Coming soon from Greenleaf Music -- I Tre Trombe present The World's Most Romantic Ballad Album of Trumpet Love Songs Ever -- a timeless collection of eternal melodies that linger in the heart forever, as performed by the latest sensational cylindrical brass supergroup, I Tre Trombe: Franco Ambrosetti, Dave Douglas, and Chris Botti:
Okay, I keed, I keed. See here for the real story of on-the-road chance meetings, reunions, et al.
I spend closing night at CMJ in the cozy confines of Union Hall's basement. I can't really see shows there without thinking of time (over three years ago, now) when we somehow managed to squash Secret Society into that space. Good times. Anyway, Saturday was kind of an unofficial roots/folk-rock night there, which suited me fine.
La Strada were in mid-set when I arrived. As you can see, they've got kind of a postmodern Williamsburg troubadour vibe going on, with strings and accordion added to the usual guitar-bass-drums setup -- in fact their MySpace page talks about "the romance of old-world instrumentation through new world amplification." The songwriting, too, inclines more heavily towards the current indie scene, with only occasional Balkanisms or nods to pre-WWII Paris cabarets -- though I must admit, those explicitly retro, "lost-in-time" gestures were among the most interesting parts of the set.
On behalf on broke-ass bloggers like myself who must rely on lowly consumer point-and-shoots instead of DSLRs with serious glass, I'd like to thank Mia Riddle & Her Band for bringing their own string of lighting. (See how pretty Union Hall's tin ceiling looks?) Mia & co. have that windswept, folksy-but-with-mallet-percussion-and-a-Nord sound that's engendered comparisons to Neko Case and Cat Power. I don't know that her pipes are quite in that league, but she's a charismatic, engaging singer and her band plays really well together. Her blog is fun, too -- I love the double-sided "Nailed It - Hosed It" sign (surely this means her producer is Canadian).
The Loom was the band I came to see -- my friend Lis Rubard, who can often be found on Pulse projects, plays horn and trumpet in the group. They were surely one of the hardest-working bands at CMJ, playing six shows in four days, including the Brooklyn Vegan loft party on Friday night. This was the last of the six, and their final show before heading into the studio. Despite the presence of Lis's plaintive horn lines (this is a great sound, by the way -- more indie rock groups should use horn), The Loom was the most deliberately rustic-sounding of Saturday's bands. John Fanning's voice is gruff and plain in that pre-Dylan folk style, and makes for a dramatic contrast to Sydney Price's sweet, airy sound -- though like the Arcade Fire's Régine Chassagne, Sydney had her own personal floor tom, on which she launched a thunderous assault whenever she wasn't otherwise engaged.
Pete and J were not in the CMJ book, but I ran into Jill from Feministe who knows the dudes in this band. She convinced me to stay and I'm glad I did. The band delivers straight-up sixties Americana-drenched pop-rock: jangly guitars, good-time shuffle beats, sugar-sweet three-part vocal harmonies, and shamelessly direct hooks. Luckily, they do all this very well, with a hint of taking-the-piss playfulness that never crosses over into smug posturing.
My own personal CMJ companion and erstwhile guide, Amanda Marcotte, had to fly back to Austin Friday AM, so for the last two days I was left to my own devices. I elected to revisit Le Poisson Rouge and the Bell House to see what the showcases there had to offer. (You know what they say about the lure of returning to the scene of the crime.)
I got to LPR in time to catch about half of the set by Staten Island's own Cymbals Eat Guitars. It's hard not to love a band named after a sonic phenomenon. They are a very young outfit that's been getting a fair bit of love this year from the indie blogs (and Pitchfork, natch) -- to the point where they're about to open for Wilco and the Flaming Lips on some European hits. Frontman Joseph D’Agostino sings in heartfelt yelp that doesn't really do a whole lot for me, and it sounds like the kids could use maybe a touch more road-seasoning yet, but their blend of sunny hooks and grungy lo-fi textures is very artfully done.
Speaking of road-seasoning, sweet Christmas has it done wonders for singer-songwriter Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson. I first saw him a couple of years ago, opening for TV On The Radio at a very wet McCarren Pool Party. He was (endearingly) awkward in front of all those people; he clearly had a long way to go as a performer. Since then, he's released a critically-praised, confessional self-titled debut record, and his more ambitiously-produced followup, Summer of Fear, is just out. (FWIW, Time Out New York listed him as a "Musician to Watch in 2009" -- along with, uh, yrstruly.)
MBAR gets the Dylan comparison a lot, on account of his quirky, conversational phrasing and slightly nasally voice, but what really drives the point home is his band (which I am almost positive are not the same players I heard at McCarren), who all sound like they have committed every frame of The Last Waltz to memory.
In particular, MBAR's drummer is by far the best drummer I heard at CMJ -- even doing a simple backwards groove with hihat on 1 & 3, bass drum on 2 & 4, and a basic eighth pattern on maracas, he grooved like mad. Meanwhile, Miles has transformed himself from a shy, gawkish, introverted singer-songwriter into a full-bore showman -- I mean, check this shit out:
(Note the socks.) This all might seem just a little bit much if MBAR wasn't so disarmingly sincere and unaffected -- and the songs still feel intimate and personal, too, just painted on a bigger, brighter canvas. Plus, he was clearly having a fucking great time up there -- and how could you not, with such a killing band?
That was it for the LPR lineup, so I decamped to the Bell House for the Polyvinyl showcase. When I got there, James Husband & co. were on stage, clearly not having a good time. The leader's appeal for silence from the talkative, mostly indifferent crowd (who were there to hear the headlining band, Japandroids) did not have the desired effect. According to Wikipedia, this hit was their second ever gig as a band (the first was earlier in the day) and boy did it show. It seemed like there were probably some good songs in there, but when the rhythm section isn't hooking up, nothing else really matters.
Headlights did not have that problem. I'd never heard of the Champaign, Illinois-based group before, but they were the revelation of CMJ for me. The four of them share an authentically deep pocket and they listen to each other really well (which is a much, much rarer quality than you'd think). The first thing that strikes you are the gorgeous, ethereal vocal harmonies -- Erin Fein and Tristan Wraight's voices are surreally well-matched. And the songs are full of clean, jangly guitar lines and Franco-pop synth, with the occasional foray into noise and distortion. But even when all that is done impeccably well, I get bored really quick if the groove isn't happening. What made Headlights work for me was the great rhythm playing all around, (including Erin's tambourine playing -- always nice to see someone defy the usual but not-entriely unfair stereotypes about what happens when a singer picks up the tambourine).
I had a nice chat with Tristan after the show -- he kindly allowed me to buy him a Maker's and listened patiently while I gushed about his set. He also told me a great anecdote: as the band was loading up the vehicle from another CMJ set earlier in the day, they were approached on the street by a stooped and grizzled gentleman who buttonholed Tristan. Here was their conversation (approximately, as far as I remember):
"Guitar player, huh? What amp do you like?"
"Uh, Fender Twin, usually."
"That's a good amp."
"So you're obviously a player yourself. What's your name?"
At this point, Headlights bassist Nick Sanborn interjects:
"Wait. You mean Sonny Rollins' The Bridge Jim Hall?"
"You have got to be shitting me!"
Apparently a very enjoyable 20-minute conversation ensued.
Japandroids are a two-piece guitar-and-drums outfit from my hometown, Vancouver. They are loud and heartfelt and enthusiastically sloppy and their choruses are half-shouted on-the-nose lyrics like "We used to dream, now we worry about dying." It's crunchy, loose pop-punk, and the eighteen-year olds in the crowd went absolutely apeshit for it. I'm told at one point there was crowd-surfing, which I did not see because I left after three songs. My problem is this -- when you have a two-piece band, I think it's pretty important that at least one of you actually be able to sing and/or play an instrument at some minimally competent level. Two is good. One is sufficient (the White Stripes being the obvious Exhibit A here). Zero is problematic.
I definitely respect their balls-to-the-wall commitment, and it sincerely pains me to slag my hometown boys. I recognize I'm pretty much alone here, and I'm not proud of the curmudgeonly instincts this band brings out in me, but seriously. There's a fine line between a gritty, messy, primitive beat and an actual mess, but these guys are so far out on the wrong side of that, I cannot even begin to relate.
PREVIOUSLY:CMJ Day Zero
MORE:CMJ Day Five
On Thursday afternoon, I was out at Queens College, running through some of my music with the student bigband. This was fun but also unbelievably draining, and by the time I got home and dropped off the music folders, it was already getting kinda late -- but it was also Amanda's last night in town, so I quickly refueled and headed back out to meet her at Ace of Clubs for the French/Brazilia showcase. We both got there too late to catch any of the French groups, but the Brazilian rockers Sweet Fanny Adams and The River Raid were both endearing, if not precisely what you'd expect when you learn a band is from Brazil. If there was a hint of CSS or Os Mutantes in Sweet Fanny Adams's slack pop-punk or in The River Raid's cheeky over-the-top swagger, it seemed buried pretty deep. Obviously, not everyone is obliged to fly the flag for the music of their native land, even when it's as rich and as deep as Brazil's -- but on a gut level, even though I enjoyed both bands, it's impossible not to feel that something is somehow amiss when you hear Brazilian musicians play in a rhythmically inflexible style.
According to the official schedule, that should have been it for the night, but as we were walking out, we spotted a girl holding an accordion. We learned she belonged to Kagero, a self-described "Japanese Gypsy Rock" band. Their flier has a quote which compares them to "'Fiddler on the Roof' starring 'Panic at the Disco,'" which honestly did not inspire confidence... but then the acoustic guitarist jumped up on a table and began strumming, and the other members of the group -- on violin, bass, and strap-on marching-band style drums -- circulated through the audience with an all-acoustic prelude. It worked -- we stayed.
Unfortunately, once Kagero took the stage and began playing, technical gremlins began multiplying. The leader's acoustic guitar wasn't coming through in the PA, and the band and sound tech squabbled over what (and who) was to blame. Guitars and DIs were swapped out, to no avail. It was looking increasingly unlikely that the show could be salvaged, but finally the leader made the obvious call -- "Fuck it -- we'll play acoustic." He brought the vocal mic into the middle of the room, and the band came down from the stage to play a truly cathartic set of clap-and-stomp-along Gypsy party music in the middle of the crowd (which at this point was, like, a dozen people). But the energy of the moment touched off a crazy dance party amongst the Brazilians, who also began dismantling the on-stage drum kit, bringing the toms into the audience so they could join in the madness.
And that's when Kagero started busting out some traditional Brazilian songs...
PREVIOUSLY:CMJ Day Zero
MORE:CMJ Day Four
Wednesday night was Secret Society's actual CMJ showcase night, a co-production between our label, New Amsterdam Records, and Cantaloupe Music, which is of course part of the Bang on a Can empire. The evening began with a lovely piece of solo piano music (Wed) by last year's Pulitzer Prize winner, David Lang, played with heartfelt grace by Ning Yu. Our New Amsterdam compatriots NOW Ensemble followed, with a mix of NOW staples like Judd Greenstein's Sing Along and some new works, including pretty sweet pieces by John Altieri (Not Yet) and Joshua Penman (The Whisper Gallery). The group was coming off a mini-tour, having played shows in DC and Baltimore on previous nights, and sounded very strong -- as tight as I've ever heard heard them, in fact.
The multi-talented Matthew Welch followed with Julia Wolfe's Lad, a piece for nine bagpipes -- or, in this version, eight prerecorded bagpipes and a lone live piper. It's a long slow burn full of densely microtonal glisses, and just at the point where we reach total sonic saturation, a keening folklike melody finally rises through the murk. The piece clearly divided the audience (partly due to sheer volume -- it was loud) but I absolutely loved it. It was kind of a punkrock move, even.
