Archive for the ‘Jazz’ Category

Recent shows - Gjallarhorn, Cline/Kotche, Carl Grubbs

Monday, September 25th, 2006

Time for some live show recaps — saw three last week and will be seeing two more (Yo La Tengo and Massive Attack) this week. The first one is the one I mentioned in the previous entry: Gjallarhorn at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. This is a Finnish folk group, although they apparently hail from a small isolated region of Finland where Swedish is actually the primary language. Their music is pretty firmly in the style typified by the Northside label’s group of artists — traditional Nordic folk music (in this case, Finnish, Swedish and Norweigian) arranged for different instruments with a rock influence creeping in at times. Without a doubt the centerpiece of this band is vocalist Jenny Wilhelms, who has a remarkable set of pipes and put them to good use, particularly on the rather adventurous final epic song (sadly I’ve forgotten the title). Otherwise, most notable was the band’s use of a rather absurd-looking large, blocky instrument that I thought was a mutant didgeridoo but turned out to be a sub-contrabass recorder (!!!). The mere fact that such an instrument exists is amusing.

Overall, Gjallarhorn seemed like mostly straight-up rockified folk music with a few interesting twists thrown in. They are listed at ProgArchives (a website in which debate about a band’s “progginess” gets seriously intense) for some reason, but there are definitely more interesting Nordic folk bands out there. Jenny Wilhelms’ vocal performance was worth the trip to the Kennedy Center, though.

The next day was a solo/duo show from Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche, both current members of the almost unbelievably popular indie-rock band Wilco. I had no idea what to expect from this one, but came away pretty delighted. Cline was up to his noise-freakout tricks, playing a dense, intense, and pretty shockingly inaccessible set full of electronic manipulation and looping. I’ve never heard him any noisier than this; maybe a good point of comparison would be the ear-shattering chaos of Immolation/Immersion, the trio album with Cline, Wally Shoup and Chris Corsano. If there were Wilco fans in the audience hoping for a solo guitar rendition of “Heavy Metal Drummer,” well, they probably headed for the doors after about thirty seconds.

I found Kotche’s solo percussion set to be more interesting, actually, and I’m inspired to go check out his solo records. He played a pretty wide variety of things, including a Steve Reich piece and a really awesome composition called “Monkey Chant for Solo Drum Kit,” which ostensibly was a setting of a Hindu epic story with each character represented by a different instrument. Kotche was endlessly creative with timbres, eking all kinds of sounds out of his kit, even revealing for “Monkey Chant” a table covered in small boxes containing… chirping crickets! One of the guys standing near me said, “I’ve officially seen it all now.”

Cline came back onto stage to play a couple final pieces with Kotche as a duo, and these were also pretty great — Cline was no less aggressively avant-garde, but tempered his volume and overall intensity a bit to allow the nuances of Kotche’s playing to shine through. Overall this was one of the best shows I’ve seen this year, up there with the Satoko Fujii/Natsuki Tamura show in terms of both how demanding it was and how enjoyable it ended up being. Too bad I won’t get to see these guys again when Wilco comes into town next month.

Finally, last Saturday I made the trek up to An Die Musik in Baltimore with my girlfriend to see Carl Grubbs do his John Coltrane birthday tribute concert. This was a fun one as well; Grubbs stuck exclusively to Coltrane’s more accessible repertoire, which was too bad, but the playing was tight and energetic and the setting was, as always, fantastic; An Die Musik has become one of my absolute favorite venues. I only recognized “Naima” and “Giant Steps” — ironically the only two pieces that were actually announced — but one of the pieces I thought might have been inspired by “My Favorite Things,” although maybe that was just because Grubbs played soprano on that one (which also happened to be my favorite of the set). They only played for an hour and I felt like they never really stretched out to their limits, especially the drummer, but I had a good time.

I also meant to go see the Ed Palermo Big Band in Baltimore last Thursday, but three nights in a row just got to be too much, and work was interfering anyway. And Forever Einstein played in DC on Saturday, but I decided to go to An Die Musik because I thought my girlfriend would enjoy that more. Oh well, too much live music of interest is a good problem to have, anyway.

Zorn gets $500,000… what now?

Tuesday, September 19th, 2006

The big news today is that John Zorn has won the so-called Macarthur “Genius” grant, the same one that Ken Vandermark won a few years ago, that pays out half a million dollars over five years. Folks in the avant-garde community are having predictably mixed reactions over this one. On the one hand, Zorn isn’t particularly cutting-edge these days and hasn’t been for several years. More, the dude already seems to have a hell of a lot more resources than plenty of other equally deserving semi-underground artists out there. Giving him $500,000 for even more Masada live releases seems almost perverse.

