Tuesday, April 24, 2018

HMB 14: Ben Monder + The Starebaby outtakes

I'm proud to present the 14th installment of Heavy Metal Bebop, a series of conversations about the intersection of jazz and metal. The subject this time around is guitarist Ben Monder, who I've been wanting to speak to about this topic for some time now. A big thanks to him for a great, in-depth interview. Check it out here.

I've also posted extended conversations with Dan Weiss, Matt Mitchell and Trevor Dunn, outtakes from reporting I did for the aforementioned Times feature on Dan's Starebaby project. (I also spoke with Craig Taborn for the piece, and I hope to be able to post that interview soon.) Enjoy!

Photo: Stephanie Ahn

Friday, April 06, 2018

The fuchsia-colored awning: What Cecil Taylor taught me

[Update, April 6, 3:55pm ET: See also this CT appreciation for Rolling Stone.]

I thought about Cecil Taylor often during the past couple years. After the Whitney concerts in 2016, there was a lengthy period of no-news, and I often found myself wondering how he was doing. Whenever I was in Fort Greene, I would walk by his brownstone, at which I spent one unforgettable afternoon (then: baffling; now, in retrospect: invaluable) in the summer of 2008, and just sort of pay my silent respects. There was always that question of when he, that seemingly eternal, towering, incomparably enriching presence, both in the larger culture and in my sound-obsessed brain/heart, might no longer be there. And the answer to that is, really, never, because — after a partial spin through his early-'80s solo classic Garden on the train yesterday, after I got wind of the sad news that we're all still coming to terms with — he seems as alive to me now as he ever did.

Aside from a few close friends, ones I met shortly after I arrived here for college just shy of two decades ago and who at this point I'd simply consider family, Cecil Taylor has been one of the few unwavering constants of my life in New York. I now wish I had a complete record of the times I got to see him in concert, but here's what I can piece together from memory, and from the backlog of this blog you're reading, which, in many ways, has often resembled a Cecil Taylor Fan Site more than anything else (I was apparently owning up to that fact as early as 10 years ago):

*Duo with Elvin Jones at the Blue Note. Probably fall 1999. Maybe even this show. [Oh, to re-hear this concert. At the time, I barely had any idea who either musician was, and hadn't really begun to cultivate what would become my respective obsessions with the soundworld of each.]

*Duo with Max Roach at Columbia University. June 2000

*Trio with Albey Balgochian and Jackson Krall at Castle Clinton. July 2004.

*Trio with Albey Balgochian and Jackson Krall at the Blue Note. Probably February 2006.

*Solo at Merkin Hall. October 2006. Thoughts here.

*Trio with Henry Grimes and Pheeroan akLaff at Iridum. October 2006. Thoughts here.

*Duo with Tony Oxley at the Village Vanguard. July 2008. Thoughts here. [I will say that this stands as one of the greatest sets of live music I've ever witnessed, period, and it is my constant regret that I didn't go back and hear them every night they were there.]

*Trio with William Parker and Pheeroan akLaff at the Blue Note. February 2008. Thoughts here.

*Solo at the Highline Ballroom. August 2008. Thoughts here.

*Trio with Min Tanaka and Tony Oxley + [I think] Octet with Bobby Zankel, Elliott Levin, Albey Balgochian, Tristan Honsinger, Jackson Krall and others at the Whitney. April 2016. Thoughts here.

*Quintet with Harri Sjöström, Okkyung Lee, Jackson Krall and Tony Oxley at the Whitney. April 2016. Thoughts here.

There were plenty of other opportunities that I should have availed myself of. I never caught, for example, the orchestra that he would often bring to Iridium. Nor did I make those 2012 solo shows at Issue Project Room and the Harlem Stage Gatehouse, respectively, which have taken on a sort of mythic quality in my mind based on the rapturous testimonies of those who were there. (Though I did attend the 2015 Taylor tribute at the Gatehouse, and as good as it was, like everyone else, I was bummed that the man himself didn't make it.)

It now seems strange, given the relative scarcity of Cecil performances, both in NYC and elsewhere, during the later years of his life, that for a while there (and this could very well have been going on long before I arrived in the city), his presence, both on various stages and on "the scene," was common, expected. (Chris Felver's revelatory and now hard-to-find documentary All the Notes, with its window into Cecil's day-to-day life — holding court at home, heading out to his frequent haunt the 55 Bar — will stand as a key document of this period.) We have a vision of him as perhaps the ultimate musical eccentric, but he was by no means apart from society. I'd always hear stories from various musicians who had hung out with him either at his place or elsewhere (Howard Mandel's Miles Ornette Cecil book is another great reference for this kind of lore), and I remember seeing him out at a show at least once, at the 2003 Sunny Murray performance at Tonic documented here. During the afternoon I spent with him in '08, we strolled from his home to a neighborhood café and then to a local food market, and he exchanged friendly, neighborly greetings with employees and pedestrians.

All I mean to convey here, really, is that I feel extremely fortunate that my time on the planet, and especially in New York, overlapped with that of this creative giant, whose work sparked in me seemingly unbounded interest.

Beyond the live shows, I developed a whole other private relationship with the recorded work. Following my first exposure to CT, probably around the time of that '99 Elvin Jones gig, his albums, plus whatever videos, bootlegs or other documents I've been able to turn up, gradually became cyclical listening staples for me. For something like 15 years, I've moved in and out of various phases, but I've always, eventually, returned to Cecil and fixated on some new period or wrinkle. Here I was in '08, trying to devise a sort of DIY taxonomy for his piano language (even last night, revisiting Garden, I still found myself thinking in terms of the Lick and the Flurries); and here, in 2014, following a relatively quiet period for CT, going deep with the mighty Nailed; and here, in 2016, trying to make sense of Cecil Taylor, the Composer. The latter is one of my favorite posts on DFSBP, not because I think it's some sort of brilliant analysis, but because, looking back on it, I feel that it at least captures my level of immersion and, let's face it, obsession. As with any great art, especially art that exists in such vast quantities as Cecil Taylor Music, there is no "getting to the bottom of" this body of work. But there is a certain pleasure that comes, for me at least, in drinking it in and trying to make sense of it. Not sticking pins in it and displaying it under glass, but simply concentrating on it, recording impressions, maybe even formulating wild theories. Just sort of reveling in it, really, and relishing the fact that you're never going to apprehend it, so you might as well just stand underneath the waterfall and let it engulf you.

