Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Recent Live Music - Run Up to Year's End

I'm hoping to put together a year-end list of the best live music I saw in 2011, but in the meantime, here are a few notes on the most recent shows I've seen:

Jason Moran/Mark Helias/Tom Rainey at the Stone
As far as I know, this was the first outing for this trio, although Helias and Rainey have played together with Tony Malaby and others. Before they started, Moran said something about looking forward to the "conversation" that was about to take place, and it turned out to be a profound one. The trio's version of Paul Motian's "Once Around The Park" was nothing like any Motian version I've heard and proved once again how rich with possibility his compositions are for contemporary improvisers. The set ended with that most joyous of blues, the "St. Louis Blues" (the 2nd time I've heard it played this year - Bill Frisell's trio back in April was the first), a perfect showcase for Moran's thorough, Jaki Byard-influenced, recombinatory command of decades of jazz piano idiom.

Kermit Driscoll/Bill Frisell/Kris Davis/John Hollenbeck at Cornelia St. Cafe
Without a doubt, the highlight of this set for me was a rhythmically reworked version of Frisell's "Lookout For Hope" that started with Davis emulating on piano the effect Frisell sometimes gets by placing a music box mechanism up to his guitar pickup and ended with Frisell playing a straight-outta-Revolver backwards guitar solo via one of his effects pedals. In between, Hollenbeck and Driscoll chopped up the rhythm, turning one of Frisell's older and more familiar tunes into a new (but still recognizable) entity.

I've been meaning to check out more of Davis' music since seeing her with the SIM (School for Improvised Music) Big Band earlier this year. That band (packed with notable downtown/Brooklyn figures) played impressive compositions by several of its members, but I thought Davis' was far and away the best.

Billy Hart/Mark Turner/Ethan Iverson/Ben Street at Dizzy's (JALC)
I'd only seen Billy Hart previously with The Cookers, but knowing some of his records and his reputation, I was excited to see him with his main quartet of recent years, which includes some of the best mid-career musicians (veterans but not yet elders) in New York (or anywhere). Hart seems to be a very interactive drummer, listening and responding, seemingly concerned with supporting each of the other members of the group while also keeping the music fresh and in-the-moment. I particularly enjoyed his interactions with Iverson during the piano solos, which made for some of the most on-the-edge exciting moments of the set. I really need to get some of the recordings this quartet has done.

Though I'd been to the Rose Theater, this was my first time at Dizzy's (I feel silly typing the rest of the name, "Club Coca-Cola"), the club-sized venue at Jazz at Lincoln Center. It's clear that they took advantage of the opportunity to design a jazz club from scratch, resulting in a comfortable, rational layout with elbow room and good sightlines, basic elements that are often lacking in older clubs that came into being more "organically".

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Paul Motian

I haven't tried to tally it up, but I may have written more about Paul Motian's music on this blog than any other subject. Before I moved to New York City, I'd heard him on records but it wasn't until I saw him live a couple times that I really got hooked on his music. Writing about it was a way of trying to understand what made me keep coming back (I tried to see at least one set whenever Motian played a week at the Vanguard). While I'm very sad I won't be able to see him play anymore, I plan to continue picking up his records and others that he played on (his latest, Windmills of My Mind, and Bill McHenry's Ghosts of the Sun will probably be the next ones I get), and I'll keep trying to get to the bottom of why his music has such a hold on me.

Here are links to my Motian-related posts. Looking back, a lot of the writing is not so hot (and my thoughts on Motian are sometimes followed by reviews of bakeries?!), and I don't think I really got to the bottom of what appeals to me so much about the sound world Motian was able to create each time he stepped onstage (or into a recording studio), but these pieces are interesting to me at least as a scrapbook of the man whose music enriched my life over the past few years:

Trio 3 in 1 (w/ Jason Moran and Chris Potter) from the week they recorded Lost in a Dream
A quote I really love from an interview with Motian
Motian-Lovano-Frisell in 2009
Motian plays in the Fred Hersch Trio - a meeting of two of my absolute favorites
An anomaly for one of Motian's records
A Motian-related dream
On Motian's many great collaborations w/ Charlie Haden on piano trio records
Jakob Bro and Tim Berne records w/ Motian on drums
the fabulous Motian Soul Note box set
my Best Live Music of 2010 features a couple of Motian gigs
Quintet w/ Bill McHenry
a spectacular three-week run at the Vanguard w/ three different groups
Motian's New Trio w/ Jerome Sabbagh and Ben Monder

I didn't get around to writing about the last time I saw Motian play, with Greg Osby and Masabumi Kikuchi, during what turned out to be the last of his many, many weeklong engagements at the Village Vanguard. The combo of Motian and Kikuchi was strong stuff, and Osby could mix it up with them on the same high plane. At the end of the set, which must've been profoundly disorienting for anyone in the audience who only knew Motian from his early work with Bill Evans, I remember Motian smiling, looking really pleased, as the last note was struck and he took the mic to introduce his fellow musicians. I don't know if he knew his time as a performer was coming to an end, but there was no doubt that he was having fun.

Check out some far better writing on Motian from Ethan IversonJerome Sabbagh and a beautiful remembrance from photographer John Rogers. I'm sure many more tributes will continue rolling in.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Trip

Steve Coogan plays "Steve Coogan" in a film (largely) about Steve Coogan. The relationship of Coogan and Rob Bryden, previously explored to great effect in Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy (Winterbottom also directed The Trip), makes this a bit like the British Old Joy, a road trip buddy movie about friendship and the tug of war between freedom vs. responsibility, substituting the English Lake District for the Pacific Northwest. As scenic as Old JoyThe Trip is, on a more modest scale, nearly as layered and digressive as Shandy. Though clearly a fiction, the film draws heavily on the public personas of the two men and leaves us wondering how accurate a glimpse of their inner lives we've actually been given.

I liked how the emotional threads emerge as the characters try to repress their anxieties (about aging, career, etc.) or hide them beneath a veneer of humor (even when the humor is precisely about those anxieties). Coogan is by turns critical and dismissive of Bryden's (rather masterful) celebrity impressions when they're together (the premise is that Coogan has brought Bryden along on a sort of journalistic food tour of the North of England), but then we see him practicing them alone in front of the bathroom mirror, a picture of insecurity. The interplay of the ridiculous (the constant dueling impressions) and the more "serious" content was handled with relative subtletly and naturalness, capturing something very true about the way men talk about pop culture as a way of avoiding more personal or serious subjects. I only felt the balance tip too far in one direction at the end, when the contrast between Brydon returning to his family and Coogan to his cold, empty luxury apartment was scored with music a little too "on the nose", as if the point wasn't already obvious from the images.

All said, though, this is one of the most enjoyable movies I've seen all year and certainly one of the funniest. I wonder if it would work as well for someone who hadn't seen Tristram Shandy or wasn't familiar with Coogan's early work (especially Alan Partridge). Even without that background, I think it would be obvious that Coogan and Bryden are operating here at a very high level, turning the mundane, the trivial, and the repetitive into hugely effective comedy (they're helped by editing which displays timing almost as sharp as that of the actors, letting bits run on just long enough and cutting on just the right beats). Before watching the film, I didn't realize that it had been edited down to feature length from a longer TV series. Netflix doesn't seem to have the TV version, but a great deal of the cut material seems to be on the U.S. DVD as deleted scenes, including a sequence of multiple takes of a driving scene where Coogan and Brydon explore the idea of a historical drama where a lord (to be played by Coogan) instructs his men that they leave for battle at "10ish" in the morning. Watching the two actors try out seemingly endless variations on this simple idea (Coogan must say "Gentlemen, to bed" about 150 times) was hypnotic and absolutely fascinating, putting me into some sort of weird comedy trance.

[I enjoyed this list of commercial voice-overs the versatile, prolific and apparently ubiquitous-in-the-UK Bryden has done, according to his Wikipedia page: Renault, Tango, The Times, Tesco, Abbey National, Sainsburys, McDonald's, Toilet Duck, Cahoot, Mint Card, Pot Noodle, Domino's Pizza, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, The Observer, Fairy Liquid]

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Bob Cassilly

A few words about the great St. Louis sculptor/builder/doer/civic hero Bob Cassilly, who died this week in an accident while working on his long-anticipated Cementland project:

Bob Cassilly's work appeals to a huge range of people - it could never be called "elitist" - and works on many levels. It doesn't allow you to engage with it on a purely intellectual basis - it appeals to the physical, to memory, to things in the brainstem - but if you do choose to think about it, there are precedents to be found in the history of art and architecture - the monsters of Villa Orsini, obsessive "outsider"/folk art sculptors like Simon Rodia of the Watts Towers, and, above all in my mind, Antoni Gaudi. When I visited the Guell Park, I thought of Bob's work and was amazed that I'd never made the connection before. The mosaic work, the torquing cave-like arcades, the creatures - all have their echoes in Cassilly's work. But while Gaudi served wealthy patrons and the Church, Cassilly was truly a people's artist, making the best kind of public art, accessible but never condescending. He was like a DIY Gaudi, working with reclaimed materials (Gaudi's mosaics were made from discarded dinne plates and the like, but Cassilly took recycling and architectural salvage to a whole new level in the City Museum). And like Gaudi, his work was heavily craft-dependent - he needed a team of skilled craftsmen to realize his visions, but Cassilly was himself a great craftsmen, hands-on literally to the end.

