Monday, May 31, 2004

One Final Note Update

Tim Green - Jeannie's Song
This one was actually put online several days ago, but I had missed it.

Is the boredom seeping through? I picked this one up because I thought it was by Tim Green, the New Orleans saxophonist... For some reason, I'm not very lucky in my OFN album assignments. Apart from Joel Frahm's Don't Explain, I can't think of another disc OFN's sent me that I really liked. However, this time things are looking up: Louis Sclavis's Napoli's Walls is very good fun, Dave Rempis's Out of Season seems promising and Tomasz Stanko's Suspended Night (which I didn't get through OFN, but which I'll review for them, I guess, since Citizen Jazz already has a review of it) is excellent.

Citizen Jazz Update

It may be a holiday, but Citizen Jazz is working. My stuff:

Steve Kuhn With Strings - Promises Kept
Pianist Steve Kuhn as soloist surrounded by a 15-piece string orchestra and a jazz double bass, playing melodic, generally slow-paced and nostalgic stuff. A bit disappointing, though it has its moments. Discussed further (in English) here.

The Claudia Quintet - I, Claudia
Cf. Jay Collins's OFN review.

Mahieu-Vantomme Quartet - Whatever
Thankfully, the last (for the time being) in De Werf's underwhelming series of mainstream jazz albums. That said, it's also the best in that 4-album series.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Bits of a Song

Tomasz Stanko - "Song for Sarah"
Suspended Night (ECM, 2004)

Listening to this one at 4AM last night (or this morning) was an awesome experience. The album is called Suspended Night, so calling it nocturnal is rather redundant, but listening to it at a time when you can put the volume on 3 because the constant white noise of the day subsided hours subsided hours ago and let the dark spaces thus revealed amplify the music was really something. Post-2AM the night's stillness is just as expressive as the hustle and bustle 12 hours prior. Stanko and his band, playing in a style derived from the impressionistic-romantic side of Miles Davis's 2nd Quintet, captured and developed that feeling perfectly, the trumpeter's notes wavering under the weight of some old pain or nostalgia.

A fashion tip to Mr. Stanko: hat and scowl, yes; backwards leather beret and smile, no, unless the goofy white version of Mario Van Peebles look was intentional.

See ya later... Jools

So last friday I stayed up fairly late (seeing as we're an hour ahead of the UK) to watch Jools Holland's show on the BBC.

PJ Harvey: very good.
Lamont Dozier: very nice tune with Jools at the piano.
Some band "from the Sahara": very cool (ha ha) desert funk (sort-of).
Amp Fiddler: nice neo-soul. Cool hair, Amp.
John Martyn: okay. One amusing moment when his band was getting a little funky and he... was not. I was vaguely reminded of Nick Drake on the first song.
Kanye West: doing "All Fall Down" with a violonist, a pianist, Syleena Johnson (daughter of Syl "Is It Because I'm Black?" Johnson) on vocals and a disembodied beat. Surprisingly good for live hip-hop, even if Kanye's rapping and Johnson's singing were too much on the same level in the mix, they kind of cancelled each other out. I was reminded of Jason Moran saying, in an interview, that a really innovative jazz/hip-hop cross-over would be a rapper and a piano, say Ghostface and him. I could see it working, if they managed to rehearse a bit.

But the real reason I post this is:
Ash: crappy, what were they doing there? There always seems to be a dud on Later... I seem to remember a decent (in my distant memory) Britrock band called Ash with a blonde singer back in the mid-to-late '90s. This band seemed to be American and had a dark-haired singer. I may be mistaken, though.

I take it a lot of the blogosphere doesn't like Jools (maybe I assume too much?), but, annoying voice aside, anyone who can set up segues from PJ Harvey to the Saharan band to Amp Fiddler is cool with me. And then sitting down at the piano and accompanying a guest competently is the icing, for me.

Ratliff, rescued

I read a lot of anti-Ben Ratliff remarks that really baffle me. Some people don't like his (or the NY Times's) relatively uncritical relationship with Jazz @ Lincoln Center/Wynton Marsalis, others don't like his metaphors. And Thomas Bartlett just thinks he sucks.

No need for me to complain any further, though, as Michaelangelo Matos strikes back against Bartlett far better than I could. It's not exactly a Ratliff defense, but it'll have to do.

bits 'n' blogs

I'm finally getting 'round to updating the links on the right. I had written some words about my choices, but they were rather pointless. Visit the blogs (as if you haven't already) and figure it out:

The Rambler
Alex Ross

The new link is to London Improv, which is run by my friend and up 'n' coming saxophonist Nat Catchpole.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Tracking back to the streets

Just when I convinced myself HaloScan's trackback was a scam, that long-awaited (1) turns up.

Bucket drums, huh? That reminds me of this awesome kid I saw in Washington Square Park in NYC in 1999 playing on paint buckets, water cooler bottles and the ground. I took some pictures. What's really weird is that there's this guy in the pictures, off to the side. He's also in pictures I took in Park Slope Park and (I think) Central Park. On different days. Wearing the same clothes. I'm still not sure what to make of it.

bits 'n' bots

Biting Simon Reynolds's feeling/not feeling somewhat, here. Since it's the first time I'm doing this, I'll go back in time a bit.

NERD - "She Wants to Move"
The first time I heard this, my reaction was "WTF?" Now I love it. A great dissonant mess of guitar plinks, vocal yelps and cascading faux-tribal drums, it's more rock'n'roll than so much of the rock'n'roll surrounding it on the radio stations I listen to. And it took a couple of hip hop producers to do it, WTF?

