Wednesday, February 22, 2017

'Interstellar Space' at 50



















New at Rolling Stone, my 50th-birthday tribute (measured from date of recording, not release) to one of my favorite albums, Interstellar Space. Features fresh input from Ravi Coltrane, Jack DeJohnette, Peter Brötzmann, Nels Cline, Ingrid Laubrock and others, as well as archival thoughts from the late, great Rashied Ali — a big thanks to everyone who took the time to speak with me.

Please check out this DFSBP bonus track, the complete transcript of my interview with Louie Belogenis, who has a couple of choice quotes in the piece but who shared so much more wisdom and insight regarding Coltrane's artistry in general and Interstellar Space in particular.

Few quick addenda:

*Here's the original Rolling Stone review of Interstellar Space, by Stephen "Hammer of the Gods" Davis, for anyone who's interested.

*I wanted to delve a bit further into the shadowy pre-Interstellar history of sax/drums duets in jazz but didn't want to veer too far off course. In addition to Ali's mention of undocumented duos with Archie Shepp (cited in my 2003 Rashied interview for All About Jazz, a Q and A I quote frequently in the new piece), there's this tantalizing passage in the book that comes with Revenant's Holy Ghost Albert Ayler box. The speaker is Mr. Milford Graves, discussing Ayler's visits to his apartment in East New York, Brooklyn. The time frame isn't specified, but my educated guess is that the below would have taken place around 1965, when the two were working together most frequently:

"We played a lot of duets at my house — just the two of us. The things that we did when he came over to my house aren't on any records; people hear the records and they don't hear the real Albert Ayler — the Albert Ayler who's relaxed when he's not around a major audience for which he's going to have to play something that people will dig, or play a tune he has recorded so he can sell some records." 

*Along similar lines, we also have, of course, the brief Coltrane / Art Taylor duet that commences about 30 seconds into "Countdown," as well as this epic Trane / Roy Haynes showdown from Newport '63 (thanks to Ben Ratliff and his essential Coltrane: Story of a Sound for the tip-off on the latter, which is sort of hiding in plain sight; there's more great Ratliff-on-Trane in this 2001 Times piece):



Not to mention the Interstellar-style duet that erupts between Trane and Ali around 3:20 into "Offering," recorded just a week before Interstellar itself:



*Here's a short list of other sax/drums recordings I love — either old favorites or albums I've discovered while working on the RS piece. There's a nice, long list up on the Free Jazz Blog (though now out of date, since new ones are surfacing all the time, e.g., Rich and Carson Halley's brand-new The Wild — thanks to Derek Taylor and Dusted for the tip-off — which I can't wait to check out in full):

Sunny Murray / Arthur Doyle, Dawn of a New Vibration
Sunny Murray / Sabir Mateen, We Are Not at the Opera 
Essential 2000s-era Sunny Murray, shaggy, swinging and sublime, on these two. Doyle and Mateen know what's up and of course hold their own next to the gentle giant.

Fred Anderson / Robert Barry, Duets 2001
Fred Anderson / Steve McCall, Vintage Duets
The former is maybe my single favorite sax/drums album next to Interstellar itself — a sort of freebop infinity, relaxed but never casual. The McCall set, recorded back in 1980, is a deep Chicago document.

Milford Graves / David Murray, Real Deal
David Murray / Jack DeJohnette, In Our Style (Fred Hopkins appears on some tracks)
Milford Graves / John Zorn, 50th Birthday Celebration, Vol. 2
Two of the best representations of Milford Graves on record, with two very different, very well-matched partners, as well as a fun, gutsy Murray/DeJohnette dust-up.

Peter Brötzmann / Paal Nilssen-Love, Wood Cuts
Paal Nilssen-Love / Joe McPhee, Tomorrow Came Today (McPhee plays pocket trumpet on some tracks; reissued as part of the Candy box set)
Peter Brötzmann / Shoji Hano, Funny Rat/s series
Pick your poison, really, when it comes to Brötz drum duets — I must have them all! — but I've gotten good mileage out of Wood Cuts and the third Funny Rat/s disc with the incredible Hano. Nilssen-Love and pretty much anyone, doing pretty much anything, is going to be worth your close attention, and the McPhee here is no exception.

Willem Breuker / Han Bennink, New Acoustic Swing Duo (Breuker also plays clarinets)
Kaoru Abe / Hiroshi Yamazaki, Jazz Bed

Two of the earliest, not to mention most wildest, entries in the sax/drums canon, with the Bennink/Breuker being recorded all the way back in late '67 (thanks to Ben Young for the tip-off). The Abe/Yamazaki, recorded in '71, is just so goddamn raw/real.

Paul Flaherty / Chris Corsano, The Beloved Music

Paul Flaherty / Randall Colbourne, Bridge Out!
Speaking of raw/real, here be Flaherty and Corsano, the standard bearers of the punk offshoot of the sax/drums monolith. Flaherty/Colbourne is a subtler yet just as compelling combo.
Jimmy Lyons / Andrew Cyrille, Burnt Offering
Jimmy Lyons / Andrew Cyrille, Something in Return
Cecil Taylor Unit blood brothers getting down to serious business.

Dewey Redman / Ed Blackwell, Red and Black in Willisau
Ornette blood brothers doing same.

Kid Millions / Jim Sauter, Fountain

Keeping the tradition moving. Molten noisejazz lava with surprising sensitivity. See also: Sauter's duet with Weasel Walter on this 2014 WW improv sampler, on which he also goes toe-to-toe with Marshall Allen and Marco Eneidi.

Jon Irabagon / Mike Pride, I Don't Hear Nothin' but the Blues
Another contemporary spin. Obsessive, insular and just downright perverse at times.

What are your favorites?

Louie Belogenis talks 'Interstellar Space'















One of the greatest pleasures of working on my new Interstellar Space piece was getting the chance to speak with — and delve further into the work of — saxophonist Louie Belogenis. I was modestly familiar with Louie's output before this, specifically Flow Trio's 2009 debut, Rejuvenation, and his excellent 2011 trio disc Tiresias, with Sunny Murray and bassist Michael Bisio. (I still need to catch up on that very intriguing 2015 Blue Buddha record, with Dave Douglas, Bill Laswell and Tyshawn Sorey.)

The entry point for this interview was Rings of Saturn, Louie's magnificent 1999 duo disc with Rashied Ali, but as you'll read, there was so much more to talk about. This man is a serious disciple of Coltrane who also clearly understands the importance of blazing his own trail through the music. I'd like to sincerely thank him for his time and his insight.

/////

Louie Belogenis on Interstellar Space — 2/2/17

It's almost become a rite of passage for specifically tenor saxophonists and drummers to record in that idiom and see how they can contribute to that genre. And from that it's branched out, like Rashied made that record with Leroy Jenkins; that's an amazing record. So you have people in general now recording with drummers in a duet setting, much in the same way that Steve Lacy and Anthony Braxton created a whole genre of solo concerts, solo recitals. You have a recital idiom now, duetting between a drummer and a tenor saxophonist or now it's open to any instrument you can think of. It's interesting because you can contextualize it as Interstellar Space is the grandfather of all of this progeny, and what people are adding, subtracting, contributing, the directions that they're going in, is fascinating, and probably, if you're tracing that lineage, it's probably into the hundreds or thousands of records right now. Everyone's just so interested in it.

Can you take me back to when that record came into your life?
I had it immediately. It was 1974. I don't know exactly when it came out, but I had it that year. ABC/Impulse was releasing posthumously Coltrane records like Meditations, Transition, and Interstellar Space was part of that. I got it, and it blew my mind. It was astounding and confounding at the same time for me to listen to that.

So you were fully up on everything that had come out during Coltrane's lifetime?
No, I actually kind of started in reverse, and made my way backwards through his music but just jazz music in general. I was very attracted at that time by Braxton and Lacy and Air and Threadgill, Roscoe, the Art Ensemble, Cecil. I was into that music very specifically. As well as more fringe [artists]: John Zorn at that time, who wasn't the John Zorn that he is now, playing with Eugene Chadbourne and Polly Bradfield. I don't think Phillip Johnston had started the Microscopic Septet yet, but I was already going to concerts by people like Joel Forrester and Phillip, Dave Sewelson, Wayne Horvitz, the whole Santa Cruz scene that moved here. Robin Holcomb was part of that, of course.

So, like any young person, I was kind of just in the scene. I was just listening; my ears were wide open. You hear a record like that, and there's no way to chase it forward because it's happening right now, so you trace it backwards. What was the record he put out before this? And who did he play with? Lead back to Miles Davis, the record with Duke Ellington, the ballads record. I wasn't up on it; it made me want to investigate further and kind of backwards in time.

At that time it was just current, and it was as fresh as anything that Art Ensemble was doing or Air was doing or Arthur Blythe, Sam Rivers had Studio Rivbea at the time. It was almost like you heard that yesterday [laughs]. It wasn't dated at all; it blew everybody's mind.

Right, even seven years after it was made and after Coltrane died.
Exactly, yes, because no one had ever heard it. It didn't come out during his lifetime, so when it came out in '74, that was its initial release.

Do you remember that the record caused a stir in your circle? Was it kind of like an event when it came out?
I think it's safe to say that yes, in the musicians I've already mentioned and friends that I can contextualize, it was a record that everybody had on. And I'm in a musical milieu, so everybody was listening to it, studying it. It was like when when Motion, Lee Konitz's record with Elvin and Sonny Dallas came out, I can recall everybody's house you went to, they were listening to Motion. This was a similar kind of record. Whether you liked it or not, and most people I knew liked it, you were awed by it. It was a majestic statement, but whether you liked it or not, it was something that you knew was important.

Once you were able to go back and get more of a full view of Coltrane's work, how did the record strike you then?
It's an extension. Coltrane is a pilgrim; he's always on a path. It's so well-known that he practiced incessantly, as many hours in a day, as many breaths as he could take, he was with his saxophone; he was with music. And it's clear, if you do go back or if you study the music, that it's a path. It makes really logical sense. He was very instrumental in creating a very personal language for himself based on his virtuosity and his intense practice program. And this is an extension of that. So it wasn't shocking and surprising in that sense; it was shocking and surprisingly in the sense of "How is this humanly possible that someone could play this way?" I would imagine like when violinists heard Heifetz for the first time... There was that element of shock, but when you listen to Coltrane's recorded output, you just see it; it's a step-by-step progress or evolution... Just growth, exploration and evolution.

I didn't hear it as some wild statement. I think people appropriated it that way maybe, but Coltrane was not a wildman. He was on the path, and his path was music, practicing the saxophone — total dedication to his art and his craft and at the highest level imaginable.

You mentioned some of these astounding things you heard on the record. Are there moments or techniques or facets of what he's doing on that record that you could elaborate on?
Yeah, sure... First off, just the level of execution, right? [Laughs] If you like it or not, you can't but help notice: Listen to this man's level of execution. Not only the speed that he's playing with but the very complex ideas. He's working with scales that are unusual; he's working with chords that are unusual; he's working with intervals that are unusual. And he's executing them as if somebody else is playing a C major scale [laughs]. It's just so virtuosic and so intuitive and so natural and so flowing. And again, these are not easy things that this man is doing, and in many ways, they're intervals and scales, the usage of which he's kind of pioneering. He was good friends with Yusef Lateef who wrote that book Repository of Scales [and Melodic Patterns]. He had hundreds of scales: Persian scales, Indian scales.

And that's another thing: Coltrane was listening to Ravi Shankar and even in correspondence with Ravi Shankar. He named his son Ravi. He was so into the modal aspect of it. So his execution of these very technical things: wider intervals, fourths, sixths. Overblowing on the saxophone and yet creating, like, stacked harmonics. The saxophone's a single-note instrument... He could play a note but he could have the fourth and the fifth above that note be sounding through a use of what's called false fingerings and overblowing. It would be like a violinist pressing with a certain amount of pressure so they get harmonic overtones on the string. It's like the Pythagorean Theorem. Coltrane could overblow through a system of his breath control and his fingerings to create, like I said, he'll get the fundamental tonic note, but he'll get notes extended above that and sometimes he was getting three notes. He would create a chord on a single-note instrument. Of course Mr. Evan Parker has gone further and perfected that to a certain extent, but no one was doing that when Coltrane was... He started it early; you can go back and hear some of it on Giant Steps and those "Impressions" solos that are live in Europe, so many of them have amazing aspects of that. But on Interstellar Space, specifically, it's just phenomenal...

So the control not only of his standard technique, but the control of extended technique, the ability to execute it at speeds that most people couldn't even play conventional things at was really astounding...

But this is something that I think you should bring out: At the same time, inside of that, there's a beautiful peacefulness and silence and space in Interstellar Space too, which I think attracts many listeners as well. They don't see it as some tumultuous cacophony. He starts so many of the pieces with his sleigh bells — that's not Rashied playing the bells; that's Coltrane playing the bells — and he ends four of the six pieces with the bells. So it's kind of starting from this place of openness and "What are we gonna fill it with? What are we gonna create here, Rashied? What are we gonna do now?" And he's just shaking those bells, and the inspiration comes to him, and out of that, he creates this music. But as he's creating it, no matter where he goes with it, it's coming from that core of silence, of peacefulness, of wonder, of beauty, of really taking a chance and not knowing where it's going to lead to, but having the confidence and the courage to go there.

Yeah, I think that contrast is absolutely at the heart of that album.
Yeah, and I think that's something that a lot of people miss when they speak about his music, because that just runs throughout that, and I would say that Joe Lovano has something like that. Joe has just such a beautiful core. That beauty, that aesthetic of peacefulness. He's not aggressive; he's not competitive. No matter how hard he might play, and he's a strong man and can play forcefully, it's coming from this beautiful center. Sonny Rollins: a beautiful center of devotion and dedication. Coltrane had that too, and then when you add to that this ecstatic element, it becomes overwhelming. And Coltrane of course had roots in the church. You add that ecstatic nature of the church tradition, the blues tradition, and it's overwhelming.

But the interesting thing is what you were saying, this contrast. It's just not the overblowing and the three- or four-note chording and the lightning execution; there really is a core of peace there. There's a core that's just open and it's vibrant and it's peaceful. It's gentle. There's a gentleness to this man's playing, and you can hear that on "Naima" and his ballads records and "Wise One." So many of his records. No matter how furious he's playing, it's coming from a centered man, a man who's at peace.

I'm not a saxophone player, but there are these things he does throughout that record, almost these cyclical up-and-down patterns [imitates sound]. What would you call that, or how would you describe it?
Those are real quick arpeggios and glissandi. That's part of his technical thing. He's executing at speeds that would rival any classical virtuoso you could think of. That's what he is; he's a virtuoso. This is real technique, executed at the limits of human possibility, but those things specifically that you're asking about, those are arpeggios and glissandi, where he's executing strings of C, E, G, B flat; D, F, A, G. He's just going through it; he could cycle it in any way. He could do it by thirds; he could do it by fourths; he could do it by seconds. By that I mean, on the scale steps, he could arpeggiate in C, then he could arpeggiate in D, then he could arpeggiate in E, and he's just running cycles, as you said, through various systems. Sometimes he's using a fourth, from C to F; sometimes he's using a third, from C to E. So he takes different intervals and he explores them, and he explored unusual intervals that don't necessarily go with the way that most people heard Western harmony. So he's exploring fourths; he's exploring major thirds — that's what the "Coltrane changes" are all about. They don't necessarily lead to the harmonic progressions like ii-V-I that most people are familiar with, so even right there, he's creating sounds that are different than most people are used to hearing, and they're also more difficult to execute. They're not what an instrumentalist would call "under your fingers." They're just not the way your hands fall. Just like when a pianist is playing tenths. That's just not the way your hand goes...

So fast-forwarding a bit, what was it like having this kind of reverence for this period of Coltrane and then moving on to playing with Rashied?
[Laughs] I still marvel at that... Well, first off, Rashied, I don't know if you knew him, or knew anything about him, but he also was a master, especially at the time I met him. He was totally confident, but not egotistical about his place. So that gave him a real security, a real grounding and a real generosity for younger players like me. He was welcoming; he was encouraging; he was of course inspiring. And the opportunity then to play with him... Like you hear "I went to Miles Davis University" or "I went to the Church of John Coltrane." For me, being with Rashied, if you speak about in lineage, here was this man who connected me to this wonderful tradition of the music that he was a part of, and all of the people that he had played with. So all of a sudden, I'm not listening to this music on my stereo; I'm actually playing with a man who has direct connections to many of the people whose names I mentioned. Not just Coltrane; Rashied has played with them all. That includes Albert Ayler; that includes Sonny Rollins. So many of the great saxophonists: Dewey Redman, Sonny Simmons, Sonny Fortune. You just go through the list, and they played with Rashied; Rashied's play with them; he's been in their bands; they've been in his bands. So it was a direct connection, and then when you add to that just how encouraging he was, how supportive he was, how he let me find my own way into the music. He didn't impose: "You gotta play it this way." He let me find my voice, and he didn't expect my voice to be that of John Coltrane; he wasn't looking for that.

How did you meet?
I met him, actually... I did meet him kind of on the scene. I was playing in a band that William Hooker led in the late '80s and we were opening for Rashied, and Rashied heard me play with William in that context, and I knew he was gonna hear me that night; that was enough for me. But he was so gracious, he came up to me and complimented me on my playing [laughs]. It's like, "What?! This is ridiculous." A couple of years after that, I was invited to a session that he was also part of, and ... we were playing together, and again, before I could go up to him and tell him what an honor it was to play with him, I was packing up my horns, and he came over to me and again, was just so gracious and encouraging. And I said, "Well, could I have your phone number — maybe we could get together and play sometime." And he gave it to me, and I said, "Well, you know, if you give me this, I'm gonna call you!" And he said, "That's why I'm giving it to you." That was in the earlier '90s. And he had that club Ali's Alley. It wasn't running then, but that was where he lived and he had the basement where he could rehearse and play, and I would just go over there, and we would play and because we were continuing to hit it off, we decided to put a band together, and that band became Prima Materia.



So that was going for a long time, playing Coltrane repertoire before you two recorded the duo album?
Yes, exactly right. We actually were quite a band that worked quite a bit. We had many records out, and the Knitting Factory had us on their touring schedule, and we were touring Europe and recording for quite a few years. And then at the end of that, we made that duo record.

You spoke of this illustrious tenor/drums tradition. What was it like adding to that and actually getting the chance to be a part of it?
I'll tell you how it happened. Rashied had been hit by a cab. He was riding his bicycle, and the cab driver hit him and knocked him off his bike. He broke is ankle, and there was a settlement from the lawsuit. Rashied got some money, and he decided to put it into that studio that I already mentioned. He decided to make it a recording studio: make it soundproof and put nice equipment in it and stuff like that. Rashied was following that tradition. He was just always practicing, and I was this guy who was always coming over to his house and playing with him, whether we were touring or not, recording or not, we just had this weekly thing for years, where I was over there playing with him. So he was building the studio, and I was there coming over a real lot, and it got to the point where it wasn't quite finished yet but it was getting close, and he wanted to see how it was sounding. So it wasn't like we were deciding that we should make a duo record together. He just set up the microphones, and he had a third person there who was kind of acting as engineer. He just wanted to hear: how did his drums sound, how does the room sound, how does the saxophone sound, are these good mics, where should we place them. That kind of thing. It wasn't like starting, like, "Hey, we're doing a duo." So we did that, we set it up, and we listened to it back, and again, Rashied was just like, "Wow, this is nice!" We didn't use those initial tapes. Those were just practice, or a trial of the studio.

It wasn't like a thing that I could ask Rashied, "Let's do a duo record." Again, his generosity of spirit... We just kept on doing that more as a way of exploring the possibilities of the studio and then it came to a point where he said, "Well, let's do a duo record." And that's when what we were doing kicked in a little bit more seriously to me, and I thought, like you said, to be part of this lineage was overwhelming and at the same time very inspiring, and I think a lot of people who were drawn to this music have a kind of obsessive-compulsive aspect to practicing. I'm a practicer; that's my path too. I'm playing all the time, practicing. And for me it was a very encouraging, very inspiring project to enter into with Rashied.

Around the same time Nels Cline and Gregg Bendian put out a direct cover of Interstellar Space, but the one you did with Rashied was a bit more subtle because it only has one piece that's directly from that record.
Right, and that was of course deliberate on our part. And I love that Nels Cline record, by the way. But I do agree with what you're saying. And at that point, Rashied and I, our playing together had really just blossomed into a great friendship, a real lot of trust. And as I said at the beginning of the conversation, Rashied was very encouraging of my own path. He was attracted to my playing, he told me later, because I wasn't trying to be like a slavish Coltrane devotee, just using the language that you and I have already spoke about that Coltrane pioneered. He heard that obviously I was familiar with it, that I had listened to it, but I was reaching for something else, and he heard that as my language, and he was encouraging of that.

And I was bringing in other elements from some of the other influences that I had: modern classical music. Listening to my other peers were doing at the time. I wasn't just coming from, you know, the classic Miles quintet of '55 and '56. I was up on Xenakis; I was up on Kagel; I was listening to Boulez. I was running around the city with John Zorn. I was bringing in influences that were outside of what someone might think of as traditional jazz vocabulary, or even the extensions that Coltrane was adding to that vocabulary. And Rashied wasn't threatened by that; he was like, "Wow, this is great! More language."

And so we didn't try, and there was no point for Rashied to try to recreate Interstellar Space, because he told me no one was ever gonna play it better than Coltrane. So there was no point in us going there. But part of the homage, so to speak, the inspiration was in playing "Saturn." That was just something that we put in there, and something that I worked very hard on.

Yeah, and it's interesting how Nels Cline's interpretation brought in this whole world of rock and noise and psychedelia, and that's their contemporary spin on this thing, and that tradition is still moving forward.
Yes, that's where we started the conversation, where I said this lineage now has been created: Nels adds the psychedelia; Mary Halvorson is gonna add something else now, you know what I mean? People are now coming from very diverse backgrounds. It isn't just just Frank Lowe and Rashied, or Peter Brötzmann and Han Bennink, you know what I mean? People who are outside of these traditions, who are coming from completely different places and have other things to add to it... But yet the lineage is so open and embracing of all these things that you can still contextualize it, like I said, with Interstellar Space as the grandfather of all this, and this is its proud progeny. It's a big and happy family [laughs].

And it's a very welcoming tradition, as opposed to the more closed: "You aint' playin' the changes, man!" And people trying to exclude you because your ii-V-I's aren't happening. So this is a welcoming tradition. Like you said, how are you experimenting? What are you adding to it? What are you bringing into it? And it's almost like that, not how do you adhere to it, but how do you further it, is almost the parameters by which you're judged. And that's kind of a nice thing for any tradition to have in it. What innovation are you bringing? That's how a tradition stays alive.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

"His work was play": Celebrating Ornette, then, now, always

















I wrote about it at the time, the poignancy of this image of Ornette Coleman sitting onstage at his own tribute show — the epic Denardo-directed Prospect Park hang of June 12, 2014 — simply listening as all these wondrous sounds took shape around him. Thanks to the new Celebrate Ornette box set, which documents, audiovisually, the entirety of both that gig and his memorial service at Riverside Church the following June, we can relive the night, really get back inside it and see not only what it meant then but what it means now.

One thing that going back to the Prospect Park show confirms is that it was a pretty loose night overall, an Ornette-themed jam session, really, with some beautiful moments of communion but also a charming by-the-seat-of-its-pants quality. As Rolling Stone's David Fricke pointed out in his review of the new box set, as rich as it is, and despite Ornette's own presence on a few of the pieces, this is not so much a definitive summation of Ornette's legacy but more, as the title suggests, a celebratory coda to an extraordinary life, an invitation to witness the beginnings of a post-Ornette, but still Ornette-suffused, musical and creative reality.

Back to the image of the seated Ornette, and how we get to that point in the proceedings. The Prospect Park event begins with a remarkable Sonny Rollins benediction (I don't think I'll ever forget his Ornette paraphrase of "It's all good!" as long as I live), followed by a teary-eyed blessing from the honoree himself, spreading as he always did a message of unity and kindness that feels, now, in this bleak, chaotic 2017, like a dispatch from some sort of long-bygone utopia. Ornette exits the stage for the first piece or two, leaving players like Henry Threadgill and Flea to jam with the effervescent house band, Denardo Vibe (such a pleasure, throughout the show, to just kind of swim in their odd flow, sprightly yet turbulent), then makes a surprise cameo at his own party, blowing lines of sublime fragility, paper-thin but dripping with that swooping, blues-saturated feeling we knew then and always will know as Ornette-ness. (In in a subtly brilliant bit of producer's sleight-of-hand, Denardo places the pieces where Ornette himself played first in the running order on the CD and LP documents in Celebrate Ornette, even though they actually came a bit later as we see on the DVD, so that the first sound we hear on the audio-only versions is Ornette's horn.)

In some ways those first few minutes of "Ramblin'," more or less a Coleman a cappella moment, with some slight accompaniment from guitarist Charlie Ellerbee (a Prime Time member and longtime Ornette loyalist, who tells a beautiful story on the DVD about Ornette sitting his band members down, asking each of them where in the world they would most like to play, and then fulfilling those travel dreams one by one), are the most precious, like fragments of garments worn by a saint. These versions of "Ramblin'" and "OC Turnaround" are the last of Ornette's sound that we have, really, and what his playing here lacks in his old command and swagger, it more than makes up for in feeling. The band comes in behind him on "OC Turnaround"; tapdancer Savion Glover is sitting in. There's not much of an arrangement to speak of — the proceedings are loose. Coleman and tenor players David Murray and Antoine Roney blow simultaneously; the band sings the classic Ellington-esque theme. There's such a happy casual-ness to it all. "Ornette is here, and he wants to play, and we've got these tunes, and all these amazing guests, and we're just going to go for it." Sometimes these tribute events get stiff, overly manicured, but what this concert was, in some of its best moments, was simply a hang, a last chance for Ornette to just exist within this vibrant community, this unique musical and social circumstance — an environment where Geri Allen and Thurston Moore, Patti Smith and James Blood Ulmer, and Jack DeJohnette and John Zorn and Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane and so many others could all come together — that his music and presence nurtured for almost six decades.

So after two pieces on which he performs, he remains onstage, seated, listening. (I remember seeing him mouth "I want to stay" to an assistant who had come to lead him offstage, a phrase that I borrowed for my write-up.) The horn rests across his lap. At times he smiles at a musical event — he's clearly delighted by the presence of Wallace Roney Jr., for example, seen in the photo above — but often he's just sitting there, his hands clasped. We can't know what he was thinking, but I like to think it was something like what the audience (at least the one member I can speak for), the musicians and everyone there was thinking that night: Isn't this something. "This" being a joyous occasion for pilgrimage, with so many diverse expressions of whatever this or that artist felt they wanted to bring, from Nels Cline and Thurston Moore's intense, exacting guitar duet to the no-frills jamming of Denardo Vibe and ace soloists like Threadgill and Lovano, to the sort of Lou Reed feedback seance of Zorn, Laurie Anderson, Bill Laswell and Stewart Hurwood, to the big "Song X" jam with the Master Musicians of Jajouka, James Blood Ulmer and others.

There's one powerful moment when Patti Smith, during a break from her powerful recitation piece "Tarkovsky (The Second Stop Is Jupiter)," in which she also plays clarinet, asks Ornette to join in with her. Coleman, still seated there onstage, as dusk has given way to night, one of those magical summer nights in Prospect Park that are so emblematic of the Brooklyn Experience, and here we have two legends on the stage, and one is inviting the other to jam, essentially. And Coleman, clearly done playing for the night, for whatever reason, graciously declines. And there's something about that moment that scans for me as a passing of the torch, as a "this is all going to go on without me" or an "I'm here with you even when I'm not here," a foreshadowing of a time, not so far in the future, when his fans, admirers, collaborators, family, everyone whom his music and humanity touched, would continue on without him literally beside them but always with this sort of ever-proliferating Ornette spirit (that fragile ghost of an OC sound that we hear on "Ramblin'") hanging in the air. I know that his sound, and not just that of his own saxophone, but of the happily shaggy funk that, say, Denardo Vibe lays down, as well as the coiled-spring mirth/mania evident in his best small groups from throughout the years, will persist in our minds. Like with the output of any true icon, you never forget the sensation of Ornette's work, and that night in Prospect Park, even after he fell silent, the feeling and spirit of the Ornette-o-verse was still dancing in all our heads, a state of bliss we can now happily relive.

The film of the Ornette memorial, a lengthy document that I'm still digesting, is another welcome gift of Celebrate Ornette, with copious speeches that are as enlightening as the brief musical episodes by fellow travelers such as Pharoah Sanders and Cecil Taylor — both just getting up and being themselves in the most no-nonsense of ways, Sanders with a solo tenor piece, Taylor with a bewitching few minutes of poetry and piano, paying no kind of explicit tribute in terms of repertoire but expressing a kind of tough solidarity with the late master. I loved hearing New York Amsterdam News writer Herb Boyd recall seeing Ornette's gamechanging early quartet in Detroit in 1960 as part of a meager crowd — after the show, he spoke to Ornette and lamented the turnout, and Coleman simply told him, "It's about quality, not quantity."

In a beautiful speech about all his years covering and conversing with Ornette — I again direct you to the essential Miles Ornette Cecil — Howard Mandel captures the sense of inspiration felt by so many of us whose lives have been touched by Ornette. Wonder in his presence and art, and a feeling that whatever it is that we do, we know more about how to do it well, and humanely, and in a deep lifelong way, because of Ornette's example. Near the end of his speech, Howard says of Ornette, offhandedly, that "his work was play," a simple phrase that sums it all up.

What that night in Prospect Park was, was a night of pure play, inclusive and infectious — like so much of Ornette's greatest work, fun but not frivolous. I like to think that, seated there onstage after he was done actually playing the horn, Ornette was perhaps meditating on this concept, how fun and full of wonder a creative life can be, how it can turn a stage filled with some of the world's greatest musicians from, essentially, a workplace into a playground. And how anyone who takes that principle to heart — call it harmolodics, or what you will — can carry it with them always, not just through art but through life, thus celebrating the great Ornette Coleman long into the future.

/////

*Learn more about the Celebrate Ornette box here and read Denardo's essential essay.

*Read Seth Colter Walls' excellent Pitchfork review of the box, which has much to say, in particular, re: the preciousness and fragility of these final moments of Ornette-on-alto that we have to savor.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Join us



















Wednesday, February 15, 2017
@ Saint Vitus

/Blind Idiot God
//STATS
///Husbandry

8pm, $12

Hell of a bill here. I've sung the praises of BIG and Husbandry (they show up near the end of this long-ish best-of-2016 list) before. Second STATS show with Nick Podgurski on full-time lead vox  — couldn't be happier with that arrangement. Join us?

FYI, the show will run early and on time: Husbandry will start by 8:30 sharp, and we'll be on shortly after 9.

FB event page
STATS on Bandcamp

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Prog's pop soul: Goodbye, John Wetton

King Crimson often seemed to want to be faceless: a forbidding, shadowy, even superhuman factory of what would later be termed sheer Discipline. But almost despite the group's inscrutable facade, John Wetton, during his justly legendary early-'70s tenure with the band, gave them not only a voice, but a soul. Even when singing words that weren't his:



The swagger of "Easy Money," the reverie of "Starless," the abandon of "One More Red Nightmare" — his husky crooning, refined in that English way but still brimming with palpable pathos, added warm feeling to match the band's sharp angles, their thunder and noise and muscle.

Not surprising that later, he was the one who helped transmute prog into pop. I'm always happy to rock out to Asia, but for me, who loves songs as much as musical math, the short-lived U.K. was some kind of holy happy medium.


As a bass player too — and, yes, improviser on par with the more widely celebrated Bill Bruford — he was filthy and ruthless.

His bands' names will likely always outshine his own, but they should never be mentioned henceforth without a moment of silence for this great and inimitable talent.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Man of (more than) words: Thank you, Nat Hentoff

"'Man of Words' is, I'm told by Booker [Little], dedicated to this writer. Whether the dedication is pejorative or not, the piece may indicate. Actually, it is Booker's description of the writing process. One begins with an appallingly blank sheet of paper and a few ideas. The writer is seldom positive about how the piece will develop, and after rereading what he's already done, he's spurred — sometimes — to go forward. Eventually, a high (or a crisis) point is reached when the writer know he's solved the problem and the piece will work out. The rest is embellishment, resolution or exhortation. Although there has been a considerable amount of fiction writing about music, such as Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, this work to my knowledge is one of the rare examples of a musician describing writers in musical terms. Booker's performance is an impressive display of sustained invention — and sustained clarity of line and feelings." —Nat Hentoff, from the liner notes to Booker Little's Out Front
I'm not a Nat Hentoff expert. Outside of his extensive liner-notes catalog, which any jazz fan knows well, I can't say I'm that familiar with his body of work. But I have to put down a quick note of gratitude for the series of recordings he produced in the early '60s for the Candid label — and more specifically for Out Front, which is simply my favorite jazz album of all time. It's very possible that this masterpiece would not have existed without Hentoff.  Also from the liner notes:

"I had been impressed by Little's playing, first on records and then in a series of night club appearances with Max Roach, because of his strong-lined lyricism and highly individual, thoughtful conception. His originals and arrangements for Roach were also uniquely free of ornamentation and were directly emotional. Finally, I asked Booker to write and organize an album of his own with complete choice of side men. The result is the fullest realization so far on records of Booker's scope as a writer and a player."
And, as Little would die only six months after sessions for this album concluded, at the shockingly young age of 23, Out Front would stand for all time as that fullest realization of what he was capable of. (Booker Little and Friend, a.k.a. Victory and Sorrow, the one post–Out Front studio LP Little made under his own name, is a strong record but not, to my ears, the immortal classic that Out Front is.)


To me, it says a lot that Little would dedicate a piece to Hentoff. Let alone a piece of such profound emotional depth. "Man of Words" is, simply, a complete and utter killer, a dirge-paced shot of pure pathos. (Any experienced writer will know well that feeling of facing, as Hentoff puts it, "an appallingly blank page," and though I can't say that a writer's private anguish is the first thing I think of when I hear the piece, I find it pretty damn fascinating that Little felt so moved as to musically illustrate that sensation!)

Phil Schaap once told me that Little learned he had terminal illness between the two sessions that produced Out Front (on March 17 and April 4, respectively, of '61). "Man of Words" was, perhaps unsurprisingly, recorded at the latter of the two. Is that terrifying moment at 3:45, where the band rests and Little fills the resulting abyss with two searing yelps — absolutely one of the handful of most intense musical events I've ever beheld on a record — really an embodiment of what the trumpeter perceived to be the writer's fear and uncertainty? Or is it a cry for help in the face of his own impending mortality? A little of both? Either way, I mean, Jesus... you don't hear that kind of crushingly naked emotion captured on tape that often.

(N.B. Little's own words from Hentoff's liners: "My own feelings about the direction in which jazz should be are that there should be much less stress on technical exhibitionism and much more on emotional content, on what might be termed humanity in music and the freedom to say all you want." A-fucking-men, sir.)

The rest of the album is, of course, a masterpiece. "Moods in Free Time" is staggering and, in my mind, basically unparalleled as an example of episodic small-group composition and arrangement. Another mega-dirge section in this piece inspiring a volcanic Eric Dolphy eruption, one of his most violent on record. And Roach's monumentally badass drum break leading back into the head. Just a phenomenally assured and personal sound oozing out of every pore of this recording. I thank Hentoff from the bottom of my heart for clearing a path by which this creative act could occur and be documented for all time.

And of course the rest: Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite, The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor and Buell Neidlinger's New York City R and B, Jaki Byard's Blues for Smoke, the fascinating Newport Rebels comp. Nat Hentoff was right there in the mix at this crucial jazz moment. I'm not trying to elevate his role above that of the musicians; I'm just saying that his behind-the-scenes role was pivotal. He clearly believed in what was going down in jazz, specifically in the mecca of NYC, at that time, and he wasn't going to let potential masterworks slip through the cracks. (I doubt very much that many others were lining up to arrange carte blanche record dates for, say, Cecil Taylor and Steve Lacy in 19-freakin'-60.)

So, yes, critic, columnist, commentator, "man of words," call Nat Hentoff what you will. But it's clear that he was a guy who made serious real-world moves on behalf of the art that he so dearly loved. And for that, we all owe him big time.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Best of 2016

So many records! So many lists...

This year, I have voted (or will vote) in at least three different year-end polls, Rolling Stone's metal survey; Francis Davis' esteemed annual Jazz Critics Poll; and the Village Voice's annual everything-in-play poll, which is apparently no longer called Pazz and Jop. I may share each of those lists (my jazz ballot is here), but honestly they seem to matter less to me than a more intuitive survey, an honest recap of what new music has entered my bloodstream, so to speak, which is a very different thing than me, either at the time I cast my ballot or at some earlier date, deeming a certain record worth of mention in some "official" regard.

Just as an example: I really enjoyed Beyoncé's Lemonade, both the film and the music. It's clearly a consensus album-of-the-year favorite, as it damn well should be. It's an intensely provocative, passionate, just all-around striking statement from pop's most dominant star. But aside from the incredible "Don't Hurt Yourself" — I'm still thinking about that ferocious VMAs performance — this is not a record that I've spent a lot of recurring personal time with since its release. That's no knock on the record; it's just the truth. There's a difference, in other words, between an album being "in the air" and in heavy rotation on my iPod.

In these list situations, you can call out the in-the-air picks, either because that's honestly what you spent all year listening to or because you feel obligated to aim at some kind of (false) universality. Yes, a record may have owned "the" year, but did it own yours? These kinds of lists too often read like mere checklists of Albums That People Were Talking About. If we're going to do this at all, we might as well get honest and idiosyncratic.

Some of the pertinent questions for me are: What new music did you listen to when you had the luxury of free choice? What did you go back to, sometimes again and again? Will those albums mean anything to you in a year, or five, or 10? That last part is, I believe, truly impossible to reckon with — there are really only like five new records from the past 10 years or so that have entered my personal canon in that way, Propagandhi's Supporting Caste probably being at the top of that list — but the other questions are fairly easily answered, maybe with the help of some notes.

Here are 15 new releases that have mattered a lot to me this year, in the ways outlined above, with a bunch more "bonus track" picks afterward. There's no ranking here: I picked the records I wanted to focus on and then, over a few days, wrote the below entries in an intuitive order, blurbing each as I felt like it.

40 Watt Sun, Wider Than the Sky (Radiance)
Singer-songwriter and 40 Watt Sun leader Patrick Walker started out playing doom metal and has slowly shed the trappings of genre like a wandering hermit gradually phasing out of society at large. His music stands alone and stands firm at this point, a kind of epic, transportive dirge-rock, methodical, entirely resistant to anything less than a complete kind of engagement. I feel a deep and almost dangerous sense of surrender when I really let this music in, so strong is its emotional pull, so raw and true is the feeling at its center, so ancient-seeming and wisdom-filled is Walker's gift for writing and singing melody. No other music I heard this year came anywhere close to this record in terms of this kind of gravity, potency, just realness. The most direct way I can put it is that Wider Than the Sky is unspeakably beautiful, a true gift. At this point, I basically can't put it on and not feel instantly transported and awed. Take 16 minutes and listen to "Stages," or more accurately, let it happen to you, and then take the time to savor each of the other songs on its own. They're each almost too much to reckon with any other way.



Deftones, Gore (Reprise)
A totally different sound, but I would place this album on a similar plane as the 40 Watt Sun. I'm awed by how completely this band commits to a mood on Gore and sustains it throughout the course of the album. Deftones, a band that came of age in the '90s, are working with fairly simple, time-tested, quintessentially of-that-era concepts here — the juxtaposition of swimming, swooning atmosphere and torrential crunch-rock climax, explored by everyone from Smashing Pumpkins to Slint. That said, I completely buy both this album's sense of dreamy entreaty and and its fearsome payoffs; it all feels true to me. Like Wider Than the Sky, Gore is a joy to surrender to, to swim in, in large part because the great majority of these songs boast gorgeous, instantly indelible Chino Moreno vocal hooks. I should note that I'm not a Deftones lifer — for whatever reason, I wasn't paying attention in the '90s, when this band was really on the ascent — and it almost makes me respect them even more that I could step into albums like Gore and its predecessor, 2012's Koi No Yokan, with little prior knowledge and be completely blown away. How many other bands are still operating at this level of conviction and excellence more than 20 years after their debut album?

If this does not move you, we have very different tastes:



Meshuggah, The Violent Sleep of Reason (Nuclear Blast)

Another legacy band that I only came around to fairly recently. It's hard for me to tell whether this album was really that much better than the Meshuggah albums that came before it, or if I'm just indulging in latecomer's bias, but having worked my way through their full discography just a couple months back, I truly believe that Meshuggah hasn't released a better — i.e., more ferocious, overwhelming, sheerly gigantic — album than Violent Sleep. A definitive album from a justly legendary band. Further thoughts here and on the RS metal list.



Crying, Beyond the Fleeting Gales (Run for Cover)
No 2016 album surprised or delighted me more than this. Like Gore, Beyond thrives on juxtaposition — between the delicate and the bombastic — but instead of Gore's shimmering dreamstate, this album achieves a kind of manic, candy-colored immediacy. Some sort of wild fusion of indie-pop delicacy and Big '80s Rock flash. A sound that can at first seem borderline absurd but makes more and more harmonious sense the more time you spend with the album. Elaiza Santos' gorgeously precise vocal melodies and disarmingly plainspoken lyrics bring what could be a relentlessly loopy album down to earth, adding a crucial sincerity to the band's weird stylistic mash-up. This is an absolutely insane, ecstatic, wonderful album that I've had on repeat for weeks and weeks. Absolutely, without question the best "new band discovery" I've made this year.



Esperanza Spalding, Emily's D+Evolution (Concord)
I see an affinity between this and the Crying LP just in the sense of aesthetic precision: both that band and Esperanza Spalding are aiming at something very specific, idiosyncratic and ambitious. Every time I put this on, I'm shocked by how many ideas are just spilling out of this thing. I paid less attention that I should've to Spalding's prior records, but this one just grabbed me right away. The extremely ballsy "Good Lava," easily one of the year's most audacious tracks, comes off as a fusion of Fishbone and Shudder to Think (in other words, it's basically heaven-sent to my ears). And then that sort of prog-alt-rock madness mingling with '70s-Joni prog-jazz-folk on tracks like "Earth to Heaven." (If it's not abundantly clear, I'm determined to make "prog" mean something again, way beyond genre — what I really mean is music that strives, reaches, and isn't afraid to show it.) Heartbursting hooks spilling out on "One," delivered with shocking vocal poise and command. You (or at least I!) simply do not hear this kind of virtuosity and vision in any kind of contemporary pop very often. There's a huge difference between the sort of "promising talent" that Spalding was portrayed as in the media just a few years ago and the awe-inspiring aesthetic dynamo she has grown into. This is an album that challenges you to forget genre entirely and just listen. What you're rewarded with is something shockingly advanced, absolutely singular and profoundly engaging.



The Hotelier, Goodness (Tiny Engines)

This album is a new obsession for me; I barely feel like I've scratched its surface. But I feel comfortable calling Goodness a major achievement on the order of the Spalding, a triumph of young musical vision in its boundless prime. People call it emo, or punk, or what have you. All those things make sense but I'm no taxonomist. What I hear here is extremely thoughtful, deeply felt rock music, made by a band that's clearly invested in putting it all in there: emotions, intellect, words, sensations. A deep kind of personal truth. I can see why these "emo" bands (another one that comes to mind is La Dispute, an incredible band, also currently in its aesthetic prime, with a somewhat similar stylistic approach) inspire such fierce devotion in their fans. They're working incredibly hard to capture ideas and feelings, crafting these sort of album-length audio movies, complete with spoken-word passages, acoustic interludes, an overwhelming sense of elegiac beauty and almost scarily liberated catharsis. I'd guess I'd call it something like sophisto-punk, what I hear on Goodness, an illustration of how a DIY aesthetic can grow up to a kind of glorious young-adulthood, retaining its wonder and its desperation but marrying those elements to unflashy virtuosity, dynamic command and real literary clout. (See: the astonishing "Soft Animal" with its unforgettable shouted refrain, pitched between triumph and desperation: "Make me feel alive/Make me believe that I don't have to die.") Honestly, what this record, again after limited exposure, really reminds me of is Bruce Springsteen, at the peak of his visionary-American-rock phase (Darkness on the Edge of Town, say). The Hotelier is after something vast and magical and their abilities seem absolutely up to the task. As someone with a bone-deep connection tp this kind of emo/indie-rock/what-have-you (shout-out to Boys Life, Giants Chair and other '90s KC legends), I feel with a pretty fierce certainty that there's genius all over this album.



Asphyx, Incoming Death (Century Media)
There's a lot above about artists with major scope of vision, and the flipside of that is this kind of arresting myopia. Asphyx want exactly one thing, to blow you out of the water, and even after the departure of their drummer/co-founder, the esteemed Bob Bagchus, they're still managing to further that mission. I put this record on and feel nothing but white-hot conviction and mastery. The voice of Martin Van Drunen is not the expression of something so small and puny as "death metal"; it's the sound of a true life's purpose, amplified and and projected and vomited forth. Metal, like any other style, can basically be about anything (shout-out to Gorguts' outstanding, proudly enlightened Pleiades' Dust), but for Asphyx, it's about colossal girth, steamrolling momentum, overwhelming disgust. Real destroyer-of-worlds shit — whether that's in the form of a tidal-wave-in-slo-mo dirge like "The Grand Denial" or a rotten-rawk rager like "It Came From the Skies" — and no one does this better than they do. Every album is better than the last, ergo Incoming Death is my favorite Asphyx album right now.



Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke (ECM)

Lots of talk about lifers above, and the now 75-year-old WLS of course qualifies. He shows off new facets of his genius on this record, a fact that's sort of staggering given how much music he's been releasing during the past decade or so. A Cosmic Rhythm is about hush and communion and coexistence — in the macro sense, the record is essentially an album-length ballad — with Iyer (mostly) playing the role of master texturalist, laying out these sorts of sparkling sonic environments for Smith to explore. Smith's breath and vulnerability and imperfection contrast movingly with Iyer's subtle, carefully wrought creations. To me, the most fascinating moments here are when Iyer either augments the acoustic piano with electronics — as on "All Becomes Alive," where he layers lyrical keyboard work over a dubbed-out bass throb — or switches over altogether — as on "Notes on Water," where he achieves a wonderfully murky, pealing sound on Rhodes. A Cosmic Rhythm is not an album you (or at least I) dip into casually, but when I've put it on and really had the time to submerge in it, I've been totally fascinated and enthralled. Long live the WLS renaissance. (Awesome to see this duo live on Monday at Harlem Stage, by the way; I loved how they reprised motifs from the album but took many of these pieces somewhere entirely new. The Iyer/Smith duo, spun off from  their outstanding work together in Smith's Golden Quartet, now feels to me like a true and proper band.)



Billy Mintz, Ugly Beautiful (Thirteenth Note)

It's hard for me not to get a little ax-grind-y when I talk about Billy Mintz, once of my favorite living drummers and bandleaders and a good candidate for the title of most underrated jazz musician on the planet. Ugly Beautiful should be a critically adored Jazz Event Album, on the order of Iyer/WLS above; instead, it's practically invisible. At this moment, I can't turn up a single Google result for it, which is actually pretty depressing. As with most Thirteenth Note discs, no press push on this one, just a quiet roll-out. I ordered it after spotting it buried deep in a Downtown Music Gallery newsletter a couple months back. (If you're interested, and you should be, I'd suggest e-mailing or calling DMG, or dropping a line to Thirteenth Note, whose website hasn't been updated in a while.)

Simply put, Ugly Beautiful is an opus — more than two hours of music, spread across two discs. And it takes about that long to show off every worthy facet of Mintz's extremely broad, subtle and idiosyncratic talent. I wrote a while back about Mintz's "jazz infinity," as expressed on this disc's 2013 predecessor, simply called Mintz Quartet, the way he unfussily embraces the full spectrum of the so often pointlessly factionalized genre. Ugly Beautiful, featuring the incredible cast of John Gross and Tony Malaby on saxes, Roberta Piket (Mintz's wife and frequent collaborator) on piano and various keyboards, and Hilliard Greene on bass, is an even more potent illustration of this principle. There is just so much going on here: smeary, free-time, Paul Motian–y dirge ("Angels"), raging/rollicking inside/outside postbop ("Dit," "Relent"), stunningly precise yet beautifully laid-back neo-Tristano-ism ("Flight"), arrestingly somber ballad miniatures ("Vietnam," "Dirge"), borderline psychedelic groove pieces driven by Piket's expressive keys ("Umba," "Tumba"). And all powered by Mintz's phenomenally deep, drum sound. This man, who will turn 70 next year, has a groove that rumbles up from the earth, the way Elvin Jones' did; that bends time, the way Motian's did. I just get such an earthy, elemental feeling of authority from the way he interacts with the instrument and drives a band. And the fact that he wrote all this music (some pieces are reprised from earlier releases) makes this whole package even more stunning. I would like nothing more than to be able to embed a track here, but that's not possible, so I will just say: seek this out. And for God's sake, get hip to Billy Mintz; this great Shaun Brady Jazz Times profile from 2015 is a great place to start.

[Note: I've heard from Robert Piket that Ugly Beautiful only got a soft release this year via Downtown Music Gallery — stay tuned for a proper roll-out in 2017!]
















Darkthrone, Arctic Thunder (Peaceville)
Speaking of earthy, elemental authority. I have not rocked out harder to any album this year. I love super-technical, nerd-out metal, but on the flip side, as ought to be clear from my short-listing of the Asphyx record, I also adore the raw, turn-off-your-brain-and-let-loose shit. I spent a good deal of time a few months back immersed in the Celtic Frost discography, and Arctic Thunder was a great follow-up to that phase. Lifers' mastery combined with a deeply ingrained don't-give-a-fuck-ness. This record is just so nasty and single-minded and, on the sly, intelligent in its composition. You don't just land by accident on this many profoundly awesome riffs. More on this one at RS.



Metallica, Hardwired ... to Self-Destruct (Blackened)

If I have an Album of the Year, it's probably this one. As predicted here, whatever reservations I may have had about this one at the outset have basically melted away — I've found something to love about every track here, even "Murder One" and "Am I Savage?," both of which sounded like duds at first but now work just fine for me in context. There's just so much great writing and convincing execution here. I don't think there's another album listed above where I could sing a part from every track on command, and for a song-focused listener such as myself, that's a very attractive feature. For all their niche "thrash" affiliation, Metallica's chief objective is the composition and delivery of Sturdy, Memorable Mainstream Rock Music. In this pursuit, they have succeeded handsomely on Hardwired. This album is not going to change the world the way the Black Album did, but if my reaction is any indication, this album has warmed the heart of a many a longtime fan — no small achievement for a band of Metallica's stature. I mean, goddamn, these songs! "Atlas, Rise!," "Moth Into Flame," "Confusion," "Here Comes Revenge" and, sweet Jesus, the utterly phenomenal "Spit Out the Bone," which I'd rank with their true classics. This album just fucking rules.

[Warning: The music video below is, sadly, horrendous. I recommend ignoring all visual content and focusing solely on the song.]



The Snails, Songs From the Shoebox (self-released)
The costumed, unassuming alter ego of the mighty Future Islands (who made my fave album of 2014) — sort of: the bands share two members, singer Samuel T. Herring and bassist William Cashion, both of whom perform under aliases here. But Herring's voice and conviction are unmistakable, even on a song called, accurately, "Barnacle on a Surfboard (Barnacle Boogie)." This is ostensibly a party album, driven by boogie-friendly lead-sax lines and taut, dance-punky rhythms. But as the album progresses, the songs just keep getting better: the hooks sharper, the emotional content more urgent. "Streets Walkin'" gives me more of classic-Fugazi feeling than anything I've heard since that band broke up, and soon after comes the driving, ecstatic twofer of "Tea Leaves" and "Flames," songs that, taken together, illustrate why Herring is one of the great frontmen on earth right now. (The chorus of the latter is utterly feral and insane.) And then the band winds things down with another sweet party jam in "Snails Christmas (I Want a New Shell)." A deceptively casual album with surprising punch, affect and staying power. (See also: Rolling Stone review.)



Sheer Mag, III and Compilation (Wilsuns)
Oh, what to do with you, Sheer Mag? They keep putting out these perfect four-song EPs that hit me harder than any full-length in sight. Their 2015 release, II, contained my favorite music of that year, and the same is true of III. I don't even want to think about how intense my obsession will become once they finally put out a proper LP (supposedly next year). Several times this year, sometimes in an attempt to get friends to accompany me to the two incredible Sheer Mag shows I saw in 2016, I've called them the best band in America. They make what is, for me, perfect rock/pop/soul music without an ounce of filler. Their songs are shrines to the enduring power of crunching, soaring, fiercely harnessed guitar, yearning vocals, cruising beats and a sort of elusive quality of toughness, authenticity, pathos. I weep thinking about the riffs in "Can't Stop Fighting," "Worth the Tears" and ... deep breath ... the mind-meltingly great "Nobody's Baby." I am always on the lookout for rock and roll that feels right and true to me, and though I often have to turn back the clock for that (Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath and, lately, .38 Special), with Sheer Mag, I can have it all right here, right now. The EP is four tracks of grooving, snarling perfection that I can't not dance and sing to whenever they come on. This music does what I want all music, really of any kind, to do: (to paraphrase Ween) takes me away to some other land. (For the record, the Compilation LP reissues III, II and those EPs' only slightly less-incredible 2014 counterpart, I, on a single 12-inch — a must-buy for those, like me, who simply cannot stop playing this shit and are tired of flipping the 7-inches on the turntable.)



Bob Mould, Patch the Sky (Merge)
This guy, the 56-year-old master of the defiant three-minute pop-punk-before-it-had-a-name anthem, just won't stop pushing. So much passionate, authentic, driving, furiuosly hooky rock here. The style of Patch the Sky is similar to that of his last two, the equally excellent Silver Age and Beauty and Ruin, but Patch the Sky has a sort of weird, bold production sheen to it, with the vocals sitting oddly in the mix. The overall sonic picture perplexed me a little at first, but my hang-ups disintegrated as I played this thing over and over — and then bought it on vinyl and played it still more. I don't have anything deep to say here: Bob Mould just fucking rocks, OK? Especially with his current trio — feat. Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster — which, let's face it, is probably the best band he's ever been a part of. I'm absolutely a Hüsker Dü fan, but for me, this new stuff is where it's at. This music has a single-minded purpose, a rugged, sturdy excellence, that I find extremely appealing. No real surprises here, just wall-to-wall Mouldian quality, baby.



Jack DeJohnette / Ravi Coltrane / Matthew Garrison, In Movement (ECM)

This trio, with Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison, has been playing NYC sporadically for the past few years, and I've been meaning to go check them out. After hearing this, their debut album, I'm kicking myself, because they really and truly slay, and in ways I wouldn't have expected. The opening version of "Alabama" here, which builds gradually from poetic wash to steely churn — dig Garrison's nasty fuzz bass — is one of the only John Coltrane covers I've ever heard that comes close to honoring the gravity of the original. And everything the band plays feels similarly unexpected yet right-on: from the lyrical, almost electronica-like dance of "In Movement" and "Two Jimmys" (which seem like a continuation of the sort of trance-jazz-drift aesthetic heard on '70s DeJohnette albums like New Directions) to the nasty, atmospheric funk of "Serpentine Fire" and the pristine palate cleanser "Soulful Ballad (2)." A veteran drummer in his prime, jamming out on some loose but stimulating and compellingly varied material with two strong-voiced younger players. This is every bit as good as last year's more high-profile Made in Chicago, and I hope this renewed DeJohnette/ECM hot streak continues.



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Here are a bunch of others (27 28 29 30 31 32 33 selections plus three archival bonus cuts) that I really dug. On any given day, many of these could've ranked in the upper tier above, or vice versa. Bandcamp links only b/c you know where to look otherwise.

Jason Moran, The Armory Concert (Yes)
A great, wide sweep of virtuosity and invention, with clearly delineated moods and, for all its experimentalism, a showman's versatility and verve. (In light of those qualities, the whole album strikes me as a clear hat-tip to Jaki Byard and, just maybe, to the perennially underrated genius Dave Burrell.) Shockingly accomplished yet warmly approachable.

Mitski, Puberty 2 (Dead Oceans)
This record hasn't yet completely stolen my heart the way Bury Me at Makeout Creek did in 2014, but harsh, true, white-hot — in other words, quintessentially Mitskian — songs abound here ("My Body's Made of Crushed Little Stars" — wow...). I sense her work will only get better and more fearsome from here...

Gorguts, Pleiades' Dust (Season of Mist)
The Luc Lemay renaissance continues. Another singular work of passion and thinkin'-person's-metal genius from this international treasure. (See also: Rolling Stone metal list.)

Descendents, Hypercaffium Spazzinate (Epitaph)
Not the best Descendents album, but a very good, worthy one, with some songs (classic Bill Stevenson heart-renders like "Without Love" and "Spineless and Scarlet Red") that I just could not shake. (See also: Rolling Stone feature, these awesome live-in-studio versions.)

Ethan Iverson, The Purity of the Turf (Criss Cross)
The ever-exemplary Iversonian project of showcasing his jazz heroes in new and flattering-but-not-fawning lights continues. (Here, the honoree / guest star is Ron Carter, with the magisterial Nasheet Waits on drums.) A scrappy, engaging, idiosyncratic trio record that's every bit as good as the ones he's made with Albert "Tootie" Heath.

Wakrat, Wakrat (Earache)
A batshit yet surprisingly sturdy first effort from a killer new math/prog/punk band fronted by Rage Against the Machine bass lord Tim Commerford. Some admirably frenetic energy at work here, as well as some honest-to-God killer, hook-filled songwriting. This album was majorly slept-on and deserved way more attention than it got. (See also: RS interview — it was a blast to talk to Tim and to see him play earlier this year with Prophets of Rage.)

Masabumi Kikuchi, Black Orpheus (ECM)
Slo-mo solo sorcery from the late master/enigma. I didn't throw this record on often, but when I gave myself time/space to immerse, I fell in deep.

Warfather, The Grey Eminence (Greyhaze)
Another completely and sadly slept-on record. Familiar style (intricate but accessible Morbid Angel–esque death metal from Steve Tucker, that band's former and current frontman/bassist/songwriter); near-flawless execution.

Joyce Manor, Cody (Epitaph)
I wish I'd loved this whole thing as much as I adore opening track "Fake ID," but there's a plainspoken poetry, and no shortage of hooks, running throughout this brief, scrappy album — the high-school-essay counterpart to the Hotelier's emo master's thesis? — that keeps me coming back. Joyce Manor come off like slackers, but they're pros at this emo/punk/pop shit.

Peter Evans Quintet, Genesis (More Is More)
Just fucking wild and inspired.

Crowbar, The Serpent Only Lies (eOne)
Not necessarily the gold-standard Crowbar record — I have to say: the aggressively Pro Tools–ed drum production on this and their other recent albums really bums me out, esp. in contrast to the raw, enormous sound they achieved on albums like Sonic Excess in Its Purest Form and Lifesblood for the Downtrodden — but the majority of these songs are great (let's hear it for the incredible "Embrace the Light") and very much up to the Kirk Windstein Standard, a statement I don't make lightly. (See also: Rolling Stone feature, DFSBP thoughts.)

Battle Trance, Blade of Love (New Amsterdam)
Seeing this monumental work live is a non-negotiable musical must. This keepsake is the next best thing.

Andrew Cyrille, The Declaration of Musical Independence (ECM)
Delicacy and idiosyncrasy by the pound from another (i.e., like Mintz, DeJohnette) elder drum master, who has found inspiration and refuge on ECM, a label that's really been outdoing itself in recent years. What a weird band Cyrille assembled here — Bill Frisell, Ben Street and the wild card Richard Teitelbaum on piano and electronics— but everyone commits fully and it all works beautifully, yielding a patient, wispy, tactile sound. I'll be going back to this one, for sure. (For the record, I dug the Cyrille / Bill McHenry duo on Sunnyside plenty, but this one lingered longer.)

Husbandry, Fera (Aqualamb)
Bold, progressive, melodic heaviness of a sort you just don't hear a lot of these days. (Shout-out to my youth.) Exceedingly rare blend of virtuoso band and vocal dynamo who can really and truly sing. If bands like Shudder to Think, Into Another and Quicksand get you going, you have to hear this. (PSA: I'm thrilled to report that my band STATS will share a killer bill with Husbandry and the esteemed Blind Idiot God at Saint Vitus on 2/15/17.)

Todrick Hall, Straight Outta Oz (Self-released)
A DIY Lemonade response that, while it didn't aim at the imposing gravity and depth of the original, still told a poignant autobiographical tale via a diverse set of instantly memorable pop songs (with full visual accompaniment to boot). I would love to see this thing onstage. Probably the capital-P Pop album I went back to most this year. (See also: Stephen Daw's great Rolling Stone feature.)

Jasmine Lovell-Smith's Towering Poppies, Yellow Red Blue (Self-released)
Outside-the-box jazz that's tuneful and melodic and accessible — doesn't seem like an outlandish concept, but it's pretty rare these days. A tremendously assured band (their last one was great too) that wears its authority lightly: bright, joyful, handsomely orchestrated chamber-bop that anyone could dig.

Paal Nilssen-Love Large Unit, Ana (PNL)
Free jazz meets Brazilian music for a raucous, rollicking avant-blowout. It's awesome to see this improv heavyweight putting forth such a strong, coherent vision as a big-bandleader/composer.

Aluk Todolo, Voix (The Ajna Offensive)
Darkly psychedelic instrumental jam rock. Wild-eyed guitar/bass/drums music that writhes, sprawls, throbs, convulses and hurtles ever-forward. Metal/prog/fusion/whocaresjustlisten.

Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker (Sony)
As much as I dig what I know of Bowie's work, I don't (yet) have a strong personal relationship with his canon, Blackstar included. But Cohen's death hit me hard. You can't hear this and not feel the gravity of the End, and hear the resounding echo of a life really and truly lived to the last.

Virus, Memento Collider (Karisma)
More noir-ish "what in the living fuck..." goth-prog-rock from Czral and his band of Norwegian lunatics. So far out in left field, and yet sounding so relaxed, confident and complete within itself. Step into the black flux.

Bobby Kapp and Matthew Shipp, Cactus (Northern Spy)
A blessed intergenerational jazz meeting. Call it "free" if you must — something like "organic" sounds more right to me. Recording quality/presence are beyond A+; performances are curious and ever-engaged.

Mary Halvorson, Away With You (Firehouse 12)
Vanguard improvising, visionary composition — often strikingly weird but as with the Lovell-Smith above, never willfully obscure — and serious group unity. A hell of a working band captured in peak form.

Defeated Sanity, Disposal of the Dead // Dharmata (Willowtip)
An utterly demented band challenging itself to a friendly game of split-personality disorder. Half resolutely vomitous caveman-death; half hyperactive, dorked-out extreme prog. This album (or these two mini albums) brim with wild-eyed, for-the-love-of-the-craft glee. Can't wait to see what these maniacs do next.

Mannequin Pussy, Romantic (Tiny Engines)
Loud, raw, heart-spilling grunge that often reaches cataclysmically confessional peaks. These high-order punk tantrums are frequently unhinged but never sloppy or haphazard.

Sorcery, Garden of Bones (Xtreem)
Pure serrated-edge riff-barf from old-schoolers who eat this style (1991-y Swedish death metal) for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Think of them as Asphyx's keg-party counterpart: equally single-minded, but with more rawk abandon and diabolical mirth. I loooooved their 2013 comeback album, Arrival at Six, and though I haven't spent as much time with Garden of Bones, I can attest to the fact that it's another shaggily hulking bruiser. Why can't every metal album sound this nasty?

The Primitive, The Primitive EP (self-released)
More supremely rawking death metal, and an immensely charming (seems like a silly descriptor for a release of this nature, but go figure — this stuff is basically like no-nonsense blues to me at this point) labor of love from unsung drum hero Jim Roe, best known for his work on early Incantation classics like 1992's utterly disgusting-in-a-good-way (thanks in large part to Roe) Onward to Golgotha. In his current project the Primitive, Roe handles vocals and every instrument, and goddamn, this man is a pro. Alternately lumbering, charging nastiness with a deep, organic feel — extreme metal that maintains its connection to the dark, rich soil of rock and fucking roll. Shades of his Incantation work here, but this stuff has its own vibe. (Note: This is one of two EPs Roe put out this year under the Primitive handle; see also Founded in Hell, as well as Legion of Gore, an impressive two-song EP by veteran Cleveland band Terror that features Roe behind the kit — anything this guy does is worth savoring.)

Incantation, XXV (self-released)
Speaking of Incantation ... No Jim Roe here, but this vinyl-only 25th-anniversary set is nonetheless essential for any fan. This band's early work is undisputed canon, but as discussed here, core members John McEntee and Kyle Severn have surged back in recent years with a series of huge-sounding, gorgeously imposing LPs. This cool comp, which looks backward in terms of repertoire but showcases the band's current lineup exclusively, features one new song, some re-recorded old stuff and one side's worth of excellent live recordings. 

Erica Freas, Patient Ones (Don Giovanni)
Coffeeshop-punk profundity from one of my favorite living songwriters. Fresh versions of some recent classics from last year's incredible Tether EP, as well as delicately devastating new songs. Freas is a movement unto herself. (See also: this Somnia record that I still need to catch up on.)

Diarrhea Planet, Turn to Gold (Infinity Cat)
As with the Mitski, this one didn't level me and own my year in quite the way I hoped it would based on my feelings for their last one. But these guys are still delivering the maximal-rock party-punk goods with serious panache.

Richard Sears Sextet feat. Albert "Tootie" Heath, Altadena (Ropeadope)
Either this one flew seriously under the radar, or I just missed it entirely. Would've been a strong contender for my jazz top 10 if I'd heard it in time. That said, I'm grateful to The New York City Jazz Record and Phil Freeman for the review in their December issue, which tipped me off. After one listen, I'm seriously impressed: a diverse, thoroughly engaging and surprisingly progressive little-big-band suite that reminds me of something Wayne Shorter might have put together in mid-'60s. A very natural blend of buoyant hardbop and a darker, freer postbop sound. Tootie is of course outstanding, and this might be the most ambitious setting I've heard him in; great follow-up to the ongoing Iverson/Street chapter of his brilliant six-decade career.

The Cookers, The Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart (Smoke Sessions)
The latest dispatch of pure class and fire and soul — they just keep getting better — from one of my favorite bands on the planet, in any genre. Ineligible for me jazz-poll-wise b/c I worked on the liner notes (a huge honor), but I was a die-hard fan before that and would be all over Call regardless. If you dig 'em already, you'll love this; if you aren't yet hip, get it immediately. (Check out the EPK too.)

Voivod, Post Society (Century Media)
Latest dispatch from a veteran band in the midst of an unlikely new golden age. I've had my moments with the classic stuff, but it's in the post-Piggy era, from 2013's Target Earth forward, that I've really become a Voivod fanatic. A shining example of a band carrying on and, improbably, thriving after a core member's death. Absolutely cannot wait for the next LP.

Dysrhythmia, The Veil of Control (Profound Lore)
Take the time to really engage with this band and they're never going to disappoint you. The sort of communal interband Venn-diagram flowering that continues among Dys, Gorguts (see above), Krallice (see also 2016 dispatches Hyperion and the brand-new Prelapsarian), Behold ... the Arctopus (see Cognitive Emancipation), etc. has been such a glorious thing to watch up close. Drink in the rigor and the intrigue and the muscle-prog majesty on Veil — the latest brilliant chapter in the ever-unfolding Kevin Hufnagel / Colin Marston metal-vanguard multiverse.

Plus three on the archival tip:

Peter Kuhn, No Coming, No Going — The Music of Peter Kuhn 1978–79 (NoBusiness)
Squawking, swinging, shimmy-ing '70s loft jazz at its finest, via clarinetist Kuhn and his extraordinary band of like-minded ramblers, including trumpeters Toshinori Kondo and Arthur Williams, bassist William Parker and the late marvel Denis Charles on drums. The full disc of Kuhn/Charles duos is a thing of wild beauty. Check it.

Herbie Mann, Live at the Whisky 1969: The Unreleased Masters (Real Gone)
Still wading through this one, but what a heady bit of Sonny Sharrock lore, to say nothing of the rest of the band. We all know about the standout jazz-gone-rock/pop/funk revolutions of the day, but Mann was a badass in his own right — playing what he wanted to play, hiring who he wanted to hire, posing with his shirt off and just getting the fuck down. Kudos to him for turning Sonny — and Linda, on a couple tracks! — loose. It's beautiful to think of this and the Mann-produced Black Woman as part of the same weird hippie-jazz idiom. Wonder what the backstage hang was like?

Miles Davis, Freedom Jazz Dance, The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5 (Sony/Legacy)
Like the Dylan Bootleg Series, the Miles one just keeps digging up more and more from the periods you long ago thought were exhausted. On paper, this almost seems like a parody of a box set — complete session reels for Miles Smiles, band chatter and all — but I mean, this is Miles fucking Smiles we're talking about. I've only given this one concerted listen, but I got serious fly-on-the-wall goosebumps hearing this legendary day in the studio unfold in real time.

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Postscript: Five perfect pop (etc.) songs, 2016



Will leave you with this rawk monster from Dunsmuir. Glad tidings, and thanks as always to anyone readin'! -HS