Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Selected Ballads Selects A Ballad

My song of the moment is, without question or qualification, Prefab Sprout's "Angel of Love" (available as a free download here). What at first sounds like an unbearably cheesy, goopy love ballad reveals unsettling details, dark corners and depth with subsequent listens.  This sh*t has layers!

What could be more hackneyed than repeatedly invoking Romeo and Juliet in a love song?  But then lines like "Poison or dagger?/Read the last line" and "Death waits to claim us/and frame us in pine"(!!!) peek out to remind you of how that play ends.  Angel metaphors are equally played out, but there's a realization waiting here too if you keep in mind the traditional blues meaning of pleading with an "angel" to spread her "wings".  I'm not saying the lyrics are particularly profound in isolation, but I do think they're smashingly successful in the context of the song, married to a melody that is a well turned thing of beauty.  

"Angel" was apparently recorded as a demo for an album that was never made, the would-have-been follow-up to Sprout's UK hit album Jordan: The Comeback.  The remastered demos were finally released a couple years ago as Let's Change the World with Music.  For a demo, this recording has plenty of sonic details to reward close listening and an enveloping synth-heavy atmosphere that walks the line between a warm blanket and a smothering, faintly miasmatic mist.  I bought a couple of older Sprout albums a few years ago but never gave them many spins.  The time has definitely come to spend some more time with them.  "Angel of Love" has certainly taught me not to judge any of Paddy McAloon's songs without giving them at least a few listens.

[Update: I first heard "Angel of Love" on a free Tompkins Square sampler which also featured a late-career live take on "Hickory Wind" by Charlie Louvin, who died today.  Nashville music writer Bill Friskics-Warren has a fine obit in the NYT.]  

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Vive Quebec

Nice to see The Awl taking note of the great Ike Quebec (and specifically, Phil Freeman's concise and usefully opinionated rundown of Quebec's Blue Note "comeback" period).  I made brief mention of Quebec's work with Sonny Clark and Grant Green in this post, but Freeman's piece has given me some ideas for what to listen to next.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Best Of 2010 - Best Live Music

Well, it's mid-January and I'm finally posting my best live music of 2010.  My "long list" became a "short list", at which point I remembered a few shows I'd forgotten about and had to rethink.  In the end, I gave up on having a neat, even number of shows on the list, and the order is very loose.  The best of the best is generally at the top, but don't take the order too seriously - I didn't.  At least from my perspective as a fan and listener, it was a great year for live music, and I think this list conveys that.

1. Solo shows
As far as list making conventions go, this is a total cop-out, a blatant attempt to squeeze in extra entries, and an arbitrary conglomeration, but I'm putting this group of shows at the top to point out what a great year it was for solo performances. I mentioned a few in my previous list, but here are six more (in alphabetical order) that helped make 2010 a year of brilliant loners and rugged individualists:

Marc-Andre Hamelin at Le Poisson Rouge
The only classical show here, Hamelin's LPR appearance had more in common with the other shows on this list than you might think: it was a club gig, a CD release "party", and unlike most classical piano recitals, Hamelin was performing his own compositions.  Hamelin left me wanting to hear more of him and resolving to hear more classical piano in general in 2011.

Brian Henneman Christmas Show at Iron Barley
Brian Henneman (of the Bottle Rockets) carried on his St. Louis holiday tradition with a set of songs (familiar favorites and rarities, new, old, and half-remembered) and stories, both of which he has in abundance.  The tagline of The Best Show on WFMU doubles as a good description of this night: Three Hours of Mirth, Music, and Mayhem.  There were no Christmas songs, but Henneman did give some gifts, ranging from vinyl rarities to cheap sunglasses, for some of those with the opportunity, good sense and taste to make the journey to deep South St. Louis on Christmas night. 

Fred Hersch at the Village Vanguard

Matthew Shipp at the Blue Note
A straight-through, seemingly free-associative recital very much of a piece with his latest solo record, 4D, part of the Blue Note's credit-due Monday night "stuff we might not book on other nights" series.  Nobody gives the left side of the keyboard a workout quite like Shipp.  A brilliant mind thinking out loud through the piano.

