Sunday, December 26, 2010

Best of 2010 - Ten+ Musical Moments

I'm still in the process of paring down a very long "long list" of the best shows I saw in 2010, so as a sort of preview and in lieu of an "honorable mentions" section, I've compiled this list (in no particular order) of great individual moments or aspects of live shows that aren't going to make my final Best Of list:

Watching Bill Frisell play Monk and Stephen Foster from about 10 feet away on a summer night inside the sweltering, nearly swoon-inducing Stone.  (Two other memorable solo guitar performances come to mind: Robert Fripp's "Soundscapes" performance at the Winter Garden - finally, someone found a way to work with the cavernous acoustics of the space rather than being swallowed up by it - and Mary Halvorson on Christian Marclay's Wind-Up Guitar at the Whitney - wish I'd seen frequent music box user Frisell playing it. Anthony Coleman's bemused expression while reading the "score" of Marclay's Pret-a-Porter off of models' thrift-store wear was another image that stuck with me from the past year).

Vijay Iyer playing "Human Nature" with his great trio in Tompkins Square Park (it's on YouTube!)

Greg Osby pushing an end of the envelope that's rarely pushed, by taking a very, very quiet solo with Paul Motian and Jason Moran at the Village Vanguard, bringing an already attentive Village Vanguard crowd to an absolute hush.  Focus, control, mastery, taste.

Moran w/ Mary Halvorson and Ron Miles romping and stomping through David Bowie's "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family" during a boldly varied, adventurous set at Jazz Standard.

William Parker augmenting his Little Huey's Sextet with a percussion ensemble of face-painted neighborhood kids at Campos Plaza in the East Village on the first day of the Vision Fest.

Ethan Iverson, Corcoran Holt, and Tootie Heath taking a joyride through the jazz canon at Smalls.  One of the most purely fun shows I saw this year, I'd intended to catch just one set but couldn't leave until the last note had been played.

Dirty Projectors' opening set and Phoenix's "unplugged" encore set (including a beautiful Francoise Hardy cover, sung in French to the annoyance of some meatheads seated near me) at Madison Square Garden, both better than the oversized, over-polished chrome machine Phoenix has become live (though Daft Punk was a nice surprise!).

Marty Ehrlich's beautiful, detailed, and sometimes even delicate compositions for his 4 Altos group at The Stone - one listen was certainly not enough to grasp all the nuances in this deep music.

?'s eternal rock'n'roll fire and old-school showmanship (including singing a duet with Ronnie Spector while lying on his back!) and Frank Rodriguez's junky '60s organ tone (achieved on a decidedly non-'60s synthesizer) providing the key element of the Mysterians sound at Damrosch Plaza.

In another case of a keyboard player driving a rock band, Dave Amels' beyond-tasty organ work with the Jay-Vons at the Rock Shop.  The greatest compliment I can pay these guys is to say that they're the only group to really remind me of the Get Happy-era Attractions, the gold standard for guitar-organ-bass-drums lineups in a rock'n'soul context.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday Must-Read - Sartre/Kafka Hell Train

One newsman's journey into darkness and despair on board a Philadelphia-bound Amtrak train (via The Awl).

Here's a representative sample:
Oh god, lights went out. Train totally dead. No one is telling us anything! Sitting in dark shivering. "Sartre"

I recommend this as a soundtrack for reading these tweets.

Monday, December 13, 2010


I may have mentioned this before, and I may mention it again, but here is one of the greatest, most soulful vocal performances of all time, for your listening pleasure.  I remember where I was when I first heard it - a stretch of Interstate 55/70 in Illinois - and I'm just glad I didn't have to engage in any defensive driving maneuvers while it was playing or I might not be typing this right now.

Speaking of soul, I just received the massive doorstop of a boxed set that is Syl Johnson: Complete Mythology, and this weekend, I took my first dip (let's try another metaphor) in the Numero Group's bubbling, six LP/four CD cauldron of soul/blues/r'n'b stew.  I was fortunate enough to catch Johnson live at his recent, wall-to-wall packed show at Southpaw in Brooklyn.  He was thrillingly good: a harp-wailing, Strat-slinging, proto-rapping, unpredictable fireball of impish energy and pure entertainment.

Calling out (and getting) twenty-one hits from the band.  Doing a "Take Me to the River" to make you forget (if just for a night) all about Al Green and Talking Heads.  Johnson's performance made it absolutely clear that there's no substitute for the real thing, the original article.  You can be as meticulously retro as you want in putting together a band sound or making a recording, but you can't duplicate what someone like Syl Johnson has - his thing is too idiosyncratic, with way too much experience behind it.  R'n'b has moved on, producing new, equally inimitable masters - R.Kelly comes to mind - but when Johnson and his peers are gone, those extra elements that you can't get from a record will exist only in memory, as unrecoverable as the stage presence of Bessie Smith or the cornet tone of Buddy Bolden.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Golden Age

Here is a good, short summing up of an excellent book I read recently.  My own attempt to write a good, short summing up of The Golden Age ended in failure, so I recommend you read this one and, more importantly, read the book.

Although I abandoned the original post I was working on, I'll throw in a few scattered points here:

The Golden Age is very much connected in my mind with Borges.  Although JLB is constantly being cited as an influence, it does seem particularly clear in this case.  That's not to say the book is derivative, but to me, it reads a bit like a Borges story (successfully) expanded to novel length.  Calvino and his Invisible Cities is another obvious reference point that I've seen mentioned, but I see Borges as the ultimate source.  Calvino isn't necessary to explain Michal Ajvaz's invention in the same way I think Borges is.  I wasn't at all surprised to learn that Ajvaz had written a book on Borges.

One thing to watch for in The Golden Age is a particular, complex form that keeps recurring, leading the reader to believe that it may be some kind of key to the island civilization being described.  Perhaps the most concrete presentation of this form is in the description of the river that forms the geography of the island's upper town.  It comes together from divergent sources, flows for a while as a sort of braided stream, with small islands of rock where the houses of the town have been built, and then splits apart into a delta.  This coming together, flowing for a while as a more-or-less unified force, and then breaking apart again also serves as an approximation of the process by which the island's sole Book changes as it passes through the hands of the islanders, who are simultaneously its readers and editor-writers.

Dalkey Archive Press, Ajvaz's US publisher, is surely up there with the very best small-to-medium size presses, along with maybe New Directions and I don't know who else.  I had a hard time choosing between The Golden Age and The Other City when taking advantage of a sale Dalkey was running.  Now I'm thinking I should've bought both.

Monday, December 6, 2010

For Sale: Rembrandt Drawing, Signed by Basquiat

So, I recently signed up for Phil Schaap's jazz e-newsletter, which so far has turned out to be mostly lists of things he has for sale.  Before going further, I want to say that I'm a fan of Schaap's long-running Charlie Parker show.  He is an incredible living resource and important force in promoting and furthering appreciation of the music.  I noticed a strange thing about the items Schaap has for sale, though.  Many of them are ostensibly rare records signed by, but not featuring, Wynton Marsalis.  Now, what I said above about Schaap also applies to Marsalis.  I have nothing against him and have enjoyed his music - he's clearly an important figure.  But why would anyone want (to cite just one example of an actual item for sale) a 78 of Fats Waller playing "Carolina Shout" signed by Wynton?  Or (to cite another example) a 1927 Bix Beiderbecke 78 signed by Wynton?  At least in that case, it's one horn player signing another's record, which maybe sorta kinda makes some kind of sense - or not?  Does Marsalis' signature on somebody else's rare record make it more or less valuable to collectors?  If you were trying to sell a rare Mickey Mantle baseball card, would you get A-Rod to sign it?  I'm honestly confused.

Here's something I have no confusion or reservations about - hours and hours of archived Phil Schaap broadcasts, available for streaming.  Gold mine. Treasure trove. Cornucopia.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Dorothy in Concord

You know that thing where you turn off the sound on The Wizard of Oz and play Dark Side of the Moon as the soundtrack?  And if you start it at the right place, it matches up in all kinds of cool ways and makes the movie like totally more psychedelic than it already is?  Well, it doesn't work so well with Charles Ives' Concord Sonata.  I noticed that The Wizard was on one night last weekend, but I also felt like listening to Marc-André Hamelin's Charles Ives/Samuel Barber disc, so I thought, let's try this and see what happens.  And what happened was, my focus alternated between the music and the movie without the former ever becoming anything like a "soundtrack" to the latter.  Not that I really expected it to work, but I thought maybe something cool would happen.  Maybe it would work better with this version.

In any case, I can certainly recommend Hamelin doing Ives when listened to on its own.  My appreciation of both of them is still in its early stages, and I know there are hours and hours of music I've yet to hear, but one particular area of Ives' work that I want to explore further is his large collection of songs, many based on pre-existing texts by others (poems, lyrics to other songs).  I've heard only a small selection so far, initially drawn in when I found out that there was an Ives-ized version of "Abide With Me".  Setting these words to new music is perhaps not a terribly radical idea, but it's one that struck me as bold and even inspiring, having grown up with the hymn as an immutable fact of life (in comparison to the Ives version, Thelonious Monk's wonderful and slightly skewed arrangement of the original tune sounds quite traditional).  The titles of Ives' songs alone (including one called "Slugging a Vampire"!!!) make me want to hear more.

One last, rather remarkable, thing I just learned from Wikipedia re: the Concord Sonata:

In 1986, Bruce Hornsby borrowed the opening phrase of "The Alcotts" movement as the introduction to his hit "Every Little Kiss" (as heard on the album The Way It Is).

Don't Sully My Aeroplane

Sometimes when I (on rare occasions) hear something from In The Aeroplane Over The Sea on the radio, one part of me enjoys the music while another part of me feels like something is being violated.  Like this music is too sacred or important or personal or something to be out there in the ionosphere mingling with lesser sounds.  Like it's being diminished or disrespected or indecently exposed.   

Aeroplane is one of those albums I can only listen to if I'm in the right mood, prepared to listen to the whole thing and submit to what I know it's going to do to me.  For whatever reason, I haven't listened to it in a long time.  When I was 14 or 15, I used to ration out "Hey Jude" to myself.  I didn't allow myself to listen to it too often, not wanting to diminish the power it had for me at that time.  I guess I've never really outgrown that way of thinking.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Two Drummer-Led Albums (And A Piano Footnote)

Nasheet Waits' Equality: Alive at MPI is a fine album from last year that seems to have flown pretty far under the radar, especially considering who's on it.  I couldn't find much online about it other than a positive mini-review in one of Tom Hull's valuable, Christgau-style Jazz Consumer Guides and a combined review (like this one, I guess) on All About Jazz.  It may say something about the continued importance of record labels and their promotional capabilities that Jason Moran's recent Blue Note release, Ten, got a lot of well-deserved attention (for a jazz record) from NPR and other major outlets, but Equality (with the same personnel as Ten, plus saxophonist Logan Richardson), released on the tasteful but tiny Barcelona-based Fresh Sound, was mostly ignored.  If you're a fan of Ten, as I am, I would be surprised if you didn't dig Equality (it's definitely more of a RIYL thing than an Armond White-style "better than" thing).  After Waits pretty much blew my mind at a couple of recent performances, I wanted to find out what other recent albums he appeared on, and eventually came across Equality.  It's a great example of the discoveries to be made by digging into the discographies of players you admire. 

As I've mentioned before, there's something I really like about Moran when he's playing with saxophonists (his recent work with Apex comes to mind, as well as the ultimate Bandwagon+sax album, Black Stars), and he has plenty of great moments here.  Equality also showcases the talents of bassist Tarus Mateen particularly well - his "King Hassan", one of the album's highlights, features a funky, propulsive Moran-Mateen-Waits groove set against the longer tones and mysterious/exotic mode of Richardson's melody statement and solos.  Both Ten and Equality feature Jaki Byard tunes, and it's also interesting to compare the different approaches to Byard's "Mrs. Parker of K.C." on Equality and Fred Hersch's Whirl (Moran and Hersch* were both Byard students, although the influence is probably more evident in Moran's case).  The head is played just about the same on both records, but the approaches diverge pretty starkly from there.

Another drummer-led album I've been listening to lately is Billy Hart's Enhance from 1977 (I was tipped off by reading Ethan Iverson's revised 1973-1990 list, a great starting point if you're looking to expand your knowledge and record collection).  It's a tough one for me to pin down or briefly summarize.  There's a lot going on and several styles and sounds packed into seven tracks (perhaps because six different members of the ensemble contribute compositions - Oliver Lake has two).  Lake's presence may explain why I'm hearing a bit of the "St. Louis sound" (I'm thinking here of BAG, WSQ, and the later Julius Hemphill circle of associates and proteges) in the freewheeling group dynamic and the way bluesy harmonized passages comfortably share album space with "out"/free sections, particularly on "Hymn for the Old Year" (which also appeared a few years later on the WSQ masterpiece Revue).

I think I hear a bit of late Mingus, too, perhaps mostly in the playing of Don Pullen (who I really like on Mingus' Changes records) - Pullen fans should definitely check out this album.  Enhance documents a group of world-class musicians choosing intelligently from the all the sounds available to them, not preemptively rejecting any possibilities or following any stylistic dictates or dogma, which is to say that there's a lot of music here, enough to last for many, many listens.  The next Billy Hart I really want to get is Oshumare - it's Hart in the '80s, with Branford Marsalis and Steve Coleman instead of Enhance's Dewey Redman and Oliver Lake, Kenny Kirkland instead of Don Pullen, plus Bill Frisell!

*I've probably written about Fred Hersch enough on this blog, but I have to briefly mention that I saw the first set of his solo run at the Vanguard on Tuesday night.  Highlights of a set in which everything was up to his usual high standard included a new composition dedicated to Billy Strayhorn, "Hot House Flower", which seemed to evoke the longing and beautiful melancholy that are important components of both Hersch and Strayhorn's music, and a version of Monk's "I Mean You" with Hersch conducting a deep exploration of the tune that made the long-delayed direct statement of the head at the end sound like a triumph.  The set was being recorded (hopefully for a future release), but, unfortunately, somebody close to the mics knocked over a bottle in the middle of "I Mean You".  Knowing Hersch, though, he'll probably play an even better one by the end of the run.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Brief Note on the Late Leslie Nielsen

This may sound like a snob/connoisseur thing to say, but the original Police Squad! TV series, which lasted all of six episodes, was funnier and better than the Naked Gun movies in just about every way.  I watched these things over and over again on VHS in the late-'80s/early-'90s and certain gags still pop into my head from time to time.  Come to think of it, the complete series on DVD would make an excellent Christmas gift. 

Leslie Nielsen certainly made some sub-par movies later in his career, but with the six episodes of Police Squad! and the other Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker exclamation-point-enhanced masterwork, Airplane!, he earned his lifetime pass.  Some of the funniest sh*t I've ever seen.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Holiday Season Is Box Set Season

Six discs of Orange Juice?!?  Bring it on.  OJ had a concept, a sound, that shouldn't have worked: awkward, white Scottish guys trying to play funky, dance-y, r'n'b-flavored pop/love songs in a DIY/post-punk milieu, fronted by a singer with a voice that, on first listen, seems completely, almost laughably wrong for this kind of music.  The first time you hear them, you have to readjust your ears and your expectations.  And then, if you're lucky, at some point it clicks and you get it.  Off-kilter white "funk", a guy that can't sing doing a sensitive, vulnerable thing - these are elements that became somewhat common in the '80s underground/indie scene (and have been revived and recycled ever since), but even if you're familiar with the context, there's still something jarring and, ultimately, fresh about the way Orange Juice deployed/combined them to create their sound.  The Housemartins were on to something similar, but they had a better, if still unconventional, singer in Paul Heaton and their aesthetic seems a bit easier to parse (Northern soul, gospel, Marxism, delivered with a bright tempo and mood).  Orange Juice's influences, the components of their sound, don't come through so cleanly, perhaps (especially on their early Postcard material, documented on The Glasgow School) because of a simple lack of competence, a classic case of ambition outpacing ability to spectacular effect.

I don't know how long the link will be active, but the Guardian has a bunch of streaming preview tracks here.

Also on my Christmas list is this super-deluxe-looking Syl Johnson box from The Numero Group.  I only know a handful of Johnson's records, mostly his top shelf (and sometimes uncannily Al Green-like) Hi Records work and the phenomenal "Is It Because I'm Black", so I'm very much looking forward to digging into this treasure trove.  I'm also hoping to catch the man live at Southpaw in December, having missed him last time he was in town.  Syl Johnson is right up there with O.V. Wright in the category of Undeniable Soul Masters who deserve to be more widely known.

Speaking of treasure troves and six-disc boxes, I recently got the Paul Motian Black Saint/Soul Note set, which consists of six complete albums Motian made for the Italian label(s).  Black Saint and Soul Note played a crucial role in picking up the slack left by American labels in documenting the most creative jazz that was happening from the late '70s into the '90s.  The box includes One Time Out, an early (but not the first) Motian-Lovano-Frisell trio album, which contains some of that group's wildest excursions and one of Bill Frisell's freakiest guitar tones on record.  There are also piano-drums duos with Paul Bley and Enrico Pieranunzi.  The Pieranunzi (Flux and Change - attention Crap Jazz Covers, if you haven't seen this one, you need to check it out), a live record arranged into a series of suites or medleys combining improvised sections with standards, gave me a fuller appreciation of the Italian pianist's range.  I'd previously thought of him as a fairly conventional, if brilliantly fluid, classically-inflected player in the Bill Evans line, but this album demonstrates his imagination and his ability to move between free playing and changes while keeping up a dynamic, exciting interaction with Motian.  It's a fun listen and shows why this duo has continued to collaborate over the years (this looks like it could be a worthy sequel).

Three of the discs document the predecessor to Motian's long-running trio, the Paul Motian Quintet, with bassist Ed Schuller and saxophonist Jim Pepper along with Lovano and Frisell.  I hadn't heard anything from this group before buying this box (although I had heard the earlier version of the Quintet with Billy Drewes instead of Pepper), but can now say definitively that these albums are prime Motian.  If you're a fan and you don't have The Story of Maryam, Jack of Clubs, and Misterioso, you've got a serious gap in your collection and some good listening ahead of you.  These albums include many Motian compositions that he would record again later, but the versions here are almost uniformly excellent, if not necessarily definitive.  Motian the composer was fully formed by this point (the mid-'80s); these discs are full of characteristically beautiful and mysterious tunes like "Cathedral Song", "Trieste", "Byablue" (a gorgeous solo performance by Frisell), and the Motian tune par excellence, "Abacus".  While some of his compositions, like "Circle Dance", can resemble bright, major-key folk songs, many of them achieve beauty while defying listener's expectations on a note-by-note level.  The melodies don't progress or resolve in ways that we're accustomed to hearing; they strenuously avoid cliche.  The next note is always a surprise, and so the tunes remain fresh and elusive.  Monk's compositions (some of which appear in this box) often feature aggressively or humorously "off", "wrong", or discordant notes.  Motian's compositions thrive on the unexpected note, the one that doesn't so much sound "wrong" as surprising or counterintuitive.
(Strangely enough, this is not my first post that mentions both Syl Johnson and Paul Motian)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Leitch At The Movies, Part Two

This is awesome news:
Will Leitch, who, as I've noted before, I've been reading since approximately 1994, finally has a full-time gig writing about movies, his true calling.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Lincoln Goes All In

I see that others have already picked up on this, but I was reading a news item about the coming flood of investigations the new Republican-controlled House intends to unleash when I noticed something very interesting in the background of the photo of Rep. Darrell Issa of California.  It's a painting executed in a very niche style: Republican Art.  It depicts a bunch of Republican presidents playing poker and busting a gut at a joke presumably told by Abe Lincoln, who appears with his back to the viewer.  Here's a closer look at what may be the cheesiest sh*t I've seen this side of a Thomas Kinkade

While the obvious analogy is to "Dogs Playing Poker", I think this painting perhaps has more in common with the popular dorm room poster, Boulevard of Broken Dreams, as both works replace the nameless figures in a familiar artwork with representations of historical figures in order to make some comment on those figures.  In the case of the reworking of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, the viewer is supposed to gather than Elvis, Bogart, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe were, despite (or because of) their fame, just as lonely and isolated as Hopper's diner crowd.  In the painting I'll call Republican Presidents Playing Poker, the message appears to be that were these leaders of various eras to be gathered around a card table, they would surely find themselves to be kindred spirits, as unified in their Republicanism as the poker-playing dogs are by their dog-ness.  As for the joke Lincoln is telling in the painting, I'd be willing to bet Bush 41's pile of chips that it involves Nancy Pelosi. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Three Food Tips

I'd heard some internet murmurings that Soup Burg, a nondescript diner on the Upper East Side that I had walked by many times without taking notice, justified the second half of its name by serving a mighty fine burger.  I have confirmed that these rumblings are true.  The patty is big, loosely packed, and if you order it on the rare side, there's a nice contrast between the crisp char on the surface and the super-juicy pink center.  If that last sentence sounded at all sexual, I apologize.

If you're looking for a way to liven up a bland Chinese takeout meal, might I suggest stirring in a small spoonful of Indian pickle (say, a nice mango chili).  Transformative.

Pickled turkey gizzards, straight out of the jar, may not sound appetizing, but you might be surprised.  I was.  They're a highlight of the excellent "bar snacks" menu (consisting mostly of pickled things in jars) at The Old Fashioned in Madison, WI.  This place packs 'em in, and with good reason.  If you find yourself in Madison, go and drop a buck on a gizzard.  You won't be sorry, and even if you are, you've only blown a dollar on the experiment, and you can tell people you ate a pickled turkey gizzard.  Worth it for the anecdote alone.  Also, this place lets you add braunschweiger to any sandwich for $1.25 - as a Midwestern German-American, this almost brings tears to my eyes.  As much I as like this place, I still have to say that the namesake drink, a Wisconsin tradition, is an abomination, a warped bastardization of one of the foundational classic cocktails.  They should just call the drink a Badger, and I'd be OK with it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Albums of the Moment

I've purchased a lot of music lately, both online and on my trip to Chicago (Reckless Records!).  I haven't even listened to all of it yet, but here are some quick notes on the stuff I've been playing most in the last week or two:

Jakob Bro - Balladeering
This Danish guitarist's album is like the perfect blend of a Bill Frisell album and a Paul Motian album, both of whom, not coincidentally, appear on it along with Lee Konitz and bassist Ben Street.  There's some great footage on YouTube from a making-of documentary that was included in a deluxe edition of the album.  This 2009 record is kind of hard to find in physical form, but it is on iTunes.  Konitz is one of those major figures I haven't paid enough attention to, but he has some absolutely sublime moments here.  He doesn't play on the album's first track, but his entrance on the gentle, almost children's-song-like "Evening Song" is one of the finest, most memorable moments of music I've heard all year.

Tim Berne Sextet - The Ancestors
An Amazon MP3 Store find for under $3, this is a live album with just 3 long tracks (two of which are Parts 1 & 2 of the same tune, presumably split when the album came out on vinyl).  There's some great Paul Motian on this album, including what may be one of his best (and longest?) solos on record.  I was walking the other night on Houston St., from the quieter western reaches heading east.  The Jakob Bro album ended just as I reached Broadway and the opening track of this ("Sirius B") was the ideal soundtrack for the nighttime bustle of Manhattan.

The Bad Plus - Never Stop
I listened to this walking around Chicago and it seemed to be giving me energy, like a musical battery (I would recommend a loop of the title track to marathoners-in-training).  Never Stop, more than just about anything else, made me thankful for my new headphones (Koss PortaPros) and their nice bass response (an exponential improvement over my old earbuds).  I'm sure Ethan Iverson and Dave King would sound good as a duo, but if you can't properly hear what Reid Anderson is playing on this album, you're not really listening to it.

Teenage Fanclub - Bandwagonesque
When I first got this album, it didn't quite click with me for some reason.  I really liked "Metal Baby" and was lukewarm on the rest.  Now, after seeing them live and relistening to this for the first time in years, I get it.  How could "The Concept" have eluded me (I didn't intend that as a pun)?  It still pales in comparison to the Fanclub's obvious inspiration, Big Star, but it gets a lot of things right and not much wrong.  I hear TF's music as taking "The Ballad of El Goodo" as its starting point - the power ballad side of Big Star.  They don't have the funkier, Memphis soul-derived aspects, or the sense of half-willfully teetering on the edge of madness and collapse that was part of both Chilton and Bell's natures.

Marc-Andre Hamelin - Etudes
After seeing Hamelin for the first time recently at Le Poisson Rouge, where he played a program of pieces from this, his latest record (the bulk of which is devoted to Hamelin's set of 12 etudes in each of the minor keys), there was no question that I had to have this music.  As a person who still struggles to read music, a quick look through the scores for the etudes (which was for sale at LPR) made me feel like a third-grader trying to make sense of Infinite Jest, but this is far from mere virtuoso show-off material.  Hamelin's music is melodically and harmonically rich and as finely and intricately layered as a piece of Louis Sullivan ornament (see my previous post).  Hamelin's ability to render all of these layers and strands so that they can be heard individually as well as part of the total composition may be a more impressive, and, for the listener, probably more valuable, skill than the sheer, incredible volume of notes he's able to produce in a given measure.  The etude that first grabbed me was No.7 (for the left hand alone), a gorgeous piece of music and, for obvious reasons, a feat of technique, but 8 (a musical setting of a Goethe poem) and 11 (a minuet) have also become early favorites (I expect that many, many more listens will be required to get to the bottom of this music).

One album I'm looking forward to is Volume II of Henry Threadgill's This Brings Us To, which I mention because I was just checking out Studs Terkel's 2005 book And They All Sang, which features a chapter on Threadgill.  In 2005, Terkel was 93.  A 93 year old man, who was 16 when his favorite jazz record, Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues", came out, was into Henry Threadgill.  Can you get any hipper than that?  [A day or so after writing the above, but before posting, I thought I spotted Threadgill outside Jazz Standard.  Presumably, he was there, as I was, to check out Apex.  For some reason, I feel compelled to use profanity to describe just how good this group sounded, so I'll at least keep it brief.  Two word review: sh*t hot.  And to expand on that: really f*cking good.]

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Chicago Notes, Part One: Midwestern Mystics

The Selected Ballads has been away for a while, partly due to a trip to Chicago.  Some notes from the Great Metropolis on the Prairie:

For the first time in several years, I revisited Millennium Park and the adjacent Art Institute.  Last time I was there, the Cloud Gate was being buffed to remove the seams between the individual mirror squares that make up the surface of the "bean".  Now, there's not a seam in sight, and one could almost believe the whole thing had been poured into a mold.  Looking again at Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion, I was thinking what a thrill it would be to stand in front of a big audience and unleash a highly amplified open E chord into that space. Has anyone ever asked Jeff Tweedy or Steve Malkmus about that?

If it does nothing else, Renzo Piano's addition to the Art Institute, the Modern Wing, provides a much-needed connection between the museum and Millennium Park, both at ground level and via a bridge that rises from park level to the 2nd floor of the new wing.  Fortunately, it's also a pretty nice piece of architecture - well-detailed, restrained in its use of a limited palette of colors and materials, and in harmony with both the park to the north and the main Institute building to the south (apparently, there are some problems, though).  A lot of care was taken to make the new wing energy-efficient, including the admittance of quite a bit of natural light, which actually made me realize that I prefer to feel a little less connected to the outdoors when looking at art in a museum.  Maybe it was the beautiful day I visited on, but the natural light entering (from the less art-damaging northern direction, as per Piano's design) the Modern Wing started to make me wish I was back outside, a feeling that disappeared once I was back in the main body of the Institute.

On the other side of the Institute, Dan Kiley's '60s-era South Garden may now be overshadowed by all the design action to the north, but it has aged well and remains a high point of Modernist landscape architecture.  Kiley's design sets up a simple grid, gets the grades, materials, and proportions right, and basically gets out of the way to let a by-now-mature grove of cockspur hawthorns create an environment quite apart from the nearby Loop.

Visiting the exhibit, Looking After Louis Sullivan, was a bit like going to church for me, as I consider myself an initiate in the great master's dualistic-mystic cult of organic-geometric architecture.  The show featured the work of four photographers, including the heroic martyr to architectural preservation, Richard Nickel, as well as some of Sullivan's own drawings.  Among these drawings, I spent a long time studying the incredibly intricate, pencil-drawn plates from A System of Architectural Ornament, According with a Philosophy of Man's Powers, a commissioned work completed near the end of Sullivan's life.  A diagram (titled "Manipulation of the Organic") showing how a relatively simple natural form like a leaf or a seed pod could, by following nature's example, be elaborated and abstracted into a complex piece of ornament, reminded me of some of the ideas of Sullivan's approximate contemporary Gaudi (an adjacent drawing, showing a similar process of elaboration with geometric forms, also had some resonance with Gaudi's work).  Just because both men took inspiration from the forms of plants and obsessively elaborated geometric forms doesn't mean they were aware of, or in any way influenced by, one another's work, but it's an intriguing possibility.

I also visited the Garfield Park Conservatory, one of the masterworks of another of my heroes, Sullivan's fellow Midwestern mystic, landscape architect Jens Jensen. The conservatory, and specifically its fern room, were recommended to me as a must-see masterpiece, but I had a hard time believing than an interior landscape could be in the same class as Jensen's great parks and gardens.  It is, though.  The fern room is a complete landscape, a complete work of art even, as meticulously thought out and calibrated for various effects as a traditional Japanese garden, but with more of a concern for hiding the hand of man.  The fern room is both an immersive, mist-shrouded prehistoric fantasy and a landscape composition that would reward close study.  This story, which is also summarized on a plaque in the fern room, gives a sense of Jensen and the perhaps more genteel times in which he practiced (whether or not the story is 100% factual hardly matters).

Monday, October 4, 2010

Learn English The Malkmus Way

I never really got into Pavement, so I've been pretty immune to the excitement generated by their reunion, but it does give me an excuse to share my one and only Pavement-related anecdote, which takes place in Beijing a few years ago.  My Chinese friend, who was driving me to the airport, had the radio tuned to a station that played English language lessons.  The lesson that was playing as I arrived at the terminal, and that made me wish I didn't have to get out of the car, was using as its text the lyrics to Pavement's "Cut Your Hair".  So, Pavement fans can take pride in the fact that potentially millions of people in China have been learning English via Steve Malkmus lyrics.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

On Belle & Sebastian & "Second Singers"

So, I saw Belle & Sebastian the other night for the first time since (get ready for it) 1998.  Their transformation as a live act in that time is a well-known story, so I won't belabor the point, but it would be fun to go back in time and try to convince people who were at the 40 Watt Club that night 12 years ago that someday Stuart Murdoch would be throwing out autographed (American) footballs to kids in the crowd and inviting fans up on stage to clap and dance with him.  In that time travel scenario, I'd also try to convince people that in a few years B&S would have a popular song about a Mets-Giants series and that, a few years after that, we'd have a black president. 

There are many things that could be said about Thursday night's fine, rain-defying performance (and Teenage Fanclub was good too - midtempo jangles, hey-thatsa-nice-distortion-pedal solos and Chiltonesque harmonies beautifully intact after all these years), but I want to focus on a tangential topic that I found myself thinking about after the show: a category of musician that I'll call, for lack of a better term, the "second singer".  Usually a key instrumentalist in the band, the second singer maybe sings a song or two per album and is clearly inferior, vocally, to the lead singer.  Sometimes though, as in the case of Belle & Sebastian's lead guitarist Stevie Jackson, the second singer may be a fan favorite, their songs often highlights of an album or show.  There's something about Jackson's slightly wobbly vocals on songs like "Seymour Stein" and "Jonathan David" (love those "name" songs) that slices right through my defenses, although it may just be a case (and I forget who's written about this phenomenon) of less polished vocals being perceived as more direct, honest, or sincere.  In the case of a pop song, though, I suppose the listener's perception is the only "reality" that matters.  I'm not sure I know what that last sentence means, but I do know that Jody Stephens' vocal on Big Star's "Way Out West" has a similar unaffected, yearning thing going on.

Other good, canonical examples of "second singers" are Dave Davies ("Death of a Clown", "Strangers") and Keith Richards ("You Got The Silver", "Happy").  There must be some other good ones that I'm forgetting about.  Mick Jones of The Clash almost works, but I think he's too strong a singer, maybe not quite "secondary" enough to qualify.  Same goes for Pete Townsend.  Moving away from rock, Bob Wills is an interesting case.  Even though he was the bandleader and the name attraction of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, he only occasionally sang lead, mostly sticking to fiddle and his trademark interjections and band member shout-outs.  He had a great, truly one-of-a-kind singing style, though, that was perfectly of a piece with the band's "clean hat, dirty boots", urbane-yet-downhome approach to the blues.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tarbaby at Jazz Gallery

After being shut out of some recent shows around town, I made sure to show up early at Jazz Gallery to check out Tarbaby.  It's a relatively small space and the group consisted of four of the heaviest hitters on the contemporary scene - Orrin Evans, Eric Revis, Nasheet Waits and Logan Richardson.  So, I was surprised to see empty seats, especially as I've seen the place packed for groups featuring some of the same personnel.  Maybe there was something else going on that night that I didn't know about, but the people that did have the taste and good sense to show seemed to be into the music.  One of the best spontaneous reactions someone can have to music is to laugh - not because they find the music funny, but because they're thrilled and astonished by what they've just heard.  It's a joyful thing, and not every musician can make it happen, but Tarbaby certainly can and does (they also get a lot of "WHOA!"s).

It's challenging for me to adequately describe this music, but looking at a couple of the musician/composers whose tunes they played (most of the set seemed to be originals), Don Cherry ("Awake Nu" from Where is Brooklyn? - it also appears on Tarbaby's first album) and Sam Rivers ("Unity"), both musicians who masterfully navigated (or perhaps, erased or ignored) the divides between in vs. out, free vs. composed/arranged, may at least give a sense of the spirit of this group.  Tarbaby excels at giving a free, on-the-edge feeling to a seemingly arranged piece, pulling a piece apart to the point of chaos before snapping it back together with awesome precision.  This is something that Jason Moran's Bandwagon (also - and probably not coincidentally - featuring Nasheet Waits, quite possibly the best drummer in New York City right now) specializes in, something which could perhaps even be considered one of the hallmarks of the best jazz being made today, a tenuous common thread in an era in which stylistic strands have diverged in innumerable directions.

Maybe someone has done this, but I would love to read a good article (even a book) covering the major approaches to composition that have developed in, say, the last twenty or thirty years, techniques that have evolved within common practice as well as totally individual systems (Henry Threadgill's, for instance).  Because this is where my knowledge and my ear often run up against their limits.  On some of Tarbaby's original tunes, there was obviously a head and the musicians were looking at some kind of a lead sheet, but it was hard for me to tell how much else was written out - was there a set number of bars before returning to the head? was there an arranged ending?  Not that this affected my enjoyment of the music - this was music to be felt in the moment and thought about later - but the impulse to understand more about the things we enjoy is a healthy one, I think.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hey There, Mr. Woodsy Pants

I'm not sure, but I think this Wall Street Journal article on jeans care is some kind of classic in the field of newspaper "lifestyle" reporting.  I won't give away all the good stuff, but you'll surely be interested to learn that a proper denim care regimen involves Dr. Bronner's soap, a "woodsy" potpourri sachet, and a little bit of good ol' fashioned sunshine.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Spirit of Al-Andalus, Between Two Slices of Bread

I recently finished reading Maria Rosa Menocal's The Ornament of the World, about the rise and fall of Al-Andalus.  Though it leaves readers to draw their own conclusions about its relevance to the modern world (with the book nearly ready for publication on Sept. 11, 2001, Menocal resisted the urge to make any changes to her text), the book clearly celebrates the cultural richness of medieval Spain as a product of religious tolerance and laments the fundamentalism (both Christian and Muslim) that brought this luminous era to a close.  Despite the fact that it was published eight years ago and deals mostly with Spain in the 10th to 14th centuries, it is literally difficult to think of a more topical read.

Sure, Al-Andalus had its Arabic-speaking Jewish warrior poets, its Muslim Aristotelians, its immortal works of architecture, but I'm proud to live in a city where one of the best places to get a Jewish deli sandwich is a Muslim-owned restaurant (that closes for Friday prayers) in a neighborhood synonymous with hip-hop culture.  If I was hungry enough, I might even say that this compares pretty favorably with the Alhambra as a work of art.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Some Thoughts On The Nilsson Doc

I finally got to see the long-time-in-the-making Harry Nilsson documentary, Who Is Harry Nilsson?, the other night.  Some lightly sifted thoughts:

This movie may be unmatched as an endless parade of bad teeth and embarrassing hair styles.  Some of the fashions on display betray the length of time it took to finish the movie - clearly, much of the interview footage had to wait several years before making it to the screen.  I'm sure some of the participants are as mortified by the way they look in this movie as I am by my high school yearbook photos.  Yes, Van Dyke, those jeans do make your butt look big.

Though not made with the skill of an Errol Morris, a D.A. Pennebaker, or even a Burns brother, I would've been happy to sit through this movie if it had run to the length (239 min) of Peter Bogdanovich's admirably workmanlike Tom Petty doc.  There's probably a sharper, more stylish movie to be made with this material, but as a Nilsson fan, I'll take what I can get and like it.

I was disappointed that one of my favorite Nilsson albums (and a great example of the Late Work As Neglected Gem genre, a genre I think I made up*), Knnillssonn, wasn't mentioned (although one or two songs from it made the soundtrack).  The story of its "comeback album" potential being squelched by the ill-timed death of Elvis (Harry's RCA labelmate) seems like it would've been an irresistible story for the filmmakers, but instead, the late RCA albums were glossed over as if they were all of a self-indulgent yet half-assed piece.

Speaking of underrated albums, I wanted to shout at the screen when Richard Perry started dissing Son of Schmilsson.  I love both of the Perry-produced Nilsson albums, but I've always preferred the rough edges of SoS over the more polished (but undeniably masterful) Nilsson Schmilsson.  Perry's interview footage is very revealing.  After "Without You" became a worldwide hit, he saw a wide open road of nothing but good times and platinum records ahead, but Harry grabbed the wheel and, like Neil Young at around the same time, steered into the ditch.  The footage of Harry with the pensioners' choir recording "I'd Rather Be Dead" undercuts Perry beautifully (the old folks get it, Richard!), though he would probably see it as indicative of Nilsson's growing self-indulgence. In any case, it makes me wish the SoS making-of documentary had been finished and released (it's not too late, of course).

Some of the best moments in the movie occurred, as one might expect, on the soundtrack.  Although Cinema Village must have some of the smallest screening rooms (calling them theaters seems a bit too grand) in New York, and the sound is nothing special, it was still a thrill to hear Harry's voice writ at least semi-large.  Due credit was given to his amazing self-harmonizing and overdubbing abilities and to the phrasing that he was forced to lean on after blowing out his voice during the Pussy Cats sessions.  I'd love to see something like the "Layla" mixing board scene from the Tom Dowd documentary done for one of the great, many-layered Nilsson vocal performances (though for calling attention to the artifice/magic of singing with yourself via studio technology, it would be hard to top his "three Harrys" BBC performance).

In summary: I'm not sure if this documentary is greater than the sum of its parts, in that I'd probably rather see a two-DVD set of Did Somebody Drop His Mouse? and The Music of Nilsson (if such a thing existed), but, for someone who's already a fan, there's more than enough good stuff here to justify the enterprise.

*Though, of course, the idea of artists having a distinct "late style" is a well-known one and can be useful as a lens/key to view/interpret difficult or neglected works in a new way.

Monday, September 13, 2010

This Is Weird

So, this morning I was eating a caffeinated candy bar from the Czech Republic that I received as a gift, and it reminded me of the Pixies' "Debaser".  The bar was called Shock, and I've always misheard the chorus to that song as "Shock! Andalusia!", a mishearing that has persisted even after I learned what the actual lyrics are.  Then, not more than a half hour after finishing the bar, "Debaser" comes on the radio, probably the first time I've heard it in a year or more.

Compared To What?

The next person who refers to Newt Gingrich as an "intellectual" should get smacked in the mouth with a Susan Sontag book.

Newt Gingrich is an intellectual like Justin Bieber is a headliner at the Gathering of the Juggalos.

Has a person ever become so willfully stupid that their PhD was voided?  I'm imagining a guy from Tulane showing up at Gingrich's office, removing the sheepskin from its frame, stamping a giant black VOID across it, and handing it back to him.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Recent Listening - Somewhat Lesser-Known Names From The Jazz Canon

A quick rundown of some albums I've been enjoying lately from the classic, "hard bop" era of the late '50s to early '60s (the exception, Hank Jones' I Remember You, was recorded in 1977 but is stylistically not too far removed from the earlier era):

Sonny Clark - Cool Struttin', Sonny Clark Trio, Sonny's Crib, and especially Leapin' & Lopin' (musicians on these four albums include Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Charlie Rouse, Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, Billy Higgins, Art Taylor, and Philly Joe Jones)

Hank Jones - I Remember You (recorded in France w/ George Duvivier and Oliver Jackson) and Relaxin' at Camarillo (w/ Belgian flautist Bobby Jaspar, Paul Chambers and Kenny Clarke)

Phineas Newborn, Jr. - We Three (w/ Paul Chambers and Roy Haynes - probably should be considered a leaderless or co-led session, but sometimes listed as a Roy Haynes album as his name is first on the cover)

Ike Quebec - Blue & Sentimental (w/ Grant Green, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones) and his exquisite (and apparently career reviving) solo on "Deep in a Dream" from Leapin' & Lopin'

If there's something like a common denominator here, other than the fact that all of the above artists are less well known than they deserve to be (though there was a small surge of interest in Hank Jones upon his death at age 91 and Sonny Clark has apparently always been big in Japan), it's Paul Chambers, who plays bass on six of the eight albums mentioned, in three instances with Philly Joe Jones (a pretty much unbeatable combination) and with three other all-time-great drummers (Art Taylor, Kenny Clarke, and Roy Haynes) on the other records.  Chambers is well-known for his work with Miles Davis and for playing on a million other classic sessions in a short but brilliant life (I love Charlie Haden's comments on him at the end of this interview), but George Duvivier's superb playing with Hank Jones caught me off guard because I wasn't as familiar with him.  I'd heard him on a few things, including records with Bud Powell and Eric Dolphy (along w/ Ron Carter on cello!), but hadn't paid him much mind until hearing I Remember You.  I guess there's never been a major surplus of world-class bassists, so it shouldn't be surprising that, like Hank Jones, Duvivier played with a wide range of musicians over a long career - still, it's a fun list, including Cab Calloway, Moondog, Janis Ian, Barry Manilow, and Tom Waits.

Re: my Sonny Clark binge, the undeniable-but-not-fully-explicable greatness of Leapin' & Lopin' is an interesting case.  When he recorded it, Clark was coming off a period of reduced musical activity (apparently due to his drug problem), and the band for the date consisted mostly of musicians who, while top-notch professionals, were a tier down from the big names on many of his previous albums.  Great as they may have been, Charlie Rouse and Butch Warren were not John Coltrane and Paul Chambers.  On paper, L&L seems like it would be a solid effort by an artist in premature decline, good but not up to previous standards.  In fact, it's probably one of the best records of its era, an era when classic records were being recorded on a weekly basis.  One of those records where, by some mysterious (chemical? alchemical?) process, everything came together.

Part of the record's success, obviously, has to do with the way that this group of musicians fit together (having Billy Higgins on drums is always a good start), but Clark's strong compositions, making up half the album, are also a big factor, especially the instantly memorable "Melody for C".  The aforementioned "Deep in a Dream" (why hasn't this standard been recorded more often?) is one of the archetypal romantic ballad performances.  Set slightly apart from the rest of the album, in its own smoky ether, by the substitution of Ike Quebec for Tommy Turrentine and Charlie Rouse, this track is the thing that puts this album in a special category for me.  Quebec's own Blue & Sentimental, one of the only albums from his post-Leapin' & Lopin' comeback era not to feature organ, is a very successful pairing of old skool tenor (hearkening back to the pre-bop, Hawkins/Young/Webster era while looking forward to the soul jazz trend) with some then state-of-the-art talent in Grant Green and Chambers/Jones.  It's a moody, enveloping listen and leaves me wanting to hear more Grant Green (I've got my eye on this in particular).

Friday, September 3, 2010

Werk It, Etc

Found this great proto-Neu! Kraftwerk track (don't be scared off by the crazy "intro" - the pounding, stomping badassness starts to kick in a little after 1:30) while checking out this actual Neu! track from this list (one man's impressive attempt to construct a sort of personal Billboard chart).

The list also reminded me of something of which it is very salutary to be reminded: Glenn Danzig's delivery of the word "bitch" (or syllable, if you prefer to think of "sonuvabitch" as one word) in "Where Eagles Dare".  To properly represent how he sings it would require phonetic markings that I don't know how to do in HTML and don't understand anyway, but it's what makes the song for me, somehow encapsulating an entire attitude/point-of-view/way-of-being in the delivery of one word.

And how was I not previously aware of The Embarassment? (Don't miss the beer-chucking live version!  I love everything about this video, including the MC Escher wallpaper.)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ride A White Swan (Update)

A few months ago I linked, not without skepticism, to a report that one of The Selected Ballads' favorite writers, the great, underappreciated-in-America Iain Sinclair, was collaborating on a project that somehow involved the 2012 Olympic site and a river journey by pedal-driven swan boat.  Not being familiar with his collaborator, filmmaker/artist Andrew Kötting, it seemed too strange to be true. Now, it turns out there's online documentation [via] that it really happened, though the photo of Sinclair and Kötting in their swan boat being lowered into the water by helicopter is almost enough to make me start doubting the whole thing all over again.  More documentation, some of it via pinhole camera, on the impressively pseudonymed Anonymous Bosch's Flickr (his non-swan-related photos of London and Londoners are also well worth a look).

As fanciful as the project still seems, it makes more sense to me after finishing Sinclair's latest book, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, in which the swan is something of a motif, a recurring and shifting symbol or totem.  There's swan graffiti, a gory swan massacre, and even the mysterious Dr. Swan (aka Swanny), a seedy character who Sinclair tracks through a Hackney underworld (one of many underworlds Sinclair explores, including the Hackney Mole Man's literal one) of day-drinkers, self-medicating doctors, and disgraced morgue attendants haunting abandoned hospitals.

Monday, August 30, 2010

When The Right Singer Finds The Right Song...

...there's no doubt.  Jeff Tweedy, who played on one of the finest CCR covers ever recorded, is now part of another one. [via]

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, [insert pianist here]

My recent acquisition of the Geri Allen-Charlie Haden-Paul Motian album In the Year of the Dragon got me wondering, how many Haden-Motian piano trio sessions are out there?  With the help of some online discographies, I've come up with the following (I put an asterisk* by the ones I've heard):

w/ Keith Jarrett:
Life Between the Exit Signs
Somewhere Before
Mourning of a Star

w/ Geri Allen:
In the Year of the Dragon*
The Montreal Tapes
Live at the Village Vanguard

w/ Gonzalo Rubalcaba:
The Montreal Tapes*
Discovery: Live at Montreux

w/ Enrico Pieranunzi:
Special Encounter*

w/ Paul Bley:
The Montreal Tapes

If anybody reading this knows of any I've missed, please let me know in the comments section, because the ones I've heard so far have me wanting to "collect the set". 

Haden and Motian established themselves as one of the great one-two bass-drum punches as members of Keith Jarrett's "American Quartet" (presumably continuing the work they began on the Jarrett trio dates, which I haven't yet heard), but with the Bley and Allen collaborations, they made a strong case for themselves as the go-to partners for pianists with strong, slightly off-kilter musical personalities.  In the Year of the Dragon is an ideal piano trio record: beautifully equilateral, with all three musicians contributing compositions and continually pushing the others out onto the improvisational edge, where these players thrive.  Sounds, tunes, ideas jump off the record.  Lesser piano trios can slip into an undifferentiated, though polished, beige haze.  Geri Allen is allergic to beige, and Haden and Motian are at their best working with bolder colors. The only other Allen-Haden-Motian trio record I've heard, Etudes, is at least the equal of Dragon and gets to some different places stylistically (including a very memorable take on Herbie Nichols' "Shuffle Montgomery").

After a few listens, I haven't quite been able to get a bead on the Pieranunzi (Special Encounter).  It's safe to say that he's operating on a high level in the flowing/European classical-influenced/Bill Evans line.  There's beauty here, but I haven't dug deep enough yet to see what else is going on.  I can unhesitatingly recommend another Haden-Pieranunzi session, Silence, with Billy Higgins and Chet Baker* (the only time they appeared together on record?) sounding surprisingly great together.

