Saturday, November 03, 2018

Lately (11/3/2018)

*I can't stop listening to Peter Brötzmann and Heather Leigh's new Sparrow Nights (out now on the prolific and consistently impressive Austrian label Trost), which I wrote up for Rolling Stone's weekly new-release column (scroll down to near the bottom). So many improv releases are simply recordings of gigs, and those have their place, but as I've written on here before, this music also deserves the proper studio treatment. The Brötzmann/Leigh duo, which I had the pleasure of hearing live in 2017 and which now qualifies as a proper band after several years of consistent performance and live recording, receives that here. I haven't heard, and probably never will hear, every Peter Brötzmann album, but I've heard a whole bunch of them, and for me, this one without question ranks near the top of the pile. Heart-wrenching and achingly desolate music — some kind of spooky ambient blues that sounds like it could go on forever, and maybe has been. It feels like Brötzmann has been waiting decades for a collaborator who could help him zero in on this particular zone of his playing.

Note: for background and context, I highly recommend this 2016 video interview with the duo.

*There is a major new Charles Mingus live box set out. For somewhat obvious reasons (e.g., no jazz artist enjoys Coltrane's level of quasi-religious icon-hood, which only seems to increase with time, a topic explored in depth in Ben Ratliff's masterful Coltrane book), this hasn't been remotely as well-publicized as, say, Coltrane's "Lost Album," but honestly it's probably afforded this listener even greater musical pleasure. My RS review goes into the reasons why.

*Clutch have been one of my favorite bands for going on 25 years. I reviewed their new album a little while back, but I'm glad I was also able to see a show on their current tour, because, as has always been the case, you can never get the full Clutch story from the records. This piece is my heartfelt tribute to a personal fave that I'm happy to say has become a bona fide institution.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Lately (10/21/18)

My takes on:

Esperanza Spalding's 12 Little Spells


Tyshawn Sorey's Pillars

These albums could not sound more different, but they're both the work of artists who we may have once considered within the framework of genre (in each case, a loose notion of "jazz") but who have totally outgrown that or any other conventional "style of music." These works are comparable to little other than prior work by these respective artists, and even those associations are tenuous; in each case, best to just let go of the guardrail and get lost.

Side note: Like Esperanza's two prior albums, 12 Little Spells is an excellent illustration of the idea that "prog" is ultimately an outlook, not a style or a genre.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Lately (10/2/18)

*Will Oldham: My Life in 15 Songs, a.k.a. Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Palace Brothers mastermind, etc.) on 15 songs spanning more than 25 years. This was a special one for me. I've been a fan of Oldham's since around 1993, but I've never had a chance to interview him before. We talked for a long time, broken up into several conversations, and he couldn't have been nicer, more forthcoming or more insightful. I had to cut a ton of great material, but I'm really happy with how this turned out nonetheless. As part of my research, I re-read Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy — Alan Licht's 2012 book of Oldham interviews, which I reviewed for Time Out back then — and was reminded of how insightful it is. If you're a fan and haven't yet checked this out, you should remedy that asap.

*My take on Tom Surgal's new free-jazz doc Fire Music, which premiered at the New York Film Festival this past weekend. This one's been in the works a long time and it's great to see it finally being released. As I say in the piece, the interview material is really special. It's not a comprehensive film by any means, and at least in this cut, I don't think it's trying to be. Still, I think it works really well as a 101 intro to the movement. Seeing this made me realize what a robust array of free-jazz/"avant-garde"–related docs we now have to choose from, spanning close to 40 years. I ran down a few of those near the end of the piece. Imagine the Sound is still my personal gold standard, but having recently watched Ebba Jahn's 1985 film Rising Tones Cross — which documents New York's 1984 Sound Unity Festival, the predecessor to the Vision Festival, spearheaded by Patricia Nicholson and William Parker, and features those two along with Charles Gayle, Peter Kowald and many others — I can say that this film is another absolutely essential part of the canon of free-jazz cinema, not to mention a gritty and intimate portrait of a bygone New York.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Lately (9/26/18)

*A few words on why I'm obsessed with Radical Research, a hyper-niche metal/etc. podcast co-hosted by Jeff Wagner, who I shouted out back in 2010 when he released his essential progressive-metal history Mean Deviation.

*A write-up on a new project by Brandon Seabrook, which places his trademark avant/punk/jazz guitar convulsions in a striking new context.

*A review of Voivod's new album, which I absolutely adore. Their "One idea, three ways" aesthetic has never felt sturdier.

*A tribute to one of my favorite live bands (and heavy bands, period) Eyehategod. I wrote about EHG briefly in 2010 when their former drummer Joey LaCaze passed away.


A quick note on the "Lately" format...

Due to various factors, I've have been writing more for Rolling Stone in general, which, fortunately, has meant covering topics that are important to me with greater frequency. In other words, some of the things that I might have previously covered here, I am now covering there, which, to me, is only a good thing. I make no pronouncements about the future, but for the time being, you might see more digest-type posts here than you would have in the past. I hope you'll check out these links as you see fit — it's been wonderful to cover everything from Eyehategod to Anthony Braxton in a somewhat more visible forum.

Thank you as always for reading!

Friday, September 14, 2018

Lately (9/14/18)

*Killing Joke were incredible on Wednesday at Irving Plaza. Here's a review/appreciation for RS. I've been having a blast immersing myself in the discography, particularly the super heavy/massive 2000s-era stuff. Just spun Absolute Dissent this morning and was re-floored. I mean, come on:

For an comprehensive rundown of KJ history, I highly recommend Kory Grow's 2013 Revolver piece. Also, this Someone Who Isn't Me podcast interview with Jaz Coleman is a total trip — such an enlightened dude.

*Emanon, the new Wayne Shorter release is glorious. Here's my review. Michelle Mercer's excellent Wayne bio, Footprints, was the perfect complement to the new set. I have no good excuse for not picking up Michelle's book till now, but I'm so glad I finally got there.

*And did you know Barre Phillips has a new solo bass album? Scroll down to near the bottom here.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Lately (9/8/18)

For Rolling Stone:

*An appreciation of Forces in Motion, Graham Lock's 1988 book on Anthony Braxton, which is out now in a new 30th-anniversary edition. I've loved this book for years and years, but it really struck me this time around just how much wisdom is packed into this thing, about creativity, perseverance, race in America and so much more. In my opinion it is a gold standard of engaging-with-art, the practice of a writer or "critic," or what have you, and how that entire endeavor ought to stem, first and foremost, from enthusiasm and curiosity, and a willingness to engage the subject, and their output, firsthand. And also, and I think this is is crucial: a willingness to be up front about not always getting it. Lock is never shy about acknowledging when some aspect of Braxton's art is outside his grasp, and that helps make Forces a refreshingly humble read.

*Reviews of the new albums by Clutch and Krisiun (scroll down to near the bottom for the latter). Clutch are a band I've loved for at least 25 years, maybe more. I have my favorites among their many, many releases, but my admiration for the entirety of what they've built — a sort of grassroots rock & roll empire — is intense. I'm so glad they're still here, and thriving. Krisiun are a more recent discovery. I picked a good time to come on board: As evidenced by Scourge of the Enthroned, they're currently making the strongest music of their career.

*A write-up of the ongoing Silenced project from drummer Donald Sturge Anthony McKenzie II, a series of one-take, no-edits improv duets. This is fierce, exploratory music, coupled (as you'll read) with an unflinching statement on the terrors of present-day America.

Friday, August 24, 2018

'Six Encomiums for Cecil Taylor' and the question of the maestro's influence

Here is my Rolling Stone review of the new Tzadik release Six Encomiums for Cecil Taylor, on which six pianists — Anthony Coleman, Sylvie Courvoisier, Kris Davis, Brian Marsella, Aruán Ortiz and Craig Taborn — pay tribute to the late maestro with respective solo pieces.

I enjoyed this one a lot, and it made me think about how Cecil's legacy will be preserved and/or carried forward in the future. Playing Changes, Nate Chinen's excellent new up-to-the-minute history of contemporary jazz, concludes with an overview of last year's Monk@100 festival, which, by the sound of it, reaffirmed the already well-established inexhaustibility of the Monk songbook. As I point out in the review, Cecil wrote an enormous amount of music, but precious little of it has ever been performed without him present. (In addition to the Steve Lacy and Vandermark 5 examples I linked to there, this is the only other instance I'm aware of, outside of his actual funeral, at which a band of his associates played the piece "Womb Waters Scent of the Burning Armadillo Shell.") A lot of this likely has to do with the sort of learned-by-ear method he seemed to favor within his own groups, which is described in many accounts of his working process. Still, though, there's a lot of Cecil music out there, and I'm curious to see if anyone, either his former collaborators or those who simply love his work enough to want to internalize and interpret it, will take up that challenge.