Jeff Tweedy at Bowery Ballroom
The solo format gives Jeff Tweedy an opportunity to show how he's built and sustained such a large and devoted fanbase with Wilco - by writing lots of great songs and performing them well.  A simple formula that is not so simple to execute.  Tweedy has become a masterful solo performer, keeping the crowd in the palm of his hand and successfully taking songs familiar in their often densely arranged Wilco versions back to the way they were presumably written, by one man with an acoustic guitar.  Tweedy's use of effects was sparing, but effective, as when he used some combination of reverb and volume pedals to substitute for the sweeping pedal steel in "Wait Up" (from Uncle Tupelo's March 16-20, 1992).

David S. Ware in Park Slope

2. Reid Anderson/Ethan Iverson/Mark Turner/Nasheet Waits at Smalls
Tarbaby (Orrin Evans/Eric Revis/Logan Richardson/Nasheet Waits) at Jazz Gallery
Nasheet Waits was hands down the drummer of the year in my book.  I didn't hear all the records he played on this year, and certainly didn't catch all of his gigs (he's a busy man), but these two shows plus the universally praised Ten, Tarbaby's The End of Fear, and Waits' 2009 release Equality: Alive at MPI (which I only discovered in 2010) left me increasingly more impressed with his playing.  His deep connection with bassist Tarus Mateen is well-known, but he sounds great with Reid Anderson and Eric Revis, too.  Same goes for his playing with William Parker in Tony Malaby's Tamarindo, though I didn't hear them together until 2011.

3. Apex at Jazz Standard
The musicians in Apex are talented enough that they could sound good playing just about anything - standards, free improv, loosely sketched out "blowing tunes" - but that's not what they do.  Instead, they're working with a set of strong, distinctive compositions, many of them instantly memorable.  It was this combination of tremendous musicians fully engaged with strong material and each other that made this show a no-brainer Best Of.

4. Syl Johnson at Southpaw
An unforgettable performer.  Records are great.  I love records.  But records last, while people go away.  When you have the opportunity to get in the same room as a legend, grab that opportunity while you can.

5. World Saxophone Quartet & M'Boom at Birdland
My comments under Syl Johnson pretty much apply here too.  The opening "Hattie Wall" from this show was certainly a contender for my favorite single musical moment of the year.  The feeling it gave me is something you can't get from a recording.

6. The Dutchess & The Duke at Mercury Lounge
Little did I know it would be my last chance to see this duo, as they've apparently broken up (something I learned only after putting this show on the list)  If this really was their last NYC show, they left us with a beautiful memory.

7. Jens Lekman at the Green Building on Union 
I'm not sure if the new songs he played are quite up to the high standard set by Night Falls On Kortedala and internet single "The End of the World", but it's possible he'll have a whole new batch by the time he records his next album.  Lekman hinted at multiple releases in 2011 and we can only hope he follows through. After his previous tour featuring a large, all-female band clad in matching white outfits, Lekman went with a much simpler setup at the Green Building, using the acoustic guitar w/ a stand-up drummer format associated with Jonathan Richman, whose one true heir I believe Lekman to be.  Some of the tunes from Kortedala were supplemented with prerecorded backing tracks, with some even bringing a dance-y element to the show, and a saxophonist joined in for a couple songs near the end.  Despite these additions, the generally bare bones arrangements helped Lekman show off his chill-inducing vocal abilities.  The occasional goofiness puts you enough off guard to be cold-cocked by the power of his voice when he really cuts loose.  He also engineered some effective transitions between songs - best of all might've been the perfectly conceived, euphoric segue from "At The Department of Forgotten Songs" to "Black Cab" (both from You're So Silent, Jens, as good an introduction to Lekman as the similar early singles compilation Suburban Light is to the Clientele). 

8. Paul Motian/Bill Frisell/Tony Malaby/Mark Turner at the Village Vanguard
Bill Frisell's Disfarmer Project at the New York Society for Ethical Culture
Paul Motian likes to mix it up, constantly trying different combinations of musicians, many of which are able to create magic under his leadership.  The two-for-one substitution of Tony Malaby and Mark Turner for Joe Lovano during the first week of the Motian/Frisell/Lovano trio's annual Vanguard run was done for scheduling reasons rather than just to shuffle the deck (the trio is Motian's longest running group), but something new and exciting was created just the same. 

