Saturday, October 11, 2014

The price of right: 'Whiplash,' a jazzless jazz movie

When a more or less mainstream movie comes out about a topic you specialize in, you take notice. You almost feel compelled to form an immediate opinion, because you know someone will ask: "Have you seen this new film about a jazz drummer? What did you think?!"

The movie I'm talking about is, of course, Whiplash, which deals with a sadistic—or is he enlightened?—jazz-band director at a Juilliard-like NYC music school and his super-driven student, possibly also on his way to a life of cold inhumanity and artistic immortality.

I should say up front that I found Whiplash really compelling as a straightforward human story. The acting was solid all-around, and the transformation of the main character, Andrew (Miles Teller), into a kind of Art Monster felt believable and suitably complex, i.e., you weren't sure whether to admire him or pity him as he drove himself ever harder, past blisters and bleeding and beration at the hands of his teacher, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, a.k.a. that dude who's in everything but whom you probably don't know by name).

This question of how far you need to go—or maybe, how inhuman you need to become—in order to be great is one worth asking, and Whiplash thrusts it in your face for pretty much its entire running time. But what I found almost more interesting were the questions it didn't ask. Whiplash ostensibly concerns itself with jazz, with drumming, with music in general, but to me, it felt strangely divorced from any of those things. What I mean is that Andrew's entire quest is presented as no different from that of, say, a marathon runner or mountain climber. The drumming in the film is entirely tense, joyless, athletic, extreme, punishing. We hear music being played in Whiplash, but mostly we see and hear practice, and practice that looks and feels very much like self-flagellation.

Director Damien Chazelle apparently played in high-school jazz band, so I guess I should assume that in addition to posing his core inquiry of "At what price art?," he's also asking questions about the sort of militaristic regimentation of jazz during the past few decades. But this seemed sort of like an undercurrent rather than anything the movie came right out and addressed. I couldn't help notice that there were really only two actual musical fixations in the film, two hallowed icons held up as examples of the greatness that Andrew is trying to achieve and Fletcher is trying to inspire: Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker. I could be mistaken, but I don't think a single other drummer was named in the film besides Rich. That makes perfect sense, in a way, because to me—respectfully, Buddy Rich has no place in my personal drum pantheon, jazz or otherwise, but to be fair, I haven't dug very deep into his work—Buddy Rich is the icon of jazz as sport, jazz as "My band is going to wipe the floor with your band," jazz as a chops war, jazz (or music in general) as a thing not to be studied, enjoyed, savored, but as a battle with clear winners and losers. Is this why Chazelle chose Rich—i.e., as a sly critique of those who would model themselves after the wrong kinds of artistic heroes—or was it simply that he, as a young jazz hopeful, worshiped at Rich's altar? Or that Rich is simply the go-to shorthand idol of "every aspiring jazz drummer"? (Another thing: Like Rich, almost everyone shown playing jazz in Whiplash is white. Again, I wonder: critique, commentary or coincidence?)

In terms of Parker, there's not a single mention of the fact that he was, like, a brilliant alto saxophonist and improviser. All we hear about is that he was an inferior player who became an immortal one after—in the famous story, recounted ad nauseum in the film and elsewhere—drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at him during a jam session. (I've heard this anecdote so many times that I can't even remember where the supposedly definitive version comes from—does anyone else happen to recall?) In any case, I thought it was very telling that there's not a single mention of, or even allusion to, the idea of improvisation in the film. Andrew's entire quest revolves around mastery: mastering rudiments, mastering certain tempos and feels (all the while being verbally and physically assaulted, both by Fletcher himself and by his own ever-developing inner Fletcher), mastering charts, mastering a sort of samurai-like ascetic discipline. The idea of inspiration, of expression, of putting one's personal stamp on the music never comes up. Jazz as it's portrayed in Whiplash is about rigor and bombast, mostly in an ensemble context, and that's it. And it was hard for me to tell if Chazelle intended his movie as a critique of this ghoulish perversion of jazz in the academy, or if that version of jazz—the one where jazz looks very much like, say, wrestling or football or rugby—was the only one he knew, and was therefore the only one his film dealt with. I'm splitting hairs here, but I came away from Whiplash wondering all this.

Chazelle leaves it up to the audience to decide whether Andrew's quest, the one that will very likely result in him become a famous drummer with no personal relationships whatsoever, is worthwhile, or even fated for someone of his constitution. But I couldn't tell if were also meant to be asking whether "succeeding" at this version of art—i.e., not the version where you change the world through the depth and specificity of your vision, i.e., the Miles, Mingus, Ellington and, yes, Parker version, but the one where you basically become a charts-obliterating robot—was even a worthwhile goal to begin with. Is Whiplash simply a film, in other words, about the price of getting jazz right, or is it also a film about how profoundly the jazz-education system—teachers, students, everybody who embraces this apparatus for the learning/inculcation of jazz—has gotten jazz wrong? Because, yes, relentless practice is what turned Charlie Parker into Bird, but it wasn't the relentless practice of, like, the saxophonic equivalent of rudiments and snazzy ’70s-style big-band charts. It was mechanical study combined with the drive to make a personal statement, with actual passion and curiosity, a concept that is not even remotely touched on in Whiplash (again, a calculated omission? Hard to say…). Passion not just to "improve" but to discover.

So Whiplash definitely made me think—just maybe not along the exact lines it seemed to be trying to make me think. But as a visual, visceral and emotional document, I thought it was extremely successful. Jazz, music and drumming aside, it's basically about the idea of a young man pushing past his breaking point and going into a kind of transcendent/purgatorial free fall, a portrait of what the obliteration of "normalcy" in the name of excellence looks and feels like. (My friend and Time Out colleague Josh Rothkopf nailed all this in his Whiplash review.) Chazelle really rubs your nose in the madness of it all—the rehearsal scenes in particular, with Fletcher halting performances time and time and time again with a bulging bicep and clenched fist, are suitably excruciating. And the film's dark pull really centers on how much you find yourself agreeing with Fletcher's worldview at times. This idea of "Is the desire for greatness unreasonably extreme, or is the rest of the humanity too content to settle?" is a profound one, whatever your chosen field or life path.

Yes, the "jazz" in the film looked and sounded nothing like the jazz I love, but then again, I've never studied jazz at a conservatory. (I'd be really curious to hear how someone from that environment would respond to Whiplash.) Bottom line: a good, thought-provoking night out at the movies, and a rare chance to see a feature film that touches on some of my chief obsessions.

P.S. Forrest Wickman goes deeper into the cymbal-throwing incident (myth?) and its relationship to Whiplash here.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Linked: Casablancas/O + 'C&C' @ 20

I'm proud of the current Time Out New York cover story, which I had a hand in. Since Julian Casablancas and Karen O both have new solo albums out, we thought it would be fun to have them interview each other. Thankfully, they were game, and I think we ended up with a really cool conversation: wide-ranging, alternately insightful and silly, and (as far as I know) unique. I'm pretty sure these two have never sat down and had a conversation this extensive, let alone on the record. Read it here if you have a chance. A big thanks to my too-numerous-to-name Time Out colleagues and photographer Jake Chessum for helping to make this awesome.

A bit of background. I adore the Strokes, as well as scattered bits of Casablancas's extracurricular discography: a handful of tracks from his first solo record, 2009's Phrazes for the Young ("11th Dimension" and its accompanying video floor me; I really respond to the combo of kitschy flamboyance and self-deprecating wit that's on display here); his incredible Daft Punk collaboration from Random Access Memories; and various fleeting moments on his insane, sprawling, seemingly willfully opaque new one, Tyranny. When I saw the Strokes at Governors Ball this year—awesome show, btw—I Tweeted something to the effect of, "The Strokes have had the last laugh. Their songs are now every bit as classic, if not more so, than the output of the bands everyone said they ripped off." I really do believe that they belong in the all-time-great pantheon, despite the spottiness of some of the recent records. Even on First Impressions of Earth, Angles and Comedown Machine, the band's signature baroque-but-economical brilliance shines though.

