Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Goodbye, Joe Maneri

And the improvised music world has lost another genius who sought to turn time into nothing: Mr. Joe Maneri passed away yesterday at the age of 82. I'm sure many of his many students and acolytes will be able to eulogize him in far greater detail than I ever could. My exposure to his music was minimal, but what I heard touched me deeply. Some years back I listened obsessively to a 1995 Leo disc called Get Ready to Receive Yourself, which teamed Joe with his son Mat, bassist John Lockwood and drummer Randy Peterson. Obviously I've heard all the hoopla re: Maneri's allegiance to microtonal music, but I'm not schooled enough to have any clear idea of what that means. To me, what Maneri's music sounded like was SLIDING. The quartet on the aforementioned CD played like it was swaying underwater. I don't think I've ever heard jazz sound more fluid or--and this term isn't meant in any derogatory sense--lazy.

And for all the saxists whose sounds have been compared to crying, Maneri was the one who sounded most like he was sobbing when he played. His lines were like hoarse, slow-motion laments. It was a devastating soundworld that his band created, abetted in no small part by Peterson, one of the world's strangest and most revelatory drummers, a player who looks and sounds like he's wobbling on a tightrope as he plays--the perfect complement to the leader's woozy time-sense.

When I think of Joe Maneri, I think of the one time I saw him live at Tonic, his singularly roly-poly body seated at the piano and him babbling in those weird tongues that he used to favor. (I remember running into a co-worker there who played bebop sax in his spare time. He had heard that Maneri was a legend, but the show itself left him quite disgusted. I think he walked out.) But that visual image couldn't compare to my sonic memory. I haven't listened to Joe Maneri in a few years, but I can hear him in my head plain as day, sobbing and sliding along, serenading a weird muse that spoke to no one but him.

P.S. Maneri's own site is woefully out of date, so try this detailed interview by JazzWeekly's Fred Jung if you're curious to learn more. [Update: There's also a lengthy Jazz Times piece by Harvey Pekar. Haven't had a chance to dig in, but I'm psyched to do so. Pekar used Maneri's music in the film version of American Splendor.]

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

CThreePO: Fieldwork summons robojazz fury at the Stone

The Stone was sweltering tonight. I attended Fieldwork's late set and the heat and the music aligned to induce a very heavenly sort of delirium. Fieldwork is a band without a leader, still a rare thing in jazz. The members--saxist Steve Lehman, pianist Vijay Iyer and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, the latter of whom curates the Stone this month--are all well known for fronting various projects and generally being on forefront of contemporary-jazz bad-ass-ness. Together what they are is a machine.

All three musicians compose for the group, but I wasn't able to discern any particular diversity in writing style during tonight's set. (I plan to go back to the band's latest disc, Door, to see if that assertion really holds water.) The trio played about five longish pieces, all in the eight-minute range, and the style was very consistent. Let's call it robojazz, or something. Fieldwork specializes in vamps, of a sort, namely the most dizzyingly complex sort you've ever heard, played largely in straight (i.e., nonswung) time. It's the jazz equivalent of math rock, and it's a mode that maestro Tim Berne has excelled in for years. Check out Berne's bands Hardcell and Science Friction and then listen to Fieldwork and you'll see what I mean: Both feature a kind of asymmetrical funk grid sketched by lockstep piano and drums, with tart, intricate sax lines laid over top. (I don't want the Berne comparison to seem too reductive, since Fieldwork definitely carves out its own space within this territory. Its approach to vamping comes off as generally more oblique, with the three instruments orbiting each other in ultrasubtle ways, like parts in an elaborate mobile.) For me, jazz like this is like chocolate and peanut butter: I get the proggy rhythmic tendencies I so dearly adore in rock, and I get the daredevil improv and inspired looseness I love in jazz.

