Sunday, May 08, 2022

Android Trio's "Imaginary Numbers"

Here's the second pandemic era release from a bi-coastal trio of Cal Arts grads who came together while touring with the 21st century version of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. Drummer, synthesist, and primary composer Andy Niven's in Oakland, bassist-guitarist Eric Klerks in LA, and guitarist Max Kutner across the country in Brooklyn. 

Pre-Magic Band, Klerks and Kutner had played together in an Afrobeat outfit called the Sogo TakeOver (whose 2012 album remains Bandcamp available). The genesis of Android Trio came during a 2014 Magic Band tour of Australia, when Klerks and Kutner booked a duo gig, on which Niven joined for some Paul Motian tunes.

Kutner's a busy cat. His High Flavors Quintet is recording an album with legendary producer Martin Bisi. On a recent gig, one of the group members was unable to make it, so the remaining four blew improv fire for over an hour. There's video of Kutner shredding sheets of sound, giving way to extended techniques with rock dynamics. "Nerdy but fiery," as a review quoted on his website says, he's the kind of guitarist who plays King Crimson's "impossible" tour de force "Fracture" for fun.

Besides Beefheart, Kutner's also played in Frank Zappa and Oingo Boingo legacy bands, but he always approaches the repertoire in a fresh and creative way. Back in 2018, he made an album (Wild Courses, also on Bandcamp) with experimental guitar eminence Henry Kaiser where they play 12 string guitars and 8 string basses exclusively. 

While the previous Android Trio release, Other Worlds, featured heavy friends including '88 Zappa band stalwart Mike Keneally, on Imaginary Numbers it's back to the three principals (although Kutner would like them to tour with a keyboard and another guitar). The five tunes included here are a treasure trove for fans of prog, fusion, and even heavy guitar -- and not just those like your humble chronicler o' events who went apeshit over Jeff Beck Wired and Tony Williams Believe It when they were new.

The three come blazing out of the gate with "Tough One," a ferocious burner with a knuckle busting head and an arcing, soaring guitar solo by Klerks, who penned the next tune, "One Last Step," a vehicle for a Kutner solo that's a masterpiece of touch, tone, and tension-building, as well as one by its composer on standup bass that pays homage to his Cal Arts mentor Charlie Haden.

"Theme In Three (In Four)"'s airy melodies, floating on Niven's clouds of synth texture, mask a muscular rhythmic complexity. Kutner's "Short Sight" features a pummeling theme and slash-and-burn solo full of crackling electricity, interrupted by some Beefheartian dissonance near its end, culminating in the epic release of flailing double stops and the decay of saturated chords. Ultimately, there's the idiosyncratic funk of "Face Palm," with Kutner on electric sitar. Here and throughout, Niven's tom fills recall Tony Williams at his heroic '70s best.

Here's hoping Android Trio's able to take their show on the road sooner than later. Music that's this compelling in a remote recording can only become more exciting and cathartic in live performance. In my head I'm imagining them splitting a bill with Monks of Saturnalia at the Kessler. As Mickey Rourke said in Diner, "If you don't have good dreams, you have nightmares."

Sunday, May 01, 2022

Things we like: William Parker, Ava Mendoza, Zoh Amba, Ra Kalam Bob Moses

Author with Ra Kalam Bob Moses, Oak Cliff, 4.10.2022.
Photo by Angie Early.

My friend Mike gifted me a copy of William Parker's Mayan Space Station, a fiery trio date with Ava Mendoza on guitar inhabiting the territory staked out by John McLaughlin on Devotion and Sonny Sharrock on Ask the Ages. I've been very remiss in paying attention to Parker's important career -- he's been the standard bearer for NYC free jazz for awhile now -- but I was preoccupied with Detroit ramalama during the time of his ascendancy as a leader with In Order To Survive and the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, and I was fixated on local stuff during the decade of his breakthrough with the free bop outlier O'Neal's Porch. Somewhere around here I have a VHS of Parker playing with Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley, and I've heard a few things of his with David S. Ware and Peter Brotzmann. Going forward, I intend to do better. 

