Sunday, February 29, 2004

Hnita Hoeve March-April concerts

More info about the Hnita Hoeve

19/03/2004: David Becker Tribune

28/03/2004: Houston Person, Jesse Van Ruller & Rein de Graaf Trio
I've never seen any of these musicians, but I'll try to be there, as I've heard that Person is a great player with an old-school fat sound and soulful style.

30/03/2004: Jef Neve Trio
I probably won't be going up to this particularly show, but I most heartily recommend you do if you haven't seen Jef before. And even if you have! For my money, the most interesting pianist in Belgium today (yes, above Diedrik Wissels, Nathalie Loriers and, easily, Ivan Paduart. I'll admit that there are a few other good ones that I don't know too well).

02/04/2004: Alec Ilyine Quartet

05/04/2004: Polar Bear
Their second visit to the Hnita. I saw their first concert there and was blown away. They're performing in Brussels the day before, so I'll definitely be catching them there. Check out there album at their site and order it from their label. Don't let the low-tech sites fool you - Dim Lit is awesome, and very different from their live performance.

09/04/2004: Atachin

Yeah, Um, No

Comparing notes with John Fordham on Chris Speed's Yeah No band. He is rather more taken about it than I, except at the very end:

While sharing musical touchstones with such fellow pioneering countrymen as the Hub and the Vandermark 5, Speed lacks their sense of mischief. Free jazz meets eastern folk, Mingus rage and vintage prog-rock: it sounds very serious on paper but need it be quite so brow-beating in practice?

I don't know The Hub, but is it possible to imagine two groups more different than Yeah No and the Vandermark 5 and two saxophonists more different than the cerebral, slinky Speed and the rough-edged r'n'b ebulliance of Vandermark? (Of course it is, but please allow this rhetorical hyperbole) I wish he could have expanded on this a bit more, because I really can't see any meaningful connections. I'm going to see Vandermark soon, so I'll be watching out for any Speed-isms.

I do, however, agree on the brow-beating-ness. And I didn't even have the benefit of an on-top-of-his-game Jim Black to leaven the proceedings (perhaps because I saw them four days later into the tour?) although, as I mentioned, Cuong Vu was utterly fascinating inside the limited solo space he got. The music just has a dour and grey overall feel to it. I'm not ascribing a dour and grey personality to Speed, however: in Pachora, for example, the mood is much more upbeat and festive. Even in the equally avant-composition-oriented Claudia Quintet things are a bit more light-hearted. Jim Black's Alas No Axis is more rock-oriented and therefore less serious a group, and while I enjoyed seeing them (in 2003, but well before I started this blog), the high volume and unsubtle drumming (though Black himself seemed to be having a ball pounding out square rock beats) dampened my enjoyment of their slowly shifting textures (no, I don't have any Alas No Axis albums).

Saturday, February 28, 2004

Brad Mehldau Trio - 28/02/2004, Antwerpen

Brad Mehldau - p
Larry Grenadier - b
Jorge Rossy - d

The concert took place in a grand old theatre with huge marble pillars and high domed ceilings covered in frescoes. I was sitting up in the nose-bleed third balcony and when the lights dimmed, a beautiful sight was revealed: the cones of light the projectors that the spotlights left on the dust particles hanging in the air coming through golden arches. I could also look down upon the pretty Flemish girls and that one women in a sparkly dress.

The trio came out and set off on Thelonious Monk's "Off Minor." It recieved much applause, but I found the performance rather poor: it was the tamest Monk rendition I'd ever heard. There was no sense of adventure or risk-taking and, crucially, little rhythm to Mehldau's playing. I've always thought that playing Monk was primarily about rhythm (take Roswell Rudd, Ben Riley and even Fred Hersch with Nasheet Waits on the former's recent live album, just to point out a random few), so when it's not there... When Larry Grenadier took a brief solo, the song breathed again - everything he plays seems to have such life to it.

Then came Cole Porter's "I Concentrate on You," with a light Latin beat. Here, Mehldau was far more in his element as he sang out the melody and improvised just as melodically. The concert was gathering steam. After the song he launched into a fairly long talk. Nothing remarkable about that, except that he did it all in Dutch. Not flawless Dutch and not always comprehensible (my Dutch is roughly as good as his, and we speak it for the same reason: women. His (and singer Fleurine's) kid is real cute, too.).

Radiohead is a Mehldau fixture, and this time "Knives Out" was played. Later on, he played Nick Drake's "River Man," which was transfixingly beautiful. For me, Mehldau really has a great feel for conveying Drake's and Thom Yorke's weird voices through the piano. Not just the notes, but the emotions contained within them. On "Knives Out" the first 2/3rds of his solo were fully contrapuntal and extraordinary, as he managed to land on the theme's familiar chords from completely unexpected places.

The Radiohead was followed by "All the Things You Are," a staple in Mehldau's repertoire. The intro to this piece was the highest point of the concert and nearly made me cry. Mehldau played densely polyrhythmic and, again, contrapuntal lines that seemed to rework the composition 3 or 4 times in the space of a few minutes. I know some people find his left hand exertions irritating, but I love them and those were a few minutes of overwhelming beauty and technique.

Then, a rather unheralded side to Mehldau (or at least, a side I've never seen mentioned) surfaced. When I saw the trio a couple years ago, they played an encore that resembled this, i.e. a slow, soulful and bluesy song thatreminded me of - call me crazy - Ray Charles in its golden late afternoon glow. I don't think that this aspect of his playing has been captured on record and I really wonder if anyone else hears it this way, as it's a connection even I'm surprised at making.Needless to say, it's an aspect I greatly enjoyed.

The last song before the encore was, I was later told, a Beatles song, and was improvised upon in kind of a more abstract version of Mehldau's song mode. It didn't make much impact on me, as the pianist skittered up and down the keyboard, not saying very much.

