Monday, December 11, 2017

Sunny Murray - An Appreciation

A longer version of a story that I mentioned on Facebook recently....

Dateline: June 13, 1998. In Room 322 of Duquesne University's Music School - not even an auditorium, just a study room - one of the legends of free jazz drumming blew into town, along with a lesser-known but equally significant practitioner of "the new thing" on alto saxophone. The drummer was Sunny Murray, the saxophonist was Sonny Simmons.

Six years earlier, I told my brother John that, on a recent visit to a used record store, the woman behind the counter was playing an album by Albert Ayler, and it was the most annoying thing I ever heard. Because I have a memory for things from that era, I can tell you that we had this conversation at a Burning Spear concert at the Stanley Theater, waiting for the headliner to come on.

"Albert Ayler is bad, man," John told me. "What you need to do is get one of his albums, read the liner notes and really listen to it." Back then, John's word was a good as gold when it came to music. I lucked out soon after, finding a copy of Ayler's Vibrations album, which is probably the only record by the saxophonist at that time that had insightful liner notes. (They were written by future Mosaic Records founder/Grand Poobah of jazz reissues Michael Cuscuna.)

John's advice worked and the album caused a seismic wave in my thinnking, which it took me years to put into words. One of the key elements on that album was Sunny Murray's drumming, which had nothing to do with time keeping. It consisted of spastic snare cracks and cymbal splashes but it had an internal logic. A few years later, I found Murray's ESP album as a leader. It was even more anarchic (or should I say liberated from tradition) than any Ayler album where he played. As crazy as it sounded, I knew I needed it to own it.

Back then (1985), there was still a lot of mystery around this music. I listened to it as much as I could. Heck, I was more familiar with Murray's work with Ayler than I was with Elvin Jones' playing with John Coltrane. Several years would pass before I finally heard Murray with Cecil Taylor. (A friend made me a cassette of the Cafe Montmartre single album on Fantasy, which I played non-stop until it started to make sense to me.) It wasn't easy to come across a Sunny Murray album on ESP. Most of the Ayler records were being reissued on labels from other countries, but it was still on the fringe. Most people I knew didn't understand it and didn't want to give it any time. I read what little I could find about him to see what other people thought of him. His name dropped in the liner notes of Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch, which proved that he was someone to take seriously.

So when it was announced that Murray was coming to town, I considered it a big deal. This guy was a legend. Played with one of the big groundbreakers.

But here he was, touring in a van with Simmons and a young guy (who was probably the driver) and playing in a student room at Duquesne. Did he jam econo like the Minutemen or was this musical injustice?

It gets better.

Two local duos opened the show - Ben Opie & John Purse, and Anne LeBaron & David Keberle. (With apologies to both, my memories of their sets are fuzzy.) After the second one finished, I was talking to the guy who put the show together, Murray approached him. He said the drum kit provided for him was not the size that he requested.  "It was the only one I could get," the guy said.

"It's not a question of what you could get, it's what you're supposed to get," Murray told him, and stormed off.

Back in Room 322, Murray started to grouse to all who would listen about the turn of events. I can't recall how long it went on, but I would guess it was 20 minutes. "If that happened to Paul Motian, he'd say, 'I'm going back to the hotel,'" he said, imitate Motian's walk. It wasn't clear at first if he was going to follow Motian's lead and split or if the show was going to happen or not. The owner of the drums set them up while Sunny ranted on. Sonny Simmons, dressed in what I recall being a brown suit, stood there, cradling his alto and looking on, not saying a word.

Over the years, a few people who were there said that Murray was an arrogant asshole. He wasn't amusing to them, and he turned the whole thing into a rant about racial injustice, which they weren't buying. If he didn't like the U.S., why didn't he just stay in Europe? He also took a snarky swipe at drummer Susie Ibarra, who had just come into prominence a year or two prior.

