Monday, May 30, 2016

Unabashed: Why I Love Major-Label Post-Hardcore

The above video is a handy summation of many of the traits I value in rock music. Right now, I'm fixating on the performance of "Chinese Fork Tie," which begins at 12:14. (The sound quality isn't the greatest, so if you're not familiar with the song — from Jawbox's 1996 self-titled album, which, incidentally, turns 20 in about a month — I recommend checking out the studio version too.) From the start, you'll notice that drummer Zach Barocas is absolutely murdering his kit, pounding out this sort of asymmetrically strutting beat, lurching but danceable. A field of guitar noise from Bill Barbot; Kim Coletta's sly bass line; J. Robbins' shouts and slogans, darting and weaving. The whole band snapping into a snarling pre-chorus riff at 12:52, rising up to the glorious convulsion at 13:05.

Abandon juxtaposed with style, swagger, superhuman control. If the band as a whole were a drum — and given the prominence of Barocas within the overall Jawbox mix, that's not so far off — it would be a snare cranked up to a super-high tension. Their music stretches over a precise grid, then pops, explodes. But there is always an idea of rigor, not just in the performance but in the song itself. The music has purpose, drive, concision, gloss and big, bold hooks. Rhythmic tricks — stabs, chokes, thrusts, syncopations — juxtaposed with the naked, earnest, yearning beauty of Robbins' voice. For Your Own Special Sweetheart is, for me, where the band reached its peak; the performance above draws mostly from that album and the self-titled, an album I love just a hair less. These records and this video are objects of fascination and pleasure for me, emblems of a variety of rock music that seems to give me everything I want at once: power, manifested in enormous, earthshaking groove; the skillful deployment of noise, the scribble that only makes the precision sketch underneath seem all that much more purposeful; and the painstakingly shaped hook.

And all with an attitude of "Let's get on with it; let's make this great." The '90s were a time when we, as listeners and/or music-makers, were being saddled with a sort of aesthetic guilt trip. The hand-wringing over "selling out." The Steve Albini and Ian MacKaye finger-wagging. (I want to point out here that I'm an enormous fan of the latter, particularly Fugazi, and a skeptic as regards the former; he's engineered a lot of records that I love but I find his shtick, whether manifested in interviews or in his own music, pretty tiresome at this point.) This idea of the "post-Nirvana major-label feeding frenzy." OK, so maybe this system did chew up great bands and spit them out, but the fact of the matter is that certain of these bands realized their fullest potential via the major-label system.

To me, the bands most emblematic of what I'll call the genius of post-hardcore, the prime exponents of, to borrow a song title from Jawbox, this cruel swing — the bands best exemplifying the ruthlessness and the sensuality, the ferocity and the funk of this bold new aesthetic — were Jawbox, Quicksand and Helmet. And the albums on which each of these bands reached full flower, respectively, were major-label ones: the aforementioned For Your Own Special Sweetheart (Atlantic, 1994), Slip (Polydor, 1993) and Betty (Interscope, 1994). Three gleaming, slick triumphs with the bite intact. Beefed-up yet not defanged. Three albums that, quite simply, wipe the floor with the independent output that preceded it: Jawbox's Novelty (Dischord), Quicksand's self-titled EP (Revelation) and Helmet's Strap It On (Amphetamine Reptile). (Note: Meantime, Helmet's excellent major-label debut and the album that, to use '90s parlance, "broke" them, came in between Strap and Betty.) Novelty and Strap It On are each awesome albums, brimming with energy and potential, but for this listener, they're only appetizers for the entrée to come.

All three of those original labels — Dischord, Revelation, AmRep — are long-enshrined institutions of the American underground. It's always been cooler to say you liked bands like this back when, before they played 120 Minutes, before they posed for stylish promo photos and shot arty, dated-on-arrival videos, or went out with actresses. (And not all bands weathered the transition as well as the ones mentioned above; with all due respect to the band members' own assessments in Book, I think the Jesus Lizard did their best work before they signed to Capitol.) But the fact of the matter is that the aesthetics of certain bands benefited hugely from the major-label treatment, from almost cartoonishly huge production sounds, from a certain, again, gleaming slickness that only seemed to magnify the inherent grit, nastiness and soul of the music itself.