Interspersed between all of these performances were clips from (untitled), Jonathan Parker's new romantic comedy about a beautiful and fashionable Chelsea gallery owner (Marley Shelton) who falls for a nebbishy, self-obsessed new music composer (Adam Goldberg) -- David Lang contributed the music. The film opened in NY this weekend, to mixed reviews. I am torn: on the one hand, I am congenitally allergic to romantic comedies; on the other, David Lang has offered to "personally buy a cup of coffee for anyone who can identify every single real-life musician who appears on screen."
As for our set, it was recorded by WQXR's Q2 and should be streaming there before too long, so if you missed it, you'll be able to judge for yourself (watch this space). Again, a massive shout-out to sound engineers Justin Balch and LPR's own Matthew Duane. Also: these CMJ showcases always involve a frantic dash to get set up and get playing as quickly as possible after the previous group finishes, and the LPR crew did a frankly astonishing job of getting the stage reconfigured for myself and my 18 co-conspirators in what is surely record time.
PREVIOUSLY:CMJ Day Zero
MORE:CMJ Day Three
On Tuesday, for the first night of CMJ proper, I picked up my badge and put myself at the mercy of Amanda Marcotte, who was up visiting from Austin. Amanda is a veteran of countless SXSWs and is exactly the kind of hardcore concert companion you want for this kind of event. She suggested we start with the English band Angry Vs The Bear at Bowery Electric, but when we got there we learned their show had been cancelled. (Still no idea what happened.)
Undaunted, Amanda suggested we head down to Santos Party House, which had bands going in the downstairs bar as well as the main upstairs space. The downstairs bands turned out to be a lot mor entertaining. We heard Dinowalrus, Harlem (who are actually from Austin), Flexions, Lovvers, and Unnatural Helpers.
Unnatural Helpers made the best impression on us. Their drummer contributes the lead vocals -- normally this is a sonic nightmare, but in the tiny downstairs space the open vocal mic actually gave the cymbals a presence they'd been missing for the early bands. (It always makes me crazy when the guitars are louder than the drums. This is so deeply wrong I can't even begin to tell you.) Anyway, these guys rocked hard and definitely won over the smallish but appreciative crowd.
PREVIOUSLY:CMJ Day Zero
MORE:CMJ Day Two
(Photo: Lindsay Beyerstein)
My week at this year's CMJ Music Marathon unofficially began a day early, with our bigband three-way Monday night at the Bell House -- this one of my favorite venues in town and a hotbed of CMJ activity later in the week. It's a pretty sweet room, as you can see from the photos, with totally unobstructed sightlines (no columns!) and a beautiful arched wooden ceiling that does wonders for the sound.
Speaking of which, I've very grateful to the Bell House's Jeff Stultz and Infernal Machines engineer Paul Cox for doing such an amazing job on the live sound -- and of course to the Bjorkestra and the Industrial Jazz Group for making it a memorable night of postmodern bigband music.
In case anyone was wondering... I was utterly unprepared for the ambush Stefan Zeniuk's Baritone Army sprang just seconds after our last tune had finished -- more bari sax players than I could count bum-rushed the stage, honking and wailing as they ran through the crowd. Josh, of course, jumped down to join them, heeding the call of his people. It made for a surreal and inspired epilogue.
Deepest appreciation to Search and Restore for helping us get the word out, and to everyone who came down to hear us play. We love you all.
Saw the Vision Festival in their new digs at the Abrons Arts Center on Saturday. Abrons is a real theatre, so the acoustics are much improved from the beautiful-but-cavernous Angel Orensanz Foundation (which is still ground zero for the VF's final night tonight). Unfortunately, the amplified sound was a wee bit... over-enthusiastic, let's say, and the piano especially suffered from persistent, piercing brightness. This was a shame as the evening featured some real masters of modern improvised pianism, beginning with a dazzling, tightly focused solo set by Matthew Shipp.
Alto saxophonist Rob Brown followed up, in a kinetic bass-less trio with Craig Taborn and Nasheet Waits -- the unbelievably intense sparks generated between piano and drums contrasting sharply with the leader's more cerebral, floating approach. (I recommend you fire up the wayback machine and check out Ben Ratliff's now 10-year old profile of five up-and-coming NYC drummers, including Nasheet.)
The next drummer, Milford Graves, has a few years on Waits. Graves is probably best known for his contributions to the New York Art Quartet back in the 1960s, but he has been active since then as both player and educator (he's a longtime faculty member at Bennington). He began his set offstage with a plaintive chanting-and-talking-drum incantation, before making his way behind an impressively expanded drum kit. Graves invited his collaborators to the stage one by one -- pianist D.D. Jackson, bassist and festival honcho William Parker, and young DC-based tenor saxophonist Grant Langford -- who is, I presume, the first active member of the Airmen of Note to ever perform at the Vision Fest. I am not sure this diverse group of personalities, brought together here for the first time, ever quite gelled as a unit (except Graves and Parker, who have an undeniable hookup), but Graves certainly proved his free-flowing energies remain undiminished by age.
I did not catch singer/pianist Lisa Sokolov's set, but I made it back in time for the Stateside premiere of Boston bassist (and guitarist, though he played only bass in this band) Joe Morris's "GoGo Mambo." This band is a tribute to original Mambo king Pérez Prado -- the free-blowing horns (notably Tony Malaby on tenor sax and Bill Lowe on trombone) over straight-up Afro-Cuban grooves reminded me a bit of some of Don Byron's projects, especially Music for Six Musicians. I especially enjoyed the interplay between Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng on congas and Willie Martinez on timbales -- it made for a fun and satisfyingly earthy close to a night that otherwise embraced a more abstracted rhythmic perspective.
* * *
The next day, I hit Search and Restore's festival-within-a-festival at Public Assembly (AKA "the old Galapagos"), stupidly leaving my camera battery in its charging cradle. Urg. Anyway, I was definitely impressed with the healthy Sunday afternoon turnout, and more impressed still by the rapt attention paid to Steve Coleman's austerely intimate music -- the curious quartet of Coleman's alto sax, Jonathan Finlayson's trumpet, Jen Shyu's voice, and Miles Okazaki's guitar made some of the most beautiful and unusual "chamber jazz" I have heard in a good long time. I'd never experienced Coleman's music without a rhythm section before. In a situation like that, everyone's personal responsibility for the time ramps up dramatically, but Steve's command of rhythm is, of course, legendary, and it was quite something to hear him and his cohorts put it all out there for an extended spell. I really enjoyed everything I heard at Public Assembly -- Ken Thompson's ambitious new compositions, Kneebody's groove-drenched electrojazz, and the life-affirming energy of Andrew D'Angelo's Gay Disco trio -- but Steve Coleman's set revealed facets of his artistry I hadn't previously appreciated.
Vision Fest photos are below the fold.
Well now... this final tourblogging installment is rather embarrassingly tardy, i'n't?
In my defense, I've been pretty severely under the weather ever since returning from Europe. I only just barely held it together for our gig in Philly last Friday, and after that I basically spent the entire weekend in bed, alternating long passages of faint moaning with occasional percussive hacking-up-a-lung interludes. I even had to miss out on David Byrne in Prospect Park last night -- godfuckingdammit. At least I managed to recuperate enough to go catch Sherisse Rogers's Project Uprising at the Jazz Gallery. (She's there again tonight. Go.)
So anyway, where were we... oh, yes. The morning of Saturday, May 30, the band finally gets to sleep in... except for the, ah, chosen ones who were drafted into the Moers Morning Improv sessions. These are actually a pretty cool idea, they are run by German saxophonist Angelika Niescier, and they present an opportunity for the various musicians who come from all over to perform at Moers to play some unscripted music together. I talked to the Society co-conspirators afterwards and they all seemed to really enjoy it -- I think it made a nice diversion from playing all my hairy anal-retentive stuff.
In the early afternoon, there was a tour of Moers castle, conducted by a lady in period costume. But she was not about to be left alone in her fancy garb -- she quickly drafted some co-conspirators into putting on some specialized headwear as well (see below). A whirlwind tour of the town followed, including a brief visit with Moers' Improviser-in-Residence -- yes, this is a real position! Endowed by the city! It comes with an actual residence!
The Moers Festival grounds themselves are a trip. If you don't know the deal at Moers, it is basically like Coachella, except it's not in the middle of the fucking desert. Also, the music skews significantly more towards left field. And they've been doing it for 38 years now.
People show up from all over Europe and camp out in the park for days. Some of them don't even buy tickets to the show, they just come for the hang. The venue is a straight-up, old-school circus Big Top -- reputed to be Europe's Biggest, with a capacity of 2500 people, almost all of them hardcore creative music fans. Remarkable balance of young and old, male and female -- and everyone is really vocal about what they like, and what they don't.
Our own turn under the Big Top came on Sunday, May 31. We had two particularly tough acts to follow -- Colin Stetson practically brought down the tent with his insane set of solo saxophone pieces. I say this knowing you will not believe me when I tell you that 2500 people completely lost their shit for unaccompanied bass saxophone, but they totally did. (He also played tunes on alto sax and clarinet.) Colin has apparently being performing this same incredibly grueling set opening up for The National, so he's used to winning over large crowds, but I doubt they gave him anything like the reception he had in Moers. After hearing the first piece, a dizzying display of circular breathing and extended technique -- "Hrm, I wonder what pedals he's using? Oh, wait, he isn't using any pedals... " -- it seemed hard to believe he had enough in him for another tune, let alone a complete set. But the thing is, they were actual tunes that Colin played, and good ones too -- not just free-associative freakouts -- which helped elevate the set far beyond "mere" jaw-dropping technical display.
After Colin came Guillermo Klein y Los Gauchos, who just wrapped up a post-Moers run at the Vanguard. This band is great, one of my favorite working groups in jazz, but I regrettably did not catch more than a couple of minutes of their set because I was frantically busy planning the tech for our own show. Moers runs on a tight schedule, and normally there isn't time for a soundcheck, just a brief line check -- "Mics working? Yes? Okay, let's hope for the best -- go!" This would have been disastrous for a band like ours, especially since we couldn't afford to bring our own sound tech along on tour. Fortunately, there was a brief dinner break scheduled between Guillermo's set and ours, giving us just enough time to actually check the sound. (It makes a difference, people.)
We are also massively grateful to the Bimhuis's sound tech, Ron Ruiten, who happened to be attending Moers as a civilian. Ron volunteered to help with the sound for our show, which is just a staggeringly generous thing to do on your day off, and hugely helpful since Ron had already heard our music in a (much) smaller space a few days earlier, and therefore knows how it is supposed to sound.
Our Moers Festival hit was an order of magnitude more people than we have ever played for before. Here is what it looked like from the stage after we were done (courtesy of Jen Wharton):
The Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger called our performance "one of the highlights of the 38th Moers Festival." What can I say? It was an unbelievable honor for us to play.
I did get a recording -- haven't listened to it yet but if the sound is okay, I'll put it up in the next few days.
Final batch of pics below the fold -- also check out Jen's Flickr stream.
Our too-short stay in Amsterdam (would love to actually spend time in the city at some point) wrapped up at noon on May 29, as we lit out of town and headed for Dortmund. Google Maps had this pegged as a 2.5 hour trip , but with holiday weekend traffic (congestion? On the Autobahn? Indeed) took nearly twice as long, and we missed the first hour of our soundcheck at Domicil. A bit nerve-wracking, as hollow stage + 4 subwoofers directly underneath us + limited setup time + severely exhausted band = reversion to middle school band trip behavior (see below for photographic evidence), but luckily the Domicil sound tech was both patient and solid, and we worked it all out in the end. Actually, all of the sound techs we worked with this tour were remarkably good, the odds of which surely approach infinite improbability.
