Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Calm Transcendence, Gravitas and Haunting Film Noir Sonics on Wadada Leo Smith’s Latest Epic Triple-Disc Album

It’s hard to imagine another artist who has been as prolific and perennially relevant in his seventh decade as Wadada Leo Smith. His epic Civil Rights Era-themed 2013 triple-disc set Ten Freedom Summers is probably one of the hundred best albums ever made in any style of music.

Occupy Wall Street? Why not Occupy the World, as Smith suggested with a transcendently good orchestral album. He’s also saluted America’s National Parks, composed a rapt, oceanic Great Lakes suite, played huge amounts of solo Monk on trumpet, and now has a brand new triple-disc set of often darkly inspiring duo and trio recordings, Sacred Ceremonies, streaming at Spotify, It’s music to get completely lost in and will give you hope at a time when we really, really need it.

The sad undercurrent here is that we lost the iconic Milford Graves last year. In a crushing stroke of irony, it was a heart ailment that claimed the greatest cardiac medical pioneer to ever play the drums. Fortuitously, two of these discs feature Graves, the first in a duo with Smith, the other in a trio set with bassist Bill Laswell. In between, Smith and Laswell explore less friendly atmospheres.

Graves’ shamanic toms, oscillating cymbals and mystical rimwork back Smith’s characteristically spacious, terse lines on the opening disc’s five expansive tracks. Sometimes Graves’ boom is such that it’s as if he’s playing a tapan barrel drum from the Balkans. In what could have been a stroke of intuition on Smith’s part, he gives his bandmate centerstage much of the time, when he’s not channeling somber 19th century blues and gritty variations, mournful foghorn washes, austerely sailing lines punctuated by deft trills and clusters, and the occasional call of the wild.

The two slowly bring in a fond, mutedly suspenseful ballad, in just short of fifteen minutes, in the fourth track. As the two make their way upward, part of Graves’ kit sounds like a giant tabla from the great beyond. And his chugging, gnawa-like cymbals behind Smith’s coy Stevie Wonder paraphrases in the final duo number are a stunningly surreal touch.

The Smith/Laswell duos on disc two are 180 degrees from that, typically edging toward a Bob Belden post-Miles noir atmosphere, with a more defined low/high dichotomy and less interplay. To Laswell’s infinite credit, he chills – literally – in the background as Smith takes flight, frequently with a mute. Feeling some low pressure here, the trumpeter picks up the energy and the catchy riffage significantly. If you want to hear Wadada Leo Smith playing parts – well, a little bit – this is it. Laswell loves loves loves that flange pedal, or its digital equivalent, set to deep freeze, and sticks with it, sometimes in tandem with a wah, a loop box and an arsenal of light sabers. Smith’s utterly Lynchian chromatics over spare pedalpoint in Mysterious Night and then the concluding Minnie Riperton elegy are the highlights.

Smith’s spine-tingling flares and Graves’ churning, kaleidoscopic murk (who knew such an oxymoron could exist? He did) pair off over Laswell’s warp and wooze to open the third disc, essentially a reprise of the second disc with more of a dystopic drive. Smith holds the whole thing together, more or less, playing with a mute, a white-knuckle angst and a clenched-teeth smile as Graves motors along the stygian underground, Laswell’s robotically cold calculations piercing the veil now and again. Yet Smith’s saturnine solo intro to the fourth track here could be the most heartbreakingly beautiful moment on the whole record.

May 25, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

July 18, 2014 Posted by | Film, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album Review: Martin Bisi – Son of a Gun

Martin Bisi’s indie cred is without question: his resume as a producer includes the Dresden Dolls, Sonic Youth, Live Skull and Black Fortress of Opium, to name just a few of the best. Yet his greatest achievements have been not behind the board but as a songwriter and bandleader. This download-only ep (it’s up at itunes and Contraphonic’s very easily negotiable site) impressively captures the freewheeling noir intensity, out-of-the-box imagination and counterintuitivity that come out so strongly at his live shows. The album features welcome contributions from a like-minded cast of characters, Bisi’s old 80s pal Bill Laswell as well as members of the Dresden Dolls, Balkan Beat Box, World Inferno and drummer Bob D’amico of the Fiery Furnaces.

The opening cut Drink Your Wine is basically punk Motown in the same vein as the Clash’s Hitsville UK with layers of the guy/girl vocals that have come to typify Bisi’s recent work along with a characteristically sardonic lyrical sensibility: “Drink your wine and don’t be silly,” Bisi admonishes: he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Building from a dusky noir intro, disembodied vocals rising over bass chords, Rise Up Cowboy explodes into a pounding art-rock anthem laden with dynamic shifts, layers of evil psychedelic guitar glimmering in the background, Bisi doing an impressive job as Peter Murphy-style frontman. The Damned only wish they could have sounded this apprehensive and ominous.

Mile High – Formaldehyde blends early 90s style Lower East Side noir blues with careening Firewater/Botanica style gypsy punk, propelled by the Dresden Doll’s Brian Viglione on drums. Its companion track Mile High – Apple of My Eye, with Laswell on bass, is a study in contrast, sultry and pulsing, something akin to New Order as done by early Ministry. It’s a vividly sisterly approximation of the previous cut’s menace, which is particularly appropriate in that it was inspired by Bisi’s daughter. With its clever layers of vocals, the final cut, the title track recalls the off-the-rails psychedelic eeriness of Bisi’s previous album Sirens of the Apocalyse (very favorably reviewed here). Essential listening for fans of dark imaginative rock: Bisi has several midwest and New England live dates coming up. You’ll see this on our Best Albums of 2009 list at the end of the year – not bad for a little five-song ep.

July 3, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment