Stumbling Upon

I have mixed feelings about the newly robust editorial side at Bandcamp. I’m a fan of the site in general, and have worked with the talented new editor in the past (and have written something for the site that was apparently killed, likely due to the subject’s irrelevance). They are covering a lot of music, which is good, but the shotgun approach has so far been highly promiscuous and stretched thin, pushing the views towards the consumer rather than the content of the music.

But here’s one that they got (in my totally self-involved ass-holish opinion) right. This new release is excellent synthesizer music, with not just a classics sound but the classic open-eyed, optimistic view of the future. Ignore the editorial content and just listen (and buy).

 

The collaboration between two generations of Buchla enthusiasts is soothing and unsettling all at once.

via Album of the Day: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani, “Sunergy” — Bandcamp Daily

Back to School sale – 30% off all new and bestselling music books! — 333sound

Been waiting to buy my book? The price is right, along with the rest of the 33 1/3 series:

Just one week left in Bloomsbury’s September sale! Prepare yourself for another grueling semester by filling your brains with interesting facts on the sounds that surround you. Find yourself examining your summer spent at Coachella a bit differently with The Pop Festival, or discover how a once belittled record label evoked the ultimate revenge by securing […]

via Back to School sale – 30% off all new and bestselling music books! — 333sound

17 Years in Ektachrome | Fossil Aerosol Mining Project

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Simulated Mutation, 1987 cassette, Fossil Aerosol Mining Project

Some of the most powerful stuff that has reached my ears over the past year and half has been the sounds captured and disseminated by Fossil Aerosol Mining Project. What they have produced, collecting the media detritus of society over three decades, is stunning, hauntings of the past and future. For more, and more on what they mean, reading my article “Sounds of Futures’ Past” at New Music Box.

They have been reissuing their recordings, and out now is a digital version of 17 Years in Ektachrome, with a bonus track. Stream it below, and buy it and other items in their catalogue through the FAMP bandcamp page.

September of His Years

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80 is going to be a very good year for Steve Reich (born October 3, 1936). There are concerts around the world celebrating his achievements, and he will be a prominent, season long presence here in New York City.

You can read my reviews of two recent concerts, and looking closely ahead:

  • October 25: Ensemble Signal is back at Miller Theatre for one of their 6 p.m., free Pop-Up Concerts, playing Cello Counterpoint, NY Counterpoint, and the early, experimental Pendulum Music.
  • October 29: At Juilliard, Jeffrey Milarsky conducts the AXIOM ensemble in early and recent pieces, including the gorgeous Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ, and City Life, which increasingly builds an importance equal to Music for 18 Musicians.
  • November 1: In Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, ICE, So Percussion, Synergy Vocals, and conductor David Robertson will play Quartet, the video opera Three Tales, and the world premiere of Pulse. It’s worth noting here that Reich continues to put make outstanding new pieces that are moving his style forward into new areas of harmony, rhythm, and form.
  • December 10: National Sawdust and the World Music Institute are presenting a concert with Ghanaian master drummer Gideon Alorwoyie and Mantra Percussion, playing traditional music and excerpts from Drumming.

And if you can’t wait, or you can’t make it, order yourself Steve Reich: The ECM Recordings, a neat little box to be released September 30 that collects the first recording of Music for 18 Musicians, probably the single most important record of the last 50 years, along with everything else ECM released (which includes Octet, which Reich later revised into Eight Lines). Consider this an essential part of your music library.

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Ooh, Look Out You Rock ‘n’ Rollers

Pretty soon now, we’re all gonna get older …

When rock music first developed, it was inevitable that it would become part of the cultural nostalgia machine. It’s an inherently human thing to think the present is awful, the future is worth, and to look backward at some prelapsarian moment in the past. Those of us who are aware of this tendency can see possibilities ahead, those who aren’t vote Republican.

Not that nostalgia doesn’t have its rewards. Who doesn’t miss artists like Bowie and Lou Reed, who doesn’t regret that there will be no new ideas? (don’t trust anyone who doesn’t feel that way). The emotional fetish of nostalgia is easily transformed into the material fetish object of the box set, work neatly cubed, with concentrated impact. If you’ve been saving your money to splurge, or if you can rationalize spending money you don’t have (I sure can!), here are upcoming objects of desire:

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David Bowie: Who Can I Be Now? (1974 to 1976)

What a strange fucking year, it not only feels like it began with Bowie’s death, but that his death inaugurated all the bizarre crap that came after, as if he were a totem here to absorb our cultural oddities and project them back to us in a less harmful manner. The final release, the wondeful Black Star, was followed by a superb box set that collected releases and extra material from 1969–1973. Now comes something even more exciting: this new set includes the underrated Diamond Dogs, the marvelous Young Americans, and Station to Station, a popular choice for Bowie’s best record. There is the live material of David Live and the amazing Nassau Coliseum performance, there are new mixes (the mixing on the previous set was excellent), and there is a mystery/surprise in the form of The Gouster, a completed album that was never released and that is only available in this box. Collected B-sides and alternates conclude the 12 CD contents. A must. (Best price is currently at importcds, but Amazon pre-order drop may beat it.)

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On (and Off) The Road 1981 – 1984

I am a relatively recent convert to the Church of Crimson, so I apologize if there is any inadvertent fanaticism. What has turned me into a fan has been the series of 40th anniversary boxes, which collect original albums like Red (which in the past I found interesting without being particularly jazzed about them), with extensive live recordings that document both the tours and process around the records. Process is the key, it’s the term Robert Fripp uses to describe King Crimson, and the live sets are magnificent, and taken as a whole lay out a profound and thrilling process of making and remaking musical material—not just songs, but the very organization around which the bands play and improvise. The group improvisation is often astounding, using the songs themselves as a foundation upon which to collectively build a skyscraper of form, a city of sound. Now comes the box that I know throngs have been waiting for: music from and around the tremendous early 1980s Crimson, the band with Ardian Belew, Tony Levin, and Bill Bruford. Give it any label you want, this unit made new music that rivalled what any composer, experimental artist, or jazz players were doing contemporaneously. My mind is screaming to hear this (Best price is currently at importcds, and probably will remain there.)

 

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The RCA & Arista Albums Collection

Post-Velvets, Lou Reed recorded 16 albums (including the Take No Prisoners live double-album), for RCA and Arista. The list of titles is a list of classics, great albums full of live, freedom, and intelligence:

  1. Lou Reed (1972)
  2. Transformer (1972)
  3. Berlin 1973)
  4. Rock n Roll Animal (1974)
  5. Sally Can’t Dance (1974)
  6. Metal Machine Music (1975)
  7. Coney Island Baby (1975)
  8. Rock and Roll Heart (1976)
  9. Street Hassle (1978)
  10. Lou Reed Live Take No Prisoners (1978)
  11. The Bells (1979)
  12. Growing Up in Public (1980)
  13. The Blue Mask (1982)
  14. Legendary Hearts (1983)
  15. New Sensations (1984)
  16. Mistrial (1986)

It was Reed’s own project to collect, remaster (he was nothing if not meticlous about the sound of his albums), and rerelease this catalogue, and apparently he was able to supervise the bulk, if not all, of the process before he died. Essential stuff (and don’t pass over his Sire releases, which are terrific). Out October 7 (best price currently is at Amazon UK).

 

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The Rollings Stones in Mono

Only available through Amazon, this set covers 1963–69, when the Stones released (among others), Let it Bleed, Beggar’s Banquet, Their Satanic Majesties, Aftermath, and a few eponymous titles. As for the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and pretty much every other rock band in the early to mid–1960s, the recordings were made and initially released in mono (stereo mixing was an after thought), and the punch and richness of the original sound should be dramatically enhanced by the DSD transfers made from the original masters. 15 CDs, 186 tracks, 56 tracks available in mono (again) for the first time in the digital era. Guaranteed satisfaction. (Current best price is at Amazon UK.)

Where It’s At

My transfer back to WordPress.com is fundamentally complete, though cleaning up graphics and taxonomy on the back end is an ongoing project. As great as my previous host, WPEngine, was, I just can’t afford it; freelance writing produces a below poverty level income, and this blog has never produced any income.

As for the lack of writing here—it was summer! My life is, after thirty years, once again organized around the school calendar, and I had a slow summer, concentrating on my little girl’s fun and on writing music—like Mahler except happier (I hope) and far less competent. I did cover a few concerts at the New York Classical Review, though.

Labor Day is past, and I’m back at it. This new article at New Music Box was written into the summer, and it was difficult to think about music after it was done. The subject is what sounds might be left behind after civilization falls apart, or is inundated, and how future peoples’ idea of what our music was will be nothing we expect:

“This haunting, wrenching, agonizingly complex concept of a post-apocalyptic cultural legacy has certainly existed in music for thousands of years. Fragments of Medieval music concerned with the End of Days have come down to us, and apocalyptic thought began neither in Europe nor with Christianity. But the context of that music is the Second Coming, a redemptive and transformative event. And with no means to preserve the sounds of what was the present in the 10th century, nor that advantage of a post-Cageian concept of what constitutes music, there was no thought toward what the past might sound like to those who might come after.”

Read the rest here

My book Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew is currently available, and you can order it directly from the publisher at a currently discounted price. The New York Review of Books reviewed it in the latest issue (article is behind a paywall), and critic Adam Schatz took it authoritative:

“… a perceptive new monograph by George Grella Jr. in the 33 1/3 series…”

Lastly, for this post, the September installment of the Rail Tracks podcast is up, check it out for some selected 2016 releases, and read out whole excellent issue here.

Early Summer

On mental vacation—in case you hadn’t noticed already. Left things to read elsewhere: a profile of composer Alex Mincek at Music & Literature, pointing out that there’s no bullshit with the blues over at one of my posts, and the usual accumulation of concert reviews at the NY Classical Review.

June will deliver something I’ve been working on for New Music Box that has been difficult, in that the topic is hard to face, but hopefully will be meaningful. And I’ve got Recordings of the Week to hip you to. In the meantime, enjoy this extraordinary piece I heard in concert last night.

A Month of Listening, April (and a Recording of the Week)

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My listening pace for new releases slowed drastically in April—19 recordings—and I blame it on the blues.

Early in the month, I filled out my ballot for the DownBeat critic’s poll, and when I got to the Blues Album/Artist categories, I had a lot of catch-up listening to do. And what a pleasure it was! I have a decent library of classics blues, but barely touch on the contemporary scene. Good thing I caught up, because the contemporary scene is excellent.

So I’ve been listening to almost nothing but the blues for the past four weeks (with significant excursions into Lee Morgan’s Blue Note catalog), and it has been a great experience. 100 years worth of music, from Ammons to Zydeco, has entirely refreshed my outlook, but also dominated my time.

Which leads me not only to the notable new recordings I heard in April but also to the first of a handful of Recordings of the Week (also behind, but that’s due to having to write five concert reviews in seven days, finish an article for Music & Literature, and whip out an emergency editorial for the May issue of the Rail):

I plumped whole heartedly for Noah Preminger last year; he’s one of a handful of young jazz musicians who not only have a strong individual voice, but who have an exploratory direction. What I mean by that is not that he is playing free improvisation, exploring his soul on a nightly basis, but that’s he’s set his path in a certain direction and is moving down it without needing a clear goal or direction. His path is a process, and that process is exploring the blues and updating contemporary jazz through it.

He put out a strong, exciting live album last year, and has a new one coming out this month, Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, that is some of the deepest and most beautiful jazz I’ve heard in quite a while. Quiet, focused, even internalized, where the previous record was extroverted, the new one is also a far distance further along the path. He gets that way by going farther back in time and simplifying his means.

The album is Delta blues played by a jazz quartet—this is both literal and figurative. All the tracks are based on transcriptions of the original vocals from the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson, and Skip James. The band makes it into jazz, with concise improvisation from Preminger and the great trumpeter Jason Palmer, while the rhythm section of Kim Cass and Ian Froman lays down a responsive pulse.

The music making is intensely soulful, with that mix of experience and determination that makes the blues an essential part of the human experience. Preminger describes exactly what I have found so compelling, important, and morally exemplary in the blues: “it’s very real, and you don’t hear that very often in contemporary music. It’s not a poor man’s music anymore.” As you’ll read in my upcoming Rail editorial, the one I had to write in a rush, there’s no bullshit in the blues. And there’s no bullshit in this tough, rich album.

Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground has a May 6 release date. Pre-order here. In New York City, catch the album release show May 17 at Jazz Standard. You won’t be sorry, this band is notably intense live.

Finally, despite the relatively low number of new hearings in April, some excellent CDs did work their way through my ears:

  • Miranda Cuckson/Blair McMillen: Bartók/Schnittle/Lutoslawski. A premiere violinist and a terrific accompanist play muscular, brilliant 20th century music. I love the sequencing on this release, the music and playing continuously gaining mystery and profundity. The two play this program at (le) poisson rouge on May 10.
  • Brian Charette: Once & Future. Swinging, funky, ass-kicking organ jazz from Charette, with Will Bernard and Steve Fidyk. Charette has all the classic sounds and styles under his fingers and feet, but his thinking is contemporary. From “Jitterbug Waltz” on through “Dance of the Infidels,” “Hot Barbeque,” and “Blues for 96,” this is the most purely enjoyable release I’ve heard so far this year. (Release date June 3)
  • Kepler Quartet: Ben Johnston, String Quartets Nos. 6, 7, & 8. The end of a long, hard, and worthwhile journey. Johnston’s string quartets, formed out of just intonation and the plain spoken communication of folk music, are at the heart of what American culture aspires to: the new man, unfettered by the atavism of blood and geography, speaking in the universal language of the Great Oversoul. Listen to excerpts of his work, and hear our podcast talk with violinist Eric Segnitz, here.

Thread(ing) the Words, the World

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As a reader interested in the state of contemporary music, you’ve likely already seen that Henry Threadgill won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in music, specifically for his 2015 album on Pi, In For a Penny, In for a Pound.

Personally, I’m overjoyed. I’ve been following Threadgill since I first heard one of his records with his group Air, which was probably around 1980-81. He’s one of those musicians who’s work gives me immediate pleasure while at the same time I often can’t completely comprehend it, and so I follow with persistent fascination. There are many examples of his music that deserve this kind of recognition, and the award feels to me like an honor for his complete career. But the Pulitzer is interested in the idea of composition, and In for a Penny, In for a Pound is just that.

I interviewed Threadgill and Jason Moran, in the company of Raymond Foye, for the December 2014/January 2015 Rail (I have something of a history of writing about Thread for the Rail, and without his existence probably would not be editing the music section). We talked about the work, which was about to premiere at Roulette (UPDATED: Liberty Ellman has told me the recordings were made in the studio, the Roulette performances were recorded but not for release), and he described it as a concerto highlighting the members of his excellent band, Zooid. He plays, but he’s not featured—he’s the composer, which likely made it easy for the committee to see what this piece is.

Musically, it’s the culmination of a long, developing concept of organizing what is best described as contemporary chamber music along the historic principles of jazz. From Air, through the Sextett, and even the electric bands Very Very Circus and Make a Move, Threadgill has been looking for a new structural method on top of the foundation of African-American music: marches, rags, the blues. You can hear a march, whether up-tempo or a dirge, a rag, a blues, or all three, on every single record he’s produced.

What he’s been doing with Zooid, and encapsulates on In for a Penny, is combine those roots with a means to tightly organize harmony and modulation while also allowing for improvised solos and free group interplay and accompaniment in the manner of traditional jazz. (I discussed this with him a few years ago, and don’t want to try and get too deep into it in case I misremember, but Threadgill uses a central chord, then lists the allowable intervals from the notes in the chord, and the musicians are free to use those intervals to modulate, but they must remain within those limits.) With his trademark recursive themes and hip, funky pulse, you get music that has immediate physical impact, that is firmly tonal (though complex), and tremendously sophisticated. Great art, in other words.

(His newest release is also another composition, in an appreciably different style: Old Locks and Irregular Verbs. This is a very beautiful record, a tribute to his dear, departed, much-missed friend Butch Morris—the music carries a deep, elegiac quality underneath a compelling, almost diffident, surface.)

And great African-American art, I want to point out. Threadgill’s work is the fulfillment of the AACM motto, the one Joseph Jarman would announce at the end of every Art Ensemble of Chicago concert, “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future!” As Henry said during our interview, “What a lot of people forget about is that historically black people in America are the latest things on the planet!” They are, and they have been giving us all sorts of the latest thinking in serious music for more than a century. Occasionally, people hear this.

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For more Threadgill listening pleasure, here’s a recommended discography:

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Henry Threadgill: The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint & Soul Note: a great bargain, and although not the most comprehensive collection, this is where you get Spirit of Nuff…Nuff, one of his most important records, the compositional ideas of Song Out of My Trees, and some decent (if not the best) Air, including a guest appearance from Cassandra Wilson.

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Novus & Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill & Air: expensive, but worth every penny and pound. This has some, altough not all, of the Air records, the absolutely essential run of Sextett albums (You Know the Number, Easily Slip Into Another World, Rag, Bush, and All), the early X-75 compositional experiment, two Very Very Circus recordings, and Where’s Your Cup with Make a Move. That last band lasted all of two records, and is something of a sidebar, but Where’s Your Cup kicks ass all up and down the sidewalk. Get this if you can at all afford it, and even if you can’t (limited edition of 5,000 total copies, marked as running low as of the beginning of September 2016).

Pi Recordings: Henry’s label for the 21st century, with seven releases so far and, if the whispers I’ve been hearing are true, something else to come this year that is supposed to be crushingly great. This is where the Zooid band has been thriving. If you don’t need EVERYTHING Henry has made (why not?), and taking into account that Zooid has gotten better at Henry’s concept through the years, the records to get here are This Brings Us To, Vol. 2 through Old Locks and Irregular Verbs.

Recording of the Week: Bloodmist, Sheen

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Bloodmist: Sheen

In a way, I’ve been waiting for a record like this since I first heard the Last Exit debut album back in 1986. The record was notable for being free improvisation played in the style of metal and hardcore. It opened up a door that John Zorn, most prominently, went through, with bands like Painkiller. But it also promised a push toward abstraction that never really materialized, except in the general sense with Sunn O))).

Bloodmist has fulfilled this dream, and more, with their debut release. The band is clarinetist Jeremiah Cymerman, guitarist Mario Diaz De Leon (both of whom are developing promising careers as contemporary composers), and bassist Toby Driver. The band’s name and the record title implies dark metal, a sense of malevolence, and the music doesn’t disappoint in that regard, but the style is not at all what you are expecting. The atmosphere is indeed dark and heavy, but the actual music-making is full of space.

This is a particular kind of space—this is free improvisation, and each of the musicians concentrates more on listening to each other than on playing. The space, which is substantial, is fibrous, woven out of echoes and reverberations of previous sounds, stitched with the anticipation of what might come next. And what comes next is consistently surprising and satisfying. The playing is so full of care, so intelligent, so refined, that the music is extremely beautiful. This is not only one of the heaviest records I’ve heard in years, but one of the most beautiful ones.

The final track, “The Mad Road,” has the kind of pretentious, clichéd, obviously dark spoken narrative that I commonly find puerile and embarrassing. It’s a measure of how much I love this record that I gladly listen through the whole thing, and start it again.

Sheen is available on CD through 5049 Records, or digitally through Amazon or iTunes.