Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Will Ornette Get to Hang with Bird?

I should have written about Ornette Coleman's passing, but in the blogosphere, that's probably yesterday's news by now. Besides, what can I possibly say about Ornette that a million people haven't said already? I haven't even read the myriad links to NPR articles on him. I saw one that included a pic of the saxophonist with a mischievous smile on his face, and it kind of broke my heart. Talk about leaving an empty space in this world!

Being raised Catholic, but now being Unitarian Universalist - well, at least I attend the latter church - I spend a lot of time contemplating the afterlife, whether it exists and what's there. OK, I'll just say it: Heaven. I think about Heaven. Especially since my dad died last fall. It made me wonder if Pop met up with Charlie Haden and if they got into a deep discussion of the bass. Charlie kind of reminded me a little of Pop, or vice versa. Although Pop was never one to say, "Solid!" on a regular basis. But they seem like two guys who could talk about deeper things.

So now, I couldn't help wondering if Ornette finally got to sit down with Charlie Parker and talk music. What would that be like? It could be a play, maybe. It should be: Bird's down home demeanor meets Ornette's obtuse but deep philosophy.

You can read all you want about musicians but you never really know what they were like. With all the hangers-on and the worshippers and the naysayers, a lot of people cultivated a personality out of the need to survive. Factor in some baser instincts that take over when you really do know better, and maybe you really do care about a person's feelings.... how many layers does that put on top of person's true personality? Will we ever know the real Bird, or the real Ornette? The latter, probably. I'm sure his son Denardo know what he was like.

The other reason I didn't get to all this last week was there was a lot of music going on. TWO LOVE LETTERS SHOWS IN ONE WEEK! We played the Arts Festival last Wednesday, which was a blast. Beautiful weather. An hour-long set. Great sound. Great sound people. Plus my sister got into town less than an hour before it started, and got to see the whole thing, along with my mom, wife and son. Plus various friends filtered in. And a stranger took photos of us and blogged about it. Thanks!

Then we played at Howler's on Friday night. It started out as kind of a slow night, but by the time we started playing, things felt really electric. Buck, who normally looks restrained, was on fire, using chopsticks a la early Sonic Youth, and jumping around the stage. Erin was pounding hard. Mike (Prosser, not me) was exquisite. I think we turned a major corner. Or hit a new plateau. Or something.

It was so much of a blast that, the next day, after working, I didn't have it in me to see Neko Case at the Arts Festival. Or check out my old high school buddy Sean "Spike" Slawson at the 31st Street Pub. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

How to Interview Ginger Baker and How Not to Interview Wire

It's been a crazy couple of weeks with a lot of activity geared toward writing. First and foremost, I suppose, was that last week I got to interview Ginger Baker by phone. He's coming to town for the Pittsburgh JazzLive Festival in mid-June, so if there was any chance of talking to him, I was going to take it. 

Last year, when John Lydon was scheduled to come here as part of a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, I was determined to interview him. And at the time I thought the two hardest people to interview in music are probably Lydon and Ginger (who, not surprisingly, worked together). So I pipe dreamed about talking to both. Of course, JCS was cancelled, so no Lydon. Then, at the time, I thought, Well there's no chance I'll talk to Ginger because where would the opportunity be? It's not like he'd come to Pittsburgh....

I guess the universe called my bluff. 

It came together quickly too. I had been thinking about it, and when I emailed the JazzLive organizer, I got an email hours later from Ginger's English publicist trying to figure out a time for an interview. We settled on a Friday morning at 7 a.m. EST (in England, that's noon). Fine with me because my work schedule prevents me from doing interviews during normal business hours. I'm typically up at that time anyway.

The Love Letters had a show the night before, but no problem. I was up at 6:30 putting questions together, and kind of panicking. One thing: I WASN'T going to ask him  - Cream questions. I really believe that one of the reasons Ginger is such a rough interview is that people ask him freeze-dried, dumb questions. Plus, these people never seem to have taken Journalism 101, wherein it is taught that you don't ask Yes/No questions if you want your subject to open up. I went to pains to phrase questions with "How" and "Why" at the start. On top of all that, he's coming here with a jazz group. He's not coming to play some permutation of Cream music.

At 7, I dialed up the number and heard that unique British ring. Then I heard a voicemail. With a woman's voice on it. Did I dial the right number? Am I being stood up?

I waited five minutes and called back. Same thing. Quick - email the publicist. A few exchanges and we're rescheduled for 9 a.m. This time he does pick up. His voice is low, a bit gruff. At this point I should mention the big thing the publicist mentioned that really had me worried about the call: Ginger is hard of hearing. Like many 70+-year old men, he also had the tv going in the background. 

But it went.... smoothly. He didn't yell at me. He spoke. Not a whole lot. He even mentioned towards the end, with a chuckle, that he's not much of a conversationalist. "I just play," was repeated a lot too. I haven't transcribed the interview yet, but I'll need to get on that soon. Then I'll see how much I really have to work with. 

After that call, I felt like I could climb Mt. Everest. But that was shot down a few days later. While I was trying to get the Ginger interview set up, I also needed to land an interview with somebody in Wire, who are also coming to town. It finally came together on a Sunday night at 9 pm. I know their first three albums really well and I received a copy of their most recent album, Wire, which is pretty good. I'm set, right?

Not exactly. Ten minutes into the conversation, what started out with some career-spanning, over-arching questions had narrowed down into a talk just about the old days. Then Colin Newman asked if I only knew the '70s Wire albums. The real answer is that's what I know best. Working knowledge of their '80s ones, plus a few spins on the new one.

I wasn't trying to sound like one of the "boring" people that, as Newman mentioned, dismiss everything but Pink Flag. Hell, I was surprised that the band even revisits that stuff, or talks about it at all. I thought they didn't look back. But he told me I was the first interviewer on this tour that only really knew the early stuff. He doesn't mind talking about it, but he doesn't want someone to read the article and think they're going to just hear greatest hits. Apparently there are a lot of books about it to use as reference. Though, as a reporter, who's going to quote from a book when you have the real thing?

It made for a few uncomfortable moments, but it just so happened that I was about to go into some questions about new guitarist Matthew Simms and the making of the new album. By the end we made peace. Not that there was really a war there. It's just that I'm rarely in the situation and when it does, it feels quite uncomfortable. (I didn't know a whole lot of David Torn's career and we had a great conversation a few weeks ago.) 

By the end, we were on good terms, though. He spoke at length about the Drill Festival that they've done in various cities, including one coming up in Chicago on this tour. It was unfortunate that I only had 500 words to devote to the article, so the scope was narrowed. They're here next Sunday and I'm looking forward to it. Stay tuned for a link to it.

While I'm here, I might as well link the article about David Torn - who's playing Club Cafe tonight - and William Parker, who played this past Thursday at the Thunderbird. Click here. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

CD Review: Myra Melford - Snowy Egret

Myra Melford
Snowy Egret
(enja/Yellowbird) www.jazzrecords.com/enja

Myra Melford took inspiration from the Persian poet Rumi in her previous quintet, Be Bread, using the words and subject matter to shape the music. Snowy Egret, made with an entirely different band, draws on another literary source, that of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano and his Memory of Fire trilogy, which tells a history of the Americas through indigenous myths. Galeano's way of writing was idiosyncratic - with some chapters being only a paragraph long - was as much an inspiration as the text itself. As a result, pianist Melford has come up with another set of highly unique, intriguing material that rewards repeated listens.

Snowy Egret draws on melodic ideas that aren't merely sourced from jazz (free or grounded) nor do they attempt to fuse jazz with music that might be connected to Galeano's writing. Although the references to both of these elements can be felt in the pianist's writing, Ron Miles (cornet), Liberty Ellman (guitar), Stomu Takeishi (bass) and Tyshawn Sorey (drums) are equally responsible for what happens in the music.

