Tuesday, November 21, 2017

In praise of Unsane: Consistency, commitment and the craft of catharsis

"When you establish a consistent body of work it makes its own reality, and there's no way it can be put down or put up; it becomes something that exists for human beings, a body of musics that will help people on the planet. I'm attracted to that, I always have been — as opposed to the concept of the 'great night.' Like, wow, this guy had a great night — one great night in twelve years! [Laughs.] That doesn't excite me. I'm interested in looking at the continuity of a person's involvement, and I draw strength from that ... because it really is about a life's commitment." —Anthony Braxton, Forces in Motion

We're getting to the end of the year, which means reckoning with all the music that's come out since January, taking stock, making lists. A worthy exercise, or at least a fun one. But it's secondary to how music happens to me these days, and has for a long time. More and more these days, I'm on the lookout for "a consistent body of work" that "makes its own reality," a big chunk of product that I can live with, pick up, put down, revisit, sink into, just sort of reveling in how much is there.

The band Unsane put out a new record a couple months ago, their eighth since 1991. The highest praise I could give it would be to say that it's a new Unsane record. In a world such as this, the mere act of carrying on, sticking to it, keeping the lights on, etc., in any artistic endeavor is admirable. But there's something I find especially attractive about the specific quality of Unsane's longevity, the way the "continuity of [their] involvement" manifests.

An art project like Unsane is extremely easy to underestimate. I myself did just that for years. Much like Obituary, another band that has provided me with untold hours of enjoyment and inspiration in recent years (per Andrew W.K.: "... to be able to turn to that no matter what state I'm in and have it instantly take me to this place of pure physical euphoric energy, it's one of the things I'm most thankful for in life, it's like water or food to me, it feeds my soul in a very fundamental way"), Unsane was, in my teenage years, a band I liked, full stop. I think I placed a value judgment on their simplicity, their dogged macro-level sameness, and back then, when I seemed to more invested in a hierarchical way of thinking about music, I likely would have viewed them as second-rate within the larger post-hardcore universe I was immersed in at the time (i.e., a lesser entity than, say, craw or the Jesus Lizard).

But, and again Obituary are a great example of same, musical tortoises like this will often surprise you. Suddenly 20 years have gone by, the larger scene has vanished or at the very least transformed drastically, and a band like Unsane look like not merely survivors, but titans. There is, without question, something to this idea of the life's commitment, and that really home for me when seeing Unsane live at Saint Vitus last week. I love seeing all kinds of music in all kinds of settings, but to me, there's something essentially holy about the transcendent club show, and the band that thrives in that environment. To say that Unsane do just that would, again, be selling them short. An Unsane club show is an essentially perfect musical event: an expulsion of negative energy, embodied in vocalist-guitarist Chris Spencer's rage-meets-rue shout-cry (I think of Ian Christe's description, in his Rolling Stone Greatest Metal Albums of All Time entry on Converge's Jane Doe, of Jacob Bannon as sounding like "a small animal caught in a terrible machine"; both men draw on wounded emotionalism as much as seething anger), accompanied by a sort of full-body clench and piercing blue-eyed stare, in drummer Vinny Signorelli's mean, minimal finesse, in bassist Dave Curran's sturdy conveyance of the songs' massive, loping weight, that paradoxically brings about euphoric delight. Watching them, I couldn't stop grinning.

The band aspires to nothing more than to play these types of songs (minimalist noise-blues mantras like "Sick"; demented-drag-race hellrides like "Over Me"; greasy, Curran-sung gutter-rawk stompers like "Aberration," from the new Sterilize; tortured, haunting dirges like "Only Pain"; grinding, nihilistic exercises in musical masochism like "Get Off My Back"; and so on) in these kinds of environments. They get up there, completely own the room by simply doing what they do, incredibly well, get offstage, move on to the next city, repeat. Like so:


The truth is that, as consistent as their aesthetic is, there's a ton of variety and nuance in their work. Spencer's trademark vise-like manhandling of his guitar body, a kind of poor man's whammy-bar effect; his deft slide work; the piercing, sinister melodies he layers over the band's lumbering grooves — all are evidence of a master craftsman's attention to detail. Ditto the way Signorelli and Curran inject their vamps with just the right amount of funk so that they go down harsh but somehow smooth at the same time. Contrasts in tempos and time signatures, subtle shades of the band's primary emotional colors.

What I find so fascinating about this band, and their ongoing project, is that you have the sort of external trappings and mythology of what they do (the blood-soaked album covers; the sordid, oft-recited past complete with drug addiction and even death; the association with the Mean Streets of the early '90s East Village / Alphabet City; even their blocky, all-caps logo), playing into the "one idea, three ways" concept of a holistic image/presentation/vibe. It's all so easy to caricature, to underestimate, to wave off with a "yeah, yeah, I get it." (I myself couldn't resist riffing on how out-of-date Unsane's portrayal of NYC's filthy underbelly seems in the age of rampant gentrification, when I reviewed their 2012 album, Wreck.) But you see them up there on that club stage, sounding and looking the very opposite of tired, played out, obsolete. Make no mistake, for all of their music's tough-guy affect, these guys are having the time of their lives, reveling in the craft of catharsis, relishing the micro-refinements of their deceptively humble art. I know firsthand that playing heavy music is lifegiving, and you can clearly see and sense Unsane drinking deep from that fountain of youth at their shows.

