Friday, January 30, 2009

Tastes Metallic

Due to the facts that a) I became the proud co-owner of a new digital camera yesterday and b) I scored tickets to last night's Metallica show at Nassau Coliseum, you now see before you a selection of images captured by yours truly at that very event. You can read my account of the show--wherein I time-travel back to eighth grade to ask "Why, oh why?"--by following this link to the TONY blog. (Yes, those are black Metallica beach balls you see in the last picture; you'll have to read the review for more on that.) A full set list appears below the pics.

Don't forget about Tim and Eric tonight (see below)! I will see you there.

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Metallica at Nassau Coliseum - 1.29.09

1. That Was Just Your Life

2. The End of the

3. Creeping Death

4. The Thing That Should Not Be

5. One

6. Broken, Beat & Scarred

7. Cyanide

8. Sad But True

9. Unforgiven

10. All Nightmare Long

11. The Day That Never Comes

12. Master of Puppets

13. Damage, Inc.

14. Nothing Else Matters

15. Enter Sandman

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Encore:

16. Frayed Ends of Sanity (intro)--> Stone Cold Crazy

17. Hit the Lights
[I'm reasonably sure it was "Hit the Lights," but it may have been another Kill 'Em All track.]

18. Seek and Destroy

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Duo exchange: A conversation with Tim and Eric














Tim and Eric has (have?) basically become a way of life for me and my friend group since Joe turned me onto it some months back. The day rapidly approaches when we will experience the Awesome Show Great Job! Tour '09 live, this coming Friday at Nokia Theater Times Square (site of the Stella triumph of December '08).

I was lucky enough to be able to interview the boys a few days after they hit the road. This was my first conference-call Q&A and after five minutes of embarrassing "Can you hear me now? How about now?" technical difficulties, I finally got the two dudes on the phone at once. I was really nervous to speak to them--I think with comedians, there's that fear that they're just going to be ripping on you the whole time--though in my humble estimate, a respectable amount of funny/insightful stuff ensued. The piece appears in this week's Time Out New York, but a super special extended version can be read here. Enjoy! (One tip: If you click the Dance Floor Dale link, *don't* ignore the "Not safe for work" warnings. You will not be able to talk your way out of that one if you're caught.)

For the uninitiated, here's a quick Tim and Eric primer, off the top of my head:


1) The Innernette
2) Spagett!
3) ATM
4) D'Ump
5) Petite Feet
6) "You guys want rides?"
7) B'Owl
8) Uke prank call

I strongly encourage you to explore the Adult Swim site and watch more T&E. Top-grade visionary obnoxiousness.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Daily Bread

In which I continue my journey through the gloriously tweaked world of early '90s Southern avant-metal... From Raleigh's Confessor, we head logically to Richmond's Breadwinner. (Confessor drummer Steve Shelton plays with ex-Breadwinner guitarist Pen Rollings in the godlike Loincloth.) Just discovered this here mother lode:



Yes, folks, a full live Breadwinner set from 1992. A very early sighting of modern math rock at its most pure and stripped-down. Wondrous precision and brutality. Check out Rollings's manic gyrations--cigarette in mouth, eventual shirtlessness, etc. For a quick taste of this long clip, skip ahead to 29:00 and behold "Tourette's," the lead track from the band's lone CD release, The Burner. Prickly, savagely controlled destruction, I tell you. And then head over to this *classic* Rollings interview at Chunklet, wherein he discusses his musical history, his aversion to black metal, his homosexuality, his affinity for weed and mucho more. Dude is a serious, serious character--absolutely hilarious.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Post-purri
















Greetings and a good evening to all, or a good whatever portion of the day it is when you happen to be reading. I'm sure everyone is happily ensconced in the young Presidency as I type. Just a quick, typically grab-bag rundown of what is and has been on the brain, if you don't mind.

As far as Inauguration Day went, mine was like most others', I'm sure--got a nice little break at work to watch the festivities and whatnot. Enjoyed the ceremony itself, shots of the First Couple greeting well-wishers on their way to the House, etc.

As far as the recap coverage, I wanted to make sure everyone knew of this typically thoughtifying Fresh Air interview with artist Shepard Fairey, the man responsible for many years' worth of awesome and iconic poster art, culminating in the ubiquitous Obama "HOPE" prints--seen above in their natural pre-election habitat--and the official (!) Inauguration poster. Fairey--you know, the guy behind the "Obey Giant" stickers--is a great example of the Obama phenomenon, namely how he's lured so many artists and thinkers and generally cool folks up from underground to lend their voices to the cause. It's like the country--or at least the sane part of it--is letting down its guard and you're getting all these hopeful messages from the most unlikely corners. Tim "Awesome Show" Heidecker, anyone? Okay, how 'bout Trey "Love of Lava" Azagthoth?! (Fave quote from latter bulletin: "I have never been into politics nor has this band, but I have always been into Life.")

/////

I hate to do the bullet-point rundown re: recent media consumption, but there's no choice at this juncture. First, the muse-ic:

*Confessor - Condemned (out-of-print yet bountiful in the blogosphere)
This damn thing is like a Weeble-Wobble (sp?) in my musical consciousness. Keeps popping the heck back into view. Was listening to it today and thinking about how it if I didn't have a natural affinity for uber-geeked-out tech metal with screechingly grandiose vocals, Condemned might be the single most annoying record I'd ever heard. A quick scan of message-board brouhahas will tell you: This is an incredibly polarizing disc. But if you are down... boy, are you ever fuckin' down. You will bro with this record for life, as I have begun to do. See my previous Confessor post for an MP3 and some viddies.












