The Long Form

All About Jazz is running this long interview with pianist Vijay Iyer.

I won’t lie to you: I haven’t even started reading the thing yet.  I just wanted to celebrate the fact that they run interviews like this at all.  (Charlie Hunter was another recent subject.)  In this age of dying media, long-form magazine-like content is rapidly becoming a casualty.

It’s partly because of the shift to the Internet — yes, you have an infinite number of pages at your disposal, but publishers can’t command the same level of ad rates as they could in print, making it difficult to pay the writers who have the talent to produce compelling, long-form stories.

On top of that, you have an audience that’s increasingly geared toward quick-hit, Digg-style news bites, or dumb short blog entries like this one, rather than nonfiction as a form of literature.  But that’s too easy a target. More of the blame goes to the monetary side. The audience is there, but the avenues for creating the content are limited.

So, the publication of an extended interview like this one — or the long interviews and analyses that Ethan Iverson has been doing on Do the Mathis cause for celebration.

Now, I’d better stop procrastinating and go read the thing. And congratulations to Iyer for what’s been a spectacular 2009, at least in terms of recognition. It’s well deserved.

Connections: White Rocket & Fonda/Stevens

Fonda/Stevens Group — Memphis (Playscape, 2009)

White Rocket — White Rocket (Diatribe, 2009)

In listening to some incoming music for the radio station, I came across an interesting matchup: The veterans of the Fonda/Stevens Group and the newbies of White Rocket.

They’re both very good examples of inside/out jazz, with emphasis on the “out” part.  Fonda/Stevens has been doing this for 15 years, in a couple of different incarnations.  Their music uses contemporary jazz as a basis, with Michael Jefry Stevens’ piano chords painting a breezy coolness — but they round out the quartet/quintet with soloists who are prone to wild free-jazz excursions.  On Memphis, that’s Herb Robertson, trumpeter extraordinaire, who delivers his usual tricks, including rapid-fire mumbles as a way of comping.  It was no surprise that I enjoyed Memphis, given that Fonda/Stevens has a well established sound that doesn’t disappoint.

Right after listening, I gave White Rocket a spin, and that was a surprise: similar lineup, similar philosophy, but a younger edge to the music.

White Rocket is a trio of piano, trumpet, drums — so, minus the bass, they’re a match for the current Fonda/Stevens lineup.  They’ve got a similar musical outlook: jazz base, free-jazz knowledge, risk-taking compulsions.

But White rocket feels younger. Some of this comes in obvious doses: They play faster, and they’ve got a smart-alecky streak.  A track like “Susan Strya” goes through strong, soaring lines before coming to a dead halt for a drum solo that starts at subliminal volumes.  “Recent Events” is full of bombastic pulses but starts off with some long pauses, little practical jokes that dot the introductory theme.

Fonda/Stevens can get cooking, too, as on tracks like “Yes This Is It.”  But they do it in a more cushiony, polished way — which partly has to do with production choices and maybe access to a better studio, but is also the by-product of the deep layers of experience among these players.  That’s mostly a good thing.

I’m not saying Memphis is complacent. It’s just that in a lot of spots, White Rocket captured my ear more completely.  The two represent similar ideas executed by, simply enough, different sets of people.  White Rocket’s got plenty of fresh ideas, and Greg Felton can certainly play in that lovely autumntime piano mode that Stevens favors.  You’d be hard pressed, at a brief glance, to tell which album the track “His Story” came from, and you can take that as a compliment in either direction.

Non-Jazz Update: Wynton Has His Say

Oh, this is too rich.  Regarding that fan who wanted his money back because Larry Ochs wasn’t jazzy enough — Wynton Marsalis has gotten involved.

Wynton’s people contacted The Guardian (UK newspaper) in hopes of contacting the fan.  The Guardian, of course, turned it around and wrote not one but two blog entries about it: Apparently the fan’s been found and will soon receive a crateload of Wynton’s music.

All of this is reopening wounds in the “What is jazz” debate, since Wynton is infamous for declaring what musics are and aren’t worthwhile — and he finds abstract jazz to be an “aren’t.”  I haven’t read his opinions extensively — and I should, because he’s quite knowledgeable — but I did get some exposure to his thinking back around 1987 or 1988, when I heard him slag on rap music during an evening talk.  He explained his position this way: The music you listen to can be an expression of what’s deep in your soul. And what does it say if all that’s in your soul is “boom, ba-DOOM. boom, ba-DOOM.”

He’s got a point. I’m not saying rap isn’t worthwhile — but neither is it the pinnacle of creativity. Fun music is OK, but you need to have something more meaningful in your life.  (Actually, I’d need to qualify the first part of that sentence. I tend to go all Wynton on American Idol and that whole style of plastic, overacted pop music.)

