Monday, January 18, 2016

Just a few thoughts on Muhal Richard Abrams as I wend my way through my recordings.

I think the first time I heard him was as a guest artist on the wonderful Art Ensemble recording, "Fanfare for the Warriors" (recorded in 1973, released in 1974), though I'd seen references to him before. At that point only his first two records, "Levels and Degrees of Light" and "Young at Heart, Wise in Time" had been released and Delmark records were a bit tough to come by in Poughkeepsie. He stood out a good bit on that Art Ensemble session and perhaps even more on Marion Brown's beautiful "Sweet Earth Flying", which may still contain my favorite recorded example of his playing, his solo feature on "Part 5".

I saw him once prior to moving to NYC, as part of the incredible Braxton quintet I had the great fortune to see at the Tin Palace in the summer of 1976, with George Lewis, Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall (still my single favorite Braxton group, possibly a one-time only performance?) and may have heard "Sightsong", his wonderful duo with Malachi Favors, by then but I certainly saw him often once I was ensconced in New York. I can only recall one occasion when he played Environ (a solo concert), though I may well be forgetting something. He did often come around to concerts though and once in a while would simply hang out in the space. In a few such instances, I had the enormous good fortune to engage in several conversations with Muhal, events I cherish. He was always gracious but also very forthright in his opinions, including subjects such as white musicians playing jazz. "I could go to Ireland," he once said, "and study the Irish jig. I could stay there for twenty years and, eventually, become a really good Irish jig dancer. But I'd never be as good as an Irishman." I saw him perform elsewhere quite often in various other capacities as leader and sideman, including some AACM-organized events at the Center for Ethical Culture. It was always a joy to encounter him at such shows, whether he was on stage or in the audience. The respect accorded him by any musician in the house was always evident. You also got the strong impression of a real family guy, his wife and daughter often accompanying him and/or involved in the concert organization.

As with the great majority of musicians in this music, my taste runs strongly to his earlier work. Those first two Delmark recordings are wonderful as is much of the music on the rather grab bag "Things to Come from Those Now Gone", especially "March of the Transients", one of my favorite AACM-involved pieces ever ( "Afrisong", a solo recording originally issued on India Navigation (also on Why Not?, I think) is lush and beguiling and the aforementioned "Sightsong" is a long-time favorite, not the least for the incredible Favors solo, "Way Way Way Down Yonder". A few other duo releases have their merits as well, including the Arista session with Braxton (Duets 1976), "Duet" with Amina Claudine Myers (Black Saint, 1981) and the lesser known "Roots of Blue" with Cecil McBee (I believe the only record ever issued under Abrams' own label, RPR, in 1986). On the other hand, "Lifelong Ambitions", where he's paired with Leroy Jenkins, rarely gels. I'd also mention another great participatory work, issued under Roscoe Mitchell's name, "The Roscoe Mitchell Quartet" (Sackville, 1975).

Abrams seemed to have a kind of split personality with regard to musical "camps". On the one hand there was work like most of the above mentioned, steeped in jazz and blues, extended outward; for me, this is decidedly his strength. On the other, there was a tendency toward drier, more academic music, more "European" if you will, ironic in light of that statement on Irish culture. It's an interest shared with Mitchell, Braxton and Lewis among others and, I've no doubt, would be defended by them on various grounds among which would be the contention that any charge of academicism would be an over-simplification of the reality and I'm sure that's true to one extent or the other. Nonetheless, at day's end, that's the impression I'm left with. Beginning in the late 70s, Abrams released a number of albums (first on Arita Novus, then predominantly on Black Saint), often involving large ensembles, which fell into an oddly predictable pattern: several abstract pieces, "third stream", if you will and one bluesy/jazzy composition. Inevitably, I'd find the latter quite enjoyable, the former less so. I doggedly followed along for a good while, however, I think up until "One Line, Two Views" (New World, 1995) at which point I gave up. So I may well have missed some fine music subsequently.

