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.