Sometimes appreciation takes the form of disbelief. You know a musical phenomenon from recordings, and you seek it out in person, assuming that you'll be able to better process it. But somehow, it makes even less sense live, and you come away loving and appreciating it—and the musician behind it—all the more.
Over the past two nights, I've seen shows featuring, respectively, two of my favorite living drummers. Friday: Milford Graves, in duo with Joe Lovano at the Stone; Saturday: James "J." Read, with the Alberta metal band Revenge at Saint Vitus. In each case, I felt like I was witnessing the end point of a certain methodology of percussion, the ultimate expression of what a human being interacting with the instrument can accomplish—not just physically, but spiritually. Both performances employed what Morbid Angel guitarist Trey Azagthoth has referred to as "engulfingness," the fact of overwhelming the listener in an attempt to project/engender a feeling in an unusually deep way, almost as if the musician casting spells on the listener.
Friday's show was my third Milford Graves performance this year, and my second in the intimate confines of the Stone. Each of these gigs has been a duo show with a saxophonist: Evan Parker, John Zorn (part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art takeover) and Lovano. This last one was by far the best, in terms of rapport and, I guess I'd say, sheer amount of ground covered. Graves and Lovano dug deep almost immediately; as soon as the performance began, you sensed that each one was delighted by the other, wanted to give him all his partner's heart and might, to help his counterpart along to a place of they hadn't yet been. To be fair, this sense of spiritual conveyance was stronger in one of the two directions, namely from Graves to Lovano, and I think Lovano would've fully admitted that. At the end of one of what I believe was the first piece, the saxophonist said, to the audience but just as much to himself, "Milford Graves, the greatest musician alive." (It may have been "…the greatest musician on the planet," but it was something with that kind of certainty to it.) I think everyone in the Stone would've agreed with him. I've rarely witnessed such obvious gratitude and reverence—manifested as gleeful ecstasy—as what was radiating from Joe Lovano on Friday night.
After seeing the Evan Parker duo a couple months back, I compared the phenomenon of Milford Graves performing in a small room to a weather event. His technique has the effect of changing the climate of the room, conjuring otherworldly states with sound and vibration. I'm frustrated with my language here, with the way I'm falling back on lofty, abstract language to convey a very tangible sensation. But in a way, that shortcoming on my part is the best tribute I could pay this musician and his art—an admittance that you can't know it any other way than to make a pilgrimage to it, to be in its presence. When watching Graves on Friday, when taking in that worship of wood and metal and hide—I don't want to misquote Professor Graves, but after one piece, he made reference to the negative effect the weather was having on his drum heads ("animal skin" was the phrase he used, I believe)—I found myself thinking of the enormous gulf between knowing a musician's signature sound from recordings and knowing it live, what a chasm there is between those two understandings. I thought about how the divine rumbles of, say, John Bonham and Elvin Jones would only ever be, for me, shadows of their real selves. (I saw Jones live one time, but I wasn't prepared then to really absorb what I was witnessing.) But I know the Milford Graves sound—or at least I can say that I have known it during those moments when I've been in its presence. I don't think it's possible to take an experience like that with you.
You watch the movements—the strange inverted grip Graves favors with his left hand; the way he rests the butt of the stick that strikes the ride cymbal on the floor tom; the way he mutes that cymbal with the shaft of the stick, creating these weird phasing effects—and it doesn't really bring you any closer to assimilating the benevolent barrage you're hearing and, just as importantly, feeling. When Graves plays, you're being, in a sense, battered by sound, but it's a restorative battering—like a particularly forceful, bracing massage. You feel like you're being swooped up in a cyclone, almost discerning its cycles, its near-regularity, but never grasping it—you're chasing after a meter, but as my friend Ben Young likes to put it, you can never quite pinpoint where "1" is. You knew Lovano was right in this place with the audience; the moments when was playing seemed almost secondary to the moments during which he was silent, simply dancing, almost convulsing along with Graves's torrent. He was caught in that Milford Graves tractor beam, held in that grip of that enormous, polyvalent sound and vibration, soaking up its energy. We know that Graves is really a healer by trade, and when you hear him live, that fact is unimistakable. It's drumming as a gesture of spiritual restoration. We also know of Graves's fondness for hoisting fellow musicians on his back; this is what he does, figuratively, for the audience each time he plays: "I've got this. Let me carry you. Let me take you somewhere."
James Read wants to take you somewhere as well. With Graves, it's waves of love radiating from the kit; with Read it's beams of pure hate. Like pretty much all the projects he's been involved with, his current main outlet, Revenge, revolves around that idea that metal ought to be, first and foremost, an expression of filth, violence, seething rage. All of Revenge's songs sound exactly the same. You listen to them on record, and it's a malicious blurt. I've loved Read in that setting—specifically Revenge's Victory.Intolerance.Mastery LP, and various releases by Axis of Advance and Blood Revolt—but as with Graves, what he projects on the kit isn't something you can really take with you.
At Saint Vitus, Read played a beat-up old double-bass kit, borrowed for the night from the great Jim Roe (a veteran death-metal drummer best known for his work on the classic early Incantation LPs and performing last night with Mausoleum). From the first quick blast of his soundcheck, I knew that I was right to be in the front row. There was something extraordinary emanating from the kit and I wanted to soak it up fully.
