Thursday, April 20, 2017

Recklessness and refinement: In praise of Dismember

I've been doing that thing again, that immersion thing that has spawned so many posts on this blog. It's become the way music happens to me, a framework for how I (ideally) engage with this infinite, and infinitely pleasurable, sea of sonic information we look out on every day.

For me, it's pretty simple: You get ahold of a large discography by a given band or artist, and you just run it down. Backwards, forwards, randomly. Take as long as you want. For me, the less "relevant" the band/artist is to the current "conversation," the better. Because of my job, I live daily within the stream of the news firehose; what a pleasure it is — maybe something like the quiet life of an academic, which seems so far removed from what I do, so appealing, in some ways, but also maybe somewhat foreign to my nature — to just get away from all that. It's like taking a weekend trip to the woods. I think what I crave more than anything as a listener-for-pleasure is just peace and quiet.

Often, somewhat ironically, I guess, via loud and aggressive sounds. Metal works so well for the above "run it down" practice. And death metal works particularly well, because you run across these gloriously lengthy, rich discographies, often largely unswayed by trends. Hence the obsessions with Obituary, Bolt Thrower, Immolation, Incantation and the rest. And now, Dismember.

I've developed such affection for this band during the past few weeks that I feel like I've known them my whole life, so to speak, but unlike with Obituary, Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse and a few others, Dismember are a relatively new discovery for me. I first heard their classic 1991 debut, Like an Everflowing Stream, a few years back. I loved it but didn't go deeper, and it appears that many have similarly short-changed this truly phenomenal band. It's a trend that often frustrates me in the discourse that surrounds metal — i.e., the forsaking of works, usually later ones, that fall outside the acknowledged canon. You see so many bands where 10, 20, 30 years of work gets reduced to a single iconic record that came out during the glory years of said band's subgenre. First-four-albums Metallica worship (and, conversely, instant dismissal of their more recent output) would be the most visible example here, but this kind of thinking extends vastly outward. You don't run into many folks who want to sit around and talk about why A Skeletal Domain, in its own way, rules just as much as The Bleeding, or why Back From the Dead is actually a more enjoyable record in many ways than Cause of Death. (At work, I've become known as Late Album Hank, a mocking tribute to my affection for such supposedly past-their-prime records.)

But the question for me is, if a band you love keeps making records and doesn't totally jump the shark à la Morbid on Illud Divinum Insanus (being the Morbid die-hard that I am, I have even found a few things to love in that deeply flawed, probably justly vilified album), why wouldn't you want to relish every last one?

I digress. What I mean to say, really, is that Dismember's eight-album run, from Everflowing Stream through 2008's self-titled — and, to date, final — LP is a frankly shocking achievement of consistency and quality. Let's compare their body of work to that of Bolt Thrower, the subject of my last immersion-listening program. Like most metal bands, "extreme" or otherwise, BT took a few albums to really fine-tune and get down to the business that would ultimately prove to be their calling card. Again, I know the metal community at large wants to brand an album like War Master an untouchable classic, but to me, it's just a warm-up for the truly mature Bolt Thrower that emerges on The IVth Crusade, or even …For Victory, and from that point on, we only get a precious three albums before the band's breakup.

Dismember, on the other hand, emerged with an essentially perfect statement. Not just a first album, but a first song on that first album, that sums up everything they do well. If you're a more casual listener than me, this might be all the Dismember you need, and if so, well get ready to fucking rock:

I'm only about a quarter of the way into Daniel Ekeroth's essential Swedish Death Metal tome, so I don't have all the deep background on that country's storied scene that I'd like to in order to truly reckon with Dismember's place in the lineage. But one fact that was pretty much obvious to me before I dove in to this catalog was that Entombed tend to overshadow all of Swedish death metal, and the common notion is that everyone else's records are a sort of consolation prize when compared to theirs.

All respect to Entombed. They're an outstanding, justly legendary band. But their discography is not the monolithic monster that Dismember's is. I've been working my way through their records recently too, in a less feverish and systematic way, and it's a bit of a rockier path. You have these two early masterpieces, Left Hand Path and Clandestine, which, as fully realized as they are, still sound formative to me, and then you have this whole other thing on Wolverine Blues, a phenomenally heavy, enjoyable record that sends the band in a very different direction that, honestly, I greatly prefer. (In the end, as much as I love underground and "extreme" music, I'm often after the more polished, pro-sounding statement from a given band, hence my love of major-label post-hardcore.) I'm still working my way through, but from there, things get weird: Labels change, key members start dropping out, etc. I will have to report back to you, but I already felt my interest waning ever so slightly when checking out the fourth, relatively obscure Entombed record, 1997's DCLXVI: To Ride, Shoot Straight and Speak the Truth, the last one to date to include all the key players from Left Hand Path.

Anyway, all I mean to say is that Dismember tend to get this sort of second-place treatment (or worse) when the topic of Swedish death metal is discussed. (And I ought to clarify here that I'm talking about the so-called Stockholm / Sunlight Studio sound, not the Gothenburg "melodic death metal" one, as exemplified by At the Gates et al.) But if you really lay out the evidence, regardless of who came first (and we're talking about a matter of roughly a year here between the releases of Left Hand Path and Everflowing Stream), Dismember are the band that really lived and breathed what I hear as the essence of this music for way longer. Their consistency, both in terms of aesthetic and quality level, is honestly insane.

Compare "Override of the Overture" above to this, from the self-titled album, which came out 17 years later:

Some things have changed, of course. Drummer Fred Estby, one of the three true core members of Dismember who where there from the Everflowing Stream period on (the others being guitarist David Blomqvist and frontman Matti Kärki), left before this final album. His indefatigable, punishing-yet-groove-drenched, reckless-yet-relaxed style is so absolutely essential to the band's classic sound that I was at first inclined to "asterisk" Dismember slightly. But after spending some good time with it, I realized it was just as essential as all the others. Yes, Dismember belong to the No Bad Albums Club, a distinction I'm not yet prepared to bestow on Entombed.

"The Hills Have Eyes" may not have every Dismember hallmark, may not sum up their strengths as insanely well as "Override of the Overture." But what gets me is how intact the spirit of what they do remains here. Dismember's core principle is this kind of glorious turbulence, a primal and punky heave, wherein you feel constantly threshed and swept along by the sharpness and momentum of the riffs. The music just moves, and moves you, in such a thrilling way. I've rarely encountered metal that's so ruthlessly devoted to the art of making you bang your fucking head. Hearing this music over and over, I'm more and more bummed I never got to see this band live. (I'm praying that, as Estby said in a 2016 interview, they might get back together in the future for more shows.) I can only imagine the monster rush that this stuff would provide in person.

And of course there's that absolutely disgusting guitar tone, the classic Stockholm hallmark — the Swedish Chainsaw — again largely associated with Entombed, or more specifically Nihilist, that band's prior incarnation, and even more specifically, that band's late guitarist Leif "Leffe" Cuzner, who didn't graduate to Entombed along with his comrades. Listening to so much Dismember, I have to ask: Did any band revel in the crunch and filth that the Boss HM-2 pedal spewed forth to a greater degree than Dismember?

That sensation of thin, serrated nastiness. That unrepentantly gross, brittle, hacking texture that has become world-famous to the point that it practically signifies an entire genre. Has it ever been so extensively and skillfully and, I would argue, profoundly applied as in the work of Dismember? This band made a nasty sound and a breakneck, punk-indebted feel into something like a religion, driving further and further into the center of that holy combination — wherein each stop-time clench and righteously unspooling riff seems to send your teeth rattling around in your skull and your eyes rolling back in your head — and never wavering from the attack mission.

