Friday, February 29, 2008

Lust, Lust, Lust

I'm loving this. Nothing more to say now, except Listen to it, already.

More later, including a rundown of last night's edition of Now's the Time, and full program download link.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Now's the Time Program Reminder

This Thursday, February 28th, 20:30-22:00 EST, I'll be profiling the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and other projects featuring Kahil El'Zabar on Now's the Time.

Your listening choices are three-fold:

1. Tune into CKCU 93.1 FM (if you live in the Ottawa region)
2. Log onto and stream the program live
3. Watch this space or our Myspace blog for a link to download the entire show after the fact, and listen at your convenience.

It's all about choice, see?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Mark O's Year of the Guitar - Part 2: Sonny Sharrock

My fellow IMC member - in fact, the man who brought me into the Now's the Time fold - Mark O has deemed 2008 The Year of the Guitar, the Chinese Zodiac be damned. He's committed to devoting every one of his shows this year to a different guitarist, and he kicked things off last month with a look at the work of Grant Green. And last night was part two. The target? The Space Ghost himself, Sonny Sharrock.

Sharrock's guitar-as-horn aesthetic makes for compelling listening, whether on the overdubbed solo work of Guitar, or the more full-throated (-necked?) sound of the celestial alignment that is Ask the Ages. We heard stuff from both last night, as well as work by Pharoah Sanders, Miles Davis and Marzette Watts, but Ask... enjoyed the honour of being the evening's featured album (meaning Mark played the whole damn thing). If you were busy, distracted, or otherwise engaged, I'm happy to announce that you didn't miss your chance to hear this singular example of the radio broadcaster's art, because now, at long last, the Improvised Music Collective is extremely pleased to introduce downloadable versions of your favourite jazz/improvised music show:

Now's the Time, February 21, 2008: Mark O's Year of the Guitar - Part 2: Sonny Sharrock

Watch this space weekly for a link to the Now's the Time download, or check our Myspace blog.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Orgy in Rhythm

A version of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble - founder, vocalist and percussionist extraordinaire Kahil El'Zabar, Ernest Dawkins on saxes (and percussion) and trumpeter (and percussionist) Corey Wilkes - played two sets at Ottawa's Mercury Lounge on Thursday night. The EHE has been a going concern for 35 years now, and though I've only been aware of them for a fraction of that time, I have to assume the group, under El'Zabar's constant direction and leadership, have always been an incredible thing to witness, an unflaggingly engaging and creative act, both live and on record.

I first saw them play as a quartet at that very same Mercury Lounge ten years ago as a part of a series called Chicago Now! - a concert series curated by El'Zabar which brought some of the best of that city's musicians to Ottawa; Ken Vandermark, Fred Anderson, Jeff Parker, Rob Mazurek and El'Zabar's Ritual Trio, among others.

A couple of years later, the EHE played the Mercury on consecutive nights, and I bought tickets to both shows. The first night, I went with a good friend (and current IMC member), and he loved it. I remember both being particularly moved when the group, at the end of the first set, marched off the stage while still playing hand drums, and moved through the crowd chanting the AACM motto, "Great Black Music, Great Black Music, Great Black Music..."

I attended the second concert alone, which seemed a liberating thing to do. I remember, I was sitting at the railing of the small balcony at the Mercury Lounge, and after one particularly fiery song had ended, I overheard a couple next to me. She said, "Kiss me." And after they had done so her companion asked, "What was that?" She said to him, "I wanted to see if we could generate that kind of passion," and nodded toward the stage. A silly exchange, I guess, but it illustrates the power the EHE can exert on an audience.

And this past Thursday night was no exception. I am no expert at estimating crowd size, but perhaps a hundred people enjoyed two exuberant, passionate sets on Valentine's Day. Miles Davis' "All Blues" appeared again, as it had the previous night in Montreal (see Ron's account), as well as several pieces from the group's excellent Delmark releases. And there were a couple of pieces that I can't identify, and probably don't need to. Sometimes the archivist impulse is too strong in me. They were trio improvisations, simply put, and Dawkins, Wilkes and the leader all acquitted themselves beautifully.

I had a chance to speak briefly with both El'Zabar and Dawkins after the show, and I thanked them, and told them that each time I saw them perform, I was convinced I had seen the best concert of my life. And then I left the bar, impressed and happy for what I had seen, but perhaps just a bit jealous, too, of all those people who had that night seen the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble for the first time, because it was for many of them, I suspect, just as Aidian had said the night before, the sort of thing they would remember twenty years from now.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

You will never see a better show than the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble

I'm very excited to have the chance to see Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble again. It's been nearly a decade since I saw them last, but I remember it well enough to call them (two shows) the best live performances I have ever had the good fortune to witness.

