Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bill Stevenson on jazz

I have a Post-It on my wall labeled "dream interviews." There are six names listed, four of which are crossed off: Glenn Danzig, Cecil Taylor, Richard Davis and—the latest—Bill Stevenson, whom I interviewed a few weeks back for Time Out New York. (Trey Azagthoth and Charles Brackeen are left!) Stevenson, the drummer of Descendents and ALL, as well as a former member of Black Flag, was far friendlier and more enthusiastic than two of the other names on the list (I'll let you figure out which). I've been a fan for years, and I wasn't let down in the slightest by our conversation.

Important points:

1) The Descendents play Roseland Ballroom in NYC this Friday, September 23. Info via TONY.

2) Here, via the TONY site, is an edited version of the Bill Stevenson Q&A. Topics-wise, this is much more accessible than what's below; among other things, we discussed Stevenson's recent health problems and his ever-evolving impressions of several classic Descendents songs.

3) Below is an extended outtake from the chat dealing with Stevenson's interest in jazz. We touched on Black Flag's instrumental/improvisational experiments, Stevenson's love for Ornette Coleman and quite a bit more.


HS: With regard to Black Flag, I'm really interested in the instrumental material and some of the more improvisational stuff, like on The Process of Weeding Out and Family Man. Did you feel like there was a current of, for lack of a better term, punk fusion that you wanted to explore further that got cut short?

BS: Yeah, I just wish I was a little further along as a musician when we were trying to do that stuff. 'Cause I was listening to Charlie Parker, listening to Ornette Coleman, listening to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, listening to King Crimson, but I didn’t quite have—even with respect to my meter, my ability to hold time while doing various improvised things—I just wish I had been better when we were trying to do that because I think it could have been more successful. We could have found maybe a whole other bunch of people that might have enjoyed it. I very much appreciate the fact that we were trying to do what we were doing, but I don’t necessarily think the execution was on vinyl as it was in our heads.

HS: It was almost like the first stab at something like that, that had been attempted.

BS: Well, I mean, with guitars, you know, but Ornette Coleman was doing it for 25 years.

HS: Sure, but coming out of a hardcore vocabulary.

BS: Yeah, but we weren't paying attention. It didn’t matter what 7 Seconds or whatever was doing. It just mattered whatever we were interested in at the time.

HS: I was reading an interview from 2003 where you were talking about that rumored ALL instrumental album. You mentioned that you guys were getting into this more improvisational style and had encountered some difficulties in playing that way. Has that current been picked up? Have you been working on that instrumental or improvisational material?

BS: We recorded seven pieces, four of which I think are pretty good, but yeah, it’s just one of those things where, you know, the rent is due, so do we have ten hours a day to apply to this? Functional concerns are obviously the number one enemy of creativity. I don’t know; I don’t have a logical answer.

HS: You were saying how back in '84, you didn't feel like as a player, you were quite up to the challenge of exploring that kind of improvisational stuff with Black Flag. Did you undertake a serious study of jazz or fusion after that?

BS: Oh yeah, you’re damn right I did. I think one of the cooler actual success stories of that would be maybe the song "I Want Out" on Problematic by ALL. It’s not on the improvised side, but on the unfathomably technical side where you can still sing along. And then another one would be the song "Virus" on the Only Crime record To the Nines. There's a middle section in that song where for me it’s interesting because it’s like a drum improvisation over a set pattern—kind of the opposite of bebop. So I’ve had a few things that I would consider to be successes in that area. But I don’t know… Improvising is like… Guitar solos are like farts. They’re okay if they're you're own, but who necessarily wants to listen to them?

HS: Well, what I really like about some of the more experimental Descendents material is that you’re right on the edge. The Process of Weeding Out is freer, like the bass and drums are holding something down while the guitar goes off. But what I like about something like "Uranus" by the Descendents is that it’s a composition. It has a looseness and a little but of space in it, but it’s still a written piece of music.