Bill Frisell likes to mix it up, too, working with a gradually expanding universe of top-notch and, like Frisell, cross-boundary players.  For the Disfarmer Project, a set of music to accompany the work of Arkansas photographer Mike Disfarmer, Frisell turned to musicians who have appeared with him on some of his more country/folk/roots-oriented projects (the Disfarmer group even played a little rockabilly).  Though I've seen Jenny Scheinman play several times (with Frisell and others), this was my first opportunity to see the modestly brilliant multi-instrumental steel-and-slide specialist Greg Leisz and stoic, consummate-pro-making-it-look-easy bassist Viktor Krauss in person.  Though these were the same musicians as on the fine Disfarmer record, the music, arranged as a sort of loose song cycle, came alive in person and in the company of the projected images in ways that it didn't in the studio versions. 

9. Henry Threadgill's ZOOID at Roulette & Jazz Gallery
If not for the Bridge On The River Kwai-style "hot box" that was The Stone for Bill Frisell's August workshop, Roulette (at least on the November night I saw Threadgill) would've taken the prize for Hottest Venue of 2010.  The excessive radiant heat was making me groggy, but the music kept snapping me back to attention, so that I experienced much of the show in a sort of half-consciousness, which is actually not a bad way to hear music that resists rational analysis (though there is clearly a system at work).  It's often said that no other music sounds like this, and as far as I can tell that's absolutely true.  I think an interesting comparison could be made with some of Ornette Coleman's more recent music, especially in the rhythms and the use of multiple bass instruments, but the total effect is still quite different.  I was more conscious for ZOOID at Jazz Gallery, but you might not know it from reading my rather odd post about the experience.  And check out this video of Threadgill in '88 - it ends in the middle of a solo, but Wow!

10. Belle & Sebastian w/ Teenage Fanclub on the Williamsburg waterfront

11. Bloodshot Records Showcase (Bottle Rockets, Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, Cordero, Graham Parker) at Bell House
The Bottle Rockets are long time favorites that always deliver, and it was fun to finally get to see Graham Parker, but Scotland Yard Gospel Choir was the surprise of the night for me - I'd heard none of their music prior to this show but came away a fan.  Although it was released in 2009, SYGC's "Tear Down The Opera House" was one of the songs of 2010 for me.

12. Oliver Lake Organ Quartet at Jazz Gallery

13. War Paint w/ Family Band at Music Hall of Williamsburg
I would call Family Band's sound "dark pastoral psych-folk" or "music to listen to while cultivating an urban farm in Bushwick or foraging in a slightly sinister patch of woods".  I'd love to see a bill with them and Arbouretum.  Headliners War Paint are serious up-and-comers, tight, with chops and songs.  A not quite place-able mix of cool influences and some no-joke bottom end from a fun-to-watch, no-joke rhythm section.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Hiding in Plain Sight - Three Recent Discoveries

Lahore Deli
I've walked by this tiny, almost hidden Pakistani spot on Crosby St. (just south of Houston) many times on the way to Housing Works Bookstore, but only tried it for the first time a few days ago.  Located across the street from a gas station, it's the quintessential cabbie pit stop.  I only grabbed a couple of snacks, a samosa and a round, flat chicken kebab (slightly spicy, very tasty), but the quality was impressive enough than I'm definitely returning for more soon.
Pastrami Hash at Carnegie Deli
Tipped by a recent article in the NYT and finding myself in the neighborhood at an hour when the tourist-frequented deli was half empty, I decided to stop in for some hash. I'd never considered ordering hash at the Carnegie before reading that article, but it is truly a classic hiding in plain sight on the menu.  As you might expect from a place with sandwiches that look like this, the hash is generously portioned and dominated by pastrami, with small chunks of potato, even smaller chunks of green pepper, and nearly invisible (but definitely present) onions.  There's also a corned beef version which I haven't yet tried.  $16 for a plate of hash might seem ridiculous, but I got three solid meals out of one order, and I've got a pretty healthy appetite.  (It looks like this person got through a bit more of their hash at the restaurant than I did.  The potatoes and peppers also look a bit chunkier than they were on my plate.)  I didn't take the fried egg option at the deli, but did add an egg when reheating the second portion of leftovers at home, and it was mighty fine.

