Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Two quartets

Hello to all, a happy holidays and best tidings, etc.

Had the luxury over the past few days of sitting down with two uncommonly exciting records, and I wanted to wax a little about them if you don't mind. They share a few similarities, though they're nothing alike, really. Both are horn/piano/bass/drum quartets, both are in the adventurous-jazz realm, and both consist of four tracks and feature one 20-plus minute showpiece. Other than that, all they have in common is that they smoke.

The first of these is Tabligh, the latest from Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet, which, weirdly, is out on Cuneiform, the same label that issued the latest Cheer-Accident disc (see a few posts down). I was way into this one when I first heard it earlier in the year, but I don't think I really *got* how special of a session it is. I picked it as my #2 jazz record of the year over at JJA, but I feel like it deserves some extra highlighting.

What we have here is a very special band, a totally different one than the group Smith originally labeled his Golden Quartet--that being pianist Anthony Davis, bassist Malachi Favors and drummer Jack DeJohnette. I've always meant to take time out w/ the GQ's 2000 Tzadik debut, but I've only heard it in a cursory way. Same goes for the second GQ disc, The Year of the Elephant, which came out on Pi in '02.

Tabligh, though, is a record I've really sat with, and it's fabulous. For whatever reason, Smith has replaced the whole band here. Now it's Vijay Iyer on piano, John Lindberg on bass and Shannon Jackson on drums. A very odd combination, and one you probably wouldn't hear anywhere else. Those three play beautifully together, though, and Smith gives them tons of space in which to do so. Four longish tracks, minimal thematic material, a very expansive kind of situation.

A very diverse kind of record as well. Waxed live in '05, it starts off with "Rosa Parks," which mines a kind of electric-Miles groove, with Iyer getting funky on the synths and Lindberg holding down slightly wah-wah-ish bass vamps. (I don't know the Yo Miles! discs that Smith co-led w/ Henry Kaiser, but I'll bet they sound at least a little like this. I'm seeing now that these feature not only Steve "ex-Journey" Smith on drums, but also John Tchicai?!) But my favorite parts of the record are the gorgeously drifting free ballad sections, like the third track, "Caravan of Winter." Smith lays out for a lot of this and lets the rhythm section hammer it out. They work up from a quiet miasma to a very cooking freebop swing.

I'm really impressed here and elsewhere w/ Jackson's drumming. Have never been a huge fan; always felt the Last Exit stuff, e.g., was really clunky. But he's subtler here than I've ever heard him, demonstrating the busy skittery-ness of Tony Williams but with a very powerful, rock-derived tom-tom and bass drum attack. He's a sterling listener, very adaptive, and he has a blast with Lindberg and Iyer.

It's a spacey session. A dark, moody thing, always stretching--sometimes swinging, sometimes just drifting, but very purposeful. Smith's bold blasts lead the way. He's a conductor with the horn; doesn't take up a ton of space, but makes it count. Really the masterstroke is the band itself, though. Every one of the players gets at least one major feature and whoever is out front, the texture is riveting.

Don't know Smith's music very well at all. This is the first disc of his that I've really owned and spent time with. Really interested now to hear other GQ discs, as well as the Kabell Years set on Tzadik and Divine Love, a late '70s disc on ECM. I've just begun checking out what seems to be a mini-documentary on Smith that's available on YouTube. The interviews remind me of his pithy sage-like contributions to the AACM panel discussion held back in May. Brilliant guy--very magnetic and warm. Here's part of the doc, featuring the latest GQ in action:

That seems to be like a preview section. Start here for the full seven-part film.


Got a bit carried away there, but the other record I wanted to mention was Transition, a little-discussed Coltrane record from '65. As I've mentioned on here before, that year is probably my favorite Trane vintage, mainly due to the awe-inspiring Sun Ship. It's basically the moment when the great quartet was running up against the rocks artistically, but fascinating things were happening as the vessel was splitting apart.

This record doesn't quite have the tongue-speech frenzy level of Sun Ship, but you can tell Trane is craning for that. He seems constantly in hurry to rocket to that place of ecstasy. The 15-minute title track moves very quickly to screaming overextension of the horn, with Elvin crashing and bashing in his patented cruising manner. As is customary with this period, Tyner's solo sounds a bit dainty, a bit out of place. A really hard-hitting performance overall, though.

A really strange feature of the session is a five-part piece merely entitled "Suite," an impressive 21-plus minute journey that I'm really surprised doesn't get cited more often in the history books. Someone (me?) needs to survey these long works he's fond of in this period--including both versions of Meditations, plus Om, Kulu Se Mama and Ascension (anyone know Selflessness?)--and stack them up against a Love Supreme, which is great but not necessarily more interesting than, say, "Suite." The latter is fascinating, starting out as a turbulent, roiling dust-up and then moving into a very classy, dirgey midtempo thing before giving way to a nice Garrison solo and a ballsy, barreling charge.

Again, this record is rarely discussed and kind of hard to find. It's also discographically baffling. Apparently the CD version has two tracks that weren't on the original LP, but were first issued as part of Kulu Se Mama (including "Vigil," which is, to my knowledge, the only studio duet between Trane and Jones). Also, this issue leaves out one track that was affixed to the CD version of Dear Old Stockholm. This is shadowy territory for me. Sometimes I think I know the Trane quartet stuff really well, and then I realize I haven't reckoned with records like the aforementioned, or--and this is the one I really feel I need to track down asap--Living Space, which was recorded less than a week later.

Anyway, sick, sick stuff, pushing right up against the edge of what this band was capable of. Trane is, again, craning for the sun--passionate and fire-ful at all times and Jones is absolutely at the peak of his fierce, hard-bashing cruise style.

Check this and the Smith out, and have a happy transition into '09 and I will see you soon...


P.S. Check out the awesomely comprehensive Village Voice Jazz Poll, in which I participated (note Tabligh coming in at No. 5!). My ballot is viewable in this section, and Francis Davis's intro essay is here. Thanks very much to Mr. Davis for including me.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fabulous muscles: The Wrestler + Keelhaul

For my next trick, I will attempt to recap my weekend by drawing a perhaps-tenuous parallel between two disparate entertainments I took in.

First, The Wrestler. I feel as though this was one of those movies that I read way too much about before seeing it, so that as I was watching, I felt as if I'd already read like eight different interpretations of every scene. But who could've resisted all that fascinating hype and those picture-perfect profiles, such as this NYT Magazine one, comparing the travails of Randy "The Ram" to those of Mickey Rourke?

Anyway, it still hit me hard. I'll tell you one thing about this movie that I don't feel like I've read in any of the coverage. Simply: It's absolutely disgusting. Sometimes, the match scenes seem artificially pumped-up--especially in the sound-design dept., e.g., the sounds of the wrestlers slamming into the mat are almost comically loud--but most of the time, they're straight-up gruesome. As are the locker-room scenes, the strip-club scenes... hell, even the grocery-store scenes.

Robinson's oft-quoted line "I'm just a broken-down piece of meat" could basically be a plot summary for the film: It's a parade of overtaxed flesh and muscle, and at times, it's shockingly, even nauseatingly gory.

Rourke is pretty much unassailable: Even when the script teeters on the edge of extreme cheese, which it does once or twice, he's absolutely radiant with truth, either the depressing, bleak kind or the hugely heartwarming kind. There are these little moments of lighthearted comedy in the film that soar thanks to Rourke's charm. He doesn't have the looks anymore, but he's got an immense charisma and magnetism.

The supporting cast didn't entirely cut it for me, especially the hard-to-buy Evan Rachel Wood, who admittedly didn't have a terrible amount to work with scriptwise. Marisa Tomei was decent, though I feel like she plays this same character in every movie. One actor I really liked was the kid that plays Nintendo with Robinson in the now-famous video-game scene. But for all its dingy grossness--dig the awesomely dated wrestling halls, especially--this is a really heart-ful film. Its rawness has a point and isn't just gratuitous grody-ness. If you've been taken in by the trailer and the hype and all that, you'll feel a little like you're watching a highlight reel, but Rourke will still grab you in unexpected ways. Great stuff.


Speaking of raw and gritty, Keelhaul brought serious action to Union Pool last night. This Cleveland quartet plays some of the most anti-b.s. metal on the planet: heinously complex, but pulverizingly purposeful. It's just riffs--fat, churning, lumbering, soulful riffs.

There's been a constant theme running through the band's self-image of "We're old and fat and gross"--they're always grimacing and playing up an incompetent vibe in their press photos (see left), and last night from the stage bassist Aaron Dallison said something to just that effect: "We're old and ugly, but since you're the ones here watching us, there's something very wrong with you." A funny sort of over-the-hill bellyaching, but a bit disingenuous since they know they completely kick ass.