Helmet, "Tic":

Quicksand, "Lie and Wait":

Jawbox, "Motorist":

All three of these bands (and their fans) were blessed with extraordinary drummers, players who were essentially big-wallop funk specalists, equally invested in piledriving power and stylish groove. Barocas, Quicksand's Alan Cage and Helmet's justly celebrated John Stanier each contributed hugely to the durability of their respective bands' discographies. (It's no wonder that each was a huge inspiration to me when I started learning the instrument roughly 21 years ago, or that each remains a gold standard / basic-food-group staple today.) The frontmen — Robbins, the hugely underrated Walter Schreifels and Page Hamilton — were also brilliant, each in their own idiosyncratic ways, but each equally adept at barking or crooning, or, in Schreifels' case, doing a bit of both at the same time. I can sing every song from every one of these albums.

As the '90s wore on, these bands, and many of their contemporaries, would break up or shed crucial members. Major-label post-hardcore albums became a sort of in-joke among those who continued to frequent used-CD stores, where they were always in abundant supply. The cover art and the fonts looked dated; the song titles maybe a bit cheesy; and the CD booklets, filled with names of management, publicists and fancy legal teams now seemed like relics of a bubble waiting to burst.

But the music remains as bright, forceful and wildly enjoyable as ever. These bands dared to take an underground form and hone it, polish it, to see how big, bold and ballsy it might become. The best of the music that resulted is post-hardcore, turbo-charged, the sound of potential being fulfilled in a way that never would've been possible on Dischord or AmRep. Sure, it couldn't last — I'll be the first to admit that the respective follow-ups to Sweetheart, Slip and Betty are each, in their own way, less satisfying than what came before — but for a moment there, these bands had it all, unifying the spirit of the underground with the tools of the mainstream. Uncompromised, unfettered and most of all unabashed, this music will probably always speak to me, loud and clear.


A few other great major-label post-hardcore albums:

Shudder to Think, 50,000 B.C. (Epic, 1997)
Dischord labelmates of Jawbox, and like Jawbox, they did their best work in the major-label realm. Pony Express Record is an obvious classic, but I find myself more often reaching for the lesser-known follow-up, which heads in a glammier direction but still has that essential crunch.

Clutch, Transnational Speedway League: Anthems, Anecdotes and Undeniable Truths (Eastwest, 1993)

Another master drummer, Jean-Paul Gaster, coming into his own here. Monster grooves, quirky humor and plenty of hardcore-derived badassery/swagger. This album is a total delight. Clutch would head to a lot of interesting places after this, but in some ways, they never topped Transnational.

Into Another, Seemless (Hollywood, 1995)
Quicksand's former Revelation labelmates were always aiming at a huge, anthemic sound, and they achieved it on this great yet ill-fated outing. The rumbling bass, the soaring vocals — Seemless represents the unabashed quality I'm describing above in full flower.

See also my post on the interrelated "BP/progressive-grunge" school.



A lot of the above applies to the world of metal as well. Some of my very favorite metal albums of the period — Carcass' Heartwork, Morbid Angel's Covenant and Domination, even something like Melvins' Houdini — were the work of former underground kings flaunting their major-label-abetted polish and girth.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Robert Glasper interview

I had a great time interviewing Robert Glasper about his new Miles Davis remix album, Everything's Beautiful—which stemmed from his work on Don Cheadle's Miles Ahead film—and a bunch of other stuff (Prince, Erykah Badu, Kamasi Washington, etc.). It's been a little while since I've done an in-depth Q-and-A, so this was a total pleasure.

