Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Music Briefly Reviewed, June 2010

(Porter Records)

It’s extremely valuable to have the opportunity to hear a young compositional voice like that of Toronto-based and Wesleyan University-educated saxophonist Kyle Brenders. Because Canadian musicians rarely get the exposure in the States that they should, his Porter Records release (and third overall) should hopefully do something to change that invisibility. Brenders’ other recordings have been solo and in duet with the maestro, Anthony Braxton. He’s also a member of the Steve Lacy repertory ensemble, The Rent. Here, Brenders is joined by trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud, cellist Tilman Lewis, bassist Aaron Lumley, percussionist Brandon Valdivia and analog synthesizer artist Jonathan Adjemian on five sections of the Ways suite.

Like Braxton and Bill Dixon, Brenders’ music operates in a grey area between notated music and open improvisation, subtle coloristic variations on written events that move in gradual cycles. Brenders’ approach to the soprano is somewhere in between the fluttering and sometimes anguished highs of Braxton and the playful rhythmic clunk-and-whirr of Lacy. Coupled with the stately waver and microtonal chuffs of Rampersaud and tension generated by droning strings and sputtering analog electronics, the sextet’s music often recalls the most minimal examples of Feldman and Ferrari as well as pan-tempo improvised dirges. That’s not to say the music is structurally narrow; puckered kisses, clanging gongs, chattering strings and analog swoops make for a pockmarked landscape on the opening (second) movement. Indeed, Valdivia’s malleted knocks give an unsettling twist to cutting wind and string unisons, which move from staying a protracted course to crumbling and contorting in a few short measures. Improvised or written, Brenders is clearly a contemporary composer to watch.

(AUM Fidelity)

To look at the fervent year-end accolades heaped on alto saxophonist and improvising composer Darius Jones, one would think that the 31-year-old Brooklyn-based (and Richmond, VA native) is a rising star of mainstream jazz or hip modern-creative music. One would be sorely mistaken with that guess – the unbridled, balls-to-the-wall brand of free music that Jones plays wouldn’t have even scratched the bottom of the Down Beat reader’s poll forty years ago. Certainly free music is far more accepted now than it was in decades past, but to hear Jones’s work in the cooperative quartet Little Women (with tenor saxophonist Travis Laplante, guitarist Andrew Smiley and drummer Jason Nazary), no amount of preparation for sonic assault will do.

From the opening salvo of the seven-part title suite, it’s clear that staccato blasts are just a starting point. Throat takes as a reference point the free music/punk ethos of such ensembles as Rudolph Grey’s Blue Humans, or Last Exit with the bottom removed. The music is as top-heavy and wiry as the Contortions, and if no wave bands were more often driven by a fleet and jazz-informed drummer, that might be a little closer to what Little Women offer. After the opening section, Jones and Laplante lock horns in a sharp and barely distinguishable melee, minimalist riffage supported by gritty, buzzing guitar chunks and tumbling drums. Ecstatic overtone preaching, gentle ricochets and harmonic blocks make up the second part, a tenor-alto duo that jumps zealously over the bow. A lilting, flinty post-punk march appears in the fourth movement, kaleidoscopic cycles soon breaking down into detuned pummeling that, if the saxophones were replaced by lyrics, could fit on a Dream Syndicate LP. Clearly Little Women have done their homework, but luckily it’s easy to forget as the foursome blister into uncharted territory.

Live at the Yippie
(No Business)

Saxophone-bass duets aren’t exactly common in the world of free improvisation, though recently a few stunning examples have been waxed, namely the fine program of Monk tunes by bassist Dominic Duval and saxophonist Jimmy Halperin (Monk Dreams, No Business, 2009). Michael Bisio and Duval are birds of a feather, so to speak – muscular players whose conception supports and accents the whole while also being forceful enough to be visible on the front line. Bisio called Seattle home for years, but has recently begun teaching at Bennington College in Vermont (also home to Milford Graves and, formerly, Bill Dixon). On this No Business vinyl-only release, he joins (now Brooklyn-based) Italian saxophonist Lorenzo Sanguedolce for the improvisation “Stract,” a piece that stretches across two sides recorded live at the Yippie Cafe in the East Village.

