Friday, February 27, 2015

Spellcasting: Jim White drums with Xylouris White

The drums. You think you know the instrument, all of how it feels to play, to watch and listen, to experience. And then something comes along and reminds you that, well, no you don't. You know what you know, and what you don't know is vast, as well as inspiring. (In this regard, I highly recommend picking up Arcana VII, the latest volume of John Zorn–edited musician writings, and checking out the essays by Ches Smith, on his experiences learning Haitian Vodou drumming and incorporating it into his own aesthetic, and Tim Keiper, on his travels and musical experiences in Mali, Brazil and beyond.)

I've written before about the irreducibility of great drummers in performance, the way that if you're not in the room with them, picking up every sensation related to what they do—sound is just the beginning—you're not even coming close to experiencing their art.

Last night, I saw another drummer whose work I'd classify this way: Jim White, probably still best known as one third of the Australia's foremost violin-fronted instrumental-dirge-punk trio Dirty Three. He's also a sort of drummer to the indie singer-songwriter stars, most notably Will Oldham—before Thursday, the only time I'd seen White live in recent years was with Oldham, in 2009— and Cat Power, but also Nina Nastasia.

I remember being riveted by White's performance at that Oldham show and making a mental note that I needed to hear and see more of him. I'd listened to quite a bit of Dirty Three growing up, appreciated what White did in that group and seen them live once, but I never saw his percussive voice as something vital and elemental until these last couple show experiences, where White's weird, almost ritualistic vocabulary of gestures, his conjurer's approach to his art, really hit home for me. (Looking back, the fact that I hadn't yet delved into jazz when I caught that first Dirty Three show, probably around 1998, might explain why his playing didn't strike a chord with me at that time.)

Last night, White's current focal project, Xylouris White—a duo with the Cretan lute player George Xylouris—opened for Swans at Bowery Ballroom. (This New Yorker piece, into which Fugazi's Guy Picciotto figures prominently, serves as an excellent introduction to the band.) White was set up at center stage; this is clearly an equally matched pairing. What Xylouris does is gorgeous and absolutely essential to the project. Given that I know essentially nothing about the Cretan lute tradition, I humbly point you to the article linked above. Xylouris's contributions sounded at times Arabic, at times Jewish, at times even Indian. Hearing Xylouris blind, "Greek" would not have been my first thought. His lute playing suggested ragas as much as folk dances. There was a trance element, and an element of deep, stirring passion, as filtered through forceful virtuosity.

If there was a solemnity to Xylouris's playing—and given that he's coming out of a very strict tradition of lute performance, into which he was indoctrinated by his family, this makes perfect sense—White's presence embodied a certain kind of earthy flow, a sensuality with a hint of mirth. It seems impossible, or perhaps merely inadvisable, to attempt to describe his drumming without describing his appearance. A stocky man with a sort of mad-scientist Afro, White has a bearing of unflappable cool. His face bears a strange resemblance to that of longtime Altman actor Henry Gibson, but his dress (billowy shirt, unbuttoned about halfway), aura and presence suggest, to me, the Most Interesting Man in the World character you see in those beer ads. He looks, basically, as though he's seen just about everything there is to see, and that the years have engendered in him not jadedness but soul-deep contendedness and a sort of easy amusement with his surroundings.

White approaches the drum set as an object of fascination, as a site of mystery and delight. His movements are breathtakingly fluid. There is a dance that occurs, a pantomime, a flow, when he's behind the kit. He has strange tendencies—moving his arms in big, slow, exaggerated arcs, from over his head down to the drum, sometimes glancing up at his stick or mallet as it's poised over his head, as though marveling at the percussive act itself, the coil before the strike as much as the strike itself. There's a kind of inquiry and interrogation of the process, in the midst of that process. His torso dances. His shoulders shimmy. Sometimes he sort of clutches his left leg up and inward toward his body. He plays weird games with his unusually long sticks, not just tossing them in the air for a quick flip, but sometimes dropping one on the snare, letting it roll across the drum and picking it up with the other hand, and then doing the same with the other stick; back and forth, back and forth, as though in the midst of drumming, he were also juggling.

