Thursday, June 30, 2011

What is New in Jazz? Christian Scott and Mouse on the Keys

The title of this post could be read in a couple of ways. For example, you could ask “what is NEW in JAZZ?” expressing an interest in the current jazz artists that are doing something above and beyond the usual instrumental pop drivel.  You could also ask “what IS (the) ‘new’ in jazz?” perhaps wondering what kinds of innovations allow good contemporary jazz to avoid becoming the usual instrumental pop drivel.  I am not going to put my head on the chopping block by trying to directly answer either question.

I will, however, say that jazz artists should and do innovate, but it is also hard to pin down the point at which individualistic jazz styles evolve into something else.  Jazz and not-jazz is separated by a fluid boundary, often resulting in complex answers when you (often with fingers in your ears) ask  the seemingly simple question  “is THIS jazz?"  Even more confusing, there are well-established musics (for example, Eastern Indian classical music), that are improvisational like jazz, and sometimes cross over into jazz, but definitely are not jazz.  Where does one start and another stop?

Ridiculous, right?  There are people with a lot more credentials than I have grappling with these kinds of problems as we speak.  Some of them even get paid to do it.  

Personally, it helps me to consider how the music in question can be tied to “the jazz tradition.”  Jazz is aurally transmitted though a lineage that can be traced back to the African-American improvisational styles from the turn of the 20th century. Now, over 100 years later, the point at which jazz started and where it is today often seem to bear little relation, but the two points should connect through the transmission of a specific yet evolving improvisational syntax.

AN ANXIOUS OBJECTIn a previous post on their Sezzions EP, I suggested that the Japanese band Mouse on the Keys is more like “math rock on keyboards” than “jazz fusion.” When I began listening to their full-length release An Anxious Object, it seemed a bit jazzier than its predecessor, but as it has simmered, I still think that it is more “rock-jazz” than “jazz-rock.”

An Anxious Object prominently features instruments that are associated with the jazz tradition, like saxophone, trumpet, and, of course, piano.  Drummer Daisuke Niitome plays in a straight-eighth rock style, but he interacts with the kit with a melodic nuance that seems informed by jazz study.  Mouse on the Keys, however, generally deemphasize lyrical melodies in favor of textural rhythmic interplay, and although there is improvisation in their music, it seems to have a significant compositional element.  Plus they wear weird bodysuits (in their videos, anyway).

Keep in mind that my musings on Mouse on the Keys' "jazziness quotient" are not supposed to reflect poorly on them.  On the one hand, they don't really claim to be jazz, and on the other, An Anxious Object blows me away. The point here is to say that even though superficially they seem to be playing jazz, I think that they are, at the very most, doing something more akin to the jazz fusion that Bill Bruford used to get into in his “rock goes to college” days. It’s not really “new jazz,” but it is killer rock with some jazzy elements.

AnthemBesides, from a bit more cynical standpoint, it’s a bit of a bittersweet compliment to say that someone is doing something “new” in jazz. “New” jazz is often indicative of a fracture with the jazz canon. It seems far more desirable and safe to be labeled a jazz “innovator,” because it implies a solid connection with jazz tradition, rather than a break from it. From this rather myopic perspective, Mouse on the Keys may not be innovating in the jazz tradition, but I think that trumpeter Christian Scott clearly is. His release Anthem is a current favorite.

I think that the melodic and harmonic vocabulary that Scott and the members of his band employ is derived from a studied knowledge of bebop, cool jazz, and 70s fusion conventions. He plays unbelievably beautiful melodies that are both distinctive and familiar, and he exhibits an attention to the dramatic and expressive capacities of timbre in a way that identifies him as a Miles Davis devotee.

One of Scott's innovations, especially on Litany Against Fear, is the way in which he employs the starkly melancholic and sometimes dissonant soundscapes of early Radiohead and other “post-rock” bands as a launching pad for improvisation. Many of these groups play with jazzy sounds, but Scott seems to be taking them on at their own game by injecting established traditions into a relevant contemporary setting.  This is the kind of work that helps keep jazz alive and vital in its homeland.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Listening in to June and a trip to Denton

Lots of great listening poured through the player this month, so I’ll not bandy words with an introduction.   This month’s playlist is also expanded due to a roadtrip to Denton - maybe its a bit TOO long.  Set it up in the background and give it a listen some afternoon. 

Tomahawk – Anonymous:  A very interesting 2007 album with Mike Patton and John Stanier from Battles based on guitarist Duane Denison’s research on American Indian music.  I think we need to talk about this one.

Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committee pt 2:  Beastie Boys albums almost always pay off in the long term because of their attention to detail.  This new release seems really genuine and, I think, ranks among their best.

