Monday, September 28, 2009

Bands, working: Hart and Crothers

A rare organism, glimpsed twice over the weekend. Two working bands, each a sax-piano-bass-drums quartet led by an underrated veteran, i.e., drummer Billy Hart (at the Vanguard on Friday - check out the ) and pianist Connie Crothers (at the Stone on Saturday). Strangely, these two were born less than a year apart, Hart on 11/29/40 and Crothers on 5/2/41. Is the parallel significant?

I think so, mainly because there was a refreshing beauty and openness at work in both sets. You could tell that these were full-spectrum bandleaders with a firm grounding in bop basics but with a yearning for something more. No self-conscious avant-gardism reared its head in either set. In both cases, this was accessible music, basically suited for a "jazz club." But the special strangeness was there if you were looking.

I said "organism" above because both groups moved and functioned that way. This outfit led by Hart (pictured above) has been around at least since 2005. The lineup at the Vanguard on Friday was the same as the one on Hart's amazing 2006 album Quartet (which I've praised before on DFSBP): Mark Turner on sax, Ethan Iverson on piano and Ben Street on bass. And the set I caught was an extension of that release, reprising several of its pieces and generally continuing along that line of inquiry.

The band's original pieces, mostly by Hart and Iverson, are stunners. Iverson's album opener, "Mellow B," also opened the set, and it was just right for introducing this band's special kind of moody mystery. It's sort of a ballad, but a murky almost mischievous one, with a sly, creeping-around-on-tiptoes melody and this extremely peculiar B section in which Iverson and Turner scamper in unison through a sort of scatterbrained aside. This latter segment gives the whole piece a kind of Monkish wit. On Friday, the band seemed to really be emphasizing the cavernous spaces between the different sections of the head - there were these huge expanses where Hart was filling in the blanks with his strange diffuse timekeeping. A very tense effect.

The rest of the set was all over the place, in a good way. There were vintage chestnuts (I'm pretty sure a piece from Birth of the Cool was played), an absolutely gorgeous Hart ballad from Quartet ("Charvez," a piece that should stand as the shining example of how jazz can sound exceedingly smooth and yet not the least bit cheesy) and a hard-grooving funk tune.

The band played with utter authority, and the arrangements were just effortless. Players laid out here and there, solos oozed into one another; everyone got a lot of space to say what they needed to say. And sometimes, the band would lock into these intensely complex unison patterns, just "presto," out of nowhere. The contrast with the heavily aspirated looseness at work during much of the set was startling.

That looseness was largely Hart's doing. I felt like I was hearing the closest thing to vintage Tony Williams that I may ever hear live. He's a fearless drummer, but at the same time wispy. Like Paul Motian, he can seem like he's not even there one minute and then come crashing through the music the next. He rides on cymbal and snare when he feels like it, but other times he plays only cymbals, summoning this great washy cloud of sound. The other players all executed beautifully - Iverson brought an ultrasubtle reflectiveness, Turner a sturdy, introspective boldness - but it was definitely Hart's night. He even took some fun and cryptic mike breaks, sometimes almost seeming to poke fun at his sidemen (introducing Iverson he made a strange reference to Vogue and Better Homes and Gardens), but mostly expressing awe at their abilities.

One gets the sense that Hart is as happy as he's ever been behind the kit. He has a working band with a strong book of tunes and three hungry sidemen who know the entirety of jazz as well he does. Every veteran should be so lucky.

Connie Crothers (pictured above), whom I previewed in Time Out New York a little while back and who curated the second half of September at The Stone, is fortunate enough to be in a similar situation. As far as I can tell, the band she led on Saturday - with Richard Tabnik, Ken Filiano on bass and Roger Mancuso on drums - has been around for at least a decade. (Filiano is one of everal different bassists have worked with the quartet.)

A week ago, I wrote about Bill McHenry and Ben Monder and their aesthetic of floating music. This Crothers set wasn't quite the same thing but the vibe was very similar - a remarkable feeling of pillowy drift, with the music oozing in and out of time and the instruments swirling together softly.

The band performed a few of Crothers's tunes, a few of Tabnik's tunes and an older piece by a singer whose name I didn't catch (I think Crothers announced it as "Laughing to Keep from Crying" but don't quote me on that). It might seem cheesy or reductive but one of the things that really impressed me about this band was the fact that no one was reading music, and furthermore that everyone seemed to have internalized the pieces entirely. Now this is usually the case with a band that's been together for a while, but too many jazz gigs seem like extensions of rehearsal, with the sidemen sort of tentatively following along. There was none of that here: The three supporting players had the music down just as well as Crothers, and these were some seriously complicated pieces.

It's well known that Crothers was a longtime associate of Lennie Tristano, and if I hear any of his influence on her, it's in the impossibly complex yet beautifully sinuous lines she writes. Tabnik's compositions had the same feel. The lines just kept building and building, and the players executed them with an uncanny kind of drifting ease.