On the other hand… he’s still John Zorn, still one of the more fiercely independent musical minds out there, and it’s cool that he’s getting recognition from the establishment (the Macarthur Foundation is large enough to be considered part of the proverbial “establishment,” I think — even though they have given this grant to folks like Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman etc). So, congrats to him, although I hope that instead of expanding the Tzadik release schedule to 5,000 releases per year instead of just 4,000, he uses the funding to take a radical left turn, maybe starting a brand new label for underground artists with a completely different bent. Or at the very least maybe he can now tour outside of New York City and Europe.

Kenny G is the best example they could think of?

Monday, June 19th, 2006

Speaking of the Miami Heat, here’s something from the “Profiles in American History” part of their website (I’m not sure what the relationship is to the basketball team or why this is on their website, but I digress); emphasis is mine:

Art Tatum

Art Tatum began his piano career at the age of 13, after starting out on the violin as a small child. Tatum would go on to be regarded as one of jazz history’s most technically gifted pianists.

At the age of 21, Tatum moved to New York City and began to record and perform on radio programs. Tatum changed the sound of jazz piano by randomly inserting chord progressions into small frames of measures. By reharmonizing popular tunes, he set a standard that modern musicians from Kenny G. to Lauryn Hill now practice.

Art Tatum overcame his blindness to become a legendary musician.

I guess last night’s Clarence Clemons debacle makes more sense in this context. Yikes!

Clarence Clemons, gaaah

Sunday, June 18th, 2006

I just heard the worst butchering of the U.S. national anthem ever (the NBA finals, game 5). I’m no big fan of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (actually I kind of think it’s a pretty awful song), but this was a travesty: Clarence Clemons spewing his nasally smooth-jazz sax on top of a stunningly sappy piano accompaniment. Who thought that would be a good idea?

Of course, with a PA announcer that annoying, I guess I shouldn’t expect much better from Miami. Or the NBA for that fact, which is turned what should be a plain ol’ sports event into an embarrassing multimedia “entertainment” experience.

Satoko Fujii & Natsuki Tamura: best show I’ve seen for a while

Wednesday, May 24th, 2006

Saw a couple Transparent Productions shows the past two nights. On Monday, Rashanim, a rock trio who have played interpretations of John Zorn’s Masada songbook, played as part of the Washington Jewish Music Festival. I went with a couple friends (who happened to be Jewish) who absolutely loved them. They played Masada songs that didn’t sound very much like Masada, or very Jewish either for that matter. It was, as Steve Feigenbaum said, all quite jam-bandish. I liked them well enough — it was a fun show, very accessible, and the band went through their set playing a pretty wide variety of styles, from rock and jazz to surf to funk. They were really fun to watch as well. I wish they’d stretched out a bit more and gotten more “out,” but on the other hand my favorites of what they played were the slower, more nuanced and melodic material.

Tuesday night was Satoko Fujii & Natsuki Tamura. Fujii is one of my absolute favorite jazz musicians active today. In the interest of brevity, I often call her an “avant-jazz pianist,” but in the wake of last night’s show this is clearly a totally inadequate description. While she’s known for jazz, she’s classically trained, and this came through in a big way last night. A lot of what she played had as much to do with Western classical music as it did with anything that swung or was jazzy in any sense. She has an amazing knack for going off on intense, Cecil Taylorish tangents and then returning, suddenly and delightfully, to slow, contemplative, beautiful melodies. Tamura was also a revelation on trumpet, playing with feeling and a wide variety of tones and styles. I generally prefer Fujii’s compositions to her husband’s, but his trumpet playing is definitely nothing to sneeze at.

The show was quite demanding, attention-wise, as the two played for over an hour straight, with no breaks in between pieces; I recognized a bunch of the themes but it was often difficult to tell when they had moved from one “song” to another. The music was generally unpredictable, but in a tantalizing way: Fujii in particular would hover over almost-melodies, but instead of playing them out, she would veer off onto different melodies that, often as not, were even more delightful than what came before.

A “difficult” show, and one that generally focused on a more abstract side of Fujii’s than what I’ve heard from either her Orchestra or Quartet lineups, but a fantastic one. I’m thankful that they came to DC to play for an tiny audience of about 15 dedicated folks.

Shows: Claudia Quintet, Animal Collective

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006

A couple recent show recaps: The Claudia Quintet and Animal Collective.

I saw the former play at Twins Jazz last week, as I mentioned in the previous entry. This is a pretty nice little jazz club, reasonably priced ($7 for the show plus a $10 food/drink minimum) and intimate. I brought three friends (how often do you get to bring friends to Cuneiform shows?) and we had some good food and enjoyed the Quintet quite a bit. As I said, I’m not entirely sold on the one album of theirs I have, I, Claudia, but as I expected, I was much more enamoured with them live. Bandleader John Hollenbeck’s busy, groove-oriented drumming comes across much more aggressively live, and vibraphonist Matt Moran is a very physical player who’s a joy to watch. I’m still not entirely sure that Ted Reichman’s accordion presence is either necessary or exploited to the fullest extent possible, though — I spent almost all of the show not noticing his contributions at all.

