Friday, October 14, 2016

CD Reviews: Four Albums on OutNow Recordings

At the beginning of the year, this blog featured a review of Yoni Kretzmer's 2 Bass Quartet. A few months later, another package arrived from Mr. K, the Brooklyn-based tenor player, and it contained these four discs. All appear on the same imprint as Kretzmer's last disc, OutNow, which keeps the packaging spare, but artistic (all but one are done in black and white, only one features liner notes from the leader). The music resides in the more adventurous realm of jazz, with plenty of exciting free improvisation, along with some thought-provoking compositions that bring out the best in these players. While all eyes are usually on New York City for the best in this type of music, Out Now seems to be saying Brooklyn is Now, to rework Ornette Coleman's declaration (and answer his co-hort Don Cherry's question about the borough). 

Yoni Kretmzer/Jason Ajemian/Kevin Shea
Until Your Throat Is Dry

It wouldn't be surprising if this title came as a response to the question, "How long should I play?" Here, Kretzmer's wild tenor joins forces with a bassist and drummer well-suited for zero-to-sixty free improvisation. Bassist Jason Ajemian played in several bands in Chicago and released two albums for Delmark that showcased his compositions (The Art of Dying) and some spacey jams inspired by Sun Ra (Folklords). He also led an ensemble that seemed to gather everyone on the Chicago jazz circuit to play a sort of collision of free jazz and freaky folk music (the bizarrely compelling Who Cares How Long You Sink). Drummer Kevin Shea is the wild man of Mostly Other People Do the Killing and numerous other bands, who provides the closest link between Han Bennink and Animal from The Muppet Show.

The disc features four tracks of unadulterated blowing. As wild as it gets, the trio also shows restraint so that it never gets one-dimensional. Ajemian begins the set with a solo that he plucks so hard, the strings could come unwound. (I've seen him play solo bass sets, in which he's held his own, so he's well suited for this setting.) Kretzmer can wail passionately at either end of his horn's register, but his solos carefully work their way to the bottom or top, exploring all the possibilities in between first, using a low honk or high shriek as punctuation for what he's already played. Shea, in some ways, operates in much the same way - never slowing down as he works over his kit and any type of additional hardware he has along with him. 

Yoni Kretzmer

The track titles on Five imply a rudimentary reference, which would provide reference to another set of improvisations ("July 19," "Quintet I," "Quintet II," etc.). But while there's plenty of free blowing here, this quintet works off of a series of sketches that Kretzmer brought to the session. Steve Swell (trombone) and Thomas Heberer (cornet) join Kretzmer on the front line while Chad Taylor (drums) and Max Johnson (bass) split time between playing vamps and acting as the rubato foil to the horns.

Sometimes they recall a more brass-heavy version of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, creating infectious excitement as they wail. "Quintet I" has an almost conventional, albeit out of tempo, theme for the horns, while the rhythm section twists around it. "Feb 23" starts off with just Taylor and Johnson accompanying Kretzmer's gruff tenor. But the brass eventually comes in playing shout lines behind him. This type of structure shows up in other tracks too, giving the quintet just enough of a foundation to really lift their music. While the previous disc's wild abandon was fun, Five is even stronger while hearing the band move between inside and outside.

Ehran Elisha
Kindred Spirit: Quintets

In 2013 drummer Ehran Elisha recorded two sets of quintets each playing a different suite of his at IBeam in Brooklyn. Each set takes up a whole disc. "Kindred Soul" features his father Haim Elisha (piano), Sam Bardfeld (violin), Dave Phillips (bass) and Roy Campbell (trumpet), in what would be his final collaboration with Elisha. The instrumentation creates some intriguing sonic results. Despite playing a somewhat out-of-tune piano, the elder Elisha helps bring his son's free flowing ideas to life, alternating between meditative passages and Taylor-esque crashes. Campbell's clarion tone sounds authoritative, even as he plummets down into his instrument's guttural depths.

While disc one's quintet was familiar with Elisha's writing, disc two's "Spirit Suite" is played a group new to the composer/drummer's approach: Kretzmer, Michael Attias (alto and baritone saxes), Rick Parker (trombone) and Sean Conly (bass). Elisha finally gives himself a chance to solo, rolling and tumbling in multiple directions during the free "Two By Five," the second movement. Throughout the set, Kretzmer's tenor gets plenty of room and he frequently recalls Archie Shepp, thanks to the gruff tone he plays. To this style, though, he also pops on the reed, something Shepp never did. Attias' alto follows suit with him, but he spends more time on baritone, which he uses to blow long tones with Parker over the rhythm section's rolling boil in the opening "Spirit Serenade." The closing "Outrise" begins with a trombone solo over a drop-tuned bass, the whole thing getting low and ugly (in a good way) before coming to a calm resolve.

Frantz Loriot - Systematic Distortion Orchestra
The Assembly

If the previous three discs didn't suggest an idea of what to expect from labelmates known as the Systematic Distortion Orchestra, a glance at the instrumentation might offer one: The 11-piece group includes three drummers and two bassists, in addition to four brass, one reed and leader Frantz Loriot on viola.

That lineup seems like the type of ensemble to create dense, murky sound sculptures. That's exactly what they do. Some of the time. Two of the four compositions are credited to the whole group, but two are credited to Loriot alone. One of the latter is "Echo," which opens The Assembly like an eerie film soundtrack. The basses rumble in as the horns play a simple melody of sustained notes. Everything rises in waves, with the drums crashing behind them, and Loriot's viola (or maybe Nathaniel Morgan's alto saxophone) riding on top. A voice sings and yells briefly in the middle, and it's easy to see why. The fury this band unleashes is powerful. Nearly 10 minutes in length, it passes before you notice it.

Of the two group compositions, the title track works the same formula as "Echo," incorporating a heavy dose of extended technique and getting a little more dense in the process. "...Maybe...Still..." includes a spoken text by bassist Sean Ali, reciting a circular poem that complements that loose improvisation going behind him.

"Le Relais," Loriot's other "composition" goes heavy on percussion for its first three minutes, recalling more Art Ensemble shenanigans. Things begin slowly - none of the tracks on the album seem in a hurry to get started  - and the rest of the group enters in waves over the next 10 minutes. Loriot sounds, in some ways, like phantom bagpipes on the horizon, and the brass creates layers of kissing sounds and rumbles. The sound remains thick and hard to penetrate, but the momentum never stops.

Hopefully, the Systematic Distortion Orchestra can be found playing in some loft or DIY space in Brooklyn. In person, they could easily transfix a small but devoted group of listeners. The music on The Assembly  is best experienced in person, but this album maintains some of the electricity in the translation to disc.

All of these discs and more can be found at

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Destroyer at Club Cafe - Dan Bejar, That Is

There is something bizarrely fascinating about Dan Bejar's music that he's recorded under the name Destroyer. Sometimes his high voice and dramatic delivery make him sound like some bard who has just stumbled into some indie rock band's practice space and decided to join them. The Your Blues album put his words to some of the most synthetic of synthesizers, which really made for a challenging listen. Poison Summer, the most recent Destroyer album, includes a serious dose of strings and horns, for music that he himself is still trying to process.

This past Monday, though, it was just Mr. Bejar and his acoustic guitar onstage at Club Cafe. We had talked a few weeks earlier for an article that appeared in Pittsburgh City Paper. He mentioned then that he had a batch of new songs that he was going to mix with some of the 150 songs from the Destroyer back catalog that he could pull off in a solo set. For a little over an hour, he chose about 10-percent of that catalog, easily going from one song to the next, talking between songs in a voice so calm and gentle that it was almost too hard to hear him through the sold-out throng of people. Not that the crowd was rowdy. On the contrary, everyone was listening in silence with rapt attention.

Sometime into the set, an epiphany popped up. It doesn't really matter what chord progressions he's playing, when he singing these evocative story-song lyrics overtop of them. The fact that songs like "A Light Travels Down the Catwalk" or "Watercolours Into the Ocean" have sweet backdrops - like the latter's "Femme Fatale"-esque riff - adds to the allure of the strangely poetic nature of his words. One new song climaxed with the line "I'm working on the new Oliver Twist," which doesn't sound like it should fit comfortably into a pop song. Sure enough, Bejar makes it fit.

