Monday, April 23, 2018

Alex Harding/Lucian Ban and Stephen Crump's Rhombal in Pittsburgh

City of Asylum brought two out of town acts to Alphabet City over the past week. Actually, it's a regular occurrence, with a lot of visiting groups playing there. I just haven't gotten over there as much as I'd like, new job and all. It was a disappointment to miss Jonathan Finlayson when he was here in March.

The duo of baritone saxophonist Alex Harding and pianist Lucian Ban are both skilled at free improvisation but their set last Thursday was built on soulful, spiritual music as much as it was on wild blowing, using one approach to get to the other.


Harding just visited Pittsburgh about five weeks ago, as a member of Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. But City of Asylum regulars have said they remember him as a member of Oliver Lake's Big Band, which came to town a few years ago, playing under the tent in the nearby park. That night, Harding played a solo that got listeners on their feet, somewhat literally. Last week, as far as I know, marked Ban's first visit to Pittsburgh. Among his work, he released Sounding Tears last year, a collaboration with saxophonist Evan Parker and violist Mat Maneri. Harding and Ban, though, have been playing together for 20 years in various situations.

After opening with the moody "Deep Blue," the duo paid tribute to Cecil Taylor with "We're Playing for CT." They didn't try to recreate the pianist's style but Ban's fingers were flying gracefully over the keys while Harding put forth some fast tonguing, later taking the neck of his horn and blowing that way. During the evening, the saxophonist often stopped mid-solo to moan empathetically along with the music.


Ban frequently stood up and hulked over the piano while playing, occasionally sticking his left hand into the instrument to create a percussive sound when his right hand struck the keys. During one unnamed tune, his attack made the piano sound like the cimbalom, the Hungarian instrument similar to a dulcimer. Harding switched to bass clarinet for this one, deepening the sound of the evening even further.

Harding retold a story about a gig at Cecil Bridgewater's club in New Jersey, A woman in the audience asked Ban if he was born in the South. When he explained that he hails from Transylvania, she still insisted, he must be from that South. A ballad they played toward the end of the set confirmed that lyrical quality the woman heard. It also gave Harding a chance to growl through his horn, making the whole thing turn a corner.

On Sunday night, bassist Stephan Crump came to town with his quartet Rhombal. Their 2017 album featured Tyshawn Sorey on drums, but last night, he was replaced by Richie Barshay. Tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and trumpeter Adam O'Farrill appeared on both the album and onstage last night.

With the Spring weather finally upon us, Crump said he was able to practice outside earlier that afternoon surrounded by birds. "Those birds were so happy," he explained at the start of the set. His compositions cover a variety of directions. "Nod for Nelson" had the horns playing spare but significant lines over a rolling, grooving bass and drums part. Conversely, Crump and Barshay kept it spare in "Grovi" while O'Farrill and Eskelin played some sharp, quick phrases. O'Farrill played with a unique blend of traditional technique and original ideas. His tone had a bright quality that sounded a lot like Clifford Brown to these ears. What he created with that sound was something altogether different: well-executed statements, extended lines, broken up occasionally by sharp rhythmic blasts.

Eskelin, who first came to Pittsburgh about 25 years with his wild trio with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black, physically got into his playing, literally leaning into his music. He wasn't always busy and wild with his solos. But his ideas were well-chosen. The music often called for him and O'Farrill to blend lines, answering each other or building together.

Crump is also a physical player, leaning into his bass, mouthing his parts along with his instrument. This visceral type of performance could be distracting if he weren't such a strong player. He also straddled riffs with longer lines, bowing harmonics that could barely be heard but maintained the energy. Barshay locked right in with Crump, clearly in sync at the end of a tour. He frequently switched from sticks to brushes mid-song, even playing with his hands during "Pulling Pillars/Outro for Patty."

After a few months in limbo, Alphabet City once again has a bar/restaurant set up in the building. It's a great combination, along with their bookstore. However, on both nights, some of the dining patrons thought nothing of talking loudly during the set, which made for a slight distraction. For example, when Crump introduced a song that was inspired by walking his sons to school, the talking covered up the fact that the Ornette-ish piece was"Skippaningam" from their self-titled album. Luckily the performers didn't mind on either night.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

I'm On A Bud Shank Kick

It's hard to say exactly what inspired it, but I've been on a bit of a kick for Bud Shank, the late alto saxophonist. The year did start out with me being on a Charlie Parker kick, which has continued through a few other alto players. But the current feeling could also be a byproduct of reading about the push away from CDs back to vinyl, which had me thinking more about hearing this music in the format in which it originally appeared. 

Back also in February, I picked up two albums on Pacific Jazz, one by bass trumpeter Cy Touff and the other a meeting of Chico Hamilton, Jim Hall, John Lewis, Percy Heath and Bill Perkins called 2° East 3° West. Maybe that's why I started wandering around Discogs and started looking at Shank albums. Or maybe it was the write-up about the long out-of-print Mosaic box that compiled all of Bud's early Pacific Jazz albums. It could be all of that, combined with the idea of communing a little with my dad, the person (along with my mom, of course) who first placed Bud in my world. 

