Tuesday, August 30, 2011

On record: Mal Waldron's The Git Go

I've never been a big fan of what I think of as jazz-club jazz, i.e., straight-ahead jazz as it has been performed in clubs for decades. By this I mean jazz that never questions the head-solos-head format, jazz in which the rhythm section holds it down and the horns take their turns, followed by piano, bass and drums.

Sometimes these performances creep up on you, though. The right players can simply execute and still dazzle. You stop worrying about freshness of overall format, and you focus on the freshness of each moment, the way the music feels rather than the way it appears.

I've praised Mal Waldron's The Seagulls of Kristiansund to the heavens over the past couple of weeks. Right now, I'm fixating on The Git Go, another Waldron album recorded on the same night (9/16/86) by the same band (Rouse, Shaw, Workman, Blackwell) at the same club (The Village Vanguard). This might be the finest jazz-club jazz I've ever heard.

You get two loooooong pieces here, each a 20-plus-minute example of jazz-club jazz. One, "Status Seeking," is fast; the other, the title track, is midtempo. You listen to these performances in the background, and it's easy to cast them an "eh." They just sound, for lack of a better word, normal. The musicians play the head; they each solo in turn; they play the head again.

But if you give in to this music a little, I promise you will find a whole world, a trance incarnation of what is called swing. Ed Blackwell is godlike here. I interviewed Chico Hamilton once (sadly, I can't find the piece online just now), and he stressed that he always likes to play quietly, at a dynamic level he likes to call "the danger zone." Ed Blackwell spends the entirety of "The Git Go" in the danger zone, just sort of loping along. But there's so much activity at the micro level. Waldron makes subtle changes to one basic vamp, and the two play very delicate, very quiet cat and mouse as the soloists trance out on top. Workman gets a bit of wiggle room and dances around the beat—he leaves the timekeeping to Blackwell and Waldron.

This is the kind of jazz that only works if you let it, if you have time and attention to spare. The feeling is priceless, though. You feel buoyed—an unbelievable gentleness, coupled with authority. A beat that's barely there but that's branded on your skin. It just. Keeps. Going. And if you ask for more than it can give, it will not deliver. But as is often said of dance music, you learn to react to the tiny changes. When Blackwell switches to brushes for Waldron's piano solo in "Status Seeking," for example, it feels momentous. You learn to identify with the soloists, feel the sheer pleasure Rouse and Shaw feel as they dance delicately over this elemental CHILLNESS/AUTHORITY summoned by Blackwell and Waldron.

This one took me many listens to get. Seagulls is much more of a clear showstopper, with its convention-defying dirge. Nothing head-solos-head about that one, a clear flouting of jazz-club jazz. But dig how deep and stubborn The Git Go is (especially the title track). It cruises, but not on cruise control. Little macro variation, but in the micro, everyone is fully awake, engaged. Waldron messing with the vamp for a bar; Blackwell messing with the beat for a bar, jumping off into a little mini solo, one of those call-and-response figures he does so well. How can you relax so completely yet still be present? There's a life lesson somewhere in there.

Once you put the microscope to it, this is about as unboring as jazz gets, and it's because these are master players, not playing by rote, but playing by feel. You hear their personalities every second, even when they're "merely" keeping time. There's all this talk of breaking up the time, of deconstruction, etc. But can you play time, let the soloist speak and still sound like yourself? That is the challenge of jazz, at its heart. Listen to Ed Blackwell and Mal Waldron on this record and you will hear that challenge met. This is jazz-club jazz, yes, but it is also a prayer to, for and about jazz, a meditation on what it means to express one's individuality within a tradition.


As I mentioned previously, The Git Go is only $1.78 at the Amazon MP3 store. You know what to do.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

On "Do jazz critics need to know how to play jazz?"

Roanna Forman, over at bostonjazzblog.com, recently incited a provocative discussion by posing the simple question "Do jazz critics know how to play jazz?"

This is a fascinating inquiry, and one that gets at the heart of why this profession (I tend to avoid the word "critic" in favor of "thinker-about-music" or similar) is so strange. Basically you have this whole class of people who do not do a thing professionally and yet they are considered to be the utmost authority on that thing, sometimes even more so than the people who do do it for a living. In jazz criticism, the separation between the doers and the commentators—whether literal, i.e., social, or philosophical—is far less pronounced than it is in, say, professional sports, but there's still a divide there. Moreover, anyone in or around a certain art form, whether it's a player or an enthusiast, certainly has the right to ask of any writer who's paid to opine on said art form, "What gives you the right?"

So it's a matter of credentials, and it should be said outright that, in jazz criticism at least, there simply aren't any. I have friends who went to school for three years so that they could pass the bar exam and become lawyers. As far as my career writing about jazz goes (though, as I've stated here before, that's only a part of what I do as a thinker-about-music) I have no such formal training. If someone were to ask me what qualifies me to write about jazz, I would simply have to answer, "I love it."

As far as knowing how to play jazz, I can definitively say that I don't. I have played drums for about 17 years at this point, and I regularly rehearse, perform, record and compose music, mainly for a band called STATS that I'd broadly classify as "metal." I've taken a few lessons here and there, but for all intents and purposes, I'm self-taught as a musician. I have worked hard on my craft, though; there's roughness in my playing, but where it crops up, it's largely intentional.

In terms of my self-instruction, it's almost always been directed toward some sort of rock-based idiom. I have mainly performed rock (and related styles such as metal), so that's what I've studied. My influences as a drummer, those I can often feel myself channeling as I play, are musicians such as John Bonham, Levon Helm, Dale Crover, Neil Peart and Bill Ward. I'm not as good as any of these masters, but on some level, I understand what it is that they're doing; I could break it down for you, whether in technical or plainspoken language, and in some cases duplicate it on the drum set. If I'm a true authority on anything musical, it's the way drums work in a rock context.

As far as jazz drumming, I'm absolutely obsessed with it. Two of my favorite sounds in the world are those of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams interacting with a drum kit. I can definitely say that these musicians have influenced the way that I play—especially Elvin, who is in many ways the John Bonham of jazz, in terms of sheer mass and swing—but in no way could I duplicate what they do, except in some sort of sketchlike fashion. In short, I am not a jazz drummer. I have performed in free-improvisation contexts before, and I can convincingly fake my way through a bebop tune, but my palette is severely limited. When I speak jazz as a musician, I'm doing an impression—it is not my native tongue.

I've been discussing drums here, but the same goes for any of the other main instruments in jazz: Hand me a saxophone or a bass, or sit me at the piano, and I'm not going to be much help to anybody. I have experimented quite a bit with the piano over the years, and even performed on it—again in a free-improv setting—but I'm not a pianist. My knowledge of music theory is rudimentary. I can read rhythm notation, but I would need many hours of concentration in order to make sense of, say, a piano score.

I do write music, though—quite a bit of it. Basically what I do is sing guitar riffs in my head, record them on a dictaphone and then bring them to my bandmates to figure out. Often, these are more rhythmic figures than anything, but I do have melodic movement in mind. It's not a stretch to say that I am in some sense a songwriter; I just do it all mentally/orally rather than on paper. All of the composing that I do has been specific to the specific musical context of STATS (which was formerly known as Stay Fucked). It would not work in a vacuum, in the abstract sense of composition. It works because I have (and have had) friends/bandmates (Joe, Tony, Tom and many others) who are patient enough to sit there and help me realize the ideas that are swirling around in my head. For that I thank them.

Anyway, I've gotten completely off track here. All I really mean to say here is that I am not a jazz musician. If someone wants to take that statement and use it to disqualify my opinions on jazz, that's totally fine. I understand that for some, that might be a dealbreaker. On the other hand, I would have to say that I do feel qualified to comment on jazz. And again, I hesitate to use the word "criticize." When it comes to a given instrument, criticizing someone (whether in the positive or negative sense) ups the ante a bit. That is to say, it would be pretty ballsy of me to peg someone as a crappy saxophone player when I myself could barely summon a single note on a saxophone. Maybe I would have slightly more clout if I were dissing a drummer.

My main point, though, is that it has never been my interest to call anyone out. My entire reason, and perhaps justification, for writing at length about jazz, and researching the music exhaustively through oral history and dedicated listening, is that I am absolutely in love with it.

I view myself as authoritative only in what I am authoritative about. I'm not going to sit here and pretend to know ALL of jazz. I'll be the first person to admit that, just as with movies, I have a problem relating to some of the older jazz styles. I'm a huge fan of late-’30s Ellington, for example, but stretch back one decade, to Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives, and I have a hard time relating. I can understand what makes this music great, but I don't feel it in my bones.

Where jazz really starts to get interesting for me is the mid-’60s. My true canon of jazz centers around the Blue Note catalog of this era, records like Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, Wayne Shorter's The Soothsayer and Jackie McLean's One Step Beyond. (It's no coincidence that all these albums have Tony Williams on them!) My tastes beyond that are vast: I love both the classic Benny Goodman quartets with Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa, and I love Henry Threadgill's Air. I love Kind of Blue and I love Interstellar Space. I love Billy Cobham's Spectrum and Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth.

These are all just off the top of my head, but what I'm really trying to say is that the main thing that qualifies me to write about jazz is that I am devoted to educating myself about it constantly, not because I feel obligated to as a professional, but because I feel compelled to as a fan. Jazz is like food to me. Some weeks, I'm off on rock jags, poring over the Black Sabbath catalog, say, but many weeks, I'm glued the jazz discographies, trying to get a handle on a particular artist or period. I'm giving myself homework basically, homework that is purely pleasure-based. Sure, if I'm preparing for an interview or something, listening can occasionally become a chore, but on a day-to-day basis, it's rarely that. What it is, is pure joy.

I guess if I have a credential, it's that: That I do in fact derive a more or less daily joy out of the phenomenon of jazz. And this is a joy that transcends time, in the sense that I'm often obsessed with current jazz (Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo's Songs of Mirth and Melancholy has brought me great pleasure this year) as well as older jazz that just happened to appear on my radar. This "just happened to appear" part is pretty mysterious to me. (I wrote a bit about it here.) I'm sure many hard-core music fans experience the same thing, but I just get into these extremely intense phases, listening-wise, where I need to hear one particular player, or period, or style, or all three at once, and I will absolutely not stand for one note of anything else to voluntarily enter my ears. As you can probably tell from the last two posts, I'm currently ensnared in a Mal Waldron obsession, set off by searching for Ed Blackwell on Spotify and stumbling across the marvelous Seagulls of Kristiansund.

So just to be clear, I do not know how to play jazz in any true practical sense. I cannot speak objectively as to whether or not that disqualifies me from commenting on it in print with authority. That will be up to my readers to decide. I have definitely struggled with this question myself, and I will admit that yes, sometimes I have felt that I simply lack the terminology or the framework with which to analyze or evaluate or even simply appreciate a given performance. But what I don't lack, though, is a kind of addiction to the music, a desire to embed the sounds of all my favorite players in my head. It's almost a synaesthetic thing. I can conjure Paul Motian, or Andrew Hill, or Tony Williams, or Joe Henderson, or Booker Little, or Jimmy Giuffre, or Fred Anderson in my head, the way I would a taste or a smell. I often think of players as "flavors" in some weird, abstract sense.

I am tirelessly devoted to knowing jazz in this way, just through constant contact with the art form, both through recordings and live shows. And in a way, I think that is the chief responsibility of the "critic": to love an art form so much that learning about it is like breathing. So much that if you weren't being paid to do it, you'd still do it just as fervently. With regard to jazz, this is me, and if I have any real qualification, it is that.


P.S. Many prominent critics, including Ben Ratliff and Ted Panken, weighed in on the original post. Right after completing the piece above, I noticed that Patrick Jarenwattananon had weighed in as well. Going to check out the latter as soon as I hit "Publish."

P.P.S. [Updated Monday, 8/29/11] Phil Freeman has contributed a sharp essay on this topic. See here.

Friday, August 19, 2011

On record: Mal Waldron's The Seagulls of Kristiansund

As mentioned here previously, one of my favorite things about Spotify is the complete access it grants to the Black Saint/Soul Note catalogs. Browsing the other day, I stumbled upon a Soul Note record I'd heard back in college but never revisited: Mal Waldron's The Seagulls of Kristiansund: Live at the Village Vanguard. Like Max Roach's Scott Free, this is a major work, not just of the ’80s, but of jazz.

