What is to be done?

On these three extended tracks, the trio of saxophonist Larry Ochs, guitarist Nels Cline and versatile Detroit-born drummer Gerald Cleaver put structured improvisation through a metal-meets-free jazz wringer, for lack of better characterization.   Starting off on an ominous note, the music feels like a controlled experimental rock jam performed by seasoned free jazz players. It’s dark, grooving, exploratory, and never really settles on one mood but mixes it up as it goes along. Cline brings a sonic palette to the table – loops, pedals, effects – that makes the music both forward-looking and anchored in the far edges of the genres it channels. The opener “Outcries Rousing” sets the agenda for the ensuing improvisation. This is a world of smoldering ashes and throbbing ruin. Nothing here gets unbearably loud though the three improvisors create a lot of intense momentum as they go from whispered rumbles to searing jams. “A pause, A Rose” finds the trio reassessing the damage done in slow motion, building to new horizons while looking back to spooky 70s Sun Ra. Cleaver is happy to keep the grooves simmering under the surface, never really locking into a steady beat but suggesting more chaos is coming. The third and concluding track “Shimmer Intend Spark Groove Defend” is almost self-explanatory. Blasts of fuzzed-out guitar and saxophone coughing honks stumble and dovetail as Cleaver’s drums orchestrate the demolition in subtle lockstep.

An enthralling performance for our troubled times.

What is to be done is out on the impeccable Clean Feed record label.

Bill Frisell, Harmony

      

Guitarist Bill Frisell has carved out a singular path in the jazz world, consistently sticking to his roots and American folk influences while establishing himself as a fixture on a plethora of recordings by jazz’s most idiosyncratic players, from Paul Motian to Andrew Cyrille. For an artist whose distinctive music is equally informed by The Beach Boys and Thelonious Monk, commonality lies in a deep commitment to and love of the song regardless of the strictures of genre.  

On this debut album for Blue Note as a leader, Frisell has assembled a quartet of long-time collaborators, namely Hank Roberts on cello, Luke Bergman on vocals, guitar and bass, and, the featured instrument, Petra Haden’s vocals. This collective is called Harmony. The singer’s lead vocals infuse this eclectic canon of songs with poignant delivery and an amazing ability to nail the deep core of each tune. Roberts and Bergman sometimes complement Haden’s voice with unison singing, making this a de facto harmony singing chorus, as on the heartfelt “God’s Wing’d Horse”. The album kicks off on a subdued note, an eery voice choir segueing into the duo of Frisell and Haden (yes, the late jazz bassist’s daughter) on the haunting “Everywhere”; though technically, the guitarist doesn’t use his vocal cords but plays his heart out with his signature spacious guitar strings. Comprising 8 original songs of Frisell’s and 6 covers culled from the folk, Americana and jazz repertoire, the album flows so seamlessly together that all the boundaries of genre seem to break down from the second these voices blend. Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” is the lone jazz standard on the album and it gets a sparse and straightforward treatment by Frisell and Haden as if the song’s rich harmony didn’t need any more embellishment.  “Honest Man” is the dreamy prelude to the folk song “Red River Valley”, rendered in a cappella harmony, Frisell laying out completely. For that matter, however inevitably present on the album, Frisell’s spacious guitar doesn’t so much drive the band as it traces the contours of his musical soundscape, one that encompasses American folk traditions he cherishes and pushes them into present-day explorations. A case in point is Peter Seeger’s “Where have all the flowers gone”, which closes out the album with adventurous harmony, drawing previously undiscovered jewels from the tune. Frisell’s unmistakable touch on the guitar roves around the songs in understated accompaniment. It’s probably one of the most striking takeaways from this album made by an iconic guitarist who chooses not to make the guitar the focus of his album. An album released on the one of the most iconic jazz labels of all time.

On the album trailer video accompanying the release of Harmony, a good eye will probably notice the camera panning across Frisell’s bookshelves on which an impressive record collection (8’08) sits, neatly divided into genre sections. One of those is labeled “Weird Shit”. This is arguably as good a musical category as it gets. Isn’t it?

The Harmony quartet is Bill Frisell on guitars, Petra Haden on vocals, Hank Roberts on vocals and cello, Luke Bergman on vocals, guitars and bass

Check out Bill Frisell’s album teaser:

Selected listening:

Jazz: Small town and Epistrophy (with bassist Thomas Morgan), Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul, Motian (Nonesuch),

Folk/Americana: Music Is, Guitar in the Space Age, and a lot more.

As a sideman: I have the room above her (with Joe Lovano and Paul Motian), The Declaration of Musical Independence (Andrew Cyrille quartet), and a lot more.

What one heard in 2019

In 2019, one heard a lot of music across multiple genres. Aside from intently focused or plain distracted home listening, one spent a considerable amount of time listening to music on headphones while commuting to and from work. Even though one definitely discovered new and engaging music in 2019, one was unable to come up with a top ten list of favorite albums actually released in 2019. Maybe one is not too big on year-end lists anyways. Be that as it may, one hopes you readers out there find your groove in this random selection and take a listen to some of the music.

January confirmed one’s relatively new interest in electronic music and its interactions with jazz, namely Mark Guiliana’s Beat Music and Brad Mehldau’s Gabriel. One was reminded that one had liked (for the most part) and been pleasantly surprised by their collaboration on Mehliana a few years back, an album of kindred spirits.  

February was bass month as double bassist Larry Grenadier released his first bass solo album The Gleaners on ECM, a musical event – one being a bass practitioner – one just couldn’t miss that one and had to dig deep into it once it was available. Though a longtime devotee, one was impressed with the scope of Grenadier’s bold project and how well he delivered on that promise. Bass is not just beautiful. In those hands, it approaches the transcendent.

In March, one went on a John Coltrane transcribing binge but mostly indulged oneself in idle listening to favorite masterpieces, including A Love Supreme, Sun Ship and Transition. One was reminded – if one needed to be reminded – of the lasting and timeless qualities of this divine music. French quartet Flash Pig also put out a great record in 2019, with the appropriately titled Year of the Pig. In March, one also dipped into the Carpenters for a week and wondered why the innocuous schmaltz of saccharine pop still somehow appeals to one’s ears. One assumes it’s about the harmony and Karen’s angelic voice.

April saw a deliberate urge to acknowledge women artists and feminize one’s male-centric Spotify downloads. As in most art, there are just as many great women in music as there are men but it takes twice as much effort to track them down online. One particularly enjoyed listening to guitarist Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl, pianist Kris Davis’ discography as leader and sidewoman, Angelica Sanchez on drummer Chad Taylor’s Circle Down album, and Angelika Niescier’s New York trio. On the more swinging front, one appreciated (and still does) the work of bassist/vocalist Katie Thiroux. One has probably forgotten a few more.

In May, one was turned on to singer Gabriel Kahane, about whom one knew nothing. Kahane has written some poignant songs, as epitomized by his Book of Travelers album, where he accompanies his short stories on piano. In May, one also set out to fill a gap in one’s knowledge of Stravinsky’s ballets russes. Accordingly, one listened and daydreamed to various renditions of Appolon Musagète, Firebird, and The Rite of Spring. One also checked out Tim Hecker’s follow-up to Konoyo, namely Anoyo, and enjoyed the ride.

What the hell did one listen to in June? Not knowing where to look, one assumes one played one’s musical obsessions on a loop. Somehow one only remembers listening to Armand Hammer’s Paraffin on a crowded subway ride, wondering how to search for good hip hop when one has lost touch with the state of rap these days.

One highlight of July has to be a drive through Pennsylvania’s pastoral countryside with very dear friends, and that moment when Bill Callahan’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest came on. Just perfect. One thinks one revisited Eric Revis’ City of Asylum and Crowded Solitudes at some point that month.

One is positive one listened to music on a daily basis in August. But one is equally positive one didn’t discover anything new or catch up on any new release. One probably kept the same music on rotation. With Bach’s cello suites and keyboard inventions a comforting touchstone.

September flew by but one really enjoyed the Stranahan, Rosato Zaleski trio’s Live at the Jazz Standard. What a great chemistry these three have. In a different style, one latched on to the trio of Reid Anderson (of The Bad Plus fame), Dave King (same) and Craig Taborn and their outfit Golden Valley is Now. Wow, one sure didn’t see that one comin’!  And so one had to review it here.

In October, the highly awaited Activate Infinity by the Bad Plus came out. The second one since Orrin Evans replaced Ethan Iverson on piano. Up there with everything they’ve done so far. October also brings the Fall season and – out of nowhere – Ivo Pogorelich playing a selection of Sonatas by Beethoven and Rachmaninoff came on the radio. One immediately checked out the full album. A timely and inspired offering.

In November, one reveled in the power of the bass, as one would. One stumbled on the duo of Scott Colley and Benjamin Koppel. Their album How to get there is as good as this kind of dialogue can get. Also, one got to listen to Chris Speed, Chris Tordini and Dave King’s Respect For Your Toughness (reviewed here) a lot. One saw this trio live and vividly remembers it. One will definitely look out for the next adventure.

In December, one chanced upon Arvo Pärt’s The Deer’s Cry, as performed by the Vox Clamantis ensemble (ECM) and was sucked into its choral beauty. While one listened to other music that month, this one probably tops anything else in peacefulness and lyricism.

Of course, one took some detours through some old-time favorites and heard a lot more than is featured here. But off the top of one’s head, this is it.

Who knows what one will be listening to in 2020?  How weird can the pronoun “one” get?

Respect for Your Toughness

The history of the saxophone trio may not be as well documented on record as that of the piano trio. Undoubtedly though, there is no shortage of all-time classics gracing the genre’s continuing story, from Sonny Rollins’ Village Vanguard 50s recordings to this new and delightful offering by the Chris Speed Trio. On this 10-track album, the trio lets loose with freewheeling blowing and honed-in chemistry, keeping things stripped down and tight.  Chris Speed has a lithe tone that almost sounds “classical” in its delivery despite the sinuous lines he plays on the tunes. The two other thirds of the trio, namely drummer Dave King and double bassist Chris Tordini, complement the sound with a deeply anchored foundation that’s propulsive and engaging throughout. The album starts off on a quiet note with “Can this be love?”, Speed weaving his way around the melody with sparse lines moving along in fits and starts, King and Tordini embracing the spaciousness of the mood with subtle rhythmic and harmonic counterpoint. Notice how Tordini casually restates the melody at various points “under” Speed’s brooding soloing. Soon enough, “Attention Flaws” kicks the mood up with drums and bass locked into a solid groove that Speed is only too keen to build on. Credit must be given to King and Tordini for having an infectious beat that keeps the music firmly grounded and loose at the same time. “Helicopter Lineman” has a driving vibe somewhat reminiscent of Joe Henderson’s tune Inner Urge, swinging hard and reveling in tension and release. The record has an immediacy that may equally please the modern jazz fan and the layperson.  Ranging from the subdued to the exploratory, the album packs in many nice tunes, oftentimes simple sparse melodies with a compelling rhythmic figure. “Taborn to Run”, presumably an homage to fellow musician, pianist and composer Craig Taborn is a case in point. King builds a very busy and fast beat while Tordini lays down a slow motif against it, allowing Speed to dance around those, picking up ideas from both.  “Yard Moon” sounds like a rhythm changes tune naturally bent to the purposes of a modern-day odd-meter vehicle. Well done. “Transporter” is a fitting coda. The melody sounds like an indie rock tune from the 90s, played here like a gentle ballad, each instrument fading out to silence. With no song exceeding 6 minutes, the band does get a story told on each track and has enough space to develop ideas as a collective.

An unpretentious and inspired record by a great trio.

Respect for your toughness is out on Intakt Records.

Check out their previous albums Really Ok and Platinum on Tap.

Other notable contemporary saxophone trios for your consideration:

Fly trio (Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier, Jeff Ballard), JD Allen trio.  

Classic saxophone trio albums:

Sonny Rollins, A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note,1957)

Lee Konitz, Motion (Verve, 1961)

Ornette Coleman, Golden Circle, Town Hall 1962…

Activate Infinity, The Bad Plus

Activate Infinity, The Bad Plus

A caveat is in order: a little search through the archives would probably reveal that yours truly is heavily biased in favor of the band and has possibly reviewed every single album since the blog was started. This one had to be covered here…

Activate Infinity comes hard on the heels of Never Stop II, released in 2018 with Orrin Evans replacing Ethan Iverson on piano, and given the watershed lineup change the trio experienced, it’s just mindboggling that they all continue to be such prolific composers. Not to mention that every new album comes with a hectic schedule of worldwide touring. These guys just never stop.

Kicking off with Reid Anderson’s “Avail”, the album suggests the trio is in top form. Strong melody, infectious beat, tight interaction, and that signature style combining rhythmic agility and a well honed sense of drama. Exhilaration is all over the record as the band tackle their own material forcefully, going for broke, pushing and pulling, surprising themselves – hear Dave King’s “Oh” at 2:51? – and always embracing the song.  “Slow Reactors” picks up steam as the trio explores the underlying gems of this cinematic theme.  Storytelling seems to be a popular word in the journalistic world these days. Well, this band has consistently excelled at it, often telling memorable stories in the span of a few minutes. How great to find that drummer Dave King’s “Thrift Store Jewelry”, which originally appeared on their 2007 Prog album, made it onto this one. Pianist Orrin Evans brings his soulful touch to the proceedings, and makes it clear he had been a fan of the trio a long time before he actually became a fulltime member. On “The Red Door”, you’re taking a jaunty ride in the country but before you know it, the tune you were humming along to hits a bump and you’re riding down a rollercoaster, full of sharp turns and wild loops. “Looking In Your Eyes” takes things down a little bit, a quiet rubato theme meanders through a peaceful land, a welcome break before Dovetail Nicely takes over, a well-titled vehicle where all the parts fit nicely together, bass, drums and piano in lockstep, navigating the classic Bad Plus tempo shifts. The thing about The Bad Plus is that everyone seems to be holding the steering wheel, hitting the accelerator, jamming on the brakes, swerving past the obstacles, they’re all monitoring the situation collectively. “Undersea Reflection” is a case in point. The hardcore fan will possibly be reminded of tunes like “Anthem for the Earnest” from their 2005 Suspicious Activity album, except that the production here is closer to what the band sounds like live. What a great choice to finish off with “Love is the Answer”, an oldie from the band’s very first album, revamped with better production here if you ask me. Bassist Reid Anderson’s lyrical tune unfolds with simmering intensity, leaving space for his beautiful tone to shine in the solo spot. 

Maintaining such a high standard of quality and creativity after over 20 years is a rare achievement. Few bands, regardless of genre, have done it. Somehow, The Bad Plus always defies expectations. If anything, love may be the answer.

Buy the album here on their Bandcamp.

Massive Threads, Kris Davis

Massive Threads, Kris Davis

Canadian-born pianist Kris Davis has carved out a singular path on today’s jazz/free music scene. Having released a dozen records in various instrumental configurations, the composer nurtures a deeply ingrained attraction to sonic exploration, and, more specifically,  the tonal variety her instrument is capable of. On this solo album from 2013, the pianist takes a deep dive into freewheeling abstraction, breaking down ideas and melodic motifs, embracing silences as springboards for improvisation, and basically seizing the chance the solo format offers to bounce off of her own improvising. The album hovers between cumulative improvisation where simple ideas grow into sprawling deconstructions and introspective takes on familiar standards, such as Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence”, slowly dissected and reconfigured into a new vehicle that still stays true to the rhythmic fragmentation of Monk’ tune. “Desolation and Despair”  probes the depths of silence, sprinkling in high notes that come as percussive punctuations over the dark chords in the low end. Kris Davis has made her mark as a jazz and avant-garde music performer and composer, and this album feels like a condensed meditation on her impressive career at that point. It’s about weaving together those “massive threads”  resulting from multiple collaborations with like-minded peers – Craig Taborn, Ingrid Laubrock, John Zorn, Tony Malaby, Tyshawn Sorey to name a few –  and bringing out a voice equally inspired by Cecil Taylor and Claude Debussy.  The eponymous “Massive Threads” is a shining example of that, stringing together several moods seamlessly, and exploring the full range of the piano along the way. Apocalyptic clusters segue into a melody that gradually shifts down the low register and back up. “Dancing Marlins” kicks off like a tentative rain patter,  stumbling along in fits and starts but somehow dancing to its own pulse. The pianist does not refrain from repeating high-pitched notes for contrasting effect and it just feels right.

The opening track is called “Ten Exorcists” and does sound as if conjured up from a trance ritual, building up from epileptic drum-like patterns into cascading ripples across the keyboard. While the pianist utilizes some extended techniques  – essentially hammering and tapping –   the music remains anchored in structured forms and song-like durations.

There is a certain humbleness to this project as the composer/pianist takes on a wealth of music and draws from it the elements most instrumental in her continuing creative growth. Her most remarkable achievement on this solo opus is her ability to connect the dots between extremely different musical universes.

The appropriately titled “Slow Growing” closes out the album on a quiet and suspenseful note, never really developing but suggesting more adventures to come. An important and certainly underrated voice.

There have been quite a few albums since Massive Threads. Check out her website and enjoy the videos. https://krisdavis.net/

Here is an EPK for Kris Davis’ upcoming album Diatom Ribbons, out on October 4th. https://vimeo.com/344184099

Suggested listening for a quick introduction to her work:

Duopoly, Good Citizen, Paradoxical Frog, Massive Threads, Octopus (duo with Craig Taborn), Rye Eclipse, and a host of greatly titled albums

Golden Valley

Reid Anderson, Dave King, Craig Taborn, GOLDEN VALLEY IS NOW

This is a godsend. Good music, like all things good, defies easy categorization. That the music on this first album was composed by such maverick figures as Reid Anderson and Dave King – of The Bad Plus fame – and like-minded composer/pianist Craig Taborn, immediately catches the music lover’s attention.  To top it all off, the three Midwesterners have known each other since they were teenagers, so getting together to make and release a first album at this particular time feels like a long overdue no-brainer. It’s coming out now for a reason. It took 25 years to come to be.

Bassist Reid Anderson is on the electric bass and electronics for this album, an appropriate choice for the rock-ambient soundscape unfolding across the ten tracks, and an ideal companion to Craig Taborn’s array of acoustic and electric keyboards. Dave King plays both acoustic and electronic drums, and fans of the versatile drummer will no doubt recognize his deft touch on the kit.

So, what shenanigans did the three friends forming this triumvirate pull this time?  In a nutshell, music that sounds immediately familiar, poppy, accessible, and yet so unclassifiable.

The opener “City Diamond” sets the tone for an album that meshes pop catchiness with jazz braininess, and before you know it, you’re nodding your head to its simple melody,  glossing over the broiling rhythmic foundation of Anderson and King, tossing curveballs left and right.

“Sparkles and Snakes” sounds like an 90s indie rock anthem Sonic Youth could have written while jamming out during the making of their Dirty album. Minus the shifting time signature and Taborn’s electric guitar-like synthesizer.

When it comes to acknowledging and embracing your musical roots regardless of genre and synthetizing them into a full-fledged offering a quarter of a century later, this comes close to perfection. Having grown up in the same cultural and musical environment, the three friends have a common ground to explore and do so with unrestrained enthusiasm and a keen sense of composition.

On the spacy slow-burner “This Is Nothing”, the music simmers out of a dream, plodding along to an unmapped destination. Taborn’s seemingly detuned organ-like keyboard keeps the mood spooky and vibrant at once.

The album has an enveloping quality that takes the listener on a dreamy adventure but not one where the brain just goes to sleep. Arguably all the tunes are hooky in a pop kind of way, but they all have a specific shape and unlikely foil that makes them more than what they seem to be on first listen. You’d expect no less from three experienced musicians equally at ease with jazz improv, 20th century classical modernism, alternative rock and what not.

“Polar Heroes” is a testament to these musicians’ surreal capacity at stacking blocks of sound and paring them down to their essential core. The song remains airy while building up momentum all the way through.

Now “You Might Live Here” is quite something. It has the kind of definitive inevitability that will make you wish you had grown up in Golden Valley, Minnesota, – small town America where three kids playing out of their garages somehow envision a path toward quality music. King’s four-to-the floor beat and Anderson’s even-note bass line bring to mind mainstream 80s pop dance music and make it sound actually lovable, eroding the strongest biases you may have against the 80s sound. Don’t hold back, eat your cotton candy and go for a joy ride.

For music that pulls on such a wide variety of influences, the album is tied together by a unity of vision and purpose: the fun of making music with your friends that celebrates common roots and textural diversity. On “Hwy 1000”, King’s Aphex Twin-style skittish drumming powers the layered motifs down a Californian – in fact Midwestern – road stretching away into the distance. You’re zipping along, windows down, but as usual, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the trip.

I have not read any reviews  for this album as I didn’t want to be influenced in any appreciable way. If you somehow stumbled on this post, here’s my recommendation on a long commute, or just any time of the day. Play this album through and just enjoy the vibe. Golden Valley, wherever you are, some talented musicians picked up on your hidden treasures. It’s about time.

A complex emotion

How did you come to jazz? To this question, I often find myself scratching my head and typically settle on a vague answer only made more vague by an impulsively apologetic shrug. “Well, you know, it just happened”. There was never any kind of jazz-related music playing around the house and even my childhood piano lessons didn’t put the genre on my radar the whole time I took them. It wasn’t exactly frowned upon or disregarded by my circle of friends and relatives. It simply didn’t exist. The closest I ever got to an awareness of the music growing up was a scuffed compilation CD of Glenn Miller my parents had left sitting on a dusty bookshelf in the living room. How did it get there in the first place? I will never know. As I moved into my late teens, I picked out a Coltrane retrospective CD while shopping with my parents at a grocery store in my hometown in France. I remember it had the song Russian Lullaby on it, the last track. I had never heard anything played with so much intensity and fire, at that breakneck speed. And no amp or savvy production to give it a boost. What the heck is this, I thought. This beat is infectiously fast! Is this humanly possible? From here on out, I went on a Coltrane binge – mostly the late and supposedly less accessible recordings – that didn’t leave much room for any other jazz artist or other music style for a while. After wearing out Stellar Regions and the Live at the Village Vanguard sessions – which ripped apart any sense of metronomic stability – I worked my way back through the earlier records and slowly gravitated toward the more straight-up swinging jazz I had only had a glimpse of before at the time. That’s when Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue caught my attention. Low and behold, it had my new hero on it, blowing his heart out on every tune. So, it is possible to make a truly distinctive and individual statement  in the most collective setting one can think of, I mused. Thus began my sinuous initiation to this thing called jazz. Twenty years down the road and a new instrument to practice – the double bass – I’m still struggling to define the contours of the art form. There are times when I just can’t take the polyphonic quality of some of the music and  go into a jazz-free regimen for days, only playing rap, classical and what not,  or no music at all.  Jazz can be overwhelming as complex emotions are.

I guess that’s where I’m getting at with his post.

As much as I have denied it defensively for years, I came to realize that yes, jazz is complex.  But complexity is not a sanctuary for intellectuals or an elitist class of the Enlightened. Human emotions are complex. To me, when played sincerely, jazz is the epitome of a complex human emotion, one that ties the cerebral to the elemental seamlessly. At the risk of overstating the point, we all have something jazz inside us. Sure, the term originated under unfavorable auspices. As the BAM (Black American Movement) controversy made abundantly clear, the word jazz itself is morally problematic when we look at its racist and derogatory beginnings. It’s no wonder, then, that most jazz lovers and haters are still fairly opinionated about where to draw the line between jazz and non jazz, not realizing that this line has never been and will never be scored in indelible ink.

To me, the difficulty of defining the genre is a testament to its cultural importance, enduring appeal and vital energy. It will not be pigeonholed because it has change, difference and human interaction at its core. I’ve always been struck by the fact that in the early days of the nascent jazz idiom – predominantly in the music of New Orleans – performers often played over each other and rarely got a solo spot to shine. They all soloed together simultaneously,  so to speak. Yet it was the combination of individual talents that shaped and guided the overall sound of the band. In that way, people like Louis Armstrong  or Duke Ellington clearly deserve the jazz originators label that they usually get credit for. Their music served as a catalyst of the marriage of Black folk culture and European classical-inspired white America.

Ask your friends if they listen to any jazz and the handful of those who do will likely mention a couple of classics from the 60s but probably nothing past this golden age of the music. I understand that, that’s what I started listening to when I was first turned on to it. It’s probably harder to know where to look for jazz artists today as the music is stylistically more varied than it was sixty years ago, and paradoxically a lot more accessible, just a click away on social media or the Internet in general. Yet, in this day and age of hip hop, pop or other-infused jazz, even today’s up and coming artists always have some kind of connection to these foundational roots, however unconsciously buried they may seem to be. 

Since this is a place where I should recommend things, I’d like to share some of the relatively recent releases that I have been listening to over the last year or so. Inevitably, they reflect my personal inclination but hopefully also the diverse range of music that today’s  “jazz” artists are creating. Jazz alert: the styles range from the post-post-post (are there more?) bop vernacular to plain esoteric stuff. As guitarist Bill Frisell simply puts it on his recent solo album, Music Is, “music IS”.

If any of you out there reading this wants to share their story of how they encountered jazz and how they look upon the music, I’d be very happy to feature their story as a guest post on wellyouneedit. So, fire away.

Matt Brewer  Mythology

Brad Mehldau   Gabriel

Flash Pig Year of the Pig

Andrew Cyrille Quartet  The Declaration of Musical Independence

Bill Frisell  Thomas Morgan  Small Town

Craig Taborn   Daylight Ghosts

Eric Revis  Sing Me Some Cry

Glenn Zaleski    My Ideal

Mary Halvorson   Code Girl

The Bad Plus  Never Stop II

Mark Guiliana  Quartet   Jersey

Etc…

Tim Hecker, Konoyo

Tim Hecker_Konoyo

Tim Hecker, Konoyo

By no means I am a knowledgeable expert on electronic music. In fact, I often think to myself I might have been missing out on important music in the last decade or so by disregarding the genre. Luckily, being a jazz nerd and musician, I am used to getting my ears pulled in the unlikeliest directions. And that’s exactly what happened when Tim Hecker’s new album Konoyo popped up on my radar. I’ve been sort of keeping track of the electronic music composer since I discovered his iconic Ravedeath album a couple of years ago. In many ways, this new opus is a confirmation of all the sonic qualities that have appealed to me in this music. A gritty soundscape of rough edges, full of fuzzy overtones, echoing blasts of seemingly abyss-born organisms, and most intriguingly, an orchestrated conflation of ancient traditional instruments and modern-day synthesizers.

Here again Hecker pulls off the difficult feat of making digitally processed music feel somewhat natural, and well, “acoustic”. His is an eerie world full of mystery and unidentifiable ghosts blasting in from the deep recesses of the ocean, earth, space, you name it. Whatever Hecker is looking for in his sonic excavations, there is certainly an elemental drive guiding the process, a sonic quest for music beyond music. Titles like “In Mother Earth phase mode” or “Death Valley” point to the deeper strata of our planet and whatever rumbling manifestations may inhabit them.

As on his previous offerings, Hecker seems to straddle an aesthetic divide that leaves the listener wondering what kind of musical world he or she can relate to. If you could imagine a symphony orchestra somehow performing on the ocean’s floor, you may be able to hear remnants of violin and brass sections oozing out through the murk. In fact, Hecker convened Gagaku musicians for this project, an ancient Japanese ensemble consisting of multiple flutes, drums and a pipe organ improvising to Hecker’s bandleader instructions and synthetic inputs. In contrast to the previous albums, the results seem a little more stark, as if all the multilayering process that defines the composer’s previous albums has been pared down to the elemental.

The opener “This Life” sets the tone for the ensuing variations around one major theme. On this faux-LAPD police siren choir, a skeletal melody surfaces and soon blends into a clangorous chorus of metallic drones and washes of synthetic static fading in and out. Every time anything remotely resembling a theme is offered, the composer undermines it, canceling any risk of singable catchiness.

On “Death Valley”, ancient Japan seems to drift by on a timeless American road trip gone wrong. Instruments feel like they literally drop from the sky against Hecker’s enveloping ether.

“Keyed Out” seems to have a kind of double bass tuned twenty octaves lower than its range and then explores a mesh of percussive strings, harp-like harmonics and reverberating flutes.

“Across to Onoyo” brings the album full circle. Here a whale song morphs into a sawmill-like ambiance in freeze mode. Of course, there is something ethereal and perhaps indulgingly dark at times about this music but repeated listens will always unlock new sounds to listen for and uncharted destinations to let the listener’s mind wander in.

There is something unpredictably poetic in how the tracks string together apparently unmatchable sound sources, as on “Mother earth phase”, where a cello drone naturally emerges from the preceding synthesizer buildup only to fade back into the abyss. Or consider this, the track called “Is a rose petal of the dying crimson light?”, arguably a good title for a song teetering on the edge of disappearance.

To be honest, I found myself drifting out several times at first – this is not your average I’m going to have this song stuck in my head all day kind of music – but I guess it’s the point of good ambient electronic music. When you’re about to give up, something unusual and heartwarming draws you back in.

Tim Hecker, Konoyo (Kranky, 2018)

ON TRANSCRIBING JAZZ AND THE REWARDS REVEALED THEREIN

bass and headphones

There are many lessons to learn from transcribing your favorite jazz musicians. It turns out that I’ve been on a saxophone transcribing binge lately, which I hope will not go away too soon. Or better still, I hope it will effectively become part of my day-to-day practice routine if I can put in the time and energy.

As any musician knows, jazz is a lifelong apprenticeship in many ways. You’ve got to learn the trade through hard work and patience and that’s that. Instrumentally speaking, it’s always been about intent listening, copying the masters, and incorporating whatever exciting or relatable stuff into one’s creative imagination. Your most insightful theory books on bebop harmony or modal language, however valuable they may be, have nothing on delving into someone’s creative mind and going through the spur-of-the moment process.

Now, I have to admit, the task has always seemed daunting to me, and the whole notation process so unforgivingly tedious. Time is tight, there’s so much stuff to practice, so many things that need work, errands to run, groceries to pick up, hell, a life to live, why bother to break down Coltrane’s solo on, say “Body and Soul”. Sure, it’s unbelievably searing, beautiful and just absolutely fantastic but you’re never going to sound like him. But here’s the flip side that hit me like a ton of bricks recently. Deep listening is worthwhile, and the consequences are profound.

You have to hear the music first, to absorb it thoroughly into you brain and body so that it becomes your natural pulse. And then, you write it down if you want to keep it on file for later use. You might want to go back to it later on, and that’s where notating the notes comes in. But other than that, it’s the hearing that matters. When you start being able to sing a phrase and internalize it so much that it feels like you created it in the first place, the rewards are pretty amazing. Before you even come to that point when you want to break it down and analyze the heck out of it, you want to hear the thinking, the vibe, the intuitive process, you want to feel and breathe as one with the improviser. To achieve that, you have to listen hard, very intently, over and over again.

As a bass player, transcribing 40 seconds of a saxophone solo makes life very challenging but worth living! It pushes you way out of your comfort zone and forces you to reach the limits of your own physicality. Of course, the immediate payoff is that you build your chops, get around this cumbersome instrument more easily and develop your articulation in a very exhilarating setting. For a few seconds, you play the trumpet like Miles Davis, piano like Thelonious Monk, and saxophone like John Coltrane. Except, you’re doing that on bass, not the easiest instrument for big intervallic jumps and fast runs. Delivery, hand speed, left and right arm coordination, intonation, rhythmic foundation, time feel, all of these are brought into sharp focus and any sloppy move will get you thrown off track in no time. It’s an ordeal to get it right.

Over the last few days, I’ve been trying to cop Coltrane’s opening statement/solo on “Resolution”, from the classic A Love Supreme record. What the hell has gotten into me? Why not pick a bass solo? There are so many inventive bass players these days to get ideas from. Well, the title is self-explanatory. I wanted to get “inside” that resolution. As an atheist, Trane’s love anthem to God has always moved me profoundly. That deceptively simple line, stated three times after Garrison’s rumbling double stop bass intro, has such an uplifting power it can get you out of your chair on the crappiest day.

Try to nail a saxophone phrase on upright bass without stumbling and see how that feels. I dare you. Before you know it, your hands are racing around the bass and tendinitis is just around the corner if you don’t hold your horses. Believe me, my sporadic morning jogs are a joke compared to the sweat I’m burning off on this. It took me about 10 hours of intense listening and practice to figure out Trane’s phrase right after the opening statement. Another 5 hours to be able to play it through, and that’s still a little choppy. About four seconds of music and countless hours of deep listening later and I’m still debating what fingering works best for that line. To my credit, I’m not using any phone app or transcription computer software that can slow down a piece of music for analytical purposes. So I plug in the headphones and listen, pause, go back, play, pause, listen, over and over again. And I haven’t written one note down yet.

What I think I’m doing though is that I’m tuning into the idea, the intention, the pulse, the drive, the rhythm, the tone, the feeling. The soul. In other words, I’m slowly starting to speak Coltrane’s language, much like I learned to write and speak English. I heard it, liked it, and decided to learn it. Ultimately, the goal is not to break out your Coltrane phrase on your next gig to impress your peers– though it may come up unwittingly – but to channel your influences beyond the natural parameters of your instrument. I doubt I will ever get through the entire Trane solo without impairing my chest and hands permanently but attempting and somehow managing to get a few bars down satisfies my soul beyond words. It’s not just about bass. It’s not just about virtuosity. It’s about expanding your creative horizons by incorporating something apparently impervious to imitation. To use a linguistic analogy, it feels like you’re piecing together a sentence in a language you don’t master yet. When does the sentence begin? When does it end? Is there an ascending or descending pattern in the tone? What kind of verbal process is used here? Do we have a relative clause that links disparate ideas together with well-placed commas, a kind of question and answer phrasing or do we hear a linear movement propelled by one powerful phrasal verb? How does the discourse (the melody) lay in the rhythm? It’s a tighly cohesive band. Everything is organically and beautifully integrated. Stunning. As I fumble my way through Coltrane’s “Resolution”, a melodic line based on an open-ended Eb minor scale, I discovered, I’m exploring a variety of fingerings I didn’t think were possible on the bass. Here’s another reward right there. I get to explore new territory on the fingerboard. Whether or not I will ever use those fingerings again in my own playing is unclear. It will probably depend on how many more hours of diligent practice will be needed for them to feel natural or make sense for one particular song that requires fast and clean execution. But beyond all that, what started off as an ear training exercise has become a more noble endeavor. I’m blowing fragments of a saxophone improvisation by one if not the greatest creator on the instrument, but I’m doing it by pushing air through weathered wood with my fingers.

The greatest lesson – or more accurately the most compelling reminder – I get from this workout is that to play fast successfully, you have to slow everything way down in your mind and body, be able to hear the punctuation, adjust your heartbeat to a snail’s pace, catch your breath in the little silences and imagine you have all the time in the world. For lack of a greater purpose, that’s enough to make my day.

 

The eternal John Coltrane quartet on Resolution

 

PS: My shot at Trane’s opening statement will probably appear on my Low Spectrum Instagram page when I have 40 seconds of listenable bass music together. Check back soon if you’re curious.