocalist Jazzmeia Horn and bold groups like Odean Pope's Saxophone Choir, as well as tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman and bassist Linda May Han Oh.

A brief preview of the event ran in CP, where I interviewed Linda May Han Oh and wrote a little about Odean Pope. I would have liked to interview David Sanborn, and ask about his wide-ranging work (he's worked with Tim Berne, grew up with the Black Artists Group and covered the Velvet Underground, in addition to the more accessible stuff for which he's known). But my night began at the closing party for the Non Punk Pittsburgh show at SPACE Gallery, just down the street from where Sanborn was playing. Steve Sciulli of Carsickness just released a solo CD, so he was playing, along with a few other acts on the Get Hip label.

After that, it was up to La Lyonnais, a restaurant down and around the corner where a jam session was in progress, hosted by drummer Roger Humphries. Events like this can be a crapshoot - sometimes it's a bunch of musicians blowing the roof off the place, sometimes there are up-and-comers playing the tried-and-true blowing session classics who sound.... promising. 

There were a couple of young bucks onstage (i.e. in the corner where the band could fit) when I arrived. And by young, I mean these fellows looked like they still had a few years of high school left. I should have been ambitious and got the name of the young tenor player who only played on one tune while I was there. But he tore things up - good ideas, good execution. Dr. Nelson Harrison got out his trombetto and - as the picture below shows, Sean Jones also joined in, with saxophonist Lou Stellute and keyboardist Howie Alexander. Things were still going strong past 1:00, but I decided I'd reached my limit by that point.



For the rest of the weekend, the majority of the performances took place outdoors, on two stages set up at either end of  Penn Avenue (The UPMC stage and the Spirit Airlines stage) with the 9th Street Stage in between them. For the most part the weather behaved itself. There was some rain, but not when I was there.


Saturday afternoon, Odean Pope's Saxophone Choir sounded amazing - a mix of Ellingtonian lyricism and World Saxophone Quartet aggression. Or maybe that thrust could be attributed to Philadelphia, his stomping ground for most of his life. There was a moment during the ballad "Cis," a tune dedicated to Pope's late wife, where the voices of all six saxophones were all easily distinguishable, each bringing a personal tone to the music. Later, Pope warned the audience, "This one is on the edge," before launching into a tune where he pushed to the upper register of his horn, the rest of the group occasionally riffing behind him.

The rest of the saxophonists got plenty of solo space too. Julian Pressley (the alto player with the great hair below) had a tart tone that contrasted with the rest of the players, while fellow alto man Louis Taylor was also on fire.


Jazzmeia Horn won the 2015 Thelonious Monk International Vocal Jazz Competition, and as she was performing on Saturday, her album A Social Call was #1 on the Billboard jazz charts. It was clear to see why. As her piano trio vamped behind her on the UPMC stage, she unleashed a strong scat solo in "East of the Sun (West of the Moon)." 

Like many jazz musicians in the wake of the new administration, Horn added some politically charged moments to the set. Marking Juneteenth, she sang "Lift Every Voice" ("the Black National Anthem," she called it) and segued that into "Moanin'," the Bobby Timmons classic that got lyrics from Jon Hendricks. It was easy to miss but it sounded like she substituted "life" in the line "Life's a losing gamble to me," with the name of the current president. 

What took away from the performance was Horn's habit of oversinging the words, as if squeezing the life out of "Moanin'" was going to get it more depth. In the intro to another song, she squealed and caterwauled in the upper register, which also felt a bit excessive. What was strange was hearing her contrast the heavy stuff (which seemed to evoke Abbey Lincoln's intense performances on We Insist! Freedom Now Suite) with lighter, overdone fare like "I Remember You" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." She definitely has talent and needs to be followed because she could head in a number of different directions.

