Thursday, December 19, 2013



Harmolodic Monk: Matt Lavelle and John Pietaro at the Firehouse Space, Oct 19, 2013. Photo by Laurie Towers

Sometimes life can be like a whirlwind. So much went on over the past 12 months that I can hardly believe we are near year's end. Between the rush of music, the passage of time and the ongoing stress of my day job, I guess I lost track of time. But here we are, now, deep into December. We have had a fairly mild weather in NYC, though this past week we saw snow and cold weather try to take a bite out of us. But New Yorkers are hard. And just now the weather man reported that it will be 57 degrees on Sunday, adding to the sense of uncertainty. Do I still have time to buy the pertinent Christmas cards to avoid being ostracized by family?? And talk about rush: a couple of months ago I actually self-published my book of short stories and poems, NIGHT PEOPLE AND OTHER TALES OF WORKING NEW YORK, which had been in the works since about 2009. Life is just one fantasia after another, isn't it? Getting passed the newfound ulcer in my belly and moving beyond the effects of the insomnia that pops up when I think I am finally relaxing, its good t know that creativity has been the healing force. Ayler was damned right. And this year there was much to be healed by....

2013 has been a year of vibrant soundscapes, with a wide variety of performances in the company of very talented, powerful musicians. How can I complain? Most of my playing has been on the vibraphone---the instrument that I consider my true voice---but other percussives have happily been called for as well. And why not....I am happy to have a vast collection. This year my work with Ras Moshe, celebrated reeds monster, has increased tremendously and we played together in numerous formats ranging from duet (where I either played vibes or drumkit or hand drums) to trio (on vibes and percussion; with guitarist Dave Ross, or bassists Shayna Dulberger or Lisa Mezzacappa), to quartet (the incredible one which included guitarist Anders Nilsson and drummer/percussionist Andrew Drury remains in heart! Here I am again playing vibes/percussion). We played a couple of gigs for Arts for Art in there too. There's also been our ensemble the Red Microphone which released a debut CD this year. And there's been a great assortment of Ras' larger bands. All that and there was the release of the Erika Dagnino Quartet's disc 'Signs' which included Erika's poetry, Ras' reeds and flute, Ken Filiano's bass and my vibes and percussion. The association with Ras is one which is ever-changing and intense. Its been said that we share a telepathic relationship, intertwining lines and improvising endlessly through streams of consciousness.

There's also been gigs with vocalist Maryanne DeProphetis (at the I-Beam playing twisted standards!) and Nora McCarthy (at the Cornelia St CafĂ© for my event 'An October Jazz Revolution') and the band SoSaLa (at NuBlu). And my own Dissident Arts Orchestra performed several times this year, offering jagged scores to silent film classics or backing poet Sana Shabazz. That was fun in a whole other way. And as I am so fond of backing poets, I am thrilled to have developed a rapport with Steve Dalachinsky, a serious contender for Beat poet of this era. I performed with him in duet at my own Dissident Arts Festival this summer and more recently at Shapeshifter Lab for the Memorial Concert for John Tchicai with a band that included Steve Swell, Will Connell and others. I really ate this one up. I was also part of the jam session that closed out the big '50th Anniversary Concert of ESP-Disk' at JACK in Brooklyn. And reeds player Rocco John Iacovone began his own series late this year, creating a mixed ensemble I have been happy to bring my vibes to, where he presents different composers each month. It occurs at Pianos in the East Village. My own piece is scheduled to be presented at the January gig! The Red Microphone had a busy year and we are closing it off on 12/22 at Theater 80 on St Mark's Place, performing the opening segment to a large-scale awareness-raiser for Mumia Abu-Jamal.

And my work with the legendary Karl Berger has continued of course---this was year two with his Improvisers Orchestra. The band is amazing and never fails to inspire. So many noted improvisers have been a part of this band that it would be almost impossible to recall each one. No matter how strong of an impact they have had on the whole. With this ensemble I play conga, bongos, orchestra bells, various metals, suspended cymbals and many small percussives too. Sitting next to Warren Smith's drumkit (or none-too-shabby subs like Lou Grassi or Joe Hertenstein!), my hands are on fire as I offer thunderous rhythms and stinging orchestra bells to accentuate the screaming horns section. Our final gig of the year was in mid-December and Karl is now reviewing tapes of the Orchestra's performances for release as a CD. The band was 32 strong at its largest but we have not slipped below 20 this year. Happily, I ushered many of my close musical associates into the Orchestra including Ras Moshe, Rocco John Iacovone, Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic. And Matt Lavelle. Now there's a unique guy...

I met trumpet player/alto clarinetist Matt Lavelle at several different Ras Moshe gigs. Here's a very hip musician who regularly plays with Bern Nix and spent several years studying with Ornette Coleman. We spoke at a few of these gigs and he told me of this vision he had for a duet with vibes playing Monk composition by way of the Harmolodic theory of Mr Coleman. Wow. What a challenge, I thought, and what an amazing opportunity to engage in something truly new and inspirational. Has it been done before? Highly unlikely. When a reviewer asked Thelonious Monk what he thought of Ornette, this revolutionary founder of Be-Bop said, "That cat's crazy". But upon closer examination, one cannot help but see that had it not been for Monk, there couldn't be an Ornette as we know him. The modernist vision is apparent. But isn't there something else that somehow draws "Light Blue" or "Ruby, My Dear" to "Lonely Woman" or "Beauty is a Rare Thing"? The guitarist Jack DeSalvo said just the other night, after hearing our duet Harmolodic Monk, "The folk form that is at the core of both of them is the Blues". And he is right. It is the glue that keeps their musics imbedded in tradition, a place to boldly grow out of. Their rapprochement to blues cannot be mistaken, nor can it be avoided if one is to play either of their works. So when Matt and I first got together to attempt this exploration at Ayers Percussion studio in the theatre district, it somehow fell right into place from the start. There was no question that this experiment had a life of its own. Now that I think of it, how could it not?

We debuted at one of Ras Moshe's Music Now events at the Brecht Forum and locked in a modicum of performance practice in this unique repertoire. We took it then to ABC No Rio and the Firehouse Space. Damn, there was simply no turning back. Somewhere in there, Jack DeSalvo signed us to his Unseen Rain label and asked us to record a duo CD---even as we contemplated whether or not we needed a bassist. But no, Jack saw this as a natural duet. Our record date is slated for January 6. We rehearsed just last week for a gig the other day up in Beacon NY: part of James Keepnews' new jazz series which has been itself growing in leaps and bounds. During the rehearsal, Matt requested that I move to hand drums for a piece and that grew into a medley of "Green Chimneys" and "52nd St Theme". Wow, that worked. Well. We discussed stretching things further, the outer reaches of harmolodics perhaps. I brought out a large frame drum, a 22" bodhran and we crafted a brand new concept where "Monk's Mood" existed. That rehearsal and the wonderful performance which followed it gave us the chance to envision that lay-out of the album. Oh, its gonna be a killer.

Going forward, Harmolodic Monk is a major part of my 2014. We would love to have the album out early in the year----and who knows where else this music, this soundscape of the new, can take us. Hell, ulcers aside, casting out day-to-day stress and winter blues, its all about the Epistrophy.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


Book Review by John Pietaro-
RADICAL JESUS: A Graphic History of Faith
Paul Buhle, Editor; Art by Sabrina Jones, Gary Dumm and Nick Thorkelson
(2013, Herald Press, Virginia)

 Although noted Left-wing historians such as Paul Buhle aren’t normally seen as devout in their religiosity, a read through of RADICAL JESUS could lead to the assumption that the revolutionary intellectuals in our midst have “seen the light”. But here, Buhle and a company of underground comic artists are instead offering a vision of Jesus Christ (and religion itself) that was clear all along to anyone who looked beyond their hymnal. What comes to life in the course of these 128 pages is what political radicals have always asserted: Biblical figures such as Jesus, John the Baptist and Martin Luther were not only revolutionary in their spirituality but in their actions.

The book opens with “Radical Gospel” and offers the ‘downtown’ art of Sabrina Jones to Biblical excerpts. But as one may expect, it wouldn’t be the stuff of underground comicdom without the proper irony, so Jones mixes contemporary imagery morphed into the Greatest Story Ever Told. Quotes such as “blessed are the poor” are paired with visuals of a union strike, and “blessed are those who mourn” with the parents of Trayvon Martin. These are in excellent company with frames that depict Occupy Wall Street, the homeless, peace demonstrators and Middle Eastern families faced with armed US troops. And as the Bible is filled with symbolic tales of faith, these sections RADICAL JESUS are fully engaged with expanding on the common symbols to denounce capitalist greed and high-priced televangelists. But what’s in store for the reader here is not necessarily what we may have guessed: in a discussion between Jesus and an apostle about the great power, wealth and towering temples around them, Jesus warns that “The day will come when there isn’t one stone left on top of one another that isn’t thrown down”, and Jones bravely recreated the wreckage of the World Trade Center on September 11.

“Radical History” is the next lengthy segment and it brings us through the Lollards journey (one of the early radical Christian organizations), the Catholic Church’s base of power, the burning of “heretics”, and the radical reformation founded by Martin Luther. These sections are not from the Bible at all, but history itself. Drawn by Gary Dumm (with vivid coloring by Laura Dumm) and often scripted by Buhle, Dave Wagner or Dumm himself, we are taken through some harsh and some revelatory scenes. Peace activists and members of AIM will recognize the roots of their struggles in chapters on the Quakers’ relationships with Native Americans and the Abolitionist movement. Without much difficulty one can of course see a connection to the struggle of the Palestinians and others of the First Nation.

The final segment, “Radical Resistance” was written and drawn by Nick Thorkelson. It explores faith-based movements in modern times and in doing so, ties together the struggle for human rights and equality throughout the ages. There is a special focus on slavery and African American freedom struggles and Sojourner Truth is heroically depicted as are multiple figures we recall from the Civil Rights years (yes, there’s Dr King tearing down the walls of Jericho). But it surely doesn’t stop there: check out the story of the Catholic Worker movement and Dorothy Day’s quote: “…The class structure is of our making, not His….So we are urging revolutionary change”. Hey, this kind of dangerous talk can almost bring ME back to church! And Thorkelson shows how the line went from Haley House to the Catholic Worker to Plowshares. We also see Mennonites, various levels of peace protests around the world, Conscientious Objectors, Aboriginal movements, and the struggle for ecology and a sustainable world.

Taken literally, the messages of Jesus’ teachings should always reflect a visions of a shared planet and an economy not designed by and for the wealthy few. As a child at weekly Catechism classes I had to attend, we were constantly taught that “God is love” and that Jesus was “the Prince of Peace”. But this was during the climax of the Vietnam War and when we asked the nuns or lay-teachers why God has allowed this ongoing horrific violence that came home to us on the television news each night, they only answered that we must have faith, and that God works in mysterious ways. I am sure that none of these intended guides to my religiosity considered the figure of Jesus as a revolutionary nor the symbolism in the Bible to have more in common with Marx than Pope Paul, but then RADICAL JESUS had not yet been published at the time. After reading this book, however, I would argue that it surely had been written ---a millennia ago, with a message still urgent after King James had his way with the words and church corruption attempted to refigure it, sore afraid of a fully awakened populace.

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