Monday, August 15, 2011

I Feel the Earth Move: Dylan Carson’s Dark Revolution

by Kurt Gottschalk

Dylan Carson has fronted his band Earth (if with a good number of membership changes) for a remarkable 22 years, and in the process has outlined something of a continuum of heavy rock. Although the band came out of the Seattle grunge explosion, their doomy, downtempo riffs stem from a moment predating grunge, predating punk and predating the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Carson reached further back, lifting Black Sabbath's original name and borrowing from that band's early metal inventions. But the glacial power Carson has crafted over the course of a dozen albums is hardly a throwback. His revelation wasn’t just in tempo, it was in taking the posture of hard rock and freeing it from the constrained expectations of heavy metal. And as such, Earth has been the impetus for the most exciting new movement in rock since Carson was hanging with Kurt Cobain.

And something like the way popes, kings and bluesmen names themselves in a lineage, the tectonic shifts that resulted in the explosion of creativity in black metal over the last decade can be traced by names. Starting with the nod to Sabbath in its name, Earth has spawned a lineage of namesakes. The band released the live album Sunn Amps and Smashed Guitars, containing a single half-hour track, in 1995. (The 2001 reissue included a bonus track with vocals by Cobain.) The album was titled in tribute to the band's favorite brand of amplifier, and it was that album which in turn gave Sunn O))), the kings of the New Wave of Downtempo Heavy Metal, its name. (Like the amp, the band name is pronounced “sun,” the “O)))” representing the sun on the amplifier logo.) And in 2001, Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson (of Sunn O))) and Southern Lord records) formed a band with Lee Dorian (Cathedral, Napalm Death) and Justin Greaves (Electric Wizard) called “Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine,” taking its name from a track on Earth's second record. So Earth's cred papers are clearly in order. But while the NWODHM has blossomed, Earth has turned slowly toward the dawn. After a break from recording, during which Carson worked past drug addiction, the band came back with a new and almost sunny, well, overcast anyway, sound.

The 2008 Southern Lord release The Bee Made Honey in the Lion's Skull featured the band's boldest and most unusual lineup yet. The new quartet featured Adrienne Davies on drums, Steve Moore on grand and electric pianos and Hammond organ and Don McGreevy on electric and upright bass, and even featured jazz and Americana guitarist Bill Frisell on three tracks. It may have been the furthest Carson had ever strayed from the metal roots, but it was still epic Earth: long instrumental tracks built from ploddingly slow riffs and improvised asides.

There wasn't a new release until this year's Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1. (The 2010 issue A Bureaucratic Desire for Extra-Capsular Extraction was a compilation of early recordings.) Angels/Demons brings Earth closer to the rock core, but by no means is it a reversal of the band's slow orbit. Davies (who has been with the band since the 2005's Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method, including a short stretch where she and Carson played as a duo) is the only member retained. The textural space filled by keyboards on Bee/Lion is now occupied by Lori Goldston's cello. The varying instrumentation has resulted in two of the richest records in the Earth discography, but it never seems as if the band is struggling to do something new. Reviews have tossed around labels like “jazzy” and “country,” and Carson has said the same in interviews, but it's not like the band is trying on genres for size.

Angels/Demons is a heavier record than Bee/Lion, but at the same time it's more open, even including a 20-minute wholly improvised track. The band's improvising side was on fine display when they played le Poisson Rouge in New York in June. The lineup had changed again slightly for the touring band, and with Angelina Baldoz replacing Karl Blau on electric bass Carson became the only male in his group. It is, perhaps, a demographic that shouldn't matter, or that shows another aspect of metal's changing face, or just serves to remind that when it all is up, you've got to go back to Mother Earth.

About half the slowly majestic, 90-minute set was made up of songs from the new album and included the title track from Bees/Lion. But the setlist wasn't reserved to new material: They reached back to “Ouroboros is Broken,” the first song Carson wrote for the band (and being performed, he said, for the last time) and a cover of a song by the circa 1960s British folksinger Anne Briggs. Live they were something to behold. Davies' solid, slow-motion drumming seemed like a video effect, and the intermingling of cello and guitar was resonant.

If there is something countryish, as Carson and his legion of bloggers claim, about the new Earth, it's through a filter of Neil Young, or maybe the Dirty Three. But they have something else. They are an exercise in restraint, which might just be the buzzword for the NWODHM or even, if so grand a claim might be made, for innovative music in the early 21st Century. Back in the 20th, jazz, improv, rock, they were rarely about restraint. Anton Webern’s lessons went largely unlearned. But nowadays withholding abandon is where it’s at. They weren’t without forebears; AMM, the Necks, hell, Satie as well. Then Polwechsel, Dawn of Midi, Om, Memorize the Sky and legions of others. But Earth, Earth is rock and roll. This isn’t conceptual or ironic or even strategic. It's real, dirty, rock and roll. Slow and druggy wins the race.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Dashiki: A Jazz Mystery by Flo Wetzel

by Kurt Gottschalk

Florence Wetzel

Jazzbos have a bad habit of making things … jazzy: jazz nativities, jazz brunches, jazz hands. It's perhaps a product of the underdog psychology, a bit of defensiveness about having occupied so much more marketplace real estate 40 or 50 years ago than today, a desperate attempt to prove they can change with the times. This is relevant here only because it's so worth noting that in her “jazz mystery” Florence Wetzel has the appearances of falling into the trappings of jazz as an adjective, but wonderfully manages not to.

There are two basic things Wetzel had to do to make her jazz mystery work: One was to write a good novel about jazz and the other was to write a good mystery. Falling short of either of those would have meant running the risk of being quaint. And unfortunately, the book's title, Dashiki, and its cover, with funky font and Afro-festooned model, don't do much to convince otherwise. That the design makes sense within the context of the story only matters post-point-of-purchase.

But this is classic book-by-cover-judging, and Wetzel's too smart to err on either the jazz or the mystery count. Instead, she has crafted a story which works as a finely-tuned thriller while fitting snugly within jazz history. The double-murder in her tale involves Shinwell Johnson – a b-list trumpeter who moved in circles with Art Blakey and John Coltrane and was just beginning to have his moment some 40 years ago when he was killed – and Betty Brown, his one-time girlfriend whose current-day killing is the crux of the book. A third crime gives the tale its impetus: Brown was in possession of rare tapes of Coltrane playing with Thelonious Monk which Johnson had stolen from Trane's house. When her body was discovered, the tapes were gone.

Wetzel's deep knowledge of jazz enables her to construct a thoroughly believable story, and if it might be a bit name-droppy at times (presumably not every reader is going to follow every mention of Alfred Lion or Lee Morgan) the stripe of her fiction never clashes with the plaid of nonfiction in which she's she's placed it. Her pacing and use of foils and humor make for a fine suspense yarn. But more importantly, she gives her characters rich emotional depth and writes affectionately about the jazz geeks who populate her world, from the heroine journalist caught up in the crime to the round of acquaintances who are key to the plot's unfolding. (In full disclosure, I've known Wetzel and admired her work for years, and have a cameo role as one of those geeks.) Ultimately, it's Wetzel's gift for creating rich and empathetic characters that makes her jazz mystery such an enjoyable and unpredictable read.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Recent Recordings from Matana Roberts

Coin Coin Chapter One: Les Gens de Coleur Lebres

Live in London
(Central Control)

by Kurt Gottschalk

Although she’s been working the project live for several years already, Les Gens de Coleur Lebres is the first part of Matana Roberts’ epic Coin Coin project to make it to record. The series of suites (too big to call a single work) is in 12 parts — or “chapters,” as she tags them — each a musical portrait of someone in her family history.

Chapter One, released on the Canadian label Constellation, is a smart and harrowing telling of one of the ugliest chapters in America’s own history, and perhaps more importantly of the people who survived it. The literal part of the story doesn’t come in straightaway. Roberts stretches her Montreal 12tet first, pushing them between loose jazzy themes and (more) open improvisations for the first seven minutes before introducing the first vocal piece, “Por Piti,” which confronts the listener with a harrowing pain before the scene has even been set. It then retreats into a series of mid-Coltrane-reminiscent lines before folding in a complementary vocal part by singer Gitu Jain and then the first recitation, a quick litany of the horrors seen by the protagonist, born into slavery.

Roberts has a good sense for structuring composition and improvisation into movements and guiding her bands through them, making for another sort of storytelling. The subject of slavery is certainly tough material either to write or to recite, and Roberts’ delivery comes off as a bit dated — not 1840s but 1970s. There’s a black feminist theater vibe at play in the Ntozake Shange-styled oration which could be a distraction if everything else weren’t so well done. The spoken passage is brief and is immediately swallowed up by a quick horn frenzy followed by an antebellum string lament then a taut, repeated line which proves to be the unexpected foundation of a brass band theme, oddly coupled with hard electric guitar.

The work solidifies as the ensemble moves through the gorgeous and thoughtful “Song for Eulalie” and then “Kersalia,” which includes a more successful orchestrated recitation before pulling some more near-New Orleans jazz. These are followed by the album’s masterstroke. “Libation for Mr. Brown: Bid em in...” is a clever and catchy song about a slave auction, preying on the feeling of an active, enjoyable afternoon almost to the point of deception: Sung from the point of view of the auctioneer, the sale of human beings is accompanied by the warmth of a sunny day. It’s brilliantly sing-song and plaintive, the simple melody inducing a very real fright.

Roberts doesn’t use the text to tell the whole story and the project seems to demand a box set (or flash drive, at least) release with notes telling the literal story that only comes through in glimmers in the musical telling. At the same time, however, what Coin Coin might be about is not the stories themselves but simply the fact that they exist, that they haven’t been forgotten, that Roberts has access to them as a source for inspiration. In July, Roberts premiered the sixth chapter of Coin Coin at the Jazz Gallery in New York City, this section based on 139 pieces her great grandfather using the Bible as a source for musical inspiration at the same time while at the same time teaching himself to read. Like “Papa Joe,” Roberts has a grand storyline to chart through music. Not quite a jazz opera, not quite musical theater, Roberts is crafting a new and personal form of narrative.

Live in London is a more conventional jazz outing, recorded at the Vortex by BBC radio with a crackerjack British rhythm section. They open with a 27-minute take on “My Sistr,” a song written by the Canadian singer Frankie Sparo, who also records on Constellation. Roberts’ “Pieces of We” is followed by an exciting piece called “Glass” then “Turn it Around,” a Carribean-tinged bop that morphs into a meditation in its six quick minutes. The album’s final act is dominated by a wonderfully faithful-and-free version of Duke Ellington’s “Oska T” before closing with the gentle outro “Exchange.” It’s a solid jazz record, perhaps not as important but at the same time nicely free of the intensity of Les Gens de Coleur Lebres.

Over the last decade, Roberts has made her presence known among those in the know in Chicago, New York and Montreal, and while these aren’t her first releases they still feel like an arrival for an artist who’s well worth continued watching.