Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Uh Oh, Jazz is Dead Again...Wait - It's Not. But WJAS Is

Originally the title of this post was going to stop at the ellipsis, but I didn't get to post it in time. The last week included a wedding, a furious hunt for a CD that needed to be reviewed, some illness and finally, the writing of a couple reviews, which of course brings with it, a whole lot of listening.

So I'm merging a couple thoughts.

First of all, in the wake of the Sonny Rollins imbroglio, some wise-ass wrote a piece for The Washington Post about how jazz has become irrelevant and boring. The tone of the piece didn't exactly state, "The stuff in that fake Sonny Rollins piece was right," but that was the gist of it. Dude actually went to Wesleyan University and knew of Anthony Braxton, but he didn't really know Braxton. Or at least he didn't try to understand him. Or maybe Braxton failed him in class.

Rather than offer my own rebuttal to this piece, I'd rather you check out Chris Richards' response to the piece. He makes several really good points about why Justin Moyer's original piece is full of holes.

What I would like to gripe about is the fact that Moyer's piece went to print in the first place. There are a lot of underpaid, under-appreciated music journalists out there who are hell-bent on informing the public about the good stuff that's coming out. People who would love to have a mere 500 words in a place like The Washington Post. Why the hell are they letting schlubs like Moyer write lazy, reactionary pieces like this? (Said Shanley, who used to hate the use of rhetorical questions in print.)

There are a couple answers that can be given. First, since people don't read as much as they once did, the media has to get people's attention via trumped-up alleged hot-button pieces like this. Secondly, the internet needs a constant new stream of news to keep people's attention. Hence pieces like this or "What happened to those '80s tv stars you don't really care about" or "Let's Pick 10 Legendary Musicians and Say Why They Were Assholes." It's cheap, it's abundant and it'll get more hits than a review of a Steve Lehman album.

Part Two of the title

Last Thursday, I came home and put on the radio in our bathroom that's usually tuned to 1320 WJAS-AM. For those of you outside of Pittsburgh (who have never seen my ad nauseum mentions in other posts), the station features a playlist that runs from Johnny Mathis, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra, along with Rod Stewart's American Songbook tripe, Celine Dion and Phantom of the Opera highlights. During the day, Pittsburgh institutions Jack Bogut and "Chilly Billy" Cardille added folksy announcements geared towards the blue-hair crowd. At night the playlist had cut-ins from John Tesh, spouting "intelligence for your life," rehashed from Redbook and Dr. Oz. (The latter is something I've often pointed to as a nail in the coffin of real radio. But my son gets some weird kick out of it.)

Instead of hearing afternoon DJ Chris Shovlin spinning tunes, the station was playing what sounded like an infomercial. Strange, I thought. They usually don't play this stuff until the wee hours of the morning. Was I on the right station?

Then it came.

An ad for Glenn Beck. Not JUST an add for him, an ad that threw salt on my rapidly growing wound, since the song "Sunshine Lollipops and Rainbows" had a male voice intoning "Yummy yummy yummy" overtop the obnoxious sound collage. (I f***ing hate that word).

A quick online check revealed that my old WJAS was gone. In its place was conservative talk radio. A new company bought the station a few months ago and expressed the desire to get rid of "the old music," mentioning Patti Page specifically. Meanwhile, that part of the playlist made the station unique, fun to listen to and to some extent novel.

The Pittsburgh AM radio band is dying a quick death. Instead of trying to generate interest in a place that needs new life, all their doing is catering to the lowest common denominator. Between WJAS and WZUM (see a post from last fall), there was a chance that the AM could prove that there's still edge and excitement in this music, especially if you're hearing some of it for the first time.

But the owners care more about profits that innovation.

Fear and conservative talks shows sell revenue. Perry Como doesn't.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Sonny Rollins - Our Guru

Last night Sonny Rollins went live online to speak about the New Yorker piece that appeared last week, consisting of made-up quotes by him. (See previous post if you don't know.)

My first reaction to his talk was that I hope I'm that eloquent and deep when I hit my 80s. I know people 20 years younger than Sonny who aren't nearly as quick-witted as him. There he was, quoting Aldous Huxley ("one of my heroes") and comparing the New Yorker piece to something that would run in Mad Magazine, of which he's also a fan.

To just touch on the half-hour discussion, he made the good point that if you didn't know the piece was satire and made up - WHICH A GREAT DEAL OF PEOPLE DIDN'T KNOW SINCE IT WASN'T MADE CLEAR UNTIL YESTERDAY, WHEN THERE WERE EXPLANATIONS PUT AT THE BEGINNING AND END - is that the piece could disillusion aspiring musicians, who could read it and think something to the effect of "if Sonny feels this way, why should I bother playing jazz?"