The band immediately struck me: Charlie Rouse on sax, Woody Shaw on trumpet, Reggie Workman on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums. All hardbop heavy hitters, some—like Waldron—with avant-garde tendencies. You can hear vigorous uptempo swing on the first track, a reading of "Snake Out," Waldron's signature tune. But the one I keep coming back to is the title track, a true jazz dirge.

If there's one thing I love in jazz, it's that—those pieces that move beyond ballad-hood into an almost oppressive sadness. Grachan Moncur's "Love and Hate" (heard on Jackie McLean's Destination Out) comes to mind, as does Booker Little's "Man of Words" (Out Front) and Andrew Hill's "Dedication" (Point of Departure). I just love these works that take their time and trudge along, ideally forcing an emotional engagement on the part of both the soloists and the listener.

This is one of those pieces, crawling along at a near-stillness, Waldron and Workman laying out a spare framework in the background, like a bruise deepening into blue and purple over the course of almost half an hour. I'm not sure I've ever heard Ed Blackwell playing this slowly and sparely before. I think of him as an almost jolly mid- or uptempo player, most at home feelwise when he can really crackle and make the most of his marchy cadences. Here, he's not even playing time, just a pitter-patter of cymbals and other metallic implements. Waldron and Workman are implying a tempo, but it's really more of an ooze, a melting forward of time.

The soloists get down deep with it, wading in the muck. You have these players (Rouse and Shaw) who were known as hardbop workhorses, typically heard burning along in muscular fashion. Here they're forced to engage with the poetry and stillness of Waldron's conception. Shaw's playing really puts his feelings on the line. I always recall in the liner notes of Point of Departure how Kenny Dorham describes hearing "Dedication" and being brought to tears. Again, I think of these really hardass golden-age jazzers being stopped in their tracks by something so SLOW and non-virtuosity-oriented, where you've just got this sprawling canvas and you have to paint a picture with one of those tiny watercolor brushes.

Blackwell and Workman carrying on a dialogue of micro sounds: taps on the rims of the drums, little arco squeaks. And Waldron hanging out in back like the grim reaper. In a brilliant essay on Mal, Ethan Iverson referred to these three players collectively as the Evil Trio. Here, it's more like the Heavy Hearted Trio, but I see what he's getting at.

Once the horns are gone, Waldron wades in, singing so slowly and beautifully through the keys. I just love this idea and vibe so much. Jazz to me is not about the toe-tapping and the finger-snapping and the brassy glitz. It's about this kind of meditation, where you're dropped in an environment and you're forced to get to know all of it, to explore in the dark. Workman knows about this, and his bass solo isn't a "bass solo," where the music stops and the showing off happens. It sounds like a Spanish guitar, thrumming along underneath Waldron's purplish note cloud.

I have listened to this piece on repeat all week. As I stated before, the rest of the record (the marathon "Snake Out" and one short piece) is very good. There's also another Soul Note record, The Git-Go, that was recorded during the same Vanguard set (from September 16, 1986) that yielded Seagulls. It's also on Spotify, though I haven't spent good time with it yet. But "Seagulls of Kristiansund" is one of those performances that removes itself from an album, from a discography, from a genre even. It stands out as a moment of communion. A word like "stunning" doesn't even begin to carry the proper weight.


*Ted Panken posted two archival interviews with the late Waldron earlier this week, in honor of the 86th anniversary of the pianist's birth.

*Iverson's Waldron post, linked above, brought me to this wonderful video of the quintet discussed above. It could very well have been recorded at the same 1986 run that produced Seagulls.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Heavy Metal Be-Bop #5: Gentry Densley

I'm very happy to announce that Heavy Metal Be-Bop #5, an interview with the guitarist-vocalist Gentry Densley, is now live after a long gestation period. Invisible Oranges is hosting an abridged version, by way of directing readers to the new online home of the series: heavymetalbebop.com, where future installments will appear, and where you can read a much-longer cut of the Densley Q&A. Densley's account of hanging out with Branford Marsalis is priceless, so don't miss it.

Gentry Densley has played in a bunch of bands, but he's best known for his work with Iceburn—a progressive-hardcore band that turned into a noise-worshipping free-improv collective—and the coal-black avant-doom duo Eagle Twin. As great as Iceburn was (I'd recommend Firon, Power of the Lion and Hephaestus to newbies, in that order), I think that Eagle Twin's debut full-length, The Unkindness of Crows, might be my favorite Densley release. It's an agonizing yet transcendent record.

As with previous HMB subjects, this is a man who has thought extremely hard about both jazz and metal, and how the tactics and lessons of each idiom can be fruitfully repurposed in service of the other.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Three kinds of love: The Pentagram doc

Last Days Here, a new documentary about a rock & roll singer named Bobby Liebling, brought me to tears and beyond. Broadly, it is a story about metal, specifically a doomy, post-Sabbath band from the D.C. area called Pentagram. Pentagram, with the wild-eyed Liebling at the mic, brushed up against fame in the ’70s but never attained it. Metal crate-digger types rediscovered the band in the early aughts, and they've since attained some pretty heavy-duty underground cachet.

But as I said, Last Days Here is only broadly about metal. It's really a love story. More specifically, it's a catalog of love's various incarnations: an emotional connection between friends, romantic partners or family members, a spiritual connection between a fan and an artist, a borderline-divine connection between humankind and this thing we call music. The film chronicles the way these noble forces wage war on the self-pitying, self-destructive urges that prey on us daily.

Yes, as the film openly—and, at times, revoltingly—acknowledges, Bobby Liebling is a drug addict. He is a recidivist, a chronic user, someone we might all feel compelled to write off. Someone who has perhaps written himself off. But, the film argues, he is not beyond hope, beyond uplift.

I don't want to spoil the details, but this is a film about a man teetering on the brink, falling down into the chasm and clawing his way back up. Now in the grand scheme of things, a junkie rock singer attempting to resurrect his career might seem like a petty struggle. But there is some of Liebling in all of us, us who get down, who get bleak and dark, but who remember all our blessings, our blessings of family, of partners who look out for us every day of our lives, of friends who would do anything to see a smile on our faces, of sweet, holy art, that takes us outside of ourselves and shows us something loud, overwhelming, glorious. Whether you love metal or not, you will see in this film what it means to love metal, to exalt in its spectacle, its satanic pantomime, its delicious gloom.

The film is about Liebling and his comeback road, yes, but it's also, crucially, about the nonperformers, the behind-the-scenes folks such as Sean "Pellet" Pelletier (that's him with Liebling in the clip above), a Philly-based metal booster who has made it his life's work to ensure that his favorite band (Pentagram, of course) get its due. As you'll see in the film, "above and beyond" doesn't even begin to describe the lengths to which Pellet goes to assist Liebling, but he does it all with a smile: Everything he gives to metal, the music gives back a hundredfold.

This movie will depress you; it will frustrate you and make you want to tear your hair out. It will also make you rejoice in your life's blessings, especially if metal happens to be one of those. The arc of Liebling's story isn't necessarily unpredictable, but it's nevertheless magical to watch it unfold. I wept openly at the end, sympathizing with just about every character onscreen, from the beleaguered Pellet to Liebling's clear-eyed companion Hallie and his perennially doting parents. Last Days Here turns "behind the music" into something truly profound and inspirational. It's a cautionary tale, a love story and a rock doc all in one. You have to see it.

There's a great new Pentagram album on Metal Blade called Last Rites. Check out some samples and pick up a copy here.


On the jazz side of things, I just checked out Solider of the Road, a very well-done documentary on another hardened lifer, Peter Brötzmann. It may not contain the revelations of Last Days Here—to be fair, its subject is far more level-headed and sane—but it's a sharp portrait of an artist I treasure.

I especially enjoyed the insights into Brötzmann's complex relationship with his German-ness, as well as the commentary from his master collaborators such as Han Bennink. The live footage looks and sounds gorgeous, and the interviews are intimate and revealing.

Soldier of the Road is a pretty straightforward—even low-key—work, without much of a narrative arc, but if you're a Brö fan, you should definitely check it out. You can learn more about the film and order a DVD copy here. (Don't be scared off if you're a U.S. consumer—my DVD arrived just days after I placed an order.)