Each musician in the band was extraordinary, just world class. And it struck me how odd it was that at least two (if not all) of these musicians are largely unknown. I guess I'd have to start with Tabnik, who simply has one of the oddest and most compelling approaches to the saxophone that I've ever heard in my life. To describe his tone as liquid would be a severe understatement. The notes flow out of his horn with a weird languor that kept making me think of honey or some other gel-like substance, midway between liquid and solid. The notes burble along in a way that at times suggested the squawkier, more pinched registers of a clarinet or a soprano sax. But to be honest, Tabnik's sax sounds more like a cat's meow or the cry of a small bird or monkey than any other horn player I can think of. Just extraordinary, and he fit into the mix so effortlessly. (Anyone have a clue where Tabnik has been hiding out? I've never heard of him except w/ this band.)

Mancuso, too, played with an otherworldly lightness. As with Hart, I thought of Paul Motian, but Mancuso's playing was even more daring and diffuse than Motian's. Stewarding the beat with the slightest hint of timekeeping, suggesting cushions of air, billowing this way and that.

Crothers was remarkable as well. Tempestuous - swooping up and down the keyboard - but with a light, caressing touch. Like the rest of the band, she seemed to be spinning clouds. The music as a whole was much more dreamy and abstract than the Hart band. While Hart & Co. mixed quite a bit of sass and badass heat into their jazz, the set by Crothers & Co. seemed like one big long reverie, touching on a familiar style but mainly just floating away into some swirled kind of bliss. The knotty tunes brought it back to earth just enough.

These bands both exhibited an openness I want to hear more often. Again, I keep coming to the idea of jazz that's weird but unself-consciously so. We're talking about the highest ideal, i.e., experimental music that doesn't try too hard to be experimental, that doesn't foreground it's difficultness. It's really just a matter of letting jazz breathe, respecting its basic principles, retaining some and jettisoning others, but never pointlessly assailing them. I recall many interviews with Steve Lacy (in the amazing Conversations book) where he's yearning to know what comes after the anarchy of free jazz. How do you organize things just enough, so that you don't choke or stifle the musicians. Folks like Eric Dolphy, Jackie McLean, Grachan Moncur III, Andrew Hill and others were hard at work at this in the '60s, and you can hear their legacy in the groups I saw this weekend. May Hart and Crothers continue to walk this wondrous line for many years to come.

[Update: I forgot to mention that you can hear the entirety of the Hart Quartet's set from last Wednesday night - and check out a great interview w/ Hart - over at NPR Music. Thanks to the anonymous commenter for the reminder.]

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In Bloom: Monder/McHenry at Cornelia Street Café

[Photo: Laal Shams]

If all goes as planned, I will hear Sunn O))) live tonight at Brooklyn Masonic Temple. It will no doubt be a guitar/amp communion, and I'm definitely looking forward. Heading over to a duo set by tenor saxist Bill McHenry and guitarist Ben Monder last night at Cornelia Street Café, I didn't realize I was in for a prelude of similarly glorious semi-abstracted dronesmithery, but as it turned out, Messrs. Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson may have a hard time living up to what I beheld this evening.

If I was surprised by McHenry and Monder's set, it's a fair bet that the musicians were as well. Mere seconds before they began, I saw Monder turn to McHenry and ask, "So what are we doing?" What they did was a freely improvised 45-minute set - divided into four or so longish pieces and a brief coda - and it was a killer. You really don't hear spontaneous musicmaking of this coherence and grace very often.

From the start, the music had a prayerful quality. The first piece felt palpably humid, with Monder gradually constructing this hazy sort of drone, abetted by his volume pedal and a bevy of effects, employed tastefully. He held the pick in his mouth and coaxed the notes, shaking the body of his instrument to draw them out. McHenry drifted slowly alongside him, blowing meditative tones and seeming utterly committed to an aesthetic of melting, of hovering ooze. It was hot in the room. The players' faces were slick with sweat early on, and you felt that in the music - static and singing and luminous, hanging in the air.

From there, the pieces blur together in my mind. I know that Monder at one point (or two?) slowly worked up an ominous cloud of distortion, a harsh, scary shape on the horizon of the music. McHenry stepped forward on the stage and dug in. The music was completely abstract, but in a very physical way. The musicians were wrestling with the sounds, and there was deep tension in the music. You honestly didn't know where it was going to go, and neither did the players.

Monder began one improvisation solo, with a few minutes of jagged sci-fi riffage. Brusque, hard-edged - like cyborg fusion (anyone who's heard 2005's mighty Oceana knows that he's completely at home with robojazz). McHenry entered tentatively and then stopped. It was easy to sympathize. The tempo Monder had suggested was just too brisk, his syncopations too thorny, for any horn to find its way in. So Monder backed off and McHenry came back, and together they began another steely, hovering prayer. It was music that wasn't about anything at all, but it was so unpretentious, so listenable. No bullshit difficult-for-the-sake-of-difficult sounds, no ostentatious experimentalism. What it was, was a humbly free music - created totally in the moment but without that self-congratulatory or "What I'm doing is the most unprecedented thing ever" vibe that you get from bad experimental improv.

