Monday, March 30, 2009

Dues Owed

When I lived in New York in 2001, one of my rituals was – since I had the option – to go to Tonic, usually taking a date, on the weekends. The club closed not too long ago due to rent issues and who knows what else, but eight years ago it was still a semi-viable place to see music in lower Manhattan. Especially in the days before All About Jazz New York and its tireless documentation of hole-in-the-wall gigs, you could show up and nearly be assured of something at least “interesting.” So one night I saw a duet between turntablist-composer Ikue Morii and saxophonist Louie Belogenis. It was pretty much, as I remember it, a set of scrabble and tweet, and at that point a kind of music that I wasn’t really delving into with any great verve (now I can discern many different players’ tweets, but that is another story). I didn’t go much further investigating Belogenis’ career based on that one association; had I done so, I would have realized that his discography hewed closer to contemporary “fire” music and approaches that I had greater affinity with.

This was brought to mind by two recent releases I received featuring Belogenis’ tenor playing, which reminds me of Seventies-era Sam Rivers with a wider vibrato and spaced-out, chewed-up phrases. It might seem a little “cooler” than players like David Ware, Charles Gayle, Sabir Mateen or Ras Moshe – but the nuances of Belogenis’ playing, the micro-phrases, while detailed in their working-over never come off as “cold” exercises. He’s in a great little trio with drummer Charles Downes (Rashid Bakr) and bassist Joe Morris, called the Flow Trio, who have a CD out on ESP-Disk’. Some of it reminds me a bit of Trio X but without the strong front-porch blues approach. Another one that passed through my hands is a surprising quartet with vibraphonist Karl Berger, bassist Mike Bisio and drummer Warren Smith under the title Old Dog (Porter, 2009). It combines those playful, glassy and buzzing runs that Berger has patented with braying tenor and Smith’s subtle, brushy dexterity – really nice, refreshing work that recalls the “loft-jazz” heyday without being in any way a throwback.

Thinking about Belogenis – he’s got some records with Rashied Ali that I really need to check out at some point – gets me wondering about the preconceptions or misrepresentations that we’re supposed to work with as consumers, press, fans, or whatever. I didn’t pay Belogenis any mind after that one experience that I didn’t enjoy, missing out until now on great free jazz from an interesting tenor player. We’re bombarded with so much music that sometimes it’s hard to go on much else, though – as a reviewer, my pile(s) of CD’s to listen to and write on is, for me, pretty daunting. Only a few of those will probably see print. As a consumer, it’s also pretty hard to make sure every stone is properly overturned and none too hastily. Being a somewhat recent convert to “funky” jazz and soul music, I’ve probably avoided things because of how they looked or what label they’re on rather than any studied approach, but considering the mass of what is available, one needs some sort of litmus test to follow.

I know that one can never hear everything – and what good would it do if one could? – but trying to check one’s preconceptions at the door is about the best that can be hoped for. And I hope Mr. Belogenis accepts my apology for not taking his work seriously on first exposure – I’m rectifying that as I type.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Boogaloo Pow-Wow

I remember about twelve years ago sitting in the Borders cafĂ© in Topeka, Kansas (where I grew up) to watch some local improvisers play. I was by this point pretty “seriously” into jazz, or at least buying records and losing my mind over Albert Ayler, so stopping by to hear some KC-area players “blow” didn’t seem like the worst idea ever, even if it was limited to what could occur in a small-city coffee shop. The lineup consisted of reeds, guitar, bass and drums. It probably had its moments but what really sunk me at the time was the leader’s suggestion to “get into a mellow funk groove.” I cringed because to me, the melding of what I viewed as simplistic popular music with jazz or free improvisation seemed utterly antithetical and a waste of good blowing room. I had a few “boogaloo” jazz records at the time, but what I was really into was the heavy “free” stuff. So the idea of backbeats or, alternately, finger-cymbal-addled modal jams was really not my cup of tea.

With wiser (hopefully) ears and a gradual abating of ability to handle the more full-bore “out” jazz and improvisation (at least all the time), not to mention being in relationships with people whose tastes tend to the more popular end of the spectrum, has meant a somewhat dramatic shift in what I appreciate most in this music. It’s pretty hard for me to mince with a driving beat, slinky guitar and the spacey comping of electric piano or fuzz-organ. I dig simple, repetitive themes echoed by trumpet and tenor nearly buried by close-miked congas, or vamp-heavy post-Coltrane marches with dervish-like soprano solos. And though I used to cringe when somebody learned that I was a record collector and assumed I was a rare soul DJ because I was a bearded, scruffy white dude, now I’m more curious about some of these nuggets than ever before.

Amazingly enough, a lot of the really heavy material by some of the more interesting Afro-jazz figures remains woefully out of print – sessions by Dutch tenorman Hans Dulfer’s Ritmo-Natural, a band encompassing players culled from Dutch psych as well as Surinamese immigrants, are very scarce on vinyl and relatively unknown among the jazz DJ set. Ditto altoist Theo Loevendie, whose Mandela encompasses North African and Latin rhythms as well as a bit of freakbeat reference into a storming post-bop jazz mix. And Basque pianist Francois Tusques’ Intercommunal Free Dance Music records, though a little more “touted,” still haven’t seen a concentrated reissue program.

That said, there is still a lot out there that has seen the light of day in recent years – especially on the American angle (European free-funk seems to be lagging in interest). Here are a few things that I’ve been listening to lately, and for a while, that one would do well to check out on CD or vinyl reissue…

Nathan Davis ’65-’76, the Best of (Jazzman UK) – Davis plays tenor, soprano and flute and now teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. In the ‘60s he led some mighty fine post-Coltrane modal jazz groups and recorded for a host of small European labels. There are a few cheesy fusion moments towards the end of this disc, but the first half – with players like Art Taylor, Mal Waldron, Hampton Hawes and Kenny Clarke - absolutely smokes. Jazzman also do a nice job of reissuing rare Northern Soul 45s (the kind that fetch big bucks) and some of the oddball releases like Uncle Funkenstien (with former Blue Note Records regulars James Spaulding and Larry Ridley) are certainly worth picking up as well.

Sahib Shihab and the Clarke-Boland Big Band reissue series (Rearward/Schema) – Dusty Groove has been carrying both vinyl and CD reissues of these scarce European jazz sides for a while now. Most of them have the same lineup, generally speaking, with American expat bebop drummer Kenny Clarke and Belgian pianist Francy Boland at the helm of some seriously motoring, earthy big band grooves. Saxophone soloists like Shihab, Karl Drevo and Johnny Griffin are often out of the gates with real keening fire, but there are some nice ballad moments and vocal-and-bongos club tracks as well.

Boscoe (Numero Group)– This is a pretty ridiculously awesome collision of 70s Chicago soul and an aesthetic that at times recalls communal psych bands like Amon Duul. I really don’t know what to make of it but suffice it to say you’ve never heard anything like it. The original (on the Kingdom of Chad label) is rare as rocking horse shit, but Numero seems to be keeping these reissues in print. Also, the label has a number of really interesting funk/soul compilations from various corners of the world. Mostly harder stuff than you’d find on Honest Jon’s (another great label out of England who comb the globe for obscure Afro and Latin releases).

Byard Lancaster Funny Funky Rib Crib (Kindred Spirits) –Originally issued on Palm, this heavy side features reedman Lancaster and his “From a Love Supreme to the Sex Machine” sound with North African and French musicians as well as the wiry freakouts of Congolese guitarist Francois Nyombo. The label also reissued some great music by saxophonist Hal “Cornbread” Singer, with a similar band. Singer’s Blues and News (on Futura Records) is one of my all-time favorite jazz LPs in this or any vein.

Happy listening!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Monastic Ecstatic

I've been on a bit of an Alice Coltrane kick lately. I didn't follow her work too much until the past couple of years, for a couple of reasons. First, I think my tastes have mellowed out a bit, to where Eastern-inflected modal plateaus are often just the right thing to chill out to. As my friend Stefan put it, in response to a recording of Pharoah Sanders, "this is one for the shirt-raising Spiritual crowd." Anyway, I've particularly been attracted to Alice's records with strings - her string writing is pretty dense and adds a touch of tweaked madness to the free-time modal stuff she recorded with Ben Riley, Charlie Haden, Rashied Ali, Frank Lowe, Majid Shibazz, et al.

Here, however, is a clip I found of the then-Alice McLeod performing in Paris at the Blue Note Cafe with Kenny Clarke (drums), Lucky Thompson (tenor sax), Jimmy Gourley (guitar) and Pierre Michelot (bass). I believe the date on this is 1961, when Lucky, Clarke, Gourley and Michelot were in residence with a number of pianists. Who knows, maybe someday a complete recording will surface... Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The occasionals

Initially, I was hoping to update this blog every week.

Well, that was optimistic. Between work, writing for the usual print subjects and trying to have a social life in between, it isn't easy to find time. And I feel like this blog's editorializing should be greater in scope than one-sentence posts.

So please check back in roundabout a couple of weeks for another missive.

Until then, what has been on my deck nonstop:
Charles Tyler - Saga of the Outlaws (Nessa Records)
Joe Morris/Jon Voigt/Tom Plsek - The Graphic Scores of Lowell Skinner Davidson (Riti)
Lowell Davidson - Trio (ESP)
Anthony Braxton - Moscow 2008 (Leo)
Wadada Leo Smith - Procession of the Great Ancestry (Nessa)

Deep in the Neighborhood...

When I was in Vermont with trumpeter-composer Bill Dixon last year, he relayed a crucial bit of teaching philosophy that he had given his students: “you start from where you are.” In this sense, a musician doesn’t need to copy verbatim Louis Armstrong solos to learn the language of jazz improvisation. That isn’t to say that eventually one wouldn’t want to or feel the need for Louis Armstrong, just to understand more greatly the whole of the thing – but whether it’s necessary to understanding what the instrument does or what one as a musician wants to do is another thing entirely. More than likely, it isn’t, despite what figureheads of Jazz at Lincoln center might want one to believe. Especially if the fundamental thing about music is to be able to play/create what one wants to play.

But as a listener, where does this fit in? I used to feel that knowing history was important above all towards being able to discern what a player was doing. As a critic, I felt it was important to connect saxophonist X with John Tchicai, Steve Lacy, Archie Shepp or whomever. Now, I write and I find it almost damning to place someone within a certain lineage unless it’s been specifically discussed by the player. In other words, to talk about Taylor Ho Bynum, one cannot leave out Dixon, whom he has studied with. And that influence is very, very clear. But someone like Axel Doerner or Peter Evans who hasn’t specifically mentioned that influence, well… maybe it’s not so crucial, though it does help to mention parallels. As a listener, does one need to have heard predecessors to enjoy or even discuss what they’re hearing now? For me, I find that the more music I hear, the less I want to mention specific relationships between players. That said, listening to Joe Morris does make me want to go and scour Tal Farlow recordings and Albert Ayler did lead back to Gene Ammons.

In art history we were always told that the importance of teaching students about artist X was to avoid repetition of practices – so the world wasn’t full of pseudonyms painted on upended urinals a la Duchamp. In music, the more one sounds like an artist who came before, the more respect or justification the current artist receives. We would rather trumpeter X be “the new Miles” than just be trumpeter X. To answer the question that I’ve heard time and again (from musicians even) – “When are we gonna hear the next Coltrane?” – I would say never. Coltrane was what he was and we can be thankful for that. Me, I’ll be listening to Trane with the same ears I’ll be listening to that young saxophonist who gave me his or her CD-R and trying to figure out what they have to say.