April 20, 2015

Playlist Week of 2015-04-18

* Rabih Abou-Khalil: Roots & Sprouts (Enja CD)
* Imaginary Landscapes: New Electronic Music (Elektra/Nonesuch CD)
* Patrick Demenga/Thomas Demenga: Lux aeterna (ECM CD)
* Pat Metheny/Dave Holland/Roy Haynes: Question And Answer (Geffen LP)
* Trevor Watts & Veyran Weston: The Emma Bistro, Nashville, TN 2015-04-11 (AUD WAV)
* Susan Alcorn: The Emma Bistro, Nashville, TN 2015-04-11 (AUD WAV)
* St. Germain: Tourist (Blue Note 2LP)
* Shuggie Otis: Introducing Shuggie Otis (Columbia LP) †/‡
* Frank Ocean: Channel Orange (Island/Def Jam CD) †/‡
* Grateful Dead: Dave’s Picks Vol.13: Winterland 2/24/74 (selections) (GDP/Rhino 3HDCD)
* Van Morrison: Saint Dominic’s Preview (Polydor CD)
* Van Morrison: Common One (Warner Bros. CD)
* Linda Perhacs: Parallelograms (Kapp/Sundazed LP)
* Linda Perhacs: The Soul of All Natural Things (Asthmatic Kitty LP) (†)
* Tangerine Dream: Tangents 1973-1983 (Virgin 5CD)
* Steven Halpern & Suru: Afro-Desia (Open Channel/Inner Peace CD)
* Steve Roach & Robert Rich: Soma (Hearts of Space CD)
* Robert Rich & Lisa Moskow: Yearning (Hearts of Space CD)
* Ultravox: The Collection (Chrysalis LP)
* Sleep: Sleep’s Holy Mountain (Earache LP)
* Mew: Frengers (Sony CD)
* Minsk: The Ritual Fires of Abandonment (Relapse/Bandcamp ALAC) †
* Minsk: With Echoes in the Movement of Stone (Relapse/Bandcamp CD) (†)
* Minsk: The Crash & The Draw (Relapse 2LP)
* Locrian: The Crystal World (Utech/Bandcamp ALAC) †
* Liturgy: The Ark Work (Thrill Jockey 2LP) (†)
* Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats: Blood Lust (Metal Blade LP)
* Sòlstafir: Óta (Season Of Mist 2LP)
* Lower Dens: Escape From Evil (Ribbon Music LP) (†)
* Kiasmos: Kiasmos (Erased Tapes 2LP)
* Ryley Walker: Primrose Green (Dead Oceans LP) (†)



Following up on my last post, after Susan Alcorn’s sublime solo set, the legendary saxophone/piano duo of Trevor Watts and Veyran Weston took the stage. Mr. Watts is, of course, a seminal figure in the British jazz and free improvisation scene, being a founding member of The Spontaneous Music Ensemble and the London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra in the 1960s and ‘70s. His association with Veyran Weston dates back to the 1980s and the formation of the Moiré Music ensemble and they released their first duo recording, 6 Dialogues, on Emanem in 2002. Since then, the pair has toured the world, concertizing and giving workshops. I regretted missing their last visit to Nashville a couple years ago, so was extremely grateful for another opportunity to see these amazing musicians in action.

They played three freely improvised pieces over the course of an hour—which seemed to fly by in an instant—with Watts concentrating on his signature, spiraling soprano saxophone and occasionally moving to the more throaty tenor. Meanwhile, Weston’s piano provided an insistent and wildly inventive accompaniment, abounding with driving rhythms, multi-voiced counterpoint and subtly shifting harmonies. While the sheer virtuosity on display was truly mind-blowing, what really impressed me was how deeply connected they were at every moment. These are two people who have been playing music together for many years and have, over that time, developed a highly evolved, very personal vocabulary. If, as Susan Alcorn suggests, “music exists in the mind,” then what we witnessed last Saturday was the kind of “mind meld” possible in free improvisation. What we heard in our heads was transcendent music.

The Emma Bistro is a fantastic venue for this kind of music: spacious and inviting with a warm, slightly reverberant acoustic and extra-comfy, oversized sofas and chairs. Kudos to Chris Davis, Brady Sharp, and FMRL Arts for putting on such an amazing event! Thanks also to Kevin Reilly at Relative Pitch Records for putting me in touch with Susan Alcorn. What a great evening it was!

