Saturday, July 18, 2020

Album review: Anne Waldman, Sciamachy

Anne Waldman, Sciamachy (Fast Speaking Music, 2020)

Album review by John Pietaro

           1.         Extinction Aria
2.        Streets of the World
3.        Rune
4.        My Lover Comes Home Today
5.        Face Down Girl

From the opening strains of “Extinction Aria”, the lead selection on Anne Waldman’s Sciamachy, the urgency of the moment couldn’t be clearer:

This is my vision…days on earth/Days when the weather changed course/
When we lost our minds/When leaders failed us/ There was no wisdom.

Waldman’s career extends through decades, from the latter years of the Beats through New York’s New Poetry literary circles. She was a founding member of the celebrated Poetry Project and co-founder, with Allen Ginsberg and Diane Di Prima, of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics of Naropa University. As a performer, she’s fused verse into the spheres of free jazz, world music and post-punk, commanding stages around the world, brandishing raw political activism within demanding, commanding works which spare no conservative ideology.

In the best “downtown” tradition, Waldman has been collaborating with expansive musicians and other artists for over forty years, casting a prideful lineage in her wake. Still, her new album Sciamachy may stand as the highest achievement of her recorded output. Produced by Waldman’s nephew, the saxophonist Devin Brahja Waldman, Sciamchy (which translates from Greek as “shadow war”) boasts old friends Laurie Anderson and William Parker. Her son, Ambrose Bye, served as an engineer and played synthesizer on ensemble selections, so the combination is downright visceral. Further, the international musicians herein carry well the weight of post-modernism’s boundlessness.

The “Extinction Aria” is a powerful exploration of Tibetan and Mayan prophecies as much as socio-political commentary. Initially published as verse in a limited edition set last year, the work’s core is an indictment of the greed, waste, manipulation and warmongering about us. After being recorded live in a studio with the full ensemble, the piece became more relevant than Waldman initially suspected:

Enemy is the creation of a waffling god realm/A becoming in fact/
Becoming isolated/And a kind of ghostly corporeality.

Like so many of her epic poems, Waldman writes here both in overt exclamation and mystical insinuation, threading ancient wisdom to contemporary struggle.

The poet has been performing increasingly with nephew Devin Waldman. In his alto saxophone one unmistakably hears a call to the elders, but such a rite begins even before his horn is released from the case. The younger Waldman’s tone ranges from haunting to infernal within the quintet of synthesist Bye, mesmerizing guitarist Havard Skaset (of Norway where he leads experimental band MoE), British electronics artist/baritone bassist Deb Googe (of My Bloody Valentine), and Norwegian bassist Guro Moe. Regrettably, the band is only heard in full power on the opener and “My Lover Comes Home Today”—though Waldman assured that there are more quintet tracks awaiting release. Individual band members are called in for other selections as well, all to excellent effect. Of special note are the pieces with Laurie Anderson, “Rune”, and William Parker, “Streets of the World”. On the former, Anderson’s electric violin constructs a skeletal soundscape about Waldman’s voice. Poet as well as musician, Anderson’s connection to the words is near spiritual. And on “Streets of the World”, bassist Parker plays the n’goni, a compellingly percussive African lute. Waldman explained that this session was completed in one take, an of-the-moment collective improvisation, but then the poetry was birthed in the midst of tension, too. “The piece was written in the heat of Trump, at various protests around Trump Tower, when I’d move to the side to scribble down words as the inspiration struck”.

In the historic context of poetry as a weapon, Anne Waldman continues to brandish arms that are as healing as they are lethal, decidedly aesthetic and artful, and never concealed.

Anne Waldman: voice and text
Laurie Anderson – electric violin (selection 3)
William Parker – n’goni (selection 2)
Ambrose Bye: synthesizer (selections 1 and 4)
Devin Brahja Waldman – tenor and soprano saxophones (selections 1, 2 and 4), drums (selection 4)
Deb Googe – electronics (selections 1 and 5), baritone bass (selection 4)
Havard Skaset – electric guitar (selections 1 and 4)
Guro Moe – electric bass (selection 1), vocalizations (selection 4)

Recording by Felix X Tigersonic at Smartmix Studio in London, UK; and by Alden Penner and Ambrose Bye at Fast Speaking Music Studio, NYC. Produced by Devin Brahja Waldman.

