Saturday, March 9, 2019

Poetry Publication Announcement

Hiking the shadowy forest of poetry publication, sans compass and canteen, it was refreshing to happen upon the good people of Transcendent Zero Press. Three of my newest pieces, including two from the growing set of jazz-poetry, will be published in the next edition of their journal, "Harbinger Asylum". Most satisfying. I couldn't resist turning the congratulatory email into some keepsake art. After many years of largely focusing on prose, the inner poet has been drawn out and brought to the surface in later middle-age.  Many thanks to Transcendent Zero for this opportunity!

Monday, March 4, 2019

Record Label Review: TRUTH REVOLUTION

NYC Jazz Record, March 2019

Label review by John Pietaro

“The revolution will be heard!”
Any record label bearing such a slogan must be boldly unique. This paraphrase of Gil-Scott Heron’s immortal prose, however, speaks of a revolution wider, even, than the ramparts and bulwarks. “We run it more as a collective”, states Truth Revolution founder Zaccai Curtis. “This is not a label in the standard sense, in fact we branded it Truth Revolution Recording Collective, a working community of artists.”

An outgrowth of Curtis’ music publishing company through which he produced his first solo efforts, in 2012 the label began releasing albums in partnership with indie-minded jazz and Latin artists. Production has since rapidly increased and Truth Revolution can boast a 2017 Grammy nomination, Entre Colegas by salsa giant Andy Gonzalez. “Andy is a premiere Latin jazz bassist, a founder of the Fort Apache Band who defined this style of music. He was a mentor to my brother Luques and me and let us borrow his entire record collection years back when he was moving. We recorded everything and it served us through years of study! It means a lot to all of us to have him as a part of our label.”

Truth Revolution’s now preparing for a 2019 industry stir. “This month, we’re releasing Ronnie Burrage & the Holographic Principle’s Dance of the Great Spirit.
Ronnie’s an incredible artist with an amazing history. We’re honored that he contacted us due to the brand”, Curtis explained. “We knew immediately that we wanted to work with him”. Burrage stated that he’d known the Curtis family but had little prior knowledge of the label. “I was going to release this through another company, but when that didn’t work out, I spoke to Zaccai. My music is rooted in civil rights and social justice, so when he told me the name—ha!—it was meant to be!”.  Burrage’s ensemble is already celebrating the release locally but will tour extensively in spring and summer.

“It’s been a long journey”, Curtis reiterated. “At first, I financed everything but as partnerships evolved, they became the whole point (of this label and collective).” And with the unique perspective the brothers have in the struggling indie jazz world, there’s been a growing interest among musicians of stature. Along that line, the label also enjoys an important relationship with noted drummer/band leader Ralph Peterson. “Ralph is the only drummer to record alongside Art Blakey!”, Curtis said. “He shadowed Blakey (in the Jazz Messengers Big Band), double drumming. Ralph recorded the Triangular series over recent years, the first of which included Geri Allen. Triangular III is a joint release between Truth Revolution and his own Onyx label.” The Curtis brothers, who have worked with the drummer since the early 2000s, complete this album’s trio. “Truth Revolution acts as an umbrella; even if an artist doesn’t have their own label, we’re in partnership with them”, Curtis affirmed.
“Some albums are fully recorded and produced by Truth Revolution but the vast majority of our releases come to us at least half-way finished. We finalize the albums with the artists and then release and handle distribution.”

As Truth Revolution expanded, it became necessary to grow its staff, particularly as Curtis, a pianist, remains as busy in label matters as in tours with Cindy Blackman-Santana, the Messengers Legacy or his own large ensemble; the recording of his “Algorhythm”, a nine-part chamber work, will be released under his name later this year. The necessary staff expansion brought in brother Luques, bassist with Eddie Palmieri, Pat Methaney and Orrin Evans among others, and father Ted (“a music lover, but not a musician”), as well as label manager Matt Chasen. Like the majority of the label leadership, Matt is a musician—vocalist and saxophonist—as well as a concert producer.

But this Hartford-based label collective can be seen as a realization of the tight music community the city has lauded for decades. Chasen explained: “I’ve known the Curtis family for years and recognize the importance of celebrating the local heritage here. The Jackie McLean Institute was founded back when Jackie taught at Hart College, University of Hartford. It’s still thriving and Zaccai is now a faculty member. The music is eclectic and Latin jazz, heavily advocated by Jackie in his day, is a big part of this.” Chasen, not long ago, took over the reins of Hartford’s noted “Latin Jazz Wednesdays” series. But the heritage runs still deeper. McLean also created the Artists Collective, a space for younger music students to learn the craft (Zaccai and Luques are products of this early immersion). Ted Curtis, the patriarch of the Curtis family, indoctrinated his sons by purchasing a variety of instruments and opening the house basement to jam sessions, attracting a plethora of touring artists. Ted’s eldest, Damien, is today a celebrated hip hop producer.

Inspired by the independent music and arts movements that predated him, Zaccai Curtis looks to the Black Arts Movement and M-Base as well as the artists who forged their own defiant way. The rebellious heart of Truth Revolution is also seen on its website which proudly exposes the corporate greed of major labels. The name is more than just a cool tag. Though the label doesn’t impose politics on its artists, “we need to help others understand how the system works”, Curtis said. And in displaying website quotes by Prince and Gandhi about creating the change you want to see, Curtis and company are inspiring this era’s much-needed radical shift. Artists like Burrage, Gonzalez, Peterson, the Curtis Brothers, trumpet player Rachel Therrien and multi-instrumentalist Josiah Woodson are but a few who’ve been heard in this particular revolution. And with albums such as The Better Angels of Our Nature by saxophonist Brian McCarthy, exploring the roots of jazz in Civil War conflict, and The Big Picture by hip hop artists King Solomon and Talent which “represents the voice of the muted masses in the tradition of the underground-gone-over”, this Curtis uprising, at least sonically, stands as victorious.

