Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lover man: Lee Konitz, singing (to) the song

Last week, on the final night of the Village Vanguard's 80th birthday week, overseen by Jason Moran, I saw Charles Lloyd's quartet play an unreal set at the Village Vanguard. I had a feeling the show was going to be a good one, but I was unprepared for the slashing intensity of the band—Lloyd, Moran, Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums—for what Nate Chinen referred to in his spot-on review as its "radical empathy."

The group operated like a team of elite fighter pilots, swooping instantaneously into tight battle formations and then dispersing into looser unities. They played free; they played pretty; they played funky—all with grace and intensity. However extreme, however state-of-the-art the band got, the 77-year-old Lloyd was right there—a veteran whose improvisational reflexes have only grown even sharper, whose sound on the tenor sax has only grown more commanding, fluid and expressive, and whose radiant onstage charisma has only grown more potent as he's aged. (Amen to Nate's observation that "[The band's] slanted rhythmic strategies, indebted to progressive hip-hop production, didn’t throw off Mr. Lloyd any more than the rolling, continuous energies of the set.")

Beyond some limited, yet awed exposure to Lloyd's classic ’60s quartet with Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee and Jack DeJohnette, I don't know his discography well, but this show made me an instant super-fan. It exemplified the fruitful intergenerational friction that is the engine of so much great jazz, from Davis/Shorter/Hancock/Carter/Williams to Heath/Iverson/Street (the latter of which sounded extraordinary at the Vanguard the week prior to Moran's run).

Last night, I saw another fantastic intergenerational band, led by a veteran saxophonist exactly ten years Lloyd's senior: Lee Konitz, who's in the midst of a Jazz Standard run—concluding tonight, Sunday, March 22—with a quintet co-led by trumpeter Dave Douglas, and including pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Ches Smith. The energy of this set couldn't have felt more different from that of the Lloyd set, but there was one key similarity: the performance fully reflected the personality and agenda of its central figure, as though the other players were channeling their voices through Konitz's horn, or inviting Konitz to channel his through their own instruments.

Voices were a key theme during this set. As he did during the Charlie Haden memorial back in January Konitz spent a good portion of the performance singing, scatting wordless melodies, during a set that consisted mostly of his treasured standards—"Lover Man," "Solar" and one or two others—along with a Lennie Tristano theme, "317 E. 32nd St," written on the chord changes of "Out of Nowhere." (Here's a lovely 1952 version of the piece, featuring Tristano, Konitz and Warne Marsh.) Douglas and Oh also joined in the fun, the latter, prompted by Konitz, offering a mellow extended vocal meditation on "How Deep Is the Ocean?"

At first, I regarded these vocal passages as charming interludes, but as the set progressed, I realized that they were in some ways the meat of the set. At the club, I sat with a friend, the accomplished bassist Devin Hoff. Afterward, we talked about how the presence of an elder like Lee Konitz on a bandstand instantly confers legitimacy onto a set of jazz. Hoff, commenting on his own experiences playing standards with older players in the Bay Area, pointed out that these figures have a way of reminding you that standards like the ones we heard last night are actual songs—tunes with lyrics and shapes and sentiments, not simply launch pads for improvisers looking to show off the snazzy tricks they've developed in the practice room.

When Konitz scat-sings, it seems to me that he's not exactly singing the song in question, but singing to the song, serenading it. Part of the Konitz legend is how fixated he is on a core group of standards. Watching him sing, wordlessly, with a weathered but tuneful voice, eyes closed, is to watch a man in love, not so much with the music coming out of him, but with the music in his head, with the song that's fueling his reverie. "How Deep Is the Ocean?" was written in 1932, which makes Konitz's relationship to that song roughly analogous to my own relationship to, say, "Billie Jean." This abstract idea we have of standards, a tome of musical texts brought down from the mount (by Steve Swallow?), must seem rather foreign to the 87-year-old Konitz, a man who experienced many of these songs in their heyday, absorbed them through the air just as we do the pop songs of our age.

That's not to say that Konitz's playing is an afterthought. His sound on the alto is—still, as it seems to have always been—gloriously pillowy, fluid, sweet. (When you hear Lee Konitz live, you realize what the essence of "sweet" really is, and why that doesn't have to be a dismissive term.) Konitz puffs up his cheeks grandly when he plays, and, almost paradoxically, this act yields extreme softness, a sound with a certain kind of tartness of tone (at some moments, I thought of Eric Dolphy, an altoist who seems 180 degrees removed from Konitz but might actually be a good deal closer in spirit) but with a halo of breath around it. His melodies, the songs he sings to the songs he's singing, are precious cargo, and he pads them well for a safe journey.

Last night, his lines intertwined beautifully with Douglas's. The set featured a good amount of conventional solos, but my favorite moments by far were when Konitz and Douglas were improvising together, swooping in and out of one another's flight patterns like birds dancing a duet in the air. At these moments, the star was truly the song in question, and the imaginative feats it inspired in the players, not the players themselves.

The rest of the band played with tenderness and sensitivity. If the Lloyd set was about radical empathy, this set was about radical comfort, about the point at which casualness becomes so absolute, so soul-deep, that it achieves profundity. No obvious—to me, at least—"out" signifiers from any of Konitz's bandmates, all of whom are known for working in such realms to varying degrees. Everyone was on-message, which is not to say obedient or subservient—Ches Smith, for example, still sounded exactly like the drummer who plays in Tim Berne's Snakeoil—but simply conscious of the Lee Konitz Concept and fully committed to seeing it through. (Matt Mitchell shone on the ballads, at times playing duo with Konitz and laying out a handsome harmonic red carpet for him to blow over.) Everyone was there to celebrate these songs, and to celebrate the man who has devoted his entire career to reanimating them at every performance, to making them new not through radical reinvention, but through simple care and attention. Love, really.


*Lee Konitz on singing and playing.

*Ted Panken's invaluable Charles Loyd interviews.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Space and grace: The return of Blind Idiot God

Jordan N. Mamone, an excellent writer-about-music and a longtime Time Out New York contributor, wrote an exemplary preview of this past Saturday's record-release show by the veteran instrumental band Blind Idiot God, which you can read here. (Spoiler alert re: the concert: I was there, and it was fucking great.) Jordan notes that for the past 20 years or so, "…in-the-know doom and math-rock fans [have whispered Blind Idiot God's] name in reverent tones." I know what he means. For ages, I've heard tons of folks who, like me, gravitate toward these general musical zones, speak/write reverently Blind Idiot God. In the past, I'd checked out their ’80s and ’90s material, and enjoyed bits and pieces of what I'd heard, but for whatever reason, BIG never quite clicked with me. Upon first exposure, their music just didn't lodge in my brain and viscera the way that, say, the instrumental Black Flag material or the Don Caballero catalog did (to cite, respectively, one contemporary and one logical descendant of BIG).

To be fair, I suspect that the hushed-tones phenomenon cited above has been helped along by a few key extramusical factors: 1) Blind Idiot God had the SST / Greg Ginn stamp of approval during a time when that stamp of approval really meant something—a factor like this is always crucial in upping an underground band's cachet. 2) They also had the NYC downtown-scene stamp of approval, via associations with John Zorn and Bill Laswell, which meant that the rogue jazzheads who may not have given bands like Black Flag or Don Cab the time of day seemed to look at BIG as some sort of exception to the rule when it came to progressive, aggressive underground rock. I deeply respect Brian Olewnick's work (his beautifully written blog is only the tip of the iceberg), but I bristle at this phrase in his AllMusic review of BIG's third album, Cyclotron: "While still head and shoulders over most thrash-influenced 'math rock…' " I could of course be sorely mistaken, but this seems like a textbook case of a writer dismissing an entire (sub-)genre without actually having explored the depth and variety of said (sub-)genre. This whole metal/math-rock-for-smart-people concept—i.e., "I'll listen to a Zorn/Laswell-affiliated 'math rock' band like Blind Idiot God, but I won't get to know, say, the Touch and Go or Skin Graft catalogs"—seems deeply suspect to me. (Two qualifications/clarifications: A) in the mid-’80s, when BIG first emerged, their field, so to speak, was far less crowded, so maybe they did seem all that much more special to those who were paying attention, and B) I just want to emphasize that I'm taking issue here with perceived critical snobbishness, not BIG's actual music or aesthetic values.) And 3) Blind Idiot God picked an amazing name. It sounds so wonderfully, perfectly antisocial to proclaim one's self a fan of a band that goes by that Lovecraft-indebted moniker.

Despite my prior ambivalence, I was still mighty intrigued by the news, arriving in late 2014, that BIG would be releasing a comeback album in 2015. The band's current drummer, Tim Wyskida—formerly of the blood-curdlingly intense Khanate—works in my office building, and he and I have become friendly. I knew that BIG had been working on a new record for a while—Bill Laswell, who co-produced the album, mentioned it to me when I interviewed him in 2012—but last I'd heard, the project was in limbo. When I'd ask Tim about a release date, he'd typically laugh and cite the widely reported perfectionism of guitarist-bandleader (and, as of now, sole original member) Andy Hawkins. But here it was: concrete info on an upcoming release.

