Monday, June 29, 2015

Snarl and snap: Goodbye, Chris Squire

There is the air of classic prog, the songs' ornate, easily caricatured latticework—in Yes terms, the Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman element. And there is the earth, their harsh, wiry skeleton—in Yes terms, the element of the late, great Chris Squire, along with Alan White and before him Bill Bruford. Anyone playing hard-hitting, compositionally daring rock music (math rock, tech metal, a million other microstyles) is, or ought to be, planting their ideas in the Squire soil.

The girth, the clarity, the metallic thwack of his bass tone. The bridge between, say, Mahavishnu Orchestra, where the bass typically took a backseat, and Rush, where it essentially became a lead instrument. For me, when Chris Squire's bass started to snarl and snap is the eureka moment when so-called prog became electrifying and essential, when geek brain met cyborg muscle. I'm not a Yes completist, but in the classic ’70s material, whenever the rhythm section starts to kick (and/or the Steve Howe visionary-shred roller coaster starts zooming around the track), it's a drop-everything moment for me.

Zero in on the riff that starts at about 6:04 in "Close to the Edge," the one with those thrilling syncopated Squire/Bruford stabs. It's all there. Props also to the monster mutant-funk groove at 6:51, with those grotesque melodic outbursts and chasm-like rests. Thank you, Chris Squire—you harnessed the low end, sacrificing none of its primal power, and made it dance and sing.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

True calling: Dead Moon and Borbetomagus live














There are bands that become legend. You read of them for years, in zines and on the internet, often learning of the reverence for the thing before learning of the thing itself. I say "thing" rather than "music" because bands like this come bundled with a whole mythology. So it was with Dead Moon and Borbetomagus—two groups I'd heard about for years and barely heard before last night, when I saw them share an Issue Project Room–backed bill (also featuring a great solo appearance by J Mascis) at Pioneer Works.

Age has a lot to do with it—this underground mythology. "So-and-so have been at it since such-and-such time." All sorts of other factors play into it: biography, even graphic design. Dead Moon, founded in 1987, have it all. One of the coolest logos I—or any underground-music fan, if they're being honest—has ever seen: the screaming-skeleton/crescent-moon design with the drippy-letters font, the kind of iconography that gutter punks and black-metal heads and noise freaks all seem to agree on. The fact that the band is co-fronted by a husband-and-wife team, Fred and Toody Cole, proud grandparents who have been married for 48 years (!).

I don't think I'd heard more than a song or two by Dead Moon before last night's show. (And maybe a few by Pierced Arrows, the Coles' more current project, which is essentially the band I saw last night, as the Pioneer Works gig featured Arrows drummer Kelly Halliburton rather than Moon drummer Andrew Loomis.) Sometimes that can be a hindrance to enjoying a rock show, but that wasn't the case here. Dead Moon have a certain ceremonial way of making a venue, a night, entirely theirs.

I'd spotted the Coles hanging out on one of the upper floors of Pioneer Works during the first couple sets, scoping out the bands. Fred in this enormous black witch hat, Toody with the straggly black-and-gray hair. Once they took the stage, along with Halliburton, a tall, imposing dude wearing skin-tight St. Marks Place–style punk attire and an MC5 T-shirt (yes, it was almost too perfect…) you could tell they were lifers. Setting up, the three had an easy camaraderie, passing set lists between them, clinking beer cans, welcoming front-row fans with wide grins and uniting around Halliburton's kit for a final pre-show huddle.

Looking back, the set itself was a bit of a blur for me. It carried me along, like a drug or a magic carpet. I was transported, initiated might be the better word, into this environment that Dead Moon creates, this bubble where rock & roll is timeless and hungry and passionate and dangerous. The band has a sort of theatrical defiance to them, manifested in Toody's feral stare and imposing stage stance and in Fred's ragged, plaintive vocals, delivered, Lemmy-style, from slightly under the mic, with eyes closed and a wince of abandon and surrender and determination. But there was this other side to the trio's interaction—a camaraderie, a relishing of the preciousness of this perfect medium that they've found to express all they need to express. It was like watching a biker gang assume a tough-guy posture for a photo op, and then drop it once the camera had clicked, back-slapping and cracking up.

The music itself is a strange, primal snarl. It's a puzzle how it sounds so archaic yet so alive. I know that Dead Moon are rough contemporaries and regional cronies of the Wipers, and there's a definite kinship there, a willingness to mine a classic garagey rawk sound for its most dirgey, gloom-laden elements. Dead Moon isn't a metal band, but their songs embody this sort of exaggerated gothic drama, as well as punk's headlong drive—Greg Sage filtered through Screaming Jay Hawkins, maybe? I was surprised and impressed by the variety of the songs, and their potent anthemic quality: "54/40 or Fight," with its stop-time refrain, had me pumping my fist along after one verse/chorus cycle, and "I Hate the Blues," a dark, plodding waltz with a cyclical form that culminates with Fred yowling, "God-damn, I hate the blues!"

It was all such swagger and looseness and stylish attack. The iconography come to life: the logo, the attire (I've neglected to mention Fred's ’70s style leather vest, bolo tie and guitar strap studded with pieces of antler), the attitude. The music did it all justice. Posturing, performing, acting—it all becomes being when the music is strong, driving, dramatic enough. Alchemy occurs and you, the listener, feel like you're mainlining some old, original feeling, like punk chronicled in a Faulkner novel and reanimated before your eyes.














Or noise, for that matter. Borbetomagus, at it since ’79! I'd sampled the records, had a sense of what this trio was about. Again, the legend. The name that weird-music fans love to throw out like a gleeful curse word—like a secret handshake meaning "I'm a sonic masochist." I don't really go in much for "noise" as a style. But I felt what saxophonists Jim Sauter and Don Dietrich and guitarist Donald Miller were throwing down. Again, the physicality is inescapable: the saxists, these graying, tall, granitic men who look like types you'd encounter at happy hour in a factory-town dive bar, and the stocky, goateed Miller, with the appearance of a WFMU record collector type.

The sound was rich and painful and loud, and the performance ritualistic. Dietrich is by far the most animated, engaging in all sorts of expressionistic body language—an exaggeratedly wide-legged stance, momentary hand/arm wiggles. The two saxists tossing mics into the bells of their horns. Miller sitting there looking half-idle, strumming and using a slide and manipulating a volume pedal. At first the sound is undifferentiated—a not-unpleasant roar, a pressure on the ears. But then you start to adjust, and to align the saxists' cheek-puffing with the pulsations you're detecting, and you come to appreciate that, though amplified and distorted nearly beyond recognition, what you're hearing are predominantly breath-generated sounds. And then the presentation becomes almost wholesome. Borbetomagus is imposing but not assaultive. Noise bands often affect a sort of "vs. the audience" posture, but this set felt very private, like these guys simply need to do this thing that they've been doing for the past 35 years, and if they weren't doing it onstage, they'd be doing it in one of the members' basements on a weeknight.

Again, the legend become real. And it was warmer and more inviting than I expected. These bands are and aren't what you think they are. Longevity in underground music doesn't always mean profundity, but it does signify a kind of all-in commitment. Dead Moon and Borbetomagus believe in their respective aesthetics, and you can walk in off the street, so to speak, with no prior knowledge—or, as I did, with only a vague, sort of caricatured knowledge—and feel the love and commitment radiating out through these very different stylistic portals. It's all volume and defiance, as well as a friendly embrace of the like-minded. You feel both crushed and caressed, like you're in good, firm but loving hands. The world clicks into place, and you feel the rightness of artists doing what they were put on the planet to do, rising up to meet their true calling. And you feel reinvigorated to go out and do the same.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Samurai swords: Goodbye, James Salter


















Here are two—for me, unshakable—scenes from one of my favorite books, James Salter's memoir, Burning the Days. The first is about Truman Capote, in the immediate aftermath of In Cold Blood. (The unpublished book Salter refers to in the final paragraph is A Sport and a Pastime.) The second is about the Apollo 11 launch. (Like Salter, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong had been fighter pilots in the Korean War.) In each, the narrator stands apart from a very different kind of greatness. His reactions to each are very different too, and he records them with absolute honesty.

That November he gave a great party, a masked ball, at the Plaza. The guests, in the hundreds—the list of those invited had been kept secret—were a certain cream. Many came from prearranged dinners all over town, movie stars, artists, songwriters, tycoons, Princess Pignatelli, John O’Hara, Averell Harriman, political insiders, queens of fashion, women in white gowns, men in dinner jackets. They were going up the carpeted steps of the hotel entrance, great languid flags overhead, limousines in dark ranks. The path of glory: satin gowns raised a few inches as they went up on silvery heels. Stunning women, bare shoulders, the rapt crowd.

They woke, these people, above a park immense and calm in the morning, the reservoir a mirror, the buildings to the east in shadow with the sun behind them, the rivers shining, the bridges lightly sketched. There were no curtains. This high up there was no one to see in.

In the small convertible I had bought in Rome I was driving past that night and for a few moments saw it. I knew neither the guests nor the host. I had the elation of not being part of it, of scorning it, on my way like a fox to another sort of life. There came to me something a nurse had once told me, that at Pearl Harbor casualties had been brought in wearing tuxedos, it was Saturday night on Oahu, it was Sunday. The dancing at the clubs was over. The dawn of the war.

In the darkness the soft hum of the tires on the empty road was like a cooling hand. The city had sunk to mere glowing sky. My own book was not yet published, but would be. It had no dimensions, no limit to the heights in might reach. It was deep in my pocket, like an inheritance.

/////

The days of flying that have borne them to this, the countless, repetitive days. The astonishing thing is that we are empowered to bequeath history, to create the unalterable: paintings, elections, crimes. In fact they are impossible to prevent. One of the most memorable acts of all time is about to occur. Two minutes.

I had an Italian mistress, O very fine, who would fly places to meet me. She was slender, with a body brown from Rome's beaches and a narrow pale band, as if bleached, encircling her hips, the white reserve. She wore a brown leather jacket and had black hair, cut short. I had a luxurious corduroy suit, soft as velvet, from Palazzi on Via Borgognona. She had bought it for me as a gift. She was the antidote to, among many things, the sickening hours surrounding the launch and intolerable days after. I had taught her a catechism, or rather together we had composed one, which she could recite in perfect English, the flagrant words sinless in her mouth, the innocent questions and profane responses, and the low, inviting voice in which they were uttered. One minute.

We were silent that night with the television still on, light shifting on the walls in the darkened room. I was watching, transfixed by it, as well as by the cool, unhurried act we were engaged in. As a boy I had imagined grown men achieving scenes such as this. Tremendous deliberation. Reverent movement, oblivious, assured. She is writhing, like a dying snake, like a woman in bedlam. Everything and nothing, and meanwhile the invincible rocket, devouring miles, flying lead-heavy through actual minutes and men's dreams.

I have never forgotten that night or its anguish. Pleasure and inconsequence on one hand, immeasurable deeds on the other. I lay awake for a long time thinking of what I had become.
/////

There's a lot of talk in the Times obit, foreshadowed in a 2013 New Yorker piece, of James Salter's reputation. I respect that James Salter himself obsessed over this topic, as the passages above indicate. But speaking as a reader and a fan—I would've said, before hearing last night's sad news, that he was my favorite living writer—his fame and stature are beside the point. To me, his books—particularly Solo Faces, A Sport and a Pastime, Burning the Days, All That Is, Last Night and Light Years (just typing that title, I shudder with reverence, and with the kind of reader trauma one associates with a book one finds particularly devastating)—are like samurai swords, immaculately crafted and absolutely deadly.

I know of no other writer that goes there, so to speak, like Salter does, dares to get inside vanity and aging and sex and literature and disease and achievement and failure and dignity and pettiness and malaise and glory the way he does. His books feel to me like honest catalogs, cross-sections of what life can throw at you, for better and for worse. Truth administered with an unapologetic, though not unsympathetic, "That's just the way it is." They embody both a tenderness and a coldness, luminous nostalgia and blunt scorn. They slice you up while making you swoon with their music. Reviewing them in my mind, I feel like I'm tracing the outlines of scars I've come to consider integral to my present self. Like the works of Faulkner, my other favorite, they stick around. In my private estimation, James Salter was plenty famous—and is undoubtedly immortal.

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*Also from the Times, a valuable collection of Salter links. That Paris Review interview is indeed something special.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Coiling the spring: Ornette & Co.'s fast-forward mirth/mania

















I've spent the past few days glued to WKCR, which is spinning Ornette around the clock through Wednesday, June 17, at 9:30am EST, and to my own rapidly growing Ornette Coleman collection. The concentrated listening is wonderful; the occasion is sad. Every time a major artist dies, I wonder about the cycle of tragedy and tribute—why was I not immersing myself in Ornette's music, say, a week ago, filling in the gaps in my knowledge? (The 1987 reunion of the classic quartet, both studio and live, and the pair of Sound Museum albums from 1996 are two spots in the discography that I'm now seriously investigating for the first time.) That said, I've returned to Ornette regularly since I first began loving his work roughly 20 years ago—WKCR's March 9 birthday broadcasts were always drop-everything propositions for me—but there's just so much music out there. At least we know the man felt the love while he was still alive. This is a good opportunity to mention that Ornette's friends and contemporaries Sonny Rollins and Cecil Taylor, born approximately six months after and one year before OC, respectively, are still with us. Remember it well, every day.

I think that when you love an artist's work, you carry their sound in your head, the same way you carry a friend's voice. That's why I don't place much stock in canonical thinking regarding music or the arts in general. An artist may be great, but if what they do doesn't speak to you on that private level, all the talk of their greatness, as though it were a foregone conclusion, can grow oppressive. And that can be the case even if, maybe especially if, the given artist's work does speak to you. Sometimes, for me, it can be hard to square the writer-about-music's job of having to dutifully recite the reasons for an artist's "importance" with the private sensation of why I love their work. I get why the "important" part is important. It's because, in some larger sense, the very act of speaking about a key figure's life in shorthand is important. When a major artist dies, we summarize their achievements for the benefit of those who might not be familiar with their work. But as I hinted at in this quick, by no means definitive (not being modest; just saying that definitiveness wasn't even my intention) Ornette piece for Time Out New York, the tagline version of a given artist's greatness can often feel very remote from the private truth of that same greatness, as it plays out within the heart and mind of a specific listener.

I love Ornette Coleman not because he Revolutionized Jazz, but, in part, because he was able to cultivate a circumstance in which something like this might occur:


It's no coincidence that I also cited a track from Science Fiction when we lost Charlie Haden just 11 months ago. With very few exceptions, when I think about what a given jazz hero means to me, I think about that figure in an ideal group context. For me, there were two ideal Ornette Coleman group contexts (all respects to the best of the electric years, esp. this 1978 ensemble): Coleman/Cherry/Haden/Higgins (CCHH), heard on "Civilization Day" above, and Coleman/Redman/Haden/Blackwell (CRHB). I feel that both reached their apex during the early ’70s, and specifically on this album, which features performances by each of these two configurations, as well as by a hybrid ensemble; the 1971 Belgrade concert by CRHB is equally godly. (Though I should say that judging by the 1987 recordings I'm currently savoring, CCHH kept right on evolving upon their reunion, and, though technically Ornette-less, Old and New Dreams, the Redman/Cherry/Haden/Blackwell band which fused the two groups cited above, illustrated the Coleman Concept just about as well as the master's own greatest groups.)


"Civilization Day" illustrates one key facet of that Coleman Concept, which is speed. The threshold thereof in jazz. How far can you push it? Charlie Parker had already pushed it pretty damn far. But Ornette, it seems to me, did as much as anyone to explore the border of chaos and control. Certainly there was plenty of that happening in the work of both Davis/Shorter/Hancock/Carter/Williams and Coltrane/Tyner/Garrison/Jones, but neither group ever concerned itself with the kind of gleeful mania heard on Science Fiction.

