CULTURAL WORKINGS

Welcome to THE CULTURAL WORKER, a blog dedicated to arts of the people, from the radical avant garde and free jazz to dissident folk forms, punk 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 creative writer, journalist, 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

Sunday, September 16, 2018

CD review: William Hooker, "Pillars...at the Portal"



a modified version of this piece was published in the September 2018 issue of 
"The NYC Jazz Record"

William Hooker, Pillars…at the Portal (Mulatta, 2018)

CD review by John Pietaro

The storied career of William Hooker has traversed sounds, genres and ensembles, usually under his own direction, his drumset the undeniably principal voice. Hooker’s projects have often focused on cultural and political matters of import, conjuring a creative expanse along the way, but on Pillars…at the Portal, no other lure is necessary to hold you to your stereo.

Blakey-like, he leads another youthful band, another array drawn from the most creative of the moment, but Hooker has landed on something particularly special here. This ensemble picks up on where Weather Report left off—early Weather Report, that is—blended with equal parts AACM and downtown NYC. The drummer is no stranger to any of these schools of envelope-pushing and casts rolling, thunderous commentary throughout. Listeners will note Hooker’s trademark vocal direction from behind the kit, shouting uproariously to his young charges as the sounds build to a boil.
The electric guitar of Anthony Pirog is in the front line and stands out both independent of and orchestrally within the reeds of Jon Irabagon (soprano and tenor saxophones) and James Brandon Lewis (tenor). Any one of these monstrous improvisers could have carried the front alone so as a section (“Proving Ground” and “Committed” are notable examples), the thicket is stirring. Pirog opens the album on “Ray of Will” with a loudly growling effects-drenched soundscape that leads to dry, close-miked Reichian group hand-claps moving in and out of phase. This intriguing intro brings us into the piece proper with a driving quarter-note groove that evoked nostalgic memories of Miroslav Vitous and Eric Gravatt, constructed here by the leader and young, gifted bassist Luke Stewart. Pirog’s effects at points sound synth-like, dropping in isolated notes, until he unleashes a screaming, contorting solo. It calls out the saxophonists who create an explosive double-time free jazz foray. It seems clear that most of what we hear on this disc is wholly improvised, but far from mindless blowing, this is creativity of a truly advanced level. This is the shit.

Throughout, the front line is given ample space to speak and Lewis only verifies what people have been saying for years now: he stands tall among the best of the 30-something lions. Lewis consistently produces artful, Trane-inspired work, but in this setting seems pushed into another zone. Irabagon is already known as a “jazz subverter”, so must have been the first-call for this gig. While both are goaded to play harder, louder, faster, one can feel the deft touch and tone that is Lewis’ musical voice. Irabagon too has a marked inside voice (so to speak), but revels in the world of sub-tones. Pirog, noted for his experimental Cuneform albums, soars as comfortably in free-flight as in playing structured melodic unisons with horns. Hendrixian doesn’t begin to describe his ample repertoire. And so then, the drumset of William Hooker, aggressively maintaining the unity, the agitation and the sheer joy of free expression. Let’s call this music in spite of the Trump era.
-------
1.     Ray of Will
2.     Ray of Purporse
3.     Comes into View
4.      Initiation of Decision
5.     Livingness
6.     To Be and Do
7.     Proving Ground
8.     Committed

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Dissident Arts Festival 2018 press release, art

DISSIDENT ARTS FESTIVAL 2018 - PRESS RELEASE, ARTWORK:

Dissident Arts Festival benefits families of political prisoners, celebrates free expression


New York, NY/Brooklyn, NY (August 3, 2018) – The thirteenth annual Dissident Arts Festival, a showcase of revolutionary creativity, will occur on stages in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Manhattan’s East Village on September 8 and 15, respectively. The Festival will raise funds for three organizations relevant to the movement for social justice and feature markedly outspoken statements against repression in a reactionary time.

