Sunday, June 17, 2018

Enormity of song: 40 Watt Sun live at Saint Vitus

Saint Vitus, Brooklyn's temple of metal, was about as sparsely populated as I've seen it for last night's 40 Watt Sun show. I arrived with some friends a little before the band went on, and ran into some other friends, and the size of the crowd suggested a chill weeknight show rather than Saturday prime time. But to judge by the reactions at the end of the concert — in terms of, if I may, impact per capita — this was one of the more powerful performances I've attended there, or anywhere else, in recent memory.

If you're not familiar with 40 Watt Sun, a) please stop reading this immediately and listen to their latest album, 2016's absolutely exquisite Wider Than the Sky (see here for more on that one). But b) for description's sake, I'd characterize their music as a sort of poetic, gradually unfolding dirge rock. It seems relevant to note that the project is vestigially related to metal in that the singer/songwriter/bandleader, Patrick Walker, formerly fronted (and sometimes still does) Warning, a band that shares certain traits with 40 Watt Sun but had a more overtly "heavy" presentation.

But in another sense, it seems absurd, reductive, crass to associate this band with any genre, especially one as codified, plotted and ultra-taxonomied as metal. As last night's relatively brief, utterly extraordinary concert was nearing its end, I found a frustration welling up within me that things had to be this way. Why can't songs just be songs? Why is music, or any art, fragmented in such a way that music that I would consider to be objectively beautiful and moving has to be somehow stunted in terms of audience, lumped in with a genre where it will forever be an alternative to something (i.e., not your usual "doom metal," etc.)? Rather than considered simply in terms of what it has to offer, which is a vast expanse of feeling and transportive resonance.

Walker has aired similar frustrations. Consider this exchange, from a 2011 Scene Point Blank interview with Cheryl:

SPB: You were saying that Codeine were a bridge to other types of music - they're kind of lo fi...

Patrick: I don't know what the hell that is. I've heard that thrown around - lo fi, slowcore, sadcore, post rock. All these fucking terms thrown around. It's just nonsense, it's all music. It's Western Popular Music at the end of the day, isn't it? There's no point in getting hung up on things. There's no difference between that [Codeine] and anything else that people are gonna hear. It's sub-genres within sub-genres.

SPB: Not a fan of labels ?

Patrick: No.

SPB: Obviously you guys get classed as doom...

Patrick: Yes, but that's because I was in Warning. You can't escape it can you?

Anyway, right now, I'm revisiting "Another Room," from Wider Than the Sky, which the band opened with last night, and which is a perfect example of the 40 Watt Sun aesthetic, in the sense that it unfolds extremely gradually, asks everything from the listener in terms of attention and patience and stillness, but rewards that focus with such intense clarity of emotion, a sort of time-release shot of feeling that seems to almost enter your bloodstream and slowly flow out to your extremities. Once you are in the space of this music, the conventions of any other music immediately recede, so that you are simply existing with, and even within, these songs. There is not ever the slightest sense of wanting them to "pick up the pace" or "get on with it"; the idea of room is so essential to the power of what they do that, standing there in the physical presence of these songs — I think of the sort of majestic trudge of the verses of "Another Room," wherein the downbeat on the snare seems to take forever to arrive — it's almost hard to imagine a music that doesn't behave in this manner, doesn't treat space and time with such care and delicacy. ("I like sparsity and space in music," Walker told Noisey in 2016. "I like to be able to feel what I'm playing and to think about what I'm singing.")

Walker's songwriting is extremely skillful, built around repetitive but deeply elegant chord changes, sections that cycle over and over without losing a deep sense of purpose, and then opening into these grand and majestic sort of turnarounds. I hesitate to even call them choruses; they're more like sacred arrivals. I think of the "I'm standing on the inside" refrain in "Another Room," and how just inexpressibly right it feels when it comes around — like, yes, this is exactly where this song needs to go at this moment. And the compositions too often pick up in intensity near the end, with a relatively hard-hitting instrumental section that acts as a kind of release for the ocean of feeling that has been building and building throughout the song.

And what is that feeling? Again, just as I bristle at the idea of this band being classified or ghettoized — and, not being a member of the band, really what I'm bristling at is the idea that the band's potential audience would be somehow limited by this notion, that people who might otherwise discover it and treasure it the way that I and the others in that room last night clearly do might somehow never even find out it exists — I shy away from using reductive or banal terms to describe the emotions their music expresses. I guess I could frame it another way and discuss the quality and affect of Walker's voice, which is stunning on record and something considerably more than that in person. He sings with such purity and grace and humble potency. (All those clichéd terms, from "croon" to "howl" seem to fall pitifully short in the face of his delivery, in much the same way that words like "melancholy" or "forlorn" seem to give only the faintest approximation of the moods Walker's songs conjure; the best way I can describe it is as sort of this direct emission of melody. His melodies are winding and ingenious but extremely fluid and logical, moving in long, orderly arcs; sometimes he'll sort of reach for a climactic note but he's not an overtly dramatic or demonstrative singer; all the affect is there in the line itself.) There are singers who seem as though they're actively trying to break your heart, and depending on their degree of skill, sometimes they will succeed through this concerted effort, but in Walker's case, there is a very different quality, almost a humility. He does not appear to be trying to have any particular effect at all on the listener; his service is only to the song. There was communion going on at last night's concert, and by that I mean that people were absolutely rapt, embracing their partners and mouthing every word, but there was not that sort of tedious and creepy sense of hero worship flowing from audience to performer. And that is, I think, due in part to Walker's uncanny degree of unpretentiousness and lack of ceremony or drama onstage. He wants and needs to get inside this music, and he will do so — aided greatly, I should say, by the consummately sensitive and unassuming playing of 40 Watt Sun's rhythm section, consisting of, on record, at least, drummer Christian Leitch and bassist William Spong, though I'm not 100% sure those were the two musicians who accompanied Walker last night (Note: Walker helpfully informed me that it was Andrew Prestidge on drums and Alasdair C. Mitchell on bass at Saint Vitus)— but he will not visibly emote or "perform" beyond what the song itself needs or demands. Frankly, seeing him deliver this monumentally moving music without seeming to "sell" it in any way to the audience only made it that much more affecting.

Which brings me to his between-song banter, which was disarmingly casual and funny and, again, only served to intensify the spotlight on the real focus of the evening, which was the songs. Before the band started playing, after Walker thanked the audience for being there, someone yelled out that they "wanted to be sad" or "were ready to be sad," or something to that effect. "You can stay at home and be sad, mate," Walker cracked with classic dry British wit. And in between songs, he told various stories of what I'd describe as misguided fandom. (Like the time a guy came up to him after a Warning show and told him very earnestly that a given song of theirs was "the second-greatest song of all time," the first being by Tori Amos.) Make no mistake, Walker clearly appreciates his fervent fan base, but he also can't help but, in his words, "take the piss," out of listeners who can only view his art in a single dimension. He described several attendees of past shows expressing dissatisfaction with his stage demeanor, saying of one fan that he was (I'm paraphrasing here) "upset that I didn't seem depressed."

Now this whole concept, i.e., that just because a given artist's music projects a certain emotion doesn't mean that this artist personally embodies that emotion, or ever did embody it, is one that should be self-evident to any mature music fan but that also is easy to lose sight of when the music in question is as affecting as Walker's. A fan might like to imagine him perpetually staring out the window at a rainy English countryside, nursing his melancholy for months on end as he prepares to slump over to his guitar and compose a new dirge. But the simple fact is that he seems like a normal, well-adjusted guy who just happens to write intensely poignant songs that seem to practically glisten with the residue of loss and the yearning and alienation that can accompany human love.

As his career has progressed, Walker seems to have only moved further from any kind of generic expression. If Warning was all about crushing loss, 40 Watt Sun expresses a deeply shaded range of feeling. In comparison with other 40 Watt songs, "Marazion," the relatively brief closing track of Wider Than the Sky, and a highlight of last night's set, embodies a kind of lightness and hopefulness, a sense that yes, we've been through the ringer here, but maybe it'll be alright. And anyway, even if not, we still have to be moving on, don't we?

The sort of normalcy of the whole event last night — Walker squeezing honey into his mouth out of one of those bear-shaped bottles at various points; misplacing his capo and asking his companion in the audience to go downstairs and check if it was in his "trousers"; or just striding casually through the crowd to the bar after a devastating unaccompanied encore — seemed so beautifully at odds with the transcendent nature of what were all witnessing. Walker seems to at once understand that his music inspires great fervor and to appreciate this fact greatly but also to intent to express to his audience that he doesn't have any answers for them beyond the songs themselves. From the Noisey interview:

Noisey: Many times you've voiced your distaste for interviews, so I really appreciate you giving us one. To be honest, I appreciate your minimalism. Interviews can be gratuitous, and with a cult of personality surrounding many artists, it gets annoyingly beside the point sometimes.

