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 Degree...in 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.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I'm Assuming There Are No Wooden Puppets In Inception

All this talk about Inception and the way dreams are portrayed or used as plot devices in movies reminds me of the most dream-like movie I've ever seen, Jan Svankmajer's Faust.  It's not about dreams, and there are no "dream sequences", but it feels the way a dream feels.  The logic, the rhythm, the repetitions of certain actions, all seem more akin to a dream than to a mainstream movie, as if Svankmajer replaced conventional film grammar with dream grammar.  There's something about the way stairs are used in Faust that is key to its convincing dream-ness, but I don't think I could explain that without seeing it again, if even then.  Thinking about how images, scenes and, most of all, the feeling of the thing have persisted in my mind, coming to the surface with surprising frequency, it's hard for me to believe that I've seen it only once, in or around 1998.  I like the form it has, the place it inhabits, in my memory, and I'm a little afraid of the way a second viewing might alter that.

As a side note, another thing I remember about that screening (here comes some name-dropping) is that Jeff Mangum and a bunch of the Elephant 6/Orange Twin gang were there.  They all showed up together in a van.  Which, now that I'm typing it, kind of sounds like a dream I would've had.  But that, kids (here comes some nostalgia), was Athens, Georgia in the late '90s.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Useful Tip From Ted Leo

The phrase "leaving it all onstage" was coined for performers like Ted Leo.  I was in the audience the night in 2003 when, unfortunately, his voice was one of the things he left onstage, partway through a set in Urbana, IL, the resulting strained vocal cords forcing him to cancel several tour dates.  He did his damndest, though, to give us our money's worth, and I think everyone came away from the show admiring the effort he made.  He's always a very high energy, "on" performer, and thanks to the food diary he just wrote for New York Magazine, his secret is out:

"It's a really good, quick pick-me-up: mix, say, two fingers of Jameson, a packet of Emergen-C, and a dash of hot sauce. You're best off doing the orange or tangerine flavors; anything else doesn't work so well. It's not the tastiest thing in the world, but it gets the job done."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Drummers, Trios

I'm probably way behind on this, but I recently found out that there's a trio featuring drummers Eric McPherson and Nasheet Waits (the other member is Abraham Burton on tenor).   As it happens, these are also the drummers on two new piano trio albums that I've been listening to a lot lately, Fred Hersch's Whirl (McPherson) and Jason Moran's Ten (Waits).  Whirl and Ten really showcase Hersch and Moran's strengths, with major, distinctive, and highly collaborative contributions from McPherson and Waits.  Both of these albums would be excellent "start here" recommendations for new listeners, which is saying something considering that both Hersch and Moran have extensive catalogs (especially Hersch, who, as far as I can tell, has put out close to 30 discs as a leader).  If you hadn't heard a note of their music, these new albums would give you a pretty clear idea of what these guys are about.

Bonus Links
Waits gives an insightful tour through the Max Roach discography, along with some personal reminiscences, here.  Unless you are some kind of world-class percussion master or scholar, you will learn some things about drums reading this.  After I read it, I was inspired to pick up a couple of Max Roach albums from a vendor at the Brooklyn Flea on Saturday, The Max Roach 4 Plays Charlie Parker and The Many Sides of Max Roach.  They were from a cheap, not attractively packaged, reissue series, but they sound OK and the music is definitely more than OK.  Many Sides is perhaps the more interesting recording.  There's no way for Max Roach Plays Charlie Parker to improve on Max Roach playing with Charlie Parker (even with Kenny Dorham on the session); Many Sides has Booker Little on trumpet and a nicely eclectic group of compositions, including tunes by Bill (father of Spike, bassist on Bringing It All Back Home) Lee, a young Muhal Richard Abrams (so young that he's referred to as just Richard Abrams on the sleeve), and Consuela (aunt of Spike) Lee Morehead.

Yesterday Was Thoreau's Birthday

[Note: I did not realize it was Thoreau's birthday at the time the following incident occurred.]

Last night, I saw a small fly on my closet door.  I picked up the nearest book to swat it.  Then I realized that the book I was holding, the book I was about to kill the fly with, was Walden.  This doesn't feel right, I thought.  So, I put the book down, picked up a copy of the Brooklyn Rail that was lying nearby, and killed the fly with that.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Roundup of Recent Live Music, Part One

Oliver Lake Organ Quartet at Jazz Gallery

I hate to use such a hacky analogy, but hearing Oliver Lake's version of "organ jazz" was like eating an updated version of a classic dish by a master chef.  Maybe a dish that was popular in the '60s and '70s and has since fallen out of fashion (Steak Diane?).  The brilliance in the reinterpretation is that it still has the taste of the original, but there are different elements, and just more of something, but it's all so well-integrated that you find yourself savoring the overall effect, the pleasure of it, instead of trying to identify all the ingredients. I don't think it would be inaccurate to use the terms groove, blues, funk, or hard bop to describe aspects of the quartet's music, but there is still the vital avant-garde streak that one would expect from an Oliver Lake group, mainly apparent in the leader's own alto playing.  Rather than try to put a label on this group and its music, I'll just defer to this fine, concise description (of their new album, Plan) from Lake's website, "Oliver with three young cats exploring a whole new language together".

