Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Come and live with us: Magma live

"Definitely you can come and live with us

All you gotta do is help out with the chores…"
—Dirty Projectors, "Temecula Sunrise"

I thought of the line above while watching Magma at Highline Ballroom last night. The impression I kept getting, over and over, from this most idiosyncratic of old-guard progressive-rock bands (check the eye-popping facts if you haven't heard of them: French, around since ’69, built around an invented mythology and language, etc.) was of a commune: a self-sustaining civilization based on a shared commitment to beauty and, just as important, industriousness. "Definitely you can come and live with us," the furiously intricate yet highly supple jazz-rock epics (ranging in mood from the eerie to the imperious to the flat-out goofy) churned out by bandleader Christian Vander & Co. seemed to say, "but please understand that we're going to put you to work." You know those often absurd-seeming, state-sanctioned images of Communist life from China or the former Soviet Union, where everyone's happy and busy and also pretty much anonymous? That was how this incarnation of Magma—Vander (at left in the pic above) on drums and his wife, Stella (to his right), on vocals, along with a vibraphonist, a keyboardist, a guitarist, a bassist and two more singers (one male and one female)—felt to me.

But the X-factor, the thing that made it joyous and wonderful instead of creepy, was the passion of the playing. Prior to seeing this show, Magma had always seemed merely like the coolest idea to me. Anyone who spends any time digging for information about progressive rock, as I have for a good while now, eventually runs up against Magma, like some weird, impenetrable bedrock. Those lean, proggy riffs and vaguely musty fusion-isms always sounded like an appealing throwback, but the Kobaïan chant and the fact that Magma never seemed to rock in as balls-out a manner as, say, Yes, always ended up leaving me a little numb.

Live, though, you get volume, and also, crucially, you get Vander. A hulking, sweaty and frequently smiling man, he is an utter thrill to watch. Cymbals positioned high and at precarious angles, their faces nearly perpendicular to the stage. I wrote a little while back about the Vaz drummer Jeff Mooridian, and how his native position on the kit was playing snare, bass and some furious 16th-note pattern on the high hat. Vander's native territory is that perpetual staple of prog drumming, the steely, syncopated groove smashed out on the China cymbal and bass drum simultaneously, with the snare filling in the space. You really hear, in this man, the grand lineage of jazz-rock: Despite Vander's constant professions of love for Elvin Jones, what I heard was a lot of Bruford, a lot of Cobham and on the quieter passages, a lot of Tony Williams. (I've often opined that the same drummer can't really play both rock and jazz convincingly, but Vander comes about as close as anyone I've ever heard, bringing the requisite bombast for the former and a very genuine sense of touch and buoyancy, as demanded by the latter.) But, one wonders, given Magma's 1969 vintage, who was it that influenced whom?

The band played for about two hours, and yes, it was exhausting at times and hammy at others. But I was consoled by the notion of witnessing something absolutely singular. To nod to the great Rick Astley ("You wouldn't get this from any other guy"), you wouldn't get this from any other band, namely such a deep, committed demonstration of what PROG means, entirely unobscured by pop and for that matter, "classic rock." Sure you could go see the latter-day Yes (I've never had the pleasure—I'm sure it's amazing), but this is something much more grassroots, much more cult, something closer to the sublime, Zenned-out nerddom at the core of prog. It's nothing less than motivational speech in musical form: an overwhelming pageant of human achievement, i.e., "You too can accomplish such brilliance if you eat your Wheaties and practice every day." Definitely you can come and live with us, say the Vanders and their cohorts, busy erecting their otherworldly architecture—it won't be easy, but the sacrifices just might be worth it.


Some background: a great 2002 interview with Christian Vander.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Listening jag: Motian, Malaby and related

For a while now, I've really enjoyed how Scott Tennent (author of the forthcoming 33 1/3 book on Spiderland and a fellow craw and Dazzling Killmen fanatic) documents and analyzes his listening habits. I thought I'd try something similar.