I'm definitely a fan of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, though I don't know their catalog as well. A song like "Date with the Night" is indisputably badass. Karen O's new solo record, Crush Songs, is fragile and beautiful—exactly, it seems to me, as intended. There are some real gems toward the end of the album: "Body," in particular, is a quiet killer.


And for Stereogum, a 20th-anniversary look back at Chocolate and Cheese. I couldn't help but recycle some themes from my book, but there are definitely new ideas here. I adopted the above image as an emblem for the album, and the band, as a whole. I also dug out a choice interview outtake that didn't make it into the 33 1/3 volume (the "They're classicists, you know?" bit)—I'd forgotten how insightful former Ween manager Dave Ayers was.

Speaking of 33 1/3, the series celebrates its tenth anniversary this year—Lit Genius is kindly hosting annotated excerpts from various books in the series; here's mine—and there's a party at the Powerhouse Arena in Dumbo this coming Thursday, October 2. I'll be there during the early part of the evening, so come on out if you're around!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The fleeting snarl: King Crimson live in 2014

This past Thursday, I saw King Crimson perform (as part of a four-show NYC run that continues tonight and tomorrow). I wasn't sure I'd ever type that. The band had toured as recently as 2008, but I was a relatively late-blooming fan, and after I heard that bandleader Robert Fripp, pictured, announced his retirement from music in 2012, I figured I'd never have the chance to see them.

The concert was frequently fascinating, but it kept me at arm's length, and I've been trying to figure out why. By way of context, I should mention that I have a complex relationship with the idea of progressive rock. (I delved into that in my math-rock mixtape a couple years back, and in various other posts.) I distrust all genres, pretty much as a rule, and prog is no different. My view is always, show me the music, not its traits or trappings. Is it worthy? Is it great? Cool, then—I'm on board.

With King Crimson, the music frequently is great. Partially by following my own nose, and partially with help from KC expert/completist/megafan Steve Smith (who put together a great preview of the Crimson show in Boston), I made my way to the classic early-’70s band featuring Fripp, John Wetton and Bill Bruford, and dove pretty deep into their ever-expanding (thanks to the indefatigable DGM Live) archive. Where to start with this monster group? I doubt I'll be able to express my love for them more deeply than I did here, when I was first in the throes of my ’70s-Crimson obsession. This period of Crimson speaks to me so clearly, pushes so many of my musical pleasure buttons through its combination of virtuosity and fierceness. I don't care about prog; I care about music that lights me up, and when this incarnation of King Crimson (or, say, Rush…) gets going, such as on this ungodly-great 1974 Pittsburgh show (if you don't own this, please, for the love of God, remedy that), I'm straight-up glowing.

When it comes to the rest of the Crimson oeuvre, I'm no expert. I know and like 1981's Discipline, as well as the live material I've heard featuring that version of the band; I've got a special fondness for the poppier Adrien Belew–driven material such as the outstanding "Frame by Frame." But in my consumption of proggish rock/metal, I'm always looking for the edge, the bite, and King Crimson was at this later point a much cleaner, more streamlined band. From the bits and pieces I've heard of ’90s and 2000s–era Crimson, my sense is that some of that visceral quality returned, but in a more "state of the art," high-tech guise—not in the ratty, ugly form you hear all over the Bruford/Wetton material.

So going into the show, I understood that I would be encountering a completely different band than any of the Crimsons that I knew. The current edition is a hodgepodge of various eras: bassist / Chapman Stick dude Tony Levin, a member on and off since the Discipline era; saxist-flutist Mel Collins, who worked with the band during the strange transitional period between 1969's In the Court of the Crimson King and 1973's Larks' Tongues in Aspic (the recorded debut of the Bruford/Wetton band); ’90s and 2000s drumming mainstay Pat Mastelotto; drummers Bill Rieflin and Gavin Harrison, a new and newish recruit, respectively; and new singer-guitarist Jakko Jakszyk—all joining Robert Fripp, of course. I'd heard rumblings about how the band would be playing a lot of vintage material, but as is my custom, I didn't do a whole lot of set-list research beforehand.

The production was pretty stagy. Long clips of recorded voiceovers, both before the set and between songs. Beforehand, we got, over the PA, a long rambling message from Fripp and various other members about the virtues of turning of your phones and other devices and experiencing the show in real time. Fair enough. Then, between songs, there were frequent, humorously edited clips of conversations between Fripp and various stereotypically "clueless" (though maybe they were, God forbid, merely curious, or simply doing their jobs?) journalists. I remember one exchange when a writer asked something to the effect of "What's the main difference between this and that version of King Crimson?" In that inimitable dry, British way of his, Fripp deadpanned something like, "Well, I think the main difference is that there are different men in the group." That definitely got a laugh, probably because that attitude—the visionary's arch impatience with the follies of the sticklers and record keepers—seems to prevail among the Crimson fan base. I don't mean to generalize; only to say that it's my impression that in the Crimson universe, fans fetishize Fripp's eccentricity, his difficult-ness, and the notion that they, as devotees, are somehow in on a joke that fans of, God forbid, less willfully esoteric music, have no way of understanding or even accessing.

(If it's not already clear, this attitude turns me off. I love plenty of obscure music, but I'm not really into the idea of fixating on its obscurity or eccentricity. I love it because I like the way it sounds, period. I also love the way plenty of way more "straightforward" music sounds. In both cases, it's gut reaction, and nothing more.)

These contextual elements, the recorded dialogue and such, set a certain tone that ran through the show as a whole. I mentioned "stagy" above, and the other aspect of what I was getting at was that the band appeared onstage as participants in a sort of pageant: the three drummers in front, and the other four in back, standing side-by-side on a riser (except for the perpetually seated Fripp), with a backdrop made to look like a forest, and little identifying signs in front of each man that represented his name in the style of the periodic table. As a spectacle, it almost suggested an Epcot Center rendering of a prog concert.

The set list was surprisingly crowd-pleasing. The band drew heavily on the Bruford/Wetton repertoire (all the jams you know and love: "One More Red Nightmare," "Starless," the first two installments in the "Larks' Tongues" saga, "Red," etc.), as well as on the early Mel Collins years (I don't know those records well, but I did recognize the stately and eerie "The Letters" from ’71's Islands). My friend and TONY colleague Josh Rothkopf pointed out a Thrak track in the set, and there were a couple songs I didn't recognize that I'm guessing were from other ’90s or aughts-era releases. Interestingly, I'm pretty sure that the Discipline era was barely touched on. (Spoiler alert, in case you have plans to see another show on this tour: The encore was, yes, a long, flashy, drum-heavy version of "21st Century Schizoid Man.")

One thing that struck me throughout the show was that, despite the three-drummer lineup, the band lacked a certain oomph. The parts of King Crimson that, on record, move me the most—the dark, crunchy, clattering grooves, such as the classic 7/8 stomp in "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part I," which came right near the beginning of the set—were the parts that, at this show, moved me the least. With all due respect to the drummers, all clearly fine technical players (there was a lot of cool/complex interlocking drum arrangement going on, with Mastelotto, Rieflin and Harrison acting as cogs in a larger percussion section rather than simply as three adjacent trap-set players) and imaginative texturalists, I didn't feel a lot of fire from any of them. Precision, yes, and density and volume, some of the time, but not a lot of sweat or brutality. I understand here that I may be engaging in classic apples-to-orange-isms here, and unfairly stacking up this Crimson, an entirely different band, against the one I know and love the best. But given the fact that the focus was on repertoire from that earlier era, it was hard not to notice the contrast with Bruford—such a daring, crafty and surprising, not to mention straight-up nasty when he wants to be, player. When the grooves would kick in, I tended to feel that they "rocked" rather than rocked. With music like this, I want to be punished; at Thursday night's show, I often felt more like I was being addressed, in a sober, straightforward manner.