BS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Your perception of this is right on. That's what I mean. I think "Uranus" is a success story in this way and maybe that song "Birds" on ALL's Percolater. There have been a few successes. So I think you might like that song "Virus" on the To the Nines record by Only Crime. That’s in a different way though because it has vocal patterns and everything.

HS: Especially ALL during the period of Allroy Saves, I almost feel like it was this new kind of progressive rock, where all the ideas that would be in a Yes song or something like that would be squeezed into these one-minute songs.

BS: Uh-huh, yeah.

HS: Like that song "Check One," which I've always thought was a mini masterpiece that you wrote. Do you remember anything about how you came up with material like that? Can you give an insight into what you guys were drawing on with a song that complex?

BS: There’s just the obvious kind of five things I suppose, which is Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker, King Crimson, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Zappa. You know, they’re kind of ordinary influences, but you know how this stuff works. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it all depends on what it is you’re listening to when when you’re listening to this stuff. Even with Miles Davis, I reckon there’s 50 different ways you could listen to Miles Davis and be getting 50 different things out of it, and that’s certainly true with Ornette.

HS: Do you have a favorite period or couple records of Ornette?

BS: Oh, fuck… He’s my all-time hero of the world, so I don’t even know where to start. I think that most of that material—the chronology escapes me, and this is part of the function of the neurosurgery is some of my memory for minutiae is not all the way reassembled, but I'm gonna say this: All the way up through those releases that they repackaged as Beauty Is a Rare Thing, everything up through that are my eight favorite albums. And then after that, I like the Science Fiction sessions. Oh God, fuck! You what I love? Skies of America! Nobody likes that one, but I love that one.

Ornette to me reached a point where you’d put on the record and it would sound like in high school, in the band room before the teacher got there and everybody was warming up and tuning up—that sound. Sometimes Ornette's records sound that way, and I can’t quite handle that but when it doesn’t sound like that, then it’s my favorite thing in the whole world. And I even like his—I’m gonna call them straighter bebop records, those first two: Something Else!!!! and Tomorrow Is the Question. I love those more than The Shape of Jazz to Come, but then the ones after The Shape of Jazz to Come are some of my favorites.

HS: Like This Is Our Music or Change of the Century?

BS: Yes!

HS: Would you be able to describe specifically how you’ve been influenced by, say, Ed Blackwell or Billy Higgins? Or do you think it even works that way?

BS: I reckon drumwise, from that arena, I would see more of an Elvin Jones influence. Or I saw Ornette a few years ago and he had his son on drums. I’ve grown to love Denardo but I don’t know… Then it was a bow bass and a finger bass and Ornette. Man, I couldn’t even breathe I was so… It was amazing! I know this doesn't sound like anything to you, but I live in Fort Collins, CO, so I don't get to see Ornette. That same year, I got to see McCoy Tyner just a couple months later, and I was like, "Yes!"

HS: Was there a period where you were gigging as a jazz drummer? Or was it more like private study?

BS: No, that would be the hugest mistake or oversight, would be to try to put me in that category. I simply don’t have the chops. I more just try to sneak in a little bit of the wonderment or elation of musical discovery that is occurring in real time when jazz musicians are playing. I love that.

HS: I play drums as well, and I sometimes feel like it's almost impossible for a drummer to be truly great at playing both rock and jazz. Do you think you have to pick one of the two and focus on that?

BS: I think so. What I was trying to do was to be both. I reckon Billy Cobham is maybe the closest: He's the everyman's drummer, like he can playing everything better than everyone. And I felt like I was heading that direction—maybe I wanted to be Billy.

But then there's the stick-size issue. I use, like, Sequoia tree trunks in, say, Black Flag, and then if I’m trying to play jazz, which I usually just do by myself, then I’m using really small sticks. So I have this medium-size stick that I use so that I can … I don’t know, it’s like being a jack of all trades, master of none. So now the rock stuff’s not as heavy, but the jazz stuff still isn't fast enough. Those are the things we think that when we sit down at the drums everyday, those are the things we struggle with: Who do I wanna be? How do I wanna define my style? Or do I even wanna define my style? What kind of mood am I in today? Today, I’m gonna play with the 7As. Tomorrow, I'll whip out the DC-17s, and we’re gonna go that route. Or maybe just 5 minutes later we’re going to whip out the DC-17s.

HS: Yeah, I always think about someone like Tony Williams. When he’s playing fusion, it sounds really good but it doesn’t sound like a great rock drummer; it sounds like a great jazz drummer playing that way.

BS: Yeah, I think we all want to be that guy that can just do everything better than everyone, but sometimes it's fun for me to just do my—I have my eight things that I can do better than anyone in the world—just do those. I’ve got my one little, stupid drum roll that I do on every song and my stupid surf beat, and that’s me without thinking, just on instinct and in a way, that’s home.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Big 4 at Yankee Stadium

After jumping through many hoops, I scored tickets to the Big 4 at Yankee Stadium. Hassles abounded—absurdly expensive parking, rowdy fans spilling beer on my wife and me, interminable bathroom lines—but this was still a magical show. Here's my review (with slideshow) on the TONY blog.


1) Before the whole Big 4 hype cycle began, I knew next to nothing about Anthrax (just a few vids from late-’80s/early-’90s MTV). Now I'm fascinated by them. Their new album, Worship Music, is addictive—it satisfies my appetites for both chewy thrash and super-melodic Dio-esque wailing. Their back catalog is great too; I love the weird mix of technicality and cartoonishness. As I suggested in the review, it was easy to be psyched for them at Yankee Stadium.

2) Slayer, man. I'm not sure I've ever seen a band perform with such sustained intensity and sheer obnoxiousness. Of course the records are great—at least the old ones; was checking out World Painted Blood yesterday, and the thin-sounding production was bumming me out a little—but I had always taken these guys for granted a bit. Never again. Serious dedication to craft plus blitzkrieg energy.

3) Just about any Metallica set list would feel like a greatest-hits compilation. They can pull out a relative obscurity like the Master of Puppets instrumental "Orion" late in a stadium set and not risk losing anyone's attention. Question: Is Metallica the greatest large-scale rock band currently performing? I can't think of another with a deeper or more varied catalog. I think I'd even put them ahead of Rush, given how well they balance chops and muscle with sheer sing-along-ability. If you have a chance to see them, go—they are currently on devastating form.

4) To me, Megadeth's set was the least engaging of the day, but as with Anthrax, I'm very happy to have reawakened to Mustaine & Co. recently. I was a big fan of Countdown to Extinction growing up, and I saw the band twice in the ’90s (once with—are you ready for this?—Stone Temple Pilots opening!). For whatever reason, though, I never delved into the back catalog. That was lunacy, because Rust in Peace is a total monster. The ruthless tightness and giddy progginess of this record add up to pure smiles for me. It's unsettling, demented, uncompromising music—like a more grotesque, off-the-wall …And Justice for All.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Rudness and rigor: The Miles Davis Quintet, Live Europe 1967

I'm glad that Nate Chinen took the time to make a methodical, emphatic case for why the forthcoming Miles Davis archival release, Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series, Volume 1, stands way out from the Miles-box-set cottage industry. By year's end, I'm guessing we'll all be a little sick of hearing about this one, but let me just say this: It's major, and the hype is and will be justified.

This weekend, I've been hung up on the first version of "Footprints" from disc 2 (11.2.67 in Denmark). The point has been made countless times about how much leeway Miles afforded his sidemen, but this track (and this box set in general) really drives the concept home in a new way. Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock are absolutely romping here. They edge in as much wildness as they can during Miles's solo and then blitz out even more during Wayne Shorter's feature. Williams, who had spent several years playing borderline free jazz with Shorter at Blue Note (I think of Grachan Moncur's Some Other Stuff, from ’64, and Williams's own Spring, from ’65), seems to consider Shorter an ideal partner in crime. On this "Footprints," Williams keeps tossing out splashy explosions during the saxophonist's solo, as if he were throwing Snap-N-Pops at Shorter's feet. Around 3:40, his wildness infects Herbie Hancock, and the three players swirl around in a turbulent incantation. It's so fascinating to hear a band that's so tight and disciplined (throughout all of these concerts, they flip into each new piece in lockstep, without pausing, and on the DVD, you can see the sidemen responding attentively to Miles's hand cues) but that also rages against this authority whenever it gets a free second.