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
Another of those classic albums that I've somehow avoided hearing for years, I picked up a used copy of the Ryko reissue of Bowie's Scary Monsters after Christmas, and have been digging it in the new year.  I knew how great "Ashes To Ashes" is, but then Bowie follows it with "Fashion" and "Teenage Wildlife" - POW! POW!  I guess I was pretty predisposed to like this album, being a big fan of Station to Station (which features many of the same musicians, notably Carlos Alomar and Roy Bittan), but it really delivers. 

Note: I'm still tinkering with my list of the best live music I saw in 2010, perhaps subconsciously trying to be the last blogger to submit a Best Of list for the year.  I think I'm already past the point where anyone could possibly care, but I hope to post something in the next couple days.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Late To The Party - Organ Damage/Wild Things/Bird Notes

End of the year roundups are a great way to find out what you've missed from the previous year.  To cite just one example of something I'm sure I wouldn't have found any other way, my favorite discovery from the year-end conversation at Nate Chinen's The Gig is the (get ready for it) badass Norwegian organ trio Elephant9.  I realize that the phrase "badass Norwegian organ trio" sounds like it contains multiple oxymorons, but check 'em out and see for yourself.


I don't remember where I found the link to this Awl piece from 2009, but I just came across it this weekend.  The Awl was one of my most-read sites of 2010, but I guess I wasn't checking it regularly before that.  In any case, Tom Scocca articulates the problem I had with the Spike Jonze/Dave Eggers adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are with much more clarity and force than I'm capable of.  Reading it was cathartic.


Another thing from 2009 that I only recently got around to reading was Steve Coleman's Charlie Parker "Dozens" at, an epic piece worthy of its subject.  As the writings on his M-Base website demonstrate, Coleman is almost frighteningly knowledgeable and insightful on just about every aspect of the art of spontaneous composition (his preferred term), and this Charlie Parker piece is like 12 excerpts from the best textbook on the subject never published.  There's the basis of an education here, an implied course of study.  It takes some close listening to grasp some of Coleman's points, but if you follow his example and really dig into this music, he will teach you some things.  And lest you think he's just blowing conceptual smoke, he provides plenty of transcriptions to illustrate his points.  With one complete reading, I feel like I've only started with this piece, but Coleman has already made me listen more closely to the music he discusses, which is perhaps his most important lesson.  As Phil Schaap's long-running radio show has amply proven, this is inexhaustible music which just sounds better as you pick up on more of its nuances (most of which are guaranteed to elude on a first or even third or fourth listen).

Coleman is particularly strong in trying to understand (without pretending to be certain) how Parker and his associates thought about the music they were playing from a technical standpoint (which may have been quite different from the way the music has been analyzed after the fact).  Though it may sound like a ridiculously esoteric piece of musicology, Coleman's elaboration (supported by quotes from Parker and Gillespie) of the distinction between minor sixth (with a sixth in the bass) and half-diminished chords is a valuable bit of analysis insofar as it illuminates something about the thinking behind the improvisation.  Coleman isn't just describing what Parker played, but how he (along with Gillespie, Monk and others) might have developed the approach that led him to play it. 

Reading David Foster Wallace's "The Empty Plenum", a review of David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, just after reading some posts on Coleman's blog, I noticed that the concept of time and its relationship to language comes up in both places.  Language is particularly important to Coleman's understanding of Charlie Parker's music.  He conceives of Bird's solos as hip, streetwise conversations, with the natural but extremely intricate rhythms of speech (Coleman takes the idea of musical "phrases" quite literally).  Jason Moran did some experiments in this area, "transcribing" recorded conversations into music ("Ringing My Phone" was one recorded result).  Coleman suggests listening to a Parker solo and focusing only on the rhythms while ignoring the pitches.  Both Moran's transcriptions and Coleman's listening exercise serve to reveal underlying structures that may be obscured by "content" (words or pitches).  [Update: some interesting speculations about the connection between language and improvised music in this video.]

One last note re: Steve Coleman and his appreciation of the masters - his 1991 album Rhythm In Mind, which I recently downloaded from his website, is a beaut.  It's an all-star lineup, including Von Freeman, Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland and Ed Blackwell, but to me, Tommy Flanagan shines brightest of all.  Flanagan is one of those widely-acknowledged piano greats that I've never taken the time to really get to know, but his work on this album has made me resolve to dig into the Flanagan discography in the new year.