All the classic knocks against prog, yes? And that's what disheartened me a bit. I'm always the guy who's arguing against that kind of reductionist thinking, i.e., the absurd idea that virtuosity and passion are always mutually exclusive (or that a lack of virtuosity is somehow inherently, you know, virtuous). But watching this show, I often felt that a non-Crimson-sympathetic listener would have all the ammo he or she needed to dismiss it in the most clichéd and uninformed of ways. Given that, in my opinion, Bruford/Wetton Crimson flies in the face of all that tired anti-prog propaganda, I found this troubling.

There were plenty of moments and elements that flew in the face of my overall characterization, though. Jakszyk, in particular, deserves a lot of credit—he did an excellent job of inhabiting the Wetton role, in particular, belting with plenty of grain and poignancy. Levin, too, played with muscle and heart, especially when he traded the Stick for either acoustic or electric bass. In some ways, Mel Collins was the star of the group. He's got a really bluesy, soulful style, and he seemed to have clearance to blow pretty much whatever he wanted during a good 75 percent of the set. I'd never really felt like "Red," for example, was lacking an ongoing free-form sax commentary, but Collins won me over. His contributions went a long way toward humanizing and lightening a presentation that often felt sterile and plodding to me, getting the blood pumping through the heart of the music.

Robert Fripp was resolutely in the background for the majority of the set. But there was one tantalizingly brief moment where he stepped forward. I'm pretty sure the bit I'm talking about came in the middle or at the end of "Sailor's Tale," another track from Islands. What I remember is that the rest of the band cut out entirely, leaving the maestro to play solo for what couldn't have been longer than two or three minutes. This episode was technically a "guitar solo," but it was entirely free of bravado. It was halting, ugly and fractured. Tough, fuzzed-out chords that elicited and completely transcended all the usual clichés: "metallic," "angular," "jagged," "clanking." But none of those descriptors were adequate for what this was. It was only Fripp, being Fripp, serenading the chaos that at one point was a major component in this shapeshifting art-rock odyssey of his. You felt at that moment completely wired into the twisted heart of King Crimson, the mad eccentricity that has powered it for all these years. I felt here like I was witnessing what I'd had hoped to witness, which was the snarl behind the band's poker-faced facade. It was fleeting and it was glorious, and I wish I could hear it back right now.

Though I might not have fully connected with the show as a whole, I'm so glad I got to witness that ornery mini tantrum, delivered in classic undemonstrative Fripp style. With this tour, he's clearly taking King Crimson in a relatively cozy direction. Familiar repertoire, plenty of crowd-pleasing musical pyrotechnics, the prerecorded in-jokes between songs. It all felt like the KC version of a hug or a high-five to fans—a King Crimson revue, almost. Which is totally fine! We're talking about a nearly 50-year-old band here, led by a nearly 70-year-old man. If he's choosing to put on a good, long, retrospective-oriented show, a sort of digest version of all this band has been over the years, filled with tightness and looseness, riffing and texture, familiar faces and new ones—the whole bit—that is certainly his right.

But being the kind of listener I am, I'm always looking for the edge, the bite, the snarl. And following certain musicians into their elder years, it's always fascinating to see where you find it. (Scanning my brain for a shining example of the former case, I settle on Lindsey Buckingham, a Fripp contemporary, and, the more I learn about him, a musician whose core impulses, his prickliness and perversity—not to mention his caustic, almost sadistic virtuosity and stubborn originality as a guitarist—aren't all that far removed from Fripp's.) Having witnessed those glorious few minutes recounted above, I know that Fripp still has all this in him; the beast is there, should he choose to pay it a visit. And I'll be paying close attention to see if he does, not to mention digging back through the discography to find those isolated forays of pure mania. Forget "prog"; what I'm looking for is wildness, electricity. And, as he's demonstrated countless times in the past, Robert Fripp, captain of the weird, winding, unwieldy endeavor that is King Crimson, knows the way there.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Freedom from choice: Goodbye, Jimi Jamison

I've just heard the sad news that Jimi Jamison has died of a heart attack at age 63. I first learned of Jamison a couple years back, after hearing the song "High on You" somewhere. If you grew up on any kind of rock radio, you'll probably recognize that one after sampling a few seconds of the opening keyboard riff. The song grabbed me, just as it had when I was a kid, and I realized I had no idea what band was responsible. I found out that it was Survivor, and that Jamison was the lead singer.

Survivor's history is pretty convoluted. Their biggest song is, of course, "Eye of the Tiger." Jamison didn't sing that one; he joined in 1984 after his predecessor, Dave Bickler, left the band due to vocal-cord polyps. Jamison's first album with the band, ’84's Vital Signs, was a big one, yielding three hits that remain radio-rock staples to this day: "High on You," "The Search Is Over" and "I Can't Hold Back."

To me, the last one is about as good as mainstream rock gets. It's got a pretty ingenious structure (kudos to cowriters Jim Peterik and Frankie Sullivan, Survivor's keyboardist and guitarist, respectively): a majestic acoustic intro segueing into a nice chorus fakeout before the big kick-in, a great moody little bridge. But let's be real—like any great pop song, this isn't a track we need to analyze. It just works, and a lot of that working has to do with Jamison's incredible vocal. Listen to the "…froooooom you!" at :58, or the title line at 1:24. It's hard to know how to describe Jamison's singing aside from simply great. There's no quirk or idiosyncrasy to what he does; he's basically the archetypal ’80s-style arena-rock frontman. His is the kind of voice that anyone who's ever belted karaoke would kill for. Perhaps he's not on Steve Perry's level—I don't really think anyone is—but in terms of nailing the notes and projecting urgency and emotion, he's got this thing sewed up.

We're taught to mock, dismiss or even hate this kind of music. We're taught that "I Can't Hold Back" is the kind of bombastic stadium-rock dragon that our punk-rock heroes had to come along and slay. Perhaps, for some, that is the way music works, in these tidy binaries. For me, it was never that simple. I grew up adoring big mainstream rock of the ’80s: Journey, Foreigner, Survivor, Loverboy, whatever else was on the radio, as well as all the hair-metal bands that were my first true musical heroes. Of course, I got into punk and all sorts of underground miscellany later on; any curious music obsessive eventually does. And if you start reading about DIY music, you start reading about this adversarial underground vs. mainstream idea(l)—how you're supposed to ditch all that big, catchy, steroidal above-ground rock once you discover the seething, visceral, difficult subterranean stuff.

People love punk, so they buy into its antagonism—the idea that to really sign up for it, to go all in, you have to renounce all the pop stuff that it openly combated. Over time, I've cared less and less and less about that kind of thinking. Right now, my position is: Fuck that. I adore the Misfits, the Descendents, the Wipers, Black Flag, and on and on; I also adore Survivor, to name just one of hundreds of similarly big, populist rock bands who have managed to compose/perform perfect-10 singles like "I Can't Hold Back." (Just before I clicked onto Twitter and saw the news about Jamison, in fact, I was reading Bob Mould's memoir, See a Little Light, which is a really good book. I'd just finished the section on Zen Arcade, which came out in ’84, just two months before Vital Signs. I give equal props to both albums.) Loving music, or any art form, grants you the freedom not to choose, to factionalize, to pit styles against one another, even if your heroes took pride in, and drew inspiration from, their own adversarial stances.

