Thursday, March 30, 2006

Where's your cup?

And now, the week on the Ipod. I've also been listening to a bunch of Bartok and Morton Feldman orchestral music, which is great. I just don't feel like I have anything useful to say about it. So, onto...

Henry Treadgill and Make a Move- “Where’s Your Cup”

Henry Threadgill, while not a completely unappreciated genius, never gets enough attention. (Great bio here) When Branford Marsalis took over Columbia Jazz in an ill-fated, post Tonight Show experiment, perhaps the best thing he did was sign Threadgill and Charles Gayle to multi-album deals, as if to somehow legitimize the label artistically. Needless to say, I think Threadgill lasted two records, Gayle one, and all those albums are now out of print. This is the second Threadgill Columbia album, and to my ears the better of the two, featuring and unusual reeds/guitar/accordian/electric bass/drums group.

This music is mesmerizing, in all senses of the word. The combination of the accordion and Brandon Ross’ guitar sounds create an often eerie, always off-center sonic texture throughout the album. Threadgill’s music often has a quality like that old “Sesame Street” skit “One of These Things is not Like the Other”- he’ll have a martial beat quietly playing while everyone else blows free, or some other clear tension between active and passive motion, always to great effect. Likewise Threadgill’s harmonic motion is always slow and deliberate, and nothing ever resolves quite as you’d expect.

Then there’s Threadgill’s playing itself. Two things stand out for me. One, his haunting flute playing. As anyone who either plays or writes for a multi-reed players knows, you can never play another reed instrument and expect to have a pure, "legit" flute sound. There’s something about playing with a sax/clarinet embochure that makes even the world’s best doublers, spectacular players in every way, have a certain breathy imperfection in their flute sound that a discriminating listener can hear. Somehow Threadgill has taken that inherent weakness and turned it into a strength- he has a very distinctive flute sound, airy without being breathy, almost eerily hollow, and breathtaking. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the production on this album helped it along, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t. I’ve never actually seen him play live.)

Second, I find that great improvising saxophonists, regardless of genre, tend to play one of two ways (warning, dangerous overgeneralization ahead). The first kind play with a certain kind of precision- putting every note in exactly the right place- Bird, Sonny, Steve Lacy, Brecker, Greg Osby etc. Everything is always exactly where it’s supposed to be, and it sounds great. The second kind put much more emphasis on, I almost don’t know how to say it, the physical and emotional force of the delivery. The notes themselves often become secondary to how they are played- Ornette, Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Dewey Redman, Lovano. Nothing is quite where it’s “supposed” to be, but played well it sounds great. This is not to say that the first kind aren’t emotional players, or the second are somehow less cognizant of, or skillful with melodic or harmonic considerations (I hope my list makes that clear. Also, players who aren't as great either aren't sure where they fall, or can't execute- usually rhythmically- what they're hearing. I know that's an issue for me somedays.)

Threadgill is one of the few players I can think of who can consistently marry the two. For instance on “The Flew”, his improvisation seems to bounce back and forth between these Ornette-like running lines and very precise, stacatto exclamation points. Perfectly precise, and wildly sloppy, all at once.

On the same vein, also great: Threadgill, Too Much Sugar for a Dime, my favorite Threadgill album by far; Myra Melford (a protégé)- Above Blue. Actually, I think both of these are out of print too...

Aside: I vividly remember the one time I met Threadgill. I was given comps to a Roscoe Thomas gig at the Knitting Factory, and as I was walking to the subway after the set I (almost literally) ran into him, I introduced myself, and we ended up taking the N train together. He getting off around 23rd Street, I headed on to Astoria. He was quiet but not shy, and very pleasant. He was very high on pianist Matthew Shipp (who had been playing that night), and talked fondly about India, where he was living half the year at that point. I wish I could say I got some deep revelation from the experience, but it was more one of those cool “only in New York” moments, one I relish.

Herbie Hancock- Possibilities

Decidedly not out of print. I bought this one not long after it came out, while in Cruise Ship X, due primarily to a lack of alternatives. (It was on sale at Starbucks, it was Herbie, I didn’t have a PO Box, and I didn’t know my way around Miami well enough yet find a real record store.) And hey, it’s Herbie. I’m not sure quite why I pulled it out this week, but…

This is Herbie’s “Supernatural”, a set of collaborations with mostly, not all, bona fide superstars. Why’d he do it? I’m not sure, but probably, because he can; that’s just how Herbie is. (my friend Richie Barshay, who tours with him periodically, concurs on this view) It’ll probably sell a lot more than “Sextant”, but how do you musically rate something like this? As an album, it’s predictably inconsistent, depending on the song and who’s playing. What works and what doesn’t is a little less predictable. So, dear reader, I’ll break it down, in order of (perceived) quality:

