Monday, June 11, 2007

Soul Merchant interviews (interviewed?) Maria Schneider

(Damn picture function on Blogger isn't working...)

In an age when large jazz ensembles are the province of legend or old folks’ homes, composer, arranger and conductor Maria Schneider gathers the best players of her generation in a band that is one of the most innovative in jazz—or maybe just in music: Schneider says genre barriers aren’t all the important for her.

She has racked up an impressive array of achievements in her career—from the apprenticeships with Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer to winning the first Grammy for a record sold only online (2004’s self-released Concert in the Garden).

I spoke to Schneider back in April, just before a show April 20 at Page Auditorium on Duke’s campus, but the interview was not in time for recess’ last issue and was then lost in the ether. Now for the first time, Soul Merchant’s exclusive interview with Maria Schneider. Post script: I missed a lot of the show, but the parts I heard were phenomenal. Highly recommended.

How did you come to be a bandleader, composer and arranger and not an instrumentalist?
It wasn’t really a decision. It just is who I am and that my expressive voice comes through composition. My music is so intricate that when I first started rehearsing I didn’t think I’d be about being a conductor. But when my group performed the music, it seemed that they performed best when I was standing in front conducting. It wasn’t like I wanted to be a bandleader. This is kind of who I am. I think sometimes being a musician isn’t really a choice.

Did you play with the group early on?
I grew up playing piano, but I never was comfortable performing. When I sat down to play, I never had that passion to perform. In fact, I had an anxiety when I sat down to play piano and I never had great technique. It’s in the people. Some people freak out to have a piece of theirs performed. It’s just what I do.

Another thing that I do that I don’t think a lot of writers do is that when I’m writing music, I’m writing music for musicians, I’m really writing for those musicians, I’m going out of my way to make those people sound better than they’ve ever sounded. So often writers are writing to write a cool piece but it doesn’t matter who’s playing on it. I know my orchestra very well and I like to make them sound wonderful.

How did you come to lead a big band? When you formed the band [1993], did you have any role models as band leaders beside mentors Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer?
They’ve always been an influence on my writing. I grew up loving classical music, standards, old-style jazz. I didn’t know much new jazz. Over the years I fell in love with flamenco music, Brazilian music. What I always loved about Brookmeyer and Gil is that their music crosses boundaries, but not self-consciously so, in that ‘I’m trying to incorporate jazz techniques to the classical world.’ Gil’s music had many of the orchestration and harmonic qualities of classical music. Bob Brookmeyer’s music has the formal qualities—development and not theme-and-variations the way most jazz is. I became attracted to their music because it was so much “more.” It fit more with my background.

Why did you choose to use the big band format?
The way it actually started was that in college. I probably would have started a band with a more unusual instrumentation if I had my druthers, but in college that was the only group large enough available to play compositions. Then when I came to New York, I was writing for the Mel Lewis Orchestra and I didn’t want to have to start over from scratch.
As much as everyone told me having a big band is a financial disaster—and in some ways I think now they are right—it allowed me to make a living writing for big bands. What I’ve tried to do over the years is to make my music not sound like big bands. Just to be honest, big band is not something I really love and I don’t think most people would immediately think of big bands if they heard my music, but I do love complex, intricate music with lots of intricacies and improvisers included.

Can you talk about the challenge of running a continuous big band?
It’s just so many people to pay. Whenever we go on tour we have to pay all these people, I have to figure out how to buy all these plane tickets. I’m finishing up a new record and the mixing is expensive because there are just so many things going on. My record is going to cost about $140,000.

Has the move to ArtistShare [an all online music network that gives musicians control over the entire creative process] helped?
It’s really helped beacuse it cuts out all the middle men. Now my profit margin is so much greater that I can sell far less and make a lot more. I sell exclusively. What we’ve done to fund records—besides people just preordering [and thus sponsoring recording] is we can take people who are like patrons in a way, so it makes a huge difference. I had one generous person give $18,000. I’d never met him.

Were you worried before you made the switch?
I was hoping. I just kind of made a leap of faith because for me financially—I would put years into these albums and I was losing money. At that point, I was just like, It’s this or nothing. It turned out to be the first profit-making recording I ever made and it cost twice as much as any of my other records. This one is far more expensive than my last record, though—on the last one I had Trey Anastasio, who gave me a studio and engineer who basically did it free. This time around I don’t have quite those things to go on. I don’t even think Trey has his studio anymore.

Is it difficult to keep the group together? You’ve got some of the biggest names in jazz in this band, all with projects of their own—Ingrid Jensen, Donny McCaslin, Ben Monder, Frank Kimbrough.

It’s really hard to corral them all for a rehearsal or even for a gig . For this gig I’m really lucky because I have my whole rhythm section. I have Donny, I have Rich Perry. I have so many great players in my band. A lot of times before I take a gig, I shoot out an e-mail to see if anybody can’t make a gig, if they have a tour or something. If enough people can’t make a gig, I won’t take it. Usually most everybody is there. It’s always more than three-quarters of the band. Last year we toured a lot, went to Europe—was it twice?—we went to Brazil...

How do recruit players?
We’ve been together for so many years that—sometimes if something happens and I need new musicians, I’ll ask guys in my band. I kind of check by word of mouth. Like [drummer] Clarence Penn—I went out and saw him with Chris Potter and I though, Oh my God, he would sound great in the band.

Do you intend to keep going with the band?
At one time I thought I was going to stop it, but then we’ll play a concert and I realize it can’t stop, it’s like killing an organism. I may expand my life to do other things—last year I had a big commission, for example—and might have fewer gigs some years, but I don’t think I’ll stop.

What have you been listening to recently?
I’ll be honest with you. Because I’ve been making a record, I’ve been listening to nothing but 5 billion version of my record. I love Braziliam music—Egberto Gismonti, Hermeto Pascoal—and I’v been listening to a wonderful record by a woman named Kate McGarry. There’s a record a friend told me I have to hear by a band called Guinga, so I’m looking forward to that.

Do you listen to anything that might be a surprise to people?
Simon and Garfunkel, the Fifth Dimension [sings a few bars]. STuff from when I was a kid in the ’60s. I also love Jimmy Webb. There’s an album where he does 10 pieces singing them himself, it’s called Ten Easy Pieces. I love it. The songs of the ’60s were so much more intricate, the form and harmony and the melodies. I don’t hear much pop music today that’s like that these days. I don’t know why. I think marketing and everything became more visual. The musicians became younger; ab muscles became more important than the music

So we shouldn’t expect any Maria Schneider music videos soon?
We were going to do a DVD. But it won’t show off my abs, I’ll tell you that. Although they’re not bad!

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Been There? An essay on Wilco, Jeff Tweedy's psyche and Sky Blue Sky

If nothing else, their cover art has been steadily improving...

Gawd, it's been a long time. Without further ado:

In 1990, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy started a movement with a bold claim: They were going, they said, following in the footsteps of late greats Ira Louvin, Gram Parsons and Mother Maybelle Carter, to a place where there was no depression, to a better land that was free from care.

Nearly a decade on, it doesn’t seem like either one has arrived there just yet. Farrar, a melancholic at heart all along, has mostly left the at once folksy and mystical style he exhibited par excellence on tracks ranging from “Anodyne”—one of the best tracks off the best album he cut in his band with Tweedy, Uncle Tupelo—to “Medicine Hat,” an cryptic, upbeat ditty by Son Volt, the band he formed after UT split. Listening to his songs now is depressing for a far different reason than the Midwestern bleakness of his mid-’90s work: obtuse, didactic political rants delivered in an ever-weaker voice, punctuated occasionally by fantastic flashes of the old brilliance like “Methamphetamine,” from Son Volt’s most recent disc, The Search. Regardless of the quality, the haunting Appalachian character remain strong; with side project Gob Iron, Farrar recorded an entire CD of songs about death. If there is indeed happiness at the end of the road for the dour songwriter, he ain’t there yet. (And one wonders how he’ll fare when he does arrive.)

While Farrar was clearly the more mature, more accomplished and dominant force in Uncle Tupelo, his public star dimmed after their breakup, even as Trace far excelled A.M., the first effort by Tweedy’s new band, Wilco (both records, incidentally, were produced by Brian Paulson of Odelay fame). Although it’s underrated, A.M. is still a portrait of an embryonic band with a sound not as fully formed as Trace­-era Volt’s, lacking something—probably guitarist and keyboardist Jay Bennett, who came on board for Being There, the band’s second record and second-best to date. It’s a two-disc record; not everything on the first disc is perfect, but it seems to live and breathe as a whole. Songs flow seamlessly into one another (sometimes really—in a brilliant sequencing decision, the closing two chords of “Red-Eyed and Blue,” intoned mournfully on a dampened piano, morph into the exuberant, jumpy tremolo guitar vamp of “I Got You (At the End of the Century)”). And Bennett brought not only strong guitar skills, but also a feel for arrangement, adorning the songs with a dash of Max Johnston’s banjo here, a touch of the ubiquitous Greg Leisz’s steel guitar for taste, and a garnish of horn section. For dessert, there’s the carmelized-sugar synthesizer of “Hotel Arizona.”

Suffice it to say, things have been uphill since then for Jeff Tweedy, musically at least. His band was chosen by Billy Bragg as collaborators for the two Mermaid Avenue records, a project of putting music to unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics. At about the same time, they made the brilliant and underappreciated Summerteeth (2000), besting even the excellent Being There. It was here that Tweedy willing stepped away from his crown as progenitor and prince of alt-country. There’s nothing rootsy about it; Johnston is gone and here, for better or for worse—no, definitely for better—texture runs wild, and the band creates something that combines the best poppiness of the Beach Boys with none of their less endearing campiness. The songs here begin to drift free of their moorings. The hyper-realist relationship stories of Being There begin to give way to more nonsensical, postmodern music, but still with firm grounding in reality. There are songs that grab you on first listen—“A Shot in the Arm” and some that became staples for mixtapes among the “enlightened” in my high school—“How To Fight Loneliness.” Then there are others that show their greatness only after many listens, like the perfectly constructed “Pieholden Suite.” Still more hide in the woodwork only to jump out unexpectedly after years of familiarity, like the gurgling, absurdist title track.

“Via Chicago,” though, represents both the best and worst of Wilco at the time—one of the stronger songs on the album, it also prefigured the less rich sound of things to come.

Where the cups are cracked and hooked
Above the sink
They make me think
Crumbling ladder tears don't fall
They shine down your shoulders

And crawling is screw faster lash
I blow it with kisses
I rest my head on a pillowy star
And a cracked-door moon
That says I haven't gone too far

I'm coming home
I'm coming home
I'm coming home
Via Chicago

The half nonsense of the lyrics is wrapped into a spare and haunting landscape of distorted and fed-back guitar (when the Cowboy Junkies lifted the main riff for a song several years later, it made complete sense coming out of Michael Timmons’ guitar). The overall feel is as creepy as the song’s first line (“I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt alright to me”) and teeters on the edge of chaos, its form threatening to dissolve at several points, but with the band barely managing to manhandle it back.

As buzz for the next record built, suggesting Wilco would be the Next Big Thing, a documentary captured a snapshot of a band dropped unceremoniously from their label and struggling through an acrimonious Bennett-Tweedy split. Improbably, it did help to make them NBT, at least in the indie-rock world, where they were dubbed “the American Radiohead.” The record whose making is depicted in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart is the hugely successful Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a well-regarded but very disappointing and chilly soundscape experiment; they fully captured their new hipster audience with A Ghost Is Born even as Tweedy languished in the throes of prescription drug addiction.