Chris Speed — whose work with Tim Berne’s Bloodcount band in the mid-90s I really enjoy — was the wild card. His contributions on clarinet and sax gave the band their freest flourishes — while one could call The Claudia Quintet an “avant-jazz” group, they’re not anywhere close to the skronky variety. But Speed comes closest to that aesthetic, and indeed blew up in one particularly blistering tenor solo that literally left my heart pounding. On the contrary, though, my friends thought he was the weak link — too free for their tastes, perhaps.

I’m still not a huge fan of The Claudia Quintet’s recorded work, which lacks the immediacy and intensity of their live show. But I’ll gladly jump on the opportunity to see them again the next time their tour brings them to my neck of the woods.

As for the latter show, which was tonight: I’m not all that familiar with Animal Collective, and in fact the opening band, Stórsveit Nix Noltes, was a big reason I decided to go. I’d actually never heard of them before, but the description piqued my interest: an Icelandic big band playing rocked-up instrumental Eastern European folk. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff, and sure enough I wasn’t disappointed. These guys played a seriously fun brand of music that brought to mind all sorts of comparisons — the Scandinavian folk-rockers on the Northside label, say, or even the more upbeat side of Alamaailman Vasarat. The nine-piece played numerous horns, banjo, cello, acoustic bass, accordion, and so on in addition to the usual rock instrumentation, which gave them a really big sound. The diversity of instrumentation was used mostly for unison lines rather than counterpoint, but melodies were occasionally traded between instruments (most often trumpet, accordion, and banjo) to nice effect. A really engrossing, fun show, and I was telling myself that even if I didn’t like Animal Collective at all, Stórsveit Nix Noltes was worth my thirteen bucks.

Which was probably a good thing, because surprisingly, I didn’t really dig the headliners that much. Let’s get this out of the way: Animal Collective are fucking weird. Imagine pastoral folk played over thumping neo-Krautrock beats, and all of it dominated by insanely caterwauling vocals — like Demetrio Stratos at his most obtuse squealing away atop PFM’s instrumental backing, with jolts of Faust and the Boredoms inserted randomly here and there. The combination of such seemingly unrelated elements was refreshingly jarring, but the end result wasn’t anything I particularly enjoyed. It was all a bit too repetitive and monolithic — the band hammering away at a single chord or motive for minutes on end while the vocalist(s) performed wild (and, admittedly, at times wildly entertaining) gymnastics over said static background. I liked some of it, but after a while it actually got pretty boring.

Shockingly, the Animal Collective show was sold out. Which leads me to think, if a band this fucking weird can sell out a fairly large club like the Black Cat, what’s to stop different sorts of avant-rock from gaining a similar kind of indie cred? If Animal Collective, then why not, say, Thinking Plague? If anything, the latter, and similar groups like 5uu’s, are more accessible than the former in all ways except rhythm (the single grounding element of Animal Collective’s music seems to be pounding, simple, danceable rhythms). One can only hope that the state of “cool” in underground music will continue highlight bands trying truly different, and difficult, things.

A couple jazzy items

Tuesday, March 14th, 2006

There’s a really nice Terje Rypdal feature interview/article at AllAboutJazz, discussing his influences from Miles Davis‘ electric period (see also their review of Vossabrygg). I got Vossabrygg, his latest album, a couple weeks ago — part of it is a pretty overt tribute to Bitches Brew — and have kind of mixed feelings about it. There are a couple tracks with heavy electronic sampling that I like the best; although the electronics don’t exactly seem cutting-edge, they do work nicely as a kind of 21st-century extension of the electric, fusionish mentality of Bitches Brew.

On another jazzy note, I’m going to see The Claudia Quintet tonight here in DC, and am bringing a bunch of folks with me. I’m a bit lukewarm about I, Claudia and haven’t heard their new Semi-Formal, but nevertheless I’m pretty excited for the show.

Thoughts on Eric Nisenson’s Coltrane book

Thursday, February 16th, 2006

I just finished an excellent book — Eric Nisenson’s Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest. Most impressive about this book is the fact that while Nisenson is clearly a huge Coltrane fan, he doesn’t let his adoration of the man and his music blunt his critical edge. I am also a big fan of the general thrust of this book; rather than trying to be a comprehensive biography, it focuses on what Coltrane was trying to accomplish with his music, describing the constant progression that embodied Coltrane’s oeuvre and trying to explain where that impetus for progress came from. If anything, I wish Nisenson had delved deeper into Coltrane’s spirituality, because obviously that spirituality is at the center of Coltrane’s “quest.” Perhaps that would be an impossible task, but maybe not — after all, Alice Coltrane is still alive and well, and as Nisenson says himself, shared her husband’s spiritual journey. Why the author apparently conducted no interview with Alice Coltrane is mystifying to me; it seems that, given that she holds a celebration of her husband’s life and work each year, she would be more than willing to talk about him.

Nisenson’s discourse on Coltrane’s body of work itself is excellent. He doesn’t go into in-depth analysis of any given album or performance, but manages to touch on all the major works in the context of Coltrane’s broader stylistic phases. His writing is compelling readable, moreso than most overviews of this sort that I’ve read. My only real gripes are with the final chapter, “After the Trane,” in which Nisenson gives his thoughts on the state of jazz post-Coltrane. Nisenson’s insistence that no truly pathbreaking jazz flagbearer has emerged after Coltrane’s death is probably spot-on, but also probably misses the point. After the 60s, after all, jazz fragmented into all sorts of new directions (Nisenson touches on fusion but little else), making it almost impossible for a real “flagbearer” to come into existence. The time of the standard-bearing jazz icon is past, but that doesn’t necessarily say anything about the state of jazz today other than that “jazz” itself has become a more diffuse concept. (Hello Wynton Marsalis.)

Also, Nisenson has a weird attitude towards rock. He acknowledges that some of the musicians that have best carried on Coltrane’s spirit have been in rock (namely, Jimi Hendrix). He acknowledges that some rock bands use improvisational techniques that follow on the jazz tradition in general and Coltrane’s legacy in particular. He says that he is a fan of much pop/rock. But then, in his discussion of fusion, he turns his nose up at rock and exhibits a kind of snobbish genre superiority so unfortunately common among fans of musical forms that have pretentions of “seriousness” (i.e., jazz, Western art music, and, yes, progressive rock). Finally, he says nary a word about much in the way of avant-rock (which is understandable) or the modern wave of avant-jazz (which is less so, although in this book’s defense, it was written in the mid-1990s, when it was probably much less clear that there were very exciting contemporary things going on in underground avant-garde “jazz”).

Regardless of these faults, this is still a book I highly recommend to anyone even remotely interested in Coltrane. He’s a fascinating figure and this book does his legacy justice.

AllAboutJazz talks to Tim Berne

Tuesday, February 7th, 2006

All About Jazz has a nice, and very lengthy, interview with Tim Berne that hasn’t seemed to get much attention. He talks extensively about his recent projects (all of them — Paraphrase, Big Satan, Hard Cell, Science Friction), lavishes praise on drummer Tom Rainey, and offers some fascinating nuggets about his compositions and his groups’ free improvisations. For instance:

I’m really playing thematically; even if it’s super-abstract, I’m always remembering what we did and where we’re going, and kind of relating whatever ideas of composition and drama and tension and release that I do in writing. The thing is, you’ve got two other people in the conversation, so that’s what makes it interesting—how everyone else interprets your decisions. And you’re making those decisions really quickly. So it’s great when everybody’s kind of ignoring each other in a very convincing way.

Ha- sometimes his interviews are as knotty and difficult to decipher as his compositions.

The Vandermark 5 @ Iota

Saturday, February 4th, 2006

I saw The Vandermark 5 tonight at the Iota Club in Arlington, VA. Wow, what a show. Those guys were intense and tight. I went with a friend of mine who is a sometime jazz pianist but not much of a fan of the more avant kind of stuff. He seemed to like the show though, especially the couple ballads that they played, and was impressed with the arrangements. I found Fred Lonberg-Holm’s contributions pretty fascinating. His cello playing was quite a distinctive shift, to be sure, from Jeb Bishop’s trombone — he was kind of a musical chameleon, at times doubling the bass or playing the rhythm, at others taking a solo spot, at still others just kind of filling the spaces with an edgy, noisy swirl of bowed, blurry notes. I think his presence gives the quintet a bit more of an “out” feel than they used to have. He was certainly a beast, playing ferociously throughout, but he did occasionally play it straight and melodic, during which times his contributions were beautiful and lyrical. Certainly one heck of a diverse player.

I was surprised at Tim Daisy’s work on the drums — he played straighter than I expected most of the time, to the point that when he locked into a groove, a more jazz-inclined listener might find him a bit stiff. My more rock-oriented background had less of a problem, but I didn’t expect to be nodding my head and tapping my foot quite as much as I was!

Also interesting, I talked briefly with Vandermark and asked him what was up with Spaceways Inc.; apparently that group has some trouble being active given the busy schedule of drummer Hamid Drake, so Vandermark is starting another group. I forget the name of this group and the lineup, but it includes two electric basses and Vandermark said that if I liked Radiale (which I do, very much so), I’d probably like this one — lots of funk in the jazz. Or something like that. Apparently they’ll be recording in the spring. Looking forward to that, for sure.