Patrick Walker: I can't overemphasize how much I agree with you on the "cult of personality" and gratuitous nature of so many interviews; reading "artists" indulging in their own myth-building and so forth. I find it all repulsive.
There wasn't even any merch for sale after the show (apparently some LPs had sold out before the band's set). Just a relatively small group, maybe or 50 or milling around in the bar, sort of happily stunned. "That's why you do music," my friend Nick said, summing up what we were all thinking. The words, the sounds, the unadorned splendor of that voice, so clear, luminous and laden with feeling, like a blessing descending upon us all for a too-brief hour or so, to be relished if not recaptured. To re-immerse in reality after a show like that is, frankly, somewhat painful. But I'm thankful that some shadow of the experience lives on the records. And that I got to be there in that little room, with those relatively few others, soaking up that enormity of song.


*I'm very intrigued by these two playlists that Patrick Walker put together — one from this year and one from 2016 — that might give some insight into what speaks to him as a songwriter and fan. It will quickly become clear on checking these out just how far Walker's aesthetic values stray from "metal" or any other reductive notion of genre.

Monday, May 28, 2018

"You go and you play": On Paul Motian's limitless jazz

[Photo above borrowed from the website of Uncle Paul's Jazz Closet, a wonderful Paul Motian–centric podcast and info source, hosted/maintained by his niece Cindy McGuirl, that I can't wait to delve further into.]

Ted Panken's jazz interviews are invaluable, and lately I've been going back to one of my favorites, a conversation with Paul Motian from 2008. I've been deeply immersed in the Motian discography, and I find that the late drummer-composer's words, as self-effacing and even terse as they can be, serve as a great complement to the music.

[Emphasis mine.]

TP: Can you speak about the dynamics of playing with a bass player vis-a-vis playing without one?
PM: That was going through my head last night as I was playing. Without the bass, I can do whatever I want. I can change the tempo. I can play free, without a tempo. I can play free for a while, and then play in tempo for a while, and not play, and lay out. I’m totally free, and it’s totally open for me to do whatever I want. ...


TP: So in 1963, you’re playing with Bill Evans, and in 1964 you’re playing with Paul Bley, Albert Ayler and Gary Peacock. Opposite ends of the spectrum. Why did this happen?
PAUL: I don’t think of it as being that far apart. They were gigs, and it was music. Just playing music, man. Continuing, going forward.

In jazz, as I have experienced it, there is this great divide, such that one often feels the need to pick a side. You will hear about "inside" and "outside," "straight-ahead" and "avant-garde," and all the rest. (Funny, because the aesthetic that eventually came to be seen as the conservative center of jazz, bebop and its offshoots, was once reviled as its own kind of blasphemous perversion of what came before.) When I was first getting to know the music, it was what I perceived, and what was often termed, as the fringes that drew me in. Kind of Blue didn't stick at first, but The Shape of Jazz to Come did; I was a serious Albert Ayler fan before I really came to appreciate the Ellington canon, and so forth.

These divisions persist and are still frequently invoked in the discussions that surround jazz. I of course missed the "anti-jazz" melee that sprung up around Coltrane's late work, and I was still a neophyte at the time of the whole Ken Burns Jazz controversy (not to mention the tensions surrounding the "Young Lions" movement, the uptown/downtown divide, etc.). But nonetheless there was a time when I bought into all that wholesale, i.e., that the idea of a turf war was inherent in this music.

And there's no doubt that for some, it was, and perhaps still is. No doubt prejudices regarding certain styles and aesthetics, or even vague affiliations, have prevented, and likely still do prevent, certain artists from getting gigs. (I think of Sunny Murray, quoted in Val Wilmer's As Serious as Your Life: "Working with Cecil Taylor was the worst thing that ever happened to me. ... I became stereotyped in that role and no one wanted to hear me play. I was a good bebop drummer before Cecil. Really – I should have stayed with that.") Of course, the opposite can be true too, where an artist takes on a certain cachet or cool quotient because of one or two "out" record dates they did decades ago that have very little to do with the sort of musician they ultimately became.

But the more time I spend with Paul Motian's music, particularly his extensive body of work as a leader, the more I feel like he was one of the rare figures, not just in jazz but in any music, in recent memory, who was able to really get free of all that. Ted Panken makes reference to "opposite ends of the spectrum" and Motian counters with: "They were gigs, and it was music."

It's worth repeating: "They were gigs, and it was music."

He's not diminishing the scope of anything, or, I think, chiding his interlocutor for over-analysis. (Nor does he do so in this 2010 New Sounds interview with John Schaefer, though by the show's conclusion, the host seems somewhat at his wit's end; for a comedic take on same, see drummer and Motian superfan Vinnie Sperrazza's hilarious account of attempting to engage his idol at gigs over the years.) He's merely stating plainly — and reiterating when necessary — his thought process, or more accurately his lack of one.

There's a great exchange in an earlier Panken/Motian conversation, from 2005, which I'll quote at some length. We cut in as Panken is inquiring about Motian's gear...

[Again, emphasis mine.]

TP: So you don’t give Gretsch specifications?
PAUL: No. As a matter of fact, James Farber asked me when I got my drumkit, and I couldn’t remember. Then he remembered because he said it was on Bill Frisell’s first record on ECM; I had the same drumkit. That means I’ve had it for 15 years or so, and I didn’t realize that. I just went into a drum-shop and bought it.

TP: You’re so matter of fact when you talk about these areas of your career…
PAUL: Yeah! It’s not no deep fuckin’ secret! People talk about this shit like it’s some kind of…

TP: But you were involved in a lot of cataclysmic events. The Bill Evans Trio, which influenced every pianist who came after. You’re involved in the Keith Jarrett Quartet, and a ton of people are still drawing on that vocabulary. You came in on Albert Ayler and Paul Bley and a certain way of organizing that kind of thing. Frisell and Lovano, that trio set a template for everybody under 40 (who went to a conservatory anyway). So that’s at least four major shifts in the music that you’re part of.
PAUL: Well, okay.

TP: Well, you know this. It seems to be part of following your instincts, the quotidian thing of being a working musician in New York. “I like it, I go there, I play it.”
PAUL: Yeah-yeah. That’s it, man. There’s no…

TP: But wasn’t it a conceptual leap to play behind Albert Ayler after you’d been playing with Bill Evans?

TP: Maybe Scott LaFaro prepared you for that.
PAUL: Nobody prepared me for… No. No! No, man. None of that stuff is true! Somebody calls you for a gig, and you go, and you play, and you play with the people that you play with, and you play with them, and you try to make music. You try to make music with the people you’re playing with, and then play a certain way, so you might play a certain way just to make it musical or make it magic or make it something that’s worthwhile.

TP: Then it becomes part of your style, doesn’t it.
PAUL: I don’t know.

TP: You don’t let it go. It becomes part of your muscle memory or your brain memory…
PAUL: I don’t know! [LAUGHS]
Again, I do not single out these passages to take issue with Panken's line of questioning, which I think comes out of a completely genuine and perfectly understandable curiosity re: how one musician could cover so much meaningful musical ground. I just mean to emphasize the sort of Zen-like wisdom in Motian's responses. It might seem as though he's being "difficult," but I think he's simply trying to sort of set the record straight. I think that he really and truly does not believe in these divisions within his chosen music, that he recognizes the individual genius of, say, Bill Evans and Albert Ayler but does not see their aesthetics as somehow contradictory, or mutually exclusive.

"Somebody calls you for a gig, and you go, and you play, and you play with the people that you play with, and you play with them, and you try to make music."

I think it's hard for us as listeners and fans to realize sometimes that music we hear as innovative or inspiring or groundbreaking or transporting simply happened. I wasn't there, but I'd wager that there was no great flash of smoke at Van Gelder Studio at the outset of the recording of A Love Supreme; it was another day at work. Deeply creative, spiritually engaged work, yes. But it happened the same way all other music happens: " go, and you play."

I've savored a wide spectrum of Motian recordings in recent weeks, nearly all of it absolutely sublime. The '87 quintet album Misterioso; Lost in a Dream, the 2010 one-off with Chris Potter and Jason Moran, which, as far as I'm concerned, is one of the most poetic and category-transcending musical documents I know; and hours and hours of music by the famed trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, which might just be the fullest realization of the principles I'm skirting around above, the idea of this sort of division-less space where, in Motian's words, "I can do whatever I want." (And I should note that much of Motian's commentary above revolves around the idea of working as a sideman, a far less thought-out circumstance than his leader scenarios, which showcased the fruits of decades of private labor as a composer, but I think the basic principles still apply.)