But does that argument carry into the realm of avant-garde jazz?  That’s where Wynton and I have to disagree, because I do find a richness of expression there that, to me, represents a worthwhile evolution of the jazz tradition.  The more extreme examples arguably don’t carry forward the jazz tradition, but neither do they try to.  My understanding is that Derek Bailey and his UK compatriots weren’t trying to create a next phase of jazz when they worked on non-idiomatic improvisation in the ’60s — in fact, they expressly said it wasn’t supposed to be jazz, didn’t they?

Getting back to the Wynton vs. “not-jazz” topic, his overture to this fan comes across as a slap in the face to the avant-garde, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant that way. The whole incident wasn’t even meant to be publicly known, Wynton’s people told The Guardian. (The moral being, watch yourself when you talk to a journalism outfit, even if you’re not talking to a reporter.) It’s more a nod from one purist to another.  Arrogant, to be sure, but you also have to admit it’s a nice gesture, probably made on a whim. I’m not as annoyed by this as I probably ought to be.

Playlist: December 15, 2009

Didn’t have the energy or the time to write up last week’s playlist…. but here are the notes on this week’s, for Tuesday, Dec. 15, 5:20 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. (Got to start early because I managed to get up early, and we didn’t have a DJ for overnights.  Did I mention KZSU is always ready to welcome new volunteers?)

Full playlist is here. Of note:

* Grosse Abfahrt — “Interkontinentale Luftschiffarht” — Erstes Luftschiff Zu Kalifornien (Creative Sources, 2007) … This band is a teaming-up of Bay Area improvisers (click the picture for a list) with German musicians — the latter being electronics experimenters Serge Baghdassarians and Brois Baltschun, for this album.  The group has a quiet aesthetic overall: lots of respect for silence, and low-key tones that can make the acoustic instruments difficult to identify.  Plenty of “insect chatter” moments of sound improvising as well.

* Bobby Bradford / Tom Heasley / Ken Rosser — “Varistar” — Varistar (Full Bleed, 2009) … The unusual combination of cornet, tuba, and guitars.    I’m not sure the sounds mesh all that well, physically, but I still enjoyed the playing on this track.  It’s a slow progression, with Rosser’s guitar in shimmering, echoey mode, and Heasley’s tuba providing long, heavy bottom tones.  There’s a patience and a sense of atmosphere here, and Bradford is careful not to let the agile cornet cut apart the sound too much.

* Donald Robinson Trio — “Camminare” — Straight Lines Skewed (CIMP, 2001) … Robinson is a top-notch free-jazz drummer who’s often overlooked in Who’s Who listings of Bay Area musicians.  He’s been a key element in bands led by the likes of the late Glenn Spearman or expatriate Marco Eneidi.  His trio album (his only stint as a leader, to my knowledge) consists of improvised jazz with Eneidi’s sax as the front voice alongside Lisle Ellis’ bass.  Much of the music is bright and energetic, with Eneidi flashing the jumpy style that resembles Jimmy Lyons’, but I’d always wanted to give this patient 15-minute track an airing.  Eneidi plays in a slower, airy mode, and you get more space to savor Robinson’s drums (particularly his brushes-on-snare sound).

* Roy Hargrove Big Band — “Ms. Garvey, Ms. Garvey” — Emergence (Emarcy, 2009) … Old-school big-band sounds. Not my cup of tea, but if Roy Hargrove wants to be a big-band leader just once late in his career, I’m not going to tell him no.  Some of the songs on here get really cheesy, in a ’60s Vegas vein, but this one’s got a nice bluesy swing to it, recalling the older big band sounds but infusing them with a funky step.

* Fay Victor Ensemble — “Joe’s Car” — The Freesong Suite (Greene Avenue, 2009) … Fay Victor’s last album was spacey; this one gers even further out.  Lots of rock influence, including massive guitar passages, and a violent and downright eerie tone to the track “Stemming.”

* Bill Frisell — “Little Girl” — Disfarmer (Nonesuch, 2009) … Frisell’s Americana phase continues (as does the phase of having Jenny Scheinman on violin), this time with a theme:  The Depression-era photos of Disfarmer.  They photos have an enveloping emotional quality while also feeling stark and still. Learn more about the pictures and the quirky man who took them, at

* Ivano Torre — “La Danza Del Ghez” — Utopia (Altri Suoni, 2000) … Gotta love a band that includes a tuba, a cello, and the fisarmonica (whatever it is, it sounds like an accordion).  This track has a nifty tuba solo and, from Torre himself, a terrific, fast-paced drum solo over instrumental backing. Altri Suoni, one of several Swiss labels that used to send us stuff prodigiously; if you’re looking for adventurous yet melodic jazz with a tinge of Mediterranean folk musics, but without that ECM sound, you could do worse.

* Rhythm Kingz of Bushel Finland — “Rattlesnake Pan Soup” — Rhythm Kingz of Bushel Finland (Majmua, 2009) ….. Bizarro blues that later gets into chaotic improvised/psych.  It’s all tumbling and confused, like vague music out of an unsettling dream, with elements like deep throat singing or, on this track, crazed dobro soloing.

POP ALERT:  * Venice Is Sinking — “Azar Three” — Azar (One Percent Press, 2009) … This is an ambitious pop band that packs somgs with lush orchestration, plenty of frills (poppy trumpets, for instance) and elements of Sigur Ros-like washes.  The “Azar” tracks are instrumentals, starting with one that’s a grand symphonic opening that’s too grand — it’s like those winter days when too much sunshine pierces through your window.  The third of the Azar tracks is like that, too, but less frenetic, easier to take.  As for the pop songs themselves, like “Ryan’s Song,” they’re a ray of sunshine in a more delightful context. ….. Separately, the band Drummer does good, indie rock with nice poppy energy.

Erstes Luftschiff Zu Kalifornien (Creative Sources, 200s)

‘Code Flat-Nine, People: Move Out!’

Here’s a rich one: Someone called the cops on Larry Ochs for not playing “jazz.”

From the Guardian:  “The jazz purist claimed his doctor had warned it was ‘psychologically inadvisable’ for him to listen to anything that could be mistaken for mere contemporary music. … [K]haki-clad police officers listened to the saxophone-playing and drumming coming from the festival stage before agreeing that the purist might, indeed, have a case.”

The band in question? Ochs’ Sax and Drumming Core, the band I’d noted for having a “songlike feel.”  One man’s candy is another’s psychologically inadvisable brain poison, apparently.

Part of Ochs’ comment to the Guardian: “After this I will at least have a story to tell my grandchildren.”

Hat tip to KZSU DJ Ragnar of Ravensfjord for pointing this one out.  CORRECTION: Turns out it was DJ Fo who originally saw the item.  Thanks, Fo!

Go, Go, Go-Go!

Go-Go Fightmaster — Sound 1 (Edgetone, 2009)

The first Go-Go Fightmaster album was a display of aggressive free jazz, stacked with heavy moments but also featuring often bright sax- and guitar-led pieces, and even a Monk cover.

Six years later, the band’s second album is out, and it’s a lot more in the brain-scrambling noisy jazz mode. Loads of fun.  They should be a real treat to see live on Tuesday — that’s Dec. 8 at the Uptown in Oakland, possibly with Aram Shelton as a newly added band member; Shelton”s Oakland Active Orchestra is also on the bill.

At KZSU, the band is most famous for that first album’s opening track, “Buffy Is Dead.”  The phrase meant a more back then and drew more than a few chuckles. And the track has an appropriate sound, with babbling sax played over a guitar death march — a tongue-in-cheek jazz/metal hybrid.

Jazz elements remain on Sound 1 but they’re more thoroughly dressed in Michelin-Man layers of noise.  “Evil Bohemian” is a happy, swingy sax line that gets backed by a sinister yet toe-tapping guitar riff. It ends up in an accelerated free-jazz rush with Aaron Bennett’s saxophone blaring like a swingy alarm klaxon.

“I Drink from the Big Girls Cup” goes straight for alarm-bells mode, fast and relentless. (Hit single!) Lisa Mezzacappa’s bass comes across in aggressive slaps; Vijay Anderson on drums plays like he’s The Flash chiseling apart the Eiffel Tower, and his subsequent solo is a real treat.  You’re left feeling exhausted.

Some tracks are engineered for raw firepower.  “I Smell the Devil” is thick with John Finkbeiner’s metal-distorted, jazz-hating guitar sound.  “A Fall” is loud in a more granular way, a swirling, crazed tumult.  The longer it goes on, the deeper it eats into your brain.

Bass tends to get short shrift in a loud band, but Mezzacappa gets more than a few moments of glory. In particular, there’s a seriously athletic bass solo on “Put One Fourth,” with small curls of guitar and drums as accompaniment.  The audible out-of-breath huffing on the track is probably Mezzacappa’s — an appropriate effect, because it’s a physically strong solo, an audio version of digging to China.

Yes, there are moments of quiet virtuosity, passages of calm reflection, and even a slowish track. (“The Cosmic Cogitator, with a sinister ritualistic sound and a snazzy, angular guitar solo.)  But the album’s philosophy is best summed up by the three short snippets titled “Sound One” (and Two and Three). They sound like instruction pieces: “You have 20 seconds to obliterate them all. GO.”  Very cool.

I enjoyed the first album partly because of its variety of moods and styles, but the more cohesive sense of group purpose on Sound 1 cannot be denied. It’s a superior effort, the sound of a band that’s daring you to a game of chicken. Go on, take your chances.