The Spectacular:
“I Do It For Your Love” (Paul Simon)- Simon revisits this classic from “Still Crazy…”, and I like this version better. Like Joni Mitchell revisiting “Both Sides Now” on her orchestral disc, I think this tune really benefits from all the experience, both musical and personal, that age brings. Paul Simon doesn’t have the voice he had then, but the singing is beautiful, Herbie’s comping, and arrangement, are great. A real keeper.
“Sister Moon” (Sting)- I like this version better than the original (and I like the original). The funkiest thing on the record, and Sting steps up with his singing. Herbie’s best blowing as well.

The Very Good:
“Hush, Hush, Hush” (Annie Lenox) This is a really poignant Paula Cole song about a young man dying of AIDS, with his father by his side. I didn’t know the tune- it has a couple of lyrical flaws, but it couldn’t get a better reading from Annie Lenox. Great arrangement, haunting singing and playing. Misses spectacular because they fade out too soon.
“Don’t Explain” (Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan)- I don’t know either of these singers, but again the only complaint is that they don’t let one or the other carry the tune- either could ably, but having both singing one narrative is a little jarring. That said, an emotional reading of a heartbreaking tune.
“Stiched Up” (John Mayer)- a nice, smart, if a little lightweight, opener. Everybody sounds good, and I like the lyric. Good opener for the record, nice if unspectacular Herbie solo.

The Good:
“When Love Comes to Town” (Joss Stone and Johnny Lang)- the tag-team approach works here, and this is one of my favorite U2 tunes. But the song goes on about two minutes longer than it needs to- I see why he wants it to build, but he overplays his hand. And for God sakes, Herbie, if you want a big brassy ending, can’t you hire real brass players instead of using synths? I know you had a budget here…
“A Song for You” (Christina Aguleira)- this one got all the press, and the Grammy appearance. Mind you, it’s not bad, and it shows just how well Herbie plays behind singers. But while I respect Christina Aguleira, I’m not a big fan. She tunes down the melismatic stuff, and the choice of song is good, but her singing is still not my cup of tea.

The Bad and the Ugly:
Gelo No Montana (Trey Anastasio)- no less a musical authority than Maria Schneider claims the brilliance and beauty of Trey, and I believe her. But I don’t here it here. A nice little tune that goes nowhere.
“I Just Called to Say I Love You” (Damien Rice, Stevie cameo) I didn’t think it was possible to do this song MORE sugary than the original, but they manage. Drivel, pure drivel.
“Safiatou” (Santana and Angilique Kidjo) I don’t like Santana, never have. To my ears he’s not a good enough guitar player to justify the hype. Nothing here, which sounds like “A Little Bit of This” in another language (and with more piano, of course) changes that. Another tune that goes nowhere fast.

So there you have it- half the album is substantially better than average, but almost a third is substantially below average. (Mind you, I’d love to hit with Herbie’s average.) I see at it as why God created the fast-forward button. I’ve come away from a lot of Herbie’s recent (i.e. last 15 years) records feeling this way- they aren't bad, but you know they could be a lot better. (1+1 with Wayne stands as the big exception for me) If only it were so…

file under: music


DJA said...

As anyone who either plays or writes for a multi-reed players knows, you can never play another reed instrument and expect to have a pure, "legit" flute sound.

You might want to have a word with Erica vonKleist about that. She started on flute, and studied flute with the top legit teachers at Juilliard...

pat said...

Okay, since I've been called on this one twice today... I stand by it. The best make it hard to hear (and Erica is certainly up there in that category), and players who start on flute have a decided advantage, but you put the best doubler in the world- Gary Foster, Dick Oatts, you name it- next to a third chair orchestral player, or an elite college player even, and there IS a quantitative, if small, sonic difference. And its simply a consequence of having to double- something about the single reed embochure chips at the ability to get a perfectly focused flute embochure. This is not a hack on great doublers at all, just an observation. Sheesh, and all I was trying to do was highlight Threadgill's killin, if slightly unorthodox flute playing.

And to Mwanji, Roland Kirk is a slightly different case. In all the Kirk I've heard, his "dirty" sound was a result of him humming as he played. An effect, not a built-in sonic thing. (Also used for yucks in the infamous "Anchorman" jazz flute scene)

DJA said...


Not an attack by any means -- by "have a word" I meant literally ask Erica about this sometime and see what she thinks.

DJA said...

Hey Pat,

No "calling out" intended -- by "have a word," I meant literally talk to Erica about this issue, as I'm sure she would have an interesting perspective about the challenges of flute doubling.