The first encore was an unannounced Monk tune, which started off much better than "Off Minor," as Mehldau's brief intro had all the adventurousness and rhythm I had felt lacking in the opener, but the soufflé fell a bit as the song wore on.

It was also the fastest tempo of the night, at just-less-than-up. I didn't feel that a second encore was really deserved, but it did yield the "River Man" mentioned above, so all was forgiven. This reading was much better than the version on Art of the Trio: Vol. 3, which I find too repetitive. Even though this is a relatively simple song, it took me a long time to figure out what metre they were playing it in. Even though Rossy and Grenadier were accenting the beginning of every 10-beat bar, they were also subdividing the vast expanse within each bar like crazy, seeming to come together and drift apart almost at random. Combine that with Mehldau's sheer accuracy of interpretation, and it made for a powerful last impression, indeed.

Dom Minasi reviews

Last month I discussed a Dom Minasi interview. That led Dom to e-mail me and I am now working on a review of his latest album, Time Will Tell. Reviews of that album have started to appear:

The Squid's Ear
One Final Note

Friday, February 27, 2004

Learn how to beat-box... the awesome BeatBox.TV site. I especially love the go-go beat.

(link stolen from Computers and Music)

Eurovision update

Some of you may have defensively wiped the memory, but I mentioned the Belgian Eurovision finals a few weeks ago. I didn't actually see the finals, but Xandee won. The initial post contains a link to a video of her performance.

Oddly enough, Belgium will have two entries: reports that Jonathan Cerrada (who won some kind of Popstars contest in France) will be representing France.

Of course, you may be wondering: "What is Mwanji doing checking out Eurovision sites in the first place?"

Same old crap with new intro

Andre 3000 on Kelis's "Millionaire":

Where there is cheese there are rats
Wherever there are rats there are cats
Wherever there are cats there are dogs

At which point, you may be scratching your head as to what he's on about here. Never fear:

If you got the dogs, you got bitches
Bitches always out to put their paws on your riches

Something similar (drowning "bitch" is a funny/off-the-wall context) also occurs on The Love Below on "Roses," with that crazily extended rhyme between "bitch" and "ditch" and later on at the end, with the repetitions of "crazy bitch" which Big Boi's "dumb-ass bitch" interjections add some rhythm to (and I find them funny, as well).

This is all very funny/clever and cloaked in the appropriate "it's not about all women, just this one" apparel (although, by the end of "Roses" it's pretty gratuitous) and it's an old debate, but I'm still troubled by hearing a woman casually called a "bitch." Perhaps even moreso than in some dumb gangsta context, because it suggests that such insults have attained a greater degree of refinement while retaining their primal offensive capabilities. I don't know, maybe I'm just old-fashioned and don't get out enough.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Unexpected connection

Jim O'Rourke I'm Happy, and I'm Singing, and a 1, 2, 3, 4
Four Tet Rounds

Both are warm and pretty, glitch-prone albums, with Four Tet's have the advantage of a beat (i.e. intelligent drawing on hip-hop) and O'Rourke's being more adventurously composed (on laptop, not on paper, of course). I can't remember where I read the expression "computer as music box," but both of these albums (the O'Rourke especially) embody it nicely.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Lack of cred as a badge of honour

Music critics are often blamed for being smug know-it-alls, but is that attitude really worse than the one displayed here?

TO this reviewer, jazz music seemed to be nothing more than a lot of people making too much noise and, if they were lucky, getting a slight tune out of it.

It would take something extraordinary for me to warm to a genre that sounded like a thousand sauce-pans clattering and that extraordinary thing came to the Waterfront Hall in the shape of fast-rising jazz king Jamie Cullum.

I wonder if his opinion of jazz is commonplace. More generally, how can you crown someone "king" (be it jazz or any other genre), when you have absolutely no knowledge or appreciation for anything else in the genre?

What do I make of the genre now? By the next day, Jamie had certainly jazzed up my CD collection.

But I won't be buying any other jazz CDs any time soon, right?

Friday, February 20, 2004


I've uploaded a new (and not quite finished) index of articles (see bottom of right-hand column). I don't know if it's actually useful to anyone apart from me, but it's there if you want a quick listing of the CDs and concerts I've reviewed here and (mainly) elsewhere.

Ah, the drama

The Norah Jones point-counterpoint story continues.

The critics surely are in the minority. But they're a vocal minority -- a surly bunch of grumps on even the sunniest of Saturday mornings.

Ben Ratliff launched the Great Norah Jones Takedown of 2004 with a piece in The New York Times. In it he sniped that Jones's music was "sweet and blank and diffident." While not entirely dismissing Jones's "dull" music, he did charge that it was -- horror of all horrors -- making the world safe again for soft rock.

The Great Takedown? Every single report on the album I have come across in print (even the hagiographic NY Times Magazine extravaganza) or on radio (note that this article contains absolutely nothing on the music) has been hard-pressed to find much good in it. Of course, nowadays, "haters" abound, even in the pastel-coloured, non-aggressive world of Norah Jones. That said, I find some of Feels Like Home utterly charming. Is it the stuff that feeds one's soul? Not really, but it is a nice warm snack.

CitizenJazz update

Some new stuff of mine up there:

Bart Defoort - The Lizard Game
Solid modern mainstream album, with a few funkier and odd-metered touches.

Chris Mentens - Drivin' with the Jazz Van
Unexpectedly good debut album from bassist Chris Mentens. The compositions have a kind of Dave Holland-ish feel and excellent trumpet work is provided by Sam Versweyveld, vibist Jan Nihoul also being a discrete hero.

Now that's what I call influence - Polaroid warns buyers not to 'shake it'

OutKast fans like to 'shake it like a Polaroid picture,' but the instant camera maker is warning consumers that taking the advice of the hip-hop stars could ruin your snapshots.

