Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Binge-ing the Dead

Remembering the Grateful Dead show I attended with Mike Woodhull (RIP) at the Dallas Convention Center back in '78 (which Jeff Liles has hilariously written about elsewhere). The show is reputed to have been so egregiously shitty that Heads don't even trade tapes of it -- borne out by the setlist, which includes both "Estimated Prophet" (my GD equivalent of "Eminence Front," the Who song I loathe more than any other) and Donna Godchaux's vocal feature "From the Heart of Me"(she and her pianist husband Keith were about to get the wheels put under them). The second set ended abruptly with the exploratory "Wharf Rat," rather than the uplifting conclusion that usually followed the Dead's most "outside" excursions. (I find it charming that the Dead's sets mirrored the flow of an LSD experience; in the case of Dallas '78, the odd ending may or may not have been due to 16-year-old Liles, on his maiden acid voyage, bumming Bob Weir out). Woodhull surprised me by sleeping through more than half of the show. When I asked him about it later, he told me, "the secret to being a Deadhead is knowing when to wake up."

Since the pandemic took away the option of playing with people (I see folks doing it all the time, but with the Delta variant, I've also seen more people I know get Covid than I saw all last year, all but one of them fully vaccinated, and as a heart failure patient, I'm not taking any chances), I've become particularly attuned to the "group mind" in improvisation, and aside from Can, the Dead (on vehicles like "Dark Star," "The Other One," "China > Rider," "Playing in the Band," and "Scarlet > Fire") are probably the best place in rock to hear it.

I recently laid hands on a copy of the double Dead DVD The Closing of Winterland, December 31, 1978. I had my interest piqued when I realized that this show was just nine days after the one Woodhull and I witnessed and I wanted to see if the Dead of that era did any better on home turf.  Originally simulcast (remember those?) on KQED-TV (who gave me my first look at San Francisco rock via a couple of documentaries featuring Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Santana, as well as the Dead, that aired when I was 13-14) and KSAN-FM, the Winterland show isn't the greatest video representation of the Dead. That distinction belongs to Sunshine Daydream, the filmed document of an August 1972 performance in Veneta, Oregon, which in its DVD form concentrates for the most part on songs with transcendent jamming. One of the challenges to collecting the Dead, besides the expense, even used, of the multi-disc "Dick's Picks" series of complete shows is the high ratio of chaff to wheat in the setlists. The Grateful Dead Movie, shot on film, not videotape, at Winterland in 1974, is inferior to '78 if only because of the inclusion of the opening cutesy animation and much dispensable audience business. (The setlist in the original theatrical release was pedestrian, but some of the good stuff is now available in the DVD special features.) 

And Winterland '78 isn't back-to-front gems, either. At times while watching I was reminded of the boredom I felt during parts of their Dallas set. The first two sets both start running out of gas around the halfway point. The highlight of Set One, to these feedback-scorched ears, is a version of "Scarlet > Fire" that reminds me why that sequence was my favorite part of the Dallas show I saw. After that, though, comes a glacially-paced version of "Friend of the Devil" from which the energy level never recovers. (To hear the opposite of this, check out the peppy 1972 Frankfurt set released as Hundred Year Hall, for which I am indebted to Jerry Garcia biographer Blair Jackson's useful discography.) The first four songs in Set Two aren't the Dead's most distinguished material -- while I once rated Pigpen their weakest link, I now own up to being a partisan of the period when he was on board, in both the experimental psychedelic phase and the one where they morphed into a country-rock bar band that even Lester Bangs admitted to liking -- but they provide ample opportunity to scope out Jerry G.'s technique, and Weir's authority as a front man.

Garcia's no slouch, but he eschews all the attention-getting devices favored by the guys I grew up wanting to emulate (Hendrix, Beck, Winter, Zappa). No wide vibrato here, no saturated tone, no fast hammer-ons/pull-offs. Jerry picks every note (except for the occasional descending chromatic pull-off), can bend with any finger (unlike most rockers of his time, who were position dependent to allow bending with the ring finger), likes to phrase in triplets and use the mixolydian mode (also beloved by Zappa during the time when I could still sort of understand what he was doing, at least guitar-wise). Weir, who became the Dead's rockin' rabble rouser as well as its singing cowboy with Pigpen's departure, still tends to over-project his voice a little (you can see him struggle toward the end of the third set). And he plays more guitar than I gave him credit for -- lines and slide as well as chords, which he plays the way McCoy Tyner did for Trane, making the piano a little redundant, except for textural relief. 

After a nice "Playing in the Band," the second set runs aground on the shoals of a drum interval so tedious that even the presence of a couple of Merry Pranksters and the harmonica player from War can't salvage it. A lugubrious "Not Fade Away" follows. Fortunately, the third set's the charm, opening with abbreviated runs at "Dark Star" and "The Other One" (probably to mollify the picketing fan who was protesting the former's absence from the set for over 1500 days!), followed by "Wharf Rat" (apparently a favorite jamming vehicle that year), "St. Stephen" (also unplayed for more than a minute), and a flag-waving "Good Lovin'" on which Weir exhorted the crowd to "Turn on your light," recalling another beloved set closer from the Pigpen era. I see that John Cippolina from Quicksilver (aka "the good-looking Grateful Dead") was onstage for the encores. I didn't notice; no matter.

I'll admit to being pretty satiated on the Dead for now. People whose opinions I respect swear by Blues for Allah, which I remember as a sort of Doobie Brothers-Steely Dan take on the Dead. But my memory is unreliable. Perhaps next time I get a hankering to have this itch scratched, I'll go there.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Marco Oppedisano's "Selected Works (1999-2017)"

Subtitled "Acoustic, electric and electroacoustic music with guitar -- how's that for truth in advertising? -- this hour of digital tuneage features works by the NYC-based axe-slinger (whose improv videos, viewable on YouTube, were one of the things that made the first wave's lockdown tol'able here at the house) performed by other guitarists, as well as the composer. 

The four movements of "Urban Mosaic (for solo electric guitar)" are played by Kevin R. Gallagher, a Juilliard-schooled, award-winning classical guitarist who returned to electric playing in the late '90s. The movements -- "Behind the nut," "Ebow," "Guitar solo," and "Fingerstyle ballad" -- recall Anthony Braxton's "language musics" in the way they focus on different aspects of the player's process. The confluence of heavy metal sonics and extended techniques beguiles the ear, and sets the table for the very different palette of "Movements for solo classical guitar," played by Turkish guitarist Hale Burgul, which range from quietly ruminative to restlessly searching.

"Move for bar. sax, mar., el. gtr., and pno." juxtaposes contrasting textures of wind, percussion, and strings, unified by Oppedisano's melodic invention. This recording teams the composer with the Glass Farm Ensemble. "Trio with playback for bass flute, cello, el. gtr. and playback" combines the sonorities of live instruments with sampled sounds in the "hyperrealist" manner the composer learned from his teacher Noah Creshevsky (to whom he pays tribute in "Snapshots for Noah Creshevsky").

As an instrumentalist, Oppedisano's voice is inflected with metal, fusion, and blues, but his composer's mind makes him much more than a mere shredder. The pieces showcased here, written over a couple of decades, track the development of a cinematic approach that can be dark and foreboding or, as on "Maisie's Gift," dedicated to Oppedisano's daughter and featuring found sounds from a playground, evocative of more innocent and wistful emotions. It's a sound world worth visiting.

Friday, August 06, 2021


We're going back to the bad Covid time here in North Texas, and folks are making like it's not a big thing. Kids are going back to school with no mask or Covid vaccine requirements in place to protect them, and this winter is starting to look like it could be worse than last year. The moment in early summer when folks were starting to test the waters of social interaction again (before we got hip that even those of us who are fully vaccinated could be asymptomatic carriers and even experience breakthrough infections) is starting to seem like a very long time ago.

Back in July, NYC-based "free metal" guitar duo CHORD -- that'd be Nick Didkovsky (Doctor Nerve, Fred Frith Guitar Quartet) and Tom Marsan -- ventured out of their respective Covid havens to convene in the studio with a couple of Gibson SGs (1967 and 1995) and a couple of Marshall amps to take the fourth step in their exploratory journey through the sonic possibilities of loud, distorted electric guitars.

CHORD IV explodes out of the gate with Marsan coaxing sounds of wrenching torment from his axe for seven minutes of "half life." The album's five tracks function like a suite, with dynamic variations that ebb and flow. After the initial energy blast, "august" provides a brief respite before "death spiral" plunges into an abyss of shuddering harmonics and mesmerizing repetition that gives way to churning turbulence, howling discord, and staccato double-stops. It's like white-water rafting through an electric maelstrom. "at an end" affords another opportunity to catch one's breath before the climactic energy bath of "rise," which starts off slow, with wisps of feedback sailing over clanging chords, gradually morphing into a pulsing, pummeling rhythm, ever increasing in density, the double-stops from "death spiral" returning to bring the piece and album to a majestic, cathartic closure.

If doom metal is an extreme closeup version of Black Sabbath, then CHORD is a further extrapolation, showcasing for those with ears to hear the infinite varieties of heavy guitar texture. Didkovsky's also on the luminously lovely In Cahoots, Vol. 4, the latest compilation of collaborations with Michigan-based composer Frank Pahl, on which the ever inventive guitarist ducks and dives all over "Hydrochloric Neckties," a quirky slice of instrumental pop. Another worthy submission for your consideration on this Bandcamp Friday.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

So long, Mario Pavone

If you know the backstory, it's poignant to read the liner notes to Isabella, the new Clean Feed release by bassist-composer Mario Pavone's Tampa Quartet. Both this release and Blue Vertical, recorded with Pavone's Dialect Trio + 1 and released simultaneously on Out of Your Head, are dedicated to his granddaughter, who passed last year. "She stole my heart since her birth," Pavone wrote. "She showered her love on me, and on her grandmother, all the days of her life...My Joy will be in re-uniting with her." Pavone passed on May 15 this year after a 17-year struggle with cancer. These two albums were recorded in the last months of his life -- Isabella on February 28-March 1, Blue Vertical on March 25-26 -- and Pavone thanks both label's owners for their "expediency" in releasing them as quickly as possible.

Isabella finds Pavone in the company of his son Michael Pavone on guitar, altoist Mike DiRubbo, and drummer Michael Sarin (a veteran of the saxophonist Thomas Chapin's long-lived trio with Pavone), while on Blue Vertical, Pavone's trio with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Tyshawn Sorey is augmented by trumpeter-arranger Dave Ballou (who also played on Pavone's 2017 release Vertical and wrote the arrangements for Isabella). That Pavone deemed it so important that he make his last recordings with these particular musicians speaks to the regard in which he held them and the value he placed on his relationships with them. Six tunes appear on both albums, which allows the interested listener to compare and contrast the two ensembles' approaches.

Not surprisingly, the piano-based trio has a cohesive group dynamic one would expect from a unit that's had seven years to get to know each other, to which Ballou (previously heard in ex-Mother Don Preston's Akashic Ensemble and with experimental guitar wizard Nick Didkovsky in Zinc Nine Psychedelic) adds an edgy and exploratory voice. The alto-guitar fronted quartet has a more ruminative cast. The younger Pavone is an agile and inventive soloist and often plays unison themes with DiRubbo, who was part of the Pavone octet that cut Totem Blues for Knitting Factory in Y2K. Pavone's circuitously wending melodies shine throughout, giving the soloists ample fodder for extemporization, and his bass is the heart of the music. He wasn't done with it, just ran out of time. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

My first favorite guitar solo

When I was 11 and my LP collection consisted of Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends (the sound of what I imagined it was going to feel like to be 21, back then) and the first two Deep Purple albums -- that'd be Shades of Deep Purple and The Book of Taliesyn -- my favorite guitar solo was the one Ritchie Blackmore played on "Wring That Neck" (retitled "Hard Road" for the squeamish American market), which I first heard on the B-side of their "Kentucky Woman" single -- Neil Diamond as Mitch Ryder might have sung him. 

That's when I liked Purple best: when they were still a Vanilla Fudge simulacrum, playing (mostly) slowed-down, stretched-out covers of pop hits and songs associated with the Beatles/Cream/Hendrix. Even then I could hear how eccentric Blackmore's phrasing and note choices were, and the way his lines sometimes veered into atonality. Like Jeff Beck, he had a touch and attack that gave his lines a vocalized sound -- lots of bends and a wide vibrato. Also like Beck, he sounded like he was mad as hell at somebody and using his guitar to get back at them. I liked Purple less after they heard Led Zep I and got heavier, although I still listened to Made In Japan more times in the summer of 1973 than any other album besides Dark Side of the Moon.

I've been geeking out on YouTube, watching live versions of this song, which vary from the '69 Bilzen festival, where Blackmore just runs classical scales like mad (he and Purple organist Jon Lord had that ability in common), to the one from '70 Brit TV, where he seems more into throwing the guitar around than playing. As someone who earned his stripes sweating it out in Reeperbahn toilets and US military bases in Germany with the likes of Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, Blackmore knew how to "Mach schau!" There are also a bunch of live versions of "Mandrake Root" (another number from the "Mk I" lineup that survived the transition to "Mk II") from '69-'70 out there, if you've a couple of hours to burn.

Blackmore did studio work for the tragic innovator Joe Meek (if you haven't seen the 2008 biopic Telstar: The Joe Meek Story, in which there's a Ritchie Blackmore character, you owe it to  yourself), so he was familiar with the dimensions of mock and real dementia in pop music, and his playing reflects that. He had a different kind of melodic imagination than your average blues-based rocker, and liked to play over chord changes (rather than soloing over a drone like most rock players). 

There's video of Purple playing "Wring That Neck" in the studio where you can hear Blackmore working out some of the ideas he'd use on the take they kept. What he plays on the record is so well crafted that I've stayed obsessed with it for, um, over 50 years now. It took me awhile to transcribe, especially the last eight bars, because Blackmore can play faster than I can think. I realized that my tendency to phrase in triplets -- as Ritchie does near the end of this -- when I'm trying to play fast and not just using a lot of hammers and pull-offs probably comes from trying to emulate this solo. 

I tried playing it through the Seymour Duncan humbucker on Nick Girgenti's old Lone Star Strat, but the tone sounded too Clapton-on-Bluesbreakers. I wound up using the neck pickup for the rhythm loop and the middle pickup with my Marshall Bluesbreaker pedal (in homage to Ritchie's Hornby-Skewes treble booster) for the solo. After I'd done this, I read a Guitar Player interview with Blackmore where he says he never uses the middle pickup! We live, we learn. I probably could have gotten a better take, and was about to take another pass when I goofed and erased the loop, which I took as a sign from the Universe that this was done.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Barry Altschul/3Dom Factor's "Long Tall Sunshine"


I was pleasantly surprised last year to hear master drummer Barry Altschul on a Clean Feed release by iconic '60s vocalist Patty Waters, recorded in Houston at a show booked by Nameless Sound. Since then, the other two musicians on the date, Burton Greene and Mario Pavone, have passed, but Altschul, at 78, remains a vital force.

Best known for his '60s and '70s collaborations with Paul Bley, Chick Corea, and Anthony Braxton, Altschul has more recently been a part of the FAB Trio with bassist Joe Fonda (another Braxton familiar) and the late violinist Billy Bang, and an eponymous trio led by saxophonist Jon Irabagon. Since 2012, Altschul's also worked with Fonda and Irabagon under the rubric 3Dom Factor. Recorded in Europe during a 2019 tour and released on Not Two, Long Tall Sunshine -- the title tune is dedicated to and descriptive of a former romantic partner of Alstschul's -- can be seen as a kind of lagniappe and coda to the band's three previous releases (two studio, one live).

Listening to a sax-fronted trio, it's impossible not to think of Rollins or Ornette, but Irabagon (previously heard with Mary Halvorson and Mostly Other People Do the Killing) is equal to the assignment, capable of both the former's thematic invention and the latter's open-ended exploration. Indeed, the title track is a Sonny-esque calypso, while the ballad "Irina" creates a mood of somber contemplation redolent of Blue Note-era Coleman. Windy City native Irabagon tips his hat to his hometown's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians with circular breathing fireworks on "Be Out S'Cool," and extended techniques elsewhere.

But this is a cooperative group, not a leader-with-sidemen, and the Fonda-Altschul engine room drives the music forward with aggressive energy and relentless swing. They're a veritable volcano on "The 3Dom Factor," an eruption of '60s-style fire music. Fonda wrestles mighty slabs of sound from his instrument, while Altschul actively listens and responds to every musical idea his bandmates put forward -- the most incandescent of free drummers. He gets a lengthy showcase at the top of "Martin's Stew" (I'm guessing a tribute to the late trap master Stu Martin), an excellent example of the level of spontaneous communication and interaction this band is capable of.

Thursday, July 01, 2021

A cavalcade of live Mingus

I've probably written at greater length about the titanic bassist-composer Charles Mingus than anyone else but the Who (idols of my misspent yoof). Time was when I'd buy any recording of the band he took to Europe in 1964, with iconic avant-gardist Eric Dolphy on multiple reeds, Jaki Byard conjuring the whole history of jazz on piano, Clifford Jordan on tenor, Johnny Coles on trumpet (before he took ill in Paris), and Mingus mainstay Dannie Richmond on drums. The April 18 Paris show released as The Great Concert of Charles Mingus was an early revelation when I started investigating jazz ca. '75, and I first heard "Peggy's Blue Skylight" from the previous night's show (which Sue Mingus released as Revenge! The Legendary Paris Concerts in the mid-'90s) on a mixtape I got from a SAC NCO Academy student when I was an instructor there in '91. 

The existence in Europe of national radio and TV stations that considered jazz an important art form meant that the '64 tour was well documented. Besides the two aforementioned Paris dates (and the Town Hall and Cornell University concerts that were recorded before Mingus and Co. headed overseas), audio recordings from Amsterdam, Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Bremen, Wuppertal, and Stuttgart have emerged over the years, along with video from Belgian, Norwegian, and Swedish TV (the DVD of which has become my preferred way to experience this band -- the nonverbals between the musicians are fascinating, as is Mingus' dialogue with Dolphy, who remained in Europe at the end of the tour and died two months later).

Last year Sunnyside -- which previously released the storied 1965 Mingus concert from Royce Hall at UCLA, as well as a 1970 studio session from Paris -- released Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975, a Radio Bremen broadcast from the '64 tour, coupled with another from the same source on the 1975 tour that featured pianist Don Pullen and tenorist George Adams, two forward-looking players who chafed under Mingus' leadership and went on to co-lead a long-lived quartet of their own (with Richmond) after the their former bandleader's death. Brevity is the soul of truth in advertising.

The two discs of the Sunnyside set devoted to '64 feature a typical set from the tour: the new pieces "So Long Eric" (a blues dedicated to Dolphy, here listed as "Hope So Eric") and the multi-themed, Ellingtonian "Meditations," one of Mingus' greatest works and one with a political origin story that still resonates, given symphonic sweep by Dolphy's multi-reed fluency; "Fables of Faubus," much expanded from its Columbia and Debut recorded versions to include extended solos from all the players, made more striking by the varied backing Mingus cued; the opening solo piece by Byard and his duet with Mingus on Duke's "Sophisticated Lady," leading into "Parkeriana," the evocation of the bebop era that didn't always cohere well onstage (most ignominiously in the Oslo TV broadcast, where it doesn't coalesce after a couple of minutes, so Mingus stops it dead and starts playing "Take the 'A' Train" instead).

The '75 discs are a rarer bird. Till now, the only released live recordings of that lineup, on DVD and CD, were of a less-than-stellar Montreux Festival performance, much of which is devoted to a jam session with guests. But onstage, the Pullen-Adams lineup was playing what was essentially a live version of the then-current releases, Changes One and Changes Two. Those records seemed a little studio-sterile to me at the time -- not to slight the quality of the compositions and performances, which were stunning -- in the same way as Mingus' 1959 Columbia sessions did when compared with his contemporaneous Blues and Roots for Atlantic. These live performances allow the pieces to breathe more, and showcase them to better effect, benefitting from the players' familiarity with the material. 

"Sue's Changes," another work of shifting tempos and moods, dedicated to Mingus' last wife and eternal advocate, is heard here in a half hour-long version that gives all the soloists room to extemporize at length. Don Pullen reveals expressive facility inside the chords, eschewing the clusters and glisses for which he was initially known (they'd reemerge later). Adams is a modernist who uses the full range of his horn, including frequent forays into multiphonics, covering some of the ground Dolphy did in the '64 band. Trumpeter Jack Walrath was a Berklee grad with a background that ranged from free jazz to R&B. "Black Bats and Poles," also played here, is his composition, on which it's particularly evident that Mingus was using a pickup on his instrument by this time.

"For Harry Carney," a tribute to an Ellingtonian by Sy Johnson (who was denied arranging credit for his work on Let My Children Hear Music), is an elegiac minor blues that was the highlight of the uncharacteristically subdued Mingus set I witnessed at Stony Brook in 1976 by a unit that included Walrath, Richmond, tenorist Ricky Ford and pianist Walter Norris (whom I mistook for Jimmy Rowles).

"Free Cell Block F, 'Tis Nazi USA" is essayed at an astonishing clip, compared to the studio version. "Fables of Faubus" (which had new lyrics for the Nixon era, not really audible here -- no "Fables of Ford?") also gets played at breakneck pace. "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love" is Mingus' last dedication to his idol and inspiration; I actually miss the lyrics and Jackie Paris vocal from the Changes Two version just because they're familiar. A brief, ironic snippet of "Cherokee" ends the set, then they encore with "Remember Rockefeller at Attica" (formerly known as "Just for Laughs Saps") -- another major work. Adams' vocal on "Devil Blues" is charmingly idiosyncratic, and will be easy to skip in this sequence after a couple of spins. I'm happy to have this set to reach for when I want to hear Mingus with Pullen and Adams, or revisit my perpetual favorite lineup.

Mingus at Carnegie Hall is an album I never paid much attention to when it was new. Two side-long jam sessions on Ellington chestnuts didn't seem as essential to me as Mingus' own compositions, so I sprung for Mingus Presents Mingus, Town Hall Concert, Tijuana Moods, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, and the aforementioned Blues and Roots and Great Concert instead. (Thanks to Creem magazine and Nat Hentoff for the early direction.) The Deluxe Edition that just dropped, however, is a different matter entahrly. Initially ambivalent about the hefty price tag for the three-LP version, I was unable to resist when Amazon (so evil, so affordable) had the 2CD for a mere 17 bucks, and I had a gift card.

This '74 recording is the only document of which I'm aware of the lineup immediately preceding the '75 one, with Hamiet Bluiett on bari sax for a brief sojourn, and trumpet wunderkind Jon Faddis (a Dizzy Gillespie disciple, who's reputed to have caused Freddie Hubbard to blow out his lip in an ill-advised high note contest) occupying the chair before Walrath arrived. Pullen and Adams are on board, but only just, and Richmond is newly returned. They'd cut the disappointing Mingus Moves LP and were in the process of forming a band identity -- which, with two fiery free blowers (Adams and Bluiett) in the front line, is more raucous and wild, than, say, the '64 band, where the more restrained, Rollins-esque Clifford Jordan balanced out Dolphy. 

The repertoire is retrospective, starting with a "Peggy's Blue Skylight" that goes through a steeplechase of tempo changes, a "Celia" (dedicated to Mingus' second wife, originally recorded in '58 for Bethlehem, recut in '63 for Impulse) that winds its way through several moods and movements and is a high point of the set, and a "Fables of Faubus" on hyperdrive. Bluiett and Adams both leave blood on the floor. Pullen's Bo Diddley-goes-to-church "Big Alice" closes the regular set. 

For the encore, the regulars are joined by the elegant altoist/tenorist John Handy, who'd played on Mingus' classic '59 recordings for United Artists and Columbia; flamboyant multi-reedist and master of circular breathing Roland Kirk, a veteran of the '61 sessions that produced Oh Yeah; and stalwart altoist Charles McPherson, a constant in Mingus' bands from the triumphant '64 Monterey festival appearance to '72, including some of the leader's leanest years. The jam session (on "Perdido" -- written by Mingus' one-time nemesis Juan Tizol -- and "C-Jam Blues") is exciting entertainment, typical of festivals or big concerts of the time, but the real action is in the germinal stages of Mingus' last great band, heard in its full flowering on the '75 Bremen date.