"Your Blood," from the 2006 album Destroyer's Rubies, got a little manic or overly dramatic in the original, but in concert it veered in the opposite direction, getting more quiet and inviting close listening. "Don't Become the Thing You Hated" left all the Your Blues trappings in the dust, and served as the rousing end to the set, with words to live by. Of course, there was an encore, this one being "Virgin With a Memory." This one too ended with a beautifully rhetorical question: "Was it a movie of the making of Fitzcarraldo/ where someone learned to love again?"

On a parting note, I have to mention the crowd, which as previously mentioned, sold out Club Cafe's 140-person capacity. Besides my co-hort Erin, I didn't recognize anyone there until after the set, when I ran into two people I knew. Where do these people come from? Are they diehard Destroyer fans who drove in from out of town? Do they live here? Do they check out local bands in local clubs? They shouldn't miss out on these opportunities.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Birthday Highlights

Friday, October 7 was my birthday. Typical of most days, I had a full  list of things to do, leading up to a show at the end of the night. Playing on my birthday seemed like a good idea, so why not.

The day started the photo below, which I saw when I walked into work:

Not one, but two cakes. And since they came from the place where I used to work, damn good cakes. But before I had a chance to really get settled into the day, the power went out in the office. That was around 10:45. Duquesne Light, when we were finally able to get through to a live person, said it could be close to 1:00 before it came back on. The staff said that if it didn't come on at 1:00, we could go home. 

After getting a cake, which we cut into soon after the power outage (luckily there are a lot of tall windows and it was sunny at that point so we weren't in the dark), getting a free day off would have been too good to be true, and too much to expect. And it was, because it came back on at about 12:15.

The rest of the day was a typical Friday: get home, meet Donovan at the bus stop, take him to his piano lesson. Grab a Mineo's pizza for dinner. It wasn't the OFFICIAL birthday dinner but a good one. Besides I had to run out quickly to see Mary Halvorson at a City of Asylum performance.

Mary is in town all weekend. Friday was a solo set, last night she played with Tomas Fujiwara's the Hook Up. Tonight she's playing with Thumbscrew, the trio with Fujiwara and bassist Michael Formanek. As a side note, Esperanza Spaulding was also playing in town the same night, just a few miles away. Ben Folds was also in town. In the wildest addition to that don't-tell-me-nothing-happens-in-Pittsburgh moment, the band ESG (yes, THE ESG with the Scroggins sisters) was playing here at the VIA Festival. 

But I was at the Halvorson show because I was asked to present her with an award for Guitarist of the Year from the Jazz Journalists Association. The call came a few weeks ago and at first it threw me off: On the same night as a gig, and the same night I had intended to celebrate my birthday with my family, I was asked to do this too? What's a guy to do? Answer: Do it, because I'd be stupid not to.

So I was told that, as Mary was making her way to the stage, I should follow her up and make the announcement. Never having done this kind of thing before, I felt funny, wondering how much she actually knew about this, if she remembered me from previous visits, interviews, etc, as the guy who'd be doing it. 

Then when I got up there, I was nervous, worrying about talking too much, getting too effusive and not making any sense. So I just ad libbed  a little bit, recalling seeing her for the first time with Anthony Braxton here in 2008, hopefully got the message across, made sure the JJA got some good props and handed her the award. 

Her set consisted of the music she recorded on Meltframe, a group of reimagined songs by everyone from Ornette Coleman to French guitarist Noël Akchoté. (She actually segued these respective composers' pieces together, "Sadness" and "Cheshire Hotel" respectively.) Other composers that she did before I left included Annette Peacock and Oliver Nelson. (I wonder what the latter would have thought of her fuzzy version of "Cascades.")

I was only able to catch about 25 or 30 minutes before heading back across the Allegheny to Hambone's, via a stop for coffee. A handful of better-suited words about Mary came to me as soon as she started playing, so I was feeling moody and caffeine was the only cure. After waiting for the family in front of me to get three desserts, trying to find a place to park near Hambone's and walking in the rain, the drink felt even better. (The good news was we were sharing bass amps at the show, so I only had to haul my bass, tool kit full of cables and various sundries.)

Good friends Will Simmons and the Upholsterers opened the show, which to me also means Instant Party. Those guys know how to balance solid pop hooks with some zany elan. In my honor, they covered two Monkees songs in a medley, "Randy Scouse Git" and "Love Is Only Sleeping." The latter is a pretty bold move since it hops from 7/4 to 4/4. 

The Love Letters' last few shows found us playing slightly shorter sets to make sure that everyone on the bill got their space. (Well, Britsburgh was a little longer, but that's a different story.) We decided to aim for closer to 45 minutes tonight, though we probably went a bit over, thanks to some good shtick at the beginning of the set. Furthermore, I caused some delay in a quest to find some lost equipment, which was right under my nose the whole time. (Sorry, guys.)

We threw in a fair number of covers tonight, some part of our regular set, some newer. The big one was one of my favorite songs from childhood, the McCoys' "Hang on Sloopy." I think we did a pretty spirited version of it. There were some amp/guitar problems in the set, but we rebounded pretty well and I got to segue a few songs together.

Old Soles and Seedy Players went on after us. I hadn't seen them before but I knew keyboardist/vocalist Dan Styslinger from his guitar playing in delicious pastries. After hearing a few songs online, I thought they'd be cool. Normally they have a horn section, but on this night they were just a quartet. It was different from what I expected: these guys really have chops. Dan's keys unfortunately got lost in the mix a bit, but he was really going at it. Guitarist Frank had an octave effect pedal that he used during solos, which gave his instrument this weird, flute-like sound. The first time he did, I wasn't sure where the sound was coming from. I liked the way the rhythm section made the songs move because it kept the edge in it, so it didn't get too smooth. I want to check these guys out again because I'm still wrapping my head around them. And I want to hear horns!

Thursday, October 06, 2016

CD Review: Slavic Soul Party! - Plays Duke Ellington's Far East Suite

Slavic Soul Party!
Plays Duke Ellington's Far East Suite

Sometimes, making a comparison between a tribute/re-imagining album and its source material can cause some serious distraction, especially when the composers in question are Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. (And especially when the reviewer isn't initially familiar with the original material.) The whole angle of the piece starts to be shaped before the words start hitting the page: What's more important, the way the new version compares to the original, or whether the new one stands on its own?

It's senseless to take the former approach, since anyone will fall like a house of cards when stacked up to Ellington's original. But a little bit of background is in order. Duke and his band participated in a "jazz diplomacy" mission in 1963 when they traveled through Middle East, South Asia and the Balkans, to now-treacherous places like Syrian, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq. Members of the band would later grouse that they played less for the everyday people of these countries and more for the high-ranking officials.

Ironically, they never actually made it to the Far East proper, as the tour was halted after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November of that year. But the trip was enough to inspire the writing of Ellington and Strayhorn, who created a total of nine tracks for the 1966 album. It would be some of the last music Strayhorn would write before loosing a battle with esophageal cancer a year later.

Slavic Soul Party! originates in New York City, the product of a group of musicians affiliated with the experimental jazz scene who go back to the music of Balkan brass bands, injecting it with the adventure they've developed in their own circle of music. Their heritage, so to speak, brings Far East Suite full circle, back to the music that inspired it. Ellington's use of a full reed and brass section brought the music West. SSP!, on the other hand has only one reed player (Peter Hess, who doubles on saxophones and clarinet), five brass (two trumpets, two trombones, tuba), two drummers and an accordionist. The last instrument is particularly key in creating this Balkan feel, most notably in "Amad" and the closing "Ad Lib On Nippon," where Peter Stan gets some guttural noises out of his squeezebox.

"Isfahan" originally served as a feature for Johnny Hodges' regal alto sax. That role is taken by the trumpet (either John Carlson or Kenny Warren) which plays over a slinky beat  accustomed to a New Orleans marching band. That feeling pops up throughout many songs, especially when Ron Caswell's tuba plays some funky bass lines. He and his lower brass mates get pushed to the front of "Bluebird of Delhi" giving the song a more sinister feeling that contrasts with the light clarinet part (intact from Ellington) that represents the bird. Later on, the band adds some klezmer color to "Depk" though Caswell still keeps the Big Easy at arm's length.

This recording was made at Barbès in Brooklyn in front of an audience, which reacts enthusiastically to the performance. It's easy to see why: the energy never wavers, even when things get more reflection ("Agra"). In the end that means prior knowledge of Far East Suite is not required before checking out Slavic Soul Party!'s homage. Don't be surprised if it inspires curious listeners to search for the original, though, to prolong the pleasure.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

CD Review: Jason Roebke Octet - Cinema Spiral

Jason Roebke Octet
Cinema Spiral
(No Business)

Whereas Jason Roebke's last octet album, High/Red/Center (Delmark, 2014), began with some tense but swinging Sun Ra-esque harmonies, Cinema Spiral begins with an atonal, out-of-tempo call from the horn-heavy ensemble. It doesn't attempt to copy the opening wail of Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, but "Looking Directly Into the Camera" contains a similar loose-cum-focused feel, an announcement that the group is about to begin. And like that other landmark session, this theme will recur, providing a break between sections that might otherwise be missed.

Cinema Spiral consists of seven tracks, but it's actually one continuous 52-minute piece with no proper pauses. Like High/Red/Center, bassist Roebke corralled his close associates from the Chicago music scene to bring it to life: Greg Ward (alto saxophone), Keefe Jackson (tenor & sopranino saxophones, contrabass clarinet), Jason Stein (bass clarinet), Josh Berman (cornet), Jeb Bishop (trombone), Jason Adasiewicz (vibes) and Mike Reed (drums). Any chance to hear that lineup together in one place surely means a good time will be had by listeners and participants.

But while the octet's previous session featured a combination of written parts and a grounded rhythm section working together with unwound solos, Cinema Spiral as a whole feels much looser. "Looking Directly" moves right from the opening line to a thoughtful, probing solo from the leader. Long tones eventually come in, but it feels more like exposition. "Focusing" follows with Stein's bass clarinet and Bishop's trombone beginning a bit of group improvisation. The second real ensemble passage comes toward the end, prior to a restatement of the opening call.

This loose framework continues for most of the album. A short theme at the end of "Getting High" acts more like a chance to regroup before everyone goes for broke in "People Laughing." That track begins with everyone wailing at their wildest. Structure, and intrigue, comes less from written sections than pure dynamics, though. After three minutes of squonk, everyone drops out except Roebke, Adasiewicz and Reed, who grind to almost dead silence a couple minutes later. In "Waiting" Roebke adds a bit more structure by riffing behind the 'bone, cornet and contrabass clarinet interjections. The foundation feels event more buoyant in "L’acmé" which ends with bright group theme.

In some ways Cinema Spiral could have benefited from a little more structure, since several moments seem like the octet is trying to move towards a resolve that never really comes. It leads instead to more wild blowing. At the same time, these players knows how to take it out and take people with them, maintaining a good deal of energy at all times. Bass clarinetist Stein in particular seems to get a good deal of lead time. The album is not a complete squonk fest either, as Berman and Roebke prove when they get room to shine on their own. 

No Business Records reside in Lithuania, so the album might not be quite as easy to find as High/Red/Center. Contact them directly to check it out. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Rebecca Pronsky is Coming To Town Tomorrow

Once in a blue moon, I'll post a preview to an upcoming show in Pittsburgh. This is one of those occasions. Friday, September 30, Rebecca Pronsky comes to the Funhouse at Mr. Smalls. The evening also serves a release show for local singer Ben Shannon's Farewell Mountain CD. He performs too, along with Emily Rodgers and Morgan Erina.  Doors open at 8 p.m. Show at 9 p.m. Get tickets at It's only $10!

