The Ear-Stretchers of 2017

in no particular order

Kendrick Lamar: DAMN

Juana Molina: Halo

Fabiano do Nascimento: Tempo Dos Mestres

The National: Sleep Well Beast

War on Drugs: A Deeper Understanding

Diego Barber: One Minute Later

St. Vincent: Masseducation

Thundercat: Drunk

Moses Sumney: Aromanticism

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound

some others:

Brian Blade Fellowship: Body and Shadow; Ron Miles: I Am a Man; Residente: Residente; Tyshawn Sorey: Verisimultude; Margo Price: All American Made; Cecile McLorin Salvant: Dreams and Daggers; Run The Jewels: RTJ3; Big Thief: Capacity; U2: Songs of Experience; Perfume Genius: No Shape;  Trio Da Kali and Kronos Quartet: Ladilikan.


The Records That Stuck With Me in 2016

In no particular order….


Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool

Childish Gambino: “Awaken My Love!”

David Bowie: Blackstar/Donnie McCaslin: Beyond Now

Drive By Truckers: American Band

A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here…Thank You For Your Service

Norah Jones: Day Breaks

Savages: Adore Life

Bon Iver: 22, A Million

Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial

Nels Cline: Lovers/Julian Lage: Arclight



Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book

Solange: A Seat at the Table

Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker

Bob Dylan: Live 1966

Charles Lloyd: I Long To See You

Thoughts on the passing of Paul Bley….

Some artists are fathomable – their aesthetic fixed in time, their contribution easily parsed, the work highlights easily identifiable, listable, digestable.

That is not Paul Bley. The Montreal-born pianist, who died Sunday January 3 at the age of 83, carved one of the most unusual paths through jazz and improvised music. He was likely the last musician alive who could claim having performed and recorded with bebop trailblazer Charlie Parker, pre-bop legends Ben Webster and Lester Young and such post-bop luminaries as Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Jimmy Guiffre and others.

Bley evolved constantly over the course of seven strikingly productive decades, and his evolution took him into strikingly different musical realms. He made definitive recordings in many realms but is not rooted in any one place, not part of a single “school.” His hallmark is more an attitude, a broad approach to music that’s applicable to every improvisational endeavor: He brought what the music needed at each moment.

He had all the language of jazz in his backpocket, but did not use it indiscriminately – in a solo setting like this 1988 recording for Steeplechase, he would inject the faintest hints of blue into music that was otherwise beautifully reflective, almost overwhelmingly placid, and the reference would enhance the desired mood.

So….he could clearly play in the key of sweet.

And he could swing fiercely, stitching together lines that felt garrulous and expansive but were also needlepoint precise.

In his freer solo playing, he cultivated a zone of contemplation that was profoundly lyrical, with long arching melodies, and then would happily veer into technical inventions that seemed almost unhinged, yet governed by an intense logic. Follow a Bley solo closely, and you hear the main thought mulled and eventually exhausted with a kind of woodworker’s patience. Running alongside that, often threatening to overshadow the big idea, are irreverent glances backward at jazz history, knots of harmony that suggest music’s future, and moments of effusive fury so dense they defy transcription.

What’s most inspiring about Bley is the way he kept going. He chased music of many forms and most of the time outran it, mastered it, refracted it through his lens until it could belong to nobody else. He made beautiful sounds that seem fully written out, through composed, but were birthed spontaneously, in the moment, with a recording device running. To illustrate this I looked for something from his 1986 recording Fragments (ECM), but didn’t find. That’s a shame, because it’s one of those deep records that sounds like nothing else. Here’s another….

Each of his recordings shows a different aspect of Bley’s intellect, a different curiosity. If they’re united, it’s not by style or genre or personnel. It’s by philosophy.

Moon Much-Loved Albums, 2015 (A Partial List)

In what was an excellent year for pop songwriting, tunesmiths spent lots of energy working out what to ponder privately, what to imply with a glance, and what to proclaim publically. Courtney Barnett, the year’s breakout arrival, devotes much of her album to calibrating her terms of engagement in her work and love life – she won’t be put on a pedestal, but doesn’t mind oversharing assorted daydreams and other minutae. Ryan Adams found the introspective side of Taylor Swift; Jeff Tweedy discovered new ways to express vulnerability. We got to hear Bob Dylan chasing alternative musical platforms for some of his most trenchant songs. Alabama Shakes arrived at a maelstrom of sound to amplify the tension embedded in frontwoman Brittany Howard’s intense argument-in-progress lyrics (which were even more sharply rendered on her side project Thunderbitch.) The interior “life of the mind” stuff defined Joanna Newsome’s austere and hypnotic Divers and governed deep, album-length explorations of unsettling mood from Father John Misty and Lana Del Rey. While we’re at it, the sterling moments of the year’s most acclaimed album, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, held rhymes about the challenges of defining the self in an environment defined by indifference and information overload.

There was plenty of storytelling from instrumentalists as well. Those who think we’ve heard every possible approach to the electric guitar should seek out the first record in 15 years from DJ/producer St. Germain – which turns on the jaw-droppingly inventive contributions of Malian guitarist Guimba Kouyate. And also World’s Fair, the sly, meditative solo work from Julian Lage. Then, to be reminded just how malleable a song can be, check Brad Mehldau’s lush Ten Years Solo Live, which includes transfixing live explorations of popular songs and rock evergreens, including an epic expansion of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.”

In no particular order….

Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color

The Arcs: Yours, Dreamily

Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free

Julian Lage: World’s Fair

Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly

Brad Mehldau: Ten Years Solo Live

Joanna Newsome: Divers

St. Germain: St. Germain

Tame Impala: Currents

Wilco: Star Wars



Ibeyi: Ibeyi; The Bad Plus Joshua Redman; Dan Mangan: Club Meds; Lana Del Rey: Honeymoon; Original Broadway Cast Recording: Hamilton; Ryan Adams: 1989; The Weeknd: Beauty Behind the Madness; Bob Dylan: The Cutting Edge (Bootleg Series Vol. 12); Father John Misty: I Love You, Honeybear; Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit; Weather Report: The Legendary Live Tapes.

Moon Thoughts on Music 2013

These days in the endlessly onrushing music slipstream, it’s always doom times (the music industry is on the verge of collapse!) and it’s always the best of times (look at all these indie phenoms making music on laptops!). There’s so much going on, in terms of sheer output, that it’s impossible to generalize about anything – except that there’s no shortage of galvanizing work at our fingertips. Here, in no particular order, are the records that sustained me in 2013.

The National: Trouble Will Find Me (4AD). Each new thought on the opening track “I Should Live in Salt” gets its own punctuation, in the form of the solemn and accusatory responsorial phrase “You should know me better than that.” Sad and hypnotic, this mantra opens the curtain on an album-length meditation about how little can really be known about love, while it’s alive and when it’s in embers.

Dawn of Midi: Dysnomia (Thirsty Ear). Every few years, there comes a record that obliterates entrenched preconceptions about sound and rhythm. Dysnomia is this year’s model. Starting with traditional instrumentation (acoustic piano, bass, drums), this trio builds dizzying spikey Steve Reich polyrhythms, and uses them as the basis for sprawling explorations into improvised rhythmic displacement. The conceptual contrast is striking – the core sounds say “jazz trio” while the sensibility derives from electronica – but this is never just an odd mashup: It’s a fully developed environment that grows more hypnotic as it unfolds.

Elvis Costello and The Roots: Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs (Blue Note). Leave aside the semantic question of “Can this be the Roots if there’s no Black Thought?,” and focus instead on the challenge Elvis Costello faced here: Telling his sharply observed tales of love and honor over the elastic and endlessly shape-shifting backbeats of the Roots. Not only does he master new and different cadences for his talky lyrics – see “Sugar Won’t Work” and “Tripwire” – in several places, most notably the trenchant and multi-dimensional “Come the Meantimes,” he seems to morph into a completely different being. The year’s best Mashup Life selfie.

