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, Aru├ín 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.

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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.