Will the real Al Green please stand up?

March 8, 2009 by

Sometimes events in the life of a music listener lead to introspection.  Recently I found myself, in the midst of an emotionally difficult job search, eschewing improvised music and listening almost chiefly to the musings of Stephen Malkmus’s glory days.  I was looking for structure and order, and nothing provided that like going back to the confidence of rocking out with an ironic sneer.  Sometimes we return to artists and pieces that we thought we knew, but for some reason failed appreciate some key aspects.  For example, I don’t think I really had come to grips with Tony Williams’ drumming until listening to Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch in the company of a professional drummer giving play-by-play.  Since then, about half of my Miles Davis records were made new again.

All this is to introduce a question I’ve been thinking about on and off for a few months, “What does Al Green have to do with two recent musical obsessions: “Green, Al” by Ben Allison and “For Reverend Green” by Animal Collective?”  I can’t vouch specifically for the timeline, but I’m pretty sure discovering these tunes fell right in line with my purchase of copies of the albums Call Me and Let’s Stay Together, finally deciding that a few greatest hits collections were not sufficient.  All of a sudden, Al Green was everywhere, perhaps even exploring my very mind.  I’d like to share some of the observations that have solidified while thinking of these questions.

The first question I needed to address was, “Who is Al Green?”  We won’t get anywhere with that question.  Perhaps the easier question is, “What does Al Green represent?”  To most of us he’s a soul singer of singular character.  He seems to flow effortlessly, but is always tossing off goofy and awkward quirks and quips.  I think this juxtaposition is what defines him in my mind: the smooth and natural flow of Willie Mitchell’s production combined with the raw talent and playfulness of Green’s vocals.  Together they create the perfect romantic brew: the comfort of reliability combined with the playfulness of risk.  We’ll set this as the baseline.

Ben Allison’s been putting together some excellent small group albums in the last decade, and perhaps you’ve heard a bit of his work as he is heavily featured on NPR’s On the Media.  “Green, Al”, a track from his uniformly enjoyable Buzz, is a moderately paced ballad which brings to mind the backing of “Your Love is Like the Morning Sun” from Green’s Call Me.  It’s instantly pleasurable, but at first seems to ignore the second element of our Green baseline.  It’s all too smooth.  But, at the end of the first chorus, Michael Sarin bends the pitch on a tom and we’re goofin’ off for the remainder of the tune.  This is a sly maneuver on Allison’s part.  The only thing that never changes in an Al Green tune is the insistent beat.  As silly as Al gets, the drummer soldiers on.  Allison’s piece subverts this by using the drummer as the chief instigator of looseness and for the rest of the cut allows him to coax the rest of the soloists into the playhouse with him.

When I set out to think about these questions, it was clear that “For Reverend Green” was going to be the difficult piece of the puzzle.  The lyrics are fragmented and seem to be chosen more for their sound than for any meaning they might carry.  The instrumentation sets itself up almost as far away from the Hi records sound as possible: detuned guitars ringing and sliding, drumming that answers the question “What would happen if John Bonham was reincarnated as an animal without thumbs but a modified sesamoid bone?”, and vocals which have as wide an emotional range as the good reverend’s, but none of his precision.  I wasn’t really getting anywhere.  To make matters worse, it seems equally likely that the song title is in reference to a roadie or cannabis than to the master soul singer.  What’s going on here?

Animal Collective have occasionally been criticized for a contrived sense of the wild.  Robert Christgau especially doesn’t seem to buy into their mystique which he likens to an “adamantly unkepmt campfire” made to lure civilized co-eds looking for adventure.  Perhaps we’ve found half of our baseline.

