Friday, April 21, 2017

Interview with Michael Bisio - Preview for April 22 Show


AVRAM FEFER/MICHAEL BISIO
With Caleb Gamble & Joel Kennedy (duo)
Saturday, April 22  
8 pm   $15
Distro, 4614 Liberty Ave, Bloomfield   412-682-0591

Bassist Michael Bisio and I talked by phone at the beginning of this week. Anyone who has seen Matthew Shipp over the past eight years or so probably knows Bisio as the pianist's right hand man, developing an amazing musical rapport that's both visceral and melodic. This Saturday, he comes to town with saxophonist Avram Fefer, who hasn't been to Pittsburgh since about 2005, when he came with pianist Bobby Few.
Michael has led an interesting life, as I found out from our conversation, which follows. I realize there are 1001 things happening tomorrow night, but this show is a good way to kick off the evening. And for anyone reading in other cities, there's mention below of other shows Bisio has coming up with Joe McPhee.
You’re originally from New York and then you went out west. Were you studying classical bass or jazz?

I started life as a classical player. Somewhat late as a professional player, I started playing when I was 17. My first teacher was a very inspirational guy, so I used to practice a lot. At one point after about a year or two, he said ,okay you’re ready to go up and study with Henry Portnoy, who was the principal bassist in BSO [Boston Symphony Orchestra] at the time.. I went up and auditioned. He accepted me but he scared the life out of me at the same time. I didn’t really grow up with that music. I took a lot of time into it in a very condensed space. 

So that summer I was on a scholarship to Chatauaqua Institution, which is on the western boarder of New York State. And I met and studied with the principal bassist of the Seattle Symphony [Jim Harnett], who not only was every bit as good as Henry —I mean, I don’t know if I can say that — but I got along with him. And I needed a change because of life habits I had. So I moved to Seattle. I studied with Jim Harnett.
Like I said I didn’t grow up with that music and there were a lot of social things I didn’t get.

What music did you grow up with?

Jimi Hendrix. The Rolling Stones. My brother was the local Hendrix clone. So I was around a lot of that music a lot of the time, and a lot of what were underground bands at the time like Ultimate Spinach and the Velvet Underground, I always knew who Mingus was. And there were some Albert Ayler records at that time which had a crossover audience. So I heard New Grass. It was a huge influence.

So I went out and studied with Jim. At the same time I studied composition and improvisation with Bill Smith. [Smith inspired Bisio’s CD with Kirk Knuffke,Row for William O] I studied with him and Stuart Dempster, the great trombonist.

When I graduated I was a sub in the symphony. I was a sub in the opera. I was a freelancer. And I was playing jazz music all along as well. Then I got a contract with the ballet. Then it came to a point where I really had to make a decision. Once I knew my family was cool, I walked away from that, in a way. Shortly after that, people couldn’t believe I actually had a career that way. I changed everything I could. In more recent times I’ve reintroduced some of that stuff in a different way.

When you say you walked away from that, was it in the early ‘80s? I know around that time you played with [trumpeter] Barbara Donald

Barbara was really the first person of note to take an interest in me. And Barbara was awesome. And so much so that I probably wasn’t as appreciative as I should have been. …She would fight with me a lot. I was stupid enough to fight back. [Laugh] I guess she heard something in me and she was trying to push those things.

You know, she was married to Sonny Simmons. [Note: Donald passed away in 2013. More info on her life can be found here.] When I played with Sonny…he would say things like, “You’re in the steel foundry of love and I’m going to work you to death, motherfucker!” Smart man, brilliant musician.
[fading in from another discussion} And I was a sucker for all that stuff anyway. A good story? Man, you got me. And Sonny had a billion good stories. 

But ultimately I just…I can’t deal like that anymore. I’m too old for it. I know what I want to do. If it could just be me, Matthew [Shipp, piano] and Newman [Taylor Baker, drums] my whole life, I’d be happy. Because you know what’s going to happen in a business sense, all the time. The music’s always new, always wonderful, always there. 

Which is musically how Avram and I operate too. It’s very stream of consciousness. The tunes we play are mostly Avram’s. He has quite a few memorable things we can refer to in the midst of a set. And so that’s what happens.

