Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A couple of new gooduns from Prefecture Music

Modern improvised music challenges us to expand our definition of what music is, and provides interesting new ways to hear it. If Clean Feed is the Blue Note for the current decade, then Prefecture Music -- a Seattle-based nonprofit run by creatives Paul Kikuchi and Tiffany Lin -- could be said to be the ECM. The label's signature sound is spacious ambient music, recorded in unique acoustic environments. As 2013 draws to a close, they've released two sterling new examples of said sound on sweet, sweet vinyl.

The Seattle Phonographers Union is a cooperative ensemble that uses field recordings -- either treated or raw -- which are juxtaposed in live, unedited improvisation and affected by the spaces where the performances took place (in this case, a decommissioned aircraft hangar and an unfinished nuclear power station). The sounds they produced in Building 27 & WNP-5 reverberate and interact with the sounds of audiences and environments, building to crescendoes and receding to near-silence. The players are respectful of the spaces and each other, and the sounds they create ultimately take on a life of their own.

On Ascendant, multi-reedists Greg Sinibaldi and Jesse Canterbury perform solos and duets, mainly on bass clarinets, in the Dan Harpole Cistern in Port Townsend, WA -- a favorite recording location for Prefecture artists. The performance was a conclusion to a decade-long musical partnership (Canterbury left the Seattle area a week later), as well as a marker for other transitions in Canterbury's life (his son was born two months later, and his father died the following year). The sound is meditative and reflective, relying on long tones and the sound of harmonics. (And how refreshing it is to hear anyone play bass clarinet without referring to Eric Dolphy.) Together, the two men create stately and majestic sound sculptures that exemplify all that's best about this label.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Onaje Allan Gumbs' "Blood Life"

An anomalous release in Ronald Shannon Jackson's discography was his 1984 album Pulse, which consisted of drum solos, spoken word pieces by Jackson and others, and a Jackson composition, "Lullabye for Mothers," recorded on solo piano by Onaje Allan Gumbs.

Gumbs, who played keyboards in Jackson's Decoding Society on 1985's Decode Yourself, had a friendship with the monumental composer-drummer dating back to the early 1970's. It was he who introduced Jackson to Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism (after Jackson heard Gumbs chanting "Nam myoho renge kyo" during a frenetic drive through Brooklyn), and the two men studied the religion under the tutelage of bassist Buster Williams. Jackson subsequently met his wife Natalie while performing in a trio with Gumbs and Williams at a Nichiren Buddhist convention in Hawaii. In his notes to the 2000 Knitting Factory re-release of Pulse (as Puttin' On Dog), Jackson called Gumbs "my mentor." The keyboardist's variegated career also includes stints with jazzy R&B purveyors Norman Connors and Phyllis Hyman, post-bop trumpeter Woody Shaw, pioneering rapper Kurtis Blow, and free-jazz bass legend Henry Grimes.

In 1985, at the behest of producer David Breskin, Gumbs recorded an album of solo piano renderings of nine melodies composed by Jackson, along with a couple of his own compositions. Since Jackson composed on the flute, Gumbs added harmonies to flesh out the pieces, giving them a lushness and spiritual warmth only hinted at in the notated versions. The master tapes were shelved for 24 years until Gumbs was able to purchase them from Breskin, and now the pianist is releasing them under his own Ejano Music imprint via CD Baby.

Gumbs' interpretations give the listener a new way to hear Jackson's music, and provide a new insight into the composer's melodic gifts. On his last visit to New York, Jackson heard the tapes and told Gumbs, "You have taken something great and made it magnificent." Highlights include the two takes of "Lullabye for Mothers" that bookend the album (subtitled "Good Morning" and "Good Night"); the title track, which unfolds relentlessly (and was the last piece performed at Jackson's final live performance in 2012); the delicately ethereal "Dialogue of Angels;" the gracefully flowing "Lydia" (inspired by a dancer Jackson knew); and "Theme for a Prince," which Jackson recorded on the Decoding Society's 1980 debut Eye On You. Two takes of Gumbs' own "Rising To the Occasion" give an idea of the interpreter's grounding in gospel, blues, and bebop. A fitting tribute, which one hopes will be only the first of more explorations of the Jackson canon by others.