In creating the City Museum, Cassilly and his collaborators (sometimes referred to as the "cowboys" or as their Twitter feed has it, Cassilly's "personal build monkeys") took an old shoe factory and turned it into, among other things, a repository of dreams...and nightmares. As the upper and outer parts of the museum allow you to climb into open space, high and free above the city, the lower regions of the museum, often aided by clever lighting, and especially after the addition of the Enchanted Caves, seemed to be an outlet for Cassilly's darker imaginings, or a portal into them. Primordial creatures lurk, concrete seems to melt, ooze, and mate with twisted metal. The logic of the museum's circulation is dream logic - slides and spiral staircases skip over several stories of the building, tunnels with the mouths of beasts spit you out in unexpected places. Perhaps only in Bob Cassilly's hands could the friendly burger-wielding Bob's Big Boy take on an eerie, portentous quality, as he does in the carnivalesque Beatnik Bob's section of the museum (of course, I may be the only person who took it that way!).

Terms like "interactive art" and "adventure play" become meaningless when applied to Cassilly's work because it goes so far beyond the type of work usually described by those terms. I'm pretty sure Bob never felt the need to study the "psychology of play" or the developmental needs of children in creating the City Museum or Turtle Park (which he famously vandalized in protest after his concrete sculptures were covered in an epoxy coating - a far greater vandalism, in his estimation). He didn't have to, because he'd somehow never lost the ability to see things from a kid's point of view. "Inner child" was a term that cropped up in almost any piece of writing about Cassilly, and to say he was "in touch" with it is probably a significant understatement. There were stories of him challenging members of his crew to race him up ladders (with a $100 bill as the prize). In an early story about the Cementland project (which, I noticed upon rereading, also includes a Gaudi comparison that wouldn't have meant much to me at the time it was written, before I'd seen Gaudi's work in person), he was quoted on the pent-up desire he was sure people had to throw rocks off of the site's tall smokestacks, a desire he fully intended to satisfy (he rejected his earliest idea for the site, which was to fill it with sand and bring in camels). It was the combination of a child-like imagination with business acumen and the ability to make stuff happen which really made Cassilly a rarity, and an absolutely irreplaceable figure. If his final project is completed with even half of his conception intact, it will surely be a helluva thing to experience.

I thought that grabbing links to the best photos I could find on Flickr would be a suitable tribute since Cassilly's work begs to be photographed and is difficult to photograph badly - intensely three-dimensional, his work looks interesting from any angle, and as the photos of the City Museum show, it can be experienced from any angle, often from inside and out. I went a little nuts once I started browsing Flickr - I've got 65 links so far and that's only the City Museum. I might do some organizing and add photos of more projects, but these should give you a taste if you've never made it to St. Louis to see Cassilly's work for yourself (and I of course recommend you do):

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Bonus Links
Two accounts (with a video) of Cassilly's 2003 boxing match at the City Museum, by notable St. Louis scribes Thomas Crone and Randall Roberts.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Three Un-recent Movies Seen Recently

Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices
I don't remember exactly when or where I first heard about this one, but I did some have curiosity about the (to me) mysterious world of polyphonic vocal music - motets, madrigals, etc - and, at this point, I would watch a Werner Herzog documentary on just about any subject. Herzog's rather free (to put it mildly) approach to documentary filmmaking surely reaches one of its highest points of invention in Death for Five Voices, as he packs numerous staged scenes and outright fabrications into a 60-minute running time (it was originally made for German TV). Though anyone with an ounce of natural skepticism or previous acquaintance with Herzog's documentaries will be doubting at least half of what they see on-screen, it's all somehow appropriate in telling the story of a man, Prince Carlo Gesualdo, who inspired plenty of wild legends and rumors in his own time and for centuries after. Why shouldn't Herzog get to invent some of his own?

Though some of the stories Herzog tells about the mad, murderous composer are fictional or exaggerated, the music, performed for the film by a couple of different ensembles, is very much for real and quite striking. Though I didn't know enough about the style or have a good enough ear to immediately distinguish the elements that made Gesualdo's music so strange in its own time but attractive to much later composers like Stravinsky, Herzog includes enough explanation from musicians/musicologists to give the viewer things to listen for without getting into levels of detail that might have bogged down a 60-minute film. Herzog rarely gets bogged down, especially in his documentaries, which with their abundance of fascinating people, places, and events have represented his stronger work in recent years. The Herzog filmography contains many lesser-known gems like Death in Five VoicesThe White Diamond being only the first that comes to mind.

The Loved One
Check out the list of names associated with this movie, from 1965: Tony Richardson (fresh off his Oscars for Tom Jones) as director; Jonathan Winters, John Gielgud, Liberace, Milton Berle, James Coburn, Tab Hunter, Roddy McDowall, Rod Steiger, and Paul Williams among the cast; Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood as screenwriters, adapting Evelyn Waugh; Haskell Wexler as DP and producer and Hal Ashby as editor. It's not uncommon for movies that are overstuffed with big names to be big flops, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It's dark, a bit strange, and has strong performances from all the leads, including Mad Men's Robert Morse as the at-first befuddled but ultimately resourceful protagonist, an English poet living by his wits in LA. There are so many off-the-wall characters (none more so than Steiger's Mr. Joyboy, though he has stiff competition) and bizarre/surreal set pieces that it almost doesn't matter whether it all adds up, but for the most part I think it does.

The Loved One is one of the many, many films in which Hollywood turns the camera on itself, though here the the funeral industry (along with the pet cemetery business, anticipating Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven) plays an even bigger role than the film industry in making up the strange sea in which Morse's fish-out-of-water finds himself. The idea of a lone sane man and/or outsider trying to survive in the insanity of Southern California is something of a film subgenre, of which Sunset Boulevard and The Long Goodbye are two of the finest examples (though here, as in Sunset Boulevard, the hero is not exactly a white knight, but a man with ambitions whose eye for opportunities is sharper than his moral code).

I don't know how faithful the adaptation is to Waugh's novel, but Terry Southern's influence seems evident in the tone of the movie - anti-authoritarian, satirical, horny, and a bit perverse. The Loved One looks forward to the similarly-themed but more anarchic (and to me, less effective) movies that Southern was involved in later in the '60, Easy Rider and The Magic Christian. While not a restrained piece of work by any means, The Loved One shows more craft and discipline than those later films, which for me typify the period after the decline of "studio system" craft but before the "new Hollywood" had really found its footing. Simultaneously experimental (or perhaps just aping experiments done years before in Europe) and nakedly/desperately appealing to the "youth market", some of these movies (like the Monkees' Head) are still great fun to watch, but they tend to give the impression that most of the cast and crew were high and/or assuming the audience would be.

One last, rather trivial note: I took the shots of rotating statues in the Whispering Glades "memorial gardens" to be an obvious nod to Godard's Contempt (try 1:25 in this excerpt), but in the making-of doc on the DVD, Wexler makes no mention of Godard, even though he singles out those shots and discusses how he set them up. As Contempt opened in the US less than a year before The Loved One was released, I suppose it's possible that Wexler and Richardson wouldn't have seen it in time, but if not, it's a pretty striking coincidence.

Derek Jarman's Jubilee has an all-star cast of a different sort, featuring generally lesser known actors but some big names from the music world, including a very young Adam Ant, punk/glam pioneer Wayne/Jayne County, Siouxie and the Banshees, and soundtrack contributions by Brian Eno. Jarman seemed to have a great ability to find a style for each of his films suitable to the subject (the compositions, lighting, and use of color in Caravaggio, for instance), and the anarchic, violently eclectic look and flow of Jubilee (apparently inspired in part by early punk 'zines) is no exception, though it's not entirely clear how much of this was planned and how much resulted from necessity, disorganization, or lack of funds. As with The Loved One, the succession of wild characters and strange happenings keeps things interesting, with Jarman stuffing a surplus of ideas (mostly good ones) into the cinematic blender.

Among the strange case of characters, Toyah Willcox's performance as Mad, the genuinely frightening butch pyromaniac, is of particular note. Though she was a serious, trained actor in a cast made up largely of non-actors, friends of Jarman, and genuine punks, her performance came across to me as more "real" and believable than some of those who may have been playing characters much closer to their off-camera selves. Apparently Willcox later became something of a pop star, but I hadn't heard of her, and until I saw the making-of documentary, I assumed she was someone Jarman found trawling around London punk shows.

