Friday, December 31, 2010

#s 15-11

While you're all donning the proverbial lampshade headgear in anticipation of the ball dropping at midnight, I'm hard at work bringing y'all the next five entries. Devotion! Save a glass and a kiss for me, won't you?

15. Chicago Underground Duo, Boca Negro

Chad Taylor and Rob Mazurek -- both busy guys, the latter hard at work with a group to appear further on up this list -- regroup as one iteration of the Chicago Underground improvising collective (they've been a trio, quartet, quintet and orchestra, too) to record ten complex, delicate and intriguing tracks. Traditional instruments (cornet, drums, vibes, mbira) are washed over and beneath by electronics, treated and tweaked, modulated and augmented, but the humanity underlying it all is never once compromised. Beautiful, strange, natural and touching.

14. David S. Ware, Onecept

Ware's sound is scraped down to the bone, extraneous layers sloughed off, sinew and bone exposed. He has been to hell and back, and he squeezes all of that through the mouthpiece of his horn. This is completely improvised. Tape rolls, ideas flow. That deviates from Ware's usual work pattern, and the results are harrowing. Warren Smith (d) and William Parker (b) are along for the ride. No slouches, either of them, but this is Ware's statement. Music as both test and testimony.

13. Tu Fawning, Hearts on Hold

Tu Fawning's not-so-secret weapon is Corrina Repp, who possesses a voice as big as Florence's, but a much smaller profile, at least so far. Quite a year for Flo and her Machine; might 2011 see Repp and her bandmates soundtracking a million mocha latte afternoons, too? The differences are more numerous than the similarities, but the voices beg comparison. I owe PF a case of thanks for introducing me to this band's debut EP; it had me fairly giddy for the full length. I take it the band went from duo to quartet in that time, and the sound also got bigger. Dramatic, grand and brash, but nuanced, subtle and delicate, too. Hearts on Hold is one of those records that's as much about feel as it is sound. Records like that are the ones you remember.

12. Surfer Blood, Astro Coast

Something in the water has surf/surfer/surfing featuring prominently in the cultural conversation circa now, more as notion than activity: surf music, "Angela Surf City," "Learned to Surf," and this band from Florida, where such a thing is at least plausible. What gives? Who's to say. Or care. Probably just a coincidence, but worth mentioning, anyway. Maybe. Astro Coast is a heavily reverbed storm front of pop-punk harmony meeting a low pressure zone of shoegazey noise. The breakers are huge! Wax down and paddle out, and catch a wave, or whatever!

11. The Black Keys, Brothers

Dan Auerbach's voice is a mournful instrument, a bluesy wail, a creaky gearbox, a sonic seducer; it is a thing kicked loose from time to wander the ether and the spiritual midspace between Memphis, Muscle Shoals and, er, Akron. The Black Keys' bluesrock is a delicate balance -- when you choose such as your arena, you risk falling into parody or slavish retread. But these two keep on the right side of that hashed line; they're neither too Zeppelin nor too... what? Raging Slab? Save your White Stripes comparisons as they're baseless and ill-informed. Might as well lump the Porsche and the Grand Caravan together (four wheels and an internal combustion? Check!). Brothers finds a helluva band in full stride, their footing sure, their direction unquestioned. And that voice!

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

#s 20-16

Still with me? Another nibble now from the big list before we break for the holidays. More to follow in the week in between...

20. Aram Shelton Quartet, These Times

I detailed my Shelton fixation back in August. Let me only add that, after spending the last few weeks mildly obsessed with Lee Konitz At Storyville -- featuring another altoist captured at a fairly early point in his career, and with a new-ish band -- how wonderful it has been, over the last several years, to have a prejudice of mine dismantled brick by brick. For years I couldn't hear an alto playing modern jazz without comparing it to Parker's -- and judging it lacking. Same sort of thing occured with Coltrane, of course, before I fought my way out of that. But Shelton's playing has been refreshing for me in this way -- it sounds not like a pale imitation of anything, but like a single sincere, probing voice. Konitz, of course, is/was a different voice, too, and while listening the other night it occured to me that I was finally hearing these guys as players first, altos only secondarily. Might not sound like much, but it feels like a big deal to me.

19. Male Bonding, Nothing Hurts

An album that probably won't stand the test of time, quite honestly, but damn fun just the same, with crunch and harmonies sufficient to remind one of an old warhorse that will appear way, way up this list, just you wait.