I hadn't done due diligence on Dortmund and was expecting a much smaller city -- turns out it's the seventh-largest in Germany, almost as big as Stuttgart and bigger than places like Düsseldorf, Bremen, Hanover, Leipzig.... And Domicil is a very hip multi-genre club, the kind of venue that wouldn't be hugely out of place in NYC. The crowd started small but filled out as the show went on. They were uncannily silent during our set but incredibly appreciative afterwards -- I wish we'd had time to give them an encore, but the club had a live radio broadcast happening after our set and we needed to clear out of there.
We had just (barely) enough time in Dortmund to soundcheck, eat, play, then pack up. We left that night for our final destination, Moers, getting in around midnight. Like any group of road-weary musicians, we headed immediately for the hotel bar, where we were joined by members of a local bowling league, who before too long were singing lusty drinking songs and insisting we all join them in shots of Underberg. I leave you to guess which Secret Society co-conspirator actually brought home a 12-pack tin of the stuff.
More photos -- both mine and Jon's -- below the fold.
So it turns out trying to blog from the road while also keeping a 19-musician tour together and trying to find time to enjoy the hang is a bit tricky to pull off. Who knew? I did manage one post and a handful of road-tweets, but the real wrapup comes ex post facto. Spoiler alert: no casualties, no destroyed instruments, and only one book of music left behind. Really, that alone ought to qualify the tour as a smashing success.
Anyway, in the interests of keeping things more or less chronological, below the fold you will find Society drummer Jon Wikan's shots of the tour's first 48 hours, which, when compared to my own account, gives a Rashomon-like alternate perspective on recent events.
According to the official itinerary (painstakingly prepared by the band's very own tour manager, yrs trly), our first-ever European tour officially commenced on May 27 with a 9 AM rehearsal in New York. After that, we reconvened at JFK for a 5:45 PM Air Berlin flight to Düsseldorf. A huge shout-out to Air Berlin for not only being cool about all the instruments we brought aboard, but also arranging things so that all of the unbooked seats on the flight were in our section -- just in case anyone's instrument didn't fit in the overhead bin! (They did, of course, but airlines never believe you when you tell them this.)
We had been scheduled to arrive in Düsseldorf at 7:10 AM the next morning, but the flight was a titch late and we didn't really get rolling until 8:30 AM. As promised, our rental bass was already on the bus, which was also equipped with an on-board coffeemaker and a fridge stocked with Kronenbourg, sold on the honor system. (I still don't fully understand why a German bus company had French beer in the fridge, but hey.) Our awesome driver, Nazim, got us to our Amsterdam hotel around 11:30 AM, and those who could sleep, slept -- for a few hours at least. We had a 4:00 PM lobby call and then Nazim dropped us off at the Bimhuis for our soundcheck.
After a spectacular meal -- the Bimhuis chef pulled out all the stops for us -- the downbeat for our first set at the Bim came just after 8:30 PM. At this point we had been up for basically 34 hours. It's all a bit of a blur but I think we did okay. We played until about 11 PM and the post-show buzz was enough to extend the hang well into the wee hours. A handful of lunatics got up the next morning to go running before our 11:30 AM lobby call for the bus to Dortmund.
Thanks to all who came out to the National Jazz Awards last night. I was presented with the SOCAN/CAJE Phil Nimmons Emerging Composer Award by Phil Nimmons himself. This was a kick because Phil -- a few days shy of 86 years old -- remains one of the hippest figures in Canadian jazz. With the help of the SOCAN/CAJE Jazz Orchestra, assembled by Darcy Hepner, we premiered "Hard Up On The Down Low," an anthem of global economic collapse featuring Ingrid Jensen on electronically manipulated trumpet. (Ingrid got show off her brand new Line 6 mega-rig.)
It was a real honor to perform at this event, which featured great performances by Mario Allard's band, a very good bigband made up of local student players, and closed with Joel Miller's smoking arrangement of Gil's "Time of the Barracudas," played with the assistance of the Jensen sisters and Alex Dean's killing house band.
However, I was disappointed to learn that the names of the musicians did not appear in the program. Perhaps there was not time to include them. But the players in the SOCAN/CAJE band include some of Toronto's finest musicians, and they worked their asses off to learn "Hard Up On The Down Low," which is not at all an easy thing to put together in a short period of time! They deserve serious props and I am very grateful to all of them:
Ingrid Jensen (solo)
Joey Goldstein, guitar
Adrean Farrugia, piano
George Koller, bass
Joel Haynes, drums
More photos -- courtesy of the amazing and amazingly generous Ian Chandler -- below the fold...
Deepest thanks to everyone who came out to celebrate the impending release of Infernal Machines. We are, as always, honored and grateful for your support.
The Bell House is a very cool somewhat newish music venue owned by the Union Hall/Floyd crew. It's located in the same block of repurposed industrial Brooklyn No Man's Land that also houses IBeam. This was an event for Chris Speed's Skirl Records, with brief sets by four bands, each presenting a different facet of the current scene. No bocce here, but great sound -- a titch louder than your usual jazz hit but enjoyably so -- clear, balanced, exciting.
Briggan Kraus played a fully improvised (or "fully improvised-sounding," at any rate) trio set with Ikue Mori and Jim Black, which tended towards the introspective and textural, with occasional bursts of fractured free-rock energy.
Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone's longstanding duo (they actually performed immediately before us on our very first gig, back at CB's almost four years ago now) remains haunting and wonderfully elusive -- too spiky to be new-artsong-pop, and too unabashedly melodic to fit most people's notions of what avant-jazz is supposed to sound like.
Curtis Hasslebring's latest edition of The New Mellow Edwards (this one with Chris Speed, Trevor Dunn, and Ches Smith) brought both whimsy (including a Casio keyboard interlude) and swagger to Hasslebring's ambitious long-form architecture.
The closer was the trio from Andrew D'Angelo's Skadra Degis -- D'Angelo, Trevor Dunn, and Jim Black -- which he has christened "Gay Disco," after that record's closing track. Andrew mentioned they were headed into the studio to record a followup, which is great news. Andrew's playing is as compellingly visceral as ever, and Dunn and Black are the perfect foils for his knotty, tightly-focused tunes.
The Society had a blast at this year's All Nite Soul Festival at St. Peter's Church on Oct. 12, and we hope you did as well (despite the legendarily behind-schedule start time). It was an unbelievable honor to perform on the same bill as so many jazz legends, as well as a compliment of young upstarts doing great new things. And of course, it was a real kick to inaugurate the great Ted Poor as an official co-conspirator. If this night was your first exposure to Secret Society, we hope to see you again on Nov. 9 at the Bowery Poetry Club and Dec. 12-13 at the Jazz Gallery.
As regular readers know, I usually post audio of our live recordings here. I'm not going to to that in this case because, well... as you might imagine, the church's acoustics are somewhat suboptimal for bigband recording, and I'd really prefer y'all listen to those sweet-sounding, mixed & mastered recordings from our summer hit at Le Poisson Rouge. But in case you are keeping track, we played:
Solo: Nadje Noordhuis, trumpet
Earlier recordings of both of which can be downloaded from our Live Audio Archive.
This was a great opportunity for me to extract myself from my current routine of devoting every waking hour to frantic preparations for our debut recording and instead sit back and enjoy some great music. Many thanks to Ike Sturm for the invitation, for running a great festival, and for playing bass for the Society's set.
More photos below the fold...
Darcy James Argue's Secret Society is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions in behalf of Darcy James Argue's Secret Society may be made payable to Fractured Atlas and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.
A fantastic performance from my current favorite band (Dear Science kills), seriously marred by appallingly muddy, hollow, boomy live sound. My obvious affection for the Brooklyn Masonic Temple notwithstanding, this is really not a good place to see live rock 'n roll.
More pics below the fold...
Robert Glasper with Vicente Archer, Chris Dave
Rasheid Ali with Lawrence Clark, Lakecia Benjamin, Greg Murphy, Joris Teepe
Vanessa Rubin with Danny Grissett, Lonnie Plaxico, Alvin Atkinson
More pics below the fold...
MP3: Aaron Parks, "Nemesis" (click to listen, right/ctrl-click to download)
From Invisible Cinema. Aaron Parks, piano; Mike Moreno, guitar; Matt Penman, bass; Eric Harland, drums. Posted with permission of the artist.
So clearly the J&R MusicFest people do not fuck around when it comes to punctuality. Last night's mini jazz showcase was scheduled to start at 5 PM. I walked up at 5:02 and Aaron Parks & co. were already a couple of minutes into the anthemic 7/4 rocker "Nemesis" (see above). You know, even Carnegie Hall starts at five after.
Anyway, Aaron's Blue Note debut (and his first record as a leader in six years) dropped on Tuesday and he's been a busy boy this week, co-headlining (with Kurt Rosenwinkel) four sets over two nights at Smalls earlier in the week, and then this. I was at the first Small's set Tuesday night, sitting directly behind Aaron's piano bench (onstage, in fact, on the Rhodes bench), and the experience was kind of mind-blowing. Tuesday night was also the first time Kurt and Kendrick played together -- I do not believe it will be the last. The drummer on the record is Eric Harland, who is also great, but as I overheard one young jazz student at last night's hit tell his compatriot: "I love Kendrick's style, it's so fucking marching band."
The thing is, though, Kendrick is boundlessly inventive -- I've heard him play Aaron's music several times and he's always surprising me. One of his newly acquired toys are these special drum mallets with shakers inside the mallets -- he used them in dramatically different ways on Tuesday and Friday. And nobody plays the surging multimetric straight-eighth grooves that have become the lingua franca of modern mainstream jazz better than Kendrick.
As for the leader, Aaron has a real gift for spinning memorable, attractively folksy themes (like the pentatonic-based "Peaceful Warrior," which I have heard in a few different incarnations over the years) into mutlisection long-form workouts. He's always been kind of a scary technical wunderkind (like many jazz pianists, his piano guru is Sofia Rosoff) but what makes his recent music a thrill to listen to is the combination of effusive joy and an ambitious, architectural sense of structure and large-scale design.
At this point the music industry's operatically extended death throes, EMI releasing a creative jazz record by an up-and-coming artist kind of feels like staging a jam session on the Hindenburg, but hey, I am not complaining. Good on them for putting Invisible Cinemas out there, and also putting some of that major-label mojo behind an eminently worthy young musician.
WBGO's Josh Jackson has a nice interview with Aaron (including some live-in-the-studio versions of songs from Invisible Cineams). BGO aslo recorded the J&R Fest and all of these performances should be available for streaming
soonish now. When that happens, I will update this post. (Post has been updated.)
[As always, I don't pretend to be remotely objective about anything I write here, but especially not about Aaron -- he is a friend, he's subbed in Society rehearsals a few times, and he's the person responsible for introducing me to Lizz Wright. But, you know, if objectivity is your thing, what are you even doing reading blogs in the first place?]
Singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding has had the kind of storybook success I honestly did not think was still even possible for a jazz artist -- she grew up home-schooled in a single-parent family in Portland, Oregon, landed a full ride at Berklee, was hired to teach bass at her alma mater as soon as she graduated, started gigging with Joe Lovano, put out a couple of records as a leader, and recently ended up playing on Letterman(!) and -- like Nico Muhly -- featured in the Times' Fashion & Style section.
This was my first time hearing her. Live, she's an engaging and charismatic performer with a wispy, attractive voice. She easily enthralled the big, diverse crowd, especially on the neo-soulish "Precious," and a cover of Nina Simone's "Wild Is The Wind." I'd like to hear her inhabit the songs a bit more -- Esperanza somtimes comes off as self-consciously putting on a performance instead of sublimating herself into the song. She's hardly alone in this -- jazz singers in general tend to be more concerned with sound than story -- but I have trouble connecting to that.
