Saturday, April 12, 2014

Monk Would Talk to Me, I Bet Ya

Playing right now: Jimmy Giuffre 3 & 4 - New York Concerts
(This thing is going to blow a lot of minds.)

The CD version of the newly released Thelonious Monk Paris 1969 album includes a DVD of the entire performance, along with an interview filmed on that same tour. Anyone who knows anything about Monk knows that the pianist was a man of few very succinct words. The thought of hearing him speak is cool, but one can't exactly expect enlightenment from it.

After watching the interview, I'm tempted to say that it might not simply be the case that Monk was an aloof guy. It could be that people just approached him the same way, like he really was a freak who played freaky music. And they only threw very general, vague questions at him, which left him to try and make the best of a lame situation in hopes of getting it over with soon. The guy interviewing him in the segment, Jacques B. Hess, seems to like his music. He gets very effusive about "Round Midnight" (which, of course, he calls "Round About Midnight") and "Crepuscule With Nellie," saying that they're the work of a genius. But he basically asks Monk to respond to that claim. What kind of question is that?

Hess is French and speaks to the camera in French, switching to English to talk to Monk. No less than three times during the interview, he tells that camera, "Monk does not like to talk very much," which comes across as fairly patronizing. When Monk finally does agree that his work is genius, he seems to be doing it to placate Hess, who takes it further by saying basically, "And there you have it. Monk is a genius."

Orrin Keepnews once said that when he first met Monk, the pianist remembered a review Keepnews had written of one his early Blue Note 78s. The review seemed to grasp, or attempted to grasp, what Monk was trying to do on the record, rather than saying, "Wooooooooah, what's going on HERE?!" Because of that, Monk was a little more friendly and conversational to Keepnews because at the time, (long before they worked together at Riverside) no one was giving Monk any credit for what he did. I can't understand why people would approach an interview subject that way that treated them like a circus freak. Sure, you don't want to take their work as golden but don't come in with skepticism on your mind.

And for pete's sake, don't ask yes-or-no questions.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

CD Review: Blaine Lanehan - Meta Music #27

Blaine Lanehan
Meta Music #27

Guitarist Blaine Lanehan first gained some recognition as part of a free improvisation collective in Evanston, IL. They garnered some press in their hometown despite the fact that their house concerts were attended only by the 10 members of the collective and a handful of girlfriends.

His noisy string abstractions have been located in Chicago for the past 12 years where he's generated controversy and won fans for his intense, almost deafening performances, usually performed with just a six-string guitar and a bank of pedals. On one tour he cleared the room at Pittsburgh's Garfield Artworks with a 30-minute performance consisting of guitar feedback and a 15-foot tape loop that was strung across the stage, recording the racket on one reel-to-reel deck while another played the results back 10 seconds later, providing sonic variations on the initial noise. Although he began and ended the piece, Lanehan was not in the building as it unfolded. He was down the street arguing over a lost food order.

While that performance in particular might evoke John Cage, Lanehan gets especially prickly when compared to any experimental forefather, especially Cage. With a sanctimony that Steve Albini would appreciate, he has gotten in the faces of people - even supporters about to drop money on his extensive catalog -  who dare to make a connection between the guitarist and the grandfather of experimental music. In the rare interviews he's given, it's hard to tell if the attitude is just an elaborate put-on or if he really means it. (It should be noted he has expressed a love of Derek Bailey, boasting that he owns every release on which the guitarist appears.) The Wire has praised his work, saying 15-CDr set No Hands on the Fretboard was a fearless document that probes deep into the recesses of an individual's tempermental lobe.

For the last three years, Lanehan has devoted himself to what he calls "meta-music," an approach in which the preparation for a performance is equally as valuable, if not moreso, than a performance itself. He claims that the thought process that goes into the music gives the music "a pre-destined quality that will either make it suck or not suck. That alone determines why Fleet Foxes are so awful and my music isn't," he has stated in liner notes to previous releases.

Meta Music #22 was recorded last year at the Hungry I-Land on two mikes placed above the stage. It comes with an elaborate drawing that Lanehan sketched to chart the music. Math theories about sound arcs appear on graph paper next to meticulous drawings of his effects pedals, many of which he built himself.