As much as Fieldwork foregrounds its collectivity on paper, it was hard not to feel that tonight's show was Tyshawn Sorey's show. Sorey has taken great pains--in the liner notes to his great 2007 release That/Not and in commentary related to his new disc, Koan--to emphasize his disinterest in flaunting his world-class chops on his records as a leader. And indeed, on the aforementioned sessions, he backs up that rhetoric completely. These are outstandingly restrained albums, to an almost ascetic degree. Sorey's playing in Fieldwork is another story entirely

A lot of jazz musicians you talk to will describe performances as "burnin'" or "killin'." I guess the metal equivalent would be something like "shredding" or "face-melting." Whatever your preferred terminology for this phenomenon of utter musical density and proficiency and decimation, it would apply in a major, major way to what this drummer was up to tonight. You know those percussionists who reproduce drum 'n' bass electronica live, and how it's kind of cool but also kind of a pointless gimmick? Sorey takes that level of ungodly coordination and proceeds to chop and screw it. He sounds like the world's smartest, most passionate, most paradoxically anarchic computer.

A hulking young man. He starts slow and throws his whole body into it, grimacing as he nails a cymbal crash. It's all about the stutter, the suggestion of ultimate fragmented funk, rising into some unbelievably swift cyborg rhythm, like the turbo-speed apotheosis of a paradiddle. Cracking the snare, muted with (tonight) a wallet or a piece of paper. Hi-hat snapped taut for maximum crispness. Just impossible levels of groove, making it so that you have to move, like you're shaking off a bee that's stinging you. Sicker and sicker and sicker. The guy doesn't relent. And then there are the digressions: transferring the pattern to the bell-less ride, pulling up short on the high tom, rolling his way back over to the hi-hat for a breath-stealing choke. Basically what we're talking about is the airy buoyance of Tony Williams combined with the deadeye precision of Neil Peart, and neither aesthetic gets short-shrifted.

So yes, Fieldwork a collective, but it's damn near impossible to take your eyes and ears off Tyshawn once he gets going. Iyer's playing in the group is deep and mysterious. He's vamping but with notes chosen for maximum drift and eeriness. The combination of his dreamy chord haze and the tautness of his rhythmic grids is exceedingly odd. He plays a lot like a bassist in Fieldwork, trancing out on the robojazz ostinatos, sometimes insanely long so that you can't for the life of you figure out if they're repeating exactly or where the one is or what the hell is going on. All you know is that Iyer is in control and that eventually he and Sorey will stop without warning on a dime and you'll be shocked just like you were when the piece before ended exactly the same way. (This is another prime Tim Berne trick.)

Lehman's contribution tonight seemed like the slightest. That had a lot to do with the fact that it was hard to hear him. Sorey was punishingly loud at times and didn't seem to want to concede much in that department. But the saxist knows that he has a lot of work to do to pierce through the grid the other two lay down, and he slices in and out with torrid, punchy lines. A very edgy sound. At one point, he busted out some shredded-throat-sounding multiphonics, which made for a great contrast with the sleek futurism churning underneath. Lehman provides a crucial squiggly, mercurial texture, writhing over top of the solid steel.

There were moments of soft stillness, pieces of fruitful quiet. But like water in a draining bathtub, everything was always sort of tending toward that glorious pounding rigor, and every piece eventually did get to that point. By the third or fourth piece, there was a same-iness to the set, but honestly, I couldn't have cared less. The asymmetrical-robojazz vibe is like catnip for me, and I didn't want it to stop. If you've ever loved thorny yet propulsive fusion (Mahavishnu Orchestra), thorny yet propulsive electronica (good example escaping me--Autechre?), thorny yet propulsive classical (that one part everyone loves in "Rite of Spring"), thorny yet propulsive Balkan music (don't know enough to list a good example but I'm confident in my citation of the style), thorny yet propulsive prog (Yes), thorny yet propulsive math rock (Don Caballero)--any music where it's all about that holy confluence of brain and balls--you absolutely must behold the way this band aerates that aesthetic, makes it make sense with the cutting edge of postmillennial jazz.

Fieldwork represents the best kind of foregrounded virtuosity. There's heart and weirdness and unpredictability mixed in and however dazzling the music is, it isn't superficial. It really is that tight, that complex, that powerful and most importantly, that human.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

RIP Rashied Ali

What an absolutely outstanding musician.

