Saturday, April 21, 2012

Symphony of Souls, etc.

Symphony of Souls at Brecht Forum
Last Saturday, I saw Jason Kao Hwang's Symphony of Souls performed by the composer and his 38-piece "improvising string orchestra" Spontaneous River. The room at the Brecht Forum (on the far western edge of the West Village) was small enough that the orchestra took up about half of it. Even if every seat had been filled, the audience to performer ratio still would've barely topped 1:1. While I enjoyed watching the musicians at close range and being immersed in the sound, it is a shame that we don't live in a time and place where a piece like this could've been played in a big hall and touched off a Rite of Spring-like riot.

Though it has been done by Braxton and others, it still seems like a major accomplishment to put together this large of a group of musicians who can creditably improvise while making their way through a complex score. Yet this wasn't a Dr. Johnson's dog-walking-on-its-hind-legs type of thing, but a fully-realized, powerful piece of music that moved confidently through improvised and written, fragmented and unison sections, producing thrills and surprises that seemed to be shared by audience and performers. In his composition, Hwang seems to have handled the basses (there were 6 bassists) and drums particularly well, deploying them to power some strongly rhythmic passages that provided effective contrast to the relatively open spaces featuring acoustic guitars (which I'm tempted to describe as "post-Derek Bailey") and solo improvisation. Although individual solos were not a dominant part of the work, I thought the violins stood out in this area, with a particularly fine solo early on from (I believe) Mazz Swift.

A few more things heard and seen recently:

This East Village poetry walk audio guide, written up by the NY Times and featuring a soundtrack of John Zorn music and narration by Jim Jarmusch, makes for good listening even if you're not actually walking the route. If you're not up to speed on the so-called "Second-Generation New York School", this will put you on the path (literally and figuratively).

All too appropriately, soon after listening to the poetry walk, which talks about the changing neighborhood, I heard that the Lakeside Lounge is closing at the end of this month. The Lakeside, just off the corner of Tompkins Square Park, was a place I never went to enough, but I did see some excellent shows there and the jukebox certainly lived up to its reputation.

I'm not a big fan of Charlie Rose (I can't completely trust a man  who rocks the loafers-with-no-socks look), but I have to commend him for putting together a fine hour of TV in tribute to Christopher Hitchens. The panel was made up of Hitch pals Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, and the poet and journalist James Fenton. As to be expected, the anecdotes flow like Hitchens' favored Johnnie Walker Black.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Heard and Seen - Windmills to Snuff Box

Paul Motian - Windmills of Your Mind
It couldn't have been a particularly easy task singing while backed by late-period Paul Motian. Left to fill in the thin-stroke pencil sketches of the song forms by Motian, Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan, Petra Haden comes through beautifully on this record, with an appealingly straightforward style which admits just enough sweetness to sell the love songs ("Easy Living", originally from a Jean Arthur film of the '30s, is a high point). I haven't yet heard On Broadway 4 w/ Rebecca Martin, but it's hard to imagine any singer doing better than Haden in this musical context. (I've also been meaning to get Haden's album with Bill Frisell from several years ago.)

The format on Windmills is standards sung by Haden, interspersed with generally brief trio versions of Motian tunes w/ Frisell and Morgan (there have to be more tracks on this album than any other single disc Motian release). The Motian tunes come off very well as miniatures, including two I don't remember hearing before - "Backup", built around some sort of minor arpeggios played by Frisell, and "Little Foot", which could almost be mistaken for one of Frisell's folk/country-flavored compositions. Hearing Paul Motian play a standard ballad was and is (on his many recordings) a sublime experience. From all evidence, he didn't treat standards as merely vehicles for improvisation - he played tunes that meant something to him. I don't know what other releases of previously recorded material might be planned, but if Windmills turns out to be Motian's last as a leader, an album that so eloquently demonstrates his love for songs would be a fine conclusion to one of the great recording careers.

Whether released on Winter+Winter, like Windmills, or ECM, Motian's albums always have excellent sound. They're clearly recorded with precision and care (though the ECM reverb treatment sometimes goes a bit over the line to my ears - something I noticed recently when listening to the still most excellent It Should've Happened A Long Time Ago from 1985). I was thinking about this issue of recording quality and record labels after finally catching up to Mark Turner's Dharma Days from 2001. I've wanted to get this one for a while, and after hearing it, I can understand why Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel became such important influences on the next generation of musicians. The record also features one of my favorite drummers, Nasheet Waits, and I was immediately struck by how good the drums sound - both the performance and the recording quality. Every detail of Nasheet's playing seems to have been captured vividly and three-dimensionally. Not coincidentally, Dharma Days (a major label - Warner Bros. - release) was recorded at NYC's Sear Sound, by most accounts one of the last great old-school recording temples, with a legendary and priceless microphone collection. A lot of excellent work gets done in small and even home studios, but how many future jazz albums will be recorded to the highest quality standards as record label money dries up?

I noticed in some of the press for Tim Berne's new ECM album that he'd been putting out live albums for the last several years because the money just wasn't there for a proper studio date. If this is the case with a major figure like Berne, where does that leave all the up-and-comers who deserve to be properly documented? Though lo-fi can convey a certain immediate, crucible-of-spontaneous-creation feeling (Greg Osby's bootleg-esque Banned in New York comes to mind, though ironically it was released on the legendarily sound-quality-conscious Blue Note), music that's full of intricate details and shadings of tone color will obviously benefit from being recorded on top quality equipment by serious professionals, something that doesn't come cheap, even in the digital recording age. Of course, there's a huge middle ground between bootleg quality and Sear Sound, but is "good enough" good enough? A recent post over at DTM has sparked a good conversation on the ethics of file sharing and its effect on the survival of the small labels, like ECM, that have been so important in documenting the music.

David Torn - Prezens
I saw David Torn at Barbes last year w/ Tim Berne, Trevor Dunn and Ches Smith, but I was still not quite prepared for the ass-kicking/name-taking that occurs on this album (if you saw ECM on the label but didn't know anything about Torn, some of the more aggressive sounds - such as on "Bulbs" - might be pretty surprising). Berne is here, along with Craig Taborn on various keys and electronics and Tom Rainey on drums. Like Smith, Rainey sounds more than comfortable in heavy rock territory when the music takes that turn, and I think there might even be some drum'n'bass-y moments, though I don't know that style well enough to really say. (Rainey on this album back-to-back with some of his trio work with Fred Hersch would make for a mind-blowing blindfold test.) Together with Torn's guitar, effects, and loops, they establish a broad sonic palette over the first several tracks, and the variety of sounds and moods easily sustains interest over a 70+ min running time. I would've thought all the sonic cards would be on the table by the second-to-last track, but then Torn throws in acoustic slide guitar, string-emulating mellotron, and tabla-like percussion on "Miss Place, The Mist...". Even though it's five or so years old, Prezens is one of the best things I've heard this year so far.

JACK Quartet at Henry St. Settlement
This concert, part of Carnegie Hall's American Mavericks series, featured string quartets by Charles Ives (No. 2) and Ruth Crawford Seeger, and a quartet-plus-electric-guitar piece ("Physical Property") by Steven Mackey. I was hearing all the pieces for the first time, so I'll just record a few surface impressions. The Ives struck me as a pretty major work, built on an effective structure of three movements (titled "Discussions", "Arguments", and "The Call of the Mountains") - the first setting the table, not-too-gently ushering the audience into Ives' sound world, and the last two building to powerful, though quite different, conclusions. The Seeger quartet seemed to derive most of its considerable interest from rhythm - Seeger apparently was a pioneer in applying serial techniques to rhythm and duration, as well as pitch - and certainly would require multiple listens to fully grasp. Mackey, appearing on guitar with the quartet, had the probably impossible task of following these two pieces. Though I think the work was, on the whole, successful and certainly moved along with a strong momentum, I was unsure what to think about Mackey's guitar language. Was his occasional flirtation with rock guitar cliche a sort of fun, effectively anarchic juxtaposition with a string quartet or did it just sound a little dated? Or are these elements intended to have a similar effect on someone who grew up listening to rock guitar as Ives' hymn and popular song quotations might've to one of his contemporaries?

Snuff Box
I just watched the complete series (comprising only six episodes) of Snuff Box, the sketch comedy from Mighty Boosh alums Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher (who appears in this rather amazing new Nick Lowe video). Though it aired on the BBC almost six years ago, it's only recently been released in the US. Snuff Box can safely, though perhaps inadequately, be classified as a descendent of Monty Python and Mr. Show in the lineage of sketch shows - Berry and Fulcher are unafraid to go to dark places (the show is mostly set in a private club for hangmen) but also indulge silly and surreal impulses while making good use of linkages between scenes to give each episode a smooth but unpredicable flow.

The use of music in Snuff Box is more sophisticated than most of its predecessors, thanks to Berry, who composed and performed the retro/psych/lounge-y theme music that appears in various forms throughout the series (I had the theme stuck in my head for days after seeing the final episode). In one episode, a seemingly pointless recurring character (a Python-esque bowler-hat-and-umbrella type with a penchant for profanity - a common trait for Fulcher's characters) touches off a sort of swear word concerto that unexpectedly resolves into the closing theme - a brilliant moment of profane whimsy, like something out of a hard-R-rated Sesame Street. Some of the shows most successful sketches are music-themed, including left-field parodies of the Old Grey Whistle Test and instructional guitar videos and a recurring bit that has an old-school songwriting duo having uncomfortable encounters with rock stars (at one point, they murder Elton John).

Unlike Mr. Show, which also had a writing/acting duo at its center, Snuff Box doesn't rely on a deep supporting cast. Though there's some fine supporting work from Richard Ayoade, a familiar face in British comedy, Guy Ritchie-favorite Alan Ford, who plays the priest in the hanging scenes, and the ensemble of old-timers at the hangmen's club, the show focuses almost entirely on Berry and Fulcher. They frequently appear as two or more characters in the same scene, most memorably playing their main characters' brothers. The Berry brother, a near-deaf musician, is one of the show's finest creations. I found Fulcher grating and basically unpalatable when I first saw him as Bob Fossil on the Mighty Boosh, but he's grown on me, especially as I've realized that being grating and unpalatable is his gift, something that he's developed to a world-class level. The Berry-Fulcher relationship on Snuff Box somewhat resembles that of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip and Tristram Shandy, with Fulcher and Brydon as the barely tolerated junior partners (it may or may not reflect some kind of trend that real names are used in both of these fictional relationships).