Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Two quartets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fabulous muscles: The Wrestler + Keelhaul

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

Friday, December 19, 2008

The ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Three Cheers

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

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

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

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


No Success Like Failure

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

By Hank Shteamer

Screeching to the choir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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