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:

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Him, period: Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion

Photograph: Sasa Huzjak

"But what I really wanted to do was play jazz" is a clichéd sentiment among successful rock musicians, particularly drummers. In his excellent autobiography, Bill Bruford writes about this desire, and how he fulfilled it for decades, with Earthworks and other projects. Neil Peart has made briefer and (in my opinion) less successful forays into jazz—the Burning for Buddy (Rich) tributes, as well as the hammy big-band homages that inevitably crop up in his solos.

Ginger Baker, a giant from a generation earlier, may have been the originator of this sentiment, as well as its most extreme exponent. As he crabbily explains in the fascinating recent doc Beware of Mr. Baker, despite his success with Cream, he doesn't consider himself a rock drummer; nor does he seem to respect any of the acknowledged masters in Cream's general (early, blues-based U.K. rock and roll) vicinity, your Bonhams and Moons. (For the record, I find his denigration of these two, and the general devaluation of rock mastery as a lesser skill than jazz virtuosity, to be pretty despicable; why do we need to dismiss one style to give another its due?) Baker's heroes are Blakey, Elvin and Phil Seamen, a player I don't know much about but take to be more or less the British Buddy Rich or Gene Krupa, without the worldwide fame.

Bruford and especially Peart have approached jazz with a certain humility, bowing as they've walked through the door. Baker has approached it with respect, but also (as he seems to approach everything) with cockiness and bravado. (See the famed drum battles with Blakey and others.) Lately, I've been listening to a fair amount of Ginger Baker playing jazz: on records such as 1999's Coward of the County (I also love Going Back Home with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden but haven't revisited it in a while) and the brand-new Why?, and, last night, live at B.B. King's in Times Square. I'm of two minds about Baker's so-called jazz drumming: On one hand I'm pretty sure I wouldn't classify it as great jazz drumming, but on the other, I'm pretty sure that I love the way it sounds, which, to me, is far more important than whether or not it fulfills arbitrary, box-checking genre criteria. Unlike when, say, Neil Peart (please understand: one of my very favorite drummers when he's in his element) imitates Buddy Rich in earnest but clunky, almost caricatured fashion, Baker actually—as one might expect of such an ego-driven character—imposes himself on the style, so much so that what results isn't really classifiable as anything other than Ginger Baker Music.

His sonic fingerprints are all over Jazz Confusion, and in the end, that's the quartet's entire appeal. As you can hear on Why?, the group's M.O. is pretty straightforward, often flirting with blandness: ambling, midtempo versions of hoary standards such as "Footprints" or "Well You Needn't," or simple blues or African tunes from the Baker songbook (some his own, some written by sidemen, some traditional), performed in a sort of stubbornly laid-back style, with saxist Pee Wee Ellis as the likable but uncommanding lead soloist.

What saves the Confusion's music from slightness, though, is how completely it embodies Baker's affinities as a rhythmist. The music is his feel behind a set of drums, and the presence of an auxiliary percussionist, Ghanaian drummer Abass Dodoo—who's fully on Baker's wavelength—only drives home this point.

Baker's drumming is all about the sensation of drag—a feel of looseness that could be almost be described as willful lethargy—coupled with a fondness for stark, sing-songy gestures. A low terminal velocity; lot of simultaneous or flammed strikes on two wonderfully resonant toms, or a snare and a tom; a tendency to set up almost hokey, "shave-and-a-haircut"–style conversations between phrases, in a way that sometimes reminds me of the great Ed Blackwell; an obsession with the triplet feel (you hear a lot of shunk-dunk shunk shunka-da-dunka-da 6/8), and with the mindbending lattice that blooms before your ears when two percussionists (or two limbs of the same one) favor opposing accents.

But in a more general way, what you hear is this sort of stick-in-the-mud notion of how "jazz," or, really, music, ought to sound. Check out the concluding title track of Why? below. The head arrangement is so methodical, so stubbornly plodding, but listen to what happens around 1:10, when Baker switches to the ride and the groove opens up.

The man is swinging so hard he's practically stumbling through the streets. He sounds simultaneously stiff and liberated, and he knows exactly what he's doing. His playing moves and grooves, but it also just sort of squats at the center of the music, daring the other players to make way for him, to set their internal clocks by his own. "Twelve and More Blues" is another piece with this sort of exaggerated, taffylike bounce, a kind of buoyant ooze. The interaction of Baker and Dodoo draws the ear down to the music's murky bottom, its gluey drumminess. Ellis and bassist Alec Dankworth play their roles dutifully, but, and this is the key to the music, those roles are merely to help facilitate the rhythmic vibe, to put some meat on the bones, which are themselves the essence of the music.

I could listen to "Cyril Davis" all day, focusing on that glorious turnaround moment (it happens for the first time at :43) when Baker switches from the toms to the ride cymbal, shifting from one gloriously gummy pulse to another. There is a kind of heaven in this rhythmic laze, a decadence in stumbling from beat to beat, a control freak's approach to vegging out. If, in a certain sense, not a lot "happens" in the music of the Jazz Confusion, this principle—that of imparting at all times one's specific rhythmic signature—manifests in the music constantly. It's all this music is.

Jazz is an individual voice conversing with other individual voices. Maybe the reason why the music of the Confusion isn't, to my ears, great jazz, is that it's not so much about conversation as it is about subordination—everyone get on board with Baker's feel, in other words. But on its own terms, removed from the tedious discussion of jazz and rock—which is too often framed as a competition or rivalry—or of genre in general, I think the Jazz Confusion (both as a live band and on Why?) is a major success. Ginger Baker–ness seeps from the music's every pore, and that approach—personality into sound—is one avenue to worthwhile music. Jazz? Rock? African? Who cares. The band is him, period—this music couldn't come from anywhere else.


P.S. Props to the Baker Gurvitz Army. Just getting to know this project, but live clips such as this have me seriously intrigued, more so than by what I know of Baker's Air Force. Props also to Cream's Royal Albert Hall reunion gig, during which Baker's rhythmic stubbornness is on full display, alongside his ability to participate in a band of equals.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Road music: James Blood Ulmer's Music Revelation Ensemble at Vision Festival 19

Photo by Geert Vandepoele

Some sets are built with variety and pacing in mind; others, like the one I caught at Vision Festival last night by James Blood Ulmer's Music Revelation Ensemble, have a quality of infinity about them. Hearing them is like stepping into a river that was flowing long before you arrived, and will continue long after you leave.

I don't know the Ulmer discography well, and Thursday night's Ornette Coleman tribute was the first time I'd ever seen the guitarist live. I've heard bits and pieces of past MRE recordings—the membership has revolved over the years, but drummer Cornell Rochester, who joined Ulmer last night, is a mainstay—but never anything that sounded like what I heard at Vision Festival. The MRE record I know best, No Wave (with Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums), is one of the most jittery, hyperactive and straight-up punk fusion (for lack of a better classifier) albums I've ever heard. That music's greatest strength is its volatility.

Rochester brought quite a bit of flash and bash to last night's set, but the overall mood was serene, trancelike. The M.O. of this band is something like: rhythm section plays a sort of tumbling swing with a droning, static harmony—the Jimmy Garrison / Elvin Jones team seems to be a clear reference point—and Ulmer rides the wave to his heart's content. Pungent, ear-bending chords, spidery lines—deep romantic sonorities with a sort of flamenco-via–Sonny Sharrock feel to them (e.g., the solo around 1:00 here).

I wish I had a more precise theoretical vocabulary to describe the sensation of Ulmer's playing. The closest I can come is that he conjured some sort of blues-jazz raga—deeply earthy but also wildly exotic. Dramatic but not flashy, and so intensely colorful—a kaleidoscope of moods. Themes introduced, obsessed over, played in a kind of self-round that often reminded me of the cyclic, mantric beauty of Ornette's best electric band (no coincidence there; see the opening version of "Sleep Talking" here, played by a group that features both Ulmer and Shannon Jackson). Rhythmically driving but elastic, rubato, infinitely expandable. The set put me in the mind of all my other favorite infinite-feeling, emotionally dialed-in trance musics: I thought specifically of Sandy Bull's haunting "Blend" duet with Billy Higgins, the post-Coltrane-jazz-as-psychedelic-lullaby vibe of "As We Used to Sing" from Sharrock's Ask the Ages and the droning roots fusion of the first Gateway trio album.

In other words, visionary modern American guitar music, spearheaded by players hip to and fluent in advanced jazz but who choose to set aside away flashy soloing in favor of this eternal (modal?) drone. When this kind of thing works well, as it did last night, you get a kind of snowball-effect profundity. Pieces would end, but the next one would always seem to pick up exactly where the prior had left off. Bassist Calvin Jones providing the droning bedrock, Rochester tossing rhythmic Molotov cocktails Ulmer's way, explosive, post–Billy Cobham fills and punctuations (not to mention the occasional gravity blast—a sort of one-handed snare roll that's become commonly used stunt technique in grindcore; I spoke with Rochester after the set, and he admitted to stealing ideas from Slipknot's Joey Jordison, among others) and Ulmer just pressing on unperturbed. Foreground and background, "soloist" and rhythm section not interacting so much as coexisting—the music just rambling, ambling steadily on.

I was sitting with fellow Kansas-born jazz obsessive—as well as exemplary blogger and Sunnyside Records mainstay—Bret Sjerven, and after the first piece ended, I turned to him in ecstatic disbelief. (I hadn't really known what to expect, but this sort of kaleidoscopic trance jazz was a particularly wondrous surprise.) He knew Ulmer and the band well and simply nodded and said, "Yep, it's road music." It was a perfect summation of the MRE's appeal: fire up the engine, hit the highway, turn on cruise control and just embrace the weird haze of a long journey. Monotonous in the macro sense but exhilarating in the micro. A song that rumbles and drones, cycling imperceptibly through vivid hybrid colors—magentas, purple-blues, crimson-into-yellows—coming to rest momentarily but never truly halting or changing direction.