The other half didn’t occur until much later, and required changing the baseline.  I was on a trip which took me far out of my time zone, as well as my latitude.  It was near the solstice and I saw little sun at all.  My body’s clock would not reset to the new location.  I had been there for about a week, and was tired.  I needed something peaceful and familiar.  A little Al Green on the mp3 player seemed like just the thing.  I also happened to have a nice very sensitive pair of headphones plugged in.  The conclusion was shocking and clear: Al Green is a studio creation.  I could hear tracks being cued in, poorly executed fades, and worst of all a clearly spliced-in laugh/grunt from the master himself.  All the supposed “authenticity” of the great reverend was gone.  It was no auto-tune, but it was bad enough.  It was then when I thought of the lyric from “For Reverend Green”:

“Now I think it’s alright we’re together

Now I think that’s alright

Now I think it’s the best you ever played it

Now I think that’s alright

Now I think it’s alright to feel inhuman

Now I think that’s alright

Now I think it’s alright we’ll sing together

Now I think that’s alright”

The lyrics to “For Reverend Green” finally made some sense to me.  They are an anthem of a people who don’t quite feel right, who aren’t quite comfortable in their skin.  They are told that this is alright, that we aren’t supposed to feel perfect.  That’s its human to feel inhuman.  This has little to do with the canonized Al Green I earlier described, but to the naked one I heard that evening in a foreign land, I find a lot in common.  Authenticity is not real, it is the great false ideal of American popular music.  Al Green knew it as he recorded take after take. Animal Collective know it because they are constantly told they lack it.  We have such a great heritage of music to expand upon and celebrate.  We spend too much time worrying about what is “real”.  In light of watching a video of Animal Collective perform this song live in whole cloth, Christgau’s criticisms seem to miss the point entirely.  Music can be made by both the preterite and the gifted, at the crossroads or in the studio.  In fact, the combination is what makes American music great.

“A lucky child don’t know how lucky she is.”

Dave Burrell: Momentum (High Two 8)

May 6, 2007 by

Momentum.  When one pops this disc into the tray, the title brings some expectations.  We are ready for a thrill ride, a whirl of sound erupting and continuing unabated.  But some things move at a measured pace, but are just as difficult to stop.  A glacier probably has just as much momentum as a bullet.

This isn’t to say that Burrell’s trio here is boring, but the burn here is slow and gorgeous.  The second piece, “Broken Promise”, sounds like the dismantling of a once great powerful institution.  It is as if parts of the instruments have been taken away, and they have to make do with what is left.  While the promise may have been broken, there is still hope for the dream that promise contained.  The hope is shorn of the lies that buoyed it, but it is has found that it can float on its own.  This tune is immediately followed by the mournful “Fade to Black” with it’s wrenching arco bass melody, but this gives way to a soulful jam after three and a half minutes.

This album isn’t all so weighty, it is just the power of these two tunes, almost cinematic in scope, stands out in these proceedings.  There are other moments to enjoy, the bubbling drum showcase “4:30 to Atlanta”, the bluesy then playful then bluesy “Cool Reception”, and the smile-inducing nod to “Giant Steps”: “Coup d’Etat”.  Burrell’s trio brings a strong songbook and executes it with a very original conviction.

Burrell’s playing itself also has a sense of original conviction.  Sometimes he’s content playing a stubborn figure again and again during a solo, and at other times, he’s sounds like a slightly tired Cecil Taylor.  There is certainly a predilection more towards angular figures than traditional melodies, but it doesn’t have the bop drive of Monk.  He doesn’t compose with the intricate turns of Hill, and he doesn’t flow with the enigmatic energy of Taylor.  I haven’t heard a player like him, and he’s entirely enjoyable.  His compositions and his solos tend to find a pattern and exploit it until it turns into something else.  But it feels assured and measured.  He’s not a wanderer; wanderers can never really build momentum.

Daunik Lazro: Zong booK (Emouvance 1013)

March 13, 2007 by

Daunik Lazro is a veteran of the European free-improv scene from the 70s.  I became acquanted with his work through a dedication in one of Joe McPhee’s albums.  Zong book is an hour long collection of solo pieces performed on baritone and alto saxophone.  Lazro shows plenty of technique and creativity.  He sets a fine deep foundation when on the baritone, but has the skill and control to maintain ideas in registers that I didn’t even know the baritone had.  He often fixes on a low rhythmic ostinato, breaking out for more emotional statements.  Most of the pieces have a very cerebral foundation, from which he can jump into the emotional realm of the horn to provide contrast and release tension.