Aside from the cheap shot at Ibarra, I've always felt that he had every right to be pissed off that night. Just because he's touring like an indie rocker doesn't mean he should be shafted. I mean, in the hierarchy of free jazz drummers, Sunny Murray is somewhere in the Top 5. He should  have the drum kit he requested. You wouldn't pull that on Elvin Jones. Or Art Blakey. Or Tony Williams. If I was written about in such high praise, I'd be pissed too that I couldn't the gear I wanted.

Eventually, he sat down and the duo hit. The opening monologue seemed to add some extra combustion to their set, which was built on Simmons' American Jungle album that had come out within the previous year. I was finally able to see that signature drum style happen, mere feet from where I was sitting. Being able to watch Murray play, it sounded familiar but the visuals helped it all make sense. It didn't just seem like anarchy. The high-hat cymbal trembled while he was playing. It might have even fallen over once or twice.

After they were done playing, Murray immediately walked away from the kit into the adjacent student room and shut the door. I asked the young guy from the tour if he might be coming out to meet people and sign albums. He gave me an exhausted shake of the head. "Well, tell him we love him," I said. Dude seemed surprised by this statement but said he would. With that, I caught a bus home.

Sunny Murray was on my list of musicians that I hoped to meet someday. I don't know how receptive he would have been to a conversation, but it would have been worth a try. (I heard interview excerpts with him on the ESP website so he could be straight forward in conversation.) But at least I got to see him perform. And, man, did he perform.

Rest in peace, Mr. Murray. Thanks for blowing my mind.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Talking to Nels Cline

I'm the lucky writer to have two pages of copy bestowed on me in the current issue of Pittsburgh City Paper. That is, everything I wrote this week is spread over the first two pages of the arts section. First, there is a column about the release of guitarist Chris Brokaw's Canaris on vinyl by Pittsburgh's Omentum label. Then I wrote a double-feature about upcoming appearances by drummer Louis Hayes and, two days later, by Nels Cline. (Prior to interviewing the latter two guys, I did an interview on Thanksgiving night for a different article: I spoke with Archie Shepp. But that's another story.)

Both Hayes (who comes to town this Saturday, the same night as Brokaw) and Cline (next Monday) were a blast to speak to. Cline in particular was something because we spoke for nearly an hour - and the first twenty minutes had nothing to do with the trio that is coming to town (him, ROVA saxophonist Larry Ochs, drummer Gerald Cleaver). We covered a lot of ground, which makes sense considering the wide scope of his music, from his free improv excursions up through his spot in Wilco, with whom he's played for 13 years. If you want to travel on the bridge from experimental jazz to punk rock, check out "Confection" on the Nels Cline Singers' 2007 album Draw Breath. He likes Pittsburgh too.

Because of that, I'm doing my usual thing of reprinting sections of our conversation that either didn't make it to CP or got abbreviated in the process.

How far back do you and Larry go? 

It goes back to the '90s, I guess. But I’ve been aware of Larry and ROVA since they began. I didn't actually come to play with them until around 2000, sometime like that. The first time I ever played with the ROVA guys was a concert they were doing in San Francisco. And I could be wrong about this. It was ROVA members interacting in different combinations with various improvisers. In a little theater sorta near the M. Carla Bozulich [of the Geraldine Fibbers] and I went and joined them, along with [drummer]Ches Smith.

Then I started the Singers. I started playing in the Bay Area with [drummer] Scott Amendola a lot, either with the Singers or with his band. We would do shows with ROVA. And ROVA would sit in. Kinda like a less structured, more accidental events. Then we did the Celestial Septet, which was ROVA plus the Singers. I think the first time I officially played with ROVA was the Electric Ascension concert in San Francisco that became a compact disc [This recreation of John Coltrane's Ascension was recorded in 2003, released in 2005].

What do you like about playing with Larry?

