Sunday, May 22, 2011

Alvin Fielder Calling...

The author, left, with Alvin Fielder
Every so often, I get a phone call from the drummer and percussionist Alvin Fielder, who lives in Jackson, Mississippi. His work with the Roscoe Mitchell group in the mid-1960s was documented on the Delmark LP Sound, as well as a forthcoming disc of pre-Sound recordings on the Nessa Records imprint. Over the past decade-plus, he’s been part of the Southern Extremes group with pianist-saxophonist Joel Futterman (Virginia Beach) and saxophonist Kidd Jordan (New Orleans), which is sometimes expanded to include New York bassist William Parker and Bay Area reedman Ike Levin. I interviewed Alvin in 2005 for All About Jazz, and we have kept in sporadic touch, especially over the past couple of years since his recovery from a health scare.

Every conversation is like a drum lesson, going back to the originators of jazz drumming as we know it today – not in the sense that he’s necessarily showing me certain patterns (although that does come up, which as a non-musician I do my best to understand), but because he is a historian and archivist of information about the drums in modern jazz. These talks have enlightened me to the origins of sounds and approaches, and understanding where Alvin’s forebears – people like Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Kenny Clarke and Philly Joe Jones – got some of their ideas from, and how the kit has evolved from not just a technical standpoint, but from a biographical and experiential one.

Alvin is a treasure trove of knowledge and a fascinating human being, but he’s far from flashy about it – and that’s just like his playing. He is a subtle musician, and how he approaches the kit is economically detailed. He’s got an effortless swing and spaciousness to his playing, and yet it’s packaged in such a way that it’s easy to miss some of the beauty in his phrases. Maybe that’s part of being a musician of a certain caliber – a fluidity and warmth that eases the collective ship along while ensuring that motion, action and thought remain at a high level.

Here’s a video that I recently discovered through Alvin’s student (and a fine musician in his own right), Dallas-based drummer Stefan Gonzalez (you'll have to go to the Youtube site to watch it). It features a 1976 performance of the Improvisational Arts Quintet of Fielder, Kidd Jordan, bassist London Branch, trumpeter Clyde Kerr, Jr. and saxophonist Alvin Thomas. The group produced one LP for the Prescription label, No Compromise!, released in 1983 with a slightly different lineup and reissued on CD by Danjor. It’s a small tribute to a fantastic musician whose significance in my life – as well as that of the music – I’m still working to understand. Here’s to many more years of music and conversation.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Jumping into the Sandbox

I remember last fall when I was out with a friend at a bar and was flirting with a woman, who proceeded to ask what I did. I told her I was an archivist and a music critic, to which she responded “you must be an asshole.” You can probably see where that went, but it did beg the question whether being a critic is an assholish pursuit in most people’s minds. The way I approach it might not be how most people criticize – which is to say that I feel it requires one to put as much work into writing as the musician ideally puts into his or her work. Generally, I try to avoid writing negative, snarky things about a record or a musician – if I can’t write positively about a piece of music, then I would hope that there is someone out there who can and will, and who might understand or appreciate the music better. Reporting (though it's not my favorite word, it'll have to do) what’s occurring with an ear to where the work fits with contemporary related music, as well as a sense of history, is an ideal to strive for. Also, I’ve found it difficult to avoid comparisons but it seems like that would the highest form of description, when one can completely skirt referring to a musician or a band as sounding like something else. That’s probably easier to do with improvised music than with rock music, but either way it’s a challenge.

It was rather prescient to come across this article on the Pillow Fights and Boxing Tuesday blog, which is a response to another article on Collapse Board. In reading about pop music (and sometimes this happens with jazz/experimental music, though less often), it’s striking how much of the writing is generally about the critic and not about the music. A review can have very little to do with what’s on a disc or in a performance, or what the music “means” (which can be a very interesting proposition if one chooses not to write about songs and specific references). I have to patently disagree with Pillow Fights on this point, however, that “I have read a lot of complaint and criticism about reviews that compare a band or record to other bands or records, and I've never really understood why that's so wrong. First of all, forgive me, but since virtually everything had been done a hundred times before, nothing being created today is so amazingly unique as to allude to any comparisons.” It’s certainly something I struggle with, because how many ways are there to play the tenor saxophone, or to write a two-chord two-minute rock song? The answer on both points is, of course, many, but that doesn’t make it easy to write about those myriad specificities. Reviewing the umpteenth Peter Br√∂tzmann Chicago Tentet record this week, I challenged myself to write about it in a way that discussed very little of what points I’d already made in past reviews, instead focusing on some aspects that I hadn’t thought about too saliently before, but that being said I’m pretty sure it still isn’t the ideal review.