Friday, December 13, 2013

My buddy Geoff from Philly gots a compilation album

Geoff Ginsberg from Philadelphia is one of my best friends on Earth, and knows good rock from bad. About 15 years ago, we bonded over our mutual obsession with the Stooges, Lou Reed, and Scott Morgan (the last of whom Geoff once managed, and some of whose best work was released on Geoff's now-dormant Real O Mind label). Geoff was instrumental in compiling Easy Action's Morgan box set Three Chords and A Cloud of Dust last year, and stepped up to provide liner notes for the box when I had to bow out due to unforeseen circumstances. (Thanks, pal!)

Now Easy Action is releasing Let Me Turn You On, a very limited edition (only 250 copies) of a Ginsberg-curated compilation. Geoff sequenced it to flow like a mixtape, and having enjoyed many of his compilation tapes and CDs over the years, I've been really looking forward to this. Lots of smoking guitars, clever lyrics, and thunderous forward motion on this disc. As is my custom with releases of this type, I'll provide three-word reviews of all 20 tracks -- 75 percent of which are exclusive to this release, and another three appear on CD for the first time here:

Cheetah Chrome w/Sweet Justice: Blazing garage surf.
The Original Sins: Pounding psychedelic Stooge-ism.
The 31st: Obscuro Aussie gem.
The Phantoms: Two hypnotic chords.
Grand Theft Auto: Tough chick rawk.
Pink Slip Daddy: Frug to this.
The Blue Chieftains: Berryesque trucker twang.
The Dictators w/Patti Rothberg: NYC brawd pop.
Steve Wynn @ Roscoe's: Smoother Crazy Horse.
Leadfinger: Nifty Saints homage.
Go To Blazes: Slapdash slash/rasp.
Mike Wilhelm w/Johnny Casino's Easy Action: Giant-voiced Charlatan.
The Windbreakers: A trifle bleak.
The Rockets: Detroit white soul.
Chris Masuak & The North 40 w/Scott Morgan: Dictators outtake, maybe?
Deniz Tek w/Scott Morgan's Powertrane: Iceman cometh home.
Sweet Justice: What arena's this?
The Friggs: Whiplash trash bash.
The Scientists: Wild-caught Salmon.
Iggy Pop & The Trolls: Whither the Stooges?

Allen Lowe's frustrated maximalism

Allen Lowe is one of the most illuminating thinkers-about-music currently working, and he always goes big: imagine if Alan Lomax and Harry Smith had also been musos. While he's not doing actual fieldwork the way those two worthies did, he's curated a series of multi-volume, multi-CD excavations into the recesses of American music, and written books to accompany them (or vice versa). A familiar of Anthony Braxton and Julius Hemphill, he also makes some of the most compelling jazz records to be released in the current decade. His most recent output includes two books -- God Didn't Like It: Electric Hillbillies, Singing Preachers, and the Beginning of Rock and Roll, 1950-1970 and Really the Blues? A Horizontal Chronicle of the Vertical Blues, 1893-1959 -- and a sprawling, crowd-funded 4CD album, Mulatto Radio: Field Recordings 1-4. They're a mixed bag, in more ways than one.

As a writer, Lowe represents a countervailing force to the prevailing, Ken Burns-annointed jazz orthodoxy exemplified by Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch, and Wynton Marsalis. In fact, Really the Blues? proceeds from an encounter with Marsalis, in which the trumpeter and owner of the Lincoln Center jazz franchise accuses Lowe of being "an academic," based on the author's defense of minstrelsy against charges of "racial degradation." (Tell it to Nick Tosches.) Myself, I think Lowe doth protest too much being tarred with that brush -- after all, who but an academic would write, as Lowe does in God Didn't Like It, that "Many in the field who write about [popular] music have little technical knowledge, a handicap which is not necessarily insurmountable?" But by Lowe's own account, it's the spleen generated by Marsalis' dismissal that fueled his fire for these projects.

