Tuesday, March 29, 2011

COLIN STETSON: New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges I remember the exact words: My band teacher flipped out when I walked between him (standing in the hallway with his back to the wall) and another adult (standing with his back to the opposite wall). I walked between them (couldn't go around, couldn't go under) and didn't say anything. The absent exclamation of "Excuse me, a thousand pardons my dear chaps" drove him to bellow at my lapse in civility. I'll omit the tedious body and skip to the climax of his little harangue: "And you're no good at playing the saxophone, either."

I was never good at playing that thing, suffering derisive critiques from my classmates, blushing at the accidental squawks and squonks, and always sitting in Last Chair. (For those of you who've never had the experience, school bands place kids into savage hierarchies so everyone knows who is better than who. It makes music into a sport.) I remember another band teacher offering me this constructive criticism: "Well, you need to work on your posture and staying on the beat, and staying in tune, and your articulation, and your tone, and your vibrato and... basically everything." Message received. Enthusiasm gone. (Let's just put on fascist costumes and be a halftime show.)

I remember waiting for class to start, sitting in the hard plastic chair in the band room, blowing aimless air through the big brass body, not letting the reed vibrate, just listening to the gentle rushing. I remember clicking the keys and getting to know their individual sounds - this one a click, that one a thump - and noticing how the timbre of even this atonal air was changed by lifting my fingers and pressing them down again. And most of all, I remember wishing I could find my own voice, but instead forcing myself to stay inside the lines so no one would notice how awful I was.

When I graduated from high school, my saxophone collected dust in the closet of my childhood bedroom, which had become a graveyard for toys, books and other mementos from my unhappy schooldays. I went to college to earn a teaching degree, discovered electronic music and hip-hop and began obsessively making music from samples, eventually adding various silver and black boxes. (I've been told those machines make it possible for "non-musicians" to make music. But wouldn't the act of making music mean that they they are... never mind.)

I only started playing the saxophone again when I discovered Ornette Coleman. What inspired me wasn't just his music (brilliant, emotional and nourishing as it is). I was inspired by stories of jazz pundits and purists with batons up their butts calling Coleman a charlatan, smugly deriding his work as random and un-technical, even violently attacking him (Max Roach did this, seriously) because they thought he sucked. Ornettle Coleman said "There is no single right way to play jazz." If the way Ornette Coleman plays is wrong, then being right is for assholes.

I once had an argument with an insufferable college classmate (now employed, presumably, as a high school band teacher). I suggested that while there are certain skills that are useful in making music, we could also, alongside those, teach kids to find their own voice. There's no wrong way to play music, after all, and you can't objectively say that some music is superior to other music.

She retorted, dismissive, that there is a wrong way, and yes you can say that some music is objectively superior. I assume she meant the powdered-wig cannon - they don't teach ragas in high school (too brown) and they sure don't encourage funkiness (too black). Snapping, she announced that she knew all about this stuff and I didn't. "And we're done talking about it," she said.

I wasn't done talking about it, though, and I don't think I ever will be. Are you keeping alive an art form you love, music teacher? Or are you unable to distinguish between resuscitation and taxidermy?

A few weeks ago, a Canadian label called Constellation (you know them as a post-rock epicenter) put out this album by saxophonist Colin Stetson. It's the middle part of a trilogy tethered around a compelling narrative that Mr. Stetson hopes to adapt as an accompanying graphic novel. Most of the album's compositions are pieces for unaccompanyed saxophone - alto, tenor and bass.

You can find a lot of information online about the process used to make this record (first takes, a thousand microphones) but the maestro himself said in a recent interview that he "would like for people to appreciate the album musically whether they knew how it was made or not." It's pretty cool that he thought to put a contact mic on his throat, but what really matters is how thrilling this music is. It is knock-me-out powerful.

We've heard unaccompanied winds players before. Anthony Braxton's revered For Alto is the example most often cited, but Jimmy Giuffre, Albert Mangelsdorff and Lester Bowie have all done it. And it wasn't always pretty music. They played their instruments the wrong way. (Check out Roscoe Mitchell's Sound to hear an embryonic Art Ensemble of Chicago - Bowie included - doing things with instruments that get band stuidents sent out in the hall.) Colin Stetson's musical Aufhebung builds on that tradition (can you imagine a beautiful world somewhere where Anthony Braxton's music is considered traditional?) and carves a daring new trail. Often, the booming bellow of a bass saxophone is all the bulldozer he needs.

