Saturday, January 27, 2007

Elimination Dance 1: Handy Aisles

The first Elimination Dance pits a jazzman against an indie-band-cum-wonder-producer-aided-solo-act…

John Handy, Live at the Monterrey Jazz Festival

The Spinanes, Arches and Aisles

The name John Handy meant nothing to me before I picked up a worn-as-hell copy of Monterrey for a buck at Value Village one afternoon. I took a chance, figuring that if that record didn’t pan out, the Thelonious Monk Live in Italy I also scored probably would (it had Charlie Rouse on it – it was a sure thing). I put the Handy record on first. It was a long while before I got to Monk.

The story: in 1965, aided by a recommendation by none other than Ralph J. Gleason, an all but unknown John Handy took a very interesting band onto the stage at Monterrey. The band featured Handy on alto, Mike White on violin, Jerry Hahn on electric guitar, and a rhythm section consisting of bassist Don Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke. It’s hard to say what, if anything, the audience was expecting. A select few, like Gleason, might have seen him playing clubs in San Francisco, and so had some inkling as to the nature of this five-headed beast of a band. But I think even they were probably surprised by what happened on that stage.

There are only two tracks, one per vinyl side (the LP had the order of performance reversed; the CD version corrects that problem). The mournful “If Only We Knew” begins with a slow, plucked guitar figure by Hahn, and then comes a statement of the theme by the band. But then everything falls away, and all that’s left behind is Handy’s alto. For the next five and a half minutes, Handy explores his horn’s range and his heart’s contents. While never straying from the tuneful centre of his performance, he reaches far heights and low depths of sound, but all in a linear fashion. There are blues figures, displays of multiphonics, eastern motifs, challenging runs and gaping spaces. All of it, remember, improvised. It is astonishing.

What remains of the track’s nearly 27 minute running time is given to solos in turn – Thompson (unaided), then Hahn (who changes the dynamic of the song, stepping it up a notch or two), White (who takes Hahn’s cue and creates swirling eddies of sound, gaining in intensity), and then Handy again – before becoming a full band workout. They step back from the brink with a couple of minutes remaining, taking time to ruminate perhaps on what has just passed. Or maybe they’re just catching their breath, knowing what’s soon to come. The statement returns, the sound fades, and the stunned crowd applauds.

And then, after Handy introduces the band, then comes “Spanish Lady.” A solo Handy riffs gently for a moment, and then a galloping drum signals the whole band to action. Handy all of a sudden sounds like he’s channeling klezmer ghosts. Is this lady really Spanish? Either way, she raises the blood pressure. The band get more frenetic.

It’s Jerry Hahn’s guitar that drives the song (shorter than its predecessor, at a mere nineteen and a half minutes). Handy reaches for the sky, but it’s the guitar that propels, spurring JH forward while the two spar and trade asides. White comes in around the six and a half minute mark, and initially threatens to squander the momentum, but then catches his breath. Trying to separate his violin, Handy’s alto punctuations and Hahn’s strummed rhythm is a chore. Don’t bother - just let it all happen at once.

At ten minutes, Hahn takes ownership. He starts with clean single note runs, but soon things get a bit harrier. He churns up a series of fuzzy sounding crescendos that wouldn’t be out of place on a Sonics record. His turn here lasts only about two minutes, but it gets my blood up.

Handy’s back. More swirling, like the quintet are attempting to induce vertigo. And what happens next, at the very last, is amazing. The band build up, and up, and up, and then, having achieved the summit, they drop you over the ledge. A cold stop. The whole affair, all nineteen minutes of mounting tension, comes to a crashing halt. You can hear it in the crowd: an instant of absolute bewilderment, manifest as silence. And then the applause.