When Polaroid is responding to your songs, you know you've hit the big time.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Who needs a singer?

The computer-assisted singing cyborgs were nearly there, now we can go all the way with
Lola the Virtual Soul Vocalist. The funny thing is that the rhetoric sounds a lot like that used to sell sex dolls (not that I, uh, know much about that...):

LOLA is a virtual female soul vocalist modelled on a real professional singer, and when she is installed into your PC she will allow you to create synthesized singing of unprecedented quality and realism. LOLA will sing ANY words you ask her to in English... LOLA is under your total control... You can CONTROL and PERFORM your OWN private virtual professional soul vocalist.... What will YOU make LOLA sing?... She can sing over a superb pitch range, she can sing much faster than a human could if you want her to, as fast as you like in fact, and she can jump any interval yet hit every note beautifully, IF that's want YOU want her to do. And she'll NEVER tire or complain.

Most shocking is this:

You can add HUMANITY to ANY production in ANY style without needing a human.

Pesky humans!

Of course, they also underline the real interest (IMO) of this kind of thing:

you can live in the exciting world between human and machine, where LOLA can even provide vocals that sound like they were performed by a superhuman virtuoso android. Using Vocaloid in this way, as a true hybrid of human voice and synthesizer, the potential for innovation is limited only by your own imagination.

Replacing human by machine simply to save money or attain sterile perfection is a scarily industrial way of thinking, but I would be interested to see what could be achieved with a more hybrid approach. It could be that just as drummers have been influenced by drum machines, singers could end up being influenced by their software counterparts.

It's worth checking out the demos page. Setting aside the fact that the songs suck (although "Freaky Sheep" is kind of fun), the voices are rather scarily realistic.

Weber Iago Quartet + Strings – 18/02/2004, Brussels

Weber Iago – p
Pierre Bernard – fl, alto fl, bass fl
Henri Greindl – el b, b, el upright bass
Tonio Reina – d
+ string quartet

It was my first time out to the Bouche-á-Oreille and we (my girlfriend and I) didn't get lost driving there and found a nearby parking space immediately. Amazing. The venue itself was a rather strange mixture of cabaret and concert hall. We were seated at round tables of four chairs each, the floor was checkered with black and white tiles and there were heavy red curtains, but any illusion of intimacy was shattered by the high ceiling, the sheer size of the room and especially the shoulder-high stage. This made viewing rather uncomfortable and put unnecessary distance between audience and performers. Why the room was arranged in such a way was beyond me.

Weber Iago is a Brazilian pianist who has become something of a regular visitor to Belgium (he declared it to be his sixth trip here) and this concert was celebrating the release of his second album (which I haven't heard) on the local Mogno label. The first five songs went by to tepid reaction: the music was had a kind of unobjectionable and sophisticated prettiness that avoided any excess sentimentality or austerity, but occupied a limp middle ground between good and bad taste, straying neither to one or the other. Iago's melodies seemed over-stuffed, but it was not that there really were too many notes, but rather that there seemed to be little room to breathe or to sing or to remember. I was reminded of an album I reviewed recently, a recording of Hermeto Pascoal compositions which gave that same feeling of an over-flowing of unnatural, too-regular and unmemorable themes. Also, there was little interactivity within the group: the Brazilian rhythms, refined and lightened almost out of existence, were laid down inflexibly; a nascent jagged and blues-tinged piano figure that could have spurred a flute solo to greater heights quickly died down; on several occasions, the band shifted into a looser gear (if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor), but only for a brief coda.

There were bright spots, of course, and brightest among them was Pierre Bernard's flute. Having seen him only in more improvised contexts, I was surprised by the strength of his "traditional" playing: on all of his flutes his tone was strong and even and he had no trouble projecting over the rhythm section. He also added touches of humour otherwise sorely lacking: at the beginning of the second song, he took up the alto flute and played the opening phrase, only to realise that he should be using the regular (soprano?) flute!

After five pieces that seemed to grow increasingly similar, we braced ourselves for a long night. Yet, by whatever magic it is that happens on stage, the evening suddenly took a turn for the better when Iago took a few minutes solo piano to play fast, rumbling arpeggios in the lower register underpinning a pungent melody. When Greindl discreetly joined in, it was to emphasize the more jazz-oriented chords Iago was improvising upon. Suddenly, the music had gained in body and depth and shifted from prettiness to beauty. The audience manifested its increased pleasure. When the band returned to a Brasilian rhythm for the next song, it was with a new bounce in their step and a heavier beat.

The announced string quartet, the main reason for my curiousity, as I had never seen this kind of association live, then took to the stage, and Iago introduced them by reading the four musicians' names from the back of his CD! A first, somewhat overly dramatic piece for the five strings (the quartet plus Greindl's acoustic double bass) passed without too much notice. Then, a grippingly slow lament of great sadness unfolded, expressed especially by the first violin when he played with what sounded like bow applied to strings at only half pressure. The mood lightened as the full octet played together.

The next piece was the only one not composed by Iago, and fully bore out the danger inherent in such a tactic. The delicacy of expression of minor-key nostalgia in Egberto Gismonti's perfectly-titled “Memoria e Fado” easily dwarfed Iago's own compositions. Still, the pianist more or less managed to regain control of his concert by taking a more vigourous tack for the last song before the encore, as a fast and percussive low-register piano figure intricately and repeatedly morphed into a more expressive and harmonically mobile legato in support of Bernard's bass flute.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004


RoadTrip is the latest addition (if only a temporary one) to the Arts Journal blogs. Its main selling point is that it is a tour diary held by a violist from the Minnesota Orchestra. Very interesting and often funny stuff. A couple of unrelated enjoyable asides:

On our last European tour, the spectacular Peter Serkin was our soloist, and we were opening most of our concerts with a new concerto by Lukas Foss, which Peter assured me was not minimalist, but which certainly sounded minimalist to a non-musicologist's ear. Essentially, it was fifteen minutes of tone rows, repeated over and over with tiny variations, and our audiences throughout Europe visibly hated it. In Vienna, in fact, a man in the front row got up less than a minute into the piece and banged his way out of the hall. To me, the fact that Peter then played a stunningly beautiful Mozart concerto never quite made up for what we had inflicted on the audience to begin the evening.


To anyone who has never spent time playing in an orchestra, this probably sounds strange. After all, the second and fifth stands of violas are no more than 15 feet apart on the stage, and with the stands so tightly grouped, you might expect the sound to be generally the same throughout the section. It isn’t. In fact, the best way to describe the audible difference between what I heard on Friday night and what I heard on Sunday is to give you an exercise to do. If you have a really good stereo, put on a recording of a Beethoven symphony (or whatever) and listen to it for a few minutes, standing just off to the left of the left speaker. Done that? Good. Now, play the same recording again, but this time, make the following adjustments:

1.Stand behind the speakers.
2.Move the subwoofer behind you. (This is the bass section, directly over your shoulder.)
3.Get a friend to stand ten feet behind you and off to your right, and have this friend play some loud trumpet solos while the symphony is playing.

That should give you a basic idea.

Dick De Graaf Soundroots Quintet - 13/02/2004, Geneva

Dick De Graaf - ts
Andrea Pozza - p
Stephan Kurmann - b
Daniele Pezzotti - cello
Norbert Pfammatter - d

After safely landing in Geneva despite it being a friday the 13th, I met my father and we went directly from the airport to the concert. De Graaf is a Dutch saxophonist and here was playing a repertoire inspired/adapted from Schubert compositions such as the "Unfinished Symphony," "Death and the Maiden" and the "String Quintet in C." That source made for rather unusual melodies, even if the solos tended to be more firmly jazz-rooted.

We walked in on the highlight of the concert: as De Graaf soloed, the rhythm section (which did not include the cellist) laid down the kind of independent yet interlocking lines that create a groove whose beauty and dynamic is similar to that of the cycles-within-cycles traced by complex machinery. Unfortunately, they never reached this state again, even though Pozza provided some very good solos.

Besides the material, the quintet's particularity is of course the presence of the cello, which made for the interesting sight of seeing two rows of upright strings. When Pezzotti played pizzicato, it highlighted how opposite jazz double bass and the still classically-oriented cello are: pizzicato, the cello failed quite completely to project and articulate clearly, whereas jazz bassists tend to have intonation problems when playing arco (or maybe this is a dated notion? I find Paul Chambers's arco playing extremely grating - metaphorically and literally).

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Still in the Now

A thought occurred to me about Phil Freeman's article referred to below. Couldn't his discussion be boiled down to two different conceptions of Now?

In the collective jazz conciousness (as established by countless small and large group sessions over nearly a century, and concerts in which the musicians are judged as much on their technical proficiency as on the actual content of the music), that Now is what was played live and by the band together. "Now Is the Time," the Charlie Parker tune goes: a Now defined by the musician, as found in that oft-repeated idea about an improvisation reflecting whatever the musician was feeling that day. The pop Now is a located elsewhere: the key moment is the moment of commercial release, rather than the moment of recording. The listener creates that now upon hearing a song for the first time and slotting it into his/her life.

To illustrate further, when discussing golden periods, jazz fan turns to recording dates ("Albums X, Y and Z were all recorded within a couple weeks of each other!"), whereas the pop fan considers release dates (e.g. the infamous 1985 survey or Clap Clap ingesting music in 3 month blocs). This is partly because much pop has no single recording date, as overdubs and post-recording techniques are piled onto each other at various points along the way.

As an aside, the above discussion would tend to reinforce the rather unfortunate view of jazz as musician-centric and pop as listener-centric.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Is it live or is it memorex?

The Rambler has a very nice post that seems related to a few of the topics recently touched upon here and elsewhere.

Bagatellen: Denying The Existence Of "Now"

Phil Freeman registers another interesting PDF File over at Bagatellen. It's really weird to read about pop at Bags, as its writers tend to cover extreme forms of music very few people in the world like. Phil comes from a different background, though (from what I could tell from his former blogs: metal, jazz, free jazz and electric Miles Davis) and is a breath of fresh air. I do have to take issue with some of his points, however:

The idea that a record should accurately document a musical performance seems rooted in a psychological need for honesty, and a corresponding suspicion of trickery on the part of pop performers.(...)

The jazz attitude is that performances laid live to tape are evidence that the musicians in question can play a song beautifully every time, and make it new and interesting every time, too. This is, of course, a myth; many jazz boxed sets are littered with flubbed takes and false starts. (Charlie Parker has an entire mini-discography of nothing but this sort of stuff.)

The flip side of this belief is the idea that jazz musicians who assemble their tracks from the best fragments after multiple incomplete takes, or—worse yet—the recording of individual instruments separately of one another, are somehow cheating. As if the process of making albums has an ethical dimension.

That purist attitude does exist, but is not as universal as Phil makes out. The liner notes to Thelonius Monk's Brilliant Corners acknowledge that the title track is made up of many edits because the musicians simply couldn't play the tune all the way through, and BC is still accepted as a great album. More fundamentally, jazz is a far more interactive and volatile music than most pop, so recording each musician separately or all of them together does make a qualitative difference. It's no coincidence that studio techniques used in jazz got more elaborate as fusion, smooth jazz and electro jazz developed. Compare the "studio trickery" involved in Brad Mehldau's Art of the Trio albums and the more pop/rock-oriented Largo.

Pop music is about the eternal Now. A record is not perceived as having any existence outside of itself. There is no larger context, only the gleaming moment.

