Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Masabumi Kikuchi / Ornette Coleman

I was saddened to hear of the passing of Masabumi Kikuchi this week. Seeing him on piano at the Village Vanguard with Paul Motian truly expanded my conception of music and beauty. I put down some impressions of one such appearance here. After Motian's passing, I saw Masabumi play twice more, including a solo performance at the Motian memorial concert. It was a high point in a concert full of wonderful moments, an elegy as only Masabumi could conceive it, like a man groping his way through a dark forest, in search of his lost friend, their lost sound.


In my negligence in updating this blog, I let the passing of Ornette Coleman go unmentioned here. Here are some earlier pieces touching on the now-departed master/magus/maverick - an early effort on the occasion of his Jazz at Lincoln Center appearance and a brief review (near the end of this post) of Shirley Clarke's wonderful documentary. The two albums I put on after hearing of his death - Soapsuds, Soapsuds, an album of duos with Charlie Haden, and Of Human Feelings with Prime Time - reminded me of the incredible range of expression his career encompassed, although they were released only two years apart in the late '70s.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Owls, Etc

I've been checking out drummer Jeff Cosgrove's new trio record of improvised pieces and standards, Conversations With Owls. The most striking piece on the record is a sort of reverie on "My Favorite Things", a wholly successful approach to the familiar tune that's miles away from both Julie Andrews and John Coltrane. Cosgrove and bassist Martin Wind lay a perfect foundation for pianist Frank Kimbrough as he allows the melody to slowly emerge, as if rising up out of a dream. The set's other standard, "I Loves You Porgy", has a similar dreamy quality and is beautifully played by all, though it represents a more familiar approach for this tune than the reinvention of "My Favorite Things". Of the free pieces, "Stacks of Stars" is exemplary. It begins with solo bass, then the drums enter, Kimbrough appearing about two minutes in with some off-kilter music-box sounds, eventually finding a groove before the trio lets things fall apart. "The Shimmer", effectively sequenced after "My Favorite Things", brings the album to a strong conclusion with a brief but memorably thematic improvisation. Conversations With Owls is a rewarding listen start to finish, and it has me wanting to investigate Frank Kimbrough's music further. I tried to come up with some reference points for his sound on this album - Paul Bley, Russ Lossing, Ran Blake, Craig Taborn - but none of those were really right.

Prior to this album, Cosgrove recorded a number of compositions by Paul Motian, whose music I've been listening to lately in podcast form. Uncle Paul's Jazz Closet, hosted (appropriately) by the great drummer's niece, is a community radio show out of Maine that features a wide range of Motian-related recordings, including some real rarities. More info is available here and you can listen here. I thought I knew a lot about Motian's career, but I'm learning and hearing new things every episode. Here's an intriguing album I learned about from listening to the show: it's got a stellar lineup and a very similar title to the one discussed above.

A couple new and upcoming albums I'm looking forward to are Mikal Cronin's MCIII (if III is as much of a leap forward from II as II was from the self-titled debut, it'll be a mind-blower, and the two tracks I've heard so far suggest it might be) and another third album, You've Been Watching Me, from Tim Berne's Snakeoil, this time with the addition of Ryan Ferreira on guitar. I've seen Ferreira play with Berne on a few occasions, as well as in a John Adams concert at BAM, and I'm excited to hear him on record as part of what seems to be Berne's flagship band these days.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Listening to Early Fusion

After mostly ignoring the genre for years, I’ve recently, and I suppose belatedly, been getting into fusion. For decades now, fusion has been kind of a joke or a dirty word to a lot of jazz and rock fans, but some of the earliest records, the ones that really created the genre, still sound pretty radical. I’ve been trying to piece together the origin story, what was happening circa-1969/1970 with the central cast of characters in this music. Before hearing Emergency! by The Tony Williams Lifetime, I’d always assumed that Miles Davis created fusion pretty much single-handedly. Unlike the group effort that birthed bebop (some combination of the efforts and inspiration of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, and Thelonious Monk), Miles had dug some Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Sly Stone records, convened some sessions, and a new genre was born. Right? Well, maybe we can at least co-credit Tony Williams and John McLaughlin.

On the fusion timeline, the 1969 sessions for In A Silent Way preceded those for Emergency! - McLaughlin plays on both, but it was apparently Williams who coaxed the guitarist to move to the U.S. and introduced him to Miles, presumably on the strength of McLaughlin’s debut album. Extrapolation was cut in England with John Surman, still some years away from beginning his long association with ECM, and Tony Oxley, who would go on to avant-legend status after playing drums with the likes of Derek Bailey, Anthony Braxton, and Cecil Taylor. I didn’t recognize the bassist on Extrapolation, Brian Odgers, but he sounds great in this group - turns out he had quite a career as a session man, playing on Histoire de Melody Nelson, Elton John’s hit “Levon”, and Lou Reed’s first solo album. Extrapolation is a very fine album, much more jazz than rock, with a real collaborative feeling - McLaughlin’s name is on the cover but Surman (on saxes) is given just as much prominence. McLaughlin plays wonderfully, as always, but his guitar tone is still within the bounds of traditional jazz tastefulness at this stage.

The recording of Bitches Brew commenced later in ‘69, after Emergency!, with McLaughlin but not Williams. If Silent Way was hugely influential on a lot of later music and a clear predecessor to fusion - the big leap after the significant but more gradual steps in a new direction represented on Miles’ 1968 releases - it’s really sui generis and beyond genre. Where In A Silent Way is calm, Emergency! and Bitches Brew are both aggressive, even menacing in parts. Emergency! is a trio record, but it sounds just as big as the large ensemble of Bitches Brew, and many people have commented on the fact that Miles apparently needed two drummers to replace Tony Williams. Williams was clearly one of the greatest drummers in the world at this point, but as a 23 year old jazz veteran he was ready to take on some new roles - singer, lyricist, bandleader. Life Time and Spring had come a few years earlier, with Williams as leader, but now he was assembling a working band - Lifetime was to be his vehicle going forward.

Recorded in New York post-Bitches Brew, McLaughlin’s Devotion, a quartet record with Larry Young (his Lifetime bandmate), Buddy Miles (Electric Flag, Band of Gypsies), and Billy Rich (Buddy Miles, Taj Mahal), is probably the most purely and overtly rock of any of the albums under consideration here. The McLaughlin heard on Devotion is miles away (no pun intended) from Extrapolation, recorded only a year previous. He’s wielding the hammer of the gods now, kicking it into interstellar overdrive. With two titles referencing dragons, however, we should perhaps be thankful it’s all instrumental. My only reservation with Devotion is that while it’s an overwhelming experience to listen to, I don’t find any of the tunes particularly memorable - it blows my mind, but leaves little behind. Perhaps McLaughlin, near the end of a contract with a small label, Douglas (run by legendary jazz and rock producer Alan Douglas), and headed for bigger things, was saving his best tunes for some of his other projects.

With 1970’s Turn It Over, Lifetime may have pared their ideas down from the double-album expansiveness of Emergency!, but they still had plenty of them. The three original members contribute tunes, which range from very high intensity to trippy and spaced out, and there are covers of Chick Corea (the outstanding, two-part album opener, which gets to an almost boogie-blues place in the second part, briefly suggesting a proggier Canned Heat) and John Coltrane (“Big Nick” as Hammond organ workout). One inescapable feature of Turn It Over is Williams continued commitment to singing - ”This Night This Song” is something of an uncomfortable listen, with the spare, loose music and Williams’ vocal combining to produce a spooky mood not far from There’s a Riot Goin’ On, which was released the following year. Another vocal number, “Once I Loved”, features eerie organ and a croony Williams melody that somehow reminds me of Alex Chilton’s version of “Nature Boy”. New Lifetime member Jack Bruce makes a strong impression on bass but gets only one vocal feature. Apparently only released as a single at the time, “One Word” closes out the reissue version of the album on an emotional high note.

McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra was a band interested in fusing more than jazz and rock, incorporating influences (and members) from around the world. Their 1971 debut, The Inner Mounting Flame, is a killer, with blazing tempos, engaging and varied compositions and well-realized arrangements. Whereas on Devotion, McLaughlin’s sound is fantastically heavy, here he’s more about speed and precision, with a tone that’s more biting or cutting. On some tracks with Miles Davis, McLaughlin runs wild within the loose, improvisational structures, creating guitar sounds rarely heard before or since. Here, he has laser focus, working with a tight ensemble and often blending with Jerry’s Goodman’s violin. The live version of “The Noonward Race” that appears on the reissue shows that the tightness and intricacy this band was capable of at fast tempos was not just a studio thing. There are four other key words to say about this album: Jan Hammer Ring Modulator!

Other Miles-alum-heavy early fusion band I’ve only begun checking out is Weather Report. I picked up their second album, I Sing The Body Electric, in its original LP format, and it surely makes most sense that way - the two sides are so completely distinct. The first, studio side is eclectic and relatively restrained, with several guest musicians, including guitarist Ralph Towner, and even a small chorus on one track. I usually go straight to Side 2, recorded live in Tokyo with just the core quartet. The energy level is much higher, certainly recalling electric Miles in places. The side closes with an aggressive version of Zawinul's "Directions", which was a concert staple for Miles in the early ‘70s, and there's a remarkable moment in the “Vertical Invader” medley that sounds like Miles has suddenly materialized onstage to take an intense wah-trumpet solo. This is apparently Miroslav Vitous bowing his bass through an effects rig, but I’ve never heard a bass sound like this. There's an originally Japan-only release that presents more of this concert, which I should probably pick up.