His idiosyncratic concept of "vertical" vs. "horizontal" in the blues book is based on harmonic motion (unsurprising for a jazz player), but his vision of "the blues" is expansive enough to include Harry Partch and Charles Ives, and his gift for succinctly encapsulating the essence of an artist or a performance -- a strength of his earlier books -- is also in evidence here. I find the rock book more problematic. In it, Lowe abandons his usual chronological approach in favor of a rambling discourse that appears to be largely based on 40-year-old knowledge and a recent trawl through the Norton Records catalog.

He's generally strong on pre-rock styles up to Presley (although he reveals a certain antipathy to white Southerners -- surprising in light of his advocacy for white musicians). Besides clear favorites of his like Frank Zappa and Mike Bloomfield, his take on '60s rock is condescending, informed by the prejudices one would expect from an observer who abandoned rock for jazz in the early '70s. More disturbing is the abundance of the kind of errors, typographical and even factual, that a good proofreader and editor would have caught. God Didn't Like It made me want to reach for Nik Cohn or Joe Carducci in the same way that the first volume of Stanley Crouch's Charlie Parker biography made me want to reach for Ralph Ellison.

Much more to the point is Mulatto Radio, which is nothing less than one man's attempt to reimagine the whole history of jazz (and every other music he's ever heard). It's an exhaustive and exhausting collection of pieces intended to evoke different facets of the jazz past, embellished by the musicians based on what they bring to the party. Over the course its four discs (and he says he has another three in the can), Lowe creates a Burroughsian cutup of the jazz tradition, juxtaposing century-old two-beat rhythms with whirlwind, post-bop solos, or playing modern, Monkian melodies with Creole band instrumentation, including the best use of the banjo on a modern jazz record since Vernon Reid picked one up in Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society (and Ray Suhy's playing bebop on the axe).

There's lots of great playing here from a large cast; particular standouts include Suhy (a guitarist to be reckoned with, who demonstrates that monster chops and gut-level expression are not mutually exclusive), protean pianist Lewis Porter (who performs solo as well as in ensembles), titanic AACM tenorman Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre (who appears on a half dozen tracks -- his last recorded performances), clarinetist Ken Peplowski, tubist Christopher Meeder, and the leader himself, whose encyclopedic knowledge of jazz style comes to the fore and whose vocalized, bop-inflected tone hardly sounds like the work of an academic. It's really a composer's record (imagine if Duke Ellington was Jewish, trapped in a New England backwater, and unable to play except in the recording studio), and while Lowe provides copious notes explicating each piece, the music stands on its own merit, rewarding in-depth exploration.

Mulatto Radio will be available from Lowe's website early next year. Both books are available now by emailing him at imericanmusic.gmail.com.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Falling in love with jazz again, sort of: Louis Armstrong, new Clean Feeds,Geoff Dyer

1) Discovering the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Hot Sevens this year was like reading Huck Finn and Moby Dick when I was 40. It's an essential part of one's cultural education. In his God Didn't Like It: Electric Hillbillies, Singing Preachers, and the Beginning of Rock and Roll, 1950-1970, Allen Lowe notes the generally overlooked similarities between Armstrong and Elvis Presley: both men were marginal products of the American South, who drank deep from their country's river of song, and considered themselves entertainers first, in spite of their massive cultural and social impact. I actually listened to Armstrong as a kid; my mother had a 10-inch LP of The Louis Armstrong Story, from which I remembered "Black and Blue," "I'm a Ding-Dong Daddy From Dumas" (a favorite of Clay Stinnett, who is also one), and "Knockin' a Jug" (Armstrong's first encounter with Texan Jack Teagarden, of whom Allen has written memorably in That Devilin' Tune). I found Sony's Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man online for a five spot, but my sister sent me the JSP Hot Fives and Sevens, remastered by the estimable John R.T. Davies, and the difference was reminiscent of my college film prof Arthur Lennig, who used to painstakingly restore prints of old silents and projected them at the original speed -- a very different viewing experience than the grainy, herky-jerky way most old silents look when projected on modern equipment. (Lennig was a D.W. Griffith man, as well as having written a book about Bela Lugosi that had a picture of him on the dust jacket sitting on Lugosi's lap at his twelfth birthday party.) The clarity of Davies' remasters -- probably done from some collector's gently handled vinyl -- wipes the floor with Sony's; the horns sound like they're in the next room. It's still hard to comprehend the impact of these recordings, because I wasn't alive before them, when Sousa and Stephen Foster were the popular sounds of the day, but I imagine this is as close as I'll get.

2) A new release from Portuguese indie Clean Feed -- my tip for the Blue Note of the Teens -- is always like a candygram from the gods. Of the latest batch, standouts include Kaja Draksler's The Lives of Many Others, on which the Slovenian pianist alternates density and lyrical minimalism; on my favorite track (the latter part of the dauntingly titled "Suite: Wronger/Eerier/Stronger than (just a thought)/I recall"), hypnotically repeating figures interrupt the main motivic thrust like a nagging thought. On Tone Hunting's self-titled debut, Polish altoist Anna Kaluza and trumpeter Artur Majewski bat ideas back and forth like Brotzmann and Bennink calling out to each other in the Black Forest's vastness while Kuba Suchar's drum clatter provides an ongoing commentary. On Twine Forest, pianist Angelica Sanchez provides settings of empathetic elegance and grace for AACM originator Wadada Leo Smith's stabbing trumpet. And on Floodstage, the John Hebert Trio's sound displays a refreshing spareness and spaciousness, adding tasteful electronics to the piano trio format on a couple of tracks, while my favorite ("Saints") features a herky-jerky melody like a child's toy calliope.

3) Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful [A Book About Jazz] contains the most graceful evocation of the music I've yet read, rendered in imagined vignettes, some of them inspired by photographs, that capture the spirit of artists like Duke Ellington (driving through the night with baritone saxophonist Harry Carney in a series of episodes that tie the book together) and Lester Young (drinking himself to death in a hotel room); the chapters on Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell are particularly moving. Apparently Dyer can write a good book about anything; his weakest moment here is the closing essay, which still contains a useful insight (borrowed from George Steiner): that all art which is influenced by other art is implicitly a critique of that which inspired it, which is a useful device to have when considering an art form like jazz in the current decade, when certain influences (Monk, Ornette, '60s Blue Note, '70s Miles, the AACM, the European free improv movement) seem pervasive.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Darrin Kobetich's "Sidetracked"

Full disclosure: Darrin Kobetich is a friend of mine, and a fellow Lawn Guyland expat in North Texas. (He grew up in the town I was born in, and we moved to Texas the same year, although he's ten years younger than I am. Although he sounds like he just came off the block, he went to Weatherford High School. That's right: He's a Blue Kangaroo.)

After over a decade of solo performance, Darrin Kobetich has fully integrated all of the aspects of his musical persona -- metalhead, acoustic performer on an ever-widening array of instruments, devotee of folkloric forms, possessor of an experimental mindset -- into a single, seamless entity. Overdubbing all the instruments -- stringed, wind, and percussion -- in his home studio, he's produced what he describes as a "soundtrack for an imaginary motion picture." The music on Sidetracked wends its way through several sustained shifts of mood.

The album opens with "The Order Within Chaos," eight minutes of ambient atmospherics that steadily build in intensity, then gradually recede, giving way to the Fahey-esque freak-folk of "When the Rain Finally Came" and "Banjer in the Bayou." "Giant Behemoth" opens acoustically before shrieks of feedback announce the coming of a doom-metal riff reminiscent of Sleep. "Winging It" sounds like a Physical Graffiti outtake awaiting vocals, while "Counter Culture Tribal Dance Theme" is a potential hit in Near Eastern dance clubs (which I'm assuming exist). The concluding sequence, beginning with "The Gift That Came Here," displays a lovely lyricism that's new to Darrin. Not only is Sidetracked his most accomplished work to date; it's also his most accessible.