Extreme-metal drumming often seems like an entirely different discipline than rock drumming—in a weird way, it can be a much less powerful, less full-body-engagement activity, especially where constant blastbeats are in play. (The classic phenomenon is that you'll see players barely tapping the snare drum in an attempt to reach absurd b.p.m. levels.) This is not the case with Read. You can't see him play and not think of a beast or a whirlwind, some superhuman exertion/expression. You hear his signature style on record—a glorious slopfest marked by supremely hectic blasts; thudding, caveman-style midtempo breakdowns; and these absurdly blurred, audacious tom rolls, which sound like a drum-maching malfunctioning—and you wonder if its bestial power is the result of some trick of production. You don't understand how any human could play that way, could interact with a drum kit to produce such disorientation, such savagery.
But Read is 100% the real thing. At Saint Vitus, between songs, I heard one guy in the front row go, "Fuck Neil Peart; he's the guy," or somesuch, pointing at Read. A comment like that is obviously a pointless apples vs. oranges non-comparison, but I knew exactly what the dude meant. Seeing Read is, like seeing Graves, an experience of disbelief. And as with Graves, Read is most definitely playing lead drums; in Revenge, there are two other musicians onstage—players stage-named Vermin on guitar-vocals and Haasiophis on bass-vocals—and what they do is impressive. (Vermin's rabidly trilling solos are a frequent perverse delight.) But you're at a Revenge show to see and feel the fury of James Read. Few players ride the line of chaos and control like this guy. Sometimes, his barrage, the insane jumble of toms and double-kicks, sounds completely arrhythmic—not to make too tidy a comparison, but at the speeds and density levels Read favors, what he does can sound strangely similar to what we think of as the free-jazz percussion tradition that Graves epitomizes.
Whereas Graves wants to buoy his audience, though, Read wants to flatten them. His projects all have this heavy militaristic bent; the man performs wearing camo pants, after all. The intent could not be any more obvious, but as anyone who's ever sat behind a kit can tell you, sheer aggression isn't going to get you very far. J. Read likes to frame what he does as anti-technique—see this amazing interview: "Ive [sic] been attacking the drum kit for over 10 years because drums are the most crushing instrument," etc.—but like Graves, this musician has obviously figured out a way to break through some sort of physical and sonic barrier when it comes to playing the instrument. The feeling I get from his playing is similar to the one that Zach Hill's drumming on the early Hella recordings gives me, that of a player who's almost angry at the idea that four-limb percussion has a threshold, this sense of "Why can't I just make more sound come out of this thing we call a drum set," and willing that more-ness to be so.
Revenge frames itself as anti-fun, anti-exhilaration, anti-uplift, and that's all good and well, but to me, great drumming is always a celebratory event. I'm sure J. Read would hate to hear me say this, but I find what he does just as inspiring as Graves's healing barrage. There is such ghoulish theater to Read's performance style—the way he headbangs violently as he plays, or fixes his eerie, unblinking stare on the audience during the slow parts—but he is, in the end, a part of the great tradition of percussive artists who take us elsewhere when they play, who heal us through extreme devotion and will to this primal art. Like Graves's, Read's technique is absolutely his own—I was struck, for one, by how close by he positions the ride cymbal, so that his entire arm is basically covering its surface and he's striking the outer edge. I would absolutely love to sit behind him as he plays, to really see what's going on with those vomitous rolls of his. But I sense that, even if I could closely monitor everything that was going on visually, I'd still come away baffled.
With players like this, the quantifiable fact of their performances is only ever a small portion of the story. You've been in the presence of this elemental phenomenon, the fact of these musicians interacting with their instrument, and for that time, maybe, you understood, you felt the totality of their expression and made some tenuous connection between what they were doing and how it made you feel. But you can't bottle that sensation. You come away with this sort of dumbfounded reverence, almost as if you were leaving a magic show. But unlike with magic, where you know there's some fundamental illusion at play, there's something comforting about the fact that yes, that drumming was in fact real—those performers are using the same humble materials you have access to.
I'm tempted to call these experiences in the presences of masters like Graves and Read transportive, but really, while they are happening, they do not take you elsewhere. Rather they make you feel more there, right in that place where you are, than you ever have. It's not a sensation of escaping one's immediate circumstance; it's a sensation of knowing it completely, and being blissfully happy that you're in the presence of an artist who could help you achieve that knowingness. I envy those that got to hear my late drumming heroes live—the Bonhams, the Jones and Williamses—but on the flip side, I'm so grateful for these audiences with the ones who still walk the earth. These poets of the go-for-broke now moment. These madmen who, like a blacksmith heating metal, supercharge the present so that they can make it malleable, bend it to their will. Whatever the emotional objective—be it love in Graves's case or hate in Read's—the point is the drive behind it. Take the now; make it yours.
Sunday, December 08, 2013
Wednesday, December 04, 2013
|Good for You: Greg Ginn, left, with Mike Vallely|
DFSBP is not a news blog, but at the moment I feel the need to write a quasi-servicey bulletin. Yesterday, I linked to my review of the new Black Flag record. In that piece, I discussed the record in the context of Greg Ginn's hyperprolific bent, his habit of flooding the market (and I use "market" loosely, since it's unclear how many people are actually even aware this stuff is for sale) with an endless stream of new music, without much regard for how, or even whether, it will be received/consumed.
In the review, I made a brief mention of another new Ginn project, Good for You, which he launched earlier this year, and pointed out that this band's latest album, Life Is Too Short To Not Hold a Grudge—which came out on SST last February—sounds more like a sequel to the final stage of the original Black Flag's output than What The… does. I spent yesterday with Full Serving, SST's brand-new, enormously expanded reissue (yes, strangely, the label has already reissued an album that came out only nine months ago) of Life Is, and I want to make a few points about it. [Note: It turns out that I was mistaken re: exactly what Full Serving is; please read the helpful anonymous comment at the bottom of this post for details.]
I think Full Serving is a much better record than What The… So many of the qualities I dislike in What The… are absent from Full Serving. My main problem with the new Black Flag record is its rushed, tossed-off quality—the sense of a flood of indistinguishable songs arriving at a merciless pace, as though the band only had one day in the studio not only to track a new record, but to compose it as well. Full Serving, on the other hand, feels deeply lived in. The tempos are varied, the music has room to breathe; Ginn and vocalist Mike Vallely (mainly known prior to this venture as a pro skateboarder) consistently sound like they're challenging each other and themselves. Whereas What The… homes in on a kind of relentless, vapid drive, a seemingly willful obnoxiousness, Full Serving takes its time, plays with dynamic tension, coils up and reserves its energy, wallows in its own gross churn, practically dares the listener to tune out or cry foul at some perceived betrayal of a stock "punk" aesthetic, much in the way that my favorite Black Flag lineup of Ginn, Rollins, Roessler and Stevenson learned to. The rhythm-section shortcomings of What The… are still somewhat in evidence here; Ginn's still handling bass himself (as Dale Nixon). But there's a different drummer on board (Matthew Cortez rather than Gregory Moore), and there's generally more of a live-band feel to the bass/drums on this record, rather than the sense of rudimentary backing tracks laid down with haste.
I haven't made it all the way through Full Serving yet—there are, after all, 40 songs on this record: 11 from the original issue of Life Is, plus a whopping 29 new ones—but I can honestly say that, as a Greg Ginn fan, I'm excited to spend more time with this record. There's an enormous amount of cool, languid, fucked-up guitar playing on this album, and whereas on What The…, I feel like I'm listening around everything the rest of the band is doing, here I feel as though, while Ginn might be the star, he's not carrying all the weight of the music himself. Vallely is an obvious devotee of Rollins's vocal style, but his delivery transcends imitation. He genuinely sounds like the downtrodden hardass he's portraying on many of these songs; his state of fed-up-ness seems completely real. Whereas Reyes, in keeping with the bouncing-off-the-walls quality of the music on What The…, takes his performance completely over the top, Vallely paces himself, holds back and sculpts a dynamic arc, relishing the slow burn, the perverse anticlimax of many of these songs.
I'm not saying that I'm prepared to label Full Serving a classic album just yet. But I will say that it intrigues me and holds my attention. I'll also say that it sounds a whole lot worthier of the "Black Flag" designation than What The… If Ginn had issued this album as the Black Flag comeback, I'm sure many in the peanut gallery would've found their own reasons to hate it—Ginn is, for reasons I don't need to regurgitate here, a controversial figure in the American rock underground, and will remain so—but I really don't think you'd be witnessing the same levels of snark and vitriol that What The… has incited. Good for You has a ways to go before it's a truly great band, one worthy of the standard of excellence set by the original Black Flag. Some of the songs have the grating, stunted quality of much of What The…, and the lyrics are at times as cringe-inducing as the already-infamous ones on that LP. But as a debut (or, technically, a reissue of a debut), Full Serving is a great start. It's a record that any fan of Greg Ginn, and by extension, Black Flag, really needs to hear. As I did my best to suggest in the Black Flag review, you might not be able to make sense of Ginn's decisions, be they creative, financial or what have you, but it's a bad idea to dismiss an artist like this. You're inevitably going to miss out on some hidden gem, and in my opinion, Full Serving is one.
The strange P.S. to all this is that, according to the Ron Reyes farewell letter, Vallely is the likely candidate to become his successor in Black Flag. (See this video, which, features Vallely and which, according to the annotation, was taken mere minutes after Reyes's onstage ejection). Vallely has obviously been a key player in this whole saga—whereas Ginn hasn't gone on the record once that I know of during this whole mess, Vallely spoke to Rolling Stone a while back. The Reyes letter alludes to some kind of nefarious master plan—"I would not be surprised if Mike V becomes the new singer for Black Flag. It is my opinion that they have been planing this for some time." The signs are certainly there: For one thing, Good for You has opened pretty much every show the rebooted Black Flag has performed; at the Brooklyn gig I saw, Vallely was even acting as a sort of onstage bouncer for Reyes, keeping an eye out for stagedivers and mopping up beer spills. Was he simply scouting out his future territory, going through some Ginn-mandated apprenticeship?