A continuous 32-minute piece, it begins with nothing but audience noise and clinking bottles for the first three minutes. Gradually, we hear him setting up his equipment, amp first. A delay pedal is plugged in next, which loops the buzz of a guitar cable being touched on the plug. Lanehan can be heard talking to himself as he adds different pedals and bends the amorphous sound. A girl in the audience asks, "When is the show going to start?" Lanehan snorts and says, "It started seven minutes ago."

Things don't always go as planned, he says, but "that randomness is what meta music is all about." After a while the snaps of a guitar case are heard, followed quickly by an array of expletives. Apparently Lanehan forgot to pack his guitar in the case that evening.

CD Review: She & Him - Two Virgins [Record Store Day release]

She & Him
Two Virgins

It's rare that I get around to reviewing something before it comes out and even more rare to get my hands on a Record Store Day release in advance, but somehow the fates have played into my hands for what must be the most unique full-album tribute ever made.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono made the original Two Virgins album in 1968, shocking the public with a record that few people heard because they couldn't get past the front cover (if they actually got a hold of it at all), which showed the two of them in the buff. Had the sounds on that record come in any other type of sleeve, they probably would have been forgotten as soon as they hit the record store. What one heard was little more than Lennon and Ono noodling around with tape loops and piano, and none of it happening in any linear fashion. The tape recorder was turned on and they just went about their business, or they didn't, since there are several patches where nothing is really happening. It's a perfect example of you-had-to-be-there.

So why release an complete "tribute" to such an amorphous recording? The answer seems to be, why not? Zooey Deschanel has been a career out of showing how to be an eccentric in the spotlight, so kudos for her. Her partner in crime M Ward seems to put more effort into making their Two Virgins a tad more compelling than the original too. Though it follows the same sonic arc as the original, his guitar and her ukulele give the performance a bit more musical quality which sounds a little more interesting. Their use of a grapefruit on the record label, instead of an apple, seems like a tip of the hat to Yoko Ono (who published a book called Grapefruit), so they seem serious about the entire homage.

And, of course, there's the cover. The advance copy, alas, didn't have one, but it can be seen here. It's impressive that Deschanel and Ward took it to the extreme and posed nude without making goofy faces or doing anything ironic to set off the album. Coupled with the fact that it's limited to 421 copies for Record Store Day, that makes it a release to seek out, even if you'll only play it once.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

LP Review: Doug Wieselman- From Water

Doug Wieselman
From Water
(88 Records)

From Water combines a few of my favorite things: a vinyl-only release, a solo instrument album and music inspired by flowing bodies of water. Any album that's released exclusively on vinyl (or at least on vinyl with a download card) should at least be acknowledged since it's still a bold move. When an improvising musician releases a solo recital (with the exception of the piano since the harmonic possibilities are greater), it usually presents an interesting study of the performer's mindset. As far as the last, personal criteria, I've always found that sitting near a fountain or a flowing creek to be a very calming experience.

Doug Wieselman's set of solo clarinet pieces is not in the same league as something like Anthony Braxton's For Alto. This is not a series of extended technique performances, but in fact tunes inspired by distant trains, water and traveled roads. The music is melodically stark, closer to Brian Eno's ambient music than to Wieselman's Downtown New York/improv/jazz surroundings. Yet the repetitive nature of "Pacific 2" and "Train" brought back memories of his "Montana Section," from the 1990s album by the New York Composers Orchestra, where a two-bar melody was echoed and embellished by reeds and brass, evoking the wind blowing through the Montana trees.

To create a similar approach on For Water, Wieselman used an '80s loop pedal run through a Fender Vibrolus amp. After playing a clarinet line that provides structure to the music, it repeats independently, allowing him to play countermelodies on top of it. "Train" really does evoke its title, chugging down the tracks that are around the corner and through the woods. This rather lo-fi process gives the music life, although the loops maintains a rich sound rather than sounding like a badly miked clarinet.

The music moves slowly and can be unnerving to anyone who wants to hear something with more momentum. While most of it sounds repetitive, Weiselman's faithful reading of John Lennon's "Julia" takes an already simple song and slows it down even further, lasting for what seems like an eternity. But From Water asks that expectations of the whole set are put aside. "Julia" appears halfway into side two, and if you've made it this far, it's easy to let it wash over you. Wisely, he follows that piece with the sole break in the set. "Tennessee Valley," which appeared on side one, is performed by an 11-voice choir. Bathed in warn, natural echo, the piece really succeeds in part because the group blends together like one or two strong voices.

The album might be a fairly specialized performance, but it's an engaging one nonetheless. We can all use something like this to keep the mind relaxed.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

CD Reviews: Aram Bajakian & John Zorn

Aram Bajakian
there were flowers also in hell
(Sanasar Records)

Guitarist Aram Bajakian says he didn't set out to make a blues album when he was putting together there were flowers also in hell. But the influence of the blues - specifically what an uncle used to play for a younger Bajakian on 1940s steel guitar - played a major role in this album.

To recap this New York-based guitarist's c.v., he has released an album on Tzadik with his guitar/bass/violin group Kef. He was also a member of Lou Reed's group up to the end of that guitarist's life. To prove that he has a delicate side to his playing, Bajakian has also worked with Diana Krall. As a leader, the guitarist seems to herald the next generation of avant guitarists, where the prickly attack of Ribot commingles with the lilt of Frisell, creating a new sound in the process.

Not knowing the blues connotation of the album, the double-time bounce of opener "Texas Cannonball" has an almost cartoonish quality at first. But as bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Jerome Jennings give him a bouncy E, Bajakian shoots all manner of shrapnel out for a few choruses, before it downshifts into a dirty groove. This segues seamlessly into "Loutone" where the volume drops to the point where the trio is barely there, playing a groove that evokes a digital loop (with a bassline that comes close to the one in "All Blues") and brings it back up for a fitting climax. It has a loose, jam-in-the-studio quality to it, with a level of excitement that doesn't always come across in this kind of performance.

From there, the group touches on spaghetti western in "Requiem for 5 Pointz," as delivered by Ismaily's lonely sounding, echo-heavy bass, which kicks on the fuzz at the end. "Sweet Blue Eues" starts smooth and sensual before a couple tracks of Bajakian's picking get heavier. "Japanese Love Ballad" features muted guitar plucks between bluesy string bends, helping it live up to its title. In keeping with that mood, the album ends tenderly with "Julia," a piece for solo guitar that features a lot of tremolo, harmonics and bent strings. It, and the whole album, might not really be blues, but this music comes with the same amount of feeling felt in good blues.

John Zorn

Although the cover to this album credits John Zorn, the music actually comes from Abraxas, which also includes Bajakian. Led by bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz they are playing a new set of "tribal rock" songs from Zorn's Book of Angels written for this unit. With Eyal Maoz as Bajakian's guitar foil and Kenny Grohowski on drums, they take this music in directions that are unpredictable yet very engrossing.

"Metapsychomagia" nearly covers all the stylistic bases as the opening track - with a Ventures twang, a little more Morricone suspense and heavy rock all coming together throughout in seven minutes. "Sacred Emblems" which immediately follows, has a melody that almost comes off like instrumental pop, with a country twang giving it accents and making it more engaging. The middle tracks get into more heavy, progressive rock. "Celestial Mechanism," in particular has Bajakian and Maoz playing some repetitive figures in unison, evoking thoughts of Robert Fripp. But even when one guitar yowls in the background behind the other's lead ("Squaring the Circle"), the music never collapses into free chaos. They really create suspense in the music by giving equal weight to both the foundation of the music and the frenzy that occurs on top.

Surprisingly - thought not necessarily, for a Zorn project - the volume dies down for two final tracks, ending the album on a gentle, thoughtful note. "Nameless God" turns off the distortion pedals for a clean delivery of shifting rhythms and lines. "Anima Mundi" has a repetitive lick that, like "Loutone," could be a looped pedal, but actually sounds too lifelike and precise to be a machine.  Saving both of these tracks for the end brings things full circle and helps to appreciate both the composer and the skill that Bajakian brings to his projects.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

CD Reviews: Cory Wright Outfit & Ton Trio II

Cory Wright Outfit
Apples and Oranges

Ton Trio II
On And On
(Singlespeed Music)

Singlespeed released the Cory Wright Outfit's disc back in the fall, while Ton Trio II's album just appeared a little over a month ago. Like previous items on the label (which is run by saxophonist Aram Shelton) both reveal an uninhibited sense of adventure, marked by strong compositions and a tendency to blow freely as the situation calls for it.