I feel this anew, now, just sort of taking stock of the Cecil Taylor music I have at hand — dozens of CDs, a handful of LPs and a daunting amount of digital files — in light of the news of his passing. Honestly, since around the time of those Whitney performances in 2016, I haven't gone through another one of those heavy CT listening phases. It's been a while since I've felt truly, presently immersed. But browsing the collection now, I feel like I never left. Because what is music, or any kind of art, but an invitation to concentrate. With Cecil, there was always that sense of "Could I ever hope to match, in my beholding of this, the level of engagement he's bringing to this performance?" I can vividly remember sitting in my seat at, say, the Merkin Hall solo concert mentioned above and feeling a great sense of almost physical exertion in trying to take in all the musical information that was rushing past me. I would leave these performances completely wired, in an almost frantic state, feeling utterly compelled to rush back home and record what I'd heard, seen, felt. And again, this has so little to do with the idea of "reviewing" something; this was and has been and I believe always will be an exercise of pure play.

Which, in a sense, it seems to have been for Cecil. This quote from All the Notes: "It's fun, if you don't let them make you write-all-this-stuff-down-forever, when all that shit'll drive you mad. Cause that's not fun, and everything should be fun, it should be a celebration of life."

And then this:

"You practice so you can invent. Discipline? No. The joy of practicing leads you to the celebration of the creation."

And so it was with listening to Cecil. The more time I put into it, the more astonished I was and, crucially, the more fun I seemed to be having. And that was, I think, a direct byproduct of the enormous, unthinkable, seemingly unprecedented investment Cecil Taylor had made in his own art. "It seems to me what music is, is," he says in Ron Mann's Imagine the Sound, the other great CT documentary (which also features Archie Shepp, Paul Bley and Bill Dixon; I highly recommend renting or buying the film here if you haven't seen), "everything that you do... "

He continues: "Hopefully, everything that I try to do in this situation has the same kind of control over the senses that the making of the particular art of music is. So to read, or dance, to converse, is all a part of the making of music. So that when one walks down the street and one looks, and if there is a fuchsia-colored awning sticking out on the 30th floor, one says, 'Oh, wow...' So that, to me, what it is, is, everything one does."

What he's really talking about in these passages is the cultivation of a fertile artistic mindset. Whether you're creating or beholding, the act is essentially the same: putting yourself in the best possible position to receive and channel inspiration, which then gives way to "the celebration of the creation." For me, as a Cecil Taylor devotee, what I was relishing, through the constant hours of "disciplined" (a.k.a. wildly enjoyable) listening, through the practice of getting the thoughts down, was the sonic equivalent of that fuchsia-colored awning. Walking one day, you noticed it — and it's hard not to think of Cecil's penchant for flamboyant, brightly colored dress here — and it fascinated you, and you wanted a closer look. And you entered the building in question and you began to climb the stairs. And maybe today, close to 20 years later, upon hearing the news that Cecil Taylor, the man, had passed, you realized that the awning was still out of reach, and maybe always would be, but that its obvious brilliance, richness and singularity still captivated you, drove you, and made you want to know more, to push toward that space of wonderment and rigor and exactitude and abandon. An ultimate free space achieved, paradoxically, through ultimate devotion and commitment. And you realized that you'd always keep seeking out that feeling, and that what he left you with was a kind of infinite curiosity.

Those performances, those records, those bits of spoken wisdom or poetic abstraction (I still think of the endless notebooks displayed under glass at the Whitney exhibit, among countless other ephemera from a life lived in the throes of intertwined celebration and creation) were all just parts of the same invitation, saying, essentially, not with admonishment but with a twinkle in the eye, that the music doesn't have to end just because, well, the music has ended. Look, listen closely, and, like that awning high above you, or anything you might behold with wonder — even, maybe even especially, now that Cecil Taylor, the human, the artist, the teacher, is gone from the Earth — it's still there, all around you.


A wealth of great CT commentary and materials has surfaced in the past 24 hours. It's striking how many people he touched.

*I found this installment of Piano Jazz to be one of the most illuminating primary sources on Cecil Taylor's art that I've ever encountered. What lovely company he was when he was at ease with his host. His breakdown of his working method to, essentially, the "pleasure principle" is both disarmingly simple and utterly profound.

*Richard Brody at The New Yorker

*Ben Ratliff at the Times

*Nate Chinen at NPR

*Matt Schudel at The Washington Post

*John Fordham at The Guardian

*Ethan Iverson at Do the Math

*Seth Colter Walls at the Times

Friday, March 30, 2018

Starebaby in the Times

Just a brief note to say that I'm happy and proud to unveil this New York Times feature on Dan Weiss and his fascinating Starebaby project.

You may be hearing more from me on this topic. In the meantime, check out the record below (it's officially out next Friday, April 6) and don't miss Sunday's show at Nublu.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Voyages: Tim Berne's Snakeoil and the art of the musical journey

Photo: Caterina Di Perri

I keep coming back to Tim Berne. One of the first jazz shows I saw upon arriving in New York 20 years ago was Berne's band Paraphrase with Drew Gress and Tom Rainey at Tonic — I think Tony Malaby was sitting in that night. I was particularly mesmerized by what Rainey was doing — I'd never heard anyone play drums that abstractly yet with that much conviction — but I became an instant fan of all the musicians onstage.

Once I was on board with Tim Berne's music, I kept up with his many projects as much as I could. I particularly loved, and still do, the various Berne/Rainey bands: Hard Cell with Craig Taborn (their 2001 album The Shell Game is simply one of my favorite jazz records ever, with epic compositions and a huge sound courtesy of frequent Berne collaborator David Torn); Big Satan with Marc Ducret (check out the marvelous Souls Saved Hear, from 2003); and Science Friction, a hybrid of the two aforementioned bands (their 2003 live double album The Sublime And, now available digitally in two separate parts, is an absolute feast of gritty yet exacting contemporary jazz).

There are so many other great projects and records — I highly recommend browsing Berne's extensive Bandcamp site, where he's offering not just many albums originally released on his own Screwgun label, but otherwise out-of-print gems that span his nearly 40-year discography. (The mid-to-late '80s small-group records, such as the mighty Fulton Street Maul, are another crucial subset.) I haven't heard 'em all, but I've heard a hell of a lot, and I consider every single one I own to be an essential item in my collection.