18. Wolf Parade, Expo 86

Maybe the indie band of these times -- remember when we thought that'd be Modest Mouse? -- has a third album worth considering in terms of its place in the discography. When I guess at what bands I'll still be listening to in 10 years I feel pretty certain these guys will be one of the few. What the mid-40s me will hear when he listens back will be a dialing back of the prog tendencies that surfaced on At Mount Zoomer, and a move to a more free range rock. Bigger drums, keys more in service of the tunes than vice versa, and something I can't quite place that has me feeling more Bowie than Springsteen (the latter having felt like a major touchstone for the first record). This is a damn good record, even if there won't be as many songs plucked to populate mixes (or playlists?) in the years that follow its release.

17. Tomas Fujiwara and the Hook Up, Actionspeak

Inside-out postbop from drummer Fujiwara and his band, with much of the out provided by guitarist Mary Halvorson, who's no stranger to this blog (her quartet's Saturn Sings was in fact a near-miss for this year's list). I'm a sucker for stuff that sounds like mid-'60s Blue Note avant-bop (think along the Bobby Hutcherson - Andrew Hill - Jackie McLean axis). This approaches that, but for Halvorson's appealingly unique lines, which veer toward off-kilter, but never topple into the realm of queer-for-queer's sake. Bracing, engaging stuff.

16. Pernice Brothers, Goodbye, Killer

"Ah, there he is," the reader is saying, "Pernice had to show up sometime." Because yes, okay, if Joe Pernice slaps his name on just about anything in a calendar year, he can be certain of at least one thing: it will show up on TiOM's list at year's end. I'm reliable like that. But so is Pernice reliable: you can count on his records featuring sharp songwriting, beautiful pop arrangements, and that gorgeous voice. On Goodbye, Killer, the arrangements are a smidge less baroque, a bit more pared back, a bit more... rock than on some of his more recent outings. But in the end, there he is, good old Pernice. Come to think of it, in his steadiness and reliability he is very much like that other hero of mine.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Saturday, December 18, 2010

#s 25-21

25. Swans, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky

Michael Gira dusts off Swans to remind the Mile End anarchists who did what first. This actually sent me on a listening expedition the other night, into the remote wilds of '90s "post-rock," instrumental scores to the films in doom-minded musicians' heads, soundtracks to movies never made, funeral dirges for the still dying. Think Godspeed, Rachel's, the Boxhead Ensemble. What amazed me was how much it all sounded like outtakes from Nick Cave's and Warren Ellis's score for The Road. The second surprise was how much more affecting I found it, how difficult were the images of "mothers clutching babies, pick[ing] through the rubble and pull[ing] out their hair" -- it hurts more when you have more to lose, I suppose.

But Gira, and by extension Swans, have more bile than that other gang, more bite, as well as more room for redemption, it would seem. That last bit wouldn't have been true in the past, but perhaps the man has mellowed in his own peculiar way. His own young daughter duets with Devendra Banhart on "You Fucking People Make Me Sick." Classic!

That he cuts songs with vocals is something of a red herring; the assortment of noises and pummelling crescendos that dot his songs mark Gira as the first post-rocker, or perhaps more accurately the first post-apocalypse-rocker, since this (like every Swans record) sounds like the noise that greets the first day after the end of the world.

24. Gaslight Anthem, American Slang

I don't know about these guys. They've turned Boss-aping pop-punk into a cottage industry, earned Bruuuuce's approval, and spread their sound over three full-lengths, all with a bit of a tenuous grasp on the real nature of Springsteenian songcraft. They repeat the tropes, but lack the depth. And yet they do it all with such gusto, and make it catchy enough that you're moved to overlook their shortcomings, pogo along, and hope they'll one day turn out that breakneck cover of "Spirit in the Night" they seem destined to make.

23. Marc Ribot, Silent Movies

The swoon and clang of Marc Ribot's guitar is a sound both velvety and metallic. His solo guitar work, now documented on several albums (2001's Saints being an earlier highlight), is always engaging. Silent Movies consists of 13 pieces that serve as accompaniment to silent films both real and imagined, fragmentary explorations of image and mood that have the ability to lull, please and intrigue. Ribot is one of my longtime favourite musicians (and he's appeared on lists past), a key piece of a number of seminal recordings (Tom Waits' Rain Dogs, the Lounge Lizards' Voice of Chunk, to name two), but the material he's turned out for the Pi label since 2005 might be his most important work yet.