And so yes, best albums of the year, yadda-yadda. In the end, whatever has gone down musically in the past 12 months, and that includes a lot of great stuff, really just amounts to a "great night." Albums, ideally, are just milestones along the way, evidence of a life's commitment in progress, reminders to look at the body of work in its entirety. Every time Unsane puts out a new album, I'm prompted to load up my iPod with all the others, trawling backward and forward and backward and forward through the evidence of their deep, enduring commitment. The kind of work that's easy to miss until you stand back, years later, and really take it all in. Thank God for the lifers, the ones who just keep at it, slowly amassing "a body of musics that will help people on the planet." Goddamn right, it will, and may it ever be so.

Here are 10 Unsane songs I love. (I wholeheartedly recommend all their albums, especially the ones from 1995's Scattered, Smothered and Covered up through the present.) Play painfully loud, obviously.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Goodbye, Muhal Richard Abrams: A 2008 conversation

HS: ... I know that you were a mentor figure for a lot of musicians.
Muhal Richard Abrams: Well, I don’t subscribe to the mentorship idea. I don’t subscribe to that. I think they were more or less collaborations, although quite a few of the people were younger and less experienced than myself. But it finally evened itself as really collaborations. I don’t subscribe to it, although I realize that people view me in that way and some of the musicians also, but I just don’t subscribe to it.

HS: In other words, you’d rather not take credit for anyone’s development?
MRA: No, because when one is impressed with the idea of being one’s self, the possibilities become limitless. And I think most of the people that I’ve associated with proved that to be true.

HS: Now a lot of the musicians that you did collaborate with have gone on to do a lot of great things. And a lot of them would consider you to be a mentor even if you don’t—
MRA: I understand—I understand.

HS: So when you hear names like, say, Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, Henry Threadgill or the Art Ensemble of Chicago—this long list of illustrious figures—do you feel a sense of pride in being a part of their development, or just in being associated with them? 
MRA: A great pride in being associated with them—I certainly do. 

Excerpt from a 2008 interview with Muhal Richard Abrams, conducted while reporting a Time Out New York story on George Lewis' then-new AACM book A Power Stronger Than Itself.

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Word circulated on Monday night that Muhal Richard Abrams has passed away. I'm not equipped to offer a detailed account of his life or an authoritative appreciation of his vast body of work, but fortunately, we have George's book as a starting point for future scholarship. I will say that I'm extremely grateful to have been able to see him perform several times (most recently with Jack DeJohnette's stellar Made in Chicago band) — on at least two memorable occasions, at the lovely DIY concert series that he and the AACM's New York chapter hosted for years in various spaces around NYC — and to sit down with him for the lengthy interview linked above, where we talked in detail about the formation of the AACM (he told me up front that he didn't want to discuss the past, but fortunately, during the course of the interview, that proved to be a false alarm), the Experimental Band, his daily practice routine and much more. As I hope is clear from this excerpt, he radiated a mixture of humility and conviction — I vividly remember him sitting in the back of a Lenny's sandwich shop on Ninth Avenue in Hell's Kitchen, wearing his trademark ball cap, smiling warmly and speaking with deliberate clarity. Nothing was glossed over or fudged in that interview; he simply wouldn't allow it. He wasn't "difficult" in the slightest, just extremely focused.

Whether or not he viewed himself as a leader, it seems pretty clear that, starting more than 50 years ago, Muhal Richard Abrams set an example that changed the course of music, period, in America and beyond — and helped unleash the creative potential of a host of artists who are still enriching us today, and will continue to do so. His own work as a pianist and composer was full of mystery and virtuosity. This Pi Recordings set, released just over 10 years ago, is one of my favorites and a great place to start:



Goodbye, Muhal, and thank you for everything.

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*More of Muhal in his own words:


*Obits/appreciations from Howard Mandel, Nate Chinen and Peter Margasak.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

John McLaughlin talks Mahavishnu and more

This one, a Rolling Stone interview with John McLaughlin about his upcoming (final) U.S. tour and the history of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, was definitely a cross-it-off-the-bucket-list type of deal. Would've loved to have had more time with him on the phone — not to mention a better connection on the line — but he was so generous and forthcoming during our chat. I got chills listening to John describe gigging with Lifetime, a group that's probably in the top 10, if not five, of bands I'd choose to go back in time and see live if given the chance.

I'm still making my way through Bathed in Lightning, Colin Harper's exhaustive but extremely readable history of McLaughlin's early career, but this book is invaluable. If you're a fan — or if you've ever found yourself wondering, as I do often, how the fuck music as advanced and inspired as Mahavishnu's could come to exist on this planet of ours — you need it immediately. I'm also a fan of Walter Kolosky's Mahavishu biography Power, Passion and Beauty, an unconventional and informal book that nevertheless has a ton of great original research. The testimonials from many prominent artists who saw Mahavishnu (and Lifetime) live are priceless.

I leave you with this clip of what has become my favorite Mahavishnu piece, "Hope," an easy-to-overlook interlude on Birds of Fire that the band turned into a heavy-metal cataclysm onstage:


I also can't recommend the bonus disc of the classic '73 Mahavishnu live set Between Nothingness and Eternity highly enough. That entire concert is just utterly transcendent and staggering. I'm more in awe of this band than ever, and that's saying something, considering how much they've meant to me over the years.