If the band doesn't really "perform" while playing live, or appear to be having a particular amount of fun, it does put forth an awesome sense of concentration. Guitarists Dana Ambrose and Chris Smith practically strangle their instruments, grimacing and bearing down insanely hard as they pick out these intricate grids of math-groove. Drummer Will Scharf, also of... the latter-day incarnation of the best band ever, stretches his face into maniacal grins, cruising all over the toms faster than Dave Lombardo. Like with Rourke's performance, seeing these guys live ain't pretty--they're really *working," not entertaining anyone--but it sure is a beautiful thing if you enjoy riff pulverization.

All new material was played. A new album is being recorded in BKLYN as I type this. I'm sure it will rule. An excellent antidote to the swarms of overly arty metal bands writhing around all over the place these days.


Speaking of antidotes and the like, Ethan Iverson's Wynton Marsalis exegesis over at Do the Math is astonishing. The man specializes in cleaning up after us sloppy professional journalists with his insanely thorough not to mention unfailingly FAIR investigations. Raise your hand if you've bitched about Wynton Marsalis without actually having heard much of his music. (Guilty.) Well, go over there and see how it's really done. Fair, fair, fair / Thorough, thorough, thorough. This guy is just a brilliant jazz defender, living by the soundest of journalistic mottos: *Always* go to the source.


Speaking about bitching instead of listening, I've occasionally been guilty of that with regards to Matthew Shipp. Hadn't really checked in w/ him in ages, but last night I dug out an awesome 2000 Shipp sesh, New Orbit, one of the earliest in Thirsty Ear's Blue Series and especially notable for the presence of Wadada Leo Smith. Virtuosic moodiness, and a record that might be more deserving of the oft-bandied-about tag "chamber jazz" than any other I can think of. Sumptuous, elegiac, even creepy, it's an awesome document.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The ten

I'm officially top-tenned out. Insane amounts of listmaking and inventory-ing. Wanted to get all these links up here in one place, though. Here are:

1) My top ten albums of '08, as published in this week's Time Out New York. (My colleagues' lists may be found at that link as well, along w/ a bunch of sound clips.)

2) Ten runner-up albums--all of which at one time or another were very much in the running for the main list--as published on the Time Out NY blog.

3) Time Out's best live shows of '08 list, which includes two picks from me.

4) My jazz-only top ten of '08, via the Jazz Journalists Association site.

I've also got a few thoughts (though not as many as I sent them) in The Wire's '08 recap, out now. This is the part that they cut, which--to me--was important to get out there: " Lastly and not at all leastly, I found continued bliss drumming, composing and improvising with the bands STATS, Blouse and Aa. Warmest welcomes to President Obama!"

And I contributed to the jazz poll over at the Voice, and to Perfect Sound Forever's '08 wrap-up; both of those should be available soon.


Lastly, if anyone reading came out to see STATS last night, thanks very, very much. I had a blast.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Three Cheers

Re: that "big project" I've been cryptically alluding to, I am very proud to announce the publication of my cover story on Cheer-Accident in the new issue of Signal to Noise magazine. I'll spare you the spiel on C-A, since I spiel on them with great regularity, and simply say that I'm very, very happy this is out there. It was a long time in the making. Huge thanks are due to all of the following: STN editor Pete Gershon and copy editor Nate Dorward; Thymme, Jeff, Alex, Scott and all other C-A members and associates for their time and hospitality; Darin Gray, Tim Garrigan, Carla Kihlstedt, Weasel Walter, Jim O'Rourke, Steve Feigenbaum, Fred Krueger, Jane Jones and everyone else who contributed invaluable observations and reminiscences; Laal for accompanying me on the various research jaunts, and for her manifold support; and Joe for helping me get a handle on my ideas.

The piece is timed to C-A's fantastic (and fantastically proggy) new album, Fear Draws Misfortune, due out 1/20/09 via Cuneiform.

Obviously, I encourage all to seek the mag out. The article is illustrated with some great photos from Pete, and the issue also includes pieces on Bad Brains' H.R. and Bob Koester of Delmark Records. STN should be available in most indie record shops, in addition to well-stocked newsstands and perhaps Barnes & Noble, Borders and other emporiums of that nature.

With kind permission from Mr. Gershon, I present to you the opening section of the piece by way of a preview. Note that this is only a relatively brief chunk; the full article runs over 6600 words. I can't thank Pete enough for allowing me to stretch out: This story really required it. Enjoy!


No Success Like Failure

After sowing aesthetic mayhem for more than 25 years, Chicago's Cheer-Accident begins to make peace with maturity.

By Hank Shteamer

Screeching to the choir

It's 11:30 on a sunny Sunday morning this past August, and Cheer-Accident is burning another bridge. The group is playing in a bandshell situated on a spacious farm near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the site of the music festival known as Prog Day. As their hour-long set winds down, the seven members lurch around the stage, lie supine, dance, laugh maniacally or pantomime sobbing, each abetting the overall chaos. Drummer Thymme Jones approaches the microphone and addresses the audience in a deadpan: “We like to end every show with poop in our pants.” A few among the sparse crowd giggle; most stare blankly.

Cheer-Accident's current core lineup (Jones, guitarist Jeff Libersher and bassist Alex Perkolup) and several regular guest stars (vocalist Laura Boton and trombonist Mike Hagedorn, along with multi-instrumentalists Todd Rittmann and Andrea Rothschild) have driven 800 miles from their hometown of Chicago to perform at the event, described by its organizers as “the world's longest running progressive rock festival.” It's the kind of gathering where attendees know that the middle-aged man sporting the Camel shirt isn't advertising cigarettes, but his love of the vintage Canterbury prog unit. Fans buzz around the merch tent, obsessing over CDs by groups with names like Cirrus Bay, Schematism and Project Moonbeam. They peruse a program detailing highlights of years past, such as the 1997 edition, which featured violinist David Ragsdale of the band Kansas.

Cheer-Accident isn't as out of place here as it might seem. Its set included plenty of what could have passed for prog, especially the intricate, metallic instrumental “Even Has a Half Life” and the lengthy art-rock suite “Salad Days.” But the show also featured loopier moments that presaged Jones's scatological concluding remark: “King Cheezamin,” for example, a marching-band-tinged jam over which Libersher delivers goofily cartoonish taunts. So while Cheer-Accident acknowledges a considerable debt of influence to many classic acts within the fest's namesake genre, such as Gentle Giant, Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator, that influence is highly selective. The band has adopted all of those artists' drive for originality and none of the self-important solemnity that has marked so many of their latter-day acolytes. Cheer-Accident, therefore, represents the difference between rock that's genuinely progressive and a long-codified notion of Progressive Rock.

In theory, that's a good thing, but not if you're trying to win over the Prog Day crowd. Cheer-Accident leaves the stage, and the day's next act—flaunting flashy chops, tricky time signatures and solemnly philosophical lyrics—instantly reestablishes the fest's status quo. A few gather around the Cheer-Accident merch table to debrief. Some rave, but others grumble. “My kids play with toys and that's what they sound like,” one man quips. “And I take those toys away.”

The band is well acclimated to such dismissal, and even invites it. An old bio issued by Cheer-Accident's sometime label, Skin Graft, put it thusly: “At just about the point where you become convinced that any given [Cheer-Accident] song could make it on commercial radio, they 'blow it' with some left-field turn straight off a cliff.” And this tendency goes far beyond individual tracks. In essence, the band has made a pact with itself that if it can find a way to enliven a composition, album or performance, it will do so by any means, however jarring or self-defeating. Consider this cryptic manifesto printed inside Cheer-Accident's 2003 album Introducing Lemon: “It [i.e., lemon] wilts the lettuce, but it freshens up the salad.” In other words, in the band's eyes, aesthetic tension is endlessly fruitful. Even for the most open-minded listener, Cheer-Accident's constant insistence upon adding acidic accents can be both enlightening and agonizing, sometimes simultaneously.

But Cheer-Accident's art is much more than merely provocative. Imagine a confluence of the grandeur of Yes, the range of This Heat, the irreverence of Ween, the poignancy of Elliott Smith and the mischief of Andy Kaufman, and you'll be getting close to the net effect of Cheer-Accident's musical output since its formation in 1981. Over the course of 13 full-length albums, including Fear Draws Misfortune—due out in January on Cuneiform, a label known for issuing Matching Mole and other old-school prog groups—the band has covered a remarkable amount of terrain, from eerie sound collage to gemlike song and burly math-metal. Figure in years' worth of epic and bizarre live performances, stimulating extramusical happenings, collaborations with many key figures in the Chicago musical underground and an utterly inscrutable cable-access program, and the result is one of the most fascinating creative careers in the modern American underground, in any medium.

Fear Draws Misfortune is an important work for the band, and perhaps its most mature to date. Though the disc covers an impressive amount of ground—complex instrumental rock, eccentric chorales reminiscent of the French prog institution Magma and mournful, horn-abetted interludes—it does so without the aid of Cheer-Accident's beloved lemon. What that means practically is that it avoids outright silliness, challenging the listener and yet never resorting to irreverence. In this sense it fits in perfectly with Cuneiform's recent tradition of backing artists, such as the Claudia Quintet and Ahleuchatistas, that nod to prog's past and yet expand on it in tasteful ways. And this is no minor occurrence, considering that Cheer-Accident rarely fits in anywhere. Even more noteworthy is the fact that this harmony was intentional. The band had talked with Cuneiform several years before about releasing Introducing Lemon, but the deal fell through when Jones & Co. refused to unscramble the record's mixed signals. This time around, though, the musicians actually took the tastes of label head Steve Feigenbaum into account when preparing the disc. In a late-September interview at his apartment in Chicago's Humboldt Park, Jones puts it matter-of-factly: “There were specific aspects of what we do that I didn't think should be included in this.”