So I may have once attempted to conform my own experience of music to the tidy "punk killed off Big Rock" narrative. But over time, I'd hear songs like "I Can't Hold Back" on the radio, and they'd absolutely captivate me. I realized that I bought them entirely, and that I always had. Sure, I can see the surface absurdity in ’80s stadium rock. But honestly, I identify way more with the screaming, fist-pumping hordes of fans in the live vid aboveIn the end, I vastly prefer submitting to music to thinking about it, or standing apart from it, and this music is custom-built to induce submission. I adore songs like this without shame. (I touched on a lot of these same themes in one of the earliest posts on this blog, written nearly eight years ago.) In fact, it feels shameful to even bring up the topic of shame when I'm discussing musical experiences such as this, which I basically consider holy. It's just you, your soul and a song. You've heard it 10,000 times, and it never gets old. You dial it up on your iPod, and for those three minutes or so, you're invincible. This is what "I Can't Hold Back" has done for me, and will no doubt continue to do. So for that, I thank you, Jimi Jamison and the rest of Survivor.

There's no either/or here. I'm still on the Cecil Taylor kick that I wrote about a couple weeks ago. Earlier today, I listened to Cecil with both Louis Moholo and The Feel Trio. I may throw one of those on again later on tonight. But right now, I'm paying respects to Jimi Jamison.

A few weeks ago, I was at a get-together with my bandmate and dear friend Joe. We commandeered the stereo, as we often do, threw on some Strokes and started geeking out. Another friend mentioned that he was surprised that two guys whose musical stock-in-trade was labyrinthine math rock were so into such a straightforward, poppy band. In so many words, I responded that I just like music that goes really, really far in whatever direction it goes in. So, in a macro sense, Craw, for example, holds the same appeal for me as Survivor does. Artists who knew exactly what they wanted to do, who dreamed up a sound and just went there.

Jimi Jamison was a singer who went there. Every time I listen to him, he helps me go there. I thank him for that, and I bid him a sincere fan's farewell.


P.S. I realize that the punk vs. Big Rock dialogue is more nuanced than I've made it seem. The SST crew in particular have always given it up for select mainstream favorites (the Dead, Creedence, etc.); Ian MacKaye frequently namechecks Ted Nugent; and Mould's book recounts an early Kiss obsession. But in general, you'll hear very few undergeround-oriented tastemakers copping to a love—specifically, one that's not couched in the idea of love/hate—for the kind of grandiose stadium rock that Survivor epitomizes.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Dealing with CT: 'Nailed' and beyond

Plenty of times, when listening to Cecil Taylor (either live or on record), I've taken notes, diligently trying to process what I was experiencing. I've listened to a lot of Cecil Taylor this week—all recorded, of course; to my knowledge the Maestro hasn't performed live since last year, when he dueted with Min Tanaka after receiving the Kyoto Prize. For much of that time, I've happily let my pen fall pretty much slack. My jaw, as well.

To digress, I have these Cecil Taylor phases. They've been a fixture in my life for more than a decade (and an intermittent central theme on DFSBP). Periods where I need his music—often a certain phase or group—in my ears more or less constantly. Until this week, it had been a little while, maybe even a couple years, since I'd gone really deep with Cecil. What kicked off this latest listening jag was the troubling recent news of Taylor's swindling at the hands of a contractor. It's an outlandish story, one that would be absurdly comic if it hadn't happened to an 85-year-old man, let alone one who happens to be, in my opinion, one of the greatest artists who has ever walked the earth.

In keeping with my post last week, which only brought up the recent Sonny Rollins New Yorker flare-up so that I might do my best to dismiss it and deflect attention elsewhere, I feel the need to shoo away this real-world Cecil insanity. Let's hope and trust that he's getting the legal help he needs, and let's not fixate on the incident, reduce the man to a caricature—the batty eccentric he's being portrayed as. (Maybe I've been guilty of same.) Let's use the opportunity, rather, to get back in touch with his art, which is what matters.

So, the note-taking, or lack thereof. I just spent a restorative near-hour with "First," the 52-minute lead track on Nailed, a Taylor quartet record (with Evan Parker, Barry Guy and Tony Oxley) on FMP that, like a bunch of other Taylor FMPs, is available as a Bandcamp download through the noble efforts of Destination: Out. (I'm grateful to Seth Colter Walls for pointing me toward Melancholy, recorded a few days after Nailed—SCW singled it out as one of the more precise, coherent Taylor large-group recordings, and I fully concur.) While listening to Nailed today, walking around Crown Heights, I scrawled down just a few hyperbolic phrases: "Raining down of hell, or heaven"; "Nobody has ever come close to describing this experience."

I guess with that last one, I was thinking about all the times I myself had written about Taylor, and how much I'd read about him. (After flipping back through Howard Mandel's Miles Ornette Cecil during the past few days, I've been reminded that the lengthy CT section in this book is perhaps our definitive contemporary Cecil Taylor reference work—the key early-Cecil text being, of course, the lengthy CT section in A.B. Spellman's Four Lives in the Bebop Business—containing as it does both an honest critical grappling with the essential unknowability of Taylor's art, and a wealth of intermittently lucid interview material with the man himself, and with key collaborators ranging from Dominic Duval and Jackson Krall to one Max Roach.) And how inadequate all those words felt in the face of what I was hearing. Eventually I stopped writing phrases and began jotting down only time codes, denoting moments when, basically, I was in blissful disbelief. The other night, while listening to the equally marvelous Celebrated Blazons (another 1990 CT set available via the D:O/FMP Bandcamp, recorded a few months before Nailed; the band here is the divine Feel Trio, with Oxley and William Parker), I wrote, at one point, "How could this have occurred in, like, human life."

So you reach the end of words, the place where there is no substitute for the listening. And why would you want there to be? I have about ten time codes here referring to different sections in "First." Interestingly, many of them refer to moments that don't feature Evan Parker. With all due respect to EP, he almost seems like an onlooker during this performance. He's in the mix, of course (there's a nice Parker/Taylor duet section around the 30-minute mark), but he also lays out for long stretches. It's hard to blame him. The amount of sustained "Are you fucking kidding me?"–level intensity in this track is almost comical. During the trio sections, when Guy and Oxley are going full-tilt, which they are most of the time, you get this riot of sound, a flurry of sonic event. I've dialed up one of my notated time codes: the 26-minute mark. Taylor scampering across the keys with his patented frenzied whimsy, sounding simultaneously savage and mirthful; Oxley approximating wind whipping through a junkyard, furnishing a mist of thuds and scrapes and clangs; and Guy tearing through—or attempting to—the thicket of sound.

Collective mania around the 34-minute mark. All four players this time, racing and gushing. You can feel the Englishmen's desperation: "How long can this guy keep this up?" (A long, long time. I think it was in the Nailed CD booklet that I first read Oxley's classic quote, maybe my favorite thing ever uttered about CT: "To play with Cecil Taylor you need the stamina of an athlete and the imagination of a god.") There's a brief respite around the 40-minute mark, with Cecil ramping down, segueing into his classic murmuring warm-up/cool-down motif, which I think of onomatopoetically as bangada-banga… bangada-banga-banga. And then he can't resist speeding up again, going back in for one more assault. Again, Parker is laying out here. Guy is playing with the bow. Pure mayhem around 43 minutes, more flirtation with the warm-up/cool-down, and then the flailing madness returns. There is something so magical about the outpouring of energy in these moments. You can't get this anywhere else in life, this sort of incandescent freak-out. When it's musicians of this caliber doing the freaking out, and you get to pay witness, it's like seeing/hearing God. 

Buy Nailed if you don't already own it. Drop the needle at 45:40. Let this splatter of precision and brutality just happen to you. I don't know how to talk about music like this. I don't know why you would, unless you, like me, have an obsession with trying to process your own relationship to sound, or you, like me, are trying to encourage others to listen. In moments like this, the engagement of player and, ideally, listener, is total, the level of detail infinite. There is so much of that on Nailed, and on Celebrated Blazons too—and in the ’88–’90 zone of the CT discography generally, with all those divine European encounters. 

