Archive for December, 2006

Favorite shows of 2006

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

Well, there’s one last end-of-year list that I want to do: best shows I saw this year. I made a sort of new year’s resolution at the beginning of the year to see more live music — in the past I have generally been pretty lazy and not bothered leaving the house to make it out to shows other than obvious must-sees (like Los Jaivas, or Present, etc). This year, I made a conscious effort to overcome my inertia and make the effort to get out and see/hear more. I was moderately successful; I think I saw 25 shows over the course of the year, although I might be forgetting one or two. In any case, here are some highlights, in chronological order.

  • The Vandermark 5 at Iota, February 3 (blog entry) — I never got to see this band with Jeb Bishop, which I regret, but Fred Lonberg-Holm was a revelation, a total wildcard. Super high-energy, awesomely tight, these guys played a wide-ranging set that was the first great show I saw this year.
  • The Claudia Quintet at Twins Jazz, March 14 (blog entry) — I’m not a huge fan of their studio albums, but live, they were a joy to watch; John Hollenbeck’s busy drumming style was a treat and Matt Moran on vibes was a whirling dervish. But the star of the show for me was Chris Speed, who blew up with one absolutely thrilling tenor sax solo and a lot of other highlights.
  • Stórsveit Nix Noltes at The Black Cat, March 21 (blog entry) — This one was a total surprise; I went to this show for the headliners, Animal Collective, but these guys stole the show. A nine-piece band from Iceland playing rocked-up Eastern European folk music? Sounds right up my alley, and it was. High energy and big fun.
  • Isis, Dälek & Zombi at The Black Cat, April 30 (blog entry) — The rare bill where I know and like all three of the bands, and none of them disappointed. I was too tired and it was too loud for me to enjoy this show to its fullest, but all three of the bands put on a great show. It may have been Dälek who left the biggest impression on me, with his militant stage presence and aggressive wall-of-sound production.
  • Satoko Fujii/Natsuki Tamura at George Washington University, May 23 (blog entry) — Transparent Productions brought these Japanese avant-jazz masters to DC to play in front of an audience of maybe 15, and they did not disappoint. Probably my favorite show all year. Very challenging; the two of them played for an hour straight with no breaks, and it was hard to tell what was improvised and what was composed. As much classical influence as jazz, and Fujii had a way of keeping me mesmerized that I won’t soon forget.
  • Berne/Carroll/Formanek/Rainey at An Die Musik Live, July 29 — For some reason I never wrote about this show, which is weird because Berne is probably my #1 favorite current jazz artist, and Rainey just might be my alltime favorite drummer. For the first of the two sets I was seated front row right in front of Rainey, and I barely noticed anything but his playing, he was so good. He used a very basic drum kit but eked a huge variety of sounds from it, using all kinds of techniques. The second set I actually enjoyed even more; they played more stuff I recognized, like a couple tunes from Feign, and seemed a little tighter. Great stuff, hope I get to see Berne again sometime in 2007.
  • Nels Cline/Glenn Kotche at The Black Cat, September 20 (blog entry) — Another nice surprise; I came for Cline but I might have actually liked Kotche more. Cline was in full-bore noise mode, wringing loud squalls of feedback from his effects-laden guitar; he was fun to watch but a little hard to listen to. Kotche was equally inventive but more accessible; the idea of a solo percussion set had me a little apprehensive, but his stuff was melodic and fun. The two of them played together to close out their set, and that was my favorite part of the show. A memorable performance from two great improvisors.
  • Yo La Tengo at the 9:30 Club, September 26 (blog entry) — Man, another pleasant surprise. I guess I kind of knew what to expect here, but I didn’t think they were going to completely blow my head off. Ira Kaplan’s guitar freakouts were delicious, noisy and cacophonous but somehow still melodious, if barely. I’m indifferent towards a lot of this band’s poppier moments (though a lot of them are still very good), but when they “shut up and play their guitars” it’s a wondrous experience.
  • Massive Attack at the 9:30 Club, September 28 (blog entry) — Completely different from any other show I saw this year, these guys brought their full complement of guest vocalists and instrumentalists. I lost count of how many sharply-dressed British folks (pretty much equal proportion of males and females) were sauntering about on stage, backed by the most involved lightshow I’ve ever seen at the 9:30 Club. Their trademark trippy beats and sultry vocals made for quite a sensual concert experience, but that didn’t stop them from also rocking out when they wanted to.
  • Wilco at the 9:30 Club, October 19 (blog entry) — This couldn’t possibly live up to the amazing show I saw them put on last year at the same place, but taken on its own, it was still damn good. Some of the new pieces were a nice surprise; hearing Cline and Tweedy do a melodic classic-rock dual-guitar jam was a surreal highlight. Last year’s show was for the ages; this one was merely great.
  • Maja Ratkje & POING at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, December 17 (blog entry) — Like the Fujii/Tamura show, this one was demanding, required all my attention, and left me tired at the end. It was also a fabulous performance. I saw some pretty out-there avant shows this year (a noisy improv set from Denman Maroney, Jack Wright and Reuben Radding tops the list), but this one was easily the best of them. There was a real method to this madness, and I found it quite compelling. A great way to end the year.

On the opposite end of things, probably the most disappointing show I saw this year was in late January, when Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores were supposed to play at the Warehouse Nextdoor, but never showed up. I contented myself with Make a Rising, a Philly band who had gotten good reviews on the avant-progressive list and elsewhere, but they just seemed like a really, really amateurish chamber-rock band to me. Oh well.

The show I am most bummed I missed? By a long shot, Joanna Newsom, who played at the Black Cat in November. I had fallen in love with her new album Ys, but did not think the show would sell out. I mean, she has an immediately hatable voice and she’s pretty obscure. I didn’t expect her to blow up in popularity with Ys (the damn thing is five epic-length songs fergodsakes), but she did. She sold out pretty much all her shows, including the one in DC. Dammit.

Here’s hoping 2007 is as good a year as 2006 was for live music in DC. As Steve Feigenbaum said over at ProgressiveEars, I am endlessly thankful that I live in a place that offers so much great music. Now if only some of those damned New York avant-jazz musicians would journey down here every once in a while…

End of year shenanigans

Monday, December 18th, 2006

Late December means lots of good end-of-year reading on a bunch of the better independent music sites. My favorite of the bunch by far is Dusted, which runs a full two weeks of end-of-year ruminations, including your typical lists but also full-blown essays that are often well worth reading.

For DC, it apparently means unseasonably nice weather (it’s in the mid-60s today and I am working outside) and the beginnings of the 2007 concert schedule — just as I did for 2006, I have begun tracking all the concerts in the area that I am interested in going to in 2007. Might be of interest or use to some of you out there…

Maja Ratkje @ National Museum of Women in the Arts

Sunday, December 17th, 2006

Today I went to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which I never knew existed until now, for a performance by Norweigian vocalist/composer/improvisor Maja Ratkje, alongside the accordion/sax/bass trio POING. I went with a friend who I found out has been involved in some “new music” ensembles and is probably the only person I know that I can invite to stuff like this.

Ratkje is probably most known for her electronic noise-improv with groups like Fe-mail, but here we were treated to her more “classical” ouevre — although none of what was played had much to do at all with canonical Western classicism. I went in to this not knowing at all what to expect, other than that Jeff Bagato had called it “an essential event” on various DC announcement lists. Also, a recent show in New York got a rave review on the avant-progressive list.

What we got at this show were five pieces of wide diversity. POING kicked things off with a Ratkje piece inspired by the fifth movement of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” This was followed by “Passing Images,” an extremely minimalistic piece originally composed for solo accordion, and a re-envisioning of an already re-envisioned Norgweigian folk tune. Silence was a fifth instrument in this piece, and the ensemble manipulated it masterfully to create a work that, even though it was slower than the slowest slowcore band, filled the venue with a palpable tension that had me riveted. It didn’t have the same effect on everyone though, as someone in the audience could be heard softly snoring as the piece came to a close. The above-linked review from avant-progressive describes this piece better than I could, so here’s the relevant excerpt:

