Tuesday, October 06, 2015

American treasure: Jack DeJohnette's Made in Chicago and the AACM in the present tense

Photograph: Paul Natkin / ECM Records

Made in Chicago, a Jack DeJohnette album that came out on ECM earlier this year, is an important statement, easily one of the most striking jazz releases of 2015, almost by default. The mere facts of the album—a master drummer of the progressive mainstream reengages with his roots in the unparalleled experiments-in-sound collective the AACM, which turns 50 this year—make it special. And it's a damn good record, one I'm still digesting and savoring months after I first heard it.

But seeing the Made in Chicago group live, as I did Sunday at Cornell University, was a whole other experience. It's clear to me that since their 2013 debut gig, the Chicago Jazz Festival performance documented on the ECM album, this group has evolved from a project, an unusually well-plotted experiment, into an actual band, a collective of composers and improvisers committed to developing a shared language over time.

When an artist or group of artists gains a reputation for experimentalism, there's always a risk, from the perspective of audience or creator, that what once seemed radical can devolve into shtick. Somehow, that hasn't happened with the AACM representatives in Made in Chicago: saxophonists and multi-instrumentalists Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill, and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. (Incidentally, Mitchell turned 75 in August, Abrams 85 in September; Threadgill is 71.) Seeing these three together onstage was a profoundly intense experience, and not just because their respective sonic palettes can, at times, tend toward the extreme or confrontational. More what I mean is that all three seemed absolutely sharp, fully attuned to each passing moment.

Watching the show, I got the sense of being in some sort of temple or dojo—an extension of the project founded by Abrams and others back in 1965 as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and documented and broadcast to the world on Mitchell's debut album, titled, simply and tellingly, Sound—where the practices of listening and responding in real time are sacred. I noticed the listening, the reception of sound—Threadgill, seated when not playing, zeroing in on Mitchell's solos, nodding in approval; Abrams, head bowed as if in prayer while bassist Larry Gray played an unaccompanied intro on arco cello—as much as its creation.

You felt, hearing this band play, the certainty and conviction of the original AACM mission, the self-belief that allowed these musicians to band together 50 years ago in the spirit of pursuing their individual and collective aesthetics, and then live their lives according to that belief. But the miracle is how good it all sounds today—how uncompromising, yes, but also how engaging, how human.

I felt, throughout the set, this strong feeling of pushing, of extremity, like the band was taking an idea into its collective vise and slowly, steadily squeezing and refining. This quality came through especially on a piece during which DeJohnette performed exclusively on an electronic drum pad that I'm pretty sure was a Wavedrum. During a solo intro, he struck the pad, producing echoing, marimba-like tones, and scraped his stick across the side as one would play a güiro. I remember the rest of the band slowly wading in with small, piquant textures—I believe Mitchell was on sopranino and Threadgill flute, with Abrams strumming the piano's strings by hand—so that the sound gradually fattened and amplified, eventually achieving an alarming density, with DeJohnette pounding mercilessly on the Wavedrum. The piece didn't develop so much as expand. It was one sound, one idea, that became a mini universe.

There was something especially driven and focused about that piece, but the whole set had this sort of staring-contest intensity, not hostile or off-putting, but simply extreme. The opening piece, which built off Gray's cello intro into a series of beautifully calm, refined statements, some solo and some overlapping, was extreme in its sparseness. The one that followed brought more of a familiar sort of free-jazz heat, with DeJohnette bashing out rubato time—his drum-hero bravado serving as a fascinating counterpoint to his bandmates' deep-seated strangeness—as Mitchell unleashed for the first time his trademark alien-speech circular breathing on alto. Here and elsewhere in the set, it was fascinating to compare Threadgill's approach—focused more on brief, choppy, gut-wrenchingly soulful phrases than a steady stream of sound—to Mitchell's. The two are just so fully themselves, as is Abrams, who executes the oddest, most ear-bending ideas, either skipping and stabbing his way across the piano or softly caressing the keys, with a palpable sense of loving care. The set ended with Mitchell's "Chant," the seesawing minimalist epic that leads off Made in Chicago—this was the only piece in the set that I'm sure appears on the album, but there may have been others—and came off as a lovably demented roof-raiser live.

The band played a quick encore, a loose, swinging freebop improv that was by far the closest thing to conventional jazz in the set. It was a powerful reminder of the deliberate nature of the whole Made in Chicago endeavor. These are master musicians who can play whatever they want. And time after time during this set, they chose to take it there, pushing, ratcheting up the intensity and the focus and the abstraction to borderline uncomfortable levels, avoiding the easy out. Working up at times to recognizable points of climax or cohesion, but sometimes just letting the sounds exist and hang in the air. There was no hand-holding of the audience, no explanation or disclaimer—DeJohnette didn't say a word to the crowd until he introduced the musicians at the end of the set—just sound and commitment.