Avram and I met in Seattle but neither of us can pinpoint when or where that was. We’ve been playing a loooong time. And Avram was in my Bisio Quartet, when it was Jay Rosen (drums) and Stephen Gauci (saxophone) as well. There are for our five CIMP records with that configuration. Which is also around the time that the duo session happened. Because one time it was a combined session where there was one quartet record and one duo record. There are a couple records on some other labels too.

When you come here are you doing compositions or will it be strictly improvisation?

The compositions have a lot of open space for sure. Hopefully we’ll play a couple tunes of mine. But that doesn’t always happen. I don’t know why [laughs] but it does. So, in bass solos I’ll play my own compositions.

But it’s pretty open. I don’t exactly know what he has planned for this trip. But more times than not, we play in that suite format that Matthew and I do: Everything runs into everything else. You stand up and you start. There’s really no silences, except in rests. It’s not like I’m going to play a tune and stop it and tell jokes or something.   

When did you move back east?

August 2005. Avram and I had played in Seattle, and in the Northwest. Matthew and I met out there but we didn’t play until I came back. We played first in 2007, though I used to live just down the street from Matthew when I first got back.

Prior to moving back, were you doing a lot of traveling across the country, stopping in New York?

I was. Starting in the '90s I had this wonderful association with [saxophonist and trumpeter] Joe McPhee which is… I wouldn’t be me without Joe. He’s one of these people I am eternally grateful to, and is a pleasure to be around, every second of every day. We met about 1994, maybe. He started inviting me back and he would come out west. Starting in the '90s I did come back more and more. Around the time I moved back, my first marriage dissolved and my son was living in Brooklyn. So I was working more on the East Coast than on the West Coast so it made sense to move back.

Joe and I, last time I counted, we were on 18-20 records together. Now I live in the Hudson Valley, so I see Joe quite a bit again. When I get back, we’re playing this club with me, him, Joe Giardullo (saxophones), Billly Stein (guitar) and a painter, Nancy Ostrovsky, are playing on April 27 at the Falcon (find details here). And on April 29 Joe and I doing a memorial service for a children’s book author [Nancy Willard, at Friends Meeting House in Poughkeepsie]. 

Where does Avram life?

Avram’s on the Lower East Side. I live in Kingston, New York.

Do you get to play with him often?

We play three or four times a year. It depends, sometimes more sometimes less. He has a lot of interests. Some of his bands are more rock oriented. Obviously my commitment is to Matthew. That’s about it, as far as playing together.

When you get together is it easy to settle in with him, since you known him so long?

Well, Avram tells a good story, so it’s always pretty easy. Our history is so long that we know each other well. There are not a lot of bad parts about getting older. One [good thing] is the relationships you keep just keep getting stronger. That’s certainly the case with Avram and I. We don’t have to think. I sit at home and I think. And I like to practice. Not everybody likes to practice. Not everybody needs to practice. But I like to practice.

But when I get up to play, it’s not the same process at all. I think for some people it is, but to me it’s just about letting it go. The more I can do that, the more satisfied I am. I don’t even like people to put a lot of demands on me, unless… if someone is going to pay me $1000 a night, yeah they can say what they want. But for the money we’re making, it’s just get up and go. That’s what makes the best music too.

Rich Halley, a great, great tenor player from Portland, Oregon, was just here. Rich and I haven’t
played in 20 years, easily, though it’s probably more like 25 or 30. It was just like we saw each other yesterday. That’s what I look for. 

The choices I’ve made in my life, I’ve realized, a. are my choices, and b. it lead me to a point where I want to be, musically. I’m no longer a hired gun, haven’t been that in a lot of years. All that was doing was preparing me for this, but at the same time it was also teaching me how to hate music. 

My first wife used to say to me, “You always come home angry.” Of course that would just start a fight. But one day, sometime around 2010, I woke up one morning and I thought, Wow, I don’t remember the last time I was angry. So I called her up and I said, “You know what? You were right. I’m sorry.” 

