Sunday, July 27, 2008

On the waterfront: Krallice at Remains

A beautiful waterfront view, free refreshments, twentysomethings milling about on a patio, a cute but unfriendly Beagle, corpse-painted black-metalists, two seemingly fused-together pigs--a mother and its baby, someone said--roasting on a spit. There are probably few locales on earth where such paradoxical sights would be see-able all in one place, but there they were. Having been way behind the curve and not yet having caught Krallice--the new black-metal endeavor featuring Colin Marston of Dysrhythmia and Behold... the Arctopus fame, and Mick Barr of Orthrelm, Octis, Ocrilim, etc.--I headed out to Long Island City with Laal this evening to what I thought was going to be some low-key loft party but was in fact a decently mobbed BBQ/black-metal show at Remains, the gargantuan hangar/workspace of one Matthew Barney.

What to do w/ the high-artification of metal? A quick primer: Barney, one of the most successful avant-garde artists in the world--and auteur of some pretty incredible art flicks, e.g., Cremaster 3--has made no secret of his love for the stuff and featured it in his films in a sort of abstract/conceptual way, presaging the whole Sunn O))) vibe, i.e., the rampant art-gallerization of the metal aesthetic. (Not to mention articles like this.) I'm wary of the whole trend--how could a longtime metal enthusiast not be, at least a little bit?--but what I saw tonight was encouraging: Metal may be going highbrow but it doesn't seem to be alienating the non-beard-scratching set in the process. I saw a merch table from Redrum Records--with all kinds of black, death, thrash, etc., on offer--and plenty of bona fide leather-and-spikes longhairs milling about. I was happy, in other words, to feel quasipreppy and totally out of place.

Krallice--their logo, above, *might* contain their name, but it also might just be really cool to look at--summed up the duality. On one hand, they were totally withering: merciless in that classic black-metal way, where the music seems to approximate horsemen galloping along a frozen plain through howling wind and rain. On the other, though, there were glints of an avant-garde aesthetic: songs that went on long enough to approximate trancey minimalism, plus ultra-alien guitar-chitecture courtesy of Marston and Barr. The music was like a snowballing tank; chugging along, it accrued weight and density and achieved a genuinely epic quality. Barr's vocals were shrieked violently, in a nod to the not-broke-so-no-need-to-fix-it genre convention. There was nothing arty about the presentation whatsoever, just righteous and admirably straightforward rocking and/or blast-beating (drummer Lev Weinstein did an amazing job of keeping a steady, pummeling pulse with just the right amount of embellishment, i.e., very, very little). But knowing Barr's other work, which often touches on a realm that might more accurately be termed modern composition than any sort of metal, let alone rock, it was easy to consider the music outside of its immediate context, i.e., somehow transcendent of its form. When I focused on his trademark filigrees, which really got ample time to breathe, the music took on this dazzling 3-D effect. In other words it was equally appropriate for headbanging and mindwarping.

So I guess the lesson is that there's not much point in being possessive about metal's place in the culture, whether you want to view it as a raw form of folk expression or as some sort of heavily symbolist high-art milieu. The premier bands in the field, like Krallice, hold up just fine under either gaze. (Hear for yourself on their s/t debut CD on Profound Lore; buy here. It's a stunningly atmospheric piece of work; Marston has described his Warr guitar--used in Arctopus--as a hell-harp but his and Barr's work here seems like a far better fit for that tag.)

Ween-ing myself // Cossack's got me feelin' emo-tions

It's been a while since I was really all that into the common social practice known as "getting high and listening to music." Like most, I've participated in my share of it. I have fond memories of junior- and early-high-school hangs in a friend's bedroom, playing Mortal Kombat II and laughing hysterically at a variety of music, some intentionally funny, some not. I can't remember exactly what the playlists were back in those days--maybe there was some Type O Negative? some White Zombie?--but I know they included liberal doses of Ween's Pure Guava CD. One track, "The Stallion, Part 3," was rewound endlessly, especially the little monologue in the middle: "Hey dude, he's the stallion! / Yo dude, he's the stallion! / [and after a priceless little pause] Dude! He's the stallion." One friend of mine in particular was absolutely obsessed with this line and we'd play it over and over and its funniness only seemed to amplify with each spin.

Anyway, those were wonderful times. But I found that over the years, my relationship with the substance in question changed, deepened--maybe "soured" is the best word for it. I couldn't use it without slipping into morbid self-contemplation, an activity to which I'm already somewhat unhealthily disposed. The laughs didn't come as easily, and if they did, they were fleeting, just a prelude to darker emotions. So after a while, I pretty much set it aside altogether.

Seeing Ween at McCarren Pool last night dredged up a lot of thoughts of these adolescent activities and their more troubling adult counterparts, and not because I took in the show in any sort of enhanced state (just one Stella, in fact). What it really was, was that I realized that Ween's music serves as its own kind of marijuanal psychoactor, namely that in its staggering eclecticism, it runs you through the gamut of emotions described above. At various times during this show, I felt like laughing out loud; at others, the urge to cry was nearly overwhelming. I won't pretend that my general state of mind didn't have anything to do with this emotional rainbow, but Ween's music is no playtoy; it's intensely affecting stuff, ricocheting wildly from the ultradumb to the ultradepressive. (I tried to get to the bottom of that dichotomy in this Time Out piece from last year, which includes commentary from Aaron Freeman, a.k.a. Gene Ween.)

The band lets it all hang live. They are, simply put, schlubby-looking. Or at least Freeman is. His partner, Dean Ween (a.k.a. Mickey Melchiondo), has a sort of rugged, fratty handsomeness. Appropriately, his guitarwork--especially in the live setting--is among the wankiest I've ever heard; he can and will solo on any part of any song. Bassist Dave Dreiwitz has a sort of of Jheri curl/mullet. Keyboardist Glenn McClelland looks like a science teacher. Drummer Claude Coleman barely escapes nerd-dom. But Freeman balances him out: An exceedingly diminutive and ill-proportioned (i.e., top-heavy) guy, he takes full advantage of this awkwardness while moving around onstage--appearing most of the time like an asymmetrical cartoon.