Made in Chicago is a band very much still in progress, still finding out what it has to say. If they keep giving concerts as special, as fully realized, as the one I saw, they could become one of the key endeavors of the AACM as a whole, a living emblem of what this collective (not just Abrams, Mitchell and Threadgill, but also Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, George Lewis and so many others), this American treasure, has meant and still means.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

craw: release date + reunion shows

Just wanted to share some exciting news re: the craw reissue…

The box set, titled 1993–1997, will be out 12/11/15 from Northern Spy, with design by the fine folks at Aqualamb. Go here for preorders, and to read a detailed description of the release.

Craw will be playing two special reunion shows in support of the release. All seven ex-members of the band will be present at each show, performing material from all four of their studio albums in rotating lineups. This has never happened before and most likely won't happen again. These will be the first craw shows of any sort since 2010, the first craw shows featuring vocalist Joe McTighe since 2002 and the first featuring the band's classic five-piece configuration since 1997.

Friday, 12/18/15
The Grog Shop; Cleveland, OH
Info/tickets here

Saturday, 12/19/15
Saint Vitus; Brooklyn, NY
Info/tickets here

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Always has been: Krallice at the Stone and a decade in NYC

I do not like to mythologize, but there is something to this time that I have lived through, in this place. 

Last night, I went to see Krallice at the Stone, performing their head-spinning new album, Ygg huur, in its entirety. (If you're reading this on August 22 or 23, 2015, the Mick Barr residency is still in full swing.) A vanguard underground metal band, playing in a tiny black box. A seated show, polite clapping in between songs. It all made a certain amount of sense, if you had access to the proper context.

Before the show, I was talking to Torsten Meyer, the indefatigable videographer—and generally funny, friendly, down-to-earth dude—whose archive of heavy, extreme and otherwise underground shows in NYC during the past nine years or so stands as a definitive document of the aforementioned time and place. Torsten moved to NYC in 2006, which we both agreed was a sort of golden age for NYC music. The dates are fuzzy, but I do in fact remember a kind of heyday being in full swing at that time. For the listener engaged with not just, as Torsten pointed out, a certain kind of lawless DIY environment (shout-out to Todd P) that encouraged wildness, fun, creativity, but also the fuzzy but unmistakable idea of progress, a petri-dish environment where you felt like you were actually witnessing the birth of something unprecedented, this time, and the years before and after it, felt electric. 

I will never forget what it was like to witness Orthrelm performing their avant-metal-minimalist masterpiece, OV, in full while seated several feet away from Josh Blair's kick drum at a repurposed Tribeca firehouse in 2003, or Lightning Bolt turning a roomful of buzzed, rowdy showgoers into a maelstrom of sweaty, ecstatic chaos at a foul-smelling loft in a part of Brooklyn that then seemed like an industrial frontier town, or Coptic Light erupting, billowing out waves of exuberant and cathartic free rock at the Lucky Cat on Grand St. (later Bruar Falls and the Grand Victory), or the sextet lineup of Zs setting up in a circle at Tonic, poised in front of music stands, redefining "new music" as a kind of punk-minded aggression mixed with ruthless, scholarly precision, or a fledgling Behold… the Arctopus plying righteously maximalist tech metal in front of a tiny audience on an even tinier stage at Williamsburg's late-lamented Rock Star Bar (a.k.a. the Local), or Peter Evans gurgling and sputtering demented, virtuosic madness through his pocket trumpet in the back room of a Chelsea café, or Vaz ripping through their haunting noise-punk blasts-that-felt-like dirges in a series of deep-Greenpoint dive bars.

I was also a participant, was there on drums when Aa would play at packed lofts on Johnson Ave or S. 5th St., setting rooms off, rooms that didn't need much of a push because they were already filled with the buzzed and deliriously happy. Or with Stay Fucked in the basement of Micheline's in Bushwick, the living room of 248BS, the back of Coco 66, the checkerboard room at Death by Audio. Uncle Paulie's, Dead Herring, Cake Shop, the Charleston, rooms whose names I can't recall but whose layouts and sensations I remember intensely well. That feeling that I got then and still get now when my drums are stacked up in the corner and I'm watching the opening band and gearing up, setting my mental dials to "Destroy."

There was something happening during these years. I worked at Time Out New York, doing my best to document and publicize it all at the same time as I was participating in it. I remember interviewing Mick Barr (of Orthrelm and later of Krallice) in 2005 and feeling like I was speaking to a mythic figure, not because he had any airs of being in any way superior, but because everyone who saw Mick play during that time, witnessed the fire and endurance and invention flying off him, that turbocharged picking hand, that unassuming commitment to going all the way, to the heart of the sun, or somewhere further, more alien, knew they were privy to something historic. Getting to know musicians like Colin Marston, Kevin Shea, Mary Halvorson, Kevin Hufnagel. Extremely nice, genuine people who, underneath, were absolutely driven to greatness and newness. Progress, virtuosity, grabbing their creative moment by the throat. 

