Tuesday, May 09, 2017

CD Review: Linda May Han Oh - Walk Against Wind

Linda May Han Oh
Walk Against Wind
(Biophilia) www.biophiliarecords.com

I don't like mimes. Maybe this feeling can be attributed to growing up during a time when Shields & Yarnell were part of primetime variety tv shows. Or maybe the site of too many theater students stuck in an invisible box, full of forced facial expression, creeped me out. Marcel Marceau was an innovator but I'm simply not feeling it. His progeny can stay away.

Linda May Han Oh, whose birthname now follows the Westernized first name that has graced her previous solo albums and appearances with people like Dave Douglas, has found inspiration in Marceau's oeuvre. The bassist appropriated the late French performer's most famous routine, "Walking Against the Wind," as the title track for her latest release. It enters deceptively with Matthew Stevens' guitar playing a metronomic figure while Ben Wendel's tenor adds a high melody over it and Oh follows Stevens underneath. When Justin Brown's drums officially declare themselves around two minutes, he shakes things up, like a Mersey Beat groove just dropped out of the sky. Before long, he's stepped back and things sound pensive again. The leader, whose thick toned attack is a large part of the intrigue here, takes a brief solo which redirects the whole tune, leading into an edgy statement from Wendel, with the band getting tense underneath him before they return to the opening groove.

Oh hasn't changed my mind about those non-speaking Simpsons punchlines, but they sure inspired her to come up with an absorbing composition. Besides, the music won me over before I read the liner notes in Walk Against Wind's unique packaging. But more about that later.

The rest of the album continues the exploratory direction that marked Oh's previous albums. But even as things can change shape quickly, sometimes within the confines of one track, the overall feeling has a strong sense of direction, from the writing to the way the band develops it. The angular jumps in "Perpuzzle" features Oh adding wordless vocals to the fray. Often this device can be a distraction but her syllabic choices never get in the way, working more as a melody than a percussive addition. "Speech Impediment," which proceeds it, also includes vocals, in a piece that starts slow and subtle, but gets jerky as things move on.

Oh's compositions demand that you listen closely until the very end, because she's likely to add some surprise in the final moments rather than simply letting the band go into a coda or closing vamp. In "Lucid Lullaby" Wendell plays a line that sounds very close to Charles Mingus' "Canon" in the final moments. "Midnight" features keyboardist Fabian Almazan adding some overdriven electric piano that pushes Stevens and Oh (who switches to electric bass on a few tunes) into a prog rock direction. "Deepsea Dancers" was inspired by tragedy but the steady undercurrent leads to counterpoint and a warm feeling of reassurance, as different players take turns restating the melody and soloing over it.

Biophilia, a label that Almazan created, doesn't press CDs. Instead the label prints a two-sided cover on FSC-certified (Forest Stewardship Council) paper and plant-based ink that unfolds into 20 panels like origami, which contains all the traditional elements of an album cover and a download code. The idea behind the label delivers the tactile element of music buying along with the ease of digital downloading.

Walk Against Wind began receiving attention before it even hit the street (if that phrase still applies to an album in this format). But Oh and her band deliver once they're given the attention, gathering an array of moods and blending them into what's likely her strongest release yet.


Saturday, May 06, 2017

Clap Your Hands Say... Thelonious Monk

I've come to regard Record Store Day as a whole lot of meh, meaning - nothing. Nothing except supposed "collectible" pieces of vinyl that are often nothing more than reissues of music I already own, or don't really need. (That's oversimplifying it, but I'm trying to get to another story.)

This year, there was actually something coming out on RSD that I wanted, the previously unreleased soundtrack that Thelonious Monk did for Roger Vadim's Les liaison dangereuses which he recorded in 1959. As mentioned in a previous entry, I stood in line at Juke Records the morning of Record Store Day, only to be beaten to the Monk record by the first guy who walked in the door. However, when I was leaving, I was told that the store might be able to get additional copies. Call in a week, they said. 

Fast-forward to yesterday, a few phone calls and visits to Juke later. One copy was left. If my life was a Warner Brothers cartoon, I probably would have dashed into the store while Red Bob was still saying, "Hello? Mike?" into the phone. Instead I came in after work a few hours later. 

The above photo originally had me peering over the top of the cover, not gloating (I'm not that kind of record enthusiast, folks) but just beaming. However my eyes seemed creepy so I cropped myself out. 

The box was expensive, but, man, what a box it is. Not simply a holder for two records in paper sleeves, the box houses two sealed album covers and a 50-page 12"X12" booklet of essays about the recording sessions, the film and Monk's relationship with Paris. There are also photos from the sessions and the film. Musically, the only brand new, never-recorded-anywhere-else by-Monk track is the hymn "We'll Understand It Better By and By," which is less than 90 seconds. There are multiple takes of the other seven tunes. "Six In One" appeared under another name a few months later on Thelonious Alone in San Francisco.

But there are several points of interest. First of all, Monk's band features Charlie Rouse, who had just joined him recently and was still in the process of developing an attack that he maintained for years with Monk. Sam Jones (bass) and Arthur Taylor (drums) had come aboard recently as well, appearing along with Rouse at the first Town Hall Concert, with a large ensemble. They'd also appear, along with Thad Jones (cornet) on Five By Monk By Five, a prime Riverside album. Sam Jones especially was a great bassist for Monk, giving him a solid bounce. Taylor had played with Monk during his Prestige era and complimented the pianist well. A few tracks also feature French tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen joining the group. His additional voice on "Crepuscule with Nellie" gives it more depth.

Most of Side Four of the album is taken up by the real discovery on the album - a fly-on-the-wall recording of Monk trying to teach Taylor the appropriate beat for "Light Blue." Of all the pianist's tricky songs, "Light Blue" ranks up there because its lumbering rhythm and tempo make it a challenge to get the feel right. The 14-minute track reveals the pianist working Taylor, chastising him ("Dumb motherf***er") and keeping to the task. Maybe the whole thing is for completists, but the booklet and that track assured me that I made the right choice. A CD version will be released in a month or so.

I was wondering if I'd make it out to see Clap Your Hands Say Yeah last night, now that I had the new Monk set to digest. However, I made it through three of the four sides, so I figured that would hold me until the next morning. Off into the pouring rain I went, to check out Alec Ounsworth and company.

I spoke with Ounsworth for a City Paper article to preview the show, in which he said that the lineup of the band was completely different than last time they were here. What I wasn't expecting was the heavy roar that the new four-piece lineup produced.

When writing the article, I didn't have the guts or the conviction to compare the new CYHSY album to the Cure or New Order. During my 20s, I couldn't stand the Cure. They were too whiny, mopey and just too caught up in an image to me. Years later, I've come to a little more of an appreciation of them, noticing the catchy elements of their songs, and a dry wit that underlies the mopiest (if that's a word) of their lyrics. The Tourist does have a bit of that Seventeen Seconds-era Cure going for it, with the right combination of guitar and keys scrambling on top of driving beats. Occasionally they also have some of the primitive jangle of New Order too.

But if CYHSY can sound like the Cure in the studio, in person they come on twice as strong without needing of the bands accouterments. Sure, Ounsworth casually rubbed his eyes during "Better Off" but it was hard to tell if that was an affectation or whether the brim of his ever-present hat couldn't keep the bright light out of his eyes. After a few songs, he engaged in a little small talk, which got as far as thanking us for being there before he admitted that's all he could think of saying.

He later told us that Pittsburgh was the penultimate show on the tour, and the band was clearly tight and ready before they hit Club Cafe. More often than not, one song segued quickly into the next, such as when the almost-hit from their debut album, "Is This Love," slammed right into the drum-machine-powered title track of sophomore album Some Loud Thunder. Ounsworth turnedout to be a pretty vicious guitarist too, peeling off some caterwauling leads. His fellow players (whose names I didn't get) were no slouches either.

The 17-song set included five songs from the new album, drawing the rest from the band's previous four. Selections from the debut seemed to get the best response. Ounsworth might have even cracked a grin when someone voiced loud approval for "Over and Over Again (Lost and Found)." It was hard to tell definitively, but he appeared to be chewing gum throughout the set.

Before writing this review, I went through the set list (snatched off the stage at the end of the night), picking out what song came from which album. I decided to compare the version of "Heavy Metal" on the first album with my memory of last night's final song. While the recording does have some overdriven bass, the upper frequencies of the song sound relatively lo-fi. Last the band attacked it like the Volcano Suns in their prime, churning up a big roaring sound that maintained a catchy, hooky quality. The band's previous visit to Pittsburgh was good, but the memory of that lineup seemed to have more to do with atmospherics, which were a big part of 2014's Only Run. While they started with the opening track from that album ("As Always") it served as a jumping-off point for the rest of the set. Last night was about the Rock. And it sounded fantastic.