I've been spending time today with this extraordinary footage of a 1986 concert by the trio and then I switched over to a recent acquisition, the 1995 live album At the Village Vanguard: You Took the Words Right Out of My Heart. Right now I'm listening to a particularly hard-swinging passage of the track "Yahllah" — an often-revisited Motian piece that I believe first surfaced, in a very different incarnation, on the Keith Jarrett album Byablue — from the latter, with Lovano riding Motian's deep, sloshy groove, and Frisell plucking along like a steady-rolling locomotive behind them. It's total trance-blues ecstasy, an episode of communion and propulsion that sounds like it could go on forever, and maybe has been.

And it's such a profoundly different musical space from the one we hear on, say, the "Folk Song for Rosie," another Motian classic, from this album. Motian is playing a kind of tempo here, delineating the barest essence and contour of the music on ride cymbal and bass drum, but the centerpiece is this sort of endless circular chant that you hear in Motian's music, something I explored in some detail in this 2015 post, wherein Lovano and Frisell sort of build up the melody like a mantra, sometimes singing it back and forth to one another, sometimes phrasing it together in ghostly rubato. The songs, and Motian's compositions, especially the "ballads," lend themselves so beautifully to this treatment, just sort of hover and cycle and accrue more and more tenderness and pathos with each rendering. ("Every [one of Paul's compositions] was a little different, but they all had a real folk-song feeling," Lovano told me when I interviewed him for a posthumous Motian tribute in 2013. "You could play his melodies over and over again for hours and express them in different ways. Paul wrote some really strong, powerful, beautiful, simple melodies. And some tunes had more structure, more harmonic sequences; some tunes just had a mood and a very simple little phrase. Paul could sustain a mood like no one else and create so much inner music within that.") There are "solos" in this music, episodes when it's clear that one of the three players is taking the lead, but there's never that sense, that can be prevalent in some jazz, that the raw material of the song, the launchpad, if you will, is being dispensed with once it's stated at the outset. The material of a given song suffuses the entire performance. All three players are there to sing it — to abstract it perhaps, stretch it to the point of pure ambience, but never to get free of it.

And the fact that this song material is so incredibly pure and powerful and memorable and achingly poetic is a large part of why this music feels so free. You can do whatever you want to these songs, and they still sound like themselves, their essence still dripping from every pore of a given performance. Every extemporization, from any of the three players, seems not like a glorification of that player, or an invention of his ego, but an impassioned paean to the song itself. (The same is true in the band's treatments of standards and showtunes, though I'll admit a preference for the originals.)

So it's not that there's no thought or intent behind this music; quite the opposite. It's more that the thought and intent is so completely expressed within the music itself, both in its conception by Motian, and its performance by the trio, that explanation seems superfluous. The "freedom" in this music is so inextricably braided together with the songhood of it, and vice versa, that its very existence seems like a refutation of easy, outwardly imposed dichotomies or divisions within jazz. (A lesson Bill Frisell seemed to learn the very first time he played with Paul Motian: "What surprised me, when I first went over to his house to play, the very first moment…I guess I was expecting that we were going to play some completely free, crazy, wigged-out avant-garde stuff," the guitarist told me in 2013. "But ... we played that George Gershwin song ['My Man's Gone Now,' which Motian had played with Bill Evans]. And everything we did, there was such a structure and a clear intent with it. And so many of his own tunes were very open, but they were very particular. I could tell he was really struggling, in a way, to find his own way of writing music."*)

Classify if you must, the trio seems to say, but whatever arbitrary distinctions you settle on, leave us out of it. From moment to moment, this band can be heartbreakingly tender, forbiddingly tumultuous, charmingly quirky or just plain fucking strange:

If there is a name for what that music is, other than Paul Motian Trio Music, I don't know what it is, or care to know. It is simply itself.

"You go, and you play."


*Bill Frisell elaborated further on Motian's range, wisdom and almost mystical presence on the bandstand:

"It sort of aggravates me how people still view [Paul] as this 'free,' 'abstract' [drummer]—all that kind of stuff. So many people miss that he had the heaviest, deepest beat I ever heard in my life. At this point I've played with some pretty extraordinary drummers. With Paul, no matter how abstract it got, his time feeling, the beat was just unbelievable. You could hear that, Wow, he's played with Coleman Hawkins and Monk and Oscar Pettiford. [His playing] had that direct artery going right back to that stuff. He's more known as—whatever the words they use—a 'colorist.' But somehow it all comes from that depth of the beat. The time feel is so deep that no matter how abstract he was, that was always there. I've never had a blood transfusion, but playing with him was always like I was getting filled with juice.

"There was such a wide range of dynamics. He'll go from almost a stadium-rock-band thing [Ed. note: Check out his incredible whomping tom fill at 3:17 in the aforementioned live video.] to just whispering. I experienced that a lot. Sometimes he would have me play things by myself. On all the records, there's usually one song that he'll just have me play alone, and sometimes I'd do it on the gig. But even when he wasn't playing, he was affecting the music. One time, he had me play something by myself and he's sitting there at the drums but he's not playing. And I'm playing this thing, and in the back of my mind, I'm thinking, Wow, I sound really good. And then I tried to do that somewhere else when he wasn't there and nothing happened. So whether he was making a sound or not, he was still making the music."

*This beautiful John Rogers recollection also touches on the Paul Motian Effect, that guru-like way he seemingly had of elevating the activities and ambitions of everyone around him.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Recent raves: Immortal, Pat Metheny and more

Happy spring! A few recent musical obsessions and raves:

I'm generally not a fan of the endless microdivision of music into various subcategories, but I guess that looking back at my consumption of metal in its various forms over the years, I could generally say that I haven't gone that deep with the movement they call "black metal." Of the various canonical groups, the one I'd spent the most time with before the past month or so was Mayhem, whose shadowy, esoteric vibe (both re: the classic stuff and the more current releases) I dig very much. Recently, though — prompted by the announcement of a new album, Northern Chaos Gods, out in July — I dove into the Immortal catalog and made my way through their eight prior full-lengths. I took a backwards route, and while it was fun to hear the sound grow more and more primitive, as is often the case for me, I gravitated more toward the band's "mature" sound, where they'd dispensed with the seemingly central black-metal value of sounding harsh and lo-fi for the sake of pure extremity and moved on to a place I could relate to more: where it's simply about the songs.

The 2002 album Sons of Northern Darkness, the band's final album before their initial breakup a year later, particularly struck me. What I love about this record is the way that the material just sort of instantly obviates those subgenre distinctions I was referring to above. Yeah, the dudes like to paint their faces and dress up in leather and spikes; yeah, the vocals take the form of an otherworldly croak. But when you get right down to it, this stuff is just heavy, anthemic rock and roll, built around extremely sturdy, memorable riffs and designed for maximum live efficiency. I watch a performance like the one below, of Immortal playing at the 2007 edition of the legendary Germany fest Wacken Open Air — and I highly recommend checking out the entire concert, released in audio and video forms as The Seventh Date of Blashyrkh — and I see and hear the purest essence of heavy metal: a gloriously over-the-top, turn-off-your-brain-and-rage spectacle. So much metal, especially "extreme" metal presents itself as some kind of insular rite, where the spectator is merely an incidental presence. That kind of thing can be cool in the right hands, but to me, there's something really joyous and inspiring about Immortal's total commitment to pure heavy-metal entertainment.

This 2008 Guitar World interview with Immortal co-architects Abbath and Demonaz only drove home the band's deep connection — seemingly denied by so many in the metal underground —  to the rock and roll tradition:

Abbath: "Me and Demonaz are true. You can’t find truer people than us. But what’s true? We’re true…to rock and roll. It’s not about being evil and nasty to the rest of your fellows; it’s about showing those who think that rock and roll is a bad thing that, yeah, it is a bad thing: It’s baaad, in an all right way. It’s good. It’s freedom. Metal? Sure. But it’s rock and roll! If you don’t have the rock and roll attitude and vibe, you’ve got nothing."

