Here’s a 2003 interview with Frank Lowe, months before his death from lung cancer.
He offers some terrific insight into his early musical education, living in Memphis. Musically, Lowe grew up influenced by the jazz and R&B greats of the ’50s but also by the rising New Thing, and he describes how he doesn’t even separate the two in his mind.
For example, he cites a deep respect for Hank Crawford and for Ray Charles’ band as a whole. “It was like R&B going into progressive jazz,” he says. “They were playing hip stuff, just as hip as anybody playing with the big bands.”
He goes on to cite Crawford’s “Four Five + Six,” which appears on Lowe’s album Inappropriate Choices (ITM, 1991) with the Saxemple. Here’s James Carter blowing baritone sax over that track’s blues changes:
The Saxemple was a heck of a project: Four horns and a drummer, reveling in the pre-rock-‘n’-roll sounds of early R&B and dosing it with the occasional modern touch. Lowe, Carter, Michael Marcus, and Carlos Ward swung together in tight unison, aided by drummer Phillip Wilson. The joy in the music shines through.
A jazz musician’s life isn’t an easy one, and Lowe’s was cut short unfairly. But based on that interview and albums like the Saxemple’s, it sounds like he had a lot of fun playing his music. That’s a triumph.
“Egoes War,” a seething fog of darkness eventually cut by Alex Wing’s distorted, yelping guitar, is a dramatic and fitting opening to Mandorla Awakening II, Nicole Mitchell’s latest sci-fi-inspired album. Mitchell’s flute is a key part of the tumult, dancing in aggressive spirals.
This is familiar turf for Mitchell. I remember being impressed by her album Xenogenesis Suite (Firehouse 12, 2008), based on Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, in which Earth encounters an alien race that advances itself by swapping genes with other species. The track “Adrenalin,” with its wordless vocal wails, reflects the disorienting madness that would have to come with this transformation, and the conflicting emotions of humanity being simultaneously invaded and improved. The album’s grand finale “seems like the opening to a grand unknown, rather than a resolution,” as I wrote back then.
Mandorla Awakening presents a similar other-worldliness, though ritualistic beats (including swinging, danceable ones), ecstatic free jams, and chaotic eddies of sound.
But it also draws from soul, gospel, and funk with poet avery r. young singing Mitchell’s lyrics about perseverance. “Staircase Struggle” delivers a straight beat with flute and guitar tracing free spirals behind the jam. “We keep on doin’ the same thing / Over and over, and over again,” young sings, eventually leading into a Mitchell poem about social change.
If Mandorla‘s music seems earthbound compared to Xenogenesis, it’s because the story is, too. A global pandemic has left the remains of civilization under totalitarian rule, but a group of survivors has escaped to an isolated island, where they’ve built a happy, functioning society. The central conflict comes with the arrival of two people from the outside world. As Mitchell told the Chicago Reader, “I’m curious about discovering what happens if we unify duality by smashing together two worlds: a dystopic world and utopic world. Can human consciousness be transformed by embracing fears and establishing balance?”
The story culminates with the cooldown jam of “Mandorla Island” and the clackety, celebratory funk of “Timewrap.” The latter is a bit like an encore piece — the album was recorded live in 2015 — and it’s a highlight. But rather than “give away” the musical ending, I’ll finish with “Dance of Many Hands,” an earlier track that’s a small story in itself. It opens with an airy, optimistic jam followed by a brief tribal drum solo by Jovia Armstrong and elegiac cello by Tomeka Reid.
I often forget that my kids are still developing the vocabulary to talk about music. Genres aren’t clearly defined to them; just as I can’t tell wines apart, they don’t fully grasp the differences between, say, country, folk, and Celtic.
They have to invent their own words on the fly, and it makes for some interesting insights.
“This is like piano-talk,” my 16-year-old daughter said in the car, as the opening improvisation of Marc Hannaford’s “We Talk in Jests” floated by.
She wasn’t far off.
That got me thinking about pieces that deliberately mimic the inflections of human speech. There are plenty of them — and I have to admit, they don’t usually “work” for me.
I’ll pick on Eric Revis here. I’ve enjoyed his albums and his composing, and I’ve been wowed by his bass playing. On his album Crowded Solitudes (Clean Feed, 2016), the composition “Bontah” is based around the intonations of an infant’s words. The kid, who I’m presuming is Revis’, is trying to be quite serious, and it’s adorable. The resulting theme is intriguing as well.
But the voice is played back at least five times, and by the third time, I find it’s already getting on my nerves. I hesitate to say that, considering this might be Revis’ own kid, and he should be rightfully proud of his child being part of this project. But the repetition gets to me.
Actually, it’s more than that. Jason Moran once released a similar “spoken composition” track, if I’m remembering correctly from my KZSU days. I don’t believe it repeated, but I remember having a similar reaction: I liked the idea — molding the infections of speech into the closest 12-tone equivalent to see what happens — and I liked the resulting composition, but I didn’t really enjoy the sound of the two overlaid.
Most musicians, I suspect, would consider the overlapping to be vital, because the whole idea is to explore the musicality of language. In a world where so many of the “obvious” compositional tropes have been exhausted, it must be an exciting way to compose. It’s a way to make discoveries, much like Joni Mitchell using alternative guitar tunings as a way to avoid old habits.
I think it doesn’t work for me because I’m just not that “into” the sound of the human voice. I’m more interested in the piano or saxophone or violin that’s tracing this oddball melody, and less interested in hearing the spoken patterns that the composition is tracing.
What would it be like if the composer didn’t show you how the words and music match? Drummer Jeff Ballard has a track called “Western Wren (A Bird Call)” that might have used birdsong as the source for its theme. I don’t know, because the track doesn’t include a sample of a bird’s call — and I find I prefer it that way.
As for the Hannaford piece, it does eventually shift into a more structured flow that’s more like “jazz” than “piano talk.” By the way, the band on there is Hannaford (piano), Sam Pankhurst (bass), and James McLean (drums).
NEW: Roscoe Mitchell tells me he found out yesterday that his position is in fact NOT being terminated. Unsure about other faculty. — @Lefebvre_Sam on Twitter, June 28, 2017.
I couldn’t tell you if Roscoe Mitchell is a good professor. But I do know that the movement to preserve his job is not just the case of people standing up for a guy whose music they like.
Mitchell teaches at Mills College, occupying the Darius Milhaud Chair in Composition — the same post previously held by Pauline Oliveros. His job, and the Milhaud position in general, are now threatened by budget cuts.
Mitchell’s presence at Mills is important because he represents the source. He was a key part of a musical movement that informs jazz, “classical” composition, and improvisation today. Contemporary creativity can trace its heritage to the music fostered by the AACM, and here’s a man who was there. He is one of the creators.
If you were running a music program, wouldn’t it be grand to have this man available as a resource for your students? What would that mean to the prestige of your college?
It’s a shame that liberal arts programs nationwide are under such fire, victims of the market-worshipping dogma that has caused the United States so much harm. Mills has a shortfall and has to make it up somewhere. That’s going to require some self-inflicted wounds, necessarily, but some cuts go deeper than others.
It didn’t take long for Aram Shelton to get to work, musically, after moving to Copenhagen last fall. Bygning G came out in February, teaming up the former Bay Area saxophonist with Danish drummer Håkon Berre.
Berre is part of the Scandanavian creative music scene (here’s a sample), so he pairs nicely with Shelton on this album of mid-length improvisations, each of which explors a few different moods.
“Shelton Berre 1” opens in a relaxed vibe, building into a steady flow of jazzy ideas from Shelton, backed by a torrent from Berre. His drums aren’t too “up front” in the mix, which means he’s able to provide a current of energy without overwhelming the sound.
The track later gets into scratching and scraping — a more sparse sound but keeping the same propulsive pace.
“2” is a careful and quiet exploration that eventually blossoms, with Shelton delivering choppy statements against Berre’s clatter.
The opening of “3” includes some of my favorite playing on the album — active but casual, with Berre quickly going to the snare drum to add some heat.
The rest of “3” turns quiet and experimental, ending with air-through-the-horn sounds and a percussive rustle like gentle rainfall.
“4” opens tumultuously, with Berre showing a subtle touch even amid a raging din. After a long, thoughtful middle, the track ends with Shelton in a spiritual stream-of-consciousness state with Berre’s drums sounding ritualistic yet frantic.
In addition to being a good listen on its own, Bygning G has spurred me to explore Berre’s Barefoot Records label. In addition to improv, there’s some interesting jazz on there. Berre’s resume also includes the interesting punk/surf/prog band HÄRJA (aggressive music with a sense of humor and odd time signatures — you can have a listen on Soundcloud).
With my mind on guitarists, it seems fitting to reflect for a few minutes on Bern Nix, who passed away recently at the age of 69. I’m no Nix expert; I’m not even that well versed in Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time years. But I appreciate the music and what Nix brought to it.