Chemical Brothers - Hannah Soundtrack:  It’s been many years since I checked out a Chemical Brothers album.  I’d like to reserve final judgement on this one until I see the movie, but it is a good listen.

Ben Butler and Mousepad/Zorch - Early/Worm/Demo:  Three EPs on one disc by two drum and keyboard duos.  I think I like Early the best, but I still think Zorch’s Demo is a bit of a gem itself

Dead Kenny G's - Operation Long Leash:  This somehow seems a bit tamer than last year’s Bewildered Herd, but maybe I’m just more accustomed to their approach.  Still, if you like one, the other hardly disappoints.

The Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues:  This album has layers and layers, not the least of which is its lyric component.  A brilliantly reflective meditation on, well, pretty much everything. 
Eddie Vedder - Ukulele Songs:  I read a review that gave this album three stars, and that is pretty muc h where I would put it.  Pretty good, but not astounding, and certainly not offendingly bad (like Dredg’s Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy, which I uncharacteristically sold back).

Battles - Gloss Drop:  I had high expectations for this one, and, unfortunately, in some regards I think it disappoints.  I do like it, though, so we’ll see how it plays out in the long run.

Field Music – Measure:  In addition to writing great, accessible tunes, Field Music’s instrumental aspect is incredibly strong.  By far, the best power-pop album that I have bought in quite awhile. 

Hooray for Earth - True Loves: This one is a grower, and has a couple of really excellent tunes on it, so synth-pop fans should rejoice!  The track in the playlist is my favorite from the album.

Other Lives - Tamer Animals:  Tamer Animals is, in short, an unbelievably beautiful album.  I am already concerned about how they could possibly follow up such a pristine, moving release.   

Yamaguchi Goro - A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky:  This album sounds so much different to me since I first began playing shakuhachi.  It’s a mesmerizing release by a true master of the instrument. 

Mouse on the Keys - An Anxious Object:  A bit more straightforwardly jazz-fusion than the Sezzions EP.  Aesthetically, though, it still plays with ostinato textures and composition more often than clearly improvised melody, so I’m not sure it fully crosses over. 

Yes – Keystudio:  A rather unfocused but generally convincing glimpse of what the “classic” Yes lineup from the 70s was doing in the late 90s.  Let's hope it’s not better than Fly from Here 
And from the road to Denton:

Coldplay – X&Y:  Blame Javier Conlon’s performance of Fix You from The Voice for this one.  The majority of this album doesn’t hold my attention, but it comes alive from time to time.

Trombone Shorty – Backatown:  What would happen if Lenny Kravitz grew up in New Orleans?  Backatown is funky like a brass band, rocks like late period Fishbone, but doesn’t quite commit to one or the other.

Yes – Talk:  Another Yes indulgence to provide context for the upcoming new release next month.  Although it has a couple of short lulls, Talk is the most identifiably Yes-like album from the “Owner of a Lonely Heart” lineup.

Fountains of Wayne – Utopia Parkway:  The very definition of slick, formulaic power pop.  It is difficult not to at least appreciate the way that Fountains of Wayne juggle cliché with cleverness.

The Sound of Siam – Leftfield Luk Thung Jazz & Molam in Thailaind 1964-1975:  Brought back this one from January, and it has some really interesting stuff on it.  Microtonality or no, however, I have a hard time justifying poorly tuned bass guitar in an obviously tonal format – it just sounds poorly tuned.

Graceland McCollough Tigers – Heaven:  Trombone choir – why, yes; Gospel choir – check; Trombone gospel choir – do they even make those?  Yes – and it’s a tasty combo, indeed.

The Beatles – HELP!:  I know that many people are ambivalent about The Beatles, but I don’t think that most of us have the context to really understand their genius and impact.  They were to popular music what Star Wars was to movies.

Elbow – Build a Rocket Boys: I am really big fan of Elbow, but I’m not sure if this album is not the place to start.  It seems like soothing snoozy background music to afternoon tea that wakes up periodically.

The xx:  This is a great, great album that made last year’s top 10.  Its distinctive aesthetic has allowed it to stay fresh – still a favorite.

The Cars - Greatest Hits: Normally, I don’t go for greatest hits compilations, but I experienced The Cars in terms of the presence of their MTV singles, so that somehow makes it OK.  There are lots of great melodic details in the Cars music if you listen closely.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Revisiting Yes' Lost Years: "Talk" and "Keystudio"

In 1994, I had just returned to finish my music education undergraduate after taking a year off and was living in a duplex across the street from UNT’s art building.  “Mulberry house,” as I called it, was haunted, poorly maintained, and overpriced, but it was the first place that I ever actually paid rent and called my own.  In my listening during this time, I was consciously trying to reconcile my elitist fascination with Frank Zappa with the genuine interest I had developed in Nirvana, especially as I was starting to find fault with some of my favorite prog rock bands.
TalkYesUnion was one catalyst for this reflection.  Although I initially liked the album when it was released in 1991, it began to wear poorly after a while, and as I found out more and more about the issues with its creation my opinion of it plummeted.  After the tour and its subsequent legal wrangling, the last Yes left standing was, surprisingly, the entire 90125 line-up from 1983.  They released an album in 1994 called Talk, an album I actually count among one of Yes’ stronger overall releases. 

As I revisited Talk last weekend on a roadtrip to a friend's wedding in Denton, I still find it to be a good, if slightly flawed, album overall for both nostalgic and musical reasons.  Obviously, this song Walls, like Owner of a Lonely Heart, features Trevor Rabin prominently on vocals.  This is not always the case on Talk.  Quality clips from this era are scarce, though, and despite the poor resolution capacities of 90s era computer video, this clip sounds pretty good (although Anderson seems like he has sort of “checked out”).

 Rabin's influence on this lineup of Yes was profound.  He had a bit more streamlined approach to progressive rock than the classic 70s group, so again, many members of the Yes fanbase had serious issues with anything he did.  Talk seemed to confound this judgement to an extent, though, because it was more expansive and experimental than the other entries from the 90125 lineup.  In sound and scope it was identifiably in the Yes tradition.

After Talk, Rabin moved on to a pretty successful film scoring career, and the Yes lineup jumbled up again, resulting in a reformation of the “classic” 70s lineup that put Steve Howe  back on guitar and Rick Wakeman back on keyboards.  This group had two releases in 1996 and 1997 called Keys to Ascension, and each one was a double disc set consisting of rehashed live material and new, undersupported studio recordings.

I flatly refused to accept these as full Yes releases.  I felt as if I was being milked for four discs consisting mostly of live “greatest hit” songs that I had already heard from this lineup when I really wanted just one new album that I had never heard.  This was the first time (of several) that I thought that Yes was done, and I opted to let Talk serve as the swansong of one of my favorite bands rather than support the Ascension releases. 
KeystudioWakeman left the band (again) due to the treatment of these releases, though, and Yes sauntered on.  After the questionable Open Your Eyes in 2001, the Keys to Ascension studio tracks were released under the rather uninspired name Keystudio.  Until recently, this “lost Yes album,” ostensibly the follow-up to Talk, was glaringly missing from my Yes studio collection.  It seemed time to make the plunge though, as my interest in Yes’ later material is reviving, and Keystudio is presently holding a place in the player until Fly from Here is released.  Clips of material from the Keys era are also relatively rare, but this medley of songs from a 2004 performance provides a taste.

The contrast with Walls is pretty staggering, especially since these pieces were originally recorded within three years of Talk.  Having Wakeman back on keyboards is essential, especially in contrast to Tony Kaye, of whom I have never been particularly fond.  I also think that here, and in subsequent Yes music, Anderson’s melodic sense seems to sometimes drift and lose focus. Without some guidance, he tends to chant lyrics in short scales rather than craft the compelling melodies of Yes-teryear (pun totally intended). 

The most fundamental difference between Keystudio and Talk, however, is more structural than the stylistic capabilities of the individual players.  It seems a little scattered, especially in comparison its predecessor, but even when compared to Yes' earlier, more epochal work from the 70s.  Keystudio does have moments, though, that conjure up the amazing music of Yes’ heyday (hang on until about 4:30), but there are also some cringe-worthy moments of low inspiration (fast forward the beginning).  I think that the instrumental aspects of Keystudio are its strongest asset, and when they come to the fore it might even beat out Talk in terms of overall creativity.  Regardless, it is not the worst entry in Yes’ oeuvre – not by a long shot. 

Looking forward, with a new Yes lineup in 2011, there is a combination of Yes musicians that never existed in a sustained creative environment, and that was one including both Wakeman and Rabin.  This was sort of my "dream team" after Union.  With Anderson no longer in Yes, however, there are rumors that the three of them will be getting together, so you can bet I’ll keep my ear to the ground for any progress on that project. 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Depth in the Details: Field Music's "Measure"

In the mid-90s, I had a short foray into the popular music sphere, an experience I treasure for many reasons.  Although I often wish that I had pursued the performance aspect of my musicianship more aggressively, I developed an appreciation for songcraft that I still value today.  During this time, and for some time after, I was on a steady diet of power pop, particularly by independent and unknown bands.  Some of the albums that I discovered during this time still rank among my favorite.

By the end of the 90s, though, the market seemed saturated with lots of bands with pretty good songs backed by lifeless guitars, and sifting through them all looking for magic moments seemed like more work than it was worth.  I became acutely aware by the overall sameishness of the genre and my perhaps obsessive interest faded to an extent.

Field Music (Measure) (Amazon MP3 Exclusive Version)I still keep my ear to the ground, though, for innovative and musical power pop, and Field Music’s Measure clearly fits this description.  I have been listening to this album in a multitude of settings since it came in the mail: going strawberry picking with the family in Massachusetts, doing a little extra driving in Austin, and hiding behind a plant before a wedding in Denton.  In every case, Field Music’s ingeniously playful approach to songwriting and arrangement consistently brings a smile to my face and a spring to my step (sometimes even a tear to the eye).  It one of the best albums of its type I have put in rotation in quite awhile.

Their songs are impossibly melodic and catchy, but also harbor cleverly virtuosic details.  Unlike the jangly strumming accompaniment that epitomizes the mean in a lot of songwriter-style music, Field Music’s instrumental aspect has its own compelling voice.   The cool “discussion” that occurs between the stereo-separated guitars in Them That Do Nothing, for example, is indicative of the kind of detailed arranging that happens all over Measure.  Brilliant harmonies, rhythmic turns, expansive atmospheres, and impassioned vocals indicate more than just good songwriting, but a deeply musical concept.

Measure is twenty tracks long, which is a pretty ambitious length when each song is about two to four minute long.  Nevertheless, very often I just can’t seem to turn it off - the album’s overall flow and variety commands my attention.  Judging from these clips, Field Music superficially sounds a bit like XTC, but they gather a much wider variety of influences onto the whole of Measure.  Field Music often navigates sharply contrasting transitions in such a convincing way that, from another, more “proggish” standpoint, Measure could almost be viewed as a single piece of music.  Each song, however, has enough integrity to hang together on its own.

As far as albums go, Measure is positioned to hold its own rank amongst my favorites.  Although I sometimes examine more mainstream releases, it is the more ostensible goal of this blog to raise the visibility of bands that perhaps rely more on word of mouth than hype.  Field Music is one of these latter bands.  Their musicianship is inspiring but not alienating, and therefore broadly appealing, in my opinion.  I highly suggest checking them out.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Resounding with Yamaguchi's Empty Bell

When I first began studying shakuhachi in 2009, I attended a concert by my teacher.  I had been playing for just a few months and only had a couple of lessons under by belt, but I egotistically felt that I was making above average progress.  After his performance, though, I felt somewhat inspired, but mostly deflated.  On the one hand, I was excited about the eventual possibility of getting closer to his level of playing, but the amount of work and study that was to be done to get there extended far, far beyond the meager progress I had made. 

To make any serious progress in a new musical style, it’s a really good idea to actually listen to it.  This may seem incredibly obvious, but I taught jazz for many years to students who, by and large, did not listen to jazz and relied on me as the sole representative of the genre.  I don’t blame them – jazz struggles to be heard in its own homeland.  From my perspective, the best I could hope for was to open the door to a style and a way of listening to it by providing a conceptual framework within which to listen.  So, to put my money where my mouth was and combat the intimidating learning curve of the shakuhachi, I stopped by Waterloo after the concert to browse their world music section in the hopes of finding a representative recording to study.

I came across A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky by Yamaguchi Goro, and purchased it by the virtue of the Nonesuch Explorer Series name (I bought a great album of Shona Mbira music from this label during my ethnomusicology studies).  True to form, it is an excellent rerelease by a master player.  At the time, however, it took a significant amount of concentration to give it the attention it deserved.  The shakuhachi’s ethereal and otherworldly sound was easily relegated to the background as my mind traveled restlessly through its undending “to-do” list.

In returning to this album after a year and a half’s worth of practice, I found it much, much more engaging and exciting.  As I have gained a somewhat paltry bodily awareness of what is necessary to play shakuhachi, I found myself “performing” in a more active way as I listened.  To put it another way, the recording “felt” more real – it’s not “just sound” anymore!  The physical implications of Yamaguchi’s sound provided me with a more nuanced appreciation of his complete and total mastery over the basics that I struggle with.

I was also fortunate to find this frustratingly unembeddable clip of the late Yamaguchi performing an excerpt of Sokaku-Reibo (Depicting the Cranes in Their Nests).  I assume that its embedding has been disabled to the keep the often highly charged opinions of the international shakuhachi community to a minimum. Regardless, it's worth clicking over to if you have the ability.  His incredible physical stillness belies the eloquence of his performance.

I still get an overwhelming mix of inspiration and intimidation from this recording, of course.  All of Yamaguchi's subtle ornamentations and pitch variances are meticulously measured in ways that indicate a lifetime’s worth of practice.  As an outsider to the style, I will never even get close to this level of performance, but, in a way similar to other Japanese arts, it’s the path and not the product that’s really the goal.