All this strange business brings about a kind of enchanted state, a feeling that's exactly analogous to what White does sonically and rhythmically. He has a way of sort of flowing around the kit, draping his sticks on the heads almost lovingly, that can disguise the power he commands. One minute he's consummately unobtrusive, offering up a quick subtle mallet roll across the toms or a tap on the tambourine he sometimes attaches to his hi-hat, and the next he's slamming out a fervent, rapid pulse on the kick drum, or playing some sort of bastardized backbeat with conventional sticks or those bundles known as Hot Rods. In these latter moments, his playing gives off the sense of limitless power deployed almost casually, like he could go full-on Bonham if he wanted to but prefers to keep the beat aerated, stumbling, fragmented, open-ended. There are miniature controlled detonations that, to me, at least, recall the more painterly realm of free jazz, but in general, I hear very little reference to any familiar tradition in White's playing. His pulse is insistent, yet blurred, hazy, always in service to the dance his body makes, rather than the other way around. His presence in the music is all about a personal experience of rhythm, a fluid exchange between a drummer's textural and timekeeping roles.

White surveys the audience as he plays, neither glaring nor smirking, but with a look that can touch on each of those. Last night, he flashed grins at Xylouris. There's much more of a sense of effort, of bearing down, in Xylouris's playing than in White's, and the drummer's glances at the lute player seem to say something like, "I'm right there with you, mate; I just don't have to try so hard."

Seeing White play, the overall effect was of having an experience you can't get anywhere else. In my mind, this aligns him with great jazz-oriented originals such as Ronald Shannon Jackson, Paul Motian and Milford Graves and with avant-rock masters ranging from Bill Bruford to contemporary giants such as Brian Chippendale, Zach Hill and Greg Saunier. As with those players, when Jim White is on a gig, you're hearing a concert of Jim White Music, as much as you're taking in whatever else in going on. That's not to say that he's a domineering force; sometimes, his sonic presence is downright self-effacing. Only to say that he is one of those elemental drummers. He walks onstage and there is a certain thing happening, between him, the kit and the air around it, that can't happen except in his presence.

Jim White's background is a bit hazy to me. I know the Dirty Three output fairly well, and I want to revisit it. I'm intrigued by Venom P. Stinger, the punk band he worked in with future D3 bandmate Mick Turner during the ’80s, which reunited and played New York in recent years. You can hear punk in his playing, and you can feel jazz in there too, in the overall looseness and his favoring of traditional grip. But there's a sense in which no genre you could invoke entirely accounts for his approach and aesthetic. He's created a whole world of behavior around his drumming. He walks onstage, sits down and begins not just a performance, but a relationship with the kit, the sticks, the room, and this attunement gives him unusual control over the flow and sensation of the music. When Jim White is drumming, I can't help but feel that he's casting a spell—slyly, without visible effort. It a spell that only breaks when he says so. I look forward to the next enchantment.


*A brilliantly conceived Xylouris White video. (Check out White regarding the dog around the 1:00 mark.) The Xylouris White homepage and their 2014 debut album, Goats. A Ben Ratliff review of a 2014 Xylouris White gig.

*Here's a Ratliff review of a 2010 Venom P. Stinger reunion gig, as well as video of a 1988 VPS performance.

*A beautiful White/Nastasia duet.

*My friend and former Time Out New York colleague Jay Ruttenberg wrote a remarkable profile of White back in 2007. Like most Ruttenberg pieces, it's funny, sharp and, in my view, definitive. Please excuse the horrendous web formatting and enjoy the article. (Here's the Conan performance Will Oldham references.)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

New York, instrument: John Zorn at the Village Vanguard

John Zorn is at the Village Vanguard through Sunday. Last night I caught a pair of sets I've been looking forward to since the series was announced: the duo of Zorn and Milford Graves, augmented by special guest Steve Coleman, and the trio of Marc Ribot, Trevor Dunn and Tyshawn Sorey, playing material from the Asmodeus and Valentine's Day albums, with Zorn on live conduction.

Check out the samples from Asmodeus above, and you'll have an excellent idea of what the latter set sounded like. (G. Calvin Weston plays on that album, while Sorey is on Valentine's Day, but interestingly, the most compelling pieces from last night's set—such as the Sharrock-via-Hendrix stomper "Mufgar"—were from the former.) I have relatively little to say about this set, honestly, mainly because it was so much goddamn fun. The entire club—me and two of my best friends, those at all the tables visible around us and, crucially, the musicians onstage and especially Zorn—were beaming en masse, reveling in the vaguely transgressive thrill we were sharing. Ribot, Dunn and Sorey, who are, when they want to be, three of the straight-up nastiest musicians on the planet, simply, gloriously just kicking out the jams in a sort of acid-rock-meets-prog-punk-meets-screaming-cathartic-blues mode, and on the stage of the Village freakin' Vanguard, no less. Zorn offered plenty of on-the-fly instruction, orchestrating impromptu drop-outs and unison accents, stoking the flames of each musician in turn, but mainly what he offered was a platform for something this awesome to go down.

