January 31, 2009

January 25, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Cosmos (Spalax 14561) (1999)
Recorded at Studio Hautefeuille, Paris, France, August 1976
Originally released as Cobra (France) COB 37001 (1976)

According to Robert L. Campbell’s discography (1st ed.), this LP was also issued on Musicdistribution 60005 and Inner City IC 1020 shortly after the original Cobra release. It was first re-issued on compact disc by the French Buda label (82479) but the original CD apparently suffers from a boomingly bass-heavy mix. This 1999 issue on Spalax purports to correct that deficiency - but I’m not so sure; it sounds lopsided still, with prominent electric bass and distant drums. Regardless, this is one of my very favorite Sun Ra records.

The sonic imbalances no doubt have to something to do with the cramped quarters of the recording studio. According to French horn player (!), Vincent Chauncey, the Arkestra was reduced to a core group of twelve musicians for this session due to the limited space (Campbell (1st ed.) p.73). Oh, but what a group! Along with Chauncey, Ra’s faithful stalwarts, John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, Danny Davis, Danny Thompson, Elo Omoe, and Jac Jackson fill out the reed section while Ahmed Abdullah plays sensitive, tasteful trumpet and the incredible Craig Harris virtuosically holds down the trombone chair. The rhythm section consists of R. Anthony Bunn on (nice, but overloud) electric bass, Larry Bright on (barely audible) drums, and, of course, Sun Ra himself on the electric Rocksichord. Caught in the midst of a European tour, the Arkestra sounds well-rehearsed, at the top of their game.

But as great as the band sounds on this date, it is Ra’s electric keyboard that makes this such a delightfully engaging record for me. Throughout the album, Ra’s Rocksichord has this weird, wire-thin, reedy sound quality, upon which he pours some molasses-thick phase-shifter that hisses away incessantly in the background. Now, in anyone else’s hands, this would be unbelievably cheesy, even amateurish. Yet Ra guilelessly tackles the wide variety material and, through his visionary technical abilities, miraculously balances the seemingly limited electronic keyboard textures with the expansive, acoustic Arkestra to create a decidedly strange, but appropriately otherworldly ambience. Ra’s ultra-spacey keyboard turns tracks like “Interstellar Low-Ways,”, “Moonship Journey,” and “Journey Among the Stars” into dreamy, nearly narcotic reveries. Even the more straightforwardly big-band-ish tracks like “The Mystery of Two,” “Neo Project #2,” and the aptly-titled “Jazz From an Unknown Planet” are transformed by Ra’s swooshing, buzzing Rocksichord. The brief title track stands out as a vehicle for another classic John Gilmore solo on tenor saxophone atop an intense Arkestra arrangement, but overall the mood is pretty and mellow and perfect for a Sunday evening.

January 20, 2009

January 18, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

No time to write today, but here's a one minute and twenty-three second clip of Sun Ra attacking his electric organ at some unknown venue in 1980. Wild stuff!

January 17, 2009

Mary Halvorson Trio: Dragon’s Head (Firehouse 12)

Mary Halvorson Trio: Dragon’s Head (Firehouse 12 FH12-04-01-007) (2008)

Mary Halvorson: electric guitar
John Hebert: acoustic bass
Ches Smith: drums

Recorded February 24-25, 2008
Firehouse 12, New Haven, CT

I’ve written effusively about Mary Halvorson before, mostly as a member of Anthony Braxton’s recent ensembles and her work with fellow Braxtonian, Taylor Ho Bynum. But over the past few years, she has made a number of records under her own name, culminating last fall with this superb release on Bynum’s own Firehouse 12 label. Dragon’s Head generated some well-deserved high-profile press, including this generous article in the New York Times. Only twenty-eight years old, Halvorson is already a hugely important player in the avant-music world.

And rightly so. I’ve described Halvorson as the most “complete” guitarist around and what I mean by that is her ability to do (and, more importantly, her willingness to do) everything that can be done with the electric guitar. A guitar is at once a very simple and extremely complicated thing. Most guitarists only aim to accomplish one or two things with the instrument, whether it’s harmonic, melodic, or electronic (and it is seldom all three). Don’t get me wrong, many of the guitarists I dearly love only do a couple things, but they do them really, really well. Halvorson, on the other hand, is in select company because she aims to integrate the entire range of guitaristic possibilities into a unified style: from classical rigor to rocked out distortion, from jazz conventionalism to post-Bailey scumbling and glitchy electronic processing, from folky fingerpicking to the hairpin turns of bebop – all of it subsumed to the purpose of sublime music-making rather than simply showy displays of superfluous technique. This is what makes her a “complete” guitarist and so compelling an artist.

