Sunday, November 18, 2007

it says more about the author than the music

A frequent response to negative criticism, but one I don't really understand.

"They played a blues in F. Then a variation on rhythm changes clever enough to prove there's still life in that old method." "XYZ is possessed of a fine technique, but thanks to an unforced modesty, it never eclipses melody and feeling." Do these sentences tell us more about the player or the listener?

I can't tell you much about music, but I can tell you about myself. In fact, I think music is fairly rarely talked about - see any feature-length article on a musician in, say, the NY Times. If music is not fully contained in either its technique, its context, its consumers or producers, is it possible to talk about it, or only around it? Obviously, if music's artistic space could be fully duplicated (in words, painting, film, etc.), it wouldn't have much reason to exist.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Trio Grande w/ Matthew Bourne - 26/10/2007@Beursschouwburg, Bruxelles

Laurent Dehors - b cl, contrabass cl, two more straight clarinets I don't know the keys of, ts, ss, hca, jew's harp, bagpipes
Matthew Bourne - p (website)
Michel Massot - tba, tb, euphonium
Michel Debrulle - d

Bagpipes over the slow funk of an African-tinged vamp in 7. Michel Massot and Matthew Bourne spastically dancing opposite each other during the first encore. Bourne letting his improvising be guided by a plastic water bottle cap springing across the piano's strings. A cartoonish take on dixieland abruptly catapulted into mid-20th century classical music, expressed through a series of short waltzes. Possibly the funniest impromptu explanation of how clarinets work ever given.

Those are a few of the things that made this yet another great Trio Grande (plus guest Bourne) gig. The pianist fit surprisingly well into the group's aesthetic, moving easily from doubling melodic lines to pounding out scattered free playing to lush romanticism. Whether it was his influence, or the general direction the band's music is taking, there was a loose, drifting feel to much of the repertoire, whereas I tend to think of Trio Grande as both more barn-storming and more melodic. While the group seems to focus more on melody and timbre (eg. Massot's nuanced use of multiphonics), the song structures they use - impressive without really calling attention to themselves because they sound so organic - sort of replace harmony's forward drive. In any case, the upcoming quartet CD should be a worthy heir to the fabulous Signé.

That I am elated by these kinds of concerts and am left somewhat indifferent to Mikkel Ploug or even Drew Gress has me slightly worried. Am I able to appreciate what Nate Chinen calls "the deeper subtleties of harmony and form," or am I merely attracted to "a lot of surface dazzle," like some sort of musical magpie? I'd like to get really excited by that subtle stuff, too...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Bad Plus - 14/10/2007@N9, Eeklo

Ethan Iverson - p (blog)
Reid Anderson - b
David King - d

[Yes, this post is almost a month overdue. Consider it a prelude to The Bad Plus's return to Belgium on the 15th. I'll be seeing Brad Mehldau that day, but you should go if you can.]

I bought a PlayStation 2 a while ago, just to play Guitar Hero. Passing in front of a second-hand video-game shop, I popped in on the off chance they might have something of interest. They didn't, but there was a book section in the back. So, instead of Fifa 2007, I walked out with Sartre, Proust and Boris Vian. The Bad Plus is a bit like that: first you hear about the Nirvana, Black Sabbath and Vangelis covers, then you find out that that's not really what they're about, at least not in a superficial way.

Perhaps it wasn't obvious with their first couple albums, but having "Street Woman" on Give, then a series of blog posts and, on a personal level, my very recent discovery of The Complete Science Fiction Sessions, have made evident how indebted TBP is to the Ornette Coleman/Charlie Haden/Keith Jarrett American Quartet axis.

Given that (and taking other influences into consideration), it's not too surprising for one section of Dave King's new "My Friend Medatron" to totally draw up a new intersection of pop's teleological movement, the wheel-within-a-wheel rhythms of funk and the disassembling impulse of free jazz, like Julius Hemphill's "Dogon AD" or the Art Ensemble of Chicago's "Le Thème de Yoyo" before it. And it is as un-sellout as its predecessors (we can add On The Corner to the list), a point emphatically made as "Heart of Glass" (my favourite TBP cover) was torn to shreds: they aren't pandering. And somehow, this all goes well with the absurd tangents TBP like to go on, whether spoken ("We're big fans of disco... Especially roller-disco" prefaced the Blondie tune) or musical (the juxtaposition of two completely different uses of handclaps in "1980 World Champion").

While none of the new tunes jumped out and grabbed me quite like "Physical Cities" did a year ago, there were a number of really good ones. "People Like You" was a classic Reid Anderson ballad: a tender melody (suggesting that the title's "like" was a verb, not a comparison) and a steady crescendo from a spare beginning to a more emphatic climax, without losing a certain sense of drift, in the vein of "Prehensile Dream," the concert-opening oldie-but-goodie. Ethan's "Old Money" featured Reid in a different mode, as his solo started with vigorously syncopated arpeggios, wriggled into a funky single line and suddenly slowed for a poignant close.