Zorn's core principle, as I understand it, can be reduced to some variant on "Music is community" or "Music is people." His greatest gift, in my eyes, is the way he locates the best musicians on the planet (which usually means in New York)—not just the chopsiest virtuosos, but the ones who shred with passion, fire and abandon, slams them together in dream-team assemblages, provides them with just enough compositional fuel that they can attain lift-off and simply gets out of the way. Yes, he was stageside last night, calling pieces and conducting, but mostly, he was sitting there grinning his ass off and rocking the fuck out, just like everyone else in the club. The thrills of primal, bashing jazz-rock, occasionally coming off the rails and zooming along in freeform tumult. It was such a basic concept, but the depth of heart and musical resources of the three musicians involved made it profound. Yes, Ribot, Dunn and Sorey were, in a certain sense, just jamming on some skeletal themes, but they poured so much love and aggression into the endeavor, returning the gift Zorn had given them by assembling them in the first place and giving them this material to work with. This was a high-order act of brain-frying. Someone should book this trio at a big rock club—would love to hear them that much louder.

There was noise and riot in the first set, as well, but that performance vibrated on a whole different wavelength, and I think that had a lot to do with the presence of Steve Coleman. Zorn and Graves have been working together as a duo for a long time, and they have a pretty well-established sound as a band of two. (Compare their first documented meeting, from 2003, with their 2013 Metropolitan Museum performance -- a trio with Jackson Pollock, in a sense.) Meditation, yes, but mixed in with plenty of catharsis in the classic free-jazz sense, with Graves providing the weather-event rumble and Zorn the jagged stabs of aural lightning. To my ears, the meditative element won out during last night's set. Zorn played his share of his patented aggro sandpaper, but he doled it out thoughtfully. For me, this set was about a special kind of unity, the two horns meshing in a snaking, interlocking dervish display, as Graves conjured rhythm, his patented primal shimmy, out of the earth.

The set had a nice arc to it. As I remember, the pieces went like this: full trio, Zorn/Graves duo, Coleman/Graves duo, brief Zorn/Coleman duo, full trio. Hearing the Coleman/Graves duo really drove home the contrast between the two horn players. Whereas Zorn's home base in these sorts of settings is an eruptive mode, Coleman seemed to hear in Graves's pulsations an invitation to control rather than release, an encouragement to find ecstasy in discipline, to craft and sustain a coherent soloistic line. When the three played together, the latter impulse often won out. Zorn and Coleman were two horns looking for one voice, darting, overlapping and at certain moments fusing, so that it was hard to tell their alto sounds apart. Both working admirably hard to, in some profound way, agree on the current they were following—striving for utmost harmony in every sense. To my ears, Graves was, this time around, homing in on the dance. It's always an element of his performance, but here, it seemed like the root of the whole endeavor. (Maybe it had something to do with the fact that before the show, he got stuck in traffic driving his drums from Jamaica, Queens to the Village—"You want to talk about avant-garde?" he said to the audience, playfully. "That was avant-garde"—and needed to counteract vehicular frustration with pure body-moving joy.)

At times, as during the Coleman duo, Graves would assume a more upright posture, with his back against the metal folding chair that he always uses as a drum throne, and fixate on simple right-hand motions that aimed for what my friend Will (an extraordinary drummer whose playing effortlessly connects the dots between Ed Blackwell and Clyde Stubblefield) referred to as the sweet spot of the floor tom, that zone that every drummer knows, where you strike and draw sound out of the three core elements of the instrument all at once: skin (the head), metal (the rim) and, through the percussive act, wood (the body). Milford Graves is the absolute unparalleled master of locating these sweet spots on his kit and using them to make the rhythm sing like a three-dimensional choir, pouring forth impossibly funky pulsations, not quite "in time" but always related to a certain groove imperative.

