Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Goodbye, Sam Rivers

Much like Paul Motian, Sam Rivers seemed immortal. We can never take the greats for granted.

Nate Chinen penned a thorough, satisfying obit, and Ted Panken has posted some archival material that I can't wait to dig into. And here's a wide-ranging Spotify playlist from Phil Freeman. Some quick thoughts:

1) I feel that The Complete Blue Note Sam Rivers Sessions belongs in every jazz collection. The set is out of print, but three of the four LPs it contains (Fuchsia Swing Song, Contours and Dimensions & Extensions—each stunning in its own way) are currently available as stand-alones. It's a shame that the other Rivers Blue Note, A New Conception—a heartfelt, subtly adventurous set of standards featuring the underdocumented drum genius Steve Ellington, who's also on Dimensions, as well as Rivers's old Boston pal Hal Galper—is in limbo.

2) Rivers was a true multi-instrumentalist. Typically, when a musician, even a great one, doubles, triples, quadruples, etc. on a variety of instruments, I have a clear favorite, and all the others seem like consolation prizes (e.g., I enjoy Wayne Shorter's soprano playing, but I don't love it the way I do his tenor work). I didn't really feel this way with Rivers. The way he switched at will between tenor, soprano, flute and piano was his sound; he dignified a practice that sometimes seems scatterbrained.

3) For someone whose music was often very intense and/or abstract, Rivers always seemed like such a gracious, unbitter man. I fondly recall his enthusiastic, unfailingly patient interview demeanor during WKCR's glorious, weeklong Sam Rivers Festival a few years back. (I'm wishing I could re-live the performance that concluded the fest: a one-time-only reunion of Rivers's ’70s trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul.)

4) Three other Rivers records I love are Vista (2004), a beautifully recorded free trio with Adam Rudolph on hand percussion and Harris Eisenstadt on drum kit; Contrasts (1979), a probing, diverse quartet with an incredible band: George Lewis, Dave Holland, Thurman Barker; and Tony Williams's Life Time (1964), which contains some of the fiercest examples of Williams and Rivers's truly remarkable intergenerational mindmeld, also demonstrated on Fuchsia Swing Song.

Another pair of fascinating anomalies that I need to make some good time for: Tangens (1997), an intimate duo with Alexander von Schlippenbach, excerpted at the top of this post; Steven Bernstein's Diaspora Blues (2002), a set of Jewish themes featuring Rivers and his intrepid late-career triomates, Doug Mathews and Anthony Cole, both of whom also gave multi-instrumentalism a good name. (I remember hearing the Rivers/Mathews/Cole trio at the 2006 Vision Festival and coming away seriously impressed by their versatility and tight-knit dynamic.) I love the up-for-anything openness that Rivers displayed re: these sorts of guest appearances (e.g., Jason Moran's Black Stars, David Manson's Fluid Motion, plus two records with Ben Street and Kresten Osgood) and collaborations (1998's Configuration, with four European players).

5) I'm looking forward to reinvestigating Rivers's large-ensemble works. I must admit I never warmed to the Rivbea Orchestra, but spinning 1999's Inspiration on Spotify as I type, I'm charmed by its near-manic pep. Same goes for Crystals, from ’74.

Thank you for your music, sir, and farewell.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Immolation: a b(r)and I can trust

Over the past three days, I've run down my favorite new releases of 2011. I've come up with a pretty exhaustive catalog, but it's still incomplete—reason being that I haven't taken into account music that isn't new, but that's new to me.

While I'm at the office, I'm often listening in work mode, i.e., doing background research for a piece or simply rummaging through the mail (or e-mail), sampling the many records I receive each week. But when I'm at home or commuting, I'm usually listening for pure pleasure, and a fair amount of the time, that means schooling myself on older music.

In 2011, especially the latter part of the year, "older music" almost invariably meant death metal, typically by veteran bands who have been around more or less since the genre's late-’80s inception, or at least its early-’90s heyday. I've had a blast reacquainting myself with Obituary, a band I loved in high school but hadn't paid much mind to since. Incantation is another band that's magnetized me this year. I started delving into their catalog after falling under the spell of Disma (see No. 8 here), whose frontman, Craig Pillard, made his name in Incantation in the early-to-mid ’90s. I can't recommend their second full-length, 1994's Mortal Throne of Nazarene, highly enough. It's one of the most enveloping, dread-filled metal releases I know, with beautifully ornate riffage hidden under a layer of pure seething chaos—a true classic. (Check out "Emaciated Holy Figure" for a taste.) But the band that's held my attention longest, and most unwaveringly, is definitely Immolation.

I didn't know much about these guys before 2011. I knew they were from New York (Yonkers, to be exact) and that they'd been around forever (since 1986 or 1988, depending on which source you trust), but I'd always taken them for a capable yet second-rate death-metal band. For a long time, my fanaticism re: Morbid Angel, specifically my fixation on their fascinating idiosyncrasies, blinded me to a lot of what was going on in the trenches, i.e., those bands who were executing death metal in less blatantly progressive or convention-flouting ways. Now, for whatever reason, I'm more attracted by these types of bands, the ones who dig in, mark their territory and just produce and produce and produce. As I discussed in my tribute to Obituary, I'm realizing that evolution isn't always what I want out of music, or out of art in general; sometimes I just want a brand I can trust, and Immolation is exactly that.

After flipping (way late) for the band's 2010 LP, Majesty and Decay, I began a backward chronological trip through their discography. Over the past few weeks, amid various sidetrackings and mini tangents, I've worked my way (so far) through the five prior Immolation full-lengths (from 2007's Shadows in the Light through 1999's Failures for Gods). I've noted subtle differences along the way (the departure of drummer Alex Hernandez, and his replacement by current kit man Steve Shalaty, after 2002's Unholy Cult, brought about a significant shift), but overall, I've been awed by this band's consistent greatness, the way they've established clear parameters for their art—the linchpin elements being (1) Ross Dolan's sub-(or super-?)human growl, (2) chief songwriter Bob Vigna's tirelessly inventive guitar concept, which places equal weight on gnarled, chunky riffs as it does on spidery, floating texture, with constant sudden flashes of pure, out-of-the-blue derangement and (3) a staunchly diverse approach to tempo and rhythmic feel, wherein power-drill blast beats alternate with perversely lurching asymmetrical grooves—and reveled in that tightly defined creative space over so many years. You'll often hear people praise, say, Slayer for their brute single-mindedness, their refusal to stray from what works for them—I remember reading a variation of this in D.X. Ferris's 33 1/3 book on Reign in Blood—but even given my spotty knowledge of Slayer's stranger, more unrepresentative works (1998's Diabolus in Musica, e.g.), I can say that no other metal catalog I could name rivals Immolation's for this quality of head-down, "don't mess with the formula but somehow manage to avoid stagnation" persistence. This band is simply a machine.

Maybe you could say the same for an outfit like Motörhead, but what I'm guessing you couldn't say for Lemmy & Co. is that their current work is arguably their best. I'd argue that Immolation was at their most intense on Unholy Cult; the precision and power of that record is awe-inspiring, bordering on psychotic, owing plenty to the performances but also to a production job that's among the finest I've ever heard in death metal. Unholy Cult's immediate predecessor, 2000's Close to a World Below, is nearly as deadly. After the arrival of Shalaty, a less pummeling, virtuosic drummer than Hernandez—who deserves to be inducted into the Death Metal Hall of Fame (when/if it's built, it's gotta be in Tampa, FL) for his performances on Unholy Cult and Close to a World Below—the band struggled a bit to maintain quite the same intensity level (cases in point: Shadows in the Light and 2005's Harnessing Ruin, both fine records—especially the latter, which contains some of Vigna's most brilliantly demented inventions—but not quite as juggernaut-ish as the Hernandez discs).

