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.