Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Yells At Eels' "In Quiet Waters"

It's hard to believe that Yells At Eels has been a band for 15 years now, since bassist Aaron Gonzalez and his brother, drummer Stefan Gonzalez, coaxed their father, the internationally renowned trumpeter-composer Dennis Gonzalez, out of musical retirement. In that time, the three have released a plethora of recordings with an impressive array of guest artists, from eminences of the AACM and the European free improvisation scene to lesser-known (but no less worthy) lights.

In recent years, the sons have stepped out of their father's orbit to do yeoman work with others: recording a trio album with pianist Curtis Clark, touring with guitarist Luis Lopez's Humanization 4tet, forging their own metallic jazz-rock sound with the electrifying trio Unconscious Collective. On his own, Stefan has played in bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten's Texas-Chicago supergroup, Young Mothers.

These studio and live recordings, released on the estimable Polish label For Tune, date from 2013. For the studio dates, the musos in Yells At Eels agreed to "tame down" their intensity. This allows the listener to better appreciate the wealth of detail in their sound, and places YAE in the same sacred and ritual space that Dennis often visits in his visual art, and that his sons frequently inhabit in Unconscious Collective. The result is an atmosphere of gentleness and tranquility, but one with an undertow of dread. For proof positive, hear Dennis and Stefan (on vibraphone)'s unison melodic statements on the opening "Lorca," underpinned by Aaron's trembling arco counterpoint, or the confluence of Dennis' muted trumpet, Stefan's vibes, and Aaron's talking pizzicato line on "Restless Debauchery I."

The beautifully registered live recordings, from a house show in Deep Ellum, are something entirely other. While there's no shortage of live YAE on disc, this is the first time we've been able to hear the full visceral impact of their performance with such immediacy: the casual virtuosity with which Stefan tosses off jaw-dropping patterns and fills (and a solo on "Hymn for Julius Hemphill" -- a tune YAE first recorded in 2002 -- that's an album highlight), the sheer muscularity of Aaron's pizzicato attack (this is no hyperbole; I've seen his shredded fingers after a show), their father's burnished tone and the way he responds melodically to their challenges, the vocalized communication between the players, the audience's ecstatic response.

In Quiet Waters ranks among the very finest recordings from the Gonzalez family. (My list would include The Hymn Project, Scapegrace, A Matter of Blood, Welcome To Us, Catechism, Namesake, and Unconscious Collective's Pleistocene Moon.) Cop via Amulets.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Jack Dejohnette's "Made In Chicago"

Back in the mid-'70s, when I was just dipping a toe into the jazz pool, Jack Dejohnette's Directions, with their pastel take on Miles Davis' dark mystery, provided a more listenable alternative to the rest of their fusion contemporaries' soulless chops-mongering. The leader-composer, who'd drummed with Miles on Bitches Brew, used negative space effectively in his compositions and employed a guitarist (John Abercrombie) that leaned heavily on a volume pedal to conceal his attack, resulting in a sound that flowed like water where John McLaughlin's raged like fire.

As the decade drew to a close, Dejohnette ditched the guitar and, under the rubric Special Edition, developed a gift for writing horn polyphony that, while not as exalted as, say, Julius Hemphill's, gave individuated soloists like Arthur Blythe, David Murray, and Chico Freeman (all composers and leaders in their own right) an engaging framework in which to showcase their abilities.

On his new album, recorded at the 2013 Chicago jazz festival on a day Mayor Rahm Emmanuel designated in his honor, Dejohnette presides over a quintet that includes three leading lights from the Windy City's uncompromisingly avant Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians: pianist-paterfamilias Muhal Richard Abrams and reedmen Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill. (Before decamping for the East and West Coasts, Dejohnette -- who started out as a pianist -- was a college classmate of Mitchell and Threadgill's, and he was the first, but hardly the last, of their cohort to join Abrams' Experimental Band, which evolved into the AACM.) Bassist Larry Gray completes the lineup.

Historically, Dejohnette's groups have primarily played his own material (although they've also performed his reimaginings of tunes by Coltrane and Monk), but all the members of this "Special 'Legends' Edition Chicago" have compositional as well as improvisational input -- emblematic of the mutual respect between these men -- and their multi-instrumental versatility gives the unit a wide and varied tonal palette.

Mitchell's "Chant" opens with Abrams providing counterpoint to its composer's repeating triad, then spinning out intricate variations on the theme. Dejohnette opens up the time behind Mitchell's soprano solo -- a circular breathing tour de force -- with Threadgill offering more laconic commentary on top. Abrams' "Jack 5," which follows, is a moody tone poem with solo statements from Threadgill, Dejohnette, and Gray, segueing into Mitchell's similarly contemplative "This," featuring both reedmen on flutes and Gray on cello.

The leader's "Museum of Time" opens with swirling arpeggios from Abrams, punctuated by harmonized comments from Mitchell and Threadgill's altos. A beautiful, arcing melody emerges, with lengthy expositions by the pianist and Threadgill (on bass flute). Here and elsewhere, Dejohnette's traps provide a sense of forward motion without attempting to dominate the proceedings while the soloists intertwine their extemporizations. The music flows seamlessly into Threadgill's "Leave Don't Go Away," which has some of Mitchell's most impassioned playing here.

Dejohnette and company conclude the program with the relatively succinct collective improvisation "Ten Minutes" (which only runs about five minutes, title notwithstanding). The audience roars its approbation, and the whole performance is a testament to the creative vitality of men in their seventh and eighth decades -- once pioneers, now elder eminences of a music that continues to thrive and evolve.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Dove Hunter's "Black Cloud Erupt Us"

Damn, has it really been six years since the debut Dove Hunter release? Well, five and a half, at least. But now these vets of little-and-Big-D band wars are back with a sophomore CD, and it's a corker: imagine Physical Graffiti if Led Zep had cut their teeth at the Argo Club and Fry Street Fair.

Since recording The Southern Unknown, Dove Hunter has added ex-Jet Screamer axe-slinger Will Kapinos, who gigs solo as one-man bent-blues band Dim Locator. Kapinos weaves his slashing slide and stinging single-string lines (like the lysergic fuzz ride on "I Can Be More") seamlessly with ex-Mandarin frontman Jayson Wortham's inventive fretwork to create one of the hottest twin-guitar tandems you're likely to hear today. They're not flashy or showy; rather, they make their crystalline-toned axes chime and ring, but with enough blues grit and occasional dissonance to put one in mind of vintage Page at his multitracked best.

Similarly, Wortham's vocalismo recalls R. Plant in a fever dream (minus the scream; a good thing) -- dig "This Creek Will Rise" or "One Foot On the Horizon" for proof positive -- and the whole thing is made even more impactful by the rock-solid engine room (heard to best advantage on "Don't Hurt Myself" and the climactic "No Shelter"), in which Doosu vet Chad DeAtley's bass rumbles like a subterranean dynamo and Quincy Holloway brings the Bonham-esque crash 'n' thump in the manner one would expect from the only muso in dub juggernaut Sub Oslo that never stops playing.

With Black Cloud Erupt Us, Dove Hunter demonstrates that there's still vitality left in guitar-based, unhyphenated rock. And I'll bet this stuff sounds even better live, where the players' capacity for invention allows them to reshape the material in the moment.

ADDENDUM: Will Kapinos informs me that I misattributed the guitar solo in "I Can Be More" to him, rather than Jayson Wortham, who played it. Mea culpa.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Paul Kikuchi's "Bat of No Bird Island"

"When the children don't know what happened to the house -- that's when a family dies."

My mother spoke those words to me a couple of years before she died, when I told her I didn't know what had happened to my paternal grandfather's house in Honolulu.

I remember when I was young, my mother seemed to remember everything -- the names of all the families that lived on the street where she grew up (on a sugar plantation in Kohala, on the big island of Hawaii, that they used as a set for the Julie Andrews movie Hawaii), as well as all the family members' names; the names of every child in her class of every grade in school; stories about her growing up in Hawaii and coming to the mainland, intending to continue on to Europe before she met my father and wound up settling and raising a family on Long Island. I wish I had recorded some of her memories when she was still lucid. Her last few years were spent afflicted with dementia, traveling around in time through her life. My father had a similar fate, although in his case, I was able to learn more about him in those last couple of years than I had in the previous 50, when he hadn't liked to talk about the past.

My middle daughter, who studied Japanese in college, tells me I'm the worst Japanese person in the world, because I grew up so assimilated, on hamburgers and comic books and rock 'n' roll. I started eating sushi -- the food my mother labored for days to prepare every New Year's, that I wouldn't eat -- when I was 50, because I was in a band with a Japanophile.

But since my parents' passing, I've developed more of an interest in the ancestral homeland I'd never taken much of an interest in (even when I spent four days there going to and coming back from midtour leave from Korea when I was in the Air Force). I devour Akira Kurosawa films, and read books like Marie Mutsuki Moffett's Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye. And now, one of my favorite sound artists -- known for his site-specific improvised performances -- has a new work that speaks very directly to the Japanese immigrant experience in America.

On Bat of No Bird Island, percussionist-composer Paul Kikuchi takes inspiration from a memoir written in English by his grandfather Zenkichi Kikuchi -- an early 20th century Japanese immigrant to the Pacific Northwest, whom the composer never met -- as he reimagines songs from his great-grandfather's collection of 78 rpm records to create a song cycle that pays tribute to that immigrant generation. The work is released in three formats: a 10-inch EP that juxtaposes two of Kikuchi's reimaginings with the original recordings that inspired them; a CD and digital download that include all of the studio recordings associated with the project; and a website (link above) that contextualizes the project with memoir excerpts, photographs, and original 78 rpm recordings. Kikuchi will spend part of this year living in Japan on a JUSFC Creative Artist Fellowship, searching for additional photographs, stories, and artifacts to add to the piece.

Zenkichi left Japan because his impoverished family couldn't afford the price of a college education. In America, he worked on the railroad and as a farmer, marrying a "picture bride" (my paternal grandmother was also one) and raising a family before being evacuated and interned in the wake of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The music his great-grandson uses to tell his story manages to evoke both the ancient country Zenkichi left and the frontier land to which he came. The string-heavy ensemble, which includes the estimable violist Eyvind Kang as well as the composer's regular collaborators, trombonist Stuart Dempster and guitarist Bill Horist, plays with great sensitivity and delicacy, and their sounds are seamlessly integrated with the electronic sounds of 78 rpm records and walkie-talkies.

Being rooted in one culture and having to develop an identity in another is the classic immigrant story, and a very American one. In exploring the experience of his great-grandfather's generation, Paul Kikuchi has created a work of exceptional depth and resonance.

The heaven always side with just and hard working men, it is proven without doubt in before our eye. We must go without fear, without doubt, without hesitation by honest, hard work, building up our life. Educate our children, thus contribute something to our community and nation. I tried to be fair to all of person personally I like or not.
- Zenkichi Kikuchi

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Goodwin live at the Wreck Room

The first time I ever saw Goodwin, on a Tuesday night in 2002 at the Wreck Room, I recall my exact words to Anthony Mariani being, "Who are these fucking guys with numbers on their shirts?" But before long (e.g., by the end of the night), they were my favorite band, and hearing their debut CD tonight reminded me of why. Then I found this.

Things we like

1) D'Angelo Black Messiah. You probably heard Prince; at first, I heard Sly's Riot, and found the densely layered production resistant to listening at home, where I now listen to music at a volume level comparable to when I lived with my parents. (Apparently, hearing familiar stuff at whisper-volume triggers enough memory to give the illusion of having heard the whole thing, but this doesn't work for newer stuff.) In the car, where I do all my "close" listening these days, I was able to hear enough detail to beguile my ears until the irresistible hooks began to differentiate individual tracks from the sonic bath: the Parliafunkadelicment of "1000 Deaths" (replete with Hendrixian stankfinger guitar), the Uber groovaliciousness of "Sugah Daddy," the Stylistics-worthy slow-jam magnificence of "Another Life" (replete with Coral electric sitar). The presence of Roots drummer Questlove -- whose love for (and understanding of) R&B history informs everything he touches -- is crucial.

2) Kendrick Lamar To Pimp A Butterfly. Last year, it was Beck and St. Vincent; this year it's this guy. (In my dotage, I'm listening to records I read about first in Rolling Stone.) This is a lot easier to hear than the D'Angelo, because it's mastered LOUDER, with the vocals right up front. At 27, this kid from Compton is renouncing all the stuff (violence and conspicuous consumption) that put me off hip-hop back in the '90s, while decrying both racism and self-defeating behavior patterns, and expressing ambivalence about success. Great band dynamic, too.

3) Lou Reed Animal Serenade. A year down the road, I'm delaying the dread realization that there'll be no more Uncle Lou forthcoming by listening to Set the Twilight Reeling, which I never really got next to when it was new (and missed seeing Lou when he played the Bronco Bowl, dammit), in the car, and this -- which just might be his finest live recording -- at la casa. While it lacks the somewhat inappropriate mock grandeur Hunter 'n' Wagner gave Rock and Roll Animal, it also avoids the self-loathing that made Take No Prisoners funny but ultimately unlistenable. The sound is as clear as Perfect Night Live, with a much better (maybe even definitive) set list. Besides Lou's ultimate accompanist Fernando Saunders, the always-supportive Mike Rathke, and the ever-ethereal Antony Hegarty (singing all the "Doug Yule" leads where melody's important), the secret ingredient in the drummerless accompaniment is cellist Jane Scarpantoni, who did the same job for Bob Mould on Workbook.

4) Captain Beyond. A collector's fave and absolutely archetypal '70s hard rock band in the same way Cactus was, this outfit brought together the original Deep Purple lead singer (before he screwed himself out of his royalties for touring with a fake DP), a couple of ex-Iron Butterflies, and Johnny Winter And's drummer (who wrote all the songs). Lots of odd time signatures and almost-prog electro-acoustic textures, plus it's dedicated to Duane Allman (with whom Larry "Rhino" Reinhardt jammed in Florida way back when).

Sunday, March 22, 2015

New Johnny Case website

Perennial FTW jazz/western swing mainstay gots a new website. Check him out here. Probably the easiest way to hear him is via his regular Saturday gig at Lili's Bistro, where Johnny plays from 6:30 to 10:30pm.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Ascension: The Missing Link Between MC5 and SRB

Going through some old CD-Rs, I found a recording I've had for 15 years or so and forgotten: a performance by Ascension, the post-MC5 regrouping of Fred "Sonic" Smith, Michael Davis, and Dennis Thompson, playing in a Detroit bowling alley just a few months after the Five folded the tent. I guess it's been available out in bit torrent land for awhile, and there are a couple of videos on Youtube. I gave it a quick listen in the car, then tonight at home, I gave it a little more scrutiny.

The MC5's last gig was on New Year's Eve 1972, when the members of the band that recorded their three LPs regrouped to play for some chump change at the Grande Ballroom, scene of their greatest triumphs just four years earlier. Bassist Davis had been slung out of the band the year before, replaced by English musicians for the Five's last couple of European tours. Frontman Rob Tyner and drummer Thompson declined to participate in the last "MC5" tour of Scandinavia, which left the guitarists -- Smith and Wayne Kramer -- to undertake a dispirited series of shows with a pickup rhythm section that were documented on a bootleg, MC5 Kick Copenhagen, and some video that's on Youtube.

In the Five, Smith had always played second banana to the flashier Kramer, even when he was wearing his "Sonic Smith" superhero costume with his face painted silver. But he played the famous "Battle Hymn of the Republic" guitar solo on Back In the U.S.A.'s "The American Ruse," and when the band started taking individual song credits on their swan song LP High Time, Fred claimed four to Wayne's two and one each for Rob and Dennis. And he steps out to blow plenty of lead on the '72 French TV performance of "Thunder Express."

By then he had already developed the thick, midrange-heavy tone he'd use to great effect in Sonic's Rendezvous Band, but it was actually captured better on the soundboard and audience tapes that make up the bulk of SRB's recorded legacy than it was on any of the Five's official recordings. And the "MC2" shows in Scandinavia featured Fred singing lead in a low, gruff, whiskey-throated voice. For Ascension, however, he ceded vocal duties to Davis, who'd sung Bob Dylan songs around the Wayne State University campus before becoming the MC5's bassist, and bought him a Casio keyboard. (Davis soon discovered that his voice wasn't up to the demands of the multi-set engagements they were booked to play.) Bass duties were handled by John Hefti.

Ascension fizzled out after "two or three" gigs, and Smith was asked to overdub guitar on a couple of tracks ex-Rationals frontman Scott Morgan had recorded with the band Lightnin'. The seeds of SRB were sown. At that point, Morgan had stronger material; it'd take Smith a couple of years to hit his writing stride to the point where he could match Morgan song for song, and ultimately dominate the band.

On the Ascension tape, recorded on September 20, 1973, you can hear Smith working out ideas that'd see fruition in SRB. The song "You Make Me Happy Now" uses a chord progression he'd repurpose for SRB's "Song L" and "So Sincerely Yours," and "Undertow," which Ascension plays after someone from the house complains about their volume, is a minor-key blues with a similar vibe to Fred's SRB saxophone feature "American Boy." He plays choppy rhythm that occasionally sounds like two guitars, and his solos lean less on Chuck Berry than his High Time ones had, alternating staccato picking and sustained notes with vibrato, almost like a metallic Detroit Albert King.

A song entitled "Vulva" indicates that Ascension wasn't hoping for major label interest, and there's a cover of the Temptations' "Get Ready" that's no threat to either the original or Rare Earth's cover. Their best song is probably "Summer Cannibals," a three-chord pounder that gives a hint of what's to come.


In his spoken intro to one of the pieces, Smith expresses some of the bitterness he and his bandmates felt in the wake of the Five's implosion: "A few years ago we did a thing called the MC5. A lot of people talked about it when it was happening and they said we were doomed, just because we did what we thought was right for us. I never did believe we were doomed, I mean, it was just someone's words...because music lives on if you keep lovin' it."