Something clicked into place on Majesty and Decay, though. The production job isn't stellar—to me, the drums sound particularly weak, lacking any real bottom or punch—but the songwriting took a quantum leap. This record is absolutely crammed with memorable riffs, compositions that loop incessantly in your brain. At this stage, Immolation's writing is as catchy as it is admirably unrelenting; if I had to choose a favorite album of theirs (and bear in mind, I haven't spent good time with the first two, 1991's Dawn of Possession and 1996's Here in After), I'd have to choose Majesty. Before this record, it would've been hard to imagine Immolation releasing a bona fide single, complete with video, but they did just that this past July ("A Glorious Epoch" is the track in question), and it makes perfect sense. And with the help of that "No one can quite figure out exactly why they're doing it, but what's the use in complaining when the results are this awesome?" car company/metal patron Scion, Dolan, Vigna & Co. have continued to roll forward, recently issuing Providence, a free-on-the-internet EP of brand new material that's as strong as what you hear on Majesty.

Two-plus decades into its existence, Immolation is still adding meaningfully to its rock-solid legacy, and not by tweaking the formula, but, in a way, by becoming more and more itself, drawing ever nearer to its most essential statement yet—without rendering its back catalog obsolete. Each version of Immolation we've heard, over so many albums, has represented its own kind of state-of-the-art; despite the little inconsistencies, there's not really a true transitional album among them. Each one is confident, complete. The highest compliment I could pay each of these records is that it's fit to stand beside all the other ones; it's hard to name an apex, but it's downright impossible to name a nadir. There simply isn't one, and that's why Immolation means so much to me. As much as I've loved getting to know all the new sounds of 2011, I'm not sure another listening experience has meant more to me this year than waking up to this sturdiest, most trustworthy of extreme-metal brands.


Here's half a dozen tracks to get you started. (I'm really starting to loathe the sound quality of YouTube streams, so if you like what you hear, go buy the records in question.)

"A Glorious Epoch" from Majesty and Decay (2010)

"The Rapture of Ghosts" from Majesty and Decay

"Our Savior Sleeps" from Harnessing Ruin (2005)

"Unholy Cult" from Unholy Cult (2002)

"Unpardonable Sin" from Close to a World Below (2000)

"Your Angel Died" from Failures for Gods (1999)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Best of 2011, part III: Honorable mentions

Today I'll run down some honorable-mention releases, 2011 titles I enjoyed but didn't end up including on either my jazz or all-genres-in-play lists.


Protest the Hero Scurrilous (Vagrant)

Lindsey Buckingham Seeds We Sow (Buckingham)

Aside from the records that did make my TONY top 10, these are the two that came closest to cracking the list. In the end, I just didn't feel that I could recommend either in full, but the highlights on each are magical.

I stumbled across Protest the Hero a few years ago while writing event listings for TONY. I'd heard a few bands fusing prog, metal and emo before, but never with such flair, talent and unabashed bombast. There are some dud tracks on this new one, but wow, the good stuff on here just floors me. Imagine a super-techy, less psychedelic, more overtly metallic Mars Volta circa De-Loused in the Comatorium and you're getting close. The frontman, Rody Walker, is unspeakably good: incredible tone and control combined with pure sardonic attitude. It baffles me a bit that you don't hear more about these guys on the indie-metal buzzfeed, but I think they might be too Warped Tour–ish to win over that crowd. Ignore the subgenre barriers; Protest the Hero is an outstanding band. This video is a little silly, but the over-the-top-ness fits the PTH aesthetic just fine:

Along with my wife, I awakened to Fleetwood Mac in a major way in 2011. The 1975 self-titled album, Rumours and Tusk have been on constant rotation this year (especially the breathtaking "Crystal", which I've started to think of as proto–Will Oldham). I loved Buckingham's fierce live show, and Seeds We Sow, the solo record he supported at that gig, was pretty damn respectable. In the end, there were a few too many weak tracks, but as with PTH, the best ones hit me hard. "Stars Are Crazy" is borderline holy:

And I love the punky chorus on "That's the Way Love Goes":


New York Dolls Dancing Backward in High Heels (429)

Paul Simon So Beautiful or So What (Hear Music)

Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers Teenage and Torture (Knitting Factory)

Gillian Welch
The Harrow & the Harvest (Acony)

I guess you could lump these together loosely as singer-songwriter records. Again, I couldn't stand behind the full meals, but certain courses were delicious and memorable. I love the surprisingly wistful mugging of the Dolls track, the low-key aging-hipster vibe of the Simon (the "You've got to fill out a form first / And then you wait in the line" bit of which always summons fond memories of the waiting-room scene in Beetlejuice), the world-weary sneer of the Shilpa and the trouble-in-mind creep of the Gillian. Take a listen:


40 Watt Sun The Inside Room (Cyclone Empire)

Raspberry Bulbs Nature Tries Again (Hospital Productions)

Cannabis Corpse Beneath Grow Lights Thou Shalt Rise (Tankcrimes)

Liturgy Aesthethica (Thrill Jockey)

Exhumed All Guts, No Glory (Relapse)

Five very good metal records. Next year, I may start compiling a metal-only list, but for now, this (along with the three selections on my overall top 10: Anthrax, Deceased and Disma) will have to do. These records deliver top notch takes on, respectively, majestically depressive doom; crusty blackened punk, seething with bad vibes; super-tight, organic (i.e., beautifully recorded and not over–Pro Tools–ed to shit), uncommonly hard-rocking death metal; blissfully enveloping (and reliably argument-starting!) black metal; and riff-choked, cartoonishly gore-fixated thrash-grind. (NOTE: The Liturgy track I chose isn't really representative of the record as a whole, but no matter: It's my favorite.)


Multitudes Twelve Branches (Palanquin)

Freddie T and the People People In (self-released, I believe)

Yukon Yukon (New Firmament)

Three records to which I have either a personal or sentimental connection.

I'm proud to call the good folks of Multitudes and Yukon friends. The former do super-raw and consistently inspired punk fusion (read more here); the latter, state-of-the-art, prog-minded (but not retro in the slightest) art rock, featuring dazzling virtuosity employed in the service of ear-bending yet improbably hooky composition. That's a mouthful, but please, listen.

I don't know Freddie T (a.k.a. Fred Erskine, formerly of Hoover, the Crownhate Ruin, June of 44 and Just a Fire) personally, but I feel like I do; I've loved his music for over half my life. More on People In here. (This one may technically be a 2010 release, but I didn't hear it till ’11.)


Death The Sound of Perseverance; Human; Individual Thought Patterns (Relapse)

Extremely classy reissue campaign focused on a band that I've come to realize was one of the very best, most consistently rewarding metal has ever known. I loved the liner-notes essays included with each of these, penned by collaborators of Death leader Chuck Schuldiner: Shannon Hamm on TSOP, Paul Masvidal (also of Cynic) on Human and the hilarious Gene Hoglan on ITP. Clear, punishing sound too. The demos and other bonus tracks don't do much for me, but the full live set bundled with ITP is a real keeper.