I hate to sound like this, because he’s not a young guy. He’s actually older than me, which is a rare event in my musical life these days. He’s old school in that he can refer to a certain vernacular on the saxophone that one doesn’t hear very often, at this point . Particularly in the way that he can reference Albert Ayler in his playing, I think. And his awareness of his antecedents, not just Ayler and Coltrane but Archie Shepp. I would think that a lot of these people have somehow gone through Larry’s aesthetic world. Aside from the fact that he’s a personable guy and he plays his butt off, that’s what I like about him.

This seems like our third winter that we're going to do these little tours. This is the longest of the three. But the first time we played,  I don’t remember what time of year it was but I think it was wintery. It was at a place here in Brooklyn called Jack. Larry just happened to be in town and said, "Hey, do you want to do a trio with me and Gerald Cleaver?" And Gerald and I had talked about the possibility of someday playing together so it worked out. We just went and played for- I don’t know, 30 people - and had a blast.
Larry decided that since he tends to come out this time of year, maybe we should try to play some gigs. It’s really that simple. And then he books the gigs. I try to get the minivan and that’s it. We just do it. We don’t have a recorded document yet, although there’s a live recording from last year that Larry said he’s pondering doing something with. We don’t have a moniker and for some reason we can still get gigs! (Laughs)

It’s really fun. It’s pretty unpredictable in part because Gerald is a really unpredictable player. Some nights – I think it’s the recording that Larry likes – Gerald is playing beats almost the whole time. I think a lot of people probably wouldn’t expect that. They’d expect free jazz drumming etc etc. Gerald might just play a 4/4 beat for 10 minutes. He is completely unpredictable in that way. But it always seems to be some really great decision.

I love playing with Gerald because he can do so many different things. But his own aesthetic is quite  unpredictable. It’s challenging and it’s really cool. I wish I could say something more articulate about it. but I’m still learning about his playing and digging it. [Cline mentions a show where he and Cleaver played Pat Metheny songs, in front of Metheny] That was a little unnerving. But my point in mentioning it is how incredible Gerald sounds playing that music too. I'm just really learning how much Gerald can bring. And I also like his own music, his composed music.

So when Gerald does something like playing a 4/4 beat, how would you respond to it? Would you lock into a groove, would you go against it?

It’s such a good question. It’s one that I can’t answer. I guess sometimes I do tend to go with it, knowing that Larry is not going to, all of a sudden, start playing Junior Walker. He’s not going into his King Curtis bag. So why not? I can just play or create some sort of loop that might almost be in time and that usually sounds pretty cool against a groove.

But it depends on the dynamic level that we are accumulating or working from, the mood of the moment. There’s no set strategy. The strategy is to react with some kind of salient ideas that will push the music forward without me trying to steer it or bend it to my will.

I don’t know. I can’t answer your question succinctly. All I can do is say that, yeah, sometimes going with the groove and locking with it can be really cool, especially if Larry decides to smear crazy arrhythmic stuff over top of it. That could be a really good sound. Conversely. if he decides to play a rhythmic figure, that could free me up to not play rhythmically. We have to be on the groove, is what I’m saying. I really love free improvisation. It’s probably the only area of music that I guess I feel confident or relaxed. Music generally tends to be pretty hard for me. But just starting from zero and going, is my fave zone. Particularly with individuals that one can  feel, at the end, that something satisfactory or inspiring has been created [with them].

It surprises me that you'd say that music is hard for you, considering you have such a command of different styles.

Well, I’m a polymath and I’ve done that. Certainly it was not my goal when I was younger. When I was younger, because it was the '60s through the '70s, all I wanted to do was my own music, which involved improvising but also involved composing. That’s what everybody was doing that I was listening to. Progressive rock, jazz-rock fusion, free jazz, I think that I and my friends, from that era, were all working towards creating our own music. Instead, over time that became untenable to being in Southern California doing that  - or any major American city other than New York, Brooklyn and Queens.

You have to start doing other things in order to keep playing. I worked retail jobs for 18 years. But I was still playing and trying to do just what I wanted to do. With the resurgence of interest in rock music - after losing interest in the early to mid '70s - I just sort of realized that, in order to feel like I was doing what I wanted to do, liking the guitar in particular, I ended up being more of a stylistic chameleon person. But that sort of was an accident. I think it was because of a desire to play with a lot of different kinds of people and finding it satisfactory or inspiring to get into their aesthetic world and make their music come to life.
It’s just a challenge that I try to lead because I love music. I love playing. That doesn't mean I'm confidant doing it!

Has playing with Wilco helped boost the profile for your own music, or do they operate on parallel lines? 

Definitely helped, there's no doubt about it. Playing with Wilco changed my entire life. I was going through quite a struggle to survive, prior to joining Wilco. But it's interesting, the year I [joined, 2004] was the year I started playing a lot more playing in general with people that had no inkling of Wilco, no knowledge of my so called avant-rock side. A lot of stuff started happening. But there’s no doubt that the awareness of me or my playing exponentially exploded with Wilco.

And the direct effect of that happening or people knowing me on the street  - which happens quite a lot - is that when I play concerts with Larry and Gerald, the number of audience members that show up is probably twice as much than otherwise. And it’s not because all Wilco fans are into everything I do. I always think that they’re curious and also supportive of me. They’ll come out even if they don’t think they’re going to like it, they’ll come out and see what it is I’m going to do. That changed dramatically. If you’re on tour in your minivan in Cleveland, the different between 50 and 100 is huge. And since joining Wilco, it’ll be 100 people rather than 50.

Without pandering, I love Pittsburgh.  It’s been a long time since I’ve played anything other than a Wilco show in Pittsburgh. I’m looking forward to it.

I remember seeing you with Mike Watt in the '90s, and you played your guitar with a whisk.

A lot of people remember the whisk. I don’t use it anymore. But I still have it. I've gotten it down to a roughed up bottle neck and a spring. That’s pretty much the two main items [I use], outside of making false bridges with chopsticks and alligator clips to change the overtones. But primarily just down to the spring and bottle neck. I’ve got a little bag f tricks that I carry around.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

CD Review: Wadada Leo Smith- Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk/Najwa

Wadada Leo Smith
Solo: Reflections And Meditations On Monk

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith continues to produce new works at steady clip, paying tribute to past masters through original compositions which, in the case of the first album, are balanced by select works by Thelonious Monk. Leave it to him to interpret the great pianist in a solo trumpet recital. The second album, while deeply rooted in the sound of electric jazz from an earlier period, also rises high in both execution and energy.

An entire album of just one instrument will always challenge the listener, unless the instrument is the piano. My attraction to them lies in the wonder of how the performer is operating - whether they hear a rhythm section or any kind of accompanist in their head, whether the path forward is clear or tangled. With the four Monk compositions on Solo, the listener has the advantage of knowing how the music could sound, and to investigate how Smith works with it.

He picks four of Monk's ballads for examination: "Ruby My Dear," "Reflections," "Crepuscule with Nellie" and the old classic "'Round Midnight." Smith, like Monk a very economical player in terms of how many notes are needed, takes his time with these themes. "Ruby My Dear" sounds like an intimate, romantic conversation. For as many times as we've heard "'Round Midnight," Smith's honest rendition comes feels passionate and gives it with an original stamp. Knowing that he's all alone with the other two tracks, at least one of which ranks as my personal favorite, the trumpeter unleashes all the nuances that make them such great songs.

Monk was always praised for the way he used space in his solos and Smith follows the pianist's lead in the four originals. Each has a typically lengthy Smith title, touching on different aspects of Monk's colorful life. The best of these would have to be "Monk and His Five Point Ring at the Five Spot Cafe" and "Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium - A Mystery." The latter - inspired by a dream Smith had about the two pianists visiting the ballpark during a return visit Powell made to New York after it had been built - moves along steadily, straddling open space with as Smith follows a course he has charted, eventually reaching some high long tones, which he naturally executes with his impeccable tone. In the "Five Spot Cafe" piece, he moves between low and high flutters, with more long tones in the upper register. It might not put the listener in the Five Spot, back when Monk and John Coltrane were coming into their own, but that's not the idea. Maybe it's not an easy listen either, but Solo certainly has an absorbing quality overall.

It says a great deal about Smith's skill as a bandleader that he can include four guitar players in a band that compliment and add to the sound rather than getting too busy or turning the sound into a harmolodic mudbath. Najwa features Michael Gregory Jackson (who once released an album on ESP that included Smith), Henry Kaiser, Brandon Ross and Smith's grandson Lamar Smith all on guitars. Pheeroan akLaff is on drums, with Adam Rudolph on percussion.

The most eccentric element of the group is not the leader's brash trumpet, cutting a path through all those strings and multi-directional rhythms, but bassist Bill Laswell. His flanger effect takes things back to the '80s, with a sound that evokes both the fusion albums of that era as well as English punk bands that were playing what would officially be considered goth music in the following years. It isn't the type of bass one might expect piece paying homage to John Coltrane, and while it makes sense in works dedicated to Ornette Coleman and Ronald Shannon Jackson, the rubbery sound takes some getting used to.

But what a sound it is. Aside from the title track - a three-minute work with muted trumpet and droning backgrounds, dedicated to a lost love - each work has a lengthy title and lasts at least 10 minutes, moving through different sections. "Ohnedaruth John Coltrane: The Master of Kosmic Musi and His Spirituality in a Love Supreme" begins free, later reshaping into a mid-tempo funky vamp. One of the guitars sounds like a phantom saxophone flutter-tonguing from beyond. Several brief guitar solos pop up, with each player respecting the space among the others.

The tribute to drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson delivers some of the album's strongest music. Drummer akLaff sounds at first like he's playing freely but as it proceeds, it becomes clear that he's setting a tempo, albeit one with a highly complex foundation. Smith and one of the guitars state a theme while the rest of the band rolls along underneath them. After this energetic display, "The Empress, Lady Day: In a Rainbow Garden, with Yellow-Gold Hot Springs, Surrounded by Exotic Plants and Flowers" works as the perfect closing statement, a subdued tribute to Billie Holiday with some acoustic guitars in it.

Najwa can be just as challenging as Solo and even more enthralling. Both need to be heard.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Matthew Shipp Trio & Thoth Trio at the Andy Warhol Museum

$15 for a national touring jazz group, with a strong local opener. Imagine that: $7.50 for the Matthew Shipp Trio and $7.50 for Thoth Trio. (One could say you're paying for Shipp and getting Thoth for free, but that sort of shortchanges the locals, implying the "hey, I can't pay you but imagine the exposure you'll get" idea, which WAS NOT the case anyway). What a deal!

And people came to the Andy Warhol Museum for it, selling out the room within 30 minutes of the start of the show. I felt bad because one of my friends to whom I sent an email, telling them about it, was one of the folks who had been turned away. But it was encouraging that there were around 130 people who came out to check out the music. (The couple next to me left after about 30 minutes of Shipp's set, so maybe a few people didn't get into it, but getting bodies in seats is arguably most of the battle.)

Shipp comes to town with bassist Michael Bisio on a fairly consistent, annual basis, but it's been several years since he played here in the trio setting. And it's been 10 years since he played at the Warhol. (That 2007 appearance was a solo show.) Last Friday was the first time he came with both Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, who has played on his last two trio discs. They sat down without a word, dove into the music and didn't stop for an hour, playing a set drawn from his original material, seguing each piece into a long suite. 

The pianist strikes the keyboard using his whole arm, making it look more physical that most pianists. Even with that method, his sound remains graceful, able to go from delicate phrases to hard thunder easily, but always with the same amount of exertion. During the snaky "Instinctive Touch" he played with head down, barely looking at the keys, still managing to product an endless flow of thoughts. 

Baker is an ideal third piece of the Shipp puzzle. Beginning on brushes, his style added an extra sound that almost served as a melodic addition to the music. Anyone who thinks this music doesn't require communication between the players would have changed their mind during a moment later in the set when Shipp and Baker hit The One together, in the middle of what sounded like wild, free bop. Listen closely and the conversation becomes clear.

The moment when Shipp pauses and Bisio gets a chance to stretch out always stands as one of the highlights of the set. The bassist offers strong support during the group interaction but his solos call attention to the grace and lyrical qualities at the root of his playing. Without an amp, and only one microphone on his instrument, Bisio filled the room (even creating a loud, but still appropriate, scrape when his bridge made contact with the mike), especially when he took the bow off of his belt (see the picture above) and drew it across the strings. 

I could only shoot Baker at the very end of the set due to the cymbal obstructing my view, and even then the blue lights in the room made it a challenge. It turns out, Baker had played with Billy Bang when he came to the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater back in 2008, which was right around the corner from where the trio stayed after this show, at the Ace Hotel.

Hopefully someday some bigshot label rep will come to town and realize that they need to release the next Thoth Trio CD. Until then, it's good to know that a sold-out crowd got to check out their set of material. Saxophonist Ben Opie told me a few days later that several people asked him about the ballad in their set, a slow, thoughtful line that some mistook for an Ornette Coleman piece.

Unlike Michael Bisio, Paul Thompson amplified his bass and there were times when it was hard to hear it, especially when Dave Throckmorton was rolling across his toms. I could feel the bass though, and picked up on Thompson's accents. He also cranked it up a bit as the set moved on. Throck, much like Newman Taylor Baker, was hard to capture on film, his head being obscured by a cymbal.

Hopefully some of those in the crowd who had never heard the trio will check them out again. In fact, all interested parties should go to City of Asylum this Sunday at six. The trio, plus guitarist Chris Parker, will be playing an all-Ornette set. It's free but they request online reservations to make sure they can seat everyone.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

DL/LP Review: Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition - Agrima

Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition

Speed isn't everything. Many people can play spray a bushelful of notes at listeners and not say anything. When a musician can combine speed with intriguing melodic lines, and tweak those ideas as they're taking shape, that's the sign of a gifted player. Rudresh Mahanthappa's performance has been developing to such a degree that he is now arguably one of the most creative alto saxophonists to ever blow that horn. (Yes, up there with the big guys.) The way he manipulates pitch and executes with an often acidic tone definitely makes him the most unique alto player to come along in quite awhile. He often emits a rapid-fire arsenal of notes, which serve to expand his ideas, never stopping to grandstand. This has been going on for a while in his music, and the approach is on full display in his Indo-Pak Coalition, a trio with guitarist Rez Abbasi and tabla player/trap drummer Dan Weiss.

The trio's debut, Apti (2008), combined jazz improvisation with ideas from traditional Indian music, stripping it down to bare essentials. Weiss played tabla exclusively, Abbasi worked double-duty as soloist and keeper of the groundwork, and Mahanthappa surged forward. For Agrima ("next" or "following" in Sanskrit), Weiss incorporates the drum kit into the music with his tabla. The approach offers surprises throughout the album. Sometimes they come in simple ways, as cymbal crashes punctuating his tabla parts. In "Snap" he begins on tabla and cymbals, only to reemerge on drums following Abbasi's solo. "Showcase," which begins sounding like a blues riff, recreates the approach Weiss used in live performances, having the tabla and drums together.

Mahanthappa wanted the trio to imagine they were making a rock album as they recorded Agrima, homing in on group interaction as opposed to thinking about combining Indian music with western music. The suggestion worked because they play with a visceral passion. Both Abbasi and Mahanthappa get a little maniacal with their complexity in "Rasikapriya." The saxophonist's double-timing lines in "Revati" are jaw-dropping, though never short of serious substance.

Electronics have shown up in the saxophonist's work since 2011's Samdhi, and they creep up here as well. "Take-Turns" includes effects that echo the alto saxophone note for note, turning it into a buzzing replication of Mahanthappa. "Agrima" begins with a Philip Glass-style loop, which gets swallowed by Abbasi's heavy power chords. This piece veers perhaps a little too close to progressive rock, introducing a flowing theme and then restating it at half-time as a slow funk romp. But the force of the band's performance keeps it from stagnating. It presents one of several moments where they sound bigger than a trio. Here especially, Abbasi's guitar effects always give his attack extra edge and color.

Agrima is available exclusively as both a download (for just $2.50!) and limited edition double LP. The latter comes in a beautiful, full color package with a gatefold sleeve and liner notes by the saxophonist. Downloads are fine, but anyone who has a turntable should take the plunge for the vinyl. A download card comes with it and besides, it gives Mahanthappa some positive reinforcement for a strong effort and for self-releasing an actual record.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Pere Ubu in Pittsburgh

David Thomas waits while Michele Temple pours the foundation.

"We're not legends. We're myths," David Thomas said. "I was born a myth."

Pere Ubu is one of those bands that attracts rabid fans. They're the type of fanatics that think nothing of yelling to the band between songs, telling them, "You're legendary." That happened earlier this evening at Club Cafe, and Thomas responded immediately and sharply with the above quote. Another guy yelled that he loved the band - but that he was leaving. As if everyone needed to know, because it was all about Dude. Thomas replied to that one by wondering what someone that loves him would do for him. A song later he apologized for the crassness of his comment, and he went on to regale us with the story of how he met his girlfriend, who was working the merch table. Kirsty (I believe that's her name, though I can guarantee the spelling) approached him after a spoken word show and told Thomas his performance was so good, it made her cry. He responded, "Why should I care what you think." (She corroborated the story from the back of the room.)

My advice to Pere Ubu fanatics - shut up. Thomas doesn't really care what you think, either. We were lucky because he seemed to be in a good mood tonight, and he let the banal comments slide. Except at the start of the set, when he was getting situated onstage and a casual, "Alright," garnered a too-enthusiastic "Yeah!" from someone. He didn't like that.

The six-piece version of Ubu played for roughly 70 minutes, leaning heavily on this year's album 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo, a fine batch of material. It lets the band do what it does best, churn out heavy no-nonsense riffs, which actually do rock pretty hard. Michelle Temple is still a solid bassist, straddling the foundation of the songs and playing thick double- or triple-stops across the neck. Guitarist Gary Siperko was joined by pedal steel player Kristof Hahn (of the Swans). When the latter botched the beginning of a song, Thomas swore he wasn't mad at Hahn, jabbing him playfully. But he did make the band repeat the song.

On top of it, longtime Ubu member Robert Wheeler wreaked havoc on the EML-101 synthesizer, as well as a theremin, adding the eerie quality that's been as much a part of their music as Thomas' voice. It should be mentioned though that, these days, Thomas shows a great deal of variety from song to song. Sometimes he has the naive man-child squeaks of the early days, but sometimes he takes inspiration from gravelly-voiced blues singers. Though his patter can sometimes seem nasty or gruff onstage, it seems like he's going more for comic relief when he yells or barks at a band member.

Before the encore portion of the set, he wanted to step outside of Club Cafe and grab a smoke. That idea was dashed apparently, when he nearly fell off the stage as he tried to step down. He yelled some obscenities and quoted James Brown, of all people, as if to regain his focus. Next thing we knew, the five-minute interlude before the last few songs had been erased. The evening ended with "I Can't Believe It," a song which dates back to the band's very early days, heard on 390 Degrees of Simulated Stereo. Other than "We Have the Technology," from 1986's The Tenement Year, it was the only song in the set that went deep into the band's earlier archives.

