Memorial Day weekend is a good time for some music notes.
I had the honor of seeing the amazing pianist Matthew Shipp perform on Friday, at Firehouse 12 in New Haven. I had seen him before, a solo show in Albuquerque in 2006 (I think). Probably the great pianist of his generation, Shipp is a wonder to see live. He actually plays like he’s swimming, with long strokes of his entire arms. It’s really quite a thing to watch. I didn’t get to the venue super early so couldn’t sit in the front row, but this tiny and beautiful room provides other opportunities for great views and I picked out a great seat that gave me a perfect view of Shipp’s hands. Moreover, he was playing with some of his favorite friends–Allen Lowe on tenor, Kevin Ray on bass, and Newman Taylor Baker on drums. Usually, when Shipp, Lowe, and Ray play together–which evidentially has been quite a bit over the years, the wonderful Gerald Cleaver is on drums. But he had a family emergency and Baker took over for the evening. While I hope everything is alright for Cleaver, I’ve seen him a couple of times before but don’t believe I had see Baker. So that was great too. The music was just astounding. The great thing about a small venue such as Firehouse 12 is that not only are the loud pieces in your face, but the quiet moments are easily audible. There was a point when nothing was going on but Baker very quietly tapping on his cymbals and yet it was beautiful to hear. When I saw Jason Moran, Mary Halvorson, and Ron Miles at a big theater in Harvard last month, I definitely felt that was lost and didn’t enjoy the show as much as this.
Here’s a long oral history of Joy Division, from a book that is about to come out. I have to say that when that Control, the biopic of Ian Curtis, came out in 2007, I was highly skeptical we needed this, but it was a surprisingly very strong film. I am not the world’s hugest Joy Division fan, but I do occasionally listen, much more than to New Order, so I could see checking this out.
You’d like to think jazz legends could live their last years with some kind of comfort. But the thin margin of error between eating and starvation for these people can turn the wrong way. Kenny Burrell, the legendary guitarist who is now 87, has resorted to a GoFundMe so he doesn’t become homeless. He’s received a lot of money, so he might be good now, but the whole situation is sad and how many people who were great but maybe don’t quite have the reputation of Burrell face this late-life hell? If you are moved by this, you can donate to the Jazz Foundation of America, which provides financial assistance to struggling aging jazz musicians with no money.
Wish I was in Los Angeles so I could check out this exhibit of hip hop photography at the Annenberg
Mount Eerie, Now Only
I had never listened to Mount Eerie before. But hey, great, the endless ramblings of late-era Sun Kil Moon without the boxing references. We definitely need more 10 minute songs of everything going through songwriters’ head at a given time. I guess it attracted Michelle Williams for awhile so there’s that. I realize I should be gentle because most of this is about mourning his first wife, who died. But this would be his style if he was writing about anything. Now that he and Williams have divorced, I await the next 3 albums consisting of long description songs about it.
Robbie Fulks/Linda Gail Lewis, Wild! Wild! Wild!
Lewis is Jerry Lee’s little sister and she shares a lot of his attitude with some old-school feminine sass on top of it. Fulks is of course the largely beloved alt-country singer-songwriter who has had so many great albums in the last 25 years or so, although his humor in the past tended toward the sophomoric. Here he applies his gifts to this collaboration. It works pretty well. It’s a lot of fun. I don’t know that I would call it a necessary album. At times, I wish it was more Lewis with his songs. But it’s a kick in the pants at the very least and I thank Fulks for introducing me to Lewis, who has a couple of albums over the decades that I will now have to check out.
Minnie Riperton, Perfect Angel
Occasionally exploring early-mid 70s soul is a fun trip for me. Riperton was known for her huge range that could go very high. Too high to be honest. The high notes are actually kind of annoying and sometimes this is the use of vocal range just to show it off. The songs are basically fine. This was the biggest hit of a career sadly cut short by cancer. The album was really a collaboration with her good friend Stevie Wonder and it has become somewhat of a beloved classic, bolstered by his production and the hippieish lyrics that represented both their beliefs. But I would not quite go so far to call this a classic.
Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom, Glitter Wolf
This is the best jazz album I’ve heard in 2019. Miller is a fine drummer, almost more of a rock drummer than a jazz one, with a big sound. This is her occasional band that has grown over the years. It includes the legendary pianist Myra Melford, the great clarinetist (an instrument sadly underutilized in modern jazz) Ben Goldberg, the wonderful and warm playing of Jenny Scheinman on violin, and then Kirk Knuffke on cornet and Todd Sickafoose on bass, neither of whom I was familiar with before this. Like a lot of the modern jazz coming out these days from younger artists–Mary Halvorson, Taylor Ho Bynum, Chris Lightcap, etc–this album is actually a heck of a lot of fun, more than one expects from a lot of the more experimental stuff with which they share a lot in common. Part of this is the genre-bending and willingness to integrate music that is not jazz or modernist classical–there’s plenty of rock, Latin music, even a little country in here. Moreover, you can feel the band having fun on the album. More of this please.
Aesop Rock and Tobacco, Malibu Ken
As I’ve slowly reintegrated myself into the hip-hop world (at least a little bit) over the past couple of years, I’ve occasionally run into people such as Aesop Rock, who is what I think of when it comes to “alternative rap”–highly educated and verbose white guys creating rhymes that can broadly be connected to progressive politics and that white guys have really liked for the last 20 years. And look, this is fine. Tobacco is a very skilled producer, Aesop Rock is a skilled MC and I can’t complain about the politics. But I do sometimes find all of this a little bit put on or indulgent. It’s not that I need my hip hop to be about the streets or whatever, but this is trying awfully hard to reach college kids who come out to protests, which is a good demographic to be, but not always ones I want to have control of the music.
The Go! Team, Semicircle
This is the occasional project of Ian Parton, surrounded by whoever he is friends with as a given time. Using a number of female vocalists and musicians leads to not surprising bit of inconsistency across an album, but ultimately this is positive, celebratory fun and inclusive music. I could do without the hip hop on this particularly album though, simply because I wasn’t particularly impressed with the woman doing it. I could probably do with the Detroit Youth Choir providing the backing vocals. Generally, I’d say this is a step down from The Scene Between, their 2015 album I enjoyed a good bit. Equal attempts at fun indie pop, but with a bit less success.
Tacocat, This Mess is a Place
Tacocat has earned my trust and I am cashing in that capital here. Their last two albums were brilliant satires of everyday life, with plenty of jabs at sexism included. But the band with such great tunes as “Psychedelic Quinceainera,” “Crimson Wave” “Men Explain Things to Me,” and many more have fallen a little flat here, at least on the first listen. The sound is still good–generally upbeat alterna-pop-punk, but the lyrical wit is by no means on display as in the past. I mean, I get that life sucks in the Trump era, which is what the band is responding to, but that doesn’t per se lead to any profound insights. Maybe the band is better suited to sharp wit at particular issues than the malaise of these hard times. Some reviews call this “the perfect album for the moment,” and maybe from a certain perspective it does speak to people suffering from the nation falling toward fascism while seemingly unable to do anything about it. But for me at least, even the frequent attempts at hope and self-affirmation come across rather indifferent. This sounds really negative and I don’t mean it to be, except as compared to my hopes from a band I still really like a lot. I don’t doubt that this will grow on me. They still have a great sound after all. But I’m left cold right now.
Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi, There is No Other
Giddens has suddenly become ubiquitous and the Queen of American Music. Release follows release and she’s also one of the musicians most involved in Ken Burns’ upcoming country music documentary, which almost gives me a sliver of hope that it won’t be terrible. Just this year, this is her second project, along with the astounding Our Native Daughters album with her other black female banjo friends. Here, she combines her growing songwriting skills and great taste for older songs with the Italian drummer and composer Turrisi (and occasionally a cellist) and, typically, it is great. What this project also brings out is her amazing skill on the banjo. No strummer or plucker is she! Moreover, she continues to write or sing some of the most powerful anti-racist songs in the American catalog; this time the highlight is Oscar Brown’s “Brown Baby.” And when she delivers a song everyone knows, like “Wayfaring Stranger,” it’s like hearing it again for the first time. Just great work.
Eno/Cale, Wrong Way Up
There are some musicians that you just never quite get. For me, that’s long been Brian Eno and anything he’s associated with. For example, I find David Bowie tremendously overrated and I swear a lot of it is Eno’s production. And while I’ve always wanted to like John Cale’s post-VU work, and occasionally have, mostly I’ve been disappointed. So, having never heard their 1990 collaboration, I thought I’d give it a spin. And it’s….alright. For one, it is hurt by the terrible late 80s/early 90s synthesizer sound. That’s too bad because this has a little more heft to it otherwise than the normal Eno project that puts me into a slowly arriving but very long snooze. The vocals are more pronounced and slightly more interesting and at least the big synths are louder than his classic 70s work. Hell, it almost gets kind of funky on “Crime in the Desert.” On the other hand, those sounds are kind of annoying due to the standard production values of this low point in the history of American recorded music.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music and other art and absolutely nothing political.