RIP James Brown. Christmas just got a lot less funky.
Okay, fine. I give.
GIVE US AN EXAMPLE OR TWO OF AN ESPECIALLY GOOD OR INTERESTING:
1. Movie score: The Sweet Smell of Success, Elmer Bernstein. Yojimbo, Masaru Sato. Fargo, Carter Burwell.
2. TV theme: Hockey Night in Canada (original theme), Dolores Claman. (Perplexed non-Canadian readers click here.)
3. Melody: Mahler 9, mv. I, first theme. "In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning," Bob Hilliard/David Mann. "Peace," Ornette Coleman. "The Long Honeymoon," Elvis Costello.
4. Harmonic language: "Half The Fun," Billy Strayhorn. "The Barbara Song," Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht, arr. Gil Evans. "God Only Knows," Brian Wilson. "Dreams," Bob Brookmeyer.
5. Rhythmic feel: Charles Mingus and Dannie Richmond on "Fables of Faubus." Clark Terry and Bob Brookmeyer on "Tête à Tête." George Porter Jr. and Zigaboo Modeliste on "Pungee." Bootsy Collins and Jabo Starks on "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing" (14 minutes and 44 seconds of unstoppability). The Talking Heads on "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)."
6. Hip-hop track: "Check The Rhime," A Tribe Called Quest. "Blue Flowers," Dr. Octagon. "Virus," Deltron 3030.
7. Classical piece: Igor Stravinsky, Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Béla Bártok, Divertimento for Strings (second movement). Steve Reich, Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ. Frederic Rzewski, The People United Will Never Be Defeated!
8. Smash hit: "I Want You Back," The Jackson 5. "When Doves Cry," Prince. "... Baby One More Time," Britney Spears. "Hey Ya," Outkast.
9. Jazz album: Such Sweet Thunder, Duke Ellington.
10. Non-American folkloric group: Tom Zé (not really "folkloric," and, come to think of it, not really a "group," but... )
11. Book on music: The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film
A) Name an surprising album (or albums) you loved when you were developing as a musician: something that really informs your sound but that we would never guess in a million years: Uh, yeah -- see this post for an exhaustive and embarrassing list.
B) Name a practitioner (or a few) who play your instrument that you think is underrated: Ran Blake. Paul Bley.
C) Name a rock or pop album that you wish had been a smash commercial hit (but wasn't, not really): Lewis Taylor's self-titled debut. The New Pornographers, The Electric Version. Also, while Sign O The Times was obviously a massive hit, I never understood why "Starfish and Coffee" wasn't a hit single.
D) Name a favorite drummer, and an album to hear why you love that drummer: Stevie Wonder, Talking Book (I'm happy to see that Jeff Ballard agrees with me that Stevie's drumming is underrated.) Mel Lewis, Make Me Smile.
Feel free to play along in comments.
Sorry about the lack of recent posts... I've been trying to shake this flu or whatever since Tuesday, without much success. I'd been planning to post audio excerpts to the Pulse blog so you can get a taste of what Jamie and Joe have been blogging about, but lately it's been all I could do to drag my ass to the rehearsals and try (often without success) not to collapse in a hacking fit while conducting. So you'll just have to come down to the Bowery Poetry Club tonight to hear the music for yourself. I promise not to cough on any paying customers.
The world is finally rid of Augusto Pinochet.
And how does the Washington Post react? By publishing a literally stomach-turning eulogy for a dictator, in which they blame the democratically-elected president Salvador Allende for "creating the conditions for the 1973 coup." I mean, didn't you see how he was dressed? Flaunting that social justice all over the place. He was totally asking for it.
Well I hope you live long now, I pray the Lord your soul to keep
I think I'll be going before we fold our arms and start to weep
I never thought for a moment that human life could be so cheap
'Cos when they finally put you in the ground
They'll stand there laughing and tramp the dirt down
Y'all probably already saw this over at Do The Math, but it's too badass not to repost: possibly the best version of "Rhythm-a-Ning" ever, from 1961, with Monk, Charlie Rouse, John Ore, and the seriously underrated Frankie Dunlop, doing a "live in the studio" thing for a TV audience. When it comes to rare jazz clips, YouTube is an embarrassment of riches, but this is really something. (What happened to Monk's hat, I wonder?)
In case you missed it the first time around, here is my contribution to the original discussion.