Dragon’s Head further demonstrates Halvorson’s gifts as a composer and each of these ten pieces were written specifically for these musicians. The guitar-bass-drums trio allows for plenty of space for Halvorson to show what she is capable of while Hebert and Smith provide sensitive, intuitive accompaniment. The album opener, “Old Nine Two Six Four Two Dies” starts out sounding a little bit like some of Bill Frisell’s work circa. Gone, Just Like a Train (Nonesuch, 1998) with its loping, quasi-gospel-ish groove. But as things progress, Halvorson’s playing is full of odd and interesting note choices, articulated with an agitated straight-eighth-note edginess that rubs incisively against the swingy, stuttering feel of the rhythm section. The next track, “Momentary Lapse,” immediately demonstrates Halvorson’s command of the electronic aspects of the electric guitar. The piece organically evolves from gentle, ringing chords to full-on raging rock-isms, with effective use of echo/delay, a digital whammy-pedal, and a deliberately shorted-out volume knob to paint a richly textured sound image that reveals the immense orchestral possibilities of the electric guitar. Some of the compositions remind me of Henry Cow and the other “Canterbury” bands with their intricate, stop/start angularity and chamber-music sensibility. At other times, as on “Sank Silver Purple White,” Halvorson’s insistent, dissonant repetitions contrast with Smith’s relentlessly subdivided drumming to remind me a bit of Bill Bruford-era King Crimson. Sometimes Halvorson even rocks out with a Hendrixian fury. But these are just touchstones and an indication that Halvorson’s influences range far beyond the realm of “jazz guitar” – even though her generally pure and dry-as-a-bone tone quality may initially call to mind Jim Hall’s well-behaved traditionalism. Halvorson’s compositional/instrumental identity is all her own, eschewing typical head-solo-head forms and any trace of bluesy cliché. Furthermore, the trio functions more like a band of equals than as simply soloist and support, with plenty of improvisatory freedom for each member to make creative contributions to Halvorson’s engaging compositions. Dragon’s Head succeeds on all levels and is whole-heartedly recommended.

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For an idea of what all the fuss is about, here’s a rather dark, but decent-sounding video of the Mary Halvorson Trio performing “Old Nine Two Six Four Two Dies” at Barbés in Brooklyn, New York on November 12, 2008:

January 12, 2009

Braxton in Moscow

Here's a one minute and three second video from the Braxton Diamond Curtain Wall concert in Moscow on June 29, 2008. This concert was released on CD by Leo Records and I wrote about it here. This snippet comes from near the end of the concert and everyone is in full flight. Wow!

January 11, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Solar Arkestra: Horizon (Art Yard CD08) (2008)

Recorded live at the Ballon Theatre, Cairo, Egypt 12/17/71

The Arkestra’s own Art Yard label continues to make some of the rarest Sun Ra material available with this expanded reissue of Horizon. Portions of this material were originally released on El Saturn 1217718 in Philadelphia, El Saturn 849 in Chicago, and on Thoth Intergalactic 7771, all at various points in the early to mid-1970s and all nearly impossible to find. This CD gathers all the extant recordings from this historic performance at the Ballon Theatre, near the Great Pyramids in Cairo, a suitably cosmic venue for Sun Ra’s band of space travelers.

A trip to Egypt was unplanned, but at the end of the 1971 European tour, Ra decided to sell some concert tapes to Black Lion [FN1] to fund a pilgrimage to the land of the Pharaohs. Thanks to the efforts of Hartmut Geerken, a handful of performances were arranged and, even though the Arkestra’s instruments were held up in customs, loaners were provided by a most unlikely personage:

[Salah Ragab was] a brigadier general and the head of military music in the Egyptian army and himself a jazz drummer. Though he was later disciplined for the contact, he continued to meet with the band under various disguises, including once when he came with the son of [Egyptian President] Gamal Abdel Nasser, also a jazz musician. Musicians and dancers were jammed into the house with several dozen guests, but they still managed a light show and dancing, and a march throughout the house and into the garden (while the Egyptian secret police kept watch from outside). (Szwed p.292-293) [FN2]

This concert is typical for the period, although there’s a certain focus and solemnity to the Arkestra’s demeanor that seems appropriate given the auspicious location. Sun Ra himself is in especially good form with his propulsive piano, spooky “tiger organ,” and hair-raising rocket ship journeys on the Moog synthesizer. “The Shadow World” makes another mysterious appearance with its insanely complicated melodies. “Discipline #8” is especially beautiful with its slowly oscillating two-note riff that subtly anchors the freely dancing drums and powerfully energetic horn solos, duets, and trios. Sing-alongs like “Enlightenment,” “Space is the Place,” and “The Satellites Are Spinning” round things out and feature the angelic voice of June Tyson.

Premises considered, sound quality is pretty good, though not a hi-fi spectacular by any means. Probably recorded from the audience with a single microphone, there’s plenty of ambience but limited frequency response, dynamic range, or soundstage. Fans will, of course, be undeterred by low-fidelity recordings as it comes with the territory. After all, Sun Ra was a trail-blazing pioneer of DIY record production. In fact, that “Saturn Sound” is, for some of us, part of the charm. For others, however, Horizon may be rough going. But as a historical document and a key disc in Sun Ra’s vast discography, this is essential.

[FN1]: Campbell (1st ed.) says these tapes are unreleased. I’m not sure if they have been subsequently made available. Anybody know? (Yes, I need to get the second edition of Campbell’s discography, but it too is woefully out of date at this point).

[FN2]: Some of Salah Rageb’s music can be heard on The Sun Ra Arkestra Meets Salah Ragab in Egypt (Leo/Golden Years GY1, 1999).

Under Construction




As you can see, I have been doing a little redecorating and the place is still kind of a mess. Having updated my template, the blog is now easily customizable and will allow for more multimedia content. I’ve also (finally) successfully installed Google Analytics so I can see if anyone (besides my friends) is actually reading this stuff. Hello? Hello? Is anyone out there? More than that, I intend to devote more space on the blog to simply bookmarking interesting stuff – “Links Instead of Content.” I use my blog as my “homepage” and personal resource. If others are interested, cool!

Actually, I am inspired by my sister’s new book-related-blog and her ability to write so spontaneously yet also so eloquently. (Well, she is an English teacher.) Lord, how I can belabor these meager postings! Perfectionism is anathema to my continued blogging. Even so, I have pretty much kept my goal of averaging one post per week over the past year and I’m hoping the new functionality will allow for more frequent and more diverse kinds of postings in 2009. I’m also going to try to be more relaxed about writing stuff down, even if ultimately wrong-headed and dumb. I’m just a guy with a blog, you know? Who cares? Even though I have strong opinions, I also try to learn from my mistakes and reserve the right to change my mind. The truth is: much of the art I now most value initially repelled me. The friction inherent in the human condition is the source of what little wisdom can be obtained in this lifetime. So, I welcome comments and would cherish the opportunity to engage in dialogue.

I had the exquisite pleasure of spending an afternoon with Sam Byrd on Boxing Day. We had a lovely visit and recorded about an hour’s worth of music in the basement studio. Sadly, my days as a practicing musician are long behind me and my flailing away fell far short of the inspiration I felt to be reunited with my dear old friend and former bandmate. Nevertheless, like everything else, it is what it is and I’m looking into some way to put some tracks up on the blog, just for kicks. There’s tons of stuff in the “archives” that could provide some glimpse into my own music, for whatever it’s worth. Also, as you can see from the picture at the top of the sidebar, I am going to use the blog to host some of my visual artwork (such as it is). The internet is a wonderful (virtual) world. Here’s my little corner.

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Coming up: Sun Ra Sunday!

January 10, 2009

Pavement: Brighten The Corners (Nicene Creedence ed.)

Pavement: Brighten the Corners (Nicene Creedence ed.) (Matador Ole 805)

I was late coming around to Pavement. In 1994, a co-worker, knowing of my long-time enthusiasm for Sonic Youth, lent me Pavement’s first two albums, Slanted and Enchanted (Matador Ole 038, 1992) and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador Ole 079, 1994). I listened to them and enjoyed them well enough, but interpreted the lackadaisical, sunshiny vibe as a measure of their un-seriousness and dismissed them out of hand. Maybe if my friend had lent me Westing By Musket and Sextant (Drag City DC14, 1993), a collection of their early, primitive, noise-drenched singles and EPs, I would have been more receptive. You see, amongst some of my cohorts of the time, non-R&B-based pop music was immediately suspect and only the most outré (that is to say the most unpopular) pop music was deemed acceptable – and then only in small, irony-drenched dosages. Of course, this kind of snobbery is utterly stupid and I regret to say that I succumbed to a kind of aesthetic self-policing that only served to deprive me of a wider range of artistic pleasure. Not surprisingly (and not long after getting married), I eventually drifted away from these particular cohorts and was relieved to find myself free to pursue what I liked (as opposed to merely what I was supposed to like).

So Pavement’s 1995 album, Wowee Zowee (Matador Ole 130) had been garnering a fair amount of press that either declared it an unequivocal masterpiece or a disjointed, failed experiment - or both. Intrigued, I picked up the double-LP and was immediately seduced by the diverse, if crudely fashioned, instrumental textures and Stephen Malkmus’s lilting, cryptic singing. Now, for the most part, I disregard rock lyrics; it is the sound of the music that matters to me, not necessarily what is being sung. There are the obvious exceptions, of course (Bob Dylan, et al.), but Malkmus does something unique. At first blush, his lyrics appear to be words randomly strung together in merely clever euphony, but over time the nonsense strains to cohere into meaning and convey inchoate yet very real emotion. Rather than actual nonsense, Malkmus’s lyrics are, upon closer scrutiny, perhaps the most literary in rock history.

Hooked, I ran out and picked up the rest of Pavement’s catalog.

Now that I was full-blown fan of the band, I bought Brighten the Corners the day it was released, February 11, 1997 and it was to become an indelible part of the soundtrack of that momentous year. The decision had been made to leave Boston and relocate to Nashville – jobs or no jobs. The once gracious, but now decrepit apartment building we were living in was being rapidly gutted so as to be turned into expensive condos and we were soon to be the last tenants remaining. Day by day the building’s interior was stripped of fixtures and plaster. It was spooky and kind of sad; we felt like squatters in our own home even though we were still paying hefty monthly rent. Mixed emotions were running rampant with long goodbyes to friends, endless anxiety over crucial unknowns, but also a giddy excitement for the impending new adventure. Brighten the Corners was one of those records that felt deeply reassuring amidst all the wrenching, (admittedly self-inflicted) unease. “Everybody wants a shady lane”, Malkmus sang in a voice aching with hopeless yearning. Yes, that was what we wanted and we knew we would have to leave the northeast in order to achieve that goal.

It helped that Brighten the Corners contains some of the prettiest songs in the Pavement canon. Besides the aforementioned “Shady Lane,” “Type Slowly,” and “Blue Hawaiian” are simply gorgeous. By this time, the Pavement guys had actually learned to play their instruments and could construct intricate songs full of dynamic contrasts, subtle arrangements, all capped with catchy riffs and melodies. They had also truly come together as an ensemble with Spiral Stairs (Scott Kannberg) coming to the fore with two signature songs: the poppy “Date w/IKEA” and the punky “Passat Dream.” The album flows with a relaxed but insistent continuity ending with the anthemic “Starlings of the Slipstream” and the epochal guitar heroics of “Fin.” Light-handed but effective production by Bryce Goggin and the legendary Mitch Easter lends a gleaming sheen to the music that is still sounds warm, spacious, and detailed. Brighten the Corners sounds really great on the original vinyl LP.

Like others in Matador’s series of deluxe 2-CD reissues of Pavement’s catalog, this one is packed with every associated B-side, stray tracks, radio sessions, plus a bunch of unreleased songs from the original sessions. Pavement were always generous with singles and EPs, and Brighten the Corners (Nicene Creedence ed.) contains some classic B-sides: “And Then (The Hexx)” was originally intended to be the album opener, but the multi-sectional, near-prog-rock dirge would have radically altered the tone of the album. Nevertheless, “And Then (The Hexx)” and “Roll With The Wind,” a hurtling rocker, would become staples of live sets. Convincing covers of “The Killing Moon” and “The Classical” demonstrate Pavement’s 80s-era affinity with both the shimmering Brit-pop of Echo and the Bunnymen and the caustic new wave attack of The Fall. A soaring rendition of “Type Slowly” recorded at the Tibetan Freedom Concert shows just how far Pavement had come as a live band. And for those who pre-ordered Brighten the Corners (Nicene Creedence ed.) from their local independent record store (in my case, the inimitable Grimey’s), you also got a free LP recorded live on the 1997 European tour that further demonstrates what a powerful, cohesive band Pavement had become. (For further evidence, see the Slow Century DVD (Matador 388-9, 2002).

In “The Pavement Tapes,” a contemporaneous New Yorker article reprinted in the liner notes, preeminent music critic Alex Ross wrote:

A Pavement album is a series of small labyrinths. The pleasure of the maze
matters more than finding a way out. After many repetitions, the strangeness of
the language remains; at the same time the lyrics mesh with the music in ways
that make nearly every word sound natural and exact. The band plays the same
trick over and over, so far without exhaustion: weird words decay into
infectious music.

That’s about right. But, unfortunately, exhaustion would eventually overwhelm the band. 1999’s Terror Twilight (Matador Ole 260) was a pleasant, if MOR-ish step backward and internal tensions would split the band for good after a grueling final tour. Brighten the Corners (Nicene Creedence ed.) represents Pavement at the height of their powers, making the most consistent and accomplished music of their career. Some may have lamented the lost shambolic innocence of their early work, but development and growth were inevitable given such talented and frankly ambitious individuals like Stephen Malkmus. Wrongly construed as “slackers,” Pavement was a hard-working band that earned its artistic successes. Listening to this is a reminder that the seemingly moribund world of pop music can still be capable of surprise and evolution. Essential.

January 4, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Photo by Hans Kumpf

Some more half-baked thoughts on music and morality:

Science tells us that all matter is vibrating atoms and that it is the frequencies at which these atoms vibrate that constitute all the various forms of matter, visible and invisible. The substance of music consists of the audible spectrum of vibration (roughly 20Hz to 20kHz) and, as such, reflects the sublime order of the universe. Therefore, when we listen to music, we are (for lack of a better way of putting it) contemplating the divine.

So, does this make the musician a priest in some quasi-religion? Here, things get tricky. Like all human endeavors, music is made by imperfect beings and is therefore imperfect in practice. But the “stuff” of music is the ultimate abstraction of universal truths - a form of prayer - and it is this element that binds people to its endless, necessary, performance in all its variegated diversity of styles and genres. Some music is explicitly sacred, some is as nihilistic and offensive as possible; but its usefulness resides in that contemplation of “cosmic vibrations.” For some people (like me), Sun Ra’s music is most useful; for others it might be Kenny G. For some people it is the explicitly sacred music of their personal faith; for others it is the pop music of the day. The art music world has taken a near-scientific approach to examining the phenomena of music and its investigations have demonstrated that music’s possible manifestations are indeed infinite. Whatever our tastes (and tastes are, of course, nothing but a cultural construct - learned behavior), our need for music arises from its fundamental substance: it is the exact representation of the vibrating universe. This is why we listen to music.

From that we can conclude that all music is intrinsically “moral” in the sense that its essence is the audible manifestation of vibrating matter and our attention to it allows insight (even if unconscious) into profound truths. But to go further and suggest there is more-moral or, conversely, an immoral music is, while tempting, probably too divisive to be useful. Assertions of moral character - even Sun Ra’s - are merely words and, while useful to those who are susceptible to the message, are nevertheless unproveable claims and do not – cannot - inhere in the music itself, except as suggestion, as context. And, as Sam pointed out, “context is everything.” He helpfully pointed to an interesting article that suggests how meta-data influences our interpretation of music by contrasting the inflammatory titles utilized by Muslimgauze (Bryn Jones) to the rather anodyne music itself; any supposed “morality” or “immorality” is wrapped up in a title irrevocably tied to a piece of music in which such controversy or intent is patently absent. Obviously, music’s power can be harnessed as an effective propaganda tool, but human motivations are complex and often contradictory. Even so, we need music in order to comprehend our place in the cosmos, even if our understanding is fractured and incomplete.

So, for me, today, it is Sun Ra (tomorrow it will be someone else). For others, it may be Muslimgauze. Our susceptibility to the proclamations of composers (and others) may allow us to “hear” the morality (or immorality) of their musical creations, but words and their contexts can and do change and what remains are simply the vibrations, the sound itself which so easily expresses the inexpressible and exists beyond the words. The very concepts of morality and ethics are human constructs that music naturally resists when pressed. Music is what is, unconcerned with human frailties. When we experience music, we know more than we can ever say.