Basement Jaxx - "Plug It In"
The title track to Kish Kash is pretty cool too, but "Plug It In"'s female chorus is simply awesome (and very NERD-ish, I found. Coincidentally (or not) Basement Jaxx have remixed "She Wants to Move"), enough to make JC Chasez's parts bearable stop-gaps.

The girls are not giving it up
What's with the spate of no-sex songs? Avril Lavigne is throwing some poor sap off her bed, Pink isn't putting her hands in the air on the first date and I'm not sure who is loudly declaiming that she doesn't want to have sex with us... at all. Avril, I can understand: she's only 19 (and who's having sex at 19?) and has a fanbase to think about; plus, her lack of humour is well-known. Pink I have more trouble understanding: she's a bit old to be so hung up about a first date. Move on, love. Of course, there's Christina "Beyonce doesn't glitter like I do" Milian helping out desperate girlfriends everywhere, but I suspect she's lifting her advice from a self-help manual rather than from personal experience.

Phoenix - "Everything Is Everything" & "I'm An Actor"
"Everything Is Everything" has been playing to death on the radio and I should be sick of it by now, but I'm not. Awesomely layered, polyrhythmic and funky foundation (love that triangle!) supports resolutely morose and gramtically- and semantically-challenged Frenchman-speaking-English musings: "Things are gonna change/But not for better/Don't know what it means to me/It's hopeless, hopeless." Nothing to do with the Donny Hathaway and Lauryn Hill songs of the same name. "I'm An Actor" is narrated from a diva's point-of-view, but it's the heavy 7/4 (or 4+3/4) loop of plodding guitars that makes this one a winner. The Phoenix guys are right to call this their most violent song, but on an absolute scale, Richter for example, it scores only a middling rating. It's a shame the rest of the album is so tepid, Phoenix could have been the French NERD.

Ratatat- Ratatat
I first heard "Seventeen Years" on the radio, where it was described as "synthesizer music made with guitars." It sounded pretty cool to me at the time and still does. However, over 45 minutes, the paucity of sounds and compositional approaches is grating (simple melody, warm textures, repeat, then change after a few minutes). Nice background music, though, with lots of nicely optimistic rising tones. What's up with the hip hop-derived answering machine messages? Of the few hip hop-ish beats, only "Lapland" doesn't sound like a pastiche.

The Claudia Quintet - I, Claudia
Not pop, but almost. If Ratatat is a snack, this is a light meal. 21st century cool jazz that acknowledges contemporary music, electronica (in nicely subtle ways), gamelan, looping, avant-jazz and (post-)rock. Or something like that. Check it out.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Yeah, I'll Give You a Euro... To Shut Up!

A couple of days ago, walking through Brussels I heard some guy (I hesitate to call him a "street musician") "playing" "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" on the violon. Although it was more like "My Bonnie Lies... um, oh yeah... Ovreeeee... um, Over the Ohshun." I'm sure I've heard him massacre the same song (which isn't exactly a Paganini-esque, now is it?) on another occasion.

Are we tougher on or more indulgent of street musicians than we are with... "indoor" musicians? I'd like to think not and simply reminisce about memorable encounters.

In 1999, in New York, I'm rushing to a Foot Locker to buy a pair of shoes before going to the airport. I come out of the subway and this guy is singing "Satisfaction" and accompanying himself on guitar. He's singing the same line, maybe winding up the song. I try on the shoes, buy them, walk back to the subway, the guy is still at the same point in the song.

Much more recently, I'm walking down the main shopping street in Antwerp. First up is this black guy on guitar. He can't play but has a great growly voice. A hundred metres later, I hear the worst, most cringe-worthy version of "Redemption Song" ever (and that's saying something). Then, an East Asian guy is playing violon. I don't really hear him play because as I pass, a girl drops some change in his hat. The violinist stops playing, runs after the girl and gives her a chocolate.

Of course, the lowest of the low, in my estimation, are the ubiquitous Peruvians playing "My Heart Will Go On" and other such pap on pan pipes with pre-recorded muzak backing. These guys are everywhere, on every square in every semi-major European city or so it seems and some even sell CDs, so there must be a market, but I really can't see who would enjoy that crap. Whenever I hear them, I feel a call to violence coursing through my veins... or something like that.

Back in the Sussex University days, I stumbled across a fun small jazz combo in Brighton's Laines a few times. I'd come out of the comic book shop and listen to them for a bit, as they'd attempt to improvise call-and-response chants based on car models. Of course, after "Ford Fiesta" and "Vauxhall Corsa," the leader's supply started to run low and the music to fall apart. I'd give them 50p.

Then you have the weird instruments guys (no, pan pipes don't count). Like the guys with what looks like a miniature version of a piano's strings exposed and hit with tongs of some sort. Or that band (which doesn't seem to be there any more) with a huge triangular bass in the hallway between the main hall of Brussels's Gare Centrale and its Metro station. Or the violon with a sort of trumpet bell stuck on it.

You get people underground, in the subway, too, of course. I remember hearing this young harmonica player a number of times and, the last time, thinking "Hey, you've improved!" A couple of accordeon players in the tram once were actually a lot better than that description sounds. They brought some joy to that trip.

My latest find was probably my greatest to date. Next to the Grand'Place, this old guy sitting on his amp, with a big white beard, few teeth, wrinkled face, old trucker hat, singing some kind of country-swing music with vigorous glee. He was awesome, it was like he had just arrived in Brussels from Alabma or something. He was more entertaining than a lot of the acts I saw that same week-end at the Jazz Marathon...

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Moanin' with Lee

Moanin'Listening to Art Blakey's Moanin' for the umpteenth time yesterday (but the first time in a while), I was reminded of how Lee Morgan's solo on the title track is one of my favourite in all of recorded jazz. Doubtless, part of it has to do with the fact that this was one of the first jazz albums I ever bought, but what strikes me most is the absolute, almost divine, clarity with which Morgan threads his ideas together.