One album I now realize I unaccountably left off that list: Julius Hemphill's Coon Bid'ness (reissued as Reflections). Worth it for "The Hard Blues" alone -- that's a tune in need of a restraining order.
Still Life with Commentator is the product of a three-way collaboration between pianist/composer Vijay Iyer, poet/librettist Mike Ladd, and director Ibrahim Quraishi. It's a multimedia theatre piece about cable news, blogs, technology, voyeurism, and war. As a certifiable news junkie and resident of a two-blog household, I was really anticipating this work -- it seemed almost tailor-made for me, bringing many of my musical and non-musical obsessions together under one roof.
Still Life is billed as an oratorio, but don't expect any kind of narrative structure -- Quaraishi, in response to a post-show question from an audience member, proudly proclaimed his hostility to "the psychosis of the narrative," and said he was instead trying to create "spaces of synergy." (Yeah, I don't have any idea what that's supposed to mean either.)
In practice, the show consists of a series of poems with music, some of which veer closer to what you'd call "songs" than others. They are all loosely connected by the thread of media criticism -- there's a trio of "Commentator Landscapes," in which Aaron Brown, Shepard Smith, and Dan Rather are rendered as bodies of water or (in Rather's case), New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain, in flowery language evocative of 19th century pastoral poetry. There's an ironic ode to cable TV bumpers ("Barn storming graphics/Final Cut barrel rolls"). One of the strongest bits, "Blog Mom," deftly and subtly evokes real-life warzone bloggers like Riverbend and Mazen Kerjab. And the rapid-fire cut-up patter of "Fox 'n' Friends" perfectly captured the "what rabbit hole have I fallen down this time?" sensation sane people have when tuning into Fox News:
Well drain my bib Jenny,
If that's not my boy the prez
then this ain't coke in my coffee.
Louise to jesus at at a reach-around picnic!
Did you say monkey?
But the obvious crowd favorite was (appropriately enough), "Jon Stewart on Crossfire," with the soulfully intoned chorus "Please stop, you're hurting America." This was the most concrete and specific song, with glimpses of Jon flitting by on the video screen above. As much as I love the moment Ladd is referencing here, I thought his celebration of it was a bit too... well... over-earnest, let's say. It didn't quite seem to fit with rest of the libretto.
Vijay's music for Still Life -- excerpts of which you can hear here -- is steeped not just in his expansive modern jazz palette, but in hiphop and electronica, dense with layered, programmed beats and soundscapes. Vijay himself was center-stage the whole time, playing piano and synth, triggering laptop events, and (when needed) conducting the ensemble -- Liberty Ellman (guitar) and Okkyung Lee (cello). Cast members Guillermo Brown, Pamela Z, and Mike Ladd all contributed live electronics as well, when they weren't needed elsewhere on stage. It was almost uncanny how well Vijay's score complimented Ladd's poetry, from the synth bass heartbeat that opens the piece to the faux-rhapsodic David Bowie/Brian Eno-like finale, "The Last Atrocity."
Vijay described his role as one of "creating environments," or "spaces in which to take action." The other performers, including the singers, mostly created and/or improvised their own parts. While I understand the impetus behind giving that kind of freedom (and responsibility) to the other artists involved, there were a few spots where I wished Vijay had taken a firmer hand -- not everyone is as gifted a melodist as Pamela Z. That said, the open-ended, collaborative approach hit more than it missed -- Okkyung Lee's haunting solo at the end of "Blog Mom" was especially gripping.
[Unfortunately, the live mix at BAM Harvey still needs work -- many times, the electronic elements swamped the insufficiently amplified acoustic instruments.]
The video design, by Prashant Bhargava, Sebastien Derenoncourt and Aron Deyo, had just the right blend of concrete imagery and abstraction, with enough activity to create a feeling of information overload without actually overloading the stage action. But I was a little underwhelmed by Quraishi's direction -- for a piece about media consumption, I didn't think the live visuals were particularly striking or memorable, and when they did make an impact it was usually through brute force (e.g. blinding us with ultra-bright fluorescent tubes). Also -- and this will seem nitpicky but I have to say it -- the projected titles were a real distraction. All of the singers were amplified and sang clearly. I'm seriously the worst person in the world at deciphering lyrics, and even I didn't need the titles. And nobody needs them for spoken text. But when they're up there, they're hard to ignore. Especially when they go out of sync, as they often did.