Introducing the band afterward, Ulmer said of Rochester, "He's from North Philly"—apparently offering some explanation for the drummer's particular strain of chops-forward badassery, gloriously flaunted in a midset solo, one of the more punishing, crowd-awing displays of onstage bravura I've seen in a long while—and then added, "I'm still trying to figure out where I'm from." To judge by what I heard during the set, he might have been getting at the idea that one's point of origin is less important than one's wanderlust, willingness to stay on the move, rolling purposefully and steadily toward ecstasy.


P.S. Bret has kindly offered to help me get acquainted with the Ulmer discography, specifically the MRE albums. Would appreciate any additional tips, since this is a new obsession for me. (I've already purchased In the Name Of…, and I can't wait to spend good time with it.) Fine 2003 footage of the current MRE lineup—with guest Pharoah Sanders—is here.

Friday, June 13, 2014

I want to stay: Celebrating Ornette in Prospect Park

Last night's Celebrating Ornette tribute show at Celebrate Brooklyn (part of the ongoing Blue Note Jazz Festival) ended pretty much how everyone hoped/expected—with a stage full of star players performing "Lonely Woman." But the depth and intensity of that performance—it sounded more profound to me than any other version of the piece I've heard aside from the original—was indicative of just how right this entire event felt.

No rhythm section to start, just Geri Allen playing a swirling textural introduction, setting the stage for the horns to enter—and what an insane assemblage of talent: Ravi Coltrane, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis and, eventually, David Murray. To hear them each solo in turn was magical, but to hear them unite in service to this, one of the greatest compositions I know—the late Lou Reed made the same point in a recorded excerpt—was even more so. Jazz, and culture in general, is glutted with homage that feels rote, slight. But these musicians didn't need any goading to celebrate Ornette. In just about every performance that went down last night, you sensed a very genuine kind of reverence, deference, humility in the presence of the man and his music.

And there was no guarantee beforehand that he'd appear. I'd heard troubling rumors about Ornette's health, so I expected maybe a brief glimpse at the end, if that. But there he was onstage, minutes after the show began. Shockingly, the man who preceded him was Sonny Rollins (second from the right in the photo, with Ornette to his left and Denardo Coleman to his right—sorry for the blurriness!), returning the favor to the saxophonist who had shown up and jammed at Rollins's now-legendary 2010 80th-birthday gig—and who, more than 50 years ago, helped open up new vistas in Rollins's playing. I must admit, it was a slight disappointment that Rollins didn't play, but his brief benediction—that's the only word I can think of for what his speech felt like—was priceless in and of itself. I don't remember the exact content of his remarks, but what I do remember is the graciousness with which he spoke, and the sincerity of his affection for Coleman.

There was one repeated phrase, Rollins relaying something Coleman had told him years ago: "It's all good" or "It's going to be okay," or something similar. Ornette spoke briefly, simply and equally profoundly, stressing the importance of happiness and unity. He was visibly shedding tears. There was a real sense of knowledge learned and earned—especially from Coleman, who faced so much aesthetic (and, no doubt, social) adversity early on. He is the opposite of bitter. When he first came out, he clutched Rollins's hand and kissed it. It was one of the most moving human moments I've ever seen on a stage.

Rollins's "It's all good" was a prescription for the show (and maybe, in the end, the perfect summation of Coleman's famously hard-to-define harmolodic system). The event was long, occasionally—as during some of the longer, more crowded jams—chaotic. Denardo Coleman, Ornette's son, was drumming, and ostensibly in charge, but from what I could tell, there wasn't a whole lot of bandleading going on, or predetermined form. For the most part, the guests would emerge, a head would be played (a lingua-franca Coleman theme such as "Dancing in Your Head"), and then everyone sort of took it from there. That was just fine. Nearly every one of the guest-star turns felt special. Flea was there from the beginning, bringing an infectious energy and willingness to jam; David Murray was a volcano of passion and soul; Ravi Coltrane, as he always seems to, avoided pyrotechnics in favor of sublimated intensity; James Blood Ulmer strummed away, providing a compellingly insular sort of commentary; Henry Threadgill, almost seeming relieved not to be, for once, playing the mastermind's role, offering up his patented gritty, torrid alto lines, Coleman-inspired, but not at all Coleman-like; Joe Lovano, humbly laying waste in customary fashion.

Whatever anyone contributed did indeed feel all good. Certain sets were their own little isolated pockets. Some felt rushed (a Branford Marsalis / Bruce Hornsby duet) or a tad prolonged (a Patti Smith Band interlude; though I'll say that I loved her clarinet playing and wished there had been more), but others served a perfect palate-cleansing function, e.g., a gorgeous ambient quartet featuring Laurie Anderson on violin, Bill Laswell on bass, John Zorn on alto and the ghost of Lou Reed on guitar drone. (A Reed associate whose name I didn't catch had set up Reed's actual guitars and amplifiers in a Metal Machine Music sort of formation, and he "played" this apparatus along with the other three. As Hal Willner indicated in a spoken introduction, Reed was a Coleman fanatic, and it was no minor happening for the late to be there in spirit last night.) A Thurston Moore / Nels Cline guitar duet was similarly brief and similarly successful—a humble offering placed at the altar of the master.