Muhal is 85 years old now and I hope he sticks around for a good long time. It will be a sad, sad day when he passes. Via his music and his fundamental involvement in the formation of the AACM, he is, to my mind, one of the most important musicians of the 20th century, really still too little recognized. Thanks for all the beautiful music, Mr. Abrams.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Thinking about it over the last couple of days, I'm guessing that the last death of someone associated with rock, allowing as broad a definition as you wish, that will have had a great effect on me will turn out to be that of Don Van Vliet in 2010. Richie Havens in 2013 was also very sad but his music, as much as I enjoyed it, made a less lasting impression.

The recent run of passings, beginning with Lemmy and concluding (thus far) with David Bowie, which included the non-rockish figures of Paul Bley and Pierre Boulez, left me largely unmoved or, I should say, no more or less moved than my feelings for the 40 Iranians killed as a result of a suicide bombing mission on the same day as Bowie's death, the reporting of which on BBC America news had to wait until 15 minutes of Bowie coverage and commentary had ended. Because, you know, they're just Iranians. Of course, this is all a matter of personal taste and history but it was interesting to me that those rock musicians who had a very strong effect on me as a youngster seem to have pretty much disappeared. I could be missing someone, but thinking on it, the list of persons aged, say, 60 or more that I care about at all was pretty thinly populated. Eno? Sure, for his early work (including especially the pop albums) but if he's released anything since about 1980 that I go back to at all, I can't think of it. Robert Wyatt? Again, I appreciate and admire him enough, though not nearly as much as many. Actually, thinking of him and his tenure in Soft Machine (a very influential band on yours truly while in high school) caused me to look up Mike Ratledge a) to see if he was still alive and b) to learn what, if anything, he'd been up to recently; he is and the results weren't so encouraging. The Roche sisters? Sure, for the first album--that remains meaningful enough that I'd be a bit sad were one or more of them to pass. John Cale? Ginger Baker? Dylan and Joni Mitchell have been brought up recently and while the former's "Highway 61 Revisited" and the latter's "Blue" were each important recordings for my teenage self, it's been so long since I cared at all about their music that I think I'd just tip my cap and move on.

Even though I've also only listened to portions of their work over the past 15-20 years, I'll be far, far more greatly moved by the deaths of Cecil Taylor, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Joseph Jarman and others. They mattered so much more to me than any rock musician, no comparison. Again, just personal history and I don't mean to be snippish, but part of me was a bit ticked when (hardly unexpectedly) Bowie's death received massively greater coverage than, say, that of Ornette Coleman last year. To be expected in the major media, of course, a bit more disappointing to see similar proportions in my fb feed.

Old fart gripe over.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

I've told this story before but what the hell.

Some five years ago I went to see the Golden Palominos at Poisson Rouge in NYC (the only time I've been to the place, in fact). I hadn't listened to them in quite a while--I don't think they'd had any releases out since Dead Inside from 1996, a very underrated disc, imho, btw--and wasn't really expecting much but I'd been something of a fan since their first self-titled record from 1983 which I imagine I picked up because of the presence of Laswell, Zorn and, to be sure, an acquaintance of mine from Vassar, Roger Trilling (who went on to do some work with the Enemy label and also Herbie Hancock). Anyway, I enjoyed it quite a bit at the time (still do) but more surprising was how much I liked the follow-up, "Visions of Excess", given its explicitly rock-like atmosphere, which I had little time for then, more so with regard to Fier's drumming, the kind of pounding I'm normally not very fond of (I think the record was dedicated to John Bonham) but, you know, exception proves the rule and I really had no problem with his work. More, the record was really solid, ranging from fairly approachable pieces to more severe ones like 'Only One Party' and 'The Animal Speaks', the latter penned by one Robert Kidney about whom I knew nothing and, indeed, assumed to be a pseudonym.

