Monday, December 14, 2020



John Pietaro

from UltimateClassicRock

It would be a fool’s errand in a covid-damaged society to attempt a peaceably gathered year’s end “Best of” list, in jazz or any other genre or medium. But artists of jazz and all avant gardes have been especially susceptible to the considerable financial ebbing and health concerns of this period. Discussing this concept with my wife (and best critic) Laurie, I was caught by her knowing response: “It’s not so much a Best of”, she said, “but a TEST of 2020”. And with so much challenge about us this year, arts implosions being but a skimming of the national surface, I wholeheartedly agreed to offer my “Test of 2020”. It’s one founded on survival and resilience. It is also founded on the power of creativity, whether there is a market or not, as a model for the thriving of us all.

This year, in addition to watching beloved venues shutter (including Café Bohemia where my poetry/jazz series West Village Word was housed oh so briefly), seeing great byways of life and commerce silenced and feeling the struggle and pain of so many, I had to contend with the death of my mother and the rapidly progressing dementia which has leveled my father who is residing in a nursing home. The tremors cross-country were played out in the streets after glaring, violent police murders and the rise of the BLM movement, along with the slow, laborious onset of the election and ensuing insanity spewing from the White House and all walks of the right-wing. And of course, the fight-back against such insanity has too been happily on the rise.

Perhaps the one strength grown of this year from Dante’s fifth circle has been self-contained boldness. Artists of every stripe have poured themselves into practice and expression born of the lockdown and in spite of it. Musicians, dancers, spoken word artists and actors have premiered remote performances across the globe while increasing amounts of visual artists and non-performing writers have made grand use of the internet to present works recent and vintage. And a most welcome shift has been the numbers of remote performances encompassing all of the above. Critics, relying on this advanced viewry, have sought to find fresh means to convey our perceptions, including criticism of the connection’s sound and visual clarity, which reminds us of the shifts in quality of recordings in each epoch, from acoustic to electric recording processes, and 78 RPM to LP, Hi-Fi to stereo, CD to download and back to disc and “vinyl”. Here’s just one more demarcation and the technology has quickly kept up with it.

I’m happy to report that during the lockdown I completed a full poetry collection, The Mercer Stands Burning, published in November by Atmosphere Press, wrote numerous pieces for journals and magazines, completed much of a new short story collection and laid the ground work for And I Became of the Dark, a new album by my poetry/free jazz ensemble the Red Microphone. It was finally recorded on the cusp of December by an expanded line-up that I’m very excited about. Hoping this will be available via a noted underground label soon. It has been a tumultuous and memorable time.

So, in memory of those lost this year as well as the surging need for survival on every level, here is THE TEST OF 2020…

Album of the Year

Anne Waldman, Sciamchy (Fast Speaking Music)

Album, Duet:

Ran Blake and Christine Correa When Soft Rain Falls (Red Piano)

Ran Blake and Andrew Rathbun, Northern Noir (SteepleChase)

Album, Small Group:

Steve Swell Quintet Soul Travelers w/special guest Leena Conquest, Astonishments (RogueArt)

GRID, Decomposing Force (NNA)

Album, Large Group:

William Hooker, Symphonie of Flowers (Org Music)


Miles Davis, The Complete Birth of the Cool (Blue Note)

Unearthed Gem:

Oneness of Juju, African Rhythms (Strut)

Gray, Shades of…Anthology (Plush Safe)

Tribute Album:

Paolo Bacchetta, Yerkir, The Storytellers (Avand)  tribute to Paul Motian

Record Label:


577 Records

Radical Documents

Jazz Performance Video:

Liberation Music Orchestra, “Time/Life, We Shall Overcome”

Jazz Documentary:

Motian in Motion (Aquapio Films Ltd)

 Indie Performance Series:

Brackish Brooklyn

Remote Concert:

Gil Evans Project, Sketches of Spain, “Concierto de Aranjuez”, Jazz Standard at Home, Aug 6

 Pre-Covid Live Concert:

Vijay Iyer Trio with Wadada Leo Smith, Jazz Standard, February 1

Lenny White 70th Birthday Celebration, Made in New York Jazz Café & Bar, January 4

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

Covid-era Live Concert:

Composers Concordance, “We, the Whole People”, Michiko Studios, November 14

 Biggest Heartache:


Harold Budd’s and Blue Gene Tyranny’s deaths

Keith Jarrett’s health

 Small Band:


 Large Band:

Sun Ra Arkestra

Liberation Music Orchestra



Up and Coming Musician: Devin Brahja Waldman (alto saxophone)

Multi-Instrumentalist: Daniel Carter, J.D. Parran

Trumpet: Wadada Leo Smith, Nate Wooley

Trombone: Steve Swell

Flute: Nicole Mitchell, Cheryl Pyle

Clarinet: Don Byron, Ben Goldberg

Soprano Saxophone: Sam Newsome

Alto Saxophone: Gary Bartz, Rudresh Mahanthappa

Tenor Saxophone: James Brandon Lewis, Ras Moshe Burnett, Ingrid Laubrock

Baritone Saxophone: Claire Daly, Dave Sewelson

Violin: Sarah Bernstein, Gwen Laster

Viola: Melanie Dyer

Vibraphone: Joel Ross, Bill Ware

Guitar: Bill Frisell, Mary Halvorson, Eugene Chadbourne

Pedal Steel: Susan Alcorn

Piano: Ran Blake, Vijay Iyer, Kris Davis

Double Bass: Ken Filiano, William Parker, Luke Stewart

Electric Bass: Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Steve Swallow

Drumset: Hamid Drake, Tyshawn Sorey, G. Calvin Weston

Percussion: Warren Smith

Vocals: Fay Victor

Spoken Word: Anne Waldman

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Album review: Eve Fowler, Words Doing as They Want to Do and Have to Do


-Originally published in Sensitive Skin magazine, October 2020-

Eve Fowler, Words Doing as They Want to Do and Have to Do (Radical Documents, 2020)

Album review by John Pietaro

Speakers: Litia Perta, Rachelle Sawatsky, Celeste Dupoy-Spencer, Bobby Jablonski, Kate Hall, Dylan Mira and Jess Arndt. Recorded by Sam Sparro

The troublemaking output of the Radical Documents record label regularly reaches forward even as it recalls an earlier time, the somewhere between Paris 1920 and New York 1980. But as it turns out, this is a West Coast label brandishing a truly boundaryless vision in our currently disturbed times. In addition to releasing albums and singles (yes, actual records) by latter-day punk rockers and artists of free jazz, the discography includes this fascinating L.P. Words Doing as They Want to Do and Have to Do, a series of readings of Gertrude Stein by contemporary female creatives. Visual artist, photographer, LGBTQ activist and creative conceptualist Eve Fowler brought together this disparate group of voices-- Litia Perta, Rachelle Sawatsky, Celeste Dupoy-Spencer, Bobby Jablonski, Kate Hall, Dylan Mira and Jess Arndt--in celebration of Stein, a vital creator of poetry, fiction and drama who emigrated to France in 1903, just shy of thirty years old, and helped forge the avant Parisian artscape uniting genres over several decades. Residing with her life companion Alice B. Toklas, Stein’s home became a noted salon which included Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Joyce, but even more than these literary modernists, the visual art advances and virtuosity of Picasso and Matisse, frequenters of the salon, greatly influenced Stein’s rhythmic and expansive approach to writing. And vice versa; it was Stein who named the “Lost Generation”.