*Paul Motian - I Have the Room Above Her
Have had this one lying around forever, but only truly delved into it over the past few days. As far as I know it's the most recent studio disc by the Bill Frisell/Joe Lovano/Paul Motian trio, though I reserve the right to be completely wrong about that. (Also, was that band typically leaderless? This is definitely a Motian session.) Hearing Frisell and Motian live a couple weeks back made me curious to dig into more of their long-running collaboration. Anyway, I'll tell you what this record is... Actually I'll tell you a few things this record is. First of all, it's aqueous. It's an aqueous record. You will probably not ever find a more convincing display of slippery, nonmetrical jazzmaking. This music floats and is *about* floating. I'm thrilled by the swirly weightlessness. At times it's almost cloyingly plush, but in measured doses, it's absolutely mesmerizing. It's a whole *other* idea of what it means to swing. It's free jazz, yes, but a free jazz that's free of "free jazz" and free of any other conventional imperative. It just hangs there, or drifts there, or flows there, or whatever air or water metaphor you want to apply. It's unmoored music. Also, the title--a mite cheesed-out, no? Or is it simply the most gorgeously romantic notion ever? Hard to say.

*Roy Haynes Festival on WKCR
This awesomeness has been flowing nonstop since 1/11. Haven't caught a ton, but every time I've tuned in, I've been psyched. Heard some killer Jimmy Smith this morning, and some bitchin' Dolphy and Oliver Nelson last week, and I happened to switch on last weekend just before Andrew Hill's Smokestack was spun, which led to an intense run through Black Fire, which conveniently linked up via Joe Henderson to last week's renewed obsession w/ Pete La Roca's Basra. Anyway, Haynes kills on those Hills, for sure. Had always thought of those outings as less modern or hip or what have you than, say, Point of Departure, largely due to my perception that Haynes's playing was less modern or hip than Tony Williams's. In the final analysis that might be true, but relistening to Black Fire, I was struck by how insanely sophisticated Roy sounds on that disc. The time is so microfractured it's nearly impossible to count bar lines. (Billy Hart has a few things to say on Haynes's forays into the '60s vanguard in this marvelous interview (conducted by Ethan Iverson), which also touches on just about every other drummer you could imagine. It's an insider encyclopedia of modern jazz percussion lore.)

And then there's the reading:














*Ben Ratliff's The Jazz Ear
I'm trying to avoid the obvious lame food metaphors for the way I consumed this book, but they're inevitable, and yes, I did in fact devour this tome, so what's it to ya? I read most of these pieces--wherein Ratliff conducts interviews prodded along by the act of listening to music with musicians--when they came out in the Times, but each of them is expanded here and they also function as a kind of suite when taken together. What Ratliff essentially collects here is his subjects' various enthusiasms. It's a simple and brilliant idea. A musician may not want to open up about his or herself, but what artist--hell, what *anybody*--would not be psyched to simply enthuse over their most loved artworks? They all move differently through this process--some, like Wayne Shorter and Ornette, are cryptic and sagelike (Ratliff describes them in this nice recent Talk to the Newsroom feature over at the Times as "ninjas of the opaque"), and some--like Pat Metheny and Maria Schneider--are eloquent and precise. But none of these pieces is without its revelations, I promise you. You put this book down wishing Ratliff had administered this experiment (as he terms it in this cool Tavis Smiley video interview) to just about every jazz musician that ever lived. Can you imagine an Eric Dolphy one? A Booker Little one? A Tony Williams one? An Anthony Braxton one? A Bill Dixon one? Hell, a Cecil Taylor one? I can envision the process cracking even that impossibly guarded nut, as long as it was something like Lena Horne playing on the stereo. It's a brilliant idea, and as Ratliff emphasizes in the intro, one that's gloriously ungoverned by the tyranny of timeliness--the musicians aren't rapping about Their New Record or Their Upcoming Concert or any other talking point; they're simply articulating a love of music that's as easy and natural to them as breathing. I pretty much guarantee that reading this, you will wake up to a musician you didn't know well or at all (for me: Bebo Vald├ęs, Bob Brookmeyer, Guillermo Klein, Hank Jones), or get a fresh new perspective on one you already loved (Paul Motian, Andrew Hill) or one you were lukewarm about (Joshua Redman, Branford Marsalis). This is a tremendous contribution to the jazz literature, first and foremost because it's so casual and blatantly enjoyable to read. Better than just reproducing conversations, it lets you feel what they were like; you sense the musicians opening up, pulling back, sidestepping, but most of all losing themselves in the music. It's a meditation on the profundity of the act of concentration, really. Anyone who loves music can relate to the poetic simplicity of the idea: Let's sit, listen and talk.

*Bill Milkowski's Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries
Not as poetic or groundbreaking as the Ratliff, this is still a very valuable companion. A 1998 collection of interviews done over the years and what makes it special is the range and the stature of the luminaries he's got on hand. What I love about books like this is that I'm drawn in by the inclusion of musicians I love and respect (Tony Williams, who really tees off on Stanley Crouch in here) and then I find myself drifting over to ones whose work I've ignored or dismissed in the past. For example, I've always been a fairly vocal disser of Bill Laswell, but I loved reading what he had to say here--a very no-nonsense type of a dude. And again, you can't help but wake up to someone new here. My buddy Joe has long enthused to me about Robert Quine, but I've been lazy about checking him out; Milkowski's interview is an awesome primer. (There's a great part where Quine talks about his fascination with blues vamps that stay on one chord.) So again, this is more an encyclopedia than a coherent work, but if you're willing to follow the winding paths of these Q&As, it is a formidably info-packed and oustandingly well-curated book. Bobby McFerrin, Larry Coryell, David Murray, Branford Marsalis (again), Steve Coleman, Dr. John, Joe Henderson, Jimmy Smith (who offers Milkowski a sexual favor in exchange for some catfish) and tons more. You can get the damn thing for like $5 at Amazon via the link above.

*Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On
This is like Gold Medal of All Time in terms of orderly research presented artfully. Laal and I tackled this as part of our intermittent book club and it took us both a few months to complete, but we agreed it was very worth it. An incredible array of dramas at play here, from the very personal and visceral to the numbingly bureaucratic. And some truly strange and remarkable characters. You will not forget Patient Zero Gaetan Dugas--who basically comes off as the Grim Reaper--or outspoken playwright Larry Kramer, or cocky scientist Robert Gallo. Nor will you forget how AIDS basically went off like a bomb in the world's face, after first detonating within the gay community. It's a weird and horrific modern plague and Shilts, who eventually died of the disease himself, agonized to get the facts straight. It's a dry, methodical book at times, but there's also this really fiery, passionate core to it. You know this guy was on a mission, as much as any historian has ever been. Now what I'm looking for is something similarly comprehensive and sweeping (and preferably, readable) re: the civil-rights movement. Anyone got any suggestions?

*Calvin Tomkins's awesome profile of painter Walton Ford in the latest New Yorker (whole piece ain't online)
Tomkins seems to be in the process of doing for painting what Ratliff is doing for jazz. [Editor's note: By the end of writing this post, I realize that Tomkins has done for painting what Ratliff has done for jazz maybe ten times over at this point. Didn't realize he was such a veteran.] As Ratliff listens to music with musicians, Tomkins is really intent on observing paintings in the company of painters. He's formalizing the studio visit, portraying it on the page as a trip into an artist's headspace. And like a good music critic, he engenders a rabid desire to see what's being described. I kind of like that you're not shown more, in a way. The magazine could easily over-illustrate these pieces, but you only get the opening portrait and you have to extrapolate. A nice touch. This piece follows the excellent John Currin study of a year ago. (Which makes me wonder: How long do New Yorker writers get to gestate their pieces? Does Tomkins really get to work for a year on an article? ...)--as I was typing this, I was searching around the New Yorker site to see if Tomkins had published anything since the Currin piece and I was pretty shocked to find that he'd been writing for the mag since 1960! Wow. It's kind of awesome to think that a writer could stay so contemporary on his or her beat for half a century. Anyway, I look forward to the day these studio-visit pieces are archived into a book a la Ratliff's tome. Uh, again, I'm an idiot--such a thing exists, as of last October! Well, this is going on my reading shortlist pronto...

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hart beat

If I ever were to change the title of this blog to reflect the content, the new name would undoubtedly be "Apropos of Nothing." As you've noticed, there's no guiding principle other than whatever my scatterbrained head is fixated on here and now. Timeliness is not an issue, nor is much else. Anyway, apropos of that, I wanted to mention some recent for-pleasure listening that's been occupying my brain.















I'm always going off on these jags--these little phases of obsessing over one artist or period or style or record. Right now, it's all about Billy Hart and Pete La Roca. After seeing Hart perform the other night with Don Byron, I realized I needed to hear more of this guy pronto. Synapses started firing and I remembered my former Time Out colleague K. Leander Williams writing a very enthusiastic review of Hart's latest record, simply titled Quartet, back in '06. Amazon link is here.

I knew I didn't have a copy of the disc, so I punched it up on iTunes and downloaded it a few nights ago. Let me just say that I'm very sorry I slept on this for so long: This is an absolutely astounding session. There's nothing weak on it: It's spectacular and highly unusual. A fully integrated lineup (depicted above) that has become a working band: Mark Turner on sax, Ethan Iverson on piano and Ben Street on bass. A real group feel. Hart, Iverson and Turner all contribute tunes. A few things strike me:

1) POWERFUL mood vibes on this one. It's suffused with this sumptuous, brooding quality--a lot of ballads or semiballads. Incredibly elegant and gorgeously recorded at that. Iverson's "Little B," Hart's "Charvez" and "Lullaby for Imke." This is billowy, patient, kingly music but with a mischievous edge. Smooth but with a dark, murky undercurrent. Funky grooves creep up ("Lorca," the end of "Charvez") and take on an almost menacing swagger.

2) Innovative arrangements. There are a few standards on here and each is somehow messed-with, yielding fascinating results. "Moment's Notice" gets a very odd treatment, wherein the proper head is saved for the very end. Iverson plays that jaunty little familiar intro at the beginning and then Turner cuts him off with this rude tenor squall and things get freaky and almost Ornette-ish. "Confirmation" is very odd too--I'm not exactly sure what they've done here, but the head is way elongated, stretching to an almost uncomfortable length, during which Street lays out. Tension builds and builds and builds.

