Monday, October 29, 2007

Did I mention the Red Sox won yet? Again!

Okay, now that we have that taken care of, I can pretend to think like a human again. (By happy coincidence, I wandered into a bar on Bowery after my Saturday evening engagement- see below- that was (gasp) a Red Sox bar. So I had friends right off the bat, who all cheered and groaned at the right times. While this post-season was nowhere near as nail-biting as 2004, it certainly had its moments.

Anyhoow, highlights, lowlights and otherlights of this weekend's jaunt to NYC:

The very good- spending time with my blog hero Darcy, hearing a fair bit of the indie-rock that has been so talked about in the blogosphere recently. The recent Arcade Fire disc jumped up my to-buy list as a result. I never run out of friends to see in New York, or leave having a bad time with them.
- lots of time to listen to records in transit, and read. Between train and bus rides I finished Ben Ratliff's new book on Coltrane. I recommend it, and will try to talk more about it soon. (review here, first chapter here)
- New York restaraunts. Dinner at Jellado, brunch at Gasgogne, fantastic coffee at a place in Carrol Gardens whose name I promptly forgot- something about leaves. One could get used to this.

The good- Michael Cain, who is mentioned here occasionally, wrote music for a play at the Public called The View from 151st Street, so I went to see it, naturally. It was a good play, with some exceptional acting and powerful, if uneven writing. The music, which this evening featured Liberty Ellman on guitar, was an interesting mix of live and recorded tracks and sounds, overall very effective. (There was a short, recorded solo piano piece in the middle of the first act that was amazing, reminded me of what took me about Michael's music in the first place) I often thought on the more hip-hop based material that the bass player could've played a fair bit less, but I find myself saying that a lot lately.

The less good- I got in early enough on Friday to trek down to The Stone on Friday night
to see Steve Bernstein and the Millennial Territory Orchestra. I'm not the world's biggest Bernstein or Sex Mob fan, but I've always left his shows entertained. Not tonight. The charts, such as they were, sounded like sloppier, less funky cutouts from Bill Frisell's Unspeakable albums. The one good chart was for a singer (didn't catch the name) who didn't have much of a voice or use the mike well. Some good players- Peter Apflebaum, Ben Allison, Ben Perowsky, Art Baron- were pretty much wasted.

I understand better than many the challenge that is putting a large ensemble show together in any context- there's never enough planning, or rehearsal, or promotion. But here I was embarrassed for the musicians, annoyed at paying even the modest $10 I did, and left before the set ended.

Don't mean to end on a down note, especially when there's so much to look forward to in Boston this week- and not just the Red Sox rolling rally. Caetano Veloso is here Friday, The Bad Plus Friday and Saturday. Full listings tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Big Hits... just not here

I have to admit I'm a little distracted at present. A trip to NYC is in the offing, but can't even focus on that. Blogging will resume again as soon as I screw my head back on.

Pointless UPDATE: Did anyone else hear the national anthem before Game 1? When did John Williams add Charles Ives to his list of people to shamelessly rip off? The worst part is, I didn't even like it... I didn't get to hear James Taylor's version for game 2, which is a shame. I thought his reharmonization for the 2004 WS was one of the best versions of the Anthem I've ever heard. Damning with faint praise, perhaps, but... They could have Rosanne Barr sing the anthem if they keep playing like this.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Hwaen Ch'uqi @ Lily Pad piano festival tonight!

A last minute plug for the annual Lily Pad Piano Festival, always a good take. Among the dozens of good to great pianists playing is my friend and occasional collaborator Hwaen Ch'uqi (nee Jeff Tomlinson). Some of you may remember our occasional Johnny Carcrash duos, which we're talking about resurrecting. He'll be performing his first Piano Sonata tonight at 10, Jeff is a remarkable player with a touch to die for, and a great improviser, so I look forward to hearing what his composed music sounds like.

The Lily Pad is in Inman Square, Cambridge. Other highlights of the festival include Anthony Coleman, Joanne Brackeen, and George Garzone, all tomorrow.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The same old song (and the dance?)

Why aren't (m)any young black folks playing jazz, asks Greg Tate.

Indie-rock is way too white, says SFJ. And the blogosphere blows up at him.

I thought of these posts earlier this week as I had a long conversation with an old musician friend. (call him Z) Z has toured and recorded a lot, in jazz, in R&B, in hip-hop. We were talking about the "state of jazz" today, and he opined that jazz is a music without a context- why exactly are we making this music today, and does it have anything to do with the traditions of the music. Jazz originated as music to dance to, from New Orleans to the Cotton Club to the chitlin circuit, which Bird played for a lot of his career. He feels that that element has largely been lost in the music today, and music that doesn't have it (which is most of it, especially made by anyone, white, black or green, under 40) doesn't interest him at all. He thinks it has to do with class, not just race- he talked about Johnny Cash's "Folsolm Prison" album, and how much it grooves, really grooves in the same kind of way that James Brown or P-Funk groove. I feel that way about some of the traditional Irish music I've studied. Musicians, he believes, are better served when they apprentice in a truly functional music, where people applauding politely, or even enthusiastically, isn't enough to make a player. You have to be able to make people move without telling them to. And not just a dorm of hippie college kids, a skeptical crowd, who want to move but who won't go for just anybody's boogie-woogie.

I fired back that you could say what he's saying about the function of jazz about a lot of music- over the last thirty years, the only places in American culture where the function of music hasn't changed is opera houses and strip clubs. And I'm not in any rush to apprentice at either of those, and wouldn't want my students to either. But his point about movement bears some serious thought.

I don't know enough about the indie scene to effectively contribute to the debate SFJ has started. But what resonates to me about his piece, based on what I hear of indie-rock, is that the bands he criticizes have lost touch on any level with the dance element of rock'n'roll ("you're old SadBastard music", Jack Black famously said in High Fidelity). The music lacks the kind of rhythmic drive- really any rhythmic drive- that made rock and roll so infectious since its birth, and so dangerous, especially in the eyes of moralists and classical critics.

(Intrestingly, now that I've listened to it a few times, the track on In Rainbows I keep returning to is "15-Step", to my ears the most rhythm driven track on the record.)

The fact is that rock bands, and jazz musicians for that matter, no longer have to play school dances or little chicken joints, replaced by DJs and the like. (wedding bands are not the same thing at all...) So does our music serve any function beyond self-expression or some sort of personal validation? I'm not saying those are bad or unimportant by any means, but given where the music comes from, given what so many of us say we're going for, are they enough? Is something crucial lost

Could that disconnect be why the young black musicians that were playing saxophones thirty years ago are now making beats with machines? Is that quality of dancing, which is not exclusively a black quality, really what Jones misses?

I don't know, I'm just asking... Z & I have had various discussions about the function of music for years now, often from this angle- it continues to perplex and fascinate both of us, and we'll certainly be returning to it again.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Riding in my Soul Spaceship

Of all the highly anticipated albums that hit in the past few weeks, the one I was most excited about was the new Meshell Ndegeocello album, the heavy mouthful "The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams". (Decca) As regular readers may know, Meshell is one of my great musical heroes- I was introduced to her music by her former keyboardist Michael Cain, and became a rabid fan. She is, I think, the funkiest woman alive, and her live gigs rank as some of the best live music I've seen in any genre.

Meshell seems to relish how difficult she is to categorize- she followed up her first two funk/soul albums with "Bitter", a primarily acoustic song-based effort. After the star-laden "Cookie" and reggae-drenched "Comfort Woman" (probably her most consistent effort) she put together "her jazz album", Dance of the Infidels, where she didn't sing and barely played. The buzz preceding "World" said it would be more "Afro-punk", whatever that means.

It is punkier- "Sloganeer" and "Article 3", with their hard one-note lines and edgy guitars, would've been right at home at CB's, and the guitar and bass tones are often heavily distorted and grungy. But what about the screaming, anthemic Pat Metheny solo (he should have a patent on this type of solo at this point), or the Prince-ish digitized voice of god on "Elliptical", or Robert Glaspar's appearance? Or the lovely "Shirk", a bleak guitar ballad seemingly redeemed by Malian singer...? To try to buttonhole this album is to sell your listening short.

Partially due to that almost defiant polyglot, the album is a challenging listen, part of the reason I'm so slow in reviewing it. The album's opening does the casual listener no favors either- it is a speech by Shiek talking about an Islamic (or Islamist? I couldn't quite make it out in this interview/performance on WNYC) view of apocalyptic signs, and many of the catchier tunes either begin or end with very abstract, heavily reverbed instrumentals. (see Oliver Lake's cameo on "Lovely Lovely", my favorite tune on the record) And I admit I often find myself fast-forwarding through the spoken testimony before "Solomon". And outside of two tunes "Soul Spaceship" and "Michelle Johnson", there is a lot less of the straight-up funk she is often equated with. And the lyrics probe questions of spirituality and sensuality, politics, religion and sex more overtly that anything prior. (didn't think that possible) But the lyrics are, to my ears, more oblique than in the past (no "Dead N*&%a Blvd" here

BUT, get over it- this is Meshell's most challenging and interesting album yet. It's some of her best singing, and the more puzzling music, with repeated listens, is tremendously rewarding. There is a short, mind-blowing interlude on "Evolution", maybe eight bars which never return, which I'll spend hours figuring out. Seemingly, just because. There are nuggets like that all over the album. The playing is brilliant top to bottom. Go check it.

UPDATE: NY Times reviews Meshell's NYC hit on Saturday here.

Other random notes- the new Radiohead, "In Rainbows", is another album I didn't want to make a quick judgement on. I agree wholeheartedly with Darcy- the sound suffers for the bitrate compression, so I want to hear it on a real CD. But I love, love the first tune. Even if the rest was awful (which it isn't) that is worth the pay-what-you-will.

- I've been reluctant to buy "River", Herbie's Joni tribute, based on what I've heard on the radio and the web. Seems to lack fire. Anyone have any advice here?

- Joni's "Shine" I will buy, even if it sucks. I got one tune, "Night of the Iguana", free from Starbucks, and it's pretty good, similar sonically to "Turbulent Indigo", Joni's now near contralto sounds go, but the tune is not so memorable.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The whole world might be wrong

Apparently not everyone is thrilled with Radiohead's new gambit, which I will download this morning. (about $7 sounds right- that's a little more than I see when you buy No Sale Value's record on ITunes. Hint, hint) The bit, bitchy as it is, raises an good question- are we ready for a world where content only exists in an ephemeral form, where you don't have to go out and buy a box of something? That might be the height of post-modernism right there...

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Best of October

It's a much better month for concert-going here in town. Some highlights:

Tonight (10/3)- Dominique Eade @ Scullers
4-5 Danielo Perez Trio @ Scullers
7- Lukeimia/Lymphoma Benefit w/Esperanza Spaulding, Carmen Staaf, Khevre @ Lily Pad
9- Club D'Elf & Rudder @ Regattabar
12-13- Chris Potter's Underground @ Regattabar
15- Zing @ Lily-Pad
16- David Fiuczynski's KiF @ Regattabar
20-21 Lily Pad Piano Fest, feat. Joanne Brackeen, Anthony Coleman, and many others
25- Ezra Weiss w/Billy Hart at Ryles
27- Marty Ehrlich & Myra Melford @ Lily-Pad

Monday, October 01, 2007

Maybe the hokey pokey was taken...

I couldn't resist...

Like most Bostonians, I'm excited, and a little nervous, about the hometown team's trip into the baseball playoffs this year. We could win it all, we could be swept in the first round- it's one of those years. But I'm hoping they keep winning, if only to see our players dance like this. (via Extra Mustard)

Beantown Jazz Festival, Saturday 9/29

With the demise of the various newspaper jazz festivals (both the Globe and the Phoenix sponsored series as late as 2002), the Beantown Jazz Festival has emerged as Boston's sole big jazz event. It has more than held up its end, shifting from one stage and little smooth-jazz outfits to three full stages of music, local and national acts, and for the second year in a row, a blowout opening night full of jazz legends. (Globe review of friday night here) The weather cooperated as well- 70 degrees and sunny- and as a result the MC announced before the last act that the day had seen 70,000 people at the festival. I don't know if I trust that number, but there were a lot of folks, many more than last year. (It was set up almost identically to last year's festival, again to good effect.)

I missed the first set of acts in favor of (sigh) errands, and walked in to the sound of Greg Hopkins' big band. The band is a lot of grizzled Boston vets, playing Greg's straight-ahead, hard-swining Herman-ish charts. The band was strong and tight, but hampered by sound problems, a running theme of the day. Bill Pierce's feature on "Body and Soul" was lost in a haze of unintentional reverb and distortion.

I wandered over to hear Conrad Herwig's "Latin Side of Miles" Project. Their album got some play on jazz radio here, and I wasn't wowwed. "Sketches of Spain" aside, I've never heard much Latin in Miles' playing, and putting "Solar" and "So What" to montunos and other Latin grooves seems to me just a ploy to sell records. So I was skeptical walking in.

(Aside: There's an interesting theory that puts forth in Paul Tingin's good book Miles Beyond that- I'm paraphrasing- while Miles was omnivorous in his listening, and used instruments, grooves and ideas from all over music, he was interested in the sound, not the context. Unlike, say John McLaughlin, there's nothing particularly Indian about his use of the sitar other than the sitar itself. I think this is surely true of Miles' relationship with Latin music; while he used "Spanish modes" and Latin percussionists, he had very little interest in "Latinizing" his music. He wanted those sounds. Which is why I'm very skeptical of these kinds of concept albums)

I was less skeptical walking out- the rhythm section, anchored by drummer Robbie Amin and percussionist Pedro (insert Mets joke here) Martinez- was amazing. Solos would float seemlessly through half-time and double-time, various feels (I'm a dilletante when it comes to the nuts and bolts of Latin music, so I won't even try) and beats. The horn players- Herwig, trumpeter Brian Lynch and the underappreciated Craig Handy- in turns floated over and barreled through the grooves with clear, straightahead playing. Everyone sounded good- how could you not with those kinds of grooves? I still thought the Miles/montuno connections didn't especially work- Lynch wrote an arrangement of "Solar" with a great, grooving intro and interlude which made the actual melody of "Solar" seem superfluous. That said, the music as a whole strong, much better than I expected.

The next act was on paper the highlight of the day- the legendary vibrophonist Bobby Hutcherson and his quartet. Bobby looked sharp and energized, and sounded... I'm not really sure. The sound on this set was especially bad- no mikes were on for the first two tuned, and through the set you could only hear Bobby maybe a third of the time. I know it's outdoors, and I know vibes are notoriously hard instruments to mike, but c'mon guys! This was amateur hour. What I could make out was a set of old standards- "I Love You for Sentimental Reasons", "Old Devil Moon", etc. that swung elegantly.

Across the way you could really, really hear the Berklee Rainbow Band. The band looked the part- tremendously diverse racially, ethnically, and gender-wise. The music, though was something of a throwback to the Buddy Rich/Maynard Fergeson sound of the seventies, complete with Rich's unbelievably overwrought "Mercy Mercy Mercy" chart. The soloists, especially the lead alto and tenor players, were very solid.

A family party kept me from hearing all but a few minutes of the last bands, Charles Tolliver's big band and Mike Stern's quartet. Tolliver's big band suffered from the aforementioned sound problems, and a clear lack of rehearsal. Some of the charts were very notey and intricate, and much of the detail got lost. The band's character, both in it's playing and in the charts, reminded me of McCoy Tyner's big band of the 80's and 90's. A very pentatonic harmonic sensibility (Tolliver's own playing harkened back to Woddy Shaw), good writing at the edges, and a lot of solid blowing in the middle.

A couple of more asides- I've learned that at these free outdoor festivals, if you care at all about hearing what's actually being played, the best places to be are 1) right in front of the stage, where you can hear the real sounds, or 2) next to the sound booth, where you'll hear what the sound person hears. Not the #2 helped that much this weekend.

And Beantown Jazz planners, would it be too much to stagger the start times at the different stages a little bit, as many festivals do? Every band, on three stages, started at the same time, the whole day. Why? One of the nice things about these festivals is sampling different acts, which this program impedes.

By any reasonable measure- crowd size and enthusiasm, vendors, quantity and quality of music- the weekend was an unabashed success. Heck, they had one stage booked with nothing but big bands, a feat in and of itself. Here's hoping next year they keep up the quality of booking, and improve the quality of the sound crew.