And he sounded as good in recent years as he did on all those classic records. I feel fortunate that I was able to catch him live several times (but still, it wasn't enough). I'll never forget when I interviewed him in 2003 at his studio in Soho. He spoke of trying to "turn time into nothing." When I asked him what he meant, he proceeded to sit down at his kit and demonstrate. "Okay, here's time," he said, easing into one of his patented subtly roiling drumscapes. "And now I'm going to turn time into nothing." To be perfectly honest, I perceived no change in what he was playing, but either way it was completely magical to hear him in such an intimate setting. Here, via All About Jazz, is the complete transcript of said interview, which contains a wealth of great info on Interstellar Space and Ali's career as a whole. Check The Volume for a modest obituary and some nice links.

This sad news begs the question: Does anyone know the whereabouts of Rashied's younger brother Muhammad? I absolutely love his vintage work with Frank Wright and several others, but I have heard very little news of his recent activities. Some enticing tidbits here.

UPDATE: A Blog Supreme reports (as do several other sources) that Muhammad actually subbed for Rashied at the Newport Jazz Festival this past weekend. Anyone attend? I'm dying to know how he sounded. Thanks to RVAJazz and Steve Smith for the heads-ups.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Keel overhaul, etc.

[UDATE: From the Dept. of Pretzel Logic Linkage, here's a link to the Brooklyn Vegan photo post on Sunday's Keelhaul show, which itself links here.]

On Sunday, STATS had the pleasure of sharing a bill at Public Assembly with a band from Cleveland called Keelhaul (above). (You might recall the name from a post I wrote here last December.) It was a hell of a show all around, and I want to thank Brandon Stosuy (Show No Mercy) and Black Bubblegum (Brooklyn Vegan) for putting it together. These gentlemen had no way of knowing this in advance, but for a few reasons, it was really special for me to be able to play alongside Keelhaul.

First, the band's drummer, Will Scharf--an outstandingly fluid and powerful player--used to be a member of a band called Craw. I've blabbed at length on here about Craw, but suffice it to say that I adore them more than any other musical entity I've ever been exposed to. It has been this way since I was approximately 17. That was a very formative time for me: It's when I started playing drums; it's when I started writing about music; and it's when I witnessed many of the performances that have affected me the most. A good number of those performances were by Craw, and all but one of those featured Mr. Scharf behind the kit.

Craw being a thoroughly independent band, I had all the personal access to the members that I could ever want, and my friends and I spent hours before and after those gigs grilling the members about this and that. I've kept in touch with them over the years to varying degrees, and though Will was never very much of a talker, he's always been kind enough to check out music I've sent him and to let me pick his brain re: drumming, influences, technique, gear, etc.

STATS shared a bill with one of Scharf's other projects, Pincer, when we played in Cleveland in late '07, but Sunday was the first time we'd ever gotten the opportunity to perform on a bill with Keelhaul, his primary musical concern. It was an extreme trip to be able to open for someone who's been an artistic hero of mine for more than a decade and to interact with him as a peer as well as a fan.

And I am a huge fan. Keelhaul is a very esoteric band, and an only sporadically active one at that. But still, more people should know them. This is because they are simply outstanding at playing rock & roll. The show of theirs I caught last December--a warm-up for the recording of their latest album, Keelhaul's Triumphant Return to Obscurity (two tracks stream here), which comes out August 18 on Hydra Head--was solid, but this was much better. They'd been on the road for a few days, and their performance had that bullish energy that can only come from consecutive gigs.

Keelhaul is probably best categorized as a math-metal band. Their music is largely instrumental and extremely complex. But the great thing about it is that however technical it gets, it never feels cold. The band embraces groove and boogie even as it rages through some of the most outrageously asymmetrical riffing you've ever heard. I know of few other bands that imbue the genre with so much soul. (Incidentally, said feat is like a mission statement for STATS.)

And it's such a pleasure to watch these musicians perform. You'll rarely see a group of more scruffy, unself-conscious guys onstage. Each one puts forth his own kind of sweaty intensity. Guitarist Dana Embrose is an amazingly animated presence: He has a penchant for mouthing nearly every note he plays and shimmying uncontrollably. Bassist-vocalist Aaron Dallison acts the wild brute, headbanging vigorously and spitting to punctuate major accents. Guitarist-vocalist Chris Smith is the most subdued, squinting at his fingers through huge, clear-rimmed spectacles. And Scharf, ever-shirtless, contorts his face into all sorts of rubbery grimaces as he plays. Sometimes he's mugging for the crowd; other times he's just rolling his eyes at a flubbed fill.

The band works like a churning, chugging machine. There's something so human about the way they operate onstage. They are the epitome of unfashion--I remarked to Joe during the set that they should have their own line of cargo shorts. But the music itself has such style and swing and passion and fun. It's just pure exaltation of ballsy riffs and post-hardcore pathos and extreme dynamics. (Keelhaul is known for its dynamite quiet parts.) There's none of that coldness you feel from a band like Fucking Champs, that notion of metal as calisthenics, or even worse, as some kind of punchline. Math metal simply feels like a subset of soul music when Keelhaul plays it. You'd have a hard time finding another band that honors the progressive aspects of making rock & roll as much as the meat-and-potatoes ones.

Here's some video of a recent Keelhaul show in Rochester:

And here's the promo spot for their amazing 2003 jam "Cruel Shoes," which was rocked in high style at Sunday's show:


Other quick nods:

*Stephen O'Connor "Ziggurat"
An amazing piece of classico-postmodern mythology published in The New Yorker this past June. A weird retelling of the Minotaur tale, one which teases out all the most sad, fucked-up psychological implications. I sat stunned at the end of this, about to cry.

*The Flying Luttenbachers Cataclysm and more
Been surveying this band's prime brutal-prog period, i.e., the albums from The Void through Incarceration by Abstraction, and I've been re-floored by what a grand and coherent body of work this is. It's more obvious to me than ever that Weasel Walter could easily be regard as a "serious" composer if he gave two shits about such things. Instead he's one of the great outsider musical geniuses of our time. For these records he wrote a lot of fantastically great, aggressive, loopy contrapuntal prog and got two of the most uniquely virtuosic guitarists of our time, Ed Rodriguez (Deerhoof, Gorge Trio, Colossamite, Sicbay, etc.) and Mick Barr (Orthrelm, Ocrilim, Octis, etc.) to help him interpret it. (Both players appear together only on Cataclysm and Spectral Warrior Mythos, Volume 1. I'm wondering what happened to the long-promised Cataclysm-era live DVD.) All these records are still available direct from Weasel. Go with Cataclysm first. Brilliant, brilliant album. Love the group's creepy take on a Messiaen piece I can't pronounce.

*The Modern Lovers
Laal has been turning me on to their self-titled debut album, which I don't think I'd ever heard before. More outsider genius, the polar opposite of Weasel's, courtesy of Jonathan Richman. Wondrous combinations of sad and wry abound in songs like "Hospital" and "Dignified and Old."

*KGW Mrs. Equitone
Growing on me slowly, imperceptibly. I thought Yes Boss was an untouchable monolith, and I still think it will be hard for Graham Smith to ever top it, but this new one is killer too. A slightly different emotional cast. Not so battered and laid-bare. But catchy and transcendent and full of cracked joy and sweet sorrow.

*Paul Auster Invisible
His new one, due in November. Sped through Leviathan and now I'm on to this, in galley version. Don't want to spoil plot, but this one is way, way heavy. Maybe the most emotionally gripping of the Auster novels I've read.

*Queens of the Stone Age Era Vulgaris and more
Fantastic rock music of the future. I don't like all the Queens stuff I've heard, but I'm never bored by them. Somehow this band combines muscle and melody in ways that feel new. Turbopop for the now. Got freaked on them after interviewing Josh Homme last week for my Ween book.

*Michael Showalter vs. Michael Cera
There's nothing I love more than a heaping helping of Michael Showalter's "asshole" character. Cera plays along exceedingly well.