CE Review: MIKE BAGGETTA, "Wall of Flowers"

NYC Jazz Record – March 2019
Wall of Flowers, Mike Baggetta/Mike Watt/Jim Keltner (Big Ego Records, 2019)

CD review by John Pietaro

When was the last time artfully improvisational music laced with irony and post-punk bite felt so good? Maybe 1988, possibly never. Guitarist Mike Baggetta has a uniquely stark sound, one that revels in surf and spy as much as Trane and Dolphy, the avant garde as meaningfully as lamentations. For Wall of Flowers he calls on Mike Watt, best known for iconic ‘80s band the Minutemen, but whose stalking, primal basslines have also propelled Firehose, Sonic Youth, Dos, proto-punk quartet the Stooges and celebrated guitarist Nels Cline. And in a choice that demonstrates Baggetta’s more “straight” side, legendary session musician Jim Keltner completes the trio. The drummer’s performances on stage or record extend from John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Delaney & Bonnie, George Harrison and Harry Nilsson to Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, Jack Bruce, guitar heroes Richard Thompson and Neil Young and a wealth of others. This inside/outside boundary constructs a fantasy foray into generations of sounds.

“Hospital Song” opens, following an atmospheric intro, and quickly establishes the tenor of the collection. Compelling instrumental rock raises the specter of the early ‘60s and its edgy resurgence a generation later, and Baggetta’s overdubbed guitar lines are an immediate, delicious draw. This flailing nostalgia begat two versions of “Blue Velvet”, the genteel 1950s standard made famous by Bobby Vinton. Its delightfully unsettling presence here, particularly in the duet version with Keltner, recalls the corruption of innocence central to David Lynch’s film. But Wall of Flowers is about much more than memories, cherished and/or distorted. Baggetta sings and moans on his ax, pulling out pensive, torn phrases enlivened by repetitions, dark arpeggios and a twang bar thicket. It becomes clear why Nels Cline dubbed Baggetta a “guitar poet”.

Album highlights include “Dirty Smell of Dying”, a free music rave-up that brings out the best in all three musicians. Here, Keltner draws on the jazz chops that makes his rock drumming so masterful, a perfect antagonist for the leader’s pained, searching improvisation. However, it is the title cut that illuminates the magic of Baggetta’s emotive, driving, long tones, Watt’s mean, metallic pulsations and Keltner’s shimmering, throbbing commentary. In a field of numerous celebrated contenders, this Mike Baggetta ensemble is already the guitar trio of the year.  

Credits: Mike Baggetta: guitars, Mike Watt: bass, Jim Keltner: drums
“Hospital Song” (intro)/ “Hospital Song”/”Blue Velvet” (solo)/”I am Not a Data Point”/”Of Breads and Rivers”/”Dirty Smell of Dying”/”Blue Velvet” (duo)/”Wall of Flowers”

Monday, February 18, 2019


Lyndon LaRouche Will Get You If You Don’t Watch Out
John Pietaro

Lyndon LaRouche is dead. There’s a sentence his followers would’ve hoped to keep from the media, but at age 96, the myths, manipulation, paranoia, smoke and mirrors about the man have finally faded. LaRouche, this bizarre firebrand who never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like, was able to build a career by melding social conflict into opportunistic fundraising.  The New York Times’ obit called LaRouche “the quixotic, apocalyptic leader of a cultlike political organization” and acknowledged his anti-Semitism, insults against Native Americans, and hatred of the environmentalist movement and British royals. Jacobin magazine cited LaRouche’s “aimless and contorted reign” in its description of the man.  But that’s just a start.

Widely acknowledged as a neo-fascist, LaRouche’s early interest in Marxism turned horribly astern by the 1970s. In the decades since, he partnered with the KKK, engaged in racist dogma, denounced the Holocaust as a Jewish hoax, preached nuclear war against the Soviet Union and blamed the global drug trade and international Satanism on a secret UK monarchy plan. LaRouche cast a practice of homemade psych-ops to maintain a frightening control of leaders in his organization. He also railed against rock music and as late as 1978 cited the Beatles as an untalented arm of the British government he so despised, and during the height of the AIDS crisis called for those living with the illness to be condemned and segregated. Later, his organization was threaded through the Tea Party and he spent some years stating that Barack Obama was Hitler. Somehow, he sought the Democratic Party line for his droning political pursuits and carefully used words like “labor” in his outreach. Though patently fruitless, the ‘LaRouche for President’ campaigns were as tenacious as was the candidate’s delusional platform. To most, it seemed that Lyndon LaRouche would never go away and had always been there.

One cold December afternoon in 1999, I was disturbed to find a LaRouche campaign table in my own Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. While the neighborhood was at that time known for its older Republican voter base, a younger, more professional population had already begun moving in, turning the tide. The area’s then-City Councilman was a notorious conservative who’d sought to name the pier after Ronald Reagan, but his lack of success in this venture offered increasing hope to ethnically diverse Bay Ridge progressives. The increased tolerance may have been missed by the LaRouche camp as it sought attract allies to his schizophrenic political plane.
As I strolled the Bay Ridge busy shopping district of 86th Street near 5th Avenue, the holiday lights sparkled in many colors overheard and each store’s sound system jingled and swooned. And somehow in the midst of this, sitting tall above the crowd, there lingered LaRouche. As he stared beadily at the conspiracy theory literature laid out before him, a blank-looking disciple engaged passersby with the question: “Are you a Democrat?”, seeking signatures toward the ballot line. I was drawn to this like a roadside accident.