At the jam session the night before, a woman sat in on drums and awed everyone who was listening. "Who was that," we kept asking. The drummer in question was Shirazette Tinnin, who played with her band Sonic Wallpaper followed Horn's set. Tinnin's c.v. includes everyone from WuTang Klan to DIVA and Hugh Masakela. The group had an intriguing instrumentation, with alto saxophone, cello, trombone, keyboards (Rhodes and acoustic piano), guitar, bass and her drums. 

A lineup like that could confuse the sound engineer and that seemed to happen. The keyboards moved in and out of the mix, the trombone (which had a wah-wah effect on it during a solo) dropped out during a dramatic moment. But Tinnin had some strong grooves going, in what might be considered fusiony funk. It had the chops and electronics of the former style and the grease of the latter.


I've written enough about Sean Jones that most people know that he is an astounding trumpet player. One difference in his playing at the jam session at on the Spirit stage was that he seems to have moved away from his approach from a few years ago, where a solo would start low and build in intensity, like a preacher's sermon (his words). He did a little bit of that but it was great to hear him continuing to evolve as a player.

But what might not be obvious to those what haven't seen Jones live all that often is what an engaging performer he is. He sounded so happy to be back in Pittsburgh again, playing for people that he treated like friends. He was so casual, like he was hanging out in someone's living room. His song introductions remind me of the easygoing talks that were a big part of Cannonball Adderley's live albums.

Sean likes to explain the back story with the tunes so there is something to think about that while the group is playing. When introducing "The Ungentrified Blues" he made light humor about neighborhoods that are losing their character as they're rebuilt. For the closing "BJ's Tune" he offered a song of hope and unity, and a plea to "forget all the things that separate us." The quartet rolled to a climax and when they finally got there, Jones still wasn't done. His obbligato included "Danny Boy" and "Amazing Grace." Mark Whitfield, Jr. (drums) and Ben Williams (bass) were a solid rhythm section while Jones' good friend and longtime collaborator Orrin Evans sounded stellar on the piano, especially when he smacked some low notes during "The Ungentrified Blues."



Public Service Announcement to future JazzLive attendees: Don't forget your sunblock or your sunglasses. And if you invest in a portable chair that you can tote easily, you won't regret it. Sitting on the curb, you don't know what you'll kind of view or shelter from the sun you'll get, or who will be sitting next to you. The roped off VIP sections are never that full. A lot of people groused to me about them, saying dollars could be spent better on tents or some kind of shelter from the sun for the regular folks.  SEE ADDENDUM

Linda May Han Oh started off Sunday afternoon on the 9th Street Stage with her quartet. The way she handled her instrument made her tower over it, even if it was a few inches taller than her. "Walk Against Wind" is the title track to her new album and it contains a few different movements, starting minor and snaky, where drummer Eric Doob recalled Paul Motian in his use of space. In my notes I wrote "What's going through her mind," during her out of tempo bass solo. It felt dramatic and really original, and then she shifted into the background so Ben Wendel could play a tenor solo that was gruff around the edges.  For the songs "Speech Impediment" and "Perpuzzle" Oh moved to bass guitar. 





It's kind of hard to imagine tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman as one of the "young lions" of the 1980s, along with Wynton Marsalis. His genes (his father was the astounding-but-under-the-radar tenor man Von Freeman) and his Chicago roots (he taught at the AACM and recorded in the Leaders with Lester Bowie) indicate that he's someone that respects the tradition but insists on pushing it forward. That's exactly what his Plus+tet did on Sunday at the Spirit Airlines Stage.

Freeman plays with a bold, rich tenor sound. "To Hear a Teardrop in the Rain" was a gentle waltz that could sound smooth  if it wasn't for the way he played a solo, tonguing the notes more often than merely slurring them together. Pianist Anthony Wonsey did the same thing during his solo, striking the keys and fragments of a line individually instead of smoothly constructing somthing. The approach gave the tune more edge. For "Soft Pedal Blues," the Plus+tet avoided the shouting blues designed to rile up a crowd. This rendition was slow, a little dirty and really soulful. Freeman's lines were spare but very heavy. "Blues for a Hot Summer Day" was more like it.

