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"If you ain't got it in you, you can't blow it out."
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Monday, July 16, 2012

Pat Metheny: Unity Band

Guitarist Pat Metheny is, arguably, the biggest “star” in jazz since 1980. He has led popular bands that, by jazz standards, have sold many records. He has won Grammys. He has pioneered the use of a guitar-synth. He was signed to major labels and he has played in all-star groups and at festivals.

cover artBut Metheny is still a jazz player even if he’s a star, and he’s never shied away from being “serious” like a jazz musician should be: recording standards, collaborating with other heavy-hitter jazz players, making more sober records, and even stretching himself considerably by playing more avant-garde music, as well as classical music. In a real sense, Metheny has tried to be the EveryJazzMan—becoming a little bit of everything to every listener. And, darn it, the guy is very good, so it works more often than not.

The latest from Metheny is an all-star group called the Unity Ban. And one suspects that this name comes partly from the leader’s own desire to unify the various sides of his musical personality. Rather than release another album that plays to one of his many (and somewhat disparate) musical personalities, Metheny has gathered a band that can play in several different bags on different tracks. It’s a great band—Chris Potter on reeds, Ben Williams on bass, and Antonio Sanchez on drums—and so it’s more than capable. But the recording itself is, not surprisingly, all over the place, a Whitman’s sampler of Metheny himself.

So, for example, folks who enjoy the more serious/sensitive Metheny will love “This Belongs To You”, a relatively tempoless rhapsody on which the leader’s acoustic guitar blends melodically with Potter’s tenor on the flowing, searching melody. Metheny gets a stinging beauty from his acoustic on a lovely solo, with Sanchez coloring it all with great care. But the very next tune, “Leaving Town”, will delight pop-loving fans of the semi-smooth Pat Metheny Band because of the heaping dose of twisting melody it serves up over a grooving pulse. Here, Metheny is playing his familiar electric guitar in a pleasing style, only to set up a Potter solo that other Metheny fans will find reminiscent of the playing of Michael Brecker on the early 80/81 album.

The variety goes on. “Roofdogs” revives Metheny’s robot-voiced guitar-synth on both the melody statement and a long, expressive solo that purposefully sounds similar to what Potter plays on soprano saxophone. Then “Come and See” gives Metheny the chance to play his harp-like “Picasso” guitar while Potter gets moody on bass clarinet. And in the biggest departure of all, “Signals” combines the band with Metheny’s work with his Orchestrion gizmo in which he is able to program a series of bells and percussion and other sounds to interact with his playing, creating a unique music box sound that comes from the most distinct of his recent albums.

Amidst all this, of course, there is great playing. “New Year” pulses with a Latin groove that fits beautifully with acoustic guitar and lifts Potter to lovely heights. And the closer, “Breakdealer”, seems like a perfect vehicle for a band that just needs some tricky material to test its chops and give it something on which to really blow.

But great playing does not necessarily make a great record. And Unity Band is not a great record in large part because it moves about with such restlessness.

Inside this disc, however, there is a great record quietly pushing its way out. “Then and Now”, for example, is a tender theme that ought not to have been shoved aside so easily by all that orchestrion-ing and guitar-synth-yelling. It lopes along with beauty and subtlety, letting in a singing bass solo by Williams that the record could stand to have more room for. And there is “Interval Waltz”, which sets up Potter’s tenor in the perfect part of his range and then asks him to play a melody based (of course) on several tricky intervals. The shape of the tune builds to a calm climax to launch Metheny’s most magical solo of the set.

Read the entire PopMatters review here: Pat Metheny: Unity Band

JAZZ TODAY: Three Ive Ignored, Shame on Me: Elliot Sharp, Mike Reed & Joe McPhee

There is so much music out there, even a music journalist can’t keep up. Even a music journalist who largely focuses on jazz, which ought to be a small corner of the music scene, finds himself overwhelmed.

That’s why there are certain artists I’ve taken a pass on over the years. Not because they are in any way unworthy, but merely because you can’t eat everything at the buffet, right? So, with unfair arbitrariness, I happen to have never listened to music by the prolific composer Elliot Sharp, by Mike Reed’s band People, Places & Things, or by free-improvising veteran Joe McPhee.

And this month new releases by all these artists came knocking on my door once again. Like future friends who keep inviting you to parties even though you’ve never even RSVPed in the past, these artists have a benevolent persistence. Really, it’s about time I gave them the time of day.

Here, then, I get my first taste of three strong jazz voices, each one now making my life a bit richer.

Press photo of Elliott Sharp by © Andreas Starzing from Elliott Sharp.com

Elliot Sharp—Aggregat

Elliot Sharp is the ultimate ignored artist on my list. His discography is huge and wildly diverse. A quick hop over to allmusic.com shows 66 albums under this name, and I know for a fact that undercounts by dozens. And while I’ve certainly heard some Sharp over the years, I have mostly systematically avoided him.

But no more. Here, on the wonderful Clean Feed Records, is a new disc recorded by Sharp’s trio in Brooklyn last year, the band filled out by Brad Jones on bass and Ches Smith on drums. Aggregat delivers a rich slice of Sharp’s sensibility—searing electric guitar as well as nuclear saxophone—but does so with a propulsive sense of fun. Take, just to start, the 3:44 of “The Grip”, which swings in a straight 4/4 jazz sense: walking acoustic bass and drums as fleet and straight as something from Elvin Jones.

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Atop that traditional sound, however, is Sharp’s multi-directional electric guitar, improvising in ten directions at once. The playing is not so much beyond traditional harmony as it is daring: using the tone of metal and a non-linear melodic sense to explode musical ideas with true surprise. But each idea is interesting and followable, if not traditionally “pretty”. More importantly it’s fun and thrilling—the work of a musical mind that wants to create adventure.

Mike Reed’s People, Places & Things—Clean on the Corner

Mike Reed is a drummer based out of Chicago who has been performing, presenting music, and recording for the last 15 years. He has managed to show up just about everywhere in that context, and my resistance to listening to him—particularly his acclaimed band “People, Places & Things”, which has taken on the task of channeling the vibe of late-‘50s and early-‘60s jazz from the Chicago area—can only be described as silly and self-defeating.

cover artThis is music that sits on that delicious cliff’s edge between post-bebop tonality and adventurous freedom, jazz that is loosed from the moorings of harmonic constriction. Six of the eight tunes on Clean on the Corner are by Reed, with one zipping bopper by Chicagoan John Jenkins and a loping blues variation by Chicagoan Roscoe Mitchell. But all of them share a sensibility of gracious melody and momentum, combined with the open plain of freedom that allows the primary soloists to play whatever their heart requires in the moment.

So, dig the scurrying phrases of tenor saxophonist Tim Haldeman on Mitchell’s “Old”, which solo plays out over a martial beat set up by Reed as bassist Jason Roebke plays a very staccato kind of walking quarter note. Mostly, this is a piano-less quartet, and so the solo is also accompanied by interjections from Greg Ward’s alto sax, setting up blues signposts along the way. The tune exudes a gleeful relaxation.

Joe McPhee and Ingebrigt Haker Flaten—Brooklyn DNA

The final in my trio of foolishly neglected artists is Joe McPhee, the multi-instrumentalist who has been a part of the “free jazz” or improvised music scene since the late ‘60s. McPhee is another player whose sheer body of work is intimidating for its size and breadth. For many of us, nevertheless, his presence on the US scene was limited, with his most prominent work released on European labels (most notable hat Hut, which was founded to feature his work) and some of his best work coming in collaboration with younger artists (such as Ken Vandermark) in the ‘90s and since.

Press photo of by ©  Peter Gannushkin from Joe McPhee.comI’d been meaning to dig into those classic albums for a while when I caught McPhee live at a midnight show at the Blue Note in 2011 (which show I wrote about here, “An Infectious Case of Jazz Fanaticism”) when Clean Feed (again: thank you Clean Feed Records for releasing the music that so many of us need to hear) sent me a duet record by McPhee and Haker Flaten, how could I leave it on my table, unspun?

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And in this latest work from McPhee there is everything that made him compelling in person—but it’s concentrated because of the lovely duet format with an obviously sympathetic partner. McPhee is the most sonorous and (one is tempted to say) “classical” of free jazz players. While he will honk or squeal or distort his sound if that is called for, McPhee is mostly a player possessed of a truly lovely tone. So, on “CBJC”, McPhee moves his alto sax in counterpoint with the bass, shifting tone from moment to moment, constantly capable of a rich sound or a more strident one—achieving fluid flurries of sound, long held tones, and even (very nearly at the track’s end) a seemingly impossible slide upward over an interval of a full third without losing tone.

Read the entire column here: Three Ive Ignored, Shame on Me: Elliot Sharp, Mike Reed & Joe McPhee

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

NRBQ: We Travel the Spaceways

NRBQ is a little band, a band many folks have heard of (or even heard in concert) but with not one hit song and not even really a defining album. Instead, this is a band defined by brilliant, eclectic live shows, but ones built not on self-indulgent jamming but on tasty morsels of great songs and a stylistic range that takes your breath away.

In 2012, NRBQ’s line-up contains only one member of the pre-2004 band—the singer, songwriter and Clavinet master Terry Adams—but its spirit lives on clearly. We Travel the Spaceways is from a 2011 live show in Bearsville, NY, and it catches the group in its madly varied glory. The title track is a famous tune by the jazz fantasist and avant-garde figure Sun Ra. The group also assays “Bye-Ya” by Thelonious Monk over a tub-thumping groove, and it even covers the old Claude Thornhill theme song “Snowfall”. But no jazz record this, as unique and fine as these jazz adaptations may be.

There is Beatle-rific pop-rock; lick-heavy groove tunes; odd, almost 12-tone-ish piano music; roots-rock shit-kicking songs; harmonically complex ballads; and even fairly simple blues rockers. Which is to say, this is an utterly typical set by NRBQ. Throw in some saxophone solos, leaven with loosey-goosey vocals—and don’t neglect either humor or sincerity.

The question for fans of the Q, if they haven’t seen the band in a while, is whether this is still really NRBQ. After all, Terry Adams would seem to be the only “real” member these days, and he was basically touring with this band a while back without calling it “NRBQ”—so what is the actual product here? And if it’s true that Adams was in many ways the Q’s backbone, he was also always their backbone of eclectic weirdness—the guy bringing into the band songs like “We Travel the Spaceways”, for example. So, fans might wonder, is this album NRBQ set wildly loose?

The first track is a hummable lovely from 25 years ago, the catchy “The One and Only” from the pen of Adams, yes, but also the departed Joey Spaminato whose inimitable vocal delivery turns out to be . . . fairly imitable by one of the new members of the band. Of course, Adams’ Clavinet powers the whole delightful thing, and Scott Ligon’s guitar turns out to be a jazzy, round-toned treat on a brief solo. Spaceways sounds just like NRBQ from the start.

“Here I Am” is new song by Adams and Ligon that sounds like it could have been penned by Lennon-McCartney in 1965, including some charming “oooooh”s and a gentle near-surf beat, with the vocal reaching up to strain gently in the third verse. “Yes, Yes, Yes” is even better, an Adams tune that starts with a tricky solo piano passage, blossoms into a tender ballad, and then morphs on the bridge into something knottier, leading to a strange and even disturbing synth solo that—by dint of sheer peculiarity—turns out to be perfect. Because when NRBQ gets tender it just about breaks your heart (“Ooh, I want you to know how I feel . . . Ask me do I love you? Do I? Yes, yes yes”) and then they throw in a smirk. It’s exactly why rabid fans love them so and, of course, exactly why they’ve never really made it big.

To round out the proceedings, there are other treats and random acts of musical fun.  Read my full review on PopMatters here: NRBQ: We Travel the Spaceways