Pat Metheny
What can I say? The man's discography has brought me an extreme amount of joy over the years, and periodically, I get swept up and totally lost in the insane quantity and variety of sound he's brought into the world over the years. I can't remember what set off this latest immersion, but I started out by traversing many of the Pat Metheny Group recordings both vintage and more recent. That band's 1978 debut has become a major touchstone for me in recent years. I poke fun at the Group's smoothness sometimes — let's be honest, for pure frictionless breeziness, that ensemble has often rivaled the most unabashed practitioners of so-called yacht-rock — and among friends and bandmates I've taken to labeling their aesthetic "elevator shred," but in the moment, while the listening is in progress, there are no qualifiers or disclaimers: I adore this stuff, plain and simple. As with Immortal above, I'm just extremely attracted to the unabashed quality of this body of work: Metheny and Co. seem concerned with nothing but making the most purely beautiful and epic music they can conceive of, completely irrespective of genre or fashion. At times does the Group ride a certain line of blandness that dampens my enthusiasm? Yeah, certainly — I'll admit that some of the mid-period output loses me a little bit. But at their best, and my three faves are probably that self-titled debut, the Travels live album from a few years later and the most recent PMG set, The Way Up, I find this band to be an inexhaustible source of transportive joy.

And what's so impressive to me is that the PMG aesthetic, which for some musicians would be the basis for an entire career, is only a sliver of what Pat Metheny is about. He's got this whole other, more capital-J Jazz side of what he does (I talked a bit about this duality in a 2008 DFSBP post), collaborating with the greatest musicians in the world in that style — "hanging," to speak with that circle, but never losing his core identity as this sort of Midwestern maverick, endlessly committed, yes, to chopsy virtuosity but also to a certain soulfulness and, again, the unabashed projection of the ecstasy of each musical moment. I've been returning to many of the established classics, from 80/81 to Rejoicing, and, again, just finding them to be so radiant and loose and enjoyable and free of pretense.

Another project that's been really grabbing me is the Unity Group (which grew out of an earlier project called the Unity Band), one of Metheny's latest ventures, which seems to be an attempt to reconcile various strains of his work, from the PMG "pastoral prog" vibe to the hardcore jazz stuff to the whimsical Orchestrion project, into one kind of superband. I highly recommend checking out both the 2014 album Kin and the live-in-a-black-box 2016 follow-up The Unity Sessions. The depth of the band (featuring Metheny's current drummer-of-choice Antonio Sanchez, monster saxist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Giulio Carmassi) allows Metheny to revel in all sides of what he loves to do in turn, from tender ballads to epic, quasi-proggish, through-composed suites to fiery extended solos, in settings ranging from reflective unaccompanied guitar to the full band's mini-orchestral lushness. I think of The Unity Sessions in particular as a sort of sweeping celebration of the Pat Metheny Sound in all its splendor. (Appropriately, the material ranges from pieces specifically written for the Unity Band/Group to classics from '80/'81, Song X and more.) For the full experience, I highly recommend checking out the concert-film version of the release, which is available in full on iTunes. Here's a preview:

Another recommended Metheny document: this excellent long-form interview conducted by Willard Jenkins last year. It really drives home for me the sort of pleasure-principle aspect of what Metheny does. He seems sort of marvelously unconcerned with how anyone might sort of classify or evaluate the various strains of his output, and on the contrary, marvelously concerned only with how much happiness and fulfillment a given musical endeavor might bring him. (Some might dispute me on this, but in my mind, his pleasure-principle attitude almost seems punk, a quality that aligns him directly with his similarly prolific and eclectic onetime collaborator John Zorn.) I have to say, though there are albums and projects of his I respond to more and less, that spirit of sort of innocent enthusiasm seems remarkably consistent throughout his body of work, from the Bright Size Life days up till now.

Demilich + Blood Incantation at Saint Vitus; May 4th, 2018
Speaking of joy, this show was just a goddamn blast from start to finish. I'd been wanting to see Demilich live for years. I have such a deep reverence for their lone 1993 album, Nespithe, which I went deep on when it was reissued a few years back, and that reverence has only grown after seeing Antti Boman and Co. rip through this material with no-nonsense passion and precision. The quarter century in between has not dulled the singularity and strangeness of this material in the slightest. Those stupendously grooving, asymmetrical riffs; that odd, bubbly belch of a voice — there's just nothing else like it in metal, and it's so inspiring to see that they're still commanding such respect and adoration this many years later (two sold out shows in one night at Vitus!). As I wrote on Twitter the other night, this sort of weird, roundabout cult success story could only happen in underground metal.

And Blood Incantation just absolutely blew me away. I'd read the raves about their 2016 release Starspawn, and while I've revisited in recent days and can confirm that it does indeed rip, I have to say that it doesn't even come close to approximating (for me, at least) how overwhelmingly captivating and intense this band was live. Their set just felt absolutely possessed and commanding, like they'd been locked in some underground bunker for years just drilling this stuff over and over (maybe just a.k.a. "on tour a whole fucking lot"), and when they emerged it was just pure internalized ritual, and channeling of some expertly honed force. They left me floored with how skillfully they covered the full spectrum of metal values, from a truly feral feel and energy to a truly grand, majestic compositional vision. Next time they play here, I will be dragging everyone I know, because this set was a fucking marvel to behold.

And shout-out to Artificial Brain as well! I'm deeply into their frontman's sort of good-natured ringleader vibe, and the band's highly appealing/effective blend of the slamming and the spacey.

Dave Holland / Evan Parker / Craig Taborn / Ches Smith, Uncharted Territories
I'm still digesting this (extremely long!) album, which comes out May 11th, but I'm absolutely loving it so far. Old Spontaneous Music Ensemble buds (btw, did you catch that phenomenal Karyobin reissue from last year?) Holland and Parker join up with two new-school leaders for a deep, varied free-improv excursion (rounded out by a select few compositions). As previously stated, there's an almost absurd amount of music here, but what I dig about the release is that that tracks themselves are relatively compact and digestible. I've been enjoying putting this one on shuffle and just sort of savoring whatever comes up. Given that the album includes basically all combinations of the four players, there's a ton of variety in the sound and the texture. Beautiful recording quality too. Don't miss this excellent Holland interview by Steve Smith, in which Dave tantalizingly alludes to a possible tour by this fine ensemble.

More on the Holland here, via RS.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

HMB 14: Ben Monder + The Starebaby outtakes

I'm proud to present the 14th installment of Heavy Metal Bebop, a series of conversations about the intersection of jazz and metal. The subject this time around is guitarist Ben Monder, who I've been wanting to speak to about this topic for some time now. A big thanks to him for a great, in-depth interview. Check it out here.

I've also posted extended conversations with Dan Weiss, Matt Mitchell and Trevor Dunn, outtakes from reporting I did for the aforementioned Times feature on Dan's Starebaby project. (I also spoke with Craig Taborn for the piece, and I hope to be able to post that interview soon.) Enjoy!

Photo: Stephanie Ahn

Friday, April 06, 2018

The fuchsia-colored awning: What Cecil Taylor taught me

[Update, April 6, 3:55pm ET: See also this CT appreciation for Rolling Stone.]

I thought about Cecil Taylor often during the past couple years. After the Whitney concerts in 2016, there was a lengthy period of no-news, and I often found myself wondering how he was doing. Whenever I was in Fort Greene, I would walk by his brownstone, at which I spent one unforgettable afternoon (then: baffling; now, in retrospect: invaluable) in the summer of 2008, and just sort of pay my silent respects. There was always that question of when he, that seemingly eternal, towering, incomparably enriching presence, both in the larger culture and in my sound-obsessed brain/heart, might no longer be there. And the answer to that is, really, never, because — after a partial spin through his early-'80s solo classic Garden on the train yesterday, after I got wind of the sad news that we're all still coming to terms with — he seems as alive to me now as he ever did.

Aside from a few close friends, ones I met shortly after I arrived here for college just shy of two decades ago and who at this point I'd simply consider family, Cecil Taylor has been one of the few unwavering constants of my life in New York. I now wish I had a complete record of the times I got to see him in concert, but here's what I can piece together from memory, and from the backlog of this blog you're reading, which, in many ways, has often resembled a Cecil Taylor Fan Site more than anything else (I was apparently owning up to that fact as early as 10 years ago):

*Duo with Elvin Jones at the Blue Note. Probably fall 1999. Maybe even this show. [Oh, to re-hear this concert. At the time, I barely had any idea who either musician was, and hadn't really begun to cultivate what would become my respective obsessions with the soundworld of each.]

*Duo with Max Roach at Columbia University. June 2000

*Trio with Albey Balgochian and Jackson Krall at Castle Clinton. July 2004.

*Trio with Albey Balgochian and Jackson Krall at the Blue Note. Probably February 2006.

*Solo at Merkin Hall. October 2006. Thoughts here.

*Trio with Henry Grimes and Pheeroan akLaff at Iridum. October 2006. Thoughts here.

*Duo with Tony Oxley at the Village Vanguard. July 2008. Thoughts here. [I will say that this stands as one of the greatest sets of live music I've ever witnessed, period, and it is my constant regret that I didn't go back and hear them every night they were there.]

*Trio with William Parker and Pheeroan akLaff at the Blue Note. February 2008. Thoughts here.

*Solo at the Highline Ballroom. August 2008. Thoughts here.

*Trio with Min Tanaka and Tony Oxley + [I think] Octet with Bobby Zankel, Elliott Levin, Albey Balgochian, Tristan Honsinger, Jackson Krall and others at the Whitney. April 2016. Thoughts here.

*Quintet with Harri Sjöström, Okkyung Lee, Jackson Krall and Tony Oxley at the Whitney. April 2016. Thoughts here.

There were plenty of other opportunities that I should have availed myself of. I never caught, for example, the orchestra that he would often bring to Iridium. Nor did I make those 2012 solo shows at Issue Project Room and the Harlem Stage Gatehouse, respectively, which have taken on a sort of mythic quality in my mind based on the rapturous testimonies of those who were there. (Though I did attend the 2015 Taylor tribute at the Gatehouse, and as good as it was, like everyone else, I was bummed that the man himself didn't make it.)

It now seems strange, given the relative scarcity of Cecil performances, both in NYC and elsewhere, during the later years of his life, that for a while there (and this could very well have been going on long before I arrived in the city), his presence, both on various stages and on "the scene," was common, expected. (Chris Felver's revelatory and now hard-to-find documentary All the Notes, with its window into Cecil's day-to-day life — holding court at home, heading out to his frequent haunt the 55 Bar — will stand as a key document of this period.) We have a vision of him as perhaps the ultimate musical eccentric, but he was by no means apart from society. I'd always hear stories from various musicians who had hung out with him either at his place or elsewhere (Howard Mandel's Miles Ornette Cecil book is another great reference for this kind of lore), and I remember seeing him out at a show at least once, at the 2003 Sunny Murray performance at Tonic documented here. During the afternoon I spent with him in '08, we strolled from his home to a neighborhood café and then to a local food market, and he exchanged friendly, neighborly greetings with employees and pedestrians.

All I mean to convey here, really, is that I feel extremely fortunate that my time on the planet, and especially in New York, overlapped with that of this creative giant, whose work sparked in me seemingly unbounded interest.

Beyond the live shows, I developed a whole other private relationship with the recorded work. Following my first exposure to CT, probably around the time of that '99 Elvin Jones gig, his albums, plus whatever videos, bootlegs or other documents I've been able to turn up, gradually became cyclical listening staples for me. For something like 15 years, I've moved in and out of various phases, but I've always, eventually, returned to Cecil and fixated on some new period or wrinkle. Here I was in '08, trying to devise a sort of DIY taxonomy for his piano language (even last night, revisiting Garden, I still found myself thinking in terms of the Lick and the Flurries); and here, in 2014, following a relatively quiet period for CT, going deep with the mighty Nailed; and here, in 2016, trying to make sense of Cecil Taylor, the Composer. The latter is one of my favorite posts on DFSBP, not because I think it's some sort of brilliant analysis, but because, looking back on it, I feel that it at least captures my level of immersion and, let's face it, obsession. As with any great art, especially art that exists in such vast quantities as Cecil Taylor Music, there is no "getting to the bottom of" this body of work. But there is a certain pleasure that comes, for me at least, in drinking it in and trying to make sense of it. Not sticking pins in it and displaying it under glass, but simply concentrating on it, recording impressions, maybe even formulating wild theories. Just sort of reveling in it, really, and relishing the fact that you're never going to apprehend it, so you might as well just stand underneath the waterfall and let it engulf you.

I feel this anew, now, just sort of taking stock of the Cecil Taylor music I have at hand — dozens of CDs, a handful of LPs and a daunting amount of digital files — in light of the news of his passing. Honestly, since around the time of those Whitney performances in 2016, I haven't gone through another one of those heavy CT listening phases. It's been a while since I've felt truly, presently immersed. But browsing the collection now, I feel like I never left. Because what is music, or any kind of art, but an invitation to concentrate. With Cecil, there was always that sense of "Could I ever hope to match, in my beholding of this, the level of engagement he's bringing to this performance?" I can vividly remember sitting in my seat at, say, the Merkin Hall solo concert mentioned above and feeling a great sense of almost physical exertion in trying to take in all the musical information that was rushing past me. I would leave these performances completely wired, in an almost frantic state, feeling utterly compelled to rush back home and record what I'd heard, seen, felt. And again, this has so little to do with the idea of "reviewing" something; this was and has been and I believe always will be an exercise of pure play.

Which, in a sense, it seems to have been for Cecil. This quote from All the Notes: "It's fun, if you don't let them make you write-all-this-stuff-down-forever, when all that shit'll drive you mad. Cause that's not fun, and everything should be fun, it should be a celebration of life."

And then this:

"You practice so you can invent. Discipline? No. The joy of practicing leads you to the celebration of the creation."

And so it was with listening to Cecil. The more time I put into it, the more astonished I was and, crucially, the more fun I seemed to be having. And that was, I think, a direct byproduct of the enormous, unthinkable, seemingly unprecedented investment Cecil Taylor had made in his own art. "It seems to me what music is, is," he says in Ron Mann's Imagine the Sound, the other great CT documentary (which also features Archie Shepp, Paul Bley and Bill Dixon; I highly recommend renting or buying the film here if you haven't seen), "everything that you do... "

He continues: "Hopefully, everything that I try to do in this situation has the same kind of control over the senses that the making of the particular art of music is. So to read, or dance, to converse, is all a part of the making of music. So that when one walks down the street and one looks, and if there is a fuchsia-colored awning sticking out on the 30th floor, one says, 'Oh, wow...' So that, to me, what it is, is, everything one does."

What he's really talking about in these passages is the cultivation of a fertile artistic mindset. Whether you're creating or beholding, the act is essentially the same: putting yourself in the best possible position to receive and channel inspiration, which then gives way to "the celebration of the creation." For me, as a Cecil Taylor devotee, what I was relishing, through the constant hours of "disciplined" (a.k.a. wildly enjoyable) listening, through the practice of getting the thoughts down, was the sonic equivalent of that fuchsia-colored awning. Walking one day, you noticed it — and it's hard not to think of Cecil's penchant for flamboyant, brightly colored dress here — and it fascinated you, and you wanted a closer look. And you entered the building in question and you began to climb the stairs. And maybe today, close to 20 years later, upon hearing the news that Cecil Taylor, the man, had passed, you realized that the awning was still out of reach, and maybe always would be, but that its obvious brilliance, richness and singularity still captivated you, drove you, and made you want to know more, to push toward that space of wonderment and rigor and exactitude and abandon. An ultimate free space achieved, paradoxically, through ultimate devotion and commitment. And you realized that you'd always keep seeking out that feeling, and that what he left you with was a kind of infinite curiosity.

Those performances, those records, those bits of spoken wisdom or poetic abstraction (I still think of the endless notebooks displayed under glass at the Whitney exhibit, among countless other ephemera from a life lived in the throes of intertwined celebration and creation) were all just parts of the same invitation, saying, essentially, not with admonishment but with a twinkle in the eye, that the music doesn't have to end just because, well, the music has ended. Look, listen closely, and, like that awning high above you, or anything you might behold with wonder — even, maybe even especially, now that Cecil Taylor, the human, the artist, the teacher, is gone from the Earth — it's still there, all around you.


A wealth of great CT commentary and materials has surfaced in the past 24 hours. It's striking how many people he touched.

*I found this installment of Piano Jazz to be one of the most illuminating primary sources on Cecil Taylor's art that I've ever encountered. What lovely company he was when he was at ease with his host. His breakdown of his working method to, essentially, the "pleasure principle" is both disarmingly simple and utterly profound.

*Richard Brody at The New Yorker

*Ben Ratliff at the Times

*Nate Chinen at NPR

*Matt Schudel at The Washington Post

*John Fordham at The Guardian

*Ethan Iverson at Do the Math

*Seth Colter Walls at the Times

Friday, March 30, 2018

Starebaby in the Times

Just a brief note to say that I'm happy and proud to unveil this New York Times feature on Dan Weiss and his fascinating Starebaby project.

You may be hearing more from me on this topic. In the meantime, check out the record below (it's officially out next Friday, April 6) and don't miss Sunday's show at Nublu.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Voyages: Tim Berne's Snakeoil and the art of the musical journey

Photo: Caterina Di Perri

I keep coming back to Tim Berne. One of the first jazz shows I saw upon arriving in New York 20 years ago was Berne's band Paraphrase with Drew Gress and Tom Rainey at Tonic — I think Tony Malaby was sitting in that night. I was particularly mesmerized by what Rainey was doing — I'd never heard anyone play drums that abstractly yet with that much conviction — but I became an instant fan of all the musicians onstage.

Once I was on board with Tim Berne's music, I kept up with his many projects as much as I could. I particularly loved, and still do, the various Berne/Rainey bands: Hard Cell with Craig Taborn (their 2001 album The Shell Game is simply one of my favorite jazz records ever, with epic compositions and a huge sound courtesy of frequent Berne collaborator David Torn); Big Satan with Marc Ducret (check out the marvelous Souls Saved Hear, from 2003); and Science Friction, a hybrid of the two aforementioned bands (their 2003 live double album The Sublime And, now available digitally in two separate parts, is an absolute feast of gritty yet exacting contemporary jazz).

There are so many other great projects and records — I highly recommend browsing Berne's extensive Bandcamp site, where he's offering not just many albums originally released on his own Screwgun label, but otherwise out-of-print gems that span his nearly 40-year discography. (The mid-to-late '80s small-group records, such as the mighty Fulton Street Maul, are another crucial subset.) I haven't heard 'em all, but I've heard a hell of a lot, and I consider every single one I own to be an essential item in my collection.

I'm in the midst of a heavy Berne listening phase, and after revisiting those magical Rainey-era records, I've moved on to the more recent stuff, specifically the four studio albums by Berne's current working band, Snakeoil. Like pretty much every Berne project, Snakeoil both has its own distinct identity and embodies key traits common to his various bands. After you've listened to enough of this stuff, it's fascinating to hear how the basic Berne principles carry over to the different groups.

One of the things that I love the most about Tim Berne's music is the way it moves, or maybe I should say, the way it unfolds. Tim Berne's music has a narrative quality that I don't hear in a lot of jazz. As much as I can get down with the head-solos-head format, or full-on free improv, a lot of the jazz that moves me most takes a more compositional approach. Though some Tim Berne pieces do follow a conventional head-improv-head type of structure, a lot of his music unfolds in more complex ways. For one thing, his pieces very rarely end up where they start: a theme or texture is established and, often very gradually, a new one takes its place and we're on to a different chapter in the piece. There's a very subtle and complex stitching together of composition and improvisation, a play between those two core jazz elements, that occurs in his work, that to me, makes his music especially gripping. Since he never seems to take the shape of a given piece for granted, I find that I'm always alert when listening to Tim Berne: A dizzyingly complex theme might emerge from what a few minutes ago sounded like total abstraction, or vice versa. There's always a progression, often a linear, almost novelistic one — it's not about endlessly cycling through one form; it's about setting up one form, exploring it, abstracting it and moving on to a new one; or, in a favorite Berne tactic, starting from a seemingly free place and then gradually moving toward a breathtakingly tight, often very funky theme statement, as though the structure of the piece were like a vise closing in imperceptible increments.

I touched on this idea in a 2008 DFSBP post re: a killer Bloodcount show at the Stone:

"... I came up with a phrase that I think describes Bloodcount's concept adequately: (ahem) gradual coalescence. basically what I'm trying to capture here is this phenomenon in the group's music wherein one of Berne's patented prog-funk themes sort of appears on the horizon of an improvisation and moves closer and closer and closer until, bam, it's right in front of your face and the band is absolutely slamming away at it in perfect unison."
So that play of abstraction and rigor is all over these Snakeoil records, which contain some of the most elaborate and ambitious Berne works I've heard. As is often the case with Berne, the longest pieces are among the most captivating. Two that are really grabbing me right now are "Small World in a Small Town," from 2015's You've Been Watching Me and "Sideshow," from 2017's Incidentals. (Quick note: The two preceding discs, 2013's Shadow Man and 2012's Snakeoil, are also excellent, but I think the addition of guitarist Ryan Ferreira to the core group — of Berne, clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer/vibraphonist Ches Smith — on Incidentals and You've Been Watching Me only strengthens an already outstanding band.)

Often in Snakeoil, you will hear a crisp group theme statement right off the bat, but the 18-minute "Small World" starts out in more spare fashion, with a lyrical, initially ballad-like Mitchell/Berne duet that really lets you savor the tart, singing quality of Berne's gorgeous alto playing. As evidenced by last year's FØRAGE disc (a Mitchell solo album featuring various Berne themes), these two have a profound musical connection, and it's a treat to hear them soaring together in a passage of unguarded lushness and beauty. Around 3:50 Mitchell sets up a steady quarter-note cadence as Berne continues to improvise; and around 5:17, Smith (on vibes) and Ferreira join in, mirroring Mitchell's pulse. The piece's first theme statement occurs around 5:32, but crucially, Berne keeps soloing for a bit after Smith and Ferreira enter, creating this lovely sort of segue effect. In other words, the improv doesn't suddenly cut to a theme statement, it sort of cross-fades, so you get that moment of contrast and fruitful clash just before full-on order takes over. The theme gradually grows denser and more involved, with Snakeoil sounding like a miniature chamber orchestra, and Smith begins switching between vibes and brushes on his snare.

Then at 7:50, there's a stark textural change, as the ensemble strips down to piano, with Mitchell still implying the upbeat cadence from the prior theme; drums, with Smith switching to sticks and playing delicately on cymbals; and guitar, with Ferreira picking out fragile-sounding notes. Almost imperceptibly, around 8:15, Oscar Noriega enters on clarinet, playing with remarkable subtlety and fluidity. The band falls away entirely and Noriega plays alone, his supple sound suspended in mid-air like some floating gossamer thread. Mitchell and Smith return to add faint accents, and again, the ensemble texture is as much "chamber music" as jazz. Around 12:40, almost slyly, Mitchell breaks into a new cadence, a waltz-like rhythm that Smith picks up on brushes; meanwhile, Noriega continues to solo, much as Berne had in that beginning duet. The rhythm becomes bluesier, with Smith digging into the groove, and at 14:15, Berne reenters with a fresh theme statement, soon joined by Ferreira. Again, we get this ear-catching cross-fade, with Noriega continuing to flutter over top as the theme coalesces. Now Ferreira moves into the role of texturalist, adding this sort of abstract sparkle effect in the right channel. The full band sort of struts its way to a crescendo, until everyone cuts out but Mitchell and Smith, who trail off dreamily.

There's just so much event packed into this piece, so much of a sense of musical ground being covered, such an artful weave of composition and improvisation, and of a sense of musical chapters beginning and concluding almost imperceptibly. It's all blurred together in the Berne playbook, with solos sort of floating over those demarcation points so that you always have this fruitful static between what's mapped out and what's spontaneous.

"Sideshow," the 26-minute centerpiece of Incidentals, is similarly event-packed, but the piece takes a different tack. Here, we get a dense theme statement right at the top, set up first by Mitchell in complex two-hand formation, with Berne and Ferreira joining in soon after and Smith following. The band makes its way to a classic Tim Berne math-groove around the 2:00 mark, a theme that swoops and darts and mutates in head-spinning fashion without losing its sense of badass momentum. (Noriega has entered by this point, holding down the low-end with chugging bass-clarinet.) Berne drops out, leaving the rest of the band to sort of boogie down on the prog-funk cadence they've set up — Mitchell gets seriously rumbling and bluesy here. Around 4:50, though, the groove starts to splinter and decelerate, and abstraction takes over: Mitchell and Smith (I think playing bongos here) darting around one another, Noriega adding soft, swelling, fluttering phrases. The pianist and bass-clarinetist are soon dueting, playing a sort of dark, oozing ballad — the overall feel couldn't be more different from where the piece started — to which Smith adds soft cymbal scrapes. As in "Small World in Small Town," around 7:50 Mitchell almost unassumingly begins to lay down a rolling cadence as the others continue to explore a sort of free ballad space. Then Berne enters around 8:19, joining up with Mitchell for a new theme statement as Noriega flutters freely, with faint accents from Smith on vibes. Again, we're in that sort of suspended space between composition and improvisation. By 9:30, though, Noriega has joined in on the theme, with Smith and Ferreira now playing the role of tasteful chaos agents.

And then another shift around 10:50, as the ensemble thins out and Berne blows faintly against a humming background of electronics, presumably textural effects from Ferreira. There's a feeling of almost total ambient stillness here, of a whole new musical zone briefly opening. Around 13:00, Mitchell and Smith enter and engage Ferreira in some free trio play, but soon, Mitchell is laying down a new cadence to which Smith gradually adds a softly strutting backbeat. Ferreira continues to sculpt weird sound shapes as the groove grows more and more funky. Berne enters at 15:48 and locks in with Mitchell; Ferreira keeps soloing but seems to be gradually drawn in to the band's orbit, until around the 17:00 mark, the full band is navigating a lush, elaborate, almost celebratory new theme. Smith switches from drums to vibes as the band makes one last go-round through the passage, and then another sudden change, as everyone drops out but Mitchell and Smith (playing both cymbals and vibes), dueting in spare, abstract fashion. Mitchell then goes quiet, leaving Smith to play a sparse quasi–drum solo, alternating tight bongo flurries with what sound like mallet-struck, tympani-like booms on a low tom-tom (or maybe even the bass drum). There's a sort of textural halo here that I think is coming from Ferreira; overall his ability to add extremely subtle shading is a huge asset to the band. (Mitchell also contributes electronics on this record, so some of what I'm attributing to guitar could also be him.)

At around 21:30, Smith hints at a new cadence, and Mitchell, Berne and Ferreira enter about 20 seconds later with the piece's final theme, a slowly unfolding dirge. Ferreira plays along but adds a sort of running psychedelic commentary. His contributions and Smith's become denser and more aggressive, sort of battering and washing over the calm theme statement, and the band sounds like it's at war with itself. [Note: Matt Mitchell helpfully informs me that David Torn also plays guitar on the outro here too!] Until the last minute or so, when Smith drops out, and Berne, Mitchell, Noriega and Ferreira make one last evanescent pass through the theme.

I obviously encourage you to take these journeys yourself. These Snakeoil records are long and information-packed, and I've sometimes found that I get more mileage out of close listening to individual pieces, which are often themselves long and information-packed, rather than trying to tackle the full LPs in one go. Whatever your listening approach, I think these records demonstrate incredibly well what an artful and accomplished writer, bandleader and just overall sound sculptor Tim Berne is — and how he's still pushing into new territory in this phase of his career. When I listen, I can hear him constantly fighting against predictable, conventional ways of organizing a piece of so-called jazz. He seems intent on utilizing every possible approach, from the most meticulously arranged, virtuosically executed full-ensemble passage to the sparest, most abstract wisp of an improvisation from one or two band members, and intent on combining and contrasting these approaches within the compositions so that you never know quite where you're headed, but you know that you're headed somewhere. To fill up, say, 18 or 26 minutes of a listener's time and to sustain a compelling narrative arc, to provide enough textural contrast that the journey never seems tedious, is a serious accomplishment. I would never argue for some kind of hierarchy, that a long-form, linear, narrative approach is somehow superior to a more conventional head-solos-head one, for example; I'm just saying that in the right hands, the former can make for a thrilling alternative.

In any idiom, I love concision and directness, as in another recent listening obsession, the early works of AC/DC; but I also love ambition and scope and a more searching, intuitive way of getting from point A to point B (and in Berne's case, points C, D, E and so forth), as in the work of Tool, who I gushed about on DFSBP in February, or King Crimson, whose '80s album I've been savoring. I hope Tim Berne wouldn't mind my aligning him with the latter camp, or, more broadly, a genre-transcendent "prog" philosophy. In my mind, that doesn't rule out, say, gnarly aggression or extreme funkiness or any of the other key Berne traits. It's only to say that, as a musical thinker, he seems to like to consider all the possibilities, and to take each mood or strategy or configuration or texture or structure as far as his imagination — and the abilities of his collaborators, which in the case of Snakeoil, are pretty much limitless — will allow within the scope of a different piece, and to use the art of skillful arrangement (the cross-fade, the gradual coalescence, etc.) to always keep you just destabilized enough, immersed, yes, but never too settled because there always the possibility of a shift on the horizon. His music has been taking me on voyages like the afore-described for close to 20 years, and may it always be so.


*There's some great nitty-gritty discussion of the way Tim Berne's bands function in part two of Ethan Iverson's essential, career-spanning 2009 Berne interview. This part is a fascinating look at that fundamental tension between composition and improvisation in his work, and how he likes to ride that line as much as possible:

EI:  How do you tell your bands how to find the vamp?

  I don’t. I just say that at some point, “This has to happen.” And, “Don’t telegraph it.  It’s best when it just kind of happens.” When it’s a cue it’s less interesting.

Mike is a genius at this shit. He’ll build the tension as long as possible, so that you can barely stand it. That’s really great. Jim is also great at getting there in a natural way, not like an obvious cut.

That’s the structure of this music: getting from section to section somehow—the rest of it is open.
 I also think this part above is very revealing, in terms of Berne's very specialized rhythmic language:
And then the stuff like Julius [Hemphill] and [Keith] Jarrett, there was just that rhythmic thing that I was really into. It was like soul music and stuff, it really kind of brought all those elements. And it wasn’t swing, really, to me. Even though I loved Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, and those guys, that wasn’t my language, it isn’t now, it may never be. But grooves are something that I like. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Tool's fifth album: Why I don't mind the wait

Via Rolling Stone, some thoughts on the as-yet-nonexistent fifth Tool album, and why fans (like me) are happy to wait 12 years or more for this band. Been cycling through their discography in recent weeks and I'm rediscovering that special sense of wonder that their work can bring about, given ample time and attention. I kind of can't believe how much there is to savor.

I didn't get to touch on everything in this piece, of course. One noteworthy omission is Tool's sense of humor, which is absolutely a key part of their overall aesthetic — those offbeat interlude tracks on Ænima, for example, which seem designed to thwart an over-earnest reading of this often very heavy band (in all senses), and at least faintly suggest that their entire endeavor might just be one very elaborate, very sick joke. It's not, of course — at least, I don't think it is — but Tool have never been about reassurances, have never been about anything, really, other than handing over these dense, painstaking audiovisual texts and saying to their fans, more or less, "Here. See you next time. If there is a next time."

Also, if I'm a little hard on 10,000 Days in that piece, it's probably because of how much I love Lateralus, and because I don't feel its successor quite measures up in terms of overall sturdiness and elegance of design. It's the first time, to me, that I really hear the band sort of grasping, if you will, cycling through old tricks and sounding somewhat tired. Still, though, this is all relative. It's an incredibly rich album that absolutely rewards repeated engagement.

Just to spell it out, there are no inessential Tool works. I've been going back to Undertow and, just this morning, Opiate, and I'm marveling at how vital this music sounds to me still, 25 years after I first heard it. Maybe slightly dated, sure, but thoroughly gripping all the same.

So long live 'em, and may they take all the time they need, this time and every time. Here's probably my favorite Tool song to date. I get an almost supernatural charge every time I hear Maynard jump up to the higher register at around 3:04, and things only get better from there.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

"The effect of the monstrous sight was indescribable...": On Portal's 'ION,' and the Lovecraftian horror of alien intelligence

Last week, I wrote up ION, the new Portal album, for Rolling Stone's new-release column. I was happy to be able to shout out the release, but I knew I was nowhere near the point where I had my head around this thing — or, even after around eight years of engagement with their work, around the band in general. In music, though, especially "extreme" or "experimental" music, this is a good problem to have. The feeling of bafflement is, for a certain kind of listener, essentially inextricable from one's fascination with the thing at hand. Many of my musical obsessions — craw, for one — started out as objects of pure confusion.

It's become something of a cliché to frame Portal — a Brisbane band who have been active since 1994 but have only more recently become a sort of household name among fans of bizarre underground metal — in terms of how impenetrable their music is. And having combed back and forth through their discography several times since I first heard their third album Swarth back in 2009 or 2010, I can say that I think this is a perfectly valid way of framing the band. But as I listen more, I feel the need to probe into this reading a little bit.

I'm currently listening to "Revault of Volts," one of my favorite tracks from ION. And with the sound of the Portal back catalog fresh in my mind, I feel a little better equipped to consider the piece (somehow the word "song" seems less than adequate) as a continuation of an established musical approach. To me, this track epitomizes one important facet of the Portal sound, namely this sort of writhing, lurching quality their music has, the way the band will suddenly zoom forward with stunning intensity only to sort of jerk back into a swirling, throbbing nether zone of non-rhythm. Drums and guitar work together in sickly harmony: Rigid blastbeats mesh with jagged, gnashing, whirring riffs — the band formerly used eight-string guitars but have returned to six-strings for ION; the sound is different but the basic quality of the riffs, their seesawing, divebombing, wriggling weirdness, remains unchanged — then give way to these musical breaths if you will, passages of slackening or repose, as though the riff were a chained animal that had exhausted itself and needed to regroup before violently hurling itself forward yet again. Often drummer Ignis Fatuus (all members employ pseudonyms) will sort of roll and shudder on his toms during these pauses in what seems to be deliberately non-metric fashion. Even his blastbeats, maybe Portal's clearest link to the "mainstream" of death metal, sound almost rickety, irregular, which helps to explain why Portal's music moves (breathes, unfolds, etc.) in such an unfamiliar way.

The music keeps petering out, hurtling ahead, and over top of it vocalist the Curator lays these sort of rasped invocations, almost as if he were reciting spells. The effect is more like spoken word than any kind of conventional extreme-metal delivery, seeming to sort of stand to the side of the music, or hover over it, than exist as the songs' focal point. His lyrics are filled with weird spellings and arcane wordplay, heightening the band's fixation with some shadowy, surreal past. Here's guitarist, co-founder and co-composer Horror Illogium, discussing the origins of Portal in an uncharacteristically revealing 2009 interview:
"Some years were spent on crafting our very own dimensions of horror, delving into the antiquated."
In this interview, which seems to be from 2008, he stated, memorably:
"...the vintage world we have created is a compulsion, an illness. "
The Curator formerly wore a grandfather clock headpiece onstage. The band's debut, from 2003, is called Seepia. Some stanzas from that album:

Temporal pestilence reliquaries
Breaching earthen quaint finite
Vint-Age fatalism

Swey excerpts Outre bound
Traversal bled maloccupancy
Perpetuate thee

Omenknow effect
Phreqs to become
Bloating in conquest

Apparatus of the Swey
Usher of Outre
Siphoning the Ether
Ululant Piper

Words and concepts appear again and again in their work. Seepia's follow-up is entitled Outre', and there's a track on ION called "Phreqs." Again, a sense of unification and deliberation. There's nothing random about any of this. It's not impenetrable, or at least any more so than any determinedly outlandish art is. They're simply building their own world, some kind of crazed, yes, antiquated labyrinth, and it's really up to you the extent to which you want to explore it. I feel like I'm beginning to become accustomed to the sensation, but I don't feel any more "comfortable" with this music, and honestly, may it ever be so. We come to music for many reasons, sometimes, as with say great pop, finely chiseled rock or even most metal to sort of block out the chaos of the world. A song can make sense in the way that life rarely can. But other music seems only to amplify or reflect that chaos, or even, in the most compelling instances, to craft its own chaos in response, a chaos that isn't random at all but is merely the outward manifestation of an order that is, upon early exposure, beyond our comprehension. So we call it chaos, or impenetrable noise, or employ some other term that seems to sort of safely contain it.

In that same 2009 interview, Horror Illogium talks about the band's early Lovecraft influence. And though they clearly quickly outpaced this or any other influence (it's instructive to note the Morbid Angel influence he cites as well, and just as instructive to note how the band has taken Morbid's writhing riff-sense and made it even rougher, more turbulent and more irregular), I'd argue that they retained something of that author's sense of horror. It's been a while since I've read Lovecraft's incredible 1930s novella At the Mountains of Madness, but the basic premise and sensation of that tale has stuck with me: the discovery of a vast alien city hidden somewhere on Antarctica, and the horror inherent in the realization that it is the product of some superhuman intelligence.

"I think that both of us simultaneously cried out in mixed awe, wonder, terror, and disbelief in our own senses as we finally cleared the pass and saw what lay beyond. Of course we must have had some natural theory in the back of our heads to steady our faculties for the moment... We must have had some such normal notions to fall back upon as our eyes swept that limitless, tempest-scarred plateau and grasped the almost endless labyrinth of colossal, regular, and geometrically eurhythmic stone masses which reared their crumbled and pitted crests above a glacial sheet not more than forty or fifty feet deep at its thickest, and in places obviously thinner.

The effect of the monstrous sight was indescribable, for some fiendish violation of known natural law seemed certain at the outset. Here, on a hellishly ancient table-land fully 20,000 feet high, and in a climate deadly to habitation since a pre-human age not less than 500,000 years ago, there stretched nearly to the vision’s limit a tangle of orderly stone which only the desperation of mental self-defence could possibly attribute to any but a conscious and artificial cause."

So the root of the horror, then, is the realization that what one is beholding is not random. In fact, it is the exact opposite. As Lovecraft suggests, the idea of random-ness, that something simply came about through the passage of time and the course of nature, is somehow comforting. You're still awed, but you don't have to reckon with the sense of what mind, human or otherwise, could have wrought such a thing. It's once you realize that there's a conscious brain, an intent and deliberation beyond your imagining, a profound order amid the seeming chaos, that the real horror begins. That, for me, is the jumping-off point of Portal fandom. And it's why I hope that their music will never sound any less outlandish. Even back in 2009, Horror Illogium knew that a high bar had been set, and as a fan, I trust that they're not about to fail us anytime soon:

"Usually some guitar parts are created from some inspiration and built upon for months, we know when we have a Portal sound when we feel revolting or just from instinct. There is a lot of unused music that just didn’t touch that horror gland..."

In an interview in the new issue of Decibel, Ignis Fatuus discusses how the band recorded and discarded an entire album in between 2013's Vexovoid and ION. We can only assume that it "just didn't touch that horror gland." Like all past Portal releases I've heard, ION definitely does. The effect of the monstrous sound truly is indescribable — and may it ever be so.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Bad Plus: Can't stop, 'Never Stop'

Here, via Rolling Stone, is my take on the new Bad Plus album, Never Stop II. The short version: I think it's goddamn great, and I've been playing it on repeat for the past week.

It's been a little weird watching the Bad Plus go public about their recent personnel shakeup. (In addition to these authoritative accounts from Nate Chinen and Giovanni Russonello, don't miss Pamela Espeland's equally vital feature for the Star Tribune, as well as the full transcripts of her conversations with the band members and some of their key Twin Cities allies, which live at her bebopified blog.) Weird because a) there simply aren't that many jazz bands out there who are stable and longstanding enough for their membership changes to qualify as noteworthy news and because b) it's not often that you read about behind-the-scenes interpersonal discord — or even interpersonal dynamics, period — in jazz. (One example that stands out, ironically, is departed TBP pianist Ethan Iverson's remarkable 2009 interview with Keith Jarrett, in which the latter discusses life on the road with his classic American Quartet in disarmingly candid fashion: "If I hadn’t had Paul [Motian] as an ally, I’d probably be in a mental institution," etc.)

And because c) for a long while, TBP seemed like a collective you could really rally behind, a true all-for-one band, both on and offstage. (I wrote in 2010 about how the Iverson/Anderson/King lineup's collective identity only made the music feel that much richer and more distinctive.) I was not an early adopter when it came to these guys, but once I really took notice, appropriately around the time of the first Never Stop, I was firmly On Board.

But, you know, things change, and it sounds like in this case, with Reid Anderson and Dave King continuing on in the group and Iverson setting out on his own, it's absolutely for the best. On a pure fan level, I was a little worried there for a second — not least re: what would become of the other fine projects new TBP recruit Orrin Evans is involved in, most prominently the outstanding Tarbaby — but having heard Never Stop II, the whole thing makes a lot more sense. And by that I mean, and I tried to get at this in my review, this is still the Bad Plus you know and love. (To an immediate and almost comically extreme degree — I fully agree, for example, with Nate Chinen's statement re: the album-opening Anderson composition "Hurricane Birds" that "...anyone who has followed The Bad Plus over the years would be able to identify it after hearing the first chord of the song." From where I'm sitting, Anderson's compositional voice is indeed the heart and soul of the group, and it's sounding sturdier than ever on this record.) And if Reid Anderson and Dave King are still deeply engaged with this aesthetic and Ethan Iverson isn't, then mazel tov to all of them to figuring that out before the whole enterprise derailed. As a fan, also, of Iverson's outside work — with Billy Hart, Albert "Tootie" Heath, etc. — I'll absolutely be keeping an eye/ear out for whatever he's got coming down the pike, not least that Mark Turner duo album on ECM.

As bright as the future looks, I'm really glad I got to see TBP Mark 1 one last time, last month at the Vanguard, just two nights before Iverson's final bow with the group. Honestly, despite any lingering background tensions, the set I caught played out like pretty much all the other Bad Plus gigs I'd seen at the Vanguard and elsewhere in recent years, which is a decent amount. The set, filled with classic (to me, at least) songs like "My Friend Metatron," "You Are" and "1979 Semi Finalist," reminded me that this band transcends "jazz" in the way that any great band transcends its context. You're there, hearing them, and all that matters are the songs. That I can envision hearing Orrin Evans, Reid Anderson and Dave King play the Never Stop II songs in that same room and feeling that same way is one happy notion.