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).

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Comedians

Elvis Costello's 38-song solo performance at Carnegie Hall last week (I saw the second of two nights - Jon Pareles reviewed the first in the Times) spanned his career and ranged from the biggest hits to the deepest cuts (and some that haven't even been cut). Among the most pleasant surprises for me was a performance of "The Comedians", which I first got to know via Roy Orbison's recording on Mystery Girl. As Elvis details in his reissue liner notes for Goodbye Cruel World (where the song first appeared), "The Comedians" went through a few iterations, including the sort-of intriguing but not really memorable 5/4 arrangement on Cruel World, before being significantly and successfully re-tailored for Orbison with new words and changes. This "final", Orbisonian version of the song, which is what Elvis performed at Carnegie Hall, describes a man looking down from a Ferris wheel but has the drama of a highwire act, especially performed solo and live.

If "The Comedians" is a somewhat lesser-known item, "Tommy's Coming Home", from Costello's songwriting collaboration with Paul McCartney (which yielded another of the show's highlights, "So Like Candy"), is a full-blown rarity, having never been officially released or even performed live by either of its composers before this show. Despite only existing in bootleg form, Nora O'Connor and Robbie Fulks discovered it and worked up a really fine, beautifully harmonized version. With or without McCartney, I hope Elvis takes a crack at this one in the studio. Maybe he should call Nora O'Connor.

While the solo format put Elvis' talents as a singer and guitarist on display, the show was a forceful reminder to me of his deep and continuing achievements as a songwriter and the impossibility of dividing his work into anything like cohesive periods or phases. (I was also reminded that I need to update and revise this list.) He's written great songs in five different decades at this point and still seems very much engaged in the work. As if to illustrate that point, he's named this solo tour for a song, "The Last Year of My Youth", that he's still in the process of revising.  

The Selected Ballads will be back soon with a roundup of some of the many, many albums I've acquired in the last few months and maybe some notes on other recent shows.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Recent Shows & Records - The Return of The Clientele, (Not) Bloodcount, Tzadik Acquisitions

The Clientele (Chickfactor 22 @ The Bell House)
Although they conjure images of London like no other band, I also associate The Clientele's music with New York. They were in my headphones a lot when I first came to the city, and even though I assume they were referring to the street in London, I can't walk down "Delancey Street at night" without thinking of "Joseph Cornell". That song was part of the setlist for their first U.S. show in years, at The Bell House on March 21st. The band, playing in their original trio configuration, seemed slightly shaky at first and were briefly hampered by a vocal-deficient sound mix. As the mix was corrected and the crowd started responding enthusiastically, front man Alasdair MacLean visibly and audibly gained confidence and the music took off, taking the audience with it. We were all reminded that the immersive sound world created by MacLean's voice and guitar (applying Spanish/classical means to psychedelic ends) and the James Hornsey-Mark Keen rhythm section was not just a studio creation but something that was alive and in the room.

The band seemed surprised at the reception, and I noticed a glance from MacLean to Keen that seemed to say, "Can you believe this?". You can hear and see some of this in this video of "Reflections After Jane". I think it was after this song that MacLean joked about how nostalgic the audience must be. Although the set was made up largely of material from the band's first few albums, early singles, and EPs, the later "Here Comes The Phantom" received one of the biggest reactions of the night. Based on the way it hit me, I suspect the springtime feeling of the song connected with the winter-weary New York audience. All in all, this was one of the most moving and satisfying shows I've seen lately, with the clear sense of a band and audience exchanging positive energy. Whether or not MacLean, Keen and Hornsey are inspired to write and record more Clientele music (MacLean's current project, Amor de Dias, is quite excellent and I was disappointed to have missed their opening set the previous night), this set left no doubt that they've created a sound and a body of work that continues to have meaning and find an audience. To me, these three musicians are too good together not to continue collaborating in some fashion. They play the Merge 25 festival in North Carolina this summer (I'm tempted to make the trip), and I look forward to seeing what happens after that.

(To get a better idea of what went down at The Bell House, I recommend this piece.)

Not Bloodcount @ The Stone
Another reunion show (of sorts) happened at The Stone last week, at the beginning of Jim Black's weeklong residency, featuring the members of Tim Berne's influential quartet Bloodcount (Black, Berne, Chris Speed and Michael Formanek) playing as Not Bloodcount. In an interview on Jeremiah Cymerman's 5049 podcast, Black seemed to suggest that the billing had something to do with Berne's reluctance to revisit old projects, but it could also be taken as a simple acknowledgment that they were not going to be playing Berne's Bloodcount compositions. The set was, as far as I could tell, wholly improvised, but they inevitably hit on some themes and grooves that recalled the Bloodcount sound (which, I must admit, I only know from records) and their shared experience showed in the seemingly effortless way Berne and Speed harmonized and supported each other's parts, Black and Formanek locked into rhythmic patterns that slowly developed or emerged out of nowhere, and the group collectively structured their long improvisations into coherent forms. Formanek seems to play a linchpin role in any band I see him in, and I come away more impressed each time. I saw his big band play a memorable show at Shapeshifter Lab last year, and I hope some of that music makes it onto record.

Various Tzadiks
I took advantage of Downtown Music Gallery's recent Tzadik sale to pick up a bunch of discs released on John Zorn's label. The amount and quality of music that is continually being released on Tzadik is rather incredible, and the packaging defies the conventional wisdom that the CD is a dying, disposable format. Zorn has worked with and released music by some of my favorite guitarists, including Bill Frisell and Robert Quine (lately I've been enjoying The Gnostic Preludes and Silent Comedy with Frisell and Tears of Ecstasy with Quine), but the common thread in the albums I've enjoyed most from this recent haul is Marc Ribot. Asmodeus, part of the already voluminous and still growing Masada series, features Ribot in a trio with Trevor Dunn on bass and G. Calvin Weston on drums. I hope this album has gained some kind of reputation among guitarists since it came out in 2007, because it contains some of the most intense, insane rock/free/whatever playing I've ever heard. Ipos, a Masada album from The Dreamers, is a more stylistically diverse and less intense effort, though the album's deliberate mix of genres serves as a showcase for Ribot's ability to sound idiomatically masterful and yet absolutely individual in a wide range of styles. At the Mountains of Madness, a double live album by Electric Masada, is the only one of the three discs I've mentioned that features Zorn on sax, but here too Ribot is in the spotlight, alchemizing Zorn's Masada language into living, improvisational fire.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Bob Reuter

" the heart of the city, where the alligator roams..." - Nick Lowe

Like a lot of people who say they're "from" St. Louis when meeting people from other places, I never actually resided within the city limits. I worked there for many years, though, at a job that took me all over the city. I spent a lot of time in the car listening to KDHX, St. Louis' community radio station and in a very real way one of its most important cultural institutions. Bob Reuter's Friday midday show, "Bob's Scratchy Records", was a highlight of the week whenever I got to hear it. On radio, he was a live wire, an open circuit, an improvisor, drawing on the traditions of "wild man" hipster DJs of the '50s and '60s spliced with ol' time "put your hand on the radio" preachers. There was no strict musical format. He'd play r'n'b, garage, gospel, country, rock, soul, blues, but much of it resided at the edges, the margins where musical boundaries, and even those of race, gender, and sexuality, became permeable and blurred into each other. His pledge drive shows, far from being a reason to tune out for a week, were required listening. You might get a little concerned as Bob would work himself into a frenzy to meet his fundraising goal, sometimes seeming to teeter on the edge of sanity. Even the playlists he'd email out were hugely entertaining (and educational), including photos and commentary for many of the artists.

When I read about his death at age 61, from a fall down an elevator shaft at the loft he was just moving into, it made no sense, came out of nowhere, seemed random and cruel. In recent years, he seemed to have attained a sort of elder statesman status in the hipper segment of the St. Louis community, earning respect for his photography, music, and writing without becoming respectable. When I heard the news, I thought of Bob Cassilly, another of the vital creative forces of St. Louis who died an untimely, accidental death in 2011. Two of the essential St. Louisans gone in two years time.

