Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best of 2014 - Live!

Here are The Selected Ballads' choices for the Best Live Shows of 2014, loosely categorized and presented in chronological order:

Best of the Best

January 11
Winter Jazzfest: Threadgill Ensemble Double-Up @ Judson / MOPDTK & EYEBONE @ NYU Law
This night of Jazzfest presented some difficult scheduling choices, but I found my way to what must have been some of the finest sets of the festival. Mostly Other People Do The Killing (playing a set derived from their excellent "hot jazz"/Hot Fives-inspired Red Hot album) and EYEBONE (Nels Cline, Teddy Klausner, and Jim Black in aggressive, electric improv mode) were at the NYU Law School lounge, an unlikely venue in terms of both layout and decor, but one that was apparently conducive to good music. If I'm not mistaken, the enthusiastic audience at one point included Andrew WK. The highlight of the night, though, was Henry Threadgill's tribute to Butch Morris, "Old Locks and Irregular Verbs", played by a large ensemble (with most instruments doubled) in the historic Judson Hall. After moving through many tense, unresolved sections, reminiscent of Threadgill's Zooid music and somehow evocative to me of the cold, rainy city outside, the ensemble joined in a overwhelming, cathartic crescendo, providing what may have been my single favorite musical moment of the year. (As a footnote, I had a decent view of Threadgill's chart/score - he was only conducting, not playing. There seemed to be a series of numbers, perhaps corresponding to intervals? or bars?, for each lettered section of the composition, but it didn't give me much of a clue as to how the piece was really constructed.)

January 23
Neutral Milk Hotel @ BAM
After being quite moved by Jeff Mangum's return to the stage at Jersey City's Loew's Theater, I had high but still tempered expectations for the full band reunion. At BAM, it was multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster's dervish-like joy at being back onstage with his old friends that got to me the most, taking me all the way back to the 40 Watt Club circa 1998. While the band doesn't have the almost frightening level of intensity they possessed back then, they can still deliver a gut punch and do it LOUDLY.

January 27
Marc-Andre Hamelin @ Zankel Hall
Closing out an excellent month of music, I saw Marc-Andre Hamelin at Carnegie Hall's piano-friendly Zankel space. After the very quiet ending of his own Barcarolle was marred by an usher prematurely and, in the context of the hushed hall, loudly opening a door, Hamelin did what does so well on Medtner's "Night Wind" sonata - shine a brilliant, clear light into all corners of a forbiddingly dense and difficult piece of music. He was just as impressive on Schubert's Impromptus, applying his prodigious technique to delivery a finely detailed performance, with sensitivity to every nuance of these pieces.

March 21
The Clientele @ Bell House
Though their Baby's All Right show from later in the year was nearly as good, and featured a substantially different setlist, it couldn't match the emotion of seeing The Clientele's return to America as part of Chickfactor 22. I didn't realize how much I'd missed them.

May 30
Tim Berne/Matt Mitchell/David Torn @ IBeam
This was the second of a three-night run at the cozy IBeam space, featuring Torn solo sets and collaborations between the musicians. Berne and Torn have a long-standing relationship, which includes playing on each others albums and Torn producing and recording some of Berne's. Berne is clearly also just a fan of Torn's and seemed as excited as anyone in the room to be hearing him play solo guitar. The Berne-Mitchell relationship has developed more recently, but has already helped produce some of the finest music of Berne's career. All the musicians were in fine form on this night, with Berne and Mitchell playing some intriguing duo compositions, but Torn's solo set was the mind-blower. It may be reductive to think of him as the "American Robert Fripp", but it's not wrong to mention them in the same breath. There are several clips of this run on YouTube, include this grainy one which gives a nice taste of pure, uncut Torn-ism.

June 25
Elvis Costello @ Carnegie Hall
The Beloved Entertainer, not yet ready to be stuffed and mounted.

September 12
Alarm Will Sound @ BAM Harvey
An all John Adams program, which featured performances of Chamber Symphony, Son of Chamber Symphony, Scratchband, and a section of Hoodoo Zephyr, as well as an appearance from the composer himself (shortly to be at the center of a controversy over the Met's production of his Death of Klinghoffer), who made some comments on the pieces and his ongoing relationship with the ensemble. I managed to score some very affordable, last-minute tickets in the front row, and was privileged to have a close-up view of this new music ensemble negotiating the demands of Adams' chamber music with impressive grace. The two Chamber Symphonies made the biggest impression and left me wondering what other Adams works I've been missing out on. This show was part of the "Nonesuch Records at BAM" series, during which I also caught excellent performances by Brad Mehldau and Don Byron.

Also Very Great

January 10
Neil Young @ Carnegie Hall
Of the two rock legends (and personal musical heroes) I saw at Carnegie Hall this year, I have to give Elvis Costello the slight edge, but Neil Young's solo show, which included stories about his guitars and tributes to his folkie heroes (Phil Ochs, Bert Jansch), was certainly a 2014 highlight. The set may have leaned a bit too heavily on the familiar classics for my taste, but there were some surprises, like the inclusion of four (!) Buffalo Springfield songs. Apparently tickets were changing hands for thousands of dollars, but mine were legit and face value. During the window of time when the crush of Neil fans had knocked out Carnegie's online sales system, I was lucky enough to be within walking distance of the box office - no lines, no waiting, no fees.

June 6
Bill Frisell @ JALC - The Electric Guitar in America
The first of two consecutive nights for me at Jazz at Lincoln Center, this was a mostly non-jazz set from Bill Frisell's working trio (with the welcome addition of frequent Frisell collaborator and mighty session guitarist Greg Leisz). With many of the tunes subsequently recorded for a studio album (Guitar in the Space Age), the repertoire was taken from Frisell's early inspirations, including the Kinks, Byrds, Beach Boys, Link Wray, and Wes Montgomery, as well as excursions into Nashville twang and even Rocky Mountain surf by way of a tune from obscure Colorado band The Astronauts.

June 7
JALC Orchestra w/ Wynton Marsalis - Modern Ellington
This program of mostly later, lesser known Ellington compositions was both a reminder of the depth of the Duke's catalog and a great justification for the existence of a well-supported repertory jazz orchestra that could put on such a program. It sparked my interest in pockets of Ellingtonia, like the Queen's Suite, that I didn't even know existed.

July 11
Guided By Voices @ Irving Plaza
Whether it was the return of drummer Kevin March from the final pre-reunion GBV lineup or the inspiration of playing Pollard-fave venue Irving Plaza, this was by far the best show I've seen from the "classic lineup". And the newest material was some of the strongest.

August 9
Darius Jones/Matthew Shipp: Cosmic Lieder @ Shapeshifter

September 3
Tootie Heath/Ethan Iverson/Ben Street @ Jazz Standard
Always a pure pleasure to hear one of the all-time masters of jazz drumming (and stage banter). This trio's version of "The Charleston" never fails to inspire.

September 23
Tweedy @ BAM
Father and son in a multigenerational band that included Darin Gray, bass legend (in certain circles), playing a set of strong, all-new compositions, plus a set from Tweedy Sr. that showed him to be one of the most compelling solo singer-songwriter-type performers alive. The inclusion of Uncle Tupelo-era Doug Sahm cover "Give Back The Key To My Heart" hit me where I live.

September 26
Peter Evans Quintet w/ Evan Parker @ JACK

October 23
The Bad Plus Play Ornette Coleman's Science Fiction @ NYU Skirball
Augmented by Tim Berne, Ron Miles and Sam Newsome, and backed by psychedelic Fillmore East alums The Joshua Light Show, TBP took on one of Ornette's boldest and most singular works, with bassist Reid Anderson acquitting himself well on two vocal numbers.

November 17
New Pornographers @ Hammerstein Ballroom
The full-on Case-Bejar lineup, touring behind one of their best albums, Brill Bruisers. Dan even played a bit of guitar (for one song, with his back to the audience), and I was a bit surprised to realize how many of the show's big, crowd-goes-wild moments were triggered by his songs.

Theatre/Opera/New Music Unclassifiable Hybrid Category

September 13
Here Be Sirens @ Dixon Place
Written by and featuring Kate Soper and directed by Rick Burkhardt (a formidable performer/composer himself), Here Be Sirens featured the Sirens, the Muses, shipwrecks, and layers of history, quotation and self-reflection, all with three performers and a piano (played as much from inside as on the keyboard).

In The Comedy Department

November 29
Andy Kindler @ Union Hall
I saw some great sets this year from James Adomian, Eddie Pepitone and others, but Andy Kindler at Union Hall was my favorite live comedy of the year. Kindler, a New York City native, doesn't appear here that often, and the Park Slope basement was packed with a crowd heavy on notables - I spotted Ira Glass, Todd Barry, Tom Scharpling, and members of Yo La Tengo. I'm sure it's been pointed out before, but watching Andy Kindler perform is like being inside Andy Kindler's head while Andy Kindler is performing. Other comedians do the "commenting on my act while I'm doing it" thing, but no one that I know of does standup like Kindler, not really. You'd have to be a little demented to even try.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Threadgill Quintets: Zooid @ Roulette

I attended the first of two nights of new quintet works by Henry Threadgill at Roulette. Each of the two nights was to feature a short piece followed by two longer works featuring a particular member of the ensemble (the quintet was essentially the most recent incarnation of Threadgill's Zooid group minus bassist Stomu Takeishi). On this first night, the short piece, "In for a Penny, In for a Pound", bore the most resemblance to Threadgill's previous compositions for Zooid. The longer quintet pieces, the first featuring guitar (Liberty Ellman) and the second trombone and tuba (Jose Davila), seemed to reflect a new approach to compositional structure for Threadgill, while still sounding like Zooid music. The featured instrumentalist was given responsibility for counting in certain sections and was afforded a fair amount of solo space, during which they seemed less constrained by Threadgill's intervallic language than in previous Zooid works. There were also solos by other members of the quintet, as well as duos and brief written ensemble passages. The longer quintets seemed to be divided into many short sections, and Threadgill and Davila were kept busy switching between instruments (Threadgill on flute, bass flute, and alto sax; Davila on tuba and a variety of mutes on trombone).

For me, one of the most characteristic Zooid sounds, and one that was present in these quintet pieces, is Threadgill soloing on flute over a chromatically rising and falling bassline, provided by the tuba and rhythmically amplified by guitar and cello. I don't have the musicological chops to analyze it, but I hear in it a kind of questing, impassioned intelligence that must reflect some facet of Threadgill's worldview. While these new pieces didn't reach the heights of Threadgill's tribute to Butch Morris, "Old Locks and Irregular Verbs", that premiered in January at Judson Hall, they certainly indicated that one of the most fertile compositional minds of our time is still seeking and finding new means of expression. On my wish list for 2015: more new music from Henry Threadgill.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ian McLagan

The Guardian has the best piece I've seen so far on the legacy of Ian McLagan, the Faces and Small Faces keyboardist who died today at 69. I had the intense pleasure of seeing McLagan perform the Faces' "Glad and Sorry" and "Debris" with Billy Bragg when he was touring as a member of Bragg's Blokes backing band. Despite having traveled in the most rarified rock company - touring and recording with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan - McLagan seemed a down-to-earth sort, accessible in person and online at his self-maintained website. Not only was McLagan one of rock's greatest keyboardists - few wielded a B3 as well - he also wrote one of the most purely enjoyable rock memoirs and compiled one of the most essential rock box sets. Mac was scheduled to be at the Bowery Ballroom in just a couple weeks, opening for Nick Lowe - what a show that would've been.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Peter Evans at JACK

I was at the excellent, new-ish performance space JACK in Brooklyn on Friday for the first two sets of a weekend-long Peter Evans residency (which ends tonight, 9/28). The first set was a duo of Evans and Evan Parker, the 70-year old British sax titan slash Euro free improv legend. Evans is a trumpeter of massive technique and creativity, and it was a wonder to see him and Parker go one-on-one. There were some amazing moments when Evans seemed to be tunneling single-mindedly into an idea, only to turn on a dime in reaction to something Parker played, revealing the close listening that was happening in the middle of a firestorm of musical invention.

A set from Evans' current quintet followed and was equally remarkable on its own terms. With Jim Black's powerful drumming and Sam Pluta live-processing the sounds of the various instruments, this is a heavy band. One rather audacious and unsettling moment toward the end of the set: Evans was playing something that sounded a bit like sobbing (animal cries in the night? a restless baby?), and just as a visceral emotional reaction was starting to take hold Black came in with a jarring, pounding beat, completely shifting the mood and direction of the piece. This is a heavy band.

Evans and the current pianist in his quintet, Ron Stabinsky, are on the latest Mostly Other People Do The Killing record, Blue, which I picked up at the JACK show. I hadn't heard anything about the record before buying a copy. From the track list, it was obviously a full album cover of Kind of Blue, and I was wondering what sort of wild spin MOPDTK had put on these familiar tunes. Then I saw the liner notes, which consist of the Borges story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, and I guessed that what lay in store was going to be nothing less than a note-for-note transcription of the famous album. This, of course, raises a lot of interesting questions, many of which are addressed quite lucidly by the band's leader and bassist here. I haven't listened enough to comment on the nuances that this project needs to be judged by, but as a concept it's a helluva thing to have actually followed through and done.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Billy Wilder's second-to-last film, Fedora, recently had a run at Film Forum. It appears to be coming to Netflix in October, and it's worth a look, especially for fans of Wilder or his masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard. Fedora is an ambitious film, with a rather audacious script by Wilder and longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond. Wilder the writer set Wilder the director some very difficult problems, including a lead actress required to play multiple roles and ages, a complicated plot structure, and a major twist deployed about half way through. The resonances with Sunset Boulevard - William Holden's voiceovers, a reclusive, great star of the past contemplating a comeback (complete with a punishing beauty regimen) - are clear, and Fedora plays like a meditation on some of the same themes, viewed from twenty years down the line. If the later film isn't as effective, a major reason may be the lack of a Gloria Swanson-level talent to pull off the highly challenging, lynchpin role. Holden is fine playing a Hollywood survivor - embattled, cynical, but still chasing the Hollywood dream after the business has passed him by. It's easy to imagine him as a Joe Gillis that escaped Norma Desmond's mansion and persisted through the decades until he became the relic, still trying to make one more great picture.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Reupholstering the Mobius Chair

AUM Fidelity's dual record release concert Saturday night at Shapeshifter Lab featured some of that label's heaviest demonstrating two distinct approaches to improvisation. The duo of Matthew Shipp and Darius Jones, supporting their second Cosmic Lieder album, The Darkseid Recital (someone involved is a Jack Kirby fan), played a series of song-length pieces covering a very wide range of moods/feels/effects. Jones has become one of my favorite saxophonists in the past couple years, and his performance Saturday reminded me of one of the reasons why: no matter what techniques he employs, no matter how far out he goes, I can always hear a vocal or songful (as well as soulful) quality that can be piercingly emotional. "Cosmic lieder", as unlikely as it sounds, is a surprisingly accurate description of what the duo achieves. At times, this song-like quality made me consider Shipp in the traditional role of a pianist accompanying a vocalist - but accompaniment that was telepathically responsive, bold, and fully formed. Quite simply, Shipp always seemed to be right there with Jones, playing the right thing at the right time - whether dense chordal passages or repeating rhythmic figures - though I'm not sure there's any strict musical analysis that could tell you why it was right.

Farmers By Nature (Craig Taborn, William Parker, and Gerald Cleaver), though displaying comparable acuity and invention, tend to take the scenic route. Their new double-disc album Love and Ghosts (like the new Cosmic Lieder, recorded live) consists of two sets worth of extended improvisations, and Saturday's performance felt like a single, unbroken piece in which ideas developed slowly, building to a climax or shifting direction by collective intuition. Although all three had moments when they took on a dominant or featured role, I was most often focused on Parker, who drew me in at the start and held my attention for much of the set - the man never seems to be lacking inspiration. With the venue's AC off for recording purposes, my capacity for close listening was starting to fade toward the end of this night of music, but I knew I'd just witnessed something beyond

Parker and Shipp, though they didn't play together on Saturday, are by now a legendary combination, having logged many miles together in the David S. Ware Quartet in addition to collaborations on their own projects. I've been listening to them on the recent trio record, Alternating Current, with drummer Jeff Cosgrove. Superbly recorded by Jimmy Katz (Cosgrove's cymbal work is just one of beautiful sounds that can be enjoyed in great detail thanks to the sonic clarity), who also recorded parts of The Darkseid Recital, the record begins with a very long group improvisation, followed by shorter pieces dedicated to Andrew Cyrille and Paul Motian (Shipp's playing on Motian's "Victoria" is really something to hear).

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Comedians

Elvis Costello's 38-song solo performance at Carnegie Hall last week (I saw the second of two nights - Jon Pareles reviewed the first in the Times) spanned his career and ranged from the biggest hits to the deepest cuts (and some that haven't even been cut). Among the most pleasant surprises for me was a performance of "The Comedians", which I first got to know via Roy Orbison's recording on Mystery Girl. As Elvis details in his reissue liner notes for Goodbye Cruel World (where the song first appeared), "The Comedians" went through a few iterations, including the sort-of intriguing but not really memorable 5/4 arrangement on Cruel World, before being significantly and successfully re-tailored for Orbison with new words and changes. This "final", Orbisonian version of the song, which is what Elvis performed at Carnegie Hall, describes a man looking down from a Ferris wheel but has the drama of a highwire act, especially performed solo and live.

If "The Comedians" is a somewhat lesser-known item, "Tommy's Coming Home", from Costello's songwriting collaboration with Paul McCartney (which yielded another of the show's highlights, "So Like Candy"), is a full-blown rarity, having never been officially released or even performed live by either of its composers before this show. Despite only existing in bootleg form, Nora O'Connor and Robbie Fulks discovered it and worked up a really fine, beautifully harmonized version. With or without McCartney, I hope Elvis takes a crack at this one in the studio. Maybe he should call Nora O'Connor.

While the solo format put Elvis' talents as a singer and guitarist on display, the show was a forceful reminder to me of his deep and continuing achievements as a songwriter and the impossibility of dividing his work into anything like cohesive periods or phases. (I was also reminded that I need to update and revise this list.) He's written great songs in five different decades at this point and still seems very much engaged in the work. As if to illustrate that point, he's named this solo tour for a song, "The Last Year of My Youth", that he's still in the process of revising.  

The Selected Ballads will be back soon with a roundup of some of the many, many albums I've acquired in the last few months and maybe some notes on other recent shows.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Recent Shows & Records - The Return of The Clientele, (Not) Bloodcount, Tzadik Acquisitions

The Clientele (Chickfactor 22 @ The Bell House)
Although they conjure images of London like no other band, I also associate The Clientele's music with New York. They were in my headphones a lot when I first came to the city, and even though I assume they were referring to the street in London, I can't walk down "Delancey Street at night" without thinking of "Joseph Cornell". That song was part of the setlist for their first U.S. show in years, at The Bell House on March 21st. The band, playing in their original trio configuration, seemed slightly shaky at first and were briefly hampered by a vocal-deficient sound mix. As the mix was corrected and the crowd started responding enthusiastically, front man Alasdair MacLean visibly and audibly gained confidence and the music took off, taking the audience with it. We were all reminded that the immersive sound world created by MacLean's voice and guitar (applying Spanish/classical means to psychedelic ends) and the James Hornsey-Mark Keen rhythm section was not just a studio creation but something that was alive and in the room.

The band seemed surprised at the reception, and I noticed a glance from MacLean to Keen that seemed to say, "Can you believe this?". You can hear and see some of this in this video of "Reflections After Jane". I think it was after this song that MacLean joked about how nostalgic the audience must be. Although the set was made up largely of material from the band's first few albums, early singles, and EPs, the later "Here Comes The Phantom" received one of the biggest reactions of the night. Based on the way it hit me, I suspect the springtime feeling of the song connected with the winter-weary New York audience. All in all, this was one of the most moving and satisfying shows I've seen lately, with the clear sense of a band and audience exchanging positive energy. Whether or not MacLean, Keen and Hornsey are inspired to write and record more Clientele music (MacLean's current project, Amor de Dias, is quite excellent and I was disappointed to have missed their opening set the previous night), this set left no doubt that they've created a sound and a body of work that continues to have meaning and find an audience. To me, these three musicians are too good together not to continue collaborating in some fashion. They play the Merge 25 festival in North Carolina this summer (I'm tempted to make the trip), and I look forward to seeing what happens after that.

(To get a better idea of what went down at The Bell House, I recommend this piece.)

Not Bloodcount @ The Stone
Another reunion show (of sorts) happened at The Stone last week, at the beginning of Jim Black's weeklong residency, featuring the members of Tim Berne's influential quartet Bloodcount (Black, Berne, Chris Speed and Michael Formanek) playing as Not Bloodcount. In an interview on Jeremiah Cymerman's 5049 podcast, Black seemed to suggest that the billing had something to do with Berne's reluctance to revisit old projects, but it could also be taken as a simple acknowledgment that they were not going to be playing Berne's Bloodcount compositions. The set was, as far as I could tell, wholly improvised, but they inevitably hit on some themes and grooves that recalled the Bloodcount sound (which, I must admit, I only know from records) and their shared experience showed in the seemingly effortless way Berne and Speed harmonized and supported each other's parts, Black and Formanek locked into rhythmic patterns that slowly developed or emerged out of nowhere, and the group collectively structured their long improvisations into coherent forms. Formanek seems to play a linchpin role in any band I see him in, and I come away more impressed each time. I saw his big band play a memorable show at Shapeshifter Lab last year, and I hope some of that music makes it onto record.

Various Tzadiks
I took advantage of Downtown Music Gallery's recent Tzadik sale to pick up a bunch of discs released on John Zorn's label. The amount and quality of music that is continually being released on Tzadik is rather incredible, and the packaging defies the conventional wisdom that the CD is a dying, disposable format. Zorn has worked with and released music by some of my favorite guitarists, including Bill Frisell and Robert Quine (lately I've been enjoying The Gnostic Preludes and Silent Comedy with Frisell and Tears of Ecstasy with Quine), but the common thread in the albums I've enjoyed most from this recent haul is Marc Ribot. Asmodeus, part of the already voluminous and still growing Masada series, features Ribot in a trio with Trevor Dunn on bass and G. Calvin Weston on drums. I hope this album has gained some kind of reputation among guitarists since it came out in 2007, because it contains some of the most intense, insane rock/free/whatever playing I've ever heard. Ipos, a Masada album from The Dreamers, is a more stylistically diverse and less intense effort, though the album's deliberate mix of genres serves as a showcase for Ribot's ability to sound idiomatically masterful and yet absolutely individual in a wide range of styles. At the Mountains of Madness, a double live album by Electric Masada, is the only one of the three discs I've mentioned that features Zorn on sax, but here too Ribot is in the spotlight, alchemizing Zorn's Masada language into living, improvisational fire.