The solo far from totally improvised: the alternate take and subsequent live recordings show that Morgan had etched a lot of his ideas for the song in stone. Yet, the solo on the earlier alternate is merely good, while on the master it is heavenly. Morgan goes from funky to jazzy, from short notes to long, from melodic to percussive to smeared with incredible facility, continuity and certainty of purpose, all jibing perfectly with Morgan's big, bold, show-off tone.

This is not to say that the others soloists are lacking. While Bobby Timmons does relatively little for me (on this tune or the others), Benny Golson is impressive. He gets short-changed by Morgan's irresistably brilliant turn on "Moanin'": Golson's solo on the alternate take is better than that on the master; I wonder why no-one thought to splice the two together. Whenever I listen to Moanin', I wonder why the still-living Golson doesn't get more props. Sure, "Whisper Not" and "I Remember Clifford" have become standards, but no-one really talks about Golson the player. Listening to him here, he seems only a few steps behind pack-leaders Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane and combines tumbling notes with an earthy vigour. Maybe he simply didn't evolve much afterwards? Not having any later of his records, I can only speculate.

To return to Moanin', Golson was the Jazz Messengers' main composer at the time, and the four tunes of his on the album are excellent: the pop song-ish "Are You Real," the delicately funky "Along Came Betty," the stomping "Blues March." While Blakey may be the central focus of the "Drum Thunder Suite," the parts Golson wrote are quite dramatic and more than note-worthy.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Running Free

My Blogger Profile informs me that I was born in the year of the Horse. Here I am told that:

Love connections tend to come easily to Horses, since they exude the kind of raw sex appeal that is a magnet to others.... having an almost innate sense of romance and seduction. Horses are seducers in general; check out any A-list party and you're bound to find the Horse in attendance. This Sign possesses a sharp wit and a scintillating presence; it really knows how to work a crowd.

Who am I to argue with ancient Chinese knowledge?

Friday, May 21, 2004

Bear Hug

Some people may not believe that I truly am "a man of wealth and taste" (but I don't claim to have been around back in Jesus's time), so here's John Forham's 4-star Polar Bear review in the Guardian. I would agree with him when he says that Dim Lit goes straight on to the albums-of-2004 longlist, except that I've been listening to this one since fall 2003.

Now, go buy the album (Belgians can do so at the Brussels FNAC and probably other places too).

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Are you listening?

In the comments to this post, Chris Mealy points to this article: The Transformation Of The American Musical Ear.

It's interesting in a general way, as it raises the issue of the cultural construction of the ear, without leaning too heavily on the "this is better than that" crutch.

There are now two generations of Americans who have grown up after the rock revolution of the late 1960s, for whom classical music and the old style Broadway/Hollywood songs are largely marginal. As a result, today's typical American ear is attuned more to rhythm and vocal emotion — the strengths of rock and rap — than to melody and harmony, the strengths of classical music and Golden Age pop. This is true not just of teenagers but of people roughly fifty and under, and has been the most seismic shift in musical sensibility since the advent of ragtime introduced the American ear to syncopation a century ago.

I would argue that rhythm and vocal emotion (in which I would include melodic playing on instruments) are actually the most important aspects of most musics around the world. For example, most folk/traditional musics tend to be based on modal melodic playing and insistent rhythm (whether in sub-Saharan Africa, Bali, Cuba, Spain or Greece). In America, pop music has, as far as I can see, two main ancient sources: the blues (and gospel, I guess) and Tin Pan Alley. While Tin Pan Alley has always been looking towards the Classical world (cf. Gershwin's transition from Broadway to the concert hall), the blues is a folk music. Further, despite its basic 3-chord structure, it fits into the modality/rhythm matrix, as you can play it with just the 5-6 notes of the familiar blues scale throughout the 12 bars. Tangentially, McWhorter seems to forget that some American Classical music (i.e. Minimalism) also abandoned the quest for more sophisticated harmony in favour of, you guessed it, repetition and rhythm.

The blues thread (blues, rock'n'roll, rhythm'n'blues, jazz, soul, hip-hop) may have taken the ascendant over the songwriting thread (the descendants of Tin Pan Alley), as the article suggests, but I think that it is more the case that they have intertwined in various ways. This is quite clearly the case with jazz's reliance on standards for melodic and harmonic (but, crucially, not rhythmic) material and in certain strands of pop music, as McWhorter sort-of describes:

I once attended a screening of a concert video from the mid-1960s in which Sammy Davis, Jr., who occupied the transitional point between the old and the current sensibility, sang Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" first "straight", and then without accompaniment, eventually moving into scatting and riffing rhythmically to the merest suggestion of the written vocal line for a good few minutes

McWhorter also says that

A catchy beat is not just one element, but the sine qua non in most pop today, opening most songs instead of the instrumental prelude of the old days.

(As soon as I read that, I thought of the opening of Andre 3000's The Love Below (winkingly kitsch old-fashioned string arrangements)). Here, he is claiming that a catchy beat is not "instrumental," which is rather odd since the beat is made with instruments. This is a telling point which I return to below.

Certainly folks liked a good beat before Elvis, but much of even the most crassly commercial dance music before the 1950s was couched in melody and harmony to a degree largely unknown in today's pop.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not today's pop is melodically and harmonically poorer than pre-1950s pop and whether or not other elements have have come in to shore up that supposed loss (as it's not a question I'm equipped to answer), it's interesting to note that he associates rhythm with the "crassly commercial," implying a musical hierarchy along the way and an appeal to the listener's basest instincts. Actually, I have always read that the more commercial (which may partially be read as white) bands of the big band swing era tended to "water down" rhythm rather than ramp it up. This backhanded compliment expresses a similar sentiment:

Yet what pop has lost in craft it has gained in psychological sophistication, and the focus on vocal emotion is part of this.