It's been a while since we heard from Rebecca Pronsky, who hasn't released an album since 2013 (Only Daughter). That album earned her a spot of The Telegraph's Top 10 Country albums of 2013 list, which says quite a bit about Pronsky's songs. Though she's not a tried-and-true country songstress, her music - which includes releases that date back to late '00s -  has the best elements of country music: a yearning quality (due in no small part to guitarist Rich Bennett's sweet leads), music that tugs at your ear and says, "Listen" and - most significantly - compelling storylines. And not the traditional country plot lines either.

I'd bet good money that Pronsky could put fresh spins on tales of drinking, infidelity and the regret that comes with the first two, but her lyrics align her more with the best in singer-songwriters. On the new Known Objects she begins by getting a tad existential with "Bag of Bones," which looks at artistic self-doubt. The initials of "A.E." belong to Amelia Earhart, in a song that meditates on the newly discovered evidence that "Lady Lindy" did not crash her plane but landed on an island in the Pacific Ocean, where she was marooned.

The latter subject alone invites all sorts of speculation and could fuel a whole album of songs. (Maybe this country music moniker fits better than it initially seemed.) But Pronsky reduces it to crucial elements, which make a compelling tune, which leaves the listener wondering exactly what happened. Elsewhere "Snowing Sideways" depicts a romantic interlude by mentioning some of the scenery that can provide the most vivid images in your head while listening.

Delivering all those stories, Pronsky has a strong, brassy voice that occasionally lapses into a bit of natural vibrato. By natural I mean that she doesn't overdo it, or use it to overemphasize a turn of phrase. It simply sounds like a natural extension of the way she sustains a note. (And like some singer-songwriters, it doesn't happen in an upper register, rattling the fillings.)

Known Objects features a revolving group of guests, from jazz guitarist Ben Monder to the four-part harmonies on "Gondwanaland" and "Blue Skies" from Lucy Wainwright Roche, Greta Gertler, Emily Hurst (Las Rubias Del Norte) and Deirdre Struck (Lascivious Biddies), who add a rich, warm quality to those songs. Even without the guests, Pronsky's songs all sound distinct from one another, sequenced in a way that the moods, tempos and sonics vary with each track, still creating a full program.

Considering her Brooklyn home and her skill at winning the ears of current country music fans, she ought to rechristen herself the Queen of Brooktucky. Or Brooklynville. Or Nashlyn. (I'm from an area that's occasionally called Pennsyltucky so what do I know?)

All goofy stuff aside, Pronsky should be even more widely known than she currently is.

Friday, September 23, 2016

World Saxophone Quartet & Sun Ra Arkestra - Two Nights, Two Concerts

Playing right now: Chris Connor, Chris. Used copy of the Bethlehem LP, in large part because it has her version of "Lush Life," which I love. As in, it might be my favorite version of the song. 

The past weekend was crazy. First of all, I said I'd star in an installment of HeroinesBurgh - a comicbook type series about super heroines fighting crime in Pittsburgh (the brainchild of illustrious independent-minded guy who's been booking shows in town for decades; locals will know who I mean).

On top of two days of that, the World Saxophone Quartet played at City of Asylum on Saturday and the Sun Ra Arkestra played Sunday night at the New Hazlett Theater. 

You read correctly - both of these top shelf acts were in town two nights in a row. In Pittsburgh! We don't get that kind of attention on a regular basis. I had to go to both, of course.

I talked to Oliver Lake in advance of the WSQ's appearance for City Paper. It has been a few years since they've all played together, and about eight or nine years since they came to Pittsburgh. Last time, James Carter was filling in for tenor saxophonist David Murray. Carter is great, but there's something about David Murray, with his brawny sound and sense of invention, that pushes this group over the top. Seeing him with his quartet at the Balcony back in the late '80s, I remember thinking that his approach to improvisation was like a model of DNA - a ladder-like design that twisted around and kept moving upward. The higher you get on the model, the further away you may be from, in this case, the melody of the song. But you can still feel the connection, even if someone like Murray is pushing beyond the register of his instrument, adding shrieks to his melody. 

The four members of the group - Lake, Murray, alto/soprano saxophonist Bruce Williams and baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett - walked through the audience blowing their horns on the way to the stage. (Bluiett actually played clarinet on the walk in, presumably because his health problems make it hard to strut and blow a baritone at the same time). 

They opened with "Hattie Wall." their theme song, which is driven by the baritone's staccato low end groove. Bluiett sounded like he was either missing a few notes as he vamped, or he was taking more breaths to pace himself. But the electricity was in the air. That was followed by "Giant Steps" which relaxed the tempo a bit, compared to the original version. Lake, Murray and Williams (on soprano) each took unaccompanied solos during the tune.

At the start of the second set, the Quartet accompanied two poets, as is the tradition with City of Asylum, which has housed and presented exiles poets from around the world. Adriana E. Ramirez read a couple poets while the group accompanied her. The first was inspired by the lives of Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse, playing a little more on their mythos than their talents. The second talked about taking the citizenship test to become an American, contrasting the people in the test office with a friend conversing with the narrator about treatment in the U.S. Osama Alomar's work read less like poetry than astute metaphorical observations about human nature. The Quartet played brief grooves between pieces, including their low-bottom blues riff "I Heard That," which could have and should have gone on longer.

The second set found the group doing some free improvisation as well as some directed compositions. The former was loose but worked well. As with the music from the whole evening, there were times where the group seemed to be pulling in four different directions, but things never sounded busy. 

Sunday night, the New Hazlett Theater was packed with people to see the Sun Ra Arkestra. They haven't been to town since 2002. (Prior to that show, I interviewed band leader Marshall Allen, in what would be my first big story for JazzTimes. Coincidentally, he's on the cover of the current issue of JT.) At that time, Allen was 78 years old. I'll do the math for you and tell you the man is 92 years old and still going strong. The group's entrance, with members shuffling around the stage, blowing horns at the audience, as drums rolled freely, hailing the most joyful type of free jazz - making it sound like a spaceship had landed, with the occupants dressed wildly - all were clearly informed that this would be an evening to remember.

Allen began the evening blowing into his EWI (Electric Wind Instrument), but instead of emitting some slick, fusion-y sounds, it functioned more like a theremin, adding to the outer space quality of the music. Johnny Hodges might have been the first big influence on Allen's playing, but he spent most of the evening blowing wild shrieks on his alto, his right hand moving over the keys with the type of gestures normally seen by a bassist in a funk band. Lest anyone wonder who was driving the Spaceship Ra, Allen was standing for the whole set, cuing the various members of the band, calling songs and at once point, even telling baritone saxophonist Danny Ray Thompson to talk to the audience.

The set, which lasted about an hour and 45 minutes, went all over the place. They tackled standards "Sometimes I'm Happy," "Stars Fell on Alabama" and "When You Wish Upon A Star" (which got wild at times in a way almost similar to Spike Jones). But they also played several groove-heavy originals like "Interplanetary Music," (which had more of a melodic backbone than the version I heard on an album that Evidence reissued in the '90s), "Fate In a Pleasant Mood" and the set ender "Space Is the Place/We Travel the Spaceways."

Several times during the set, the musicians got out of their chairs, dancing around the stage and trying to get into the audience, which proved tricky on some of the Hazlett's steps, which dead-end in several places and don't allow one section to spill into another. The Arkestra sounded a little more raucous than last time, when they all entered singing "This Is Planet Earth" together. But it was clear from the beginning that their three rehearsals-per-week regimen is well worth it. For more words from Allen about the band, click here. And please note, I wrote it. (As I prepared this entry, the wrong person was listed.)

One comment I read online said the band could have tuned a little better, because the intonation was far off. Up in the balcony where I was sitting, it sounded fine too me. I wish Allen would've revisited a little of the Hodges style and taken a break from the free squall for contrast. But the guy is 92 years old so I'm not going to fault him for sticking to one thing. I'm just he's still doing it.