Last night, I felt a palpable sense that even though this community, this current has in some ways dispersed, as these artists and others have continued down their paths or shot off into other ones, the mythic not-that-long-ago New York, the signal community of my life as a person engaged with and active in the arts—aside from the Kansas City post-hardcore scene in which I came of age as a music lover but not yet a player—is still very much intact. There were Mick and Colin, together on "stage." There were Hufnagel and Mike Pride and Marc Edwards in the audience. There were friendly faces newer to me, luminaries of a slightly later wave: Mario Diaz De Leon, Nick McMaster, Andrew Hock, Chris Pitsiokos. The ones that, when the history of all this is written, when Tonic circa 2006 or the Stone circa 2015 is remembered by those who had their minds blown at these places—just as jazz musicians and their fans did at Minton's in the ’40s—will be known as the Cats. 

Seeing Krallice play, the currents that have made up this disparate, ever-changing scene all converged. Conservatory-level complexity coupled with the gritty DIY spirit. This band, constructors of labyrinths, many-tentacled octopi of sound, filled with strange lurches, epic vistas, harsh and sour notes, ear-bending chords, tectonic tempo displacement—pummeling, doomy bliss. Krallice have always concerned themselves with a certain kind of sci-fi sprawl, way beyond language and genre—"years past matter," to quote one of their album titles. The currents of Colin Marston and Mick Barr's countless former and current projects—a short list would have to include Behold… the Arctopus, Dysrhythmia, Gorguts, Orthrelm, Crom-Tech, Ocrilim and the Flying Luttenbachers—converging into these heaving, hurtling planets of sound. To reduce their art to something like "black metal" would be silly. Krallice is cosmic, a mother brain alive with ideas, afire with a certain kind of harnessed madness. It's brutal and balletic (qualities embodied in the playing of Lev Weinstein, one of the most genuinely powerful, precise and exciting extreme-metal drummers I've ever seen, a player who restores the centrality of actual full-body engagement to an art form that can sometimes seem like mere spasm-ing of the extremities), visceral and composerly, so finely wrought, so clearly avant-garde and, whatever you happen to think of it, so obviously accomplished.

Again, if you've been paying attention, Krallice at the Stone—these musicians, with these backgrounds, in this place, with these influences and aspirations and track records of greatness, performing a metal album named after a Scelsi piece at a seated show in an LES black box owned by a giant of disparate experimental musics—made a certain kind of perfect sense. New music is metal is jazz is avant-rock is progress is challenge is virtuosity is newness is New York; always has been. 

This hybridization, this blurring and mingling, is straightforward, and, except in the minds of those who put the classification before the idea and the intent, fairly obvious and really not that big a deal. This is not a trend; it's not even an organized movement, though you could draw a sort of family tree, charting the countless interactions among those named (and not named) above. You could call it a scene if you wanted to. It's a collection of committed people, really. Those who were there last night and those who have been there on countless nights like it (shout-outs to my friends Joe and Tony, John and Aron and Julian and Mike and Josh and Nick L. and Nadav and Judd and Sean, and Nick P.). There were, and are, all kinds of New Yorks. I'm proud to say that this has been, and still is, mine.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Have 'Mercy'

My band STATS has a new album coming out on August 8 out now, in both vinyl and digital formats. The LP, entitled Mercy, is our first full-length recording, which seems especially significant given that the band has existed in one form or another for 13 years. I'm very proud of the record, and I feel that it's a great document of what STATS does, which is to create raw, complex, emotional music that brings in elements from (post-)hardcore, rock + roll, extreme metal and various other styles. To order Mercy, click here. Here's a stream:

I would like to say thanks to my bandmates Joe Petrucelli and Tony Gedrich for their roles in the shared experience of creating this music, and for their badass performances throughout the record. I would also like to thank Ed Ricart at New Atlantis, for believing in Mercy and for helping us release it out into the world; Ben Greenberg, for a beautifully visceral recording; Dave Perlis, for contributing masterful vocals, melody and lyrics on the song "Countach"; and Drew "Remi Thornton" Katz for providing the haunting photograph seen on the cover.

We will celebrate the album with a performance at Baby's All Right on Wednesday, September 23, 2015. (Facebook event page is here.) This will be the first STATS show in more than two years. Joining us are two of the most intense and challenging bands in NYC, Survival and Couch Slut.


More STATS/Mercy:

*Hear the song "The Freeze, the Fritz" here.