My other gripe was that for most of the set it, was well-nigh impossible to hear her bass playing. You could feel her notes, sure, but there was practically no pitch definition, and the bass drum was amplified so excessively it masked most of the low-end frequencies anyway. Now I love the communal experience of the outdoor summer gigs, and I'm glad that this year there are a few more jazz shows in the mix, but sweet jeebus is the live sound at these things ever atrocious. I'd like to catch her band again under more favorable sonic circumstances.
Mallet percussionist Dave Samuels -- of Spyro Gyra fame -- led his Caribbean Jazz Project in an energetic set that included the Dizzy Gillespie-Chano Pozo classic "Wachi Wara" and a Afro-Carribeanized versions of Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments" and Monk's "Bemsha Swing." The band is made up of very talented players, but the set suffered from a lack of contrast -- I wanted to hear more dynamic variation, more ebb and flow, more drama.
It's been a long time since I've heard Roy Hargrove and I wasn't exactly sure what to expect. He's spent recent years concentrating on groove-oriented fusion projects and hiphop collaborations, but his most recent album, Earfood, is a back-to-bop testament. Roy brought the Earfood band to City Hall Park -- Justin Robinson, alto sax; Gerald Clayton, piano; Danton Boller, bass; Montez Coleman, drums -- and any worries I might had about dry, lifeless museum jazz were quickly dispelled by Coleman's swirling, billowing energy and Hargrove's swaggering intensity. (Dig the sneakers with the shiny black suit.) Clayton was another highlight, especially his impressive stopped-string work during his solo on a funky romp through Cedar Walton's "I'm Not So Sure." Hargrove showed us a few different facets of himself over the set, reaching for the fluegelhorn on an uncannily intimate ballad, but he seemed happiest when he was soaring out above the furiously churning rhythm section. Seriously, Montez Coleman is a total badass and he makes the perfect foil for Roy's unbound exuberance. A really fun closing set.
More pictures below the fold...
Without the manic intensity of me trying to liveblog every set of a 27-hour concert as it was happening, this year's Bang On A Can Marathon felt a lot more chill. Of course, it was also considerably shorter, clocking in at a mere 12 hours and change. Perhaps inevitably, it was also less diverse, with just four artists representing from outside of "new classical" circles (Karsh Kale, Owen Pallett, Marnie Stern and Dan Deacon). So yeah, evidently nobody from the jazz team made the cut this year. (The 2007 Marathon had sets by Vijay Iyer, Don Byron, and the World Sax Quartet.) However, the out-of-towners included Ireland's Crash Ensemble, Israel's Ensemble Nikel, and my peeps from the Soviet Socialst Republic of Canuckistan, Contact.
Alarm Will Sound played John Adams's Son of Chamber Symphony (3rd mvt.), Harrison Birtwistle's Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum, and (much later in the night) Matt Marks's arrangement of The Beatles' (by which we really mean John Lennon's) Revolution #9.
The Adams is actually a reincarnation of a piece originally written for Kronos Quartet, later retrofitted for the Alarmists. It's a brisk amusement-park ride and they pretty much slayed it. It has some 4-on-the-floor bass drum that works infinitely better than that infamous orchestral "techno" section in Thomas Adès's Asyla -- although to be fair, I would probably like piece that a lot more if it was ever played with Alarm-level rhythmic authority.
AWS brought the same precision and intensity to the Birtwistle, a piece that is a very good example of the kind of fractured, disjunct, big-M Modernist aesthetic I basically cannot hang with. The individual moments here are often really striking -- we occasionally get a little taste of a cool little angular bass line -- but that's all Birtwistle will ever allow us, just a taste. Then he interrupts it with a few seconds of dissonant long tones, and even that quickly splinters off, motivic shards flying off in every direction. The performance was tight and they made a great case for it, but this cocktail of two parts solemnity to one part ADD is not really my drink of choice.
Carmen Arcadiae… actually makes musique concrète's all-time biggest hit, Revolution #9, sound positively linear by comparison. Matt gave a very entertaining introduction to his arrangement, wherein he likened Alarm Will Sound's penchant for creating acoustic reinterpretations of electronic music to Harry Potter fanfic: "Basically, we're giant geeks." So yeah, it's pretty much straight-up fanservice for the small but obsessive subset of Beatles fans who were actually intrigued by the White Album's penultimate, ah, "tune." (A Venn diagram would probably show considerable overlap between that set and the set of people who show up at the Bang On A Can Marathon.) Anyway, this painstaking recreation is wholly absurd and I loved it -- Matt's chart is wildly entertaining and theatrical, with members of the band honking car horns, screaming into mutes, imitating backwards tape loops, and screaming in each other's faces. ("Hold that line! Block that kick!") Does my fanboyish enjoyment of this arrangement make me a giant hypocrite? Yeah, probably. So what else is new?
Pamela Z played and sang Chalky Crystal Liquid Cave. I love Pamela Z. This time, she did not use her customary BodySynth, but a motion-sensitive theremin-like controller she called a "Swearingen" (named after the gadget's inventor, not Al.) Pamela went second (in between the first two AWS pieces) and, in an uncomfortable echo of last year's Juana Molina fiasco, her performance was delayed by tech gremlins. I dunno if the tsuris caused her to have to abbreviate her set, but whatever the reason, it was too damn short.
Lisa Moore played Annie Goslfield's Lightning Slingers and Dead Ringers, for piano and keyboard-triggered sampler.
Gosfield explained that "Lightning Slingers" is old-school slang for "telegraph operators," and "dead ringers" refers to how the acoustic piano sounds are sampled and transformed into sounds that recall analog synths, slide guitar, and such like. I liked the moody, resonant middle section, and Lisa Moore is always impressive.
The Crash Ensemble played Donnacha Dennehy's Grá agus Bás, Terry Riley's Loops for Ancient Giant Nude Hairy Warriors Racing Down the Slopes of Battle (3rd mvt.), and later on, Arnold Dreyblatt's Resonant Relations.
Dennehy is an Irish composer, in case you couldn't tell. He is also the artistic director of the Crash Ensemble. If you are Irish, it must really suck to know that there is basically no aspect of your traditional culture that has not been commodified and kitschified for global export, to the point where now all it takes is a single pennywhistle appoggiatura or a mournful celtic fiddle slide to make people want to stab a shilelagh into their ear canal. This is to say that Dennehy has a tough row to hoe, trying to bring old-style Irish sean nós singing into a new music context, without stumbling into cliché -- and you know what, for the most part, he succeeded. While I did find the piece a wee bit meandering, the closing gesture, with Iarla Ó Lionáird's sweet voice riding atop the ensemble's furiously cascading arpeggios made for an ecstatic release.
Alarm Will Sound conductor Alan Pierson was pulling double duty last night, conducting Crash as well as his own band, but he left the Celts to their own devices for Terry Riley's Loops for Giant Nude Hairy Warriors etc. I enjoyed this drumset-driven, odd-meter aggro romp immensely.
I wanted to enjoy Arnold Dreyblatt's Resonant Relations -- it used an intriguing tuning system and contained some fun, oddball synth-harpsicord ostinatos -- but the music felt very stiff and episodic, without much apparent momentum or direction. I just wasn't feeling it.
Karsh Kale (tabla) and Raj Maddela (drum kit) played Timeline, which is basically a collection of sick beats, with occasional electronic pads underneath. Their hookup was great and the Hinustani-meets-hiphop beats were, I believe I mentioned, sick, but man cannot live by sick beats alone. I wanted to hear a proper band over top of those grooves.
Caleb Burhans sang no.
His sweet, ethereal countertenor sang out over a simple looped wash. The phrasing was irregular but flowing and organic, and Caleb's melodic instincts are unerringly sound. The performance had a spontaneous feel to it, so I asked Caleb later if it was improvised. He told me it was transcribed from an improvisation he'd recorded.
The Hartt Bass Band played Julia Wolfe's Strong Hold.
A Masada-inspired (no, not, Zorn's band... the actual fortification) epic for eight basses. I was struck by the huge range spanned -- lots of harmonics and off- the-fingerboard playing along with the low-end -- and also the almost complete absence of pizzicato playing. One bit felt almost like a concerto grosso, with frantic, piercing solo tremolos interrupted by weighty tutti arrivals. Unfortunately, though, the microphones were also picking up the click track, which was bleeding over from the players' headphones -- being able to hear that faint click throughout robbed the piece of some of its magic. (Next time, use in-ear monitors.)
Ensemble Nikel played Chaya Czernowin's Sahaf, and later, Sivan Cohen Elias's Riba and Ruben Seroussi's Nikel.
I'm afraid I wasn't really convinced by any of this music. Sahaf came closest -- it had some nice flittering gestures and I liked the spinning ratchets. But Riba, a sax guitar duet, sounded like it was composed by someone who had maybe read about improv in a couple of back issues The Wire without ever having listened to it, and thought it might be fun to try to elaborately notate what he imagined that sort of thing sounded like. Some drunk asshole actually cat-called the group during their performance of Nikel, shouting out a sarcastic "Wooo!" a few moments into the piece. I unequivocally denounce and reject this outrageous and unacceptable behavior -- just not the underlying sentiment. This piece managed to combine pointless meandering with timid bloodlessness, a combination that is guaranteed to be lethal in 100% of cases.
The Young People's Chorus of New York City sang Michael Gordon's Every Stop On The F Train
The F train is my train, and the text sung by the chorus is literally what it says in the title, from Jamaica-179th Street to Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue. The setting is inventive and charming -- it needs to be, obviously -- if perhaps not quite as memorable as the kids' selection from last year, Meredith Monk's "Three Heavens and Hells." (I still get little snippets of that one creeping into my brain at odd moments.)
The Bang on a Can All-Stars played selections from Evan Ziporyn's ShadowBang, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's Convex-Concave-Concord, and a bit later, Lukas Ligeti's Glamour Girl.
Ziporyn's piece gradually developed outward from a spare and hypnotic core into a joyous, swaggering, vaguely Frisellian metametric groove. Some Googling reveals that the recording apparently also involves a Balinese singer/shadow puppeteer... I should really check that out.
Very near the end of Convex-Concave-Concord -- after a spending a good long while suspended in quiet reflection amidst softly fluttertongued clarinet notes, indistinct guitar harmonics, and a spare simple woodblock pattern -- there is a sweet arrival point on what sounds like the work's first proper, you know, chord. Things begin to pick up from there. Moments later brings the appearance of what sounds an awful lot like a IV chord, and you begin to suspect something might be up. Soon, there's no escaping it -- you've been gradually drawn into a hazy, slow-mo blues progression. Okay -- that, I did not see coming. But when it hit, it felt improbably right -- I would love to hear it again so I can pay attention to what kind of hints may or may not have been dropped along the way. Regardless, I think this work can comfortably join Rzewski's Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues in that very, very short list of blues-inspired classical works that do not suck.
Lukas Ligeti -- yes, György's kid -- built Glamour Girl around a slightly skewed Afro-Pop sensibility and his drummer's-eye-view of music. I really enjoyed the conversational guitar lines, the blissed-out 3/4 groove in the middle and the abrupt drumroll ending. These three pieces were probably the closest in spirit and concept to my own compositions.
Violinist and singer/songwriter Owen Pallett played some of his songs, then the BOAC All-Stars joined him for Twelve Polearms.
There was a nice NYT feature on Owen ("The Return of the One-Man Band") not long ago, in which he expressed his abiding hatred of drummers. ("'Drummers ruin bands,' he said simply, as if the fact were common knowledge.") I think I understand where he is coming from -- his play-sample-loop-and-layer methodology is wholly unforgiving. It's true that lots of people are doing that now -- that was, after all, the hook for the article -- but Owen's approach to sampling is notably risky and complex, with no room for error. He's clearly spent a lot of work developing his own internal clock and does not want a drummer trying to tell him where he thinks the time is. But perhaps as a consequence, Owen's aesthetic does not exactly embrace the concept of "groove" with open arms. Obviously, a lot of people who are very smart about music are wholly besotten with Owen's playing and songwriting. So far, I find myself more in the "admire and respect" camp, but there's no question that he is a hell of a musician, and an excellent choice for a BOAC collaboration.