CD review: Ran Blake and Andrew Rathbun, Northern Noir

NYC Jazz Record, June 2020

Ran Blake and Andrew Rathbun, Northern Noir (SteepleChase, 2020)
CD review by John Pietaro

Throughout his storied career, Ran Blake’s position in the jazz pantheon has been singular, with one hand reaching into the well of modernism as a matter of course. But this isn’t “third stream” anything; the music stands alone, bathed in the richest blue-blacks and charcoal grays. It’s only fitting, then, that he’s a deep aficionado of all things ‘noir’ with a true affection for films noir. He’s explored such concepts before, yet—as always—cannot help but outdo his earlier forays.  Northern Noir is a deep walk though not only some notable film music, but songs that bridge the era (including Monk’s “Panonica”) and originals, drawing every nuance from the period and the acoustics of the studio. The darkness at the heart of this genre is gorgeously portrayed through Blake’s expansive harmonies, stealth bass lines and bedazzling passing tones that blur harmonies much as the shadows of the movies confound conception. Blake, he of the wide intervallic grasp and alternate use of space and chordal clouds, loves the intimacy of duos. While he’s known for working with deeply expressive vocalists, for this outing his partner is Canadian tenor saxophonist (and film composer, not incidentally) Andrew Rathbun, whose instrumental voice is no less expressive. Selections include powerful, perhaps definitive renditions of “Dr. Mabuse the Gambler” (Konrad Elfers), “the Spiral Staircase” (Roy Webb) and “A Streetcar Named Desire” (Alex North). David Raksin’s “Laura” is performed akin to a dream soundtrack, designed to seduce and mesmerize, much like the film. And the adaptation of Bernard Herrmann’s “Vertigo” score, incorporating several themes, is initially played at tempo and true to the page, before taking the listener through a night journey. The album both opens and closes with the stirring “Strange Fruit”, composed by Abel Meeropol in 1938. Both versions capture the sad urgency built into its every fiber. How prescient a statement Blake and Rathbun emit (the recording was completed in 2018) as the nation is again embroiled in mass protests against racial injustice. And lynchings.
Ran Blake, piano; Andrew Rathbun, tenor saxophone
Strange Fruit/Dr Mabuse/The Spiral Staircase/Midnight Sun/The Wild One/For George/Pannonica/Judy/Of the Little North Wind/Far Wayne/I Should Care/Laura/There’s Been a Change/For Kenny/Vertigo/Streetcar Named Desire/Throw it Away/Strange Fruit

Performance review: BANG ON A CAN Marathon

NYC Jazz Record, NY@Night, June, 2020

Bang on a Can Marathon

Livestream from artists’ homes
May 1, 2020

 If it’s any indication of livestream acceptance, this reviewer was unable to readily access this event (May 1) due to overly crowded “airwaves” until it was bounced to co-producer Roulette’s YouTube channel. Or perhaps, the rush of viewers was all about Bang on a Can. This annual festival, founded in 1987 by composers David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, was developed during residency at the R.A.P.P. Arts Center until that East Village venue closed. BoaC, never homeless, has only moved outward and upward with each transition. Not an organization to collapse in the face of a pandemic, the founders hosted a powerful collection of remote performances from musicians’ homes, leaping the miles over hours. Lang, Gordon and Wolfe, from their own remote locations, not only functioned as programmers and MCs, but added discussion and interviews with the contributing composers, creating the global educational experience Bernstein dreamt of. Celebrated pianist Vijay Iyer intrigued with an etude incorporating expansive techniques (sound board rapping, plucking strings). Trombonist and noted composer-improviser George Lewis performed a duet with pre-recorded piano whole tone runs as he shouted and lamented in empathic collaboration. Baritone saxophonist Ken Thompson adapted Shelley Washington’s work for 35 reeds, producing a rhythmic post-mod cross of “Four Brothers” and Birth of the Cool. Guitarist Mary Halvorson played a compelling piece with digital delay that absolutely sobbed. So much happened in this festival, that it cannot be captured in a 250-word space, but stay tuned for the next edition, June 14. Bravo!

RAUL MIDON: Flamenco’s Fire into the Cool

Originally published in AllAboutJazz, June 2019

RAUL MIDON: Flamenco’s Fire into the Cool
by John Pietaro
(photo by Sherry Rubel)

Leaning into the tenacious chordal structure of “Bad Ass and Blind”, Raul Midon’s surging flurries, stinging dyads and whirling solos over nylon strings speak with artful determination. His vocals and guitar in aerial unison can be intoxicating. In his voice one hears terse vibrato, a searching, spiritual tone and the strain of hardship. Celebrated. For the concertgoer recognizing that the artist on stage—who also does uncanny ‘trumpet’ vocalizations and plays hand drums--is sightless, the experience becomes awe-inspiring. “There’s not a lot of good to being blind”, Midon jokingly explains, “but as I never got to see anyone else perform, I just did it all myself”.