The guiding principle here is that I'm constantly on what I call listening jags (I've used "listening ruts" before too, but I think this works better), prolonged periods of immersing myself in the work of one artist or several related ones. Anything can trigger this: a new album release, a live show, a blog post. And once I'm off, I'm really off: For however long the listening jag lasts, I can hardly bear to hear anything other than the artist or artists in question (when listening is recreational and not work-related, that is). It's sort of like that "Once you get that taste" concept—I have a sound in my head and that's the only sound I want. Sometimes, the jags last a day, sometimes weeks; sometimes they're cyclical, e.g., I seem to find myself on an Andrew Hill jag every six months or so, and on a Cecil Taylor jag about once a year.

Anyway, I thought I'd give a little window into my current listening jag (the axis of which is the drummer Paul Motian) and how it developed.

1) I was reading this Destination: Out post on Joe Giardullo, which led me to this Giardullo interview on Paris Transatlantic by Clifford Allen. In the Q&A, Giardullo, who has often covered Paul Motian tunes, states: "That trio [Motian] had with Charles Brackeen and David Izenzon is the trio." I'm a huge fan of Motian, Brackeen and Izenzon, and while I'd heard this trio's output (one ECM record and some killer live stuff), I decided I needed to get deeper into it. So for a while I was deep into said ECM record by Motian, Dance, the live stuff linked above and another Motian ECM album, Le Voyage, which features Brackeen along with J.F. Jenny-Clark on bass.

2) I decided to go further with Motian, so I began spinning Keith Jarrett's American Quartet stuff and got especially into the album Byablue, on which most of the material is composed by Motian. I also became obsessed with the Jarrett/Haden/Motian YouTube clip discussed in my last post.

3) I delved further into the Motian discography, which led me to the ’80s albums on Soul Note, of which Steve Smith was kind enough to lend me two, Misterioso (still digesting) and the absolutely phenomenal The Story of Maryam. Both sessions feature Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell—who would of course stay on with Motian and fill out his signature trio—as well as the late saxophonist Jim Pepper and bassist Ed Schuller.

4) At this point, after I had spoken to him of my Motian jag, a generous brother-in-jazz (who shall remain anonymous) passed me a bootleg of a very recent (as in weeks ago) Motian gig at the Vanguard, which featured Frisell, and the saxophonists Mark Turner and Tony Malaby. I haven't written much about Malaby on this blog, but I truly love his playing, and I'm also a big Turner fan (as evidenced by posts on Fly and Billy Hart's quartet). This boot is a holy thing and I wish everyone could hear it.

5) At this point, a taste for Malaby sprouted as an offshoot of my taste for Motian. I recalled that the two of them appeared together on Malaby's Adobe, from 2004, so I got that and was instantly fascinated. Again, still digesting, but this record is definitely an obsession in the making.

6) I left Motian for a bit and moved further into the Malaby universe, checking out two fantastic records: last year's Voladores and Tamarindo, a Clean Feed trio date from a couple years back w/ William Parker and Nasheet Waits.

7) Then I looped back around to Motian (and Ed Schuller as well), spending a bit of time with Tim Berne's Mutant Variations.

What does all this mean? Nothing, other than that it demonstrates how my listening brain works. I have a certain sonic area in mind and I want to explore it fully. With Motian and Malaby there's something hard to pin down that binds them: this sort of ghostly, free-floating-ness. The Malaby band on Voladores is called Apparitions, and I think this fits really well re: what I'm looking for in jazz right now. I'm showing no signs of moving on from this jag: As I type, I'm already planning to load Adobe onto the iPod for the morning commute.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Three clips

Much of my recreational listening lately has centered on Chick Corea's Now He Sings, Now He Sobs; Paul Motian in the ’70s, including his trio records with Charles Brackeen and his work with Keith Jarrett; and Dave Holland's ’80s quintet albums on ECM. Blessedly, all three of these strains of brilliance can be glimpsed on YouTube.

I'm transfixed by all these above clips, especially the Jarrett/Haden/Motian one—what in God's name is Paul Motian doing here? So gloriously eccentric and unhinged from the way anyone else has ever played drums. You don't think of the guy who swung with Bill Evans at the Vanguard; you think of the great outsider jazz-percussion geniuses, from Sunny Murray all the way up to Randy Peterson. Motian's playing here, and the sound of this Jarrett trio as a whole, reminds us that free jazz is about so much more than Free Jazz, i.e., the Coltrane-and-Ayler- or even Ornette-derived stuff. So many artists have played "free" in so many different ways. There's Fire Music on one hand and then there's this whole other strain that's about ecstatic joy and fun. Those emotions are really palpable in this clip.

And speaking of different spins on free jazz, how about Roy Haynes? At the beginning of the Corea clip above, what you hear is straight-up OUT, and moreover, Haynes sounds absolutely comfortable, not to mention fantastic, in this mode. It's basically exactly the type of thing Corea would play later on with Barry Altschul and the Circle cats. There's some more of this free vibe appended to the CD reissue of Now He Sings, esp. a track called "Fragments". A tantalizing performance, since I'm pretty sure Haynes never really did anything like this again. Of course, I could be mistaken, but in all the other instances I know of Haynes recording with avant-garde-leaning figures, e.g., Dolphy and Andrew Hill, the mode was pretty much straight postbop. Does anyone know if there are any other instances of Roy Haynes playing free jazz? If so, I absolutely NEED to hear them. He sounds incredible in this vein—if you heard just a few seconds, you might think you were listening to Andrew Cyrille or another avant-garde titan.

As for the Holland, I wrote in a comment here about how this band with Steve Coleman and Kenny Wheeler represents a jazz ideal for me. This is what I said there with regard to Holland albums such as The Razor's Edge and Seeds of Time, and I stand by it: "It's not free jazz; it's not straight-ahead jazz; it's just good jazz. It swings when it needs to, grooves when it needs to, comes off the rails when it needs to. It takes neither a reverent nor a defiant attitude toward the history of the music."

Anyway, long live YouTube and its jazz-historical treasures.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Ten strong 2010 jazz releases

I can't tell if it's an unusually great year for jazz albums, or if I'm just making more of an effort to survey what's out there. Either way, I've heard some killer recorded jazz in 2010. Here are a few full-lengths I'm really feeling. Obviously we've got a few months to go before year-end-poll time, so just consider this as an informal "Don't sleep on these" list, in no particular order apart from the fact that No. 1 is a clear favorite. (One or two of these—the honorable-mentioned Sam Newsome, e.g.—may be late-2009 releases that didn't make their way to me till after the new year.)

Anything crucial that I'm missing?


1. The Cookers Warriors (Jazz Legacy Productions)

2. Weasel Walter Invasion (ugEXPLODE)

3. Harris Eisenstadt Woodblock Prints (NoBusiness)

4. Jason Moran Ten (Blue Note)

5. Geri Allen Flying Toward the Sound (Motéma Music)

6. The Bad Plus Never Stop (E1 Music)

7. Mike Pride's From Bacteria to Boys Betweenwhile (Aum Fidelity)

8. Jon Irabagon Foxy (Hot Cup)

9. John Escreet Don't Fight the Inevitable (Mythology)

10. Mario Pavone Arc Suite T/Pi T/Po (Playscape)


Honorable mention:

Jeff Davis We Sleep Outside (Loyal Label)

David Weiss and Point of Departure Snuck In (Sunnyside)

Vijay Iyer Solo (ACT Music)

Louis Sclavis–Craig Taborn–Tom Rainey Eldorado Trio (Clean Feed)

Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green Apex (Pi)

Paul Motian Trio with Jason Moran and Chris Potter Lost in a Dream (ECM)

Newman Taylor Baker Drum-Suite-Life (Innova)

Sam Newsome Blue Soliloquy (self-released)

James Moody 4B (IPO)

Chris Lightcap's Bigmouth Deluxe (Clean Feed)

Amir ElSaffar–Hafez Modirzadeh Radif Suite (Pi)

Rova and Nels Cline Singers The Celestial Septet (New World)

Stéphane Furic Leibovici with Chris Cheek and Lee Konitz Jugendstil II (ESP-Disk)

Mike Mainieri Crescent (NYC)

Kurt Rosenwinkel and OJM Our Secret World (Word of Mouth)

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The chase: craw live at the Grog Shop

[Flyer by John G.]

Every serious music lover has that one show they spend their whole life chasing, the concert they've built up in their mind as the greatest thing they ever saw. For me it was about 15 years ago. It was either ’95 or ’96 and I saw a Cleveland band called craw [sic] play in my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri. Their records were my chief obsession at that time, and the show confirmed what I'd hypothesized: that this was the best band I'd ever heard. As a devout teenage metalhead, I had grown weary of the genre's macho, dumbed-down attitudes (these were the days before "indie metal," before intellectual cred was pretty much a given within the style). In craw I found the darkness and ruthless complexity I craved, along with vocals/lyrics that seemed like the ravings of a mad scientist. Live, everything was amplified, right there in front of my impressionable face: It was like being attacked by geniuses.

So I chased craw for the remainder of their touring existence, catching something like six more shows over the next couple of years. I moved to New York and craw stopped touring. Eventually Joe McTighe, the lead singer who had so impressed me, left Cleveland, and the band quietly went extinct. By this point, the early 2000s, craw's prog-punk ethos, grafting the former style's technicality onto the latter's brutality, had become a "thing" in earnest, a genre unto itself. I couldn't relate to bands like Dillinger Escape Plan, but after a few years, when my friend Joe and I started a band called Stay Fucked, I realized that the prog-punk ethos was percolating in my backyard. So both as a musician and as a fan, I continued to chase the idea of craw.

Things got interesting around 2005. Stay Fucked was progressing and we met folks from all these other bands who had a stake in the prog-punk thing: Mick Barr, Zs, Behold… the Arctopus, Friendly Bears, Time of Orchids. We'd already known the members of Timber, Birthday Boyz and Snack Truck from college, and then we came upon others of our tribe: Archaeopteryx, Yukon, Animal, Maw, Clan of the Cave Bear, Dysrhythmia. (In 2006, I helped organize a Philadelphia festival—which bore the same name as this blog—to showcase some of this talent.) Within this community, I was a tireless evangelist, handing out burned copies of craw records like bibles. Some listened and caught the fever, but by this point, there was no craw to see live, no way to really ground the myth in fact.

Suddenly, though, there was a craw to see live. A month or so ago, I got word that the band would reunite for a one-off Cleveland show, a benefit for a friend (photographer and longtime scene booster Karen Novak). As I'd expected, Joe McTighe was not coming back to town, so the other three members of craw's final lineup (guitarist Rockie Brockway, bassist Zak Dieringer and drummer Will Scharf, the latter also of Keelhaul) would play as a trio, with Brockway doubling on vocals. I was skeptical on the latter front: McTighe's strategy had been to lay slippery, chaotic patterns over the musicians' rigorous tech-rock grid, and the idea of trying to play and sing craw at the same time seemed impossible.

Doubts or no, I knew this was something I needed to see. So this past Monday, a decade and a half after that initial Kansas City experience, here I was again chasing craw. Friends, family and fiancée all thought I was a little nuts—flying to Cleveland overnight for a show—but on the other hand, they all knew me well enough to understand that when it came to craw, I wasn't going to compromise.

I got into town at about 5:30 p.m. My kind host was my friend John, a keeper of the prog-punk flame who plays in the aforementioned Clan of the Cave Bear. He's one of the only other people I know who seems perfectly content to talk about craw (or any other extreme band you might fancy) ad infinitum. We chilled out at his place for a few minutes, grabbed a bite and then headed over to the Grog Shop, a modest-sized bar/venue (NYC people: think of Mercury Lounge) where the show was going down.

The crowd was sparse. As a pilgrim, I wanted to pay my respects to the band. Will knew I had planned on coming, but he still seemed a bit surprised that I had actually gone through with it. Rockie and Zak were shocked as well, but happy to see me—it had been something like eight years since I'd seen or talked to either one. It's always a little weird playing the role of the obsessive fan, but in my experience, if you're in a situation where you can actually converse freely with your idols, you should. And no matter how embarrassing it seems, you should tell them how much their work means to you—as I've been doing with these guys since I was a teenager. With all that out of the way, we got some good catching up in before the show. I gave Rockie and Zak some STATS CDs.

After the opening band finished, I grabbed a spot right at the front of the stage (not that there was much competition). I had planned on taking some Flipcam video, but I concluded that I didn't want to worry about documentation while watching the band. John's girlfriend, Leia, kindly offered to tape a few songs for me, but then we realized that like eight other people were filming the whole show. (I'll be sure to post some links as soon as the videos appear—I'm guessing you'll see a few on this YouTube channel.) Will had rattled off the song selection to me when Keelhaul played NYC earlier this month, but when John and I spied the set list, we were psyched to see "STRONGEST," signifying "Strongest Human Bond," one of the best songs from my favorite craw album, Lost Nation Road, and a clear favorite among my various friends who love the band.

Suddenly the sticks were clicking and it was on. I think I half-expected some kind of heavenly trumpet fanfare, but nope, this was a rock band playing to a thin crowd in a suburban-ish bar on a weeknight, a scenario that was no doubt playing out concurrently at thousands of other venues across the country. It took a bit for the magic to warm up: Opening track "Caught My Tell" (drawn, like most of the set, from craw's final album, Bodies for Strontium 90) sounded a little wobbly, and Rockie clearly had his hands full with the guitar-vocal doubling. (Overall, though, Rockie handled the challenge well: He didn't attempt to mimic Joe's delivery; instead, his hoarse, shouted style was a respectable placeholder.) "Strongest Human Bond" came next and things started to gel. The old chills brewed up inside during the midsong breakdown ("20 years later my twin is passed out on the couch"). By the third song, "Space Is the Place," I was right where I wanted to be. There were only a few of us up near the stage, including John, but were all zeroing in on the same phenomenon: that euphoric rush of volume and crazed inventiveness that only craw delivers. These songs are so ingrained in my head and heart that for all their complexity, they sound absolutely logical, absolutely fluid. I danced and screamed along.

However easy it is to dis the nostalgic impulse in general, it's ridiculous to resist it on a personal level. Specific things light us up when we're young and nothing else but those specific things can truly complete our circuits when we're older. We stay open-minded, we stay grounded, we stay rational and sane, and new stimuli flood in, but there's a unique joy that comes when we're in the presence of the old stimuli, when we chase our aesthetic ideal and there it is, intact, waiting for us.

The second half of the set is a blur to me—I was so out there and in the moment and happy. I distinctly remember the stunning skeletal-funk bass-drums breakdown in "Unsolicited, Unsavory" and how it grooved harder than it does on the record. I remember the glorious turbulence of "Divinity of Laughter" and the sleek, serrated cadences of "Is It Safe?" I remember when a fellow craw lifer—I only caught his first name, R.J.—came up onstage to help Rockie sing the classic "405" (a creepy rant about a woman who falls victim to a stalker then survives a plane crash), and how Will (who had not played on the recorded version of the song) spiced up the ominous ending with a backbeat. And I remember that I didn't want it to end.

Afterward I got to catch up some more with Zak. We went through a little craw history, talked about our mutual loves of Rush and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and filled each other in on our extramusical lives. I have no idea when I'll see him again, or if I'll ever see craw play again, but this particular chase had been worth it. The 32-year-old me shook hands with the 16-year-old me and said, "You were right."


The full set list from Monday's craw show at the Grog Shop in Cleveland:

Caught My Tell

Strongest Human Bond

Space Is the Place


Unsolicited, Unsavory (a.k.a. "Dubby")

Chop Shop

Divinity of Laughter


Is It Safe?

Weedy Species