When this year’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival was first announced, the JD Allen Trio was listed for day two. The game plan here was to get back from vacation in time to catch Sunday’s concert at Tompkins Square Park: however, by the time the lineup was finalized, Allen had been moved to Saturday, with Little Jimmy Scott taking his place (more about him later: from the NY Times’ account, Allen turned in a characteristically gripping set).
Torchy singer (and NPR fave) Catherine Russell opened. Her band is capable of transcendence in pretty much any situation. In a set of familiar standards, this time out they didn’t, but considering the crushing heat and humidity, not to mention the early hour, that was almost to be expected. That they played as well as they did was an achievement. Maybe the festival’s producers should take that into account and schedule performers from Mali or Jamaica, or from anywhere this kind of climactic torture is an everyday thing, for the first part of the show.
The Cookers have a new album, Warriors, just out. Billy Harper and Craig Handy on tenor, Eddie Henderson and David Weiss on trumpet, George Cables on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and Billy Hart on drums have about a millennium of jazz experience among them and turned in a joyously expansive, mid 60s-flavored set that gave each performer a chance to pitch a tent front and center and pull the crew in his own preferred direction. It wasn’t just solos around the horn: there was push and pull, and conversations, roles and personalities all exerting themselves vividly. Handy answered Harper’s exuberance sauvely, even pensively, while Henderson pushed Weiss to fan the blaze even higher. They opened with a gorgeously murky, modal excursion with rich melodic overlays. Cables led the band through a beautifully lyrical, Brubeck-tinged jazz waltz featuring his own methodically crescendoing, eventually cloudbursting solo. They wound up their set with a number based on an emphatic, bouncy chromatic riff featuring a terse Hart drum solo contrasting with some meandering horn work.
What else could be said about Vijay Iyer that hasn’t been said already? That his originals are better than his covers, maybe. The pianist has gotten accolades here before and is as good as you would expect, live. But the heat was unrelenting, and comfortable, cool Lakeside Lounge around the corner was beckoning. See you somewhere down the line, Vijay.
By the time Little Jimmy Scott rode his little electric scooter onto the stage, it had cooled down a bit. He’s every bit as vital as he was fifty years ago, in fact, probably more so: it’s as if he was born to be 84 years old. He’s always had an otherworldly voice, years older than he was, so it only makes sense that his career would peak so late in life. Word on the street is that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, and the crowd adored him. Like Siouxsie Sioux, someone he’s probably never heard of, he works his own scale when he’s off in the blue notes, which is a lot, and which is so successful because he’s perfectly in tune with himself. He didn’t exhibit his wide-open, Leslie speaker-style vibrato until the middle of his set but when he did, it was every bit as jaw-dropping as it’s ever been. David Lynch knew what he was doing when he put Scott on the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Scott opened with a Summertime-inspired version of Nothing But Blue Skies, saxophonist TK Blue and pianist Alex Minasian shadowing him with finely attuned phrasing; on Your Turn to Cry, sirens from around the corner joined in with the music almost on cue during the first few bars of the intro, and Scott seized the moment with characteristic, gentle intensity: nobody gets so much out of so little as this guy. The showstopper was an absolutely devastating version of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, Blue’s anguished soprano sax interlude on the way out a perfectly appropriate touch, but as good as it was it was no match for what Scott had just done, silky but raw, nuanced but with a sledgehammer effect. He’s at the Blue Note tomorrow night and worth pretty much whatever they’re charging at the door.
And two big, fat, upraised middle fingers to the NYPD brass who embarrassed the beat cops at the local precinct by instructing them to kick out anyone who dared sit down at the tables with the chessboard markings at the park’s southwest corner if they then didn’t immediately break out a chess or checkers set. This has all the markings of a concession to the neighborhood’s yuppie newcomers who don’t like to be reminded that they live in a world where homeless people actually exist. The rookie cop assigned to do the honors couldn’t hide his boredom or embarrassment, mumbling to tired concertgoers to get up and leave after they’d found what looked like lucky seats in the midst of a sea of people. Police work is hard enough without subjecting members of the force to humiliation like this.
New Swiss-based label Weak Records don’t use their name sarcastically: from an astrophysical point of view, it is actually the “weak forces” in the universe that hold it together. Their brand is defiantly DIY, angry and completely unwilling to give up on having fun. In other words, late 70s/early 80s punk rock style. Their initial release, the Weak Records Sampler #1 has been assembled to coincide with current Weak artists’ tours, live shows and writing and it makes a great introduction to some people who deserve to be better-known than they are. Weak Records was conceived as a platform for poetry as well as music, and there are a couple of spoken-word tracks here as well. Brett Davidson’s To Do List cynically litanizes a series of mundane and no-so-mundane projects that might be possible with a little respite. Bobby Vacant’s Cancerland savages endless bleak cloned suburban rot over a contrastingly pretty acoustic guitar background.
The music here is upbeat and funny. Mixin’ Bowl, by Riders of the Worm blends echoey, off-center riff-oriented Chrome Cranks garage punk with a late period Man or Astroman feel. I´m Not Your Dog, by Police Bulimia matches snapping bass to trebly percussive punk guitar with an early 80s vibe: “If you try to subjugate I’ll kick you in the head.” All of these are streaming at the links above. Weak Records’ latest live show features Bobby Vacant & the Worn with Brigitte Meier on bass on September 3 at 9 PM at Werkschau Nr. 6, Bahnstrasse 22 in Bern, Switzerland, where Weak Records’ newly launched, cynically amusing oldschool punk rock style fanzine Savage Laundry will also be available.
Chip Robinson got his start in the early 90s in careening Raleigh alt-country rockers the Backsliders, but he has not been dormant since. His new solo album Mylow is a lot different, a lot more diverse and it’s excellent all the way through. It’s sort of the missing link between Steve Earle and Richard Buckner, a mix of bruising, overdriven, twangy rock and rueful ballads. Robinson has an ear for a catchy hook, a memorable riff and a striking lyrical image to go along with a wry sense of humor. The rueful title track is definitely the best song ever written about a rabbit (it was an ex-girlfriend’s pet: she got custody). “Keep your chin up,” he tells the missing rodent, “I’ll keep my chin up too.” Another regret-tinged ballad admits that “The day I fell in love with you, I pissed off my wife and my girlfriend too.” The doomed romance of Story unwinds with two diverging points of view: he remembers whisking her across the dancefloor; she remembers him getting so loaded he couldn’t remember a thing. And the bizarrely compelling album intro, spoken word over oscillating distorted guitar noise, tells the tale of a guy who went down into a hole for “three long years” – but the drugs, and everything else, couldn’t kill him. And then it morphs into a faux-heroic tv theme type melody.
The rest of the album is a lot more serious and intense. Especially its best cut, Bee Sting, its battered narrator alternately distracted and smitten, “All my bridges burned just ashes in the wind, try to find the short way home.” Robinson works those images for all they’re worth over a fiery river of guitars, like something the Replacements might have done if they hadn’t been so sloppy all the time. The most Richard Buckner-ish track here is Wings, an alienation anthem with some hypnotic accordion work. Closer to the Light is a pretty ballad with the tasty layers of acoustic and electric guitars that you find on most everything Eric “Roscoe” Ambel produces (he also frequently plays shows with Robinson at Lakeside Lounge). That track has some distant Beatles allusions, which come front and center on the big ballad A Prayer Please, right down to a juicy George Harrison-esque guitar solo. The goodbye anthem Start is metaphorically loaded and vividly bitter; there are also a couple of roaring, Stonesy rock anthems here to pick up the pace, along with Mylow Sleeps, a lullaby for the missing bunny. There’s a lot to sink your teeth into here, lyrically and musically: an ipod album for sure, and one of 2010’s best, a welcome return to the studio from a guy who never went away but might have fallen off a few people’s radar in the years after the Backsliders broke up. Watch this space for upcoming NYC shows.
Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #882:
Henryk Gorecki – Symphony #3: London Sinfonietta/David Zinman, Dawn Upshaw, Soprano
Today we go to a whisper from a scream. Also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, this tryptich is one of the most effective and brilliantly understated examples of minimalism. Its still, spacious lento movements explore grief and bereavement: as an antiwar statement, they make a quietly explosive impact. Its first movement strips down a medieval Polish canon to the bare essentials; its second movement, the most famous, illustrates an inscription scrawled on a Gestapo cell by a young Polish girl snared in the Holocaust (literal translation: “Mother, don’t worry; God help me”). The third develops a Polish folksong theme as a memorial for those killed in the Silesian uprising against the Nazis. While many people have claimed to have been brought to tears by this music, it’s not the least bit maudlin: its slowly shifting ambience is more pensive and weary than anything else. Dawn Upshaw sings its fragmentary lyrics with what sounds, to Anglophone ears at least, like a creditable Polish accent, chamber orchestra and piano maintaining a striking amount of suspense. It premiered in 1977 in Poland but only came to popularity about twenty years later after pieces of it from this album were used in the soundtrack to the film Basquiat. It would eventually go platinum, a rare and now almost unthinkable achievement for a classical recording.
Tons and tons and tons of reviews and a brand-new NYC live music calendar for September coming in the next 24 hours. In the meantime, every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #883:
Polvo – Today’s Active Lifestyles
One of the most ugly/beautiful albums ever made. This 1993 full-length gets the nod over the rest of the Chapel Hill band’s output simply because there are more songs on it. Polvo literally never made a bad album: everything they did is worth owning. If you like noise, of course. The pitchfork/stereogum crowd (actually, it was CMJ back then) never got them, mischaracterizing them as math-rock when what they were really doing is taking peak-era Sonic Youth-style paint-peeling guitar noise to its logical extreme. For epic extremes, this one is bookended by the woozy, tone-bending Thermal Treasure and Gemini Cusp. There’s also the warped slide guitar of Lazy Comet; the swinging, chorus box-driven anarchy of Sure Shot; the Live Skull-ish fragment Tilebreaker; the fractured soul song Time Isn’t on My Side and the hypnotic, seven-minute Stinger, which nicks a memorable Sonic Youth riff. The band regrouped in 2009 and toured for a new cd, In Prism, which showed them mining a newly melodic but still deliciously assaultive sensibility. Long may they scream and thrash. Here’s a random torrent.
Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #884:
Isaac Hayes – Hot Buttered Soul
Pretty much the ultimate psychedelic soul record. Other soul singers in the 60s – Lou Rawls for one – were giving their songs long spoken-word intros. And stretching out a hit single onstage with a long vamp has been a popular device ever since soul music began. This was the first studio album to do that. Hayes had been a Stax Records producer (and Booker T. Jones’ double on organ in the duplicate version of Booker T. & the MGs, who toured when Booker T., or even the whole band, were busy elsewhere) since the early 60s; this was his second album. There are four tracks here. A sprawling fuzztone guitar version of Burt Bacharach’s Walk On By – a smash for Dionne Warwick – clocks in at twelve minutes. The extended wah funk groove Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic goes on for almost ten and has been sampled by a million rappers. Side two has the gospel piano-driven One Woman and a practically twenty-minute version of Jimmy Webb’s By the Time I Get to Phoenix. Millions remember Hayes as the voice of Chef on South Park, or for the Shaft soundtrack, but was his finest moment – and a bedroom album that predates Barry White by a few years. Here’s a random torrent.
Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #885:
Jah Wobble – Without Judgement
Hypnotic, atmospheric, occasionally Middle Eastern-tinged grooves from 1989 by the original PiL bassist, taking him further from rock toward the eclectic pan-global sound he’d dive into much more deeply in the following decades. It’s the most dub-inflected album he’s ever made, with vast washes of string synthesizer, funk guitar, all kinds of percussion and the occasional horn weaving up and then out of the mix, his characteristically terse, emphatic bass sometimes fat and propulsive, otherwise playing hide-and-seek with every other texture here – and there are a whole slew of them. There are also a couple of straight-up funk vamps, some proto-trip-hop and more than a hint of reggae in places. Most of the tracks are instrumentals: the highlight of the album is Wobble’s poem A13, a savage critique of suburban conformity and dullness read in a deadpan monotone over bleak washes of sound panning into and across the mix. It ends with the most bizarre, and barely recognizable, version of Will the Circle Be Unbroken ever recorded. Here’s a random torrent.
Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #886:
The JD Allen Trio – I Am I Am
A landmark album in modern jazz. A theme and variations with a few playful, sometimes wildly furious diversions, this tenor sax trio session was sort of the zeros counterpart to late 1950s Sonny Rollins – but better. Released at the end of 2008, Allen deftly skirts the edges of eerie, sometimes Middle Eastern-tinged modal intensity, turning over the darkest shades to bassist Gregg August, who welcomes them like a vampire welcomes the night. Rudy Royston, the greatest of this era’s jazz drummers and heir to Elvin Jones’ throne, is a ferociously hard hitter, building the shape of these strikingly melodic, barely four-minute segments every bit as much as Allen does. They quote the Godfather theme and Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond and even hint at a surf music vamp when they’re not working the terse, brooding central motif from fiery riffage to understated elegiac drama. Allen’s previous and subsequent studio work is every bit as memorable and melodic but not as intense, but his live performances – especially with this rhythm section – are among the most exhilarating of any band in recent years.
Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #887:
Amy Allison – Sheffield Streets
The best album by one of the best-loved cult artists in Americana music. For awhile back in the 90s, Allison could do no wrong: her wry, tersely and often wickedly lyrical alt-country albums The Maudlin Years and Sad Girl are both genuine classics, but this 2009 gem outdoes them since it’s a lot more stylistically diverse. And Allison’s finely nuanced voice is at the peak of its quirkily charming power here. There’s a duet with Elvis Costello on her dad Mose Allison’s wry, brooding jazz classic Monsters of the Id, with the Sage himself on piano; the clever litany of bizarre street names in the title track; the metaphorically loaded, wistful When the Needle Skips (a tribute to vintage vinyl, among other things); the genuinely haunting Dream World, with its down-and-out milieu; and the bitterly evocative Mardi Gras Moon, its jilted narrator high on pills and booze, losing the feeling in her hands on a night which is unseasonably cold in every possible way.
[Editor’s note – we’re still on vacation and raiding the archive for some fond memories. This is a particularly bittersweet one, from the days when every New York band, outside of Williamsburg, at least, was desperate to vote the Bush regime out of office…and for awhile it looked like it really would happen in 2004]
Randi Russo had organized this fundraiser for the John Kerry campaign, unsurprisingly drawing an A-list of New York rock talent who connected electrically with the audience: they may have been preaching to the converted, but this show left no doubt that New York is still a Democratic town. Literate songwriter Erika Simonian opened. Nuance is her defining characteristic, along with a deadpan, cynical sense of humor. The highlight of her set, for that matter probably the highlight of the night – at least from the crowd’s delirious reaction – was I’ve Got a Song (as in, “I’ve got a song, it goes FUCK YOU”), a kiss-off anthem that this time out took on extra significance when she dedicated it to Bush. Her band was tight, accordionist Paul Brady was incisive and captivating as always but the muddy sound mix sometimes deadened her vocals – the sound guy was obviously trying to fix it, with minimal results.
Paul Wallfisch of Botanica did three songs solo on his trust old Wurlitzer electric piano, one of them a Jacques Brel cover, before the rest of his band joined him for a spot-on, passionate version of The Flag (“When I stand and face the flag/I see my country wrapped in rags”), from their 9/11-themed album Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. They eventually did a stripped-down, careening version of the gypsy-punk title track from that album plus some more straight-ahead, rock-oriented new material. Guitarist Pete Min ably channeled their former axeman John Andrews’ reverb-laden parts and their new drummer locked with bassist Christian Bongers’ spiraling, melodic lines.
Interestingly, Melora Creager, frontwoman and first-chair cellist of goth-tinged chamber rock band Rasputina was the big draw of the early part of the night: the goth girls shrieked when she hit the stage, then exited en masse when she was done. Seeing her play solo for over 40 minutes was even more impressive than watching her with the band. She plays most of the leads herself and didn’t miss a beat while singing in her signature deadpan, vibrato-laden, oldtimey delivery. She went into character and stayed there, cracking everybody up: too many jokes to remember. The highlight of the set was her closer, A Quitter, an uncharacteristically direct account of teen suicide.
Russo would later release her set as the Live at Sin-e album (still streaming in its entirety at deezer after all these years). Happily, that recording minimizes the boominess that plagued her set. They opened with a bouncy, funky League of the Brigands, followed with a swinging cover of Merle Travis’ Sixteen Tons, a marauding blast through the Middle Eastern-tinged antiwar anthem Live Bait and a gently mysterious, warmly swinging version of the janglerock hit Get Me Over. A rapidfire, scurrying version of Parasitic People contrasted with the hypnotic, Smog-like ambience of Shout Like a Lady (title track to her 2006 studio album), a snarling version of the embattled workingwoman’s anthem Battle on the Periphery and a clattering take of the usually hypnotic, strikingly optimistic Ceiling Fire to close the set on a high note.
Tammy Faye Starlite headlined. Backed by just an acoustic guitarist, the fearless satirist/actress/comedienne ran through a pointed, typically hilarious mix of songs and spontaneous riffage on the Bush regime. She’s a potent voice for the Democrats this time around (if they can stomach her genuine punk rock attitude and take-no-prisoners commentary). The big showstopper this time out was I Shaved My Vagina for This, one of the most amusingly feminist numbers from her country-flavored first album. Matching the ferocity of Amy Rigby to the uninhibited, stream-of-consciousness hilariousness of Lenny Bruce, it was a girl-power anthem that anyone could sing along to if they stopped laughing long enough.