Miles was clearly on to something here, i.e., how amok can we run within a "jazz" format? I.e., this was before the bellbottoms and the scarves and wrap-around shades, before Miles's sets became orgies of pure, psychedelic, funk-driven catharsis. This is about affecting that "cool" pose, that aura of decorum that always clung to Miles—and has become a tedious kind of shorthand for how he's been represented since his death—and that still clings to many who play what I like to think of as jazz-club jazz (more on that concept here), but then inviting the chaos in and letting his co-conspirators raid the mansion, turn a "polite" medium into something warped, impulsive, fucked up. Chinen was right to point out that these men are all wearing tuxedos throughout these performances—putting their audiences in that "America's classical music" frame of mind even as they're assaulting their ears with information overload, some of the most busy and vibrant small-group interplay ever.

On this 11.2.67 "Footprints," the band quiets down a bit during Hancock's solo, but on the out head, Williams is absolutely destroying his kit. Hancock follows suit with these blurred, splatter-paint runs, some definite Cecil Taylor shit. This foreground/background tension/obliteration, when the band is executing a theme as one (or more) members just cuts loose in opposition, is what has drawn me to this quintet ever since I heard Nefertiti (still my favorite Miles album, with this band or otherwise) for the first time about a decade ago. I couldn't believe that a jazz drummer could have the balls to explode so rambunctiously on what was essentially a ballad (I'm speaking of the piece "Nefertiti"), or, moreover, that his employer (a firmly established star by that point) would actually invite that sort of thing. We've all heard the stories about how Miles didn't want his sidemen to practice during their off time: He wanted all that nervous, explosive energy to come out onstage. It's not just an idea or a liner-note cliché, this thing of "giving your sidemen space." It's absolutely demonstrated in the music, and nowhere more vividly than on this new set of 1967 live material.

What I love too, though, is that in addition to the wildness, you also get the control, the pacing. Before his death just a few months prior to these Miles performances, John Coltrane was obviously going way, way out, spilling his guts for hours at a time, he and his sidemen equating length and relentless intensity with transcendence. There was no "jazz" left in it, no "cool," no decorum, no ting-ting-a-ling. Which is totally great and vital. I love Interstellar Space as much as the next guy. That said, there's something marvelous about Miles having been able to open and shut the air lock so to speak, to invite the horror of deep space in and ALSO to block it out when needed.

Take, for example, the way the sets on this 1967 set are constructed. Chinen sharply points out the inclusion of many more original pieces here than on the 1965 Plugged Nickel recordings (which I've enjoyed in the past, but not half as much as this new set), which lean primarily on standards. The effect is that when the standards do arrive—and since there's no stopping between pieces, they arrive pretty abruptly—they feel revelatory. As opposed to looking at your watch ("Oh man, they're playing another jazz-club jazz selection?"), you're grateful for the respite. Check out the "’Round Midnight" that comes right after the "Footprints" described above (11.2.67, disc two). The turbulence and insanity melt away, and it's Miles and Hancock alone in a gorgeous reverie. This duet isn't a rigorous reading of the theme; there's some impressionism to it. But it's so gracious, spacious, the kind of thing that, yes, the average jazz-club patron might expect. Recognizably a ballad. Miles was not about exploding form entirely—he was about letting it expand and contract. Rein them in with something decorous, nakedly beautiful, and then put the screws on. Case in point, this same "’Round Midnight," which quickly becomes an uptempo romp after the kick-in, with Hancock prancing down the keyboard and Shorter summoning steely abandon. (Later in the set, we're back on the gorgeous/turbulent fault line, in the form of Shorter's "Masqualero," which has these remarkable trumpet/piano cutaways, with Williams surging periodically forward to add Latin-style thrust.)