SEPTEMBER 8’s edition at 17 Frost Theatre and Gallery, a premiere performance space in Williamsburg, is dubbed Cabaret of Dissent. It will benefit the Rosenberg Fund for Children, a non-profit public foundation that aids children of targeted, progressive activists. The event inspired by Weimar Berlin, New York’s Café Society and downtown arts, includes speaker Jenn Meeropol, granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Director of the Rosenberg Fund, esteemed jazz singer Judi Silvano who adds voice to experimentalists the Beyond Group, pianist Chris Forbes presents “Harmolodic Weill”, liberation jazz and spoken word by the Red Microphone, celebrated bassist/poet Larry Roland debuts his new all-star band They Come With Gold, and noted poetry duo Raymond Nat Turner and Zigi Lowenberg. The closing act is rising star singer/songwriter Lindsey Wilson & the Human Hearts.

       On SEPTEMBER 15 the action moves to the 5C Café and Cultural Center, long-standing home of avant jazz and bold performance, where funds will be raised for the Alliance of Families for Justice and the NYC Jericho Movement. Both organizations advocate for the unjustly incarcerated and call for urgent prison reform. The evening opens with a solo performance by renowned drummer William Hooker, and includes 5C’s own pianist/composer Trudy Silver, Ras Moshe’s Music Now! and the Flames of Discontent duo of Festival director John Pietaro and Laurie Towers. The closing act is international songwriter Martina Fiserova.

Sept 8, 7pm-11pm, 17 Frost Theatre & Gallery, 17 Frost Street, Brooklyn NY - $15.


Sept 15, 7pm-11pm, 5C Cultural Center, E. 5 Street/ Ave C, New York NY - $15.

For more information and a complete Festival schedule see www.DissidentArts.com
Press Contact: New Masses Media    John Pietaro (646) 599-0060    leftmus@earthlink.net    
***

DISSIDENT ARTS FESTIVAL 2018 – PERFORMERS/SPEAKERS
SEPT 8
RAYMOND NAT TURNER & ZIGI LOWENBERG:
-Poetry, spoken word

THE BEYOND GROUP:
Cheryl Pyle- C flute, alto flute
Michael Eaton- soprano saxophone
Larry Roland- bass
Judi Silvano- guest vocalist

SPEAKER: Jenn Meeropol, Director, Rosenberg Fund for Children

THEY COME WITH GOLD:
Larry Roland- bass, poetry, spoken word
Daniel Carter – reeds, brass
Michael Moss- reeds, winds
Steve Cohn- keyboard
Marvin Bugulu Smith- drums

THE RED MICROPHONE:
John Pietaro- percussion, spoken word
Ras Moshe Burnett- saxophones, flute
Rocco John Iacovone- saxophones
Laurie Towers- electric bass

HARMOLODIC WEILL:
Chris Forbes- piano

LINDSEY WILSON & THE HUMAN HEARTS:
Lindsey Wilson- vocals, guitar, spoken word
Reggie Sylvester- drums
Michael Trotman- electric bass


SEPT 15
WILLIAM HOOKER:
-solo drums

MARTINA FISEROVA:
-vocals, guitar

SPEAKER: Soffiyah Elijah, Executive Director, Alliance of Families for Justice

TRUDY SILVER:
-piano, voice

THE FLAMES OF DISCONTENT:
John Pietaro- spoken word, vocals, percussion, banjo,
Laurie Towers- electric bass
 with guest Rocco John Iacovone, alto saxophone

RAS MOSHE’S MUSIC NOW!
Ras Moshe- saxophones, flute
Jair-Rohm Parker Wells- bass
Leonid Galaganov- drums
John Pietaro- hand drums, percussion


FESTIVAL HISTORY:

Since its inception in 2006, the Dissident Arts Festival has been a powerful vehicle to bridge radical arts to progressive socio-political activism. Increasingly, the Festival has gained media attention over the course of its decade-long history as evidenced by press in TimeOut NY, the Indypendent, the Villager, the NYC Jazz Record, Downtown Express, Peoples World, Chronogram and others as well as an endorsement by noted jazz journalist Howard Mandel. Over the years the Dissident Arts Festival has been sponsored by the Rosenberg Fund for Children, the National Writers Union, the Len Ragozin Foundation, Local 802's Justice for Jazz Artists campaign, Occupy Musicians, the Howland Cultural Center and DooBeeDooBeeDoo music blog.