UPDATE: Some of the other members of the Improvised Music Collective saw the EHE last night (02/13) at La Sala Rosa in Montreal. IMCer/fellow Now's the Time host Ron Steeds described the show:

When the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble took the stage it was apparent that it was a stripped down group this night. El’ Zabar (on assorted percussion, drum kit, kalimba and vocals)was joined by Corey Wilkes (current president of the AACM, member of Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory and now official trumpeter for Art Ensemble of Chicago) on trumpet & flugelhorn and percussion and Ernest Kabeer Dawkins on alto & tenor saxes and percussion. Fareed Haque was not there, nor was there a bass player. But that didn’t matter. They began the set with a killer rendition of Miles Davis’ “All Blues” that featured El’ Zabar on kalimba (thumb piano – I’ve never heard it played more creatively!), Wilkes on percussion and trumpet (both with Harmon mute and without) and Dawkins on percussion and alto sax. The solos were blistering, breathing new life into that Kind of Blue touchstone. After that tune, I leaned over to Ollie and said: “Man, the rest is gravy!”

They played original compositions for the balance of their set and then invited Kalmunity Vibe Ensemble [the opening act] up for their encore. The stage was full but, man, the spectacle was something to behold. Everyone took a solo as the piece meandered along for a good half hour. When the dust settled, we were heading to our cars with smiles on our faces and the feeling that we’d witnessed something special. Ollie commented that this was like no other show he’d seen since he started taking in jazz/improv shows.

I calculate we were all home by 3:00am. I know I’m a little tired this morning but who cares. As Aidian observed, twenty years from now we won’t remember what the day after was like but we’ll remember the concert clearly. *

This mirrors my past experience with the group's performances, and I'm hoping the same holds true tonight at the Mercury Lounge in Ottawa.

* Thanks, Ron, for permission to reprint the email

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Dedicated to You: Cut Your Hair

"... And that's a pretty nice haircut!"

For Addy, on the occassion of her first (and probably overdue) haircut, a jaunty pageboy number that makes her face look rounder, but that's okay because, you know, she's a year and a half old.

You don't know Pavement, daughter 'o' mine, and if/when you do, they probably won't sound as good to you as they did to people my age. But take my word for it: they were kind of a big deal - especially to the boys who, decked out in full slacker regalia, would show up to the bar to drink Newcastle and dance to this band and this band only (an awkward dance that involved standing in a circle and looking at the ground). So, to you, sweet baby: "Cut Your Hair," off the seminal Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.

I expect you'll like, and quickly start to sing along to, the goofy "Oooh-oooh oooh-oooh- oooh-oooh" refrain. That's okay; I sing along to that part, too. But like both the scraggly hockey hair you've left behind and those Pavement fanboys, who are probably family men like me now, let the song serve also as a reminder: don't forget where you came from. Silly as it all looks to us now, it's part of who we are.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Moment, Suspended

Derrière la gare de Saint-Lazare, Henri Cartier-Bresson

Though I obsess over them, covet them, collect them and desire them, I recognize recordings of creative music for what they are: moments captured; snapshots of instants in musical time. In the context of free music, they are essentially by-products of the act of creation, at best; in some cases little more than marketing tools, promotional items designed to sustain the music-making lifestyle.

The great schism of American music pre- and post-bebop (or pre- and post-war) has everything to do with the primacy of the individual musician as creator, his/her position lofted above both composer and ensemble. The solo – the act of instantaneous and unique creation – is not a device peculiar to jazz or to America or to modern music, but it’s place at the fore of performance probably is. The role of Benny Goodman’s orchestra was to make people dance, to entertain them. Did Bird expect to see people dancing? Did Miles Davis give a good goddamn if his audience was “entertained”?

As artists supplanted entertainers – virtuosity trumping palatability, musicians adopting a cool stance, dark glasses, even literally turning their backs on their audiences – dancers became listeners. Music, you see, even lowly jazz, is art. This was the message. Listen careful and you might learn something. Seems natural now, but it was truly novel then.