It's not fair or useful to sit here 40 years later and lament the current lack of bands like this, so committed on one hand to rigor (which comes, and this is another cliché that's just straight-up true, from WORKING, from playing gig after gig with the same personnel and a consistent repertoire over a period of years) and to explosive freedom, where the form ("Jazz") is paradoxically strengthened via the relentless inquisitiveness and sometimes, for lack of a better word, rudeness of the performance. No need to compare this to what anyone else is doing or has done. Better simply to say that this is conceptually what we want out of jazz: to set up exquisite sand castles and to augment or knock them down as we see fit, as long as we have a reason for doing so and promise to build them back up again at the end.

Compare this with, say, Coltrane's late music, in which there's really no accountability; you've gone so far out that there's no reference point. And again, I'm not dissing that music, not diminishing the value of that kind of solar catharsis. Rather, I'm celebrating the Miles version of "free jazz," where the construction and the demolition commingled in each piece, where you ask that your sidemen wear tuxedos but simultaneously invite them to go absolutely apeshit on their instruments (I'm listening now to Shorter and Williams kicking up a mighty dust cloud at 6:54 in "No Blues"—total sickness). As Chinen describes, that tension was at its apogee within the Miles Davis Quintet circa 1967, and here you have abundant illustration of it. Buy this box set!


P.S. Disc one is streaming at NPR.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Cosmo Lee on Metallica

Just a quick post here to say thanks to Cosmo Lee at Invisible Oranges—the site that launched my Heavy Metal Be-Bop interview series—for his outstanding ongoing series "Metallica: The First Four Albums." To bring you up to speed real quick: Cosmo is, in my opinion, hands down the best writer-about-metal on the internet, and for the past few years (five or so?), he's overseen the Invisible Oranges site. He's leaving IO in a few weeks to focus on other projects, and by way of a farewell, he's been running down the first four Metallica records track-by-track (one blog post apiece, i.e.). It's a really impressive project, and as rigorous as it is, it's not formulaic—he's basically taking each track as it comes, offering focused yet unfettered impressions filtered through his identity as a guitarist and through his lengthy Metallica fandom (i.e., how the music sounded to him as a teenager and how it sounds to him now). Here's yesterday's post on the classic instrumental "Orion"; you'll find the rest of the series linked at the bottom.

In particular, this series has reawakened me to the glory of Master of Puppets. My favorite Metallica album is …And Justice for All, but Cosmo has helped me to see that in a way, side two of Puppets is a prelude to Justice. During the "First Four Albums" series, he has written several times about the "anxiety" of Justice. It's not a word I ever thought to use to describe the album, but I know what he means: Justice is incredibly clenched, obsessive, maniacal in its detail, devoid of fun, exhaustive. The band members look joyless and battle-hardened in the inner-sleeve photos, and this makes sense when you hear the music.

This obsessiveness kicks into high gear on side two of Puppets. The track that grabs me the most is "Disposable Heroes"—stream it above—which has long been among my two or three favorite Metallica songs. I was just listening to it this morning and marveling at the enormous amount of CONTENT in the song. Same goes for pretty much all of Justice: You simply can't believe they're stuffing this much INFORMATION into a rock composition, and not useless technical detail. It all makes total, merciless sense. And set against this proggy maximalism is an anthemic-punk sensibility. At the same time as it was scaling new heights of technicality, Metallica was writing its catchiest songs to date.

Dig the prechorus thrash section in "Heroes"—it reoccurs in the song, but you can hear one example at 3:12—which follows a pattern of two bars of four, then two bars of three. The little rhythmic hiccups created by the three-beat bars are pure pleasure for me. This fast, techy build-up gives way to a brief lead-guitar passage and then a turbulent transition sequence before opening up into a total rock-out chorus (the "Back to the front!" part). This is just one of the countless little journeys that Metallica took its listeners on during this classic mid-to-late-’80s period: a perfect juxtaposition of Apollonian and Dionysian musical tendencies.

It's a pleasure to rediscover these albums that I've loved so long in the company of a writer as skilled and insightful as Cosmo. Read the posts and savor the glory of the music, the absolute pinnacle of metal.