Will there ever be, in other words, an enshrined and constantly renewed culture of Ceciliana, the way there is with Monk, Ellington, Mingus, even, increasingly, a figure like Wayne Shorter? Can Cecil's music exist without him?

And beyond a project like Six Encomiums, where exactly will we see evidence of his influence on other pianists? Certainly plenty of musicians not featured on this album have cited him as a key influence: to name just three, Vijay Iyer, Marilyn Crispell and Jason Moran (who performed his own Cecil-inspired solo piece at a 2015 tribute to Taylor held while he was still alive at HarlemStage).

His actual presence and the specific sensation and content of his performances, especially the solo ones, seems almost impossible to recapture, though, again, I wonder if anyone will try.

The question is, really, how do you carry on the legacy of a figure who, especially by the later stages of his career, stood entirely apart from genre, who carved out a new niche in American (and global) culture that only he could fill, right down to his dress and his manner of speaking. Outright imitation is generally ill-advised anyway, but what about even some kind of respectful emulation? How would an admirer of Cecil Taylor express that in his or her own endeavor? And more broadly, what will a post-Cecil reality look or sound like? I'll certainly be staying tuned.


Note: Ben Ratliff's Times piece on CT from 2012, which arrived in advance of a 2012 Taylor-centered mini-fest that included a tribute concert with Iyer, Taborn and others, probes into some of these same questions. Essential reading.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

New Thing at Newport

Me after getting completely drenched while watching Pat Metheny during a downpour at the 2018 Newport Jazz Fest.
For many fans and writers-about-music, festivals are a way of life. But I'm in the minority there: Aside from annual trips to Winter Jazzfest, I simply haven't attended very many of them — and I've only formally covered a tiny handful. (One of them being the 2012 Maryland Deathfest.) 

When it comes to the coverage part, I've mainly steered clear because the act of writing about a festival can really be a to-do: You're, in theory, seeing music you love, but you're also traveling a lot in a brief time span, hustling around between sets, staying out late, waking up early to process what you saw the prior day before heading straight out to do it all again, and trying to get yourself home and resituated in your life while on a tight deadline to file your copy. 

But when I saw the lineup for the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival, I knew I had to simply power through all that and deal: It looked too good to pass up. As it turns out, it was even better than I hoped. Honestly, the music was phenomenal, an absolute feast, an exceedingly rare concentration of world-class talent. Not to mention a chance to reconnect with various friends in the scene and to make a few new ones. 

Here is my rundown of fest highlights for Rolling Stone, in which I tried to touch on as many sets as I could. (I probably caught something like 40 acts in total, so this was a major challenge.)

I'd like to thank fest publicist Carolyn McClair for her above-and-beyond assistance with this endeavor, as well as my employer, Rolling Stone, for sending me. I won't soon forget what a treat this was.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Two New Yorks, one epic night: BarrSheaDahl's 10th Anniversary Special Large Ensemble + Alan Braufman's 'Valley of Search'

My ears are still ringing from the second of two shows I saw tonight, a 10th-anniversary improv blowout by the trio known as BarrSheaDahl (consisting, respectively, of MickKevinTim) and 12 of their closest friends. The glorious happening they staged at Bushwick's Market Hotel was something like a post-jazz/noise/metal version of Ascension, or maybe more accurately, Free Jazz: five guitar-bass-drums trios situated throughout the room and playing a loosely structured 47-minute piece governed by a simple yet ingenious Tim Dahl score, consisting of a series of timed cues.

So, for example, one trio would play alone for around five minutes, then another would either join it or take its place. At other times, you'd hear only the guitars, or only the basses. Sometimes the entire 15-member ensemble would rest. Or (more frequently) blare forth in a single writhing mass. You would roam around the room, shifting your focus, paying special attention to, say, the way the relaxed yet focused drumming of Oran Canfield (an excellent local mainstay mainly known for his work in the bands Child Abuse and Chaser) contrasted with the full-bore blasting of Nandor Nevai, or the way guitarist Brandon Seabrook's furious right-hand trilling differed from Colin Marston's more fractured attack.

Mostly, though, you were just soaking in the spectacle, the density, the cacophony, the microdetail, the spatial disorientation, the "happening"-ness of it all. It was, at times, literally painful (on the ears); it was simultaneously joyous. I wasn't the only one seen grinning with a sort of dazed disbelief. To me, the event felt like one big toast, an homage to a scene, a community, a movement that has taken shape during the past decade or so in New York. It is a collective without a name, without even a unified purpose other than a sort of absolute conviction and a kind of roll-up-your-sleeves aesthetic extremity. There is no one sound, one background, one intent. There is only the sense that none of these musicians really belong anywhere else, so they might as well band together. (I wrote a bit about this loose community a few years back as well, after hearing Krallice at the Stone.)

I'm talking, in part, about the specific participants in tonight's event: clockwise from the center, those would be, taken by trio and listed as guitarist, bassist, drummer, respectively, Barr, Shea and Dahl; Ava Mendoza, Erik Malave and Nevai; Seabrook, Evan Lipson and Walter; Marston, Shayna Dulberger and Canfield; Kevin Hufnagel, Johnny DeBlase and Shayna Dunkelman. Among these musicians are current and former members of Child Abuse, Krallice, the Flying Luttenbachers, Dysrhythmia, Xiu Xiu, Orthrelm, Lydia Lunch's band, Pyrrhon, Seabrook Power Plant, Behold... the Arctopus, Cellular Chaos, Coptic Light and on and on. Some images from the event:

And the circle extends ever outward from there. I'm proud to call myself a member of this loose, unofficial confederacy, having shared bills with these musicians' various projects and in some cases even collaborated with them, for roughly the past 15 years.

Tonight's event was far from definitive, in terms of being a summation of these players' activities. But it was sort of a marker in time, a statement that yes, something has been built here in NYC that is distinct from what was built here in decades' past. It has no catch-all name (No Wave or Energy Music or 2001 Rock Revival or any of the others we know from the history books), not yet at least. It's a scene still in the making. But as tonight's event reaffirmed, its roots are deep and intertwined, stretching from Saint Vitus to the Stone to the late, great Death by Audio to all those defunct mid-2000s spaces whose names I can't remember. Yet another chapter in the continuing saga of American DIY.

And earlier in the evening, in downtown Manhattan, I caught a glimpse of another New York, via a combination concert and talk celebrating the recent reissue of Valley of Search, a 1975 album by the alto saxophonist Alan Braufman. I'd only done a quick needle drop on the album before catching the show, so I was coming in mostly fresh. But as soon as I entered WNYC's Greene Space, where the gig took place, I felt right at home.

Braufman's band, which featured pianist Cooper-Moore from the original album, along with bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Andrew Drury, were in the midst of a surging free-jazz invocation when I arrived. I've had the good fortune of seeing Cooper-Moore and Ken Filiano play many times, but I was struck anew by their intensity and precision, and by the poise and tastefulness of Drury, who I've caught in a few different contexts over the years. But the real surprise was Braufman himself, a player who was entirely new to me before I got wind of this reissues. His playing was extremely forceful yet full of song, clear and radiant and agile and proud, with hints here and there of the familiar free-jazz "scream" but refusing to lean on mere aggression as a crutch.

And best of all, the band's churning improvisation gave way at several points to Braufman's catchy, ingenious themes. Repetitive, folk-like, minimal, but extremely nourishing. The perfect launch pads for further excursions into more open territory. This was a music clearly redolent of Pharoah (of whom Braufman spoke reverently during an illuminating post-concert talk — moderated by my friend and fellow writer Clifford Allen, who wrote the liner notes to the new edition of Valley of Search, and also featuring Braufman's nephew Nabil Ayers, the man responsible for the reissue), of Coltrane, at times perhaps of Ayler, but it very clearly represented a '70s aesthetic as opposed to a first-wave '60s one. It's hard to put my finger on what the distinction there is, but there was a sense of that initial spark of '60s being reined in, sublimated, refined, so that the end product was perhaps more song-driven, more streamlined. (Hear for yourself when the band, with the additional of the outstanding young saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, plays National Sawdust on Friday.)

I'm generalizing of course, and these are minor distinctions, really, but I really felt like I was being transported back to a time and place. And, as Braufman and Cooper-Moore laid out during the talk — and as Patrick Jarenwattanon explains in his excellent Bandcamp Daily piece on Valley of Search — that time was the mid-'70s, when you could still rent an entire multi-story loft downtown for around $500, and the place was 501 Canal Street. There was no heat. Braufman pointed out that during the winters, the the warmest place on the floor he shared with the late, great David S. Ware (who around that time was one third, along with Cooper-Moore and the great drummer Marc Edwards, who was in attendance tonight, of a trio called Apogee) was inside the refrigerator. They would cook up brown rice and vegetables, one pot for the entire week, and simply live the music, day in and day out. They had firsthand access to the giants of an earlier generation: Miles, Mingus, Rahsaan, Sam Rivers. To hear Cooper-Moore and Braufman tell it, it was hand-to-mouth but it was also heaven. (Cooper-Moore asked Braufman at one point the rhetorical question of why he put up with all the hardship, and answered it with the obvious assertion that it was, in so many words, for the sake of the music.)

