Things To Come

Things will not be great in 2017 if you are an ordinary person, especially if you’re not a man and not white. Things will be great for certain people, those who have the right balance of melanin and money. For example, things will be good for non-punk rock musician/Weimar-ignoramus/privileged emigrant Amanda Palmer. But not everyone can be Amanda Palmer, most of us could never measure up to her level of self-regard and selfishness.

Predicting what will happen in the arts is foolish. For every idea inspired by anger—and there will be many—there will be the corresponding obstacles of lack of money and increased social corrosion. But certainly artists will persist, the first step in resisting the swamping backwash of history. Musicians, ones who emphasize substance over social media skill, are already putting out some invigorating protest music:

Noah Preminger, an excellent jazz musician with a deep, personal commitment to expressing his values through his music, is putting out a new record on January 20 (you know what day that is), Meditations on Freedom. Check out this excellent sample track, and order the album at his website.


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.

Keeping Up

The ongoing process of keeping up with the blog continues. But meanwhile, and as per the usual, I’m keeping up with music everywhere, and the words continue to spill out in other places. To get everyone caught up (including myself), here’s what’s been going on since my last major post:

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  • I spent a couple weeks in the Czech Republic, most of them in the city of Ostrava, at the Ostrava Days 2015 festival of new music and classics of modernism. I wrote a long article on it at Music & Literature, and a long editorial on it at the Rail. What is missing from both is how so much of the experience there is spending time with other musicians and composers, talking with Bernhard Lang about King Crimson and Miles Davis, for example, or coming back with CDs from — all of which I recommended:
    • Martyna Poznanska played some of her sound-collage electronic music and gave me her excellent CD, Listening East. You can hear a generous amount of her work at her Soundcloud page, and buy her music at Bandcamp.

    • Cellist Jujo Laitinen was outstanding in the festival, playing Tristan Perich’s great new piece Formations, as well as a beautiful, late night performance of Saariaho’s Petals. You can listen to excerpts of his playing at his site, and order this fine CD he gave me, Cello, Voice and Sampler.
    • And thanks to Christopher Butterfield, I came home with a handful of CDs of music by Rudolf Komorous, a strangely obscure but wonderful composer, still teaching and writing. This stuff is hard to find if you are outside of Canada, but do keep an eye out for performances and recordings.

  • I wrote a feature in the September Rail on tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger, and the rugged and involving music he’s making is now out on his CD Pivot: Live at the 55 Bar. This is one of the leading jazz releases of the year.

  • My new year, i.e. the New York City classical music season started again last month, and you can catch up with my reviews at the New York Classical Review site. These are ongoing, so check back regularly or grab the RSS feed—as I write this, I still have four more concerts to go this month, and who knows what awaits in November?

  • As I’ve written before and can’t write enough (your mileage may vary), my first book, on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, is out this Thursday, 22 October. I have a handful of book events lined up, where I’ll be reading, playing some music, talking about the man and the record, and of course signing books. First one is Monday, 26 October, 7 p.m., at Book Court in Brooklyn. You can keep track of them all at this blog.

  • Finally, this week is also Bitches Brew week over at the 33 1/3 Books site, where I’ll have posts all week long on topics on and around Miles Davis, with hours and hours of music on playlists and some amazing videos of the man. Plus a review of Don Cheadle’s movie on Miles, Miles Ahead. The first playlist is here, five swinging hours of Miles and the music in and from his world, from the 1930s up through summer 1969, just before the album sessions. Enjoy, and check out the rest. I’ll be there all week.

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Playlist, The Good Stuff

Records in heavy rotation the past week, simply because they are awfully good and highly recommended:

    Noah Preminger: Haymaker – this has been out since the spring, and the impression on first listen is that it’s a solid but not particularly notable jazz group session. After catching a rousing live set from Preminger and band at the Rochester International Jazz Festival, I began to spin it more and more, and each listen reveals compelling depth. This is a quintessential and excellent example of contemporary jazz: harmonically involving vehicles for improvisation, a rhythmic identity that ranges from post-Elvin Jones modern swing to rock, and a dip into the contemporary popular songbook with “Tomorrow” and Dave Matthews’ “Don’t’ Drink the Water.” Preminger is a quietly intense, expressive player, with a physical solidity supporting an appreciable tenderness. The only thing missing is the disc can’t capture his charming wise-assery onstage. I can’t stop listening to it.
  • Rose Hips ‘n’ Ships: The Seafarer – the debut album for local musician Katherine Perkins and band. A winning and satisfyingly mature set of songs that express some of the beauty and romance of the America that mostly exists in our imagination. The music is a unique blend of modern roots and sea shanties, with a touch of jazz, and Perkins sings with a sweet, throaty lilt.
  • Painkiller: The Prophecy – what a find! Live playing from 2004-2005 from one of John Zorn’s finest bands, this time a trio configuration with Zorn, Bill Laswell on bass and Yoshida Tatsuya on drums. Short “Prelude” and “Postlude” bookend the title track, sixty-four minutes of driving, vital improvisation. It is completely gripping. Zorn plays with remarkable power and playful ease, Tatsuya is supportive, propulsive and keeps the textures open, and this is by far the finest playing I’ve ever heard from Laswell; he’s inventive, self-effacing and never sacrifices ideas and clarity for effect. This is at the top rank of Zorn’s entire discography, amazing and essential.
  • Hush Point – another winning band led by trumpeter John McNeil, with Jeremy Udden on sax, Aryhe Kobrinsky on bass and Vinnie Sperazza on drums. McNeil is the foremost proponent of the West Coast school of jazz. This has long been disparaged as overly-cool and overly-white (how then to explain Lester Young, Miles Davis, Art Pepper and Charlie Mariano?), but that’s an excuse not to listen. The standard model of jazz is extroverted, songs as launching points for egocentric improvisation, with the rhythm section comping. This style is introverted in the sense that the musicians are in a constant close musical dialogue with each other, it’s call and response with a lyrical basis, not bound by roles, and is a precursor to Ornette Coleman’s revolution. Listen, and you’ll hear brilliant musicians talking to you, they’re just not shouting.