Thursday, November 16, 2017

Matthew Shipp Trio & Thoth Trio at the Andy Warhol Museum

$15 for a national touring jazz group, with a strong local opener. Imagine that: $7.50 for the Matthew Shipp Trio and $7.50 for Thoth Trio. (One could say you're paying for Shipp and getting Thoth for free, but that sort of shortchanges the locals, implying the "hey, I can't pay you but imagine the exposure you'll get" idea, which WAS NOT the case anyway). What a deal!

And people came to the Andy Warhol Museum for it, selling out the room within 30 minutes of the start of the show. I felt bad because one of my friends to whom I sent an email, telling them about it, was one of the folks who had been turned away. But it was encouraging that there were around 130 people who came out to check out the music. (The couple next to me left after about 30 minutes of Shipp's set, so maybe a few people didn't get into it, but getting bodies in seats is arguably most of the battle.)

Shipp comes to town with bassist Michael Bisio on a fairly consistent, annual basis, but it's been several years since he played here in the trio setting. And it's been 10 years since he played at the Warhol. (That 2007 appearance was a solo show.) Last Friday was the first time he came with both Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, who has played on his last two trio discs. They sat down without a word, dove into the music and didn't stop for an hour, playing a set drawn from his original material, seguing each piece into a long suite. 

The pianist strikes the keyboard using his whole arm, making it look more physical that most pianists. Even with that method, his sound remains graceful, able to go from delicate phrases to hard thunder easily, but always with the same amount of exertion. During the snaky "Instinctive Touch" he played with head down, barely looking at the keys, still managing to product an endless flow of thoughts. 

Baker is an ideal third piece of the Shipp puzzle. Beginning on brushes, his style added an extra sound that almost served as a melodic addition to the music. Anyone who thinks this music doesn't require communication between the players would have changed their mind during a moment later in the set when Shipp and Baker hit The One together, in the middle of what sounded like wild, free bop. Listen closely and the conversation becomes clear.

The moment when Shipp pauses and Bisio gets a chance to stretch out always stands as one of the highlights of the set. The bassist offers strong support during the group interaction but his solos call attention to the grace and lyrical qualities at the root of his playing. Without an amp, and only one microphone on his instrument, Bisio filled the room (even creating a loud, but still appropriate, scrape when his bridge made contact with the mike), especially when he took the bow off of his belt (see the picture above) and drew it across the strings. 

I could only shoot Baker at the very end of the set due to the cymbal obstructing my view, and even then the blue lights in the room made it a challenge. It turns out, Baker had played with Billy Bang when he came to the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater back in 2008, which was right around the corner from where the trio stayed after this show, at the Ace Hotel.

Hopefully someday some bigshot label rep will come to town and realize that they need to release the next Thoth Trio CD. Until then, it's good to know that a sold-out crowd got to check out their set of material. Saxophonist Ben Opie told me a few days later that several people asked him about the ballad in their set, a slow, thoughtful line that some mistook for an Ornette Coleman piece.

Unlike Michael Bisio, Paul Thompson amplified his bass and there were times when it was hard to hear it, especially when Dave Throckmorton was rolling across his toms. I could feel the bass though, and picked up on Thompson's accents. He also cranked it up a bit as the set moved on. Throck, much like Newman Taylor Baker, was hard to capture on film, his head being obscured by a cymbal.

Hopefully some of those in the crowd who had never heard the trio will check them out again. In fact, all interested parties should go to City of Asylum this Sunday at six. The trio, plus guitarist Chris Parker, will be playing an all-Ornette set. It's free but they request online reservations to make sure they can seat everyone.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

DL/LP Review: Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition - Agrima

Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition

Speed isn't everything. Many people can play spray a bushelful of notes at listeners and not say anything. When a musician can combine speed with intriguing melodic lines, and tweak those ideas as they're taking shape, that's the sign of a gifted player. Rudresh Mahanthappa's performance has been developing to such a degree that he is now arguably one of the most creative alto saxophonists to ever blow that horn. (Yes, up there with the big guys.) The way he manipulates pitch and executes with an often acidic tone definitely makes him the most unique alto player to come along in quite awhile. He often emits a rapid-fire arsenal of notes, which serve to expand his ideas, never stopping to grandstand. This has been going on for a while in his music, and the approach is on full display in his Indo-Pak Coalition, a trio with guitarist Rez Abbasi and tabla player/trap drummer Dan Weiss.

The trio's debut, Apti (2008), combined jazz improvisation with ideas from traditional Indian music, stripping it down to bare essentials. Weiss played tabla exclusively, Abbasi worked double-duty as soloist and keeper of the groundwork, and Mahanthappa surged forward. For Agrima ("next" or "following" in Sanskrit), Weiss incorporates the drum kit into the music with his tabla. The approach offers surprises throughout the album. Sometimes they come in simple ways, as cymbal crashes punctuating his tabla parts. In "Snap" he begins on tabla and cymbals, only to reemerge on drums following Abbasi's solo. "Showcase," which begins sounding like a blues riff, recreates the approach Weiss used in live performances, having the tabla and drums together.

Mahanthappa wanted the trio to imagine they were making a rock album as they recorded Agrima, homing in on group interaction as opposed to thinking about combining Indian music with western music. The suggestion worked because they play with a visceral passion. Both Abbasi and Mahanthappa get a little maniacal with their complexity in "Rasikapriya." The saxophonist's double-timing lines in "Revati" are jaw-dropping, though never short of serious substance.

Electronics have shown up in the saxophonist's work since 2011's Samdhi, and they creep up here as well. "Take-Turns" includes effects that echo the alto saxophone note for note, turning it into a buzzing replication of Mahanthappa. "Agrima" begins with a Philip Glass-style loop, which gets swallowed by Abbasi's heavy power chords. This piece veers perhaps a little too close to progressive rock, introducing a flowing theme and then restating it at half-time as a slow funk romp. But the force of the band's performance keeps it from stagnating. It presents one of several moments where they sound bigger than a trio. Here especially, Abbasi's guitar effects always give his attack extra edge and color.

Agrima is available exclusively as both a download (for just $2.50!) and limited edition double LP. The latter comes in a beautiful, full color package with a gatefold sleeve and liner notes by the saxophonist. Downloads are fine, but anyone who has a turntable should take the plunge for the vinyl. A download card comes with it and besides, it gives Mahanthappa some positive reinforcement for a strong effort and for self-releasing an actual record.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Pere Ubu in Pittsburgh

David Thomas waits while Michele Temple pours the foundation.

"We're not legends. We're myths," David Thomas said. "I was born a myth."

Pere Ubu is one of those bands that attracts rabid fans. They're the type of fanatics that think nothing of yelling to the band between songs, telling them, "You're legendary." That happened earlier this evening at Club Cafe, and Thomas responded immediately and sharply with the above quote. Another guy yelled that he loved the band - but that he was leaving. As if everyone needed to know, because it was all about Dude. Thomas replied to that one by wondering what someone that loves him would do for him. A song later he apologized for the crassness of his comment, and he went on to regale us with the story of how he met his girlfriend, who was working the merch table. Kirsty (I believe that's her name, though I can guarantee the spelling) approached him after a spoken word show and told Thomas his performance was so good, it made her cry. He responded, "Why should I care what you think." (She corroborated the story from the back of the room.)