If what Reyes suggest is true, though, why was What The… and the whole Reyes reunion necessary? Maybe Ginn felt that fans wouldn't accept a new Black Flag that had no other connection to the good, old days aside from himself, hence the recruitment of the former Chavo Pederast. Whatever the reasoning, the simultaneous launch of these two new projects—Good for You and Black Flag 2.0—hasn't gone particularly well. And by that I mean, it seems as though the project that Ginn's really pouring his heart and soul into (Good for You) is the very one that's practically guaranteed to be ignored by everyone but his most die-hard fans. Whereas the new Black Flag record has attracted enormous attention, nearly all of it negative.
I can't explain Ginn's reasoning, and it's doubtful he'll make any official comment on the matter anytime soon. All I can do is to implore you to give Good for You a chance before you close the book on the sad, sordid mess of Black Flag 2013. I'm not saying this record is the answer to every Black Flag fan's prayers, but I am saying that it's at least worthy of consideration alongside the back-catalog classics—in contrast to What The…, I'd definitely say it's in the right ballpark. If you're a fan of Greg Ginn as a guitarist and conceptualist, I strongly encourage you to hear this. (It's streaming for free on Spotify, so there's no risk whatsoever; see below.) Like a good amount of what Greg Ginn has done outside of Black Flag, Full Serving—which could be the best album he's made since In My Head—is in serious danger of being overlooked completely. Even in light of What The…, let's not let that happen.
P.S. I know it's a long record. If you're looking for a quick primer, some of my favorite songs so far are "Free," "Coal Town Blues," "Shit Show," "Knife in the Face," "People I Don't Like Blues" and "While the City Sleeps." My God—even just skimming back through this stuff to refresh my memory, I'm reminded of how incredibly much it diverges from What The… in terms of quality, intrigue and variety. This record fascinates me; What The… just frustrates me.
P.P.S. I loved this Vallely interview re: Good for You, which documents his and Ginn's apparently very real musical bond, and their shared love for great classic rock—Springsteen, AC/DC, Black Oak Arkansas, etc. Such a great glimpse into Ginn's famously broad tastes.
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
Two pieces to share, along with brief postscripts:
*Via Noisey, a round-up of the death metal I loved most in 2013, all of which took the form of new music by old bands. In prior DFSBP writings—including four posts anthologized in the recently released seventh issue of Burning Ambulance, at the kind request of editor Phil Freeman—I've made no secret of my bias toward the genre's veteran acts. As I tried to make clear in the Noisey piece, I'm not suggesting that newer groups aren't currently making great death metal; I'm simply drawing attention to the fact that a weirdly large number of bands from the movement's early-’90s heyday (not coincidentally, the moment I came on board as a fan) are still at it, and have issued top-quality product this year. Some of my favorite albums of 2013, regardless of genre, are on this list.
*Via Pitchfork, a review of the new Black Flag record. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that I found the album disappointing. I'm a huge Greg Ginn fan—his guitar sound/concept sums up what I love about music about as well as any other instrumental voice I could name. At the same time, as I indicate in the piece, I think that when it comes to releases, he tends to opt for quantity over quality. The man still issues a ton of music, just as he has for decades, and it bums me out to think that—in the context of this spotty yet significant trove—What The… might be the first and last Ginn-related record many listeners will hear outside of the original Black Flag discography. Considering this new LP in light of the full spectrum of Ginn's work over the last quarter century might not result in a more pleasurable listening experience, but I think it does soften the blow a little bit. I assure you: This will not be the last we hear from the man.
If you haven't yet seen Ben Greenberg's Talkhouse write-up of What The…, I highly recommend it.
Monday, December 02, 2013
In 2006, I spent an afternoon at Chico Hamilton's apartment, interviewing him for Time Out New York. I was underprepared; he was ailing and rightfully impatient. The conversation limped along until I mentioned, in quick succession, that I was 1) from Kansas City and 2) a drummer. The Q&A is no longer on the TONY site, but after I heard about his passing, I dug it out of the archives and transcribed it.
I still don't know Hamilton's music as well as I'd like to. I do love what I've heard of the early quintet material, and about a year ago, I caught a few pieces off Man from Two Worlds (a ’63 Impulse set with Charles Lloyd and Gábor Szabó) on WKCR and sat spellbound. The only time I saw Hamilton live was at the 2011 Winter Jazzfest; here's my mini review:
"I'm happy to be here.... At my age, I'm happy to be anywhere," joked 89-year-old drummer Chico Hamilton from the stage, before offering a textbook demonstration of how swinging propulsion can coexist with whisper-level dynamics.
I look forward to further listening. Hamilton seems to be someone who fits into no jazz school; from what I remember, those early records are exceedingly polished, while the Impulse dates are loose and raw. Anyone know of any detailed primers re: his body of work? I'd love a guided tour.
In the meantime, here's the TONY interview, in both photo and text form:
"Backstage with… Chico Hamilton"
By Hank Shteamer; Time Out New York – September 21, 2006
You're commemorating your 85th birthday this year by releasing four diverse CDs. They include your own tunes, pieces by Duke Ellington and the Who, plus DJ remixes—why cover so much ground?
Well, that's what music is all about, isn't it? Versatility in regards to sound, rhythms and melodic structures.