I didn't know Bob. I interacted with him briefly only a few times, by email to comment or ask a question about something on his show or when he was working the door at Frederick's Music Lounge, one of the great lost music venues (owned by another key Southside figure, Fred Friction). I saw him perform a few times, solo and with his band, but it was his radio presence and his work as a photographer that interested me most.

His photography, collected beautifully in the book Light Fuse and Run, is about as "analog" as can be. The pictures are the glorious sum of accumulated imperfections: Bob's own as a self-taught photographer, those of the medium itself, and the often rough-around-the-edges people and places he documented. It's noir, beat photography, sexy and dark, but not affected or touristic. Like some of William Eggleston's best work, the photographs are taken by a man deeply familiar with the places and people he's shooting but with enough distance to turn them into art. Just as I can't visit Memphis or Mississippi without seeing those places, at least a little, through Eggleston's color-saturated vision, Bob's gritty black-and-whites have permanently altered the way I look at and think of South St. Louis.

The last aspect of Bob Reuter's talent I came to know was his writing. I finally started reading Tales of a Talking Dog, published last year, after hearing of his death this week. Like many of my favorite memoirs - Harpo Speaks and Errol Flynn's My Wicked, Wicked Ways come to mind - it's basically a collection of episodes and anecdotes. The stories from Bob's childhood, growing up in a never-prosperous section of a city that was well into its steep decline, are funny, sad, strange, sometimes disturbing or shocking. Racial tension must've been pervasive, often breaking out into outright violence. The young Reuter was drawn to music and fascinated by the black culture that he was in close proximity to but in many fundamental ways totally excluded and isolated from. The colloquial writing style seems like an attempt to capture his own voice as a storyteller, and does so effectively, at least for someone who was familiar with that voice from the radio. His stories are pieces of a puzzle that can never be finished, as a life and a city can never be fully comprehended. I suspect that when I finish Talking Dog I might start another book that's been on my shelf for a while, "Ain't But a Place", the Gerald Early-edited "anthology of African-American writings about St. Louis". St. Louis is a complex, often strange place, requiring multiple perspectives to even begin to understand it. Bob Reuter contributed in a big way to that understanding and, even though he left too soon, we're lucky that he shared as many of his stories, songs and pictures as he did.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Catch-All to Catch Up

Catching up after putting the blog on hiatus for a while, here are some more or less recent albums, books, and live performances I've enjoyed:

Eric Revis' 11:11 - Parallax
Revis doesn't have too many recordings as a leader, but he seems to be picking up the pace. He's already followed up this late 2012 release with a trio album (feat. Kris Davis and Andrew Cyrille). I haven't heard it yet but did see the group at the Vision Festival. I was impressed, but not as overwhelmed as I'd been by the group on Parallax (Nasheet Waits on drums, Jason Moran on piano, and Ken Vandermark on reeds) when I saw them a few years ago at Jazz Gallery. Tarbaby (Revis, Orrin Evans and Nasheet Waits) also has a new record out - not the Frantz Fanon-inspired project I heard them preview at Le Poisson Rouge with Lake and guitarist Marc Ducret, but Ballad of Sam Langford, dedicated to the early 20th-century boxer (a native of Canada later known as the "Boston Tar Baby") and featuring Oliver Lake and Ambrose Akinmusire (after Miles made the connection, it's hard to imagine a boxing-themed album without trumpet). I just got it but haven't heard enough to record any impressions yet. I've spent more time with Lake's most recent big band record, Wheels, and it's a definite winner. The saxophonist (and painter and poet) seems to be more prolific than ever at age 70.

Some of my favorite moments on Parallax occur when at least one member of the quartet is playing the melody or keeping a straight rhythmic pattern going while the others go off/out, a sound that I've heard in other Revis-Waits projects and in the Bandwagon's music. I've discussed my love of Waits' drumming before, and this is a good album to hear the range of what he can do. There's a good mix of tunes here - some that feel more composed, some more freely improvised, and a couple of really strong, spirited interpretations of early jazz pieces by Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton - sequenced with a good flow that avoids fatigue and invites repeat spins.

Volumes have been written elsewhere and everywhere about Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires of the City, so I'll just say that it's the best thing they've done (and I enjoyed their first two quite a bit) and one of the best things I've heard all year.