Though very much inspired by and steeped in the punk aesthetic, Jubilee is by no means a celebration of punk. Jarman was an outsider, fascinated by the aesthetics but able to retain a critical distance from the scene he was immersing himself in. His skepticism about punk as a cultural revolutionary movement is part of the reason Jubilee is still watchable as something more than a period piece and helps explain why many scenesters were apparently upset and disappointed with the film when it opened (most notoriously, Vivienne Westwood, who responded with her "Open Letter to Derek Jarman" t-shirt, a reading of which reveals that Jarman's film certainly hit a nerve). This reaction from the true believers is understandable in light of the film's (cynical but, in retrospect, rather uncontroversial) suggestion that punk was just another style ripe for co-option and exploitation by the star-making machinery. Even some of Jarman's friends and associates took the film as a politcally conservative piece of nostalgia for the Golden Age of Elizabeth I, and there is certainly enough material in the film to make that a defensible interpretation, though not the only one.

Jubilee fits well with some of the work that Ken Russell and Nicolas Roeg, among British directors, were doing in the '70s, as well as having some apparent nods to Kenneth Anger and, perhaps inevitably, to some of Godard's late-'60s films. Jarman was clearly well-read, but the book that Jubilee put me in mind of was written many years later. The idyllic seaside ending (with Elizabeth and her astrologer/advisor/magus John Dee walking off along some very scenic cliffs) reminded me a bit of Iain Sinclair's novel Downriver, which, like Jubilee, shows contemporary Britain (Downriver came out just after the Thatcher era; Jubilee just before) through a dark, twisted mirror (Sinclair also shares Jarman's fascination with Dee, though I don't recall that he figures in Downriver). In both works, the ending feels like a relief, resigned if not necessarily hopeful, after the violence and grotesquerie that went before. In an unexpected but effective touch, Jarman lets the seagull sounds from the last scene continue for a minute or so over a black screen, like the blank pages at the back of a book, inviting the audience to sit for a bit longer and reflect.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Gedney at Duke

I've just started reading Geoff Dyer's newish essay/review collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, and Dyer has already led me to an amazing find - the online William Gedney archive at Duke University. Dyer co-edited a book of Gedney's photographs and writings (most of which apparently went unpublished during his lifetime), and the photos of India seem to have been a major influence on Dyer's excellent Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. The book, What Was True, seems to be out of print and selling for four to five times its original $35 list price online, but the Duke website will do nicely until I can get my hands on a copy. Besides the Benares/Varanasi photos and the photos of Kentucky, Haight-Ashbury, and Brooklyn (Gedney was a longtime resident and chronicler of Myrtle Ave - his notebooks on the subject are like the Brooklyn Arcades Project) that Dyer mentions in his essay, my favorite find so far in the archive is a mockup of a planned book on contemporary composers, with great photos of just about all the big names of Gedney's time - Partch, Feldman, Wolpe, and the big Bs and Cs: Babbitt, Barber and Bernstein, Cage, Carter and Copland.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Four Items - A Boot, A Beard, A New Trio, A New Bakery

I'm willing to confess that I've tended to enjoy bands influenced by the Velvet Underground more than the VU themselves, which may explain why I enjoyed this (probably old news to VU fanatics but new to me) live bootleg recording - purportedly recorded from a mic placed inside Lou's amp - better than almost any VU I've heard. Wherever the mic really was, the mix is very heavy on guitars, with drums and organ audible and vocals faint to non-existent (I believe this is the Reed-Morrison-Yule-Tucker lineup). If it hasn't already been done, somebody should start a band doing instrumental versions of VU songs. But make sure the guitars are plenty loud.

Two other guitar-centric items:

Having taken a pass on most of Bob Pollard's many, many post-GBV releases, I'd been meaning to check out more of his Boston Spaceships project and was finally pushed to shell out for one of the albums by Tom Scharpling's endorsement of Let It Beard on the Best Show. (It's the latest from the Spaceships, but I'm going to assume that Pollard has released something else in the four weeks or so the record has been out.) Beard's got only two fewer tracks than Alien Lanes (26 vs. 28) but close to double the run time. I wouldn't mind some of the songs being tightened up a bit, or even radically truncated early-GBV style, but the BS's generally make good use of the extra length and the hit-to-dud ratio is pretty high here. Choice cuts include "Chevy Marigold", "Earmarked for Collison", "I Took on the London Guys", "Red Bodies", "The Vicelords"(!) and "German Field of Shadows". Unfortunately, after those last two, "Speed Bumps" is a speed bump in the album sequence, a missed opportunity (Pollard's lyrics, about driving-while-texting or something, don't live up to the great bouncy backing track) that interrupts the record's cruise to the finish line.

I saw the first set of Paul Motian's new trio (billed, straightforwardly enough, as Paul Motian's New Trio, probably a reference to the fact that it has the same sax-guitar-drums lineup as Motian's longest-running trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell) at the Village Vanguard last night and I think the drummer has another winner on his hands. Ben Monder, who's played with Motian in several different configurations, is a guitar monster who deserves wider recognition. His guitar sound ranged from atmospheric to menacing evil in the course of the hour-long set. The new element was Parisian native Jerome Sabbagh on tenor. Not having heard him before, I sampled some tracks on his website (many featuring Monder) and immediately got the impression that this was a guy who was already operating in Paul Motian's general sound neighborhood, an impression borne out by his performance with the trio. Sabbagh might have negotiated the standards a bit better than the Motian tunes (which seems natural for a first time out), but he was compelling throughout, and I'm tempted to check in again later in the week to see how this group develops.

On a last, non-musical note, the place I've been touting as the best bakery in NYC to anyone who would listen, Almondine (in Red Hook and Park Slope), has some competition from a new Cobble Hill spot, Bien Cuit on Smith St. I need to try more of their breads, but the baguette is more than solid and I'd put the pastries up against any in the city. Based on the evidence so far, this is the real artisan bakery deal, of the kind that seems to be more often seen on the West Coast (where artisan bakeries were an actual thing before the word "artisan" got degraded to a laugh line through rampant overuse) and only aspired to here. Going in the afternoon after Irene, when they were just reopening, was like a non-early-rising bakery lover's dream. It was mid-afternoon but everything was fresh out of the ovens.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Jim Dickinson on Big Star's Third

This post is over a year old, but I just discovered it. Jim Dickinson interviewed about the recording of Big Star's Third (aka Sister Lovers, aka Beale Street Green). If you're a Big Star/Alex Chilton fan, this is THE SHIT.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Recent Listening - Jones and More

Hank Jones - The Oracle (with Dave Holland and Billy Higgins)
From 1989 - if you heard this record in a blindfold test and weren't familiar with Hank Jones, I don't think you'd ever guess that it featured a 70 year-old pianist who was born several years before Bud Powell and within a year of Monk. Of course, this is one of the standard lines on Hank Jones - though he could play authoritatively in older styles, he stayed contemporary over an incredible number of decades - but it's absolutely true and particularly striking on this session. The first track, Jones' "Interface", starts things off like a blast of fresh, cool air on a hot, muggy day. Holland and Higgins are tremendous in this trio, as you'd expect, though I wish there was a touch more Higgins in the mix (Holland is particularly well-recorded). Though Jones recorded with so many of the great musicians and assembled some amazing trios, and I have a long way to go in catching up with, for example, Ethan Iverson's deep knowledge of the Jones discography, I can't imagine he ever had a trio much better than this one.  So why is this record apparently out-of-print?

I've also been listening to Jones' entry in the Live at Maybeck Hall solo piano series. His full, two-handed approach was great for solo playing. Some of my favorites so far from this concert are "Blue Monk", on which Jones makes creative use of Monk's harmonic and melodic material without entering the realm of deconstruction or abstraction, and "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'", the famous Rogers & Hammerstein tune he also recorded with Joe Lovano but which, to my knowledge, hasn't been done by too many other jazz musicians. You can feel the sun coming up when Hank Jones plays that tune. I also find Jones' version of Joe Bushkin's "Oh, Look at Me Now" (also recorded with Lovano on the excellent Kids) irresistible. From reading some interviews, it seems like Jones had an excellent dry wit, which would explain the introduction (given a separate track on the CD) where he refers to Bushkin (who composed "Oh, Look at Me Now" in 1941) as "one of the newer writers on the scene".

