Manafonistas

on life, music etc beyond mainstream

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Perhaps my fellow Manafonistas have already discovered this wonderful hour long documentary on Eberhard Weber by Julian Benedikt. It has a lot of great footage from various stages of his career, including a number of things I’ve never seen before, even some casual backstage craziness dating back to his younger days.

I wish I could watch this with some of my German friends, because  the film is mostly in German, with the exception of  some words by Pat Metheny, Gary Burton, the late Michael di Pasqua, Jan Garbarek etc.

Because I have always been such a big admirer of the man and his music, I was very moved by this piece, even without understanding most of the dialogue. It’s a very personal film and covers a lot of ground in just about an hour. It’s been up on Vimeo for about a month. Looks like it was made fairly recently. Highly recommended.

 

vimeo.com

 

2018 16 Apr

Kristjan Randalu

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Estonian pianist Randalu has always impressed me with his technical mastery and subtle arranging chops, but takes it up another notch on the new ECM release, Absence.

The opening track, Forecast is one of the most stunning pieces I’ve heard in a very long time, starting with an out of time meditative opening, moving into shimmering arpeggios of light with a haunting repeating melody, and suddenly opening up into a powerful piano solo. You can hear the classical inspiration from composers such as Erkki-Sven Tüür and Tõnu Kõrvits, both of whom had been his mentors at one time. This classical harmonic approach serves the music well – it fits in with the ECM aesthetic, yet integrates rigorous classical discipline with spontaneous improvisation in a unique, fresh approach.

Besides his compositional excellence, Randalu is a prodigious improviser. His chemistry with guitarist Ben Monder is palpable here, and drummer Markku Ounaskari’s supple playing is the glue that pulls it all together.

This trio is so dynamic and huge sounding that at first I barely noticed the absence of a bass player. Overall, this album serves up a soft palette of musical colors, veering from the melancholic to the ecstatic, occasionally taking  a detour to some surprisingly dark spaces. Once in a while, the power of this trio comes thru the generally gauzy sonic veils, hinting at what they must sound like live and unleashed. (There are some good videos on YouTube.)

The music flirts with ambient and free playing in a couple places, but Randalu’s sense of structure and form keeps it from becoming diffuse or unfocused.

Music of startling beauty and originality, this album will easily be on my top 10 list for 2018.

 

2018 15 Apr

New E.S.T live album

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I’m sure that Esborn Svennson’s untimely death affected many Manafonistas and readers – it certainly affected me deeply.

To tell the truth, when I first heard them I was not particularly blown away. Then I bought the American release, Somewhere Else Before, a compilation culled primarily from From Gagarin’s point of View and Good Morning Susie Soho, (both excellent early albums), and I was hooked – I became a rabid fan, buying every subsequent release and eventually collecting their entire catalog. And hungry for more.

So naturally, I responded to the news that ACT is releasing a new live double CD with great joy and expectation. This trio holds a special place in the jazz universe – and in my heart. They were a singular force of nature- sadly, I never got to see them live.

This is one of those rare trios, the kind whose chemistry can only come about by growing up playing music together. I am looking forward to this one with great anticipation.

 

2018 31 Mrz

Andy Sheppard Quartet

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What is it about this quartet that makes them so special and such a pleasure to listen to? First of all, it’s the chemistry. These four players know just how to play together. Total compatibility. Then I think it’s the honesty. It’s not easy to make simple music this beguiling. It’s not easy to make music this harmonically stripped down, yet so texturally complex and melodically seductive.

At first, I thought, well, it’s so diatonic I will be bored in 10 minutes. But I wasn’t. Was it Andy’s breathy lyricism, or Elvind Aarset’s magical colors? Michel Benita’s sensitive support on bass, or Seb Rochefort’s perfectly intuitive drumming? Whatever it is, I keep finding myself longing for more of this music. Listening on the trail, it reflects the beauty of the natural world, those rare states of consciousness where one experiences the direct apprehension of nature without the descriptive mind having to constantly dialogue about it. That’s what this music does: It sounds like what it is, a direct communication of beauty, reflectiveness, with occasional moments of fire amidst the immense seas of tranquility and melancholy. It’s therapeutic in that it washes the mind clean, a sound purification filter for the soul.

So I checked out the earlier, Surrounded by Sea and found a similar, inviting world. I think of them as bookends, twin worlds, or at least parallel worlds.

Living quite happily with both of these, I ask fellow manifonistas if this group has any other recordings prior to these two ECM releases, and if so, where I can find them.