Compromise? Maybe in a certain sense. But after so many years of battling convention—not to mention common sense—at every turn, Cheer-Accident has certainly earned the right to call a momentary truce.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Had the great pleasure of checking out Stella--the comic trio of Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter and David Wain--live at the Nokia Theater tonight (they're there tomorrow too!). Have been a huge fan forever and this was definitely something I needed to cross off my must-see list. I had seen them live at Fez years ago, but it was sort of a variety show and they weren't the focus. Anyway, The State, Wet Hot American Summer and the early Stella internet shorts have been comic staples of mine for years and years. My band even named a song, "Stop Hectoring Me," after a line from one of those vids.

Anyway, it was a thrill to see this live. A very no-frills show. Some video and slides, a cameo from Paul Rudd (!), a bit of song. But overall: Three dudes on mikes, just--say it with me--riffing.

This is what Stella does best. They are masters of the art of running gags so far into the ground that they come out on the other side as newly hilarious. It's not just about hammering on stale humor and parodying crappy comedy, which they do quite well, but more the way they commit to something and just take off with it, leaving context way, way behind. (One of the funniest examples of these endless riffs comes in the classic Pizza sketch. Skip to 3:50 and you'll see what I mean.)

Tonight's set had loose themes--a list of ten increasingly ridiculous rules for the audience to follow during the show, a presumably made-up parlor game called "Zots and Cramples," a discussion of the pleasures of having sex to "Bad to the Bone," plenty of the trio's patented petty infighting--but what really stood out were the ultra-repetitive, sublimely annoying tangents. The best riff involved the members listing all these cliched wintertime activities like shoveling snow, drinking hot cider, singing Christmas carols.

It was very much like the incredible Woodstock riff Wain goes off on in Wainy Days #2, but it had this virtuoso, almost sound-art-ish quality to it. While one member would be blurting out another item in the list, the other two would keep up this weird murmuring in the background, creating a surreal word jumble that was totally disorienting. It was kind of like this no-tech special effect and it sort of clued you in to how much rehearsal must go into Stella's ensemble work. At the end of this section, they sort of broke into mock-harmony singing, and though it was a joke, the analogy was apt: These three really do interact with musical precision and never more so when they're heaping annoyance upon annoyance upon annoyance.

Stella has burrowed into the notion of annoyance and inhabited it. These riffs now seem familiar, but it's worth noting that to someone not accustomed to their brand of humor, this numbing repetition could come off as hugely maddening rather than endearing. It's a very fuck-you, self-indulgent sort of comedy--basically the opposite of comedy, but after you spend enough time with this crew, you get used to having your buttons pushed in these ways and you sort of lose patience with "regular," nonmeta comedy. For me, it's sort of a small price to pay: I can't think of anything funnier than these guys at the top of their game and tonight they were mostly there. Awesome.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Democracy now // Ari experienced

Wanted to comment on just a few items, as I prepare to head back to my ancestral homeland for the holiday.

First, you've no doubt heard the racket over Chinese Democracy? Read my take here. Hint: I was more Fricke and Klosterman than Pareles.

I have found it fascinating to observe and participate in the superheated dialogue this thing has wrought. As you'll read above, no one is really lukewarm on the record at all. I've had like five or six people stop by my desk over the past couple days to express either disbelief at the opinion I chose to publish or a kind of somber solidarity, as though I had elected to undertake a suicide mission of some sort. My favorite bit on the album that I've read so far comes from the Klosterman piece (say what you will: the guy is an outstandingly entertaining writer):

"On the aforementioned 'Sorry,' Rose suddenly sings an otherwise innocuous line ('But I don't want to do it') in some bizarre, quasi-Transylvanian accent, and I cannot begin to speculate as to why. I mean, one has to assume Axl thought about all of these individual choices a minimum of a thousand times over the past 15 years. Somewhere in Los Angles, there's gotta be 400 hours of DAT tape with nothing on it except multiple versions of the 'Sorry' vocal. So why is this the one we finally hear? What finally made him decide, 'You know, I've weighed all my options and all their potential consequences, and I'm going with the Mexican vampire accent. This is the vision I will embrace. But only on that one line! The rest of it will just be sung like a non-dead human.'"

YES! And btw, he's not exaggerating at all--about the vampire talk. That's a brilliant song, one of many the album contains.


Second, I was fortunate enough to catch the Ari Hoenig Trio (or try MySpace) live at Smalls the other night. Among other lessons I learned was that it is not in any way okay to assume an apathetic or been-there-done-that attitude toward what I often perceive to be "straight-ahead jazz."

I knew a little of Hoenig--a local jazz drummer who plays various downtown clubs so often he's dangerously easy to take for granted--before checking out this show. I had seen him play with Sam Yahel opening for Steely Dan a few months back. That gig piqued my interest and led to this review of his latest CD, Bert's Playground.

But that was written before I had caught Hoenig in his native setting. He plays Smalls pretty much every Monday night with one band or another and to hear the club's owner, Mitch Borden, tell it, Hoenig pretty much has the run of the place. Waiting with Laal in the entryway to the club on Monday night, I listened with Borden to a wicked drum solo that concluded the previous set. "Wait till you hear Ari Hoenig," Borden said, with two raised eyebrows. "Sometimes when he's playing a solo, the sticks are just a blur."

The club was as cozy as I remembered it. We scored second row seats and waited as the good-natured chatter swelled and subsided. Couldn't believe how packed the place was on rainy Monday night during the week of Thanksgiving, but again, that was just my underestimation talking.

How to describe Hoenig on the bandstand? I guess I would start with the word devilish. He announced the band--a lean trio with Gilad Hekselman on guitar and Orlando Le Fleming on bass--conferred with them for a sec, and then they hit it. Hoenig started off sparse. His face slowly curled into this odd sneer as he hit a stride. It's his trademark grimace, it turns out, and it signifies the demeanor of his drumming. His playing tends to work its way from pure poetic lightness to demonic density and bashing catharsis. And there's a definite wicked-gleam-in-the-eye glee about it. Hoenig loves playing for an audience, clearly, but more so, he seemed to be playing for his triomates. He kept staring them down with this crazed, superfocused smile, as if to say, "Beat that!"

And they smiled back, clearly high on his turbulent grace and kitchen-sink inventiveness (e.g., the way he meticulously renders melodies on the drums via ultraprecise muting; it verges on a vaudevillian cheese but ultimately comes off as dazzling, fearless high-wire entertainment). No tunes were announced while I was there, but I simply could not believe how tightly these three played together. No coasting at all. Very long forms, not like detectable choruses, but with everyone hugging the contours of the tunes at all times and hitting these unison accents out of nowhere. There was some minimal sight-reading and counting going on, but these players clearly knew this music.

Hekselman makes a great sparring partner for Hoenig. He was another preconception exploder. I'm not really a fan of jazz guitar per se, but there was no denying what he was doing. Burning, deeply bluesy, passionate, sick. He was just ablaze.

And Hoenig is just someone you have to see. The poetry and kineticism and, best of all, the strangeness. A marvelously eccentric player, and most refreshingly, there's nothing self-consciously avant-garde about what he's doing. But it always feels entirely fresh. He's the type of player that can sound utterly revolutionary while simply playing time. Again, no coasting. He could be criticized for being overly bombastic. He does not accompany in this band; he leads. It's often considered fashionable of late for a drummer who leads a jazz band not to command too much attention, but no, this is Hoenig's show.

And he will, I promise, screw with your mind. The suppleness verging on flashing, almost reckless outbursts. Just the strange tension of what he does. He doesn't make it look easy. He makes it look like white-water rafting or something. Always on guard, always looking for a way under, over, inside, outside the beat. His role is that of an agitator. It was--or, crucially, it at least appeared to be--a by-the-seat-of-the-pants performance, remarkable for a working jazz band. This was loud, commanding, turbulent music, but again, not in a free-jazz way. There was no pretension of mumbo-jumbo ecstasy or anything like that. It was emotional concentration, dancing poise. It was, I guess, all you'd want to hear from jazz.

Next time you're bored on a Monday, go hear Ari Hoenig at Smalls. This is the kind of thing that I would feel completely comfortable dragging the proverbial Friend Who Doesn't Like Jazz to. Wild, visceral poetry is what it was.


Appropriately, Hoenig's Bert's Playground figures into my 2008 Jazz Top Ten, posted via the Jazz Journalists Association.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


My review of the new album from Cynic, complete with some streaming audio. Amazing artwork,no? I apologize for the dearth of posts recently. Don't count me out. Thanks for reading, as always.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Astral-agy: Van Morrison at the Hollywood Bowl - 11/7/08

Greetings. I promise I've not been as idle as it seems. Am ushering what is for me a semimajor and long-incubating journalistic project toward completion. I won't put too fine a point on it this minute, but if you've been reading this blog even a little bit over the past, say, six months, you can probably guess what I'm talking about. Anyway, more to come on that.


Right this minute, let us discuss Van Morrison. The whole Don't Look Back concept--wherein an artist revisits a classic album in concert--is commonplace these days, some might even say it's completely run its course. But when I heard a few months back that Van the Man was re-creating Astral Weeks live at the Hollywood Bowl in L.A., which he did this past weekend, I knew this was something I wanted to check out.

Laal was onboard and we've both got relatives out West, so we decided to splurge and make the trip. One of the main draws for me was the tidbit of advance info that Richard Davis would be on the gig. I don't really even have to think twice about naming this man my favorite jazz bassist of all time; I've gushed about him on here before, but let's just briefly name Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch, and Dolphy and Booker Little's Live at the Five Spot sessions, agree that these are some of the very finest jazz records ever made and reflect on the fact that they would not necessarily be so--or so utterly so--were it not for Davis's wizardly mastery. Let us add to this illustrious--and merely surface-scratching--list the fact that Davis not only performed on but straight-up fueled Astral Weeks, surely one of the most strange and visionary albums ever made, period, and we'll agree that the man is a giant. (And if we're still not convinced, we'll sit right down and watch this insane duo version of "Summertime" with Elvin Jones.)

But heartbreakingly, Davis was not on the gig. There were two sets at the show, the first one a sort of greatest-hits dealio with Van's regular band, and then Davis and Jay Berliner (who played classical guitar on Astral Weeks, not to mention Mingus's Black Saint and the Sinner Lady) were slated to come out for the Astral finale. 'Twas, for whatever reason, not to be: The same bassist from the first set, a Caucasian gentlemen whom I didn't recognize, emerged after the break and performed on all the Astral material.

I was reeling, believe me, but this was no waste of time. There is nothing lightweight or trite or over-the-hill or unriveting whatsoever about seeing Van Morrison live on a stage. To use a word from Astral Week's uberpoetic "Beside You," the man is a dynamo. We were seated in the middle of the amphitheater, and he was really just a little dot down there, but the Jumbotron was all fired up, so it was all good.

Watching the concert, the phrase that kept running through my head was "extended techniques." You see this term a lot in writing about experimental improv; basically what it means is using an instrument in a way it isn't traditionally supposed to be used, like, say what people like Axel Doerner or Greg Kelley on trumpet. In that world, a lot of these sorts of techniques ceased to be experimental years and years ago--my buds and I often refer to the excessive or gimmicky or ostentatious deployment of them as "thingin'"--but in Morrison's hands they seemed genuinely adventurous. I know that Morrison can be a ham as well as an experimenter and that some of his seemingly spontaneous tangents are merely routine cliches (during "Cyprus Avenue" at the Bowl, Van replicated the "my t-t-t-t-tongue gets tied" bit that he's been trotting out since at least the mid-'70s, to judge by the live album It's Too Late Too Stop Now). But I could swear that during a lot of this concert he was just throwing stuff at the wall to see what would stick, in the vein of the iconically sore-thumb-ish "...really wrong, really wrong" groan-out in the middle of "Caravan" from "The Last Waltz," a performance which, criminally, has been removed from YouTube as part of a massive seemingly Morrison-sanctioned regulation of all his clips on the site.

Anyway, but unless his band members were faking it, they were on their toes during this entire show. Morrison performed a lot of familiar tunes during the first set--"Saint Dominic's Preview," "Moondance" (Van took an awesome, brief and somewhat Lee Konitz-sounding alto-sax solo on this one) and "Brown Eyed Girl" (in a very elegant, folky arrangement)--but he also stretched out on some pieces I didn't know well: one called "Troubadour" and some others I'm forgetting. I don't remember the songs so much as isolated moments of weird, inspired spontaneity. "I want to tell you a story," he blurted out in the ;middle of one tune. "It doesn't have any words." This set off a lengthy scat section, wherein Morrison worked himself into a tongue-speech lather and eventually began emitting rapid-fire grunts in a seeming imitation of a machine-gun. In another tune he looped the line "Way down in the backstreet," then paused and shouted, "That's where I come from, man!" There was a sense of real channeling during the best of these outbursts. Morrison stays planted when he sings, punching his right arm horizontally at the air, as though he's warding off, or maybe inciting, a spirit. He's got no autopilot, or at least he could've fooled me; he really grapples up there.

Some of the most inspired moments of the show didn't involve his voice at all. "Slim Slow Slider," the brief, elegiac wisp of a song that closes out Astral Weeks, got stretched way, way out live (perhaps in honor of the fact that the recorded version was apparently edited big time, as related in various accounts). Van didn't play too much guitar during the show--a fair amount of rhythm strumming and some nice, twangy, pickless self-obbligato playing here and there--but as "Slider" kept on churning, something seized Van and he grabbed the acoustic guitar and started to hammer at it, working up to a harsh, blurry, brutal sort of strumming. It was dissonant, it was anti-technique; it was like some sort of hamfisted heavy-metal mariachi playing. The first thing I thought of was Sonny Sharrock's meaty, vigorous dicing of the instrument on Black Woman.

Speaking of the avant-garde jazz vibe, I felt that heavily in Van's harmonica work. If I remember correctly, he did do some conventional soloing on the harp, but what I recall more were these moments when he seemed to become obsessed w/ the instrument's pure-sound potential and blew messily into it while humming at the same time, producing a weird, airy, slobbery multiphonic din, like something you might hear George Lewis attempt on trombone.

And then there were the patented Morrison mantras--long stretches of trancelike repetition--from the familiar ("the love that loves to love the love that loves the love to love," etc. in "Madame George") to the thoroughly weird and unexpected (he kept injecting the phrase "Get on up," seemingly a la "Sex Machine," throughout the show; at one point he broke without warning into the first verse of Ronnie Hawkins's "Who Do You Love?"; and at the end of "Madame George" he went into an odd riff centered around the phrase "This is a train," before strolling offstage, mike still in hand.

I remember these isolated moments much more than the songs themselves, though I generally found the non-Astral Weeks set to be looser and more enjoyable. Some of the AW stuff felt straitjacketed, e.g. "The Way That Young Lovers Do," which was a spitting image of the original. Most uninspired was "Beside You," a poem of ecstasy on record that had the life sucked out of it onstage. Richard Davis and the other players at the original sessions understood how to let these compositions breathe, but Van's current band seemed to want to normalize the material; the drummer, for one, kept slipping into a backbeat where none were needed, and it felt like a crutch.

But Morrison is well worth catching live, no matter what the setting. He didn't talk much to the crowd, but after "Moondance," when the audience went wild, he said, "Ah, now I get it," alluding to our hunger for the familiar. Morrison's known as horribly cantankerous, but he seemed warm onstage and most of all, inspired. As described above, there's a real sense of grappling, of searching. He's got to be one of the most restless-seeming rock singers I've ever heard live; he's just got this itch to probe and prod his songs, to wring all the weird tics out of them that he can. It's this quality that makes him not just a great singer but a great improviser. He often writes of mystic quests and spiritual journeys, and even though his current band comes off as slick--and even sleepy sometimes--you get the sense that Morrison goes down those metaphysical paths every time he gives a concert.


*I leave you with a song from Van's latest, Keep It Simple. This disc didn't grab me much when I first checked it out, but appropriately, a few isolated tics stuck with me. I love the stubborn repetition of the title line on this tune, the way van just swings with and against the background rhythm. It's a virtuoso tightrope moment disguised as a senile zone-out:

Van Morrison - That's Entrainment
(Wikipedia sez: "Entrainment in the biomusicological sense refers to the synchronization of organisms to an external rhythm, usually produced by other organisms with whom they interact socially. Examples include firefly flashing, mosquito wing clapping as well as human music and dance.")

*Also check out this very cordial and forthcoming Van email Q&A from the L.A. Times. Dig how fond the man is of ":)"--gotta love it.


In other matters, hail Traced in Air! (I don't think I really realized how eagerly I was anticipating this until I got my hands on it.) More on that soon.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


Hell yeah.

There's nothing political whatsoever about The Elephant Riders by Clutch, but it's one of the most rousing, celebratory songs I know, so why not? Crank it.

(By the way, I'm sure many will say so, but I thought McCain's speech was way dignified.)


P.S. Destination Out recently concluded its tribute to another great African-American, Anthony Braxton. My voice is a small part of the chorus.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Music Marathon man

CMJ '08 is a wrap. I heard music every night of the fest, which is a personal first. Read my thoughts on Yo! Majesty, Dungen, So Percussion, Deerhoof, Ponytail and more--as well as posts by my colleagues Jay Ruttenberg and Colin St. John that on the whole are way wittier and more entertaining than mine--over at the Time Out NY blog. Otherwise, I'll speak to you real soon...

Monday, October 20, 2008

Sporting life // Paradise city // Exquisite corpse // The good kind of Shudder

I've had a bit of an inertia problem w/ DFSBP recently, but that is really nothing new. The thing to do is just to start writing, get to business, etc. It's not an easy thing to do. Or it couldn't be easier, I'm not sure which. Anyway, this week I'll be blogging on CMJ happenings over at the Time Out New York site. Tonight, I'll be blogging on Gary Smith and the Paradise Lost films right here...

Gary Smith is a writer for Sports Illustrated, and I am reading a recent collection of his pieces for that magazine, Going Deep: 20 Classic Sports Stories, and I love it. It's a strange thing, discussing one's enjoyment of a medium that's widely considered lowbrow. There's all this backpedaling, disclaiming involved. I have to admit I feel a little self-conscious carrying the book around on the train, emblazoned as it is with the famous SI logo.

Ben Yagoda, writing on Smith in Slate recently, said, "Gary Smith is not only the best sportswriter in America, he's the best magazine writer in America." That's intended, it seems to me, as a contrarian statement, at least in some sense. It's like writing in "The New Yorker" that the Foo Fighters are the best rock band in America. Maybe that's not a good analogy, but gushing over a sportswriter in a publication like Slate is inherently going to come off as slumming.

Which is a shame, because reading Gary Smith, I don't know that I could come up with a strong counterargument to Yagoda's declaration. A lot of my favorite writers cover topics other than the topic I cover--two that come to mind are the Village Voice food critic Robert Sietsema and John Feinstein, a sportswriter even more populist in his appeal than Smith, not to mention the great Pauline Kael. I actually tend to feel like I'm learning more about writing when I'm *not* reading about music, even though I read a ton about music always. Really what I'm interested in reading is great human drama, great storytelling, and on that count Going Deep is an outstanding book. It's overheated at times, and a bit blustery and self-important, but Smith's writing has an immense confidence, a relentless narrative thrust.

In a way, what he does is write novelizations of true events. As Yagoda points out, he uses firsthand interview material, but he's just as likely to narrate a story from within the subject's head as from inside his own, observing the individual. He basically takes everything he knows of his subject's back story--whether that's Andre Agassi, disgraced former Notre Dame football coach George O'Leary, flash-in-the-pain MLB pitcher Mark Fidrych or Mexican-American high-school runner Javier Medina--and just tells the story as he sees it. He doesn't stretch facts so much as sell them: He's an unabashed dramatist and he has a way of making every story into something epic and universal.

And what would this commentary be without the ultimate cliche? "These stories are not really about sports." That's my statement, not Yagoda's. Okay, well you know what? They're really not. About sports, I mean. They are, but Smith's stories are really about striving, and psychology, and the desire to win, and race, and competition, and love, and fear. But his real gift, strangely, is for describing shame. I've never read more poignant stories of human lives just tanking.

One of his main fascinations with the world of sports seems to be *its* fascination with scandal. Many of these stories are about disgrace of one form or another: George O'Leary lying on his resume, high-school basketball star Richie Parker committing sexual assault, NC State coach Jim Valvano flaunting NCAA regulations. And Smith is never better than when he's documenting the swift, puritanical self-righteousness with which the media condemns these actions. "America seemed more shocked by lying from a football coach than from a politician or a businessman," he writes of the O'Leary mess. "The country still attached honor to sports."

And so much of this book is about the ludicrousness of that principle, about how silly it is that people care so much about sports. But also about the paradox that there's nothing silly about sports, that in many cases (such as for the 1957 TCU football team), college or high school sports is the pinnacle of people's lives. The athletes are gods during that time, and then they graduate and have to become regular people, but a part of them always stays in that moment where the spotlight was on them. Smith knows that somehow sports are worth paying attention to, that they're inextricably tied up with the way this country views itself and that despite the fact that it's all just a game, people care. A lot. So these are basically stories of lives on the line.

The tales intersect with crucial historical moments, such as the Little Rock high school integration, so they're not myopic by any means. You don't have to care about sports passionately to believe in them. But you do have to appreciate their mythology, the notion that they matter very, very much to those who invest their lives in them. In a way, sports and music are America's two great hopes: Those who love music revere it and those who practice it as holy, and the same goes for sports. But usually they're viewed as antithetical. When you read Gary Smith, you realize that it's really just the same struggle for meaning and self-betterment. I don't know if he's the best magazine writer in America--I only read a few magazines each month. But I can say that I'm enjoying this book immensely and that I'm trying to learn from it how to be a better storyteller.


That went a little long. I went deep, as it were. Anyway, I wanted to mention the Paradise Lost documentaries (there are two of them), which Laal and I watched in quick succession over the weekend. I don't know quite what these have to do with Gary Smith other than that they tell a true story in a fascinating way, but they're immensely intriguing.

These films were made by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the dudes responsible for the mighty Metallica doc Some Kind of Monster, which I love to death. They tell the story of three teenagers from West Memphis, Arkansas, who were convicted in the early '90s for the gruesome murders of three second graders. The accused were misfit kids, into heavy metal and the occult, and during the trial, these superficial facets of their personalities were pretty much the only hard evidence that was used against them. They were branded as satanists and freaks, and thus the trial basically took on the cast of a modern-day witch hunt. There were other compelling leads, but they were never pursued; the town and the jury just seemed to make up its mind and that was that.

All of the above is documented in the first film. The second film, subtitled Revelations, is sort of a postscript to the first, and it's odd b/c it documents the process wherein the making of the first film came to influence the actual events being documented. The first film brought notoriety to the case and many activist groups sprung up to try to prove the innocence of the three teens. Those efforts have snowballed and at this point the West Memphis Three are the fashionable cause celebre among folks like Eddie Vedder and other ostentatiously political pop-cultural icons.

It's to the filmmakers' credit that though they seem to generally support the notion that the men were wrongly convicted, they never come out and beat you over the head with that opinion. They make sure that you understand a) the heinousness of the crimes (I've never seen such graphic crime-scene footage in a doc before), b) the devastating effect they had on the families, and c) that there are a select few compelling pieces of evidence in the prosecution's testimony, namely the fact that one of the teens, albeit one who has been labeled "borderline retarded," actually confessed to witnessing and partaking in the crimes, though this was after 12 hours of brutal and coercive interrogation.

Much of the second film deals with Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the boys who went on to become a prime suspect. A tall, fiery and thoroughly creepy man, he puts on these odd pageants of hate for the filmmakers, creating mock graves for the three teens and setting them ablaze and screaming vengeful damnations into the camera. He's a really disturbed man and it's very easy to believe that he--an admittedly abusive father--could have been driven to commit these crimes. But again, you're never sure.

I admire what the West Memphis 3 advocacy groups have done on these men's behalf, though I find the bandwagon-ish approach of that whole campaign to be a little distasteful. There doesn't seem to be enough evidence to determine their guilt, but nor do you (or at least I didn't) ever feel totally comfortable proclaiming them as straightforward victims of chance in the whole matter.

Regardless, these films are absolutely fascinating documents of the way violent crime can destroy entire communities, and not just the lives that are directly affected by them. Like Gary Smith, Berlinger and Sinofsky know how to tell a great story.


Speaking of documentaries, I highly recommend the Cannibal Corpse DVD set Centuries of Torment (great cover, no?), out recently on Metal Blade. I first heard of this one from Ben Ratliff's charming and utterly unexpected review in the Times a few weeks back, and I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment that it's as much a history of death metal as it is of the Corpse. There's great info on Morrisound Studios, the pre-internet metal underground, the Tampa scene, Metal Blade records and many other aspects of the music's early history that have never been comprehensively explored on film. It's way detailed and nonfans might get a little restless, but the Cannibal guys are--contrary to what you might think--very good natured and pleasant. They love what they do and it's a joy to watch them retrace their humble beginnings.

I listened to my fair share of Cannibal back in the day, though I always felt that they were sort of second rate, paling in comparison to the likes of Morbid Angel. But seeing this documentary makes me reconsider: Sure they're workmanlike in a way, but they've also stuck to their guns in a way that few others have. They haven't really messed with the formula too much at all, and their latest record, Kill, is probably their heaviest and most uncompromising yet. I've also revisited "The Bleeding" recently and am realizing that it's a remarkable and especially memorable disc, with some of the greatest riffs ever to appear on a death metal record. Check out an MP3 my favorite track, Return to Flesh, which would make Tony Iommi way proud.


Lastly, I feel bad for not mentioning last month's Shudder to Think reunion show at Webster Hall. Had a blast at this one. It was unabashedly a Big Rock show, with dazzling light displays and the like, but that was very appropriate in that it celebrated the '90s watershed when art and commerce were comfortably intertwined for a few blissful years. I'm certainly not the first one to point this out, but Shudder to Think will forever be a leading candidate for Weirdest Band Ever to Appear on MTV. Anyway, they were great live. Craig Wedren is a powerhouse of vocal dynamism and general exuberance and positive vibes and Nathan Larson has old-school rock-star swagger down cold. It's amazing how many strong songs they had and how weird they still sound and how insanely catchy they still are. Pony Express Record is essential and is their obvious magnum opus, though a few tracks from Get Your Goat and 50,000 B.C. are must-hears as well, including set opener Red House (video on YouTube) from the latter and Shake Your Halo Down (MP3) from the former. (Shout-out and congrats too to bassist Jesse Krakow for getting the gig and nailing all the songs. It was the enthusiasm of him and his former Time of Orchids bandmates and buds that got me into Shudder in the first place, so I know how much this experience meant to him. Bravo!)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The final word (I hope)

Colin Powell was the picture of dignity, no? I felt as inspired watching this as I have during the entire campaign--Powell was so evenhanded and above-the-belt. Psyched!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Drublic display

Having spent the past several weeks preparing CMJ coverage for Time Out New York, I was ready for a little change of pace, and I got just that last night. It's always refreshing to attend an event that would never in a million years be deemed cool by the Pitchfork crowd, and to see so many people enjoying themselves in such a completely infectious and unabashed way.

I'm talking about the NOFX concert at Irving Plaza (now know as the Fillmore New York, oddly). NOFX is a band that I only actively listened to briefly, back in high school. I was very avid enthusiast of pop-punk for a few years as a teenager, and though I don't keep up w/ the genre, I never wavered in my belief that NOFX's Punk in Drublic was one of the most enjoyable, not to mention extremely poignant records I'd ever heard.

Apparently the band thinks highly of that one as well, because they played a bunch of songs from it last night, including "The Quass/Dying Degree," "Reeko," "Perfect Government," "Don't Call Me White" and probably my favorite, "Linoleum." The latter is this awesome defiant anthem about taking pride in poverty. It seems worth throwing the lyrics up here:

"Possesions never meant anything to me
I'm not crazy
Well that's not true, I've got a bed, and a guitar
And a dog named Bob who pisses on my floor
That's right, I've got a floor
So what, so what, so what?
I've got pockets full of kleenex and lint and holes
Where everything important to me
Just seems to fall right down my leg
And on to the floor
My closest friend linoleum
Supports my head, gives me something to believe
That's me on the beachside combing the sand
Metal meter in my hand
Sporting a pocket full of change
That's me on the street with a violin under my chin
Playing with a grin, singing gibberish"

Frontman Fat Mike is a brilliantly unapologetic snotnose a lot of the time, but his writing also has this really tender philosophical quality. I love those last two lines--"That's me on the street with a violin under my chin /Playing with a grin, singing gibberish." He loves to portray himself as this sort of bumbling fuckup who can't get anything right. It was the same way at the show: After every song, he kept apologizing for all the mistakes he'd made and proudly proclaiming himself an alcoholic. At one point, he looked down at the drink caddy on his mike stand and noted that his vodka had been taken away, which led him to complaining that it had been confiscated by his roadies. He got it back after a few songs, though, and even if he was a little sloppy and hoarse, he put on a great show. That guy sings with absolute passion and for all his funny standoffishness ("Stop yelling stuff. I can't hear what you're saying anyway, so shut the fuck up."), he seemed genuinely touched by the huge turnout, and his thank-you at the end of the set was a very sincere one. Speaking of sincere, I loved his Obama plug. "Vote for the black man," he said at one point, simply and directly.

Guitarist El Jefe also deserves a special mention. He's sort of known as the silly guy in NOFX, and deservedly so. At the end of Punk in Drublic, there's this hilarious hidden track where he's imitating various cartoon characters like Yosemite Sam and Scooby-Doo, all saying the line, "This guy's more punk than me." Sounds dumb, but I got a lot of mileage out of that as a teen. Anyway, he's a hell of musician. Hefe played some really badass trumpet last night, and his supporting vocals (such as the incredible gravelly voiced intro to "Perfect Government") were intensely soulful.

Another thing about El Hefe that needs to be mentioned is that he truly shreds on guitar, which leads me to an interesting facet of NOFX: They're complete instrumental virtuosos. Hefe takes very extravagant solos constantly, and though the live show doesn't spotlight drummer Erik Sandin in that way, he's still an absolute machine. He favors this incredibly speedy version of the classic hardcore beat that incorporates a double-stroke hiccup on every other bass-drum hit, and it makes the beat really seem to hurtle along. And when the band plays their downtempo reggae stuff, which they did a little too much of last night, you can see what a great bassist Fat Mike is. What I'm getting at is that though they're occasionally sloppy, NOFX shreds. Over the course of their career, they've completely defied the idea that a punk band shouldn't be able to play. In fact, they're tight as shit and have been for years.

Also, there was something comforting watching the kids go apeshit over the band. I can't remember the last time I was at a show that had such avid singalongs. The entire place screamed every word to "Linoleum," for one. And most of the floor erupted into a giant mosh as soon as the show started. It was kind of annoying to fend off the jostling, but it was also inspiring to see people even wanting to move around that much. Add to that some good-natured loudmouths (one guy in the bathroom line was like--and I'm dead serious--"What's taking so long? You all got vaginas or something?") and you've got a rowdy, silly good time. Was this a totally obnoxious crowd? Yeah, but NOFX is sort of predicated on obnoxiousness. Overall, the show was a really wonderful respite from the oppressive hipsterdom that has reigned at so many of the other concerts I've attended over the past few years.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A plug, if I may...

This Friday, STATS performs in Brooklyn. Just wanted you to know. More here as soon as I am able. Thank you for your patience...

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dumb and dumber // Recently: Hill/Hamilton + Joni Mitchell + The Bad Plus + The Ultimate Warrior

Another week goes by, and I'm playing catch-up on here as usual. Let's see how we can move through all this. In a way, it's starting to seem sillier and sillier to me--or maybe it's just that I'm feeling more and more self-conscious about it--not to comment on current events on this site. Maybe I'll dip my toe in here or there, but I just don't feel qualified. I can't imagine it comes as much of a surprise to anyone that I'll be voting for Obama, and I'm certainly not going to offer any insight you won't get in a more informed and coherent tone elsewhere.

I can't help, though, watching a lot of the campaign coverage with a devil's advocate eye. For example, when I see Katie Couric grilling Sarah Palin (here and elsewhere)--and the latter did admittedly look ridiculous--I wonder if she's not playing right into the hands of those who favor the "smartypants liberal media" stereotype. I can't remember where it was that I read this, but a recent column discussed the frustratingly foolproof nature of the "They're not dumb; they're just like us" argument re: "folksy" or "unsophisticated" Republican politicians, wherein appearing unworldly will always be better than appearing pretentious.

For example, in one of the Couric interviews (viewable here), she asks Palin the by-now infamous question about why she didn't have a passport until recently. And Palin gives what I feel is a pretty politically brilliant answer: that she's not one of those (I'm paraphrasing) "rich people whose parents sent her to Europe with a backpack after college; I've had to work my whole life." How better to deflect that scrutiny than by--again--appealing to this notion that worldliness is at odds with the honorable provinciality she wants to project. I always try to keep in mind that to those people who are inclined to support Palin and politicians like her, she appears noble for precisely the reasons that she appears stupid to left-wingers.

I guess all this is my way of reflecting on my experience of digesting this campaign. I worry mainly about what's constructive, about what's actually going to sway undecided voters. Is practicing--to use Palin and McCain's phrase--"gotcha journalism" really going to convince anyone who's already inclined to support Palin that she's unqualified? It may only make them root for her more. Now I'm not advocating that she shouldn't be asked tough questions, but maybe that she shouldn't be asked them in such a strident and even nasty way. Couric is practically gritting her teeth--and I'm sure most of us wouldn't do much better if faced with Palin--and that seems like it will only play right into the hands of the enemy.

Same goes for the recent New Yorker profile of Cindy McCain, a smear job if I've ever seen one and one that's likely to leave you nauseated no matter what side you're on. And again, who are we trying to convince here? Do New Yorker readers really need another reason to think ill of the McCains? It can all just seem so petty and smug and even if it's all true, how is this going to help Obama win? How is the media going to reach across party lines and actually sway people who already have their mind made up? And more importantly, who in god's name *doesn't* already have their mind made up? That's my real question. It's hard for me to stay interested on a day-to-day basis, because *nothing* I hear is going to change the fact that I'm voting for Obama. And I'm sure that goes for nearly everyone who happens to be reading this post. Really, tell me this, do any of you know a single undecided voter? (Or even a single Republican voter?) I truthfully want to know who these people are. Living in New York and moving in arty-ish circles, they can be hard to find. I'd love to talk to one and have a constructive dialogue. Maybe all this preaching to the choir is getting us somewhere, but I don't see how. Is anyone's mind *really* being changed or even swayed by any of this? How could it be with issues as polarizing as the Iraq war and abortion rights? We're all waiting for Palin to make an ass of herself on Thursday, but it's worth remembering that to some, she'll look the most endearing when she's at her dumbest. Unfortunately there's no antidote for that; it's a frustratingly insoluble argument. It just can seem futile to tirelessly pick over nuances when you know the other side will constantly receive the exact opposite message from the exact same set of data.


