Saturday, November 14, 2015

Public Image Ltd in Pittsburgh

Playing right now: John Coltrane/Wilbur Harden - Countdown, The Savoy Sessions
(I have one of the Coltrane/Harden albums but I always forget which one it is when I see others in the store. Luckily I knew it wasn't this one, which I recently picked up. It's okay, post-Monk 'Trane, but he's still figuring out his vision.)

When the Cowardly Lion sings "If I Were King of the Forest" in The Wizard of Oz, actor Bert Lahr chews up the scenery for humor's sake, but it's clear that he has a pretty strong set of pipes.

That thought raced through my mind on Thursday night while watching John Lydon onstage. He really lives his words as he's onstage, his voice rising and falling in octaves as he goes. He frequently let out a high yelp that, in all honesty, sounded like Jon King's call to arms in Gang of Four's "To Hell With Poverty," which had me wondering who emulated who. After over an hour and a half of this, it's clear that the former Johnny Rotten has a strong set of pipes. And he can get an audience to rise up and obey his command. But he's also a ham, with a dark sense of humor.

"Religion," the scathing condemnation of the church (or as he once stated, the people who have corrupted it) took on a greater meaning in the desanctified church turned nightclub Altar Bar. He began and ended by chanting, "Here come the priests," which gets a little creepy if you try too hard to interpret it. He dropped his voice to a low growl as he went on: "Why should I call you Father? You're not my daddy." Later he yelled, "Turn up the bass," and my nasal passages will tell you that the soundman definitely obliged.

Of course, Lydon was slated to play King Herod in a touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar and you can't pull that off with just a dramatic sneer. Who knows, perhaps he has actually taken some voice training to give his vocal chords more stamina.

Dressed like either an old-school convict or a fellow who just rolled out of bed, still in his PJs, Lydon greeted us with his usual candor: "I have diarrhea. I hope the Imodium works. Bare with me." If he was telling the truth, it didn't show in his performance. He jumped around, used his trademark vibrato (by both shaking his whole head and occasionally tugging on his Adam's apple) and poured everything into the words, which must've have been what was on the music stand in front of him. 

Lydon swears he never panders, and he's right. Though it was a little funny seeing him milk the audience for applause a few times. doing the hand gesture normally see by arena rock bigshots who need to hear the love. Of course maybe he is a bigshot of a different sort. 

Lydon chafed when a friend at the Post-Gazette compared the sound of new PiL album What the World Needs Now... to older PiL albums, but the current lineup does work with that approach. Simon Firth rattled the building's foundation with his bass lines, even without the volume boost in "Religion." Lu Edmonds' guitar, by contrast, was high and trebly, with a bit of chorus, not at all unlike Keith Levene. Drummer Bruce Smith started out playing with punk-jazz bands the Pop Group and Rip, Rig and Panic so he could have very easily built on the grooves, but his timing keeping almost resembled Nick Mason most of the evening, albeit with a little more swing and some subtle dub coloring at certain points.

The evening drew heavily from the new album, but there were a couple old favorites thrown in. Metal Box was represented by "Death Disco" (or "Swan Lake" as it's called on the album). As Lydon told me, it did sound a little stronger than the original version, but it added a breakdown that sounded a little slick as well. "This Is Not a Love Song," from the post-Levene '80s era, also showed up. 

The band was tight and Lydon was fun, but somewhere past the 60-minute mark, they got stuck in mid-tempo territory and even those "ah-ah-OWWW" whoops started to blend together. The newer songs have more verse/chorus structures so there are breaks in them, but we needed a boost. Luckily it came with "Religion." 

For encores, they returned with two songs that I had forgotten about until then. (All that bass made me fuzzy. It was the first time in ages that I wore earplugs that protect from the low end). They blasted into their first single, "Public Image," with Lydon flipping lines in the chorus (the "monopoly" and "property" parts) but this was the money shot, I realized. After all these years of listening to that song at home, I was hearing it live and it sounded awesome.

