Thursday, April 28, 2011

In the zones: Darius Jones and Matthew Shipp at Jazz Standard

In their new duo, Darius Jones and Matthew Shipp are limiting themselves, and it sounds really good. Tonight I saw the pair, on alto saxophone and piano respectively, at Jazz Standard, where they were celebrating a new Aum Fidelity album, Cosmic Lieder. The record is very good; the show was much more than that—an arresting demonstration of a shared philosophy of improvisation, a series of sharp answers to age-old questions like "Where do we start?," "Who leads?," "Who follows?" and maybe most importantly, "Where do we end?"

As far as I can tell, the Jones/Shipp duo is an all-improv project, but it is not a free-for-all. These are songs, in a way—brief (averaging four minutes or so) and highly directional. The titular cosmos delivered with pop-song economy.

At Jazz Standard, the duo was incredibly decisive, each piece a single sustained idea, kicked around and prodded at but fixed, secure in its center. I think of Ghostbusters, when each of the three 'busters zaps Slimer and they slowly, steadily lower him into the trap in unison. It was that kind of teamwork.

Darius Jones already has a formidable reputation for gutsy free-jazz soul. (See Steve Dollar's fine Wall Street Journal profile.) If you've heard him in Little Women, you know it's not just soul that interests him, but maniacal, stabbing noise as well. The key thing to understand about Jones's work with Shipp, though, is that he's playing here with an almost heroic restraint. That's not to say that his ideas are restrained; he unleashed plenty of throaty shrieks and yelps tonight. It's more that he doesn't let them fully off the leash. This is not a blow-till-you-drop free-jazz concept (a good thing, in my opinion—we've got quite enough of those)—it's a concept of harnessing moments of wildness, violence boiling up and receding, leaving behind its scent. Wind the tension till it snaps, work through the tantrum and then bring it back to a whisper. Tonight Jones played with such tension, bearing down even at barely audible volumes. Always deciding, to do or to not do, to attack or to grit teeth and let the moment pass, winding, winding. Letting go and reining in. Making a song out of raw materials, letting their edges show but obeying an imaginary hourglass—when it's time to stop, you stop. You don't mourn the passing. You pause and you get on with what's next. These songs had an imperative to get somewhere, and almost without fail, they did.

Matthew Shipp made damn sure they did, actually. The pianist has a reputation for cantankerousness off the bandstand, and that tendency is often projected onto his playing. I feel like I've read descriptions that likened his improvising to boxing—I could've sworn the word "pugilistic" was used somewhere [NOTE: After the fact, I turned up this boxing-and-jazz piece by Shipp himself!]as though he was this swaggering, merciless hard-ass. And of course there are the vague Cecil Taylor comparisons. But specifically on the latter front, there's an immense difference, namely that Matthew Shipp goes to Herculean lengths to ensure that his collaborators sound good. (For all his strengths, CT is not, on the whole, what one would call a deeply sensitive collaborator.) Or, maybe I should say, he did so tonight—I suppose his trio (where he is the nominal leader and principal soloist) is a somewhat different story. With Jones he was like a shadow, cushioning and supporting at all times, providing just the right backdrop, vamping when need be, hammering out the framework so that Jones could dance within it. The word I kept thinking of, and writing down, was GRACIOUS. This was a duo music, i.e., neither player really soloed per se, but the roles were clear—Shipp was ground and Jones was sky. So the tension, and there was so much and it was so very exciting, came from the ideas and not from some sort of hackneyed clash between the players. Shipp is no pugilist—he's a master scene-setter, like some sort of production designer, laying out sumptuous period furnishings that help the actors immerse in their roles, accessing new truths.

The moods and textures were many. There was the eerie impressionism that is something like Shipp's signature. (Jones shouts-out this special Shippian vibe in this great joint appearance on Jason Crane's The Jazz Session, zeroing in on New Orbit, a truly fantastic 2001 record—maybe my favorite of Shipp's that I've heard.) Faster, choppier excursions. Hushed sonic mobiles with Shipp plucking the piano strings by hand. Jones always sounding so incredibly vocal, crying out with something there's not even a word for. "Anguish" seems too broad. It's like a simmering combination of mad and sad, wounded and vengeful. Bearing down immensely on the notes till they pop out. It was like soul surgery, with Shipp laying out all the tools on the operating table.

The two railed, in a way, against the semi-swanky jazz-club setting. They paused after each piece, just long enough to let you know it was indeed over, and the applause would begin. But they were onto the next one immediately—no time for basking or even, really, acknowledgment. I think about Keith Jarrett and how when I saw him at Carnegie Hall earlier this year, he bowed ponderously after each piece, enervating the room each time. Jones and Shipp weren't about to break the fourth wall. They were in the zone, or should I say in the zones, each brief song its own cosmos that for those four minutes or so was their shared, sole objective. Anyone improvising "open-endedly," "seeing how it goes," "relaxing," "emoting," doing whatever you're doing other than deciding where a piece should go and going there, NOW, take heed. However "experimental" you fancy yourself, you are competing with composed music; there is an imperative to pick an idea, to state that idea, make it stick and call "Scene." If further clarification is needed, consult your copy of Cosmic Lieder or the next Jones/Shipp duo gig.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Bad Plus and Joshua Redman: Opening the airlock

I have seen probably 20 or more free-jazz performances that quickly ramped up to a blaring peak, stayed there for a half hour or so and petered out. As a listener, it's hard not to grow numb to this kind of thing after a while.