The supporting cast—Denardo Coleman's so-called Vibe ensemble, featuring core Ornette associates such as guitarist Charles Ellerbee, bassists Al MacDowell and Tony Falanga, and saxist Antoine Roney—mostly stayed in the background, but occasional a weird and wonderful Ellerbee guitar squiggle would burble up to the fore, or Falanga would take the lead; the latter's arco introduction to "Sleep Talking," one of my absolute favorite Coleman themes, was one of the highlights of the entire show for me.

At times, as during the "Lonely Woman" finale, Denardo's drumming felt perfectly attuned; at others, it seemed overpowering, the backbeat rhythms boxier than what I would've liked to hear. But his presence was vital for this family affair—I loved his spoken introduction; something to the effect of "I'm biased, but Ornette is the greatest musician on the planet"—as was that of gregarious MC Gregg Mann, a longtime Ornette engineer and associate.

And, it must be said: a beautiful night in Prospect Park. A free, public event should feel exactly like this. Challenging, nourishing music, presented without pretense of artiness or "high culture." A tribute that doesn't bore you with ponderous context; that instead simply rounds up the heaviest presences possible, invites them onstage and lets them figure out their role on the fly. A context that leaves room for accident, for meandering, for brain-scrambling collisions. I remember seeing the Master Musicians of Jajouka onstage with, among others, Bruce Hornsby, Branford Marsalis, Bill Laswell and James Blood Ulmer and thinking, man, what other figure could've united all these folks?

Ornette's music is people music—that was the message. When I was first getting into jazz, around 20 years ago, friends tipped me off to Kind of Blue, certain Monk records—you know, the canon. But it was Ornette's Shape of Jazz to Come that really set me off. It spoke to me directly; I'd heard the baggage about "free" this and "avant-garde" that. But all I really needed to hear was Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins performing "Lonely Woman," or "Peace" (which also made a welcome appearance last night), and I got it. Of course you would want to listen to this music. It's for everybody. It's not that its once-controversial radical-ness has been tempered; it's more that the music has been given ample time to disseminate to its true audience, the public, flowing past the gatekeepers/naysayers and eventually submerging and silencing them.

That populism is at the core of Ornette's music, and it was the driving principle of last night's concert. Everyone's invited: musicians, fans, the honoree himself, who sat onstage for an extended period, listening, soaking up the sounds. (At one point, an assistant came to lead him backstage, and I could clearly see Ornette mouth, "I want to stay.") There were so many highlights that I've forgotten to mention until now that, yes, Ornette played. Damn, did he play, and for a good while. That alto cry sounding slightly more fragile or faint than we're used to, but still, as identifiable as the laugh of a cherished friend. A welcoming wail—the sonic star of the show, but only one voice among many. Ornette wanted to stay—to relish this extended communal affirmation, celebration, meditation—and so, it goes without saying, did we.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Suspension of self: Mick Barr and Marc Edwards

Last year, I wrote about the jazz/metal intersection for The Daily Note. One of my case studies was the Mick Barr / Marc Edwards duo. By that time, I'd seen Barr play many times—with Orthelm, Ocrilim, Krallice and various other projects—and caught at least one show by Edwards, in collaboration with Weasel Walter (I believe it was the 2011 Death by Audio performance that ended up on Solar Emission), so I had good sense of each player. At least one of their duo sets up to that point was on YouTube, so I spent plenty of time with that document as well. In short, I did my best to get close to the music.

Last night, I saw the Barr/Edwards duo live for the first time, standing front-and-center at Saint Vitus, and I realized that before that, I hadn't been anywhere near it. I'm doing my best to recall it now, after an intense night of music that also featured sets by Many Arms and Dysrhythmia (respective leaders in the zones of what you might reductively call punk fusion and prog metal), and again, I don't feel like I'm anywhere near it. Last year, I wrote about the nowness of witnessing, respectively, Milford Graves and J. Read. To have your mind around those players, fully, you do, literally, have to be there, as the saying goes. I think it is the same for Mick and Marc.

There is this cliché of finding common ground. With Barr and Edwards, what they do is something closer to finding common purpose. Their backgrounds are distinct, tied to their respective ages and geographies—Mick coming of age in the Connecticut and D.C. hardcore/post-hardcore scenes of the early-to-mid-’90s, and Marc in the jazz avant-garde of early ’70s Boston and New York. Edwards made his name with Apogee, a sadly underdocumented trio with David S. Ware and Gene Ashton (later known as Cooper-Moore), brilliantly recollected by Cooper-Moore here and heard on Ware's outstanding debut, Birth of a Being, recorded in ’77 and released in ’79. (Cooper-Moore shares a priceless account of the group's appearance at the Village Vanguard, opening for none other than Sonny Rollins, at Rollins's invitation. "For you see, we had the endorsement of the master… We mounted the stage as if it were a spacecraft, and blasted off.") Barr came into his own with Crom-Tech, an insular prog-punk duo that famously wowed Ian MacKaye and the rest of the D.C. underground.