And all of that joy and struggle is in the music, the same way the sort of keyed-up, frenetic, boiling-over, polyglot insanity of the New York of the past decade or so was in the BarrSheaDahl jam/exorcism/sound-mass. A great divide separates these two New Yorks — the latter performance, for example, felt distinctly post-punk, while the former was more like an echo of free jazz's original Edenic moment. But both events were manifestations of the strange artistic Petri dish that this city is and has been for decades upon decades. (I'm reminded of Off the Wall, Calvin Tomkins' excellent book on Robert Rauschenberg and his circle — Cunningham, Cage, Jasper Johns and so many others — a chronicle of a whole other New York school that flourished in the '50s and '60s.)

Every era, seemingly, has its project(s). It's not a unified, directed thing — though as tonight's BarrSheaDahl event, or certain pivotal group shows described in the Tomkins book, for example, demonstrates, sometimes you do have these moments of dedicated convergence. It's more like this sort of self-sustaining ecosystem operating within, either in harmony with or in opposition to or a mixture of both, the larger struggle and grind of this insane and wonderful place. Tonight these moments, these movements criss-crossed, overlapped, cross-pollinated — and not just in my mind; indeed, the poet and consummate scenester Steve Dalachinsky, in the words of Steve Smith, "as consistent an indicator of a high-quality concert experience as any I have found during 20 years of concertgoing in New York," could be seen digging the sounds of Braufman's band and then a few hours later walking around the BarrSheaDahl happening wide-eyed and giddy, as we all were.

Two New Yorks, two generations, two worlds converging. Or maybe they were one and the same.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Perennial quest: On new doc 'Death by Metal' and Chuck Schuldiner's peerless metal evolution

Toward the end of Death by Metal — a new documentary on the life and work of Chuck Schuldiner, the mastermind behind the band Death — Schuldiner lays out pretty clearly, via two brief snippets from archival interviews, the conundrum that defined his career:

"[Death is] a pretty brutal name, definitely. At the time, I wanted something extreme, brutal, shocking to go along with the music. Now, I would probably call it something different, but it's kind of stuck with us."

"I think the name definitely hinders the band to a certain point but at the same time, people really dig it, and hopefully they just take it as a name describing the sound that we started with."

One of the things that made this doc so fascinating for me, beyond the fact that it offers a window into the mind of a man I consider to be one of the greatest auteurs metal has ever seen, is how well it demonstrated the sobering reality that whatever your medium might be, even an art form as esoteric as death metal, if you're making a career out of it, you still have to navigate the pressures and demands of the marketplace — not to mention the constraints of genre — on a constant basis.

The quotes above come during a brief but illuminating section of the film that deals with Control Denied, an offshoot band Schuldiner launched in the mid-'90s, and which seem to grow out of the frustrations described above, i.e., frustrations that could be summed up, more or less, by the question of, "What do you do when you outgrow the medium that you made your name on?"

In the film (which is out on DVD now), the brilliant drummer Gene Hoglan, who worked with Schuldiner in the period leading up to Control Denied, and recorded two phenomenal albums with Death, 1993's Individual Thought Patterns and 1995's Symbolic, recalls Schuldiner's frustrations during that period, specifically how he felt constrained by the signature growling / deliberately pitch-less vocal style that he had helped bring into fashion with Death's early work, specifically their remarkably fully formed 1987 debut, Scream Bloody Gore. According to Hoglan, Schuldiner was, at the time, attracted to a vocal style reminiscent of Queensrÿche's Geoff Tate, and other frontmen who, in the drummer's words, "grasped the invisible orange" when singing (think Ronnie James Dio or Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson). So much so, apparently that he confessed to Hoglan that "I wish I didn't have to sing on this music."

I've been spending time with the lone Control Denied album, The Fragile Art of Existence, released in 1999, and it's excellent, a sort of more overtly prog take on the sound heard of Death's final album, The Sound of Perseverance (which, as Shannon Hamm, guitarist on both that album and Fragile Art, suggests in the doc, really began life as a set of Control Denied material, before his label encouraged him to record another Death album, and might not have even have come about if Schuldiner had felt free to really leave the Death brand behind and pour all his creative energy into the new project). Vocalist Tim Aymar seems to provide exactly the invisible-orange-grasping drama that Schuldiner was looking for, and that Schuldiner even demonstrates himself on demos for Fragile Art demos (heard on a handsomely expanded reissue of the album) where he sings lead.

Death by Metal, written and directed by Felipe Belalcázar, does a good job of portraying this sort of central fact of Schuldiner's relatively brief, incredibly productive career — which began in the early '80s, when he was a Florida teen leading the band Mantas and going by the moniker Evil Chuck and was sadly cut short by brain cancer in 2001— i.e., that he felt a constant need to shed his creative skin.

As metal historian Jeff Wagner (author of the excellent progressive-metal history Mean Deviation, as well as an equally worthwhile biography of Type O Negative's Peter Steele) pithily puts it, "You're not getting the same Death album twice."

Revisiting the Death catalog in recent days, I've been re-struck not just by the speed of Schuldiner's remarkable evolution (his perennial quest, if you will), by the fact that, for example, just four years after the lean and single-mindedly aggressive Scream Bloody Gore, he would release the prog-steeped landmark Human (which I was proud to blurb for Rolling Stone's Greatest Metal Albums list), but also by just how thoroughly he seemed to master each "stage" before moving on to the next. Scream Bloody Gore, for example, might be a relatively straightforward document of the '80s underground, complete with plenty of adolescent lyrical extremity ("Regurgitated Guts") but it's in no way a primitive-sounding album. With that record, Schuldiner seems not only to have pioneered what we now know as death metal, but to have perfected it. The same goes for pretty much everything that would follow. There are periods of more slight adjustment — between, say, 1988's Leprosy and 1990's Spiritual Healing, for example, or Individual Thought Patterns and Symbolic — but at every stage, you can hear Schuldiner simultaneously making mini breakthroughs, mastering his new turf and plotting his next quantum leap. (Note: Remastered/expanded versions of all the Death titles except Symbolic are now available on Bandcamp.) In some ways, The Sound of Perseverance is a summation of everything that came before — not to mention an ingenious reconciliation of "extreme" and more traditional metal styles — and a tantalizing look at what might have been. There's not a dud among these seven albums, a feat that very few other bands with similarly sized discographies, metal or otherwise, have matched.

As the documentary makes clear, Schuldiner's journey was never a smooth ride. No two Death albums feature the same lineup, and even some of Schuldiner's closest associates describe in the film how trying it could be to work with him. For one thing, he had a penchant for pulling out of tours, either just before they were about to happen, or while they were actually in progress, which seems to have caused his bandmates and intrepid manager Eric Greif no small amount of, well, grief. (Hoglan also recounts a very telling incident where Schuldiner took his label to task for lumping Death in with other death-metal bands in a magazine ad.)

But the film also captures an enormous amount of love for Chuck. Pretty much everyone who appears on screen, from his family members — whose support of his artistic passion seems to have been, right from the start, unusually committed — to his collaborators, expresses what a caring, down-to-earth dude he was, and by extension what a tragedy his premature death at age 34 was.

The doc has its flaws, mainly a narrative structure that can at times feel hard to follow and overly granular (I imagine this would be even more of an issue for a viewer who wasn't already a Schuldiner superfan, such as myself) and some disappointing omissions (I would have loved to hear from, for example, key Human-era member Paul Masvidal, who doesn't appear, though we do get valuable insight from his Death contemporaries Sean Reinert and Steve Di Giorgio). But overall, it's a trove of Schuldiner-iana (many archival interviews, outstanding live footage spanning pretty much all eras of the band from the Leprosy lineup onward) and lore. I loved watching the ever-charming/-humble Richard Christy, drummer on The Sound of Perseverance and The Fragile Art of Existence, reminisce with deep fondness about Schuldiner's excitement over the new direction he was taking with Control Denied; or hearing Decibel editor Albert Mudrian cite Schuldiner's wearing of a shirt adorned with kittens on Headbanger's Ball, a move that Mudrian interprets as a sly "fuck you" to the overly rigid death-metal scene, and then seeing the clip just after; or listening to Scream Bloody Gore–era drummer Chris Reifert recount his final phone conversation with Schuldiner, where the two quoted a favorite passage from Italian cannibal flick Make Them Die Slowly. The film is also a tribute to Schuldiner's constant interrogation of, and — somewhat ironically, given metal's core anti-authoritarian ethos — rebellion against his native genre's constrictive tendencies. If you're a fan, I highly recommend it.

Aptly, at one point in the film, we near a snippet from the Individual Thought Patterns track "Out of Touch," which in retrospect seems like some sort of manifesto:

Trapped in a lost world of brutality
So weak are the ones that must rely on shock
To push this so called force that inspires their call
To be extreme so it seems is a mental crutch
To cover up for those that are completely out of touch
I interpret this song as a sort of meta–death-metal diss track (and simultaneously an exquisite example of progressive death-metal aggression, in and of iteslf): Schuldiner's remarkably clear-eyed critique of a set of rapidly calcifying genre conventions that he himself had helped to define during the prior decade. As of Human, and even earlier, he was far beyond all that.

Discussing his turn away from blood-and-guts themes and toward more socially conscious lyrics (roughly around the period of Spiritual Healing) in the doc, Schuldiner says:

"Death is a band that I can put my personal outlook on certain things in life into. And I think it means a lot more when you're singing about something other people can relate to. That's why you don't hear Death singing about demons flying down and plucking nuns from the earth. That's idiotic... That's putting a limit on people's [points to head]..."

Been there, done that, in other words. "Evil Chuck" had had his day. So long to limits, both lyrical and musical: an ethos that's encoded into every single album Chuck Schuldiner ever made. He wanted more, not just out of metal, but — as the film's window into the personality of this gentle yet relentlessly driven soul demonstrates — out of life.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Back on the Trane: 'The Lost Album' and more

Here is my Rolling Stone review of Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album, a newly released John Coltrane session from 1963 that's officially out Friday.

I'll admit, maybe in line with the Kamasi situation, that I felt a little hyperbole fatigue kicking in once the advance buzz started kicking in for this one. (I found this Destination Out tweet to be extremely apt.) The historical-recordings industry knows no modesty, especially when it comes to Great Men. And what we have here, as Nate Chinen points out in his deep, detailed analysis, probably isn't anything so deliberate as a carefully plotted album — or some instant classic tied up in a bow.

And yet, it is Coltrane in the studio in 1963 with the Classic Quartet. The more I listen to this, the more it seems unlike, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways, what's already out there. The frequent piano-lessness is one signal feature; the overall looseness of the arrangements is another. You really can hear the band trying out very different ideas from take to take.

Best of, it just got me re-immersed in the Coltrane thing in general. I hadn't had a phase in a while. But I've derived so much enjoyment from simply throwing on Coltrane or Crescent or Live at Birdland, to name a few that date from around the time of The Lost Album. This one isn't going to replace any of those, but it does slot in very nicely beside them.

Also, I re-reread, for maybe the third time, Ben Ratliff's Coltrane book (first discussed in this space in 2007). It gets better every time. It's such a learned yet readable and engaging tour through a daunting body of work — and through the strange afterlife of an icon, which can sometimes seem entirely divorced from the work itself. And the more I read it, the more I pick on the deep curiosity that inspired it. These interrelated questions of: How did Trane accomplish so much in such a short period of time? And why? What exactly was he after? And why does he still loom so large?

In a way, the excitement that has greeted The Lost Album is only further proof of some of the ideas Ben explores in that book. No other jazz musician inspires that kind of fervor, and it isn't just some vague notion of icon-hood. The music really is that special. Once you're in it, it's a lifelong thing.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

"You have to create yourself a new language": Gorguts' 'Obscura' at 20

It was well received, but it was a very small audience. It took a while. And people were like, 'What the fuck is this?' Now, when I say 'Obscura,' everybody has their fist in the air, it’s like, 'Yeah, bring it on!' [laughs]. It's time, you know? It just happens with time. The sound was able to find its right place. —Gorguts' Luc Lemay on the band's 1998 album Obscura
It just keeps coming back to Obscura. During the past 10/15 years, as I've moved through interlocking communities of forward-thinking New York musicians (metal, jazz and beyond), both as a writer and as a player, the third album by Quebecois death-metal band Gorguts — released 20 years ago today — has become sort of gold standard for stubborn individuality, for the idea of placing absolute trust in one's muse, even if it leads you to a place of what seems at first like pure insanity.

As Lemay explains in the above interview with Metal Assault (well worth your time in full), the album came about through a process of sort of forced experimentation, with the band deliberately walling itself off from its trusty methods of writing and composing.

['Obscura'] came about because we made a very clear decision, everybody together. The three writers in the band [Lemay, his late fellow guitarist/vocalist "Big" Steeve Hurdle and bassist Steve Cloutier], of course the drummer included, Steve MacDonald, was writing with us in the arrangement department and everything. [Note: MacDonald helped compose 'Obscura,' but it was actually Patrick Robert who played drums on the album.] But the thing is, we did some kind of [manifesto] together. This was right after 'Erosion' [a.k.a. the band's more-conventional 1993 album 'The Erosion of Sanity'], so we said okay, writing a new record: no fast-picking riff is going to be accepted in the music, no scat beat, which ‘Erosion’ is all about. So none of those mentioned were going to be allowed, everything else, but none of those other ones. And then we’ll start from there, and see what happens. The band also decided to do both vocals as well, so those were the main lines.
I believe no tremolo picking as well, as you mentioned in an interview a long time ago.
Exactly! Good point, that was another one.

Why were those ‘limits’ set in place?
Because, if you stay in your comfort zone, it takes forever just to incorporate a new thing in your sound. But if you force yourself not to use everything that you’re comfortable with, then you have to create yourself a new language that you’re happy with. So it forces you to explore, to touch the instrument differently, and approach the music differently as well, to get new sounds out of it.
The results speak for themselves. The album is so perverse, so chaotic and discordant, yet at the same time so logical and deliberate within the parameters it sets for itself, that it achieves sort of strange counter-intuitive serenity.

This is in some ways an ascetic sound, the product of walling one's self off from the world outside and creating a new, insular one within. But it's also the sound of pure, unfettered discovery, of a kind of seething, ecstatic creativity. (During an intense period of Gorguts immersion, I once described the record as " of the most pungently progressive albums ever made, in or out of metal. Obscura didn't just register as technical; it sounded downright excruciating, as if its shuddering blastbeats, doleful bellows, and deliriously inventive guitarwork were being torn straight from the chests of its makers.")

As fans know, Gorguts are in the midst of a glorious renaissance, which kicked off with 2013's outstanding Colored Sands and continued with 2016's equally impressive Pleiades' Dust. The gradually snowballing influence of Obscura helped set the stage for this moment, when one of extreme metal's most challenging bands could also be one of its most beloved.

In honor of 20 years of Obscura, here are a few thoughts on the record drawn from interviews in my Heavy Metal Bebop series, which began as the result of seeing pianist Craig Taborn (who would eventually meet and collaborate with Steeve Hurdle) at a Gorguts show.

Ben Monder (2017)

How would you describe what's happening on Obscura? I'm not a guitar player, so I can't necessarily verbalize it?

It's not about guitar at all. There's nothing really virtuosic on that. It's just like, there are sounds that he was getting — I don't know technically what you would even call it, like pick-scraping type things. I had never heard that before. It was more about the mystery of what was happening. I had never heard those elements put together in that way before. You know, when you first heard a record like that, you just don't know what's going on; there are all these novel ideas swimming around and colliding. And it almost seems like it shouldn't even work, but it's perfect. And it's also very integrated. It doesn't sound clever or contrived; it sounds like this integrated language that is just natural, but it's the result of all these technical elements. I like that aspect in music where it's mysterious and sounds correct and yet you have no idea how or why it works. And of course it has the darkness, and it's got "Earthly Love" with the violin. Where else is a death-metal song going to have a prominent violin feature that sounds perfect, you know? That's one of my top five metal records.

Matt Mitchell (2016)

Man, Obscura came on the other day. I've had that album for almost 20 years, since it came out, and it struck me how totally [crazy] that album is. It's so bizarre. [Laughs] It's really out there, man. And I basically live off of weird music, and that's, like, still... even in metal, there's nothing that quite goes that far.

Craig Taborn (2011)

There are a few metal albums that really intrigue me, and Obscura was one because it kind of came out of nowhere for me. That was such a weird little blip when it came out. Nobody knew what it was. It was too out. A lot of metal guys hated it. It was all wrong. The doom thing wasn’t big, and it had these things that were super-slow, and everybody hated that. Not everybody – obviously people liked it. But it was so dissonant and so dense; it was like Beefheart-metal.

Dan Weiss and I also talked about Gorguts extensively, during the first HMB interview back in 2011. He has some fascinating things to say about the drumming on the band's masterful fourth album From Wisdom to Hate.


I'd like to thank Chuck Stern, Tim Byrnes and Colin Marston (now a member of Gorguts!), fellow travelers in the NYC scene, for introducing me to Obscura sometime in the early 2000s. I had heard The Erosion of Sanity in the '90s, but it didn't really stick. When I caught up and heard how completely the band had transformed itself, I was stunned and amazed.

Goodbye, Vinnie Paul

Never gonna be another groove like Vinnie Paul's. His playing style + Terry Date's production = a crucial element of a new metal paradigm for the '90s. These Pantera records just slice right through you and Vinnie's kicks are the razor's edge. So long to a legend.

I contributed a bit to the in-progress Rolling Stone obit. Dan Epstein's piece on the band's influence and legacy is well worth you time.

Postscript: I listened to Far Beyond Driven the day after the news broke and honestly was in disbelief over how vibrant it still sounds, particularly the first four tracks, which in my opinion are flawless. I'm not sure that we've seen that level of talent, passion, recklessness, arrogance (the kind that can make for great metal) and songwriting smarts bundled into one band since.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Music vs. the Moment: On "Criticism" and attempting to get a clear look at Kamasi Washington's 'Heaven and Earth'

I have written before on this blog about my ambivalence toward that thing we call Criticism, and counting myself among those people we call Critics. Those mixed feeling have been swirling around again in light of the new Kamasi Washington album, Heaven and Earth, which I reviewed for Rolling Stone.

If you follow Jazz or simply Music Discourse on the Internet, you will already know that this record is having one hell of a Moment, much as its predecessor, a highly acclaimed triple album called The Epic, did back in 2015. I did not engage deeply with that album at that time, for a variety of reasons, the main one being that it just didn't draw me in after several listens.

This sort of tepid response put me in the minority among my fellow writers-about-jazz, or writers-about-music period. The album was showered with effusive praise, and suddenly Kamasi Washington became something more than just an artist with a new album; he seemed to transform into a Moment, a condition that's exceedingly rare in jazz.

With jazz, I'm used to sort of moving through the music in an intuitive way, hearing as much as I can, reserving special attention for the music that really grabs me, and setting aside the rest, not in a dismissive kind of way but in a straightforward there-are-only-so-many-hours-in-the-day one. Looking back at my best-jazz-of-2015 ballot (scroll down alphabetically here), I see some records I've gone back to here and there since (Jack DeJohnette's Made in Chicago; Henry Threadgill's In for a Penny, in for a Pound; The Bad Plus Joshua Redman) and some that, frankly, I forgot even existed. So it is with listmaking, and with music — we in this general line of work hear a lot of albums every year, and very few of them, as much as they might impress us at the time, really end up finding a home in our collections and/our brains/hearts the way our Actual Favorite Music does. That's just the way things go.

I've gotten a bit off track here, but what I mean to say, really, is that, of the hundreds (thousands?) of jazz records that came out that year, it just so happened that the album that had become a Moment, or was part of a larger one that orbited around Kendrick Lamar's excellent To Pimp a Butterfly, wasn't one that ended up meaning a whole lot to me. And that, in the end, should be no big whoop. As is almost always the case, I felt very little need to weigh in either way: I am vastly more comfortable and content writing about things I like, or, ideally, love, than about things I dislike or feel iffy about. The world does not need another "takedown" or even meh opinion, at least from me.

But this year, I find myself in a different position — frankly one I feel very privileged to be in — namely that I'm writing about jazz (and other music too, I should add) regularly for the publication where I work, which is Rolling Stone, a publication where reviews have been part of the lifeblood of the magazine/website for decades now. Criticism is still alive and well at RS, which is honestly great. But since I am in some respect The Jazz Guy there at this moment in time, or at least A Jazz Guy, and since RS focuses on artists who are impacting the mainstream of American culture in some way, it was perhaps inevitable that at some point I would no longer have the luxury of taking a polite "no comment" stance on artist like Kamasi Washington.

So I took on the assignment. And... what do you know? I liked some parts of album a whole lot! I liked other parts less. And I attempted to explain why, yielding what some might call a Mixed Review — interestingly, according to Metacritic the only less-than-effusively-positive review the album has received thus far. (And to be very clear, my review did not even remotely resemble any kind of "pan"; to give just one example, I labeled the album's strongest moments "truly transcendent.") Here's a sampling of what others had to say:

"A series of near-overwhelming musical epiphanies." —Mojo

"Despite the sheer weight of material on offer you’ll struggle to find an inch of fat." —Record Collector

"An exceptional record from one of the music world's brightest talents. " —No Ripcord
In short, rapture. Such that, a review like mine, which is generally positive but not breathlessly so, becomes almost irrelevant. Due to the phenomenon of Kamasi, his harmony with the zeitgeist, his having become a Moment, there is basically only one way to receive him now: as a kind of savior figure (a concept that Ted Gioia's review grapples with a bit).

Listen, I get it. I can easily see how the sheer scale and ambition of his art — and the flashes of true brilliance therein, as well as the fact that regardless of quality, pretty much everything on his records just sounds really damn good — could inspire such fervor. It's just that it leaves one in a somewhat strange position if one happens to feel not exactly that level of ecstatic enthusiasm for what he does. If you're not a zealous booster, in other words, you can start to feel like a hater. That's the weird, unnatural, frankly suspect binary condition that these Moments tend to create. You're either riding on the bandwagon, or you're standing to the side with your arms crossed. (There's an obvious political dimension here too: Obviously the overall message and intent of Kamasi's music, and by extension, Kendrick's and this entire wave of new black art, is immensely appealing and energizing and impactful, especially given the State of Things, and in expressing even the slightest reservations about the actual music, or its reception, one would never want to be seen as taking some kind of fucked-up Wrong Side of History stance.) Again, I reiterate: I got a lot of joy out of this record. But simply because I didn't feel compelled to anoint it as some borderline-holy instant classic, I worry that I'm tsk-tsk-ing or being the insufferable "Actually..." guy. (There's also the question of what to do with, you know, the fact of having loved / written about jazz since well before Kamasi came along, and finding a way to bring that knowledge to the table without being all Comic Book Store Guy about it.)

For many writers, feeling this way is probably not something they'd even mind; it might even be something they'd relish or take pride in. But I guess so much of this just has to do with my own attitude toward what this profession / calling / what have you. To me, it's simply, writing-about-music is simply a channel for my often overwhelming, insatiable enthusiasm for the topic, period. I have very little interest or investment in some kind detached idea of "where music is going." If music doesn't excite me, I tend to ignore it, or to engage with it only insofar as it affects my day job.

But I realize that sometimes, now being one of them, when an artist associated with a genre that one happens to specialize in attains a certain level of acclaim and/or media saturation, the Critic's role is to Weigh In. And honestly, in this case, especially since I didn't really comment publicly on the Kamasi-wave the first time around, a part of me was happy to share my thoughts.

But, maybe because of the principle outlined above, the fact that I'm a writer guided ultimately by passion, and not by some abstract Critical Impulse, I in some ways had a better time reading coverage of the new Kamasi album by other writers who seemed to enjoy it more I did (writers who I respect, and who had very insightful things to say about the album, among them Marcus J. Moore, Phil Freeman, Nate Chinen and Giovanni Russonello) than I did writing about it myself. In terms of my own review, I couldn't help but feel that I was writing more about, or reacting more to, the Moment than the music. Which I think is weird and probably somewhat unhealthy.

But let's be real for a second: How, exactly, are you supposed to strip that all away? Especially when one of the points I was making — this idea that Kamasi's Kendrick / Flying Lotus affiliations seem to somehow obscure what his own music actually sounds like (an idea that the ever-sharp Seth Colter Walls was onto right from the get-go), and the fact that the one name on his résumé that seems so fundamental to understanding where he's coming from, Gerald Wilson, is the one that never seems to get mentioned — seems to me like a pretty fundamental matter to clear up before giving the music a clear, fair listen. In other words, there's the Moment, and all these sort of buzzwords and received notions that build up around a given artist, and then there's the Music, and the two can start to seem hopelessly intertwined to the point that, especially on a tight deadline, you're not even sure which you're writing about anymore.

Am I overthinking all this? Of course! But that's because this whole business, this idea of somehow objectively evaluating music, rather than simply putting into words why I love it, or telling an artist's story using their words and mine, feels fundamentally odd to me. I will probably never be comfortable with this concept, that I have any kind of authority to "judge" music. Have I spent a good portion of my life listening to and learning about music? Absolutely. Does that qualify me to write and speak about it with some authority? Sure. But that is not the same as some sort of credential of correctness. I would never, ever want a review published under my name to read as anything other than my opinion, inherently compromised by tastes, knowledge gaps, time constraints and a million other factors that can come between a listener and a clear view of the music in question.

I remember tying myself in knots a bit when Frank Ocean's Channel Orange came out. The situation wasn't identical but it was somewhat similar: I had turned in a mixed first-day review, and then the raves started pouring in. And either because I felt like I had rushed my process, or felt self-conscious that I was seemingly the only one who was feeling anything other than breathless enthusiasm for the album, I actually revised my review in time for the TONY print edition and presented a more positive take. Am I feeling like I would do that here given the chance? Probably not. A record review is simply a snapshot of a moment in time; in this case my Kamasi review was the clearest, most honest reflection of my feelings about the album (and, yes, to some degree, my feelings about the Moment) that I could pull together at that juncture. Maybe I'll spend more time with the record and start to dig it a whole lot more — possibly because I won't have the Critical Task hanging over my head, a circumstance that can be a real vibe-killer, especially if you're not simply being carried along by native enthusiasm for the topic at hand — or less; or maybe I'll continue to dig the aspects of it that I already think are great; or maybe I won't return to it all and will instead continue to fixate on some of the records, jazz or otherwise, that have already emerged, for me, as strong year-end-list contenders, one of them being the Bad Plus' Never Stop II.

Whatever the case, I'm pretty sure the world will keep turning! So much of the above is really just an attempt to work through, or even just air, these notions for my own benefit, a kind of dialogue with myself about what it is that I do, a weighing of the enormous privilege of writing about music in a professional capacity versus the occasional difficulties that can arise when what you do for the love of it mingles with what you do for a living. Make no mistake, I couldn't be happier with where I'm at as regards to any of it. I'm just looking for a way to navigate these Moments that feels honest and wholesome, for a way to say what it is that I think, and to engage with others' opinions or with an overall Critical Consensus, without coming across as bitter or close-minded. I'm aware that it's all a work in progress, and honestly I'm glad that there are no easy answers here.

And now, I think I'll shut up and throw on my favorite track from Heaven and Earth, "The Space Travelers Lullaby," because that shit is just plain gorgeous...

Still I'm sworn: Morbid Angel's 'Covenant' at 25

 Here's my 25th-anniversay tribute to my favorite metal album of all time. Paradoxically, this "41-minute blast of white-hot satanic rage" still fills me with immense joy. I'm not sure I've ever been so instantly frightened, awestruck and captivated by music as when I first heard "Rapture" on Headbanger's Ball back in 1993. (The eerily evocative video by Tony Kunewalder certainly played into that reaction.) This was some kind of new frontier of extremity that I had been searching for without even realizing it. I listened to the album twice through in recent days, and it has lost none of its savage majesty.

As I discuss in the piece, there is one line on the album that could be termed problematic, to say the least. The following is hopefully self-evident, but my praise of the album as an artistic statement should not be taken as a blanket endorsement of the perspective(s) that may have played into its creation. I take away from Covenant what I take away from most heavy music I love: an idea of pushing one's self toward some new threshold of intensity. Speaking strictly in those terms, I still haven't heard much else that can rival it.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Enormity of song: 40 Watt Sun live at Saint Vitus

Saint Vitus, Brooklyn's temple of metal, was about as sparsely populated as I've seen it for last night's 40 Watt Sun show. I arrived with some friends a little before the band went on, and ran into some other friends, and the size of the crowd suggested a chill weeknight show rather than Saturday prime time. But to judge by the reactions at the end of the concert — in terms of, if I may, impact per capita — this was one of the more powerful performances I've attended there, or anywhere else, in recent memory.

If you're not familiar with 40 Watt Sun, a) please stop reading this immediately and listen to their latest album, 2016's absolutely exquisite Wider Than the Sky (see here for more on that one). But b) for description's sake, I'd characterize their music as a sort of poetic, gradually unfolding dirge rock. It seems relevant to note that the project is vestigially related to metal in that the singer/songwriter/bandleader, Patrick Walker, formerly fronted (and sometimes still does) Warning, a band that shares certain traits with 40 Watt Sun but had a more overtly "heavy" presentation.

But in another sense, it seems absurd, reductive, crass to associate this band with any genre, especially one as codified, plotted and ultra-taxonomied as metal. As last night's relatively brief, utterly extraordinary concert was nearing its end, I found a frustration welling up within me that things had to be this way. Why can't songs just be songs? Why is music, or any art, fragmented in such a way that music that I would consider to be objectively beautiful and moving has to be somehow stunted in terms of audience, lumped in with a genre where it will forever be an alternative to something (i.e., not your usual "doom metal," etc.)? Rather than considered simply in terms of what it has to offer, which is a vast expanse of feeling and transportive resonance.

Walker has aired similar frustrations. Consider this exchange, from a 2011 Scene Point Blank interview with Cheryl:

SPB: You were saying that Codeine were a bridge to other types of music - they're kind of lo fi...

Patrick: I don't know what the hell that is. I've heard that thrown around - lo fi, slowcore, sadcore, post rock. All these fucking terms thrown around. It's just nonsense, it's all music. It's Western Popular Music at the end of the day, isn't it? There's no point in getting hung up on things. There's no difference between that [Codeine] and anything else that people are gonna hear. It's sub-genres within sub-genres.

SPB: Not a fan of labels ?

Patrick: No.

SPB: Obviously you guys get classed as doom...

Patrick: Yes, but that's because I was in Warning. You can't escape it can you?

Anyway, right now, I'm revisiting "Another Room," from Wider Than the Sky, which the band opened with last night, and which is a perfect example of the 40 Watt Sun aesthetic, in the sense that it unfolds extremely gradually, asks everything from the listener in terms of attention and patience and stillness, but rewards that focus with such intense clarity of emotion, a sort of time-release shot of feeling that seems to almost enter your bloodstream and slowly flow out to your extremities. Once you are in the space of this music, the conventions of any other music immediately recede, so that you are simply existing with, and even within, these songs. There is not ever the slightest sense of wanting them to "pick up the pace" or "get on with it"; the idea of room is so essential to the power of what they do that, standing there in the physical presence of these songs — I think of the sort of majestic trudge of the verses of "Another Room," wherein the downbeat on the snare seems to take forever to arrive — it's almost hard to imagine a music that doesn't behave in this manner, doesn't treat space and time with such care and delicacy. ("I like sparsity and space in music," Walker told Noisey in 2016. "I like to be able to feel what I'm playing and to think about what I'm singing.")

Walker's songwriting is extremely skillful, built around repetitive but deeply elegant chord changes, sections that cycle over and over without losing a deep sense of purpose, and then opening into these grand and majestic sort of turnarounds. I hesitate to even call them choruses; they're more like sacred arrivals. I think of the "I'm standing on the inside" refrain in "Another Room," and how just inexpressibly right it feels when it comes around — like, yes, this is exactly where this song needs to go at this moment. And the compositions too often pick up in intensity near the end, with a relatively hard-hitting instrumental section that acts as a kind of release for the ocean of feeling that has been building and building throughout the song.

And what is that feeling? Again, just as I bristle at the idea of this band being classified or ghettoized — and, not being a member of the band, really what I'm bristling at is the idea that the band's potential audience would be somehow limited by this notion, that people who might otherwise discover it and treasure it the way that I and the others in that room last night clearly do might somehow never even find out it exists — I shy away from using reductive or banal terms to describe the emotions their music expresses. I guess I could frame it another way and discuss the quality and affect of Walker's voice, which is stunning on record and something considerably more than that in person. He sings with such purity and grace and humble potency. (All those clichéd terms, from "croon" to "howl" seem to fall pitifully short in the face of his delivery, in much the same way that words like "melancholy" or "forlorn" seem to give only the faintest approximation of the moods Walker's songs conjure; the best way I can describe it is as sort of this direct emission of melody. His melodies are winding and ingenious but extremely fluid and logical, moving in long, orderly arcs; sometimes he'll sort of reach for a climactic note but he's not an overtly dramatic or demonstrative singer; all the affect is there in the line itself.) There are singers who seem as though they're actively trying to break your heart, and depending on their degree of skill, sometimes they will succeed through this concerted effort, but in Walker's case, there is a very different quality, almost a humility. He does not appear to be trying to have any particular effect at all on the listener; his service is only to the song. There was communion going on at last night's concert, and by that I mean that people were absolutely rapt, embracing their partners and mouthing every word, but there was not that sort of tedious and creepy sense of hero worship flowing from audience to performer. And that is, I think, due in part to Walker's uncanny degree of unpretentiousness and lack of ceremony or drama onstage. He wants and needs to get inside this music, and he will do so — aided greatly, I should say, by the consummately sensitive and unassuming playing of 40 Watt Sun's rhythm section, consisting of, on record, at least, drummer Christian Leitch and bassist William Spong, though I'm not 100% sure those were the two musicians who accompanied Walker last night (Note: Walker helpfully informed me that it was Andrew Prestidge on drums and Alasdair C. Mitchell on bass at Saint Vitus)— but he will not visibly emote or "perform" beyond what the song itself needs or demands. Frankly, seeing him deliver this monumentally moving music without seeming to "sell" it in any way to the audience only made it that much more affecting.

