Friday, January 27, 2012

Recent Record Finds

Rounding up some of the better items I've found in recent record digs, stretching back to that annual colossus of record shows, the WFMU Record Fair, and including more recent trips to the pride of St. Louis record stores, Euclid Records (sorry Vintage Vinyl, I like you too), and a worthy new discovery, Greenpoint's Co-op 87. There are also one or two finds from Gimme Gimme in the East Village and Permanent Records in Greenpoint here too, plus a couple items on the soon-to-be-obsolete compact disc format.

Grant Green - Goin' West
Grant Green's Goin' West is a somewhat lesser-known link in a tradition stretching from Louis Armstrong's collaborations with Jimmie Rodgers to Sonny Rollins to Bryan & the Haggards. (I also tend to enjoy when the jazz-to-country crossover goes the other way - Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, Jethro Burns, even Merle Haggard have ventured to varying extents into jazz territory with good results.) Though it was released in the late '60s, the early '60s recording date and inclusion of "I Can't Stop Loving You" certainly suggest the influence of Ray Charles' surprise success with Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music in the choice of this concept. Whatever the impetus, this group makes it work, turning some of the potentially hokiest material into music that sounds like golden age Blue Note, which in fact it is. I think a lot of the credit has to go to Billy Higgins, who finds creative solutions for making these tunes swing. Check out Higgins on "On Top of Old Smokey" (feels weird even typing that) - great drummers are often praised for making complex music sound natural and spontaneous, but here you have a great drummer making something fairly sophisticated out of very basic musical materials. A young Herbie Hancock also sounds quite comfortable in this territory, and as for Grant Green, all I can say is that hearing that tone coming out of my speakers is one of life's great pleasures. Oh, and the bass player is Reggie Workman!

Goin' West makes an interesting point of comparison with Bill Frisell's treatment of country and folk material. Frisell revels in the beauty and simplicity of the melodies (check out Frisell's versions of "Red River Valley" with Gary Peacock, a tune that also appears here), whereas Green & co. are more about adding layers of complexity. I could imagine both approaches ending in disaster, but these musicians are too good, too tasteful for that to happen.

Pat Matheny (w/ Charlie Haden & Billy Higgins) - Rejoicing
Although I normally much prefer Bill Frisell to Pat Matheny, I've been enjoying this record more than the Power Tools record (Strange Meeting w/ Frisell, Melvin Gibbs, and Ronald Shannon Jackson) I picked up at the same time. Rejoicing is an ideal companion piece to Song X - quieter, heavy on Ornette tunes but w/out Ornette himself. If you can manage to make a bad album with Haden and Higgins on board, shame on you, but that's certainly not the case here. Everybody sounds good, although I prefer the first side, with mostly Ornette tunes, to the second side, which gets into Pat originals and some guitar synth textures.

Julius Hemphill - Blue Boye
It's probably an unfounded bias, but I tend to steer clear of solo saxophone albums, or really most solo instrumental albums that don't feature piano or guitar. I knew Julius Hemphill would do something worthwhile with the format, though. In any case, Blue Boye is really better described as a "saxophone Conversations with Myself" or a "one-man WSQ" than a solo recital, with most tracks featuring Hemphill overdubbed on multiple instruments. I love the liner note description of Hemphill, one of the masters of writing and arranging for multiple horns, confidently building up the multiple tracks in a series of single takes while still wearing his overcoat in some half-assed, freezing basement studio.

It's often been noted that there was always a strong blues feeling in everything Hemphill did (and though I may be on shaky ground, I would argue that this stronger blues strain is one of the things that distinguished the music and musicians that came out of the St. Louis BAG scene from the closely related Chicago AACM scene), and it is certainly in evidence here, as the album title would suggest. I've been particularly enjoying the bluesy, boppish and truly solo "Kansas City Line" and the funky flute and hand clap driven "Homeboy Tootin' at the Dog/Star", which brings to mind the deep roots of Otha Turner's Mississippi fife & drum pre-blues.

Charles 'Bobo' Shaw & The Human Arts Ensemble (feat. Joseph Bowie) - P'nkJ'zz
This is a NYC loft scene edition (recorded at Sam Rivers' Studio Rivbea) of the Human Arts Ensemble, which had originated with a very different lineup in St. Louis as a racially integrated adjunct to the Black Artists Group. BAG-related figures Joe Bowie (whose punk-jazz fusion project Defunkt would've been operating at this time), Julius Hemphill and Abdul Wadud are on this record, and most of the music resembles the Hemphill-Wadud collaborations (with their blend of free, blues, and African gestures) more than it really touches on punk. The exception is the first track, the wild (and gloriously titled) "Steam Away Kool 1500". While it may be a stretch to call it "punk", it's certainly in your face, gesturing toward rock with a heavy electric bass groove that reminds me a little, but only a little, of Keith Jarrett's "Mortgage On My Soul". It's a bit of a disappointment when the album doesn't continue in this vein, although I also enjoy the Latin or Afro-Latin acoustic guitar-driven vamps of the next two tunes, and the last and shortest track, "Be Bo Bo Be", gives Wadud the chance to go off a bit with a bowed solo.

Especially since reading Point From Which Creation Begins, Benjamin Looker's history of BAG, I've been picking up records here and there from what might be called the post-BAG discography. I haven't yet found another Dogon A.D.-style lost masterpiece, but Hemphill certainly went on to make many strong records in the '70s and '80s (and not just with the WSQ - see above), and I've also enjoyed some of the records where Lester Bowie got together with his old St. Louis associates, such as Fast Last! with Hemphill, brother Joe, Philip Wilson and John Hicks. One I'm on the lookout for is Shaw's Streets of St. Louis, also recorded under the HAE moniker and featuring a monster lineup, including Hemphill and Wadud, both Bowies, and Hamiet Bluiett.

Sonny Rollins - There Will Never Be Another You
This has to be one of the greatest two-drummer albums, with Mickey Roker (who talks a bit about it in his DTM interview) and Billy Higgins (who participated in some notable two drummer recordings with Ornette and Ed Blackwell) burning live in the MOMA Sculpture Garden in 1965. There's some great Tommy Flanagan, and the 16-minute title track is a particular must-hear, with Sonny wandering off mike around the courtyard near the end.

Laura Nyro - Gonna Take a Miracle
The legendary Philly team of Gamble & Huff brought a restrained but meticulous production approach to this record, only unleashing the strings a couple times and putting all the focus on the vocals of Nyro and Labelle (just a few years before they hit big with "Lady Marmalade"). The result, especially on the more sparsely instrumented tracks, is something like street corner harmony in a gloomy cathedral. It's a very precise but hard to describe atmosphere I don't think I've heard on any other record. In retrospect, it was a smart move to do an album of remembered songs, songs that had nostalgic value to Nyro, in what was up-to-date style in 1971. She didn't go to Motown and try to replicate the sound of the original records, instead going with producers and singers who were still on their way up and would go on to help define the sound of '70s R'n'B. Another unexpected but effective move was sequencing what is in my opinion the strongest track last. That song, the title cut, is a tour-de-force heartbreaker, originally a minor 1965 hit for the Royalettes (check out this great video), and a great expression of the breakup-as-Armageddon trope that Jens Lekman was gently mocking/paying tribute to with "The End of the World (Is Bigger Than Love)".

It must be a mark of how much I like Robert Christgau's writing that I can get pissed off about a forty year-old review, but his dismissive B-minus write-up of this record, where the best he can say about Labelle is that they "don't screech once", is pretty galling. I imagine his anti-Nyroism was at least in part a contrarian reaction to her critical darling status amid the earnest atmosphere of the early-'70s singer-songwriter scare, but at least he was able to recognize the greatness of the "Monkey Time/Dancing in the Street" medley. When Labelle start repeating the line "don't forget the Motor City", I get chills.

Roger Woodward - Shostakovich - 24 Preludes & Fugues
This was a WFMU Record Fair find, one of a few 20th Century classical records I picked up, still under the sway of Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise. This is the only version I've heard of this music, and the only thing I've heard from Woodward, who came out of Australia and is apparently still active, having recorded this in his early 30s in 1974. So, I'm thoroughly unqualified to write in depth about this, but I can see where this is in some way a 20th-century response to Bach as well as a chance for the composer to try out a bunch of ideas in short pieces. Though listening to the whole thing in one sitting is a bit taxing for someone of my attention span, there is a variety that sustains interest through the set of 24, with some pieces sounding like Baroque music with a few 20th-century harmonic touches and others more like full-blown Shostakovich squeezed into the prelude-and-fugue form. There's also a Keith Jarrett recording of the Preludes & Fugues on ECM which I'm somewhat curious about. I'm not crazy about his Goldbergs on harpsichord but I'm willing to give Klassical Keith another shot.

Mstislav Rostropovich - Britten - Cello Suites
Another one from the Record Fair. I first discovered Rostropovich through his recording of Shostakovich's first cello concerto, and after hearing this record of the first two of Britten's beautiful and technically dazzling suites for solo cello, I'm on the lookout for more recordings by the great Azerbaijani cellist. There's a record of Britten (on piano) and Rostropovich together that I'd like to hear, and there's also BBC documentary that I think is available streaming online if you do a little digging. I'd also really like to hear the 3rd Britten suite, which was written for but not recorded by Rostropovich. Another win for vinyl: this record has a really cool cover which seems not to have been retained by any of the CD releases of this music.

...and last and also least:

Having Fun with Elvis on Stage
One of music history's most notorious novelty/bizarro items, this is 37 or so minutes of Elvis' stage banter from the Adderol-addled early '70s brought to the public courtesy of Col. Parker's cynical avarice. Judging by this record, Elvis spent much of his time on stage during these years dealing with requests for his sweaty scarves from female fans of all ages.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Best Live Music Seen in 2011

Once again, The Selected Ballads strives to be the last blog to submit a yearly Best Of list. The format this year is my top ten (or eleven, depending on how you count them) live shows of 2011 followed by six honorable mentions and two music-related events worthy of note. The list is in no particular order, except for the first entry, since there was no question that I had to give pride of place to the great, recently departed Paul Motian.

Paul Motian MJQ Tribute Quartet - Village Vanguard
Even if he hadn’t passed away this year, Paul Motian would’ve been my Artist of the Year. I don’t think there was any artist I saw live more times this year than Motian, and as I continued picking up his records, I may also have listened to more of his music than any other artist. The fact that his last year was such an active and creatively fertile one is both inspiring and adds to the sense of loss (what might he have done in 2012?). I think I saw all but one of the groups he brought into the Vanguard in 2011, including two different ones with Masabumi Kikuchi. It’s a tough call, but the MJQ tribute quartet (with a lineup matching the Modern Jazz Quartet’s vibes-piano-bass-drums format) was my favorite. I loved what Steve Nelson on vibes brought to the music, and this group seemed to provoke Motian to some particularly fine displays of beautifully unorthodox swing. If any of the six nights they did play were recorded in some unofficial or official form, I hope the music comes to light.

Ethan Iverson Trio (feat. Buster Williams & Ben Riley) - Smalls
The Bad Plus w/ Joshua Redman - Blue Note
I saw almost as much of Ethan Iverson this year as I did Paul Motian, including their trio with Larry Grenadier at the Vanguard and Billy Hart’s quartet featuring Iverson, Mark Turner and Ben Street. I chose to highlight this Smalls appearance, a trio with two masters in Buster Williams and Ben Riley (who I’ve been enjoying on Hank Jones’ Bop Redux, a Bird-and-Monk-only trio record that I picked up over the holidays), simply because it was the most fun, producing moments of surprise and beauty and swing out of some of the most familiar tunes in the canon.

This year, the Bad Plus were coming off arguably their strongest album, and I can’t imagine any instrumentalist stepping in and contributing more to their already strong material than Joshua Redman did. The fact that I was wedged into a remote corner of the Blue Note's bar area for the Bad Plus set (due to my own lack of planning) meant that seeing the trio at Smalls was a bit more enjoyable, but musically, both groups
succeeded in achieving their very different ends (or was it that they achieved the same end - making good music - by different means?). They don’t need me to tell them this, but Bad Plus fans with an open ear shouldn’t sleep on Iverson’s other gigs (or Dave King’s newish duo with Matt Mitchell, either). 
[Update: just noticed after posting this that DTM linked here the other day. Quite a spike in traffic around these parts. Thanks Ethan!]