3) Resolutely unboring solos and distinctive voices. This is my first extended exposure to Mark Turner. He's a questing player that reminds me a lot of classic, i.e. DARK, Wayne Shorter. There's a struggle and sublimated anguish to his playing that I love. Iverson is a wild card. Sometimes he's craggily warm and Monkish ("Mellow B"), sometimes floaty and haunting and almost gospelish ("Lorca"). This record is an excellent showcase for him, as it is for everyone who's on it. Re: Hart, I haven't even begun to crack what this guy is up to. Let me just say that on this record, his cymbals breathe as naturally as Tony Williams's did; there's a sacred looseness about what he does and also a refusal to show off, even when he's slipping into captivating free time slurs.

This is a record for people who cherish the reflective mood, highly individuated playing, thoughtful arrangements and general feeling of discovery--not to mention quality-control--that pervades the best inside-out mid-'60s Blue Note sessions. The one that comes immediately to mind as a point of comparison is Pete La Roca's Basra--apparently out-of-print--another fantastically moody sax-quartet record (recorded in '65) led by a drummer. The sonic world of Quartet reminded me instantly of this classic session. The darkness, the breathing openness, the questing sax work--it's Joe Henderson on Basra, and there's a definite comparison to what Turner does here: both performances feel like an extremely assured postbopper bravely probing avant-garde styles--and the general feeling of elegance combined with risk.

Search these out. They represent the best kind of small-group jazz--strong structure and ties w/ tradition, but completely surprising. Hart's Quartet in particular just floors me: It couldn't feel fresher. Apparently this band is still gigging and I can't wait to hear them live. Much info on the band can be found at Hart's site, including Iverson's lengthy interviews with Hart; haven't dug in to those, but can't wait to. I can't quite remember what I read about the genesis of this band, but I think the deal was that Iverson and Turner had a group and they specifically asked Hart to assume leadership. I need to get the details on this straight; can anyone help?

There's another interesting Hart session from '77 called Enchance that's well worth investigating. It's out of print so I don't feel too weird providing this link to a page where you might still be able to grab the MP3s. It's freer, wilder, grittier and far less integrated than Quartet, but then again, the personnel is incredibly heavy: Oliver Lake, Dewey Redman, Don Pullen and Dave Holland, among a few others. Insane, right? This one has an almost zany, Art Ensemble-esque ferocity about it at times. Haven't digested it completely, but I know it's something to check out.

Also, I should cite Pete La Roca's very compelling Turkish Women at the Bath (from '67), which I think is also out of print. Blog-savvy folks ought to have no trouble locating a download of this, Chick Corea, John Gilmore, Walter Booker. Very moody, questing sax-quartet music, in the general vein of Basra, though not quite as gorgeous. But I think the connection between this Hart group and the La Roca-led foursomes in general is a striking one. Check all of this stuff out if you like your small-group jazz dark and dignified and highly purposeful.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Visions (many) of jazz

Most of the weekend I was in the West Village, listening to jazz. When I reflect on the sheer amount of killer players I got to hear this weekend, all within like a ten-block radius, I start to realize how much I tend to take for granted living in New York.

Friday's engagement was Bill Frisell, Ron Carter (left) and Paul Motian at the Blue Note. This one was prompted by my good pal (since kindergarten) Kyle, who's visiting from KC. I wouldn't have thought to check it out but I'm very happy I did.

The set had an extremely casual, laid-back sort of vibe to it. Smiling and gracefulness all around--these men were clearly enjoying one another's company. I've never been a huge Frisell fan and this set didn't win me over, but I could appreciate the appeal. He's obviously a highly twangy player, to my ears a sort of hokey one, but I was enjoying the graciousness of his presence. Frisell was delighted to be playing opposite Carter, and my favorite parts of the set were when the guitarist just comped in a nice and easy way and let the bassist speak freely.

Carter was outstanding. I'd never seen him live before (nor had I seen Frisell). He surprised me with how busy and expressive he was. I'd always thought of Carter as an extremely subtle, unflashy player, but he set off plenty of fireworks during his solos. Keeping time, he was silky, laying low in a deep pocket. The band just had this casualness to it.

As with last time I saw him, Motian struck me as powerfully strange and unique. What I feel with Motian's ride cymbal pulse is that it is one of the less autopilot right-hand pulses I know. He literally seems to choose each note or phrase in the split second before he plays it, so his sense of time has this disjunction about it. Sometimes he waits so long, the beat has passed him by, but somehow there's a pillowy propulsion. With brushes, he is, as Kyle pointed out, a wisp--nearly undetectable for long passages.

This set did not slay me, but it was thoroughly unique. Loved one piece where Frisell and Carter traded call-and-response phrases throughout, and was struck (maybe not in the most positive way) by another which Frisell started out with ghostly looped harmonics. I am not on Frisell's page aesthetically, I don't think. I grew a bit weary of the twang, the up-front folkiness of his playing, but again I admired the interactivity and the easy flow of the set. There's definitely something to watching players who very clearly relish being onstage together.

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Just a few blocks south, Winter Jazz Fest went down the following night. They've held this event at Knitting Factory (RIP) for a few years, but this year, they moved it to the West Village and spread it out among three venues: Sullivan Hall, Kenny's Castaways and (Le) Poisson Rouge. Great value, I'm telling you, and an enthusiastic crowd. Check out who I was able to see in one night:

*Jeff "Tain" Watts's Watts Project with Branford Marsalis (performing under the pseudonym Prometheus Jenkins)

Had just gotten done reading the fascinating chapter on Branford in Ben Ratliff's excellent The Jazz Ear, so I was very psyched and curious for this one. Four virtuosos I'd never heard live before, and really barely heard period: Tain, Branford, Terence Blanchard and Christian McBride. They took the stage a few minutes after midnight and just casually detonated, really. There was a hootin'-and-hollerin' vibe about this set: The whole thing felt like an inside joke between the players, in the most charming way possible. Marsalis was straight-up bullish. Tall, imposing, full of strident energy. Commanding is the only word. Tain was the Jolly Drum Giant, beaming and smacking away. I'd often heard him compared to Elvin Jones, but to me he was so much more bombastic. He didn't solo a whole lot, but his chops were always upfront; he couldn't resist messing devilishly with the beat. As with Frisell, I wasn't always on his aesthetic wavelength, but I was astonished by his technique and totally charmed by his happy presence. McBride slayed, manhandling the instrument and summoning effortless funk. His bass solos weren't like "bass solos"--there was nothing missing. He filled all the space. Blanchard was, simply, blaring. Nice mix of tunes: churning blues, steamy ballad, furious funk, one rollicking polka/bop thing. Set seemed to last forever, but I was thrilled to have seen these guys in such a small room.

*Dafnis Prieto Sextet

The biggest surprise of the evening by far. In the most positive sense, this music was absolutely disgusting. Turbocharged Latin-fusion firebomb, much? Searing. Completely showy and bombastic and unabashedly shredding. Nonstop excitement. I feel like pyrotechnics should have been going off all around the stage, accompanied by jugglers on unicyles, cheerleaders, athletic demonstrations. It was just all about movement and motion and fire and unabashed chopsmanship. Prieto (above) was nasty: Slamming all around the kit like an Afro-Cuban Billy Cobham. Tunes were gritty and ballsy and *hard*. Soloists (Dave Binney, Peter Apfelbaum, Ralph Alessi) all brought something unique. Unstoppable. The band is promoting a new CD, Taking the Soul for a Walk. Favorite tune by far was "En Las Ruinas De Su Infancia," which you can hear at that link. Brash, manly Latin explosion.

*Don Byron's Ivey-Divey Trio
Trio with Jason Moran and (first) Eric Harland and (later) Billy Hart. Byron stuck mostly to clarinet. I'm honestly not sure I've ever heard Don Byron's music before, weirdly. This was very expansive stuff, sometimes aimless-seeming. Wasn't hugely into Byron's somewhat shrill clarinet tone. Harland played the first tune, filling in for a late Billy Hart. When Hart jumped in, things got a lot more interesting. They did "Body and Soul," a very poignant, drawn-out version. Hart was miraculous on brushes. I remember his very hip agility. Like Carter, he got flashy and nasty when he needed to, but cruised along when that was called for. The set gradually closed in and focused and ended with a very strong one-two punch: First a gorgeous Byron/Moran duo, a gospelish piece that came out of nowhere and stole my heart. Then what I think was Basie's "One O' Clock Jump." All in all a strange set; it felt unfocused at times, but I was nevertheless very psyched to hear these three idiosyncratic players exploring together.

*Sex Mob
What can you say about them? They do what they do. Boomy raunch. Is this stuff actually fun to play night after night, though?

*Jason Moran and the Bandwagon
Some Monk ("Crepuscule with Nellie"), some Andrew Hill ("Smokestack," complete with sample of the original recording), some pieces with Moran's wife, Alicia Hall, on operatic vox. The set didn't entirely click with me; moody, compellingly tense, very funky in places, but it didn't find a true stride. Of all the bands I saw, this was the one I thought suffered the most from the grab bag format of Winter Jazzfest. Set felt a little rushed, sound was boomy and indistinct. I would have rather heard them stretch out in a full-evening set. But these three touched on some very murky and turbulent groupthink that I enjoyed very much. Have long been a big Nasheet Waits fan and he was a marvel, hinting maybe at what it would've been like to dig Tony Williams. A fiery, idiosyncratic player. I haven't clicked fully w/ the Bandwagon in the past and I didn't really tonight either, but I know there's a lot there to love. I'm going to keep at it.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Word-Smith

















[Above: My first attempt at a cutesy photo defacement, Perez Hilton-style--the difference being that this is a sincere attempt to confer admiration through primitive means.]

Wordy, witty, wry, etc. Literate, self-deprecating, clever, droll, etc. It doesn't matter how I describe it: It just can't really sound interesting or cool at this point because it is basically the entirety of what has come to be known as "indie" culture. Pavement, Wes Anderson films, McSweeney's, you name it. It's that *thing*, that way of dressing, thinking, reading, loving, being. Half the world, it seems, subscribes to hip-hop as a lifestyle; the other half, to this, whatever it is.