 

 

 
 
 

I just watched this fantastic documentary last night.  Director Emma Franz lets candid conversations and live footage tell the story in lieu of narration, revealing an artist who has never stood still, constantly reinventing himself yet, paradoxically, always sounding exactly like himself. It’s funny, surprising, occasionally dramatic, personable and engaging,  just like Bill’s music. A diverse group of great musicians from Bonnie Raitt and Paul Simon to John Zorn, Jim Hall, John Abercrombie and Michael Gibb talk about the universal appeal and influence of Bill’s music. Many of the people he plays with, such as Joey Baron, the late Paul Motian, Joe Lovano and Ron Carter, share stories and thoughts about their collaboration. What emerges is a portrait of one of the most dedicated players/composers alive, who also happens to be one of the nicest guys in the business. Essential viewing.

This film is available for purchase here: www.billfrisellfilm.com.

It’s also available for viewing if you’re an Amazon Prime member. (It’s probably rentable as well.)

 

2018 13 Mrz

For Misty

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Beyond the lost past,
Beyond all fading memory,
Beyond the smell of decaying leaves
And the half remembered taste of warm bread one winter’s morning in late December,
and how you laughed in delight at our delight,
I love you
Beyond the frail tendrils of dying cells
Flaming out in super novas of forgotten embraces
I love you
Beyond the loss of your very self,
And even your own name,
Beyond the loss of your senses,
And the loss of making sense-
And Memories disappearing behind you
Like trains uncoupling and abandoned on empty snow covered tracks,
fading into darkness,
silent and still,
I love you
Beyond hope,
Beyond reason,
Beyond the loss of everything precious,
I love you
Now, now and now and for always,
Beyond time,
Beyond the body,
Beyond unspeakable pain,
Beyond the horrifying recognition of
The broken mind,
The heart is alive, intact
And perfect
This is how I see you,
And I will love and hold you in my heart forever
And always.

2018 8 Mrz

Satie for Two

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Erik Satie has been on my mind lately. I’ve been reading Mary E. Davis’s excellent biography, Erik Satie (Reaktion Books, 2007), as well as listening to and playing some of his music for piano.

Satie was a complex man who struggled with opposing parts of his nature. He was at various times a bohemian, a religious zealot (he formed his own church,) Dadaist, bourgeois wannabe, and on rare occasions, a romantic. Like the late Frank Zappa, he shared a yearning to be taken seriously, injecting satire and humor into his pieces just in case he wasn’t—as if to say, “Hey man, it’s all a joke anyway.” And maybe just because, at heart, he was simply an absurdist.

Satie admired and befriended Debussy, who admired him back and borrowed liberally from him. Debussy proved to be the better orchestrator and a master of the long form, but Satie’s ear-inspired miniatures live on, continuing to delight and baffle musicians and music lovers. Debussy often gets credited for being the first modernist, (as he was in a recent NYT article,) but Satie was playing in the same harmonic sandbox at least a decade before „Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.“ Furthmore, it could be argued that Satie was the first minimalist as well.

One such piece, „Vexations“ was written in answer to his feelings of anger and grief over the loss of his one true love, Suzanne Valadon, an artist and fellow bohemian. Completely taken with the young painter and ex-circus performer, Satie asked her to marry him the day they met. She politely demurred, but shortly after, moved into the room right next door to Satie’s apartment in Montmartre. He called her Biqui and once wrote, “Impossible to stop thinking about your whole being: you are in me complete, everywhere, I see nothing but your exquisite eyes, your gentle hands, and your little child’s feet.“ Their turbulent fling lasted all of 6 months, and after that, it is said Satie never took another lover. Summing up his experience, he said that he believed love to be simply “a sickness of the nerves.”

„Vexations“ is a short, slow little piece of which Satie asks the player to perform no less than 840 times. Last September at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, it was played for almost 20 hours by 20 pianists in something that resembled a marathon relay race or an ancient, esoteric ritual: One by one, as one pianist was finishing their hour of repetitions, another would slowly step up and seamlessly begin the piece over again without missing a beat. Incidentally, just to mess with the player a little more, „Vexations“ is written with strange enharmonic spellings, and no matter how many times it’s played, somehow one still feels it’s anyone’s guess what the next note might be. It is rife with tritones, an interval traditionally thought to be extremely dissonant – every beat contains one. Perhaps this was Satie’s way of venting, or doing penance for his transgressions. (He blamed himself for the falling out with Valadon.)