You came away feeling that Sonny's no fool, and he's wiser than you think.

So don't mess with him, even in the name of satire.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Sonny Rollins Didn't Say That

On Friday, Sonny Rollins tweeted the following: "Hey, folks, this is some guy's idea of a joke." No explanation, no anger, just our beloved Sonny giving it to us straight.

You have to admire him for that because, as I finally discovered last night, he was referring to a piece that ran on The New Yorker's website a day earlier, an "In His Own Words" piece that consisted of several quotes attributed to him, all putting down jazz music and his career. The biggest one that keeps getting mentioned begins, "Jazz might be the stupidest thing that anybody's ever come up with." It goes on to disparage the way the music starts, then falls apart as people noodle around on their instruments. You know - the way non-jazz fans talk about it. All that's missing is the cliche "too many notes."

It's shocking. It's out of character, and --- it's not Sonny. The whole thing is made up. In case you don't see this - and a lot of people didn't - it's under the humor section of the website.

One other thing: it's not funny. That's not to say that jazz isn't above criticism or irreverence. There are a lot of things, and a lot of people, who should be taken down a notch just to give them a dose of humility. Sonny Rollins isn't one of those people. Read any recent article about him and what comes across is a guy who's really taken to his Zen-like studies, whose always reaching for something higher in music. In short he seems just as touched by the love he receives as his listeners feel about his music.

So, as one writer who I follow on Facebook pointed out, why throw this genuine 84-year-old example-of-what-we-can-all-aspire-to, under the bus? There are plenty of punching bags in jazz music, none of which I need to mention because my point is not to find someone to beat up. Pick your own. Sonny has never done anything, at least in recent times, to piss people off enough to deserve this treatment.

Besides, who is the article aimed at? Is the average New Yorker website reader going to get the piece? Are they going to get the references? Do they know much jazz beyond Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme and a Billie Holiday compilation they heard in college? OK, I'm getting into cheap shot territory...

One final thought: the author will probably defend himself with the casual, "C'mon, it's a joke" reply. I've found that when people throw that out there, it's often damage control for a lack of consideration. Kind of like "I'm sorry you got mad when I said those awful things about you." Not really an apology. Not really sorry.

The guy supposedly writes for The Onion, which does satire really well, but if that's the case, the piece should have run there. Context is everything. Stick with The Onion and leave the big dogs like Sonny Rollins alone. It makes you look cheap and petty.

And for those of you who want to see the offending train wreck and the level of carnage, here it is.

Friday, August 01, 2014

CD Review: Steve Lehman Octet - Mise en Abime

Well, a lot of encouraging reaction came after the previous post about music streaming, but now I'm back to the esoteric jazz albums...

Steve Lehman Octet
Mise en Abime
(Pi Recordings)

The last time Steve Lehman convened an octet session, the result was nothing short of astounding. Travail, Transformation and Flow (2009) took the idea of groove and combined it with off-kilter textures and a view of harmony that didn't get bogged down by the theoretical approach to it. It was a bit of a surprise to me that alto saxophonist Lehman didn't become more widely known - a star, as much as there are stars in edgy jazz. Then again, he did receive a 2014 Doris Duke Artist Award, and praise from, among others, Pat Metheny.

Lehman has gone on to collaborate with fellow alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, bassist Stephan Crump and to record an album with a trio. All of these combinations yielded worthwhile music but none really came close to the feeling of Travail. This might have something to do with Lehman's focus on spectral music, which takes overtones of source to make microtonal harmonies that are organized by frequency relationships instead of by intervals in a musical scale. The feeling of the music can be felt and appreciated more when eight musicians are playing it, and this otherwordly sound begins from the opening seconds of the album.

The previous paragraph might make Mise en Abime sound a little egg-headed and scholarly, but the Lehman Octet has plenty of life and feeling to it. The rhythm section of Drew Gress (bass) and Tyshawn Sorey (drums) straddle grooves and foundations to the music while they also get a chance to play off of the structures. Storey especially sounds like he's playing free time quite a bit, but he serves to punctuate the structure of the piece while he moves it along.

Chris Dingman's vibraphone has an strange harmonic resonance, because Lehman had the instrument custom built with alternate tunings. (Labelmate Hafez Modirzadeh did the same with the piano used on his 2012 Post-Chromodal Out! album, played by Vijay Iyer.) The sustained notes in "Segregated and Sequential" and "13 Colors" provides a broad quality to the music that evokes visuals as much as harmonies. That feeling is especially true in the opening of "Autumn Interlude" when the low brass and vibes form a cluster that serves as the musical equivalent of an oncoming October rainfall amidst piles of leaves. And that's only the introduction. As it proceeds, Lehman and tenor saxophonist Mark Shim trade lines with speed and clarity.

The album includes some reconstructions of compositions by pianist Bud Powell. His "Glass Enclosures" becomes even more angular and pointed in the hands of the group. "Parisian Thoroughfare Transcription" sounds nothing like Powell's classic trio version or the Clifford Brown/Max Roach version of "Parisian Thoroughfare." For two and a half minutes, Lehman sits at the piano and the alto, sketches out some kind of framework with accompaniment. In the background, samples of an interview with Powell play, with his name and Hank Jones' name occasionally coming to the surface of the recording. Full disclosure: I didn't undercover this on my own. It was only when I read a recent JazzTimes piece on Lehman that it came out. Of course, in this same blog I was taken to task by a reader after not being able to feel the foundation of Lehman's version of the John Coltrane piece "Moment's Notice" on the trio album. So maybe I need to listen harder.

Regardless, the piece closes the album with intrigue, like the blend of college practice rooms, a dream sequence and the opening of a hip-hop song (you can imagine a programmed beat kicking up after the piece finishes). The latter doesn't sound out of line since Lehman adds a cover of hip-hop duo Camp Lo's "Luchini" to his own "Chimera."

Throughout Mise en Abime, the lines between composition and improvisation get blurred - in a good way - and though "heads" of the tracks seem simple or minimal, there always seems to be bigger structure at work with them. Taking apart the various section of it makes for an intriguing listen.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What's Wrong with Music? Well, I'll Tell Ya....

It's been hard to write. Not only finding the time, but finding the energy. I don't feel like I should be Pollyanna-ish with this blog, but I don't just want to spew piss and vinegar. There's plenty of that out there already.

Aw, who am I kidding? Maybe I can add some nuance to the grouchiness that's out there anyway.

First point of business: Have you ever gone to an art exhibition in an independent gallery - where you have no more than a few degrees of separation from the artist, or know them personally? And have you ever taken a picture of their work, and said to the artist with a smile, "Cool! Now I don't have to buy it! I have a copy."

Would you say that? Would that ever sound anything less than insulting and inconsiderate when said to someone who's spent numerous hours working on their particular media?

If your answer is "yes, I do it all that time/I would never pay a $100 for art anyway," you might as well stop reading, because there's no chance of penetrating your thick skull. For the rest of you, the next question is - well, why do you do that to musicians? Sure, there are a lot of musicians out there who didn't go to school to learn how to play and just picked up a guitar or bass or something and decided to do it. But they, or someone who believes in their work, decided to pony up a serious amount of cash to put out their music. And maybe they aren't in it to get rich, but they should get some kind of return on their efforts for a job well done. It's become clear that streaming sites have become the new go-to for music now, and with the further death of the tactile listening experience, they've become more of the standard. Musicians, who weren't getting rich in the first place, are getting little more than a bone for their efforts. That's everyone from David Byrne to Marc Ribot to Sean Lally. And some of these musicians DID put in a lot of equity (sweat or otherwise) into their work.

About 12 years ago, I did a piece for InPgh about Napster, where I asked a bunch of local musicians for their position on the topic, and printed their block quotes. People like Justin Sane from Anti-Flag and Michael Kastelic from the Cynics seemed to think sites like Napster weren't completely evil because it helped get music out to people who wouldn't normally hear it. At the time, I took a stance closer to that too. Paul from Pauls CD's (which has morphed into Sound Cat) said that a lot of customers would come in his store looking for things that they heard on Napster and would buy it.

But times change. Paul got out of the business a few years ago. (I'm not going to speculate why, but you have to wonder about that.) In the intervening years, Pandora and Spotify have sprouted up, and there's a good chance you can hear a song on youtube if you look it up. There are always going to be those people who loooove music and will go to a record store (or an online store, but that's another matter) to pick up a CD. Or an album. Or they'll buy a download from a touring musician. But those numbers are dwindling. Like I said, the listening experience has really changed over that time and my thoughts have too.

 I know plenty of 40-something folks who feel like they don't have time to invest or really care about exploring albums anymore. Just shrug your shoulders, say "Oh well," and listen to the new Wye Oak single on Spotify. Or never mind a band like that which might require more concentration. You keep hearing about Pharrell Williams, so why not just listen to that song so you know what all the fuss is about? And it's a hit anyway, so it's okay if he just gets the equivalent of a few pennies from me.

Do I have a solution? Well, not exactly. I could suggest that you all go out and buy a couple new CD/albums, and remember the good old days when we all had time to sit in our bedrooms and brood while [fill in the blank with the name of your favorite band when you were 18] played on the stereo. Then again, how many people listen to music on something resembling a old-fashioned receiver/speakers/turntable/disc player/hi-fi system anyhow. Isn't it just a couple of piddly-to-decent speakers in front of the computer? Or something in your ears when you're getting coffee?

But the better solution would be to get all the streaming services to pony up and make a better royalty system to the artists they play. Radio stations have to do that, but oh yeah, that reminds me.......

It's getting close for another one of those concerts that's going to make history - a promise the ads make even though the concert isn't happening for another couple months. Yeah - the good folks at I Heart Radio with their let's-put-everyone-on-the-bill-to-try-to-appeal-to-everyone methodology are at it again. It's another indication of what's wrong with radio now. Putting Taylor Swift together with Motley Crue and Josh Grobin and Big & Rich and Hank Williams III and Prince and Clarence Williams III and Jack Johnson and Blind Melon and Third Eye Blind and Steppenwolf and Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett and Gogi Grant and Bread and Justin Bieber and Barbra Streisand and Pink Floyd and Slim Whitman DOES NOT make history simply because you're putting all these acts together on the same bill. (NOTE: THIS ROSTER DOES NOT REFLECT THE ACTUAL SCHEDULE OF PERFORMERS AT THE I HEART RADIO FESTIVAL. IT WAS CREATED TO PROVE A POINT, WHICH I WILL GET TO NOW.)

I don't like to repeat myself, but I have to re-use a metaphor from about a year ago. (I"m not good with them, so I stick with them when I find one that works). This festival reminds me of when, as a kid, we'd finish dying Easter eggs and I'd mix the colors all together, thinking it would make one big, beautiful blend of colors.

All it did was turn brown.

And when you try to cram all these acts together, you don't get a glorious harmonic convergence of acts who join hands and sing "Poker Face" and the best of Fugazi. You get something watered down and bland.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

CD Review: Kyle Bruckmann's WRACK - ...Awaits Silent Tristero's Empire

Kyle Bruckman's WRACK
...Awaits Silent Tristero's Empire
(Single Speed)

Full disclosure: I haven't read any of Thomas Pynchon's work. However, after listening to Kyle Bruckman's suite ...Awaits Silent Tristero's Empire, described as "a musical phantasmagoria" inspired by Pynchon's novels VThe Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow, maybe the time has come.

Bruckman plays oboe and English horn, two challenging double reed instruments rarely heard in jazz or improvisation. In the liner note he explains that Pynchon often has his characters burst into song, with show tunes, sea shanties, drinking songs and vaudeville providing the foundation for frequently racy lyrics that appear in the text. This explains why, two minutes into Part One, the rhythm section launches into a two-step of carnival music, with trumpeter Darren Johnston and trombonist Jeb Bishop sounding plucky over the bounce of the beat.

Before this movement concludes, it includes a few passages of group squonks, some noisy oboe exchanges with plucked viola (from Jen Clare Paulson) and a few more trombone solos, most notably one where Bishop uses a plunger mute and the group plays a bluesy shout behind him.

Bruckmann describes the music as a "cracked funhouse mirror Great American Songbook," and that does capture the essence of the whole piece. A great deal of ground is covered, in fits and starts. The third section starts out sounding more subdued than the aforementioned part, only to get faster, before Jason Stein unleashes a vocal bass clarinet solo. The final section begins with free blowing, including Bruckmann growling on the oboe, and later shifts into something that feels like soft shoe, with a chorus of "Red River Valley" inserted quickly.

This mash-up of adventurous jazz and Americana holds a lot of intriguing moments, but as a whole it sometimes feels a little too ambitious. It doesn't have the John Zorn brevity-for-brevity's-sake penchant for gear shifting. But sometimes it feels like Bruckmann tries to incorporate a little too much into the music. Of course, I might be at a disadvantage, not having read any of the novels.

The members of the group keep the energy on track when things get a little more involved. Although one can't really call it a "front line" since it's not straight jazz, the use of double reeds, bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone and viola creates a unique texture. Chicago regulars Anton Hatwich (bass) and Tim Daisy (drums) complete the lineup.