Whatever the reason, I pulled out Jazz at Cal-Tech (a live album with saxophonist Bob Cooper which includes an especially rambunctious Chuck Flores on drums) and wanted to hear more of his early stuff. Some of it might be available for streaming, but my idea of new musical discovery doesn't include being strapped to a chair in front of a computer while listening. Purchasing a copy of the Mosaic box seemed a little cost prohibitive. I started trying to figure out how many albums from the set that I already had and tried to do the math and figure out what else would complete it. (The set doesn't have much in the way of alternate takes so it wouldn't be as if I"m missing out on rarities.)

While thinking about this post, I almost forgot that I've already written appreciations of Bud around the time that he died. Here is one of them, which references another one that I had written a few days before. So there's the context. Musically, it starts with these two 10" records, borrowed from my folks collection. 


The quintet session is a pretty good set, with six tunes penned by Shorty Rogers. One impressive thing about these early albums is that Shank didn't rely heavily on the typical mix of blues, ballads and standards. (More on that later.) Rogers' writing also attempts to move beyond the standard harmonic changes. "Shanks Pranks" and "Casa De Luz" might not be standards-in-waiting, but they do stick in your head after. The horns play unison melodies on several of them, which avoids a thin alto/trumpet blend in favor of a sort of thick sound, thanks to Rogers' use of a fluegelhorn. This session was later reissued on Pacific Jazz on a 12" album with another quintet date with saxophonist Bill Perkins. I bought a copy of it off of eBay that was pretty beat up (one song gets stuck in the groove!), which made me wary of albums rated G+ after that. When this Shank kick started rolling, I found a replacement copy locally for cheap that was in much better shape.

Somewhere in my house, I had a cassette dub of Bud Shank and Three Trombones but I was determined to hear the vinyl again, which led to a search through my mom's house. (It took a while but I finally uncovered it.) Bob Cooper doesn't play on it, but he handled the arrangements, and penned most of the tunes. The 'bones are played by Stu Williamson, Bob Enevoldson and Maynard "What Happened to My Trumpet" Ferguson. It's also an upbeat session, full of that West Coast/Birth of the Cool-inspired sororities. The version of "You Don't Know What Love Is" has a really mysterious, dark feel to it. Pity that the folks' record gets stuck during that song too!

It was good to hear those records again but I wanted more. One copy of Bud Shank Plays Tenor had been sitting on Discogs awhile, for $17. A review on allmusic.com called it a nice album, but no great shakes. I frequently went onto Discogs to see it if was still there, and imagined owning it someday. But a few weeks ago, having a nice paycheck from a new job - and seeing a copy in similar condition fetch $90 in an auction - I took the plunge. The record and cover were in great shape, a little worn but in a way that added character to it rather than distracting from it.



This time around, Bud pulled out the standards book, playing classics like "All The Things You Are," "Thou Swell" and "Body and Soul." His regular quartet of Flores, Claude Williamson (piano) and Dave Prell (bass) back him up. Shank's approach to tenor draws on the same type of sprightly melodic attack that can be heard in his alto playing at that time. It's sort of a cool Lester Young-based approach, maybe like Stan Getz without the smoky quality.

On "Body and Soul," a song already done umpteen times prior to this session (1960), he begins by embellishing the melody instead of stating it plainly. By the final section of the chorus, he's stated enough theme to improvise off of it. Williamson's solo has some lounge-y glissandos, but he balances that with some heavy chord articulations too. Around this time, Shank was making albums with Bob Cooper where both put down their saxophones in favor of flute and English horn, respectively, which came to epitomize the lightness of West Coast jazz. (Though having heard some of those albums, they aren't half-bad in retrospect.) Plays Tenor might not be heavy but the melodic swath of Shank's playing isn't lightweight either.



Bud Shank Quartet represents a pinnacle in both the Shank PJ catalog and in the collection overall. The above picture shows how William Claxton's photo of Shank laying on the Sunday comics was used on the original album and how it was re-appropriated (bastardized, perhaps) on a reissue years later. (For a personal story about the latter album, see one of the previous posts linked above.) In some ways, the cover shows how beautifully visual and musical art were coming together in the late 1950s as long playing records were becoming the standard in jazz music.

The album actually came out prior to the Tenor album but my copy just arrived this week, following the other album. It showed a few more surprises that the quartet was taking. Shank played flute on the 10" session with Shorty Rogers, but here he opens the album with flute version of "A Night In Tunisia" which really shows off his chops on the instrument. On a few tracks he plays both flute and alto, demonstrating his ear for sonic shifts within the music. Further, Williamson's "Tertia" is a three-part suite with a slow beginning, a walking blues and a rapid closing. "All Of You" begins slow for the theme, only to cut into an upbeat tempo. Ravel's "Lamp is Low" begins perhaps esoterically with the flute bringing out its classical origins, but it moves into a blowing section with the alto back in place, ready for action. While there are only two originals out of eight tracks (both by Williamson), the approach to the music continues to show fresh approaches that Shank was taking with his material.