Solo guitarist/vocalist Laura Gibson opened the evening on a more subdued note. Her first song gave me pause, as she sang in a very affected cat-watching-a-bird-voice, over sparse chords. A few songs in, she won me over with some haunting finger picking and great story in the title track to her album Empire Builder.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

CD Review: The Microscopic Septet - Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down To Me

There's a big stack of new CDs piling up the desk, a lot of which I really want to hear and write about. It'd would be a great day to take off from reality and dig into them, armed with a pot of coffee and a scoop pad full of notes on the best tracks. But first, something I've been listening to for a couple months, waiting for the right moment to expound....

The Microscopic Septet
Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down To Me: The Micros Play the Blues
(Cuneiform) www.cuneiformrecords.com

Sometimes the blues can sound very simple and effective, hitting the ears like comfort food, with an exhilarating rush coming around bar 9 or 10 of a 12-bar pattern. Sometimes the structure is more deceptive. After listening to Charlie Parker's "Kim" for several years, it was only when I dug into the Parker Omnibook that I realized it was built on the blues, so lost was I in the melody. The same goes for Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." It's only when you play the chords alone (available in the More Than a Fake Book collection of his tunes) that it becomes clear that Mingus was stretching the harmonic possibilities of the blues for something greater.

The Microscopic Septet doesn't set out to redefine the blues on their latest album, but neither are they content to revel in the parlor tricks of the blues either. This band has always approached tradition with an experimental aesthetic, with a lineup that features soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophonists and a three-piece rhythm section. The bottom line: swing it like crazy.

Not all of the tracks on Been Up So Long adhere to the blues structure either, and even some that do are deceptive. Like "Kim," they place the emphasis on the melody, so the changes might not be noticed right away. "PJ In the '60s" refers to soprano saxophonist Philip Johnston during the decade that birthed the New Thing (so to speak), and in doing so opens with tenor saxophonist Mike Hashim unleashing some free squonk. But that's just a red herring intro, which is followed by a straight, four-sax AABA melody that makes the band sound bigger than a septet. If you're looking for wild blowing, it comes one tune later in "When It's Getting Dark," a Batman-esque blues with gruff pronouncements from baritone man Dave Sewelson.

Throughout the horns contrast with each other in terms of attack and delivery, with alto (Don Davis) and tenor sharing space in some choruses, followed with soprano and baritone doing the same. In "Cat Toys" Hashim almost sounds like a few different tenor players, going from dry and reedy to a more liquid, dreamy swing, with even a sprinkle of growling - all within a few choruses. Drawing on different styles of blues, they offer a great Ellington-style sound on "12 Angry Birds."

The wildest moment comes when the Septet re-imagines the old Christmas hymn "Silent Night" as a blues with an opening chorus that sounds like it got tangled in Thelonious Monk's "Crepuscule With Nellie." In doing so, it makes it feel acceptable to be listening to the song during the other 11 months of the year.

The Microscopic Septet first came to life during the early 1980s, bridging the gap between Uptown and Downtown New York jazz. (Pianist Joel Forrester composed the theme for Fresh Air with Terry Gross.) They hung it up in 1992 and four albums, only to pick up again 14 years later and they continue to forge ahead. And the blues continues to grow as well.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Live Report: Terell Stafford Quintet

I can get rather particular about what I like when it comes to modern jazz groups paying tribute to some bygone era of jazz. If the music seems more devoted to recreating some classic album instead of using the songs to create something new, my skepticism comes on. On the other hand, if a group tips their respective hats to a jazz legend and plays it with the same high level of energy that their predecessors did, they're bound to push it forward and bring new life to it.

That's the way it felt last Saturday at the New Hazlett Theater when Terell ("TEHR-el," as I found out that night) Stafford's quintet came to town. More than anything, this group played like a unit - five guys all on the same wavelength, working together and driving each other. Their two sets leaned heavily on the music of Lee Morgan, but they weren't simply bowing down to the master. Stafford clearly realized that if he is going to play these tunes, he needs to play them with fire. His solos, and those of tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield, Jr. seemed to be lighting a fire under drummer Billy Williams because there were several times that Williams seemed to be adding fills to the music in response to what the horns were playing. During "Mr. Kenyatta," Warfield broke into some Coltrane-like riffs and growls toward the end of his solo, proving that in addition to being a strong melodic player, he can get wild too. Stafford responded by shaping his solo in a way that Sean Jones often does: starting low and subdued and rising up into a frenzy.

Pianist Bruce Barth's name pops up a lot on recording sessions with various people. In person, it's clear why. He shapes chords in a manner that adds a great deal to the music, expanding the melody and tugging on the ear. In a duo version of "Candy" with Stafford, they took the bright melody and turned it into a muted ballad, with Barth adding stride piano, along with touches of Errol Garner and Monk.

The second set opened with Morgan's "Petty Larceny", another raunchy piece of funk, which perhaps not coincidentally found Warfield quoting Hank Mobley's "Funk in the Deep Freeze" during his solo. The tune also let bassist David Wong really stretch out for an impressive solo. When Stafford brought it back together it almost had the feeling of a revival meeting.

Stafford introduced the next song as one of the most beautiful songs he's ever heard, and I was hoping that he'd go back to his Billy Strayhorn tribute and do "Lush Life," which is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Instead they did Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma," which was both lyrical and swinging with a solid Afro-Latin beat, though after the intensity of "Petty Larceny," it was the one time during the night the energy crested. That changed when the group played "Yes I Can, No You Can't" next.

On the way in, I talked with Gail Austin and Mensah Wali of Kente Arts Alliance, who brought the Stafford band to town. The word was that their sound check alone was worth the price of admission. While making announcements between sets, Wali asked the audience to "trust us," meaning that the Alliance (now in it's tenth year) always works hard to present a good show, something worth coming out for. It got me thinking that the people in attendance already trust them but it's the ones who didn't come out who need to keep that in mind. While Stafford might not exactly be a household name, you don't need to know his whole catalog because, in person, he'll blow you away. Following that line, he's also the kind of performer that should make more jazz fans remember Kente Arts down the line, realizing that a show of theirs is worth the investment. With a fall schedule coming up that includes vocalist Rene Marie and drummer Louis Hayes, keep your eyes peeled for their schedule.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Tommy Keene & Ivan Julian at Club Cafe

This past week wasn't as much of a whirlwind of shows and crazy deadlines as the week before. I had a talk with Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah on Monday afternoon. He was calling from the road and I was worried that the signal was going to die at any moment. It had that feeble high whine on the line that I hear on calls right before the dreaded "click" of hang-up or disconnect. Lucklily, the connection held for the duration of our talk.

When City Paper came out on Wednesday, more people seemed to notice my Back Page column, titled "My Life as a Supervillain," than they ever do for my previews. Of course my photo appeared in it too, so that helped. If you read this in time, come out to Row House Cinemas tonight to see the first four chapters of Heroineburgh. 

Tuesday night, my good pal John Young and his compadre Steve Morrison (who's also a friend - though JDY is my proxy-brother) opened for Tommy Keene and Ivan Julian at Club Cafe. I didn't get any photos of John and Steve but enjoyed their set. They're playing together electrically in the Optimists, but tonight it was just them and acoustic guitars (well, Steve had pedals so he might have been electric). Their set included some songs that dated back to when John and I were roommates, which were good to hear. They still hold up as solid tunes. Plus the new ones are strong too because those two are both good for lyrics that set a scene or tell a story.

I've blown the minds of a couple this week of people who didn't know about Ivan Julian's past. Most people know him as the guitarist with Richard Hell & the Voidoids that wasn't Robert Quine. But few, it seems, know that he was in the Foundations, the '60s band that had a hit with "Build Me Up Butttercup." I think he might have been a teenager at that point. In 2011, he released the album The Naked Flame which, among other things, indicated that Quine was not responsible for all the wild guitar noise on Blank Generation. 

He opened his set with (early) Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well" which showed off his guitar chops (and made me wonder how he was tuned) and also made me wonder what direction he'd take in his set. They consisted pretty much of originals after that, and included a guest appearance by Pittsburgh drummer Dave Klug (also of the Optimists) on djembe when Julian asked for a drummer from the audience. For that one, he switched to an instrument which was kind of like a lap steel with buttons to hold down chords. He finished up with "Hardwired," which includes the immortal line, "It's going to be my day/just to piss it away." A quick look around the internet seems to want to put Julian in league with Jimi Hendrix, but in the end he came off more like a combination of his friend Richard Hell with a little bit of Arthur Lee of Love.

Tommy Keene is one of those guys who's been around forever. John Young profiled him in Discourse, the zine that we did together in the '90s. But I've never gotten around to fully investigate Keene's music. Going into his music virtually cold on Tuesday, though, there was plenty to latch onto. With that 12-string guitar and strong voice, and lyrics that went somewhere, he had me and the whole audience in rapt attention. For an encore, Julian joined him onstage and the duo traded verses on the Rolling Stones "Mother's Little Helper."

