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.

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