22. Best Coast, Crazy for You

Hands down the micro-trend of 2010: lo-fi girl group pop with a side of surf rock. Seriously. The best of the bunch is Best Coast's debut, a hazy, reverb-laden ode to weed, laziness and young love.

21. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs

Okay, alright, yes, it is good. Despite my misgivings over Win Butler's single-source theory of modern anomie, the fact that Arcade Fire (the U2 of the '10s) have birthed their most accessible record to date musn't be overlooked. A few lyrical duds ("Business men drink my blood / like the kids in high school said they would") are forgiven in light of the music that backs them. Overall AF have matured, and in doing so they've cemented their place in the vanguard of contemporary avant pop, and confirmed that they'll be with us for a long while yet.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

This Is Our Music: 2010 (#s 30-26)

Mid-December and things are gettin' kind of hectic, but The List is always front-of-mind, so while the upper echelons are still being shuffled and tweaked I wanted to start things off before somebody posted this shit on WikiLeaks.

This year's list carries the subheading "Stop Me if You Think That You've Heard This One Before" because, g-darnit, I'm in my mid-30s and the road behind me is long, and discovering new artists? That takes time, son, a product I find hard to source. So guess what? A ton of the acts on TiOM: 2010 have appeared on past lists. The more repeats that appear, the deeper I sink into the morass of my own hermetically-sealed world. Symtom or cause -- that's a tough one to sort, but regardless, I'm approaching full-on stasis mode, like when your dad picked up an Abba record at Sam's and knew he never again had to worry about finding new music, because for this moment he was hip, and he would remember this feeling for the rest of his days, and that was going to have to be enough.

Yes, there are new names, enough to prevent the amber from solidifying over these bones, if only temporarily. There are still discoveries to be made.

Had enough? Here we go:

30. Budos Band, Budos Band III
29. Josh Ritter, So Runs the World Away
28. Fond of Tigers, Continent and Western
27. Gil Scott-Heron, I'm New Here
26. Aeroplane Trio, Naranja Ha

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sober girls around me they be ackin like they druuuunk

Making my list, checking it twice. All is flux at the moment. The only certainty? There will be no Far East Movement on This is Our Music's best of 2010 list. Or Ke$ha.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


Dave Douglas

Photo by Bruno Bollaert/

Monday, November 22, 2010

Darkness and Promise

THE REASON I, and no doubt legions of other no-longer-boys staring down hairloss and paunchiness, am so excited about this ridiculous new Springsteen box thing is that it chronicles the Turning Point in the man's classic oeuvre.

Simply: there is a transition in every man's life from Born to Run to Darkness on the Edge of Town, a time when, suddenly, the rah-rah defiance of Born gives way to the crushing weight of Real Life. “No Surrender” and “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run” still mean something, they still rouse the spirit every time they're played, but it becomes a matter of nostalgia, whereas Darkness etches a place that has become much more familiar to him, a compromised existence -- “trouble in the heartland” -- that wasn't exactly what he had in mind when he was still young and girlcrazy and half certain he ejaculated rocket fuel. But there he is.

Make no mistake, he's still aflame with a desire to go out at night and find out what he's got, maybe more than ever before, but he's a little worried about what he might find. The confidence and certainty are gone. All he knows for sure are the love and faith that make getting up in the morning possible.

SONY IS PROBABLY the best of the majors when it comes to putting together these sorts of massive packages – maybe from all their experience cashing in on Miles' legacy – so I have no doubt that the box is worth delving into. But what seems more intriguing to me (and less likely to result in darkness in the middle of my wallet) is The Promise, the stand-alone double-album worth of material that didn't make the cut for inclusion on Darkness way back in 1978. This is the stuff, universally lauded as album-worthy, that Springsteen trimmed away to reveal the darkness of Darkness. This is the stuff deemed extraneous. You get the sense that there's plenty to be gleaned from these tailings, a sort of shadow version of the man's/America's mentality circa '77-'78.

SPRINGSTEEN IS A tough sell among a certain demo, mostly because the boomers think they own him. That makes it hard for some to think of him as possessing currency. But the fact is they own him like I own him, which is to say not at all. But it can be tempting, can't it, to look at the details of what an artist has produced, to feel a kinship, a recognition, and to declare yours the only generation who'll truly get it. “You had to be there.” Bullshit. Show me a time, a place, populated by people who didn't, at one time or another, seeth with the urge “to spit in the face of these badlands.”

But at work there's a crappy version of “Merry Christmas, Baby” in rotation, calling to my coworkers' minds the vision of a hunch-shouldered and pandering Bruce, grinning and beaming, dancing with Courtney Cox, hamming it up with Clarence. So when I express admiration in the face of such evidence of lameness, eyes roll. That's fine. I start up conversations with the older guys coming in to lay down their $100 for the thing, they smile and shake their heads and then they take it home and watch the DVDs alone, listen to the CDs alone, wives elsewhere, uninterested, kids scoffing. If I had the spare money, I'd do the same.

PICK A CLICHE and it fits me like a pair of size 11 Blundstones. The “writer” working retail. The father of three rushing headlong toward a midlife something. The jazz fan who thinks “if people would only give it a chance...” The white guy in plaid shirts who thinks Bruuuuce! a kind of demigod. But all I know is this: there are works of art, cultural artifacts, that seem to warp the very air around them, that hum and glow, overshadowing lesser works, speaking to something vital or unassailable. These things make so many of your other things seem worthless, trivial, unworthy of the space they occupy. Springsteen is, it seems to me, the author of several such works, including Darkness on the Edge of Town, and I welcome the chance to spy on the process of creating such a work that these two (undeniably cash-grabby) releases offer me. Call me curious. Call me a sucker. Call me old. I don't mind a bit.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Antidote

BECAUSE YOU FIND yourself singing along to Rihanna and Taio Cruz while at work, just because they're on, sweet heaven they are always on, you find yourself during your home hours reaching for an antidote of sorts to make sure you're not still singing Want you to make me feel like I'm the only girl in the world as you drift off toward a fitful and brief sleep. The antidote takes many shapes, but of late it has looked and tasted like:

Exploding Star Orchestra, Stars Have Shapes

Aeroplane Trio, Naranja Ha

Warpaint, The Fool

...and the 900 or so songs on the ipod that you've rated at 5 stars, in a seemingly never-ending shuffle, like hit radio as programmed by you, which has put you at one side of a kind of soft war with your wife, who skips a song or changes the program every time you leave the room. Too much Neutral Milk Hotel? Probably. But you can never OD on RFTC or The Clash, is how you see it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Among the Ruins

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia
(operated 1829-1971)

Photo by AGF

I'VE BEEN sussing the connections between urban exploration and unitary urbanism, my efforts set to the squeal and clank of the Nation of Ulysses' brilliant neo-Situationist missive Plays Pretty for Baby. In some imaginary, pre-responsibility* youth, I see myself scaling rusted ladders in enormous subterranean tunnels to the ear-gutting cacophony of “The Kingdom of Heaven Must Be Taken by Storm” as played on cheap speakers duct-taped to my belt.

AFTER ALL, what is UE if not an attempt to reclaim that which most of us never consented to relinquish? An assault on the notion of perpetual ownership? A mobilized form of squatting? A waking dream aimed at re-imagining, redrawing, redressing the levels and vistas available to us as (ex-/sub-) urban dwellers?

OLD IDEAS become compost in the new city. Christopher Payne's book (and Oliver Sachs' introduction of same) forced me to reconsider the idea of asylum – less Arkham, more sanctuary, safe bosom, respite – the idea nevertheless lost, or mistranslated across scant few generations, as the human cost vs. hard currency pendulum swung wide in the other direction, lopping off heads as it traversed its course. Now all we have are hulls, husks, mute ghosts, and beautiful photographs.

Once social institutions crumble, we simply leave the buildings that housed them to do the same. We just walk away. Or how about this: we institutionalize civic compassion only when a certain set of economic conditions are present, and when these conditions cease to be, we can no longer afford said values. So, is civic compassion a luxury? Which is to say: once the Baby Boomers are through ravaging health care and pensions, will we have to forsake those values? And will the buildings that now house these apparatuses then fall into ruin?

THE UPSIDE: burgeoning armies of young rats abandoning Krylon for Cannon, Olympus or Nikon. Their directive is shifting from redecorating to preserving, cataloguing, archiving. The thrill must be similar. There are still dark passages, security guards, and razor wire to shimmy beneath, around and over. In Japan they call it haikyo. Why do the Japanese always have terms for these things before we do?

In Peterborough the methadone clinic is in a building erected in 1848, the last all-stone edifice put up here. There's a pizza joint next door. Just down the street, in another aged building, an old-school hardware store, the kind with uneven floors and cramped aisles. I love these buildings. I'd rather see them used than explored, they're better standing than razed to make room for whatever. That's part of this town's appeal: most of it is still standing, including the alluringly fenced-off GE campus, with some buildings dating back 100 years, to when the damn thing was opened by Edison himself! Electric City, indeed! Imagine the shit that lies rusting, bricked off, forgotten, piled-upon in there. It sits there like a giant black box, a question mark. From the road, through the fence, you only get glimpses. There are railroad tracks that disappear into the solid sides of buildings.

GE's still a going concern, miraculously, that campus still active, but virtually everywhere you look there exists abandonment, past endeavour sliding to ruin. What's alluring about these places, forgotten by most, might be the inherent metaphor of imminent collapse. That's the sound of the Nation of Ulysses' music, too; what structure is present threatens to come crashing down at any moment. This is no twee screed, but a battle cry consisting of skronk, thrash, Stooge-like noise, and arty aural pastiche. There is pressure from within and without. In time, we know, there will be only strata of linoleum, paint, wallboard and rot in the case of the soon-to-fall buildings – or scattered cultural-archeological findings to be re-purposed as an aesthetic, in NOU's case: suits, hair, sound, dogma. Dig it up, pry back the plywood, dust it off and remember what others have forgotten.

(For the time being, let's refrain from considering the seismic shift, Bush to Bush, that has meant that a gaggle of poseur agitators who were, in their time, inspirational but to be consumed with a knowing wink, would now, thanks to their penchant for titles like 13 Point Plan to Destroy America, be added to watch lists, or some other such shit. Let's just hold off thinking about how unbelievably stupid that is, alright, and about what it says about how shitty our lives have become, and about all that we have lost, in many cases willingly so, and what we are leaving to our kids. Okay?)

This is all front-of-mind for me these days, I think, because of where I have returned to work, i.e. the cruel and ever-shrivelling teat of music/video retail. When in the mall I am struck by the duelling desires to revel in so much commercial excess (dance to the end of the world!) and to see it all collapse tidily into its own footprint. I want to know what the place will look like once barren and empty. What will we leave behind? What ravages will nature visit upon the place? Maple trees in the food court?

OR, FORGET the Nation of Ulysses, put them out of mind, flourish and exeunt, fire them from their post as the house band at the post-historic dinner club. You know that exercise where they play stock footage of a bear, or a lion, or some other such menacing beast, and the soundtrack is ominous, dreadful, plodding, but then they play the same clip set to, I don't know, Henry Mancini or something, and you go, “Oh man, my filmic impressions are almost completely driven by the score! I'm such a pawn!” Well, reconsider... maybe in place of the Nation of Ulysses, we play something by Jason Adasiewicz, and what we see are dust motes merrily dancing through a lovely shaft of light. Adasiewicz' vibraphone is crystalline, pure – the mood is jaunty, offhandedly fun. We are cheered by the notion that dogged beauty exists in the places where our ruin is most glaringly obvious.

* The responsibility of parenthood is no construct, of course, no arbitrary enslavement in the unfeeling gears of the capitalist, imperialist mindfuck, but rather a very real, human impulse – a need – and one which no amount of debasement, humiliation, drudgery nor wage imprisonment can nullify. Feed them! Care for them! March off toward the front in the vain hope that they will not one day have to do the same for their children. Report back to me at a later date: is there anything so fulfilling?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Sweet Earth Flying

Marion Brown, 1931-2010

Read about Brown's life, in his own words, at AllAboutJazz.

Photo via

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


In 1989 I was 13 years old and just becoming politicized. I wasn't a militant young black man, but what I gleaned from PE was that there were things worth changing, and the possibility existed that we just might change them. We were going to create racial equality, harmony, understanding, tolerance. We were going to cure AIDS, eliminate hunger, colonize space, save the damn planet. The fuck happened?

Musically, holy shit -- pick a style, let me point to a seminal (or at least important, or at the very least "pretty damn good") album released that year. How about Full Moon Fever, 3 Feet High and Rising, Doolittle, Raw Like Sushi, The Stone Roses, Bleach, The Real Thing, Margin Walker and Paul's Boutique?

I don't want to fawn over what then held cache and now looks hopelessly kitschy ("the hair was funny! the pants were big!"), but try to remember what it felt like to be alive then (if applicable). It was naive and fresh and fun. We were smack in the middle of the Golden Age of Rap. Nobody had died since John Lennon. Am I remembering this right? The goddamned Berlin Wall fell! Communism was totally on its last legs. And even if the notion that The People made it happen turned out to be a romantic exaggeration (cf: Bulgarian blue jeans, heavy debt loads, inept leadership, wasteful and redundant systems... any of this sound startlingly familiar?), it sure felt like the future was a ripe oyster eager to split itself open and reveal to us, the youth, its slick and shiny treasure.

Ha ha!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

In Rotation: The Cole Porter Song Book

Calm the kids. Separate them if necessary. Serve drinks to the adults. Out the window see the late afternoon dark, the gusty wind, the leaves swirling as if in a snowglobe. Get dinner on the stove. As the kitchen heats up, take off your sweater. Boil, beat, chop, stir, fold, mix, repeat. Serve more drinks. Top up your own. Feed the babies. Wonder what you'll serve for dessert. Root around in the freezer for something, then remember the butter tarts your guests brought from the farmers' market. Breathe a sigh of relief. Be thankful for the small things. Quell another children's uprising. Top up the drinks. Call everyone to dinner. Put on Ella singing Cole Porter. Think longingly of a time before your own. Relax.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Seasons Change

Suddenly gone are days at the beach and driving open-windowed, even the days of backyard apple harvesting have passed me by, and what remains is the inevitability of frost. The leaves here are kaleidoscopic and the air's got that tangy bite most days. All of this signals a change in music, of course. It's not as cut-and-dried as digging a box of sweaters and woolens out of the crawlspace, but somehow, what feels right just changes.

Just in time comes a new Walkmen album, Lisbon. Nice; almost like they planned it that way. You and Me is still necessary listening anytime I'm driving around town alone on a cool night. My hand gravitates toward it every time, without fail. There's just the right ratio of bluster to stillness on that record, and every bit of me wanted the new record to retain that feel. It does, mostly. There's a tad bit less introspection, a bit more, well, joy, but this being the Walkmen, it's tinted at the edges, the incoming rot, the sense of temporariness in the happiness that, if I'm being honest, I'd have to say feels true to how I experience happiness. It always feels conditional. I have a black, black heart.

What else? Destination: Out! posted some seriously crazy Masabumi Kikuchi shit that made my wife physically uncomfortable last night while we both shuffled around the kitchen. A bit like the polar opposite to the Walkmen, but worth mentioning, perhaps. It felt autumnal because it wasn't sunny West Coast comfyjazz.

Sooner or later I'll probably dig out the Philip Glass, too. Because I'm deep, deep into my rut now. Before long my kids will lament my reliability. "Shit, it's fall. Dad's gonna drag out that Dracula music."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fast Citizen

While the rest of us waste our lives watching CSI reruns on Spike, Aram Shelton is producing music with the crazed urgency of condemned man. He is an incredibly busy musician, sloughing off albums like skin cells. In that sense he's pedestrian as far as go musicians related to the Chicago scene. I hesitate to use the word scene because it reads poorly, but you know wherefrom I come. Shelton's based in Oakland now, but his associations with Chicago's well-populated improvised music scene are strong, just as Rob Mazurek's move to Brazil only made him busier in Illinois. I profiled Shelton a few years back on the now-defunct Now's the Time radio program, inspired by the debut of the trio dubbed Dragons 1976 (On Cortez, Locust Music, 2003). That was a fantastic record – it still sounds great to me – and once I started digging into the saxophonist's body of work I found a wealth of strong releases. I suppose that in the interim – the long, fallow years that followed – I've let lapse my claim to knowledge of Shelton's doings. Then Delmark sent me the second Fast Citizens record, and my interest was re-sparked.

So I'm glued to three Shelton-scented releases these days, though two of them are old news. That's the problem with this music: you can't ever catch up. There aren't enough hours and/or dollars. But you pick your spots, and the three I've chosen of late are these:

Dragons 1976, Winter Break (Singlespeed, 2006)
The trio is Shelton, Jason Ajemian on bass and Tim Daisy on drums, and the air, the expansiveness that marked On Cortez makes this record highly listenable as well. There's a feel to this unit – maybe it's timelessness, or a timeliness from another time – that suggests uncountable hours of study at the feet of dead men with long-silent horns. In and amongst all that air, that space, there's also a bite to Shelton's saxophone. Cool requires that even the smoothest quip contains a barb; sophistication is measured by the ability to disguise the point.

Fast Citizens, Two Cities (Delmark, 2009)
A sextet with a rotating leader's chair, the Fast Citizens have released only two albums but logged countless stage hours, if their playing is any indication. The cities alluded to are Chicago and Oakland, Shelton's base, since it was his turn to hold the speaking stick. You get the sense, though, that any one of these players could lead the ensemble to the Canaan of improvisational perfection. This band is tight. The compositions are good, and the improvising even better. Even if the chair only makes one full rotation, that leaves four more releases; at their established rate of an album every four years I'll be enjoying this band until my youngest graduates high school.

Aram Shelton Quartet, These Times (Singlespeed, 2010)
In which he adds clarinet to his repertoire. The quartet is like a juicy, marbled slab carved from the ham of the Fast Citizens. In musical terms, it kind of lands equidistant from Dragons and the Citizens, containing the fire and the space of both. The form and the formlessness. The great thing about this music is its ability to address needs: sometimes I want mathematical precision, other days I want something that swings. This group's got me covered.

Photo via

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Answers to Unaswerable Questions

Waaaay back on March 5, Patrick, Friend of This is Our Music, dropped the following question in the comment box:

some of this stuff has been on my mind recently due to my friend jay asking for our favourite song of the 1950's. yes, one fave song from the 50's. i had to do a top 20 - 5 of those tunes were jazz numbers. what would be on your list?

Impossible!, I replied. So of course, I had to try my hand. The results:

Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker, “Bernie's Tune” (1952)
Hank Williams, “I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive” (1952)
Horace Silver, “Room 608” (1953)
George Jones, “Why Baby Why?” (1955)
Johnny Cash, “I Walk the Line” (1956)
Sam Cooke, “Touch the Hem of His Garment” (1956)
Bo Diddley, “Who Do You Love?” (1956)
Charlie Feathers, “Can't Hardly Stand It” (1956)
Ella Fitzgerald, “Too Darn Hot” (1956)
Sonny Rollins, “You Don't Know What Love Is” (1956)
Carl Perkins, “Put Your Cat Clothes On” (1957)
Art Blakey, “Moanin'” (1958)
Eddie Cochran, “Summertime Blues” (1958)
Elvis Presley, “Mystery Train” (1958)
Dave Brubeck, “Take Five” (1959)
Ornette Coleman, “Lonely Woman” (1959)
John Coltrane, “Giant Steps” (1959)
Miles Davis, “So What” (1959)
Charles Mingus, “Better Git It In Your Soul” (1959)
Marty Robbins, “El Paso” (1959)

This list is attended by a truckload of caveats, of course, most glaringly the lack of women (lonely, Ella?) If it were a list of 25, there'd have been room for Patsy Cline and Wanda Jackson, but what can you do? The parameters were handed to me and I operated within them. Also, one of my favourite records of all time, Kenny Burrell's At the Five Spot (1959), is woefully absent, but sacrifices had to be made in the interest of a full representation of the decade in question. And god, '56 and '59: hell of a couple of years, huh?

Next, I understand, we're to move to 1960-64. Problematic: the 15 or so requisite Coltrane recordings won't leave much room for all that other stuff.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Son of Sisyphus

Bill Dixon, 1925-2010

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Being With

Sometimes, you're in the right place at the right time. After the IMC's series on the brilliant Montreal saxophonist Francois Carrier aired on The Mighty 93.1 last year, Carrier contacted me to ask if I'd be interested in penning the liner notes to his next project. I answered in the affirmative, obviously. The album, entitled Being With, is an improvised duet recording with vocalist Veronique Dubois, and the results are intriguing. Released earlier this year on UK-based Leo Records ("Music for the inquiring mind and the passionate heart"), the music is available in both physical and an electronic formats.

Reprinted below are my notes from the CD package:

This seems to me to be an aptly titled collection of music, for if being is the most basic state of existence, then surely being with is one of the highest. It connotes partnership, cooperation, commonality, harmony; a connection across that which divides us.

To listen to the music contained herein is to witness moments when the two sounds – Francois Carrier’s horn and Veronique Dubois’ voice – are indistinguishable from one another. That sort of negation of the self is the essence of being with. When me becomes we. When the aims of the individual melt away, and the success of the pairing becomes of primary concern. Such moments are rare enough in human relations; musically they are a precious commodity indeed.

Whether they are whispering to one another, racing each other to the end of a line, or trading baboon calls, these two musicians are always in conversation, always connecting. Veronique Dubois performs the sorts of vocal gymnastics you might expect from Diamanda Galas or Yamatsuka Eye. She keens, soars, dips, her voice sometimes strangled or guttural, at other times crystalline-pure. In other words her vocalizations have much in common with Francois Carrier’s playing. This is what makes them so well suited for collaboration, for being with one another in such a setting.

Francois Carrier continually amazes me with his willingness to meet his collaborators in the fertile middle ground where individual performances are perhaps less technically impressive but where the key to successful improvisation lies (which isn’t to say that Carrier does not possess dazzling technique – he does, of course, but he is judicious in its display). This is true whether the collaborator is his frequent foil Michel Lambert, or a “guest” musician, such as Jean-Jacques Avenel on the brilliant Within. It speaks well of both artists’ sensibilities when such a sympathetic bond is forged, but I have yet to encounter a piece of music featuring this wonderful saxophonist in which he has failed to connect with another musician, and I doubt I ever will.

As states of existence go, perhaps this musical sense of being with is higher still, a plane most of us will never inhabit. In instances when this deeper being with is achieved the result is a wondrous musical communion. Sometimes, as is the case here, the meeting has been captured for posterity, and though the musicians involved are certainly lucky, we listeners are the truly fortunate ones.

Many thanks to Francois Carrier for allowing me the opportunity to contribute in some small way to this project, and, of course, for the wonderful music.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Not Dead Yet

Cue the standard refrain: Sorry for the absence, but I've been busy, and so forth, etc. (But I think newborn twins counts as a legitimate excuse for not posting to a music blog read by no one). But as much to appease my own conscience as to convince you(?), I have to prove that I do indeed still have a pulse and that my good vs. crap music meter is still operational, so here's a brief rundown of what's been heard in my (suddenly crowded) house of late, in no particular order, because that's how my mind works:

Josh Berman, Old Idea
Wardell Gray, Live at the Haig, 1952
Pernice Brothers, Goodbye Killer (naturally)
Male Bonding, Nothing Hurts
George Lewis, Homage to Charles Parker
Phosphorescent, Here's to Taking It Easy
Josh Ritter, So Runs the World Away

I'm still alive! Back with more new content in the days ahead.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Departed

Mark Linkous, Sparklehorse

Very strange and sad to hear of Linkous' suicide on the weekend. I was assembling an iPod playlist for my wife's birthday celebrations on Saturday, and I stumbled across Good Morning, Spider. I threw "Sick of Goodbyes" on the list. What the hell, I thought.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Jazz Loft Project

The Jazz Loft Project

The ever-vigilant PF (manning the ramparts of culture, his eyes scan the horizon!) tipped me to this, and I’m grateful. It hits squarely at the intersection of several interests/passions/concerns of mine. First, there’s the jazz. Secondly, you got your photography. Thirdly, it's history. And lastly, there’s the undeniable appeal of a Collyer Brothers-like mentality – a hoarding packrat who can’t throw anything out, and feels a compulsion to (literally) record everything.

I’ll spare the details and simply urge you to click through. Scan through the photos, listen to the recordings, and make time for the 10-episode radio series. Fascinating stuff. (And if you're flush, why not buy the book and then lend it to me?)

Thing is, it’s easy to see how someone could become W. Eugene Smith.

And as a side note, is that not a supremely beautiful website? It’s only fitting, given the subject, but design like that ruins me for lazily slapped together pages.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Miles Gawks, Howard McGhee Blows

From beyond the grave, McGhee shouts to a deaf world, It could have been me!