Bill McHenry Quartet - Village Vanguard
I saw McHenry numerous times this year, including a fine set at Smalls, but the group he assembled for the run at the Vanguard helped make this the best. Along with two members of Tarbaby (who I regret missing when they played NYC this year), Eric Revis and Orrin Evans (who I also enjoyed this year with his Big Band and sitting in with Ari Hoenig at the drummer’s Monday night residency), Paul Motian was to have been the drummer in this group before his final illness led him to cancel all his gigs. As it turned out, McHenry made an excellent choice in calling Andrew Cyrille, and the group came together beautifully, taking McHenry’s music to places I’d never heard it go. I hope they reconvene soon.

John Hebert’s Sounds of Love - The Stone
This was a one-time, all-star band that totally delivered on its promise, making some of the best music I heard all year with an all-Mingus set. Like an unorthodox general manager assembling a great team out of seemingly incongruous parts, Hebert brought together associates from the different corners of the jazz world he inhabits, resulting in some unexpected but exciting interactions (I’d be surprised if Taylor Ho Bynum and Fred Hersch had ever shared a stage before, for example - the group also included frequent collaborators Tim Berne and Ches Smith). The set was heavy on material from Mingus’ later-period Changes albums (some of my favorite Mingus), and Hersch’s playing managed to be completely right for the material while sounding nothing like Don Pullen, whose piano was such an important element of the original albums. As with Bill McHenry, I saw Tim Berne several times this year with various groups, including Michael Formanek’s (whose latest album with Berne I've just started listening to) and a couple of groups of his own. I’ve also been enjoying the reissue of Julius Hemphill’s multi-instrument solo album Blue Boye on Berne’s Screwgun label.

Bill Frisell Quartet - Village Vanguard
Bill seems to make it into my Best Of somewhere every year, but good is good, and this set was extra-special for me as it fell on my birthday. As a baseball fan, I like to think this quartet’s (Frisell’s usual trio supplemented by cornetist Ron Miles) rendition of the “St. Louis Blues” was a harbinger of the Cardinals’ success (not to mention the resurgence of the hockey team that shares a name with the immortal W.C. Handy tune). The set also included an encore, something rarely seen at the Vanguard, with Frisell and bassist Tony Scherr pulling out acoustic guitars for a loose-but-sublime medley of “Moon River” and “Misterioso”.

Mary Halvorson Quintet - Barbes
By March, Halvorson’s group, now on their second album, had become a more powerful force since I first saw them a year or so before, when the compositions that ended up on Saturn Sings were new and horns had only recently been added to her original trio. On this night, they sounded to me like one of the best working groups around. I don’t know what the future of this lineup is, but If she can keep these players together for another album, there’s no reason to think they won’t continue on their upward trajectory.

Jeff Mangum - Loew’s Theater, Jersey City
I went into this one with some skepticism and cynicism. I’d seen Neutral Milk Hotel a couple of times back in the ‘90s and been strongly affected by them, but I had some doubts about Mangum’s “comeback tour”, playing the same music, with no new material, 10+ years later. Mangum’s still-powerful voice and the thoroughly undiminished power of his songs cut right through my defences, though. The cavernous, slightly spooky Loew’s Jersey Theater was an appropriate venue for Mangum and his ghost-haunted songs. Tantalizingly, he mentioned that he’d like to come back with “the band” and have Julian Koster play the theater’s organ. He mentioned it casually, contributing to the sense that he was just picking up from where he left off in 1999 or so, with no self-consciousness about or need to explain the long gap in his performing and recording career.

Swamp Dogg - Metrotech (Downtown Brooklyn)
Playing to an outdoor lunchtime crowd within the sterile confines of Metrotech - not the ideal conditions for deep soul music to thrive, but Swamp Dogg proved that old school showmanship and professionalism can overcome almost any obstacle if the audience is willing and the songs are strong. I’d thought of Swamp Dogg as primarily a great songwriter who also happened to be a good singer, but had no idea what a dynamic performer he is.

Sean Nelson Sings Nilsson - Rock Shop
Though he sometimes sings Nilsson with orchestral accompaniment, on this night, backed by members of Kay Kay & His Weathered Underground, Sean Nelson brought Harry into the rock club, notably on the set closing ”Jump Into The Fire, but no less successfully on gentler tunes like “Daddy’s Song”, made famous by the Monkees, and Point favorites “Me and My Arrow” and “Think About Your Troubles”. Nelson is a hell of a singer, which you have to be to creditably sing Nilsson, and hearing songs I’ve loved for so long on record done beautifully live was a moving experience.

