CULTURAL WORKINGS

Welcome to THE CULTURAL WORKER, a blog dedicated to arts of the people, on the Left, ranging from the radical avant garde and free jazz to dissident folk forms and popular arts . The Cultural Worker celebrates revolutionary creativity and features a variety of essays, reviews, fiction, reportage, poetry and musings through the internet pen of this writer, musician and cultural organizer. Scroll straight down and you'll also find an extensive historical Photo Exhibit of cultural workers in action, followed by a series of Radical Arts Links. The features herein will be unabashedly partisan---make no mistake about that. The concept of the cultural worker as a force of fearless creativity, of social change, indeed as an artistic arm of radicalism, has always been left-wing when applied with any degree of honesty at all. No revolutionary act can be truly complete in the absence of art, no progressive campaign can retain its message sans the daring drumbeat of invention, no act of dissent can stand so strong as that which counts the writers, musicians, painters, dancers, actors, photographers, film and performance artists within its ranks. Here's to the history and legacy of cultural work in the throes of the good fight...
john pietaro

Friday, December 30, 2011

OCCUPY MUSICIANS--The Pulse of Revolution



THE PULSE OF REVOLUTION:
Musicians as Cultural Warriors in the Occupy Movement
By John Pietaro

For as long as there has been dissent, there has been the protest song. In the people’s history, the fight for social justice has always been accompanied by, inspired by the voices of outspoken songwriters, the daring harmonies of dissident composers, the passionate cry of radical poets and the compelling news reports of the topical balladeer. This is the drumbeat of radicalism. Phil Ochs told us that every headline can be realized as verse just as he cautioned us that, “a protest song is something you don’t hear on the radio”. But regardless of popular acceptance or not, the music of revolution prevails. 

One can easily trace work songs back to the earliest toilers and songs of revolt directly to the movements to organize—in each era. Reviewing poetry or ballads composed on slave ships, within workers’ hovels or concentration camps, or in cold urban landscapes, we can not only gain valuable information about earlier uprisings against injustice, but develop a visceral understanding of them. Where progressive history books offer core stories and important dates, topical art-forms deliver the fervor, the agitation, the struggle of the embattled to survive and then to live. Bread and roses. 

Often artists can become overwhelmed by the stressors in their midst. In the US, the creative community has never had adequate funding or respect, so in times of fiscal constraint, we can easily fall victim. Further, audiences during lean years find it easier to simply avoid. Popular culture reflects this in “the feel-good movie of the year” or the litany of Top 40 hits that are pure escapism. 

After eight years of Bush and Cheney, with the rise of cowboy capitalism, first-strike offenses and a repressive economy, progressives of every shade began to build a protest movement of ebbs and flows. Many sought out change through the Obama candidacy. With the promise of the nation’s first African American president, one who’d had a background as a community organizer, countless among us were moved to rebuild a progressive base. But Obama’s drive toward conciliation with the forces of reaction for far too long turned many off. The teabaggers were all over the news and every brand of lunatic flooded the right-wing. Oh, there were pockets of celebrated rebellion: Wisconsin taught us all. But on the heels of that amazing takeover, Occupy Wall Street happened. And then nothing was the same. 

In my own experience as a musician and a cultural organizer (one moved toward Left philosophy as a direct result of the first Reagan term!), I’d long sought out something—anything—like OWS. And here came a disparate group with no visible leader, one that united all facets of the Left, liberalism, and Labor, and not just the most progressive of unions. Yeah, it turned out to be this generation’s Popular Front. After my first visit to Zuccotti Park, I was drawn to return many times, usually carrying a drum. The first time I sat in with the pulsating mass of a drum circle, I realized the distance our message could carry. How voluminous the voice of a determined, unified group! We breathed as one through percussion and this was evidenced by the reactions of the beaming, dancing passerby, often wearing designer suits and Italian shoes but sharing in a historic moment with this band of rad rhythmatists. 

Though drum circles are empowering and an excellent means to build still larger masses, there is a need for musicians of conscience to forge a more cohesive unit, a cultural arm of OWS. Rather than the occasional folksinger or rapper writing an anthem for the movement, why couldn’t there be, shouldn’t there be a solid, committed organization which would feed the protest, inspire creativity and then take it out to the wider populace? The Occupy Musicians group (www.occupymusicians.com) is an exciting means toward this goal. Hundreds of signatories and a series of events has fortified the organization’s dawning. Now what’s left to do is to draw on the considerable strengths of musicians of conscience; we must agitate, educate and organize through song, through verse, through shout and stomp, through musical weaponry.
Using earlier cultural movements as models, we can draw on the work of the bards, the songsters, poets, playwrights and journalists of the Industrial Workers of the World. This radical internationalist union counted artists in their front line of organizers. This spawned the likes of Joe Hill; no mean feat! And the Socialist Party in the first decades of the 20th century also laid the ground work for later models. It did so with the likes of Jack London and Carl Sandburg and by the 1930s founded the Radical Arts Group toward the establishment of a national cultural program. However it was the Communist Party which, in the 1930s and ‘40s, successfully founded a cultural commission of widespread proportions. It not only counted artists such as Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Dalton Trumbo, Hazel Scott and the Almanac Singers in its ranks, but a massive list of fellow travelers across the country. Of important note are the arts collectives under CP cultural auspices which were both activist bases and educational seminars for all genres: the John Reed Club, the League of American Writers, the American Artists’ Congress, the Red Dancers, and the Composers Collective of New York which produced contemporary classical works that were at least as daring musically as they were politically!