I'll admit I initially regarded both Everything's Beautiful and Miles Ahead with some wariness. There are honestly not a lot of remixes, tributes, etc. that mean all that much to me—I tend to prefer it when influence and inspiration manifest themselves in less straightforward ways. But I do think there's some great material on Everything's Beautiful, particularly the tracks that sample Miles' voice (e.g., "Talking Shit," built around several remarkable minutes of Davis studio chatter, presumably from this session, during which he's playfully getting on Joe Chambers' case), the Erykah Badu "Maiysha" and the track "Violets," which features a Bill Evans piano sample from a "Blue in Green" false start. Overall, it's a very lush, listenable album with a coherent through-line.

I liked Miles Ahead less. Picking up on my comment above about remixes and tributes: I guess, in the end, I'm a primary-source guy. Mainly what I want to engage with is a) the music itself and b) what the people who made it said about it. I'd have a tough time naming a biopic that I felt illuminated the work of the artist in question; mostly I feel like the genre invites caricature, and I don't think Miles Ahead transcends that tendency. I didn't feel like it was some kind of sacrilege—Cheadle's performance is strong, and there are some funny and poignant moments sprinkled in. I also think the movie makes a very good case for '70s Miles functioning as the perfect action-movie music. In the end, though, I'm just not sure what the movie contributes to the Miles Davis legacy. For me, the best side effect was that it sent me back to the music, specifically the amazing '70s material on discs 3 and 4 of The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4, which has been blowing my mind lately.

But really Miles Ahead just made me yearn for a serious, full-on Miles documentary. So many of his collaborators are still around, and there's just so much footage. Could be a beautiful thing. I realize that this desire places me squarely in the camp that Don Cheadle was not aiming to please—and was maybe even aiming to piss off—with Miles Ahead, but I'm just being honest.

Back to Glasper for a second. I've had his 2015 album Covered on heavy rotation in recent months. I like the Black Radio albums—I heard one over the speakers in a Mexican restaurant the other day, and I loved how it sounded in a public setting—but the trio with Vicente Archer and Damion Reid speaks to me more directly. I'd enjoyed Covered last year but totally forgot about it in the year-end rush. Spinning it over and over recently made me realize how fundamentally arbitrary the year-end list thing is. Anyway, the following (filmed during the recording of Covered) needs no commentary; it's just gorgeous.

Also, don't sleep on Glasper's earlier, shockingly great trio with Derrick Hodge and Chris Dave.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Mythbusting: The 360-degree gift of 'Denis A. Charles: An Interrupted Conversation'

A few weeks back, Mark Richardson published a compelling, comprehensive Pitchfork feature titled "New York Is Killing Me: Albert Ayler's Life and Death in the Jazz Capital." Ayler's story, those few meteoric years of passionate genius followed by a still-mysterious drowning in the East River, lends itself especially well to mythologization. It is, essentially, the archetypal Jazz Myth: the ballad of an artist whose vision is too pure to survive in a cold, racist society.

Ayler's story is especially potent, both because the music he left is so heartbreakingly intense and also because he died so young (34, shockingly, the same age at which Charlie Parker died, succumbing to self-abuse, yes, but also to those same societal forces that ground down Ayler). His story ends with a tragedy straight out of darkly romantic fiction. And many jazz lovers—and especially free-jazz lovers—though we admit it or not, relish such tales because they uphold the idea of a brief, glorious flourishing that was simply too brilliant to last. (It is Coltrane's story too, in many ways.)

Zeroing in on the so-called avant-garde, we have this golden age, lasting just a few years—roughly 1964 through 1970—and famously documented in New York by ESP-Disk, in Paris by Actuel. Many of the musicians who made these treasured albums are dead, but regardless of whether or not they literally survived the period, with very few exceptions (Milford Graves, the late Paul Bley), their work is frozen—again, in the manner of myth—in that time. ESP's stark, striking black-and-white album covers form the visual pantheon, the wall of memory.

Again, though, some musicians made it out alive. Many expatriated: Sunny Murray, Steve Lacy. Some stuck it out in NYC, either with dignity (Graves) or in the shadows (Giuseppi Logan). Cecil Taylor is perhaps the great survivor of them all; his middle-class background always seemed to keep him a bit above the fray, at least in the literature, though he clearly paid his dues for decades, and also predated (and ultimately transcended) the period and scene described above. There are so many others, lesser-known. Clifford Allen and John Rogers are two journalists who have made a concerted effort to track down artists of this generation in their later years and preserve their stories. I have tried to do my part, with Cleve Pozar and others.


Denis A. Charles: an interrupted conversation from Veronique Doumbe on Vimeo.

I have all this on the brain because I just watched Denis A. Charles: An Interrupted Conversation. The film, an excellent, moving documentary by Véronique N. Doumbé, equal parts heartwarming and -breaking, tells the story of a drummer—another musician killed, in some sense, by New York—who lived through all of the above and contributed to it significantly. He appeared on Cecil Taylor's earliest recordings; he anchored Lacy and Roswell Rudd's semi-legendary "School Days" Monk repertory band. He recorded with Gil Evans and, apparently, Sonny Rollins. And then he entered the shadow zone, the realm of drugs, occasional homelessness, intermittent musical joy.

Doumbé's film tells of the story of the final chapter of his life, and what I love about it, why I think it's essential viewing for anyone who has ever derived joy from free jazz, or jazz in general, or even simply black and/or American music, is that it refuses to settle for any pat narrative. The filmmaker clearly sympathizes with Charles' plight, such as it was. She delves into his poignant backstory: Caribbean upbringing; abandoned, along with his brother, the percussionist Frank "Huss" Charles, by his father at an early age; smacked in the face, almost literally, with "that racist shit" after an idyllic, color-blind childhood. Then he's on the scene in Harlem: soaking up bebop in real time, idolizing Art Blakey, and by the mid-'50s, recording Cecil Taylor's debut album in Boston, even (according to Steve Lacy, one of many Charles contemporaries who offer fascinating commentary in the film) sitting in with Thelonious Monk. And then, drugs, not to mention a shameful robbery of an older neighborhood woman, which landed him in jail. And music, and drugs, and fatherhood, and love, and homelessness. More love, more drugs, more music, repeated and shuffled.

We see Charles the performer. Raw, sweaty, enthralling performances with Susie Ibarra, Billy Bang, Borah Bergman; Charles's stunning late trio with Thomas Borgmann and bassist Wilber Morris; Charles playing on piers, in schoolyards, in tiny clubs; Charles, playing brushes, accompanying singer-pianist Rick Dellaratta with poetic simplicity. Charles the absolute earthy master of his instrument, the prophet of WoodSkinMetal, the absolute essence of percussion, tapping out elemental rhythms on the table, explaining the affinity between Caribbean grooves and the jazz cymbal pattern, playing with an odd fist-oriented right-hand grip on a ride tilted eccentrically away from him, as he sits way high up on his stool. Charles the disciple but also peer of the great Ed Blackwell—two players who gave the (again so-called) avant-garde some of its deepest buoyance and bounce. Swing would be too reductive a term for what these men brought to the music. It's a pulse of life, really. Pure earth.

So An Interrupted Conversation gives us all this, but crucially, unlike so much Free Jazz Myth, it doesn't just give us the personal glory and tragedy of a master musician. It also gives us the other side. The feminine side, specifically, via extended interviews with women who were essentially Charles's common-law wives at various periods: Melanie MacLennan and Gabriella Sonam. Women who gave him love and shelter and support—and, in the latter's case, a beautiful daughter—and who, for various reasons, found him impossible to live with. Sonam at one point talks, matter-of-factly and without self-pity, about how her own artistic pursuits fell by the wayside when her and Charles's daughter, Arkah, was born, but how Charles's art just kept going. She questions her own devotion to her creative path and seems to exalt his, but what she's really saying, again, without the slightest sense of bitterness or harangue, is that she slowed down and took on the basically responsibilities of parenthood while Charles pursued his muse around the world, touring with Jemeel Moondoc and others, but mostly just scraping by. Doumbé's film makes you think about how many hallowed yet troubled musicians were essentially propped up by their selfless companions, whose stories have mostly gone untold. That Doumbé takes the time to tell not just Charles's story, but the story of the domestic world, the family that he wrought through his genius, yes, but also through his disease on one hand and his self-admitted immaturity on the other, is extremely commendable.

Here we get a very rare telling of the Whole Jazz Story, not just the easy myth. Denis Charles lived on. And he made great music. And he also, at times, made a mess of his life and of the lives of those close to him. In the film's many interviews with him, you see his charm and his b.s. alike.

(At one fascinating point, he brings the critics and historians into the fray, calling out Val Wilmer for calling him out as a drug addict in her crucial free-jazz chronicle As Serious as Her Life; as a fan of that book, I struggled with this, but I appreciate that complex view—did Charles have this portrayal coming? And yet, was it Wilmer's place to make these private details public?) 

The contemporaries and the survivors are also here. Archie Shepp, maybe the most trenchant, witty, learned, knowing social commentator jazz has ever seen—I'm honored to have interviewed him; I need to dig up the rest of that transcript—summing up with no-bullshit flourish the complex societal forces that helped shape the NYC scene of the '60s and beyond. We get, for example, a particularly powerful Shepp diatribe against black artists and athletes who achieve fame and fortune but don't give back to their communities: "Maybe that's the whole thing with capitalism: The final solution to the Negro Problem is a certain brainwashing of the Negro, so he has no context between what's been done to him and what's going on right now." Here's Shepp on the Denis Charles / Cecil Taylor partnership:

"You have to remember, Cecil was from a middle-class neighborhood in Long Island... But Denis was from the nitty-gritty, baby... Cecil was really playing a concept that pretty much had to do with his ambience as a middle-class black. He had studied Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff; he knew the whole classical tradition. And Denis... really didn't give a fuck."
And Frank Lowe, a man whose music and story, alluded to in the introduction to Ben Ratliff's The Jazz Ear, I need to know better:

"Sometimes I think it's a known fact that we are not paid enough money because certain forces know that we're gonna play this music whether we get money for it or not, you understand? And to some extent, we're taken complete advantage of, you dig? And to another extent, it's our gift to the world, so it don't matter."
This is Frank Lowe sitting on a park bench in "modern times," not in a bygone, mythologized '60s. This is Denis Charles sleeping in a doorway in an East Village of just a few years prior to the one I would live in circa 2002. This is urgent; this is now.

This is not just a "whatever happened to..." tale about a great drummer who dropped off the scene. This is a portrait of a man who was done wrong to, and who did wrong, and who did right, and who left something beautiful and also a trail of perplexity and elegiac fondness. We, the (mostly, it must be said, white, comfortably middle-class) fans, the ones who have benefited so immeasurably from Charles' and Lowe's and all the other greats' "gift to the world" are all complicit in all of this. And I thank Véronique N. Doumbé for sitting us down and immersing us in the whole 360-degree view—as well as MacLennan and Sonam and Lowe and Shepp and Huss Charles and Joel Forrester and Didier Levallet and Roxane Butterfly and Elliott Levin and Bobby Few and on and on—and reminding us that it's not just the music. It's never just that.


Along with the outstanding School Days, one of my favorite Denis Charles recordings is the Steve Lacy album Capers, reissued (though truncated) as N.Y. Capers and Quirks. Charles' jovial bounce is the perfect match for Lacy's lovably demented, angular themes. (The Flame, another Lacy/Charles trio set, filled out by the sublime Bobby Few, is also highly recommended.)

I have Queen Mary on its way to me in the mail—shout-out to Silkheart, one of the most crucial labels of the '80s and beyond. Eremite's Captain of the Deep, released on the day Charles died, is an outstanding document of his later years. I'm dying to obtain Wilber Morris' Collective Improvisations and the jointly credited After the Demon's Leaving, which pair him, respectively, with Frank Lowe and the great Charles Tyler (with whom Charles was set to tour on the eve of Tyler's death, a sad tale recounted in the Doumbé doc), and I need to get familiar with the Borgmann trio as well, e.g., this Not Two release.

To any Denis Charles fans reading this, what are your favorite DC documents?