Finally, as it was the eve of Reid's birthday, we (the audience) sang for him, to a very slow drum accompaniment that was kind of destabilising: I, for one, was never too sure when, or where, the next beat was going to land. A mini-taste of what it's like playing with Dave King, I guess.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Matt Wilson Arts & Crafts - 05/11/2007@De Werf, Brugge

Terell Stafford - tp, flh
Gary Versace - p, acc
Dennis Irwin - b, cl
Matt Wilson - d (myspace | website)

A few days ago, Jeff Albert wrote a quasi-love letter to Matt Wilson. After seeing Arts & Crafts last night, I feel like doing the same. Here's what it might look like:

Dear Matt,

I love you. I know that might sound a little forward - after all, you don't even know me - but let me explain.

Let's face it: in 2007, straight-ahead jazz be boring. It is too often, if anything, the sound of constraint, or of missed opportunities. But when you guys started the concert with Monk's "We See," all I could think was how it was bursting with life! With happiness! It was real. It swung in a natural yet unsystematic way. Like kids in a playground, there was a sense of freedom to it. And then your "Free Range Chicken" reminded me of Jimmy Giuffre's cowboy songs on The Western Suite.

Terell was bouncy and impassioned, Gary gave things a soulful bent. Dennis even played some musette-style clarinet on a fun couple of tunes. And you... Well, just how is it that you can make a drum solo consisting mostly of rolling a drumstick on the snare drum sound so good, in this context?

You talked to us about playing with Dewey Redman for a dozen years and dedicated the last song of the second set, "In Touch With Dewey," to him. You launched it by clanging away irrevently on a small gong laid on the floor tom. That spirit of irreverent celebration (of Dewey, of classic jazz feels) infused the whole set and made everyone in the room happy. It made the guys on the bandstand happy (it even made the people at the bar happy: the Tongerlo dubbel that had cost me 2.50 before the concert cost me 50 cents less at intermission). And what makes you happy, makes me happy, Matt.

By the way, why do you pronounce Gary's last name "verse ace", rather than "versacci," like the fashion designer? Maybe that's something we could talk about by the fireplace, on a long winter's evening.



P.S. I loved the glasses, too.
Then again, maybe I should wait until our second date to let my feelings out. I wouldn't want to scare him off.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Mikkel Ploug Group ft. Mark Turner - 07/10/2007@L'Archiduc, Bruxelles

Mark Turner - ts
Mikkel Ploug - g (myspace)
Jeppe Skovbakke - b
Sean Carpio - d
Joachim Badenhorst - ts

On what could very well have been the last sunny and warm days of the year, it felt unnatural, perhaps even heretical in these suddenly eco-concious times, to sit inside the gloomy and electrically-lit Archiduc. One constant pleasure of this cramped and impractical room remains, whatever the season: the passing of the trendy neighbourhood's local fauna. There are the good-looking, expensively-dressed women, the eccentrically hip, those who wander in and look appalled (when it's free jazz), who look put off (when it's non-free jazz) and those who look lost (in any circumstance). In this particular instance, there was also the woman sitting next to me. At one point, I looked downwards for a while, at nothing in particular. She had slipped off her sandals, her bare foot dangled in the air. She must have gotten the impression I was staring at it: she freaked and hurriedly put her sandals back on. Maybe she was just self-concious about them.

This to-and-fro was more entertaining than the concert itself. As when I last saw Mark Turner, the audience was musician-heavy (as it was, though in a lesser proportion, for Drew Gress). I am beginning to seriously distrust this measure as a barometer of enjoyment, but maybe I just have a problem with New York-based Scandanavian guitarists.

Sean Carpio and Jeppe Skovbakke kept up a dynamic beat, hearing Turner close up was interesting and when Joachim sat in towards the end, the two-tenor combination gave the music a sensuous heft. For me, though, the show suffered from boring writing: it took four pieces before we got to hear something that sounded like a song rather than like a series of riff transpositions. Mikkel Ploug's guitar sound - bright, dry, unadorned - isn't one I'm really attracted too, either. Listening to the tracks on his MySpace page, I kind of like them (even though the trio version of "I'll Be Seeing You" makes me wonder if it's meant as a joke), so I'm not sure if the problem was a lack of familiarity, a sub-par performance or music that sounds better at home.

pod #14

The new issue of Point of Departure is out, with its usual payload of interesting columns. Travellin' Light gives Taylor Ho Bynum another chance to express his well-known and much-appreciated belgophilia (he once boasted of owning "one of the best Belgian jazz CD collections in New York." One of? Who's the competition?):

What are your three favorite venues?