When I take a personal inventory of what I love about Ornette, I arrive at the idea that he drilled these bands so extensively, coiled their collective springs so tightly, that all four players, whether in the CCHH or CRHB configurations, could just blast off into this white-hot yet almost mirthful kind of fast-forward mode. "Free jazz" was many things to many people: explosion, expulsion, dirge, catharsis, meditation. To Ornette it was the license to dance on a molecular level, at tempos so extreme they seem almost cartoonish.

The deployment of the drums in "Civilization Day" is masterful. The way Higgins drops out after the head (:14), leaving Coleman and Cherry to twist and writhe and wriggle, coiling that spring tighter and tighter before blasting back in with a swing at once steely and buoyant. The brashness, the drive of the band at full-tilt during Cherry's solo. This is the banishment of all that has ever been boring about jazz. Haden doing his part to further coil the spring around 2:25, embarking on one of his epic, brain-bending, upward-moving Haden Slides, till you think your skull's going to burst at the simultaneous tension and drive and motion of it all. And then Higgins out again around 2:50, leaving Coleman and Haden to rev in the starting gate for a few precious seconds before the drums come back in. And once they do, Haden sounds even more hellbent, perversely shifting registers/gears (3:14–3:25) as Higgins steps on the gas. The zipping, darting Coleman wail, the expression of a man on a sonic trampoline, soaring ever higher. Wiggling and shimmying. Singing and dancing. Higgins coiling the spring for 15 almost unbearably tense seconds (4:35–4:50), bashing out snare-cymbal accents at three-beat intervals as Coleman whoops and screams. And as before, when the full-tilt swing resumes, it sounds even more maniacal, more driven, more fun. The drum solo ironically a quick breather, a respite from the CCHH mania, which returns in classically hyperbolic form during the final head.

Is this "free" jazz? Or is it the most controlled, the most together that jazz has ever sounded? It's a circumstance of group sympathy so profound that these concepts become synonymous. So that the band, collectively, is unfazed by an objectively absurd tempo. So that they sacrifice no control or precision of expression even in these circumstances of pure, adrenaline-fueled daredevilry. (There is this speed-demon aspect to the later Coleman bands with Denardo on drums, bands that, as you can hear on the Sound Museum sessions and Sound Grammar, summoned their own special kind of fast-forward mania, but with all due respect, no drummer could rival Higgins and Blackwell when it came to the challenge of maintaining a flawless sense of pocket/groove at breakneck tempos.)

As a listener, you feel like a kid on a carnival ride: "Faster! Faster!" This to me is the core OC sensation, the one to which my listening brain flashes when I think about the Ornette I know and love. It's him, yes, but it's also the hive-mind circumstance he was able to foster among his bandmates. Like Coltrane or Davis or Lacy or Braxton or Ellington or Giuffre or Shorter or Rivers or Evans or Mingus or Lehman or Threadgill or any other major figure in composed/improvised music who at one time or another has managed to align their concept perfectly with one or more fixed groups of collaborators, Coleman found that group ecstasy with CCHH and CRHB. It's there on record, and it is immortal.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Sublime architecture: Feast of the Epiphany and the New Firmament universe

















Processing the master's passing in a private way at the moment, sharing memories with friends. There may be more to say, but right now, we just need to listen.

Saw a concert last night at IBeam that seems somehow more urgent, in the sense that a) you'll be reading less about it elsewhere and b) its sensations are newer to me, less implanted, processed, decided-upon. I know what I think of Ornette Coleman; what remains is simply the continuation of my lifelong joy and savoring of his work. I know what I think I think of Feast of the Epiphany—the ever-evolving ensemble led by singer, multi-instrumentalist and composer (and my longtime friend) Nick Podgurski—but it could take years, decades even, for this music to come into focus, for me and for the listening public. I feel comfortable saying, though, that it is something major, and that if you are interested in music of actual newness and progress, as those concepts are playing out in New York at this very moment, you need to reckon with it.

I, and I suspect most who know and love his work, first heard Nick as a drummer. A phenomenal one. For years, he played in a Baltimore band called Yukon, which has since broken up but has spawned three totally different and equally brilliant bodies of work: Nick's New Firmament universe, of which FOTE is only a small part; Sam Garrett's magical Voice Coils; and Denny Bowen's Roomrunner, the most outwardly conventional of the three but every bit as thrilling and reflective of its architect's unique sensibility. My band STATS serendipitously shared a bill with Yukon roughly a decade ago and thus began an ongoing friendship and mutual aesthetic appreciation with these great young artists. Here is Mortar, an outstanding Yukon recording from the pre-Garrett era; Nick, Sam and bassist Brad Smith made one final recording as a trio that, in my opinion, is one of the most astonishingly weird, smart and enjoyable rock-related albums of the past decade (the true continuation of the idea of "prog," without all the tired nostalgic ballast), but it seems to have disappeared from Bandcamp. Will have to talk to Nick about that…

This later era of Yukon gave rise to what could be labeled Nick's still-flowering auteur period. As a drummer who contributes to the composition, content and overall feel of his band, i.e., STATS, I'm nevertheless comfortable with the fact that at the end of the day, I am, as the saying goes, "The Drummer." Nick is not "The" anything. That is to say, he's everything. That's not to say he's a lone wolf who doesn't value collaboration; quite the contrary. What I mean to say is that he is building a complete musical system, without boundary. "ABOVE ALL ELSE I feel that the best form of information for ALL of these projects is one another," he wrote recently on New Firmament, a blog which bears the overarching name of his creative endeavors (a name that he also uses when performing instrumental ambient keyboard music). I know what he means, at least in one sense: As Nick's music evolves, it grows steadily less relatable to any other given style of music. Much as Anthony Braxton makes Anthony Braxton music, full stop, as John Fahey made John Fahey music, Nick Podgurski is making Nick Podgurski music. To deal with it, you have to deal with it, period.

