Monday, December 31, 2012

Best Live Music Seen in 2012

Being less a list than a year-end roundup in numbered sections. The order is not to be taken as a ranking of relative quality, except perhaps for #1, which was pretty much transcendent.

Fred Hersch/Dave Holland/Billy Hart @ Jazz Standard
This is the one I've found myself thinking back on most often.

Milton Babbitt Retrospective @ CUNY Graduate Center
Seeing Philomel live is an experience I'll take with me to the underworld.

Oliver Lake @ 70
In the latter half of 2012, especially the period around his 70th birthday, Oliver Lake seemed to be everywhere in NYC. Playing with several different groups at several different venues, it was hard to keep up with all his activities, but I did manage to catch him a few times. Sets with his organ quartet at Shapeshifter and playing new material with Tarbaby at Le Poisson Rouge were memorable, but the high point for me came at Jazz Standard, where Lake joined Andrew Cyrille and Reggie Workman as Trio 3 with Geri Allen guesting on piano. It was as good as those four names would suggest. At Shapeshifter, Lake was preceded by the Darius Jones Trio, who played beautifully and had Lake sit in for a couple tunes of inter-generational altoism.

Tim Berne @ Shapeshifter Lab X3
Like Fred Hersch, Tim Berne figured in my Best of 2011 Iist as part of John Hebert’s Mingus tribute project Sounds of Love. While I didn’t manage to see Berne’s most acclaimed new project this year, Snakeoil, I did catch him in several other groups, including three excellent sets at the new Shapeshifter Lab - trios with David Torn & Ches Smith (Sun of Goldfinger) and Nels Cline & Jim Black (BB&C) and a new septet (the Tim Berne 7) that includes the members of Snakeoil. The guitar trios were both beasts, with highly formidable guitarists and drummers capable of taking the music at any moment from eerie soundscape to titanic freak-out. As for the septet, I haven’t yet gone back and watched it again on YouTube, but I remember having the feeling as I left Shapeshifter that this was one of the best sets I’d seen all year. The combination of Ches Smith on vibes, Matt Mitchell on electric and acoustic piano and Ryan Ferreira on electric guitar brought a sort of depth-of-field and range of color I’d never heard before in Berne’s music. I’m hoping this band, or at least some version of it, has a future within the ever-expanding Berneverse.

Andrew D’Angelo @ Shapeshifter Lab X2
Andrew D’Angelo turned up in last year’s list as a member of the School for Improvised Music Big Band, where he stood out among a very distinguished lineup with show-stopping solo on a Kris Davis arrangement. This year, I followed through on my resolution to check out some of the saxophonist's own projects, two of which I saw at Shapeshifter Lab - a quartet with Bill McHenry, Mike Pride on drums and the young bassist Noah Garabedian, where the two saxophonists displayed some of the best musical chemistry I saw all year, and D’Angelo’s own big band, the DNA Orchestra. D’Angelo writes knotty, rhythmically and melodically intricate tunes in the bop lineage, but plays them with a passion that never allows the music to sound like an intellectual exercise.

Peter Stampfel & The Ether Frolic Mob @ Brooklyn Folk Fest
Stampfel makes friendly, joyful, and joyfully twisted music that still has and probably always will have the power to inspire WTF? reactions, putting him in good company among the truly singular American artists.

Ethan Iverson/Ben Street/Tootie Heath @ the Village Vanguard / The Bad Plus’ On Sacred Ground @ Damrosch Plaza
After several Smalls appearances (two of which I mentioned in 2010 and 2011 roundups) and a live album, it was about time Iverson got to bring his simple-but-profoundly-rewarding concept of playing standard jazz repertoire in trio with some of the Master Elders of the music into the Vanguard. The tunes spanned several decades (from Eubie Blake to Paul Motian) and were well-chosen to showcase the many aspects of Tootie Heath’s drum mastery, to the benefit of a very appreciative audience. If you missed it, the NPR stream will give you a pretty good taste. Seemingly at the opposite end of the spectrum scale-wise from standards at the Vanguard was The Bad Plus’ take on The Rite of Spring, presented with synchronized video projections, in front of a big crowd outside at Lincoln Center (what they had in common: deep attention to rhythm). In the big outdoor venue, On Sacred Ground almost felt like Stravinsky as arena rock, in the best possible way - I even saw people attempting to groove to the Rite's still-radical-sounding mixed meter. The authority with which drummer Dave King, in particular, handled those rhythms was a marvel to behold.

Psychic Paramount @ LPR & Pitchfork Festival / Earth @ Littlefield
Earth’s slooow tempos and repetitive, heavy but spacious riffs add up to a sound that reminds me of Noguchi sculpture - massive but refined, static but seething with potential energy. There’s a temptation to resort to metaphors involving coiled desert snakes and the like, and "menace" is certainly a word that comes to mind. Not a band to be compared to immovable stone objects, the Psychic Paramount are all about forward motion. Although it was fun to see them outside on a sunny day (well, maybe “overcast” is a better word - it poured rain soon after their set) at Pitchfork Fest in Chicago, they were more in their element inside at Le Poisson Rouge (although the set was a bit early by their standards, at least it was in a basement, albeit a pretty fancy one) where they could deploy the smoke machines and strobes that make theirs one of the most unified presentations in music today - they actually care about matching a look to a sound, and it pays off to overwhelming effect.

Nick Lowe @ Town Hall / Human Hearts @ Hank’s Saloon / AC Newman @ Rock Shop
In which I lump three of the great songwriters of our time, all quite distinctive, somewhat arbitrarily into one list entry. Nick Lowe is a tremendous, charismatic solo performer, but with a backing band (including the soulful Welsh keyboardist and singer Geraint Watkins) his songs, new and old, come into full bloom. Franklin Bruno (as The Human Hearts), celebrating the release of his excellent (and in its Kickstarted-funded vinyl incarnation, beautifully packaged) new album Another, did some songs with only a drummer and was joined on others by guest guitarists and singers, including Laura Cantrell. Bruno is a fine guitarist and I'd love to see him sometime with a keyboardist who could get into some of the Steve Nieve-ities that show up on the new record and recent EP. I saw Carl Newman at the record release party for his latest (and best) solo record, and while he didn't play as long a set as I imagine he would on a regular headlining appearance, the combination of his new songs and new band easily made it one of the most satisfying nights of music of the year.

In which I cram A Few More Outstanding Performances into one entry to make an even ten.

The JACK Quartet @ Abrons Art Center

Lee Konitz's Les Enfants Terribles (Bill Frisell/Gary Peacock/Joey Baron) @ the Blue Note 

Billy Budd @ The Met
A fine night at the opera with Benjamin Britten’s Melville-by-way-of-E.M. Forster all-male sea tale. Most impressive: the chorus of sailors (“heave away”!), though the closing epilogue, with Captain Vere alone on stage reprising the opening and completing the frame that contains the rest of the story, is hard to forget.

Jason Kao Hwang’s Spontaneous River @ Brecht Forum

Repeat Performances

I tried to select different artists, or at least different projects or lineups, for this year’s list, but a few acts from last year that I saw again in 2012 are worthy of another mention.

I put Bill McHenry’s quartet w/ Andrew Cyrille, Orrin Evans, and Eric Revis on last year’s list for what I believe was their first engagement at the Vanguard. I saw them at the same venue twice more this year, including during the March run that yielded their new record, La Peur du Vide, and was reinforced in my opinion that this is one of the most exciting groups going. I’ve read varying opinions on this group from some fine critics, often hingeing on the McHenry-Cyrille pairing (as opposed to McHenry’s previous, longstanding collaboration with Paul Motian): pro, con (scroll down), and some of both. While I happen to like both drummers in the context of McHenry's music and admit that the change makes a big difference, I would argue that the change in chording instruments, from Ben Monder’s guitar to Orrin Evans’ piano, is the most important factor in the new McHenry sound, something that comes through very dramatically on the first track of La Peur du Vide, “Siglo XX”. And as anyone who’s seen Tarbaby live can attest, the combination of Evans and bassist Eric Revis is one that always produces urgent, exciting music. The new album, while very strong, hasn’t yet managed to displace McHenry's previous release, Ghosts of the Sun, as my favorite of his - McHenry-Motian was a special combination, and I believe it reached its peak on Ghosts. Based on the way the current quartet were playing in October, though, I'm very eager to hear more from them, live and on record.

Another group from last year's list that I saw twice more in 2012 was Marshall Crenshaw backed by members of the Bottle Rockets. Neither of the two performances I saw (indoor and outdoor shows at City Winery) surpassed the 2011 Chicago show that saw, but they each presented new aspects of this partnership (I've now seen the “Marshall Rockets” in three different configurations, differing in which one or both of the BRox guitarists were available). While City Winery would probably be fine for a Crenshaw solo show, it felt wrong to be seated at a table sipping Gamay while the full force of the three-guitar lineup kicked in. The Winery's back yard stage was a better setting, and the outdoor show featured a tune I hadn’t seen them do at the previous shows, a very creditable cover of Hendrix' “Manic Depression”.

I mentioned Jeremy Denk’s Zankel Hall pairing of the Ligeti Etudes with the Goldberg Variations in last year’s roundup. I saw him again this year, playing a far smaller and more casual (if I remember correctly, Denk wore jeans) venue, Le Poisson Rouge. He played some of the Etudes again, but the centerpiece of this recital was a time-stopping performance of Beethoven’s last sonata (Op.111), which is paired with the Ligetis on Denk’s latest album.