Thursday, November 1, 2012

Roscoe Mitchell Across Five Decades

Roscoe Mitchell: Before There Was Sound (Nessa)

Art Ensemble: Early Combinations (Nessa)

Roscoe Mitchell: Numbers (RogueArt)

The story of the coming of age of the Art Ensemble of Chicago is one of the great tales of avant garde jazz, if not 20th Century American music. In a nutshell, Muhal Richard Abrams formed his Experimental Band on the south side of Chicago 50 years ago, which led to the development of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Roscoe Mitchell was the first member of that organization to release a record, Sound, in 1966, and within a few years his band, the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, led a small pilgrimage from Chicago to Paris which also included Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins and Leo Smith. During their two years in Paris, Mitchell and his ensemble met American drummer Famadou Don Moye and a promoter billed the band as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, putting a stamp on what would become one of the biggest and most successful experiments in jazz in the 1970s.

During that brief time in Paris, the Art Ensemble also recorded like mad and found labels willing to commit their work to wax. As a result, most of our aural knowledge of band’s early years comes from that prolific period in Paris. But while they weren’t yet “of Chicago” while they were still in Chicago, there were precursors. A year before the recording of Sound, Mitchell got together with trumpeter Fred Berry, drummer Alvin Fiedler and future Art Ensemble bassist Malachi Favors to record the eight tracks that see their first release on Before There Was Sound.

Mitchell hadn’t entirely come into his own by the 1965 session – there’s a strong Ornette Colemen influence heard here not just due to the instrumentation. No doubt part of what Mitchell saw in Coleman was the determined spirit of forging one’s own path, and the path Mitchell was to set out on is apparent on the album. The shifting, near-unison horns of Coleman’s quartet would of course become a feature of the Art Ensemble, played out in more dramatic and sometimes even comical ways. The titles here are mostly Mitchell’s (including two takes of “Carefree,” which would also be recorded by the Art Ensemble more than once, and “Jo Jar,” which would be recorded 25 years later by Mitchell’s 3x4 Eye Ensemble) but there’s a lovely, loping ballad by Barry and a rare composition by Favors. It’s also worth noting that if Mitchell hadn’t entirely come into his own at 25, he was still supremely capable of leading a strong session of distinctive music. Before There Was Sound may be a prelude, but it’s stands on its own merits.

By 1967, the Art Ensemble was starting to come together. Mitchell and Favors were playing with Lester Bowie and “Jo Jar” dedicatee Joseph Jarman, both of whom would be members of the longstanding quintet that came back from Paris. In September of that year, they recorded two demos (with Thurman Barker and Charles Clark supplying a second bass on one) to send out to European festivals. Those two tracks saw light as part of the 5 disc set Art Ensemble: 1967-68 (released by Nessa in 1993) and are available now on a single disc. The first of the two cuts, “A to Ericka,” shows the group already establishing its working methods, playing in distinct isolation and snapping together on tight themes, using shouts and song fragments, whistles and handheld percussion to broaden the scope of their sound and creating a feeling that anything might happen. It’s actually two pieces, the 22 minutes resolving in Jarman’s “Ericka,” another track that the classic AECO lineup would revisit more than once.

The second half of the disc is a piece of Jarman’s entitled simply “Quintet.” It opens with a strained solo by Bowie which resonates with the trademark AECO sound. A full eight minutes of horn-and-drum meditation is allowed before saxophones step up and Favors’ solid and soft-spoken bass slides underneath. A free blow is allowed to last only a few minutes before they shift down to another contemplation. It can be seen as foreshadowing much of Jarman’s career (which he has referred to as being the music of a peaceful and chaotic universe) ending in horn harmonies that reveal their free-reigning groupthink.