Eve Fowler is an artist whose use of language and text is uniquely realized in and as art itself. This recording was the soundtrack to her first large-scale European exhibition (the Dundee Gallery, UK, in 2018) but it stands well within the pantheon of recorded poetry. Fowler’s works have often used of the words of Stein, herself a strong, proud and out lesbian. Fowler has followed suit and her feminism has been used continuously to expose and break male hierarchies in society, advertising and the arts. The exhibition included Fowler’s artistic visions of text as well as a film footage and the recordings herein, but how resolutely the words of Stein ring out now in this time of oppressive rule, particularly when read by young women of the arts in light of the imminent Election Day. Stein’s “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene” is heard on side A. Side B is occupied by excerpts of her “Q.E.D.”, a 1903 piece describing the relationship of Stein and another woman that was not published till 1950, several years following her 1946 death. Both works are bold in their pronunciations of LGBTQ life some 120 years past. Note the former’s almost continuous use of “gay” in this excerpt, its purposely repetitive, tirelessly stated use:

Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene lived together then.                                                              

Georgine Skeene liked travelling.                                                                                              

Helen Furr did not care about travelling, she liked to stay in one place and be gay there.       

They were together then and travelled to another place and stayed there and were gay there. 

They stayed there and were gay there, not very gay there, just gay there.                                 

                                          They were both gay there, they were regularly working there.  

                                                Both of them cultivating their voices there, they were both gay there.

Stein’s masterful use of repetition wreaks of the jazz age to be, a flowing, colorful rebellion of formal rhythm outlining the story as it moves along. The various speakers here capture this quality by the simple nature of the writing. There is no use of dramatics in their approach and the readings are delivered unaccompanied. While the use of musical instruments would add layers of emotion within the inherent polyphony, the intended subject—the prose of Stein—is unmistakably front and center in this format.

Words Doing as They Want to Do and Have to Do is available in a limited pressing of 250 hand silkscreened copies, signed and numbered by the artist. This album and all of the Radical Documents recordings are available via

Album review: B.C.F.W., barragemirage megamultifurcation


-Originally published in the Wire magazine, Dec 2020-

B.C.F.W., barragemirage megamultifurcation (Radical Documents, 2020)

Album review by John Pietaro


To denizens of New York’s music underground, the name Daniel Carter conjures images of a downtown that was and, as far as he is concerned, will never cease to be. Carter, the saxophonist, multi-instrumentalist, poet, activist, and free jazz guru, has been growing this scene since the early 1970s, in a career spanning the decades and in the company of many of the music’s beacons. As of the 1990s, he’s recorded some 50 albums as a leader and many more as a supportive player, through a dizzying array of performance with Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor. Sabir Mateen, Roy Campbell, David S. Ware, William Parker, Thurston Moore, Yoko Ono, Jaco Pastorius, Anne Waldman, Matthew Shipp, Test, Cooper-Moore, DJ Logic, Other Dimensions in Music, Gunter Hampel, Dissipated Face, Yo La Tengo, and Medeski, Martin and Wood. Approaching his creative journeys as spiritual growth, Carter makes little distinction between roaring free jazz, primal scream poetry, meditative explorations or the avant gardes of post-punk rock or performance art. In fact, he’s happiest when ensconced in an amalgam of all.  

B.C.F.W. is one of many ensembles Carter has been central to and surely one that rates with his most intriguing. In the opening selection, “Butter Boots”, the ensemble casts a soundscape with his tenor saxophone out front, emoting in the comfortable language of both film noir and ‘shock of the new’. But throughout, electric guitarist Pat Foley and synthesist/cellist Andrew Barker paint the aural ground with the care of art-house cinema scenarists, while drummer Fritz Welsh uses his expansive set of percussives for color and shading as much as accentuation and drive. This is a unique quartet within our rapidly aging New Thing. Even when the band stretches out, moving through four-way contrapuntal segments (“Planet Escape” or “the Veil of Lights Obscure”) the music never turns too heavy for the ear to carry. Carter tends to bring a variety of winds to sessions, though here only saxophones and trumpet. No flutes or clarinets for this recording, but fully unleashed, he is as likely to move to piano or percussion as he is a horn. For barragemirage megamultifurcation, his improvisations whirl and dance poetically and in union with every sound crossing his path. By side two, his muted trumpet sings softly over “Re-Ghoster” as Foley’s blue-tinged guitar drops chords and languid fills.

