Making September Tracks

Rail Tracks, the podcast of the Brooklyn Rail music section, is up for September: we talk about the coming season with Melissa Smey of Miller Theatre, Thomas Crawford, the conductor of the American Classical Orchestra, Limor Tomer at the Metropolitan Museum, and Elliott Sharp stops in to describe his opera on Walter Benjamin’s last moments alive on earth. Stream or download:


Playlist, Late Fall Releases

In Your Own Home!

That’s right, you too can have Elliott Sharp in your very own home! For the low, low price of $1,000 coin for a private concert! Too much? Then scrape together $10, or anything else you’ve got, so he can record “Proof of Erdös” and complete his (hopefully) upcoming CD From Corlear’s Hook on Starkland records. There’s pretty much no more creative and accomplished genre-crossing artist than Sharp, and any new release from him is an important event. One of the most fund-worthy things you’ll ever find on Kickstater, so help a brother out.

Best Music 2012: Outside-The-Lines

There are times when you put a CD into your computer to rip it into iTunes, and it shows up in your library as the genre Unclassifiable. The databases behind iTunes are pop oriented so they’re easily confused by something that might need an artist and a composer in the tables. But there are times when the music has a slippery style, with familiar elements but a quality that can’t be succinctly pinned down. That’s when music is often at its best.

Genre categories are both meaningless and useful: they tell us little about the music but give us a way to frame the idiom. This is a list of music from this year that I think is great but that doesn’t either fall into the large categories of jazz and classical. There are familiar pop styles, and it’s something like the “beyond’ category that downbeat magazine has us critics vote on. In my case, this is music that I tend to listen to with broadly similar ears, with the expectation that there’s going to be the type of direct, physical impact that is an essential part of good rock music. 1. Tin Hat, the rain is handsome animal. The artists formally known as the Tin Hat Trio, augmented with great Bay Area clarinetist Ben Goldberg, have put out a record of songs (with instrumental interludes) that set poetry of e.e. cummings. The poet’s work has been popular with twentieth century composers, including John Cage, Ned Rorem, Leanord Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Luciano Berio; a formidable group of and an equally formidable body of work. It may initially seem unfair to add this record to that company, but I’m sure the legacy of those composers will survive, because these are the finest settings of cummings I have ever heard. This is a record of vernacular art songs, a rare combination of coherent poetic abstraction, musical lyricism and a physically pleasing and exciting sound. Any reader not familiar with Tin Hat should not imagine the music as stiff and structurally complex. These are songs in the pop sense but with the highest musical and intellectual sophistication: counterpoint, swinging tango rhythms, hot solos and plangent emotionalism. Smart, strong and often deeply beautiful, especially “Buffalo Bill,” which has the power of a rock anthem, with Carla Khilstedt singing from new heights of richness and confidence. Not only the top recording on this list, but the best recording I heard of any kind in 2012, bar none. Fantastic in every way.

2. The Crooked Jades, Bright Land. A very close second. One of the finest bands in the country, their new record is on the same high level as 2010’s exquisite Shining Darkness. Bluegrass of a very free style, with more than a little post-punk rockabilliy, the band makes music that carves out paths to the future, which is sorely needed in a landscape of indie-groups enthralled by a mythical past of ‘authentic’ white roots music. Bluegrass itself is a synthetic style that was created in the middle of the last century, and that is the true roots of American musical culture, creating something out of nothing other than the confidence that anything is permitted. By writing their own material and seeking to discover the things that might be possible, Compared to the wan ‘lite’ beer of their idiomatic peers, Wilco, this band is fine, high-proof rye whisky with a dash of tabasco. One of the great American bands and an excellent record.

3. Elliot Sharp’s Terraplane, Sky Road Songs. Simply no drop-off in achievement with this modern blues record, which I admit is in this arbitrary spot to satisfy a vague notion of fairness, as Sharp has a record in my top ten jazz list and will have one in my top ten classical list as well. Modern in the same way that Bright Land is modern: music that has a foundation of a familiar, even clichéd style. but is made by terrific musicians who also know how to play, and love, rock and jazz and funk and punk and even experimental music. The music has Sharp’s rare balance of muscular power, wit, love and irreverence and absolute clarity. There’s a great, satisfying swagger to the playing, a lot of it coming from Tracie Morris’ hard-edged vocals. Excellent as well.

4. Iron Dog, Interactive Album Rock. This trios’ previous record, field recordings 1, showed up unbidden in my mailbox a year or so ago. That this is the first I’ve written about it is because of how unusual and strong it is, and the excellent of the new disc has confirmed and clarified my initial response. This is an improvising group, with Sarah Bernstein playing violin and singing, Stuart Popejoy on bass guitar and Andrew Drury at the drums. They play with a specific kind of freedom, unchained by pop and even jazz notions of melody, harmony and phrasing, but their is a structural and sonic focus, a point, to every sound they make, and that point usually goes straight for the gut. It’s clear they listen closely to each other and think both quickly and imaginatively, and it’s also clear that they absolutely know what they are doing and what they indeed, there’s no existential angst. But this is all fancy talk, you have to hear this for yourself, because the music they make is a platonic ideal of experimentalism and punk-rock attitude. They start where Sonic Youth leaves off, and actually they start far beyond where Sonic Youth leaves off. Some of the most exciting and accessible abstract music you’ll find.

5. Neneh Cherry and The Thing, Cherrything. A close companion in a way to Interactive Album Rock, further proof that avant-garde jazz musicians (see: Don Cherry, Lester Bowie, Conjure) make the best pop music. A set of mostly covers that put the originals to shame: there is literally no comparison between the electronically overproduced pop and the gutty, sweaty, swaggering, sexual swagger of Neneh and the raunchy, raucous funk of The Thing. A dangerous record for dangerous times that are normally inundated with the safest kind of faux-transgressive pop.


6. Public Image Limited, This is PiL. My feelings about this great new PiL record are much like the ones above, just replace the sex with a deep and necessary irreverence for the faddish musical consumer product that is the commercial arm of the ruling Establishment class. Music for those disaffected but still with hope and determination, tinged with adult loss and regret, built on that classic heavy beat.

7. Luce Trio, Pieces, Volume 1. John Potter’s Downland Project CDs have always beguiled and frustrated me. I love the tradition of idiomatic improvisation, and the possibility of approaching Dowland’s songs as if they are ‘tunes,’ with a fine singer and musicians who can do creative things within the possibilities of Elizabethan forms, yet with a modern sensibility, hints at a new universe of music-making. The results are constantly disappointing, though, as Potter, Barry Guy and the rest end up indulging in little more than atmospherics — they sound like a band that’s faking it. The Luce Trio is not faking it. This seemingly modest record is a real accomplishment, and the difference is that this group understands the music they are playing, whether it’s Bach or John De Lucia’s originals, and they maintain a clear musical focus. The players are secure in their idiomatic styles and say things that are surprising and make sense. Instead of wallowing in an infantile enthrallment to Bach, they make Bach new.

8. Maya Duneitz, John Edwards, Steven Noble, Cousin It. An appropriate bookend to the Iron Dog Interactive, this is another disc of refreshing, surprising improvisation. Acoustic where the other is heavily electric, and with a quiet and impish sense of subversion as opposed to aggressive iconoclasm. It sneaks up on you quickly and grabs your attention with it’s spaciousness, focus and wit. Admirable in every way.

9. William Brittelle, Loving the Chambered Nautilus. You can call this contemporary classical music, and you would be right, but I like this disc a lot, and I like it on this list even more because Brittelle is so interested in, and successful at, setting up the context of a formal and stylistic convention for his work and then demolishing that context before he gets to the final bars. Full of life, intelligence and questions, it’s out-of-the-ordinary music. And there’s a good song too.

10. Tim Hecker/Daniel Lopatin, Instrumental Tourist. A given for fans of both these musicians — and I’m a fan — this is a wonderful record of electronic music. The structures and abstract and without beats, but full of pulsations and physically palpable sounds. Each is an accomplished solo artist already, and they each bring a particular quality to this collaboration beyond their distinctive sonic signatures: Lopatin adds the plangent melancholy, and Hecker the sensation that the sounds begin in your brain-stem and explode, slowly, outward.


Voting Often

If not early enough for some editors … One of the polls I take part in an annual one for the Spanish site El Intruso, and since it covers a cross-genre range of creative music it’s one of my favorites (and also since it is made up of a pretty tiny pool of critics, my oddball choices have greater weight). The poll will be published early next month, but here’s the ballot I sent in, with brief annotations. Everything on here is highly recommended for your listening and collecting pleasure:

Musician of the year – Elliott Sharp; Aggregat, Sky Road Songs, Cut With Occam’s Razor, and the publication of Foliage speak for themselves, with distinction.

Newcomer MusicianMariel Roberts; her excellent and excitingly varied debut recording puts her in the ‘cello goddess’ club.

Group of the yearTin Hat; their disc of e.e. cummings songs was the finest release of any kind in 2012.

Newcomer group – Maya Dunietz/John Edwards/Steve Noble trio; their Cousin It is outstanding improvisational music.

Album of the year – Tin Hat; the rain is a handsome animal

Composer – Elliott Sharp

Drums – Mike Reed; two superb recordings under his leadership in 2012

BassJohn Hebert, the finest and most consistent ensemble partner I heard all year

Guitar – Shane Perlowin, of Ahleuchatistas

Piano – Kris Davis, in a way, a legacy pick, since her recent series of recordings make a far-reaching and beautiful body of work

Keyboards/synthesizer/organ – Sean Wayland; just listen to this

Saxophone – Hafezh Modirzadeh, breaking new ground with Post-Chromodal Out

Trumpet/CornetNate Wooley; seemingly on every creative recording of 2012

ClarinetBen Goldberg, great playing with Tin Hat, looking forward to his upcoming releases

TromboneJacob Garchik
Violin/Viola – Carla Khilstedt

Cello – Mariel Roberts

VibraphoneJason Adasiewicz; the Nate Wooley of the vibes

Female vocalsChristine Correa

Male Vocals – Kurt Elling, this holds true pretty much every year he puts out a record, and 1619 Broadway is one of his best.

Best live band – Henry Threadgill’s Zooid

Record LabelClean Feed, unsurpassed quality, unbelievable quantity

Jazz of the Year 2012

Once again Rhapsody is going to be hosting the annual poll of jazz critics that Francis Davis has been organizing for the previous six years, and I have voted in it for the third year running (results will be published January).

Here’s the ballot I gave him, plus more. The nature of the list is that it is a snapshot in time, as of late last week, and if I put it together again today it would likely be different. The relative rankings change on a daily basis, and some discs that I list below as ‘Honorable Mentions’ might find their way into the top ten, and vice-versa. What this means is that these are all fine recordings, spanning a broad range of thinking and styles. Discs in the ‘Honorable Mention’ can be as strong as the top ten, but depending on the day I’m listening they might have seem to have a little less of that certain je ne sais quoi, that bit of idiosyncratic music-making that pushes past forms and structures. One thing is pretty rock-solid though, and that’s the top two records which can go back and forth for me minute to minute but are the two finest jazz releases of 2012.

2012 best new releases:

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Review: Elliott Sharp Trio, Aggregat

p>This record has a gleeful, genial madness about it. It’s not the spawn of insanity, it’s the sensation of watching an autodidact demolish conventional wisdom and show the beauty and genius of what can be done by following one’s own path.

Sharp’s brilliance as a musician has an obvious force but is unique and therefore difficult to describe. He uses relatively common elements, even clichés, but puts them together in unconventional ways. This record, a great one and one of the finest of the year, is something like the recordings of Sonny Rollins in a trio setting at the Village Vanguard. Sharp’s saxophone playing — and he has become a formidable saxophonist — has a touch of Rollins in the sound and style, especially in the wry sense with which he both takes apart and takes off from his tunes (there’s also an affinity in both sound and style to Joe McPhee). He pushes the notes around with both intent and a sense of experimentation, and he’s such a quick thinker that even the most unexpected twists and turns come out with coherent logic. He also flits in and out of the beat, at times hitting it, at other times ignoring it, trampolining off the rhythm section with complete confidence that he will land exactly where he expects them to be.

When he picks up his main axe, the guitar, the record pushes over from the edge of free-ish jazz into a sonic maelstrom. There are torrents of notes, again always clearly articulated, placed in time and absolutely meant, and what is disorienting is how he just doesn’t run up and down scales but works forward and backward through an inner range that he is defining at the same time that he’s seeing if he can take it apart. It’s improvised thrash, but with a level of musical skill and intellectual focus (and a sense of humor) that are thrilling and pleasantly bewildering — you have no idea how he does it, yet you love what he does.

Packed with fantastic playing in every moment, and with an almost conventional post-punk, “Satan Sandwich,” at the end. Sharp is one of the finest musicians of the last couple of generations, and this is the finest music-making, in a long career of music, that I’ve yet heard from him. Highest possible recommendation.