Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Kaiser at The Stone, Frisell at The Vanguard

Henry Kaiser-Melvin Gibbs-Weasel Walter at The Stone

World-class guitarist and Antarctic diver, associate of the Grateful Dead and Werner Herzog, Henry Kaiser is a prolific recording artist and restless sonic explorer. The only set of his recent week at The Stone that I caught was a monster, a trio of heavies going at it hammer and tongs. Sonny Sharrock was one reference point for the music they played, as Kaiser steered the opening improv into Sharrock’s “Blind Willy” and followed by asking Gibbs about his time playing with the legendary guitarist. The between-song banter mostly revolved around mutual respect, with Kaiser talking about seeing Gibbs with Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, and the younger Walter noting the influence of the other musicians’ records in his formative years. Gibbs played plenty of bass, from space-filled dub/funk patterns to fervent, melodic solos high on the neck. One highlight of the set came when Gibbs began soloing over a loop Kaiser had set up. Kaiser himself reentered and the piece reached truly ecstatic territory, with the musicians pushing each other higher and higher. Kaiser used two guitars and a battery of effects to generate sounds ranging from some superb, fairly straightforward rock tones to weirdo sound sculpture. Weasel Walter played the role of disrupter (something he seems to relish), sometimes locking in with but more often playing against what the guitarists were doing. Walter injected non-stop intensity, improvisational energy and surprise to the set with his singular language, incorporating metal drum techniques to great effect.

Bill Frisell at The Village Vanguard

As Henry Kaiser’s week at The Stone wrapped up, Stone director John Zorn began a week at The Village Vanguard, with different configurations of musicians performing his music each night. On the second night, Bill Frisell (Melvin Gibbs’ bandmate in the short-lived but memorable trio Power Tools, with Ronald Shannon Jackson) played his first-ever solo set at the venue where he’s appeared so many times over the years with his own groups and in the great trio with Paul Motian and Joe Lovano. Frisell was set up at the front of the stage, a dual amp setup behind him, Gnostic Trio bandmate Carol Emanuel’s harp beside him (in place for the following set), Telecaster in hand, pedal board at his feet, and a music stand full of Zorn compositions in front of him. If it was strange seeing Frisell, a master improviser, playing through a set of fully composed music, the music itself had a familiar sound to anyone who’s heard much of Zorn’s voluminous and still-growing catalog of Book of Angels recordings. Whether the characteristic sound of these pieces derives from the use of the Phrygian dominant scale or some other Sephardic modes Zorn may have discovered, they have proven to be quite adaptable to a wide variety of musical settings. The solo guitar arrangements that Frisell played were arresting, quite beautiful in places, and clearly took massive concentration and skill to pull off, with several pieces requiring the guitarist to build up and play on top of multiple simultaneous loops. Frisell seemed briefly flustered while negotiating some of the most complex passages, but it was truly an amazing performance, especially for the way the guitarist was able to express so much of his own musical personality through Zorn’s pieces. Frisell’s style is so fully developed and refined at this point, so thoroughly personal, that anything he chooses to play is going to be suffused with his sound. While Frisell tackled the challenges of Zorn’s music, his titles were another matter. There was a very funny moment when he tried announcing the songs, realized he wasn’t sure how to pronounce them, and appealed to Zorn (standing in the back of the venue) for help. Though Zorn left Frisell hanging on this point, the music (and the big hug they shared at the end of the set) reconfirmed the health of the longtime creative relationship between the two.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best of 2014 - Live!

Here are The Selected Ballads' choices for the Best Live Shows of 2014, loosely categorized and presented in chronological order:

Best of the Best

January 11
Winter Jazzfest: Threadgill Ensemble Double-Up @ Judson / MOPDTK & EYEBONE @ NYU Law
This night of Jazzfest presented some difficult scheduling choices, but I found my way to what must have been some of the finest sets of the festival. Mostly Other People Do The Killing (playing a set derived from their excellent "hot jazz"/Hot Fives-inspired Red Hot album) and EYEBONE (Nels Cline, Teddy Klausner, and Jim Black in aggressive, electric improv mode) were at the NYU Law School lounge, an unlikely venue in terms of both layout and decor, but one that was apparently conducive to good music. If I'm not mistaken, the enthusiastic audience at one point included Andrew WK. The highlight of the night, though, was Henry Threadgill's tribute to Butch Morris, "Old Locks and Irregular Verbs", played by a large ensemble (with most instruments doubled) in the historic Judson Hall. After moving through many tense, unresolved sections, reminiscent of Threadgill's Zooid music and somehow evocative to me of the cold, rainy city outside, the ensemble joined in a overwhelming, cathartic crescendo, providing what may have been my single favorite musical moment of the year. (As a footnote, I had a decent view of Threadgill's chart/score - he was only conducting, not playing. There seemed to be a series of numbers, perhaps corresponding to intervals? or bars?, for each lettered section of the composition, but it didn't give me much of a clue as to how the piece was really constructed.)

January 23
Neutral Milk Hotel @ BAM
After being quite moved by Jeff Mangum's return to the stage at Jersey City's Loew's Theater, I had high but still tempered expectations for the full band reunion. At BAM, it was multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster's dervish-like joy at being back onstage with his old friends that got to me the most, taking me all the way back to the 40 Watt Club circa 1998. While the band doesn't have the almost frightening level of intensity they possessed back then, they can still deliver a gut punch and do it LOUDLY.

January 27
Marc-Andre Hamelin @ Zankel Hall
Closing out an excellent month of music, I saw Marc-Andre Hamelin at Carnegie Hall's piano-friendly Zankel space. After the very quiet ending of his own Barcarolle was marred by an usher prematurely and, in the context of the hushed hall, loudly opening a door, Hamelin did what does so well on Medtner's "Night Wind" sonata - shine a brilliant, clear light into all corners of a forbiddingly dense and difficult piece of music. He was just as impressive on Schubert's Impromptus, applying his prodigious technique to delivery a finely detailed performance, with sensitivity to every nuance of these pieces.

March 21
The Clientele @ Bell House
Though their Baby's All Right show from later in the year was nearly as good, and featured a substantially different setlist, it couldn't match the emotion of seeing The Clientele's return to America as part of Chickfactor 22. I didn't realize how much I'd missed them.

May 30
Tim Berne/Matt Mitchell/David Torn @ IBeam
This was the second of a three-night run at the cozy IBeam space, featuring Torn solo sets and collaborations between the musicians. Berne and Torn have a long-standing relationship, which includes playing on each others albums and Torn producing and recording some of Berne's. Berne is clearly also just a fan of Torn's and seemed as excited as anyone in the room to be hearing him play solo guitar. The Berne-Mitchell relationship has developed more recently, but has already helped produce some of the finest music of Berne's career. All the musicians were in fine form on this night, with Berne and Mitchell playing some intriguing duo compositions, but Torn's solo set was the mind-blower. It may be reductive to think of him as the "American Robert Fripp", but it's not wrong to mention them in the same breath. There are several clips of this run on YouTube, include this grainy one which gives a nice taste of pure, uncut Torn-ism.

June 25
Elvis Costello @ Carnegie Hall
The Beloved Entertainer, not yet ready to be stuffed and mounted.

September 12
Alarm Will Sound @ BAM Harvey
An all John Adams program, which featured performances of Chamber Symphony, Son of Chamber Symphony, Scratchband, and a section of Hoodoo Zephyr, as well as an appearance from the composer himself (shortly to be at the center of a controversy over the Met's production of his Death of Klinghoffer), who made some comments on the pieces and his ongoing relationship with the ensemble. I managed to score some very affordable, last-minute tickets in the front row, and was privileged to have a close-up view of this new music ensemble negotiating the demands of Adams' chamber music with impressive grace. The two Chamber Symphonies made the biggest impression and left me wondering what other Adams works I've been missing out on. This show was part of the "Nonesuch Records at BAM" series, during which I also caught excellent performances by Brad Mehldau and Don Byron.