Passing Images was written as a solo for accordionist Frode Haltli freely from Maja’s memory of his re-arrangement of a Norwegian folk tune, “as a remote echo of something that has already been treated and changed”. Here it is yet re-arranged for the entire trio plus the composer’s voice. Once again we have the sound of air in the bellows or through the brass tube of the sax, devoid of pitch, barely audible bass harmonics, long silences, dramatic interjections from the accordion, then Maja entering with a babble of sound poetry followed by long pure tones alternating with small mouth sounds made audible by amplification; a totally gripping piece of music. It put me in mind of some of the artists pursuing so called lowercase improvisation, using their instruments in ways which strip them of all their traditional expressive qualities. That this was a scored work rather than improvisation may or may not account for its greater emotional power. A version of Passing Images will appear on Frode’s CD slated for release on ECM in 2007.

The only piece these musicians performed that was not composed by Ratkje was a composition apparently written by Terry Riley for Sonny Rollins (???), but maybe I heard that wrong. This one was the most accessible, with a relatively approachable if constantly shifting rhythm. Closing out the set was a nearly 20-minute “overture” for an opera that Ratkje wrote, which involved some pretty nifty pre-recorded bits played back on three separate cassette players and featured Ratkje’s voice more prominently than the other compositions.

Worthy of mention are all of the individual players, who played with all sorts of unconventional techniques, many of them percussive (I’m surprised, in retrospect, that I had never seen anyone play a bass with a mallet before today). Ratkje’s vocals were like Iva Bittová on a bad acip trip: squeaking, muttering, yammering away in a style that reminded me very strongly of the kind of vocal improvisation that Emily Hay does on her album Like Minds, or for that matter the stuff that Dagmar Krause does to open the first News From Babel album.

After this concert Steve Feigenbaum told me that it was perhaps the show he hated most this year, and that’s saying something given that he’s been to somewhere near 60 concerts in 2006. I had a different take, though; I quite enjoyed everything they played, although I refrained from purchasing any of the many CDs that were on sale because I’m not sure I could take this stuff on record. As it was, seeing it live transfixed me, but it was also a pretty exhausting experience.

Arguing about lists is stupid

Tuesday, December 12th, 2006

Piero Scaruffi’s The Best Jazz Albums of all Times (sic) list is making a bit of a stir over at head-fi. Of course any list with a title like that is going to garner consternation and spite from the masses on the Internets. Scaruffi’s list is particularly provocative since he’s a big fan of the freer stuff; though as such, I find the list kind of helpful, at least in terms of alerting me to good stuff I should investigate. That’s all personal lists are really good for anyway, but somehow they seem to have this unique ability to deeply offend people who post on message boards.

Maybe I can start a full-scale war on some hapless prog forum (I’m looking at you, ProgArchives):

The Scientifically Determined Best Prog Albums of All Time

  1. Genesis - Foxtrot
  2. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery
  3. Änglagård - Epilog
  4. King Crimson - Red
  5. Starcastle - Starcastle
  6. Yes - Union
  7. The Pussycat Dolls - PCD
  8. Yes - Close to the Edge
  9. Jordan Rudess - Feeding the Wheel
  10. Pat Boone - In a Metal Mood

Note: A complex mathematical formula has been used to construct this completely objective list in descending order of best-ness. Please do not attempt to argue with this list as it represents concrete fact. The universe does not care about your mere opinion.

Joanna Newsom: Just give me all your best-of-2006 awards already

Sunday, December 10th, 2006

Usually, my favorite album of any given year doesn’t start to become clear until well into the next year — hence my penchant for posting best-of lists a year late. This year, though, there’s a runaway candidate already in Joanna Newsom’s Ys. Newsom is one of the more polarizing figures on the current indie music scene, although she’s gotten pretty much universal plaudits from the critics (just look at the Metacritic page for Ys). She’s got a voice that’s pretty much instantly unlikable, like a five-year-old singing in a falsetto. But if you can get past the timbre of her vocals, her music is rather astounding. I like The Guardian’s quote: “It may well be the most off-putting album released this year. After playing it, there seems every chance it is the also the most astonishing.”

Also revealed by The Guardian is that Newsom’s been listening to her Henry Cow. In retrospect this is perhaps not entirely surprising, considering that her vocals are about as conventional as Dagmar Krause’s. With that said, I am endlessly amused that in the coffee shop where I’m sitting right now, playing very loudly on the speakers is Newsom’s first album, The Milk-Eyed Mender. Evidently this is not a place that really cares about playing non-intrusive, inoffensive music so as not to scare off potential patrons. (And I do see at least one annoyed face turning up the volume on his iPod.)

Tord Gustavsen: I fell asleep, but he was great

Friday, December 8th, 2006

Last night I got to see Tord Gustavsen do a free show as part of the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage program. As he is apparently a pretty well-known dude, he didn’t play at the regular venue, but rather in a large concert hall upstairs (the Kennedy Center is freakin’ enormous and has something like four or five full-size performance halls, plus two “Millennium Stages” and a huge patio on which they often set up stages for outdoor concerts) — complete with ushers. More ushers, in fact, than audience members for many shows I’ve been to. The place was pretty full, although one of the quirks of a free show is that people just kind of come and go as they please. I was amazed at how many people would just up and leave in the middle of a damn song, even if they had to make everyone else in their row get up to let them out.

I hadn’t heard any of Gustavsen’s music before, but based on the strength of reviews for his latest release on ECM, The Ground (see, for instance, AllAboutJazz or PopMatters), this one was a no-brainer. The concert was more or less what I expected: very melodic, beautiful, low-key stuff, with a noticeable Keith Jarrett feel at times, but Gustavsen definitely has his own style and some of his extended solos were real highlights. Overall, though, it was a little too sleepy for me: I prefer my jazz to be a little edgier, a little more dissonant. Still, well worth the time (an hour) and money (zero dollars) I spent.

You can already watch this concert through free streaming video — link at the bottom of this page. Don’t be scared off by the major distortion in the sound at the beginning, as the sound engineers quickly corrected the problem. Still not a great recording, but what do you expect from streaming video…


Wednesday, December 6th, 2006

Another odd quirk about that best of 2005 list I just posted: of the ten albums, a whopping five are live albums, two are EPs, and only three are actual, honest-to-God, full-length studio albums. Very strange.

My best of 2005 list is here!

Monday, December 4th, 2006

Early December means best-of-last-year list time! Here’s what my Best of 2005 list looks like right now. (For those of you interested in ancient history, my best-of lists for 2004, 2003, 2002, and 2001 are also available in this space, along with explanations of why I delay these lists by a full year.)

  1. Bar Kokhba Sextet - 50th Birthday Celebration Volume 11
    Even now, as I begin to tire of John Zorn and his millions of side projects, this outfit gets me excited every time. The sextet — guitar, violin, cello, bass, drums, percussion — lends a rich orchestration to Zorn’s tuneful Masada compositions. This bargain 3-disc set captures the group at the height of their powers, and boasts a sound that skillfully combines beauty and skronk.
  2. Charming Hostess - Punch
    I guess technically this is an archival release, recorded in the late 1990s. However one categorizes it, it’s a worthy follow-up to the Charming Hostess big band’s Eat, and might even be better than that rather astonishing debut. Impossible to easily describe and also impossible to dislike.
  3. Orthrelm - OV
    “Impossible to dislike” sure as hell doesn’t describe this one, though: it’s about as grating as can possibly imagined. I actually heard this in an independent record store — they put it on without knowing anything about it, and only lasted about three minutes before they had to change it. Imagine a metal record skipping continuously (for 45 minutes) in the middle of a particularly speedy riff, and you get the idea. The thing is, though, it’s genius — a kind of metal minimalism that’s hypnotic and affecting once you get over the initial shock of it all.
  4. Iron & Wine - Woman King
    Sam Beam is a fantastic songwriter, but on previous Iron & Wine albums I’ve felt that the minimal arragements made his songs less exciting than they could be. This six-track EP ups the ante a bit with bigger production and more instrumentation, and to amazing effect. Combined with the (also very good) EP he did with Calexico, also in 2005, this was easily the best year yet for this excellent indie songwriter.
  5. Maneige - Live à L’Évêché
    This archival release was my first exposure to this French Canadian symph group, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it remains a lasting favorite. I’ve yet to hear anything from these guys that I like as much as this album (though I haven’t disliked anything I’ve heard). Really beautiful melodies and a keen sense of orchestration, all done in a pretty tasteful way — if only Maneige had been the poster children of 70s symphonic rock and not, say, ELP!
  6. Tim Berne - Feign
    I get the sneaking suspicion that any year this prolific avant-jazz saxophonist releases something new, he’ll make my top 10 list. Feign features Berne’s “Hard Cell” trio (piano/sax/drums) and is as energetic and driving as one might expect, without sacrificing Berne’s trademark compositional complexity. Now if only he would do more live performances outside of New York City and Europe…
  7. Pelican - March Into the Sea
    This post-metal band, second only to Isis in my estimation, has a weird habit of releasing absolutely brilliant EPs followed by somewhat disappointing full-length albums. Such was the case in 2005; March Into the Sea consists of a brilliant 20-minute title epic that is my favorite song the band has yet recorded. Unfortunately, the full-length album that followed a few months later seems mostly uninspired in comparison.
  8. Painkiller - 50th Birthday Celebration Volume 12
    While the Bar Kokhba set listed above is charming and lyrical, this entry in the Tzadik 50th Birthday series is mean and ugly. Painkiller was always Zorn at his skronkiest, but here the noise factor is actually toned down quite a bit thanks to Hamid Drake’s drumming that actually, dare I say it, swings at times. And as it turns out, a kinder, gentler Painkiller is a better, more listenable Painkiller. Still seriously aggro, but no longer annoyingly so.
  9. Frank Zappa - Imaginary Diseases
    I don’t count myself as a huge Zappa fan, but I’ve always loved Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo as much as any diehard FZ fanboy. This album, a live performance from that same period, is a treasure for folks like me who like Zappa’s big-band material and wish there were more than just a couple official releases of the stuff. Long-expected and well worth the wait!
  10. Present - A Great Inhumane Adventure
    This one makes it onto my list almost entirely thanks to the rendition of “Promenade au Fond d’un Canal,” which attacks the listener with all the ferocity and subtlety of a tyrannosaurus rex. Present can get pretty dark and eeevil, but this is just might be the most deliciously violent they’ve ever been on record. I wonder if there are any survivors from the live show where this was recorded. Are they all brain-dead by now?

This one was tough, because while I love all these albums, none of them really stands out and the order seems almost interchangeable. I also had a hard time with OV — it’s an incredible work, but hard to figure out where it goes on a list of favorites because it’s simply not something I’d want to listen to every day (or week, or month for that matter).

And a bunch of honorable mentions in alphabetical order: Scott Amendola Band’s Believe, Banco’s Seguendo le Tracce, John Coltrane’s One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note, The DecemberistsPicaresque, Earth’s Hex; or Printing in the Infernal Method, Electric Masada’s At the Mountains of Madness, Ephel Duath’s Pain Necessary to Know, Satoko Fujii’s Angelona, Guapo’s Black Oni, Indukti’s S.U.S.A.R., Koenjihyakkei’s Angherr Shisspa, Konono No. 1’s Congotronics, Jérôme LangloisMolignak, Miasma & the Carousel of Headless HorsesPerils, Nil’s Nil Novo Sub Sole, Opeth’s Ghost Reveries, Rova::Orkestrova’s Electric Ascension, The Vandermark 5’s The Color of Memory, and Wilco’s Kicking Television: Live in Chicago.

Obviously, it was a pretty good year for me. Nothing completely jaw-dropping like the top four or five albums from 2004, but a really, really large group of very good releases (and admittedly, comparing any year to 2004 is a little unfair, given how amazing that year was). Any one of those albums on my honorable mention list would probably crack my top 10 at some point in time, given my mood, emotions, time of day, whatever. It’s odd, and surprising, that three of my top ten albums are archival releases, but regardless, there was plenty of excellent music to go around in 2005.