And re: what I (ahem) actually intended to post about, here are a few things I've been enjoying of late:

1) The new duo record by Andrew Hill and Chico Hamilton. Yes, you read that right. This release--a heretofore unreleased session from 1993--seems to be totally slipping under the radar, but it's easily one of the best records I've heard this year. Here's how I argued that very point in Time Out New York (you can sample a track at that link there as well).

2) Joni Mitchell's 1975 full-length The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which I picked up on LP this past weekend. I'd long been fascinated with the *idea* of this one--not to mention its mindblowing title--and upon a first--admittedly superficial--listen, I'm not disappointed in the least. It appears to be one of her most sophisticated statements--a meditation on sociosexual relationships, privilege, posturing, authenticity, commerce, crime, etc.--though not at all overly intellectualized despite being explicitly literary throughout. It's just another reminder of how much incredibly intense and thoughtful artmaking was going on in plain sight in the '70s. Check out this fascinating track called "The Jungle Line"--the link takes you to one of those static-image YouTube videos--in which Mitchell sings over a field recording of African drummming (if you're anything like me, you'll hear foreshadowings of Paul Simon's "The Obvious Child"). (An interesting tidbit about this record is that in a 1985 Rolling Stone interview, Prince dubbed it "the last album I loved all the way through.")

3) Last Thursday's late set by the Bad Plus at the Village Vanguard. Joe and I were seated in the upper tier, right next to drummer Dave King and it was pretty phenomenal to watch him work. But what I was most impressed with is the unabashed dedication to groove and melody that this band has. The audience really connected with the set--they were whooping and cheering throughout--and I think it was because the music was very straightforwardly enjoyable. And though some pieces had an ostentatiously clever slant, for the most part it was a deeply emotive set. I loved the slow, steady and lovely cover of "Heart of Gold," for example, which featured a nice a capella vocal section to which all the members contributed. Along similar lines, a Reid Anderson ballad that I think was titled "People Like You" floored me with its poignancy. The more brainy and kinetic pieces provided nice variety and energy, but it was the slower, prettier stuff that hit me hardest. As far as the covers went--they did "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in addition to the Young tune--it's true what the anti-backlashers say: They were only a very small part of the set. That practice of covering recent (or simply non- or post-American Songbook) pop hits has obviously been a double-edged sword for the band--it earned them a ton of press but also the label of "gimmick"--but after hearing them live, I'd have to say that these pieces really didn't have that much bearing on the set overall. It was a jazz group--albeit a very fresh and contemporary one, for whom traditional or even progressive types of "swing" are only a very small part of their rhythmic vocabulary, most of which is dominated by backbeat-oriented grooves--that chose to season its original tunes with pieces more likely to be familiar to the audience. In other words, "standards" in the truest sense, popular tunes that functioned as palate cleansers and that created a bridge with the listeners. Along that line, what I admired most about this band was their ability to entertain in a very classy way; as Joe pointed out, hearing them was not unlike hearing a thoughtful and stimulating rock band or singer-songwriter. There's no sense of taxing experimentalism, just sophisticated--and remarkably passionate--entertainment. It was a lot of fun to hear something that enjoyable and enriching at a jazz club, and without a hint that you were experiencing a bygone mode of performance. With or without the covers, the Bad Plus are the best kind of modern pop group. Not that they're not a proper jazz group, but seeing them in the company of an enthusiastic crowd at the Vanguard really helped me tap into the sensation of what it was to hear jazz live at a club in the days when it *was* actually popular and not a rarefied art music. (I'm sure you don't need me to tell you this, but the band's pianist, Ethan Iverson--a subtly dreamy and extremely thoughtful melodicist--maintains an excellent blog here.)

4) This video of--and attendant blog post on--the Ultimate Warrior's astoundingly seething and hypernonsensical prematch hype proclamations. Dig the part at the end where he's vowing to literally bring down Hulk Hogan's airplane as he flies to Wrestlemania, and lines like "The family that I live for only breathes the air that smells of combat," and "All the fuses in the exit signs are burnt out." Eternal thanks to John A. for the tip on this one. (I haven't yet explored this blog further, but am very intrigued by post headings such as "Paul Bearer a.k.a. Faulknerization of the WWF" and "The Huck Finn-ing of Hacksaw Jim Duggan." It's just this kind of pseudointellectual flippancy--not to mention thematic consistency--that makes some blogs take off and others (uh, like the one you're reading) remain an acquired taste at best.)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Pop went Weasel

I finally made it out tonight to see Weasel Walter, playing at the Delancey, of all places--that once-trendy, now utterly deserted three-floor dance/rock/scene club at the foot of the Wmsburg Bridge. WW has been playing about town and in the region for the past several days now; I think he did a trio last Wednesday with the great clarinetist Perry Robinson and then this past Friday--when I scored Randy Newman tix at the last minute--he was at Zebulon w/ trumpeter Nate Wooley and some others. So this was the only gig I could make it out to, and I'm really very glad I did.

Simply put, Weasel has become an outstanding free-jazz drummer. There was a time, not too long ago, when I considered his free-improv activities as secondary to his brutal-prog-metal activities. I know that Flying Luttenbachers has gone through many incarnations and that several of them were working in a free-jazz-ish vein stretching back to the '90s. But I never knew those lineups well. The Luttenbachers I know--and on the whole, enjoy very, very much--are the late incarnations with Ed Rodriguez (now of Deerhoof, formerly of Colossamite), Mick Barr, Mike Green and others. Cataclysm is an album that's well worth your time (I'm still digesting it after owning it for quite a while), as is the final Luttenbachers album, Incarceration by Abstraction, which is an overdubbed all-solo disc, though w/ a very full, live-band sound that's vastly superior to that of an earlier solo-Walter FLs disc, Systems Emerge from Complete Disorder.

So that was mainly the way I knew Weasel Walter: As a composer of extremely intense progressive rock/metal. And due to his own constant insistence, I did consider him that way: as a composer rather than as a drummer. He often claimed that he wasn't really a drummer, that he was only really playing drums in FLs out of convenience. But then around the time that the Luttenbachers were winding down, he started getting into a lot more free-improv stuff. I got ahold of the first of this new wave of out-jazz WW stuff, Revolt Music, and I remember thinking it was decent--serviceable free jazz, but nothing out of the ordinary.

When Stay Fucked shared a bill w/ the trio of WW, Moe! Staiano and Kyle Bruckmann at 21 Grand last December, I definitely noticed that Weasel's drumming had become a lot more confident and intense. But after hearing him tonight in duo with Peter Evans--the other set he played was with a sextet co-led by him and drummer Marc Edwards, a distinguished Cecil Taylor Unit alum--I can say that his playing has progressed in quantum leaps since even then.

I wrote a little while ago about Tony Oxley, and how the power of his playing has so much to do with timbre, with choosing sounds that slice through the free-improv jelly. Weasel plays a very pared down kit, but it's built for maximum cutting: woodblocks, two rototoms, a triangle, no washy crash cymbal,s etc. In addition, he makes copious use of double-bass, drumming something you never see elsewhere in free improv (albeit on a tiny bass drum that can't be more than 16" and may even be smaller).

But the great thing is that even though he comes from an extreme-metal background, he doesn't just import that style wholesale into his free-jazz work. He takes what he needs and leaves the rest, yielding an incredibly--and at times even comically--dense style that's also extremely nimble. His kit is so crisp-sounding and his volume control so sensitive that he can blurt out these machine-gun barrages while still remaining completely attuned to what a soloist is up to. He's also got mean hands that allow him to totally cook on the ride or bust out a pulverizing blast beat, sometimes even throwing in the deadly gravity blast. (Talking to Weasel between sets, he mentioned how that technique in particular is perfect for free jazz because it actually yields a very low-volume, but ultra-high-density sound.)

So basically what we have here is something unprecedented, or maybe not unprecedented, but extremely rare: someone who's got a very hands-on know-how of extreme metal approaching free improv on its own terms, i.e., he's not just showing up to a free-jazz gig and playing death metal. At first blush, he simply sounds like a particularly dense and kinetic free-jazz drummer. But the more you hear him improvise, the more you realize that he couldn't do what he was doing without the extreme-metal knowledge. There's a very subtle sort of fusion at work in his playing. Again, what I love about it is precisely that it's *not* some cheesy transidiomatic juxtaposition thing. He knows the conventions of free jazz and doesn't really try to mess with them. But he has developed a style which addresses one of the core problems of the genre and at times, seems to basically solve it: namely how to achieve density without losing definition and without drowning out the horns. Zach Hill could play circles around Weasel, but from what I've seen, he hasn't really coped with that core problem. If you're going to be a good improviser, you have to figure out how not just to sound awesome, but to make that sound gel with others. Over the past two years or so, Weasel Walter has worked his way up to that point. He's one of my favorite free-jazz drummers currently playing.

So anyway, my bad for not discussing the particularities of tonight's sets. Basically the opening duo w/ Evans was outstanding. From what I've heard, Evans has been getting into a lot of amplified playing recently and tonight he used the mike to outstanding effect, shoving it into the bell of his horn and producing these unholy fields of hissing sound that I probably would've taken for guitar feedback if I'd've had my eyes closed. Other times, he was playing speedy freebop on the open horn and always with that searing clarity that has become his trademark. This was free jazz the way I love it: with starkly delineated timbral areas for each instrument and with no auto-pilot-ness. The pieces were short and eventful and I wasn't bored for a second. How often can you truly say that about free-improv sets? There's a new Evans/Walter LP out on Weasel's ugEXPLODE label that I'd really like to check out asap. Excellent Walter duos w/ Evans and Mary Halvorson are hearable here.

Re: the Edwards/Walter sextet set, it was pleasingly high energy, but a little exhausting and predictable in its blowout nature. We've all see those free-jazz shows that start at full tilt and just sort of gradually exhaust themselves, and this was pretty much one of those. Typically it's hard to hear the horns and that was very much the case tonight, Evans excepted, b/c he was fantastically, blaringly clear and loud. In addition to Evans, Walter and Edwards, the others were bassist Tom Blancarte, altoist Darius Jones of the mighty Little Women and tenorist Paul Flaherty. Blancarte was massively amplified and rumbling hugely in a very awesome way. Wish I could've heard the saxes better. Jones was tossing out some very tuneful post-Dolphyish lines that I loved when I could make them out, and also on the last piece, he was eliciting some crazily loud, odd sounds by just blowing into his cupped hands. Flaherty was, for me, the weak link, engaging in repetitive post-Ayler ululation and not doing much to aid the set dynamically or engage with the others.

My favorite moments were when players dropped out, leaving a minigroup to go at it. The three horns had a pretty nice trio tangle at one point and the second piece began with a smokin' Jones/Walter duo that I wish had gone on longer. For the finale, Walter suggested an Edwards/Flaherty duo, but it didn't come to pass. I always appreciate that sort of effort to atomize large groups. I think most large free-jazz ensembles would benefit from a little spontaneous organization, i.e., simply plotting out where each player will enter and drop out. It's not really "free" at that point, but in my experience, freedom rarely leads anywhere but to Freedom, i.e., a full-bore screamfest, and there are so many other possibilities. Anyway, Flaherty aside, I really enjoyed what everyone was doing; I just wish I could have focused a little more on what each player was throwing down.

So that late set was nice in an ear-cleaning way, but that duo set, it really gave me hope. Free jazz can leave you depressed if misplayed; this, though, was just straight-up entertaining, and drummingwise, it nailed all the right bullseyes.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Feeling like a Newman

Had the amazing opportunity to hear Randy Newman live at Carnegie Hall last night. I've had his latest, Harps and Angels, on repeat for a few days now, and I was extremely psyched to be able to check this out. I feel like Newman has been sort of rumbling in the background of my mind for awhile--maybe due to the amount of times that I watched the intro to Major League when I was young--but it's only recently that I've woken up and realized that I should be paying more direct attention. It seems like he's nestling into my personal pantheon, in a snug niche right between Bob Dylan and Steely Dan. And yes, this was a hell of a show.

He was solo at the piano, in the middle of Carnegie's huge stage. I think I was only there once before. I saw Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter play duo; it was probably about eight or nine years ago. I have no recollection of that show other than that I was in the nosebleeds. Last night I was only about 15 rows back, sitting with my Time Out buds Jay Ruttenberg and Steve Smith. (Across the aisle, interestingly were Bruce Hornsby and Pat Metheny.)

So the overarching impression I came away with was that Randy Newman is a true old-school entertainer, one of those disheveled, lovably curmudgeonly, rumpled-suit dudes who can get up alone on a stage like Carnegie's and treat it like a nightclub. He's just doing his act. (Fitting, then, that I was there with Jay, as he's one of our foremost connoisseurs of that type of entertainment, as evidenced by this sterling reappraisal of Joan Rivers that ran a while back in Heeb.)

And what is his act? I guess the way I think of it is that he's sort of like this doomsday prophet in the form of a lounge act. His between-song banter and the witty asides he throws in between lines reveal him to be a true master of the "But seriously, folks..." school of comedy. (After an awesome rendition of the brutally honest "Korean Parents," he said, "I used to worry about crossing the line--now I don't even know where the fuckin' line is anymore.") He can seem quaint or goofy, but then you realize how raw and real his emotional and political commentary is. Last night, I kept thinking about how his persona is often that of a dope, caught up in lust ("You Can Leave Your Hat On," of which Newman quipped last night: "I wrote this when I was 25 and I thought it was a joke, but the older I get, I take it more and more seriously. I think it's one of the saddest songs I ever wrote."), greed ("It's Money That I Love") or prejudice ("Short People"). But that dopeyness comes to seem a lot less dopey and a lot more endearing when he's singing a love song. Last night, "Feels Like Home" was heartbreaking: In a song like that--or like "Losing You," from Harps and Angels--the narrator comes across every bit as ignorant as the ones in those aforementioned songs, but the ignorance no longer seems like a vice--it just seems like beautiful simplicity.

It was very weird to see Newman, who sings most of his songs from a populist perspective, even if it's like a studied, devil's advocate type of populism, at Carnegie Hall, amid a whole bunch of obviously wealthy, limousine-liberal (I'm really loving that phrase these days) types. Newman's offhanded plug for Obama got huge applause, and his tunes about elitism got huge laughs, i.e., the line in "It's Money That I Love" when he sings, "Used to worry about the poor / But I don't worry anymore / Used to worry about the black man / Now I don't worry about the black man." Seeing Newman in that setting was almost like seeing one of those old-time court jesters, whom the rich kings would pay to make fun of them. Newman sang "It's Money..." and then commented on the recent travails of the market, saying, "But don't get me wrong, I'm no populist." Everyone enjoyed a good, haughty laugh.

I don't think I'm getting this point across so well, but it's that same sort of thing with Steely Dan, where the people he's singing to are the exact people that are lined up in the crosshairs of his satire. I think the irony is even more vast with Steely Dan, because they attract that breezy baby-boomer crowd that gets sent up so mercilessly on albums like Gaucho. With Newman there seems to be a little more recognition on the part of the audience that they're the ones being lampooned.

Anyway, an obvious highlight of the show was "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country," a truly awesome and timely song that I've replayed constantly in recent weeks. (Great and definitive YouTube version is here.) That one truly gets at what I was saying before about the doomsday-prophet-as-lounge-singer vibe:

The end of an empire is messy at best
And this empire is ending
Like all the rest
Like the Spanish Armada adrift on the sea
We’re adrift in the land of the brave
And the home of the free

This and Newman's various other social and poltical satires are strange songs to hear at Carnegie Hall at an $80-a-seat concert amid a wealthy, all-white audience in these polarized election-year times where everyone you meet is either on exactly the same page or reading out of an entirely different book. Preaching to the choir is rampant, truly, and much of it takes the shape of "We Americans are truly fucked." (Witness such well-intentioned but ultimately pretty useless McCain disses and Obama endorsements as these from well-known avant-garde musicians on the Ecstatic Peace website. To be honest, I prefer the productive friction generated when Barack spars with folks like Bill O'Reilly. I'll be voting for Obama, no question, but enough with the love- and hatefests, please.)

I've muddled a few different points together here, obviously. But I'm talking about this weird, very New Yorkish phenomenon of people only interacting with other people who think the same way they do and how that discourse can completely absorb and defang even the most cutting satire. Take "Rednecks," a song I'd heard about via this excellent Rolling Stone interview, which contains a lot of the banter that Newman touched on last night. It's a vicious, scary song: a scorched-earth satire that seems to be sending up Southern ignorance, but ultimately turns the real firestorm on the North, discussing how urban racism may not be about using the word "nigger" or practicing those sorts of obvious, open forms of discrimination but about offering African-Americans the "[freedom] to be put in a cage in Harlem," and the South Side of Chicago and East St. Louis and all the other fabled ghettos.

So even if Randy Newman isn't telling anyone anything they don't already know--or reaching people who haven't grown numb to this kind of satire, even if they're not the least bit immune to the charges it levels--hearing the n-word spewed liberally and scathingly from the Carnegie Hall stage was truly intense. Like Becker and Fagen, he's built an outstandingly effective Trojan Horse, sneaking into pop culture on the strength of his Toy Story contribution and other cuddly, lovable tunes and then unleashing a flurry of low blows from the spotlight. It's a hell of a royal scam.


Here's an incredible vintage version of "Rednecks" (listen to the nervous laughter when Newman sings "some smart-ass New York Jew," and you'll get a sense of that tension I've been trying to portray above):

And here's a gorgeous "Feels Like Home," with some intro commentary on the background of the song: