Archive for the ‘Jazz’ Category
Monday, October 15th, 2007
A couple more concerts to report, and tomorrow I’m thinking about going to see Gongzilla despite never having heard them and not being all that much of a fan of Gong (not that I actually know whether or not the two bands’ music has much of any relationship).
Last week sometime I had the most efficient concert experience ever. Now that I go to tons of concerts, many of them by myself, I don’t really enjoy standing (or sitting) around waiting for bands to start. I try to time my arrival at the venue as close as possible to the band’s starting, and once I’ve had enough, I get the hell out of Dodge. In the past I felt some compulsion to stay for a band’s entire show even if I wasn’t enjoying myself. I have no such feelings anymore — or at least, I’m much better at ignoring them.
In any case, said efficient concert experience was Kidd Jordan at Twins Jazz. Jordan — who was the subject of a really nice interview at the Philadelphia Daily News just a couple days ago — was playing with his trio with pianist Joel Futterman and drummer Alvin Fiedler. I have a couple of this trio’s records, and really like one of them, Southern Extreme, on which Futterman reminds me a lot of Cecil Taylor.
In any case, I timed my arrival perfectly, getting to the club, ordering dinner, and then watching the trio take the stage no more than five minutes later. They played a single lengthy improv, somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour long. Futterman definitely struck me as having a style somewhat similar to Taylor, although much less percussive. The interplay between the three musicians during this completely improvised, free-blowing set was mesmerizing. Futterman and Jordan in particular had some really fist-pumping moments, and were as fun to watch as they were to listen to. This was definitely “difficult” stuff, with much in the way of conventional rhythm or melody, but in the live setting they really tore it up and the sheer energy was enough to win over most of the crowd on its own.
I had a lot of things to do that night, so I had to leave after the first set — which I managed to do and then get home in record time. All told, I was gone from the house for 90 minutes, and in that space of time saw 60 minutes of fabulous music and ate dinner. Now that’s an efficient concert experience. Ha.
And then last night I saw Nightwish, but I’ll save my writeup of that one for later.
Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007
Last Friday, John McLaughlin and his current band (The 4th Dimension) played at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, and despite the fact that I had a very busy and exhausting weekend ahead of me, I made a last-minute decision to show up. I would like to say I didn’t regret it, but I’d be lying. This might come as a surprise to a bunch of folks, but I really actively disliked this concert.
Instead of the burning Mahavishnu-like fusion I was hoping for, what I got was something that had plenty of million-notes-a-minute soloing but little in the way of edge or tension. An excessively smooth bass sound and some really, really silly keyboard timbres (courtesy of Gary Husband, with whom I’m more familiar as a drummer) contributed to the overall feel of watching four amazing musicians play something akin to virtuosic smooth jazz. I was pretty much bored from the minute I set foot in the auditorium, and while I stayed for the duration of the show, hoping things would improve, they never did. To me it almost seemed like McLaughlin was channelling John Petrucci — Dream Theater gone fuzak — while Husband insisted on playing virtuosic keyboard solos using the thinnest, tinniest, silliest possible sounds. Seriously, even the cheesiest prog band would avoid the dorky keyboard sounds he was employing.
Uh, so, I didn’t exactly enjoy that one. You win some, you lose some.
Sunday, September 23rd, 2007
The last (first) of the three concerts was Exploding Star Orchestra, whom I saw at Velvet Lounge on Thursday the 13th as part of DC’s Sonic Circuits festival. This is a festival of experimental music, mostly of the noisy electronic improv variety as far as I can tell. Certainly the five (!!) groups that played supporting sets at this show were along those lines: making a shitload of noise with the occasional rhythm and the even scarcer melody. The one exception was the last guy, who played some ironic rawk mixed in with more avant-garde stuff; I could have liked this stuff, but by that time wasn’t really in the mood for anything but the band I’d come to see, so I sat it out. Overall, this was not really my bag at all, especially since they all invariably played way, way, way too loud.
Exploding Star Orchestra, on the other hand, were refreshingly good. The actual band is a 12-piece jazz group headed by Chicago trumpeter Rob Mazurek, who have released a single album thus far, interestingly enough on Thrill Jockey — a label better known for indie and post-rock. On this tour, the band was down to a five-piece (trumpet, sax, vibes, bass, drums IIRC), but still managed to create a very full sound not far from the album. They played both of the big suites from the album, which came off extremely well; while I find the record a little soporific at times, the aggressive, repetitive beats were much more energizing in concert and they held my attention the whole way through. Still, the best thing they did was a new piece, which was quiet, introspective and absolutely beautiful. They didn’t tell us what it was called, but hopefully it’ll surface on a new album at some point — it was easily the best thing I’ve heard from this crew.
I didn’t get home until almost 2am because of the five opening sets (the first of which didn’t start until after 10pm), but it was almost worth it thanks to the Exploding Star set. I think I was just a bit starved for some live jazz, too, not having seen any since early June.
Friday, August 24th, 2007
Well, my favorite current jazz musician, Tim Berne, has been pretty quiet this year, touring a bit and participating in David Torn’s Prezens project, but not releasing any new material (just a reissue of the great Science Friction stuff). Next year it looks like he’s going to be busy, going on four separate tours in the first four months of the year — including a reunion of Bloodcount!! It’s been a decade since that band has played together, and the best news for me is that since Michael Formanek is part of the group, they’ll be playing in Baltimore! I’m already getting excited for this show and it’s, oh, almost six months away.
Wednesday, June 20th, 2007
Newsflash: hard-to-find Scandinavian jazz comes to eMusic! Two great little labels who have very limited distribution in the U.S., Jazzaway and Smalltown Superjazzz, have recently put up a bunch of stuff for download on the service. The former is home to groups like Crimetime Orchestra (whose Life Is a Beautiful Monster I only found at a reasonable price after a year’s searching on eBay) and The Core, while the latter houses The Thing, various other Mats Gustafsson projects, and more. Great news for those of us who can’t easily get some of this stuff!
Friday, June 8th, 2007
You can never have too much Nordic free jazz in your life, so last night I went with a few friends to see Zanussi Five at Twins Jazz: a five-piece consisting of three saxophones, bass and drums. The biggest name of the bunch is probably Kjetil Møster, who played mostly tenor, and whom I am familiar with through his involvement with groups like Crimetime Orchestra. The only one of the five I’d seen before live was altoist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm, who played with POING when that ensemble played a show with Maja Ratkje last December.
I couldn’t find much online about this group, but what I did see compared them to The Vandermark 5 and Atomic, which led me to believe that they would play an energetic, relatively accessible form of avant-jazz. The first set they played last night, though, was anything but. What they played was more comparable to a much freer, unstructured brand of jazz that was as much about exploring pure sound and texture than it was about conventional rhythm and melody. Though there were plentiful hints of said rhythms and melodies, they were often just hints, and the result was something way closer to, say, The Electrics than to any Ken Vandermark group. Having invited a couple folks who are not really into the freer stuff so much as I was, I was a little too busy feeling misled about what this group was all about to enjoy their music. Too bad, because with the right expectiations I think I would have had a good time with that first set.
Regardless, though, their second set was much more along the lines of what I originally expected: avant-jazz chock-full of accessible melodies and rhythms, always on the verge of flying off the handle but never quite going there. This set was absolutely great, and I was bummed that two of my friends that I’d come with left after the first set — they would really have enjoyed the second. The band closed their set with a Fela Kuti cover; somehow it never occurred to me that a free-jazz combo boasting three saxes would be a natural fit to cover brass-heavy Afrobeat, but of course it worked and it was awesome. They also did an encore that was some kind of klezmer-polka-something with the rhythm section going nuts on an Eastern European folk dance rhythm… also awesome.
So all in all, Zanussi Five were a fun show, and one that really illustrates the power of expectations and how those expectations can shape experience.
Friday, April 20th, 2007
Last night I made my first trip up to Sangha (don’t bother with their website, it’s pretty dysfunctional) in Takoma Park, Maryland, to see The Thing. It’s kind of amazing that somehow I’ve never been to Sangha before, as they regularly host Transparent Productions and other off-the-beaten-path shows there. The Thing offered up a good first show! Consisting of drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, and saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, this is an avant/free-jazz trio with a penchant for covering pop/rock songs — in the set they played, they “covered” pieces by Lightning Bolt and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; their recorded output includes covers of PJ Harvey and The Strokes songs.
In this particular show, the covers were fairly opaque to me — it seemed like they were pretty much just improvising the whole time, playing loose and free until all of a sudden they were playing some ridiculous unison lines or coming to a full stop altogether, seemingly without any visual or auditory cues that I could discern. It was pretty amazing. I saw Nilssen-Love and Håker Flaten with Atomic a few months ago, and they were equally jaw-dropping this time around; Nilssen-Love was on fire the whole time, hands all over the kit (he did play some more straightforward lines once or twice, and that was fun to see), while Håker Flaten’s thinking on his feet was really fun to watch, and he was absolutely fierce, punishing his instrument as much as he played it. I’ve been scared off by Gustafsson on record a couple times, but he was reasonably accessible here, and is one of the most physical players I’ve ever seen — at times dancing with his instrument, at other times fighting it, at all times moving his entire body with the flow of his music.