I'm in the midst of a heavy Berne listening phase, and after revisiting those magical Rainey-era records, I've moved on to the more recent stuff, specifically the four studio albums by Berne's current working band, Snakeoil. Like pretty much every Berne project, Snakeoil both has its own distinct identity and embodies key traits common to his various bands. After you've listened to enough of this stuff, it's fascinating to hear how the basic Berne principles carry over to the different groups.

One of the things that I love the most about Tim Berne's music is the way it moves, or maybe I should say, the way it unfolds. Tim Berne's music has a narrative quality that I don't hear in a lot of jazz. As much as I can get down with the head-solos-head format, or full-on free improv, a lot of the jazz that moves me most takes a more compositional approach. Though some Tim Berne pieces do follow a conventional head-improv-head type of structure, a lot of his music unfolds in more complex ways. For one thing, his pieces very rarely end up where they start: a theme or texture is established and, often very gradually, a new one takes its place and we're on to a different chapter in the piece. There's a very subtle and complex stitching together of composition and improvisation, a play between those two core jazz elements, that occurs in his work, that to me, makes his music especially gripping. Since he never seems to take the shape of a given piece for granted, I find that I'm always alert when listening to Tim Berne: A dizzyingly complex theme might emerge from what a few minutes ago sounded like total abstraction, or vice versa. There's always a progression, often a linear, almost novelistic one — it's not about endlessly cycling through one form; it's about setting up one form, exploring it, abstracting it and moving on to a new one; or, in a favorite Berne tactic, starting from a seemingly free place and then gradually moving toward a breathtakingly tight, often very funky theme statement, as though the structure of the piece were like a vise closing in imperceptible increments.

I touched on this idea in a 2008 DFSBP post re: a killer Bloodcount show at the Stone:

"... I came up with a phrase that I think describes Bloodcount's concept adequately: (ahem) gradual coalescence. basically what I'm trying to capture here is this phenomenon in the group's music wherein one of Berne's patented prog-funk themes sort of appears on the horizon of an improvisation and moves closer and closer and closer until, bam, it's right in front of your face and the band is absolutely slamming away at it in perfect unison."
So that play of abstraction and rigor is all over these Snakeoil records, which contain some of the most elaborate and ambitious Berne works I've heard. As is often the case with Berne, the longest pieces are among the most captivating. Two that are really grabbing me right now are "Small World in a Small Town," from 2015's You've Been Watching Me and "Sideshow," from 2017's Incidentals. (Quick note: The two preceding discs, 2013's Shadow Man and 2012's Snakeoil, are also excellent, but I think the addition of guitarist Ryan Ferreira to the core group — of Berne, clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer/vibraphonist Ches Smith — on Incidentals and You've Been Watching Me only strengthens an already outstanding band.)

Often in Snakeoil, you will hear a crisp group theme statement right off the bat, but the 18-minute "Small World" starts out in more spare fashion, with a lyrical, initially ballad-like Mitchell/Berne duet that really lets you savor the tart, singing quality of Berne's gorgeous alto playing. As evidenced by last year's FØRAGE disc (a Mitchell solo album featuring various Berne themes), these two have a profound musical connection, and it's a treat to hear them soaring together in a passage of unguarded lushness and beauty. Around 3:50 Mitchell sets up a steady quarter-note cadence as Berne continues to improvise; and around 5:17, Smith (on vibes) and Ferreira join in, mirroring Mitchell's pulse. The piece's first theme statement occurs around 5:32, but crucially, Berne keeps soloing for a bit after Smith and Ferreira enter, creating this lovely sort of segue effect. In other words, the improv doesn't suddenly cut to a theme statement, it sort of cross-fades, so you get that moment of contrast and fruitful clash just before full-on order takes over. The theme gradually grows denser and more involved, with Snakeoil sounding like a miniature chamber orchestra, and Smith begins switching between vibes and brushes on his snare.

Then at 7:50, there's a stark textural change, as the ensemble strips down to piano, with Mitchell still implying the upbeat cadence from the prior theme; drums, with Smith switching to sticks and playing delicately on cymbals; and guitar, with Ferreira picking out fragile-sounding notes. Almost imperceptibly, around 8:15, Oscar Noriega enters on clarinet, playing with remarkable subtlety and fluidity. The band falls away entirely and Noriega plays alone, his supple sound suspended in mid-air like some floating gossamer thread. Mitchell and Smith return to add faint accents, and again, the ensemble texture is as much "chamber music" as jazz. Around 12:40, almost slyly, Mitchell breaks into a new cadence, a waltz-like rhythm that Smith picks up on brushes; meanwhile, Noriega continues to solo, much as Berne had in that beginning duet. The rhythm becomes bluesier, with Smith digging into the groove, and at 14:15, Berne reenters with a fresh theme statement, soon joined by Ferreira. Again, we get this ear-catching cross-fade, with Noriega continuing to flutter over top as the theme coalesces. Now Ferreira moves into the role of texturalist, adding this sort of abstract sparkle effect in the right channel. The full band sort of struts its way to a crescendo, until everyone cuts out but Mitchell and Smith, who trail off dreamily.

There's just so much event packed into this piece, so much of a sense of musical ground being covered, such an artful weave of composition and improvisation, and of a sense of musical chapters beginning and concluding almost imperceptibly. It's all blurred together in the Berne playbook, with solos sort of floating over those demarcation points so that you always have this fruitful static between what's mapped out and what's spontaneous.

"Sideshow," the 26-minute centerpiece of Incidentals, is similarly event-packed, but the piece takes a different tack. Here, we get a dense theme statement right at the top, set up first by Mitchell in complex two-hand formation, with Berne and Ferreira joining in soon after and Smith following. The band makes its way to a classic Tim Berne math-groove around the 2:00 mark, a theme that swoops and darts and mutates in head-spinning fashion without losing its sense of badass momentum. (Noriega has entered by this point, holding down the low-end with chugging bass-clarinet.) Berne drops out, leaving the rest of the band to sort of boogie down on the prog-funk cadence they've set up — Mitchell gets seriously rumbling and bluesy here. Around 4:50, though, the groove starts to splinter and decelerate, and abstraction takes over: Mitchell and Smith (I think playing bongos here) darting around one another, Noriega adding soft, swelling, fluttering phrases. The pianist and bass-clarinetist are soon dueting, playing a sort of dark, oozing ballad — the overall feel couldn't be more different from where the piece started — to which Smith adds soft cymbal scrapes. As in "Small World in Small Town," around 7:50 Mitchell almost unassumingly begins to lay down a rolling cadence as the others continue to explore a sort of free ballad space. Then Berne enters around 8:19, joining up with Mitchell for a new theme statement as Noriega flutters freely, with faint accents from Smith on vibes. Again, we're in that sort of suspended space between composition and improvisation. By 9:30, though, Noriega has joined in on the theme, with Smith and Ferreira now playing the role of tasteful chaos agents.

And then another shift around 10:50, as the ensemble thins out and Berne blows faintly against a humming background of electronics, presumably textural effects from Ferreira. There's a feeling of almost total ambient stillness here, of a whole new musical zone briefly opening. Around 13:00, Mitchell and Smith enter and engage Ferreira in some free trio play, but soon, Mitchell is laying down a new cadence to which Smith gradually adds a softly strutting backbeat. Ferreira continues to sculpt weird sound shapes as the groove grows more and more funky. Berne enters at 15:48 and locks in with Mitchell; Ferreira keeps soloing but seems to be gradually drawn in to the band's orbit, until around the 17:00 mark, the full band is navigating a lush, elaborate, almost celebratory new theme. Smith switches from drums to vibes as the band makes one last go-round through the passage, and then another sudden change, as everyone drops out but Mitchell and Smith (playing both cymbals and vibes), dueting in spare, abstract fashion. Mitchell then goes quiet, leaving Smith to play a sparse quasi–drum solo, alternating tight bongo flurries with what sound like mallet-struck, tympani-like booms on a low tom-tom (or maybe even the bass drum). There's a sort of textural halo here that I think is coming from Ferreira; overall his ability to add extremely subtle shading is a huge asset to the band. (Mitchell also contributes electronics on this record, so some of what I'm attributing to guitar could also be him.)

At around 21:30, Smith hints at a new cadence, and Mitchell, Berne and Ferreira enter about 20 seconds later with the piece's final theme, a slowly unfolding dirge. Ferreira plays along but adds a sort of running psychedelic commentary. His contributions and Smith's become denser and more aggressive, sort of battering and washing over the calm theme statement, and the band sounds like it's at war with itself. [Note: Matt Mitchell helpfully informs me that David Torn also plays guitar on the outro here too!] Until the last minute or so, when Smith drops out, and Berne, Mitchell, Noriega and Ferreira make one last evanescent pass through the theme.

I obviously encourage you to take these journeys yourself. These Snakeoil records are long and information-packed, and I've sometimes found that I get more mileage out of close listening to individual pieces, which are often themselves long and information-packed, rather than trying to tackle the full LPs in one go. Whatever your listening approach, I think these records demonstrate incredibly well what an artful and accomplished writer, bandleader and just overall sound sculptor Tim Berne is — and how he's still pushing into new territory in this phase of his career. When I listen, I can hear him constantly fighting against predictable, conventional ways of organizing a piece of so-called jazz. He seems intent on utilizing every possible approach, from the most meticulously arranged, virtuosically executed full-ensemble passage to the sparest, most abstract wisp of an improvisation from one or two band members, and intent on combining and contrasting these approaches within the compositions so that you never know quite where you're headed, but you know that you're headed somewhere. To fill up, say, 18 or 26 minutes of a listener's time and to sustain a compelling narrative arc, to provide enough textural contrast that the journey never seems tedious, is a serious accomplishment. I would never argue for some kind of hierarchy, that a long-form, linear, narrative approach is somehow superior to a more conventional head-solos-head one, for example; I'm just saying that in the right hands, the former can make for a thrilling alternative.

In any idiom, I love concision and directness, as in another recent listening obsession, the early works of AC/DC; but I also love ambition and scope and a more searching, intuitive way of getting from point A to point B (and in Berne's case, points C, D, E and so forth), as in the work of Tool, who I gushed about on DFSBP in February, or King Crimson, whose '80s album I've been savoring. I hope Tim Berne wouldn't mind my aligning him with the latter camp, or, more broadly, a genre-transcendent "prog" philosophy. In my mind, that doesn't rule out, say, gnarly aggression or extreme funkiness or any of the other key Berne traits. It's only to say that, as a musical thinker, he seems to like to consider all the possibilities, and to take each mood or strategy or configuration or texture or structure as far as his imagination — and the abilities of his collaborators, which in the case of Snakeoil, are pretty much limitless — will allow within the scope of a different piece, and to use the art of skillful arrangement (the cross-fade, the gradual coalescence, etc.) to always keep you just destabilized enough, immersed, yes, but never too settled because there always the possibility of a shift on the horizon. His music has been taking me on voyages like the afore-described for close to 20 years, and may it always be so.


*There's some great nitty-gritty discussion of the way Tim Berne's bands function in part two of Ethan Iverson's essential, career-spanning 2009 Berne interview. This part is a fascinating look at that fundamental tension between composition and improvisation in his work, and how he likes to ride that line as much as possible:

EI:  How do you tell your bands how to find the vamp?

  I don’t. I just say that at some point, “This has to happen.” And, “Don’t telegraph it.  It’s best when it just kind of happens.” When it’s a cue it’s less interesting.

Mike is a genius at this shit. He’ll build the tension as long as possible, so that you can barely stand it. That’s really great. Jim is also great at getting there in a natural way, not like an obvious cut.

That’s the structure of this music: getting from section to section somehow—the rest of it is open.
 I also think this part above is very revealing, in terms of Berne's very specialized rhythmic language:
And then the stuff like Julius [Hemphill] and [Keith] Jarrett, there was just that rhythmic thing that I was really into. It was like soul music and stuff, it really kind of brought all those elements. And it wasn’t swing, really, to me. Even though I loved Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, and those guys, that wasn’t my language, it isn’t now, it may never be. But grooves are something that I like. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Tool's fifth album: Why I don't mind the wait

Via Rolling Stone, some thoughts on the as-yet-nonexistent fifth Tool album, and why fans (like me) are happy to wait 12 years or more for this band. Been cycling through their discography in recent weeks and I'm rediscovering that special sense of wonder that their work can bring about, given ample time and attention. I kind of can't believe how much there is to savor.