Some of the thorniest moments of Nailed come around 49 minutes. The velocity and density decrease here, but not the jagged intensity. All four players are taking their last stabs, measuring their blows instead of flurrying maniacally. And Taylor gets the coda. Around 51 minutes, he quiets for good, musing with consummate restraint. Guy and Oxley providing perfectly attuned accompaniment. There is less than a minute to go in the performance, but this last section is a mini mansion of mystery. All the wildness that's come before, slowing to a trickle. Just like the barrage that precedes it, this ending brims with purpose and precision. That is Cecil's gift to us: total concentration, total conviction, whatever the dynamic zone. He is always, always, always going for it. That is why I have collected his records and attended his performances obsessively over the past decade-plus. When I go and commune with CT, I'm never disappointed. We can't all live in that zone every day, but when you take the time out to really sit with this music, you feel a kind of solar heat. (And you might, as I have, worry that the man is aging and, selfishly, that you might not get to see him perform again…)

We have to appreciate him now—even in the wake of this week's insane real-world news, we have to refocus and remember what the point is: CT is still here. His music is a rich bounty. There's a ton of it. Dip into whatever period you choose—1978 and ’88–’90 seem to call out to me most often—and spend real time there. Put down your pen, your phone, anything that's getting in the way. Let words go; let time go; just deal with CT. It's one of the best feelings I know.


Other treasures I've turned up during my current Taylor fixation:

*A 1970 live performance with Jimmy Lyons, Sam Rivers and Andrew Cyrille. CT's fierceness and frenzy here are almost unbearable. Till yesterday I had absolutely no idea that footage of this band (heard on The Great Concert of Cecil Taylor, from ’69) existed. The CT portion starts around 11 minutes in.


*A genial, charming, lucid 2013 interview, in conjunction with the Kyoto Prize. Definite parallels with the lovely CT episode of Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz, which you can grab here. I've said before that CT is impossible to interview. That's unfair. He was impossible for me to interview, when I visited him in 2009 for the Time Out piece linked above. The truth, I think, is that he's simply selective re: whom he'll converse with linearly and warmly—certainly his right.


*Some fascinating audio documentation—boots from a series of 1998 shows—of an unusual, short-lived Taylor quartet with vibraphonist Joe Locke, bassist Santi Debriano and drummer Jackson Krall, augmented in spots by Oluyemi and Ijeoma Thomas. (For an easy MP3 download, scroll down a bit in the comments and check out the links provided by "mew23.") The Locke/Taylor chemistry is really something to behold. Another fascinating oddity is the Taylor/Parker/Oxley meeting with Anthony Braxton. I think this group played a few times back in ’07; audio boots are floating around, though I can't find any active links at the moment. (Can anyone help?) There is this tantalizing snippet on YouTube:


*A complete stream of Burning Poles, a live-in-studio performance (date uncertain—’90/’91?) by the Feel Trio plus percussionist Henry Martinez. I remember renting this ages ago on VHS and being somewhat baffled by the pacing—at that time, I wasn't accustomed to CT's famously circuitous invocations/introductions—but rewatching this morning, I was just extremely grateful that we have a proper video document of this band.


*Again, I'm in disbelief that this exists: a video from CT's 1974 Montreaux Jazz Festival performance, which would be released as Silent Tongues, simply one of Taylor's greatest recordings. The balance between abandon and deliberateness that, to me, defines CT's work has rarely been captured so well. The passage that begins at 9:27 blows my listen—listen to how Taylor sets up this repeated figure, a two-handed run up the keys, and then mutates it, first answering with his patented declamatory left-hand pounds and then upending the call-and-response structure with a tempestuous flurry. Then at 9:50, he begins this sort of see-saw motion between a version of the aforementioned chilled-out warm-up/cool-down figure and these manic action-painting outbursts. Throughout this clip, the clarity and speed of execution are astonishing. As I've described above, later CT has its own magic, but during this period, he seems superhuman.




*All the Notes (full-length documentary by Chris Felver from about ten years back; as accurate a portrait as you're going to find of what it's like to actually spend time in CT's presence; essential)

*Imagine the Sound trailer (incredible 1981 doc w/ CT, Archie Shepp, Paul Bley and Bill Dixon; see the full film at all costs)

*CT live in studio, 1968 (w/ Lyons, Cyrille and Alan Silva, the band from the album Student Studies)

*CT w/ the Art Ensemble of Chicago (need to give this one a good, hard listen, along with the record this group made together)

*2 Ts for a Lovely T on Amazon MP3 (less than $12 for a download of the entire 10-CD box?! I've heard a few discs of this limited-edition Feel Trio set, and the thin sound quality—drastically inferior to, say, Celebrated Blazons above—has always turned me off. But at this price, I can't resist giving it another shot.)

*Q'ua: Live at the Irridium [sic], Vol. 1 (another reconsideration; I've sometimes been on the fence about CT's mid-’90s–through–early aughts working trio with Dominic Duval / Jackson Krall trio, but this one is sounding awesome to me at present. Pluses: rich recording quality; Krall's organic, swinging feel—so different from Oxley's alien sound factory; engaged, sympathetic playing from Duval and soprano-saxist Harri Sjöström.)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Somewhere we've never been: Farmers by Nature at ShapeShifter Lab

The debate over the now-infamous "Sonny Rollins" New Yorker piece continues. I'm not going to get into what I think of the original article, or the points made by its various supporters and detractors, or even Sonny's own response, mainly because I think both the incident and its aftershocks are beside the point. That point being: music ("jazz," or what have you) as an actual human practice, happening now, in real time—rather than an idea to be lobbed about abstractly.

I bring up the Sonny business mainly because I read Justin Moyer's jazz-bashing response in The Washington Post yesterday, and then went out to see a very satisfying night of what you might call jazz—the Aum Fidelity–backed double-record-release bill of Darius Jones and Matthew Shipp and the Farmers by Nature trio (Craig Taborn, William Parker and Gerald Cleaver, pictured above, left to right) at ShapeShifter Lab; and a trio set by Travis Laplante, Mick Barr and Nick Podgurski in a Clinton Hill living room, part of the Home Audio series. One of Moyer's points ("There’s not much difference between a screechy performance by avant-garde saxophonist Peter Brötzmann from 1974 and one from 2014") stuck with me—the idea being that "free jazz" always sounds the same. I've seen enough supposedly free performances to know that, when it comes to the post-Coltrane/Ayler tradition, at least, "free" can indeed refer to a well-rehearsed script. I happen to love Peter Brötzmann—’74, ’14, whenever—and I think he's a much better listener/collaborator and more diverse performer than he's given credit for. But yes, you go to see him, and you know that a certain flavor of ornery, macho catharsis is going to be part of the deal.

But I take issue with the idea that actual freedom, actual improvisation, is a myth, and that, to cite another one of Moyer's points, improvisation is overrated as a rule. Again, I agree with him in the macro sense. Moyer writes, "…the fact that music is improvised doesn’t make it great." Amen to that—I think the idea of improvisation (or any other philosophical construct that informs music's creation or performance, be that serialism, or graphic scores or Conduction, or what have you) being presented as an inherent virtue of that given piece of music is b.s. I'm really only interested in the result, and very often songs, or more generally, compositions, are what I'm after. As a metalhead, I love riffs; as a jazz guy, I love melodies—Ellington, Mingus, Andrew Hill, etc.; as a lifelong pop fan, I love hooks.

But, in some cases, improvised music appears before you as a kind of miracle. Watching Farmers by Nature last night, I felt like I was witnessing the honest-to-God creation of something out of nothing. It wasn't free jazz, or any other kind of calcified thing. It wasn't self-important about its method. It was just an honest shot at doing what improvisers ought, ideally, to do every time, which is not simply to empty your closet of every idea you might have stuffed in there, but to deal with the moment, with its possibility, and to listen, really listen, to what your collaborators have to say, and concern yourself with supporting those ideas, as well as the overall continuity, as fragile as a bubble, of the collective statement.

