Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Outside London, 27-29/07/2007

We spent last week-end in Epping Forest, Essex, just outside London, England. The weather was unstable, but the company was good and the walks through the woods muddy. The most interesting details, though, came from the travelling.

Just after our RyanAir flight had landed at Stanstead, a trumpet fanfare blared. A voice rejoiced, somewhat along these lines: "Congratulations, you have arrived on time. Surprised? You shouldn't be: 90% of RyanAir's flights arrive on time, making us Europe's number one." A canned audience cheered wildly. In terms of convenience, we should have taken the Eurostar and I always feel sorry for the young, pretty stewardesses who are forced to wear uniforms a middle-aged cleaning lady would refuse, but the surreal humour of the announcement almost made it all worthwhile.

Coming back on Sunday, I used the hand dryers in the airport's washrooms. They're pretty amazing, using blast power rather than heat to get their job done. Which they do extremely well and quickly, but I carried on using it for a while after my hands were dry, just to look at the small, moving circle of depressed flesh it imprinted on them.

In addition to unpacking your laptop and taking off your jacket and your belt, you now have to take off your shoes and have them scanned as well. Considering that this measure led to Paul Wolfowitz's downfall, the fact that the Eurostar doesn't care which socks you wear is another point in its favour. All that remains is for airport security to require us to bare our souls. That said, the idea of a beeping hand-held soul scanner is somewhat attractive.

Michelangelo Antonioni - The Passenger

Thanks to a more traditional narrative, The Passenger seemed both clearer and weirder than Blowup. Jack Nicholson's David Locke lets himself go into the unknown of another man's identity and wonders what's become of himself, surrounded mostly by stony-faced (African or Spanish) locals who offer him little to latch on to. Logically, then, he seems most at ease when interacting with the lady behind the Avis car rental desk.

Once again, absences come to the fore. Not only that of the desert's emptiness or the characters' lack of explicit motive, but also the lack of music and, to a degree, of movement between obvious climaxes. Those moments that could seem portentously symbolic (Locke "flying" in the cable car, Maria Schneider doing the same in the car, the amazing slow zoom out of Locke's room at the end) are cut short, as if to ward off the idea of a possible pivot point, one moment being more important than another. Even the moment when Locke decides to change identity is underplayed.

While this takes us out of the usual cinematic manipulation, where every action or emotion is articulated and commented upon (music, acting, etc...), isn't Antonioni's removal of those signposts equally manipulative? It does suceed in putting the viewer in a certain state. But maybe this a wrong question to ask: isn't the point of art to manipulate, whether in clichéd ways or not?

I wondered if some of the elements weren't more about Antonioni himself than the film. Notably, the scene in which an interviewee turns the camera on Locke seems like an admission to the viewer.

I met my photographer friend Alexis (who did the photography for Melanie De Biasio's album) at the screening and we had a great, long talk afterwards, on the film (I am unable to do justice to his insight, even though I got a few of the ideas above from him) and his view of photography. Alexis still uses traditional cameras and develops his own shots, which he framed in similar terms to the CD vs. vinyl debate. I hadn't seen his work before; check out his gallery on MySpace, it some fantastic stuff that makes great use of the organic side of traditional photography.

Coincidentally, Antonioni passed away the same day.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


You may already have read Bob Moses's letter to the Boston Phoenix, as it dates from 2001. Actually, I think I've already read it, too. But I just chanced across it again and found it fun.

For those who've never read it and to refresh the memories of those who have, Moses wrote the letter in reaction to an article about "local saxophonist James Merenda." According to the article, the latter is "unsatisfied by the strict neo-traditionalist viewpoint offered by Wynton Marsalis and the anything-goes irreverence of John Zorn and his downtown crew, [so] he's carved out his own niche somewhere in the middle."

Moses is totally opposed to Merenda's repertory project. He even goes so far as to threaten to become a "powerful enemy" if this path is pursued and reminds Merenda of a certain Mingus composition with Charlie Parker in the title. As it happens, you can download Merenda's hard-charging live rendition of that very piece. The reasons Moses cites for his displeasure are: the band names chosen (Mingus Three among them), insufficient musical skill and, most deeply, because "what you like is not yours; only what you live is yours." He continues:

Here are some questions for Mr. Merenda. Do you intend to play Mingus' music for the rest of your life? After all there are many great composers. Two years from know is it going to be Herbie Nichols? Andrew Hill? Elmo Hope? Don't you see this trivializes the life and work of these singular innovators to something akin to changing a hair- style or way of dress every few years?
I can only wonder if any among those three did not study and play the music of earlier, dead or otherwise unreachable, composers. So as not to single out Merenda, Moses also blasts Branford Marsalis's take on A Love Supreme and puts down a future blogger:
On the same concert is the trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum who claims to "explore the concepts of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman". This is arrogance supreme! I haven't heard him play and perhaps he's a genius but this treats the life and work of these singular masters as lightly as two flavors of ice cream in the same cone because we feel like tasting both. The truth is that Miles and Ornette, both geniuses couldn't have played each other's music. Are we to believe that Taylor Ho Bynum can play both?
So, how is one supposed to learn? Moses prones a Mr. Miyagi/reinvent-the-wheel/school of hard knocks pedagogy:
Start at the bottom. Don't try to play Mingus, Miles, Coltrane etc., until you can play the more basic forms. Join an R&B or Gospel group. (Mingus was a master of these styles.) Play for non-white audiences. Do it for years until you can get the people dancing by yourself... Join a reggae band with Jamaicans (if you are good enough). Master several forms of simpler, but not simple black music, like zouk, calypso, reggae, samba, afro-cuban, funk, r&b or hip-hop. Then you might be ready to take on "jazz" the most harmonically complicated and virtuostic form of black music. Spend twenty years mastering that which for starters means knowing every standard and jazz composition in every key, at any tempo, without ever owning or looking at a Real Book.
At this point, I ask myself why it reduces lives to hair-styles, fashionable clothes or ice cream to go from playing Mingus to playing Hope every few years, but careening through all manner of Afro-Diasporic music is fine, because they are mere stepstones to the more complex and virtuosic forms. Not to worry, however, as after all that hard work (and is that final challenge attainable or mere myth? If not, is it a worthwhile way to spend one's life?), there is a pay-off, slim as it may seem:
If you do all that you might be ready to play a Mingus or Miles Davis composition convincingly. This I can do. Nevertheless, I choose not to because I know the master's dance is to always grow, move forward and create anew, not to look back and rehash what's already been.
But does the hypothetical Moses Method student make that choice before or after finally transposing that 1,274th standard to D# and articulating it clearly at 250, but also able to keep it sprightly at 60? Is it while reflecting on a lifetime of second-rate r'n'b and salsa gigs that he decides that he is now able to "move forward and create anew"?

Hal Galper adds a funny comment:
How many Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Monk, Duke, Armstrong tributes can wesuffer?