Since writing the above, I've picked up the Montreal Tapes with Gonzalo Rubalcaba.  The Cuban pianist must have been in his mid-twenties at the time of this live recording, and he plays with exuberance and a kind of personal, idiosyncratic virtuosity.  The track list on this live set (part of a series of Haden discs, all recorded in 1989, that I'd like to get more of) has no real low points, but finishes particularly strong with three familiar but extremely welcome selections: "Silence", one of Haden's most beautiful compositions and one he's returned to often; Ornette's early gem "The Blessing", a great fit for this trio and a tune Haden had played on 30 years prior at the Hillcrest with Paul Bley; and "Solar", the Miles tune that's been recorded by several great pianists, starting (as far as I know) with Bill Evans at the Vanguard.  If I was going to make any criticism of this excellent album, it would be that it doesn't quite achieve the superb three-way balance of the trio with Allen. I don't know if this holds true of this trio's other records, but Rubalcaba and Haden seem to be in the fore, slightly overshadowing Motian, though he gets his licks in and is more than solid throughout.

One trio I'd like to hear is Haden and Motian with Ethan Iverson, who has often expressed his love for, and debt to, the Jarrett American Quartet.  As far as I know, they haven't recorded and I missed their run at the Vanguard in '08 (though I have seen Iverson and Haden as a duo). In fact, it was Iverson's recent, exhaustive piece on Ron Carter-Tony Williams trio sessions that inspired me to finally finish this piece that I've had sitting around in draft form for months.  Iverson refers to Carter-Williams as "the Rolls Royce", which begs the question of what to call the high-performance machine that was Reid Anderson and Nasheet Waits at Small's earlier this month with Iverson and Mark Turner.

*The idea I had of late-period Chet Baker, previously informed almost exclusively by the Let's Get Lost soundtrack, had to be recalibrated after hearing Silence.  Baker here doesn't sound anything like the mythical burnt-out junkie, slouching through Europe toward an increasingly inevitable death.  He's swinging, floating along, sounding like he's glad to be in such good company.  Even though Haden is the nominal leader, it's Higgins that sets the tone, his joyful playing ruling out the possibility of any musical moping.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Four Things Found On The Internet

This photo book, from Thurston Moore's new publishing concern and featuring the work of former Village Voice photographer James Hamilton, looks like it could be some kind of milestone in the photos-of-musicians genre.  That Johnny Rotten photo!  He looks downright huggable, almost angelic. [via]

The limited exposure I've had to Tao Lin's work (like the majority of the small minority of people who've heard of him, I have a greater familiarity with his self-promotional stunts and shenanigans than his writing) has left me intrigued but a bit doubtful of the success (in literary terms) of his admittedly distinctive project.  I didn't really "enjoy" but was at least semi-engrossed by his recent account of being arrested for "trespassing" at NYU, but this piece in Canteen is a pretty impressive literary performance, bordering on heroic feat of sustained concentration (actually, I think "heroic feat of sustained concentration" might more accurately describe the act of reading the piece).  I hate to go here, but it did remind me a little bit of a DFW footnote (like, say, some of the longer ones in Brief Interviews) in its "how long can he keep this up?"-ness.

I'm glad somebody (Ben Ratliff, though there are probably others by now) has written about the "new" (1940) Savory recording of "Body and Soul", a sample of which was posted by the Times yesterday.  I don't really have enough knowledge of the state of jazz saxophone circa 1940 to know just how far ahead of its time Hawkins' playing is in this sample, but it seems like he's making some pretty strikingly radical choices here.  The playing is so much more modern-sounding than the recording that it produces an exciting friction (frisson?) - there must be a good analogy, but I can't come up with it.  It's not like he's into Dolphy territory exactly, but it's hard to believe anybody else was playing like this 70 years ago.  It's also hard to believe that I'm posting about a 47-second sample of something.  Obviously, I'm eager to hear the whole thing.

And last but far from least, rare foulmouth Elvis blues (with commentary by Nick Tosches!).  The Hound should be declared King of the Internet, at least for today, for posting this.  Go listen before somebody makes him take it down.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Chew On This

Am I crazy, or is this new group Woodworms trying to pass off a boiled-down pastiche of Konono No. 1, Andrew Hill's Compulsion, and Darin Gray's St. Louis Shuffle as an original concept?  So derivative.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Look Into The Gorilla's Eyes

Recently came across Spanish photographer Amparo Garrido's website and was especially taken with her photos of dogs and gorillas, putting me in mind of Werner Herzog's quote (which I can't find or remember precisely - was it from Grizzly Man or Burden of Dreams?) about how your beloved family pet would be quite willing to kill you for food if it came to that.  In trying unsuccessfully to find the Herzog quote, I discovered that at least two people on Flickr have cats named for the great director.  Unsurprisingly, both cats appear to be Brooklyn residents.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Stranger Than Fiction

The John Lurie piece in the new New Yorker is really something.  One of those (less than weekly) occasions when I'm glad the Selected Ballads household has a New Yorker subscription. 

I may have been primed for the which-one-is-crazier story of Lurie and his friend/stalker by having just finished John Gilmore's Hollywood memoir Laid Bare, in which fame and its frequent companion self-destruction are major themes.  I might do a post of some of my favorite quotes from Laid Bare, which will certainly include the description of Dennis Hopper as "a goat in Miss Tweedle-dum's parlor". 

If you haven't already seen it, you've probably at least had someone recommend it to you, but I can't let a post mentioning John Lurie and Dennis Hopper end without urging you to rent, buy, or YouTube Lurie's Fishing With John.  Or, at a minimum, the legendary Tom Waits "fish in his pants" episode.

Monday, August 9, 2010

"Wes Anderson Sucks, Spike Jonze Sucks..."

Could this Vincent Gallo interview be the inspiration for the instant classic Scharpling-Wurster "Sucks" bit from the Best Show on WMFU?  Check out Part 1 of the Gallo interview starting at around 14:08 and decide for yourself. [Gallo interview via].

The Best Show episode in question (from 7/6/10) is archived here.  Even funnier to me than the ten-minute-long list of "sucks" novelty records was the list of Newbridge-area power pop bands recorded by Wurster's strangely principled audio engineer:

Lovely Boys
The Bill Bixbys
The Craigs
Sherbet Falls
The Album
[a name I couldn't make out - Wurster almost loses it as this point]
I Love You The Ghost of Andrew Davis
Bam Bam
The Resistance (a "white power pop" band that sounded like "the Rubinoos fronted by Goebbels")

I really want to start a band called The Craigs.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

New Wave Jet Age

It looks like this appeared a few years ago, but I've just discovered a very cool thing: old issues of St. Louis new wave/punk/pop/rock'n'roll 'zine Jet Lag available online with commentary by co-founder (and longtime community radio DJ) Steve Pick.  Highlights are too numerous to mention - just starting browsing anywhere - but I was particularly intrigued by Beatle Bob interviewing Chuck Berry (and giving him a sort of "blindfold test") in issue #7.  Check out Pick's commentary on this issue in the blog - apparently, there's been some speculation about the authenticity of the interview, given B-Bob's occasional willingness to sacrifice truth on the altar of rock'n'roll.  (If I haven't done so before, I'd like to state that, on the divisive issue of Beatle Bob, I am firmly in the pro-Bob camp.  As a general rule, it's good to be in the same camp as Robert Pollard.) 

Sunday, August 1, 2010

? & The Mysterians @ Damrosch Park, 7/31/10

F**k yoga, I wanna get on whatever health and fitness regime ? (of ? & The Mysterians) is on.  Unless it's yoga, in which case I will start doing yoga.

"96 Tears" came out 44 years ago, and these guys are still killin' it.  Of course, maybe in Martian years, ? is still the young man that his on-stage energy (the man can dance!) makes him seem to be.  Rock'n'roll.

Bonus Links
Check out this Flickr set of the Lincoln Center gig (w/ Ronnie Spector joining in on "96 Tears"!!!)
What the photos don't capture is the blinding light that was coming off ?'s sequined outfit

And don't miss the Hound's ? post, including a good comments section

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Links of the Day

I used to live a couple blocks from this place.  Walked by a million times.  Never went in.  This makes me realize that my decision-making was sound.  