April 18, 2015

Susan Alcorn - The Emma Bistro, Nashville 2015-04-11

I was listening to NPR in the car recently and I heard composer Philip Glass say something that really got me thinking. He described being asked by a student, “What is music?”  And he replied (without having really thought about it before), “Music is place, a place where musicians go.” This reminded me of my time playing in a band and we would often talk about “going to that other, better place” when the music was really cooking. When it felt like we were communicating telepathically, at the speed of sound, we were seemingly living and breathing in another world, one of freedom and inerrant harmony—but only as long as the music lasted. As soon as the last vibration dissipated, we were back on earth and all its intractable difficulties.

What about the listener, though? The non-musician? Is this place called music accessible to them? Glass’s formulation seems to exclude the audience: the musician goes to this special place and the listener hears the result.  As a musician myself, I can attest that playing music is a very different experience than listening to it. Moreover, it is impossible for me to hear music as a non-musician does because I am constantly analyzing how it’s made—I can’t avoid it. For better or worse, I cannot un-know what I know. You know what I mean?  So, then what does a non-musician hear when listening to music? I have no idea.

I was reminded of this when I read an interview with pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn where she said, “I think that music exists solely in the mind. We take the sounds around us, musical and otherwise, and we as listeners create the structure that allows us to experience this in a meaningful way as ‘music.’” In this definition, Alcorn privileges the audience over the musician: “When I am performing, it is the audience, the listener, which is taking the bits and pieces of what I put out and making it into something that hopefully has a personal meaning for them.” Glass is correct to say that music is a “place”—but we all go there in our minds, musicians and listeners together.

To be sure, everyone was transported to that other better world during Alcorn’s solo set at The Emma Bistro last Saturday evening. She coaxed outrageous sounds from the instrument: her left knee moving levers, both feet pressing the several pedals (including the ever-crucial volume pedal, which she played barefoot), while picks and slides glided over the multiple strings. It was incredible to watch—but also deeply moving. Like many other audience members, I could only close my eyes and revel in the beautiful music. Her set opened with the meditative “Heart Sutra” followed by “And I Await The Resurrection of the Pedal Steel Guitar”, a tour de force of extended techniques inspired by hearing Olivier Messiaen’s “Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum” on the radio on the way to a country/western gig. Touching stories of a trip to Argentina and the death of her father prompted gorgeous interpretations of Astor Piazzolla’s “Adiós Nonino” and “Invierno Porteño”, both of which later found their way onto Soledad, her latest CD on Relative Pitch Records. Closing with “The Healer” (an original composition dedicated to her acupuncturist), Alcorn playfully quoted Curtis Mayfield’s gospel-soul classic, “People Get Ready,” which drew knowing smiles from the audience. As the last sighing note decayed into silence, it seemed we could perhaps stay in that other, better world forever.

Afterwards, I asked her about music being a place—one that, as she put it, exists only the mind. “Of course, I cannot know what is going on your brain,” she said. “But John Cage showed that we can choose to hear any sound as a piece of music—or not.” Then she added, “Playing Piazzolla’s music is like being in his mind, though. I feel his emotions—they are not my emotions.” Regarding her years playing country music, she revealed her frustration: “Some people thought I was out to destroy the instrument—I got death threats.” Although she bravely went her own way into the realm of free improvisation, she retains an enormous affection for the music. “Doing anything well is difficult and sometimes the simple things are the most difficult to do really well.” She added, “Country music is like haiku. Add a syllable and it’s no longer haiku. It may be good and interesting, but it’s not haiku.” As we heard on Saturday at The Emma Bistro, Susan Alcorn is a musical poet and a true original.

April 13, 2015

Playlist Week of 2015-04-11

* Biber: Missa Christi Resurgentis (English Concert/Manze) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* Messiaen: Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum (Cleveland/Boulez) (DG CD)
* Alphonse Mouzon: The Man Incognito (Blue Note LP)
* Stomu Yamashta’s Go: Go Too (Island LP)
* Tord Gustavsen Trio: Changing Places (ECM CD)
* Susan Alcorn: Curandera (Uma Sounds MP3) †
* Susan Alcorn: Soledad (Relative Pitch CD)
* Ellery Eskelin/Susan Alcorn/Michael Formanek: Mirage (Clean Feed CD)
* Kris Davis Trio: Waiting For You To Grow (Clean Feed CD)
* King Sunny Adé: Synchro System (Mango/Island LP)
* King Sunny Adé: Aura (Island LP)
* King Sunny Adé: Nightstage, Cambridge, MA 1987-05-06 (AUD WAV)
* D’Angelo & The Vanguard: Black Messiah (RCA 2LP)
* John Fahey: Railroad I (Takoma LP)
* Tim Buckley: Tim Buckley (Elektra LP)
* Tim Buckley: Lorca (Elektra LP)
* Ryley Walker: The West Wind (Tomkins Square EP)
* Ryley Walker: Primrose Green (Dead Oceans LP) (†/‡)
* The Hello People: Fusion (Philips LP)
* Joyride: Friendsound (RCA LP)
* It’s A Beautiful Day: Marrying Maiden (Columbia LP)
* Deep Purple: The Book Of Taliesin (Tetragramaton LP)
* West, Bruce & Lang: Why Dontcha? (Columbia LP)
* Blood Sweat & Tears: Blood Sweat & Tears (Columbia LP)
* Fresh: Fresh Out Of Borstal (RCA LP)
* Tangerine Dream: Alpha Centauri (Virgin/Relativity LP)
* Stardrive: Stardrive Featuring Robert Mason (Columbia LP)
* Zephyr: Zephyr (ABC/Probe LP)
* Tommy Bolin: Teaser (Nemperor LP)
* Tommy Bolin: Private Eyes (Columbia LP)
* The Tom Tom Club: Close To The Bone (Sire LP)
* Steven Halpern: Inner Peace (Open Channel/Inner Peace CD)
* Steven Halpern: Serenity Suite (Open Channel/Inner Peace CD)
* Steven Halpern & The Hot Chakra Band: Deja-Blues (Open Channel/Inner Peace CD)
* Steve Roach: Dreaming…Now, Then: A Retrospective 1982-1997 (Celestial Harmonies 2CD)
* Liturgy: The Ark Work (Thrill Jockey 2LP)
* Minsk: The Crash & The Draw (Relapse 2LP)



I'm still getting my thoughts together regarding Saturday night -- it was amazing! I'll be uploading a separate post later this week so please stay tuned.

April 10, 2015

Susan Alcorn : Soledad (Relative Pitch Records) (2015)

When I first heard of Susan Alcorn, my initial response was incredulousness: pedal steel guitar in an avant-garde jazz context? Impossible! But when I put on her new CD on Relative Pitch Records, I was swept away from the very first note. Consisting of four compositions by Astor Piazzolla performed solo (plus a duo improvisation with bassist Michael Formanek), Soledad is a sonic revelation.

The pedal steel guitar is horrifically complicated to play, with its pedals and knee bars enabling (requiring!) the performer to change the tuning of multiple strings simultaneously—the 3D chess of musical instruments. Combined with a metal slide and a variety of picks, an infinite sound world of pitch and tone color is available—though it is the weeping chords and swooping glissandos that define its idiomatic role in country music. Alcorn has certainly paid her dues on the boot-scooting circuit but she has taken it exponetially further by introducing alternate tunings and extended techniques to create uniquely personal and expressive music on this most difficult of instruments.

Along with a love of South American tango, Alcorn also draws on a diverse range of musical influences, including jazz, modern classical (notably, the avian sonorities of Olivier Messiaen), the Japanese koto, South Indian ragas and East Asian gamelan. And while her technique is truly astonishing—lightning fast single-note runs, complex multi-part polyphony, and otherworldly sounds and textures—there is a meditative calm at the center of the music. This points to her work with Pauline Oliveros and the “Deep Listening” project as well as her deep respect for the instrument’s roots in the vernacular. 

While the music on Soledad is as challenging and “avant-garde” as anything else on the Relative Pitch label, it is also a sublimely beautiful record: inviting and accessible yet also wildly creative and inventive. Frankly, I have never heard anything quite like it—and now I'm on the lookout for the rest of her discography. Most highly recommended!


Susan Alcorn will be performing a solo set here in Nashville tomorrow, April 11 at The Emma Bistro. Headlining the event will be the extraordinary duo of Trevor Watts (saxophone) and Veyran Weston (piano) in a rare stateside appearance. Believe me, this lineup is not to be missed!