I hadn't thought about "Rise," which was probably the first exposure to Lydon for most people my age, but that followed, amidst huge cheers. Now, thanks to his new book, we understand that "Anger is an energy" is more than just a slogan, so hearing that live too, was something of a thrill.

Having given us a farewell blessing, and politely introducing his bandmates, Mr. L took off into the night.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

CD Review: David S. Ware/ Apogee - Birth of a Being

David S. Ware/Apogee
Birth of a Being
(AUM Fidelity)

Birth of a Being was originally issued in 1979 by hat Hut Records, making it David S. Ware's first release as a leader. Apogee, however, was originally conceived as a collective trio, with pianist Cooper-Moore and drummer Marc Edwards, who all crossed paths at the Berklee School (now College) of Music in the late '60s, all interested in playing free music. While much of the music indeed sounds like group improvisation, Ware comes across as the leader. With one exception, Cooper-Moore and Edwards don't play unless Ware is playing, and the tenor saxophonist never stops. What's most interesting about the album - which now includes a second disc of previously unreleased material - relates to the focus in Ware's performance. The assuredness he displayed up until his death in 2012 was already in place in 1977, when these recordings were made.

Ware and Edwards had joined Cecil Taylor's group prior to these recordings, which actually served as more of a reunion of Apogee. After playing throughout Boston and relocating to New York (where they opened for Ware's former teacher Sonny Rollins), the trio concept was put on hold, and Cooper-Moore had moved back to Virginia, where he began a long career of making his own instruments. Back together in the studio, the group reignites the fires that got them started nearly a decade earlier.

Considering it that way, it's easy to hear the joy these three friends felt. Edwards sounds especially vicious, frequently pounding away in a machine-gun-style attack. Cooper-Moore straddles Taylor-esque runs on the piano, but lets a melodic sense run through as well.

Ware sounds especially enthralling because, while his vocabulary is set, he spends a little more time on the ground, rather than just lifting off into the stratosphere. The best example actually comes at the end of disc two in "Solo," nearly seven minutes of exploration on a theme that reveals his kinship to Rollins.

But the first piece to greet listeners is "Prayer," a gorgeous testimony of all that would come in his lifetime. Cooper-Moore plays the sanctified rubato chords, as Ware builds from the throaty theme to sanctification. Disc two contains an alternate take of the tune, well worth it since the saxophonist always excelled when he started with a structure and gradually pulled away from its gravitational force. (Memories of "Aquarian Sound," on 1992's Flight of i, my introduction to Ware's oeuvre.) Even as the group spends a good deal of time blowing freely, some sort of melodic base runs through the tracks, usually a melody line from Ware, which belts out in his authoritative tone.

"Stop Start" plays on the jazz tradition tradition of "trading fours," though in this case, the musicians aren't limited to four bars in which to strut their stuff. Each member takes turns in an unrestricted solo space, before they come together and Ware signs off. He and Cooper-Moore would revisit this idea years later on Planetary Unknown with bassist William Parker and drummer Muhammad Ali. Cooper-Moore also gets a solo track with the newly discovered "Ain't Nobody Going to Turn Me Around, listed on the cover as "Ashimba," the name given to a marimba the musician built himself.

More than just a bookend in the David S. Ware discography, Birth of a Being introduces a musician who apparently knew what lay in his future before he was even a teenager. It's mandatory listening not just for fans of the tenor saxophonist but for anyone interested in the trajectory of '70s free/loft jazz.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

CD Review: Hugo Carvalhais - Grand Valis

Hugo Carvalhais
Grand Valis
(Clean Feed)

If  "Anamnesis" has been played by an acoustic bass, saxophone and piano, it could be appropriate to consider it a new strain of free jazz. However the track - number four on the latest from upright bassist Hugo Carvalhais - features the leader's instrument together with violin and a pipe organ, or at the very least a type of organ that sounds very close to the type heard in churches and classical recital halls. Under the hands of Gabriel Pinto, the instrument isn't weighed down. On this track, it plays a short unison line worthy of an AACM composer, before all three musicians start a three-way conversation, violinist Dominique Pifarely doing most of the talking. A bit of static pops up quickly, sounding like the disc is skipping. We have been tricked again. It's the fourth member of the group, Jeremiah Cymerman, who receives credit for "electronic manipulation," which frequently gives the music the dimension implied by the image on the front cover.

