It's nice to finally come across someone putting words on what you think you've been hearing. Ben Ratliff helps me out:
Aside from any personal language of harmony or rhythm, the overriding qualities of aggression and restraint are what have built post-bop saxophonists into major figures. Those that zealously explode (John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy) or forlornly implode (Wayne Shorter, Lee Konitz) create cults.
Mr. Alexander, by contrast, played on the beat. He used some of the same improvising patterns as Mr. Coleman, and a broad sound that stuck more often to the lower-middle register, which he occasionally escaped for unexpected effects like a fluttering figure that became a rough overtone shriek, as if a bit of Coltrane's wilder late period had been smuggled into more formal music.
(emphasis still mine)
I hear that all the time. Take Jacques Schwartz-Bart, who, at his best, fits both the Wayne Shorter forlorn implosion and Coltrane smuggling bills. For anybody, really, who is interested mainly in 60s style bop, but also a bit by free jazz, that use of overtones is part of the lingua franca. Which makes it slightly boring, which is why players who navigate the in/out line more subtly like Ellery Eskelin, for example, are more interesting and advanced, to me.
Monday, November 29, 2004
Everything went off without a hitch, incredibly: getting to Lille, finding the venue without getting lost, meeting up with Ellery, doing the interview, being fed (an unexpected bonus!), seeing the concert. The only slight downside was that I had to leave at intermission and therefore didn't get to see the second part of the bill, the Circum Grand Orchèstre.
The concert itself was extraordinary (the interview went well - I think I'm getting better as an interviewer, at least in terms of listening to the interviewee). The Eskelin band is now comprised of the original members (Andrea Parkins on accordion, keyboard and sampler, Jim Black on drums 'n' stuff) plus vocalist Jessica Constable, an English singer living in Paris. She used to be a special guest, but is now a full-fledged member. There are a few excerpts on the DVD of her with the band, which I liked well enough but now seem very embryonic, or at least unrepresentative, compared to what I saw and heard last night.
Talking with Ellery, he made it fairly clear that he felt that, as a trio, the band has pretty much covered what he had imagined for it and that new directions were opening with the punctual or permanent adjunction of other musicians. Personally, having several trio CDs and having heard it twice before, I considered its music very consistent. Ellery's talk of how the band changes when its constitution changes and how he views singers as totally equal with instrumentalists isn't mere talk: it was clearly on display on stage, to wonderful and surprising effect.
The concert started with (natch) just the trio playing a piece from Kulak 29 + 30, I believe. Each player took unaccompanied solos, each one bookendend by a group rendition of the songs strident theme. Then came the fantastic "It's A Samba" from the equally fantastic Arcanum Moderne (the repertoire seemed more wide-ranging than the other times I've seen the group, as they tended to stick with the then-current album's repertoire, with only a few deviations). "It's A Samba" revolves around a vintage Jim Black dirty groove in a - you guessed it - more-or-less samba style.
Was it Eugene Chadbourne who referred to this group as "The Beatles of the avant-garde"? Songs like this one are the reason why: there's a catchy tune, you can dance or mosh to it and, when Ellery locked on to a one note honk (perhaps a witty pun on "One Note Samba"?), its funk-drenched energy simply carries you away.
Jessica Constable came out and launched into a Celtic-sounding long-note lament over rising keyboard drones. I guess the facile comparaison for Constable would be with a more avant Bjork. While at times I did feel that they had a similar sense of dramatic construction, they're rather different. Constable doesn't have any childishness in her voice, for example, but I'm lacking reference points.
Drums and tenor joined in, keeping the slow, pensive atmosphere. This isn't a band you'd expect to have a singer in the first place, so, as you can imagine, Constable didn't fulfill the traditional jazz singer role. I think she sang pretty much the whole time she was on stage, truly equal to the other three musicians next to her. I'm pretty sure that she sang a lot of actual lyrics, but the only word I understood the whole night was "grandmother." Somehow, in this context the indecipherable lyrics thing made a lot of sense. For this song, Ellery expanded upon the traditional singer + obbligato format, but was only just in the background. The saxophone matched up to the voice with great sensitivity, and sometimes the singer took it upon herself to match the saxophone, to surprisingly good results.
Ellery's latest album, Ten is totally improvised, but the addition of a singer seems to have sparked a different way of writing or arranging, as the next piece had a lot of sharply delimited and controlled elements. It started quietly, with a few plinked piano chords, Black scraping his cymbals and Ellery musing quietly while Constable sang a fractured and delicate line, creating a rather enchanting (in the magical sense) whole. Then, tenor and drums hooked up to drop short, sharp and loud percussive blasts in tight unison, as voice and piano (Parkins had moved to the grand set up for the big band that was to follow) continued on as before. Come to think of it, it was kind of a boys vs. girls thing.