The generation of folksingers in the 1960s became the very soul of the struggles of civil rights and peace. Immortal, moving works were created and tirelessly sang at each rally and march. Folk revival musicians such as Bob Dylan, Odetta, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez wrote the anthems that acted as shields against the assaults of the police and the national guard, as did the songs which had originated in southern Black churches. Performers like the Freedom Singers made all the difference in the world when staring down Bull Connor. And the Black Arts Movement offered creative guidance along with fiery radical sounds to urban centers. Avant garde jazz figured highly into this scene, as well it should in today’s movement. Legendary names like Amiri Baraka, the late Sam Rivers, the AACM and Black Arts Group were instrumental, so to speak, in countless seminars, rallies, gatherings and confrontations. There’s was a music which celebrated African culture as it fought for American rights through the most creative means.

The Punk movement often carried with it an anarchist message, or in the least an intolerance for mere compliance. While some aspects of Punk could seem right-wing due to the presence of fascist imagery (to shock) most Punks were drawn to the Left messages found in the music of the Clash and the fight against Reaganism launched by the Dead Kennedys. Punk also turned “DIY” into a freedom cry for all artists. Hip Hop has also stood out as a people’s movement which has called on multiple generations to speak out. For every gangsta rapper there are scores of Hip Hop artists who use their poetry and music as a means of unity and expression: life and survival in the ghettos, exposing social ills and the need for social change are mainstays. Some rappers are inspired by the Beat poets of the ‘50s, and most are well aware of the radical statements of Gil-Scott Heron. Rappers like Dead Prez and Immortal Technique have focused on a specific kind of topical Hip Hop. 

MUSICIANS ALIGNED WITH THE OWS MOVEMENT need to make a close study of the history of cultural workers in building a lasting organization. Occupy Musicians should call on composers, improvisers, rappers, singers, songwriters and instrumentalists; there’s a need for pop singers, jazz and contemporary classical musicians, hip hop artists, world music performers, folkies, satirists, rockers, balladeers and punks. We must speak in every language, to every taste, to allow for the unrestrained flow of outreach. And we need to establish a series of awareness-raising concerts, to circulate recordings of OWS musicians and offer teach-ins and workshops to not only insure continuity of current artists but to inspire the generations to come. Occupy Musicians can not only offer a soundtrack to OWS but can drive it with Shock Brigade bands to descend upon rallies and marches. And to really be thorough, we need to do so in concert with radical poets, performance artists and other cultural workers. 

Occupy Musicians can become an integral part of Occupy movements all over the nation, all over the world. And through both concert presentations and social media we can grow a network that will keep live music relevant even as it carries activists to the necessary next level, true social and political change. Upward, onward.

-John Pietaro is a musician, writer (http://TheCulturalWorker.blogspot.com) and activist from Brooklyn NY. He is the leader of Radio NOIR (www.reverbnation.com/radionoir) and the director of the annual Dissident Arts Festival.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

LIVE IN CONCERT: Radio NOIR & guests at ABC No Rio

Here's a concert recording of a rather expanded Radio NOIR line-up performing at the C.O.M.A. experimental music series at ABC No Rio, the celebrated anarchist space in NYC, 12/18/11. John Pietaro (xylophone, frame drums, percussion, spoken word), Javier Hernandez-Miyares (elec guitar), Laurie Towers (electric bass) with guests Frederika Krier (violin) and Rocco John Iacovone (soprano and alto saxophones). Our regular fourth member, clarinetist Quincy Saul, was unavailable for the gig as he was in Durban South Africa reporting on the Climate Conference (a pretty good excuse if I may say!) so we adapted some of our regular material to this line-up and of course added in some new things too. We'd also planned on performing a newly realized version of the brilliant Phil Ochs song, "No Christmas in Kentucky" but unfortunately there was not enough time. Still, this was a notable evening of music-on-the-edge.
Much thanks to the very talented Frederika and Rocco for being a part of this day. For more info on ABC No Rio and the COMA experimental music series curated by Blaise Siwula see www.abcnorio.org 
To listen to the recording log on to:
http://soundcloud.com/leftmus/radio-noir-at-abc-no-rio-coma
Selections: 
(1) free improv
(2) Langston (Pietaro/Saul)
(3) Pastures of Plenty (Woody Guthrie; arr: Radio NOIR)
(4) the Arbitrator (Iacovone)
(5) Hanns Eisler Speaks: Fantasia in G-Men (prose by Eisler; free improvisation by Radio NOIR)
- http://soundcloud.com/leftmus/radio-noir-at-abc-no-rio-coma