Last night's performance, the first Feast of the Epiphany show in more than two years, and the debut of a new lineup of the band, was a good example of this. I'm sitting here feeling genuinely apprehensive, because I have no idea where to begin in describing this performance, or the project in general. I want to emphasize the impact the show had on me, which was considerable, but I feel ill-equipped to state with conviction even the basic facts of what this ensemble does. This isn't false modesty; as I wrote above, FOTE is a really difficult thing to relate to anything that is not itself, and I sense this is by design. Nevertheless, since I hope that you will go see a Nick Podgurski show yourself, I will try.

FOTE is at heart a song-based music. The songs are long-form, and cyclical but not overtly repetitive, if that makes sense. Nick plays keyboard—often heavily distorted, so that it renders as a sort of buzzing drone—and sings, in a voice that ranges from a low croon to a piercing, dramatic belt. There is a suppleness, eccentricity, conviction to the delivery that reminds me at various times of Eddie Vedder and Sam Herring from Future Islands, both singers I admire greatly, singers of power and control and a certain almost actorly stylization that's perfectly suited to the aesthetics of their given bands. Same goes for Nick. His vocals are key to the success of this project.

The current FOTE ensemble also includes guitarists Andrew Smiley (of Little Women; incidentally Travis Laplante, another member of that band, opened the evening with a stunning solo saxophone set) and Caley Monahon-Ward (ex–Extra Life, a band that Nick also played in), and bassist Keith Abrams (former drummer of Time of Orchids). These players weave their lines around the foundational pillars of Nick's keyboard parts, in a way that feels sometimes ornamental, sometimes elemental. The overall feeling I get from listening to FOTE is of a sort of pulsating, undulating mass—like a pop song exposed to great pressure and heat, so that it warps and elongates and melts down into pure, radiant musical matter. There's a great tension between the abstract nature of the surface sound and the clear organization that's going on beneath. You'll feel unmoored, and then all of the sudden the band snaps into a tight, balletic postprog riff and the music takes on a great forward drive.

The same applies the vocals. Sometimes they play a background role, almost inaudible. At other times they rise up to a terrifying peak. You don't tend to hear vocals this clear, commanding, pungent in so-called experimental music. Nick does not play the conventional role of frontman, but during these vocal peaks, he is a riveting presence, wielding an instrument of deep power. Nick made his first major statement as a singer in Yukon (this is a subpar recording, but it will have to do), and he's continuing to push with FOTE. Listen to his brilliant cover of the Chocolate Watchband's garage-pop classic "(I Ain't No) Miracle Worker" here for a sense of what his voice is capable of. During last night's show, there were peaks like those you hear in that performance, peaks that made you wince with awe. FOTE plays a deeply controlled music, making the moments when the band really unleashes (such as in the second and final of four long, apparently untitled songs they performed last night) leap out and grab your attention.

I sat and read the voluminous lyrics Nick passed out on a typically well-designed, beautifully illustrated poster/program (visuals are key to the New Firmament aesthetic), puzzling over potent lines such as:

We are burned
We evaporate
We are spun
From the slime that we are

And I felt like I was flying rapidly over a thriving alien civilization, catching glimpses of sublime architecture, weird landforms, houses, temples, skyscrapers, but not having adequate time to process what I was seeing. The FOTE experience is one of information overload. You can't keep up, at least I can't. But the care and the depth are easy to see. Nick Podgurski is up to something major, something that relates only to itself. Explore New Firmament, see a Feast show, see an ambient New Firmament gig, see one of Nick's improv performances on drums, spend time with one of his illuminating, genre-transcendent Playlists. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, there's something happening here—right now, in New York—and I don't know what it is. You can't label it or contain it, but you can witness it, apprehend its formidable, enlightened construction in fleeting moments. I strongly encourage you to do so.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Ornette



















Humbly, via Time Out New York.

Am of course reflecting on last June's Prospect Park show, almost a year ago to the day.

The Times has a definitive piece.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Recently
























Few news bits to share:

1) I'm thrilled to report that the second Craw Kickstarter campaign, complete as of June 2, has met and exceeded its funding goal. The good people at Northern Spy and Aqualamb, the members of Craw, and myself are already hard at work on the vinyl box set, which will be out later this year. (Above is a subject-to-change rendering of the 100-page, Aqualamb-designed book of photos and lyrics that will accompany the set.) A big thanks to any DFSBP readers who pledged, helped to spread the word or simply gave the campaign a look. Stay tuned!

2) On May 1, I spent more than three hours talking with Milford Graves, a longtime musical hero of mine, at his home in Jamiaca, Queens. A big thanks to Red Bull Music Academy—and my editor there, Todd Burns—for posting an extra-lengthy Q&A drawn from this conversation.

3) I've spent much of this past week on the road with Psalm Zero. Thanks to all bookers, bands (especially the unrelenting Massachusetts noise-rock quartet Livver) and friendly folks who helped to make this trip fun and fruitful. I enjoyed all the shows, but I'd like to single out BRIEFCASEFEST in Toronto on Friday as particularly great experience. Was absolutely floored by the local bands Godstopper and Ayahuasca, each of whom specializes in a unique strain of proggy, melodic post-hardcore that really struck a chord with me, as well as our NYC comrades Couch Slut (a stunningly intense and unsettling band; I'm still reeling) and Pyrrhon (a band that pushes technical death metal into a zone of pure info-overload mania).

Thus concludes my stint working with PZ. I'd like to thank the band's co-leaders, my friends Charlie Looker and Andrew Hock, for a challenging, rewarding experience. They're both extremely creative, prolific and uncompromising musicians, and I can't wait to see what they do next, both together and separately. For the curious, here's a video of a show I played with Psalm Zero in April. If you're not familiar with the band, I firmly believe that their 2014 debut, The Drain (which I wasn't involved in, to be clear), is a new classic of dark, heavy, forward-thinking rock.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Your attention, please: Craw Kickstarter 2.0
























Update: I'm thrilled to report that the second Craw Kickstarter has reached and exceeded its goal. The box set will be out later this year from Northern Spy. Our fund-raiser is still live through Tuesday, June 2, at 9pm EST; go here to preorder the music in both vinyl and digital formats.

Go here to hear a five-song Craw sampler.

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In March of 2014, I launched a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of reissuing three records by Craw, my favorite band of all time, in a limited-edition vinyl box set. I did as much research as I could, but I was in over my head. This was the gesture of a fan, not of someone who had any idea what it meant to put out records. I counted on my enthusiasm for the project to carry me through, and while I failed to meet the financial goal I set, I was thrilled with the response.

On Monday, May 4, I'm relaunching this effort. (I will add the link here as soon as the new campaign is live.) The basic objective is the same: to reissue Craw's first three albums, all out of print for roughly 20 years, as a limited-edition vinyl box set. But the details are very different.

Much of the constructive criticism I received re: the first campaign was that my numbers were off—the asking price for the box set was simply too high. At the time, since I had put so much work into the campaign, I wasn't really interested in hearing feedback. I believed in the project, and I was devoted to my original vision. But after the fund-raiser ended and I was able to take a step back, I could see that the numbers were in fact flawed. Because of what one commenter referred to as "the economics of scale," producing 300 copies of the set rather than the intended 100 would greatly lower the per-unit price. Still, though, I wasn't sure I was ready to get back on the Kickstarter merry-go-round—as anyone who has launched a fund-raiser on that or any other platform could tell you, it's a rewarding but somewhat draining experience. For a while, I was very close to relaunching a digital-only reissue effort, obviously a drastically less costly endeavor. This seemed like the most direct route to my true goal, which is to properly situate Craw in the discussion surrounding progressive, aggressive underground rock music (post-hardcore, left-field metal, math rock, art rock, noise rock, what have you; all are inadequate to describe this band, but they're as close as one can get when speaking in shorthand), to get the sounds in people's ears and let the records speak for themselves, which I knew they would.

But vinyl was the holy grail all along. To reissue out-of-print albums on vinyl, especially in a collector-friendly, properly annotated, handsomely designed box set (Triple Point's Ben Young specializes in previously unreleased music, but aesthetically, something like call it art is the gold standard for me), is to restore the dignity of the music in question, to say, "For whatever reason, or combination of reasons, these sounds, so laboriously, lovingly crafted, have been overlooked. Let's re-present and reexamine these great works."

Enter Northern Spy, a label I've been a fan of for quite some time. I am extremely grateful to the men that run this label, Adam Downey and Tom Abbs, for saying to me, "Let's give this another shot." And not only another shot, but a better shot. We've been working on the figures for the past few months, and they look good. Craw Kickstarter 2.0 won't be a slam dunk, but I hope and believe that it will feel more like a free-throw attempt than the half-court desperation shot that was the first campaign. If we succeed, the Craw box set will become part of a beautiful, boundless catalog of avant-garde music, encompassing artists as diverse as John Butcher and Shilpa Ray, Chicago Underground Duo and the USA Is a Monster, as well as those who are closer to home and, in some cases, personal friends and collaborators: Seaven Teares, Zs, Aa. Much like Craw were, Northern Spy is bigger than genre. Way bigger.

Also on board this time around, handling design and a custom liner-notes booklet, is Aqualamb. Owners Johnathan Swafford, a former resident of Craw's birthplace of Cleveland, and Eric Palmerlee are musicians and artists with strong ideas about the value of packaging and presentation. Their business is dignifying the music they release with gorgeous 100-page softbound books—not booklets, actual books. I know they will make the Craw box look and feel so much richer than it would have otherwise.

And then there is the music itself. I've been at this a long time—"this" meaning loving music and spreading the word however I can. Craw's music is simply on another plane for me. As any reader of this blog will understand, I love all kinds of music, in all kinds of ways. And generally, I have no interest in quantifying that love. But this is a special case: I've loved Craw's music for longer, and with more intensity, than any other music. Sure, the fact that Craw are an impossibly obscure band feeds into my vehemence, but I don't love this music because it's obscure. I love it because it's eerie, mesmerizing and shockingly intense, because it's as heavy as any music I've ever heard, but in totally counterintuitive ways. I love it because it's sinister yet sad, unhinged yet rigorous, insanely complex yet strikingly coherent. I love it because it feels true and profound to me.

I've spent so many late nights and early mornings dreaming of the day when people would have a chance to hear what I hear in this music, working to get the details of these two campaigns right. This new effort feels more solid. With the last campaign, my heart was in the right place, which is a significant detail, but the logistics weren't in order. This time, with the help of Northern Spy, Aqualamb and my good friend and musical collaborator David McClelland—Craw guitarist, cowriter and cofounder—I'm confident that they are. This work has not been burdensome, because the music continues to bear the weight I place on it. I go back to it, year after year, and the feeling is the same.

The poster you see above advertises the first Craw show I saw, in Kansas City, MO, on April 21, 1995. It would not be an exaggeration to say that that show changed my life. After all, I'm sitting here, writing this, 20 years later. If you enjoy this blog, or any of the words I've written, or music-related content that I've produced, or music that I've made, I would be extremely grateful if you would simply take a look at the Kickstarter page when it goes live. Watch the video, read the text, get to know the campaign, see what we're trying to do, keep up with the effort on Facebook. Donate if you're interested; spread the word if you're so inclined. Your attention would mean so much to me.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Hey, 'Nineteen': Garth W. Caylor's instant classic


















There didn't seem to be much risk involved in plunking down $21 for a copy of Nineteen +. A couple weeks back, my friend Stephen Buono tipped me off to this Wire news item concerning a book of interviews with jazz musicians that had recently been self-published by its author, Garth W. Caylor Jr., 50 years after its completion. (Caylor completed the manuscript in ’65 but shelved it after he was unable to find a publisher.) I took one look at the time frame, 1964–65, and the list of artists involved—Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Milford Graves and Steve Lacy are five of the 19 names—and knew that I needed to have this. With those artists on board, Caylor's book had to be at least interesting.

I'm about halfway through Nineteen +, and I'm comfortable labeling it as an essential jazz book. Off the top of my head, my personal short list in that regard would look something like:

Valerie Wilmer
As Serious as Your Life

Ben Ratliff
The Jazz Ear

A.B. Spellman
Four Lives in the Bebop Business

Arthur Taylor
Notes and Tones

Graham Lock
Forces in Motion

Lock's classic Anthony Braxton tome is the odd volume out there, in that it focuses on one artist. The rest of these books are compilations of sorts, where each chapter concerns a different artist or set of artists. Nineteen + is of the latter type. Among those listed above, Caylor's book probably most closely resembles Taylor's classic collection of artist interviews: Unlike with the Ratliff and Spellman books, the chapters here are short (about eight pages on average, and the book itself is small: a paperback just larger than pocket-sized), and unlike with Wilmer's, the author doesn't seem to have much of an agenda in mind. I say "much of" because he does seem to be attempting to get to the bottom of the "inside"/"outside" binary that was a hot-button issue in jazz at the time and which is still a source of occasional debate/commentary; the chapters on Zoot Sims and Al Cohn (they're heard from together here, as they often are on record) and Bill Evans contain some fascinating insights in that regard, e.g., Sims and Cohn's complicated stances on Coltrane (they admire his technique but seem to find his aesthetics abrasive).

Caylor is more or less reporting what he experienced and recorded, aiming not exactly for a portrait of each artist he visits (he interviews the majority—all?—of the musicians in their own respective homes) but for a sketch of their personality and philosophy, aesthetic and otherwise. He uses the Q&A format occasionally and quotes large, sometimes pages-long, blocks of the artists' words verbatim. But these aren't mere transcriptions. Caylor frames the conversations with his own prose, and the effort is beautifully unobtrusive, like an expert lighting job. (In the introduction, Caylor describes how, at the time he was compiling these interviews, he was working as an architect, and the elegant yet unassuming way he structures his chapters seems directly related to that career.) He offers just the right scene-setting details—starting his Jaki Byard profile, for instance, by describing an interaction between the pianist and his young son, or his Steve Swallow chapter thusly:

Steve Swallow lives among tables and chairs of wood, shelves of paperbooks, and shelves of spools of colored yarn above that, all the way to the ceiling because his wife weaves things. They serve coffee with chicory, I think, from cups and saucers of baked earth. There is a bass fiddle, a piano, a loom and some cats in the tall room.
Or even transcribing bits of phone conversations he overhears: serendipitously, Mingus happens to ring Byard during Caylor's interview of the latter, and Miles happens to call up Herbie Hancock while the author is visiting. ("Miles said, 'So you're gonna take what all the musicians say and put it in a book and get all the money for it'—is that right?")

The pieces are far shorter and less commentary-heavy than Calvin Tomkins's wonderful New Yorker artist profiles, but there's a similar kind of sensitive mind at work here. The writing is musical but not gaudy. Caylor also includes complementary quotes from various texts by authors that either come up directly in the conversations or whose work is relevant to the topics discussed in the interviews. Interestingly, he often lets these authors have the final word in a given piece. Art Farmer mentions Ravel, for example, so Caylor closes that chapter with several apropos 1930s quotes from the composer; Caylor and Swallow discuss Zen Buddhism, so the author appends an excerpt from D.T. Suzuki.