If the early members of the AACM were prescient in bringing new approaches for composition to the jazz idiom, Mitchell has been on the fore (along with Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill and a select few others) of continuing to push such strategies in the ensuing decades, even entering into the territory often called “classical.” Numbers collects a baker’s dozen small pieces, solos and duos for piano, strings, percussion and bass. Mitchell is only heard on one track, a beautiful duet with William Winant on percussion. Winant also frames the disc with the three part “Bells for New Orleans,” which nicely opens, closes and marks the midpoint of the record. Elsewhere the masterful pianist Joseph Kubera plays a wonderful duet with violinist Vartan Manoogian and accompanies baritone Thomas Buckner on three settings of e.e. comings verses, revisiting territory they had explored together before: Mitchell scored cummings texts for himself, Buckner, Kubera and Manoogian on his 1994 album Pilgrimage. Mitchell has a particular sensitivity for cummings, and for that matter seems to have a good touch in writing for Buckner, so it’s a welcome pleasure to hear more of that combination of forces.

Mitchell’s journey from “jazz” to “new music” has been a remarkable one, and one that can be witnessed this month when he presents a new solo saxophone piece, sharing space on a program with John Cage and Petr Kotik and the stage with Kubera as a part of the Beyond Cage festival. Perhaps the border-crossers are finally getting some land of their own.

- Kurt Gottschalk

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Nov. 2012 issue of the New York City Jazz Record.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Clockwatching: A Few Hours With Christian Marclay's Masterpiece

I had thought I'd write something about Christian Marclay's The Clock when it screened during the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival. I typed up the notes I scribbled in the dark and thought I'd get back to see more of it, but that didn't happen. With the announcement of December showings at the Museum of Modern Art, I decided just to post my notes, and add to them when I get to see more of the 24-hour collage. In a way, this seems more appropriate. The work is so subliminally cerebral, so disjointed and rejointed again, that immediate reactions seem just as relevant as polished prose. Or maybe in December I'll figure out what it was I was trying to say.

The Clock Diary


It’s a fascinating example of nonlinear storytelling in that b) it is not a story at all, although it both suggests and relies completely upon stories; and a) it is perhaps the most linear thing imaginable.

Time seems to stretch and contracts even while its passage is continuously being displayed. A five minute segment can feel like 10 while the next 20 fly by. We are made to be both acutely aware of and disconnected from the passage of time.

The tops of hours become magical, celebratory.

While there’s no storyline, it’s possible to get lost in the suggestion of story and for a scene of 5 or 10 or 20 seconds to pass only to realize you seem to have missed the only necessary condition (ie, of course, the clock).

Other scenes seem lost in the mix. Marclay at times cuts just before or after an edit in the original, leaving a seemingly orphaned clip that can’t always be placed.


I know some of the actors. I rarely know a movie. It would be such a different experience if I did. People laugh with recognition. I don’t want that recognition. I want this strange story where nothing ever stays the same, where I don’t have to try to understand because there is no understanding to be had, where I can just experience, float along, counting the minutes.

Funny thing: on the way in tonight I looked at my phone to note what time I was beginning this round. As if…

I would like to see all 24 hours, but I’m not kidding myself that I will.

I am aware of looking forward to midnight – that must be the most exciting moment of the work. But I wonder – what is the least exciting? Marclay said that 5-5:30 am was the hardest time to fill: The half hour that’s neither night nor day, before the first alarm clocks start going off. But does that mean that what does happen at 5-5:30 is boring? It’s not often the intention of directors to make boring movies. I wonder if anyone has just filmed a clock. Michael Snow, maybe, or Yoko Ono or Andy Warhol.

It seems as if with each passing hour things go from light to dark. :00 to :30 tends to be people enjoying themselves, doing frivolous things, comedies and romances. Things are fresh, new, in the process of becoming. :30 to :00 is about problems, finality, time is running out, the clock is ticking, you’re late, perhaps too late.

I try to think of times in movies that mean something to me. Certainly the radio alarm clock in Groundhog Day. I believe the opening Drew Barrymore scene in Scream. There must be some great “school’s out” scenes. And Metropolis, of course. Oh, and American Grafitti. I suppose it’s revealing something to say what heavily time-dependent movies I’m able to recall.