At times the structure is more minimal, like "Language" which is built largely on one suspended chord.  The piano, guitar, bass and cornet play it together, sounding like an even more angular version of Monk's "Thelonious" riff, before switching to a B section that still involves parallel movement. Variations on the structure come during solos by Ellman and an especially warm passage by Miles.

"The Kitchen," by contrast goes through various permutations. After Sorey (one of the most melodic and rhythmically inventive drummers around) unleashes a tidal wave of tom thunder and snare rolls, the quintet plays a brief stop-start melody, interrupted by free statements by Miles and Ellman. They finally lock in on an off-centered bluesy vamp that allows Melford to pound chords and fire off rapid melody lines, pushing the group away from structure until the finally return home to the staccato theme.

Free excursions also happen in "Little Pockets/Everybody Pays Taxes," in which Takeishi holds things together while everyone around him goes wild. But Melford also writes with sensitive lyricism: "Times of Sleep and Fate" follows "The Kitchen" with a rubato melody brought to life by guitar, piano and muted cornet. "The Virgin of Guadalupe" also begins as a gently as a ballad, with the rhythm section gradually rising in the background behind Miles. The opening bars of album closer "The Strawberry" has gospel voicings in the piano, though it doesn't sound like Melford is trying to take us to church, as it switches to something a little more Latin based after less than 60 seconds.

Writing about Melford's albums tends to be a challenge. They often have so much happening that the risk is wanting to dissect every song or to try to offer a simple overview of the album. The latter never seems to get the ideas out directly. Suffice to say, mere words can't describe the depth of Snowy Egret. Find it and use your own ears make the decision.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Seeing Lina Allemano's Titanium Riot & ATS' 30th Anniversary

Lina Allemano came to town about a year and a half ago, playing one of the Space Exchange shows, the Tuesday night jazz/experimental/what-not night that's normally hosted by a few different local musicians at the Thunderbird Cafe. At the time, she was with her quartet (trumpet, sax, bass, drums), who played it straight but solid. Last week, her return was a little different. Known as Lina Allemano's Titanium Riot, the group includes drummer Nick Fraser (who was also in the quartet), bass guitarist Rob Clutton and keyboardist Ryan Driver.

The group was free all the way (so was the admission charge, so if you missed it, shame on ya). Allemano was blowing rapid clusters of lines, never really digressing into guttural smears or high splats, but definitely locking into flurries of notes. Fraser was a study in restraint, rarely looking at his kit straight on. He seemed to have his eyes closed most of the time, with an expression that meant he was listening attentively to where the music was going.

Clutton was sometimes hard to hear, plunking on a classic Fender but often getting lost in a wave of sounds from Allemano and Driver. The latter was the wild card of the night. He was playing a Realistic keyboard. Yes, Realistic as in the kind that Radio Shack used to sell. I can recall noodling around on one of those (and getting yelled at) in a Radio Shack about 35 years ago. It might not be the same exact model, because Driver seemed to be hitting more than one note at a time, while I think my version was monophonic. But he was doing a lot of knob twisting too.

For the second set, saxophonist Ben Opie (who helped bring Allemano back) sat in with the group. The addition added another level of excitement to the music. Things were still free but the conversation seemed to deepen a bit. If, by some chance, you're reading this entry because you googled Lina Allemano's Titanium Riot since they're coming to your town, be sure to check them out. And buy some CDs too. Their Kiss the Brain disc is really solid.

Around this time 30 years ago, I was going through some sort of existential crisis (although I didn't know it at the time because I had no idea what that meant) because I was a senior in high school and not sure what I was doing once I graduated. At that same time, Pittsburgh newcomer Josh Arnson was teaming up with local underground music stalwarts Evan Knauer, Mike Marcinko and Steve Heineman, and formed a band they dubbed ATS. This was the age of initial bands: DRI, GBH, NSFU, TSOL; though none of those bands have anything to do with ATS' music. That was also the age of cow-punk which ATS was somewhat-incorrectly described as, at the time. Jazz, Minutemen-style punk, real country and anything else they were listening to - it all got thrown in to the blend at some point.