Katherine Young: Bassoon Time

Katherine Young — Further Secret Origins (Porter, 2009)

I got curious when the Love, Gloom, Cash, Love blog got so excited about a solo bassoon record. And it even had a tie to that viola trend I’d written about earlier:  One of Katherine Young’s ongoing bands is Architeuthis Walks on Land, a duet with Amy Cimini on — what else? — viola. I had to check this out.

Because it was on the verge of being released, I figured I’d give Young’s solo bassoon album a listen first. It’s definitely experimental, often bordering on drones, but it rewards close listening with wisps of melody that do add up to a whole, a story. And the bassoon is accompanied by electronics that tap out subtle rhythms backed with the texture of small crinkles or static crumples.

“Terra Incognita” opens with a freightliner’s blast of bassoon, but from there it explores quieter bleats over a soft electronics backing.  “For Autonauts” likewise explores quieter territory, with raspy gentle tones, clipped short like tentative harmonica notes, played over a subtle, irregular pulse.  The tones get longer later on but keep to the same careful, near-melodic template. It’s not a drone, more like a whispered song that’s not in a hurry. This is the track I’m thinking of with that “close listening” remark — it’s 14 minutes, but if you’re in tune with its frequency, the time flies by, and the wandering near-melody makes perfect sense.

Same thing on “Elevation,” in a smaller dose.  The bassoon produces more of those harmonica sounds, even some multiphonic bits ….. You can hear the effort. It’s like watching art being etched from stone, a careful pace.

“Some People Say That She Doesn’t Exist” is the most accessible track, with a bass pulse underriding a pleasant melody. But it’s followed by “Orbis Tertius,” which closes the album by getting us back into abstract improv turf — long tones evoking an eternal sea.

The Architeuthis duo covers similarly abstract ground, but Young plays in all sorts of contexts from pop to Anthony Braxton. I’ll have to keep an ear to the ground for her.

Playlist: December 1, 2009

Click here for the full KZSU playlist for Dec. 1, 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.  Notes and highlights:

* Ben Goldberg — “Lace” — Go Home (BAG Production, 2009) ….. I continue to showcase this group, which I saw live in February and November.  I went for a slower one this time, rather than the funkier tracks that might grab people more forcefully.  It’s still got a solid, ear-catching groove to it, and lots of outside-swinging clarinet.  It may be slow-paced, but you can still lose yourself in the rhythm.

* Scott Fields — “Ghost Trio” — Samuel (New World, 2009) ….. Appropriately ghostly, with pale, single-note guitar lines alongside contemplative sax and cello.  Overall it’s abstract, but it’s got occasional flashes of swingy rhythm or bluesy harmony — surprising, considering it’s based on the text of a Samuel Beckett play.

* Human Being — Live at the Zodiac, 1968 (Nepenthe, 2008) ….. One long, heavy sound sculpture, synth-free, of course, since it was 1968.  Guitar, organ, drums, and a bit of vocals, sent through reverb, delay, and echo units to produce a slow, otherworldly menace.  It must have been a real trip to hear back then.

* The Uptown String Quartet — “Overture” — Max Roach Presents the Uptown String Quartet (PolyGram, 1989) ….. Roach lent his name to this mix of jazz and classical sounds, hoping to “create a body of music for string quartet that exemplifies the talents and creativity of the jazz musician,” as he writes in the liner notes  That Maxine Roach is on viola probably helped germinate the idea, but it was still a worthy cause. Tracks include traditional blues and gospel tunes as well as some more modern jazz; this track was written by Odean Pope, for example.  If you want to hear them, WNYC has archived this 1994 show that includes the Uptown and Max Roach.

* Tim Berne’s Paraphrase — “Piano Justice” — Visitation Rights (Screwgun, 1997) ….. When you hear the albums, you understand why Tim Berne got so enthusiastic about this all-improvisational trio.  The overall style of the music is similar to Berne’s other groups, with long-form soloing that branches off from free jazz and gets burly and crazed, and deep-knit quiet phases; the difference is the lack of Berne’s complex but catchy composing.  I had to cut off this 30-minute track somewhere, and sadly, it was right as Drew Gress began his bass solo.  One of these days I’ll fade into a Paraphrase track where the bass and drums (Tom Rainey) get to shine.  As compensation for my fade-out, I did give Julius Hemphill’s music a spin, in the form of Vijay Iyer’s reading of “Dogon A.D.

POP NOTES:  We get all kinds of crazy rock and punk music from the Croatian label Slusaj Najglasnije.  F**ckin’ DJ Sedna is no exception to the “crazy” part. He’s like a dub/reggae DJ, only the stuff he spins is more rock-guitar based, with that fuzzy distortion sound. Over that he does some MC’ing, mostly repetitive slogans and/or swear words. Stuff that could play during NBA time-outs.