Header Quote

"If you ain't got it in you, you can't blow it out."
— Louis Armstrong

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Slippery Rock

Mostly jazz can be tedious. I mean, I love it, but way too many people will tell you, “Yeah, I love jazz! I put it on as I’m going to sleep!” Or people will say, “Jazz is great for studying.” Which means, mostly, that it’s background hum. It’s the soundtrack, mostly, for doing things that require some kind of adult sonic wallpaper.

Mostly, jazz is a hip kind of boredom, right?

But not when it’s played by Mostly Other People Do the Killing. This quartet—Moppa Elliot on bass and primary composer, Peter Evans on trumpet, drummer Kevin Shea, and the suddenly ubiquitous saxophonist Job Irabagon—plays jazz with a sense of adventure and daring, a perspective that refuses to honor too completely the past even as the band’s music usually has roots in what came before.

Which is to say: Mostly Other People Do the Killing is mostly wonderful, mostly compelling, mostly rich in ideas and energy and invention.

The band’s latest is called Slippery Rock! (another reference to a town in Pennsylvania, continuing the “joke” from MOPDtK’s This Is Our Moosic, in which every tune evoked the name of a town in that state). But, as is almost always true with this band, the music itself is no joke. In fact, MOPDtK’s music is no more gag-filled than that of, say, Charles Mingus. This band plays music rooted quite seriously in the jazz tradition, widely considered, from Armstrong’s contrapuntal approach to the manic flights of bebop to the tonal and harmonic abandon of Ornette Coleman or Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Here, as across their discography, the band also incorporates the dramatic expressionism of the contemporary “free” musicians from Chicago or Europe, using techniques of juxtaposition and contrast in composition and improvisation. As a result, the group’s sound and approach always has a sense of surprise and daring.

And in that surprise, sure, there is often a sense of madness or looseness that can seem like humor. Not jokes, exactly, but rather a joyous sense that these jazz musicians are not grim about their art. They are mostly gleeful and celebratory. Most assuredly.

That said, the packaging for MOPDtK records often uses humor. Slippery Rock!” has a cover that suggests a ridiculous ‘80s “new wave” band, with the band members wearing neon-colored suits and leaping across the tacky graphic design in period goofiness. The “liner notes” extend the gag, claiming that all the material here was inspired by Moppa Elliot’s immersion of “smooth jazz” records from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Though, the thing is, while this music sounds absolutely nothing like smooth jazz, the more you listen, the more you realize that Elliot may, in fact, have found motifs and elements from that body of work that helped to inform these otherwise knotty and compelling tunes.

Whether this is “funny” or “true” or not may be beside the point. Mostly, you need to listen to the music for the pleasure it gives and not so you have some critical understanding of its origins. And this music is so rich in action and content that it should give any fan of modern jazz a mostly full-on ear-to-ear grin.

Smooth or not (and it’s really not “smooth” at all), there is a ton of rockin’ groove in these tunes. The expressive “Jersey Shore” is rich in tumultuous backbeat, and the melody sounds more like a funky blues tune than any avant-garde jazz. But the way that MOPDtK puts this kind of music across is decidedly different: loose and expressive, with very little “taking turns” for solos and a great deal of collective blowing, with Irabagon and Evans flinging wild notes with abandon. On this tune, however, you can’t help but notice that the seeming madness is coordinated with intelligence and care—creating a spellbinding counterpoint that is capable of suddenly pulling back to a whisper, to a series of longer held tones, or to coordinated jabs or slurs. “Yo, Yeo, Yough” grooves too, with a bass line that is funky and fat, and “Dexter, Wayne and Mobley” evokes three tenor giants in its melody, but not in its hypnotic rhythm feel of bouncing funk bass and syncopated hi-hat clatter.

Read the complete PopMatters review here: Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Slippery Rock

Wynton Marsaliss Blood on the Fields, Still Genius

A few weeks ago I had the experience—full of both promise and tension—of revisiting a piece of art that I once thought truly great. The fear, of course, is that such things cannot live up to your memory and hopes. Is anything ever as wonderful as it seemed when you first fell in love with it?

Ah, but some things are. Some things are sublime. Some things are sweeter over time.

cover artA First Love

Wynton Marsalis’s three-hour jazz oratorio, Blood on the Fields, won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for music—a first for a jazz composition. I saw it performed around that time at Washington, DC’s Warner Theater, which was after it was debuted at Lincoln Center in 1994. I arrived at the concert with a dozen of my music students and insanely high expectations: I had been listening to the recording (featuring the voices of Cassandra Wilson, Jon Hendricks, and Miles Griffith) for a while, and all three were on hand with the composer and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Our breaths were stolen.

Blood on the Fields was classic Marsalis: a work that was serious and wildly ambitious—and potentially a great heap of pretention. Marsalis set out to chronicle American slavery by telling the story of a couple, from their travels to the US over the Middle Passage to a brave defiance of servitude, to brutal punishment and hatred, to a form of transcendence, love, and eventual escape. The music, on the surface, was mainly Ellingtonian, but it also reached for a full history of jazz, from field hollers and blues, to Tin Pan Alley ballads, to the cries and rumbles of more modern, more free jazz. And the lyrics had little choice but to go right at the topic: addressing the physical pain of the slave ships, the dehumanization of slave auctions, the anger of black Americans as the country that was imposed on them, religion, and the absurdity of hope.

When I first heard it performed, I simply hadn’t heard a jazz musician in my lifetime try something at this level of difficulty. I’d heard brilliant solos, edgy combinations of tonality and atonality, strange instrumentations, all sorts of tricky stuff. But Blood on the Fields was trying something even more daring. Marsalis was trying to fly beyond the usual with a combination of tradition and experimentation while also addressing politics, history, and the internal human struggle. I mean, I was embarrassed just to like it, it was so potentially full of itself.

But I loved it. As weighty as it was, Blood on the Fields was melodic and fleet, with a huge array of different grooves. The singers were distinctive and ripe: Wilson’s mahogany contralto, Griffith bringing a desperate, raspy cry (“Yooooou don’t heeeeear no druuuums, womaaaaan!”), and Hendricks utterly himself in his cheek and his scatting even as he took on different characters. In concert, the band brought an amazing combination of gravitas and loose joy to their playing.

As I left the concert hall with the students, there wasn’t a soul among us who hadn’t traveled six thousand miles through the music that night. “My life just changed”, one student told me. Who could disagree? The Pulitzer was hardly enough recognition.

A Second Look

And then I didn’t listen to Blood on the Fields for about 15 years. Why? Perhaps because it is a three-CD box set. Perhaps because listening to just part of it seems silly. Perhaps because Wynton Marsalis’s standing since 1997 had both risen—he is the unquestioned Most Established Man In Jazz, King of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and Composer of Many Crazy-Long Works—and also fallen. If Wynton once seemed like a youngish guy who was trying, audaciously, to bring jazz to the next level, in recent years he has seemed both nicked by time (dropped by a record label, for example) and a little stodgy.

Which isn’t exactly right. He and his band (and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra) have been playing up a storm, collaborating (with Willie Nelson, with Eric Clapton, but also playing jazz, you bet), and educating. But still, I was getting along just fine without Wynton—and without remembering Blood on the Fields.

But when a weekend in New York coincided with the first performance of the work in more than 15 years, well… I went out of my way to get tickets. If only to find out if I was still in love.


Saturday, March 16, 2013

Charles Lloyd / Jason Moran: Hagars Song

In 1968, the Charles Lloyd Quartet, which had achieved rock-level fame and hippie acclaim, split and Charles Lloyd vanished from playing. Almost two decades went by, with Lloyd playing very little (weirdly, doing some touring and recording with the 1970s incarnation of the Beach Boys) until he slowly resurfaced as the same player in a wonderful new context.

Playing at first with pianist Michel Petrucciani and later with his own bands, he explored a variety of forms of balladry, impressionistic playing, and various forms of world music. But usually, it was with a great pianist: Bobo Stenson, then Brad Mehldau and Geri Allen, and more recently (since 2008) Jason Moran. Hagar’s Song is nothing more and nothing less than a set of duets with Moran. And in many respects it is the most intimate—and best—work of Lloyd’s career.

There has always been something idiosyncratic and difficult about Lloyd’s playing. He has a distinctive but sometimes thin tone, and his brilliance has been marred by lots of aimless playing, noodling you might say. Some of what Lloyd’s fans might call profound I tend to find tedious. But Hagar’s Song is the best of what Lloyd does: powerful introspection and intensity, a focused lyricism that sounds personal.

The program here contains all of what interests Lloyd: standards and free improvisation, rock tunes and textured originals. And because Moran is a versatile but daring player, Lloyd approaches these tunes with an orchestral originality. On Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”, Moran begins with a simple series of chords built around a single repeated high note, rolling in a hip bass line and eventually more complex harmonies. But Moran creates a context that is compelling even as it honors the simplicity (which is the beauty) of Dylan’s song. Lloyd barely does more than state the melody in different registers, but the vocal elements he brings to the song—cracking quavers in the upper register (where he continues to excel on tenor sax), breathy middle tones and a nasal resonance down low—make it feel complete without any fancy-pants rewiring of the melody.

Moran is brilliant setting the table on Chris Conner’s 1953 hit “All About Ronnie” as well. He caresses the keys to create harp effects, rainfall patters, shimmers—really anything that Lloyd needs to float his quivering melody upon. But when a more rhythmic approach is needed—say on the Earl Hines tune “Rosetta”—Moran is raggy and bouncing without resorting for formula. His left hand is strong but not thumping, and the sense of texture is always there, thanks in part to the crystalline recording quality provided (as ever) by Manfred Eicher’s ECM magic.

Happily, the sheer beauty of much of Hagar’s Song is relieved by elements of harmonic freedom. “Rosetta” may be from the ‘20s or ‘30s, but Moran clatters a line or two that could have been played only in the last couple of decades. “Pictogram” is a freely improvised conversation that sounds easy and light in temperament but thorny in the ideas it suggests. Moran plays a walking bass line with his left hand but, even there, the time suggested is not just swinging 4/4, and the two musicians allow more than one time signature to exist at once, each confident that they needn’t be lined up to be playing together.

Read the entire review here: Charles Lloyd / Jason Moran: Hagars Song

Monday, March 11, 2013

John Hollenbeck: Songs I Like a Lot

John Hollenbeck is a drummer, composer, and arranger whose sensibility is now so unique and thoughtfully developed that it occupies its own niche in music. Hollenbeck is a brilliant student of big band arranging, yet he also leverages an interest in classical music so that his “large ensemble” charts seem to shimmer with (Philip) Glass-ian dazzle.

His latest concoction is a dream—and certainly the least likely collection of jazz arrangements of pop songs (sort of) you will hear this year. Songs I Like A Lot covers a wondrous array of tunes that Hollenbeck can’t resist. An admitted nerd with a relatively narrow connection to rock, he has chosen a set of idiosyncratic tunes that let him channel melody and lyrics into something more transcendent through his unique style.

The collection starts with a track of utter bliss: a rethinking of Jimmy Webb’s famous “Wichita Lineman”, featuring both Hollenbeck’s regular vocalist, Theo Bleckmann, and Kate McGarry. Hollenbeck sets the woodwinds of the Frankfurt Radio Big Band into a quavering set of patterns that burble with minimalist beauty before McGarry states the first verse accompanied by rhythm and pianist Gary Versace. Patterns fill the song between verses like woven silk. After Bleckmann’s verse, the patterns grow more complex, with Hollenbeck’s mallet percussion setting up a stuttering pattern and a guitar restating the melody in half-time, with the melody eventually doubled by wordless vocals and horns, even as the brass sets down a bed of shifting chords. In its final minutes, the arrangement essentially cuts itself loose of its source and floats off into bliss.

This tune is so inventively beautiful, so unlike any other jazz or pop or classical music you can hear elsewhere—it sets the bar so high that the rest of Songs I Like A Lot is playing continual catch up. But it mostly does keep up.

Read the entire review here: John Hollenbeck: Songs I Like a Lot

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Gamak

Rudresh Mahanthappa has reached a level of balance and power in his music after a decade of prominent recording, composing, and leadership. In 2013, his art is so heavy that only a beast of band can set him up to express the great breadth of his personality. This current quartet seems to be that band.

Gamak features a quartet led by Mahanthappa’s acidic alto saxophone and fleshed out by electric guitar from David Fiucynski, Francois Moutin on acoustic bass, and drums courtesy of Dan Weiss. But the band proves to be both precise and highly versatile. Fiucynski, most notably, is able to bend strings and use his effects such that he can simulate the microtonal action necessary to give voice to the leader’s South Asian-tinged tunes—while a the same time having huge jazz chops and the tone, crunch, and firepower necessary to rip up the material here that bleeds over to fusion and even rock.

Rudresh Mahanthappa has made a fusion or rock album? No, not exactly, but this one is different. And wonderful.

The opener establishes things perfectly. “Waiting is Forbidden” starts with the saxophone playing an aggressively stabbed line in repetition, and then the guitar comes in with a syncopated funk figure, with the rhythm section syncopating things further so that the sound is a thick nest of groove rhythm. When the melody enters, it is played by alto and guitar in rough unison, but with Fiucynski sounding just a touch like a sitar. As all of this builds, Mahanthappa brings back the opening stabbing figure and the guitar continues a rock-edged melodic counterpoint.

In short, Whew!, you think, as all the music swirls and grooves and unspools eventually in improvisation that is backed up by a new stop-time groove. This is most certainly music with a fusion element, but it’s “fusion” moved far beyond any 1970s aesthetic. It uses power, electricity, precision, and groove—no doubt—but it has little of the slickness of, say, Return to Forever. And just as this thought crosses your mind, around 6:30 into the tune, Fiucynski wraps a big fuzz tone around a line that could have come from “Hymn for the Seventh Galaxy” while drummer Dan Weiss lays down thick rock drumming every bit as fusiony as Lenny White or Billy Cobham at their most 1970s-ish. And that’s not a bad thing: it’s great! Because the original melody comes back in over this groove and ties things up in a delicious, complex bow.

And, again, you say, Whew!!

The other critical player in the versatility of this band is Weiss, who comes with a background in South Asian hand drumming and full command of an American jazz-rock kit. He is everywhere on Gamak, accenting intelligently, bashing as necessary, keeping things popping and syncopated, but never getting too cute.

Read the entire review here: Rudresh Mahanthappa: Gamak