Sunday, September 2, 2012

Heard and Seen - Projectors, Shipp on Farfisa, Konitz, Ornette on Film

Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan  
The new DPs album has grown on me after some initial disappointment. Though I've found much to like, I still have a hard time seeing it as a step forward from its predecessor, Bitte Orca, an album that sounded like a sustained, cohesive statement of a new direction without obvious predecessors. Swing Lo is a more stylistically diverse record, but perhaps as a result, there are more weak spots, and I don't think the more Bitte-like songs (like the opening "Offspring Are Blank") quite reach the highs of "Cannibal Resource" or "Temucula Sunrise" (to be fair, that's a very high standard to meet). 

I'm not sure whether to describe it as cloying or grating, but "Dance for You", programmed smack in the middle of the record, breaks up the flow for me to the point where I've taken the liberty of editing it out of the album. Its admittedly strong melody did succeed in getting stuck in my head, but I wish Dave Longstreth had left the melisma on this one to Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle. I'm not quite ready to accept Longstreth singing more or less directly about love and feelings, but he does pull off a solid, honest-to-God love song with "Impregnable Question", an undeniable album highlight. 

While Swing Lo isn't a Nashville Skyline-level WTF? veer into romantic crooning, Longstreth does seem to be trying out some new vocal personas. He really is crooning on the closing "Irresponsible Tune", doing what sounds to me like an impression of late-model Nick Lowe, and it works, so much so that I'd like to start the campaign to get Nick to cover it. Another successful move into what sounds like new territory is "Unto Caesar", with lyrics written in some sort of courtly, high Dylanese leavened with casual, sassy responding harmony vocals and a horn section (plus some prominently mixed studio chatter). Just the sort of eccentric mix of elements that get this band accused of being pretentious or weird-for-weird's-sake, but it all adds up and makes a strong impression, especially sequenced after the beautifully minimal arrangement, featuring (amplified? synthesized?) thumb piano, of "The Socialites". For me, this is one of those rare backloaded albums, with a strong run of tracks at the end making up for some weak spots in the middle.

Black Music Disaster 
A single live improvised track with two electric guitars, a Farfisa organ, and drums. Hearing a Farfisa in this kind of long form, rock-leaning improvisational context makes me think of Rick Wright on the early Syd-era Pink Floyd records - not a reference point you'd normally expect when the keyboardist is Matthew Shipp. John Coxon from Spring Heel Jack and J. Spaceman (Spiritualized) are the guitarists and British improviser (and Derek Bailey collaborator) Steve Noble is on drums. I don't know about Noble, but Spaceman and Coxon have recorded with Shipp before, and it was my appreciation of Spring Heel Jack's Live album (which also features Han Bennick, Evan Parker, and William Parker!) that made me pick this one up. I haven't listened to Live in a while but recall it having quite a bit more space than this record, which is pretty full-on start to finish, with Shipp's seething Farfisa expanding into all the sonic cracks like a luridly colored psychedelic fog. 

Lee Konitz - Satori and Enfants Terribles
One of my better finds at Chicago's great Jazz Record Mart last month was Lee Konitz's mid-'70s Satori. The lineup is pretty stacked - Martial Solal, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, with producer Dick Katz sitting in on electric piano on the free, swinging, and seemingly collectively improvised title track. Though I've never really connected with the only other record I've heard with Konitz and electric piano - Pyramid, with Paul Bley and guitarist Bill Connors - the two electrified tracks here (Solal also switches to electric on "Sometime Ago") fit just fine with the rest of the album - Konitz's approach remains the same and it's just a different texture added to the mix. Solal - virtuosic, restless and unpredictable - has a fine rapport with Konitz developed over many collaborations (their shared, deep commitment to improvisation is very much in evidence on the fine live duo album Star Eyes). Though each has recorded with the saxophonist separately, this is the only Konitz record I'm aware of with both Holland and DeJohnette. Only a few years removed from their epochal recordings with Miles Davis, they're relatively restrained here, but swinging and subtly easing the music forward into adventurous territory. Holland and Konitz have a nice duo passage on "On Green Dolphin Street" which helps make it one of the standout cuts on the album.

Konitz himself is in good form (he sounds particularly strong to me on the closing "Free Blues"), as he was recently at the Blue Note with another sterling lineup - Bill Frisell, Gary Peacock and Joey Baron - playing under the name Enfants Terribles. Some of the tunes I remember hearing were "Devil & the Deep Blue Sea" (intro'd by Peacock), "Subconscious-Lee", "I'll Remember April" (with a beautiful intro and melody statement by Frisell), and at some point, a little hint of "Misterioso". This group has a live album coming out from an earlier Blue Note appearance, which, based on the performance I saw, should definitely be worth getting.

This is another band, like Bill McHenry's quartet with Orrin Evans and Eric Revis, that I imagine might've featured Paul Motian if he was still with us. But as with Andrew Cyrille in McHenry's group, having Joey Baron is not exactly "settling" - it's just a different kind of awesome. This was my first time seeing Konitz live, though I've heard live recordings from various periods of his career, including two highly recommended albums with Motian recorded 50 years apart - Live at the Half Note with Warne Marsh, Bill Evans and Jimmy Garrison, and Live at Birdland with Brad Mehldau and Charlie Haden. While the early records with Warne Marsh featured some very tight and tricky heads, these days Konitz seems to cultivate a loose atmosphere in which improvisation is valued above all else and form can take care of itself. I don't know at what point Konitz started moving in this direction, but it was already coming into focus (or becoming more diffuse, depending on how you look at it) on Satori. Since Konitz has returned to many of the same tunes throughout his long career, it would be possible (and fascinating) to trace his development by comparing some of the various versions - "Just Friends", for example, or his own "Subconscious-Lee" which he's been playing for over 60 years at this point (for a little context on that, try to imagine how Charlie Parker might've been playing "Confirmation" if he had lived into the Obama administration).

Ornette: Made in America

Finally, I'd urge anyone who's an Ornette Coleman fan to try to see Shirley Clarke's restored and rereleased documentary, Ornette: Made in America, which recently opened at IFC in New York. Made in the mid-'80s and focusing on a Fort Worth (Ornette's birthplace) performance of Skies of America with Prime Time and the Fort Worth Symphony, this is far from cinema verite. Clarke, who directed and edited, deploys a large battery of devices and effects to get at the nature of Ornette and his music - otherwordly, forever futuristic but always rooted in the blues. We see a (very much pre-CGI) Ornette on an exercise bike in space, Ornette eating BBQ and talking about King Curtis, a string quartet (w/ Denardo) in a Buckminster Fuller terrarium, and William Burroughs (no special effects needed), among many other strange and wonderful things. Ornette's early music isn't much represented (and I don't think the great Billy Higgins appears at all), but there is some amazing footage of Ornette and Charlie Haden rehearsing with 12 year old Denardo, plus a bit of Blackwell and Cherry, and Ornette and Robert Palmer playing with the Master Musicians of Jajouka. In other words, wonders upon wonders.   

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