Colin Stetson is finding beauty in the sounds that I tried to suppress during my ill-fated formal training on an instrument. The tapping of keys – clicks and thumps – that fascinated me are employed brilliantly here. This is music I could never have dreamed of making, but I wish I could have.

Though there are respites, much of this music is sonically destructive. I love this, in no small part because I am at a point in my life when destruction is beginning to take on positive connotations. The collapsing of structures and of meaning is a caving-in but also an opening-up. I am beginning to see stable philosophies as spiritual death, and the only escape from them, as far as I can see, is a kind of intellectual kenosis. It’s lonely out on that cracking limb, like playing the saxophone all by yourself, but this desolation is every bit as provisional as the monuments crumbled behind us. I can hear that in this music. (There are shades of Albert Ayler's music, turning abrasive sax sounds into spiritual catharsis.)

During "Judges" Stetson's voice writhes through his horn crushed by the tapping of keys and the reedy cycle of notes around it, and what I hear is anguish. Anguish is not incompatible with hope, though. They're kissing cousins and any good gospel singer knows that. Stetson says that particular piece "specifically speaks to the themes of this record — those being isolation and the pendulum swing between fear and transcendence" and that "all of the music in this series is my attempt at creating a personal gospel canon, not out of dogma, but rather from the human experience alone."

This makes perfect sense to me, but in case it wasn't clear enough, Stetson brings Shara Worden aboard for an honest-to-G-d gospel song ("I Just Can't Keep from Crying Sometimes") that you might have heard before. It's perfect here. People forget how terrifying gospel music is and should be. It's about anguish and death and mystery. Comfortable people can't have gospel music, (though they can keep what passes for it in their glitzed-up mega churches) and every now and then we need to snatch it back and let it howl.

People on the internet want to call this one of the best albums of the year but that's pointless, not because it's only March, but because this music is too adventurous, nourishing and powerful to be dropped into someone's dumb contest. It's not a sport. Just let this be amazing. Let it mean something to you. That something might be different for you and for me and for Colin Stetson, but there is no single right way to respond to this.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

EMBRYO: Steig Aus

Embryo - Steig aus

According to the liner notes in the 2004 reissue, the music on this album was recorded in 1971-72 for a label that refused to release it. Too lengthy, too interested in “ethno-fusion”. Record companies are stupid sometimes. Christian Burchard, the drummer, sold the tapes to a little label called Brain Records and they released it soon after. Now it’s regarded by many as a canonical Krautrock classic.

Krautrock’s psychedelic Teutonic trance is one of the most insular genres in music geekery, and while NEU! 75 is one of my favorite albums, and I like Can, Faust, Amon Duul II and Kraftwerk, so far I’ve really only scratched this genre’s surface. There is, thankfully, a contingent of record hounds that focuses deeply on narrow avenues like this, tracking down positively everything, and I’m glad they’re around to dig through the mountains of forgotten recordings, sorting chaff from wheat and boiling it down to a Beginner’s Guide. (It must be a full-time job –becoming a leading expert on Afrobeat or Chicago House or something. I’ve often wondered how these specialists find time for variety.)

So I’ve been told that beyond the aforementioned staples, Embryo is the place to start digging deeper. Curiously, this album (reputed as one of their best) is a bit afield from what I imagine as “Krautrock”. The Motorik rhythms you expect are supplanted and augmented by tricky, spastic drumming (including hand-drums) and the bass is fluid and always moving. Embryo are remarkably funky - I’d be shocked if I found out no one has ever sampled the first fifteen seconds of “Call”.

Embryo despised commercialism and embraced expert musicianship and spontaneity, relying on first takes, few (if any) overdubs and a frequently-changing line-up. Listening to Steig Aus, the spontaneity is obvious. After the pretty into (complete with a sample from Moroccan radio), “Orient Express” has all the wah-guitars and a rubbery bass and chugging organ you’d expect from a good old fashioned jam session. I hate the phrase “jam session” because it makes me think of stoned white guys playing blues licks for a tedious eternity (followed around the country, no doubt, by admirers in vans adorned with tie-dye teddy bears). Embryo doesn’t sink too deeply into that “crunchy groove, mahhhhhn” quagmire, thanks to their chops and ability to listen to each other, but this track still isn’t particularly dynamic. Everyone just kind of freaks out.