So a good beat takes less craft than a good melody or set of chords? I think that this assumption rests on two things. First, it rests on the idea that rhythm is natural. Well, we've heard that before and we know it's not true. Further, I would argue that harmony is no less natural than rhythm. Dissonance and consonance depend largely on the natural overtone series, with intervals encountered early in that series (octave, fifth) sounding more consonant than intervals encountered later. To this natural acoustics explanation can be added a cultural one. I recall trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez saying that when he was learning the instrument, he would play along with his piano-learning sister, both reading from the same piano score without realising that the (Bb?) trumpet needed to transpose, hence making a dissonant racket, but one that sounded good to him. So much so, that when he, later, came across the music of Ornette Coleman, it sounded perfectly natural. More generally, one could also say that the listener's ear has become progressively more used to dissonance (or rather, progressively tolerated greater levels of harmonic complexity) and to high volume (cf. the progressive rise of the tuning frequency and instruments (violin, piano) being made more powerful, not to mention, of course, amplifiers turned up to 11).

Second, I feel that McWhorter's assumption springs from harmony being considered a more sophisticated craft because it is more easily and meaningfully expressed theoretically than rhythm. Thus, advanced harmony is more easily taught in an academic - hence, sophisticated - setting than advanced rhythm.

To sum up, I am not disputing McWhorter's description of the changing American ear, nor am I responding to every topic he raises. Rather, I am attempting to point out some of the prejudices and misconceptions of his analysis. I am more inclined to seeing pop music today as a broad mixture of folk and Tin Pan Alley, while trying to

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Coments: Back for the Second Time

Further, I'm getting around to reading a lot of comments I'd missed first time 'round. Thanks for those.

Troops, you know what to do.

The Covert Super-hero

It's nice to see that the use of pseudonyms "for contractual reasons" is a living jazz tradition:

(For contractual reasons, Mr. [Wynton] Marsalis was advertised as E. Dankworth, the name he uses whenever he wants to slip under the radar.)
(Old Guard and Avant-Garde Celebrate Common Ground)

Ratliff closes the article with The moral of the story: Ornette Coleman is for everyone, but how I wish he had said Ornette Coleman is for the babies! This is a New York newspaper, is it not?

One Vengeful Note

Olaf Stötzler - Colours Of Sinai
the music is also unsatisfyingly cold, distant and too often lifeless.

Pretty vicious, huh? I'm not sure if this disc in particular deserves it, any more than a number of discs I've felt very lukewarm about but didn't really lash out at, but so be it. I feel more detached from the CDs I review for OFN, which I guess is the case, geographically (US and... German discs, mainly), procedurally (as the discs are routed through Scott Hreha and my e-mail) and emotionally (I'm less involved in OFN than in Citizen Jazz). My e-mail isn't even on the site, so I'm a bit immune to retaliation (although a quick Google search will rapidly yield an address).

Monday, May 17, 2004

On the count of 3, follow me

Now, some of what I'm going to say might sound like The Case Against Pop & Rocking, but trust me, I enjoy a good bit of the lo-falutin'. Indeed, anyone who doesn't, who subscribes too much to the above-linked screed, strikes me as missing a little chunk of heart.

Last night, watching and listening to afro-fusion-jazz-meeting-of-the-continents group Foofango as well as surveying the crowd in Brussels's Grand'Place, I came back to a thought that has been recurrent for a couple of years now, since I went to some kind of mega house/techno/d'n'b multiplex music extravaganza. The thought, what it has boiled down to over time, is about expression vs. manipulation on the music's part and thought (or perhaps real-time compare'n'contrast) vs. I-don't-know-what on the listener/dancer's part.

Last night, every time there was a percussion solo, the (to me) most interesting syncopated and nuanced stuff was glossed over, while the inevitable hard-fast-loud-regular climaxes whipped the crowd to a shouting frenzy. Over and over. All those years ago (not that many, really) at the dance music event, the DJ (or maybe the record itself, I don't know) would drop the bass, or the drums, or perhaps the melody, maybe have a crescendo of sorts, a build-up of tension, then a release as the dropped element(s) came back in. This release was echoed in the cheering exhale of crowd response. Over and over.

After the umpteenth time, I'm finding this very ponderous. I'm blaming the music for lack of creativity (or at least, diversity and rather coarse and gaudy puppet-strings, which shall be returned to later). I'm more hesitant in castigating the assembled crowd - who have the immense advantage over me of actually going with the music and enjoying it and not standing at a remove, looking on in objective omniscient judgement - for fear of making myself seem (even if only to myself) all hoity-toity, but I guess the ship's already sailed on that one if I'm having these thoughts at all. Still, though, as the cycle loops and loops, I can't help but think of Pavlovian dogs.

Of course, and this is what, I hope, sets me apart from The Case Against Pop & Rocking finery, I turned these thoughts of Pavlovian responses to musical stimuli towards my own listening. The bluesy lick. The poignant turn of phrase or chord change. The minor-key ballad. The self-conciously "As I look back upon my life and accept where I am now" profundity and weepiness of Steve Kuhn's Promises Kept (another recent contribution to the line of thought and trigger to this post). It bothers me to think that I might be reacting to signs that point to something rather than to the thing, the emotion or thought, itself, that I might be listening, waiting for these signs to pop up so I can enact my prepared reaction.

So I think that I hate being manipulated, or being manipulated too obviously. But sometimes I like being manipulated, sometimes I like the big drama, the big weepiness, the obvious excitement. I don't think I like it less when others are cheering it on. More vexingly, how do I know (or think I know) I'm being manipulated? How do I clean out the store of prepared reactions accumulated over time (and perhaps built into the human ear?) that allow me to be manipulated? That's the question posed when the expression vs. manipulation quandry is unfolded.

I wonder how much of the craft of music is about learning how to manipulate the listener into feeling happy (major key!), sad (minor key!), meditative/profound/grave (slow, long notes) and so on. There are more sophisticated occurrences of the same tools, of course. Those I can think of right now are a beat appearing where previously there was none, or a different one. Or the blues coming out of an abstract fog. In other words, contrasts that, even in the smallest doses, create an exacerbated response. Take those pivotal 45 seconds on In a Silent Way or Joe McPhee on "Delta" (from Trinity).

What worries me, even here with what I have called more sophisticated occurrences, is what they show of my attachement to these mere pointers, devices, styles. Why should I take more notice of that smeared gut-bucket lick than of the dissonance surrounding it? How does one get rid of that insatiable curiosity for and receptiveness to the familiar, and the incessant re-heating and re-serving of that familiar? How does one hear past the device, the manipulation, to the expression, or is the device all there is (hmm, this is sounding like the content vs. form debate, and maybe it is).

The final trigger for this post was Mal Waldron's One More Time, which, like the Kuhn album, is a late-in-life assessment, but in my opinion a much more successful one (not to mention one of the finest, the finest of its kind even, album of the current decade, in my estimation) because it casts light on the subject from different angles. There is profundity and solemnity, but there is also the bright, happy, simple "You." Simple, but underneath the nonchalant surface lies, I think, the same feeling that animates the heavy "All Alone," a feel detectable thanks to the context and those innumerable and ever-elusive touches that place music beyond words. After listening to it (the song and the album) I don't feel manipulated into my sadness around Waldron's passing. Kuhn's one-dimensional, too-hard heartstring-pulling (the few instances of different tack-taking show how limited the overall approach is) will make you cry if it catches you at the right time, but Waldron transmits by far the richer and more enriching spectrum.

So, in this instance, the problem is solved, as the manipulations make us see the thing itself in rich 3D rather than stare at the signs; the content flows over and across the forms. Thus, we have expression and we can't respond in Pavlovian fashion to it because that would be to demean not so much ourselves but the late Mal Waldron. It would make our reaction inferior to what he set before us.

I began with the pounding of the drum, the dropping of th ebass and the pulling of the heart-strings. I hope to have said more than "Sometimes it's done well and sometimes not." I do hope to have spoken about constant crassness (occasional crassness is, of course, a device full of merit) and facility on both sides (musician/listener).

For a Fistful of Points

So, Belgium's Xandee crashed from the fantasy-land of the bookies' top 5 to the cold shower reality of next-to-last, equal to Ireland's 7 points and above only Norway's desolate 3 points (generously awarded by neighbours Sweden). I found this crash'n'burn routine hilarious; Belgian girlfriend was dismayed: "They voted for Poland? Poland sucked!"

Leather'n'fur-clad Xena-alike Ruslana and her highly excited minions from Ukraine's upper steppes took the much-coveted prize. In their song, "Wild Dance" or some such, they shout at "Hey!" at one point, which is cool but not as cool as Pharrell Williams shouting the same on "She Wants to Move."

My personal favourite was Deen for Bosnia & Herzegovina, whom I had seen during the semi-finals. Unfortunately, the video clip on the Eurovision website doesn't convey the wonderful take ya mama out to the gay bar disco boy-prince campness of his performance.

I only saw the second half of the point distribution because of the Jazz Marathon, but I kinda wish I had stayed home and watched the whole thing.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Coincidence? I think not.

Last night, one was able to watch either the semi-finals of the Eurovision Song Contest or the first night of the finals of the Queen Elisabeth Competition (this year devoted to lyric singers). Funny how "high" and "low" come together like this.

Of course, a visit to the multimedia section of the Eurovision website is highly recommended. Weirdly, there are 3 Belgian competitors: France's Jonathan Cerrada (and his extremely MOR ballad), one half of the Dutch duo Re-union (and their sub-sub-sub-"Love Is All Around Us") and Belgium's own Xandee (and her hotly-tipped euro-techno).

Saturday, Eurovision's trademark mix of 5-year-old pop rehashes, treacly ballads, ill-advised fashion choices, resurgentprovincialism, the stilted pair of hosts and the odd nutter will live again! I haven't watched it in years and the musical quality is sure to be mind-boggling, but I will most likely miss the event again due to this. I'm devastated.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Whither comments?

Yes, everything about the new native Blogger commenting system sucks. Unfortunately, my usual comments provider, Haloscan, seems to have disappeared from the face of the Internet. This is hugely annoying, as it has always seemed to me that the real point of a blog was to receive comments...

D.E.'s Eclipse

Last night I was reading Jay Collins's piece on recent Duke Ellington re-issues and in the middle felt the irresistable urge to hear some Ellington. So, from my meagre selection of Ellingtonia (a half-dozen albums, a 3-CD Blanton/Webster collection) I pulled out Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. This one was recorded in 1971 but seems to have been published posthumously, in 1975.

The first striking thing about Duke is how cool he was: I've never seen a picture of him, young or old, where he doesn't look the business. AEE opens with a whimsical monologue showing that, even late in life, Ellington's voice and spoken style are absolutely delicious. The album also proves that when they say that Ellington remained creative and pushed himself to the end, it's not mere hyperbole.

