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).