Monday, October 12, 2015

CD Review: Liberty Ellman - Radiate

Liberty Ellman

In a way, it comes as kind of a surprise that guitarist Liberty Ellman hasn't released an album under his own name in nine years. But on further thought, he's so busy popping up in other places as a support player that he might not have the time.

Ellman's best-known connection is a nearly 15-year tenure with Henry Threadgill's band Zooid, the longest lasting band of the reedist/composer's career. But Ellman's guitar has also been heard on albums by Stephan Crump's Rosetta Trio, on Steve Lehman and Rudresh Mahanthappa's Dual Identity album and performances with everyone from Butch Morris to Joe Lovano. As a mixing engineer, his name seems even more ubiquitous, having turned knobs for Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd and Gregory Porter just to name a few.

For his first album since 2006's Ophiuchus Butterfly, Ellman cashed in his chips and assembled an A-list group of friends. Lehman and Crump are here, as well as Zooid bandmate Jose Davila (tuba, trombone), Five Elements' Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) and man about town Damon Reid (drums).

Not to downplay the skills at work in this ensemble - who mesh incredibly in these intricate pieces - but Ellman is the kind of guitarist that could pull off something just an enthralling with only the rhythm section to back him. His plays using vocabulary that's just off\kilter enough and delivers it with one of the most enchanting tones since Bill Frisell patented his signature volume pedal-fueled attack. "Moment Twice" almost acts like a tease, with guitar, bass and drums playing a theme statement for just under two minutes. "Furthermore" has a rubato rolling accompaniment from Crump and Reid, which Ellman uses to produce a dream soundtrack, picking clean lines that speed up and slow down at will. The horns eventually join him, but only to add color in the background. The focus remains on the guitar.

Ellman's writing gets rather knotty, with patterns that morph just when Reid's snare hits start to make it easy to find the structure. Threadgill might be an influence but a comparison could be made to Steve Coleman's angular writing, though Ellman stays closer to the groove end of things. The horns never sound constricted by the time signature. Davila's role alternates between rhythm section member ("Supercell') and soloist ("Rhinocerisms," where the low horn fits the name, and "A Motive," where he switches to trombone).

Lehman's rapid technique is put to good use, most notably in "Vibrograph," where he fires off some descending lines, throwing off clusters of five, almost as a passing thought. Between that song and the preceding "Skeletope," Crump plays a bass solo that, conversely, offers open space for reflection, similar to Charlie Haden in its pensiveness.

For the closing "Enigmatic Runner" Ellman gives himself the chance to cut loose. Storming in like a distorted, progressive rocker, he tears through a rugged, extended line that is either one of the best guitar solos of the year or one of the most astounding through-composed sections in longer. On cue, Finlayson and Lehman come in right as Ellman concludes his statement.

Will this group ever perform live and, if so, will it ever happen beyond the borders of New York? Probably not, considering all the schedules that come into play. In the meantime, grab this and get lost in it.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

CD Review: Jon Irabagon - Behind the Sky & Inaction Is an Action


Jon Irabagon
Behind the Sky

Jon Irabagon
Inaction is An Action

Jon Irabagon has released two vastly divergent albums simultaneously before. 2013 saw the releases of Unhinged, by the saxophonist's slightly more conventional group Outright, while I Don't Hear Nothing But the Blues Volume 2 featured a rather abrasive 40-minute free improvisation with guitarist Mick Barr and drummer Mike Pride.

But when talking about polar opposites, go no further than these two discs. Behind the Sky is the long awaited followup to The Observer, a straightahead album that Irabagon made for Concord Records following his victory at the 2008 Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition. Inaction Is An Action presents the Mostly Other People Do the Killing band member playing eight tracks of solo saxophone - on the rarely heard sopranino horn. There are musicians who can play it straight and fit just as comfortably in free settings, but most of them choose one over the other as a career move. Irabagon might be the first to take both paths without apologies to either, and he brings the same amount of conviction to each setting.

The group on Behind the Sky features the rhythm section of Luis Perdomo (piano), Yasushi Nakamara (bass) and Rudy Royston (drums). Tom Harrell joins them on three tracks, adding trumpet and flugelhorn. Irabagon, who has played various saxophones with his bands, plays tenor and a bit of soprano, and, on the quartet pieces, he moves in a Coltrane direction. "100 Summers" bears this out, since the rhythm section flows over him, Royston rolling and crashing with mallets in hand and Irabagon starting his solo with cells of notes that he shapes and reshapes before moving onto the next cluster.

"Cost of Modern Living" also gives Royston the chance to thunder away, especially when the group locks into a riff on the coda. Prior to that, Irabagon plays a solo that proves he isn't here to simply pay homage. He unleashes a series of complex lines that go into double-time and, as this is the second song of the album, keeps the bar high for the rest of the album.

Harrell, a straightahead but always dynamic player, proves to be a good frontline partner who is capable of thriving outside of his usual comfort zone. After an intriguing entrance on "Still Water" where his tone has a unique quiver to it, he digs into the song's changes with series of short but direct lines. The haunting "Obelisk" is marked by some dissonant intervals, to which Perdomo adds some great color, before the horns improvise collectively. "Eternal Springs" opens with one of the most muscular-sounding soprano saxophone solos to come down the pike in a long time. It sets the standard for the 6/8 groove that follows with Perdomo and Harrell delivering strong work.

Behind the Sky was inspired by the deaths of loved ones and mentors and when that is considered, a reflective quality can be noticed throughout the album, and not just when Irabagon and Perdomo duet on "Lost Ship at the Edge of the Sea." While musicians can't depend on tragedies to fuel their music, in this case, Irabagon seems to have taken a bad situation as a mandate to push himself to a higher level. So even if he does take cues from Coltrane, he's putting his unique stamp on it. This album features 11 tracks, a big number of a jazz album, and all of them should be heard.

A recent review of Behind the Sky in a big jazz publication put the album at the front of the section, but it didn't review it in tandem with Inaction is an Action. (It might have mentioned it in the article, but I try not to read reviews of things I've about to review.) Why? Because it's not an easy album to digest, to put it mildly. The term "extended technique" was invented for albums like this. Here, our maestro shows all the different ways to emit sounds with this pee-wee instrument. Putting lips on the mouthpiece and blowing is only the beginning.

The opening sound of the album comes closer to synthesizer noise, sort of a moan which may or may not be the end result of blowing into the bell, or blowing without a mouthpiece. This track, appropriately entitled "Revvvv," also creates the sound of flowing water courtesy of the rapid closing of the saxophone pads. As the album goes on, Irabagon evokes guttural stomach noises, bends and twists long tones and hits upper register squeals that make volume knob adjustments necessary. He also blows some intriguing melodies and even uses the acoustics of the Chicago's Lakeview Presbyterian Church (where it was recorded) to impact the sound, as he walks away from the microphone.

Yes, it's a challenging listen, not something you put on while doing the dishes. (More likely it's the thing to put on to clear the party of the last few stragglers.) But it's a strong work and a groundbreaking one, considering few saxophonists outside of Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and Ravi Coltrane regularly blow the sopranino.

And this dual release helps to present a deep profile of Jon Irabagon.

Monday, September 28, 2015

CD Review: Mike Reed's People, Places & Things - A New Kind of Dance

Mike Reed's People Places & Things
A New Kind of Dance

"...[A]ll the music I assembled for this recording was intended to inspire or allude to dancing; albeit maybe an abstract style," says drummer Mike Reed in the liner notes to A New Kind of Dance.

Sure enough, Reed launches the title track and the sixth People, Places & Things album with a swinging, syncopated-funk backbeat. It won't be mistaken for an attempt at mainstream jazz, though, since the tune also has pianist Matthew Shipp sitting in with the Chicago group, stretching and rolling over his keys. In fact it takes a few measures to find the One in Reed's groove. Right as that happens, saxophonists Greg Ward (alto) and Tim Haldeman (tenor) fire the staccato theme of the head and disappear just as quickly, letting Shipp take the first solo.

I've only heard half of PP&T's discography, but if conclusions can be drawn from that amount of exposure, they are one of the most exciting groups in a city overcrowded with exciting bands. Reed started the band to pay tribute to overlooked Chicago jazz players like John Jenkins, Wilbur Ware and Frank Strozier. 2010's Stories and Negotiations even brought veterans Art Hoyle, Ira Sullivan and Julian Priester into the fold. (Reviews of those PPT albums and one other Reed project can be found here.)

Shipp and trumpeter Marquis Hill each join the quartet (which includes bassist Jason Roebke) on a set that splits evenly between Reed compositions and a few well-picked covers that reach beyond the group's original source of inspiration. The results yield a set that shifts gears on every track without letting the energy or focus wane. It indeed can inspire dancing, if only in your head.

The group follows the opener with "Markovsko Horo," a traditional Bulgarian folk dance that sounds like rubato klezmer music. Hill adds color to the music that recalls Don Cherry's tartness. Rather than opening it up for solos, Reed ingeniously cuts it short, wrapping up after the theme and an accelerando that gives the horns a few quick moments to blow. The music goes to South Africa for the bright "Kwela for Taylor," written by reedist Michael Moore (of ICP, Clusone Trio and others). The late South African musician Sean Bergin is remembered with his "AKA Reib Letsma," where the backbeat gets even more pronounced and the saxophonists blow in unison and in shrieks of joy that dance around each other. The only problem with this track comes with the abrupt ending, right as Roebke and Reed seemed to be getting into a heavy breakdown.

Before they get to that number, they also do some serious business to "Fear Not of Men," originally done by the rapper Mos Def, and "Star Crossed Lovers," an Ellington/Strayhorn number in which Ward, Haldeman and Hill are left on their own for two minutes, largely playing off the theme, with gentle backing from Roebke.

As good as the interpretations sound, Reed's own writing should not be overlooked. "Candyland," Ornette-ish in both the theme's delivery and brevity, brings out the best of the quartet with some blowing that sounds like a throwback to the original era of the New Thing - complete with new excitement. Both do the same on the free-wheeling "Wonderland." Shipp gets his Andrew Hill on in "Jackie's Tune," stopping you in your tracks to consider where these great ideas are coming from.

To make a short story long, there isn't a dud on this album. Far from it.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Television in Pittsburgh

Yesterday afternoon, a co-worker asked me how the Love Letters' show went this past Wednesday at Arsenal Lanes. Really well, I recalled, although there were a few big goof-ups. We stopped one song a few bars into it and had to restart it. "Oooh," my friend replied. "You can't do that. You gotta keep it going!" I agreed, clarifying that it wasn't me that did it.

A few hours later, Tom Verlaine did the same thing during Television's show at the Carnegie Music Hall. Granted his situation was different. He didn't realize they were playing "Venus" next and he had retuned for a different song. In this case, there's no way of faking your way through a song, or retuning as you're playing, unless you have some super skill - and a good tuning pedal. The point is, if he can do it, I guess we can too.

But that's only a minor quibble that I had, and it's a more appropriate opening thought that doesn't give away the big feeling I had during the band's set, which I will mention in a moment.

Taking in the opulence of the Carnegie Music Hall, with a stage that was alternately bathed in blue or what felt like pink lights, my co-hort mentioned that this was a long way from CBGB, which the band helped put on the map and vice versa. The stage was huge, with plenty of room for all four members, who walked out casually, giving a wave or a nod to the audience. And then they tuned.

After a swirling, almost soundcheck/stage volume check intro, Tom Verlaine hit the opening riff of "See No Evil." Everything feel into place. Jimmy Rip, who has played in Verlaine's solo band since the early 1980s, played the countermelody precisely. As the evening continued, he would replicate all of Richard Lloyd's solos, as if he transcribed them and committed them to memory. It's not a criticism, just an observation.

Television stuck with songs from their landmark Marquee Moon album, going in a running order different than the album, without adding any other songs to the set as they proceeded. Each break between songs brought suspense with it. What would be next? Will it sound as great as the last song? "Friction" contained one of the best guitar solos of the evening, with Verlaine skronking up the fretwork rapidly, making it look like it was easy.

After "Guiding Light," there was only one song left from the album - the 10-minute title track. Verlaine and Rip dropped tuned. (The tuning breaks threatened to kill momentum a couple times and made me think of my brother saying how a bandmate of his did it incessantly. Glad he missed that part of the evening.) Then that plink-plink intro of "Marquee Moon" started. And the crowd went wild.

And then I saw God.

Let me back up a little. Although said brother bought Marquee Moon when it came out, I didn't hear and appreciate it until five years later. That started to happen when I heard the title track on the radio, and I got so lost in it that I was calling WRCT everyday for about a week because I needed to hear it on a daily basis.

After the third verse, right before Verlaine launches his guitar solo and Richard Lloyd is banging out that riff, I always had this feeling of Here it comes, the magic is about to start. Like the way I feel when the Jack Rabbit pulls out of the station and around the corner at Kennywood.

Verlaine started the solo in a very similar manner to the record, low and casual, fiddling with his volume with his left hand as his right hand picked away. Then he threw in some wild harmonics that kicked it up a few notches. Then it happened. I don't know exactly what, and I'm not going to try and explain it theoretically or viscerally but the sounds he was pulling out of that guitar hit me like no other show I've ever seen. I've heard people say that they've felt like they've seen God at a show and maybe that was the result of a chemically altered brain, but mine had no alterations. Just a typical amount of caffeine and not quite enough dinner. But it was perfect. It was the built-up hope of how you want to hear a song after hearing at home for over 30 years, knowing how you want it to sound, and HAVING IT SOUND EVEN BETTER THAN THAT.

When the band walked offstage following that song, they had only played about an hour, and I would've been satisfied at that point. I wondered if they were going to do an intermission, come back and play all of Adventure, wrapping that set up with "Little Johnny Jewel."

But they came back on and hit right away with "Little Johnny Jewel," which was taut, though not quite as frantic as the original single. That was followed by a ballad of sorts that could have been a '50s love song, though it was a little too Verlaine-ish for that. A version of Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction" followed, with a rave up in the middle that left both Count Five and the Yardbirds (the song's original inspiration) in the dust. A strange coda was slow and trippy, almost a stand-alone different song, butit linked to the preceding tune by Verlaine repeating the lyrics.

I was cool with that. Hell, I had seen God. Or Coltrane.

Monday, September 21, 2015

CD Review: Wes Montgomery - In the Beginning

Wes Montgomery
In the Beginning

This one has been out for a while, but it's worth another go-around because it shouldn't be missed.

There have been early recordings of Wes Montgomery performing in his hometown of Indianapolis. And there are live recordings by other artists where the historical impact sometimes outweighs the sonic aspects. This is definitely the former, but not the latter. The history is there and so is the sound quality. And the sound will  make a casual Wes Montgomery fan, with just a working knowledge of his recordings, want to go out and dive into all of them. Even the latter day more commercial ones, for completion.

Most of In the Beginning dates back to 1955 and 1956. Wes's guitar is heard in a quintet with his brothers Monk (bass) and Buddy (piano), with tenor saxophonist Albert "Pookie" Johnson and drummer Sonny Johnson. The Johnsons were not related but they sound like it, due to the way they blend with the Brothers Montgomery. The guitar, tenor and piano harmonize in a rapid and  incredibly rich intro to "Fascinating Rhythm," where the piano almost sounds like an organ when it combines with the other two instruments. In this setting, Wes's tone starts out sounding round and smooth, but there are moments where he cuts loose and sounds like he's shooting sparks, with the wild tone he gets from his guitar. What's even more of a shock is a lot of this magic happened at the Turf Club, a venue that would allow the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet to play but would only admit white patrons, at least initially. It's hard to imagine such inspiration coming from a rather oppressive space.

The quintet recorded five songs in New York City around that same time, with Quincy Jones producing the session for the fledgling Epic label. All five are included on the second disc, all of them showing the group to be as tight in the studio as they were onstage. Some of it could have easily made its way on to Blue Note, but only "Love for Sale" has been previously released (on a 1983 album of unreleased tracks from the Columbia vaults).

Also included is a reading of Benny Goodman's "Soft Winds" where Wes stretches out, as does Mel Rhyne, on piano rather than his trademark B3 organ. A recording made at Wes' sister's house finds her brother picking up the bass for "Ralph's New Blues," a spotlight for Buddy's vibes. Three long-lost 78s by a group called Gene Morris & the Hamptones also appear, dating back to 1949, two of them coming through travels that took Resonance's Zev Feldman to Austria to find them.

Being a Resonance package, In the Beginning is festooned with a 56-page booklet that overflows with: track-by-track credits; observations by Bill Milkowski and Ashley Kahn; and interviews with Quincy Jones, bassist Dr. Larry Ridley and photojournalist Duncan Schiedt, the latter two who lived in Indianapolis. An excerpt from Buddy Montgomery's unpublished book offers further insight into the rapport among the Montgomery family members. If that wasn't enough, Pete Townshend penned a touching essay about the significance of Wes Montgomery's music to both the pre-Who guitarist and his father. While contributions like this often rest on their star power, Townshend hits the emotional nerve directly, doing Montgomery a great service while talking largely about the guitarist's impact.

The sense of history with the set is almost overpowering. It's tempting to get existential about the whole thing and ponder what would have happened if the Montgomerys never strayed beyond their hometown, etc. etc. Rather than take that route, just put the music on and get lost in it, which is easy to do, especially during moments when the crowd goes wild during a "Night in Tunisia" guitar solo that includes a sideways quote from another tune. Soak up the music and then remember to support your local musicians because if this group could make musical history in the mid-'50s in front of a select few, that means you might be hearing history today. And it's important not to miss anything.

PS Resonance is going to be releasing package by the late organist Larry Young before too long. I can't wait!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Last Night's Dr. Lonnie Smith Show, in which Donny meets Dr. Lonnie

I took Donovan with me last night to see Dr. Lonnie Smith. It felt like a risk because the kid is not really a jazz fan, at least not yet. And the last time I took him to a jazz show, he got pretty restless halfway through, when the snacks ran out.

But the previous show didn't involve a Hammond B3 organ, which I somehow managed to get him interested in. And Dr. Lonnie Smith is probably the last of the prime B3 masters so Donny needed to see this. Someday, he'll thank me.

The New Hazlett Theater, on the North Side, piqued Donny's interest immediately. He remembered being there for Ben Opie's large scale performance in the spring of 2014, and he ran up to the building pretty excitedly. He wanted to sit on the upper level, so we sat stage right, which was perfect because we could look down and see Dr. Lonnie's whole arsenal clearly: the B3 keys, pedals, TWO Leslie cabinets, plus a sampler that had a huge circle and the sound of a conga. He also had two small (like vintage Casio size) keyboards on top of his organ and a Yamaha Motif XF8. These keys had pre-programmed sounds, the former two sounding like an Enchanted forest noises, while the XF8 had percussive loops. It seemed like we had the perfect spot.

We did. The good Doctor made his entrance, with guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Kendrick Scott, decked out in a long flowing white outfit and his trademark turban. As he got his bearings he mentioned the Hurricane Lounge - the long gone Hill District club that featured organ players in the '50s and '60s - and naturally he got a rise out of the audience. After a quick talk about owner Birdie Dunlap and about Smith's hookup with George Benson, they dug into the music.

"Back Track" began with slow suspense, Smith hitting the conga trigger, Scott scraping a stick on a cymbal and Kreisberg using a wah effect. The lengthy theme hit a roaring climax near the end of the chorus, which Kreisberg and Smith used with skill to wow the audience.

I've noticed that a number of B3 organists let their sideman solo first, which lets the organ have the final say without being followed by anyone. Smith was no exception, giving Kreisberg the first solo most of the time, then tearing things up. Early on, he showed a visceral, rhythmic approach that went beyond the keyboard: playing, clapping, hitting the conga trigger and - most significantly - singing along with what he was playing. We were treated to some standard B3 sounds - a lot of runs up and down the keyboard, along with some extended trilling - which never sounded routine. It was all placed skillfully and exciting to see and hear live. "Mellow Mood," a Jimmy Smith tune, sounded like a Latin boogaloo, with a fast, boppish line.

Smith knew how to put on a show, from the way he played to the way he talked between sets. That made total sense, as he had family and some old friends in the audience. At one point, he flubbed the name of a song, which led to jokes about his old age, and pretending to forget where he was. So he repeatedly joked, "I don't know the name of this song, but you don't either," which in turn became more of a joke when the song in question was "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," naturally a showcase for Scott in the introduction. And don't laugh, because the break in that song serves as a good blowing vehicle for the guitar and organ.

But while he acted as a showman, Smith also worked adventure into the second set of the evening. A version of Thelonious Monk's "Straight No Chaser" superimposed the melody line (peeled off rapidly by Kreisberg) over a organ swirl that sounded like Miles Davis' "It's About that Time." Smith proved that the blues doesn't have to sound the same each time.

"My Favorite Things" has been done by many jazz musicians since John Coltrane gave it some jazz cred, but the trio took it further than most. They gave it the kind of intensity one would expect from Trane. Smith's organ lines even seemed to go for Trane-like vocabulary, as Scott pushed the intensity up further than further. When they reached the song's coda and held it furiously, it felt like we had reached lift-off.

There were a few more tunes after that. What looked like Smith's metal walking stick became a diddly bo in Smith's hands, an instrument that emitted low - and sub-basement low - sounds when Smith whacked it with his thumb. Walking around the stage, pausing to hit a stomp box for distortion and imitate Jimi Hendrix (his words), he eventually made his way back to the organ for one more tune. But that "My Favorite Things" coda wasn't going to be topped.

During intermission, Donny decided he wanted to try to meet Dr. Lonnie. We didn't get close to him then, because he was sitting at a table signing CDs and shaking hands. But after the second set, we headed back to the table quickly and I helped ease the boy up to the good doctor, who gracefully shook his hand. Both seemed to be impressed with one another. You have to admire a guy in his 70s who can play that intensely and then get deluged by fans immediately after a set. What a trooper.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Television and Dr. Lonnie Smith - Here in Pittsburgh

I have two articles in Pittsburgh City Paper this week: a feature on Television, who are coming to town next week, on September 25; and a short Q&A with Dr. Lonnie Smith, whose B3 organ skills will be happening at the Hazlett Theater this coming Saturday. There is a longer version of our conversation online, and it can be found here.