Shank of course had a very long and varied career. When he had a crossover hit (with Chet Baker) of the Beatles' "Michelle," it started him on a more commercial path that led to things like California Dreaming, an album I lifted from my parents but still haven't had the guts to play. Along with that came Magical Mystery (which I owned briefly) and A Spoonful of Jazz (yes, Lovin' Spoonful songs, which has been described as being only for the diehard Shank completist). During the '80s, after several albums with the L.A.4, which Shank and Ray Brown admittedly formed to play more accessible (aka lighter) jazz, Shank stopped playing flute altogether and came back as a bopper, with more weight to his sound than he had shown in the early days.

There are still a few other Shank albums on PJ from that late '50s/early /60s period that I'm hunting for. Another quartet session with essentially the same name (with a drawing of Bud on the cover) has been seen on a few sites in various conditions, for somewhat decent prices.  About half of that appears on I Hear Music, but when you hear it in the original form, the way it was meant to be heard, it can heighten your perspective on the session.

New Groove, on which trumpeter Carmell Jones (who later played on Horace Silver's Song for My Father), seems to be the most coveted Shank album from that era, with copies few and far between. Plus there's also a 10" that Shank did with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and a string section. That could go either way and it later appeared on the Mosaic Select box, along with the Shank/Bob Cooper sessions. If I really want to hear it again, I could just check it out of the library.

But there's always the lure of the affordable Pacific Jazz originals, which can take me back to those early days of West Coast jazz. When I get hold of an original, part of the tactile experience is knowing that I'm holding an album that was once heard by someone right after it came out, when all of this music was new.


Happy Record Store Day, I Think

Another Record Store Day is upon us. Another chance to go out and buy records you don't really need, or want. And another chance to try and buy something that sounds really cool, only to find out that your favorite store only has one copy of it, and it's buried in a stack of vinyl being carried around by some shlub who doesn't appreciate it as much as you do.

Sounds pretty cynical, huh? Yes, it is.

I've felt both elated and jaded by Record Store Days in the past. There once was a time that the Attic, a record store in the nearby borough of Millvale, opened at midnight, and a line of people queued around the corner and down the street. Many of them looked to be in their 20s. I forget if it was that night or the next morning when I heard some of these same 20-something saying, "Excuse me," or "After you" when they bumped into me by a rack of RSD merch. Not something that you'll hear from your typical estate sale/garage sale record fanatic.

But I've also come home with records that weren't all that exciting when I got them out of the shrink wrap and put them on. "Why did I buy this?" I also thanked myself for not buying the $15 78 RPM edition of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations." Somehow, I don't think my victrola would have been good for it.

Yet, Record Store Day lives on. And now that the Man is telling us that CDs are out, out, out, records are less of a novelty and more of a legit way to enjoy music again. Sure there are many of us believe that vinyl never went away and that every day can be Record Store Day. But rather than point my finger and say, "I'd told you," I am glad that other people understand.

This week, Pittsburgh City Paper ran an article in which CP writer Meg Fair and I collaborated on a piece about Record Store Day. I admittedly wrote long, knowing that some of it would be cut from the print issue. Consisting of block quotes from various people, it seemed like it was going to explore a few levels of the record industry, the pros and cons of vinyl and finally, offer a few perspectives from local shop owners about RSD. As so often happens, that was a bit much to cover in 900 words divided between two writers. Things got a little diluted.

For the benefit of those who are interested, the article can be found at this link. And here are some finer points that didn't make it into the piece. Along with two local record shop owners, they include guitarist Nels Cline. We spoke last fall to preview an upcoming performance in Pittsburgh. That day, he was waiting to get a test pressing of his new album by the Nels Clne 4. A casual talk about records turned into a 20-minute discussion about his experiences pressing vinyl and the frustrations with a format he loves. (Be sure to read his quote in the CP article.) Gotta Groove Records have pressed vinyl for a lot of local bands. When a test pressing for my my band the Love Letters sounded a little off-center, GG's Matt Earley was able to pinpoint the number of degrees by which it was off and fix it. That kind of perspective needs to be heard on this topic. Without further embellishment...

NOT ALL PRESSING PLANTS ARE THE SAME

MATT EARLEY (Vice President of Sales & Marketing, Gotta Groove Records Inc., Cleveland, Ohio)
We listen to every test pressing and pass/fail it. And we give it a letter grade and keep notes on it internally. Because we do that, over 99% of the test pressings we ship, pass the first time from our customers. Most of the issues that we encounter on them, we’ve already fixed by the time they get to the customer’s hand. When we press the final production copies, we’re listening to every 26th copy off the press. We catch things that would go out to the marketplace if we didn’t take that approach. Really, that is probably one of the more defining things about us. Most plants have a single QA [quality assurance] person and sometimes that can mean a single QA person for 20 pressing machines. We have a QA person for every two pressing machines because we listen to that many records.

Candidly, Record Store Day has never been a huge part of our business. We do some Record Store day titles. I think this year we did around 15. Over the years, we’ve averaged about 15 to 25 Record Store Day titles. So it doesn’t really give us a huge spike. What does give us a huge spike at the beginning of the year is actually tour season. Most of what we do in are not reissues. Most of what we do are new artists,  touring artists. And a heck of a lot of records are sold on the road. So people start ordering records that they know are going to have tour support for, in December and January. Because unofficially, tour season starts in March with South By Southwest and continuing through the summer. We’ve always seen a natural spike at the beginning of the year, tied to tour season. In any given month we do anywhere from 100 to 200 new titles. When you factor in Record Store Day, and add about 15 titles, it’s not a huge part of the business

JEFF GALLAGHER (Juke Records, Pittsburgh)
The jury is still out whether this vinyl resurgence related to younger people is sustainable or not. I’m not sure. I think it goes either way 50/50. But one thing is that has really changed I think is that these folks rarely buy a record that they haven’t heard all the way through and know they want the vinyl record. When I was younger we took a lot of chances on records. Maybe you heard one song, maybe you heard someone talk about a record, maybe you liked the cover. You took a shot on it. We still have regular loyal customers who do that but most of the young people getting into this, they know that they’re going to like that record when they buy it. That’s very different.

THOUGHTS ON RECORD STORE DAY 

GALLAGHER
You should ask me [how I feel about it] on April 22! We did have some conversations here about not doing it because it’s getting difficult to manage for a small shop like mine. It’s very risky because, when I buy this stuff, there’s no returning any of it. So you have to guess what’s right for our store in terms of the inventory that you bring in and the amount inventory.But we’re optimistic that we’re going to have a good day. We’re stocking a lot of the stuff that are smaller pressings in terms of the volume. It’s a touchy thing but we committed to it. We’re going big again and we’re keeping our fingers crossed that by 4:00 in the afternoon, we’ll have broken even.

FRED BOHN, JR. (The Attic, Millvale)
I think [RSD] is a great thing for independent record stores, especially for us. Every year you think it’s not going to get any bigger, but it gets bigger every year and there are more people into it. It gets a lot of people into the store. It’s probably the best form of advertising because you get a target audience of people who are looking to buy records. Record Store Day gives them a chance to see your store, maybe for the first time. Once they see what you have, they come back. It’s not a huge profit maker and I don’t know how many stores make a big profit on Record Store Day because everything is so expensive, But we do it to support our customers who support us year round, and also to get new customers. Last year we opened at 8 a.m., and the end of the line probably got into the store around noon. If you had told me this in 2000, I’d’ve told you that you were crazy! I don’t see 10-year-old people buying Nirvana records in 2018, and all of a sudden there it is.

IF VINYL IS BACK, ARE CDS OUT? 

BOHN
There’s a lot of negative press on CDs at the moment too but that’s still a big market for us also. And the funny thing is, a lot of the people that sold all their vinyl at that time are coming back and rebuilding it again. People should think for themselves and not think what society needs them to do. If you don’t want them get rid of them. If you don’t think you’re going to use them there’s no need to have them hanging around. Records take up a lotta space.

NELS CLINE (Guitarist with Wilco, as well as numerous improvisation groups, including the Nels Cline 4, which just released a new album on Blue Note)
The whole audiophile thing is not my thing either. We used to listen to music on transistor radios and it sounded pretty magical. [Laughs] Put out your vinyl, just please make your compact discs because the improvised music community still makes underground compact discs and sells them at gigs. It’s the only thing they can afford to do. And, hey, at least the stuff’s going to be the right speed.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

CD Review: Caroline Davis - Heart Tonic


Caroline Davis
Heart Tonic
(Sunnyside) www.sunnysiderecords.com

When Caroline Davis heard that her father had a heart arrhythmia, she started doing research on the topic. This turn of events occurred right as the alto saxophonist was finally settling into the New York music scene, having moved there from Chicago. She has studied and played with a wide range of musicians, with alto saxophonist Steve Coleman becoming one of her heroes. Although he has also written music inspired by the heart's function, Davis' work foregoes the knotted complexity of Coleman, creating instead something that feels introspective while still incorporating the different directions possible with the music.

Her solo on "Constructs," a 10-minute suite, represents a good introduction to Davis. Drummer Jay Sawyer sets a rolling tempo that doesn't seem to emphasize a solid downbeat, while the saxophonist's clear, strong tone delivers an extended set of thoughts, flowing initially, but eventually breaking into shorter phrases. As the piece moves forward, the tempo become elastic, eventually going into a vamp that feels like a breakdown, only to conclude in a tranquil denouement.