Former New York Times reporter Nate Chinen, now working at WGBO-FM, produced a fantastic obit, as usual, with the added detail that Nix was rehearsing regularly with Denardo Coleman’s band for an Ornette Coleman Festival. That festival is happening next month.
I like Chinen’s description of Nix playing a “subtle yet central” role in Prime Time, alongside the flashier Charles Ellerbee. And I like his choice of this live clip from 1987. During moments when Nix is on camera, such as the few seconds after 7:07, you can correlate his hand motions to what he’s playing. When I did that, I discovered he was creating ongoing threads of melody and calm riffs — a trail that I wouldn’t have noticed amid the whole band, but which became vital once I was aware of it. Nix fleshes out mood and color, doing his own thing but in a way that adds depth to the overall group sound.
Chinen also calls out Nix’s solo acoustic album Low Barometer (Tompkins Square, 2006), noting that the results “warrant comparison with analogous recordings by Derek Bailey, John Fahey and Marc Ribot.” Derek Bailey is a particularly interesting inclusion there, because Nix’s acoustic guitar shares that same curt sound, almost as if he’s taking advantage of the instrument’s lack of sustain.
But Chinen is talking about a mixture of Bailey with more melodic players. On Low Barometer, Nix traces recognizable and even pleasant routes — melodies, projected onto a tilted harmelodic plane. I’m actually reminded of Joe Pass’ self-titled solo album. Tracks like “Generic Ballad” and “Love’s Enigma” drift by, patiently, like a slow river in summer, and I realize that with this music, Nix is delivering his own fitting elegy.
It’s like a jungle of steel strings hanging like vines, and in certain segments, you can hear trademark moments Elliott Sharp‘s knotty, clustered guitar style; Mary Halvorson‘s spidery angles and abrupt, dark bursts; and Marc Ribot‘s soaring, edgy guitar heroism.
Put them together in a largely improvised set populated mostly with acoustic guitars, and you get that jungle effect. The overall mood is dark and twisted, but the titles of the songs (and of the album itself) tell you this is a jovial meeting. Sharp and Ribot have collaborated for decades, dating back to the ’80s downtown scene, and while Halvorson is younger, she’s been established as their peer in out-jazz circles.
Sadly, their schedules didn’t allow for a full-on trio recording. As Sharp explains in the liner notes, Err Guitar consists mostly of duets.
Two tracks were planned as overdubbed trios. “Blindspot” features all three playing in a spacious, sparkling mode; it’s a Sharp-Ribot duo with conscious space left for Halvorson. The other full-trio track is “Kernel Panic,” which carries a narrative flow built around Sharp’s graphical score. The track gathers like dark clouds, creating hailstorms at times when two or three of the players decide to cut loose.
These are dark landscapes. “Sinistre” casts an evil shadow, with dark-skies electric defining the mood for two scrabbling acoustic guitars. “Oronym” opens with a tangle of acoustic strings speaking in tongues and builds into an electric screech almost on the verge of a drone.
Two tracks not to miss: “Wobbly” is an acoustic duo with Ribot, with playful steel sparks flying everywhere. “Shredding Light,” with Halvorson, culminates in heavenly beams that do make it seem as if they’re playing the light itself.
Speaking of guitar collaborations …
Open the Door is a lost album from 1999, when Sharp brought a young Nels Cline into Studio zOaR on West 30th Street for a day of acoustic improvising. The two guitarists laid down tracks direct-to-tape, only to have two record labels go belly-up before releasing the music. Public Eyesore‘s Bryan Day is the one who finally gave the music a proper release. It includes a 2007 live track, recorded by Cline and Sharp at The Stone, possibly in support of another duo album, Duo Milano (Long Song, 2006).
The album strikes me as having more concentration on melody (albeit in sour, off-kilter tones) than Err Guitar. “Isotropes” includes a slide and some downright pretty arpeggio work to create a songlike atmosphere. “Five Tastes of Sour” is like a careful study in harmonies, with each guitarist spending time exploring chords and leaving them to linger; it’s a nine-minute improvisation in no particular hurry.
The 2007 track, “Pietraviva,” is like blues clipped up and played on fast-forward, with notes and ideas rebounding all over the room. It packs a punch, and it ends with both guitars in tight percussive mode, the kind of clackety sound that’s been a Sharp trademark. These two had a lot of fun, both in 1999 and in 2007.