I also enjoyed getting to know the later Mahavishnu records, such as Apocalypse and Visions of the Emerald Beyond, which I'd mostly overlooked before. They lack the otherworldly drive and focus of the early stuff but are still very much worth checking out. And there's so much more to McLaughlin's vast discography: the mix-and-match post-Mahavishnu all-star date Electric Guitarist and After the Rain, a 1994 trio album with Elvin Jones and Joey DeFrancesco, are a couple I've found myself going back to. And of course the phenomenal Extrapolation. Long live Johnny Mac…

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Magic in the method: The Art Ensemble of Chicago live in New York



Tonight's Art Ensemble of Chicago show at Columbia University's new Lenfest Center for the Arts uptown concluded with 10 to 15 minutes of what on the surface could be termed an old-school free-jazz blowout. (The above video captures an analogous sample from one of the group's shows at London's Café Oto this past February.) It had that familiar kind of multilayered density, with Roscoe Mitchell on alto sax, Hugh Ragin on trumpet and Tomeka Reid on cello all sending forth formidable streams of sound that swirled together with drummer Famoudou Don Moye's busy textural wash and dual bassists Jaribu Shahid and Junius Paul's thick low end. But though the sextet worked up to a pretty intense boil, there was something about this episode that stood distinctly apart from codified "free jazz" practice. There was some matter-of-fact-ness here, some total lack of histrionics or extramusical drama — a refutation of the idea that this turbulent climax needed to convey any particular message outside of the literal impact of its sound — that seemed to sum up the utterly unassuming way that the group had worked its magic, and potently demonstrated so many of its core principles, over the preceding 40 minutes or so.

To put it more straightforwardly, this edition of the Art Ensemble, the only one I've had the pleasure of seeing live, covered an enormous amount of aesthetic ground with a remarkably little amount of fuss. The juxtaposition of styles — a consciousness-warping unaccompanied Mitchell solo on sopranino sax, say, followed by a conventionally "jazzy" group theme statement over an amiable swing rhythm — is such an elemental part of the AEOC's mission that they're able to pull this off, i.e., to construct an episodic set that flows surprisingly yet perfectly logically though a series of disparate soundworlds, without coming off as glib or contrived in the slightest. In the world of so-called avant-jazz, you'll sometimes see this kind of friction played more or less for laughs, e.g., a tight ensemble statement will give way to an exaggeratedly ragged, lurching bit of "out" improv, often eliciting a few knowing chuckles. But here there was no gimmick being trotted out, no musical punchline being delivered. I just felt from the whole set a sort of great serenity (even in its more abrasive moments) and focus, a sense that the group's comfort in its own skin was absolute — impressive since this particular configuration had never performed together before tonight. (Aside from the group mainstays Mitchell and Moye, Shahid, Ragin and Paul had all appeared at prior AEOC gigs; this was Reid's first live outing with the group, and her contributions were invaluable throughout.)

It was hard to tell how rigorously structured the set was, but the various sections flowed into each other with a masterful kind of ease, each new one following from the prior like a course in a meticulously plotted feast. A tender yet expressive Hugh Ragin feature, accompanied by one of the basses, if memory serves, to open the set; a Mitchell sopranino solo that started out sparse and tentative and built into a torrent of circular-breathing-abetted multiphonics; an alluringly fluid and fleetingly funky Moye drum solo; and so on. And then a poignant moment when Mitchell seemed to serenade a man in the front row of the audience, who was then led up onstage to sit in front of a microphone. It was none other than longtime AEOC mainstay Joseph Jarman, the night's guest of honor, apparently no longer performing on reeds, but game here for spoken-word recitation that verged at times on song. The band (with Moye switching to congas) built up a lively undercurrent while letting Jarman take the lead, speaking poetic phrases clearly informed by his Buddhist beliefs. He would fixate on lines ("We're in a maze together..."), repeat them, transform his speech into fragile melody as the band cushioned him, rising and falling with his cadences.

What struck me here, and during the various other times when one or more members took either an overt or subtle "lead" or solo-istic role, is how patiently each such episode seemed to unfold. I kept thinking of the sort of ethos and approach of Mitchell's classic Sound session, probably the Art Ensemble–related documented I've connected with most deeply over the years (I'm a passionate fan of a handful of AEOC recordings, particularly the Nessa box of 1967/68 sessions and Fanfare for the Warriors but I'm by no means an expert on their full discography), i.e., this idea of leaving aside the surging rush of classic "energy music" in favor of a more contemplative, exploratory spirit, yielding a situation in which each solo, so to speak, is really more like a mini research mission, with the player in question staking out a sonic terrain and then sort of drilling down in, burrowing ever deeper. Mitchell is of course a master of this kind of thing, and seems to be able to reach that place of almost monastic focus more or less instantaneously, but Moye's solos tonight carried the same sort of authority, the same thoughtful progression and play of virtuosic dazzlement and shrewd restraint. Just as the players demonstrated extreme sensitivity to one another, they seemed to put the same principle to work within their own improvisations — the notion of playing without simultaneously listening, considering, weighing, taking into account the overall micro- and macro- sonic narrative at hand doesn't seem to be in the AEOC's vocabulary.

And when at one point, after Jarman had spoken, a string trio of Reid, Shahid and Paul emerged out of the larger group and came to the fore, supported by Moye's bells, you heard how completely even the newest member of the group seemed to have internalized this core principle of how they operate. I can't recall the precise texture of this episode, but I remember feeling awed by its simultaneous daring abstraction and tasteful cohesion. Like so many of the musical chapters that made up the set, it felt at once obsessively focused and refreshingly compact. And as it was happening, the other players sat silent, absorbed, as if to transmit to their groupmates a message of pure "you do you" support. The full "Sound" privilege isn't just reserved for the senior members, in other words; everyone onstage got all the time and space they needed, not to "solo" per se, but to, to paraphrase Coltrane's spoken introduction to "Dearly Beloved," carve out a particular sonic space and "keep a thing happening."

The strings and bells would give way to the free ensemble climax, another brief, groovy theme statement (it might have been the band's signature tune "Odwalla") and personnel introductions by Mitchell. He has an easy way at the mic and a hint of the veteran showman to his delivery. For all the marvelous intensity and idiosyncrasy of his playing, his demeanor onstage is dry and no-nonsense. He clearly values the performative exchange (at the post-concert chat expertly moderated by my friend and former colleague Steve Smith, who was at least partly responsible for this gig happening at all, Mitchell spoke with great enthusiasm of the many outside projects he has afoot, including the marvelous trio-improvisations-turned-orchestral-compositions document Discussions — see Seth Colter Walls' typically sharp and detailed review here — and a challenging new ECM double-disc set. Bells for the South Side) but he doesn't get onstage to peddle any kind of mysticism or cater to any kind of mythology about the business of so-called experimental music-making. Paradoxically that only makes the group's insular, intuitive praxis feel that much more ritualistic, even alchemical. There's this methodology that these musicians, in various configurations, have been honing for half a century now, an approach built on the simple yet elusive principles of real diversity, depth and good old-fashioned concentration, and during tonight's unfussy tour de force, they showed how much vitality there still is in what it is that the AEOC (and in a more broad sense, the AACM) does.

It ain't magic, but it sure does feel like it.

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*A special word of thanks not just to Steve but also to Seth Rosner and Yulun Wang of Pi Recordings, who were also instrumental in making this gig happen, and who issued three key documents of the AEOC from 2003 through 2006.

*Do not miss Nate Chinen's excellent WBGO feature on the group's past, present and future.

*If you're in Philly tonight (Saturday, 10/7/17), the AEOC performs again as part of the October Revolution fest.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Goodbye, Tom Petty: dad-rock's sly revolutionary




I listened to all of Into the Great Wide Open yesterday, just as the sad news was flowing in, and I was struck by what excellent music this is. (Prior to this, I'd forgotten the deep cut "Two Gunslingers" even existed, but the song came back to me instantly, like an old friend.) The album came out just a couple months before Nevermind, but somehow, almost miraculously, Tom Petty's songs were in the air during his time in a way that none of his fellow dad-rockers' work really seemed to be. I remember those few albums, Full Moon Fever, ITGWO and Wildflowers being maybe the strongest musical bridge between my friends and I (all budding teenage punks and metalheads by this time) and our respective parents. Everyone seemed to love these songs.

Sure, the MTV exposure helped, but that cinematic quality was already in the songs themselves. As Phil Freeman put it on Twitter yesterday, the opening of "Listen to Your Heart" ("So you think you're gonna take her away / With your money and your cocaine") is "an entire short story in two lines" (a notion he expanded on in a very sharp Stereogum essay). Yes. And that's true of so many of these classics. The rise-and-fall Hollywood narrative of "Into the Great Open" (which seemed so spot-on then, in the twilight of hair metal) always got me, especially the part about how "their A-and-R man said, 'I don't hear a single.'" Petty just had this sort of hard wisdom about how he put things, combined with a knowing way of singing these words that felt, especially as his career wore on, sly and cynical but also deeply empathetic — in contrast to the more fiery, screechy delivery of the early hits like "Refugee." Add in that sort of hazy, drawling quality his music had, that shimmering vibe of California psychedelia that was so prevalent in songs like "Last Dance With Mary Jane" and "Free Fallin'," and you had an almost magically durable strain of radio rock.

Sure there were, say, Don Henley's poignant solo hits (not to mention the mighty Graceland) earlier and Neil Young's transporting Harvest Moon later, other efforts that seemed to transfigure the spirit of '60s and '70s rock into something more ethereal and enchanting, but somehow, Petty, with invaluable assistance from producers like Jeff Lynne and Rick Rubin, was the laid-back king of this quiet neo-dad-rock revolution.

Later on, I would discover Bob Dylan in earnest and probably began to take Tom Petty for granted a bit. Clearly, Petty owes Dylan so much and we tend to think of the latter as somehow more authentic, a true poet as opposed to a dad-rock figurehead. (Unless we just think of them as Charlie T. and Lucky Wilbury, respectively; shout-out to the sublimely corny "Last Night.") But the truth is that in some ways, Petty might be the greater songwriter, one who put as much poetry into his simple, indelible melodies as into his economical, evocative lyrics. Bob Dylan could do many things, but I'm not sure he ever wrote a song as catchy and gently wrenching as this:



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*I'm really enjoying my Rolling Stone colleague Andy Greene's interviews with Tom's Heartbreakers bandmates (Ron Blair, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench). A lot of insights into the inner-workings of a great American band. This 50 Greatest Songs list is also an illuminating read.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Heavy Metal Be-Bop #13: Matt Mitchell

I'm proud to announce the arrival of Heavy Metal Be-Bop #13! This is the first new installment of HMB — for those just tuning in, my interview series dealing with the intersection(s) of jazz and metal — in roughly 20 months. The subject is none other than Matt Mitchell, a pianist who over the past five years or so has become a ubiquitous avant-jazz breakout star, anchoring killer bands led by Tim Berne, Darius Jones, Dave Douglas and many more while also advancing his own severely advanced composition/bandleading aesthetic on an increasingly ambitious series of Pi Recordings discs. The latest — A Pouting Grimace, out next week — is an exhilarating and throughly batshit marvel than any lover of any kind of radical, progressive or just plain weird music needs to hear:


As you'll read, Matt is a serious head when it comes to metal, and he and I went deep on his many underground faves, including Portal, Virus, Jute Gyte and Incantation. He also offered some insight into how his steady intake of outré heaviness might have informed his own new music.

Check out the "theatrical release" of the interview here, via WBGO. (A big thanks to Nate Chinen for hooking this up.) And read the considerably lengthier director's cut here, at HMB HQ.