Anyway, after a short solo set, the All-Starts retook the stage and Owen gave a long, tongue-in-cheek preface to his commissioned work, Twelve Polearms, spinning an elaborate yarn about a "great interdimensional conflict" and the musical culture of an alien race of one-dimensional beings. The piece seemed to hang from an omnipresent undulating two-note figure that ran like a suspension wire through the work. It ended with the BOAC players laying out while Owen manipulated their sounds via captured loops.
Electronic artist Bora Yoon played ( ((PHONATION)) ), with live visuals by Luke DuBois.
I missed this. I needed a break, and needed to get some food in me.
SIGNAL (conducted by Brad Lubman) played Steve Reich's Daniel Variations.
SIGNAL is a new new music supergroup containing members poached from Alarm Will Sound, So Percussion, Gutbucket, and NewSpeak, and conducted by Brad Lubman (last seen by me conducting Johnny Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver at a Wordless Music hit back in January). This is the NYC debut for the group but they are meant to be a going concern. In his intro, Reich emphasized that his music needs an ensemble (i.e., a collection of players who are emotionally invested in both the group and the music they play), not an orchestra (i.e., an ensemble from which "indifferent professionalism" is pretty much the best you can hope for), and talked up SIGNAL as an American counterpoint to the great European new music powerhouses like the Ensemble Modern and the Ensemble Intercontemporain. (There are lots of small new music bands in the US, but few large ones, other than Alarm Will Sound.)
SIGNAL is dominated by younger players because, with a handful of notable exceptions, older generations of classical musicians just flat-out do not get rhythm. They do not believe it is, at minimum, a co-equal element to pitch, and consequently, they just do not spend that much time on rhythm. A singing, fluid rubato line is their comfort zone (which is great for Romantic music, not so much anything else), and they cannot make the conceptual leap to music that requires a strong, steady pulse. (Often they are disdainful of such music.) They are unable to take personal responsibility for the time. They can't distinguish between playing on top of the beat vs. rushing, or playing behind the beat vs. dragging. They don't get what a profound impact such tiny rhythmic nuances have on the music. They don't know how to lock in with other players. They do not know what a full-body groove feels like. They lack an emotional connection to rhythm.
Everyone in SIGNAL has an undeniable emotional connection to rhythm.
So Percussion played David Lang's the so called laws of nature
They did this one on the steps at the back (see pics below fold), making the already cavernous Winter Garden sound even more like an aircraft hangar -- Alan Pierson said the walnut planks sounded like crickets. For the second movement, the percussionists moved up a stage to the toms and kick drums. For the third, they moved down to tables where they played on teacups and tuned flowerpots, the sound of which was oddly mesmerizing.
Marnie Stern played guitar.
At every Bang On A Can Marathon, there is always one artist whose job it is to do everything they can to signal "What the hell am I doing here?" short of actually coming out and saying it. Last year that band was the rap-metal band Dälek. This year, it was scruffy shredhead Marnie Stern, who normally plays and sings with an actual, you know, band. Instead, for the Marathon, she came out alone, set up a wall of squall with her pedals, and only occasionally pierced the veil with some scrabbly double-tapping or a pair of klunky power chords.
Dan Deacon wrote the electronic parts for Ultimate Reality Part 3. He pressed "play," and then I think he probably left the stage and got his groove on down on the dance floor (and there was a dance floor for Dan's set), but I can't be sure. Kevin Omeara and Jeremy Hyman played the live drum parts.
Kids these days, they love the conservatory-trained Baltimore-based electronic dance guru Dan Deacon. His sound palette is bright and supersaturated with analog warmth. I don't know if he normally uses live drummers, but Omeara and Hyman were both on fire. Jimmy Roe Roche's entertaining video accompaniment mirrored and distorted many of the Governator's greatest cinematic moments. (It struck me that many in the audience were not even born when The Terminator was first released.) Deacon's rapid-fire synth arpeggios sounded a bit like a dance-pop remix of Music in 12 Parts. Good clean fun (with crowd-surfing, even), but seriously, this was way too short -- one 15-minute tune, and that's the whole set? Those kids came down to the Winter Garden at 4 AM to party -- what were they supposed to do now?
Contact played Allison Cameron's 3rds, 4ths, & 5ths and Brian Eno's Discreet Music (arr. Jerry Pergolesi).
Well, one option for the Deaconites was to stick around for the Toronto-based new music band Contact, and actually, a fair number of them decided to sit tight. (Although some of them appeared to be under the impression that Brian Eno himself would be showing up.) Anyway, Allison Cameron's piece for Contact was a pretty postminimalist ballad, after which they geared down even further into Eno's gauzy dreamscape. I really enjoyed Suzanne Bocanegra's simple but effective video, which involved a hand stacking olive-colored pieces of cardboard. The arrangement didn't quite draw me in the way the All-Stars' version of Airport Music did last year, but it did make for a pleasant bit of sunrise-music. (I think Stimmung was supposed to be the sunrise piece but the Marathon was running a bit late.)
Toby Twining Music sang Karlheinz Stockhausen's Stimmung. Sonically, it's an incredibly striking piece, constructed almost entirely from overtone singing. (If you've heard Tuvan throat singing, you've heard overtone singing.) It's built from a single, unvarying sonority -- a Bb9 chord, in just intonation (on account of the vocal overtones). It involves "magic names," words and phonemes in multiple languages, and the passing around and transformation of material. You can actually get a pretty good basic sense of the processes that fuel the piece from the work's Wikipedia entry, but if you want the long version, with score excerpts, go here.
Stimmung is a very beautiful and original and transfixing piece of music. The performance was outstanding. (One of the singers was Sylvie Jensen of the M6, a vocal group I have raved about previously, and she was a powerful and charismatic force throughout.) It is also, I feel I should point out, almost 80 minutes long. This was about 20 minutes past the expiration of my patience, at least at that point in the Marathon. Honestly, programming it immediately following the similarly quiet, tranquil, static Brian Eno piece seems a little bit perverse.
I say this only because for the first hour or so, I was completely under the spell of Stockhausen's remarkable work. I didn't want that fugue state to end, but unfortunately, I ran out of gas before the piece did. I stuck it out, of course, but mentally I was spent. I felt like the runner who collapses 400 meters shy of the finish line, and has to drag himself across on his hands and knees.
Maybe I oughta train for these things.
Pictures are below the fold.
Bruce Hodges (Monotonous Forest) also went the distance.
Lauren Cartelli (Notes From a Subway Journal) [hearts] Owen Pallett.
Alex Ross is ill, but stuck it out until half-time.
Guest of a Guest does amateur sociology.
(Pics below the fold... )
Todd Sickafoose's writing is just like his playing -- warm-hearted and propulsive, smart and subtle, extroverted and and conversational, patient and unerringly directional. I hear so much music out there right now that falls into one of two equally alienating camps: either it's joyless, torturedly complex, and inward-looking, or it's unremittingly, self-consciously "badass," with no room for the music to breathe or grow. Both are a chore to sit through.
So it was an incredible relief to hear Todd's band last night at the Tea Lounge. Todd's music earns its momentum honestly, as his ideas gradually evolve and adapt to a changing musical environment. Best of all, everyone in the band -- including Society co-conspirators John Ellis (tenor sax) and Alan Ferber (trombone), plus Brian Coogan (keyboards), Mike Gamble (guitar), Jenny Scheinman (violin), and Ben Perowsky (drums) -- seemed precisely attuned to the leader's wavelength.
This is a group that really knows how to ride the crests and shoot the curls, and together they make some of the most exciting new jazz I've heard in a while.
MP3: "Future Flora," Todd Sickafoose (click to listen, right/ctrl-click to download)
(MP3 courtesy Cryptogramophone/DL Media)
More pictures below the fold...
TYFT (Hilmar Jensson, Andrew D'Angelo, Chris Speed, Jim Black)
30 April 2008 @ The Stone
short take: Andrew D'Angelo still kicks ass.
(Also: he is selling t-shirts with a CT scan of his brain on them. I bought one.)
Making Music: Frederic Rzewski (with Stephen Drury and Opus 21)
01 May 2008 @ Zankel Hall
short take: Steve Ben Israel owns "Attica."
short takes: Corey's irresistible songs are even subtler than you think. Don't believe William Brittelle when he claims to be out of his fucking mind.
short take: Three new-to-me indie classical bands with three very different approaches (saturated, limpid, refractory) to building textural music.
Carroll Park, Brooklyn, 17 March 1928:
I swear, you still see those exact same three guys hanging out in the neighborhood every day.
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When Arcade Fire's Funeral first hit in the fall of '04, accompanied by the legendarily torrential hype, I was perplexed. This band is from Montreal? That's not what Montreal bands sound like. Montreal bands sound like Bran Van 3000. (Remember them? "Drinking In L.A."? "Couch Surfer"?) That was the slacker neosoul sound everyone seemed to be chasing back in the 1990's when I lived there. So what the hell was a vocal jazz major from my alma mater doing in this shambly, punky, anthemic indie rock band, featuring what at the time sounded to me like a really quirky instrumentation -- accordion, recorder, xylophone, harp, etc. -- plus all those great Owen Pallett string arrangements.
A lot has happened in the three years since Arcade Fire broke. At the time, the whole indie rock scene was barely on my radar at all. But I heard Funeral and I thought, hmm, maybe I ought to check out more bands like this.
Meanwhile, Arcade Fire blew up even bigger with this year's Neon Bible, to the point where they are now anchoring an all-day, five-band outdoor festival at Randall's Island. I'm not normally a fan of standing packed cheek-to-jowl on the blacktop for eight hours on an unseasonably hot October afternoon. But since I'd been either busy, out of town, or cruelly thwarted in all of my previous attempts to see Arcade Fire live, I figured it was worth giving it a go. Turned out Saturday's show is their last NYC hit for a couple of years.
Since this was my first, I can't compare this to other Arcade Fire shows, but I strongly suspect that the soaring "uhh-- ahh-- uhh ahh uhh ohh ohh-- ahh--" chorus on "Wake Up" gains a little something from being sung in delirious unison by something like 25,000 people. Despite the band's famously manic stage show (Will Butler upped the ante by climbing the scaffolding next to the jumbotron, King Kong style, with a field drum strapped to him) and the instrument-juggling that has become almost de rigeur for indie bands these days (Régine Chasagne and Win Butler both took turns behind the genuine pipe organ, and Régine even played kit on a few tunes), the band (mostly) kept up their road-seasoned tightness.
My only complaint is the sound -- it had been admirably clear and balanced all day, but for Arcade Fire, the mix did okay by the front line but mostly buried the two violinists and the pair of horn players at the back. I do love how Régine's voice slices right through even the densest textures, though, and her stage presence is adorable.
Brooklyn Vegan has the setlist and more photos/links. The highlights for me were the haunting extended take on "My Body Is A Cage" and the "Tunnels"/"Power Out" pairing. One amazing moment came after the end of the main set -- instead of the usual "we demand an encore" rhythmic clapping, a bunch of people up front just kept chanting the long "ooh" background vocal line from "Rebellion (Lies)" -- is there another band where the best-loved hooks are all wordless melodies? I'm sorry I missed the now-famous "secret" second encore, but that's what YouTube is for, innit? (Perhaps Win Butler could take a moment to explain the internets to Keith Jarrett.)
As good as Arcade Fire were, though, James Murphy's LCD Soundsystem totally stole the show. And I say this as someone who is decidedly not a fan of the thumping, relentless four-on-the-floor club music that is the foundation of their sound. On record, this band doesn't do a whole lot for me, but live, drummer Pat Mahoney made me a believer, laying down an inexhaustible stream of perfectly placed hihat sixteenth notes and electro-snare backbeats. Tunes like "Get Innocuous!" made me realize that this band is a lot closer in spirit to my beloved Remain In Light-era Talking Heads than I'd previously given them credit for. "Someone Great" reminds me (in a good way) of a remixed version of Corey Dargel's music. And "Yeah (Crass Version)" distills the anthemic singalong chorus to its purest essence. Their set was so good, I almost didn't mind the coked-up swim team fratboy in front of me trying really hard to jump on my toes.
Blonde Redhead have been around for a while now, but I'd never quite gotten around to checking them out before. This is clearly a big oversight on my part, since they do that languid, stretched-out minor-key artrock thing that always grabs me -- one tune in particular sounded like a stripped-down Sonic Youth/Radiohead hybrid. However, the aforementioned coked-up fratboy and his pals would simply not shut the fuck up during the quiet bits, which tended to spoil the mood a tad. I'm looking forward to hearing them again under better conditions.
So yeah, Les Savy Fav... There's no way to say this without coming across as completely humorless, but... well, apparently at one of their first shows, frontman Tim Harrison -- who at the time, was wearing the emptied-out carcass of a huge stuffed animal -- asked the crowd "Is the shtick too loud?"
The shtick this time started innocuously enough, with Tim throwing dollar-store party favors out into the crowd while the band set up. The rest of the story is probably best told with pictures (see below). Tim's backing band -- and how could they be anything but a backing band, with a frontman like that? -- was soild enough, full of catchy, if familiar-sounding, punkrock hooks. But seriously, it's like they're playing a completely different show from their frontman. If the music was actually integrated into the spectacle (the Industrial Jazz Group know how this is done), then we might have something, but the near-complete disconnect between Tim's outsized antics and the comparatively pedestrian musical accompaniment really started to bug me after a while. If you're going to take it out, guys, then take it out, dammit.
I know this band is beloved and I sound like a total curmudgeon, but still.
Wild Light are a young band from New Hampshire. Clearly, there weren't many people in the crowd who had even heard of these guys before, but they came out strong and rocked hard. Their most memorable tunes were "Fuck California" (which, they observed, "always goes down better on the East Coast") and a sweet Rhodes-driven song I didn't catch the name of. They might have sounded a wee bit green and generic compared to the other bands on the bill, but I gotta respect them for playing their hearts out for a crowd that had only just began to gather.
Many thanks to my concert companion, whose company made the day's events that much more enjoyable.
More pics below the fold...
As expected, this was a really good time. I hadn't realized this, but Andrew D'Angelo has been writing big band music for a long time now -- since he was a teenager back in Seattle, in fact, where he first started playing with Jim Black and Chris Speed. Both D'Angelo and Curtis Hasselbring did stints in Boston's Either/Orchestra before moving to NYC, but this is the first time they have joined forces, co-leading this brand-new 13-piece outfit. Obviously, D'Angelo and Black are thick as thieves, their most notable collaboration being Human Feel. But by Andrew's count, over half the band are people he's never had the opportunity to work with before.
The music was a lot more freewheeling and improv-oriented than the stuff I write for Secret Society, but even though the vibe was pretty wild (and very, very loud), the compositions were deceptively complex -- there was a lot of ink on the parts, and some tricksy time-shifts for the band to negotiate. Open-ended intros would lead into a barrage of thorny clusters, raggedy sing-song whole-band unison themes, or interruptive punctuations. Think of a big-bandized Human Feel -- in fact, a few of D'Angelo's charts were exactly that.
There was ample room for distinctive individual contributions, like trumpter Nate Wooley's unpitched soundsculpting and trombonist Ben Gerstein's air-raid wailing, but the sparks really flew during the duets -- especially when D'Angelo and McHenry went at it together. Curtis Hasselbring's charts tended to be slightly less relentlessly in-your-face than D'Angelo's, but only just -- the group's punk-jazz energy can only be contained for so long, especially with Jim Black behind the hit. A few tunes culminated in full-on go-go beats (sometimes in odd meters), with Black's cymbals crashing like thundersheets.
It's not easy music to pull off, even with such outstanding players, all of whom invested a serious chunk of rehearsal time putting this hit together. Big bands need regular gigs to grow into the music, but that's not always economically viable, especially for (ahem) struggling bandleaders. Last night at Tea Lounge was a hell of a first hit for these guys, not least because you hear so much potential there, some of it as yet untapped. Obviously, a lot of these players have busy schedules of their own (including the co-leaders), but it would be great if D'Angelo and Hasselbring could find a semi-regular home for this group. The world needs more badass kick-down-the-door big bands.
More (grainy and blurry, sorry... it's dark in there, yo) pictures below the fold... there was also some dude videotaping the whole thing, so keep an eye on the YouTube.
Listen -- I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Not all jazz musicians are as interested in indie rock as I am. I'm sorry. I know this must come as a terrible shock to you. I'll understand if you need a moment.
Feist's music isn't explicitly "jazzy" (except for the odd splash of fluegelhorn or Nina Simone reference) but she does make it easy for jazz musicians to love her. She's a ridiculously skilled singer with a sweet clear voice, colored with a tiny, heartbreaking rasp. Her delivery is almost unnervingly direct and personal, and her songwriting is tender, wistful, transparent, and unapologetically melodic. In fact, listening to the mellower tracks on The Reminder, it's sometimes a bit hard to hear the principled difference between Feist, whose hipster cred has remained intact despite the fact that you can buy her latest record in every Starbucks, and Norah Jones, who gets no love from the likes of Pitchfork or Stereogum.
Or at least, that's what I thought before I saw Feist live.
Having never seen Ms. Feist perform, I was honestly a bit skeptical that her songs would be able to carry a sold-out, thousands-strong outdoor throng. After all, as she told us from the stage, her first NYC hits were singer-songwriter gigs for a handful of people at The Living Room, and her solo records sound like they are geared towards the hushed intimacy of that kind of small venue. As it turns out, my lack of faith was wholly unwarranted -- Feist knows exactly how to command the attention of a huge crowd but still make you feel like she's singing for you and you alone.
Her punky roots showed in her fierce vocals on tunes like "My Moon My Man" and "Past In Present," both of which rocked way harder than the album versions. But she brought just as much emotional intensity to moody, spacious ballads like "The Water" -- which was so good it gave me goosebumps -- and countrified weepers like "In My Hands" (a cover of a tune by Sex Mob bassist and, ah, Norah Jones associate Tony Scherr).
For me, the best thing about Feist's songwriting is the seamless way she integrates her influences. I mean, you could pick it apart -- "Oh, here's a bit of folksy Canadiana via Joni Mitchell, mixed with a touch of electroclash on loan from Peaches, laced with some unabashedly retro Dusty Springfield/Burt Bacharach stylings" -- but you don't, because everything is so well integrated and so personal.
My only complaint, and it's a minor one, is that apart from drummer Jesse Baird (who was outstanding), the rest of her band didn't even seem to try to match her energy. Ultimately, it didn't matter much, since she was more than capable of carrying the show on their own, but I'd have liked to have seen the other guys step it up a bit.
Incidentally, one of those Feist-loving jazz musicians is Amy Cervini, who covers "Mushaboom" on her new release Famous Blue. Amy has graciously allowed me to share that track with readers of this blog, so here you go:
MP3: Amy Cervini Quartet - "Mushaboom" (click to listen/download)
This hit was the NYC debut (and, as far as I can tell, second-ever gig) for Feist's boyfriend Kevin Drew's post-Broken Social Scene solo project, "Spirit If." (Warning: audio launches instantly, and might be mildly NSFW if your W is really uptight.) The lineup is great and features Brendan Canning (bass) and Justin Peroff (drums) from BSS. They don't really sound very much like Broken Social Scene, though, even when they broke from Kevin's solo stuff and, uh, "covered" BSS tunes.
I worry Kevin is falling into the trap Calexico did with Garden Ruin -- he's trying very hard to do something different than what he's done before, which is commendable. Except that what he did before, with BBS, was distinctive and unusual and cool, and what he's doing now just sounds listless and generic. And also a bit sloppy... but like I said, I think it's only their second gig playing this stuff, so that's at least somewhat forgivable -- even if Kevin did need his bandmate to hold up the lyrics sheet for him at one point.
I wish I'd known that Grizzly Bear were starting so early -- I might have hustled to get there sooner. Doors were supposed to be at 6 PM, and G.B. must have started fairly close upon, because by the time I got to McCarren, they were almost finished. Their stage presence is unapologetically, endearingly dorky, and what little I heard of their set sounded fantastic.
No thanks to our efforts at trying to locate each other in the crowd via a series of increasingly farcical text messages, my comrade-in-blog ACB and I finally met face-to-face at the very end of the show. It's somehow fitting that a jazz composer and an opera singer would find common ground at a Feist hit.
More pictures below the fold...
One area in which my prior ports of call -- Vancouver, Montreal -- cut NYC is in the quality and quantity of free summertime outdoor jazz shows. Neither of the big NYC jazz fests (JVC and Vision) have much to offer in this area -- Vision has nothing, JVC co-sponsors a single performance in Prospect Park. This year Celebrate Brooklyn included a second jazz hit in addition to the JVC show. There was also a token jazz hit at Central Park Summerstage (Cassandra Wilson), one at River to River (Marc Ribot), and a smattering of smaller shows here and there. But there's nothing remotely on the scale of Vancouver or Montreal during jazz fest time, with multiple outdoor stages jam-packed with gigs over the course of several weeks. They are far from perfect -- the live sound is often a problem (especially in Montreal), and the quality is highly variable. But the sheer quantity of shows means that programmers are free to take some chances with the scheduling, so there's always at least a few gigs that are both (A) free, and (B) worth seeing.
(Full disclosure -- my quintet played one of these free outdoor hits at the Montreal fest back in 2000, and we had a great time, so I am probably more positively disposed to that festival than some.)
What NYC has is the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, now in its 15th year. But the "festival" is just a couple of days in late August -- Saturday in Harlem's Marcus Garvey Park, and Sunday the East Village's Tompkins Square Park. The headliners play on both days, which cuts down on the variety of the programming even further. And the sound, at least at Sunday at Tompkins Square, was notably atrocious.
On the other hand, one of the headliners was Chico Hamilton, who is just a few weeks away from his 86th birthday. So there's that.
The classic Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker-Bob Whitlock-Chico Hamilton quartet is one of my all-time favorite small groups. Obviously, Gerry's writing and arranging are top-notch, and the lack of any chordal instrument was a bold choice at the time, but what I really love is how the group manages to pull off this incredibly casual, laid-back, distinctively West Coast vibe while still swinging incredibly hard -- they come across like a irredeemable stoner who somehow never lets the pot blunt his conversational wits.
Chico deserves an immense amount of credit for this. His drumming is ultra-minimal -- never showy or bombastic, but everything is in its right place, and played with impeccable finesse. It's a very old-school, practically pre-bop approach to drumming, where the timekeeping is the focus, and whenever he breaks the pattern for a punctuation, a fill, or a bit of comping, it really means something. And his relationship to the time is deep and personal in a way that has all but vanished, while remaining apparently effortless. Hearing him live for the first time was a revelation -- it's not just that his playing seems undiminished by age, it's like he's actually taking you back in time to show you how it's really done.
Not that Chico's an arch-traditionalist -- the sextet he brought to the parks this weekend includes Paul Ramsey on fretless electric bass, and Cary DeNigris on electric guitar. Like Max Roach, Chico is an inventive composer -- in fact, he honored his late friend with an apparently brand new mallets-driven original called "Just Play The Melody." But Chico's always been interested in moving the music forward -- one of his first projects as a leader was a quintet with a then-unprecedented instrumentation of flute, cello, guitar, bass, and drums. This was in 1955, mind you. Oh, and that guitar player? Jim Hall. A later incarnation of this group appeared (as themselves) in The Sweet Smell of Success -- one of the hippest onscreen jazz moments.