On the subject of remarkable pianists, I just watched a Marc-Andre Hamelin DVD I got from Netflix. Recorded a few years ago in Germany, it has a documentary piece combining interview and concert footage plus the full length interview and recital that the documentary draws on. All parts are well done, very professionally edited and shot, with good sound, but you could almost skip the documentary and go straight to the full length interview and concert tracks. I guess not everyone wants to watch an hour-long interview about classical concert piano conducted by a soft-spoken, almost taciturn (or perhaps just respectful) German interviewer, but I find Hamelin a fascinating character and enjoy watching his mind work. He's hugely intelligent and articulate and has a slightly odd but charmingly Canadian sense of humor. The recital features a fairly conservative program - Haydn, Chopin, Debussy, and some Gershwin in the encores - for Hamelin, who is known for playing works by lesser known composers along with his own compositions, but he's capable of making anything new - not by updating or modernizing anything but simply by playing the pieces so well. Or, you might say, so thoroughly - there seems to be no idea, nuance, detail that the composers put into these pieces that Hamelin does not extract and present clearly to the listener.

The new Okkervil River, I Am Very Far, is turning out to be a textbook "grower" for me. It didn't make much of an impression on first listen, but lots of nice musical and, especially, lyrical details keep revealing themselves (as mentioned in the previous post).

I recent purchased the Gillian Welch version of John Hartford's "In Tall Buildings" from this tribute album. Gillian's introduction pretty much nails it - this song will make you want to quit your job if your job involves a subway commute and an elevator ride, and maybe even if it doesn't. If "In Tall Buildings" isn't being included in anthologies of the great American folk songs, it should be.

I learned about Felt via the Clientele and Alasdair MacLean's expressed admiration for them and their leader Lawrence, but I didn't know about Lawrence's next band, Denim, until reading some tributes to him on his 50th birthday. This is a great example of his work, reminiscent of, and perhaps deliberately nodding to, some of Ronnie Lane's songs with the Faces.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Bitter, Sour, Sweet, & Misheard - Items Re: Food & Drink

Ramazzotti Amaro
This Italian bitter liqueur (whose producer apparently spent a bit of money on their website) is less bitter and less brightly colored than Campari. I'm not a big fan of it on the rocks or straight, but I have discovered a great use of it for dessert - a splash of Ramazzotti with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I also enjoyed it as a sub for sweet vermouth in what I called an Imperfect Manhattan:
1.5 oz rye whiskey
0.5 oz Ramazzotti
0.25 oz Dolin dry vermouth
a splash or two Angoustura bitters
stirred with ice and strained into a chilled glass

There is (or was - it appears to have been a limited thing) a Ramazzotti Ritter Sport Bar, which I would love to try if they're still available anywhere.  


Speaking of Ritter Sport chocolate bars, is the Olympia flavor (yogurt, honey and hazelnut) a great Ritter Sport flavor or the greatest Ritter Sport flavor? I've only seen it at places that carry large numbers of Ritter flavors (probably 10 or more), but it is worth seeking out. It has a sour-sweet thing that I've certainly never encountered in a candy bar.


Okkervil River's "The Valley" from their latest, I Am Very Far
For the first couple of listens, I heard the phrase "in the valley of the rock'n'roll dead" as "in the valley of the rock'n'roll deli" (would've been a nice internal rhyme) and assumed Will Sheff was referencing this place, on 6th Ave just south of Central Park.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Martin Amis' Joystick (Not a Metaphor or Euphemism)

Though today's Slate article on Martin Amis' arrival in Brooklyn was thoroughly unnecessary, covering ground that had already been trampled by herds of Brooklyn blogs in the past several months, I am thankful to Troy Patterson for one piece of information in the story. I had no idea, and still can't quite believe, that Amis published a book on video game tactics. As in, how to get high scores on Asteroids and Space Invaders. Check it out - seeing the recognizable Amis style applied to the minutiae of old skool arcade gameplay is mind-bending.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Recent Listening - Focus on 1977-1980

I noticed that four of the albums I've been listening to lately and wanted to write something about were all released between 1977 and 1980. Though an essay could probably be written on the way McCartney and Lowe responded to the musical trends of the time with the albums mentioned below, I'll leave it to the reader to draw any larger conclusions about the period from this basically arbitrary quartet.

Andrew Hill - Strange Serenade
I bought this 1980 trio record after seeing it mentioned by both Russ Lossing and Hill's last bassist, John Hebert, in a piece honoring what would've been Hill's 80th birthday. If it seemed odd for this relative obscurity (with a pretty lame cover) in Hill's catalog to be mentioned by two of the five musicians asked to name favorite tracks, it made a lot more sense after one listen. The first thing that really struck me about this album is how much this trio reminds me of Jason Moran & the Bandwagon, especially on the long first track, "Mist Flower". There are some obvious connections: Hill was apparently something of a mentor to Moran and the drummer on Strange Serenade is Freddie Waits, father of Bandwagon drummer Nasheet Waits, who also played and recorded with Hill. I haven't heard a ton of Freddie Waits, but he sounds great on this record, seeming to push Hill and stretch the framework of the music just the way Nasheet does at times with Moran. Avant bassist extraordinaire Alan Silva is stylistically different from the Bandwagon's Tarus Mateen, but he shares what seems like a natural aversion to playing the conventional thing, and both combine with the drummer to create the impression of something unleashed and untamed.

Woody Shaw - The Iron Men
Shaw's 1977 album, actually billed as "Woody Shaw with Anthony Braxton", also features Arthur Blythe, Muhal Richard Abrams, Cecil McBee, and Joe Chambers and the previously unknown-to-me Victor Lewis (looks like I should have known about him, as he has an impressive resume and is apparently still playing and teaching) alternating on drums. The album seems to be a dedication to Eric Dolphy, the title a reference to the album and song "Iron Man", both of which Shaw appeared on. "Iron Man" also appears as the first track here. There's also an Andrew Hill composition, "Symmetry", and the overall style of The Iron Men fits into the same fertile zone between hard bop and free jazz that much of Dolphy and Hill's work inhabited.

Muhal Richard Abrams sounds particularly good to me in this context - there's something beautifully clear, almost illuminated, about both his sound and the ideas he's playing on this record, including some really nice comping. Iron Men is also a good place to hear why bassist Cecil McBee (still very active today at age 76) was on so many records with so many major and stylistically diverse figures in the commercially dark (though artistically strong) period for acoustic jazz that was the late '60s through the early '80s.

The rendition of Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz" makes an interesting point of comparison with the way AACM-affiliated musicians like Abrams and Henry Threadgill approached early jazz and pre-bop material, though the template for Shaw's version was clearly the recording of it he made with waltz master Eric Dolphy (with Dolphy on flute). The tune seems to have had continuing appeal, as Greg Osby recorded it with Andrew Hill late in Hill's career on The Invisible Hand. As fine as the nods to Dolphy, Waller, and Hill are, the album reaches a climax on Shaw's own "Song of Songs", which includes sections of pretty hot interplay between Shaw and Abrams, then Braxton and Blythe, an Abrams solo containing moments where he sounds like two pianists playing simultaneously, and an all-in blow-out before a fade-out at 12:45.

McCartney II
Is the fact that I really enjoy this (in some ways, obviously flawed) album a sign of some terrible decadence in my taste, an incurable soft spot for Paul, or has contemporary music reached a place where McCartney's 16-track home recordings, released in 1980 and by turns dubby, new-wavey, disco-y, and dopey (both meanings), sound fresh, invigorating, and maybe even relevant? While catching up with some Best Show on WFMU episodes via podcast - I tend to be about 3 weeks behind - I heard prominent and passionate McCartney fan Tom Scharpling mention McCartney II a couple of times, including recommending notoriously WTF? outtake "All You Horse Riders", included on the bonus disc of the reissue, for anyone who thinks John Lennon was the weirder, more "experimental" Beatle. While I find "Horse Riders" more of an amusing (and truly strange) curiosity than something that bears repeated listening, I can't get enough of "Check My Machine". A B-side which also appears on Disc Two of the reissue, it's certainly odd but also masterful, full of cool little hooks and sonic details. It almost makes me regret not getting the super-deluxe reissue which includes the much longer, unedited version.

Speaking of odd but masterful, I've had Nick Lowe's "Nutted By Reality" stuck in my head since the two-LP  reissue of 1978's Jesus of Cool arrived at my place a few days ago. What kind of mad genius could devise a song that starts off with a funky Jackson 5 intro, followed by the opening lines "Well I heard they castrated Castro / I heard they cut off everything he had", then shifts midway into an almost unrelated strummy/bouncy part with lush, harmonized vocals to describe the titular "nutting"? The same kind that could write catchy dachshund-eats-silent-movie-star song "Marie Provost" (included in my previous Lowe Top Ten). This is certainly one reissue I'm glad to have bought on vinyl, because Yep Roc did an excellent job with the packaging, including both the original cover and the American, Pure Pop for Now People version in what looks like a reversible gatefold (I haven't actually tried reversing it). Also, why is colored vinyl cool? I don't know, but it is. I should also take this opportunity to declare my preference for "Shake and Pop" over "They Called it Rock". While basically the same song, I like the former's dirtier, more lowdown, almost glammy groove a bit better than the latter's more straightforward Rockpile/Dave Edmunds/rockabilly bounce. Lowe's upcoming opening slots for Wilco should be interesting - will they do "I Love My Label" together?