AEE was recorded in February 1971. Think about that: Bitches Brew was still fairly new, Weather Report might have released their first album that year; in other words, jazz-rock was still nascent. Yet, Ellington was right there, in his own way: "Didjeridoo" features a strong, driving straight-eight back-beat and on "Tang" drummer Rufus Jones is splashily insistent in a way not so far removed from what Jack DeJohnette was doing with Miles around that time. Further, Ellington understood that these kinds of beats worked well with flatter, more open landscapes: on "Didjeridoo," bass and baritone hold down vamps, while others carry the main tune and Ellington interjects pounding riffs and plays a couple of wonderfully spare and directionless short solos (actually, "interludes" would better reflect their nature). For "Tang," he hits the jackpot, hook-wise, with a series of strutting staccato two-note riffs over low trombone grumbles, peppered with tumbling, strikingly diagonal (ie. dissonant) piano. All the while maintaining blues form.

As the title implies, the "world music" influence shared by many of Ellington's late suites is also present here. "Afrique" is particularly striking, as Jones sticks almost exclusively to toms to recreate the sound of a group of percussionists off in the distance. Ellington uses this base to create an evocative and fragmented soundscape of melodic clarinet and saxophone fragments, brass panoramically fading in and out and clunky blues piano. The whole generates massive suspense with its tantilisingly spaced-out lines, but there is no melodic release, as the song's climax is in a drum solo.

The only drawback is the rather poor recording quality (or of the 1991 remastering): the piano often sounds really bad and lifeless, while the soloists tend to sound rough. As I said above, though, the opening speech alone is almost worth the low (this is an OJC) price-tag.

Weirdly, I always approach Ellington with some apprehension (it's going to sound corny, old-fashioned) and invariably come away impressed, refreshed and with a sense of wonder.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The Case against vs. Sanity

A day after The Case against Pop & Rock is brought to my attention, Kyle Gann writes Postclassical (Un)Defined at Last!

(“Where is the line between classical and pop?”, yelled one exasperated hater of Lentz. “There ISN’T any line!”, I shouted back.)

Dialectics, baby.

The return of the Phil

It's about time Phil Freeman returned to the blogging fray. I'm curious to see how his electric Miles book turns out.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Pain, glory, mishaps and tarmac

Friday and saturday, I paid two (relatively) long-distance visits to the eastern part of the country.

Friday I went to the Liège Jazz Festival, of which I had happily attended both days last year. This year was a near-total disappointment: never have I seen so much poor music in one day. It's a good thing I got in for free. It started with the Christophe Astolfi Swingtet, a gypsy jazz band, but with drums in place of a third guitar. Later on, I snatched a glimpse of Birelli Lagrène's Gypsy Project and, pleasant as it was, I wondered why the descendants of Django seemed so trapped within their heritage. Lagrène is an exception, as he used to play with Miles Davis and jazz-rockers, but otherwise, it seems a very culturally- and stylistically- closed scene.

After Astolfi, I checked out French singer Anne Ducros. A fine alto voice and likeable stage demeanour, but a heavily overwrought singing style and completely incomprehensible diction on faster tunes. The last one I heard suffered from the same problem, even though it was a slow blues-rock, as Ducros combined superfluous embellishments and pointlessly speedy phrasing. When guitarist Olivier Louvel took a ponderous, rhythm-less solo and the keyboardist started adding some harsh 80s synth sounds, I decided it was time to leave (there were 6 different stages and concerts often overlapped).

Next stop: Olivier Colette, a Belgian pianist whose two albums I don't like, so I knew what to expect going in. The quality of his music depends entirely on his compositions rather than the improvisors. Unfortunately, Colette's writing is too often syrupy. There was a good tango-based piece, though.

I was looking forward to Sarah Morrow and the American All-Stars in Paris, especially as drummer John Betsch (a regular accompanist to Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron) was taking part. Unfortunately, Betsch was replaced by one of the dullest drummers I have ever seen. Morrow is a good trombonist, but the rhythm section seemed to wilfully ignore the progression of her solos, remaining tepid even as she was trying to build up some hardbopping steam. Only for organist Rhoda Scott's solos did the bass and drums heat up a bit. Alngside Morrow was the 85-year old saxophonist Hal Singer. With all due respect to his past accomplishments, he's way, way past his prime...

French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc had left behind his usual trio and teamed up with two interlopers that he visibly had to drag along behind him (musically speaking). It was my first time seeing Pilc and I was surprised, if not wholly satisfied. He was much less athletic and virtuosic than I expected as he chopped Ellington's "Satin Doll" to bits, mashed standards together, played Coltrane's "Mr. PC" as a bolero (and couldn't resist quoting Ravel's "Bolero"), whistled and, at one point, got up and tapped some percussion on the side of Thomas Brameries's bass, as the latter was taking a solo.

The only really fun moment came with the unknown Domguè, an electro-jazz saxophone and machines duo. As the machine-man triggered house, rave and jungle beats, the saxophone-man played spiky funk and soul-jazz riffs, "sang" nonsensical slogans with added electronic effects and danced around. It was often very kitsch, but it was great. One girl got up and danced, an act of true bravery in the midst of those disciplining rows of chairs.

An unlikely match was that of alto saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol, pianist Fred Van Hove and drummer Pierre Favre. The latter two are european improvised music veterans, while Cassol is best known for leading the flagship AKA Moon trio. Indeed, Cassol and Van Hove seemed to often play parallel to each other, as Cassol remained firmly entrenched in tonality, clear lines and vibrato, while Van Hove limp-wristed his way around the keyboard. Favre formed a bridge between the two, metronomically pounding around his kit. At times, though, a weird unity emerged and an indescribable, twinkling music appeared.