If you're not familiar with the band beyond a few of their more above-ground hits, you might not know that with Phish now retired, Ween is maybe the closest thing America has to a Grateful Dead successor. (Think tape-trading, caravan-ing, setlist-posting, etc.) You'd probably encounter similarly swarmlike crowds at a lot of other McCarren Pool shows this summer, but only at this one would you hear a poolful of twenty- and thirtysomethings screaming the phrase "bananas and blow" at the top of their lungs. Ween goes everywhere with its music--from willfully stupid heavy metal to gloriously shaded psych-pop--and its audience remains rapt at all times. Early in the show, I heard a guy nearby invite the girl next to him to retreat to the back and smoke a joint during a song break. Her response was: "Okay, but I need to see what they're playing next. If it's something good, I've gotta stay and listen." Amen.

So back to what I was saying before... It's been a long time since I've *felt* this much at a concert: Grinning amusement ("Touch My Tooter"), cringe-ish discomfort ("The HIV Song"), righteous headbang-itude ("Dr. Rock," which couldn't have been heavier or more ballsy) and deep, weird malaise ("The Argus"). Ween's thing is this: Dabble, but dabble *hard*. Gimmick pieces like "You Fucked Up" become mantras in their hands; in place of the thousands of in-jokes that most of us have stockpiled by the time we reach adulthood, Ween simply has hundreds of outstandingly memorable (and often, really, really good) songs. (Maybe this diversity explains why Freeman feels compelled to announce to the audience, after every song, that said composition was, in fact, "by Ween.") I was previously familiar with about 90% of Friday's set and I couldn't help but marvel at the real estate Ween had laid claim to in my brain. When one thinks of ironclad back catalogs, one often thinks of someone like Neil Young, but Ween's rock is every bit as classic and maybe even more so for the latter-day hippies that worship the band.

The Grateful Dead reaches new stoners every day, but it also turns a lot of them off, simply because its version of psychedelia doesn't allow for the version that most of us experience in our early days of experimentation: namely the one that's all about video games, junk food, bad movies and yes, really goofy music. Ween took me to this realm on Friday quite a few times, but even without--to Laal's and my dismay--playing Baby Bitch (perhaps one of the most raw, harrowing songs every written; if you're ready, click the title to hear what I mean--it could almost be mistaken for Elliott Smith, though it might be too real even for him), they also took me several times to a place of deep, sublime bummerdom. Freeman seems to know this latter state well. I'll end with an excerpt from our conversation last year that didn't make it into the article linked to above:

HS: A song like “Baby Bitch” is really cutting to the bone.

GW: Yeah, if you knew me [Laughs]—it hasn’t been easy for Gene Ween, that’s for sure. I mean I write about my life; I write about what’s happening to me at the time. And I try not to make it too literal, you know, so that it doesn’t alienate everybody, but yeah, I would say the key word is “intimacy,” for all that. I keep it real, man. Just tryin’ to keep it fuckin’ real, and people respect that.

Indeed we do, Gene.


Here's the setlist [and yes, I was indeed thrilled to hear so much from my favorite Ween disc--and one of the greatest rock records I've ever heard--White Pepper]:

Exactly Where I'm At

Take Me Away

Transdermal Celebration [man, Dean really ripped on that super-poignant intro]


awesome jazzy McClelland keyboard solo-->Even if You Don't [one of the top-five all-time Ween jams for sure]

Learnin' to Live [a seemingly slight tune from La Cucaracha that has really grown on me since I first heard it. an extended and crazily committed riff on horse-racing slang.]

Voodoo Lady

With My Own Bare Hands [containing the hands-down best lyric of 2007: "She's gonna be my cock professor, studyin' my dick / She's gonna get her master's degree in fuckin' me]

Mutilated Lips

Marble Tulip Juicy Tree

Buckingham Green [SO epic, as always]

Spinal Meningitis

Your Party [SO smooth, even without David Sanborn]

The Stallion, Part 5--> Gene's hilarious ye-olde-style Stallion riff

Touch My Tooter


I'll Be Your Johnny on the Spot


The Mollusk [Gorgeous--the first great jam of Ween's deep-psych-pop phase?]

Booze Me Up and Get Me High [Yeah, I'm not so psyched on that country album...]

The Argus

Ocean Man

Waving My Dick in the Wind

Mr. Richard Smoker [woulda rather've heard the almighty "Pandy Fackler," but this ain't too bad]

Fat Lenny


[next was a song I can't identify: I think it contained the lyric "If you wish upon the moon"--help?]

Shamemaker [love that SoCal accent, as potent as it is on the record]



The HIV Song [I guess it's harmless fun, but you can't help but wonder if this has ever caused any really awkward moments for any of the band members]

Bananas and Blow [me and others were really getting down during this one, and rightfully so]

You Fucked Up-->psych jam [couldn't place the riff they were rocking on; I think it was from "Foxy Lady"]

Dr. Rock


And also: Cossack is a band from Los Angeles. STATS--then known as Stay FKD--played with them in Long Beach on tour last December (photo above is actually from that show: 12.9.07 at the Que Sera Bar). I loved them live, but had forgotten how moving their music was. Pulled out their EP recently and was re-floored in a major way. Their "Sounds like" field on MySpace reads: "Alternative rock you wish you listened to during high school." And their influences elucidate that somewhat: "Cap'n Jazz, Owls, Superchunk, Mock Orange, Don Caballero, Sonic Youth, The Van Pelt, Yo La Tengo, Braid, Magic the Gathering." Some of those bands I did listen to in high school; actually only one: Don Cab, and Cossack really sounds nothing like them. Cap'n Jazz I've only heard a little of (gotta love "Little League"), but enough to know that they do in fact sound a lot like Cossack or vice versa. But even though I didn't listen to Cap'n Jazz or--obviously, since they weren't a band then--Cossack in high school, I did become intimately familiar with the sort of breathless, postpubescent yet pre-adult indie-rock/emo that they purvey. It's the sort of rock music that manages to capture the travails and sweeping emotions of adolescence with a remarkable poetic distance and poise yet at the same time embody the sweaty tempestuousness of that time: It's both cerebral and gloriously physical. Hectic, passionately jangly guitars and urgently yelped vocals, often delivered overlappingly by more than one singer. Many folks I know loved at least one band of this sort in high school: I had two favorites in this hard-edged emo realm, Boys Life and Giant's Chair--both obviously KC hometowners, which seems somehow appropriate with music that feels so intimate and tied to a time and place--with generous helpings of Karate (and a little Vitreous Humor) thrown in. Cossack does an amazing job of taking me right back to that mid-'90s feelings-rock sweet spot. Listen to the song "disposable" here and you'll see what I mean... hopefully.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lion-ized // Quiz-zical

Hopefully this MP3 will serve as a detailed demonstration of why you will not hear sicker drumming on a record this year than that perpetrated by Jon Theodore (at left) on the self-titled EP by One Day as a Lion.

One Day as a Lion -
If You Fear Dying

A more-formal review is forthcoming via more-official channels, but I felt I needed to give early warning here, given that I have listened to this five-song compact disc roughly 30 times through since I acquired it just two days ago. I must have completely slept on the advance word, because this is in many ways a Major Release, due to the presence of one Zack De La Rocha, of Rage Against the Machine fame. The band is *only* him and Jon Theodore (the latter of whom did some time w/ the Mars Volta, which seems to be kind of a magnet for the most badass drummers working today: ex-Dazzling Killmen/Laddio Bolocko madman Blake Fleming worked with them prior to Theodore). Anyway, this is a completely, utterly vicious release, with not even the faintest hint of a weak song. More info here, and a different track is hearable here (it might serve as some illustration of the caliber of EP we're talking about here to note that the song linked to just above, "Wild International," and "If You Fear Dying" may actually be the two weakest songs of the five). In short, Jon Caramanica's lukewarm appraisal of the record in the Times baffles me to no end.


Equally as sick, but in a somewhat different sense: Tucked away near the back of this week's New Yorker is a Personal History from none other than Charles Van Doren, otherwise known as the Dude Played by Ralph Fiennes in Quiz Show, otherwise known as the Best Movie Ever Made. Anyone who knows me well knows I'm completely obsessed with that flick in all its 1950s WASPy-intellectual glory and this unprecedented insider glimpse into the events that inspired it is awesome to read. Many of the facts will be familiar to folks who have seen the film, but there's a really painful yet muted poignancy to the piece that could only have come from someone who was there.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Melvin sparks // Knight school // Stick team // Hoofing it

I've enjoyed Paper Thin Walls' Listening Party feature for a while--basically they post a stream of a band's new album and then the members comment on each track--but the new Melvins one has to be the most fascinating yet. Obviously I'm biased, because there are few bands in the universe I'd rather read about, but this strikes me as one of the more laid-back and candid--not to mention technically insightful--Melvins interviews I've ever read. It's fascinating to get Buzz's perspective on the construction of drum parts. And Dale Crover (above, I suspect in high school), who always seemed to be a pretty funny guy, gets in some nice, sly humor; the concluding anecdote is priceless. As I had mentioned previously, the new 'Vins is indeed one of the finer discs I've heard this year. Sort of like a 45-degree turn in each direction away from 2006's (A) Senile Animal (which itself might be the strongest, most re-listenable heavy record of the aughts).

P.S. Definitely, definitely check out the List. Part. feature (the stream has sadly been discontinued, but go here for some songs, including the devastating "My Good Luck") for Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson's new one. I'm hesitant to ride this already overcrowded wave of hype (past a certain point, it seems to me that further gushing only serves to prime an artist for a coming backlash), but this gentlemen is outstandingly talented. Gently psychedelic, world-weary roots pop with genuine flavors of Neil (those doomy, dirgey chords) and Bob (that rambling hick-hop delivery) but more straightforwardly catchy than either. Strong, strong stuff. Fun Fact: MBAR used to be in a band with Phil Kennedy, the monster drummer of local math-metal strike force Maw.


The Dark Knight raises a few questions that are probably best expressed in a Jerry Seinfeld-style "What's the deal...?" harangue. Imagine his voice, etc.

1) What's the deal with Christian Bale's Batman voice?

[Seriously, though, he sounds like that absurdly clenched "This summer..." voice you always hear on the beginning of movie previews. Times 1000.]

2) What's the deal with the script's nosedive into cheesy bombast near the end?

[I feel really, really sorry for Gary Oldman, having been tapped to deliver that stupefyingly ridiculous concluding monologue.]

3) What's the deal with the lamely one-dimensional supporting cast?

[Aaron Eckhart almost made it over the top with his schoolboy naivete, but Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Oldman and all of those guys playing the mobsters have an outstanding amount of explaining to do. Not that it's not at least 50% the fault of the screenplay.]

Let's face it, though, the film couldn't be any more critic-proof. You *are* going for Heath Ledger and you *will* love every scene he's in. Though I was little freaked out by *his* vocal register as well--it sounded weirdly like he was actually trying to imitate Jack Nicholson at times. There's no contest really: This Joker is 1000 times more psychotic, fucked up, genuinely terrifying and *modern* than Jack's was. It's too bad that the rest of the movie fails to transcend basic superhero-flick stiffness.

(There will always be a place in my heart for the original Tim Burton Batman. Bale is a poor substitute for Keaton's ultra-awkward, hilariously self-deprecating Bruce Wayne [see above]. Anyone remember the armory sequence early in the film? ["Cause I bought it in Japan," etc.] Timeless. Also: Robert Wuhl as Alexander Knox? Forget about it. The Dark Knight doesn't have a single role that nuanced and it was really just a bit part!)


Also: This weekend, I laid nonvirtual eyes on the world's largest hockey stick, in Eveleth, Minnesota. Long, long story...


Also: Deerhoof live in Prospect Park--which I previewed--can be heard in gloriously unglitchy streaming audio here.Only the math-rock nerds will notice, but the recent addition of Ed Rodriguez to 'Hoof reunites the classic Dieterich/Rodriguez guitar tandem from Colossamite and Gorge Trio (well, Gorge Trio never really broke up, but still...)! The sound is a little unpunchy, but totally clear and the performance doesn't disappoint (neither does the forthcoming Offend Maggie record, which I've heard snippets of).

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Conversant: Taylor/Oxley at the Vanguard

I've heard Cecil Taylor live at least six times before tonight, maybe more. In fact the inaugural post on this blog, back in October of '06, featured some words on a solo Cecil show (the only one I've seen) at Merkin Hall. I also wrote a more formal review of a Taylor trio set--with Henry Grimes on bass and Pheeroan akLaff on drums--later that same month and then this past February I mused on a slightly different trio lineup I caught (William Parker was in for Henry Grimes). I guess what I'm getting at is, I keep going, trying to catch at least one set every time he plays. Tonight--I almost can't believe I'm typing this because I've waited so long to see this match-up--I went again, this time to hear Cecil in duet with... yeah, Tony Oxley. At the Village Vanguard. Truly, truly, this was something.

So why do I keep going? I've seen my share of disappointing Cecil sets, believe me. Four years ago in July of '04 I caught what I think was the debut of Cecil's thankfully short-lived trio with Albey Balgochian on bass and Jackson Krall on drums. Krall is not the most arresting drummer, but perfectly competent. Balgochian on the other hand... I won't go there. Suffice it to say that this performance--at Castle Clinton--and another one by this same band at the Blue Note--can't locate the date but I think it was '05--were really, really frustrating and it was very easy to pinpoint why.

But tonight shares the distinction--with the solo Merkin set, which so, so took me where I wanted to go--of being the most satisfying Cecil live experience I've had yet. And it summed up why I keep going back, at least in part. It is truly awesome, and exceedingly rare, in our current (urban) world to behold a performer so entirely devoted to concentration, to nearly unbelievable levels of sustained attention and construction. You find this with the truly elite improvisers such as Cecil and Evan Parker (and with Now giants such as Mick Barr). You'll find your attention wandering--as most people's does, no matter how interested you are in something--and you'll snap back and realize: Dear God, Cecil's still at it!

And tonight Oxley was too. The duo has a long history, dating back to '88 (Steve Smith offers a refresher in this week's Time Out NY). Early duets gave way to the justly celebrated Feel Trio with William Parker on bass and then to a more recent trio with Bill Dixon on trumpet. Part of me wishes Parker would sit in for some of this week's Vanguard run--after all, he is, presumably, just across town--but I'm really not complaining.

The two men were a little late emerging--the lights dimmed and then they let the suspense build. Then out they came from the back room, Cecil in his customary do-rag, plus a highly set reddish leather belt, tank top and what can only be termed a little white capelet draped over his back. Oxley in a white t-shirt and droopy black cardigan. They played for roughly an hour and change. One piece of 40- or 50-something minutes--with mini rest spells but no definitive ending until the final one--and one of about 10. Oxley was playing his customary hodgepodge kit--this time with a foot-pedal bass drum, which I believe is often absent from his set-up--outfitted with bongos, small toms, plastic woodblocks, small china cymbals, bells and something that looked like a gigantic rusty cowbell.

Those are the facts, really, but the reality, for me, was more in the shape of the improvising. Many Cecil improvisations of the last 20 years or so take a sort of plateau form, starting sparse and then heating up--either gradually or not--to a point of boiling, where they tend to remain for some obscene length of time, until they slope back down into the original sparseness and end there. Not a plateau structure at all, this set was much more like a series of undulating waves. It had extremely intense crescendos, but they were fleeting. The music never hit that full-throttle stride that many Cecil sets achieve. To someone who came to gawk at Cecil's freak-out tendencies, this might have been disappointing, but I was thrilled. Truthfully Cecil's marathon sets, especially with his less sympathetic groups such as the Balgochian/Krall trio, can often overstay their welcome, as though he plays long past the point when his sidemen have anything left to say. This conversation with Oxley, though, could seemingly continue forever: It wasn't a contest, it was more like a game, testing out various degrees of intensity, but never allowing density and volume to take over. In short it was a marvelous combined feat of concentration, a set completely devoid of cruise-control free jazz, i.e., that so-intense-for-so-long-that-it's-completely-numbing-and-exhausting quality that's almost become an inherent fact of this area of music-making over the years.

By design, Oxley makes brief sounds, quick on the decay, slashing the china cymbal or rolling furtively on a little tom. If you've never heard him, it's like a chandelier tinkling in the breeze, except the chandelier is made of plastic, taut animal skin and jagged metal. The sounds are pointillist, tiny, parched, cryptic. And as a performer, he gives nothing away, completely stonefaced, except when he glances over to give Cecil a sly grin. There is no coasting whatsoever in this man's playing. He is comfortable with silence. He has no interest in what Anthony Braxton has termed the mythology of the "sweating brow"--the idea that apparent physical exertion in a performance automatically signifies aesthetic intensity. Oxley is *not* an intense performer in the traditional sense--the only way I can describe his demeanor onstage is "casual." He flits, pauses, taps, pauses, scrapes, jumbles, pauses some more. It is anti-momentum soundpainting, a study in dryness and precision.

