Posts filed under ‘blather’

Milford Graves Victory Lap

It’s good that we celebrate the great figures of jazz as they depart this earth one by one — but it’s important to celebrate the living legends, too. Muhal Richard Abrams got a little more time in the spotlight before making his passage last fall, which was good to see.

Milford Graves has received a few such waves of deserved attention, including one that seems to be going on now. He was the cover story in Wire magazine’s March 2018 issue, he’s recently been interviewed by Bomb, and he was the subject of a recent New York Times profile with the news hook being the Milford Graves Full Mantis documentary that recently screened at SxSW.

It helps that Graves simply makes for good copy. He’s accessible and eccentric, and his studies in biology fit somewhere between credible science and in-credible ideas of new-age psychology and mysticism. He’s a fascinating character and seems downright friendly, to boot.

But at the core of it all is the music. Through the Bomb writeup, I got curious about a couple of recordings from 1966 — two halves of a duet concert with Don Pullen, titled In Concert at Yale University and Nommo. The two albums sport just five pieces between them, each titled “P.G. I” through “P.G. V.” I’d been aware of Graves’ role in the early days of free jazz, but I’d never listened to any of that work before. Now seemed like a good time.

It’s good stuff. Pullen is splashing about on the piano with purpose and verve, while Graves is a fountain of sound — minus the snare drum, I think, as noted in this NYT passage:

He had radically remodeled his drum kit, ditching the snare drum and taking the bottom skins off his toms, getting a soupier resonance. He said the snare’s stiff-toned sound fit its European military origins better than it did his music. “The potential of how you can manipulate a vibrating drum membrane is much greater,” Mr. Graves said. He suggested that jazz drummers who use the snare might simply be “following orders without questioning those orders” — his idea of a grave sin.

I’m loving these recordings for the density of attack. I guess you could criticize it as singleminded, but it does feel pure, in a way. This is who Don Pullen and Milford Graves were at the time, and this is what they wanted to say.  They do tone it down just slightly on “P.G. II,” the longest of the five pieces. They pace themselves, each player taking occasional breaks to let the other one fill the space.

Context has a lot to do with my enjoyment of these pieces, I think. It was 1966, and while Graves denigrates attempts to attach political meaning to the music (see video at bottom), it’s hard not to ignore that there was a lot being said at the time. Right or wrong, most of us are going to feel like this music is tinted by the surrounding energy of the era.

R-1451172-1226737105.jpegWhile I was at it, I figured it was a good time to dip a little further back, to the classic 1965 ESP disc Percussion Ensemble.

A glance at the album cover will tell anyone that the ensemble is actually a duo — with Sonny Murray, so it isn’t just any duo. I find it interesting that I didn’t pick up on that. Listening blindly to a digital copy, I was picturing a four-person ensemble, with one or more players sitting out for certain phases. No idea why. The album is built on short storms of sound, executed with precision. You could call it an extended drum solo, but it’s more fun to consider it as a study in the musicality of percussion. And today, it’s a slice of history.

But part of the point here is to not dwell on the past. I want to spend some time with Graves’ more recent output. He has two solo albums on TzadikGrand Unification (1998) and Stories (2000) — and a trio with Anthony Braxton and William Parker titled Beyond Quantum (2008) that I remember being well received. But I think the place I’ll go first is the duo with John Zorn, recorded as Volume Two of Zorn’s 50th Birthday Celebration series (2004). Every concert I’ve heard from the series has been joyous, and considering Graves and Zorn apparently play together annually, this one promises to be a lot of fun.

What’s nice is that the attention around Graves isn’t a one-time thing. The 2013 Vision Festival included an opening night celebration of his career, featuring him playing with three separate groups. Don Mount posted the concert on YouTube; here’s a starting point, with Roswell Rudd.

Finally, here’s Graves in his own words, from a Q&A session after the world premiere of Full Mantis.

May 6, 2018 at 10:26 am 1 comment

More Buenos Aires Improv

I discovered saxophonist Pablo Ledesma through his recent duo album with pianist Agustí Fernandez, which I wrote up in March, and I decided to seek out more of his work.

So, here’s Ledesma in a quartet setting (“Cuarteto Orillas”), tacking long-form improv. It’s a 2015 performance at the Buenos Aires Jazz Festival. I’m particularly keen on the bassist, Mano Hurtado — he’s well amplified so you can pick up his agile sound.

The group explores briskly for a sustained period in the beginning, leading into a slow section, around the 10-minute mark, that’s still colorful and far from passive. Hurtado gets an early short solo that shows a lot of color, and I really dig his work on the straight jazz segment that starts around 19:00.