Chico has a great ear for talent -- in addition to Jim Hall, he also discovered Eric Dolphy, Charles Lloyd, Larry Coryell, and Thomas Chapin. He's also written a few film scores, including one for Polanki's Repulsion. The current sextet has great musicians and lots of evocative, cinematic tunes, contributed by leader and sidemen both -- check out the recent selections on Chico's MySpace page, especially the languid "Christina," which sounds like it's just begging for Calexico to cover it. And he plays with such irrepressible joy and such timeless elegance -- during an infectious shuffle called "Thunderwalk," a few young-at-heart old-timers got up to strut their stuff (see pics below). And, as Ben Ratliff pointed out in his review, this seemed to delight him to no end -- as he told the crowd afterwards: "People dancing! That's the best compliment you can get."
Here is a YouTube clip from the Chico Hamilton Quintet's 1958 appearance at Newport, featuring Eric Dolphy:
Yeah, that's right -- 1958.
Cassandra Wilson followed, a last-minute sub for an ailing Abbey Lincoln, using most of Abbey's rhythm section -- Jonathan Batiste on piano and Michael Bowie on bass, with the young phenom Marcus Gilmore on drums and Evan Schwam on tenor (borrowed from Chico's band). We were told Lincoln's no-show was due to the heat, though it wasn't actually that hot on Sunday. This week must have been unbelievably difficult for her, so here's hoping it's nothing serious.
I have to admit I haven't really followed Cassandra's post-Blue Light Till Dawn career, although I really admire her early work with Steve Coleman. But here she played the straight-up jazz diva, with loose renditions of well-worn tunes like "Caravan," "Blue Monk," and "Up Jumped Spring." She had trouble negotiating the bop blues "Now's The Time" and only really seemed to cut loose on a scorching "St. James Infirmary." The band had their moments, especially Batiste, but the horrendous live sound was particularly harsh on Michael Bowie's bass, and he never seemed to quite lock in with Gilmore. It felt like a jam session, which it basically was -- enjoyable enough, under the circumstances, but all these musicians are clearly capable of better things.
I missed Maurice Brown's opening set, but got there just in time to catch former Wynton Marsalis associate Todd Williams's quartet. I really honestly hate to go negative on this blog, but in this case I'm left with little choice -- their set was almost uniformly leaden, plodding, and ponderous. Pianist Eric Lewis had a few crowd-pleasing solos that left me totally cold -- he just seemed to move randomly from one flashy gimmick to another without any attempt to tell a coherent or convincing story. The leader's playing was flat and uninspired, as were his tunes. I found myself wishing the festival organizers had given this high-profile opportunity to a genuinely creative up-and-comer. It's not like they lack for choices. Maybe if they had more than a single weekend to work with, there would be more opportunity for creative programming and audience-building.
More pics below the fold...
The Hold Steady are, on a good night, like the burger at Bonnie's Grill, on a good night -- an immensely satisfying rendition of an American classic that has been so thoroughly debased by bland institutional indistinguishability on the one side, and absurdly pretentious ritzing up on the other, that it's easy to forget what made it so appealing in the first place.
Last night in Prospect Park was a good night. The the huge crowd needed only the first whiff of the opening lick of "Stuck Between Stations" before crashing the gates and flooding the front section (which is ostensibly reserved for VIPs and "Friends of Celebrate Brooklyn"). Security didn't even try to hold them at bay -- they had their hands full dealing with the fans who could not suppress their urgent need to climb up on stage.
While I think all the "Minneapolis Springsteen" comparisons frontman Craig Finn garners are a bit overblown -- especially since he's actually more indebted to Paul Westerberg's songs of teenage awkwardness and alienation -- there's definitely something compelling and even a bit subversive about irresistible, anthemic fist-pumping rock songs that tell really sad stories. But Finn's nebbishy take on rockstar stage presence -- prowling and pointing and spitting out lyrics in bursts -- reminded me a lot more of early Elvis Costello than The Boss.
Dork that I am, I first heard about The Hold Steady not through the usual channels, but as "the rock band that Franz from Anti-Social Music is in." Some people are, apparently, bothered by the disconnect between his more hifalutin' musical endeavors and his newfound notoriety as the keyboardist in America's Best Bar Band™. Me, I can't imagine begrudging anyone that much fun.
More pics below the fold...
TV on the Radio make records full of densely layered vocals, savagely untamed guitar sounds, and almost impenetrably thick sonic constructs. This is not the kind of sound that can be reproduced live (at least, not without relying heavily on prerecorded samples), but the band compensates for the absence of studio wizardry by rocking really fucking hard.
The Gerard Smith (bass) - Jaleel Bunton (drums) back line is fierce. Where the grooves on the recordings have a kind of studied abstract sloppiness to them, at yesterday's free show at McCarren Pool, everything was stripped down and locked in tight. Hearing the straight sound of frontman Tunde Adebimpe's vocals without the studio multitracking effects makes you appreciate what a great singer he really is. Same goes for Kyp Malone, whose falsetto backing vocals on record are kind of nasal, but live are pure and sweet, even a bit Curtis Mayfield-y. The rainy-day crowd sang along with almost every word.
TV on the Radio represent everything that is good and right about the Brooklyn indie scene from which they emerged -- they are restlessly experimental but grounded in irresistible melodies. They draw on a staggering variety of influences, but they blend them all so skillfully that the individual ingredients of their sound are barely recognizable -- it just sounds like them, and they don't really sound like anything else. They manage to appeal both to devoted indie rock hipsters and those whose primary musical interests lie elsewhere. Their music is abstract and artsy but genuinely connects to people on a visceral level. And, as I believe I mentioned, they rock really fucking hard.
This hit was one of those rare shows that made me feel good about the time and place I'm living in.
Photos below the fold...
How do you present a festival of forward-looking music when the innovators and shit-disturbers of previous eras are still largely unknown or under-recognized? How do you reconcile a commitment to the sounds of today with the desire to honor the contributions of past masters? That's the dilemma faced by the curators of the Vision Festival. While they have sometimes been accused of being, in their own way, as insular, preservationist, and stylistically dogmatic as the Wynton Marsalis-Stanley Crouch axis over at Lincoln Center, I think the overall scope of year's lineup is commendably diverse, and shows a genuine effort to find a balance between past and present. Day 2 was dedicated to a Lifetime Recognition Celebration of Bill Dixon, who is 82 years old, and so the focus on Wednesday was on older artists, most with some connection to Dixon -- but that doesn't make the music presented any less vital.
I am almost wholly unfamiliar with Bill Dixon's music, but my curiosity was definitely piqued by this post by Taylor Ho Bynum. The handpicked ensemble he brought to the Vision Festival was decidedly bottom-heavy, including not just bass (Andrew Lafkas), tuba (Joe Daley), bass clarinet (Will Connell Jr.), and bari sax (John Hagen), but the rarely heard subsonic sounds of bass sax (J.D. Parran) and contrabass clarinet (Michel Côté). The (as-yet-untitled) new work opened with a single sustained pitch on soprano sax (Andrew Raffo Dewar). As his note began to split and wail, it was quickly enveloped by dark, billowing stormclouds. It was difficult to pick out individual instruments from this emulsified group sound -- occasionally, one voice would peer out from the texture, but only for the briefest instant before being re-absorbed. It made me think of the more atmospheric, tranquil bits of Michael Gordon's Decasia, which I'd heard performed in this space back in January -- not in the details so much as the transfixing but deeply unsettling effect the music had on me.
When the first definite melody emerged, it was slow and solemn, in a uncanny and deep group unison. Everyone dropped out as Taylor Ho Bynum cried out in a series of squeezed bursts, before the contrabass clarinet began to sweep up underneath him, followed by the rest of the orchestra. There would be a series of climaxes as the sound became bigger and more saturated, with Dixon controlling the shape of the piece with emphatic cues and gestures. His gruff manner and steely gaze reminded me a bit of my own musical mentor, Bob Brookmeyer, as did the glacial patience with which Dixon allowed his music to unfold.
Dixon did not touch his trumpet until his sound-world had been unequivocally established -- I didn't time it or anything but I'd guess it was almost half an hour into the piece. As with the previous cornet and fluegel solos, the band dropped out and Dixon was able to conjure his unique timbres without accompaniment. The sounds emanating from his horn are often barely identifiable as trumpet sounds in the first place, and this effect was further magnified by a long electronic delay. These extraterrestrial sonorities led so seamlessly into long tones, and then spare melodic playing, that the usual distinctions between "noise" and "notes" seemed arbitrary.
Dixon's solo was followed by a long, tumultuous, almost Mahlerian, buildup, with rolling cymbals and timpani fueling the advancing juggernaut. But again, it felt less like a group of individual musicians and more like a swarm of sound, gathering on the horizon, then surging toward you and, finally, enveloping you. This section ended with a fierce climax, abrupt cutoff, and a sudden explosion of applause, but the piece wasn't over -- after a long pause, the music resumed with an airy, fluttering postlude, ending with a languid unison theme much like the ones we'd heard earlier.
This was a really powerful work, not just on its own merits, but because it's imbued with virtues that are often frustratingly absent from "free jazz" (or most jazz, for that matter) -- mood, focus, development, momentum, balance, cohesiveness, clarity, scale -- and most of all, silence. Though Dixon was born in 1925, this music felt both bracingly contemporary and, somehow, ageless.
The new Henry Grimes (bass) - Marilyn Crispell (piano) - Rashied Ali (drums) trio came together for the first time on Wednesday night. As noted in the program, Grimes and Ali are the same age -- they are both from Philly and both seminal 1960's jazz musicians who started out backing more traditional players before becoming increasingly associated with the "new thing." But before this year, the only time they'd ever played together was on a 1965 Archie Shepp date. Grimes famously vanished from the scene at the end of the '60s, but since his return to active playing in 2003, Grimes and Crispell have performed together with relative frequency (often in a trio with drummer Andrew Cyrille). And earlier this year, Grimes and Ali started playing some duo hits together. So the Grimes-Crispell-Ali trio would seem like a natural outgrowth of those two projects.
However, these are three musicians with very distinct and forceful musical personalities, and their performance often felt like a spirited disagreement. I don't mean that in a bad way -- after all this performance was dedicated to Bill Dixon, who thinks people ought to get into fistfights about aesthetics. This wasn't a fistfight by any means, but everyone did seem intent on protecting their own aesthetic turf. Grimes began on violin with a kind of perverse bluegrass-through-the-looking-glass fiddling, briefly pausing to mention that they were playing a Dixon tune from the '70s. Ali followed with a light touch, taking the music to a more abstracted place, and when Crispell finally entered with sparse, impressionistic chords, the mood shifted again, this time towards consonance and harmonic stability. Grimes moved to the bass and Ali began playing some beautiful, swinging time -- time that Crispell would obliquely acknowledge but Grimes would determinedly push against.
Overall, the sound support was much improved after the first day's missteps, but Angel Orensanz remains a sonically treacherous venue, and out in the room, Grimes's bass sound was often somewhat indistinct. This was frustrating, as his phrases are often densely packed with notes, and you really want to be able to hear all of them. Marc Ribot has an interesting take on Grimes's current style (which is very different from his playing in the 1960's):
Henry has unbelievable ears and what he plays will always relate to what’s going on in some completely unpredictable and beautiful way. It’s tempting to write off the density of his playing as just him going off the deep end, but when you listen to it, you hear the melody of the tune you’re playing sped up, counter-pointed, harmonized, attacked, distorted, played backwards. He’s really a Cecil Taylor of the bass.
