Posts filed under ‘blather’

Talk

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).

June 20, 2017 at 1:29 am Leave a comment

Bern Nix, 1947-2017

nix-lowWith 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.

June 8, 2017 at 9:54 pm Leave a comment

Back Pages #3: 66 Shades, 27 Years Later

(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the first and second installments.)

Keith Tippett and Andy Sheppard66 Shades of Lipstick (E.G., 1990)

tippett-66The first fully improvised album I ever bought was probably 66 Shades of Lipstick. Pianist Keith Tippett had already had a distinguished career by then, and saxophonist Andy Sheppard was an up-and-comer, but to me in 1990, they were just blokes who happened to have an album on E.G. Records, the short-lived but vital label that produced Bill Bruford’s first Earthworks albums and the King Crimson Discipline trilogy that I so treasure.

Moreover, 66 Shades got picked by Jazziz magazine as the top album of the year. This was a bit unusual, as Jazziz had been a champion of the then-hot smooth jazz trend. Something this far off the beaten path seemed worth exploring.

For me, it was just a lark. My sincere interest in improvised music wouldn’t develop until later in the decade.

So how does this same album hold up, with all that experience now packing my ears?

I have to admit that back in 1990, I didn’t listen to 66 Shades very carefully. I liked the sound and I appreciated the experiment of it all, but my ears, trained by prog rock, were still seeking patterns and time signatures. I was watching a 3-D movie and trying to detect scents.

So, I gravitated toward the tuneful and catchy. “Shade 1” was the right start, with a wood block to putting percussive tickle on Tippett’s opening piano riff. That, and Andy Sheppard’s overly sweet soprano saxophone, were elements I could relate to.

 
What stuck with me most was this description of the improvising process, from Tippett’s brief liner notes: “The music had to be carved like sculpture from the air.” I love that metaphor, and I’ve stolen it on occasion. But comparing the results to the other improvised music I now own, whether jazz-oriented or more abstract, 66 Shades is below average.

“Shade 13” is a bare snippet but doesn’t have to be. I guess it’s believable that the improv ended organically there, but it also smacks of, “We’d better includes some short ones to show how spontaneous this was.” Likewise for “Shade 6,” which is a brief soulful melody, the kind that’s pretty but not at all special. Assuming they recorded 66 takes (which is where I’m assuming the title comes from), there must have been something more deserving of album space.

On the other hand, “Shade 9” is a hardy improvisation with prepared piano and some bass-note flourishes by Tippett, with Sheppard pursuing a robust stream-of-consciousness trail.

 
“Shade 3” is the first track on the album that made “sense” to me, in that Tippett presents a linear idea — ocean waves of tumbling notes, sticking to one musical mode — over which Sheppard adds grand flourishes. But with today’s ears, I’m more drawn to the fluttering and scribbling of “Shade 2,” a track I completely didn’t remember.

 
“Shade 5” is like a serious attempt at a symphonic film noir piece; it’s not bad but not something I’d return to frequently. “Shade 14” is a more appealing idea of taking a simple concept — a rapid-fire swirling, in this case — and just building from it. After a dervish-like start, it settles on a more moderate pace but keeps up that looping, swirling feel.

 
The E.G. label didn’t last long, so everything I own from its catalog is a keeper. 66 Shades might not top my list of favorites, but I’m proud of myself for giving it a shot, so long ago.

May 28, 2017 at 4:13 pm Leave a comment

My Inner Prog Geek

76This blog was never supposed to have much prog-rock content, as I’d left that phase of life behind. But I’m starting to listen again, just a little.

What I’m finding is that the things that ultimately turned me away from prog — the pretentious air and melodrama; the worship of bombastic musicianship; the lyrical posing or the smug “I’m such a misfit” self-pity or (worst of all) outright misogyny — are still there. I didn’t imagine them. But some of the musicianship is honestly good, and some of the chording, particularly in the Canterbury styles, is still attractive and nostalgic to me.

I’ve been exploring in fits and starts, inspired by the terrific output of the band Knifeworld. A genre search on Bandcamp turned up Thieves’ Kitchen, with an appropriately British sound and an honest-to-goodness mellotron in their arsenal. I’ve always disliked mellotron, I have to admit, but Thieves’ Kitchen does a great job re-creating that keyboard-heavy style that’s all airy and pretty and melodic. I’ve been enjoying their Clockwork Universe album quite a lot.

 
The real tipping point, though, was Ready Player One. In parallel with revisiting my prog roots, I’ve been rediscovering my sci-fi fandom.

I’ve avoided sci-fi for a lot of the same reasons as prog, and in both cases I’ve gravitated toward things that are more ambitious and, for my taste, better (jazz and literary fiction, respectively). The sci-fi tide returned two Christmases ago, when I was under duress to fill out a wish list (I have relatives who are way into Christmas gifting) and started throwing books onto it. I’d just seen William Gibson’s The Peripheral at a bookstore, so — what the heck.

rpoThat book turned out to be a fun ride. So, knowing that I liked in Gibson’s writing in general, I finally picked up a copy of Neuromancer, more than 30 years late. And it blew me away.

I’d be lying if I said I voraciously dived into sci-fi at that point, but I began considering it more and ended up reading Ready Player One at the behest of friends. If nothing else, I wanted to make sure I got to it before the movie came out.

Ready Player One is by no means deep or even well plotted. But it’s fun, and it leans heavy on nostalgia from the mid-1980s of my high school years. The way the book serves up references to TV, movies, music, and video games is almost pandering — but I didn’t care. I devoured it greedily.

And after reading the second half of the book in one sitting, I stayed up all night listening to Rush.

You know what? Rush holds up, all these years later.

 
Now, if you have a problem with Neil Peart’s over-cerebral lyrics or Geddy Lee’s voice, I can’t help you. They’re part of the package. But Lee’s bass, now that I’m actually listening, is phenomenal. Peart’s drumming is still over-the-top, but it’s awe-inspiring in a Cirque-du-Soliel way and richly creative. Alex Lifeson’s guitar chords are still dense and a little brain-bending (check out his patient dissection of “Tom Sawyer,” spelling out exactly what those chords are) and his solos still excite me. And I’m relishing the experimental touches that I used to ignore — like the patient synths and drums stretches on “The Weapon,” or the entire song “Red Lenses,” which sounded so weird back then but so perfectly normal today.

Now I’m playing Rush during car trips. The kids don’t seem impressed.

412And so it continues. Last week, I found myself in Austin. There wasn’t time to visit Waterloo, but my hotel was within walking distance of a spot called Encore Records, a store specializing in metal, with racks devoted to other genres including prog. (It also has the obligatory Used CD rack. It occurred to me the “used” section of every CD store has essentially become a 1990s time capsule.)

I had to buy something, so arbitrarily, I dipped back into the world of Porcupine Tree. Specifically, I bought Steven Wilson’s “4 1/2.” Lyrically, I have a lot of problems with it. “Don’t hate me / I’m not special like you” is that particular breed of wannabe-poetical that turned me off on prog in the first place. But the music tickles that latent prog center of my brain. Like a visit to an old neighborhood, it feels a little bit retrograde, a little bit nourishing, and a little bit like rediscovering a piece of who I’ve always been.

May 21, 2017 at 12:36 pm Leave a comment

Anthony Braxton, Dixieland-Style

Here’s an old-timey-jazz-style cover of Anthony Braxton:

It’s “Composition 23 J,” an earlier Braxton piece with a melody even my ear can recognize. The trumpeter is Bobby Spellman, who put on this show last year for Record Store Day.

Note To Self #1: If I’m ever in that Maine/New Hampshire coastal area, there’s a record store just over the state line in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Note To Self #2: I should check out what else Bobby Spellman has going on. The Revenge of the Cool nonet sounds like it’s got a good attitude. And here’s an album from Cryptozoology, a five-piece with a tuba.

And for good measure, here’s Braxton himself on “Composition 23 J.” Correlating the instrumentation with the discography, I’m thinking this is from Dortmund (Quartet) 1976 (hatArt, 1991) with George Lewis on trombone, Dave Holland on bass, and Barry Altschul on drums.

 
h/t Tri-Centric Foundation: @tricentricfdn on Twitter.

May 1, 2017 at 5:48 pm Leave a comment

Billy Drummond

I felt bad about questioning Billy Drummond’s work on Kris Davis’ Duopoly album yesterday. I’m not deeply familiar with Drummond’s playing but of course I know and respect the name. And while I have the right to like or not like any given piece of music, I’m starting to think I could better appreciate Drummond’s contributions to the album given different expectations.

While I wonder if Drummond held back too much on Duopoly, I’m not saying he should have gone for fireworks. One possibility is that he didn’t want to overshadow Davis; another is that he had set his mind toward focusing on subtleties rather than fire, which is certainly a valid goal. There’s no way to know. (And I’m trying not to judge by the video. Discerning a person’s thoughts by watching them on video is not as easy as you think, especially if they know they’re being filmed.)

Philosophical questions aside, I felt I owed it to the music gods to seek out a dose of full-strength Drummond. I’ve certainly heard of him but don’t happen to own any of his output. I wanted something fairly recent, as opposed to his ’90s straightahead albums on Criss Cross, and maybe something a little off-kilter too. I didn’t expect to find anything flat-out avant-garde in his catalogue, but that was part of the point: to applaud Drummond’s willingness to step into that world for the sake of the Duopoly project.

What I found was the track “Hydrogen Atom” by pianist Burak Bedikyan, from Leap of Faith (Steeplechase, 2015). It has a relatively disjointed opening, with lots of free space, and gives Drummond some explosive moments. He has a solo as well, which tends toward the understated side — much as his work on Duopoly did. That might partly be because his solo on “Hydrogen Atom” is also the gateway into the cooldown theme at the end of the song.

Witness:

 
It’s nice work. Maybe I’ll also take in one of those Criss Cross albums as well, before I give the Duopoly tracks another listen.

April 30, 2017 at 9:04 pm Leave a comment

Turntables

tetrault2

The use of turntables as noise/improv instruments has long fascinated me, mostly in the sense that I wasn’t sure how it was done.

My interest got piqued by four CDs released in the span of about one year by Martin Tétreault and Otomo Yoshihide, both “playing” turntables. The discs — Grrr, Tok, Ahhh, and Hmmm — document a European tour in 2003, with each CD meant to reflect a particular mood (the titles are hints).

I enjoyed those albums and spent a lot of time wondering how they created all those sounds, and what it really meant to “play” a turntable. Some sounds resembled a characteristic record scratch or the scraping of a finger against the needle. But what were they doing the rest of the time?

Only now did it occur to me to go look.

In my defense, YouTube’s avant-garde catalog was more sparse a decade ago. But in 2017, a quick search for Tétreault answers my questions right away. My French isn’t good enough to follow along with this interview, but the visuals say it all: He uses discs that are wrapped with different textures, giving him different sounds to play with.

He also uses a sound board (as shown in the photo up top), which gives him a few more options.

Well. Now I know.

By the way, Yoshihide and Tétreault had an established musical partnership before those 2003 concerts were recorded. Here’s a sample of their work from 1999.

And if you want to find out a little more about that four-album set, released on the Ambiances Magnétiques label, you can see a few reviews in Zookeeper, the KZSU music database.

March 9, 2017 at 9:22 am Leave a comment

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