"For No Good Reason" started in chaos, with wild sampler whistles and crackles, drums flailing, saxophone blowing freely and voice scrambling itself through an effects pad (which Constable used well throughout). A couple of keyboard notes hinted at what was to come and suddenly those gorgeous, voluptous even, chords fully emerged, bringing order, as Constable added a bluesy twist, which Ellery complemented with some soulful lines. They erupted again into a great bit of skronk + beats + menacing, and still incomprehensible, spoken word, and when those chords returned for the finale, the music soared to a veritable apotheosis. At this point I wondered, believe it or not, if this new band was not even better than the old one.
The last two tunes before the encore were on the dancier side. The first one was slow and funky, reggae-ish even, when the stabs of Parkins's keyboard vamp focused on the off-beats. The groove's even-pacedness gave it a blissful tension.
Listening to Ten for the first time as I write this, with its different and changing line-up, it doesn't represent what the quartet sounds like, but I expect that the next album will document it. At least, I hope so!
Saturday, November 27, 2004
Friday, November 26, 2004
First of all, a big, big thank you to my friend Jef!
I first saw and heard Mehldau solo almost five years ago, in Salamanca, Spain. The next day I bought Art of the Trio Vol. 4. I've since seen his trio twice.
Flagey's main hall was full, all its 700 seats and vertigo-inducing three balconies. I was sitting directly behind and slightly above the pianist, ie. I was on stage left, a great position from which to observe his left hand.
Mehldau is the jazz world's great champion of Radiohead, so it was fitting that he start with "Knives Out." Most surprising about it was that it confirmed a trend I noticed the last time I saw him play (and goes counter to Francis Davis's implied opinion that Mehldau's style is not evolving): while the spare melody notes rang out, Mehldau would lay down a thick pea-soup fog of uncertainty, which sounded like a blend of ecstatic atonality and pensive dissonance. This harmonic daring is something I first heard him do on a stupendous intro to "All the Things You Are" and which I don't think he was doing before.
Then came a sad pop waltz with country overtones, Paul McCarthney's "Jump." Next came a Mehldau original, "Los Angeles." I haven't heard the Places album it comes from, but this driving and orchestral piece was the first instance of my main gripe with this concert: it's simply too much. Too much over-wrought drama, not enough humour. A tad more breathing space could have brought things into starker relief, especially as (due to the piano, the playing, the acoustics or my placement, I do not know) notes tended to blend together, obscuring overall shapes and rhythms.
I love the piano's lower register because it brings a physicality (the strings are so long, you can feel them vibrating, the wood shaking) and a menace (that rumble!) to the piano the other registers don't really have. Of course, it's not the most distinct register. Mehldau was down there all night (I think you could have counted the number of times he ventured into the upper fourth of the keyboard on the fingers of one hand), which was cool, but compounded the above-mentioned problem.
On we went to another highlight, Monk's "Monk's Mood." When I last saw the trio, their Monk was rather poor, but alone, Mehldau was great. His chords sounded like Monk's, his rhythm was steadier and he included plenty of digressions (or "harrumphs" as I think it is appropiate to call these monkisms), which amused until, astonished, you realised that a digression had flowed into the next statement. "Think of One" contained an incredible display of Mehldau's famed left hand independence in which it became another soloist alongside the right hand, while an accompaniment was still going. I have no idea where the accompaniment was coming from. It was a tour-de-force, but not bravura, if that makes any sense. And it swung.
Skipping ahead, he ended the main part of the concert with "a song I haven't played for a while," (yeah right) "Paranoid Android." Here's where I come back to the lack of humour. When he reached the loud guitar riff part for the first time, pounding it out, I thought it was pretty funny, kitsch even. Then I wondered if Mehldau saw even the slightest bit of humour in it (as The Bad Plus undoubtedly do in their rock covers). His body language says he doesn't, but who knows.
In an interview, Mehldau has said that the real challenge in covering newer pop songs was arranging them so they sounded good. That concern was made clear as he launched into an improvisation that weaved the further melodic elements into itself, so that there wasn't merely a tossed-off head, but also a body. Then came the majestic dirge part, at which point I had a sonic vision of the 700 listeners in the audience, which I could see as they were all to my right, stand up, become a choir (or a massive, real, choir suddenly emerging, maybe from under the stage, maybe) and gravely intone Thom Yorke's lyrics, whatever they are. It would have been glorious, but, unfortunately, it didn't happen.