Wright's group starts out in familiar surroundings but by the end of Apples and Oranges, they're planted firmly in their own unique territory. The same can be said for several of the compositions and the multiple sections they contain. They get further leverage from the horn-heavy lineup of Wright (tenor saxophone, b-flat clarinet), Evan Francis (alto sax, flute), Rob Ewing (trombone) who are joined by Lisa Mezzacappa (bass) and Jordan Glenn (drums).

"Freddie Awaits the Sleepers" has a stop-time melody that emphasizes the off beats. The band plays changes during Ewing's solo, while he cuts his own melodic path with plenty of energy. The saxes each take their own solo and keep the mood going. Ewing later gets in a spirited chase with Wright (now on clarinet) and Francis (flute) in "Low Impact Critter," which begins with both reeds playing rapid eighth notes in unison. The same two reeds add a rich texture to "The Sea and Space." It begins like a ballad showcase for Ewing but by the end, the group locks into an arty vamp for an alto solo that has a dirty funk tone when Francis starts blowing.

"Whaticism" also packs a lot of ideas into a seven-minute track. In the spirit of mid-'60s post-bop (reminds these ears of the between-free-and-structured work of perhaps Grachan Moncur III and Andrew Hill) everyone gets room for a brief, concise solo, including a twisted line from Francis. "Eyedrop," the longest track at 11 minutes, slowly evolves from muttering horns to a slow riff in 3/4 where the clarinet whine is answered by the other horns. Wright leaves his mark here both in a solo and in what he's written. The West Coast players make an impact that can be compared to Shelton's Fast Citizen comrades in Chicago, so this album will hopefully get into the hands of more eager listeners.

Shelton's alto is the guiding force in Ton Trio II, which also has Scott Brown on bass and Alex Vittum on drums. Ornette Coleman's inspiration comes to mind with On and On, as the compositions often feature all three instruments playing the themes in unison. Shelton also admittedly uses "folky" melodies in his writing, which immediately grab the ear. But he too likes to employ different settings in the space of one tune. After a boppy theme in "Let's All Go," Brown plays an out-of-tempo solo that moves through a wide range of his bass, eventually leading into a 6/8 vamp that gives Shelton room to blow long and short phrases. Vittum then gets his spot to play with dynamics and lengths of phrases before the brief head gets restated.

"We Were Told" by contrast is a slow, mournful piece where Shelton sounds like he's trying to approximate the woody tone of a clarinet. As it goes on, he squeezes the reed until he gets a strong growl out of it. Just drums accompany him in his solo, and then Brown grabs the bow to restate the theme and take his own solo. While things more very deliberately, the execution by the trio keeps it compelling.

Interplay is a crucial part of Ton Trio II. Whether they're playing sparse tracks like "Findings" or short, brighter moments like "Layover," they also keep their energy focused on each other and on a forward direction. Kudos to Singlespeed for two more strong additions to their catalog.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

CD Review: Jon Irabagon - It Takes All Kinds

Jon Irabagon
It Takes All Kinds

When listeners got past Rahsaan Roland Kirk's skill at playing two or three saxophones at once, only then would they pick up on his biggest talent: the ability to draw on an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz that would fit in any musical situation. He could pay homage to any of the saxophonists in the Ellington band. He probably could've stood up to Ben Webster in a cutting session.  He could also pick up what Coltrane was laying down (at least to a certain extent). In a way he did both of the last two in "From Bechet, Byas and Fats" on the Rip, Rig and Panic album.

Maybe it's a bit of a stretch, but Jon Irabagon is gearing up to be a new generation version of Kirk, in terms of scope and skill. After winning the Thelonious Monk Institutte Competition a few years ago, he released a solid, straight ahead album on Concord. Concurrently, he was already playing with Mostly Other People Do the Killing (and continues to), who respect their forefathers but aren't confined by them. On his recent albums as a leader he's released blistering free improvisation and orchestrated compositions.

But before scrambling to catch up with his back catalog, the curious listeners can discover several facets of his personality on It Takes All Kinds. Recorded live at the German Jazzwerkstatt Peitz Festival last year, he performs an original set with drummer Barry Altschul and bassist Mark Helias. In a sense, the set presents a history of the tenor saxophone and where it's come since 1965 (an arbitrary date, offered just for reference). The unaccompanied intro to "Quintessential Kitten" begins in a manner akin to Sonny Rollins. The honking groove in the middle of "Wherewithal" recalls Archie Shepp. When Irabagon really starts to wail later in the set, there's some David S. Ware in his execution.

However, these comparisons happen in passing and don't literally reflect Irabagon's approach to the tenor. He has digested all of this music and reworking it to shape his own desires. Altschul (who had Irabagon on his excellent The 3dom Factor last year) and Helias help him take his new ideas and develop them, whether holding back on "Unconditional" or twisting the time on "Pause and Flip." Together they create a fascinating blend of solid swing and free abandon.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Not the Beatles, But an Incredible Simulation Without the Soul

Sunday night I watched the show marking the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. I went into it half-heartedly, figuring that it'd be something to have on while I was going through albums, figuring out what to sell and what to throw in the Goodwill pile. Also, it was clear before the show even started that there would be a bunch of modern musicians "interpreting" Beatles songs. But still I thought a good portion of it would be devoted to Sir Paul and Richie (I feel like the time has come to start calling him by his proper name again) reminiscing about that monumental event. And yes - I did want to see them play together again, I will freely admit.

All those preconceptions aside, it came as a surprise that when I turned on the telly at about 8:02, I was not seeing the opening scene of the lads playing "All My Loving" on Ed's stage, but in fact some average looking joes doing it. Turns out it was Maroon 5, who did a passable version of the song - editing out the guitar solo and the repeated version, probably for the sake of timing - which had all the personality of a bar band. It was bland. And much of what followed was a bunch of homages - some touching and passionate, others by-the-numbers - performed in a glitzy, room full of beautiful-people getting off on being part of a show that they thought was supposed to be as historical as the event that they were remembering.

Don't youuuuuu beeeeeeeeeeelieve it.

Of course the show rebounded by having Stevie Wonder follow Maroon 5, dusting off his clavinet for a funky version of "We Can Work It Out." Jeff Lynne did an admirable version of "Something" with Joe Walsh (who got all the leads down, although I've seen rumblings online that claimed he was syncing) and Dhani Harrison, the son of the man who wrote it. Dave Grohl tore up "Hey Bulldog," a nice deep cut choice, which he sent out to his mum and his daughter.

But I turned down the sound when Katy Perry did "Yesterday" and Imagine Dragons (a band I never even heard of until two weeks ago) doing "Revolution." Actually "Revolution 1," if you want to get technical. You'd think that if Eurythmics was reuniting just for this show, they'd pick a better song that "The Fool on the Hill."

As far as reflections on that fateful day in 1964, it was cool that they tracked down some of the women in the audience who were teenagers at the time and were caught on film screaming. One of them still has a strong Bronx accent that only added to her talk of "Pole." They also had some of the production crew from the Sullivan show talking about work on the show. More of that would've been a lot more interesting than Brad Paisley and Pharell Williams do "Here Comes the Sun" or John Mayer and Keith Urban doing "Don't Let Me Down."

Then of course, they kept teasing us before the commercial breaks about Paulie and Ring playing together! Oooooo! Like we haven't seen it already in all the previews and the teasers. When it finally happened, after each of them sang some songs with just the backing band, Paul sang "Sgt. Pepper" and it segued into "With a Little Help From My Friends" which brought up his companion. The show ended with "Hey Jude," which brought everybody back onstage to sing the coda.

I suppose it was a historic moment since the Beatles never played either song in front of an audience. But the warmth wasn't there. I wanted to get verklempt and feel like I was witnessing something historic, the closest that we'd ever get to seeing the Fab Four all together again - which was a dream I held for a couple years in grade school. Instead it felt like a slick show, complete with dancers from Cirque du Soleil. As if the music wasn't enough.

Then I just read a moment ago about how long it's been since Ringo and Paul performed together. A whopping...... four years ago, when the bassist crashed his ex-bandmate's birthday party. (No prizes for guessing what song he played that night.) Maybe that reunion was a little different, like when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were reunited on the Labor Day Telethon: in front of all those people, you're not going to be the shlub who tells your ex-partner to go to hell and storm off. You'll roll with it and be charming.

And that's what disappointed me about the show. I was hoping that these two would step down from the entertainer roles and just be two blokes for a brief moment, who might have been as blown away by the frenzy as the rest of the world was.

Nah. That'd never sell.