It made you want to dance and sing, and so the altos did. You heard the core strains of what these three players do—the Jewish music in Zorn's blood, the bebop in Coleman's, the Afro-Cuban root of the Graves endeavor—all swirled together in a kind of blurry oneness, a single stream, not barreling forth, but sort of riding a current. And while Graves was clearly the one directing that current—not just with the single-hand free funk described above, but with his full-kit massage/barrage, including moments where he held two sticks in the right hand so as to grab both the floor tom and a bongo nearby—no one was in charge here. At its best moments, this was a set that felt like a group submission, a burying of ego in the service of flow. You can talk it about it other ways, but to me, it sounded nakedly spiritual—a beautiful contrast to the heat and bombast of set two.

So music is community, music is people. And I'd add that music is event, the simple act of willing things to happen. I've had my reservations about John Zorn's work in the past, some published on this blog, but I've felt them melting away in recent years, from the 2013 Met takeover on. The bottom line is that, as the Met event demonstrated, and as the two sets I saw last night reaffirmed, this guy is an expert at making impossibly cool stuff happen. Free jazz and contemporary classical music at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Dirty punk fusion at the Village Vanguard? Yes, please. In a very real sense, John Zorn's instrument at this point in his career is New York City itself—its musical geniuses, its hallowed institutions. He's assembling world-class artists in any number of styles and presenting them in the way they ought to be presented: as cultural treasures, via events where you celebrate the artists, the spaces, the inimitable New York–iness of it all. These Zorn gatherings are, increasingly, real events, not just shows. He's changing the fabric of how we engage with art in NYC, and he has been for a long time, and that's a serious feat. (And not just through events he's directly involved in; his LES venue, The Stone, presents live music six nights a week.) And on a more immediate level, he's facilitating a very specific kind of fun—quintessentially abrasive perhaps, but also so inclusive. Anyone, not just a "free-jazz fan" or a "Zorn fan" could've checked out those sets last night and understood that something joyous and special was going on. Community, communication, communion—basic acts of bringing artists together and inviting audiences to join in. It's a profound cultural project, and based on last night's magic, boy, is it ever working.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Panorama: The joys of the Fugazi Live Series

In a recent post about the Paul Motian Trio, I wrote about spirit music, sound that feeds, and maybe even heals. My current obsession is Fugazi—kicked off by an excellent interview with drummer Brendan Canty, via The Trap Set, a new podcast hosted by Joe Wong, who happens to be my West Coast counterpart in the band Aa—and though the sound is very different, the effect, the aftermath of listening, feels similarly restorative.

It's common to speak of the uprightness of this band, whether in terms of how they resisted the evils of the business of music (or the often-barbaric practices that attend its live performance: moshing, crowd-surfing, etc.), or how they helped raise awareness re: the evils of government and commerce. And it's also, perhaps, in a sort of reverse-cliché way, common to speak about how their real contribution was a musical one, or how they were one of the most transformative live bands of their (or all) time.

What I don't hear a lot of, in terms of general Fugazi-ology, except among my closest friends, is appreciation for the meat and substance of the Fugazi experience, which is the songs. It's easy to forget, since the hoopla has died down—see this NPR piece and this New York Times article, both from 2011—that the Fugazi Live Series is still online and accessible to all. If you're not familiar with the endeavor, it's very likely the most extensive authorized single-band concert-download archive in the world. (Short of maybe the Dead, although I'm not even sure if they make their shows available direct to fans in such an accessible, no-b.s. format.) You don't have to mess with iTunes or any kind of tedious sign-up process; you just go in and browse the shows—all helpfully rated in terms of sound quality and equipped with a free sample track—and grab whichever ones you like for a suggested price of $5.

I'm nowhere near an authority on this archive—it would take years of dedicated listening and browsing to really get familiar—but I have zeroed in on particular favorite periods. The 2002 shows hold a special fascination for me. For starters, I can highly recommend the Boston gigs from April 19 (mislabeled in the URL and iTunes tags as May 19) and 20 of that year—also available as YouTube videos, here and here. I love the shows from this era simply because by this point, the band's final year of performance to date, Fugazi were drawing on their entire recorded output, all seven albums (well, six plus a pair of EPs that I came to know jointly as 13 Songs). What strikes me as I listen to these sets and others from 1995 (the year that one of my favorite Fugazi albums, Red Medicine, came out, and the year that I saw them live for the first time, at this St. Louis show; have just downloaded that, and it sounds incredible—I picture myself back in that room; and my friend/bandmate Joe told me he had a similar experience looking over this set list, from the first Fugazi show he attended, earlier in the same year; this Philly show is also a must) is that one of Fugazi's main contributions, and maybe the one that means the most to me, is their egalitarian approach to their own catalog. We all know that Fugazi didn't release proper singles (a couple scattered 7-inches, yes, but no actual singles, in the classic "airplay"-oriented sense) or videos, but beyond that, the degree to which they really stood by—as in performed live, consistently, and with passion and conviction—just about every song they ever put out is really striking.