These caveats aside, Still Life with Commentator is a provocative and powerful work, an abstract riff on the current media landscape and the way it mediates our uneasy relationship to life during wartime. These are the issues we all grapple with every time we tune into the news or check our RSS feeds.
UPDATE: Tyler Ho Bynum has his own review up, including thoughts on how Still Life compares to the previous Iyer/Ladd collaboration, In What Language.
Still Life with Commentator runs through December 10 at BAM Harvey Theater. Tickets to this event were provided by BAM.
Last Friday's triple-bill at Union Hall was a very hip lineup. I love the space, so I'm always happy to see them booking interesting and diverse music.
A lot of jazz musicians in their twenties and thirties, having O.D.'d on the music school-approved jazz canon, start turning to alternate sources for inspiration. You'll see players who never really took pop music seriously suddenly throwing themselves into records by Wilco, Bjork, Beck, Elliott Smith, Rufus Wainwright, Sufjan Stevens, obsessing over the textural and sonic details of this music like they once obsessed over Coltrane's harmonic substitutions. But even once their inner singer-songwriter is unleashed, few of them actually take the next step and start writing songs -- you know, the kind with actual lyrics. Even fewer go all the way by actually picking up the mic and singing.
Trumpeter Matt Shulman -- whose previous Union Hall gig was with Secret Society back in August -- is one of those brave souls trying to combine his love of Jeff Buckley with his formidable jazz chops. He's been described as a Chet Baker for the twenty-first century, but that doesn't seem quite right. Chet's trumpet playing was as introverted as his voice, but Matt's blowing is relentlessly, staggeringly virtuosic, full of roller-coaster chromatic lines and tightly controlled multiphonics. He saves any sense of vulnerability for his singing, which is hushed and wispy. The vocal melodies ran the gamut from yearning melodicism to the occasional tricky trumpet-like line.
The group sound is filled out by (Secret Society stalwart) Matt Clohesy on five-string electric bass and Jason Wildman on drums, as well as Shulman's liberal use of pedal effects to manipulate both his voice and trumpet. (He often sang into both his trumpet and vocal mics simultaneously, which saves him from having to run two separate sets of pedals, but also tended to blur the lyrics.) Lubo Borza (that spelling is my best guess) contributed very effective abstract video projections, manipulated in real time using a laptop and Oxygen 8 MIDI controller.
Shulman is attempting an incredibly ambitious blend of confessional singer-songwriter intimacy, jazz harmony, prog pyrotechnics, extended trumpet techniques, and electronic soundsculpting. But this isn't gratuitous musical channel-surfing. It's more like Iron Chef, where the fun is in seeing outrageously unlikely combinations of ingredients brought together in inventive ways.
Jie Ma plays the Pipa, a plucked, fretted string instrument, kind of like a Chinese lute. She was billed as appearing with her own trio, but she actually ended up doing a few solo pieces and some duos with Downtown percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. The moods ranged from elegiac to hypnotic to furious, full of string bending, ringing harmonics, body-thumping, and one run of blistering hammer-ons that sounded almost like AC/DC's "Thunderstruck." I'd never heard of Jie before -- to be honest, I didn't even know what her instrument was called before she told us -- but she's a magnetic performer and the stuff I heard was all instantly compelling.
Last time I saw him, cellist Erik Friedlander all but stole the show, so I was pretty psyched to hear him do his own thing in an intimate space. "His own thing" was duets with the aforementioned Takeishi, plus a handful of solo cello pieces. He dug in on hard-grooving versions of classic tunes from the golden age of jazz, including Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "Raped Voices" and Arthur Blythe's "Lower Nile." There was also a traditional Persian melody and a few Friedlander originals, including one inspired by a vintage Airstream trailer.