There were moments later that hinted at starry-eyed jazz balladry, even at twangy Metheny- or Frisell-ism, but the music wasn't jazz, anymore than it was, say, post-rock. It was just an atmospheric feat, one of those sets where you're marveling at the concentration of the players as much as the music. And at the heart of it all was this hovering drone, this glacial "om" sort of thing, with McHenry painting artful squiggles over top. It never got all that loud, but you could feel it oozing into the room and into the mind. I took off my glasses for a lot of it, and the blobby shapes I saw seemed more complementary to what I was hearing than the clear lines I'm used to. The set had that special kind of diffusion and amorphousness and yet it didn't overstay its welcome. I know Sunn O))) will get at that smokelike, room-filling ambience - how could they not, with all those amps and those taffy-stretched riffs? - but will they get there so unfussily, so organically? I've got to say, these two jazzers in street clothes just might beat the cowled avant-metalists at their own atmospheric game.

P.S. Haven't heard the new-ish Monder/McHenry duo CD, Bloom - and I didn't even know it existed till just now, since the musicians did not hawk it whatsoever from the stage or, as far as I know, sell it at the gig - but I nonetheless have a very strong feeling that a better ambient CD will not be released this year.

Friday, September 18, 2009

In Full: Tyondai Braxton

[Photo: Gracia Villamil]

On August 21, I sat down with Tyondai Braxton at an East Village dive bar to talk about his awesome new orchestral album, Central Market, out now on Warp. (A sample track is above.) The conversation yielded a Time Out New York profile - I suggest giving that a read first if you're not familiar with his work - but since there were many cool bits that didn't make it into the piece, I thought it might be fun to publish the full transcript.

As usual, it's a long one, so please let me know if you notice any typos or anything amiss.


HS: How did this orchestral music evolve out of your old, loop-based solo stuff?

TB: All the pieces from the new record are actually build out of that. I still use my solo format with loops and looping and effects pedals to build the foundation for a lot of these pieces and I would then orchestrate it. The way I always describe my solo stuff when I was just just doing it by myself, I called it orchestrated loops, kind of like through DJ emulation but it's material created in real time. But I also really like the texture you get or the color you get with a lot of people playing, especially in an orchestral vein. And I've always been leaning toward that. So this record was an opportunity for me to more thoroughly realize that, where I've always been going but without abandoning where I'm from and how I had been been making music. So it's like the next logical step.

HS: Do you think that if you had had the means, you would have used an orchestral ensemble all along?

TB: Sure, I mean the solo thing is a mobile, very economic reduction of what my imagination was really pointing toward. And even now it's not feasible to round up an orchestra and go on tour, or if you have an idea, just go, [Mock-haughtily] "Oh, I'm just gonna go try it with my orchestra." So it's still a vehicle that I'm able to write material and just get excited about new ideas and I could try it in my own little world and see if it translates when I expand it outwards.

HS: I imagine you probably weren't actually writing your music down on paper when you were doing the looping thing.

TB: Well, I mean I went to school for music composition, and I'd always been writing a little bit, and even when I had elaborate ideas with myself just to remember it and be able to play it I would write it out. But yeah, by no means was I scoring out really large pieces for the past couple years. And in a way, you kind of don't necessarily need to because it's mostly from memory and it's just me doing it, so I didn't need to cue anybody else. So, it's true: This was definitely a new way of working, and it was so exciting. It was something I hadn't been doing—it was out of my comfort zone a little bit and it made me feel good to take that next step.

HS: Being someone who appears alone onstage and I assume works a lot at home alone, what was it like the first time you stepped in and worked with the whole group?

TB: Yeah, my buffer zone between going from bedroom straight to orchestra was I had a practice space and I had my own rehearsal office and I brought in the percussionist first and I just tried having him play things against things that I recorded just to hear how it sounded. So he was like my first guy. Once I kind of saw that these things could be translated. He was like my first realization that it could translate pretty easily. And in that practice space, I tried to be as thorough as I could so when I did get in front of these guys, I wouldn't be like not knowing what I was doing, pulling my hair out. Plus, on top of that, working with the band I'm in, Battles, for the past eight years, I have a pretty good sense of working with people again. And that was something that I really lost just playing by myself. I was working so insularly and socially I wasn't as adept at being able to communicate ideas because I was so used to working by myself so that definitely helped.

HS: So the solo thing predated Battles.

TB: I started doing the solo idea of orchestrated loops in 1996, in college. And then I moved to New York and I tried to flesh it out and kind of get into the action that was going around. Battles started with me and Ian [Williams]—we started in 2002.

HS: Were there any unexpected challenges that came about in translating the solo material to the large orchestra?

