20 (or so) Peak Moments on Records Released in 2011

I’ll dispense with the usual preamble about how it was a great or horrendous year for music – it was both at the same time, of course. (These days there’s so much output coming from so many microslivered scenes, it’s ridiculous to make broad proclamations anyway….). They’re in no particular order – as Bob Dylan likes to say, it’s all good. Enjoy!

 

Tom Waits: Bad As Me . These songs start from a place where everything is broken, honor is long gone and everybody’s locked in the grand drain-circling swirl of destiny. Then the band kicks into its higher gear, stomping out lusty if slightly preposterous marches, rambles and elegies. Waits’ characters fall right in, and though they’re well acquainted with futility, they press on, endearingly, lost in the search for love, hope, and redemption. Which they do not typically find. Doesn’t matter.

Miles Davis: Live in Europe 1967.   The Paris version of “Masqualero,” on disc three of this collection of mostly unreleased live performances, lasts ten minutes. That’s all it takes to develop renewed awe for the astoundingly interactive on-the-fly genius of this ensemble. Davis’ stark melodies are set against lovely watercolor chords and endlessly elastic metric machinations – check out how often these five supremely alert musicians completely transform a mood in the space between downbeats. 2011 was a solid year of creativity in jazz – or, in the parlance of the latest Facebook “movement,” Black American Music (please, let us know when the fences and tollbooths are in place!) – but somehow everything current sounds anemic next to this.

Bon Iver: Bon Iver. Fragile songs riddled with questioning and doubt, rendered in spectacularly harmonized falsetto floral arrays. (The solo vocal tunes, deep into the record, are pretty great too….).

Wilco: The Whole Love. Here’s the balance between daydreamy folk-rock confessional and adventurous avant-downtown dissonance Wilco has been aiming for on the last few records. It seems clinical when described this way in words; in music, it sounds like pure giddy genius.

Black Keys: El Camino.  Bachman-Turner Overdrive roaring out of the classic-rock deep freeze on a nasty tequila bender.

Jonathan Wilson: Gentle Spirit.  Speaking of the ‘70s, here’s a slice of idyllic, gorgeously poised (and wondrously nostalgia-free) Laurel Canyon rock. Framed by intertwined guitar leads and lit from within by trance-state melodies, Wilson’s songs occupy a zone of warm, open-hearted reflection.

James Farm: James Farm. There was lots of new orchestrational thinking in improvised music this year, and among the most pleasant examples is this debut from a quartet that sounds like a real band. Imagine that.

Adele: 21. File this one under “admiration, not love.” When I first heard it, I felt that the plush production rounded off some of Adele’s crucial sharp edges. After endless repeat exposure to the songs, my quibbles with the production remain. But I have to give it up: There is just no denying that voice.

Radiohead: The King of Limbs. As with pretty much everything the band has done, this record opens genuinely new doors, suggests new combinations of texture and emotion, offers new takes on the peculiar alchemy of a rock song.

Drake: Take Care. Lots of prominent rappers kvetch about the trials of fame – Eminem dines quite well on that theme, and Kanye West blew it to  smithereens on the ultra-dense My Beautiful Twisted Fantasy. Drake goes in a brutally honest introspective direction here, singing and rapping as though he’s just emerged from a meditation retreat where he discovered all kinds of loathesome things about himself. Along with Undun, below, this feels like a necessary (and overdue) course correction for commercial hiphop.

The Roots: Undun. This is the record to play for your friend who complains about the rampant ego glorification that dominates so much hiphop discourse. A musically exuberant, lyrically sobering tour through the mind of an average tortured urbandweller, Undun represents a storytelling peak for the Roots, but that’s not all: Its sung refrains (“Tip The Scales”) give voice to the sad disillusionment that settled in after those Obama-led “Yes We Can” chants died down.

The Decemberists: The King Is Dead. After unleashing a sprawling prog-rock opus, what else is there to do but create a series of diabolically focused little songs that strive for the sorrow-filled, world-weary tones of the great Hank Williams?

tUnE yArDs: Who Kill. Technology has come a long way since Solex’ monstrously inventive Low Kick and Hard Bop from 2001, and this album, which is the spiritual heir to that one, harnesses it brilliantly, dropping listeners into the middle of an African ritual one minute and a beautifully layered Joni Mitchell confession the next.

My Morning Jacket: Circuital.  Epic journeys and existential mindgames coalesce into the most consistent set of songs from the band that is arguably the most consistently rousing live act on the road.

Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What. Worth hearing just for the title track, which captures the thoughts of a numb Everyman as he struggles to comprehend the unhinged opinions and unwelcome advertisments, the trash and transcendence and “look at me” ravings that constitute the modern media assault.

Bill Frisell 858 Quartet: Sign of Life . These pensive etudes glide right across the territorial lines that divide jazz, bluegrass and chamber music, describing an elusive and endlessly fragile shadow world.

J.D. Allen Trio: Victory!  This year some tenor player put out a record proclaiming The Triumph of the Heavy. It wasn’t. This is.

Various Artists: El Barrio: The Ultimate Collection of Latin Boogaloo, Disco, Funk and Soul. Fania Records was never just the incubator of New York salsa – the label was also responsible for some monstrously energetic backbeat music. Surveying commercial hits and influential album tracks, this four-disc compilation shows how the flirtatious Latin-soul boogaloo pulse of the ‘60s evolved into muscular, utterly unique strains of funk.

Gretchen Parlato: The Lost and Found. Bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding snagged all of this year’s jazz love in the media. But several people in her circle – most notably the singer Gretchen Parlato – made far more interesting records than her cluttered Chamber Music Society. Parlato has a great sense of space and impressive  command of a carefully controlled stage whisper; on the best moments here (“Still,” a delightfully loose version of Wayne Shorter’s “Juju”), she kills softly.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Amos Lee: Mission Bell; M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming; Iron and Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean; Lisa Hannigan: Passenger; The Weekend: House of Balloons; The Beach Boys: Smile!; The Rolling Stones: Some Girls.

 

Welcoming back the old analog notebook…..

The other week, at our semi-regular music-listening hang, I had a moment of notebook envy. Not the computer kind, either. We were listening to a few tracks from Undun, the new Roots record [Moon NPR review is here], when my friend Andy pulled a sleek black sketchbook from his bag. It was slightly smaller than an iPad, and as I watched him riffle through the unlined pages, I felt slightly like I was eavesdropping on a private realm. There were doodles, and notes in red felt pen that had urgent-looking underlinings. There were dashed-off ideas, names of songs and albums and probably grocery lists too.

I was struck by the stonecold simplicity of it. And by the sharp sense of missing this type of book, some necessarily haphazard permanent record of momentary obsessions and free-associative “what if?” thinking. Some place where wild ideas were welcomed and expected. It reminded me of the little Clairefontaine notebooks I kept in my back pocket years ago. This was before the smartphone era, when it wasn’t so easy to organize and sort information. The pages in the one I carried had no order at all – phone numbers were followed by quotes that seemed brilliant at the time – and as a result, they were highly inefficient for storing data. But they in some ways, the randomness served as a creative catalyst: It’s possible to dismiss the cluttered pages as rambling or to read them as a kind of internal news-crawl poetry, a symphony of mental beats sometimes leading nowhere, sometimes leading to life-changing notions.

Page One in the new Rhodia notebook....

Talking to Andy about notebooks, I realized how much I have missed this mode of capture. Ideas are like gold; even the impossible unrealistic ones can enrich daily life. Maybe in the very act of relying on a device for everything, we deny ourselves a bit of farflung dreaming, the simple analog pleasure of stalking an idea, framing it Venn-diagram-style, mulling it again while waiting for a train. And then turning the page….

Addicted To Demise

Suddenly, there’s an epidemic of demise essays. They’re everywhere and I am binge-inhaling them. You know the species – an expert (whatever that is anymore) steps up to the podium and delivers a laundry list of troubling portents, each pointing to the death of a beloved form of expression. The novel has been discussed this way for decades, with good reason. Jazz, too – one prominent practitioner recently concluded, after much thought and discussion with elders, that his chosen mode actually died in 1959. It’s been on cultural life support ever since.

Lately it’s been film. Last week in the New York Times, critic A.O. Scott sounded the alarm with a perceptive rant about the general decline in quality of onscreen storytelling. Along the way, he referenced related observations by New Yorker critic Anthony Lane and critic emeritus Roger Ebert, whose The Sudden Death of Film is a symphonic opus of handwringing from one whose disposition is usually cheery. There’s a tendency among critics, whose discipline is in an alarming freefall of its own (get ready for a raft of “Death of Criticism” essays), to look around and mourn the state of things. Maybe this goes with the territory – we spend our days absorbing the latest works, with very little chance to have a perspective-providing encounter with a certifiable classic.

When we do, we become like the GPS lady after a wrong turn: Recalculating! This happens all the time, in part because critics are human and also because the context for art is constantly changing: When compared with every contemporaneous new hiphop release, that tiresomely overhyped collaboration between Jay-Z and Kanye West was certainly impressive. But put it next to Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, and the story is somewhat different. It’s become almost a given in this age: Even if a new release like Watch the Throne seems powerful and invincible upon arrival, it doesn’t take long before the luster wears off, the songs are exposed as thin windbag gruel, and the emperor is seen scurrying for undergarments. A little context can be a dangerous thing.

The timing of demise-speak is interesting. While these well-documented declines seem to be independent, they are progressing along similar routes, if not running in parallel. Many essays about film glance at the dismaying and unrelenting dimness of current pop music and shudder: Look what can happen when the chokehold of top-down distribution is broken! Film is surely next! The questions start with “What happens when anyone can pirate a feature film?” and usually quickly run to “What is the impact on creativity when pirating is common practice?” Add up all the specific woes in specific realms, and what you have is a lamentation chorale in the key of quiet panic, a collective alert about the relative health of creativity. And, by extension, civilization.

The essays usually touch on the impact of technology, how the tools that enable people to create stuff rapidly and easily are also responsible for changing – often, cheapening — the final cut and how an audience experiences it. Some demise essays have noted the role of polling and “creation by committee” as happens at the large studios; it’s clear this is an age where the artist’s iconoclastic vision is subordinate to the concerns of those in charge of managing the big bankroll. The tragedy of that type of decision-making is evident in just about every would-be blockbuster: Cue up another explosion, Gretchen, we might have a few interminable seconds of quiet in there.

Group-think, that perpetual enemy of art, has taken root in the entertainment industry to a scarifying degree; it surely is a factor in all this death talk. For one example, just tally up the times the Broadway Spiderman has been through the dance of rewrite and revision and focus-group “testing.” The process may yet yield “acceptable” (read: financially successful) show, but for those who grew up respecting the singular vision of U2, it represents the sad incremental suffocating of idealism, a regrettable moment when once-fierce heroes capitulate to marketplace demands. Somebody’s probably already working on a master’s thesis about this highly visible implosion, and what it says about the creative process when the stakes get high and the deep pocket types get nervous.

What is striking about these mourning exercises is the way they focus on the state of the art and to some degree ignore the state of the audience. If we are witnessing the death of film, it is in part because we are living in age of flamboyant and widely accepted inattention, a time when every daily interaction is threatened by competing signals. If audiences are no longer inclined to follow an extemporaneous narrative created by a jazz musician over ten gingerly carved choruses of a tune, it’s partly because that requires some mental engagement, a mind that can stick with a single thought and not dart from one microburst status update to another. The malady known as Too Much Information has implication for all manner of discourse, the arts included.

The critics’ concern about how digital tools are changing the forms is, in some way, misplaced: Why bother worrying about the general health of an art form when members of its intended audience show up indifferent and harried, too stressed to bring any meaningful energy to a work? It’s a “Here we are now, entertain us” world. It’s a “I don’t have all day to wade through exposition, I want action!” world. Anymore, the expectation is that said entertainment will deliver thrills in short order and at regular intervals. Watch a few recent Hollywood movies on fast forward, and patterns begin to emerge: Though circumstances are different, the crucial moments of action seem to arrive according to a schedule. The same formula, in miniature, prevails within the architecture of Lady Gaga songs, too.

Then there’s the technology-fueled arrogance of the audience. A man toting a smartphone into a theater is a powerful individual, with command of infinite resources and the expectation that he can get anything he wants or needs with just a few clicks. This person has been trained by his technology that his choices reign supreme – his device stores his Favorites, his Playlists, and those, he is told endlessly, are the only art that matters. The device puts him in touch with more creative works than the mind can fathom, but it also can put him farther away from the state of receptivity – and, crucially, the patience – that’s sometimes necessary when encountering something new. The delightful smart little box is a portal to all kinds of worlds, each of them requiring some level of agency on the part of the user; anymore, people who live inside that lifeline may not be inclined or mentally equipped to suspend their own endlessly chattering narratives in order to follow someone else’s as expressed in art. It’s no accident that most people don’t listen to entire albums anymore: We’re seeking choice moments, not a more complete picture of an artist’s vision. Life is a process of culling the ultimate greatest-hits collection now: The folks cuing up for an encounter with a musician or a filmmaker are, to an alarming degree, not willing to grant the artist time enough to create a world or make a case. This may sound harsh, but it comes up constantly in conversations with artists: The relentless flow of “pushed” information, from texts and updates to shopping offers, has compromised what might be called the fullness of attention. Artists worry, with good reason, about the indifference of the distracted end-user, about the challenge of captivating the over-stimulated masses. They begin a project knowing that even the most spectacular special-effects scene might not be enough to pierce the blasé armor. Joe Smartphone User may have sophisticated tastes, but he’s also increasingly living explosion to ear-rattling explosion, numb to subplot and subtlety, disinclined to follow a story’s slowly winding path. Possibly unable to focus on any expression that lasts more than six minutes.

That’s not the fault of any artform. It would be the case whether said form was thriving or deeply enmeshed in the death spiral many have been ranting about. The problem right now seems to me to be less about the health of individual disciplines, and more about the health of the audience. That’s because the implicit pact at the root of all arts – the creator offers up what he knows to the best of his ability, and in so doing, expects the chance to earn a modicum of sustained attention – has been shattered, replaced by a zillion little blips, attention hogs all, claiming precious brain nanoseconds  in an undifferentiated stream of endless updates. If the creativity on offer in any particular form amounts to a fractured mess devoid of uplift or even the skeleton of a coherent narrative, maybe that’s because art is doing what it always does: Imitating life itself.

Now, a moment of silence followed by the unmistakable skipping sound……

of a ride cymbal played by Paul Motian.

implying a vision of time, shaving off little bits of time and spinning them out into separate orbit, defining the pulse so as to encourage every possible option. each strike opening into newness. opening up everyone within range. opening everything.

this accomplished at pianissimo, with no excessive force, and no screaming “look at me.” and crucially no guessing. all clear, all smudges intentional. hear one measure and you experience time as a force to be respected and harnessed and worked with. time as something absolute and at the same time endlessly mutable. time refracted through a complex language of pings and chops, an entire orchestra of colors and sonic variations eminating from one humble cymbal. never just a flat stock ping but a palette of them, each signifying slight, microslivered difference while still connected, by sometimes thinnest of threads, to the almighty downbeat.

we have lost not just a visionary musician but an entire orientation, a way of shaping and coloring music. probably gone forever. a taste of it is here.

Audio from last week’s Jazz Casual….

so we’re slowly getting settled into the Tuesday routine for Jazz Casual, and last week for the first time I was able to have a recorder going…..if you’re curious about what’s happening at Milkboy Philly, please click here and check us out!

The band: Ryan McNeely (guitar); Tom Moon (tenor); Mike Frank (electric piano); Mike Boone (bass); Eli Sklarsky (drums).

The tune is a great gem “Ho Ba La La,” one of the few written by the amazing singer/guitarist Joao Gilberto. Please enjoy!

Things Learned at Jam Sessions, V. 1

Sometimes jam sessions have the temperament of an old-fashioned Wild West shootout, with hyperskilled musicians doing everything they can to stun and/or dazzle everyone within earshot. That energy, once unleashed, can be viral: One extravagant “lookie-at-what-I-can-do” solo sparks another even more flamboyant one, resulting in an endless Faster! Louder! death spiral.

Usually when this happens I sit down – I’m not wired for “faster,” never have been able to make my fingers go that way. The other night at Milkboy Ardmore, during a boisterous cluster of tunes at Mike Frank’s Monday night session, somebody suggested Benny Golson’s challenging “Along Came Betty.”  It’s often played at a comfortable medium swing tempo, but Jason Shattil, the phenomenally gifted pianist, wanted to take it up. Way up. We were into it before anybody could protest, shuttling along through Golson’s twisty post-bebop lines at near breakneck speed. When it came time for me to solo, I jumped in with my two left feet, rattling off chromatic lines that did not always land where they were supposed to. It was an unforgiving tempo, the kind that forces you to be “on” from the first note. All I had in my holster was variations on the theme of clutter.

Then Jason played. His first chorus was incredibly serene – and at the same time completely locked in. He approached the demanding tempo as though ambling down a country lane. As he navigated, he made everything sound easy: There was no frenzy in the cool-headed, wonderfully interconnected melodies. His improvisations grew more complex as he went along, but he never lost the easygoing aspect. For me, that was a huge lesson: Sometimes the way to engage listeners is to step back and take it easy. Even if things are moving at 100 mph. Especially then.

There are, of course, endless chances to apply these lessons. Tonight, we’ll do our best at Milkboy Philly’s weekly Tuesday happening, Jazz Casual. Music starts around 8:30 in the beautiful upstairs room, and tonight we’ve got Philadelphia legend Mike Boone as the special guest on bass! Also on board: Mike Frank (electric piano), Ryan McNeely (guitar), Eli Sklarsky (drums). Please come and sit in! Ballad players welcome!

 

A Different Kind of X Factor

Out of the spectacular disarray of the modern record business, several abiding truths have emerged, and a few have even taken root as gospel. One has to do with the primacy of the live experience: How, regardless of the genre, there is a certain “thing” that happens when a group of musicians gather to chase ideas together. At the risk of sounding New Age squishy, you could call it an “energy.” If at this juncture you require an illustration of this, track down anything from the new Miles Davis Quintet Bootleg Series Vol. 1, Live In Europe 1967. It’s frightening and intense and completely riveting. (I’ll scribble more on it in a subsequent post….).

In a sense, this energy is the eternal live-music holy grail, and it happens at all levels and in any size venue. You’re walking by a bar no bigger than a railroad car, and before you even process what song is being played, you can tell that some music of substance is going on – and you’re drawn to discover what the musicians are in the process of discovering. It seems effortless but is rarely accidental. There are environmental variables, and attitude variables, and also technical hurdles; sometimes even the most skilled players end up crashing and burning, while beginners stumble into greatness. There is, though, one X-Factor that seems to be a constant throughout many of these situations: Open-mindedness. Some players radiate the willingness to explore and try stuff, and just by their openness, they create conditions that are favorable for creativity. Possibilities seem to open up when they are involved. They lift everyone on stage up. People begin to listen at a deeper level. Connections just happen.

If there’s an aesthetic goal of Jazz Casual (the Tuesday night session at Milkboy Philly), it’s to develop a setting where those connections are possible. Even if it means playing very much in a back-to-basics temperment – especially if that’s what prevails. The & Friends band is wired that way, and so are the guests we’ve lined up. Last week, the pianist Mike Frank – a firestarter who is integral to an array of musical endeavors in Philly right now – tossed out ear-stretching, endlessly surprising ideas. This week, we’re lucky to be joined by vibraphonist Behn Gillece, who participated with Mike Frank and I in the Moon Hotel Lounge Project experiment. Behn plays a regular Tuesday thing at Small’s in NYC — we’re lucky to get him! — and leads a ferocious band of his own. You might have seen him accompanying Melody Gardot, among others. As I’ve learned hearing him play in many different contexts, Behn has a gift for sneaking subtle colors and shades into the musical landscape, responding in ways that seem to gently open up possibilities.

Check him out tonight at Jazz Casual! He’ll be playing with TM, Ryan McNeely (guitar), Mark Pryzbylowski (bass), Eli Sklarsky (drums) and some special guests! Begins shortly after 8 pm at Milkboy Philly, 1100 Chestnut St., Philadelphia. 215.925.MILK.

And then tomorrow at: www.behngillecejazz.com/

 

The Very Thought of You

so the other night at the first-ever Jazz Casual, we were joined by Pete Gaudioso, a great Philly drummer who has also become a mesmerizing singer. He did a version of Ray Noble’s 1936 standard “The Very Thought of You,” one of those great songbook tunes that hasn’t been over-exposed. (Though, sadly, Rod Stewart did take a chainsaw to it for one of those depressing latter-day records of his.)

I’ve had the song in my head ever since Tuesday night, and just did the obligatory YouTube search for some nice versions. There are hundreds, but these two just completely tore me up — the Nat King Cole for his easygoing, confessional phrasing, the Shirley Horn for the incredibly demanding glacially slow tempo.

Nat King Cole:

Shirley Horn:

Does a nightclub event need a mission statement?

No, really.

It’s not a joke question. In recent years I’ve become a convert to the notion of the “mission statement,” that succinct attempt to capture often elusive, abstract goals in words. Before starting on just about any kind of project, I usually make lists of objectives and all that, trying to stay away from the squishier ideas that might come under the heading “Hopes and Dreams” in favor of more concrete measurable goals. So now, as we’re gearing up for the start of Jazz Casual, I find myself wondering if there’s benefit to generating a mission statement for it.

I can hear the derisive laughter from the oldtimers at the bar already: “You overthink everything! Just play music! Make people happy! Go exploring with some friends and see what happens!”

I hear that too. So….mission statement? And if so, what might it be?

BTW, Jazz Casual with TM and Friends begins Tuesday 9/27 at 8 pm at Milkboy Philly, 1100 Chestnut St., Philadelphia. 215.925.MILK. http://www.milkboyphilly.com. Come hear Mike Frank (keys), Ryan McNeely (guitar), Mark Pryzbylowski (bass), Eli Sklarsky (drums) and guest luminaries from Philly music!