My advice to Pere Ubu fanatics - shut up. Thomas doesn't really care what you think, either. We were lucky because he seemed to be in a good mood tonight, and he let the banal comments slide. Except at the start of the set, when he was getting situated onstage and a casual, "Alright," garnered a too-enthusiastic "Yeah!" from someone. He didn't like that.

The six-piece version of Ubu played for roughly 70 minutes, leaning heavily on this year's album 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo, a fine batch of material. It lets the band do what it does best, churn out heavy no-nonsense riffs, which actually do rock pretty hard. Michelle Temple is still a solid bassist, straddling the foundation of the songs and playing thick double- or triple-stops across the neck. Guitarist Gary Siperko was joined by pedal steel player Kristof Hahn (of the Swans). When the latter botched the beginning of a song, Thomas swore he wasn't mad at Hahn, jabbing him playfully. But he did make the band repeat the song.

On top of it, longtime Ubu member Robert Wheeler wreaked havoc on the EML-101 synthesizer, as well as a theremin, adding the eerie quality that's been as much a part of their music as Thomas' voice. It should be mentioned though that, these days, Thomas shows a great deal of variety from song to song. Sometimes he has the naive man-child squeaks of the early days, but sometimes he takes inspiration from gravelly-voiced blues singers. Though his patter can sometimes seem nasty or gruff onstage, it seems like he's going more for comic relief when he yells or barks at a band member.

Before the encore portion of the set, he wanted to step outside of Club Cafe and grab a smoke. That idea was dashed apparently, when he nearly fell off the stage as he tried to step down. He yelled some obscenities and quoted James Brown, of all people, as if to regain his focus. Next thing we knew, the five-minute interlude before the last few songs had been erased. The evening ended with "I Can't Believe It," a song which dates back to the band's very early days, heard on 390 Degrees of Simulated Stereo. Other than "We Have the Technology," from 1986's The Tenement Year, it was the only song in the set that went deep into the band's earlier archives.

Johnny Dowd opened the show, though I arrived late and missed most of his set. Had I seen it all I might have appreciated the five-minute take on "Freddie's Dead," which didn't seem to have much loyalty to Curtis Mayfield's original. Other cities get to see Minibeast, which features Mission of Burma's Peter Prescott. When I heard that, I felt shortchanged.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Review of the 47th Pitt Jazz Seminar Concert - Remembering Geri Allen

Kurt Rosenwinkel, Tia Fuller, Kenny Davis, Nicholas Payton
In an interview to preview the 47th Annual Pitt Jazz Concert, Ravi Coltrane told me, "I almost wish that we could have had at least one moment to say, 'Geri, thank you. We love you and thank you for everything you’ve done in music [and for all the] music that you put in to the world."

That sentiment was repeated many times during the concert this past Saturday, although Coltrane was absent, having cancelled due to an illness. The eight remaining musicians and emcee S. Epatha Merkerson each recounted anecdotes about Allen as a performer and an educator. A brief video was also shown, which included comments from musicians like Coltrane, Teri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding as well as Pitt faculty.

For the first time in 47 years, the evening wasn't directed, passively or otherwise, by the university head of jazz studies. Under Dr. Nathan Davis, the concert (which usually concluded a week of seminars, talks and films on campus) operated like a jam session, with a wealth of A-list jazz musicians coming to town, blowing a few tunes together and breaking off into smaller groups that would spotlight individuals. Allen continued the basic template when she took the reins in 2013, but mixed new elements in with some of the well-trodden standards. (The most memorable moment was the opening tune in her first year, Nathan Davis' "If" which was a 20-minute, swampy, Bitches-Brew-style arrangement that heralded Allen's arrival.)

Saturday's performance, consisting predominantly of works by Allen, had a loose quality and felt somewhat more casual that the usual organization of these events. After the video, Nicholas Payton sat down at the piano and, without a word, began playing a riff. As he played, a recording of Allen's voice came over the sound system, as it did several times throughout the night. The rest of the musicians took the stage as Payton (who played trumpet later in the set) vamped: guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, bassist Kenny Davis, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, alto/soprano saxophonist Tia Fuller and drummers Kassa Overall and Victor Lewis. Written by Payton, "Geri" was a mid-tempo meditation that set the mood appropriately, though his chanting of the late pianist's name and the call for the audience to join him, felt a little cloying.

Between every couple songs, one of the musicians stepped up to the microphone to back-announce or introduce song titles (which is a good way to explore Allen's work further) and to share a story about their time with her. Tap dancer Maurice Chestnut talked Allen's group Timeline, which put his talent on equal ground with Davis and Overall. Harris recalled meeting Allen on the bandstand, where he had to immediately jump into a take on "I Got Rhythm" changes in B-flat - in which no B-flats were played. That unspoken message of "You better swim" has stayed with him, as his solos were some of the most dynamic of the evening, in terms of complex melody and rhythm.

Harris also created an arresting sonic blend with Fuller's alto and Payton's trumpet on Lewis' "Hey It's Me You're Talkin' To" and Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free," the latter recreating the joyful snap of a group like Cannonball Adderley's band, augmented by vibes and tap dancing. Chestnut, lest anyone doubt it, moved like percussionist, reacting to the band, doubling and tripling the beat with a performance that added to the music.

With Pitt Ph.D. student Irene Monteverde on piano (alto saxophonist Yoku Suzuki, another Pitt student, also sat in earlier), the group ended the evening with another Allen piece, "In Appreciation." Its hard bop drive, and solos that included Harris attack on his marimba with reckless abandon, turned the room into revival meeting. But Fuller, who had already conjured a bright-toned, bluesy solo earlier in the song, wasn't done yet. As the rhythm section played a descending riff, she read what could only be called an invocation, beginning as a call to women, repeating with intensity, "This space is a sacred space." She made the audience join with the closing credo that came from Allen: "Jazz is a way of life, a way to be in the world but not of the world - walking, seeing and feeling time." This call for audience participation felt necessary, a way to carry Allen's vision with us, after the last notes had evaporated.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Ravi Coltrane Extras

Last week, I was able to get some time with Ravi Coltrane, who is coming to town tonight for the Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert. Most of our conversation can be found in this article from City Paper. But there was some good stuff that wound up on the cutting room floor including one topic in particular. 

When I saw Coltrane at the Detroit Jazz Festival several years ago, he played a few songs on the sopranino saxophone. The last time he came to town for the Seminar, he didn't bring it, but said that he might "next time." Turns out that subject served as a good ice breaker for our talk.

First question - are you bringing the sopranino this time?

Coltrane: [Laughs] It's possible. I've been traveling with it pretty regularly. Did I have it last time?

No, but you told me that you'd bring it when you came back.

Well, I guess it's a must!

You don't see many people playing it, outside of Roscoe Mitchell or Anthony Braxton. There's someone else, but I forget who.{I think Jon Irabagon was the name that was escaping me.] What do you like about it?

I bought the instrument from Roberto’s Winds in New York, kind of on a lark. I was in there for either some repairs or reeds. And Roberto, who I’ve known for decades, asked me if I had ever played a sopranino before. He had just gotten some horns in. I tried it in the shop and thought it was fun to play. It was so difficult to play it in tune that it never left my house for about five years! It was just something that I had around the house to noodle on. I remember having a jam session at my place and taking it out and trying it with the group and immediately putting it back down! The intonation was very difficult to play in tune. But I always play it, I play it for fun.

The first time I played it in public was with Jack DeJohnette and Matt Garrison. The situation was almost calling for it. It was a trio setting, right at the beginning when we started working together as a trio. Jack wanted a lot of different sounds and elements. Matt was using some electronics and Jack had a few electric drums. I didn’t want to show up with just one instrument, show up with the tenor. I ended up bringing the sopranino with me to the rehearsal at the Matt’s club, the Shape Shifter, here in Brooklyn. I had a chance, playing without a chordal instrument, to kind of fudge the tuning a little bit. But there was something about the projection of the instrument. It felt like I was playing a trumpet or something. It had a very brassy, brash kind of …. It’s not a fancy instrument. It has some grit to it. It rattles a little bit, and squawks and has some balls to it. I started playing it in Jack's group and I started playing it in my own group. And the intonation starting coming together!

You can hear the difference in it. It's distinct but I'm not sure exactly how to describe it.


Yeah, that's it!

CD Review: Barry Altschul & the 3Dom Factor - Live in Krakow

Barry Altschul & the 3Dom Factor
Live in Krakow
(Not Two)

I once decided that I would limit myself to a hyperbolic outbursts just once every six months. If I was going to foam at the mouth about a musician or a band, it had better be good, and I wanted to prove that someone that good doesn't come along more than twice a year, if at that. While that motto still stands, the need for hyperbole hasn't been used much over the last year or two. (Maybe these blog entries say otherwise.)

My main goal in getting so wound up about a particular album or artist is not merely to satisfy the hyperbole quotient, but to motivate someone to action. Rather than just reading some words and having them give the one-handed brush-off, the hope is that a person will say, "What?! Just a second, let me hear that thing." After they take a listen, hopefully the person would conclude one of the following: "Well, I wouldn't go that far with your assessment, but - yeah - it's pretty damn good." Or [taking a line from a '40s film character], "Say, this IS some pretty amazing stuff."

Either way, I made you look. Listen, that is.

Live in Krakow is the album worthy of the superlatives this time around. In truth, the previous two albums by drummer Barry Altschul's trio (with saxophonist Jon Irabagon and bassist Joe Fonda) have all been worthy of such high praise. The reason for the kudos falls squarely on the members of the trio themselves. The interaction between these three creates a feeling and a sound that puts them in the ranks with some of the best working jazz groups around. Why this particular trio isn't heralded as one of just a few bands that will knock you on your posterior is hard to fathom. They possess the fury that drove the best bop bands, playing with the same kind of conviction that knew the music was important and that no corners were cut in the presentation. They also play free because that's where the music leads them, before it might bring them back to a structure.

Altschul has been around the musical block so many times, he should own a share in the real estate. The album opens up with a three-minute drum solo, which might alienate radio programmers but will make true listeners sit in rapt attention. Like a pianist, he uses quiet space in his solo to build the energy. Outside of the late Paul Motian, Altschul is probably the only drummer who make a statement with just a cymbal tap, letting it decay before he continues. By the time the solo concludes and Fonda begins the riff for "Martin's Stew," things are moving at a fast pace, and the group is cruising at that tempo.

There are plenty of saxophonists who have gone through the conservatory and, simultaneously, digested and memorized as much classic jazz as they could. Many of them play pretty well too. Jon Irabagon stands beyond the the pack because he plays like he's lived in the music. He knows the classics, he knows the tone but most importantly he seems to constantly be thinking about how to take all of these ideas and use them to take the music one step deeper. Irabagon's discography proves that, but without even having to binge on his back catalog, his scope can be felt here. Monk's "Ask Me Now" can be a potential minefield for any musician, with its constant chord changes and the need to maintain its slow tempo. Irabagon's phrasing in the theme takes liberties with the rhythm, but he feels right in sync with Altschul's rolls. The saxophonist only takes a brief solo on this track. When he does, he never loses site of Monk's angular personality, a crucial part in any Monk interpretation. He also plays his sopranino on a couple tracks, including the lovely "Irina" where the little horn fits right in.

The other two give Joe Fonda plenty of room. Being a modern trio, he takes a wealth of solos, from an easy going mood, punctuated by double stops in "Ask Me Now" to one that includes moments of resonance from his instrument and even a bit of low feedback in "The 3Dom Factor." In some ways, he serves as a frontline foil to Irabagon, but he never neglects his rhythm section responsibilities, prodding Altschul to take his work to greater levels of intensity. The way Fonda starts "Martin's Stew" on the path towards its theme reveals the take-charge level of his work.

There's probably a reason 3Dom Factor isn't topping polls or making headlines already. Maybe they're simply not out there playing as often as they like. But now there's no reason to bypass their albums. This is one of the year's best.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

CD Review: Black Butterflies feat. Gato Barbieri - Luisa

The Black Butterflies ft. Gato Barbieri

Mercedes Figueras reveals a few different personalities on the alto saxophone. Sometimes she plays with a thick, brawny tone, preferring the horn's mid-range. A song later, she reveals a clear, crisp delivery normally heard in the work of a classical saxophonist. Her music has a festive, happy mood that acknowledges her South American upbringing. (Figueras hails from Argentina.) But there are moments on Luisa when she's ready to break off into some wild blowing, especially when she shares the front line with the late tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri. She also sings on the title track, in a whispered voice that almost sounds raspy and a bit spooky despite the heartfelt lyrics. The saxophonist covers a lot of ground here.

Figueras moved to New York in 2007, playing for a time with drummer Kenny Wollesen and vibraphonist Karl Berger. While there, she formed the Black Butterflies, which included both of them, along with saxophonist/percussionist Tony Larokko. For Luisa, recorded in 2013, the group invited fellow Argentinian Barbieri to stop by. The session marked a reunion of sorts with Berger, since he and Barbieri played together in Don Cherry's mid '60s group that recorded Symphony for Improvisers and performed at the Cafe Montmartre (which were recorded and are now available on ESP). He appears on three of the seven tracks.

The veteran tenor saxophonist picks up on the upbeat mood of "Gato's Hat," displaying his trademark vibrato, adding a few squeaks, perhaps unintentionally, which nevertheless energize the already vibrant mood. "Merceditas" begins out of tempo with a gritty tenor line before Figueras and the group joins in. The two saxophonists dance around one another, with Berger adding to the exotic quality by switching to melodica. The only setback is that the percussion section (Larokko, Wollesen and percussionists Bopa King Carre and Fred Berryhill) doesn't feel as prominent in the mix as they could have been.

Larokko switches to soprano saxophone to join Figueras in an infectious take on McCoy Tyner's "Love Samba," in which Berger also stretches out. The drum-and-sax man also kicks off the album with a brief take on the ancient "Hambone." Figueras' response to his lyrics make a little more sense once she segues it into the second half of the opening medley - Astor Piazzolla's slow, tango "Adios Nonino." It feels inappropriate to say it sounds sensual, since it was written in homage to the composer's late father, but it is. This track also features one of the best of Figueras' solos on the album, especially in the second half where she bends and blasts some tart notes. Another tango, "Por Una Cabeza" closes the album, with Berger's melodica serving as a good substitute for an accordion. This time, the percussionists make their way to the forefront too.

Figueras has relocated to Spain since Luisa was recorded, which might make this the final chapter of the Black Butterflies. If that's the case, considering that the three songs with Barbieri were his last studio recordings, they ended things on a celebratory note.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Jason Stein & Paul Giallorenzo Came to Town!

No sooner had I posted a review of Jason Stein's Lucille album (two blog entries ago) when I got a post from Mr. Bass Clarinet himself saying that he was coming to town with keyboardist Paul Giallorenzo. The fan boy in me bounced off the walls.(I think I was out at another show when I got the message, so that might have been part of it.) 

The two of them, along with drummer Frank Rosaly,  released an album last year under the name Hearts and Minds which I reviewed almost exactly a year ago. Rosaly has since moved to Amsterdam and Chad Taylor has been playing with them, but for Pittsburgh it would be just them. Fine with me. Giallorenzo came to town a few years ago, a show I unfortunately missed because my dad died the same day. So I was looking forward to seeing both of these guys.

Upon hearing about the show, I made a point of telling everyone and anyone who might be interested in seeing them. If Stein hadn't emailed me about it, I might have missed because I didn't see any flyers or hear about any promotion. (Even the guy who typically brings people like this town wasn't hip to it.) I mean - geez, Stein alone is a pretty high profile player as far as Chicago guys go. Plus there's his devotion to one instrument, the bass clarinet. Giallorenzo is no slack either, as a composer and performer. Between the two of them, that's some serious music. You'd think a little publicity would be in order. (That being said, there might have been flyers that I missed.)

There was much hang wringing at first on my end, because the annual Halloween Parade (in the Bloomfield, up and around the corner from the show) was happening the same night, Thursday, October 26. For the first time, my son's school was invited to march in it, so I needed to be able to do that and get to the show. The listing on the website of the Glitterbox Theater (the locale) stated things would run from 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm and didn't mention opening acts. A few exchanges from Stein later, it became clear that there would be at least one opener, so Halloween hijinks would not be missed.

The Glitterbox Theater is a beautiful space to which I have a distant connection. I used to live down the street from it and my landlord worked in a warehouse across the street. Glitterbox used to be the corporate offices of the warehouse and my beloved landlord said he worried that The Boss would see him talking to people at the door (me, delivering the rent check) and get mad. Well, he told me that half the time. Enough to make me feel funny about it. So it's nice to see that not only has the building transformed into a space that houses difference arts-related groups, but that it's put together really well, not in a ramshackle way.

When I got there, Brian Riordan and Matt Alemore, a trumpet-and-sampler duo - were in the midst of creating a soundscape that went from warm and calm to murky to noisy. While that was happening Stein and Giallorenzo were conked out on the couch in the back of the room. The music kind of fit with that, even if it did get a little loud. But when you play free improvisation like this, it's possible to zoom in on the tranquility of it.

Up next was the JonGenét Ramsey Lewis Trio, a wild act featuring locals Greg Pierce, Ed Bucholtz and Jim Lingo. In the dark of the room, it was sometimes hard to see what was going on. Lingo was easy to miss, as he spent part of the set on the floor with his back to the audience, messing with knobs, I think. A pile of folding chairs added some percussion while his comrades both blew trumpets (maybe a pocket trumpet in one case) and created a general soundscape that ended peacefully.

It was hard to get a good picture in the dimly lit room, as these shots indicate, although a friend of mine sitting a row or two behind got a good shot of both Giallorenzo and Stein together. The Hearts and Minds album straddles set grooves with free sound, but the duo maintained the feeling of the evening by keeping things free and noisy. But, man, do those guys really know how to create a sound. All of Stein's chops were on display, getting wild noises out of his reed through a combination of breathing techniques and fingering that seemed to turn the instrument inside out. Giallorenzo leaned over his keyboard (which might have been a synth or a sampler, it was hard to tell), hands moving constantly and creating noisy or chopped-up lines.

The two of them always felt in sync with each other. Even when things got really free, you could feel a connection between the two of them. As it often happens to me (especially after corralling rambunctious kids in a parade), my eyelids got heavy a few times and when I slipped quickly into hallucination sleep, I started hearing lyrics from Stein's bass clarinet. I wish I could remember them now to mention some, but they floated away once my eyes opened. They were good, though.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Arto Lindsay, Beauty Pill at the Warhol

Arto Lindsay finally made his first trip to Pittsburgh on Wednesday, October 18. Touring in support of his album Cuidado Madame, which came out earlier this year on Northern Spy, he played with a quintet of longtime collaborator Melvin Gibbs (bass), Paul Wilson (keyboards), Cinque Kemp (drums) and Gustavo Didaova (percussion). The album is a delicate balance of Brazilian song structures, polyrhythms and Lindsay's sensual voice, complemented by - and sometimes in direction collision with - the noisier sensibilities that he's honed since his days in DNA. (For more detail on the origins of his music, check out my conversation with him here.)

Yet, the live Lindsay was just as wild and frenzied as the fans of his early stuff might wish for. Soundcheck ran a little late, and the sounds seeping out of the Warhol's auditorium were high on volume for starters and hinted at a heavy dose of skronk along with the smoother tones of bass and keyboards. Yes, it's hard to write about Arto without using the word "skronk". But this bit of onomatopoeia belongs to him. Other guitar players like Fred Frith might have massacred their guitars before no wave was a blip on the radar. But no one else has encapsulated that sound so consistently as Arto, lo these many years.

During our conversation he confessed that the reason he played a 12-string Danelectro had nothing to do with preference and everything to do with opportunity. In other words, a co-worker had a 12-string Danelectro that he wanted to sell, so Arto bought it. Simple as that.

As far as his approach to playing and tuning, he explained it this way: "In the beginning, I used to tune it. The shtick is, I tune for tension. In other words, it’s comfortable to play, for me to fit in my style of running my hand up and down the neck. But if I’m alone in the dressing room, I’ll make up a little melody with the strings, see what they sound like all together. And for having done it for so many years, I can pretty much find some of the basic notes on the guitar by ear. But there’s no secret tuning. There’s no fit. I found that… the thing is, I had to learn how to sing over this noise without any harmony instrument. When I started doing all these solo [shows], I found that even though it’s not in tune, it stays where it is. It doesn’t change tunings significantly during a set. Then it’s a reference. Even though it’s kind of a blot or a blob or a formless cluster… it’s still a reference and that helps."

For as frantic as he often sounds on record, Lindsay sure seemed to be having a good time onstage at the Warhol. He smiled a lot, walking around the stage with an expression that made him look a little lost. Lest anyone think he was actually gone, mentally,  he always snapped by quickly knowing exactly where he was. Watching him produce the guitar sounds I've heard for all these years was exciting. It seems so otherworldly and random, but the way he moved around his instrument looked methodical, like he was going for a blend of a percussive snap and a little bit of a dissonant crunch.

Gibbs and Wilson alternated the bass roles. Sometimes Gibbs would take a lead, with heavy effects on his instrument, so it came off more like a guitar. Other times Wilson's keys added extra color to the sound. Didaova and Kemp emphasized the multi-directional rhythms of the music, the former adding different accents to the songs with a batterie of hand-held percussion and what seemed like a marching bass drum whose rims were employed as much if not more than the head. Gibbs gave Kemp a lot of direction and cues, so he might have been a newer addition to the band. Kassa Overall played drums on Cuidado Madame.

Beauty Pill, who hail from Washington, D.C., opened the evening with a set that went from Cocteau Twins-style flanged guitar to electronics that were almost too loud for the room to Beefheartian dissonance over a solid rhythm section. The songs were took their time but made sure to keep your ears on them for all of it.

Friday, October 13, 2017

CD Review - Jason Stein Quartet - Lucille!

Jason Stein Quartet

I'd like to say that Lucille features that same-named Little Richard song as the title track. Jason Stein's bass clarinet could do some great intervallic leaps to recreate the rock and roll pianist's phrasing, which turned that name into a three-syllable yelp. Keefe Jackson could burn it up, blowing the walking bass line on his contrabass clarinet. But let's be realistic. As someone who has an affection for that song largely because I heard it before I could read (the version on Okeh, fyi), I'm probably the only person who would really like to hear Stein's take on it.

Lucille! (named for Stein's daughter, in fact) revisits the lineup of his solid 2011 Delmark album The Story This Time. Jackson returns, playing tenor saxophone most of the time, with a couple songs featuring his large clarinet. Joshua Abrams is also back again on bass, but Tom Rainey handles drum duties previously covered by Frank Rosaly. It also revisits some composers that Stein also covered on the previous album - Lennie Tristano (and his student Warne Marsh) and Thelonious Monk. The quartet also covers a Charlie Parker piece and one by modern bassist Robert Hurst. Stein composed the remaining three tracks.

Make no mistake, this quartet's tenor-and-bass-clarinet pairing has its own unique sound. But the rhythm section's swinging freedom in Marsh's "Marshmellow," followed by the entrance of those horns, still evokes the bright moments of Ornette Coleman's earliest quartets. Rainey throws in some off-center accents that put the 4/4 concept in jeopardy, but Stein and Jackson plant it down easily. Tristano's "Wow" is marked by some rugged terrain which they peel off with ease, Rainey joining in to make it double-time. Although Stein can make his instrument (which he plays exclusively) wail and squeal, Lucille! and "Wow" in particular reveal how skilled he can be at laying out an expansive, melodic solo. He and Jackson stretch out simultaneously but never get in the other one's way. When they return to the closing theme right on the mark, it speaks a great deal about the rapport between them.

Jackson utilized the contrabass clarinet for a Monk tune on The Story This Time and does again for a version of "Little Rootie Tootie" that begins with a blast of free squonk. Returning to this horn arrangement for bop doesn't sound like a formula but the quartet misses some of the composition's contours by taking the tempo just a little too briskly. Charlie Parker's "Dexterity" comes off stronger, taking the melody into the sub-basement but keeping the momentum in flight.

The bass clarinetist's originals bring some of the strongest variety to the set. Jackson sits out on "I Know You Were,"where the trio creates a rich tone poem that builds from the bowed bass. Stein's full personality is on display here, running up and down the instrument, his accents making all the difference. While players like David Murray and Eric Dolphy to some extent would add some percussive slap-tongued moments to a solo, Stein is all about exploring the possibilities of melody. It's sometimes hard to get a handle on "Halls and Rooms" in terms of time, which appears to shift frequently. But this approach puts the focus on the reed solos, rather than losing clarity. Jackson contributes an extremely rich solo, combining his crisp tone with a rugged imagination, which Rainey and Abrams follow.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Belated Reports on Tim Berne, Broken Social Scene, with photos

The last weekend of September was another jam-packed couple of days. I thought I'd get to it on the following Monday or Tuesday, but it wasn't happening. Part of the time was taken up by getting ready for my birthday show, which is happened on Sunday, October 8 (although my birthday is actually the day before, October 7). In case you're one of the few that hadn't seen me going on ad nauseum about it on social media, I turned 50. So Bone of Contention (my first band) reunited, as did the Smoking Pets, a fave local band from the '90s. That dispatch will come in another post, hopefully soon.

But back to last week. This entry was started before the birthday festivities, but postponed due to what could only be called self-induced mental exhaustion. I sat at the laptop but couldn't bring myself to write.

Tim Berne finally made it back to Pittsburgh! As mentioned in the previous post, he played at Alphabet City with his Snake Oil bandmate Matt Mitchell on piano and Kate Gentile on drums. The last time he came to Pittsburgh was 1998, when the trio Paraphrase played at the Decade. Prior to that show, he appeared here with Bloodcount and in a duo setting with bassist Michael Formanek. Maybe more people than me and a few friends were stoked for the saxophonist's return, but the reservations for the show filled up a few weeks prior. I heard an unconfirmed report that there was a 60-person waiting list. 

The trio's whole set consisted of new material. One sounded like it could have come from Incidentals, the most recent Snake Oil disc on ECM. Mitchell has become a strong musical partner for Berne, able to use his left hand to establish a harmonic framework to the saxophonist's complex pieces, while his right hand is completely removed, adding a complementary line to what Berne is playing. Gentile was moving constantly, playing on a closed snare, setting her sticks down and putting her hands on the skins, and even letting a sound hang in the air and decay before she continued. The video screens - which were projected behind the group (see above) and on either side so those with not-ideal seats could still catch the action -helped to reveal the nuances of Gentile's approach. 

Berne, whose tone and angular writing can make him easy to identify within a few measures, was in fine form. In the second piece of the set, he started playing short licks, embellishing them as he went, and building on what was already a tricky line. During the final piece, introduced by Berne as "Deception and Petulance," Mitchell was making the piano shake as he soloed. Gentile, who wore an excited smile during some of the set, joined in the moment with some hard, left-handed whacks on the high hat.

The standard during all the September Jazz and Poetry shows at Alphabet City had been to bring on two poets in the second set to read while the band improvised behind them. Then the group played another set. But poets Tuhin Das (a writer in residence from Bangladesh) and Tracy K. Smith (the United States poet laureate) didn't play with the Berne Trio. (The saxophonist diplomatically told me later that he didn't feel comfortable doing that part of the evening.)

The writers instead read with two locals: guitarist Eric Susoeff and conga player George Jones. The spare instrumentation worked well, complementing the words without distracting from them. However, it wasn't clear that the Berne Trio was done for the night. Susoeff and Jones stayed on stage and finished the night with a few lyrical tunes. But it just felt a tad confusing for those of us expecting to hear more from Berne, Gentile and Mitchell. 

I had been in a quandary for a week about Sunday night. Berne and Mitchell were performing solo sets while, around the corner and across a bridge in Downtown Pittsburgh, Broken Social Scene were playing at the Byham Theater. I hadn't seen the latter since about 2003, but I was tempted to see the piano and saxophone solo sets too.  After the format of Saturday night's show, it looked like I could do both.

When Berne took the stage, a water bottle was lodged in the bell of his horn. I'd seen local Ben Opie manipulate his alto this way, trapping certain tones in the instrument and Berne also used this to bend the sound into soft squeals that eventually gave way to a melody in the mid-range, along with some high interval leaps and some foghorn noises. His roughly 20-minute solo set featured a lot of sound explorations like this, though as engaging as it was, it wasn't quite as fulfilling as his compositions.

Matt Mitchell released an album earlier this year called FØRAGE, a set of solo piano improvisations blended with compositions by Berne. His set presumably drew on that (I only bought the disc on Saturday night and heard a little between both evenings) during his nearly 30-minute performance. During most of that time (except perhaps in the above photo), he sat hunched over the keys, smiling frequently and shaking his head as if he and his instrument were having a deep conversation that continually impressed him.