My night ended with Belgian saxophonist Steve Houben's quartet + Lee Konitz as guest, in a tribute to Jacques Pelzer. Houben played first, a flub-ridden "Windows" (Chick Corea) on flute and a nice "Minority" (Gigi Gryce (why don't people play more Gryce tunes?)) on alto. Houben left and Konitz came out. It took him a long time to warm up (indeed, he still wasn't fully at ease when I left), but every phrase that came out unmarred by some mishap or other was truly beautiful. When Houben came back out, the two altoists attempted to play a unisson theme on a standard, which led to the biggest crash I've ever witnessed. I was laughing and I'm surprised more people weren't. The two have such different conceptions of rhythm and intonation (and probably little, if any, time to rehearse) that the attempt was rather pitiful. Despite a clever Houben-to-Konitz segue leading to a relatively slow "Cherokee," I decided 1 AM was more than late enough to leave, as I had some (hopefully) much better music to hear and another long drive to face the next evening.

So saturday, I headed to Beringen to see the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet. I arrive at the PCM Casino and think "Wow, this is a really nice place! Look at all those people streaming in! Mothers, families! Wait a minute, something's not quite right here." Indeed, I found a flyer and discovered that the concert was taking place in Hasselt. Thankfully, Hasselt wasn't too far away and in any case, they started over an hour after the stated time. When I arrived at a venue situated at the back of a grubby garage, I knew I was the right place.

Despite being called the Chicago Tentet, a fair number of the musicians weren't even American: Toshinori Kondo (Japan), Roland Ramanan (UK, I think), Paal Nilssen-Love (Norway) and Herr Brötzmann himself, of course.

I'd never heard any of the Tentet's music before and was suitably blown away. I won't describe it too much as I intend to write a full article soon, but the sheer power of Zerang's and Nilssen-Love's (who's becoming something of the European Hamid Drake, don't you think?) drumming when both really let loose was awe-inspiring. Easily better than everything I'd seen at Liège the day before and, I'm quite sure, anything taking place on the second day of the festival.

The NYT on gaming music


Resurrecting the riffs (the Google cache version of the NYT article)

and contrast

Video Fantasy Replaces Mozart (But Who's Keeping Score?)

The rock band plays the blippy music from NES games, whereas the orchestra plays stuff composed for the PS2 and XBox, who could finally play on cue large audio files containing recordings of acoustic instruments instead of cheesy synthesized sounds.

Guess who has missed the point.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

I think I'm goin' mad, mate / I think I'm losin' my mind

I hadn't bought any albums in a long time, but on tuesday I broke that dry spell by getting a couple of albums from a friend, known as LeMo on the internet.

45 minutes into Cecil Taylor's It Is In The Brewing Luminous I let myself sink into the music and nearly drowned. I've been on an intermittent quest to understand/enjoy Taylor's music and the going has, so far, been slow. Anyway, around that 45 minute mark, Ramsey Ameen's violin is buzzing like a swarm of furious locusts, the percussionists (Jerome Cooper and Sunny Murray) are creating a relatively simple, relentless, train-like drive, Taylor is all over the place as usual and (perhaps most crucially) Alan Silva is slowly bowing his bass. Jimmy Lyons is sitting out.

As I said, I let myself be enveloped by the music and felt like I was listening to the insides of a crazy person's brain, voices crying out and maintaining hopelessly tangled multilogues. Then, I felt like I was going crazy myself, so I pulled back, put a distance between us and imposed my own terms on the music. Otherwise, I would have had to scream or turn off the music and/or run out of the room. I'm too controlled/controlling a listener to let that happen.

The second album I got from LeMo was Jackie Maclean's "Let Freedom Ring", my first Maclean album. While easier to accept, it still possesses its own brand of unsettling music.

Maclean likes to play a bit sharp. When he digs into a funkier bag, this doesn't matter too much, but on a ballad like Bud Powell's "I'll Keep Loving You," it creates a disjunction between the expected note and the actual one. While Maclean's warm tone and phrasing fully indicate a lush ballad mood, his intonation remains on edge, yanking the listener out of the comfort zone of expectedness while simultaneously pointing him the way to it.

That aside, the writing on "Melody For Melonae" is incredibly modern, alternating between what sounds, intentionally or not, like a darker and gloomier Monk line and a sax/piano/cymbal unisson melody.

Ogun round-up

I only know the two live Brotherhood of Breath records released on Cuneiform (2001's Travelling Somewhere and 2004's Bremen to Bridgwater), so I'm happy to see this massive round-up of Ogun Records's production.

Marcello sums up beautifully what I love about the BoB:

the danceability and melodicism of the music coupled with its uncompromising advances into more abstract and yes, noisy areas. Such amazing tunes, such a bloody blessed racket.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Belgian news of interest

1. Yesterday I got some long-awaited awaited news via press release: Rêve d'Eléphant Orchestra are to release their second album soon, again on De Werf. Unfortnately, it sports a terrible title: Lobster Caravan (ouch). On the positive side, the 3 drummer/percussionists, tuba, guitar, trumpet and flute line-up has remained and been augmented by keyboardist Jozef Dumoulin. Their first album, Racines du Ciel was an awesome, idiosyncratic and fun mix of improvisation, Indian music, jazz, catchy tunes and general bizzarery. De Werf had a good year in 2001, an excellent one in 2002 (with the 10-CD Finest in Belgian Jazz series), but released 3 generally unremarkable CDs in 2003. Their first 2004 CD was equally lacklustre. I hope that Lobster Caravan sparks a return to form.