Also Very Great

January 10
Neil Young @ Carnegie Hall
Of the two rock legends (and personal musical heroes) I saw at Carnegie Hall this year, I have to give Elvis Costello the slight edge, but Neil Young's solo show, which included stories about his guitars and tributes to his folkie heroes (Phil Ochs, Bert Jansch), was certainly a 2014 highlight. The set may have leaned a bit too heavily on the familiar classics for my taste, but there were some surprises, like the inclusion of four (!) Buffalo Springfield songs. Apparently tickets were changing hands for thousands of dollars, but mine were legit and face value. During the window of time when the crush of Neil fans had knocked out Carnegie's online sales system, I was lucky enough to be within walking distance of the box office - no lines, no waiting, no fees.

June 6
Bill Frisell @ JALC - The Electric Guitar in America
The first of two consecutive nights for me at Jazz at Lincoln Center, this was a mostly non-jazz set from Bill Frisell's working trio (with the welcome addition of frequent Frisell collaborator and mighty session guitarist Greg Leisz). With many of the tunes subsequently recorded for a studio album (Guitar in the Space Age), the repertoire was taken from Frisell's early inspirations, including the Kinks, Byrds, Beach Boys, Link Wray, and Wes Montgomery, as well as excursions into Nashville twang and even Rocky Mountain surf by way of a tune from obscure Colorado band The Astronauts.

June 7
JALC Orchestra w/ Wynton Marsalis - Modern Ellington
This program of mostly later, lesser known Ellington compositions was both a reminder of the depth of the Duke's catalog and a great justification for the existence of a well-supported repertory jazz orchestra that could put on such a program. It sparked my interest in pockets of Ellingtonia, like the Queen's Suite, that I didn't even know existed.

July 11
Guided By Voices @ Irving Plaza
Whether it was the return of drummer Kevin March from the final pre-reunion GBV lineup or the inspiration of playing Pollard-fave venue Irving Plaza, this was by far the best show I've seen from the "classic lineup". And the newest material was some of the strongest.

August 9
Darius Jones/Matthew Shipp: Cosmic Lieder @ Shapeshifter

September 3
Tootie Heath/Ethan Iverson/Ben Street @ Jazz Standard
Always a pure pleasure to hear one of the all-time masters of jazz drumming (and stage banter). This trio's version of "The Charleston" never fails to inspire.

September 23
Tweedy @ BAM
Father and son in a multigenerational band that included Darin Gray, bass legend (in certain circles), playing a set of strong, all-new compositions, plus a set from Tweedy Sr. that showed him to be one of the most compelling solo singer-songwriter-type performers alive. The inclusion of Uncle Tupelo-era Doug Sahm cover "Give Back The Key To My Heart" hit me where I live.

September 26
Peter Evans Quintet w/ Evan Parker @ JACK

October 23
The Bad Plus Play Ornette Coleman's Science Fiction @ NYU Skirball
Augmented by Tim Berne, Ron Miles and Sam Newsome, and backed by psychedelic Fillmore East alums The Joshua Light Show, TBP took on one of Ornette's boldest and most singular works, with bassist Reid Anderson acquitting himself well on two vocal numbers.

November 17
New Pornographers @ Hammerstein Ballroom
The full-on Case-Bejar lineup, touring behind one of their best albums, Brill Bruisers. Dan even played a bit of guitar (for one song, with his back to the audience), and I was a bit surprised to realize how many of the show's big, crowd-goes-wild moments were triggered by his songs.

Theatre/Opera/New Music Unclassifiable Hybrid Category

September 13
Here Be Sirens @ Dixon Place
Written by and featuring Kate Soper and directed by Rick Burkhardt (a formidable performer/composer himself), Here Be Sirens featured the Sirens, the Muses, shipwrecks, and layers of history, quotation and self-reflection, all with three performers and a piano (played as much from inside as on the keyboard).

