What Ted Gioia Missed, and Absolutely Nailed

You might have read Ted Gioia’s recent piece on The Daily Beast entitled “Music Criticism Has Degenerated into Lifestyle Reporting.”  Gioia laments the current state of music criticism, arguing that it rarely includes analytical discussions of the music in the way that football commentators often include details of how a particular play or strategy works in their analyses.  He suggests that the bulk of music criticism is just focused on the lifestyle aspects of the music, which lessens the discourse, appreciation and understanding of the music.

While I do find much of what he says to be spot on, I do disagree with him a little bit, or find that he missed a couple things.  But, I also find that he absolutely nailed current trends in the way music is discussed and appreciated, and I agree with the negative consequences.

First, it could be that he is looking for the kind of criticism he prefers in the wrong places.  While quality criticism did appear in mainstream venues, as Gioia notes, that is no longer the case.  I don’t expect high quality criticism to appear in the pages of Billboard or Rolling Stone, but that doesn’t mean it’s not out there.  It’s just harder to find, and may appear on little known blogs, independent or local non-profit publications.  Sure, it may not appear where it used to, but quality music criticism has not completely vanished, it just moved to a new address.

Second, it seems as if he feels that music critics no longer possess technical knowledge of music.  He writes that “In my teens, I could read smart, musically astute critics in many magazines and newspapers.”  He then goes on to list several long past critics who could either play or were versed in music theory.  While true, there are still many critics out there who are composers, players etc.  Kyle Gann, for one, is an excellent contemporary composer and writer.   This gets to my first point – Kyle Gann, and others like him – are not being published in the high profile and popular venues they once were.  But that does not mean they are not out there.  Many of the contributors to the small jazz publication in Kansas City are some of the city’s finest jazz musicians.  Do they appear on nationally syndicated tv shows?  No.  Are they out there and doing good work?  Most definitely.

Third, and where I disagree with Gioia the most, is in terms of the way he critiques the focus of lifestyle.  His piece reads as if lifestyle reporting is a new thing. He notes that the word “lifestyle” is a relatively new occurrence in the music.  While that may be true, that doesn’t mean that that type of reporting emerged at the same time as the word.  As my S.O. made me aware, Photoplay magazine, which began covering the movie industry in the 1920s, was all about lifestyle reporting, even if it may not have been referred to as such; lifestyle reporting is not a new phenomenon in the arts and entertainment realms.  I actually enjoy reading the JazzTimes features which show musicians in their homes and talk about their personal lives – it humanizes them and brings them down from the pedestal that critics often place musicians upon.  This may not be the kind of lifestyle reporting that Gioia critiques, but it definitely deals with the lifestyles of musicians.

Regarding the relationship between music and lifestyle, Gioia also writes that “For most people living in the world, circa 1920, music was embedded into their life, not chosen as a lifestyle accessory.”  I find this problematic, as he seems to be arguing that music is no longer embedded into the lives of the contemporary music audience.  I am swayed by Pierre Bourdieu who argues that judgements of taste and one’s consumption of music, or literature, or art influence and helps to form one’s lifestyle.  This is different than choosing music as a lifestyle accessory.   Sure, Bourdieu is talking about lifestyles in a different manner from the gossip reporting and lifestyle journalism Gioia critiques, but lifestyle is inseparable from one’s consumption of music.  For example, the aesthetic of punk music affects the lifestyle of those who make and consume punk.  Punk musicians and fans come from a particular social context where the music is the result of social practice and context.  Or in another example, my technical knowledge of music does not mean I do not have a lifestyle that is affiliated with the music I consume.  The appreciation and knowledge of music and lifestyle are not mutually exclusive.

But, I have to praise him for several things, most of which is his critique of Jennifer Lopez’s negative response to Harry Connick Jr. talking about the pentatonic scale on American Idol.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s classic….

I love when Connick asks Lopez, “What’s wrong with challenging America?”  And that, I think is what Gioia is getting at.  I’ve read critiques of his piece that basically boil down to: “It’s just another old guy complaining about how much better it was decades ago.”  While sure, I think Gioia’s piece can be read that way, he is absolutely spot on with his  argument that “The biggest problem with lifestyle-driven music criticism is that it poisons our aural culture.”  By devaluing the importance of understanding how music works and using that as a way to grasp and appreciate music, those who do so devalue those who do understand how music works.  As such, this also prevents people from learning more about music and helping them to enjoy it in new ways.  In short, current music criticism often fails to challenge America.

I got into a short lived facebook argument just prior to writing this post with someone who felt my technical knowledge of music and its history made me an elitist snob, therefore making my opinion on Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” invalid.  It is similar to Lopez’s response to Connick’s lesson on the pentatonic scale: demonstrating a fairly basic technical knowledge of music made Connick a snob.  His knowledge and inability to be swayed by licks threatened Lopez and put her on the defensive and got in the way of her enjoyment of the contestant’s singing.  When most of the widely available music criticism is devoid of the kind of criticism Gioia would prefer, it does kind of dumb down, or assume that Americans aren’t smart enough or aren’t interested in knowing more about music.  By making gossip and uneducated surface level criticism the norm, demonstrating a knowledge – as Connick did – becomes abnormal and threatening.

And even though I differ with Gioia on a few things, this is where he is spot on.  This kind of criticism is dangerous, but, it is worth noting that it is not the only kind of criticism out there.  I think the answer to fixing the problem is not by having critics stop acting like gossip critics (which Gioia suggests), because that is asking too much.  As long as publications are willing to pay for that kind of writing, writers will take the gig.  The way to fix it is by seeking out and advocating for and praising all the good work that is out there, not by denigrating the entire practice writ large.

Record Shopping at Home: Muhal Richard Abrams’ Things to Come From Those Now Gone

March 16, 2014 2 comments

Those who know me, or at the least know my writing, know that I buy way too much music. More than I can hope to listen to more than once or twice and get to really know.

Jean Baudrillard suggests that we collect things because collecting them represents the free time we hope to have to be able to enjoy them. I think he was on to something here. I wish I had the free time that it would take to fully enjoy my album collection.

My New Year’s resolution was to not buy any music until March, which I succeeded at. I was able to resist scratching that itch because I have so much music that I’ve barely, or maybe not even listened to. So, for a couple months I dug out a bunch of LPs and CD, but mostly LPs, that I’ve purchased in the last couple years and not listened to. It’s like record shopping all over again, but without spending any money. Looking at my shelves, pulling things I forgot I had, putting them on my deck. It’s been fun to see and hear all the goodies I haven’t had time to listen to.

I will begin to occasionally post my new finds here as I rediscover them. The first offering is Muhal Richard Abrams’ 1975 Delmark LP Things to Come From Those Now Gone.. I picked this up maybe 8-9 months ago for cheap at a local antique mall and am just now listening to it.

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It’s a very diverse album, and as the photo of the back cover shows, there’s a bunch of different personnel and instrumentation combinations. It opens with a haunting flute/piano ballad duet between Abrams and Wallace McMillan. The title track features raucous polyphonic saxophones and two drummers. “Ballad for Old Souls” is a sparse and lovely piano/vibes duet with Emanuel Cranshaw and “1 and 4 plus 2 and 7″ is a duet between Abrams (on piano and synth) and drummer Steve McCall.

Overall it’s an evocative, atmospheric, and fairly quiet (as opposed to avant garde jazz which continuously goes to 11) album which fans of Abrams or the work of the AACM in general would enjoy. I’m not as familiar with Abrams’ catalog from this period, and I’m glad I’m finally discovering it. Until the next at-home shopping trip.

Miles Davis’ The Original Mono Recordings: A Buyer’s Guide

130904_milesmonoThe folks in charge of Miles Davis’ estate, along with Columbia/Legacy, are becoming masters of finding new ways to repackage and re-release the Prince of Darkness’ catalog.  Or, in the case of the live bootleg series, releasing material for the first time in high quality packaging (Vol. 3 comes out later this month).  This fall Columbia/Legacy released a large box of all of Miles’ studio albums he made for Columbia between 1956 and 1961.  The catch here, is that these albums have been all remastered in mono, as opposed to stereo.  Before stereo sound really caught on in the early and mid-60s, mono was how just about everything was heard.  In the liner notes to the box set George Avakian, who signed Davis to Columbia, says that “Mono has always been truer to the studio sound and the original intent.”  So the pitch Columbia is making to potential buyers is that the music in this set is closer to what Miles et al wanted it to sound like.  Or put differently: these new versions are more authentic, closer to the source, truer to the artists’ original intent.  At least that’s what we are meant to believe.  But hell, who am I to question people who were there?

Since this music is so well known (and really what more can be said about Kind of Blue?), what follows is not so much a review of the music (although there is some), but rather, a buyer’s guide.  In the neighborhood of $100, this is not a cheap set.  So if you’re not sure if you  want to pony up the bread, if you’re not sure what you’re getting, or if you question whether hearing these albums in mono is anything more than just a marketing ploy, hopefully this will help guide your decision.

Here’s what’s in the box:
-‘Round About Midnight
-Milestones
-Miles Ahead
-Porgy and Bess
-Jazz Track
-Kind of Blue
-Sketches of Spain
-Someday My Prince Will Come
-Miles & Monk At Newport
-A forty page booklet containing a brief essay from Marc Myers, all track, personnel and recording date info, plenty of session photographs, and notes from engineer Mark Wilder on what was changed in the remastering process.

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Each album comes in a cardboard slip case, looking like a small version of the LP.  They each have the original artwork and liner notes on the back.  One thing I noticed was that the liner notes are hard to read – not impossible, but that the print is just very small.  But then I thought about it, I never read liner notes more than once anyway – and if you are really into liner notes and have a hard time reading them, I’m sure you can find them online.

If you buy this set with the intention of trading in the albums on it you already own, here’s what you’ll be giving up: any of the new liner notes, new photographs, or alternate takes which had been included on subsequent reissues.  At first I thought that was a lot.  Then I realized that I really never listen to alt takes, false starts and the like.  Extra photographs are cool, as are new liner notes, but I only ever look at those maybe once, and then forget about them.  What you have here is basically a replica in CD format of the original album – no frills, no extras.

Ok, the main selling point, the sound.  I played them on three different systems: my somewhat slightly-better-than-generic Altec Lansing computer speakers, my approaching 20 year old Sony boombox, and my pretty decent home stereo system (Denon CD player, Polk bookshelf speakers, 60s vintage Harmon Kardon preamp).  The sound on all three was warm and clear, and as good as any other really great sounding recordings I have.

I also compared them to some of the remastered stereo versions of the same albums.  In each case I felt that the mono versions sounded warmer, more alive, less sterile, and there was more separation among the instruments.  In short, the mono versions sound about as close to analog as a digital recording can; in fact, they sound almost as good as a high quality vinyl pressing in pristine condition.  While the “mono” aspect may be a marketing ploy, these mono versions sound damn good.

Of course a major difference is stereo vs. mono.  I suppose that is a personal preference.  Considering that just about everything we hear recorded or remastered within the last 50 years is in stereo, it is a little jarring to hear these in mono (although I do have a couple of these albums on 6 eye Colombia mono pressings).  I’m not particularly swayed by the “mono is the way it was meant to be heard” argument.  Even if that is the truth, that doesn’t really resonate for me – perhaps because of my skepticism of views that romanticize the artist and the purity of artistic expression.  What resonates with me is the sound, and for me, the exceptional sound quality of the mono versions is what does it for me.

There are some pretty clear examples of why the mono versions are often superior.  In general, the levels of the bass have been increased.  Paul Chambers, for example, is much higher in the mix, his bass sound is clearer, and overall he is more balanced with the rest of the ensemble.  The horns in particular have a more compact and focused sound, giving them more immediacy.  This is especially the case with Miles’ trumpet on Jazz Track (more on that album to come).  Whereas it was a little bit spread on the Verve reissue of the album’s first side, it is much tighter.

For nerds like me who are perhaps way too much into engineering, mastering and the process of recording, Mark Wilder’s brief descriptions of some of the changes he made in the remastering process are really fascinating.  Regarding Miles Ahead, Wilder notes that “Surprisingly, the original master was in very good shape.  But when we listened to the master on the playback machine, it sounded a little thin and hard compared to the original album pressing.  So we used a softer-sounding tube equalizer to standardize the bass and reduce the mid-range throughout.”  Or about Kind of Blue, “This was the only album in the set that we had to mix from the original three-track master tapes.  That’s because the album’s mono master had been used repeatedly for multiple pressings over the years.  We worked bar-to-bar to figure out all the volume and equalization changes and we corrected the speed of the album’s A-side, which had been slightly fast.”  Wilder gives a statement of these sorts for each album.  I’m not sure how many people are really into this kind of thing, but I find them to be interesting, not the least of which because it shows how much work is done after the music is recorded.  What you hear on any recording is not just the work of the musicians – the engineers have a lot to do with the final product, and Wilder’s short descriptions really speak to that.

cover_395165122010The music you are least likely to be familiar with is on the album Jazz Tracks, which has never been included in any multi-CD collection of Miles’ work.  It’s probably the least well known, least heard album of the 50s and 60s.  Side A, recorded in 1957, was the ten track soundtrack for the French movie L’Ascenseur pour l’echafaud (Elevator to the Scaffold). The band features Barney Wilen on tenor, Rene Urtreger on piano, Pierre Michelot on bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums.  The improvised tunes are brief, and are mood and character pieces.  I would highly recommend seeing the movie, and while brief, the soundtrack adds a lot to the movie.  The soundtrack was released on its own under that name (original cover below).  As a stand alone album, it’s revelatory, and 28 minutes of perfection – some of the the most gorgeous and evocative music you will hear.  Sometimes when listening I don’t get past the first track, “Generique”; I just put it on replay and melt.

113671183Side B, recorded in May 1958, features three tracks by Miles’ Sextet with Trane, Cannonball, Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones.  If you have the two disc Legacy version of Kind of Blue you’ve probably heard Side B, as it contains “On Green Dolphin Street,” “Fran Dance,” and “Love for Sale” – all of which were released on the second disc of that Kind of Blue reissue.  I’m not sure why “Fran Dance” isn’t covered more by jazz players, as it’s a beautiful tune.

Also included in this set is Miles and Monk at Newport, which like Jazz Track, has not been included in any previous Miles box set, and has been hard to find.  Side A features the same lineup Miles used on Kind of Blue (with Bill Evans on piano, not Wynton Kelly) playing “Ah-Leu-Cha,” “Straight, No Chaser,” “Fran Dance,” and “Two Bass Hit.”  It was recorded in ’58.  Side B features Thelonious Monk’s Quartet with Pee Wee Russell from 1963 on two long tracks: “Nutty” and “Blue Monk.”

Who The Original Mono Recordings is for:
-if you have pretty discriminating ears and audiophile leanings;
-if you only have a couple of these albums and want to fill out your catalog of this era of Miles (that each disc comes in a cardboard sleeve as opposed to a jewel case saves a bunch of space on your shelf as well);
-if you really want to get as close to the “authentic” feel and intentions of the people who made the album;
-and perhaps most obviously, if any of my description of what you get and my take on the complete package seems worth the investment.

Who it is not for:
-if you listen to the bulk of your music on iTunes or some other digital format, because the improvements in the mastering is just going to be lost when compressed into smaller files;
-if you have no interest in the minutiae obsessions of audiophiles;
-if the price tag is too much;
-if you already own most of these albums in their recently remastered state and are happy listening to them them as is;
-if you think that this whole set is just another way for Columbia/Legacy to make a buck on music that for the most part has been readily available for a long time in formats that sound very good.

If you’re not interested in purchasing the whole set, but would like individual albums remastered in mono, Columbia has released them on 180 gram vinyl pressings.  I can’t speak to the quality of those pressings, as I have not heard them.  Of course if you really want to go to the original mono source, go to your local fine record store and get the first pressing 6-eye Columbia LP, just be prepared to pay a premium for one in great condition.

But if you are looking for the next closest thing and don’t have a turntable, the Miles Davis: The Original Mono Recordings just might be a good fit for you.

OutsideInsideOut’s Top 10 of 2013

December 31, 2013 Leave a comment

In Simulacra and Simulation Jean Baudrillard notes how humans like to stockpile their past as a way to remember it.  Perhaps one of the finest examples of this are the various year end poll, best of lists, recaps, summaries etc.  This year NPR Music hosted the annual jazz critics poll that Francis Davis has been doing for quite some time.  I’ve been fortunate to vote in Davis’ poll in its various guises for the past several years.  But I have to admit, this year was extremely hard for me to not only pick what I thought were the ten best, but also to rank them.  Considering that I think there are at least two dozen albums from the last year that are Top 10 worthy, and my increasing unease with ranking and scoring any kind of artistic output, this go around was pretty difficult.

Before I hit you with my Top 10 of the year, I feel the need to explain how I narrowed down my list down to ten.  Perhaps my most important way to tighten the focus was to eliminate those albums and artists which I felt did not need my vote.  For example, I think Wayne Shorter’s Without a Net could have placed very high on my list, but Shorter’s been around forever, I had a strong hunch he was going to win (which he did), and thus I felt I should give an equally deserving album a spot on my list.  In short, this year I privileged albums by artists and groups who are either young, haven’t released very many albums, or who I thought wouldn’t get much support from the other 136 critics who voted.

People may bristle at this approach, thinking that criticism should be some kind of objective and/or positivist approach.  Well, those people are wrong, because as much as a critic/writer/journalist/whatever-label-you-wanna-attach tries to be objective, he or she still has personal biases and tastes.  I had to find a way to cut down the field, and giving the edge to lesser known and/or younger artists made sense to me.  Also, I decided not to rank the albums in my Top 10; instead I have listed them alphabetically.  A cop out from having to pick #1?  Maybe.  My effort at limiting the competitive or scoring nature of these polls?  Definitely.

So, without further explanation, in alphabetical order, I give you my Top 10 jazz albums of 2013.

Alaturka, Yalniz (Tzigane): I gave this album a 4.5 star review in the August issue of Downbeat, which was part of a review column on new music from Kansas City.

CACAW, Stellar Power (Skirl): I reviewed this album in my previous post on excellent debut albums of 2013.

Christian Wallumrod, Outstairs (ECM): Is it jazz?  Is it classical?  Is it third stream?  Who cares.  All that matters is that Wallumrod’s latest is an evocative, atmospheric, dark and powerful chamber album that creates its own world, saying something new.  The real strength lies in the compositions, as Wallumrod draws on the unique and varied instrumentation for his color pallet.  The band: Wallumrod on piano, harmonium, toy piano; Eivind Lonning, trumpet; Gjermund Larsen, violin, hardanger fiddle, viola; Espen Reinertsen, tenor sax; Tove Torngren, cello; Per Oddvar Johansen, drums, vibes.  Silence plays an essential role in Wallumrod’s music as well.  One hears some of Morton Feldman’s approach to timbre, stillness and quiet (although Wallumrod’s music is never as glacial as Feldman’s).  There’s groove here too, but it’s generally slow, subtle, and measured – just enough to give the music some backbone and forward motion (check out the second track, “Bunadsbangla”).  It’s difficult to tell what is improvised and what is written out, and there is little that many would consider jazz, which may explain why it didn’t place well in the NPR poll.

Dawn of Midi, Dysnomia (Thirsty Ear): It’s a piano trio, but unlike any piano trio you’ve probably heard. Amino Belyammani, piano; Aakaash Israni, bass; Qasim Naqvi, drums.  When I told my S.O. that the group was acoustic, she was really surprised, as she had assumed it had at least some electronic elements.  And that’s after she had heard it 4 or 5 times.  The album is entirely through-composed, and it contains no improvisation.  The closest thing in a somewhat jazz realm one could compare it to is Nik Bartsch’s Ronin, although the trio has a distinct identity.  Their music is highly indebted to minimalism, repeated patterns, subtly shifting grooves, metric modulations, and cross fade DJ techniques.  Although it contains separate tracks, the album is best listened to from start to finish, as that’s the best way to really experience what the trio is doing.  I cannot begin to imagine how many rehearsals it took the group to play such intricate and complex music with such precision.  And from what a friend told me who has seen them live, this is no studio creation, what you hear on record is the real deal.   Listen to his hypnotic album over and over, you’ll hear something new and astounding each time.

Derrick Hodge, Live Today (Blue Note): I reviewed this album in my previous post on excellent debut albums of 2013.

Kaze, Tornado (Libra): Holy shit.  Kaze, a quartet consisting of pianist Satoko Fujii, her husband and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, trumpeter Christian Pruvost and drummer Peter Orins, plays music that is as powerful, exciting, and at times as terrifying as the album’s title would suggest.  The rarely heard two trumpet, piano, drums lineup inherently gives the group a unique sound, but the adventurous compositions and brave playing is what really makes this disc cook.  The long compositions each contain their own narrative and give the musicians ample fuel for their interstellar excursions.  Both trumpeters take huge risks, and employ extended techniques: blowing, as opposed to buzzing, air through their horns, squeals, speaking through their instruments, and somehow making them sound like electronic instruments.  Don’t sleep on Kaze; this band brings it like not many others.

Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile (Constellation): As the title indicates, this is the second installment of Roberts’ twelve chapter series, which explores her ancestry, cultural heritage, and the African American experience.  It’s an inter/multi-disciplinary project, with music, visual art, etc.  Whereas chapter one was with a larger group, chapter two is with a combo.  Perhaps the most striking element is the juxtaposition of the operatic tenor with the jazz group.  Besides being a killer alto player and composer, I bet Roberts could be a great jazz singer, as her spoken word and singing is captivating.  This album got quite a few votes for vocal album of the year.  Roberts is becoming one of the most significant artists; just wait, you’ll see.

Matt Parker, Worlds Put Together (BYNK): I reviewed this album in my previous post on excellent debut albums of 2013.

Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, In the Spirit of Duke (Spartacus): I was the only person to vote for this album.  Not surprising, really.  This is a killer live set of over a dozen of Ellington’s tunes, which span the bulk of his career and include lesser played compositions such as “The Single Petal of a Rose.”  Had the group attempted to imitate the Ellington band, or had specific players attempted to recreate the sound of Hodges, or Carney, or example, the disc would probably not have worked.  But this is no imitation – it’s just a screaming, swinging and tight big band playing the shit out of Ellington.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

Steve Owen, Stand Up Eight (OA2): I reviewed this album in my previous post on excellent debut albums of 2013.

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If you compare my list to the full results of the NPR poll, you’ll see that my picks were not shared by too many folks. The album on my list that placed highest was Roberts, which was 21st, and only two of my top 10 were in the NPR’s top 50.  I chalk this up to the fact that lots of folks may not consider much on my list jazz, especially the Dawn of Midi, Wallumrod, CACAW, and Hodge albums.  But who cares, it’s my list.

There were a few things that surprised me, however.  Not a single other critic voted for Derrick Hodge’s album.  Was it not “jazz” enough?  That could be, as Robert Glasper’s new album, which at last check was destroying several charts on iTunes, only appeared on two ballots.  I’m also surprised that Kaze did not place higher on the NPR poll (it came in 89th, only appearing on four ballots).  From as much my social media feeds were blowing up with rave reviews of the group’s summer festival performances I figured the group would do much better.

Things that didn’t surprise me.  Alaturka did not receive any other votes, as I’m not sure how much promotion the group’s leader and label owner Beau Bledsoe does outside the Kansas City area.  Had the album been on ECM or a similarly large album with promotion and distribution muscle, I bet it would have cleaned up.

Somewhat stray thought: with something like 700 albums receiving votes, I can say with some confidence that there are way too many albums being recorded.  There’s a lot of quality, but the small jazz market, I feel, may be dangerously flooded with music that nobody will ever hear – quality or not.  My best guess is that I heard significant portions, or all of, perhaps 200-250 albums.  That’s way too much music to have to go through.  So who knows, perhaps I missed out on something genius.

Final thought: as I finish this up, it’s New Year’s Eve, and I’ve already received review copies of three or four really excellent albums that could be contenders for next year’s poll.  It never ends, and that is a good thing.  Until next year…..

Voting for Debut of the Year is Gonna Be Tough

November 14, 2013 4 comments

Well shoot, it’s that time of the year again – time for me to start going through the numerous albums from 2013 I listened to and try to figure out how to rank them, an arduous task to be sure.  As a voter in the annual Rhapsody.com critics poll, I will have to figure out what album I will pick for best debut.  This is gonna be a hard one, as there are a bunch of good ones out there.  Making it particularly hard is that they are represent a diversity of styles – so any attempt to compare them is an exercise in pointlessness.  As of right now, here’s what I’m considering for debut of the year:

Derrick-Hodge-Live-Today-300x300Derrick Hodge, Live Today (Blue Note).  I’ll admit it, the first time I put this album on, I wasn’t feeling it.  At all.  And I almost didn’t give it another thought.  I don’t know if I was in the wrong frame of mind for it, if my ears were tired, if I was cranky that day or what.  But, I’m glad I gave it another listen, because Live Today is phenomenal.  I spent a good portion of the summer with this one on repeat.  Hodge, who plays bass in Robert Glasper’s band, has created a catchy, diverse, and rich album that traverses and/or is influenced by several genres: jazz, r&b, soul, hip hop, etc.  He somehow managed to create dense and layered textures, all played over tight grooves, without things getting cluttered or muddy.  There is a lot of hip shit happening, the complexity doesn’t sound complex, and there are new things to pick out with every spin.  The most ear-worm worthy cut is “Message of Hope,” which is built on a catchy pentatonic melody.  “Still the One” slowly builds over a slow groove, with a sparse Hodge solo before the repeated vocal line “You’re still the one for me” comes in.  It’s a chill and evocative cut.  “Solitude” sounds just like the title, with Hodge playing a pensive solo throughout the bittersweet piece.   The album features Glasper, a cameo from Common on the title track, drummer Chris Dave, saxophonist Marcus Strickland and others. Put Live Today on and vibe.

owlOWL Trio, S/T.  I reviewed this in a recent issue of Downbeat.  Tasty as hell alto, guitar and bass trio.  With Will Vinson, Lage Lund and Orlando le Fleming.  Their cover of Coltrane’s “Dear Lord” is especially gorgeous.

CACAW, Stellar Power (Skirl).  If you haven’t, read my review of it on this blog.

Steve-Owen-Stand-Up-Eight-L805552210026Steve Owen, Stand Up Eight (OA2 Records).  Owen, who directs the jazz studies program at the University of Oregon, is one of the top contemporary big band writers and arrangers going.  If you’re not familiar with his work, then listen to Stand Up Eight, which is easily one of the best big band albums of the last couple years.  In addition to the excellent writing and ensemble playing, it features a number of outstanding soloists.  Trumpeter Clay Jenkins’ playing is a standout on the haunting and dark “Still.”   Alto saxophonist Todd DelGiudice (who can be heard on several recent albums on the Origin/OA2 labels) is the featured soloist on Owen’s arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Everything I Love.”  After a lengthy intro/setup, DelGiudice enters backed by the full band.  His solo is full of forward energy and intensity, and his alto sound contains a nice mix of sweetness, heft and edge.  The other non-Owen composition is his arrangement of Radiohead’s “Kid A,” commissioned by the Frankfurt Radio Big Band and Lawrence University.  Owen’s chart – which features Jenkins and tenor saxophonist Peter Sommer – doesn’t stray too far from the original, and his use of marimba and woodwind doubles creates a wide array of timbres.  Stand Up Eight, which from an engineering and mastering standpoint sounds great, is an excellent album from a composer who should be heard by a wider audience.

parker worldsMatt Parker, Worlds Put Together (BYNK). Released in May, Worlds Put Together was a pleasant surprise.  Being unfamiliar with Parker, a Brooklyn based tenor saxophonist, and the rest of his band, save for drummer Reggie Quinerly, I had no idea what to expect.  But not having expectations can be a great thing, as there is nothing from which to prefigure and bias your thoughts.  The album opens with the waltz “Eye of Rico,” built on a raucous three note figure played by Parker and alto saxophonist Julio Monterrey.  It then moves into a gentler piano solo and includes a crunchy solo by guitarist Josh Mease.  Parker’s tone is fairly rough throughout – recalling to a small degree Ayler and Pharoah, although you can hear a little bit of the approach of folks like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster in his playing.  The overall recording has a raw and dynamic quality; it really feels alive and vital.  Save for the 10 minute “Full Sun,” the cuts are all under five minutes in length, and a few are less than three.  The tunes’ brevity gives them a sort of character piece feel.  “Lists” is extremely dark and brooding.  “Up and Down,” another tune in triple meter, is more playful and celebratory, and with two drummers and with collective improvisation, there’s a somewhat unbridled vibe.  The only cover is “Darn that Dream,” a duet between Parker and Monterrey.  The pair give it a left of center, outward-leaning reading that is decidedly non-balladic.  The final third features Parker’s rapid runs, and the ending finds both men heading towards the upper ends of their horns, with Parker concluding with an altissimo squeal that’s perfectly in tune.  At the end of the “Up and Down,” you hear someone say “that was awesome.”  That phrase pretty much sums up Worlds Put Together, a stunning and stimulating recording.  It’s one of my favorite albums of the year – be it debut or otherwise.

In an era when just about anybody with minimal home recording equipment or a budget to hire musicians and studio time can make a record, and when so many musicians decide to record before they have found their own voice, these five albums stand head and shoulders above most of the debut recordings I heard this year.  They all represent different approaches to jazz, they work to move the music forward in several different vectors, and are worth your time.

I’m sure there’s a whole other heap of albums out there that deserve my vote (and the votes of others for that matter).  In fact I’m sure I have some more debut albums that I have either forgotten about, haven’t gotten to yet, or don’t realize are debut albums.  Time to go digging through my vaults and stack of one- sheets to make sure I haven’t missed anything.

Prepare Yourself for CACAW

CACAW-Stellar-Power-FRONT-e1373558057790There’s been a whole slew of great new music that’s either come out in the last few months, or that will be coming out recently – more than I have time and energy to write about (especially since I’m trying to finish my dissertation).  But, one of these new albums that I absolutely feel compelled to write about is Stellar Power, by the band CACAW.  Led by Landon Knoblock on synths, it includes saxophonist Oscar Noriega and drummer Jeff Davis.  For the last few weeks I’ve been listening to it a ton, and it’s been rocking and freaking me out every time I play it.

To put it mildly, CACAW will rock your shit.

There are three things I want to do after listening to Stellar Power:

  1. turn up the volume on my Harmon Kardon pre-amp, and play the record again;
  2. repeat step one;
  3. chill out, then put on a sci fi movie – lately the urge has been to rewatch Blade Runner.  (I felt the Blade Runner thing long before checking out Knoblock’s website, on which he refers to the movie.)

Stellar Power, the group’s debut album, is loaded with many of my favorite things: crunchy, rumbling, piercing, fuzzy, and loud as hell synths; angular melodies; heavy drumming (lots of rock influences in Davis’ work here); fult tilt saxophone playing that’s both melodic, angular, and far out – far out in terms of approaches to harmony, time, timbre and rhythm.

There’s a futuristic, and sci fi vibe to the whole record.  This is in part due to the song titles: “Space Robot Falls in Love,” “Electro-Darwinism,” and “Neutron Star, Eating Its Binary Neighbor.”

“Replicant Lover” is one of my favorite tracks.  The liner note description of the track reads: “Lonely, awkward girl in a big city falls in love with a boy, who ends up being a robot. She loves him anyway.”  Perhaps this is why I want to watch Blade Runner – the obvious Replicant reference, and then the track sounds like it could fit perfectly into the movie soundtrack.

The closest thing to a ballad, if you could call it that (I use the term very loosely, only because the tempo is slow and because there’s an implied romantic element), is “Space Robots Fall in Love.”  It’s sparser, quieter, less intense, and is perhaps the album’s most melodic track.  There are moments where it’s quite pretty, but there’s also some crunch courtesy of Knoblock bending pitches on his synth while accompanying Noriega’s dry and acerbic alto.

Stellar Power concludes with “Neutron Star, Eating its Binary Neighbor,” a dark and heavy tune, which somewhat programmatically depicts what the title describes.  Knoblock sets the scene: timbres morph, notes and gestures flicker and fade,  Noriega enters with slowly snaking lines.  Then things get dark, heavy and gritty – the synth gets big, distorted and nasty, Davis drops some bombs and cymbal splashes, and then the binary neighbor is gone.

CACAW is one of those group’s that defies genre boundaries and common conventions.   Purely “jazz” people probably won’t dig the album, as there’s little on it, that one could call jazz (swing, blues feeling, common forms, what have you).  But there’s improvisation that’s coming out of the jazz tradition (especially the free jazz tradition, which is readily apparent on “Tabletop Glances Before Dawn”), and the band’s members all play in other “jazz” groups.  (For example, Noriega is on Tim Berne’s superb new album, and I hear some Konitz and Ornette in his approach.) Knoblock describes how the band’s focus is on playing sounds, as opposed to focusing on keys, modes, harmonies, etc.  And it’s this exploration of sounds, textures, grooves and atmospheres is where the group really kills it.  The album is a kodachrome of colors, which CACAW presents via a variety of styles and influences, all distilled into a unique sound.  I know of no other band that sounds like this, or that rocks in such an abstract and bent manner.

The people who might most get down with CACAW the most are those into rock and avant garde musics of all kinds.  The group probably kills in a rock club, and it’s where I’d love to see them.  I know the younger kids I work with in summer jazz camps, who don’t give two shits about whether or not something is jazz, would love this band, as it’s out of the jazz tradition, yet it’s current, forward looking, and relevant to today.  There’s no looking back with CACAW, their music looks to the future.

One piece of advice: if you get the album, make sure you listen to it loud.  That’s the only way to do it.

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Note 1: CACAW will be touring this month in support of the album.  Check the schedule here. (I’m bummed the band isn’t coming anywhere near Lawrence, KS, where I’m at, as I think they’d do really well at one of the rock clubs.)

Note 2: Stellar Power was pressed on  yellow vinyl, limited to 250 copies, which can be purchased from the band’s website.  Even though I got a free promo copy of the CD, I’m probably gonna buy the LP, because I have a sickness.

Words Don’t Go There: When “Tight” Just Won’t Do It

So you’ve probably heard the adage: “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  That gets to what follows, but I was reading something for my dissertation a couple weeks back (I can’t remember the author, perhaps it was Nathaniel Mackey) and the phrase “words don’t go there” really stuck out.  What the author was talking about was written language’s inability to fully capture the experience of music, and to me, the phrase “words don’t go there” gets to what the oft quoted adage is describing, yet in a clearer, more elegant, more succinct and effective way.

A few weeks back I had the pleasure to hear Miguel Zenon and the Rhythm Collective at the Blue Room in Kansas City.  Me, along with a bunch of people I know and were sitting with at the show, were constantly blown away by many things, one among them how tight the band was.

I mean really tight.
Impressively tight.
Almost unbelievably tight.
Tight beyond description.

Near the end of the first set  the “words don’t go there” phrase came back to me as I was realizing just how good the band was.  I then came to two conclusions: First, that there really isn’t any way for me to aptly describe what I was hearing.  At that moment, words couldn’t go there for me.  Second, that praising the “tightness” of a band isn’t that great of a compliment.  Here’s why: A band is supposed to be tight.  If it isn’t, something is wrong.  It’s not really a compliment to make a note of a band being just a step beyond competent.  It’s akin to that Chris Rock joke where the guy is proud of himself for taking care of his kids and not being in jail.  The punchline being “you’re not supposed to be in jail you dumb bastard. What do you want, a cookie?”  It’s like praising a singer for his or her good intonation, or for a soloist’s ability to navigate the chord changes – these are all more or less basic standards a professional jazz musician is supposed to meet.

Had I been assigned to review this concert for Downbeat or another publication, trying to describe how well Zenon and his band played together would have put me in a spot of bother.  If you read concert and album reviews, you’re familiar with these common, and sometimes generically lame ways to describe and praise a band for being tight (I admit to using some of these myself):

  • the band acts as one;
  • they have a shared consciousness, or they have ESP;
  • the band shifts directions on a dime, etc., etc. etc.

Sure, these descriptions more or less give the idea a reader an idea as to how good a band is and how well they play together, but for me – as both a writer and a reader – they don’t really make it.  But what is a critic or journalist or fan to do when they want to describe just how tight a band is – just how exceptionally tight, how how a band demonstrates beyond what is normally understood “tight” to be?

How am I able to relay through words just how amazingly tight Miguel Zenon and the Rhythm Collective were? (See how lame “amazingly tight” comes across?  Sure, the qualifying ly verb indicates Zenon et al were tighter than normal, or tighter than a working band is expected to be, but it still doesn’t get the job done.)

How am I to convey the visceral reaction of surprise and mirth I felt as the band moved unexpectedly in perfect concert with each other from a freewheeling improv section to playing a composed theme?  How do I convey the similar reactions of my friends in the audience (all of whom are fantastic musicians in their own right), to convey their sense of amazement, of their witnessing the barely graspable being firmly grasped by a group of master artists?  How do I convey the energizing effect of hearing people accomplish only what the very best of the best can do?

Sure, acknowledging Zenon and the Rhythm Collective’s tightness through one of the common phrases I listed above will more or less get the job done.  But what it doesn’t get at is the affect part of the music; it doesn’t get at communicating how the band’s performance makes me, and the other people I were there with, feel.  It might let the reader know that the band is better than most.  But, among the strongest reasons, at least for me, I listen to music is to feel.  As a motivation for listening, trying to compare music to other music is pretty low on the list (which might sound weird coming from someone who considers himself a “critic,” at least some of the time).  Sometimes I just want to write about how the music feels, not to judge it with some kind of long established evaluative criteria that governs much of what constitutes jazz writing.

Barring me having some kind of writing breakthrough, the best I can do to describe just how tight Zenon and the Rhythm Collective were a few Monday nights ago is to just say that “words don’t go there.”

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