Friday, November 15, 2019

FTW, 11.14.2019

Nebraska native James Hall is a trombonist-composer-arranger who came to Fort Worth via Brooklyn a year and a half ago. Since then, he's been a stay-at-home dad, flying out of town to play occasional salsa and jazz gigs, his local musical activity limited to jamming at the Scat Jazz Lounge or Grackle Art Gallery (with the exception of a performance of the material from his freebopish 2018 album Lattice for an event at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center).

He's been thinking about and writing music the whole time, though, and meeting collaborators  like electronic musician Jean-Luc Vila (another stay-at-home dad) and fellow trombonist Amanda Kana (whom he met doing an Easter gig -- "the only day when every trombonist has a gig"). "Counterpoint -- Music for Trombone and Electronics" at the Grackle last night was an opportunity to hear some of the ideas Hall has been working on, with a program ranging from baroque to modern and experimental, presented in reverse historical order.

The evening opened with a spontaneous composition that featured the backward-echoed sounds of Hall's trombone over a field recording of wind chimes (electronically manipulated by Vila). Hall played Augusta Read Thomas' Spring Song, originally composed for the cello, using a harmonizer to create the effect of double-stops with the trombone's "single column of air." Seth Shafer's Pulsar was written for trombone and computer, and featured vignettes for four different types of delay. Kana joined Hall to duet on selections from Bartok's collection of modernist piano pieces, Mikrokosmos, and Bach's two part inventions, with each trombonist playing one hand's part.

The different examples of two interacting melodies were thoughtful and engaging, with Hall's personable comments serving as introduction and transition. At different points, I was reminded of  Stravinsky's Firebird, George Lewis' pioneering trombone-computer experiments, and Dave Dove placing the bell of his 'bone near the floor of the Firehouse Gallery to make the house's foundation a resonating chamber. I left with a copy of Hall's 2013 CD Soon We Shall Not Be Here, a collection of art-song settings of poems by New York City poets. In February, Hall's Lattice collaborator, flutist Jamie Baum, will visit the DFW area for a series of performances of that material. We can't wait to hear.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Oak Cliff, 11.8.2019

Ty Macklin: "involuntary motions are normal"

"I look like a hip-hop clown," said Tahiti, who'd just driven in from Oklahoma, where he now lives. The ex-PPT/Awkquarius rapper, whose recent single "Light Blue Room" was inspired by living with Parkinson's disease  (with which he was diagnosed in 2015), was in town for an evening of hip-hop at Top Ten Records. Joining him on this occasion were award-winning producer Ty Macklin (Erykah Badu, india.arie), aka XL7, and Doc Strange, whose Tahiti-produced sci-fi opera Sindrome was a favorite spin at la casa a few years back.

(L-R) Tahiti, Doc Strange, Ty Macklin aka XL7.

The night had a house party atmosphere, starting out with a set of classic hip-hop and soul sounds from DJ Bilal and beats from Dee the Beatmaker. A young chef was handing out fresh Chilean empanadas he'd just baked. Tahiti's PPT/Awkquarius collaborator Pikahsso was in the house, as was violinist Leonard Hayward (Rachella Parks-Washington, Ronald Shannon Jackson).

The DJ set flowed seamlessly into a series of beat demonstrations, in which the creators talked a little about their methods and inspirations. Tahiti's beats featured idiosyncratic textures and musique concrete-like sonic disruptions. Doc Strange took a more aggressive approach, creating the kind of background that might accompany an MC battle, which he illustrated with some forceful, full-throated freestyle. "I like to let a sample play for awhile," he said, "so people can hear this cool little sample I found before I freak it."

Ty Macklin's beats and presentation were the most developed, and unfolded as he stood in "suspended animation" behind an ancient piece of equipment he averred he'd bought from George Clinton, which he said would read his thoughts and translate them into beats. A robotic voice provided narration. When at one point, the previously inert Macklin raised his arms above his head and the voice intoned, "Involuntary movements are normal," it was a moment of theater worthy of Sun Ra or Dr. Funkenstein himself.

A planned video presentation was the victim of technical difficulties, but that didn't stop Macklin (in his XL7 guise), Doc Strange, and Tahiti from finishing with a spirited version of their 2014 single "Don't Get It Twisted," which inspired a local break dance crew to bust moves.