Last night's 10:30pm Blue Note set by the Bad Plus with Joshua Redman climaxed with an expressionist freak-out, but crucially, it was brief and strategic. The band was playing Reid Anderson's "Silence Is the Question." They gradually climbed from sparse placidness to a shrieking, stampeding summit—two to three minutes long, I'd say—that was maybe the most concentrated blast of intensity I've ever heard at a live jazz performance. (Redman, especially, was merciless, easily holding his own among my collected memories of witnessing players like Brötzmann or Mats Gustafsson.) It was quite honestly shocking on a straight-up visceral level, as though the quartet had suddenly opened an airlock and let the terrible void of deep space rush in. The perfect sneak attack: not beating an audience over the head for a hour, but taking them on a long, varied, generally pleasant tour (the rest of the set was good—with Redman, overall, coming off as deeply engaged and thrilled to be there—especially versions of Ethan Iverson's "Guilty" and Anderson's "You Are," but the finale was on a whole other level) and then depositing them without warning at Satan's feet. I looked around the club, feeling almost sorry for any tourists who had accidentally stumbled in.

A quick, steady decrescendo, and the set was over. "That was the one," I saw Dave King say to Anderson, which I hope means they were recording. "That last part was perfect jazz," said Laal. Yes, it was.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Power Tools/Strange Meeting: The Michael Mann jazz [now with producer's commentary]

UPDATE, 5.8.2011: A few days after posting this appreciation of Strange Meeting, I received a nice e-mail from David Breskin, who produced the record. He also contacted Steve Smith and he very kindly offered to a) fill us in on the details of this session, and b) correct one longstanding misconception, namely that—as mentioned below—Strange Meeting was originally intended as a quartet date with Julius Hemphill. Not true at all, it turns out!

Breskin followed up a few days later with a fascinating account of the making of the record. As you'll read below, there was nothing accidental about it; Strange Meeting was a true old-school PRODUCTION, complete with rehearsal, strategic preplanning and a real aesthetic backbone. (My sense is that there aren't a whole lot of jazz records being made this way anymore.) Breskin's text doubles as a fascinating insider's perspective on the NYC jazz scene in the ’80s. It's essential reading for any fan of that period, of Strange Meeting in particular, of the musicians involved in general, or for anyone interested in the way a producer can act as a true collaborator, setting parameters that liberate rather than constrict, ultimately yielding an ALBUM rather than just a collection of performances. Breskin's text, edited and fully approved by him, appears below my post.

"I thought Shannon’s playing might do something interesting to Bill and that Bill’s playing might do something interesting to Shannon, and that Melvin would be a perfect fulcrum and shifting counterweight: suitably fierce but appropriately subtle and supportive when need be and no road hog he. Anyway, that was my hope. I thought this could be a cool band, and Shannon always used to say, 'Nothing beats a failure but a try.' So, why not?"

—David Breskin on Strange Meeting


I wrote a little while back about the idea that free jazz ought to be documented in the studio as well as onstage. Been thinking again about that the past few days, while immersing myself in Strange Meeting (Antilles), the lone officially released recording by Power Tools, the trio of Bill Frisell, Melvin Gibbs and Ronald Shannon Jackson.

I have heard from Steve Smith (who, as you can read here—scroll down to the 1987 section—regards Strange Meeting as a desert island disc and a perfect record) and other sources that this January, 1987 record date was originally scheduled to be led by Julius Hemphill. He didn't show, though—apparently due to illness—and a new scheme was quickly hatched. I'm not sure if the date was supposed to be these three gentlemen *plus* Hemphill or if one of them was called in to replace him, but at any rate, what you have here is the only in-studio meeting of Frisell, Gibbs and Jackson, and it is indeed a strange one. [NOTE: Hemphill was never a part of this date. Please see intro and addendum to this post for details.]

And really the strangest thing about it, given the aforementioned haphazardness of its organization, is how incredibly *together* it all sounds. You might expect some sort of free blowout: "Ah, fuck it—let's just improvise and roll tape." That is not what this record is at all, though. It is an honest-to-goodness full-length LP, paced as intelligently as any rock classic you could name.

You would honestly think this lineup had been together for years. All of the members contribute pieces, and the writing is more or less evenly split: three pieces by Frisell, three by Gibbs, two by Jackson, one collective jam and one cover (yes, "Unchained Melody"). This, to me, is the formula for success in jazz, and maybe even rock too, though it's much rarer. (Descendents/ALL comes to mind; their albums have always been everyone-pulls-their-weight-both-compositionally-and-instrumentally affairs.)

I'm skirting around the music itself, maybe because it's such an enigma. You can't typify what this band sounds like—you have to hear the whole record, really. Gibbs's compsitions, "Wadmalaw Island" and "Howard Beach Memoirs," just floor me. The former is a beautiful, alien quasi-ballad, held together by a Latin-ish vamp. Frisell's sublimely ’80s-ish reverb is just the right thing for it. The band sort of slinks along, doling out its energy gradually. You may never have heard Shannon Jackson play this sensitively. It's like undersea Miami Vice jazz from Pluto. And then Frisell brings out the distortion, and the poetry becomes a bit scary, almost Sharrockian. You think of synthesized seagulls, like in Don Henley's "Boys of Summer." This, to me, is the true ’80s jazz. Lush, sorta-dated-but-you-don't-care sonics mingling with heartbreak. But the real-time improvisation is right there—it's not frosted over with stiff arrangements or soupy sound.

