Posts filed under ‘blather’

Discovering Joe Harriot

I didn’t give Joe Harriott enough credit when I first encountered his brand of free jazz. That’s partly because Harriott’s “free” albums also include lots of straight bebop, sometimes with complex themes, sometimes not. But I also got snobby. Harriott’s concept of freedom doesn’t come with the splatter factor of Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman.

Harriott deserves better. Playing in the early ’60s, he had visions of abandoning the reliance on chord changes, using composed themes not as a backbone but as a springboard into unguided improvisation. Such ideas are the norm in my listening world, but for musicians accustomed to bebop, it required a deeper type of listening, and of course, an open mind, which is why two of his band members left when Harriott proposed the idea.

My introduction to Harriott was Ken Vandermark’s Straight Lines (Atavistic, 1999), an album of Harriott covers, but it wasn’t until this year that I took the time to delve into that chapter of history. I did some side-by-side comparisons between Harriott’s originals and Vandermark’s versions — an empty gesture, considering the bands came from different background, but still fun. Vandermark, playing with most of the Vandermark 5, holds back the skronk to re-create Harriott’s milieu.

vandermark-harriott-400Harriott’s free-jazz didn’t dominate his early albums, so a track like “Straight Lines” comes across a little staid. But it’s a nifty, jumping composition. Harriott and trumpeter Shake Keane are terrific at playing that stuff, and they add lots of frills — little blasts across one another’s solos and the drum solo — that make for an exciting number.

Harriott’s free ideas are more fully realized on “Shadows,” which uses a short composed line but is otherwise freely improvised. It’s an exercise in restraint, played at a brisk pace but with a consistent feeling of stretched time. I especially like the contributions from Keane (who, according to bassist Coleridge Goode in the video trailer above, was vital in bringing Harriott’s vision to life) and drummer Bobby Orr, both of whom seem to really “get” the vibe, contributing small segments to help build the overall sound.

 
Vandermark’s version is more creeping, with quiet bass featuring heavily. Jeb Bishop’s trombone and Vandermark’s clarinet paint sparse hints of swing, emulating Harriott’s methods.

 
Compared with Harriott’s band, Vandermark’s players are a lot more practiced at group improvising — they’ve grown up doing it. But Harriott’s band produced some solid results. Sometimes they were still grasping for the right wavelengths, but passages like the six minutes of “Shadows” channel the future of this music.

Jimmy Giuffre did it better, I have to admit. He was brilliantly executing ideas of freedom and abstraction, with results that went largely unheralded at the time. (I’ve been listening to his live stuff circa 1961 — astounding to think that it’s from 1961.) Not many years later, the liner notes for Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue would extoll the composer’s “no solo” idea for the improvised title track. It’s a good track, but I’m glad to know that Joe Harriott planted a flag there a few years earlier.

One last word, about instrumentation. Vandermark’s band doesn’t include a pianist. Harriott’s quintet did, and in some ways, the piano was the weak link, still tied to chords. It feels like Pat Smythe and the band were still fleshing out the piano’s role — how could the instrument fit into this world of freedom without causing chaos? Can the pianist find a new way to “comp?”

I don’t think Smythe fully worked out the formula, but he was trying. I’ll point to his work on “Idioms.” The song gave him a chord progression to follow, and while that creates a sense of rigidity, it also seems to inspire some abstract ideas in his brief solo. Here’s the relevant excerpt; the full track is here.

 

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Smythe, Harriott, Keane, Orr, Goode. From http://henrybebop.co.uk.

September 9, 2018 at 12:14 pm Leave a comment

Visual Art Interlude

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There’s a YouTube post of Pauline Oliveros’ “Bye Bye Butterfly” that’s illustrated with a piece by Vera Molnar.

I liked the art, so I went to find out more about Molnar. She began her career as a traditional artist, and in 1968 she brought her fascination with geometry and shapes into the world of computers and plotters. Even back then, there were rich possibilities to be had, especially if you toss pseudorandom numbers into the mix.

I’ve always been intrigued by that kind of art. I tried my hand at very primitive visual ideas in BASIC on an old IBM PC, toying with random lines and colors, honing the rules to make them fit an idea rather than just displaying chaos. (The results were not nearly as artistic as I’m making them sound.)

As computers, screens, and interfaces have progressed, so has the art. I saw one piece a few years ago — can’t recall the artist’s name, sadly — that consisted of a crowd of circles moving on a custom-sized video screen. The circles were packed tightly, rebounding off one another, and every circle had a radius drawn, like the hour hand of a watch, indicating the movement of direction at that particular moment. It was dynamic and unpredictable, and fascinating — not just for the way it looked, but for the concept, the process.

Anyway. The Molnar piece that started this train of thought is titled “Interruptions.” And if you don’t know “Bye Bye Butterfly,” it’s an early example of Oliveros’ electronic music, one that I hadn’t heard until after she died in 2016.

On a further tangent, learning about Molnar led me to the work of Aurélie Nemours. I find I’m particularly fond of her piece, “N et H 3292,” pictured here.

July 19, 2018 at 1:46 pm 1 comment

Can You Handle This Much Accordion?

One instrument I never even considered getting “into” was the accordion. Not only is it associated with old, corny music, but it also creates chords with a squelchy sound that I don’t find so attractive.

Pauline Oliveros plays accordion, of course, but that’s different. Then again, it also tells you that the accordion can do more than polka.

The turning point for me was classical accordionist Bjarke Mogensen, whose solo album Winter Sketches (Orchid, 2011) got me interested in the instrument’s musical possibilities and emotional range. It’s been a few years, and while I haven’t become an accordion fanatic, I’ve found myself wondering what else Mogensen has done.

So I checked out The Song I’ll Never Sing (Decapo, 2012), a program combining solo pieces with string duets and an accordion duo. The common thread is the pen of Danish composer Kasper Rofelt.

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I don’t know what really counts as virtuoso playing on an according. But the fast, accurate flurries on the “Vivace Corrente” movement of Concert Studies for Classical Accordion, First Book (2008-2009) sound great to me, as do the rapid-fire moments in the “Twilight Toccata” movement of Shadow Pieces. In the latter case, it’s the quiet, spattery passages that impress and thrill the most, not the big-flourish chords.

 
But I wonder if there’s a touch to the slow, gentle playing, as there is with a saxophone or piano. On the list of moments that should impress me, what about the thin, shimmering notes that open the track “Midnight?” What about “Nightsong 2,” played with violinist Christina Åstrand, where Mogensen lays down atmospheric chords, softly painting the background?

What’s kept me interested in Mogensen is his experimental side, which Rofelt indulges on pieces such as “Quasi Statico,” using drones and quavers to move into Oliveros territory, sounding almost like an analog-synth impersonation. In a different vein, “Light Falling,” pairs Mogensen with cellist Toke Møldrup for a tense and often subtle 10-minute piece that sometimes feels like a nighttime chase scene, sometimes like an over-the-top stage drama.

 
Then there’s the sparse, moody “Charybdis, played by MYTHOS, the accordion duo of Morgensen and childhood friend Rasmus Kjøller. It’s tense and aggressive, sometimes feeling like the instruments are chasing each other.

And it made me wonder whether Kjøller had any other output I could find. His career couldn’t just consist of being the “other” accordionist in MYTHOS, right?

alstedI found him on Agnete’s Laughter (Dacapo, 2013), an album of electronics and experimental-vocal pieces by composer Birgitte Alsted.Her liner notes describe him as a newcomer whose “official debut” was in 2013, in which case it makes sense that his resume doesn’t seem as long as Mogensen’s.

Amid the album’s array of ghostly, abstract electro-acoustic work, Alsted added a solo accordion composition: The 12-minute “Melancolia.” It’s full of icy drama and grand, slow emoting — and, in its latter half, soaring crescendos like this one:

 
Kjøller’s playing seems to hit higher and lower notes than I’ve heard on Mogensen’s albums. I don’t know if that’s a function of the type of accordion he’s playing or my own tin ears.

I do find I need a break from the accordion after a long listen. This isn’t going to become an all-consuming obsession. But I’ve enjoyed this little detour — and I haven’t even gotten to the real jazz/improv accordion heroes, Guy Klucevcek and Rüdiger Carl.

June 23, 2018 at 11:46 am 1 comment

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):

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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.

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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.

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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

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