I didn't get to touch on everything in this piece, of course. One noteworthy omission is Tool's sense of humor, which is absolutely a key part of their overall aesthetic — those offbeat interlude tracks on Ænima, for example, which seem designed to thwart an over-earnest reading of this often very heavy band (in all senses), and at least faintly suggest that their entire endeavor might just be one very elaborate, very sick joke. It's not, of course — at least, I don't think it is — but Tool have never been about reassurances, have never been about anything, really, other than handing over these dense, painstaking audiovisual texts and saying to their fans, more or less, "Here. See you next time. If there is a next time."

Also, if I'm a little hard on 10,000 Days in that piece, it's probably because of how much I love Lateralus, and because I don't feel its successor quite measures up in terms of overall sturdiness and elegance of design. It's the first time, to me, that I really hear the band sort of grasping, if you will, cycling through old tricks and sounding somewhat tired. Still, though, this is all relative. It's an incredibly rich album that absolutely rewards repeated engagement.

Just to spell it out, there are no inessential Tool works. I've been going back to Undertow and, just this morning, Opiate, and I'm marveling at how vital this music sounds to me still, 25 years after I first heard it. Maybe slightly dated, sure, but thoroughly gripping all the same.

So long live 'em, and may they take all the time they need, this time and every time. Here's probably my favorite Tool song to date. I get an almost supernatural charge every time I hear Maynard jump up to the higher register at around 3:04, and things only get better from there.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

"The effect of the monstrous sight was indescribable...": On Portal's 'ION,' and the Lovecraftian horror of alien intelligence

Last week, I wrote up ION, the new Portal album, for Rolling Stone's new-release column. I was happy to be able to shout out the release, but I knew I was nowhere near the point where I had my head around this thing — or, even after around eight years of engagement with their work, around the band in general. In music, though, especially "extreme" or "experimental" music, this is a good problem to have. The feeling of bafflement is, for a certain kind of listener, essentially inextricable from one's fascination with the thing at hand. Many of my musical obsessions — craw, for one — started out as objects of pure confusion.

It's become something of a cliché to frame Portal — a Brisbane band who have been active since 1994 but have only more recently become a sort of household name among fans of bizarre underground metal — in terms of how impenetrable their music is. And having combed back and forth through their discography several times since I first heard their third album Swarth back in 2009 or 2010, I can say that I think this is a perfectly valid way of framing the band. But as I listen more, I feel the need to probe into this reading a little bit.

I'm currently listening to "Revault of Volts," one of my favorite tracks from ION. And with the sound of the Portal back catalog fresh in my mind, I feel a little better equipped to consider the piece (somehow the word "song" seems less than adequate) as a continuation of an established musical approach. To me, this track epitomizes one important facet of the Portal sound, namely this sort of writhing, lurching quality their music has, the way the band will suddenly zoom forward with stunning intensity only to sort of jerk back into a swirling, throbbing nether zone of non-rhythm. Drums and guitar work together in sickly harmony: Rigid blastbeats mesh with jagged, gnashing, whirring riffs — the band formerly used eight-string guitars but have returned to six-strings for ION; the sound is different but the basic quality of the riffs, their seesawing, divebombing, wriggling weirdness, remains unchanged — then give way to these musical breaths if you will, passages of slackening or repose, as though the riff were a chained animal that had exhausted itself and needed to regroup before violently hurling itself forward yet again. Often drummer Ignis Fatuus (all members employ pseudonyms) will sort of roll and shudder on his toms during these pauses in what seems to be deliberately non-metric fashion. Even his blastbeats, maybe Portal's clearest link to the "mainstream" of death metal, sound almost rickety, irregular, which helps to explain why Portal's music moves (breathes, unfolds, etc.) in such an unfamiliar way.

The music keeps petering out, hurtling ahead, and over top of it vocalist the Curator lays these sort of rasped invocations, almost as if he were reciting spells. The effect is more like spoken word than any kind of conventional extreme-metal delivery, seeming to sort of stand to the side of the music, or hover over it, than exist as the songs' focal point. His lyrics are filled with weird spellings and arcane wordplay, heightening the band's fixation with some shadowy, surreal past. Here's guitarist, co-founder and co-composer Horror Illogium, discussing the origins of Portal in an uncharacteristically revealing 2009 interview:
"Some years were spent on crafting our very own dimensions of horror, delving into the antiquated."
In this interview, which seems to be from 2008, he stated, memorably:
"...the vintage world we have created is a compulsion, an illness. "
The Curator formerly wore a grandfather clock headpiece onstage. The band's debut, from 2003, is called Seepia. Some stanzas from that album:

Temporal pestilence reliquaries
Breaching earthen quaint finite
Vint-Age fatalism

Swey excerpts Outre bound
Traversal bled maloccupancy
Perpetuate thee

Omenknow effect
Phreqs to become
Bloating in conquest

Apparatus of the Swey
Usher of Outre
Siphoning the Ether
Ululant Piper

Words and concepts appear again and again in their work. Seepia's follow-up is entitled Outre', and there's a track on ION called "Phreqs." Again, a sense of unification and deliberation. There's nothing random about any of this. It's not impenetrable, or at least any more so than any determinedly outlandish art is. They're simply building their own world, some kind of crazed, yes, antiquated labyrinth, and it's really up to you the extent to which you want to explore it. I feel like I'm beginning to become accustomed to the sensation, but I don't feel any more "comfortable" with this music, and honestly, may it ever be so. We come to music for many reasons, sometimes, as with say great pop, finely chiseled rock or even most metal to sort of block out the chaos of the world. A song can make sense in the way that life rarely can. But other music seems only to amplify or reflect that chaos, or even, in the most compelling instances, to craft its own chaos in response, a chaos that isn't random at all but is merely the outward manifestation of an order that is, upon early exposure, beyond our comprehension. So we call it chaos, or impenetrable noise, or employ some other term that seems to sort of safely contain it.

In that same 2009 interview, Horror Illogium talks about the band's early Lovecraft influence. And though they clearly quickly outpaced this or any other influence (it's instructive to note the Morbid Angel influence he cites as well, and just as instructive to note how the band has taken Morbid's writhing riff-sense and made it even rougher, more turbulent and more irregular), I'd argue that they retained something of that author's sense of horror. It's been a while since I've read Lovecraft's incredible 1930s novella At the Mountains of Madness, but the basic premise and sensation of that tale has stuck with me: the discovery of a vast alien city hidden somewhere on Antarctica, and the horror inherent in the realization that it is the product of some superhuman intelligence.

"I think that both of us simultaneously cried out in mixed awe, wonder, terror, and disbelief in our own senses as we finally cleared the pass and saw what lay beyond. Of course we must have had some natural theory in the back of our heads to steady our faculties for the moment... We must have had some such normal notions to fall back upon as our eyes swept that limitless, tempest-scarred plateau and grasped the almost endless labyrinth of colossal, regular, and geometrically eurhythmic stone masses which reared their crumbled and pitted crests above a glacial sheet not more than forty or fifty feet deep at its thickest, and in places obviously thinner.

The effect of the monstrous sight was indescribable, for some fiendish violation of known natural law seemed certain at the outset. Here, on a hellishly ancient table-land fully 20,000 feet high, and in a climate deadly to habitation since a pre-human age not less than 500,000 years ago, there stretched nearly to the vision’s limit a tangle of orderly stone which only the desperation of mental self-defence could possibly attribute to any but a conscious and artificial cause."

So the root of the horror, then, is the realization that what one is beholding is not random. In fact, it is the exact opposite. As Lovecraft suggests, the idea of random-ness, that something simply came about through the passage of time and the course of nature, is somehow comforting. You're still awed, but you don't have to reckon with the sense of what mind, human or otherwise, could have wrought such a thing. It's once you realize that there's a conscious brain, an intent and deliberation beyond your imagining, a profound order amid the seeming chaos, that the real horror begins. That, for me, is the jumping-off point of Portal fandom. And it's why I hope that their music will never sound any less outlandish. Even back in 2009, Horror Illogium knew that a high bar had been set, and as a fan, I trust that they're not about to fail us anytime soon:

"Usually some guitar parts are created from some inspiration and built upon for months, we know when we have a Portal sound when we feel revolting or just from instinct. There is a lot of unused music that just didn’t touch that horror gland..."

In an interview in the new issue of Decibel, Ignis Fatuus discusses how the band recorded and discarded an entire album in between 2013's Vexovoid and ION. We can only assume that it "just didn't touch that horror gland." Like all past Portal releases I've heard, ION definitely does. The effect of the monstrous sound truly is indescribable — and may it ever be so.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Bad Plus: Can't stop, 'Never Stop'

Here, via Rolling Stone, is my take on the new Bad Plus album, Never Stop II. The short version: I think it's goddamn great, and I've been playing it on repeat for the past week.

It's been a little weird watching the Bad Plus go public about their recent personnel shakeup. (In addition to these authoritative accounts from Nate Chinen and Giovanni Russonello, don't miss Pamela Espeland's equally vital feature for the Star Tribune, as well as the full transcripts of her conversations with the band members and some of their key Twin Cities allies, which live at her bebopified blog.) Weird because a) there simply aren't that many jazz bands out there who are stable and longstanding enough for their membership changes to qualify as noteworthy news and because b) it's not often that you read about behind-the-scenes interpersonal discord — or even interpersonal dynamics, period — in jazz. (One example that stands out, ironically, is departed TBP pianist Ethan Iverson's remarkable 2009 interview with Keith Jarrett, in which the latter discusses life on the road with his classic American Quartet in disarmingly candid fashion: "If I hadn’t had Paul [Motian] as an ally, I’d probably be in a mental institution," etc.)

And because c) for a long while, TBP seemed like a collective you could really rally behind, a true all-for-one band, both on and offstage. (I wrote in 2010 about how the Iverson/Anderson/King lineup's collective identity only made the music feel that much richer and more distinctive.) I was not an early adopter when it came to these guys, but once I really took notice, appropriately around the time of the first Never Stop, I was firmly On Board.

But, you know, things change, and it sounds like in this case, with Reid Anderson and Dave King continuing on in the group and Iverson setting out on his own, it's absolutely for the best. On a pure fan level, I was a little worried there for a second — not least re: what would become of the other fine projects new TBP recruit Orrin Evans is involved in, most prominently the outstanding Tarbaby — but having heard Never Stop II, the whole thing makes a lot more sense. And by that I mean, and I tried to get at this in my review, this is still the Bad Plus you know and love. (To an immediate and almost comically extreme degree — I fully agree, for example, with Nate Chinen's statement re: the album-opening Anderson composition "Hurricane Birds" that "...anyone who has followed The Bad Plus over the years would be able to identify it after hearing the first chord of the song." From where I'm sitting, Anderson's compositional voice is indeed the heart and soul of the group, and it's sounding sturdier than ever on this record.) And if Reid Anderson and Dave King are still deeply engaged with this aesthetic and Ethan Iverson isn't, then mazel tov to all of them to figuring that out before the whole enterprise derailed. As a fan, also, of Iverson's outside work — with Billy Hart, Albert "Tootie" Heath, etc. — I'll absolutely be keeping an eye/ear out for whatever he's got coming down the pike, not least that Mark Turner duo album on ECM.

As bright as the future looks, I'm really glad I got to see TBP Mark 1 one last time, last month at the Vanguard, just two nights before Iverson's final bow with the group. Honestly, despite any lingering background tensions, the set I caught played out like pretty much all the other Bad Plus gigs I'd seen at the Vanguard and elsewhere in recent years, which is a decent amount. The set, filled with classic (to me, at least) songs like "My Friend Metatron," "You Are" and "1979 Semi Finalist," reminded me that this band transcends "jazz" in the way that any great band transcends its context. You're there, hearing them, and all that matters are the songs. That I can envision hearing Orrin Evans, Reid Anderson and Dave King play the Never Stop II songs in that same room and feeling that same way is one happy notion.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Best of 2017: Digest

Year-end coverage on DFSBP includes:

*A jazz round-up, with a bonus list of various writers, podcasters and outlets that keep me inspired and informed re: the music. Newly updated with some additional picks.

*A metal round-up, also newly updated.

*A round-up of other faves, including my album of the year and a playlist of some 2017 tracks I love.

Haven't yet buckled down and made a formal, all-genres-in-play top 10 yet, but if I do, I'll let ya know. Actually, here's that overall top 10, freshly submitted to Pazz & Jop 2017:

1. Sheer Mag, Need to Feel Your Love
2. Vijay Iyer, Far From Over
3. Elder, Reflections of a Floating World
4. Mastodon, Emperor of Sand
5. Queens of the Stone Age, Villains
6. Code Orange, Forever
7. Jason Moran, Thanksgiving at the Vanguard
8. Cheer-Accident, Putting Off Death
9. Morbid Angel, Kingdoms Disdained
10. Chris Pitsiokos Unit, Before the Heat Death

Thanks as always for your kind attention.

Best of 2017: Album of the year, and more

OK, so here we are, beyond the genre-centric year-end lists I've posted recently (jazz, metal). The below might seem like a round-up of stragglers or honorable mentions, but that's not at all the case. Other records I loved in 2017 included:

Sheer Mag, Need to Feel Your Love
My album of the year, full stop. (Here is my write-up for the Rolling Stone year-end list.) This won't come as much of a surprise to readers who recall my 2015 and 2016 wrap-ups. Sheer Mag just continue to deliver, and by that I mean, micro-refining their already extremely refined asethetic. Now that they've finally (well, really, it's only been a few years, but it seems like a mini career in 2017 terms) proved themselves in the full-LP format, I feel comfortable labeling them the best band in America that isn't a longstanding institution like the Melvins, or something.

My listening brain has many different facets, but one of my Basic Truths as a music fan is that I'm a song guy. Others are that I really love ripping rock guitar and soulful, hooky vocals. With Sheer Mag, you get all this and more. Their music is as addictive and instantly gratifying as candy, but without the queasy after-effect: Beyond the catchiness, the level of craft is outrageous. I've spent the past couple months learning this one on guitar (yes, months; I'm a beginner on the instrument), and I've probably played it a hundred times or more. I still rock out with abandon on every single listen.

As with so many of the greatest pop/rock songs, at this point, less than a year after I first heard this one, I can't imagine it not existing. You can step back and look at this band as some pastiche of a thousand retro moves (Rich Bienstock's Rolling Stone feature is an illuminating deep dive into what makes them tick aesthetically) or you can marvel at the almost prog-like detail that the Seely brothers bring to their arrangements (check out that beautifully gnarled intro to "Suffer Me" or the tastefully rangy bass lines in the "Just Can't Get Enough" verses), but to me, their songs, again like all the best pop/rock, demand instant surrender, suspension of disbelief, whatever that state is where the music is just happening and you're on board and happy and lost and absolutely content.

There's a good amount of variety on this record, and for me, it all works more or less perfectly, except — and this threw me a bit at first — opening track "Meet Me in the Street," which is maybe the first track I've heard by the band so far that strikes me as just faintly less-than-convincing, a moment where their spot-on style seems to teeter on the edge of hamminess. I go back and forth on it, because it's a both a convincingly tough rock anthem and a sensible album opener, but to me, it seems to lack that X factor, that emotional ante-up, that makes Sheer Mag songs not merely effective but also consuming and shattering in turn. (In that sense, "Turn It Up," a somewhat similar track from later in the album, is much more satisfying.)

I have nothing but love for the rest of the album. I saw Sheer Mag for the second time last November and noted that the new songs they played then seemed to be moving in a dancier direction. These tracks, specifically "Need to Feel Your Love" and "Pure Desire," both of which contain as much disco as rock, turn out to be the anchors of the album, super-funky insta-hits that allow the band to fan out on either side of that approach and either rage and blare (as on "Turn It Up") or chill out and emote (as on "Milk and Honey") as the given song demands. Superheroically, they sound absolutely convincing at either pole.

I saw Sheer Mag for the third time in July, after I'd heard the album, and sang along to every word. I bought the album on vinyl and spun it endlessly and shared it with everyone I know. The list of contemporary artists that inspire that kind of ardent fandom in me (fuck "criticism") is very short, and right now, these folks are at the top. I just love these goddamn songs — much as I do the 12 that preceded them.

Queens of the Stone Age, Villains
Josh Homme's behavior of late, an echo of the old-school macho BS he's perpetrated onstage in the past, has been dumb and disappointing and has muted my considerable goodwill toward his art in general and this album in particular. Which is a shame, because this is another great record from probably the best mainstream (or quasi-mainstream) rock band on the planet. Maybe not quite the masterpiece that ...Like Clockwork was, but the patented QOTSA combo of bent yet boogie-friendly party rock and more melancholy, foreboding fare (e.g., "Fortress" the standout track for me here) still flows forth with typical ease and grace. Big thumbs-up on the stylish, surreal-yet–timelesss-sounding Mark Ronson production job.

Cheer-Accident, Putting Off Death
I'll keep pushing this agenda for as long as these guys exist. They remain a national treasure, stubbornly eclectic and eccentric yet profoundly coherent. With the passing years, their music continues to accrue a kind of heartbreakingly melancholy and tender gravitas to go along with their inherent whimsy and adventurous compositional spirit. Cheer-Accident represent the true spirit of prog — not some backward-looking collection of worn-out moves but a truly expansive vision of rock-based sound-organization, at once inviting and resolutely avant-garde. They're still operating at the highest level, which means this record stands comfortably alongside earlier masterpieces like Enduring the American Dream, Introducing Lemon, The Why Album, etc. You must hear. And Jesus Christ, if they're playing anywhere near you, go. I was fortunate enough to share a bill with them in June, and their set was easily the tightest, most mesmerizing set of live music I saw this year. (See this recent radio sesh for further evidence; and don't miss various auxiliary releases, such as this fine solo effort from drummer/singer/co-mastermind Thymme Jones, on the C-A Bandcamp page.)


And here are some songs I love. A couple are from records I've already shouted out but most are just isolated tracks, singles or otherwise, that grabbed me, including A) masterful ballad/downbeat fare either tragicomic, elegantly grandiose. disarmingly vulnerable/candid or brooding, emo and haunted/haunting (courtesy Father John Misty, Harry Styles, SZA and Ryan Adams / Lil Uzi Vert, respectively), metal either bruised or triumphant (courtesy Code Orange and Arch Enemy, respectively), pop either immaculate, scrappy or ragtag (courtesy Haim, Sheer Mag and Diet Cig, respectively); righteous neo-prog either cosmic or theatrical (courtesy Hällas and Leprous, respectively); and Fleetwood Mac–by-another-name goodness from Buckingham/McVie;

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Best of 2017: Jazz

[Updated 12/26/17: Added Harriet Tubman's Araminta, which I recently went back to and loved, to the albums list below. Also added Brad Cohan and the Free Jazz Blog to the shout-outs at the top.]

I always look forward to the results of Francis Davis's annual Jazz Critics Poll. I admire the way he's kept it going for years now, despite several shifts in the hosting outlet and the constant uncertainty that faces any arts-media endeavor. And I look forward to participating for years to come, even if I don't feel like I can currently claim any full-time jazz beat beyond my own native enthusiasms.

In that regard, I'd like to send a shout-out to fellow scribes/podcasters/etc. like Nate Chinen, now holding it down with customary authority and class at WBGO; Seth Colter Walls, who's been doing exemplary work for Pitchfork and many other outlets; Phil Freeman, who launched a vital new monthly jazz column at Stereogum this year, as well as a smartly curated, often jazz-oriented podcast; all the folks at The New York City Jazz Record, which remains a joy to pick up and peruse each month; Clifford Allen, who in addition to his typically strong NYCJR work co-produced a lovingly researched new reissue of a pair of private-press '70s albums by Michael Cosmic and the Phill Musra Group; Natalie Weiner, whose tweets, takes and live coverage for various outlets offer a refreshing perspective on the scene in NYC and beyond; Jeremiah Cymerman's profound, singular 5049 Podcast; Evan Haga and the consistently engaging, comprehensive JazzTimes; Marcus J. Moore and the open-eared, deeply committed crew at Bandcamp Daily; Peter Margasak, a passionate fixture at the Chicago Reader; Giovanni Russonello, who's been churning out sharp, opinionated pieces for the Times; Adam Shatz, who wrote that incredible Craig Taborn profile for the NYT magazine; Ben Remsen, who hosts the thoughtful Now Is Podcast; Brad Cohan, whose new Jamie Saft conversation at Burning Ambulance is one of the better interviews I've read this year, and who has been doing solid work over at Bandcamp as well (including comprehensive catalog features like this one on Damon Smith); plus Ethan Iverson's ever-stimulating Do the Math (can't wait for sister site Do the Gig, launching next year); Steve Smith's robust, illuminating Log Journal (don't miss Lara Pellegrinelli's recent piece on women in jazz); everyone at Downbeat, The Wire and the indefatigable Free Jazz Collective; and others I'm surely forgetting.

And cheers as well to Brad Farberman, who contributed excellent, historically minded features on Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane to RollingStone.com this year, as well as an authoritative review of the new Pharoah Sanders reissues.

And to behind-the-scenes folks like Matt Merewitz, Stephen Buono, Seth Rosner, Yulun Wang, Steven Joerg, Tina Pelikan, Ann Braithwaite, Patricia and Todd Nicholson, and others who ensure that the work (and the good word) gets heard.

In terms of my own jazz-related work this year, I had a blast putting these together:

*An Interstellar Space deep dive.

*The latest installment of Heavy Metal Bebop, featuring Matt Mitchell (whose new album you'll see on my year-end list below).

*An in-depth feature on the immortal John McLaughlin.

So, yeah, that aforementioned 2017 jazz poll! I did submit a ballot (you'll find it sorted w/ the others here), which I assembled and then hastily revised roughly 15 times in the week or so leading up to the deadline. I enjoyed all the records I voted for, but looking back at the list now, I don't feel a terribly strong allegiance to the order I settled on. Here are those 10 records, plus a couple more near-misses or titles I just plain overlooked when assembling my "official" top 10, presented in Ratliff-ian alphabetical order. (I only link to Bandcamp, always my preferred source for trying and buying.)

Tony Allen, The Source (Blue Note)
A gorgeous jazz-meets-hardbop showcase for one of the most potent rhythmatists alive. Pure buoyancy.

Borderlands Trio, Asteroidea (Intakt)
The latest flight of obsessive, texture-minded, new-piano insanity from Kris Davis, heard here as part of a brilliant collective trio.

Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die (International Anthem)
Immersive ambient-jazz textures meet sprightly avant-funk. Really hope to catch this band live soon.

Ornette Coleman, Celebrate Ornette (Song X)
Thoughts here and here. A commemorative feast for the master.

Kate Gentile, Mannequins (Skirl)
Sprawling, dauntingly complex and, approached with the right focus, completely enthralling. Don't feel like I have my head even halfway around this one yet, but that's part of the appeal.

Harriet Tubman, Araminta (Sunnyside)
Not explicitly a tribute, but I hear this an enveloping spiritual sequel to Electric Miles in all its depth and splendor, from "He Loved Him Madly" to "Rated X" and beyond. A murky jazzdubfunkrock sprawl that feels expansive but not indulgent. Guest Wadada Leo Smith sounds as at-home and inspired here as he does in his own bands.

Vijay Iyer Sextet, Far From Over (ECM)
Review here. Some of these pieces already feel like standards.

Matt Mitchell, A Pouting Grimace (Pi)
Some thoughts in HMB 13 here. One of the year's wildest, most colorful rides.

Roscoe Mitchell, Discussions (Wide Hive)
Free improv turned exacting orchestral translation. A map of Mitchell's never-back-down ambition and continued cutting-edge aesthetic quest. (See also: that Art Ensemble gig.)

Jason Moran, Thanksgiving at the Vanguard (Yes)
Write-up here (scroll down). This band remains absolutely thrilling. No other jazz musician on earth combines avant-garde and populist impulses as seamlessly as Moran.

Chris Pitsiokos Unit, Before the Heat Death (Clean Feed)
Write-up here. Electrifying and insane. Don't miss this.

Charles Rumback, Threes / Tag Book (eyes and ears)
A drummer and Chicago scene fixture who leads a poetic and understated "inside/outside" piano trio with Jim Baker on keys and John Tate on bass. No obvious "angle" here other than an air of patience, intrigue and faint melancholy, clearly informed by DFSBP favorites Andrew Hill (one of his pieces, "Erato," appears on Threes) and Paul Motian. A band that invites you to lean in for a closer listen.

Chris Speed Trio, Platinum on Tap (Intakt)
Speed's oaky tenor: probably the most appealing and distinctive instrumental texture I heard on any record this year. A sly retro-meets-now sound that doesn't sound like anything else out there.

Craig Taborn, Daylight Ghosts (ECM)
Two thirds of the Platinum on Tap band is here too (Speed and drummer Dave King), helping Taborn to realize his latest set of stealthily advanced progressive jazz. "New Glory" has been lodged in my head semi-permanently since I saw a Taborn-led quintet perform it in September.