Monday, June 24, 2019

Mark Dresser Seven's "Ain't Nothing But A Cyber Coup and You"

In the past couple of weeks, I've read online Rolling Stone articles (penned by Hank Shteamer, possibly the last jazz critic left in America) on Andrew Cyrille (Vision Festival recognition) and Anthony Braxton (new improv 4CD on Firehouse 12 with a quartet that includes Nels Cline), causing me to wonder, "Is 'free jazz' become mainstream, at long last?"

Coincidentally, this occurred at a moment when I'm re-reading Graham Lock's 1988 Braxton tome Forces In Motion and awaiting the arrival of a copy of Brax's 2007 improv 4CD on Clean Feed with Joe Morris. Exploring Braxton and Morris' catalogs is a daunting endeavor, as both cats release so many records. But that, I suppose, is what a prolific artist does who has the means, and desires to document their compositions, collaborations, and evolution. I've seen Clean Feed take it on the chin from online comment-posters over the ostensible lack of quality control in their burgeoning catalog, but unless one objects to the idea of artists being able to publish their work, I would consider it a service and listen to something else if I'm not interested.

Then the USPS dropped a new Clean Feed release, including this disc, at my door -- a further synchronicity, for Mark Dresser was the bassist in Braxton's longest-lived (and, many would argue, best) quartet, whose 1985 tour of the UK forms the centerpiece of Lock's book. The curiously-titled Ain't Nothing But A Cyber Coup and You is the follow-up to 2016's Sedimental You, also produced by David Breskin (whose work with Ronald Shannon Jackson, Nels Cline, and Kris Davis I've cherished), and is as politically-themed as its predecessor. I take the taut, tense title track as a reference to the 2016 US presidential election, the circuitously shifting "Let Them Eat Paper Towels" as an expression of outrage at our government's malign neglect of Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria, and the somber "Embodied in Seoul" (besides the Johnny Green allusion) as a comment on our president's dalliance with the despot across the DMZ.

Those tracks are introduced by solo bass interludes by the composer, heavy on extended techniques, and bookended by two tributes to a couple of Dresser's late SoCal homies: "Black Arthur's Bounce" in honor of altoist Arthur Blythe (buoyed by Jim Black's loose-limbed fatback groove, with multi-reedist Marty Ehrlich invoking Blythe's wide range and vibrato), and the elegiac "Butch's Balm" for pianist-arranger/ex-Sarah Vaughan accompanist Butch Lacy. The ensemble's basically the same as last time, with the exception of new violinist Keir Gogwilt. These virtuosi -- including ex-AACM president Nicole Mitchell on flute (dig her on the luxuriously melodic "Gloaming"), Michael Dessen on trombone, and Thelonious Monk competition finalist Joshua White on piano -- all make beautifully expressive contributions to Dresser's pieces. It's a testament to the continuing vitality of this music, and gives me hope that more than a select handful of its creators will receive the wider recognition their creativity richly deserves.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Pinkish Black's "Concept Unification"/Magma's "Zess"

As happy accident would have it, new albums by Pinkish Black (Fort Worth's very own heavy progressive experimental duo) and Magma (the French operatic prog outfit who were a formative influence on Pinkish Black's drummer-synthesist Jon Teague back when he was in Yeti, 20-odd years ago) dropped on the same date this year, allowing your humble chronicler o' events to listen to and contemplate both records side-by-side. (Teague says he was mortified to learn that Magma drummer-mastermind Christian Vander heard a Pinkish Black track and pronounced the music "too dark.")

In the run-up to recording Concept Unification -- Pinkish Black's fourth album in their nine-year existence and their second for Relapse Records -- both of the band's members had been focused on composition: singer-keyboardist Daron Beck via his work on the soundtrack for the documentary The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story, Teague through developing material for his solo synth project Zeitmorder. As part of their pre-production process, they set about updating and completing a couple of song ideas that had been around since their previous incarnation as The Great Tyrant. During the sessions, they actively collaborated with ace engineer Britt Robisheaux to capture the details and nuances of their sound.