Friedlander's creativity, melodicism, full-bodied sound, and time feel aren't just "pretty good for a cello player" -- Erik is, by any standard, certifiably sick. If he played bass instead of cello, he'd likely be as in-demand as guys like Drew Gress and Ben Street. As it is, he's a bit of a cultish figure, probably best known for his work in Dave Douglas's late, lamented Parallel Worlds quintet. But for the past ten-odd years, Friedlander's been working with Satoshi Takeishi, his brother Stomu Takeishi, and saxophonist/clarinettist Andy Laster in a band called Topaz, the genesis of which is vividly described on Erik's website:
After a few frustrating months Stomu suggested I invite his brother Satoshi, a percussionist, to a rehearsal. The first meeting with Sato bowled me over. Where once we had labored, we now were having a freewheeling conversation. Satoshi brought the rhythmic energy we had always needed to give the music a self-sustaining rush. Stomu was now free to move from anchoring the rhythm to sometimes being a free-agent adding color and texture to the arrangements. Andy and I were able to add harmony lines, support the rhythm section, or even just lay out, which was pretty much impossible before Sato arrived.
This is a band I'm really looking forward to hearing live.
P.S. I notice that Erik is also giving cello lessons online, gratis, via YouTube. Existing instructional videos are here, dealing with practical stuff like the "hotel room warmup," getting a good jazz pizz. sound on cello, and dealing with mics and pickups. Also: he takes requests.
Oh, look -- this week's Time Out NY hosts a round of every New Yorker's favorite sport: inside baseball. They asked these guys ("artists and industry leaders") to rate and comment the local criterati (including TONY's own) on a six-point scale, over five categories: knowledge, style, taste, accessibility, influence.
The comments and numerical ratings are anonymous, but the obvious party game is to try to pair the panelist with the invective. Anyone want to hazard a guess as to who said, of (otherwise top-rated) New Yorker critic Alex Ross, “Writes well, can’t hear, knows little”? Or of NYT pop critic Kelefa Sanneh, “His agenda is to raise crap to the level of art—he tends to write glowingly about some of the worst American music”? My favorite comment is whoever called Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni “the George Bush of restaurant reviewers: He’s a little man in a big job who got lucky but has never acknowledged the need to learn on this big job.” (If you don't get the reference, click here.)
One annoyance -- in an otherwise fun piece, the unnamed TONY editor(s) responsible for the intro can't resist taking the obvious cheap shot at bloggers:
At least they’re pros, unlike the thousands of armchair analyzers equipped with nothing more than opinions and a blog.
Montreal pianist David Ryshpan commemorates the École Polytechnique massacre, which happened 17 years ago today and is still a national day of mourning in Canada. It's felt especially acutely in Québec, and especially this year, in the wake of the shooting at Montreal's Dawson College in September.
Back when I was at McGill, every December 6th during the moment of silence I'd find myself looking around the classroom or rehearsal studio at all of the female students who had worked so hard to get there. They had to be significantly better than their male peers on the same instrument just to be admitted, and every day, they had to work to prove they were serious about music. (Whereas for us guys, it was mostly just assumed we were serious or we wouldn't be there.) They had to suffer a more-or-less constant stream of condescension, insensitivity, and outright intimidation from those who were uncomfortable with the idea of jazz as anything other than a boys-only club.
And then I would imagine some hateful, spiteful wretch like Marc Lépine walking in that room, unable to face his own deficiencies, reaching out for the most convenient group to scapegoat -- women. Young women, students, struggling to carve out a place for themselves in a male-dominated field, and succeeding. The prospect of full equality was so terrifying to Lépine, who thought these female engineering students had taken his "rightful place," that he lashed out in a killing spree, killing 14 women and injuring 13 others, before taking his own life.
It's easy to dismiss Lépine as an aberrant lunatic. But it's important to put his actions in a social context. As the number of male-dominated fields continue to dwindle, the resentment of those who'd enjoyed the privilege of playing a game rigged in their favor becomes more palpable. Seventeen years later, the misogynist and antifeminist views that animated Lépine are still distressingly commonplace.
After repeated viewings, I still can't decide if this clip of Stephin Merritt performing and being interviewed on Fox's Atlanta affiliate about his songs for the Lemony Snicket books is brilliant guerilla subversion of the medium, or just unwatchably awkward.
The project takes its name from her maternal forebear Marie Thérèze Coincoin, a fabled Southern figure who, living as a free black woman in mid-18th-century Louisiana, bought her children out of slavery. Various Coin Coin installments have also dealt with Roberts’s paternal relatives in Mississippi and her family’s participation in the Great Migration.
“Coincoin was the first example of the strong female archetype that I was ever given as a child,” she says. “She had no business acumen and no education and just learned by observing. But there are a lot of discrepancies in the documentation [of her], so I’m also trying to touch on lore.”
Each of the many musical episodes that make up the wonderfully moving follow-up, Mississippi Moonchile—which Roberts will reprise at Tonic on Tuesday 5—was named after one of her Southern ancestors. The saxist based the narration in the piece on interviews with her octogenarian paternal grandmother. “She has this really thick, beautiful Mississippi accent that I still can’t decipher,” she says with fond exasperation. “For a while, I kept asking, ‘What’d you say?’ But she was getting annoyed, so I just wrote exactly what I heard.”
She's joined by Shoko Nagai (piano), Hill Green (bass), Tomas Fujiwara (drums), Beatrice Anderson (voice) & Jason Palmer (trumpet).
8 PM at Tonic. $10.
SETLIST (click to listen/download)
Solos: Ryan Keberle, trombone; Sebastian Noelle, guitar
Solo: Mark Small, tenor sax
3) Flux in a Box
Solos: Rob Wilkerson, alto sax; Mike Holober, piano
4) Induction Effect
Solo: André Canniere, fluegelhorn
Solo: Mark Small, tenor sax
Solo: Jacob Wick, trumpet
7) Habeas Corpus
Solo: James Hirschfeld, trombone
8) Desolation Sound
Solo: Sam Sadigursky, soprano sax
While I'm extremely flattered by the praise Ratliff has for my writing, I can't agree with his characterization of Rob's solo on "Flux in a Box." But hey, the great thing about the interweb is that you can listen and make up your own mind.
I am, as always, deeply grateful to all of my co-conspirators for their dedication, hard work, and consummate musicianship. But kindly indulge me in a supersized shout-out to Kendrick Scott. This music lives or dies by the drummer. He's the guy you depend on to keep everything from flying off the rails, to unite 18 different time feels, to give shape to the music, to keep it aloft.
This is not the kind of thing you can just read cold. Regular Secret Society drummer, Jon Wikan (who's currently out with Maria Schneider's band) knows by now what the music needs, having anchored most of our gigs so far. As does Richie Barshay, who played with us in August -- Richie got to know my music by playing it every week for a year back when we were both students at NEC. But Kendrick had zero previous exposure to my writing. Nonetheless, over just a couple of rehearsals, he was able to internalize the shape and the spirit of it, figure out where the music crests and where it breaks, all while bringing his own distinctive personality to bear. I knew from that first slam into the beat on "Ritual" that this was going to be a fun gig.
The New York Times' Ben Ratliff reviews Thursday's Secret Society hit:
A Big Band for Today, With Hints of the Past
The music was full of large-scale, intricate designs, at times almost manically so. It built on some of the best lessons of Charles Mingus and Bob Brookmeyer, not only in harmony and structure but also in momentum, in moving a piece forward.
But a few other of Mr. Argue’s pieces, including “Induction Effect” and “Habeas Corpus,” established something else about him: he wants his music to make contemporary sense. Thursday’s set established a through line among Mr. Brookmeyer’s adventurous big-band compositions of the ’60s, Steve Reich’s pulse patterns and Tortoise’s new instrumental rock with jazz harmony. There were drones, backbeats, short cyclical figures, clouds of guitar distortion, all of it written into the music and elegantly claiming its place. And so a big, broad musical vocabulary came together easily, without jump-cutting or wrenching shifts of style. Mr. Argue made all these elements belong together naturally.
Thanks to all who came out for last night's Secret Society hit at the Bowery Poetry Club. I'll have the audio and incriminating evidence up soon, but in the meanwhile, you are all invited to watch me run my mouth off in this video over at NewMusicBox. It's a piece on contemporary big band writing, featuring Sherisse Rogers and Charles Waters of Gold Sparkle Band, plus yours truly. The video includes some nice clips from my hit last month with the Cologne Contemporary Jazz Orchestra. There's also a transcript of my full interview with Molly Sheridan over here.
Sherisse is a buddy -- I had the immense pleasure of co-producing her debut CD, and sometimes she even lets me conduct her band while she takes over the bass chair. I've heard Charles's muscular playing and writing in Gold Sparkle Band, but I haven't had the opportunity to check out his music for larger forces. (That will change tomorrow night, when I make the Anti-Social Music hit at Issue Project Room.) It's a honor to be in such company.
Thanks to the NMBX power trio of Molly Sheridan, Randy Nordschow, and Frank J. Oteri for putting this together.