This sound epitomizes Grand Valis, which affects a midnight dream sequence in a cathedral or the wild experiments of a chamber group cutting loose while their director is out of the room. Pinto's instruments frame the mood of the music since they sound so odd in a setting where tempos run free. But they also provide a tranquil backdrop that feels relaxing and ultimately makes you shift your focus to the playing of Carvalhais and Pifarely. Pinto's rapid opening salvo on "Logos" is one of the most intriguing blends of timbre and melody that I've heard this year, especially in light of what follows: spastic violin bowing and a bass that walks rapidly - in elliptical patterns. But Carvalhais isn't done yet. For the final two minutes he slows down to a steady four-to-the-bar progression, like some mutant prog-like idea that frames an organ solo.

As Pifarely wildly leads the way in "Decoding Maya," Pinto eventually settles into a odd-metered but steady line. "Amigdala Waves" features chimes that sound like mutant music boxes or marimba playing in reverse (Carvalhais is credited with "electronics" on this track, which are likely the source). Carvalhais uses his bow in a few places, but he plays arco most of the time, producing a rich wooden tone that links the music back to jazz. One particular lick, where plucks all four strings, evokes Charlie Haden. Although sounds move amorphously, all but one of the 10 tracks are less than six minutes long, which gives everything a sense of direction.

The album's title comes from Philip K. Dick's Valis and the album supposedly serves as a "meditation suite upon the world." In keeping with that, the elements that come together in the music can make one contemplate the vast expanse of the universe.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Saturday: The 45th Annual University of Pittsburgh Jazz Seminar

Geri Allen has now played host to the University of Pittsburgh Jazz Seminar and Concert three times, taking the place of Dr. Nathan Davis, who started the annual event 45 years ago. Allen has held onto the basic format of the event, staging free seminars by the guest musicians, with a concert at the Carnegie Music Hall culminating a week of events. The concert itself, though, starting moving beyond its tried-and-true template almost immediately in the opening of the 2013 concert.

Another change came this year with the structure of the program. Everything came in one continuous set which flowed better than two sets and an intermission, which made the evening run pretty late. Awards were bestowed before the performances, rather than in the middle, with Jimmy Cobb and Pharoah Sanders each receiving Lifetime Achievement Awards from Allen herself. The drawn-out introductions of the musicians from bygone days were thankfully replaced by a concise, enthusiastic announcements by Pitt professors Terrence Hayward and Yona Harvey.

That being said, it seemed to take the musicians a few songs to really get into a groove. Part of the problem could be attributed to a lackluster sound mix. "Get Happy" wasn't exactly the tune that could get the ball rolling, and tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders' microphone didn't have a lot of juice. The same could be said about Tineke Postma (who started out on soprano sax) and the double-piano attack of Ms. Allen and Kenny Barron. (By the end of the night, Postma pointed her microphone at Sanders' bell to make sure he came through loud and clear.) Luckily trumpeter Jimmy Owens and trombonist Robin Eubanks had no trouble being heard, the former sounding especially bright and crisp.

Allen, who frequently relinquished the stage to her guests, let each one pick a tune for their particular spotlight. Three songs in, bassist Robert Hurst's "Optimism," ("written during the Obama campaign") had a bright, folk-like melody that got everyone on track, which was especially evident in Postma's soprano solo. A few songs later, Owens's contribution, which he called "Elated Joyful Happy Blues" found Postma entering on her alto with leaps akin to Eric Dolphy. Sanders, who sat out for many of the ensemble passages during the evening, produced one of his trademark shrieks during the tune. His solo spot, like most of them throughout the evening, was on the shorter side and didn't really give him a chance to spiral up into his gritty, trademark sound, or do his other idiosyncratic thing of producing a melody by popping the pads on his horn.

