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.

Larry Ochs, Donald Robinson & a Lot of History

ochsrob2Larry Ochs (sax) and Donald Robinson (drums) will play a rare show as a duo on Thursday, Sept. 8, at the Luggage Store Gallery (1007 Market St., San Francisco).

They put out a CD fairly recently, called The Throne, which I wrote up here. (Was that really more than a year ago?) I also find myself thinking about Robinson’s recent duo concert with Oliver Lake — a highlight of this year’s Outsound New Music Summit.

Ochs and Robinson have played together for more than 20 years in more ensembles than I can count. In the Throne writeup, I’d neglected to mention What We Live, the improvising trio (or more) spearheaded by bassist Lisle Ellis, with Ochs and Robinson. Then there’s also Ochs’ Sax and Drumming Core, with Ochs and Robinson joined by second drummer Scott Amendola. And going back to the ’90s, they were both in the Glenn Spearman Double Trio.

That’s a lot of history, not to mention a nice scenic path through the last two decades of Bay Area creative music. Their show on Thursday will be just another in a long series — but in a way, it’s also worth celebrating.

Here are Ochs and Robinson live from a show three years ago hosted by GRIM (Groupe de Recherche et d’Improvisation Musicales — which actually translates nicely into Group for Research and Musical Improvisation). It’s a brief excerpt with a regal, Coltrane-shaded feel.

And Ochs himself has posted a track from The Throne on Soundcloud. Called “Breakout,” it’s an Ochs composition enhanced by a nice hard snap by Robinson.

Achievement Unlocked: Vortex Jazz Club

The Markov Chain at the Vortex Jazz Club, London, on 2 December 2015Early this month, I made my first-ever trip to the UK, visiting London on business. There wasn’t much time to get around, especially considering we were near the London ExCel conference facility, well to the east of anything in London that I’d heard of.

But I did sneak out on my final night to visit the Vortex Jazz Club, a cozy second-story music space and bar that’s been a cornerstone of creative jazz worldwide. Saxophone legend Evan Parker performs there once a month on a kind of permanent residency.

Cafe Oto, nearby, also features plenty of experimental music, but I had only one evening available. The Markov Chain, a piano-bass-drums combo of improvised jazz, won out.

Both venues are in the neighborhood of Dalston, one of those formerly low-rent areas where ethnic foods and skateboarders collide with redevelopment money and hipsters. The area has that city grime to it, and the surface similarities to Manhattan’s Lower East Side were actually a little comforting.

vortexThe Vortex itself is off the main drag, in a small plaza that’s now named Aim Bailey Place after Derek Bailey. The shot at left, from the Hackney Hive site, gives you a pretty good impression.

It’s a friendly place where they didn’t mind that I wasn’t drinking alcohol that night. (I honestly felt bad about that and contributed to the till via multiple mineral waters and couple bags of crisps.) The place filled up by showtime — many attendees being friends of the band, certainly, but not all. I wasn’t the only one who’d staked out a table early, and music fans’ reservations filled out the front row.

The Markov Chain is a free improvisation group that infuses plenty of jazz idiom into their playing — although extended technique did show up a bit during the show, particularly with bassist Tim Fairhall.

Pianist and bandleader Adam Fairhall (Tim’s brother) has had a couple of other projects out, including The Imaginary Delta, a septet suite released by Slam Productions. Possibly the best known member of the trio is drummer Paul Hession, who’s recorded frequently for Slam and Bruce’s Fingers — the latter having also put out The Markov Chain’s eponymous CD.

markovchain-stThe show at the Vortex started with Adam Fairhall doing a solo piano piece lasting maybe 20 minutes. It was a stunning mashup of old and new jazz styles, bursting with references to boogie-woogie and ragtime. Lots of blues colors, and some near-classical, concert-hall-style jazz, and sprinklings of free improv.

One particularly memorable stretch built off of a rolling 6/8 boogie-woogie theme in the bassline, with right-hand playing that was tonal and massive, built from fistfuls of chords.

After a break, the Markov Chain played two pieces — a long improvisation tracking maybe 40 minutes, and a 10-minute “encore” piece.

The longer piece was an exercise in sustained energy — not one solid wall of music, but a fast-paced series of episodes. I don’t recall any long quiet stretches, although there were plenty of passages where one player dropped out, leaving the other two in an extended duet.

Hessian is an excellent drummer, a whirlwind with a feather touch. And Tim Fairhall was captivating on bass — lots of pizzicato with big intervallic leaps, and later, a string-mashing bowing style.

The 10-minute followup stared in a mode crystalline and careful, one of the few settings they hadn’t explored in the longer piece.

I liked these guys. I’ve been enjoying their CD, where every track is an anagram of The Markov Chain. (“Monk Crave Hi Hat” is a particularly catchy title.) I was exhausted from the work week, but I was glad to see the Vortex and to experience this music. I’m rarely unhappy after I’ve taken the extra effort to go find out what’s out there.

Aram Shelton’s Resounder

Aram Shelton, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Frank RosalyResounder (Singlespeed, 2015)

Shelton, Lonberg-Holm, Rosaly -- Resounder (Singlespeed, 2015)Resounder is a bustling trio improv session with electronic enhancements added by saxophonist Aram Shelton after-the-fact. But the effect can be subtle. In fact, the players are so adept at wringing sounds from their instruments that you have to wonder if some of the exotic sounds are coming from the original session.

I say that because I first listened to Resounder blind, not knowing about Shelton’s post-processing. Once I knew it was there, my ears started playing tricks on me, particularly on “Bring Focus.” That buzzing tinge in the sax — is it acoustic or electronic? Did the sax just echo a few notes artificially, or was that my imagination? Now there, that was definitely a sax looped back into the mix … you get the idea.

“Fading Memory,” with Fred Lonberg-Holm‘s cello altered to spit ribbons of metal — that’s a more obvious example. Drummer Frank Rosaly gets his turns too, I think. One segment (which I now can’t find) has his toms and bass drum melted together into a low-flying tonal hum. Or was that just my imagination again?

Some of the electronics are more overt, which is good fun. Longberg-Holm gets plenty of electronics treatment to create dull roars and guitar-hero antics. There’s a passage later on “Bring Focus” that’s a long ramp to a crescendo, a nice slow burn of rumbling with a buzzy edge to the cello. And when it’s done, the band drops out, leaving behind a tinny sine wave — it’s a good dramatic moment.

Shelton had planned this to be a regular trio recording, just three good friends getting together in Chicago, and they turned in a crackling set. It’s only afterward that Shelton started considering enhancing the sounds, and it adds depth to what was already a densely packed session. Sometimes there’s some playback that literally adds another voice to the group. More often, though, it just sounds like more than three people, as Shelton’s processing creates new surfaces for the ear to cling to.

Listen to an excerpt of “Hope of Symbioses” on YouTube:


… Or to “Fading Memory” on Soundcloud:

Rempis

Rempis Percussion QuartetCash and Carry (Aerophonic, 2015)

Rempis Percussion Quartet -- Cash and Carry (Aerophonic, 2015)Part of the trick in listening to the opening of “Water Foul Run Amok,” the 39-minute spotlight piece on Cash and Carry, is to not get too mesmerized by Dave Rempis‘ free-jazz acrobatics. He’s shredding it up on sax, with blazing, buzzing passages calling up spirits of all sorts. Sometimes he’s tracing long-lined ideas; sometimes, it’s a gruff, Brotzmann-like phrase that gets repeated a few times for emphasis. He’s spinning quite a tale, either way, one that’s easy to get lost in.

But this is the Rempis Percussion Quartet, and part of the aesthetic is that two drummers are backing this music. The insistent activity — all that busy-ness — is a key part of the sound

So it’s important to take a figurative step back and try to let all this music soak into your skin, not just Rempis but also the bustle and clatter from Frank Rosaly and Tim Daisy, split into separate speakers. Ingebrigt Håker Flaten rounds out the sound on bass, keeping up with fast pizzicato.

That blast of activity lasts a little more than eight minutes. The majority of the piece is an exercise in restraint, with the players carefully crafting sounds and moods. The first phase of this, after that initial blast, is more than a simple cooldown; it features some emotive, color-painting sax from Rempis and an ominous bowed base from Flaten.

Daisy and Rosaly each get to show their stuff in separate solos later in the piece. It’s a nice showcase for each of them. But the defining moments for the band, in my opinion, come when the four of them are playing full-tilt, creating a unified wall of free jazz.

I’d suggest a similar strategy for other bands that double up the rhythm section — the Yoni Kretzmer 2Bass Quartet, which I just reviewed — or the Larry Ochs Sax and Drumming Core and the John Lurie National Orchestra, which I’d compared here.

“Better Than Butter,” the other track on Cash and Carry, is more of a slow simmer, gaining energy during its 15 minutes. This is another good taste of the four members working as a unit — first in disjoint, slower motions, carving out the shape of a piece, and then in more of a jam mode. It’s cooking, not at the full-tilt level of “Water Foul,” but at a midtempo step that’s  almost danceable during a late stretch where Flaten settles on an ebullient pulse. It makes for a nice ending to the journey, hearing the four members propping up one another to create such a warm, welcoming space.

Here’s a taste of that frenzied opening to “Water Four Run Amok:”

Some Overlooked ESP-Disk Gems (RIP Bernard Stollman)

esp-front-cropWith the recent passing of Bernard Stollman at 85, I’m looking back over the catalog of ESP-Disk, his eclectic record label that became instrumental to the development of free jazz. I thought it would be fun to highlight a few gems that aren’t getting mentioned in other obituraries.

During my time as KZSU jazz director, we were receiving some ESP-Disk reissues that were top-notch stuff and some new releases that excelled. But ESP was maybe a little too open-minded in its selections, because we got some albums, old and new, that fell flat, tripping over the line between glorious freedom and undisciplined chaos. I credit Stollman for giving the artists total control over their albums, but there’s a lesson in there about temperance.

You can search the KZSU library here or here, two different and rather powerful search engines that put a lot of commercial efforts to shame. Because of the confusion over ESP’s ownership and exact name, KZSU’s ESP collection is listed mostly on this page, but a few titles (including Charles Manson’s) ended up on this page.

The names on those pages brought back mostly forgotten old fuzzy feelings. Note that I have not taken the time to revisit all of these releases, so some of the memories might be fuzzier than others.

zitro-cropJames ZitroZitro (1967) ….. In 1967, Stollman gave Sonny Simmons’ drummer, James Zitro, a chance to show what he could do as a leader, and the results were explosive. The album is essentially two long tracks. “Happy Pretty” is a loungy jazz number played at 78 and overrun by stampeding horns and some ferocious soloing. It’s a thrilling yet incongruous straddling of the old and new jazz worlds. The band tries maybe a little too hard here, but it’s a mix worth hearing.

Sonny SimmonsMusic from the Spheres (1966) ….. Along with Staying on the Watch, part of saxophonist Simmons’ great legacy and the start of a career that nearly derailed in San Francisco but has been back on track since. I wrote the Zitro entry assuming you knew Sonny Simmons, but if you don’t, start here.

New Ghost: Live Upstairs at Nick's (ESP-Disk, 2006)New GhostLive Upstairs at Nick’s (2006) ….. ESP documented some exciting, newer talent in the 2000s. This live set from Philadelphia-based New Ghost mashes together dirty street funk, free-jazz skronk, jam-band friendliness, “world-music” horns, cartoony poetry, and a great sense of theater and stage presence. At one moment it’s a glorious mess, then it’s a tight, clean groove. Stage banter completes the atmosphere. Don’t sleep on this one.

Ellis MarsalisRuminations in New York (2005) ….. Scanning the ESP catalog, you frequently find yourself saying, “That guy? Really?” (The catalog is indeed 90+ percent male, but I also found myself saying “Billie Holiday? Really?”) Yes, a Marsalis is on the roster — Ellis, the patriarch, sitting down for some solo piano pieces that feel like casual journal-entries. Comforting sounds from an old cat who’s lived a good life. The music has the feel of jazz standards, but I remember considering that it all might have been improvised. It sounds like he had a lot of fun with this.

Ornette ColemanTown Hall, 1962 (1965) ….. Yes, everybody knows about this one. I’m cheating. But this was my first ESP album and my first full dose of Ornette. (A cursory listen to Song X in the ’80s doesn’t count.) I love the music, the sound of the Izenzon/Moffett trio, the fact that there’s a string quartet dropped in the middle of all of it — and the backstory, with Ornette having to fund the show himself. In fact, I think I’m going to go listen to it again right now.

Tim Daisy: The Drums of October

Tim DaisyOctober Music, Vol. 1 (Relay, 2014)

daisy-octoberIn addition to being a first-call free-jazz drummer on the prolific Chicago scene, Tim Daisy is also a composer. For October Music, he’s sketched duets to play with seven hand-picked partners, pieces seemingly built to play off their strengths. It’s got some serious moments but overall feels like an opportunity to just enjoy making some music with friends.

Many of the sessions come in a jazzy vibe — especially “Writers,” a spirited free-jazz romp with Marc Riorden on piano. It quickly gets into a sprint, with Riorden’s knotted piano improvising racing against Daisy’s fleet, subtle drumming. The composed theme, when it emerges, is a skeleton staircase of rising notes, setting the stage for a second round of high-energy improvising.

“Roscoe St.,” with Dave Rempis on baritone sax, seems like a nice reflection of Roscoe Mitchell’s many facets, a combination of burly, swinging saxophone and warbly experimental sounds. “For Jay” likewise slips through a few mood changes, from a sprited jazz-improv duet to a more careful space where James Falzone’s clarinet paints images of stillness against some astoundingly fast vibraphone — Daisy showing off some serious high-precision rolls on the sustained notes.

Other pieces opt for a modern-classical sound. “Some Birds” features Katherine Young, who’s explored the outer limits of the bassoon. It’s a calm chamber piece with vibraphone, presented with care, as if you were watching the assembly of a delicate and carefully balanced structure. “Near a Pond” is a studious piece where Jen Clare Paulson plays some sad, folky melodies on viola but also gets a moment of scratchy, whispery experimentation, adding to the overcast feel. It all culminates with a surprisingly vibrant marimba solo.

Vibraphone takes center stage on “For Lowell,” with Jason Adasiewicz at the hammers, playing bright, cool splashes against the palette of Daisy’s drum kit. “Painted,” with Josh Berman on cornet, is a reflective ending, played at a decently chipper clip but with lots of white space, created mostly from Daisy’s restraint on the drum kit. It’s not exactly sad, just very thoughtful.

You can find a more of Daisy’s composed or improvised musical ventures on Bandcamp. Here’s a dash of the aforementioned “Writers,” with Marc Riorden on piano: