Pharoah Sanders’ Black Unity for Less than a Buck!

pharoah black unitySo after getting a few things for the S.O.’s birthday last week on Amazon I got sent a free $1 mp3 credit. When I get one I scour Amazon for digital albums that, because they only have one long track, are 99 cents. Not every album with one track is 99 cents, but many are. I’ve found a great Cecil Taylor album that way, and some other great things. This time I found Pharoah Sanders’ album Black Unity, which is a single, 37 minute long cut. Get it here.

Recorded in 1971, it features:
Pharoah Sanders – soprano and tenor saxophone, balafon
Carlos Garnett – tenor saxophone, flute
Marvin Peterson – trumpet, percussion
Joe Bonner – piano
Stanley Clarke, Cecil McBee – bass
Norman Connors, Billy Hart – drums
Lawrence Killian – congas, talking drum, balafon

As the personnel would suggest, it’s a rhythm heavy album that grooves like crazy. Combine that with impassioned and fiery blowing from the horn players and you’ve got the best 99 cents you will certainly spend this week.

It’s Not about Cyrille Aimee’s Eyes and Curls

I recently got a press release for singer Cyrille Aimee’s new album that featured the following blurb: “When you see Cyrille Aimée perform, you instantly fall in love with her—her voice, eyes, curls and the joyful spirit she invests in each song.”

The quote comes from a 2013 interview with Aimee by the singer Roseanna Vitro. Out of the four qualities Vitro praises, only one directly relates to skill and talent. “Joyful spirit” is related, but it reads fairly gendered to me (how many male singers would be praised for their joyful spirit?).  What do Aimee’s eyes and curls have to do with her singing, or why you would want to listen to her music? Nope, nothing. What are two of the things that help make Aimee such a compelling performer? Her appearance. That this is the interview’s very first sentence immediately frames Aimee as a gendered and sexualized object, who also sings.

Perhaps, in this case, it’s ok that attention was drawn to Aimee’s looks because the writer was female. But it’s not – the sexualization of female jazz musicians by writers is not limited by the writer’s gender. What it shows is that the practice, especially in regards to singers, is so ingrained that it has become the modus operandi for writing about female musicians by most writers.

I haven’t heard Aimee’s new album, but I’m currently listening to her with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra on their Burstin’ Out! album. (If memory serves, it was my pick for vocal album of the year in last year’s NPR critics poll). It’s the only recording of her’s I’ve heard, and from the first listen I was really shocked by her great sense of rhythm, timing, natural shaping of phrases, and her great voice.

Mega-update to my favorites of 2014 list

August 9, 2014 1 comment

So I went and did some work on my favorite releases of 2014 page, check it out here. It comes with my rational for my new approach to listing my favorite albums by year, and some thoughts on a few of the albums. And check back to the page periodically, as I’ll be expanding the list and adding more thoughts about individual albums.

Categories: Opinion, Recording Review

Brief thoughts on the Sonny Rollins/New Yorker/Django Gold Kerfuffle

My S.O. said I couldn’t limit my thoughts on last week’s Django Gold’s satirical piece in the New Yorker about Sonny Rollins to five short sentences. I’m about to prove her wrong. In no particular order:

If you thought it was funny (I laughed at the Miles bit), cool; if not, also fine.

The response has been wayyyy overblown.

I mean Sonny taking to the web last night to discuss it?

Music shouldn’t have sacred cows.

If nothing else, lots of jazzheads need to channel their inner Dude.

Five New(ish) Albums from TUM

TUM Records, based in Finland, is quickly becoming one of my favorite new labels.  This is for several reasons: first, and most importantly, the music is all creative, fresh and forward looking, with nods to the jazz tradition and the avant-garde; second, the packaging, artwork and lengthy liner notes makes each release a complete package – in this way TUM is similar to ECM; third, also like ECM, the production, engineering and mastering is phenomenal, and every release I’ve heard on the album sounds great.  While most of the label’s catalog focuses on the work of Finnish musicians, Americans such as Wadada Leo Smith, Billy Bang and Barry Altschul have recorded for the label.

Aside from the music, part of what gives TUM it’s distinctiveness is the artwork.  Each release features visual art from a Finnish artist that is used for the front and back cover art.  The liner notes conclude with a thumbnail of the complete painting and a bio of the artists.  In this way, the label synthesizes music with art.  This is especially the case when the album is by Finnish musicians, as the complete package offers a piece of multiple aspects of Finnish culture.  In short, TUM is a label with a clear musical and artistic vision that consistently puts out a well conceived, executed and forward looking product.

Out of the several albums I’ve heard on the album over the last 24 months or so, here are five released within the last year, or so, that really struck me.

TUM032-cover-72Barry Altschul: The 3Dom Factor One of my favorite formats is the tenor, bass and drums trio.  Add The 3Dom Factor to the list of excellent albums in this format.  It’s also one of the finest albums of 2013.  The 3Dom Factor is Altschul’s first release as a leader in many years, and it features Jon Irabagon on tenor and Joe Fonda on bass.

There are several things that really stand out: first, Altschul’s compositions. They are tuneful and hummable, playful, rambunctious, quirky, and at times demanding. Many of the tunes are brief and folk-like, and remind me of Paul Motian’s writing.  There’s also a mix of grooves and feels, “Papa’s Funkish Dance,” well, has a nice funkish backbeat (this isn’t Clyde Stubblefield drumming for James – it’s a left of center jazz date); “Oops” has a tricky mixed meter A section – if I had to play it along with Altschul I’d be saying “Oops” a whole bunch; and “Ictus” is a fast, angular and jaunty post-bop head: think of mid-90s Branford w/ Tain. The diversity of meters, tempos, times, etc. does is give the soloists tons of ideas and textures to use as inspiration, nooks and crannies to explore.

Second, the trio is super tight. Which as I’ve written in a previous post, pointing out how well a band plays together is a silly thing to say. But there, I said it anyway. I’m not sure how much is the nature of the charts, but there are moments where the music slowly goes in another direction, which feels a bit like being whisked away and taken somewhere new. If it’s improvised, it’s a tribute to the group’s musicianship and the trust they have in each other. If it’s written, then Altschul did a helluva job writing such seamless and spontaneous changes.

Third, and this is related to the writing – is that each player gets lots of chances to solo; this album isn’t dominated by one player’s solo voice. And for those who are thinking “great, several bass solos, gotta tune those out” (admit it, you’ve all hated on the concept of the bass solo before) – don’t, as Fonda is a great soloist. And I don’t need to mention how killing Altschul and Irabagon are.

Irabagon told me that the trio is heading back into the studio shortly (they may have already done so), and their second album for TUM will be out this year.  If it’s anything like The 3Dom Factor, it will be phenomenal; I can’t wait to hear it.

51ulMyDAn6L._SX300_Esa Helasvuo: Stella Nova This is beautiful and compelling solo album is the first by the Finnish pianist and composer (who has been an important figure in the Finnish jazz scene for decades) in many years. All but one of the pieces are  improvised, which gives the music a completely organic feel. Helasvuo’s music is at times contemplative, he uses silence and stillness to great effect, his touch is gorgeous, and his playing is quite pretty (although a couple times it verges on being too pretty-but it’s never precious). The lengthy (9 minutes and change) title track is one of the album’s stand outs. He slowly – slowly is almost an understatement – builds up a head of steam, and when he gets going the forward motion is that of a train hurtling towards the inevitable. This is not to say that on this track Helasvuo manages to play above a forte, or that he gets raucous or wild – like the rest of the album his playing is restrained, well thought out and always has a direction. Those into any of the solo piano or piano trio albums on ECM – think of John Taylor or Keith Jarrett – will really like Stella Nova.

kalimaKalle Kalima & K-18: Out to Lynch (The first thing to mention, is that I noticed in an ad in Downbeat that Kalima and his band are putting out a new album on TUM pretty quick – so my review here isn’t the most timely, but whatever)

Now on to Out to Lynch: usually when somebody describes contemporary avant-garde jazz/creative or new music/improvisation/whatever-you-choose-to-call it he or she, myself including, will use the term “out.” But really, if it’s similar to something that was developed 50+ years ago, how “out” can it really be? Kalle Kalima & K-18 really is out, I mean OUT, in every sense of the word. As the title implies, it’s dedicated to and takes inspiration from the work of filmmaker David Lynch. I’m almost embarrassed to say it, but I’m not familiar with Lynch’s work at all – which is something I plan on rectifying in the near future. The only thing I really know is that somebody killed Laura Palmer and that the question of who killed her is oft-asked (I was too young to watch Twin Peaks when it appeared, but it’s been something I’ve been meaning to dive into). I have not seen any of his movies. So, I’m not able to comment on how Kalima et al reflect upon or how they might take their cues from Lynch, but to repeat, they go OUT.

The music is often shocking and surprising. For example, the opening track, “BOB,” begins with a rock guitar solo from Kalima, but then Veli Kujala’s entrance on quarter-tone accordion (much of what makes this album so jarring is the accordion’s tibres and tone clusters) – which barely matches, if at all, from what Kalima was playing – upsets I was expecting to follow. The rest of the track features free jazz solos from saxophonist Mikko Innanen, Kalima and Kujala in which the soloists-sometimes playing alone or in dialog with a bandmate- are accompanied by out of time bass from Teppo-Hauta-aho, crackling guitar and percussion. Despite the thick and shifting textures, the tendency to avoid time or meter, there are some more grooving – albeit a pretty whacked grooving – tracks. “Eraserhead,” for example, is built on a short and catchy riff that’s played over an almost neck snapping groove. But by the two minute mark, things get strange; it’s an awesome contrast. As crunching, dissonant and angular as things get, there’s also more quiet, ambient, atmospheric and introspective moments – several moments on “Laura Palmer” serve as examples, despite the brief and occasional punctuated outbursts. When I played that track on my jazz radio show last year it was too out for my co-host, and I told our listeners during the stop set that by playing “Laura Palmer” we may have set a new record for how out the show got, which was quite a statement, because I brought in a lot of “out” music. But out of it all, “Laura Palmer” might have been the truly “outest.” In fact, Out to Lynch might be just about the “outest” contemporary jazz or improvised music can get.

031-cover-72dpiVerneri Pohjola & Black Motor: Rubidium The first time I played this album I really only had it on in the background, and without really paying attention it sounded like a pretty far out record (see above).  But…when I finally gave it the attention it deserved it turns out it’s not as out there as I had first thought, as Rubidium is quite often all about singable melody, a quality not usually associated with avant garde jazz.  At first the “out” signifiers (Sami Sippola’s rough and burly tenor sound, which comes right out of the free jazz saxophone pioneers of the ’60s, and the stretching and occasional abandonment of time by bassist Ville Rauhala and drummer Simo Laihonen) overshadowed the tunefulness of the compositions and solos.  The quartet gives Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Song of India” a bold and rhapsodic reading, and while Sippola’s tenor solo is right out of the free jazz tradition, there’s a nice balance between melody and snarl.  Particularly fun is “Sax-O-Phun,” by the underecognized 1920s saxophone virtuoso Rudy Wiedoeft.  The short track begins with freeish solos before the band romps through the playful head (get your jazz hands going and pretend their on a serious dose of uppers). Edward Velsala’s dirge-like “Kynnyspuulla” is a lengthy lament and features lengthy and searching solos from Pohjola, Sippola and Rauhala.  Like the album as a whole, the title track and “Old Papa’s Blues,” both by Pohjola, are fairly dark, a little brooding, are built on lengthy melodies, and are in minor.

While this band is clearly capable of turning the “outness” knob up to 11, they only do so when necessary (as on “Rubidium), which gives these forays into outer-space more meaning and significance.  Don’t get me wrong, a whole lot of folks will probably consider the whole album to be pretty avant-garde, and in some ways I wouldn’t argue with that; however, there’s enough melody to counter those folks who think avant garde jazz is nothing but noise.  Verneri Pohjola & Black Motor prove just that.

kalima2While the above albums are all around a year or two old, To Future Melodies by saxophonist  Juhani Aaltonen came out April 15 of this year. It features the music of Finnish bassist and composer Antti Hytti, who wrote a lot of music for films and theater. (For liner note nerds – there’s extensive notes and photos here, bios of the musicians – Aaltonen’s bio is quite long, brief introductions to the album by Hytti and Aaltonen, and descriptions of the tunes.)

This is a pretty dark, moody and introspective album. From the first hit of the big piano and arco bass chords and the ensuing entrance of Aaltonen’s tenor, this album evokes later Trane – especially Stellar Regions. It doesn’t sound like Trane’s final studio album, but it is in that continuum. Perhaps this is because Aaltonen has a slow and wide vibrato just like Trane ahd on Stellar Regions, although Aaltonen’s sound has a slight brittleness to it that Trane’s didn’t. The music is full of polyrhythms and polyphony: that’s due to the two bassists (Ulf Krokfors and Ville Herrala), drummer Reino Laine, and percussionist Tatu Ronkko. Pianist and harpist Iro Haarla fills out the sextet. The five piece rhythm section provides a thick, thorny, and dense support for Aaltonen’s solos, and it’s function on this album is more to back Aaltonen than to provide soloists for every tune, although Haarla does solo.  Like Aaltonen’s tenor sound, her tremolos and generous sustain pedal evoke Trane’s more meditative pieces from the mid-60s. Using such a big rhythm can run the risk of things getting cluttered or muddy, but that is not the case here, as each member picks and chooses their spots – the result is a rhythm section that sounds unified and adds complexity and interest, as opposed to one where its members are fighting to be heard. It’s quite impressive.  Aaltonen plays flute on two tracks, but for me his tenor playing is most arresting. The title track is a great tenor feature that’s introduced by a bass solo. Aaltonen’s playing is bittersweet and heartfelt – it’s a heartbreakingly beautiful song. Although one hears a lot of references and similarities to the avant-garde scene of the mid and late 60s, there’s plenty new here to dig into, especially the playing of Aaltonen, who is one of the most important figures in the development of the Finnish jazz community.

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For those such as myself who like hearing artists stretch out and try new things, and who really need a well done, great sounding and tangible product – as opposed to a compressed and context devoid mp3 – the TUM catalog is definitely worth digging into. It also gives Americans – or anybody else for that matter – an opportunity to get into the Finnish jazz tradition, which is probably not that well-known outside of Europe, and which clearly has much to say. TUM is creating a wonderful archive of Finnish musical culture, and with a few additions of Americans to boot. Definitely give TUM your attention.

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.

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