Satie’s music is full of eccentric directions to the player. One of  the most famous of these is the direction to play a passage “like a nightingale with a toothache.” Satie was also fond of writing little stories beneath the music. Sometimes they were programmatic, other times they were seemingly completely unrelated. The text serves as a subtext that subtly informs the player’s interpretation. At times, while reading these, one gets the sense that a crazy but harmless grandfather is whispering in one’s ear. There’s even a piece which explicitly admonishes the player never to read the text aloud while being performed—because it might precipitate the Apocalypse.

Looking recently for a complete set of Satie’s piano music, I found that there really isn’t one; every “complete set” is missing something. On top of that, there are many posthumously unearthed piano pieces, some of which have only been published in the last 50 years.

I just came across a fairly comprehensive recording of Satie’s piano music, performed by the very gifted Cristina Ariagno. She has the touch and gets the tempos just right, not too slow as many pianists, such as Leeuw, make the mistake of doing, and never rushed. Unfortunately, this collection doesn’t include any of the pieces Satie wrote for 4 hands. In an inspired bit of programming, this set is organized by thematic material (Greek-inspired, Rosicrucian, whimsical humor, Sports and Divertissements, music for theater, etc.) as opposed to the usual chronological order. As such it really sheds light on the different sides of both the man and the artist. (Ms Ariagno also plays the aforementioned Vexations 42 times, filling up disc 6.)

My first introduction to Satie’s music came in the form of  the lovely and appropriately quirky album, The Velvet Gentleman, Music of Erik Satie. Performed by the Camerata Contemporary Chamber Group, this strange and surprisingly beautiful album came out in about 1970; thus far it has never been released in digital form. Capturing both the beauty and humor of his music, it features a number of his most popular pieces and some lesser known compositions,  arranged for a small chamber orchestra with Moog synthesizer. It’s a little dated today, but that’s part of its charm. And after all, we’re talking about Erik Satie here, so charm is an essential ingredient.

The Camarata made a couple of other Satie albums. One that’s almost impossible to find (and which I’ve yet to hear,) is called Through the Looking Glass. Another, The Electronic Satie, is available for free in MP3 format here. It’s not nearly as good as The Velvet Gentleman, though, relying far too much on the Moog synthesizer for my tastes.

As I mentioned earlier, Satie struggled to find a sense of artistic legitimacy; he desperately wanted to be respected by his peers. At 39, he went so far as to enroll in the conservative Schola Cantorum to study counterpoint with Vincent D’Indy. After about 5 years of study, he made it through the entire program, securing his degree. But when he went back to composing, although his new pieces were rigorously constructed, employing strict counterpoint in fugal, chorale, or sonata form, he soon realized his music had suffered at the hands of his hard-earned academic rigor. “What on earth have I been doing with D’Indy?” he wrote. “The things I wrote before had such charm! Such depth! And now? How boring and uninteresting!” Eventually, he abandoned these labored efforts and went back to a more natural writing style.

Which reminds me of a story:

I once had a composition teacher who, the first time I came to see him, asked me to play for him. After my nervous performance, he said, “There once was a man who lived in the middle of the forest. He built a little cabin in the woods, where he cleared the trees and planted a garden. He lived in the middle of this woodland paradise with his lovely wife. But it wasn’t enough for him. Instead of staying in his peaceful forest retreat, he went on a quest, looking for answers, the holy grail, more knowledge—even he wasn’t sure what he was looking for. Meanwhile, his beautiful wife sat alone in his secluded forest home, pining away for him.”

It appears eventually Satie returned home to a tiny suburban retreat outside Paris, where he set up house with his muse and continued to compose. For the last 20 odd years of his life, he never let anyone enter his apartment, which after his death, amidst the squalor, was found to be filled with drawings, writings, and quite a number of unpublished pieces, both unfinished and complete.

2018 19 Feb

Local Boy Makes Good

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Julian Lage was just a kid when I first heard him play, maybe around 12 or 13. He would get onstage with some heavyweight at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival and just blow everyone away. His dad took him to all the shows, where he met everybody and often got to jam with them onstage. He was a bonafide wunderkind.

At the tender age of 15, Julian went on the road with Gary Burton and the rest is, as they say, history. He has since released 6 solo albums and it turned out that not only could the kid play – he can write.

I saw him for the first time as leader of a trio a couple years ago with Scott Colley on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums. Dave Holland, Charles Lloyd and Richie Beirach were among the jazz luminaries in the audience, but it didn’t faze the 28 year old prodigy: he played a confident and loose set, smiling much of the time as he performed his no tricks guitar pyrotechnics without breaking a sweat.

