Sunday, June 29, 2008

Spaces: the place

The theme for the weekend is space, and not the kind that's above us. Two events this weekend reminded me anew that real estate pretty much dictates all in this fair city, and having the right kind of shelter for your home, studio, gallery, venue, etc. is two thirds or more of the battle.

502 is/was, to say the least, the right kind of space. My friends and sometime bandmates Aron Wahl (who drew the awesomeness you see above) and Andrew Wan moved there after college in (I think) 2000. Most people in the city are stuck with one sort of apartment or another, but 502, on Warren St in Boerum Hill, can only really be described as a carriage house. You walk through this front building off the street and then you come out into this beautiful, spacious courtyard and a whole freestanding building completely insulated from the street.

I can't remember for sure whether Aron & Co. moved into 502 with the express purpose of rehearsing, recording and performing music there, but all those activities began quickly and have been going strong ever since. I'm sure everyone has their own unique memories of the space, but mine are at least a little singular since I have been not only a spectator but a participant in the soundmaking that has gone on constantly in the basement.

I first performed there as a member of the band Bat Eats Plastic; the house show archive tells me it was in August of '02. I remember I was underrehearsed and dropped my drumsticks out of nervousness. (I still do that at almost every show, but back then my recovery time was a lot slower!) Then I was at the party in what was most likely the same year where a basement hang among instruments morphed inevitably into a drum jam. That was first time that I, and I'm pretty sure Aron, met Nadav Havusha, who was later to become a core member of Aa.

It's hard to imagine that anyone reading this *isn't* familiar with Aa, but if not, I'd venture this: simultaneously the most experimental and universal band in Brooklyn; drumful and utterly, blissfully guitarless. There's an inherent bias here, but having moved nearer and further from the band over the years--I was an auxiliary member for some of '04 and a full-timer from late '05 to late '06--I've witnessed the power of the endeavor from all angles. Last night--at the last show at 502 before Aron, fellow Aa-er John Atkinson and their housemates were unceremoniously evicted for reasons completely beyond their control--it was as a spectator. Sometimes when you leave a band it's hard to watch that band later, without you; you just wish you were playing. I've definitely experienced that w/ Aa before, though last night I felt like I was finally getting to the point where those emotions were outweighed by genuine appreciation. It's impossible to overstate how much the project has evolved over the years. For this outdoor performance, it was glorious, like some kind of advanced jungle tribe busting out an elaborate nature ritual. Aa can often give off that sensation, but amid the greenery in the 502 backyard, it was at its purest: this band is and always has been completely off the (urban, rock) grid.

And not to take away from the immense creativity at work in the project, but 502 has so much to do with that. In short, it was the most precious kind of incubator. Anyone who has ever played music in NYC could tell you that writing songs and booking shows is a snap; the real challenge is *finding a place to practice*. The luxury of walking downstairs and having your equipment set up exactly as you left it is completely alien to most local bands. In our five or so years of existence, STATS has barely glimpsed this utopian dream. For Aa at 502, it was simply the way things were for six-plus years. Talk about getting kicked out of the womb...

I wish 'em the very best, and RIP to that phenomenal pad where I spent so many hours, I remember the first time I brought a garbage bag full of pots, pans and other detritus down to the basement for my first rehearsal as Aa's resident junk percussionist; recording some off-the-top-of-my-head woodblock parts in Aron's room for what would later become "Thumper"; extended pseudo-stand-up comedy delirium seshes that punctuated nearly every rehearsal (Sinbad, Cave Job, etc. etc. etc.); spilling my guts to A, N and J pre- and postpractice when life got rocky; walking around upstairs in my playing uniform (T-shirt and boxers) because I was too lazy to get re-dressed; and weirdest of all, the time I almost self-asphyxiated in the basement when I laughed and swallowed at the same time and just straight up couldn't breathe for several harrowing moments. Anyway, I'm sure my memories of the place (and of amazing hangs w/ the aforementioned dudes plus Emily, Andrew, Sean, Judd, Mike, Nick, Ezra, Bobula and many more) pale in comparison to those of the residents. Godspeed, 502. Keep glued to The Green Lodge for John's way-intense insider view.


On a happier spatial note, WORK is back. Owned and operated by Walker Waugh--cousin to Kyle Waugh, one of my oldest and dearest Kansas City compatriots--WORK is a cozy and remarkable structure, literally (as the URL indicates) a red tin shack on the Red Hook waterfront that doubles as a DIY gallery. Perhaps now I should say that it quadruples, since it's recently involved into not only a home for Walker (I hear he's building a loft out back) but a shrine for his late girlfriend, artist and WORK co-founder Emily Driscoll.

I only hung out with her a few times, but it was enough to learn that she was as cool and kind a person as you'd ever want to know. She died in a hit-and-run accident--just around the corner from the gallery--last November.

I have never seen Walker in low spirits and--having not attended the funeral or, regrettably, made a condolence call--I still haven't. On Friday, Laal and I dropped by WORK to check out the opening of the second show since Emily's death, "Cloud" by Frank Jackson and Rebecca Suss. Beautiful paintings, but more importantly, Walker seemed as infectiously enthusiastic about life and art as ever. On a shelf near the entrance, catalogs of Emily's work were for sale, privately pressed up by her parents and with an intro by Friday's b-day boy, Walker's bro and a great guy, Pete L'Official. Another Waugh, Nick, was tending bar; Nick's sister-in-law, Britney--expecting a baby!--was outside; and people were generally hanging out, trading greetings and ideas, enjoying the warm weather and priceless waterfront vibe. Given her original vision of the space, there is no way that Emily would not have been exceedingly proud of how things had panned out.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Ice flow // Trumpet of the Swans

[Have never felt a particular urge to include a spoiler alert before a post, but I think I will here. Not that Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World is any sort of taut narrative thriller, but there are details revealed below that are probably better left to surprise. So if you're already planning on seeing the flick, it might be better to either wait till after to read this or to skip over the long bullet-point list near the beginning.]

After seeing Werner Herzog's new Antarctica doc, Encounters at the End of the World--it's been held over at Film Forum, and I think it's there through the weekend--I wish I was in 30 unnamed bands. The catalog of hysterically, thrillingly, epically weird concepts/phrases dropped in this stunner doesn't even have a remote precedent elsewhere. In other words, it's band-name gold. To wit:

*Herzog citing an ant that enslaves worms and wondering why chimps don't do the same to goats.

*Biologists kneeling on the ice with their ears to the ground, listening for psychedelic seal speech.

*A neutrino-detection balloon being launched into the stratosphere.

*A garland of frozen popcorn and a frozen sturgeon stashed beneath the ice at the South Pole.

*A linguist/greenhouse-keeper lamenting the extinction of exotic tongues.

*A marine biologist who first posits that organisms evolved into land-dwellers in an attempt to escape the miniature-scale horrors of deep-sea life, and then jams out with Henry Kaiser (?!?) out on the tundra.

*Substantiated (well, mostly) theories on gay penguins, prostitutional penguins and deranged/suicidal penguins.

*A volcanologist who warns, casually, "Keep your attention toward the lava lake."

*A journeyman plumber who insists that his oddly shaped fingers mark him as a descendant of the Aztecs.

*A journeyman construction worker who quotes Alan Watts and spews animistic theology.

*An existential glaciologist musing on his beloved ice islands.

*Trainees with smiley-face-emblazoned buckets on their heads stumbling around in the snow.

*The process of taking seal-milk samples.

*And so much more...

In short, Herzog journeys to the ultimate South and finds people as fantastically eccentric as he is. If you're to believe the film, Antarctica--plenty populated, at least in certain settlements, most of them scientific--is a land of philosophers. Basically the way I came to view it is as a community of folks who for one reason or another opted out of the way most people live. It's like a college dorm full of the most fascinating men and women you never imagined existed.

And the nature is there, of course, especially in breathtaking underwater shots and glimpses of sparkling ice caves, but as with Grizzly Man, what Herzog's really interested in is the human wildlife. Each person in this film is weirder and more visionary than the last and I'm not exaggerating when I say that I'd happily watch a full documentary on any one of them.

I've gushed before (scroll down a bit if you click) on here about Herzog's unrivaled penchant for choosing the coolest, most peculiar subject matter, but this film is just beyond anything I've seen from him or anyone else. As he was shooting this he must've been constantly inquiring to God how it was that he was blessed with so much unequivocally golden footage. But is it an accident, or is just that Herzog is a master curiositist? He makes curiosity, the passion to know firsthand about every last esoteric way that humans manage to lend meaning to their lives, into something holy. You could call him a dilettante, or maybe just the greatest humanist alive today. Either way, see. this. movie.


And also: I've been looking for years for some material that substantiates Swans' reputation as the most disgustingly extreme rock band ever, and lo, I've found it via a mid-'80s live VHS release entitled A Long Slow Screw, a lot of which is on YouTube. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I've been listening to the live Public Castration Is a Good Idea disc, and I'm pretty sure it's taken from the same show as ALSS. At any rate, yes, this is death music, and it's horrifying and I can't stop listening to it. What really gets me is how, for lack of a better word, professional it all is. Very primal emotion is being harnessed/simulated, but in an incredibly tight and concerted way. Despite the static/minimal nature of the music, this stuff is ultra-rehearsed. Try this:

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Golden old

Some rock thrives on the caffeinated energy of the young--hardcore, say. Other styles, the ones that flirt more with gravity, benefit from been-around-the-blockness, the encumbrance and weight of age.

Saw Harvey Milk tonight at Europa and they were... old. Actually the rhythm section was young, but the men up front--Creston Spiers and Joe Preston; how's that for a name tandem--were large, haggard, dire, hairy, beefy; okay, a bit overweight. As was the music. Talk about your lumbering behemoths. This was one of the finest examples I've ever seen of the slo-mo ballet that is doom metal. There is a groove to be found in those cavernous between-beat chasms and drummer Kyle Spence knows where the hell it is. The sway, the throb, the light...

And the latter was really the issue. Yes, Harvey Milk uses "clean" parts to contrast with its "bonecrushing" parts and they are not there just for contrast. Sophisticated, hymnlike, painterly passages for clean electric guitar and choral vocals. Spiers tracing visionary paths with his hands, gazing through the ceiling. I think I caught the line "chrome-plated sky." Laal turned to me and whispered, "This is the most beautiful song I've ever heard in my life." Arcane. Mystical. Old. And somehow, they're also really funny.

*Outstanding Harvey miscellany available at the Athens-based Southern Shelter blog, including a full live set from less than a week ago.

*The new album, "Life... The Best Game in Town"--the band's second since reforming a few years back--is outstanding. You can buy it from Hydra Head.

*This is the HM piece I wrote for Time Out.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Louis headstrong, etc.


As an addendum to the Steely Dan post below, you MUST read this outstanding time capsule from Entertainment Weekly, wherein Donald Fagen returns to "[His] Old School," Bard, and reveals all you ever wanted to know about the Dan's undergraduate origins--yes, that includes Chevy Chase's drumming tenure with an early edition of the band. Someone should write a book about how many bands have been spawned out of a complex love/hate relationship with a college: This reads like Vampire Weekend circa 40 years ago!


Not to be crass, but I can't say I was ever a huge fan of George Carlin, who passed away yesterday. But I am in the process of becoming a huge fan of Louis C.K., who posted a great Carlin tribute on his website today. And if Carlin could seem a little stilted at times, well at least he inspired the efforts of Mr. C.K. (Mr. K? I'm not sure how to render that.)

Laal and I caught LCK at Carolines last night and it was goddamn hysterical. (One thing I'm learning very rapidly is that if you shell out to see a big-name comedian like LCK or Daniel Tosh, who I mentioned in a previous post, you *will* laugh and you *will* enjoy yourself. The latter is not always true for bands, even if you love them. Maybe I just don't know enough about stand-up, but it's hard to imagine seeing a proven name like these guys put on a lackluster live set.) Laal had first turned me onto him a while back with this poetically simple yet hilarious--that's funny I'm saying that b/c LCK spent a sizable chunk of his set last night bitching about how people overuse the world "hilarious," e.g., "Do you know who I saw yesterday? Lisa! It was *hilarious*"--bit on the futility of trying to explain things to kids. And then during last winter's Stay FKD tour Tony had his un-iPod crammed with plenty of LCK.

Anyway, there's absolutely NOTHING avant-garde, "progressive," experimental or anything like that about Louis CK. Seeing him is like seeing a really badass straight-ahead jazz group that completely obeys genre conventions while simultaneously just destroying you with effortless flair. He's from the Regular Guy Bitching school of comedy, namely his act consists of gripes about everyday life--last night he sounded off on how lame and boring white people are, how insipid the conversations he overhears at Starbucks are, how annoying it is to call an American company and reach a Pakistani operator, etc. (My favorite bit: After complaining about how terminally annoying his three-year-old daughter can be, he's like, "Yeah, she can pretty much go fuck herself.")

So these are powerfully mundane topics, but LCK's secret is that he manages to project that *white-hot rage*--entirely irrational but no less overpowering--that all of us feel on a daily basis when we find ourselves in annoying situations. He basically gives voice to that inner scream of anguish we experience when we spill food all over ourselves, or trip on the sidewalk, or suffer any other day-to-day indignity. It's kvetching elevated to genius status, really, because there's you feel a constant empathy. Some guy in the back was screaming, "Tell 'em, Louis!" after every joke, and though he was totally disrupting the show, that pretty much approximated my inner monologue as well.


Lastly, on the Cecil Taylor-and-drummers tip (discussed two posts back), I had a real moment with the Taylor/Max Roach duo disc, "Historic Concerts," the other day (actually the moment was technically with the second disc of the two in the set, each of which features a continuous 40-minute juggernaut). I had never truly connected w/ this release back in the day when I first heard it while researching a story on the 2000 reunion concert at Columbia (reviewed here by Ben Ratliff). But coming back to it, it made so much sense; it may be one of my favorite Cecil discs period. Once Max dispenses with his loopy gongs, vibraslap and g├╝iro, he just starts burning in free time on the kit. For some reason, I had remembered his playing as being so much more straight-ahead, but there are many moments on this disc where if I heard it blind, I'd immediately think of a more bullish, martial Andrew Cyrille. There is one passage of overt swinging near the end and Cecil responds with absolute glee. As for the rest of Taylor's performance, let's just say that people fall over themselves to point out passages where his "tender" side comes out, but I've never heard him play anything even remotely as quietly beautiful as some of the calmer moments on this session. It's straight-up balladic at times, connecting directly with a great Roach quote from the Mandel book:

"I remember that time in his loft on Chambers Street, prior to our first Columbia concert. I said, 'Cecil, we've talked about a lot of things, but is there anything you feel you'd like to hear from me?' And he said, 'Yes, come to think of it. Most people don't know when I'm playing a ballad.' I said, 'Ok, why don't you give me some ideas.' So he went to the piano and played himself, Cecil Taylor. It was beautiful, but it was still Cecil. It was still in that complex range where I could just play out on it, or bash on it, or lay out, or do something very simple. It just *worked*.'"

You'll hear that on this record. (Cough, go here, cough, via Vanish Yourself.)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

I got the news

Here is the setlist from Steely Dan's performance tonight at the Beacon Theatre:

Instrumental intro/The Fez

The Royal Scam

I Got the News

Showbiz Kids

Everything You Did

Two Against Nature

Hey Nineteen


Babylon Sisters

New Frontier [from Donald Fagen's "Nightfly"]

Gaucho [lead vocal by Walter Becker (!!!!)]

Glamour Profession

Parker's Band [lead vocals by backup singers]


Black Friday

[band intros]





Don't Take Me Alive

Kid Charlemagne


As you can see, the gig was totally packed with obscurities, which was pretty much cool by me, though I definitely heard some grumbling in the crowd. Taking a bathroom break during Parker's Band--a weird, glitzy bebop satire from "Pretzel Logic" that I've never gotten into--I heard a woman on her way out to the lobby whine, "When are they going to play something that anyone's ever heard?"

As incredible as the Dan is at its best, the Fagen/Becker catalog is weirdly hit-or-miss. I dislike vast portions of the aforementioned "Pretzel" ("Any Major Dude..." being my one real keeper) and a handful of songs apiece off of "Katy Lied," "Countdown to Ecstasy" and "Gaucho" (not to mention the majority "Two Against Nature," which I've never really connected with at all, though I'm pretty psyched on the most recent one, "Everything Must Go"). "Aja" might not be my favorite Dan album, but it's definitely the most consistent, with nothing I tend to skip outright.

Anyway, so the fact that the set was so heavy on deep-album tracks was largely awesome but at times a drag. I have to admit that once the crowd got onboard for the string of hits at the end ("Peg," "FM" and then the incredible "Kid Charlemagne" finale) the concert definitely hit its peak fun level (tanned boomers dancing in the aisles, etc., just like when I saw Paul Simon at BAM). As for the nonhits, the less-exciting ones ("Parker's Band" being one) were entirely dwarfed by the way-way-too-good-to-be-true, are-they-reading-my-mind one-two consecutive jam-out of "Gaucho" and "Glamour Profession." Walter Becker sang lead on "Gaucho" and his scratchy, laid-back delivery totally nailed the loopy poignancy of the song, surely one of the weirdest in Dandom (if you're not familiar with the lyrics--which, as Becker recently told me, deal with "the relations of commerce superimposed on the relations of the human heart... with some interesting fashion touches and local color"--you're really missing out). "GlamPro" has long been a fetish object among me and the other members of my neighborhood Dan cult (basically, the dudes in my band, and anyone we happen to encounter who's as obsessed as we are). This version was sublime: Slick, buoyant groove, accented by a gorgeous pink lighting scheme. I really felt that bubbly L.A. drift, the siren song of the high life that "Gaucho" (the record, not the song) spends most of its playing time chronicling and eviscerating. Also, something to cross of my Bucket List [barfs]: I actually heard Donald Fagen sing a) "6:05 / Outside the stadium / Special delivery for Hoops McCann," b) "Crashing the backboard / He's Jungle Jim again" and c) "Jive Miguel / He's in from Bogota / Meet me at midnight / At Mr. Chow's / Szechuan dumplings / After the deal has been done." For real. I'm majorly bummed that Joe and I didn't get to experience this together; he is my GlamPro bro.

Anyway, so those two were the biggest delights for me. Was also psyched to hear my fave tune from "Everything Must Go," the playfully sinister "Godwhacker," as well as "Everything You Did," the penultimate track from "The Royal Scam." I'd always found that one slight, but the "I never knew you..." chorus grabbed me hard tonight. I remember having a similar epiphany re: "I Got the News" the last time I saw the Dan, at Jones Beach in summer of '06.

In comparison with that show--which holds a special place in my heart due to it having been a deep hang with best buds--I think this one may have actually sounded better and more sumptuous. Of course there's going to be more control over that in an indoor setting, but in particular, Fagen's voice was totally on tonight. He was basically able to hang with the holy-shit-this-sounds-exactly-like-the-record standard set by the rest of the band. This was encouraging, since I'd often felt that his voice had really lost its luster in the past few years, turning thin and weak. I'd go so far as to say that I think his performances on "Two Against Nature" (sorry, I just don't like that album at all) and "Morph the Cat" seem like a faint echo of how he once sounded. But tonight he sounded full-bodied and way soulful.

And what can you say about the band? They sound phenomenal. Only 12 pieces, but it's truly a pop orchestra. Drummer Keith Carlock is like some hulking ape of smooth funk, gyrating wildly and just dropping tons of sickness. A keen steward of the groove, for sure. (Speaking of which, ultralanky drummer Ari Hoenig absolutely killed it in the opening set by organist Sam Yahel's band, which had a cool, complex yet laid-back postbop vibe that took me to Larry Young Country.) Jon Herington slays just fine, nodding to all the most beloved parts of the classic Dan guitar solos. Though it's really Becker who steals the show with his badass obbligatos, delivered while his upper body gyrates nerdily in a birdlike manner. And I can't fail to mention the genuine graciousness of both Fagen and Becker in MC mode. There's a bit of playing around--like the groaner of a monologue leading up the "Cuervo Gold" refrain in "Hey Nineteen," delivered last time by Fagen but here by WB--but anyone who harps on their aloofness needs to see them live: When Becker came out for the encore and said, "New Yorkers are the best people in the world," I felt a swell of real camaraderie. Fagen talked less, but he was totally radiant. He was definitely thrilled to be there, or he was doing an amazing job of faking it.


Now obviously there's a pretty powerful anthropological aspect involved in attending a Dan show at this juncture in time, especially on the Upper frickin' West Side and especially in balmy weather. Basically you've got swarms of boomer dad types decked out in pastel Polo shirts and khaki shorts, accessorized with topsiders (god, who am I to call anyone out on this? I've been wearing nothing but...) and sweaters knotted about the neck. And then you've got those more classic-rock-dad dudes who are there with their sons and who buy the newest Dan shirts at the concession stand and wear them during the show and then also flaunt other dad-rock accessories such as a hat from the latest Bruce Springsteen tour. And then there are the tipsy moms out to party and dance. You're watching these folks get down and whoop for tunes like "Hey Nineteen" and you're like, "Do you people realize that you ARE these songs???" In other words, right before your eyes, these barbed critiques of luxury and nostalgia become the soundtracks thereto.

Anyway, this all speaks to something I've been thinking a bit about, namely that it's really hard to be a serious Dan fan and not be really snobby about it. Once you realize that there's something to "get" in the Dan's music--namely that the lyrics are really, really dark and twisted and that the smooth veneer of the music offers an ironic counterpoint to these moods--you immediately start to feel superior to all those classic-rock heads who jam out mindlessly to "Reelin' in the Years" on the radio.

You wonder where Fagen and Becker stand on all this. Do they look down on their audience, or disdain them for exemplifying decadent bourgeois laziness? They sure didn't seem to be looking down on anyone tonight and in the aforelinked interview, Becker told me that he felt that the songs should work (i.e., function as enjoyable music) whether the listener grokked the extent of the inherent ironies or not. So: Attending a Dan concert, it's easy to feel that you're the only one who's really getting it, or as though your understanding of the motivations of the music is way closer to that of its creators than the rest of the audience's. You feel a license to be snobby about it b/c Becker and Fagen have at times cultivated an image of intellectual elitism bordering on snideness. But again, it doesn't really hold up when you see a show. This music *can*--and does, nightly, in front of thousands of people--function as classic rock, albeit a particularly supple, jazzy strain.

All of which brings me to Don Breithaupt's "Aja" book, the latest volume in the 33 1/3 series of pocket-sized volumes, each dealing with an album in the canon of broadly defined pop music. It's a very fascinating read, and one which plays into the whole conundrum (or maybe let's call it a phenomenon, or a symptom, or somesuch, of Dan love) I mention above.

Basically, as plainly as I can state it, the book is a case for Steely Dan's sophistication, and moreover, for that sophistication being measurably *better* or more favorable than the various approaches taken by "normal" rock/pop artists that were active around the time of the Dan's masterwork. Styx, Journey, Boston, Flock of Seagulls--these are just a few of the bands to come under fire in the book, usually via various snide asides. I sometimes felt there was a little too much of that reactionary perspective (i.e., loving the Dan doesn't necessarily mean disdaining something like Journey), but when you get down to it, the Dan *is* more sophisticated than the vast majority of pop. It's only when you take that extra step and say "The Dan is therefore quantifiably superior to the vast majority of pop" that you run into trouble, at least in my book.

This attitude sort of plays into what I was discussing earlier, i.e., the policing of how nonaficiandos dig the Dan, like it's not okay if you just like "Rikki" and "Reelin' in the Years" and if you're not hip to all the session lore and the lyrical references and all the other rarefied mythology that surrounds the band. I've been just as guilty as anyone of all this, and I will almost certainly continue to be. I'm just sort of trying to point out that I experienced a little bit of what was probably healthy self-awareness at tonight's show, esp. during "Kid Charlemagne," when I was dancing and whooping it up along with everyone else. Put it this way: Was the middle-aged couple across the aisle from me enjoying themselves any less because they didn't realize they were grooving out to the chronicle of a crumbling Bay Area drug empire?

Even though deep down, many of us might realize that we'd do well to turn down the cultishness a notch when obsessing over the Dan, that won't stop us from, well, obsessing over the Dan, which becomes pretty much a full-time concern once you've jumped into the deep end the way I did when "Here at the Western World" shredded my psyche a few years back. And in light of that, Breithaupt's book is a great read, packed with illuminating minutiae.

As Joe had pointed out to me, this is really a music-theory book, and much of the discussion is given over to harmony (and therefore, unfortunately, lost on my theory-challenged consciousness). But there's also some great poetic analysis (I'll never be able to hear the opening verses of "Black Cow" the same again, since reading Breithaupt's analysis of the enjambment at play, i.e., you can either hear "They saw your face / On the counter" or "On the counter / By your keys") and session gossip, including a great unpacking of the legendary "Peg" guitar-solo controversy (alluded to in this mindblowing clip from the life-changing "Classic Albums" DVD on Aja). There's also great information re: the context into which Aja was born--Breithaupt knows his '70s rock and pop cold--and Becker and Fagen's jazz influences. Basically this is the kind of book that fills in all the hard facts behind the cliches. Yes, Becker and Fagen were combining jazz with pop, but *how*? Breithaupt gets down into the dirt and dissects these songs on a musicological level, in the process classifying them as something sui generis (which they most certainly are) and distinguishing them from any other contemporary "fusion" experiments (dig Fagen's dis on early electric Miles: "And 'Bitches Brew' was essentially just a big trash-out for Miles. I haven't really changed my mind about that").

So in other words, a fantastic money-where-his-mouth-is argument on behalf of the intensely purposeful craft and artfulness of this classic pop music. When the praise gets too hyperbolic or the counterexamples too dismissive--not to mention when Steve Gadd's solo on "Aja," a laughably clunky and indulgent slopfest, receives yet another thoughtless panegyric--maybe it's only natural to squirm, but sift out the factual nuggets themselves and you've struck Dan gold.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

MOC, fyi (again)

A quick thank you to Howard Mandel and the JJA for a very enjoyable awards ceremony yesterday at Jazz Standard.

Additional thanks is due to Howard for his new Miles Ornette Cecil tome, which I just finished. I had written before (go here and scroll down toward the bottom) about the endearingly personal, subjective tone of the book, but as I moved through it, I started to feel that its strongest feature is actually the outstanding array of interviews it features and the skillful way they're woven together.

Aside from a brief, though fascinating, interview with Miles, the Davis chapter is more about Mandel's engagement with Davis's recordings. The Ornette section, though, is a virtuoso composite portrait that really could function as a standalone book. Mandel gets extensive face time with Coleman, though the saxist often speaks in cryptic existential musings. But what really blew me away was the series of passionate and candid interviews with Ornette's sidemen: You get Charlie Haden's boundless reverence, Dewey Redman's slightly skeptical yet nevertheless devoted take on being Ornette's faithful "foil" (he calls critics out for overusing that term) and Don Cherry's thoughtful unpacking of harmolodic theory. Not to mention the wealth of conversations with lesser-known Coleman collaborators, such as guitarist Chris Rosenbering, who recalls an audition with Ornette where the saxist improvised brilliantly on a Bach prelude without any prior knowledge of the chords or key.

The Cecil section also features some valuable musician commentary, most notably a groundbreaking section that details the pianist's fruitful relationships with a variety of legendary drummers. There's commentary from Ed Blackwell (who actually did play with Cecil in the '60s though we sadly have no document of that pairing) and a remarkable extended interview with Max Roach where he makes this succinct case for Cecil's maverick path:

"Cecil to me is more like Bud [Powell] than a person who imitates Bud, just as Anthony Braxton is more like Charlie Parker than a person who imitates Charlie Parker."

There's also some nice commentary on the Cecil Taylor/Elvin Jones hookup, an important collaboration that's way underdocumented on record. Anyone have any bootlegs of their Blue Note duos? I was lucky enough to hear one live, but I wasn't really savvy enough at the time to know what a special occurrence I was party to.

Mandel's first extended interview with Taylor is another treat. It's obvious that Cecil was only really half-cooperating, but there are some important insights, namely a section where Cecil notes, "...there are a group of [my] pieces that have emerged in the last four years that I think I want to play as long as I live... "Beautiful Young'un," that piece really turned me on to certain things at a certain point, that's one of those favorite songs."

Now it's obvious that Cecil is very much a composer, but since the tightly arranged works of his late '70s band, it's been hard to really tell if Cecil was actually composing, or merely playing extemporaneously inside a predetermined focus area. The idea of Cecil having "tunes" or set pieces that he works with is weirdly fascinating, since, given the way the pieces on his records are labeled (i.e., to my knowledge, not a single title has ever been reprised), you'd think each concert brought with it a new set of parameters. Though, as I've noted on here before, I do agree with Gary Giddins (I think it was him who said this first) in thinking that Cecil's work can often seem like one monolithic piece, examined from countless different angles over years and years.

Anyway, I digress. This book is a great mixture of critical commentary and potent musicology. No one who has an enthusiasm for these three musicians will walk away from it without some new insight on the men and their work.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Way more than a Few: Bobby Few and Sonny Simmons live in Philly, 6/14/08

Had the immense pleasure of hearing Sonny Simmons and Bobby Few perform as a duo last night as part of Ars Nova Workshop. Setting was impossibly elegant: Third floor of the Philadelphia Art Alliance, like an early-20th-century salon at some beautiful old library. You can tell it's mostly chamber music they put on there but this was something more electrifying.

Few and Simmons were about a half hour late going on. Simmons strode out and made instant amends with a typoically charming, semirakish banter/apology (his is the kind of sly, good-natured humility that you can't stay, or even get, mad at). They launched right into what I assume was an original piece, the only one on a program made up mostly of standards.

But these had to've been the free-est, most gut-busting standards I've ever heard, the epitome of that jazz phenomenon--*the* jazz phenomenon in a lot of ways--where the pieces are internalized so completely that it seems as though the musicians are just speaking passionately about topics dear to them. We got a soaring, brilliantly ornamented "Round Midnight"; an immensely ballsy, grinding blues that Simmons announced as a Nat King Cole tune; a "Night in Tunisia" that seared despite its moderate tempo; and--get this--a concluding version of "It Was a Very Good Year"--kicked off by an endearingly amateurish, yet totally commanding, Simmons vocal--that made the Sinatra (via Ervin Drake) chestnut seem like maybe the most poignant and profound melody ever.

Really what it was about for me, though, was simply drinking in the sounds these players were throwing down, sounds I'd internalized and held close to my heart for years via records. I'd seen Simmons live once before--as a guest with reedist Brandon Evans's group in the basement of CBGB--but he seemed to be in a bad way that night and sat out for most of the set. Tonight, it was like 1966 all over again: I'm not kidding when I feel as though this gave me some taste of what it must've been like to hear Eric Dolphy (one of Simmons's most beloved inspirations, to judge by his frequent dedication pieces) live. Simmons's speed is demonic, his passion furious. He plays turbobop, bubbling off a scorching run and then swooping upward in these breathtaking hawklike runs, culminating in a tart, alarmingly urgent upper register that sounds like a complacency-wrecking alarm.

Few was there, so there, when Simmons was playing, but you wouldn't have even noticed. And this is meant in the best possible sense, the sense relating to a *true* accompanist. Playing alongside Simmons, Few disappeared--as he's done with Booker Ervin, Albert Ayler, Noah Howard, Steve Lacy and many others over his four-decade-plus career (check out my Destination Out Few mixtape for some context)--serving not so much as another player but as a platform, a gilded pillow for the saxist to perch on.

When he was left alone, it was like an intimate romance between Few and the instrument. All these metaphors I'm using seem silly to me, but they're the only verbal devices that fit. Few was straight-up massaging the piano. He is all over the thing at all times, coaxing the melody out and swathing it in radiant hues. Hearing him live is like a mist, a balm, a bath, or being draped in some kind of luxurious robe. It's a sense of warmth and abundance of sound that I've never experienced before hearing a pianist live. (To say nothing of those daredevil full- or half-keyboard slides, the most tasteful and marvelously controlled I've seen, like the heavenly, majestic version of Jerry Lee Lewis...)

It took these two veterans years and years to find each other, but damn, I'm glad they did. As hinted at in my D:O post, there is a new duo CD, True Wind, available via Simmons's private label, Hello World!. It's a limited edition, so go, now. God, what a phenomenal show this was...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Day "two": Becker/Few

A happy day, bringing with it the publication of two recent projects--one apiece for "Outs" Time and Destination--that I'm thrilled about:

[Note re: the following link---Time Out's website is acting up today, so you may get an error message or an excruciatingly slow loading time. If that happens, please check back later today or tomorrow; everything should be all set by then.]

--> A (very, very) extended interview with Walter Becker of Steely Dan--on the occasion of both his awesome new solo disc, Circus Money, and this summer's extensive Dan tour--via Time Out New York, which deserves special props for agreeing to print such a lengthy conversation, pretty much in its entirety. Yes, we talked about "Yacht Rock" (!), and I received some really valuable insight into Becker's feelings on the brilliant dissonance between the Dan's smooth sound and cutting lyrical content. Had the pleasure of speaking with Donald Fagen a few years back, but he was nowhere near as candid.

-->An hour-long, annotated MP3 mixtape, via the awesome folks over at Destination Out, surveying the career of expatriate piano veteran Bobby Few, one of my all time favorite jazz musicians.

I hope you dig!

Monday, June 09, 2008

No names: Little Women + Ideal Bread

Jazz is a music polluted by names. This might seem like a fine, irrelevant or wrongheaded point, but it actually might turn a lot of people off. There's something awesome about a band name--The Misfits, Samhain, etc. It's like the name of a gang, or a sports team. A personal name could signify anything: a politician, a captain of industry, etc. Unless you happen to have a really awesome name (one of the few aesthetic virtues I'll concede to John Zorn), it's just not all that cool to perform under your official title in the world. Not that there aren't a million rock musicians who do this, but there are far less jazz musicians who go in for the band-name thing (without the crucial distinction of affixing their name to the beginning, i.e., JoBob Jenkins's Rebop Allstars).

Anyway, not to overstate things, but the topic's on my mind since I saw two outstanding jazz groups this weekend, both anteing up rock-style and going by a bona fide Band Name. I feel much cooler writing that I heard great sets by Little Women (pic'd above) and Ideal Bread than saying the same about Travis Laplante, Darius Jones, Ben Greenberg and Jason Nazary; or, for that matter, about Josh Sinton, Kirk Knuffke, Reuben Radding and Tomas Fujiwara.

Li'l' Women I heard as part of a concert that I also participated in. This took place Saturday at the awesome mansionlike Bushwick home of several of my friends, where there were some art installations going on; wish I had the link to the related website, but I can't dig it up. Anyway, my recently formed band Blouse--me drumming, Laal Shams on (unholy, shrieking) vocals and, in this incarnation, Tony Gedrich on bass--made our live debut and put on what I felt was a successful performance. In any event we had a lot of fun. Several other great sets occurred--including a new duo featuring Alexander P. from the excellent Animal, with whom STATS shares the Tommy's Tavern "stage" this coming Friday the 13th.

Anyway, the Women were the headliners though and they killed me the hardest. If you've not experienced them you should hear them live, definitely (they're at Zebulon in Wmsburg this coming Wednesday, 6/11), though their debut CD/LP, Teeth--available via the Sockets label-- ain't shabby at all. Basically this is noise-punk-jazz, performed by individuals who understand--would you believe it?--noise, punk and jazz. Crossover/fusion/what have you, it's more difficult than it sounds. You've got Mahavishnu Orchestra... and maybe that's it, in terms of ensembles who have truly comprehended and internalized the whole balls vs. improvisational acumen thing; it's rarely happened RIGHT since hardcore blew things wide open. No particular need to flog this horse more, but no, I'm not a Naked City fan.

[After thinking a bit on this, I feel that I also ought to mention Last Exit, whom I enjoy but not to the degree that I feel I'd want to, given my deep love for both Sonny Sharrock and Peter Brotzmann, as well as Black Flag, who most certainly got the punkjazz thing dead right on works such as "The Process of Weeding Out." Coptic Light, sadly defunct magmalike free-rock trio, also deserves mention for furthering the concept of modern fusion.]

Little Women though is an extremely HARD band. Last night in an unforgiving concrete basement, they were punishing. The music is built of spastic splatterpunk riffs--intricate yet whiplash-bestowing--played by the quartet (Laplante on tenor, Jones on alto, Greenberg on guitar and Nazary on drums), followed by various group atomizations. There are elements of necromantic Free Jazz at work here, certainly, but what really excites me about the band is the way they emphasize all kinds of subgroupings and plotted freedoms.

Last night, for example, we got some absolutely brutal and ultradense sound sprays from Greenberg (if you don't know him, he is and has been in like 6000 vanguard aggressive bands, e.g., Cutter and Zs and Archaeopteryx) duetting with Nazary. But the realest sparks I thought came from Laplante and Jones, who have an insane mental and sonic lockup. They "duo" in the way that soloists "solo," namely they've perfected a method wherein they can both rocket forward headlong and intertwine with absolutely sound logic yet without obvious response cues or cliched interactivity. They play OVER each other more than WITH each other; watching them play--often actually staring each other down---is like watching two rams in one of those epic eternal headbutt battles. Constant, lavalike flow but both voices are there and distinct. Don't even get me started on the ultraperverse, somehow weirdly Pissed Jeans-esque sobbing-and-vomiting-into-upturned-horns piece they use to end their sets. Last night, Greenberg hit the lights during this and it was like an actual haunted house. Scary and incredible, the REAL punkjazz and most certainly an example of a moniker-earning BAND rather than a collection of players, etc.


If Little Women is subversive/confrontational/marauding, Ideal Bread has a certain reverent quality about them. And it makes sense given that they are indeed a tribute band, playing Steve Lacy's music exclusively. Their debut CD-R (pic'd above), gettable from KMB Jazz, is one of the few tribute CDs I've ever found truly worthwhile (see also, uh, Lacy's Reflections) and in general really something else--I state that a tad more eloquently in the latest issue of The Wire, with Carla Bozulich on the cover--but they were, as one would hope, even better live when I saw them tonight as part of a KMB festival at the new Douglass Street Music Collective (formerly the Center for Improvisational Music). (Gotta give brief props to Ras Moshe, who was absolutely burning in classic free-jazz mold when I entered, along with the very sick and supple drummer Rashid Bakr, of Other Dimensions in Music fame.)

Continuing with Thee Theme of Thee Poste, Ideal Bread is most certainly a band. As far as I know the lineup has been steady for several years and these players really, really inhabit this music. Lacy--I'll spare you the whole "I'm obsessed" rant; lord knows I've been down that road--was an ultraprolific composer, but one who hasn't really been reckoned with as such, and as the Ideal Bread mission statement seems to go, the band is attempting to tackle that reckoning as Lacy did for Thelonious Monk. It remains to be seen whether Ideal Bread will stick it out as long as Lacy rocked Monk (over 40 years), but they seem well on their way.

I was surprised when I heard their CD that their Lacy predilections seemed weirdly identical to mine, in that they pay special attention to some of the obscure Lacy records that have knocked me down most, namely the astounding mid-'70s joint Trickles, and the astounding late-'70s joint Capers (reissued as N.Y. Capers and Quirks). Both feature Lacy outside his way-sympathetic stably staffed Sextet but in equally fruitful company. As on the CD, IB took on "Trickles" and "Quirks" tonight along with another favorite, the Johnny Hodges dedication "Esteem."

"Trickles," which opened the set, demonstrated the band's mastery of the material. The piece has this very strange, playful opening passage that on the original record is played sort of out of time, with the instruments hovering and floating around one another. IB nailed that section, perfectly capturing its weird weightlessness, and moved confidently into the manic marchy section that follows.

They really killed it on "Esteem" as well, a droning, luminous yet ominous piece that features one of Lacy's most arresting melodies; grand, imposing, somewhat terrifying. I noticed on this piece--which flowed uninterrupted out of "Trickles"--how naturally the improvisations grew from the heads. There was a sense of jumping into spontaneity, but doing so confidently, with a clear compass. Kirk Knuffke on trumpet took an incredible solo here--one of several throughout the evening--showing off his remarkably round tone and patient phrasing. Josh Sinton's statement was killer as well, focusing on an upper register of the horn that actually fell in the Lacy-an soprano range. But he also went for the burly bottom of the instrument, providing nice contrast. Drummer Tomas Fujiwara brought the closing head to an awesomely anguished climax with some muscular bashing.

Fujiwara and bassist Reuben Radding kept things extremely funky in general, trading fours on the last piece ("Baghdad," an unrecorded composition that was apparently Lacy's final tune) and Duo-ing in the intensely intertwined mode of Little Women's Laplante and Jones on "Quirks."

All in all, there was a simple lesson being played out, namely that really knowing the music frees you up to extrapolate from it. Ideal Bread is playing Steve Lacy's pieces, but it's also putting in the time to own those works and respond to them emotionally. Sinton and Knuffke especially emanated feeling; their solos gave a sense of meditating on and communing with the compositions. I really, really hope they keep this project up; selfishly, for one, because I adore Lacy's music, but also because it really seems to be getting them places as individual improvisers and yes, as a BAND.


Several more quick items:

*Vision Festival XIII looms. Schedule here. And warm up with some incredible footage of the 1985 Vision Fest here (Brotzmann, Ware, Wright, Gayle, Moondoc and more; holy moses) and here (Kowald, Gayle, Crispell, Ali).

*I adore the song "Don't Call Me in the Morning" (listen here) and the album "Free at Last" by Josh Fix, who is--deep breath--my girlfriend's sister's boyfriend's brother. This is unabashedly Big Pop of the sort that very few Cool people would ever want to admit to liking but secretly obsess over. It's like Elton John and Queen viewed through the lens of the Foo Fighters and Radiohead. Maybe? Or it's just incredibly skillful deployment of pristine tension-release song structure and artful bombast (e.g., boogie-time piano of the Billy Joel via Ben Folds varietal). This guy has like nine songs on a twelve-song album that you will not be able to stop singing no matter what and that is a pretty astounding feat. I'm really, really impressed with this stuff.

*Check out this somewhat underannotated but still quite intriguing audiovisual archive of Juma Sultan--whose most famous gig was playing percussion with Hendrix--which features a lot of nice loft-era free jazz live recordings that you can't find elsewhere. Check out for example what--if I'm reading correctly--appears to be a summit meeting between Sonny Simmons, Dewey Redman and the great Barbara Donald (scroll way down here for some thoughts on the former and the latter), and also a soundless yet still great clip of Rashied Ali with James "Blood" Ulmer.

*I was blown away by the sheer out-of-the-blue awesomeness of this encounter between Village Voice food writer Robert Sietsema and gris-gris voodoo bluesman Dr. John. I've always admired both these dudes (Sietsema for his vivid unpretentious prose, safari-like adventuresomeness and ability to induce mouthwatering) and Dr. John for his badass rakish mojo, and I'm just intensely delighted by the idea of these two chilling over way-spicy Chinese food.

*Speaking of dudes who expertly abet the Band in "The Last Waltz," dig this INCREDIBLE Van Morrison concert from 1974, streaming for free from a cool new site called--I'd never utter this and I'm even reluctant to type it--Wolfgang's Vault. You have to register but it's totally free. This Van hit in my opinion way outdoes the somewhat overrated "It's Too Late to Stop Now," featuring as it does songs from the holy pair of free-soul LPs, "Astral Weeks" and "Veedon Fleece" (I never thought I'd hear "Streets of Arklow" done live), not to mention a mindblowing cover of Dylan's "Just Like a Woman" and some hilariously surly audience upbraiding (skip to 5:08 in "Try for Sleep"), i.e. "If you shut your mouth you may get what you want. Otherwise, you're just, like, boring me to death and probably everyone else here." W.H.O.A.!!!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Where I been

Don't know quite how, but there went a week with no posts. I guess a lot of it was that I was focused on preparing for this past Saturday's STATS show, our first in four months as previously reported. Might as well call it what it was for me, namely an awesome time. Here is a representative clip from our performance (Laal and I cobought a DV camera and these are the first fruits; a little blurry, but hey...):

Another full song can be found here. Hope you enjoy. I'm really psyched about the current direction of the music. I can't speak for my longtime colleague Joe, but the goal for me with this band has always been to achieve something that my high-school self would've been really into, and I feel that that's the case.

Was an immense pleasure to perform with Liturgy, Maw and Yukon. The former, the solo project of Hunter from the ever-incredible Birthday Boyz, continues to evolve; currently it's like a Venn diagram of drone, black metal, chant, math rock and laser-beam sounds from Contra. It's a white-hot mood; insular, scary, transcendent; very, very truthful. Maw simply rips, a serrated riff factory. Phil Kennedy remains an awe-inspiring percussionist (someone please make a Timber MySpace page), as you can see/hear for yourself. Speaking of awe-inspiring percussionists, Yukon's Nick Podgurski is now not only that but an incredible vocalist. Yukon debuted its new trio lineup, and basically where it was once the unholy spawn of Faraquet and Lynx (though maybe better than either), it's now like a balls-out Afropop-laced Genesis or something. Seriously this shit was just plain NEW. Everyone was freaking out. Have some viddy of this too that I hope to post soon.


Sundry other news items:

*On Friday night, I caught a set by Daniel Tosh, perhaps our finest practitioner of Asshole Comedy. Sower of extreme discomfort, sporting a horrific shit-devouring grin and the driest, yet most drippingly venemous sarcasm you can imagine. There's like this terrible curiosity watching him: Is he like this in real life? You know he can't possibly be, but you wonder. Character or caricature? Fucked up and undeniably hysterical.

*A cousin of Asshole Comedy is Nihilistic Horror. "The Strangers" isn't quite "Cabin Fever," but it paints a none too optimistic picture of Man. Did not unreservedly love this, but was most certainly scared shitless. Laal and I were clutching each other relentlessly and I jumped like six times whenever the guy next to me adjusted his feet. Some sketchy yet very compelling backstory makes this home-invasion nightmare very, very--as Laal put it--sad. It's no "Funny Games." You don't want to see these people terrorized. They're not only glamorously attractive, they're endearing. As for the villains, they're mainly terrifying in their ephemerality. You don't really ever see them. Maybe, though, someone needs to call for a moratorium on the whole spooky-doll-masks and burlap-head-coverings thing. It seems like there is no horror movie that doesn't go for that instantly spooky thing of facial concealment via some cliched childlike or "creepily makeshift" implement. But hey, it scared the shit out of me nonetheless. This is by no means a pleasant movie, but it does its job well.

*As does Howard Mandel's new book Miles Ornette Cecil, which I'm only about 60 pages into but very psyched to be reading. What's got me most excited up to this point--aside from some very astute close listening to Miles's early electric music, and a dead-on portrayal of the Shorter-Hancock-Carter-Williams quintet as "cognizant of the freedoms broached by players associated with the nominal avant-garde, though they voiced no allegiance to it" (probably why great but somewhat myopic books like As Serious As Your Life are needlessly dismissive of, for one, Williams's brilliance; Williams, Steve Lacy reminds us in Conversations made magical music w/ Cecil Taylor back in the '60s)... Whoa that's a long sentence; I'll start over. What's got me most excited is Mandel's fearless (that's Joe's dead-on designation) subjectivity. This book, at least so far, is as much memoir as critical assessment. Mandel traces Miles's career as he traces his own life experience. Miles is for him a constant, an unwavering obsession despite the flux of his personal life, and as anyone who is preoccupied with music (some of us are sometimes referred to as "critics" because we publish, but really we are die-never FANS) can tell you, this is really how we experience our favorite musicians: as something like lifelong friends. Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor, Craw, Cheer-Accident, Booker Little, Andrew Hill, John Fahey, Paul Simon, The Misfits, Morbid Angel, Rush. Everyone's canon is different, but these are some of the artists that I personally TRUST infinitely. "Miles would always be worth hearing, I decided," Mandel writes, and this gets at the way I feel about the aforementioned. Once you're down with an artist in that way--i.e., truly "friendly" with him or her--there's nothing you *don't* want to check out by them. Even the stuff you "dislike" becomes a vital puzzle piece. Miles, Ornette and Cecil are Mandel's personal polestars--though hardly a random grouping; they were all born within four years of one another--and in the introduction he hints the complex relationships that arts writers have with their subjects: We're part awed fans (he recounts, unabashedly, a time when he tugged on Miles's sleeve during an after-party), part obsessive record hounds, part journalist/interviewers. There are so many more angles, but we do whatever we can to get close to these sources of constant inspiration--yes, personally. Mandel writes:

"Critics can't actually remove their personal preferences and/or histories from their considerations; typically we mask our involvements by constructing arguments that pretend to be objective, distanced from the intimate and subjective perceptual experiences that result in our individual tastes. We all know, though we may deny it, that effort is a charade."

Amen. I'm sometimes creeped out when I write and write and write and leave out the "I" because that's what convention dictates. Hence... DFSBP.

*Speaking of being an unequivocal fan, I was fortunate enough to interview Walter Becker of Steely Dan last week. The main occasion--despite an upcoming run of Dan shows at the Beacon--is Becker's outstanding new solo album Circus Money. More on this SOON, I promise.