The bassist and saxophonist make a good pair, Sanguedolce’s tone and phrasing a gruff and husky amalgam of lofty, jumping honks and wandering, flinty tendrils. Bisio’s relentless pizzicato is a motorik foil and inspires some rather fleet runs from Sanguedolce, a loose and sanded-down boppishness that while not entirely “clean” is certainly inspired. Bisio’s solo at the end of side one piles on the bebop phraseology toward doubled-up mass, a la Peter Kowald in a mind-melting vertical-time improvisation. The second half begins with a soaring exploration of long tones, arco moving from low drone to high harmonics alongside Sanguedolce’s quavering upward flights. A nod to John Tchicai appears in heavy-footed repetition and cyclical phrases, as bass and tenor join and part in a dance of affinities both fleeting and solid. It will be interesting to hear where Lorenzo Sanguedolce goes next, but Live at the Yippie is an exciting representative slice of his music.

Live at the Mat Bevel Institute

Available as a download-only release from the Istanbul-based re:konstruKt label, this set of saxophone and guitar duets was recorded at Tuscon’s Mat Bevel Institute and features four compositions by Siwula and three by Minasi. Siwula is no stranger to such a pared-down context and along with a previous collaboration with Minasi (Duet, self-released) he has worked in similar fashion with guitarists Bern Nix, John Gilbert and Carsten Radtke. The breath-and-strings format stretches from Lee Konitz and Billy Bauer in the 1950s to the famed Anthony Braxton-Derek Bailey recordings on Emanem and Victo of the 1970s and 80s, and Live at the Mat Bevel Institute straddles both areas equally and fluidly.

Personally, my hearing of Minasi’s work has mostly been in larger ensembles, ranging from saxophonist-composer Joe Giardullo’s large ensemble Red Morocco (Rogue Art, 2007) to unruly string quartet music (Konnex, 2009). In such a naked setting, the particular qualities of his playing begin to stand out – purring, soft dissonances and a melding of individual, almost microscopic actions into a canvas of pure sound. That said, as a composer and player, his gentle swing is, while at times necessarily fractured, also wryly compelling. In “Strange,” as Siwula’s squeaky alto harmonics find a notch to hold onto, Minasi teases out a regular resonant thrum, a deep thwack that acts almost like the painterly clusters of a bassist, even with twangy detours into a backwoods wire farm. While not as beholden to leaps, bounds, and maddening choices as Braxton, Siwula’s effervescent phrasing becomes a full stream of forward motion that recalls the (slightly) elder reedman’s reverent plow-through of the standard repertoire. “What Monk” begins with clomping gestures that intertwine, spiraling upward in clunky and gooey pirouettes. “The Day after Next” finds Minasi applying a bit of dustbowl distortion behind the more spacious, wide-vibrato playing that Siwula brings to the fore. Excellent stuff and very much recommended.

When We Get to Meeting
(Dead CEO)

Woody Sullender has taken the American folk music milieu into a unique area that dovetails with skittering free improvisation and sound environments. Sullender spent time teaching in the sound department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and currently resides in Brooklyn – yet he’s been somewhat removed from any “scene” in either city. On When We Get to Meeting, the first vinyl offering on Sullender’s Dead CEO imprint, the banjoist is joined by harmonica blower Seamus Cater on a series of duo improvisations. Harmonica and banjo naturally call to mind the tropes of front-porch odes and dusty rambles, so the format is perfect for extended sonic exploration. Cater approaches the harmonica in a non-melodic fashion, for the most part, exhaling long and low tones or hitting high pitches reminiscent of bowed cymbals or electronics. The swarming plucks and needling attack from Sullender’s earlier recordings isn’t really the focus here; the pair approach funereal ballads and rumbling uptempo blues with homegrown minimalism and a treacherous, woozy push-pull. The “mouth organ” aspect of the harmonica is explored in Cater’s weighty, dramatic phrasing on “While Sails Billow,” thin electronic wisps and occasional banjo progressions commenting, fleshing out and massing together. Sure, Sullender is still a hell of a string player and the hyperactive whine of yore returns from time to time, but whether ornamental or stripped-down, it’s clear his concept has matured. When We Get to Meeting is an incomparable set, and however one chooses to classify the music of Sullender and Cater, it’s absolutely gorgeous and unique.

Treader Duos

The image embossed on the cover of Treader Duos (as with all Treader releases, a cuddly critter in gold foil) is rather fitting: a hedgehog, as spiny as the music contained therein. Because reeds and percussion duos are some of the most naked and vital in this music, and because most of them tend to run out of steam before the record button has been stopped, Treader has seen fit to release a disc of three separate duets, all hovering just beyond the twenty minute mark. Most of the participants have appeared on the label’s previous releases, and these combinations are rather striking – John Butcher and Mark Sanders, clarinetist Alex Ward and Roger Turner, and John Tchicai and Tony Marsh.

Recorded in a London church, the sound here is wide-open and dynamic, natural space occasionally overcoming subtlety but leaving honesty and exuberance untouched. Clarinetist Alex Ward has recorded in the Barkingside group with pianist Alexander Hawkins, as well as with guitarist Duck Baker and solo on Treader. His playing neither smacks of Giuffre nor Perry Robinson, echoing instead the pops and whirligigs of Steve Lacy, warbling and goading the angsty clang and thrash of Turner, who mostly operates in high gear save for a section of gestural scrapes accompanied by clarinet mouthpiece. Butcher brings both tenor and soprano to the opening “Tooth Pivot,” a dance of poised stabs and short melodic fragments threaded together, the saxophonist’s harmonics fluttering and trilling in large areas framed by Sanders’ accented patchwork.

Despite having worked with drummer greats like Milford Graves, Louis Moholo, Don Moye and Makaya Ntshoko, “We Dare to Sing” is the first recording I can think of where Tchicai spars in such a wide-open context. The reedman opens the piece with a vocal invocation underpinned by agitated brushwork, before entering into jittery and quixotic tenor purrs, his cadence as jaunty as ever. There’s a burnished quality to his wails, voice slightly gravelly but as stripped-down and open as the sinewy curls of his phrases. Marsh is an excellent support, weaving deceptively simple polyrhythmic phrases underneath the elder statesman. Treader Duos is a varied and beautiful set not to be missed.

Further Secret Origins
(Porter Records)

I’m not sure if it’s right to say that Katherine Young is the Anthony Braxton of the bassoon – probably better to say that she’s a “restructuralist master” of the instrument and/or the Katherine Young of the bassoon. Indeed, she’s worked extensively with Braxton as well as in ensembles directed by composers Andrew Raffo Dewar and Matthew Welch (both also Wesleyan & Braxton alums). Further Secret Origins is Young’s first disc under her own name, presenting seven compositions for bassoon and (occasional) electronics that are both sprawling and economic. The bassoon is really taken to a direct and contemporary point on this recording, and there is no effort made to turn the instrument into something that it isn’t, whether plodding through a maddening pulse track with wonderful cyclical blats and a whimsical multiphonic line on “Patricia Highsmith” or engaging gargled harmonics in concert with rhythmic taps and indeterminate whir on “Elevation.” Certainly Young can produce masses of unruly sound that sometimes recall Braxton’s work on the contrabass clarinet, from hot low outpourings to twittering upper-register whine. A mildly irregular beat and low, uneven tones create much of the landscape on the quarter-hour “For Autonauts, for Travelers,” stark wisps and garish asides stitched into a knotty and unsettling mood. Koan-like quips rest atop looped (and bassoon-generated) rhythms on “Relief,” eventually drawn out into a series of overdubbed tones that waver, buzz, and pucker the ear. Raw and peerless, Katherine Young’s bassoon landscapes deserve serious recognition and study.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

An artist's work and a writer's journey - Bill Dixon (1925-2010)

Yesterday I got the news that I had not been prepared for, and probably never would be prepared for – that trumpeter/composer Bill Dixon had died. Bill was 84 and I last saw him at his home in Vermont in December 2009. He had been ill but we all thought – at least those of us outside his very immediate circle – that he would pull through and indeed, those were the indications months ago. He just conducted the Tapestries Orchestra in Victoriaville, Quebec, as a matter of fact. He was a fighter and always a present force, but more than that, he was a generous, warm, and beautiful individual who gave everything to an art that some of us are lucky enough to experience. In fact, few people have been as generous as he was to so many students, colleagues and friends with his time, ideas, and criticism.

I first became acquainted with Bill’s music in about 1998 or ’99. He was one of the first musicians I heard (albeit not making complete sense of) when getting into creative music, mostly through his presence on Cecil Taylor’s Conquistador (Blue Note, 1966) and appearances co-leading groups with Archie Shepp in the early 1960s. His 7-tette on Savoy (1964) was strikingly different, plastic and gooey yet swinging beautifully, and with a bottom you could feel in your stomach. That record in particular was important as a first serious exposure to an undercurrent of something palpably different about this music, and more than just sheer expressive velocity. There is a dusky, gauzy introspection that nevertheless carries with it a special kind of heat, the likes of which little other music has quite captured. The 1966 recordings he led on RCA-Victor, Intents and Purposes, took YEARS for me to really appreciate, but in terms of composition in improvised music are still some of the most advanced and beautiful in modern jazz. His work progressed well beyond that almost immediately, but what he did then in terms of writing for and directing an ensemble into a painting of sound and rhythm still has no peer in contemporary music.

More than a musician, composer and improviser, Bill Dixon was a tenured professor of Black Music (Bennington College, 1968-1996), visual artist, writer, producer, and organizer of the Jazz Composers’ Guild in New York (1964). Dixon also choreographed dance (indeed, the dance world hasn't begun to assess his collaborations with Judith Dunn), and worked as organizer of the United Nations Jazz Society (one of the first cultural organizations underneath the UN) from 1956-1962. There aren’t too many figures in this music whose work has dealt with such a wide swath of cultural and political reality, and whose work has been parallel to aesthetics as much as it’s been wholly and directly committed to an aesthetic core.

I’d not been writing about jazz for long when I spoke to Dixon on the phone in 2003, for an article in All about Jazz New York. He freaked me out. He called me to task for writing a bunch of “bullshit” and not including him in articles where he was a specifically important factor in the development of what I was writing about. About 1/3 of the interview I spent backpedaling, as he steamed forward with ideas, criticisms and reinforcements. Eventually we got on some sort of track that seemed satisfactory to him and that was enlightening for me. When I wrote the piece and submitted it for a once over he didn’t like it much, noting (probably rightly) that it was too indirect and not concerned enough with what he had done. Some corrections later, all seemed in order. And then he called me at work a couple of weeks later – just to chat. We had a few conversations after that, all of which were interesting and yet remain foggy in my memory. He sent along a copy of the Odyssey boxed set of solo trumpet in thanks – a set that never really got much press when it was briefly available and is absolutely shocking and indispensable.


It wasn’t necessarily a conscious thing, but after that interview I began to think more and more about him and his music, as well as what I valued in it – and also what I valued in music in general. Not just what “I” like, but what is important? What, going forward, does this music mean, and what is its purpose? Why do the musicians make this music, and how, if one doesn’t make music, can one convey its reality and its necessity? It might be hubris to say that while still coming into one’s own as a writer, but being able to define what’s important is a crucial step towards having something to say (and do). The words that come forth without provocation from his work – clarity. Plasticity. Physicality. Envelopment. Personality. Tone. Breath. Control. Weight. Orchestration. Chiaroscuro. Architecture. Color. Ineffability. Rigor. Honesty. Integrity. Contrast. Motion. Stasis. Trained as an art historian, I have perceived his work alongside the painters whom I admire most, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman, and the three-dimensional art of Donald Judd. Bill was a painter, photographer and lithographer in addition to being a composer and instrumentalist/improviser. We were able to communicate on both fronts, and his philosophy (both implicit and explicit) stood as tall as any other great American artistic figure.

Up until that time, to me history seemed more important than what contemporary artists were up to -- the foundation was all-encompassing, even though it had been laid many years before my birth. Dixon’s music is foundational, too, but in a different way - it is both of the now and of the past, standing in relief to everything yet defining the surrounding milieu by its sheer presence. If you sit down and listen to it that much will be abundantly clear. By this same token, discounting history is impossible – as he said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “wherever you start is now. You’ll get to the rest in time.” Ellington and Bird and Trane are surely important, but one will deal with that as it becomes necessary – you have to begin from your own, current and direct experience, and move forward and backward from there. At the same time, history is inescapable, as he'd say, and from that you have to deal with the present, think, and make work. You act from experience.

And Bill’s music is rare in the sense that it continued to move forward while objectively, it would have made perfect sense (to anyone but Bill and the musicians around him) to rest on the laurels of what had been done. He once said in an interview that he was trying to capture a sound and feeling that had been with him since his early orchestral explorations in music, a floor-shaking bottom end and a chord voicing that would bring down walls. He was always trying to “go to the center” of the music, a nebulous and moving target that, in hindsight, he and his art already personified. Certainly his circle of musician-collaborators will continue that forward, uncharted movement in their own ways, a Dixonian school of improvised composition that is shaping itself and has been for the last couple of decades.

It's not that Dixon’s work is in constant literal dialogue with what other musicians are doing or did do. Any name – Taylor, Braxton, Gil Evans, Miles Davis, Ellington, Albert Ayler – could easily be placed in relation to what makes Bill’s work what it is, but again, that history and presence surrounds us and surrounds the art. It doesn’t necessarily inform the art directly. By the sheer fact of forming relationships with sound, energy and space as physical things, Dixon’s work changed the dynamics of the field of making music, and especially with the trumpet. Extraordinarily wide interval leaps, fluffs, subtonal growls, piercing and almost electro-acoustic shrieks, the use of delay, reverb and environmental space to expand that sound were all part of the palette he brought to the instrument. Those things were long possible in the music, but not directly actualized. Likewise, impressing upon a group of active individual players an interdependent concern with space, layering, and physical-tonal relationships takes a special kind of guidance. Dixon not only propelled, but drew out aspects of sound and music that while present, weren’t often accessible.

If this sounds heady, realize that this music is so emotionally powerful as to physically lift you out of your seat and carry you around the room as much as anything. Of course, being invested in Bill’s work graduated me to a greater appreciation of the trumpet, and of the ability of specific instrumental timbre to actually affect things like temperature, color, space, and movement of the whole. From hearing recordings of Bill and former collaborator Arthur Brooks (trumpet) with the dual percussion team of J.R. Mitchell and Gary Sojkowski, cranked to full volume in Bill's studio, it felt like I was having an aesthetic heart attack. I felt hot, and in fact the whole room did – my muscles and gut were reacting to a shift in the literal dynamics of space. The closest things I could think of, in terms of an art experience, were of walking through a Richard Serra sculpture or spending time in a roomful of Clyfford Still paintings. The body can learn to react to these kinds of experiences, but only rarely. Recently, and through a coupling of understanding and experience, I’ve had direct, queasy and confusing reactions to certain solos of Miles Davis, Frode Gjerstad, and David S. Ware. It is hugely important to have, in life, such a direct and physical experience with art and the individuals who devote themselves to art.


In 2007 I received a recording of Dixon’s, the first in a few years to be released, with the Exploding Star Orchestra (directed by trumpeter Rob Mazurek) – Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra (Thrill Jockey). That recording, and the words which resulted from it, led to a ten-day experience in Vermot at Dixon’s home interviewing him again and spending time in his orbit, with his circle of confidants. It was at that time I really began to realize how huge Dixon’s work and aesthetic had become to me personally, and how much more important it would get. Spending time in his studio and archives, the breadth of his life and work were open and available, as was the dialogue and back-and-forth between Bill, Mazurek, and trumpeter/composer Stephen Haynes (one of his closest allies). It was an ad hoc conference about this music’s growth and development as an art form through the lens of one man’s participation in defining the environment through steadfastly making his own work, teaching, and playing. This resulted in semi-frequent phone conversations, emails, and letters from 2008 through the winter/early spring of this year. As much as this remembrance is about his work and my coming to terms with it (and myself through it), Bill became a friend as well as a mentor. We could talk about other things than music, though music – and the work – was the most important.

I don’t play music and I’ve only been writing about it for a little over a decade. My dues haven’t been paid. But knowing Bill and dealing with his art gave me the courage to present music and the people who make it on their own terms, as well as mine. To think about the work and express it exactly as it appears, structurally and philosophically is a tall order, and looking back, a logical one. It’s about as far from easy as one can get, whether one is making music or engaging it on another level (the “friendly experiencer” as Braxton would put it). This work has so much impact that I carry it with me everywhere I go, and sharing in its values can be actualized in many different ways. Of course, for a time that was aided by the fact that Ben Young’s Dixonia: A Bio-Discography of Bill Dixon (Greenwood Press, 1998) was regular reading - even if I wasn't always listening, the stories were on hand to inform and guide.

One isn’t supposed to have an aesthetic as a critic, especially now, and especially in music. The music is supposed to exist apart from those who make it and those who write about it - at least, that is what the prevailing attitude seems to be. To have an aesthetic that has as its point of definition a relationship to a specific artist’s work and ideas might seem to step over the line into fawning. But when that artist’s legacy and the ideas he or she has bestowed are those of clarity, rigor and weight, that sensibility is an important point of reference. And the fact of the matter is they're entirely connected to a person, a lovable, irascible, giving and forthright human being. It puts that entire legacy of thought and work in relation to the life-breathing, individual, humanistic presence. In talking with Bill, two ideals stand out: "Someone is always trying to get you away from the thing that you do” and “I recognize and acknowledge that whenever I did something, that's all I could do at the time, and all I was capable of.” All – meaning all. Going forward, on one's own terms – that’s something more challenging than anything the ear can put together.

Thank you, Bill, for it all.

Top image courtesy Nick Reuchel.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Michael Cosmic "Peace in the World" (1974)

What follows might repeat some information that, if you are a regular reader, you've seen before. But read on because there are some audio goodies to be found.

Part of the purpose of this blog (though not wholly) is to share interesting bits of information about some of the unheralded heroes of improvised music. Getting to know the reedman and composer Phill Musra was a friendly coincidence of starting this blog, and he has been generous enough to share video, audio and information about his work and time in the Boston scene (as well as LA, where he currently resides). His recordings, though scarce, have long been of interest to collectors and fans of creative music. One of the rarest is the lone LP led by his twin brother and frequent collaborator, Michael Cosmic (1950-2001), a privately-released and limited-edition grail titled Peace in the World. The few copies I've seen have been numbered and each carries different, hand-made cover art, of which the pictured example is  particularly fine.

Cosmic contributed alto saxophone, flute and other reeds as well as percussion to LPs led by Musra (The Creator Spaces, Intex, 1974), drummer Huseyin Ertunc (Musiki, Intex, 1974), and bassist-composer John Jamyll Jones' Worlds Experience Orchestra (Beginning of a New Birth, Worlds, 1975). All of these are wonderful and hard-to-find documents of creative improvisation, of which only the Ertunc has been reissued.

Peace in the World (Cosmic/Intex, 1974) is a little different from the unruly and sometimes almost-naif vibes of Musiki, or the deeply meditative Creator Spaces. Part of that is because Cosmic plays piano throughout, an instrument on which he's a solid improviser and tonally grounds the proceedings in a bottom-heavy and orchestral manner. Certainly this is aided by John Jamyll Jones's bass and the dual percussion landscape of Ertunc and Eric Jackson ("courtesy of WBCN-FM"). Granted, there's still a heavy dose of stratospheric and puckered tonal/rhythmic combinations on offer here, but the proceedings remain quite unlike much else you'll find in creative music.

The personnel are as follows:

Michael Cosmic: piano, piccolo, soprano saxophone
Phill Musra: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone and flute
Leonard Brown: tenor and soprano saxophone
John Jamyll Jones: bass
Huseyin Ertunc: drums and percussion
Eric Jackson: conga and percussion

Tracks are:
A1: Arabia
A2: We Love You Malcolm X
B1: Space on Space
B2: Peace in the World

Though hopefully a reissue will come down the pike at some point, it remains hard to tell whether such a project will come to light soon. In the meantime, Musra has given Ni Kantu the permission to share this album with you.

Please follow this link to get the tracks, freshly ripped from my copy of the "Cosmic Paradise" version of the LP. Note: there is a pressing defect in the vinyl on track A1 that makes a few short pops. I have not de-clicked the track. At some point perhaps someone will want to reissue this title and a studio transfer from the LP can be made (the tapes exist but haven't been tested).

I hope you enjoy this music, and thanks to Phill Musra for granting permission to release this music on the web.

PS: If you are in Los Angeles, Musra plays often at the Heartbeat House and recently performed opposite the Jooklo outfit at San Francisco's Cafe du Nord. A video, not of the greatest quality but still representative, of Musra playing at the Higher Path Collective (in LA) with drummer Don Hooker can be found here. Leonard Brown and Eric Jackson still live in Boston and continue to play (the former is a professor at Northeastern), while Ertunc reportedly has returned to his native Turkey. Jones is no longer performing, to my knowledge, but lives in Oklahoma and continues to compose.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Ruminations on the Steel String (apres Jack Rose)

I saw Jack Rose play once in Chicago in 2002. It was at a bar in the Wicker Park neighborhood, and I was a little drunk and fairly unimpressed. At the time, my exposure to Takoma and fingerstyle American folk guitar had been positive. Yet the appropriation of the form by a few recent practitioners was something I found kind of pointless and full of posturing. So my first instinct upon seeing Rose sweatily run through and wrangle with a bit of Americana was to boozily shit-talk what I perceived as some sort of half-assed hipsterism. Maybe at the time it hit too close to home – it wasn't that many years prior that I discovered jazz and free jazz, and as a young white middle-class kid, was self-conscious of my own authenticity and how I appreciated or dealt with an art form. At the time I was also playing cello and improvising, and struggling with form, emotion and history.

So the years went by and I saw Rose's name around, but didn't really pay much attention to his music. Headlong into the jazz/new music world, that's not surprising, though I made an effort to continue checking out folk-blues recordings of old. Still, I was saddened to learn of his death in December 2009 of a heart attack at age 38 - nobody deserves to die that young, especially someone who (hindsight tells me) clearly had more than an ounce of creativity and spirit. It has taken me a while – fits and starts, mostly – to begin to assess what Rose had been up to, and it’s been eloquently done elsewhere (in the pages of Signal To Noise and Dusted for example). Weighing in further seemed to me a bit unnecessary. Nevertheless, now that the dust has settled, perhaps a belated review of two fine discs can come out of it all.


Rose probably has a mountain of tapes (or files) that will someday see release. The music he was working on before he died comprises his first disc for the Thrill Jockey label, Luck in the Valley. He's joined here by the Black Twig Pickers, slide guitarist Glenn Jones, pianist Hans Chew and Harmonica Dan on a set of ten standards and originals. The first thing that’s incredibly obvious from the opening “Blues for Percy Danforth” is that Rose is an excellent six-string player, crisp but honest in his phrasing and while certainly a revivalist nod to the blues ragas of Robbie Basho, it’s not so much of a paean that one can’t appreciate his genuine expressiveness. A harmonica drone underpins Rose’s athletic, mildly jittery alap, mouth-harp placed in contrapuntal relief. What differentiates this music from some of its forebears is a full and sunny quality that balances the bleak, parched drones and plucked latticework of the “Takoma school.” There’s a naked and reverent joy in his playing, easy to lose sight of when one is struck by how much he’s able to capture instrumentally (i.e. the throaty tones of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s sarod).

While musicians like Basho, Fahey and Will Ackerman were certainly mining from disparate traditions for their own work (American/Afro-American, South Indian music, etc) in the end they created a tradition themselves, one which still has enough credence that younger players can dip into the well and come out with their own approaches. Sure, a tune like “Tree in the Valley” seems to appropriate the blues raga forms of steel-string Americana in its approach of the mid-period Fahey void. The jug-band and the sanctified circle dance join together in Rose’s rendition of “Everybody Ought to Pray Sometime,” a rollicking freight-train rumble of guitar, washboard, banjo and harmonica that, nevertheless, drives with a post-Rolling Stones sense of modernity. An earlier time is harked back to in the fiddle-led “Lick Mountain Ramble,” clattering metal and sticks giving a dirt-road bounce to the dark metronomic regularity of Rose’s guitar. It’s easy to both overplay the technical aspects of his playing and undercut it (as some have done with the “American Primitive” moniker). Ragtime and the music that Rose drew from is full of interesting tunings and intervals that don’t necessarily line up with most Western music, but there’s a feeling of textural simplicity that washes over the whole. At the end of the day, how can one critique an ebullient take on W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues?”

D. Charles Speer and the Helix is the group fronted by multi-instrumentalist and vocalist David Shuford (No Neck Blues Band), along with Hans Chew, pedal-steel player Marc Orleans, drummer Rob Gregory and bassist Jason Meagher. With three full-length LPs to their credit, the group is also one of the most unassuming collections of musicians in New York underground rock circles. Their collaboration with Jack Rose, Ragged and Right (Thrill Jockey, 2010), was recorded in the summer of 2008, and while it consists of a mere four tunes, it’s a fitting glimpse onto an avenue that Rose’s work might have taken further. In fact, he plays electric and lap steel as well as acoustic guitars here. Rose and Chew ornament the solemn, dry Southern folk-rock snap of Shuford and Gregory with detailed prewar sensibilities, clear on “Prison Song.”

“Linden Avenue Stomp” merges Fahey’s Yellow Princess-era electricity with the lazy unfurling of Bay Area psychedelia, Gregory’s tom-heavy swing recalling Greg Elmore of the Quicksilver Messenger Service. He also contributes a sort of skiffle-like beat to Merle Haggard’s “The Longer You Wait” that glints off of Shuford’s deep, drawling vocal delivery. There’s certainly a ragged quality to the music of D. Charles Speer and also a complex intertwining of influences often at odds. It’s quite natural that Rose, whose affinities for a diverse range of music crop up in a sort of raga-time stew, found kindred spirits in Speer’s bluesy psych-rock. It’s too bad that the collaboration was cut short, but the four tunes preserved on Ragged and Right are unequivocally excellent.


What has this experience shown me, if anything, as a critic? Sometimes one’s impressions are worth a number of second looks. Furthermore, the idea of tradition is complex, and working within a certain idiom doesn’t necessarily result in narrowness. Jack Rose proved that with a lateral approach to playing traditional music with a decidedly contemporary series of aesthetic choices. This holds true in other idioms, too, and might serve as litmus for dealing with contemporary traditional players in jazz, blues, and so forth. If the valley is that of tradition, luck appears when making (working) something out of it.

(Image yanked from the Numero Group blog. They sell good music.)