Ah, King of Hearts with Geneviève Bujold! I’d forgotten about that movie.

Midnight is great, of course. The top of each hour seems to be another turn for Marclay’s sound collaging. The whole 24 hours is, of course. But the tops of the hours are the rewards. It almost seemed like he downplayed midnight a bit though, went counterintuitive. Noon seemed a much bigger ordeal.

The amount of emotional import an actor like Shelley Winters can deliver becomes deeply apparent in a 20-second scene without context.

Oh, of course there’s After Hours. Dog Day Afternoon, Nightmare on Elm Street maybe.


I like the ways the cuts make people laugh. Not the laughter of recognition so much but the laughter of having continuity and incongruity mixed, of something being dropped in one scene leading to a body prone on the floor in the next, suggesting a causality that makes no sense.

Nice to see a bit of Basquiat, a touchstone in a sense for Marclay’s own work.

It also works as an homage to the timepiece itself, of course, probably one of the most wonderfully and variously designed of functional objects. I am, however, yet to see a Swatch or a sundial.

- Kurt Gottschalk

Friday, June 22, 2012

Eno in the Repertory

Icebreaker with BJ Cole

Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks was a lovely and easily overlooked oddity in the run of ambient music recordings Brian Eno released during the 1970s and '80s. Coming eight years after his first full album of ethereal, instrumental music, 1975's Discreet Music (he also experimented with the form in individual tracks on his pop album Another Green World that year), and featuring the same alien landscape cover art as the previous ambient releases, it was easy to assume Apollo was more of the dreamily beautiful same. And in fact, it was more or less more of the same. It's only with hindsight that we get to see the arcs and contexts into which albums fall.

Eno wasn't, of course, entirely divorced from pop music at the time. He'd been producing Devo and Talking Heads, among others, and was about to embark on a career changing job behind the board for U2. So despite all the atmospherics, he had still been hanging out around guitars. And the guitar was what made Apollo stand out in the ambient catalog. When he was asked to supply music for a film compiling NASA Apollo footage (which must have been a bit of a vindication, having already released an album of hypothetical film soundtracks), Eno made the kind of abstract association that is the root of his work's psychic character: He related space missions to the sounds of country music that he would hear through the static from distant radio stations as a youth in England. Like the Apollo rocket, those steel guitars floated through the air, defying gravity. In the end Eno's score wasn't used, but the slide guitar of Daniel Lanois figured prominently on the album.

The British new music chamber ensemble Icebreaker has revisited the album, taking something of the same approach the Bang on a Can All-Stars did with Eno's Music for Airports, that is to say taking music that was largely produced by electronic instruments and looped magnetic tape and arranging it for traditional instruments. But the similarities stop there. Bang on a Can's effort sho wed the muscle of their work. The four sections were arranged (each by a different composer from the collective) as if to exhibit the unplugged nature of the proceedings – there was no missing the point. With 12 members and amplified guitars, strings and keyboards in the lineup, they can come closer to the original. And without meaning to cast Eno as a Pinnochio they – like Bang on a Can's Airports – they have the warmth of a real band. Guest BJ Cole (who has played with T. Rex, Elton John, REM and the Moody Blues, among many others) takes the pedal steel parts on five of the thirteen tracks and plays them with a soft delicacy.

It's a fine record on its own accord, but it's also interesting to see Bang on a Can furthering their efforts to position Eno as a repertory composer by releasing Icebreaker's album on their own Cantaloupe Music label.

- Kurt Gottschalk

The physical release date is June 26, but you can stream the whole album below.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Mick Barr Gets All Fancy

The cross-breeding of classical and heavy metal is attempted far more often than it is successfully achieved, and all too often with brows arched instead of furrowed. The demands of technical proficiency make the marriage a natural one, but with rare exception the pairing results in one or both of the lineages being reduced to a shadow of a trope used to add a bit of class or irony to the other (see The Great Kat, Metallica's S&M, Ralph Macchio in Crossroads). The results are rarely stronger than the weaker element. Guitarist Mick Barr may be the man to bring the hybrid to a higher high. The two edges of his sword can be seen in the light of his being named one Guitar World's “50 Fastest Guitarists” in 2008 and receiving an unrestricted grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2009. And with a commission from the Kronos Quartet and recent performances of his compositions by the ACME and Wet Ink ensembles, he is in any event poised to prove it or die trying. Barr's music doesn't fall squarely into the Headbangers Ball tradition, but he is a master shredder within the New Wave of Experimental Heavy Metal. As a member of the bone-crushing Krallice and the extreme minimalist duo Orthelm and in his solo projects Ocrilim and Octis, Barr has used his astonishing speed and precision to create some decidedly cerebral and fairly unprecedented metallic music. If there is a precursor to his work, it's the enigmatic Buckethead, the masked marvel who appeared in the 1990s to take metal's applied technique out of the rock-song format and perform it solo or with a drum machine. Barr too has laid down brain-melting solos without verse-chorus structure and alone or with a drum machine. But while Buckethead has crafted a nightmare fantasia of chickens, orphans and amusement park mortality, Barr's high-volume, high-tempo world is presented without irony or attitude. It is simply 5,000 notes right in your face right now.

Appearing with the contemporary chamber ensemble ACME at the Kitchen on May 12, Barr was interpreter, soloist and composer. The concert began with ACME and Barr playing Frederic Rzewski's 1969 composition Les Moutons de Panurge. The short score calls for “any number of musicians playing melody instruments and any number of nonmusicians playing anything” with individual notes in a 65-note line being removed upon each repetition. They gave the piece a tight and strictly metered read (even though Rzewski allows for imprecision in the score, noting that “if you get lost, stay lost.”). Barr played in a quick tremolo rather than relying on amplified sustain with an exactitude that has become a hallmark of his style.

His tremolo tremors continued through an unaccompanied solo improvisation that separated the Rzewski and his own scored piece, Acmed. For that piece, Barr employed a string trio and a similar language of quick syncopation on single notes and unison shredding interspersed with midtempo melody lines which were surprisingly romantic at times. It was exhilarating, even if a little much like a guitar solo, making scant use of the sorts of counterpoint of which the violin, viola and cello are capable. Close harmonies were built for moments at a time, slow legatos from one instrument would underscore the vibrations of the other two, but for the most part it was a fuselage of 16th notes. If Barr's intent was merely to abandon traditional string music for a more rockist attack (where rock music is so often about unison or near unison playing) then he succeeded while generating a high level of excitement.

Ten days later, Barr was up front at Roulette for the second night of the Wet Ink Festival of New American Music videoing a performance of his Landlore for saxophone, violin and piano on his phone. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, another dense, single movement piece delivered in about a quarter of an hour, but this time working more with counterpoint and dynamic. It still had a shredder's repetitions but oftentimes the runs were passed between the violin and the saxophone with the piano sometimes playing single-chord interjections, other times playing passages which were downright conventional and quite lovely nevertheless. The repeating phrases modulated between keys almost as if something was bumping into them, growing bolder and slower all the while.

The greater disparity in instrumental voices seemed to serve Barr well, but there's an assumption implicit in that statement. If it's even fair (or not entirely meaningless, for that matter) to say that Barr is composing classical music, are there any rules or responsibilities that come with that task? It's a foolish question, a dishonest one even, because it's asked only in order to be shot down. But the question is out there nevertheless and gets asked of any “classical” crossover. Both of Barr's pieces were stimulating and well-received, and more importantly were true to the voice Barr has established over the years, without irony or attitude. It will be interesting to see how his Kronos commission – which will no doubt be of higher profile – is received. It will be more interesting to hear the music Barr comes up with.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Vagaries of Anonymity: On the New False Personal History of the Residents

After all these years – more than four decades, in fact – what kind of names would befit the most famously shrouded band in rock? Could they be Penn, Teller, Siegfried and Roy? Are they really the Beatles, a notion they flirted with in their early days, or are they Bingo, Bango, Bongo and Irving? What could possibly satisfy fans of the band who have long wondered about the real identities of San Francisco's weirdest denizens.

The band opened its 2010-2011 Talking Light tour (which came on the heels of their fantastic Bunny Boy project, during which someone who sounded like the one called the Singing Resident certainly seemed to show his face shrouded only by a thick beard and shop glasses) with a grinding dirge of a take on “Smelly Tongues” from their first record (1974's Meet the Residents) after which the frontman introduced himself, lacking neither pride nor drawl, as “Randy, lead singer for the Residents!” And he introduced the rest of the band! Keyboardist Bob and guitarist Chuck! At last the truth was … was what?

The Residents haven't just hidden their identities over the course of a long and rich career, they've played with the very idea of identity. After their early toying with the Beatles, they continued perpetuating the notion of a foursome, wearing four sets of the famous tuxedo and eyeball costumes or other matching and face-concealing get-ups even when there were up to six people on stage. In a surprising spoken passage during the 2002 Demons Dance Alone tour, however, they gave the veil a surprise piercing, with the Singing Resident announcing a desire for a manager who could get them back on MTV and in the process admitting to being a band – or this band, anyway – for the first time.

But last time out there were only three Residents onstage. At the outset of the show (which can also be seen on the new Talking Light: Bimbo's DVD from MVDvisual), there were only three. Carlos, Randy explained, had quit the band and gone home to Mexico. However much truth there might be in the names and band politics, Carlos's departure is probably best seen as setting them up for another round of storytelling, or story-within-a-story telling perhaps on a scale worthy of MacBeth.

This is exciting for true believers because the Residents are master storytellers. Despite the image they project, it's not all that helpful to think of them as a band. They are a storytelling troupe the likes of which has never been seen before. The Bunny Boy story was told through YouTube videos, live appearances and CDs, and the protagonist (a possibly fratricidal recluse) was even available for direct interaction through email and instant messaging. The Carlos story is just beginning to unfold, and true enough may never come to pass (leaving projects unfinished seems to be a part of the Resident aesthetic). But the liner notes to a CD available in limited numbers on the last tour added a little to the tale. The mostly instrumental (and fairly invigorating) record, which bears the mouthful title The Residents' Talking Light Presents Dolor Generar – Una Noche Lost en Van Horn, Texas: Pre-Show Music for the Talking Light Tour, contained a brief story in the notes. After Carlos quit the band, Chuck (or Charles, as he calls himself there) had apparently followed him to Texas where they met up at a bar. Carlos put something in Chuck's drink to pick him up after the long drive, and then a waitress gave Carlos a small box with rocks inside. He doesn't remember much else. He ends the short note by saying that he never figured out why Carlos quit the band.

If there is a plot, it thickens with the new release The Residents Present Sonidos de la Noche: Coochie Brake. The album concerns the kids who grew up to become the Residents exploring the backwaters of their native Louisiana, and is sung almost entirely in Spanish. But more surprising than the language is the fact that it isn't the Singing Resident doing the singing. Vocal credits go to drummer Carlos this time with Chuck on keybords and Bob on guitar. Songwriting and performance credits go to “The Residents / Sonidos de la Noche” and Randy is thanked, making this perhaps the first album where Singing Resident Randy doesn't appear. It also may not be. He doesn't play an instrument on stage, and there have been a number of instrumental Residents records, but this is one of the the first times they've given individual performer credits (they never had names before the last couple years) and the first time they've pointed out that the band was something other than the foursome.

Meanwhile, somewhere perhaps just south of reality, Randy Rose was concerning himself with the story of a friend named Sam. While Bob, Chuck and Carlos were recording songs about their youth in Louisiana, and while Chuck was chasing Carlos through Texas, Randy was workshopping a new production called Sam's Enchanted Evening, first in San Francisco and then over four nights in New York. On March 24 at Abrons Arts Center in Manhattan's Lower East Side, Randy – with the help of a pianist and an actress in the role of a nonverbal cocktail waitress – put on a revue of a couple dozen pop hits stitched together to tell the story of an alcoholic Vietnam vet who stumbles into a bar to celebrate his birthday by exorcising his demons. It's essentially a one-man show – the pianist and the waitress contribute to the action but don't have lines – for the Singing, or perhaps the Acting, Resident. Sam is not a warm character. He's a racist and his homophobia seems to run through a strong current of denial. Over the course of the 90-minute show, presented without intermission, Sam didn't become any more likable, but he did become a sympathetic figure. And while the only music was the piano and an occasional banged cooking pot, the songs (including “Ode to Billy Joe,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Windmills of Your Mind” and “Livin' la Vida Loca”) came off as pure Residents. Through the strength of the Singing Resident's powerful rasp and assured stage presence, Sam's Enchanted Evening was, if not a rock show, still a Residents show.

All of this recent activity comes as the band is poised to mount another tour. The band that only toured three times in its first 25 years has come in recent years to do so almost annually, and to use the practice of touring as a tool in cross-platform storytelling. As of this writing the band is preparing for its 40th Anniversary tour and seems to have several stories underway. Is the story of Carlos's departure setting the stage? The band has only done two “greatest hits” tours; the rest have all been stageplays, operas of sorts. And there must be a reason for them to have decided to use individual names for the first time in 40 years, names which don't seem to be real. As pointed out on the Residents Lovers forum (, Chuck has been credited with the last name Bobuck, giving him the one name you can't use in the children's song “The Name Game.” But there's a reason they're using names now. And there's a reason they're introducing band politics to the storyline. And whatever that reason is, it's not about revealing their identities.

Despite their newfound naming, Demons Dance Alone remains their most revelatory and direct work. If it's not their strongest musically, it does have an infectious, repeating theme. The double disc version released by Mute furthers the revelations, more intimately so than their current tactics. “The first thing one needs to know about about THE RESIDENTS is that there are no RESIDENTS,” according to the unsigned liner notes to the release. “'It all started in 1972 when four people with little direction and less talent decided to start band.' Now the lies begin … or do they? […] The band not only had no faces, genders, or names, THE RESIDENTS had no personalities. […] If no one claims to be a RESIDENT, doesn't that mean everyone is a potential RESIDENT? Don't we all get their mail?”

As their play within a play within a play reaches its 40th anniversary, we can all revel with them. For there are, indeed, no Residents. Neither Randy nor Chuck nor Carlos nor Bob. And we, we are all Residents.

Text and cell phone photo by Kurt Gottschalk

Here's a rough video from one of the San Francisco shows. It looks like there was more staging in New York, at least from this glimpse.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The David Murray Blues Big Band with James "Blood" Ulmer live at Iridium

David Murray opened the first set of a two night run March 7 with his Blues Big Band playing a song of his own called “Stressology.” Before bringing out featured performer James “Blood” Ulmer, he said, he wanted to relieve some stress for the audience “because New York is so imposing.” It might have been seen as a quiet homecoming of sorts for the saxophonist who has been talking about moving back to New York after a decade and a half in Paris. He didn't say as much from the stage but here he was, back in New York and in front of a big band, even if it was a Tuesday at Iridium instead of one of the many, many Mondays he hosted at the Knitting Factory.

There were a couple names back from those olden days - Alex Harding on baritone sax and Jaribu Shahid on upright bass and bass guitar - but it was still a new project and if the band wasn't up to the full power that Murray's big band had harnessed when they were playing weekly gigs, they still backed Ulmer more than ably once he joined them on stage. All told, it was probably a better Ulmer gig than it was a Murray one even if the leader's few tenor solos still stole the show. The one notable exception to that broad stroke came in the form of another Murray in the 15-piece band who wasn't introduced until midpoint.

Ulmer started with a strong take on Bessie Smith's “Backwater Blues” and a funky version of his own “Talk About Jesus,” both of which appeared on his 2007 release Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions. His phlanged guitar was untroubled by treble as he moaned the New Orleans-inspired songs through a choppy vibrato while a bold young man comped next to him on a custom Stratocaster. The rhythm figures played by the younger guitarist paid a debt owed to Ulmer, but when he stood up to solo he showed an allegiance to Hendrix, Santana and Eddie Hazel as well. And when David Murray introduced him as Mingus Murray - without going so far as to say he was his son, although he is - the lineage was made clear. The younger Murray has been setting the stage for his own rhythm and funky blues, describing himself as an “art nouveau rock star from the future” and releasing his first album as a free download via his website.

The various forces aligned for a cover of Kanye West's “Love Lockdown,” a song the elder Murray has also played with his Cuban Ensemble joined by singer Macy Gray and Roots drummer ?estlove and firmly grounded here by Shahid's electric bass. The set concluded with a reading of “Sitting on Top of the Worldwhich was the jazziest thing of the night.

Even with some nods to the new, there was a current of nostalgia going on, enough so that one could be forgiven for imagining that Murray and Ulmer might next revisit Recording N.Y.C. 1986, even without the late, great Fred Hopkins. It's unlikely, but it remains one of the best releases in either man's catalog.

Here's a short documentary about the project, not from the same gig but worth a watch:

- Kurt Gottschalk

Monday, March 12, 2012

New Takes on Kate Bush and David Bowie

Theo Bleckmann
Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush
(Winter & Winter)

The Wee Trio
Ashes to Ashes: A David Bowie Intraspective
(Bionic Records)

It's easy to make the mistake of remembering Kate Bush as a girl at her piano, a bit of a weird one maybe, but essentially looking pretty doing ballerina steps and singing pretty songs in a high soprano. And with as much as a dozen years passing between albums (she's released a total of 10 since her first in 1978), she doesn't do an awful lot to remind us otherwise.

It often feels as if this is the mistake singer Theo Bleckmann has made on Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush. While Bush's songs aren't often cheery, they do sometimes feel light. Not unsophisticated or unintelligent but ethereal, and these are the songs toward which Bleckmann is drawn. He is a fine singer, occupying a territory between art song and cabaret, which allows for smart arrangements and just a little bit of camp but not much by way of the screeches of terror sometimes in Bush's recordings.

As such, a song like “All the Love” from 1982's The Dreaming (her boldest and by some measures her best album) is perfect for Bleckmann: It feels easy but it doesn't move in obvious ways. There's enough gristle there to make for a smart arrangement and enough, well, dreaminess for Bleckmann to luxuriate in. It might be the high point of the album, along with a lightly percussive take on “Army Dreamers” from Bush's previous record, Never for Ever. Those two songs sandwich an example of Bleckmann's proclivities leading him astray. “The Saxophone Song,” from her 1978 debut, is a tossaway track about feeling a connection with a musician in a bar band; the band ups the jazziness and Bleckmann scats along pushing it (not illogically but still unenticingly) toward Joni Mitchell's stabs at jazz. Caleb Buhans is called upon to provide the sax fills of the original on his violin, but curiously doesn't get the chance to grind out the wonderful dissonances in Never for Ever's “Violin,” which they ill-advisedly turn into a thin thrash rather than letting it be the nightmare Bush originally created. Two other of Bush's harder-edged songs – The Dreaming's “Suspended in Gaffa” and “Running Up That Hill” (from 1985's Hounds of Love) – are given more fitting treatments if still a bit buffed and polished.

All of that said, however, it's a good album. If for the most part he stays in his comfort zone, it's also there that he finds success. Taking on “Babooshka” or “Sat in Your Lap” ultimately wouldn't have made Bleckmann's album better even if they're arguably among the better of Bush's songs. The band (which alongside Bleckmann's processed and layered vocals and Burhans' processed violin and guitar includes Henry Hey on electric and acoustic keyboards, Skúli Sverrison on electric bass and John Hollenbeck on percussion) does an excellent job of representing the Fairlight synth, tribal drums and floating tone clouds of Bush's music while giving it a fresh take. It's a bit odd to hear five men make Bush's music lighter than she did herself, but it works.

Probably moreso than any woman who had gone before her, Bush's spirit guide through art rock was David Bowie. Like him, she had the pretty face, unmistakably bravado vocals and sophisticated sexuality that made her seem to rise above the rock world. And like Theo Bleckmann, the Wee Trio attempts to place that figure in an arthouse lounge.

Bowie has had a longer and much more prolific career (and perhaps as a result hit-to-miss ratio), and has certainly held a brighter spot in the spotlight. But at his best he's right up there with her, and the Wees give a nice selection of his best in their half-hour, six song program. Two of finest art songs (“The Man Who Sold the World” and “Ashes to Ashes”) are at center, surrounded by a smart rocker (“1984”) and a dumb rocker (“Queen Bitch”), all bookended by nods to latter day Bowie in 1997's “The Battle for Britain” and 2002's “Sunday.” The trio (bassist Dan Loomis, drummer Jared Schong and James Westfall on vibes) has worked this sort of formula before. On past records they've recorded arrangements of Aphex Twin and Nirvana but this is the first time they've fixed their focus so tightly on one point. The arrangements here are smart, both inventive and faithful, and if there's a shortcoming it's in the design. It's a fun listen for Bowie fans, but a vibe trio is only going to get so far. The songs they chose originally called upon such diverse talents as Mick Ronson, Carlos Alomar and Reeves Gabrels – and that's just the guitars, which the Wees lack. As with Bleckmann's Bush, much of the drama gets lost in translation.

- Kurt Gottschalk

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Keeril Makan's Target

Keeril Makan

Unfamiliar with Keeril Makan's name, I was initially attracted to this CD on the strength of violinist Jennifer Choi and cellist Alex Waterman both being involved, and by the fact that the label – Starkland – is usually a safe bet. Even still, I hadn't quite steadied myself for brilliance when I put it on. Makan was born in New Jersey of South African, Indian and Russian-Jewish parentage and studied composition and religion at Oberlin before earning a PhD in composition from University of California -Berkeley. He is a recipient of the Luciano Berio Rome Prize and has been commissioned by Bang on a Can and the American Composer's Orchestra. His work haas been performed at the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco and the MATA Festival in New York. So maybe I should have heard of him before now.

Target opens with 2, a piece from 1998 for violin and percussion played beautifully by Choi and David Shively. It's a staggering work of precision that doesn't rely on tightly metered phrasing. The initial 17 minutes of varying pulse hypnotize the listener with lulling, only to be broken by a frightful metal-on-metal conclusion. This is followed by a piece for solo cello composed in 2002. At not quite nine minutes, Zones d'accord is the shortest piece on the disc and seems to fly by all too quickly. Waterman executes the textural piece – scored for open strings and harmonics – wonderfully. His touch is crucil and in hs hands the piece hovers, disappearing just as its presence is becoming known.

Taken together, the first two pieces might leave the listener vulnerable, as if a nerve had been exposed – a perfectly raw state for Resonance Alloy from 2004. The half-hour percussion work is an absolutely stunning meditation on rhythm performed by Shively on gong. Makan cites as inspiration for the piece James Tenney's Having Never Written a Single Note for Percussion and Alvin Lucier's Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra, two other pieces of quickly counted repetitions. It's vibrant and surprising, psychedelic in a certain sense, and is the piece that pushes Target into the realm of essential listening.

- Kurt Gottschalk