Better Than the Option

•May 15, 2013 • Leave a Comment

bernetrio

If you live in NYC and pay attention to Jazz, I’m pretty sure you’ve heard about Tim Berne’s recent week at the stone with Snakeoil and other groups.  Snakeoil is a current (well deserved) favorite in the Jazz world, but they don’t play live too often.  When they played three nights in a row, two things happened: people took the opportunity to go see them, and the music was on the highest level it’s ever been.

I’m not saying that myself, in fact due to circumstances beyond my control, I couldn’t go to the shows.  I’m saying that because Tim Berne (who I’ve only seen excited twice in my life) expressed his disbelief in how great and crazy the music was over the week.  Also, Matt Mitchell has said that it was the most fun he’s ever had playing music.  Take it as you will, but that clinches it for me.

The day before their week started, the entire band was at another concert, the Craig Taborn trio at Roullette, celebrating nothing in particular.  It’s their first NYC date since their new record came out on ECM, and the troops came out to support.  Apart from the Berne crew, audience members included Bill Frisell (who I watched buy the record.  Hilarious), numerous ECM record executive types, Mat Maneri, Jacob Sacks, Carlo DeRosa, and about a million other people who I can’t remember, regulars and one-offs alike.

No one was murmuring about wondering what they were going to hear, because they knew exactly what they were going to get, which was one of the most consistent trios of its generation giving the audience the potent cocktail of hyper-complex forms and figures (All memorized. Unreal) with the air of complete freedom and interaction.  The band was so great together, everything was malleable depending on the actions of each member.  Nothing could happen that would through the group off of its seat in the constant flow of musical ideas that went on for the solid hour and a half they played.

A moment on Craig Taborn’s pianism: ridiculous.  The “normal” chops (fast notes, time, etc.) that he very obviously has were overshadowed for me by his touch, his dynamics, his articulation through soft passages, and his part independence (Bach-style voice movement).  Pianism is one of those things that every time you see it done right, it ruins other piano playing for you for a while.  Craig understands the piano in a way that few others do.

I don’t feel the need to comment on Thomas or Gerald’s musicality.  I think that anyone who has ever heard either of them play anything gets that by now.  I only comment on Craig’s technique because I feel like people don’t quite know that he has it yet, due to his fame as a keyboardist. That doesn’t mean that it’s news, however, he’s been a monster for a while.

Oh, and just in case the people in the audience didn’t know he was a beast, the encore was the fastest and most complex tune I’ve heard anyone play for a while, and it was flawless.  Shoutouts to badass encores. Keeping the dream alive.

So why were both of these shows above and beyond for so many people?  In both cases, the answer is clear: they’ve gotten to perform together.

Now if each member of each of these bands quit music for 6 months and then reunited, I’d go to both concerts, pay double what they cost, and love every second, let me just preface with that.  However, hearing about Snakeoil after a 3 day run in NYC, and hearing the effectively perfect Taborn trio after a year or so of touring just made me (drool, first off) think about how things could be if creative bands could still play weeks, or be constantly on tour these days.  My favorite bands these days rarely get to play at all.  Three unnamed favorite bands of mine have not toured in years, have never toured longer than 10 days, and have never played more than one day in a row at any venue in NYC.

It was the first time that it really hit me that the financial situation is hurting the music in a purely creative sense, due to the simple fact that there is no substitute for performing music live in front of people who know what they’re listening for.  People can come close, of course.  Most musicians will practice with these groups all the time, sometimes daily, but there is an edge, there has to be.  Thomas, Craig, and Gerald, as masterful as they are, do have peers who are just as amazing as them who don’t get the chance to play like they do, and it showed.  There was a polish and a comfort on their music that you can’t see on many other bands, not something that makes the unpolished music suffer, but something that is just the cherry on the top, that intangible that makes the Miles quintet or Mingus and Danny Richmond just sound different.

It’s sad that the financial reality can’t be conducive to music making, especially when I think about how my favorite groups would sound if they were playing together even two nights a week.  It makes me simultaneously cry and buzz with excitement at the sheer possibility of it.

“Now I told you all of that shit so I could tell you this: . . .” —Harold Mabern

—Martin

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Rare Bird

•April 30, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Blues for Smoke

When I saw the sign “Blues for Smoke” Whitney ad on the subway, I got right rearing mad.  Someone’s stealing Jaki Byard’s thunder, I thought, and I’m the only one on the train who knows it.  In full angry-letter-writing mode, I went online to check it out immediately, and found that, oh my, they’re actually paying homage to Jaki Byard.  I thought initially that it was Jason Moran’s doing, I know that he has had some connection to the Whitney in the past, and that he would certainly love the chance to get Jaki’s name out there.  All I could find out was that the impetus came from The Museum of Contemporary Art in LA, curated by a man named Bennett Simpson.  I didn’t get farther than that before going to check out the exhibit, which was promising contemporary art from the blues aesthetic.  Count me in.