“Dreaming Girls is a big step up; moodier, more spacious. The music breathes and builds. For me, though, the album’s highlights are the complex drums-and-marimba section and Edgar Hoffman’s ensuing violin terror in the closing “Call”.

Percussion instruments and rhythms picked up on the bands travels through Africa are sprinkled in, tantalizing, but are never pursued as much I would like. There are little percussion breakdowns here that could go on and on and I wouldn’t complain. Maybe I’m a sucker for drums. I’d just rather hear rattling layers of percussion than rocking-out organ, but that’s just me.

The three tracks here are sequenced to give you a sense of wandering farther and farther away from home. I like that. I don’t know if this will satiate your Krautrock cravings, exactly, depending on what you expect, but it’s an enjoyable release from musicians who are obviously very talented.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

TEEBS: Ardour

Teebs - Ardour
The usual criticism thrown at everything put out by Brainfeeder, the California-based label headed by Flying Lotus, is "It sounds just like Flying Lotus." Copying Flying Lotus is so hip, even Radiohead is doing it these days, but Teebs is taking a few cautious steps in his own direction. Listen to Flying Lotus' Los Angeles. Did you feel that basement claustrophobia? Hit your head on that rusty pipe? Were you astral-travelling in the dark? Teebs, in contrast, is all daylight, open windows and comfy armchairs.

Ardour sounds like music designed to accompany reading, which is the best and worst thing about it. I love records that wrap around you like a blanket, as this one certainly does, but I also expect that music will be able to function also as the object of a close, engaged listen. And that's where Teebs could stand to improve.

These tracks are remarkably, almost admirably static. It takes a lot of confidence to allow your music to remain this austere, and the absence of sudden shifts or contrasting dynamics focuses the listener’s attention on the compelling textures created by Teebs’ laptop-mangled samples. I like, for example, the juxtaposition of crystal-clear samples with lo-fi, musty counterparts (see "While You Dooo" for reference).

This close attention also exposes the music's flaws, however, so a music-blogger's gotta nitpick. For every two or three details that work, there's one that doesn't. Example: "Arthur's Birds" is too long and marred by amateurish use of dynamic over-compression that makes the shimmering chords dip with every kickdrum hit, pumping obnoxiously like someone fiddling with the volume constantly when you're trying to listen to something pretty. The same thing Happens on "Felt Tip."

For the most part, these tracks are too short and disconnected for the album to succeed as ambient headphones music, but too swaying and quiet to really hold my attention. It’s an awkward middle ground. Nearly every track has something that will make you say “Oh, that’s cool” right before your mind drifts back to grocery shopping or the weather or other music. Not a good sign.

The best stuff is fantastic, like the romantic soar of "My Whole Life" or the gentlebreezefeel of the appropriately titled "Wind Loop." Honestly, I love the basic approach Teebs takes throughout, even if this isn't as fully-realized as I would hope. I'm eager to see where he goes from here. The nice thing about labels like Brainfeeder is their willingness to let artists develop rather than dropping them right away if the debut isn’t a smash-hit. Teebs is giving us something to look forward to.

Monday, March 14, 2011

BILL COSBY: Badfoot Brown & The Bunions Braford Funeral & Marching Band

Bill Cosby - Badfoot Brown & The Bunions Bradford Funeral Marching Band
I can say without reservation that this album rules. Do you like jazz? Do you like funk? Do you like things that are awesome? If so…

I love the warm, slightly murky production and the heavy, deep soul this band brings to the plate. Bill Cosby (who, incidentally, was also known to moonlight as a comedian) directed this intrepid band (credited on the LP jacket as "assorted mysterious musicians") through two albums in the early 1970s. This first one is from 1971. The liner notes cite Miles Davis (especially his "latest ventures" – which would have included the superlative Bitches Brew, A Tribute to Jack Johnson and Live-Evil) as the main influence, along with Mingus, Duke, and Gil Evans.

It's the Miles Davis influence that matters most. We're treated here to a pair of side-long compositions (not unlike Jack Johnson or the first disc of Bitches Brew) constructed from long vamping takes pieced together via tape edits (the liner notes mention that this band is unlikely to appear in person because "this is a recording band. There are too many things to set off, to isolate, to edit down, so that it sounds like what I want it to sound like.") Repetition and groove are the key; ostinato bass and layered percussion provide a churning bed for open, Wayne-Shorterish sax lines, slinking guitar and Cosby's twinkling electric piano.

The first side is "Martin’s Funeral", Martin being MLK. Cosby's liner notes describe the funeral procession for the assassinated civil right leader, and how the long slow walk took on different shades; hostile, conversational, depressed. An elegiac four-chord vamp, (which some of you may have heard elsewhere), cycles around for that slow walk, interrupted by ominous percussion breakdowns or blurred by the twitching of dissonant guitars. Program music usually doesn't work too well in a jazz-funk setting, (no time for tone painting, we gotta vamp and blow!) but the picture is vivid here, and the music is sad or hopeful or whatever, depending on the moment or the listener's present predisposition.

"Hybish Shybish" allows the gang to rock out a bit more. Cosby’s chops ain't bad, and the group is loose and daring. Listen for that electrifying harmonica! That acoustic/electric piano duet! The rolling and tumbling congas and cowbells!

It's a shame there was only one follow-up to this album, an almost identically-titled record that came out soon after. I'm keeping my eyes open for that one.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

RUFUS HARLEY: A Tribute to Courage

Rufus Harley - Tribute To Courage
So here’s something I’m a sucker for: funky soul/jazz laid confidently down by total pros cutting loose. It’s 1967 and Rufus Harley is recording his third album for Atlantic Records. He’s got a vision, he’s got a great lineup of players, and he’s got his set of bagpipes.

And there’s another thing for which your humble narrator is a born-every-minute: unconventional instrumentation in jazz. You know those beautiful Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane records where the harp becomes the funkiest thing known to man? Who would have guessed? If that can work, I don’t see why the bagpipes are any different.

And Rufus delivers, right? On the eye-bulging opener “Sunny” it is pure joy to hear him charge through those funky congas, piano, bass and drums like a bleating badass. That particular song has a bouncing-around-the-room quality I can’t resist. Excellent. Well-played, gentlemen. Off to a great start.

Next up, the title track opens like a rousing spiritual-jazz hymn (complete with “Yes, Lord!”) and you wouldn’t be surprised to hear Alice Coltrane drop in for a bit with her shimmering harp. That doesn’t happen, though. This is a Rufus Harley album, so it’s a solo on the bagpipes. And here’s the first sign of trouble: The notes are perfectly selected and the accompaniment is dynamic and sympathetic, but bagpipes are simply incapable of anything resembling vibrato or dynamics. Notes trail off until a sudden stop or a leap into the next note and every one is blasted out with an identical timbre. It’s actually kind of a relief when the pipes take a rest and Oliver Collins delivers a skillful piano solo.

The following rendition of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” is kind of middling. “Amazing Grace” is so often played by kilt-wearing bagpipers, so why not this one? Rufus Harley makes it work pretty well, against all odds, but I’m not requesting it for my Viking funeral.

The second half of the record is actually stronger than the first, in no small part because Harley puts down the pipes to pick up some woodwinds. He’s really good! “Ali” swings and pops around a slightly cluttered but very soulful flute solo. “X” winds around a spazzing, staccato sax line, and “About Trane” is a worthy tribute to the oft-tributed Saint John of the Tenor. It's all classic stuff - not quite A Love Supreme, but what is?

I feel bad saying it, but this album’s big draw is a pretty ineffective gimmick. When an employee at Detroit’s People’s Records (tangent: people who work in record stores are usually insufferable snobs, but the fine gentlemen at People’s Records should be commended for their kindness and impeccable recommendations) excitedly told me about Rufus Harley, two things stood out: a) Rufus was compared to Dorothy Ashby (prompting a mental “yes, please” from this eager jazzophile) and b) “BAGPIPES!”

As good as it is, there isn't a lot to distingush this record from thousands like it other than the bagpipes, and they are the weakest link. Kudos to Rufus Harley for blazing his own trail. That’s something I admire. And the bagpipe performances here are far from a failure, they are just not as exciting as the music he makes when he chooses a more conventional axe. The bagpipes are the least expressive instrument designed by human hands.

For those keeping score: The opening track and all of side two are terrific. Keep an eye peeled for a copy of this album, just don’t scale Kilimanjaro for it.