*Hear the song "Human Butt" and read an interview here.

*Hear the song "Countach" here.

*Read an interview about our hometown of NYC here.

*Read a post by Joe on Fugazi's Steady Diet of Nothing, written in conjunction with Mercy's release.

Saturday, July 18, 2015


I'm generally superstitious about announcing events before they come to pass, but now seems like the right time to mention that on Monday, July 20, I'll be starting a new full-time job as a senior editor at RollingStone.com. I'm thrilled and grateful for the opportunity.

I leave behind a dream job (a series of them, really) at Time Out New York, a publication where I spent 10 great years. I'm tempted to shout out all my TONY friends and former colleagues, who helped make the past decade of my working life exceedingly rewarding, challenging and fun, but I'm worried I'll leave out a crucial name or two.

Best just to say a heartfelt thanks to all those folks, as well as everyone else I've worked with during this time: publicists, bookers, artists and just about anyone who devotes their life to the business of music in NYC. It's been wonderful collaborating with you, and even though my new job will have more of a national focus, I look forward to furthering those relationships as time goes on.

I'll still be checking out as much music as possible, live and recorded, and covering it whenever and however I can—including, as always, on DFSBP. Once I'm settled in, I'll post my new work e-mail address for anyone who might want to get in touch. Please feel to get in touch via e-mail: hank [dot] shteamer [at] rollingstone [dot] com.


With help from my partners at Northern Spy and Aqualamb, I'm hard at work on my Kickstarter-funded dream project, the craw box set. I'll post any major updates concerning the release here, but you can also keep tabs on all craw-related matters via Facebook.


My own band STATS, in which I play drums and share vocal and composition duties with my dear friends Tony Gedrich (bass) and Joe Petrucelli (guitar), will release a new LP, Mercy—our debut full-length—via New Atlantis Records on August 8, 2015. Go here for more info; stream a track here; and stream a different track and read an interview here. If you listen, please listen loud.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

The moment knows: Poo and Paul

Thomas Haley: You said you're much better now than you've ever been, and you're getting better… 
Masabumi Kikuchi: Because I'm free. 
TH: What do you mean? 
MK: Free. Freedom of choice. I can go anywhere, because I start believing in myself.
 —"Out of Bounds: A portrait of Masabumi Kikuchi"
Ethan Iverson:  Seems to me that you [and Paul Motian] share something about space.
MK:  Yeah. Yeah…space to give opponent.
EI:  Opponent! [Laughs]
MK:  Yeah, opponent! Opponent? Is that how you say it?
EI:  Yeah that's right. Collaborator and opponent.
"Interview with Masabumi Kikuchi"
MK: “Just floating. Floating sound and harmony. No songs.”
"Floating in Time, Hiding in Sight"
It is a great regret of mine that I never saw Masabumi "Poo" Kikuchi perform with Paul Motian, by all accounts his musical soulmate. I did see Poo play a short solo tribute to his departed friend and longtime collaborator, and I'll never forget it. There's a sizable body of Poo/Paul work on record, and I've only scratched the surface: Sunrise, plus a couple of the Tethered Moon and Trio 2000 discs.

Having heard the sad news of Poo's death, I put on the 2004 Tethered Moon album Experiencing Tosca last night.

"Prologue," a Poo solo feature, is unreasonably gorgeous. Light and warmth and an angelic touch. "Part I," by contrast, is craggy, even forbidding. As with the sessions documented in the excellent short documentary "Out of Bounds," linked above, there's a sense that in playing this album, the listener is stumbling into a private rite. That though the music may at times sound rapturous, it is fundamentally insular, a fulfillment of the players' personal missions, individual and collective. If the Motian/Frisell/Lovano trio embodies a giving, generous spirit—I'm generalizing, of course; like most Paul Motian endeavors, that trio embodies all things—Tethered Moon aims at something thornier, harder to grasp. The way the trio vacillates between beauty and its opposite, between something that might be called swing and total fracture, seems almost reckless. Not wanton or destructive, just stubborn in its freedom of choice. That's the spirit of the best Paul Motian music, and Poo was clearly dialed into it.

To some, Poo was simply that eccentric pianist who growled strangely as he played; to Motian, he was some kind of seer. They got each other, and that rapport practically sweats from the speakers when you listen to them play together. Poo and Paul: letting go; obeying instinct, both their own and that of each musical event. Songs or no songs. Floating or earthbound. Spacious or dense. Only the moment knows. Separately and together, they will be missed.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Snarl and snap: Goodbye, Chris Squire

There is the air of classic prog, the songs' ornate, easily caricatured latticework—in Yes terms, the Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman element. And there is the earth, their harsh, wiry skeleton—in Yes terms, the element of the late, great Chris Squire, along with Alan White and before him Bill Bruford. Anyone playing hard-hitting, compositionally daring rock music (math rock, tech metal, a million other microstyles) is, or ought to be, planting their ideas in the Squire soil.