The band marked their 30th anniversary this past Saturday, by playing a characteristically loooooooooong set at Howler's. Arnson and Heineman, if you don't know, left the band 25-28 years ago. Kip Ruefle replaced Heineman, and once guitarist Arnson left, they soldiered on as a trio, save for the occasional auxiliary horn player or extra guitarist that just showed up.

I've seen ATS umpteen times in all those years. Hell, the Love Letters played the band's 25th and 27th anniversary shows at the same venue. But I felt like I had to check this one out again too. The Full Counts opened the night, playing LOUD garage rock, fueled by a lot of power chords. Bassist Eric Vermillion (once of Gumball nationally and locally part of the Steel Miners, FOOD and a few others) fronts the band. While Mr. V has a gift for a raspy garage-band scream, the songs I caught proved that he can sing just as well. Mark Urbano, who played with Heineman decades ago in White Wreackage (and several others) also plays in the band, along with drummer Mike Quinlan (another scene vet who played in Da Shunts with Knauer; as well as FOOD). (Apologies to guitarist #1, whose name I didn't get.)

The core ATS trio of Knauer, Marcinko and Ruefle was expanded with Heineman on keys (that guy can play anything and do it well), saxophonist Tim Pollock and trumpeter Downtown Steve Brown. The joke about ATS' early days is that all of the sets were the same. You could set your watch to the cymbal introduction to "Helsinki Town" as the evening got started, never letting up until "Song for Alice" at the end.

A lot has changed in 30 years. The first two-thirds of the set were new songs, relatively speaking. Knauer even made some quips about "new" meaning they were written in the past six years. Time has done nothing to slow these guys down in terms of songwriting or performance. In fact the noodling that was part and parcel of some of those early shows has really been streamlined in recent years. And by the time they got around to riff-based "classics" like "Sepco and "Louise" at the end of the set, I was kind of craving them. Prior to that, the newer ones sounded as strong as the oldies.

Of course, by the end, I was nearly falling asleep on my feet. I stayed until the end, but it was trying, after that third drink.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

CD Review: Chris Potter Underground Orchestra - Imaginary Cities

Chris Potter Underground Orchestra
Imaginary Cities
(ECM) www.ecmrecords.com

Chris Potter didn't set out to do a concept album about the state of the urban landscape. But in some ways the music on Imaginary Cities does come off like a musical assessment of it. Any given piece of real estate, be it rural or urban, comes with many layers to it, geologically and historically speaking. The suburban sprawl that we see while driving, crammed to the gills with billboards, fast food establishments and the occasional Mom and Pop store - what did it look like half a century ago? Inner city communities still have buildings that was constructed in a period prior,  with storefronts commingling with houses, in various states of repair, still echoing a time when neighborhoods were self-sufficient and there was no need to hop on a bus or get in a car to go and do your shopping.

Where does it go from here? Was it better back then, or is it better to keep move forward? Maybe it's neither of the above, and better to just stare out at the vast sky and soak in the scope of it.

These visuals spring to mind on the tenor saxophonist's new album, which takes his Underground quartet (pianist Craig Taborn, guitarist Adam Rogers, drummer Nate Smith) and adds two bassists (upright player Scott Colley and bass guitarist Fima Ephron), a string quartet and vibraphonist/marimbaist Steve Nelson to it. They create a rich sound, especially during the different sections of the four-part "Imaginary Cities" suite, "Compassion," "Dualities," "Disintegration" and "Rebuilding."