The set had a real elegance of design to it. Parker started out solo, and the other two slowly built up a kind of murky groove, rising out of nothingness. From there, over roughly an hour, the music visited roughly six or seven different zones, like track demarcations on an album. Each proceeded logically from the one before, and never arrived till the group had fully explored the prior area of inquiry. I remember an episode of fractured funk, with Taborn and Cleaver clanking out jagged accents, completing each other's sentences; an exquisitely chill section that felt almost like placid bossa nova; a couple of frenzied Taborn flights, where he came off like a short-circuiting cyborg, juxtaposing single, percussive notes from different registers of the keyboard; a long unaccompanied Cleaver solo that took full advantage of some expert tom-tom tuning—the drum kit was really singing, in the melodic sense—and ramped up to torrential density; and maybe most profound of all, a section featuring Parker on arco. I don't think I've ever heard a double bass cry out with such grain and elegy and deep feeling as it did last night in Parker's hands. Taborn accompanied with superhuman restraint, serving up quiet yet extremely resonant chords.

So, yes, sensitivity and restraint are a big part of why this music succeeded. But as I attempted to describe above, the group raged plenty as well. I think what impressed me so much was, again, this sense of continuity, of each player's—and the trio's, as a collective unit—awareness of the overall arc. Too often, long sets of improvised music follow a predictable quiet-loud-quiet shape. This felt more like a suite, with each movement taking on its own special mini contour. The band went for the climax when it was there, but they never milked it. Intensity was only one color on the palette. And the same goes for the hierarchy of the music, as it were. For long stretches, the band played in a way that seemed totally collective, i.e., sans soloist, almost in the way that groups like the Necks improvise. But, as with the varied dynamics, collectivity was just one strategy. During plenty of other moments, the more traditional soloist-plus-accompanists concept was very much at play. Each of the three players starred in turn.

Most amazing to me, though, was how the moment, the actual spontaneous unfolding circumstance, seemed to drive the set, as much as the will of any one player, or even of the trio as a whole. I'm thinking, for example, about how Gerald Cleaver's smallest cymbal—the size of a splash, but with a more ping-y, less tinny sound than I've often heard out of splashes—turned out to be something like a central character during the last 10 or 15 minutes of the set. Throughout the performance, Cleaver moved this cymbal around the kit—sometimes it was perched on its own stand to his right, sometimes it was resting on the hi-hat stand above those cymbals or on the floor tom or snare. So, in the middle of one such transfer, Cleaver happened to drop this little cymbal. He reached down beside the bass drum and picked it up, and then he went to put it back on its original stand to his right. But this act became, in and of itself, a sort of tic or weird fixation. He didn't just replace the cymbal and go on playing the full kit. He began obsessively, continuously spinning the cymbal around on the stand, eliciting a faint little creak. The other players didn't seem to directly respond, but as Cleaver turned the cymbal around and around, it was almost like he was drawing the accumulated momentum of the set down into a final moment—draining the water from the tub, funneling the creative material out of the air. Taborn and Parker gradually quieted, and Cleaver was striking the still-spinning cymbal with a wire brush, almost inaudibly. He stopped spinning it and continued whacking the brush into the air, engaging in movement but producing essentially no sound. And that was the end of the set.

I trust that none of the above episodes, the high-intensity Taborn solos, the Parker arco feature, the concluding Cleaver small-cymbal mini drama, were planned. Befitting their group name, the three musicians actually were harvesting moments, turning them over, wringing out all their potential. The overall result didn't sound anything like any stereotypical idea of "free jazz," or any other style of improvised music I can think of. But at the same time, it wasn't alien; it felt fully logical, narrative, directed, harmonious, complete. The set lasted for exactly the right amount of time, and for the band to have played a single note after the ending would've felt (to me, at least) superfluous. This Farmers by Nature set wasn't great because it was improvised; it was great because of, as I've attempted to describe, the brilliance of the various individual moments and the coherence of the overall form. At the same time, I think the set's uniqueness, the fact that what happened last night hasn't happened before and won't happen again, was part of its immense appeal. We shouldn't fetishize the means of production—how something was made, or according to what principle—but when something truly special arises from a certain method, or lack of method, it's good to remember that, yes, that method has potential. It is absolutely no guarantee—not whatsoever—but improvisation can, under certain circumstances, take both players and audience somewhere they've never been. Last night's Farmers by Nature set reaffirmed that fact for me. As always, I'll be staying tuned.


P.S. My focus on the Taborn/Parker/Cleaver performance isn't intended to slight the other sets I saw last night. Both were fierce and beautiful. Darius Jones and Matthew Shipp burrowed ever further into the special kind of poignant, stormy melancholy—doled out in three- or four-minute chunks, the so-called Cosmic Lieder of their album titles—they've been creating as a duo for the past few years. And Travis Laplante and Mick Barr, both scarily extreme, virtuosic and idiosyncratic musicians, unleashed their respective aesthetic selves, but with no sense of autopilot whatsoever, building something collective and response-based, with help from Nick Podgurski's expertly tension-ratcheting percussion, moving imperceptibly from sparseness to brutal density. A hell of a night all around.

Friday, August 08, 2014

My favorite songs of 2014 so far

This year, I've been on the lookout for songs. Gravitating toward that hard diamond of perfection that only a concise, confident single (or album track that plays like one) can provide. I grew up on American Top 40, and even later, when I ventured down the extreme-metal path, brief video clips were guiding the way. Sipping and savoring is great, but sometimes you just want to gulp your music in a concentrated shot and feel it go straight to your head.

I don't know if 2014 has been a particularly good song year, or if that's just where I'm at. I find myself thinking in mixtape terms, listening—to new, recorded music, anyway—from a bite-size, instant-gratification perspective. (Then again, there are albums like La Dispute's Rooms of the House, which strikes me as a post-hardcore insta-classic, grabbing me as complete, immersive experiences.) Here are ten of my recent jams, all released since January.

1. Alvvays - "Archie, Marry Me"
This one is more teleportation device than mere song. It takes me somewhere else, so readily and completely that I feel like it ought to come equipped with some sort of "Do not operate motor vehicles…" warning. We speak of bittersweetness, and it's a cliché, until it's expressed as perfectly as it is here, as balmy melancholy, a sing-songy portrait of a life perched between adolescence and adulthood—or at least that's how I hear it. The deadpan lyrics (I really like the opening: "You've expressed explicitly your contempt for matrimony / You've student loans to pay / And will not risk the alimony") whisk me away to a sort of smart/lovelorn indie-film wonderland, like the best of Noah Baumbach, Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson. Yearning crushes set against the nerdy backdrop of academia, e.g. Overall, "Archie" is the kind of thing a "twee" skeptic—which I can sometimes be—might hold at arm's length initially; but then you move in a little closer, and you realize resistance is futile. P.S. I'm learning to love the whole album, i.e., the self-titled Alvvays debut, but the special exquisiteness of this track is really hard to ignore.

2. Future Islands - "Spirit"
Yes, "Seasons" (you know, the Letterman one) is a megajam, and the perfect wave for this fascinating Baltimore band to ride into the popular consciousness. But the song I play the most off the shrewdly titled Singles is "Spirit." It's a more dancey, insistent track than "Seasons," and, maybe better than any other Future Islands song, it sums up the band's weird alchemy—the transformation of apparent ’80s kitsch and stagy theatricality into transcendent emotional catharsis. If you've seen Future Islands live, you know that Sam Herring means every word, e.g., "For dreams come to those who let them in their guarded room." And the song rises and swells to meet the sentiment.

3. Sia - "Hostage"
Sia's 1000 Forms of Fear is so filled with concentrated pop bouillon, I have to take it in small doses. As anyone who's heard "Chandelier" can attest, the choruses on this thing are monstrous and unrelenting—elated, yes, but often quite sad. "Hostage" is the record's saving grace, its moment of pure giddy fun. Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi helped out on this one (I believe he also turned up on Sia's last LP, the very good We Are Born), and the track captures a bit of the lift of that band's fizziest material. "Hostage" embodies a real dance-in-front-of-the-mirror-singing-into-a-hairbrush vibe. The verse gets you dancing, and then, just before the :30 mark, the chorus comes gushing in, with Sia unleashing that glitzy belt, and as in the vertiginous "Chandelier" refrain, singer and song ascend to a peak of almost unbearable ecstasy.

 4. Mastodon - "The Motherload"
With help from producer Nick Raskulinecz, Mastodon has been pushing hard in a pop direction lately. The two resulting albums, The Hunter and the new Once More ’Round the Sun, work best in atomized form: Swallowed whole, they can be a bit cloying; you often feel the strain of an elementally "epic" band shoehorning itself into a radio-friendly format. But a few times on each record, Nick and the boys get it (it being the Perfect Mastodon Single) so, so right. Case in point, "The Motherload." This song proves, to me at least, that drummer Brann Dailor is the best singer this band's got. He sells this one with so much soul. And it doesn't hurt that the composition itself perfectly balances Mastodon's trademark burly drive, as well as the rock-and-roll swagger that's become a key part of their vocabulary, with a hooky pop imperative. I also love "High Road," Once's lead single, but "The Motherload" is the one that absolutely will not dislodge itself from my brain.

5. White Lung - "Snake Jaw"
Within seconds of throwing on Deep Fantasy, I was on board with White Lung. It's a fierce, relentless album that weights its punk and pop imperatives equally. But this song in particular is just above and beyond. I'm a sucker for bridges and post-choruses, i.e., when songs suddenly veer into a new zone, a place of deeper urgency, instead of just reprising what they've already shown you. This happens constantly in "Snake Jaw," a very short song. When I first heard the post-chorus section at :49, with guitarist Kenneth William busting into hyper pop shred mode, and singer Mish Way responding with soaring melodic wails, I completely lost it. That kind of overdrive and abandon (see also the Sia above) is what I crave in my singles. And the crazy thing is that there's a whole other, equally anthemic, bridge type section after the second chorus (1:36). "Snake Jaw" presents way more musical information than a two-minute song has any business presenting, but somehow, the maximalism feels absolutely logical and coherent.

6. Lana Del Rey - "Brooklyn Baby"
Lana Del Rey's lesser material can sound rickety, corny and/or tedious, but when she nails it ("Video Games," duh), the vibe is thick, immersive and absolutely irresistible. This song is pure camp luxury. She's juxtaposing her trademark sad-ghosts-of-Hollywood feel with hipster-satirizing lyrics. "They judge me like a picture book / By the colors like they forgot to read." Is she talking about herself here, about all the flak she got early on for coming off as artificial and manufactured? Or is this another part of her character portrait of a stereotypical NYC wannabe? ("Well, my boyfriend's in a band / He plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed…" "My jazz collection's rad…," "I get high on hydroponic weed…") That's another thing LDR's best songs do: embody what they're sending up, send up what they're embodying. You can fixate on the meaning, or you can just coast along on the sensation; either way, "Brooklyn Baby" is a triumph.

7. Juan Wauters - "Sanity or Not"
The shortest song on this list, and maybe the most efficient. Juan Wauters does what all the best singer-songwriters do: crafts a persona and embodies it to a T. Check out his old band the Beets, see him live, listen to his (very, very good) debut solo record, N.A.P.: North American Poetry—however you experience his work, you're getting a pure dose. The intention, the "character," if you will, are clear within seconds. The aloof sage, the slacker genius. (That album cover!) The Uruguayan in New York—bewildered but never baffled, always cool, in the spiritual sense. "Sanity or Not" epitomizes what my friend and ex–Time Out NY colleague Jay Ruttenberg meant when he wrote of the Beets that they "straddle the border of folk and punk." Both defiant styles, but also concise and, despite their shared anti-virtuosic stance, deliberate. Wauters is the dude in the shades, strumming away, yes, but a song as perfect as "Sanity or Not" doesn't just happen. 124 seconds of bliss.

8. The War on Drugs - "Red Eyes"
Like Lana and Juan, Adam Granduciel of the War on Drugs has also crafted a character, both in terms of persona and in terms of song. He is the sort of everydude of dad rock, the culmination of the ’60s troubadour figure as filtered through the ’80s "mature period." It's no small feat that he has everyone who listens to him grasping for lofty comparisons. Is he Dylan? Petty? Springsteen? Knopfler? Simon? Henley, even? He is all that is "rootsy" in great modern American pop; the unabashedly glossy version of that idea. Folk transmuted into product, but the thing is, it sounds and feels real—to a child or disciple of the ’80s, maybe even more real than the "real" Americana that underlies it. In its entirety, I find the latest War on Drugs album, Lost in the Dream, a bit much: draggy and bloated. But this song is pure FM-radio righteousness. The "Whoo!" moment at 1:48, and what comes after, cements "Red Eyes" as an essential addition to the road-music canon; that elegiac guitar/keyboard melody that's straight of the Bruce playbook—man… During these moments in "Red Eyes," the entire War on Drugs project propels itself from the realm of pastiche into the realm of the classic. Like Lana, Granduciel seems to be merely mimicking the real deal until, suddenly, he's embodying it.

9. Cloud Nothings - "I'm Not Part of Me"
You don't want to throw around the word timeless, but what are you supposed to do with a song like this? Here and Nowhere Else, the latest Cloud Nothings record (I love pretty much the whole thing), and especially this song, are all about the expertly calibrated balance of salty and sweet, grittiness and hooks. The fuzz on the guitar and the gravel in Dylan Baldi's voice, combined with the precision cut of the song's melodic arc. Name your touchstone for this sort of thing: Hüsker Dü, Nirvana, or maybe even the Stones, Beatles or Who. It's the thing that pop-minded rock and roll does best, and when you hear a great example of it, like "I'm Not Part of Me," there's no gulf between the present and the past. The canon is sacred, but it is also accessible; a new song, if good enough, can take you where all those great old songs did. As the album title says, you hear a track this well-written and rawly, real-ly performed, and for that brief stretch, you're here, in that song's own present, and nowhere else.

10. Say Anything - "Judas Decapitation"
It could be said that at this point, Max Bemis, leader of Say Anything has a formula, that his manic mixture of self-deprecation and vitriol is sort of like a mask of himself that he dons whenever it's time to write another song. I talked about the idea of persona above, and I think that applies here: Isn't making a character (caricature?) of yourself part of the singer-songwriter's job? I think so, and it's part of why I compared Bemis to Woody Allen when I first wrote about him. He's taken the classic neurotic-Jew shtick and updated it for the internet age. Bemis hit the bullseye with his Say Anything debut, …Is a Real Boy (note the reference to being a "dot-dot-dot real man" at 1:40 in "Judas"), and in a certain sense, more of the same is superfluous. But then you hear a song like "Judas Decapitation," a tightly composed pop anthem disguised as unhinged brainspew, and you realize that Bemis has actually gotten better at what he does. Sloppy, sincere, satirical, completely over the top. He's talking about this snake-eating-its-tail phenomenon, the "confessional" singer-songwriter ("speaking brutally of myself to gain traction," etc.) and the supposedly adversarial audience/media, each needing one another, feeding one another, spinning around in a perverse loop-the-loop. The breathless, frantic quality of the music fits the message perfectly. We've heard this from Bemis before, but never this hyperdistilled, this frenzied and fun, peeved yet pop-savvy.


I also love these:

Max LeRoy feat. Kitty and Sad Andy - "Brush Me Off"
What a jam this is. I've listened on repeat so many times. Kitty is a master of the "making it look effortless" school.

Antemasque - "4AM"
The concise, hooky Omar-and-Cedric is back, and I am psyched. This whole album is outstanding. Can't wait for the official release.

P.S. Major oversight! Bob Mould's "I Don't Know You Anymore" is a glaringly obvious punk/pop/rock/etc. mini masterpiece.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Idris Muhammad

Sad to say, I'm only catching up to Idris Muhammad now, the week after his passing. I enjoyed this archival Wax Poetics interview—"See, I'm a natural drummer."

A quick online trawl led me to a few choice items:

One of those monster inside/outside (or, more accurately, oblivious-to-the-division) line-ups—Don Pullen, Sam Rivers, Arthur Blythe, Chico Freeman, Nathan Davis, Santi Debriano—that reminds you how many great jazz allegiances were forged in the ’80s and ’90s. This group, known as Roots, made a few records, but as far as I can tell, the lineup above only appears on 1993's Stablemates. (Checking out Roots reminds me that I really need to spend some time with The Leaders, another roughly contemporary collective that featured Blythe and Freeman.)

I grabbed this record, Kabsha, from 1980, after sampling it on iTunes, and it's exactly what I hoped it would be: lean, swinging, funky, unfussy, beautifully recorded small-group jazz. The quartet lineup indicated on the cover (Muhammad, George Coleman, Pharoah Sanders and Ray Drummond) sounded fascinating, but I'm almost glad that the two saxists only appear together on one track (plus an alternate take). There's just something about a sax-bass-drums trio, especially when your focus is the drummer. Highly recommended.

I'm also intrigued by this:

Much as early Lifetime or Mahavishnu Orchestra seems to represent fusion before "Fusion," this Muhammad album—featuring Grover Washington, Bob James and other crossover/cutout-bin staples—seems to represent smooth (or pop, if you prefer) jazz before Smooth Jazz. I feel that with nearly any style, the embryonic, before-it-had-a-name incarnation is generally worthwhile, and this is no exception: I love it. At this stage of the game, the smoothness is so tasty—and, it must be said, Muhammad's flow so, yes, natural—it feels almost punk.

What other Idris Muhammad do I need to hear?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Folk hero: Goodbye, Charlie Haden

Charlie Haden, 1937–2014


I'm listening to Ornette Coleman's "Street Woman" (fall, 1971), probably my favorite Charlie Haden performance.

There is a joyous, maniacal folk energy coursing through this recording, and Haden is its nerve center. I don't know the technical term for what it is that Haden is doing during the opening head, but it's a sound I know, and cherish, as the Haden Slide—this sort of sticky, slippery journey down the neck of the bass, creating a descending drone that underpins the horn flurries like a subterranean river of molasses. (There's another beautiful Haden Slide, this one running low-to-high, from about 1:03 to 1:07.) And then the zoned-out ecstasy of the bass break at 2:07, as though Haden were weaving his ideas on a foot-controlled loom, heaping momentum on momentum. Then slamming on these completely punk, throbbing offbeat notes underneath Don Cherry's solo at 3:59. And then back to the Haden Slide for the concluding head—aspirating, invoking, drawing in and out, and up and down. Charlie Haden is the dark, pulsating heart of this piece, and, I'd argue, of the Ornette Coleman aesthetic in general. (He is also, of course, the keeper of the trance on the original "Lonely Woman.")

He served the same function in Keith Jarrett's American Quartet and Old and New Dreams—this collective body of work, the output of these two groups as well as the various Coleman recordings over the years, is highest-echelon art, the most human that jazz, or music in general, can get. Charlie Haden was the steward of what I think of as the earth element in jazz. He was the soft, dark, rich, fertile soil of any performance he participated in. Last night, a friend referred to Haden's principal contribution simply as love, and yes, that is really the most direct way to say it. He dug in and spurred himself to emotive ecstasy so that the music could take off. As jazz attained lift-off in the late ’50s, and in new ways on through the ’70s, Charlie Haden was right in the middle of that. What he represents is "free jazz" not as obscurantism but as a quest for utopia, for greater humanity. He was always just trying to get to the song, and, through it, to you.

The aforementioned collaborations are my favorite Charlie Haden contexts, the ones I know best. The Liberation Music Orchestra and Quartet West, to name just two other major Haden endeavors, are more or less blind spots for me, and I need to fix that asap. In a somewhat more obscure vein, the two 1976 Horizon duo albums, The Golden Number and Closeness, are treasured items in my LP collection: A) because they're every bit as special as the personnel (Jarrett, Coleman—who plays alto on Closeness and trumpet on TGN, and would reprise this team-up on ’77's Soapsuds, Soapsuds—Cherry, Paul Motian, Alice Coltrane, Hampton Hawes, Archie Shepp) would lead you to believe, and B) because they sum up so poetically the Charlie Haden ethos of music-making:

This is—forget "jazz"—music as communion, with a collaborator and with something higher. It's only listening—yes, closeness. This is music that smothers the rarefied, chops-and-theory-forward impulse in jazz beneath its pillowy bootheel. It's about spending time, getting into it, sublimating, chasing collective beauty. But not some New Age–y ideal. This music is frequently meditative and gorgeous ("Ellen David"), sure, but also hard and gritty when it needs to be (see "O.C.," with its wiry physicality). Mostly it's about meeting his collaborators where they live—plunging into Alice Coltrane's blissed-out universe during "For Turiya," for instance, or reveling in Hampton Hawes's deep blues bag on "Turnaround." Or forging pan-ethnic sound spaces with Paul Motian and Don Cherry on "For a Free Portugal" (demonstrating Haden's trademark way of making political music feel noble and artful, not pretentious and heavy-handed) and "Out of Focus," respectively.

The liner notes to these records are masterpieces unto themselves, with so much love, wisdom and goodwill being tossed around among Haden, his collaborators and the listener. You read all this, and it drives home what you already knew: Charlie Haden was a true American folk hero.

A few selections:

"Charlie Haden plays for the existence of the listener. This reason alone makes him a musical guru."

"Charlie's music has its roots in Viva la humans. It is not Capitalistic, Communistic or Socialistic. His music does not dictate."

Ornette Coleman

"As inner-directed musicians continue to become rarer…, Charlie Haden becomes more of a phenomenon each year… His stature is very often not even admitted among musicians themselves, as they, in general, are externally directed by mere circumstantial forces. He is one of the very few consistently musical players I know… and my participation on this album is a small tribute to his commitment."—Keith Jarrett

"He has contributed much to JAZZ and ranks as one of the greatest players of all time. To say that he is a sensitive, sympathetic musician would be an understatement. He is a natural, original and beautiful player and on this album has created music from the heart."—Paul Motian

"One of the rewards in playing music is the opportunity of meeting and playing with special human beings that come along, not very often, but when they do, bring a message so strong and beautiful that you feel and you know a giant has come to play. This is the feeling I experience whenever I hear Charlie."—Hampton Hawes

"Closeness: one part of the creative process; feeling a closeness to Life; having a need inside to express your feelings in a creative language; dedicating your life to the language we call Jazz (creative music born in the United States); being close to others who have also dedicated their lives to creative music; wanting and hoping to communicate this closeness to as many people as possible through music. These are some of the things this album is about."—Charlie Haden


Some of the great tributes that have turned up so far:

*Fred Kaplan // Slate
*Peter Hum & Co. // The Ottawa Citizen
*Patrick Jarenwattananon // NPR (plus this awesome archived Haden/Jarrett encounter)
*Nate Chinen // NY Times


And finally, a gem you may not have seen. Three fourths of the Jarrett quartet, playing with Baikida Carroll under Haden's leadership: