Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Mo' David Breskin: Kris Davis, Ben Goldberg, Mary Halvorson

One of this year's pleasant surprises has been the realization that two of my favorite records of 2016 -- Nels Cline's Lovers and Mark Dresser's Sedimental You -- were produced by the same man: poet/journo/record man David Breskin.

Lovers was the culmination of a series of Breskin-produced Cline albums that, to these feedback-scorched ears, represent the guitarist's very best recorded work. But Breskin was primarily known to me as the man who, as both Musician scribe and producer, helped to bring Ronald Shannon Jackson's music to prominence back in the '80s. Besides producing Shannon's breakthrough albums Mandance and Barbecue Dog, which highlighted the titanic drummer's abilities as a composer, Breskin also did the honors for Pulse, on which Shannon played solo drums and declaimed poetry; Smash and Scatteration, a guitar synth-heavy encounter between Bill Frisell and pre-Living Colour Vernon Reid; Strange Meeting, a meeting of minds between Shannon, Frisell, and Melvin Gibbs (under the rubric Power Tools); the Albert Collins feature, "Two Lane Highway," on John Zorn's film noir homage Spillane; and a series of albums for Zorn and Frisell's longtime drummer of choice, Joey Baron.

As a producer, Breskin does much more than merely capture what went down in the studio. Through extensive pre-production discussion and planning, he helps artists to clarify their concepts, then presents their work, when possible, with materials -- packaging, liner notes, videos -- that engage visual and tactile senses to provide, as he says, "the best delivery of the album/concept." And he continues to work with interesting, multifaceted musicians.

By now, the daring pianist-composer Kris Davis, whose work has invited comparisons to Cecil Taylor, has a dozen releases under her belt as leader (including two with the cooperative trio Paradoxical Frog), but she's never been heard to as good advantage as she is on the Breskin-produced gems Save Your Breath and Duopoly.

On the former, released on Clean Feed in 2015, she leads an octet -- Infrasound -- that includes four (count 'em, four!) bass clarinets as well as guitar, organ, and drums, playing material that was performed live after only two rehearsals, one on the day of the show. Some of the charts employ progressive rock dynamics, and drummer Jim Black combines the instincts of a rocker with the anarchic spirit of Han Bennink.

On the latter, released on Pyroclastic this year, she plays an original or standard and a free improvisation with each of eight duet partners: two guitarists, two pianists, two drummers, and two reedists, none of whom she'd recorded with before. (My faves: pianist Craig Taborn, drummers Billy Drummond and Marcus Gilmore -- both new names to me -- and clarinetist Don Byron. You'll have your own.) The duets were recorded "live" in the studio, with no rehearsal or post-production fixage. The resultant tracks appear on the disc in a "symmetrical, palindromic sequence" with the duet partners paired by instrument, and "what [Breskin] calls a 'mobius twist' in the middle," so the partners' improv pieces appear in inverse order to their composed ones. These highly intentional encounters form a seamless unity, and the accompanying DVD provides a fascinating window into the performers' process.

Together, these albums show the depth and breadth of what Davis is capable of: now oblique and minimalist, now mysterious and foreboding, now turbulent and roiling, always challenging and rewarding.

One of Infrasound's clarinetists, Ben Goldberg -- also a participant in Cline's 2006 Andrew Hill tribute, New Monastery -- has an incandescent CD/double LP of his own that Breskin produced back in 2013. Orphic Machine, a 2015 Royal Potato Family release, would have made my "best of" list for that year, had I heard it then.

Goldberg composed a song cycle with echolalic lyrics about poetry that were drawn from an academic treatise by the late man of letters Allen Grossman and sung by the ethereal violinist-vocalist Carla Kihlstedt (Tin Hat/Sleepytime Gorilla Museum). Behind a three-horn front line, the accompaniment is suffused with the textures of Kenny Wolleson's vibes and chimes and Myra Melford's piano, and anchored by the tandem of bassist Greg Cohen (Masada/Ornette Coleman) and drummer Ches Smith (Mary Halvorson), with Nels Cline contributing two of his finest recorded solos ever. On "Care," Cline manages to invoke the spiky spirit, if not the pentatonic letter, of vintage Buddy Guy and Otis Rush, while on the title track, he unleashes his full electronic arsenal in a face-melting sonic apocalypse.

Goldberg and Breskin also collaborated on Short Sighted Dream Colossus, a scintillating trio disc with guitarist John Dieterich (Deerhoof) and drummer Scott Amendola (Nels Cline) for which Breskin provided conceptual and design input. Goldberg's work has done as much as his fellow klezmer enthusiast Don Byron's to affirm the clarinet as a jazz instrument, and his compositions on Orphic Machine occupy a space where fans of pop, classical, and jazz can all find something to enjoy.

Since emerging from Anthony Braxton's tutelage a decade and change ago, guitarist Mary Halvorson has stayed busy, with a plethora of appearances in contexts as disparate as the improv trio Thumbscrew, a solo guitar opening slot on tour with Melvins frontman King Buzzo, and Marc Ribot's Gamble and Huff tribute project, the Young Philadelphians, not to mention a discography massive enough to rival even Cline's.

Since 2008's Dragon's Head, she's showcased her burgeoning composer's chops on a series of recordings for Firehouse 12 at the helm of an ever-expanding group built on the foundation of bassist John Hebert and the aforementioned drummer Ches Smith. On her latest offering in that series, Away With You, which Halvorson co-produced with Breskin and Firehouse 12 honcho Nick Lloyd, she's up to an octet, which includes Susan Alcorn's molten-silver pedal steel for added piquancy. The compositions are darkly ruminative, with multi-horn polyphony that's occasionally reminiscent of Andrew Hill's '60s heyday, and the leader's six-string prowess takes a back seat the ensemble sound.

As I type this, Breskin is at work on Halvorson's next album, as well as one by bassist Chris Lightcap that will feature Cline and keyboardist John Medeski. Stay tuned...

Friday, December 09, 2016

Things we like: Tin Huey, John Cale, Heater, BULLS, Bad Times

The Buckeye State may be on the verge of enacting an abortion law even more restrictive than ours down here in Texas (sans the burial/cremation requirement), but Ohio remains the secret music capital of America. For proof positive, here's Tin Huey, Akron's prog-band-in-New-Wave-band's-clothing, reunited in 2004 with all original members, including Tom Waits' longtime reedman Ralph Carney and late, lamented bassist Mark Price, captured in stellar video and OK audio by students from a local community college. Imagine an agreeable collision of Soft Machine with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band with hot chops, slick songwriting, and a wiseass sensahumour, and you've got the idea. (Principals Harvey Gold and Chris Butler continue in the tradition as Half Cleveland, who've been featured here more than once before.)

Today's mail brought a candygram from the gods in the form of the Domino Records reish of John Cale's Fragments of a Rainy Season, a fave of mine since its original appearance on Rykodisc back in '92. It's the purest manifestation of Cale the songster, accompanying himself on piano or guitar, playing songs from his whole catalog, and my preferred way to hear 'em. The limited edition CD or 3LP comes with a bonus disc that includes eight previously unreleased performances, among them a version of "I'm Waiting for the Man," the song I obnoxiously yelled all night for the first time I saw Cale live. In the liner notes, there's a blurb from Malcolm Gladwell, of all people, 'splaining that it was Cale who whittled down Leonard Cohen's original version of "Hallelujah" (which ran to 18 pages of manuscript) to the one Jeff Buckley covered and we all know and love (perhaps too much) today. Well, as I live and breathe.

These days I don't get out much, so the only time I get to hear bands play is on those rare occasions when the li'l Stooge band gigs and I can book shows with ones I'm innarested in. Back in July, we played at Lola's Stockyards with Heater, a band of superannuated (they say) punkeroos who've discovered that being Dad is totally compatible with playing a fierce '80s style that takes its cues from all the usual D.C. and Mpls suspects. They're the kind of tatted up Dads who wear Descendents T-shirts to "Meet the Teacher" night, but onstage, they explode with a fury that's impossible to fake. They have an EP ready that's currently streamable or downloadable digitally. Physical copies of the record will have to wait for that perpetual pacing item, artwork. Use it to heat up the house this weekend.

Next weekend the Stooge band will play inside the saloon at Lola's, doing two sets just like we used to at the old Black Dog Tavern (RIP). Joining us on the bill will be BULLS, one of Heater's "brother bands" (Tame Tame & Quiet is the other). Fronted by singing drummer Ricky Del Toro, BULLS plays a stripped-down but highly emotive post-punk style marked by jarring dissonance and desperately declaimed vocals. Their 2015 cassette EP on estimable FTW indie Dreamy Life is sold out but still Bandcamp-available. They're about halfway through a newie with Britt Robisheaux at Cloudland as I type this.

Speaking of punk and things Britt recorded at Cloudland, Rip in Peace is the fourth (!) album by Bad Times, a trio fronted by Denton-based Renaissance man Alex Atchley, who writes fiction and draws comics as well as making music that ranges from the one-man-band Naxat to the D&D-referential Hack and Slashers and the Devo-esque Blank-Men. Rip in Peace is Bad Times' most fully realized effort, and proof positive that angst needn't end with your teen years. Atchley says it's the finest record he's worked on, and I'm inclined to agree -- until the next one.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The Exterminators' "Product of America"

Ain't no punk like an old school punk, and I sure as shit don't mean Blink 182 or Green Day. As the first generation of punkeroos that teethed on the Ramones and Sex Pistols hits 60, it's worth noting that playing this music meant something different than it does today, back when the people who lived and loved it had to seek it out -- not just rekkids (back in prehistory, before the intarweb made everything instantly available) and zines, but like-minded individuals, and audiences were likely to be less-than-sympathetic to the point of physical violence. So bands like Phoenix, AZ, desert rats the Exterminators started where, say, the Stooges ended up -- playing to flying beer bottles heaved by hostile cowboys and bikers.

Formed in '77 by the Clark brothers, Doug (aka Buzzy Murder, guitar) and Dan (aka Johnny Macho, voxxx), the Exterminators were part of a nascent punk scene that included the Consumers and the Liars (who morphed into Kray-Zee Homicide, and whose drummer Don Bolles wound up replacing OG Exterminators drummer Doug Goss). They played a handful of shows before Bolles and bassist Rob Graves decamped for L.A., leaving the Clarks to continue their punk odyssey with bands like the Feederz, the Brainz, and Mighty Sphincter, sometimes including songs from the Exterminators' unrecorded repertoire in their setlists.

Earlier this year, the Clark brothers and Bolles met up in a Phoenix studio with Meat Puppet Cris Kirkwood handling bass and production chores, and bashed out the tunes they'd played as teens, live and raw ("either first take, or as close as possible," Bolles writes in his engaging and informative liner notes). We can only imagine what the Exterminators sounded like in their youth, but as mature men, they attack the tunes with sabre-toothed fury and lots of fire in the belly, Dan Clark shredding his vocal cords while brother Doug blasts out crunchy chords and shrieking leads over a slamming riddim section that just won't quit.

Some of the songs on Product of America -- short, sharp shocks of adrenaline, vitriol, and bile -- echo the hard rock of the time, while others predict the heavy music that would follow. The titles tell the story: "I Hate You" (credited to "Some Kid From The Neighborhood"), "Destruction Unit," "I Don't Give A Fuck," "Sometimes I Don't Know." The closing "Serena II" is a surprise: a poem from Samuel Beckett's Echo's Bones, declaimed with dark menace by Dan Clark with guitar sound painting by his brother in the manner of Saccharine Trust. A cathartic rush from start to finish; highly recommended.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Mark Dresser Septet's "Sedimental You"

At band practice this week, while watching a DVD of a documentary about the '80s DC punk scene, I wondered what kind of protest music the next four years are going to bring. Ever since the election, I've been hearing Mingus' "Fables of Faubus," "Prayer for Passive Resistance," and "Meditations" in my head, and meaning to spin Charlie Haden's Not in Our Name and The Ballad of the Fallen. Jazz bassists seem to do this sort of thing particularly well, for some reason.

The next day's mail brought a new stack of shiny silver discs from the Portuguese indie Clean Feed, including this newie from the estimable bassist-composer Mark Dresser, who's best known for the decade (1985-1994) he spent in Anthony Braxton's greatest quartet. The album was co-produced by David Breskin, the former Musician/Rolling Stone scribe who produced the albums that put Ronald Shannon Jackson on the map for lots of fans, and more recently has done the honors on some of Nels Cline's most indelible works, including this year's Lovers. (Breskin also penned a cycle of 285 poems about the recent election that's worth reading.)

Reading Dresser's liner notes, I discovered that three of the pieces on Sedimental You have political themes. The opening "Hobby Lobby Horse" takes its title from the retailer in whose case the Supreme Court ruled that certain businesses can be exempt from the law on religious grounds. "TrumpinPutinStoopin" eerily predicts the election result (the album was completed in March), while "Newtown Char" was inspired by mass shootings in Connecticut and South Carolina. Elsewhere, Dresser pays tribute to his friends and collaborators Roswell Rudd ("Will Well"), Alexandra Montano ("I Can Smell You Listening"), and Daniel Jackson ("Two Handfuls of Peace").

Beyond their programmatic content, the multi-layered compositions on Sedimental You are structurally intriguing. "Hobby Lobby Horse," for instance, juxtaposes its melody with odd-metered rhythmic phrases, and challenges soloists to navigate a form that's strewn with "surprise interruptions." Interesting instrumentation, with a front line consisting of two reeds (flutes and clarinets), trombone, and violin, makes for a fascinating tonal palette. The title track is a skewed take on the Swing Era chestnut "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" that Tommy Dorsey could never have imagined, although Willem Breuker or John Zorn might have. The Rudd dedication has some of the album's most gorgeous writing, with an orchestral intro giving way to a piano-bass duet and solos of lapidary beauty from flautist Nicole Mitchell, clarinetist Marty Ehrlich, and violinist David Morales Boroff. The violinist's work on "Will Well" and on the bittersweet Montano dedication that follows is particularly poignant.

The album's tour de force, "Newtown Char" was intended to continue in the spirit of Trane's "Alabama," but Ehrlich's bass clarinet and the ruminative ensemble recall both Dolphy's "Something Sweet, Something Tender" and Mingus' aforementioned "Meditations." Then the solos over pointillistic backing take the piece to another plane entirely. Pianist Joshua White and trombonist Michael Dessen have some of their finest moments here, with agile support from the leader and drummer Jim Black. The Jackson dedication closes the proceedings on a hopeful note. Overall, this is the most satisfying album of new jazz compositions I've heard in many moons -- music to sustain us in the coming mean season.