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 (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.
OWL 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 (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.
Matt 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.
There’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:
- turn up the volume on my Harmon Kardon pre-amp, and play the record again;
- repeat step one;
- 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.
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.
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.
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.”
In case you missed it, here’s what me and my man Lucas spun on our weekly jazz show on KJHK last week.
Chicago Jazz Orchestra, “What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” from Burstin’ Out
Joe Lovano, “Fort Worth”
Charles Mingus, “Tijuana Giftshop,” from Tijuana Moods
Andrew Hill, “Noon Tide,” from Passing Ships
Charles Lloyd/Jason Moran, “Bess, You Is My Woman,” from Hagar’s Song
Bill Stewart/Tim Hagans, “Space Dozen”
Tomasz Stanko, “Terminal 7″
Charles Mingus, “Tonight at Noon,” from The Clown
Ches Smith, “Animal Collection,” from Hammered
Cacaw, “Replicant Lover,” from Stellar Power
Lee Konitz/Brad Mehldau/Charlie Haden, “All of Us”
Darcy James Argue, “The Neighborhood”
Kenny Wheeler, “Kind Folk”
Steve Owen, “Everything I Love,” from Stand Up Eight
If this looks awesome to you, you can stream our show online at kjhk.org every Wednesday night from 8-10pm central.
Wow, so it’s taken me almost a full week to get the playlist up for last week’s installment of The Turnaround, my weekly radio show on KJHK that I host with Lucas Homer. You can catch us streaming online at http://www.kjhk.org from 8-10 central. Here’s what you missed from last week:
Jimmy Rushing, “Everybody Loves My Baby,” from Mr. Five By Five
Walter Smith III, “Moranish,” from III
Terence Blanchard, “Harvesting Dance,” from Flow
Kurt Rosenwinkel, “Something, Sometime,” from Star of Jupiter
Kaze, “Wao,” from Tornado
Mark Dresser Quintet, “Not Withstanding,” from Nourishments
Keith Jarrett Trio, “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” from Somewhere
OWL Trio, “Morning Glory,” from OWL Trio
Chris Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7, “Grampa’s Boogaloo”
Bobby Watson and the I Have a Dream Project, “A Blues of Hope”
Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd, “Capacity,” from Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project
Mostly Other People Do the Killing, “Yo, Yeo, Yough,” from Slippery Rock!
Chucho Valdes & The Afro-Cuban Messengers, “Afro-Commanche,” from Border-Free
When Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, especially those who are leaders in veterans groups, appear on news stories a point they often make is that there is a disconnect between those fighting the wars and the American public. They often describe how the American public, at least those who are not directly involved in the war effort, really have no idea what these veterans experience and have to deal with. This is probably due, in part, to the fact that military service is voluntary; had there been a draft, the chasm between veterans’ experiences and Americans’ knowledge of those experiences wouldn’t be so great, as many more millions of Americans would have been directly affected by both wars.
Cue the absolutely brilliant and stunning new album from Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd, entitled Holding it Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project, which dropped this week.
In 2009 Iyer and Ladd began interviewing veterans of color about their dreams at night. Ladd took many of these dreams and turned them into poetry. Marine Corp veteran Maurice Decaul, a poet who was in Iraq in ’03, and Lynn Hill, an Air Force veteran who piloted drones, contributed their own poetry and read it on the album.
The end effect, as one would expect, is chilling. Although chilling is not strong enough of a word. There is a visceral reaction; one literally feels this music and these words.
These are the dreams, words and experiences of people who have killed, who have witnessed killing, who suffer long after their tours ended.
As my co-host on The Turnaround radio show noted after we played “Capacity,” featuring Lynn Hill, this album hits like a ton of bricks. The track gave both of us chills as it was going out over the air.
The dreams, as set to poetry here, deal with subjects one might expect: having to pull the trigger, descriptions of weapons, the sound of gun fire, being in the desert, fellow soldiers dying, etc.
The music serves to heighten the poetry. Although the bulk of Iyer’s work is in the “jazz” idiom, and Pi is a “jazz” label, the music really doesn’t fall into the jazz category. Most of the music is held down with steady drum grooves, and straddle the lines separating rock, hip hop and electronica. Much of the music is purely accompaniment, providing a mood or feel to put the focus on the poetry. Some tracks, like “Dream of Ex-Ranger” and “Shush” directly recall Iyer’s piano trio (although they includes synth, guitar and cello). Others are straight rock, such as “Costume.”
The personnel configuration rotates, giving the album a diverse sonic palette and range of colors and textures. Iyer is on piano, Rhodes, and electronics. Ladd, in addition to vocals, contributes synths, and Guillermo E. Brown adds vocals and effects. Guitarist Liberty Ellman and cellist Okkyung Lee augment the ensemble on several cuts.
Holding it Down is a must listen, not in the terms of it’s a “must listen” in the way critics such as myself like to label an album we think is really entertaining or fun or whatever. It’s a must listen because it does what great art is supposed to do: challenge it’s reader/viewer/listener, question what they know and think, and to put them in a cognitive and/or emotional spot of bother.
It’s a must listen not because it is necessarily meant to be something enjoyable to put on the stereo and chill to (although truth be told a lot of the music is straight banging – if there was one, I’d put an instrumental version of the album on repeat). Holding it Down is an album you have to kind of prepare yourself for, mentally and emotionally.
Every American, especially those without ties to veterans, needs to listen to this, no matter how difficult it may be. This is not meant to be hyperbole.
Given the possibility of another Middle Eastern military intervention, I think it is imperative that Americans try and come to grips as much as possible with the repercussions such an action might come with.
For those with the willingness and strength to get through it, Holding it Down should help bring its listeners a little bit closer to the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan vets.
This past week my man Lucas and I had our second installment of The Turnaround, our weekly two hour jazz radio show on KJHK, the University of Kansas’ student radio station. If you’re not in the Lawrence area, then you can listen online every Wednesday night from 8-10 central time by logging on to http://www.kjhk.org.
A highlight this week was a listener who called in about an hour or so into the show asking if this was a “jazz show.” To be fair I think John Zorn’s Naked City was playing as she called. Just a reminder that not everything I would throw under the jazz category would get the same treatment by everyone else. And so we gladly played her request for Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy.” Because it’s awesome, and so are our listeners.
In case you missed it, here’s what was spinning on The Turnaround last Wednesday night….
Westport Art Ensemble, “Theme for this American Life”
Greg Osby & Mark Turner, “The Sidewinder” (a live concert bootleg)
Dave Douglas, “Beware of Doug,” from Time Travels
Bob Brookmeyer, “Say Ah”
John Hollenbeck/Claudia Quintet, “Just Like Him,” from I, Claudia
Jonathan Finlayson, “Circus,” from Moment and the Message
John Zorn, “Batman,” from Naked City
Masada, “Piram,” from Live in Jerusalem 1994
Duke Ellington, “Black and Tan Fantasy”
George Garzone, “What is this thing Called Love?”
Art Pepper, “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” from Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section
Jason Lindner, “Seven Ways,”
Gilad Hekselman, “This Just In,” from This Just In
Bill Frisell, “I Heard it through the Grapevine”