Regardless, when Sanders stood up for his reading of "Say It (Over and Over Again)," it wasn't screeches that he produced but a spot-on imitation of John Coltrane. This wasn't some Trane apostle copping his lines, this was the guy who stood next to him for two years onstage. And if anyone objected to Sanders' style in the '60s, he was here to prove that there's much more to him that the fire music that he created. Barron offered a nice McCoy Tyner-esque solo, and Hurst added some fire by double-timing over the changes.

Since Jimmy Cobb is the last surviving member of the Miles Davis Kind of Blue session, and since there were four NEA Jazz Masters on the stage, Allen had the drummer play "So What" from that famous album, aided by Owens, Barron, Sanders and Hurst. Everyone sounded solid, Owens most prominently, Sanders again having to play the role once occupied by Trane, though his solo stuck more with his throaty side.

Cobb came across throughout the evening as a more subdued drummer, which again could be attributed to the mix. Last year his Original Mob (Smoke Session) made clear that he still has a lot of hard swing left in him, but that wasn't quite on display at the Carnegie Music Hall. When local institution Roger Humphries joined the band for a few songs, though, Cobb held his own. The two drummers engaged in a drum duel that never digressed into excessive showmanship, and kept things geared towards solid solos. Percussionist Mino Cinelu (probably best known for his tenure in Miles' '80s band and with Weather Report) added color and extra texture to the music throughout the evening too.

In the end, the Pitt Jazz Seminar concert still offered a good time. If the band didn't really click immediately, it was still good seeing this individuals come together find common ground where they could collectively tear it up.

One question - what was the guitar doing at stage right? It was near Cinelu's chair but the only time he touched it was to move it out of the way.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Friday: Going to a record show and Polyphonic Spree

My friend James Pertusi came to Mr. Small's on Friday night, playing with a band called Sharp Things, who were opening for Polyphonic Spree. I hadn't planned on going to see Polyphonic Spree - I simply haven't gotten around to them yet, which I realize is crazy since it's been 15 years - but James set me up so I couldn't say no. He and I got to know each other when he played in Fake Brain, who played several times with my band the Mofones in the early-to-mid aughts. They stayed at my house and there were plans for world domination. Which, sadly, never came to be.

But first, I had to stop at the record show happening at Spirit, a new club in Lawrenceville that was once a Moose Lodge. It was one of those events where all manner of people set up and sell albums. (I've done it a couple times in the past.) One of the guys from my old job said he was setting up there, so I wanted to see what he had, because he's a jazz head.

Turns out it was a former WYEP DJ who helped me strike paydirt: Cecil Taylor's Garden, Gil Evans' Into the Hot (which has no Gil but three tracks each by Cecil Taylor and Johnny Carisi) and Steppenwolf's The Second (because mine is beat and needs to be replaced). He also had a mono copy of Steppenwolf's debut which I should've bought because it's pretty rare. I also found a $3 copy of 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, which I couldn't pass up.

Then I picked up my friend Dana and we headed for Small's, which is just across the river.

Sharp Things are a far cry from Fake Brain. The latter were high energy, zany (in the best possible way) post punk. The latter are gentle and more meditative. They reminded me in a way of the Pernice Brothers, though that could be because I was listening to that band in the car on the ride over. But Perry Serpa (at the keys, above) writes some lyrically-driven stuff. It was a relaxed set, but the band kept my attention, finishing with a  strong cover of "The Ghost In You."

Of course Polyphonic Spree was epic. Everything they do is epic. I counted 17 people onstage and even that could be off a little. You can't see her in the picture, but they had a harp player on far stage left. On top of that, violin, cello (who was doing the rocking-out-while-playing thing which was okay is small doses but gets excessive very easily, like in the video that keeps floating around FB of the dudes headbanging while they play "Smells Like Teen Spirit"; classical people, please stop; sorry for the parenthetical tangent), flute, trumpet, trombone, two guitars, keys, percussion, drummer, four back-up singers who had synchronized moves and lead singer Tim DeLaughter, looking a bit like John Lydon with that short hair. Not really knowing their songs, it was my first excursion into their music. The videos I took on my phone made everything sound clearer than I discerned live, but the visuals and the sounds were pretty enthralling the whole time.

They came out in white robes which they wore for the duration of the first "set," which consisted of the entire first album, played in order (or so I've been told). After a five-minute break, they came back for more, the band in their street clothes and the choir now wearing striped mini-robes, which looked like they were red and green, depending on the way the lights hit them.

By then, a little more than an hour had passed, and Dana and I were both feeling like it was time to go. Luckily Sharp Things didn't have to leave as soon as they were done, as James had implied in a text earlier in the evening. (They were driving overnight to Milwaukee.) So we got to chat a little bit and made plans to meet again in the new year.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Now you can read my John Lydon interview

I've been talking about it endlessly, and now it's finally available: my Public Image Ltd., article. If you're in Pittsburgh, pick up a print copy too. If you're not, just follow the link.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Four Sides of Matthew Shipp, Michael Bisio's Shining Hour

Matthew Shipp Trio
The Conduct of Jazz
(Thirsty Ear)

The Uppercut: Matthew Shipp/Mat Walerian Duo
Live at Okuden

Matthew Shipp Quintet
Our Lady of the Flowers

Matthew Shipp Trio
To Duke

Michael Bisio

Matthew Shipp said that, after he released I've Been To Many Places last year, it might be his last album for awhile. Then came The Gospel According to Matthew and Michael, a trio session with bassist Michael Bisio and violist Mat Maneri. That was followed by two vastly different disks for Rogue Art, a duo with a new collaborator on ESP and, within the past couple months, a new trio album on Thirsty Ear. 

"Don’t listen to what I say when it comes to recording," Shipp told me back in the spring. "I meant it. But I’m still in this vortex of recording. I just can’t seem to get out of it." Well, if the inspiration is there, better to roll with it than to ignore it. Still, this isn't music that can truly be appreciated and understood over dinner. 

The artwork on The Conduct of Jazz resembles the somewhat slick homages to Blue Note albums which might have been seen on album covers in the 1990s. After years of abstract artwork on all those Thirsty Ear albums, that is kind of a surprise.

Shipp's right-hand man/bassist Michael Bisio is back with him on this album, the newest of this batch of releases. Rather than regular drummer Whit Dickey, Newman Taylor Baker sits behind the kit, playing with an understated pulse that can shift easily between keeping the tempo and blurring it. The title track is one of Shipp's catchier themes, with an AABA structure that shifts between 7/4 in the A and 5/4 in the B. Bisio walks through it and Baker gives it a swing that liberates it from the potential rigidity of the signatures. "Blue Abyss" finds the group working on a dark groove, with Shipp providing the contrast with variations on the main chord. In "Streams of Light" the pianist plays alone, with an engaging solo that puts his inquisitive manner on display, made all the more enjoyable by his unique phrasing and stresses. "The Bridge Across" rolls on for 12 minutes, a length that Shipp rarely commits to on disc.

Shipp has recorded duo albums with several reed players, like saxophonists Rob Brown, Darius Jones and Ivo Perelman. Poland native Mat Walerian actually plays a Dolphy-esque arsenal of reeds on his meeting with Shipp: bass clarinet, alto saxophone, soprano clarinet and flute. This is an album where the line between improvisation and composition blurs, due in part to the way the two communicate.