This has gotten so out of hand I made the following suggestion to Phil during a period when the band was almost dormant. We should fake Phil's death and start the "Phil Woods Tribute Quintet" Led by a Woods clone. Phil could sit at home and collect a percentage of the band's income. Then every Easter we could have a CarnagieHall concert where we resurrect him.

Last summer my quintet with Jack Walrath on trumpet had just returned from a week at the Estoril festival. I had never played with Jack before and was raving to her about his playing. I mentioned that he had played for years with Mingus's band. [My old lady Lillyan] asked "when he was dead or alive?"

A sign of the times?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

more pretty colours

One of the cooler public art works in Brussels. Unfortunately, I was never in the area at night to try it out myself while it ran, though I'd heard about it. I hope that the music that accompanies the video wasn't actually inflicted on the participants. Nowadays, the prettiness continues, though in scaled-down form.

Michelangelo Antonioni - Blowup

I know I'd promised the next movie I'd go see would be Transformers, but I was overcome with a sudden craving for something serious and went off to Flagey, which will be showing a few Antonioni films this summer. It didn't help that I dozed off a couple of times (likely at crucial moments, although I'm not sure there are any, in this movie), but I probably bit off more than I could chew (comfortably recognisable Herbie Hancock soundtrack aside).

So, what is Blowup about? A photographer, Swinging London, models, a woman, a murder, beautiful shot composition, mimes? I was mostly left baffled by the meaning of what was going on: the concert (loved the clothes and stock-stillness of the crowd)? the propeller? the groupies that come to the studio? How do these elements fit in? Even the things that might have been centrepieces (the murder, Vanessa Redgrave's character) are regularly left aside. Everything remained mysterious, cognitive dissonance abounded (an early example is the scruffy guy in tattered clothes getting into the posh car; the guy turns out to be the fairly well off main character). The photographer's photos were all undeniably amazing, though. Perhaps they hint at the longing to be compassionate/meaningful that pushes him to investigate the mystery?

Bill, the painter, says early on of one of his own pieces that they look like a mess at first, until you find something to hang on to and it all makes sense. He could have been describing the film (an exquisitely rarified kind of mess, of course), except that I haven't yet really found anything to hang on to. They're showing other Antonionis, such as The Passenger (with a young Jack Nicholson, who would have made such a great Wolverine in X-Men) soon, so maybe seeing a couple more will help me understand the director's work.

tech notes

New sidebar feature: shared items from my Google RSS Reader. I wouldn't dream of forcing you out of your own RSS reader bliss to follow it: it also has its own feed and web page. I'll leave the del.icio.us plugin for now, I guess for stuff that I don't get from a feed.

Also in the sidebar: I've added some means of contacting me, in order of decreasing probability of get a response. Having gotten the hang of the Blogger 2 widgets, I've updated the various blogrolls, mainly with stuff from the jazz and blogs posts.

And most importantly, comments work again. I think.

Monday, July 23, 2007


Gary Giddins has a nice Hank Jones feature in the New Yorker.

Jones is perhaps the most venerated of contemporary jazz pianists, and not just because he has outlived so much of the competition. Jazz taste oscillates between decorum and expression, usually favoring the latter. In the years when jazz piano was dominated by obdurate, percussive modernists like Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor, Jones was often perceived as a genteel professional, and admired more for the reliability of his technique than for his wit. In today’s more ecumenical musical climate, in which pianists like Bill Charlap and Jason Moran tend to mediate percussive dynamics with lyricism, Jones’s approach seems almost prophetic.

jazz and blogs #18

Alexander Hawkins
Young British pianist at the crossroads between jazz and improv. His Convergence Quartet (with Dominic Lash, see below, Taylor Ho Bynum and Harris Eisenstadt, perhaps the first-ever fully-blogging jazz group?) has just put out a record I look forward to checking out at some point. You can also hear some of his music on myspace (currently, it's all solo piano). There's a diamond-hard edge to his touch and a Taylorian bent to his brief, sort-of unison motifs, though his improvising prefers fast-flying detail to all-devouring flurries.

Forces of Circumstance
Dominic Lash, bassist. Soberly well-written. Read about his practice regimen and various concert reviews.

Fred Kaplan
If, like me, you were frustrated that Kaplan didn't write about jazz more often on Slate (although his politics/security/war articles there are fascinating), check out his new blog. Lots of good writing (on Jarrett, Konitz, Moran, Anat Cohen, JJA Awards, etc.), but a great bit of news I'd totally missed: Sonny Rollins is to perform and record with Christian McBride and Roy Haynes. My admiration for Haynes knows no bounds: did any other early bebop player match his ability to follow avant-bop evolution for 20-30 years, from Parker, to J. Coltrane, to Kirk, to Corea, to A. Coltrane and more I'm probably forgetting?). Perhaps this album will please those who feel that Rollins has been coasting for the last few decades. [via The Jazz Clinic]

Learning To Listen
Richard Pinnell: Cathnor label owner, man-about-eai-cyberspace. His label recently released MIMEO's sight, which has garnered much discussion where you'd expect it to.

exhumed ephemera
Stephen V. Funk's mp3 blog. Not only jazz, but enough of it, and well chosen.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Melanie De Biasio - a stomach is burning

Melanie De Biasio - voc (website | myspace)
Pascal Mohy - p
Pascal Paulus - wurlizter, hammond, clavinet
Axel Gilain - b
Teun Verbruggen - d
Steve Houben - as, fl

Melanie Di Biasio's voice is infused with a dark, caramel warmth that is at its best when given time to ooze out slow and quiet. Occasionally clumsy lyric-writing and diction (De Biasio sings mostly her own English-language songs) is rendered irrelevant through timbre and lingering phrasing. Although a sprinkling of more melodic and sprightlier songs enliven the album, it's when the tempo crawls and forms are distended that the singer can generate her most powerfully absorbing atmospheres, as she does on the title track.

Her high-pedigree lineage (Billie Holiday/Nina Simone/Erykah Badu) places the singer at the centre of the songs, rather than as a mere bookend to instrumental solos. Swathes of well-chosen keyboards, cymbals washes, discreet guitar, rumbling drums, double bass ostinati and occasional backing vocal chants deepen the mood. This thick middle ground provides an apposite texture: luxuriant and enveloping, without a hint of sappiness.

The instrumental solos are sucked into De Biasio's orbit, emerging naturally from the singer's silences and keeping her sense of enchanting understatement, either in thickly interwoven tapestry of brief interjections or in brief, quietly dramatic statements. And sometimes, solos don't even need to emerge: on "My Man's Gone Now," a full-bodied lament emerges from shell-shocked realisation, and the slow swinging 12/8 is given the space for the news sink in. Even when she's not singing, De Biasio is all over the record.

a stomach is burning is a refreshing, unified debut that is low in volume but high in seductive impact. It's not like there have been any notable Belgian jazz singers since David Linx, but De Biasio may be the one to fill that big gap.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I watched Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for the first time on DVD a few days ago. It not only confirmed that the HP films had been getting steadily worse since Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, it was simply terrible, all disjointed and bland. Everything that had initially made the series fun (magical details like people moving in photographs and staircases randomly changing places, colourful characters, comaraderie, a sense of fun, etc.) were replaced by an obsessive focus on the least interesting part of the whole thing, the three Tri-Wizards Cup challenges.