I just saw him last night at the Raven Theater in Healdsburg CA with his current touring trio, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Erick Doob. They tore it up, playing tunes from his rootsy and diverse Arclight as well as the new release, Modern Lore.

What I get from watching Lage is he has this great love affair going on with the guitar. He makes it sing, growl, scream, shout and croon. He played slow, slinky ballads and wild uptempo Ornette inspired free pieces, and just about everything in between with aplomb. He played the craziest intro I’ve ever heard to the old standard I’ll Be Seeing You, sounding as my guitarist friend said, Bach on acid. No shit, it really did. He has this way of rocking out, that reminds me of some of the early rock guitar legends, such as Johnny Guitar Watson, and rockabilly maestros such as Carl Perkins, not to mention country (and sometimes jazz) guitarist Chet Atkins. In this regard, he has a kindred spirit in Bill Frisell, a guitarist who often sounds very country when he’s not reaching for the stratosphere with loops and other effects.

But Lage uses no effects whatsoever, yet he manages to coax an extraordinary number of diverse sounds out of his Telecaster and a Fender amp, with just his fingers and a tone knob. The word ‘resourceful’ comes immediately to mind: He seems to be inventing techniques on the fly, as he grabs the middle of the neck and strums it while picking a separate line, or plays muted arpeggios while managing to lay a beautifully rendered melody on top. He does these wildly accurate chromatic runs up the neck, often ending in little screech that has a signature sound, reminding me of Kenny Wheeler’s flugelhorn squeals. One minute he can be as down home and bluesy as B.B. King, the next as heady and melodic as John Abercrombie. You can hear the entire history of the guitar, sometimes in one song, sometimes in one solo.

Another thing that really sets him apart from his peers is his amazing range of dynamics. It’s as though most players have something like maybe 5 gears of loudness; Lage has perhaps, 25 levels. He uses his dynamic sensibility to create musical tension that draws the listener in, sometimes coming down to an absolute whisper and then roaring back with a single powerful strum.

It’s great to hear such music, so filled with good feeling, humor, wit, humanity and optimism, played live. He was clearly enjoying himself, playing two 45 minute sets and after a standing ovation, coming back for a sweet encore with a ballad off the new album.

I just found out Julian will once again be opening the next Healdsburg Jazz Festival, this time playing duos with Bill Frisell. Perfect. Now that is a show I won’t miss.

 

2018 10 Feb

ECV – Sticks and Stones

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Just a footnote to my post about Marc Copland, not really a full blown review:

The new trio album, ECV by Canadian guitarist Roddy Ellias, Marc Copland and bassist Adrian Vedady really hits the chamber jazz sweet spot for me. It’s an all acoustic, superbly recorded album that blends folk, jazz, classical and avant- garde compositional techniques with plenty of room for blowing. This is a highly pleasurable listen from start to finish. There are mostly melodic pieces, but also a few that are pretty abstract, and even one that uses what sounds a lot like 12 tone techniques.

Overall it’s a downtempo affair, but it’s anything but sleepy background music. Lots of odd time signatures, contrapuntal writing and very deep listening going on. Copland responds perfectly to everything his band mates throw his way, making him a consummate accompanist. His solos are especially on point in this setting. Bassist Adrian Vedady, who I am unfamiliar with, has a bright tone and aggressive attack, similar to Eddy Gomez. He’s a supportive player, though his solos don’t immediately grab me, but will perhaps sink in over time.

As there are so few jazz players who have made the acoustic guitar their main instrument, it would be facile to describe Ellias’s writing and playing as similar to Towner’s. Towner’s writing has a signature sound that can be broken down into his neoclassical work, his world influenced writing and on occasion, a straight-ahead sound. While Ellias seems to mine those same veins of musical ore, somehow he comes up with a sound that doesn’t bring Towner to mind as much as one would think. His melodies are more angular, and his chord structures just don’t sound like Ralph’s. It’s like two master painters with slightly different palettes. As I’m not very familiar with Ellias’s work, it will take time to get to know his individual sound. I do like his writing, very much. As a soloist, Ellias is generally more spare, and his improvisational approach tends to be a bit more abstract than Towner’s.

The best thing I can say about this new recording is that I listened to it no less than 3 times yesterday.  It can be purchased (and at the best price I could find,) through CDbaby.com.

 

 
 
 
Sometimes an artist just sneaks up on you. You know about him, listen to him on different recordings, and one day, you just realize just how special he/she is.

I first became aware of Marc Copland on Songs Without End, a 1994 duo album with Ralph Towner. Copland was the perfect partner for Towner’s evanescent guitar. It’s not always easy to find that balance between piano and guitar, two chordal instruments that share a lot of the same sonic space, but these two found more than balance – they found the creative flexibility to sound almost orchestral, not just avoiding stepping on one another’s toes, but finding a synergistic platform that goaded each of them on, a good example being their interpretation of “Nardis,” which ascends to greater heights with every chorus.

When I think of Copland’s playing, words like elegant, understated and lyrical come immediately to mind. Copland uses his head and thinks on his feet, yet never loses touch with his heart, making for an appealing listening experience that is at once both intellectually stimulating and emotionally compelling. Although he continued to record through the 90s and into the new century, I lost sight of him until he began recording on the ECM label with John Abercrombie. Abercrombie found the perfect foil in Marc Copland. The two seemed to have a telepathic connection, and Copland delved deeply into Abercrombie’s obtuse harmonies. He was on only 2 quartet albums with Abercrombie on ECM, 39 Steps and sadly, John’s very last album, the stunning Up and Coming (easily of the best albums of 2017.) Both are essential albums for any lover of contemporary jazz.

Copland is one of those pianists who is forever on the road to new discoveries. He never seems to go for the obvious thing; he is simply incapable of playing a lick. A supple and elastic player who can be surprisingly muscular at times, he is also one of the most melodic pianists on today’s scene. He is one among a shortlist of players who, over the years, have honed their unique voice in an overcrowded field of post-Evans sound-alikes.

After rediscovering Copland, I was dismayed that there were only two albums of him with John Abercrombie. Or so I thought – then I happily discovered there are earlier associations with Abercrombie that go all the way back to 1990. I recently spent an unnaturally warm winter afternoon cycling to Sebastopol, listening to Marc’s album Another Day (Pirouette-2008) which features Abercrombie, Drew Gress, Billy Hart, and it’s every bit as rewarding as either of the ECM quartet albums. (Incidentally, there’s also a duet album with Abercrombie, titled Speak to Me, which I am trying to get ahold of.)

I also discovered Alone, one of several solo titles on his Pirouet label. Nestled between reimagined standards such as „Soul Eyes“ and „I Should Care“, are completely reharmonized versions of three early Joni Mitchell tunes, „I don’t know Where I stand“, „Rainy Night House“ and „Michael from Mountains“. Not many jazz pianists are drawn to folk artists for inspiration, but here Copland finds a lot of play with. Above the subtly applied dissonance and metallic voicings, it’s all about melody. In her early days, Mitchell wrote beautiful melodies and Copland finds much to dig into. His originals, such as the mysterious „Night Whisperers“ and the evocative „Into Silence“, fall nicely between the cracks.

I discovered another gem on TIDAL, an album he made with the late Michael Brecker, entitled Marc Copland And … It’s a real find. Oddly enough, the aggressive post-bop sound that characterizes much of this recording is punctuated by three distinctly different versions of Paul Simon’s “Old Friends”. Each of his reharmonizations of one of Simon’s most heartfelt tunes is a little miracle.

Another association worth mentioning is the collaborative trio with Abercrombie and Kenny Wheeler. They made two excellent albums for the Challenge label, Brand New (1999) and That’s for Sure (2008.) It’s a treat hearing these masters laying down Wheeler and Abercrombie tunes in an intimate trio with no drums or bass. Both are well worth picking up, especially if you’re a rabid Wheeler fan, as I am.

Before closing, I must also mention the Gary Peacock Trio, whose album Tangents was one of 2017’s best trio releases. I saw them in concert last spring at SF Jazz ECM festival, sadly in a way, because the Abercrombie Quartet had originally been scheduled, but John was quite ill and had cancelled his west coast tour. It was an incredibly dynamic performance, and one of the highlights of my concert going adventures last year. It was my first time seeing Copland live – a powerful and moving experience. Copland manages to be both delicate and visceral, his flowing lines fly like magical arrows that always hit their target.

At times I hear a little Richie Beirach, other times I hear the late John Taylor, yet the more I listen to Marc Copland, the more I hear Marc Copland. I’ll be exploring his back catalog for many years to come.
 

[Footnote: there’s a new trio album called ECV, with guitarist Roddy Elias, Copland and bassist Adrian Veddady that I’ve been hearing good things about. John Kelman reviewed it recently on allaboutjazz. Will report back after I live with it a while.]

 


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