What strikes me is how freely Caylor gets these musicians to speak. The insights pour out. After reading each piece, I really do feel like I've spent an hour in the company of the artist in question. I've already dog-eared this book to death. A few excerpts:

[Playing with Paul Bley] was an overwhelming experience—I got physically sick afterwards—I stayed in bed for three or four days and thought and thought… Playing with Paul Bley was the first wholly musical experience I'd had—it wasn't recreational and it wasn't social. It had an awesome effect on me.
Steve Swallow

So really Charles Mingus's band is about the only group I can think of that I could play for and be able to play every thing I know on piano.
Jaki Byard

The kind of group I want is say a quintet where each piece is a composition by all five players. I want to get an interaction of sound caused by an interaction of minds. I want everybody to be playing together, not necessarily all the time, but maybe so. Maybe two guys will solo at once. Maybe more.
Herbie Hancock

…[Going] to a museum clears my head—I get a lot of inspiration looking at pictures, and I don't make literal associations. I don't compare it to what I'm doing—it makes me feel much "braver" about my own playing and writing.
Jim Hall

So you see what I mean. Caylor gets these artists talking about what matters, which is the music. If you, like me, have an endless thirst for this kind of primary-source interview material (the phrase "Musicians on music," which John Zorn employs in the subtitle of his Arcana volumes, seems apropos, although in Caylor's book, the musicians are just as often talking about literature or visual art), you're going to gulp this concise book down.

I should point out that the Milford Graves conversation is especially valuable. We're lucky to have a thorough documentation of Graves's current viewpoint, but I don't think I've ever read an interview with him from the mid-’60s, when he was making so many indelible contributions to jazz, drumming and music in general. The Graves interview is a torrent of ideas, free-flowing but absolutely coherent. Caylor sees a handwoven basket (presumably Native American, since he includes a picture of a Washoe basket in the text, one of many tastefully incorporated visual aids in Nineteen +) on the floor in Graves's home and asks about it. Graves replies:

It's sort of an environmental thing for me, first of all it makes me think of a snake, you know; it keeps my coordination together when I think about it. An object that I can look at for a while sort of helps me inside, edifies me, builds my mind and makes me comfortable.

Funny, because Graves drumming does all those things for me. At another point, Graves provides an eerily apt description of his musical asethetic:

…[My] thing is not to capture sound, you know. My feeling is just to move along with it, just to get into the sound, to make myself a part of it and just move along without making any stops.

I'm reading this book and I'm underlining incessantly—consuming these marvelous first-person insights in a state of joyous disbelief. For jazz people, the publication of Nineteen + is a major event. I'm confident that if it had come out 50 years ago, it would be held up as an all-time classic in the field. As far as I'm concerned, the book attains that status instantly. It's an invaluable work of artists-on-art scholarship—as WKCR taught me, the hierarchy goes 1) the music itself, 2) the words of the people who made it (i.e., the majority of Nineteen +) and 3) everything else—and my only wish is that there were several more volumes of Caylor's conversations to follow. Purchase immediately.

P.S. In terms of musicians-on-music, I've also become an avid fan of Joe Wong's drumcentric podcast, The Trap Set. Try the Drumbo, Dale Crover, Ndugu Chancler interviews.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Recently

A few updates and links to share:

*On Friday, I made my debut as the live drummer for Psalm Zero. I love this band, and I'm honored to be working with them. Friday's performance marked my first time using a double kick pedal at a show. As a metal fan, I've enjoyed double-bass drumming for 20-odd years, but as a player, I come more out of the post-hardcore tradition—and later the Zeppelin/Sabbath lineage—where single-pedal performance reigns. Rehearsing over the past few months, it's been nice to complete this circuit, so to speak, and help bring songs from The Drain, PZ's excellent 2014 album, to life.

Our next show is April 15, opening for Liturgy at Saint Vitus. (Friday's show was also at Vitus, and I should mention that it's a serious thrill to perform on a stage where I've seen so many of my metal heroes play.)

*I've also had a blast playing live with A. Rex & J. Rex, a rock & roll band co-led by my friend and Time Out New York colleague Andrew Frisicano, over the past ten months or so. Our next show is April 29 at Black Bear.

*My primary musical project, STATS—in which I handle drums and some vocals, and share composition duties—is currently in its 13th year of activity. We've recorded plenty during that time, but we've never released a full-length album. That changes this year with the late-summer/early-fall release of Mercy, a 40-minute set recorded in the summer of 2013, via the awesome New Atlantis label. I can't wait to share this music, the latest document of my ongoing collaboration with two of my best friends: guitarist Joe Petrucelli and bassist Tony Gedrich. Heavy, structurally ambitious prog-punk, now with more vocals! More news on this soon.

*I'm thrilled to be relaunching my 2014 Craw Kickstarter project in early May with the help of Northern Spy Records. Full update here. More news via Facebook.

*Two recent Time Out interviews that I was really happy to land: Jason Moran on the 80th anniversary series he curated for the Village Vanguard, during which I saw that amazing Charles Lloyd performance I raved about previously; and Antonio Sanchez on his fascinating solo-drums score for Birdman. It was a pleasure speaking with each of these gentlemen.

*I profiled one of my favorite drummers, Slint's Britt Walford, for Modern Drummer. The piece isn't online, but the issue is out now.

*Two recent "classic rock" primer pieces for GQ, on—surprise, surprise—Sabbath and Zeppelin. As anyone who knows me well will tell you, I'm constantly finding excuses to rattle on about one or the other of these bands during my daily life, so it was healthy for me to have these outlets.

Please do me favor and watch the 1969 Danmarks Radio performance linked at the end of the Zeppelin piece. For years, I've hunted in vain for Zeppelin footage that's not plagued by excessive Plant/Page-centricity and/or stupidly ADD-ish editing, i.e., footage where one can actually Watch Bonham Slay. This video is the holy grail. The Bonham-focused bit from 4:00–4:20 is heart-stopping.