TB: You know, there's challenges no matter what you do, but I have to admit it was pretty efficient. We broke it down in a pretty efficient way in the sense that we didn't have the whole orchestra all at once. We did it section by section, like all strings, or violin ones and twos, and violas and double basses and cellos and then we did the woodwind sections and brass. So we had it segmented enough in a way that we could control it in the way that we were working. It was me and the recording engineer, Keith Souza, and Seth Manchester, who I have to say were integral in this whole process—without them, it would not have come out the way it did. Keith had a very good understanding of how I wanted to record it, and we broke it down in such a step-by-step kind of way that we didn't really leave a lot of room for error, which was cool. Or we didn't leave a lot of room for, if something went wrong we didn't know how to handle it. Like we kind of had our bases covered, so yeah, luckily, it went down pretty well without a hitch. You know, in the studio, I would like reorchestrate stuff; I'd hear something and say, "Oh, you know what, that's not right," and I'd rescore it and give it to the players. And the players were sick and they could just kill it, and that was that. So there was like those kinds of obstacles. Like at one point the double bass section didn't finish in time, and the cellos had to come another day. That was like the extent of the craziness. But besides that it was a pretty well-oiled machine.

HS: So the whole thing was recorded piecemeal?

TB: Yeah. Well, the foundation of a lot of the songs, like I said, is through that solo model. So the guitars and the vocals and my electronic effects and stuff were all recorded first. So that was kind of like the foundation of all the pieces. So they would have to listen to it on headphones and play to it. So it was fragmented. But it's good, 'cause I like leaving a lot of room to change things around and I reserve the right to turn it into a completely different animal if that's what works. I feel like it's a good way to go, because you're spending money recording this thing and as a composer, you don't care how it gets together. You just want to be able to play it and hear it in the best way that it can be realized. So I liked working in that fragmented, modular kind of way.

HS: What was it like the first time you heard a completed piece played back in its full glory?

TB: Yeah, man. It was more than exciting. It was years' worth of work starting to come to fruition. It was one of the happiest days of my life, to be honest. It really was. I worked really hard on this stuff. I have always been leaning towards this area, and this is my first record like this, but I learned so much from it. And to hear the first realization—The main piece centering the record is the fourth track, "Platinum Rows" [streaming above], the really long one, and when I was able to play that one all the way through and really know that it was done, it was a really heavy moment. It was amazing.

HS: I wanted to talk to you about the mood of the album. It strikes me as really avant-garde, but it also has this charm and accessibility and lightheartedness to it. And it reminds me of Battles because it's sort of unprecedented but also you can dance to it and move to it and it makes you smile and feel in the way that good pop music does to. Do you think about that, being a "serious composer" versus wanting people to actually listen to it?

TB: I will say this: No matter what you do in whatever medium you do as an artist, even if you want people to like it, chances are the results are surprising every time. So it would be silly for me to bank on the idea of, "Okay, I know this one's harsh, but to counter that, I'm gonna do something really lighthearted for people to like." Because, as it turns out, people are gonna end up hating the lighthearted thing, you know what I mean? So for me it was really about the polarity of the moods within the music and less about the accesibility factor. I'll put it to you like this: I want to be able to push play and say, "Ahh, this is fuckin' awesome. This is great. This is exciting." And a lot of that for me has to do with polarity and multiple things happening all at the same time, not just having the music sway all in one direction harmonically or texturally or moodwise. I like having a mixture of things, where when you feel that tension rubbing against each other, it just turns it into this thing that's alive. Because it has all the conflicts and the contradictions that something that alive would have. So those are the parts I really like, but on the other hand, moodwise, it is fun. It's fun to tease with things that are familiar to people. Some of those moods are familiar, so as avant-garde and as whatever as it is, all of these identities kind of work together in a way that—I don't know, you have a familiarity with it, but it's also distorting your perception of what that thing is supposed to be, what it's supposed to do.

HS: Yeah, there's a sound that almost sounds like a kazoo.

TB: It is a kazoo.

HS: And there's also the whistling, which is sometimes used in Battles. Was there any influence from video-game music or cartoon music?

TB: Sure, I appreciate that kind of stuff. I appreciate that kind of stuff more for the texture of it. Because the association that you have instantly is, Oh, "happy" or "fantasy," but when you actually are blending—I mean that's like six kazoos playing at once, this unified line, this really military way of performing, like it's very exact—in combination with the whistles, it's almost so exact that it's a parody of what those instruments are supposed to be, because it's just like so serious in the way that it's executed. Sorry, I totally lost track—what was the question?

HS: I was just wondering if you had any particular model for that whimsical side of the music.

TB: You know, as far as those sounds are concerned, you look at someone like Carl Stalling, who did the Looney Tunes music, and then you could also look at someone like Edgard Varèse, who did the "Colossus of Sound," insane kind of thing with the same instruments. And one's perceived as lighthearted, one's perceived as serious, but the textures in them are very similar in some ways. So I really appreciate, again, that kind of polarity between the two composers as it's perceived to be. Because the perception is, "Oh, Carl Stalling, he wrote Looney Tunes so he's not that serious, but Edgard Varèse, he's avant-garde, so he's serious." What does that really mean, in either respect? So from a purely musical standpoint, I think the combination of those sounds are interesting, that's all.