There are a couple of spots I love in Belgium, the deWerf Theater in Brugge, and the deSingel Theater in Antwerp (they let me play on the roof!). I also always enjoy playing outdoors, especially in some of those beautiful European amphitheaters. But my favorite spot is my home away from home, New Haven’s wonderful Firehouse 12.

Taylor will be at deSingel next year, a gig I am very much looking forward to, as I have missed his last few performances here.

In the What's New? roundtable, Jason Hao Kwang gives a very interesting account of how he became concious of his own cultural identity:
I began to understand and therefore, imagine my identity, while touring South Korea with vocalist/choreographer Sin Cha Hong in 1992. This was my first trip to Asia. The experience was startling, both radically familiar and foreign. Though I am of Chinese decent, simply seeing, for the first time, streets bustling with heads of black hair was an inexplicable déjà vu. I remember witnessing myself in the dance mirrors of the Samul Nori studios, rehearsing with Korean musicians and dancers. The body language, smiles and laughter all seemed familiar. Being American-born Chinese, this was the first time an environment appeared to reflect at least some aspect of my being. At the same time, very few people in the project spoke much English. Also, I couldn’t read Korean. Paradoxically, I could not participate socially in all that looked so familiar. The inability to communicate is perhaps the ultimate foreign experience. Music was our only language.

I returned to the States with a new understanding of how much I had in common with my parents, who came from China in the 1940s. I sound like my father when I laugh or sneeze! Looking back, I also recognized how I responded to various life events emotionally, like one or both my parents. It is this mass of “micro-learning” ingrained into my personality, not Asian scholarship, that defines my cultural self. These realizations generated insights about the shape, sound and phrase of my violin improvisations and compositions. In my sound was evidence of who I am.

What defines “non-Western” is complex and nuanced, far beyond simple markers of musicology, like the pentatonic scale.

gimme translation

It Is Not Mean... responds to and elaborates upon a comment I had left on his blog (also see Jeremy Stuart's comment on De Saussure):

Because "I don't speak no languages" there is very little I can say to the art and science of translation. The mechanist in me doesn't understand why there isn't simply a "right" translation and an everything-else-is-wrong translation. How is it that there is so much "wiggle room" going from one language to another?

I don't think one has to speak several languages to understand how translation works. Simply watch a Chinese or Japanese film with subtitles, and then the same film dubbed into the language of your choice. It's kind of like watching the same play with two different sets of actors, only a lot worse. Not only are the words not the same, but the myriad tiny-yet-essential inflections (accent, volume, timing, etc.), the actors' personal styles and their cultural backgrounds are, literally, erased. There is nothing to be gained, artistically speaking.*

SJZ also wonders, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, if poetry would be easier to translate, "because they usually have less words." To me, that is precisely what makes translating poetry impossible. In film, the actor's performance has to be re-created. How can you re-create a poem? What do you do with rhyme and meter? Well, I don't know much about poetry, so let's take song lyrics.

At the moment, I'm working my way through six CDs' worth of Congolese music, some of which include translations in the liner notes. The music is generally great, but the lyrics always seem stupid on paper. Generally speaking, even lyrics that haven't been translated generally look stupid, written down (e.g. any number of instances of Kelefa Sanneh quoting rap lyrics in the New York Times).

In the case of the Congolese music, I wish I could speak lingala, not only to be able to understand the lyrics as they are sung, but also because I would have greater insight into the culture and thought system they come from. I always get the impression that the deeper meanings of seemingly simple lyrics escape me, much in the same way many of the culturally-embedded references rappers do. So, one is not just translating words and their own characteristics (sound, rhythm, syntax, etc.), but also a whole cultural world.

Turning to jazz, SJZ asks: "Do methodologies in music also lose their snap?" I have been listening a lot to Josh Sinton's very good album altogether...all at once. Josh wrote an excellent essay on Steve Lacy's music for Darcy's blog, in which he made some comments relevant to SJZ's question:
When musicians talk about what they learned from music of the recent past, they talk about abstract concepts like ‘freedom’ and ‘finding your personal voice.’ When they talk about music of the more distant past (pre-’65), they talk more often about concrete things like songs and harmonic approaches. I don’t have a beef with any of this, I just thought it might be interesting to turn this status quo on its head. Why not talk about concrete contributions of the recent past? That is, why not use the songs and improvising strategies of this ‘era?’ You don’t need Julius Hemphill to play “Dogon A.D.” to make it a great song, it IS a great song. The same can be said for the music of Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, John Carter, Marion Brown, Jimmy Giuffre, Misha Mengelberg, Steve Lacy, etc. While I admit some compositions may be knottier, thornier, or more ephemeral, that doesn’t disqualify them from being performable. Just because their strategies differ radically from improvising strategies on “All the Things You Are” doesn’t make them useless.
* The exception that proves the rule is the guy who dubs Columbo into French. He does a better Columbo than Peter Falk, and is probably largely responsible for the series' enduring popularity in France.