I'll cut to the chase: The album in question—Before Ever After, available from Hawkins's own Indivisible Music imprint; that's cover you see above—is outstanding, easily one of my favorite records of the young year, and almost certainly the best heavy-, metal- or "extreme music"–related release of the 2015 crop (right now, it's neck-and-neck with Napalm Death's stunning Apex Predator—Easy Meat). Suddenly, all at once, I get Blind Idiot God. I'm officially a member of the hushed-tones club.

Blind Idiot God is still an instrumental band, but as in the old days, there's a certain verbal concept coming through in the song titles: "Earthmover," "Under the Weight," "Wheels of Progress," "Barrage." (The vintage Cyclotron review above touches on the heavy-machinery metaphor too: "The listener feels buffeted about, as if inside a roaring engine at 30,000 feet.") The strange thing about
these associations is how inadequately they capture what, to me, makes Blind Idiot God's music, specifically the music they're making now, great. What I love about Before Ever After is precisely that it doesn't feels monolithic or mechanized, or really heavy in any traditional, metal-oriented sense. Jordan's preview homed in on the aspect(s) of the record I respond to most: "…the LP emphasizes lumbering repetition that infuses the music with increased space and grace. The noisy stuff breathes deeper [i.e., deeper than it did in during BIG's first phase of operation]…" That "breathes" concept is key.

"Wheels of Progress," which you can hear here, is a masterpiece in this regard. The song's snarling intro riff lunges forward in a kind of stumbling rubato time, as though the music were hurling itself against a wall, exhausting itself, panting and then starting over again. The second riff, starting around :30, has a similar kind of organic feel—crunching, grinding to a halt and then sort of melting away into a luminous goo of sound. The guitar and bass intertwine and crane to the sky, Hawkins's notes bending and singing. The track kicks into a more rigorous, propulsive groove, but the respiratory feel of the music remains intact. The middle of the song features a gorgeous ambient interlude, with Hawkins playing a series of delicate and hypnotic melodies, conjuring blissful delirium. The second theme (the one that starts at :30) returns, but it sounds even more spent this time around, less rigorous, almost as if it had warped from exposure to its own heat. If metal is, to take the genre's name at face value, the sound of strength and rigor, Blind Idiot God is the sound of pulsation and flow. The music isn't, to my ears, mechanized; it sounds biological. This record truly does breathe.

A lot of this has to do with Wyskida. The music he's playing with BIG, these avant-heavy dreamscapes, couldn't be more different than what he played with Khanate, which specialized in creeping, crawling gloom. But the two bands do share an especially organic approach. Khanate and BIG differ from 99% of all other rock-/metal-related music in their loose relationship to the idea of metric time. The music's pulse expands and contracts as needed. (In Khanate, that idea was obviously pushed to the absolute extreme.) And Wyskida is one of the rare heavy drummers I've heard, and especially one of the rare double-bass drummers I've heard, who can pummel while also caressing the time, coaxing out its little microdetails. On "Twenty Four Hour Dawn"—the album opener, and also the opener of Saturday's show—Wyskida accompanies Hawkins's harsh, glinting first riff with a sort of dancing, undulating march pattern, a beat that reminds me of Ronald Shannon Jackson in its insistence on a very personal, almost folksy kind of groove contour. At the show, Wyskida played a sizable double-bass kit (interestingly, the left kick drum was slightly smaller than the right), and he hit hard, but he wasn't brutalizing the music like, say, the insanely crushing Eric Neuser, drummer of opening band Gnaw, which features Wyskida's former Khanate bandmate Alan Dubin on vocals. Wyskida's roll-heavy approach brought out the music's impressionistic quality as much as its ferocious aspect. You can hear an example of this at around the 3:30 mark in the recorded version of "Twenty Four Hour Dawn." In one of many thrilling, unexpected changes-of-musical-scenery that occur on Before Ever After, the band breaks into a kind of skipping uptempo groove. And though they keep ramping up the intensity, with Wyskida hammering on the double kicks, the music retains a lightness—to borrow another phrase of Jordan's, a feeling of space and grace. ("Under the Weight" is another great place to hear this odd, intoxicating juxtaposition of buoyancy and aggression.) This record is heavy, yes, but it's also remarkably balletic.

Hawkins's guitarwork is of course another essential component of the BIG sound. Like Wyskida, he's a player who's fully able to bring the pain in a relatively traditional manner—check out "Earthmover," which features a lead riff that's heavily reminiscent of the Melvins' doom-rock classic "Night Goat"—but who's just as concerned with the texture of the sound as with its weight. His best riffs, like the opening theme of "Twenty Four Hour Dawn" or the central pattern in "Barrage," seem to be made of light as much as sound. They glint and burst, flash and dissolve. Occasionally, Hawkins takes a proper solo—there's a glorious, Sonny Sharrock–ian lead outburst around 1:45 into "Twenty Four Hour Dawn"—but he's a player more given to outbursts of texture. There's a gorgeous ambient interlude in "Twenty Four Hour Dawn" (yes, I know I'm citing this track frequently, but it's long and eventful and amazing!), around the 5:00 mark, where the groove drops out, and Hawkins plays these alternately trilling and roaring figures that diffuse and sparkle in the air like handfuls of colored powder. Another track on Before Ever After, "Voice of the Structure," is an abstract solo guitar piece that moves palindromically from near-silence to a buzzing, singing electro-wail and back again. ("Voice of the Structure" harks back to Halo, a solo record that Hawkins issued in 1994 under the name Azonic.) Seeing Hawkins play live was fascinating. The amplification was extreme, as is BIG's wont—see this recent definitive Hawkins interview by another Time Out contributor, Brad Cohan, for more on that—with mountains of guitar and bass cabinets heaped at the back of the stage. And Hawkins employed an insanely large rig and several different, unusually (for underground avant-rock, that is) fancy-looking guitars. No beat-up SGs or Les Pauls here—these were boldly colored, oddly shaped beauties that looked like they might be custom jobs. But like Wyskida, he wasn't out to brutalize. He employed a personal vocabulary of gestures (scraping the pick on the strings above the fretboard, for instance) and chords to conjure a sound that was, yes, huge, but just as importantly, rich, immersive and sensuous. Hearing Hawkins live, I felt more bathed in sound than assaulted with it. And though he's an intimidating-looking guy—stocky, with closed-cropped white hair—his stage presence isn't aggro. He's a painter with sound, seemingly more intent on sculpting the medium for its own sake than infusing it with any kind of extramusical violence. (He speaks to that idea in the Cohan interview: "For me, using music to express emotion is like using a howitzer to kill a fly: It ought not to be necessary, and it's a poor use of the resource.")

The space, the grace, the sense of breathing, they all bring me to the elephant in the room, which is Blind Idiot God's dub proclivity. (If you're not familiar with the group, they've always interspersed their heavy, prog-punk-ish "core" material with humid, sensuous, funky dub.) I admit I'm somewhat wary of this aspect of the BIG aesthetic. What I love about their rock-oriented side, especially on Before Ever After, is how idiosyncratic, how open and unbounded it feels. BIG's dub, to me, feels less personal, oddly conventional for a band so determined to will a fresh sound into being. After many listens through Before Ever After, I'm starting to enjoy the dub material—specifically, tracks like "High and Mighty" and "Night Driver"—in a palate-cleansing sort of way. These tracks do help to pace the record, to make it feel like a journey. (The live show, on the other hand, followed the template of the first, self-titled Blind Idiot God record and sequenced all the dub tracks together at the end—something of a momentum-killer for me.) And the album's excellent sound—this is probably the best-sounding Laswell-related record I've heard—its rich, buttery, spacious massiveness really flatters the tranced-out throb of these tracks. Also, "Strung," the second-to-last track on Before Ever After, which contains elements of both BIG's rock and dub tendencies, hints at the intriguing idea that in the future, these two components of the band's sound might be less segregated.

My personal feelings on the dub element aside, Before Ever After is a fascinating record, one that the current version of the band, rounded out by bassist Will Dahl, brings to roaring, pulsating life onstage. BIG circa 2015 is a band fully at ease with its eccentricity, and maybe more attuned to it than ever. The album indeed fuses avant-rock with a rare kind of space and grace, makes it breathe and throb and pulsate. To me, Before Ever After secures BIG's primacy in the canon of bands that have successfully integrated post-hardcore rock expression with an uncannily organic pulse, a sense that the music is more animal than machine. (Coptic Light and Multitudes both come to mind in this regard; for all I know, both have drawn inspiration from BIG's past work.) Hear the strange way this music moves—not like heavy machinery, but like some oozing, wriggling giant slug—and feel the way it moves you.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Once a seed: Keith Jarrett solo, now

Last night, I saw Keith Jarrett play solo at Carnegie Hall for the second time. The first such show I saw, in January of 2011, had been, in my view, disastrous. (In short, I actually witnessed the Coughing Wars in the flesh, and they were not pretty.) I chose not to write about that concert at the time, mainly because I knew I would take no pleasure in reliving or recounting it. It's pretty clear that Jon Pareles felt the same, though in his case, he was obligated to file a review.

I'm happy to report that last night's show was far better, both musically and in terms of artist/crowd rapport. Jarrett did display some faintly curmudgeonly behavior, but it was self-aware, mild. He seemingly can't not comment on coughs overheard from the audience, but last night he framed these "incidents" (Jarrett didn't use that term; I use quotes only to indicate where I stand on the matter) as minor improprieties, interruptions to be tsk-tsked but ultimately tolerated with a wry smile. Even when he informed the audience that one coughing outburst had ended a piece prematurely, he portrayed this as serendipity, i.e, just the way things go, an attitude you'd expect him to have embodied all along given his insistence on the purity of improvisation.

I'm ambivalent about foregrounding these extramusical details, but they matter. And that's true because, these days, a Keith Jarrett solo concert is a performance on many levels, not just musical. As with all Keith Jarrett solo concerts, last night's was technically improvised, but I couldn't help feeling as though Jarrett was, on some level, working from a script. Not from a score, but from some innate sense of what these concerts are, to him, at this point in his staggeringly accomplished career. The pieces he played didn't have names, of course, but at times, I felt like I was witnessing a performance of an evening-length work called A Keith Jarret Solo Concert.

Though the mood of the show was mercifully very different from the one I saw in 2011, the rhythm, the procedure of it was quite similar. The lights dim. Jarrett, a relatively tiny figure, strides out from those almost comically large doors at stage left. He walks over to the piano with a sort of self-conscious casualness, hands in pockets. "Oh, you want me to play?" his gestures say. "Well, I suppose I could do that." He chats a bit with the crowd. Last night, Jarrett's banter often touched on his drive to NYC that day, which had apparently been long and arduous.

Then he begins playing. The pieces are on the short side, averaging about four to five minutes. They fall into roughly three categories: the bluesy, earthy, muscular vamp-driven pieces; the searching, and often inconclusive and impenetrable, exploratory pieces, which tend to sound more "modern classical" than "free jazz"; and what I'll call, for lack of a better term, the Pretty Pieces. (Thanks to my friend and colleague Sophie, also in attendance, for helping me to establish this taxonomy.) He plays; he stops; he takes his hands off the keys. And then he stands up and bows, deeply, letting his torso go fully slack, as the audience applauds. This gesture plays up the sort of humblebrag quality that A Keith Jarrett Solo Concert has. "I have scaled Improv Mountain on your behalf, audience; I brought back a mere trifle, but I hope it was to your liking." The implication of heroism, of the artist alone up there on that huge, grand stage, with only his wits and his hands to guide him, is an inescapable part of these shows, and though this unspoken but very present element can be oppressive at times, it does seem more or less accurate—i.e., there is, at base, something heroic about what Jarrett does during these performances.

The great mystery and rapture of A Keith Jarrett Solo Concert comes, in my opinion, chiefly during the Pretty Pieces I cited above. Anyone who has seen one of these performances will know the pieces I mean. There were two that stood out for me last night, the second piece of the evening and roughly the sixth—two or three before intermission. Essentially, these pieces are songs. Improvised, yes, but so exquisite in their design, in the rightness of their melodic and harmonic arc, their adornments, the economy of their motifs (the second of the two pieces I cited above started with a little twinkle of a figure in the highest register of the keyboard and, lovingly, utilized that theme throughout) that it's as if Jarrett were plucking them from a tree like pieces of perfectly ripened fruit. Sometimes he sings along, wordlessly, in that famous and, to some, infamously distracting, vocalization of his—for the record, this habit of Jarrett's doesn't really bother me at all—and the mouth sound seems to reinforce the sense that though what he's playing is in some sense brand-new, it's also a song that both he and the audience already know by heart. The Pretty Pieces tend to have the flavor of ballads—wholesome tearjerkers. Melodramatic, in a sense, but also completely disarming and true. Last night, during these pieces, I kept thinking of the Branford Marsalis composition "Hope," specifically the version that appears on Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, the saxophonist's excellent 2011 duo album with pianist Joey Calderazzo. "Hope" is an almost comically gorgeous piece—one of the most elemental and stirring melodies I've ever heard. Several of the pieces Jarrett played last night felt equally inevitable, equally transporting. Pure magic, from the second he set his hands on the keys to the second he lifted them off. I don't know about heroic, but wizardly seems apt. The idea that a musician could, seemingly at will, distill a piece this right-feeling out of the air is almost scary. What would that feel like, to be able to sit down at the instrument and just, like, do that?

A Keith Jarrett Concert gives the impression that the Muse doesn't answer every time the maestro knocks. Some of last night's pieces were more sketchlike—open-ended, even downright stunted. The gulf between these and the Ones That Work can be frustrating. Couldn't Jarrett conceivably just play a concert of all Pretty Pieces? Hard to say. I'm sure his contention would be that it's out of his hands, pun intended, whether a given piece takes flight, but the rightness of the Pretty Pieces, from note one, is tough to ignore. Yes, he does in fact make it look easy, as though the art of composing a perfect song from scratch were as simple as solving a Rubik's Cube for the thousandth time.

Near the end of the show, in a genuinely affecting moment, Jarrett walked over to the mic in between pieces and said, "Thank you for following my work." He then addressed the elephant in the room, the notion—perfectly conceivable for anyone in attendance in January of 2011—that he "hates the audience." He assured us that none of what we were hearing would've been possible without us present. "You think I play like this in my studio?" This speech too seemed like a preordained part of A Keith Jarrett Concert—a necessary display of contrition and appreciation. But it also felt sincere. It was both welcome and classy, and, for me at least, it served to clear the air. (There had, for the record, been another solo Jarrett show at Carnegie Hall between the ill-fated 2011 one and last night's concert; according to Sophie, Jarrett's demeanor and performance had been exemplary that night in 2012.)

Does A Keith Jarrett Concert grab me the way Jarrett's ’67–’76 material does (see here and here)? No. There's a wild, organic beauty to that work that moves me, revs me up to no end. These days, Jarrett doesn't seem to be walking so close to the ledge, aesthetically. He's flying blind, yes, but I do get the sense that he can, so to speak, play these concerts in his sleep, simply reaching into his endless storehouse of Keith Jarrett Pieces. I realize that it might sound like I'm selling his achievements short, but that's not my intention. I'm just saying that there's something about the "not a hair out of place" quality of his present-day improvisations that both dazzles and stonewalls me. Whereas the ’70s work—and I'm generalizing rampantly here—felt like a man meticulously constructing a stairway to the stars, via compositions that felt so infectiously personal and natural, the current work can feel like a man ascending the very same stairway, i.e., one he's already built and ascended countless other times. There's an inevitability to A Keith Jarrett Solo Concert that, to me, feels the slightest bit canned.

The Pretty Pieces, though. Those exquisite sensations. Recalling them now is like recalling a bath in a hot springs. You really can't get that feeling anywhere else. At his best, Keith Jarrett has always been a genre of one, and that singularity was on display last night. He's a complicated figure—at times, a tedious one. But his achievement, the Idea of Piano that he's brought into the world, is undeniable, and still strong. It exists, persists, and you can go see it. Admire the perfection and sturdiness of it, almost as though it were a thing growing out of the ground. It's hard not to see the full, flowering splendor every time you look, but it's worth remembering that A Keith Jarrett Solo Concert was once a seed. It came about gradually. All the years of apprenticeship. Charles Lloyd, Miles, the American and European Quartets, the Standards Trio. The decades of solo performances. (Interesting to note that the 40th anniversary of the famed Köln Concert was this past January 24.) It all fed into this, and it's all there, if you look and listen closely. A Keith Jarrett Solo Concert is not inevitable, preordained, even if it can seem that way. It happens now because Jarrett has willed it to happen, year by year, moment by moment, right up to the present.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Spellcasting: Jim White drums with Xylouris White

The drums. You think you know the instrument, all of how it feels to play, to watch and listen, to experience. And then something comes along and reminds you that, well, no you don't. You know what you know, and what you don't know is vast, as well as inspiring. (In this regard, I highly recommend picking up Arcana VII, the latest volume of John Zorn–edited musician writings, and checking out the essays by Ches Smith, on his experiences learning Haitian Vodou drumming and incorporating it into his own aesthetic, and Tim Keiper, on his travels and musical experiences in Mali, Brazil and beyond.)

I've written before about the irreducibility of great drummers in performance, the way that if you're not in the room with them, picking up every sensation related to what they do—sound is just the beginning—you're not even coming close to experiencing their art.