That segment leads into an explosive duet between Ledesma and drummer Javier Puyol. On the more serious side, there’s a regal movement around 40:00 that leads to a florid, elegant piano solo. The 57-minute performance culminates in a frenzied passage with the camera trained on Puyol, Ledesma, and Hurtado, the last two blowing especially hard.

It’s staggering to think there are so many musicians in the world pursuing creative music, many of them in corners I’ll never reach. That’s true of every kind of music, certainly, but this kind of improvised jazz — let alone the noisier kind, and noise-oriented improv — appeals to a smaller audience. That these lines of communication reach so far is a wonderful thing.

May 2, 2018 at 1:39 am Leave a comment

Waitaminute….

From Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (click for a larger size):

20130521

It’s funny because it’s kind of true.

But beyond that: I studied engineering in school and I’ve had a long obsession with random and pseudorandom number generation.

So, this comic is basically making fun of me, personally, in the same way that my wife does. Needless to say, I love it.

April 26, 2018 at 9:29 pm Leave a comment

A Small Jam Session in Boston

IMG_3674 ribbonb.jpgI mentioned being in Brooklyn recently. It was part of a family-related east-coast trip — a rare visit to New York and Boston without any time to see music.

Or so I thought. On a rainy night in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, walking back to the hotel, we passed Virtuosity, a music shop. A serious music shop with a wall full of horns, a bookshelf built from an old piano, and a counter area stuffed with paraphernalia for woodwinds and brass instruments. The store is blocks away from the Boston Symphony, and of course it’s surrounded by colleges, so it’s got a built-in local clientele.

Turns out, I’d stumbled onto a regular Tuesday night open jam. It was open to the public, with donations requested for the band and the free coffee and tea — but I was the only pure audience member, with the other seven or eight people being there to play, just for fun.

IMG_3673 2000 b

They didn’t pay me much mind as they cycled through several pieces out of ’50s and ’60s songbooks. Each song was played by a quintet: two horns, keyboards, bass, and drums, with guys (they were all men) taking solos in that order, ending with everyone trading fours with the drums.

It was a cozy way to spend a rainy evening. This wasn’t a “show” so much as a friendly venue to practice, hone, and experiment. They talked about each piece beforehand — how many bars of this or that to play, for instance — and they tried a few experiments. Trading eights with the drummer worked nicely and was a change of pace. Trading sevens, something one of the drummers suggested in the middle of a song, had more mixed results, as the soloists sometimes stumbled through.

IMG_3672

Some solos were clearly better than others, but nobody was calling that out. The idea was simply to play, to create spontaneous music in a group working toward a common cause — something that can’t be experienced any other way. I was glad to be welcomed into this world for a short hour.

April 23, 2018 at 10:13 pm Leave a comment

Cecil Taylor

On April 6, I was in Brooklyn, walking the streets of Park Slope. Didn’t realize Cecil Taylor had died the previous day, quite close to there.

The New York Times ran a fitting and substantial obituary. Nate Chinen wrote one for NPR, making note of Taylor’s 2016 collaboration with dancer Min Tanaka. And I was intrigued to learn that Taylor made at least two appearances on Marian McPartland’s NPR show, “Piano Jazz.” Their rapport is downright charming.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Cecil Taylor, 2008. Source: Wikimedia.

Taylor is a flag bearer for avant-garde jazz, of course, but his sound was built on the jazz tradition. My wife, after a few years of hearing the clicks and scrapes of free improv on my stereo, once walked in relieved to hear Cecil Taylor — something that, to her ears, resembled “normal” music. I had to break it to her that this was considered difficult avant-garde stuff, but the point is that she could hear the jazz in it.

We writers lazily compare any “outside” piano to Cecil Taylor, but Taylor’s style and language are unique and easily recognizable. At one point in that “Piano Jazz” installment, Taylor describes creating his own scales early on, because he didn’t want to practice the traditional ones. McPartland has him play one of those scales as an example, and it sounds like Cecil. He goes on to play some chord clusters as well.

Then there’s the precision. Listeners notice it more when Taylor slaps the keyboard with a forearm, but for me, his ten-fingered passages avalanches are where the real magic happens, where he starts rumbling away but never loses that Swiss-watch precision. That’s Cecil Taylor speaking his language to you. I’ve got Air Above Mountains on the turntable now, a solo album so richly steeped in that language, and I’m feeling so grateful that I got to see Taylor perform twice.

April 8, 2018 at 11:10 am Leave a comment

Schoenberg and an Art Journey

schoenberg06-cut

Intrigued by a review in BBC Music magazine, I gave this album a try: Schoenberg’s String Quartets Nos. 2 and 4, by the Gringolts Quartet (Bis, 2017).

The quartets were written 30 years apart and document different phases in Schoenberg’s 12-tone composing. The Art Music Lounge blog provides a good review with historical context.

Both BBC Music and Art Music Lounge describe the Second quartet as more accessible than the Fourth. But to me, it’s the opposite. That’s partly because the Second quartet includes two movements with a soprano — in this case, Malin Hartelius — singing lines of poetry by Stefan George. I’ve yet to develop a good ear for classical art-singing; to me, it sounds wandering and aimless. By contrast, the jumpy twelve-tone lines of the Fourth quartet sound fun and even catchy — even though an ordinary listener might call them “aimless” too. It’s probably the result of all the post-Schoenberg modern jazz and improv I’ve listened to.

So my mind wandered during the Second, and I started getting curious about that album cover art. Where did it come from?

schoenberg-2-4I could have made a good guess if I’d thought about it. In fact, as I discovered in a web search, this piece has been used as cover art a few different times — such as the album Signs, Games & Messages: Works for Solo Violin by Bartók and Kurtág (Resonus, 2016) by violinist Simon Smith.

It’s also on the cover of a book: Poetics in a New Key — essays by, and interviews with, poet Marjorie Perloff.

It’s hard for me to resist a connection like this, so later, I got curious about Kurtág’s Signs and started listening to samples of Simon’s interpretation. I didn’t recognize the music, but after a while, I began to remember I already owned something else of Kurtág’s. I riffled through my digital collection and found Kim Kashkashian’s viola version of Signs.

That’s when I remembered. I don’t like Signs.

Several listens to Kashkashian’s version left me cold — which I hate to say, because I’m a fan of hers, and because Kurtág is still living and, charmingly, records and performs piano duets with his wife. How can you not love that?

Still, Signs doesn’t click with me. It’s a set of miniatures — an evolving set that Kurtág is still adding to, so recordings vary depending on which handful of pieces the soloist picks. That aspect is intriguing. But the miniatures themselves feel like incomplete doodles. I’m not able to channel them together into a “story.” Maybe it’s just that Kurtág and I just aren’t on the same wavelength.

My dislike of Signs matters to me, though.

In a 2009 essay for The Guardian, Christopher Fox makes an interesting point about Schoenberg’s legacy. The Second string quartet was powered by Schoenberg’s emotional state, as his marriage was falling apart. That doesn’t mean every geometric arrangement of 12 tones is going to produce something great, as Fox writes:

The subsequent institutionalisation of the techniques he developed in those decisive months has produced hour upon hour of greyness … Atonal harmony and fragmented melody are still powerful expressive tools, as film composers demonstrate whenever their directors need a musical equivalent for psychological distress, but as the habitual texture of contemporary classical music their routine use has stripped them of meaning.

gringolts006-cut

Gringolts Quartet.

Even though he has a point, I can honestly say I enjoy some of those gray expanses. For example, I went to explore Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3, just because it isn’t on the Gringolts album. Art Music Lounge describes the Fourth quartet as “much more accessible than his Third Quartet, at least trying to follow a cohesive melodic line much of the time” — so I couldn’t resist diving into the potential incohesion of the Third quartet.

But you know what? I liked it. It’s engaging — bouncy and rhythmic, with small spurts of repetition to help ground the listener and create a sense of progression. And I’m confident that this isn’t just me being pretentious, because — as with Signs — I’ve discovered that it’s possible for me to not like modern music.

(What about the First quartet, you ask? Apparently it’s tonal — in D major. Eh, maybe some other time.)

Oh, as for that minimalist, curvy-pointy cover art … it’s by Wassily Kandinsky. Yeah, I shoulda known.

Kandinsky is credited in the album’s liner notes, which I own in digital form but didn’t think to consult until later. There’s even a connection to Schoenberg:

“In January 1911 in Munich, Kandinsky attended a concert with music by Schoenberg, including String Quartet No. 2. Much taken by the experience, he wrote to the composer later the same month: ‘You have realized in your work that which I, admittedly in imprecise form, have so long sought from music. The self-sufficient following of its own path, the independent life of individual voices in your compositions, is exactly what I seek to find in painterly form.”

January 15, 2018 at 9:52 am 1 comment

16 Bars in an Elevator

This is cute: A band crammed into an elevator for one number. Probably not the first time this has been done, but it makes for a novel video.

I love the way the vibraphone exactly fits the space. Makes it even more cramped.

The band is a quartet fronted by drummer Chris Hewitt, and the tune is “Sixteen Bars for Jail,” by Ches Smith. You’ll find the original on the album Finally Out of My Hands (Skirl, 2010).

January 5, 2018 at 10:06 pm Leave a comment

Older Posts


Calendar

May 2018
M T W T F S S
« Apr    
 123456
78910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031  

Posts by Month

Posts by Category