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Concert Preview - Terell Stafford Interview

Saturday, April 29
8 p.m. $30.

This weekend, Kente Arts Alliance continues their impressive series of concerts by national jazz acts, the likes of which don’t often get to Pittsburgh – or at least haven’t in quite some time. Terell Stafford plays the trumpet with the kind of edge and authority that comes from his predecessors, like Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown. But while Stafford is deeply steeped in tradition, he’s not consumed by it. The most recent recording under his own name was Brotherlee Love (Capri), a tribute to hard bop legend Morgan. While it goes for the same spirit of the man responsible for “The Sidewinder,” Stafford and his quintet make sure that they’re not merely bowing down to the masters and copying the originals. He and his longtime collaborator Tim Warfield (tenor saxophone) bring plenty of modern spark to the Morgan classics. That came a four years after This Side of Strayhorn, his salute to Pittsburgh’s native son who became Duke Ellington’s right hand man.  Stafford also recently took part in Forgive and Forget, an album composed entirely by saxophonist Herb Harris, and the second in Harris’ Jazz Masters Unlimited Series.

In addition to his work as a performer, he works in academia. At Temple University’s Bayer College of Music, he serves as Director of Jazz Studies and Chair of Instrumental Studies. He’s also the Managing and Artistic Director of the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia.  If all that wasn’t enough of a c.v., go to terellstafford.com and check out the list of people he's played with, from McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Heath, just to name a couple.

He and I spoke by phone last week. Our conversation is here.

When you come to Pittsburgh, are Tim Warfield (tenor saxophone) and Bruce Barth (piano) going to be with you?

They sure will. On bass will be David Wong and on drums, Billy Williams.

You and Tim go back quite a way. How far, exactly?

Probably 24, 25 years ago.

What’s it like playing with someone and having such a deep rapport with them?

Actually it’s amazing how many people don’t know when I became interested in playing jazz, because I have two degrees in classical trumpet. Tim was the one that invited me to his house and said, “Let’s check out some records.” We transcribed together. He was just so gracious and he showed me so much. From that point, he and I started to travel in the Harrisburg area to local clubs to play together. These club owners would hear us and hire us as a team to play with local rhythm sections. And that was his game plan.
And we’ve done that for 25 years or so. Whether he works in my band or I work in his band, if we read a tune together or if we haven’t played something in a while, it doesn’t take long for us to connect, immediately, and sound like one of— whatever, one thing.

Playing with someone like Tim is like being in a great relationship, or marriage. You think you know your spouse really well but everyday you’re finding more and more and more. Tim is undoubtedly my best friend. And I love making music – and I love hanging out with him. We both love to cook. So we’re always sending each other our new dishes. It’s a great relationship.

What does Lee Morgan mean to you?

In so many ways, he was such a genius on the trumpet. I don’t feel enough people knew about Lee Morgan because he had a short time on this earth. [Morgan was shot by his common-law wife Helen More in 1972, when the trumpeter was 33 years old.] I feel like everything he played —from fiery things to ballads, the full spectrum — he always played with heart.
I remember when I joined [alto saxophonist] Bobby Watson’s band, Bobby made a statement: Every time you step on the bandstand, you should play like it’s your last opportunity to play, because you just never know. When he said that, it always reminded me of Lee Morgan because I always felt that Lee Morgan gave 150% every time he would play the music. I always admired that about him.

The years I played with Shirley Scott, she could do mothing but talk about Lee Morgan constantly. It was amazing. She and I did Bill Cosby’s show, You Bet Your Life, and we did that for three years. We’d drive together from West Chester, Pennsylvania and we both taught at this college, Cheyney University and our offices were two doors down. We’d hang out all the time and listen to records. She just loved everything that Lee Morgan did. And that was really influential. I really started to study his articulation and phrasing and how he would manipulate chord changes and the use of the diminished.

Of all the people I love and admire like Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard, I want to sound like them because they’ve influenced me, not just to be a carbon copy of these great artists. That’s what I really wanted to do with this project with Lee. I didn’t want to come in and just sound like Lee Morgan. I wanted to bring that spirit and intent in which he played and the intent in which I interpret his playing and put that into a CD.

Was it easy to pick the songs for the album?

Yes. There are songs that you hear that you like. The risk that you take is because some of them aren’t like the more popular songs. But they’re the songs that are fun to play over. There are songs that are fun to listen to. Choosing wasn’t so hard. I know he had a lot of great material. But this material always hit home, the songs that we picked. We probably had about eight or 10 others that we didn’t record. And of the songs that we did record, there were about two or three others that we couldn’t put on the CD because there was not enough space. So with what we chose, there was some deliberation. That’s when you lean to your producers. And [bassist/bandleader] John Clayton produced it. We sat down and decided so it wasn’t so bad.

Was “The Sidewinder” in the running, or did you avoid that one?

That was one on the list. We recorded it but there wasn’t room on the record.

Do you think you’ll do a follow-up?

It’s really funny that you say that. After I did my Strayhorn record, the Strayhorn family and I were close before we did it. After I did it, that’s when the relationship really began. Because they started to send me tunes that he had, that they really wanted me to play. They wanted me to do some vocal charts and they had suggested vocal things.
I pretty much have a second Strayhorn record because the Strayhorn family is so into it. And the same thing with Lee Morgan. I met a gentleman — I can’t remember his name right now — in D.C. He has pretty much everything Lee had ever done. He’s a total trumpet geek. He’s like, “You’ve got to do more.”

I’m torn. Do I keep pursuing the path of creating all this music that’s been lost? Do I say okay, I’m going to sit down and write some tunes? Part of me wants to keep recreating because it’s great music. That’s an area where I have to really sit down and figure out what’s the next step. 

What kind of teaching are you doing these days? Classroom settings?

15-16 years ago, I did a lot of classroom things. But then the Dean came to me and said, “We want you to continue your performing and maintain a high profile as a performer. The only way you can do that is if you became Director of these programs. It’ll give you some freedom. It’s a little more paperwork, but you have freedom and you can travel as much as you want.”

When he dangled that carrot in front of me I went, woah! So I did that and I became Director of Jazz Studies. That program has grown. It’s doing really well. Then six years ago, [I became] Chair of Instrumental Studies. It’s growing. It’s a great program. That’s the more challenging out of the two. A lot more personalities to deal with.
But as far as what I teach, I teach trumpet students and I conduct a top big band. And there are five big bands at this school.

What’s it like teaching now, with kids who have a chance to be exposed to so much music before the come in? Do they know what they want, or are they looking for direction?

The ones that know what they want are usually deficient in other areas because, it’s like tunnelvision. They know what they’re pursuing, this – I can’t say false reality – but this dream to be a famous jazz musician. I always let them know that I think the outcome should be of you someday being a famous jazz musician. But on the way there, I think maybe you should get your fundamentals on the instrument together so that you can play all [the music] and not just a few things. Make sure you study the history of your instrument. Those two are the biggest [issues] when it comes to a lot of students. Many of them have studied modern players of their time. The Nicholas Paytons, and Sean Jones, who are all my favorites. But none of them have taken the time to go back and check out Cootie Williams and Roy Eldridge and Louis Armstrong or anyone of those guys. So there’s a deficient part of their playing.
A lot of trumpet players these days put that “jazz” label on their forehead and they don’t spend time with [different chord changes]. And they should because maintaining your fundamentals allows you to get over the instrument with as much ease as you can.

It seems like now there’s so much music readily available that you can explore.

They do. They come in with more knowledge than I came in with. But sometimes with all that at your fingertips, it can make you somewhat lazy. We had to work finding a recording or getting this or getting that. They have a lot there. They need a good strong work ethic. It’s something that I see necessary.

Now, you’re involved with the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia – is it four years old?

Yes. My title is artistic and managing director of it. We’ve been trying to program a couple concerts a year at the Kimmel [Center for the Performing Arts]  and then we play two or three times outside the Kimmel, at different venues. This year we’re going to be doing the International Trumpet Guild, but that’ll be in Hershey, PA. Every trumpet player in the world will be at this trumpet conference.

Sounds like heaven!

Yeah, well…. It depends on how much you like the trumpet!

How many trumpet players are we talking?

Thousands. It’s a four-day conference, people fly in from all over the world. There’s tons of performances. It’s crazy, absolutely crazy. That happens the first week in June.
Then we’re doing our program on June 10,  A Night in Havana. It’s going to celebrate Cuban music and it’s also going to celebration the merging of Afro-Cuban music. Things seem to be going well, there’s always a need for more funding. But we’ve made it through a few years now so we’re doing alright.

I did wonder if the current administration has you worrying about your funding.

Absolutely. But what I say for everything is, if the Jazz Orchestra is meant to be, it’ll make it through even this administration. If it’s not, then it was good while it lasted.

Does Philadelphia have a built-in support system for the music – audience?

You know what, we have. For every concert that we’ve done, they’ve been sold out. There’s a good amount of people that come out and support it. They’re very loyal, they’re very educated and they’re sophisticated listeners. They appreciate the artists that come in. From that perspective it’s great.

In Philly now there’s a couple clubs who get an international artist, national. And they’re smaller, more local clubs. So from that perspective things are starting to come back. For a while it was really, really dismal. It feels pretty good right now.

The Forgive and Forget album – all the tunes were by Herb Harris?

Yeah. Very interesting proposition – he called me and said, “I wrote a bunch of tunes and I want you to play them.” I said sure. So Tim Warfield and Kevin Hays [piano], Rodney Green [drums] and Greg Williams [bass], we all came to the studio. We recorded it. When he said he wanted me to record his tunes, I totally envisioned he’d be the leader of the session. I thought it would be “Herb Harris featuring these guys.” But it’s my record! My father called me and say, “Hey, you didn’t tell me you had a new record out.” I said, “I don’t think I do!” Then he took a picture of it and I said, “Oh I guess I do!”

That was probably one of the most challenging record dates I’ve done, in many ways. I have this philosophy like a lot of people: You play the material for a week or two and then you go into the studio. Pretty much with all that material, we walked into the studio that morning, got it, played it. Nine hours later that record was done.
[Herb] had a concept. He picked the guys in the band. He did it all. He picked the studio. He decided on the solos, the lengths of the solo. The only thing I did for this record was I came in and played. Which is like a vacation compared to my other records!

Are you working any of that into your live set?

We’re sticking with our own stuff for now. That stuff would take a lot of rehearsal to get it together. It’s hard to assemble the ensemble that recorded it. But maybe we’ll work a couple tunes up and play them in the future.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Last Week - A Recap of Selected Live Shows

Last week was surely the Week of Music. (The Week in Rock sounds better, but it wasn't all rock, as the following will bear out.)

Sebadoh played at Club Cafe last Wednesday to a sold-out crowd. It seemed like they were thrilled with the fact that the place was sold-out, as if it didn't happen to them normally. Because of that, they were in a good mood and very talkative onstage. Well, Jason Loewenstein always seems to be a good mood, but Lou Barlow was the same way - very engaged. 
Lou still looks pretty shaggy these days, with a mop of hair and plenty of facial hair. It was hard getting a good shot of him during the show. I'm always self-conscious about using the flash.

They played for about 75 minutes, including encores. Loewenstein moved to guitar midway through the set and got to sing a good number of his songs. The way he and Barlow fret chords on the guitar, it looks as if some feeble, plinkety sound should be coming from their amps. But the results always came off with a roar. Lou's secret was probably due to some unique guitar tunings. The one pictured above looks like a 12-string with six of the tuning pegs removed. Same with their respective bass duties. Both were putting their thumbs over the neck which is not "traditional" technique (which I'm sure they don't care about), and it can really make it harder to play. Even when Loewenstein played up the neck, the results were full and loud.
Drummer Bob D'Amico kicked butt too.

Thursday night, my musical week continued when my son played with All City Band at the August Wilson Center, Downtown. There were a few All City ensembles playing but - this is not just a proud Dad talking - the group he was in sounded the strongest. He was playing percussion, in this case a practice pad filling in for a snare drum. Those things carry a distinct sound too. They aren't just piddly things built to keep parents from going crazy while listening to drum practice. 

Friday night, it was on to the Carsickness reunion! Folks outside of Pittsburgh might not know, but Carsickness was a reputable arty punk band in town from about 1979 to 1988. (I wrote about this reunion and their recent compilation reissue for City Paper). They performed at SPACE Gallery, also Downtown, surrounded by pictures in the Non Punk Pittsburgh exhibition, making it the first Carsickness show in almost 30 years. (Several of the band members were also in Ploughman's Lunch, which shifted in the direction of an Irish-Celtic feel.) Along with guitarist Karl Mullen, drummer Dennis Childers (co-curator of the art show) and keyboardist Steve Sciulli, the group was rounded out by bassist Paul Michael Ferraro and vocalist Maura Mullen (Karl's daughter). 

The night before this show, I walked past SPACE with my mother and wife, on the way to the August Wilson Center. Childers was sitting inside and we chatted for a minute. Mullen was supposed to have flown in that afternoon and practice was that night. However, the flight was delayed and the only practice they got happened a few hours before the show. All things told, they still sounded pretty good, channeling their youth rather than letting their age keep them from doing something they used to do. It helped that Childers was acting like the gravity pole, holding it all together. The Full Counts and the Nox Boys played prior to Carsickness but family obligations didn't allow me to get down to see them. Apologies.

But the evening wasn't over yet! Up the road, and over to the Brillobox, where once-and-forever Guided by Voices guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Tobin Sprout was appearing with his band. Arriving right as he was getting onstage, I was surprised that I was able to move around in the second floor performance space. I thought for sure the place would be packed, and perhaps even sold out. Instead, there was plenty of room to move around. 

Maybe it was the excitement of the evening, or maybe Sprout is the amazing songwriter I feel like I was hearing that night. But his hour-long (75 minutes, maybe?), 27-song set was one hit after another. He writes in a very traditional pop song format, strumming out those barre chords, but sometimes when a chord is attached to a strong melody, the combination of those two creates a feeling of suspense for where the melody will go next. Will it follow a 1-4-5 progression? Will it just bounce on this one chord for 90 seconds and then stop? No - they banged on a D chord for a while and shifted to C! What a release! What a hook! Yeah, I might have heard it before, but these guys keep it exciting, making me feel like it's brand new.

Incidentally, the above picture was taken with the flash on. While standing pretty close to Sprout, I still couldn't really see his face. There were no lights on the stage pointing at the guys' mugs. So I didn't really see him until I looked at this picture. Then there was the question of Sprout's guitar amp. The speaker looked like an old time box fan and the head looked like a sewing kit or something, with two lights on it. 

The next morning was Record Store Day. I decided I wanted to try to get the unearthed Thelonious Monk soundtrack album so I got up early and waited in line at Juke Records. They had one copy of it, and I didn't get it. I bought two CDs and went home.

That night, Michael Bisio and Avram Fefer played at Polanzo's, which I suppose is now the name of the Liberty Avenue venue, after a brief moment of being called Distro. (It used to be Polanzo's Beer Distributor.)

Caleb Gamble and Joel Kennedy opened the night with some trumpet/drums free improv duets, which were interesting in part because the drum kit (I think that was Joel playing it) had the snare and floor tom reversed, and he wasn't playing in reverse. He also had two roto toms and a kick drum that was tuned to deliver a low drone note. The trumpet lines were good too - not just breathy smears, but fragments of melody and long tones.

Bisio and Fefer was great. Avram started out on bass clarinet, with tenor and alto saxophones waiting in queue. A few of the opening themes sounded familiar. I thought I recognized "BC Reverie" from their Painting Breath, Stoking Fire disc from 2005 that I rediscovered last week. There were several sections like this, where they'd come out of a wild, free improvisation and jump into a fast melody that had Bisio moving all over the neck of his instrument, bowing or plucking as the situation called for it.

I was fully planning to head out after their set, back over to Brillobox to catch the Full Counts CD release show. But things got sidetracked with Michael Bisio asked if I wanted to grab a drink with him and Fefer. It's not often that I get invited out for a round with fellows like this, so I couldn't say no. Then, when they asked where to go, I suggested Brillobox anyway, hoping the first floor wouldn't be too jam-packed with people carousing and colliding into each other. I suppose because there were about three other shows going on concurrently, the place was also easy to manuever and we got a booth, along with openers Caleb and Joel, and my friend Toby.

Everyone was content with a single round, so we said our goodbyes and I made it upstairs just as the Full Counts were getting ready to kick off the first song. As I said in City Paper last week, bassist Eric Vermillion is a belter and was wailing away through their set. While I've heard him do faster, shorter songs, the Full Counts get pretty meaty, with regards to tempo and wailing guitar leads from Rich Hirsch.

It's hard to get a good amateur shot at Brillobox. I got lucky the night before with Tobin Sprout but half the pictures of the Full Counts were kind of smoky, which is funny because the place is smoke-free.

Since I was coming back to the neighborhood, I decided to pop into Gooski's to see if the Carsickness show was still going on. It wasn't but there were still plenty of folks hanging around, including my long-lost friend Mike Michalski, who I haven't seen in ages, since he moved out of town. I knew there was a reason to wander in there that night.