Top Ten Records is Dallas' oldest record store, in operation since 1956 (although, as Macklin points out, "there weren't this many of us there back then), reborn in 2016 as a non-profit focused on "arts engagement and media archiving." They have a fundraising campaign in progress now; they deserve your support.

Tahiti plans an appearance in Fort Worth in the new year.

ADDENDA: 'Twas DJ Bilal, not XL7, that got the dancers breakin'. And the "young chef" was, in fact, rapper Kilo Artefacto. Mea culpa.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

J. Graves' "Marathon"

This arrived unannounced on my doorstep a few days ago. Opening the package, I was surprised to see what was unmistakably a chest X-ray (I was a full-time health care consumer for a few months last year). "This record is my heart and everything inside of me," the artist wrote on the enclosed postcard, adding, "I'm just getting started." Indeed!

J. Graves is the performing persona of Portland based singer-guitarist-songwriter Jessa Graves. On Marathon, her first full-length, she chops out churning, chugging post-punk chords on a high-slung Telecaster, shadowed every step of the way by an agile rhythm section that can stop on a dime when the song's dynamics demand it, declaiming her febrile bulletins from the relationship wars in a clear, untutored voice that rings with passion and power. The sound is aggressive minimalism at its best, and the recording serves it well, capturing the band's fury while keeping Graves' voice above the fray. Marathon's a record you'll (sorry) want to go the distance with.

Men of Extinction's "Pistol Grip Wallet"

Rootsy singer-songwriter-bandleader Jim Colegrove has been dealing in topical tunes since the very first Lost Country album, way back in 2001. But when he opens Pistol Grip Wallet, the new CD by Men of Extinction -- his collaboration with Kinky Friedman familiar Roscoe West -- by announcing, "I fucking guarantee there'll be a gospel quartet" (down at the "Side Show Showdown"), you get the feeling that something has changed. And indeed, it has.

During the two years Colegrove and West spent writing and recording these 13 songs, we've seen an increase in anxiety across the land. Faced with mass shootings, climate change, and a government that appears hell bent on undoing a century of social progress, it's tempting to spend all day standing on the porch yelling "FUCK!" Or we can roll up our sleeves and try to do something, anything, to try and stem the tide -- registering voters, organizing, making our voices heard on issues that matter. Or, if you're someone like Jim Colegrove, making music that reflects the tenor of the times.

Consequently, the songs on Pistol Grip Wallet have the surreal air of a communique from Spectre, Alabama (the town that time forgot in Tim Burton's Big Fish), with Colegrove and West grinning sickly through their (and our) horror. On "Picky Asshole," the persnickety protagonist bitches about broken egg yolks and his wife's choice of shoes over a bumpa-chicka rockabilly blues. "Before They Shot Kids" is disconcerting -- what seems like a slice of tuneful nostalgia at first (imagine Richard Manuel singing Brian Wilson) is undercut by the recurring title refrain.

"There Stands the Tower" sounds for all the world like Ralph Stanley playing the part of a sociopathic narcissist (so familiar after two years and change of "stable genius" that it gave me chills). The bluegrass Everyman's lament "Getalong Paul" traces the hapless protagonist's odyssey from retail working stiff to cannon fodder and back. But "Spread Your Little Thing Out," a catalog of sexual predation, was the moment when I started to question my enjoyment of this finely wrought entertainment. Recommended for roots music fans (are there such?) who aren't put off by the shiver behind the laugh.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Things we like: Phorids, Fitted, Convoy and the Cattlemen

1) The passionate, pummeling punk of Heater was a favorite noise around mi casa, so when I heard that half of the guys from that band were involved in a new outfit, Phorids, of course I was interested. Most valuable player Travis Brown relinquished his frontman role to Brad Barker (ex-Antirad) and took a seat behind the drums, while Jamie Shipman continued laying down the low-end law alongside guitarist Shannon Greer (ex-Rome I$ Burnin). They quickly recorded a debut EP (link below) and played their first show in a record store at the end of August. With astonishing rapidity, they've progressed to playing just about every weekend in Fort Worth, Arlington, Dallas, or Denton, with a New Year's Eve show opening for T.S.O.L. and the Dwarves at Gas Monkey in Big D on the cards. Barker roars his Everyman's angst while behind him, his mates rage and roil like refugees from the '80s East Coast hardcore scene. Bold and bracing stuff.