Most bands of any longevity gradually whittle down their catalog, encapsulating entire periods with just a few songs sprinkled into their live sets. Fugazi refused to let their songs die. The main Fugazi Live Series search actually has a song selector, so you can track individual songs as they appeared in live sets throughout the band's career. Just for fun, I typed in "Burning Too," a track from 13 Songs (or from the Margin Walker EP, if you want to get technical), and, if I'm being honest, one of my least favorite Fugazi songs and not one I've heard fellow fans shout out as a particular favorite. Sure enough, there are eight pages of results, stretching from 1988 to 2001. My point is that Fugazi put their entire weight behind everything they released. Yes, of course, the band had what you might call hits—"fan favorites" is probably more accurate—songs like "Waiting Room," "Bad Mouth," "Suggestion" and "Merchandise," songs that every Fugazi fan, however casual, knows by heart, but in terms of how they operated, especially near the end of their performing lifespan so far, they treated their entire catalog with equal care, did away with the oppressive hierarchy of "greatest hits" and "deep cuts" that ends up polluting the catalogs of so many great bands (Zeppelin, for one; how wonderful it would be to revise "classic rock" history and do away with the idea that this monster band's masterful, meaty output ought to be reduced to 10 or so radio staples). So at the best of these Fugazi performances, you get the early material colliding off the late, as though the band had placed their entire catalog on shuffle. But of course this is live and real and organic. We've all heard about how the band didn't use set lists and how they all had to be prepared to unleash pretty much any one of their songs at any time, which is a pretty staggering notion once you really think about it, especially if you've ever had the experience of being in a band and dusting off material you haven't played in years; the recall / muscle memory is often pretty appalling.

I love how, in the second Boston show mentioned above, the band uses 1993's In On the Kill Taker (another album I adore, not that there's a Fugazi album I don't feel that way about) as a center of gravity, starting off the show with two of that album's most rousing songs, the Ian MacKaye–sung rager "Facet Squared" and the Guy Picciotto–sung partially a cappella masterpiece "Rend It," and sprinkling the set with various other IOTKT gems, like "Public Witness Program" and "Last Chance for a Slow Dance" (maybe my single favorite Fugazi song), while also making room for plenty of material from the then-new Argument album, as well as two brilliant Joe Lally–sung songs in a row ("Recap Modotti" and "By You"), a couple 13 Songs oldies (notice how "Waiting Room" is sort of thrown unassumingly in the middle there; no "Let's encore with our best-known song!" hoopla here) and Steady Diet of Nothing closer "KYEO" to end the set.

If you know all these albums by heart, the effect—the thrill of "What song are they going to play next?" and "How will it play off the one before and the one after?"—is a profound one. You start to see Fugazi's whole catalog as this glorious 360-degree panorama. The fast songs, the slow songs, the Guy songs, the Ian songs, the Joe songs, the instrumentals (dig "Number 5," from the "Furniture" single, which opens the 4/20/02 Boston show). It's all material—to be used, to be played, to be savored. No song privileged over any other. No staples—songs that have to be played at every show or the audience will go home unhappy. You create, you amass and then you just play, from the heart, whatever song wants to come out at that time, in that city, under that set of conditions. Yes, the $5 door price and the outspoken political stance were radical, but to me, this attitude toward one's catalog is even more so. You aren't writing a bunch of songs just so you can hit the jackpot with one or two, sell a million copies of those and then populate your albums with all the filler. You're standing by everything you create, letting none of it go to waste. And you're keeping your legacy pure, because every single one of those albums stands up, all the way through. As do the shows themselves. Each one has its own logic, its own arc, its own emotional and intellectual journey, its own story. I have a feeling I'll be playing in the Fugazi Live Series sandbox for years to come.