After approaching the table and answering affirmatively, I had a question of my own. Pointing to LaRouche, I loudly asked the follower “How is it possible that this fascist and racist can call himself a ‘Democrat’?” Within scant seconds, LaRouche was on his feet and seemed to keep on standing as all 6’7” of him was suddenly millimeters from my face. Wearing the rapid-fire fury of a junkyard guard dog, LaRouche shouted, hurling profanities and accusations that spoke volumes of his brand of governance. His teeth gnashed, the candidate’s face remained threateningly close to my own, the rage only increasing as I refused to step back or even blink. His eyes of Aryan blue burnt intently through the square lenses of his glasses, the gnarled, greying brow unified in senseless umbrage.

“LaRouche, are you going to hit me?!”, I asked loudly, assuring the attention of confused holiday shoppers. “You’re in my space. Are you going to hit me?!” The throngs began slowing down, the crowd of interest he’d hoped for now awaiting his response to my pointed questions. I looked at the people behind me and then shouted my question again, asking if an actual presidential candidate has ever acted in this fashion (this being well before Trump). He scanned the growing crowd, looking into my eyes with utter hate, as his disciple grabbed the tall man’s arm, encouraging him to calm down. “He’s no one. No one!”, she repeatedly told LaRouche. “No one at all!”

Through the madness, I kept my own voice calm, recognizing how insane my opponent in the struggle already appeared. He became only more incensed when I clarified that I never raised my voice, never used profanities in this exchange—this was all him. “You called me a fucking fascist, you FUCKING BASTARD!”, LaRouche screamed above the traffic noise, ignoring the pleas of the disciple. “WHO SENT YOU? WHO SENT YOU HERE?!”, he paranoically asked again and again. My answer only roiled him further. “No one sent me here. I live here. I believe in the First Amendment, but why are you here?”

LaRouche’s next statement was particularly shocking; already drowning in a sea of irrationality, he asked: “Why are you calling me a fascist?”, defiantly stating “I’m not Italian!”. I angrily asked what ethnicity has to do with this, adding “Are you trying to put down Italians in a neighborhood where many Italian Americans live?!” He couldn’t have known my heritage, but just imagine anyone engaging in this kind of argument while trying to gain signatures and spread charm? Ultimately, to avoid the entire exchange, LaRouche slid back down behind his makeshift grandstand, a street corner soap-box befitting of a withered, desperate bigot, angry, delusional and violent. There sat a man whose political convictions lurked in the weakest links of any ideology.

His seething simmered to mere acid reflux, LaRouche grumbled and stared down again at his lit. As he hissed quietly, the wide-eyed, plainly-dressed apostle stared on with indignation before breaking into a new automated smile for the next passerby, “Oh hello, ma’am, are you a Democrat?”

Friday, February 15, 2019

Article: James Newton

NYC Jazz Record, Artist feature, January 2019

James Newton on the Trail of Dolphy. Again.
by John Pietaro

The specter of Eric Dolphy looms large and haunts indiscriminately. Some 55 years after his untimely passing, the global jazz community remains fascinated with this giant of the music, of conceptions far afield. Not the least among his followers is flutist and composer James Newton, who has always attested to Dolphy as the force that led him to the instrument. “Eric was and remains among the greatest of flute players. He understood the history, the future and global sounds, influencing everyone”, Newton explained, still happily under the spell.

‘Eric Dolphy-Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions’ (Resonance) is a project that James and JoAnn Newton labored over for several years. This three-CD (or LP) boxed set hit the bins in December to great fanfare. It stands as the first opportunity in 30 years for listeners to hear previously unreleased work, both as a stand-alone disc and in context of the two artful but overlooked Dolphy records, ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Conversations’, the products of the ’63 sessions. According to Newton, the project was inasmuch a labor of necessity as one of love: “It’s been a long journey for myself and my wife JoAnn. She’s a lawyer and helped with research and legal issues. She is also a great Dolphy fan—when we first met, that was one of the things that sealed the deal!”, he said. The commitment of both begat the final document’s fine details. “I have to commend Zev Feldman and Resonance Records for giving it such deserved dignity”. In addition to the three discs, the set is accompanied by a 100-page book filled with statements by Dolphy cohorts and the insight of a half-century. 

In 1964, as Eric Dolphy embarked on what was to be his final performances, the European tour with Charles Mingus, he left a series of scores and reels of tape from his 1963 sessions with close friends Hale and Juanita Smith, for safe keeping. When the tragic news of Dolphy’s passing came, the pair quietly held on to this bounty for decades. Recognizing the need to have this music go public, the Smiths notified Newton, who immediately reviewed the find.

“The scores came first—the tapes a little later”, he explained. “Maybe four years ago we got permission from the Dolphy Foundation to donate the scores to the Library of Congress. Then the focus fell onto the recordings”. Newton explained that Hale Smith, a noted composer and educator, was one of his mentors. Following Smith’s death in 2009, Newton remains close to his widow. “If it weren’t for Hale and Juanita, this music might have remained on the shelf forever”. Like an earlier Dolphy discovery they shared with Newton, that which he produced in 1987 as ‘Other Aspects’ (Blue Note), the ‘Musical Prophet’ boxed set offers a new vision of the artist. “These recordings show us the crucial 1963-4 period where the language was just exploding in new ways”, Newton said. “I treasure these recordings. We chose only the strongest outtakes, the ones at the highest level, to honor Eric’s great heritage. That was our litmus test”. With this release, powerful and historic alternate takes of such titles as “Mandrake”, “Burning Spear”, “Alone Together” and the much revered “Jitterbug Waltz” are now available. The boxed set, in total, is analogous to a master class.