Last night, I saw another drummer whose work I'd classify this way: Jim White, probably still best known as one third of the Australia's foremost violin-fronted instrumental-dirge-punk trio Dirty Three. He's also a sort of drummer to the indie singer-songwriter stars, most notably Will Oldham—before Thursday, the only time I'd seen White live in recent years was with Oldham, in 2009— and Cat Power, but also Nina Nastasia.

I remember being riveted by White's performance at that Oldham show and making a mental note that I needed to hear and see more of him. I'd listened to quite a bit of Dirty Three growing up, appreciated what White did in that group and seen them live once, but I never saw his percussive voice as something vital and elemental until these last couple show experiences, where White's weird, almost ritualistic vocabulary of gestures, his conjurer's approach to his art, really hit home for me. (Looking back, the fact that I hadn't yet delved into jazz when I caught that first Dirty Three show, probably around 1998, might explain why his playing didn't strike a chord with me at that time.)

Last night, White's current focal project, Xylouris White—a duo with the Cretan lute player George Xylouris—opened for Swans at Bowery Ballroom. (This New Yorker piece, into which Fugazi's Guy Picciotto figures prominently, serves as an excellent introduction to the band.) White was set up at center stage; this is clearly an equally matched pairing. What Xylouris does is gorgeous and absolutely essential to the project. Given that I know essentially nothing about the Cretan lute tradition, I humbly point you to the article linked above. Xylouris's contributions sounded at times Arabic, at times Jewish, at times even Indian. Hearing Xylouris blind, "Greek" would not have been my first thought. His lute playing suggested ragas as much as folk dances. There was a trance element, and an element of deep, stirring passion, as filtered through forceful virtuosity.

If there was a solemnity to Xylouris's playing—and given that he's coming out of a very strict tradition of lute performance, into which he was indoctrinated by his family, this makes perfect sense—White's presence embodied a certain kind of earthy flow, a sensuality with a hint of mirth. It seems impossible, or perhaps merely inadvisable, to attempt to describe his drumming without describing his appearance. A stocky man with a sort of mad-scientist Afro, White has a bearing of unflappable cool. His face bears a strange resemblance to that of longtime Altman actor Henry Gibson, but his dress (billowy shirt, unbuttoned about halfway), aura and presence suggest, to me, the Most Interesting Man in the World character you see in those beer ads. He looks, basically, as though he's seen just about everything there is to see, and that the years have engendered in him not jadedness but soul-deep contendedness and a sort of easy amusement with his surroundings.

White approaches the drum set as an object of fascination, as a site of mystery and delight. His movements are breathtakingly fluid. There is a dance that occurs, a pantomime, a flow, when he's behind the kit. He has strange tendencies—moving his arms in big, slow, exaggerated arcs, from over his head down to the drum, sometimes glancing up at his stick or mallet as it's poised over his head, as though marveling at the percussive act itself, the coil before the strike as much as the strike itself. There's a kind of inquiry and interrogation of the process, in the midst of that process. His torso dances. His shoulders shimmy. Sometimes he sort of clutches his left leg up and inward toward his body. He plays weird games with his unusually long sticks, not just tossing them in the air for a quick flip, but sometimes dropping one on the snare, letting it roll across the drum and picking it up with the other hand, and then doing the same with the other stick; back and forth, back and forth, as though in the midst of drumming, he were also juggling.

All this strange business brings about a kind of enchanted state, a feeling that's exactly analogous to what White does sonically and rhythmically. He has a way of sort of flowing around the kit, draping his sticks on the heads almost lovingly, that can disguise the power he commands. One minute he's consummately unobtrusive, offering up a quick subtle mallet roll across the toms or a tap on the tambourine he sometimes attaches to his hi-hat, and the next he's slamming out a fervent, rapid pulse on the kick drum, or playing some sort of bastardized backbeat with conventional sticks or those bundles known as Hot Rods. In these latter moments, his playing gives off the sense of limitless power deployed almost casually, like he could go full-on Bonham if he wanted to but prefers to keep the beat aerated, stumbling, fragmented, open-ended. There are miniature controlled detonations that, to me, at least, recall the more painterly realm of free jazz, but in general, I hear very little reference to any familiar tradition in White's playing. His pulse is insistent, yet blurred, hazy, always in service to the dance his body makes, rather than the other way around. His presence in the music is all about a personal experience of rhythm, a fluid exchange between a drummer's textural and timekeeping roles.

White surveys the audience as he plays, neither glaring nor smirking, but with a look that can touch on each of those. Last night, he flashed grins at Xylouris. There's much more of a sense of effort, of bearing down, in Xylouris's playing than in White's, and the drummer's glances at the lute player seem to say something like, "I'm right there with you, mate; I just don't have to try so hard."

Seeing White play, the overall effect was of having an experience you can't get anywhere else. In my mind, this aligns him with great jazz-oriented originals such as Ronald Shannon Jackson, Paul Motian and Milford Graves and with avant-rock masters ranging from Bill Bruford to contemporary giants such as Brian Chippendale, Zach Hill and Greg Saunier. As with those players, when Jim White is on a gig, you're hearing a concert of Jim White Music, as much as you're taking in whatever else in going on. That's not to say that he's a domineering force; sometimes, his sonic presence is downright self-effacing. Only to say that he is one of those elemental drummers. He walks onstage and there is a certain thing happening, between him, the kit and the air around it, that can't happen except in his presence.

Jim White's background is a bit hazy to me. I know the Dirty Three output fairly well, and I want to revisit it. I'm intrigued by Venom P. Stinger, the punk band he worked in with future D3 bandmate Mick Turner during the ’80s, which reunited and played New York in recent years. You can hear punk in his playing, and you can feel jazz in there too, in the overall looseness and his favoring of traditional grip. But there's a sense in which no genre you could invoke entirely accounts for his approach and aesthetic. He's created a whole world of behavior around his drumming. He walks onstage, sits down and begins not just a performance, but a relationship with the kit, the sticks, the room, and this attunement gives him unusual control over the flow and sensation of the music. When Jim White is drumming, I can't help but feel that he's casting a spell—slyly, without visible effort. It a spell that only breaks when he says so. I look forward to the next enchantment.


*A brilliantly conceived Xylouris White video. (Check out White regarding the dog around the 1:00 mark.) The Xylouris White homepage and their 2014 debut album, Goats. A Ben Ratliff review of a 2014 Xylouris White gig.

*Here's a Ratliff review of a 2010 Venom P. Stinger reunion gig, as well as video of a 1988 VPS performance.

*A beautiful White/Nastasia duet.

*My friend and former Time Out New York colleague Jay Ruttenberg wrote a remarkable profile of White back in 2007. Like most Ruttenberg pieces, it's funny, sharp and, in my view, definitive. Please excuse the horrendous web formatting and enjoy the article. (Here's the Conan performance Will Oldham references.)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

New York, instrument: John Zorn at the Village Vanguard

John Zorn is at the Village Vanguard through Sunday. Last night I caught a pair of sets I've been looking forward to since the series was announced: the duo of Zorn and Milford Graves, augmented by special guest Steve Coleman, and the trio of Marc Ribot, Trevor Dunn and Tyshawn Sorey, playing material from the Asmodeus and Valentine's Day albums, with Zorn on live conduction.

Check out the samples from Asmodeus above, and you'll have an excellent idea of what the latter set sounded like. (G. Calvin Weston plays on that album, while Sorey is on Valentine's Day, but interestingly, the most compelling pieces from last night's set—such as the Sharrock-via-Hendrix stomper "Mufgar"—were from the former.) I have relatively little to say about this set, honestly, mainly because it was so much goddamn fun. The entire club—me and two of my best friends, those at all the tables visible around us and, crucially, the musicians onstage and especially Zorn—were beaming en masse, reveling in the vaguely transgressive thrill we were sharing. Ribot, Dunn and Sorey, who are, when they want to be, three of the straight-up nastiest musicians on the planet, simply, gloriously just kicking out the jams in a sort of acid-rock-meets-prog-punk-meets-screaming-cathartic-blues mode, and on the stage of the Village freakin' Vanguard, no less. Zorn offered plenty of on-the-fly instruction, orchestrating impromptu drop-outs and unison accents, stoking the flames of each musician in turn, but mainly what he offered was a platform for something this awesome to go down.

Zorn's core principle, as I understand it, can be reduced to some variant on "Music is community" or "Music is people." His greatest gift, in my eyes, is the way he locates the best musicians on the planet (which usually means in New York)—not just the chopsiest virtuosos, but the ones who shred with passion, fire and abandon, slams them together in dream-team assemblages, provides them with just enough compositional fuel that they can attain lift-off and simply gets out of the way. Yes, he was stageside last night, calling pieces and conducting, but mostly, he was sitting there grinning his ass off and rocking the fuck out, just like everyone else in the club. The thrills of primal, bashing jazz-rock, occasionally coming off the rails and zooming along in freeform tumult. It was such a basic concept, but the depth of heart and musical resources of the three musicians involved made it profound. Yes, Ribot, Dunn and Sorey were, in a certain sense, just jamming on some skeletal themes, but they poured so much love and aggression into the endeavor, returning the gift Zorn had given them by assembling them in the first place and giving them this material to work with. This was a high-order act of brain-frying. Someone should book this trio at a big rock club—would love to hear them that much louder.

There was noise and riot in the first set, as well, but that performance vibrated on a whole different wavelength, and I think that had a lot to do with the presence of Steve Coleman. Zorn and Graves have been working together as a duo for a long time, and they have a pretty well-established sound as a band of two. (Compare their first documented meeting, from 2003, with their 2013 Metropolitan Museum performance -- a trio with Jackson Pollock, in a sense.) Meditation, yes, but mixed in with plenty of catharsis in the classic free-jazz sense, with Graves providing the weather-event rumble and Zorn the jagged stabs of aural lightning. To my ears, the meditative element won out during last night's set. Zorn played his share of his patented aggro sandpaper, but he doled it out thoughtfully. For me, this set was about a special kind of unity, the two horns meshing in a snaking, interlocking dervish display, as Graves conjured rhythm, his patented primal shimmy, out of the earth.

The set had a nice arc to it. As I remember, the pieces went like this: full trio, Zorn/Graves duo, Coleman/Graves duo, brief Zorn/Coleman duo, full trio. Hearing the Coleman/Graves duo really drove home the contrast between the two horn players. Whereas Zorn's home base in these sorts of settings is an eruptive mode, Coleman seemed to hear in Graves's pulsations an invitation to control rather than release, an encouragement to find ecstasy in discipline, to craft and sustain a coherent soloistic line. When the three played together, the latter impulse often won out. Zorn and Coleman were two horns looking for one voice, darting, overlapping and at certain moments fusing, so that it was hard to tell their alto sounds apart. Both working admirably hard to, in some profound way, agree on the current they were following—striving for utmost harmony in every sense. To my ears, Graves was, this time around, homing in on the dance. It's always an element of his performance, but here, it seemed like the root of the whole endeavor. (Maybe it had something to do with the fact that before the show, he got stuck in traffic driving his drums from Jamaica, Queens to the Village—"You want to talk about avant-garde?" he said to the audience, playfully. "That was avant-garde"—and needed to counteract vehicular frustration with pure body-moving joy.)

At times, as during the Coleman duo, Graves would assume a more upright posture, with his back against the metal folding chair that he always uses as a drum throne, and fixate on simple right-hand motions that aimed for what my friend Will (an extraordinary drummer whose playing effortlessly connects the dots between Ed Blackwell and Clyde Stubblefield) referred to as the sweet spot of the floor tom, that zone that every drummer knows, where you strike and draw sound out of the three core elements of the instrument all at once: skin (the head), metal (the rim) and, through the percussive act, wood (the body). Milford Graves is the absolute unparalleled master of locating these sweet spots on his kit and using them to make the rhythm sing like a three-dimensional choir, pouring forth impossibly funky pulsations, not quite "in time" but always related to a certain groove imperative.

It made you want to dance and sing, and so the altos did. You heard the core strains of what these three players do—the Jewish music in Zorn's blood, the bebop in Coleman's, the Afro-Cuban root of the Graves endeavor—all swirled together in a kind of blurry oneness, a single stream, not barreling forth, but sort of riding a current. And while Graves was clearly the one directing that current—not just with the single-hand free funk described above, but with his full-kit massage/barrage, including moments where he held two sticks in the right hand so as to grab both the floor tom and a bongo nearby—no one was in charge here. At its best moments, this was a set that felt like a group submission, a burying of ego in the service of flow. You can talk it about it other ways, but to me, it sounded nakedly spiritual—a beautiful contrast to the heat and bombast of set two.

So music is community, music is people. And I'd add that music is event, the simple act of willing things to happen. I've had my reservations about John Zorn's work in the past, some published on this blog, but I've felt them melting away in recent years, from the 2013 Met takeover on. The bottom line is that, as the Met event demonstrated, and as the two sets I saw last night reaffirmed, this guy is an expert at making impossibly cool stuff happen. Free jazz and contemporary classical music at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Dirty punk fusion at the Village Vanguard? Yes, please. In a very real sense, John Zorn's instrument at this point in his career is New York City itself—its musical geniuses, its hallowed institutions. He's assembling world-class artists in any number of styles and presenting them in the way they ought to be presented: as cultural treasures, via events where you celebrate the artists, the spaces, the inimitable New York–iness of it all. These Zorn gatherings are, increasingly, real events, not just shows. He's changing the fabric of how we engage with art in NYC, and he has been for a long time, and that's a serious feat. (And not just through events he's directly involved in; his LES venue, The Stone, presents live music six nights a week.) And on a more immediate level, he's facilitating a very specific kind of fun—quintessentially abrasive perhaps, but also so inclusive. Anyone, not just a "free-jazz fan" or a "Zorn fan" could've checked out those sets last night and understood that something joyous and special was going on. Community, communication, communion—basic acts of bringing artists together and inviting audiences to join in. It's a profound cultural project, and based on last night's magic, boy, is it ever working.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Panorama: The joys of the Fugazi Live Series

In a recent post about the Paul Motian Trio, I wrote about spirit music, sound that feeds, and maybe even heals. My current obsession is Fugazi—kicked off by an excellent interview with drummer Brendan Canty, via The Trap Set, a new podcast hosted by Joe Wong, who happens to be my West Coast counterpart in the band Aa—and though the sound is very different, the effect, the aftermath of listening, feels similarly restorative.

It's common to speak of the uprightness of this band, whether in terms of how they resisted the evils of the business of music (or the often-barbaric practices that attend its live performance: moshing, crowd-surfing, etc.), or how they helped raise awareness re: the evils of government and commerce. And it's also, perhaps, in a sort of reverse-cliché way, common to speak about how their real contribution was a musical one, or how they were one of the most transformative live bands of their (or all) time.

What I don't hear a lot of, in terms of general Fugazi-ology, except among my closest friends, is appreciation for the meat and substance of the Fugazi experience, which is the songs. It's easy to forget, since the hoopla has died down—see this NPR piece and this New York Times article, both from 2011—that the Fugazi Live Series is still online and accessible to all. If you're not familiar with the endeavor, it's very likely the most extensive authorized single-band concert-download archive in the world. (Short of maybe the Dead, although I'm not even sure if they make their shows available direct to fans in such an accessible, no-b.s. format.) You don't have to mess with iTunes or any kind of tedious sign-up process; you just go in and browse the shows—all helpfully rated in terms of sound quality and equipped with a free sample track—and grab whichever ones you like for a suggested price of $5.

I'm nowhere near an authority on this archive—it would take years of dedicated listening and browsing to really get familiar—but I have zeroed in on particular favorite periods. The 2002 shows hold a special fascination for me. For starters, I can highly recommend the Boston gigs from April 19 (mislabeled in the URL and iTunes tags as May 19) and 20 of that year—also available as YouTube videos, here and here. I love the shows from this era simply because by this point, the band's final year of performance to date, Fugazi were drawing on their entire recorded output, all seven albums (well, six plus a pair of EPs that I came to know jointly as 13 Songs). What strikes me as I listen to these sets and others from 1995 (the year that one of my favorite Fugazi albums, Red Medicine, came out, and the year that I saw them live for the first time, at this St. Louis show; have just downloaded that, and it sounds incredible—I picture myself back in that room; and my friend/bandmate Joe told me he had a similar experience looking over this set list, from the first Fugazi show he attended, earlier in the same year; this Philly show is also a must) is that one of Fugazi's main contributions, and maybe the one that means the most to me, is their egalitarian approach to their own catalog. We all know that Fugazi didn't release proper singles (a couple scattered 7-inches, yes, but no actual singles, in the classic "airplay"-oriented sense) or videos, but beyond that, the degree to which they really stood by—as in performed live, consistently, and with passion and conviction—just about every song they ever put out is really striking.