One last item, departing from the '77-'80 theme:
I just listened to the entire first side of The World of Harry Partch (from 1969), comprising the single track "Daphne of the Dunes", before I realized that I was playing it at 45 instead of 33-1/3 RPM. Since Partch and his musicians were playing his own custom-designed instruments tuned to microtonal scales of his own devising, there's really no reference point outside of Partch's own music to tell if the intruments don't sound "right", but part way through the piece I did start to wonder just how the marimba players in particular were able to negotiate the mixed- and irregular meters at such breakneck tempo. It's still impressive at the correct speed, but if you happen to have some Partch on vinyl, check it out at 45 (I guess you could also speed up an MP3, but where's the fun in that?).

Sunday, July 24, 2011


Vern Gosdin's version of Donovan's "Catch the Wind". If lovin' it is wrong, I don't wanna be right. Great as his original recording was, Donovan sounds like a little boy compared to grown-ass man Vern Gosdin.

Gosdin's other big foray into mid-'60s pop territory, The Association's "Never My Love", doesn't work quite as well for me despite a strong vocal.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Recent (and Less Recent) Live Music, Part Four - Master Drummers

Here are some more reports on music I’ve seen in the last month or so. All three of the shows in this installment have at least one thing in common - they all featured master drummers: Charli Persip with Don Byron and Geri Allen (playing under the banner of Byron’s Ivey-Divey Trio, earlier versions of which have featured Jason Moran and Jack DeJohnette, among others), Ben Riley with Ethan Iverson and Buster Williams, and Andrew Cyrille with Ben Street and David Virelles. I'm always aware that I don't really possess the knowledge or language to adequately describe what musicians of this level are doing, but reading Robin Kelley's Monk biography has reminded me that there is value in documenting the day-to-day life of this music - who played with who, what they played, how it sounded - for future reference, even if the documentation is inadequate or incomplete. Some of the reviews Kelley quotes sound ill-informed, ignorant, or just plain laughable to us today, but even if they give a distorted picture, it may be the only picture we have of a particular moment in time.

Don Byron/Geri Allen/Charli Persip at Jazz Standard

I think of Persip mostly as the drummer on Mal Waldron’s amazing The Quest with Eric Dolphy, but his discography ranges far and wide (I love that he put out an album called No Dummies Allowed, though I haven’t heard it) in a career almost (but not quite) reaching back to the era that inspired Byron’s original Ivey-Divey album, a tribute of sorts to the famous Lester Young-Nat Cole-Buddy Rich session of the mid-’40s. Though playing as the Ivey-Divey Trio, the set went beyond the music of Byron’s original album to include Mel Torme’s ballad “Born to Be Blue”, featuring some tasty ballad tenor from Byron and impeccably swinging brushwork from Persip; “Joe Btfsplk”, a Byron original featuring a twisty clarinet melody which was not nearly as melancholic as might be expected for a tune named for a Li'l Abner character with a perpetual rain cloud over his head ("an allegory for clinical depression", according to Byron); and even some Monk (“Four in One”, I think), on which Allen, surely one of the better living Monk interpreters, did some particularly fine work.

Ethan Iverson/Buster Williams/Ben Riley at Smalls

Ben Riley is probably best known as a Monk alum, appearing on many of Monk’s major live and studio recordings of the ‘60s. Like Persip, though, he has a huge and wide-ranging discography, from Sonny Rollins’ The Bridge to his role in Sphere and other projects with Kenny Barron and Buster Williams. I listened to a Kenny Barron live trio album with Riley and Williams several times before seeing them with Iverson at Smalls. Iverson himself told the audience that he’d been listening to Riley and Williams with Jimmy Rowles and Mary Lou Williams as preparation for the gig. Although I wouldn’t have picked up on these influences, whatever preparation he did certainly paid off.

I’d seen Iverson playing the jazz canon at Smalls before, with Tootie Heath, and like that gig, this meeting with the masters was a lot of fun. The trio seemed to be feeling each other out a bit with the first set opening “Now’s the Time”, but things quickly took off from there. “These Foolish Things” was an early highlight as Iverson dug into the tune with some passionate and deeply melodic improvisation that should have erased any doubts about whether he belonged on the stand with Williams and Riley. Maybe it’s just because I’d recently read Iverson’s epic piece on Lester Young and listened to a couple of the classic Prez renditions, but I thought I detected some of that influence in the way Iverson approached the tune. The many, many sets Williams and Riley must have played together in their long careers showed to very good effect as they were absolutely cooking on a “Confirmation” that went into “Caravan” as Riley gave the rhythmic signal at the end of a solo, Iverson picked it up, and the trio took off to the desert. If there was anyone in the room not having a good time at that point, they have my sympathy. Though I was a bit doubtful about Williams' pickup-enhanced bass sound at first, he thoroughly won me over with his remarkable technique - employing double stops and slides to great effect - and the energy with which he propelled the music forward in conjunction with Riley.

Unfortunately I had to leave after the first set, but I wonder if they got to any Monk in the second. I also wonder what Stanley Crouch, who I believe I spotted at the bar (and who was the subject of a memorable interview conducted by Iverson), thought of the music (I guess if I had any guts, I could've asked him myself).

As a curious side note, I came across a couple of reposts (here and here) of the New York Times weekly jazz listings that included Nate Chinen’s blurb for this gig. Strangely, they appeared to have been rewritten as if translated into some other language and back into English. Iverson’s band is referred to as “The Terrible Plus” and Williams and Riley become a “stroke organisation” instead of a “rhythm team”!

David Virelles/Ben Street/Andrew Cyrille at University of the Streets

I’d seen David Virelles, a twentysomething Cuban-born pianist, play with Mark Turner, Ben Street and Paul Motian. It was clear in the context of Turner’s group that he was a substantial player with his own, non-derivative sound, but leading his own Continuum trio with Street and Andrew Cyrille he opened the doors wide, giving the audience a more complete view of the (quite advanced) stage he's reached in his musical development. Though there were compositions (Virelles’ I assume), the music often felt very free and the trio explored a wide dynamic range, unafraid to allow the music to approach silence at times. Though it encompassed everything from cool, stately extended chords to percussive clusters, there was a thoughtful/intellectual quality to Virelles’ playing that sustained a serious mood that was relieved by the more playful spirit of Cyrille’s relentlessly inventive percussion. As much music as Virelles and bassist Ben Street (one of those musicians who is ubiquitous, but for very good reason - he seems to be able to adapt to, engage with and enhance any musical situation he's in - he also always looks like he's listening really intensely, which probably has a lot to do with his success) were playing, I still found myself watching the drummer for much of the set. I suppose it’s no stretch to call Andrew Cyrille the archetype/patron saint of avant/free jazz drummers. He has a thousand sounds at his disposal, using every part of the kit and many things beyond the kit (he even took a “mouth solo” - Cyrille would’ve made a fine beatboxer), but every one is musical and he deploys them with taste and purpose (and he can swing plenty, too).

Friday, June 24, 2011

Recent (and Less Recent) Live Music, Part Three

James Carter Organ Trio w/ Nicholas Payton & James 'Blood' Ulmer
Having recently picked up Carter's live organ trio record (with Ulmer guesting), I had to check out this group live, especially with the addition of Nicholas Payton. I'd only seen Carter as part of the WSQ, and while his mastery was very much on display even as the junior member of that group, he has more of an opportunity to show his personality when leading his own group. In his interactions with the crowd, choice of material, even his sharp suit, Carter made it clear that, at least with the Organ Trio, he’s proudly working in the tradition of band leader as showman, though I hear no pandering in his playing. I imagine Carter takes on familiar material - the first, trio-only part of the set featured "Out of Nowhere", "Killer Joe", and "Come Sunday" (with vocals from drummer Leonard King) - knowing full well that he can transcend familiarity through virtuosity and straight-up musicality. (I thought there was another Sunday-themed tune, as the set was on Sunday night, but I can't remember it now. It definitely wasn't "Gloomy Sunday" or "Sunday Kind of Love". “Sunday in Savannah”? Maybe, but I don’t think so...) Payton and Ulmer came out toward the end of the set and were featured on the last few tunes, including Ulmer's blues guitar-and-vocal showcase "Little Red Rooster" (also featured on the live record). I would've liked a bit more of the guest stars, but that's not to say there was anything lacking when it was just the trio.