Bruckmann was able to complete the piece through support from Chamber Music America's 2012 New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development Program. With any hope, this won't be a one-off project for him. On top of that, his oboe and English horn work also brings an underutilized pair of sounds to the world of adventurous jazz.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Charlie Haden Remembered

The anticipation that I feel before doing an interview often has a debilitating effect on me. Bad connections, bad recording devices - both are possibilities, even when I test them beforehand. Then there's always the prospect that the subject will turn out to be less than friendly. I went into an interview with a certain punk rock icon, who I had casually meet on a few occasions and found sweet as pie, who was prickly and intimidating.

But there's always the hope of having a breakthrough with a subject. You ask a question, or more likely make an observation that will really open them up. That happened when I interviewed Charlie Haden in 2003. We talked about his music, the term "jazz," about teaching music, whether or not you can teach what he did with Ornette Coleman's quartet, and how to reach an audience with what you do.

Being so close to 9/11, and right around the time that W. declared "mission accomplished," I wondered if he was considering doing another Liberation Music Orchestra album. The first had been recorded in 1969, in the wake of the Democratic Convention in Chicago which had erupted in riots. The album's penultimate track attempted to recreate those particular events, by dividing the ensemble in two and letting them blow their brains out, following a jaunty Haden solo. Right at the height of the frenzy, Carla Bley began playing "We Shall Overcome" on the organ. The track juxtaposed chaos and hope of that era all at once. And while the track ends sounding bleak, it's followed by a one-chorus version of "We Shall Overcome," blown by Roswell Rudd's trombone. I took the message as one to be just what the song said: no matter how bleak, we will overcome.

When asked, Haden wasn't sure about another LMO album (the fourth, following Ballad of the Fallen, which came out in the '80s, and Dream Keeper in 1990). But sure enough, he released another one, Not In Our Name, in 2005. I was happy to see it and even happier when it drew piss and vinegar in the letters section of jazz magazines, due to its fearless comments about the country's politics.

But back to that interview...

I searched and found the article I wrote for Pulp back then, but I didn't include one key exchange Charlie and I had. He was telling me something that went kind of like this: he liked to tell his audiences how he'd like to multiple them by one million because with more people like that in existence, the world would be a better place.

Hm. That's cool, I thought. Now what do I say? "Well," I finally replied, you've given me a lot to think about." It felt like the most wishy-washy thing to say.


"THAT'S COOL, MAN" he exclaimed. It seemed like he felt like I got where he was coming from. A minute later, he was telling me that we ought to get together when he came into town. Charlie Haden wanted to hand out with me, an indie rock geek who was just starting to think he was a jazz writer. How could that be? (My first JazzTimes article had just been published two months prior.) I gave him my phone number and he wrapped up the interview with the word that I will forever associate with him: "Solid!"

Haden was supposed to get into town on a Wednesday for a weekend stand at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. I had given up on hearing from him when I finally got a voicemail either Friday or Saturday afternoon. Yes, he was still interested in hanging out. Maybe we could check out the Crawford Grill (still open at that point) where he played with Ornette several decades prior. We made plans to meet up after the Sunday matinee show at the Guild.

Pittsburgh was hit with a pretty heavy snowstorm that day, but my partner in crime Shawn Brackbill had grown up in eastern PA and knew how to maneuver the roads. After checking out the subdued but really enthralling set by Haden's quartet (which included pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and pianist David Sanchez), Haden, Shawn and I made plans to meet at his hotel downtown and find a place to eat.

Things started off rather bleakly. The snow was getting bad. Charlie seems hungry and a little prickly. The mix tape that Shawn made for the trip wasn't having the desired effect. "Could you turn that off," Charlie asked, just about a minute into it.

But once we got to Palomino, the only place that seemed both open and accessible, he warmed up. We heard some great stories. A Pat Metheny song was playing in the restaurant. "I think I'm on this," he said, casually.

Yes, I did feel star struck, but I also felt like I was hanging out with a regular guy who just happened to be one of the most groundbreaking bassists in jazz music. I loved it for both reasons. And when I look back on the, uh, charmed life I briefly lead as an alt-weekly editor, making that connection with Charlie Haden is always the first thing I think of. And when I hear one of those early Ornette Coleman albums on Atlantic, I always think of how genuine a guy Charlie Haden is, and how I would to multiply him by one million. The world would be a better place.

Thanks, Charlie. I hope that you, Don Cherry, Eddie Blackwell and Scott LaFaro are hanging out together, laying down some drum and bass grooves.