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.