Parker's also on O Life, O Light, the second release from the youthful (turned 22 on April 28) saxophone prodigy Zoh Amba, whom I first got wind of via Ra Kalam Bob Moses after his appearance at the "For Dennis" event in Dallas earlier this month. Zoh Amba's from rural Tennessee via San Francisco and New England conservatories, and Ra Kalam, who'd played in a duo with her at a festival in Tennessee (he relocated from Boston to Memphis late last year), said she "sounds like Ayler." This was borne out by live YouTube videos, but moderated somewhat by a listen to O, Sun, her debut on John Zorn's Tzadik label, on which her voice is remarkably mature for one so young and her tunes have a spiritual yearning that goes beyond Coltrane worship. On her social medias, she's been exploring standup bass. A performer full of promise, who can go a lot of different ways. Which is kind of what being 22 is all about, I guess.

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Mendoza's been around a couple of decades. From SoCal, classically trained but steeped in Hendrix, punk, no wave and metal, she studied improv with Fred Frith at Mills (she's the other guitarist in the videos of his 2014 reimagining of his "dance music" album Gravity). On her solo debut, 2010's Shadow Stories, she uses the likes of Pee Wee King's "The Tennessee Waltz" and Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene" to perform the skilled fingerpicker's alchemy, sounding like two or more guitars, but with a raw, distorted tone. She also fronts a noisy, mostly instrumental rock trio, Unnatural Ways, whose most recent album The Paranoia Party features her vocals on every track, singing lyrics that relate border migrants to space aliens in a way fellow strangers in a strange land Sun Ra and George Clinton would understand. Her latest solo album, New Spells, is more compositionally focused, featuring new works by Mendoza, Devin Hoff, Trevor Dunn, and John Dikeman, made edgy by her spiky, skronky sound.

I've spent the last couple of days listening through a stack of CDs Ra Kalam kindly sent me. The son of a jazz publicist, he grew up on Central Park West in the same apartment building as Art Blakey, Max Roach, and Elvin Jones. Rahsaan Roland Kirk was a friend; Charles Mingus used to come over to play piano. "Fifty Bob Moseses ago," he was present at the creation of jazz-rock before it became an athletic event: The Free Spirits with Larry Coryell in 1966, the Gary Burton Quartet the following year (he's credited as "Lonesome Dragon" on A Genuine Tong Funeral because Carla Bley was mad at him), Compost with Jack DeJohnette and Harold Vick in the early '70s. During the heyday of Slug's in Greenwich Village, he was living on the Bowery for $26 a month, subsisting on brown rice, tuna, and LSD. 

The records released under Moses' name in the '70s and '80s -- the self released Bittersuite in the Ozone (1975) and the Gramavision releases When Elephants Dream of Music (1983), Visit with the Great Spirit (1984), and The Story of Moses (1987; a Biblical-themed concept album) -- showcase his rhythmic imagination, compositional skill, and mastery of jazz and Latin musics. Onstage at The Wild Detectives last month, Aaron and Stefan Gonzalez importuned Ra Kalam to recite the spoken word bit from the end of Great Spirit's "Monktional" -- a regular spin on their late father Dennis's radio show. When Ra Kalam couldn't remember the last couple of lines, Aaron filled them in.

During those years there were other recording sessions, many unreleased at the time, which Ra Kalam is now bringing out, along with newer works, under his Ra Kalam Records imprint. Vintage Visionary Vignettes collects duos and trios "recorded in NYC sometime in the '70s," including a trio with vocalists Jeanne Lee and Sheila Jordan (their only recordings together), and one where Moses plays bass clarinet alongside John Clark's French horn and Bob Stewart's tuba. A pair of '79 sessions capture the same vibe as the Gramavisions: Wheels of Colored Light (originally released in '92 on a German label) documents a quartet teaming Lee and Moses with Ra Kalam's high school buddy Dave Liebman on saxes, flutes, and musette, and Terumasa Hino on cornet, wood flute, and percussion, while Home In Motion sets them amid a larger ensemble.

A '94 Gramavision release reissued on Ra Kalam's label (as are Elephants and Great Spirit), Time Stood Still features another large ensemble including an eight-piece horn section ("The Boston Illharmonic") and the influence of hip-hop (the use of loops, which Moses refers to in liner notes as "Simul-Circular Loopology;" a cameo rapping appearance by his son Rafael Moses). The incandescent guitar solo on "Deusa Do Amor" is by Tisziji Munoz, Ra Kalam's spiritual teacher, who recorded with Pharaoh Sanders for India Navigation in '77 and has his own extensive body of work. (The name Ra Kalam, bestowed by Tisziji, means "the inaudible sound of the invisible sun.") Tisziji's gorgeous tone -- he calls it his Heart Fire Sound -- and high velocity flights of inspired expression are worth further investigation.

While his early recordings withstand comparison to the work of Gil Evans and his own formative influence Mingus, in later years, Ra Kalam has gravitated toward spiritually focused spontaneous composition: "I play to heal myself. I want to play what I don't know." An example of this approach is Mother Sky, a 2006 album of spontaneous percussion duets with Tupac Mantilla Gomez. "Just a deep breath together," Ra Kalam wrote in the liner notes, "and HIT on the exhale." The result sounds at times like a teeming rainforest, at others like a bustling city street, at all times like a deep conversation between two masters of rhythm.

Another good example of this approach is Purecircle, the document of his duo with bassist Damon Smith, with whom he performed in the quintet at the "For Dennis" event, released on Smith's Balance Point Acoustics label.

Music from a Parallel Dimension, a May 2011 duet with Liebman, has the muscular energy and drive of music made by players who first jammed together as young men, while Off World Meditations, recorded in November that year, documents an encounter between Ra Kalam and multi-wind player Daniel Carter, who'd played on Bittersuite in the Ozone and in Gunter Hampel's Galaxy Dream Band. The music sounds scored, although it's completely improvised. Carter's multiple overdubbed horn parts fit together like the ones Julius Hemphill overdubbed on Blue Boye. Ra Kalam is particularly proud of his own "delicate, ethereal, non macho" playing here. (Hearing him live, it struck me that while he plays a lot and digs deep, he doesn't hit hard.)

A similarly effect is achieved on Electric Organic Symphony, where acoustic horn, bass, and drum parts were overdubbed between 2017 and 2019 over lysergically inspired synth duets Moses and Mike Nock laid down in early '70s NYC. Thanks to Ra Kalam and David J. Sullivan's mixing, and the mastering by Jeff Lipton and Maria Rice, the music all sounds of a piece. I was skeptical when Damon Smith told me that he and Ra Kalam were planning on overdubbing improv on tracks recorded by Henry Kaiser and Vinny Golia for their Astral Plane Crash project. "You can't do improv that way," I thought. Then again, it's all about listening. After listening to Ra Kalam's Carter and Nock collabs, I'm less skeptical.

The Skies of Copenhagen (2020 Levitation Remix) is a double CD's worth of fervent testimony, with a nonet of Danes -- three horns, guitar, piano, two basses, two drummers -- to the abiding influence of Coltrane's spiritual search. There are tunes by Danish free jazz paterfamilias/Ascension participant John Tchicai, guitarist Martin Nilsson, and Ra Kalam, and lots of collective improv. Nishoma (2020 Drumcentric Remix) is a reimagining of a Y2K album, dedicated to Ra Kalam's mother Greta Moses, featuring lots of Afro-Cuban grooves, a tap dancer, and the Moses family's 415 Central Park West neighbor Abbey Lincoln singing "How Deep Is the Ocean." Finally, recorded on Coltrane's birthday, 1987, Love Everlasting (2021 Remix) is a reboot of a '99 release by Tisziji and Ra Kalam with a group including John Medeski on piano. From the opening title track, which recalls the Ornette of Crisis!, the album is a bath of healing sounds and lyrical beauty. Music's a deep well; how fortunate are we.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Ches Smith's "Interpret It Well"

I've long thought of Ches Smith as "Mary Halvorson's drummer," but he's also had ongoing side musician gigs with Tim Berne, Marc Ribot, and John Zorn. I was impressed by the first outing from his band These Arches, 2010's Finally Out of My Hands. Since then, he's released two more albums with that band (whose latest lineup includes both Halvorson and Berne), and another four of solo percussion/electronics under the rubric Congs for Brums. His strengths as a composer and conceptualist came to the fore in last year's foray into Haitian vodou music, Path of Seven Colors

But what had me anticipating this album was the knowledge producer David Breskin had shared that guitar icon Bill Frisell was on board, alongside the trio from Smith's 2016 ECM release The Bell (pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri). Not only that: Frisell had been using electronic effects in a way he hadn't since the '80s -- a tantalizing prospect for anyone with the fond memory of Frisell's sound on his own Lookout for Hope, as well as his service as a color in the palettes of the aforementioned Mr. Berne, Power Tools, and Paul Motian, among others.

Now I hold Interpret It Well in my hands, replete with illustration by SST Records eminence Raymond Pettibon, and while there's nothing on the album as jarring as the torrent of skronk Frisell once unleashed to open Berne's Fulton Street Maul, the guitarist's approach here is knottier and more aggressive than the unadorned melodicism that's become his trademark in recent years. That said, the taste with which he now employs his tools is emblematic of the entire project.

Smith himself is the most self-effacing of leaders, moving between vibes and drums as the music demands but always playing inside the compositions, never needing to dominate the proceedings -- although the participants serve his composer's intent at all times. The seven pieces comprising Interpret It Well use shifting dynamics to build powerful moods, awash in crystalline textures and shimmering tonalities. On the title track, for instance, echolalic repetition gives way to intertwining and blending melodic voices, a driving ostinato with blazing solos all around, and even a moment of rock-like forward motion before shuddering to a conclusion. 

"Mixed Metaphor" begins with a four-way conversation of chiming melody before another ostinato sets up a series of solo turns, with Maneri soaring above Taborn's sturdy foundation, gradually building intensity until the pianist allows himself to cut loose. "Clear Major" is the album's apogee -- a masterpiece of tension and release where engaging themes alternate with compelling free sections, finally resolving to tranquil beauty. Breskin's longtime collaborator Ron Saint Germain captures the musicians' interaction with breathtaking clarity and immediacy. A record that demands repeated listens, and yet another reason why Kris Davis's Pyroclastic has become a favorite label at my house.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Charles Mingus's "The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott's"

Charles Mingus's centennial is upon us April 22, and Resonance Records -- the worthy nonprofit that's released important archival recordings by John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Roy Hargrove and Mulgrew Miller, to name but a few -- is commemorating the occasion with this previously unheard concert from a comparatively under-documented period in the titanic bassist-composer's career, on vinyl for Record Store Day (April 23), with CD to follow April 29.

The 1972 recordings British CBS made on the last night of this Mingus sextet's two-week stand on the musician-friendly turf of Ronnie Scott's club in London, released for the first time as The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott's, capture a band riven by interpersonal tensions, but burning brightly, like a lightbulb just before its filament fails. After this date, tenorman Bobby Jones (a member of the band since 1970, who'd been sparring with Mingus in press interviews) and teenage trumpet prodigy John Faddis (a high note specialist and protege of Dizzy Gillespie) would depart the lineup, leaving only altoist Charles McPherson (who'd first played with Mingus in 1960 and had probably seen worse), pianist John Foster (about whom little is known except that he passed too early, in 1976), and drummer Roy Brooks (former Horace Silver sideman who had his own big archival RSD release with last year's Understanding) to complete the tour with Mingus. 

While the '64 Dolphy-Byard-Jordan-Richmond and '73-'75 Adams-Pullen-Walrath-Richmond lineups remain more revered, the way this '72 unit inhabits Mingus's compositions takes a back seat to no one. Ensembles are solid but not slick, solos are expressive and individuated, and the spontaneous rhythm section dialogues behind them -- a highlight of live Mingus -- are bustling and vibrant. Obscure though he might be, Foster is a fully developed player, more than equal to the demands of Mingus's music. Brooks listens and responds effectively, as well as swinging hard. Jones has a light touch that contrasts with some of his predecessors on tenor in the Mingus band, and adds variety with his clarinet on two of the pieces. Young Faddis's virtuosity generates light as well as heat, and McPherson shows why he was a linchpin of Mingus groups for a dozen years. (Lucky fans on a few selected dates will get to hear McPherson with the Mingus Big Band during this year of centennial celebrations.)

They stretch out at length on a set that mixes Mingus live staples (the lushly Ellingtonian "Orange Was the Color of Her Dress (Then Silk Blues)," the barbed political irony of the tour de force "Fables of Faubus," the ballad "The Man Who Never Sleeps"), the previously unrecorded, boppish-themed "Mind Readers Convention in Milano" -- which winds its way through several intriguing shifts in tempo and dynamics, with all the players digging deep in their solo spots -- and homages to Texas tenor Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson ("Noddin' Ya Head Blues," later recorded with fusion guest stars on Three or Four Shades of Blues, here with a vocal by Foster and a solo by Brooks on musical saw!) and Louis Armstrong ("Pops"). In the course of two and a half hours, Mingus and his men create whole worlds in sound.

Interviewed for the liner notes, McPherson describes Mingus the composer's methodology as well as anyone I've heard: "When Mingus wrote, he quite often wrote long form. He had tempo changes. There were parts that were almost polytonal; you could hear a lot of stuff going on. And he wrote thematically and he wrote episodically, as well." Besides that interview, the notes include an essay by Mingus biographer Brian Priestley, and the full transcript of the wide ranging '72 interview -- mirroring their onstage instrumental conversations -- that the author conducted with Mingus and McPherson at Ronnie Scott's a couple of nights before these recordings were made (excerpts from which appeared in his essential '82 tome Mingus: A Critical Biography).

If Columbia had released The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott's when it was new, the '72 lineup would be remembered as one of the great Mingus bands. Instead, the label cut Mingus loose at the same time as it dropped Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett -- an incredibly short-sighted decision in an industry known for short-sighted decisions. It is fitting and proper that Resonance should make these sides available in time for the centennial. One wonders what other treasures from Mingus's legacy still remain to be heard.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Oak Cliff, 4.10.2022

Below is an approximation of what I said to open the "For Dennis" event at The Wild Detectives last night. Stephen Lucas filmed the whole night, and Jimi Bowman was recording, so it should be viewable and audible at some point. I wanted to do my friend justice. I hope I did. Ataraxia with Chris Curiel was transcendent, and I believe they will continue performing together. The quintet of Aaron and Stefan Gonzalez, Damon Smith, Ra Kalam Bob Moses, and Jawwaad Taylor performed a fiery exorcism. 

There were two moments when I felt Dennis's presence there: once in Ataraxia's last piece, when Chris blew a couple of long, pure notes, and once during the quintet's performance, when Stefan lay out and you could focus on just Damon, Ra Kalam, and Jawwaad (who was playing a cornet Dennis had gifted him). "This is what it might have sounded like if Dennis had been able to make the gig," I thought. Thank you, brother.

Good evening. Welcome to The Wild Detectives. Looking out at all of you, my heart is full with the knowledge that what my friend, Fort Worth pianist Johnny Case, calls Dennis Gonzalez's "lifetime project" is complete, and successful. The proof is all of you. Let me explain.

In the piece Preston Jones wrote for kxt.org, Damon Smith said -- and I agree -- that Dennis was "the most important jazz or free jazz musician from Texas who never left Texas." I'd like to add the caveat, "...as a base of operations." Unlike so many other greats from this part of the state who had to leave to make their major impact -- I'm thinking of Ornette Coleman, Julius Hemphill, Dewey Redman, and Ronald Shannon Jackson, to name but four -- Dennis took his visions to the world from right here...from a house on Clinton Avenue in Oak Cliff. 

That's important because as a result of his ADVOCACY, ENCOURAGEMENT, and MENTORSHIP, there is today a thriving creative music community and as importantly, an AUDIENCE for creative music in North Texas that would have been unimaginable when I first met Dennis 44 years ago, or even when we became close friends 20 years ago. Dennis took his music anywhere and everywhere there were ears to hear it: theaters and art galleries, rock clubs and punk squats, schools and libraries and house shows. He made what some folks call an esoteric art music easily and immediately accessible.

Listening to Dennis's younger brother Scott speaking at the Kessler last week, it struck me that the nut doesn't fall far from the tree in the Gonzalez family. I've said in the past that Dennis emerged fully formed from his own head, but that's not really true. He was the son of an educator (which he became for four decades plus) and a choir leader and visual artist. That spirituality remind part of his music and his being all the way through. I think about that now when I listen to The Hymn Project that he recorded with Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten.

There's a story Dennis told me about Stefan that illustrates another quality of all the Gonzalezes -- they are NOT SHY. There was a time when the famous cartoonist Dan Piraro lived down the street from the Gonzalez home during a time when Stefan was taking an interest in drawing. One day, Dennis told me, Stefan took his drawing materials down the street, knocked on Dan's door, and told Dan, "Hi! I heard that you're an artist TOO." It put me in mind of the heyday of Caravan of Dreams, when Dennis would introduce himself to the marquee artists from around the world -- from the AACM, from the ECM Records stable that he loved -- not as a fan, but as a fellow musician who wanted to collaborate. Dennis was NOT SHY.

Dennis was also the embodiment of the idea that living well is the best revenge. I was a fan of "Miles Out," the radio show he had on KERA-FM for 21 years. In 1992, when I was working overnights at St. Theresa's Boys Center in Fort Worth, his broadcasts were...sorry...an oasis for me -- not only the music he played, but the kind and friendly persona he projected. When they gave his show to a football player, he told me he stood in the station manager's office and told them "I hate you" -- a sentiment I can't imagine Dennis expressing to anyone. But instead of dwelling on the slight, he went back to playing music himself after several years of inactivity.

Yells At Eels, the band he formed with Aaron and Stefan, went on to tour the US and Europe for over two decades. I remember Dennis confiding in me more than once during the band's run, "These youngsters are kicking my ass!" And he loved that -- he loved pushing his sound into the air over their whirlwind energy, and he loved to see them going out on their own with Humanization 4tet, Unconscious Collective, and countless other musical endeavors.

Dennis also continued to collaborate with eminent creative musicians, bringing the bassist Henry Grimes back to a recording studio after 35 years, forging longtime relationships with the drummers Alvin Fielder and Louis Moholo-Moholo. It's a testament to Dennis's level of achievement that the musicians who'll be playing with Aaron and Stefan tonight -- the bassist Damon Smith, the drummer Ra Kalam Bob Moses, and the cornetist Jawwaad Taylor -- wanted to be here tonight to pay tribute to him.

Before that quintet takes the stage, you'll hear a band that was close to Dennis's heart, joined by the trumpeter Chris Curiel. Long before reaching out to bassist Drew Phelps and tablaist Jagath Lakpriya about forming the Ataraxia Trio, Dennis had harbored an interest in the music of the subcontinent. In the early '80s, he had discussed collaborating with Colin Walcott, who played sitar and tabla in the bands Oregon and Codona -- before Walcott died tragically in a car accident while on tour in Germany. 

I was fortunate to see some of the early Ataraxia gigs. I remember one night at Chateau Virago where it became apparent Dennis was beginning to struggle physically. Performing became an act of will for him. For Ataraxia's last recording, he augmented the trio with the electronic musician Derek Rogers, who served as the catalyst for Dennis's last great surge of creativity, and harpist Jess Garland, who'd taught at Dennis's free music school La Rondalla and added to the music a celestial quality he'd been seeking.

It's funny how, when you know someone for a time, you have conversations with them that go on, sometimes for years. Sometimes they're never finished. I remember in 2013, at Ronald Shannon Jackson's memorial service in Fort Worth, I was sitting with Dennis when he started a story, "Let me tell you about Charles Brackeen..." -- the saxophonist who'd played with Dennis in the '80s after playing with Shannon, Don Cherry, and others. But just at that moment, the service began, so the story had to wait.

That night at Chateau Virago, I remember asking him again, "So what about Charles Brackeen?" And just at that moment, Ataraxia was called to perform.

He never did get around to telling me that story. So when I saw the news that Dennis had passed, the first thing I thought was, "Well, I guess I'm not going to get to hear your Charles Brackeen story." 

The next thing I thought was:

May you and all your descendants know peace and the absence of pain.
May you and all your descendants know peace and the absence of pain.
May you and all your descendants know peace and the absence of pain.

A tall order for this life.
But whatever fortune has in store for Aaron and Stefan and Issy,
May they make of it something beautiful, as you did.
As you do.

Sunday, April 03, 2022

The Hochimen's "Le Poulet et Tabac"

When I was writing about music for the local alt-weekly, it was frequently my experience that I'd hear a band that was solid and entertaining, but as I was leaving the club, I'd have no memory of any of the specific songs they played. This was never a problem with the Hochimen, the band led by bassist-vocalist-songwriter (and much more) Reggie Rueffer, whose tunes stick in my head even when I haven't heard them in awhile. (This isn't a slam on anyone, just acknowledgement that mastery of a style or genre is a different skillset than songcraft.)

The Hochimen's debut CD, Totenlieder, documented Reggie's spiritual desperation via the soaring arc of melodies that took some surprising twists and turns, which his reedy tenor made easy on the ear, in striking contrast to the lyrics they carried, which while always finely wrought, often carried a sting in the tail. While this might be considered swimming against the tide in the age of the non-singer, when harmonic movement has been all but banished from popular song, in my house, we consider Totenlieder a classic, and its follow up, Tierra del Gato, might be even better. (This week, it's "Brush With Religion" and "Do It Clean" that are stuck in my head. Next week, it'll be something else.)

Now, after just, um, 16 years, there's a new Hochimen disc, Le Poulet et Tabac, so called, Reggie says, because "Le Bier et Salad didn't ring." Release date remains TBD, but will be digital, and in anticipation, Reggie and his accomplices Ed McMahon (guitar) and Pete Young (drums) will be venturing onto the evening stage at Dan's Silverleaf in Denton on April 7, a Thursday. "One gig every six years," Reggie quips, and an opportunity for folks now pushing 50 who remember him from Mildred (a Dallas Observer "best album" winner in '92) and Spot (big regional hit with "Moon June Spoon" a couple of years later) to experience again the feeling of air from speaker cones and drum heads moving their clothes around.

About the new album: Even listening through crappy phone speakers, one still couldn't miss the brilliant clarity of the recording -- produced at various locations by Joey Lomas, mastered by Dave McNair. As always, McMahon's experimental edge and Young's propulsive clattter (a jazz cat's unironic take on rock -- like Keith Moon with intellect) provide a remarkably full sound for three pieces, but their instrumental prowess always serves the songs, albeit in ways their author might not have anticipated. "I love Ed," says Reggie, "but he always does something I'm not sure about. Then I reconcile and grow to love it. You gotta let players play. I'm not an autocrat."

Reggie calls "My Son" -- the lament of a man finding himself in middle age without progeny -- "the saddest song I've ever written." It's grown folks' rockaroll: music that acknowledges the possibility of loss and regret. And make no mistake: whether by accident or design, this is the hardest rockin' outing yet from these guys. Brother Chad Rueffer's second guitar is absent from the lineup this time around, but Ed lays down crunchy rhythm parts to keep the forward motion going. 

As befits music made in the pandemic time, there's a creeping sense of dread in songs like "Belly Eye," which sketches a chaotic universe, over which Ed paints ethereal textures worthy of Andy Summers. "Rosebud" works off snarling guitar chords and a four-on-the-floor beat that puts one in mind of AC/DC, although those Aussies never dreamed up a melody or lyrics like these. "Hairless Baby Body" is almost an answer song to "My Son," concerned as it is with a child being born into "the evening of the Earth," with tremolo guitar and a clinking percussion track to make the uncertain future sound enticing. 

The album's scariest moment, though, comes with "Jasper," the deathbed confession of an unrepentant killer, who sounds like a cousin of the abortion clinic shooter from Totenlieder's "60-40." Thankfully, Reggie chooses to end things with the hopeful valedictory of "Our Times Coming," which in a just Universe would be the last song on a hit soundtrack and earn Reggie enough coin to keep him writing songs to get stuck in my head for another 16 years.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Document for Dennis Gonzalez

Hard to say goodbye, my brother.

Listening to your family talk, I heard that 
you learned to read at four (you once told me that story),
graduated high school at 16 and college at 20.
Seems you couldn't wait to get started with your life.

You were your own guy the whole way up.
Made your mark on the world from a house on Clinton Avenue in Oak Cliff.
Your achievements command respect.
Was there a price you paid for swimming against the tide?

How do you show the people you love that you love them?
By welcoming them into your home.
By nurturing them with food.
By making them laugh.
By letting them see themselves the way that you do.

Sitting at your table once, I heard to story of the time in Eastern Europe (was it Slovenia?)
when you wanted to run onstage and be exciting
but the cloud of cigarette smoke in the room made you choke and cough
every time you tried to play your horn.
(You were secure enough to make yourself sound ridiculous.)

The time you and Jeff and I went to see King Crimson in Fair Park -- 
afterward, the sidewalk outside the venue was like a living social media comment section.
You alone said, "Why compare what's onstage with something in the past?
Why not just enjoy what they're giving you?"

When you were on the set, people felt less entitled to treat each other badly.

And now I guess I won't get to hear your Charles Brackeen story.

Go be part of the Universe for awhile.

We'll try and use the things you taught us.