Edwards, along with Ware, eventually worked his way to Cecil Taylor's band, a collaboration documented on the mighty Dark to Themselves, from ’76. (As Edwards told me on a postshow chat last night, Birth of a Being was sort of the afterlife of Apogee; the band was most active in the early ’70s, and it reunited post–Dark to Themselves to record what would become Ware's debut.) Barr cofounded Orthrelm, which reached its apex with the 2005 minimalist-metal opus OV. Edwards was born, in ’49, more than 25 years before Barr, but the players' trajectories, their respective pursuits of free jazz and extreme post-hardcore/-metal—musics built on intensity and endurance—were leading them to a very similar place. These underground movements aren't quite unified—the crowd at Saint Vitus last night wasn't the same crowd I'll see next week at the Vision Festival, give or take a few fellow overlappers—but the two scenes have, thankfully, become entirely simpatico.

Barr and Edwards have developed a shared language, or more accurately, they've discovered—after being introduced by Weasel Walter, a key facilitator and catalyst of this new jazz/metal moment, as well as an integral participant in it—that they had each arrived separately at a variation on the same dialect. As Mick told me last year, the purpose and method of their duo is clear and straightforward: "I think we’ve done three shows now or four, and every time it’s basically the same thing; we just play a solid 20 minutes to a half-hour, and afterwards, I always feel like I got my ass kicked."

And so it was last night, yielding an experience (probably closer to 45 minutes, on this particular occasion) that I wished afterward and still wish now that I could bottle. Edwards epitomizing a style of free drumming that I think of as coaxing or conjuration, enacting what is more or less a perma-roll around the kit. (You can hear him engaging with both blast-beat-centric metal and what I hear as a very specific sort of ’65–’66 free-jazz approach—think of the undulating, rubato sweet spot between Elvin Jones on Sun Ship and Rashied Ali on Interstellar Space. But in the end, Marc Edwards isn't playing style; he's playing drums.) Employing a loose grip, allowing for the multi-attack strokes that are his signature, and using a double kick pedal to add extra density. (The latter is a recent addition to the Edwards arsenal; Marc told me that after spending roughly four decades as a single-pedal drummer, he made the transition to double kick after seeing Bay Area the extreme-free-jazz duo Ettrick play.) Edwards knows when to add in a gut-punching crash cymbal / bass-drum bash for punctuation, but mostly he's all about the snowball effect, the gradual accruance or invocation of a primal rumble that's maximalist (in terms of the sheer density of notes) and minimalist (in terms of the overall effect) at the same time. Barr is after something similar. His famous cyborg-level picking and fretting chops yield a firehose of sonic information.

The agreement between the two players seems to be, simply, faith in endurance. It's not just some sort of athletic act, what they do, but nor is a self-important "spiritual" exercise. Very plainly, and without making a fuss of it, when Marc Edwards and Mick Barr play duo, they're showing you that there's no distinction between these two pursuits once you reach a certain level. You work for decades to hone what we call chops; then you find a sympathetic partner and enter this free space, this lingua franca of—do we call it avant-garde? I think there's a language pretty well established at this stage, so maybe it's better to say that you willingly step into a kind of DIY sublime, where the extreme volumes and densities of niche styles such as post-hardcore and free jazz blur together, and steadily and deliberately and mostly without pause, you're conjuring and nurturing a vibration. I think of a rubber-band ball being assembled in fast motion or a wave form gradually increasing in amplitude. Whatever the metaphor, it's about starting somewhere, hitting the ground, as it were, and just maintaining, stoking, pushing, pushing, whipping this musical whitewater into a glorious, room-engulfing froth. It's harsh, yes, but also benevolent, loving.

There were several brief pauses in last night's set, and a few of what I'd call chapters. During one segment, Edwards shifted to more of a fractured fusion groove on the bass, snare and ride—as heard here—ceasing the multi-strokes for a period and opening up space in the music. Barr responded shrewdly, using his volume knob to bring his sound in and out. But on the whole, the set was a sort of sonic static—and I mean "static" descriptively, with no pejorative connotation—a statement of either relentless macro-level sameness or infinite micro-level variety.

It's a gift to step into that space with two players this accomplished. Afterward, as I'm doing now, you might step back and ponder the marvel of the circumstance, the years and miles and communities and struggles—all the facts of life in underground music, the way it stubbornly plants itself and endures, cultivates a small, devoted following and persists with a more or less willfully oblivious or even antagonistic relationship to the wider world of art—that brought Mick Barr and Marc Edwards to share a stage at a metal bar in Greenpoint. But there, in that time, in their presence, you're just communing with what they're conjuring. The contrast with say, a work day spent in front of the computer, is total: a welcome blizzard after a day of dry, blazing heat. You don't ever want it to stop, and that feeling persists when it's over. You carry it with you, a seemingly superhuman, yet ultimately so humble and generous, musical act such as this. It doesn't matter what you call it—jazz, metal, improv, minimalism; what's important is the net effect, for listener and—I expect—performer: a temporary and very deliberate suspension of self.

P.S. Videos of Barr/Edwards in action: 2011, 2013 and (wow, just discovered this!) last night.

P.P.S. Went looking for new/recent Edwards recordings last night after the show and came across this late 2013 release, Sakura Sakura (3 variations). Just bought it; can't wait to check it out. Solar Emission, linked above, is highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Inside-outside: Billy Mintz and jazz infinity

Last night, near the beginning of a set by his working quartet—part of the exemplary Sound It Out series at the Greenwich House Music School—drummer Billy Mintz played a long solo using only mallets. He spent a lot of time teasing a shimmer out of a riveted cymbal, sitting there with his eyes closed and just drawing the waves forth, proceeding as patiently as any percussionist I've seen doing anything in quite a while. He was clearly just letting the moment be. It was beautiful, and I felt the urge to classify Billy Mintz as a texturalist, the kind of drummer who had the good sense to let pure sound guide him.

And I think he is that kind of a drummer. But he's also many other kinds. There were moments during the set when he really bore down on the groove, swinging dangerously hard in a rumbly, tom-heavy, post–Elvin Jones style. There were others when he played wispy, barely there brushes, or a sloshy, slinky soul-jazz groove. He was deep in the pocket, or he was out in space. He was featured prominently, or he was acting as a distant backdrop, a kind of weather behind the other musicians—John Gross on tenor sax, Putter Smith on bass and Robert Piket on piano, keyboard and, on one beautifully subdued track ("Destiny"), vocals, all of whom appear on the sixtysomething drummer's 2013 debut as a leader, Mintz Quartet, and who complement Mintz's beguiling aesthetic remarkably well. 

The breadth of the repertoire was equally wide: the most romantic, elegant ballads imaginable—all, I believe, Mintz originals, including the "Naima"-esque "Beautiful" and the consummately songful, unhurried "Beautiful You" (yes, two distinct tunes); the scampering freebop piece "Shmear," which sounds a bit like one of the more manic, minimal compositions in the Paul Motian book; the aforementioned soul-jazz groover, "Cannonball," with Piket featured on funky B3-esque keyboard. As with Mintz's own playing, whatever space the band was inhabiting, it was fully in that space—Gross's ballad playing was as full, songful and lush as you'd hope from any student of the great ’30s tenor men; likewise, during the moments when Mintz let his inner Elvin loose, Mintz responded with fierce, flinty, wailing post-Trane expressionism, fully convincing and not just a special effect.

Before last night, it had been more than a decade since I'd seen Billy Mintz play. I remember catching his Two Bass Band—a nine-piece little big band—at the avant-jazz series (was it Dee Pop who ran it?) that ran weekly for a long while in the basement of CB's 313 Gallery in the East Village. I'm guessing the show I saw went down in 2002. Anyway, I remember little about that night except taking note of Mintz and his highly unusual, though extremely unassuming, playing style. During certain moments, Mintz holds his right-hand stick so that only his thumb and forefinger are touching the wood, right at the fulcrum point, and he raises the stick ever so slightly up and down, and sort of drapes it over the ride cymbal. When he does this, it honestly looks and sounds as though the stick were made of some elastic material. I've never seen this kind of fluidity in a grip before; I'd almost be tempted to call it a magic trick, if the effect Mintz produces weren't so characteristically subtle. That, for lack of a better term, fluid grip made a strong impression on me that night, and I'd been wanting to go back and witness it again ever since. Mintz has been playing around town a lot more over the past couple years, and I had a lot of recent opportunities, but last night was the first time since that Two Bass Band gig that I was able to make it out. Sure enough, there was the fluid grip again, as mesmerizing and logic-defying as ever.

Yesterday, I mentioned to a friend that I was going to see Mintz's band, and I described the group as "inside-outside." It's an inadequate, noncommittal term, but as I watched the show and reflected on it afterward, I realized that it's probably the best descriptor I know of to get at the brand of jazz that moves me most, the brand that Mintz's quartet specializes in. In other words: jazz played by musicians skilled, versatile and mature enough to truly inhabit whatever realm they're operating in. In jazz of the past 20 years or so, the aesthetic of undermining, of literally or metaphorically winking as one plays, has become such a major part of the collective vocabulary. I like to see a band engaging styles head on—whether that's a so-called inside ballad or a so-called outside free-improv episode. At this point, neither or these forms is any more or less traditional, any more or less familiar; each can be transcendent or numbingly rote, depending on the execution. Mintz's band is one of the few that I've seen that's both open-minded enough to address such a broad spectrum of jazz practice and shrewd enough not to treat any point along that spectrum flippantly. To me, that is the true meaning of inside-outside.

The effect of inside-outside, when it's done really well, is that both "poles" start creeping toward some sublime aesthetic center—the traditional starts to seem weirder, the weird starts to seem especially sturdy, dignified. That is absolutely the case with this Mintz band. By the end of the set, as a listener, I felt like I'd been thoroughly transported into their self-styled aesthetic zone.  There were familiar signposts, sure, but little by little, as they traversed all these seemingly disparate styles, they demonstrated that these forms were all really just part of one "mother" style, facets of what jazz can be when its makers really devote time and care and attention to each element of its making—the warmth and the harshness, the swing and the abstraction, the groove and the texture. This is when jazz feels infinite to me, and when I love it most.


