Tuesday, December 7, 2010

New D.C. Jazz website

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, please visit my new D.C. jazz website. Thanks!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Live Review: Lee Konitz Quartet 7.25.09

If you didn't think 60 years was a long time, perhaps a conversation with Lee Konitz would change your mind. The altoist who got a big break in 1949 playing on Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool has been pushing boundaries and exploring the limits of jazz's West Coast ever since. And on a night dedicated to deconstructing familiar tunes, Konitz' trio picked standards apart and left them that way. The renditions were loose quilts whose strings were never tied up at the edges.

It was a treat to hear drummer Paul Motian, the reigning king of colorists, hint at polyrhythms by playing their every third or fourth note rather than hammering them down listeners' throats. He didn't break into a swing -- or any consistent drumbeat -- until the last tune of the first set, and even then his rhythm was minimalist and beautifully hollowed-out. But it was pianist Dan Tepfer who stole the show, demonstrating such natural restraint that he was loath to spend more than a few measures playing chords. Tepfer largely stuck to two-handed octave lines and dissonant patterns, painting circles around Konitz' tired, restless, on-again off-again sketches.

Saturday night's performance, the last of a four-night run at New York's Birdland jazz club, was a conversation in the truest sense of the word, and the dialogue between Konitz and Tepfer held the night's most explorative subplot. The bandleader rarely lay out for more than eight bars at a time, but he didn't spend four minutes wailing away while the others comped, either. In fact, no one took a traditional, extended solo all night. In this conversation, everyone's contributions were equally important; speakers hesitated to listen to each other but interjected at will. It was a lilting, collectivist free that brought the egalitarian vision of Motian's old boss, Bill Evans, into striking new territory.

Many in the audience were completely blindsided. They were not expecting a "Stella by Starlight" so sketchily rendered that the melody was almost impossible to place, or an entire set in which any combination of piano, bass, drums, or saxophone was equally likely. Dinner conversations continued well into the first half of the set, and many of those gazing around the room were as exasperated as they were unmoved. But by the time late in the evening when Konitz announced, more than a touch idiosyncratically, that the band would do some "free play," the faces were all rapt, focused on the stage.

The conversation wasn't easy to penetrate, but as the quartet gained locomotion, listeners grasped what was between each lethargic, halting phrase and the heedful responses that tumbled into one another with an unforeseeable logic. As the final tune drew to a close, Tepfer wandered into a solo piano improvisation of high, Ethan Iversonesque three-note arpeggios and a slow, scale-bending melody in the left hand. Again and again, Tepfer showed a finesse and deference to melody that Motian might have recognized as largely reminiscent of Keith Jarrett.

Saturday night found Konitz, one of the the oldest masters of counter-bop, renegotiating post-bop's language. If this prerogative didn't seem immediately logical, the quartet's interactive mastery eventually made it so.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Live Review: Dirty Projectors 7.19.09

I have to admit, the idea of hearing the Dirty Projectors play a "rock concert" was difficult for me to imagine just a few days ago. Maybe it's that the recent Bitte Orca is a squeaky-clean bit of art-rock that's more art than rock, cut with an Exacto rather than a rusty switchblade. They're clearly listening to Nico Muhly as much as they're paying dues to the Talking Heads.

So I was skeptical of seeing these guys and girls play a JellyNYC Pool Party and not, say, a BAM theater show. Sunday's show on the Williamsburg waterfront was indeed a shorts-and-tees, sun-on-the-pavement, summer banger alright. Openers Magnolia Electric Co. pumped out Mason-Dixon rock with a heavy lean toward A.M. Wilco. The organized dodgeball matches got intense. The drinkers wandered about in their quarantine, then when the Projectors came on they ditched their beers and crossed over to the cordoned-off patch of pavement by the stage.

But from very first notes of the opening song -- a guitar-vocal duet on ballad "Two Doves" between frontman Dave Longstreth and secret-weapon Angel Deradoorian -- the Projectors, well, killed it. And killing it is not an action for artsy, precious finnickers. No sir, this show was built on intense and mathy interplays, wild and staticky bass distortion, four-part harmonies that broke out into primal screams but never devolved.

It was the Projectors' three femme fatales -- particularly the instrument-swapping Deradoorian -- who stole the show. Heaped onto one another on "Cannibal Resource," the three voices may have created one of the thickest walls of sound such a high register has ever heard. And when Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle bounced glitchy "ooh-eeh-ahhs" back and forth at manic speeds on "Remade Horizon," the pitch precision defied even autotune. Blurted-out guitar lines from Longstreth and Amber Coffman on "No Intention" also sounded almost robotic. But the Projectors deep-sixed their own flirtation with binary-code rock with grimy tones on their electrics and vocal tremolos ranging from slight to zealous. When the ladies took center stage on "Stillness Is the Move," it was Coffman's soulful vocal solo that drew the day's most fervent applause.