Is art an act, or a product? Ask anybody from Charlie Parker on, and they’d tell you. Cut the albums, wait for the record company to put them out. By the time anybody hears them, you’re miles gone. New changes, new techniques, new style. Only thing the album’s good for is to get your name out, so that the next time you hit Chicago, LA, New York, Vancouver, Memphis, Seattle, Montreal or Tuscaloosa, the club’s full. The take from that night – a night of creation, of unique and fierce runs, of new depths of expression, of finding new corners within that tune you’ve played a thousand times – keeps you playing, keeps your art alive. I’m willing to bet the model held true for everyone from Dizzy to Lee Morgan to Miles Davis to Albert Ayler to Noah Howard…

And I’d guess it still holds true. Why else are so many forward-thinking artists embracing the online model? Let someone download a file, and maybe they’ll come see you next time you’re booked into their local cultural centre. Ask Dave Douglas. Ask Dennis Gonzalez. I did ask Michael White, and that’s exactly what he told me.

So what is the value of the recording? Why do so many of us devote so much time (and money) to them? What is the source of the undying appeal of the album?

My guess? It is precisely for the above-cited reasons. Recordings of improvised music provide a document of an artist’s development and approach at a specific point in time; they are lightning captured, time frozen, or as the title suggests, the Moment, suspended. This is why the chronology of recordings is so important. Consider John Coltrane’s 1965 output. There is no mistaking The John Coltrane Quartet Plays (recorded in February) with Ascension (late June) or Kulu Se Mama (October). This accounts, too, for the importance in jazz studies, perhaps more than in any other musical discipline, of the hyper-detailed sessionography.

Or consider the Benedetti recordings. These documents provide a unique opportunity to study the rapid development of an artist over a condensed period, and I’d venture their peculiar genesis and the mystery that surrounded them until their CD release represent a set of circumstances that could only arise from the world of jazz/improvised music. Bird’s solos were mini-compositions, worlds of sound unto themselves. Like a photograph, Benedetti’s tapes refuse to betray their precise context. Like Cartier-Bresson’s famous image, we don’t have backstory, we can’t see what lies outside the frame, but we are nevertheless arrested by their fleeting arrangement, the very perfection of their brevity, their self-contained nature.

The moment comes, and then it goes. If you’re lucky, you’re there. You’re in the club or hall, and you’re close enough to recognize the flash of invention, the moment when a musician takes off and recombines a series of familiar ingredients into something incredible and new. The Moment. “Koko,” or “Chasin’ the Trane.” A moment when even the creators astonish themselves with the nature of the creation. But if you’re not lucky enough to be there, maybe a recording engineer is. And then there is evidence of that moment, a tangible artifact. A thing to hold and help with the archaeological recreation of an artist’s path, a document of a different take on an old tune, or an impassioned invention from scratch, or a 27 chorus, legend-birthing solo. The artists live these moments, and then move on, and many times can’t understand what the fuss is about. But we fans, we collectors, are equal parts music-lovers and historians, parsing the evidence, reliving the moments. Longing to re-experience that high-wire act of spontaneous creation over and over and over again.

Friday, February 1, 2008

In Threes

I have been in a decidedly non-pop mood of late, opting instead to fill my ears with improvised and twentieth century classical music, but three records have coaxed me back into the guitars-and-drums fold.

The first is by Matthew Houck, who records under the name Phosphorescent. It seems to be an apt handle; his latest, Pride, is the sound of torch light on the cabin wall. It's twenty-first century backwoods gospel - reverent, haunting, yearning. This is Phosphorescent's third (plus an EP), but the first I've heard of him. A quick scan of his press yields scores of comparisons to Will Oldham, but Pride's got me thinking of an all-male Low. Whoever else it may sound like, the album's got a stillness at its core that I'm particularly drawn to right now.

Next, I've had a week now to live with Jukebox, Cat Power's latest, a sort of a thematic follow-up to The Covers Record, and a sonic sibling of her last, The Greatest. Flak will be dished because Jukebox's covers don't reinvent the originals the way The Covers Record did, and Cat, a.k.a. Chan Marshall seems to be getting comfortable in the skin of a palatable chanteuse, a skin she first donned on The Greatest. But here's the rub: it works. Call sellout if you must, but I'm at a point (age?) where I see it as a trade-off: we're losing a volatile and unpredictable artist, a cauldron of nervous energy and stylistic tics; but we're gaining a helluva soul singer. Maybe artists don't have to reinvent the wheel with every release. Maybe it's enough to cut a good set of songs.

And finally, nothing revelatory here, but after hearing an inter- view with Mick Jones on NPR earlier this week, I dug back into the Clash's catalog. Started with London Calling, then spent an afternoon with (Super) Black Market Clash. What's there to say? The Clash are peerless. The albums are cultural milestones, not frivolous pop artifacts.

There are few (non-jazz) artists I can return to with as much regularity as I do to the music of Joe, Topper, Paul and Mick and not feel that I am chasing my own youth or attempting to recapture some lost feeling of excitement. The Clash are still startlingly relevant, and I imagine they always will be.