HS: Some of the pieces, like "Uffe's Woodshop," struck me as very narrative, as though they were the soundtrack to an adventure story. Do any of these pieces have a narrative association?

TB: There is a narrative, but it's purely encoded within the music. There's no actual story that goes along with it. If you look at the cover art of the record, there's like three characters on the record, so I fed into that perception of that narrative, but it's also meaningless—it's just a suggestion. There's like these suggested directions of where the pieces go, but it doesn't it mean that it's actually related to anything tangible that you can associate with it. It's kind of like Choose Your Own Adventure.

HS: Do the titles have specific associations? What does "Uffe's Woodshop" refer to?

TB: My friend Uffe is a Danish architect, and for my solo thing, he built this crazy stage for me to sit on. He's just this amazing guy, and I just wanted to do something in homage to him, but it also works in the framework of the whole Central Market world. It kind of alludes to something that I did want to allude to, so it did happen to work. So he's this guy that lives on 58th Street with his wife and he's this amazing, virtuosic Danish architect, and he's great. So I figured, Oh, I'll write a song about Uffe.

HS: You mentioned the title of the record. I read in the bio that there's a Stravinsky thing on one hand and then the market crisis on the other. Can you describe how that came together in your head?

TB: It's kind of just like a funny thing to think about. I came up with it as the music was starting to come together, more as the music was already kind of formed, and I was like, Okay, how can I frame this? What's the best way to frame this? And yeah, on one hand I wanted to allude to the "Shrovetide Fair" part of Petrushka from Stravinsky, which I thought was apropos for the nature of the music, but when you think of the word market right now, it's kind of ingrained in our brains that we're in this global economic collapse and everything. So it's just kind of, again, the polarity: This, like, whimsical stage in wintertime St. Petersburg. These puppets come to life in Petrushka and they start dancing in the square and it's so, like, happy and magical. And then on the other hand, there's like this catastrophic global economic meltdown. So it's just funny—It's like a suggested thing to associate with the music that could or could not go with that. I'm very elusive with my definitions. Things could be or they could not be.

HS: I think it's interesting that you're bringing up the market collapse, because what you're doing, being a "composer," is this notion that seems impractical or even outdated, and it's interesting to allude to that on this album.

TB: It's funny, though, because the association of a composer is such a loaded thing. People think of a composer and they think of something that is outdated and that isn't necessarily valid in these times as far as what other kind of music is happening, although all these people like—Jay-Z's a composer. All these people compose, but the association is with classical music, and classical music has a stigma of being inacessible and elitist, but it's only in the way that people let it be perceived because that music is so open and is so available, even if the people who were writing it didn't intend for it to be.

You look at someone like Wagner, who was like a totally anti-Semitic, racist guy. And I like some of Wagner's stuff—I'm a half-black Jew, and in a way it's like this new generation has to embrace the music and reassess its mission statement and take it back to being ours again. Because a lot of the ideas of hundreds of years of this music are still valid; it's just framed in such an off-putting way. So I listen to that music the same way I listen to—I listen to that music with such a passion right now. It's so exciting to me. Some of these things you come across, it's like it's brand new. I was talking about Varèse earlier—I'm like swimming in Varèse right now, like it just came out yesterday. I'm like, Holy shit, how is this guy not being put on a pedestal and not acknowledged, at least in a way that would equate the amount of ingenuity and talent that he had? And not just on an intellectual level: Viscerally the guy—I'm just listening to it and I'm like, This shit is so fucking exciting!

So I really do believe that it's the way that it's framed and the way that that kind of music is perceived. Some of it is hard to get into and you really have to practice at listening to understand it. And the rewards are there for that, but the rewards are also there for even the surface-level, more accessible kind of composition that I feel like people have just kind of written off as classical and this and that. But a lot of that music is just so thrilling, and I think it's just as valid now. And I hope that people, when they hear [Central Market], whether they think it's inaccessible or accessible, they know that the record was not intended to hurt you. It's not some one-upsmanship; it's a very inclusive kind of record, no matter how difficult certain parts are. They're not difficult despite the audience. So like we were talking about earlier: "Do you think about accessibility and inaccessibility?" I think about things that I really love and composers that I really admire and love, and I want to go my own route and find that, and do it with a true passion and love for it and hope that people will like it but not do it for people to like it—hope that people will like it and to not have that kind of restrictive barrier to not be able to experiment with things. So that's a long-winded answer for you. Good luck transcribing that one.

HS: All this brings up the notion of, What is a composer now? And when I heard this, I thought about groups like Dirty Projectors and Extra Life—I saw that you had written about them on your blog—

TB: Yeah, they're great.