This was especially in evidence in a quieter passage near the end, with Ali on brushes and Crispell playing chordal passages that had a kind of rustic, open lyricism. Grimes would be bowing furiously, more texture than pitch, but every so often he'd drop down momentarily and reinforce Crispell's left hand with a long tone on the chord root. Crispell kept moving through different key areas and Grimes nailed it each time. It was a beautiful moment, as if after a long set of each musician asserting their individual vision, the three of them had finally found common ground.
Joe McPhee isn't from Chicago, but my understanding is that thanks to Ken Vandermark, McPhee has become somewhat associated with the Empty Bottle scene over there. (Dan, is that more or less correct?) The group he brought to the Vision Fest is made up of two Chicago-based musicians, Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello) and Michael Zerang (drums) plus the leader on alto sax and fluegelhorn. I don't know if there was ever a "Survival Unit I," but a 1971 concert featuring "Survival Unit II" was recently issued on Hat Hut, and McPhee calls this band "Survival Unit III."
I had trouble hearing the shape in this trio's performances -- to my ears, they seemed a bit static. Lonberg-Holm's pedal effects were way out of balance and when he started to manipulate the cello feedback, it tended to wash out the other two musicians in a wail of skronk. But mid-set, Zerang started up an ear-catching dialog with himself, playing some nice brushwork figures that were periodically interrupted by a weird rubbing effect -- I couldn't see exactly what he was using to create it, some kind of soft rubber mallet maybe? Anyway, it was a very cool moment, especially when McPhee began to play tenderly and melodically over the scraping bits. Later, McPhee switched from alto to fluegel, beginning with a soft, airy "thunk, thunk, thunk" effect that sounded vaguely like a fan blade, gradually leading into a brief, mournful, spacious melody. (It sounded like maybe he was paying tribute to Dixon here?) Anyway, the band sounded a lot more hushed and spacious playing under McPhee's fluegel than they had when he was playing alto in the first half of the set, and within this more intimate vibe, I was able to more or less shelve my concerns about the lack of directionality in the music and just enjoy it for what it was.
More pictures below the fold...
Tickets provided by the Vision Festival.
As you may have heard, Richard Lloyd -- or, as Tom Verlaine referred to him, "our regular guitarist" -- is still in the hospital. Jimmy Ripp subbed, but didn't take any solos. The first few tunes suffered a bit from the lack of soundcheck and the "shit system" (Verlaine's words) at Summerstage -- "Venus" was disappointingly listless. (I think the crowd was supposed to sing the "DIDJA FEEL LOW?" and "HUH?" bits, since the band did not, but it seemed like me and the guy next to me were the only people who were up for this.) But after that, things picked up with brilliantly deconstructed versions of "Little Johnny Jewel" and "Prove It." They followed with some newer, mostly unrecorded (I think) material, with "Glory" from Adventure sandwiched in there. The highlight of the new stuff was "Persia," aptly described by one of the commenters at Brooklyn Vegan as "that middle east meets James Bond theme by way of the 'You Really Got Me' riff extended tune." Verlaine's slide playing sounded absolutely otherworldly. Of course, they finished with a 20-minute "Marquee Moon," while the stage manager kept furiously signaling them to wrap it up. (Are you fucking kidding me?)
This hit had the most favorable risky-improv-to-wankery ratio of any rock gig I've ever been to. This is my first time seeing Tom Verlaine play live, and I think he's my new favorite guitar player, like, ever. His chops, which were merely impressive in Television's heyday, have become truly monstrous. He was able to get a mind-blowing variety of sounds out of a straightforward Strat-Vox setup, just by tweaking the pickup selector switch and the tone controls, and by changing up between picking, fingerpicking, and slide. (At least, that's all I saw -- I'm sure the guitar geeks will let me know if I've missed anything crucial... ) He somehow managed to be simultaneously quirky and earthy, wildly unpredictable and impeccably structured, dispassionate and blisteringly intense. If you are one of the few remaining jazz fundamentalists who think they have nothing to learn from rock players (ahem) you seriously need to check out some Tom Verlaine, preferably live.
A huge part of Television's appeal is the audible tension between Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, and of course that absence was deeply felt. Jimmy Ripp did a fine job subbing in, but he did not attempt to challenge Verlaine the way Lloyd would have. As previously mentioned, this was to have been Lloyd's final gig with Television, had he not fallen ill. I sincerely hope Richard gets well soon, and when he does, I hope he and Verlaine and Fred Smith and Billy Ficca will get together one last time.
I arrived at the park over an hour later than planned (thank you, F train!) so unfortunately I missed all of Dragons of Zynth except their final tune. The stuff on their MySpace page is really interesting, though, so I'm looking forward to catching them some other time. The Apples in Stereo are a bubblegum power-pop band heavy on the of harmony vocals, jangly guitars, and analog keyboards, occasionally spiced with bits of psychedelia. I love this kind of sound when it's done right, but after a fun and catchy beginning to the set, they quickly wore out their welcome. It didn't help that it started raining and kept coming down for most of the set, but there's only so much of frontman Robert Schneider's super-nasal voice I can take, and the hooks started to wear thin by the end. Who on earth thought it would be a good idea to pair these guys with Television?
UPDATE: Truly hardcore Television fans will know this already, but I was curious whether any of the bootlegs of Televsion's 1970's live shows ever got the CD reissue treatment. I did some online digging, and of course the answer is "duh" -- there's The Blow-Up, which culls from a variety of live hits, as selected by Tom Verlaine, and Live At The Old Waldorf, which has superior sound quality, but Rhino only did a limited-edition run of 5000, hence the ridiculously inflated price of used copies. But you can listen to most of the cuts -- which are absolutely smoking -- on Last.fm:
And iTunes has a "box set" of both '70s studio records plus Live At The Old Waldorf, or you can get the live records individually.
More pics below the fold...
Guillermo Klein y Los Gauchos - 13 June 2007 @ Village Vanguard
Speaking of jazz in the 90's, Guillermo Klein's four-year run of Sunday nights at Smalls during the mid-1990's was spoken of with hushed reverence even up in Montreal, which is where I spent most of that decade. Guillermo left New York at the same time I left Montreal -- he's now based in Barcelona. A bit ironic that he finally scored a coveted Vanguard gig just last summer -- almost six years after he left the city. There was such buzz about that 2006 run -- my own review is here -- that they came back this year for a rare two-week run (which continues until this Sunday, June 17), followed by two days of recording at Avatar.
The gig last night was absolutely phenomenal. Miguel Zenon appears to have memorized the lead alto book, since he spent most of the night with his eyes either closed or intently focused anywhere except the page. The band is breathing together and phrasing together beautifully, and they have developed a casual authority that perfectly matches the leader's personal style. Even his (occasional) singing has become more confident and persuasive, without abandoning his endearingly deadpan delivery. The band was tight, but not in the constipated way many college big bands are tight -- Los Gauchos have become thoroughly relaxed and fluid in even the most mind-bending time-shifting passages. The soloists all brought their individual personalities to bear, lifting the music without veering away from the narrative. (I can't resist singling out Bill McHenry again -- his playing in this band is mindfuckingly good.) Everything sounds warmer, richer, and more heartfelt than last year. I can only imagine how killing this shit will be by the time they hit the studio. While I still have some lingering reservations about how some of the tunes are structured, the band played so gracefully that those doubts were rarely allowed to surface.
This time, it also struck me that Guillermo's music suggests some very compelling solutions to the problems we all face as jazz musicians in the 00's. Ethan Iverson rightly holds Guillermo up as a forward-looking exponent of the frustratingly rare and occasionally maligned virtue of "good melody played clearly." But Klein also shows one way -- not the way (which I'm not even sure exists) but his way -- to blend rhythmic complexity with elegant propulsion, individual expression with ensemble cohesion, harmonic sophistication with clarity and concision, folkloric grooves with a modernist sensibility. There are a lot of jazz musicians, arch-traditionalists and uncompromising avant-gardists alike, who might want to step back for a minute and consider the powerful alchemy Guillermo is practicing here.
Pics -- just a handful taken on the down-low (the Vanguard does not smile on bloggers with cameras) -- below the fold...
UPDATE: Dave Douglas weighs in over at the Greenleaf blog.
A full writeup is forthcoming -- right now, I'm off to check out the final Wordless Music hit this season, but until then, here are some photos to tide you over.
More pics below the fold...
Incriminating evidence for last weekend's BPC gig is now up. Normally, our gigs are documented by Lindsay, who always does a great job under terrible conditions -- crappy lighting, cramped quarters, music stands getting in the way of everything, etc. But she wasn't sure if she would be able to make last Sunday's hit, given that she had another event to shoot earlier that day -- John Edwards at the Riverside Church. (If you're curious, the shots from that event are on Lindsay's Flickr page.)
However, as luck would have it, the incredibly talented Brazillian music photographer Dani Gurgel happened to be in town. She did a great job shooting Maria's gigs in Brazil, and so Maria put the two of us in touch and you can see the results here. I also recommend checking out the beautiful work on Dani's website. And if you do Flickr, Dani's page is here.
Okay -- just in case there was any doubt, Tortoise are an ecstatically good live band. Even on borrowed gear and (sacrilege!) synthesized mallet percussion.
[There was, apparently, an incident involving the band's instruments, hence the need for borrowed gear and ersatz mallet perc. Guys, next time you need a set of vibes on short notice, call me -- I'll hook you up, I promise.]
Two encores, and five straight minutes of applause demanding a third, until the killjoys at the Bowery Ballroom finally turned on the house lights. One of the best gigs I have ever seen. Without any doubt the best two-drummer gig I've ever seen. (Well, technically: three drummers, two kits.)
Now do it again with a real vibraphone.
Pics below the fold...
I have to admit, I never really got Yo La Tengo until I heard them at last year's July 4th blowout at Battery Park. Actually, I wasn't even in Battery Park (the line was too long and I got turned away) -- I was listening from the edge of the fence, near the back of the lawn, what felt like miles from the stage. I could barely hear them, let alone see them, and they still blew me away. Needless to say, I showed up early for their Prospect Park hit.
However, this year's park performance was not your standard Yo La gig. The band reprised a project called "The Sounds of Science," originally performed at the San Fransisco Film Fest back in 2001 -- instrumentals written to accompany the stunning oceanographical films of Jean Painlevé. They set up on the ground in front of the Prospect Park bandshell stage, to better make room for the 50-foot-tall screen onto which Painlevé's brilliant, whimsical, surreal acquatic documentaries were projected.
Yo La have documented "The Sounds of Silence" on CD, but I'd not hear the music until this show, and it was every bit as revelatory and awe-inspring as Painlevé's cinematography. Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew wove a hypnotic tapestry of minimalist textures, spiky noise-rock, warm analog synth tweetering, long-arc development and, as always, heartfelt lyricism.
I'm often skeptical of these sorts of "live music+film" projects, because if the visuals are halfway compelling then the music usually has to fight incredibly hard to register at all, and when it does, tends to feel more like an intrusion than an accompaniment. This was something that kept gnawing at the back of my mind even during mostly successful film projects like Dave Douglas's Keystone, or The Books' "found video" collages. But Yo La Tengo were able to manage the ebb and flow of music and film far better than anyone else I've seen -- while your attention may be momentarily seized by, for instance, the sight of thousands of tiny octopuses bursting from their eggs, the band gives you plenty of time to take it all in, but then manages to draw you back into the music at just the right moment.
The multi-dimensional music that accompanied "The Love Life of the Octopus" (downloadable gratis here) was hands-down the most thrilling piece of the night, but the more slowly-evolving textural pieces that accompanied films like "How Some Jellyfish Are Born" and "The Sea Horse" were just as rewarding. But I must say, I was very glad to be up front for this show -- so much of the music hinged on nuances that were barely audible even up close, and I'm not sure how much of it carried past the first few rows. Regardless, this gig was easily the most satisfying pairing of film and live music I've ever seen/heard. Now, if only The Sounds of Science were available on DVD...
More picutres below the fold...