Marshall Crenshaw w/ The Bottle Rockets - Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago
I was excited about this pairing as soon as I heard about it, and though I wouldn’t have thought to match them up myself, I went in with high expectations and had them exceeded. I’ve seen Crenshaw a couple of times solo and heard some of his live albums, but I’ve never heard his songs sound as good as they did with this lineup. Crenshaw and Brian Henneman’s contrasting styles of guitar mastery added a good kind of tension and gave extra juice to just about every song, making these electric guitar-based songs somehow more electric. Bassist Keith Voegele ably contributed the harmonies that are so important in Crenshaw’s music, and Mark Ortmann proved to be the perfect drummer for MC’s style, reminding me a bit of Pete Thomas, a comparison that had never occurred to me while listening to Ortmann with the Bottle Rockets.

The Bottle Rockets opening acoustic set (coming off their live acoustic release Not So Loud) was also superb, taking advantage of the well-tuned sound of the Old Town’s hall. Just as the Bottle Rockets helped make Crenshaw’s old songs sound new, some gems from their own back catalog showed hidden facets as banjos were added and tempos were changed, in some cases returning to the form the songs had when first written.

Honorable Mentions

Jeremy Denk - Zankel Hall
A severe workout of a recital, pairing Ligeti’s Etudes with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, from a pianist I enjoyed on record and in writing in 2011 and hope to see and hear more from in 2012.

Logan Richardson (w/ Greg Osby, Nasheet Waits, Sam Harris, Burniss Travis) - Smalls
Tremendous group led by the impressive and still rising saxophonist, with Greg Osby (billed as “Egg Cosby”, in the tradition of “Charlie Chan” and “Buckshot LeFonque”), and the mighty Nasheet Waits on drums (I wasn’t able to catch Waits as much this year as last, but his drum duo with Dave King at the Bad Plus-Bandwagon Prospect Park show was one of the year’s great moments).

SIM Big Band - Brooklyn Conservatory of Music
A who’s who of the Brooklyn scene playing compositions by several of the members. Andrew D’Angelo’s passionate solo on Kris Davis’ composition (the title of which I don’t recall) and the drumming of Tyshawn Sorey throughout were the highlights for me.

Don Byron Ivey-Divey Trio - Jazz Standard
Don Byron, whether on clarinet or sax, plays with a combination of wit and soul that seems to be a genuine expression of his personality. This new edition of his Ivey-Divey Trio project, focusing on Lester Young-derived standards and Byron originals, had Geri Allen and Charli Persip (author of How Not To Play Drums and almost the drummer on Sketches of Spain) in one of the city's classiest and most comfortable venues. 

Eugene Chadbourne - The Stone
Chadbourne is someone I’d wanted to see for years, and this solo show reinforced for me what a great songwriter the good doctor is, above and beyond his impressively wacked-out instrumental prowess.

Jason Moran/Mark Helias/Tom Rainey - The Stone
A novel opportunity to see Jason Moran in a piano trio that wasn’t The Bandwagon. The greatness of Moran w/ Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits is well-known, but this was more than a novelty, as these three entered into a high-level dialogue on their first time out.

Two Music-Related Highlights of 2011

Shadows - Collapsible Hole
The Hoi Polloi company, under the direction of Alec Duffy, very creatively exploited the potential of an unusual, garage-like theater space in Williamsburg, to bring John Cassavetes’ 1959 "Beat movie" to the stage. Also a fine study in maximizing available resources, Rick Burkhardt’s music used limited instrumentation to great and varied effect, creating an appropriately hip, improvisational feel without restoring to pastiche or mere "jazziness". Shadows was somehow both irreverent toward and respectful of its source material, managing to generate real emotion and atmosphere.

Nick Tosches - Jefferson Market Library
A theatrical, borderline demonic reading by the dark bard of American music’s underbelly, with an appropriately gloomy, Gothic setting in the Jefferson Market Library and an audience that included major rock’n’roll figures like Little Steven Van Zandt and Lenny Kaye, as well as one of the original Jaynettes (who Tosches writes about in Save the Last Dance for Satan, the book he was promoting at this reading) in attendance.