I also recently picked up a copy of Carter’s US recording debut as a leader, The Real Quietstorm, featuring an intriguing band that includes Dave Holland on several tracks as well as a young Craig Taborn on piano. It’s a serious record with an strikingly wide range of material (including pieces by Monk, Ellington, Sun Ra, Don Byas, Jackie McLean, and even Bill “Honky Tonk” Doggett) and Carter helps keep it interesting by playing six different instruments in nine tunes (it's not a gimmick if you can play them all as well as James Carter). As with the Organ Trio, Carter took on a potentially trite concept and made real, substantial music out of it.

Neil Young w/ Bert Jansch at Lincoln Center
I only recently bought my first collection of Jansch's music, having previously been more aware of his reputation than his actual music. Though his Scots-accented vocals got a bit lost at times on their way to the upper balcony, his mastery of the open-tuned acoustic guitar was absolutely clear and undeniable.

I've seen Neil several times (six? seven? eight?) now, and I would probably rank this solo appearance somewhere in the middle of those shows. There was nothing as transcendent as seeing him play "Like a Hurricane" with Crazy Horse in the middle of a raging thunderstorm or as surprising and satisfying as his rarities-filled solo acoustic set at the United Palace, but neither was there anything quite as awkward as seeing the full choreographed version of Greendale performed in front of a summer shed crowd or the debut of a long block of electric car-themed songs at Madison Square Garden before they'd been refined (I think that’s almost a pun in this context) into the form in which they'd appear on Fork in the Road. On a guitar geek note, the Gretsch White Falcon (familiar from the early CSNY days) threatened to upstage Old Black (yes, it has its own Wikipedia entry), as Neil played some surprisingly effective solo electric numbers on both guitars (something I've never seen him do). The best comparison I can come up with is this: if Old Black would kill you by liquifying your internal organs, the White Falcon would come to life, slice through your flesh and snap your bones with its beak. The Falcon had some serious bite.

Along with several newer songs (a mixed bag), After The Gold Rush figured prominently in the set, including what might've been the night's high point, an "I Believe In You" so pure and perfect that it seemed to dissolve time, making the 40+ years (!) since it first appeared temporarily irrelevant.

Gowanus Jazz Fest at Douglass St Music Collective - Michael Formanek Quartet, Frank Carlberg's Tivoli Trio
In the Formanek Quartet, the bassist-leader (the only member of the group I hadn't seen before) seemed to form a solid center with his playing, and his compositions were a fine launching pad for his hugely talented bandmates. Even among musicians as good as these, it's hard for Tim Berne not to be the center of attention when he's playing, but he also found opportunities to lay out, setting up some nice trio moments with Formanek, pianist Jacob Sacks and drummer Gerald Cleaver. I need to get this group's album (with Craig Taborn rather than Sacks on piano) as there seemed to be a lot of meat to the compositions that would reward repeated listening.

Cleaver was back the next week at Douglass St. with the Finnish pianist Frank Carlberg. Carlberg's Tivoli Trio compositions (inspired by childhood memories of a circus/variety show  trio) made for a fun, varied set, but it was bassist John Hebert who stole the show for me. I've seen Hebert several times with a wide variety of musicians, but I don't know if I've ever seen a group that gave him a better showcase. Hebert left no doubt why he, along with Cleaver, is one of the most in-demand musicians working. It was one of those performances that makes you think, at least on that given night, there can't possibly be anyone anywhere playing that instrument better. Hebert was somehow both inside Carlberg's tunes, in deep communication with Cleaver, and threatening to burst out of them with a surplus of furious invention.

Most recently, I saw Tim Berne/Ches Smith/David Torn/Trevor Dunn tour the stations of the free improvisational cross at Barbes (playing what Berne called “the Unpaid Jazz Fest”), moving together through moods ranging from outer spacey to droning to ferocious to funky. I hadn’t seen guitarist David Torn before, but I’m guessing that the phrase “mad scientist” gets used a lot in writing about him. He’s got a lot of gear and knows how to use it to get sounds that are both (to employ two cliches) ear-catching and mind-bending. He threw some crazy curveballs and often added contrasts to what the other musicians were doing without overwhelming them (though, to be sure, he could have with the tools at his disposal). It was also my first time seeing Trevor Dunn (though I knew about him going all the way back to Mr. Bungle), and I was impressed by how he maintained a very high level of focused, creative intensity, a continuous stream of ideas executed with conviction, for the entirety of an almost continuous hour-plus set of improvised music.

As at Douglass St, I noticed how good Berne seems to be at listening, his sense of when to contribute what to the mix, including knowing when to lay out. He seems to be all about the total sound rather than taking a star turn as a soloist, though when he decides it's time to throw down, he can chop some heads. As for Smith, he gave a clinic in [whatever you want to call the style of music this group was playing] drumming, going beyond the kit to play various toys and spare parts and then coming back to build a sick beat. Leaving aside all the extended techniques, I've never seen anyone play drums anything like Ches Smith does. He's certainly developed his own style, particularly in the unorthodox way he approaches the cymbals. I think it has something to do with the combination of long arms and a small kit.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Recent (and Less Recent) Live Music, Part Two - All-Vanguard Edition

Paul Motian Trio, Trio 2000+2, and MJQ Tribute at the Village Vanguard
After seeing the quintet with Bill McHenry that I wrote about here, I completed my plan to catch a set from each week of Paul Motian's three-week Vanguard stand back in February and March, but I'm only now catching up with the recaps. Week two's trio with Ethan Iverson and Larry Grenadier focused mostly on standards (with one or two Iverson compositions - unexpectedly, I don't think I heard any of Motian's), at least in the set I saw. While any Motian-led group takes on his musical personality to a certain (usually large) extent, this trio seemed to have plenty of room for each player's personality to emerge and shape the overall sound. Grenadier in particular shone on Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time", really digging in and bringing the blues to the fore. Iverson's deconstructive (for lack of a better word - that doesn't quite describe it) approach to "All The Things You Are" made the trio's version fresh and engrossing (they also played one of the other tunes in competition for the title of ultimate jazz warhorse, "Body and Soul"). The trio's fine version of Michel Legrand's "The Windmills of Your Mind" (famously recorded by Dusty Springfield on Dusty in Memphis and also the title track of Motian's forthcoming album with Petra Haden and Bill Frisell) brought out the Spanish feel lurking in that tune to good effect (making it easy to imagine that the windmills in question were Quixote's).

The final week was a two-bass lineup of Motian's Trio 2000+2 (I think most of the previous 2000+2 iterations have featured two saxes instead, but Motian has used two basses before). I was particularly looking forward to seeing pianist Masabumi Kikuchi in person after admiring his work with Motian on record. He did not disappoint. Kikuchi blows the ugly/pretty dichotomy apart like few pianists outside of Monk, whether moaning through a particularly beautiful piece of ballad melody or weaving intricate but dissonant lines with interlaced hands. I don't find Kikuchi's vocalizations particularly distracting (I prefer them, if that's the right word, to Keith Jarrett's), but there did seem to be an uncomfortable vibe in the audience. One idiot actually shouted "thank God!" when the set ended, atypical behavior for a club where respectful (even worshipful) audiences are the norm. The combo of Kikuchi and Motian, two idiosyncratic but complimentary masters, was a potent mix producing at-times "difficult" music. The fact that the weird stuff - the dissonances and counterintuitive rhythmic accents - was not taking place at the high volumes and fast tempos associated with stereotypical in-your-face free jazz may have actually made this music more unsettling and expectation-confounding. As Iverson recently wrote (quoting a letter in response to criticism of a Motian appearance at Jazz at Lincoln Center some years ago), “Motian can sit back and relax, knowing that his deeply swinging yet modernist style can still upset squares, even though he has been playing exactly the same way for at least 40 years!” The set included Motian tunes "Standard Time", "Olivia's Dream", and a meatier-than-usual, set closing "Drum Music" with some solo space for saxophonist Loren Stillman. The highlight for me was a gorgeous rendition of Lionel Hampton's "Midnight Sun" that showcased (and here I risk sounding like a beer commercial) the mountain stream-like clarity Kikuchi is able to bring to a ballad. "Midnight Sun" is also one of the highlights of Vol.5 of Motian's On Broadway series (check out the heavy duty Johnny Mercer lyrics, rendered here by Ella Fitzgerald).