Originally based in the Hudson Valley and moving to New York City in 2010, the Festival’s performers and speakers over the years included folk music legend Pete Seeger, actor/raconteur Malachy McCourt, revolutionary poet Amina Baraka, late great trumpet player Roy Campbell, filmmaker Kevin Keating, spoken word artists Steve Dalachinsky and the late Louis Reyes Rivera, political satirist/activist Randy Credico, the late saxophonist/composer Will Connell, multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter, Chilean guitarist Luis ToTo Alvarez, protest song maven Bev Grant, hip hop ensemble ReadNex Poetry Squad, labor leader Henry Foner, Anti-Folk founder Lach and many more. Films screened include ‘Giuliani Time’, ‘Cultures of Resistance’, ‘Salt of the Earth’, ‘Battleship Potemkin’ and ‘Metropolis’. Other special features were tributes to Paul Robeson, Bertolt Brecht, Woody Guthrie, and Phil Ochs. The Dissident Arts Festival has also offered a voice to progressive political candidates, the Occupy movement and radical labor organizations.

Festival Producer/Host: John Pietaro

###

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Concert review: Songs for Connie, Greenwich House, June 2018


-Originally published inn”The NYC Jazz Record”, NY@Night section, July 2018-



SONGS FOR CONNIE: Vocalists Celebrate the Life of Connie Crothers
June 15, 2018, Greenwich House Music School, Renee WeilerConcert Hall, NYC
Concert review by John Pietaro

The audience at Greenwich House filled the space this June nightbristling with enthusiasm for the late Connie Crothers. The linger of the pianist’s essence held court as eight female vocalists took the stage with songs of significancefrom standards to free-reigning tone poemsCrothers mentored a legion of improvisers over years but vocalists had a special affection for her concepts developed through the tutelage ofLennie TristanoMore so, Crothers fostered a creative community rooted in humanism and her progressive credoWith her 2016 passing, concerts celebrating her life were established(as Connie had done in honor of Tristano), with vocalists Linda Satin and Dori Levine at the helm. 

Jazz vocal legend Sheila Jordan headlined with a set that transported the room back through decades, deftly supported by bassist Adam Lane (ignited with Harvey Schwartz interplay) and pianist Tom Thorndike. At 89, her swinging, bop lines carry the verve and cool we’d thought were lost with smoke-filled rooms. Other standout performances included Jay Clayton, a hip veteran of non-traditional vocals with the uncanny ability to always be on pitch. Her duet with the extraordinary bassist Ken Filianoexpanded Ornette’s “Lonely Woman” into new, quite moving realmsFiliano was also present for Andrea Wolper’s bossa-filled set with Carol Liebowitz on piano; others included Cheryl Richards, Alexis Parsons, Lynne Bongiorno and the event’s producers. There’s not enough space to give proper due to the breadth of wonderful sounds, but suffice to say that Connie, looking down, must have been most pleased. 

CD Review: John Zorn’s The Urmuz Epigrams

-Originally published in “The NYC Jazz Record”’ June 2018-



John Zorn, The Urmuz Epigrams (Tzadik, 2018)
John Zorn – saxophone,piano, organ, sound effects, guitar, bass, game calls, percussion, voice
Ches Smith – drums, percussion, vibraphone, glockenspiel, voice

CD Review by John Pietaro 

The Urmuz Epigrams may be John Zorn’s most compellingconceptual album. The leader’s saxophones, keyboards and wealth of other instruments, is paired with the drums, mallets and percussion of Ches Smith. Though the eight compositions are the saxophonist’s own, the vision propelling the music and the album’s packaging is the work of the rather mythic Hungarian writer Urmuz. Born in Bucharest, 1883, his death came some forty years later by suicide. Urmuz foresaw the Dada movement, ushering middle Europe (and the rest of us) into the avant garde of rebellionThe writer had a prominent career in law, yet his continued activity among underground creativesa leading radical, he opposed the wealthy hierarchy and conservativacademia—saw the need for him to live secretdouble existenceIn 1923, just after Urmuz’s death, Dada founder Tristan Tzara attempted to stop his publication in France, fearful of diminishment to his own standingThat said, his resurgence now within today’s avant garde should come asno surprise. Particularly when spearheaded by John Zorn.
Designed as a faux 1920s collectionthe Urmuz Epigrams is visually stunning in both its simplicity and grandeur. And while Zorn released this on his own Tzadik labelan insignia akin to EMI’Parlophone imprint is evident (Beatles fans knows Parlophone, right, John?)--modified here to Pahuciphone for the writer’s rebel group the Pahuci BrotherhoodWithin, Zorn created a score to a Theatre of the Absurd drama that never was. His use of game calls, Cageian chance arrangements and the recording studio as an instrument signal a resurgence of Zorn’s own youth as much the concept is an homage to his target’s. The brief opening cut, “Disgusted with Life”, can only be described as slow-moving rapid fire, with sounds both acoustic and electronic dropping in and out as one motive seeps into the next. However on “This Piano Lid Serves as a Wall” the modal waltz music of Erik Satie (the godfather of modernist, absurdist musicians) is implied through Zorn’s piano and Smith’s touching vibraphone melody. Throughout, the musical offerings captivate and surprise and as is often the case with Zorn, one rarely knows where composition ends and improv starts. In fleeting bursts, powerful instrumental juxtapositions are heard. Smith’s thunderous timpani solos on “A Rain of Threats and Screams” is but one example. 
In recreating the lost legend of Urmuz, Zorn’s notable false ending is the full replay of his “surrealistic suite”, heard in its “original” as opposed to “reconstructed” form, complete with simple analog mixes and 78 RPM hissing and pops. If this is parody, Zorn has achieved a parody for all time, one built on dire respect for an avant pioneer born far ahead of his time.


Friday, May 18, 2018

Art: LEFT FORUM 2018, "Three Lives in Revolutionary Literature" panel discussion

    Ad design by John Pietaro

Art: ROD SERLING, "He's Alive"

    Prose: Rod Serling, digital art: John Pietaro

Art: BRECHT, "What Keeps Mankind Alive?"

    Poetry: Bertolt Brecht, digital art: John Pietaro

Concert review and essay: DAME ETHEL SMITH, "The Prison"


British Suffragette Composer Celebrated 

with Carnegie Hall Debut

Dame Ethel Smyth was an early champion of feminism and equality

by John Pietaro


Dame Ethel Smyth, “The Prison”
Text by HB Brewster
The Cecelia Chorus of New York with Orchestra
Mark Shapiro, Music Director and Conductor
Chelsea Shephard, soprano; Tobias Greenhalgh, baritone
Carnegie Hall, May 11, 2018

Dame Ethel Smyth, deceased some 74 years, has finally arrived to public consciousness in the era of #MeToo, Stormy Daniels and annual Women’s Marches. The bitter irony is that this spokeswoman of democracy, women’s liberation, LGBTQ rights and radical cultural work has stood, at best, as a footnote of late-Romantic period British music. In her time Smyth struggled against conservative music academics who sought to have her disavowed, as much as the flagrant sexism riddling paternalistic gentry. Born just outside of London, 1858, Smyth was formally educated in English music colleges before traveling to Germany where she embarked upon a close study of Brahmsian composition. Debuting several early works by the 1870s, Smyth earned critical acclaim and yet experienced the disdain of male musicians, culminating in the refusal by many to perform the works of “a lady composer”.

Smyth travelled throughout Europe over the last decades of the19th Century, ever independent, composing prolifically.  Her works in this period included an opera, Fantasio, and her noted piece for chorus and orchestra, the Mass in D. She conducted her own music in the concert halls of Germany, France and Britain, breaking new ground in this decidedly male forum. While in Florence Smyth first encountered Harry Brewster, an American expatriate with whom she’d hold a powerfully, visceral bond. She called “HB” her soul-mate and greatest champion and together they explored Classical Greek dramas, contemporary French poetry and philosophy. Brewster helped her write the librettos of several operas but also embarked upon his own literary projects. Among these was an 1891 work of fiction, the Prison: a Dialogue, which metaphysically portrayed an innocently convicted man living out his final days in solitary confinement. Brewster died in 1908.

Smyth became a central figure in the British women’s movement, composing the theme of UK suffragettes, “the March of the Women”, in 1911. Inspired by the leading feminist, Emmeline Pankhurst, she enthusiastically defied police orders during a rally for voting rights and was among a large group jailed for 60 days, convicted of throwing stones at the windows of Parliament. It is said that as her sister inmates sang the anthem, she conducted the proceedings through bars with a jail-issued toothbrush. Smyth was an active member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, a particularly radical branch of feminists, and spoke openly of her lesbian lifestyle, no matter the Tory hysterics.