And yet there's also this element of grand refinement. Something Bolt Thrower brings in as well, and that obviously Carcass incorporated as well as anybody ever has. That classic British sound of elegy and victory and valor and, well, honestly, fucking Iron Maiden. I've gotten wind of a sort of controversial aspect of Dismember's Massive Killing Capacity album, and even the band itself seems iffy on it. ("On Indecent and Massive Killing Capacity we tried different approaches to making the music, but it didn't really work out," Kärki said in 2000.) But I frankly adore this side of the band — I think albums like MKC do an incredible job of marrying that awesomely raw quality you hear on a track like "The Hills Have Eyes" with the grandeur of classic, pre-"extreme" metal. (Check out the gorgeous and entirely convincing melodic instrumental "Nenia," Dismember's own "Orion.")

A lot of that has to do with Kärki. Like John Tardy or Karl Willetts or Martin Van Drunen or any of these truly great death-metal vocalists, his is a shamanic presence, one that takes a rough instrument and makes it feel so true and focused and essential and spiritually potent. Even on a track like "Collection by Blood," where he sounds a little out of his element in terms of the intensely melodic quality of the music around him, Kärki brings this sense of total engagement and authority. The act of bellowing and growling over loud metal music is a fundamentally weird one — though I guess when you get down to it, maybe it's less weird than refined singing, which requires a willful refinement of the natural sound an uncivilized human animal makes when it opens its mouth — but a frontman like Kärki just seems so immersed and so at home in the practice. His is the bellow, the ever-Hulking-out voice of arrrrrggggghh that powered every single Dismember full-length. (Until I really spent time with Dismember, I never quite understood how indebted fellow Swedes Sorcery were to them, and specifically to the combo of Blomkvist's merciless riffs and Kärki's booming roar.)

The recklessness and the refinement, the snarls and the soaring melody. The wrath and sickness of hardcore and the pride and drama of the NWOBHM bands. Over eight incredible albums, Dismember somehow managed to build these bridges and keep all the foundations sturdy, combining the rawness of drunk teenagers spilling vomit into the street after, or during, Friday night rehearsal (a spirit clearly gleaned from the members' Autopsy obsession; I love Kärki's characterization of that band's Chris Reifert as the "Midas of death metal"; and on a similar note Blomkvist's matter-of-fact this-ain't-rocket-science viewpoint: "We try not to be in the studio too long [laughs]. I mean, we play death metal.") with an epic, theatrical sweep that suggests an ancient amphitheater as much as a sweaty club.

I feel so goddamned enriched and energized by this catalog. If any of the above resonates and you haven't taken the full plunge, by all means, get to it. No Bad Albums!

Here are a bunch of other awesome Dismember tracks (sadly sans several gems from 2006's The God That Never Was, the band's final album to date with Fred Estby, which isn't on Spotify):

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Slipping into the past: The eerie pull of 'I Called Him Morgan'

Note: Some of what follows could be considered spoiler material. If you haven't seen I Called Him Morgan and plan to, it might be a good idea to steer clear of this post until afterward.

Everyone interviewed in I Called Him Morgan exhibits an almost eerie recall of the events they're looking back on. Though the two main characters in the story, trumpeter Lee Morgan and his wife, Helen, who shot and killed him after an argument at East Village jazz mecca Slug's Saloon in February 1972, have been dead for decades, it's as if they're both suspended in some weird gray area in the minds of these survivors. Late in the film, as the lengthy 1996 audio interview with Helen by teacher Larry Reni Thomas that forms the backbone of the story winds to a close, Helen describes the disbelief she felt in immediate aftermath of the shooting, saying something to the effect of, "I couldn't have done this." She recalls wondering if the event was all a dream that she'd soon wake from. A similar sensation hangs over the whole documentary, a feeling that a sort of daze settled over the survivors of this tragedy, Morgan's friends and fellow musicians, upon his death, and that for them, he's still close enough to touch.

There is some footage in this documentary that felt so intimate and affecting I almost couldn't believe I was watching it. You see a snippet of one of these moments in the trailer, when Wayne Shorter, holding a photo of him and Morgan, the trumpeter's head bandaged in the wake of an injury he suffered when he was high on heroin, begins to actually address Morgan. "What are you doing, man?" he says, in an approximation of what he might have been thinking at the time, watching his friend slip into addiction. Morgan died more than 45 years ago, but Shorter says later that he still thinks of him frequently.

Everyone here seems to, or at least when they do, their recollections are extremely vivid. We hear the most evocative and transportive accounts I've ever heard of what it was actually like to make records for Blue Note, musicians recalling the party-like atmosphere that accompanied those classic sessions, with Alfred Lion providing food and drinks and Francis Wolff snapping those later-to-become-legendary images The photo of Morgan and some others standing outside what I'm guessing is the Van Gelder Studio, Morgan making a goofy face at the camera — something he apparently did often; one friend says he used to call himself Howdy Doody as a nod to his large ears — and drinking a Pepsi, is the lighthearted flip side to those mythic, smoke-filled Wolff portraits.

Drummers Charli Persip, who played with Morgan in Dizzy Gillespie's big band, and Albert "Tootie" Heath recall living the high life with Morgan, seeking out the best clothes, the coolest cars, driving fast through Central Park at night. Friend Judith Johnson also remembers drives with Morgan: They'd cruise the West Side Highway on the way to or from New Jersey, checking out jazz on Johnson's car 8-track player.

The specter of heroin does of course eventually creep in and overtake the narrative, setting the stage for the greater tragedy to come. And there is a certain hush or gloom that hangs over the entire film. This is a documentary bathed in shadow and snow, with scene-setting footage evoking dark NYC streets at night and the blizzard that struck the city the night Morgan died. Even the interviews — Shorter's, filmed in a sunny living room, is an exception — seem to be cast in a kind of ominously fading light, though in a way that feels natural and unaffected.

And yet, as with the discussions of the Blue Note sessions or the after-hours high life, director Kasper Collin (who made an Albert Ayler doc I remember loving but haven't seen in ages) takes care to show us both sides of this saga. One of the most poignant sections of the film comes when Bennie Maupin, Morgan's close friend and collaborator in his later years, recalls the glorious, sun-and-sand-filled Hermosa Beach visit that yielded Morgan's classic Live at the Lighthouse LP, a shining document of him kicking heroin — thanks, the film suggests, almost entirely to Helen's assistance — and reclaiming his position as a thriving jazz star. Billy Harper's recollection of playing alongside Morgan on the jazz TV show Soulseen here in black-and-white, though it's color in the film — conjures another moment that feels almost exalted, the footage and his description capturing that special style and power and command found in the best '70s mainstream jazz (the kind that Harper and Co. now carry on in the Cookers). I also loved hearing the account from bassist Paul West — another fellow Gillespie alum — of Morgan's happy post-addiction years mentoring young musicians through the Jazzmobile program.

The thing to remember about Morgan's shooting is that it happened in a crowded club. As with every other scene he sets, Kollin really takes us inside Slug's that night. Harper recalls hearing the shots but not immediately thinking anything was wrong. And then Morgan was down, and the ambulance didn't arrive for an hour due to the snowstorm. Bassist Jymie Merritt talks about not only never being able to walk down that street again after Morgan's death but of leaving NYC for good.

Helen, in some ways the movie's star, is also its greatest enigma. Her first-person narration is invaluable because it allows us to weigh her account as we will. We hear about her rough upbringing in the South — she was a mother by 13 — her determination to make it to NYC, her establishing of a kind of jazz-lovers' salon in her West Side apartment, her meeting of Morgan during his peak junkie years. Kollin isn't letting Helen off the hook, but he does make a point of showing us all sides of this saga, how in some ways the tragic end of her and Lee's love story seemed fated. (There's a lot of talk in the movie of portent, of how both Helen and Lee foresaw something dark on the horizon as their relationship started to unravel.) We don't get to hear much of her own account of her life after the shooting, though her son does paint a picture of a woman who found refuge and a kind of salvation in the church. And the bassist Larry Ridley recalls a cathartic encounter with her after she got out of prison.

Overall, again, I Called Him Morgan captures the strange kind of daze that settled over everyone who knew this couple after that horrible winter night in 1972. The musicians — Shorter, Merritt, Harper, Ridley, Maupin, Heath, Persip, West and others — form a survivors' brotherhood, a group of men scarred by Morgan's absence but also blessed by the time they had with him. Not just for the audience but for the participants themselves — think of Shorter, slipping into the past and speaking directly to the Lee Morgan in the photo, from probably half a century or more earlier, when the two were young and hungry, living out their dreams as members of the Jazz Messengers — I Called Him Morgan is a time machine, allowing us all inside what really has to be one of the ultimate jazz legends. It's a haunting journey, with a kind of moody magnetism that sometimes feels downright intoxicating. But it's one well worth taking.


*Here's Nate Chinen's excellent, detailed take on the film. I didn't read till after I was done with the post above, but he fixates on the same Shorter moment I called out — it really is a chilling scene.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Those once (and always) loyal: Bolt Thrower's search for perfection

CoC: I'd say there isn't a huge progression of Bolt Thrower...
Thank you. We take that as a compliment.
CoC: Will you pretty much be staying the same from here onwards?
We think so. We look for perfection. That's what we're searching for. If we ever think that we can't release an album as good as the last one, we won't. Releasing a crap or watered down album means that it's gone for us, 'cause the music is gone.
Chronicles of Chaos interview with Bolt Thrower guitarist Gavin Ward, 1999

In a sense, it is gone for Bolt Thrower. Founded in 1986, the band broke up exactly 30 years later, following the sudden 2015 death of their drummer, Martin "Kiddie" Kearns. But the evidence of their search lives on, and as bodies of work go, it's an extremely sturdy one.

For me, recently, listening-wise, it's really been a Bolt Thrower binge. This began a couple weeks ago, when I started spinning the newly released For the Fallen heavily. That album is the first full-length by Memoriam, which is a sort of a Bolt Thrower sequel band — not to mention, in some ways, a Kearns tribute band — featuring BT frontman Karl Willetts and the band's early-period drummer Andrew Whale.

FtF is a highly enjoyable record, and I wrote some further thoughts here, in Rolling Stone's weekly new-releases round-up. But even with so much history behind it — in addition to the former Bolt Thrower dudes, the band features their fellow U.K. punk/metal scene vet Frank Healy, also of the bands Benediction and Sacrilege — it still feels like a debut, a powerful statement by a band that still has a couple of kinks to work out.

Bolt Thrower, on the other hand, had ample time to mature. They released three increasingly confident albums from '88 to '91 — many would call 1989's Realm of Chaos – Slaves to Darkness and 1991's War Master classics, but to me, as powerful as they are, they still sound developmental in light of the glories that were to follow— and then, with '92's The IVth Crusade, attained a new level of command and authority, shedding the grindcore-style rawness evident on the earlier records in favor of what I think of as the classic BT sound, a chiseled and charging form of epic heavy metal, a sonic manifestation of endurance, struggle and triumph, music that drives so hard and so far and so consistently that it really does embody Ward's words above. If perfection was what they were searching for, I'd say they achieved it on their later releases, especially 1994's …For Victory, 1998's Mercenary and 2005's Those Once Loyal. (I set 2001's very strong Honour – Valour – Pride slightly apart because it featured Benediction vocalist Dave Ingram rather than Willetts, thus rendering it a little less-than-canonical.)

Thematically, Bolt Thrower's music dealt pretty much exclusively with war, both in the sort of fantastical role-playing-game sense and the gritty, historically rooted one. You hear both a glorification of human conflict in their work as well as a condemnation of it. But what you mainly hear is this kind of relentless heave and churn, this flattening onslaught. Whether at the pace of a steady trudge or a headlong charge, Bolt Thrower's music is always pressing forward.

Ward, fellow guitarist Barry "Baz" Thomson and bassist Jo Bench (a rare and inspiring female presence in a truly iconic old-school extreme-metal band; I highly recommend checking out Kim Kelly's roundtable-style tribute piece to learn more), the three core members that appeared on every Bolt Thrower LP, formed this kind of ironclad, immovable center. In terms of that aforementioned search for perfection, they were the true keepers of the flame, the ones who clearly understood what an invaluable property Bolt Thrower's integrity was, that to "progress" or alter their approach in some essential way would be to break the spell, to breach the underground contract, as it were.

If you've read my thoughts on Obituary, for example, this might all sound quite familiar, and certainly, the basic principle is the same here. But what I feel each time I immerse in one of these masterful, decades-spanning catalogs by an underground institution, the concept hits me anew. You can pan out and lump bands together into convenient categories, pretend that the sensation of Obituary's raw, swampy nastiness, so clearly a product of their Florida roots, really feels anything like Bolt Thrower's unmistakably British air of might and majesty — with Willetts' inimitably grand-yet-gruff oaths, like the proclamations of some Harsh Narrator of Man's Eternal Struggle, leading the charge — and that what either band does could be aptly summed up by a term as blunt as "death metal." The deeper I go into this music, though, the more I savor the depth and distinction of each truly great band's approach, and the more I resist the common practice of lumping them all together. Obituary makes Obituary Music; Bolt Thrower made Bolt Thrower Music. And that's pretty much that.

Heaviness, whatever that term can even signify at this late stage of overuse, is about sound, yes, the sense of a band's combined force weighing on top of you in a near-physical way, but it's also about this intangible quality of authority and commitment and immersion and lifer-ness, a quality analogous to the "folkloric" sensation that Ethan Iverson often invokes when discussing a certain kind of jazz-before-the-jazz-education-complex, the learned-by-doing, or passed-down-by-the-elders kind (see this Buck Hill obit, for example).

Cutting-edge extreme-metal techniques — especially, say, blast-beat drumming or Meshuggah's devilish syncopations — are now becoming catalogued and canonized the same way jazz has been over the past half-century or so. You can watch hours of tutorials on YouTube, read musician magazines, learn how it's done in the letter-of-the-law sense. But, quite simply, you don't get here by studying in the conventional sense:

As with Obituary, the Bolt Thrower experience is about the steady amassing of authority, and the goes-without-saying concepts that Gavin Ward so handily lays out above: You don't "progress," per se, but that doesn't mean you don't improve. Instead what you do is methodically shore up the sound, close off every avenue of distraction from the core mission (note the jettisoning of blast beats from the Bolt Thrower playbook after War Master) and figure out how to drench every moment of Bolt Thrower music in this signature feeling. It's a gradual becoming-of-self, the building over time of a catalog that will stand as a true metal monolith — and to my ears, Bolt Thrower never wavered once.


*Another great Gavin Ward interview, from the Honour – Valour – Pride era, in which he delves further into the band's single-minded ethos:
Maelstrom: Does this approach in terms of not progressing compromise you as an artist, and do you care?
Gavin Ward: Nah, I don't care. I've never considered myself an artist or a musician anyway. We're just a band, playing music we're into.
*And another great Kim Kelly tribute to BT, this one focusing on the way they went out on top with Those Once Loyal. As well as her new interview with Willetts about Memoriam.

*Listening-wise, it's really not about individual tracks here. I'd recommend just starting with Those Once Loyal and working backward. It's all great.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Pure physical euphoric energy": Obituary's eternal gifts

Now live at Rolling Stone, a new feature on the mighty Obituary.

The seeds of this piece were planted back in 2011, when I wrote about the band for DFSBP. As I explained then, I'd been listening to them on and off for close to two decades by that point, but it was only after seeing them live that I fully comprehended how special they actually were. (A similar thing happened more recently with Crowbar, a band I wrote about for RS last year.)

I've since reached a new peak of Obituary obsession, and thus it was an absolute pleasure and honor to put together this piece. Obituary are the shining exemplars of an M.O. I've written about a lot over the years, fairly common in the metal underground, wherein a band establishes a signature sound early in their career and simply sticks with it, album after album, show after show, year after year, decade after decade.

It's not exactly true to say that Obituary haven't changed. Pore through their discography and you'll start to discern clear early-, mid- and late-period sounds: unrelentingly harsh yet at times surprisingly compositionally involved (Slowly We Rot, Cause of Death, The End Complete); tougher, leaner and bullishly groove-centric (World Demise, Back From the Dead, Frozen in Time); and, most recently, looser, rawer and more all-around rawk-and-roll–ish (Xecutioner's Return, Darkest Day, Inked in Blood and the new Obituary). Not every one of these albums is flawless, but every one is worth hearing, as is the robust, spectacular-sounding 1998 live release Dead.

This band's head-down consistency brings me inordinate pleasure. I'll turn the mic over to Andrew W.K. — friend and former employer of Obituary drummer Donald Tardy and, incidentally, a former co-owner of Santos Party House, where I saw Obituary back in 2011 — who had this to say in 2015 of his love of vintage death metal, specifically Obituary and their peers Napalm Death:

"To be able to listen to something so many times and only like it more, and I liked it a lot the first time, but now to be able to rely on that as an energy source, to be able to turn to that no matter what state I'm in and have it instantly take me to this place of pure physical euphoric energy, it's one of the things I'm most thankful for in life, it's like water or food to me, it feeds my soul in a very fundamental way, and I can't believe how lucky I am that it exists."

I relate to this sentiment completely. I absolutely rely on Obituary as an energy source, as food for my soul. For all its minimalism, I find their catalog to be inexhaustible, because it's just that goddamn powerful and true and decisive and real-feeling. The agreed-upon shorthand for what they do is "death metal" — a term that already falls so woefully short as a catch-all because all these great first-generation bands, from Death to Deicide to Morbid Angel to Cannibal Corpse, sound completely different from one another — but their output is so clearly born out of passion and love and life. The product of finding that one thing, that precise vision that you want, need, to realize and seeing it through, time and time again, over the course of the decades. Some music pushes outward; Obituary's gift is for burrowing inward, for becoming more and more themselves as time goes by. Stand by and behold and marvel and — if you're anything like me — rejoice.

Here are eight great Obituary songs. (I wanted to pick one from each studio LP, but sadly, Xecutioner's Return and Darkest Day, both very good, overlooked albums, aren't currently streaming.)

Friday, March 03, 2017

Join us: Skryptor's first shows

This coming weekend marks the live debut of a new band I'm in called Skryptor. The lineup consists of Tim Garrigan on guitar, David McClelland on bass and myself on drums, playing music we've written as a group, plus (so far) one cover.

This is a significant project for me, and not just because I'm excited about how the songs are shaping up. If my 15-year-old self could somehow read the first paragraph of this post, his mind would be blown. Tim (formerly of Dazzling Killmen, You Fantastic! and other projects) and Dave (also of craw) are musicians I've looked up to for more than two decades. It's no exaggeration to say that the music each of these men helped to create in the early '90s significantly influenced the direction of my life from that point on — as a musician, I consider myself to be a product of an unofficial movement they were each an integral part of: progressive Midwestern post-hardcore, if you want to put a name on it (see also: Season to Risk, Colossamite, Cheer-Accident and many others). I've collaborated with both of them before — with Dave in the band Bat Eats Plastic (originally known as Today) and with Tim backing him in his solo singer-songwriter work — but never at the same time, and never as what I'd consider to be a mature (or at least maturing) musician who has significant experiences and ideas of his own to bring to the table.

For a little preview of the music — concise yet complex instrumental rock that falls somewhere between prog and punk, and sounds (to me, at least) not all that much like anything any of the three of us have done before — check out the clips posted on our Facebook page.

Here's all the info on our first two shows, taking place in Kingston, NY, on Saturday and in Queens on Sunday. Joining us for both will be the awesome Xaddax, featuring Tim's old Dazzling Killmen bandmate Nick Sakes. Ultraam — a psych-meets-jazz improv band featuring members of Mercury Rev, Luna and Trans Am — will top the Kingston bill and maniacal local avant-death-metalists Pyrrhon (featuring onetime DFSBP contributor Doug Moore) will headline in Queens. More info below and at the FB event pages I've linked to.

Saturday, March 4
@ BSP Lounge, Kingston


9pm, $8 


Sunday, March 5
@ Trans-Pecos, Queens


8pm, $10

Goodbye, Misha Mengelberg

I once saw a Misha Mengelberg–Han Bennink duo concert at Lincoln Center during which, as I recall, Bennink stood on his drum throne and began to flap his arms like a bird, making squawking noises as Mengelberg played on, seemingly oblivious. Then Bennink tore up pieces of newspaper, set them on fire and threw them at the pianist one by one. (Ben Ratliff's review is probably a more reliable eyewitness account of the May 2000 gig.)

I'm not an expert in Mengelberg's work, but I'm sad to hear of his passing. His rapport with Bennink was something unique and precious, an absurdist manifestation of jazz that also embodied great poetry and tenderness and nostalgia and virtuosity and love for the art form.

I treasure the records these two made with Steve Lacy, especially the 1983 Monk / Herbie Nichols tribute Regeneration. Four in One, a 2001 Mengelberg quartet disc with Bennink, Dave Douglas and Brad Jones, is also great. The vast recorded legacy of the ICP Orchestra and its various predecessors and offshoots is on my to-do list.

Farewell to this unassuming legend, and co-godfather to a vital European scene, who came at jazz from his own oblique angle. Who honored his idols by establishing his own brand of cool: sly, deadpan and timeless.


*Read Ethan Iverson's informed, insightful take.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

'Interstellar Space' at 50

New at Rolling Stone, my 50th-birthday tribute (measured from date of recording, not release) to one of my favorite albums, Interstellar Space. Features fresh input from Ravi Coltrane, Jack DeJohnette, Peter Brötzmann, Nels Cline, Ingrid Laubrock and others, as well as archival thoughts from the late, great Rashied Ali — a big thanks to everyone who took the time to speak with me.

Please check out this DFSBP bonus track, the complete transcript of my interview with Louie Belogenis, who has a couple of choice quotes in the piece but who shared so much more wisdom and insight regarding Coltrane's artistry in general and Interstellar Space in particular.

Few quick addenda:

*Here's the original Rolling Stone review of Interstellar Space, by Stephen "Hammer of the Gods" Davis, for anyone who's interested.

*I wanted to delve a bit further into the shadowy pre-Interstellar history of sax/drums duets in jazz but didn't want to veer too far off course. In addition to Ali's mention of undocumented duos with Archie Shepp (cited in my 2003 Rashied interview for All About Jazz, a Q and A I quote frequently in the new piece), there's this tantalizing passage in the book that comes with Revenant's Holy Ghost Albert Ayler box. The speaker is Mr. Milford Graves, discussing Ayler's visits to his apartment in East New York, Brooklyn. The time frame isn't specified, but my educated guess is that the below would have taken place around 1965, when the two were working together most frequently:

"We played a lot of duets at my house — just the two of us. The things that we did when he came over to my house aren't on any records; people hear the records and they don't hear the real Albert Ayler — the Albert Ayler who's relaxed when he's not around a major audience for which he's going to have to play something that people will dig, or play a tune he has recorded so he can sell some records." 

*Along similar lines, we also have, of course, the brief Coltrane / Art Taylor duet that commences about 30 seconds into "Countdown," as well as this epic Trane / Roy Haynes showdown from Newport '63 (thanks to Ben Ratliff and his essential Coltrane: Story of a Sound for the tip-off on the latter, which is sort of hiding in plain sight; there's more great Ratliff-on-Trane in this 2001 Times piece):

Not to mention the Interstellar-style duet that erupts between Trane and Ali around 3:20 into "Offering," recorded just a week before Interstellar itself:

*Here's a short list of other sax/drums recordings I love — either old favorites or albums I've discovered while working on the RS piece. There's a nice, long list up on the Free Jazz Blog (though now out of date, since new ones are surfacing all the time, e.g., Rich and Carson Halley's brand-new The Wild — thanks to Derek Taylor and Dusted for the tip-off — which I can't wait to check out in full):

Sunny Murray / Arthur Doyle, Dawn of a New Vibration
Sunny Murray / Sabir Mateen, We Are Not at the Opera 
Essential 2000s-era Sunny Murray, shaggy, swinging and sublime, on these two. Doyle and Mateen — both of whom double on flute — know what's up and of course hold their own next to the gentle giant.

Fred Anderson / Robert Barry, Duets 2001
Fred Anderson / Steve McCall, Vintage Duets
The former is maybe my single favorite sax/drums album next to Interstellar itself — a sort of freebop infinity, relaxed but never casual. The McCall set, recorded back in 1980, is a deep Chicago document.

Milford Graves / David Murray, Real Deal
David Murray / Jack DeJohnette, In Our Style (Fred Hopkins appears on some tracks)
Milford Graves / John Zorn, 50th Birthday Celebration, Vol. 2
Two of the best representations of Milford Graves on record, with two very different, very well-matched partners, as well as a fun, gutsy Murray/DeJohnette dust-up.

Denis Charles / Jemeel Moondoc, We Don't
Pure infectious exuberance as a Caribbean-born '60s survivor meets a loft-era alto wizard circa '81. Charles's roughly contemporary duos with clarinetist Peter Kuhn, featured on disc 2 here, are also excellent.

Peter Brötzmann / Paal Nilssen-Love, Wood Cuts
Paal Nilssen-Love / Joe McPhee, Tomorrow Came Today (McPhee plays pocket trumpet on some tracks; reissued as part of the Candy box set)
Peter Brötzmann / Shoji Hano, Funny Rat/s series
Pick your poison, really, when it comes to Brötz drum duets — I must have them all! — but I've gotten good mileage out of Wood Cuts and the third Funny Rat/s disc with the incredible Hano. Nilssen-Love and pretty much anyone, doing pretty much anything, is going to be worth your close attention, and the McPhee here is no exception.

Willem Breuker / Han Bennink, New Acoustic Swing Duo (Breuker also plays clarinets)
Kaoru Abe / Hiroshi Yamazaki, Jazz Bed

Two of the earliest, not to mention most wildest, entries in the sax/drums canon, with the Bennink/Breuker being recorded all the way back in late '67 (thanks to Ben Young for the tip-off). The Abe/Yamazaki, recorded in '71, is just so goddamn raw/real.

Paul Flaherty / Chris Corsano, The Beloved Music

Paul Flaherty / Randall Colbourne, Bridge Out!
Speaking of raw/real, here be Flaherty and Corsano, the standard bearers of the punk offshoot of the sax/drums monolith. Flaherty/Colbourne is a subtler yet just as compelling combo.

Jimmy Lyons / Andrew Cyrille, Burnt Offering

Jimmy Lyons / Andrew Cyrille, Something in Return
Cecil Taylor Unit blood brothers getting down to serious business.

Dewey Redman / Ed Blackwell, Red and Black in Willisau

Ornette blood brothers doing same.

Kid Millions / Jim Sauter, Fountain

Keeping the tradition moving. Molten noisejazz lava with surprising sensitivity. See also: Sauter's duet with Weasel Walter on this 2014 WW improv sampler, on which he also goes toe-to-toe with Marshall Allen and Marco Eneidi.

Jon Irabagon / Mike Pride, I Don't Hear Nothin' but the Blues
Another contemporary spin. Obsessive, insular and just downright perverse at times.

What are your favorites?

Louie Belogenis talks 'Interstellar Space'

One of the greatest pleasures of working on my new Interstellar Space piece was getting the chance to speak with — and delve further into the work of — saxophonist Louie Belogenis. I was modestly familiar with Louie's output before this, specifically Flow Trio's 2009 debut, Rejuvenation, and his excellent 2011 trio disc Tiresias, with Sunny Murray and bassist Michael Bisio. (I still need to catch up on that very intriguing 2015 Blue Buddha record, with Dave Douglas, Bill Laswell and Tyshawn Sorey.)

The entry point for this interview was Rings of Saturn, Louie's magnificent 1999 duo disc with Rashied Ali, but as you'll read, there was so much more to talk about. This man is a serious disciple of Coltrane who also clearly understands the importance of blazing his own trail through the music. I'd like to sincerely thank him for his time and his insight.


Louie Belogenis on Interstellar Space — 2/2/17

It's almost become a rite of passage for specifically tenor saxophonists and drummers to record in that idiom and see how they can contribute to that genre. And from that it's branched out, like Rashied made that record with Leroy Jenkins; that's an amazing record. So you have people in general now recording with drummers in a duet setting, much in the same way that Steve Lacy and Anthony Braxton created a whole genre of solo concerts, solo recitals. You have a recital idiom now, duetting between a drummer and a tenor saxophonist or now it's open to any instrument you can think of. It's interesting because you can contextualize it as Interstellar Space is the grandfather of all of this progeny, and what people are adding, subtracting, contributing, the directions that they're going in, is fascinating, and probably, if you're tracing that lineage, it's probably into the hundreds or thousands of records right now. Everyone's just so interested in it.

Can you take me back to when that record came into your life?
I had it immediately. It was 1974. I don't know exactly when it came out, but I had it that year. ABC/Impulse was releasing posthumously Coltrane records like Meditations, Transition, and Interstellar Space was part of that. I got it, and it blew my mind. It was astounding and confounding at the same time for me to listen to that.

So you were fully up on everything that had come out during Coltrane's lifetime?
No, I actually kind of started in reverse, and made my way backwards through his music but just jazz music in general. I was very attracted at that time by Braxton and Lacy and Air and Threadgill, Roscoe, the Art Ensemble, Cecil. I was into that music very specifically. As well as more fringe [artists]: John Zorn at that time, who wasn't the John Zorn that he is now, playing with Eugene Chadbourne and Polly Bradfield. I don't think Phillip Johnston had started the Microscopic Septet yet, but I was already going to concerts by people like Joel Forrester and Phillip, Dave Sewelson, Wayne Horvitz, the whole Santa Cruz scene that moved here. Robin Holcomb was part of that, of course.

So, like any young person, I was kind of just in the scene. I was just listening; my ears were wide open. You hear a record like that, and there's no way to chase it forward because it's happening right now, so you trace it backwards. What was the record he put out before this? And who did he play with? Lead back to Miles Davis, the record with Duke Ellington, the ballads record. I wasn't up on it; it made me want to investigate further and kind of backwards in time.

At that time it was just current, and it was as fresh as anything that Art Ensemble was doing or Air was doing or Arthur Blythe, Sam Rivers had Studio Rivbea at the time. It was almost like you heard that yesterday [laughs]. It wasn't dated at all; it blew everybody's mind.

Right, even seven years after it was made and after Coltrane died.
Exactly, yes, because no one had ever heard it. It didn't come out during his lifetime, so when it came out in '74, that was its initial release.

Do you remember that the record caused a stir in your circle? Was it kind of like an event when it came out?
I think it's safe to say that yes, in the musicians I've already mentioned and friends that I can contextualize, it was a record that everybody had on. And I'm in a musical milieu, so everybody was listening to it, studying it. It was like when when Motion, Lee Konitz's record with Elvin and Sonny Dallas came out, I can recall everybody's house you went to, they were listening to Motion. This was a similar kind of record. Whether you liked it or not, and most people I knew liked it, you were awed by it. It was a majestic statement, but whether you liked it or not, it was something that you knew was important.

Once you were able to go back and get more of a full view of Coltrane's work, how did the record strike you then?
It's an extension. Coltrane is a pilgrim; he's always on a path. It's so well-known that he practiced incessantly, as many hours in a day, as many breaths as he could take, he was with his saxophone; he was with music. And it's clear, if you do go back or if you study the music, that it's a path. It makes really logical sense. He was very instrumental in creating a very personal language for himself based on his virtuosity and his intense practice program. And this is an extension of that. So it wasn't shocking and surprising in that sense; it was shocking and surprisingly in the sense of "How is this humanly possible that someone could play this way?" I would imagine like when violinists heard Heifetz for the first time... There was that element of shock, but when you listen to Coltrane's recorded output, you just see it; it's a step-by-step progress or evolution... Just growth, exploration and evolution.

I didn't hear it as some wild statement. I think people appropriated it that way maybe, but Coltrane was not a wildman. He was on the path, and his path was music, practicing the saxophone — total dedication to his art and his craft and at the highest level imaginable.

You mentioned some of these astounding things you heard on the record. Are there moments or techniques or facets of what he's doing on that record that you could elaborate on?
Yeah, sure... First off, just the level of execution, right? [Laughs] If you like it or not, you can't but help notice: Listen to this man's level of execution. Not only the speed that he's playing with but the very complex ideas. He's working with scales that are unusual; he's working with chords that are unusual; he's working with intervals that are unusual. And he's executing them as if somebody else is playing a C major scale [laughs]. It's just so virtuosic and so intuitive and so natural and so flowing. And again, these are not easy things that this man is doing, and in many ways, they're intervals and scales, the usage of which he's kind of pioneering. He was good friends with Yusef Lateef who wrote that book Repository of Scales [and Melodic Patterns]. He had hundreds of scales: Persian scales, Indian scales.

And that's another thing: Coltrane was listening to Ravi Shankar and even in correspondence with Ravi Shankar. He named his son Ravi. He was so into the modal aspect of it. So his execution of these very technical things: wider intervals, fourths, sixths. Overblowing on the saxophone and yet creating, like, stacked harmonics. The saxophone's a single-note instrument... He could play a note but he could have the fourth and the fifth above that note be sounding through a use of what's called false fingerings and overblowing. It would be like a violinist pressing with a certain amount of pressure so they get harmonic overtones on the string. It's like the Pythagorean Theorem. Coltrane could overblow through a system of his breath control and his fingerings to create, like I said, he'll get the fundamental tonic note, but he'll get notes extended above that and sometimes he was getting three notes. He would create a chord on a single-note instrument. Of course Mr. Evan Parker has gone further and perfected that to a certain extent, but no one was doing that when Coltrane was... He started it early; you can go back and hear some of it on Giant Steps and those "Impressions" solos that are live in Europe, so many of them have amazing aspects of that. But on Interstellar Space, specifically, it's just phenomenal...

So the control not only of his standard technique, but the control of extended technique, the ability to execute it at speeds that most people couldn't even play conventional things at was really astounding...

But this is something that I think you should bring out: At the same time, inside of that, there's a beautiful peacefulness and silence and space in Interstellar Space too, which I think attracts many listeners as well. They don't see it as some tumultuous cacophony. He starts so many of the pieces with his sleigh bells — that's not Rashied playing the bells; that's Coltrane playing the bells — and he ends four of the six pieces with the bells. So it's kind of starting from this place of openness and "What are we gonna fill it with? What are we gonna create here, Rashied? What are we gonna do now?" And he's just shaking those bells, and the inspiration comes to him, and out of that, he creates this music. But as he's creating it, no matter where he goes with it, it's coming from that core of silence, of peacefulness, of wonder, of beauty, of really taking a chance and not knowing where it's going to lead to, but having the confidence and the courage to go there.

Yeah, I think that contrast is absolutely at the heart of that album.
Yeah, and I think that's something that a lot of people miss when they speak about his music, because that just runs throughout that, and I would say that Joe Lovano has something like that. Joe has just such a beautiful core. That beauty, that aesthetic of peacefulness. He's not aggressive; he's not competitive. No matter how hard he might play, and he's a strong man and can play forcefully, it's coming from this beautiful center. Sonny Rollins: a beautiful center of devotion and dedication. Coltrane had that too, and then when you add to that this ecstatic element, it becomes overwhelming. And Coltrane of course had roots in the church. You add that ecstatic nature of the church tradition, the blues tradition, and it's overwhelming.

But the interesting thing is what you were saying, this contrast. It's just not the overblowing and the three- or four-note chording and the lightning execution; there really is a core of peace there. There's a core that's just open and it's vibrant and it's peaceful. It's gentle. There's a gentleness to this man's playing, and you can hear that on "Naima" and his ballads records and "Wise One." So many of his records. No matter how furious he's playing, it's coming from a centered man, a man who's at peace.

I'm not a saxophone player, but there are these things he does throughout that record, almost these cyclical up-and-down patterns [imitates sound]. What would you call that, or how would you describe it?
Those are real quick arpeggios and glissandi. That's part of his technical thing. He's executing at speeds that would rival any classical virtuoso you could think of. That's what he is; he's a virtuoso. This is real technique, executed at the limits of human possibility, but those things specifically that you're asking about, those are arpeggios and glissandi, where he's executing strings of C, E, G, B flat; D, F, A, G. He's just going through it; he could cycle it in any way. He could do it by thirds; he could do it by fourths; he could do it by seconds. By that I mean, on the scale steps, he could arpeggiate in C, then he could arpeggiate in D, then he could arpeggiate in E, and he's just running cycles, as you said, through various systems. Sometimes he's using a fourth, from C to F; sometimes he's using a third, from C to E. So he takes different intervals and he explores them, and he explored unusual intervals that don't necessarily go with the way that most people heard Western harmony. So he's exploring fourths; he's exploring major thirds — that's what the "Coltrane changes" are all about. They don't necessarily lead to the harmonic progressions like ii-V-I that most people are familiar with, so even right there, he's creating sounds that are different than most people are used to hearing, and they're also more difficult to execute. They're not what an instrumentalist would call "under your fingers." They're just not the way your hands fall. Just like when a pianist is playing tenths. That's just not the way your hand goes...

So fast-forwarding a bit, what was it like having this kind of reverence for this period of Coltrane and then moving on to playing with Rashied?
[Laughs] I still marvel at that... Well, first off, Rashied, I don't know if you knew him, or knew anything about him, but he also was a master, especially at the time I met him. He was totally confident, but not egotistical about his place. So that gave him a real security, a real grounding and a real generosity for younger players like me. He was welcoming; he was encouraging; he was of course inspiring. And the opportunity then to play with him... Like you hear "I went to Miles Davis University" or "I went to the Church of John Coltrane." For me, being with Rashied, if you speak about in lineage, here was this man who connected me to this wonderful tradition of the music that he was a part of, and all of the people that he had played with. So all of a sudden, I'm not listening to this music on my stereo; I'm actually playing with a man who has direct connections to many of the people whose names I mentioned. Not just Coltrane; Rashied has played with them all. That includes Albert Ayler; that includes Sonny Rollins. So many of the great saxophonists: Dewey Redman, Sonny Simmons, Sonny Fortune. You just go through the list, and they played with Rashied; Rashied's play with them; he's been in their bands; they've been in his bands. So it was a direct connection, and then when you add to that just how encouraging he was, how supportive he was, how he let me find my own way into the music. He didn't impose: "You gotta play it this way." He let me find my voice, and he didn't expect my voice to be that of John Coltrane; he wasn't looking for that.

How did you meet?
I met him, actually... I did meet him kind of on the scene. I was playing in a band that William Hooker led in the late '80s and we were opening for Rashied, and Rashied heard me play with William in that context, and I knew he was gonna hear me that night; that was enough for me. But he was so gracious, he came up to me and complimented me on my playing [laughs]. It's like, "What?! This is ridiculous." A couple of years after that, I was invited to a session that he was also part of, and ... we were playing together, and again, before I could go up to him and tell him what an honor it was to play with him, I was packing up my horns, and he came over to me and again, was just so gracious and encouraging. And I said, "Well, could I have your phone number — maybe we could get together and play sometime." And he gave it to me, and I said, "Well, you know, if you give me this, I'm gonna call you!" And he said, "That's why I'm giving it to you." That was in the earlier '90s. And he had that club Ali's Alley. It wasn't running then, but that was where he lived and he had the basement where he could rehearse and play, and I would just go over there, and we would play and because we were continuing to hit it off, we decided to put a band together, and that band became Prima Materia.

So that was going for a long time, playing Coltrane repertoire before you two recorded the duo album?
Yes, exactly right. We actually were quite a band that worked quite a bit. We had many records out, and the Knitting Factory had us on their touring schedule, and we were touring Europe and recording for quite a few years. And then at the end of that, we made that duo record.

You spoke of this illustrious tenor/drums tradition. What was it like adding to that and actually getting the chance to be a part of it?
I'll tell you how it happened. Rashied had been hit by a cab. He was riding his bicycle, and the cab driver hit him and knocked him off his bike. He broke is ankle, and there was a settlement from the lawsuit. Rashied got some money, and he decided to put it into that studio that I already mentioned. He decided to make it a recording studio: make it soundproof and put nice equipment in it and stuff like that. Rashied was following that tradition. He was just always practicing, and I was this guy who was always coming over to his house and playing with him, whether we were touring or not, recording or not, we just had this weekly thing for years, where I was over there playing with him. So he was building the studio, and I was there coming over a real lot, and it got to the point where it wasn't quite finished yet but it was getting close, and he wanted to see how it was sounding. So it wasn't like we were deciding that we should make a duo record together. He just set up the microphones, and he had a third person there who was kind of acting as engineer. He just wanted to hear: how did his drums sound, how does the room sound, how does the saxophone sound, are these good mics, where should we place them. That kind of thing. It wasn't like starting, like, "Hey, we're doing a duo." So we did that, we set it up, and we listened to it back, and again, Rashied was just like, "Wow, this is nice!" We didn't use those initial tapes. Those were just practice, or a trial of the studio.

It wasn't like a thing that I could ask Rashied, "Let's do a duo record." Again, his generosity of spirit... We just kept on doing that more as a way of exploring the possibilities of the studio and then it came to a point where he said, "Well, let's do a duo record." And that's when what we were doing kicked in a little bit more seriously to me, and I thought, like you said, to be part of this lineage was overwhelming and at the same time very inspiring, and I think a lot of people who were drawn to this music have a kind of obsessive-compulsive aspect to practicing. I'm a practicer; that's my path too. I'm playing all the time, practicing. And for me it was a very encouraging, very inspiring project to enter into with Rashied.

Around the same time Nels Cline and Gregg Bendian put out a direct cover of Interstellar Space, but the one you did with Rashied was a bit more subtle because it only has one piece that's directly from that record.
Right, and that was of course deliberate on our part. And I love that Nels Cline record, by the way. But I do agree with what you're saying. And at that point, Rashied and I, our playing together had really just blossomed into a great friendship, a real lot of trust. And as I said at the beginning of the conversation, Rashied was very encouraging of my own path. He was attracted to my playing, he told me later, because I wasn't trying to be like a slavish Coltrane devotee, just using the language that you and I have already spoke about that Coltrane pioneered. He heard that obviously I was familiar with it, that I had listened to it, but I was reaching for something else, and he heard that as my language, and he was encouraging of that.

And I was bringing in other elements from some of the other influences that I had: modern classical music. Listening to my other peers were doing at the time. I wasn't just coming from, you know, the classic Miles quintet of '55 and '56. I was up on Xenakis; I was up on Kagel; I was listening to Boulez. I was running around the city with John Zorn. I was bringing in influences that were outside of what someone might think of as traditional jazz vocabulary, or even the extensions that Coltrane was adding to that vocabulary. And Rashied wasn't threatened by that; he was like, "Wow, this is great! More language."

And so we didn't try, and there was no point for Rashied to try to recreate Interstellar Space, because he told me no one was ever gonna play it better than Coltrane. So there was no point in us going there. But part of the homage, so to speak, the inspiration was in playing "Saturn." That was just something that we put in there, and something that I worked very hard on.

Yeah, and it's interesting how Nels Cline's interpretation brought in this whole world of rock and noise and psychedelia, and that's their contemporary spin on this thing, and that tradition is still moving forward.
Yes, that's where we started the conversation, where I said this lineage now has been created: Nels adds the psychedelia; Mary Halvorson is gonna add something else now, you know what I mean? People are now coming from very diverse backgrounds. It isn't just just Frank Lowe and Rashied, or Peter Brötzmann and Han Bennink, you know what I mean? People who are outside of these traditions, who are coming from completely different places and have other things to add to it... But yet the lineage is so open and embracing of all these things that you can still contextualize it, like I said, with Interstellar Space as the grandfather of all this, and this is its proud progeny. It's a big and happy family [laughs].

And it's a very welcoming tradition, as opposed to the more closed: "You aint' playin' the changes, man!" And people trying to exclude you because your ii-V-I's aren't happening. So this is a welcoming tradition. Like you said, how are you experimenting? What are you adding to it? What are you bringing into it? And it's almost like that, not how do you adhere to it, but how do you further it, is almost the parameters by which you're judged. And that's kind of a nice thing for any tradition to have in it. What innovation are you bringing? That's how a tradition stays alive.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

"His work was play": Celebrating Ornette, then, now, always

I wrote about it at the time, the poignancy of this image of Ornette Coleman sitting onstage at his own tribute show — the epic Denardo-directed Prospect Park hang of June 12, 2014 — simply listening as all these wondrous sounds took shape around him. Thanks to the new Celebrate Ornette box set, which documents, audiovisually, the entirety of both that gig and his memorial service at Riverside Church the following June, we can relive the night, really get back inside it and see not only what it meant then but what it means now.

One thing that going back to the Prospect Park show confirms is that it was a pretty loose night overall, an Ornette-themed jam session, really, with some beautiful moments of communion but also a charming by-the-seat-of-its-pants quality. As Rolling Stone's David Fricke pointed out in his review of the new box set, as rich as it is, and despite Ornette's own presence on a few of the pieces, this is not so much a definitive summation of Ornette's legacy but more, as the title suggests, a celebratory coda to an extraordinary life, an invitation to witness the beginnings of a post-Ornette, but still Ornette-suffused, musical and creative reality.

Back to the image of the seated Ornette, and how we get to that point in the proceedings. The Prospect Park event begins with a remarkable Sonny Rollins benediction (I don't think I'll ever forget his Ornette paraphrase of "It's all good!" as long as I live), followed by a teary-eyed blessing from the honoree himself, spreading as he always did a message of unity and kindness that feels, now, in this bleak, chaotic 2017, like a dispatch from some sort of long-bygone utopia. Ornette exits the stage for the first piece or two, leaving players like Henry Threadgill and Flea to jam with the effervescent house band, Denardo Vibe (such a pleasure, throughout the show, to just kind of swim in their odd flow, sprightly yet turbulent), then makes a surprise cameo at his own party, blowing lines of sublime fragility, paper-thin but dripping with that swooping, blues-saturated feeling we knew then and always will know as Ornette-ness. (In in a subtly brilliant bit of producer's sleight-of-hand, Denardo places the pieces where Ornette himself played first in the running order on the CD and LP documents in Celebrate Ornette, even though they actually came a bit later as we see on the DVD, so that the first sound we hear on the audio-only versions is Ornette's horn.)

In some ways those first few minutes of "Ramblin'," more or less a Coleman a cappella moment, with some slight accompaniment from guitarist Charlie Ellerbee (a Prime Time member and longtime Ornette loyalist, who tells a beautiful story on the DVD about Ornette sitting his band members down, asking each of them where in the world they would most like to play, and then fulfilling those travel dreams one by one), are the most precious, like fragments of garments worn by a saint. These versions of "Ramblin'" and "OC Turnaround" are the last of Ornette's sound that we have, really, and what his playing here lacks in his old command and swagger, it more than makes up for in feeling. The band comes in behind him on "OC Turnaround"; tapdancer Savion Glover is sitting in. There's not much of an arrangement to speak of — the proceedings are loose. Coleman and tenor players David Murray and Antoine Roney blow simultaneously; the band sings the classic Ellington-esque theme. There's such a happy casual-ness to it all. "Ornette is here, and he wants to play, and we've got these tunes, and all these amazing guests, and we're just going to go for it." Sometimes these tribute events get stiff, overly manicured, but what this concert was, in some of its best moments, was simply a hang, a last chance for Ornette to just exist within this vibrant community, this unique musical and social circumstance — an environment where Geri Allen and Thurston Moore, Patti Smith and James Blood Ulmer, and Jack DeJohnette and John Zorn and Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane and so many others could all come together — that his music and presence nurtured for almost six decades.

So after two pieces on which he performs, he remains onstage, seated, listening. (I remember seeing him mouth "I want to stay" to an assistant who had come to lead him offstage, a phrase that I borrowed for my write-up.) The horn rests across his lap. At times he smiles at a musical event — he's clearly delighted by the presence of Wallace Roney Jr., for example, seen in the photo above — but often he's just sitting there, his hands clasped. We can't know what he was thinking, but I like to think it was something like what the audience (at least the one member I can speak for), the musicians and everyone there was thinking that night: Isn't this something. "This" being a joyous occasion for pilgrimage, with so many diverse expressions of whatever this or that artist felt they wanted to bring, from Nels Cline and Thurston Moore's intense, exacting guitar duet to the no-frills jamming of Denardo Vibe and ace soloists like Threadgill and Lovano, to the sort of Lou Reed feedback seance of Zorn, Laurie Anderson, Bill Laswell and Stewart Hurwood, to the big "Song X" jam with the Master Musicians of Jajouka, James Blood Ulmer and others.

There's one powerful moment when Patti Smith, during a break from her powerful recitation piece "Tarkovsky (The Second Stop Is Jupiter)," in which she also plays clarinet, asks Ornette to join in with her. Coleman, still seated there onstage, as dusk has given way to night, one of those magical summer nights in Prospect Park that are so emblematic of the Brooklyn Experience, and here we have two legends on the stage, and one is inviting the other to jam, essentially. And Coleman, clearly done playing for the night, for whatever reason, graciously declines. And there's something about that moment that scans for me as a passing of the torch, as a "this is all going to go on without me" or an "I'm here with you even when I'm not here," a foreshadowing of a time, not so far in the future, when his fans, admirers, collaborators, family, everyone whom his music and humanity touched, would continue on without him literally beside them but always with this sort of ever-proliferating Ornette spirit (that fragile ghost of an OC sound that we hear on "Ramblin'") hanging in the air. I know that his sound, and not just that of his own saxophone, but of the happily shaggy funk that, say, Denardo Vibe lays down, as well as the coiled-spring mirth/mania evident in his best small groups from throughout the years, will persist in our minds. Like with the output of any true icon, you never forget the sensation of Ornette's work, and that night in Prospect Park, even after he fell silent, the feeling and spirit of the Ornette-o-verse was still dancing in all our heads, a state of bliss we can now happily relive.

The film of the Ornette memorial, a lengthy document that I'm still digesting, is another welcome gift of Celebrate Ornette, with copious speeches that are as enlightening as the brief musical episodes by fellow travelers such as Pharoah Sanders and Cecil Taylor — both just getting up and being themselves in the most no-nonsense of ways, Sanders with a solo tenor piece, Taylor with a bewitching few minutes of poetry and piano, paying no kind of explicit tribute in terms of repertoire but expressing a kind of tough solidarity with the late master. I loved hearing New York Amsterdam News writer Herb Boyd recall seeing Ornette's gamechanging early quartet in Detroit in 1960 as part of a meager crowd — after the show, he spoke to Ornette and lamented the turnout, and Coleman simply told him, "It's about quality, not quantity."

In a beautiful speech about all his years covering and conversing with Ornette — I again direct you to the essential Miles Ornette Cecil — Howard Mandel captures the sense of inspiration felt by so many of us whose lives have been touched by Ornette. Wonder in his presence and art, and a feeling that whatever it is that we do, we know more about how to do it well, and humanely, and in a deep lifelong way, because of Ornette's example. Near the end of his speech, Howard says of Ornette, offhandedly, that "his work was play," a simple phrase that sums it all up.

What that night in Prospect Park was, was a night of pure play, inclusive and infectious — like so much of Ornette's greatest work, fun but not frivolous. I like to think that, seated there onstage after he was done actually playing the horn, Ornette was perhaps meditating on this concept, how fun and full of wonder a creative life can be, how it can turn a stage filled with some of the world's greatest musicians from, essentially, a workplace into a playground. And how anyone who takes that principle to heart — call it harmolodics, or what you will — can carry it with them always, not just through art but through life, thus celebrating the great Ornette Coleman long into the future.


*Learn more about the Celebrate Ornette box here and read Denardo's essential essay.

*Read Seth Colter Walls' excellent Pitchfork review of the box, which has much to say, in particular, re: the preciousness and fragility of these final moments of Ornette-on-alto that we have to savor.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Join us

Wednesday, February 15, 2017
@ Saint Vitus

/Blind Idiot God

8pm, $12

Hell of a bill here. I've sung the praises of BIG and Husbandry (they show up near the end of this long-ish best-of-2016 list) before. Second STATS show with Nick Podgurski on full-time lead vox  — couldn't be happier with that arrangement. Join us?

FYI, the show will run early and on time: Husbandry will start by 8:30 sharp, and we'll be on shortly after 9.

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