The trio does hectic scribble just as well as it does noirish emoting. Jackson's "A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing" features a tumbling, brief, Ornette-ish head that gives way to a magical kind of clunked-out funk that only Shannon could provide. I would venture to say that his drumming is better here than it ever was in Last Exit. In that band, Shannon tends to go for the broadest gesture, either the martial, about-to-blow ramp-up or the boneheaded electric-blues beat. Here, though, he's actually playing free jazz, more or less, while also keeping the beat. Gibbs's chords jut out crudely, Frisell screams one minute, whispers the next (I tend to hate overly pedal-effected guitar, but Frisell uses pedals like a true surrealist on this record) and Jackson tumbles and exclaims. The beat is somewhere there, but it's not explicit. The band heads out the cargo hatch into space but they hold onto the line. What astounds me is that the piece is only three and a half minutes, but you get a real without-a-net free-jazz feeling in between the bookends of the heads, which themselves give off a very authentic, four-handcuffed-men-being-jostled-violently-around-a-room Ornette-head vibe. It's a true fusion of pop production practices—get in and get out quick—and free-jazz abandon. Great taste and less filling.

And this is what I mean about free-jazz sometimes jelling really well in the studio. Sometimes you don't want to hear a 30-minute live blowout. Sometimes you want to hear the chaos tastefully integrated, in a context you want to play and re-play. Sometimes limits are good.

There's so much else to love on Strange Meeting. I honestly don't know if there's a weak track. I'm spinning the collectively improvised track, "The President's Nap," right now, and as with a lot of Power Tools material, it sounds like the subtler cousin of Last Exit, not as balls-out aggressive but probably more fulfilling on a purely interactive level. Shannon starts out with one of those jaunty, Last Exity marches, Gibbs hops on the train, and Frisell tosses out waves of pure sci-fi sound. Then the whole thing tilts toward something scary and nuclear-sounding, like a parched landscape about to blow. The band is moving all at once, like a miasma in the sky, some sort of hot, creeping menace. The climaxes are hectic and—thanks in part to the outstanding recording quality—vibrantly detailed. It's not just free sound, not just noise. It's deep-listening abstraction, swirling together funk and rock and free jazz and technology and Michael Mann–ish ’80s humidity. You hear this and you feel almost embarrassed for anyone who was still chowing down on old-school, meat-and-potatoes acoustic free jazz circa ’87. This is a music of its time, the best kind in fact. There's a certain mist of cheese swirling around Strange Meeting, but the playing is so goddamn wholesome, so real and right on, that it just becomes part of the joy. It's an if-this-is-wrong-I-don't-want-to-be-right type of thing.

I could go on and on. Frisell's "Unscientific Americans" is another sci-fi Ornette-style tumble. I don't know Prime Time too well, but honestly this band sounds like what I'd *want* Prime Time to sound like, a true electrifying of the skittery, headlong O.C. vibe with none of those bummer boxy funk rhythms. Frisell is basically playing the laser gun here. The song is all the gnarlier, all the more "fuck you" because it's three minutes long. I've been spinning Strange Meeting all weekend, but I find myself appreciating it even more right now. I can't emphasize this pop/free-jazz vibe enough. It's like a not only benevolent but actually mutually beneficial ’80s-izing of avant-garde jazz. It's concise but it's not tidy. Sure it might be cool to hear this band stretch out for 40 minutes or so, but they want to play *songs*, start from coherence and then explode the universe in the time it would take to run down a bebop tune.

I wish I could stream Gibbs's "Howard Beach Memoirs" for you above. It's a parched, steely line, with so much internal poetry and narrative contour. I think of a (nonexistent) Michael Mann cowboy film, Dylan Carlson from Earth playing with a rhythm section that shifts like magma under his feet rather than plods. Frisell lets the alien spiders in after the head. Into the tech-jazz vortex. I think of those old, big, clunky, white-rimmed VHS tape boxes that snapped shut. Instead of snuffing the jazz out like some pillowy ’80s production can, the *casing* of this music, its presentation and milieu and delivery system, is friendly to the aesthetic. Shannon Jackson solos at the end of "Howard Beach," punching holes in the sky with his close-miked arena-rock toms.

And there at the end of it all is "Unchained Melody," romantic and wired all at once. Did the producer suggest it? Who knows, and who cares? You can in fact make a *record* of this music. You can trim it at the edges and not cut out what makes it tick. That way, you can listen again and again.


*Sadly Strange Meeting does not appear to be available for legal download. You can, however, order a pricey autographed (!) copy direct from Ronald Shannon Jackson via his website. (There are a few Power Tools boots there as well, in addition to a bunch of intriguing Decoding Society selections.)

*Here's a nice clip of Power Tools playing Frisell's "When We Go." Check out this comment someone left: "Ronald Shannon Jackson and Bill Frisell are about a millisecond from obliterating into sun particles; some of the most visceral playing with refrain and control. Fortunately, Melvin's got the weight of the world within his thumb alone to keep the gamma rays from shooting skyward..." Nice.