Friday, December 9, 2011

Radio NOIR plays ABC No Rio

Radio NOIR, the 'dissident swing' combo, will be performing a set of their unique improvisational protest music at noted anarchist performance space ABC No Rio, on Sunday Dec 18, 2011---one of the final concerts in the COMA experimental music series before the space closes its doors for a lengthy remodeling. Works will include reconstructions of Hanns Eisler and Woody Guthrie pieces, plus free improvisation, twisted standards and modernist blues. John Pietaro (xylophone, percussion, voice), Javier Hernandez-Miyares (electric guitar, effects), Laurie Towers (electric bass) and as our clarinetist Quincy Saul is proudly away on important activist business in Durban South Africa, we will be joined by guest saxophonist Rocco John Iacovone among other special guests.

PLUS Blaise Siwula's duet AND an open session!

Sunday Dec 18, 7PM, ABC No Rio 156 Rivington Street, NYC www.abcnorio.org

--www.reverbnation.com/radionoir--

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Free Jazz as Cultural Revolution: Karl Berger & The Stone Workshop Orchestra in Review from Inside


(Photo by Don Mount)

Free Jazz as Cultural Revolution: 
Karl Berger & The Stone Workshop Orchestra in Review from Inside

By John Pietaro

The Stone stands quietly and without fanfare at the corner of Avenue C and East 2nd Street. The club is set in an old store front that still bears the markings of pre-gentrified Alphabet City. So unassuming is it that there’s no sign over its door proclaiming that a new experimental music space—one which features the free exchange of art and ideas--has taken back part of New York otherwise lost to the developers and yuppies. The Lower East Side , New York’s historic center of alternative arts and struggle, survived years of neglect and decay during which it was shunned by a larger society attempting to cut off its immigrant and poor population just until the ‘hood became fashionable. And as its boarded-up shops transformed into bistros, it ‘became’ the East Village and was sold to the highest bidder. And somehow post-modern saxophonist John Zorn made a grab to claim some of this prized territory for the movement. This community --where Beat poetry found its home, where the most radical of Left activists congregated, where jazz’s loft scene was birthed, where the punk movement began and where the post-punk avant garde coalesced into No Wave—has taken back one of its lost corners. There’s cause to celebrate but the Stone remains the Village’s best-kept secret. And the noise about it only seems to occur within.
 Having enjoyed memorable performances in LES clubs and galleries back when there was a healthy scene harboring this kind of music, I well remember the once-affordable community and its phalanx of artists, anarchists, addicts, dealers, homeless, Hell’s Angels and poverty-stricken residents. No, they weren’t really good old times because there was too much hurt and yet the area held a strange beauty that’s long gone. Walking through the door of the Stone brings me back almost immediately. The space is tight, intimate. The lights are dim. The energy is whirling, barely contained in the walls about me. I felt it on my first visit: Musicians flow in, greeting each other with warm, jovial exchanges, laughs, and discussions about a recent tour with this or that one, the last gig with so-and-so, or baseball scores and small talk. Dressed down, unpacking their axes these men and women are as unassuming as the club itself. I walk over the uneven floorboards and find a spot near the back, next to the drummer and two upright bassists preparing for the evening’s excursion. I stand amidst a mini xylophone or glockenspiel, large and small frame drums, several small hand-held percussives, sometimes a dumbek, and a pair of crowded racks sporting woodblocks, temple blocks, cowbells and a triangle. Somehow I set it up in a manner that’s workable but not imposing to the tightly-packed band, which ranges from a minimum of 12 members to a more standard number of about 23. The immediacy of those around me seems to extend well beyond the physical.
Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso enter the room, gently reaching out to the musicians sitting in a two-rowed semi-circle. The band responds in kind, offering greetings, brief bits of humorous tales and other chitchat. But this is not a mere social call. Soon Karl seats himself caddy-corner at the piano and offers some basic ideas as to what the music will be like tonight. In some cases choosing pieces he’s worked on with the Orchestra before, in others, introducing brand new ones without warning, of course. 
The compositions are often his own but just as likely penned by the Ornette Coleman or Don Cherry, or other past collaborators. Many are drawn from the repertoire of world folk songs (Karl is especially fond of Turkish music). But it can never be said that there is anything assumed or pre-planned about this band’s music. There is NEVER a written score and when the band needs to learn a jazz head or other melody, it is simply played at the piano, at times slowly and repetitively, until the musicians are comfortable with what’s to come. Karl offers some info on the particular mode or the tradition in which the piece was developed as his hands lightly run over piano keys. The musicians are all veterans and adept at this kind of performance, but Karl’s advice and philosophical guidance are never taken begrudgingly. “Please let’s remember to pay close attention to dynamics in this passage,” Karl is wont to explain as he demonstrates the importance of the phrasing in a piece. Standing now, he raises a hand and gently fans it downward: “You can almost leave that last note out completely. In fact, I would like some of you to fade the phrase just before it ends to really exaggerate the emotion. Deeee-da. Deeee-da”. And the music, already inspired and executed beautifully, comes fully alive. By design, this band is geared toward the highest level of creativity, and the tools of such creativity--free improvisation, on-the-spot composition, modernist harmonies, world rhythms, technical expertise, and latter-day angst—are in constant demand here.
The Stone Workshop Orchestra’s sound is born of the moment, founded by the players’ instincts, skill and need to emote----and it’s then organized by Karl’s artful hand and facial expressions. Sculptor-like, he molds and shapes the aural force emanating from this collection of brass, reeds, strings and percussion set before him. Refusing to consider his part in this as conduction (“really, this is not so specific, I just cue and offer guidance, you do the rest…”), Berger none the less has developed an incredible language of his own; never losing sight of the musicians’ individuality, he plays the orchestra. Karl’s unique hand signals--and welcoming eye contact---bring in sections, soloists or the tutti ensemble, and in doing so, establishes range, tempo, volume, timbre and vibe. 
Through his cues the band knows the direction and shape as well as the duration of the notes to be played---but the specific notes remain our own. He guides orchestral accents behind the force of a soloist’s excursion, adding to the soundscape and fierce intensity. Karl then layers one solo over another and calls on this or that accompaniment—which ultimately is seen as just an important a voice in the mix and may very well take over the spotlight. Feel is paramount and interpretation is demanded. Its clearly there in the leader’s eyes each time he becomes engulfed in the tapestry. Leaning back into the sound in a moment of particularly rich improvised harmony, Karl adds: “It took Gil Evans two years to write a chord like that!”
 So what of this orchestra? Since I began this weekly gig in early September 2011, it has proven itself as a wonderfully expansive vision of what a ‘big band’ could be. The line-up has often shifted in membership with a solid core of regulars and a series of guests who are passing through New York while on tour. Each Monday I have seen new faces, heard new accents and reveled in new and exciting musical concepts. The musicians qualify as a united nations of Free Jazz, among them Karl Berger - Piano and Conducting, Ingrid Sertso - Voice, Thomas Heberer - Trumpet, Brian Groder – Trumpet, Bob Selcoe - Trumpet, Herb Robertson – Trumpet, Steve Swell - Trombone, Rick Parker –Trombone, Avram Fefer - Soprano Sax, Stephen Gauci - Tenor Sax, Yoni Kretzmer - Tenor Sax, Darryl Foster – Tenor and Soprano Saxes, Esa Pietila - Tenor Sax, Dave Schnug - Alto Sax, Mercedes Figuera - Alto Sax, Blaise Siwula – Alto Sax, Mikko Innanen – Alto Sax, Jason Candler - Alto Sax/Alto Clarinet, Bill Ylitalo – Alto Sax, Welf Doerr – Alto Sax, Ricardo Tejero – Clarinet, Michael Lytle - Bass Clarinet, Ken Ya Kawaguchi – Shakuhachi, Sylvain Leroux - Flutes, Peter Buettner – Flutes, Frederika Krier - Violin,  David Bakriges - Violin, Cecile Borche – Violin, Mossa Bildner - Voice, Kenny Wessel - Guitar, Harvey Valdes - Guitar, John Ehlis – Mandolin and Guitar, Adam Lane – Bass, Hilliard Greene – Bass, Dominic Lash - Bass, Dave Perrott - Bass, Ken Filiano – Bass, Lou Grassi – Drums, Harvey Sorgen - Drums, John Pietaro - Percussion, Philip Foster – ‘Odds and Ends’. And the many others whose names have escaped me and I hope to meet again.

The final performance of the Stone Workshop Orchestra—at least in this incarnation—occurred on December 5, during which time the Stone’s inner walls shook under the weight of the music. Two full concert sets (no workshop for this gig) left the room dank with perspiration and brimming with intensity. Guest soloists, to really drive the point home, were legendary avant alto player John Zorn and the brilliant trumpet and slide-trumpet player Steven Bernstein, and the band exploded under and about these two voices of unbridled improvisation. Zorn seeking no attention, remained reserved before putting horn to mouth, but wailed and shook over his instrument like a feverish, davoning rabbi when he played. The ensemble shouted accents as Zorn sonically fought back the depth hovering just above, drawing from and warding off the wall of music he encountered. From my spot near the back, with a line of winds and strings immediately in front, dual basses to my right and drums just behind, the room seemed to ascend with Karl’s conducting wizardy guiding the journey. And just then Steven Bernstein hollered across the thicket with a slide trumpet improvisation that should have lifted off the roof, polyrhythmic pulsations falling over the brass call to arms. New visions of a developed repertoire spoke volumes about the potential for this band. No one could accept that it would simply end; the rush to find a new site is on with plans being carefully laid for a new residency and a series of other performances to continue the mission.
  As winter’s chill arrives on the Lower East Side, the echo of musical liberation descends over the luxury condos and gourmet delis, declaring the legacy of fearless creativity. And in its resonance, the music tears away the cloud of conformity and clears the path for further generations of New Music. 

-John Pietaro is a musician and writer from Brooklyn, NY. His websites are http://TheCulturalWorker.blogspot.com and www.reverbnation.com/radionoir



Thursday, November 24, 2011

Radio NOIR: "Pastures of Plenty"



"Pastures of Plenty"

Radio NOIR'S improvisatory, ethereal adaptation of this beautiful Woody Guthrie theme is presented today in strong reflection of Thanksgiving in hard times. Guthrie's ballad of migrant farm workers struggling for dignity is timeless.

Radio NOIR chose to approach this piece in a unique manner which is built upon the Minimalist-influenced xylophone line of John Pietaro and the insistent, grinding bass of Laurie Towers. Javier Hernandez-Miyares' effects-laden guitar builds an incredible atmosphere in which the ensemble lays out a pasture of conflict and struggle for the melodic realization by Quincy Saul's clarinet. After the actual Guthrie melody is heard in full, the quartet stretches out with solo statements built into a sort of collective improv. In the melody's final hearing Hernandez-Miyares' guitar effects build to create a soundscape indicative of a southern textile factory's looms, tying the concept of the field worker into industry, open spaces into a darker, untouchable sky.

"Pastures of Plenty" was produced by Javier Hernandez-Miyares and recorded by Natalie Scarborough at 17 Frost Theatre of the Arts, Brooklyn NY, October 2011 www.17frost.com

Radio NOIR is John Pietaro, xylophone and percussion
Quincy Saul, clarinet
Javier Hernandez-Miyares, electric guitar and effects
Laurie Towers, electric bass

"Dissident swing...radical improv...Art Deco-damaged protest song!"

www.reverbnation.com/radionoir

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Obituary of PAUL MOTIAN



PAUL MOTIAN: In Memory of the Man Who Made Silence Swing
An Obituary by John Pietaro

I can still recall when I first became aware of the wonderful subtleties of Paul Motian. I was a college freshman and in checking out his latest quartet album I had to stop to listen a second time to get it. As drummers go, he stood apart from most by simply allowing his instrument to breathe. While Motian lacked nothing in technical skill, his approach to the instrument was considerably more Zen than chops: you just knew that this guy had read Cage’s writings on silence. At 18, a budding jazz percussionist who practiced constantly in order to build up speed and endurance, hearing Paul Motian dance over his cymbals as Bill Frisell’s guitar moaned gently, I came to know the importance of reflective playing and the power of space. Motian had made it into an art form. 

Paul Motian first came to prominence in the music world through his part in the classic Bill Evans Trio. In this aggregation, neither he nor the groundbreaking bassist Scott LaFaro, who died tragically young after pioneering a melodic bass style, were viewed as “accompanists” by Evans; not by a long shot. The trio were equal partners in the unique brand of jazz they produced---some called it cerebral but that’s way too simple to describe the likes of “Waltz for Debbie”, “Autumn Leaves” or “My Foolish Heart”. Hear these tracks as chamber music if you’d like but the swing is always there and damned clear. The music got inside of itself and the drumming grooved it along through and well beyond introspection. Motian’s use of wire brushes whispered but also snapped, rolled, danced. Shuussshing his way over the most tender of ballads, as Evans’ widely spaced intervals resounded above and below, Motian sang with his sizzle cymbal and fluttering hi-hats. And in this late ‘50s-early ‘60s period when drummers just kept cranking their kits to tighter, higher pitches, Motian went low, offering carefully resounding tom-toms and a throbbing bass drum that served as a deep heartbeat one moment, a ringing timpani the next. And his interplay with LaFaro, he of the whirling melodic flight in place of a standard ‘walk’, was an avant garde of its own. Here was a rhythm section that held equal reign over the trio’s direction and if the bass was welcome to offer counter-point and counter-melody well then so was the drums. Evans’ band functioned, it’s often been said, as three components of one indefatigable musician. 

Such musical passion, however, was not to be contained in one ensemble and Motian, into the 1960s, began working with a variety of other contemporary jazz artists, particularly “cool school” stalwarts like Lee Konitz. This led him to another lengthy and notable gig with a pianist of powerfully creative muse, Paul Bley, who fused composition and free improvisation in new and daring ways. The Bley ensemble reached well into Free Jazz and Motian, though retaining respect for space and atmosphere, offered a more animated counterpoint in his playing than he had with Evans. Suddenly the family name seemed to indicate real ‘motion’ as bar-lines disappeared beneath the drummer’s blurring, timeless pulsations and jazz became new all over again.

Motian’s journey, by the close of the ‘60s, helped to bring music in line with radical politics through the Liberation Music Orchestra led by Charlie Haden and Carla Bley. This large ensemble, in beautifully outspoken terms, shaped protest of the Vietnam War and the Nixon Administration into a historic album’s worth of material. Juxtaposing modernist harmonies and free improv into songs of the Spanish Civil War successfully embedded the Old Left into the New and to hell with generational gaps. Traditional melodies associated with that first fight against the fascists paired with compositions by Hanns Eisler/Bertolt Brecht as well as Carla Bley brought the day’s injustices into alarming light. Motian can be effectively heard sporting martial drumming, spiraling through totally abstract rhythms and incorporating series of bells and chimes into his kit. His ride cymbal was relentless, symbolic of the struggle and driving home the solos of Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Mike Matler, Rosewell Rudd and Gato Barbieri, among others. 

In the 1970s Motian began a long tenure in Keith Jarrett’s band where he seems to have perfected his free improv concepts. More so, the Jarrett work was an extension on what he’d achieved with the trios of Evans and Bley; perhaps the realization of the piano trio by this time saw the format taken to its absolute limits, flipped onto its head, and in turn Jarrett happily accompanied the drummer on his own debut record date as a leader in 1972. While still engaged in the Jarrett band, Motian began to explore his own concepts throughout the decade and by the 1980s came to be known as the leader of one of the hippest ensembles in jazz. His own quartets and trios were fluid, with time being an implied concept and musicians’ roles in the ensemble always subject to the artistry of the moment. The band which featured Bill Frisell’s guitar and Joe Lovano’s tenor saxophone allowed for an atmospheric kind of jazz rarely heard anywhere since the high times of the Bill Evans Trio. Frisell’s use of the volume pedal turned his guitar in many ways, into another horn or a seemingly bowed string instrument, but with a hip, eerie kind of electric echo. The lack of a bassist meant that each of the trio needed to take on the role---or no one at all---and the entire order of what a jazz combo should be was arbitrary. 

Paul Motian’s ensembles in the last decades were always fresh and exciting: at times in all-electric groupings, at other points performing his own take on standards in a more common jazz setting (the ‘Broadway’ album is a must listen-to) or simply playing free. His illness, myelodysplastic--a blood and bone marrow disorder—saw his touring come to an end in recent years but his band became a fixture at the Village Vanguard, offering visual and aural lessons in compositional drumming to all who flocked to the legendary New York club. Motian died at age 80 early this morning, November 21, 2011. His contribution to music’s progress immortalized. Regardless of the notes he may have played in the course of any given selection, solo, chorus, indeed measure, Motian made the very silences between them swing, bringing the listener to the next sound with anticipation. And that is pretty much all a musician can hope for.

-John Pietaro is a musician and writer from New York City. He leads the ensemble Radio NOIR www.reverbnation.com/radionoir.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Radio NOIR, "Langston"

Radio NOIR:  "The Lost Broadcast" E.P.

Radio NOIR is a quartet which wields its own unique brand of dissident swing. Helmed by xylophonist/percussionist John Pietaro and featuring the clarinet of Quincy Saul, the electric guitar of Javier Hernandez-Miyares and the electric bass of Laurie Towers, the band made its debut at the 2011 Dissident Arts Festival (August 13, 2011, the Brecht Forum, NYC). Soon after the members recognized that the artistic as well as socio-political ties that led to the founding of Radio NOIR was indeed a reason to hold the band together. Inspired by the fervent radicalism and sounds of the 1930s as well as the daring post-punk improvisations of downtown NYC, Radio NOIR seeks to build bridges between Left politics and Jazz, radical philosophy and New Music. "The Lost Broadcast", Radio NOIR's 4-song E.P. collection, was recorded live in an all-day marathon session at 17 Frost Theatre of the Arts (Williamsburg, Brooklyn NY) in October 2011. The final document not only includes blazing audio tracks of the band's unique 'dissident swing' but wholly produced videos as well, inclusive of imagery projected onto 17 Frost's three massive screen's positioned around Radio NOIR during the recording process. Note that some of the imagery is comprised of excerpts of the seminal sci-fi/social change film 'Metropolis' by director Fritz Lang. It is not happenstance that Lang's film was directly influenced by his visions of NYC during his initial visit here--- likewise now his work inspires Radio NOIR in their music-activism journey. This E.P. is Radio NOIR's debut recording and one which offers a vivid account of their convictions. Starting from the bitter social unrest of the 1930s, the quartet produce a music which speaks loudly to today's struggles for social and economic justice. Wrapped in the shadows of Depression-era New York, the four titles bridge Hot Jazz  to noir novels, ethereal sounds to No Wave, the words of revolutionary composer Hanns Eisler to free improvisation and the music of Woody Guthrie to a restless, relentless kind of swing. The members of Radio NOIR are experienced improvisors, with New Music as well as expansive Jazz and Pop burnt deeply into their repertoires, but always they maintain the still higher goal of the arts as cultural work, a means toward real social change.

Here is the first release from The Lost Broadcast....


"Langston" (John Pietaro/Quincy Saul) - a 'modernist blues' dedicated to Langston Hughes and his revolutionary intellectual cohorts in the Harlem Renaissance.  In this chamber Jazz piece which opens in a rather mellow mood, the quartet blows over changes in a C-minor blues form which is extended by a whole-tone section. Quincy Saul's clarinet and John Pietaro's xylophone establish the contrapuntal melodic lines, ultimately racing about each other, as Javier Hernandez-Miyares' electric guitar barks commentary from the sideline and Laurie Towers' bold, unshakeable electric bass holds the entire group together in a manner which actually negates the need for a drummer. 

For more info on Radio NOIR  please take a moment to stop by our Facebook page as well as our Reverbnation page......




Friday, November 11, 2011

Karl Berger & The Stone Workshop Orchestra


Free Jazz as Cultural Revolution:

Karl Berger & The Stone Workshop Orchestra

By John Pietaro

The Stone stands quietly and without fanfare at the corner of Avenue C and East 2nd Street. The club is set in an old store front that still bears the markings of pre-gentrified Alphabet City. So unassuming is it that there’s no sign over its door proclaiming that a new experimental music space—one which features the free exchange of art and ideas--has taken back part of New York otherwise lost to the developers and yuppies. The Lower East Side , New York’s historic center of alternative arts and struggle, survived years of neglect and decay during which it was shunned by a larger society attempting to cut off its immigrant and poor population just until the ‘hood became fashionable. And as its boarded-up shops transformed into bistros, it ‘became’ the East Village and was sold to the highest bidder. And somehow post-modern saxophonist John Zorn made a grab to claim some of this prized territory for the movement. This community --where Beat poetry found its home, where the most radical of Left activists congregated, where jazz’s loft scene was birthed, where the punk movement began and where the post-punk avant garde coalesced into No Wave—has taken back one of its lost corners. There’s cause to celebrate but the Stone remains the Village’s best-kept secret. And the noise about it only seems to occur within.

Having enjoyed memorable performances in LES clubs and galleries back when there was a healthy scene harboring this kind of music, I well remember the once-affordable community and its phalanx of artists, anarchists, addicts, dealers, homeless, Hell’s Angels and poverty-stricken residents. No, they weren’t really good old times because there was too much hurt and yet the area held a strange beauty that’s long gone. Walking through the door of the Stone brings me back almost immediately. The space is tight, intimate. The lights are dim. The energy is whirling, barely contained in the walls about me. I felt it on my first visit: Musicians flow in, greeting each other with warm, jovial exchanges, laughs, and discussions about a recent tour with this or that one, the last gig with so-and-so, or baseball scores and small talk. Dressed down, unpacking their axes these men and women are as unassuming as the club itself. I walk over the uneven floorboards and find a spot near the back, next to the drummer and two upright bassists preparing for the evening’s excursion. I stand amidst a mini xylophone or glockenspiel, large and small frame drums, several small hand-held percussives, sometimes a dumbek, and a pair of crowded racks sporting woodblocks, temple blocks, cowbells and a triangle. Somehow I set it up in a manner that’s workable but not imposing to the tightly-packed band, which ranges from a minimum of 12 members to a more standard number of about 23. The immediacy of those around me seems to extend well beyond the physical.

Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso enter the room, gently reaching out to the musicians sitting in a two-rowed semi-circle. The band responds in kind, offering greetings, brief bits of humorous tales and other chitchat. But this is not a mere social call. Soon Karl seats himself caddy-corner at the piano and offers some basic ideas as to what the music will be like tonight. In some cases choosing pieces he’s worked on with the Orchestra before, in others, introducing brand new ones without warning, of course. The compositions are often his own but just as likely penned by the Ornette Coleman or Don Cherry, or other past collaborators. Many are drawn from the repertoire of world folk songs (Karl is especially fond of Turkish music). But it can never be said that there is anything assumed or pre-planned about this band’s music. There is NEVER a written score and when the band needs to learn a jazz head or other melody, it is simply played at the piano, at times slowly and repetitively, until the musicians are comfortable with what’s to come. Karl offers some info on the particular mode or the tradition in which the piece was developed as his hands lightly run over piano keys. The musicians are all veterans and adept at this kind of performance, but Karl’s advice and philosophical guidance are never taken begrudgingly. “Please let’s remember to pay close attention to dynamics in this passage,” Karl is wont to explain as he demonstrates the importance of the phrasing in a piece. Standing now, he raises a hand and gently fans it downward: “You can almost leave that last note out completely. In fact, I would like some of you to fade the phrase just before it ends to really exaggerate the emotion. Deeee-da. Deeee-da”. And the music, already inspired and executed beautifully, comes fully alive. By design, this band is geared toward the highest level of creativity, and the tools of such creativity--free improvisation, on-the-spot composition, modernist harmonies, world rhythms, technical expertise, and latter-day angst—are in constant demand here.

The Stone Workshop Orchestra’s sound is born of the moment, founded by the players’ instincts, skill and need to emote----and it’s then organized by Karl’s artful hand and facial expressions. Sculptor-like, he molds and shapes the aural force emanating from this collection of brass, reeds, strings and percussion set before him. Refusing to consider his part in this as conduction (“really, this is not so specific, I just cue and offer guidance, you do the rest…”), Berger none the less has developed an incredible language of his own; never losing sight of the musicians’ individuality, he plays the orchestra. Karl’s unique hand signals--and welcoming eye contact---bring in sections, soloists or the tutti ensemble, and in doing so, establishes range, tempo, volume, timbre and vibe. Through his cues the band knows the direction and shape as well as the duration of the notes to be played---but the specific notes remain our own. He guides orchestral accents behind the force of a soloist’s excursion, adding to the soundscape and fierce intensity. Karl then layers one solo over another and calls on this or that accompaniment—which ultimately is seen as just an important a voice in the mix and may very well take over the spotlight. Feel is paramount and interpretation is demanded.

So what of this orchestra? Since I began this weekly gig, it has proven itself as a wonderfully expansive vision of what a ‘big band’ could be. From early September till this writing, the line-up has shifted in membership with a solid core of regulars and a series of guests who are passing through New York while on tour. Each Monday I have seen new faces, heard new accents and reveled in new and exciting musical concepts. The musicians qualify as a united nations of Free Jazz, among them Karl Berger - Piano and Conducting, Ingrid Sertso - Voice, Thomas Heberer - Trumpet, Brian Groder – Trumpet, Steve Swell - Trombone, Rick Parker –Trombone, Avram Fefer - Soprano Sax, Stephen Gauci - Tenor Sax, Yoni Kretzmer - Tenor Sax, Darryl Foster – Tenor and Soprano Saxes, Esa Pietila - Tenor Sax, Dave Schnug - Alto Sax, Mercedes Figuera - Alto Sax, Blaise Siwula – Alto Sax, Mikko Innanen – Alto Sax, Jason Candler - Alto Sax, Ricardo Tejero – Clarinet, Michael Lytle - Bass Clarinet, Sylvain Leroux - Flutes, Frederika Krier - Violin, David Bakriges - Violin, Cecile Borche – Violin, Mossa Bildner - Voice, Kenny Wessel - Guitar, Harvey Valdes - Guitar, John Ehlis – Mandolin and Guitar, Adam Lane – Bass, Dominic Lash - Bass, Dave Perrott - Bass, Ken Filiano – Bass, Lou Grassi – Drums, Harvey Sorgen - Drums, John Pietaro - Percussion, Philip Foster – ‘Odds and Ends’. And the many others whose names have escaped me and I hope to meet again.

The performances of the Stone Workshop Orchestra now dwindle down and I contemplate this journey, one not only through avant music but the revolutionary art that begat the need for such an ensemble in this place and time. Karl has no intention of letting this band cease, though the end of season at the Stone will arrive on December 5—in the form of a blow-out pair of concerts which will include special guests including John Zorn. As winter’s chill arrives on the Lower East Side, the Orchestra’s shouts of musical liberation descend over the luxury condos and gourmet delis, declaring the legacy of fearless creativity. And in its resonance, the music tears away the cloud of conformity and clears the path for further generations of New Music.

-John Pietaro is a musician and writer from Brooklyn, NY. His websites are http://TheCulturalWorker.blogspot.com and www.reverbnation.com/radionoir