HS: And I think there's a lot of music right now that's extraordinarily complex but also has a rock or a pop element and is reaching a lot of people. Dirty Projectors is, like, the indie-rock sensation of the year, but it's as avant-garde as anything you could name, and to me, Central Market doesn't sound like those artists, but it fits into the same current: classically trained people who could draw on whatever tradition they want to draw on, but you could play the music at a party or something and it would make sense.

TB: Right, that's funny.

HS: Do you think of yourself as aligned with anyone in that vein?

TB: Well, all I can say is I respect those guys. I'm a big fan of Dirty Projectors. I actually met up with Dave [Longstreth] the other day just to talk and give him a copy of this record, and talk for a little bit about the current state of music, and I really can relate to him. I could really appreciate his contribution right now with what he's bringin' to the table. He's awesome. A lot of guys are doing great things. Bryce Dessner from the National—he also composes pieces, and I like his band and I like his composition too. So yeah, man, I respect these guys and I like their music, so I leave it to people to put me in whatever—am I part of that or am I not a part of it—I'll let everyone else decide.

HS: When I think of the important composers of the day, I think of those people before I think of people who are coming out of an explicitly classical realm, but I think it's interesting that you worked with the Wordless people, because that organization is all about breaking down those boundaries.

TB: Absolutely. That's why it really felt good—it felt right to work with those guys. Aside from being extremely talented players who can play the classical game if they want to—any one of the members in Wordless can be in any huge contemporary orchestra and kill it and then they could also have their own noise groups on the side. And I appreciate that sensibility and it was easy to translate ideas, and we seemed to have an understanding, for me to be able to define certain ideas and certain parts. They got onboard really quick. They're fantastic.

HS: Just so I have a clear idea—I don't have credits for the album—we're talking about a full orchestra?

TB: Yeah.

HS: Okay, because I thought it might have been more of a chamber group.

TB: Well, it was probably a hybrid because we actually ended up doubling parts too, because being that it was section by section, there ended up being 26 people, something like that. It was still a large group of people but it might not be a full orchestra by full-orchestra standards. Yeah, like 26.

HS: Are there plans to do this live?

TB: I want to be able to do this live by next year. Right now, even right before coming here, I was at Battles practice, so I'm like full-on rehearsing for that right now. But I will do this live, for sure.

HS: And Battles has a show in a couple weeks.

TB: Yeah.

HS: And this is all new material?

TB: Not all new material. [Laughs] Not by any stretch. We're gonna premiere a couple new songs.

HS: There were moments on the album that sounded to me like an orchestral Battles or something. The last song that has the fragmented funk beat seems to have a similar thing going on. And certain textures like the whistling. Do the projects inform one another?

TB: Sure. Again the theme of polarity comes in, where it's great to be able to work with people and it's great to be able to work by yourself, because one informs the other. Because you work by yourself, you have a strong sense of yourself, you can bring it to a group of people, and your defined sense is able to solidify itself so that you can communicate with other people where you know what role you play. And then from there, just learning about how groups work, learning about counterpoint, whether it be musical or socially, how a whole band works like that with that kind of intensity, it informs the way your solo stuff works. And I've learned a lot from playing in this band for sure. You can't simulate—I'm in my solo thing simulating what it means to have a lot of people playing, and it's a lot more intricate than just layering sound one on top of the other. That's just the icing on the cake, as far as simulating what it would mean to have a lot of people play. So it's great to have the experience of having the challenge of working with people and being able to utilize it in my own way, and I think it's manifested itself in this record for sure.

HS: It's interesting because when I talked to you guys about Battles, you spoke about how it was really important to build up all the loops live, and then the record is more about building it up over a period of days or weeks. But it seems like it's the same process.

TB: It's similar. This is definitely less loop-based. There's a lot of repetition of parts but there aren't really any loops. And to be honest, that was one thing I really wanted to get away from. There are some pieces that are based on loops, so I didn't want to abandon that. But for the most part the mission statement was to use loops just as a technique, not as underlying foundation beneath the whole thing. Because in some ways, loops are interesting but they can also be a crutch if it turns into this thing that is a predisposed given for a composition. It can be limiting.

HS: It seems like when you were doing it live solo, you probably didn't have that much choice.

TB: Yeah, and that's cool, like the effect you get from looping is this very particular kind of effect and it's great, and after doing it for years, I have a good understanding of it and what effects it can bring to the table. So I think it's healthier to look at it more as a technique that can create certain effects as opposed to overtly relying on it as a foundational element that can be restrictive in a way that's not productive.

HS: Moving into this realm of composition, do you think you're moving more into a realm that touches on your father's music?

TB: Hmmm. I was always alluding to it, but I had the tools that I was able to say that it was my own, and it was. You know, growing up, I had to ask myself the question, Do you love music? And for me, it really came to me and I was like, "I love it, and I need it to be mine." He was a profound influence on me, but more than that I had to say to myself, if it's gonna be mine, it has to be mine; it has to be something that I want to do. So in finding out what that is, I had to kind of get away from his kind of performing and composing, and I had to find my own way. But like a lot of people, as they get older, you start to kind of look back and you realize that you love this music, and you've always been around it and it's something that's really a part of you, and in a way, in my own diverted way, I was headed into similar terrain. It's no mistake that he ended up choosing this lifestyle, because it's fucking exciting, man. It's such an exciting craft to hone in on. So I'll always strive to go my own way; I'm not gonna revert to using his techniques to further my own thing. I'm not interested in that. But there's definitely a commonality in that he likes to write for acoustic orchestral instruments that are in the classical realm and I appreciate that. So yeah, I hope to keep building on these ideas and keep going in my own direction.

HS: Do you have any sort of give and take with him, in terms of, "Hey Dad, here's what I just did"?

TB: I've gotta admit, I wish I did, but we haven't actually talked in a while, unfortunately.

HS: I think I remember seeing him in the audience at one of the Battles shows.

TB: Yeah, he was there for a bit. I see him on and off every now and then. He's busy; he's doin' his thing. He's workin' hard composing for the end of his opera cycle. And yeah, I admire his stuff. I hope to be able to learn from him more in the future, but at this point it doesn't really seem possible.

HS: I've listened to a lot of your father's music, and there's very little I would compare at all to what you're doing. I guess that Creative Orchestra Music project a little bit. But if I were hearing your music blind, Anthony Braxton would not be the person I'd compare it to.

TB: Right. You know, I admire him; I learned from him; he's been a tremendous influence. But you know, if you're serious about what you're doing, if you're really in this thing, you got to find your own way of doin' things, and that's always been very important to me. So I hope that comes across.

HS: I wanted to ask you about a couple more of the particular tracks. "J. City," the second to last piece, with the catchy vocals, is kind of buried on the record. Was it a conscious decision to put the poppier thing near the end?

TB: Yeah, the record is not defined by that piece, so that's why I wanted to—The record felt like it was begging for some kind of song, kind of a resolve, like especially after "Platinum Rows," this really massive piece, I felt like there had to be some kind of a breather. I admit though that piece, I was struggling with a lot because it is very different from the other pieces, and I didn't know how well it would work in the sequence. All I knew was that if it was too early on in the record, it would define it in a way that I wasn't trying to define it in, and I wanted to just show it as another direction, and another possible idea. And then the last track reverts back to the more instrumental thing. So yeah, I like that track, and I'm still trying to figure out—No I won't say it like that. I appreciate the role that it plays, and it was very purposeful to have it where it is on the record.

HS: Yeah, it is a really catchy song. I was almost reminded of Tears for Fears, or just some very moody kind of pop music. Were there any of those kinds of influences coming into play?

TB: [Laughs] I wrote that—It's an older song, that's another reason, so I'm trying to remember the context. I'll have to get back to you; I'll have to e-mail you. I don't know. 'Cause I can't remember. I wrote that a couple years ago, and I was just like, Oh shit, what kind of song could I use here? And I just kind of grabbed that, like, Oh, that could be good. I'd have to get back to you about the context [Laughs].

HS: I could be totally mistaken but when I heard the last piece, I could've sworn I heard you do that live years ago.

TB: Yeah, it's an old piece, so you did.

HS: Is a lot of this stuff gathered up over a period of years?

TB: The last two tracks are; the rest of the stuff is new. That's another thing too: I wanted to kind of respect some of the things that I had done in the past and try to integrate it into the newer stuff. So they are more loop-based. They're a little simpler in their composition. But I kind of wanted to have those in place, because, yeah, that last one I've been doing for a while and for some reason, I've always still really liked that. So I'm like, Okay, I'll just throw that on. Even if it's not on the page that I'm on now, it's still relative to where I'm going.

HS: Just to get back to Battles, is it an exciting thing to be going back and having this really visceral thing, being back in a room playing with people and getting onstage? It seems like it would be a nice counterpoint to the solo work.

TB: It is. It's nice. It's a total headfuck switching like this, though. Because each thing isn't some loose investment; it's not like, Oh, okay, that's done—Great, now I'll just go back to Battles. I've just purged myself of years of work, and I'm really excited about this kind of music and I'm like, Okay, now I've got to go back and I've got to get to loop-rock-song world again. And it's awesome, 'cause, yeah, I get to play live, I get to interact with people again, but I have to kind of like snap back into focus, 'cause it's a different way of music making. As similar and as relative as it is, it's actually very different. So it took me a second to be able to refocus. But it is good, it's exciting. I get to be able to get back in the swing of things and play live again.

HS: But ultimately, you'd like to have the two outlets and switch back and forth?

TB: Yeah, no doubt about it. 

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Henry Gibson: 1935 - 2009

Sadly, the actor Henry Gibson passed away Monday. This obituary indicates that he was best known for his role on Laugh-In. Personally, I can't imagine remembering him for anything other than his appearances in several classical Altman films, including The Long Goodbye and Nashville. His portrayal of the insufferably pompous country star Haven Hamilton in the latter flick is a classic (and Gibson actually wrote two of the songs sung by Hamilton, including the hilariously overblown "200 Years"), but his Long Goodbye turn - as Dr. Verringer, the crooked head of some sort of weird convalescent spa - is absolutely unforgettable.

Gibson's Verringer has this weird, unsettling calm about him, and even though he's not in the film that much, he seems to sum up the creepy corruption of the L.A. that Altman portrays. There's a very strange moment in the film where Elliott Gould is snooping around the grounds in search of Sterling Hayden's character and you see the diminutive, effeminate Gibson running across the screen. It's a very strange run, almost ghostlike. When he and Gould finally meet, Gibson is riveting: As in Nashville, he's sort of pompous-seeming, but really what he projects is a mixture of haughty pride and utter self-delusion. His Verringer is like the king of a sand castle.

You get that same vibe from Thurston Howell, the character Gibson plays in Magnolia. As if we didn't already know that that flick owed pretty much everything to Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson had to go ahead and push things over the top by casting an Altman staple. Anyway, Gibson is amazing here, so who can complain. He plays Thurston Howell (isn't it weird how *every* movie character has a name, even if no one would ever have any idea what it was if it weren't for IMDB?), another haughty, deluded character. Howell is sitting at the bar as William H. Macy's character attempts to hit on a hunky male bartender. The two begin to compete for the dude's affection and they exchange cutting words. At this point in the film, Macy's character is in a sad downward spiral, and Howell's sarcastic, nonchalant cruelty toward him is almost too much to handle. As with the Verringer turn, Gibson is tapping into this sense of obsolete affection, of putting on airs that no one around you could possibly pick up on, of turning your nose up at everyone even though your own life couldn't be more sad or pathetic. (Nashville's Haven "You don't belong in Nashville!" Hamilton fits that same bill - big time.)

I don't know much about Gibson's acting career outside these three roles, but the fact that I've seen so little of him yet have such a strong recall really says something. I'll remember him as a bit player who routinely stole the show. My closing example is Father O'Neil in Wedding Crashers: "And now I pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the first mate."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Get well, Phil Collins

Wish I had some profound reflections to offer on this rainy 9/11. But the best I can muster is a get-well-soon message for Phil Collins, who recently revealed that severe neck problems have rendered him unable to play drums (or piano, for that matter). I haven't kept up much with recent Genesis happenings, but as anyone who's heard, say, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway can tell you, this man is a brilliant percussionist with a remarkably subtle sense of prog/fusion groove. And, of course, on "In the Air Tonight," he also dropped one of the most classic Monster Fills in all of rock-drumming lore. Check out this live version, and buckle up right around 3:40:


P.S. I absolutely loved District 9 - a great combo of gutwrenching and near-sappy.

P.P.S. I wrote a preview of pianist Connie Crothers's upcoming Stone run. If you haven't checked out Crothers, get with the program: She's amazing.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Missing links

In a couple of hours, I'm headed west with Laal in search of the Boognish. I wish everyone a wonderful Labor Day weekend. I leave you with some links to recent Time Out pieces that I'm happy with:

*As you can see above, I attended last week's Heaven and Hell (a.k.a. Black Sabbath 2.0) show and spent a few minutes standing less than ten feet from Tony Iommi. It was magical. More pics and a review here.

*Central Market, the new Tyondai Braxton solo album that comes out in a few weeks, is really awesome. I interviewed Mr. Braxton and wrote a profile of him in advance of the Warp20 celebration going down this weekend in NYC.

*Sadly I didn't make it out to one of the Nine Inch Nails shows. I did however write a longish preview of the run. It was interesting to think about how much I'd adored NIN in high school, and how unlikely it was that Trent Reznor had managed to keep people interested for so long.

*The new Mount Eerie album is very creepy and cool. Here's my review.

*On the TONY music blog, the Volume, we have a weekly video series featuring in-office performances by local artists. Some recent ones I've really enjoyed: Wild Yaks, Marcus Strickland Trio, Sharon Van Etten, Mike Watt (!) and Shilpa Ray. You can view the full archive here.


Lastly, how insanely cool is all this Michael McDonald business? From pop-cultural punchline in The 40-Year-Old Virgin to oracle of the shifting zeitgeist in just a few short years!

"When I was with the Doobies, the style of music was that we all went over the falls with chord progressions, trying to make things as complex and interconnected as possible. The punk movement swung towards being as primitive as possible, but now it’s back to where these guys are good musicians. I never thought that would come back around, but it has.”

Boy has it ever. "Cannibal Resource" on Letterman anyone? Prog is back in the mainstream where it belongs! [Used to have a YouTube link here, but they yanked the vid.]

And for something completely different, check out a brutal new Ted Kennedy-themed Blouse jam here. Joe from STATS guests on guitar.