Tuesday, September 22, 2015

"Free Form Improvisation Ensemble 2013"

This double CD, on gutsy French indie Improvising Beings, is the latest installment in a floating crap game that first convened in NYC, 1962. Back then, pianist Burton Greene (b. Chicago, 1937) and bassist Alan Silva (b. Bermuda, 1939) were venturing even more "out" than Trane, Ornette, and Cecil, playing group improvisations rather than tunes. Both men went on to join Bill Dixon's short-lived Jazz Composers Guild before emigrating to Europe.

Greene wound up living on a houseboat in Amsterdam and has released an impressive body of work (over 70 albums) that encompasses electronics and world music as well as free jazz. Silva, who'd grown up in Harlem and studied bebop trumpet with Donald Byrd, played bass on some of the most important recordings by Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, and Albert Ayler. Moving to Paris in the early '70s, he formed the Celestial Communication Orchestra, a unit that emphasized ensemble character over solos. In the '90s, he tired of bass and switched to keyboards, which he used as platforms for conduction in the manner of Butch Morris or John Zorn.

On this date, they're joined by tenorman Abdelhai Bennani and Chris Henderson on electronic drums. Bennani (b. Morocco, 1950) was first inspired to play by hearing Jimi Hendrix in censored versions of his records that were marketed in the Arab world. He traveled to Marseille to study biology and medicine in the late '60s, got his musical feet wet playing blues and Dixieland, then moved to Paris to explore free jazz in the mid-'70s. There, he studied with Silva at the Institute for Artistic and Cultural Perception, a music school the older man founded in the '80s. Bennani led groups that mixed free jazz with North African folk music, and opened the Cave, an underground music venue, in 1995. (A representative recording is 1999's Enfance, on the French Marge label.) In 1999, Bennani met bassist William Parker, who took him to New York, where he performed at the Vision festival. Sadly, Bennani died earlier this year, of bone cancer, in the hospital where he'd worked part-time as a nurse and pharmacologist.

Improvising Beings impresario Julien Palomo recalls that when the four musos performed this music at the Sunset in Paris, "they emptied half the venue. But the other half kept them playing another hour." The program consists of 13 numbered free improvisations, and their impact is as much like psychedelic rock (think early Tangerine Dream, or Gong -- who recorded for BYG Actuel!) as free jazz. If much of it sounds through-composed, that should be no surprise, for Greene and Silva have been playing this way for over 50 years. At times, Silva uses his synth as an atmospheric element, while at others it functions as a solo voice, with the abrasive edge of an aggressively bowed bass. Bennani's tenor has the same brooding muscularity as the young Archie Shepp.

Palomo's been a friend and fan of free jazz pioneers like Greene, Silva, Sonny Simmons, and Linda Sharrock, since he was 20. He started his label 11 years later, and after eight years, is getting ready to fold the tent.

"Most labels brag," the label boss explains, "[but] the sales [of free jazz albums] are dreadfully low -- [as low as] 25 copies. To tell the truth, the labels don't care either, for they charge the musicians to do the albums, and in return the musos have 300 CDs to take on the road if they can find gigs. But if they sell any in stores, they can wind up getting sued by a distributor who had exclusivity with the label."

"I refuse to own anybody's music," Palomo continues. "I sign the rights away to the musician. It's not like a painting you buy and hang in the living-room. I pay for [the recordings], therefore I lose money. I managed to survive eight years because I had a job besides and I don't need holidays in the Barbuda or a new iPhone every month and would rather lose $10,000 a year on helping them write the last chapters of their careers. With these documents, their estate or children have a patrimony. If a stable model appears for the sales of music in the next 20 years, they will have something valuable in the family and I will have succeeded."

Cop via the label website (link above) or julienpalomo.bandcamp.com.

ADDENDUM: Listening to Silva's bass on Stinging Nettles, an Improvising Beings trio date from last year with Lucien Johnson on tenor and Makoto Sato on drums, I was pleased to hear that it's lost none of the deep gravitas it had on Cecil's Unit Structures and Conquistador.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Trash Flow Radio, 9.19.2015

Pssst! Hey, kid! Wanna download a three-hour radio show with John D. Morton and Craig Bell of X_X/Electric Eels/Mirrors/Rocket from the Tombs fame? If you've been reading this week, I figured you might. Go here to get an earful. And here for Part 2.

Fogg @ 1919 Hemphill, 5.31.2015

I dreamed I woke up and it was 1970 again...

Friday, September 18, 2015

"I Hope It's Not Our House": The Craig Bell Story

Music's such a deep well that you can follow a thread of history as obsessively as you want for years and still find new strands. So, a few days after penning the X_X review below, I'm sitting here listening to a heap of new-to-me recordings, some vintage, some recent, by Craig Bell...Craig Willis Bell, to use his full name.

Born in Elmira, NY, 1952, Bell moved with his family to the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, OH, in 1961, and was a key player in the fecund and highly incestuous rockaroll underground that sprung up, fungus-like, in those environs during the early '70s, playing in two of Clevo's triumvirate of proto-punk originators -- Mirrors (his participation interrupted by two years of Army service) and Rocket from the Tombs. While with those bands, Bell wrote the first of a bagful of tunes he'd carry with him, like Richard Hell and Scott Morgan, through a succession of other bands: "Frustration," "Muckraker" (inspahrd by a challenge from Mirrors leader Jamie Klimek to write a song better than early reality TV star Lance Loud's band, the Mumps), "Read 'Em and Weep" (a song so obscure it's not even on the released RFTT recordings), and "Final Solution" (with RFTT/future Pere Ubu mastermind David Thomas).

In 1976, Bell took a job with Amtrak and moved to New Haven, CT, where he'd hang his hat until 1989. While in the Land of Steady Habits, Bell led a succession of bands, beginning with Saucers -- beloved of punters at New Haven's Shandy Gaff, Oxford Ale House, and Ron's Place, and around the East Coast -- who released an EP and a single, the latter on Gustav Records. Bell started the label with a friend and another financial backer. (Gustav went on to release It Happened But No One Noticed, a 13-song compilation of Connecticut bands. Grand Theft Audio released a Saucers compilation, What We Did, in 2002.)

From 1981 to 1984, Bell -- now on guitar -- fronted Future Plan (later shortened to The Plan), a new wavy outfit that more or less evolved into the Bell System (1984-86), a band that included Bell's wife Claudia on bass. (You can see video of the Bell System from a 1985 radio session on the Gustav Records Youtube channel and Bell's Youtube channel.) When that band folded the tent, Bell continued to record sporadically under the rubric "The Rhythm Methodists" (a name they confusingly share with at least one Brit outfit). In 1989, the Bells relocated to Claudia's native Indiana, from where Craig rejoined RFTT for their still-ongoing resurgence in 2003. Most recently, he's played with the Down-Fi (two albums available via Bandcamp) since 2008 and Deezen since 2010. Since retiring from the railroad earlier this year, he's resumed touring in earnest, including a recent stint with the reformed Gizmos. Whew!

The last few days, I've been listening non-stop to a couple of new (to me, at least) sets of Bell recordings. His DIY-label days done, he's hoping to find a label to release 'em.

aka Darwin Layne (named for Bell's occasional pseudonym) is an LP-length compilation of Bell recordings, including tracks by Mirrors, Bridgeport Badboys (a tough, taut version of "Muckraker" from his first, pre-Saucers Connecticut recording session from 1977), Future Plan/The Plan, the Bell System, and the Rhythm Methodists. The common threads running through the tunes are Velvet Underground, Kinks, and early Eno, with occasional forays into jangling power pop and anthemic heartland rock.

Highlights abound. "Slow Down," as played by the Mirrors, is a beguiling slow number like something left off Loaded, sung by Klimek in a voice as bruised and wary as Springfield-era Old Neil. Saucers are represented by "You Won't Like It," a live-at-Ron's rave-up that pounds and stomps like the Velvets at Max's. Future Plan's "Let It Go" has the relentless forward motion (and cheesy organ) that made "new wave" irresistible to many. "I Hope It's Not Our House," by the same band after they'd dropped the "Future" tag, is a tongue-in-cheek anthem worthy of Tin Huey or the Tubes, in which Bell's narrator starts out celebrating a night out with declarations that "The world is going to get smashed up tonight" and winds up cowering in terror from a real riot.

"America Now" was the title track of the Down-Fi's second Bandcamp-available (hint, hint) album. Myself, I prefer the Bell System's version of what might be Bell's finest song -- imagine if Uncle Lou, not Brooce, had written "Born In the USA." (Oh yeah, that's right, he did, and called it New York. But Bell's tune still rocks out topically. "Where is this place?" indeed.)

Turning the virtual record over, Future Plan's "'62 Hawk" is the obligatory car song, replete with Roxy Music sax, while "How Can I Tell You" manages to encapsulate an inarticulate Everykid's longing and wonder. The Rhythm Methodists' "You Be You" and "I Think I'm Falling" are Nuggets/Pebbles-worthy blasts of garage-rock sweat and grease. The Bell System's "It's Over" trawls the same territory as "How Can I Tell You," ending things on an emotionally unsatisfied but aesthetically very rewarding note.