I have this thing: I love music. Yet I hated going to work! And I hated it for various reasons, some of which I didn’t even know. My life has been about cutting things out until I just have this left, which is a whole universe as far as I’m concerned. And it’s great. I love to be able to do it. And I love to play. I’m lucky that I’ve lived long enough to [pause] say this to you! [Laughs] 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Concert Preview: Tobin Sprout in Pittsburgh, the Girlie Show

TOBIN SPROUT
Friday, April 21
Brillobox, 4104 Penn Avenue, Garfield
8 p.m. $14
With DCTV

With so much happening this week, I have a lot I'd like to talk about. So I'm previewing some shows here.



I've used this comparison before, but it bears repeating due to the universal quality of it. A certain level of energy can be felt in a band that is hitting upon something. It could be a new song, it could be the right combination of people locking in with one another for the first time or it could be the feeling a group gets when it realizes that an audience is reacting positively to the music, when they initially thought no one was listening. The music might not be "perfect," whatever that means, but the feeling the band puts forth more than makes up for it.

This is the reason Skip Spence's Oar can sound so liberating. Fresh out of Bellevue, with no producers or bandmates leaning on him, Spence was free to create whatever he felt. It's the way a band feels in the practice space, on numerous occasions. Everyone is setting up and the first person to get behind the kit, or turn on the amp, hits on a riff. Slowly everyone picks up on it and it builds. It could be something pedestrian as the riff to "Gloria" or it could be "Little Johnny Jewel." Maybe half the people in the room don't even know the source material. Whatever it is, it belongs to them, if just for a couple minutes.

This same version of enthusiasm, this sonic je nais se quoi, bursts from the speakers in the opening seconds of Tobin Sprout's first solo album in seven years, and the first since he left Guided By Voices after the reunion of "classic lineup." "Future Boy Today/Man of Tomorrow" doesn't even begin neatly, since a second or two of guitar intro gets cut off. And it almost falls apart as it surges towards a coda, with lagging drums. But with a four-power-chord riff like this one, it doesn't really matter because it feels great.

Sprout, who now lives in Michigan, still utilizes the same lo-fi technique that he used on GBV records (the opening song was supposed to be a GBV song). Guitars overmodulate in some places, while others sound like they were recorded down a hallway, several feet from the microphone. That particular effect makes "I Fall You Fall" and "Tomorrow From Heaven" especially dreamy.

And then there's the piano, which factors into many of The Universe and Me's songs. The recording quality and use of reverb makes it sound like John Lennon's "Imagine" piano deep in the bathtub. Not only does this add to the hazy, dreamy quality of the music, it draws out the wistfulness of the lyrics. In "When I Was a Boy," Sprout tables his more surreal imagery for some honest reflection that dang near comes close to '70s mellow rock. Does that comparison make you uncomfortable? Don't worry, you'll like this. The man has moved into his sixth decade so he has every right to look back as he rocks ahead.

More than one writer has opined that Sprout was often George Harrison to Robert Pollard's Lennon and McCartney in Guided by Voices. His tracks were often an interlude between Bob's massive output, a nice riposte that made you yearn for more. In addition to the opening track, any number of these could have fit on a GBV album. But 14 of them in a row proves that, after all this time, Sprout can still hold his own. Hearing them live can only make them better.


PS In addition to Tobin Sprout's show, just down the hill and around the corner, Hambone's is hosting The Girlie Show: Olde Guarde, with Jenny Morgan, Joanna Lowe, Liss Victory and Sarah Halter. Morgan (who plays Americana) and Lowe (spoken word) founded the Girlie Show four years ago. Victory (of Victory at the Crossroads, playing solo acoustic tonight) and Halter (acoustic prog, also in the heavy Blue Clutch) are newcomers/heirs apparent.

This shindig starts at 9 p.m, with a $5 cover. Hambone's is located at 4207 Butler Street in Lawrenceville.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Last Week: Peter Evans Septet, Jared Sims CD Release

Well, this week, everyone and their mother are coming to town. I'm checking out a lot of shows and previewing a few things in City Paper too. I'll also be preview a few things here over the next few days, so be sure to check back. 