As a sidenote, I recently discovered that there is an Oliver Lake, as in a body of water, in Indiana.  Sounds like a great setting for a jazz festival.  I was also excited to discover that Oliver Lake has a Twitter.

The New Pornographers w/ the Dodos and the Dutchess & the Duke at Terminal 5

I've seen the New Pornographers several times, and they always impress.  One thing I've only noticed recently, though, and especially at this show, is how Dan Bejar's songs, which often start out sounding like the odd men out, the square pegs, on a new NPs album, have gradually become my favorites.  And, judging by the crowd at Terminal 5, I'm not alone.  Every time DB took the stage (a few times to the strains of Darth Vader's "Imperial March", to his almost totally imperceptible, and perhaps non-existent, amusement) and stepped to the microphone, it meant it was time for a show highlight.  Of course "Myriad Harbor" was going to be a crowd pleaser - New Yorkers' love of self-celebration is well-known - but I'd forgotten what a MF'er "Jackie Dressed in Cobras" is.

The Dodos must surely be the only acoustic guitar/vibes/drums (and sometimes acoustic guitar/drums/drums) trio ever, and their sound is even more rhythm-dominated than you'd except from that lineup.  Meric Long is a very percussive guitar player, though he can and does get more single-note "picky" and melodic in certain songs, and the vibes function more as a tuned rhythm instrument (they are technically percussion, after all) than as a melody/solo voice.  Also, Long yelps a lot as punctuation, another percussive element.  I appreciate what this band is doing on a conceptual/intellectual level, but haven't really warmed to them.

By my estimation, the Dutchess and the Duke's music is about 50% based on their ragged-but-right, unique-but-familiar vocal blend, 35% on their folky, vaguely roots/Southern/country-filtered-through-the-British-invasion sense of melody, and 15% on their rudimentary-but-evocative electric guitar playing, so that it wasn't a big deal that they had to bring along a substitute guitarist due to a hand injury.  D&D have created a wonderful sound world, and I'd love to see them as headliners in a small club (they played Union Hall in Brooklyn earlier this year, but I missed it).  Also, I finally caught up with their second (and latest) album, Sunrise/Sunset, after seeing them live, and I expect I'll be returning to it more often than their (very strong) debut.  The first was bare bones basic; this one adds a bit of orchestration/arrangement/production, but still feels winningly modest and homemade.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Finally got around to seeing Beeswax.  I liked both of Andrew Bujalski's previous films and will continue to see whatever he puts out until such time as he starts making end-of-days thrillers with Nic Cage (actually not sure I wouldn't see a Bujalski-Cage joint).  I don't know if Beeswax is my favorite Bujalski (I'd have to rewatch the others to be sure), but it does clearly represent another step forward in his development as a director.

Beeswax made me think about Bujalski's approach to comedy, so low-key as to be almost unrecognizable as such.  I found myself thinking "that was really funny" a lot, but only laughing (or, really, half-chuckling) a couple of times.  And even then, there wasn't a clear sense that the scenes or lines or moments I found funny were intended to be funny.  I suspected that most of them were, but there was no way to be sure, and certainly no "laugh here" cues.  That's the kind of sub-sub-level Bujalski is working on, but even so, I think Beeswax is, in essence, a successful comedy.

Although the primary pleasure I found in Beeswax was simply watching the two (real life and movie) sisters, Maggie and Tilly Hatcher, especially their reactions and facial expressions, there was a satisfying, and perhaps surprising, wholeness (artistic unity?) to the film that suggests that Bujalski has matured into something of a young master.  His ambitions may seem small, bafflingly so to some viewers, but he seems to have reached the point of being in complete command of his art.  You may not know where he's going, or why, in Beeswax, but if you pay attention, you can tell that he's guiding the action with a sure, confident hand.

Who(se building) You Callin' Ugly?!?

Wow, the AIA just got smacked down really hard for calling the New York Times building NYC's ugliest.  Meanwhile, I enjoyed reading the results of Vanity Fair's architecture survey, which includes some praise for the Times building. Knowing what everyone knows about architects and their egos, I shouldn't have been surprised by how many of the architects polled voted for their own buildings, but I was still a little surprised by how many of the architects polled voted for their own buildings. Self-promotion is part of the job, though, especially ITE*.

*in this economy