In The Comedy Department

November 29
Andy Kindler @ Union Hall
I saw some great sets this year from James Adomian, Eddie Pepitone and others, but Andy Kindler at Union Hall was my favorite live comedy of the year. Kindler, a New York City native, doesn't appear here that often, and the Park Slope basement was packed with a crowd heavy on notables - I spotted Ira Glass, Todd Barry, Tom Scharpling, and members of Yo La Tengo. I'm sure it's been pointed out before, but watching Andy Kindler perform is like being inside Andy Kindler's head while Andy Kindler is performing. Other comedians do the "commenting on my act while I'm doing it" thing, but no one that I know of does standup like Kindler, not really. You'd have to be a little demented to even try.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Threadgill Quintets: Zooid @ Roulette

I attended the first of two nights of new quintet works by Henry Threadgill at Roulette. Each of the two nights was to feature a short piece followed by two longer works featuring a particular member of the ensemble (the quintet was essentially the most recent incarnation of Threadgill's Zooid group minus bassist Stomu Takeishi). On this first night, the short piece, "In for a Penny, In for a Pound", bore the most resemblance to Threadgill's previous compositions for Zooid. The longer quintet pieces, the first featuring guitar (Liberty Ellman) and the second trombone and tuba (Jose Davila), seemed to reflect a new approach to compositional structure for Threadgill, while still sounding like Zooid music. The featured instrumentalist was given responsibility for counting in certain sections and was afforded a fair amount of solo space, during which they seemed less constrained by Threadgill's intervallic language than in previous Zooid works. There were also solos by other members of the quintet, as well as duos and brief written ensemble passages. The longer quintets seemed to be divided into many short sections, and Threadgill and Davila were kept busy switching between instruments (Threadgill on flute, bass flute, and alto sax; Davila on tuba and a variety of mutes on trombone).

For me, one of the most characteristic Zooid sounds, and one that was present in these quintet pieces, is Threadgill soloing on flute over a chromatically rising and falling bassline, provided by the tuba and rhythmically amplified by guitar and cello. I don't have the musicological chops to analyze it, but I hear in it a kind of questing, impassioned intelligence that must reflect some facet of Threadgill's worldview. While these new pieces didn't reach the heights of Threadgill's tribute to Butch Morris, "Old Locks and Irregular Verbs", that premiered in January at Judson Hall, they certainly indicated that one of the most fertile compositional minds of our time is still seeking and finding new means of expression. On my wish list for 2015: more new music from Henry Threadgill.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ian McLagan

The Guardian has the best piece I've seen so far on the legacy of Ian McLagan, the Faces and Small Faces keyboardist who died today at 69. I had the intense pleasure of seeing McLagan perform the Faces' "Glad and Sorry" and "Debris" with Billy Bragg when he was touring as a member of Bragg's Blokes backing band. Despite having traveled in the most rarified rock company - touring and recording with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan - McLagan seemed a down-to-earth sort, accessible in person and online at his self-maintained website. Not only was McLagan one of rock's greatest keyboardists - few wielded a B3 as well - he also wrote one of the most purely enjoyable rock memoirs and compiled one of the most essential rock box sets. Mac was scheduled to be at the Bowery Ballroom in just a couple weeks, opening for Nick Lowe - what a show that would've been.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Peter Evans at JACK

I was at the excellent, new-ish performance space JACK in Brooklyn on Friday for the first two sets of a weekend-long Peter Evans residency (which ends tonight, 9/28). The first set was a duo of Evans and Evan Parker, the 70-year old British sax titan slash Euro free improv legend. Evans is a trumpeter of massive technique and creativity, and it was a wonder to see him and Parker go one-on-one. There were some amazing moments when Evans seemed to be tunneling single-mindedly into an idea, only to turn on a dime in reaction to something Parker played, revealing the close listening that was happening in the middle of a firestorm of musical invention.

A set from Evans' current quintet followed and was equally remarkable on its own terms. With Jim Black's powerful drumming and Sam Pluta live-processing the sounds of the various instruments, this is a heavy band. One rather audacious and unsettling moment toward the end of the set: Evans was playing something that sounded a bit like sobbing (animal cries in the night? a restless baby?), and just as a visceral emotional reaction was starting to take hold Black came in with a jarring, pounding beat, completely shifting the mood and direction of the piece. This is a heavy band.