I don't understand why the eternal Now (which I'm not convinced pop is all about) closes the pop song onto itself. The hip-hop mixtape is often precisely about settling beefs and other such stuff. The popularisation of certain producers (The Neptunes, Timbaland...) immediately place whoever they are working for in a different continuum. Acts like The Strokes or The White Stripes seem to explicitly not be about an eternal Now.

Phil then goes into a discussion of the Miles Davis/Teo Macero working methods, saying that

Miles and Teo utterly abandoned the idea of “honesty” in recorded music. They chose to assert that the record was the record, a work unto itself, and if a listener felt like hearing interactive performances by a group of musicians, well, that’s what concerts were for.

Certainly, they manipulated the recorded sounds far more than was usual for jazz records at the time (if you consider those records jazz, but that's another debate), but my impression is that they chopped up and juxtaposed blocks of sound and looped others, but didn't fundamentally the interactive nature of the music: they took what the musicians had played together and made something new of it. So the honesty (if you really want to call it that) is still there.

Chris Speed's Yeah No - 11/02/2004, Bruges

Chris Speed - ts, cl
Cuong Vu - tp (or cornet?)
Ted Reichman - accordion
Skulli Sverrinsson - el b
Jim Black - d

I swear I've been to De Werf before, but that didn't stop me from first missing a turn-off (I was listening to the radio news a little too closely) and later getting a little lost in Bruges. I got to the club, eventually, about an hour after the announced starting time, but I still managed to catch the last two songs of the first set.

I'd already seen or heard each of the five musicians in other contexts: Reichman and Speed in John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet; Speed, Sverrinson, Black and Speed in Black's Alas No Axis and again in Pachora; Black in Ellery Eskelin's trio; Cuong Vu with his own trio. Familiarity had also sparked my curiosity, as those bands all sound very different from each other, and Yeah No sounds different from all of them.

The part of the concert I heard focussed more on composition than improvisation. The first song they played for me developed from slow long tones to a very long unisson theme over a driving back-beat-with-brushes and contained no improvisation at all. The second piece started with a short, abstract bass intro, then the band burst into an unexpectedly pretty, sunny and hopeful theme, during which it was often difficult to distinguish saxophone, trumpet and accordion from each other. Speed then took a very deliberate and calculated solo that began to illustrate why I am ill-at-ease with this music: no doubt this reflects Speed's personality, but his compositions all seemed very concerned with the formal at the expense of content. By this, I don't mean that his music is particularly difficult (I'm not a musician, so I can't be sure, but a lot of it seemed to be built on fairly simple elements) or bereft of melody (Speed can write very pretty lines). Rather, I never got a sense of a message or an emotion being strongly conveyed. When what vaguely sounds like an Irish folk tune melts into a static morass, I can't muster more than an "Oh, that's interesting." Even Jim Black's boyish enthusiasm (he's so into everything he does, he makes shaking a tambourine seem like the ultimate in human achievement) came across as a bit empty. This is perhaps because outside Eskelin's fantastic trio, his playing seems much less subtle and much more boringly rock-oriented. Cuong Vu was the happy, and surprising, exception to this feeling.

Vu came only with his trumpet, whereas in his trio he also had effect pedals and a laptop, and played overtly sentimental, fleet, breathy lines with a clear narrative arc. More importantly, he had a true, full-bodied presence and seemed to be expressing something beyond form. Unfortunately, all solos were rather short, but during the second set, Vu provided a highlight when Black's hyperactive drumming created great friction between the lyrical on one side and the frenetic on the other.

The last song of the second set strongly recalled Pachora's Middle Eastern flavour (Astereotypical (Winter & Winter, 2003) is an excellent record, almost a party album) and grooved fabulously, thanks to a 3 over 2 rhythm pounded out by bass and drums. The encore consisted in a song whose wistfulness was enhanced by the loose trumpet-tenor unisson.

Speed declared that he had recieved the band's latest (fourth) album that very afternoon. I debated internally whether to buy it (or another one of their albums), but decided that, while it may make a decent concert, I'd never listen to it at home much because I don't really feel able to bond with the music I heard tonight. It's often pretty and sometimes clever, but too rarely really involving.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

"The Queen has no image!" said the child

Neil Strauss from the NY Times says:

For better or for worse, the moment in pop belongs not to the Courtney Loves of the world, but to the Norah Joneses, the Josh Grobans and the American Idols. Their songs can be played in schools and in supermarkets; their promotional campaigns are engineered to be as safe and scandal-free as political ones; and their songs are so vague that no listener feels left out.

Ben Ratliff reviews the new album and expounds on a similar feeling:

If every pop star transmits a persona, hers remains sweet and blank and diffident.
Instead of being a cipher that nobody can identify with, she has calibrated her crème-fraîche voice to the point of becoming a singer that anyone can identify with, if only in general terms. "Feels Like Home" (Blue Note) is more one-size-fits-all than her first album, the 18-million-selling "Come Away With Me."

The persona in her songs — let's not call it Ms. Jones herself, because her life couldn't be this dull — might have lived practically anywhere in the developed world, at any time during the last century. Somehow Ms. Jones's work has managed to make a virtue of vagueness. ... This is multipurpose music: whatever your circumstances, you can plug in your own life's coordinates and project yourself into her songs.

It's interesting to see that Ratliff and I agree:

Still, there's an even stronger precursor for the general sound of her records, over and above those memory trip-wires. Simply put, it's hard to imagine this music without Cassandra Wilson.

I'll add his description of Wilson's music, even though it's irrelevant to the current topic, because it's a very good and concise one:

On a run of albums starting in the early 90's, and with her original producer Craig Street — incidentally, the original producer for Norah Jones's first album, before Arif Mardin was called in to remake it — Ms. Wilson crafted an upside-down version of what's considered elegant in jazz, with the roots on top and the leaves on the bottom. Saxophones were out; acoustic guitars and mandolins were in. The usual cosmopolitan images were out; evocations of rural America under dark skies were in. The Wilson records smushed entire traditions together without a second thought, with simplicity as a common denominator. But underneath it all were elements that came unmistakably from jazz: a sense of controlled soloistic ideas, an organic feeling of a group playing together in real time, even within the songs' pop brevity, and in her singing, a lot of patience.

Clap clap explains Norah thusly:

Well, I feel pretty left out of Norah Jones, and a lot of people do--indeed, I think that's at the heart of the complaints that indie fucks (a term I'm using here in an entirely neutral way, mind you) have about mainstream pop. All the little bits of it, the signs and signifiers, the production and the lyrics and the drums and the guitars and the mastering, it all puts them off. Readers of this blog probably don't need me to document instances when people have ignored a great song simply because it was by an artist they distrusted, or because you could dance to it, or because you could hear the lyrics, or whatever. But it's not just 28-year-old Modest Mouse fans that have this reaction: it's 14-year-old hip-hop fans, it's 35-year-old metalheads, it's 55-year-old classical fans, it's 47-year-old avant/free-jazz's a whole lot of people.

Norah Jones is not successful because she appeals to everyone, she's successful because she appeals to older people. And that's OK. But no doubt part of her very appeal to these older people is her jazz roots, and the way that they can feel like they are, in fact, not 'falling for' an American Idol winner, but are instead listening responsibly to a 'real musician' working in a 'real genre.'

It's easy to dismiss image as superficial (yet another bid for realness), but I think it's a bit more complicated than that, as Clap Clap points out. The "real musician/real genre" thing is the key: it shows that jazz fans, classical fans, underground hip-hop fans, "indie fucks" etc. are often looking for an alternative image just as much as (and sometimes more than) an alternative music, thus reducing pretensions of greater profundity to empty platitudes. I've always been surprised by how much commentary the 80s/early 90s Young Lion In Expensive Suit look drew from critics as signifiers of the YLs' serfdom to staid corporate America: looking at old photos from swing bands, beboppers or bluesmen, that tradition of sharp dress has always existed in Black America. Look at the flamboyance of West African clothes or the gaudiness of new sneakers on the basketball court, it's the same thing. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but this line of criticism troubled me because it seemed to deny that Black people could dress well and expensively, even though there's a mountain of evidence from around the world to refute that notion (I don't often make the effort to dress sharp, much to my parents' despair).

Stepping outside of the accepted image of your genre is a risk: Miles was reviled equally for his change of clothes as for his change of music (granted, those 80s polka dot shirts were awful), even today no mainstream rapper (or rapper who wants to be mainstream) can be openly gay, an overly glossy album cover in a purportedly "real" genre will put certain critics off (The Bad Plus generated this kind of reaction recently, in certain quarters). Take a young rebel's surprise expressed at the sight of a suit-clad Art Ensemble of Chicago: did you really expect them to go about everyday business in ceremonial face-paint? Do you think the Africans that inspired them do that?

Image is embedded in our perception of sound because of the theatrical element of the performance of music, expressed either in the music itself or in a myriad of visual ways: from closing one's eyes during a solo ("He looks really intense, this solo must be really good!") to looking bored ("He looks bored, I'm bored too.") to a massive smoke-and-mirrors show ("What a production!") to a stripped-down stage set ("These guys are ALL about the music!").

I, being used to the musicians+instruments=music equation, was destabilised by Kraftwerk's 4-immobile-men-behind-laptops performance at the MTV Europe Music Awards: "What's the point," I thought "What are they doing?" Had they brought out a few synths and beatboxes, I might have been more welcoming and accepted it as a "real" musical performance.

Not sure what the conclusion to all this is, so I'll just end it here.

Eurovision preliminary rounds

My recent music-related TV watching has spanned the culutral spectrum recently, but for the past four sunday evenings has settled on the Belgian preliminary rounds of the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest. Scroll down and you can listen to the songs here.

To help you in your song selection, the seven finalists, with links to mp3s of their songs, are:

1. Roxane
2. Barbara Dex & Alides
3. Elsie Moraïs
4. Astrid
5. Xandee
6. Raf Van Brussel
7. Natalia

Last year was the Walloon entry (choice of candidate alternates yearly between Flanders and Wallonia) and Belgium placed a remarkable second. The year before that, the Flemish candidate only placed 13th.

What's most interesting (as there are only ever one or two good songs out of the 28 preliminary candidates) is the range of people taking part: from unknowns to BVs (Bekende Vlamingen=Famous Flems (funky name!)), from pub bands to boy bands to no-talent boob-job-enhanced reality-TV star wannabes attempting to prolong their shelf life to the kitchissimo Nicole & Hugo to Ali G-alike r'n'b-ers and so on.

Who would you choose?

Monday, February 09, 2004

Make it new

I'm a bit dissatisfied with be.jazz at the moment: to many "reactions to" post, not enough of my own thoughts (I've had stuff on musicians and CDs stuck in "Draft" mode for ages...), not enough jazz. So, I'll try to get this thing back on a better track. However, I'm a bit dissappointed by the lack of reaction to the "Les Noirs Marchant" article. I was wondering if you found it of any interest, helpful, painfully obvious, well/badly written... A quick word will suffice.

Orange Kazoo & Pascal Schumacher Quartet - 5/02/2004, Brussels

Amazingly, I forgot my notebook, and then suffered computer problems that stopped me from posting earlier, so the accounts of these two concerts will be more sketchy than usual.

