Filmmakers Sara Leavitt and Ryan C. Douglass Chronicle Martin Bisi’s Legendary Brooklyn Music Hotspot
When Martin Bisi signed the $500-a-month lease for what would become BC Studio, it’s unlikely that anyone would have predicted that the Gowanus basement space would become one of the world’s most revered places to record, to rival Abbey Road, Electric Ladyland and Rockfield Studios in Wales. Sara Leavitt and Ryan C. Douglass‘ gracefully insightful and poignant new documentary film Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio chronicles Bisi’s individualistic rise to underground music icon, via talking heads, candid conversation with Bisi himself and tantalizing archival footage of bands throughout the studio’s thirty-three year history.
Bisi recorded Herbie Hancock’s Rockit while still in his teens, winning a Grammy in the process, which brought in a deluge of work. Beginning in the mid-80s, Bisi became the go-to guy in New York for bands that went for a dark, assaultive, experimentally-inclined sound. A short list of his best-known production gigs includes John Zorn’s Spy vs. Spy album, multiple projects for Sonic Youth, the Dresden Dolls’ debut as well as more recent work with Serena-Maneesh, Black Fortress of Opium, Ten Pound Heads and Woman, to name just a few.
In the late 70s, when he wasn’t doing sound and stage work for Bill Laswell’s Material, Bisi could be found hanging out at CBGB and offering to do do sound for bands. “I like to be around things that are happening and this was one way to do that,” he explains early in the narrative. The Material connection led to Brian Eno putting up the seed money for the studio – although after some initial ambient experiments there, the composer pretty much backed out of the picture, something the film doesn’t address. Perhaps the space was grittier than what he’d envisioned for his more outside adventures in ambient sounds.
The film vividly captures Bisi’s sardonic humor and surprising humility but also a fierce pride of workmanship and sense of place in New York history. All of these qualities inform the grimness that underscores the story. Bisi’s “blood is fifty percent coffee,” as Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione, one of the more colorful interviewees, puts it, and that intensity fuels plenty of the film’s more memorably twisted moments. As the story goes, Bisi kills a rodent with a dumbbell during a Swans session and gets credit for it in the cd liner notes. Thurston Moore pulls a rather cruel practical joke on Lee Ranaldo during a particularly tough Sonic Youth take that ends up immortalized on vinyl. Fast forward about twenty years, and Viglione takes a ball peen hammer to the wrought iron stairs on the way down to the main room, the results of which can be heard on the recording of the Dresden Dolls’ Miss Me. Plenty of time is also devoted to the studio’s role as a focal point in the formative years of hip-hop in the Bronx and Brooklyn.
The film winds out on a rather elegaic note, as Bisi and the rest of the Gowanus artistic community uneasily await the opening of a branch of an expensive organic supermarket, anticipating a deluge of evictions and gentrification as the neighborhood’s buildings are sold off to crowds of yuppies and trendoids. The talented drummer Sarah Blust, of Rude Mechanical Orchestra and Marmalade, eloquently speaks for her fellow musicians in the neighborhood, with a resigned anger. In the film’s climax, Bisi goes out into a snowstorm to pay his first visit to the new store: the scene is priceless. In addition to its aisles and aisles of pricy artisanal food, this particular branch of the chain is especially twee: it sells used vinyl. Bisi’s reaction after thumbing through the bins there drew howls from the audience at the film’s premiere at Anthology Film Archives.
There’s a long wishlist of stuff that’s not in the movie. Admittedly, a lot of it is soundguy arcana: how Bisi EQ’d the room; his trick for mic placements in the different spaces for various instruments; or the magic formula for how he achieves such a rich high midrange sound, his signature throughout his career, in what appears to be a boomy, barewall basement milieu. What’s also strangely and very conspicuously absent is even a single mention of Bisi’s career as a solo artist. A distinctive songwriter, composer and guitarist, his work as a musician has the same blend of old-world craftsmanship and outside-the-box adventure that marks his career behind the board. Other than a playful few bars behind the drum kit – which he appears simply to be setting up for a session – there’s not a hint that he even plays an instrument. But Bisi seems ok with that. Maybe that’s the sequel.
A persistent sense of meta fuels Derek Ahonen‘s hilariously satirical new play The Qualification of Douglas Evans, an Amoralists production running through August 9 at the Walker Space, 46 Walker St. (off West Broadway) in Tribeca. The playwright plays Evans, a playwright himself, tracing his romantic and alcohol-fueled adventures and misadventures (far more of the latter than the former) from dorky acting student, to enfant terrible of the New York theatre underground, to a long downward spiral that seems to telegraph where it’s all going to end with the first slurred words of a long bender. Booze may be Evans’ muse, but women are a close second, and Ahonen mines his character’s inability to navigate a series of relationships for an often devastating look at the battle of the sexes. Along the way, Ahonen directs plenty of venom at backbiting and careerism in the New York theatre world. The writing is crisp, the humor murderously spot-on: the jokes come lickety-split, one after the other.
The acting is as acerbic as Ahonen’s dialogue. Kelley Swindall plays Jessica, who takes Evans’ virginity, with a cynical self-awareness that’s all the more amusing for being completely deadpan and straightforward. And while the other characters seem at first to be straight out of Central Casting, Ahonen gives them all a counterintuitive edge. Mandy Nicole Moore plays Douglas’ first drunken foil, Kimmy, your classic cluelessly chirpy drunk chick, who as it turns out has something up her sleeve. Samantha Strelitz is deliciously self-serving as the fauxhemian trust fund girl who suddenly drops back into the picture when it seems she can play the starfucker role. Agatha Nowicki gets the play’s most complex and arguably most troubling role as Cara, whose immutable, Adderal-fueled new age cheer masks inner torment every bit the match for Evans’ demons. Those are illuminated via flashbacks with Evans’ alcoholic dad and codependent mom (Penny Bittone and Barbara Weetman, who also shine in multiple roles).
While the first act plays up the jokes for every possible ounce of corrosive cynicism, the second is practically the reverse image of the first, a theme straight out of Charles Bukowski whose ending you can see a mile away – or can you? No spoilers here.
It took a lot of nerve for the Jewish Museum to stage their first collaboration with the Bang on a Can folks. That the Bang on a Can folks – New York’s most entrenched avant garde franchise – could deliver a program that required as much nerve to sit through as this one did testifies to their ongoing vitality. The bill last night – designed to dovetail with the Museum’s current minimalist-themed sculpture exhibits – was as electrifying as it was exasperating.
Both of those qualities were intentional, and in tune with the compositions on the program. The duo of guitarists James Moore and Taylor Levine, from the reliably exciting Dither guitar quartet, opened with David Lang’s Warmth [dude: get to know Title Case lest you someday wind up in the E.E. Cummings category], a series of subtly interwoven circular riffs which Moore attributed to Lang as being “really sad stadium rock, two guitars doing their best to play together and failing miserably.” As a subtle parody of dramatic gestures, it made a point, even if that point could have been made in somewhat less time than it took.
They followed with a selection of early John Zorn extended-technique guitar etudes that were more challenging to hear than they were to play. Those dated from the late 70s, in the days when Zorn might have been found blowing bubbles through his alto sax into a bucket of water in the basement of King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut (now Niagara Bar on Avenue A; you can google it). By contrast, Michael Gordon’s City Walk, the lone instrumental piece from an opera the Bang on a Can triumvirate (Gordon, Lang and Julia Wolfe) did back in the 90s with iconic New York cartoonist Ben Katchor, worked a tirelessly counterrhythmic, counterintuitive, minimalistic pulse, the guitarists joined by Bang on a Can Allstars‘ David Cossin on percussion (was that a car muffler, and then vibraphone?) and Vicky Chow on piano.
Moore switched to bass, but played it through a more trebly Fender DeVille guitar amp, for a take of Philip Glass’ even more hypnotic, subtly shapeshifting Music in Fifths, true to Cossin’s description as being “quite epic and really fun to do.” They wound up the show with Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union, a defiantly hammering 1975 piece that a larger Bang on a Can contingent had performed a couple of weeks previously at this year’s Marathon at the World Financial Center. That performance left any kind of resolution open: would the drilling, industrialist rhythm, absent harmony or melody, be triumphant, or a failed revolution? The answer wasn’t clear. Stripping it down to just bass, guitar, percussion and Chow’s electric piano – a cruelly difficult arrangement that she often wound up playing on the sides of her hands, chopping her way up the scale – they circled and circled and finally found what looked like a victory. The audience – a surprisingly diverse demographic – gave them the win. The next Bang on a Can event here is on November 6 featuring iconic progressive jazz composer and alto saxophonist Steve Coleman.
[republished from New York Music Daily]
Torchy New Orleans chanteuse Carsie Blanton is doing a different kind of American tour this year, inspired as much by her wildly popular blog as well as her music. She’s playing clubs, but she’s also appearing at sex toy shops. Here in New York, her first stop is at Babeland at 43 Mercer St. on July 12 from 3 to 5 PM. Then she’s playing the third stage at the Rockwood at 8 PM on July 13 for $10 plus a $10 drink minimum. Her aptly titled new album, Not Old, Not New is up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download: you should grab it.
Is the album about sex? It’s more about innuendo. Blanton’s pillowy voice may be seductive, but in a genuine rather than campy or over-the-top way. She’s got a great, purist jazz combo behind her: Neal Caine on bass, Joe Dyson on drums, Rex Gregory on sax and clarinets, Kevin Louis on trumpet, Shane Theriot on guitar and David Torkanowsky on piano. The opening track, Azaleas sets the mood immediately, Blanton musing how “nothing evil can assail ya” against a sunmery backdrop of resonant piano, terse bass, brushed drums and balmy, muted trumpet. Blanton matches sly wit with southern charm on the slow, slinky Laziest Gal in Town, enhanced by a gently smoky bass clarinet solo. Then she and the band pick up the pace with the ragtime-flavored Heavenly Thing, a vibe they maintain on Two Sleepy People, a portrait of two lovers in the wee hours who’ve run out of gas yet can’t bear to part. It’s more coy than Daria Grace‘s unforgettably endorphin-infused version.
Blanton’s slow, wounded take of You Don’t Know What Love Is has a vividly stripped-down arrangement that contrasts brooding piano against fluttery tenor sax. Then she romps through a brisk take of What Is This Thing Called Love, spiced with a spiky Jason Marsalis vibraphone solo.
They go back to slow, low-key ballad mode for the picturesque Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans. Blanton offers Sweet Lorraine from the perspective of a woman who’s getting gaymarried, with a slow, soulful piano-based arrangement that mirrors the album’s first song.
The funniest, most innuendo-fueled track here is the swinging hokum blues tune Don’t Come Too Soon. Blanton brings down the lights again with a slow, warmly wistful version of I’ll Be Seeing You and winds up the album with the title track, a miniature for just solo voice and acoustic guitar. Fans of oldtime Americana and swing jazz are in for a treat with this one.
Last night at the Lincoln Center Atrium, the Marvin Sewell Group played an edgily dynamic set, characteristically blending jazz and blues with the occasional, steadily funky interlude in a mix of guitarist Sewell’s originals and a couple of vividly reworked standards. They opened with Polar Shift, Sewell’s spikily looping African-tinged solo guitar riffage developing to a catchy but uneasily airy circular theme, Joe Barbato’s accordion in tandem with Sam Newsome’s soprano sax over the counterintuitively rhythmic sway of acoustic bassist Calvin Jones and drummer Satoshi Takeishi.
Insomnia rose from Sewell’s allusions to otherworldly early 20s open-tuned guitar blues to a creepy vamp that crept along with a loose-limbed skeleton bounce from Takeishi, Newsome alternating between warmer colors and spiraling menace. A warmly lyrical, waltzing take of Charles Lloyd’s Song for My Lady featured Newsome in both balmy and dancing modes against Barbato’s judicious piano chords and misty wee-hours phrasing. They picked up the pace just a little with a jauntily scampering take of Monk’s Brake’s Sake, Sewell with a steady, Jim Hall-like focus, Barbato and then Newsome adding a rustic, ragtime edge.
The darkest, most intense moments of the night came during another Sewell waltz, Worker’s Dance, his biting acoustic phrasing punctuating Newsome and Barbato’s cumulo-nimbus ambience. A tribute to Sewell’s late pal, Philadelphia guitarist Jeffrey Johnson, was the night’s most adrenalizing number As Sewell recounted, Johnson was the kind of player who’d push his bandmates to take their game to the next level, so it wasn’t long before the tune became a springboard for Sewell’s rapidfire yet restrained, sinewy legato Stratocaster solos. They wrapped up the show on a high note with Big Joe, a shout-out to ten-string blues guitar legend Big Joe Williams, Sewell building a biting, roughhewn intensity on acoustic before a long climb upward where Newsome finally cut loose with a series of aching, postbop bursts and yelps. The series of free concerts at the atrium continues through the year, including a show by upbeat, shapeshifting Brazilian-inspired C&W/funk band Nation Beat on July 10 at 7:30 PM; early arrival is advised.
Have you ever considered how weird it is that the bassoon is used so seldomly in both rock and jazz? The baritone sax has a similar timbre, and it’s pretty standard in funk and soul music and was in rock too, at least in the early years. Roy Wood famously used a bassoon in the Move and then ELO, and you’ll occasionally find a chamber pop band that employs a wind section in place of strings. But this magnificently cool instrument, with its unmistakably woody resonance, is just as rare if not more so in the jazz world. Daniel Smith is sort of the Charlie Parker of the bassoon, so how would it sound if he played blues on the thing? Pretty much like how he does his jazz gig. His latest album Smokin’ Hot Bassoon Blues is a follow-up of sorts to his 2010 album Blue Bassoon, a mix of bluesy tunes from the jazz catalog. In the case of this new one – streaming at Spotify – the songs date mostly from the 50s and 60s.
While Smith is the bandleader, he doesn’t hog the spotlight – although it’s easy to wish for more of him on this album. Technically speaking, he’s known for expanding his instrument’s range, sometimes with a tenor sax-like squawk, sometimes with a biting, ambered tone that the makers of the Arp synthesizer might have been trying to imitate back in the early 70s.
The album opens with Oscar Peterson’s Night Train, the bassoon more clustering and jazz-oriented than you would expect from a straight-up blues session, paired off against Efrat Shapira’s lively violin; a little later, Ron Jackson’s guitar goes in the same direction over the straight-up rhythm section of bassist Michael O’Brien and drummer Vincent Ector. The best songs here are the ones that Smith totally reinvents. Alongside Shapira’s acidic, acerbic violin, Smith’s take of Charles Mingus’ Better Get Hit in Your Soul gives it a rustic 20s hot jazz feel, right from where the whole band careens into it together. Once again in tandem with the violin, the bassoon adds a rustically haunting quality to Horace Silver’s latin noir piece Senor Blues. And they reimagine Duke Ellington’s C Jam Blues as a Jimmy Smith-style organ shuffle fueled by Greg Lewis’ fireworks on the keys and pedals.
The soul songs are also excellent. On Ray Charles’ What’d I Say, Smith’s sputtery lines perfectly capture its gruff appeal even before Frank Senior’s vocals enter the picture, with a scampering piano solo, and a latin tinge to the rhythm courtesy of percussionist Neil Clarke. Another Charles hit, Halleljah I Love Her So is surprisingly laid-back, with a tasty, shivery bowed bass solo. They also do an emphatic version of Moanin’, the Etta James hit. And the Nat Adderley groove Hummin’ has Smith mimicking the tremoloing sound of an electric guitar at the bottom of its range – then he goes in a more funky direction.
The rest of the album includes a purist take of Jimmy Smith’s Back at the Chicken Shack, a showcase for Lewis’ lickety-split lines; a swinging version of Sonny Rollins’ Blue Seven; a violin-fueled run through the latin blues of Joe Henderson’s Mamacita; and the most straight-up blues number here, Phil Woods’ Eddie’s Blues, which ironically was never sung by the guy it was written for – jazz vocal great Eddie Jefferson – because it doesn’t have lyrics. Throughout the album, Smith pushes the envelope in terms of both how much register and how much of a variety of tones the bassoon can produce. May he be a big influence on the next generation of players.
You know electroacoustic? Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen and ex-Kronos Quartet cellist Jeffrey Ziegler’s duo show last month at South Street Seaport was diesel-acoustic. Positioned at the tip of a former shipping pier, possibly for the sake of approximating a nordic fjord, the two jammed their way through alternately rustic and assaultively improvisational themes against a rumbling backdrop of ferries, tugboats and water taxis. And it was totally punk rock, a style that Pohjonen seems to spring from.
When Ziegler wasn’t playing elegant washes of counterpoint to complement Pohjonen’s spiraling phrases, he was scraping on the strings, sticking a conductor’s baton under the bridge of his cello, wailing and screeching and shrieking to the point where it looked like something was about to break. Cellists from famous string quartets typically play ancient instruments from centuries past: this cello looked like it could have been a recent model, straight from the factory floor. Pity the musician who gets it secondhand: it’s been abused.
Pohjonen brought a pedalboard and played like a noiserock guitarist much of the time, with loops and distortion and also a setting that gave his squeezebox a majestic church organ sound. His technique was spectacular: blistering, machinegunning volleys of notes decaying to a drone or vice versa. Ziegler typically got to play good cop to Pohjonen’s viking madman when he wasn’t trying to burn holes in his fingerboard with his rasping attack. They hit a couple of big anthemic peaks, took a departure into a gracefully lilting dance that could have been Celtic – it’s amazing how much cross-pollination ancient folk music hints at – then a Middle Eastern-flavored interlude with a spiky acoustic guitar cameo from Gyan Riley and wound up on an ecstatic note. Props to the River to River Festival folks for having the courage to book an act this adrenalizing and cutting-edge.