*Here's Destination: Out on Strange Meeting back in ’08, featuring helpful context re: "Howard Beach Memoirs."

*Strange Meeting begs the question: What are other great fruitfully ’80s-ized (i.e., not just made in the ’80s but true products of the ’80s) avant-jazz studio recordings, albums on which the then-modern production style or record-making philosophy enhanced rather than dulled the impact of the music?

*Also: I don't know the Frisell, Gibbs or Decoding Society discographies all that well. Are there other records by any of these entities that get at the Strange Meeting vibe, or is this record really as anomalous and gemlike as it seems to be?

*Also, what do people know about the Antilles label? Of the catalog listed here, I only know the Air and Braxton records, but I'm very intrigued. What's up with that White Noise record (which features Paul Lytton)?


A Few Notes on Power Tools and Strange Meeting by David Breskin

I met Shannon Jackson in the summer of 1979, when I was an intern at The Village Voice. I conned Bob Christgau into letting me write some Riffs—it was hardly part of my job—but I wrote on Terje Rypdal, Bootsy Collins, Oregon and Weather Report, if memory serves. (That may be the first time Terje and Bootsy have ever been found in the same sentence, and if so, this would mark the second.) In any event, I met Shannon after one of his gigs at the Public Theater that summer—he was playing with Blood Ulmer, David Murray and I think Amin Ali was the bassist. And I went back to Providence for my senior year in college and also my last year as jazz director of WBRU (under the name “Spottswood Erving”) and Shannon and I stayed in touch in epistolary fashion, and developed a strong connection.

After college I moved to New York City in the fall of 1980 and ended up producing The Decoding Society’s Mandance and Barbeque Dog, as well as Shannon’s own “solo” drum record, Pulse, bringing along my poetic mentor from college, Michael S. Harper, to collaborate with Shannon on a few tracks. In the fall of 1981, I went on a long European tour with the band and got to know everyone pretty well, including, of course, Melvin Rufus Gibbs and Vernon Reid. I also met Bill Frisell in the early ‘80s and was absolutely wowed by his playing: I thought he might be the “Thelonious Monk of the Guitar” or something like that. I got to know Bill, grew fond of him, and in due course produced a collision between him and Vernon, Smash and Scatteration, recorded in the winter of 1984 and released in ’85. My internal code for that project was: “Mr. Rogers Meets The Wild Child” though originally that record was intended to be for a trio, with John Scofield being the third guitarist. We just couldn’t make the schedules work.

Over those years, I’d brought Bill to some Decoding Society gigs and brought Shannon to come see Bill play. They were full of mutual admiration. As different as their own music was, they are both, in a sense, country, and there was an easy camaraderie and feeling at the start. I remember Shannon saying, upon seeing Bill play for the first time, “Look here! There’s nobody, there’s nobody that plays a melody like that.” Of course, Bill had heard Shannon’s work with Cecil Taylor and with Ornette, and was really interested in what he was doing, and Bill also admired Melvin’s playing from the Decoding Society gigs and other downtown things.

I remember thinking: if Marx said he was trying to turn Hegel on his head, maybe I could turn the Jimi Hendrix Experience on its head. A very, very limited analogy, but hey, maybe the guitar player could be the pink guy and the rhythm section the darker-than-pink-guys. A powerfully inverted triangle. There was a real racial walling-off in the “avant” music community at that time—what was white, what was black, blah blah blah. I found it hateful then, and still find it so, though of course it makes perfect sense historically. Didn’t Ralph Ellison say he was an integrationist because an “integer” is a whole number? Well, I want to be in that number when the saints come marching. Anyway, that was a part of my thinking in making this project, but don’t get me wrong: it was not some kind of overdetermined racial thing—it was about the music. It’s just that I was cognizant of the larger context, and that some people would see it as somehow “strange” and that’s one reason for choosing Bill’s song as the title track, and the album cover art being what it is. Also strange, in a different sense, because Shannon’s music was so heavy (in weight) and Bill’s was so light, in the sense of ethereal and floaty. I thought this combination might create some heat-generating friction.

I came to the three of them with an idea of a cooperative trio, and making a record as a start. It was always conceived as a trio, a power trio. There was never a horn involved. I don’t know where this story about Julius Hemphill’s involvement came from—you know, that he was was sick and couldn’t make the date, and so an unplanned bare-bones trio recorded spur of the moment. That story is totally, uh, spurious. I’d met Julius at most twice: among other things, he and Michael Harper had collaborated; and for a moment there Bill toured with him in the same band as Nels Cline wouldn’t ya know it?; and Tim Berne, who I was in touch with, was close to him…so it’s not far-fetched. But there was no discussion of Julius being included. And frankly, after the rather horn-heavy Decoding Society, I specifically wanted this to be devoid of hornage, wanted it to be really open, very spacious, where the deer and the fucking antelope roam. I wanted there to be lots of room for Bill, and yet wanted this not to be one of those trio record where it feels like lead-voice-plus-rhythm-section. I just wanted to couple Bill to this deeply heavy rhythm section and see what kind of freight that train might pull. I thought Shannon’s playing might do something interesting to Bill and that Bill’s playing might do something interesting to Shannon, and that Melvin would be a perfect fulcrum and shifting counterweight: suitably fierce but appropriately subtle and supportive when need be and no road hog he. Anyway, that was my hope. I thought this could be a cool band, and Shannon always used to say, “Nothing beats a failure but a try.” So, why not?

We had one planning meeting about the date up at my apartment on 109th street, the four of us. I asked each of them to bring in three tunes. I asked them to bring in songs which would work for this group and to think of who’d be playing it, whether it was brand new material or something previously recorded. I’d heard some of Melvin’s writing in and around the Decoding Society, really liked it, and wanted him, compositionally, to be an equal partner to Shannon and Bill on the record, and not the less-famous sideman. I wanted 3 + 3 + 3 + 1 = 10 songs. Five songs a side, and song-length songs, not long jams. The last song (the +1) would be a cover, a great song but not played straight, something radically recontextualized. In the end, Shannon brought in two pieces, “Blame and Shame” and “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing;” Bill brought in three, “When We Go” and the title track (both of which he’d released on Rambler in 1985) and the new “Unscientific Americans;” and Melvin brought in three, “Wadmalaw Island,” “A Song is Not Enough,” and “Howard Beach Memoirs.” The title of this last piece was a riff on the popular Neil Simon play (Brighton Beach Memoirs) which had opened on Broadway in 1983, running though 1986 and was made into a movie that year. Of course, the title and piece specifically refer to the Howard Beach hate-crime of December 1986, when three African-American youths were attacked by a gang of stupid young pink people in Queens. One of the victims ended up badly beaten and one ended up run-over by a car and killed while trying to escape.

If memory serves, the trio rehearsed in Shannon’s studio, I think twice, maybe thrice before the recording. I remember being at one or two of these rehearsals, because I made rehearsal notes to prepare for the recording—something I’ve always done when producing. Anyway, the point is that the project was organized and not “haphazard”: the thing was conceived, bantered about, thought out, rehearsed, and then recorded. For all we knew, this might become a real band and this was just the beginning.

For the date, I picked Radio City Studios, up there back behind the hall, in that historic building. I think I was first there watching John Zorn his “Spillane” piece in the summer of ‘86. Loved the sound of the room, the historic old-fashionedness of the place. Frisell was on that date, as well as Bobby Previte. (A zillion years later—well, fourteen—I’d re-connect with Bobby to produce his 23 Constellations of Joan Miro, but that’s another story.) Anyway, at the “Spillane” session I’d met the engineer Don Hunerberg, who I think was something like a house engineer for that room, and thought he was terrific. So when my normal wingman Ron Saint Germain was not available for Power Tools, we happily ran with Don. (Small footnote: I ended up back in the same room six months later, producing “Two-Lane Highway” for/with John Zorn, his “concerto” for Albert Collins, which also was on the Spillane record. I’d written a story on Collins for Musician magazine years before, turns out my cousin in Chicago booked him, and Melvin and Shannon also came in for that date with Zorn and Albert.) Back to Power Tools: I wanted the session to be live, and wanted no editing, no mixing, no overdubbing. It was what it was: like a primary document, like an “early” recording. I wanted the “pressure” of live performance. That band was about a certain kind of pressure….spatial pressure, temporal pressure, rhythmic pressure, tonal pressure, the pressure of personalities and personal history. I knew we could go for multiple takes of every piece, and just settle arguments that way.

Regarding the group piece: “The President’s Nap.” It happened like this: Shannon was in the studio, warming up, playing by himself, with Melvin and Bill in the room getting ready. I liked what Shannon was playing and told Don to “roll tape” though we were beginning to roll early brutal digital two-track bits, even if tape was what we had in our minds. And I just gestured to Melvin and then Bill to start playing, and they did. The piece developed a beginning, a middle, and an end, just naturally. Game, set, match. It was a free improvisation, completely unplanned and obviously untitled. I offered “The President’s Nap” as a title, given that it’d recently come out in the press—sometime in Reagan’s second term—that the President liked to take a daily afternoon journey to dreamland. Given what Reagan did while awake, perhaps this was not so harmful. The title cracked everybody up, because obviously it spins the music in a slightly comically noirish if not horrifying direction, and it stuck. (Bill’s “Unscientific Americans” was also untitled as of the session, and I suggested that title after the Roz Chast 1986 book of cartoons of the same name. Bill is something of an amateur cartoonist in his own right, and is Roz Chastian himself, it might be fairly said.)

Regarding “Unchained Melody”: yeah, not to sound Monty Pythonish about it, but that was my idea, eagerly seconded by Shannon. I didn’t want to cover a song that was part of the jazz canon and that had been covered extensively by contemporary jazz artists, or even those in our immediate past. And I was also looking for a song that I thought Bill could really just rip into, and undo. Here was a song that had been covered a gazillion times, but you know, Alex North wasn’t in the Ella Songbooks and wasn’t of any interest to Wynton and his crowd, and it wasn’t like covering yet another Monk or Wayne tune. It was a pop song (though Al Hibbler did it way back!) recorded first as a theme for a mid-‘50s prison movie, Unchained, hence the “Unchained” in the title. Of course it’s famously a love song, but I was also thinking more abstractly of the Hy Zaret lyric “and time goes by, so slowly / and time can do so much.” Ain’t it true, Shannon, Melvin and Bill? Well, you don’t have to be a musicologist to see how that sentiment might play into this record and this band. Shannon’s point of reference was the Righteous Brothers’ version. For me, it was the Willie Nelson version on his classic Booker T. Jones-produced Stardust record from 1978. I’d gone out on the road with Willie (I think in 1982) for a Musician piece, and really came to love his way with standards, and of course Shannon is as Texas as it gets, and I played Willie’s recording for him, which knocked him out. (Willie then led me to Miles Davis, and later to We Are The World—everything overlaps with everything else—but those are other stories.) Extra-elliptical aside: “Righteous Brothers” became my inside code back-up name for this band, if “Power Tools” couldn’t be used, but that would have been pretty darn “meta” at the time and I can imagine what the legal bills might have been like. Again, this would have gone against the racial stereotyping in about three ways.

Anyway, I am very much a non-musician—I pretty much don’t know anything about music from a technical standpoint—but occasionally I have an architectural or arranging idea and “Unchained Melody” was such a case. I wanted Shannon to open with solo voice, and to play the song as a march. Always loved Shannon’s way with marches and martial beats and guessed that in hundreds of covers “Unchained Melody” had never been played as a march. (And this was before the U2 cover and the Cyndi Lauper cover and before the song was widely and wildly re-popularized by the movie Ghost, which didn’t come til 1990. In 1987, “Unchained Melody” was like a great deserted town, you know a place that had been a boomtown in the ‘50s but there wasn’t anybody living there anymore: The Last Picture Show.) And after establishing the march, I wanted Bill to play the melody straight one time through, and then take it out on the next pass—but yet still perfectly melodic in that perfectly Bill way—and then for the song to devolve and dissolve, with Shannon and Melvin dropping by the wayside. In other words to take the title of the song literally, and for it all to end with Bill’s solo guitar voice and his delay. I was looking for what I call “asymmetrical equilibrium,” which is something I look for over and over in art. The little sketch for this arrangment was a “first thought / best thought” thing on piece of scratch paper.

For the cover of the LP, I chose an image from Joel Sternfeld’s book, American Prospects, which would come out the same year as the record. (That book was/is in the tradition of Walker Evans American Photographs of 1938 and Robert Frank’s The Americans of 1958, and I was hoping to emphasize both the Americanness and the landscape quality of the music.) The album cover picture itself was taken seven years prior to the recording and is titled, “Roadside Rest Area, White Sands, New Mexico, September 1980.” It features the body of an old missile; a sign on corrugated fence saying “WOMEN” leading to a ladies’ room; and a view beyond of the White Sands Missile Range, a U.S. Government weapons-testing area for many years. It just seemed, with the title of the record, the music, these three guys, right…although I’d be hard-pressed to explain why. I knew Sternfeld a bit by then and he graciously gave us the image for free, or for some nominal sum.

The band went on to do one fairly brief European tour in 1988. I’d hoped to come along, and perhaps even record more, but could not make it due to my own work schedule as a freelance journalist. I had a story deadline—I can’t remember for what. I heard some real positive feedback about the tour, and have a VHS tape of four songs from one performance in Cologne, Germany: “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” “Unchained Melody,” When We Go” and “Wadmalaw Island.” These last two pieces are available via youtube and I think the other two will surface in the fullness of time. Time goes by, so slowly, and time can do so much.

It’s a sad state of affairs that Island let the LP, and then the compact disc, go out of print. I called the label once to see what I could do about it and got the Kafkaesque run-around. I have no financial interest in the record (typical for my projects) but this put me in a particularly powerless position in terms of prying the thing free. Maybe I could / should re-visit the subject. The analog record sure sounds politely ferocious.

It’s also not just a little bit sad that there was no follow-up record nor no life as a band after that first tour. Bill had his own trio to feed and grow at the time (the wonderful one with Joey Baron and Kermit Driscoll if I’m remembering the timing correctly) and Shannon was increasingly drawn into a different orbit. What can I say? I’ll say it’s a shame that Melvin, Shannon and Bill did not play together again. They could have made beautiful music together.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Heavy Metal Be-Bop #2: Craig Taborn

I'm happy to announce that the second installment of Heavy Metal Be-Bop, my jazz/metal interview series, is live at Invisible Oranges. Once again, a big thanks to site honcho Cosmo Lee for hosting and for lending his editing and layout expertise to the project.

My guest this time around, Craig Taborn, is more or less the main inspiration behind the series, and I speak a bit about that (specifically Taborn's connection to the Gorguts universe) in the intro. I also mention Taborn's seemingly boundless metal knowledge, but I feel like I ought to note that this knowledge extends way beyond a single genre. Taborn has his iTunes hooked up to his TV, so I got a chance to check out his music library; I have to say, it might be the most diverse and comprehensive collection I've ever seen. I hope he won't mind me listing a few of the artists I spotted in there: Springsteen (Nebraska), This Heat, Thelonious Monk, Arcade Fire, Stravinsky, Sonic Youth, Henry Threadgill's Air, the Walker Brothers, Shudder to Think, Muddy Waters, Descendents. (He even had craw in there, which—as any regular DFSBP reader could guess—absolutely blew my mind. It turns out he went to college with their early-period drummer, Neil Chastain!) Looking at that list now, it doesn't scan as terribly unusual (everyone's got a world of music on their iPod these days), but the point I'm trying to make—a point hopefully illustrated in our conversation—is that Taborn is an especially deep listener; he really gets inside all of these different areas. That may be one reason so many different bandleaders call on him regularly. Dan Weiss, my first Heavy Metal Be-Bop guest, made all this explicit during a recent appearance on WKCR's Musician's Show. Listing the personnel for the new Dave Binney album, Graylen Epicenter—on which both Weiss and Taborn appear—he shouted out Taborn's insider nickname: Encyclopedia Tabes. Having spent time with the man, I assure you that it's an accurate moniker.