Despite the horribleness of the next record, "Blast of Silence", I stuck with the Goldens. There'd occasionally be a semi-decent release (as said, I think there's a lot of good material on "Dead Inside", almost entirely courtesy Nicole Blackman) but by and large, I wasn't all that interested. Still, though the idea of a reunion concert piqued my interest somewhat, I likely wouldn't have attended were it not for the presence of the wonderful Wingdale Community Singers also on the bill, who were fantastic (thanks, Nina, David, Rick!)

So, my friend and I went to the venue, not my favorite kind of place to hear music and, luckily, poached two of the very few chairs at a tiny table to the right of the stage. At a point during one of the early sets, we noticed a stout, elderly gentleman standing, propped by a cane, near the side of the stage. He looked a bit shaky and my friend was about to offer him her seat when someone closer to him did so and we thought nothing further of it. The Palominos came on, the first five or six songs (iirc) featuring Syd Straw and the music was rather pedestrian, kinda what I expected, chugging along well enough but having no real reason for being there. Then, much to our surprise, we saw that stocky gentleman making his way, hesitantly, up the stairs to the stage where, once ensconced behind the mic, he strapped on a guitar. I think they broke into "The Animal Speaks". Well, it was Kidney, jowls flapping furiously, bellowing and roaring. "Force of nature" is an overused term, but he came pretty close. He did three or four pieces, I think, tearing through them all though, I have to say, the one available on You Tube doesn't quite capture the moment. Maybe my memory is faulty...

So I went home, did some research and soon picked up this recording, recorded live in 1975. And liked it bigly. Listening to it now, it still sounds pretty excellent. For me, they managed to retain the improvisatory nature of the better rock bands of the 60s (one key: Dave Robinson's non-clunky, supple drumming) while adding blunt, dark post-Velvets words (more about the nature of the delivery, perhaps, than the lyrical content). "Animal Speaks" here also incorporates some juicy soul-based horn lines; it's not as savage as the Palominos version, where John Lydon was the vocalist/burper, but chugs along sublimely. And, wonderfully considering this is a live gig, there's no let-up whatsoever as they transition into "About the Eye Game". Indeed, it sounds like an extension of the previous piece, amped up a notch or two. "Narrow Road" is almost as intense, with more of a shuffle feel, also introducing congas and harmonica to great effect. Not so punk in the sense of not eschewing solos; I sometimes think of a bluesier Velvets. The liner notes are by David Thomas and there *is* some adjacency to Pere Ubu but, maybe, a block or two over in the same grimy area of Cleveland. He cites Beefheart and Sun Ra, fair enough. I weirdly pick up vagrant Art Ensemble vibes don't ask me where, maybe the conga and saxophones, something vaguely Bap-Tizum-y going on. The centerpiece is still "Jimmy Bell", a slightly more relaxed, expansive lope with that simple, inevitable descending, five note theme, and the unspooling guitar work it allows. The constant repetition and intensification..."look at the sisters in the corner, look at the sisters in the corner..." all spat out by Kidney, the saxophones allowed free reign, not confined to rockish bursts, the rhythm unrelenting, the warped harmonics of the guitar. It's probably one of my favorite rock performances ever, if you can call it that.

I'm always surprised I don't hear 15 60 75 (often referred to as The Numbers Band) name-checked more often. Weird. On the other hand, I've never gone out and picked up any of their subsequent recordings figuring, perhaps wrongly, that they'd fail to live up to this one. Live videos I've seen from recent years are ok but not terribly inspiring. Recommendations are welcome.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Listing....get it? *ahem*

So, as previously mentioned on facebook, among the many, many fine releases I heard this past year, even though that amount was undoubtably shortened by my decision to cease regular publication mid-year, two stood out for me. Unsurprisingly, one was the magnificent 4-disc duo recording from Keith Rowe and John Tilbury (done to integrate with video work by Kjell Bjørgeengen) on Sofa. It seems to have engendered, as near as I can tell, less discussion and appreciation than I would have thought. Perhaps it has to do with the size/cost of the set but I also think it's actually a really difficult work as well, though hugely rewarding. There's a darkness in play that I think is profound. Keith has referred to in as "late work" which, grim as that title may be, is accurate.

The other release that really bowled me over (reviewed earlier) was Jürg Frey's "string quartet no. 3/unhörbare zeit (Edition Wandelweiser). Frey's music has been astonishing me for a number of years now and I was very pleased, in 2015, to meet him on a couple of occasions and to hear his music performed live for the first time (I think? Though perhaps I'm forgetting an earlier instance).

Following, in no particular order, are most of the other releases I managed to hear last year that I really, deeply enjoyed. Thanks to all the musicians and labels who steered things my way:

Marianne Schuppe - Slow Songs (Edition Wandelweiser)
Common Objects - Whitewashed with Lines (Another Timbre)
Michal Libera/Martin Küchen/Ralf Meinz - Tyto Alba (Bôłt)
Christopher DeLaurenti - To the Cooling Tower (GD Stereo)
Devin DiSanto/Nick Hoffman - Three Exercises (ErstAEU)
Justin Meyers/Jason Lescalleet - The White Page (Glistening Examples)
R. Schwarz - The Scale of Things (Gruenrekorder)
Eric La Casa - Soundtracks (Herbal International)
Rutger Zuydervelt - Sneeuwstorm (Glistening Examples)
Radu Malfatti - Shizuka Ni Furu Ame (B-Boim, with Cristián Alvear)
Kevin Parks/Vanessa Rossetto - Severe Liberties (ErstAEU)
Ryoko Akama - Senu Hima (Melange)
Graham Lambkin/Michael Pisaro - Schwarze Riesenfalter (Erstwhile)
Eric La Casa/Taku Unami - Parazoan Mapping (Erstwhile)
Radu Malfatti - One Man and a Fly (Cathnor)
Klaus Lang - Organ Works, vol. 2 (God)
Michael Pisaro/Cristián Alvear - melody, silence (Potlatch)
Jeph Jerman/Tim Barnes - Matterings (Erstwhile)
Greg Stuart/Ryoko Akama - Kotoba Koukan (Lengua de Lava)
André O. Müller - In Memory of James Tenney (Edition Wandelweiser)
Jürg Frey - Grizzana (Another Timbre)
Diatribes - Great Stone/Blood Dunza (Aussemraum)
Bryan Eubanks/Stéphane Rives - fq (Potlatch)
Rie Nakajima - Four Forms (Consumer Waste)
Cem Güney - Five Compositions (Edition Wandelweiser)
Fraufraulein - Extinguishment (Another Timbre)
Lucio Capece - Epoché (Hideous Replica)
Rutger Zuydervelt (Machinefabriek) - Deining
Alvin Lucier - Dark Matter (God)
Jürg Frey - Circles and Landscapes (Another Timbre)
Chaz Underriner/Anastassis Philippakopoulos - ...reinterprets (Edition Wandelweiser)
Mike Majk(owski) - Bright Astonishment of the Night (Bocian)
Irene Kurka - Beten. Prayer (Edition Wandelweiser)
James Saunders/Apartment House - Assigned #15 (Another Timbre)
Jack Harris - And Neither of us.... (Cathnor)
Takahiro Kawaguchi/Utah Kawasaki - Amorphous Spores (Erstwhile)
Grisha Shakhnes - All This Trouble for Nothing (Glistening Examples)
Eva-Maria Houben - Air - Works for Flutes and Organ (Edition Wandelweiser)
Michael Pisaro - A Mist is a Collection of Points (New World)
Jürg Frey - 24 Wörter (Edition Wandelwesier)
John Cage - 108, 109, 110 (OgreOgress)
John Wall/Alex Rodgers - Work 2011-2014 (Entr'acte)
Marc Baron - Carnets (Glistening Examples)
Joseph Kudirka - Beauty and Industry (Another Timbre)