Evans and the current pianist in his quintet, Ron Stabinsky, are on the latest Mostly Other People Do The Killing record, Blue, which I picked up at the JACK show. I hadn't heard anything about the record before buying a copy. From the track list, it was obviously a full album cover of Kind of Blue, and I was wondering what sort of wild spin MOPDTK had put on these familiar tunes. Then I saw the liner notes, which consist of the Borges story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, and I guessed that what lay in store was going to be nothing less than a note-for-note transcription of the famous album. This, of course, raises a lot of interesting questions, many of which are addressed quite lucidly by the band's leader and bassist here. I haven't listened enough to comment on the nuances that this project needs to be judged by, but as a concept it's a helluva thing to have actually followed through and done.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Billy Wilder's second-to-last film, Fedora, recently had a run at Film Forum. It appears to be coming to Netflix in October, and it's worth a look, especially for fans of Wilder or his masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard. Fedora is an ambitious film, with a rather audacious script by Wilder and longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond. Wilder the writer set Wilder the director some very difficult problems, including a lead actress required to play multiple roles and ages, a complicated plot structure, and a major twist deployed about half way through. The resonances with Sunset Boulevard - William Holden's voiceovers, a reclusive, great star of the past contemplating a comeback (complete with a punishing beauty regimen) - are clear, and Fedora plays like a meditation on some of the same themes, viewed from twenty years down the line. If the later film isn't as effective, a major reason may be the lack of a Gloria Swanson-level talent to pull off the highly challenging, lynchpin role. Holden is fine playing a Hollywood survivor - embattled, cynical, but still chasing the Hollywood dream after the business has passed him by. It's easy to imagine him as a Joe Gillis that escaped Norma Desmond's mansion and persisted through the decades until he became the relic, still trying to make one more great picture.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Reupholstering the Mobius Chair

AUM Fidelity's dual record release concert Saturday night at Shapeshifter Lab featured some of that label's heaviest demonstrating two distinct approaches to improvisation. The duo of Matthew Shipp and Darius Jones, supporting their second Cosmic Lieder album, The Darkseid Recital (someone involved is a Jack Kirby fan), played a series of song-length pieces covering a very wide range of moods/feels/effects. Jones has become one of my favorite saxophonists in the past couple years, and his performance Saturday reminded me of one of the reasons why: no matter what techniques he employs, no matter how far out he goes, I can always hear a vocal or songful (as well as soulful) quality that can be piercingly emotional. "Cosmic lieder", as unlikely as it sounds, is a surprisingly accurate description of what the duo achieves. At times, this song-like quality made me consider Shipp in the traditional role of a pianist accompanying a vocalist - but accompaniment that was telepathically responsive, bold, and fully formed. Quite simply, Shipp always seemed to be right there with Jones, playing the right thing at the right time - whether dense chordal passages or repeating rhythmic figures - though I'm not sure there's any strict musical analysis that could tell you why it was right.

Farmers By Nature (Craig Taborn, William Parker, and Gerald Cleaver), though displaying comparable acuity and invention, tend to take the scenic route. Their new double-disc album Love and Ghosts (like the new Cosmic Lieder, recorded live) consists of two sets worth of extended improvisations, and Saturday's performance felt like a single, unbroken piece in which ideas developed slowly, building to a climax or shifting direction by collective intuition. Although all three had moments when they took on a dominant or featured role, I was most often focused on Parker, who drew me in at the start and held my attention for much of the set - the man never seems to be lacking inspiration. With the venue's AC off for recording purposes, my capacity for close listening was starting to fade toward the end of this night of music, but I knew I'd just witnessed something beyond

Parker and Shipp, though they didn't play together on Saturday, are by now a legendary combination, having logged many miles together in the David S. Ware Quartet in addition to collaborations on their own projects. I've been listening to them on the recent trio record, Alternating Current, with drummer Jeff Cosgrove. Superbly recorded by Jimmy Katz (Cosgrove's cymbal work is just one of beautiful sounds that can be enjoyed in great detail thanks to the sonic clarity), who also recorded parts of The Darkseid Recital, the record begins with a very long group improvisation, followed by shorter pieces dedicated to Andrew Cyrille and Paul Motian (Shipp's playing on Motian's "Victoria" is really something to hear).