I hope you enjoy this installment of Heavy Metal Be-Bop. I have another interview in the pipeline, which I hope to publish soon, but I'm definitely on the lookout for future subjects. Can you think of anyone who might be able to shed light on the jazz/metal connection? If so, please let me know via e-mail or the comments.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Figureheads, up close and consecutive: John Zorn and Wynton Marsalis

Two nights in a row, two evening-length performances by figureheads, not just of jazz but of The Culture. On Wednesday, I caught John Zorn's Masada Marathon at NYC Opera, a bonus track to his participation in the ongoing Monodramas presentation there; last night, just a few blocks south, I heard Wynton Marsalis present both a quintet and a septet at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Faced with such a seemingly stark duality, one is tempted to make grand pronouncements, to write a sweeping, op-ed type of thing, to choose a side. Better to talk specifics and let the conclusions flow as they may. Bottom line: I saw two very ambitious shows by two very hard-working musicians. There were pros and cons to both. There were clear points of parallel and divergence. Following are some observations, perhaps sprinkled with the occasional conclusion.

Zorn had his huge coterie with him, diversely skilled virtuosos from the community known as downtown, players who live at the intersection between Chops and Grit—in other words, pretty much exactly where you want to reside. Drummer Ches Smith, guitarist Marc Ribot (dear God—he was so loud and so mercilessly badass, wielding twang like a weapon), cellist Erik Friedlander (whose solo set was one of the night's triumphs), pianists Uri Caine, Jamie Saft (keyboard too) and Sylvie Courvoisier. These are the kind of players you would trust in pretty much any context.

It was a little frustrating, then, to hear them deployed for roughly four hours in the service of Zorn's Book of Angels oeuvre (a subset of his ongoing Masada endeavor), which seems to me like a willfully monotonous body of work. The story goes that Zorn wrote 316 pieces "in a flash of creativity during three months in late 2004." Hearing the music, it seems like "flash of productivity" would be more accurate. By Zorn's own admission, made during a mike break late in the Marathon, these compositions are skimpy by design, meant as improvisational fodder for his super-talented friends. So in practice, it's not that surprising that they can start to seem oppressive: dancing, klezmer-meets-exotica melodies, most laid over a sly bass vamp, with the occasional unison riff in five or seven. Zorn's decision to hammer on this aesthetic for a long period (both in real time—by my count, he's issued 17 Book of Angels records, spotlighting various ensembles, many of which played Wednesday's Marathon—and over the course of the concert) baffles me somewhat. During the event, I kept wondering: Why convene so many edgy masters, many of whom are great composers in their own right, and then straitjacket them within a fairly narrow soundworld? (Maybe a better approach would've been to let each band present a bit of its own music alongside their Zorn interpretations.) It's possible that the thought is to draw attention to the players precisely because of the samey-ness/mundane-ness of the material: "Watch these improvisational superheroes turn my humble lead into marvelous gold," or something like that.

Again, there was some fantastic playing. I loved the sultry, gently surreal spy-movie vibe of the Dreamers, as well as solo turns by Caine and Friedlander that were shocking in their command of dynamics and emotional contour. And the Electric Masada finale (with guest Mike Patton) was great, pyrotechnic fun. I left, though, really feeling the Marathon aspect of the whole thing—so saturated with that patented Masada vibe that I couldn't imagine wanting to see any of these bands again anytime soon. (To be fair, though, I did spend a good portion of yesterday spinning Book of Angels discs—the Marc Ribot/Trevor Dunn/G. Calvin Weston trio record Asmodeus is a monster and highly recommended for even the Masada-averse—so maybe this stuff is more infectious than I thought.) I remember feeling the exact same way when I heard various Masada projects at Symphony Space in June of 2000.

A Wynton Marsalis show at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Frederick P. Rose Hall is oppressive in its own, totally obvious ways of course. The "Jazz, America's classical music" trappings are thick and somewhat cloying—"Welcome to the House of Swing," said Marsalis as he stepped onstage in a natty suit—and there's an aggressive upscaleness to the whole experience that's illustrated concisely in the high ticket prices. But you know all of this already. You've probably already bitched about it without ever actually experiencing it, as—I'm somewhat ashamed to admit—I have. As with John Zorn, it's easy to think you "get" Wynton Marsalis. There's so much baggage, so much zeal both for and against these men, that you forget that they're simply musicians and composers. They're also showmen, of course, and community builders, and one-man scenes. But you can, in fact, go see them play music and just let that be the thing and not worry too much about the meaning of it all.

That is the experience I had at the Wynton show. Last night, he presented first his quintet, then his septet, separated by an intermission. This wasn't just a couple sets of jazz; this was a luxurious concert experience, and I mean luxurious there not in the cheesy, "America's classical music" sense, but in the sense that the music itself was rich and deeply satisfying. The quintet, built around the beyond-sturdy bass of Carlos Henriquez, was great, a showcase for the many faces of Marsalis's writing, from daredevil Latin jazz (I wish I could remember the name of this one tune they played that featured a frantically snaking line played by Marsalis and saxist Walter Blanding) to straightforward ballad poetry. In the latter vein, one piece was a sax-less quartet, and I swear, everyone should have the experience of hearing Wynton Marsalis play an unadorned ballad in Rose Hall. For a few minutes, the whole "luxury" angle made perfect sense; plush opulence was all you could think of, and it wasn't a base opulence but an entirely wholesome one. You felt spoiled.

If the quintet set was merely very good, the septet set was dazzling. I'm not sure that I've seen a more straightforwardly enjoyable presentation of music in the past few years—in the sense that I wished everyone I knew was there with me, from my discerning-jazz-connoisseur friends (one was with me, fortunately) to my largely jazz-oblivious family and jazz-appreciating-but-on-a-case-by-case-basis fiancée. Marsalis's septet clearly works on an Ellington model—you hear that right away in the plunger-muted brass and the shrewdly deployed soloists and rich themes. But from all the knocks against Marsalis, which you may have swallowed and even parroted without really knowing the deal, you think his work is going to be MERELY traditional, MERELY retro. This was an entire set of original music, and while it did feel "classic" in some sense, it was far more stimulating than the average set of straight-ahead, head-solos-head jazz you'd hear nightly in many local clubs. Each solo felt like an event, not a chore or a mere inevitability, because it had been properly set up by the compositional material around it. Trombonist Vincent Gardner, subbing for an on-tour Wycliffe Gordon, was a particular marvel, wielding the plunger in a way that can seem old-fashioned when you hear it on your scratchy vintage recordings but that feels totally vital up close. And the two saxophonists—Wessell Anderson and Victor Goines—sounded devastating dueting on the lovers' suite "'D' in the Key of 'F.'" All of these pieces radiated with the classic jazz push-and-pull: soloist vs. ensemble. The context kept changing, not in a rapid-fire way, but in a way that kept you engaged. At all times, there was a reason to keep paying attention, and not just to hear what hotshot lick would flow out next. I left feeling energized rather than exhausted, as I had after the Zorn affair.

I really don't want to make any grand pronouncements about the experience of seeing these two figures in their respective elements over consecutive nights, though it's hard, since they both seem to stand for so much jazz-world baggage. Googling their names, I found this piece: "There are currently two dominant schools in New York City’s jazz scene. Wynton Marsalis leads the Lincoln Center’s traditionalist school while John Zorn is the cover-boy for Downtown’s avant-garde movement." Conclusion: "Who would you rather follow? I lean towards Zorn since I partially agree with what one of my high profile teachers told me: 'Marsalis has set jazz back 100 years.'" Well, I guess that settles it!

In terms of the actual experience of checking out these shows, though, micro-observations abound. You can't help but be struck by the similarities between Zorn and Marsalis onstage: For one, both soak up as much attention when they're not playing as when they are, through their hyperbolic goading of their colleagues' improvisations. You can't help but feel that Zorn could learn something from Marsalis in terms of composition: focusing on writing a select amount of patient, deep, wholesome pieces rather than dashing off hundreds of stylistically constrained sketches. On the other hand, you can't help but feel that Marsalis could learn something from Zorn re: how to exist in the world of art: opening one's self to as many connections as possible (I think of Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, favored collaborators of late) and wielding one's influence as benevolently and expansively as possible. What I mean there is that while Zorn did admittedly confine his collaborators to the Masada oeuvre during this particular Marathon, for much of the year, he's practically a benefactor to not just these players, but a ton of other avant-garde-minded geniuses trying to find their way in the NYC scene. If he didn't play music at all, but simply ran the Tzadik label and the Stone club, he'd be a local and international hero. "Play my music on certain nights," he seems to say. "But every other night, do your own thing, and I'll support the hell out of you." Marsalis, on the other hand, seems to cloister his players up at Jazz at Lincoln Center. You don't see them really standing on their own two feet, outside of that context; when you hear their names, you think of Wynton. The same is not true of Zorn buddies like Marc Ribot. They may return to the hive when called, but they spend much of their working lives outside of it.

So maybe what I'm saying overall if you're speaking strictly on the "Who would I rather spend a lengthy evening listening to?" topic, Marsalis had the clear edge. But if you look outward re: "Whose musical empire is the saner, fairer, more benevolent and culturally nourishing one?" you have to hand it to Zorn. These figures are not in competition, of course, and as outspoken as each one is, I honestly don't think either one wants to stand for anything in particular aside from his own unique endeavors. They stand for things (uptown/downtown, tradition/iconoclasm) only because they've been extremely successful at those things, and thus they're convenient shorthand symbols. It's nice, though, to cut through the hype and the preconception and the rhetoric and just sit there in the theater and say, "What have you got for me?" I'm glad I live in a city where that's easily done.

P.S. My friend Joe, who also attended both concerts, makes a smart observation re: the Zorn show, i.e., that no one there was enjoying the music as much as he was. However hammy or hucksterish he can seem at times (to me, that is), his kid-in-a-candy-store glee is indeed endearing. You get a similar feeling from Wynton.