The ideas came consistently, flowing from one in another during the continuous set. Broken chords floated gracefully into clusters, leading to moments were both of Mitchell's hands were at opposite ends of the piano, notes slowly decaying into the air. Mitchell has clearly spent a lot of time developing his own voice on the piano, consuming ideas from people like Berne and others. Now he sounds like no one else. It makes me think that after my initial hesitation with Fiction, his debut where he played his personal piano exercises with accompaniment by drummer Ches Smith, it might be time to reexamine it.

Then it was on to the Byham, in time to see openers Frightened Rabbit finish up their last two songs. Like the band for whom they were opening, the group had a fair number of guitars onstage (three) and several of them had keyboards set up too, switching to them during a few songs. Between the shift from acoustic jazz to the Byham being a huge theater, the sound took a little bit of aural adjustment.

The last time I saw Broken Social Scene, at least one song featured five members of the cooperative group on guitar. The effect didn't turn into a wash of electric mud, nor did it pin the audience against the wall. It actually created a rich texture of sound. BSS member Charles Spearin told me a few weeks earlier that the band would have "at least eight" people onstage by the time they came to town. Reading through my chicken scratch notes from the show, I can't find proof of how many they had total, but 9 or 10 sounds right. They began the set as a sextet, quickly adding vocalist/occasional guitarist Ariel Engle on the second song, "7/4 (Shoreline)," and gaining horn players a few more songs in, including a trombonist named Jeff who they found here in Pittsburgh.

Even though Engle sang a good deal of the set, guitarist/keyboardist Kevin Drew served as more of the ringleader for the evening. He repeatedly heaped praise on the audience, saying the band "wanted to tour America to say thank you." With some people, this might seem like a slick way to get applause from the audience, but Drew seemed to mean it. For proof, during one of the final songs, he brought the sound down low, delivering a rallying speech and asking everyone to "scream for positivity."  The primal therapy moment worked, with the whole theater erupting in a yell. After the kinds of malarkey we've seen over the last couple months, it was nice of these Canadians to bring us together.

One amazing thing about Broken Social Scene is the way the band holds things together. They're not like the New Pornographers, where one person steers the ship. (Bassist Brendan Canning sang a little too. On record, Leslie Feist and Emily Haines [of Metric] sing lead a good deal of the time.) The other group that comes to mind when seeing so many people onstage is Olivia Tremor Control. However that group - in the greatest possible way - always seems to teeter on the brink of falling apart, even while playing their elaborate teenage symphonies to God. Broken Social Scene doesn't have that chaotic element, offering instead some well-orchestrated art pop. 

Friday, September 29, 2017

Interview with Tim Berne

“Pittsburgh – I haven’t been there in a long time,” Tim Berne said, midway through our conversation. To be exact , it’s been 19 years since he came to town. The band that time was Paraphrase, which featured drummer Tom Rainey and bassist Drew Gress. Despite all the years, the alto saxophonist remembered hitting his head on the low ceiling at the Decade, a long-gone bar known more for blue collar rock (The Boss stopped there after several local appearances) than for avant jazz.

Berne and I spoke in anticipation of his return to Pittsburgh this weekend for two nights at Alphabet City. Pianist Matt Mitchell of Snake Oil will be with him on Saturday, along with drummer Kate Gentile, who is also a budding composer whose music takes angular ideas from Berne’s style of writing. It can be heard on Mannequins, which features several lengthy (i.e. 12 minutes or more), multi-section pieces, as well as some brief ones. As the picture up above indicates, Mitchell has a new album under his own name, as of this weekend. Out on Pi Recordings, A Pouting Grimace places him in the midst of a large ensemble of horn players and percussionists.

Saturday’s show (with Mitchell and Gentile) has a waiting list for people wanting to attend. At press time, Sunday night’s show (where Berne and Mitchell will play solo sets and accompany poets) still had room for RSVPs. (It’s a free show!) Click here to find out more about Alphabet City, where they're playing, and how to stream it live during the show

What follows are the highlights of our conversation, in which Berne discussed how Snake Oil came together and wound up recording four albums for ECM, including the new Incidentals, as well as the way he approaches compositions.

Didn’t you just play the Newport Jazz Festival?

Yeah. It was my first time as a leader. I played there with the Bad Plus in an Ornette Coleman Science Fiction [album tribute] a year ago.

How did Snake Oil go over?

It was great. It was a lot of fun. Last year was a little weird, being on the big stage at noon.  This was a blast. We played a smaller venue. We played at noon but there were a lot of people. It seemed like I ran into everybody who was there afterwards. And the sound was good.

Isn’t Matt Mitchell that guy who bought sheet music from you years before you started playing together?

He wrote me a letter which I found the other day, amazingly. He was in college at Eastman. I think he was getting his masters. He was in his early 20s and he asked me for two scores, I think, of two of the longest tunes I ever did. At the time I didn’t really do scores because I did everything by hand so I just did parts. No one ever asked me for scores. It was one of the first times. So I was determined to fulfill it.

It meant going through stacks of music looking for these parts. And then sending him 40 pages of music, probably more. And then I remember calling him and I said, “I’ll figure something out.” I sent it to him and I never heard from him again. And apparently he lived in New York for a year. He was in Philadelphia for a year, then he moved to New York, but he never talked to me. I said, “Man, we could’ve been playing!” He said, “No, I would’ve driven you crazy.”  So whatever that meant, he kept his distance and I met him 10 years later maybe. Then the second we played I said, “Do you want to start a band?” And that’s how Snake Oil started.

After Science Friction [his group with Craig Taborn, Tom Rainey and Marc Ducret], I got bummed about [how] every time a band got rolling, everyone would get super busy. We’d never rehearse and it became exactly what I didn’t want it to become. So I stopped doing bands for a while I started doing improv stuff and [playing as a] sideman. That went on for probably from Hard Cell [with Taborn and Rainey] for a good four or five years. Then all of a sudden I met Matt and instantly wanted to start a band.

What did you like about his playing?

Well, for one thing he could read anything I wrote, which was interesting. For a piano player that was pretty unusual. But also he was enthusiastic. He was ready to throw down. And Ches {Smith, percussion] and Oscar [Noreiga, bass clarinet and clarinet] too - they were into rehearsing and working on complicated shit. That’s kind of how Bloodcount started too. That was the premise - I wanted to rehearse a lot.

Now it’s a little harder but that attitude is still there. So I think it’ll keep going as long as there are some gigs to get. We’ve been lucky we’ve done a lot of records in the last few years. That helps keep a band together.

When you write out music, do you notate it fully with time signatures or is it a little more rough than that?

I put time signatures in. Sometimes it’s arbitrary.  It makes it easier to read. People like Matt and Ches are more rhythmically sophisticated than I am. They might have wanted to write it differently in terms of how it sounds metrically, but I try to write things so they’re easier to digest and the clearest way to write it.

Ultimately, it’s more about phrasing anyway. You have to be able to hear these phrases, how I phrase them. Then the accents and the way things land  kind of determine rhythmically what it sounds like more so than the bars and the metric stuff. Just because it’s a five bar doesn’t mean we’re playing in five. It just means I’m just accommodating the way I wrote. I would say the metric thing is overrated in our music. It’s more about the phrasing. And momemtum.

Do you put the music in front of them at rehearsal for the first time?

I always give them the music beforehand. It’s all notated accurately and then most of the time, they learn it at home and then that 5% which involves sort of idiosyncratic phrasing, they’ll get it right away when they hear me play. In the old days it might have taken a little longer. There’s stuff that goes across the bar in weird ways. Once you get used to my language then it’s pretty consistently weird in an understandable way. It’s kind of second nature to me so I don’t know what it’s like to encounter it for the first time.

What instrument do you compose on?

Piano, mostly. 90% of the time. Sometimes I’ll make outlines. I’ll be sitting on a train and I’ll outline a piece- just the shape for something. So when I start writing I’ll have a specific thing in mind so I can get started. So I’m not sitting there thinking, “What do I do, what do I do?”

Sideshow [from Snake Oil’s new Incidentals that was a long one [it’s a 26-minute track].

That was part of an hour long piece. We used to play that and then the piece on You’ve Been Watching Me [“Small World in a Small Town”], a 25 minute tune on there. They were part of one thing and I split them up at the recording. I didn’t want to make a record with just one long piece. I wanted to have some different stuff on there. So we just did it at the session. I said, “Let’s just stop here. We’ll start the other one here. We’ll do them as two separate pieces.”

When you’re writing them, do you have a sense of how long they might be?

I do know they’re going to be really long. I write them in sections and I just keep adding sections. Eventually I say oh yeah this is going to be an hour. We used to play [both of those pieces] as a whole set. Lately things have been getting shorter. Partially I react to what I’ve been doing. I like to change it once in a while and do something that’s hard for me to do, like write a short tune. It’s also a function of not having a ton of time to write. So I might write a bunch of little things and then develop them over time. Sometimes they become little suites or they change or I play a couple of them together. This tour we’ve got a lot of new music so I’m waiting to see how it evolves.

When you come here you’re doing new stuff?

I’m doing all new stuff but some of the same music with Snake Oil. I didn’t write music for this group. It’s music that no one has heard because none of it’s been recorded.

When you played at Winter Jazzfest in 2016 [with Mitchell, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, bassist John Hebert, drummer Dan Weiss] and it was called…


Did you play that piece that night?

No. And that was the only gig we ever did. It’s hard to get work, hard enough to get gigs for Snake Oil and we’ve got four or five records out.

How long has Snake Oil been around?

I think it was 2009 our first gig, possibly. So it’s bordering on… it’s probably the longest band I ever had, probably longer than Bloodcount. I’m not sure if we’ve worked as much but in terms of recorded stuff, it’s getting there. We have a lot of material. Somehow I have to do something.

Is Ryan [Ferreira, guitar] still with you?

He’s on the records but I can’t afford it. He lives in Seattle. When I write a ton of new music it’s kind of impractical. He’s very content to get inside the sound. If he was soloist player, it wouldn’t really work. Same with [David] Torn [the guitarist who produces most of Berne’s recent work and has used him in his band. Torn also cameos on Incidentals.] When David takes a solo, it doesn’t sound like he’s taking a solo. So that’s the kind of people I’m attracted to in terms of guitar players: people who are not looking to get too much attention all the time.

You don’t use bass players that much in your work, and when you do it seems like you don’t think of it as something that just keeps the music grounded.

That got started with Bloodcount. I talked to [bassist Michael] Formanek about that before we started the band.  I said I want this thing to be more collective sounding. I’m not really into having a rhythm section-type situation where the bass player and the drummer kind of hook it up and the other guys solo. I like it when the whole thing is kind of a mess. And Mike was all really up for that. He played really fucking weird and that’s what made it happen for me. He definitely didn’t play like a bass player.

One of the reasons I don’t use bass a lot is it frees up the drums timbrally, and in a lot of other ways. I like the fact that it’s interesting. There are some nice spaces and also they can fill up spaces that were filled. You can go chamber-lly or you can hit pretty hard. Now with the vibes [which Ches Smith plays in Snake Oil], it’s totally nuts. I couldn’t have predicted that but that ended up being cool.

Who decided whether Ches is going to move from drums to vibes?

It’s all him. He learns all the music on vibes and he makes these choices in the moment. He never does it the same way on a given tune. The record is probably the first time he did it that way. He’ll just jump up and start playing vibes. I never say anything. I don’t think I’ve ever said, “Could you play drums here instead?” But it’s great. I love it. I never would have guessed I’d like the vibes but it ended up being really cool.

Ches is the kind of guy where, I’ll say, “Hey, have you ever played banjo,” and he’d go, “Aw, man, I can’t play banjo.” Then the next day, he’d say, “Hey, can you show me some banjo parts?” Then next thing you know, he’d be playing banjo on the gig. And that’s what he’s like.

Or the tympani – we had a tympani on the first record and we’ve been using it quite a bit.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Another Wild Weekend of Sounds (Wacław Zimpel, The Spectres and friends)

Much like weekend of September 16, and the upcoming weekend, there was plenty to see and hear on Friday and Saturday. Alphabet City's Jazz and Poetry Month continued with two sets by Polish clarinetist Wacław Zimpel, that included performances in the second half by a few poets. 

City of Asylum, the organization that assembles these performances at Alphabet City, has had each of the month's shows introduced by an exiled poet who addresses the audience by Skype from a screen on the stage. Having been to three performances this month, the introduction has made me start to think more about the notion of writers being jailed, exiled or in some cases killed because of the words they publish. The concept of "fake news" - which is especially at the front of my mind now, having skimmed an article in the New York Times Magazine about the power of Russian media - and the way it can take off has me wondering about the future of free press in this country.

Midway through each performance this month, the audience is asked to hold up a placard (actually an 17x22 piece of paper) with the name of an exiled writer on it , as a symbolic remembrance of all the people punished for putting pen to paper. Over time, it has started to less like a simple gesture, and more of a serious reminder that we could be next, if our leaders continue on the crash course they're on now.

Zimpel had a series of keyboards and samplers onstage, in addition to his alto clarinet. The set began with a gentle drone that kept building in layers: a harmony appeared on top of the first drone, then a bass drone slid in underneath. After a few minutes, he started blowing his clarinet. His lines were spare at first, but the directness of them sounded like something from a later John Coltrane piece, with dramatic long tones flowing out of tempo over the undulating sound. His first set lasted about 30 minutes. The keyboards got most of the focus, with the drones getting reshaped, with a beat eventually getting added and the overall sound getting a little more psychedelic when Zimpel played melodies on them. But the clarinet sections were the high points.

In the second set, Zimpel accompanied readings by author Osama Alomar (City of Asylum's writer in residence) and poets Maung Day (from Myanmar) and Toi Derricote (of Pittsburgh). The combination worked well, with the artists interacting, letting the music accentuate or punctuate the text. Zimpel played a little more by himself after that.

The highlight of this part happened when he pulled out the khaen, an instrument that was invented by a woman in Laos. (Zimpel made a point of mentioning this, since female inventors often get short shrift.) The instrument looked like a giant set of pan pipes, or a section of a railing pulled off a flight of steps. However, as the picture above shows, he didn't blow on them from the top or bottom, but on the side. And the sound they made was otherworldly, like a trumpet or a soprano sax, with a tone that sounded like the creation of a synthesizer or pipe organ. (If you're friends with me on Facebook, look for the video I posted.)

On Saturday night, James Street Gastropub hosted the release of a split single by the Pittsburgh bands the Spectres (pictured below) and the Me Toos. However, the Me Toos had to bail on their set that morning due to family issues, which was too bad because drummer Kevin Koch was celebrating his 40th birthday that night, in addition to playing.

Maybe I was just really jonesing for guitar-centric rock after the previous evening to balance out the weekend, but I really had a blast listening to everyone. The Park Plan started the evening off, playing a handful of new songs in their set (at least there were some that I didn't recognize). The upstairs room, where the music happened, is a great, wide-open banquet-hall kind of space but it's not exactly built for rock and roll. If you mic everything, you take a chance on destroying everyone's ears and killing any nuance. Mic only the basics and some elements might get lost. Jenn's bass in the Park Plan got a little lost, but the vocals were prominent. So were the guitar leads, which, when Adam took them, had a rather George Harrison-quality during a song that was otherwise heavier than the Beatles. Good blend.

Bass wasn't a concern with the Spectres. Drummer James uses kick pedals to play both snare and bass drum, freeing his hands up to play guitar. Dan plays guitar and baritone guitar, the latter sounding really appropriate for their music, giving sort of a phantom bassline, as well as leads. Both of them take turns singing lead. They reminded me of the Flat Duo Jets, but with James' double duty on strings and skins, it was clear that Pittsburgh yet again has someone taking a bigger act's delivery and upping the ante. On a sidenote, I had forgotten that I met both of these guys last year while working on the Heroineburgh episode where I was the villain. They were both extras. 

Since the Me Toos couldn't play, LoFi Delphi filled in for them. Jumping in at the last minute didn't mean they were shaky. The band just finished tracking their new EP about a week earlier, so things were plenty tight - harmonies, hooks, crunch. It was all there.

All that, and I was home at a decent hour, as the (family) saying goes.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

CD Review: Dave Liebman/Joe Lovano - Compassion; Martial Solal & Dave Liebman - Masters in Bordeaux

Dave Liebman/Joe Lovano
Compassion - The Music of John Coltrane

Martial Solal & Dave Liebman
Masters in Bordeaux

David Murray heard me talking about Chasing Trane, the recent John Coltrane documentary, back in the spring, as he walked past me at the James Street Gastropub. He was in town with Kahil El'Zabar and about to head down a flight of steps when he stopped and joined the conversation. "Do you remember what Bill Clinton said about him," Murray asked me. At that moment, I was about to scoff to a friend about Carlos Santana's ridiculous comment about Trane, which I did recall. All I remembered about Clinton was that he came across as really knowledgeable about his subject. Specifics, I forgot, and I felt like I blew a chance to share a moment with this saxophone giant.

"Bill Clinton said that Coltrane did what Picasso did for art, but he did it in 10 years instead of 50 years. I thought that was pretty profound," he said, and made off down the steps.

That aspect of Coltrane's career is easy to overlook if you're not thinking about the chronology of his work. Leaving Miles' quintet, joining Monk, rejoining Miles, making Kind of Blue, sheets of sound (Giant Steps was recorded a few weeks later!), A Love Supreme, all those wild sets with Pharoah Sanders and then death - that all happened between 1957 and 1967. How many times have you shaped history in the past 10 years?

As I type, it's Coltrane's birthday. He would have been 90 had he not died 50 years ago this past July. The decision to write about Compassion today was actually a coincidence (like many of these reviews, it's been on my mind for quite some time). Tributes to musicians on par with Coltrane often give me pause because they become a pitfall where the performer gets caught up in reverence and doesn't make a lasting impression. (It's like paying tribute to ice cream. Who doesn't like ice cream, aside from some Gloomy Gus?) Or the original music gets dropped into a new setting, with mixed results.

Anyhow those issues are for naught because not only do Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano dig into this music with strong command, they deliver a complete portrait of Coltrane, from the ballads to the unhinged wailing. These six tracks were actually recorded in 2007 for a BBC Radio concert marking the 40th anniversary of Coltrane's passing. Ravi Coltrane, the third horn in Saxophone Summit, couldn't make the session, and Ron McClure fills in for regular Summit bassist Cecil McBee. Pianist Phil Markowitz and Billy Hart complete the group.

The other strength of Compassion derives from their choice of material, which intentionally veers away from the obvious works associated with Coltrane. Instead of "Blue Train," they opted for "Locomotion," a blues-with-a-bridge tune from that same album. "Equinox," from the Crescent album, is a little more familiar as is the touching "Central Park West" which they combine with "Dear Lord," making a ballad medley that offers solos from Lovano and Liebman respectively.

"Reverend King" will be familiar to Coltrane completists who know the posthumous Cosmic Music album. But here they put down the saxophones in favor of flute (Liebman) and alto clarinet (Lovano) which gives the thoughtful theme a strong, ruminative sound. Liebman also plays some wooden flute at the beginning of "Olé" before he picks up the soprano and goes to town with his compadre. In a great sense of contrast, the piece concludes with a thick solo from McClure.

By the time they get to the title track, the final song, the fur is flying. Hart gets the group going with an extended solo before cuing in this movement from the Meditations album. Liebman's tenor hits some of high register cries that were synonymous with Coltrane, amidst his own fiery solo. Not to be outdone, Lovano busts out his aulochrome, a double-soprano sax which evokes both Rahsaan Roland Kirk and the AACM's "little instruments," adding a bit of aggression to the sound that only makes it more exciting.

Each saxophone gets his own channel with no clear indication in the notes or credits who is where. With both players starting off on tenor in "Locomotion" it makes an interesting listening game to figure out who is closer to Trane is rawness and who is taking his lessons to carve out his own version of it. The answer is settled a track later when Liebman switches to soprano, which can make you question your guesses on the previous track and of course, make repeat listens mandatory.

Since this is a Resonance release, the disc comes with a 24-page book with insight from all the musicians, as well as esteemed Coltrane expert Ashley Kahn and Resonance's Zev Feldman. Listen to this as a download and you miss out on vital info - and love - that can be felt with this package.

Some quick tenor wails, which would've fit in on Compassion, appear in the middle of Liebman's "Night and Day" solo on Masters in Bordeaux. Blink and you'll miss them. Moments like that - coupled with some almost Monkish trickery later in the piece by pianist Martial Solal - indicate why this is no ordinary set of standards. These are tunes have been heard umpteem times before: "All The Things You Are," "What Is This Thing Called Love, "On Green Dolphin Street," "Lover Man" and one that hasn't been played to death yet, Miles Davis' "Solar." Not merely a blowing session, the material serves as the foundation of a summit meeting that took place at the Jazz and Wine Festival Bordeaux last year.

Solal and Liebman use the tunes as templates for deep conversations, finding new things in each one. Solal (who turned 90 last month) approaches the piano with a propulsive mind that generates excitement even in the more subdued moments. He moves gracefully from laidback to aggressive with little or no transition and makes it work. Liebman can exude authority with even the most simple sets of notes. (Upon seeing him live for the first time a few years ago, I felt like I had been missing out until then, due to his command of his tenor and soprano work. Luckily I saw him with two more groups that weekend.) The vulnerability he projects in "Lover Man" gets to the heart of the lyrics. Performances like these make you realize why these compositions are still standards: Players of this caliber can still find plenty of new conceptions within them.