2) While it might seem weird that the first generation of punk rockers are nearing retirement age, that doesn't mean that they're losing their teeth or settling back in any rocking chairs. Case in point: ex-Minutemen/fIREHOSE/Stooges man-in-van-with-bass-in-hand Mike Watt, who remains the perpetual road dog, with more projects than Carter has little liver pills. Currently on tour with his own Missingmen (in a year that's also seen him hit the boards with veteran punks Flipper and avant guitarist Mike Baggetta), he's also on a new CD by Fitted, a collaboration with two members of arty punks Wire (that'd be Graham Lewis and Matthew Simms) and his sometime tour drummer Bob Lee. The results are equally anchored and ethereal: swirling psychedelic soundscapes, motorik beats, pop songs upended by jarring dissonance, sinister Lewis Carroll evocations, droning feedback fests, and lots of proof positive that punk rock remains whatever you want it to be.

3) Punk energy abounds on Too Fast Too Loud, the debut full-length by Convoy and the Cattlemen, once house band in all but name at Arlington's Sunshine Bar (which they immortalized in their song "Division Dive," released as 7-inch last year and also included here). Imagine Junior Brown or Eleven Hundred Springs running on rocket fuel, and you're onto what they're about. There's been a country-punk connection in Texas since Joe Ely toured with the Clash (or maybe since the Nervebreakers covered "The Race Is On"), and these guys 'n' gal proudly continue that tradition. Frontman Convoy Cabriolet sings with an exuberant rockabilly yelp, while his band is equally adept at trucker speed breakdowns, honky tonk shuffles, and  twangy rockers. When Convoy steps back, it's time for the three-instrument front line (lead, steel, and fiddle) to strut their stuff, backed to the hilt by a tight, hot rhythm section. Boots will be scooting whenever the needle's dropped in these grooves. Release show at Lola's November 30th.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The jazz heritage of I.M. Terrell

It took me 44 years to get to I.M. Terrell High School.

In the fall of 1975, when I was about to drop out of the State University of New York at Albany, my roommate and I used to go over to the university library and listen to a couple of records there. One of them was an Ornette Coleman album called Crisis!, recorded in New York in 1969.

I didn’t know then that Ornette and his bandmate Dewey Redman were both I.M. Terrell alumni. I just knew that this music had what I perceived to be a more human sound than all the other jazz I’d heard up till then – the earlier swing and bebop styles, as well as the rock-influenced fusion that was prevalent at the time. To this day I still find the sound of Ornette’s alto saxophone to be both the happiest and the saddest music I can imagine. Listen to the nursery rhyme-like “Theme from a Symphony” from his 1977 album Dancing In Your Head or the cry of lamentation in “Lonely Woman” from his 1959 album The Shape of Jazz To Come and you’ll hear what I mean.

Ornette was a pure product of Fort Worth. The city resonates in his compositions “Una Muy Bonita” and “Latin Genetics,” with their mariachi echoes, and the gutbucket blues at the heart of “Ramblin’” and “Blues Connotation.” It was fitting and proper that Mayor Bob Bolen awarded Ornette the key to the city when he returned here from his adopted home in New York to open the nightclub Caravan of Dreams in 1983 – an occasion when John Giordano and the Fort Worth Symphony performed Ornette’s Skies of America (and half the subscribers walked out).

Doing some reading back in ‘75, I learned that Ornette’s music was called “free jazz,” a term he’d used as the title of a 1961 album. Ornette and his musicians took a more open approach to tonality than earlier jazz players, ignoring the advanced harmony of bebop or even the focus on scales and modes that Miles Davis and John Coltrane were pioneering around the same time.

Sixty years ago, in November 1959, Ornette and his first quartet traveled from Los Angeles – where he’d gone after failing to find an outlet for his approach in his hometown – to New York City to begin a residency at the Five Spot nightclub that would set the jazz world on its ear. (A book about the engagement, published a decade ago, was titled The Battle of the Five Spot.) Some musicians thought that Ornette was jiving and called him a charlatan, but others with bigger ears and eyes fixed on the future rather than the past – including Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Sonny Rollins – visited the club night after night to listen and learn.

Ornette continued defying convention throughout his career: hiring his ten-year-old son to play drums, performing on instruments (trumpet and violin) on which he possessed no conventional technique, composing classical pieces, dispensing with conventional jazz instrumentation in favor of a funk-flavored electric band called Prime Time.

When Dancing In Your Head, the first Ornette album with Prime Time, dropped in 1977, it hit my house like an atomic bomb: two chattering electric guitars, over which a constantly soloing electric bass provided a countermelody to Ornette’s alto, and who was that four-handed drummer, anyway? It seemed like chaos at first, but I just didn’t understand the music’s system of simultaneous improvisation, which Ornette called “harmolodics.” (A promised treatise never materialized.) Now, of course, it sounds like heartbeat.

“That drummer” was another I.M. Terrell alumnus, Ronald Shannon Jackson, a percussion innovator who played the drum kit from the bass drum up, unlike most jazz drummers, who keep time on the ride cymbal. When I had the pleasure of interviewing Shannon for Fort Worth Weekly in 2002, he made me aware of the role I.M. Terrell music teacher G.A. Baxter – a perfectionist who had students playing Sousa marches during football season and Wagner in the orchestra come spring -- played in fostering his generation of young musicians. Baxter let students use the Terrell auditorium, which also served as the band room, to rehearse their own combos. His colleague Adelaide Tresvant, taught music theory as well as directing the choir and glee club. You can hear echoes of the famous Terrell drum line in Shannon’s cadences. After leaving Ornette, he’d distinguish himself as a composer and bandleader in his own right.

Shannon grew up servicing jukeboxes for his father’s record store, dreaming of African rhythms he’d apply to music he heard on the radio. He followed a circuitous route from Terrell to New York in the early ‘60s, first attending college in Missouri with fellow Terrell alums Julius Hemphill and Thomas Reese (a pianist who’d given Shannon his first taste of jazz via an Art Blakey record).

Hemphill was an alto saxophonist and composer who settled in St. Louis, where he became affiliated with the Black Artists Group, an arts collective that included dancers, theater and visual artists, and writers as well as musicians. In New York in the ‘70s, he’d establish himself as a nonpareil writer of horn polyphony, owner of his own independent record label, founder of the World Saxophone Quartet and later, the all-horn Julius Hemphill Sextet. He taught and mentored younger musicians, including saxophonist Tim Berne, who currently tours with an outfit called Broken Shadows (named for an Ornette tune) that plays a repertoire of material by Ornette, Hemphill, and Dewey Redman. Hemphill continued to create even after he was stricken with diabetes and heart disease that left him unable to play.

Shannon got his first record date in the Apple via another Terrell alumnus, Charles Moffett, who was drumming for Ornette then. One night in 1978, I was standing outside the Recovery Room on Lemmon Avenue in Dallas, where sometimes Red Garland, Miles Davis’ ‘50s pianist, would spell Thomas Reese at the piano during tenor saxophonist Marchel Ivery’s gigs. A van pulled up in the parking lot, emblazoned with the legend “Moffett Family – Fort Worth, Texas.” Charles got out, along with three of his sons. The band was taking a break, so the Moffett brothers – Charles Jr. on tenor, Charnett on bass, and Codaryl on drums – took over the stage and proceeded to raise the roof with an eruption of ‘60s style free-jazz “energy music.” Before the audience knew what hit them, the Moffetts were out the door, back into the van, and headed back to Fort Worth. Now that was a night!

Before Ornette, Shannon played with another free jazz innovator, saxophonist Albert Ayler, whom Shannon said was “the first leader who let me play the way I did in Fort Worth when I wasn’t playing for other people.” Like a lot of musicians, Shannon was devastated by the death in 1967 of his idol, John Coltrane, and struggled with drug addiction before a fellow musician introduced him to Buddhism and vegetarianism.

Shannon was ready to play again when Ornette called and asked him to join Prime Time for four years while Denardo Coleman – who’d been playing with his dad since he was ten – attended college. With Shannon, Prime Time cut two trailblazing records – the aforementioned Dancing In Your Head and Body Meta – and made a memorable Saturday Night Live appearance, which features Shannon prominently although he said Ornette didn’t want him on screen.

During a lull in Ornette’s touring schedule, Shannon joined the monumental free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor’s Unit for a European tour and four albums (two studio, two live) in which he dared to put a backbeat behind Taylor’s shifting tectonic plates of sound. Crucially, Ornette had encouraged Shannon to compose, so after his stint with Taylor was up, the drummer was ready to enter the next phase of his career, enjoying critical and popular acclaim through the ‘80s with the all-star aggregations Power Tools and Last Exit as well as his own Decoding Society.

Shannon moved back to Fort Worth in 1996 and spent the rest of his life in his family’s house on North Judkins Street near Riverside Drive, surrounded by artwork, books and records, instruments and memorabilia of his career (a selection of which is on display this month at the Ella Mae Shamblee Public Library), a couple of TVs that were always on. He ate well from his organic garden, had a cat named Where You At, and wrote music till the end of his life. Saxophonist Rachella Parks-Washington, whom you’ll meet today at the Scat Jazz Lounge, played in some of his last bands. Local musicians Curtis Heath and Britt Robisheaux worked with Shannon on archiving his library of unreleased recordings.

Shannon played his last concert at the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff in July 2012. When the band Living Colour, whose guitarist Vernon Reid was an original Decoding Society member, played the same venue a year later, Curtis, Britt, and I were able to tell Vernon that his old mentor was undergoing treatment for leukemia at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. When the band’s tour ended and they returned to New York, Reid managed to contact pretty much everyone Shannon knew in the city, and his last hospital stay was a cavalcade of reunions.

I met Dewey Redman in 2003, when he was in town to headline the short-lived Jazz by the Boulevard festival. After a detour to hone his chops in San Francisco, Dewey joined Ornette in New York in 1967 and played with him until 1971. He went on to perform with pianist Keith Jarrett’s "American quartet," longtime Ornette bassist Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, the Ornette alumni band Old and New Dreams, and guitarist Pat Metheny’s 80/81 band.

On his own, Dewey was the kind of versatile player who does well at festivals. He craved acceptance in his hometown more than any of his I.M. Terrell contemporaries appeared to, so the Jazz by the Boulevard booking was a welcome one. He said he was writing an autobiography, which thus far has not appeared. One of my abiding regrets is passing on the opportunity to interview him for the Fort Worth Public Library’s oral history program. I had just started a new job, and I was busy. The next time I heard from the library man was when he emailed me Dewey’s New York Times obituary. Carpe diem.

When I interviewed them, both Shannon and Dewey told stories of life in segregated Fort Worth, and the hostility and violence they encountered growing up here. These things remain part of our reality today. I.M. Terrell’s heritage is one of accomplishment in the face of structural discrimination. The school is a focal point of community pride and history that must not be forgotten as those with living memory of G.A. Baxter, Ornette Coleman, Shannon Jackson, Julius Hemphill, Dewey Redman and the rest pass on. And here’s hoping that this city can create an atmosphere where the next generation of I.M. Terrell creatives won’t feel they need to leave home to make their impact.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Deep Ellum, 9.15.2019

It's not often that three people whose opinions I respect pull my coat to the same performer, but when Jeff Economy from the Snackpoint Charlie radio show, Jon Teague (currently on tour with Pinkish Black) and Frank Cervantez of Wire Nest all told me I needed to check out the Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar, I had to hear what they were on about, and was favorably impressed. So when I got wind that Mdou was coming to Deep Ellum Art Company -- his first visit to DFW -- I got tickets right away.

While I'd previously enjoyed sounds I'd heard from Mdou's Niger Tuareg countrymen like Group Bombino, Group Inerane, and Group Doueh, Mdou has something extra: tone. He plays a left-handed Strat, inviting Hendrix comparisons, and his base tone uses a phaser and delay to take some of the edge off the bright sound he gets from his two chained Roland JC 120s. He plays fluid lines using a rapidly moving index finger, barring a full step above a capo to facilitate lots of fast trilling. When he kicks on the fuzz box, he sounds a bit like Sonny Sharrock did in the '80s, or Frank Zappa when he was making his neck-tapped "Bulgarian bagpipe" sounds. Then he'll slide and hammer on the strings with his picking hand to create aleatoric excitement in the manner of early Ritchie Blackmore. (All these rock comparisons, by the way, are spurious; Mdou claims not to even know what rock music is. He only incorporated the effects into his rig in 2017.)

His shredding works best when it flows organically out of his distinctive rhythmic feel, and is matched by the plaintive, muezzin-like quality of his singing. All of these qualities are amply in evidence on his new LP, Ilana the Creator, in service of a set of songs about the plight of his people and the exploitation of their desert homeland (helpfully translated on the inner sleeve for the benefit of non-Tuareg language speakers). Live, Mdou's music comes across even more forcefully, accompanied by an agile but powerful combo of rhythm guitar, bass, and drums. Before his overseas discovery, Mdou made his living playing at weddings, but this isn't like any bunch of tuxedoed drones you ever heard. This is trance music, and working off Mazawadje Aboubacar Ibrahim's insistent kick drum, Mdou plays with more insane abandon than on the record, so effortlessly that you might think he can do it in his sleep.

Opening act was the Brazilian psych quartet Boogarins, who were clearly already favorites of a big chunk of the audience. Anchored by Ynaiã Benthroldo's rock-solid drumming and fronted by brashly extroverted Dinho Almeida (imagine a young Hendrix in shorts), who split guitar and vocal duties with the more intense-looking (and fluent English-speaking) Benke Ferraz, the foursome produced swirling textures and pulsing grooves that got the crowd moving, then invited Mdou onstage for an exhibition that was a tantalizing glimpse of things to come. (Except for my wife and me, who'd cheated, getting there early enough to catch Mdou's sound check.)

Deep Ellum Art Company's a congenial venue, highlighted by art on the walls and in the big "art yard" outside, which is home to a couple of cats who looked more relaxed than your normal run of feral city felines, particularly the one who'd had his ear chewed off. He was grooming when we stepped outside and sleeping peacefully in the open when we went back in. The crowd wasn't bad for a Sunday night, but hopefully next time in Dallas, Mdou will get a Friday or Saturday. He deserves to be heard much more widely.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

FTW, 8.30.2019

Besides receiving some recent attention from Texas Monthly for curator Linda Little's art protesting the separation of migrant families at our southern border, the plucky Grackle Art Gallery has been the locus of some interesting musical activity.

Guitarist Kavin Allenson has been hosting an invitational "Straw Drawing Improv Jam," usually the third Thursday of the month, featuring a cast of characters that includes, but is not limited to, trombonist James Hall, bassist Mark Hyde, Warr guitarist Mark Cook (99 Names of God, Liquid Sound Company), laptop wizard Darryl Wood (Bubble Force, Confusatron), and guitarists Joe Blair, Darrin Kobetich (Agita, Blackland River Devils), and your humble chronicler o' events. Not everything works, but at its best, the music burbles like a psychedelic stew, occasionally attaining heights of Crimsonoid grandeur.

This weekend, local prog guitar cult hero Bill Pohl (The Underground Railraod) is back from his new home in Colorado, where he plays solo and trio gigs when he isn't holding down the second guitar chair in Thinking Plague. On his last couple of visits, Bill played Allan Holdsworth tribute sets with a couple of fiery youngsters, but this time, he has something quieter and more subtle up his sleeve. In the more intimate setting of the Grackle, it's easier to hear the rich chords and varied pick attacks he uses to create orchestral textures with looper and delay pedals. His rhythmic rapport with bassist Sam Damask (Grand Commander) and hand percussionist Craig Shropshire (whose radio show on KERA-FM was a formative influence on scads of DFW underground musos) is also noteworthy. Bill remains a preternaturally fleet-fingered soloist, but Saturday's set emphasized atmosphere and groove to create a modal music of the spheres. When he launched into Miles' "It's About That Time" and followed it with Trane's "Naima," my month was made. He'll be back at the Grackle tonight with Shropshire and percussion eminence Eddie Dunlap. You owe it to yourself not to miss this.