So I went into Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix with little hope. It turned out to be great, possibly the best yet. Whereas Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire felt over-stuffed, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is densely-packed and coherent. You actually care about the main characters again and the secondary ones (the Wesley twins, Imelda Staunton, a few gravely hissed words from Snape) add life. And, there's lots of magic!

Next up: Transformers. Lots of gigantic robots! High culture, you see.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


I realise the blog is looking terrible and is missing comments, some links and sidebar widgets. I attempted a late-night transition to a Blogger 2.0 layout and experienced some difficulties. Hopefully all will be better soon.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

sonny likes him too

There are lots of ways to commemorate the 40th anniversary of John Coltrane's death. I'm leaving it up to everyone else to find good ones. Brett Primack has a video discussion with Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Heath and Paul Jeffrey, along with footage and sound clips from Rollins and Coltrane.


Wall of Sound has an interesting Gary Giddins quote that climaxes with "The 1960s avant guarde in clearing the slate of preconceived notions paradoxically opened jazz to a more generous involvement with its past." This of course completely stands the widespread "acoustic, historically-informed jazz was reborn in the '80s" theory on its head. Avant-gardism not as rupture but as a non-ideological embedding of the past into the present... that's a nice possible description.


Erik Friedlander feature in the New York Times. After seeing him with Bar Kokhba, I'm pretty convinced I should be checking out his own music. Any suggestions?


Speaking of that Barcelona show, Vanishing Signs has a nice post on Marc Ribot.

From Cuban dance music to punk skronk, cerebral film soundtracks to soaring interpretations of the Ayler hymnal - he plays it all with a rare authenticity.


Authenticity! Improvising Guitar is starting a series on post-modern guitar with a discussion of Mina Agossi and Bill Frisell (visionsong has a first stab at a response).

I don't know Frisell well at all, but I've been listening to a couple of recent sideman appearances, on Cuong Vu's It's Mostly Residual and Jewels & Binoculars' (Michael Moore/Lindsey Horner/Michael Vatcher) Ship With Tatooed Sails. Vu's album is excellent, and everything Frisell does on it is spectacular.


Somewhat related to what I think about when I hear guitarists like Ribot, Frisell or Nels Cline, is the textural issue David Valdez lays out.
So often Jazz devolves into a string of connected 8th note lines, with little change in the texture that is being created... Think like a sculptor or a painter instead of a musician once in a while.

How important are individual notes when the larger sound sculpture is bland and lame. Hip Be-Bop lines aren't enough to keep things interesting. Go ahead a make subtle shadings to individual notes! (Alternate fingerings and overtones are great for shading pitch and timbre)

You want to make your solos have a texture at least as complex and interesting as someone speaking a romance language.
Listening to Ellery Eskelin's Vanishing Point the other day, he's a great example of someone who manipulates textures and lines masterfully, well beyond the point of applying the former to the latter. Add in the clashing overtones of multiple bowed string instruments (including Erik Friedlander's cello, so maybe I haven't drifted too far off topic after all) and Matt Moran's vibraphone, and it's an ideally-suited immersive foamy textural wash that's quite different from his better-known trio with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black.


Eat your heart out, Domino Day!* A compilation of a Japanese TV show's great Rube Goldberg-inspired opening credits. [via Very Short List]

* Believe it or not, Domino Day is shown live on France's biggest TV station. It lasts hours. It's like watching paint dry, only, unlike the paint, it claims to be entertaining. Admittedly, watching the dominoes fall to reveal grotesque tableaux has a repugnantly hypnotic effect.

Monday, July 16, 2007

back on stage, back on the page (ii)

Sly Stone's return to the concert stage is not going too well, apparently. In Gent, the Blue Note Records Festival organiser is asking for his money back. He says he had to literally drag Stone from his hotel room to get 20 minutes stage time from him (some photos of the gig here, and an unrelated one that's not to be missed)

Vibrations searches long and hard to come up with a kind description of his Montreux Festival gig, comparing Stone to an archeological artifact (they call him "almost mummified") that has lost all of its sheen and serves only as a pointer to past splendour. A commentor is less gracious, calling the concert crap, despite a good band and reporting that Claude Nobs semi-apologised for the performance.

listening notes: horace tapscott, the dark tree volume 1

I was ecstatic, yesterday, to find the first volume of Horace Tapscott's The Dark Tree. It only takes a few minutes of the title track for it to live up to the hype: John Carter lingers dispassionately high above the dark, dark ostinato Cecil McBee and Andrew Cyrille are hammering down, before diving in fully. Tapscott layers on thick, roiling piano textures that manage to change just enough for the whole not to be too static. The ostinato lightens for Tapscott's own solo, which allows him the space for ominous texturising and frantic, stumbling-over-itself line-spinning. It's just a fabulously intense performace throughout.

"Sketches of Drunken Mary" starts as a more traditional swinging waltz, but with an appropriately tipsy feel. "Lino's Pad" opens with a military snare drum pattern that's great because you can hear the drum's metallic overtones (that's a sound I've always loved). The pattern and a bass vamp anchor a more relaxed, bluesier version of "The Dark Tree" ostinato, in seven and with a swinging bridge in four. The alternation threatens to get a little tedious over sixteen minutes, but doesn't, not quite. Tapscott gets to mix percussiveness and rough-hewn lines to great effect.

Carter pulls off the trick of always seeming just a little distanced, but audibly tearing it up at the same time. He creates high drama in "Lino's Pad," suspending the action by ending phrases with strangled whispers in the kettle whistle range, before grandly swooping into something else. It's only on "One For Lately" that his sound seems to emerge from the heart of the ensemble, rather than descend upon it from above.

The final track recaptures the brilliance of the opener, but takes an opposite route: complex, abruptly zigzagging interaction that lives off an unstable energy stuffed into a compact ten minutes. It never settles into anything near a groove, but is tense and fascinating all the same.

an inconvenient suspicion

If you listened to the Cecil/Braxton concert, you may have heard something about people dressed as chickens. More information (and, especially, a photo) on what that was all about can be found in John Fordham's BBC Jazz Awards report. You can also find this memorable sentence:

an insiders' audience of musicians, promoters, PRs, scribes and broadcasters, that generally exercises a healthy suspicion of star-systems and best-of-this-and-thats
I can only assume he's being sarcastic, as "promoters, PRs, scribes and broadcasters" are precisely the people who create the "star-systems and best-of-this-and-thats".


The good Prof. McJeebie has taken a commendably firm and principled stance.


J.B. Spins reviews the autobiography of Frankie Manning, creator of the Lindy hop, and excerpts a great anecdote from it:
All the buses had signs about three-quarters of the way down the aisle that said 'colored.' One day my buddy Claude, and I got on a bus that was practically empty and, for a joke, moved the sign up to the front, so there were only three rows left for white people. Rather than go into the colored section with just the two of us, these folks kept getting on the bus, crowding themselves into the little front area. It was hilarious to see them packing in like sardines.
You can see the book's promo video, but the classic scene from Hellzapoppin' is too great not to post:

Thursday, July 12, 2007

taylor! braxton! parker! oxley!

I would have loved to have seen the Cecil Taylor/Anthony Braxton/William Parker/Tony Oxley summit meeting, but no-one deemed it necessary to bring them to Belgium, so a, um, deluge of press and web commentary will have to do:

Alexander Hawkins [via Taylor Ho Bynum, who also gives the long-awaited account of Nicole Mitchell's Vision Festival set]: "the group felt much more than the sum of its parts: fairly remarkable given those constituent parts..."

Words and Music: "Eyes were on Cecil and [Braxton], I suppose, for this unique meeting – yet what combat there was occurred under good-natured rivalry – better to see it as a high-powered collaboration."

John Fordham: "The rest of the evening had Taylor, Parker, Oxley and multi-saxist Anthony Braxton on a single, seamless, mostly improvised jam, full of dynamic contrasts and idiosyncratic, on-the-fly logic."

A dissatisfied Night After Night commenter: "I found the whole thing rater (sic) dull."

[added by The Improvising Guitarist]

Dominic Lash: "the gig was in all ways one of the best concert-going experiences I have ever had."

Starting tomorrow and for a week, listen to it for yourself.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

a sense of scale

I find the following passage from Ethan's interview of Ron Carter puzzling:

EI: How many records are you on?

RC: Over 2000.

EI: I've heard only a couple of hundred of them
Only? Perhaps that's just Ethan being deferent, but surely hearing 200 of a musician's recorded performances doesn't need to be thus qualified? It's as if that old Frank Zappa joke applied to the whole of jazz. Five albums by, say, Stevie Wonder, if well chosen, might tell you everything you need to know about him. Five by Monk (by five), no matter how well chosen, will get you shouted/laughed out of any discussion. But maybe they are enough?


Extensive article on the concertisation of jazz in Chicago.
"It's as if we've discovered another side of jazz, where jazz functions in a similar way to classical music," notes Orbert Davis, music director of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic (which plays Millennium Park on Aug. 27).

Jazz in a concert setting, adds Davis, "allows us to think, to reflect, to consider the music in a different way." ...

"It's like the difference between eating a home-cooked meal [and] going out to a restaurant."
"There's no other city in the country that does so much free music," says Weisberg, noting that the city now spends about $2 million a year on various music events, much of it jazz.

Furthermore, by joining forces with organizations such as the Chicago Jazz Partnership -- a collection of blue-chip corporate foundations that committed $1.5 million to Millennium Park's "Made in Chicago" jazz series and other jazz events -- the city has leveraged additional resources to jazz concert-going.
In Chicago, however, the combination of high-toned jazz series and a plethora of free, citywide shows may -- or may not -- have taken a toll on the club life. "I think the free stuff has been more detrimental than anything," says Jazz Showcase founder Segal. "If people can see stuff for free, why should they pay money for it?"
Dan, Uli, what's the scene like?

A classic passage:
The quintessential jazz performance always will unfold in clubs, where sparks fly not only among the performers but between the musicians and the listeners, who can watch the sweat gather on their heroes' faces.
Yeah, that's why I'm there, the sweat. And if you're sitting in the first row and lucky enough, some of it might even fly onto you!


CD sales crash in the UK:
The problem began in January after a surge in sales of digital music players over Christmas. Apple’s dominant iTunes online record store allows listeners to buy two or three single tracks in preference to a whole album, depressing revenues.

Piracy also remains widespread, as is listening to songs and watching music videos – legitimately – without paying on internet sites such as YouTube.
The conclusion is obvious: ban MP3 players and force everyone to wait for their favourite songs to be played on MTV.

Meanwhile, Prince is up to no good once more.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

please stop my world from raining through my head

I'd long known that Nick Drake had died really young, but it's only very recently that I realised he had recorded Bryter Later and Five Leaves Left before his 21st birthday. This pushed me to revisit his three main albums. I'm not really a big consumer of musician biographies or biographies in general*, so I just know the basic Nick Drake facts. Still, I am amazed that a 20 year old could express the darkness and distress (as well as a few breezy trifles) he did without sounding fake or boringly shoegazing.

The opinion that Bryter Later is equal to or better than Five Leaves Left seems to be fairly widespread. I can't understand that. While suggesting that Drake wasn't all doom and gloom, his second album is much less of a satisfying experience than his debut or the trilogy-closing Pink Moon: his voice is placed in competition with the music and has no chance of winning.

The relationship between lyrics, voice and music feels much more distant, anonymous even: I mean, bossa-nova on "Poor Boy"? I'm a big fan of Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, but what does his solo here bring to the song? The decidedly non-maternal female chorus of "Oh poor boy/So sorry for himself/Oh poor boy/So worried for his health" is tragically comic, but still. The peppy trumpets and upbeat, trouble-free beat on "Hazey Jane II": why? "Peppy" and "trouble-free" are the last words I'd think of when describing Drake. Having alto saxophonist Ray Warleigh improvise through "At The Chime Of A City Clock" is a pretty good idea, but the contrast between his sure-footed, professional lightness and Drake's sophisticated confessions is stark. What does Warleigh's carefully controlled cries have to do with lines like "For the sound of a busy place/Is fine for a pretty face/Who knows what a face is for"? The rhythmically interesting descending vocal line of the first few verses of "Hazy Jane II" is hurried and nearly drowned out by the accompaniment, which also diminishes the effect of the implicit frustration of the ending ("If songs were lines/In a conversation/The situation would be fine").

It is only on the moving "Fly," where Drake yelping "Please!" is foregrounded, or "Northern Sky," with John Cale's distilled keyboards (interestingly, far more appropriate than McGregor's more rough-hewn style), that the natural unity of the debut album is recaptured. Also, compare the easy, professional prettiness of Bryter Later's instrumental tracks to Pink Moon's stark, almost motionless "Horn."

Ultimately, Bryter Later sounds like producer Joe Boyd's album more than it does Drake's: the bigger cast, the obviously bigger budget. It's notable that the Drake-only Pink Moon is much closer to Five Leaves Left than to Bryter Later (all three were produced by Boyd, though). Or maybe the singer decided to take a radically different approach. Or maybe the problem is that I know absolutely nothing of the likes of Fairport Convention.