More recently, Motian was back at the Vanguard with his tribute to the Modern Jazz Quartet, featuring a group with the MJQ lineup of vibes-piano-bass-drums. I'll admit to not knowing the MJQ's music very well beyond a few of their most famous tunes, and I haven't listened to much vibes outside of some things with Bobby Hutcherson, but I found this group totally compelling. I can't believe I wasn't previously familiar with Steve Nelson (on vibes), because he's thrillingly good. He's got something of a Monk-ish approach, clearly "in the tradition", rooted in the blues, but also very much in the moment, engaged, alert, open and willing to explore all possibilities. The freshness and freedom in Nelson's playing fit nicely with Motian, whose playing at certain points in the set could've served as a litmus test for potential fans. If you didn't like what he was doing at those moments (one of which, if memory serves, was on "Bags Groove") - respectful of the tune, swinging, and yet totally individual and cliche-free - you'd never get into him. The set mixed MJQ material with some of Motian's tunes, including a really nice "Abacus". I'm always happy to hear that one, and I particularly liked pianist Craig Taborn's approach to it. Being in almost the opposite corner of the room from Taborn, I couldn't see or hear him quite as well as I would've liked, though he had at least a couple head-turning solos and seemed to find interesting things to do in both the relatively traditional structures of the MJQ stuff and the more open spaces of the Motian tunes. I don't know how much Taborn and Motian have played together before this week, but I'd like to hear more. Bassist Thomas Morgan is something of a Motian veteran at this point, playing in many recent groups (including the aforementioned Trio 2000+2, along with Ben Street), and he seems totally at ease with what I imagine must be the unique requirements of playing bass alongside Paul Motian.

Check out a couple of excellent posts from Ted Panken on Nelson and Motian.

Bill Frisell Quartet at the Village Vanguard
I only caught one set of Frisell's two-week Vanguard run, during the second week with his frequent collaborators Kenny Wollesen, Tony Scherr, and Ron Miles. I wish I had made some notes at the time, as I've probably forgotten or may be misremembering some of the tunes (my excuse: it was my birthday), but I do recall that it was a fun, loose set that found Frisell seemingly in the mood to play the blues, including the "St. Louis Blues" and "Lovesick Blues" (I think there may have been a blues-based original in the set, too). For me, Wollesen revealed the affinities between the Handy and Williams tunes as he played the type of beat on the "I'm in love, I'm in love..." part of "Lovesick Blues" that I associate with the "St. Louis woman..." part of "St. Louis Blues" (all of which would make more sense if I knew what to call that particular beat). Frisell honored a shouted request for acoustic guitar with an encore of "Moon River" into "Misterioso". Scherr also switched to acoustic guitar and played some slide after jokingly turning the guitar upside down during Frisell's intricately improvised intro as if to say "what do you expect me to do with that?". Of all of Frisell's groups, this may be the one he seems most comfortable and casual with, and probably the one he's able to take in the most different directions (and I think he's said as much himself in interviews). So many of the avenues and aspects of music that I love are embodied in Bill Frisell - I never get tired of him.

I'm slowly catching up with these live music reports. Part Three coming soon...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Dream Journal #7

Had a strange dream last night involving husband-and-wife evangelists/cult leaders who may have been based on a similar husband-and-wife team from Season 2 of True Blood, a show I haven't watched for several months. They were really into fishing ("fishers of men"?) for some reason, and at some point I think I swallowed a small, live fish whole. They were also control freaks, in true cult leader fashion, at one point inserting a small metal button or peg in the floor so that I couldn't close the door to my bedroom. I was living in some sort of communal house with them and some other people who'd fallen under their spell. I seemed to be the only person who knew that the situation was bad news, but no one would believe me. My favorite detail of the dream was that the cult leaders had some sort of Christian rock band who played in the style of the early Sir Douglas Quintet, and they'd had great success recruiting wannabe Sir Dougs from Sweden, where there was apparently a large group of young SDQ fans ripe for cult indoctrination.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Selected Ballads Selects...Coffee and Baked Goods

Stumptown is my go-to supplier for coffee beans, as they have a great selection, they get consistently good beans, and they seem to know how to roast to just the right level. Just about everything I try from them makes a great cup of coffee, though I tend to like the Guatemalan and Ethiopian coffees the best. Hopefully this was an anomaly, but on my last trip to the Ace Hotel location, I had a hard time finding any beans roasted most recently than a week before. I feel a little silly even mentioning this, but Stumptown has spoiled me with their usually dependable freshness (often selling beans roasted the previous day), and after all, the beans only have to make it from Red Hook to the Flatiron. When I see Stumptown for sale in Brooklyn stores like Union Market and Blue Apron, it's much more common to see that they've been sitting around for a week or two.

After running out of my last bag of Stumptown beans, I decided to give Gorilla Coffee another try. I'd written their coffee off as overroasted, with the consistently heavy hand on the roaster eliminating flavor differences between single-source beans from different parts of the world, but based on the Guatemalan beans I just bought from them, they seem to have eased up, much to the coffee's benefit. After only one cup, I can't judge the new-and-improved Gorilla yet, but if I was going to name some honorable mentions behind Stumptown, the first two that come to mind are La Colombe, the Philly roaster that now has cafes in Manhattan, and Blue Bottle, the San Fran "microroaster" with a Williamsburg location. Blue Bottle is probably Stumptown's nearest competitor in quality and attention to detail in their cafe - they've been getting serious with their baked goods lately and they serve NYC's best (and possibly most expensive) iced coffee. La Colombe takes a different (Italian-influenced) approach, focusing on blending rather than single-source coffee, and roasting darker across the board. Though I tend to like lighter roasts than the typical La Colombe coffee, they seem to really know what they're doing, and if I'm in the mood to switch things up with a darker roast, I'll go with one of their blends. Intelligentsia beans (from Chicago), some of the best in the country, are available at a couple places in NYC, but haven't been fresh when I've looked at them as I don't think they're being roasted locally. I'll pick up a bag next time I'm in Chicago.

[Update: good piece on Stumptown here - "the Jesus Christ of caffeinated beverages"]

For me, the undisputed king of NYC bakeries is still Almondine - their bread is the best (they wisely stick to a few basic French styles that they've mastered, rather than trying to be everything to everybody) and they can contend with anyone in the pastry and cake department (I was very fortunate to receive some of Almondine's superb macarons as a gift recently). Grandaisy is not far behind, though, and may be the best bakery in Manhattan, also very strong in both bread and sweet stuff (my observations are based on the W 72nd St location). In Brooklyn, Marlow & Sons, though only having a small pastry case at the front of the restaurant, produces consistently excellent scones, biscuits, and the like. I also tried Peels on the Bowery for the first time recently, and the two items I got (a biscuit and a banana donut) were enough to convince me of its potential elite baked goods status.

Venturing into still sweeter realms, I was in Yorkville for the first time in some time over the weekend and stopped in at Two Little Red Hens. I was glad to be reassured that it's still the place to go for unpretentious and unashamedly sweet and rich desserts - cookies, lemon (or lime-coconut) bars, cakes/cupcakes, and though they didn't have it when I stopped in, the best cake/loaf-style gingerbread I know of. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for my health), I didn't make it to neighborhood landmark and old-school butter-bomb cookie and pastry provider Glaser's. I need to get back there for what may be the world's greatest prune danish before they go on their annual extended summer break.

On the doughnut front, I've been hearing great things about Dough, the new place in Clinton Hill. While a still-warm dulce de leche from Doughnut Plant has put doubt into my mind at least once and Pies 'n' Thighs puts out a fine product (though they don't taste quite as good as they look - P'n'T might have, to my eye, the most visually appealing donuts in town), I still haven't found any place that seriously challenges Greenpoint's Peter Pan for NYC donut supremacy. I do tend to favor the purity of an unadorned or lightly glazed cake donut over the yeast-raised, heavily-iced-in-exotic-flavors style Dough seems to be working in, but I look forward to trying their offerings with an open mind. I've somehow not mentioned pie in this post, but Four & Twenty Blackbirds in the Gowanus is also high on my list of places to try.

As a final note, I'm pretty sure I got fatter just by typing the second half of this post.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Recent (and Less Recent) Live Music, Part One

Although it's already been said better, I feel I should add one more voice to the chorus of enthusiasm for the meeting of contemporary titans that was The Bad Plus w/ Joshua Redman at the Blue Note. To say that Redman was able to find a place within TBP's often tightly arranged tunes would be a huge understatement. If I was to employ a deliberately terrible mixed metaphor, I would say that like master jewelers, the trio gave Redman a setting in which to shine and he knocked that s**t out of the park. For every mood and mode that The Bad Plus explored (and they get to lots of different places in a single set), Redman was right there with something profound (and often jaw-dropping) to add to the mix.

I do regret not planning ahead and getting stuck in the SRO bar area with a terrible sightline, but even at that remove it was impossible to miss the strong musical message that was being delivered - TBP's inimitable compositions taken to the next level live. "People Like You" and "Layin' a Strip for the Higher-Self State Line" are the first titles that come to mind as highlights, but there were many, many great moments spread through the set I saw (which also included, if memory serves, "Who's He?" and "Dirty Blonde" - I didn't make any notes).

