Monday, May 22, 2017

More Fun, Please: Paal Nilssen-Love at Oslo's Only Connect festival


Paal Nilssen-Love Extra Large Unit 
“more fun, please”
Only Connect Festival, Oslo
May 20, 2017


Anne Hilde Neset, the artistic director of the 5-year-old Only Connect Festival in Oslo, Norway, introduced Paal Nilssen-Love’s Extra Large Unit by saying that for years she’d been trying to get the drummer to “write more stuff down. For the final set of her final year with the festival, she got her wish. Nilssen-Love supplemented his 12-piece Large Unit with 20 students from the Norwegian Academy of Music to present a 30-minute suite of groove, humor and historical referencing. 

The players were spread across the floor of the Marmorsalen theater in the Sentralen – a posh, newly opened arts center in an old bank building near the city center – with scattered audience seating just beyond them, so that that players and spectators were very nearly sitting together. 

The piece, “more fun please,”  seemed an endless succession of cues and causation. It started after an extended silence with a trombone blast and a piano smash and then a quick scattering of isolated events until a vague arabesque emitted from a standing violinist. The blasts continued including from electronicist Christian Obermayer, Nilssen-Love’s secret weapon in the group. The violin dance seemed to soothe the beast – first one of the three pianos joined in and in short order everyone had followed into a quiet rumble. 

There then followed a remarkable meditation for flute and two accordions (one in drone, the other seeming to pop reeds, if that’s possible) before Nilssen-Love began cuing unison blasts, which seemed to kickstart a vibraphone, playing something quicker but rather in keeping with the flute song. One of the student pianists started playing in opposition to the vibes but quIckly 180’d, then two drummers and four bassists pushing into free jazz territory. A cadre of horns stormed in and the Very Large Unit began to resemble (in sound, not size) the Cecil Taylor Unit that preceded it. 

Before one could ask the stale question about composition vs improvisation, they headed into a bit of circus music. Was Nilssen-Love teasing the question? Was he intentionally messing with the idea of composition in jazz by moving from a Taylor mode through a moment of Nino Rota and headlong into a Mingus-inspired subsection? Was he raising the hackneyed notion of live improvisation vs sterile documentation by having electronics and trumpet players cue separate halves of the band with vinyl records onto which written cues were taped: PAC-MAN; TEQUILA; BEAUTY; VOFF!; 8, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; an arrow pointing upward, a cartoon of a ghost, or FUCK TRUMP (the last one being promptly smashed)?

There was, in any event, a score on a stand in front of each of the musicians, with pages combining traditional and graphic notation, and the players certainly referred to them at least some of the time, and do so there was something actually written down on paper. And from the faces of the students and Unit members after the piece concluded, there was fun to be had, and no doubt a wish for more.

- Kurt Gottschalk (text and photos)  

My report on the rest of the Only Connect festival can be read at I Care If You Listen.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Kentucky Derby is (Still) Decadent and Depraved

The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved
The Town Hall
May 5, 2017

Producer Hal Willner was a pilgrim in the field of the tribute album. His star-studded and slightly left of center dedications to Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill and Disney movie soundtracks set the bar for curated compilation discs. But now and again, an effort of his has fallen through the cracks.

One such overlooked project is the 2012 record The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, a sort of radio play based on an early Hunter S. Thompson article with actor Tim Robbins in the role of the drug-addled protagonist and music by Bill Frisell.

The record isn’t exactly lost treasure; as a narrative piece it doesn’t necessarily invite repeat listens like his albums built around musical bodies of work. But with a protagonists-narrator occupying the bulk of the spoken parts, it isn’t exactly a radio play, either.

The musico-gonzo journo fable found life onstage, however, on the night before the actual Derby in a production directed by Chloe Webb with Robbins returning get in the lead role and Willner, Frisell and band all onstage for the action.

After a screening of a Sherman and Mr. Peabody cartoon (from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show) about the first Kentucky Derby and a newsreel about Seabiscuit, the players entered then, oddly enough, to Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” over the sound system. 

The sprightly sextet of horns was pushed by drummer Gerald Cleaver through the overture, featuring each of the instrumentalists in quick succession. They then evoked the recognizable strains of “My Old Kentucky Home,” to which Robbins took the stage, towering over everything around him. Intoning Hunter S. Thompson quite admirably, he delivered Thompson’s essay with Willner, Webb and actor Brad Hall voicing incidental characters, the latter also fulfilling the role of illustrator/enabler Ralph Steadman. 

“We didn’t give a damn about the horses on the track,”  Robbins bellowed, Steadman’s illustrations for the original 1970 Scanlon’s Monthly story projected behind him. “We had come there to watch the real beasts perform.” The tone was set for their descent into the drunken derby, looking down their own drug-filled noses. Robbins stood easily against the other Thompson portrayers, Johnny Depp and Bill Murray, acing that insistent voice, like David Brinkley on the verge of a coronary. 

The action was compelling even if not altogether acted out, while Frisell’s music was a bit too full to call “incidental.” His themes were so familiar that even without his trademark guitar tone, the music (albeit played by longtime associates) was imminently recognizable as his. It was very present but not so much as to get in the way and all of the actors – Robbins certainly but even Wilner – gave powerful enough deliveries that they could rise above the jaunty soundtrack. At times, Doug WIeselman’s bass clarinet (revising the main theme without accompaniment at Steadman and Thompson’s first meeting, for example) pulled the scenes together where they might have lacked without stage set or costume. 

An instrumental section gave the band a chance to fly a little higher while Webb, in a grotesque pantomime horse head, traipsed down the center aisle and did a quick dance with Robbins. She returned in horsehead at the end, as Thompson (himself a Louisville native) dismissed his artist associate, seeming in his stupor to choose the derby-goers over the man who would become his closest working associate. “We can do without your kind in Kentucky,” he hollered, and then had a dance with the horse as if he were at last freed of the assignment.

When Frisell and WIlner’s record of the production first came out, it fell a bit flat, an interesting novelty but far from either of their strongest work. On Derby Eve at Town Hall, however, it was a winner. 

- Kurt Gottschalk (photos by Iain Toft)