Archive for February, 2017
Bill Bruford’s Earthworks — self-titled (E.G., 1987)
It starts like a declaration of purpose. Hey, listeners, it’s JAZZ time.
But it’s also symbolic. Earthworks was a key discovery in my early explorations of jazz, bridging the gap between prog rock and what would come next.
I bought Earthworks’ self-titled album on vinyl from a short-lived Cupertino record store, where it caught my eye in a display. This was during a time when I’d been scouting for solo prog projects, picking up albums by Tony Banks and Steve Hackett and, the most treasured find of them all, Chris Squire. It intrigued me to think that Bill Bruford had formed a jazz band, so I gave it a chance.
Earthworks songs like “Thud” trace crooked melodies educated by Monk — unusual stuff that throws you off balance but becomes easy to process on a second or third listen. That’s part of what I liked about prog — the process of “decoding” a song to find out what was going on. Earthworks turned out to have just the right mix to tickle the prog and jazz portions of my brain.
My favorite tracks had bouncy melodies and odd time signatures. The 13/8 of “My Heart Declares a Holiday” is really not so complicated, but I sure loved tapping my fingers along to it, especially the bassline in the “chorus.”
Earthworks also gave me a dose of the untethered improvisation that would be in my future. “Emotional Shirt,” in particular, goes through a speedy jazz-improv stretch before plunging back into Django Bates’ heavy-handed composition. It’s not 100% free, as it’s anchored by Mick Hutton’s furious bass rhythm, but it’s still something that was just outside my grasp at the time.
Future Earthworks albums didn’t capture my attention the way the debut did. I appreciated Bruford’s synth-drum experiments, which were producing new rhythms not possible for regular keyboardists, but the ’80s were ending, and the synths were already sounding a bit dated. And the melodies on future albums generally didn’t click with me the way something like Iain Ballamy’s “Thud” did.
In that sense, Earthworks contributed to the musical restlessness — the dissatisfaction with “jazz” — that eventually led me to Tim Berne and creative music. But this wasn’t a dead end. I’m a fan of the band’s first three albums (the ones with Ballamy and Bates — Bruford had essentially co-opted their band to form Earthworks), and I went back to “Bridge of Inhibition” occasionally at the start of Stanford’s academic quarters. If I’m ever on the air again, even for a one-off show, it’s almost certain to get a spin.
I’ll be devoting a series of occasional blog posts to some of the albums that I found early in my creative-music travels.
We’re mostly talking about a period between 1998 and 2004 — in terms of when I discovered the albums, not in terms of when they were released. Some predate my conscious interest in creative music. Many of them are out of print. Some were lucky finds, others more deliberate, but all of them helped further my education in creative music and jazz.
What they have in common is that they have stories.
The very first story — the zeroth album on this list, in a sense — is Low Life: The Paris Concert (Part 1), by Tim Berne’s Bloodcount. That’s the album that really catapulted me into avant-jazz — and it’s a story that I’ve already told.
On to other things, then. I’ll be doing 10 or 20 of these “back pages” posts at irregular intervals in the coming months or years. The first official installment is about a bridge between my prog-rock and free-jazz lives, and you’ll find it written up here.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing — Loafer’s Hollow (Hot Cup, 2017)
How old is this blog? Old enough that when I reviewed the band’s third album — the very album reviewed on the blog — I mentioned their Myspace page unironically.
Say what you will about the blog, but the band has aged well, evolving and experimenting while still adhering to its original formula: Mixing styles that pay homage to jazz through the ages, while naming every track after real towns in Pennsylvania. Expanded to a septet, the band goes even deeper with the energy and twisted creativity that have been its hallmarks.
After 13 years and now 10 albums, you’d think bassist Moppa Elliott, the band’s leader and songwriter, would be out of amusing names — but no! He’s not only kept up the trend but has also found towns that relate to five great authors. The result is a five-track span of Loafer’s Hollow that suddenly becomes a book club: “Bloomsburg” is dedicated to James Joyce, “Kilgore” to Kurt Vonnegut, “Mason and Dixon” to Thomas Pynchon.
Moreover, each of those five compositions is based on music that Elliott set to the authors’ words. (Loafer’s Hollow, by the way, is original name of a town now called Library.)
Musically, you can’t tell. The touchstone era for Loafer’s Hollow is the ballroom-stomping jazz of the ’40s. The music carries a “hot club” feel, and Brandon Seabrook’s banjo is a nicely bucolic touch.
The layer on top of that, of course, is madcap free jazz. So you get Jon Irabagon’s soprano-sax babble to start “Five,” or an impossibly long pause on “Kilgore” where he creates the smallest sound possible out of his horn, a subliminal creak that’s the unaccompanied introduction to a wild solo. Or Ron Stabinsky, on that same track, gradually going insane on the piano, staring out with a a rapid boogie-woogie vibe that gets even faster, then starts to wobble. The suspense is palpable.
Trumpeter Peter Evans has left the band, but replacement Steven Bernstein is a known quantity and obviously no slouch. He gets to declare his presence early on the album with an unaccompanied solo on “Hi-Nella,” starting with an impressively sustained high-pitch siren sound. On “Bloomsberg,” he and bass trombonist Dave Taylor (another crucial veteran added to the lineup) trade licks in a comedic bit of one-upsmanship.
The band has a smart-aleck reputation, but they’re earnest in paying homage to old jazz styles. You get to hear that side on “Meridian” (the Cormac McCarthy piece), an honestly good, straightforward song with a nostalgic mellow tint and a hardy beat. (Oh, and a Seabrook banjo solo that sticks to the way-up-there upper register, where the notes come out like tinny clicks.)
Loafer’s Hollow will be released on Feb. 24.
Matt Mitchell [playing the music of Tim Berne] — førage (Screwgun, 2017)
Førage is an album that demands attention. You have to listen actively, letting Matt Mitchell‘s unaccompanied piano guide you down his twisty trails.
The storyline is that Mitchell, who’s been the pianist in Tim Berne‘s band Snakeoil, is interpreting Berne’s compositions, combining multiple songs per track. Blending it all with his own improvisational instincts, Mitchell creates dense, fractal-like structures that carry an elegant air, whether the mood is crystalline and quiet or stern and hammering.
Satoko Fujii’s recent solo album, Invisible Hand, is more direct, sampling a variety of jazz and blues forms. Her music takes plenty of unexpected sharp turns, but you can quickly absorb the moment of whatever passage you’ve dropped the needle onto. førage is a more difficult read.
Both approaches produce admirable results. I loved Invisible Hand, and I’m also savoring the intricate puzzles of førage.
Touches of Berne-ness are recognizable — at the start of “RÄÅY,” or in the recurring riffs that appear in “TRĀÇĘŚ,” — but the overall effect is a melting pot. It’s better that way. If I saw a title like “Simple City,” off the first Snakeoil album, I’d be looking for snippets of the composition.
Lacking any such touchstone, the mind is left free to admire Mitchell’s labyrinths. “ŒRBS,” in particular, is darting and densely packed, and it’s exciting when Mitchell lifts the sustain pedal for an unembellished glimpse of his technique. “CLØÙDĒ” lives up to its name on two fronts, starting out gossamer and innocent but building into a relentless storm.
The track not to overlook is “ÀÄŠ,” the long, slow one. The mood is one of high art, with a glacial opening and echoey sustain pedal, and it builds to a passionate, whirling crescendo.
Interestingly, førage seems to be Mitchell’s first solo piano album. His collection of practice etudes, Fiction (Pi Recordings, 2013), was a duo album with drummer Ches Smith, and his solo outing vapor squint, antique chromatic (Scrapple, 2006) was an extended noise collage.
While førage can be purchased as a download on Bandcamp, Berne considers the physical CD package vital to the experience, with its art by Steve Byram and photos by Berne and engineer Daniel Goodwin. Like Berne, I grew up in the age of LPs and glorious album art, so I would echo his plea: “I hope we can sell these bastards cause I’d really like to do more Screwgun stuff.”
Satoko Fujii — Invisible Hand (Cortez Sound, 2017)
Solo albums aren’t the norm for Satoko Fujii. She’s released four of them since 1996; compare that with her total of 79 albums plus the seven she plans to release this year. As you can tell from her work in small ensembles, Fujii is not to be trifled with, and you get to hear her in full force on the new double CD, Invisible Hand.
Being the only musician on the album, Fujii is, by definition, in command here — but the sure-handedness of these pieces lets you know she is in command. On most tracks, Fujii picks a theme — often one of the familiar compass directions related to jazz or classical — and explores it with conviction, adding deviations when the moment is right.
The stylistic palette is wide. “I Know You Don’t Know” is big, stern, and serious, like a classical piece, while “Gen Himmel” is a big-hearted gospel treat with waves of emotion. “Floating” blossoms into attractive, new-agey melodies that wouldn’t be out of place on a 1980s ECM album; I’m making it sound corny, but I’m really enjoying that track.
One of my favorites is “Green Cab,” which surprises you by springing into a fun, rolling blues groove.
Fujii doesn’t abandon her association with free jazz; these pieces do come with avant-garde touches. “Green Cab” opens with zither-like sweeps of the piano strings and the tight clicking of prepared piano. “Floating” opens with prepared piano, too — a percussion solo of contemplative wind chimes.
At the far end of the spectrum is the title track, built around the sounds of Fujii directly manipulating the strings: subtle buzzing, sparse clicking. It’s a spacious, contemplative exercise, and when Fujii eventually shifts into conventional playing, it’s slow and serious.
Invisible Hand is notable not only for the span of Fujii’s styles but for its bold style and sure-handed statements. Its style sets up an intriguing contrast to another excellent solo piano album, Matt Mitchell’s førage, which I’ll be reviewing next.
KZSU’s Day of Noise came and went last Saturday, and a glorious time it was.
Dr. Information held down the mic for all 24 hours, as far as I know (I skipped out on the ending myself) and Smurph led the sound engineering crew for the entire time as well.
Me, I was around for the breakfast/lunch shift, early-ish a.m. to midafternoon. Below is my photo journal of what went down during that time. Click for full-sized photos.
I would add that you should keep watching the Day of Noise page, because there’s a good chance that recordings of the performances will eventually be posted there.