The names, when taken together with the music, conjure up images of various aspects of city life.  "Dualities" seems to depict the contrast between the minor strings and the bright sounding marimba. "Distintegration" is especially telling, where Potter's soprano and the strings move rather freely over a mix of acoustic guitar and basses, creating some eerie tension. Some of it sounds completely composed, while other sections give everyone space to move freely. Finally, to read more into the whole concept, Potter aptly ends by proposing solutions, not merely bringing up issues. "Rebulding" begins with Smith laying down a odd-time groove that Potter (back on tenor) and Nelson use to great advantage. The 11-minute piece goes through various shapes, holding down the groove before switching in the final quarter into a more midtempo section.

But that's only half of the album. "Lament," which precedes the title suite, features Potter's tenor playing over a yearning two-chord vamp towards the end which still has plenty of fire brewing, the strings giving the music a more expansive sound, never acting as a sweetener. The quartet gets as much frontline room as Potter on "Shadow Self," which is inspired by Bela Bartok. The closing "Sky" acts something like a final statement to the whole city concept of the album. The music is vast and expansive, as if trying to encompass the surroundings, again bolstered by the arrangement of 11-piece group.

Strings and jazz can make strange bedfellows. Even the way the strings are recorded can impact the impact of the music. Potter uses them in his music to alternately create tension and reinforce the beauty of his music. In doing so, new things are discovered with each listen, from the shape of melodies to subtle colors that Craig Taborn uses to add drama. It's a work that gets more meaningful with time.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

RIP Bernard Stollman, ESP-Disk's founder

One of the most dramatic scenes in It's a Wonderful Life comes in the part where George Bailey has no identity and he sees his widowed mother running a boarding house. Frank Capra really plays up the pathos, filming half of Jimmy Stewart's shocked face at close view. Behind him, Clarence the angel says, "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"

I thought about Clarence's observation when I heard that Bernard Stollman, the eccentric found of ESP-Disk records passed away yesterday at the age of 85. He lost a battle with colon cancer that had spread to his spine.

ESP was the first American label to give Albert Ayler due recognition. Even though Broadside initially issued the Fugs' debut album, ESP later reissued it and brought it to more people, and released their self-titled second album (which is arguably their best one). Pearls Before Swine. The Godz. Paul Bley. Patty Waters. The list goes on and on. And on. And it includes albums that maybe should not have been released. But they were. The world is a little stranger for it, in a good way. Who knows how many outsider artists were motivated to make music based on what they heard on that label?

It all comes back to Stollman's eccentric vision. He started the label because of his commitment to promoting the Esperanto language. (That's what the label's name represented.) The first album was Ni Kantu en Esperanto, an album of insipid traditional songs sung in Esperanto. I once talked to an ESP act and expressed a desire to hear it. He responded, "No, you don't."

It could have stopped there. But Stollman heard Ayler and put his support behind him, thus providing the first serious platform for what would be called free jazz. He released what was Henry Grimes' only solo album for decades. Giuseppi Logan. Marion Brown. Sunny Murray. Oh wait - I'm getting carried away again.

Stollman might not have been the best businessman, but I'm not here to discuss that. I'm here to give thanks to one man's crazy idea that inspired countless others in its wake. And to encourage others to do the same. You never know how many people you're going to reach when you put a piece of art out there. No, that's not the point, but it can be a significant side effect. So, thanks, Bernard, wherever you are. Ripozi en paco.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Rob Mazurek, Geri Allen, Kathryn Calder, Vanilla Fudge

Right now I'm listening to music that I have to review so I can't post anything new. But I have written things in other places to let you know what I've been up to.

Here's a review of both the Rob Mazurek & Black Cube SP show at the Andy Warhol Museum, and Geri Allen & TimeLine at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. You might need to scroll down through a few stories to read it.

Today, Kathryn Calder - keyboardist and vocalist of the New Pornographers - releases her third solo album under her own name. It's self-titled too. My review of it appears on the Blurt website right here.

Finally, weeks after the fact, here's my Vanilla Fudge piece, also on Blurt.