The first of the three (!) encores was another Mehldau staple, Nick Drake's "River Man," which wasn't nearly as much of a tear-jerker as it was in Antwerp with the trio (where it was the second, and last, encore). The second encore was a slow, bluesy tune that offered a bit of the breathing room that was too often lacking. The third encore was The Beatles' "Mother Nature's Child." There's a great version of this on Joel Frahm's duo CD with Mehldau, Don't Explain, but on this occasion, it was nice but a bit perfunctory, especially as Mehldau ended it suddenly, as if to say "Okay, now that's enough of that."
Jacques Brel "Ne me quitte pas"
Brel starts out promising the impossible to rekindle the fire in his loved one's heart (I'll tell you about those lovers, there/Who saw their hearts twice inflamed), and sounds like he could just manage to accomplish it, defying climatology and physics (I'll bring you rain pearls from countries without rain"), linguistics ("I'll invent nonsense words that you'll understand) and even death (I'll dig the earth even after my death to to cover your body in gold and light). His first companion is the piano, then strings come in, affirming his point.
By the penultimate verse, the singer has become more reasonable, a sign of his inevitable failure: Fire has often been seen springing anew from a volcano/That was thought too old/There are, it seems, scorched earths/That give more wheat than the best April. Stepping out of his own maddening, world-conquering subjectivity, he goes into an external realm of logic, which, in matters of love, cannot (must not?) prevail. The death of love and the realisation of the death of love have overcome the impossible promises. The piano has left him, replaced by an ethereal flute (the spirit rising out of the body?), the once-strong and defined strings are now amorphous, resigned and sluggish, doing nothing to buoy our rebuked lover.
In the last verse, Brel is no longer promising or affirming, but pleading, desperately. Still, he attempts to mask his lingering desire in sensible closure (I won't cry any more/I won't talk any more), but he's been consumed and will never let go (I'll hide there and watch you/Dance and smile/And listen to you/Sing then laugh). He can only plead now, plead just to be on the edge of love, on the edge of death: Let me be the shadow of your shadow/The shadow of your hand/The shadow of your dog.
Ne me quitte pas
Tuesday, November 23, 2004
On Monday, November 22, 2004, One Final Note's
Scott Hreha begins hosting a new weekly jazz program
on the Twin Cities' KFAI Fresh Air Community Radio.
The show will broadcast every Monday night from
10:30 PM to 12:00 AM CST, focusing on new releases
by independent artists and record labels throughout
KFAI broadcasts at 90.3 FM in Minneapolis, 106.7 FM
in St. Paul, and via the web at www.kfai.org.
Friday, November 19, 2004
Another music industry in the Internet era article, courtesy of The Economist (and brought to my attention by The Rambler.
The number of music files freely available online has fallen from about 1.1 billion in April 2003 to 800m this June, according to IFPI, a record-industry body.
there is already evidence that data derived from the preferences shown on illegal file-sharing networks are being used to help launch acts
A poll by Rolling Stone magazine found that fans, at least, believe that relatively few great albums have been produced recently (see chart 2).
Of course, chart 2 simply reveals the age/tastes of the RSters: nearly all "500 great albums" were recorded between 1965 and 1975, and hardly any before 1960, and with a sharp decline leading into the '80s.
The boss of one major label estimates that, while catalogue accounts for half of revenues, it brings in three-quarters of his profits. If the industry stops building catalogue by relying too much on one-hit wonders, it is storing up a big problem for the future.
In the past 12 months, according to a manager who oversees the career of one of the world's foremost divas, his star earned roughly $20m from sponsorship, $15m from touring, $15m from films, $3m from merchandise and $9m from CD sales. Her contract means that her record label will share only in the $9m.
For example, Warner Music Group is thought to be readying itself for an initial public offering in 2005 and, as part of cutting costs in Belgium, it dropped artists this year. Among them was Novastar, whose manager says the group's latest album has so far sold 56,000 copies in Belgium and Holland.
(I include the last paragraph because, you guessed it, of the out-of-the-blue mention of Belgium. Novastar is Belgian and not Dutch, by the way.)
It is still unclear what a successful business model for selling music online will look like. People are buying many more single tracks than albums so far. If that persists, it should encourage albums of more consistent quality, since record companies stand to make more money when people spend $12 on a single artist than if they allocate $2 to each of six bands.
Apple forced the industry to accept a fixed fee per download of 99 cents, but the majors will push for variable, and probably higher, prices.
The best distribution of all will come when, as many expect, the iPod or some other music device becomes one with the mobile phone. Music fans can already hold their phones up to the sound from a radio, identify a song and later buy the CD. At $3.5 billion in annual sales, the mobile ringtone market has grown to one-tenth the size of the recorded music business.
In September, according to comScore Media Metrix, 10m American internet users visited four paid online-music services. The same month another 20m visited file-sharing networks. The majors watch what is being downloaded on these networks, although they do not like to talk about it for fear of undermining their legal campaign.
De Werf is busy releasing records. The last time they released this much was the 10 CD one-a-month Finest in Belgian Jazz series back in 2002:
High Voltage by Hoppin' Around, gathering six up'n'comers in a middle-period Jazz Messengers style, has just been released.
Next month: DjanGo! I don't know any of the musicians (lots of guitarists, a couple of horns, a violin), but I guess the title says it all.
January: Baba Sissoko Quintet. Sissoko on n'goni, tama, djembe and vocals, with an interesting cross-section of be.jazzmusicians: Bart Defoort on modern mainstream sax, Fabian Fiorini on contemporary improvised piano, Otti Van Der Werf on groovy-in-weird-contexts battered 4-string electric bass and Reynaldo Hernandez on everything-inlcuding-jawbone percussion. I'm looking forward to hearing this.
February: the new two-tenor Ben Sluijs Quartet. I haven't seen it, but have heard good reports from reliable sources.
March: Jazzisfaction's second CD. The first, Issues was an excellent, Tomasz Stanko-ish affair, so I'm looking forward to this one too (and anyway, De Werf has released very few duds in the three years I've been here. Although they did have a short run of decent-but-forgettable mainstream bop releases in 2003).
April: Hendrik Braeckman Group. Okay, this one is less attractive to me, featuring Braeckman on guitar, Kurt Van Herck on tenor and trumpeter Bert Joris (who's always great). I suspect this one will join the above-mentioned decent-but-forgettable mainstream bop category.
May: Kris Defoort ConSerVations/ConVerSations, with the Dreamtime tentet, a conductor, a string quartet and a soprano! Should be interesting, at minimum.
Thursday, November 18, 2004
Lee Konitz - as
Ed Schuller - b
George Schuller - d
(I assume the two Schullers are related, they looked fairly similar)
The long search for a parking spot means I only hear the last two or so songs of the first set (one of which was "Cherokee"). For some reason, the doorman makes entry difficult.
Are you on the list? Did you reserve?
What are you talking about? This is a bar! Let me pay my five euros and get in, I'm late enough as it is.
The room is pretty full, but not packed, as it was for the Archie Shepp/Amina Claudine Myers duo. A nice, surprisingly young and feminine turnout.
The only amplification is the bass amp, the air was clear, as the crowd had been asked not to smoke: as close to environmental bliss as one can get in a club. At intermission I slip to the front and sit on the floor almost lip-to-lip with the stage, Konitz's horn at times almost within reach.
The first time I saw Konitz, in May, it was a disastruous affair: Konitz was out of it and an attempted unison head with saxophonist Steve Houben had me burst out laughing, that's how bad it was. This time, however, is a different matter altogether.
The second set continues Konitz's usual standards'n'things repertoire. They function like the Jarrett/Peacock/DeJohnette Standards Trio, stringing together non-arranged songs (or, sometimes, fragments of songs) indicated by the leader's unaccompanied intros. For the first half he's brilliant, unfailingly melodic, sing-songy even. Then he starts to tire a little, resorting to more fragmented and shorter phrases.
The Schullers each strike a different pose. Although I'm not enamoured with his sound (being so close, the discrepancy between seeing him pluck strings and hearing the sound coming out of the amp half a meter away is somewhat jarring) Ed assists unselfishly, walking his accompaniment, staying inside in his solos and singing along to them discretely enough. George, however, takes more liberties, just as likely to swing straight-forwardly if busily as to deconstruct the tempo entirely with a nebula of polyrhythms and suspensions. He displays both sides on what might have been "The Night Has 1000 Eyes," to destabilising effect.
An amusing blooper springs up on the next tune ("I'll Remember April" or "April in Paris," I always get them confused): the rhythm section springs in after the intro with a latin beat, to which Konitz reacts by swiftly turning around and calling for fast swing. Later, harmonics on bass lead to the drummer tinkling some bells, which leads to Konitz playing a snippet of "Jingle Bells."
Tuesday, November 16, 2004
Soweto Kinch - Conversations With The Unseen
One of my favourite albums this year.
Soweto Kinch - "Intermission Split Decision"
The central track, where Kinch raps about growing up with jazz and hip-hop. You may recognise the anthropomorphism from Common's "I Used To Love H.E.R." You'll have to listen to the rest of the album to hear Kinch play alto.