Vieux Farka Toure: Mon Pays/My Country (Six Degrees). The son of legendary Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure has been making records for a few years now, and this one – which obliquely comments on the political turmoil in his homeland (the hardline Islamists there have said that under their rule, music will be banned) – is easily the most entrancing. Toure specializes in repetitive hooklike chants that please the ear immediately, and his band, which includes the son of kora master Toumani Diabate, bolsters the calls for peace with some fluid-yet-muscular groovemaking.

Dom la Nena: Ela (Six Degrees). Cellist, singer and songwriter Dominque Pinto works within several distinct vocabularies: She knows the bossa nova and samba traditions of her Brazilian homeland, the many twisting turns in the classical cello repertoire, and the vast ambient realms of Tangerine Dream and others. On Ela, those references combine into sublime and disarmingly beautiful sounds, carrying traces of Juana Molina and other collage artists but occupying their own space on the spectrum of magic. Recommended especially for those who think that Laura Mvula’s tediously unexceptional Sing To The Moon was the debut of the year.

Chris Thile: Bach: Sonatas and Partitas Vol. 1 (Nonesuch). It was a nice year for Bach, what with Jeremy Denk’s wiley tour of the Goldberg Variations and this astonishing adaptation of the great master’s sparkling violin music for mandolin. Even those who appreciate Punch Brother Chris Thile’s deep talent were probably not prepared for this – somehow, on an instrument that can’t “sing” or slur lines or sustain notes like the violin, Thile creates breathy, shapely, thoughtfully original phrasing that opens up new vistas on this old music.

Blood Orange: Cupid Deluxe (Domin0). Devonte Hynes can sound like a hormonal diva on a bender, or a tortured ‘80s rocker with distressed hair, or a Human League wannabe noodling in the basement. All those personas (and others) are integral to Cupid Deluxe, his first offering as Blood Orange. Slightly campy and deliriously hooky, this is a kind of meta synth-pop – all blithe fun on the surface, with unsettling confessions and sly musical complexities lurking, Prince-style, underneath. Look out for whatever multi-instrumentalist Hynes does; he’s a huge talent, and so is his vocal foil, the awesome Samantha Urban.

Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City (XL Recordings). When Vampire Weekend first appeared, I was fairly lonely in the Underwhelmed camp. Where many critics praised the bubbly indie rock-goes-to-Africa conceit, to me it felt bottled up and studious, mostly because in live performance the band struggled to create the momentum that comes naturally to African musicians. The New York band did some conceptual re-arranging of the furniture for this third album, creating an arrestingly nuanced set of pop songs adorned with groove, grit and surprisingly apt orchestral flourishes.

Sigur Ros: Kveikur (XL Recordings). At once the most accessible and unsettling album ever from Icelandic progressives Sigur Ros, Kveikur dwells in a kind of mottled darkness – its shadows have their own subsidiary shadows, and its dissonances come bathed in their own echoey afterglow. Stupendous.

Wayne Shorter Quartet: Without a Net (Blue Note). This has little in common with live jazz as practiced by most mortals – it’s a spectacularly intricate four-way conversation that shows not merely how far Shorter’s haunting songs can be stretched, but how their resonances can change in the course of a rangey and sometimes free-associative conversation.

 AND A DOZEN MORE….. Jim James: Regions of Light and Sound of God; Charles Lloyd & Jason Moran: Hagar’s Song; Thelonious Monk: Paris 1969; Iron & Wine: Ghost On Ghost; Neil Young: Live at the Cellar Door; Elton John: The Diving Board; Albert Heath/Ethan Iverson/Ben Street: Tootie’s Tempo; Jonathan Wilson; Fanfare; Arcade Fire: Reflektor; Pat Metheny: Tap – John Zorn’s Book of Angels Vol. 20; Boards of Canada: Tomorrow’s Harvest; MIA: Matangi.

Shadow Classic: The Guitar Music of Johnny Smith

Johnny Smith, quiet demon of the guitar….

When the jazz guitarist Johnny Smith died last month at the age of 90, obituaries told of a career spent mostly in a willful semi-obscurity, then focused on two compositions – his cover of the ballad “Moonlight in Vermont,” which was a left-field jazz hit in 1952, and his original “Walk Don’t Run,” which became a big hit when covered by surf-rock kingpins The Ventures in 1959.

That’s the highlight reel. A multi-instrumentalist, Smith began his career in the trumpet section of the NBC Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini, and picked up extra work in New York by playing jazz on guitar. Eventually that became his full-time job;  before leaving New York in 1958 for family reasons, Smith put together a string of remarkable small-group recordings, showcases for his fluid technique and impossibly warm guitar tone. Some of these titles are hard to find, but a few, including the Moonlight in Vermont session featuring Stan Getz, endure as chamber-jazz classics, notable for their intricate ensemble passages and apt, lyrical solos. (According to legend, Herbie Hancock’s first exposure to jazz came with this record.) Smith was one of those improvisors who could play anything but almost always  exercised restraint; his light, uptempo bebop-influenced solos (see “Where or When”) have a crisp, placid feel, as though he’s thinking, note by note, about not overloading the rhythm. His ballad playing (“Embraceable You”) is equally thoughtful, exhibiting not just genius note choices but an uncanny sense of nuance and texture.

A playlist devoted to some of Smith’s gems is available here.

Shadow Classic: Dynamic Duo by George Coleman and Tete Montoliu

“Sophisticated Lady,” from Dynamic Duo, George Coleman and Tete Montoliu

 When jazz musicians play duets, it’s common to hear critics and insiders marvel at how the two players seem to “finish each other’s sentences.” The implication is that there’s a shared wavelength, and once the musicians find it, they converse as though in a telepathic mind-meld, answering aptness with aptness.

The reality can be less romantic – among even master players, there are frequently divergent ideas about tempo and mood and pace, as well as the general uneasiness that comes with the establishment of “rapport.” The masters of the duo setting – among them the enduring tandem of saxophonist Steve Lacy and pianist Mal Waldron – appear inclined, at every moment, to fumble and veer, change direction in mid-stream, relinquish control and follow as their cohort swerves into a new lane.

That openness is audible on this wonderful version of “Sophisticated Lady” from Dynamic Duo, a 1977 meeting between tenor saxophonist George Coleman and pianist Tete Montoliu. The two linger over the elegant slopes of Ellington’s melody, settling into tempo and then floating freely away from it. They sometimes finish each other’s thoughts, but more often, they start them – with little melodic gestures like firefly sparks, that at least once or twice swell up into unexpected full-blown bonfires.

Check it out:

Can we have a new spectacle now? Please?

Can we have a new spectacle now? Please?

The old one is about as tired as the power grid that serves the Superdome.

Somewhere in the middle of Sunday night’s 34-minute third quarter power-outage delay, as reporters on the sidelines scrambled to get anything resembling credible information, it occurred to me that this unusual drama was more engaging as “entertainment” than the super-polished, beautifully staged Beyonce performance just concluded. Not that there was anything specifically wrong with the halftime show – this morning’s reviews praise the singer as “electrifying” (haha) and on her “A game” (groan).  In the context of a normal Super Bowl, it was flawlessly rendered, with precise camera angles and lighting cues nailed down to the nanosecond.

But what followed wasn’t normal, and as soon as the TV commentators had to go “off script” and yammer to fill time, there opened up a moment to ponder, in a “is this all there is?” way, the megawatt extravaganza we’d just witnessed. A cast of thousands doing yet another update on the line dancing routines we’ve loved since Michael Jackson and Madonna. A star looking invincible in designer threads and heels while executing proto-robotic choreography. A perfunctory reunion of Destiny’s Child, Beyonce’s old act. Solid, once-engaging hit songs reduced to puree inside a whirlwind medley. Somehow, despite her beauty and starpower and abundant energy, Beyonce seemed trapped inside an utterly canned, inevitably contrived mode of performance. When, in conclusion, she said “Thank you for this moment,” it was less about whatever had just transpired musically – because, let’s be real, the needle on the Excitement Meter barely moved – and more about further validation, a crowning ego moment, another exclusive stamp in the passport of a megastar.

And that’s boring. The images of half a stadium in darkness held more suspense, sparked more curiosity – was it an accident or the work of hackers? A philosopher might argue that Americans, hotwired for movies with lots of explosions and music with blazing nonstop hooks, get the mass spectacles they deserve: This kind of relentless show might actually be the only remaining way to enchant numb, overly entertained audiences. Still, when the power failed you couldn’t help but wonder how far the spontaneity-free empty spectacle thing, with staging considerations clearly outweighing musical ones, can go.

There was no mystery, nothing even particularly human, about the halftime show. And what followed was all too human, riddled with an unsettling sense of “what happens now?” You know things are out of whack when the lights going off in half of a stadium turns out to be more compelling than a gazillion lights blazing to perfection, in dazzling computer-coordinated sequence, exactly the way they did in rehearsal.

Two Shorter Scenes…..

Through an unusual release date confluence, this week brings the chance to hear saxophonist Wayne Shorter at two revealing points in his career – playing in Europe in 1969 as part of Miles Davis’ little-heard “third” quintet, and leading his own group at various European stops in 2011 on his first album for Blue Note in 43 years, Without A Net.

Taken together, the works offer a chance to zoom in on the evolution of one of the last remaining jazz mavericks, a masterful composer and improviser whose impact is impossible to precisely gauge. Without Shorter, who turns 80 later this year, the notion of composition in jazz would be very different. As would the notion of the compositional mood dictating what happens when the solos begin. Check out the version of “Footprints” from Live in Europe 1969: It’s got the upheaval we associate with that tumultuous year, it’s got Miles playing with more rat-a-tat fury than he ever did, and still, somehow, the melancholic brood of this durable tune prevails.

Jazz musicians leave status updates every time a performance is documented, of course, but few have done so for so long, and at Shorter’s level of inspiration. From very early solo recordings through his stint with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers through the Davis ‘60s quintet (the one with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams), through such solo landmarks as Juju and Speak No Evil through his work with Weather Report and subsequent solo endeavors, Shorter blazed a trail of profound and often disruptive originality. His discography describes rapid – and, as Without A Net demonstrates, still in progress – evolution.   Each band and each period seems to bring forth something different from Shorter: His solos on tunes from the 1960s are studies in scampering, impulsive-sounding runs (notice the torrents of blurry superfast lines on “Directions” from Live in Europe 1969). His ballads for Weather Report endure as brooding, stately elegies. His new tunes on Without A Net  have an insistent, keenly alert pay-attention quality – their beseeching melodies offer quirky, wonderfully ragged respite from everyday bebop proficiency.

Shorter has always been a meta-musician, his work a constant reminder that in jazz, a singular conceptual vision can be as important as technical acumen. In 1969, responding to the crisply chopped accompaniment from Chick Corea, Shorter plays at lightning speed – but he’s never slinging stuff he worked out practicing. Instead, he’s reacting to and trying to influence the frequently-shifting direction of the music. If you go right from the 1969 live material to the new work, which is also recorded live, the first thing you may notice has to do with energy: These guys in Shorter’s band (pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Pattitucci, drummer Brian Blade) are playing hard and fierce, with a lust for life that has been missing from just about everything sold as “jazz” in recent years. Exhilarating and alive, studded with rhythms that have great swing fluidity as well as the stomp of funk (sometimes all at once!), these performances expose the emotional bankruptcy of jazz as practiced by fussy scholarly preservationist types. Using wild lunges and pinpoint-precise gestures, Shorter’s group shows just how timid even great musicians are when interpreting his complex, endlessly challenging tunes. If it’s been awhile since you’ve been thrilled by improvised music, consider taking this two-part journey: Start with Davis’ little-heard ’69 quintet to hear the group’s high-speed chase scenes, pushed by Shorter to the brink of frenzy. Then flip over to the saxophonist’s new Without a Net to encounter a current group operating on the interactive frequency that was so prevalent in 1969 – except they’re using current vocabulary, and current notions about consonance and dissonance. Though recorded more than 40 years apart, these two ripping good titles somehow land in the same spot: This is music that puts you on the edge of your seat, and keeps you there.