The two pieces that stand out on this recording are “Lucie” and “Monotonic 1”.  The former starts with splats and pops, but playfully totters into a surprisingly violent statement three and a half minutes in.  From there, Lazro’s sound blossoms into a stronger more deliberate statement than what came before and provides his own rhythmic accompianment with pops like horse gallops as the piece comes to a close.

“Monotonic 1” is an eight minute exploration that starts exactly how it sounds, but evolves into much more.  During the first two minutes, Lazro mostly stays with one tone.  Pushing, shaking, and circularly breathing
it into the background that he wants.  He is the potter, and the note is his clay.  He prepares it to be shaped, glazed, and fired.  The intensity boils over at the two minute mark, and other notes pop out of the horn.  The piece begins to take a drive on its own, and by three minutes there is a foot-tapping swing that carries through the rest of the piece.  Lazro has built up enough force out of one tone to sustain this piece all the way through to the big finale when the breaks are applied and the motion comes to a slightly jerked stop.

As much at it is clear to the reader at this point that I like this recital, there are some issues.  Mainly, most of the other pieces lack such a clear narrative and fail to capture my attention.  Only the “Zong for Dom Rep” apart from those mentioned above really sticks with me after the disc is over.  The technique is there, the creativity is there, but the vision isn’t sustained over the whole disc.  Is this a problem?  Certainly, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying what is good.

Joe McPhee: Everything Happens for a Reason (Roaratorio 09)

February 1, 2007 by

Since I’ve written about a McPhee solo experience before, and the Penguin Guide to Jazz has already given this four stars, I’ll just try to describe what the man is doing here.  If you have anything to add or disagree about, please add your comments.  Although, since only 500 of these exist, and there aren’t many left, I may be on a soapbox here.

The album opens with the pocket trumpet “Mythos”, dedicated to Bill Dixon.  McPhee’s trumpet playing is almost exclusively in the extended technique category, but that’s fine because he really does have extended techniques.  There are impressive multi-phonics, trills, swirling impossibly-high slurs, and breath-filled bottoms.  And some of these occur at the same time.  His slurring of notes on such a precisely tuned instrument is impressive (I once played trumpet and have no idea how he does this).  It calls your attention in a quiet and unassuming way.  If you aren’t open to listening to it, you can ignore it.  It’s not in your face, but as soon as you try to comprehend how he makes these sounds, you are lost in his spell.

The second tune is a soprano sax piece dedicated to Sidney Bechet and Steve Lacy entitled “Vieux Carre.”  McPhee starts shyly, placing a note here and a note there, piecing them into a disjointed melody.  But as the piece moves on, he puts together the theme (a very swing era style melody) with confidence and swing.  The swing propels and carries the piece until the end when the man becomes his own rhythm section.  The shyness blossoms into a confident syncopated surge.

The first side of this LP ends with Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” on alto.  It is dedicated to Anthony Braxton, which I can only assume is the reason for this more academic and ironic reading of a somewhat sacred piece.   Braxton brought a cerebral 20th-century classical approach to a music that had always been only about the soul, and I think McPhee is paying tribute to that original idea.

The flipside begins with the title track on alto.  It’s an assault of technique that dares you to make a reason out of it.  Perhaps the point, but there are moments where logic appears, only to drift away.  Maybe that is the reason.

The song dedicated to Joe’s father, J2, is a true masterpiece of McPhee’s technique on the pocket trumpet.  It begins and ends with a simple rhythm, but in between, McPhee pulls off an incredible feat.  He seems to be using circular breathing to achieve a deep didgeridoo sound on the pocket (!) trumpet, while coaxing out a ghostly moan.  A fitting memorial to the man who introduced him to music.  Let’s hope McPhee gets to the tribute album he mentions in the liner notes.

The album ends with a piece from the McPhee songbook, “Voices.”  The soprano hypnotically swirls in many directions, playing different scales and melodies with alternating notes.  These patterns wash over us until the familiar theme arrives, and the music quickly ends.

Adam Lane’s Full Throttle Orchestra: New Magical Kingdom (clean feed CF052CD)

January 22, 2007 by

I admit, when the bassist is the leader of a session, I usually pass.  While the instrument is an integral part of the music, too many bassists don’t create compelling work on their own.  Sure, Mingus is there, but I can’t think of any other’s whose albums I would buy just because they were leading it.  Well, actually, now I can: Adam Lane.

Lane is a young player who can surely write a tune.  A majority of the 9 self-composed tracks on this album from his Full Throttle Orchestra are memorable and enjoyable.  There is some bop (“Avenue X”), some calypso (“The Schnube”), and most importantly, some achingly beautiful pieces of tender burning (“Without Being” and “Sienna”).  The arrangements at time are Mingusy, but the modern burn of John Finkbeiner’s guitar prevent one from over-considering that possibility.

Perhaps the most impressive composition of this outing is “Sienna.”  It’s a gorgeous and tender ballad, but still maintains a certain roughness.  There is no airbrushing here.  We get the true thing, and the connection we can make through this tune is very present.  I have often thought that the best art, no matter what the medium, immediately resonates inside our souls and speaks, “I understand being human too.”  Mingus often captured that feeling, conjuring up the passion and anger inside all of us.  In “Sienna” Lane brings us a longing so deep that we can feel the same tension and anticipation as he feels.  It is a rich, full, and mature love for another authentic person, not just the idea of a person.

A word about Lane’s bass playing.  His compositions are often supported by a simple strong bassline, and he doesn’t forget it when soloing.  When the bass player gets their chance to shine, they often forget their role as a timekeeper and tension builder.  Lane never leaves that role behind, and continues with the ebb and flow of the music, while sounding unrestrained in his improvisation.  No need to fear these bass solos.  So, make sure you’ve got some weight in the low end when you listen to this, you won’t want to miss a thing.  (This recording is available directly from clean feed, from emusic as a download, and at The Jazz Loft and Cadence.)

Live Event: 60×60 and Andre Vida

January 8, 2007 by

On Sunday, January 7th 2007 at Webster University in St. Louis a double bill of Rob Voisey’s 60×60 and Andre Vida was presented by the New Music Circle.  I attended this event, and will provide my impressions below.

60×60 is a yearly sampling of 60 pieces of 60 second new music presented back to back.  The experience is pretty overwhelming.  Some of the pieces immediately pique your curiosity, some are filled with beauty, some are soundtrack pieces in search of a movie, and some simply don’t work.  The speed at which the pieces are presented packs quite a punch.  While the concept seems ripe and exciting, the execution last evening left quite a bit to be desired.  We were given programs, but the lights were too dim to read them and keep up.  There were also supposed to be the titles displayed for every piece, but due to a technology glitch, we didn’t see these.  In the end, however much one enjoyed a piece, it was almost impossible to figure out what that piece was.  If one is listening for promising composers, it was indeed frustrating, but if one is listening as an immediate experience, it was completely enjoyable.  So much diversity, so much sound, so much invention.

Andre Vida brought, seemingly to me, a completely new concept to composition last evening.  He presented three local artists: Tim Meyers on trombone, Chris Woehr on viola, and Rich O’Donnell on percussion, with an animated score for the players to react to in real time.  The score consisted of some very abstract musical notation, circles, and cresents that would swell and move in relation to each other.  They players were instructed with “macrostrategies” and “microstrategies” such as “reinvent the symbol by repeatedly re-approaching it” and “consider the parts of the score that are not visible”.  He was also wearing a hat that would catch Sun Ra’s attention.  There was both humor and seriousness in this approach, which tended to confuse the audience.  I believe Vida was trying, in a thoroughly postmodern way, to challenge the notion of a composer through his radical scores.  He is making the listener and participant aware of the gaps, flaws, and advantages of traditional scoring methods by presenting a completely new method and requesting the musicians to interpret in live time to it.  I’m not sure how pleased Vida felt with the performances, there wasn’t any great tension, but it was often tough for me to see any relation between the score and what was being played.  There were moments, indeed, where the idea came together, but as a whole the concept wasn’t quite executed sharply.  Perhaps this is inevitable if the musicians are new to this method.  I do believe that a community of players dedicated to Vida’s ideas would create some very interesting multimedia events.  The opportunities for the players and the audience to see and interpret the score together could combine to a very satisfying and new experience, I just don’t think that quite happened last night.

Marty Krystall, Plays Herbie Nichols (K2B2 3469)

January 6, 2007 by

This record is somewhat of a perfect storm for a bleeding heart like me. It features the compositions of neglected composer Herbie Nichols, whose life was cut short by leukemia before fame really came his way. It’s on a very independent label, which, according to Google Maps, is headquartered in somebody’s house. It was recorded directly to 2-track on a very expensive microphone. And it closes with “Suite from Carmen” arranged by Marty Krystall as a tribute to Nichols. What’s not to like?

Honestly, not much. The playing is at a high level, especially by the drummer, Barry Saperstein who fills the space with a hard-driving busy pulse, which, thanks to the Neumann USM-69, includes a visceral punch. Krystall, who plays tenor, soprano, and bass clarinet, is a player who is most interesting when he finds a clever phrase and carries it through the changes while daring Saperstein to push him somewhere else. The tunes are labyrinthine and quirky. Nichols’s writing is somewhat similar to Monk’s, but Nichols seems to leave more space for the rest of the band to participate in the heads, and the AllMusic guide lists Bartók and West Indian folk music as influences. I might not be sophisticated enough to pick that up, but the tunes are great fun. They will, with the time necessary for such cerebral compositions, get in your head.

The disc is not without its problems, however. The “Suite from Carmen” is an adventurous arrangement that steals the show. Perhaps the piece is more to my style than Nichols’s compositions. I find this the most compelling piece, and Krystall’s playing is best here, when he isn’t forced to fall back on bop conventions. The other caveat I have is with the sound, the instruments that do come in clear come in wonderfully. As they should with this type of set up. But, I think a little more attention needs to be paid to the violin and piano sound. They are both very distant in the recording, and with the philosophy behind the technique, nothing can be done with that after the recording is made. I think those problems needed to be dealt with in sound check. Perhaps they were, and this was the best outcome possible. If that is true, I would remove this quibble, as I admire the independent spirit and obvious dedication to this project. It is not often that one can be introduced to two first-class musicians on one recording, but Plays Herbie Nichols should promote wider exposure of both its leader and its subject. Two good things in my book. (This recording can be purchased directly from K2B2, or from Cadence)

Joakim Milder: Still In Motion (Dragon 188)

January 2, 2007 by

In this 1989 live recording from Stockholm we are treated to a very original set of compositions from a very original tenor sax. On first hearing the record appears to be a lost Wayne Shorter record from the Blue Note days, but upon deeper listening one realizes that the snaky melodicism is gone and replaced by a relentless pursuit of rhythmic ideas. Milder mostly forsakes the standard flurry of notes that usually comes from any post-Coltrane saxophone in favor of pushing and driving the band rhythmically, sometimes with a single note. He has succeeded in finding his own personal way to play an instrument that has has so many personalities conquer it in the past. An impressive task indeed.

But what does the music sound like? As I stated before, there is the immediate feel of Shorter or the Davis/Shorter band of the sixties, I think this is brought in mostly by the style of the drummer, Rune Carlsson, which owes a lot to Tony Williams. These tunes seem to escape category though. The head is as likely to start the tune as to end it, or maybe it will end up in the middle. There may be a trance like groove, or there may be a meter-less feel. This is, no doubt, due to the rhythmic quality of the leader surrounding himself with only a rhythm section. The arrangements seem fully planned out, but the only times one feels sure there is not improvisation occurring are when instruments double. I think the music can be best described as having a rhythmic hook that teases you by appearing and reappearing while the soloists fight within to forge new rhythms. It is not absent of melody and harmony, but the tonality is always gives service to the drive and swing.

While the above description may seem quite abstract, the music is wholly accessible. It could easily be played at an evening party and no one would be the wiser. Milder’s new approach to the saxophone can be subtle, but when we give it our attention, we indeed hear a new thing. (This recording can be ordered through Cadence)

Cecil Taylor Video

December 22, 2006 by

I recently ran across this wonderful video of Cecil Taylor playing a relatively brief solo piece from a 1981 documentary Imagine the Sound. I’ve enjoyed listening to Taylor before, but I think finally having a visual to go with the sound is eye-opening. If you haven’t seen him perform, I strongly urge you to watch this clip.

What this clip revealed to me is the precision and quickness of his playing. Sure, when you hear it, it is amazing, but when you see his hands fly, like during the section at 3:20 and 5:40, one can really grasp the immense virtuosity of the man. I think it is also easier to see the themes and motifs he builds when the video is added to the audio. Instead of just the aural cue, you have the visual cue as whell. It helps one see the ideas he developing and returning to. Watching this video, it is impossible to call him a fraud playing random noise. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

Sun Ra Quartet: Other Voices, Other Blues (Horos HDP 23-24)

December 19, 2006 by

This is certainly an odd date.  Billed as the “Sun Ra Quartet”, we hear Ra on piano and Crumar Mainman-keyboard, John Gilmore on tenor and percussion, Michael Ray on trumpet, and Luqman Ali on drums recorded in Rome in January of 1978.  It seems Ra recorded a few albums for the label Horos with this group at this time.  This record presents us with Ra on piano occasionally, but mostly keyboard, providing a background for us to experience two of his horn players in a more focused setting.  At times, the music is missing the grandeur of the Arkestra, but it’s still a lot of cosmic fun.

The opening “Springtime and Summer Idyll” is a blues with a down home RnB feel.  We hear Ray’s fanfare-like trumpet herald the good times in this fairly traditional romp.  Ra plays an organ patch, but switches to blips for a brief solo.  The blips highlight and forshadow the intergalactic fun to come.  “One Day in Rome” is a straight 12 bar blues, but is somehow infused with a little off-kilter feel.  Something akin to what a tourist would feel in Rome, viewing the sites, while a man in a space suit wanders around the coliseum.  Perhaps this comes from Ra’s use of the piano here.  Certainly not a pristine example of the instrument, he seems to enjoy playing the notes that don’t quite sound right or in tune.   Perhaps this is why he felt the need to give it such a temporal title next to all the space jams to come.

The piece on the album which comes closest to a space freak-out is “Bridge on the Ninth Dimension”.  It starts with a cymbal marking time, while a pianissimo synth lurks behind.  Something odd is certainly coming to those unprepared by the relatively straightforward A-side of this disk.  At two minutes the horns weave in and the journey begins.  The players take turns soloing with this putty like piece.  It is fluid enough to let the particular player bend the composition to his liking, and Ra is ready to take it where the horn wishes.  Gilmore is particularly fun to hear.  He has ideas and the committment to follow them until they become a cohesive statement.  It is not the constant inspiration of an “energy” solo, but a peacefulness to take ideas that come and work with them.  His solo beginning at 5:45 builds to the piece’s climax, and by the 9:00 mark, everyone is in a different dimension.  “Along the Tiber” gives us a chance to hear the bop chops of the players.  Ray is particularly well suited to the challenge and provides a flurry of notes on his tear.

On the ballad “Sun, Sky, and Wind” we are treated to Ra’s piano work.  He visits this ballad with odd abruptly-ending rolls, and even sounds like Cecil Taylor on some of the trails he follows in the latter half of the piece.  “Rebellion” is a swirled and flanged keyboard trip which goes out in a very out way.  On “Constellation”, Ray plays the role of the herald and Ali’s plays a very strange rhythm and the album finishes with an outer space ceremony entitled “The Mystery of Being”.

This is not Ra’s best album.  The sound is spotty at best, and it doesn’t feature the whole Arkestra, but I feel it does two things remarkably well.  It gives a taste of the many styles that Ra composed in and allows us to hear some personal statements from the players.  Because of the reduced palette, we get to hear Gilmore with less restraint and Ra take center stage on his instruments instead of his arrangements.  Perhaps the best thing going for this album is one can currently find it for download at church number nine.  Enjoy it, tell me what you think below, and, if you like it, make sure to get some of the official releases.