Vibraphonist Warren Wolf has become a reputable leader in his own right, but he served as the perfect foil to Freeman on the frontline. In some ways it evoked Freeman's work with the late vibist Bobby Hutcherson, who recorded "Crossing the Sudan," a 7/4 the Plus+tet played early in the set. Some vibes players use the double mallet approach, with two in each hand to help with harmonies. Wolf doesn't need that. He gets plenty of energy with one in each hand, especially when he's wailing over a minor vamp in 6/8.

Father's Day commitments kept me from seeing the Bad Plus, Tia Fuller, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra or Hudson (the new supergroup that's on the cover of the next issue of JazzTimes!!). But this was an extremely stellar set of acts. Hopefully the newfound sponsorship will grow and next year will be even bigger.


Addendum: After posting this, I heard back from Janis Burley Wilson, the director of Jazz Progams and Vice President of Strategic Partnership and Community Engagement at the Cultural Trust. The VIP seats are there for sponsorship, corporate and individuals that support the festival and - here's the thing to remember - keep it free. If that's what will allow us to see Linda May Han Oh, Chico Freeman and the Bad Plus in one afternoon, it's worth it.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

CD Review: Nicole Mitchell - Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds


Nicole Mitchell
Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds
(FPE) www.fperecs.com

There are a few different angles I considered taking when opening up a discussion of Nicole Mitchell's latest album. After pulling myself away from some links on social media about what happened to Senator Kamala Harris yesterday when she was trying to ask Jeff "Shush, little lady" Sessions yesterday, a new opening line hit me:

This album could scare the living hell out of people like Sessions and maybe even our current leader.

Not only does it have many unhinged qualities that we can expect from someone affiliated with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds is also built on an underlying story line about a couple from the decaying World Union society who discover Mandorla, an island in the Atlantic where, unknown to the rest of the world, people like in an egalitarian society, in peace and harmony. The couple has to decide whether to continue in their "dystopic" world or move to a "utopic" one. The music (and words) tell how the decision is not so easy or clear cut.

Ideas like this seem like just the thing to make our leaders uncomfortable. Cooperative (and peaceful) societies going up against aggressive, hierarchical societies. It seems to shake up the status quo, asking for common sense and cooler heads to prevail. It forces people to reexamine their  perspectives.

Mitchell's music has gone to the dark side before, using Afrofuturist author Octavia E. Butler as an inspiration for albums like Xeogenesis Suite. Musically she takes things even further with a version of her Black Earth Ensemble that features shakuhachi (Kojiro Umezaki), violin (Renee Baker), electric guitar/oud/theremin (Alex Wing), bass/shamisen/talko (Tatsu Aoki) and percussion (Jovia Armstrong). Three tracks include vocals by poet/scholar avery r young.

The players often work in different combinations. "Egoes War" opens with free percussion that betrays the AACM influence on Mitchell, before Wing adds some frenzied guitar. "Dance of Many Hands" starts out sounding like a folk tune, albeit one in 5/4, with guitar plucking out a melody while the flutes float over it, climaxing with a passionate cello solo. It's followed by "Listening Embrace" a multi-tiered track which includes Reid on banjo and a duet between Mitchell's expressive flute and the raw, nasal drone of Aoki's shamisen.

The vocal tracks don't come until more than halfway through the album, making it feel more like an intense set of instrumental music up to that point. They can be a challenge, with young delivering them with heavy enunciation to make sure the points aren't missed. Upon hearing them cold, without any knowledge of the album's concept, they felt a little hard to swallow. But reading Mitchell's program notes, and using the lyric sheet for reference, things make a bit more sense. Music like this is supposed to challenge listeners, even as it leaves them spellbound.

Yes, this is intense music but the times require sounds like this to keep us awake and aware of what's reallly going on around us.


Saturday, June 10, 2017

Nick Cave, David Murray & Kahil El'Zabar

Last week, I attempted, in vain, to try and transcribe my November 2016 interview with David Murray. The intention was to post a last-minute preview for his appearance with Kahil El'Zabar, which happened last Sunday, June 4 at the James Street Gastropub. For technical reasons, let's say, it didn't happen. I'm pretty sure this idea popped up last on Thursday, less than 24 hours before the big fundraiser/carnival at my son's school, which I assisted in putting together - and, like everything else, had me all stressed out. My focus wasn't there so it never got done.

Back in early December, bassist Harrison Bankhead came to town with Murray and El'Zabar, but last week, it was just the two of them. If any two guys can make a big show out of a duo, it's these two.

The format of their two sets followed a similar path as most of El'Zabar's appearances with his other groups, like the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. It began with El'Zabar plucking out a slow drone on the kalimba, keeping a pulse on bells attached to his right ankle. Murray played all over it, eventually joining El'Zabar vocally. Then El'Zabar switched to the trap kit, which seemed to be tuned to play a drone underneath the tenor. The third piece moved the percussionist to the hand drum, a cajon, or something like it. Murray also played bass clarinet in both sets. I love the percussive thunk he gets out of the instrument, in addition to the ease with which he peels off some great, emotional lines.

At the beginning of the evening, I was standing out in the stairwell of James Street, talking to local guitarist Colter Harper about Chasing Trane, the John Coltrane documentary that had just finished a run here. Murray was walking downstairs mid-way through our conversation, and chimed in, knowing what the topic was. He said Bill Clinton made one of the most profound statements in the film. "Do you remember what he said," Murray inquired. I had seen the movie twice, but couldn't recall what he was referring to. Clinton, he reminded me, said that Coltrane did, for music, the same thing Pablo Picasso did for art, in 50 less years. "I thought that was really profound," he said. I wished I would've remembered that more than Carlos Santana's ridiculous hippie-metaphor about Trane's music.

*

I wrote a preview for Nick Cave's Pittsburgh show for City Paper, even though the concert was already sold out. Since Cave wasn't doing interviews, and since I only had 500 words to fill, I pulled a few quotes from another interview. It ended up running online only, not in the print issue. For that reason, I didn't feel like pushing for a comp. So I resigned myself to skipping the show.

At 5:00 on Thursday afternoon, Jennie called me saying that the cousin of a friend of ours had an extra ticket, and that I should get in touch with him. (She was okay with me going without her.) So connections were made and - wham - there I was in the first balcony, left center, taking in the show that everyone will probably be talking about for years to come.

I'm sure there are naysayers out there. You know, the ones who never liked Nick Cave in the first place or thought he was overly dramatic or cheesy. But for the rest of us - it was like going to church. If I said that about Patti Smith's concert in the same venue earlier this year, well... this was a different kind of church. This was fire and brimstone. This was Jesus walking on water. There were no bodies of water in the Carnegie Music Hall, but if there were, brothers and sisters, he probably would have walked on them. Instead, Cave just walked across the seats in the first few rows, singing to people, getting lifted up by others (or at least supported by them, as some friends of mine confessed online) and finally inviting a whole slew of folks onstage to sing with him.

Before the show started, it was kind of funny at first to see a chair set up center stage with a microphone in front of it, as if Nick was going to sit casually for the whole set, maybe having a drink and talking to us between songs. But that lasted for just one song, "Anthrocene." Once it was done he could've just chucked the seat but he politely moved it to the side so it was easier for him to pace the stage as he sang. The next few songs, which also came from Skeleton Tree or Push the Sky Away, were all mid-tempo and simple, but this format is Cave's bread and butter. No one can make turn a plodding groove into a masterful story like this guy.

So when he finally kicked up the mood with "From Her to Eternity," we were more than ready. Having listened to this song so many times at home on the album of the same name, I had certain expectations and hopes for what it would sound like live. Warren Ellis started ravaging his violin, creating the same kind of racket as Blixa Bargeld's guitar does in the original version, and it nearly blew my head off. He was plinking it like a guitar and kicking pedals on and off, making it explode with feedback. Behind him, the group pounded away on the monochord beat and vibraphone counterpoint which, I discovered after 32 years, is in 5/4. All this time, I thought they were just hoping for the best, and that if all went well, they'd interlock on instinct.