The album opens with a haunting organ chord that sounds like something lifted from an interlude on Miles Davis' Get Up With It. While keyboardist Julian Shore plays acoustic piano as well as electric counterpoints, this first statement serves as a way to grab listener's attention before "Footloose and Fancy Free" goes in an acoustic direction. The group plays in an understated mid-tempo but Davis' alto still burns during her angular solo. At the other end of the album "Ocean In Motion" drops a funky Rhodes riff into 9/4, added by extra percussion from Rogerrio Boccato.

Trumpeter Marquis Hill complements Davis' lines, creating a rich textures during the themes and frequently playing countermelodies with her. A few tracks have them trading fours in a manner not strictly bound by bar lines. Their exchange in "Dionysian" sounds more like a transcription of a conversation than a blowing vehicle. Following some strong declamatory statements in Davis' solo, the two horns drive home the feeling of the track.

Throughout, drummer Sawyer and bassist Tamir Shmerling sound like they're keeping to the background without getting flashy, but really they're adding essential drive to the music, sometimes playing different time signatures behind the rest of the band. Shmerling doubles Shore's piano line in a few tracks and gets a chance to reveal his own concepts on "Fortunes" in an extended solo, with organ washes and piano accompanying him.

It can be a challenge to take a family member's physical affliction and have it inspire music. There are many pitfalls that can be found on the way to writing. Davis finds a way on Heart Tonic to reflect on the situation and use that to explore her own ideas further. While ttaking a cerebral approach to the compositions, her quartet also brings a good deal of life to her ideas.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

A Personal Appreciation of Cecil Taylor

Playing right now: Cecil Taylor's appearance on Piano Jazz from 1994

I took a series of notes a few nights ago for an album review I was going to post here. Then on Friday, I received the devastating news that Cecil Taylor, the great pianist and figurehead of all that is avant-garde jazz (and more) has died at age 89. Yes, I find it devastating because of Cecil's stature in music, and the fact that he was one of THE few surviving revolutionaries on the level of John Coltrane. (In terms of that large stature, Sonny Rollins is one of the only ones left). But I connected somewhat with Cecil personally several years ago, so his death hits closer to home.

I'm not going to attempt to do a biographical salute to Cecil. For one thing, he probably wouldn't be into that and there are several out there right now that surely do a better job of explaining his approach to the piano and how it changed jazz and the idea of improvisation.

My earliest exposure to Cecil's music came around my senior year of high school. I was hanging around with my friend Steve Heineman, who was always willing to throw something on the turntable to open my ears to new things. (Steve played in punk bands but was well-versed in jazz and prog-rock.) He had a copy of the second volume of the Foundation Maeght Nights album, which picks up where Volume 1 left off, about 30 minutes into a performance. Without any pretense, the record drops you into the middle of a blistering attack on the piano amid wails from the saxophones of Jimmy Lyons and Sam Rivers, topped off with a barrage of drum rolls from Andrew Cyrille. Steve only played about a minute of it to give me a grasp of the intensity, which continues for 34 minutes. And there's still another album's worth of material from that performance. Clearly this pianist required some commitment from the listener.

A few months later I found a copy of 3 Phasis at the library and checked it out. The continuous piece was banded into shorter sections that ranged from soft and delicate to a glorious racket. While some the squonk they produced felt great, at times it got a little too intense for me. Still, I was intrigued.

Fast-forward to my birthday in 1990. My friend John Young, who was living in Charlottesville, North Carolina for a year, made me a tape of two Cecil albums that had been given to him, Conquistador and Live at the Cafe Montmartre (half of what was later released as Nefertiti the Beautiful One Has Come). The tape arrived right around the time that A&M had released In Florescence, a trio album that dared to get the pianist to play music in the five-minute range. I liked that record and played it on my college radio jazz show, but knew that I needed to hear his earlier work.

I practically wore that tape out. The two side-long pieces on Conquistador are astounding in the way they blended ensemble voices in sketchy themes (Jimmy Lyons on alto, Bill Dixon on trumpet, who for years I thought lost his lip during "With Exit" because of the way he was rasping; little did I know that was part of his style) and free improvisation that brings different contours to the music.

Cafe Montmarte scales the group down to just Cecil, Lyons and drummer Sunny Murray (Andrew Cyrille was on Conquistador). It begins with some lyrical gestures from Cecil, which emphasizes how out of tune the piano is, after just a few notes. Throughout the whole album, the trio sounds like they're having a real conversation, one person making strong points while the other two agree behind him. It was this album in particular that made me keep coming back, knowing that it was going to take a while to pick up on everything the group was doing.

By about the tenth listen, while either walking across campus with a borrowed Walkman, or sitting at home in my room, I felt like I got it. That might have been when I noticed that, somewhere in the middle of "D Trad That's What." Murray unceremoniously starts playing in tempo. Together, he and Cecil sound like Mal Waldron and and Ed Blackwell, or something like that. It's not bop, but an outgrowth of what Monk or Bud Powell had done. To some people it might have sounded like noodling nonsense, but I knew better. Something deeper was happening here. I needed to hear everything I could by Cecil, and read more about him.

About a year that happened I received a pull-out section from The Village Voice that coincided with some performance event that was happening in New York. Several essayists wrote about Cecil, describing key sections of his numerous albums. Some of what they wrote made sense, some went over my head, but it made me want to hear those albums, feeling like they would unlock some door and bring some wisdom and insight with it. I still have that Voice pullout somewhere, figuring that times like these would be a good to re-read it.

Then in 1997, my dream came true. Cecil was booked to perform at the Mellon Jazz Festival at a free outdoor show. As a freelancer for InPgh, I was determined to talk to him. Little did I know the herculean task of getting Mr. Taylor to agree to an interview. Twice I got him on the phone, and both times he set up times that we would speak - and blew them off.

After resigning myself to write the piece without fresh quotes from the man, I received a call from Mellon Jazz's promoter, who sneakily patched me into a conference call with Cecil. Outside of hearing Johnny Mathis say my name, there have been few thrills like hearing the maestro say, "Who IS this Mike Shanley?" It wasn't my best interview but I did get a few decent quotes out of him, along with a few haughty laughs when I asked how often he plays in the U.S.

The other info I gained from that talk was that he was interested in visiting the Andy Warhol Museum when he came to Pittsburgh. So the day after his performance, I drew upon my telemarketer's guts, called the Hilton Hotel, got Cecil on the phone and offered to escort him to the Warhol. If I remember correctly, he told me to call back in an hour - which I thought would be a blow off - and when he did pick up the second time, told me to meet him in the hotel restaurant where he would be having lunch.

Still expecting a blow off, I nevertheless made my way downtown and, sure enough found him and bassist Dominic Duval finishing up lunch. "Ah - the writer," he exclaimed as I stood at the table and introduced myself. He was in the middle of telling Duval about the time he tried to collaborate with Ornette Coleman, where their styles proved incompatible. I remember him getting ecstatic about his dessert and offering a bite to Duval, but not to me. Not that I care. I was happy that he paid for my coffee.

Sitting adjacent to this man who could thunder so loudly on the piano, I spent most of my time trying to make out what he was saying, his voice being so soft and low. He came across like an eccentric professor, extremely well-spoken and knowledgeable on a wealth of topics from around the world, and not one to rhapsodize about jazz music or elaborate on the creation of his own work, really. After lunch, he insisted on stopping at the hotel bar for a round, which became two, which meant that eventually, we never made it to the Warhol Museum before closing time.

That night, Thurston Moore was performing under the umbrella of the jazz festival, in an improvisational trio with drummers William Winant and Tom Surgal. Cecil said that drummer William Hooker had mentioned Thurston to him but he didn't know what it was all about. They did make it to the show that night, at Temple Rodem Shalom. The opening Vandermark 5 set really knocked my socks off but I thought Thurston's limitations were on display during his set. It felt like a lot of wanking and little in the way of real improv and connection with his conspirators.

Cecil, who had blasted some big-name jazz people during our conversation earlier in the afternoon, was much more complimentary. As he and Duval waited for their departing cab before the Moore set was over, Cecil gently said that Thurston had an interesting way of using sound and taking it places. At one point earlier in the evening, I ran into the publicist who connected me to Cecil during the interview. I told him that I hung out with the pianist that afternoon and he was really nice and friendly. His response - "Really?!" Maybe I had made a connection with one of the most impenetrable musicians. After all, when we parted ways earlier in the afternoon, he said he was glad to meet me.

Three years ago, I attempted something that I had desired to do for years. Still having a phone number for him, I called Cecil, quickly reintroduced myself and asked if he'd ever written a memoir because I'd like to help him write one. Instead of a quick hang-up, he said he had been considering it. Since I was going to be in New York for Winter Jazzfest and the Jazz Connect Conference, we made tentative plans to speak in person. I packed a few articles from JazzTimes to offer some credibility.

We never hooked up. At the Jazz Connect Conference, a few people reminded me of Cecil's eccentricities and shot my confidence. And the few times I called him, it rolled to voicemail. In fact there might not have been any room on the voicemail too. Not long after this, the story came out about the person who made off with Cecil's grant money from the Japanese government, which made me wonder if I could even get into the inner circle of Cecil Taylor's world now. Stories that appeared in an interview in The Wire last year implied that linear histories had as much to do with his life as following standard chord changes. In other words, nothing at all.

I just feel fortunate enough to have been able to sit at his feet (so to speak) and soak up his aura for those few hours in 1997. It's a nice memory to have while trying to getting lost during a few sides of One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye. 

Thanks, Cecil. I hope you were greeted by Lena Horne and John Coltrane in the next world. I know you adored her, and I'm sure you have a lot to discuss with him.




Monday, March 26, 2018

CD Review: Kris Davis & Craig Taborn - Octopus



Kris Davis & Craig Taborn
Octopus
(Pyroclastic) krisdavis.net

Kris Davis and Craig Taborn may or may not utilize all 20 of their collective fingers simultaneously throughout Octopus. But the sounds they create together often reveal the dense qualities that result when that many fingers are put into use. Whether they're taking turns playing a Cecil Taylor-esque idea in "Chatterbox" (the title is appropriate) while the other cuts loose on top of that idea, or they slowly expand on one of Taborn's three simple "Interruptions" pieces, the music feels dense yet absorbing.

The six tracks were recorded in the fall of 2016 during a tour the two pianists staged together. They hit the road due to the immediate rapport they both felt while recording Davis' Duopoly album, a series of duets with her and eight different musicians. It was the first time she and Taborn had ever played together, and they felt a collective energy as soon as they started.

Taborn and Davis blend so well that sometimes it's hard to tell where one player's part ends and the other picks up. For clarity, Davis is panned towards the left and Taborn to the right. (Her prepared piano ostinatos in "Ossining" gives her away for anyone not as able to separate their voices.) He initially sustains a series of clusters in "Interruptions One" while Davis runs freely. But as it builds, low notes are added to reinforce the chord-like suggestions, and they seem to be coming from Davis, even as her upper register playing seems like its overlapping with ideas from her partner.  Another "Interruption" is blended with Carla Bley's "Sing Me Softly Of the Blues," though once again, the distinction between the two - and the line between composition and improvisation - becomes a vague division.

Davis says in her liner notes that each night's performance was different, with sections of the compositions frequently abandoned in favor of improvised sections that became more and more expansive. Going on that idea, listening to the album might be more rewarding if the track titles are disregarded and it's treated as a spontaneous set of music, created through an intensive dialogue. That way, we're not left wondering,for instance, how much of Sun Ra's "Love in Outer Space" Davis and Taborn actually draw upon. Although it would be interesting to hear and compare these recordings to some of the other ones that Ron Saint Germain recorded each night.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

CD Review: Josh Sinton - krasa


Josh Sinton
krasa
(Irabbagast) https://joshsinton.bandcamp.com/album/krasa

When Jon Irabagon released his album of solo sopranino saxophone performances in 2015 (Inaction is an Action), one scribe went so far as to ponder whether the challenging set of pieces represented the worst album of that year (unlike Irabagon's full-band album Behind the Sky, released at the same time, which the writer decreed as one of the year's best). Inaction was an intense listen, what with Irabagon's skilled extended techniques running wild on the pee wee horn. It seems only fitting that Irabagon's label would up the ante and  release Josh Sinton's set of improvisations on solo contrabass clarinet.

Sinton plays in a series of contexts, including Ideal Bread, a group dedicated to the music of Steve Lacy, in which he plays baritone saxophone. For krasa, which translates to "beauty" in Czech or "color" in Latvia, Sinton recorded at the studio Menegroth the Thousand Caves with metal bassist Colin Marston at the control board. On a few tracks, Sinton uses pick-up microphones and runs the clarinet through a couple amplifiers. This maneuver gives it the visceral sound of a free improv guitar, which only sounds more barbed as Sinton blows overtones and squonks on it. He even produces some feedback two minutes into the opening "Sound."

Without a doubt, krasa gets brutal, ripping a layer or two of skin as it proceeds. Sinton often luxuriates in long notes, enjoying the resonance of his instrument and what the amplification does to it. He also vocalizes through it. But anyone investigating to this type of music doesn't expect sweet lines and will discover the nuances of the performance. Shorter melodic blasts appear in "(prelude to)," which acts like an undistorted balm after the 16-minute opening of "Sounds." "And" starts soft and low, moving in waves before Sinton unleashes a sound like a bowed bass.

So maybe krasa isn't meant for casual listening, but it definitely makes for fascinating listening. The album contributes a new chapter to canon of solo reed albums, in the tradition that goes from Inaction is an Action back to Roscoe Mitchell's Solo Saxophone Concerts.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Live Shows in Review: Ilgenfritz, Moran, Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, Code Girl

Playing right now: Mary Halvorson Quartet Plays Masada Book Two

Back when I started this blog, most of the entries began with the name of whatever I was listening to at the moment that I was writing. Back then I could fire off a set of words while music was playing in the background. These days, not so much. That's due in large part to the fact that I'm usually reviewing an album and I feel like I can't do that while listening to something else. Or even listen the album in question, because my cautious nature makes me feel like I might be missing something if I listen with half an ear....

Anyhow, I have a backlog of photos from the past few weeks of shows, so it was time to post them. First of all, back on Thursday, February 22, bassist James Ilgenfritz came back to town, along with drummer Brian Chase and woodwind multi-instrumentalist Robbie Lee. The performance was presented by Alia Musica and took place at the Mattress Factory.  


The space's high ceilings are hardwood floors served as a good spot, acoustically, for the trio. Unfortunately, I got there late and missed about half of the performance. Right as I was walking in, Lee was setting down an oversized recorder-type instrument. (Later that night, Ben Opie pulled out a picture of Michael Pestel playing such an instrument during the 2008 performance at the National Aviary with Opie, Anthony Braxton and a few other musicians.) 

Before the set was through, though, Lee also played some flute and sopranino sax. Chase, who has also played with local native Andrea Parkins and with groups like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, has some great splatter effect moments on the drum kit. Ilgenfritz, playing a five-string upright bass (with a removable neck, to boot) played some great bowed drones and exciting runs all over his instrument. If only there had been a second set.

Nine days later, Jason Moran and Bandwagon played at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, in a show presented by Kente Arts Alliance. The group began the set in darkness, with Moran setting up the introduction of "Feed the Fire," a Geri Allen composition. Having heard the trio on several albums, it was exciting seeing them live. Nasheet Waits is the type of drummer that propels any group in which he plays. Tarus Mateen, on bass guitar not upright bass, can play rapid lines on his instrument without ever overpowering the group or sounding too busy. Then there's Moran who like his mentor the late Jaki Byard, is well-versed in numerous styles of piano and can draw on any number of them at a moment's notice. Like Byard, this isn't mere mimicry either. He went from Earl "Fatha" Hines to Cecil Taylor and back throughout their evening.

During the set, and afterwards during the talk back with Kente's Mensah Wali, Moran's reverence for Pittsburgh's jazz history continued. "Pittsburgh takes care of its legacy," he said later, offering a reminder not to take the city's musical history for granted. His set included several originals but it also featured revised versions of some classics. He played Thelonious Monk's "Thelonious" with blistering speed. "Body and Soul," a song done umpteen times over the years sounded fresh and different, and nothing like any "Body and Soul" you've ever heard.

A short time later in Lawrenceville, the smaller room in Cattivo (aka the one right above where Goth Night was loudly taking place) was the space to catch the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. This time drummer/percussionist Kahil El'Zabar played with trumpeter Corey Wilkes and baritone saxophonist Alex Harding. Wilkes has been a fairly regular member of the group on visits here, and though Harding came with the group once last year, this was my first time seeing him in Pittsburgh. Several years ago he knocked my socks off as a soloist in David Murray's Big Band at the Detroit Jazz Festival. (When I found out who he was that night, I realized he was a member of the group Grass Roots with saxophonist Darius Jones, bassist Sean Conly and drummer Chad Taylor, who released a great album on AUM Fidelity.)

The evening combined straight ahead tunes like "Bebop," adapted to fit the stripped down sound of the trio, as well as El'Zabar standard's like "Can You Find a Place," where he plays finger piano and keeps a pulse with ankle bells, mixing spirituality with AACM-style soloing. Harding proved that deserves a lot more attention. He can utilize the low down weight of his instrument or lift into the upper register, creating light and graceful moments as needed. He did both that night. Wilkes was gets better and better each time he comes to town. (I took pictures but they got lost when transferring data to a new phone.) PS - Alex Harding is set to come back to Pittsburgh on Friday, April 19.


Mary Halvorson brought her Code Girl project to the Warhol Museum last Wednesday, March 7. The group, as stated in an earlier post, includes the guitarist's Thumbscrew bandmates Michael Formanek (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums), adding Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet) and Amirtha Kidanbi. 


The inclusion of vocals, which frequently veered into torrid wails similar to Shelley Hirsch or Jeanne Lee, occasionally felt a little too unhinged, Kidambi gave a dynamic performance. During "And" she unleashed a long tone with the power of an opera singer, an image that was confirmed by her stance at an angle in front of her microphone. As the set wore, Kidambi's voice seemed to function more as a third voice between Halvorson and Akinmusire, and she easily handled the task of standing between those two.


Akinmusire's part in "And" began with a warm tone that is typically heard from a flugelhorn. But he quickly traded that warmth for some intense tonguing. Later in the set, he straddled a sweet sound with one that sounded like it was coming through a fuzz pedal. I knew he was a great player, but he really blew the lid of the place.

As far as Halvorson herself, the set has to be one of the best performances I've heard from her, up there with her Septet's performance at the 2014 Winter Jazz Fest. (I've seen her other times in Pittsburgh and New York, but these were my favorites.) Her playing was especially intense, whether it was the finger picking of "Pretty Mountain," the indie rock-style of "Storm Cloud" or the raw solos she unleashed during the set. Code Girl was a heavy listen with changes coming at the ears left and right. But seeing the quintet put it all together live (the first show of the tour, to boot), it made a lot of sense.