An important early fusion group with no direct connections to Miles Davis (unlike everyone mentioned above) was the Soft Machine, whose early exposure in America was as Jimi Hendrix’s opening act. While many of the artists discussed above arrived at fusion from the jazz side, adding rock elements to their music, The Soft Machine came at it from the other direction. Though they remained almost exclusively guitarless until their 8th album, Bundles (the guitarist was Allan Holdsworth, who also turned up in a rebooted Lifetime), their sound (and personnel) changed dramatically over the first several years of their existence. In 1969, the Softs were still an art rock or prog band (though not so easy to categorize), but the move to fusion was nearly complete by 1970’s Third, with Robert Wyatt’s immortal “Moon in June” something of a holdout. (“Moon in June” isn’t fusion, isn’t jazz, but it’s no rock song, either. It isn’t anything but Robert Wyatt music.) Fourth, from 1971, is perhaps more focused, though not necessarily better, than Third, but still finds the group drawing on a wide palette of sounds and inspirations. There’s a prog feel to some of the complex compositions, free jazz in some of the horn solos, and some rock elements - fuzz, distortion, and wah sounds in the bass and keyboards, and the still mostly rock-oriented drumming of Robert Wyatt (in his last outing with the group).

The best of this early fusion has the excitement of discovery and experimentation, even if some of the experiments prove to be dead ends. At this stage in the music's development, there was often a pleasing balance between virtuosity and precision on one side and on the other, a willingness to embrace moments where reach exceeds grasp and texture trumps technicality. As fusion became more codified, more established as a music market category and, ultimately, smoother, Miles, the forefather, only seemed to get weirder, louder, more experimental and less marketable. As with some of his previous innovations, he left it to his colleagues and followers to develop, explore, and refine particular aspects of his music while he moved on. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Kaiser at The Stone, Frisell at The Vanguard

Henry Kaiser-Melvin Gibbs-Weasel Walter at The Stone

World-class guitarist and Antarctic diver, associate of the Grateful Dead and Werner Herzog, Henry Kaiser is a prolific recording artist and restless sonic explorer. The only set of his recent week at The Stone that I caught was a monster, a trio of heavies going at it hammer and tongs. Sonny Sharrock was one reference point for the music they played, as Kaiser steered the opening improv into Sharrock’s “Blind Willy” and followed by asking Gibbs about his time playing with the legendary guitarist. The between-song banter mostly revolved around mutual respect, with Kaiser talking about seeing Gibbs with Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, and the younger Walter noting the influence of the other musicians’ records in his formative years. Gibbs played plenty of bass, from space-filled dub/funk patterns to fervent, melodic solos high on the neck. One highlight of the set came when Gibbs began soloing over a loop Kaiser had set up. Kaiser himself reentered and the piece reached truly ecstatic territory, with the musicians pushing each other higher and higher. Kaiser used two guitars and a battery of effects to generate sounds ranging from some superb, fairly straightforward rock tones to weirdo sound sculpture. Weasel Walter played the role of disrupter (something he seems to relish), sometimes locking in with but more often playing against what the guitarists were doing. Walter injected non-stop intensity, improvisational energy and surprise to the set with his singular language, incorporating metal drum techniques to great effect.

Bill Frisell at The Village Vanguard

As Henry Kaiser’s week at The Stone wrapped up, Stone director John Zorn began a week at The Village Vanguard, with different configurations of musicians performing his music each night. On the second night, Bill Frisell (Melvin Gibbs’ bandmate in the short-lived but memorable trio Power Tools, with Ronald Shannon Jackson) played his first-ever solo set at the venue where he’s appeared so many times over the years with his own groups and in the great trio with Paul Motian and Joe Lovano. Frisell was set up at the front of the stage, a dual amp setup behind him, Gnostic Trio bandmate Carol Emanuel’s harp beside him (in place for the following set), Telecaster in hand, pedal board at his feet, and a music stand full of Zorn compositions in front of him. If it was strange seeing Frisell, a master improviser, playing through a set of fully composed music, the music itself had a familiar sound to anyone who’s heard much of Zorn’s voluminous and still-growing catalog of Book of Angels recordings. Whether the characteristic sound of these pieces derives from the use of the Phrygian dominant scale or some other Sephardic modes Zorn may have discovered, they have proven to be quite adaptable to a wide variety of musical settings. The solo guitar arrangements that Frisell played were arresting, quite beautiful in places, and clearly took massive concentration and skill to pull off, with several pieces requiring the guitarist to build up and play on top of multiple simultaneous loops. Frisell seemed briefly flustered while negotiating some of the most complex passages, but it was truly an amazing performance, especially for the way the guitarist was able to express so much of his own musical personality through Zorn’s pieces. Frisell’s style is so fully developed and refined at this point, so thoroughly personal, that anything he chooses to play is going to be suffused with his sound. While Frisell tackled the challenges of Zorn’s music, his titles were another matter. There was a very funny moment when he tried announcing the songs, realized he wasn’t sure how to pronounce them, and appealed to Zorn (standing in the back of the venue) for help. Though Zorn left Frisell hanging on this point, the music (and the big hug they shared at the end of the set) reconfirmed the health of the longtime creative relationship between the two.