The Down-Fi are a no-frills trio (formerly a quartet) versed in unhyphenated rock fundamentals: guitars that crunch and chime, whiplash riddim, and hook-laden songcraft. The five new songs (working title: The Down-Fi Go Postal) run the gamut from valedictory kiss-off ("Enough of You") to edgy character study ("Chatelain") to stoic's self-disclosure ("Emotion") to a survey of emotional wreckage with Link Wray guitar ("Let It Rain") to what sounds like Old Neil guesting a la Hunter-and-Wagner on the climactic track from an Alice Cooper album ("Sleep").

Somebody with a couple grand in pocket, puh-leeze take the bait and release this stuff. And bless Craig Bell's rockaroll heart.

Friday, September 11, 2015

James "Blood" Ulmer and the Thing to Austin Come

I no longer make pilgrimages to see bands, but if'n I did, I'd head down to Austin on October 7th -- a Wednesday -- to see harmolodic funk/blues guitar master James Blood Ulmer, accompanied by Scandinavian free jazz power trio the Thing, at the North Door. (Tickets be here.)

Born in South Carolina, 1940, Ulmer cut his teeth playing in organ trios before assisting at the birth of Ornette Coleman's electric ensemble Prime Time (with whom he never recorded, but you can see some vid on Youtube, of course). He went on to record as a leader for Artist House (with Ornette as a sideman!), Rough Trade, and Columbia (for whom he also did yeoman work on Arthur Blythe's Lenox Avenue Breakdown and Illusions -- my first exposure), attaining his apotheosis with Odyssey, a trio with violinist Charles Burnham that came across like a Mississippi Delta string band ca. 1930 following alien abduction. He also co-led the Music Revelation Ensemble with David Murray before reinventing himself as a bluesman in the Millennial decade with a series of albums produced by Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid.

Ulmer encountered the Thing -- the rubric under which saxman Mats Gustafsson, drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, and bassist/Austin resident Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten push their collective sounds into the sky -- when they performed together in Norway this past summer, and Epistrophy Arts impresario Pedro Moreno assures me that they'll be jamming jazz, not blues. Here's a taste:

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity no lover of creative music should miss.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

MC5 Kick Paris - Gibus Club, February 1972

Thought you'd seen all the MC5 footage extant? Well, maybe not. The first part is dimly lit, but it gets better around 6:00. Steve Moorehouse on bass, not Mike Davis, and Fred in his "Sonic Smith" superhero costume. The Beat Club and Chateau d'Herouville footage from the same tour showed that the Five could still sock 'em out at this late date in their trajectory (which came grinding to a halt back home at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit on New Year's Eve, just ten months later), but here, with an ecstatic audience to exchange energy with, they do more than that. Bloodied but unbowed, the Five went down swinging.

Donovan's Brain's "Heirloom Varieties"

It's kind of innaresting that Donovan's Brain's promo schmatter now aligns the Montana-based recording collective with the '80s Paisley Underground. Main Brain man (he denies it, but it's his studio they mostly use, and he's the only muso to appear on every Brain release) and San Francisco expat Ron Sanchez is old enough to have seen all the '60s originals (and he has the tapes to prove it), but as folks that came of age in the '80s are now pushing the half-century mark, it's probably a good signifier to use.

While the Brain have always been tops at approximating the ambience of original psychsters like Syd-era Floyd (The Piper At the Gates of Dawn having achieved the same kind of undeniability for That Kind of Music as Out To Lunch has for jazz, or Two Steps From the Blues has...you get the idea) or the Chocolate Watch Band, what's most striking to these feedback-scorched ears, the first two or three spins, about this new Brain opus is...songcraft!

Specifically, principal Brain songwriter Bobby Sutliff taps into a vein of chiming guitar and lilting vocal harmony that's been a cornerstone of U.S. rockaroll ever since somebody (Terry Melcher?) figured out that the Brit Invasion Searchers' approach might be the ideal way to sell folk-based material to the post-Beatlemania Meercun audience. The enduring popularity of this style, through the work of mainstreamers like Tom Petty and REM, makes me think that in a just universe, songs like "Great Divide," (especially) "Wedding Bell Ring," and "It Wasn't My Idea" (not the Move homage the title made me half hope for) would be bona fide hits.

Elsewhere, there's plenty of the Brain's usual lysergic mystery, and a very nice three-guitar Fleetwood Mac homage ("Let It Go") to beguile you. Cop via the link above.