From his origins in a small New Mexico town to the world stage and Grammy nominations for Best Jazz Vocal, one can’t help but call Raul Midon’s journey ‘visionary’. The relevance of sound and touch greatly impacted Midon as a child when first exposed to the drum via his father, a folkloric dancer. The guitar entered his life through a school program and musical pursuits developed during his teen years. First drawn to the flamenco music in his immediate surroundings, the young guitarist absorbed the techniques largely by osmosis, “but I wasn’t aware that traditional flamenco was only played with the first three fingers (of the right hand), so I use them all”.

Midon entered the esteemed music program at the University of Miami, alma mater of Pat Methaney, Jaco Pastorius and many more, in 1984. “Man, for me it was great. I had teachers who recognized that I learned in a different way”. He buried himself in studies and made transcriptions of noted jazz solos, hence the development of his ‘trumpet’ vocalizations. In this period, Midon listened to a wide range of music, from jazz and R&B to world music and rock, in particular Steely Dan. The latter left an indelible mark on his concepts of production and songwriting, but especially the literary references found in Becker and Fagen’s lyrics. “Steely Dan led me to the writings of the Beats and particularly William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. In the ‘50s, America was the top of the world—for certain people. The Beats were a precursor to what occurred in the 1960s”.

 Performing locally in Miami, Midon’s catalog of original music grew while he sustained an income singing on Latin music sessions, those for Jose Feliciano, Shakira and Julio Iglesias among them. “I learned a ton in the studio and recognized that its where I wanted to be. Most of the music was pop or commercial jingles, but I enjoyed it for a time”. However, his trajectory was also becoming clear. “Many people see themselves as being of a certain genre, but I’ve never wanted to be in a box”. Bored with the limited scope, in 2001 he toured as a backing vocalist with Shakira. “I had a little Backpacker guitar which I played whenever I had downtime. Most producers had no idea I even played guitar, but Phil Ramone approached me to ask if I had a record deal. But I’d gotten a BMG deal by then”. Though his guitar playing may have been a mystery to some, Midon had been immersed in the instrument through the years. “Lenny Breau was a big influence on me. His pianistic approach was so unique” and was thusly incorporated into the heart of Midon’s own playing and in turn, composition.

As the Shakira tour came to a close, Midon settled in Midtown Manhattan. In the whirlwind of considerable culture shock, he was also close enough to the business to interact with legends like Arif Mardin, one of the three leaders of Atlantic Records’ glory years. Mardin not only signed the budding star to a contract but became his guiding force. “My guitar playing and way of approaching music wasn’t conventional. Most producers looked for things to change in me, but Arif said ‘We must record you in the best way possible’. I was lucky enough to be the last one he produced and the only one he ever signed. He came over to Blue Note’s Manhattan Records imprint and brought me along”. Midon’s major label debut, State of Mind, was released in 2005 to critical acclaim. On it, he incorporated the traditional sounds of his youth within a cornucopia of R&B stylings. Stevie Wonder was a guest performer on the album. “He was an important inspiration to me. Stevie was even more extraordinary than we knew; his decision to embrace the civil rights movement, in opposition to Berry Gordy, was the right decision. Knowing what I know now, I recognize how important it was”, he reflected.

Sadly, Arif Mardin died not long after the album’s release, but Midon continued moving forward. “I got a call from Herbie Hancock and was absolutely shocked; he wanted me to sing on one cut of his new album”. Hancock’s Possibilities (Vector, 2005) featured a bevy of noted vocalists and when the legendary pianist told Midon he wanted to record a Stevie Wonder song, the younger man felt it was fate. “But when he said we were going to do “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, I was disappointed. I thought, “Damn, why not “Living for the City” or “You Haven’t Done Nothin”’??”. The session proved difficult as Midon attempted to capture the spirit of Wonder’s hit, “but then Joe Mardin (Arif’s son) told me to imagine that the call was left unanswered. I thought they just wanted me to sound like Stevie, but then that’s when the magic happened”. The end result is a moving, aria-like work with expansive harmonies and trademark Hancock piano improvisations.

Over the next few years Midon recorded another tribute to a major vocal influence, Donny Hathaway, and then partnered with one more, Bill Withers, with whom he wrote “Mi Amigo Cubano”. “I don’t normally write in Spanish but wouldn’t say no to Bill Withers”. By 2010 Midon’s album Synthesis (Decca) included jazz and session heavies such as drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, guitarist Dean Parks, keyboard player Jamie Muhoberac, organist Larry Goldings, percussionist Paulinho Da Costa and bassist Larry Klein, who also produced.