[Both via The Awl]

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Marginal Note Re: Missed Opportunities

Good Lord.  I was in the Strand last week, having a grand old time browsing, thinking a bit about the recently departed Strand habitue David Markson, and I had no idea that big, annotated chunks of Markson's personal library were for sale all around me.  David Markson's copy of Tristram Shandy, $5.  Sh*t.  It's not so much that I regret missing out on buying these books.  Though it would be a cool thing to own a book from the library of a writer I admire very much, it might feel a bit ghoulish to go bargain hunting for a dead man's possessions.  What I regret is missing out on the thrill/chill I would have experienced in pulling a book off the shelf at the Strand, looking inside, and realizing it had belonged to David Markson.

[Update: HTMLGiant, as expected, is all over this thing. And in the comments to that second post, I noticed that there's a Facebook group for people who've acquired Markson's books, a virtual reassemblage of his library.]

Of Film Diaries & Biopics, Philosophers, Aliens, and Prog Keyboardists

Good interview with London writer and Selected Ballads favorite Iain Sinclair here [via].  The video, a sort-of guided tour of Hackney with Sinclair, is the real highlight, and a must-see if you're a fan, as it includes bits of his 8mm film diary from the '60s and '70s.  I really want to see more of this footage.  Maybe someone could collaborate with Sinclair on editing a couple hours of highlights from the diary, fly him over, and screen it at Anthology Film Archives (with live narration?).

Speaking of Anthology, their Anti-Biopic series (in its final week) was a brilliant idea well executed.  I've seen only two of the films so far, Ken Russell's over-the-top-of-the-top Lisztomania and Derek Jarman's cerebral, irreverent, and altogether engrossing Wittgenstein, but the impressive range of the series and the film knowledge that went into putting it together is clear from just reading through the program.  With Roger Daltrey (as Liszt), Ringo (as the Pope), and Rick Wakeman (as an Aryan FrankenThor - you just have to see it - and the man responsible for the soundtrack), Lisztomania makes Tommy seem restrained, as if Pete Townsend's conception was holding Russell back from really letting his freak flag fly.  Lisztomania is as quintessential a '70s movie as any of the gritty, realistic Dog Day Afternoons that are now so associated with that decade.  [Update: I just saw that Lincoln Center is about to kick off a Russell retrospective, including appearances from the master himself.]

Wittgenstein, the biography of a notoriously difficult-to-understand (and yet highly quotable) philosopher filmed against a black backdrop, could have easily been as dry as Lisztomania is juicy.  Though it runs at a decidedly cooler temperature, Jarman's film has its fair share of sex and eccentricity, integrated with, rather than providing relief from, the philosophy at the core of the story.  The most memorable example of this integration is the glockenspiel-playing "little green man" from outer space who engages the young Wittgenstein in a philosophical dialogue.  Had this dialogue been set in a Greek temple with phallus-shaped columns and scored with some wicked prog synth, it would've been worthy of Ken Russell.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Roundup of Recent Live Music, Part Two

Marty Ehrlich (4 Altos) at The Stone

I'd been wanting to catch Marty Ehrlich live for some time, especially after reading about him in Point From Which Creation Begins, the history of St. Louis' Black Artists Group, the crucible/wellspring for so much of the most vital creative music of the '70s and '80s.  BAG has often been overlooked in the shadow of Chicago's AACM, with which it was allied, but if you start tracing its influence and look at all that its members went on to do, its historical importance becomes clear.

Ehrlich was a friend and protege of Julius Hemphill, having become involved in the BAG scene as a - clearly very hip - teenager.  Besides the remaining founders of the still-mighty World Saxophone Quartet, Ehrlich must be considered the primary torch carrier and further-er of Hemphill's work composing for multi-saxophone ensembles - it sounds like a weird niche, but Hemphill, and now Ehrlich, have made it into a legitimate and strong branch of jazz practice.  I'm no composer or scholar of classical music, but I imagine this kind of writing must have similarities to writing for string quartet.  There is a chamber quality to the 4 Altos music (and for those unfamiliar with the group, their name accurately describes their lineup, four alto saxophones and nothing else), something intimate and cerebral but still powerful on an emotional/visceral level.  At The Stone, the group debuted some new Ehrlich compositions, and not having been familiar with any of this group's music, I thought the new compositions might've been the best of the set - one called "Starlets" was a particular standout.

Jason Moran, Mary Halvorson, Ron Miles at Jazz Standard

There's a Willa Wonka boat trip quality to the experience of seeing this trio - a wild ride ("there's no earthy way of knowing/ which direction we are going") in congenial company.  Listing some of the composers that made up their program -  Paul Motian, Bill Frisell, Conlon Nancarrow, David Bowie - only gives a hint of this group's range.  I was thinking before the set that I've heard Moran, either live or on record, play just about everything, from James P. Johnson to Schumann to Afrika Bambaataa (actually, that's all just one album), but I hadn't ever heard him touch on rock (though I suppose "Planet Rock" does have a rock, or at least Krautrock, foundation).  I wasn't surprised to hear him take an excursion in this direction, but wouldn't have expected him to choose as his vehicle the last track on Diamond Dogs. "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family", as it turns out, has a groove well-suited for this group to inhabit and expand, adding dimensions surely never anticipated even by its forward-looking composer, and affording Halvorson the opportunity to engage in what could be described, if one was so inclined, as righteous riffage and shredding.

I was pleased to see the continued proliferation of Paul Motian compositions outside of the drummer's own gigs. The music seems to be spreading in a hand-to-hand way, as younger musicians who have played with Motian (a large and constantly expanding group) add his tunes to the repertoires of their own groups.  The Frisell tune (might've been from Richter 858?), besides being a lovely set closer, was an invitation to think about the distinct places Halvorson and Frisell have carved out for themselves in the realm of contemporary improvised guitar.  Halvorson did play some Frisell-ish reverb-y chords before moving into her more characteristic single-note-dominated attack.  And like Frisell, Halvorson is a skillful and creative user of electronics in her playing, but she uses different effects to different effect, often to warp the notes of her already unlikely lines.  Halvorson's tone can at first sound almost like an anti-tone to ears accustomed to amp-, pedal-, and tube-obsessed, tone-chasing rock guitarists.  It sounds deceptively "natural", just the sound of a big Guild plugged into a clean Fender amp, but the sound is surely tweaked and deliberately crafted for the effect it achieves, which is to make you listen, and to make each note distinct (except when she chooses to digitally twist or smear them).

I feel a little guilty about wrapping this up without even touching on Ron Miles' fine playing (on G trumpet, I believe), but I'll just say that this is another rarely-convening group that I would love to see record, live or in studio.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tweet 'n' 'Shine - Two Brief Items

Two of my favorite recent @jonwurster tweets (and I realize that "retweeting" via a blog is like transcribing a TV show with a telegraph):

I feel my English skills are @ a level where I'm ready to help others. Please contact me if you or someone you no is in need of tootering.

If I could know the answer to 1 question it would be: Has there ever been a guy so into rockabilly he refused modern medical help and died?

Kudos to Dave Bry at the Awl for correctly identifying (and embedding - scroll to the bottom) the best version of "Moonshiner".

Just realized that these are not, as I'd first thought, totally unrelated items, as Wurster has recorded and toured with Jay Farrar.

Discovering Prine

After reading about the strange-but-true Roger Ebert-Sex Pistols connection, I shouldn't have been surprised to learn that Ebert is responsible for another footnote in music history: he wrote the first review John Prine ever received.  Though his beat was movies, Ebert broke the story on the emergence of one of the Great American Songwriters.  His post about it is several months old, but I just came across it a few days ago.  It contains the original review, which came so early in Prine's career that he seemed not to have settled on final titles for some of what would become his most famous songs ("Sam Stone", for example, was apparently called "The Great Society Conflict Veteran's Blues"!).

I've had the pleasure of being bowled over by some brilliant performances that I was in no way prepared for, but I'm trying to imagine what it would be like to walk into a club with no expectations and hear "Sam Stone" for the first time.  And then "Angel From Montgomery".
Bonus Links
Swamp Dogg's cover of "Sam Stone" (if it's possible for a knife to the gut to be transcendent, then that's what this is)
Susan Cowsill and Brian Henneman doing "Angel From Montgomery"

Bonus Commentary
Armond White's recent comments about Ebert ("I think he does not have the training.  I've got the training" "I'm a pedigreed film critic") remind me of the old, intermittently funny syndicated public radio character, Dr. Science, whose catchphrase was "I have a Masters science!"  I've never thought about this before, but I wonder if Dr. Science was an inspiration for noted public radio fan John Hodgman's "expert" persona.