Sunday, February 28, 2016

DFSBP archives: Beaver Harris

As WKCR—the world's greatest jazz broadcasting outlet and the place where I learned much of what I know about this art form that I love—continues to struggle with its online-streaming rights, I present a digital version of one of the most enjoyable shows I helped to organize there: a 2000 tribute to drummer-composer William "Beaver" Harris.

The role I played in this show was a background one. Glo Harris, the show's principal host and key architect, clearly had the whole thing covered. I can't recall exactly how the program came about, but I remember Phil Schaap mentioning to me—then an eager, inexperienced student broadcaster—that he had a project I might be interested in. I believe Glo, who had been married to Beaver, had approached Phil about putting together a radio show in her late husband's honor. At some point, Phil graciously handed me the reins. I engineered the show, talked on-air a bit and may have had some input into what musical selections were played—at that time, I was a huge fan of Beaver's work on the 1976 Steve Lacy–Roswell Rudd album Trickles—but this was Glo's brainchild, and the warmth and sincerity of the finished product is a testament to her enduring love for Beaver, both as a man and a musician.

Wade Barnes, the late drummer, educator and NYC jazz torchbearer, is a genial and insightful presence in parts I and II of the broadcast, and the supporting cast only snowballs from there. I still remember sitting in the main WKCR control room, then housed in Riverside Church, as master after master materialized, either on the phone or in person. Part III features an Andrew Cyrille call-in, and Rashied Ali and Grachan Moncur III drop by in Part IV, joined later by impromptu call-in guest Jack DeJohnette. Like Glo, they all clearly admired this man as a player and loved him as a human being. Their stories flesh out a career that's sadly underrepresented in the official discography.

Beaver Harris is a fascinating figure, and this program makes a compelling case for just how underrated and little understood his genius was, and still is. You'll hear Barnes discuss the "from ragtime to no time" ethos that guided Harris's work, and the concept wasn't just a clever phrase: whatever the idiom, Harris played with command and coherence. As a sideman, on Trickles, on various Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp recordings, on lesser-known sessions with Chet Baker and Lee Konitz, Ken McIntyre, and Rudolph Grey's Blue Humans, he was explosive (always wielding that slashing China cymbal) or supportive, as the moment demanded. He danced and pummeled with equal skill and flair.

As a leader or co-leader, on marvelous and almost completely overlooked albums such as 1976's In: Sanity (featuring Dave Burrell), 1984's A Well Kept Secret (featuring Don Pullen) and Thank You For Your Ears (recorded '84, released '98), he was even better. He wasn't just a drummer; he had a sonic and conceptual vision, which he aptly labeled "360 Degree." It was eclectic (those steel drums!), inclusive and fantastical. One of his pieces, "African Drums," even became a sort of out-jazz standard, recorded by Shepp and David S. Ware.

Beaver Harris made his mark. Start here and go forth:

Beaver Harris tribute - WKCR - April 19, 2000, pt. I
Beaver Harris tribute - WKCR - April 19, 2000, pt. II
Beaver Harris tribute - WKCR - April 19, 2000, pt. III
Beaver Harris tribute - WKCR - April 19, 2000, pt. IV

Download the broadcast at the links above, or stream via the blue bar at the bottom of the page.

Thank you again to Glo Harris for putting together this incredible program, and to Phil Schaap for making the introduction.


Other Beaver Harris resources:

*Clifford Allen's valuable career overview

*1987 WKCR interview re: Ayler (go here and scroll down)

*1983 live recording with Sam Rivers and steel-drummer Francis Haynes, who also appears on In: Sanity and A Well Kept Secret

*1975 live footage with Archie Shepp and Chet Baker

Incidentally, the broadcast above led, either directly or indirectly, to my later interviews with Moncur, Ali and Cyrille.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Moment's Greatest Hits 3

The third in a series of recent faves.

I saw Voivod play at Gramercy Theatre on Super Bowl Sunday. It was a good show, but more importantly, it reminded me of what fun, peculiar band they are. Widely recognized as one of the emblematic groups of the '80s metal underground, Voivod are, it turns out, not really emblematic of anything other than themselves. Their music is not particularly forbidding or aggressive. It has a lighthearted quality to it that comes through all the more when you see how friendly and excited they appear in the live setting: guitarist Daniel "Chewy" Mongrain bounding around the stage with a huge grin, drummer Michael "Away" Langevin flashing a peace sign when frontman Denis "Snake" Bélanger introduced him with a playful soccer-stadium chant ("A-wayyyyy / Away, Away, Away...").

Voivod is an idea. Or a series of ideas. They decided long ago what the parameters of their audiovisual presentation would be, and they've stuck to those parameters through the decades. It's fascinating to me that since the sad passing of Voivod's sonic architect, guitarist Denis "Piggy" D'Amour, in 2005, the band has almost become more idiosyncratic, more Voidvodian, than ever. After Piggy died, Voivod put out two albums using guitar tracks he had recorded before his death, 2006's Katorz and 2009's Infini. I like these albums, but not as much as like 2013's Target Earth, the first Voivod album to feature Chewy instead of Piggy. Chewy is the quintessential torchbearer: He initially learned guitar by learning Voivod songs, and he approaches his role in the band with an acolyte's fervor. The result is strange sort of reanimation, or suspended animation, of the Piggy-era Voivod aesthetic.

Just as with the band's classic work—I spun 1988's awesome Dimension Hatröss last night—this track (from the band's upcoming EP, Post-Society) defies you to engage with it on anything other than its own terms. The strange harmonic atmosphere of the music, like this sort of funhouse-mirror version of punk/thrash, where all the notes sound sour, bent. Snake's nasal, heavily accented, almost sickly moan, perhaps this very strange band's strangest aspect. The swirling, dreamy interludes. That awkward, dissonant art-funk breakdown around 4:40. The general sense of a music taking its time, stretching its legs, being what it feels like it needs to be, regardless of genre. Over the years, Voivod have forged their own musical ethnicity, and it's such a pleasure to see them embracing it ever more deeply as they age. The music they're making now is both profoundly self-indulgent and exactly what any fan could hope for. ("Post-Society" is another instant Voivod masterpiece.)

The Replacements 
The other day I had the pleasure of editing an excerpt from the upcoming Replacements biography, Trouble Boys. The bit in question concerns the band's disastrous SNL appearance in 1986, or disastrous if you happen to have been one of the parties invested in establishing the band as a legitimate mainstream force. A faction to which, as is clear from the account and the surviving videos, the band members clearly did not belong. Their concern, it seems was merely, to echo the Voivod assessment above, to be themselves, and the results were wondrous. I don't know that I've seen a more potent distillation of the reckless-youth aspect of rock and roll than this "Bastards of Young" performance.

It's just a heartbreakingly raw, true, exuberant moment, the kind that every great rock band seems to have, as the buzz crests and they either continue on up, as Westerberg puts it, the "ladder of success" to superstardom or flame out or slowly decline or some combination of those three. There's a nothing-to-lose quality about this band at this time—sort of reminiscent of the Strokes here; try "Hard to Explain" at 12:35—that's just really poignant and timeless to me. And re: Westerberg's vocal prowess and overall charm/charisma, there really are no words. (I remember hearing him for the first time on the Singles soundtrack, loving his contributions and having no idea as to his musical history.)

James Salter
Speaking of that sort of moment, when a life or career crests precipitously, Cassada, a 2000 rewrite of the late, great James Salter's 1961 novel The Arm of Flesh, is an incredible encapsulation of same. Salter's subject is, as always, men and their pursuit of immortality, meaning, fulfillment and, yes, women. This is a brief book, an impressionistic one—a semi-autobiographical, '50s-set tale of American fighter pilots training in Germany, who never see combat—but its emotional impact is heavy. The book does a great job of contrasting the transcendent, almost holy feeling of flight with the listless, dysfunctional, stunted on-the-ground lives these men lead. Salter's obsession was the taste of greatness, or of true happiness, and how that taste lingers, haunts, even when the feeling leaves.