I’ll spare the reader any further suspense and state that Monterrey will be moving through to the Final 10. It is, without question, my favourite recording of all time. Perversely, what makes it all the more thrilling for me, in addition to the sounds I’ve described at length, is the fact that it represents the pinnacle of Handy’s career. Never again would he record anything so astoundingly whole. He went on to enjoy a workmanlike if unspectacular career, recording several albums for Columbia and then a series of other labels. I believe he’s still alive and teaching music in the Bay Area. But this record, with this band, bears witness to something of a celestial alignment, a confluence of fleeting factors. It wouldn’t last, but on that long ago September afternoon, John Handy’s band were the greatest musical performers on the planet. And here’s the thing: wouldn’t we all like our greatest days captured on tape?

Ready for the anticlimax?

The Spinanes’ Arches and Aisles is uniformly inviting and warm, like the soft parts of your lover that welcome you as the sun sinks and the cicadas sing (with the probable exception of “Sucker’s Trial,” which stands out, sore thumb style, for its briskness and relative aggression, but you quickly forgive the Spinanes because they’ve otherwise been so sweet and accommodating).

That voice. Rebecca Gates must’ve recorded the vocals while reclined, G&T in hand. And the instruments; mellotron! Keyboards by John McEntire that sound like the amber bubbles in a sundown Michelob. The bass sounds like a viscous liquid.

These are the songs Gates found in her hip pocket as she pulled her jeans on one sticky, sun-flooded morning. She was on her way to work where she had finally resolved to give her two weeks’ notice, and she stuck the songs in the glovebox. When she found them again, a month later, after her last day and a full five weeks before she found another job, the heat had sort of melted them together, so it was hard to tell where one idea stopped and the next one started. She left them that way. Then they got mixed up with that fear and excitement she felt at not having a job for a while and sort of not caring, so she poured a drink and hit RECORD. She finished and fell asleep and forgot all about the songs. Then you found the tape one day and she said, “Oh shit, that,” very offhandedly, and told you to take it home, and you did, and you poured a drink and listened and thought, “Why, it’s nearly perfect.”

Nearly perfect, I said. As warm and bubbly and post-coital as it all sounds, I’m forced to concede that, while great, it’s top 20 great at best, simply not top 10. So the Spinanes, sadly, are the first to be eliminated from the dance.

Progress report 1

Tonight’s the night:

John Handy, Live at the Monterrey Jazz Festival

Could’ve been so beautiful:
The Spinanes, Arches and Aisles

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Elimination Dance: Contestants

First of all, when it comes to movies, I can’t believe I forgot Down By Law. So what gets bumped from the top 5? Probably The Long Goodbye, if anything. Sorry, Mr. Altman.

I knew it would come to this. All along, I knew PF aimed to bring up the music question, and, truthfully, I sort of dreaded it. Choosing my favourite movies was hard enough. Books, tougher still. But choosing my favourite albums? Of ALL TIME? I was tempted not to even try. But in the spirit of challenges met, I’ve decided to decide, to be the decider, to here and now name my ten favourite albums, my choices for the best, or most affecting, or most personally significant recordings.

Or, that was the idea, anyway… I am perhaps constitutionally unequal to the task. Over the course of several evenings, through round after round of cutting and debating and double-guessing, I simply couldn’t get below 20 – a terribly bloated top ten. Fat had to be trimmed.

So: I’m going to embark upon a campaign to decide. A quasi-scientific approach. I’m going to immerse myself in these albums over the next 10 days, and each day I will confirm one album, passing it into the Final 10, and eliminate one album, casting it forever into obscurity. I will make arguments for both. I hope the results are entertaining, or at the very least readable. Root for your favourites!

Here, in alphabetical order, are the twenty candidates:

Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker
Albert Ayler, Spiritual Unity
JS Bach, Cello Concertos
The Clash, London Calling
John Coltrane, The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard (4CD)
Miles Davis, In a Silent Way
Dirty Three, Ocean Songs
Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks
Henryk Gorecki, Symphony No. 3
Guided By Voices, Alien Lanes
John Handy, Live at Monterrey, 1965
The Nation of Ulysses, Plays Pretty for Baby
Pernice Brothers, Overcome by Happiness
Pixies, Surfer Rosa/Come On Pilgrim
R.E.M., Automatic for the People
Scud Mountain Boys, Massachusetts
The Spinanes, Arches and Aisles
Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run
Sugar, Copper Blue

Yo La Tengo, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One

Sunday, January 21, 2007

2006: Discoveries (and a new direction for TIOM)

In the interest of driving the final nail into the coffin that holds the rapidly decomposing corpse of 2006, let’s talk about Discoveries – those albums/songs/artists/etc. that were not new in 2006, but which I encountered for the first time, and was glad I did.

Perhaps the biggest personal discovery was that of three artists featured on the outstanding Ethiopiques series of CDs on the Paris-based Buda Musique label. The compilations have been coming out since 1997, but it wasn’t until I was putting together a radio show last summer that I heard anything about them. But soon, having listened to the bulk of the 21 volumes, I found myself particularly drawn to:

Getatchew Mekurya – “The Negus of Ethiopian Sax” whose sound is at once earthy and otherworldly.
Mulatu Astatqe – Astatqe represents something of a lynchpin of the Ethiojazz community, both during its brief flowering in the 1970s, at the end of Haile Selassie’s reign, and during its recent resurgence. Astatqe’s music – exotic, R&B-inflected, soulful, but unmistakably foreign – also features prominently in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers.
Mahmoud Ahmed – An uncommonly soulful vocalist, whose mastery of the tezeta form (think Ethiopian blues, simplistically) isn’t lost on those of us who don’t speak Amharic.

The Shivers, “Beauty” – Found this song on a blog somewhere, and fell hard for it. When I read, later that day, that The Shivers, a.k.a. performance artist and asexual farmer Keith Zarriello, also covered “Chelsea Hotel #2” on the Charades album, I ordered it immediately. The album is good, eclectic indie-folk type stuff, but “Beauty” remains the centrepiece for me. Haunting, forlorn, anguished, sincere and pretty, it’s almost endlessly repeat-able.

Destination: Out – There are a million music blogs out there (probably more), but this is my current favourite. Generous to a fault with mp3s of out of print improvised music (or “fire music,” or “free jazz,” or “avant-garde,” etc.) recordings posted twice a week, giving reader/listeners just enough time to digest one artist or style before moving onto the next. Curators Chilly Jay Chill and Prof. Drew LeDrew know their stuff and present it in an entirely un-stuffy way, without dumbing anything down.

So there it is, 2006 summarized. My fond reminiscences of the year that was now done, the question must be asked: what’s next for This is Our Music? Suggestions, please.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Albums: Top 5 Compilations & Reissues

One more time

As much as it pains me to say so, I love reissues. They are the double edged sword of the music world, of course: on the one hand, they often serve to introduce you to obscure, heretofore unheard sounds; on the other, you wind up paying for the same stuff again, only with more laudatory liner notes and slightly cleaned-up sound.

Regardless! My top pick only serves to reinforce what the music suits obviously know by now: that if Coltrane’s name is on it, I’ll buy it. But I stand by the choice, as it’s a fantastic collection of his Prestige recordings (and it’s available on eMusic).

As for R.E.M., the single disc edition of …And I Feel Fine hardly makes it worth replacing your old copy of Eponymous (though I probably would have anyway), unless you’re an audiophile. But the limited edition second disc collects the band members’ picks for songs that should have made disc 1, as well as live and rare stuff. The live version of “Life and How to Live It” makes it worth the slightly inflated purchase price, in my opinion.

The Rhino What it Is! set is an example of the best the Compilation/Reissue category has to offer, namely a ton of great music I almost certainly wouldn’t hear otherwise (short of some serious crate-digging). And those extensive liner notes – God Bless Rhino.

The Bobby Hutcherson is a recent favourite among the always-reliable Rudy Van Gelder Blue Note reissues. Too few of the vibraphonist’s leader recordings are readily available (the essential Dialogue, another RVG salvage project, being a happy exception), but this one, featuring Herbie Hancock (p), Bob Cranshaw (b) and Joe Chambers (d), is a nice addition to the catalogue.

The Matthew Sweet reissue is, of course, an obvious cash-grab on the part of Universal of the sort I tend to curse when the subject of the exercise isn’t an artist in my personal pantheon. When it comes to Girlfriend, though, as with Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, which received the Deluxe Edition treatment a few years ago (and I already had those “exclusive” live recordings as bootlegs!), I’m pretty much powerless to resist.

1. John Coltrane, Fearless Leader (Prestige Recordings)

2. R.E.M., And I Feel Fine…: The Best of the I.R.S. Years, 1982-1987 [2 disc Ltd. Ed.]

3. Various Artists, What It Is: Funky Soul and Rare Grooves, 1967-1977

4. Bobby Hutcherson, Happenings (RVG Edition)

5. Matthew Sweet, Girlfriend (Deluxe Edition)

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Best of 2006: Songs

Here they are, the twenty-one songs, carefully chosen, delicately arranged and lovingly burned to CD, that make up THIS IS OUR MUSIC: THE BEST OF 2006. Yes, only 20 were actually released in that titular year; I allowed myself a single cheat, reasoning that 20 is as pleasing a number as 21, and that said cheat was just a damn good song that I wanted to put on a CD. Maybe this is our music, but these are my rules. Direct all complaints to the webmaster.

Songs aren’t ranked, but are listed in order of their appearance on the TIOM CD:

The Rogers Sisters, “Why Won’t You”
I’m a sucker for a song that starts like this. I’m also a sucker for anthemic, declamatory choruses, and for shout-along lyrics like “I’m gone! I’m gone!” That makes this song 3 for 3.

The Futureheads, “Skip to the End”
Sounds like J. Geils wooing Joan Jett.

Voxtrot, “Mothers, Sisters, Daughters and Wives”
A nearly flawless indie-pop song.

Tapes ‘n Tapes, “Insistor”
A whispered breakdown, Spanish guitar, organ – what’s not to love?

Pernice Brothers, “PCH One”
This AM radio ode to the last-ditch road trip as a means of salvaging a faltering relationship is one of Joe Pernice’s best songs - it might even challenge “Crestfallen” for the title of most sing-along-able.

The Hold Steady, “Party Pit”
I had a hard time settling on one song from Boys & Girls in America. In the end, it might’ve been the “Gonna walk around and drink some more” refrain that helped me decide.

Ladyhawk, “The Dugout”
Dinosaur Jr. Jr.

Band of Horses, “Weed Party”
Sebadoh Jr.? Not the most representative song in terms of the overall sound of the album, but a great song, and it worked better in the context of the TIOM CD than “The Great Salt Lake.”

Silversun Pickups, “Kissing Families”
This is my cheat. The Pickups released the full length Carnavas in 2006, and it was good, but contained nothing that appealed to me as much as this song’s cello, harmonies, and well-placed scratched-larynx yelps. The fact that “Kissing Families” came out on 2005’s Pikul EP didn’t matter; I invoked the “new-to-me” clause.

The Big Sleep, “Murder”
Such a churning, chugging, droning and cacophonous noise, and yet danceable.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Cheated Hearts”
The reason this year’s compilation was nearly called I Think I’m Bigger Than the Sound (I also flirted with They Spit White Noise, from the title song on the Hold Steady record). I don’t know what I like best - Karen O’s Chrissie Hynde imitation, the garage-pop catchiness, or the squalls of noise that punctuate the song.

Califone, “The Orchids”
Seriously? A Television Personalities cover? It’s so pretty.

Cat Power, “Lived in Bars”
Chan Marshall did the interview circuit this year talking about how she’d cleaned herself up, so it seems that “Lived in Bars” is informed by genuine regret and costly experience. But the perversely wonderful thing about this song is the manner in which it takes the listener backward through time to arrive at the seedy latenight bar. We begin in the morning-after bedroom and eventually find ourselves rubbing elbows with the patrons the night before, just when the song gets loose, a little sloppy, and kind of goofy. And when the shoo-ba-doo’s kick in, the festivities are in full swing.

Neko Case, “That Teenage Feeling”
Case was meant to sing songs like this, about the undying appeal and ineffable sadness of nostalgia, because her voice evokes a nostalgia for an unnameable time and place, and does so with an ever-present tinge of sadness.

Beirut, “Prenzlauerberg”
And speaking of nostalgia for an indefinite time and place…

Tom Waits, “Fish in the Jailhouse”
On first hearing, I was convinced this was an outtake from the Heartattack & Vine era. What do I know?

Man Man, “Black Mission Goggles”
Like Captain Beefheart doing afro-pop.

Scissor Sisters, “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’”
I have a co-worker’s 12 year old daughter to thank for convincing me of this song’s considerable charms. I’d also like to insist that the only thing that kept me from turning it out on the dancefloor at the corporate Christmas party was the fact that the DJ (from “Quality Entertainment,” no less) didn’t have this song. Oh, what could’ve been…

Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy”
The single of the summer, the “Hey Ya” of 2006.

Masta Killa, “Iron God Chamber”
Remember when crew cuts didn’t suck? So do the Wu Tang survivors. Everything here is so simple that it’s really all about the wordplay. That verse - the one (by RZA? or is it U-God?) that goes “We go together like cheese and cheddar/like jeans and sweater/like mo’ and bettah…” – that kills me.

Ornette Coleman, “Turnaround”
I might’ve chosen any track from Sound Grammar, but I thought that maybe “Turnaround” was sweet enough to appeal to everyone.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

An Open Letter to PF

You ask the impossible, of course, but here’s my best effort (as of this moment):

1) Wonder Boys
2) Bull Durham
3) The Third Man
4) Out of Sight
5) The Long Goodbye

Oh, uh, probably should've made room for The Royal Tenenbaums, too. Oh, well.

Monday, January 8, 2007

The Runners-Up

This is where I devote a few column inches to the also-rans, as well as one record that I narrowly missed in 2006, but which would almost certainly have appeared near the top of my Jazz/Improv/Etc. list.

First, the list of things that received consideration for the Rock/Pop list, but which eventually missed the cut, included: the Drive-By Truckers; Yo La Tengo; Sonic Youth; Junior Boys; Bob Dylan; Howe Gelb’s country-gospel mash-up; The Thermals’ fundamentalist concept record; any of about a half dozen remixes of JT’s “My Love” (Miss Imperial and I spent a few minutes on New Years Eve discussing the peculiar way in which the quality of said remixes gave us an appreciation for the original which had been absent upon first hearing); and finally, DJ Spooky’s Trojan vault-raiding exploits. There’re probably a few more that I’m not thinking of right now, but that’ll do. And no, Dwayne, still no TV on the Radio.

As for that other record, the one that’s rocking my socks right now and which might’ve nosed into the second spot (thereby displacing #10, Bobby Previte) on my J/I/E list, it’s yet another project featuring the irreplaceable and insanely prolific Ken Vandermark

Bridge 61, Journal (Atavistic)
Bridge 61 is Vandermark on reeds, Jason Stein on bass clarinet, Nate McBride on basses electric and acoustic, and Tim Daisy (also of Dragons 1976) on drums. By virtue of the presence of Vandermark’s baritone sax, this record rocks harder and lower than any record has a right to. And when that baritone mixes voices with McBride’s dirty electric bass, the result is righteous and sweaty.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Selection Committee: The Improvised Music Collective name the best of 2006

Maybe you know it, and maybe you don’t: once a month or so I take to the airwaves on CKCU FM (“the mighty 93.1”) as a member of the IMC and host of Now’s the Time. I’m lucky enough, as a member of this sinister cabal, to work with four other guys whose knowledge of and passion for improvised music exposes just how much, for all my bluster, I really don’t know about this stuff. These guys are amazing. Anyway, we recently did our annual survey show whereupon we each present our picks for the best records of the year. The rules are fluid – if you first heard it in ’06, it counts as new. As a result, we wound up with a dizzying variety of recordings, and very few double picks. Read them all right here (you might have to scroll down a bit).

The end result of this annual show is predictable, isn’t it? I scurry
around trying to borrow/buy/find all the albums I missed. There’s never enough time.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Top 10 Albums: Jazz, Improvised, etc.

10. Bobby Previte, The Coalition of the Willing (Ropeadope)
Versatile drummer and leader Previte presents a political party record. Blues, funk, surf rock – it’s all in there, and informed equally by anger and elation.

9. Andrew Hill, Time Lines (Blue Note)
Most artists, once they have reached the stage of inspiring tributes (see #6), are content to rest on their laurels. Not so with Andrew Hill, who returns once again to Blue Note and records an album to stand alongside most any of his earlier output for the venerable label.

8. Various Artists, Congotronics 2: Buzz 'n Rumble From the Urb'n Jungle (Crammed Discs)
The term "world music" seems inadequate to the task of describing the ways in which musics borrow, warp, bend, steal, inspire, congeal and combine. By rights, it's all world music, right? But the most exciting musical things happening across the globe, it seems to me, are those most unexpected and unlikely combinations. Call it a remnant of colonialism or the foul stink of Western hegemony, but African musicians are particularly adept at these strange marriages. Witness the phenomenon of Congotronics (building upon the success of Konono #1’s album of that name), wherein Congolese players combine traditional instrumentation with improvised electronic amplification and electric guitars, producing something energetic and beautiful, honest and hopeful.

7. Dave Douglas, Meaning and Mystery (Greenleaf)
Had the Miles Davis Quintet of 1965-68 never disbanded, they might have made this record.

6. Nels Cline, New Monastery: A View Into the Music of Andrew Hill (Cryptogramophone)
Now a regular member of Wilco, Cline perhaps felt compelled to re-prove his mettle to the out-music crowd who were once his prime fan base. He chose wisely with the music of avant-bop pianist and composer Hill. A fantastic record.

5. Vandermark 5, A Discontinuous Line (Atavisitic)
Ken Vandermark’s apparent Faustian bargain continues to bear fruit.

4. Art Ensemble of Chicago, Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City: Live at Iridium (Pi)
After the deaths of members Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors, the remaining members of the AEC soldier on. Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell are joined by new conscripts Corey Wilkes (trumpet) and Jaribu Shahid (bass) on a live recording of bop-inflected experiments that represent further development in the group’s sound instead of a retread. Miraculously, this is essential Art Ensemble.

3. Evan Parker, Time Lapse (Tzadik)
Solo recordings, endlessly overdubbed, that sound like an orchestra and hold the listener’s attention more effectively than most full band recordings I heard this year. Parker’s sound – brittle, breathy, reedy and agile – layers well atop itself, creating banks and whorls of notes that invite exploration. If you’ve never been interested in solo recordings, check your reservations and listen to this.

2. Chicago Underground Duo, In Praise of Shadows (Thrill Jockey)
On In Praise of Shadows, Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor have created a sound which is less concerned with virtuosity than it is with texture and space. The two utilize a sizeable array of instruments to create layers of sound that are immersive and exotic; a tactile experience for the ears. Is it jazz? World music? Who cares, really – the references aren’t the point here, just sound for sound’s sake.

1. Ornette Coleman, Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar)
It has been a decade since Ornette Colemn’s last release; it has been nearly half a century since he turned jazz on its ear with what he called harmolodics, and what the rest of the world came to know as free jazz. It feels far less academic than either term would imply – in practice, Coleman’s sound has always retained a soulful and bluesy human cry that is no less nimble or sincere now for his 76 years. How refreshing to have this master back! On Sound Grammar (the first release on his newly inaugurated label, also called Sound Grammar), he is joined by a pair of bassists, Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga, and his son Denardo Coleman on drums and percussion in a live setting, playing a program of new compositions (excepting “Song X”) that sound every bit as revelatory as his first recordings. Not for nothing is this website and compilation named after one of Coleman’s seminal recordings – it seemed appropriate given his return to recording. Let’s hope the establishment of his new label serves as the impetus to record far more frequently.