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PS: Mitchell and Kate Gentile, the kit drummer on A Pouting Grimace, both also appear on Gentile's recent Skirl release, Mannequins. If the head-spinning complexity, insane textural variety and overall relentless rush of fresh ideas heard on the Mitchell disc appeal to you, I strongly urge you to pick this one up as well. I'm still digesting Mannequins, and that may be the case for years to come, but I can easily say that along with A Pouting Grimace, it's one of the most striking records I've heard in 2017, in any genre.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Creature of the margins: Goodbye, Walter Becker















RIP, Walter Becker. Via Rolling Stone, a quick rundown of 10 essential Steely Dan songs. [Update: 9/13/17] And a roundtable Walter Becker podcast with RS staffers Brian Hiatt, David Browne, Rob Sheffield and myself, as well as Steely Dan engineer Elliot Scheiner.

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Do you ever get a kick out of the idea of hearing a song as dark and strange as “Deacon Blues” on classic-rock radio?

Yeah, I think that’s great. That’s sort of what we wanted to do, conquer from the margins, sort of find our place in the middle based on the fact that we were creatures of the margin and of alienation, and I think that a lot of kids our age were very alienated. To this day when I read some text that somebody writes about alienation, I always think to myself, Gee, they make it sound like it’s a bad thing! So yeah, I think that’s great. Naturally that’s very satisfying to us to hear that something has slipped through the cracks.
Asking Walter Becker the question above and having him respond so eloquently was easily one of the highlights of my journalistic life so far. We know him and Donald Fagen as consummate deflectors, masters of evasion, but when I spoke to Becker in '08, for a piece timed to the release of his second solo album, Circus Money, he couldn't have been more open, direct and generous with his time.

We may never know the true division of labor in Steely Dan ("Sometimes we really work very closely, collaboratively on every little silly millimeter on the writing of the song and certainly of the records, and sometimes less so," Becker told me when I asked about it), but one thing that's clear is that his and Fagen's partnership was a) nearly telepathic (their non-versation over the mixing board in the section on "Peg" in the Classic Albums doc on Aja is an all-time masterpiece of snide shorthand) and b) extraordinarily fruitful. In just nine years, they put together some of the most profoundly idiosyncratic yet paradoxically pleasurable pop songs ever composed. One could argue that they were snobs in some ways — from reading Eminent Hipsters, I doubt Fagen would dispute this characterization — but they never looked down on the magic of pop, the fact that a three-(or four-, or five-, or six-)minute song could contain an entire universe. (They never looked down on their fans either, even if they poked fun at them sometimes, as I can attest from having seen four of their legendary Beacon Theater shows over the years, at which Becker always played the good-natured ringmaster.)

 Even without fully knowing what they mean, I have become more lost in Steely Dan's songs, from "Bad Sneakers" and "Haitian Divorce" to "Sign in Stranger" and "Razor Boy" than those of almost any other band. What gets glossed over in all the knowing shorthand — "smooth," "jazz," "yacht-rock," "cocaine," etc. — is just how tender and empathetic their music can feel (I think of songs like "Deacon Blues," "Gaucho" and the haunting masterpiece of a B side "Here at the Western World") even when it's at its most barbed and venemous.

In some ways, Becker's solo work was even more so. He was a limited but soulful singer, and, on his own, a songwriter who knew how to blend satire and deeply felt humanity in intensely poignant ways. For one thing, he nailed the bruise of soured love like few others have. To wit:

"Junkie Girl":


"Book of Liars":


"Downtown Canon":

 

Donald Fagen can of course be masterful on his own too, but as Fagen's statement from today suggests, there's little doubt that each artist's finest work came out of their partnership. Together, they created a sprawling catalog of, in Becker's words, America's many "mythic forms of loserdom" that's pretty much without parallel.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Vijay Iyer / Steve Lehman / Tyshawn Sorey saga: 'Far From Over,' indeed

Photo: Lynne Harty

















The new Vijay Iyer Sextet album feels both like an arrival point (i.e., a summit-like convergence of the now fully risen progressive-jazz stars of the past decade-plus, namely Iyer, Steve Lehman and Tyshawn Sorey) and a blueprint for the future. It's also a hell of a fun, engaging listen, a record I'd recommend to pretty much any fan of any kind of "modern" jazz — it has just the right blend of old-school format and cutting-edge execution. I was happy to be able to share some thoughts on Far From Over via Rolling Stone.

I still have fond memories of witnessing Iyer, Lehman and Sorey's "robojazz fury" up close at a Fieldwork gig almost exactly eight years ago, as well as watching and listening as each of these three have branched out and bloomed (here's a best-of-2016 DFSBP roundup featuring some props for Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith's excellent A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke; here's a 2012 TONY piece on Lehman's striking trio record Dialect Fluorescent; and here's TONY's best-of-2007 roundup, where both I and Steve Smith shouted out Sorey's spellbinding debut as a leader, that/not) into true leaders of the jazz vanguard

And I intend no slight to Graham Haynes, Mark Shim and Stephan Crump, the other musicians on Far From Over. Lehman's octet, Iyer's trio, Sorey's various bands, Fieldwork itself — all superb, but this Iyer group seems like something special and distinct; even, in the context of this music in my lifetime, historic. (I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that we're in a kind of neo–Blue Note moment here; not in terms of a retro sound but in terms of a stunningly deep pool of players who are cross-pollinating in all kinds of fascinating ways, much as, say, Tony Williams, Jackie McLean, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter et al. did back in the day.) Can't wait to hear where these musicians go, individually and as a collective.

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*See also Seth Colter Walls' typically sharp, detailed Pitchfork take.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The gift of rock and roll: Making sense of Deep Purple's messy half-century sprawl

"We're gonna give you some rock and roll," David Coverdale says calmly at the outset of the live Deep Purple release Graz 1975. Was a truer bit of stage banter ever captured? I spun this album again yesterday, along with parts of the band's earlier, iconic live album Made in Japan (recorded in '72 with a different lineup), and I was re-shocked by, well, the degree to which it all just fucking rocks.


The slashing Ritchie Blackmore intro riff at 1:10, the way the band explodes out of the gate, Jon Lord's keys gleaming through the mix in all their gothic glory, Ian Paice tumbling through the verses like the Tasmanian Devil, Coverdale and Glenn Hughes proudly belting out those operatic harmonized "buuuuuuurn" harmonies. And then my favorite section, the little post-chorus coda around 3:00, with Hughes crooning that beautiful "You know we had no tiiiiiiime" melody. Blackmore and Lord's neoclassical duo/solo, and so on.

I could continue (and I could just as easily have picked the godly 19-minute "Space Truckin'" from Made in Japan to go off on) but what I mean to convey is just the Dionysian rush of it all, the abandon and the fun of this band at their peak — or one of their many peaks. How clearly this track demonstrates the fact that the less you use your brain (really as a listener or as a player, in the moment at least), the better rock and roll sounds and feels. And I'm not slighting the virtuosity of the musicians in the least bit. I really just mean that, of all the great, old British hard-rock overlords, Deep Purple seem to me to be the most connected to the party at the heart of the genre, the Little Richard/Jerry Lee Lewis rave-up mentality, so that when Coveradale says, "We're gonna give you some rock and roll," what he really means is, "We're gonna free you from your mind and electrify your body."

This was Deep Purple's stock-in-trade during their so-called Mk. II, Mk. III and Mk. IV glory years (roughly '69–'76). The personnel changed and the sound broadened, but as I hear it, that fundamental mission didn't waver. A core dedication to honoring that principle of liberation, of bombast and explosive power, of whatever the opposite of overthinking is.

And yet, looking back, the members seem somewhat conflicted when it comes to the "turn off your brain" mindset. In the Classic Albums doc on the making of the band's iconic Machine Head LP, Blackmore discusses being almost embarrassed when he came up with the "Space Truckin'" chorus riff. "I took it to Ian Gillan and I said, 'I have this idea but it's so ridiculous. It's so silly and simple that I don't think we can use it.'"

This concept comes up a lot in the doc, the idea of that line between "dumb" simplicity and genius — there's a great bit where Blackmore seems to need to invoke Beethoven to convince himself that the "Smoke on the Water" riff is really more highbrow than it seems. At another point, bassist Roger Glover chalks up the band's essential chemistry to the play between their virtuoso and intuitive factions. "Purple was really, to me, it was two elements: It was the superb musicianship of Ritchie, Jon and Ian Paice, and sort the naive, homemade, simple quality of songwriting that Ian Gillan and I brought to the band."

This whole discussion touches on my own early misjudging of this band as somewhat pedestrian. I caught the Sabbath and Zeppelin bug years ago, but moving on, as one does, to Deep Purple — and I'm not proud to say this, but as I discussed in my Bruce Springsteen post a while back, I think it's important to own up to my initial prejudices about the classics; all the better to dismantle them  — I found myself turning up my nose a bit at them: "Highway Star," with its corny "Nobody gonna take my car/girl" conceit and so on. Not that Zeppelin wasn't guilty of same, but something about Machine Head just sounded not mean or aggressive enough to me. And it's true: Deep Purple as a band were not out for blood in the same way that Sabbath were, or out for pure world-swallowing sleaze the way Zeppelin were. There's something almost effete about them — watch interviews with Blackmore, Lord and Gillan and you'll see what I mean. They're the aristocratic gentlemen of hard rock, the ones who seem sort of tickled by the idea of the genre's primal power but seem to have a hard time really and truly immersing in it. (I think here of Gillan's dorky little march-dance around 2:00 in this 1972 live version of "Smoke on the Water," as though he doesn't feel quite comfortable really inhabiting the caveman snarl at the heart of the song.)

But at the same time, they were also consummate cock-rock showmen. Blackmore's scenery-chewing pyrotechnics here (which really heat up around 3:00) might be the most fun-to-watch guitar-heroism I've ever beheld:


This is how Paice puts it in the comprehensive and informative Heavy Metal Pioneers doc from '91: "My role was exactly what I wanted to be. I had no concept of being 'the drummer.' I was the star in the middle of the stage, and Ritchie was the star on the left of the stage, and Jon was the star on the right of the stage. We used to have this sort of permanent friendly battle: who was going to steal the limelight from the next guy."

So at the same time that there's a wariness of rock's core "ridiculous" qualities, there's also a reveling in them. And like most bands, Deep Purple were at their best when inhibition and "good taste" went out the window, when they could blast off from somewhat mundane raw materials (sometimes, in classic Zeppelin fashion, these were just borrowed scraps of old rock songs, as on "Speed King") into a kind of jam-fueled ecstasy. One reason the Coverdale/Hughes era is so badass is that everyone seems to be on the same page about what the band's M.O. is, namely to "give you some rock and roll," plain and simple, without the slightest bit of hand-wringing. Their shows were, for better or worse, textbook mid-'70s testosterone orgies, full of songs that implore women to get in line or get out of the way.