But before I look ahead, I want to write about a couple shows that I saw last week.

Peter Evans, the adventurous trumpet player who played in Mostly Other People Do the Killing, came to the Andy Warhol Museum last Tuesday, April 11. He has recorded with a quintet on the recent Genesis disc, but they expanded to a sextet for the Winter Jazz Fest a few months ago. Now the group is a septet. Left to right in the picture below are Sam Pluta (electronics), Ron Stabinsky (keyboards, electronics), Evans, Jim Black  (drums), Mazz Swift (violin), Tom Blancarte (bass) and Levy Lorenzo (percussion, electronics).


Apologies to Ron, for being obscured in a panorama shot I hastily took at the start of the set. Tom was blocked out by music stands and stood at the back of the stage. But here's a better shot of Swift and Lorenzo. 

The Evans septet only played 45 minutes, but it was a dense set of action crammed into that time. Swift began the set, bowing her violin roughly and Pluta picked up samples of the instrument, twisting and turning it in a manner that look equally visceral and musical. The theater at the Warhol has ideal acoustics and it served the music well. The electronic samples were bouncing off the walls, making it hard to trace it to the source. Lorenzo toyed with Evans's trumpet sounds, which were vicious to begin with.

The music - which flowed as one continuous piece - often had Braxton-esque feeling, with multi-direction playing. But there were breaks in the intensity. Evans muted his horn and Swift added some gentle strums. A slow section featured a lot of reverberated tones moving across the stage. Black, whose facial expressions alternately implied surprise, frustration and fatigue throughout the set, utilized a bow for his cymbals and played, at another time, with a mallet in one hand and brush in the other. A solo that he took sounded like a composition more so than a spontaneous idea. Then again, it could have gone either way.

As a bandleader, Evans is not one to spend most of the time in the spotlight, although he's perfectly capable. He gave Pluta and Swift plenty of room at the start of the piece before the whole band jumped in, with his trumpet steering the course. Swift and Blancarte later played a duet which was equally intense, in part because it was hard to tell one from the other. One started calm, the other frantic and then both went crazy. Evans quickly explored all the sonic potential of his horns (he also played a four-valve piccolo trumpet) during the set, from pops and growls to beautifully rough melody lines. We could have used another 20 minutes of music after a short break.

Friday night I went over to James Street Gastropub to check out Jared Sims, whose CD I wrote about early that morning. He had a different band with him than the one that played on the album, which makes sense because he recorded it in Boston. But these guys were no slouches, to put it mildly. Drummer Brian Wolfe, who is also from West Virginia, played with Sharon Jones and replaced local Dave Throckmorton in Maynard Ferguson's band. Bassist Nathan Peck used to live here, and has lived in New York for over decade. I don't know much about Randraiz Wharton (keyboards) or Ryan Salisbury (guitar), but they were heavy players too. Wharton created some great Fender Rhodes and B-3 sounds on his keyboards, and Salisbury was equally sharp with solos and with chunky rhythm parts, especially when the group covered the Meters' "Cissy Strut." That song could easily loose its mojo if a band uses it to showboat or simply create a party mood. But this quintet stood still and burned, proving that you need precision if you want this to sound bad ass.

The two sets that I saw leaned heavily on Sims' tunes from Change of Address. "Seeds of Shihab" paid tribute to baritone forefather Sahib Shihab (who was also an alto player on one of Monk's Blue Note sessions), combining his playing with electric piano-driven heavy funk. But being a band that knows how to groove, Sims had them run through Lou Donaldson's "Alligator Boogaloo." Like "Cissy Strut" one set later, this group took this music seriously. Sims blew some serious lines, which were tongued, not slurred or honked (as tempting as that might be on the big sax). During Peck's bass solo he based one chorus on chords, moving up the neck with them.

I wished there had been more of a crowd for the Sims Quintet, but it didn't seem to phase them. They gave it their all.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A 21st-Century Look at Art Pepper's Straight Life

It took me about six weeks but I finally finished Art Pepper's memoir Straight Life, which he co-wrote with his wife Laurie Pepper in 1979. It's not that it was so dense that it took me six weeks to finish. My ability to pop open a book and plow through it is severely limited these days. And I'm one of those people who falls asleep while reading, which bugs the hell out of me.