I can't fault the Blue Note on its bookings - they bring in some of the best - but the decor does tend to give one the unsettling feeling (as I'm sure I'm not the first to point out) of having walked into the highest tier "gentleman's club" in a medium-to-large size Midwestern city, so that seeing someone with, for example, the elegance and stature of Ron Carter on stage there can seem almost distractingly incongruous. I suppose the defiantly unremodeled yet far-from-classic interior could serve as a sobering commentary on the economic viability of presenting jazz seven nights a week in the current economic and cultural climate. Mirrors and neon or not, they keep pulling me back in by booking musicians that are just undeniable, such as James Carter with 'Blood' Ulmer and Nicholas Payton (more about that in the forthcoming Part Two of this post).

I was at The Stone twice recently, finally seeing Dr. Eugene Chadbourne after listening to his music on and off for many years, and seeing the mighty Ken Vandermark in a duo with Joe Morris on guitar. Though he originally made his reputation as a downtown/avant guitar weirduoso, the Doc's recent solo set left no doubt that he's also a heckuva songwriter (highlights in that department included "God Made Country Music" and "Old Piano") and a great (though still plenty weird) banjo player. Come to think of it, I'd love to see a guitar-banjo duo with Morris and Chadbourne (looks like they have recorded together). If Clifford Jordan and John Gilmore hadn't already used the album title Blowin' In From Chicago, it would suit Ken Vandermark perfectly. His technique is highly advanced, but at the same time, he makes it very clear that playing the saxophone essentially involves blowing into a tube. There was no shortage of brains or guts in the Vandermark-Morris duo.

I saw the Mary Halvorson Quintet at Barbes for a second time (the first time, I think they were playing a mixture of material from the trio album Dragon's Head and some then-new compositions that would end up on Saturn Sings, but I may be combining it in my memory with an earlier trio gig). In any case, with the newer material firmly under their belts, the growth of the group sound and of Halvorson's compositions was very much in evidence. This group, already acclaimed well beyond the Brooklyn scene centered on venues like Barbes and Korzo, just keeps getting better.

For the March installment of Tower of Song, a monthly songwriter's-circle-type deal at Rock Shop, host/organizer Jennifer O'Connor outdid herself, assembling a very heavy lineup: Tim Bracy, formerly of Mendoza Line; the undisputed Queen of Country Music in Brooklyn and personal favorite of John Peel, Laura Cantrell; and a man who must be one of the most underappreciated songwriting talents of our time, 33-1/3 author and sometime John Darnielle collaborator Franklin Bruno. The performers made the most of being onstage together as a group, covering each others songs and contributing harmonies and extra guitar and keyboard parts. The highlight of the show may have been Bruno's song inspired by Felix Gonzalez-Torres' Untitled (Perfect Lovers). I don't know if he's recorded it, and I'm not even sure of the title, but I'd really like to hear it again.

I guess these YouTube clips (scroll down on the right-hand column) of the '80s-era public access jazz chat show The John Lewis Show (not the famous pianist or the civil rights leader and politician, but the less famous drummer) have been circulating for a while, but I just discovered them via A Blog Supreme and they are my new favorite thing. Ron Jefferson, the Ed McMahon to Lewis' Carson, must have been one of the hippest people alive at the time (not to mention "dynamic", "prolific", and "beautiful"). The show provides a valuable historical window into '80s jazz fashions, though I assume that Jefferson's bow tie in this segment was purely his own thing and not representative of any current trend. And fans of The Fighter might enjoy the interview Lewis and Jefferson conducted with boxer Saoul Mamby (who, at a critical turning point of that movie, pulls out of a fight with Micky Ward at the last minute). Lewis has DVDs of the full-length shows available here.

Next time in Part Two: Bill Frisell! Paul Motian! Neil Young! James Carter! and more?

And a final word from Schroeder:
More true than I'd like to admit.

Friday, April 22, 2011

All Souls

While reading Javier Marías' three-part Your Face Tomorrow, I didn't realize that the main character/narrator had appeared in some of the author's earlier works. When I came across that piece of information, reading some of the YFT discussions at Conversational Reading, I went out, bought and read All Souls, where (as far as I know) Marías originated his Oxonian Madrileño character, Jacques/Jaime/Jacobo Deza. Even though the action of All Souls takes place some years before the plot of Your Face Tomorrow begins, reading the first novel second enhanced my appreciation of both books and my understanding of Marías' style and thematic preoccupations. There are many parallels and resonances between the books - both have key scenes involving the main character following/observing someone in a museum, and both build up to the story of a suicide. Besides these parallel features, there are also many "callbacks" from All Souls in YFT - characters, stories, quotations, ideas - a theory of horror illustrated by a gypsy flower seller and a three-legged dog, to name one of the most memorable.

It doesn't seem as if Marías planned for All Souls to be the first in any kind of series of books featuring the character Deza (in fact, he isn't even named in All Souls, perhaps deliberately tempting the reader - despite a warning at the front of the book - to identify him with the author). In YFT, it seems that Marías had to find a way of bringing a character that he killed off in All Souls back to life because he wanted to write more about him. The solution, inventing a surviving brother with very similar life experiences, may seem contrived but it's hard to imagine how YFT could have existed without Marías solving this problem in some way, so central is this character (Rylands/Wheeler, revealed at the end of YFT to have been based on a real Oxford mentor figure of the author's) to the story. Apparently, there are other Marías novels with shared characters, including the follow-up/sequel to All Souls, Dark Back of Time, which I plan to read soon. Brief, brilliant, and surely one of the greatest "campus novels" (though it transcends that genre) outside of Lucky Jim, I can recommend All Souls without reservation to be read as an introduction to Marías or as a warm-up for or follow-up to Your Face Tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Job I Am Glad I Do Not Have

Much as I enjoy baseball and, in particular, Cardinals baseball, I really really would not want to be a baseball beat reporter. Here's one reason why. If, like me, you find it too painful to sit through the entirety of this video, just skip to about the last thirty seconds. The look on the guy's face at the very end is priceless.

And on a related note:
"...what LaRussa has on other pantheon managers is that he's the only one whose car keys Buzz Bissinger has tried to take after a scotch-y night at a Macaroni Grill in suburban Houston."

Also, for the record, I respect LaRussa's accomplishments, generally approve of his managerial style, and admire the good work he does for animals. Don't want to be lumped in with the LaRussa haters, of which there are plenty.

Noise & Silence

Earlier this month, I took a free tour of Columbia's Computer Music Center (formerly the Princeton-Columbia Electronic Music Center), the highlight of which was getting to see this beast, the historic and currently non-functioning RCA Mark II synthesizer. In looking up that last link, I noticed that this bit of (presumably) fake trivia has been inserted into the RCA's Wikipedia page: "Igor Stravinsky was rumored to have suffered a heart attack upon hearing Babbitt's glowing description of the synthesizer's capabilities".

The tour (part of the Unsound Festival) having whetted my appetite for synth/computer music, I went down to Littlefield in the Gowanus this weekend to check out Marcus Schmickler's set. I mentioned in this post that I was enjoying some of Schmickler's recent computer-generated sounds. His set was considerably more punishing than I expected from hearing his arpeggio-crazy album Palace of Marvels (the description of which cites, among many other things, Leibniz, Foucault, and the Panopticon!), but then again, the title of the showcase was "Oceans of Noise". I was thinking up titles for sections of Schmickler's set as it was going on, but only got as far as these first two, "Chorale for Jet Engines" and "Colecovision Nightmare".

Schmickler deployed an impressive variety of sounds in his multi-pronged digital noise attack, all of which gave me a new context in which to appreciate the wholly analog, truly assaultive, and I would guess unsynthesizable noise that the boiler pump in my basement started making later than same night. If I'd had a sampler handy, I certainly would've captured the sound for future use.

As an antidote to all this noise, I listened to what must be very close to the opposite pole of music, and very near to silence in comparison, John Cage's music for prepared piano. The Cage, two discs on Naxos featuring the pianist Boris Berman, was part of a big The Rest Is Noise-inspired purchase I made at J&R Music World, a surprisingly good source for bargain-priced jazz and classical CDs (they even carry this rather amazing item), and one of the few remaining venues (after the demise of the NYC Virgin Megastores and Tower Records) where one can have the experience of browsing thousands of discs on multiple floors under harsh fluorescent lighting. There's a nicely melancholy tribute to departed record stores and the joy of the browse here.

And speaking of the browse, there were some unusually worthy finds in the "dollar room" at the Brooklyn Record Riot this weekend. In particular, there was one box of mostly '80s stuff from which I extracted seemingly good condition (haven't played them yet) records by Squeeze, the Del-Lords, Ian Hunter, Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe! (I also paid more than a dollar for records by Andrew Hill and the Young Fresh Fellows.)