The tracks titled "Free Bop Statement One" and "...Two" are credited to both men, implying an improvisation. Yet Shipp provides a bit of grounded structure to both (they appear concurrently with breaks between them that are only detectable when watching the CD counter) while Walerian blows a dry-toned, inquisitive alto that resides in the mid-range with a few quick squeals. The title surely likely came as an afterthought and is in keeping with Shipp titles that approach the tradition with some irreverence.

Walerian's clarinets create some of the album's finest moments. "Blues for Acid Cold" (which doesn't resemble a traditional blues) begins with an introspective Shipp solo before Walerian's b-flat reed makes its entrance. (The latter receives sole writing credit on this one, for the record.) The 16-minute "Black Rain" finds the duo so comfortable with each other that they nearly stretch out into a chamber music duo. Those looking for a new diversion in Shipp's ever-growing discography are encouraged to start here.

Of course. To Duke takes him in a surprising direction too. Yes, the pianist - along with Bisio and Dickey - pay tribute to the beloved Mr. Ellington. But yes, they do it on their own terms which means bass and drums bob and weave behind the piano that plays "In a Sentimental Mood" and "Solitude," the Ellington compositions that bookend the album. In between they also add a couple Shipp originals that relate, at least in title and spirit, to the interpretations.

While Ellington salutes are often too reverent to have meaning to anyone but the performer, it's nice to hear the overplayed "Satin Doll" bounced off the wall like a Monk solo, with the bass and drums keeping a steady 4/4 within arm's reach if they need to bring it back up. "Prelude to a Kiss" also has a Monk-like approach, due to Shipp's two choruses playing the theme with just enough embellishment to give it new character. After all these decades, the kiss has taken on different qualities. And so does a ride on the A Train.

There will never be another tenor saxophonist like the late David S. Ware, with whom Shipp played extensively. "From the Beyond," the fourth track on Our Lady of the Flowers comes off like an accidental tribute to the master, the tenor eruptions coming from Sabir Mateen. Bassist William Parker, another longtime Ware bandmate, creates the rolling thunder with Shipp, giving Mateen the bed for heavy vibrato, low growls and high-pitched exclamations. Drummer Gerald Cleaver gets the final word, not with multi-directional shots across his kit but a steady bash on toms and cymbal, which finishes off the track for a solid two minutes. 

"From the Beyond" epitomizes the quartet on Our Lady of the Flowers but the disc features much more than that. The group breaks into duos (piano and drums, piano and clarinet), solos (bass) and even a trio without piano. Some of it gets brutal, some of it sounds exploratory, but all of it sounds consistent. Proof that changing one or two musicians in a band can take the entire sound in completely new directions.

Michael Bisio says that Accortet "chronicles thirty-plus years of my life as a composer in song form and otherwise." Nevertheless, the bright melody of "AM," which kicks off the album, still comes out of right field. After hearing him with Shipp numerous times, and on a recent disc of solo bass (the self-released Travel Music, circa 2011), the bright 6/8 folk melody indicates that Bisio's scope is wider than what might be expected. He's joined by cornetist Kirk Knuffke, drummer Michael Wimberley and, in the role that inspired the album title, accordionist Art Bailey.

While the opening piece sounds bright and engaging thanks to all parties involved, Bailey also puts to rest the question of whether a squeezebox can blow free jazz. "Giant Chase" sounds just like what its name implies, and Bailey gets a chance to wail freely as the rhythm section cuts loose. "Charles Too!" begins at a slow tempo, morphing into a brisk pace that gives him a chance to do it again.

In between those directions, Bisio comes up with one of the best titles of all time, "I Want To Do To You What Spring Does to Cherry Trees," it being a modern ballad (lyrics could fit the melody) that puts Knuffke's warm cornet in the spotlight, with strong punctuation from Bailey and the composer. "Times That Bond" starts free, but by the end Bisio picks out the riff of A Love Supreme's "Acknowledgement," which seems to be a tip of the hat, albeit out of tempo. Strong stuff.