That's the interesting thing about Cave's music. It's pretty simple on the surface: two chords (give or take) repeated over and over, eventually changing to a third chord. But it takes good ears and skill to make sure you make those changes. A few times they didn't. Or else Cave improvised a little bit and the band got to change before he did. During one song, he called out to the band to back things up to the break, and repeat from there. Another time, he called out bassist Martyn Casey, good-naturedly.

A performer as well-known as Nick Cave probably has some, shall we say, crack-pot fans. (The late, great Pittsburgh scenester Lee Conley was an obsessive, but he was more as an enthusiast, in the best sense.) There were people in the audience who thought Cave was having a one-on-one conversation with them, and couldn't let it go after shouting one or two things. That's more annoying than anything else. But what slayed me was the guy's lack of inhibition when it came stepping off the stage into the audience. He's opening himself up for all sorts of danger, and he has no fear as he does it. (Of course, any nut who would harm a hair on Nick Cave's head would probably get beaten to death immediately by the audience.)

This might burst some people's bubble, but in a recent GQ article, Cave said there "a banal, practical" aspect to his habit of singing to the first 50 people: his eyesight isn't too good, so he can't see much beyond the first two rows. He might not be quite as connected with the audience as it seemed. On the other hand, the article makes it sound like the most Cave does is walk to the edge of the stage. Last week, he was offstage, in the aisle, walking across the seats that were now empty because everyone was in the aisles, hoping to get their hands on him. Maybe he really does love us more, who knows?

Then for the encore, he invited a few people onstage, and then a few more. And a few more. Then a few more followed suit. How many, I can't tell you. I was thinking maybe 75-80. The Post-Gazette estimated closer to 100. (Incidentally, Scott Mervis wrote a fine review that gives more specifics about what they played and how it sounded. Check it out here.) Everyone sang along for "Pushing the Sky Away," a touching song that sent us all home in awe.

While Cave is certainly a dramatic performer, who isn't opposed to raising his hands towards the audience to get a reaction, the gesture wasn't mere showbiz. This wasn't the cliched gesture of a singer acting pointing towards himself during the adulation, arrogantly (or ironically) meaning, "Give me more." Cave seemed to be in a sharing mood, like we were all part of the show, and that's why everyone seemed so blown away by the whole thing. We're with him. During the loud section at the end of the organ solo in "Red Right Hand," he ran into the crowd quickly and ran back onstage to sing the next verse. It felt like he had just run the living room at a party, yelled a wild salutation, and ran right back out.




Tuesday, May 23, 2017

CD Review: Anthony Braxton Quintet, Albert Ayler

Anthony Braxton
Quintet (Basel) 1977

Albert Ayler Quartet
Copenhagen Live 1964

Both releases: 
(HAT HUT) www.hathut.com

Hat Hut, the great Swiss label that has been releasing top-notch experimental jazz since God knows when, continues in their hatOLOGY series to bring some older recordings back into the limelight. In addition to these, they've also just released Matthew Shipp's solo performance Invisible Touch at Taktios Zurich.


Quintet (Basel) 1977 is a remarkable piece of Anthony Braxton's history for several reasons. First, as Art Lange indicates in the liner notes, the saxophonist/composer was in a period of fluctuation, having dissolved his first quartet with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Barry Altschul and trombonist George Lewis (who had replaced trumpeter Kenny Wheeler). A new quartet was around the corner, but first came this quintet - a set of instruments that Braxton hadn't used much (if at all) up to this point. The real surprise comes from the addition of AACM stalwart Muhal Richard Abrams on piano. Lewis returns on trombone, Mark Helias plays bass and Charles "Bobo" Show plays drums. Braxton uses just three of his many reeds: alto and sopranino saxophones and B-flat clarinet.

With small-print CD covers, we miss out on the illustrated titles of Braxton's pieces. But the speakable titles assign four of the five tracks lettered sections of his "Composition 69." "Composition 40 B" closes the set. 

The rapport between the members of the quintet can be felt from the opening moments. Anyone better acquainted with Lewis' computer music and software need to hear him cut loose. In "Composition 69 J" he takes Braxton's ideas and shows he can blow just as wildly, tonguing the notes rather than relying on the slide. The physical part of his playing is on clear display. Abrams follows Lewis with his own aggressive solo.

This isn't all serious music either. After a particularly rabid sopranino solo in "Composition 69 M," a vocal whine sounds like it's offering commentary on Braxton. Actually, it's Lewis again, entering with growl through a mute which surely was meant to evoke some old curmudgeon. 

Further, the quintet doesn't shy away from semi-straight jazz either. "Composition 40 B" begins with a line that feels like sped-up bop. Helias starts walking and inspires a clean solo from Abrams before time eventually slips away, leaving the pianist playing at opposite ends of the keyboard. Along with some great propulsion from Shaw, who passed away in January, Quintet (Basel) 1977 serves as a good entry into the Braxton catalog for newcomers.



In a review last year of Albert Ayler's Bells/Prophecy collection, I also mentioned Vibrations, my favorite Ayler album. I won't rewrite the opinion (that's what the link is for) but I will say that Don Cherry was a big part of it. Seeing the trumpeter's face on the cover of Copenhagen Live: 1964 got me excited to hear the disc. It was only when doing a little research for this review that I discovered I already have this set. The 44-minute performance appeared in the 10-disc Holy Ghost box that came out in 2004. (I also realized that rarely-heard second half of the Prophecy disc also came on Holy Ghost.)

Which is not a condemnation of the set. Presumably a good number of Ayler fans didn't plunk down the dough for that set when it came out. (Mine was not a promo, in case anyone wonders.) So those folks are hereby encouraged to find this disc, which represents one of highest points in the Ayler canon.

Cherry knew how to react, respond and compliment the elements of Ayler's playing - the wide vibrato, the altissimo wails (where the melodies were in full bloom) and the way they delivered his unique compositions. Recorded at Club Montmartre, the six tracks also present elements of Ayler's writing that didn't always come out on other records. (The set draws on all the tracks from Vibrations, with the glaring exception of "Ghosts," which is actually a nice surprise.) Gary Peacock's bass cuts through Sunny Murray's liberated drumming, and the interaction of the bass and horns elevate the impact of the writing.

So the story goes, Cherry drifted away from the Ayler group shortly thereafter, staying in Europe and eventually discovering his taste for world music. It's hard to tell what would have happened had they stayed together. But this session, which is issued on its own for the first time, gives a good taste of what they accomplished during their period together.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

CD Review: Linda May Han Oh - Walk Against Wind


Linda May Han Oh
Walk Against Wind
(Biophilia) www.biophiliarecords.com

I don't like mimes. Maybe this feeling can be attributed to growing up during a time when Shields & Yarnell were part of primetime variety tv shows. Or maybe the site of too many theater students stuck in an invisible box, full of forced facial expression, creeped me out. Marcel Marceau was an innovator but I'm simply not feeling it. His progeny can stay away.

Linda May Han Oh, whose birthname now follows the Westernized first name that has graced her previous solo albums and appearances with people like Dave Douglas, has found inspiration in Marceau's oeuvre. The bassist appropriated the late French performer's most famous routine, "Walking Against the Wind," as the title track for her latest release. It enters deceptively with Matthew Stevens' guitar playing a metronomic figure while Ben Wendel's tenor adds a high melody over it and Oh follows Stevens underneath. When Justin Brown's drums officially declare themselves around two minutes, he shakes things up, like a Mersey Beat groove just dropped out of the sky. Before long, he's stepped back and things sound pensive again. The leader, whose thick toned attack is a large part of the intrigue here, takes a brief solo which redirects the whole tune, leading into an edgy statement from Wendel, with the band getting tense underneath him before they return to the opening groove.