Ozzy Osborne Blizzard of Ozz; Diary of a Madman (Sony)

Another essential reissue program. I really didn't know these records at all (aside from "Crazy Train" and maybe another single or two) before I heard the new editions, and they definitely overhauled my perception of Ozzy. I had no idea that he was such a force outside of Sabbath; his stuff from the ’90s and beyond never did much for me, but god, these LPs are special. So much range and—this is what got me—pop know-how; I've heard Ozzy discuss the Beatles in interviews, and you really hear that influence during this period. Amazing bonus video footage included with these as well.

(I should also throw a quick mention at the Paul McCartney reissues. Haven't spend enough good time with ’em yet, but I'm psyched to investigate further.)


Lou Reed and Metallica Lulu (Warner Bros.)

Morbid Angel Illud Divinum Insanus (Season of Mist)

Ah, the year's red-headed musical stepchildren, two sure-fire scorn magnets. I defended both Lulu and Illud on this blog, and I stand by those statements. I definitely gleaned decent enjoyment (and fruitful puzzlement) from both records. All the same, their absence from my proper year-end list is telling. Are these albums out-and-out, never-shoulda-been-made pieces of crap? Definitely not; and even if they were, that kind of bandwagony hater-ism isn't something I can endorse. And yet, will I return to these albums consistently in the future? I'd have trouble answering a firm "Yes" to that.

Again, though, I'm happy these records are in the world. Their respective makers needed to make them, and beyond that, they have no obligation to us. All this business about legacy-sullying, it really doesn't mean very much. In the case of Lulu, everyone who was going to write off Metallica on grounds of poor taste most likely did so around the time of Metallica, if not Load, Re-Load or St. Anger. (Can't really comment on Lulu's place in the Reed canon, as I'm no expert.) And as I argued in the piece linked above, Morbid Angel may be the greatest death-metal band of all time, but their pre-Illud discography is not without its frustrating inconsistencies.

So enough with the dogpiling already (Hitler parodies aside!); let's let these records lie. I, for one, will still flaunt my Metallica and Morbid fandom without an asterisk.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Best of 2011, part II: All genres, director's cut

Having annotated and expanded upon my year-end jazz list yesterday, I'd like to do the same for the all-genres-in-play top 10 I contributed to Time Out New York. The original list, with a brief blurb for each record I chose, is here. (I plan to discuss runners-up, singles, etc. in a separate post.)

A quick note re: streaming audio: I refuse to embed any player that's going to insert an ad before the track (or one that's going to provide substandard sound), so you're on your own for some of this stuff. I encourage you to search, sample and buy!


1. Frank Ocean, Nostalgia, Ultra (self-released)

I might have slept on this record had it not been for my friend and former colleague Corban Goble, who spied it early on and made sure I gave it a fair shake. Like many, I was first seduced by "Novacane," a seductive jam if there ever was one; I loved its murk and throb, its combination of wit ("I took a seat on the ice-cold lawn / She handed me an ice-blue bong") and vulgarity ("stripper booty and a rack like, 'Wow'"), just the way it built and built and sucked you into its heavy-lidded vortex. (The entrance of that bloblike bass squelch at 1:12 still kills me.) At first, the rest of the record didn't click with me; as is often the case when I grow super-attached to a perfect single, I tend to hold the full album up to that standard, not just of quality, but of mood. I guess I was looking for 40 minutes of "Novacane."

I soon woke up, though, and realized that there was room for more than sordid, hazy, late-night/early-morning rumination in the Frank Ocean aesthetic. The whole album bloomed for me, and I know that this would be The One for This Year (there always is one, it seems). "Songs for Women," with its funky lope and aw-shucks appeal; "Swim Good," that steely, heartsick march to sea; "There Will Be Tears," a portrait of childhood grief intruding on young-adult consciousness; "American Wedding," an offhandedly brilliant riff on "Hotel California"; "Strawberry Swing," which, as solid as the Coldplay source material is, reaches a higher emotional pitch; the yearning neosoul slow jam "We All Try." I wouldn't hesitate to call this record a masterpiece. Listening back to it now, I know that it's etched itself on my heart. I believe this guy. He surprises and challenges me. Moreover, he's an extraordinary singer, reaching deep down for those wrenching peaks (the high note at 2:17 in "We All Try," the little flourish on the word "smile" at 2:08 in "Novacane").

I wasn't too big a fan of Watch the Throne, but Ocean's hook on "No Church in the Wild" slew me; this album is like that cameo writ large. So much feeling, atmosphere, poetry. I just couldn't bring myself to care much about the back story (Ocean's squabble with Def Jam), and truthfully, I didn't love Ocean's live show the way I would've liked (though damn, that new material sounds deep). In the end, the record stood alone: For me, Nostalgia, Ultra was without question the album of year.

2. Anthrax, Worship Music (Megaforce)

I had no particular expectations for this one, only mild curiosity. Anthrax was an MTV staple during my Headbanger's Ball–crazed youth, but I never cared much for them. "Got the Time," say, exuded a goofiness that turned me off; at the time, I wanted my metal stone-faced and scary. But what a joy to experience this band with fresh ears, and to hear them sounding so fired up on this comeback effort. I've since gone back and checked out their earlier material, and to me, Worship Music is stronger. What I love about it is the way the band transcends thrash; yes, that element is there, but the songs are guiding the way. When the band needs to dip into a power-metal bag, it does; same goes for grunge, or blast-beat-driven technicality. I'm just thrilled by how thoroughly this record rocks, how catchy the choruses are, how you can envision an entire arena pumping their fists in unison when you listen. (That didn't quite play out at September's Big 4 show, since the band went on at the ungodly hour of 4pm, but it was still pretty cool to see Anthrax at Yankee Stadium.)

For the most part, I'm on board with the recent art-school-ification of metal; plenty of good has come out of it. But Worship Music helps you remember that at heart, metal is a sweaty, for-the-people music—like turbocharged pop. Clarity and memorability and ROCKING-ness are not passé; those aspects of ’80s metal are still as powerful now as they were, when they're delivered with this much conviction and exuberance. There is so much youth in this record; it's exactly what a comeback album should be. And kudos to Joey Belladonna for an absolutely stellar vocal performance. He sells the hell out of this material. I think that in my youth, before I had caught the Dio bug, I wasn't prepared to appreciate his wailing, dramatic gifts. Now they make perfect sense. Can't wait for the next one from this rejuvenated powerhouse.

3. Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo, Songs of Mirth and Melancholy (Marsalis Music)

See yesterday's jazz round-up.

4. Drake, Take Care (Cash Money/Universal)

I wasn't really ready for a new Drake album. I loved his last one, Thank Me Later, which placed at No. 2 on my 2010 best-of list. But after having been bombarded by his singles for so long, I was ready for a break; 2012 would've been okay with me. But then I heard that album 2 was coming right up, and I knew I'd have to give it a chance. The singles ("Headlines," "Marvin's Room") didn't move me when I heard them in isolation; it seemed to me like he was just going back to feed at the same trough, trying to duplicate the success of Thank Me Later. Then the record came out, and the early reactions were ecstatic. I didn't really get curious till I heard from Corban, who, awesomely, interviewed the man himself and reported that Take Care was his shoo-in album of the year. Time to listen.

All I can say is, "Whoa." It became clear after a first listen that whatever I didn't like about the album (a few corny lines here and there, an inflated sense of self-importance, that annoying faux–voice crack on the "…getting back to my ways" line on "Underground Kings," which I still can't stand), this thing was a real beast. Or, really, feast. So much to savor, so many shrewd guest appearances. Re: the latter, the Weeknd intro on "Crew Love" feels like a laser-beam of tortured (torturous?) emotion (and this from someone who isn't yet a Weekend true believer); and when I heard the Andre 3000 verse in "The Real Her" for the first time, I was straight-up shocked by its charm and effectiveness. A typically badass Rick Ross on "Lord Knows," whoever that is free-associating in a weird robot voice at the beginning of "Buried Alive Interlude" (I'm not sure it's Kendrick Lamar, who guest-raps on the track). And what to say about the fact that that's Stevie effing Wonder playing harmonica on "Doing It Wrong," elevating an already masterful song to an all-time-great level? Drake is helping me to understand something that I'm sure hip-hop devotees have known for years, even decades: that a great album in the genre is like an expertly curated revue, with multiple voices cycling in and out and everyone playing their own niche role.

As I listened repeatedly, the singles fell perfectly into place among the other tracks. Heard in context, "Headlines" and "Marvin's Room," even "Make Me Proud," which not only sounded unimpressive but downright bad to me when I heard it prior to the full record, all became new favorites. (Same goes for the Rihanna-abetted title track, wooden on a first listen but seductive and magical now.) The record is long, but only one song ("Cameras") really seems cuttable to me. I love that Drake is as committed as he is to the LP format, to making full-length sonic movies. The individual highlights of Thank Me Later might top those on Take Care, but in terms of an epic experience, there's no competition: Take Care is a world unto itself, a true journey, well worth taking in full—and repeatedly.

5. Deceased, Surreal Overdose (Patac)

Speaking of epic. Like Anthrax, another band I'd been dimly aware of since teenhood. I'd always taken Deceased for a stalwart but ultimately second-rate death-metal outfit. This album set me right in a major way. In its own way, it's as joyous and triumphant, as diverse and anthemic and rousing as Worship Music.

What drew me into Surreal Overdose is the man at the heart of Deceased: One King Fowley, who handles both drums and vocals in the studio (just vocals live). I strongly urge you to check out Fowley's first-person history of the band at the Deceased site. You'll get a sense there of the sheer delight this man takes in metal; as I discussed in a recent Time Out NY preview, he comes off as a truly kind, friendly guy (an impression I confirmed when I met him in person at the Brooklyn Deceased show back in October), and for all the darkness of the music, you can hear that good-natured-ness in Deceased.

Fowley treats his songs like mini pageants of horror. They're constructed around these gorgeous, theatrical riffs that make you feel like you're in the middle of some kind of thrilling gothic play. And Fowley plays the ghastly ringmaster so well, somehow conveying wonderful narrative flourishes even while growling vomitously. I know very little about the Grand Guignol, but the impression I have of it is similar to the feeling I get from Deceased: It's pure, gory, agonizing horror treated as stylized entertainment. You suspend your disbelief to get into songs like "Cloned (Day of the Robot)" and you actually feel moved by Fowley's borderline-cartoonish narratives.

There's something staunchly adolescent about his viewpoint (killer robot clones), but also something deadly serious: In "Kindred Assembly," "In the Laboratory of Joyous Gloom" and "Dying in Analog," Fowley is discussing topics like senility, depression and death in a very real and disturbing way. On Surreal Overdose, he's talking about emotional horror, not just the kind that involves scary monsters. The music perfectly mirrors these psychodramas; it has a real scope and sweep to it. Surreal Overdose isn't a death metal album at all; there's none of that stone-facedness to it. It's vivid, alive, varied, truly gripping. Even listening back to it now, I'm shocked by its conviction, its intensity and its sheer fun. Surreal Overdose is one of the most honest and ambitious (not to mention entertaining) works of art, musically or otherwise, that I encountered in 2011. Deceased sounds nothing like Anthrax but both take their jobs seriously: They're here to provide (and achieve) escape, pure and simple, not to wallow in inscrutable experimentalism. Long live crowd-pleasing, unabashedly theatrical metal, whatever the scale.

6. Gerald Cleaver’s Uncle June, Be It as I See It (Fresh Sound New Talent)

See yesterday's jazz round-up.

7. The Strokes, Angles (RCA)

Ripping on the Strokes has became a sport, and for those who feel like playing, the band makes it pretty easy. They're still given to whining and in-fighting in interviews, in that way that always invites those age-old "Oh, great, the famous rock & rollers are complaining again" sentiments. And there these finger-wagging notions floating around about how the Strokes should have been the ones playing a farewell show this year, not LCD Soundsystem (a band I simply cannot get into). To a degree, I can understand all this: There's something about the Strokes that can feel wimpy, spoiled, tedious.

But the thing is, they are still unbelievably good at what they do, which is creating these three-minute wonders—full of hidden surprises and endlessly scrutinizable, yet completely streamlined. It's like prog ambition mixed with garage-rock cool. In this vein, "Under Cover of Darkness" is one of the most emblematic, and best, songs the band has ever written. Yes, there are bad songs on Angles, a fact I perhaps glossed over in my Time Out review of the record. At this point, I find the languid "You're So Right" nearly unlistenable, and while I respect the curveball nature of it, the drum-less interlude track "Call Me Back" is a real buzzkill, given where it falls in the album.

Just about every other song on Angles, though, I either like very much ("Macchu Picchu," "Metabolism") or straight-up love ("Under Cover of Darkness," "Two Kinds of Happiness," the breakdown of which is like a fireball of rock, "Taken for a Fool," another song that belongs on the Strokes short list, the ridiculously fun and groovy "Gratisfaction" and "Life Is Simple in the Moonlight," one of the best chilled-out songs the band has ever issued, not to mention the source of my favorite guitar solo of 2011). In this material, the band isn't telling us much (anything?) we don't already know about them, but they are reaffirming that they're still around, and however much they claim to not enjoy being a band, their output is still the gold standard for stripped-down, attitude-heavy, pop-friendly NYC rock. I love these guys, and while Angles isn't their best, it's not even remotely a disappointment.

8. Disma, Towards the Megalith (Profound Lore)

Ah, Disma. This isn't the Anthrax/Deceased crowd-pleasing/entertaining sort of metal at all. Nor is it the introspective, inscrutable art-metal thing either. What this is, is the brutal thing, the kind of metal that satisfies your desire to be flattened by a cold, unfeeling sonic steamroller. Towards the Megalith is hands-down the heaviest album I heard all year, the sickest, the grossest. The whole thing just drips with slime and rotting vegetation. The music is pure attack, pure lumbering menace, even when the tempos are fast. And dear God, those vocals. Craig Pillard is perhaps the best low death-metal growler I've ever heard. He very literally sounds like a monster, and not a comical one. (A great side effect of Megalith has been that it's sent me back to Pillard's old band, Incantation, which has since become a serious obsession in its own right.) As conventional as it is, this music is actually scary.

The secret weapon here might actually be the production. Towards the Megalith sounds full and loud and clear. The drums actually sound real. For all the putrid-ness of the music, there's a big, round pleansantness to the way it's rendered on tape. You really sink into this album. There have been weeks this year where I've wanted to listen to nothing else. It invites you even as it repulses you, freaks you out. Re-spinning it now, I'm again totally sucked in by its unholy girth and crunch. You feel the weight of the ages in this; it's primordial and massive and it swings like a motherfucker. In terms of death metal at large, Megalith is not really anything new, but it does feel like something perfected, a revisitation of an old sound, with all fat stripped away and with all intensity heightened. It's like a new model of an old car: The basic design is the same, but all the little quibbles you might've had with the old model don't apply here. In terms of what it's trying to achieve—a sensation of suffocating heaviness and unrelenting brutality—Towards the Megalith is essentially a perfect album.

9. New Zion Trio, Fight Against Babylon (Veal)

See yesterday's jazz round-up.

10. Ben Allison, Action-Refraction (Palmetto)

And once again, see yesterday's jazz round-up.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Best of 2011, part I: Jazz

Since I didn't annotate the 2011 top 10 I submitted to the Jazz Journalists Association (and Francis Davis's annual Jazz Critics Poll), I thought I'd provide some commentary here. For each entry, I've either linked to a purchase page or embedded a streaming player that allows you to click through and buy MP3s. Thank you to the publicists and musicians who have submitted music to me this year; I've done my best to keep tabs on it all, and as usual, I've had a blast.

1.Branford Marsalis/Joey Calderazzo Songs of Mirth and Melancholy (Marsalis Music)

As you can see from my 2011 jazz halftime report, published back in June, this one grabbed me early on. Now that the year is winding down, I'm happy to report that it didn't let go. There's no embeddable stream of this record, but I implore you to sample it here, especially the tracks "Endymion," "Face on the Barroom Floor" and "La Valse Kendall." When mentioning my interest in this album to friends, I've received a few raised eyebrows, which pains me. As I discuss in a Time Out NY preview of Marsalis January 9, 2012 "A Duo of Duos" gig at Jazz at Lincoln Center (during which he'll perform with both Calderazzo and Harry Connick, Jr., the latter of whom won't be singing), Marsalis's celebrity still overshadows his art. It's a trite point at this stage, but the prejudices persist: He's the saxophone player your mom likes.

And I'm not trying to say that moms wouldn't love Songs of Mirth and Melancholy. But what I am trying to say is that this is an extremely deep record. There's so much grace and poetry to this session. I don't know enough about the connections between jazz and chamber music (or chamber music itself) to know how unprecedented Songs is, but I can't think of another jazz recording I've heard that mixes raw beauty and virtuosic refinement the way this album does. I like Marsalis's quartet with Calderazzo just fine, but in the end, it is an updating of a known quantity (post-Coltrane small-group jazz); this, on the other hand, feels like new terrain to me, or at least extremely underexplored terrain. Again, if you're a Branford skeptic, please spend some time with this album and let me know what you think. I can't imagine you won't be at least a little surprised and impressed with what you hear.

Three quick notes:

A) Strangely, the opening track on here, "One Way," a whimsical, rompy, bluesy type piece, does very little for me; if it weren't for this quibble, Songs might have beat out Anthrax for the No. 2 spot on my TONY all-genres-in-play top 10 list.

B) Purchasing this record digitally from Amazon is a good idea, because you get a meaty 16-plus-minute bonus track, "Eternal."

C) The Marsalis Music YouTube channel is streaming a series of making-of vids.

2. Gerald Cleaver's Uncle June Be It as I See It (Fresh Sound New Talent)

Again, I kept coming back to this record. There's a tenderness and a lushness to Clever's writing that I just adore.—at times, the colors and emotions remind me of Andrew Hill's big-band classic, A Beautiful Day. I've always enjoyed Cleaver's drumming, but after spending time with this record, I'm most excited by him as a bandleader. (As I witnessed a little over a week ago, there's more where this came from!) He's writing rich, painterly music and putting it before improvisational geniuses like Craig Taborn. Don't miss this one. Here's one of my favorite tracks:

I should note here that as with the Marsalis disc, the opening track of Be It as I See It, the noisy, backbeat-driven stomp "To Love," doesn't grab me. I like the contrast between this and the more delicate material that makes up the bulk of the session, but I found myself wanting to skip it on repeated listens (and believe me, there were many).

3. New Zion Trio Fight Against Babylon (Veal)

This one came out of nowhere and knocked me on my ass. The idea—a jazz/reggae hybrid—did not entice, and I'd never quite clicked with the work of bandleader Jamie Saft before. I never imagined that this record could be so patient or mysterious. As I indicated in my TONY top 10, there's a methodical languidness here that could slow your metabolism. Listening to this album, and I recommend playing it in its entirety while driving or cooking or engaging in some other focused activity, is like going swimming in a murky ocean filled with jellyfish, both gorgeously iridescent and subtly menacing. It's such a trip to hear jazz bass pro Larry Grenadier get all trancey on the riffs, and drummer Craig Santiago blows me away with his taste and precision. As for Saft, all I can say is that this record is an absolute piano feast. He isn't playing jazz and he isn't playing reggae; this one is closer to classical music, but really he's just playing wide-open music, flowing in the moment. The track below isn't my favorite from the record, but it's the only one streaming on Bandcamp. Go to the Veal site to order MP3s or a CD.

4. Ben Allison Action-Refraction (Palmetto)

I've largely slept on Ben Allison's work in the past; even though this one is a covers record, I can still say that it's converted me into a bona fide fan. Before hearing this, I wasn't familiar with any of the songs (aside from a Monk piece) that Allison and his band interpret here (including works by Donny Hathaway, Samuel Barber and PJ Harvey), but that turned out to matter very little. The band really savors these melodies, delivers them on silver platters, tweaking them a bit but never engaging in any sort of pat "deconstruction" or irreverence.

If there's a twist here, it's in the fascinating make-up of the band, which includes Jason Lindner on both piano and sci-fi synths, the wonderfully fluid guitarist Steve Cardenas (and on two tracks the noise-courting daredevil Brandon Seabrook), the grittily passionate reedist Michael Blake (a player I'd heard of for years without really checking out) and the alternately sensitive and pummeling drummer Rudy Royston (whom I knew from JD Allen's fine trio). The players really draw you into these songs, especially the Hathaway ("Someday We'll All Be Free"), which is like this swelling vortex of melody. Covers records are always in danger of feeling gimmicky, superfluous or just plain boring. This one holds my attention straight through, though, and keeps me coming back. It's a motley assemblage of pieces turned into something cohesive by the magic of meticulous arrangement and smart curation. Plus, the textures (keyboards, guitars, etc.) feel contemporary without giving you that pesky sense of jazz musicians trying too hard to convey that they're down with rock. You can stream (and buy!) the record via this handy embed:

5. Honey Ear Trio Steampunk Serenade (Foxhaven)

Like the New Zion disc, this one hit me pretty much out of nowhere. I'd heard a bit of drummer Allison Miller's work, but saxist Erik Lawrence and bassist Rene Hart were new names to me. This is a really special saxophone trio, brimming with guts and tension, but also with a love for the songfulness of jazz. The level of ambition isn't the same, but part of me wants to compare this to something like Henry Threadgill's Air—a more accessible version, let's say. But there's a similar drive to create a true group sound, to make variety a priority, to mingle the harsh with the pretty. As with the Allison, there's a contemporary sheen to this one, expressed via Hart's electronic effects and Miller's scrap-metal-style percussion, but again, it feels honest and ungimmicky. Overall, this album is just a very strong statement of purpose; Honey Ear Trio clearly wants to be a proper band, not just a steadily gigging saxophone trio. They're taking in rock, reggae, maybe a little electronica, freebop, Aylerish catharsis, Paul Motian Trio openness and producing something diverse but not scattershot. As with the aforementioned JD Allen Trio, there's also a welcome drive to make this music work on record—not just to play, but to edit, to make each track feel like a concise song rather than a meandering jam. I'm excited to hear more from this band. Here's a track:

6. Jeremy Udden's Plainville If the Past Seems So Bright (Sunnyside)

There seems to be a movement brewing of pastoral, song- and melody-driven jazz. Some of the tracks on the Allison get at that vibe, and in a TONY preview on saxist Jeremy Udden's Americana-infused Plainville band, I also cited projects by bassists Eivind Opsvik and Chris Lightcap. (Another group in this vein that intrigues me is Bryan and the Aardvarks.) For me, If the Past Seems So Bright crystallized this whole trend; in its own unassuming way, it seemed like a definitive statement. Some of the rockier, brasher material on here (the very Neil Young–ish "Leland") didn't gel for me, but when this band is speaking in its own voice, such as on the stunning opening track "Sad Eyes," I find it absolutely mesmerizing. As on the Allison record, Plainville is singing songs without words, in which the improvisational accents humbly serve the melody. The dreamy, rootsy prayers on here can really cut into you; again, we're talking about ungimmicky fusion, where the material and not the stylistic conventions are calling the shots. Here's "Sad Eyes" (though I'm having a hard time not embedding "Thomas," which gets me every time):

7. Bill McHenry Ghosts of the Sun (Sunnyside)

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a tad disappointed by the fact that the first new Bill McHenry–led small-group album in four years (he has put out other records in the interim, including joint ventures with Ben Monder and John McNeil) was a collection of outtakes, pieces recorded during the same sessions that produced 2007's Roses. But after spending good time with this one, I realized that it would be pointless to resist its charms; Roses was such an enchanting record, and this is more of the same. The band is a dream: Monder, bassist Reid Anderson, and yes, the dearly departed Paul Motian. Crazily, the album came out one day before Motian's death. No one record could serve as a Motian epitaph, but there was a mystery and wonder about Ghosts that made it feel like a worthy final statement, a perfect summation of how he'd passed his strange, flickering, mirage-like torch to a younger generation. McHenry clearly got what Motian was about (and vice versa) just about as well as anybody, and this record's curious mixture of haunting beauty ("Ms. Polley") and insidious chaos ("William III") seemed as indicative of the drummer's aesthetic values as of the leader's. The track I haven't been able to get out of my head is "La Fuerza" (since I myself had to look this up, I might as well share that it means "power" or "might"):

8. Craig Taborn Avenging Angel (ECM)

Speaking of mystery… This is most definitely a major statement from a complicated, hard-to-pin-down artist, and that's likely what you're seeing it pop up on so many top 10 lists. (Steve Smith, Nate Chinen, Ben Ratliff and Seth Colter Walls all included it in their all-genres-in-play round-ups, and it topped David Adler's jazz list) I spent a ton of time with this album, both in the immediate wake of my Heavy Metal Bebop interview with Taborn, and beyond. At times, Avenging Angel seemed so daunting—like you would've have to intimately know every significant piano statement of the last several hundred years, and a lot more than that, to truly grasp it—that it exhausted me. And admittedly, there is a ton here to digest, but there's also an almost sacred kind of beauty here—lonely and remote. I'll defer to my TONY preview from June, in which I likened one track ("This Voice Says So") to "stepping out of a spaceship onto an ice planet." You always feel like you're grasping for another metaphor here, because the music is so vast-seeming, almost inhumanly patient and genre-impervious. Virtuosic, sure, but that's almost beside the point; Avenging Angel seems to go beyond mere virtuosity into some kind of alien realm of higher intelligence. It's not a record you'll pull out every day, or even every year, but you can't deny that it's some kind of awesome benchmark. No stream for this one, but you can hear some tracks at the ECM site.

9. Wadada Leo Smith's Organic Heart's Reflections (Cuneiform)

Another mammoth statement, though more in sheer length than in daunting-ness. As I've learned over the past few years, Leo Smith is by far the most accessible of the AACM giants, and maybe the most sheerly pleasurable. I loved the 2008 Golden Quartet disc, Tabligh, but this might be my favorite Wadada album yet, a sprawling set of avant-leaning funk, with an emphasis on the funk. I have never heard drummer Pheeroan akLaff drop such fat, greasy beats as he does here; right from the start of this two-disc behemoth, he's sliding and swaggering. Smith's electric work in this vein will always be indebted to Miles, but the vibrancy and clarity of the textures he conjures in his large-ensemble work are absolutely his own. This record is just swimming in swirls of guitar, keyboard, brass; it's a blissed-out soup of color. And it's got a real flow to it; balancing the backbeat passages are these rubato ruminations, free-floating texture pieces that show off the chamber-style improv know-how of players like keyboardist Angelica Sanchez and bassist John Lindberg. This is definitely one of those "Play it for a friend who's wary of avant-garde jazz" records. There's a lot of adventure here, but little abrasiveness; Wadada has been on a real roll lately (abetted by the stalwart Cuneiform label), and what he seems to be aiming for is the kind of experimentalism where you can shed the facade of stone-faced imposing-ness and just get down to feeling, moving, emoting. Your samples are at Amazon.

10. TIN/BAG Bridges (MabnotesMusic)

Like New Zion and Honey Ear, another very pleasant 2011 jazz surprise. I had heard the two members of TIN/BAG before (trumpeter Kris Tiner in Empty Cage Quartet, and guitarist Mike Baggetta at the head of his own bands), and I may have even sampled a bit of this duo in the past. But it was instantly clear to me that this one was going to make a stronger impression than anything I'd heard previously. As with Honey Ear Trio, TIN/BAG is taking pains to speak in its own language, and the tongue they've honed is a very subtle and distinctive one. You've only got trumpet and guitar here, and there's very little effort made to fill up the empty spaces. This is intimate music, more cozy than lonely—much more modest in scope than, say, the Marsalis/Calderazzo. The two play together beautiful, with Tiner's pillowy lines dancing over Baggetta's plush, chiming notes. Their work is almost unfailingly beautiful, but it's not merely polite; there's a sense of real daring to the project—stripping all distractions away and making the most of what's left. (There are references to yoga in the liner notes, which makes perfect sense when you hear the record.) There are no drums here, of course, but in a way, you could view this band as a descendant of the Frisell/Motian/Lovano trio. There's a similar willingness to step out into the abyss, with only the warm, beating heart of song to guide you. The quietude of Bridges can really pull you in if you let it. Hear for yourself:


In the interest of concision, and so as not to dilute the list of truly standout releases above, I'll name just four honorable mentions:

Jerome Sabbagh with Ben Monder and Daniel Humair I Will Follow You (Bee Jazz)

Some very focused and engaging freeform trioism. Some prior thoughts in the 2011 halftime report. (Interestingly, Paul Motian subbed for Humair at the NYC release party for this album in April, and subsequently hired Sabbagh and Monder for a week at the Vanguard in September; I'm kicking myself that I didn't make it out to hear them.) Stream it here.

Matana Roberts Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres (Constellation)

A deeply ambitious and at times straight-up harrowing statement. I've been following the Coin Coin project since around 2006, when I profiled Roberts for TONY (sadly, I can't locate the piece in the online archives at the moment), and I'm glad to see it finally starting to get a proper documentation. From Ellington to Roach to Mingus to the Sharrocks—Roberts is taking it all in. Stream it here.

Ellery Eskelin Trio New York (Prime Source)

Harris Eisenstadt September Trio (Clean Feed)

Two featuring the saxist Ellery Eskelin, a perpetual sleeper fave of mine, whom I never feel like I've investigated fully enough. I'm happy with my TONY preview of Trio New York, in which I contrasted this new group—featuring organist Gary Versace and none other than Gerald Cleaver on drums—with Eskelin's previous signature trio, the Andrea Parkins/Jim Black band. Hear some samples here.

Eisenstadt, who topped my 2008 jazz top 10 with Guewel and ranked again in 2010 with Woodblock Prints, made another strong showing with a disc featuring Eskelin and Angelica Sanchez (who might be the MVP of Wadada's aforementioned Heart's Reflections). As usual with Eisenstadt, you're getting something abstracted yet focused, something beauty-forward, settings that confer deep respect for his bandmates. I'm looking forward to spending more time with this one, and I hope the project continues. Hear samples at Amazon.


I listed just two reissues: the landmark Miles Bootleg Series set, which I reviewed for Pitchfork, and the exemplary International Phonograph, Inc., edition of Julius Hemphill's fun, raw, expansive, eclectic opus Dogon A.D.


And finally, here's my chronological list of best 2011 live shows (as with the list of recordings above, only jazz was in play), outfitted with links to coverage.

J.D. Allen's VisionFugitive, conducted by Butch Morris at Le Poisson Rouge
(Winter Jazzfest) - January 7
(feat. Gregg August, Rudy Royston)

Dan Weiss Trio at Cornelia Street Café - January 10
(Thomas Morgan, Jacob Sacks)

Wayne Shorter Quartet at the Town Hall - February 9
(Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci, Brian Blade)

Wynton Marsalis Quintet/Septet at Frederick P. Rose Hall - March 31
(Quintet: Walter Blanding Jr., Dan Nimmer, Carlos Henriquez, Ali Jackson; Septet: Victor Goines, Wessell Anderson, Vincent Gardner, Marcus Roberts, Reginald Veal, Herlin Riley)

The Bad Plus with Joshua Redman at the Blue Note - April 21

Matthew Shipp/Darius Jones at Jazz Standard - April 27

Ari Hoenig Group at Smalls - June 20
(Gilad Hekselman, Shai Maestro, Orlando Le Fleming)

Tarbaby with Oliver Lake at Le Poisson Rouge (Undead Jazzfest) - June 23

Bill McHenry Quartet at Village Vanguard - November 11
(Orrin Evans, Eric Revis, Andrew Cyrille)

Gerald Cleaver's Black Host at Cornelia Street Café - December 10
(Darius Jones, Cooper-Moore, Brandon Seabrook, Pascal Niggenkemper)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Perfect 10s

Via Time Out NY, a list of my top 10 albums of 2011, everything in play.

Via the Jazz Journalists Association, a list of my top 10 jazz albums of 2011.


You'll often hear people who make their living opining about the arts grumbling about the task of year-end list-making. I don't relate. Honestly, I think year-end lists are pretty awesome. Parameters are important: They force you to make those "What would you save from a fire?" (or "…take with you to a desert island?") judgment calls. For me, the process of compiling a year-end list is one of internal debate: "Do you really stand behind this record, Hank? And if so, what makes it more worthy than these ten you're omitting?" I enjoy the end product as an object in and of itself, the way the entries flow and play off one another. I enjoy having the opportunity to say thanks to the artists whose work has enhanced my life over the past 12 months—and to celebrate the fact that people are still bothering to make albums at all.

I also like reading other writers' lists. I love the multiplicity of voices, the hum of conversation. It's all a bit overwhelming, sure, but buried within the din is an important lesson—especially during a year like this, where there's no consensus choice à la My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The lesson is that there's really no such thing as consensus (something Phil Freeman addressed provocatively at the beginning of the year); each writer is a beat unto his- or herself. Anyone who puts together one of these lists and thinks they are making some sort of objective statement is mistaken. On the contrary, the subjectivity of these lists is precisely what makes them great. If you trust the opinions of the writer in question—not necessarily agree with them, but at least respect their integrity and the formidability of the brainpower behind them—you can learn something from their list. You'll hear about a record you missed entirely, find reason to go back to one that didn't grab you on a first listen, or even gain a fresh perspective on a selection from your own list. In short, it's fun to be a part of the conversation.

For me, over the past week or so, that conversation has of course featured my esteemed Time Out colleagues, all of whose year-end lists can be found here. Other lists that have grabbed me: Those by the four Times pop critics, which you can check out here (along with an enjoyable roundtable podcast); Adrien Begrand's epic, still-unfolding, all-genres-in-play list, as well as his metal-only one; another metal list, courtesy of the hilarious and always on-point The Living Doorway blog; Seth Colter Walls's artfully disclaimed list at The Awl; Patrick Jarenwattananon's pithy, poetic list at A Blog Supreme; Brent DiCrescenzo's entirely iTunes-playcount-sourced list at Time Out Chicago; the various lists by my fellow Jazz Journalists Association members; and Nate Chinen's customary year-end critics' summit. Hopefully I'm not forgetting any of the ones I've savored thus far. But at any rate, you see my point: Everyone has a different take on the bygone year in music, and I dig that. No one is right (or wrong), and everyone wins

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Living, letting live: Gerald Cleaver's Black Host

Photo: Juan-Carlos Hernández

This past Saturday night I heard Black Host, a new project led by drummer Gerald Cleaver, at Cornelia Street Café. (The band was concluding a five-night mini tour of NYC, during which it had stopped by three other local venues.) What drew me in was partly my recent interest in Cleaver-led projects (his latest album, Be It As I See It, is a stunner) but the personnel—Darius Jones on alto, Brandon Seabrook on guitar, Pascal Niggenkemper on bass and the mighty Cooper-Moore on piano—was also a major factor.

Throughout the evening's two sets, I kept thinking about the make-up of the band, or more accurately, the fact that in jazz bands are often made, period, custom-built for each gig or recording session. Of course there are exceptions, groups like the Bad Plus that have impressed me precisely because they don't conform to this "leader plus the auxiliary players he or she happens to have convened for the night" model. I kept thinking about the fact that even once players have established themselves, not just as improvisers but as bandleaders and conceptualists, they can still appear in other people's projects, without any sense of it being beneath them. If you happen to be a jazz bandleader—it helps to live in New York and have a decent budget—you can actually assemble your dream group.

It's an obvious fact, one of the first principles of modern jazz, really, that personnel is fluid, but watching Black Host last night, I was re-struck by the special-ness, the vast potential of that idea. Say you're Gerald Cleaver, a great drummer and an experienced bandleader; you can think to yourself, I'd like to put together a project that includes four other established players, bandleaders in their own right: Cooper-Moore (one-time leader of Triptych Myth, multi-instrumental legend), Jones (increasingly prominent leader of a trio and quartet), Seabrook (leader of the punk-jazz force Seabrook Power Plant) and Niggenkemper (I'm not as familiar with his work, but his PNTrio has two CDs out). You can write some engaging music to fuel the enterprise; then, best of all, you can wind the whole thing up and watch it go.

(In rock, the band-building process typically happens once, right at the start. Personnel might shift, of course—guitarist Joe Petrucelli and I founded STATS roughly a decade ago, and we've worked with four different bassists during that time—but really what you're looking for is fixed membership.)

In the case of Black Host, you were hearing what happens when this process pays off, when you draft various players for a project and they get along outstandingly. What I love about this whole phenomenon is how, due to the x-factor of improvisation, a bandleader can't know in advance exactly how his recruits are going to interact. At Cornelia, I was struck specifically by the Cooper-Moore/Seabrook connection. There was one episode, I think it was during the second set, when C-M took a particularly wild solo (one of many that found his fingers, and forearms, scampering across the keyboard, summoning a riot of notes—chaotic and yet fully coherent, tasteful and related to the piece at hand) and lighted upon this violent, trilling figure. Seabrook looked up, clearly transfixed by the pattern, and then began to mimic it, employing the turbo-picking right hand that serves him so well when playing banjo in the Power Plant. The two men, a pianist in his mid-sixties and a guitarist in his mid-thirties were engaged in maniacal game of Hot Potato.

At other points I recall Cooper-Moore watching Seabrook or Niggenkemper solo with obvious glee, clearly fascinated by their ingenuity (throughout the evening, Seabrook was sampling various passages, particularly Jones's saxophone lines, with a small tape recorder and playing them back through his guitar pick-ups; other times he'd toss out razor-toothed ninja stars of notes, like the final flourish in John McLaughlin's epic riff at the end of Miles's "Right Off," from A Tribute to Jack Johnson—one iteration of McLaughlin moment I'm referring to comes right at 18:49 here; and during Niggenkemper's solo intro to one piece, the bassist held some kind of metal bowl, or maybe an aluminum pan?, against the strings to produce a fruitfully abrasive texture). It struck me in these moments that by convening various players, you're not just inviting them to play together, but also to listen to one another, to simply be together for that segment of time. (This fifth straight night of performance seemed like just the right juncture to savor the new relationships within Black Host: The players were comfortable together, but still a bit in awe of one another, still full of wonder.)

Darius Jones contributed his trademark combination of volcanic passion and laserlike focus. As impressive a bandleader as he is, I was struck last night by what a model collaborator he is as well. During the written portions—particularly during the second piece in the first set, a staggeringly gorgeous ballad that I immediately wanted to hear again as soon as it was over—he served Cleaver's vision, articulating the melodies with total clarity and a complex sensation of harsh sweetness—like honey with an underlying pungency—the tenderest notes paradoxically seeming the most effortful. And during the improvised portions, Jones served the hive mind, the collectively settled-upon direction of the music. Sometimes he led, delivering a full-on burry blare; other times, he sat back and reveled in the mayhem, grinning, cheering even, homing in on the Cooper-Moore/Seabrook firestorm, and doling out brief punctuation phrases. Like Cooper-Moore, Jones is a model onstage listener; you feel what others are playing more deeply while watching him respond to it. And that goes back to my point above: As a bandleader, in bringing players together, especially players like these, ones with huge personalities, you're creating this little society, a forum for new relationships to develop. I know Jones has a history with Cooper-Moore, but I'm not sure how much either player has worked with Seabrook, or whether any of the three had previously played with Niggenkemper but there was a very clear sense of camaraderie to Black Host, and one thing that fascinated me was how out of the spotlight Cleaver, the man with the plan, was. In light of what was going on up front, his drumming was a subtle glue.

You did feel his guiding hand in the written material, of course. There was a lot of variety to it. Unlike on Be It As I See It, which features short, chamber-music-like episodes, here the focus was on lengthy pieces that set up an atmosphere and explored it. The opening piece of the first set featured a subtle funk backbeat, with other instruments swirling on top; then came the remarkable ballad I mentioned above, a truly poetic song without words—not unlike "Charles Street Sunrise" from Be It—and a more hectic, uptempo piece. The second set was both harsher and more abstract. I remember some patient, drawn-out melodies and others that were more jagged—weird little sound shapes played in unison by Jones and Seabrook. I remember both hurtling uptempo swing and moments of pure, out-of-time weightlessness. Overall there was just enough shape and contour to hold the enterprise together, but Cleaver had left a lot of room for the spontaneity. I remember that the second set ended with all players partaking of a collective freak-out: Jones barking harshly, Seabrook wringing staticky squeals out of his tape-player/pick-up apparatus, Cooper-Moore leapfrogging his hands across the keyboard. Cleaver stood behind his kit, pressing a stick vertically into the head of his floor tom and threading it up through his fist (a technique I've seen before and experimented with myself but that I know of no proper name for), taking in the whole enterprise stoically yet attentively.

This was the kind of "It's alive!" moment that I've been trying to describe here. As a jazz bandleader in a forum like this, you're composing and preparing, yes; like the host of a dinner party, you're cooking, cleaning, stocking the fridge with beverages, making sure you've got enough place settings, etc. You're probably micromanaging a bit throughout the evening, especially during those first crucial, perhaps tense moments when the guests start to arrive. But at a certain point, you're letting go, allowing your friends to make of the evening what they will. There's a certain joy in seeing the preparations pay off as you expected; someone loves a particular dish that you labored over, say. But what makes you proudest is watching the guests socialize, seeing unexpected new friendships blossom in real time. You've ceded control; now the personalities themselves are in charge.

Again, this is not some shocking revelation; by and large, it's the way jazz works. But it doesn't always work as well as it did in Black Host, where you could see the players reveling in these new relationships. (Clearly, it didn't hurt that they'd been sharing stages for four nights already.) At this point, as an artist, you haven't just assembled a cast to execute your vision; you've founded a little village, a self-sufficient community with a vision of its own. Once it's humming along with its own momentum, you cease to be a leader, per se. At that point, you're just living, and letting live.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Players, not orators: The Fugazi Live Series

By now you've likely heard about the bounty that is the Fugazi Live Series. If you're just diving in, allow me to recommend the following shows, which I've been savoring over the past few days:

Kansas City, KS - 8/28/93
Several close friends of mine, then and now, were at this show. I was not yet a Fugazi fan; the conversion process occurred a year or so later, and thus I did not see the band till ’95, when some of those same buddies and I took a train trip to St. Louis to catch a gig. The sound quality on this show is good, not great, but the band plays with a fierce energy (befitting the fact that they were touring behind their most aggressive—and, in my opinion, best, though it's a tough call—album, In On The Kill Taker). Plus there's some tense, pervasive crowd interaction: Basically, Ian wants the house lights on, while certain audience members want them off—so badly that they pass around a petition!

Leeds, UK - 10/31/02
An epic set with absolutely extraordinary sound. Seriously, you've got to hear this. The energy level isn't quite as high as in the ’93 show; you can hear that Guy and Ian have mellowed a tad in the intervening nine years. But the set list is just glorious. To many, Fugazi are some kind of symbol, a political statement rather than a band. But as much as I admire their ethics, that wouldn't mean a thing to me if I didn't celebrate their entire catalog. So the later the date of the show, the richer the performance (this one goes the full distance, from 13 Songs through to The Argument); the band's famous no-set-list policy meant that what you got every night was a one-of-a-kind mixtape. If you tune in now and restrain yourself from taking a peek at the song titles in advance, you get the thrill of hearing that unfold in real time.

The Live Series is a wonderful thing. As much as people are obviously going to focus on all the occasionally hilarious banter in these recordings—I swear, sometimes it almost seems to me like Ian planted an asshole or two in each audience so that he could have someone to reprimand—hopefully it will help shore up Fugazi's musical legacy. They are players, not orators, and their range, craft and technique are all breathtaking. Obviously, the DIY infrastructure the band built around itself is impressive, but in the end, it's just a backdrop to an all-time-great body of work: wrenching ("Blueprint"), funky ("Two Beats Off"), catchy ("Public Witness Program"), bitter ("Shut the Door"), triumphant ("Reclamation"), sultry ("Life and Limb"), heartbreaking ("Sweet and Low"), borderline goofy ("Bed for the Scraping") and sometimes, weird as hell ("Cassavetes," anyone?). Long live ’em.