Saturday, March 31, 2018

Five of the Best Mary Halvorson Albums

Mary Halvorson's Code Girl album came out yesterday and had some coverage on Bandcamp, Spotify and Pitchfork.  Not counting her early duo with Jessica Pavone, this is the first time that Mary has worked with a singer and incorporated vocals directly into her music, so it might also be the first time some folks are becoming aware of this influential guitarist, composer and improviser.  For anyone interested, there's a huge backlog of recordings out there worth checking out.  Dozens, really.  To narrow it down, here are five favorites.

Meltframe (solo)
Mary's long awaited debut solo guitar album does not disappoint.  Make sure you have the volume already turned up to feel the full impact of those opening notes of track 1 - Oliver Nelson's "Cascades" - and then sit back and enjoy the roller coaster ride.

Meltframe is an album of covers. Instead of writing music for solo guitar, Mary decided to interpret other people's songs. The selections span from the well known masters (Ornette Coleman, Duke Ellington, McCoy Tyner), to more obscure figures (Roscoe Mitchell, Annette Peacock) and contemporaries (Chris Lightcap, Tomas Fujiwara).  Meltframe might be may all-time favorite Mary Halvorson LP, however, by the time any of us had heard this, Mary had already moved on.

Secret Keeper - Emerge (duo)
Secret Keeper is Mary's duo project with bassist Stephan Crump.  It's primarily a vehicle for their highly improvised compositions.  The way that you are able to fluidly chat with a really good friend...that's the music that Secret Keeper makes: an in-the-moment bass and guitar conversation that could probably never come out the same way twice. 

If your speakers don't rattle while you're listening to this you need cheaper speakers or more volume.  I like to listen to Emerge in environments where other sounds that aren't on the recording bleed in - birds, sirens, dog barking, wind, clutter on the table getting out of hand.  What type of music is Secret Keeper?  Not a concern.  (Jazz post-rock chamber music...)

Thumscrew (trio)
Thumbscrew is an experimental trio on the fringes of jazz, consisting of Mary Halvorson (guitar), Michael Formanek (double bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums).  Their 2014 debut of heavy hitting jazz rocks with a heavy metal attitude.  It's too cohesive to be fully improvised, yet too feral to be entirely composed. 

In Thumbscrew, Mary is matched up with the equally skillful Formanek and Fujiwara, and this work is product of three great listeners working in tandem. If you find it hard to jive with Thumbscrew's inverted groove just give it time. Soon you'll be inverted.

Tomeka Reid Quartet (quartet)
The Tomeka Reid Quartet is led by cellist Tomeka Reid and on this this CD almost all of the compositions were written by Tomeka.  Mary plays more of an accompanist role in this quartet.  Tomeka's tunes are melodic, in the traditional sense, and this ironically provides a unique setting for Mary's signature guitar sound to find its place.  Tomeka and Mary almost have a vague Grappelli / Reinhardt thing going here.

This CD is fairly easily categorized as jazz, and as such it is easily one of the best jazz recordings I've heard in recent years.  You don't have to qualify it by putting into some free or experimental category.  It sits well within the jazz fold.  No worries there.

Mary Halvorson Octet - Away With You (octet)
There have been several recordings in Mary Halvorson's name with her as the band leader: Dragon's Head, Saturn Sings, Bending Bridges, Illusionary Sea.  Each one of those grew in size, depth and impact.  They are all worth hearing, but for now I'm jumping all the way ahead to the Octet.

On Away With You, Mary's up to 8 in the ensemble thanks to the addition of steel guitarist Susan Alcorn.  Away With You might bear an unintentional resemblance to Frank Zappa's large band jazz masterpieces Grand Wazoo and Waka Jawaka.  These compositions are strong.  The arrangements are classic.  Code Girl is where she goes from here.


New York City Redo: Just Give Me Something I'm Used To

Caffe Reggio 2017
The getting there might have been different (a 7-hour overnight bus ride last year, a 51 minute flight this year) but the arrival was the same: Greenwich Village, 10:00 on a Saturday morning.  First stop - Caffe Reggio.  Same table as last year.  Same waitress as last year.  She's probably there every day.  Same Classical music playing over speakers.  Exact same furniture, decor, artwork, table setup. Same amount of people in cafe. Same type of people.  I'm probably sitting in the exact same chair.
Caffe Reggio 2018
Noontime.  Entering White Horse Tavern, just like last year.  Is that the same two old-timers sitting at the right of the bar?  They have the same two bottled beers as before, and that one guy is looking at a newspaper again.  Today's newspaper.
That's definitely the exact same bartender.  And yep I'm sitting the same stool at the bar.  Hey there's Dylan Thomas!  Was that cane there last year?  Yep.  It's been there so long no one can remember why.  Guinness still on draft, thank goodness.  "It's getting more popular" says Bob.  More popular than last year(?), I wonder.  Why do large groups of talky goofballs walk in this place, stay for a few minutes and then leave?  So Groundhog Day.
What's the occasion?  Bill Frisell at the Village Vanguard.  Same reason as last time.  Now it's 8pm.  Well at least the Vanguard hasn't changed that much.  There might have been a new poster on the wall.
Set Break
New York City is an organic, constantly shifting organism.  You can't make it bend to your will or even expect it meet expectations.  But somehow for a little while there March 2017 could have doubled for March 2018.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Things are different after you've heard Liquid Liquid

Even though their entire recorded output is covered in less than 25 tracks on the Slip In and Out of Phenomenon retrospective, the early 1980's New York band Liquid Liquid is proving to be quite the important discovery.  Hearing them for the first time this month instantly got my mind working.  I was ready for it.

Here are some early takeaways:

Liquid Liquid's music is rhythm-based and percussion driven.  There is no guitar.  No horns.  Yet somehow still melodic despite having no main melody instrument.

It sounds alien, like a transmission from another world they have not told us of.  Is this the music the Jivaroan tribe would play before shrinking heads?

This is primal, primitive, outsider art.  Urban field recordings.  The musicians aren't even musicians.  They are experimental, minimalist sound artists - throwing beats and yelps at a canvas to see what sticks.

Only amateurs could make music this devoid of intent.

The vocals aren't even vocals.  They are chants, shrieks and undecipherable words.  What the hell is a marimba doing in there and why does it sound so good?

It's way, way OUT.  And grooving and danceable.  Sun Ra meets Talking Heads makes Liquid Liquid.


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A Peak Musical Experience in New York City

I had my sights set on attending the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN this past weekend. But, when it became apparent that my wife and I would only be able to attend for two of the four days and therefore miss certain performers and ensembles I started looking for alternatives to the 7 hour drive to Knoxville.

I then saw that Bill Frisell was going to be at the Village Vanguard in New York City that same weekend. More research revealed flights to New York were cheap for that day, tickets for both of his sets were still available, and what looked like a great little hotel in the West Village had vacancies for that night.  And so it happened.  But as great as Bill's two sets at the Vanguard were, that wasn't the peak musical experience in New York City.

The details aren't important, but after a series of rejected alternatives - as if an unseen hand were guiding me - I ended up in The 55 Bar on Christopher Street at about 5:15pm after having arrived in NYC that morning.  What attracted me to the place was its reputation as a dive bar that dated back to the prohibition era.  It can be difficult to find a cool place after say 4:00 in the afternoon in the Village:  previously empty old man's bars can suddenly become filled with NYU students and loud tourists.

The 55 Bar wasn't like that.  A little after 5pm on a Saturday there were just a few people at the bar, Tom Petty and David Bowie music was playing on the jukebox, and Guinness was on draft.  It was going to be a nice, chill place to hang for a little while before we figured out what to eat before queuing up for Bill Frisell's set at the Vanguard.  Little did I know that less than an hour later I would be seeing and hearing some of the best live music I have ever experienced.

The atmosphere was so nice there at 55 Bar that we didn't want to leave.  The kick-ass lady bartender said there was going to be good music starting soon and that we should stay.  If we needed to eat there was a taco place around the corner where you could get food to go and bring it back in.  So that's exactly what I did.  In the time it takes to pour a Guinness I had gone to pick up four tacos and come back.  A few more people had entered the bar.  And by a few I mean a lot.  The place was suddenly pretty packed.  And before I even noticed a band had started.

I feel dumb saying this but at that time I was only familiar with the band Snarky Puppy by name, so I didn't realize that this "random jazz band" I was checking out featured Michael League (the founder of Snarky Puppy) on bass, Chris Bullock (of Snarky Puppy) on sax, and Ross Pederson on drums (isn't he in that band too?).  I could just tell that these guys were good and that the singer they were backing up was phenomenal.

Her name is Alina Engibaryan.  She's a fantastic songwriter, one of the best jazz singers you've ever heard, and her keyboard makes the most amazing, crunchy vintage sound.  Her music was like a more complex Norah Jones "Come Away With Me".  Here's a snippet I recorded on my phone.  I wish I had recorded the whole set. If you know of a recording of this set please let me know.

Her music is a little more poppy than I'm used to, but having seen the organic live at 55 Bar version I know it's the real deal.  And with that backing band (Michael League, bass; Chris Bullock, saxophone; Ross Pederson, drums), her jazz-informed songs were elevated to a level that was complete ear candy.  The sound in 55 Bar - the acoustics in what is essentially a no-nonsense, no-attitude, cash-only bar - was probably the best I've ever heard in a venue like that.

I guess everybody else must have known just who it was they were watching play, but to me in that moment I was just watching complete unknown musicians make jaw dropingly cool art.  Even though the room was at capacity, with people lined up outside to get in, the vibe in there was respectful, conscientious, and ultra attentive.  We stayed for Alina's entire first set, which caused us to line up later than I would have liked for Frisell.

The line outside the Village Vanguard for Bill Frisell's early set on 3/24/18
It would be hard to say that anywhere in the Vanguard is bad, but where we were seated was not ideal.  None of that mattered when Frisell began.  With him he had Rudy Royston on drums (the secret weapon), Thomas Morgan on bass and Eyvind Kang on viola.  Bill's opening number stretched for well over 20 minutes and that's no exaggeration.  The second tune was really two tunes and the waiter was already bringing by the check for your "one drink" before it ended.

When the set was done the room cleared but we were allowed to stay since I had tickets to both of Bill's sets. We got to sit wherever we wanted this time and chose a little raised up two-top on the right with a fantastic view of the stage.  For the 2nd set I ordered a Long Island Iced Tea and it almost did me in, but I squinted and made it through.  I almost liked Bill's first set better - it had more improv - but in the 2nd set he played this little miniature electric 12-string guitar which was really cool.  And once again, Rudy Royston kicked ass.

Not being super late night people, we headed straight to the room after Bill's 2nd set, which ended after midnight anyway.  It wasn't until I woke up not hungover thank goodness the next morning (who doesn't love New York on a beautiful Sunday morning?) that I started to realize that even though the whole point of the New York trip was to see Bill Frisell, the real musical highlight happened two hours before he played.  I started Googling and only then started to realize who it was that I had seen the night before.  Alina Engibaryan and her band was one of those peak musical experiences - the kind that you always remember.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Five Albums That Are Currently Driving My Musical Taste

Lately I've been hearing a sound in my head. That may sound a little crazy, and it is. Instead of ignoring this sound I've gone looking for it.

With Spotify and other digital resources, a person like myself can binge on music the way others can binge a TV show. (I can do that too).  One pratfall of this wormhole is overcoming the ephemeral anxiety that it might be a bottomless well.  You can take the view that there is no edge or limit to our musical world, or you can come to the conclusion that this world is a round one, not flat. It all comes back around.

On the flipside of digital, the return to good old analog vinyl as a music resource can serve as a reminder to slow things down and try and make connections in a more organic way. Vinyl can get costly so you have to be a little selective. I might do loads of crate digging research online, but if I'm going to pull the plug on a $20 or $30 record from a merchant I ought to have a pretty good hunch that it's worth it.

Out of that vinyl foundation, these five records are helping to feed that endless search for the sound.

Sun Ra - Exotica
Exotica is a word that gets used to describe a certain kind of music. You know it when you hear it. Other terms that mean similar things include Lounge, Space Age Pop, Bachelor Pad Music, Tiki Music or Cocktail Music. Exotica was popular in the 1950's and 1960's among a certain demographic that was probably opened up to a post WWII sense of wordly culture and prosperity -- a rapidly expanding awareness of other countries, flavors, rhythms and spices which overlapped with the expanding hi-fi stereo technology that was also tied into the larger world of booming, rapid technology - like the idea of going to the moon in a rocket.  Keep in mind this was all still filtered through a white, middle-class, Disney-like, pre-LSD perspective.

If you start to research Exotica you come across names like Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny. I've dabbled into these guys' recordings and it might not be what I'm looking. The only reason I'm familiar with those names at this moment is because they are mentioned in the liner notes to the new Sun Ra Exotica compilation.  Honestly, I'd rather just continue listening to Sun Ra's take, which is really just a fantasy-island in the sun among the larger Sun Ra oeuvre.  However, the more I listen to this I think that the folks at Modern Harmonic who put this collection together really hit the nail on the head by calling out Sun Ra's connection to Exotica.  He's not usually recognized as a member of or contributor to this style of music, but you can certainly hear an exotic thread there.

An association with Sun Ra can only help to elevate the neo-coolness of Exotica.  I probably wouldn't be writing about it right now had it not been for this collection.  Thankfully, Modern Harmonic has now released this collection as a 3-LP set on regular old black vinyl for folks who want the luxury of listening to this excellently remastered music on a turntable, but don't want to pay the Black Friday hyped extra cost that colored vinyl brings.

So where does this album lead?  Like anything else once you get to where you want to be you find suitable offerings that open entirely new doors.  Through this Sun Ra compilation I've happened upon the Brazilian organist Walter Wanderly (Rain Forest) who could actually lead around and into the Bossa Nova records of Zoot Sims and Gene Ammons.  There's also a guy named Robert Drasnin who did some delightfully straight-up Exotica (Voodoo I, II, III), as well as more contemporary artists who work out of an Exotica-like base, including Les Hommes, Monster Rally and Creepxotica.  I'm basically a sucker for anything tropical with a vibraphone in it.  I can kind of see how vintage Exotica could morph nowadays into a trippy form of instrumental hip-hop, but that's another story.  Come to think of it, Nels Cline's Lovers double LP (a favorite from 2016) could be seen as a loungey form of Exotica.

Mulatu Astatke - Mulatu of Ethiopia
I found this album by sampling through the many great offerings of Strut Records.  This is African music, but not the African music of King Sunny Ade, Fela Kuti or Manu Dibango. Technically this is Ethiopian-Jazz, which you just know is going to be cool even before you hear it!  "Yeah man, I've been listening to a lot of Ethiopian Jazz lately".  Back in the 1960's this guy Mulatu basically invented a distinct style that came to be known as Ethio-Jazz -- similar to how you can attribute Bluegrass to Bill Monroe or Reggae to Bob Marley.

Mulatu's music could also be pigeonholed into that "world" music category, but ironically it's much more universal than that.  Ethiopian Jazz (AKA Mulatu's music) certainly has its roots in Addis Ababa, but it also has tentacles stretched out to London, New York, the Middle East, and South America.  There's definitely a sophisticated awareness of Modal and Latin Jazz that gets paired with a deep understanding of traditional Ethiopian modes and melodies. At the same time it is the product of a singular vision that was not overly concerned with what was going on with other trends of the time.  It sounds the way Ethiopian food tastes.

Mulatu had few contemporaries. That almost generic Afrobeat/Highlife/Juju type sound that people associate with African music does not sound like Mulatu.  Hailu Mergia's name comes up as a fellow Ethiopian instrumental musician but what I've heard of Hailu is good but not quite the same. Abdou El Amari of Morocco is also awesome but not really related to Mulatu.

It's taken decades but now there are a bunch of bands making music influenced by Mulatu. As a listener, the hard part is distinguishing between what is simply derivative and what is actually unique and inspired interpretations.  So far I like these artists: Atlantis Jazz Ensemble (Canada), Akale Wube (France), Black Flower (Belgium), Pyramid Blue (Spain), Yazz Ahmed (England), and Invisible Astro Healing Rhythm Quartet (California).  Richmond, VA's own Afro-Zen All Stars are a great band that is also directly influenced by Mulatu.  Some more yet to be name-checked Ethio-Jazz inspired bands are on my list to suss out.

Arthur's Landing - Arthur's Landing
Even nerdy music geeks might be asking who/what is this?  Arthur's Landing is actually another product of scrolling through Strut Records' releases.  Arthur's Landing is a loose ensemble of musicians all associated - in one way or another - with a musical pioneer named Arthur Russell.  Who is Arthur Russell you might say?  A year ago I would have been asking the same thing.  The music on this album captivated me so much that I recently took it upon myself to find out.

Basically, Arthur Russell was a guy from Iowa. Ha! Born in 1951, Arthur learned to play the cello as a teenager and yearned for more culture and enlightenment than prairies and grains could offer. He was an Allen Ginsberg or a John Cage trapped in a farmboy's body and existence.  So he ran away from home; first to San Francisco and then to New York where he arrived smack dab in the middle of that early 1970's muck and nirvana that HBO's The Deuce is trying to capture on TV.  Living in New York gave Arthur a concrete backdrop and access to an artistic community that allowed his musical potential to really develop.

From what I've been able to tell, Arthur did his composing and production in the form of written notebooks and lo-fi demo recordings.  His work is strewn across various different short-lived projects, unfulfilled collaborations and pseudonyms.  My guess is that during his creative life Arthur would rather write a new piece of music today than polish up and put out a song written yesterday.  Add to that the fact that Arthur Russell died in 1992 at the very young age of 40 and you have all the makings of a musical guru.

What Arthur Russell did really, really well is he took the common, amped-up bubblegum nature of danceclub Disco and fused it with the high-brow abrasion of New York's experimental music scene.  He did this much to the chagrin of his NYC peers.  A lot of the music Arthur made himself has been coming out posthumously, but where the band Arthur's Landing comes into the picture is they assembled in 2008 for the purposes of presenting Arthur Russell's music in a new light.

On this 2011 recording they really capture the essence of that dance music meets heady music partnership.  The first time I heard it - which was last fall - I was hooked.  It was my official introduction to Arthur Russell by way of musicians who knew him, understood him, respected him, and could do his music justice.

For some reason I thought I might be let down by the real thing so it took me a few months to even check out any actual recordings by Arthur Russell.  I finally listened to Love Is Overtaking Me and it was also a pretty life changing instant.  It didn't sound anything like Arthur's Landing!

Love Is Overtaking Me seems to be the music of a very elite brand of singer-songwriter.  It can be appreciated in the same way that John Prine, Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch can be appreciated.  There is no real connection to the disco or "new" music that Arthur is known for.  You have to dig farther into Arthur Russell's catalog to find that.  That search is now starting to turn up some bands like Liquid Liquid, ESG, Konk, and Bush Tetras - and I am having fun listening to these groups!  Kind of like a less commercial Talking Heads, I guess.

I'm really quite happily baffled by Arthur Russell!

Those three albums - Sun Ra "Exotica", Mulatu Astatke "Mulatu of Ethiopia" and "Arthur's Landing" - cover the majority of the sound I've been drawn to lately.  Some additional frenetic energy can be bottled up in the following two selections.

Kenny Graham and His Satellites - Moondog and Suncat Suites
This is another case of a band interpreting and arranging a composer's music.  The band in question is Kenny Graham and His Satellites - a group put together by British jazz saxophonist, arranger and composer Kenny Graham for the purpose of playing the music of Moondog, who at the time (1956) was an eccentric, obscure street musician who in-the-know jazz tape traders were just becoming fascinated with.  Prestige records put out official recordings of Moondog in 1956 but those came out after this recording was made.  Interesting.

In the 60+ years since those days, Moondog has gained cult-hero status.  His music can come across as weird at first - and it is perplexing - but it's actually built around pretty simple harmony lines.  Moondog's compositions primarily treat each instrument as independent voices with no traditional chords.

What I like about this Moondog and Suncat Suites LP is it takes Moondog's music and places it in a pretty easily digestible format.  The instruments used include vibraphone, bass clarinet, cello, and tympani drums.  You wouldn't really call this jazz ala 1956 because swing and improvisation are mostly absent.  The time signatures, rhythms, contrapuntal melodies and a general sense of kitsch are at the forefront here.  The 2nd half of the album is Kenny Graham's original music written in the style of Moondog. It holds up quite well, actually.

I definitely hear the influence of Moondog in the band Tortoise, especially their TNT album.

Moondog and Suncat Suites is almost tied back to Exotica.  Moondog and Sun Ra are related in a way - atmospherically if not cosmically.  Another band that has interpreted Moondog's music is Hobocombo.  This Italian trio is worth checking out.  They add a modern twist to Moondog's timeless music.

Augustus Pablo - East of the River Nile
This is not a new one to me.  I had it on CD many years ago and it was one of the first vinyls I got when starting an LP record collection.  I just listened again yesterday and boy the Side A of this record is strong!!!  Augustus Pablo certainly knew what sound he was going for - the heartbeat of the earth apparently.  It's not the most complex music, but it is very enjoyable.  His chosen instrument is the melodica, which you could put into a novelty category like the steel pan, kalimba or K-Board.  I can relate to that.

I haven't found much instrumental Jamaican/reggae music made before or since East of the River Nile that can match the essence distilled here.  I need to check out more Augustus Pablo.  Maybe also some Mad Professor, Dub Colossus, and Soul Sugar. There's a German(?) band called Bacao Rhythm and Steel Band whose album 55 is a bit of a jump but there is a connection to what Augustus Pablo was doing.

Those are the five albums.  This covers a lot but not everything, obviously.  There's a bunch of funk and groove type music in my ears recently that may or may not fit into anywhere mentioned above.  Bands like Bixiga 70, Soul Jazz Orchestra, Orchestra Baobab, Magic In Threes, Sure Fire Soul Ensemble, Ikebe Shakedown, Polyrhythmics.   Oh jeez, I've also been enjoying the old school Soul, Gospel, Rhythm and Blues of Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and The Impressions.  Plus the music of Guadeloupe and Martinique.  That is most definitely not covered in the above.  Make it stop!!!!

Friday, March 2, 2018

Could Sun Ra Be Your Next Music Obsession?

Sun Ra's music has what it takes to be a lifelong obsession.  Music for the long haul.
His Catalog is Deep
Over 125 albums.  Over 40 years of output.  Over 500 compositions.  However, with new compilations and vinyl re-issues being put out, along with digital streaming options by the dozens, Sun Ra's music has never been more readily available.  The future is catching up to him.

His Personal Brand and Philosophy is Fascinating
Sun was from outer space - Saturn to be exact.  As an alien of the angel race, Sun Ra was dedicated to spreading peace on planet earth.  His interplanetary consciousness included elements of Egyptology, cosmology, numerology, the occult, the bible, black civil rights, gematria, ancient cultures, the space age, word play, and more.

His Music is Weird, But Not As Weird As You Think
There's a misconception that Sun Ra is freeform, freakout music.  Despite its cosmic outward presentation, much of Sun Ra's music is rooted in jazz - big band, hard bop and trad.  It doesn't stop there though.  If you were to put all of his recorded music on shuffle play you'd hear a range of exotica, doo-wop, deep groove, ambient, trance-like drones, ritual drumming, Moog synthesizer ditties, chants, straight-ahead sophistication and yes, plenty of out there sounds as well.  It can be very challenging to consume in the beginning.  Eventually it all just becomes part of the Sun Ra Omniverse.

He's the Original DIY Artist - Punk Before Punk
Lo-fi.  Indie.  Primitive.  Self-made.  Home made.  Found sounds.  Non-conformist.  Experimental.  Playing instruments you don't know how to play.  Pressing and releasing your own records.  Waking up.  Staying awake.  Prolific recording at all hours of the day and night.  Playing anywhere and everywhere.  Military/monkish levels of discipline, devotion and rehearsal.  Not the mainstream.  Why did he record and put out that?

Sun Ra took his spirit music to great lengths.