Tied + Tickled - 05/10/2007@Ancienne Belgique, Bruxelles

Any band with two girls (cellist/xylophonist and keyboardist, plus some guy on drums) has my immediate sympathy, but, in this case, that dissipated very quickly. The unannounced opener, which remained anonymous throughout a brief set that seemed too long anyway, was undoubtedly among the worst concerts I've attended. Perhaps the worst.

They played simplistic, repetitive, my-first-chord-progression motifs devoid of any creative effort. I could be accused of taking them altogether seriously, but I think it's the other way around: they drew such disproportionate self-satisfaction from the faintest sign of creativity or humour (playing "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" on kazoo, a burst of noise at the end of one song, the shaking of a banana-shaped shaker) that my loathing seemed justified.

If this was a terrible-opener-makes-headliner-look-good gambit, it totally back-fired. After a few songs of Tied + Tickled's electronica equivalent of bar-room rock, I left, fed up. I had come to this concert because of distant memories of a prior album, Observing Systems. I haven't yet re-listened to refresh my memory, but I can't imagine it sounded like what I heard here. As I went down the stairs leading outside, a woman ahead of me confirmed my suspicions when she complained to her partner: "That was so crap, compared to they used to do."

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Othin Spake - 18/10/2007@PP Café, Bruxelles

Teun Verbruggen - d (website | myspace)
Mauro Pawlowski - g
Jozef Dumoulin - Fender Rhodes

The Ankh is a fabulous album (apparently , it's also available on iTunes), and Othin Spake's great concert early last year was one of the best of 2006, but here, texture kind of came back to bite me. The group started with really shambolic, discombobulated noise that couldn't help but to bring to mind disparaging clichés about noise-rock. No hopeful melodies or unstable grooves were hewn out of the din, no skeletal motifs made the onslaught legible. Their absence made evident why the high points in their 100% improvised music sound so miraculous: there's a very real chance they won't happen.

About halfway through, though, a few signposts started slipping in, as Mauro's approximation of 3-chord rock nudged Teun into a busy back-beat. A capitulation, perhaps, but it was the first time anyone (listener or player) seemed to be having any fun. And, let's face it, noise is a lot more fun when you can dance to it and cataclysm can always do with a catchy jingle (there are plenty such moments on The Ankh).

The last improvisation rewarded those who had stuck with the music. It started with a single repeated guitar note: warm, luminous, gentle; a fragile solitude in an unexpected stillness. These characteristics survived even as the music grew louder, more violent and gloriously crunchy in texture. And then it was over, too soon.

Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings - 24/10/2007@Ancienne Belgique, Bruxelles

The album covers, the period recording equipment, the strict adherence to the rules of the genre, or rather, the codification of the epoch, even playing on Amy Winehouse's retro-soul record: all this could have made the Dap Kings' thing seem like a pose, like the vintage get-ups some in the crowd were wearing, or other audience members' less-vintage t-shirts that put quotation marks around soul clichés.

But then, this woman, Sharon Jones, shakes, shimmies, struts and dances across the stage. Her mere presence takes the band, which in the purest tradition had started the show without her, to a higher level. And then, she begins to sing: powerful and clear, grit thrown in as needed. She's electrifying. The kind of voice that hip hop producers want to sample and that house producers get to belt over four-to-the-floor beats. The kind of voice that doesn't even let you imagine thinking about listening to anything else. This is no pose, Sharon Jones isn't wearing anyone else's clothes. She is soul music, and she'll make you soul music, too. She'll pull you on stage* and insert you into her theatrical mini-production. She'll take you through a 200-hundred year genealogy of her dancing style. She'll whip you into a frenzy and cut it off early enough to leave you begging her for more. As Rob Harvilla says, Sharon Jones will obliterate your cynicism.

* Well, not me, but, one by one, four young, good-looking black people from down front, stage right, all seemingly at ease on a stage in front of hundreds of people.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

viewing notes: spike lee, bamboozled

Bamboozled was shot in Digital Video, which makes the image flat, shiny, cheap-looking. Devoid of texture, it loses gravitas without really gaining intimacy. I got past this, eventually, but it brought up the question of the importance of texture and its role in conveying meaning, in music and in general.

How much of an old photograph's meaning and emotional (and perhaps artistic) weight comes from yellowed paper, curled-up edges, creases, loss of colour, gradual disappearance of its subjects and the thousand other disfigurements it might suffer? Similarly, the pops, hisses and clicks of LPs and the warm, muddy sound of music played on a gramophone are part of the listening experience.

Photographs and vinyl add texture at the moment of reproduction, but music is a bit more complicated, as texture happens along with everything else, at the moment of production. Paul Desmond was sometimes accused of coasting on his tone: texture was seen as superficial (literally and metaphorically). Indeed, "How can you watch Bamboozled and only talk about what it looked like?" is a perfectly reasonable question. Still, what would be left of Ben Webster without that feeling of a cavernous rush of air?

There is an irresistible attraction to the dirty, the outdated, the broken, the ruined that's not just nostalgia: we must imagine their past potential, recreate their splendour for ourselves. We are an indispensable participant in what they are and what they were. They need us. The new, polished, perfect, finished don't need us, they need admirers: disengaged viewers who need not imagine anything, as it is all laid out in front of them. They can't even offer encouragement: everything has already been achieved. Perhaps this is merely a rationalisation of the mundane complaint against technical over-proficiency: "Admire my perfectly-formed blur of slick notes, which leave you neither time or toehold to add to them, to imagine, to recall." And you leave the concert feeling empty and vague: no memories have formed on the sterile ground of admiration.

This last point goes beyond texture alone, but most players regarded as unemotional generally have sleek tones. Steve Coleman succintly explains the issue in his blog post on timbral improvisation:

Early in the history of the spontaneously composed music in the United States (the Armstrong-Parker-Coltrane continuum, and probably in most music) there seemed to be more emphasis on expression, therefore things like timbre and phrasing were the most important elements. However, rhythm and pitch (when and how high/low) are the basic elements of any music system.

I have spent most of my career concentrating more on the rhythm/pitch/form aspects of music versus timbral considerations.
I sometimes wonder if jazz's principal contribution isn't contained in a brass's slangy growl, from Bubber Miley to Taylor Ho Bynum, but Coleman suggests that it serves, more modestly, to "amplify" expression. So how does texture relate to harmony, melody, rhythm, form? Is it a pretty bow tied around note choice/harmony/etc.?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

listening notes: booker ervin, the freedom book

It's unbelievable that Jaki Byard's 1999 murder, in his own home, remains unsolved.

Peter Watrous described him as "one of jazz's great surrealists, a comic who hasn't a moment's fear of disturbing the sanity of the performance." And, in his obituary, said "In his playing he spanned the history of jazz, and his improvisations, filled with quick stylistic changes, moved from boogie-woogie to free jazz. He was a stylistic virtuoso, his fecund imagination saw comparisons and contrasts everywhere, and his improvisations were encyclopedic and profound. He also had a sense of humor that rippled through everything he played."

That is the standard view of Byard, casually flipping through an encyclopedia, pointing out the funny bits. I actually kind of dislike this aspect of his playing. Not because it is un-serious, but because it obscures the awesomeness of what I see as his "straight" playing. I wouldn't say that that is when he sounds most like himself, but when I am least reminded of anything else.

On The Freedom Book's opening track, "A Lunar Tune," after Ervin's Texas tenor has ridden the rhythm section's intense swing (Alan Dawson, another underrated player, changes up his accompaniment so fast and so fluently it's impossible to keep track), Byard effortlessly straddles an inside-outside line that had only recently been created. There are no overt references to stride or anything else. Instead, Byard starts with a jovially ringing melody, then turns up the heat by alternating slightly blurry fast lines and crisp left-hand punctuation: a free sensibility is injected into a strict respect for the song's form.

Has any piano trio recorded jazz more modern than what Byard, Richard Davis and Alan Dawson produced on December 3, 1963? (A thought, both depressing and thrilling, often formed when listening to the masters, from any era)

Drew Gress Quintet - 04/10/2007@CC Luchtbal, Antwerpen

Tim Berne - as
Ralph Alessi - tp
Craig Taborn - p
Drew Gress - b
Tom Rainey - d

It's hard not to expect great things from the above line-up. It's equally hard not to assess their concert as an indication of the current location of contemporary jazz, or at least a couple of its strands. So any lingering doubts and disappointment must be measured against those expectations. You know how it is: great musicians, some creative thinking, a few great moments. You leave not quite elated.

This was an all-star band, but also the leader's group: Drew Gress's long suites charted long-form courses through series of themes and a variety settings for solos. They were well played, but the sequences initially felt arbitrary and the melodies inexpressive. The second set consisted only of two even longer suites, but somehow they moved more convincingly, for example connecting a reconstituted Hard Cell's (Berne/Taborn/Rainey) free-ish manipulation of basic intervallic motifs to flowing post-bop.

The smaller moments were generally more engaging than the larger ones: the semi-spontaneous formation of duos and trios, the mingling of straight time and free rumbling, Tim Berne and Ralph Alessi repeatedly blending to produce buzzing overtones, Tom Rainey limiting himself to a ringing pattern on a single tom, Alessi handling a motif as he might a Rubik's Cube.

This quintet doesn't particularly strive to hide its identity as a jazz quintet. Occasionally they issued intriguing mixed signals by grappling with the past, as when the antiquated romance of Alessi's cup mute and Berne's dollops of vibrato perched atop dissonant, wide-interval piano plinks. At times, Tom Rainey's extraordinary playing rested on nothing solid, held together by centrifugal forces that could dissipate at any moment. Similarly, Craig Taborn is one of those people who somehow manage to reconcile exacting math-funk with wide-open free jazz and a linear bop sensibility.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Habib Koïté - 28/09/2007@Flagey, Bruxelles

I went to this concert almost randomly. Over here, a Habib Koïté will play a cultural institution like Flagey, which classifies him as World Music (that said, the Touareg band Tinariwen are playing the rock-oriented Ancienne Belgique soon), but back home, I guess he'd be seen the way a rock band is here, or perhaps more accurately, like an r 'n' b band which plays contemporary stuff, but also knows its tradition. Interestingly, the drummer didn't really do the kind of awesome polyrhythmic African stuff you'd expect, but pounded out these dark and slightly laconic beats. Cheap sunglasses boosted his cool quotient.

Like a number of other concerts in Flagey's massive Studio 4, the amplified sound was flattened and muddied (I've been particularly sensitive to the depth-of-field possible when music isn't routed through two speakers since seeing the Free Music Festival and Maak's Spirit at the Vooruit). A lot of the rhythmic filigree that makes up so much of the interest of Malian music - even of a modern one like Koïté's - was inaudible, unlike when I saw Afel Bocoum at the Théâtre Molière, and the balafon sounded harsh, a far cry from its normal raindrops-on-wood timbre. One thing the venue didn't stop, though, was people rushing the stage to dance (or offer lap-dances, several times).

The second half of the concert favoured the slow, quiet and hypnotic one-riff tunes characteristic of traditional Malian music. The drummer moved to calabash and the balafonist to violin (modern and electric, not the ancient one-string kind), as the others slipped, almost instinctively, into the simple back-and-forth dance steps that resemble those of old doo-wop groups, and are just as essential.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

listening notes: ella fitzgerald and louis armstrong, ella and louis

Like a rusty dagger dragged across new silk, each makes the other seem more miraculous: how does the former not fall apart? how can the latter even exist in the first place? Usual gender roles are inverted: the trumpeter's frailty makes his every move appear daring, while the singer provides infallible strength. Or maybe those are the usual roles.

Octurn - 27/09/2007@Jazz Station, Bruxelles

Octurn (myspace | website)
Bo Van Der Werf - bs
Magic Malik - fl, voc
Guillaume Orti - as
Laurent Blondiau - tp, flh
Nelson Veras - g
Fabian Fiorini - p
Jozef Dumoulin - Fender Rhodes
Jean-Luc Lehr - el b
Chander Sardjoe - d

Of late, I've been listening a lot to a very rough draft of Octurn's next album, their first live one (I was at one of the recording sessions). It's very amorphous structure-wise, with lots of texturally-oriented interludes, and only a few moments where the band's full forces flex their muscle in collective improvisation or uplifting rhythmic or melodic riff. It is totally unlike their previous (and still fairly recent) North Country Suite, a gorgeously melodic work written by Pierre Van Dormael (who, in the liner notes, thanked Bob Dylan, naturally, but also Nicole Kidman, inexplicably), that could be seen as a sequel to the latter's masterful Vivaces from 2001.

A year after the upcoming album was recorded, things have changed substantially, and generally for the better. Without losing the gentle, soft-focus feel Magic Malik has brought to the band, the contours have grown sharper, more readable, even as interpretative freedom has grown freer. This is quite a feat: the last time I saw Octurn, individual freedom occasionally led to collective chaos, ora too-great density of information. This time the assemblage was carefully grounded, without being too constrained. These clearer structures even lent the music an unusually proggy feel, as when a pastoral tableau was stomped upon by interjections of a pounding one-note tattoo. A meeting-ground was eventually found as the pastoral melody crescendoed and the riff decided to follow the contour of the chords. Not that things have become simple: even when Chander Sardjoe elicits foot-tapping, it can be difficult to get any idea of where the 1 might be.

By doing less, complexity communicated outwardly more clearly, reflecting the better internal communication enabled by an unorthodox stage configuration: Fabian Fiorini, Jean-Luc Lehr and Sardjoe occupied the Jazz Station's small stage, while the rest of the band fanned out in an inwards-facing semi-circle. They took up a third of the club's floor space, giving rise to the unusual sight of patrons and musicians facing in the same direction, looking at an empty space.

I increasingly look forward to Guillaume Orti's contributions. It is unsurprising that he should feel at home in Octurn, since it has much in common with Kartet, a long-running band that includes Sardjoe and Benoît Delbecq. His clear and bright tone almost obscures his radical phraseology: its linearity and clear articulation give it something of a '00s bop aura, but it is tied into ferociously unpredictable knots. And when he cut loose on the anthemic, drum 'n' bass-driven "Flash," avant-jazz was reunited with gritty drive.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

black keys

The early 80s is also when the performance and cheap housing possibilities for free jazz musicians pretty much dried up in lower Manhattan. So, where in 1977 you could go out on any given evening and hear Julius Hemphill, Henry Threadgill, Anthony Davis, and Arthur Blythe in one loft, and Lester Bowie, Cecil Taylor, and Jimmy Lyons in another, Oliver Lake and Michael Gregory Jackson dueting in a third, all for the cost of a couple beers, by 1982 when I actually moved to the city that deal was pretty much done. The strain of music those players represented didn't die out, of course, and became the foundation for the range of things being done by people like John Zorn and Bill Laswell in the 80s. Yet the demise of that musical scene was also the last time relentless, progressive Black jazz musicians had a street presence on the ground, as it were, in NYC bohemia.
- Greg Tate, "Black Jazz in the Digital Age"
  1. Does it matter whether progressive Black musicians play jazz now or in the future?

  2. Does it matter whether Black people ever listen to another lick of real jazz from now until the end of time?

  3. Has jazz more than fulfilled its sociocultural, esthetic, and political mandates for Black people given the advances well-educated Blackfolk have made in American society over the past 25 years?

  4. Have jazz's possibilities as a Black art form been exhausted, or does the virtual absence of a coherent community of Black jazz listeners explain the creative stagnation of the art form at present?

- Greg Tate, "Black Jazz in the Digital Age"
As I survey the stage of the Black intellectual conversation going on today, I find that the self-conscious engagement with philosophy I once heard in 70s jazz, politics, religion, and literature has migrated to contemporary African American visual art where one is expected, after Basquiat’s example, to wrestle with race, politics, history, identity, and knotty conceptual questions as a matter of course. Why this is no longer the case in jazz has something to do with the class aspirations and subject position of most younger musicians who are not, at the end of the day, social rebels, but middle class arts professionals whose art has no significance even among a Black middle class—American mass media oriented consumers who prefer soul and hiphop to postbop.
- Greg Tate, "Black Jazz in the Digital Age"

[via SoundSlope]

Monday, October 01, 2007

Free Music Festival XXXIV - 21-23/09/2007@deSingel, Antwerpen

The Free Music Festival has gained in comfort since its move a few years ago from some back-alley theatre in the center of Antwerpen to the prestigious DeSingel on the city's southern fringe, but, as you'd expect, it just isn't the same. Despite the well-conceived flow of concerts, I'll take a transversal view here. Three themes emerged from this 34th edition: crazy Dutch bands, august first-generation EFI pianists and otherworldly vocalists.

Saadet Türköz is a Turkish singer born of Turkmenistani parents. Her singing was completely astounding, but its reception suffered from a culture gap that Martin Schutz's acoustic and electric 'cellos could not quite bridge. It was like watching a foreign film, but without the subtitles: hard work, even at its most thrilling. Moments of fevered glossolallia that sounded like parallel universe Louis Armstrong scat-singing had me laughing in delight and sheer disbelief at what I was hearing. Other passages employed a more Asian, austerely dramatic kind of oratory style that were particularly difficult to relate to. If Sainkho Namchylak's were to be defined as non-idiomatic, Türköz was most definitely idiomatic.

Compared to Türköz, Sainkho Namchylak's singing could be considered non-idiomatic, as she wandered from Die Zauberflöte to "Crazy Frog" and many less identifiable points in between and beyond. She performed with drummer Eric Thielemans's A Snare Is A Bell project, which can consist of just him, but in this perfomance was a quartet. For roughly half the set, Thielemans played nothing but a steady snare drum roll, while Jozef Dumoulin did even less on piano. That left Namchylak and Peter Jacquemyn with lots of work to do, but lots of space to do it in. The bassist's bowing found a lot of common ground with her, an affinity perhaps explained by the former's Kowald-ian penchant for throat-singing. Even as Thielemans and Dumoulin progressively loosened the initial constraints, overall the piece didn't seem to amount to much, as if the initial premise had handicapped their efforts rather than focused them.

What is the natural sound of the trumpet? After Peter Evans's concert, that was a difficult question to answer. Like Türköz and Namchylak, Peter put the naturalness of any sound in doubt. Sometimes even simple gestures sufficed to deconstruct sounds usually taken for granted: when he inserted his Harmon mute's stem, I couldn't help but wonder why so few trumpeters do. Just because Miles Davis only used the buzzy stemless sound, doesn't mean everyone else has to. Watching Peter simultaneously circular breathe, blow grainy texture and clear notes simultaneously, it can be hard to get beyond the sheer technique of it all, not that I felt much need to, anyway: the sheer thrill of witnessing the creation of trumpet sounds never heard before was enough. To hear him play in more overtly "musical" contexts, check out Sparks, Mostly Other People Do The Killing ("Andover" is the tune I recommend), Carnival Skin, the May entry in Reuben Radding's 12 in2007 series or his own hard-hitting quartet's debut album, soon to be released on Firehouse 12.

Following tradition, Fred Van Hove opened the festival, this time in a first encounter with Jim Black and Peter. Three generations of improvisers, clearly with different concerns. Black is perhaps best known for punkish, off-kilter grooves, but here he reveled in quieter sounds: I've never seen anyone look so happy to shake a tiny bell. While never bad, this set suffered from the bane of many a first-time meeting: in only a few instances wasthe whole more than three individuals each doing their thing. As Van Hove rubbed his piano's strings for a sort of slide guitar effect and Evans trilled on piccolo trumpet, I imagined the mating calls of Venusian tropical birds. Later on, Black allowed himself to build up a head of steam, Evans sank back a little and a collective groove coalesced. Those moments were fabulous, but all too rare. Some in the crowd may have been more underwhelmed than me, as, for a while, loud snoring was heard.

Alexander Von Schlippenbach's solo sets opened the second and third days with interpretations of his Twelve Tone Tales repertoire. The first one featured a Monk's Casino-style medley of concise Monk readings. Von Schlippenbach concentrated on rapidly and radically reconfiguring the melodies, without ever letting them drift out of sight. The Monk section was surrounded by more overtly twelve-tone-inspired works, which served to highlight the ways in which the two weren't all that distant, despite the totally different cultural, rhythmic and melodic contexts. The second set was a breath-taking tour de force into which the pianist held nothing back. By often keeping a strong bass function in the left hand, he somehow managed to distantly evoke ragtime, stride and boogie-woogie in an abstract but very physical way.

The two-piano duet of Benoît Delbecq and Fabian Fiorini was a beautifully serene oasis in a mostly boisterous festival. The two tones and styles were complementary: Fabian Fiorini had a full sound and effusive spirit, while Benoît Delbecq was more impressionistic, his touch slightly veiled, his notes coming as if through a mist. They clashed as easily as they collaborated, oblique beoppish lines were splashed atop free rumbling, Delbecq's sophisticated prepared piano percussion laid foundations for playful divagations, for a set that was wide-ranging yet unostentatious. Whereas Von Schlippenbach had folded serialism into jazz, these two had a greater sensuality: rich, solemn chord progressions mutated into simpler, more soulful motifs. But when the set ended with "Misterioso," they showed that even thirty years on, Monk continued to be a springboard for avant-garde jazz.

Misha Mengelberg embodies comedy: his hat, his walk, the way he slumps over the piano and plays with one hand, even his ballooning stomach are all funny without even trying. The ICP Orchestra put ironic, muddy swing/circus music alongside thorny contemporary string music, made use of improvisation, composition and conduction (cellist Tristan Honsinger's turn in front of the band was a riotous highlight that involved imitating a rabbit), let rip some earnestly burning horn solos and roved the stage to produce antiphonal effects (especially effective when coming from backstage and making a great case for the superiority of unamplified music), or combined three clarinets in unison at full blast to create ear-bending overtones. And they did all this effortlessly, as they should, after having been at it for 40 years.

Two other, slightly younger, Dutch Dadaïst ensembles followed. Luc Houtkamp's POW Ensemble, featuring guest Joseph Bowie, had at least three things no other band in the festival had: a tap-dancer, a woman who wasn't a singer and a lo-fi conception of electronic machines as "contraptions" rather than "sleekly-designed lifestyle enhancements" (even though there was an Apple laptop on stage). The ramshackle ensemble started with dry ping-pong-balls-on-vibrating-horizontal-bass-drum randomness, but then rollicked through improv-distorted new wave/Tom Waits blends and electronicised Fats Waller. The people left happy.

Michiel Braam's Nopera consists of a rhythm section, a string quartet and three singers. Like a next-gen ICP or Willem Breuker, hilarity and incongruity stripped away the trappings of seriousness, but left the foundations of well-written and -performed music. There was self-deprecating opera in some of the singing and most of the acting, but also bouts of gospel diva belting, tango merged into soul jazz, astringent pointillism crushed into ragtime. South African saxophonist Sean Bergin was used mostly as a singer, but also took a few excellent solos on curved soprano.

Spring Heel Jack closed out the festival, fell outside of my three themes and was the only concert I didn't see in full. After a few times through cycles of silence/white noise/silence I had had enough: the improvising trio of clarinetist Alex Ward, pianist Pat Thomas and drummer Paul Lytton were essentially doing what they might have done had the Spring Heel Jack guys not been there. Which might as well have been the case, as they seemed to hardly do anything at all. It was pretty disappointing, so I left after half an hour.