The composer suffered crushing blows throughout her career, none more so than the hearing loss which greatly curtailed her role as conductor. She found new inspiration in the writing of essays and books and it was through this medium that she befriended Virginia Woolf who also became a lover. In 1922, her artistic merits were finally acknowledged by the British government which granted her the Member of the British Empire honor and the title of Dame.

At age 72, in 1930, Smyth completed her last major composition, the Prison, a symphony for soprano, bass, chorus and orchestra, adapted from Brewster’s novelette. With this piece, she was able to symbolically realize the isolation she’d experienced throughout much of her life, but refused to be paralyzed by. And with advancing deafness, the remainder of Smyth’s existence was clouded by a more present inner world than that which was outward. Still, she was able to successfully conduct the world premiere of the piece at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall in February 1931, an act that must have given her the greatest sense of accomplishment: the silence which rapidly encroached upon her was here confronted by Smyth’s own resolve and core strength, much as the Prisoner character (the bass vocalist) and his Soul (the soprano) interact to an end most powerful and moving.

With her Carnegie Hall debut this month, Dame Ethel is posthumously brought to the wider attention of what remains a male-dominated music industry. The Prison is composed quite squarely in the late Romantic style, classically aligned, meticulously plotted, but painted with emotional flourishes associated with the back-to-nature philosophy of the latter 1800s. Bits of programmatic music, character motifs, antiphon and flowing counter-themes offer an atmosphere that both represents the protagonist’s sense of urgency as much as the confined stasis of the singular setting. Throughout, the Prisoner and his Soul exchange thoughts which lead toward his realization of life’s beauty and majesty, even when marked by such repressive terms. “A great yearning seized me”, the Prisoner sings devoutly. “I would like to go out once more among the living! Can nothing of it all be good to others?” he ponders and asks what he would say to those existing freely. His Soul responds: “Tell them that no man lives in vain…” a concept well rooted in progressive, humanist philosophy.

The chorus’ role, as designated by the Greek dramatists Brewster so admired, is narrative and speaks more to the audience than the characters down front. Acting as an aggregate higher power or perhaps the conscience of society itself, the Voices state: “We are full of immortality/This hour that is with us now/Will endure forever”. More so, the protagonist’s growth is exemplified in Part II, the morning it would seem, of his execution. He exclaims: “I disband myself/And travel on forever in your scattered paths/Where ever you are there shall I be/I survive in you!/I set my ineffaceable stamp/On the womb of time”, an homage to collectivism, it seems, that holds an endearing similarity to the final writing of IWW labor organizer, journalist and songwriter Joe Hill, unjustly executed in Utah seven years after Brewster’s death. Hill’s “Last Will” alerted his followers to his wishes for cremation, “And let the merry breezes blow/My dust to where some flowers grow/Perhaps some fading flowers then/Would come to life and bloom again”. But John Steinbeck’s masterwork, “The Grapes of Wrath”, offers a still more poignant statement: “I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere you look. Where ever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there…”

And so Dame Ethel Smyth, whose music accompanied the oppressed women of England in their struggle for a truly democratic voice. A composer of great skill and talent, a bold visionary in a time of profound reaction, Smyth’s rediscovery may have occurred at just the right time to inspire a new generation of feminist activists. On both sides of the Atlantic.



Sunday, April 29, 2018

Performance Review: MARC RIBOT w Jay Rodriguez, Nasheet Waits, Nick Dunston, April 2018, Bar LunAtico, Brooklyn NY



MARC RIBOT with Jay Rodriguez, Nasheet Waits, Nick Dunston
April 3, 2018, Bar LunAtico, Brooklyn NY
Published in “The NYC Jazz Record”, May 2018

Performance Review by John Pietaro

The faux old world décor of Bar LunAtico encircled Marc Ribot judiciously. Under a corroded tin ceiling, the club’s shadowy lighting fed into the noir imagery that No Wavers and other creatures of the night have always eaten up. Clearly, such affections aren’t limited by generational bounds: the 20-somethings in black berets and leather weren’t born when Ribot pioneered new sounds downtown, but at LunAtico the guitarist and his searing new quartet were greeted by a cheering capacity house.

Saxophonist Jay Rodriguez emoted as if on a mountain top while young bassist Nick Dunston laid throbbing runs about him and drummer Nasheet Waits evoked a sudden storm over tom-toms. The guitarist leaned into his microphone to unleash radical lyrics on this socially conscious crowd, offering new visions of the material from his Songs of Resistance project. Adaptations of the Carter Family’s “When the World is on Fire” and the Civil Rights anthem “We are Soldiers in the Army” were stand-outs, but no more than Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”, its refrain of “the big fool said to push on” now a marked affront to Trump. Lost in the fog of free improvisation, Ribot played with a frenetic blueness, up-picking spiky motifs of a uniquely urban sort.

By the final piece, charging Latin rhythms and an explosive montuno section pumped the audience to exhaustion. As the final downtown groove burst forward, Bar LunAtico’s inhabitants were lost to another time and place, all the better for the journey.


Performance Review: William Hooker, the Great Migration, Roulette, Apr 5, 2018


Published in "The NYC Jazz Record", May 2018

NY@Night: WILLIAM HOOKER 
“The Great Migration”, Apr 5, 2018
Roulette, Brooklyn NY

by John Pietaro

The vision of master drummer William Hooker artfully extends beyond the fourth wall, through time and space, conjuring jazz’s socio-political foundation. With the multi-media piece “The Great Migration”, he traces the northward path of African Americans and through pre-recorded interviews, the lives of elders Nannie Lampkin and Alton Brooks, both pridefully present in the audience. Still, most of the action took place onstage.
The stories were intertwined with powerful music, mostly live but also through early recordings of spirituals and a haunting chain-gang song. Hooker’s ensemble of Ras Moshe (tenor saxophone), Eriq Robinson (electronics), Mara Rosenbloom (piano), William Parker (bass), David Soldier (violin, banjo) and Ava Mendoza (guitar) shook the sturdy house with searing improvisations that painted an aural manifesto of the Black experience; the band’s free jazz, the living embodiment of liberation. Moshe, as always, played with compelling passion, Mendoza’s features were downright gripping and the electronics of Robinson tore up the soundscape.
The leader’s composed melodies guided the action, particularly a blues hook so prominent in Parker’s bass, often varied fluidly by the others. The music, emotively directed by Hooker, recalled the rural south sans any trace of parody (Soldier’s fiddle was exceptional here but his banjo needed stronger amplification), while other sections were ethereal and expansive (Rosenbloom, yes!). Dancer Goussy Celestin’s majestic segments flanked the production and she, Jeremy Grosvenor and Hooker also acted as narrators. So vital is this epic work, right now, that a lack of future productions would simply be criminal.

CD Review: Patricia Nicholson and William Parker, 'Hope Cries for Justice'


Hope Cries for Justice, Patricia Nicholson and William Parker 

(Centering Records, 2018)

CD review by John Pietaro
Published in “The NYC Jazz Record”, May 2018

Patricia Nicholson- text, voice; William Parker- donso n’goni, bass

In times of political strife, musicians, poets, all cultural workers, have stood on the front lines of fight-back. Patricia Nicholson and William Parker, through the reach of their Vision Festival and community-building of Arts for Art, stand as leading radicals within jazz’s cutting edge.
With Hope Cries for Justice, the pair engage in an intimate portrait of “our present moment and the power of the spirit”. Parker, the noted bassist, is primarily heard on the West African dosno ngoni, a traditional harp. He uses the instrument’s modal stasis effectively, evoking the heat and breadth of sub-Saharan topography, peppering it with off-mic vocalization. Nicholson’s performances in contrast carry a strong theatrical component including an affected southern-like vernacular for some selections. And opening cut “Taken” finds the narrator bathed in numbing despair after witnessing a woman’s brutal abduction by authorities. There is something stunningly Kafkaesque about the piece, its dark imagery, its inward isolation, but the remainder of the album never quite matches this subtle urgency.
The album’s theme is the need for hope; in its absence, the pair remind us, “there can never be justice”, yet it also illustrates distance and aloneness (“My mother was standing there and we watched as her heart was breaking”). It’s unclear as to how many of these pieces are specific to contemporary Trumpian realities, but “The Wall Between” and “Wailing at the Lost Souls Department” offer strong responses to reactionary bravura. Mysteriously, within such vital messaging is “Granola”. Its stirring Orwellian refrain of “Words have gone missing” is affixed to a lengthy adoration of this breakfast condiment. Pondering symbolism, the confluence of the two remains unclear and unfortunately sounds trite.
As Nicholson and Parker’s festival hails improvisation, much of the work here makes fine use of the medium, yet some segments fall short. Nicholson often embellishes text with repetition, broken rhythms, diphthongs, plainsong and melisma, pertinent tools all. But such skills require nurturing, indeed a delicate rearing. When works appear strained by uncertainty in vocal expression--particularly when elongated by declarations of “You know. You know. You know-you know-you know-you know. You know”--the quality of dissent is endangered by its very liberation. James Baldwin, among the most revolutionary of writers, stated that a sentence should emerge ‘clean as a bone’ when edited. It’s easy to imagine the constituent strength that may grow of this project with multiple performances. As the battle rages.


CD review: CERAMIC DOG, 'YRU Still Here?'


Ceramic Dog, YRU Still Here? (Northern Spy 2018)

CD Review by John Pietaro
PUBLISHED IN "THE NYC JAZZ RECORD", May 2018


Marc Ribot- guitars, requinto, farfisa, bass, e-horn, vocoder, vocals
Shahzad Ismally-bass, Moog, percussion, background vocals, vocals in Urdu
Ches Smith- drums, percussion, electronics, background vocals

-With-
Rea Dubach (2,6,8) and Lukas Rutzen (2, 8)- background vocals
Curtis Fowlkes – trombone (2, 8)
Maurice Herrera – congas (2)
Broggen Krauss – sax (6)
Neel Murgai – sitar (9)
Doug Wieselman – sax (6), flute (2)


Marc Ribot’s career as Downtown guitar guru has found its natural place, some 40 years hence, fronting Ceramic Dog. This trio, with a variety of guests layered into the mix, realizes the guitarist’s current vision of this uncategorizeable genre—you know, the one he helped to forge when the East Village was affordable. Increasingly, Ribot has added vocals to his performance, raw, guttural, biting vocals, and his fluid, boundless guitar playing endeavors into hardcore effortlessly. In Ceramic Dog his kindred rhythm spirits, drummer Ches Smith and bassist Shahzad Ismally, happily wade waist deep into the big muddy of this thickened soundscape. Unlike other experimental ensembles that reach into punk for inspiration, Ribot’s pedigree gives license to overdriven rapid-fire crunch chords as much as acoustic finger-picking. And as Smith and Ismally are equally adept at alternating from pensive whisper to merciless throb, manifold artistry is on full display. Perhaps the only aspect of YRU Still Here? more apparent than its eclecticism is the decidedly radical stance Ribot thrives on. Like the ‘60s Free Jazz artists whose instrumental cries echoed Black Liberation, Ribot has always used his music’s core emotions as a gateway toward protest. Here, the call is for unity in defiance of oppression, with liner notes citing the Trump-directed Immigration raids on working-class communities as “tyranny”, and stating that musicians must “amplify the voices of rage in our community”. There are quiet moments to be sure, but Ceramic Dog is always on the hunt for agitation.

The album opens with the distortion-laden “Personal Nancy”, a brief, driving work, before moving into the more tempered “Pennsylvania 6 6666” (Glenn Miller allusion?). Things boils over with selection 8, “Fuck La Migra”, which sonically spits into the face of the current Administration. But it’s also about the music: a post-punk funky foray screaming with masterful Ribot guitar (McLaughlin fans will stop in their tracks), Curtis Fowlkes’ trombone, Mauricio Herrera’s perpetual-motion congas and Smith’s downright swinging drum break. Another standout selection, “MuslimJewish Resistance”, is a hip hop flavored solidarity piece excoriating the rightward forces that grow fat on Jewish/Muslim division. Revel in Briggan Krauss’s furious tenor saxophone solo signaling a call to arms. But then “Orthodoxy”, one of several instrumental selections, is a deft fusion of Arabic and South Indian traditions colored with boundary-stomping improvisation. With Ribot, there’s no room for hesitation; this ensemble draws on a heritage of fearlessness and YRU Still Here? is a vital recording for tumultuous times.