Part of the point of this blog has been as a sandbox where I could play around with my writing, to the point that I would hope it got better. After all, criticism to me is a sustainable activity, though it can be exhausting, especially with a day job and a number of disparate life goals that I’d like to accomplish. The number of truly interesting outlets for writing about music – any kind of music – is shrinking, despite the existence of hundreds of music and review blogs out there (to which I’d add that I’m honored that this little spot gets some traffic). Two of the publications that I had regularly contributed to have recently shut down while certain others are becoming harder to deal with in terms of content and user-friendliness, which makes it difficult to place writings, both short and long-form (the latter is something I’ve been delinquent on and hopefully that’ll change soon). Therefore, Ni Kantu has stepped into the void and now has its own set of deadlines and so forth.

Anyway, part of that sandbox aspect is to work through ideas about how to write about music, and to a degree the critic must come through in the review or in the piece. Of course, by choosing what to review, the taste and personality of the writer automatically comes to the surface, but if the writer cares about the music and the process of dealing with music, working through that engagement should be an option to interested readers. Call me crazy, but I assume that most people who listen to and read about music want to feel a connection being made, and that the challenges a writer faces in coming to terms with the work are a way to say that ‘we’re all in this together’ – the musicians, the listeners, and the writers. I would hope that this goes for all genres of music but my familiarity with those who write about improvised music makes me think that the most literate potential is there. That being said, I wouldn’t mind reading a powerful and cogent piece on Low or John Darnielle, either.

I’m pretty sure that most music critics aren’t assholes, and that music criticism is a valid pursuit, and hopefully through the proliferation of some interesting sites with writers who are encouraged to work hard, live a little, and care about what they’re doing. There’s a line in the film Almost Famous, where the protagonist (music writer and director Cameron Crowe) is told by a caricature of Lester Bangs to not make friends with the band. Of course, part of the problem with music writers is that they don’t try to develop relationships with musicians and with music, so dedication and care has no way to be actualized. Whether or not one chooses to be pals with musicians, one should at least be able to call music a good friend – though I’ll also say that writing about music, in that sense, soon becomes like writing a best-man speech for a wedding.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Music Briefly Reviewed: Gems from the Archives

Brighter Days
(Cultures of Soul)

Recorded in 1975 and issued in 1977 on the local folk label Outrageous Records, Boston trumpeter-composer Stanton Davis’ Brighter Days is something of a holy grail in jazz-funk collector circles. It’s also a fine document of some of what was going on in the Boston area in the mid-Seventies – a milieu which also encouraged the explorations of Phill Musra, Michael Cosmic, John Jamyll Jones and others. Davis studied with George Russell at the New England Conservatory, and while at first it might seem spurious to draw a direct line between the choral-orchestral funk of Davis’ music and Russell’s work, the connection certainly is there. Davis is quoted in the liner notes as saying “he guided my own curiosity to where I could articulate it… [and] he encouraged me to branch out into my own style.” Ghetto Mysticism is/was a large ensemble of Boston-area players that Davis convened, and while tight, at times the group (which is often plugged-in) tends to shroud his lyrical if not overly confident phrasing.

The opening “Things Cannot Stop Forever” seems like it could have ended up on a weirder, perhaps more psychedelic Tamla presentation, synthesizers (two, credited to Alan Pasqua and Delmar Brown) swirling around an uplifting and unison, new-day exposition of a simple melodic phrase and supported by a syrupy electrified groove. Where the Russell influence starts to become clear is in the second track, “Space-A-Nova,” oscillating keyboard wash and echo-heavy guitar helping to strengthen galloping, superimposed rhythms and as the chorus moves from lyrics to wordless dissonance, the fruits of Russell’s Scandinavian choral experiments are made visible. “Play Sleep” was co-composed by Davis and Russell alum Jan Garbarek, and merges gauzy electricity with a delicate funereal line, featuring tenorman Leonard Brown and Bill Pierce on alto flute alongside the leader's pitch-divided brass. Pasqua’s lilting piano emerges over a gentle clip, a dry fast waltz floating on a field of overdubs.

“Funky Fried Tofu,” in addition to its whimsical title and choral chant, exhibits an instrumental strength and underneath the basic hooky nature is a layered composition, funky but harmonically and rhythmically dense and with a surprising amount of stretching room. “Nida” employs a much smaller group, joining Davis with Pasqua on electric piano, bassist Jerry Harris and Leonard Brown on percussion, fleshed out with synthesizer and mellotron. It’s a pensive, pretty composition that allows for a broad view of the leader’s bright yet rather soft tone, as well as a programmatic respite. The set closes with “High Jazz” and “High Jazz Reprise,” the latter including a brief spoken part on “jazz death” by Dan Windham. Musically, skittering Freddie Hubbard-like phrases meld with ensemble bounce and heavy reverb. By the end of the record, one does get a feeling of sameness to the proceedings – there isn’t a lot of variety among the short tracks here – and considering the size of the ensemble, sometimes it feels underutilized. But to really criticize a thirty-five-year-old recording for its faults is pointless. Davis and his group were caught up in the tenor of the time while trying to find ways to employ their personal experience and history in a new music. Maybe Lydian Chromatic funk didn’t really “catch on,” but Brighter Days is an enjoyable listen and it’s good to have it legitimately out again.

5 Trios

Reedman and improvising composer Bob Downes isn’t particularly well-known on this side of the Atlantic, though his Brit-jazz peers have slowly begun to gain recognition for their strings of excellent and highly collectible recordings from the late ‘60s and throughout the ‘70s. Downes’ first record was an ambitious suite for Philips, Dream Journey (1970), which was commissioned as part of a score for the Ballet Rambert. Though most of his work has been in the context of the Open Music trio (save the prog-rock Electric City on Vertigo), it tends not to work in the way that the “average” power trio functions. Remembering the fact that he was involved with dance early on – even if such situations weren’t his bread and butter – explains the somewhat programmatic aspects of the shorter tracks on 5 Trios, which seem purposefully evocative of somewhat theatrical aims. He’s joined on twelve tracks here, all from the leader’s archives, by regular partner Denis Smith on drums, as well as bassists Paul Bridge, Barry Guy, Jeff Clyne, Neville Whitehead and Mark Meggido (Guy also being a fairly frequent collaborator).

The most recent set on the disc is from 1979 and offers three tracks featuring Bridge, which are very well-recorded and perfectly preserved (as much of this disc). “Living it Up in Rio” is a fine example of Downes’ vocal cries and excited flutter on the flute, humming and yelping along with Gazzeloni-esque birdsong. The second part of the piece finds the leader switching to alto flute for a detailed and introspective nocturne, supple pizzicato offering deft accompaniment. “Circus” is somewhat hokey and absurd, but that’s pretty clearly part of the point to the knotty theme, which moves through an almost vaudevillian melody. As Downes stretches out on alto, reed-biting squeals and burred lines evince a predilection towards R&B and one is reminded a bit of Graham Bond before Downes’ phrases fragment. “Moonstruck” (1970) is the only piece here to feature Barry Guy, with Smith’s metallic shimmer offering a base for alto flute variations on “Round Midnight,” the bassist’s harmonic whacks and deep vibrato building toward a North African-inspired vamp and gritty rhythmic inventions and erasures.

On “Spooks,” Downes dips into a wider range of instrumentation, employing tenor sax as well as a disassembled flute, riding the axis of Smith and Jeff Clyne (himself one of the most contextually diverse players in UK jazz). Digging in with a short and abstract jounce, the leader’s gruff buzzsaw is matched with sinew and skitter, as an open section calls for dual mouthpieces in a perverted duck call. There’s a hint of reverb on the recording, which gives it a raw spaciousness. “Ghosts in Space” also appeared on Downes’ debut LP (the original version featured John Stevens and Harry Miller in addition to Smith and Downes), long tones stretching out into sputtering and spiky interplay, heaving inhalations marking action and inseparable from “music.” That feeling of getting ahead of oneself, at times the voice moving faster than the fingers, is part of Downes’ improvising conception and makes for profoundly human listening – preaching like the Reverend Frank Wright on “Ready Steady Blow” and humming/screaming through “Soul Cry,” technicality seems a few notches below naked expression. Perhaps it’s no surprise that he has since gone into healing/meditational music, but if you’re at all interested in the UK jazz heyday, you owe it to yourself to investigate 5 Trios and the rest of Downes’ free-jazz catalog.

Sound on Sound
(Corbett vs. Dempsey)

Sound on Sound presents two discs of Joe McPhee’s solo music from his personal archives, recorded between 1968 and 1973 and issued for the first time on the audio imprint of the Corbett vs. Dempsey Gallery in Chicago. The first disc consists of a mere twenty minutes of music, but it is more than enough to whet one’s appetite for things to come, featuring some of McPhee’s earliest recordings on the tenor saxophone, which he’d picked up in early 1968. This would be slightly earlier than his Underground Railroad LP of quartet music, issued on CJR and reissued by Atavistic. His tone is very much out of that young-and-hungry persuasion, influenced by Ayler and Shepp as well as Rollins and Don Byas, with a fragility one might also associate with a player like Kalaparusha. In fact, though that fragility and control is a hallmark of his more recent music – often equated with finely-aged spaciousness – it’s clearly evident on these early home recordings.

The title composition features tenor front and center with an oddly distant palimpsest of overdubbed saxophone screams behind it, almost like the leavings of a revision poking through alongside the “completed” performance. McPhee also plays toy piano and percussion here, building blocky rhythms and adding occasional glissandi with an echoed countenance that’s reminiscent of textures from Sun Ra’s Strange Strings. Two untitled tenor solos follow this piece, delicate balladry coupled with muscularity and poetic energy on the first, splayed out even further on the second towards rounded, husky phrases and finishing with steely shouts. The disc closes with a solo recorder piece, rendered in a way that evokes Andean flute music or certain woodwind musics of Asia and while somewhat noodling, is evocative of McPhee’s exploratory openness through split tones and linear variety.

The second disc is significantly longer, and except for “Sound on Sound” (a revision of the disc one opener, recorded in 1973), all of it was recorded in 1970 and predates the multi-instrumental and overdubbed collaborations with electronic artist John Snyder featured on Pieces of Light (CJR/Atavistic) by a couple of years. In addition to tenor and soprano saxophones, McPhee is found on flute, kalimba, echoplex, “Space Organ,” percussion and feedback across sixteen compositions. The opener, “Cosmic Love” is a real surprise, a duet for tenor and toy organ with synthesized rain-like fuzz washing over it, McPhee moving from pensive delicacy to hoarse, unhinged cries while backed by an oddly saccharine processional. It’s some of the most unique – even strange, perhaps – music in McPhee’s discography, coupling lofty powerhouse barks with kosmische minimalism in a brief six minutes. There is a second take of this piece, as well as an organ solo that uses the same material with heavy reverb attached. The first percussion piece is oddly damped, sounding almost electronically produced (it’s certainly effected) as McPhee patters and wipes it away; like a number of the pieces on this disc, it has the feel of testing out part of a palette that could be used later in a larger textural improvisation.

The three pieces for soprano and echoplex are psychedelic, rooted in simple phrases wrapped in a sheen of spatial volume. Differing from the “Cosmic Love” organ pieces, the organ works from July 1970 explore pulsing environmental burble, again feeling like parts of a larger work that might employ more instrumentation. The first builds to a finely ominous crunch midway through, while the second segues from a doughy creep into obsessive low tones. “Nagoya Harp (inspired/informed by Harry Partch/Lukas Foss/John Snyder)” is the longest piece here, and finds McPhee exploring the Japanese box harp and its tinny resonance (a cross between a detuned guitar and piano strings) with results that are both playful and haranguing. Sure, like much here it’s an outtake of palette-broadening impulses and presumably a study for later work, but what these discs show is a fascination with sound and color that separate McPhee from his hard-blowing confreres. Whether whole or in parts, the music on Sound on Sound could not have been composed by someone without vision and a love of study, which Joe McPhee clearly has long exemplified. This is an essential set and comes with the highest possible recommendation.

(De Stijl)

Poet, philosopher, visual artist and instrument maker Charlie Nothing (Charles Martin Simon, 1941-2007) produced a scantly visible catalog of recordings in his time on the planet – a handful of cassettes, a single or two, and two LPs of which this is the second. All but one of these documents were privately issued – his 1967 debut was on Takoma, of all imprints, and titled The Psychedelic Saxophone of Charlie Nothing. From two years later comes Outside/Inside, published on his Everit Enterprises imprint. Nothing would notoriously just tape the jackets of the LPs and seven inches shut, affix a mailing label, and send them on their merry way to the intended recipient; it’s a wonder that any of them survived unscathed.

Though later recordings often featured his homemade dingulators – guitar-like instruments made from scrap car parts – Outside/Inside, like the Takoma date, is a woodwind and percussion duo. Here, Nothing is on flute rather than alto sax, and he’s joined by Tox Drohar (an associate of British bassist Peter Ind and the Tristano school) on hand drums. The vibe is like a much more lackadaisical counter to the heavily Afro-Latin flute and percussion sides led by Will Crittendon or Big Black, with Nothing letting the tapes roll to capture studio chatter, mistakes and random pauses before he returns to the instrument. Though his saxophone playing was/is imbued with an autodidactic urgency and somewhat reminiscent of fellow Californians Byron Paul Allen and Tony Ortega, he seems less sure of himself on the flute, mostly approaching it with a low and wandering warble culled from Latin American mountain ether. That’s not to say that he and Drohar don’t get inspired – they do, especially on the second side – but the pervasive vibe is a primitivist intimacy. De Stijl was going to do a career retrospective a few years ago, collecting all of Nothing’s recordings under one umbrella, but Concord/Fantasy stubbornness negated a legitimate reproduction of the crucial Takoma side. That’s too bad, because isolated incidents of Charlie Nothing, while mysterious and intriguing, don’t give out the vision in a totality that the work deserves. Nevertheless, having a more readily available version of Outside/Inside is a good thing, indeed.