The girth, the clarity, the metallic thwack of his bass tone. The bridge between, say, Mahavishnu Orchestra, where the bass typically took a backseat, and Rush, where it essentially became a lead instrument. For me, when Chris Squire's bass started to snarl and snap is the eureka moment when so-called prog became electrifying and essential, when geek brain met cyborg muscle. I'm not a Yes completist, but in the classic ’70s material, whenever the rhythm section starts to kick (and/or the Steve Howe visionary-shred roller coaster starts zooming around the track), it's a drop-everything moment for me.

Zero in on the riff that starts at about 6:04 in "Close to the Edge," the one with those thrilling syncopated Squire/Bruford stabs. It's all there. Props also to the monster mutant-funk groove at 6:51, with those grotesque melodic outbursts and chasm-like rests. Thank you, Chris Squire—you harnessed the low end, sacrificing none of its primal power, and made it dance and sing.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

True calling: Dead Moon and Borbetomagus live

There are bands that become legend. You read of them for years, in zines and on the internet, often learning of the reverence for the thing before learning of the thing itself. I say "thing" rather than "music" because bands like this come bundled with a whole mythology. So it was with Dead Moon and Borbetomagus—two groups I'd heard about for years and barely heard before last night, when I saw them share an Issue Project Room–backed bill (also featuring a great solo appearance by J Mascis) at Pioneer Works.

Age has a lot to do with it—this underground mythology. "So-and-so have been at it since such-and-such time." All sorts of other factors play into it: biography, even graphic design. Dead Moon, founded in 1987, have it all. One of the coolest logos I—or any underground-music fan, if they're being honest—has ever seen: the screaming-skeleton/crescent-moon design with the drippy-letters font, the kind of iconography that gutter punks and black-metal heads and noise freaks all seem to agree on. The fact that the band is co-fronted by a husband-and-wife team, Fred and Toody Cole, proud grandparents who have been married for 48 years (!).

I don't think I'd heard more than a song or two by Dead Moon before last night's show. (And maybe a few by Pierced Arrows, the Coles' more current project, which is essentially the band I saw last night, as the Pioneer Works gig featured Arrows drummer Kelly Halliburton rather than Moon drummer Andrew Loomis.) Sometimes that can be a hindrance to enjoying a rock show, but that wasn't the case here. Dead Moon have a certain ceremonial way of making a venue, a night, entirely theirs.

I'd spotted the Coles hanging out on one of the upper floors of Pioneer Works during the first couple sets, scoping out the bands. Fred in this enormous black witch hat, Toody with the straggly black-and-gray hair. Once they took the stage, along with Halliburton, a tall, imposing dude wearing skin-tight St. Marks Place–style punk attire and an MC5 T-shirt (yes, it was almost too perfect…) you could tell they were lifers. Setting up, the three had an easy camaraderie, passing set lists between them, clinking beer cans, welcoming front-row fans with wide grins and uniting around Halliburton's kit for a final pre-show huddle.

Looking back, the set itself was a bit of a blur for me. It carried me along, like a drug or a magic carpet. I was transported, initiated might be the better word, into this environment that Dead Moon creates, this bubble where rock & roll is timeless and hungry and passionate and dangerous. The band has a sort of theatrical defiance to them, manifested in Toody's feral stare and imposing stage stance and in Fred's ragged, plaintive vocals, delivered, Lemmy-style, from slightly under the mic, with eyes closed and a wince of abandon and surrender and determination. But there was this other side to the trio's interaction—a camaraderie, a relishing of the preciousness of this perfect medium that they've found to express all they need to express. It was like watching a biker gang assume a tough-guy posture for a photo op, and then drop it once the camera had clicked, back-slapping and cracking up.

The music itself is a strange, primal snarl. It's a puzzle how it sounds so archaic yet so alive. I know that Dead Moon are rough contemporaries and regional cronies of the Wipers, and there's a definite kinship there, a willingness to mine a classic garagey rawk sound for its most dirgey, gloom-laden elements. Dead Moon isn't a metal band, but their songs embody this sort of exaggerated gothic drama, as well as punk's headlong drive—Greg Sage filtered through Screaming Jay Hawkins, maybe? I was surprised and impressed by the variety of the songs, and their potent anthemic quality: "54/40 or Fight," with its stop-time refrain, had me pumping my fist along after one verse/chorus cycle, and "I Hate the Blues," a dark, plodding waltz with a cyclical form that culminates with Fred yowling, "God-damn, I hate the blues!"

It was all such swagger and looseness and stylish attack. The iconography come to life: the logo, the attire (I've neglected to mention Fred's ’70s style leather vest, bolo tie and guitar strap studded with pieces of antler), the attitude. The music did it all justice. Posturing, performing, acting—it all becomes being when the music is strong, driving, dramatic enough. Alchemy occurs and you, the listener, feel like you're mainlining some old, original feeling, like punk chronicled in a Faulkner novel and reanimated before your eyes.

Or noise, for that matter. Borbetomagus, at it since ’79! I'd sampled the records, had a sense of what this trio was about. Again, the legend. The name that weird-music fans love to throw out like a gleeful curse word—like a secret handshake meaning "I'm a sonic masochist." I don't really go in much for "noise" as a style. But I felt what saxophonists Jim Sauter and Don Dietrich and guitarist Donald Miller were throwing down. Again, the physicality is inescapable: the saxists, these graying, tall, granitic men who look like types you'd encounter at happy hour in a factory-town dive bar, and the stocky, goateed Miller, with the appearance of a WFMU record collector type.

The sound was rich and painful and loud, and the performance ritualistic. Dietrich is by far the most animated, engaging in all sorts of expressionistic body language—an exaggeratedly wide-legged stance, momentary hand/arm wiggles. The two saxists tossing mics into the bells of their horns. Miller sitting there looking half-idle, strumming and using a slide and manipulating a volume pedal. At first the sound is undifferentiated—a not-unpleasant roar, a pressure on the ears. But then you start to adjust, and to align the saxists' cheek-puffing with the pulsations you're detecting, and you come to appreciate that, though amplified and distorted nearly beyond recognition, what you're hearing are predominantly breath-generated sounds. And then the presentation becomes almost wholesome. Borbetomagus is imposing but not assaultive. Noise bands often affect a sort of "vs. the audience" posture, but this set felt very private, like these guys simply need to do this thing that they've been doing for the past 35 years, and if they weren't doing it onstage, they'd be doing it in one of the members' basements on a weeknight.

Again, the legend become real. And it was warmer and more inviting than I expected. These bands are and aren't what you think they are. Longevity in underground music doesn't always mean profundity, but it does signify a kind of all-in commitment. Dead Moon and Borbetomagus believe in their respective aesthetics, and you can walk in off the street, so to speak, with no prior knowledge—or, as I did, with only a vague, sort of caricatured knowledge—and feel the love and commitment radiating out through these very different stylistic portals. It's all volume and defiance, as well as a friendly embrace of the like-minded. You feel both crushed and caressed, like you're in good, firm but loving hands. The world clicks into place, and you feel the rightness of artists doing what they were put on the planet to do, rising up to meet their true calling. And you feel reinvigorated to go out and do the same.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Samurai swords: Goodbye, James Salter

Here are two—for me, unshakable—scenes from one of my favorite books, James Salter's memoir, Burning the Days. The first is about Truman Capote, in the immediate aftermath of In Cold Blood. (The unpublished book Salter refers to in the final paragraph is A Sport and a Pastime.) The second is about the Apollo 11 launch. (Like Salter, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong had been fighter pilots in the Korean War.) In each, the narrator stands apart from a very different kind of greatness. His reactions to each are very different too, and he records them with absolute honesty.

That November he gave a great party, a masked ball, at the Plaza. The guests, in the hundreds—the list of those invited had been kept secret—were a certain cream. Many came from prearranged dinners all over town, movie stars, artists, songwriters, tycoons, Princess Pignatelli, John O’Hara, Averell Harriman, political insiders, queens of fashion, women in white gowns, men in dinner jackets. They were going up the carpeted steps of the hotel entrance, great languid flags overhead, limousines in dark ranks. The path of glory: satin gowns raised a few inches as they went up on silvery heels. Stunning women, bare shoulders, the rapt crowd.

They woke, these people, above a park immense and calm in the morning, the reservoir a mirror, the buildings to the east in shadow with the sun behind them, the rivers shining, the bridges lightly sketched. There were no curtains. This high up there was no one to see in.

In the small convertible I had bought in Rome I was driving past that night and for a few moments saw it. I knew neither the guests nor the host. I had the elation of not being part of it, of scorning it, on my way like a fox to another sort of life. There came to me something a nurse had once told me, that at Pearl Harbor casualties had been brought in wearing tuxedos, it was Saturday night on Oahu, it was Sunday. The dancing at the clubs was over. The dawn of the war.

In the darkness the soft hum of the tires on the empty road was like a cooling hand. The city had sunk to mere glowing sky. My own book was not yet published, but would be. It had no dimensions, no limit to the heights in might reach. It was deep in my pocket, like an inheritance.


The days of flying that have borne them to this, the countless, repetitive days. The astonishing thing is that we are empowered to bequeath history, to create the unalterable: paintings, elections, crimes. In fact they are impossible to prevent. One of the most memorable acts of all time is about to occur. Two minutes.