Perhaps the ternary and open-ended rhythms frequently found on Five Leaves Left and Pink Moon are more adapted to Drake's slowness than binary grooves. Just the way he exhales the word "cure" in "Time Has Told Me" - voice high in the mix, with plenty of time to drag - would have been impossible, or at least impossible to fully appreciate, in Bryter Later's overstuffed context.

"Time Has Told Me" opens an incredibly strong A side. It's thematically-unified, stressing the difficulty to communicate and transmit information between individuals and the "ban on feeling free" imposed by society. In every song, the dark and stripped-down context is tailored to convey Drake's meanings. For example, the rhythmic propulsion of "Three Hours" supports rather than overwhelms or hurries, underscoring the escapes Drake sings of.

"River Man" is quite simply extraordinary on all levels. Its lyrics contrast the eternal and deeply hidden (the titular figure makes me think of Charon, the character from Greek mythology who ferried souls across the Styx river) with the air-headed but somehow enviable Betty, while Drake is again engaged in a doomed quest for knowledge. Robert Kirby's string arrangement on "Way To Blue" magnifies every chord change and finds a moving resonance between Drake's voice and the low-register strings (the double basses?) at the end of certain lines.** On this song as on several others, the music ends abruptly, as soon as the lyrics do, as if nothing could exist outside of them and perhaps recalling that Drake had enough trouble dealing with everything inside his own head to deal with anything outside of it.

On the B side, Drake falls back to earth, and it's almost reassuring. For example, "Man In A Shed," despite the fairly clever self-commentary in the last verse, is pretty much what I would expect a bright, lovelorn teenager to write. "'Cello Song" sinks under the weight of an inflexible conga beat and singing that's a little too evanescent. The flute on "The Thoughts Of Mary Jane" makes a sweet song a little too sweet. Even on this lighter song, the singer remains an observer, unable to fully share in the expression of everyday happiness. That A side, though, is something else, of incredible depth and power.

The photography in the album's booklet show a Romantic Drake, detached from the daily hustle and bustle. The most striking portrait, though, is one of him seated at a table, almost entirely consumed by impenetrable shadows. Only the left side of his face and his right hand are visible, implying that only this small part of him - the one that writes lyrics and plays the guitar - are left to interact with the outside world. Indeed, considering the poetic frailty exposed in his voice and words, his guitar playing is surprisingly competent and ambitious. Perhaps this hints at the troubled mix of strength and weakness necessary to Drake's art.


* There was a time, long ago, when I read a lot of biographies of basketball players. Of those, Bill Russell's Go Up For Glory made the most vivid impression: imagine not only being a smart, outspoken and headstrong black athlete in the whitest town in America, but also being undeniable because you were key in building the greatest NBA dynasty of all time.

** Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that Brad Mehldau has Larry Grenadier play the melody and first solo on his cover of "Day Is Done" on the album of the same name (though, overall, his forceful, beat-driven interpretation is closer to the mood of Bryter Later). Mehldau's second-encore rendition of "River Man" in Antwerpen three years ago nearly had me in tears. It's an inappropriate place, but I can't help but profess my undying admiration for the way Mehldau plays certain chords under the melody of "Knives Out" on Day Is Done: Individual notes are staggered yet joined in a way that makes the whole seem melted, gone almost before it has time to coalesce.

Monday, July 09, 2007

bill dixon - forgotten?

Stephen Haynes asks why Bill Dixon's Vision Fest concert has received so little mainstream press attention (Haynes, a cornetist, participated in the performance):

Nate Chinen's thoughtful appreciation of the concert premier... has been the only review devoted solely to the piece that I have found to date in the mainstream press.

The silence has been shameful and somewhat puzzling. If one believes in the notion of the "community" in this music, one wonders who has chosen not to comment and why. Food for thought.
I'm feeling rather innudated with it, myself, having read three or four different accounts. Haynes blames the mainstream press, but who apart from the NY Times, Village Voice, Time Out NY and JazzTimes is supposed to cover such an event? The NY Sun reported on a couple of non-Dixon days. And the "community" was there (nowadays, is the "mainstream press" still a part of the "community"?), as Vision was all over the blogs: Darcy twice, Brian, Dan twice. Destination: Out had a Dixon tribute. AAJ probably has a zillion articles, and there are probably blog posts I'm forgetting or haven't seen. How much more is necessary? (A question for The Dixon Society to answer?) Also, the demand that the article be "devoted solely to the piece" is a little weird, in the context of a festival emanating feel-good hippie collective vibes and the multi-set bill.


A rather different jazz event that has perhaps not received all the attention it deserves: the Diana Krall wine list.

hard-time jazz in chicago

Bobby Broom tells of Chicago's Northwestern University's closure of its jazz department.

If a seemingly enlightened institution such as N.U. doesn’t wish to accept the cultural importance and equal aesthetic value of jazz and therefore cannot and will not carry out the implementation of a successful and superior program of study (in spite of its having much to gain by doing so), then as difficult as it may be for some of us to accept, the art of jazz is actually better off without their partnership.

still more hajdu-zorn

Catching up on my Postclassic reading, I see that Kyle Gann has commented on the Hajdu/Zorn debate, coming down more on Hajdu's side, which is unsurprising, given his past anti-Zorn comments. Gann reports an interesting Zorn anecdote in the comments:

The Downtown improviser I knew best once told me he played a terrible gig with Zorn, that completely flopped. Afterward he was down, and Zorn asked him what was wrong. "We played terribly out there." "So what?," he said Zorn replied. "It's only improvisation."
I get the impression Gann means that in a negative way, but I see it as a totally liberating statement. Sure, it goes against the give-me-my-money's-worth mindset, but I liken it to the extreme sports motto "If you aren't falling, you aren't trying." And maybe I'm just a little miffed at being referred to as "someone."

Klinkende Munt Day 4 - 07/07/07@Beursschouwburg, Brussels

Ah, dear old Klinkende Munt (reports from previous editions), where a saxophonist's wails compete with the cries of children running around, where bass solos coexist with the chatter of grandmothers eating shish kebabs and where a bandleader's announcements compete with the general indifference of the free festival crowd. While a less numerologically significant event than The Boredoms' 77BoaDrum, at least we were lucky enough not to have any of the usual weirdo drunkards drop by.

Atomic (website)
Fredrik Ljungkvist - ts, cl
Magnus Broo - tp
Havard Wiik - p
Ingebrigt Haker Flaten - b
Paal Nilssen-Love - d

I've been listening to the Norwegian-Swedish Atomic for a few years, since their first two albums Feet Music and Boom Boom. Several of its members, Paal Nilssen-Love and Ingebrit Haker-Flaten (the first time Frederik Ljungevist pronounced the bassist's name, he made it sound like an adventure) in particular, are among Ken Vandermark's many regular collaborators.

Like a few other Scandanavian bands such as Exploding Customer (myspace), Firehouse or Jonas Kullhammar's (myspace) Nacka Forum (myspace), Atomic is very much attached to the idea of being recognisable as a jazz quintet, but injects into that format lots of post-free jazz American avant-garde language that prevent things from simply chugging along. I just got The Thing's (Nilssen-Love, Haker Flaten and Mats Gustafsson) Action Jazz, which, though more given to open blowing, could fit in with the others. In Atomic's case, even when they get boisterous, the free playing is always embedded in an overarching structure, made visible when the band shifts gears in tight formation (is that a mixed metaphor?). Interestingly, they all sound fairly American to me, in any case far removed from any "sound of the fjords" clichés and other elements that I tend to associate with European jazz/improv (to be really simplistic about it, maybe it's just that they all swing, in some way or other). They are what I like to call "hot jazz for a new millenium," but most of the time I have enough sense to keep that appellation to myself.

On the set's first piece, solos were sandwiched by heads, but each one received a radically different treatment: rumbling mid-tempo swing for an explosive Fredrik Ljungkvist, a quasi-dirge for a thoughtful Magnus Broo and a langourous ballad feel for Havard Wiik to subtly disrupt with dissonance. Themes were stated in conventional front-line unisons, but Wiik almost never comped or played lines in a regular manner. Instead, he covered vast expanses and created dense, rippling textures. On the set-closing ballad "Kerosene," he split the difference by first doling out chords under the saxophonist's tender, soft-focus solo, and then engaging Nilssen-Love in a duet that gathered dark clouds before growing into an all-encompassing storm.

As the concert progressed, the repertoire increasingly broke away from traditional forms in favour of more involved, ad hoc ones. Paal Nilssen-Love toned down his usual busy, powerful playing for a quiet feature that had clarinet and trumpet tones floating underneath and between his desolate cymbal screeches and distant mallet hits. Later, Ljungkvist got into a Jimmy Giuffre-ish mood, issuing terse fragments that got loud in very short spurts.

On "Two Boxes Left," a deranged, absurdist fanfare theme gave way to a twittering front-line dialogue that stopped to allow Haker Flaten to shred his bow his a furious, high-register arco solo accompanied by comically short, Ljungkvist-conducted punctuations from the rest of the band. It was like a sudden injection of Dutch comedy - a Southern glance in an otherwise Westwards-looking set.

Byron Wallen (myspace)
Byron Wallen - tp, conch, fl
Julian Siegal - ts, bcl
Larry Bartley - b
Tom Skinner - d
Boujemaa Boubul - voc, guembri, perc,

Byron Wallen is a fluent British trumpeter, clearly steeped in the hot-blooded hard bop of Freddie Hubbard and others, but also willing to explore sounds both harsher and more exotic. His front-line partner Julian Siegal preferred to keep a more even-keeled tone as he spun harmonically involved lines. On "Merry-Go-Round," the two intertwined melodically over a sunny beat like a Gerry Mulligan Quartet gone Carribbean.

For part of the set, they invited Boujemaa Boubul, a Gnawa musician, to join them on guembri, qraqeb and occasional singing. His characteristic dancing, polyrhythmic 6/8 grooves created a new baseline for the group, but also a new challenge. Wallen slipped naturally into this new context: he emerged from the groove and used it as a reference even when he freed himself from it, and added flute and conch shell to the more prayerful moments. Wallen's current album, Meeting Ground, is apparently about jazz-Gnawa fusion and his playing truly made the meeting happen. Siegal, however, stuck to his harmony-oriented playing and ended up sounding pasted on to the music, rather than a part of it. His more textural bass clarinet fit in better, though.

Jeremy Warmsley (myspace)

Jeremy Warmsley's dramatic pop put elaborate construction, literary lyrics and lots of falsetto leaps in the place of catchy hooks and a memorable voice. Songs had titles such as "The Young Man Sees the City as a Chessboard" and content such as accidentally watching pornography (he said pornography, not porn - the distinction seemed important) on French TV ("Which is easy to do," Warmsley stated in his defense), played in a four-handed piano arrangement, which must be a rarity in the world of indie-rock. Words created uncertainty by their content as well as their quantity, as in "I Keep the City Burning for You," where he sang:

I keep the city burning for you
Beacon to guide you home
Furnace to keep you warm
Smoke to poison your lungs
All the ingredients of a great relationship, then.

They did ecstatically rock out on one tune. The strange thing about it is that I developed an unusual physical reaction: I sneezed throughout the song, then stopped as soon as it did. Perhaps it was a sudden, temporary (I hope) allergy to ecstatically rocking out?

While I've never been a fan of oversize hip hop clothing, neither can I understand the show-your-socks-small jeans indie guys like Warmsely wear. His bassist, who I'd issue a blipster warning on if I worked for the NY Times, was supremely cool, though.

Gary Lucas was scheduled to perform with a DJ at 12:15 AM, but in a sign of encroaching age, I didn't feel like waiting.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

shop 'til you drop

I'd like to make a special recommendation of Indie Jazz, the online store attached to the Cryptogramophone label. A little while ago, I ordered a couple of CDs from them: Nels Cline's New Monastery and Andrew Hill's A Beautiful Day.

When the package arrived, instead of Cline's album, I found Myra Melford's The Image Of Your Body. Things could have been worse, but it still wasn't quite what I wanted. I wrote an email asking what I should do about it, already dreading having to find time to go to the Post Office and mail the CD back. All of six minutes(!) later, I got an answer: keep the Melford, we'll send you the Cline at no charge. Now that's what I call customer service.

All three CDs are worthwhile, by the way.


Swiss retailer DiscPlus is offering 30% off on its HatHut stock through July. The shipping costs are a little high, but individual CD prices reach as low as 6.61 Swiss francs.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

brainy coincidence

I just bought my first Bad Brains album today, semi-randomly, with no idea if it's a good one or not. Here's a little interview with Darryl Jenifer, conducted by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, who produced their latest one.

How does D.C. differ from New York?
D.C is the head of the beast; N.Y. and L.A. are the ass and heart. They can fight over that.
What do you feel is the biggest misconception about the Brains?
That we are problematic and primitive. Of course we as a collective have our views, but we are Jah respecting, Jah youth. I think being black and playing in a white rock world and industry puts us at a slight disadvantage when it comes to our actions and words.

Friday, July 06, 2007

house fight starting

Roughly a year ago, there was a stir around the topic of jazz education (a recap: an initial gathering of several posts revolving around the topic, Nalbandian and Crouch, Djll on Bill Evans, Ryshpan on Ryshpan). The subject was revived by Nate Chinen's IAJE article and a bunch of bloggers.

Now, Casa Valdez has a rant on the state of jazz and then has a talk with Bob Mover that has proven controversial. The former is more on the futility of it all, considering the state of the "jazz market." The second is the more controversial one, about how young players just aren't taught to swing any more, but rather left to their own Josh Redman-, Chris Potter-, Mark Turner- and Seamus Blake-derived devices (Valdez later throws Chris Speed into this group, along with Donny McCaslin and others, under the heading "George Garzone students," but I don't see how Speed can be lumped together with the other guys, stylistically speaking). Mover concludes "the inmates are running the asylum!" Both posts have attracted a lot of comments.

One comment links to a similar article by George Duke, of all people. It's hard to read it without feeling that the pot is calling the kettle black. Some of what Duke says strikes me as contradictory:

I realize that trends in jazz will change - that’s the essence of what jazz is, and change and inclusion are what a creative musician uses to create an environment. But why the move away from traditional African American musical values?

Now at times I’ve heard some of these players play the blues, and it’s quite apparent that they don’t have a clue how to do it. The blues is a feeling and attitude. In my playing it is at the core of everything I do, so when young players abandon that, it’s almost like they are abandoning a large part of what I love about jazz.
Leaving aside the question of what the traditional African American musical values are (specific styles or more broadly-defined attitudes?), I wonder what the average Afro-American teenager knows about the Blues: indirectly through the story-telling lineage that extends into hip hop, slightly more directly in songs such as Kanye West's "Gold Digger" and in whatever remains of it in r'n'b. Maybe more for those who search back through their parents' record collection or listen to Gospel. So, how can you "abandon" something that isn't part of your life? Duke himself captures my sentiment:
You know maybe that’s it. Even though I didn’t experience slavery, my mom and dad did, so I had that direct connection to the gut feeling of the blues and its’ musical predecessors – in reality it is a direct connection to the past through a musical tradition. For me, that feeling tells the story and displays the soul of my people.
So if "some of these players" don't have a connection to the Blues, why should they play it? Conversely, to me, hearing Bojan Z play on Balkan rhythms and melodies is exactly like hearing a jazz musician from Mississippi include Blues inflections in his playing and is "expressing the soul of [his] people."

On the other side of the fence, Brian Olewnick has been criticising the Vision Festival for being too stuck in outdated ways:
The odd (sad?) thing was that the better music from each evening almost inevitably referred directly to earlier great music. So you get pastiches of Handy, the Art Ensemble, Ellington etc., which are enjoyable enough but hardly possessing any "vision". Not surprising, of course, but still. Worse, as always, for something describing itself as "free music", countless strictures were constantly in place. There was rarely a moment where you got the idea that a given musician could do anything that came to mind. Solo order tended to follow the standard routes (horns to piano to bass to drums). Hell, the whole "solo" thing was sometimes laughable. During Dickey's set, bassist Todd Nicholson was soloing and Dickey's accompaniment (not as a joke) was tapping the ride cymbal in a "ching-chinka-ching" pattern. It's 2007 and people who are purportedly experimental, avant and free musicians are still doing "ching-chinka-ching". Jesus.
And later:
But if you've chosen to push things, if you're out there advertising your work as "free", well dammit, it should be free. And forty plus years on, there's no excuse for not understanding "free" to mean exactly what it says. It doesn't mean a hierarchy of musicians, a hierarchy of solo order (it doesn't mean solos being obligatory at all!). It doesn't mean constructing a situation where you can't do this and you can't do that, no matter how much musical sense it makes at the time. It doesn't mean you can't stop playing when you have nothing to add. It doesn't mean that when the bassist starts soloing, the drummer automatically reverts to cymbal tapping mode while the horn players look on (they can't play of course! that's against the rules!) and the pianist dutifully punches out a handful of appropriate chords.
the great majority of music being performed at Viz ain't free and, for my bucks, shouldn't in good conscience mislead people into thinking that it is. Insisting on that aura, imho, weakens the music. For the most part, it's every bit as essentially conservative as what's being presented uptown at Wynton's place. Different veneer, very similar core.
I can only wonder if we're all living in the same world: on the one hand, youngsters are criticised for being too heavily invested in the mainstream of contemporary saxophone (on this point, take a look at this very pertinent comment: "sometimes it takes a while to sink in," it being the historical recommendations teachers make to their students), on the other, the purported avant-garde isn't avant-garde enough. It's like we're caught in a Bermuda Triangle of immobilism on one side, cultural loss on the second and ignorance on the third, into which all hope and joy disappears.

While too much of Brian's argument rests on the terminology associated to the Vision Festival (I say this as someone who loves musical taxonomy), I do recognise some of the limitations he cites, limitations which come to seem arbitrary because innovative musicians have already rendered them obsolete. At the same time, I think a lot more people are continuing to break away from, or at least significantly loosen, those solo/accompaniment, improvised/composed, free/not-free binaries than Brian is giving credit for. And those very same limitations can give immense satisfaction, still. Of course, for Jazz Corner veterans, Brian's complaints themselves are old hat.

Dan Melnick asks the question of the importance of change in "free, experimental, or avant-garde music." I don't really agree with his conclusions (for one, I'd say that he believes in the timeliness of creative expression rather than prizes novelty over all else), though I do believe that the heated moments of great performances that really touch us totally eclipse the questions of innovation, tradition, styles and eras we ask ourselves in the cold light of day.

I would like to flip Dan's interrogations around (forgive me if the following sounds wishy-washy): listeners cannot ask of musicians more than they ask of themselves. Instead of demanding that musicians push boundaries, for example, we can only ask that we challenge our own listening habits and comfort zones. It's a risky entreprise, one I find difficult and don't do often enough: it takes time and perhaps money, our current opinions may be proven wrong or misguided, we might somehow stumble. But hopefully, in some way, we learn and broaden our perspective. Only by doing this, I think, can the listener get a taste of what it means for the musician to undertake a similar endeavour.

back on stage, back on the page

The resurgent Sly Stone gets a feature article in Vanity Fair.

[L]ike John Wayne emerging from 'cross the prairie in The Searchers … a strange form advances through the wavy air in the distance: some sort of vehicle, low to the ground, rumbling mightily as it turns off the highway and into the parking lot. As it comes closer, the shapes become clearer: a flamboyantly customized banana-yellow chopper trike, the front tire jutting four feet out in front of the driver. He sits on a platform no higher than 18 inches off the ground, legs extended in front of him, his body clad in a loose, tan shirt-and-pants ensemble somewhere between Carhartt work clothes and pajamas. His feet are shod in black leather sneakers with green-yellow-red African tricolor trim. Behind him, on an elevated, throne-like seat built between the two fat back tires, sits an attractive, 30-ish woman in full biker leathers. He always was good at entrances.
Indeed. Here's another:
[S]ometime around midnight—the stroke of April Fools' Day—a man who looked like an extra from a blaxploitation version of Buck Rogers sauntered onto the stage. He was wearing a black knit cap, wraparound white sunglasses, outrageous black platform boots with sneaker-style laces, spangly black trousers cut like newsboy knickers, a matching spangly black jacket, and a red spangly shirt. He sat down at the Korg synthesizer parked center stage and pumped his fist.
I actually saw a vehicle that looked a lot like Stone's on the way back from work today.

Monné-Solsona Quartet - 30/06/2007@Jamboree, Barcelona

Vincens Solsonna - g
Joan Monné - p
Giula Valle - b
Ramon A. Rey - d

A strange happened when we returned to the Jamboree for the Monné-Solsona Quartet's second set: they played the exact same set-list again. It's not as if the house had been turned out: the guy at the door stamped our hands as we stepped out for air specifically so that we could get back inside without paying. So I have no idea what they were thinking. That said, I have equally little idea why guitarists play like Vincens Solsona did, either: that slightly echoey, unrelentingly bright, treble-only tone is one I have little affection for, especially when coupled with lots of fast lines relatively bereft of rhythm and Pat Metheny-lite ballads. Thankfully, the rest of the quartet was more interesting.

When the guitar laid out, the trio gained in impact and rhythmic cohesion. Joan Monné's playing wasn't terribly interesting harmonically or melodically, but it was lively and intricate. Ramon A. Rey had an interesting style that distributed busy polyrhythms all over the kit. Giula Valle was the real musician of the bunch, though, leaving in some rough edges and really interacting with her bandmates and trying to push them. Her composition, "Love Song," was the most interestingly-constructed original of the repertoire, as its ostinato-fuelled, almost Reid Anderson-style rock song intensity suggested a rather... vigorous personality. How out-of-step she was with the leader was highlighted whenever Solsona attempted to accompany one of her too-rare solos: he was painfully ill-at-ease and square.

Valle's contribution aside, there was a worrying schism between cute head arrangements and the blowing sections that reduced them to mere window-dressing. Still, a nice hall of mirrors effect was achieved on a mash-up of "Evidence" and "All The Things You Are." The first time around, before learning of what, exactly, was going on, I wondered why they were playing "All The Things You Are" with "Evidence"'s staccato phrasing. The second time, I understood that it was "Evidence," but with the chord changes to "All The Things You Are" underneath. It was a little disorienting, but that aside, is there a deeper musical reason to bring these two together?

It looks like I missed David Valdez's visit to Jamboree by a few days, with Libert Fortuny putting on a wild show.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

John Zorn: Complete Masada (Day 1) - 28/06/2007@L'auditori, Barcelona

I only got to attend the first of two Barcelona concerts by John Zorn's travelling circus. After all the controversy of David Hajdu's article (cf. Pat Donaher, Peter Breslin and Armen Nalbandian, twice), I was looking forward to some "assaultive noise crafted with meticulous care," to quote David Hajdu, but I got a whole lot more meticulous care than assaultive noise. Each of the three sets provided a distinct view into the Masada songbook, but all seemed to carry formal concerns and stylistic mash-ups nearer to their hearts than the expression of Jewishness.

Bar Kokhba mostly used gently-swaying Latin rhythms and more vigorous free-jazz-inflected ones to underpin the typical Masada minor-key Jewish themes, with a few side-rips into tango and surf music. Zorn kept a firm, if discrete, grasp of the situation from the conductor's chair. The music was both surprisingly easy listening and satisfyingly well-written. Marc Ribot was the standout soloist, for me. On one tune, he created a time-stopping junction between Cuban and cowboy movie soundtrack guitar styles; elsewhere he followed up a driving Mark Feldman solo with floating, distended notes. So soon after seeing him in action with Sean Noonan, it was fascinating to watch him in a completely different context, still managing to bring a vast array of styles together in a completely logical, integrated way.

It's unfair of me to single Ribot out, though. Joey Baron, Cyro Baptista (who I came across outside before the show and thought "Who's that interesting-looking guy in the gray-flecked goatee and red glasses?"), Greg Cohen, Erik Friedlander and Feldman are all exceptional and sensitive musicians. Feldman managed to maintain a strong drive even when he broke away from strict adherence to the band's propulsion and displayed an astounding range of timbres on the last piece, when he went from a very high whistle to half-voiced low-register rumbles.

Despite his massive beard and the "Reggae/Metal/Blues" description on his MySpace page, Jamie Saft's trio (with Greg Cohen and Kenny Wollenson) was the most classically jazz of the three ensembles: it adhered to the usual soloist-accompanist division of labour and head-solos-head shape. Bar Kokhba's attention to form was probably no greater, but in the piano trio context, it was all the more evident: the Jewish themes appeared, dissolved into bluesy solos or furious cascades that emerged from moody fragments, then resolidified. The piano might have been scurrying over a free rumble, but a few unison hits or a collective wax and wane showed that everything was tightly controlled and delimited.

Despite the obvious stylistic differences, this trio didn't work all that differently from, say, Bill Charlap's. This was a little frustrating, but also provided opportunities for a few tunes that actually sounded like real songs rather than the mere running of a scale that some of the Masada compositions seem to be. A couple of tunes reached a "Gymnopédie"-like intimacy on which Saft seemed to hold back each note a tiny bit, to poignant effect. Another combined funky hard bop, a Latin beat and a Jewish tonality to end up sounding like some kind of weird throwback '50s exotica.

Asmodeus provided a radical change to the previous two sets from its very first notes, as Ribot, Trevor Dunn and Calvin Weston simultaneously erupted into an electric roar. Ribot showed that he could play all-out noise and classic rock just as well as all-out melody (along with, I'm sure, all-out changes, though he didn't do it here). Dunn tore into lines derived from metal. Weston was like a man possessed, playing hard-hitting thrash-funk. Despite the volume and my distance from the stage, the drummer could be clearly heard screaming - unmiked - from behind his kit. For those members of the audience who might have missed it, though, he continued screaming as the trio took its bows, after having ended the set with a loud smash of the gigantic gong at the back of the stage. Zorn conducted again, which made plain that despite the energy and volume, conditions were still very much controlled. Indeed, an unaccompanied introduction of Weston's felt like extreme skiing: an adrenaline rush wrapped in pinpoint control.

Despite the high quality of and enjoyment I'd gotten from everything I'd just heard, that last point nagged at me a little. Would a little more looseness have enhanced or weakened the performances? Also, I couldn't help but wonder if the whole Jewish angle really mattered: did it go deeper than those zigzagging minor-key melodies, to serve as compositional focus, perhaps? If they were merely a veneer to loosely unify a wide stylistic range, does that make Hajdu's interpretation of the Brubeck anecdote stronger, or weaker? Because, if Zorn's Masada repertoire isn't really about Jewishness, then why couldn't it include Brubeck? Maybe these questions all have obvious answers that I'm not familiar enough with Zorn's music to answer.

More opinions: Jazzman on days one and two.