Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’
Nashville Electric — Orson’s Folly (Edgetone, 2015)
This long-form performance of electronics and electric instruments was created in 2015 as a live, improvisational soundtrack to a long-lost Orson Welles silent film. (The film wasn’t silent by choice — more on that in a bit).
It’s a continuous journey of sound and activity, with a foundation of howling-wind synthesizers setting up the background for brighter guitar and violin sounds — small curls or wide washes, heavily treated to add to the electronic mesh.
Everything is done for texture and effect; it’s a noise piece, in essence, with a prevailing mood built from lots of small details. It’s foreboding but not entirely dark. I imagine the music putting an eerie cast over the silent black-and-white footage.
The piece — two major sections recorded in the studio, plus a “closing credits” segment recorded in concert — starts out with an anthemic buzz of synths and electric guitar, with the occasional electric-violin tone drifting past for a dash of color.
Part 2 tends to be more sparse, with the string instruments playing more individualized roles. One attractive segment focuses on a traceable guitar riff, as if played at the end of a distant corridor. A choppy violin takes the foreground later, again in a distant, filtered vein, behind a deep electronic pulsing.
As with any soundtrack, the music is inspired by film — and, as a result, our listening of the music can be colored by the nature of that film, even if we can’t see it. I listened to the album first, then researched the Orson Welles film in question, “Jangadeiros” (“Four Men on a Raft”). Knowing what happened really does cast the music in a different light.
“Jangadeiros” was part of a larger project called It’s All True — a movie that Welles eventually decided was cursed, based partly on an anecdote involving a voodoo needle driven through a script.
A fictionalized quasi-documentary that evolved in a convoluted process after Pearl Harbor, It’s All True was meant to be a trilogy of stories filmed in Brazil. But, as explained on the Edgetone Records site, the film wasn’t the feelgood exercise that RKO Studio and the U.S. Government (a backer of the film) were expecting. Welles’ budget was slashed to a single black-and-white, silent camera, and the project deteriorated, never to be completed.
“Jangadeiros” survived in footage that was discovered in 1981. It’s actually meant to be a happy and triumphant story about four fishermen who rafted for 61 days — 1,650 miles without a compass — to protest to the goverment, in person, about the feudal nature of their industry. They were being forced to deliver half their catch to raft owners, leaving the fishermen themselves in poverty. The protest worked; Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas didn’t come through on all his promises, but the fishermen were at least granted the privileges of unionized workers.
The tragedy came later. Using the original four fishermen, Welles was filming a re-enactment of their arrival in Rio de Janeiro harbor. (Rio was the capital at the time.) But the raft overturned, and the fishermen’s leader, Manoel Olimpio Meira, was lost.
So … back to Orson’s Folly. The mood doesn’t strike me as full-on ominous. But it’s not exactly happy, either. There’s the eerieness that comes with the dredging-up of old, dead history; the heavy tragedy of Meira’s death; and the doomed nature of the project itself.
“Jangadeiros” happens to be available on YouTube, so you could play the album alongside it for the full effect. The footage is shadowy, but it’s professionally edited and does tell a fictitious story related to the four fishermen. I gave it only a minimal try. I think I prefer to let the visuals and the mood build in my imagination.
Alexander von Schlippenbach — Jazz Now! Live At Theater Gütersloh (European Jazz Legends, 2016)
Alexander von Schlippenbach is one of the holes in my jazz education. I’ve heard his music, including the Globe Unity Orchestra, his colossal improvising unit of the ’70s. But I’ve never explored his music very deeply.
I’m also aware that he recorded Monk’s entire catalogue. Like many of the great European improvisers, he traces his musical roots back to the swing and bebop of old.
Still, when I grabbed this quartet concert album on a whim, it was surprising to hear how “straight” most of the playing is, from the romantic strains of Herbie Nichols’ “12 Bars” to the thrilling pace of “Miss Ann,” with nice solos from bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall floors it and drummer Heinrich Köbberling.
It wasn’t an unpleasant surprise — more the kind that makes you smile slowly at first, then more and more broadly until you’re grinning.
You do get generous doses of the outside jazz that I was expecting, mostly in the form of Von Schippenbach’s own compositions. “Tropi” features a kind of broken swing, with a theme that’s traceable but not a simple 4/4; it then dives straight into group improvising, in a fast post-bop vein.
Von Schlippenbach’s “The Bells of St. K” and the opening of Monk’s “Epistrophy” both feature free improvisation, with angular, spiky bass clarinet. (Side note: The band is a traditional quartet with the bass clarinet as the only horn. It’s novel and a little Dolphy-esque.) Von Schlippenbach’s solo on “Epistrophy” is a tasty hybrid of free and straight playing.
The Herbie Nichols tunes are a treat — and it’s kind of sad that I’m still taken by surprise when his name comes up on a song credit. (Nichols was a contemporary of Monk’s whose music isn’t as well cemented in the public consciousness.) “The Gig” comes across as a complex swing — it’s got an easy rhythm but a tangled melody where Mahall gets to show off some dexterity.
One detail I left out: The concert is recent, recorded in March 2015. That’s what inspired me to listen in the first place. There’s a wealth of material from these great improvisers — Destination: Out sells quite a bit, from the old FMP catalogue — but it’s good to also check out what musicians like von Schlippenbach are doing in the here-and-now. The deep knowledge of the Monk-era songbook, mixed with that Euro-improv pioneering spirit, all wrapped up in the comfortable hands of age and experience — it adds up to some wonderful results.
Tortoise — The Catastrophist (Thrill Jockey, 2016)
When I arrived at KZSU in 1998, Tortoise was ascendant. I was on the lookout for non-“jazz” items to add to my radio show, elements of rock or electronica that might blend well into an avant-jazz program, and Tortoise quickly caught my ear. It’s a well I went to several times.
I can’t say I really got acquainted with the band, though. I was aware of the connections to the Chicago jazz scene, especially the presence of guitarist Jeff Parker. But I didn’t take time to learn more; I didn’t even listen to complete albums of theirs.
So, I don’t have a full sense of comparison between The Catastrophist and Tortoise’s main body of work, which 1994 to 2009. With fresh ears, I’ll say The Catastrophist is an solid album of instrumentals, featuring a heavier layer of cartoony synths than I was expecting and a vibe that’s bouncy yet relaxing — it’s easygoing, but it certainly won’t put you to sleep.
Tortoise has a lot in common with a type of instrumental music that I tended to label “post-rock.” I don’t think that’s the right term, but anyway — I’m talking about low-key rock instrumentals built upon simple ostinatos (repeated riffs that serve as the backdrop for melody or soloing) and a calm demeanor. Dig up music from a band called 33.3, and you’ll see what I mean (and you can tell me if I’m using the term “post-rock” correctly).
On The Catastrophist, “Tesseract” has the kind of sound I remember. It isn’t easygoing or slow, but it feels soothing — a glossy layer of bass and some lush guitar chording.
The album’s most obvious detours are in the vocal tracks — an amusingly slow cover of “Rock On” and a sublime “Yonder Blue” — but I’d rather talk about the musical paths I wasn’t expecting. “Hot Coffee” has a funky soul-jazz sound that was a pleasant surprise. And “Shake Hands With Danger” has an appropriately dark air and some sinister melody, despite an overall bright sound.
What interested me in this album was, I admit, the novelty — it was neat to hear they’d gotten the band back together. But it also seemed like a nice chance to discover what they’d really been up to all those years, when I was only half-listening, and to see if I liked what they did. Success, on all counts.
Human Ottoman — Farang (self-released, 2015)
First, because I don’t want it lost too far in the shuffle: Jordan Glenn’s trio, Wiener Kids, is playing at The Starry Plough (Berkeley) on the abovementioned March 18 show. Their sax-sax-drums combo is always a treat, mixing whimsy with serious improvising — I wrote about it back when. Always a treat to see them.
I found out about Human Ottoman in 2014 via the music-review blog A Closer Listen. A cello-vibraphone-drums trio with occasional rock distortion and a jazzy vibe? I was intrigued enough to give their album Power Baby a try, and I liked it.
With Farang, Human Ottoman has turned the corner to become an out-and-out rock band. Jazz was always an arm’s reach away on Power Baby, with a straight vibes sound, cello-as-bass rhythms, and the occasional world-music turn. The distortion, the aggressive drums, the occasional vocals — they were all there on Power Baby, it turns out, but my brain kept slapping a “jazz” label on the music (albeit modern, attitude-laden jazz).
Farang leaves no doubt, as the distortion, the vocals, and Susan Lucía’s hard-pounding drums are all unleased to do maximum damage. Half the album, including the two opening tracks, consists of out-and-out rock songs with lyrics and everything. “Infernal Mechanisms of Commerce” has Matthew Cartmill (cello) and Grayson Fiske (vibes) turning up the distortion for a dark, driven sound that reminds me of the two-cello indie rock band Rasputina. Their instruments darken with curls of synth or guitar smoke.
Lucía’s dominates many tracks — the insistent pounding of “Denim Enigma” or the world-music influenced “Painting” and “YDKWH.” The latter track, relentless and in-your-face, is a good taste of the band and their attitude. Check out the video.
The jazzy side of Human Ottoman really does exist, though. I didn’t imagine it. Modern, indie-style jazz is still in the mix, in the odd-time prog/jazz beat of “3(5)+4” or the tumbling, uptempo rhythms of “Codename: Fulano.”
Finally, note that Human Ottoman’s March 19 show is in San Jose, at a comic book store near downtown. It’s a neighborhood that’s seen occasional attempts at starting something cool and artsy. I haven’t visited in a while, and I’m anxious to see what Art Boutiki has going on.
Kamasi Washington — The Epic (Brainfeeder, 2015)
It turns out that while I was obsessing about the Los Angeles project called The Gathering — it’s a shame that their Kickstarter didn’t get funded — the central L.A. jazz scene had already gathered some serious national attention. It wasn’t until I began writing the last of my Gathering posts that I finally caught up with the buzz around Kamasi Washington.
Washington comes from the same Leimert Park district that Horace Tapscott, Jesse Sharps, and others had nurtured as a musical nexus. Washington made a splash early last year with The Epic, a three-CD collection of Coltrane-infused music with McCoy Tyner-style chords: a big and truly epic sound, backed in places by an orchestra and/or a 10-person choir.
The news here is about more than Washington himself. He’s part of a collective, the West Coast Get Down, that plans to release seven albums, of which The Epic is the first. With the media attention that The Epic has received, you could say this is the very L.A.-jazz insurgence I was hoping The Gathering could ignite. Washington represents a new generation of players with electronica and R&B influences, but the music is grown from the same roots.
Parts of The Epic aren’t my cup of tea, but it’s all toward a good cause. The crowds that Washington is drawing represent a new audience for jazz. Most of them won’t venture any further, but somewhere in those dancing, hollering masses are a few souls who will read the press around Washington and pick up on references to John Coltrane and to albums like Transition.
With any luck, they’ll catch the bug. And maybe they’ll even glean the secret — that while Coltrane is the master and the leader, it’s McCoy Tyner who powered the sound of that quartet. I love the way Ethan Iverson phrased it on his “Do the Math” blog: “One doesn’t offhand think of McCoy Tyner as unrecognized, but as far as I know, no jazz critic gave Tyner credit for inventing a language of jazz at the time. To this day, John Coltrane gets all (or at least most) of the credit.”
Elsewhere, Iverson makes an insightful comment about The Epic: “I wonder what Azar Lawrence, Billy Harper, and Gary Bartz make of the buzz. They played this style when it was fresh — hell, they helped invent the style.”
One thing I like about where West Coast Get Down are coming from, though, is their sincere love of making music. Here’s Miles Mosely, being interviewed by No Treble about the West Coast Get Down appearing on rapper Kendrick Lamar’s latest album:
Don’t get me wrong: we’ve done really great jobs with creating electronic music. That’s also very difficult to do and has its own sound, but it’s nice to hear the sound of musicians making decisions on a record again, because that’s gone away. Everything has been very polished. What made Motown and Stax so special was great musicians making informed decisions on great songs
Emphasis mine. I just love that phrase, “musicians making decisions.” Hadn’t heard it put that way before.
The biggest tracks on The Epic are those Tyner-esque ones, but the album crosses into other territory as well — soulful, peaceful grooves such as “Isabelle”; the quick-handed “Miss Understanding,” like the classic Miles Davis quintet on speed; the overkill of “Henrietta Our Hero” (which is a tender and moving song, but smothered in Broadway treacle).
The highlights are Washington’s breathtaking, infinitely tumbling sax solos (and his not-so-subtle use of overblowing, which is impressive but could use more finesse). But the rest of the band is aces as well. Every track springs an excellent improvisation from somebody, not just Washington. I especially like the rich, high-throttle bass solos on “The Magnificent 7” and what I think is an electric bass solo (it might be guitar) over the optimistic gallop of “The Message.” Whichever bassist it is (the record has two: Miles Mosley and Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner) just has a great sound on those strings.
So, what’s not to like?
Well … it’s the pop attitude to some extent, but it’s also the frills. The choir and orchestra do their job of building an epic feeling to the album, but how necessary are they?
Take a track like “Changing of the Guard.” I think it suffers from those extra layers. They’ve been added after-the-fact, and it shows: They cross the solos unevenly and weigh the track down. During the piano solo, particularly, I want to hear the piano and bass free-wheeling over the vaguely sketched chord changes — but the strings, in this case, enforce those harmonies, creating strict borders on a solo where the lines should be only loosely drawn.
Put another way: One towering aspect of late ’60s jazz, to me, is that while it’s chord-based, the players drift outside that lane frequently. With all its embellishments, The Epic draws those lane lines in thick Sharpee pen, and it’s too distracting to the sense of freedom that can make this music truly great.
It’s similar to the problem bands have when they play live with pre-recorded tracks or even a click track. What makes a live performance great is the ability to play to the moment. Subtle tempo changes, impossible to wrangle when backing tracks are involved, are part of The Moment.
Yes, it’s a matter of taste; the embellishments aren’t much different from the overacting and overdramatizing found in pop music. I don’t deny these musicians’ talent, their true intentions, or Washington’s gravitational charisma. There’s good music in here; I just think they overdid it.
Overall, I’m glad The Epic happened, partly for the L.A. representation, partly for putting jazz on the map for a lot of people who assumed they didn’t like jazz. And the occasional bombastic gesture isn’t my style, but it adds a sense of fun to the business.
For a more direct reading of Washington’s saxophone attack, you could try out Throttle Elevator Music’s Jagged Rocks. It’s essentially and album of indie-rock instrumentals, with Washington unleashed to romp all over the music. Sometimes the fit is awkward, but mostly, it just plain grooves — as if Washington is off the stage, out of costume, and just kicking back in someone’s garage.
Alex Jenkins Trio — Jumping Ship (self-released, 2015)
Jumping Ship is an easygoing inside-jazz session with rigorous drumming by the leader, Sacramento-based Alex Jenkins. The interplay of the sax-bass-drums trio is strong and always performed in service of the straightforward, friendly construction of the tunes.
The simplicity is attractive. “For Laura” might be the strongest composition on the record — not a fiery one, but a compelling melody with a plaintive intensity, where the theme feeds directly into some spiraling and dancing sax twirls by Jacam Manricks. Bassist Gerry Pineda also gets showcased on the track, first with an unaccompanied intro and then with the best of his solos on the album, a passage that’s brief but densely involved. Jenkins caps it off with a nifty solo of his own.
The album opens with “Lessons Learned,” a straightahead composition where the hook is a lone heartbeat-skip bar of 5/4 — catchy, once you latch onto it. “Slither” is an upbeat groove driven by simple sax riffs in a buzzy, forceful tone. It’s anchored by Jenkins laying down a gritty groove with a bit of funk. The title track features Manricks’ flute spinning a lightly mysterious melody that starts with a slow, grand Persian feel.
Jenkins gets to show off on two short solo tracks. “Djemke” is a springy display on hand drums, while “Dedication” has him preaching from the drum kit.
As often happens in jazz, the record leaves you wondering if the band can dial it up a notch in a live setting — such as Jenkins’ regular gig at Sacamento’s Shady Lady saloon. They’ll get a chance to show Oakland their stuff on Feb. 15, playing at Studio Grand as part of the ongoing Oakland Freedom Jazz Society series.
You can find Jumping Ship on CDBaby. Here’s a bit of “For Laura,” including some of the main theme and the introductory part of Manricks’ solo:
Marco Eneidi Streamin’ 4 — Panta Rei (ForTune, 2014)
Marco Eneidi’s alto sax is commonly associated with Jimmy Lyons’ fleet, liquid playing, so it’s unexpected to hear “Can’t Stop, Won’t Start” open Panta Rei with austere emotional wails. Eneidi and tenor saxophonist Marek Pospieszalski take turns overblowing in slow, ragged screams that sound like pure emotion unbounded — whether despair, anger, or even unfathomable joy is partly up to you.
That kind of raw-nerve emotion abounds on this quartet album, which pairs Eneidi with a trio of Polish musicians in a muscular improvised-jazz session. Things do heat up later. On tracks like “White Bats Yodelling” [sic] and “Arco M.,” we get a long, unadulterated doses of Eneidi spattering quick, fluid phrases in an exciting diatribe. “Made in Pole Land” gives us Eneidi’s slickest solo, followed by Pospieszalski demonstrating his own aggressive style.
Back on “Can’t Stop, Won’t Start,” Eneidi and Pospieszalski’s sparse choice of opening salvo provides us with a clearer introduction to Ksawery Wójciński on bass and Michał Trela on drums. Trela, in particular, plays a rapid-fire patter that arguably becomes the center of attention, a lead line behind the “rhythm” of the slow saxophone peals.
Though it’s an improvised record, Panta Rei walks along the border of spontaneous composition, with near-unison phrases materializing between the two saxophones, or from Pospieszalki and Wójciński on tenor sax and bass. It’s possible these are actually composed (although every track is credited to all four musicians) or communicated on-the-fly through hand signals — or maybe it’s a follow-the-leader exercise that the musicians consciously utilized.
In any event, these moments provide some guideposts in a couple of the album’s four long tracks, each clocking in at 9 to 18 minutes.
One sticking point for me — and it’s a small one — involves one of Eneidi’s go-to riffs: a fluttering between a root note and a scale progression, like a pianist keeping the thumb on one note while the other four fingers wander. It’s a trademark of his, but here, it seems to appear a little more often than it should. That I can even recognize this might simply be a sign that I’ve listened to that much of Eneidi’s music. Given the sparseness of his recorded output, that’s not a bad thing.
Having spent a decade in Vienna, Eneidi has now taken up residence in Mexico, where he’s been working with a trio called Cosmic Brujo Mutafuka — here’s some video of what they’re up to.