P.S. I caught Mintz's quartet during the second night of a five-date "Walking Tour," during which they're playing various spaces throughout the city. This Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, they're at Barbès, IBeam and Smalls, respectively; and tonight and Thursday, Mintz and Piket turn up at Korzo and ShapeShifter Lab, respectively, with first saxist Louie Belogenis and then bassist Max Johnson. See Roberta Piket's website for details. If I weren't so busy this week, I would make it a point to see several more of these shows.

P.P.S. Mintz's history—detailed here, here and, presumably, in this interview, which I haven't yet had a chance to view in full—is indicative of a certain kind of veteran jazz musician who's worked in the "trenches" for decades and played with big names such as Lee Konitz and Charles Lloyd, but who, perhaps due to a fair amount of East Coast–West Coast relocation or to a far-flung discography (I'd like to hear all of these, but I'm guessing many of them aren't too easy to come by), isn't well known outside his niche. I'm glad to see that he's been playing out more (I'd love to catch Vortex, his trio with saxist Tony Malaby and pianist Russ Lossing); he, and especially this particular band, need to be heard.

P.P.S. Billy Mintz might be the only drummer I've ever seen pull out a can of WD-40 between songs to spray a squeaky hi-hat stand. I'd heard the squeaking earlier in the set, and just assumed that the listeners and musicians were agreeing to ignore it. But when I saw Mintz address it, I understood just how exacting his sonic standards are. To him, whether he's playing quiet or loud, no sound is incidental.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Brrrrrr-rap-pap: The rhythmic poetry of Slint's Britt Walford

"Even after all this time, those screams gives me the chills… If Brian [McMahan] hadn't made himself vulnerable on that record we wouldn't be talking about it now. It would have just been an interesting album of instrumentals, but he wore his heart on his sleeve."—Dave Pajo on Spiderland

I think Slint guitarist Dave Pajo is probably right. Though vocals play something of a background role on Spiderland, they're pivotal to the appeal of the album. Pajo's referring specifically to the famously torrential "I miss you!" climax of "Good Morning, Captain," but the act of "[making] himself vulnerable" extends to the other two McMahan sung/spoken tracks on the record, "Breadcrumb Trail" and (especially) "Washer," not to mention drummer Britt Walford's haunted turn at the mic on "Don, Aman." I know that, to me, forming my own Slint mythology as a teenager, the delicate emo-ness (for lack of a better term) at the heart of many of these songs—buried beneath layers of stoic restraint—was crucial to their appeal. The vocals were often cryptic, but they were key.

Seeing Slint last night at the Wick (great room, btw!), I felt a similar kind of emotional pull, a familiar choking up. But while part of that was just nostalgia kicking in—I've loved this band and its songs for 20 years—there was something else going on, too. As I've grown older, the part of my brain/heart that connects with music seems to have fused in some very direct way with the part of me that drums and experiences the drumming of others, so that when I hear drumming I truly love, I feel the same kind of emotional squeeze, if you will, that I used to associate most directly with the voice and the verbal expression of feeling.

I always had a sense that Britt Walford was a special kind of player. But it's only during my recent listening to Slint that I've elevated into my personal drumming Hall of Fame. (Inhabited by the likes of Levon Helm, John Bonham, J. Read, Milford Graves, Neil Peart, Dale Crover, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Bill Ward, Whit Dickey, Bill Bruford, Damon Che, Roy Haynes, Ed Blackwell, Pete Sandoval, Thymme Jones, Dave Lombardo, Paul Motian and John Stanier, for starters.) What these players have in common—in my own head, at least—is the ability to bring something so personal to their execution ("style" feels too superficial for what I'm getting at) that to hear them drum is to hear them speak. Walford, a man who does, in fact—to judge by Lance Bangs's excellent Breadcrumb Trail doc—have a very distinctive speaking voice, has developed one of the most simultaneously unassuming and unmistakable drum voices I've ever heard. There's something about that act that moves me to no end.

The Walford voice is there on record, but as with, say, Milford Graves, you need to hear it live to really know it. What it comes down to is the primordial boom-thwack, the massive lowness of the bass drum, floor tom, etc., and the high, cutting punctuation of the snare. Walford is a master of the rimshot, where you bring the stick down more or less exactly parallel to the head, so you grab a bit of metal (or wood) from the rim of the drum as you strike. Even on hushed songs like "…For Dinner," increasingly one of my favorite Slint tracks, Walford truly goes for that thwack. He's not a basher, but he knows, physically, how to bring the hammer down, how to focus your attention with that one well-placed stab.

There's also his feel. To me, this is holy ground, beyond the realm of what you can really talk about. It's the part of drumming that, these days, can literally bring tears to my eyes. Behind-the-beat isn't everything to me; I am after all a devotee of Neil Peart and Tony Williams, two quintessentially alert, "forward-leaning" drummers, to my ears. But behind-the-beat is a big part of who I am as a player and a listener. I rarely get closer to heaven than when I'm listening to, say, Bonham or Helm (both classic behind-ers) play time. After last night, I would add Walford to that list. There is a glorious shagginess to his time, a feel that, as with Helm, is tough to dissociate from his drawly Southern vocal cadence.