And there was no argument from Cecil. He wasn't trying to push things anywhere Oxley didn't want to go. Not that his was a deferent performance. But it was outstandingly measured. The Cecil hallmarks were there, i.e., a good deal of what I've termed "The Lick" and "The Flurry" (see this earlier post for some--but only some--elucidation), not to mention some nice crab-handed stabs. But what this set was about for me vis a vis the pianism was ATTACK. And not in the offensive sense, but in the sense of coaxing sound from the keys. During the quieter moments in this set--and as I said, it had a fairly regular and rapid ebb-and-flow between frantic and dreamy moments--Cecil demonstrated what was surely the most sumptuous and sophisticated finger attack I've EVER seen/heard. He was summoning the notes, caressing them out, seemingly lifting them from UP out of the keys rather than striking them DOWNward. He sways dancer-like as he plays these balladic passages--it makes me think of a section in Miles Ornette Cecil where Max Roach recalls Cecil saying to him, "No one knows when I'm playing a ballad." Well tonight it was very clear when he was playing a ballad. The set was filled with air-light drifts across the keys; plush, bluesy twinges that you just wanted to bathe in. (Who knows how much of this was preplanned, but there was a lot of scribbled notation on the piano rack in front of him; he cycled through three or four sheets' worth.)

Oxley, inscrutable mostly, shot a few wry smiles Cecil's way during the grittier passages as if to say, "You want to go there? We can visit but we won't stay long." Again, it was anti-momentum, this dialogue. No coasting, no forgetting to listen, just concentration and the purity of the duo. In a historic jazz club, to boot. Oxley finally broke out in full beam when the set was over. It wasn't a sweaty set, a hammer-till-you-drop thing like I've heard Cecil do so often. It was clean, modest, delineated, impossibly eloquent. The conversation could've kept going tonight and will tomorrow, and anyone who descends that Seventh Avenue staircase this week is blessedly lucky to eavesdrop.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Jaki-ing: A Jaki Byard mixtape // Extra-sensory deception?

My dear friend Jeff--we came of age together in KC, where we'll meet up in mid-August; he's now teaching in South Korea--was asking me to define Total Piano, a concept I've often alluded to on this site and elsewhere. I can think of no better way to illustrate the term than with a wealth of examples of Jaki Byard's peerless keyboardism, so here--for Jeff and anyone else who's interested--is...

Jaki-ing: A Jaki Byard mixtape
[a zipped folder of eight MP3s; track listing and credits below]

The main exemplars of Total Piano, as I see things, would be the late Byard (the grandaddy), Bobby Few and Dave Burrell (Burrell's Windward Passages is as total a document of Total Piano as one could ever hope for; truthfully, I'm not sure a more stunning solo piano recording exists). I don't know enough of Don Pullen and Randy Weston to know if they really belong in that company, but from what I've heard, I believe they do. Basically it refers to a pianist who not only has the whole history of jazz, from raw blues, stride and ragtime all the way up through bop and free at their fingertips, but also tends--within a single given performance--to leap impressionistically between these styles in a kind of pastiche sort of way. Listening to Byard improvise is like being inside a whimsical time machine that's given to all sorts of anachronistic juxtapositions. There are obviously musicians on other instruments--like, say, Henry Threadgill or Lester Bowie or actually most musicians of either the AACM or BAG lineages--that exemplify this trait, but on piano--listening to a player like Burrell or Byard who can go from stride to stratosphere in the span of a few bars--the real sweep or panorama of the thing really comes into focus. I'm trying to think of an artist in another realm who really has this mix of classicism and modernism all wrapped into one. Maybe someone like Matthew Barney? Hard to say, but when you listen to a lot of Byard, you learn that eras are slippery and that that historical porousness can make for some of the most gleeful and moving experiences in jazz.

Before I get to the track list--which draws mainly on Byard's superhuman '60s work--I just wanted to point out: Weird to think that all this was going on around the same time as the contents of my last mixtape, which dealt with early free-jazz drum revolutionaries such as Sunny Murray and Milford Graves and their temporal and, sometimes, aesthetic proximities to the inside-outside likes of, say, Tony Williams. The middle '60s is in many ways The Best Time for jazz. Anyway...

1. Charles Mingus Sextet - Fables of Faubus [excerpt] (Mingus)
rec. 3.18.64
Mingus (b), Clifford Jordan (ts), Eric Dolphy (b-cl), Johnny Coles (tp), Byard (p), Dannie Richmond (d)
from "Cornell 1964"
[check out Blue Note's interactive site for Cornell '64, including some nice contemporary video footage of this band.]

2. Sam Rivers - Luminous Monolith (Rivers)
rec. 12.11.64
Rivers (ts), Byard (p), Ron Carter (b), Tony Williams (d)
from "Fuchsia Swing Song"

3. Jaki Byard - St. Louis Blues
rec. 10.31.67 (!)
Byard (p, v), David Izenzon (b), Elvin Jones (d)
from "Sunshine of My Soul"
[Note that a sliver of the brilliantly surreal cover rendering (which I felt compelled to paste below) of Jaki's Falstaffian visage sometimes serves as the patron saint over at Destination Out. Also note that there was another Byard record issued last year entitled Sunshine of My Soul: Live at the Keystone Korner, but that's actually a solo set from '78. Anyone heard it?]

4. Jaki Byard - Diane's Melody (Byard)
rec. 12.16.60
Byard (p)
from "Blues for Smoke"

5. Earl Hines and Jaki Byard - Sweet Georgia Brown
rec. ??.??.72 [can't find recording date for this anywhere; help?]
Hines (p), Byard (p)
from "Duet!"

6. Jaki Byard - Freedom Together (Byard)
rec. 1.11.66
Byard (p, el-p, cel, vb, ts, d), Richard Davis (b, cel), Alan Dawson (d, vb)
from "Freedom Together"

7. Booker Ervin - A Day to Mourn (Ervin)
rec. 12.3.63
Ervin (ts), Byard (p), Davis (b), Dawson (d)
from "The Freedom Book"

8. Jaki Byard - Memories of You
rec. 9.17.68
Roland Kirk (ts), Byard (p)
from "The Jaki Byard Experience"


Some quick notes on the music. I started with Mingus strategically for a few reasons. One, his bands were Byard's first major showcase. More specifically, Mingus was the first to understand the Byard Berth, namely that Jaki needed a lot more SPACE than your average pianist--and not b/c he was a somewhat portly guy. As you'll hear on this glorious "Faubus" excerpt, Mingus and the other members of the '64 sextet were given to leaving Jaki alone--not in the sense of abandonment, but in the sense that they realized he was a man of copious ideas, and that he often needed the freedom to untether himself from the song and Just Play. I won't spoil it for you, but Jaki tiptoes his way here to a *very* familiar melody. This move may have eventually become canned, because you can hear the same allusion in concerts from a few months later, but if you've never caught it before, it's a charming surprise.

Now moving on to the Rivers, you'll see how that band--teaming the leader with his Boston cronies Byard and Williams--also respects the Byard Berth and lets the big man get his willies out at the end of each chorus. Byard keeps taking these little mini-excursions--many are totally unaccompanied--away from the track's hurtling postbop milieu into swaggering boogie-woogie and by about 3:50, Williams has given up trying to fight and just starts swaggering right along with him. Fascinating push-pull here.

(Once you start to notice the Byard Berth, you hear it everywhere the pianist goes: Pick out any record from the Mingus era forward where Byard is a sideman and it's likely there's at least one moment in the session where the band just gets out of the way and lets him indulge his eclectic fantasias, just like Mingus always did.)

This "St. Louis Blues," from Sunshine of My Soul--which boasts one of the most amazing rhythm sections you'll ever check out: David Izenzon on bass and Elvin Jones on drums--is a stunner, both straight and out, with an almost maniacally cartoonish, funhouse quality. Love Elvin's booming, speaking tympanis and Izenzon's brooding arco excursions. Byard gives these sidemen space to shape his session much as others had done for him.

You can't join the Total Piano club without a penchant for dreamy romance. Bobby Few picked this trait up and ran with it, but Byard was walking the walk back in 1960, as you can hear on "Diane's Melody"--written, I'm pretty sure, for his daughter--from his debut album, a fascinating and fully formed solo set called "Blues for Smoke." What can you say about this? It's like an Art Tatum cyborg with an outsized heart and an exaggerated capacity for witty tempo play.

Hard to know who's playing what on that "Sweet Georgia Brown" piano duet w/ Earl "Fatha" Hines but it's a total romp. Virtuoso meets virtuoso. Unlike say the Cecil/Mary Lou Williams pairing, there's no generational or stylistic dissonance. The end result just sounds like one ultradextrous piano titan.

"Freedom Together" is where Byard really geeked out in the studio, playing a bevy of different instruments on one track, including tenor sax, celeste and electric piano. It's kind of a scatterbrained experiment but very good-natured. In a similarly whimsical vein, check on the album "Jaki Byard with Strings," which teams him not with an orchestra, but with guitar, cello, violin and bass. Some really fun and peculiar stuff on that one.

"Freedom Together" convenes the godly rhythm section of Byard, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Alan Dawson, which also appears on the wrenching Booker Ervin ballad "A Day to Mourn" (from "The Freedom Book," a perfect '60s jazz record). One doesn't usually think of Byard for his somber moodcraft, but here he instantly puts you in a rainy frame of mind. Listen to how Davis and Byard go swimming in murky improv waters at about the 2:30 mark. When Ervin returns, it's free-time elegy time.

"Memories of You" is where Byard met his match: Yes, Roland Kirk, the only other m.f. alive who was as insanely agile and omnivorous as he was. The two made Kirk's outstanding Rip, Rig and Panic together (along with Jones) in '65, but here they are on Byard's Jaki Byard Experience sesh and playing as the bossest duo you've ever heard. This is the background music at the saloon in heaven, exploding with bluesy, gutsy invention. Both players are Beyond at all times, Kirk bringing his Total Sax Lungs to bear on Byard's Total Piano Digits, which never sounded more freakishly panoramic.

Anyone know Byard's later work well, e.g., his big band the Apollo Stompers or some of the other solo recordings such as Empirical? Many of his post-'60s records are very tough to find. There's also a Ken McIntyre record featuring Byard that I've got my eye on: the 1975 Steeplechase set Home. If anyone's got this in digitized form, I'd love to hear it.


For more on Byard:

-->Gary Giddins's Byard obituary

I try not to read others' work on a topic I'm about to cover myself, so I haven't made my way through this yet, but the provocative photo caption did catch my eye: "Promethean eclecticism was only the beginning." Maybe, but how to productively argue *past* this core aspect of Jaki's musical persona? I'm sure if anyone has figured out how, it's Giddins.

--> Byard on YouTube, a repost but why not?

--> A nice tribute site helmed by the aforementioned Diane. This loving homage really brings home the tragedy of Byard's violent death: He was shot in his Queens home in 1999.

Lastly, here is my Time Out New York piece on the return of ESP Records, for which I interviewed label founder and president Bernard Stollman. I tried to portray this story in as even-handed a manner as possible. I'm aware that to many musicians, "ESP" is a curse word. The details are still being sorted out. See what Mr. Stollman has to say and decide for yourself.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Freaked // Davis duos // Wain's world

My wonderful sister, Caroline--no, that's not her above!--and I have shared similar tastes in comedy for as long as I can remember. We used to sit and watch '80s classics such as Teen Wolf, Midnight Madness and Police Academies # 3 and 4 (the strongest installments, in my opinion, not to mention Bobcat Goldthwaite's shining-est hours, excepting the time he took a shower onstage at Comic Relief). But I was still a little intimidated when she recently mailed me the complete set of Freaks and Geeks on DVD. I get stressed out when someone lends me one CD to check out--how was I possibly going to find time for an entire TV series?

Well it's about two weeks later, and I've happily made the time. Laal and I were hooked on this from the first episode and we've been averaging about two a day since then. Last night marked the end, and it's very easy to see why there was a fan petition started to get this show back on the air when it was originally cancelled.

If you're not familiar with the show, it's an early production of Judd Apatow, now responsible for some aspect of seemingly every smart/dumb American comedy in theaters, including Knocked Up, Superbad and the like. (Can't wait for Pineapple Express!) The storyline is completely ungroundbreaking: nerds and misfits in a 1980s high school cope with maturity, drugs, sex, rock & roll, parents, teachers and all the other typical problems.

Now if you've seen Superbad or any of Apatow's other movies, you know that he has a penchant for injecting poignancy into his otherwise lowbrow material. Searching my brain for examples, I'm coming up w/ the end of Superbad, where the two male leads are sort of snuggling together in their sleeping bags. Knocked Up had a bunch of sweet stuff too, though it felt a little contrived to me.

But when this show gets poignant, it gets raw and exceedingly deep. And it rarely makes things easy on you. Oftentimes, you feel sorry for these kids, but sometimes in a way that makes you want to cringe rather than give them a reassuring hug. Nick Andopolis (played by Jason Segel of Sarah Marshall fame)--a pot-addled drummer with a military dad--is one of the most genuinely pathetic characters I've ever seen on a TV show. You feel awful for him, but you still don't blame the female lead, Lindsay Weir (the gorgeous and insanely talented Linda Cardellini), for keeping her distance.

The sheer wealth of brilliant characters on this show--in roles ranging from lead to supporting to bit--is astonishing. Dave "Gruber" Allen as the impossibly dorky ex-hippie guidance counselor; Thomas F. Wilson (Biff!) as the over-the-hill P.E. teacher; Martin Starr as the endearingly gangly and seemingly semi-autistic Bill Haverchuck; James Franco as the token James Dean type, Daniel Desario; Becky Ann Baker as Jean Weir, an unbelievably convincing suburban mom; Seth Rogen as the brusque wise-ass Ken Miller; and my favorite, Stephen Lea Sheppard (Dudley from Royal Tenenbaums!), as the gross-teenage-moustache-sporting Dungeon Master/romantic sage Harris Trinsky (pictured at the top of this post). I don't think I've ever felt such warmth toward a TV cast before. (Well, at least since the 90210 days.) Honestly, this show belongs right up there with the Wonder Years. It's likely even better b/c it's less gauzily nostalgic. It's funny as hell, but often extremely painful to watch. The problems raised in the show rarely receive what would qualify as a tidy resolution on any other show.

Predictably YouTube has a wealth of Freaks material. You could probably watch the whole damn series up there if you wanted to. But I thought I'd share two clips. The first is a rare encounter between Franco's insecure loner cool guy and Sheppard's completely unself-conscious loner nerd. This one really gives you a sense of the odd fleeting moments that make this show feel meatier and more special than so many other series:

The second is a wordless, yet absolutely heartbreaking/-warming portrait of teenage after-school oblivion, featuring the confluence of grilled cheese and Garry Shandling. Very occasionally the show's period details can feel labored but that's not at all the case in this clip of Martin Starr's Bill:

Anyway, I couldn't recommend this show more highly. You won't be able to stop watching and you'll be very sad when the show's over. Thanks to the cold threshold of puberty, Freaks and Geeks is gone for good. Thanks again, sis, for bringing this one into my life.


Since we're already on the YouTube tip, I thought I'd also throw you two duos featuring my favorite jazz bassist of all time, Richard Davis, whose work on Andrew Hill's Blue Note records from the '60s stands as some of the most bewitchingly weird and moving work ever done on the upright. Maybe it's due to his plain-sounding name, but he's still not as well known as folks like Ron Carter (wait, that theory is bunk because Carter also has a really plain-sounding name...). In any case, his staggering discography also includes brilliant playing with the likes of Booker Ervin (the monumental "Book" series), Eric Dolphy (that's him on Out to Lunch), Phil Woods (Musique du Bois, anyone?) and even Van Morrison (a little album called Astral Weeks, and one listen to the title track will demonstrate that it's WAY, WAY more than a sideman appearance). These two clips give you an idea of his range.

First we have a beautiful "Summertime" in duet w/ the mighty Elvin Jones--as featured on their Impulse LP, Heavy Sounds. (Check out the size of Elvin's mallets!)

And then a brief live clip of Davis with... the Boss, from March of this year! (Davis actually appeared on the original Born to Run LP.) I'm not really a Springsteen fan, but I can get into this smoky mood:


Lastly, via Joe (via Ellen), comes a hysterical episode of Wainy Days, featuring David Wain of Stella/State/Wet Hot fame. I am consistently inspired by this man's comedy, specifically his tendency to burrow ever further into new depths of heinously unfettered ANNOYINGNESS. Don't get me wrong, this is a compliment. His Woodstock riff --beginning at :48 and lasting for a full, excruciating twentysomething seconds--deserves to be considered alongside works like Orthrelm's OV as a crucial example of balls-out contemporary minimalism. I very much admire the way Wain and his Stella bros have only grown more extreme in their comedic aesthetics as their careers have worn on. They have absolutely no qualms about the fact that to many viewers, these skits are going to register as absolutely, screamingly maddening and they seem to be delighted to throw down that gauntlet every time out. Love it.

Friday, July 04, 2008

DFSBP July 4th mixtape: Independents day

My listening habits are erratic but rarely random. Usually there's a pretty clear path. To illustrate...

Recent Bobby Few research got me thinking on his aesthetic forbear--and the grandaddy of Total Piano--Jaki Byard. 1967's Sunshine of My Soul, with the one-time-only bass/drums dreamteam of David Izenzon and Elvin Jones, was the obvious choice, since I'd never spent the time w/ that record that I'd always promised myself I would.

It ruled, of course, and got me thinking about other Jaki classics, and namely his participation in one of the great rhythm sections in all of jazz, alongside bassist Richard Davis and drummer Alan Dawson. I don't have a complete list of the sessions they worked on together, but Musique Du Bois by Phil Woods is a sleeper classic. A more justly loved disc (Bagatellen and be. jazz both sing its praises) is "The Freedom Book," simply one of the most pulsatingly lifeful recordings I know.

Anything with Alan Dawson naturally leads one to thinking on his star protege and still, to my ears, the most supple and advanced percussionist jazz has ever known--sorry for all the hyperbole, but we're talking about the Pantheon here--Tony Williams (pictured above). He lit up Rudy Van Gelder's studios in the mid-'60s, participating in an astounding number of A+ Blue Note sessions (off the top of my head: Evolution, Point of Departure, One Step Beyond, Out to Lunch, etc.). The ones I got to thinking on, though--and had the great pleasure of digging today--were his two BN leader dates, '64's Life Time and '65's Spring, issued under the unshortened "Anthony." Very, very enigmatic records, but *fascinating* and yielding some wondrous instrumental tandems you'll not find elsewhere, i.e., the Ron Carter/Gary Peacock bass chorus on Life Time and the Sam Rivers/Wayne Shorter tenor team on Spring.

Try this: Name an example of free improvisation released on Blue Note. One can never really be sure, but maybe the piano trio track from CT's Unit Structures, "Tales (8 Whisps)"? Or maybe Rivers's own "Afflatus" (raise the roof, JP) from Dimensions and Extensions? I'd argue that these two Williams sessions are the closest Blue Note ever got to free jazz, per se, given the amount of what sounds like totally spontaneous playing happening here. When there are heads (e.g., "Tee" from Spring), they are *very* sketchy and brief. Most of the time, these are just-play records and while they can meander, they have a slow-burning, subtle power.

Anyway, I've blown way off course from what this post was supposed to be about, namely a short intro to a July 4th mixtape I cooked up on drummers, namely drummers from the glorious mid-'60s, where the rulebook was being entirely rewritten by like eight different players at once. One tends to divide the innovators up into time/no-time or inside-out and free (e.g., Williams and Elvin Jones as opposed to, say, Sunny Murray and Milford Graves [at left]), but were these camps really as starkly delineated as they seem? What if Spring, or even Out to Lunch had come out on ESP? Or Spiritual Unity on Blue Note for that matter? Anyway, this mix is designed to raise those sorts of questions--not to mention to generally stimulate w/ examples of outstanding vintage jazz experimentation--and to throw down the notion that ALL this was happening at once, courtesy of the aforementioned and other stellar "independents."

Notice how Mr. Peacock pops up on both the Williams and the Ayler, for one; and listen how Graves on the New York Art Quartet track doesn't sound all that different from Williams on the Spring track. And how Sunny Murray and Alan Dawson's approaches couldn't be more disparate but how they share that common factor of being 100% in line w/ the concept of the tenor-sax led band they're playing in (Albert Ayler's and Booker Ervin's, respectively). And *do not* sleep on "Barb's Song to the Wizard," composed by Williams (apparently w/ the transcription aid of Herbie Hancock) but actually a piano/bass duet; it is gorgeous, haunting, drummerless and absolutely sui generis in the idiom (as before, name another piece released on Blue Note on which the leader of the album and composer of the track does not actually play--especially when that leader-composer is a, gasp!, drummer; I'm not sure you'd find such an example). Here's the mix as a zipped folder of 5 MP3s:

DFSBP July 4th mixtape: Independents day

And here's the tracklist:

1) Anthony Williams - From Before (Williams)
from Spring, rec. 8/12/65
with Sam Rivers and Wayne Shorter (ts), Herbie Hancock (p), Gary Peacock (b), Williams (d)

2) Albert Ayler Quartet - Tune Q (Ayler)
from Holy Ghost, rec. 9/3/64
with Ayler (ts), Don Cherry (cornet), Peacock (b)

3) Booker Ervin - A Lunar Tune (Ervin)
from The Freedom Book, rec. 12/3/63
with Ervin (ts), Jaki Byard (p), Richard Davis (b), Alan Dawson (d)

4) The New York Art Quartet - Mohawk (Charlie Parker)
from Mohawk, rec. (I think) 6/??/65
with John Tchicai (as), Roswell Rudd (tb), Reggie Workman (b), Milford Graves (d)

5) Anthony Williams - Barb's Song to the Wizard (Williams)
from Life Time, rec. 8.(21 or 24).64
with Hancock (p), Ron Carter (b)

Secondly : If you happen to be in Brooklyn, come see STATS show #2.5 this Saturday, 7/5!

[bands listed from latest to earliest, i.e., we headline]

*STATS (formerly Stay FKD)

*Normal Love (brutal chamber prog from Philly)

*Period (Charlie Looker from Extra Life and ex-Zs + Mike Pride of many, many bands)

*No Courage (a new band in the style of hardcore) - sorry, no Web presence that I know of...

8pm, $6


(248 Monroe St between Marcy and Nostrand in Bed-Stuy-->
just a few blocks from the G train at Bedford-Nostrand)


Thirdly: My thoughts on two of the raddest discs released in '08 thus far-->

*Dennis Wilson's Pacific Ocean Blue (reissue)

*Melvins' Nude with Boots