But to sum Straight Life up in one word: zheesh. Pepper was a driving force on West Coast jazz during the 1950s, the premiere alto saxophonist of that scene. He was also the product of a loveless marriage by two people who really didn't know how to raise a child. And like many of his peers, he succumbed to a live of heroin addiction, which was interrupted by stints in the Los Angeles County Jail and San Quentin.

Pepper doesn't spare the reader of any details of his drug use, his sex life, his prison life or his attitudes about people (which get fairly racist and sexist). It's all there in graphic detail. I remember seeing my dad reading this book (chances are, he read the same copy, as we both checked it out of the Carnegie Library, and this copy still has the card pocket on the inside page) and it makes me wonder what Pop thought about all those graphic sexual escapades and drug use. And the anger. This was the '70s, back when men were accepted as toughs, who could freely admit the physical abuse they practiced on women. A particular target comes with Pepper's second wife Diane, who joined him in the world of drugs just to be closer to him. He repeatedly talks about the way she screwed up his life and screwed up on him. Frequent references are made to things that happened "before she died," without ever mentioning when she died, how or how he found out.

These days we're accustomed to the Behind the Music story arc where the fame precedes by a fall to rock bottom, followed by redemption and sobriety along with the greater perspective on what came before. Spoiler alert: that doesn't happen in Straight Life. (The name comes more from one of his best songs, more than his outlook.) It just kind of stops, with some final commentary from friends on how Pepper must have heart because otherwise he couldn't play the way he did. But really, years in prison, failed marriages, even cirrhosis of the liver, a hernia... none of stops him from getting a bottle on his way out of Synannon, back into the world, with more drugs on the way. In listening to his amazing Village Vanguard sessions or Blues for the Fisherman, the latter the sixth two-disc set that's part of Laurie's "Unreleased Art Pepper" series, I thought that he was clean by the time of the recordings. Maybe things had changed by the time of Fisherman (1980), but in the book he says he barely made it to the last night of performances at the Vanguard.

But maybe I'm looking at all of this with a 21st-century perspective on drug addiction. Maybe we know a lot more know about how to deal with addiction issues than we did back then. Maybe people didn't want to face them or really know how. Or to take into account the way childhood affects what comes after. I almost wish my dad, who worked in the mental health industry for a few years and hospital administration prior to that, was here so we could dissect it.

All that being said, one quote that really killed me and made me think, "What are you talking about," comes from drummer Shelly Manne at the end of the book:
"Musicians should really sit down by themselves and realize what a great life they have. They're doing something they want to do. They're being creative. Very few people have an outlet for their creativity. They're getting paid for it, and, when gifted, get paid very well for it. they can travel all over the world, expenses paid. They eat the best food in the world. They have it made, especially when they have talent and they're available and working. To destroy that by being irresponsible, unreliable, which are the main reasons that guys end up down the tubes..."

Say what?! Who is Manne talking about? Sinatra? Dave Brubeck? Miles Davis? Three Dog Night? Maybe musicians that played at Shelly's Manne Hole, the late drummer's club in California, got treated like royalty. But the stories I've read about every jazz musician who has fought to push the envelope, who has really worked on creating something new, always includes the unhappy tales of hustling for gigs, the shady record label people, club owners, managers, booking agents, to name few. Not to forget racial prejudice that is usually there too. Shelly seems a little naive, especially following all the candor that Pepper has laid down, up to this point, which comes about three pages from the end of the book.

In conclusion, the book has made me want to go back and listen to more of Art's work. Despite the demons he was fighting at any given time, he almost always manages to create some really amazing music. And I'm thinking of reading Laurie Pepper's more recent memoir, Art: Why I Stuck With a Junkie Jazzman.


Friday, April 14, 2017

Jared Sims CD Release Show - Friday, April 14


Friday, April 14
James Street Gastropub, 422 Foreland St., North Side
7 pm

Jared Sims keeps interesting company. While living in Boston, he roomed with Charlie Kohlhase, the top-notch composer and bandleader who plays the same instrument at Sims - baritone saxophone.While studying at the New England Conservatory, he and his mentor Allan Chase, formed a band called Blow-up, which is dedicated to the music of Serge Chaloff, who also played the big horn.A list of Sims' collaborators runs the diverse gamut from Han Bennink to Anat Cohen to the Temptations. On his last album, Layers, he kept himself company, layering a range of saxes and other reeds in a set of Ellington, Monk and Mingus.

Change of Address finds him in a more contemporary bag, but that's no slight against the man or the music. Again, he's in interesting company. Drummer Jared Seabrook is the sibling of guitar and banjo maverick Brandon Seabrook, and a part of Seabrook Power Plant. Bassist Chris Lopes plays with guitarist Jeff Parker in the trio that recorded Blue Light In Winter and Like-Coping. His also married to this album's organist, Nina Ott. Guitarist Steve Fell, another Boston resident, rounds out the group.

The core of Fell, Lopes and Seabrook start out keeping the sound lean and groovy, but they're not here to sit back and relax. They move with Sims, who comes up with a diverse set that takes advantage of the baritone's range, without spending too much time in the bottom end. Ott does an excellent job of straddling atmospheric tones and greasy chords.

The line to "Ghost Guest 1979" has a mysterious air that could have played on tenor. But the crisp baritone delivery gives the minor tune more bite, and makes a great contrast to Fell's wah-wah guitar line. Sims throws in a harmonic twist to the theme of "Lights and Colors" that's simple, but it bends the ear in a catchy manner that deepens the feel of the track. The meditative flow of "Leap of Faith" delivers the most compelling moment of the album, with a rubato baritone melody backed by guitar and organ - two instruments not usually heard in a loose setting - that sounds at times reversed and evocative of space transmissions.

The album title Change of Address refers to Sims' move back from the Boston area to his alma mater West Virginia University in Morgantown, where he serves as Director of Jazz Studies. Being so close to Pittsburgh, he might be on his way to becoming a fixture here. (Maybe he already is, and I've just missed him.) I'm not sure who will be with him for his CD release, but regardless, check it out.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Last Night: Non-Punk Pittsburgh, Rock Against Trump

Last night was a bit of a whirlwind, in which I started off feeling tense and anxious, but ended up feeling energized and positive about a number of things.

The "Non-Punk Pittsburgh" art show opened last night at the gallery SPACE in Downtown Pittsburgh. Curated by local musician Dennis Childers and photographer Larry Rippel, it featured blown up reproductions of photos that Larry and a cast of dozens took during the first wave of the local punk scene, from 1979 to about 1983. Many of the pictures appeared in a zine that Bill Bored aka Bill Von Hagen published back around that time. (Bill was in one of the earliest bands, the Puke, and later the Cardboards and the Cynics). At some of the RePunk events, slides shows were set up to show the pictures. But it was great seeing them in such high definition.

Plus, it's also great to see these photos again and to run into some of the people who were in the pictures. The friends that have died this year already have made me think harder about, and appreciate, works like this. It makes me think of how mortal we all are. In fact I was supposed to interview Dennis Childers earlier this week and he never showed up.At first, he didn't reply to my voicemail or texts. Thinking about some serious surgery he had last year, part of me started to worry a little. I hope he's okay and that there's nothing seriously wrong.

A few hours later, I received an apologetic text. Turns out he got hit hard by the flu bug, went home and fell asleep, missing our time. So it was serious, but not deadly serious.

There was some music provided by Zach Keim (of the Nox Boys, soon to be a solo artist on Get Hip) and a band featuring Childers, his former Carsickness bandmate Steve Sciulli and a few other people. But I had to get over to the Funhouse at Mr. Smalls to play a Love Letters show. Also, I had to get some food and coffee in me. Naturally I stayed at SPACE longer than I should have, talking to folks about the photos (pointing out my brother to people, one of whom said his youthful look resembles my son; see below), hearing stories about what these photos mean to people, and swapping stories about records from that era.



Prior to showing up at SPACE, as I mentioned I was edgy. I meant to bring a Love Letters record along to give to Gregg Kostelich (Get Hip/The Cynics) who was DJ'ing. When I realized I left it in the car, I was walking under an overpass and my expletive echoed down the street, and was probably heard by the folks coming out of the Amtrak lot.

The conversations at SPACE helped swing me in a more positive direction, though. From there, the drive across the Allegheny River and up Route 28 wasn't too bad or too long. But upon entering the Funhouse (the more intimate, upstairs room of the concert hall located in a former church), I was greeting by a weird sensory experience. In the past it was usually cigarette smoke that hit the nose upon entry. Last night, it was the smoke of cooked ground beef. Strange times.

The event was the first Rock Against Trump show, organized by Evan Knauer of ATS. Along with them and us Love Letters, the bill featured Raised by Wolves and Qlitterati. Jen Saffron, local activist and arts educator, served as our enthusiastic emcee. Raised by Wolves features Evan's wife Melissa and guitarist Chris Carnevali, who both played in the Fuzzy Comets, along with bassist Justin Brown (who I think might've been a Comet at one point) and drummer Tracey Whorton. Their music focused on Melissa's vocals, but the songs were pretty dynamic. Chris was playing an electrified acoustic, which sometimes wasn't loud enough to match Justin's bass, but it was a good time.

Our set went really well. I had thrown the idea to the band of seguing nearly the whole set together, making it more like a suite. That is, a suite inspired by the likes of the Minutemen or Husker Du. To hit a little closer to home in terms of style, my touchstone would probably be the Volcano Suns. I saw them several times and while they might not have played one big set like those other two bands, I always loved to hear their first song roar out of the gate, to be followed immediately by the next one. Those first two revealed a good bit of confidence and cohesion on their part, which set the standard for the rest of the set. And that's the way a good set should feel.

There were a few gaps amidst the songs we were trying to segue, but that still meant they came off as having minimal breaks in between. When I started the songs, they were definitely coming one after another. After our last show, I wasn't too sure how I was feeling about the whole idea of playing out again, but tonight made it worth it. We even had a decent crowd of people listening. Before our first song, Mike did a little introduction about how we're against Trump but we're also for a lot of other things. He mentioned Dave V and Karl Hendricks and the passing 24 hours earlier of Don Rickles. Along with that I was thinking back on seeing Evan play with Da Shunts at a Rock Against Reagan show in 1983. That in turn made me wonder how much of my writing and onstage delivery was inspired by seeing Evan with ATS during all those formative years.

While ATS headlined, the evening really belongs to Qlitterati, a supergroup of sorts featuring three charismatic vocalists - Phat Man Dee, Christiane D and Gena [there should be a tilde over the n, but I can't get it to work] Musica. Highly charged, politically and socially, their set was funny, racy, intense and really tight. One audience member thought some of the music was like Frank Zappa, which might be true, but it added the wild force of the Slits, in the vocal department. Add to that some incisive, wry observations that you'll only get in Pittsburgh, and you might have half an idea of what they're about.

By the time ATS hit the stage I think I was on my third drink, but even if I hadn't been, they still probably would've sounded great. With Steve Seel on board semi-permanently as second guitarist, and Downtown Steve Brown playing trumpet for most of the set, they banged out a bunch of newer songs, some written in the wake of #45 taking office. Plus, Evan pulled out "Dream Song," or whatever it's actually called. It dates back to Da Shunts but the surreal, apocalyptic/metaphorical imagery of the US Steel Building falling across the Allegheny River seems just as relevant today. 32 years after their inception, ATS is still writing new chapters.


Incidentally, Evan is organizing a Rock Against Trump show every first Friday of the month. The next one is Friday, May 5 at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern.

As I was writing this I realized that I never closed out my bar tab, so that kind of sucks, but oh well. I'll do it soon.  

Saturday, March 25, 2017

CD Review: Lisa Mezzacappa - avantNOIR


Lisa Mezzacappa
avantNOIR
(Clean Feed) www.cleanfeed-records.com

Maybe it can be attributed to a 21st-century perception of it, but the film noir genre holds a great number of charms: the stark quality of black and white cinema; the mix of characters, who are usually painted in broad strokes; the suspense that holds a story together; the ability of the characters to express a great deal in a minimum of words, a lot of it coming from facial responses. And when they talk - ooh, the sharp dialogue!

