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...