Two of my favorite recent discoveries in 20th-century music are closely related: Lou Harrison's Piano Concerto (I've mentioned the recording with Keith Jarrett, for whom the piece was written, before but I can't recommend it enough) and John Luther Adams' For Lou Harrison. The Callithumpian Consort recording of the Adams piece has some helpful liner notes - just understanding the concept of tempo layering in one of the two alternating sections of the piece gave me something to listen for and latch onto. As I understand it - imperfectly I'm sure - different instruments play groupings of 4, 5, 6, or 7 notes to the measure against a steady, slow 4/4 beat. There's a clear "one" to orient the ear, so that the different groupings are always audible even as the overall texture becomes more dense and complex. The other section is quite beautiful, with rising glissandos that sound like the whole ensemble is being played like a harp by a giant hand. (A much more detailed discussion can be found here.) The piece works as something to immerse yourself in and lose track of time, but the complexity and slight but constant variations certainly reward more attentive listening. It was reported that For Lou Harrison received a negative audience reaction when it was performed at the recent Ojai Festival, but in my experience even a slight effort to understand what Adams is doing will be repaid many times over.

I just finished reading two music memoirs back-to-back: White Bicycles, producer Joe Boyd's book about the '60s, and Apathy for the Devil, NME writer/notorious London scenester Nick Kent's year-by-year account of the '70s.  Surprisingly, Boyd, who made his name working with sound, not words, comes across as the better writer, but Kent certainly has a way with an anecdote and tells his sometimes squalid tale with verve.

Eyebone, a trio of Nels Cline, Jim Black and Teddy Klausner at Shapeshifter Lab reminded me how much I enjoy a loud, overdriven electric piano sound (something that was also in full effect at The Lilys' blazing Chickfactor set at The Bell House). All three played with great intensity, and there was a nice moment when Cline stopped playing, put down his guitar, and walked over to turn up Klausner's amp - a bit of on-the-fly, onstage mixing to bring the keyboard to the fore, from which point the music took flight.

The big guitar event of the year so far was the trio of Cline, Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot at Le Poisson Rouge. As a fan of all three, I was fascinated by every nuance of their interactions. They played as a trio, a quartet (with Shahzad Ismaily on drums), and as three different duos. Much of the set seemed improvised, as the three created spontaneous, interlocking parts and each in turn nudged the music in different directions. They covered a lot of sonic territory, including '60s-ish jangle and Hank Williams - the Frisell-Ribot duo played "Cold, Cold Heart", including a verse of vocals from Ribot. Frisell and Cline were on solid-body electrics for most of the set (though Cline played some lap steel), while Ribot did some tunes on acoustic and hollow body electric and generally contributed the most bluesy and angular elements to the mix.

Tim Berne 7 @ The Stone
The high point of my second time seeing this beast of a group (video of some of their performances can be found online) was an almost literally unbelievable half-hour-plus performance of Berne's super-intricate/complex "Forever Hammered". I couldn't fully grasp the structure of the piece, but it seemed to fully exploit the sonic possibilities of the group (an important part of their sound is the combo of Dan Weiss on drums and Ches Smith on vibes and other percussion). I don't know his catalog front-to-back, but this piece seems like some kind of milestone for Berne as a composer - pianist Matt Mitchell, on Twitter, called the TB7 gig "possibly the craziest music I've played with other people" - and I hope it has been or will be recorded in a studio soon.

I saw a couple different iterations of Steve Coleman and Five Elements at The Stone and Shapeshifter Lab. Both were excellent sets. The larger group at the Stone demonstrated Coleman's mastery of densely complex, layered rhythms. Coleman and other band members switched between their main instruments and hand cowbells, setting up new (clave-derived?) rhythmic patterns on top of funky bass-and-drum grooves. There was a lot going on, but the set was engaging on multiple levels, from the physical to the intellectual. The quartet version (w/ trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson) at Shapeshifter put the focus more on Coleman's prodigious improvisational imagination as a soloist. The quartet closed the set I saw with a flourish, taking the final tune at a daredevil tempo.