I had an Italian mistress, O very fine, who would fly places to meet me. She was slender, with a body brown from Rome's beaches and a narrow pale band, as if bleached, encircling her hips, the white reserve. She wore a brown leather jacket and had black hair, cut short. I had a luxurious corduroy suit, soft as velvet, from Palazzi on Via Borgognona. She had bought it for me as a gift. She was the antidote to, among many things, the sickening hours surrounding the launch and intolerable days after. I had taught her a catechism, or rather together we had composed one, which she could recite in perfect English, the flagrant words sinless in her mouth, the innocent questions and profane responses, and the low, inviting voice in which they were uttered. One minute.

We were silent that night with the television still on, light shifting on the walls in the darkened room. I was watching, transfixed by it, as well as by the cool, unhurried act we were engaged in. As a boy I had imagined grown men achieving scenes such as this. Tremendous deliberation. Reverent movement, oblivious, assured. She is writhing, like a dying snake, like a woman in bedlam. Everything and nothing, and meanwhile the invincible rocket, devouring miles, flying lead-heavy through actual minutes and men's dreams.

I have never forgotten that night or its anguish. Pleasure and inconsequence on one hand, immeasurable deeds on the other. I lay awake for a long time thinking of what I had become.

There's a lot of talk in the Times obit, foreshadowed in a 2013 New Yorker piece, of James Salter's reputation. I respect that James Salter himself obsessed over this topic, as the passages above indicate. But speaking as a reader and a fan—I would've said, before hearing last night's sad news, that he was my favorite living writer—his fame and stature are beside the point. To me, his books—particularly Solo Faces, A Sport and a Pastime, Burning the Days, All That Is, Last Night and Light Years (just typing that title, I shudder with reverence, and with the kind of reader trauma one associates with a book one finds particularly devastating)—are like samurai swords, immaculately crafted and absolutely deadly.

I know of no other writer that goes there, so to speak, like Salter does, dares to get inside vanity and aging and sex and literature and disease and achievement and failure and dignity and pettiness and malaise and glory the way he does. His books feel to me like honest catalogs, cross-sections of what life can throw at you, for better and for worse. Truth administered with an unapologetic, though not unsympathetic, "That's just the way it is." They embody both a tenderness and a coldness, luminous nostalgia and blunt scorn. They slice you up while making you swoon with their music. Reviewing them in my mind, I feel like I'm tracing the outlines of scars I've come to consider integral to my present self. Like the works of Faulkner, my other favorite, they stick around. In my private estimation, James Salter was plenty famous—and is undoubtedly immortal.


*Also from the Times, a valuable collection of Salter links. That Paris Review interview is indeed something special.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Coiling the spring: Ornette & Co.'s fast-forward mirth/mania

I've spent the past few days glued to WKCR, which is spinning Ornette around the clock through Wednesday, June 17, at 9:30am EST, and to my own rapidly growing Ornette Coleman collection. The concentrated listening is wonderful; the occasion is sad. Every time a major artist dies, I wonder about the cycle of tragedy and tribute—why was I not immersing myself in Ornette's music, say, a week ago, filling in the gaps in my knowledge? (The 1987 reunion of the classic quartet, both studio and live, and the pair of Sound Museum albums from 1996 are two spots in the discography that I'm now seriously investigating for the first time.) That said, I've returned to Ornette regularly since I first began loving his work roughly 20 years ago—WKCR's March 9 birthday broadcasts were always drop-everything propositions for me—but there's just so much music out there. At least we know the man felt the love while he was still alive. This is a good opportunity to mention that Ornette's friends and contemporaries Sonny Rollins and Cecil Taylor, born approximately six months after and one year before OC, respectively, are still with us. Remember it well, every day.

I think that when you love an artist's work, you carry their sound in your head, the same way you carry a friend's voice. That's why I don't place much stock in canonical thinking regarding music or the arts in general. An artist may be great, but if what they do doesn't speak to you on that private level, all the talk of their greatness, as though it were a foregone conclusion, can grow oppressive. And that can be the case even if, maybe especially if, the given artist's work does speak to you. Sometimes, for me, it can be hard to square the writer-about-music's job of having to dutifully recite the reasons for an artist's "importance" with the private sensation of why I love their work. I get why the "important" part is important. It's because, in some larger sense, the very act of speaking about a key figure's life in shorthand is important. When a major artist dies, we summarize their achievements for the benefit of those who might not be familiar with their work. But as I hinted at in this quick, by no means definitive (not being modest; just saying that definitiveness wasn't even my intention) Ornette piece for Time Out New York, the tagline version of a given artist's greatness can often feel very remote from the private truth of that same greatness, as it plays out within the heart and mind of a specific listener.

I love Ornette Coleman not because he Revolutionized Jazz, but, in part, because he was able to cultivate a circumstance in which something like this might occur:

It's no coincidence that I also cited a track from Science Fiction when we lost Charlie Haden just 11 months ago. With very few exceptions, when I think about what a given jazz hero means to me, I think about that figure in an ideal group context. For me, there were two ideal Ornette Coleman group contexts (all respects to the best of the electric years, esp. this 1978 ensemble): Coleman/Cherry/Haden/Higgins (CCHH), heard on "Civilization Day" above, and Coleman/Redman/Haden/Blackwell (CRHB). I feel that both reached their apex during the early ’70s, and specifically on this album, which features performances by each of these two configurations, as well as by a hybrid ensemble; the 1971 Belgrade concert by CRHB is equally godly. (Though I should say that judging by the 1987 recordings I'm currently savoring, CCHH kept right on evolving upon their reunion, and, though technically Ornette-less, Old and New Dreams, the Redman/Cherry/Haden/Blackwell band which fused the two groups cited above, illustrated the Coleman Concept just about as well as the master's own greatest groups.)

"Civilization Day" illustrates one key facet of that Coleman Concept, which is speed. The threshold thereof in jazz. How far can you push it? Charlie Parker had already pushed it pretty damn far. But Ornette, it seems to me, did as much as anyone to explore the border of chaos and control. Certainly there was plenty of that happening in the work of both Davis/Shorter/Hancock/Carter/Williams and Coltrane/Tyner/Garrison/Jones, but neither group ever concerned itself with the kind of gleeful mania heard on Science Fiction.

When I take a personal inventory of what I love about Ornette, I arrive at the idea that he drilled these bands so extensively, coiled their collective springs so tightly, that all four players, whether in the CCHH or CRHB configurations, could just blast off into this white-hot yet almost mirthful kind of fast-forward mode. "Free jazz" was many things to many people: explosion, expulsion, dirge, catharsis, meditation. To Ornette it was the license to dance on a molecular level, at tempos so extreme they seem almost cartoonish.

The deployment of the drums in "Civilization Day" is masterful. The way Higgins drops out after the head (:14), leaving Coleman and Cherry to twist and writhe and wriggle, coiling that spring tighter and tighter before blasting back in with a swing at once steely and buoyant. The brashness, the drive of the band at full-tilt during Cherry's solo. This is the banishment of all that has ever been boring about jazz. Haden doing his part to further coil the spring around 2:25, embarking on one of his epic, brain-bending, upward-moving Haden Slides, till you think your skull's going to burst at the simultaneous tension and drive and motion of it all. And then Higgins out again around 2:50, leaving Coleman and Haden to rev in the starting gate for a few precious seconds before the drums come back in. And once they do, Haden sounds even more hellbent, perversely shifting registers/gears (3:14–3:25) as Higgins steps on the gas. The zipping, darting Coleman wail, the expression of a man on a sonic trampoline, soaring ever higher. Wiggling and shimmying. Singing and dancing. Higgins coiling the spring for 15 almost unbearably tense seconds (4:35–4:50), bashing out snare-cymbal accents at three-beat intervals as Coleman whoops and screams. And as before, when the full-tilt swing resumes, it sounds even more maniacal, more driven, more fun. The drum solo ironically a quick breather, a respite from the CCHH mania, which returns in classically hyperbolic form during the final head.

Is this "free" jazz? Or is it the most controlled, the most together that jazz has ever sounded? It's a circumstance of group sympathy so profound that these concepts become synonymous. So that the band, collectively, is unfazed by an objectively absurd tempo. So that they sacrifice no control or precision of expression even in these circumstances of pure, adrenaline-fueled daredevilry. (There is this speed-demon aspect to the later Coleman bands with Denardo on drums, bands that, as you can hear on the Sound Museum sessions and Sound Grammar, summoned their own special kind of fast-forward mania, but with all due respect, no drummer could rival Higgins and Blackwell when it came to the challenge of maintaining a flawless sense of pocket/groove at breakneck tempos.)

As a listener, you feel like a kid on a carnival ride: "Faster! Faster!" This to me is the core OC sensation, the one to which my listening brain flashes when I think about the Ornette I know and love. It's him, yes, but it's also the hive-mind circumstance he was able to foster among his bandmates. Like Coltrane or Davis or Lacy or Braxton or Ellington or Giuffre or Shorter or Rivers or Evans or Mingus or Lehman or Threadgill or any other major figure in composed/improvised music who at one time or another has managed to align their concept perfectly with one or more fixed groups of collaborators, Coleman found that group ecstasy with CCHH and CRHB. It's there on record, and it is immortal.