Michael Mann
Speaking of quintessentially masculine art, I saw a director's cut of Blackhat as part of BAM's Michael Mann retrospective, which winds down tomorrow. In much of Mann's work, whenever human beings are conversing, or having sex, or doing anything that isn't shooting or running or preparing to run or shoot, the film in question can veer precariously close to unintentional parody. The phenomenal Heat isn't without its silly moments, but it's one of Mann's greatest achievements precisely because, probably due to the caliber of actor he was working with, he managed to right this imbalance: The intimate, non-action-movie moments are as compelling as the astonishing set pieces. Blackhat is, in many ways, the exact opposite, and thus one of the most quintessentially Mann-y movies he's ever made. To put it bluntly, whenever the focus is on anything but action, the movie is profoundly, laughably absurd. (That's not to say I don't relish the cheese; I absolutely do, and could watch 100 examples of this kind of movie in a row.) But when the choreography and orchestration of violence kicks in, you're reminded that you're in the hands of a master.

Speaking of being reminded that you're in the hands of a master, Sicbay's 2001 debut album, The Firelit S'coughs, has been reissued on vinyl by the Modern Radio label. Nick Sakes has never been in a band that wasn't great, and like all his other projects, Sicbay were great in a totally different way than any of his other bands. Sakes was coming off the singularly demented Colossamite when he co-founded Sicbay in Minneapolis in 1999. His foil in the new project was the unsung guitar master Dave Erb, who brought to the table a beautifully honed melodic expertise. Together with a series of drummers—the first of whom, appearing on S'coughs, was current Deerhoof guitarist Ed Rodriguez, who also played guitar in Colossamite—they crafted a borderless sound: part hooky indie rock, part discordant post-hardcore, but all compact and refined. Sicbay were masters of song form. Whatever the objective of a given song, it was typically apparent within 20 seconds or so. Perfectly formed verses, choruses, post-choruses, bridges flying past in two or three minutes. And yet, as the same time, the music could be as gnarled or daunting as Sakes's prior triumphs with Dazzling Killmen and Colossamite. S'coughs is where it all startedthe rawest and most diverse of their albums. But even at this early stage, they had the whole thing figured out. Masterpiece. (Albums two and three, Overreaction Time and Suspicious Icons, are also essential.)

Snarky Puppy
And in closing, this tasty confection from Snarky Puppy. I was a few years late to the party for these guys, but once I sampled their wares, the appeal was obvious. This performance flirts with cheese—and the song itself can sound like beefed-up TV bumper music—but there's an exuberance here, a delight in the details, that's irresistible. A modern-day Brecker Brothers with hints of Meshuggah, maybe? In this day and age, playing music of such flash, intricacy and unabashed joy comes off as downright punk.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Moment's Greatest Hits 2

Another survey of recent faves.

Damon Che
The great Don Caballero drummer speaks in this essential Brad Cohan interview of "[learning] how to breathe behind the trap set over time." Quite an understatement, given that the style he developed in the early '90s and perfected on albums such as Don Caballero 2, What Burns Never Returns and American Don amounts to one of the most beautifully aerated percussive achievements I know. A true punishing caress. If you can watch this (dip in at, say, 3:20 for a quick taste) without weeping, inwardly or outwardly, at the raw poetry of each flail and bash, we have very different listening brains.

I only very recently gave Thee Speaking Canaries—the band in which Che plays guitar and sings—a close look, which seems like some kind of travesty. The '93 Songs for the Terrestrially Challenged album in particular is a triumph of muscular, offbeat indie rock. It has sort of this grandstanding classic-rock swagger about it (thanks to Nick for helping me spot the cover of Van Halen's "Girl Gone Bad" sandwiched into track 5), some incredibly tasty and eccentric riffing and the general sense of sprawling, indulgent abandon that makes the period of Don Cab I cite above so wonderful.

I highly recommend the tracks "Houses and Houses of Perfectness" and "Terrestrial/Famous No Space." Drumming in Damon Che's band must be a little like playing bass in Charles Mingus's (as Doug Watkins did here), but Noah Leger does a hell of a job of it on this record.

Also: shout-outs to Chunklet for their valuable work unearthing gems from the Che archive, e.g., Thee Speaking Canaries' Platter Base Must be Constructed of Moon Rock (on which Che plays all instruments) and Don Cab's Five Pairs of Crazy Pants. Wear 'Em (a sort of pre- and post-history of Don Cab's burly debut, For Respect).

This album continues to be an object of fascination and awe. Not to take anything away from the overall architecture of the songs and the LP, but the sheer amount of insanely cool moments on Ygg Huur is frankly obscene. (Let's start by talking about the crazed fanfare that breaks out around 5:20 into "Over Spirit.") Am also digging the new EP, Hyperion, which actually predates YH recording-wise, and I had a blast seeing them live at Saint Vitus last week.

Leonard Cohen
Cohen is a genius, and I hang on his every word. Been digging into a few of the '70s albums that I never knew as well as I wanted to. I've loved, and very often feared, Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs From a Room for ages, but there's something about the period that follows (Songs of Love and Hate, New Skin for the Old Ceremony, Death of a Ladies' Man and Recent Songs) that's really speaking to me right now. The early stuff has that beautiful austerity, but during this phases, he's really letting it rip in an appealing way, getting as bawdy ("Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On"), mythic ("The Guests"), depressive ("Dress Rehearsal Rag"), ominous ("Avalanche"), sardonic ("Is This What You Wanted") or straight-up manic as he pleases. To exemplify that latter quality, let's focus for a second on the final minute or so of "Memories":

Bruce Springsteen
A younger and more populist singer-songwriter hero. I'm all in with The River, thanks in part to the recent reissue, and I can't wait to see Springsteen and Co. play it live on March 28. On paper, everything about this period of Springsteen seems contrived: the portraits of small-town love, heartbreak and socioeconomic struggle. But in execution, it's sublime. You don't even have to suspend your disbelief when listening to a master like this—you simply soak up the conviction and dramatic truth radiating from the songs.

Jon Theodore
Picking up on the Che thread from above, another one of the great drummers of our time narrates the story of his life and music in this extremely valuable Dean Delray podcast episode. I find the accounts of him joining the Mars Volta and Queens of the Stone Age—probably the two greatest Big Rock Bands of the past 20 or so years—to be particularly thrilling and inspiring. Bonus: This is probably the closest we'll get to a thorough examination of Theodore's incredible, hopefully not-defunct One Day as a Lion project with Zack de la Rocha.

Mastication of Brutality Uncontrolled
Yes, you read that right. In recent years, I've developed a serious soft spot for the lunatic sub-sub-genre of death metal known variously as "brutal" or "slam." You often find this stuff coming out of Europe and Asia, and labels such as Willowtip, New Standard Elite and Unique Leader are always reliable outlets for the freshest and sickest offerings. (The connoisseurs at Burning Ambulance, Isolation Grind and Invisible Oranges also help keep me in the loop.) Anyway, the below—the 2015 debut LP by Germany's MOBU—was just something I stumbled across on YouTube while browsing for new delights in this genre. Skip the first track and dive right into "Mother Earth Abortion."

I find the over-the-top, almost giddy quality of this music to be profoundly life-affirming. It wears its off-the-charts technicality lightly and practically begs you to scoff at how absurd it comes off by any normalized standard of what music ought to sound like. And yet, brutal death metal is an extremely narrow niche, with its own rules of production, technique, etc. As with any example of such a tightly defined style, the pleasure is in the details—here, it's those laser-gun guitar strobes and rapid-fire "He can't possibly be saying words" grunt/squeal/retch vocals. Turn off your brain and savor the splatter.

Earth, Wind and Fire
Respect to Maurice White. I need to get to know this wonderful music much better than I do.

P.S. I invite you to enjoy this recently launched craw website, expertly designed by my dear friend Drew.