2. SABAM (the Belgian music-related royalty-collecting institution) will now be handling royalty-collecting for Universal Music's operations in 18 European countries.

Monday, May 03, 2004

You scratch my brass, I'll scratch yours + more

A month ago, one of the three radio stations I generally flip between (the slightly alt-pop Radio 21, the other two being classical: the francophone Musiq3 and the nederlandstalig Klara) when I'm alone in the car (when my girlfriend is with me, she insists on irritating commercial pop Flemish stations) split in two: Pure FM, which continues broadcasting contemporary pop, but with a lot more talk-based shows, and Classic 21, mainly devoted to classic rock. I've heard remarkably little good music on either station since the change.

A couple nights ago, Nightclubbing, a show on Classic 21 devoted to old funk edging into disco, played an interesting sequence. First a fantastic James Brown track I don't know the name of (at one point, Brown calls out zodiac signs and finishes with "I need money/1 million/2 million" etc.) that featured a (Fred Wesley?) trombone solo. It made me think (not for the first time, but with the kind of focused clarity that only seems to happen while driving, for some reason) about how unimportant pitch is compared to phrasing and intonation, in making a solo funky: a handful of notes, repeated over and over, but in consistently wonderful, groovy patterns and with fittingly greasy attacks.

A few tracks later (after a fun-but-cloying track from that guy who used a vocoder and provided the basis for Tupac's "California Love," featuring a remarkably fumbling guitar solo, and a jam that might have been called "Soul Stew" and had the singer presenting the musical elements necessary in the cooking of the broth referred to in the title, among which were some horn solos not nearly as well-organised as Wesley's, mere barwalking histrionics), they played Herbie Hancock's "Rockit." Now, a lot of people kind of consider this the death of Hancock, but to them I say "Remember 'Watermelon Man?' 'Chameleon?' (and the stuff from Fat Albert Rotunda and the Mwandishi band as whole before that)." Plus, it's probably more of a Bill Laswell production with Hancock's name on the cover, kind of like the recent, dreadful Future2Future and Marcus Miller with Miles Davis's Tutu which, upon recent re-listen, I like quite a bit. And (all things considered) I like "Rockit" a lot, so there.

The reason I bring "Rockit" up (yes, there is a reason, multiple digressions notwithstanding), is because of Grandmixer DST's (or whatever his name is) scratch solo: an unforeseen thread seemed to stretch from Fred Wesley's solo to his. The turntables pretty much do away completely with pitch as a primary concern, focusing strictly on percussion (ie. phrasing and attack) and as such somehow extend what Wesley, among others, was doing decades earlier.

[Not particularly insightful insights ahead alert]

More generally, it seems to me that hip-hop continued James Brown's musical reductionism and expanded the role of the vocals to fill the gap. I mean, at one point, Brown wasn't doing much of anything at all, and certainly not singing: a few grunts, hollers and chants here and there, rather like those jungle/grime MCs other blogs like to talk about. Had hip-hop pursued both vocal and musical reductionism, it would have become a rather boring genre, indeed.

Since this is a blog and I can string together whatever I want, I'll add in that a week or so ago I was listening to African (sorry, I don't know which country he's from) keyboardist/singer Cheikh Tidiane Seck promote his new album on TV5's Acoustic. He played a few songs with his band, which ranged from quite traditional, with guitar and balafon, to a bit more popppish with the addition of drums, guitar, bass and keyboards. Always, though, there remained the multiplicity of rhythms that remains the signature of Black music*. For days afterwards, hearing contemporary rock songs on the radio, I was struck (for the first time, I'll admit) by how little rhythm (tempo, yes; rhythm, no) they had: everything kept to the quarter- or eigth-note, no syncopation or playing around the basic pulse. It was a sobering experience. I'm being very vague on the rock songs, sorry, I can't remember what they were.

* I always use the expression "Black music" to signify cultural, rather than melanin-induced, blackness.

Citizen Jazz Update

Another me-curated CJ update. What I shoe-horned in:

An interview with young Belgian saxophonist Nicolas Kummert

A Vandermark 5 concert review.

A review of Saxkartel - Airdance, which is a good saxophone quartet album, weighed down a bit by some of the arrangements, but worth several listens.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Joëlle Léandre & Jean-Luc Cappozzo - 28/04/2004, Brussels

Joëlle Léandre - b
Jean-Luc Cappozzo -tp, flh

I've been very lazy about reviewing concerts, recently, I've let some stuff pass without comment. Oh well. I'll give you a quick summation of this concert.

This duo worked from some thematic ideas, with Léandre rapidly departing from them and Cappozzo sticking closer to pre-established ideas. The trumpeter is an auto-didact with a rich, warm, burnished sound and a style ranging from New Orleans growls and smears to fleet post-bop lines. I first saw him a year ago in Louis Sclavis's quintet and he was extremely impressive. Léandre is well-known in improvised and contemporary music, but it was my first time seeing her. I was fairly blown away by her mastery of a vast array of "extreme" bass techniques, both pizzicato and arco.

It seems at first an incongruous meeting. Indeed, throughout the 3 sets, each player stayed on their side of the fence, but in the middle, something new, oddly complementary, was created. Especially when Cappozzo was at his most melodic, Léandre swooped around him or enveloped him in near-orchestral textures.

The music got better and better as time passed, but unfortunately, Léandre didn't seem to be in much of a playing mood. The first set lasted about 30 minutes, the second less than that and the third, after a long wait, last less than 15 minutes! Memorably, the night was capped by the best of the performances, as Cappozzo enunciated a soft, slow, haunting melody on muted trumpet while Léandre, bowed relatively freely around him, but maintaining the mood and again creating a third, unexpected, entity as the two independent lines came together.