Sunday, September 28, 2008

Palpable Liberation

That phrase in the title comes from critic Byron Coley in reference to saxophonist Noah Howard, an artist whose career began in the midst of fire music's heyday and continues right up 'til the present. Howard's a bit of a riddle: sometimes Earth-shattering in his brilliance, throwing colour through the air in new and unexpected combinations, conjuring church and brothel and NYC loft in the span of a few notes, while at other times he has seemed little more than a borrower, a gifted anthologist of techniques and tones originating with some of his better-known New Thing contemporaries (Ayler, Coleman, Marion Brown, etc.). But when he's good, he's very good. And as luck would have it, he was the subject of the latest episode of Now's the Time. I spun some of his best, including At Judson Hall, where the sound of his alto paired with Briton Ric Colbeck's trumpet is, at times, purely narcotic. Add Catherine Norris' cello, and you have something truly unique in the annals of free jazz. Worth hunting down. We also sampled liberally from Black Ark, where Howard's foil is a young and fiery Arthur Doyle.

Anyway, I'd like to think it all made for a pretty entertaining 90 minutes of radio. Judge for yourself:

Now's the Time - September 25, 2008: Noah Howard

I'm currently at a loss for a topic for my next show. Suggestions?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Entitlement," Priorities and Lies

[Forgive me while I get political, but damn it, music is art, and I'm firmly of the belief that art and culture positively and concretely benefit society, and when my society is being led by by a man whose relationship with the arts is best described as "openly hostile," I get upset. Harper is in a position to benefit from the cache of Canadian culture abroad, a status earned by artists, musicians, writers and thinkers who have themselves been helped along by Federal funding, and when those artists are denied that help, and such cultural products begin to dry up, both Canadian standing in the world, and Canadians' sense of themselves are bound to suffer. I'll be back later with non-political words dedicated to my profile of Noah Howard airing tonight on CKCU.]

Much bluster today after PM Harper's denigration of the arts (sorry, the Arts), claiming that ordinary folks don't give a fig about spoiled artists, who are themselves too busy attending galas and, presumably, shining their diamonds to actually listen to what real, honest-to-God, salt-of-the-Earth, everyday Canadians really want to see/hear/think about.

It's a shrewd political move, of course, as the number of citizens working in the arts and likely to vote Conservative anyway would probably fit in my living room, but at its heart it is a divisive and damaging position to take, an alignment with the American notion of culture warfare and anti-elitism. An avalanche of pro-art, anti-Harper articles have appeared today (did you read the Globe?), and it's hard for me to find fault with any of them. But almost to a one, they all emphasize The Power of Art, to borrow from Simon Schama, and that is well and good. But it's also a case of preaching to the choir; an op-ed piece by Margaret Atwood isn't likely to suddenly convince anyone heretofore suspicious of arts funding that their lives have been enriched by Canadian artists. But a blog post by MK Piatkowski, artistic director of the One Big Umbrella theatre company, does just what's required: turns the economic argument back on the Conservatives and those aligned against arts funding. Piatkowski invites readers to use her argument wholesale, cut'n paste style, and I'll do just that. Read it, absorb it, and please, keep it in mind when you vote:

The problem is that the government has obscured what the eliminated programs actually did. The cuts were to eliminate programs that provided industry support - training programs for cultural workers, research and development programs, seed money and venture capital programs. All supports to promote work internationally have been eliminated.

Most artists are small businesses. Small business don't have the resources to leverage expansion on their own when they're first expanding their markets. That's why there are government assistance programs. Bank loans are impossible to come by because banks won't fund artistic ventures because the way it is sold doesn't fit into their cost/benefit analysis. There are no venture capital funds for arts, unless you're writing a Broadway music or making a Disney film. So we look to the government to provide assistance, as do other industries.

Again, it's the specific programs that were eliminated that were the problem. We understand it's a tight economy, but we also understand that right now is a growth period for our industry internationally as there is a much higher demand for entertainment product. These cuts will stop the forward growth we've been experiencing. Remember, Canada is a small market. To develop alternative funding sources, we need to expand. And there was no discussion with the industry about how we were going to move forward before the programs were canceled.

But instead of actually talking about what these programs did, the government chose a few grants to people they didn't like and used it to paint the programs as wasteful and unnecessary and to rile up their base of supporters against supposed "elitist art". And now Mr. Harper drops a comment that implies that artists are rich off government funding, completely ignoring the convenient fact that the majority of artists live at or below the poverty line and the successful ones live a middle-class lifestyle, with only the rare, odd exception.

There's also a misconception out there that the government funds the projects 100% and that it's easy money. No proposal to any government program that looks for more than 40% funding gets accepted. And there's a whole competitive process to go through with no guarantee of seeing money at the end. I've blogged about the process if you're curious.

And btw, the C-10 fallout has made it much more difficult for films to find investors because there is no trust that the government will honour their commitment. You see, the dirty secret of arts funding is that private investors will not commit until they see the government has. This is how they secure their investment.

The point is, artists are average Canadians too. We work hard to create something of value for society. We're just asking for our industry to be treated like the important economic engine it is.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Less-Than-Great Expectations, Immensely Pleasing Results

I had put off getting Wolf Parade's At Mount Zoomer, but I've now rectified the situation, and I'm glad I did. I loved both their debut EP and Apologies to the Queen Mary with an intensity reminiscent of the sort of devotion I lavished on bands like Superchunk in high school. It was innocent and riveting and it produced an almost physical swelling in my abdomen. Springsteenian songcraft, ELO chorusing and naive, anthemic bluster. This band, I thought, will soundtrack my early 30s. They produced something as torn between jubilant uplift and crushing sorrow as the Arcade Fire, but with a sound that appealed to my ears just a little bit more (which is not to denigrate the AF and their brilliant Talking Heads-meets-U2-and-Springsteen-on-the-Plateau-for-some-50s-and-some-deep-conversation sound). But their sophomore album came out, and for some reason, I sort of avoided it. In retrospect, I recognize that I was dreading a letdown of the sort common when you give your heart to a debut record. Let's don't spoil what we have, I felt. And I closed myself off to what Wolf Parade might offer me a second time around. It was shortsighted and wrong, but my instinct for self-preservation extends to golden memories, it seems. It didn't help that I wasn't particularly in love with Sunset Rubdown.

To make a long story only slightly less long, I finally bought At Mount Zoomer, and I'm both annoyed with myself for not getting it sooner, and pleased that it seems primed to provide the churning, soaring, diving, burbling and whooping soundtrack to my autumn (alongside the mellower charms of You + Me). It's proggy in ways that I not only forgive, but love. It's a bit more grown up, a bit less spastic than Apologies..., but then, I guess I am too.

Here's to Wolf Parade for confounding my expectations.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

If These Walls Could Talk

While in New York last weekend to see the stadia (Shea and Yankee) before they meet the wrecking ball (or the memorabilia-seekers), my father and I put in at the legendary Village Vanguard to see the trio of Paul Motian, Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell. Needless to say, a fantastic set, with Lovano taking the helm on most pieces, and Frisell getting frisky with his gadgets and toys, but never overdoing it, and with Motian pushing things along without getting in the way. But as much as the band, we were there to see the venue, the venerable Vanguard. Consider the list of names who've played there (for reference, go to All Music, do an album search on "Village Vanguard" and see what comes up; then figure how many have taken the stage without the tapes rolling). It was quite a night. And yes, Lorraine Gordon still takes drink orders.

So, because lists are the new analysis, here are my three favourite Vanguard-born recordings of all-time:

3. Sonny Rollins, A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note)

Sonny and his piano-free trio (Donald Bailey and Wilbur Ware on bass, Pete LaRoca and Elvin Jones on drums) took to the Vanguard stage in November of 1957 and cut enough material to fill two CDs (now available as The Complete..., whereas it used to be spliced into two volumes). The music is Rollins at his absolute best: agile, powerful, but with enough panache and humour that you might let your guard down and almost fail to recognize just how incredibly good, how dexterous a horn player he is. Few technicians sound this fun.

Also fun is running through these CDs a few times and then throwing Amon Tobin's brilliant Bricolage from 1997 into the CD player and spotting the samples culled from the former and sprinkled throughout the latter.

2. Bill Evans Trio, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby (Riverside/Original Jazz Classics)

In June of '61, lyrical piano genius Bill Evans led a new trio down the tight stairway and into the club on 7th Avenue. The aforementioned Paul Motian occupied the drummer's stool (possibly the first time he'd been at the club, but not the last), and the bassist was the innovative Scott LaFaro. The rolling tapes captured enough music for two LPs that night, and they're both undisputed classics. Not bad for a day's work. Something about the sound of both Sunday... and Waltz for Debby is undeniably wonderful -- they sound like live jazz recordings should sound. I mean that both technically (the sound is clear, warm, perfect) and artistically. The interplay between these three men is astounding.

Listen to the title cut from "Waltz for Debby." Listen to Evans' sweet playfulness. Listen to LaFaro's ability to find the middle ground between Evans and Motian, and fill every nook therein. This record set a new standard for the piano trio. That's not hyperbole. This is not a piano backed by a rhythm section; it's three frontline instruments perfectly in tune with one another.

Now listen to "My Man's Gone Now" from Sunday at the Village Vanguard. Listen to the elegaic tone and try not to be affected by the knowledge that LaFaro would be gone ten days later, a victim of a car accident, not quite 26 years old.

1. John Coltrane, The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse)

If this comes as a surprise, you haven't been paying attention.

This is the point where John Coltrane jumped off into the abyss of complete artistic freedom. This is where he began exploring Eastern motifs and themes. This is where Eric Dolphy's sometimes-membership in the band bore it's greatest fruit. Coltrane used these handful of dates in November of 1961 to throw all his ideas into the hopper and see what emerged. He experimented with the makeup of his band, with new compositions, and with new techniques. He did all this with the critics and the curious fans in attendance. What he learned from these experiments set the trajectory for his art until his death.

This is essential listening. The thought that I was sitting in the same room that had borne witness to the creation of this music was as humbling an experience as I've ever known. If Coltrane is a religion, this is the first book of his New Testament.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Long Distance Dedication

For Peter in Ottawa. C'mere. Go away.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


We at the IMC are pleased to be making our first, tentative foray into the cutthroat world of concert promotion:

On October 18, the IMC presents the trio of Rob Price, Chris Cawthray and Ed Zankowski at the Avant Garde Bar, 135 1/2 Besserer St., Ottawa. For info call 613-321-8908.

If you like what you see/hear in the clip, won't you please come on out and make our first kick at the can a resounding success?