The result is the strongest set of material they've written yet, electronics that are integrated more musically than ever before, and a recording that better approximates the precisely controlled and channeled force of a live show. Indeed, "Until" is the most bone-crushing rock we've heard to date from a band that often gets characterized, not entirely accurately, as "doom metal." The first single from the album, "Dialtone" -- a comment on the extinction of familiar technology -- is surprisingly engaging to the ear, a pop song veiled in dark menace (or perhaps anomie has just become more commonplace in the last couple of years).

Turning the record over, "Inanimatronic" sounds unusually ethereal, while the 12-minute album-closing opus "Next Solution" is a masterpiece, and possibly the best thing these guys have done.  It starts out with a simple piano theme that gets developed with mounting intensity and choral grandeur, building tension that's released by a pummeling riff that recalls the one from Magma's "De Futura," until the theme returns for a triumphal closing restatement. Teague's fills on the track are worth the price of admission by themselves.

While the best way to hear Concept Unification is on sweet, sweet vinyl, be sure to use that download card, which will give you two additional, synth-only songs that don't appear on the LP. "Away Again" surrounds Beck's voice with shimmering waves of crystalline texture, while "We Wait" drives so relentlessly that it's easy to forget there are no drums on the track. Here Beck's voice -- this band's most underappreciated element, operating as it does in a register most Americans have forgotten exists -- rides higher than usual in the mix, where it belongs.

It's not hard to see how Magma's celestial jams -- a blend of jazz-rock and 20th century classical influences, featuring choral vocals, with lyrics depicting a sci-fi mythos and sung in a Germanic-sounding invented language -- would appeal to musos like Pinkish Black's Beck and Teague, obscurantist connoisseurs with their own strong aesthetic. Indeed, as The Great Tyrant, they recorded a cover of Magma's "Weidorje."

Zess has been a long time coming: originally composed in 1977, performed live from 1979 to 1983, revived in 2005 in a version that's DVD-available on Mythes et Legendes, Volume IV and viewable online here. But Vander always held off on recording the piece -- his vision of the end of existence -- because he felt it was incomplete. Until now.

The studio version of Zess was recorded in four sessions toward the end of last year by a stripped-down lineup of guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums (the latter played by ex-Zappa acolyte Morgan Agren, leaving Vander free to concentrate on singing), a seven-voice chorus (including Stella Vander, Christian's wife, who also sings solo), and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. All told, the piece (divided into seven movements that flow seamlessly together) runs around the same length as A Love Supreme and What's Going On, which is appropriate, because that's the league it belongs in. For beneath the Magma mystique, the apocalyptic visions, and the harsh, guttural sound of the Kobaian language, this is Gallic soul music.

The invocation ("Da Zeuhl Wortz Dehm Wrennt") that Vander sings in French following the orchestral-choral introduction is nothing less than a hymn of gratitude to the "master of the forces of the universe." The unifying motif that underpins the piece is a two-chord vamp straight out of Coltrane (Vander's musical deity). Vander's rhythmic Kobaian vocalismo on "Di Woohr Spraser" has an ecstatic quality, halfway between scat singing and speaking in tongues. Variations on the theme follow, alternating between the orchestra, the solo singers, and the chorus, who wind up singing "Sanctus, sanctus" as the climax approaches, while Vander testifies like a Kobaian Holiness preacher. "Dumgehl Blao" provides a soul-cleansing valediction, with choral interjections echoing on high. Oblivion never sounded so inviting.

Now, will someone please play Monsieur Vander "Next Solution?"

Monday, June 03, 2019

Oak Cliff, 6.2.2019

I go back a long way with Nils Lofgren, whose career spans 50 years -- since he set out from his native DC for California with his band, aged 17 -- and by whom I was inspahrd to pick up a guitar  48 years ago, when I saw him exploding out of my mother's TV (a few months after I'd witnessed the Stooges' iconic Cincinnati appearance via the same medium). It was a PBS special about Nils' mentor, the late, tormented guitar genius Roy Buchanan, and in the show's closing ten minutes, 19-year-old Nils took the stage to jam on Junior Walker's "Shotgun" and proceeded to blow his august elder away with the cockiness of a hot youngster just beginning to find his power, overplaying with the adrenaline-driven urge to be exciting. The memory of it remains burned into my synapses, so when I heard he was bringing a full band to The Kessler -- my favorite listening room -- I knew I was going to have to be there.

By the time the Buchanan TV show aired, Nils had already played piano on Neil Young's After the Gold Rush (turns out the secret ingredient in "Southern Man" was a polka beat injected by former accordion nerd Lofgren, a story he told with great relish at the Kess); he'd also add crucial piano and guitar damage (dig his Djangoesque solo on "Speakin' Out") to Neil's blasted masterwork Tonight's the Night. (And you must see the 1982 video -- Youtube available, I do believe -- of Nils with Neil in Berlin during the Trans era, where he functions as much as a dancer as a musician.) More recently, he's filled out the Crazy Horse lineup when Poncho Sampedro was unable to play.

With his early '70s trio Grin, Nils showed he had the goods as a singer-songwriter, whether rockin' ("White Lies," "Moontears") or mellow ("Lost A Number"). He then had the misfortune to be signed to A&M as a solo artist at the same time as the more marketable Peter Frampton was doing the same gig. (My buddy Geoff from Philly, who Knows, swears that if they'd released Nils' 1975 "authorized bootleg" Back It Up!! instead of 1977's less stellar Night After Night, it might have been a different story. He once sent me a VHS tape I still treasure, with the '71 "Shotgun" along with two mid-'70s Old Grey Whistle Test sets that show off solo-era Nils to his best advantage.) Lofgren went on to spend 30 years as third guitarist in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, after playing the best guitar solo ever to appear on a Springsteen record on "Tunnel of Love" back in '87. Like his longtime employer, he's a hell of a raconteur, a talent which served him well through 15 years of solo acoustic gigs that culminated in this year's band tour.

The occasion for said tour is the release of Blue With Lou, a set of Lofgren originals, half of which were co-written with the late Lou Reed back in '79, when Bob Ezrin was co-producing the album Nils for Lofgren and suggested that he contact former Ezrin client Reed for lyric-writing assistance. The result was 13 Lofgren-Reed songs, three of which appeared on Nils, two on Reed's The Bells, and three on subsequent Lofgren projects. Nils' current touring band -- journeyman drummer Andy Newmark, bassist Kevin McCormick, and E Street Band singer Cindy Mizelle -- is the same one that appears on the record, augmented by his brother Tom Lofgren on keys and second guitar. They're all stupendous.

The new songs they played work off percussive, Stones-y blues riffs that Lofgren cranks out on a customized Strat (only two knobs!) he wields at an unconventional angle to accommodate his idiosyncratic picking technique -- he uses a thumbpick and damps the strings with his index finger to create chiming harmonics -- employing a clean tone which he dirties up with effects for his solos. At times he sounds like he's using a slide, but it's all in his hands (and no vibrato arm, either). Or he'll use the volume control on his guitar to mask his pick attack (a trick he picked up from Buchanan). At this point, Lofgren's become a Zen master like Jeff Beck, but he still gets a laugh with a story about him and his high school guitar buddies trying to figure out what fuzzbox Keith Richards and Hendrix used, buying the pedal, "and it still didn't sound right."

Lou's lyrics ranged from altruistic ("Give") to hard-nosed ("Don't Let Your Guard Down"), while Lofgren demonstrated he's no slouch with "Too Blue To Play" (the tale of a traumatized war veteran who'd be at home in the darkness on the edge of Springsteen's town) and "Rock Or Not" (which casts a sardonic eye on the times we're living in). The rest of the set drew from the length and breadth of Lofgren's catalog, from the very first Grin LP ("Like Rain") to 1991's Silver Lining (the ebullient "Walking Nerve" that opened the set, and the tender "Girl In Motion," which Lofgren preceded with a story about his own sobriety and 20-years-and-counting marriage). "Big Tears Fall" from 1985's Flip provided a strong feature for Mizelle, after which Lofgren -- on piano -- essayed the version of Carole King's "Goin' Back" that was a highlight of his eponymous debut LP. And my ears perked up when the '77 FM radio staple "I Came To Dance" emerged from a singalong jam on the Temptations' "Papa Was A Rolling Stone."

After an hour and 45 minutes, Lofgren and band vacated the stage, only to return momentarily for the de rigueur encore "Shine Silently" (co-written for Nils with Ezrin studio mainstay/Detroit guitar legend Dick Wagner); my buddy and I figured that after playing decades of three-and-a-half hour shows with Springsteen, this was Nils' light work. Then we had to bounce back to Fort Worth, but it was an evening well spent with Mr. Lofgren. Maturity -- and the humility it can bring -- becomes him.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The WHO Trio's "Zoo"

Better late than never, I guess.

My review copy of this 2014 release double CD arrived at a moment when I wasn't doing much writing, and had little time for critical listening. It didn't help that I was perplexed by the title, which put me in mind of a bootleg double LP I once owned by another group of geezers who've been using the name with some success for several decades. But having listened, I feel I owe Gerry Hemingway an apology, and wish I'd caught his performance when he was in Dallas at Top Ten Records with Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser recently.

What we have here is a solid set of improvisational dialogues, documenting a dynamic that these musos developed over two decades and five releases (including this one; they've since followed up with an album of Strayhorn and Ellington compositions), employing a lot of extended techniques on their "classic" jazz instrumentation, and providing a fair amount of light and shade.

These men are capable of performing with the utmost restraint  -- as in the minimal wisp of melody pianist Michel Wintsch introduces about six minutes into the 13-minute-plus "Raccita," before bassist Banz Oester's percussive arco (oxymoron?) leads the trio into a thumping (although, notably, still restrained) rock groove. They also excel at building and releasing tension (as on the 12-minute "Sloepper"). The busy and prolific percussionist Hemingway -- perhaps best known for his work with the trio BassDrumBone, the quartet of composer/multi-reedist Anthony Braxton, and the ensemble of pianist Anthony Davis -- always plays in a manner that reminds us he's a composer first (like Tyshawn Sorey, or the young Anthony Williams).

On the "electric" disc's three long pieces, Wintsch plays synth as well as acoustic piano (recalling Matthew Shipp on David S. Ware's Corridors and Parallels, as well as Braxton's early collaborations with Musica Electronica Viva alum Richard Teitelbaum). The electronic and acoustic textures are interwoven seamlessly and organically. Hemingway's wordless vocalizing on "Lamp Bowl" contributes to the track's dreamlike ambience. Modern music gets no finer.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Oak Cliff, 5.22.2019

The titanic German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann has been visiting Texas for a couple of decades, in the company of collaborators like Dutch dada drummer Han Bennink, Japanese noise guitarist Keiji Haino, trumpeter-saxist Joe McPhee, vibist Jason Adasiewicz, and his "Die Like A Dog" quartet partners William Parker and Hamid Drake. But his previous visits were all to Austin or Houston, never to North Texas -- until last night. Oak Cliff-based musician-DJ Ernesto Montiel and friends, under the rubric Further Jazz, brought Brotzmann and his duet partner (four albums and counting), the West Virginian-via-Texas-and-Scotland steel guitarist Heather Leigh, to The Wild Detectives -- a well-curated small bookstore with beverage service -- on a bill with another duo, which teamed LA punk-jazz guitarist Joe Baiza with Zurich-based artist-writer-muso Jason Kahn, heard here on voice and drums.

The first time I heard Brotzmann's early landmark album, 1968's Machine Gun, I thought, "Wow, this is like Ascension, but really angry." The '80s free jazz supergroup Last Exit (in which Brotzmann battled to be heard alongside avant garde icons Sonny Sharrock and Ronald Shannon Jackson) was similarly unremitting in its energy blast. But later recordings (my favorites: 1994's Songlines with Fred Hopkins and Rashied Ali, and 2012's Yatagarasu with Masahiko Sato and Takeo Moriyama) document a more multifaceted sound, and the combination of aging (a few years ago, Brotzmann was diagnosed with enlarged lungs as a result of his ferocious attack) and what one Dallas muso called duet partner Leigh's "feminine energy" has brought an elegiac lyricism to his music (amply audible on Sparrow Nights, their latest outing). That's not to say his sound lacks power. On tenor, his massive vibrato still disturbs the air like Ben Webster on steroids, and the overtones he wrestles from the bass clarinet can be kind of terrifying. Leigh sculpts her liquid silver tone to resemble anything from the wobbly orchestral sound a mellotron to the feedback drone of Boris' Flood.

Opening set by Baiza and Kahn was also inspiring. Kahn's wordless vocalizing evoked inarticulate anguish, while his running commentary on traps and small instruments gave the music momentum. Baiza's clean-toned Telecaster sang with alternating dissonance and chromatic fluidity, augmented by a looper pedal. Their dialogue reminded me of Don Van Vliet's line "I froze in solid motion, well" -- sometimes they would pause in mid-intention before continuing. At one point, Baiza essayed the melody from Ornette's "Peace," which gave at least one Fort Worthian in the crowd a spark of recognition.

Speaking of the crowd, I counted about 120 people in the sold-out audience, more than half of whom I didn't know -- a thrilling development. Yes, there is an audience for this music in North Texas, although it was not always so. Post-show, nearly everyone I spoke to said, in one way or another, that after hearing Brotzmann and Leigh, they wanted to go out and be as creative as possible in whatever modality is familiar to them. It doesn't get any better than that. Hopefully Ernesto and Further Jazz will bring more events like this to DFW. I wasn't going to speak to the performers, but when I happened to encounter Brotzmann just before leaving, I told him, "After hearing you, my heart is very full." Listening to Sparrow Nights this morning, I noticed there's a track titled "My Empty Heart." No coincidences.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Pat Todd and the Rankoutsiders' "The Past Came Callin'"

You'd have to be out of your mind to start a rock record label in these days and times, when the "music industry" consists of a handful of tech companies trying to "monetize" advertising and the selling of subscriptions to people who are used to not having to pay to consume music (while paying artists next to nothing). But these days, the '80s DIY model has become the way 99% of the touring musos out there get by: the money from the gig gets you to the next gig, and the merch you sell is your payday.

Independent labels are key to this, for they're the ones willing to devote time and treasure to releasing records of limited, niche appeal, and they're generally run by lifers like Berlin-based Hound Gawd! Records honcho Oliver Hausmann, a punk and garage fanatic whose roster reflects his tastes. His current release list includes the first vinyl issue of Think About It, a 2014 EP by bluesy Atlanta garage rocker Rod Hamdallah ; Moronic Pleasures, a new full-length (19 songs on a single LP!) from venerable Virginia Beach punkeroos the Candy Snatchers; and our subject o' the day, The Past Came Callin', the fifth release from former Lazy Cowgirls frontman Pat Todd and the Rankoutsiders.

Pat Todd's the same kind of lifer as Hausmann: an '80s LA punker (out of Indiana) who operates on the same stretch of American highway once traveled by Hank Williams and Chuck Berry (and later, by the Stones and the Clash). Like those two icons, he's a storyteller, and a damn prolific one to boot. After fronting the Cowgirls for 25 years, he broke the seal on his new outfit, the Rankoutsiders, with a 28-song debut, The Outskirts of Your Heart, in 2006 (reissued on double vinyl by Hound Gawd! in 2016, the same year the label released Todd's last outing, Blood & Treasure).

Over time, he's amassed quite a backlog of material, and part of the impetus behind The Past Came Callin' was to document some songs that waited years for their turn to be heard -- 15 in the case of "If Only I Could Fly Backwards In Time" (which kicks in the door with raucous energy), 20 in the case of "Yeah, Ya Had A Bad Night" (replete with sonic allusions to "Time Is Tight" and "Safe European Home" that sound to these feedback-scorched ears like a Clash homage). More recently, "Goin' Nowhere," anchored by a four-on-the-floor beat and pedal tone bass that recall AC/DC, was originally intended for inclusion on 2013's 14th and Nowhere.

Produced, mixed, and mastered by simpatico ex-Sparks guitarist Earle Mankey -- who first worked with Todd on the Lazy Cowgirls' magnum opus Ragged Soul, wa-a-ay back in 1995 -- The Past Came Callin' captures all the Rankoutsiders' signature strengths, from Todd's snarling vocals and first-time (on record) harmonica, to Nick Alexander and Kevin Keller's blazing twin-guitar attack, to bassist Steven Vigh and drummer Walter Phelan's propulsive kick. Besides the aforementioned gems, there's a Keef-like vocal turn for Kevin Keller ("The Ring, The Bottle & The Gun"), a William Bell cover ("Any Other Way") that could have been written to order for Todd and reveals the singer's affinity for R&B, and a remake of Cowgirls chestnut "Somewhere Down the Line" that's less twangy, more rockin' than the 'riginal.

"Just Between You and Me" closes the album on a somber acoustic note. But when Todd sings "Failure's mostly what I see / And a lot of talk we hide behind / And a trail we ain't never gonna find," his whole career belies the defeated tone. Pat Todd keeps pounding the boards because he doesn't know how to quit. How fortunate are we.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Sunwatchers and Eugene Chadbourne's "3 Characters"

Until this arrived, the NYC instrumental free-jazz/psych quartet Sunwatchers' synapse-scorching Illegal Moves was my favorite new record this year, and it remains a formidable slab. But 3 Characters -- cut in a couple of manic days back in October 2016 in the company of rustic avant-gardist Eugene Chadbourne -- has it beat, tying together more musical threads to which I'm partial than one is likely to hear on a single disc (or even a double LP like thisun). The project's premise is for the Noo Yawkers and Doc Chad to cover material by political punk rockers the Minutemen, archetypal Texan muso Doug Sahm (whose own variegated musical trip embraced all the shades of music -- black, brown, and white -- associated with his native San Antonio), and activist-experimentalist Henry Flynt (as direct a precursor as Chadbourne possesses, one whom Julian Cope, in Copendium, informs us was once fired from a sub gig with the Warhol-era Velvet Underground for injecting hillbilly fiddle into their somber drone trip).

The Minutemen songs, which occupy sides 1 and 2, lean heavily on Double Nickels On the Dime and Three Way Tie for Last -- my favorite LPs by the San Pedro trio -- and remind us how topical d. boon and Mike Watt's antiwar lyrics (particularly resonant for ex-Vietnam draft fugitive Chadbourne) remain, goddammit. On "The Price of Paradise," Chadbourne's goofy hick vocalismo recalls Minutemen succesor band fIREHOSE's frontman Ed Crawford, while Sunwatchers guitarist Jim McHugh's fuzz-and-wah warped Sharrockian skronk fits the music like a spiked glove. McHugh and his bandmates Jeff Tobias (reeds and keys), Peter Kerlin (bass), and Jason Robira (drums) deposit the aural equivalent of a howling tsunami in the midst of "Political Song for Michael Jackson To Sing," and make a psychedelic raga out of "Themselves."

Watt himself makes a trio of cameo appearances, reciting a text from Cold War-era newsman Edward R. Murrow before Sunwatchers and Chadbourne audaciously mash up Paranoid Time's "Joe McCarthy's Ghost" with Albert Ayler's "Ghosts" (giving versions of the latter I'd previously heard by Marc Ribot and X___X a run for their money), declaiming the lyrics to Doug Sahm's anthemic "Chicano" (which I found as poignant as the version of the Flatlanders' "Borderless Love" I heard Joe Ely perform a couple of months ago) acapella, and delivering a scathing intro to Henry Flynt's 1966 screed "Uncle Sam Do" (which the musos, led by Chadbourne's off-kilter banjo, transform from demented Delta blues into Chadbourne's signature atonal acid bluegrass, with saxman Tobias careening into Trane Meditations territory). In between, there's a sunshine-y side of Sahm songs that reminds us how much of West Coast psychedelic culture originated in Texas, capped by a version of "Give Me Back the Keys to My Heart" that hits like the Velvets at the Matrix.

Sonically adventurous and fearlessly political, 3 Characters is musical synthesis at its most engaging.