It was quite the exhibit, with an installation playing Blue Train at three different places, angular contemporary art, a giant mural eulogizing Jazz artists that died before their time, Booker Little, Bessie Smith, Bird.  A room dedicated to beat lingo, with translations to English and German.  Headphones playing Blues for Smoke and Young at Heart in their entirety. Best of all was a room of televisions, all sound blaring all the time, with the rare Jaki Byard documentary “Anything for Jazz”, a live show of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a piece from the also rare Mal Waldron documentary “A Portrait”, and Duke Ellington’s picture form the 30s about him writing a symphonic work.  All going at the same time.  I was a kid in a candy store.

Once I left, I decided I wanted to go back.  I checked the website again to find that there was a concert series that was accompanying the show.  When I saw Annette Peacock’s name, I almost fainted.

Now I don’t actually know much about Annette’s music.  I know her compositions, as they compile about a third of Paul Bley’s repertoire, and I know her importance in the world of synthesizers, Robert Moog gave one of his first synthesizers to Annette, and she was reportedly the one who convinced Paul to switch over to playing with them.  I know that she toured with Ayler.  I don’t know any of her recorded music, or what she’s been doing for the last 40 years.  I did know that I’d never seen her name on a schedule anywhere, anytime (and I do keep track of these things).

Luckily, while I was in the gargantuan line for the show, I saw Manny Maris from one of NYC’s best record stores, DMG looking to get in, and he joined me in line (I don’t really know him, but he recognized me.  Let’s just say I’m a regular.  Or an addict.  Whatever.).  When I told him that I didn’t know anything about Annette he (after expressing his disappointment) gave me the full run down, about her eventual foray into prog rock, about Bowie offering her the Keyboard position on Ziggy Stardust and her turning it down, about the complex record label situation that turned her off to making creative music without complete control.  He confirmed that this was her first American show in 12 years, and her 3rd show/stint worldwide since 2000.

Funny enough, although I had no clue what to expect before talking to Manny, I now had absolutely no idea what to expect.  What I got started with a video.  It was basically of lolcats(older readers) that morphed into hideous abominations of themselves before morphing again into beautiful flowers, usually a single rose.  Over top of this and other images of a small girl and her teddy bear and oil spill pictures, was a beautiful melody over an abstract harmony, in lo-fi.  Really great melody, I can’t stress that enough.

Of course it was Annette’s, and it was the beginning of a night that made me realize that she is the only songwriter I’ve seen on the level of some of the classic songwriters. Every melody was so annoyingly simple, liftable without instrument, but its interaction with the lyric and the way she phrased it made every single one a masterpiece.  Her set up was simple.  Solo concert, an old Roland synth with one sound patch, a steinway grand, and a 1990’s beat box with three drum loops on a CD inside of it. Whenever she played the synth, it was in the same tonal space.  Mostly functional harmony, with minimal twists and turns, over a mostly diatonic melody.  The great thing about it was her orchestration of a single note piano line within the harmonies of the synth.

Her touch surprised me.  I thought her a composer-pianist, but her virtuosity as it related to touch was evident.  She rarely played more than one note on the piano, never needing more than a counter melody.  Her voice was sublime too, so clear and even.  Her phrasing was simple, making only slight changes to the established melodies, but the subtlety of the alterations was magic.

And her piano playing.  Once in a while she’d play a solo interlude on only piano, and if I had to describe it to someone who had never heard her, I’d say that it was Paul Bley with a tenth of the notes.  Free language with strong melody, but stripped down to its bare essentials.  She could make Basie look overcomplicated and busy. Unbelievable, when combined with her amazing and even touch.

The drum loops were used mostly as a device for atmosphere, that sort of cheesy 70s feeling added to the combination of synth and voice, but the final of the three drum loops was different.  Still in that same world of bad action movies, the loop started the same as the others, but quickly morphed into a surreal constantly shifting beat, like something out of a Steve Coleman record.  Her phrasing of this simple melody changed with the loop, and the minute changes she made snaked in and out of the background to make something fantastic.

She had everything memorized, but the arrangements seemed quite strict.  The drum loops were literally just a CD track, and she timed everything out so that the track ended during the last phrase of the song.  Amazing, especially the last one.

She was called back for an encore, but said she was tired, and thanked everyone for coming.

Walking out, it was quite obvious that I had seen something that I’d never see again.  And now I have to buy some Annette Peacock records from Manny.  That crafty bastard.

Annette

“Joe Magnarelli just butt-dialed one of the guys in the band and left a four minute message of chromatic fourth licks.”—Tweet from Jacob Garchik about a jobber

—Martin

Paul’s Pals

•April 28, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Paul

I knew what I was getting into on the 26th when I sat down in my fifth-row seat at Symphony Space and saw the estate archive’s pictures of Paul projected on a screen in front of the stage.  The house filled up very quickly, even though I got there plenty early.  Three rows ahead of me was Roswell Rudd.  Ten back was Michael Formanek.  On the right aisle was Rez Abbasi.  You just knew that this show couldn’t disappoint, especially at the price of 15 dollars for those under 30.

The show started picking people directly from the top of the pile: Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, Joey Baron, Ed Schuller, and Billy Drewes.  It was the first time I had ever seen Joe and Bill play together, despite seeing them dozens of times apart.  The rapport didn’t really get to me at first, instead I was mesmerized by the interaction between Bill, Billy, and Ed Schuller. Ed was playing bass in a way that you don’t hear unless you go looking for it, that sixties playing that reminded me of all of the famous 70s bassists when they were young, Dave Holland, Gary Peacock, and Steve Swallow, a dark outgrowth of Charlie Haden.  I love this kind of playing, and I’ve been deep in the records of that genre for months now, so I loved every second of it.  The push and pull of his beat and his excellent tone really made it.  Billy was great too, coming right out of the gate, fiery and intense.

The second performance was one of the contenders for best of the night, Masabumi Kikuchi solo.  It was stark, it was beautiful, and it was raw.  If you’ve never seen him play live, I’m not sure how exactly to describe it past that.

The next song was Marilyn Crispell and Gary Peacock playing Etude, one of my favorite Paul songs.  It sounded great, although I was not a huge fan of Crispell’s harmonic choices in her arrangement of the tune.  The harmonies made it sound like more of a Jazz tune than I would have liked, but Paul always said(I glean from multiple sources) that his songs were meant to go where the artist wants, that the individual should be in charge of the direction.  I also have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about Marilyn playing Etude with Geri Allen in the building, but that’s a fanboyish issue, nothing more.

They were joined by Lovano and Andrew Cyrille.  Peacock and Andrew’s hook up was something to behold, although Gary’s days of digging far into the beat with that wonderful earthy sound are over, it was still great.  Andrew and Lovano were on the same wavelength, although everyone who plays with Andrew seems like they’re on his wavelength.

Andrew stayed on stage as the band was traded out for Billy Hart, and a two drum duo improvisation ensued.  I’d heard about Andrew’s storied history with drummers like Milford Graves, and Billy’s stint with The Whole Drum Truth, but seeing it in person was something else.  It’s hard to write on, because it was just extremely communicative and layered rhythms, with both drummers so focused and aware of the other that it seemed like they had played together forever.  Always interesting to see two creative musicians play in a foreign format, making it work. I maintain that Andrew Cyrille has the quickest textural ears in the music today.  No nuance escapes his hearing.

Then Geri came on stage with Greg Osby.  Geri broke out of her post 90s comfort zone a bit more than usual, which I liked.  Billy was fiery as ever, poking and prodding the rhythm section.  Billy sounds especially good these days; in the last few months I’ve seen him four times, and he sounds better than ever, and I’m sure the company in the house didn’t hurt him then.

They were accompanied by Larry Grenadier and Greg Osby.  I’m usually not a screaming wild fan of Osby in situations like these, but I must say that he brought his A-game that night.  Weaving in and out of the tune and connecting quite nicely with Geri, who upped the ante as well.  Hearing Larry with Billy was interesting too, it’s not a combination you’d expect to see.

Billy’s band joined him next, and played one of their originals, “Duchess”.  I took the subway with Ethan after the show, and he told me that they were going to play one of Paul’s contemplative originals until Billy said “Come on man, Paul could swing his ass off.  You want to give him a tribute without swinging?”  The band sounded great as they always do.

The next tune was probably my favorite of the night, Abacus, as played By Ravi Coltrane, Joe Lovano, and unannounced guests The Bad Plus and Bill Frisell.  This tune made me realize that TBP could put a TON of people out of work if they became an accompanying rhythm section a la Kelly/Chambers/Jones.  The propulsion they gave behind Joe and bill in particular was at a level that you rarely hear, but still with the classic TBP sound and individuality.  Everyone sounded like they usually do, no curveballs, but it was radically different than every other time I’ve heard them play with others, including with Bill at Newport, in Toronto with Joshua Redman, and on CD with Wendy Lewis.

The value of having a tight trio like that behind two hyper-creative guys like Lovano and Frisell is money in the bank.  The beauty of it is that you could tell that Lovano—who is currently touring with Francisco Mela, Otis Brown III and Esperanza Spalding—was caught off guard by the approach the trio was taking.  Bill was loving it, and jumped right in when it was his turn, and it made for the most impressive and joyful solo of the night.  I’m going to keep waiting around for a TBP quintet record, but until then, I’ll be at least partially satiated by that one-time Abacus.

And that was just the first set.

The second set started with the old guard and finished out with the new crowd.  Masabumi and Gary Peacock came onstage and played duo, which I was looking forward to all night.  Masabumi didn’t have as much of the austere angularity that was there during his solo presentation, but the interplay between them was something to behold.  I feel like both of them were tiptoeing around, and that it would have broken out had there been a little more time for them to play.  I get the feeling that Gary isn’t faced with pianists even in the ballpark of Masabumi lately, and that when equally creative musicians play with him these days, they are usually coming to his playground, not challenging him as Masabumi is wont to do.  It was a nice glimpse of what could be, but as a standalone piece, it didn’t kill me.

Then the Electric Bebop Band came onstage, playing their eponymous tune.  Chris Cheek, Bill McHenry, and Billy Drewes were the front line, backed by The Guitarmy, Ben Monder, Steve Cardenas, and Jakob Bro, with the fantastic Jerome Harris on acoustic bass guitar. Matt Wilson filled in for Paul.  It was nice to see this band, because I never got to see it live.  Every time I saw Paul, it was a smaller group.

The next tune was for guitarists only, and I couldn’t have been happier about it.  When Bill walked onstage, my three favorite middle aged guitarists in the world were playing together.  Monder is the epitome of a virtuoso, playing the unplayable.  Cardenas is the straight ahead player that’s been thrown into uncomfortable situations his whole life and made it work.  And Bill is the one of the closest things our era has to a Thelonious Monk.  Jerome Harris shouldn’t be forgotten either.  I’ve only ever seen him in situations with other big time artists, the only other time was for Jack DeJohnette’s birthday, and he floored me then as well.  The other thing I realized is that Jakob Bro needs to go on a list for me somewhere.

They played “Introduction:Lament for Guitar”, and drew from it every last melancholy drop.  It was a beautiful chorus of mournful sounds, every guitarist putting their own touches on the music, letting their voice be heard through in the choir.  The thing that hit you immediately was the tone, the careful attention each artist was paying to their sound.

Bill stayed around and began the round of duets that was to follow.  The first one was he and Greg playing Sunflower.  Osby stayed on point throughout, and Bill continued to draw me in with his creativity.  He really is the kind of musician you could listen to forever, constantly moving into worlds that you could never dream of.

The next duo was Tim Berne with Matt Mitchell, playing Psalm, a lovely and angular rendition.  Tim always sounds great, and Matt and he have such a great rapport that the music played itself.

Then came another unbelieveable performance, the Bill McHenry quartet with Monder, Reid Anderson, and Andrew Cyrille.  There was nothing bad about this.  I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that Bill is on the short list of my favorite tenors in New York.  The interaction of feels was amazing.  Ben has this place he sometimes goes to, but it has to be spurred by a specific something, and that something was Andrew Cyrille, punctuating Monder’s every word, keeping so focused on the moment (Ben Monder stomped the RAT behind Andrew Cyrille, so there’s that to add to the bucket list…). Reid interacting with Andrew was amazing too, bringing me back to wanting him to play with more people.  Hard to believe that this is a working (albeit in relative remission) band.

Then came the dark horse of the night, the performance that I never would have thought I’d like.  Petra Haden sang “Windmills of Your Mind” with Bill accompanying her.  Her voice was absolutely amazing, pure and clear, and she definitely has her father’s ear.  That beautiful crisp sound coupled with Bill’s shifting accompaniment were absolutely amazing.  I realized later that Petra works with Weezer(which is my REAL dark secret.  Can’t get enough. Every record memorized.) and I would say that she’s the female equivalent of Rivers Cuomo.  Phrasing, pitch, tone, all perfect. Amazing.

For the penultimate tune, Bill and Joe came onstage to play “It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago”.  The softness and comfort with which they played the—and I don’t use this word often—haunting melody served as a reminder for why we all came in the first place. It was an amazing thing, especially because I never got to see the trio live.  I don’t think I need to explain the connection between the two.

For the final tune, most of the musicians came on stage to do a rousing “Drum Music”.  Usually things like this are just annoying, but this crowd of people believes in creativity and spontaneous improvisation that it worked, and was cohesive and interesting, despite having 15 people onstage.  Everyone was clearly having a great time.

The biggest thread through the whole performance was that the drummers in particular were having a great time.  Joey Baron was sharing looks with Bill the whole concert, breaking up in laughter when one or the other would play a specific phrase. Matt Wilson and Dave King always have a good time, but it seemed like they were pushed to the next height as well.

Seeing Matt Mitchell onstage made me realize that the most recent generation of Motian devotees weren’t there.  No Jacob Sacks, Thomas Morgan, Loren Stillman, or any of the younger generation.  Even slightly older “new” comrades of Paul’s weren’t there, like Tony Malaby, Jason Moran, or Chris Potter.  Although I wouldn’t dare complain about the programming of 3 and a half hours of practically nothing but legends, I think that it puts a date on Paul to not have the bands he was working with until his death.   I saw Annette Peacock recently, and the woman I was sitting with was talking about some of the people she loved, and how they had lost inspiration.  When asked which people I loved that continued playing their best until they left, the first name I thought of was Paul.  He never quit, and was just as creative and motivated as ever right up to the end.  To me, it’s a perfect topping on an already extrodinary artist and person.  To not acknowledge that in this huge concert seems to be a waste of an opportunity to me.

I’m truly thankful that I could go to a gathering like this.  Afterwards, the musicians just talked and talked around the stage, and Symphony Space was nice enough to not kick everyone out as soon as the gig was over.  Some were talking about Paul, some were talking about how great the gig was(there was a lot of “Oh man, we haven’t played in so long, come over on Monday!”), but everyone had a smile on their face.  It was a fitting tribute to a master musician who influenced many great creators that came after him.  We all miss Paul, for one reason or another.

(Brooklyn Jewish accent required) “Oh waaaaaow, I nevah saw Dewey with so much haaaair!”—An old friend of Paul’s that was sitting right behind me, commenting on one of the many archival pictures that they were showing.  She had a million one-liners like this, and was laughing with her friends the whole time.  I was doubled over during the set breaks.

 

—Martin

*DISCLAIMER: This is all I’m going on to try to remember the gig.  It was a while ago, and I put this post off.  I hit all of the parts that resonated with me, but there might be some things missing from my account. Feel free to spark my memory in the comments.

THE PROGRAM

MC: Josh Jackson (WGBO)

Conception Vessel

Bill Frisell, guitar
Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone

Dance

Billy Drewes, alto saxophone
Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone
Bill Frisell, guitar
Ed Schuller, bass
Joey Baron, drums

TBA

Masabumi Kikuchi, piano

Etude/Cosmology

Marilyn Crispell, piano
Gary Peacock, bass

Mumbo Jumbo

Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone
Marilyn Crispell, piano
Gary Peacock, bass
Andrew Cyrille, drums

TBA

Billy Hart and Andrew Cyrille, drums

TBA

Greg Osby, alto saxophone
TBA, piano
Larry Grenadier, bass
Billy Hart, drums

TBA

Billy Hart Quartet
Mark Turner, tenor saxophone
Ethan Iverson, piano
Ben Street, bass
Billy Hart, drums

Abacus

Special Guests with
Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane, saxophones

–INTERMISSION–

TBA

Masabumi Kikuchi, piano
Gary Peacock, bass

Mesmer

Electric Bebop Band
Chris Cheek, Billy Drewes, Bill McHenry, saxophones
Steve Cardenas, Jakob Bro, Ben Monder, guitars;
Jerome Harris, Larry Grenadier, bass;
Matt Wilson, drums

Introduction (Lament for Guitar)

Jakob Bro, Steve Cardenas, Bill Frisell, Ben Monder, guitars
Jerome Harris, acoustic bass guitar

The Sunflower/Last Call

Greg Osby, alto saxophone
Bill Frisell, guitar

Psalm

Tim Berne, alto saxophone
Matt Mitchell, piano

Fantasm

TBA, piano
Ravi Coltrane, Joe Lovano, saxophones
Bill Frisell, guitar

Endless/Morpion

Bill McHenry Quartet
Bill McHenry, tenor saxophone
Ben Monder, guitar
Reid Anderson, bass
Andrew Cyrille, drums

The Windmills of Your Mind

Petra Haden, vocals
Bill Frisell, guitar

It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago

Bill Frisell, guitar
Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone

Drum Music

All Musicians

 

Blindside

•March 23, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Billy Mintz

It’s amazing how a fairly run of the mill show can turn into one of the best shows of your life.

Tuesday, as per usual, I went down to the 55 bar for Dave Binney’s bi-weekly show. Dave’s not in town this week, and neither is Danny, but the remaining members of the band always put on a great show.  This week, Eivind and Jacob came up with the names of two people they’d like to play with more, Ellery Eskelin and Billy Mintz.

I feel like people are at least somewhat aware of Ellery, who plays modern music with an incredibly informed tenor sound, echoing Don Byas, Benny Carter, Chu Berry, and all of the other sax legends that you don’t hear anymore.  Every time I hear him play, I think that he is the person who best understands Coleman Hawkins playing in the scene today (Sonny Rollins and Frank Wess are of course the notable living exceptions).  His ideas come out with such a flow, just as Hawk’s did. The powerful tone, of course, as well.  He’s also one of the last modern tenor players who’s not afraid to play standards, which of course I appreciate.  He’s shot up to the top of my favorite tenors in New York lately.

Billy Mintz is relatively unknown outside of New York, though.  He was West Coast for a while, playing as a studio musician, and then transitioning into a hyper-accurate fusion player, and finally a free musician.  I’ve seen him play a number of times, and have been riveted every time.  His free playing shows a level of economy that I’ve only ever seen in two other drummers, Victor Lewis and Paul Motian.  He can refuse to hit the drum for so long that the tension outweighs whatever madness is going on in the rest of the band, although the continuity of his ideas is never lost.  However, if he gets in the right mood, he can become one of the most swinging drummers in New York, right up there with people like Andrew Cyrille and Billy Hart.  I always say that if he wanted the gig in Barry Harris or Frank Wess’ bands, he could easily have it.  He seems to be comfortable in his avant-garde setting, however.

I went into the show knowing that it would be a solid outing, but not expecting it to blow my hair back.  I had just come from a great Billy Hart Quartet concert (where they played Lennie’s Groove, a tune that I can remember practicing for hours in my basement, trying to figure out not only how to play in 5/4 over a B minor vamp, but also just how to get my fingers around the melody.  Funny story: Ethan played it with both hands.  Wish I had thought of that…), and had tickets to the sure-to-be-fantastic Paul Motian tribute on the 22nd, so I was more looking for a solid middle to the week.

What I got was one of the most cohesive, innovative, and swinging groups I’ve seen in New York.  Billy, it turns out, came to play that night.  He came out swinging, laying in the pocket on every tune, and phrasing things like only a drummer his age can.  With his fusion past, however, he was ever so comfortable with the complex tunes of Jacob and Eivind, many with mixed-meter hiccups and other tricky foundations.

With a drummer playing like that on the gig, it’s so easy to just fall into a relaxed groove, playing whatever comes to mind without needing to worry about anything.  Ellery, however rose far above the call to action, and played three or four of the best solos I’ve heard all year.  The highlight was on “Just One of Those Things”, where he played about ten choruses of dynamic, unrepetitive tenor(said Jacob Sacks “That was one of the best eighth-note-based solos I’ve ever heard”) .  I was reminded of Sonny Rollins or Hawk, who have that ability to just keep playing, keeping the ideas, and phrasing fresh, while always weaving in and out of the band.  I kept thinking as I was listening to him how different he sounded than other tenor players in town, almost completely devoid of Wayne and Trane, indeed, devoid of any of that early 60s sound that is the spinal cord of modern jazz.

Although people I’ve heard in New York sometimes have similar influences, almost none of them would feel as comfortable in this context, at the intersection of swing tradition, the avant-garde, and the complex modern music of 35 year old Brooklynites.  The people most comfortable in that setting seem to be Ellery’s age; Tom Rainey, Jeff Lederer, Tony Malaby, and Ralph Alessi all come to mind.

Another highlight was the Monk tune “We See” and of course, Eivind’s disco-ish straight eighths tune.  Jacob and Eivind of course deserve to be mentioned.  Both, despite their forward reaching solo projects are, to me, one level more old-school than many of their contemporaries.  They still know all of the old tunes, they still write swinging originals, and they still play the shit out of the music.  They have a level of understanding and passion for the old guys that goes beyond nodding your head in agreement every time Philly Joe Jones is mentioned.  There are not many guys like that around, that are as dedicated to pushing the music forward as they are to being informed by its past.  On top of that, there’s no better ensemble player than Jacob, and Eivind makes every band he plays in feel amazing, so I really never lose with these guys.

I doubt they’ll ever record—indeed Jacob didn’t even record the gig for himself—but it was a gig I’ll always remember, one of those magical nights where everything just fell into place on a pickup gig.  It’s a strength of the music that I often forget, but whenever it happens, it reaffirms my love of the music.  Only in New York.  Only Jazz.

“Ooh, that’s a good one to transpose, because it goes almost everyplace.” —Barry Harris to me, on the subject of “Just One of Those Things”

—Martin

…day to youuuuuuuuuuuuuu.

•March 18, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Charles Lloyd

I was lucky enough to catch Charles Lloyd on Friday.  It wasn’t easy, let me tell you.  I got the third to last ticket, standing room only.  Despite the New York Times profile on it (which I read by chance, I don’t really follow the Times’ music news), it was a rather underground gig.  The crowd, although packed, looked like more of an upper East side/Met membership crowd, rather than a Charles Lloyd crowd. If you had told me that they were on their way to see some Haydn with period instruments, I would have believed you.

I say that only because of what the usual crowds of 70-80 year old musicians look like.  When I saw Billy Hart yesterday, for example, there were the Dizzy-ites, people looking for a nice meal and some Jazz music, and the student contingent, hovering around Billy after the gig, but there were also the grizzled vets, people that you see at a lot of shows with musicians that are Billy’s age.  They’re usually musicians themselves, or occasionally fans and collectors that follow the music with a fervor that doesn’t exist much these days.  I have a friend from Washington DC who hasn’t played trumpet since he was 15, but was great friends with all of the DC musicians, Andrew White, Billy, and the rest of the DC-Baltimore crew.  He remembers having conversations with Eric Dolphy and seeing Trane live.  There weren’t any people like that at Charles’ gig.

The first thing I noticed was that I will not be having my birthday party at the Temple of Dendur.  The floor, ceiling, and three walls are made of polished stone, and the fourth wall is made of glass interwoven with steel.  It’s a huge room, and there’s also a massive stone structure in the middle of it.  Not exactly acoustically accommodating.  The poor little Bose towers they had set up weren’t cutting at all.  I could hear in my head what Jason Moran’s tone and attack sounded like, but the sound I heard from the stage wasn’t cutting it.

The second thing I noticed was Lloyd’s preference for playing with a drummer. The first four tunes were duo with Jason, two of Ellington’s and a spiritual.  Charles’ playing was pretty languid, from where I was sitting.  It’s possible that his tone was masterful, but there was no way I could get any of that in the audience.  His phrasing was pretty middle of the road, and some of the techniques he was using seemed a little bit tired to me.

Jason sounded great as always, playing a mix of Ellington’s original voicings and his own sound, something that becomes more and more defined the more I see him.  He definitely has his own language and sound that is becoming more and more recognizable.  The highlight was his solo on “Mood Indigo”, which became a Fats Waller-ish exploration mixed with some displacement and reharmonization in Moran’s style.  He always interjects with some surprising material when he improvises, and never allows the listener to be complacent.  Needless to say, I like him quite a bit.

When the quartet came onstage, however, Lloyd became a new man.  Growling and squeaking, and playing unpredictably, he was darting in and out of ideas in a way that was totally absent in the first half of the set.  The band sounded very comfortable playing behind him, Reuben and Harland settling into a nice groove on every tune, doing a great job at setting an appropriate tone for Charles.  I also noticed that they really played the crap out of that modal, churning style of music.  It’s possible that I don’t see the concerts that are playing out of that tradition, but it was the dark, steady modal playing of people like late Sam Rivers, not necessarily out of the Trane tradition. Slightly more darkly mysterious than Freddie or Joe Henderson, perhaps.

That’s when the gig changed pace a bit. Alicia Hall Moran came out and sang “Go Down Moses”  I can’t say I was too into it, although Jason pulled as much music as he could from the tune.  I didn’t know this was an African American spiritual,

Then, the Greek singer Maria Farantouri and her Lyra player came out, Charles switched to alto flute, and I had to leave.  The lyra player (basically a Mediterranean viola, from what I could see) added an interesting timbre to the stage, but I’m not sure how sold I was on the whole concept.  Charles liked it though, and it was his birthday, so there you go.  The singer was pretty amazing technically, a huge tone and great diction, which is something I don’t notice often.

I did learn something that interested me at the concert, however, that Charles’ mentor was Booker Little, one of my all-time favorites.  It’s interesting to think of Booker as a mentor, seeing as he died at 26, but if his personality was as mature as his playing, it all makes sense.  It also raises the question of what was in the water in Memphis during the time those two and Phineas Newborn were coming up.  The three of them are quite disparate artists, but they are all at a high level technically, and all gained success very soon after coming to New York.

It’s also interesting to note the understated importance of Chico Hamilton, in whose band Charles replaced Dolphy after Eric left to join Mingus.  I don’t have any of those records, but there’s no question that Chico knew how to pick them.

The final thing that interested me is that when they played “The Star-Crossed Lovers” Charles announced it “Pretty Girl”, which I’ve always known as a sub-title.  He made the audience very aware that it was Strayhorn that wrote it, so maybe Ellington’s title was “Star-Crossed Lovers” and Strayhorn’s was “Pretty Girl”.

I’m glad I went.  It’s not every day you get to see a new 75 year old musical legend.

The more I focus on music the less I focus on writing, but I will definitely be going to and reporting back on the Paul Motian concert at Symphony Space on the 22nd of March.  You should all go, the personnel are ridiculous.

“They see music as this giant that keeps growing and pushes everything else out.”  —Billy Hart on how family members view musicians

 

—Martin

A Few Thoughts on Oft-Forgotten White drummers.

•February 3, 2013 • 1 Comment

Hello all!  Due to a mini-illness, I took most of December and all of January off, but now I’m back.  A belated Happy New Year to all of you.

Before I get into my Black History Month stuff, I’d like to take a moment to post on two gentlemen that the world needs to stop forgetting about.

Barry Altshcul truly must have gotten the short straw in the history of successful drummers from the 60s.  There are many drummers from that era that have gotten the shaft when it comes to their careers.  Jimmy Cobb, Joe Chambers, Ben Riley, and Pete LaRoca come to mind.  They all were on seminal records of some of the most amazing groups out there, gracing albums like Mode for Joe, The Bridge, A Night at the Village Vanguard, and of course, Kind of Blue.  Even after all of these successes, they have not found fame among those who do not know their work or were somehow connected with that era.  These guys have played a combination of about 6 or 7 times since I got to NYC, and none of them were week-long engagements.

I’ve never seen them on the cover of a major Jazz magazine.  I’ve not seen them in any obvious article or blog that I’ve read in the last two years (the exception being LaRoca, right after his death).  I’m not surprised that they don’t get mentioned that much (except within the New York scene, where many of them are teachers and employers of students), however I am surprised that they get about as much attention as someone like Steve Williams (another brilliant drummer) who played with Shirley Horn for so many years.  Steve is in a similar category, musically I feel, but doesn’t have the leg up of appearing on one of the most listened-to records of his generation.

With the advent of the internet and the Young Lion movement however, you get people who are slightly more in the know about personnel and who are told to idolize and respect these kind of musicians.  So every time you say “Jimmy Cobb”, he at the very least hushes a room or elicits a positive response from musicians of a certain age, even though none of them question why he doesn’t play Birdland twice a year or why he’s not even in the top 20 drummers in the Downbeat poll.

Saying “Barry Altschul” doesn’t get the same result.  Even though he has played on a number of important recordings by Chick Corea, Paul Bley, and Dave Holland—as popular an important in some circles as as Mode for Joe or The Bridge—such as Closer, Conference of the Birds, and Circulus.  He is also a great composer and has written music for his own ensembles since the 70s.

I can not tell you why Altschul is given even less respect than the people above, but I can tell you that he is now back on the scene and playing as well as anyone else in New York.  Thanks to Jon Irabagon (I deduce…), he is playing one offs at places like Cornelia street, and just had his 70th birthday at Roulette.  The band plays his music, with his choice of musicians, including Joe Fonda, who is one of those unbelievable New York dark horses that you’d never hear about unless you were hyper-interested in a niche or live in the city.  While I missed the gig for his birthday, I was lucky enough to catch two sets at Cornelia, and I will now go see him whenever I can.  His swing feel, compositions, and ear are at the highest level imaginable.  He is a legend, plain and simple.

(Harris Eisenstadt, another great drummer-composer, posted a well-timed three part post at Destination Out.   Required reading.  It would appear that his knowledge of the music—even modern players—is as up to snuff as his playing.)

Someone who is not noticed for the exact opposite reasons is Han Bennik, who to my mind is the father of European Free Jazz drumming.  He started out playing with Eric Dolphy in the early 60s, and has now become the head of the Dutch Free Jazz scene which has been percolating for decades now.  His work with Steve Lacy, Peter Brotzmann, and Misha Mengleberg is absolutely stunning.

The reason he is only given respect by people deep in his avant-garde world, however, is because he is misunderstood as a crazed absurdist lunatic who is more interested in putting on a show than playing music.  The thing is, I’m the biggest stickler for swing feel and traditional fundamentals that I know, and there is no man alive who plays the drums with more deference and knowledge of Kenny Clarke and Jo Jones than Han.  The swing feel emanating from this man is incredible.  I saw him at Roulette (if you haven’t learned from this post, start going to Roulette) playing from memory 6 Steve Lacy compositions and being right on the knife’s edge the whole time.  He seems to respond to every musical situation quickly and on many different levels, and nothing is out of bounds.

The moral of the story is this: great players should be getting better gigs, Barry Altschul is playing again and you should go see him, and Han Bennik feels amazing and doesn’t deserve any kind of bad avant-garde rap that has been placed upon him.  He’s the closest thing you can get to hearing Kenny Clarke play the drums.

Bennik

A lot of posts coming up, mostly on shedding stuff.  I’ve decided that I’m going to save up some money, so I won’t be reporting back on too many gigs, just a few here and there.  Happy Black History Month!  Best month of the year.

“I’m too old to pimp, and too young to die, so I guess I’ll just keep playing!” —Clark Terry

—Martin

Austria’s New York

•December 7, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I’ve been very busy at my day job lately, but part of that included a trip to Vienna.  Normally, I always have some hang ups about traveling, no matter where I go.  It takes some time for me to get acclimated to the scenario, I usually can’t practice while I’m away from home, and I’m pretty un-organized when I don’t keep to a strict regimen, so a travel trip always throws me off.  Of course, I get to where I’m going and I’m always glad I went, but Vienna felt a little bit different.  Maybe it was because I was forced to go because of work, maybe it’s because I was going to what has been the epicenter of European music for the last few centuries.  I worked a lot on the trip, and didn’t get to see very much of the city, but nevertheless I saw a few things that seriously informed me about the music situation in Vienna.

I got to see Billy Hart

The BHQ was playing by chance when I was staying in Vienna, so I went and hung with the cats.  Billy didn’t announce any differently, the band didn’t play any differently.  The music was great, and the audience dug it.  Some things in the periphery were very interesting.

The club played a Steve Lehman record between sets.  I’ve never heard a club play a modern quasi-avant record ever.  Period.

The club (which was very much a club, bar, waiters, whole shebang) held about 200-250 people.

The audience was about 85% 40-60 year olds.  There were hardly any students there, maybe about 10.  A stark contrast to what you’d see in a club where Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson playing in any American city I’ve lived.

Terrible scotch selection.  Get it together, Vienna.

There was a piano and a pianist in the Hotel.

There was a Bosendorfer grand in the hotel that I was staying, and a pianist that played every night from 5-11, right next to the bar, which didn’t have any music playing.  He played a mix of standards in a Hank Jones style and Classical standard repertoire.  Most of the classical pieces were Hungarian dance type things that you would hear out of Liszt or someone.  His tip jar was brimming every night that I was there.

I have no idea what Viennese music sounds like.

I was in Vienna for a conference of business types that were coming together to try and make a difference in the current global economy and in the recent practices in the business world, which have slid to the grimier side of ethics.  On the last night, there was a gazillion dollar a plate dinner with speeches and networking.  After the dinner (and easily the best string of deserts I’ve ever tasted in my life.  DO NOT sleep on Esterhazytorte.) there was a band, born and raised in Vienna.  Five pieces, three guitars, a singer and a bassist.  They only sang English songs, mostly American folk repertoire.

Going into stores and bars and restaurants, I listened to the music everywhere I went.  I did not hear a single song in German.  Not one, out of probably 30 songs that I heard.  Waiting in the airport, in the taxi home, in the elevator, nothing.  Strange

Oh, and best wine I’ve ever had in my life.  You got it together, Vienna.

People really appreciate and know their music.

During  the aforementioned gala concert, I was looking around for things to do that wasn’t listening to the Austrian filtered American pop music, so I strolled the halls of the beautiful palais that the dinner was in.  Before long, I found what I was looking for, a Bosendorfer upright.

I’m a total romantic, so I sat down and started playing some Mozart(I’m pretty happy that I got the chance to do that). I was playing the Eb Sonata, when the bus boy that was coming past me to and from the great hall started whistling the melody.  Now would that ever happen in North America?

The other thing that happened was similarly amazing.  After the Mozart and Beethoven I played, I started playing some stride and ragtime.  As I did this, a serious crowd started to form (remember, I was a fair distance from the hall where the party was taking place).  At the end, there were 35-40 people crowded around the piano, everyone listening intently.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  I would have a hard time getting 40 people to a gig in a city that I’ve lived in, let alone one I’ve never been to.  It was a truly eye opening experience for me, and a lesson about the appreciation of music, at least in Vienna.

Promo Photo 2

“See?  ‘A Therese’.  He wrote it for some girl!” —Ethan, on the 24th Beethoven sonata that I’m working on

—Martin