It lends itself to music, which can evoke much of the above characteristics with dry, vibrato-free vibes, honking saxophones, chunky guitars and propulsive rhythm sections. Lisa Mezzacappa immerses us in the thick of it on avantNOIR. She might live in the Bay Area, but the music would seem to depict pure and gritty Downtown Manhattan, where she grew up.

However, the eight tracks on the disc were actually inspired by novels, rather than the cinema. Further, Dashiell Hammett's 1920s crime fiction took place in San Francisco, so the images of private dicks scouring the Bowery is slightly inaccurate, at least for some of these tracks. Paul Auster's New York Trilogy also inspired the bassist's writing, although those stories were penned in the 1980s, years after the heyday of film noir. Regardless of their origins, Mezzacappa has used the source material to create the soundtrack to a film that hasn't been shot yet.

Along with her acoustic bass, Mezzacappa's gang includes Aaron Bennett (tenor saxophone), John Finkbeiner (guitar), William Winant (vibraphone, percussion, Foley sound effects), Jordan Glenn (drums) and Tim Perkis (electronics). The first four tracks are grouped together to feature characters and locations out of Hammett's work. "Fillmore Street" functions like an economical, opening salvo. It's followed by "The Ballad of Big Flora," which opens with a foreboding bass solo, evoking the notorious dame with a quality that puts Mezzacappa's instrument off in the distance, peeking out of an alley, before a stop-start mood begins.

Both of these tracks recall the equally sleazy undercurrent of the Lounge Lizards or the Jazz Passengers. Finkbeiner's guitar recalls Marc Ribot's dry attack, though his tone avoids the brittle, sawed off quality. And Mezzacappa's crew stakes out their own territory thanks to the inclusion of samples and electronics. The static in these tracks often adds a percussive quality to the music. And if you listen to "Medley on the Big Knockover" while driving, beware of the blaring car horn in the first 30 seconds. It's mixed in such a way that it sounds like it's coming right at you. Not since the opening scream in John Zorn's "Spillane" has a sound effect had such a deceptive feel.

"A Bird in the Hand" takes the connection to the source material a step further by including dialogue from The Maltese Falcon in the piece. Whether it's actually Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Greenstreet is hard to say. But the inclusion serves a purpose. "Ghosts (Black and White, then Blue)" features Winant using one of those Foley effects - a manual typewriter (he also uses a rotary phone and hotel desk bells elsewhere). Together with the tune's slow, ominous spy riff, it creates the idea of the story - and by extension, the whole album - reaching a denouement, with a detective typing up his final reports. But it gets loud five minutes in, with Finkbeiner finding room to wail once more. And things aren't over until the group gets through "Babel," which features some disembodied backwards voices reminding us that noir usually doesn't end up wrapped in pretty bows.

While the sound of other dark lounge bands recur through the album, the comparison feels more like a mark in Mezzacappa's favor, proving her skill at storytelling through music. The band seems to be having a blast too. Saxophonist Bennett often gets to lay back and set the scene but "Quinn's Serenade" gives him a chance to cut loose. Winant continually works well with him and Finkbeiner, for that incisive noirish mood. Aside from her solo in "Big Flora," Mezzacappa stays out of the spotlight most of the time, offering strong support and letting the group as a whole get noticed.

The bassist plays in a number of projects in the Bay Area, of which I've heard two: Bristle, a wild chamber group; and Cylinder, a quartet with Darren Johnston (trumpet), Aram Shelton (reeds) and Kjell Nordeson (drums), who released an excellent album on Clean Feed in 2011 and are probably disbanded since Shelton left the country. More on her vast c.v can be found at www.lisamezzacappa.com. Her latest effort shows the diverse of her skills as a writer and leader, and should be investigated.

One doesn't have to be fan of old time radio shows like Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar or tv classics like Darren McGavin's portrayal of Mike Hammer. But as a fan of both, I was slayed by these cats.