I had seen Orange Kazoo almost two years ago, when they released their first album. Back then, they had a singer who sang in a language of his own invention, to very good effect, but he's no longer in the band. Despite this, and being playfully billed as "jazz rock afro bulgarica," Orange Kazoo seems to have become far more song- (they even words everybody understands now) and composition-oriented, reducing improvisation to almost incidental levels. But wait, I hear you ask, who/what is Orange Kazoo?

Orange Kazoo is a band that originated in Charleroi (home to comic book character Spirou) and is made up of musicians that come from outside the music academy circuit (and, from the look of some of them, from the dingy-hippy demographic). Because of the notoriously atrocious concert conditions at the Café Central, I'm not sure what the line-up was. I could make out drums, electric bass, keyboards, guitar, marimba (an essential distinguishing feature), saxophone, trumpet (I think) and flute. At least two of the musicians (including the female marimba player) did some singing. I say "made out" because I couldn't be bothered to stand up during the one (first) set I heard (a sign of aging?) and there were many bodies between the band and me. That's part of the reason I left after one set: all those people seemed to absorb most of the higher-register instruments, leaving the bass as lead voice (from where I was sitting) and rendering front-line passages extremely indistinct.

The "jazz rock afro bulgarica" tagline sums up the band pretty well. They started out with a jazz-rockish 5/4 groove, and sometimes went into the long unisson lines characteristic of the genre, but a Fela Kuti horn arrangement influence ensured that the lines never became too unwieldy. The bulgarica intervened once, when they briefly sounded like an East European fanfare. Still, after a 40-minute set, I had had enough of the poor listening conditions, so I decided to drive cross-town to the Sounds to drop in on the Pascal Schumacher Quartet. Long-time readers will moan "What? Again?" What can I say? I like 'em.

I got to the Sounds in time for the last song of the first set. If the November concert had been dissappointing because of the stress of an upcoming recording session (the quartet's first CD, Change of the Moon, will be released next month on Igloo Records), here they were relaxed and in full gear. While not as explosively energetic as at the Hopper, this was perhaps the most balanced and well-rounded of the three PSQ concerts I've seen. Ballads such as bassist Christophe Devisscher's "Goodbye Little Godfather" (the version recorded by Alexi Tuomarila's quartet, of which Devisscher is also a member, contains an incredibly poignant solo bass intro) and Schumacher's "Change of the Moon" were played sensitively, and the semi-ballad reading of "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" was playful. They also played a few of pianist Jef Neve's compositions: the fast, stop-start "Pink Coffee," the poppish backbeat of "When Spring Begins" and the Bad Plus-ish "Blues For Mr. PS." The first two were given fantastic versions that easily topped those recorded on Neve's Blue Saga and highlighted how much of a band this quartet has become over the year or so they've been together. I interviewed Schumacher recently and he told me that the great thing about this particular group was that they really were friends: they didn't just see each other at concerts or rehearsals, but also met up to go see a movie. Apparently, this is fairly rare. In concert, the pieces seemed at once tightly arranged and loosely played, as the musicians bent the music in whatever direction they felt like going in. When Schumacher and Neve gently decrescendoed to near-silence, they proved once again that the best way to silence a crowd is to play quietly, rather than overwhelmingly loud. More generally, vibraphone and piano blended most felicitously, at times sounding like a new, third instrument.

For me, though, the highlights were a few of Neve's solos: I (and the rest of the crowd, judging by the applaud-o-meter) was left slack-jawed in wonder. He was in a lower register mood, and continuously came up with ways to make the bottom end of the piano sing. I've seen him in three different groups (including his own trio), and so far the PSQ is the one that has really pushed him the most, although I'm curious to see his new-look trio (later, Neve told me that he was soon to record a second trio album, and that in November he had a gig backing up no less than Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu). I think that he has the potential to become something like a Belgian Stefano Bollani: technically impressive, yet always audience-oriented in a non-pandering way (his solos retain a strong sense of melodic development) and with humour and fun shining through. At times, his contrapuntal playing, florid left-hand accompaniment (halfway between Bach and Bud Powell) and exchanging of leads between right and left hands may seem like a bag-of-tricks approach, but then again, I had never heard him do much of what he did last night.

After the concert, guitarist Pierre Van Dormael gave me some unexpected and amusing news. A song he composed/performed/recorded for that pride of Belgian pop, Plastic Bertrand, "Tout Petit la Planète," had apparently been covered by the Star Academy in Québec (Star Academy=Fame Academy=musical reality TV show) and that they had sold 520,000 CDs and 100,000 DVDs with his song on it. It's really hard to square what I know of Van Dormael with the most crassly commercial musical offerings, but it's great news nonetheless.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

Let's get metaphysical

The chorus of Pink's "God is a DJ":

If God is a DJ
Life is a dancefloor
Love is a rhythm
And you are the music

Okay, but who's doing the dancing? Is God playing to an empty house?

Later on Pink invites us to "get on the dancefloor" and "shake our ass," which suggests that we (the listeners) are at once the dancer and what is being danced to (the music). I'm no philosopher, but it seems to me that this conflation of cause (music) and effect (dancing), or of environment and individual, has inscrutably deep logical ramifications, possibly involving the collapse of the universe as we know it.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Joseph Jarman

One Final Note publishes a very timely article on Joseph Jarman, its title striking a nostalgic note: All The Voices Are There Again.

Jarman brings a nice conclusion (in 1977) to the racial authenticity debates that have plagued jazz throughout its history:

I wanted to know how we, an assemblage of CMS participants that was nearly all white (trumpeter Hugh Ragin was at that session and perhaps one or two other black musicians whom I no longer remember) could find a place, or meet with a means of expression, in the context of 'Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future'. The answer was quite simple in Joseph's mind, and the rest of the Ensemble seemed to be in concurrence. 'Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future' refers to a tradition and a vision of music that was, is, and will be universal. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, being a group of African American musicians, would only naturally look to those forms and elements of music-making that come out of their heritage. The music doesn't know if you're black or white, Joseph explained. The forms and the elements of Great Black Music bespeak a universality that allows anyone to choose to express himself or herself within their contexts.

The Queen is back - oh no, not again...

"NoJones4Jones" replies to a post about Norah Jones:

In your blog, "The Return of the Queen," you noted that it was "painful to hear the article's author Rob Hoerburger refer to Blue Note as a boutique jazz label." Consider the source. This is the same guy who wrote the embarrassing obit for Peggy Lee in the magazine last January -- reducing her long, illustrious career to the joke he claimed she had become in her later years. The sheer wrong-headedness of the whole thing boggled the mind and prompted no less than Cy Coleman to write in and decry the piece; he hit the nail on the head when he said it
was mean-spirited and juvenile. Hoerburger (who spends most of his time as a grammar policeman at the New York Times Magazine) had a previous piece on Norah come out in the Magazine just prior to the release of "Come Away With Me." (Anyone see a pattern here? Anyone besides me think that Norah is pretty damn disingenuous when she keeps
insisting that her success happens without any prompting on her or anyone else's part?) All you need to do is look at his first piece on Jones to see that Hoerburger doesn't know the first thing about jazz (or objective arts coverage for that matter). Anyone who did wouldn't waste much time on a pop flash-in-the-pan like Norah. What puzzles me, however,
is that the Times has some of the nation's best jazz writers at their disposal -- Will Friedwald, Ben Ratliff just to name two. Why do they keep giving assignments to this piker Hoerburger? You almost wonder if perhaps the guy isn't on a couple of payrolls....

I had not heard of Hoerburger before the article under discussion, so I'll simply thank NJ4J for casting new light on the journalist. While it was pretty obvious that it was a fluff piece (granted, it did acknowledge its own hypocrisy, as the only comments on the album itself, right at the end, were rather unenthusiastic). NJ4J later added:

My reaction to the latest piece on Sunday was simply this: historically, what kind of records sell in the 10s of millions? The ones calculated to have the broadest possible appeal, which pretty much means the really boring ones. And in that department, Come Away With Me -- like dinner at McDonald's -- is an all-time classic....

Come Away With Me's musical substance is rather toothless, for something that has provoked such strong reactions (not just in NJ4J). Personally, I was offered the album as a Christmas present a year ago and listened to it a few times. My father commented: It sounds like she's always singing in the same key, a general feeling (rather than precise technical analysis) I agree with. That notwithstanding, I kind of enjoy the album: sometimes you just need to be comforted in a certain way, and Jones does that for many people. I listened to it a few times and moved on. I can't really get worked up about her or her hype/success/brief omnipresence.

Is she a pop flash in the pan? Obviously, I don't know, but I don't really place withstanding the test of time as the ultimate arbiter of value. This is partly because what gets remembered is very much a factor of the structure of the music industry, perhaps even more so than artistic merit, but also because if something excites me now, why should I worry about what value it will hold for me in 10 years? I see even less reason to worry about how others will rate it that far down the line. I never can remember the formula for calculating compound interest, anyway.

The obsessive modesty displayed in the marathon (6 Internet pages) article is another matter, and one that started to irritate fairly rapidly, in a Oh won't you just shut up kind of way. Maybe she really is like that. Maybe Come Away With Me's success was totally unforeseen (surely 17 million in sales was unforeseen, I meant relative to other Blue Note releases and, say, Diana Krall). But the constant need to downplay it is tiresome.

Are 10 million sellers (worldwide) always boring? A bit difficult to say, as not very many albums have sold that much and I don't know where to find a list of them. Off the top of my head, I can think of Thriller, an Eagles greatest hits, The Fugees The Score, Britney Spears's first album and an N'Sync album. There's probably an Elvis Presley album of some sort in the 10 million club as well. I'm not sure we can deduce anything of the nature of such massive sellers from such a small sample.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Singing cyborgs

In an article on lip-synching, the most disturbing technological development is this one:

They may have no choice: live pop performances rely on an ever-more-intricate mix of live music, prerecorded sound and high-tech tricks, including new programs that produce the same flawless sound as a lip-synched performance, even if the person singing is jumping around, hanging upside-down or just plain out of tune.
According to Paul Liszewski, the project manager for the broadcast's audio operations, one performer's vocals — Mr. Liszewski wouldn't say whose — were electronically altered, in real time, to correct off-key notes just as they were coming out of the singer's mouth.

Perhaps sadder still is that fans could prefer the air-brushed to the real:

"Tell me, who can sing hanging on a harness upside-down?" said Nicholas Martinez, a high school senior from Espanola, N.M., talking on his cellphone during a year-book meeting... Mr. Martinez paid $91 for a ticket to Ms. Spears's Onyx Hotel Tour and will drive six hours to Denver to see the concert. "I'd rather her not ruin my favorite song and just put on a good show," he said.

(sidenote: where do journalists get their sources? "Talking on his cellphone during a year-book meeting"?)

At the Superbowl and on TV I can understand the constraints that lead to lip-synching. But the question has to be asked: are you really a singer if you deem dancing more important than singing at your concerts? Then again, I guess that this doesn't really affect me, as these lip-synching and dancing extravaganzas are generally out of my price range.

Citizen Jazz update

Three reviews of mine in there:

Wajdi Cherif - Phrygian Istikhbar
An excellent album that fuses North African music and jazz seamlessly. I discussed it in English here.

Mark Weinstein - Tudo de Bom
Brasilian jazz recordings of Hermeto Pascoal compositions. Nice moments, but a bit irritating and not that great overall.

Oliver Collette - De l'ombre au crépuscule
I reviewed Collette's first CD fairly negatively (which he didn't much like, obviously). I expect a fairly similar reaction this time around. Maybe when he stops making syrupy soft rock ballads and barely average music, my opinion will change.