As he is wont to do, Daniel Carter seeks out magical moments in the most unexpected of places. The “B” in B.C.F.W., Barker, is a free jazz drummer whom Carter has been working with in recent years, though here in a very different guise. Who knew the man also played cello and synthesizer? On the former, he rides contoured lines, as the latter splashes thick atmospherics which thread the band together. Likewise, guitarist Foley, whose career has been dedicated to straight-ahead rock music, including performance with Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and touring as an opener for names like Dave Mason, Leon Russell, Marshall Tucker Band, Bad Company and many more. Liberated from any confining standards of music theory, he offers a loose sense of tradition within his free playing, something grounding but far from simply anticipated. Bringing these disparate forces together with adventurous drummer/percussionist Welch (who has worked alongside Evan Parker among many more, and currently resides in Glasgow), is the genius of Carter. Knowing where to find such agents of sonic change is one thing, recognizing the need to pull them together to document the moment is another talent altogether. And Radical Documents, the relatively new label out of Los Angeles which focuses on “unique, experimental, and often obscure transmissions of sound” has turned out to be another surprise of the Carter pantheon. Releases of boundary-shredding L.P.s (er, that’s“vinyl” to the youth) of ensembles like B.C.F.W. and others, is very much in order in this time of fear, loathing and internet overkill.

Andrew Barker-synthesizer and cello

Daniel Carter-tenor and soprano saxophones, trumpet

Pat Foley-guitar

Fritz Welch-drums

For more information see

feature: Anne Waldman: the Poet vs. the Warring God


Originally published in Sensitive Skin magazine, Sept 2020


Anne Waldman: the Poet vs. the Warring God


by John Pietaro


photo by No Land 

"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"

From the opening strains of “Extinction Aria”, the lead selection on Anne Waldman’s latest album, Sciamachy (Fast Speaking Music), the urgency of the moment couldn’t be clearer.

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, folk, world music, electronics and post-punk, commanding stages around the world, brandishing raw political activism within demanding, commanding works which spare no conservative ideology.


Born in 1945, just two weeks shy of V.J. Day, Waldman was raised on MacDougal Street in the aftermath of the second world war. Like the Beat poets, a generation her senior, she had a deep awareness of the societal and political changes in her midst and thrived in the progression of the arts. And also like the Beats, her literature too, came to profoundly reflect such movements. Attending Bennington College, she returned home in 1966, just as the activism and outsider poetry began to boil all about downtown.


Waldman, who’d been active in downtown circles before leaving for Bennington, became vital within the second-generation New York School of poets, yet maintained the importance of their precursors. “Early on, I met Frank (O’Hara) and Larry (Rivers) and (John Ashberry). Ted Berrigan was around, and of course Diane (DiPrima) and Amiri (Baraka). We were all connected and very intergenerational”, she cites, clarifying that the stressors between the first generation and her own have been, over years, quite exaggerated. “I took an apartment on St. Mark’s Place then and was very active in the East Village. Allen Ginsberg lived nearby. He and I had met in a Berkley poetry conference facilitated by Charles Olsen, and we adored Frank. When he died in summer 1966, his death put a lot of energy into the downtown scene. We had a reading on 2nd Avenue which then moved to St. Mark’s Church for open readings”.


In partnership with Allen Ginsberg, already an icon, Waldman forged a life-long alliance which would carry them through a litany of projects and across much of the planet, not the least of which was the formal series which grew from those readings, the Poetry Project.. Waldman was its first secretary before taking over directorship from 1967-78. And the venue chosen was anything but happenstance; St. Mark’s Church held an 80-year history of bridging the arts to political activism. Over generations, the church presented Edna St. Vincent Millay, Vachel Lindsay, Martha Graham, W. H. Auden, Archie Shepp, Nam June Paik, Carolee Schneeman, LaMonte Young, Warhol and near endless stream of others.


The relevance of the Poetry Project as a force cannot be overstated. With a mission reaching well beyond art for art’s sake and formal alliances with the New School and many community organizations. Its first event under the banner occurred in September 1966 and less than a month later, the Project stage featured Lawrence Ferlinghetti in front of an SRO crowd with hundreds being turned away. Into the ‘70s, with William Burroughs’ return to New York, he became a regular at the readings and was among those who ushered in Patti Smith’s performance poetry --that which would later be called punk, complete with Lenny Kaye’s electric guitar accompaniment. John Giorno, Jim Carroll and other notables were also regulars over the next few years, changing the shape of the already revolutionary New York school of poetry and begetting contemporary visions of spoken word and slam poetry.


Waldman was also central to the storied mimeographed journals of the East Village in the period predating xerox photocopies, and long, long before personal computers and printers. Of those years, Waldman stated “We were mimeographing day and night”, followed by compiling and stapling sessions and finally distributing these exciting new communiques to the region. Waldman and company produced such titles as the much celebrated the World which debuted in 1967 and which she later edited. And there was also the zine Angel Hair, created by Waldman and Lewis Warsh as early as ’65. She later came to edit several of the Poetry Project’s anthologies, among others.


Ginsberg and Waldman, by 1974, had founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Boulder Colorado’s Naropa Institute, and two years later the pair traveled with Bob Dylan’s historic Rolling Thunder Review. And as the underground downtown developed along with the reign of poverty afflicting the Lower East Side, she was among those to welcome in the next generation with fervor and Waldman continues working with such artists as Thurston Moore. Into the 1990s through the present, Waldman has often performed with her son, keyboard player Ambrose Bye and nephew Devin Brajha Waldman, a noted improvisational saxophonist. “My heart is in this for these younger musicians all over”, she remarked. Through it all, Waldman has been a committed performance poet, touching the many aspects of spoken word and regularly using her platform toward fighting social injustice.

THE IRONY OF RELEASING “EXTINCTION ARIA” DURING A HISTORIC PANDEMIC WAS NOT LOST ON ANNE WALDMAN. This breakout single from Sciamchy was actually recorded months prior to the global unveiling of coronavirus, but this fact only assures the piece’s prescience. “It draws on the Mayan and Tibetan extinction prophecies”, as a core of undiluted commentary on the Trump era. “I had been studying these past plagues. They’re devastating. The Medici period, the Roman empire. But it’s compounded this time due to the interconnection of all of us, the surveillance, the sheltering”. She is sure to clarify the prophecy’s extension into today’s politics. “The warring god realm needs to create an enemy”, she explained. Most certainly, Waldman is up for the fight. She always has been. The work’s core is an indictment of the greed, waste, division, manipulation and warmongering about us. Recorded live in a studio with the full ensemble—the poet plus synthesist Bye, saxophonist Waldman, mesmerizing guitarist Havard Skaset (of Norway where he leads experimental band MoE), My Bloody Valentine’s electronics artist/baritone bassist Deb Googe, and Norwegian upright bassist Guro Moe--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 works, Waldman writes here both in overt exclamation and mystical insinuation, threading ancient teachings to contemporary struggle. “We are being prepared for another kind of lockdown, but I’ve always worked in the underground. Sometimes artists working together are connected in a way, a horizontal way, as opposed to the verticality of growing upward from the roots. You cannot always start at the beginning, sometimes you can come in at the middle. Not thinking of things in a linear way, but exploratory. This relates to the new American poetry where things may not have a title but just bursts in its description. The Beats blew the top off of it all, right down to bringing in use of breath within a recitation”. Beyond “Extinction Aria”, Sciamchy, offers gripping words and music on its every cut, often throbbing with a visceral energy. Though the band is only heard in full power on the first and fourth selections, Waldman assured that there are more quintet tracks awaiting release. “These were mainly first takes. I was leaping around my own texts making jump cuts, improvising with the band. I felt the power of what we were doing…I was 15 feet from them at most”.

Individual band members were also called in for other selections, all to excellent effect, tapping into a variety of emotions. And of special note are the pieces featuring Laurie Anderson, “Rune”, and William Parker, “Streets of the World”. On the former, the laureate electric violinist constructs a reverb-laced 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 and Arts for Art co-founder 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 immediacy, too. “The piece was written in the heat of Trump, at various protests marching 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 lethal, decidedly aesthetic and artful, and never concealed.

“This is the most extreme time we’ve ever lived in”, she stressed. “We’re talking about the potential destruction of everything. We’ve hurt so much of the planet, the other creatures we share the planet with. There are consequences to endless war, genocide, white supremacy. And now we are locked within and it’s extreme. All of that built up to this and it is exploding. And we are not learning the lessons. We are not hearing. We’ve been so dumbed down in an endless cycle of spectacle”. Releasing a long breath, Waldman continued. “Burroughs said that virus has to become parasitic. But it is an amazing time for meditation on this as we live in the uncertainty, taking a seat within it. Here is a test to our consciousness: we have to stay positive within our skillful means. And we must always have truth and integrity in our work.”

Sciamchy is available as download or L.P. via

Puma Perl: Birthdays Before and After

 Puma Perl, Birthdays Before and After (Beyond Baroque, 2020)

book review by John Pietaro

Puma Perl has, through talent, tenacity, wit and attitude, become the standard of underground poets. Her poems are tales, impressions, born of the Lower East Side, emoted through visceral, rocking verse, capturing date, place and the artist’s timeless sense of being. Her latest collection, Birthdays Before and After, might almost be seen as a poetic almanac, marking the passage of the years as one’s birthday does. Perl’s use of symbolism can be as jagged as the working class itself, and she allows little breathing space between the pages in this collection. And while New York City, in all its glory and infamous street cred, is well represented here, the poet also appears to use the cityscape as a metaphor for her life. With couplets such as--

No sun fights through/Shadows hit concrete


Vacancy is an art unto itself/The beauty of nothing prevails

--the writer speaks as much about the land as herself, with recurring guest stars like Lou Reed and David Bowie, as well as the sad notes on their passing, filling in many of the blanks. And there are the elders Dylan, Monk, Bukowski, Billie Holiday, Don Cherry and Laurie Anderson, not so much acting as guides to the reader but to the writer. There is a certain confessional aspect to Perl’s work, openly airing issues of failed relationships, past drug use, concerns around aging (but then, this too is universal, at least for we of a certain age) and then she is clear as to where the boundaries are--“We wore cloaks of invisibility”. But growing up and residing in a city of illustrious noise and light, Perl’s detailed vision of silence, perhaps as much a commodity as anything else, lets on that she gets this city at its core.

Silence engulfs the platform/After the subway pulls out

No silence greater/Than a missed connection/An empty station

Of course, empty stations can speak volumes, too, within and without. Throughout its 81 pages, Birthdays Before and After journeys us through the many lives of a poet in the city, with stops in the L.E.S., the Blue Room, Gravesend, the West Side, the Bronx, the Chelsea and Coney Island, too, amid the words, sounds, the concrete beneath our feet. “We were always home”, Perl writes in “Fear/Less: My City”, lauding the land and verifying its merit. More so than just anywhere, the assets of this town are its very culture, its people, its pain and joy and fight-back. And who better to act as oracle of this throbbing circus of a city than its resident rock-and-roll poet?

I’ll be listening to A Love Supreme

Reading a revolutionary letter

Keeping Coney Island on my mind

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Album review: Anne Waldman, Sciamachy

-Originally published in the Wire magazine, Oct 2020-

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!”

Album review: Gene Pritsker’s Sound Liberation, Let’s Save the World Suite

  Gene Pritsker’s Sound Liberation , Let’s Save the World Suite (Composers Concordance 2022) --originally published in The NYC Jazz Recor...