But whether due to lineup shuffling, squabbling over musical direction or even death (RIP Tommy Bolin), Deep Purple never seemed to stay in one phase very long. The band always seemed to be wrestling with what it wanted to be, which might explain why it has been so incredibly many different things over the years, whether that was the stuffy but remarkably developed prog/psych unit of the Mk. I period; the hugely versatile and charismatic Mk. II (it completely blows my mind that in the same year, 1969, this group recorded Jon Lord's monumentally ambitious Concerto for Group and Orchestra with the Royal Philharmonic — probably the most engaging and convincing "classical fusion" project I've ever heard — as well as portions of the stupendously raw and greasy proto-metal mission statement Deep Purple In Rock), who in their own minds shot wide of the mark post–In Rock with the fussier Fireball before correcting the course on the no-frills Machine Head; the soulful and unabashedly preening Mk. III/IV; and so on, all the way up to the impressively cohesive Mk. VIII — heard on the band's latest LP, Infinite — which to my ears is maybe their most enjoyable incarnation since the mid-'70s, mainly because despite being occasionally spotty on a song-for-song level doesn't suffer from the at first convincingly but later somewhat depressingly streamlined quality of the Deep Purple of the '80s and early '90s, where the band seemed to gradually straitjacket itself within a radio rock format (probably as a result of Blackmore's rumored desire, alluded to here, to turn Deep Purple into Foreigner), writing the occasional good song (Perfect Strangers, esp. the title track and "Knocking on Your Back Door," marked a convincing '80s-ification of the classic Deep Purple sound, and I have a soft spot for the catchy-as-hell cheesefest "King of Dreams", from the brief, ill-fated Joe Lynn Turner era) but losing sight of the looseness and abandon that makes, say, that Graz 1975 set so much fun.

Wading through a good chunk of the Deep Purple catalog during the past month or so — and I ought to note that I have Lars Ulrich and Opeth's Mikael Åkerfeldt to thank for this listening jag; both cited different Deep Purple records on their Rolling Stone lists of their favorite metal albums and it inspired me to give this catalog another shot — has been somewhat baffling and occasionally exhausting (I'll admit to hitting the skids around the House of Blue Light era), but the peaks have been well worth it. The band no longer seems like some sort of third-place finisher to me in the great late-'60s/early-'70s hard-rock grand prix. Their occasional corniness or awkwardness, their sometimes muddled aesthetic is really beside the point, because when they locked in and found common ground during this or that period, they were as awe-inspiring as any rock band I've ever heard. On In Rock; on the absurdly rocking "Black Night"; on the majestic, hard-grooving Stormbringer; on Come Taste the Band (their first post-Blackmore album but to my ears, as good as anything from the earlier period; proggy instrumental "Owed to G" is a crucial DP deep cut); on Graz 1975; on Made in Japan (which, to me, even more than Machine Head, in some ways feels like the quintessential Deep Purple album); on the stunning and at times even scary California Jam footage (with Blackmore's infamous exploding-amp gag that could have literally blown up the band). On this 1970 "Child in Time":



The very essence of power-ballad-dom, with fire-and-brimstone peaks (or depths) as heavenly/infernal as anything in the Zeppelin oeuvre. Elegantly destructive, a masterful hush-to-howl opus.

These days Deep Purple aren't soaring quite as high — who could? — but their current music is worth hearing because they seem completely comfortable with their weird, shapeshifting eccentricity, playing borderline-pedestrian blues-rock one moment and sci-fi-infused gothic prog the next. In the latter vein, a track like Infinite's "The Surprising" seems as close to the early spirit of the band — in their super-nerdy, fussily awesome proto-prog guise — as anything they've done since. They finally seem comfortable with the idea of not choosing any one sound, free of the power struggles, aesthetic and otherwise (I'm looking at you, Ritchie), that have defined their history. Embracing all of it: the smart and the dumb, the lofty and the primal, the raucous and the refined.

What I wonder is, could there ever be a band like this again? An arena-filling, mega-selling juggernaut that also has the time and the space to stretch out, achieving — over years and years and years — staggering triumphs, running head-on into aesthetic walls, shedding members, taking on new ones, inviting back old ones, righting itself, falling flat again, soldiering on, winning acclaim, inviting derision, becoming a kind of self-parody even as they become immortal. What I'm trying to say is, it's a fucking saga, the Deep Purple story, maybe the most convoluted one in so-called classic rock, and it's also an absolute delight to muddle through, just because of how big and sprawling and messy it is. (I think of the great testimonial quote in the trailer for the Descendents/ALL doc Filmage where Hagfish's Doni Blair says, "You have to be a fan at the whole thing" — see around 2:30 here — which is a great way to sum up up the sort of zen attitude of appreciation and acceptance you reach after you take the time to make sense of a catalog this massive.) You don't have to love everything but you revel in the muchness of it all, marveling even at what you don't happen to like, because what it is, is a life in music, an adaptation to decades' worth of fickle audience tastes and market demands. Blackmore's out, Lord's gone (RIP), but Gillan and Paice are still on the road, fighting the good fight, roughly 50 years after the band's formation.

Everything that's happened in between is worth treasuring, precisely because it could never happen again, or not in the same way. And goddamn, amid everything else they churned out, did they ever give us some rock and fucking roll.

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*This is all pretty new to me, so I'd be very interested to hear comments from anyone who has a firm grasp on the DP catalog: What are your favorite moments, either "classic" or obscure?

*Here are 15 Deep Purple songs I love, spanning many periods:

Friday, July 21, 2017

Infinity again: On Fushitsusha's radical songmaking

It is very possible that tonight's Fushitsusha performance at Pioneer Works — co-presented by Blank Forms, and part of a highly impressive series of gigs going down as part of the Grand Ole Opera exhibit; I caught Black Pus there a couple weeks back — is still in progress. (I left before the end not because I was disappointed, not remotely so, but because I felt I had simply taken in as much musical/aesthetic information as I could for one night.) Which is apt, because there is what I would call a forever quality to the group's music, a sense that no matter how long one of their pieces actually lasts — and from what I heard, that could be anywhere from under 5 minutes to upwards of 20 — you can sort of sink into to the vibe or aura of it, get lost, roam around, disengage your brain and just exist within it. The time that you, and the musicians, spend with the piece may begin, end, but there's a sense that the idea or the substance of it was somehow there before, and will continue after.

Maybe this trio — leader Keiji Haino on whatever the hell he feels like playing at a given moment, along with current collaborators Morishige Yasumune on bass and Ryosuke Kiyasu on drums — conceptualized some of these pieces at earlier shows (possibly even at last night's concert at the same venue, billed as "Silent," whereas tonight's was called "Heavy") or rehearsals; maybe they'll pick them up again in the future. But each time they would begin a new piece, and I probably heard them play about seven or eight, it felt instantly sound, logical, focused in its way and delivered with direction and intent and some kind of form, though usually not any kind of conventional one. That form could take the shape of a sort of rubato vamp — as a friend of mine, Khanate and Blind Idiot God drummer Tim Wyskida, pointed out during a mid-show chat, the band often explores a "third" rhythmic space between strict metric time and fully free time — where Kiyasu would play a repeated series of figures (say, two massive thumps on the floor tom followed by one snare hit, a cymbal crash and four snare / hi-hat / bass drum accents) and Haino and Yasumune would sort of conjure a charred, convulsive field of sound over top. (One long piece in this vein at tonight's show felt massive and infinite, like the last rock band on earth hammering their instruments into oblivion atop some post-apocalyptic slag heap; probably not coincidentally, it also sounded a lot like the Melvins, and reminded me of the time I saw Haino and them play alternating sets as part of a film-score event back in '06.) Or it could manifest as a sort of negative-space anti-rock boogie, featuring Haino on almost jazzy clean-toned guitar, as sparse and scrappy as the aforementioned piece had been world-swallowing and epic. Or a hushed ghost blues featuring Haino on plaintive harmonica and spooky, pillowy toned vocals, like the result of some sort of supernatural after-hours session at Sun Studios. Or a brief, glorious, driving crunch-rock groove detour, over almost as soon as it began.

Or some other pattern or approach or sonic zone that Haino saw fit to engage with. He conferred with the other musicians often, both between and during pieces, sometimes whispering instructions into their ears, sometimes using hand signals — a swelling, both-hands-to-the-sky-motion; what looked like numbers traced in the air; "come-on" gestures that seemed to call for an intense response of some kind; or what seemed like rhythmic patterns being dictated; Ben Ratliff's discussion of Haino as a master of gesture ("It is about gesture: a scream, or a silence, or a sudden lunge, which says all there is to know at that moment") in a recent 4Columns essay seems apt here. The other musicians watched him intently and however dense or abstract the music got, they never seemed to be functioning in a state of abandon. Their movements and responses seemed ritualistic and highly deliberate, like physical mantras designed to help Haino and the music as a whole reach that place of ecstatic forever-ness. And again, that ecstasy was not always loud, overdriven, violent. Sometimes it was nimble, shadowy, delicate, with Kiyasu on brushes and Yasumune playing sparse sprinklings of notes. The contrasts and transitions were extremely shrewd, making this concert of ostensibly improvised music feel like a masterfully paced recital.

In some ways, Fushitsusha's method seems to render obsolete the composed vs. improvised question because to my ears they seem to be plucking songs out of the air — brutal ones, gossamer ones, epics, miniatures, etc. — and animating and inhabiting them through some secret group method that could just as easily be the product of meticulous rehearsal (as in drilling, repetition) as it could be the result of simply highly attentive jamming among musicians who know one another's reflexes and desires, just as they know the will and intent of their collective project. Which is, to my ears at least, to make something clear and defined each time out, a new song but also an eternal and inevitable one. We don't have the terminology for this method of music-making, or at least I'm not aware of any suitable words, but really all it is, is devoted band-ism, the construction of not just a group sound but a group way of existing. With Fushitsusha, the results of this practice are extremely varied; what's consistent is the sense of concentration and sincerity, spiked with an alluring and magical X factor, which is Haino's palpable rock-star aura, not just the borderline-iconic silver mane and shades but the possessed intensity and (again with the Sun Studios line of thinking) sort of diva-ish, just-shy-of-a-tantrum fury of his movements, musical phrases and wild vocal emanations.

You put all this together and you get a sort of wonderful paradox: a band that seems to be pushing past the limits of genre, of temporal constraints (again, they very well may still be playing down there in Red Hook, close to four hours after they began), of the way music — or performance of any kind — conventionally happens in front of an audience, while at the same time enacting the basic, primal ritual of rock-and-roll showmanship. Maybe it's just that we've been so dulled to the mystery, the potential, the infinity of the latter that we need to receive our songs in new, unfamiliar forms. So they can feel like forever again. And Fushitsusha's creations, in whatever guise, certainly do feel that way – and will hence.

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Postscript:
I'm aware that this group, in its various incarnations, has a vast discography stretching back something like 40 years. But though I know bits and pieces of Haino's recorded work, I'm hardly an expert in this sector of his back catalog. I welcome any recommendations re: great Fushitsusha albums in the comments: I'm genuinely curious to know if any recording could really bottle this band's lightning.