Sunday, November 13, 2022

FTW, 11.11.2022

It's unsurprising that I'm so late to the party on Ed Hamell aka Hamell On Trial, who played at the Grackle Art Gallery in my neighborhood last night. I've been reliably swinging after the pitch since at least 1970 (listening to the Yardbirds when most of my age cohort was digging Grand Funk Railroad), even when folks whose opinions I respect like my buddy Harvey from Ohio or Justin "Hush Puppy" Robertson, who booked Ed at the Grackle, try to pull my coat. Hush Puppy went so far as to suggest that my wife -- whose favorite performers are Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, and Laurie Anderson -- might dig Ed. He was right (I went home and played her the live CD that I brought home from the gig). We'll be there when Ed comes back in January.

What surprised me was realizing how inward I've become since the pandemic started. We only started going out to shows again back in February, then after a few weeks there were six months of illness, bookended by the passing of two of my oldest, dearest friends. The shows we attended in February and March reminded me that there's an energy exchange that takes place during any live performance, and my response to those shows was partially a result of feeling overwhelmed (in a good way) by that phenomenon. But after watching some live Hamell videos on YouTube, I questioned whether I'd be up to seeing a performer as loud and brash as Ed in a room about the size of our living room (the Grackle is essentially our house with different stuff in it).

I'm happy to report that at the end of a week when the voters of America, led by the young, came out rousingly in favor of women's right to choose and against election-denying Christofascists -- except here in Texas, where most of the 47% of the registered voters who bothered to cast a ballot chose to continue the abortion-banning, immigrant-targeting, gun-toting status quo -- it felt downright cleansing to hear some good ol' folk-punk rabble-rousing, which Hamell most assuredly brought. But that wasn't all he brought.

Ed Hamell is: 1) a goddamn force of nature; 2) the thread that connects political folk-punker Ani DiFranco, with whom he's toured and for whose label he used to record, and Hickoids supremo Jeff Smith, whose Saustex label released the last couple of Hamell discs; 3) able to spit out lyrics with the velocity of Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, and Chuck D, and in even greater profusion; 4) as astute (and funny, and obscene, and true) a social commentator as George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and his main man Bill Hicks; 5) the wielder of a percussive right hand attack that renders his amplified acoustic as forceful as an entahr punk band, when he wants it to be; and 6) the father of a 20 year old son named Detroit who grew up touring with his old man when he was out of school and is currently pursuing a doctorate at Yale. You can't make this shit up.

I arrived at the spot half an hour before showtime and found a few folks already seated and focused on the back of the room, where Ed was holding forth while he changed strings (and made sure they were well seated in to maintain his tuning; he pummels them really hard). By the time that was accomplished, the room was full, and he made his way to the front, where his microphone, beat-up 1937 Gibson, and the Grackle's self-service PA awaited. 

I'll start by saying Ed really knows how to work the room -- not just the audience, but the "set and setting." Unlike countless solo acoustic performers I've seen who are either at the mercy of the house mix or incapable of using a mic and a mixer to balance their own sound, he varied the dynamics of his set masterfully, cranking his guitar volume and moving in on the mic for the rabble-rousers, backing it off and moving away for the more intimate moments. Years of touring and playing hundreds of rooms like the Grackle have allowed him to hone his craft.

The other beef I've had with lots of performers (and bands) over the years is that they sound great, but by the time the show is over, none of their songs have made a strong impression. That was hardly the case with Ed, whose songs overflow with observational acuity, skillful wordplay, rage, humor, and dare I say, compassion. I'm not a songwriter; after spending four hours sitting outside my ex-wife's house in the rain waiting for a tow truck, all I could think to write is what I just typed. So when I encounter someone who can pen a line like "dragging the vowel like a thief wrestling a weighted bag of golden chalices down the Vatican steps" ("Mouthy B"), they've got my attention.

"The Happiest Man in the World" starts out like a rip from Ray Charles' "Busted" (it's all folk music, anyway), but turns out to be a rumination on how having friends and living with dignity under difficult circumstances beats having money. "Not Aretha's Respect (Cops)" recounts the efforts of a parent who's "trying to teach [his] kid that there's some authority worthy of respect" when confronted with the occupying army attitude of contemporary militarized policing (like the cops in Uvalde who seemingly thought their job was controlling the brown parents, not rescuing their kids from the AR-15 slinging killer). 

"Whores" puts me in mind of the church in New Jersey my "lapsed" Catholic wife attended as a child, the sign by the door that said "There are no strangers here" in five languages, the liberation theology nun we met there, and my wife's late uncle the priest who once told a woman in an abusive relationship, "Divorce the bastard." (Besides working in a guitar store, Ed says he used to play two folk masses a week. Which put me in mind of the two acid-eating Catholics I've known, who used to attend Wednesday mass "electric" because, one of them said, the church had "the best costumes and rituals.")

I'm now at the age when I like stuff that makes me cry. It happened a couple of times during Ed's set: once during "Ballad of Chris" (sort of a mini-Magic and Loss) because we apparently share a lot of formative experiences, as well as more recent ones like losing old, good friends, and I suck at staying in touch with people; and again during "Hail," Ed's hate crime song (think "a trans kid, a punk kid, and a gay kid meet up for coffee in Heaven"). It's a scary world we live in now, but Ed Hamell assures us that in the room where we've gathered to listen and laugh, "You're safe here" ("Safe"). It gets no better. Music's a deep well; how fortunate are we.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Max Kutner's "High Flavors"

Guitarist extraordinaire Max Kutner is based in Brooklyn, arguably the epicenter of the US creative music universe, where it's still tough to make rent for a creative muso between solo and collaborative gigs. Earlier this year, he released Imaginary Numbers, an EP of blazing fusion with Android Trio, a band with fellow alumni of CalArts and Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. Kutner has also applied his exploratory approach in Zappa and Oingo Boingo legacy bands, but his forte is as a composer (previously showcased in the klezmer outfit Bubbeleh, Near Eastern-flavored Izela, and tuba trio Evil Genius). Now, with the release of High Flavors, at the helm of a top-flight quintet, he makes a major creative statement.

While the material dates back as far as 2017, basic tracks for the album were done in a single September 2021 session at legendary engineer (Swans, White Zombie, John Zorn) Martin Bisi's BC studios, after which Kutner spent a few months crafting overdubs and synth content and integrating samples. He and Bisi mixed the record in three eight-hour sessions early this year. The band -- Eli Asher on trumpet, Michael Eaton on tenor, Kurt Kotheimer on bass, Colin Hinton on drums -- is equally adept at interpreting challenging charts and extemporizing with invention and heat. They inhabit a set of eight Kutner compositions that cover a wide range of moods and colors.

Opener "Deramping" is a complex construction, built on a series of echolalic ostinatos. "A High Point of Low Culture" juxtaposes mutant swing with treated samples and a recording of Kutner's grandfather Art Stevens playing saxophone on a 1984 gig at Mickey Felice's restaurant in Patchogue, Long Island (my teenage stomping ground!). My current favorite track is "In Want of an Interpolative Escape Machine," which displays the most Zappa/Boingo influence of anything here, starting out as a madcap romp that gives way to an extended noise guitar solo, gradually returning to the circus-like theme. "Struggling Sometimes" reminds me of a prog rock version of Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra; the horn writing here is particularly piquant. "Towers Collapse" sounds like a collision between NYC's loft jazz '70s and its experimental '80s. "Less a Moral Lesson" starts out with a knotty theme that gives Asher room for a plaintive solo before Hinton takes a loose-limbed one of his own, then the rhythm section hits a funk groove and the theme returns to take us out.

As Kutner suggests, High Flavors is best experienced "the old-fashioned way," front to back, even in the absence of a physical-media version (which I acknowledge is an ecologically responsible choice, as geeked as I remain on The Romance of the Artifact). Besides being crammed with smart writing and absorbing instrumental detail, it's an exquisitely paced record. Owners of adventurous ears owe it to themselves to hear it.

Friday, November 04, 2022

Dan Weiss Trio's "Dedication"

Back in February, drummer Dan Weiss was one of the performers at the Nasher Sculpture Center's "Sculpting Sound: Twelve Musicians Encounter Bertoia." His duet with Marcus Gilmore was a master class in trap and tabla drumming, as well as an opportunity for the drummers to interact with Harry Bertoia's sounding sculptures. 

Besides backing leaders like Lee Konitz, Chris Potter, and Rudresh Mahanthappa, Weiss leads his own 16-piece ensemble (including several musicians who are leaders in their own right) and the jazz-metal hybrid Starebaby. Since 2000, he's led a trio with bassist Thomas Morgan (a fixture of Bill Frisell's pandemic livestreams who's recently worked with Tennessee sax wunderkind Zoh Amba) and pianist Jacob Sacks (a collaborator since 1995 who also performs in a duo with vocalist Yoon Sun Choi). Dedication, out November 11 on Cygnus, the label Weiss runs with guitarist Miles Okazaki, is the trio's fourth album. The trio has also performed under Sacks' name, served as a rhythm section for fusion altoist David Binney, and was part of the quintet on trombonist Jacob Garchik's album Assembly, released on Yestereve in May.

The nine Weiss compositions on Dedication pay tribute to his inspirations, from family members (his daughter and grandmother) to musical collaborators and influences (Tim Smith of madcap British post-punk band the Cardiacs, composer Conlon Nancarrow, trio pianist Sacks, pop songsmith Burt Bacharach, master drummer Elvin Jones), filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, and George Floyd, whose murder by police early in the pandemic galvanized the world. 

Some of the tributes draw on specific impressions of their subjects: the angularity that characterizes Sacks' lines, Nancarrow's rhythmic complexity, Bacharach's unusual melodic phrasing, an eight-measure phrase Jones played on a Coltrane recording, to which Weiss applies lessons from his 25-year study of tabla. Others deal with more abstract and universal emotions: the wonder of a child's discovery in "For Vivienne," the human condition of grief and loss in "For Grandma May," the spirituality in Tarkovsky's Soviet-era films. The somber, elegiac "For George Floyd" carries a political theme that is new to Weiss' work, but here and throughout Dedication, he and his bandmates blend their distinctive, searching instrumental voices with great empathy.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

FTW, 10.26-27, 2022

 

Sometimes I go out. These days, the Grackle Art Gallery seems to have become my venue of choice, although there are certainly more rooms with music policies in my city than there were 20 years ago, and post-Covid -- it's not over, but the economic environment for live music has changed because of it -- there are a lot more touring bands coming through than in days gone by. But I can walk to the Grackle, and the shows are early, so I can be home in time to medicate my insulin dependent diabetic old man cat. Age-appropriate, then.

Thursday night had the vibe of a house show in Denton 20 years ago, and motivated me to dig out The Pyramid Scheme's The Long Con, Vol. 1 CD (a nice audio snapshot of Denton ca. 2004) the next day because I remembered having first seen Sarah Ruth Alexander with Warren Jackson Hearne's Merrie Murdre of Gloomadeers (I mistakenly thought it was John Wesley Coleman III, but she set me right) around that time. As much as I dig Sarah Ruth in band and improv contexts, my favorite work of hers is the kind of intimate, solo, weird-folk set she played on this night, where her quirky humor and roots as a West Texas farm kid come to the fore. She opened with a hymn, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," with which we were invited to sing along ("We'll be singing verses one and three"), reinforcing a sense of place (the Grackle's in an old pier and beam house with bare wood floors, not unlike a rural church) and the connection between performer and audience that your humble chronicler o' events found particularly comforting after years of virus-driven isolation. As always, the contrast between her classically trained voice and folkloric harmonium and dulcimer was striking, but in an ethereal and haunting way, not one that jarred the senses.

Chris Welch -- the Denton singer-songwriter, not the Brit music journo -- was a new name to me, although he's been around for years, fronting the likes of Pinebox Serenade and the Cicada Killers. He's a burly hulk of a fella, but looks can be deceiving; he suffered a stroke at the ass-end of 2019, and while the rest of the world was locking down, he was learning to play and sing (and walk) again. While his recovery might remain a work in progress, he strummed and sang with plenty of power, soul, and grit, singing songs inspired by family stories and social injustices. May his mighty roar remain undiminished.

The last time I saw Chris Plavidal, I carried his flaming amp out of Lola's after it caught fire onstage (something flooky about stage right power in the recently-vacated location; same side of the stage where my amp blew up the last couple of times I played there). Stumptone's Gravity Suddenly Released, his band's 2008 opus, remains one of my very favorite records of the Aughts. Since then, he's collaborated with UK shoegazers the Telescopes and local dub duo Wire Nest, among others, but Thursday's appearance was his first time on the boards in two years. For my two cents, no one does a better job of rendering the psychedelic experience acoustically, with electronic effects accenting his guitar's ringing harmonics like lysergic overlays on pristine reality. He makes my previous benchmark of "wooden" psych excellence, Roy Harper's Flashes from the Archives of Oblivion, sound hamfisted by comparison. Opening with the venerable "O Death" (the B-side of his latest Dreamy Life single under the rubric Storms At Sea), he played a selection of his own tunes plus covers of Syd and Roky (including my Gravity fave "Never Say Goodbye") that was deeply satisfying even when he re-started one song "because I really love this song but I fucked up the lyrics." No harm, no foul. Welcome back.

Friday night was something really special. On the occasion of an annual visit from a local boy now living in Colorado, the preternaturally fleet-fingered guitarist Bill Pohl (The Underground Railroad, Thinking Plague), Grackle Live music supremo Kavin Allenson booked a singular lineup: Bill playing improv in a trio with his Railroad bandmate, keyboardist extraordinaire Kurt Rongey (tickling the ivories in public for the first time in a decade) and Warr guitarist -- think "Chapman Stick on steroids" -- Mark Cook (99 Names of God, Herd of Instinct). All three are masters of their instruments, and good friends, but they'd never played together in a totally improvised context before. Watching them conjure complex architectonic structures on the fly, inhabit them just long enough, then blow them away like smoke and head off in a new direction, was riveting -- so much so that it doesn't appear anyone present captured the high spots on video, a rarity these days. But the music demanded one's full attention; you wanted to be listening to them as intently as they were listening to each other. 

Bill's been playing in a cover band that gigs regularly, doing stuff like Meters and Miles Davis, and you could tell from the simplicity of his rig (Marshall head with 1x12 cab) and some of the new tricks in his trick bag -- lots of propulsive rhythm things, some grittier tones than I can recall ever hearing from him, the way he casually plucks false harmonics out of a pre-bend and release, as well as executing his trademark rapid-fire, wide-interval runs. (Also noteworthy is his generosity of spirit, passing his custom instruments around so the guitarists in the audience could try 'em out before the set.) Mark plays enough music for three people all by himself on that aircraft carrier-looking axe, sometimes playing simultaneous lead and bass lines, sometimes using his array of effects to orchestrate colors and textures. The real surprises came from Kurt, though, applying his impressive classical chops, composer's intelligence, and old school prog sensibility to serve as the music's fulcrum. At one point he pointed out that he and Mark were wearing the same shoes, proving that virtuosic progsters can be funsters, too. If you weren't there, you missed it. Hopefully they'll do it again next time Bill's in town.

Now back to pre-election anxiety. Go out and vote for democracy, kids.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Jussi Reijonen's "Three Seconds / Kolme Toista"

On the anniversary of Don Cherry's passing, I had my coat pulled to another well-traveled musical explorer: the Finnish guitarist-oudist-composer Jussi Reijonen, whose new album Three Seconds / Kolme Toista just dropped digitally, with CDs due on November 4. Since releasing his acclaimed debut un in 2013, Reijonen had undergone a creative block centering on issues of identity and belonging, rooted in a life that carried him from the Arctic Circle to the Middle East, East Africa, and the United States. The Covid-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for reflection and regeneration, the result of which is this five-part suite, performed by a multi-national nonet (besides Reijonen, there are three Americans, two Turks, a Jordanian/Iraqi, a Palestinian, and a Japanese), that draws on the musical traditions of all the cultures in which the composer has lived. 

The basic unit here teams a standard jazz-rock rhythm section -- guitar, piano, bass, drums, and percussion -- with two brass (trumpet/flugelhorn and trombone) and two strings (violin and cello), so Reijonen has a wide tonal palette at his disposal. He uses it to good effect on opening track "The Veil" -- imagine an Arabic-flavored version of Herbie Hancock's "Speak Like A Child." Pianist Utar Artun really shines here. On "Transient," my favorite track at the moment, the confluence of Layth Sidiq's violin, Reijonen's oud, Keita Ogawa's percussion, and Vincil Cooper's trap set creates a sense of unsettled roaming that evokes the sounds of Balkan Romani people as well as Arabic roots. 

For many listeners, the best point of entry to Three Seconds / Kolme Toista might be via "The Weaver, Every So Often Shifting the Sands Beneath Her," a somber, '90s rock-style lament that benefits from the ensemble's rich orchestral textures. The pizzicato strings and the blend of Jason Palmer's flugelhorn and Bulut Gulen's trombone particularly stand out, as does the way Cooper plays against the ensemble after the false ending. "Verso" (Finnish for "to sprout" or "to grow") brings a sense of cathartic release, with the rhythm section building to a percolating groove and ample space for trumpet, violin, and piano to cut loose. "Median" performs the same function as a plagal cadence at the end of a hymn, or "Psalm" at the end of A Love Supreme. It's the satisfying conclusion to one musician's struggle to untangle the strands of his own being in search of transcendence and growth.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Patricia Brennan's "More Touch"

Back in February -- eight months and a lifetime ago -- producer extraordinaire David Breskin pulled my coat to the vibraphonist-marimbist-composer-bandleader Patricia Brennan, whose album More Touch (due out November 18 on estimable indie Pyroclastic) he was about to start work on. "You haven't heard of her," he said, "but you will." Sure enough, Brennan was part of the band on guitarist-composer Mary Halvorson's May 2022 release Amaryllis. (Back in 2021, Brennan released a double album document of her solo project, Maquishti. Besides working with leaders including bassist-composer Michael Formanek -- see The Distance on ECM -- she performs in the duo MOCH with percussionist-drummer-turntablist Noel Brennan.)

More Touch is Something Entahrly Other: a percussion-heavy quartet that blends the methods of jazz and contemporary classical music with rhythms from the Afro-Cuban tradition and the Son Jarocho style of Brennan's native Veracruz, Mexico. Cuban-born hand drummer and percussionist Mauricio Herrera has lived in Mexico and is well versed in both musical cultures; he and trap drummer Marcus Gilmore blend their patterns expertly. Bassist Kim Cass can think like a drummer as well as performing his instrument's traditional harmonic role. The sound these musicians weave together is densely rhythmic but dances with light like a rainforest canopy. Breskin's longtime associate Ron Saint Germain captured it all beautifully.

Brennan herself is an exciting new voice on tuned percussion -- as virtuosic as Ruth Underwood, Midori Takata, or Evelyn Glennie, but with an added dimension of sonic experiment. The pitch-bending effect she employs on her amplified vibraphone (Breskin says Nels Cline coached her on Kaoss Pad) gives the instrument a fluid sound that recalls both her friend Halvorson and the early electric piano explorations of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Most importantly, her compositional intent is the driving force behind the quartet's free-flowing explorations.

Breskin also applauds her spirit: "I've never known a musician to laugh as much as her, even mid-session." That joyous energy is audible throughout More Touch, from the soca jam "Unquiet Respect" that opens the proceedings to the shifting moods and timbres of the tour de force "Space for Hour" to "El Nahuali (The Shadow Soul)," which manages to be both spacey and visceral. On "Square Bimagic," the composition's mathematical structure contrasts with the earthiness of the percussion array, while the two-part composition "Robbin" lets us hear Brennan's electronically altered vibraphone to its best advantage here. Patricia Brennan's just getting started. I look forward to following her creative odyssey wherever it takes her...and us.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Charles Edward Buxton, 1949-2022


Charles Buxton, the man who brought me here, died on October 10, surrounded by his loving family. He ran a record store at 6393 Camp Bowie Blvd (with a brief detour to Berry Street) for 25 years, under four different corporations (Peaches, Sound Warehouse, Blockbuster Music, Wherehouse Music). He had people who worked for him for decades. Some of them even followed him from the record store to Petco when the last record chain folded in 2002. As a manager, he had a way of seeing the folks who worked for him as we were, accepting us, and drawing the best out of us by example and expectation. When I say I want to be kinder and gentler, I really mean I want to be more like him. 

Between 1978 and 1995, I worked for him four different times, always for short intervals, before going off to have various misadventures, after which I'd always return and beg for my job back. For some reason, he kept hiring me back. He was always present for me at times in my life when I needed understanding and wise counsel, and I have the sense he fulfilled that role for a lot of people. His "last detail," for Half Price Books, was processing a big buy of Folkways records. He still had the love and enthusiasm for music that he had when I met him in '78 and thought he was ancient because he was 29 (I was 21). I was there when he met his wife Barbara. They were married when they knew each other for just a few months, and she and their children were the center of his world for 43 years. They lived simply and frugally, and taught their children the same.

Charles was born in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and moved with his family to Richardson. By the time I met him, he'd seen the Velvet Underground and 13th Floor Elevators at the End of Cole -- up the street from the store where he and I first worked together -- and been out to San Francisco, playing bass in a rockaroll band, before his father passed and he came home to take care of the family business. I was proud of the way, after his retirement, he marched and worked for a fair, just, and democratic society. His passing reminds me that as we age, every person we love whom we lose means that there's one less person left who knows the stories. Charles knew a lot of the stories. Peace and comfort to his family, and to all who loved him as I did.