Oh hasn't changed my mind about those non-speaking Simpsons punchlines, but they sure inspired her to come up with an absorbing composition. Besides, the music won me over before I read the liner notes in Walk Against Wind's unique packaging. But more about that later.

The rest of the album continues the exploratory direction that marked Oh's previous albums. But even as things can change shape quickly, sometimes within the confines of one track, the overall feeling has a strong sense of direction, from the writing to the way the band develops it. The angular jumps in "Perpuzzle" features Oh adding wordless vocals to the fray. Often this device can be a distraction but her syllabic choices never get in the way, working more as a melody than a percussive addition. "Speech Impediment," which proceeds it, also includes vocals, in a piece that starts slow and subtle, but gets jerky as things move on.

Oh's compositions demand that you listen closely until the very end, because she's likely to add some surprise in the final moments rather than simply letting the band go into a coda or closing vamp. In "Lucid Lullaby" Wendell plays a line that sounds very close to Charles Mingus' "Canon" in the final moments. "Midnight" features keyboardist Fabian Almazan adding some overdriven electric piano that pushes Stevens and Oh (who switches to electric bass on a few tunes) into a prog rock direction. "Deepsea Dancers" was inspired by tragedy but the steady undercurrent leads to counterpoint and a warm feeling of reassurance, as different players take turns restating the melody and soloing over it.

Biophilia, a label that Almazan created, doesn't press CDs. Instead the label prints a two-sided cover on FSC-certified (Forest Stewardship Council) paper and plant-based ink that unfolds into 20 panels like origami, which contains all the traditional elements of an album cover and a download code. The idea behind the label delivers the tactile element of music buying along with the ease of digital downloading.

Walk Against Wind began receiving attention before it even hit the street (if that phrase still applies to an album in this format). But Oh and her band deliver once they're given the attention, gathering an array of moods and blending them into what's likely her strongest release yet.



 


Saturday, May 06, 2017

Clap Your Hands Say... Thelonious Monk


I've come to regard Record Store Day as a whole lot of meh, meaning - nothing. Nothing except supposed "collectible" pieces of vinyl that are often nothing more than reissues of music I already own, or don't really need. (That's oversimplifying it, but I'm trying to get to another story.)

This year, there was actually something coming out on RSD that I wanted, the previously unreleased soundtrack that Thelonious Monk did for Roger Vadim's Les liaison dangereuses which he recorded in 1959. As mentioned in a previous entry, I stood in line at Juke Records the morning of Record Store Day, only to be beaten to the Monk record by the first guy who walked in the door. However, when I was leaving, I was told that the store might be able to get additional copies. Call in a week, they said. 

Fast-forward to yesterday, a few phone calls and visits to Juke later. One copy was left. If my life was a Warner Brothers cartoon, I probably would have dashed into the store while Red Bob was still saying, "Hello? Mike?" into the phone. Instead I came in after work a few hours later. 

The above photo originally had me peering over the top of the cover, not gloating (I'm not that kind of record enthusiast, folks) but just beaming. However my eyes seemed creepy so I cropped myself out. 

The box was expensive, but, man, what a box it is. Not simply a holder for two records in paper sleeves, the box houses two sealed album covers and a 50-page 12"X12" booklet of essays about the recording sessions, the film and Monk's relationship with Paris. There are also photos from the sessions and the film. Musically, the only brand new, never-recorded-anywhere-else by-Monk track is the hymn "We'll Understand It Better By and By," which is less than 90 seconds. There are multiple takes of the other seven tunes. "Six In One" appeared under another name a few months later on Thelonious Alone in San Francisco.

But there are several points of interest. First of all, Monk's band features Charlie Rouse, who had just joined him recently and was still in the process of developing an attack that he maintained for years with Monk. Sam Jones (bass) and Arthur Taylor (drums) had come aboard recently as well, appearing along with Rouse at the first Town Hall Concert, with a large ensemble. They'd also appear, along with Thad Jones (cornet) on Five By Monk By Five, a prime Riverside album. Sam Jones especially was a great bassist for Monk, giving him a solid bounce. Taylor had played with Monk during his Prestige era and complimented the pianist well. A few tracks also feature French tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen joining the group. His additional voice on "Crepuscule with Nellie" gives it more depth.

Most of Side Four of the album is taken up by the real discovery on the album - a fly-on-the-wall recording of Monk trying to teach Taylor the appropriate beat for "Light Blue." Of all the pianist's tricky songs, "Light Blue" ranks up there because its lumbering rhythm and tempo make it a challenge to get the feel right. The 14-minute track reveals the pianist working Taylor, chastising him ("Dumb motherf***er") and keeping to the task. Maybe the whole thing is for completists, but the booklet and that track assured me that I made the right choice. A CD version will be released in a month or so.

I was wondering if I'd make it out to see Clap Your Hands Say Yeah last night, now that I had the new Monk set to digest. However, I made it through three of the four sides, so I figured that would hold me until the next morning. Off into the pouring rain I went, to check out Alec Ounsworth and company.

I spoke with Ounsworth for a City Paper article to preview the show, in which he said that the lineup of the band was completely different than last time they were here. What I wasn't expecting was the heavy roar that the new four-piece lineup produced.

When writing the article, I didn't have the guts or the conviction to compare the new CYHSY album to the Cure or New Order. During my 20s, I couldn't stand the Cure. They were too whiny, mopey and just too caught up in an image to me. Years later, I've come to a little more of an appreciation of them, noticing the catchy elements of their songs, and a dry wit that underlies the mopiest (if that's a word) of their lyrics. The Tourist does have a bit of that Seventeen Seconds-era Cure going for it, with the right combination of guitar and keys scrambling on top of driving beats. Occasionally they also have some of the primitive jangle of New Order too.

But if CYHSY can sound like the Cure in the studio, in person they come on twice as strong without needing of the bands accouterments. Sure, Ounsworth casually rubbed his eyes during "Better Off" but it was hard to tell if that was an affectation or whether the brim of his ever-present hat couldn't keep the bright light out of his eyes. After a few songs, he engaged in a little small talk, which got as far as thanking us for being there before he admitted that's all he could think of saying.

He later told us that Pittsburgh was the penultimate show on the tour, and the band was clearly tight and ready before they hit Club Cafe. More often than not, one song segued quickly into the next, such as when the almost-hit from their debut album, "Is This Love," slammed right into the drum-machine-powered title track of sophomore album Some Loud Thunder. Ounsworth turnedout to be a pretty vicious guitarist too, peeling off some caterwauling leads. His fellow players (whose names I didn't get) were no slouches either.


The 17-song set included five songs from the new album, drawing the rest from the band's previous four. Selections from the debut seemed to get the best response. Ounsworth might have even cracked a grin when someone voiced loud approval for "Over and Over Again (Lost and Found)." It was hard to tell definitively, but he appeared to be chewing gum throughout the set.

Before writing this review, I went through the set list (snatched off the stage at the end of the night), picking out what song came from which album. I decided to compare the version of "Heavy Metal" on the first album with my memory of last night's final song. While the recording does have some overdriven bass, the upper frequencies of the song sound relatively lo-fi. Last the band attacked it like the Volcano Suns in their prime, churning up a big roaring sound that maintained a catchy, hooky quality. The band's previous visit to Pittsburgh was good, but the memory of that lineup seemed to have more to do with atmospherics, which were a big part of 2014's Only Run. While they started with the opening track from that album ("As Always") it served as a jumping-off point for the rest of the set. Last night was about the Rock. And it sounded fantastic.

Solo guitarist/vocalist Laura Gibson opened the evening on a more subdued note. Her first song gave me pause, as she sang in a very affected cat-watching-a-bird-voice, over sparse chords. A few songs in, she won me over with some haunting finger picking and great story in the title track to her album Empire Builder.