And we're all sick of it, or we should be. I have my favorites in this realm, as do so many. I adore "The Royal Tenenbaums," for example. On the other hand, I have few feelings at all about Pavement.

This is all a silly introduction. I'm trying to be dramatic, but what I'm trying to say is that if there's any kernel of truth at the center of that whole cultural morass, it can be found in the music of Graham Smith. Graham Smith is why we all gravitated to that business in the first place. Smart, clever, wordy--yes, for sure. But, crucially, also unguarded, raw, devastating, emotionally apocalyptic: true.

I'd heard the name thrown around. My buddies and college bandmates in Super Lucky Cat (RIP) were all obsessed with him when he was recording as Kleenex Girl Wonder. Think ultraprolific lo-fi popsmith in the Robert Pollard mode. I missed the boat pretty much completely at that time.

One of those buddies and college bandmates, Tom--now a bro for life who lives a few blocks away--has kept up with Graham's work and recently, he sent me a bunch of the man's current output. He emailed a ton of links and I couldn't reckon with it all, but I decided to take a stab at one record in particular called Yes Boss.

I put it on at work and all of the sudden I couldn't do any work. The record scared and fascinated me, like a menacing yet beautiful insect on the wall. There's self-deprecating and then there's self-excoriating. There are songs that dissect relationships and then there are those that eviscerate and mangle them. And there is humor and wordplay that impresses and then there is that which gleams brilliantly, so clearly and purely the product of someone who was born to string words and phrases together. The kind of writing that makes you understand why similes and rhymes and puns and enjambment and allusions are actually incredibly awesome. They're not just smug devices; they can make you feel more alive.

It wasn't even really a question: Yes Boss was my pick for the best album of 2008. You can listen to it and purchase it here. That link redirects from the brilliantly succinct http://www.kgw.me.

Caught Smith live for first time tonight. He played at Pianos (workplace of my friend--and former Super Lucky Cat mainman--Zack, who plays with Graham in a visionary electropop project known as Gates of Heaven). Great show. I wish Smith had played more of my favorite songs off of Yes Boss ("Carried Away," "Why You Must Be So Damn Morose," "No Nippon Ichi," "Cathedral Ceilings" and the unbearably, gut-wrenchingly sad and wondrous "High Tech Computer Magician"--a few of which you can hear here) but there was a certain wonderment in hearing him sing songs I'd never heard before. (His catalog is pretty immense and I really know only this one album.) Just Smith and a guitar. The sensation I had was of words, tumbling. They just pour out relentlessly, always racing toward a rhyme or an impossibly clever reference (Robert Wuhl as Arli$$, for crying out effin' loud!!!).

But these smarts bring joy and clarity. There is an honesty to it. It's not at a smug remove. When Smith reaches into the upper register of his voice, he shrieks, or cries. He strums harder than he needs to. He means it. It's all of those things I listed at the beginning of this post, but it's real, the apotheosis of what We mean by "indie." I hope that doesn't slight his individuality, but that's how I see it: It's like "indie" with all the protective irony stripped away, leaving only blinding intelligence and frayed emotion.

Was very psyched to hear Smith perform "Maybe This Christmas," a typically heartwarming/-breaking song that was, in a sense, commissioned (for free, alas) by Time Out New York. An editor had asked me if I could think of any local songwriters who might want to take a stab at writing a Christmas-themed song which would then be posted on the TONY site. I immediately thought of Graham Smith. Within a few hours, he had agreed. He tackled the project with sincerity and diligence and the song itself is gorgeous and can be heard here. I spoke with him after the show and he said he was very psyched by the notion of being assigned the task of writing a song. I'm very happy to know that I played some part in the genesis of this piece--it rules.

Will this be the last post where I elaborate on what I loved about music in '08? Who knows? I realize now that this was overdue though, both seeing Graham Smith live and writing about him in a more extended way. Yes Boss was the definitive '08 album for me, and so maybe the year in music wasn't complete until I saw him in the flesh. And it was great to be in the company of those buddies and former Super Lucky Cat bandmates (Tom, Zack and Joe, the latter of whom I still rock with) from whom I originally heard about Smith like a decade ago--I'm really glad I came around--and in the company of Laal, with whom I have marveled at the album for the better part of the year, and last but not least of Tony, the third member of STATS, a non singer-songwriter type of guy who has against considerable odds taking a major shine to Graham Smith.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Hooray for Herbie // Un-Will-ing














Was shocked, in a pleasant way, to turn on WKCR last night and hear an interview with Herbie Nichols. I really wish it were archived so I could link to it, but I'll have to settle for a recap of what I can remember.

As part of a birthday tribute to the late Nichols, who would've turned 90 yesterday, tireless jazz warrior Phil Schaap played a recording of a 1962 WBAI radio interview with the man. As many jazz fans know, Nichols remained obscure, even tragically so, during his lifetime, so it was a major surprise to learn that such a recording even existed. In conversation, Nichols came off as he does in his music and his liner notes: extremely thoughtful, and a bit eccentric--a man with a lot of conviction and a trace of bitterness.

The broadcast in question was from June of '62, less than a year before Nichols's death of leukemia in April of '63 (age 44). He spoke of early influences--apparently he originally admired Prokofiev and wanted to work in the classical realm--and how he felt as though he was bursting with creative energy when he was first beginning to write music. I can't remember the words Nichols used, but he said something to the effect of, "I just had so many ideas and I had to get them out in some way." I haven't listened to Nichols much in the past few years, but hearing his Blue Note works last night I was reminded of how lively, clear-eyed and peculiar they are--his compositions are extremely charming and singular; yes, the ideas blaze forth. His is a very crisp, fully articulated sort of genius.

Nichols came off in the interview as a very exacting man, someone very serious about his craft. He spoke at one point of how he was extremely disappointed with the musical discipline of his peers when he first began playing, re: how they couldn't read music well and how they didn't seem to want to work to interpret his tricky compositions. (This was deeply sad to hear, especially considering that there have been so many Nichols repertory projects over the past few decades.)

He was hard on jazz critics as well. In conclusion, Nichols said something to the effect of "We need better jazz criticism." I remember him using the phrase "My only beef..." and expressing the notion that all jazz critics should be required to earn music degrees. The host--can't remember his name--seemed a little threatened by this. He was like, "Well, Herbie, *I* don't have a music degree." Nichols didn't bail him out, and I'm glad to hear it. I think it's a very valid point (though one I don't have any real rebuttal to, considering my own spotty knowledge of music theory).

The Nichols story is often rendered as a tragedy, and there was definitely some note of frustration to the conversation I heard last night. He certainly wasn't belly-aching, but both Nichols and the host seemed to want to know the "Why?" of Herbie Nichols, i.e., why couldn't he ever really break through during his lifetime?

Personally, I need to fill in the gaps in my Nichols knowledge, e.g., finally get around to his Bethlehem session Love, Gloom, Cash, Love, which I've long thought was maybe the coolest jazz record title of all time, and also the Nichols chapter in A.B. Spellman's Four Lives in the Bebop Business.

Check this quote from Spellman's intro: "But what a frustrated career. Here was a personable, clean-living artist who was rejected at every turn although everybody knew that he was a master. I did not know him intimately, but the disillusionment in his face, voice and demeanor those few times I did meet him, in his last years, could not have been more apparent had I known him all my life."

Maybe a tad melodramatic, but this is obviously one of the sadder cases in the jazz annals. It's a special thing indeed that nearly 50 years after his death, Mr. Schaap took pains to afford him a worldwide listening audience.

As part of the broadcast, Phil also shared a strangely affecting story about having been lost on the subway as a young boy in the early '60s. A helpful man pointed him in the right direction and sent him on his way with the sports sections from his newspapers. When Schaap saw Nichols's obituary in Downbeat about a year later, he recognized the pianist's picture immediately: He was the man who had helped him navigate the train that day. An odd yet heartwarming story. And if anyone doubts it, Phil Schaap would *never* forget a face--or anything else for that matter.

/////
















Also, wanted to give props to Kelefa Sanneh's hearty piece on Will Oldham in the latest New Yorker.

It was a strange article, mainly in the sense that it had sort of this undercurrent of antagonism between journalist and subject. The article starts with Sanneh arriving late to meet Oldham and the latter taking on an implicitly surly tone. And there's much talk of Oldham's general press-shyness and "orneriness," both from associates and from the artist himself. Oldham makes no bones about being unsure as to whether he should have agreed to cooperate with Sanneh in the first place.

That tension makes for lively reading though. As does the piece's powerful sense of place. Sanneh shadows Oldham in his hometown of Louisville and it's fascinating to read about his stature as a local quasicelebrity. Sanneh also met Oldham's mom, and she seems like a very cool lady who's completely hip to the depth of what her son is up to.

There's also some intriguing discussion of Oldham's penchant for pseudonyms and the notion that his current Bonnie "Prince" Billy guise really ought to be read as a full-fledged character. On this same tip, Sanneh does a good job of weaving in material on Oldham's acting background.

As a longtime Oldham enthusiast, I was mainly just psyched to be reading such an in-depth piece on him, period. I've long felt that he was the only singer-songsmith around today that, when the dust settles, will truly measure up to Dylan, Neil, Joni and those types. I used to be a fanatic Oldham completist, but I've lost track of the past few full-lengths. Even so, I can't imagine I'd ever regard Oldham as anything other than a rare genius.

As I read the piece, I wondered how it would read to someone who didn't know Oldham's work. I'm not sure it would quite do its job--i.e., lead said person to want to check out Oldham's actual music. Maybe it would come off as just another tale of a "difficult" artist; maybe Oldham would come off as a big baby.

That said, it's hard to really convey what it is that's so great about Will. I'm surprised there's no audio content posted with the online version of the article to aid in this endeavor. Anyway, if you haven't heard I See a Darkness, Arise Therefore (damn, what a strange and outstanding album), Master and Everyone, Hope or any of the countless others, you've gotta get with it.

Here's "Lie Down in the Light," live at Funtown, apparently from the show Sanneh describes in the article. How about that voice? Damn.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy Nude year

I can't say I've had the most productive "holiday break" in the world. Trying to squeeze a lot of activity in before returning to work tomorrow. Feels like forever since I was at the office, but it's only been a week and change.

Anyhow, for some reason I'm still on this tip of reassessing '08's crop of new music to see what I might have missed or overstated or short-shrifted. Why any of this list business matters, I'm not sure, but bear with me.






















