music

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…

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…

Fairly Wired – Skitter (video version)

The holiday season is just around the corner and I’m so glad I can share our new video with you all and give you something musical. I’m also very thankful that we have supportive friends helping out and throwing their creative talents into our band. Thank you my friends. You know who you are. Check out the video and share it if you like it!

 

The Bad Plus, New Morning,Paris, October 16th

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To say that The Bad Plus has consistently defied expectations since its inception back in the 2000s is an understatement. When I heard that pianist Ethan Iverson was throwing in the towel for other equally exciting musical adventures, I have to admit my heart sank. Hell, the teenagerish fan in me thought that the world was really coming to an end (is it?) and it would all go downhill from there! The simultaneous news that Orrin Evans was stepping in somewhat alleviated the shock though. After all, I knew Reid and Orrin (may I call you by your first names guys?) go back a long time and had played beautifully together back in the day, particularly in Orrin’s band in the late 90s. And I knew that this momentous replacement would not dent my fandom in any major way. What I didn’t know is how much this change was the best thing that could ever happen to this band at this point of their trajectory.

I’ve seen The Bad Plus over a dozen times in the Paris area, in rainy open-air festivals, dim-lit jazz clubs, and nice venues like the New Morning, and never once have I felt that they were resting on their laurels. Sure, I am a biased fan but given how many times I’ve checked them out, my statistics are pretty reliable.

So, my girlfriend and I made it to our seats in the 3rd or 4th row about an hour early, fidgeting with an anticipation that can hardly be described. If my memory is right, the trio started out with a song called Seams, which closes the album Never Stop II. And right away, it all felt familiar and oddly new at the same time. This slow-burner has a sparse melody sitting over a beautiful chord progression, the perfect opener for the seamlessly constructed set that followed. A rubato theme stumbles forward with bass and drums providing contrapuntal foil. It wasn’t the easiest choice to kick off the concert but they made it happen. Geez, these guys can build drama from scratch. I can’t remember the exact sequence of songs that followed, but I know they pretty much covered the new album, with a couple of old songs mixed in for yours truly’s pleasure. Reid Anderson’s emceeing in French added a humorous tone that spoke to the fun they all seem to have in playing this complex and unique music. On this old favorite of mine composed by drummer Dave King, Keep The Bugs Off your Glass And The Bears Off Your Ass (great title)- Reid soloed extensively and powerfully, making every note matter in Charlie Hadenesque fashion. As Orrin laid out, Dave punctuated his bandmate’s phrases with sizzling enthusiasm and a few vocalized “ha ha”(not sure how to transcribe this) before Orrin reentered to take the tune out.

Finding a replacement for a leaderless trio of this caliber has to be one of the most challenging things to do. This ideal replacement speaks to the musicians’ deep commitment to pursuing their art against ominous odds. It’s amazing to hear that this living organism withstood such a dramatic storm without a scratch. Musically at least. As much as I loved Iverson’s idiosyncratic style, Orrin brings something new and invigorating to the table without altering the essence of what this music is about. It was particularly moving to hear the pianist take on these old quirky Bad Plus songs, injecting his soulful groove-powered lines and still making it sound like The Bad Plus. You could hear the reverence for music he embraced as a listener a long time ago. He probably never would have thought that he would be part of the story many years down the road. The joy, the exhilaration was all palpable, the musicians sneaking smiles at one another, reveling in their newfound chemistry that yet seems to have been there forever. King’s arms flew around the drums in his signature octopus style but never overplayed. On the heaviest tunes, they all have each other’s back, dialed in, making sure that if they’re loud, the others are too. Astounding. By the time they got into Wolf Out, I could have howled my head off if it wasn’t for my natural timidity. As always, the trio shares composition credits equally, as demonstrated by Reid’s announcements between songs. Watching and hearing a band so dialed in to each other, so respectful of each other’s contributions to art in the moment is very uplifting. Reid Anderson’s Trace and Hurricane Birds were magnificent and showcased one more time his versatility as both a great bassist and composer. When the band came back onstage for the encore, they chose Everywhere You Turn off their 2003 album These Are The Vistas. Looking back and ahead to the future. One of the things I have loved from the get-go with this band is the joyful melancholia that radiates from the tunes. To me, it always feels like a comforting balm that says “it’s okay, we’re screwed, but, listen, we are going to be okay”. It’s not a bad feeling.

The Bad Plus has a new album out, Never Stop II.  Get it now. And go hear them live whereever they are.