But it was collectively that these three guys were most impressive; I mentioned in my comments on Atomic’s show that it was fun watching their visual cues, but as I already said, I couldn’t discern any cues whatsoever with these guys. This kind of telepathy is neat when it’s with a group playing carefully composed pieces (say, Ahleuchatistas), but it’s even more impressive when it comes in the context of wild collective improvisation. The ease with which this trio went from dissonant improv with free-flowing rhythms to garage-rock anthems with pounding 4/4 drums, and then back again, was pretty great.
While I still prefer the more structured work of avant-jazz groups like Atomic, The Vandermark 5, or various Tim Berne groups, these last two shows I’ve seen (this one and Brötzmann/Pliakas/Wertmüller last week) have definitely been helping to build my ever-growing interest in the freer stuff.
Sunday, April 15th, 2007
As noted in the previous post, on Friday night I trekked up to Baltimore to the Red Room, which is a really neat concert space that’s basically a side room of a great little used bookstore. The room had probably 35-40 chairs and that was it — a very intimate setting for the very experimental music they tend to book.
Brötzmann/Pliakas/Wertmüller did not disappoint. The lineup was Brötzmann on sax, Marino Pliakas on electric bass, and Michael Wertmüller on drums. Brötzmann’s music is heavy and intense enough when he’s playing in an acoustic band — add in an electric instrument and all bets are off. I kind of knew what to expect here, both from the Outer Space Gamelan review I linked to below and because I got, from Dimeadozen of course, a recording of their show in New York a few days back. If you didn’t read the fantastic OSG review, here is an excerpt that describes well what I was in for:
Right from the git-go the chips are on the table with Brotzmann immediately laying down sloping mountains of the post-Ayler blowisms you’d never mistake for anything else, while Wertmuller adds the kind of frantic/restrained combo drumming one might expect to hear in a band like Ruins. Pliakas is the blue blood coursing through the veins of the unit, steering the band in every direction from speed-reading through and on to molasses lullabyes (but usually only for a brief instant)… I find this whole disc to have a very “metal”-like atmosphere throughout…then again Brotzmann’s always been more metal than half the jokers in the genre anyway.
So, uh, this was intense stuff. Brötzmann was at his most brutal, blowing hard almost throughout the concert’s duration; Pliakas was playing an unusual bass guitar with no head, and he had an unusual playing style to match, sometimes with his hands flashing all over the place, other times playing repetitive ostinatos, constantly playing punishing rhythms that went hand in hand with Wertmüller’s drumming. Wertmüller was a revelation for me — this guy was amazing, playing so hard and so fast I often couldn’t tell what he was doing at all, even though I was sitting in the front row like five feet from his kit. It was his drumming that made the trio sound like a free-jazz take on grindcore and extreme metal: lots of double bass drumming, fills and rolls everywhere, only the occasional attempt to actually hammer out a mid-tempo, comprehensible beat.
The result was a wall of sound that was immediately overwhelming but, over time, became totally exhilirating. They only played four or five pieces over the course of two sets — it was the kind of thing where fifteen minutes into a piece, I would think, “holy crap, they’ve been playing this hard for how long now?” and then they would keep doing it for another ten minutes. The endurance of these guys, especially Brötzmann (who is 66 years old!) was astonishing.
This was “free jazz” that would appeal more to noise-rock and extreme metal fans than your average jazz fan. Sadly, the band lost some of their gear and most of their merchandise on the plane to the U.S., so I was not able to pick up their album, Full Blast (an apt title if there ever was one). I’ll be hunting for it now, because this was a pretty mind-expanding show, even if at times it was incomprehensibly overwhelming.
UPDATE: Here’s another review of this same show.
Monday, April 2nd, 2007
Over the weekend I saw two big-band concerts: the 10-piece free-improv Instant Composers Pool Orchestra at the Library of Congress, and the 8-piece post-rock collective Do Make Say Think at the Black Cat. These were both excellent shows, albeit very different, of course. I think the latter was good enough that it’s destined to make my top 10 list by the end of the year, easily.
But first things first — ICP Orchestra played this gig of their 40th anniversary tour to a respectably large audience at the Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium. I had never seen any of these guys before, but was familiar with Misha Mengelberg, Ab Baars and of course the ubiquitous Han Bennink. They surprised me by playing very accessible music clearly grounded in the jazz idiom — probably a function of the audience and venue. No need to scare everyone away at a free show, I guess. In any case, Bennink was completely nuts. I had no idea he acted out so much, but the dude was ridiculous. At almost 65 years old, it seemed like he had about three times more energy than the rest of the band combined, and in fact he kind of overpowered them at times with his playing (and his vocalizing would have made Keith Jarrett blush). He sat behind a single snare drum and eked all kinds of noises from it, but didn’t satisfy himself there — on several occasions he leapt out of his seat and played pretty much anything on the stage that struck his fancy, including chairs, music stands, the floor, his foot, and so on and so forth. Entertaining, to say the least.
Oh right, the rest of the band. The other nine were just as fun to watch, if for a totally different reason: it was neat to see their interplay, the little nods and hand signals present at any improv show, the way they would split into little mini-ensembles that would seemingly play in opposition to each other before coming together just as spontaneously. Again, for the most part the improvising stayed in relatively structured and melodic territory (and the harmonies that this large ensemble stumbled upon were often beautiful), but it was a pretty rewarding show nonetheless.
One last note about this show: by total random chance I sat next to the saxophonist from DC Improvisers Collective, whom I’d never spoken to but recognized from the one show of theirs that I attended a month or so ago. We had a very brief interaction in which he mentioned that DCIC might be playing as backup for Joe Lally, ex-bassist for Fugazi, something that sounds very interesting indeed!
Moving on, Sunday’s show at the Black Cat got off to a less-than-promising start, as the openers, death-country group Elliott Brood, cancelled with no explanation. But when Do Make Say Think got on stage, all was forgiven. My brief recap at the ProgAndOther list:
I think DMST are the most interesting current post-rock band, and the only one who doesn’t seem to be rehashing the same formula over and over again (don’t get me wrong, I tend to like that formula, but you know…). I too was struck by the diversity of instrumentation, and their compositions really take advantage of that diversity.
The sound at the DC show was definitely at earplugs-needed levels (I put mine in after the first song), but their soundman was fabulous and even at the high volume levels, little things really came through in the mix - especially the violinist. It seemed like a lot of the band’s modus operandi was to develop a repetitive, trancey beat with subtle ornamentation from the guitars, and then a beautiful melody would surface out of the murk, on violin or horns or gently picked guitar. Really gorgeous stuff.
The diversity of instrumentation I reference comes from the fact that many members of the eight-piece band played two or three different instruments over the course of the show. The “standard” lineup seemed to be two guitars, bass, violin, trumpet, sax, and two drummers (although admittedly the horns were used more for color and ornamentation than for melody or lead lines), but when called for, there’d be a third guitar, or there’d be some keyboard or marimba in the mix, or the guitarists would pick up horns to make a muscular four-piece brass front line. Every one of these guys, but especially the three who rotated on guitars and bass, are impressively accomplished musicians, with some of the more intricate guitar picking a consistent highlight throughout the show. However, it was the violinist who held it all together for me. While the rest of the band was jamming along to trancelike rhythms or blissing out to ear-splitting climaxes (one audience member’s good-natured heckle: “do you guys have any songs with, like, big crescendoes?”), she was more often than not playing gorgeous melodies that, thanks to the skills of the soundman, were clearly audible even above the din.
Highlights of the show for me were all the quieter pieces like “A Tender History in Rust” — no post-rock group does quiet and pretty better than these guys — and the polar opposite, the extroverted and energetic “Horns of a Rabbit,” which absolutely slayed. But the whole set was fabulous, and it ended with a good sign: the guitarist said, “See you in the fall,” seeming to indicate that DMST will in fact be touring again soon. This is one band that I wouldn’t hesitate to see again, as their material is much more memorable live than on record (and I like their records).
Let me tell ya, Christina Aguilera (who yes, I am going to see tonight) has a lot to live up to. :-)
Thursday, March 22nd, 2007
Over at the Screwgun Records website, Tim Berne has been talking about a collaborative release with David Torn for a while now, but this is a surprise: the resulting album, Prezens, will be released on April 17 under Torn’s name and on ECM, despite the fact that Berne’s entire Hard Cell ensemble plays on the record (Berne, Craig Taborn and Tom Rainey)! I was definitely expecting it to be a Berne album on Screwgun — I wonder if this is going to be closer to Cloud About Mercury than, say, Feign.
There’s a very extensive press release/preview writeup at the group’s Myspace page. Sounds like there may also be a separate live album released by this lineup, which might sound considerably different. Well, I’m interested in both, given that anytime Berne, Taborn and Rainey are on the same record, I pretty much consider it required listening. I’ve already got the studio album on preorder at Amazon.