For James Newton, the master class began long ago. Although still in grade school at the time of Dolphy’s death, he embarked on a personal study while in his teens. Drawn to the instrument, he moved to the flute from electric bass, which he’d been playing in a Hendrix cover band. Newton became engaged in LA’s rich jazz heritage, that which was spawned by the Creole migration from New Orleans and Texas, thrived under the influence of master teacher Lloyd Reese and progressed through Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Chico Hamilton and Horace Tapscott. “Plus, we had Stravinsky, Schoenberg and William Grant Still, the impact of the film industry, and history of gospel”.

Newton, once immersed in the music community, was welcomed by the likes of David Murray, Bobby Bradford, John Carter and particularly Arthur Blythe. He also sought out serious tutelage. “Buddy Collette was my teacher (he’d been a student of Reese). I started with him at age 19 and it lasted about 15 years. Even after I moved to New York, whenever I’d come back to LA, I always took lessons with him”. Collette was not only an esteemed jazz artist, but a staple in broadcast and recording studios, offering a wide palette to his many students. “Buddy taught Eric, Charles Mingus, Charles Lloyd”. Frank Morgan, too. “He left an incredible imprint on me, like a second father”. Newton recalled warmly. “I had a very strong father but when he passed, Buddy kind of stepped in for me”.

After completing studies at Cal State LA, Newton joined Stanley Crouch’s Black Music Infinity and then made his recording debut in 1977. A year later he relocated to New York and founded the legendary trio with pianist Anthony Davis and cellist Abdul Wadud. “Oh man, that band was so much fun! When I look back on it, I’m reminded of the deep connection”. Newton was one of the celebrated young lions of the ‘80s, touring the globe with a wealth of artists. Since then, he’s recorded some twenty-five albums as a flutist and conducted his own compositions on others. After a left-hand affliction limited his playing, Newton began focusing exclusively on composition; his latest recording ‘the Manuel of Light’ was just released. “It’s a chamber work containing jazz influences and two versions of ‘Amazing Grace’, one dedicated to President Obama”. He’s also been hard at work on contemporary symphonic works, however, forays into the past have not ceased either. Surely not with respect to his first and greatest influence. “I’m so pleased to say that the world now knows more about Eric Dolphy than it did before”

CD review: Arturo O'Farrill "Fandango at the Wall"

NYC Jazz Record, December 2018
ARTURO O’FARRILL and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, Fandango at the Wall: 
A Soundtrack for the United States, Mexico and Beyond (Resilience Music, 2018)

CD review by John Pietaro

O’Farrill’s double-CD extravaganza is as strong a celebration of Latin culture as it is a response to the odious rhetoric spewing out of DC. Released shortly before the mid-term elections, as Trump daily vilifies a refugees’ caravan as a “criminal invasion”, this global statement is timely, indeed. The liner notes by producer/multi-instrumentalist Kabir Sehgal, reminds us that complacency about such antagonism is dangerous “because this distrust and suspicion, left unchecked, can turn into darker forces”. With that O’Farrill sought to create an event based on fandango, the annual musical and cultural event at the border of Veracruz and San Diego. He and Sehgal partnered with Jorge Francisco Castillo, the founder of fandango, in this “project which tears down the human-made walls that form between people”. This album is the first of a three-part project seeking to reinforce cross-border relations between the US and Mexico; to follow are a history book (with a foreword by David Brinkley) and documentary about the son jarocho musicians of Veracruz.

It’s impossible to separate this work from its resistance politics, but the bacchanal built into most every cut insures the joy of pure listening. The melodies, both soaring and lush, are realized through bristling orchestrations of churning rhythms, global voicings, flowing improv and top-tier soloists. The strength of O’Farrill’s 18-piece Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra engaging with thirty international musicians over thirty-three cuts will set stereos afire. Adding to the urgency, much here was recorded live. Among the guests are violinist Regina Carter, oud player Rahim Al Haj, hip hop artist Ana Tijoux, violin trio the Villalobos Brothers, cellist Akua Dixon, a wealth of son jarocho musicians and many more. Of course, O’Farrill’s band swings and burns throughout.

The O’Farrill band kicks into a full-throttle “Xalapa Bang!”, serious big band jazz built on sizzling samba. Vocalist Mandy Gonzalez takes the lead along with soloists O’Farrill, the Villalobos Brothers (who also composed the work) and bari saxist Larry Bustamante—and during the montuno section, drummer Vince Cherico absolutely takes flight. “Somos Sur”, a compelling Latin/Hip Hop fusion features the throaty voice of Ana Tijoux tangling with a mariachi-influenced brass section and the explosive trombones of Rocky Amer and Frank Cohen. Within the confluence of sounds and cultures, you may note a Central European tinge within the horn riffs. A focal point of this collection, however, is O’Farrill’s enthralling “Invisible Suite” placed over three cuts of the first disc: “Invisible Cities”, “Free Falling Borderless” and “Invisible Beings”. This is a deftly arranged modern orchestral work powered by bristling Latin rhythms and smoking solos with ethereal segments and the silvery vocals of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. Here, Regina Carter shines as if voluntarily possessed by the spirit of Leroy Jenkins. Later sections of the piece also incorporate the New Haven String Quartet, bassist Gregg August and trumpet player Seneca Black.

The album includes so many stunning musicians and speaks out on so many relevant issues, that it’s impossible to cover all in a single review. Suffice to say that “Fandango at the Wall” exemplifies political art as successful in its creative aims as in its demand for social justice. As Sehgal states, “we as artists and activists continues to create the world in which we want to live”.

Arturo O’Farrill- director, composer, conductor, arr, pno, kybd;
AFRO LATIN JAZZ ENSEMBLE: Rocky Amer-trb; Gregg August-acous bs; Alejandro Aviles-alto/sop sax, fl; Seneca Black-trp; Larry Bustamante-bari sx, bs clar; Vince Cherico-dr; Frank Cohen-trb; Bryan Davis-trp; Carlos Jiminez-congas, perc; Chad Lefkowitz-Brown-ten sx, clar; Carlos Maldonado-perc; Rafi Malkiel-trb; Earl McIntyre-bs trb; David Neves-trp; Juan Renta-ten sx, fl; James Seeley-trp; Alexa Tarentino-alto/sop sx, fl.
SPECIAL GUESTS: Rahim Al Haj-oud, voc, composer; Regina Carter-vln; Akua Dixon-clo; Humberto Flores-gtr, jarana, composer; Mandy Gonzalez-voc; Jose Gurria-Cardenas-guest conductor/composer; Issa Malluf-perc; Sahba Motallebi-setar; Antonio Sanchez-composer, dr; Sourena Sefati-santur; Kabir Sehgal-bs, Leona, voc, perc, composer, arr; Ana Tyoux-voc, composer; Alberto Villalobos-vln, vla, composer, voc; Ernesto Villalobos-vln, voc, composer; Luis Villalobos-vln, voc, composer

SAN JARACHO ARTISTS: Patricia Hidalgo Belli-jarano, voc, composer; Ramon Gutierrez Hernandez-requinto, voc, composer; Taco Utrera-leona, voc; Fernando Guadarrama Olivera-jarana, voc, composer; Jorge Francisco Castillo-jarana, voc; Wendy Cao Romero-jarana, zapateado; Martha Vega Hernandez-zapateado; Jacob Hernandez-marimbul; Jacob Hernandz-marimbul; Citali Maribel Canales-voc, zapateado; Alfredo Herrera (Godo)-perc, voc; Padi Jackson-voc, zapateado; Eduardo Castellanos-jarana, voc; Minerva Alejandro Perez-zapateado; Gabriel Garcia-tres Cubano; Zenen Zeferino-jarana, voc; Claudia Montes-jarana, voc; Julia del Palacio-zapateado; Sergio Ramirez-gtr, jarano
GUEST ARTISTS: Livia Almeida-ten sx, fl; Scott Engelbright-trp; Sharon Moe-fr horn; Maulik Zaveri-tablas
CHORUS: Cenzontle Ensemble Escenico Vocal, Sistema AUKA del HBC; Young People’s Chorus of NYC
OVERDUB PIANISTS: Sabina Chi, Dana Saul, Arturo O’Farrill

Thursday, January 24, 2019

CD review: Gameboard, Gwen Laster

Gameboard, Gwen Laster (independently released, 2018)

CD review by John Pietaro

Violinist/violist Gwen Laster has a career spanning New York’s creative tapestry, from Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton, Thurman Barker, the Sun Ra Arkestra, the New Muse 4tet, and the Go: Organic Orchestra to Alicia Keys, Nona Hendryx, Aretha Franklin, Rhianna and the Roots. A presence at the Vision Festival and the AACM 50th Anniversary Concert, Laster’s also been featured in chamber and orchestral music and on stage for the 2008 Obama inauguration, yet remains new music’s best-kept secret. With the release of Gameboard, her third album as a leader, she’s hoping to change that.
The music herein serves as an aural component of Laster’s metaphysical and creative inspirations, social activism and call for compassion (sustenance to artists during these Trump years), threading global sounds with improvisation and strains of pop. The ensemble pairs a world music octet with a string section, boasting such downtown notables as bansuri flutist Steve Gorn, violist Jason Kao Hwang and guitarist Marvin Sewell. However, guitarist Freddie Bryant, a regular in the Laster ensemble, is also heard to excellent effect, particularly when paired with Brahim Fribgane’s darkly sparkling oud and the South Asian and Near Eastern percussion of Tripp Dudley and Tim Keiper. Tabla, tar, dumbek and other hand drums, as well as an array of small percussives, carry the rhythm with the whole-earth electric bass of Damon Banks, the album’s producer. Banks too has had a varied career but exhibits a special connection to this rather rootless music based in many traditions. And while so much of Gameboard alternates between the inner and the outer (atmosphere, tonality and consciousness), the album also contains one vocal piece, “Maestro”, drawing on the crossover pop/jazz genre. However,  Hwang’s presence here, in a whirling sound ballet with cellist Rufus Cappadacio, assures a striking authenticity to the genre. Steve Gorn is also on this piece and the next, “The Baju”, which features another powerful Laster segment.
While the leader cites the direct influence of Noel Pointer and Jean-Luc Ponty, her solo statements reveal the deliciously disparate echo of L. Shankar and Stuff Smith. Her bow doesn’t simply glide over the strings but often seems to bite into them, adding an earthy, blue, extra-rhythmical quality rare to bowed string instrumentalists. This texture is downright compelling on “Yoga Gridlock”, another work that captures the ear between first and third, so to speak, worlds. Listen here for interplay between Laster and cellist Nokia Workman (yes, that would be Reggie’s daughter).
The opening and closing cuts are free works that fade out prematurely, leaving the listener simply wanting more. But then maybe that was the whole idea.  

1.         Collective Free (intro)
2.        Ahimsa
3.        Maestro (intro)
4.        Maestro
5.        The Baju
6.        Yoga Gridlock
7.        Collective Free (outro)

Gwen Laster: violin, viola, vocal / Damon Banks: electric bass / Steve Gorn: bansuri /
Brahim Fribgane: oud, cahon / David Ellenbogen; gongs, lap steel guitar / Tripp Dudley: tabla, percussion / Tim Keiper: percussion / Freddie Bryant: guitar / Marvin Sewell: guitar / Manu Koch: keyboards
String section:
violin-Duane James; violas-Jason Kao Hwang, Aurora Mandel, Alva Anderson; cellos-Rufus Cappadocia, Melvin Greenwich, Nioka Workman
Produced by Damon Banks

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Reportage: NYC Women’s March

Translating Power into Policy: NYC Women’s March, Round 3

by John Pietaro

Photos by John Pietaro

For the third consecutive year, Manhattan’s Upper West Side was the staging ground of the resistance. Though beset with recent division and a competing march downtown, this mass gathering of progressive women and like-minded male supporters spoke out thousands strong.
At 10AM, the West 72nd Street entrance to Central Park was already vibrating as throngs emerged, many in ‘pussy hats” and with placards held aloft. As the activists milled about, members of Batala’ NY, a large, all-female drum ensemble, were warming up, their thunderous accents tearing through the expanse. Speakers from Refuse Fascism brandished bullhorns, shredding conservative talking points with humor and rhythm as a legion of Voter Registration volunteers armed with clipboards stood at each corner. Members of Planned Parenthood, the NYS Public Employees Federation, film and theatre union IATSE and many other women’s and progressive organizations were out in numbers.

The storm casing the East Coast must have been sympathetic to the cause as it’s promised snowfall, hard rain and pelting hail were replaced by a still, cold winter day. The atmosphere made for a special urgency extending throughout the terrain.
Over the next hour, marchers made their way toward the 61st Street rally podium, bearing signs reading “Follow the Females”, “The Future is Intersectional”, “Halfway There”, “These Boots are Made for Governing” and “My Body, My Choice” as well as the singular “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance”, “Does This Ass Make My Country Look Small?”, “We Shall Over Comb” and “Vaginal Walls, Not Border Walls”, threading satire through utterly revolutionary statements.
Kicking off the march was an open-air rally hosted by comic Lauren Ash. “Thank you for making history with us”, Ash told the enthusiastic crowd. “We’ve made major cracks in the glass ceiling, but men and women are still not seen as equal under the Constitution”.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Following a Shinnecock Nation blessing by Native activists, Women’s March Alliance founder Catherine Siemionko told the ralliers, “We’ve gone from suffrage to Senate—and that’s just the beginning!”. Also on stage was trans-gender advocate Hannah Simpson, her presence a demonstration of the unifying mission at hand. “My path to womanhood was different”, she stated, “but we stand together”. She added “We speak for the women who suffer in silence or have been silenced”.

The celebrity of the event was Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez whose presence drew cheers quaking the press box. She told the mass crowd that she’d been present each year of the Women’s Marches, the first in Washington DC: “When I looked over at the Capitol Building, a shiver went down my spine. I didn’t yet know that I was going to run for office, but a few months later, my campaign began”.

Ocasio-Cortez continued: “We just overturned the House, now we must do it with all of the houses, including the White House”. Before encouraging the crowd to “march like Fannie Lou Hamer”, the Congressional Rep added “This year we must translate power into policy!”

The march ignited the path to Columbus Circle, a favorite target along the way the Trump Hotel. Chants of “Shame!” were accompanied by shows of vividly anti-Trump placards, costumes and flashes of the middle finger toward the building’s golden facade.

Sunday, December 23, 2018


Paul Winter’s 39th Annual Winter Solstice Celebration
December 22, 2018, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC

Photos by John Pietaro

by John Pietaro

I couldn’t bring myself to dub this piece a review. Sure, I carried my journal and pen, but I wasn’t there to simply cover it. Getting to Paul Winter’s solstice event had been a goal for decades, but somehow always missed. Somehow, and I’ve lived in New York my entire life. This year was different.
Hurriedly walking east on 112th Street, still twisted up within from crawling in traffic since Brooklyn, the wife and I made our way to the Cathedral. I hadn’t gotten a good look at St. John the Divine since its scaffolding came down a few years back, repairs complete. By the time we hit Amsterdam Avenue, the grand fa├žade pridefully displayed itself. A gothic haven, mystic but never beyond reproach.
We took the stairs and entered, trying to seek out general admission seats not tooooo far back. We were semi-successful (no, I was not there on assignment and wouldn’t use my press card to snare a closer view). No matter that, the room itself, with its ceiling of massive heights, sang to us just as personally as the front rows. As a firmly unreligious sort, somewhat unspiritual too, settling into this church with the warm welcome of candles flickering over plain wax, everything made more sense. I carefully scanned the stone walls, the breathtaking architecture, the large banners proclaiming messages of (actual) unity and unashamed social justice.
The lights dowsed, and Paul Winter’s soprano saxophone resonated suddenly across the Cathedral. A thin blue spotlight directed all eyes to the high, small balcony well behind us; there stood Winter offering his lyric call. It echoed through the house and every chest cavity within, clarion. This led to an all-encompassing solo statement by Jeff Holmes, the Winter Consort’s new pianist, from his perch onstage. Next, the presence of organist Tim Brumfield became dramatically evident as his deft touch on the church’s aeolian pipe organ usurped the space and the ground beneath.  By the time drummer-percussionist Jamey Haddad launched into his own solo segment—thunderous and whispering all at the same time—Winter had made his way to front and center, flanked by the Consort on varying levels of lifts. Above Haddad’s lift was that of cellist Eugene Friesen, long-term Consort member with his own amazing performance resume. Bassist Eliot Wadopian stood nearby Holmes’ keyboards and the celebrated woodwind master Paul McCandless sat to his left, armed with English horn, bass clarinet and a history that includes Oregon and the first Consort before that (it seems strangely unjust that this noted instrumentalist was not acknowledged by Winter until the close of the evening).
In the darkened space, lit only by the stage which glowed 2/3 of the long way across from us, and the golden-white sparkle of candles, taking notes become impossible. Before the 3-hour show’s intermission, Winter and company were joined by the gifted voice of Theresa Thomason, who encompassed a soulful blend of Mavis Staples, Aretha Franklin and Mariah Carey, probably others who don’t come to mind just now. One hears the church in Thomason as clear as it is in the best of R&B, but that only helped realize the mission of this particular house of worship, one welcoming every religion, as they all should. And then without warning, the sound of African drums, djembe and conga, mostly, craned up from the rear, accompanying and guiding the Forces of Nature Dance Theatre as the entire troupe glided toward the stage. The crowd, for the umpteenth time, erupted in a wild applause.
Other highlights included the emergence of the Solstice Tree, it cast of spiraling metal—the very imagery of the ancient Spiral Goddess--decorated by multiple gongs and bells. A traditional clog dancer, depicting a sprite, celebrated it’s being, borne of the oldest religion. For the first time in a long time, I experienced an utter spiritual welcoming. This was only made stronger by Matt Guyon’s striking of the giant sun gong, aloft in the tower. Each stroke of it, a quake. 
And during the nightfall epic, the solstice itself, the longest night of the year, was represented as the crowd faded into a mystical darkling. Very, very slowly we were coaxed into the imagery of daybreak, closing with a soaring crescendo over softened waves of melody.

Overall the sheer power of s o u n d was on display throughout the evening, both as a force of spirituality and as one unto itself. As the lighted globe made its way to the front and then rose above us all, Paul Winter reveled in the song of a forlorn wolf, offering responses through his horn which sang to the ages. 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Interview: Shelley Hirsch

NYC Jazz Record, December 2018 – Artist Interview:


photo: the Brooklyn Rail
By John Pietaro

Shelley Hirsch is a downtown original. The vocalist was one of the framers, conjuring and creating with the renegades of New York’s ‘70s-‘90s arts underground. Though still centered in NYC, her career has consistently extended well beyond Houston Street through collaborations with John Zorn, Butch Morris, Elliot Sharp, Fred Frith, David Moss, Ikue Mori, Jin Hi Kim, Phill Niblock, David Weinstein and an expansive array of others. A November tour took her to Portugal and the UK, before heading home for gigs with old friends Christian Marclay and Anthony Coleman. She’s also preparing for series of literary projects that are putting a whole new spin on spoken word.

JP: Unlike so many artists who were drawn to New York City over the last century, Shelley, you’re a native.

SH: Yes, I was born in Brooklyn. My neighborhood was East New York but when I was 17, I left home and moved to the Lower East Side. Ludlow Street. This was 1969; rent was $60 per month. Moving to Manhattan was a big deal but I had traveled there during high school when I attended the High School of the Arts. I was majoring in Theatre but dropped out after a year when my teacher told me I had no talent for the stage.

JP: And you also lived on the West Coast for a while?

SH: At 18 I moved to San Francisco. I had joined an experimental theatre company not far from Haight-Ashbury. I moved into a kind of mansion with others in the company and some film students. It was in a fancy area and the neighbors started complaining about “hippies”, so we got busted and plans changed. I moved up to Napa for a while, and then in the Valley, where I’d yodel every morning into the mountainside. I was already experimenting with extended vocal techniques and the yodel became another part of that repertoire. The Napa Valley, with its great expanse, inspired it.

JP: But it was common for young people to do this in those years, to travel and experience life. And like other young Americans, this also took you to Europe.

SH: Yes, I moved to Europe to join a Dutch experimental theatre group, but that never worked out. I was living in a squatted loft and met some guys who were singing swing standards and I joined their group. They were actually journalists but sang very well together. I knew these songs from my parents’ records and I began to sing with them in a community space where we’d gather. It was a very political time to be in Europe, lots of activism and very exciting. But I returned to the East Village in 1972 or ‘73 before settling into TriBeCa. I’ve had my loft there since 1976.

JP: Downtown was beginning to brim over with a new kind of creativity by the middle ‘70s. Punk, free improv, new composition, electronics, minimalism, no wave. So much was happening and there was a mass confluence of the arts too. How did this affect your development?

SH: There were many things going on. A remarkable combination of music and art. That time was the best for crossover and so many of us came from one discipline—visual art, film, theatre--and got into music. There was a shifting into different worlds, rather fluidly. I was performing with experimental techniques, using abstract sounds, but then Kirk Nurock, Jay Clayton and I began performing among other improvising groups. A little later Jerome Cooper, Steve McCall and I started working together. We played the Kitchen. I was in awe of (vocalist and guitarist) Arto Lindsay and his work in DNA. Like him, I wanted to abandon notes and sing utterly raw. But I’m a singer, untrained, yes, but I’m a singer. I couldn’t go that route. I have always incorporated spoken word into my music and have had a strong connection to the other arts too. While modeling at the Parsons School of Design, I got to work with many visual artists. Galleries and museums always inspired me.

JP: Did you also maintain your theatre career?

SH: I had to audition for ‘Hair’ six times (laughs). And I was rejected for the lead in ‘Evita’! But theatrical aspects were in my performances, regardless. I was creating characters and portraying them in the songs: old ladies in East New York or Blanche DuBois (ie: “Blanche” by Hirsch and David Weinstein from the 1990 downtown anthology ‘Real Estate’).

JP: In the no wave genre, particularly, it was standard to trade off with other creatives, moving in and out of the disciplines. Free jazz artists were hanging out in the punk clubs, poets were making films…

SH: Lee Ranaldo studied film and came from that world. Lary Seven too. By day, we’d be working in our lofts and at night go out. We often saw James Chance and the Contortions perform, but he was also playing dance clubs with people like Hamiet Bluiett (Chance’s funk band James White & the Blacks included Joseph Bowie and others who’d form Defunkt). I’d been performing with the Public Servants, a rock band, very funky with experimental sounds. Phillip Johnston played soprano and alto saxophones and Dave Sewelson was on bari. Bill Horvitz, whom we recently lost, was the guitarist. Dave Hofstra on bass, Steve Moses was the drummer (later, Richard Dworkin). Others frequently sat in like Wayne Horvitz or John Zorn. We were together from ’79 through ’81, opening for the Slits at Irving Plaza but also playing underground spaces.

JP: Did the Public Servants record or was it just a performing band?

SH: In 1980, we recorded a single, “Jungle Hotel”, which is out of print, but I’m told it’s available on YouTube (it is:

JP: Can you speak about your first solo LP ‘Singing’?

SH: Samm Bennet (electronic drums, percussion) and David Simons (drums, percussion, prepared guitar, jaw harp, zither) are on this. We recorded it in 1987. A couple of labels have expressed an interest in re-releasing this. But my work is now going into the Downtown Archive of the NYU Fales Library: my recordings, writings, everything.

JP: You have a performance coming up with Anthony Coleman, another original of that downtown scene.

SH: Yes, at Arete Gallery on December 11. We haven’t played together in a long time, so I’m really looking forward to this. We have a long history. Anthony was in Glenn Branca’s group back then and I had a brief period performing with Branca’s band, Theoretical Girls. At one of those gigs, we shared the bill with Gong. Anthony and I were also in Zorn projects together and I had the good fortune to have him in my large-scale works. When this gig arose, I immediately knew I wanted him there. Anthony loved the idea.

JP: And this month you’re also performing with another old friend, Christian Marclay?

SH: We’ve been friends since 1984. Our new work is his conception: Christian doesn’t want to play turntables anymore, so for this UK gig he’s playing his photo images of onomatopoetics, projecting them onstage; he now makes his living as a visual artist, you know. I’m improvising voice and movement and in turn his projections are affected, so this is very interactive. It’s  thrilling to find new ways to use language and the voice, with movement generating the levels of consciousness: this then turns into an idea and a word.

JP: That’s quite fascinating. And I understand you’re also part of Issue Project Room’s end-of-season event?

SH: That’s December 15: improvisations with Marcia Bassett (electronics). I relish the opportunity to engage in these different sources. And some time in December will be the release of a new CD I’m looking forward to, “Peter Stampfel and the Atomic Meta Pagans featuring Shelley Hirsch”.

JP: But you’ve been busy in creative writing as well. Can you speak on that?

SH: My literary writing is coming to the forefront now—I was too shy to seek publication before. It’s all authentic as I try not to edit in the traditional sense. Words appear and suddenly take on a significance. Like prosopopoeia: a rhetorical communicative device.

JP: So, sitting down to write literature is not new to you?

SH: I’m currently working on a piece with large sheets of paper covered in my prose, attached to the wall. I read from these and use movement in performing it. To generate thoughts and stories, I listen to the minimal, drone music of Eliane Radigue -- she’s about 80 now; I wanted to collaborate with her, but she refused (laughs)! For stream of consciousness purposes, I’ll also do some live writing. I have a residency in Queens Lab where I’m completing the piece. But I’ve always used creative writing to craft characters for songs. That’s what my 1992 album ‘Oh, Little Town of East New York’ was all about. The characters were inspired by real people in the years I grew up there. I’m blessed to hear from as far away as Siberia, Italy, South America, with listeners telling me how important that record was for them. It reminded them of their own upbringing, the rooms they lived in. It’s autobiographical though I co-composed the music with David Weinstein.

JP: Brooklyn is hard to get out of the soul.

SH: Well, I actually moved to Greenpoint fifteen years ago. I’m very aware of the people who were living there before me. Coming from a blue-collar background, I’m very cognizant of this. People in gentrified neighborhoods often can’t afford to buy at the local stores. Suddenly, all the rules are different. But we need to honor people’s lives, culture, feelings, experiences—they’re here, stored in all of us. The human body is the greatest recorder of all.

Poetry Publication Announcement

Hiking the shadowy forest of poetry publication, sans compass and canteen, it was refreshing to happen upon the good people of Transcendent ...