Which brings me to his between-song banter, which was disarmingly casual and funny and, again, only served to intensify the spotlight on the real focus of the evening, which was the songs. Before the band started playing, after Walker thanked the audience for being there, someone yelled out that they "wanted to be sad" or "were ready to be sad," or something to that effect. "You can stay at home and be sad, mate," Walker cracked with classic dry British wit. And in between songs, he told various stories of what I'd describe as misguided fandom. (Like the time a guy came up to him after a Warning show and told him very earnestly that a given song of theirs was "the second-greatest song of all time," the first being by Tori Amos.) Make no mistake, Walker clearly appreciates his fervent fan base, but he also can't help but, in his words, "take the piss," out of listeners who can only view his art in a single dimension. He described several attendees of past shows expressing dissatisfaction with his stage demeanor, saying of one fan that he was (I'm paraphrasing here) "upset that I didn't seem depressed."

Now this whole concept, i.e., that just because a given artist's music projects a certain emotion doesn't mean that this artist personally embodies that emotion, or ever did embody it, is one that should be self-evident to any mature music fan but that also is easy to lose sight of when the music in question is as affecting as Walker's. A fan might like to imagine him perpetually staring out the window at a rainy English countryside, nursing his melancholy for months on end as he prepares to slump over to his guitar and compose a new dirge. But the simple fact is that he seems like a normal, well-adjusted guy who just happens to write intensely poignant songs that seem to practically glisten with the residue of loss and the yearning and alienation that can accompany human love.

As his career has progressed, Walker seems to have only moved further from any kind of generic expression. If Warning was all about crushing loss, 40 Watt Sun expresses a deeply shaded range of feeling. In comparison with other 40 Watt songs, "Marazion," the relatively brief closing track of Wider Than the Sky, and a highlight of last night's set, embodies a kind of lightness and hopefulness, a sense that yes, we've been through the ringer here, but maybe it'll be alright. And anyway, even if not, we still have to be moving on, don't we?

The sort of normalcy of the whole event last night — Walker squeezing honey into his mouth out of one of those bear-shaped bottles at various points; misplacing his capo and asking his companion in the audience to go downstairs and check if it was in his "trousers"; or just striding casually through the crowd to the bar after a devastating unaccompanied encore — seemed so beautifully at odds with the transcendent nature of what were all witnessing. Walker seems to at once understand that his music inspires great fervor and to appreciate this fact greatly but also to intent to express to his audience that he doesn't have any answers for them beyond the songs themselves. From the Noisey interview:

Noisey: Many times you've voiced your distaste for interviews, so I really appreciate you giving us one. To be honest, I appreciate your minimalism. Interviews can be gratuitous, and with a cult of personality surrounding many artists, it gets annoyingly beside the point sometimes.

Patrick Walker: I can't overemphasize how much I agree with you on the "cult of personality" and gratuitous nature of so many interviews; reading "artists" indulging in their own myth-building and so forth. I find it all repulsive.
There wasn't even any merch for sale after the show (apparently some LPs had sold out before the band's set). Just a relatively small group, maybe or 50 or milling around in the bar, sort of happily stunned. "That's why you do music," my friend Nick said, summing up what we were all thinking. The words, the sounds, the unadorned splendor of that voice, so clear, luminous and laden with feeling, like a blessing descending upon us all for a too-brief hour or so, to be relished if not recaptured. To re-immerse in reality after a show like that is, frankly, somewhat painful. But I'm thankful that some shadow of the experience lives on the records. And that I got to be there in that little room, with those relatively few others, soaking up that enormity of song.


*I'm very intrigued by these two playlists that Patrick Walker put together — one from this year and one from 2016 — that might give some insight into what speaks to him as a songwriter and fan. It will quickly become clear on checking these out just how far Walker's aesthetic values stray from "metal" or any other reductive notion of genre.

Monday, May 28, 2018

"You go and you play": On Paul Motian's limitless jazz

[Postscript, July 2018: After writing the below, I saw a rough cut of Michael Patrick Kelly's thorough and enlightening documentary on Paul Motian, Motian in Motion. Keep an eye out for news on its official release. If you are a Motian fan, you need to see it.]

[Photo above borrowed from the website of Uncle Paul's Jazz Closet, a wonderful Paul Motian–centric podcast and info source, hosted/maintained by his niece Cindy McGuirl, that I can't wait to delve further into.]

Ted Panken's jazz interviews are invaluable, and lately I've been going back to one of my favorites, a conversation with Paul Motian from 2008. I've been deeply immersed in the Motian discography, and I find that the late drummer-composer's words, as self-effacing and even terse as they can be, serve as a great complement to the music.

[Emphasis mine.]

TP: Can you speak about the dynamics of playing with a bass player vis-a-vis playing without one?
PM: That was going through my head last night as I was playing. Without the bass, I can do whatever I want. I can change the tempo. I can play free, without a tempo. I can play free for a while, and then play in tempo for a while, and not play, and lay out. I’m totally free, and it’s totally open for me to do whatever I want. ...


TP: So in 1963, you’re playing with Bill Evans, and in 1964 you’re playing with Paul Bley, Albert Ayler and Gary Peacock. Opposite ends of the spectrum. Why did this happen?
PAUL: I don’t think of it as being that far apart. They were gigs, and it was music. Just playing music, man. Continuing, going forward.

In jazz, as I have experienced it, there is this great divide, such that one often feels the need to pick a side. You will hear about "inside" and "outside," "straight-ahead" and "avant-garde," and all the rest. (Funny, because the aesthetic that eventually came to be seen as the conservative center of jazz, bebop and its offshoots, was once reviled as its own kind of blasphemous perversion of what came before.) When I was first getting to know the music, it was what I perceived, and what was often termed, as the fringes that drew me in. Kind of Blue didn't stick at first, but The Shape of Jazz to Come did; I was a serious Albert Ayler fan before I really came to appreciate the Ellington canon, and so forth.

These divisions persist and are still frequently invoked in the discussions that surround jazz. I of course missed the "anti-jazz" melee that sprung up around Coltrane's late work, and I was still a neophyte at the time of the whole Ken Burns Jazz controversy (not to mention the tensions surrounding the "Young Lions" movement, the uptown/downtown divide, etc.). But nonetheless there was a time when I bought into all that wholesale, i.e., that the idea of a turf war was inherent in this music.

And there's no doubt that for some, it was, and perhaps still is. No doubt prejudices regarding certain styles and aesthetics, or even vague affiliations, have prevented, and likely still do prevent, certain artists from getting gigs. (I think of Sunny Murray, quoted in Val Wilmer's As Serious as Your Life: "Working with Cecil Taylor was the worst thing that ever happened to me. ... I became stereotyped in that role and no one wanted to hear me play. I was a good bebop drummer before Cecil. Really – I should have stayed with that.") Of course, the opposite can be true too, where an artist takes on a certain cachet or cool quotient because of one or two "out" record dates they did decades ago that have very little to do with the sort of musician they ultimately became.

But the more time I spend with Paul Motian's music, particularly his extensive body of work as a leader, the more I feel like he was one of the rare figures, not just in jazz but in any music, in recent memory, who was able to really get free of all that. Ted Panken makes reference to "opposite ends of the spectrum" and Motian counters with: "They were gigs, and it was music."

It's worth repeating: "They were gigs, and it was music."

He's not diminishing the scope of anything, or, I think, chiding his interlocutor for over-analysis. (Nor does he do so in this 2010 New Sounds interview with John Schaefer, though by the show's conclusion, the host seems somewhat at his wit's end; for a comedic take on same, see drummer and Motian superfan Vinnie Sperrazza's hilarious account of attempting to engage his idol at gigs over the years.) He's merely stating plainly — and reiterating when necessary — his thought process, or more accurately his lack of one.

There's a great exchange in an earlier Panken/Motian conversation, from 2005, which I'll quote at some length. We cut in as Panken is inquiring about Motian's gear...

[Again, emphasis mine.]

TP: So you don’t give Gretsch specifications?
PAUL: No. As a matter of fact, James Farber asked me when I got my drumkit, and I couldn’t remember. Then he remembered because he said it was on Bill Frisell’s first record on ECM; I had the same drumkit. That means I’ve had it for 15 years or so, and I didn’t realize that. I just went into a drum-shop and bought it.

TP: You’re so matter of fact when you talk about these areas of your career…
PAUL: Yeah! It’s not no deep fuckin’ secret! People talk about this shit like it’s some kind of…

TP: But you were involved in a lot of cataclysmic events. The Bill Evans Trio, which influenced every pianist who came after. You’re involved in the Keith Jarrett Quartet, and a ton of people are still drawing on that vocabulary. You came in on Albert Ayler and Paul Bley and a certain way of organizing that kind of thing. Frisell and Lovano, that trio set a template for everybody under 40 (who went to a conservatory anyway). So that’s at least four major shifts in the music that you’re part of.
PAUL: Well, okay.

TP: Well, you know this. It seems to be part of following your instincts, the quotidian thing of being a working musician in New York. “I like it, I go there, I play it.”
PAUL: Yeah-yeah. That’s it, man. There’s no…

TP: But wasn’t it a conceptual leap to play behind Albert Ayler after you’d been playing with Bill Evans?

TP: Maybe Scott LaFaro prepared you for that.
PAUL: Nobody prepared me for… No. No! No, man. None of that stuff is true! Somebody calls you for a gig, and you go, and you play, and you play with the people that you play with, and you play with them, and you try to make music. You try to make music with the people you’re playing with, and then play a certain way, so you might play a certain way just to make it musical or make it magic or make it something that’s worthwhile.

TP: Then it becomes part of your style, doesn’t it.
PAUL: I don’t know.

TP: You don’t let it go. It becomes part of your muscle memory or your brain memory…
PAUL: I don’t know! [LAUGHS]
Again, I do not single out these passages to take issue with Panken's line of questioning, which I think comes out of a completely genuine and perfectly understandable curiosity re: how one musician could cover so much meaningful musical ground. I just mean to emphasize the sort of Zen-like wisdom in Motian's responses. It might seem as though he's being "difficult," but I think he's simply trying to sort of set the record straight. I think that he really and truly does not believe in these divisions within his chosen music, that he recognizes the individual genius of, say, Bill Evans and Albert Ayler but does not see their aesthetics as somehow contradictory, or mutually exclusive.

"Somebody calls you for a gig, and you go, and you play, and you play with the people that you play with, and you play with them, and you try to make music."

I think it's hard for us as listeners and fans to realize sometimes that music we hear as innovative or inspiring or groundbreaking or transporting simply happened. I wasn't there, but I'd wager that there was no great flash of smoke at Van Gelder Studio at the outset of the recording of A Love Supreme; it was another day at work. Deeply creative, spiritually engaged work, yes. But it happened the same way all other music happens: " go, and you play."

I've savored a wide spectrum of Motian recordings in recent weeks, nearly all of it absolutely sublime. The '87 quintet album Misterioso; Lost in a Dream, the 2010 one-off with Chris Potter and Jason Moran, which, as far as I'm concerned, is one of the most poetic and category-transcending musical documents I know; and hours and hours of music by the famed trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, which might just be the fullest realization of the principles I'm skirting around above, the idea of this sort of division-less space where, in Motian's words, "I can do whatever I want." (And I should note that much of Motian's commentary above revolves around the idea of working as a sideman, a far less thought-out circumstance than his leader scenarios, which showcased the fruits of decades of private labor as a composer, but I think the basic principles still apply.)

I've been spending time today with this extraordinary footage of a 1986 concert by the trio and then I switched over to a recent acquisition, the 1995 live album At the Village Vanguard: You Took the Words Right Out of My Heart. Right now I'm listening to a particularly hard-swinging passage of the track "Yahllah" — an often-revisited Motian piece that I believe first surfaced, in a very different incarnation, on the Keith Jarrett album Byablue — from the latter, with Lovano riding Motian's deep, sloshy groove, and Frisell plucking along like a steady-rolling locomotive behind them. It's total trance-blues ecstasy, an episode of communion and propulsion that sounds like it could go on forever, and maybe has been.

And it's such a profoundly different musical space from the one we hear on, say, the "Folk Song for Rosie," another Motian classic, from this album. Motian is playing a kind of tempo here, delineating the barest essence and contour of the music on ride cymbal and bass drum, but the centerpiece is this sort of endless circular chant that you hear in Motian's music, something I explored in some detail in this 2015 post, wherein Lovano and Frisell sort of build up the melody like a mantra, sometimes singing it back and forth to one another, sometimes phrasing it together in ghostly rubato. The songs, and Motian's compositions, especially the "ballads," lend themselves so beautifully to this treatment, just sort of hover and cycle and accrue more and more tenderness and pathos with each rendering. ("Every [one of Paul's compositions] was a little different, but they all had a real folk-song feeling," Lovano told me when I interviewed him for a posthumous Motian tribute in 2013. "You could play his melodies over and over again for hours and express them in different ways. Paul wrote some really strong, powerful, beautiful, simple melodies. And some tunes had more structure, more harmonic sequences; some tunes just had a mood and a very simple little phrase. Paul could sustain a mood like no one else and create so much inner music within that.") There are "solos" in this music, episodes when it's clear that one of the three players is taking the lead, but there's never that sense, that can be prevalent in some jazz, that the raw material of the song, the launchpad, if you will, is being dispensed with once it's stated at the outset. The material of a given song suffuses the entire performance. All three players are there to sing it — to abstract it perhaps, stretch it to the point of pure ambience, but never to get free of it.

And the fact that this song material is so incredibly pure and powerful and memorable and achingly poetic is a large part of why this music feels so free. You can do whatever you want to these songs, and they still sound like themselves, their essence still dripping from every pore of a given performance. Every extemporization, from any of the three players, seems not like a glorification of that player, or an invention of his ego, but an impassioned paean to the song itself. (The same is true in the band's treatments of standards and showtunes, though I'll admit a preference for the originals.)

So it's not that there's no thought or intent behind this music; quite the opposite. It's more that the thought and intent is so completely expressed within the music itself, both in its conception by Motian, and its performance by the trio, that explanation seems superfluous. The "freedom" in this music is so inextricably braided together with the songhood of it, and vice versa, that its very existence seems like a refutation of easy, outwardly imposed dichotomies or divisions within jazz. (A lesson Bill Frisell seemed to learn the very first time he played with Paul Motian: "What surprised me, when I first went over to his house to play, the very first moment…I guess I was expecting that we were going to play some completely free, crazy, wigged-out avant-garde stuff," the guitarist told me in 2013. "But ... we played that George Gershwin song ['My Man's Gone Now,' which Motian had played with Bill Evans]. And everything we did, there was such a structure and a clear intent with it. And so many of his own tunes were very open, but they were very particular. I could tell he was really struggling, in a way, to find his own way of writing music."*)

Classify if you must, the trio seems to say, but whatever arbitrary distinctions you settle on, leave us out of it. From moment to moment, this band can be heartbreakingly tender, forbiddingly tumultuous, charmingly quirky or just plain fucking strange:

If there is a name for what that music is, other than Paul Motian Trio Music, I don't know what it is, or care to know. It is simply itself.

"You go, and you play."


*Bill Frisell elaborated further on Motian's range, wisdom and almost mystical presence on the bandstand:

"It sort of aggravates me how people still view [Paul] as this 'free,' 'abstract' [drummer]—all that kind of stuff. So many people miss that he had the heaviest, deepest beat I ever heard in my life. At this point I've played with some pretty extraordinary drummers. With Paul, no matter how abstract it got, his time feeling, the beat was just unbelievable. You could hear that, Wow, he's played with Coleman Hawkins and Monk and Oscar Pettiford. [His playing] had that direct artery going right back to that stuff. He's more known as—whatever the words they use—a 'colorist.' But somehow it all comes from that depth of the beat. The time feel is so deep that no matter how abstract he was, that was always there. I've never had a blood transfusion, but playing with him was always like I was getting filled with juice.

"There was such a wide range of dynamics. He'll go from almost a stadium-rock-band thing [Ed. note: Check out his incredible whomping tom fill at 3:17 in the aforementioned live video.] to just whispering. I experienced that a lot. Sometimes he would have me play things by myself. On all the records, there's usually one song that he'll just have me play alone, and sometimes I'd do it on the gig. But even when he wasn't playing, he was affecting the music. One time, he had me play something by myself and he's sitting there at the drums but he's not playing. And I'm playing this thing, and in the back of my mind, I'm thinking, Wow, I sound really good. And then I tried to do that somewhere else when he wasn't there and nothing happened. So whether he was making a sound or not, he was still making the music."

*This beautiful John Rogers recollection also touches on the Paul Motian Effect, that guru-like way he seemingly had of elevating the activities and ambitions of everyone around him.