Back Pages #8: Through the Hill

Andy Partridge and Harold BuddThrough the Hill (Gyroscope/All Saints, 1994)

The Back Pages series was supposed to track music that had a particular story for me, mostly from the timeframe when I began earnestly delving into creative music. I don’t have much of a story for this one. But after the recent passing of Harold Budd, I started thinking about Through the Hill for the first time in years, and I realized this album taught me fundamental things about my passion for discovering and collecting music.

The album follows Budd’s aesthetic of lingering beauty, maybe with brighter melody and faster tempos. It’s a true collaboration, with Budd and Partridge (XTC guitarist whose fantastic pop songwriting includes some creative outer-ring stuff) sharing composing duties. The music is keyboard-based, with acoustic or electric guitars popping up here and there. Partridge adds occasional wordless vocals. On three tracks, Budd recites short poetry pieces written by Partridge.

What I loved, though, was the organization and the packaging. If you remember my geeking out about the structure and symmetry of Kris Davis’ Duopoly album, I had the same kind of reaction to Through the Hill.

The album’s 16 pieces are organized into three units: Geography, Structures, and Artifacts — with four “Hand” pieces acting as the joints between them, like Robert Wilson’s Knee Plays. Each song title is a vaguely mystical reference to an imagined place, building, or object.

Through the Hill, back cover.

The groupings resemble the chapters in Italo Calvino’s Imaginary Cities (which itself was apparently influenced by Georges Perec and the Oulipo writing/mathematics social collective, and here I’m reaching my limit of literary knowledge).

Inside the CD case, each of the three units gets a fold-out card, with each piece represented by an image from J.G. Heck’s The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration. Taken from antiquity, the pictures add to the abstract, mystical “story” the album seems to outline, and the general lack of human figures suggests empty spaces suitable for this quiet, blanketing music.

“Through the Hill” [from “Geography”]

I studied this album, in the sense that I listened by imagining that these “chapters” had meaning, with themes revealed in the music itself. I didn’t really expect to find anything; even the Hand pieces don’t seem to have a common thread. But it made the music into a journey, and it drew the physical album’s organization and presentation into the listening experience.

“The Place of Odd Glances” [from “Structures”]

And I just savored those titles. “Missing Pieces to the Game of Salt and Onyx” is not my favorite track musically — it’s based on a slow acoustic guitar riff that’s appropriately quirky but not enough to grab me — but… that title!

The CD wasn’t available for long, and therein lies my story. My first reaction at seeing it in the store, being familiar with both Partridge and Budd, was, “Well, I wonder what that even is.” Seeing it on multiple trips to the store spurred another thought: “When that thing’s gone, you might never hear of it again.”

“Bronze Coins Showing Genitals” [from “Artifacts,” featuring Budd’s voice]

I took a chance. Through the Hill would not make my Top 10 list musically, but it’s one of the prized gems in my collection. It was the beginning of the lesson that vinyl records and even CDs are physical souvenirs, collectables, just like baseball cards other trinkets. Much as I’m not proud of caring about physical objects, I have to admit that owning albums makes me happy. I certainly can’t afford to grab up every souvenir I come across — but that’s part of the fun: being discriminating, making choices, taking the occasional leap of faith. My mom loves to duck into antique stores, and it frustrated us as kinds, especially since she never seemed to buy anything. Now I can relate.

What’s changed for me since the ’80s and ’90s is that I now know the emotion that comes from owning something for a long time. My high school and college-era records are filled with trapped memories — not just the music, but also the flow of everything else happening in my life at the time. There are some records that I love and will never play until some major life event puts me in need of healing or reminiscing. Because just as playing vinyl wears down the grooves, opening and admiring and hearing those records will wear down those memories and mix them with the present. What matters isn’t the permanence of the object, but the threads of history clinging to it.

RIP, Dr. Tim Smith

I was saddened last month to hear that Tim Smith, the brain and heart of the band Cardiacs, had died.

Rhodri Marsden wrote a touching and succinct tribute for The Guardian. Cardiacs’ stage persona was built around a tyrannical Tim who himself was a slave of the shadowy Alphabet Business Concern, but as Marsden writes:

His bandmates speak of a generous hippy, a man who made everyone feel good about themselves. He was no extrovert, but was certainly a magnet. He ran an open house, welcomed you in, and offered limitless reserves of enthusiasm and support. He always said that his favourite music was his friends’ music. He’d go to your gigs, and he’d stand at the front.

I owe local musicians Amy X. Neuburg and Polly Moller for introducing me to Cardiacs, on separate occasions. I believe they also indoctrinated Moe Staiano, and his social media posts helped get me hooked, too.

I could link to any number of Cardiacs songs (R.E.S., Tarred and Feathered, Come Back Clammy Lammy, Flap Off You Beak, Is This the Life) or recount the cover band called ReCardiacs Fly.

But here’s something I didn’t know, and perhaps you didn’t either: Tim Smith received an honorary doctorate from The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in late 2018. He was honored in person, in Scotland, at a ceremony that included speeches and lots of music — and they captured it on film, thankfully:

Tim went through an inconceivable ordeal with dystonia — a condition involving, among other things, continual involuntary muscle contractions — for something like 12 years following a stroke. His mind was still sharp, by all accounts, leaving him a prisoner in his body that entire time. In a 2017 interview, he described it as: “Imagine if you were wearing a skintight bodysuit made of fishnet all around you, with electrical pulses going all the time.”

He could only communicate by pointing to letters on a board, and yet he was still thinking in sentences like that. Imagine.

In contrast to his stage persona, Tim was apparently a kindly soul, making it all the more sad that so many people outright loathed the band. Their catalog has been available online for some time, and it’s now on Bandcamp as well. It’s not too late to drop them a little love.

Eddie Gale Memorial Livestream: Saturday, August 8

I think I saw Eddie Gale perform only once or twice, which is sad. I did get to interview him on the radio, however, and while I don’t remember the details, the impression in my head is that he was engaging and entertaining, and that we ran long.

It’s always been a point of pride for me that Eddie was from the South Bay, and that he carried the title of San Jose’s Official Ambassador of Jazz, bestowed for real by then-mayor Norm Mineta. Eddie Gale passed away on July 10, and as you can see from the tributes posted to, he was generous with his time and energy and was a mentor to many a Bay Area musician. (WARNING: That link might launch with audio playing.)

Do yourself a favor and check out his albums. He might be best known for having appeared on Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures, but Eddie also blazed his own path as a leader. His albums Ghetto Music and Black Rhythm Happening take free jazz in a spiritual direction heavy in civil rights activism, with lots of revolutionary choral vocals. Around the turn of the century, he frequently played with the funky jam band Mushroom. His recurring band in modern years was called the Inner Peace Jazz Orchestra, a reflection of the kind of world Eddie was striving for.

There will be a memorial livestream for Eddie on Saturday, August 8, from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. Pacific time. The forevermissed link above will have the link.

Steve Dalachinsky Tribute and a History Lesson

Downtown Music Gallery, in Manhattan, hosted a concert in honor of poet Steve Dalachinsky, shortly after he died in September. The event was lovingly filmed by Robert O’Haire.

While the music and poetry are good, the most valuable parts for me were the brief talks by DMG proprietor Bruce Lee Gallanter about Steve and the original Knitting Factory, the nexus for the “downtown” avant-jazz scene of the ’80s and ’90s. Skip ahead to the 26:30 mark for Gallanter’s story of one of the greatest solos ever taken.

I came to the scene only at the tail end of that era, and while I knew Dalachinsky’s name, I didn’t fully appreciate his place in the canon. Drawn into the music as a teenager after hearing Cecil Taylor, Dalachinsky was more than a fan; he chronicled the scene through his stream-of-consciousness poetry and also served as a friend, critic, and collaborator. I can see why he’s missed.

RIP Alvin Fielder

I came to know drummer Alvin Fielder’s name through his improvised-jazz work with pianist Joel Futterman and saxophonist Ike Levin, as several of those CDs crossed KZSU’s transom in the early 2000s. Later, Bay Area bassist Damon Smith moved to Texas along with his Balance Point Acoustics record label, released a series of recordings involving Fielder. 

Here they are in a robust duo improvisation:

And while I’m there, here’s a look at Fielder’s quiet side, backing up Smith on the Johnny Dyani composition “Roots” and taking a long solo at the end:

But of course Fielder, who died this month at 83, had an accomplished career long before I “met” him. He was a co-founder of the AACM and appeared on one of its first albums, Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound in 1966. He stayed in his native South rather than doing the free-jazz thing of traveling Europe but remained active, recording with saxophonist Kidd Jordan for more than 30 years. This 2013 release on NoBusiness Records features the two of them in concert with bassist Peter Kowald:

He also had a long association with trumpeter Dennis González and his sons Aaron and Stephen González. They played on A Measure of Vision (Clean Feed, 2007), technically Fielder’s only recording as a leader — although it’s no stretch to call him the co-leader of the many improvises sessions he recorded. Most of the album puts Fielder in a trio with with Chris Parker (piano) and Dennis González (trumpet). “Max-Well” is a bright Fielder composition quoting “A Love Supreme” and, with its free use of snare accents, probably nodding toward Max Roach as well (Fielder cited Roach as a key early influence), while “The Cecil Tayler – Sunny Murray Dancing Lesson” is a beautiful dirge with flowering piano and, in place of a bass, Fielder’s toms. (Spotify login required to hear entire tracks — apologies for that.)

Writer Clifford Allen is a longtime champion of Fielder’s and published a lengthy interview with him on the All About Jazz site in 2007. Allen apparently introduced Fielder to Damon Smith. It’s through Allen’s blog, “Ni Kantu,” that I found this: a fiery 1976 TV appearance by the Improvisational Arts Quintet, a band that included Jordan and Fielder. Their recorded output is limited to one obscure LP (1983) and one side of a Rounder Records compilation (1988), so it’s nice to have this document available.

To end on a cathartic note, here’s a live take on “Max-Well” with Kidd Jordon on sax and London Branch (of the original Improvisational Arts Quintet) as one of two bassists. It’s from a 2009 tribute to Fielder in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi.

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.

Faruq Z. Bey

During the 2000s, KZSU received a few CDs by Faruq Z. Bey with the Northwoods Improvisers and/or his Griot Galaxy band. Bey dated back to the ’60s, but he was still putting out music in the 2000s, and I was happy to showcase it on KZSU.

He played free jazz with that earthly touch of the old days, rooted in the jazz tradition but in ways that didn’t sound “retro.” I liked the stuff but didn’t know any of the background.

That changed sometime last year when someone on Twitter — I think it was Jazz Session host Jason Crane (@JasonDCrane) pointed to this fascinating article about Bey, from 2003: “Musician Interrupted.” (The photo, by Barbara Barefield, is taken from that article.)

It tells the story of Bey’s Griot Galaxy in their glory days, before Bey’s motorcycle crash in the ’80s cut their time short. Bey survived, but the band didn’t. (The CD we got consisted of recordings of old concerts, IIRC).

Now there’s word Faruq Z. Bey has died at the age of 70. The Metro Times, which ran that other article, did a nice obituary on June 6.

Those Bey CDs had come to us courtesy of Mike Khoury’s terrific little label, Entropy Stereo, operating out of Detroit. Now would be a good time to check in with them and discover a little of the music that Faruq Z. Bey left behind.

It does feel good knowing that in some tiny, tiny way, I helped his music reach a few more ears. Even if not every listener remembered or even heard the name, the music was present; it was part of their lives for some small time. That’s the magic that radio can weave.

RIP Sam Rivers

The New York Times, among other outlets, is reporting today that Sam Rivers has died at the age of 88.

I’ve missed my chances to see a lot of the jazz masters before they made their passage. Thankfully, Rivers is not one of them.

Sam Rivers Trio (not at Bruno’s), with Rion Smith subbing for Anthony Cole on drums. Source: MySpace page of RivBea member Keith Oshiro. Click to go there.

I saw him play at Bruno’s in San Francisco, maybe 10 years ago? Maybe a little more? He performed with his trio: Doug Mathews on bass and Anthony Cole on drums, but all three of them shifted on instruments, with Cole or Rivers taking to the piano, or Mathews picking up a clarinet.

The instrument shifts were fun, but Rivers himself was impressive, too. Aged 80 or thereabouts, he still blew his sax fiercely, with energy and youth still in his lungs. I’m telling you: Whatever music you’re into, you have to take the time to see the performers live. You’ll regret it if you don’t.

RivBea Orchestra. Source: The RivBea MySpace page.
Click to go there.

This show happened sometime after the trio had released the album Firestorm, IIRC. Rivers’ records from there would concentrate on his RivBea Orchestra, the big band he’d convened in his home state of Florida. This was tightly swinging, hard-punching stuff that easily won the critics’ hearts and got airplay on numerous college radio stations like ours.

More than just a great player, Rivers helped launch New York’s loft-jazz scene in the ’70s. You can read on his site about Studio RivBea nurturing a generation of great musicians. For a more complete obit, you can read Nate Chinen’s article for the Times (linked above), or check out Peter Hum’s blog for the Ottawa Citizen. It’s laden with video references.

The original RivBea days. Source: WFIU, Indiana Public Media. Click to go there.

Me, I’ll probably take a moment to reflect and maybe spin Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue. Sam Rivers is on there, and it’s been a while since I’ve listened to the title track and its open flow of ideas. Maybe the recent RivBea Orchestra stuff after that — it’s so buoyant and sunny, a great way to remember Sam.

If you happen to be in Orange County, Florida, local cable-access will be showing video of a 2008 Sam Rivers performance a few times in the coming week.

Here’s a Cool Site To Discover (R.I.P. Hans Reichel)

You may not have heard of Hans Reichel, but he once created something you ought to know about:

Go ahead, click. Have some patience. Mouse around, find the spots to click — you’ll see.

It’s not a game per se, nor is it really a music site. It’s just a place to slowly explore and discover. I recommend checking out Page 1 or Page 5.

The relevance to this blog is that Reichel was a musician — creator of the daxophone, a musical instrument consisting of essentially a polished piece of wood. When rubbed with the right tool — a violin bow, say — it produces clear tones that sound like vocalized beeps. He built dozens, if not hundreds, of these things, taking advantage of different shapes and curves to produce different sounds. Most of the music you hear at is being produced by daxophones.

Sometime around 2000, the Bay Area creative-music folks got really excited about daxophones, and Reichel came around to play at Beanbender’s in Berkeley. It was a fun show, with Reichel playing solo, the audience still and quiet as the little daxophone noises leapt out into the room.

Reichel was also a guitar maker. Page 9 of takes you through a history of his creationsSeveral times, I had to keep myself from giggling. It wasn’t the music, it was the sound. See, the daxophone comes awfully close to the noises that Snoopy makes in the Peanuts TV specials. So I kept seeing images of little beagle-dogs chirping and singing, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, but always cartoony and, well, giggle-worthy. (Snoopy’s sounds are made by producer Bill Melendez, with the playback sped up, by the way.)

Let me put it another way: While this was serious music, it was also one of the cutest darned shows I’d ever heard. I hope Reichel would be amused by that.

Why bring all this up now? Because the news circulated today that Reichel has died at age 62. I’m saddened by his passing but happy that I got to hear his work in person, and also glad to rediscover the site.  Hopefully, it’ll stay up. It’s a nice legacy for Reichel to leave us.

Willem Breuker R.I.P.

I tend to avoid all news while on vacation — had I not been in Washington D.C., the government could have been overthrown without my knowing it — so it’s only now that I’m catching up to the sad news of Willem Breuker’s passing.

Considering the number of jazz masters I’ve missed seeing, I’m especially glad to have caught the Willem Breuker Kollektief at Yoshi’s some years back. They’re an amazing bunch, and it was particularly gratifying to know they’d managed to keep the act on the road for more than 25 years at that point, exposing worldwide audiences to that New Dutch mix incorporating traditional big-band jazz, free improvising, modern classical, and a cartoony sense of fun. They put on a show.

I was inspired enough that night to buy the photo book/CD set titled “25 Years on the Road.”  The merch table was madcap, with several of the musicians handling sales to eager buyers, and lots of cash changing hands. They moved a lot of product. It was fun to see.

As for the show itself, they didn’t disappoint. In addition to lots of rollicking jazz and crack musicianship, there was a lot of clowning around on stage. One piece featured four of the horns, two of them trombones, I think, doing their own untethered free-improv solo. After a few minutes of this, the rest of the band, including Breuker, started reacting in mock impatience, pacing restlessly, making angry gestures at the players, throwing sheet music in the air in exasperation. Two of them started up games of tic-tac-toe or something on one of the music stands.

Some folks point out that this is all shtick that’s repeated from show to show, if not rehearsed. But the theatrical elements are just part of the experience; you’re still watching a great jazz band in action.

The book is a treasure. It’s mostly photographs of road life for 25 years, including pictures from the big theatrical productions the band used to do in the ’70s and ’80s. It looks like they’ve attempted to document every single musician who played in the Kollektief — there are lots of head shots, and the back of the book includes a then-full discography with photos of album covers and playbills.

You also get to see the band clowning around, of course. One picture was taken on an airplane, long before 9/11, when the band pulled out instruments and played a song for the birthday of the wife of the Dutch ambassador to Aruba. Eat your heart out, Southwest.

If you care at all, you’ve already found plentiful Breuker material on the Web, I’m sure.  But here’s an obit list anyway. I intend to raise a glass and go buy something from BVHaast (Breuker’s label, which released a lot more than Breuker’s own music).

  • NPR/Fresh Air, whose Kevin Whitehead wrote a book about the new Dutch jazz. Lots of music samples, to give you a feel for Breuker’s work.
  • The New York Times.
  • A brief remembrance from Classical-Drone (also viewable on All About Jazz).
  • This snippet from the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, which doesn’t seem aware that Brueker died, is admirably concise and apt — although the phrase “The world needs more unique” shouldn’t have gotten past the copy editors. (Assuming they still have them there. That’s a separate issue.)

Finally, here’s the video that’s featured on Breuker’s Website (which still carries the 1990s early-Web URL of It’s a montage from a July 2009 performance in Belgium, one of the Kollektief’s last concerts outside of The Netherlands.