Earlier this spring, they released their eargerly-awaited follow-up Sky Blue Sky, to a chorus of confused reviews. The indier-than-thou critics have been generally dismissive, while others, like The New York Times’ Jon Pareles and All Music Guide’s Mark Deming both see the record as some sort of return to the band’s old Americana, a plaintiveness (or something) not heard since before the Beach Boys-influenced, wall-of-sound keyboard onslaught of Summerteeth. In Shake it Off, a video documentary accompanying the record, Tweedy appears to be making the same connection, harkening back to his hometown of Belleville, Ill.—birthplace of Uncle Tupelo, incidentally—in his very first statement on screen, and explaining that in coded political language that in this day and age, he felt that “imagistic,” abstract words (“I am an American aquarium drinker,” anyone?) were inappropriate, and he just wanted to sing people songs.

Well, sort of, I guess. The usually spot-on Pareles has for the most part missed the mark here; one has to wonder if he listened to Being There again before he wrote his review. There’s plenty of melancholy on the earlier disc, but it’s full of vigor, fire, crunch and literalism, and some remnants of the punk feel that infused Tupelo’s “Graveyard Shift” and their cover of “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” “What Light” and particularly “Hate It Here” would fit in on BT, but few others would; and the fire is absent, too, with a more restrained, dark edge: Apparently, even post-addiction, Tweedy is no freer of depression than his old friend and musical partner is. Where he met his frustration with punky anger and alienation then (“Misunderstood”) he now exudes desperation and surrender.

There are attempts at the directness of past songs, but there’s also weird stuff like “Shake It Off,” a track that’s as disjointed and herky-jerky lyrically as it is musically. But it’s followed with “Please Be Patient With Me,” one Tweedy’s most heartfelt songs ever, about his struggles with addiction.

(Ironically, with its trippy prog-guitar jams, Sky Blue Sky is probably better stoner music than anything else Tweedy’s recorded with any group. New lead guitarist Nels Cline, who comes from the Bay Area avant-garde jazz/improvisational music scene, seems to be channeling Jerry Garcia and even Trey Anastasio as much, if not more, than he is Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Clarence White or Bernie Leadon.)

“What Light” is of a piece with the Mermaid Avenue songs. And yet the song that immediately sticks out on the disc is “Impossible Germany,” driven by a catchy riff and with a fantastic guitar solo. Farrar’s recent antiwar, Bush-bashing songs fail because he insists on using big words but can’t capture the raw feeling of his idols Bob Dylan or Neil Young (as my father once pointed out during the Son Volt heyday, it’s not often you hear a country song with the word “paradigm”; but as he moves farther away from country, his words have gotten longer and less effective). Tweedy’s fails because it’s too oblique. Exhibit A:

Impossible Germany,
Unlikely Japan

The fundamental problem
We all need to face
This is important
But I know you're not listening
Oh I know you're not listening

In a torturously awkward moment early in the DVD, Tweedy clumsily explains that the song is political, using the most anodyne terms and never really saying it. Gawd, what a terrible conceit for a song, though. It’s fairly unmoving until the instrumental bits kick in.

But oh, what parts they are. Deming is right to point out that Cline represents the best lead guitarist the band has had to date. To recap: Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets, who I imagine would be completely adrift in the midst of these songs; Bennett; briefly Tweedy; and now Cline. But Cline’s steel guitars be damned, SBS is not an alt-country record. The musical comparisons cropping up in reviews are far apart: Jackson Brown, the Band, American Beauty-era Grateful Dead, Lynyrd Skynyrd (!), etc. etc.

While there are echoes of all of these, none of them quite nails it. In shots of Wilco’s fabled loft in Shake if Off, the very symbol of American twang, the Fender Telecaster, is shown in the hands of Pat Sansone, (if this were American Beauty, the usually superfluous Sansone would be, like, Ned Lagin), and prominently displayed behind but never played by Tweedy himself. Cline namedrops the Byrds, too. But it sounds to me as though the combination of being in Chicago for too long (just the right amout of time?) and bringing in a jazzman on lead guitar have made Wilco more and more like post-rockers Tortoise and the rest of the Thrill Jockey scene.

It’s fun to listen to and watch Cline, in a weird way; Bennett was no innovator, but he played a solid rock and country guitar, crunching or wailing when necessary and even good B-bender skills (unlike the more pretentious recent roster, Bennett actually played his Tele). But you can hear Cline’s avant-garde side fighting with his intuition. Take his solo on “Impossible Germany.” The song starts—before its stilted lyrics—with a feathery interlocking riff delivered by Cline and either Sansone or Tweedy (or both?). When it hits the solo, Cline holds back as Tweedy and Sansone set up the rhythm riff; he cautiously strikes out with a mellow edge after a long pause. It’s a sugary sweet note, so he hits a odd note, bends a second, goes up an interval to a third, higher note; looking for the spot, still tentative. Finally, he gets in a groove, the kind Bennett would have loved; but he’s not comfortable letting it run its course, so he plays it again, again, again, fighting with a reluctant lyricism. In a last act of defiance, he takes off on an aggressive John McLaughlin-esque flight of 32nd notes before finally settling into a comfort zone, surrendering to melody.

A lot of people seem to think this is a dull record, and it can be pretty navelgazing. It’s funny to me that all the jazz press, when they write about things like asdfas Monastery, the disc of Andrew Hill songs Cline put out last year, refers to him as a rock musician and refer to his membership in Wilco, while the rock press insists on trumpeting his outsider bona fides as a jazzman. Rock listeners, and here I’m thinking of my father, may not be able to dig his relaxed approach, but if you can appreciate the internal fight that’s clearly going on for him between a homespun, relaxed approach and his training, which tells him to go dissonant, there is plenty of excitement. As I do far too often, I’m inclined to compare him to Bill Frisell, also a guitarist who started out as an avant-garde jazz guitarist and now plays deeply American music; interestingly, it’s Frisell who’s more accepted as a mainstream jazz player and also Frisell who is willing to jettison blue notes and fancy scales when playing country-influenced music.

Drummer Glen Kotche is another experimentalist, albeit one brought into the fold long ago, for YHF. There, he made his presence known early on, with a visceral, downright melodic drum riff in the first minute of set-starter “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” but his playing here is restrained and fairly orthodox; he even sounds like he’s trying to channel John Bonham in places. And there is very plain harmonic structure to some songs (e.g. “What Light”), but the slow opening vamp, minus Tweedy’s singing, of “Shake it Off” could be something from the In A Silent Way sessions. Mikael Jorgensen’s keyboard washes are generally low in the mix, just a part of the tapestry. Even when they are prominent, they don’t grab at you like the rote vamp of “Can’t Stand It” (Summerteeth), and lyrics about “piano[s] filled with soul” would be entirely out of place here.

Watching the DVD, I found, is instructive. Just as I can’t imagine Henneman’s reaction if he were asked to play these songs, I can’t picture Uncle Tupelo or A.M.-era Wilco, even, deciding to create one of these pretentious video documents. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense; it’s just different and reveals something about what the band sees as their trajectory, and it’s also immensely useful for the likes of me. It does provide a window into the band’s psyche. There was a time when my image of a Wilco recording session was shaped by “Red-Eyed and Blue” from Being There:

We've got solid-state technology
Tapes on the floor
Some songs we can't afford to play

When we came here today
All I wanted to say
Is how much I miss you

Alcohol and cotton balls
And some drugs
We can afford on the way

When we came here today
We all felt something true
Now I'm red-eyed and blue

Wilco c. 2007 is considerably better behaved, downright urbane and adult, even, settling into a midlife existence. They ruminate on how the record was recorded live, how they feel more mature than ever, what the chemistry of this group is like; Jeff seems to be really struggling, throughout, with the specter of the two Jays. For example, Bennett was the master of layering, of many keyboards and overdubs, so the insistence that the record was life seems like a conscious reaction against it, and his breakup with Farrar is a lynchpin of the Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt/Wilco mythology.

I think that’s part of why this isn’t as strong a record as Being There. The band has considerably more raw talent than it had then; Bennett is nowhere near the musician Cline is, nor could Ken Coomer touch Glen Kotche. Tweedy’s learned, and Jorgensen and Sansone are icing on the cake. But Cline and the others seem largely content to sit off to the side and do his part when he’s called on to do it. The best records Tweedy has made—Anodyne, Summerteeth, Being There—have been made with a strong collaborator. It wasn’t Bennett’s playing, whether on keys or guitar, that made the difference; it was his creative spark and the way he influenced the songs that did it. That’s why this record doesn’t make that mark. I do think it’s a good record, and the Rob Mitchell’s review at Pitchfork is misguided; 5.2 is awfully low. Wilco records have a habit of being difficult to judge at first, but I’d like to think that it’s better than either YHF or A Ghost Is Born, owing to the musical improvement and a more direct lyrical sense. Still, it’s not the dramatic return that Tweedy and Pareles would have us imagine.

In his review, Pareles begins by asking, “Where did all the weird noises go?” He’s onto something, but it’s not the right question. One has to suspect that the indie crowd blasting the disc want the same thing; it’s just not esoteric enough for them. There’s a marked simplicity to Sky Blue Sky, but this record, with its melancholy resignation, is far more of a piece with A Ghost Is Born and YHF, blips, beeps, and fuzz included, than it is with any of the earlier records.

Before I’d heard the record, I spoke with a friend of mine told me about it. He explained that he believed that Wilco were true artists because they refuse to remain static, always moving forward with each record. And he’s right; this is no return to a past formula, but quite clearly continuous with what’s gone before. Paraphrasing the words of Voltaire, I don’t enjoy the music Wilco makes now as did some of the previous records, but I will defend to death—or rather, to the detriment of my hipster credentials—their right to play it.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Soul Merchant Interviews Dave Holland

Your typical Missy Elliot listener

In advance of Dave Holland's appearance in Chapel Hill this Thursday, I interviewed him two weeks ago for a feature that ran in last Thursday's edition of recess. Below is the transcript for the whole interview. Holland's really a very nice guy--kind of the opposite of McCoy Tyner, though, very earnest and open, charming but not gregariously full of jokes. Alas, I did not discover until after I'd done the interview that he's from basically the same place as Robert Plant. I'd really love to hear his opinion on Zeppelin. I'd also really like to hear his electric playing, by the way; it's there on Bitches Brew, but there's so much going on ...

Some guys from Miles' electric bands, like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, have continued to experiment with electronics, but you and Wayne Shorter, as well as Keith Jarrett, have both gone acoustic while keeping many of the innovations developed during your time in Miles' bands. Can you talk about why you prefer the acoustic format?
You know, I don't really weigh one against the other, I don't see them as two competing situations--it's a matter of what setting you feel is most appropriate for the kind of music you want to play. One of the reasons I left Miles was because I wanted concentrate more on the acoustic bass and that had been put in the background the last six months I was in his band. I've really focused on the acoustic bass since then. The acoustic--it's a very sensual instrument, it vibrates in your hand. It's a direct sonority and you feel it in your hand.

Columbia is releasing every note Miles every recorded for them. Have you gone back and listened to those box sets for the records you were on [The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions, The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions]? How do you feel about it now?
It was a long time ago, and you really have a very different perspective, of course. Something that strikes me is how contemporary it sounds now. When I received the Isle of Wight Festival DVD [Miles Electric--A Different Kind of Blue], I felt like it could have been recorded yesterday. [laughing] The way we looked wasn't contemporary. Our fashion statement was definitely the sixties. As to the reissues, they help to give some insight into the process in the studio, but there's reasons why some things didn't make in to the records [chuckling].

You led bands from the early 1970s on, but really seem to have broken through around the turn of the century. What made the difference?
I finally started a working band in about 1983; I was about 36 I think [DG: Yep]. Up to that point I'd really been concentrating on learning about the music, learning the instrument and really looking to see what were the things that were most important to me as a musician. I really saw myself as an apprentice in the music up to that point. As a musician you look at your evolution and I thought I was ready [to start my own band]. There were some ideas I wanted to play that I didn't think I could play with everyone else. The other thing about it was that all the things I grew up admiring were bands--people who kept a band together and had a continuity and allowed the music to evolve: Duke Ellington, Miles, Coltrane, the projects that were put together and had some continuity to them. I always wanted to belong to a band and did. There were at any period in my life people who were my main ongoing connections.

My dad wanted me to ask about how you ended up playing with violinist John Hartford.
I've played with a lot of people in my life [chuckles]. I toured with Roy Orbison in England, and I've done a lot of things as a working musician. Anyway, in the 1970s I moved to upstate New York and met a record producer named John Simon. One day I was driving through doing some errands and he was walking with John Hartford. He said, 'You're just the person I was looking for! We need an acoustic bass player for a record we're making!' It began an involvement on a number of records with John Hartford and some of his friends.

Was it tough to fit in with that style?
I wouldn't pass if off as easy to do or easy to sit in on, but as a bass player I learned to work with different situations and figure out what a specific situation demands of me as a bass player. When I work with people, sometimes there are very different things--when I worked with Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem, for example. You just try to find something that you find appropriate.

How did you put together the band you have now? Is there a particular experience with one of those guys that sticks out to you?
The people that I end up working with in my groups are people who I meet and have some sort of musical experience with, and at some point I'll consider, 'Maybe we can do a project.' This band ... Have you had any information on this gig? You know it's a sextet and not the quintet?

[Sheepishly] Actually, not that much ... I knew that, but that's about it ...
Oh, well this is a relatively new project. It's Alex Sipiagin--that's S-I-P-I-A-G-I-N--on trumpet, Antonio Hart on soprano sax, Mulgrew Miller on piano, Eric Harland on drums, and Robin Eubanks on trombone. This is a band that came together last year. It's not going to replace the quintet as my full-time working group, but the quintet's been around for nearly 10 years and I like doing different things.

The quintet's music, most of which you compose, is complicated, polyphonic music but with freedom and groove. How did you come to that style?
I would say on one level certainly there's some complexity in it for the musicians. There are a lot of levels. I think there's this misconception about jazz that you have to understand the theory, but like any other music, it speaks to the heart. Shakespeare is like that--you can laugh at the bawdy jokes, but beneath that there's plot, and depth. I think you can combine the two so that there's something for everyone. A book that I read 20 years ago probably will speak to me differently today.

How did you develop that style, though?

It's not a finished project. As a musician, you pick the things that appeal to you as a listener and things that express what you feel. It's influenced by my experiences, people I've worked with, people I've studied. I was lucky enough to be with Miles when I was 21 and being able to watch the process he used was very valuable.

Your quintet is made up of 4 strong voices, several of whom are leaders in their own rite. Is it hard to control egos or even just conflicting pure musical conceptions in that setting?
I don't feel like I have to be the only one responsible for that. We all want to be involved in the project. On a practical level--scheduling, you have to plan everything well ahead, six months to a year ahead. Musically in the quintet, we've found each other to be very sympathetic. There's a lot of differences in the quintet, but they turn out to be very complementary. That diversity in the group really makes it better. It's not just five people who are thinking identically.

How much of your stuff is really arranged, and how much develops in rehearsal or on the bandstand?
From one extreme, you'd say with the big band you have quite a lot of written material in order to coordinate. It changes. The music we bring in the combos, we start practicing and change happens. Sometimes something will happen when we play it on a gig, too, and it becomes part of the song.

The sextet you're bringing has Mulgrew Miller in it, of course, but a lot of the settings you've played in over the years don't have pianos or keyboards. I know Bill Frisell has said he has a hard time playing with keys; is that the case with you too?
Some of my best friends are piano players [laughing]! The reason that I have a piano in this group is because 0f Mulgrew Miller. Most of the time it has to do with the musician himself, not the instrument he plays. The piano in the hands of a great player is a wonderful tool. In the quintet I've been having more open, sparser settings that create a more minimalist setting for the chords. If you listen to Bud Powell and you listen to Thelonius Monk you have two very
different approaches and that's what makes the music great.

You had a long relationship with ECM, but after extended play you moved to your own label, Dare2. What was your frustration with the record industry, and how has the Dare2 experience been?
First of all, the relationship with ECM was very positive for me. This was not a rejection of ECM but a moving on for me. It allows me to retain ownership of recorded material, which, as you know, in a traditional relationship the label controls the music. And then of course there's the issue of having more control over how the music is distributed and when. Those are sort of the main motivations. The record company is something I've been wanting to do for some time and finally three years ago we were in a position to do that and we had a strong interest with Verve France to distribute the label, which gave us a good way to distribute.

What's on your schedule soon besides the sextet gigs?
This year I'm going a tour with Anouar and in March I'm going to Spain to work with some flamenco musicians for a few concerts. I've also got some duets with [quintet marimbist] Steve Nelson. This year we're also touring with the quintet--we had the new record that came out [Critical Mass, released in August].

I talked to McCoy Tyner a few months back, and he said he doesn't like to listen to music, because he's trying to concentrate on his own thing. Do you listen to a lot of music, or are you more like McCoy?
I do listen, and there;s times when I'm listening and times when I'm not. I can relate to what McCoy's saying because sometimes you want to concentrate on what you're doing.

So what are you listening to recently?
I have a very broad taste in music and that's reflected in my collection...

Well, okay. Do you have an iPod?

What's on your it?
I've got thousands of songs on my iPod so it really depends what I'm feeling like at the time...

But what's on your most played list recently?
I've been listening to Gonzalo Rubalcaba's album Paseo and I've got some contemporary music--hip-hop, Prince, Missy Elliott. And then classical--so I go back and forth.

Prince: Relic

"I hear the distant echo of an electronic drum set... "

In the middle of a somewhat bizarre Super Bowl (such sloppiness! So many turnovers!), viewers were treated to a fully bizarre sight in the form of that '80s holdover, the formerly nameless one, the purple one himself, Prince. Kelefa, of course, already beat me to this ...

For my age group, the decade in which we were born is pretty well summed up by leg warmers, Cyndi Lauper, Jacko and Prince. For whatever reason, some peiple still like leg warmers (and Cyndi Lauper, for that matter). Michael Jackson is of course a full-out laughinstock for ... well, we all know why; but his best music remains iconic and enjoyed. You can't help but smile when that opening chords of "ABC" start clanging out. Your feet move automatically to that snaky, tricky bassline on "Billie Jean." And I saw a whole crowd of people dancing to "Thriller"--zombie moves and all--last night, so that's obvi got some staying power.

But Prince is another matter. With the exception of the inimitable Teague Allston, my roommate last year and the owner of a copy of Purple Rain, no one I know is into Prince; it seems he just hasn't transferred well over the years, and when I read the likes of Greg Tate and Miles Davis talking about his genius and influence at one time, I'm incredulous. That's all well and good, but not really the point of this post, or the reason why I say that Prince is a relic.

On that absurd symbol-shaped stage tonight, Prince played a Telecaster (a nice one!), some kinda Stratocaster (above) and naturally that absurd guitar shaped like The Symbol, an axe that looks really uncomfortable to play for my tastes. Virginia Heffernan, in a Times blog, wrote, "Also, why is he EVER left out when people talk about African-Americans who play electric guitar? Never again." Well, yes, that's a good point. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he plays corny-ass eighties riffs ... whoops, sorry. The point is that Prince might be the last great guitar-playing star. There are huge guitarists today (most of whom I dislike)--Mark Tremonti of Creed, or Tom Morello of RATM and Audioslave, and so on and so forth--but they have a defined role inside the band. Less offensively, we see the same thing with Johnny Greenwood in Radiohead. The result is the same: the (technically) best players in rock music don't front their own bands.

But it seems to me that Prince fits in a much older tradition, and he helped to reinforce that by playing a song that Hendrix made famous ("All Along the Watchtower"). This a sort of half-baked idea, dreamt up on my way back from the Chronicle office, so I may be overlooking someone obvious, but Prince's biggest disconnect may be that he belongs to the older (whiter?) musical tradition of Hendrix, John Fogerty (yeah, he covered him too, but I hate goddamn "Proud Mary"), Eric Clapton, Neil Young and many other lesser or more obscure talents--accomplished guitarists who are also idols because they're singers.

There are older bands that weren't fronted by singer-lead guitarists: Jefferson Airplace, the Dead (for the most part), Steely Dan kind of, The Byrds in the Clarence White era. But I'm inclined to believe that the newer trend has to date to something like that other '80s abomination, Van Halen--Eddie's name was on the band, but he wasn't the singer, of course.

I don't know really who we have to blame for this--maybe it's EVH--but I would like to have a few words with him or her. 'Cause although I may not get Prince (But I must say, "Purple Rain" was fantastic!), I can dig the fact that he plays a Tele and can respect his hilariously dated hammer-ons and tapping. And I can respect the fact that he is a man of many talents. Eat that, Brandon Flowers.

(This post could really have used a copy-editor; if you got this far, you get my sincerest apologies.)

Friday, January 26, 2007

Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile, Page Auditorium, 1/25/07

The Pat Metheny of the mandolin

At long last, another post.

There are certain dangers to being a full-time college student and active journalist while also writing a blog; for example, say you are do work until 5 a.m., get up at 9 that morning, then go to a somewhat sleepy concert that night. Guess what happens?

So I didn't actually fall asleep. To be fair, bassist/composer Edgar Meyer and mandolinist Chris Thile weren't that bad, but they could have been better. The numerous invocations of Jerry Douglas have me listening to that, and suffice it to say his upbeat bluegrass would not have nearly put me to sleep. This was no bluegrass concert, using material mostly composed by the performers or by some old songwriter named, like, Bach or something. There's nothing wrong with that either, and both performers are brilliant. Set I was okay; Set II actually had some life to it!

I never liked Nickel Creek that much, and I tend to blame Thile, the ex-leader of that band. He's pretty much the Pat Metheny of bluegrass; like Metheny, he's put in a category (jazz and bluegrass, respectively) that isn't really big enough to contain him; he has great crossover appeal with the pop world, and he's a prodigy on his instrument, and his tone and note choice aren't dissimilar. That's what the trouble is--he doesn't really know how to use it, so he can reel off a dazzling, bebop riff when he likes--but so what? Unfortunately, he often comes across as shallow. The best tunes were those where Meyer dominated and really dug in, providing an earthiness Thile lacks, or the Bach arrangments, with each man taking the part written for one of two manuals on the organ. With only two musicians and only 12 strings (8, really) it's hard to achieve too much harmonic complexity, so when the groove quotient plummets, the whole damn thing suffers for it.

Thile also has a propensity for pretty, such as on "Cassandra's Waltz," a saccharine, listless little ballad sandwiched in the middle of the first set, but when he employs his pastoralism better, like the excellent chordal work on the third tune of set II, it is simply beautiful. As an occasional mandolin dabbler, that seems more impressive to me than the lightning-fast stuff.

I can't say enough about Meyer, who in addition to his bona fides as a classical musician, is a creative and original improviser, walks a convincing line and even drives a solid boogaloo to make Lee Morgan proud, as on second-set opener "This Is the Pig" (the damn cute titles enfuriate me, but whatever). When Thile threatened to float away, Meyer anchored him, and could toe-to-toe, or rather, note-to-note, with him too, no small feat.

The patter was great, sometimes even threatening to overshadow the music (a compliment to the patter as much as it is a bad sign about the tunes). It helped that the young, tall, tousled and ironically suit-clad Thile, with tiny mandolin, presented a hilarious contrast to Meyer, whose physique resembled his bass and whose rumped aspect seemed better fit to a mid-level IT executive. Bonus points for references to the Duke basketball many people were missing for the show (why do these guys back so many in? Is it because Thile is supposed to be so handsome? I don't know, man ...).

Final judgment: Good--75 to 80 percent, maybe--but not worth the standing ovation it received (I remained comfortably seated during that). And I'm not rushing out to buy any Nickel Creek albums, either. But worth the $5 ticket? By a long shot.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Best Records of the Year, Part II

I really have nothing to say here ...

6. Ghostface Killah, Fishscale

Can't say to what extent my appreciation for this record is due to Tom Breihan, who trumpeted it highly. I wrote an absolutely ridiculous review for recess, but alas, it was not posted online. My central conceit was completely silly, but I think my judgement was correct. What first got me were the grittier, faster-paced beats, some reminscent of Wu-Tang, other MF Doom-produced, and I can't imagine who couldn't dig Ghost namechecking David Koresh and "Laffy Taffy" in the same song. Originally, I was pretty cold toward "Back Like That," the single featuring Ne-Yo, seeing it as little more than a commerical ploy. That's probably true, but with repeat listens I've come to appreciate it more--it's the kind of song that pops into your head unexpectedly (and often at inopportune times) and stays as long as it wants, whether you like it or not.

Ghost probably could have just made Fishscale and More Fish (released this month) a single album and cut some fat, but so it goes. He's gritty, witty and wise without all the damn indie baggage of, say, Doom.

7. Neil Young, Living With War

Probably not quite worth the ranking I'm giving it. Still, for a record produced with Ryan Adams-like speed, this record's songs are impressively good. Neil was taking a courageous stand, speaking out where cats like John Mayer sit "waiting for the world to change," if not quite matching Steve Earle. He's full of genuine righteous anger; as with all protest music, it comes across as silly sometimes. I'm also not sure where he got this love affair with the trumpet, but recorded at low-fidelity--as this record certainly is--it's striking how similar the horn sounds to Neil's own guitar sound. And with the release of a Crazy Horse set recorded with Miles opening (previously released) maybe we can find the roots of Neil's entirely distinctive, bastard guitar style.

Alright, maybe not. But this is far better than Are You Passionate? and incomparably better than the embarrassing Greendale. Some of the songs are confusing (what is the garden?), some try a little too hard (the main part of "The Restless Consumer," although the rap at the end is excellent, delivered in what my dad calls "Neil's best 'Hey kids, get off my damn lawn' voice). I hoped "Lookin' for a Leader" would be a remake of "Lookin' for a Lover," but it wasn't; it's pretty good anyway, and sure sounds like a call for Obama in '08. "Flags of Freedom" is an excellent Dylanesque short-story/vignette. Maybe it's just me, but I find it incredibly moving. But then, I get choked up hearing the Byrds sing "He Was A Friend of Mine."

And yes, let's impeach the president for lying and misleading our country into war, abusing all the power we gave him and shipping all our money out the door.

8. Medeski Scofield Martin and Wood, Out Louder

This may be a better record than it seems based on my ranking, but Scofield's material tends to take a while to settle before it can really be accurately judged, so I'm being cautious. Scofield hired MMW to back him on 1997's A Go Go and they produced one of the best records of the 1990s and created the jazz-jam scene. I'd be surprised to see this record have that kind of staying power, and it's very different--more varied textures, from the bass and the melodica especially, a denser sound, and a slightly less acerbic sound from Sco. Crucially, it's more adventurous than A Go Go too, with freer, farther out sounds than the very accessible guitar-and-organ and guitar-and-clavinet jams on the earlier record.

9. Bill Frisell/Ron Carter/Paul Motian, Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian

Every now and then, it seems, the Friz puts together one of these bands, a one-album supergroup, like 2001's Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones. It seems like when this happens, he can't think of a good title for a record (or more likely, the label wants something to sell); he also apparently can't come up with any good compositions, which would explain why this record has only two Frisell originals, one previously recorded, 1 Motian tune, previously recorded, and one Carter co-write, a Miles Davis classic. There are 6 others, 4 of which are in his regular (and fairly small) live rotation, and 1 of which ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry").

Bill also has a weird timidity when he plays on "real" jazz records, from Kenny Wheeler's Angel Song to John Scofield's Grace Under Pressure. On that latter, he pretty nearly steals the show from the leader, but keeps this measured, softer-edged tone, and he does the same here. It's as if his shyness, buried when performing with his own band, is reawakened by the big names around him, which is silly, because he can clearly stand toe-to-toe with any of them. All that said, the whole band sounds great if a little bit chilly. Definitely his best since Blues Dream, Grammy win for Unspeakable notwithstanding.

10. I'm indecisive, so I have four more:
Lupe Fiasco, Lupe Fiasco's Food and Liquor. He namechecks Cornel West, which is enough for inclusion here so far as I'm concerned. Again, I'm not really qualified to comment on rap, but this is a great record all around.
Black Keys, Magic Potion. Rubber Factory was probably the best record of 2004; coming off that, even a near miss like this is excellent. Less Zeppelin next time, though, please.
Willie Nelson, Songbird. The only thing that could have made this Ryan Adams-produced record, with a Ryan tune and with Ryan's backing band, the Cardinals, any better would have been to cut Willie out entirely and make it a Ryan record. Unfortunately, that would have made it a lot better, top-5 material; instead, it's buried down here. I still don't get Willie, but whatevs.
Elvis Costello and Allan Toussaint, The River in Reverse. A soulful, well-played and well-written Katrina record. Like Neil's protest music, a dangerous proposition, executed with elan.

Appendix: What I haven't heard that I maybe should have
Cat Power, The Greatest
The Game, Doctor's Advocate
Jay-Z, Kingdom Come
Ghostface Killah, More Fish
Beck, The Information
Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere

Saturday, December 9, 2006

DG's Top Records (I've Heard) of the Year, Part I

I have no idea when this photo was taken, because the site I stole it from was in some indecipherable eastern European language. I dig the guitar, though.

1. Bob Dylan, Modern Times

How outrageous is it that this only got nominated for a Grammy in, like, Modern Folk/Americana? (For the record, those who were nominated were the Dixie Chicks [dull], Justin Timberlake [see below], Gnarls Barkley [meh, whatever], John Mayer [who makes Natalie Maines' political views seem fascinating], and RHCP [whose record was about 1.5 discs longer than it ought to have been].)

This band is tight and the songs are excellent. Dylan keeps reeling them off, and with humor and elegance. Without indulging in too much critical BS-speak, he songs here are often touching and profound; he also is frequently hilarious:

“I’m gonna raise an army, some tough sonsa bitches
I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages.”

Confused? Luckily, he wraps this verse up with the clarifying

“I’ve sucked the milk out of a thousand cows.”

Whatever you say, bud.

As I wrote in recess, Dylan is one of the two greatest artists America has ever produced. This record, with its appropriation/theft, its subject matter, and its attitude captures the American essence. And unlike the other great American artist, Miles Davis, Dylan refuses to become an artifact as he enters old age. At this point in Miles’ career, he was recording Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper tunes; Bob, however, has put out the best record of the year and one of the best of his career.

2. Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds

Middle-school Davey—who wasn’t even that discriminating a listener—is furious with me for this one. Hell, so is my dad. It’s true, though—this record is absolutely stunning. It’s not about Justin; he’s got a fine voice and all, but the props go to Timabland (although JT’s lyrics are insipidly trite; I suppose when you’re him you don’t have to worry too much about effective pick-up lines, but I swear he starts half the verses on this disc with, “I’ve been around the world …”).

I didn’t really get into “Promiscuous” like everyone else did, but this I can dig. The songs are long—often clocking in at five, six, seven minutes—lushly arranged (a synthesizer rainforest, if you will) and marvelously structured. “LoveStoned,” the best track on the record, avoids the static trap of most pop music, moving forward throughout based solely on the merit of the beat with lyrics playing no role whatsoever. The beat drops out and leaves a rhythm guitar part; then things slowly rebuild back up to the finish. This is how all pop songs should be. I’m also infatuated with the synth response to everything JT sings on “My Love”; sounds like fingers on a balloon, if that makes any sense at all. I have a bad feeling this is going to sound absolutely ridiculous and dated in five, ten years, but right now we all ought to just revel in it. Also, bonus points for his thoughts on the K-Fed-Britney break-up.

3. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife

A late rally brings the Decemberists into my top 3. I discovered them last weekend when I downloaded The Crane Wife, which was an excellent decision. It was love from the first chord of “The Crane Wife, Pt. 3.” I’m generally inclined to agree with the assessment Chris Ott laid down in the Voice about Colin Meloy’s general pretension and silliness, but that does nothing to demean the music. “O Valencia!” is a cheerful little ballad about his lover being shot by her brother over some dispute; it’s an absolutely addictive little tune. The preceding tune, “Yankee Bayonet” … well, you can probably guess where that one goes. I could do without the proggier moments and anything even remotely resembling Zeppelin (it’s here), but “Crane Wife” 1 and 3, “Valencia,” and “Yankee Bayonet” make this disc worthwhile. I well understand my own tastes, but I guess I don’t see why other people like this; makes me think maybe there’s still hope for my father’s band.

4. Jack DeJohnette with Bill Frisell, The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers

A live record, so I'm kind of cheating here. but I reckon the extensive post-production work from Ben Surman makes this a valid pick. Despite Surman's fingerprints, the amount of sound that the duo puts out is pretty stunning for a live setting. I've heard lukewarm things about the tour that DeJohnette, Frisell, and bassist Jerome Harris were on this fall, but this record works beatifully. Frisell, the best and most innovative guitarist working in jazz, and one of greatest musicians in the world overall, can sometimes get mellow and even soporific, but the veteran drummer keeps him from complacency. Jagged banjo tracks, for example, may not sound so hot alone, but in the setting of the record it works. This disc, to me, sounds like industry, all grit and dust and clanging and metal striking metal and smoke and grime and oil. I'm not a fan of post-production, but this is tasteful. On several tracks, Surman modulates one of Frisell's riffs down an octave or two to create a bassline; this fits in remarkably well and places the jams in a deep and funky pocket. Can we expect a studio effort from these two anytime soon? Here's hoping.

5. Beirut, Gulag Orkestar

Zach Condon, I'm pretty confident, thinks I'm a moron. But he was nice to me anyway. Which wins points with me. It would have sucked to have gotten a lot of condescension off a high-school drop out. Then again, he's not the typical pretentious indie star (see Meloy, Colin, above), a humble, white t-shirt-wearing, trumpet-playing 19-year-old. I'll be damned if I can comment on his lyrics, which seem quite simple but are generally unintelligble. Musically, however, he does successfully conjure up a sepia-toned melancholic nostalgia--a nostalgia for something none of his listeners, I'd imagine, ever experienced. Maybe that's easier than recreating the real thing; I don't know, but it's magical, all gypsy drums, burnished brass and street-corner violin. I'm admittedly skeptical about Condon's ability to sustain this project; his press materials make much of his previous, teenage projects (a doo-wop record?), but for me they suggest a short musical attention span. I don't know if I'll like whatever his next project is, but the buzz around this one was justified.