One CD has a vocal cameo by Arthur Lee.
Yeah, I was really shocked when I heard that he died [in August]. I think this was his last recording. My band performed with his group Love [in the late ’60s] out in L.A., where I'm from. It was unusual for a jazz organization to share the stage with a rock group.
Speaking of your past, you worked for years in commercial and movie music, scoring films such as Roman Polanski's Repulsion. Why'd you move away from that?
There's really no such thing as a film score anymore. Everybody lifts prerecorded tracks. As for my commercial period, that was the only time jazz was played on TV. Most of the commercials were recorded by jazz musicians, who had no choice in the matter—but that work drains you, you know?
I can imagine. You teach drums and lead ensembles at the New School—what led you to that?
I realized that this could be my way of giving something back, because music has been very good to me. Schools are the only place to learn jazz today, but sadly, a lot of people teaching this music know nothing about swinging.
Okay, how do you teach someone to swing?
It takes two things: patience and fortitude. [Taps rhythmically on table] You hear that? Okay, do that for me.
Good. Now can you talk at the same time?
Okay… [Still tapping] My name is Hank; I was born in Kansas City…
You're from Kansas City? Oh shit, okay! All right, keep tapping; now I want you to do this at the same time: [Sings] daaah-dah dah.
[Taps, sings] Daaah-dah dah…
See what kind of a groove you got in all of a sudden? Your whole body started to feel it, didn't it? It's just that simple, man.
Well, I actually play drums too.
That's cool. What kind of group do you have?
It's kind of a loud, heavy rock band.
Why loud? If you start loud, where you gonna go?
Down, I guess!
I think you should have some sensitivity to your sound, because the ear can only take so much.
Do you ever play loud?
I don't have no need for it. I play in the danger zone.
It's a way of playing that's very tensified, but at a volume where you can hear everything. And I stay in that zone, with that energy happening, you dig?
Sunday, November 10, 2013
A toast to the parties that have occupied so many of my listening hours in recent weeks. Sirs Bob Bagchus and Martin Van Drunen, a drummer and vocalist, respectively—second and third from left in the pic above—and principal members of the Dutch extreme-metal band Asphyx. The pair also play together in Grand Supreme Blood Court, which includes former Asphyx member Eric Daniels. The details are a bit confusing, but don't worry; this is a unified body of work.
Here are ten of my favorite tracks from the (by my count) five studio albums these two have made together thus far: two early-’90s Asphyx records, The Rack and Last One on Earth; two post-reunion Asphyx records—Death…the Brutal Way and Deathhammer—which I generally like better than the original two LPs, as good as those are; and one GSBC record.
I've written here before about the appeal of Asphyx. I don't have a whole lot to add to that. For me, the pleasure of this music has to do with an integrity, a phenomenally strong inner compass, the equivalent of a tractor beam that leads you along this one narrow aesthetic track for the entirety of your creative life. As any fan of death metal, or I guess I should say this strain of death metal, the one that's about paring ideas down rather than stacking them up—it's an elite crew, maybe only these guys and Obituary who do it in such a supremely satisfying way—could tell you, it's not about the quantity of ideas. It's about the weight you put behind your statements, the gravity of your stride.
There are moments here—like 2:07 into "Bloodswamp," when the tempo downshifts into that mean-ass swagger, or 1:40 into "The Herald," where, well, basically the exact same thing happens, except that the resulting tempo is just…that…much…slower and more agonized—that make me so happy I want to mutate, devolve, in the manner described here. It's about getting so, so low to the ground, this music. These two men, the vocalist with the gargling-sandpaper blurt and the drummer with the deliberately leaden, masterfully stoic, just-get-the-job-done cadences, and the guitarists—Paul Baayens, who also plays with Van Drunen in the good but, for my money, not quite as transcendent Hail of Bullets, on the post-reunion Asphyx discs; Eric Daniels on the old ones and the GSBC LP—who know the hymns that need to be sung, these towering riff colossi, like the swinging, almost balladic, "Let me tell you, son, a story of old" theme of "As the Magma Mammoth Rises," or the vicious yet melodically fine-tuned trilling of the main riff on "Asphyx (Forgotten War)," which you can't hear without thinking of getting threshed up into little bits. Or, maybe best of all, that strutting-down-a-boulevard-in-the-underworld sneer you hear on "We Doom You to Death," a track chronicling, yes, the badassery of Asphyx, and the feebleness of its competitors.
"No one will remember you / Nor your fucking band," growls Van Drunen on "We Doom…," and it's worth thinking about why the opposite is true of Asphyx. An art project can be an umbrella, a wide open creative space—the Melvins, let's say—and still make sense in the long run, still embody a sense of legacy, a sense that a fan's long-term investment is worthwhile. But there's something so satisfying to me about these narrowly defined zones of inquiry, as in Asphyx's case. You are who you are, you grow and change and all the rest, but you keep the family business sacred; you make one thing, really well, and you keep all your pride bound up in it.
It means so much, this consistency. I put this stuff on my iPod, the complete Bagchus / Van Drunen collaborative works, and I just go and go for days. It's like a North Star for me, the dream of an uncluttered statement, of channeling heart and mind into a single mode of expression, clenching down so tightly on this one true thing. And that's when you feel the gravity I spoke of above, the result of merciless focus, of unwavering determination, a grim yet somehow celebratory kind of will that meshes perfectly with the despondent mood of much of Asphyx's music. The rain and the sleet are driving down, the sky is black, you're sloshing through mud and muck, but you're pressing on. And on and on and on. And because you know you're on the right path, you're having a hell of a good time. That's what all this means to me.
[End-credits music: Asphyx - "Asphyx II (They Died as They Marched)"]
Sunday, October 20, 2013
|Photograph: Dani Alvarez Cañellas|
Like Paul Motian, he was a drummer who became a genre. As Motian did, he established himself as a sideman to heavy players, but it was only when his pen and his bandleading instincts came into play that he truly found himself. There's clearly a thread running from Ornette Coleman's Prime Time to the Decoding Society, the band Ronald Shannon Jackson led in one form or another from 1979 up until his death yesterday at the age of 73: the sour harmonies, the ragged rubato theme statements, the sense of funk being regarded in a funhouse mirror.
But Jackson took this concept far further than Ornette ever did. I'm listening to the title track of 1981's Street Priest right now, and its weirdness is intoxicating. This is a dance band from Mars. Jackson's patented Little Drummer Boy march pattern—rushed, tense, almost antic—giving way to a theme statement that would sound exuberant if it didn't sound like it was coming off the rails, like half the band was meandering off, each player exploring his own orbit. Electric basses thrumming, Vernon Reid unspooling merciless sci-fi shred, the saxophones not squawking in that manly free-jazz way but zipping and snaking around in the upper registers. It's cacophonous but it's also whimsical, bordering on cartoonish. (For a similar sensation, see also: the Lounge Lizards.) And it's unrepentantly of its time.
I think Shannon was looking for a new kind of hip that he couldn't find elsewhere. The results were different, much more knowingly engaged with the language of free jazz, than Miles's electric experiments. (And, it must also be said that while Miles never seemed to have much time for composition, using thematic material as a mere springboard, Shannon was a true writer, a lover of themes and arrangement, a romantic with the pen.) But there's a similar sense of a bandleader wanting to tear down the walls separating art music, popular music, folk music—to cram radical ideas into a format you could wiggle around to, to square the esoteric with the earthy. The same principle is at work in Last Exit, a band to which Shannon contributed the essential soil, the backbone of the blues.
Early last year, I went through a serious RSJ obsession, which had grown out of a specific obsession with the album Power Tools (a favorite of RSJ expert Steve Smith), a fascinating collaboration with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Melvin Gibbs, the latter a Decoding Society mainstay. I haven't thought about RSJ or the Decoding Society much since that time, and I think that's fitting, in a way. Again, as with Motian, Jackson is an acquired taste. As drummers, the two share a certain stubbornness of aesthetic: if Motian wanted to indulge in uncomfortable sparseness or obtuse abstraction, he'd do it; if Shannon wanted to play his borderline-cornball see-saw march-funk patterns, that was what was gonna happen. But, almost as a reward for our patience, each drummer gave us an entire world of music, only obliquely related to their formative work or various outside collaborations, a brand of sorcery that could only be experienced when Motian or Shannon, respectively, was the one in charge, exerting a not-always-traceable but ever-palpable influence. (Theirs were presences that altered the physical properties of the spaces and settings in which they played.) This parallel went right down to the fascination with multiple guitars/basses, and the wizardly use of language: "Look to the Black Wall," "Owl of Cranston," "Fantasm," "Yahllah"; "Sperm Walk," "Boiling Cabbage," "Aged Pain," "Green Coronas." There's a sense in each of wanting to levitate above the stultifying normalcy that can creep into jazz, as it becomes more and more a known quantity, to reinject some of the mystery (in Motian's case) and the vibrant lunacy (in Jackson's).
I never got to see Jackson play live. I sent a few interview requests to the e-mail provided on his website and didn't hear back. But those are selfish regrets. Ronald Shannon Jackson left an enormous body of work, enough to relish and puzzle over for many lifetimes. What I really wish is that someone would undertake a Complete Decoding Society box set; too many brilliant records under RSJ's leadership are still too hard to find. No online database will get you where you need to go, RSJ-wise, but below are a few recommendations.
"Ashes," from Red Warrior (1990):
"Gossip," from Barbeque Dog (1983):
"Time Table," from Music Revelation Ensemble's No Wave (1980):
For the record, my favorite Last Exit album is Köln, which is available on Spotify. In terms of recent RSJ, there isn't much to choose from, but Wadada Leo Smith's Tabligh is outstanding. And here's some tantalizing footage from what I believe was the last RSJ live appearance, last summer in Texas. (Some valuable context here.) Drumming-wise, he sounds as good—i.e., as much a steward of the music in its delicate entirety, not just of rhythm—as I've ever heard him:
P.S. There's some relevant RSJ talk in my Heavy Metal Be-Bop interviews with Melvin Gibbs and Gentry Densley.
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
I've caught a trio of incredible shows in the past week, surely some of my favorite live music of the year: a pair by Obituary at Saint Vitus, last Wednesday and Thursday, and one by RVIVR at Cake Shop, this past Monday. I've previously gushed at length about each of these bands (here and here), so I just want to make two quick points:
1) Thank God for the small show (club, loft, DIY space, what have you), the principal medium of my lifelong experience both as an audience member and as a performer. Yes, there's always the threat of a body check or a boot to the back of the head, but nothing can top the physical and spiritual sensation of being that close to the source.
2) Thank God for bands like Obituary and RVIVR (pictured above), and for their fans—each party in turn entering into a mutual pact that can only be described as blood-brotherly/sisterly. Obituary, who turn lead—riffs that groove then gallop, and groove then gallop some more—into gold, transforming roomfuls of willing diehards into ghoulish cavebeasts. And RVIVR, who project all their convictions—loves, hates, gripes, adorations, dreams, fears, prayers, spells and vows—as if from a confetti cannon, sowing a vibe that feels more like, yes, a revival meeting than a punk show.
Sunday, October 06, 2013
I saw McCoy Tyner play an extraordinary set at the Blue Note last night, with an extraordinary band. (Go see them tonight—8pm, 10:30pm—if you can.) I'm in my 15th year as a New Yorker, and I'd never heard Tyner live before last night, a fact I can't really excuse. Living here, it's nearly impossible not to take certain legacy artists for granted, but that doesn't make it okay—as a friend I ran into yesterday put it, we do indeed need to see these musicians while we can.
And not just out of some sense of duty or obligation. Because, as I learned last night, sometimes these older players can truly blow your hair back, transcend the mundane, multiset-per-night jazz-club idiom and achieve something otherworldly, dangerous, borderline scary.
I wasn't prepared for Tyner's intensity, nor for his unpredictability. The general framework of the material followed what I think of as a classic Tyner model, known to me via records like Enlightenment (recorded 40 years ago this past summer). It's a sound built on these rolling, cascading vamps, executed at precarious tempos, so that the music takes on the quality of a spiritual quest. This approach scans in my mind as post-Coltrane, but it is literally that, i.e., not as much an aesthetic that Coltrane himself pursued as one popularized by those, such as Tyner and Pharoah Sanders (I think of the vamp section of Pharoah's "Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt") who played with him.
When the band joined up for the opening and closing themes, there was a gorgeously ragged, almost dixieland-ish sound—with saxist Gary Bartz and violinist John Blake Jr. (a new name to me and an outstanding player) keening in the upper register, interweaving their ecstatic cries as Tyner lashed the band on with his rumbling, headlong flow. Bartz's solos were among the rawest I've heard in a jazz club in years. He'd start slowly, inquisitively, and work himself into the realm of expressionism. I don't just mean squeaking and squawking for the sake of it; there was a bit of that kind of abrasiveness, but Bartz's climaxes felt intensely earned, the product of total effort, absolute concentration. As with the rest of the band, there was an engagement, a conviction to his playing that startled me. In general, the pieces (two or three of what I assume were Tyner originals—the vampy selections described above—plus "Moment's Notice" and "In a Mellow Tone," as well as an incredible unaccompanied piano feature) proceeded in an orderly progression of solos, but each musician was so engaged that the format never seemed stale or predictable.
A lot of this had to do with drummer Francisco Mela, who juxtaposes hard-driving flow with turbulent interruption. It's hard not to think of Elvin Jones when you hear his thunderous tom-tom thumps, which egg the band on while simultaneously introducing a sort of random, weather-event chaos. But it was Tyner himself who was the real upsetter. He'd lay out during the beginnings of solos, building dramatic tension, then zoom back in with a flourish—he's a true daredevil, and not sparing with the showboat-ish, one-finger runs down the length of the keyboard—powering the music with a mighty force totally at odds with his frail, 74-year-old frame. Often, the band would lay out in turn during his solos, leaving him to his stormy reveries.
The dynamic range of these passages was enormous. I mentioned weather above in reference to Mela, and that was the prevailing metaphor that kept popping into my head as I listened to Tyner—the man conjures storms as he plays. I've always known him to embody this sort of holy-roller force, but the role he played in the Coltrane band was so oddly thankless at times—i.e., it can often seem to me, in the Classic Quartet context, that his solos are rest stops between the superhuman Coltrane and Elvin clashes; I'm oversimplifying, but his gestures in that group can't help but get swallowed up at times by the maelstrom outside. At the helm of his own band, he embodies this sort of divine will, a mercurial force that ranges from sweet and merciful to scatterbrained and roiling, to downright world-shaking. The band would watch Tyner's solos with a kind of awe; they never seemed to know when (or if) he was going to cue them back in, and both they and the audience seemed to relish that unpredictability.
We were all in the hands of a benevolent wizard, a veteran player intent on, quite literally, moving his audience, by sheer force of will, through both the power he commanded in his hands and the passion in his heart. This was jazz as conjuration—not simply about "swinging," about slickness, but about sending huge boulders of feeling rolling down the mountain, about ensuring that danger and risk took precedence over mere proficiency. There was a seat-of-the-pants quality to this set, a sense of the players constantly overshooting marks and recalibrating, and not caring in the slightest, because that was where the music was leading them. It was the storm and they were the ships, navigating valiantly but also relishing the tempest, inviting it in—as one would a muse—and singing its praises.
Here's a great 2011 clip featuring four fifths of the same band:
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
I've been listening to a lot of podcasts and online audio interviews recently. I highly recommend Jeremiah Cymerman's 5049 Podcast (I've checked out about ten of these so far, and I've loved pretty much every one), Aisha Tyler's Girl on Guy interview with Clutch's Neil Fallon, the Luc Lemay (Gorguts) and Bill Steer (Carcass) episodes of the MetalSucks Podcast, and the Lemay appearance on the Invisible Oranges East Village Radio show (click on September 3 here). While I'm not equipped to put together snazzy-sounding, nicely edited content à la what's linked above, I do have a fairly extensive archive of audio interviews, some recorded live on air. Since most of these radio shows are interspersed with music, they play like readymade podcasts. As time permits, I'll be going back through and digitizing various programs from the vaults, e.g., the 2000 Steve Lacy show I posted back in February.
Next up is an installment of the WKCR Musician's Show, featuring trombonist-composer Grachan Moncur III, that dates from less than a month after the Lacy Q&A. This has to be one of my most treasured interview tapes. As with the late, great Walt Dickerson, Moncur was an artist who existed in a kind of mythical state in my mind before I was lucky enough to be able to meet him. (I made the connection via a wonderful woman named Glo Harris—the widow of the drummer Beaver Harris—my collaborator on a memorial show concerning Beaver, which featured in-studio appearances from Moncur, Rashied Ali and Wade Barnes, and call-ins from Andrew Cyrille and Jack DeJohnette; maybe that'll be my next post from the archives!) I didn't know Moncur's story; I only knew his records, and at that time I was completely obsessed with them, especially the 1963 Blue Note set Evolution, which I still regard as one of the masterpieces of the period, and of jazz in general. Grachan (for the record, it's pronounced "GRAY-shun") and I sat down for three solid hours of talk, music and off-mic reminiscing. It was a really special experience—for one thing, I'll never forget Grachan discussing how his experience of the Kennedy assassination related to the title track of Evolution, one of my favorite pieces of music ever. I was just a kid at the time of this interview—a month shy of my 22nd birthday—but Mr. Moncur treated me like a peer. I hope you enjoy the show. Here it is, in four installments:
WKCR Musician's Show with Grachan Moncur III: 7.19.2000 - Part I
WKCR Musician's Show with Grachan Moncur III: 7.19.2000 - Part II
WKCR Musician's Show with Grachan Moncur III: 7.19.2000 - Part III
WKCR Musician's Show with Grachan Moncur III: 7.19.2000 - Part IV
1) The easiest way to stream these files is by clicking the Streampad link (the blue bar) you see at the bottom of the page. You can also download them as MP3s.
2) The level on the title track to Aco Dei de Madrugada (played at about the 24-minute mark in Part III) was too high, so I cut that piece from the MP3. You can hear it here. The same goes for Echoes of Prayer (featured on Destination: Out back in 2010), announced right at the end of Part III and continuing into the beginning of Part IV; I'm pretty sure we played the majority of the LP, which you can hear in five parts here: I, II, III, IV, V.
P.S. I want to thank my Aa bandmate Mike Colin for reminding me of the existence of this tape. I have a fond memory of he and I going to see Grachan Moncur III play at Iridum in a band that included Moncur's old Blue Note comrades Jackie McLean and Bobby Hutcherson. They played the classic "Love and Hate" that night and Moncur took a solo for the ages. (Judging by this review, this must've been 2004.)
P.P.S. Steve Lehman's 2000 interview with McLean, recently posted at Do the Math, is well worth your time.
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
For sheer big-event-ness, no metal comeback record this year can compete with 13. But for those of us obsessed with death metal and related styles, Colored Sands and Surgical Steel—the respective new ones by Gorguts and Carcass—are each pretty damn momentous as well. My Pitchfork reviews of these titles are linked above.
As I did in my reflection on the experience of reviewing 13, I'll take off my ill-fitting critic's hat here. From a fan perspective—really the most important one, in the end, especially when the subjects are two legacy acts in an especially fan-driven subgenre such as death metal—I'm ecstatic about these records. The respective trajectories (not to mention aesthetic priorities) of Gorguts and Carcass vary, but one thing these two bands have in common is that, as of roughly the mid-aughts, we had no reason to believe that we'd ever hear from either again. And yet even stacked up against each band's classic back catalog, these records are outstanding—they're statements not just of sustained proficiency but of sustained excellence.
Each in its own way, Colored Sands and Surgical Steel—and, now that I think about it, 13 too—is about coming to terms with the weight of history, then shrugging it off and embracing the ecstasy of the present moment. These LPs are meaty statements: dense, info-packed, loud, wild, weird, fucking fun records, and also ceremonies of communion between first-generation extreme-metal practitioners (Luc Lemay of Gorguts, Bill Steer and Jeff Walker of Carcass) and younger virtuosos (Colin Marston, Kevin Hufnagel and John Longstreth on Colored Sands; Daniel Wilding on Surgical Steel). In short, any quibbles I've aired aside, they're exactly what they should be. These are the kinds of albums that reaffirm fandom as a lifelong pact: "As long as you keep making music, I'll keep caring." I love them.