I'll tell you something: I was pretty much a damn fool not to have recognized Nude with Boots, the 16th (at least that's how Wikipedia counts it) album by the mighty Melvins, on one list or another. I did five-star the damn thing in Time Out back in July, but it definitely deserved to be heralded at year's end.

It's not too hard to tell why I overlooked the thing, though. The thing is that the Melvins are very easy to take for granted. They're always there, and they're pretty much always good. But it's a little dishonest of me to speak as though I've been around to witness their entire career.

The truth of the matter is that I was only dimly aware of the band throughout the '90s, when a lot of others were getting hip to them via MTV and the tangential Kurt Cobain connection. I really started my investigation of them in like '04/'05 and that general vicinity. It took forever, but I finally filled in all the blanks and heard pretty much everything they've ever put out.

When I speak of taking the Melvins for granted, though, it's strange, because the truth is that I'm really speaking about a track record that began only a few years ago, back in '06. If you're not familiar with (A) Senile Animal, the 'Vins album issued in that year, you've really got to get on the ball. I don't think it's an overstatement to say that it is one of their best records. It's fucking phenomenal is what it is: lean and insanely catchy and highly sardonic and mean. As I mention in the Nude with Boots review, what was most amazing about it is that it lived up to what appeared to be the too-good-to-be-true creative gambit out of which it was birthed, namely the annexing of the entirety of Big Business into the band. (I'll spare you the confusing details, but will point you toward a piece I wrote on said annex in '06, with some commentary from Big Biz drummer Coady Willis.)

Anyway, the thing about Nude with Boots is that it's just about as good as its predecessor. But since I'd had a couple of years to sit with (A) Senile Animal and digest it and love it and file it away with all the other Great Albums on my shelf, it was sort of a foregone conclusion that the Melvins were at yet another creative peak in this current time cycle. But spinning NwB last night, I was struck by its ruling-ness, and the way in which it both retains what ruled about (A)SA and strikes out into other fruitful directions.

The great thing about (A)SA was its sheer listenability, its straightforwardness. Every Melvins fan knows that feeling of hearing a lean, awesome, straight-up-catchy song on one of their Atlantic records and then being blindsided by some left-field sonic excursion. Now don't get me wrong, I love a lot of the 'Vins left-field sonic excursions, but sometimes the aesthetic dissonance is just too extreme, e.g., on Stag, which is a very interesting record, but a very frustrating one, given that opening track "The Bit" is so fearsomely crushing that everything else on the disc--as brilliant as some of it is--can't help but seem anticlimactic.

(A)SA had none of this; it was, in Melvins terms, purely crowd-pleasing. Nude with Boots is crowd-pleasing, but not in the same way. It ranges a little farther afield. A few of the tracks sound like (A)SA outtakes, such as the fantastically badass "Dog Island." But there's also a strong boogie-rock vibe in effect on "The Kicking Machine," "Suicide in Progress" and a few other tracks, resulting in a very quirky and almost lighthearted vibe. Check out the band playing the former song (plain audio is here) on the hip and happening kids show Pancake Mountain:



There's so much else to love about NwB, though. Last night, what grabbed me most was "Dies Iraea," a version of the creepy theme used at the beginning of Kubrick's "The Shining" (I think it's during those aerial driving scenes). This is a crushing and gorgeously evocative rendering. I think I read a review that likened this performance to a Morricone vibe and I wholeheartedly agree, based on the limited amount of Morricone that I've heard. It's got a sort of grand, windswept desolation about it that puts me mind of Earth's awesome 2005 opus, Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method.

The title track, a track so thoroughly lovable even Pitchfork picked up on it, is a good-vibe machine if I've ever heard one, a cruise of fat, beaming melody that smells unmistakably like victory. It out-Torches Torche, for the avant-metal-inclined. Hear for yourself here.

The record gets more out/weird/experimental/what-have-you as it goes on, but never to a burdensome degree. It's very tight and economical in its strangeness and even the last two tracks, which are more Ideas than Songs, feel very substantial and worthwhile. Overall, NwB might represent the best-ever confluence of the 'Vins weird and straightforwardly rad-heavy personae. Something to ponder, if you're a complete Melvins dork like me.

Anyway, Nude with Boots soundtracked my New Year's Eve and it felt like the right note on which to begin '09 on. I urge all of you to pick this one up, even Melvins newbies. Not all of their records work well for the uninitiated, but along with (A)SA, this one would go over just fine. Moral of the story? Don't take the Melvins for granted. (I may have done the same to Ocrilim and Deerhoof this year; Ocrilim's new ANNWN disc was totally mindblowing, though I didn't get the chance to say so in print, and Deerhoof was astonishing live during CMJ.)

Hot tip #1: Has anyone heard The Bootlicker, the Melvins' terrifying odd-pop disc from '01? (I think it's the strongest of the three Ipecac records the band dropped simultaneously in that year.) No one *ever* talks about it, but it's a remarkably intricate and unsettling effort that never rises above a whisper but really gets under the skin.

Hot tip #2: There's a full, pro-shot Melvins concert from August of '07 up on YouTube. Start out with the (A)SA chestnut "A History of Bad Men," which boasts a bassline that's nearly identical to the one from the Houdini chestnut "Night Goat" but is in fact uniquely awesome thanks to Jared Warren's Buzz-esque but distinctly flavored tuneful bellow (you'll see all the other tracks in the right-hand column):