Johnny Dowd opened the show, though I arrived late and missed most of his set. Had I seen it all I might have appreciated the five-minute take on "Freddie's Dead," which didn't seem to have much loyalty to Curtis Mayfield's original. Other cities get to see Minibeast, which features Mission of Burma's Peter Prescott. When I heard that, I felt shortchanged.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Review of the 47th Pitt Jazz Seminar Concert - Remembering Geri Allen

Kurt Rosenwinkel, Tia Fuller, Kenny Davis, Nicholas Payton
In an interview to preview the 47th Annual Pitt Jazz Concert, Ravi Coltrane told me, "I almost wish that we could have had at least one moment to say, 'Geri, thank you. We love you and thank you for everything you’ve done in music [and for all the] music that you put in to the world."

That sentiment was repeated many times during the concert this past Saturday, although Coltrane was absent, having cancelled due to an illness. The eight remaining musicians and emcee S. Epatha Merkerson each recounted anecdotes about Allen as a performer and an educator. A brief video was also shown, which included comments from musicians like Coltrane, Teri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding as well as Pitt faculty.

For the first time in 47 years, the evening wasn't directed, passively or otherwise, by the university head of jazz studies. Under Dr. Nathan Davis, the concert (which usually concluded a week of seminars, talks and films on campus) operated like a jam session, with a wealth of A-list jazz musicians coming to town, blowing a few tunes together and breaking off into smaller groups that would spotlight individuals. Allen continued the basic template when she took the reins in 2013, but mixed new elements in with some of the well-trodden standards. (The most memorable moment was the opening tune in her first year, Nathan Davis' "If" which was a 20-minute, swampy, Bitches-Brew-style arrangement that heralded Allen's arrival.)

Saturday's performance, consisting predominantly of works by Allen, had a loose quality and felt somewhat more casual that the usual organization of these events. After the video, Nicholas Payton sat down at the piano and, without a word, began playing a riff. As he played, a recording of Allen's voice came over the sound system, as it did several times throughout the night. The rest of the musicians took the stage as Payton (who played trumpet later in the set) vamped: guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, bassist Kenny Davis, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, alto/soprano saxophonist Tia Fuller and drummers Kassa Overall and Victor Lewis. Written by Payton, "Geri" was a mid-tempo meditation that set the mood appropriately, though his chanting of the late pianist's name and the call for the audience to join him, felt a little cloying.

Between every couple songs, one of the musicians stepped up to the microphone to back-announce or introduce song titles (which is a good way to explore Allen's work further) and to share a story about their time with her. Tap dancer Maurice Chestnut talked Allen's group Timeline, which put his talent on equal ground with Davis and Overall. Harris recalled meeting Allen on the bandstand, where he had to immediately jump into a take on "I Got Rhythm" changes in B-flat - in which no B-flats were played. That unspoken message of "You better swim" has stayed with him, as his solos were some of the most dynamic of the evening, in terms of complex melody and rhythm.

Harris also created an arresting sonic blend with Fuller's alto and Payton's trumpet on Lewis' "Hey It's Me You're Talkin' To" and Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free," the latter recreating the joyful snap of a group like Cannonball Adderley's band, augmented by vibes and tap dancing. Chestnut, lest anyone doubt it, moved like percussionist, reacting to the band, doubling and tripling the beat with a performance that added to the music.

With Pitt Ph.D. student Irene Monteverde on piano (alto saxophonist Yoku Suzuki, another Pitt student, also sat in earlier), the group ended the evening with another Allen piece, "In Appreciation." Its hard bop drive, and solos that included Harris attack on his marimba with reckless abandon, turned the room into revival meeting. But Fuller, who had already conjured a bright-toned, bluesy solo earlier in the song, wasn't done yet. As the rhythm section played a descending riff, she read what could only be called an invocation, beginning as a call to women, repeating with intensity, "This space is a sacred space." She made the audience join with the closing credo that came from Allen: "Jazz is a way of life, a way to be in the world but not of the world - walking, seeing and feeling time." This call for audience participation felt necessary, a way to carry Allen's vision with us, after the last notes had evaporated.