Most bands of any longevity gradually whittle down their catalog, encapsulating entire periods with just a few songs sprinkled into their live sets. Fugazi refused to let their songs die. The main Fugazi Live Series search actually has a song selector, so you can track individual songs as they appeared in live sets throughout the band's career. Just for fun, I typed in "Burning Too," a track from 13 Songs (or from the Margin Walker EP, if you want to get technical), and, if I'm being honest, one of my least favorite Fugazi songs and not one I've heard fellow fans shout out as a particular favorite. Sure enough, there are eight pages of results, stretching from 1988 to 2001. My point is that Fugazi put their entire weight behind everything they released. Yes, of course, the band had what you might call hits—"fan favorites" is probably more accurate—songs like "Waiting Room," "Bad Mouth," "Suggestion" and "Merchandise," songs that every Fugazi fan, however casual, knows by heart, but in terms of how they operated, especially near the end of their performing lifespan so far, they treated their entire catalog with equal care, did away with the oppressive hierarchy of "greatest hits" and "deep cuts" that ends up polluting the catalogs of so many great bands (Zeppelin, for one; how wonderful it would be to revise "classic rock" history and do away with the idea that this monster band's masterful, meaty output ought to be reduced to 10 or so radio staples). So at the best of these Fugazi performances, you get the early material colliding off the late, as though the band had placed their entire catalog on shuffle. But of course this is live and real and organic. We've all heard about how the band didn't use set lists and how they all had to be prepared to unleash pretty much any one of their songs at any time, which is a pretty staggering notion once you really think about it, especially if you've ever had the experience of being in a band and dusting off material you haven't played in years; the recall / muscle memory is often pretty appalling.

I love how, in the second Boston show mentioned above, the band uses 1993's In On the Kill Taker (another album I adore, not that there's a Fugazi album I don't feel that way about) as a center of gravity, starting off the show with two of that album's most rousing songs, the Ian MacKaye–sung rager "Facet Squared" and the Guy Picciotto–sung partially a cappella masterpiece "Rend It," and sprinkling the set with various other IOTKT gems, like "Public Witness Program" and "Last Chance for a Slow Dance" (maybe my single favorite Fugazi song), while also making room for plenty of material from the then-new Argument album, as well as two brilliant Joe Lally–sung songs in a row ("Recap Modotti" and "By You"), a couple 13 Songs oldies (notice how "Waiting Room" is sort of thrown unassumingly in the middle there; no "Let's encore with our best-known song!" hoopla here) and Steady Diet of Nothing closer "KYEO" to end the set.

If you know all these albums by heart, the effect—the thrill of "What song are they going to play next?" and "How will it play off the one before and the one after?"—is a profound one. You start to see Fugazi's whole catalog as this glorious 360-degree panorama. The fast songs, the slow songs, the Guy songs, the Ian songs, the Joe songs, the instrumentals (dig "Number 5," from the "Furniture" single, which opens the 4/20/02 Boston show). It's all material—to be used, to be played, to be savored. No song privileged over any other. No staples—songs that have to be played at every show or the audience will go home unhappy. You create, you amass and then you just play, from the heart, whatever song wants to come out at that time, in that city, under that set of conditions. Yes, the $5 door price and the outspoken political stance were radical, but to me, this attitude toward one's catalog is even more so. You aren't writing a bunch of songs just so you can hit the jackpot with one or two, sell a million copies of those and then populate your albums with all the filler. You're standing by everything you create, letting none of it go to waste. And you're keeping your legacy pure, because every single one of those albums stands up, all the way through. As do the shows themselves. Each one has its own logic, its own arc, its own emotional and intellectual journey, its own story. I have a feeling I'll be playing in the Fugazi Live Series sandbox for years to come.

Monday, January 26, 2015

"You don't get it in front of a blackboard, man": A Milford Graves master class

Never enough Milford Graves, okay? His drumming, its presence, the sonic and physical space it inhabits, is one of my musical food groups. As I wrote last week, I'm currently on the lookout for nourishment, hungry for truth and wisdom in music. At that point, I was finding what I needed in Paul Motian (I was remiss not to link to this incredible 1986 Motian/Frisell/Lovano vid, btw), another one of my listening staples. Then I stumbled across the clip above (part one of a three-part Milford Graves master class, filmed last year at the New School, and graciously documented in full by bassist Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic) and my attention shifted. For the past few days, I've been all about this series of videos. I have some thoughts to share on this document, but the most important observation I can offer is that it's precious and essential. I urge you to watch the whole thing.

If you've ever attended a Milford Graves concert, you know that he loves to rap with the audience at different points. He always drops bits of heavy knowledge during those mini sermons, and the above is like a two-hour version. Concentrated, conversational insight. Mystery and majesty. Not capital-T Truth; just the distilled experience of one lifetime. The testimony of a fully realized artist, scientist, healer, scholar.

This master class does have an element of rant to it. Graves is, to cite one of his central principles, which he discusses at length here, anti-metronome and pro-biorhythm. He's anti-machine, pro-man; anti-rigidity, pro-fluidity. Clichéd notions, perhaps, when taken in the abstract, but when coupled with the great sweep of Graves's knowledge, his hard-won authority, seven-plus decades in the making, and with the way he plays—and, it should be said, he barely plays at all during this master class, though there is an intense musicality to the delivery; even when speaking, he's all about rhythmic soundmaking, teaching through song and dance as much as word—his insights take on great profundity. He's anti- bottom heads on drums, anti- overly fussy charts written by non-drumming bandleaders, anti- equal temperament. Anything that impedes flow is suspect.

And there's invaluable history here, both personal history and that of a time and place. Milford Graves (and many Graves devotees will know this, either from call it art, another invaluable Graves-related document, or elsewhere) is, at base, a Latin-jazz musician, a player of the timbales who focused on that instrument and its surrounding idiom to the point that, as he relates here, trap-set masters such as Art Blakey and Elvin Jones meant relatively little to him during his formative years in the early ’60s. His idols were percussionists such as Willie Bobo and Graves's friend and contemporary Bill Fitch, his bandleading models artists such as Cal Tjader. Graves led a Latin-jazz group featuring a young Chick Corea, apparently a fearsome player even at that time. He didn't touch a set of trap drums till ’63, the year before he began working with the New York Art Quartet in the idiom he's best known for, so-called free jazz.

You watch this, and you realize that a musician like this—an artist like this, a person like this—is truly beyond category. "Free jazz" seems so small compared to the worldview expressed here. Graves tells of foraging for herbs, absorbing nature, studying and practicing acupuncture, learning martial arts, playing in Africa and Japan. He's a gatherer and an aggregator, a mystic and a skeptic, a teacher and a student, pouring out notions for you to take or leave. What does it mean to really study music? How far can academia take you? (Bear in mind that Graves taught at Bennington for close to four decades, so he clearly believes in higher education, but he approaches it from a personalized, humane, experience-driven standpoint.) What is an artist's responsibility to an audience? Should you prepare a show, or take the temperature of the room and build a performance based on the environment you find yourself in? Why, fundamentally, do you do what you?

We speak of personalities and presences as animated. If you've ever seen Milford Graves perform, you know he is that, both when playing and when speaking. But just as importantly, he is animating. You leave his presence (even virtual presence) with wider eyes, a broader gaze, a renewed awareness for all that there is out there—the scope not just of music, but of knowledge, betterment, fulfillment, understanding. There's no boundary on this kind of inspiration—it seeps into every corner of your life.

I'm currently immersed in the autodidactic study of double-kick drumming. I've recently signed on as the live drummer for a metal-oriented band I really love called Psalm Zero. I've spent 20 years as a single-kick drummer, and proudly so, but idiomatically, this music demands double kick, and so I've set out on that path. It's tough going, but rewarding—and, more importantly, fun.

And learning should be, if you have the right teacher. Milford Graves is a—not the, because there could never be just one—right teacher. In his view, you learn out of love, not out of careerism or competition or any other base reason. You make a life out of it. You cultivate confidence and humility in turn. You form strong opinions and you make them known, but you make it clear that you only speak for yourself; you never wield dogma like a billy club.

Most importantly, you share. There's a bit near the end of the third part of the talk where Graves speaks about pedagogy, and about how he made a point to actually play with every one of his students. He even goes so far as to say that a teacher who doesn't do the thing they teach alongside their students is quite literally not teaching. Teaching is giving. It's spending time. It's encouraging and helping and inspiring—literally breathing into those one instructs. It's coming to terms with the fact that while books, systems and schools of thought are great, people are greater.

No wonder you leave a Graves performance feeling so renewed, so uplifted. It's because every one is a deliberate act of inspiration. "You don't get it in front of a blackboard, man," he says at around 25:00 in part two, repeating the line several times for emphasis. Nor do you get it—nourishment, knowledge, experience, aural or otherwise—with earbuds squashed in your ears, or when mashing buttons on your iPhone, or sitting at a desk staring at a screen. You get it by being there, either by paying physical witness (I treasure my collection of Milford Graves recordings, but they're nothing compared to the thrill of seeing him live; that's true in the case of almost every great artist, but with him it's, like, mega-true; you have to feel those soundwaves on your skin) or, if you want to do the thing yourself, by putting your body somewhere, temporarily shutting out the world and getting to know it—it being your own private, physical reality and the skill/art you want to make manifest. It doesn't have to be drumming; it could be anything. But is has to be real, not virtual—experienced, not read about. Not in front of a blackboard, indeed.


More Milford Graves on YouTube:

*Steve Coleman interviews Milford Graves at the School for Improvisational Music (2013)

*"Milford Graves and the Japanese"—concert film and documentary, from a Japanese festival organized by dancer Min Tanaka (1987)

*Milford Graves and William Parker, live at Jazzores (2010) [Graves discusses this performance during the master class]

*Milford Graves Quartet (1973) [Some sharp commentary on this vid, and Graves's work in general, via Weasel Walter]

*Milford Graves at the Vision Festival Lifetime Achievement event, via Don Mount (2013)
-NY HeArt Ensemble
-Transition Trio
-Afro-Cuban Roots

*"Speaking in Tongues"—Milford Graves documentary featuring David Murray, Stanley Crouch and others (1982)

*"A Tribute to Milford Graves"—highlights from event held at Bennington College (2012)

*Milford Graves and Japanese percussionist Toshi Tsuchitori—performance and interview (1993)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Just song: The Paul Motian Trio's "It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago"

The past six months or so have been a time of change in my personal life. Positive change, in the long run, but not without its difficulties. The other day, a friend asked me whether I'd ever considered writing in detail about what I've been going through. My reply was, in so many words, "Maybe sometime, but not now." None of this is a secret—my amazingly supportive family and friends of course know what's up. But at this stage, there's no need for the details to be anything but private.

Still, to pretend that my life and my writing don't intersect, that one doesn't inform the other, whether I like it or not, is silly. And the same goes for my listening. During the past couple weeks, as a sort of sequel to my chronological Keith Jarrett ’67–’76 project, I've listened to little other than Paul Motian albums, specifically the first chunk of records he made as a leader, from his debut, Conception Vessel—recorded in ’72, while Motian was still a member of Jarrett's band—through 1987's One Time Out, the second LP by his famed trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, and the last Motian album on Soul Note before a long run on JMT / Winter and Winter. I've heard these records before, but I felt them more acutely this time around, and that probably has something to do with my emotional state.

In the second of the two Jarrett posts linked above, I wrote of Conception Vessel that it "…feels beautifully empty of compositional, directional content in the same way that [Jarrett's] Survivors' Suite feels so beautifully full." I've been thinking a lot about this idea of emptiness, or probably more accurately, simplicity, with respect to the Paul Motian bandleading concept. To listen to these early Motian records in sequence is fascinating. You can hear Motian trying out different approaches, from the moody, textural improv of Conception Vessel to the openhearted, melody-forward, almost psychedelic ’70s jazz of Tribute, and on to the sometimes placid, sometimes violent post-Ayler/Ornette saxophone-trio-isms (starring the great Charles Brackeen) of Dance and Le Voyage.

Then Bill Frisell comes along and alters the DNA of the Paul Motian sound. The intermittent turbulence and outright nastiness of the Brackeen years are still in evidence on the early quintet albums Motian made with Frisell (Psalm, The Story of Maryam and Jack of Clubs, recorded in ’81, ’83 and ’84, respectively), especially given that the guitarist was working with a seriously outré sonic palette back then, opting for sounds that sometimes come off as appealingly gnarly, sometimes as merely quirky and even a bit dated. But the romantic, atmospheric side of the Frisell sound was also blooming during these years, and bleeding together with Motian's own like-minded tendencies. The result was that when Motian scaled down the band to just himself, Frisell and Lovano for 1984's It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago, he hit upon a startlingly fresh concept. It's as though the quintet albums, good-to-great as they are, were a kind of training-wheels version of the trio to come, introducing the overall soundworld of the later band, but in a more conventional, less stark format.

To me, the Motian/Frisell/Lovano trio is one of the most, if not the most, emotionally resonant bands in all of jazz. At its best, this band strips away all the "head" elements of jazz, the detached, rote quality that the music can embody at its worst, and leaves only heart, feeling—sometimes warm and comforting; other times cold and forbidding—the nerve endings underneath the style, without the protective skin of genre.

In my current emotional state—hopeful, yet also vulnerable and reflective—this music feels like a balm. No other music, jazz or otherwise, will do, because no other music that I know has such a nakedness to it. It's pure affect, setting aside, or seeming to, technique and method and style and convention, and leaving only flow. "It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago" is, to me, a kind of theme song for this trio. It's the first piece and the title track from their debut album, and in many ways, it's the purest distillation of what made them great.

The track feels holy to me, like a kind of communion with melody. There is nothing but the song, the chant, the murmur. Each player is dancing only with the music, never with "chops" or with technique. It's just a group mission, with the objective of "How can we get closer to the root?" The whole song is the root. There are solos, I guess, but there's really only one sound, and it's the sound of this swaying, haunting waltz, a tune that, once you've heard it, sounds like it's always been there.

Motian wrote many different types of pieces, and this trio with Frisell and Lovano performed them in many different ways. But the "ballads," if we can call them ballads, such as "It Should've…," are the ones that really hit home with me. "It Should've…" feels both minimal and infinite. I hear it and I start grasping for similes that imply both simplicity and great depth: like a smooth stone that you keep in your pocket and turn over and over in your palm, learning every contour; like a game that, as the saying goes, takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.

These concepts speak to me right now, during a time when, partly by necessity and partly by choice, I'm paring down my life, devoting as much time and attention as possible to the people and pursuits I love—family, friends, drumming, listening, writing, reading. I guess I'm looking for mantras, and I'm finding them in the work of Paul Motian. I'm wary of projecting my experiences onto music, of regarding art in a utilitarian way—i.e., "What can this piece of music do for me, right now?" But sometimes your listening ventures beyond enjoyment and into a kind of sonic therapy. "It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago" has become a kind of chant for me, a North Star, a way of centering.

I can't recommend It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago, the song and the album, highly enough. This trio made a ton of great music together, but there's something about the purity and perfection of this initial statement that really speaks to me. (Read Thom Jurek's take at AllMusic: "This set is made of the kind of music that made Manfred Eicher's ECM such a force to be reckoned with. It placed three musicians in a context that was comfortable enough to make them want to sing to one another.") As I've suggested above, Frisell's guitar language—see the ray-gun tone he employs on "Fiasco," for example—sometimes has a way of grounding an otherwise timeless-feeling album in its early-'80s era, but that's a minor quibble. "Conception Vessel," reprised from the album of the same name, is like a sculpture built from straw, focused and purposeful but also light and porous enough to blow away in the wind. The contrast with the wilder pieces is startling. On "Two Women from Padua," the trio plays a brief theme and then moves resolutely into the anti-gravity zone, speaking an alien language of texture and noise. All of a sudden, the music is the opposite of soothing—it's edgy and almost random-feeling. But Motian drops out and the surface of the sound smooths out; Lovano murmuring and praying through the horn, Frisell buffeting him with clouds of sound.

The band's intuitive motion into and around one another's sounds, the way each player always seemed to take into account not only the other two musicians, but also the immovable fact of the song they were playing, the bubble-thin delicacy of the vibe they were crafting together, only deepened over time. I'd love to embed the first "It Should've Happened…" here, but it's not streaming anywhere. Instead, I draw your attention to this 2005 Village Vanguard performance of the piece, 15 short minutes of bliss:

Watch Lovano lean back around the :30 mark. I relate to the feeling of communion his gesture expresses, the idea that a "jazz club" has become a kind of space station, a place where musicians and listeners alike take no sound for granted, where you don't move on to the next idea till you've fully processed the gravity of the one that came before. Minimalism seems like too pat a word for what Motian himself contributes here, the one-impossibly-profound-idea-at-a-time patience of his drumming. Again, the idea of paring down a performance till all that's left is the essence of the song, filling the room like a mist. Lovano begins to toy with the familiar theme around 3:30, emphasizing its dancing, almost klezmerish quality. Frisell chiming forth—accompanying but also enveloping. The performance is a slow group levitation, determined yet effortless. It's a sonic essay on the pleasures of concentration, of uncluttering. Lovano drops out around 6:30. Motian continuing unperturbed. Frisell intent on doing justice to the priceless vibe the three have built up. Not soloing; just flowing. I'm invoking concepts that seem cliché, but in practice, they don't come along all that often. This band, in its own muted way, exhibited a fierce dedication to this idea—you let the song guide you. Not "jazz," not "theory," not "convention." Just song.

When Lovano reenters to a scattering of applause, I'm reminded—as I am nearly every time I attend a jazz performance—of Keith Jarrett's admonition of the audience on the CD reissue of Fort Yawuh: "There's absolutely no need to clap." He's right, because in a great jazz performance, who's soloing doesn't matter. Yes, solos can be chapter markings, but this performance is all about three musicians who share a common goal simply passing the baton back and forth. Everyone's a steward of the song, so it doesn't matter who's in "front" at any given moment. Motian ratcheting up the groove and tension ever so slightly around 10:40, bringing the song to a low boil, this trio's version of a climax. The theme returning in fragmented form, then in full bloom. Motian's two-handed accents around 12:30 signifying a kind of destination: "We're here at the meat of song." And then the final statement around 13:00, followed by a long trail of, for lack of a better term, song dust—a dispersing of essence.

Attention and care and focus and oneness. Performances like this are like life rafts for me at this moment. Again, I'm not trying to dramatize recent events in my life, nor am I trying to co-opt sound for my own good. I'm just trying to point out how music can inspire and guide, offer a framework for living as much as a sound for hearing. To sing one's song so plainly, with such serenity and determination, seems like the right idea, right now.


P.S. One more gorgeous version of this piece, a 1993 performance from the Motian album Trioism:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"…as long as there's an Earth": Celebrating Charlie Haden at the Town Hall

At some point during last night's Charlie Haden tribute at the Town Hall, I realized that the expectations and considerations I'd walked in with were meaningless. As I attempted to convey last year, upon Haden's passing, I adore this man's music and felt compelled to show up to this public event to pay respects. I also, I'll admit, felt a bit of what they call FOMO—fear of missing out. Denardo Coleman was listed among the participants, and as I had learned over the summer, that meant that Ornette himself might show up. And who could say for sure, I thought, that Keith Jarrett, whose Haden collaborations have been a recent obsession of mine, wouldn't surprise us all and make an appearance?

So when was it that I chucked this admittedly narrow-minded checklist mentality? It could've been when, during a duet by Lee Konitz and Brad Mehldau, I realized that I was witnessing one of the most relaxed and conversational musical events I've ever seen take place on a stage. "Performance" seems almost too pretentious a word for such a casually majestic and—to use a word that Joshua Redman, after his own too-brief turn with Kenny Barron, Scott Colley and Jack DeJohnette, attributed to Haden's own musicality and humanity—empathic duet, which found Mehldau gently buoying that exquisitely sweet, breathy Konitz alto sound, as well as the saxophonist's impromptu scat-style vocalizing. Or during a piece commemorating Haden's love for and collaboration with Alice Coltrane, which featured staggeringly gorgeous harp ripples from Brandee Younger, saxophone work of stunning poise from Ravi Coltrane and Geri Allen's warm, subtle piano magic. (Yes, I'm running out of terms of breathless praise here, a feeling that anyone who was in the audience last night can probably relate to.) Or maybe it was when Dr. Maurice Jackson, an author, Georgetown professor and Civil Rights Movement veteran, spoke movingly about his longtime friendship with Haden, singling out the bassist as one of "too few good white men" and aligning him with Anthony Benezet, an 18th-century French Quaker whom Jackson, in a 2010 biography, labeled the "Father of Atlantic Abolitionism."

What I'm trying to get across is that during last night's proceedings, a certain kind of alchemy occurred, through music and through speech and through the projection of emotion, that made the late subject feel palpably present, as though, at the event's conclusion, Haden's name would be called and the audience would all turn to face him, standing in the crowd or onstage, and honor him with an ovation. Having not attended many political rallies in my lifetime, I can't remember being present at any other gathering where I felt such a strong sense of consensus, shared by audience members and those onstage alike. And the collective conviction was, simply, that Charlie Haden was an extraordinary man and an extraordinary musician, and that these two qualities were inseparable.

Haden's wife, Ruth Cameron, a wonderfully dignified, gracious host throughout the three-hour event, spoke candidly about her husband's struggles with addiction, about how he had always told her that he was "in trouble" as soon as he put down his bass and had to navigate life as it existed apart from music. True as that may have been, Haden must have sorted out his issues to some degree, because nearly every associate who stepped on the Town Hall stage last night spoke about how knowing Charlie Haden and playing with him had enriched their lives. From Cameron herself, who spoke of Haden's sense that it was his mission to bring beauty into the world. To Mehldau, who, speaking after his performance with Konitz, alluded to his own history with substance abuse and how Haden's example had helped him cope. To Pat Metheny, who played a beautiful acoustic medley of Haden pieces and then reflected on his countless collaborations with the bassist, and on how he had shared things in conversations with Haden that he had never shared with anyone else. To Denardo Coleman, who spoke, self-deprecatingly but with great dignity, on his father's behalf, and discussed how Haden had always—from their first session together, when Denardo was only 10—helped him feel happy and at ease, as well as personally and musically validated. To Joshua Redman, who, remarkably, spoke of listening to Haden's many collaborations with his father—Dewey Redman, who had been mostly absent during his upbringing—and how the intimacy he felt radiating from that music actually helped him learn to love a dad he hadn't really even known.

Everyone spoke of Haden's zeal for beauty and positivity, each in their own way: Putter Smith, a fellow bassist (in the extraordinary Mintz Quartet, for one) who had known Haden in L.A. in the ’50s, asserting that Haden's contribution to the language of the bass was a certain kind of profound intimacy, the handling of the instrument as though it were a baby to be cradled. Ernie Watts, saxophonist in Quartet West, which played a marvelous two-song mini set near the end of the show, with Colley on bass, talking matter-of-factly about how Haden's musical language was nothing less than the manifestation of God speaking through him. Haden's friend and lawyer Fred Ansis and friend and record-industry associate (seemingly there was no figure in Haden's life that did not also earn the distinction of friend, along with whatever other role they might play) Jean Philippe Allard recalling with good-natured exasperation their years of fielding Haden's ever-urgent phone calls about session budgets or packaging design, all of which would begin with, "Hey man…" (Haden's religious use of that phrase became an in-jokey refrain throughout the evening), and how despite the day-to-day difficulties, they were always happy to help Haden realize his unwavering commitment to excellence. And the comedian Richard Lewis, who in a video statement spoke of how much he valued Haden's friendship and inspiration and, like Ravi Coltrane, Maurice Jackson and several others, alluded to the bassist's deeply corny sense of humor. ("Charlie—in heaven, if there is a heaven, play bass; do not tell jokes.")

And those who didn't honor Haden's quest for beauty verbally did so through music. As epitomized in the Konitz/Mehldau performance, there was a deep humanity and soul coursing through all of last night's musical events, one that like Haden himself, transcended genre, transcended the notion of a "tribute concert" and felt like nothing less than a collective embrace, an affirmation, with each player summoning an almost superhuman, and quintessentially Haden-esque generosity. Trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, saxophonist Tony Malaby, trumpeter Seneca Black and others taking, in turn, stupendously emotive solos during the Liberation Music Orchestra's rendition of "Amazing Grace" during their show-concluding mini set, presided over by the magisterial, impossibly cool Carla Bley; Ernie Watts displaying, in his tenor work with Quartet West, otherworldly degrees of virtuosity and passion; Henry Butler and Gonzalo Rubalcaba offering solo piano performances (the former also singing) that blended staggering command with wrenching tenderness; Petra, Tanya and Rachel Haden (a.k.a., the Haden Triplets) and their brother, Josh Haden, accompanied by Bill Frisell and bassist Mark Fain, displaying their magical vocal harmony on the gospel song "Voice From On High," an echo of the honoree's own upbringing singing country and folk with his family's band. (We got a taste of that via one of several clips from Reto Caduff's wondrous Haden documentary, Rambling Boy, still sadly unavailable as a DVD or download due to music-rights issues. Can anyone help remedy this?)

There was no intermission, no lull. The unfamiliar faces were as riveting as the stars, the speeches as profound as the music. The event, and here I have to credit Ruth Cameron again, had a real narrative arc; it told a story of a musical life, and gave you a sense of the life in and around that music. There was so much giving, verbally and sonically. What wasn't there—Ornette, Keith or, and this last part was strangely welcome, any sort of imitation, invocation or even recorded representation of Haden's own bass sound; nor did the program feature what to me is the bassist's signature composition, "Song for Che," which had to be a calculated decision—was ultimately irrelevant, because of the bountiful richness of what was.

Any Charlie Haden fan feels, through the countless recordings, through the immense humanity and courage of his sound on the bass, a certain kind of, to borrow the title of one of my favorite Haden albums, closeness with this folk hero of modern music. Last night's event affirmed that feeling, the sense that anyone who knew this man in life, worked with him in music, felt his presence in any way, came away uplifted. As I suggested above, I have a sense that a lot of what I've written here might, to those who weren't in attendance at the Town Hall, read like hyperbole. But just as Haden's various friends and associates related, I felt nothing but beauty, joy and profundity from this event; in short, it was like a megadose of what I feel every time I listen to Charlie Haden—with Ornette, with Keith, with Old and New Dreams, with the Liberation Music Orchestra, on his many treasured duet albums. I thank Ruth Cameron and all the other participants for affirming everything I already knew I felt for this giant of music, for encouraging me to explore all the Haden I don't know (I need to get familiar with the Quartet West catalog, pronto) and for generally illustrating in such a poetic, human way how music and emotion are the same thing, how true artistic generosity, the kind that Charlie Haden achieved, can only be achieved by living a truly empathic life. The story we heard last night is a story that bears infinite retelling. Fortunately, as Richard Lewis put it, with funny yet sincere hyperbole, it's a story—the Charlie Haden story—we'll be telling as long as there's an Earth.