Wednesday, November 22, 2017

John Prine Live Concert Review - The Singing Mailman Delivers

Pretty good, not bad, I can't complain

Actually, every John Prine concert review should be just about the same.  Fully invested audience members are going to be taken on a 90+ minute emotional journey that includes laughter, tears, love and sorrow.  That was the case with the show I saw on 11/11/17 at the Altria Theater in Richmond, VA and it was also the case with the last concert I saw him do about 10 years ago, and yes it was pretty much exactly the same when I first saw him live during the summer of '95.

In all these years the setlist and arrangements haven't changed that much.  A few new songs have trickled in over time, equally as brilliant as the ones before, while a few of the old standards have been left behind.  It doesn't matter.  John Prine is really, really good at writing John Prine songs.

I've been wanting to say something about this most recent concert ever since it happened, but I really can't find the words.  "Nostalgia" isn't exactly what I'm looking for.  Prine's songs have always been loaded with nostalgia, even on his first album when they were new songs.  So it is nostalgia, but it's also not nostalgia.  There was something incredibly enriching and cathartic at this point in time to be completely engrossed in the concert experience.  It felt like a time-jump that could have been any decade among Prine's performing career, and/or a quantum leap to any point along my concert-going life up 'til now.  Time went out the window.

This audience was right there, with him one-hundred percent, just like I remember in Roanoke many years prior.  The energy in the Altria Theater was tingling, same as it ever was.  Prine's genius and delivery perhaps even more apparent than ever before.  His songs are so simple and yet so genuine, the lyrics embedded deeply into the minds of anyone who has ever taken the time to enjoy his music.  Every word hit home and every note rang true on several levels.  I was entertained, to say the least.  Maybe that's part of the nostalgia as well?

ECM Records Catalog Now Streaming

My music nerd intuition told me that the news I learned of last Friday that the entire ECM Records catalog was now available on streaming services such as Spotify was a big deal. The knowledge registered as important - I had a sense that ECM was "cool" - but I honestly didn't know much at all about the German label until the last few days. Previously, I was probably only familiar with ECM because I knew it was the company for which Bill Frisell made some of his first recordings.

I hadn't really even thought about the fact that ECM wasn't streaming before, but past unsuccessful searches for some Pat Metheny and Vijay Iyer records make more sense now.

Over this past weekend I did some research into the ECM catalog and jumped in with open ears ready for discovery. One thing that quickly became apparent is that the music on ECM isn’t quite what I expected, because I wasn’t expecting it to be so “new agey” and “fusiony”, or maybe so minimalist and atmospheric. I’ve only scratched the surface, checking out about 2.5% of the more than 1,600 ECM titles, but so far it’s more Windham Hill than Tzadik; more Kenny G than Coltrane. That perspective will change I'm sure as I hone in on specific areas of interest.

One of the first albums I listened to was A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke by Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith because I had already been hoping to hear that one and it turns out that it is on ECM. Bill Frisell's new double album with Thomas Morgan called Small Town is among the many now streaming. I already own a copy of Small Town on vinyl. It's superb! And of course, my life-long neglect of Pat Metheny's Bright Size Life came to a satisfactory end. That one is a headphones jam for the Jaco effect.

Some other things have had my initial attention. A band called Codona featuring Don Cherry is definitely worth a listen. They offer a global music take on free jazz - bird sounds and sitar. Bassist Dave Holland has made a lot of recordings for ECM. His album Conference of the Birds under the name the David Holland Quartet is the first one of his I've been listening to. It features Anthony Braxton in a surprisingly melodic mood. Charles Lloyd is another ECM guy - at the least the latter half of his career. I don't know where to begin there...maybe The Water is Wide. Come to think of it, Charles Lloyd might be a pretty good example of the ECM sound.

This interest in ECM also offered an opportunity to finally listen to the legendary experimental group Art Ensemble of Chicago. I've run through Urban Bushmen and Nice Guys so far. You definitely have to be in the mood for this and already be accustomed to avant-garde music to appreciate, but I really liked Nice Guys on the second listen. It was too much the first time though.

I should have known about him already, but I learned of guitarist John Abercrombie through this ECM discovery. I can't say that I love his stuff so far, but there's a certain wah-wah funkiness to Gateway that's appealing; similar in some ways to the Jerry Garcia/Howard Wales album Hooteroll from that same time period. Oh's not on ECM, but becoming aware of Abercrombie led to an early band he was in called Stark Reality that I really like so far! Stark Reality reminds me of a zonked-out take on Zappa style music.

There are some mainstays of ECM Records - people like Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem. The early Jan Garbarek stuff, like Afric Pepperbird, has a hip, driving sound. Garbarek's more recent recordings run dangerously close to Kenny G-land, but his keen sense of melody - often from a folk perspective - keeps even these New Age works interesting. In the case of Brahem, it is fascinating to hear his oud in a jazz context but I need more time to develop a better opinion on this type of world fusion music. At times it can sound like a hodge podge.

Other names on the ECM "to do" list include Chick Corea, Eberhard Weber, Paul Motian, Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich.  

Jazz and experimental music is pretty male dominated, but I was reading how ECM is known for featuring female artists. Carla Bley, Meredith Monk and Agnes Buenas Garnas are names that have come up.

I'm glad that ECM has put this music out there, allowing it to be heard by a wider audience. Obtaining vinyl copies of favorite standouts is the next logical step.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

I Wrote Seven More Tunes In October

Mose Tolliver - "Blue Bird"
In June of this year I happened upon a Mose Tolliver painting at the Taubman Museum in Roanoke, VA. Mose Tolliver was an African-American farmer and laborer from rural Alabama who took up painting after a work-related accident crushed his legs and left him unable to walk without crutches. As an adult in his late 40's he became a prolific self-taught artist who would sometimes produce ten or more paintings a day on plywood or fiberboard using house paint. Simple, expressionistic birds, plants, turtles, fish, "Ladies on Scooters", and more were the subjects of his work, painted with an oddly limited palette. I was impressed by Mose T's art brut originality and his outsider status.

At the time of that museum visit I had just begun writing my own tunes and I wasn’t sure where I was going with it. Now, five months and 25+ tunes later, I’ve reached a critical mass where the act of playing/practicing music can now be the same as writing my own tunes and playing the music that I’ve written. Mose Tolliver didn't "cover" Picasso or van Gogh or try to re-interpret their paintings, he created his very own Mose Tolliver paintings.

I think it was Steve Earle who said something to the effect of “they can’t tell you you’re doing it wrong if you write it yourself”. In every situation except for a tune I’ve written myself, there is going to be a source recording (or multiple sources) that sets a standard that I can't live up to. But, what I've realized is that if I take Ornette Coleman's words to heart and make a sound that has no parents, then there is no version other than my version; no better sounding version to compare to my inferior take. The only way for this to be the case is to write the tune myself and consider it a unique piece.

This realization feels like an arrival, especially now that I've got these 25+ tunes under my belt. I thoroughly enjoy the act of creation, of bringing something into this world that didn't exist before. In this case it's melodies, and I don't have to worry about any of the things that tend to frustrate me about music. I just turn on the tap every day and see what's ready to come out.

OK, all that said here are the seven tunes I wrote in October.

Iguana Bridge

Skull Provider

Take It or Leave It Bloom

Common Carriage

Loco Motion


Looks on the Ground