The foray into jazz continued when, in 2014, he released the live Don't Hesitate (Mack Avenue/Artistry) with special appearances by Diane Reeves, bassist Marcus Miller, gospel singer Lizz Wright and bassist Richard Bona. “I loved working with all of those guys though I probably couldn’t afford to keep doing it”, he added, laughing. But even when playing solo, the guitarist has earned serious props from jazz artists. His rapid-fire performance of “Giant Steps”, tearing through all twelve keys with nary a breath, earned well over a million views on YouTube.

Midon’s following releases were realized with jazz musicians and in 2016 his touring band, which played the Monterey Jazz Festival, counted pianist Gerald Clayton, trumpet player Nicholas Payton, drummer Gregory Hutchinson and bassist Joe Sanders in its ranks. 2017’s Bad Ass and Blind included these artists as well as drummer Lionel Cordew and bassist Richard Hammond. The album, which brought Midon to the attention of countless listeners, was nominated for a Grammy Award. “It was a huge shock. Our publicist called at 8:30am from the subway screaming! Then in 2018 we were nominated again for the next album (If You Really Want). Ironically, the record company hesitated giving approval on this one as its orchestral: expensive to record and made touring prohibitive. But I told them they were wrong and insisted it would be Grammy-nominated”.  If You Really Want was duly nominated. Recorded in the Netherlands with the esteemed Metropole Orckest, the selections were orchestrated and conducted by Vince Mendoza.

Midon’s 2020 release, The Mirror traverses the genres and adds two powerful spoken word pieces included. Guests include vibraphonist Joe Locke, pianist John Di Martino, bassist Boris Kozlov (Mingus Big Band) and drummer Vincent Cherico (of Ray Barretto and Arturo O’Farrell) as well as Janis Siegel of the Manhattan Transfer. Within the poetry, Midon directly addresses his blindness (“If I could see/I would walk alone sometimes”), contemplates a day without war (“how many lives would be saved/what revolutionary ideas would emerge?”) and within the confines of  a love song, seeks peace and boldly confronts “a commander-in-chief with shit for a brain/with love we can conquer the shame”.

“We live in an era of noise”, he contemplated. “As music creators we must speak out and keep working. And make the system work for us!”

Thursday, June 4, 2020


This piece was published in the international anthology Poems from the Lockdown (UK: Willowdown) in April 2020.

A Fallout Unspoken

The air about us in
The coming of Spring
Feels a little more still now.
A bit more static,
Almost solid.

Gray, it hangs low, this
Concrete sky.
It casts silence over
The city that can’t seem to wake.

Sullen city
Doesn’t know where to turn.
Living herein,
Standing afar, it’s
Whispers lie dormant.

And the pall that holds us
We thought would arrive with
Howling boom and argent glow
Carries instead
A fallout unspoken.

-John Pietaro
April 4, 2020, 2:35am
End of week two, the quarantine

video/collaboration: Days of Rage


photo by Sherry Rubel

 "Days of Rage" is a collaborative vision in every sense. When photographer/filmmaker Sherry Rubel asked me to add some poetry, very late one night, to this project--before I'd seen or heard any of this film--I dug into it rapidly, feeling deeply moved by the news reports of George Floyd's horrible, tragic death. It inspired me to write two brand new works that night, both directly inspired by the struggle; she still has the other one on hold, but for very real reasons, I hope we never need to use it.

Seeing my poem "Still Winds" close this piece as Chris Forbes' music pushes the last ounce of fight-back into the skirmish, left me feeling a vital part of this. Sherry and I are collaborators on two current book projects; she is a singularly gifted photographer with a sight all her own. And Chris, I'm proud to say I've worked with in a few ensembles. As a music journalist, he is the pianist I vote for as most woefully under-recorded. The woe, however, is in the ears of the listener who has not heard him. “Days of Rage” is music of tomorrow, words of everlasting radicalism and imagery of the never-ending battle for equity.

Visuals, concept, choreography by Sherry Rubel
Music by Chris Forbes
Poetry by John Pietaro

#justiceforgeorgefloyd #blacklivesmatter #resistance

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Review and pondering: Jazz From Hell

In the days and nights leading up to the covid-19 lock down, many of we night people were convinced that the virus and resultant urgency would be captured: It has to be, this is New York; they can't just close down the damned city! But the reality set in all too soon. As one who is a music reviewer, a performer and event organizer, life without nightlife feels awfully hollow. One can count their blessings of health, but shuttered nightclubs, bars and halls remain a terrible sight. When I look back on the last show reviewed just before it all hit the fan, an event dubbed JAZZ FROM HELL, I realize how prescient that moment was.

