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...