The absurdity of Slint getting saddled with the term "post-rock" really hit home anew last night when I stood there and listened to Walford grind out the absurdly rocking chorus and bridge on "Nosferatu Man" (Drew Daniel ingeniously singled out Walford's "sidelong lurch into the one" in his Wire review of the Spiderland reissue; the initial kick-in on "Nosferatu," around the 1:00 mark on the record, is a great place to hear that in action), or the relentless, tripping-over-itself groove of "Glenn." It's no wonder that, according to the documentary, Walford gravitated to playing blues in the years after Slint's breakup (God, would I love to hear what that sounded like…): This man has the grease, the slipperiness of cadence that's a signature of so many of my favorite players, that sense of approaching the instrument with a kind of deceptive sluggishness, giving the beat that essential drag, that hair, that shuffle. The realm in which a word like "leaden" is the highest compliment.

I love these feels that lurch along, and Walford has one of the lurchingest I've heard; it's almost cartoonish how much he slurs the beat, but he's always, so to speak, in time. To hear him play live, that combination of deadly boom-thwack dynamic control and unflappable rhythmic lag is all the more poetic. I really did feel choked up being that close to it. And so, yes, the "I miss you!" climax of "Good Morning, Captain" stung a bit, in the way it used to, but a classic Walford move shortly before it squeezed my heart even more. It's that tiny stutter of a fill he plays right around 5:30 on the album version, which slurs and punctuates the transition into the staccato end section of the verse: brrrrrr-rap-pap. I never knew exactly how he was playing that brrrrrr part. It wasn't that it was necessarily difficult to play; it's just that there are a few ways you could approach it—toms only, some tom / bass-drum combination. But I made sure I paid close attention last night. Walford has these two large, super-deep rack toms that he makes beautiful use of throughout the set (the downside is that they completely obscure him if you're watching him, as we all were last night, from a low angle), and it turns out that the brrrrrr is a quick roll on these two toms, culminating, of course, in that mighty double snare thwack. It's the kind of fill that a lesser player might have stumbled on by accident and discarded, but in Walford's hands, it's the emotional pivot point of the song—the drummer's alley-oop pass to McMahan, who is gearing up to shout his lungs out during the most straightforwardly climactic moment in the slim Slint discography. And yes, I do love that "I miss you!" moment, but to me, now, it's almost beside the point: all I need to know, emotionally from this music—its meticulousness, its idiosyncrasy, its stubborn rockingness (post-rock be damned!), its groove, its patience, its violence, its surprise, its joy and anguish, is locked up in that brrrrrr-rap-pap. It's been said of Steve McCall that he could "break your heart with a drum solo." Walford is the kind of player that, for me, only needs about 1.5 seconds of rhythmic real estate, the space of a fill that many listeners might gloss over completely, to accomplish the same feat.


I've followed all this recent Slint activity with great interest. Such a weird feeling to have all these interviews suddenly appear (that Guardian piece I linked above is probably the most insightful, but Drowned in Sound and Fact have also run great pieces), and to think that McMahan and Walford declined to work with Scott Tennent on his still absolutely essential Spiderland book only a few years back.

Re: the box set and the documentary, you need to hear/see these if you're a fan. Re: the box, I'm particularly thrilled by the surfacing of a studio version of the great lost Slint track "Pam," which was—much to my delight—the opening song of last night's set. (I really hope they see fit to record "King's Approach" at some point.) And re: the doc, I mean—I loved it all. That basement practice footage stopped me in my tracks like few music-related archival-video excavations ever have. Shockingly, we get a quick, tantalizing visual/aural glimpse of the Walford brrrrrr-rap-pap at 1:30 in the trailer. Look at the way he holds the sticks, lets them fall with deceptive slackness. Have you ever seen such looseness coupled with such deliberateness? (And is Walford using the same red kit today that he was back then? I think he might be…) Kudos to Lance Bangs for zeroing in on that crucial moment.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Craw: the next chapter

The Craw Kickstarter campaign has ended, and we've failed to meet the goal. Still, we received over $17,000 in pledges—a truly incredible sum. Again, a huge thank you to everyone who helped us get as far as we did.

My enthusiasm for this music, and my determination to help resurface it, is not going anywhere. We're already strategizing a more feasible relaunch of this project, so please stay tuned. In the meantime, why not listen to some Craw?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


The Craw Kickstarter campaign is now live. To anyone reading this, I'd be very grateful if you could click over to the page, watch the video and have a look around. Whether or not you're inclined to pledge, please share this link with anyone who might be interested. Pardon the brevity here, but I've left it all on the field, so to speak—everything you need to know about this project, you'll find at the link above. Sincere thanks to anyone who has already pledged or helped to shine a light on this endeavor.

Read/hear more at:

Everything Went Black Media
Invisible Oranges
The Subversive Workshop
Cleveland Scene