Since the quarantine, I've been writing one hell of a lot and this includes an Apr 4 poem called "A Fallout Unspoken" which was just published in an international anthology (more on that in my next posting). But this last live review, completed on the cusp of corona chaos, somehow never made it into this blog. So, as I complete a bit of site clean-up, here it is:

NYC Jazz Record, NY@Night, April 2020 issue

“Jazz From Hell”: Kilter, ir, Titan to Tachyons
NuBlu 151, NYC, March 10

Performance review by John Pietaro

The tandem NuBlu performance spaces, favorites among the avant, boldly program improvisational new music with disparate strains of jazz and rock from the underground. Now with “Jazz From Hell” (March 10), Nublu 151 reached still deeper. Organizer Laurent David affirmed that the event title was an homage to the Frank Zappa album, but much of the music seemed inspired by…other forces. Opening was Titans to Trachyon led by composer-guitarist Sally Gates with drummer Kenny Grohowski (John Zorn, Brand X) and Matt Hollenberg all over a baritone electric guitar. The desired effects—surreal and sci-fi heavy—were evident over rhythmic accents and rapid shifts of meter and dynamics led from within by Growhowski. Next was the duo ir: 12-string banjo player Mick Barr and cajon player Erik Malave. Barr’s rolling melodic patterns against the rumbling cajon were wonderfully subject to phasing (a la Steve Reich), sashaying downbeats in this direction or that, to great effect. The final set belonged to Kilter, which included Growhowski, Ed Rosenberg III, whose bass saxophone was electronically armed, and bassist Laurent David. The trio erupted in thickets of sound with bass and bass sax unisons shredding the house. Rosenberg ignited visions of Adrian Rollini (Braxton too) as his horn painted the venue black, Growhowski drove mercilessly and by the time vocalist Andromeda Anarchia joined in, the sheer volume became an entity. Her howl recalled Diamanda Galas, dipping into Death Metal lows and ghostly highs, at once conjuring the evening’s necessary brimstone.

Saturday, February 8, 2020


Café Bohemia hosts West Village Word’s Neo-Beat experience

New York, NY: West Village Word, a monthly curation at the legendary Cafe Bohemia by poet and jazz journalist John Pietaro, launches Wednesday, February 26. This month’s artists, featured in 45-minute sets, are downtown perennials Puma Perl & Friends and rising stars Lindsey Wilson & the Human Hearts. Pietaro’s duo SHADOWS will play a brief opening to each set. The series, planned for the last Wednesday of each month, will present integrated spoken word and music, conjuring Greenwich Village's underground arts past while exploring today’s unique JazzPoetry, Neo-Beat and Post-Punk poets.

Café Bohemia was a favorite 1950s haunt of jazz legends such as Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey and Cannonball Adderly as well as the original Beat Generation writer, Jack Kerouac. The club, recently re-opened in its original address, is already being touted as a space for a creative community displaced by ever-rising costs. “The heritage of this place is built into its foundation”, Café Bohemia manager Christine Santelli states. “You can feel it. Between 1955 and ’60, most every jazz great played here and many recorded live on the club’s stage”. The space’s history goes back to the 1940s when, as the Pied Piper, it hosted stride piano pioneer James P. Johnson and traditional jazz trumpeter Max Kaminsky.
With live music scheduled seven nights per week—from the “cool” progressive and trad “hot” jazz schools, rollicking blues and folk, and a new residency by noted singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked, the club’s promise has quickly been realized. “All that was missing was performance poetry”, said West Village Word curator Pietaro. “Hey, the Beats walked these quarters”.

West Village Word
February 26, 8PM and 10PM sets (see below)
Admission: $20 per set
Café Bohemia 15 Barrow Street, New York NY

-8PM: PUMA PERL & FRIENDS: This Village poet and writer has five solo collections in print, most recently, Birthdays Before and After (Beyond Baroque Books, 2019.) Her band paints musical portraits behind the words: Joff Wilson, guitar; Walter Steding, violin; Danny Ray, saxophone; Joe Sztabnik, bass; Dave Donen, drums.
-10PM: LINDSEY WILSON & THE HUMAN HEARTS: The singer-songwriter, poet, actress and guitarist is a performer steeped in story-telling, social justice and the liberation of creativity. The band includes Reggie Sylvester, drums and Michael Trotman, bass.

Album review: Anne Waldman, Sciamachy

Anne Waldman, Sciamachy (Fast Speaking Music, 2020) Album review by John...