The Projectors began the set with three tunes from Bitte and rarely deviated from the record after that. They have a right to be partial to an album like this, one that's tight beyond belief but unfurls more uncharted territory with each new listen. It was the reaching into the back catalog, though, namely for "Rise Above" and "Knotty Pine," that turned up the most impressive results. These songs got recastings with twice the cohesion and none of the sags in energy of their recorded versions.

Watching Longstreth cavort across the stage like a maniacal, hunchbacked Jim Carrey, taking in the Battles-go-lightly mathiness of "Temecula Sunrise," hearing crisp African guitar rhythms go up agaisnt fuzz-muddled bass, I realized that it was going to feel almost like cheating to write this review, since anyone with half a wit could find a dozen interesting things to say about music played like this.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Phenomenal New Collabs: Atlas Sound/Panda Bear & Masters of Folk

Conor Oberst and M. Ward perform in 2007. Photo by Flickr user tammylo.

Today is a great day on the collaborations front. From right field, we have a fly ball we've been keeping our eye on for a long time--the much much much anticipated Monsters of Folk project (featuring buddies M. Ward, Conor Oberst, and Jim James) has finally released its first single. Then from way out in left field comes a gorgeous song by the two people who very well could be today's absolute master of ominous, murky rock music and the contemporary authority on bright pop, respectively--Bradford Cox (a.k.a. Atlas Sound, frontman of Deerhunter) and Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear). Yes, this truly happened.

First, the Monsters of Folk release: M. Ward takes the lead on this one, titled "Say Please," and it finds him rocking harder than he has since "Requiem," from 2006's Post-War. It's nice to see that, despite the band's bearded-man-with-acoustic moniker, they're as Horse-crazy as Woods, if a bit less endearingly rough around the edges (but what did you really expect?). At its core, though, "Say Please" and its chimey guitar pulse lay bare that Ward weaned himself on the guitar by learning the chord changes to early-Beatles tunes. Monsters of Folk's eponymous is due on Sept. 22, via Shangri-La. Find the song here or download it from monstersoffolk.com.

"Say Please," Monsters of Folk (thanks to iguessimfloating)

The Atlas-Panda collab, "Walkabout," is a near-perfect yin-yang of Cox's dark and Lennox's light. The melody, vocal harmonies, and pop bounce are distinctly Panda's. The atmosphere evokes the snaking haze of cigarette smoke, marked by an indefinable, disconcerting dissonance--this is all Cox. This tune is an alloy, but it's pure gold. "Walkabout" will be track three on Atlas Sound's second album, Logos, due Oct. 20 on Kranky.

"Walkabout," Atlas Sound w/Panda Bear (thanks to iguessimfloating)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Live Review: Woods and The Fresh & Onlys | Woodsist/Captured Tracks Festival 7.4.09

The Fresh & Onlys perform at Day 2 of the Woodsist/Captured Tracks Festival in Brooklyn
photo by Flickr user the future of petes


Well damn. The new music scene is just like the new news world: we won't be seeing full stories and plot lines develop so much as we'll be bombarded with fresh threads to follow -- thrust forth by bloggers 1 through 6,000 -- and band after band will be paraded around in the name of novelty. Breakout sensation Woods have been thrown into the spotlight as unexpectedly as Mark Sanford--and, equally violently, they will be wrested from it in a few months' time. Too bad, since this exciting band is still stitching up its hems--its sound, its cohesion, its live performance are just coming together. And nowhere could that have been more eminently apparent than at last weekend's magnificent Woodsist/Captured Tracks Festival.

Among the leaders of the pack at Day 2 of this Brooklyn shitgaze bonanza, Woods had a lot of trouble unearthing the ethos and intrigue of their recent LP onstage. Lots of things about this band feel deliberate: singer Jeremy Earl's straining pursuit of a Neil Young register, and the pathos he picks up along the way; the lo-fi haze that lulls the band back in time and helps give it its identity (inasmuch as plaid with snaps gives any Brooklynite his); the band name and cover art that evoke today's ever-popular neo-naturalism; the aplomb imprecision of Earl's guitar solos.

But these aren't qualities to be scoffed at, they're just the elements of a keen artistry. And they make it all the more confusing that these guys failed to bring that deliberateness to the 979 Broadway Backyard on Saturday. Earl's nouveau-Neil Young vocal style -- denizen of a rare middle ground between earnest, distant, and mystifying -- blossoms when it's couched in the willful drive of an updated Crazy Horse. The most impressive pieces of Songs of Shame feel a lot like an experimental Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and that's a great thing.

So watching the group get lost in its own muted fuzz on Saturday was all the more disheartening given how quickly the whirlwind can expunge a promising band's flame nowadays. I only hope that this young band can begin to transpose its studio intensity to the live setting, or at the very least that the low investment of its performances doesn't seep into the lo-fi of its records and keep them from improving.

The Fresh & Onlys

The festival's Most Welcome Surprise Award goes to the Fresh & Onlys on a unanymous (one-person) ballot. This coed five-piece conjures equal shades of Times New Viking (their harmonic trio of guy, a girl, and some tin-garage distortion), Deerhunter (their cutting guitar and weaving bass over anthemic, little-as-possible drums), and the Kinks (their everything). Intrigued?

The bearded Tom Cohen turned a possessed eye toward the Saturday-evening sun, then downward to his keyboard, then back up as he sang lyrics a bit too loony to justify the long face in a tone too involved to qualify as indifferent.

Before bolting on Saturday, I headed across the craggy lawn to the merch table for a copy of the Fresh & Onlys' debut album. Not a mistake. On the record, the group's live subtleties are at once brought out and kept under a thin cover of clouds. I'm not trying to cut through them, it's too much fun studying their cottony gray.

  • To pick up the Fresh & Onlys' new record -- not an easy one to find -- click here.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

New Video from the Heavy: Something to Mull over while you 'Wait' for the New Album

So here's the deal. Everyone says the Heavy's Kelvin Swaby sounds a lot like Prince. It's the occasional falsetto, and the slithery-smooth but concomitantly crunchy backing of his band. As with any comparison, the truth is a bit more convoluted. On their debut album, Great Vengeance and Furious Fire, the then-coed brigade paid tribute to a lot more influences than just the one name-changing, bad-acting Mormon. The distant atmospherics of opener "Brukpocket's Lament" conjure an ambiguous indie film's rain-drenched climax scene; on "Dignity," the early-aughts "the" bands' calculated barbarism comes to mind, for better or worse; "Our Secret Place" is even harder-edged; "Who Needs the Sunshine" blends the vintage feel of an ancient soul b-side with the slow and nasty backbeat of a D'Angelo ballad.

But did anyone see this one coming--a track that literally channels Tom Waits? That's what we've got for the lead single off these British Spin darlings' sophomore album, The House that Dirt Built. The verb "channel" isn't to be used lightly, but come on. That neo-New Orleans beat, the honking tuba doubled with the bass line, lyrics about the devil, and -- the icing on the tribute cake -- a video at Coney Island. If by any chance he's seen the video for "Sixteen," the carny-fied folk legend is probably having himself a raspy, cigarette-stained chuckle right now.

The main problem with the Heavy's music is that even when its apparent influences are wide-ranging or even ambiguous, the stuff usually manages to sound derivative. Still, there were plenty of bright spots on Great Vengeance, and "Sixteen" itself distills a good deal of Tom Waits' otherly intrigue along the way to, well, sounding a lot like him.

The House that Dirt Built is due out Oct. 6. That means we've got a lot of time to wait, which means a lot of time to milk that pun....

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Live Review: Ezra Furman and the Harpoons 6.23.09

Calling all New Yorkers. If you are in this city and you haven't found time to hear Ezra Furman and the Harpoons perform, do yourself a favor.

The venerable indie-folkers will wrap up their residency at Piano's on Tuesday, and if they repeat their performance from yesterday night, many smiling faces will be heading for the exit at about 11:05 p.m.

The Harpoons vaulted through an hour-long set that was entirely as manic as Furman's gleeful howls. Even when he promised to play a slow song, that tune ended up being "God Is a Middle-Aged Woman," which in turn ended up being one of the loudest songs of the night, all gritty and pained – and painfully honest – but disarmingly goofy as well. While the guitar got dirtier and the drums got louder, he was gazing at the ceiling as he snarled, "Oh, God! / Won't you just say hello?" It's fair to say that when he was telling it, the sheepish and silly Furman took us places the Vatican – more to the point, your rabbi – never could.

But let's be honest: where the Harpoons' 2007 album, Banging Down the Doors, was a young thinking kid's folk gem, last night's concert was a lesson in the virtues of first-degree pop. Still, the band was as tight as it was carefree, and the background harmonies conjured irrepressible grins even – check that, especially – when they occasionally missed the mark. This foursome was on top of its game. Furman's thunderous acoustic guitar pulse, the top-of-the-beat intensity of drummer Adam Abrutyn, the swelling harmonica lines that Furman nailed–if you weren't listening to the lyrics of "Take off your Sunglasses," you might have thought it was the E Street Band minus the organ, playing "The Promised Land." Then again, if you were feeling a little less generous, you could also have thought it was a long-lost Tom Petty hit. The x factor rendering all these comparisons irrelevant? That was Furman's voice.

He tosses off effortlessly clever ironies and allegories of lovesickness with a whoop so filled with abandon it drowns out all those Dylan comparisons. It came as a bit of a disappointment that Furman didn't have time to kick the band offstage for a solo acoustic set ("American Highway" woulda been nice...), but I guess that's what the album is for. Last night's rock 'n' roll, little had I known, was for dancing.

Note: the photo is not from Tuesday's show. It is from his January 6, 2008 show at the Mercury Lounge in New York.