Friday, February 25, 2011

Heavy Metal Be-Bop #1: Dan Weiss

I'm pleased to announce the debut of Heavy Metal Be-Bop, a new interview series dealing with the intersections of jazz and metal. Cosmo Lee, the editor of Invisible Oranges—my favorite place to read about metal on the internet—has kindly agreed to play host.

The mission statement of the series could be expressed colloquially as, What's the deal with jazz and metal? As any reader of this blog knows, the two styles form the main pillars of my music consumption. I'm far from alone here: In addition to Ben Ratliff and NPR's Lars Gotrich—both of whose jazz/metal examinations I cite in the intro to HMB #1—Phil Freeman and various others have written extensively and intelligently about both genres and the ways in which they reflect one another. In terms of this series, though, my intent is to focus on musicians—more specifically (at least for starters) jazz-loving metal musicians, and still more specifically, jazz-loving metal musicians whose work might not reflect an obvious metal influence. ("Moving beyond Naked City" might be a good subheading for the endeavor as I see it.)

The brilliant drummer Dan Weiss—who made my favorite jazz album of 2010 and who used to play in doom-metal outfit Bloody Panda—is my first guest. As you'll read, we talked jazz and metal for a while and then listened to some music together (his choices): Gorguts, Metallica, Meshuggah. Dig, especially, Weiss's attunement to the emotional trajectory of the riff. The next installment of HMB (which will post as soon as the transcribing gods will allow) is a chat with jazz pianist and scarily knowledgeable metalhead Craig Taborn. I'm psyched to have HMB out there—do let me know what you think.

P.S. I can only view it as auspicious that the Times has just published a Brad Mehldau playlist that cites Cancer Bats.

P.P.S. A few of Dan Weiss's listening selections got edited out for space, and I wanted to list them here for the record:

1) Cardiacs - various songs, including the phenomenal "Dirty Boy". Insane British "pronk" (prog-punk) band—had never heard them before. It's like King Crimson gone Rocky Horror! Weiss: "For me, this is their anthem. I think I listened to this 10 or 15 times in a row one night. It just keeps going the whole way. And the harmony is almost like Renaissance, Medieval music, the way the harmony moves. Very strange. Beautiful stuff. So weird, fuckin’ weird melody. They just lay on this; they hang on it. I love the way they lay on that."

2) Ustad Rais Khan - "Raga Marwa." Weiss drew several parallels between the complex beat cycles in Indian classical music and extreme metal. Weiss: "Classical Indian music: Could it be equated to blast-beat metal? It’s just all groove to me."

3) Miles Davis - "Directions" (live at Antibes, 1969). Weiss: "Just the way [Jack DeJohnette] opens this shit up. He’s playing as hard as he can. Hear those crashes… He’s bashin’. That kills me."

Friday, February 18, 2011

Roscoe Mitchell and the tension thing

Photo: Joseph Blough

"I went out there and got this tension thing. It was a battle. I had to make the noise and whatever was going on with the audience part of the piece. The music couldn't move until they respected me, until they realized that I wasn't going anywhere, and if someone was going it would have had to be them."—Roscoe Mitchell, from the liner notes to Nonaah (1977)

Roscoe Mitchell faced an unruly crowd in Willisau, Switzerland on August 23, 1976. Thus, as he describes above, he spent the first eight minutes of his performance waging sonic warfare. (Hear for yourself via the two-disc Nessa reissue of this stupefyingly great album.)

Mitchell didn't have to worry about audience flak last night at his belated 70th-birthday concert at Roulette (TONY preview here). If anything, he was fighting the opposite battle: What's a lifelong experimentalist to do once their work has been embraced? How does a maverick become a master?

Mitchell's answer is to never let go of "the tension thing." If it's not coming at you from without, impose it. About an hour into last night's all-improv headlining set—a quartet with Dave Burrell, Henry Grimes and Tani Tabbal, each in excellent, highly engaged form—the music was ready for some punctuation, an exit hatch. Mitchell put down his soprano, adjusted his alto strap, brought the horn to his mouth and the vortex opened: a death-ray of circular-breathed WIND, noise, lava, light, pick your elemental metaphor, his face and neck bubbling as though in a horror-movie mutation scene.

The other players flurried around this writhing column, this straight-out-into infinity blast, and the whole room was fixed, right there. Who knows how long he kept it up? Was it two, three, five minutes? Far less? More? I have no idea. But I was gripped, and judging by the ovation that came when Mitchell signaled the final downbeat shortly afterward, so was everyone else. The coup was that he'd summoned the beast, invited the tension thing in. As Jack Black once said, "Sometimes you have to manufacture Inspirado."

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Wayne Shorter Quartet: On the tightrope at Town Hall

Here is my review of the Wayne Shorter Quartet's show at Town Hall tonight. I can't stress how fresh this band sounded. The show was even more of a tightrope walk than I'd expected from the very-spontaneous records. The sidemen were virtuosic, yes, but their creations were non-slick, non–taken-for-granted. No coasting and with the seams showing. Very little meandering either, despite the fact that there wasn't much in the way of clear thematic material. (Each player had a lengthy score, but I'm pretty sure it was new material; I didn't positively I.D. any vintage compositions, though I could've sworn I heard a riff on "Directions." Anyone know if that tune is by Miles or Wayne?) As I noted in the review above, there really weren't any proper solos—it was all just playing, the musicians orbiting and swapping roles like parts of a mobile. It was all totally free yet not Free Jazz, not any definable subgenre or convention—just ultra-attuned improvisation, with a keen ear for pacing and subtlety and just enough form, though never sturdily locked in, always seeping, blurring, enigmatizing. And Wayne, a force of pure magnetic mystery, whether or not he was blowing. It's impossible to tell what he's thinking or what he's going to do, what tiny detail he's heard that's made him do a little shimmy or slash at the air or grimace mischievously. This was definitely one of the most vital, in-the-moment performances I've ever seen from a jazz elder.