Treasure Hunting at Tokyo’s Disk Union

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Disk Union organizes its prog CDs by country. How cool is that.

Not only that, but artists within a country are filed next to the proper supergroup. So the Genesis shelf is where you’ll find Tony Banks and Anthony Phillips, while the Yes shelf includes Peter Banks, Badger (which includes Tony Kaye), and White, the band fronted by drummer Alan White.

The links run deep. The King Crimson section included Bill Bruford’s jazz band Earthworks and the colossal Centipede, whose more-than-50 members happen to include Keith Tippett.

imageThis comes up because yes, I’ve just taken a trip to Japan, and my first-ever visit to Disk Union was a highlight. I think of the store as a colony creature, a sprawl of genre-specific ministores spread across a few Shinjuku blocks, with satellites around the city and in the suburbs. The “main” store occupies all seven floors of one building, with one specialty per floor. Program was on Floor 3.

Other parts of Disk Union occupy random floors of other buildings on the same street. Jazz, for example, is on a ground floor at the end of the block.

Most at of my time was spent in the Prog section. I went farther upstairs to check out indie rock and ’80s, bypassing the classic rock floor, where they were playing the Sgt. Pepper album. (Each store/floor plays its own relevant music. I love The Beatles, but my taste for classic rock has waned.) I also peeked at the 7th Floor punk section — where the clerk was playing a Japanese band that was basically indie rock with ragged, screaming vocals. It was an odd breed of punk, but it was a good antidote to the sugary music that I’d been hearing for the entire trip.

The punk section seemed legit, by the way. Sub genres included power-pop-punk, melodic punk, harder stuff bordering on metal (the proper Metal store is in another building), and classic ’70s/’80s acts, including plenty from Japan.

My haul from Disk Union was entirely prog: the aforementioned White and Centipede albums; a ’70s British band called Gryphon, which is what the clerk was playing as I shopped; and a Japanese band called Asturia, selected after I pressed the clerk for a recommendation.

What these things have in common is that I’d never encountered them at home. CDs are a pricey luxury in Japan, running at ¥2500 or ¥3000 ($25 to $30) for new titles, so there wasn’t much leeway for the novelty of a “J”-version of a known quantity. I was also more hesitant than normal when it came to taking a chance on a random title.

The price is also why I didn’t buy from the Jazz store. The small avant-garde section was robust, but the titles were mostly familiar; they either originated in the States or could be easily obtained there. Too bad — an avant-jazz bin used to be a treasured find, but the Internet’s trove of news has made surprises harder to come by. That’s the downside to having access to such online riches.

June 27, 2016 at 6:41 am Leave a comment

Ches Smith’s ECM Trio

Ches SmithThe Bell (ECM, 2016)

imageSo many of the musicians I came to know during the early 2000s have fled to New York. Among them is drummer Ches Smith, who’s come to the spotlight as a part of Tim Berne’s Snakeoil and a leader of his own avant-jazz band, These Arches.

Those two bands fit in the same subgenre in my head. But I’ll always remember Smith for a band that was closer to instrumental pop: Good for Cows, his duo with bassist Devin Hoff (who is still out there, and whose one-off, strings-based project Redresseres, is going to be the subject of a writeup here someday.)

Now Smith has joined the company of ECM bandleaders with The Bell, a trio album where the band sketches wispy outlines that lead to frenzied excursions.

The title track, opening the album, is an exception. It’s all about the long game,  developing gradually over a monotonic pulse and Mat Maneri’s slowly repeated viola line. Smith himself contributes small accents — a cymbal tap or dramatic, short swells of timpani. The deep atmosphere is very “ECM.”

Most of The Bell is far from ambient, however. There’s the tense drama of “Isn’t It Over,” which  builds into a cross-current of polyrhythms: a piano pulse from Craig Taborn, a subtle free groove on drums, and a soloing viola, each flowing on a different timestream. It’s relaxing, but also dark.

The 11-minute “I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Earth” culminates in almost a heavy rock theme played in Maneri’s richly sour microtonal style, and he and Smith essentially rock out over Taborn’s somber piano chording.

The Bell‘s gorgeous, cerebral title track turns out to be just the surface. You’ll find plenty of passages of crystalline delicacy, but the overall album covers a gamut of moods.

June 18, 2016 at 3:32 pm Leave a comment

Monday Make-Out: May 2016

mihaly-MORmay16-cropThe most recent live music show I’ve seen (not counting the theater experience) goes back to the beginning of May, when I headed to San Francisco’s Mission District for the first-Monday jazz program at the Make-Out Room.

This one was really different. Walking through the door, I was greeting by the wavering clang of a Chinese gong and the high-pitched caterwauls of traditional Asian song, but infused with the aggressive showmanship of rock or even punk. This was mashed up against an energetic, Afropop-influenced guitar-and-bass combo, all anchored by drummer Dave Mihaly.

This was DaMaDa, a world fusion band that put out one CD in 2011 and possibly has another one in the wings.

I hadn’t encountered them before, but lead singer Luo Danna grew up in China as a singer, actress, and dancer, and she brings that theatricality to the forefont for this band. Their final song was fast-paced, with Danna adding a percussive exclamation point to the rhythm by snapping a fan closed dramtically. You do have to have a taste for the shrill vocals of traditional Chinese music, but the mix of those motifs with the freedom of jazz is something worth hearing.

grex-MORmay16-cropThe second set was by local stalwarts Grex, this time in basic trio format:  Karl Evangelsta on guitar, Rei Scampvia Evangelista on keyboards, and Robert Lopez on drums.

Jazz and modern classical music are among Grex’s influences, but it was a heavy set this time, with lots of crunchy, aggressive guitar and a psychedelic feel. Among the new songs with Rei on vocals was “Martha,” relating to the last of the carrier pigeons.

A quartet called Two Aerials closed the program, combining out-there jazz singing (singer/cellist Crystal Pascucci) with a chamber-music vibe, a breezy sound from the combination of cello, vibraphone, and electric piano. Still, they put up some hard-driving numbers, really rocking out at times. Drummer Britt Ciampa kept the volume high with a lexicon of shuffles and taps, playd with subtlety and precision but loud and exciting.

aerials-MORmay16

I did not make it to the June installment of the Monday Make-Out, but I’d like to be more of a regular there. The bar setting isn’t conducive to every type of music, but this is the kind of setting jazz used to enjoy, after all, and you get a good dose of locals who wander in and seem to have a pretty good time.

June 17, 2016 at 2:57 pm Leave a comment

Ron Stabinsky Stands Alone

Ron StabinskyFree for One (Hot Cup, 2016)

stabinsky-freefor-cropThe newest Mostly Other People Do the Killing record was notable for the new voice of Ron Stabinsky on piano. (He was also on Blue, their Kind of Blue reproduction.)

Now you get to hear his piano stand out on its own, and it’s pretty serious stuff. This is stream-of-consciousness improv that skirts the borderlines of jazz tradition and modern-classical form, so styles and moods vary within each piece. But a few tendencies surface, among them, a love of the low registers — even some of the playful tracks get that shadow of gravitas thrown over them — and a willingness to play with thick, throttling chords; the harmonies wobble in and out of traditional “jazz” sounds.

As an example: “Rapture” darts and pokes, a dancing piece that doesn’t settle on one melody or rhythm for long. It’s fun and agile, but it’s also got some heft to it:

 
Stabinsky is a storyteller, improvising with a big-picture approach that has the gears always turning, looking for the next idea or transition. With the exception of a couple of miniatures, Free for One isn’t about being fast and flashy.

“Viral Infection” starts with an air of a jaunty swing, then falls apart into a span of calmer energy, with quick-fingered single notes on the right hand and some comping chords on the left. “Once, but Again” takes a more lyrical, lush path. Jump into the middle, and you might assume you’re in the soloing part of a standard ballad.

One listening strategy would be to just savor the sound of the piano. Ideas develop and mutate, without many straight lines to follow. As with many solo outings, it’s an intriguing glimpse into a musician’s internal dialogue.

You can also get a taste of Stabinsky’s solo-piano work by viewing some live improvisations he posted years ago, in the age of Flip cameras. Appropriately enough for his new band, his YouTube user name is RonStab.

June 12, 2016 at 12:28 am Leave a comment

Discovering Charles Wuorinen

A bit of advice on Twitter last night from the ever-wise Ethan Iverson:

I think I’ve heard of Wuornin. Sure, what the heck.

A YouTube search directs me to a New York chamber outfit called Decoda.

Hey, that’s pretty cool. I like the pulsing feel. I have to admit, there are parts where the conga drums don’t feel like they “fit,” as if they’re just in there for the randomness of writing a piece for conga drums.

“Blue Bamboula” turns out to be a driven, bouncy piano piece with some rapid-fire quietude toward the end. There’s a partial version on YouTube with an image of adorable kittens, but I’d rather post a full version. This performance is by Molly Morkoski.

It’s always nice, and sadly kind of novel, to indulge in the music of a living composer. Iverson quickly corrected his tweet by noting Wuorinen is 78, not 79, but that doesn’t matter — it was still a good tip.

June 11, 2016 at 12:43 pm Leave a comment

Discreet Music on KPFA: Davignon Tonight

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 9.06.09 AMI always considered radio DJ’ing to be a kind of performance. Certainly lesser than actually performing on a musical instrument, but it did require attention to rhythm, balance, and audience.

Electronic musician Matt Davignon, in that sense, has conducted his own ongoing performance through his podcast, World of Wonder, and now he’s taking it to the live airwaves.

He’ll be guest-hosting “Discreet Music,” a Sunday late-night show of experimental music and modern classical, on KPFA-FM (94.1 for those in the Bay Area) June 5 and 19, both shows starting at 10:00 p.m. Pacific time.

Discreen Music is an excellent show that’s been hosted by Dean Suzuki for years. You can find previous playlists at kpfa.org. Here’s the most recent one, hosted by Suzuki. Steve Reich, Elliott Sharp, Harry Partch — it’s a pretty good representation of the show’s personality.

Statistically, most of you won’t find this post until after June 5 … but if nothing else, it might get Discreet Music and World of Wonder onto your radar.

June 5, 2016 at 9:26 am Leave a comment

Musical Crash

2-cropYes, I’m still here. This month had what I think is my biggest-ever gap between posts, and June is likely to have some slow times as well, but I’m hoping to kick things into gear during the summer.

Blogging about why-you’re-not-blogging is a trope older than The Powerpuff Girls, but the gap in May happened for a reason beyond the usual kids-and-work excuses.

It does start with a kid: I have one who’s into theater. These productions are serious. They take place in a municipal center for the arts — a real, plush theater with a professional staff — and even the smallest ensemble parts are packed with responsibilities. It’s a rewarding experience for me as a parent volunteer, but unfortunately for me, most children/teen theater programs focus on Broadway-style musicals. After a show, I usually rush for an antidote — either Brotzmann-style screaming or lower-case improv. Something as far from showtune melody as possible.

This time, I worked backstage. Being behind the scenes while my teenager was performing was a thrill, but it also meant listening through a full week’s worth of dress rehearsals as well as five performances. I heard the complete show eight times, heard certain portions rehearsed again and again, and actually watched the show in the audience twice.

Luckily, the music was modern and more than tolerable, even catchy in a good way. No saccharine Andrew Lloyd Webber nursery rhymes, no mothball-scented Rogers & Hammerstein. I was able to actually enjoy the songs, aided by the fact that it was my kid out there.

But early in dress rehearsals, I hit a kind of musical fatigue. In addition to being way too bouncy and commercial-jingley (even by my kid’s standards), the music was loud, because it had to fill a theater. When we got home from rehearsals after 11:00 p.m. (I told you they were serious), I just didn’t want to hear music any more. I needed silence.

That extended into my days as well. The car commute, if I used the radio at all, was all about NPR, podcasts, and afternoon baseball — even pregame shows, which are 90 percent commercials.

Bottom line is, I’ve listened to hardly any music all month. This wasn’t a permanent condition or anything, just a need for some mental rest. (Physical fatigue probably played a role as well, because I was running the fly rail — the ropes that bring scenery up and down. Again: serious.)

It was interesting, unintended experiment. In the past, I’ve needed to escape a particular genre for a while — jazz included — but I never knew I had a hard limit for music in general. It was a rewarding experience, though, and I’ll gladly do it again. Just, please, not for any Andrew Lloyd Webber shows.

May 29, 2016 at 4:38 pm Leave a comment

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