Friday, December 08, 2017

Spirit-rhythm: Goodbye, Sunny Murray

[Updated 12/9/17 — see bottom.]

None of the drummers who helped define '60s free jazz really sounded anything alike. Andrew Cyrille was sparse, sensitive and intensely precise; Milford Graves was taut, virtuosic and startlingly alert; Rashied Ali was busy, flowing and irrepressible. Among these artists, Sunny Murray was the outlier. Speaking as a drummer, it's hard to even say what he did behind the kit.



When I heard the news of his death just now, I threw on the 1964 radio recordings with Albert Ayler, Don Cherry and Gary Peacock, some of my favorite Sunny Murray music. What a peculiar concept, to match Ayler's swaggering, prayerful vibrato with fluttering, impressionistic snare swells and tinkling cymbal chatter. Even as the music rises to a boil, Peacock's booming, agile bass work seems to drive the rhythm section, while Murray hovers as a kind of restless background spirit. It might seem too convenient to equate the supernatural overtones of Ayler's music ("Spirits," "Ghosts," etc.) with Murray's place in the music, but I think there is something inherently otherworldly about his playing. I think of it not as a mere instrument in the ensemble but as a sort of eerie shroud that descends over the band as they play.

Cyrille, Graves and Ali were (and in Cyrille and Graves' case, still very much are) all deeply, you might say consummately, interactive players, right there in the mix with the soloists; Murray, at least by the time of these Ayler recordings (you can hear him playing relatively conventional time on the classic 1961 Cecil Taylor tracks released on Gil Evans' Into the Hot), was operating on some other weird, insular wavelength. His tendency to moan as he drummed, an integral part of the texture of these classic early Ayler sessions, only heightened the sensation of some kind of gusting, whooshing force that seemed more to swirl around the music than to exist within it. (Paul Motian, who was working contemporaneously with some of the same players and starting to develop his own startlingly original concept, would later bring this sort of ghost-rhythm into the fringes of the jazz mainstream.)

But I want to be careful not to underrate Sunny Murray's genius here, to portray him as some inscrutable savant. The fact that his enormously idiosyncratic style worked as well as it did not just with Ayler but in the context of Cecil Taylor's magical 1962 band with Jimmy Lyons tells us something about how hard he worked to develop an original voice, seemingly distinct from the traditional jazz-percussion values of flair and virtuosity, that could resonate with, and complement profoundly, the equally bold concepts put forth by a variety of future musical icons.

His later work, from the thrilling and highly evolved Murray we hear on the classic Jump Up live LP (with Lyons and John Lindberg) from 1980 to the shaggy and deliberate one found on the excellent 2000 Murray / Arthur Doyle duo LP Dawn of a New Vibration, conveys the same sort of alchemical charge. (The Eremite catalog also features a number of important late-Sunny titles, including We Are Not at the Opera, with Sabir Mateen; the beautifully recorded Tiresias, by the Louis Belogenis Trio, is another gem; there are also several noteworthy releases with Tony Bevan and John Edwards, some discussed here.) It never got any easier to figure out what he was really up to back there behind those drums, or any harder to fall under his strange rhythmic spell.

As I've discussed on this blog in the past, the sound, and maybe more importantly, the sensation, of Sunny Murray's percussive art is in my blood — it's something I'd return to often over the years, a sort of refuge from more, for lack of a better term, literal forms of rhythm. Sunny Murray changed not just how jazz sounded, but how it felt, deep down in your bones, all the way to your spirit.

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*The 2010 documentary Sunny's time now [sic] is an essential portrait from Murray's later years.

*Looking over some key primary sources — Val Wilmer's As Serious as Your Life and Garth W. Caylor's Nineteen+, both of which feature stand-alone mini-profiles of Murray, the former likely based on interviews conducted in the '70s, the latter catching Murray in '64 or '65 — I found some intriguing Murray quotes, referring to his desire to move beyond conventional ideas of drumming and rhythm.

Via Wilmer:
...[Murray] considers that the drums as we know them are virtually obsolete. "First, there is nothing more you can do — all the way down to breaking the bass drum or making the cymbals split. There is no more there, and that is actually reaching the point of unmusical music — it's below the cultural octave or something." With this in mind, Murray has been trying to develop a different kind of drumset that uses electricity to sustain oscillating pitches. This, in effect, will be "more in touch with the human voice in terms of humming and screaming and laughing and crying."
Then, later:
"I've sent to Washington for musicians, given auditions, but I've seen them drop out because people usually expect the feeling of drums, and they aren't ready for what I do. I work for natural sounds rather than trying to sound like drums. Sometimes I try to sound like car motors or the continuous cracking of glass."
He later makes reference to his playing suggesting "...not just the sound of drums but the sound of the crashing of cars and the upheaval of a volcano and the thunder of the skies."

Via Caylor:
"I know where I'm going. I have an instrument I'm making — everyone thinks I'm talking through my hat because I don't have the money to put it together, but I have the drawings and studies of it. Max Roach said maybe he could get me a sponsor for it."

"Is this instrument a drum?"

"Not really. It's just a percussion instrument — I wouldn't want to call it a drum — I'd want to call it 'Sunny Murray,' or 'Blank,' or 'X,' or whatever. Max said he had one he wanted to make when he was playin' with Bird, but I told him 'No, baby, I know what you have in mind: boom-boom-boom, no.' I had to explain this to him because he was so quick to categorize my acts — a lot of old cats tend to do that. I can hear it in my head — it's like an instrument made up of all the resources of nature — I can't make it about words. I've been tryin' to get it together for four years, studying physics and making tuned aluminum sticks. ...

"The traps have become obsolete to me. I can't hear my son talking or the subway crashin' or my baby crying in my trap set, but I can hear it in something that I can construct."
I'm curious to know how far Murray got with these experiments, if he ever played his self-built instruments live or on record, etc. Anyone have any further info on that? Can't think of any documentation I've seen or heard.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

2017: The year in metal

Rolling Stone's year-end metal round-up is now live. Happy as always to help put this one together with my colleagues Chris Weingarten and Kory Grow. It was an interesting year for the genre in that there weren't quite as many mainstream/-ish tentpole releases to consider (like, for example, the Metallica album that rightly topped last year's RS metal list), so we were able to make room for a good amount of fringier picks like Oxbow, Pyrrhon and Krallice.

Likewise, my own listening ranged a little farther afield (emphasis on "a little"). Some of my favorite underground bands put out new records this year, including longtime DFSBP faves Suffocation, Immolation and Incantation, but these albums didn't really grab me like I was expecting or hoping. Same goes for the new Cannibal Corpse album, Red Before Black, though it wouldn't surprise me if I have a real moment with this one somewhere down the line, as always seems to happen with their LPs.

This set of circumstances opened up the field a bit, so I spent a good amount of time with Code Orange's Forever, for example, an album that represents a sub-scene I really don't follow closely (I guess I'd call it metalcore, for lack of a better term?). The band's over-the-top machismo often borders on the corny, but their obvious skill as players and writers — and, just as importantly, as overall architects of texture; the album is filled with industrial/ambient interludes that make the whole thing flow together like one long song — wins out. They really take the craft of extremity seriously, and conversely, they seem to think hard about the way their moodier, more dynamic elements only make the punishing climaxes hit that much harder. Speaking of those moody elements, the album's obvious crowning jewel to me was this extraordinary track, a song that nailed a sort of 1994–alt-metal sweet spot for me and rarely left my brain all year:



I certainly wouldn't have minded if all of Forever had sounded like that (if I'm remembering correctly, guitarist Reba Meyers only sings lead on one other song, the awesomely eerie closer "dream2"), but the fact that the track felt like an odd, alluring detour only made it stand out more.

Another album I blurbed for the list, Morbid Angel's Kingdoms Disdained, has been making me giddy since I first heard it a month or so back. We may never know the real backstory of this record, as Morbid Angel mastermind Trey Azagthoth isn't doing anything but goofball email interviews this time around (I tried hard to line up a feature based on a phone or in-person chat, to no avail), but the band's saga over the past few years (an almost universally reviled reunion-ish album that they all but ignored on tour, Azagthoth's subsequent parting of ways with classic-era frontman David Vincent and reunion with mid-period growler/bassist Steve Tucker, etc.) has been the stuff of a death-metal soap opera. Amid all the drama, I'm honestly shocked at how quickly Trey and Steve were able to right the course; in the absence of a return to the band's Vincent-era glory, which, it now seems clear, was never going to happen anyway, Kingdoms is better than any fan could have hoped for, a vicious, efficient and suitably batshit record that might just be stronger than any of the three albums from Tucker's initial tenure in the band. This track in particular is, as far as I'm concerned, a new Morbid classic:



(Check that nasty, writhing waltz riff that starts around :32.)

Moving on to metal's retro-prog, neo-gatefold wing, which seems to be really booming at the moment, thanks to high-profile bands like Mastodon and Pallbearer, Elder's Reflections of a Floating World was the one that really did it for me this year. Mastodon's Emperor of Sand is a very fine record, though a somewhat predictable one, proceeding in orderly fashion from their last couple LPs; in my opinion they still haven't quite figured out how to balance their sprawling-prog inclinations with their streamlined-FM-rock ones in a way that feels really wholesome and fully satisfying. And like their last record, the new Pallbearer LP didn't fully grab me the way I was hoping, considering how much I loved 2012's Sorrow and Extinction, though I admit I need to spend more time with Heartless.

But that Elder record is just pure majesty, total class. It's very rare to hear a fundamentally throwback-ish band whose channeling of various vintage sounds comes across as so natural and ingrained. It's like they've steeped themselves so thoroughly in the song- and riffcraft lessons of the past that they're able to just speak the Tongue of Epic Rock with utter fluency, almost as if these sounds and textures originated with them. Behold:



Speaking of pure majesty and total class, what to say about the no-nonsense creative dynamo that is Krallice, which released two more staggering statements within the past couple months? Doug Moore, a fellow writer and musician (and onetime DFSBP contributor), whose own band Pyrrhon made the RS list with the excellent What Passes for Survival, a mind-shreddingly intense and complex album that I feel like I'm just beginning to get some kind of firm grasp on after a few pleasurably bewildered listens, recently summed up Krallice's singular position in the metal underground in this sharp essay for the November edition of Stereogum's "Black Market" metal round-up. And it's a singularity that deserves to be celebrated, that of a group operating in essentially, to use Doug's phrase, "hobby band" fashion but producing such a great volume of rich, high-quality work that they put most "career" metal bands to shame.

Krallice's albums are, simply, oceans of content. I have become such an ardent fan that when they put out something new, it typically prompts me to trawl back through their entire, now pretty sizable catalog so that I can properly place the latest release in context. (I did this when Loüm, the first of their 2017 albums came out, and even kept a list of my favorite "holy fuck" moments from throughout the discography, of which there are many.) There is simply a grandness of scale to their music, coupled with a resolutely unbounded aesthetic, that I find deeply inspiring. They frankly make the idea of metal subgenres (and even the now-familiar "extreme" tag) seem deeply idiotic. It's clear from these two new albums, specifically Go Be Forgotten — at the moment I'm ever-so-slightly more in awe of this one, with its mystical, trancelike, often synth-bathed aura, than the gruff, frenzied, dauntingly technical Loüm, which features Neurosis member Dave Edwardson, though I stress that both are towering works that might take years to process — that they're simply making visionary art, period, with the style (and maybe even the very medium) being essentially incidental. In an attention-starved world, these exquisitely detailed, marvelously transporting sounds are a blessing to get lost in, and I can't wait for the next dispatch.



("Ground Prayer" is a phenomenal track, but make sure to hear it at some point in its proper album context, coming after the lengthy ambient piece "Quadripartite Mirror Realm.)

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, in aesthetic but not quality, is Unsane's Sterilize, which, like pretty much all their records, is a lean, brutally efficient smack upside the head. As discussed recently on DFSBP, I simply cannot stop playing this thing, along with Wreck, Visqueen, Occupational Hazard and the rest.



Though I didn't have quite as much of a prolonged moment with Obituary's self-titled LP, pretty much the same principles apply: This veteran band does one thing extremely well and their late-career, "cavemen of metal" cruise-control stage, which I wrote about for Rolling Stone, is a joy to behold in either its live or studio manifestations.


Other 2017 metal (and related styles) I liked a lot, had a moment with, etc.:
 
Oxbow, Thin Black Duke 
Luxurious and unsettling. Haven't even begun to reckon with this band's decades-long legacy, but this one (and the live show I saw) really pulled me in.
 
Converge, The Dusk in UsEven having really dug Converge's prior LP, All We Love We Leave Behind, as with Oxbow, I still feel like an outsider with these guys because I'm a late convert: That legendary early stuff (Jane Doe, etc.) just isn't in my blood the way I know it is with many people. But I find their recent output, this new record very much included, remarkable in its poise, power and effortless variety. Kory Grow's write-up for the RS list really nailed it.
 
Mutoid Man, War Moans 
A party-time spazz-prog-thrash blast. Lead track "Melt Your Mind" is an absolute stunner and one of my favorite metal tracks of the year.
 
Memoriam, For the Fallen
Rumbling, elegiac U.K. death metal from former Bolt Thrower frontman Karl Willetts, who helped invent that style, and friends.
 
A second, and sadly final, full-length helping of obsessive math-doom wizardry from an American underground treasure. (Can't wait to hear what's next for longtime DFSBP favorite Steve Shelton, also of Confessor.)
 
Honestly, this one got more play time from me than the original ever did. I love being able to hear these gnarled and creepy epics in something resembling higher fidelity. Read Kory Grow's essential feature on the band and the album. (Note: This one came out very late in 2016, but what can you do.)
 
The Lurking Fear, Out of the Voiceless GraveSort of like the Memoriam of Sweden: proudly regionally flavored death metal (in this case, cold, nasty, unrelenting) from At the Gates' Tomas Lindberg and other dudes who have been around the block.
 
Husbandry, Bad Weeds Never DieI wrote the bio for this one, FYI — you can read that on the Aqualamb website — but I was already a huge fan. This band sounds like no one else in NYC right now and I hugely admire their unabashed ambition to write badass, fearlessly eclectic post-hardcore that's as catchy as it is jarring.
 
Couch Slut, Contempt
Friends of mine and another one of the best bands in town. Seething, explosive and sicker than just about any other music on the planet right now.
 
Quicksand, Interiors
This is a strange one. One of the most treasured bands of my youth finally returns (sans their vital lead guitarist Tom Capone, who ran into some personal issues that kept him from participating), with mixed results. I admire how Walter Schreifels, Sergio Vega and Alan Cage pushed their sound into newly reflective areas here, but I admit that this record's sometimes sleepy, downbeat, almost post-Radiohead-ish vibe — in light of the taut fury of their classic work — left me a little stumped. Still, I'm glad it exists and I'm curious to see if it'll bloom a little more over time. (Wrote a few words on this one for a November new-release round-up at RS.com.)
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Lastly: So glad I finally saw Iron fucking Maiden live.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

In praise of Unsane: Consistency, commitment and the craft of catharsis

"When you establish a consistent body of work it makes its own reality, and there's no way it can be put down or put up; it becomes something that exists for human beings, a body of musics that will help people on the planet. I'm attracted to that, I always have been — as opposed to the concept of the 'great night.' Like, wow, this guy had a great night — one great night in twelve years! [Laughs.] That doesn't excite me. I'm interested in looking at the continuity of a person's involvement, and I draw strength from that ... because it really is about a life's commitment." —Anthony Braxton, Forces in Motion

We're getting to the end of the year, which means reckoning with all the music that's come out since January, taking stock, making lists. A worthy exercise, or at least a fun one. But it's secondary to how music happens to me these days, and has for a long time. More and more these days, I'm on the lookout for "a consistent body of work" that "makes its own reality," a big chunk of product that I can live with, pick up, put down, revisit, sink into, just sort of reveling in how much is there.

The band Unsane put out a new record a couple months ago, their eighth since 1991. The highest praise I could give it would be to say that it's a new Unsane record. In a world such as this, the mere act of carrying on, sticking to it, keeping the lights on, etc., in any artistic endeavor is admirable. But there's something I find especially attractive about the specific quality of Unsane's longevity, the way the "continuity of [their] involvement" manifests.

An art project like Unsane is extremely easy to underestimate. I myself did just that for years. Much like Obituary, another band that has provided me with untold hours of enjoyment and inspiration in recent years (per Andrew W.K.: "... to be able to turn to that no matter what state I'm in and have it instantly take me to this place of pure physical euphoric energy, it's one of the things I'm most thankful for in life, it's like water or food to me, it feeds my soul in a very fundamental way"), Unsane was, in my teenage years, a band I liked, full stop. I think I placed a value judgment on their simplicity, their dogged macro-level sameness, and back then, when I seemed to more invested in a hierarchical way of thinking about music, I likely would have viewed them as second-rate within the larger post-hardcore universe I was immersed in at the time (i.e., a lesser entity than, say, craw or the Jesus Lizard).

But, and again Obituary are a great example of same, musical tortoises like this will often surprise you. Suddenly 20 years have gone by, the larger scene has vanished or at the very least transformed drastically, and a band like Unsane look like not merely survivors, but titans. There is, without question, something to this idea of the life's commitment, and that really home for me when seeing Unsane live at Saint Vitus last week. I love seeing all kinds of music in all kinds of settings, but to me, there's something essentially holy about the transcendent club show, and the band that thrives in that environment. To say that Unsane do just that would, again, be selling them short. An Unsane club show is an essentially perfect musical event: an expulsion of negative energy, embodied in vocalist-guitarist Chris Spencer's rage-meets-rue shout-cry (I think of Ian Christe's description, in his Rolling Stone Greatest Metal Albums of All Time entry on Converge's Jane Doe, of Jacob Bannon as sounding like "a small animal caught in a terrible machine"; both men draw on wounded emotionalism as much as seething anger), accompanied by a sort of full-body clench and piercing blue-eyed stare, in drummer Vinny Signorelli's mean, minimal finesse, in bassist Dave Curran's sturdy conveyance of the songs' massive, loping weight, that paradoxically brings about euphoric delight. Watching them, I couldn't stop grinning.

The band aspires to nothing more than to play these types of songs (minimalist noise-blues mantras like "Sick"; demented-drag-race hellrides like "Over Me"; greasy, Curran-sung gutter-rawk stompers like "Aberration," from the new Sterilize; tortured, haunting dirges like "Only Pain"; grinding, nihilistic exercises in musical masochism like "Get Off My Back"; and so on) in these kinds of environments. They get up there, completely own the room by simply doing what they do, incredibly well, get offstage, move on to the next city, repeat. Like so:


The truth is that, as consistent as their aesthetic is, there's a ton of variety and nuance in their work. Spencer's trademark vise-like manhandling of his guitar body, a kind of poor man's whammy-bar effect; his deft slide work; the piercing, sinister melodies he layers over the band's lumbering grooves — all are evidence of a master craftsman's attention to detail. Ditto the way Signorelli and Curran inject their vamps with just the right amount of funk so that they go down harsh but somehow smooth at the same time. Contrasts in tempos and time signatures, subtle shades of the band's primary emotional colors.

What I find so fascinating about this band, and their ongoing project, is that you have the sort of external trappings and mythology of what they do (the blood-soaked album covers; the sordid, oft-recited past complete with drug addiction and even death; the association with the Mean Streets of the early '90s East Village / Alphabet City; even their blocky, all-caps logo), playing into the "one idea, three ways" concept of a holistic image/presentation/vibe. It's all so easy to caricature, to underestimate, to wave off with a "yeah, yeah, I get it." (I myself couldn't resist riffing on how out-of-date Unsane's portrayal of NYC's filthy underbelly seems in the age of rampant gentrification, when I reviewed their 2012 album, Wreck.) But you see them up there on that club stage, sounding and looking the very opposite of tired, played out, obsolete. Make no mistake, for all of their music's tough-guy affect, these guys are having the time of their lives, reveling in the craft of catharsis, relishing the micro-refinements of their deceptively humble art. I know firsthand that playing heavy music is lifegiving, and you can clearly see and sense Unsane drinking deep from that fountain of youth at their shows.

And so yes, best albums of the year, yadda-yadda. In the end, whatever has gone down musically in the past 12 months, and that includes a lot of great stuff, really just amounts to a "great night." Albums, ideally, are just milestones along the way, evidence of a life's commitment in progress, reminders to look at the body of work in its entirety. Every time Unsane puts out a new album, I'm prompted to load up my iPod with all the others, trawling backward and forward and backward and forward through the evidence of their deep, enduring commitment. The kind of work that's easy to miss until you stand back, years later, and really take it all in. Thank God for the lifers, the ones who just keep at it, slowly amassing "a body of musics that will help people on the planet." Goddamn right, it will, and may it ever be so.

Here are 10 Unsane songs I love. (I wholeheartedly recommend all their albums, especially the ones from 1995's Scattered, Smothered and Covered up through the present.) Play painfully loud, obviously.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Goodbye, Muhal Richard Abrams: A 2008 conversation

HS: ... I know that you were a mentor figure for a lot of musicians.
Muhal Richard Abrams: Well, I don’t subscribe to the mentorship idea. I don’t subscribe to that. I think they were more or less collaborations, although quite a few of the people were younger and less experienced than myself. But it finally evened itself as really collaborations. I don’t subscribe to it, although I realize that people view me in that way and some of the musicians also, but I just don’t subscribe to it.

HS: In other words, you’d rather not take credit for anyone’s development?
MRA: No, because when one is impressed with the idea of being one’s self, the possibilities become limitless. And I think most of the people that I’ve associated with proved that to be true.

HS: Now a lot of the musicians that you did collaborate with have gone on to do a lot of great things. And a lot of them would consider you to be a mentor even if you don’t—
MRA: I understand—I understand.

HS: So when you hear names like, say, Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, Henry Threadgill or the Art Ensemble of Chicago—this long list of illustrious figures—do you feel a sense of pride in being a part of their development, or just in being associated with them? 
MRA: A great pride in being associated with them—I certainly do. 

Excerpt from a 2008 interview with Muhal Richard Abrams, conducted while reporting a Time Out New York story on George Lewis' then-new AACM book A Power Stronger Than Itself.

*****
Word circulated on Monday night that Muhal Richard Abrams has passed away. I'm not equipped to offer a detailed account of his life or an authoritative appreciation of his vast body of work, but fortunately, we have George's book as a starting point for future scholarship. I will say that I'm extremely grateful to have been able to see him perform several times (most recently with Jack DeJohnette's stellar Made in Chicago band) — on at least two memorable occasions, at the lovely DIY concert series that he and the AACM's New York chapter hosted for years in various spaces around NYC — and to sit down with him for the lengthy interview linked above, where we talked in detail about the formation of the AACM (he told me up front that he didn't want to discuss the past, but fortunately, during the course of the interview, that proved to be a false alarm), the Experimental Band, his daily practice routine and much more. As I hope is clear from this excerpt, he radiated a mixture of humility and conviction — I vividly remember him sitting in the back of a Lenny's sandwich shop on Ninth Avenue in Hell's Kitchen, wearing his trademark ball cap, smiling warmly and speaking with deliberate clarity. Nothing was glossed over or fudged in that interview; he simply wouldn't allow it. He wasn't "difficult" in the slightest, just extremely focused.

Whether or not he viewed himself as a leader, it seems pretty clear that, starting more than 50 years ago, Muhal Richard Abrams set an example that changed the course of music, period, in America and beyond — and helped unleash the creative potential of a host of artists who are still enriching us today, and will continue to do so. His own work as a pianist and composer was full of mystery and virtuosity. This Pi Recordings set, released just over 10 years ago, is one of my favorites and a great place to start:



Goodbye, Muhal, and thank you for everything.

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*More of Muhal in his own words:


*Obits/appreciations from Howard Mandel, Nate Chinen and Peter Margasak.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

John McLaughlin talks Mahavishnu and more

This one, a Rolling Stone interview with John McLaughlin about his upcoming (final) U.S. tour and the history of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, was definitely a cross-it-off-the-bucket-list type of deal. Would've loved to have had more time with him on the phone — not to mention a better connection on the line — but he was so generous and forthcoming during our chat. I got chills listening to John describe gigging with Lifetime, a group that's probably in the top 10, if not five, of bands I'd choose to go back in time and see live if given the chance.

I'm still making my way through Bathed in Lightning, Colin Harper's exhaustive but extremely readable history of McLaughlin's early career, but this book is invaluable. If you're a fan — or if you've ever found yourself wondering, as I do often, how the fuck music as advanced and inspired as Mahavishnu's could come to exist on this planet of ours — you need it immediately. I'm also a fan of Walter Kolosky's Mahavishu biography Power, Passion and Beauty, an unconventional and informal book that nevertheless has a ton of great original research. The testimonials from many prominent artists who saw Mahavishnu (and Lifetime) live are priceless.

I leave you with this clip of what has become my favorite Mahavishnu piece, "Hope," an easy-to-overlook interlude on Birds of Fire that the band turned into a heavy-metal cataclysm onstage:


I also can't recommend the bonus disc of the classic '73 Mahavishnu live set Between Nothingness and Eternity highly enough. That entire concert is just utterly transcendent and staggering. I'm more in awe of this band than ever, and that's saying something, considering how much they've meant to me over the years.

I also enjoyed getting to know the later Mahavishnu records, such as Apocalypse and Visions of the Emerald Beyond, which I'd mostly overlooked before. They lack the otherworldly drive and focus of the early stuff but are still very much worth checking out. And there's so much more to McLaughlin's vast discography: the mix-and-match post-Mahavishnu all-star date Electric Guitarist and After the Rain, a 1994 trio album with Elvin Jones and Joey DeFrancesco, are a couple I've found myself going back to. And of course the phenomenal Extrapolation. Long live Johnny Mac…

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Magic in the method: The Art Ensemble of Chicago live in New York



Tonight's Art Ensemble of Chicago show at Columbia University's new Lenfest Center for the Arts uptown concluded with 10 to 15 minutes of what on the surface could be termed an old-school free-jazz blowout. (The above video captures an analogous sample from one of the group's shows at London's Café Oto this past February.) It had that familiar kind of multilayered density, with Roscoe Mitchell on alto sax, Hugh Ragin on trumpet and Tomeka Reid on cello all sending forth formidable streams of sound that swirled together with drummer Famoudou Don Moye's busy textural wash and dual bassists Jaribu Shahid and Junius Paul's thick low end. But though the sextet worked up to a pretty intense boil, there was something about this episode that stood distinctly apart from codified "free jazz" practice. There was some matter-of-fact-ness here, some total lack of histrionics or extramusical drama — a refutation of the idea that this turbulent climax needed to convey any particular message outside of the literal impact of its sound — that seemed to sum up the utterly unassuming way that the group had worked its magic, and potently demonstrated so many of its core principles, over the preceding 40 minutes or so.

To put it more straightforwardly, this edition of the Art Ensemble, the only one I've had the pleasure of seeing live, covered an enormous amount of aesthetic ground with a remarkably little amount of fuss. The juxtaposition of styles — a consciousness-warping unaccompanied Mitchell solo on sopranino sax, say, followed by a conventionally "jazzy" group theme statement over an amiable swing rhythm — is such an elemental part of the AEOC's mission that they're able to pull this off, i.e., to construct an episodic set that flows surprisingly yet perfectly logically though a series of disparate soundworlds, without coming off as glib or contrived in the slightest. In the world of so-called avant-jazz, you'll sometimes see this kind of friction played more or less for laughs, e.g., a tight ensemble statement will give way to an exaggeratedly ragged, lurching bit of "out" improv, often eliciting a few knowing chuckles. But here there was no gimmick being trotted out, no musical punchline being delivered. I just felt from the whole set a sort of great serenity (even in its more abrasive moments) and focus, a sense that the group's comfort in its own skin was absolute — impressive since this particular configuration had never performed together before tonight. (Aside from the group mainstays Mitchell and Moye, Shahid, Ragin and Paul had all appeared at prior AEOC gigs; this was Reid's first live outing with the group, and her contributions were invaluable throughout.)

It was hard to tell how rigorously structured the set was, but the various sections flowed into each other with a masterful kind of ease, each new one following from the prior like a course in a meticulously plotted feast. A tender yet expressive Hugh Ragin feature, accompanied by one of the basses, if memory serves, to open the set; a Mitchell sopranino solo that started out sparse and tentative and built into a torrent of circular-breathing-abetted multiphonics; an alluringly fluid and fleetingly funky Moye drum solo; and so on. And then a poignant moment when Mitchell seemed to serenade a man in the front row of the audience, who was then led up onstage to sit in front of a microphone. It was none other than longtime AEOC mainstay Joseph Jarman, the night's guest of honor, apparently no longer performing on reeds, but game here for spoken-word recitation that verged at times on song. The band (with Moye switching to congas) built up a lively undercurrent while letting Jarman take the lead, speaking poetic phrases clearly informed by his Buddhist beliefs. He would fixate on lines ("We're in a maze together..."), repeat them, transform his speech into fragile melody as the band cushioned him, rising and falling with his cadences.

What struck me here, and during the various other times when one or more members took either an overt or subtle "lead" or solo-istic role, is how patiently each such episode seemed to unfold. I kept thinking of the sort of ethos and approach of Mitchell's classic Sound session, probably the Art Ensemble–related documented I've connected with most deeply over the years (I'm a passionate fan of a handful of AEOC recordings, particularly the Nessa box of 1967/68 sessions and Fanfare for the Warriors but I'm by no means an expert on their full discography), i.e., this idea of leaving aside the surging rush of classic "energy music" in favor of a more contemplative, exploratory spirit, yielding a situation in which each solo, so to speak, is really more like a mini research mission, with the player in question staking out a sonic terrain and then sort of drilling down in, burrowing ever deeper. Mitchell is of course a master of this kind of thing, and seems to be able to reach that place of almost monastic focus more or less instantaneously, but Moye's solos tonight carried the same sort of authority, the same thoughtful progression and play of virtuosic dazzlement and shrewd restraint. Just as the players demonstrated extreme sensitivity to one another, they seemed to put the same principle to work within their own improvisations — the notion of playing without simultaneously listening, considering, weighing, taking into account the overall micro- and macro- sonic narrative at hand doesn't seem to be in the AEOC's vocabulary.

And when at one point, after Jarman had spoken, a string trio of Reid, Shahid and Paul emerged out of the larger group and came to the fore, supported by Moye's bells, you heard how completely even the newest member of the group seemed to have internalized this core principle of how they operate. I can't recall the precise texture of this episode, but I remember feeling awed by its simultaneous daring abstraction and tasteful cohesion. Like so many of the musical chapters that made up the set, it felt at once obsessively focused and refreshingly compact. And as it was happening, the other players sat silent, absorbed, as if to transmit to their groupmates a message of pure "you do you" support. The full "Sound" privilege isn't just reserved for the senior members, in other words; everyone onstage got all the time and space they needed, not to "solo" per se, but to, to paraphrase Coltrane's spoken introduction to "Dearly Beloved," carve out a particular sonic space and "keep a thing happening."

The strings and bells would give way to the free ensemble climax, another brief, groovy theme statement (it might have been the band's signature tune "Odwalla") and personnel introductions by Mitchell. He has an easy way at the mic and a hint of the veteran showman to his delivery. For all the marvelous intensity and idiosyncrasy of his playing, his demeanor onstage is dry and no-nonsense. He clearly values the performative exchange (at the post-concert chat expertly moderated by my friend and former colleague Steve Smith, who was at least partly responsible for this gig happening at all, Mitchell spoke with great enthusiasm of the many outside projects he has afoot, including the marvelous trio-improvisations-turned-orchestral-compositions document Discussions — see Seth Colter Walls' typically sharp and detailed review here — and a challenging new ECM double-disc set. Bells for the South Side) but he doesn't get onstage to peddle any kind of mysticism or cater to any kind of mythology about the business of so-called experimental music-making. Paradoxically that only makes the group's insular, intuitive praxis feel that much more ritualistic, even alchemical. There's this methodology that these musicians, in various configurations, have been honing for half a century now, an approach built on the simple yet elusive principles of real diversity, depth and good old-fashioned concentration, and during tonight's unfussy tour de force, they showed how much vitality there still is in what it is that the AEOC (and in a more broad sense, the AACM) does.

It ain't magic, but it sure does feel like it.

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*A special word of thanks not just to Steve but also to Seth Rosner and Yulun Wang of Pi Recordings, who were also instrumental in making this gig happen, and who issued three key documents of the AEOC from 2003 through 2006.

*Do not miss Nate Chinen's excellent WBGO feature on the group's past, present and future.

*If you're in Philly tonight (Saturday, 10/7/17), the AEOC performs again as part of the October Revolution fest.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Goodbye, Tom Petty: dad-rock's sly revolutionary




I listened to all of Into the Great Wide Open yesterday, just as the sad news was flowing in, and I was struck by what excellent music this is. (Prior to this, I'd forgotten the deep cut "Two Gunslingers" even existed, but the song came back to me instantly, like an old friend.) The album came out just a couple months before Nevermind, but somehow, almost miraculously, Tom Petty's songs were in the air during his time in a way that none of his fellow dad-rockers' work really seemed to be. I remember those few albums, Full Moon Fever, ITGWO and Wildflowers being maybe the strongest musical bridge between my friends and I (all budding teenage punks and metalheads by this time) and our respective parents. Everyone seemed to love these songs.

Sure, the MTV exposure helped, but that cinematic quality was already in the songs themselves. As Phil Freeman put it on Twitter yesterday, the opening of "Listen to Your Heart" ("So you think you're gonna take her away / With your money and your cocaine") is "an entire short story in two lines" (a notion he expanded on in a very sharp Stereogum essay). Yes. And that's true of so many of these classics. The rise-and-fall Hollywood narrative of "Into the Great Open" (which seemed so spot-on then, in the twilight of hair metal) always got me, especially the part about how "their A-and-R man said, 'I don't hear a single.'" Petty just had this sort of hard wisdom about how he put things, combined with a knowing way of singing these words that felt, especially as his career wore on, sly and cynical but also deeply empathetic — in contrast to the more fiery, screechy delivery of the early hits like "Refugee." Add in that sort of hazy, drawling quality his music had, that shimmering vibe of California psychedelia that was so prevalent in songs like "Last Dance With Mary Jane" and "Free Fallin'," and you had an almost magically durable strain of radio rock.

Sure there were, say, Don Henley's poignant solo hits (not to mention the mighty Graceland) earlier and Neil Young's transporting Harvest Moon later, other efforts that seemed to transfigure the spirit of '60s and '70s rock into something more ethereal and enchanting, but somehow, Petty, with invaluable assistance from producers like Jeff Lynne and Rick Rubin, was the laid-back king of this quiet neo-dad-rock revolution.

Later on, I would discover Bob Dylan in earnest and probably began to take Tom Petty for granted a bit. Clearly, Petty owes Dylan so much and we tend to think of the latter as somehow more authentic, a true poet as opposed to a dad-rock figurehead. (Unless we just think of them as Charlie T. and Lucky Wilbury, respectively; shout-out to the sublimely corny "Last Night.") But the truth is that in some ways, Petty might be the greater songwriter, one who put as much poetry into his simple, indelible melodies as into his economical, evocative lyrics. Bob Dylan could do many things, but I'm not sure he ever wrote a song as catchy and gently wrenching as this:



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*I'm really enjoying my Rolling Stone colleague Andy Greene's interviews with Tom's Heartbreakers bandmates (Ron Blair, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench). A lot of insights into the inner-workings of a great American band. This 50 Greatest Songs list is also an illuminating read.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Heavy Metal Be-Bop #13: Matt Mitchell

I'm proud to announce the arrival of Heavy Metal Be-Bop #13! This is the first new installment of HMB — for those just tuning in, my interview series dealing with the intersection(s) of jazz and metal — in roughly 20 months. The subject is none other than Matt Mitchell, a pianist who over the past five years or so has become a ubiquitous avant-jazz breakout star, anchoring killer bands led by Tim Berne, Darius Jones, Dave Douglas and many more while also advancing his own severely advanced composition/bandleading aesthetic on an increasingly ambitious series of Pi Recordings discs. The latest — A Pouting Grimace, out next week — is an exhilarating and throughly batshit marvel than any lover of any kind of radical, progressive or just plain weird music needs to hear:


As you'll read, Matt is a serious head when it comes to metal, and he and I went deep on his many underground faves, including Portal, Virus, Jute Gyte and Incantation. He also offered some insight into how his steady intake of outré heaviness might have informed his own new music.

Check out the "theatrical release" of the interview here, via WBGO. (A big thanks to Nate Chinen for hooking this up.) And read the considerably lengthier director's cut here, at HMB HQ.

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PS: Mitchell and Kate Gentile, the kit drummer on A Pouting Grimace, both also appear on Gentile's recent Skirl release, Mannequins. If the head-spinning complexity, insane textural variety and overall relentless rush of fresh ideas heard on the Mitchell disc appeal to you, I strongly urge you to pick this one up as well. I'm still digesting Mannequins, and that may be the case for years to come, but I can easily say that along with A Pouting Grimace, it's one of the most striking records I've heard in 2017, in any genre.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Creature of the margins: Goodbye, Walter Becker















RIP, Walter Becker. Via Rolling Stone, a quick rundown of 10 essential Steely Dan songs. [Update: 9/13/17] And a roundtable Walter Becker podcast with RS staffers Brian Hiatt, David Browne, Rob Sheffield and myself, as well as Steely Dan engineer Elliot Scheiner.

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Do you ever get a kick out of the idea of hearing a song as dark and strange as “Deacon Blues” on classic-rock radio?

Yeah, I think that’s great. That’s sort of what we wanted to do, conquer from the margins, sort of find our place in the middle based on the fact that we were creatures of the margin and of alienation, and I think that a lot of kids our age were very alienated. To this day when I read some text that somebody writes about alienation, I always think to myself, Gee, they make it sound like it’s a bad thing! So yeah, I think that’s great. Naturally that’s very satisfying to us to hear that something has slipped through the cracks.
Asking Walter Becker the question above and having him respond so eloquently was easily one of the highlights of my journalistic life so far. We know him and Donald Fagen as consummate deflectors, masters of evasion, but when I spoke to Becker in '08, for a piece timed to the release of his second solo album, Circus Money, he couldn't have been more open, direct and generous with his time.

We may never know the true division of labor in Steely Dan ("Sometimes we really work very closely, collaboratively on every little silly millimeter on the writing of the song and certainly of the records, and sometimes less so," Becker told me when I asked about it), but one thing that's clear is that his and Fagen's partnership was a) nearly telepathic (their non-versation over the mixing board in the section on "Peg" in the Classic Albums doc on Aja is an all-time masterpiece of snide shorthand) and b) extraordinarily fruitful. In just nine years, they put together some of the most profoundly idiosyncratic yet paradoxically pleasurable pop songs ever composed. One could argue that they were snobs in some ways — from reading Eminent Hipsters, I doubt Fagen would dispute this characterization — but they never looked down on the magic of pop, the fact that a three-(or four-, or five-, or six-)minute song could contain an entire universe. (They never looked down on their fans either, even if they poked fun at them sometimes, as I can attest from having seen four of their legendary Beacon Theater shows over the years, at which Becker always played the good-natured ringmaster.)

 Even without fully knowing what they mean, I have become more lost in Steely Dan's songs, from "Bad Sneakers" and "Haitian Divorce" to "Sign in Stranger" and "Razor Boy" than those of almost any other band. What gets glossed over in all the knowing shorthand — "smooth," "jazz," "yacht-rock," "cocaine," etc. — is just how tender and empathetic their music can feel (I think of songs like "Deacon Blues," "Gaucho" and the haunting masterpiece of a B side "Here at the Western World") even when it's at its most barbed and venemous.

In some ways, Becker's solo work was even more so. He was a limited but soulful singer, and, on his own, a songwriter who knew how to blend satire and deeply felt humanity in intensely poignant ways. For one thing, he nailed the bruise of soured love like few others have. To wit:

"Junkie Girl":


"Book of Liars":


"Downtown Canon":

 

Donald Fagen can of course be masterful on his own too, but as Fagen's statement from today suggests, there's little doubt that each artist's finest work came out of their partnership. Together, they created a sprawling catalog of, in Becker's words, America's many "mythic forms of loserdom" that's pretty much without parallel.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Vijay Iyer / Steve Lehman / Tyshawn Sorey saga: 'Far From Over,' indeed

Photo: Lynne Harty

















The new Vijay Iyer Sextet album feels both like an arrival point (i.e., a summit-like convergence of the now fully risen progressive-jazz stars of the past decade-plus, namely Iyer, Steve Lehman and Tyshawn Sorey) and a blueprint for the future. It's also a hell of a fun, engaging listen, a record I'd recommend to pretty much any fan of any kind of "modern" jazz — it has just the right blend of old-school format and cutting-edge execution. I was happy to be able to share some thoughts on Far From Over via Rolling Stone.

I still have fond memories of witnessing Iyer, Lehman and Sorey's "robojazz fury" up close at a Fieldwork gig almost exactly eight years ago, as well as watching and listening as each of these three have branched out and bloomed (here's a best-of-2016 DFSBP roundup featuring some props for Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith's excellent A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke; here's a 2012 TONY piece on Lehman's striking trio record Dialect Fluorescent; and here's TONY's best-of-2007 roundup, where both I and Steve Smith shouted out Sorey's spellbinding debut as a leader, that/not) into true leaders of the jazz vanguard

And I intend no slight to Graham Haynes, Mark Shim and Stephan Crump, the other musicians on Far From Over. Lehman's octet, Iyer's trio, Sorey's various bands, Fieldwork itself — all superb, but this Iyer group seems like something special and distinct; even, in the context of this music in my lifetime, historic. (I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that we're in a kind of neo–Blue Note moment here; not in terms of a retro sound but in terms of a stunningly deep pool of players who are cross-pollinating in all kinds of fascinating ways, much as, say, Tony Williams, Jackie McLean, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter et al. did back in the day.) Can't wait to hear where these musicians go, individually and as a collective.

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*See also Seth Colter Walls' typically sharp, detailed Pitchfork take.