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Music Notes


This week’s musical highlight was seeing James McMurtry, for what I think is the 12th time, though that’s an educated guess because I started going to his shows before I kept track of such things. What I do know is that I hadn’t seen him in almost exactly five years (which I know because of the last time I talked about him here; LGM is basically a personal archive for me). Usually when he is on the road in the east (in this case, the Narrows Center in Fall River, Massachusetts), he is just playing acoustic and that’s how it was this time too. He’s great electric or acoustic. The power of those songs, the way it’s like he sings straight through you and he’s such a serious and kinda scary and so talented guy that people pay attention, I’ll tell you what. I really liked his latest album, The Horses and the Hounds, from last year, and he played about five songs off that, plus about five off of his previous album and then a smattering of his great songs through his career. That included a couple of real favorites that I’ve either never seen him play (“Carlisle’s Haul”) or haven’t seen him play since I was in Austin in the late 2000s (“Hurricane Party”). Plus some of his standards like “Levelland” and the always amazing “Choctaw Bingo.” Great stuff.

In other news:

I had no idea Chaka Khan was in the Black Panthers.

For that matter, I had no idea that Fiona Apple was a passionate activist for streaming court hearings.

Nick Cave REALLY doesn’t like Charles Bukowski. For good reason, as Bukowski is terrible.

This week’s playlist:

  1. Charles Lloyd & Billy Higgins, Which Way is East
  2. DJ Spooky & Kronos Quartet, Rebirth of a Nation
  3. Matthew Shipp, The Piano Equation
  4. William Parker & Hamid Drake, Volume 2: Summer Snow
  5. Harriet Tubman, Araminta
  6. Jenny Lewis, The Voyager
  7. Dewey Redman, Coincide
  8. James Brown, Cold Sweat
  9. Neil Young, On the Beach
  10. Jason Isbell, Here We Rest
  11. Bill Monroe, The Very Best of Bill Monroe
  12. Curtis Mayfield, Something to Believe In
  13. Drive By Truckers, The Dirty South
  14. Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, Pioneering Women of Bluegrass
  15. Tanya Tucker, Delta Dawn
  16. Grateful Dead, Dick’s Picks, Volume 1, disc 1 (12/19/73, Tampa)
  17. Run the Jewels, RTJ 3
  18. Tommy Jarrell, The Legacy of Tommy Jarrell, Volume 3: Come And Go With Me
  19. Laura Gibson, Empire Builder
  20. Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud
  21. Ian Tyson, Cowboyography
  22. Kim Gordon, No Home Record
  23. Archie Shepp, The Magic of Ju-Ju
  24. Velvet Underground, Velvet Underground and Nico
  25. Drive By Truckers, The Unraveling
  26. Camera Obscura, Let’s Get Out of This Country
  27. Mannequin Pussy, Perfect
  28. Iggy Pop, Lust for Life
  29. Gang of Four, Solid Gold
  30. Angaleena Presley, American Middle Class
  31. Chuck Prophet, Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins
  32. Orquesta Akokán, self-titled
  33. Merle Haggard, It’s All in the Movies
  34. Grateful Dead, American Beauty
  35. Silver Jews, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
  36. Jason Isbell, Reunions
  37. William Parker Clarinet Trio, Bob’s Pink Cadillac, disc 2
  38. Sleaford Mods, Spare Ribs
  39. Priests, Bodies and Control and Money and Power
  40. Buck Owens, Buck ‘Em!, Vol. 2: The Music of Buck Owens (1967-1975), disc 2
  41. Joey Purp, iiiDrops
  42. Jeremy Ivey, Invisible Pictures
  43. REM, Document
  44. George Jones, The Essential, disc 2
  45. Guided by Voices, Alien Lanes
  46. Marissa Nadler, For My Crimes
  47. Wild Billy Childish & CTMF, Where the Wild Purple Iris Grows
  48. Leonard Cohen, Live in London
  49. Palace Music, Viva Last Blues
  50. Angaleena Presley, Wrangled
  51. John Zorn, The Big Gundown
  52. Robert Earl Keen, Walking Distance
  53. The Count Basic Orchestra, The National Jazz Museum in Harlem presents the Savory Collection, Vol. 2: Jumpin’ At the Woodside: The Count Basie Orchestra featuring Lester Young
  54. Waylon Jennings, Waylon Live, disc 2
  55. St. Vincent, self-titled
  56. Calexico/Iron & Wine, In the Reins
  57. BR5-49, Coast to Coast
  58. Fela Kuti, Best of the Black President, disc 1
  59. Smithsonian Collection Of Classic Jazz Volume I
  60. Tom T. Hall, We All Got Together And……
  61. Miguel, War and Leisure
  62. Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys, The Tiffany Transcriptions, Volume 4
  63. The Modern Lovers, self-titled
  64. Gram Parsons, G.P.
  65. Ramones, Leave Home
  66. Eliza Carthy, Angels and Cigarettes
  67. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, disc 1

This week’s album reviews:

Nate Wooley, Seven Storey Mountain VI

Fascinating if not completely successful project from the excellent trumpeter. Part of a larger song cycle, this is in three parts, featuring mostly voice as its main means of expression, along with the trumpet of course. The first part works through choral music traditions. The second is the most intense and in my view the best. The third borrows lyrics from Peggy Seeger’s “Reclaim the Night,” one of the classic feminist songs. While I like the politics of this, it doesn’t feel like the strongest ending to the piece. Wooley is working with some serious high concept ideas here. This isn’t just a bunch of people getting together and improvising. Heck, let’s just reprint his essay for this album at Bandcamp:


Seven Storey Mountain was born of two confrontations. The first is between myself as an active user of machines and the trumpet as the passive machine that I use. Anyone who has practiced an instrument understands this friction and frustration but—given my personal history of being misinformed, partially educated, and brought up off beat—my concept of technical mastery has been less than traditional. Over the years, I’ve tried to understand the trumpet by breaking it down, reconstructing it, screaming into it, whispering near it, doing it (and myself) grievous bodily harm and, as heard on this recording, electrocuting it. I’ve done this, not for novelty, but in hopes of finding its humanity: drawing its technique away from the traditional goal of reproducing the singing voice and toward a technique of sighing, shrieking, and mumbling.

The second confrontation is more abstract, but similarly embedded in how the song cycle has unfolded. In the same sense of testing the capabilities of the trumpet-as-machine, I wanted to locate the limits of my own self-as-spirit. These terms are difficult. They carry a certain kind of weight and a feeling of the vaguely religious. This kind of language, as well as the title of this work, culled from Thomas Merton’s autobiographical writing, has overlaid a sense of the “sacred” on the series that should have been disavowed by me long ago, but I’ve yet to find terms that fit SSM as naturally and poetically. Religious dogma holds little interest for me. Instead, what I’m drawn to in Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain—and what I mean by self-as-spirit—is a secular practice of self-questioning and evolution. Ralph Waldo Emerson calls it self-reliance. Seven Storey Mountain is not an attempt to reach a spiritual plane. It is an example of how we take part as humans in the cycle of trying, failing, recognizing, evaluating, regrouping, and trying again; an exercise in the transcendent human process of failure.

Mutual Aid Music

Building Seven Storey Mountain is a practical process of reverse-engineering. The score is compiled from a dozen differently-articulated sets of instructions to the musicians rather than being preset and articulated in standardized score notation. Each iteration of the cycle begins with a list of individual personalities with different strengths and ways of engaging with music. Some of the musicians don’t want to read traditional notation. Others are more comfortable performing from a score. Still others can do both but are most comfortable somewhere on a spectrum between the two. Seven Storey Mountain presents each musician with a score that is specific to their orientation. They can be free from self-consciousness and redirect all of their energy into an explosion of musical energy.

Composing Seven Storey Mountain begins with the pre-recorded sounds that occur simultaneously with the live performance. I take the sound file from the immediately preceding version and strip any sounds from it that feel non-essential. Then, I add elements to this landscape to build a distinct aural topography while still feeling grounded in the earlier versions of the piece. For example, in the middle of SSM6, there are a number of drum samples: a Paul Lytton clip first used in SSM4; a heavily manipulated Chris Corsano loop added to SSM5; and, unique to this version, the overlaid crescendo of Will Guthrie’s “Breaking Bones.” In each sound file since SSM4, some version of the “Lytton Loop”—a short gesture ending in a sustained high bell tone—has been included. Although it has been manipulated in one way or another from one version to the next, that loop has become a through-line in the subsequent pieces.

Once finished, this sound file acts as a timeline for the musicians. Their gestures are laid out as timings on a printed temporal score and also correspond to pre-recorded sonic events. The individual parts may be made up of textual instructions with timings, aleatoric notation, jazz chord changes, or fully notated traditional scores. Regardless of the different ways of articulating what, when, and how to add to the performance, the end result is the same: a unified organism of sound—something larger than the individual. To achieve this, we work together.

This approach to writing is something I call Mutual Aid Music. And, it has been a central tenet of my compositional and improvisational philosophy for the last ten years in projects from Seven Storey Mountain to Battle Pieces and knknighgh. This form of composing doesn’t aim to reproduce a score coming from a central source (me) but relies on individual and group decision-making as ways of taking musicians out of their preconceived technical or aesthetic languages to create a communal music. Concentrating on how the decisions of each performer affect the overall music (and how those decisions can push the music in unfamiliar directions) asks the player to work beyond their licks and tics, and prods them to express something original and spontaneous to the collective.

This approach creates a highly-complex music that is heartbreakingly human in its inevitable failure. Virtuosity is the possibility of collapse. This music demands that the players put themselves in a position of sounding foolish, uncool, bad. It is the willingness to take this risk that raises us, as artists, above mere reproduction. It is terrifying to tempt failure in a solo setting, but the act of throwing yourself off a musical cliff within an ensemble takes on a singular dimension: you have to consider that the people around you are doing the same thing. The best way to avoid failure is to embrace those that jumped with you in an attempt to create something buoyant, something beyond simultaneously hurtling individuals. When it doesn’t work and failure wins, at least the attempt is noble. When it does work (as it does on this recording) the result is a rare form of musical intricacy and intimacy.

Ecstaticism, Family, Voice

There are a few elements of SSM that are less easily definable, but are vital, and so they should be mentioned. The first is Ecstaticism—a term I may have inadvertently coined in a 2014 interview. Seven Storey Mountain is meant to make you feel something. The live performances of these pieces make people react. They smile, shiver, cry, run for the door to compose their angry emails. The ensemble is there, playing this music, for people to remember that feeling and to take it home with them. We seek to imprint a moment on you.

The best part of Seven Storey Mountain is the “We.” Every person who has performed a portion of the cycle has given something to the piece, and some part of the piece has remained with them. Each SSM is written so that everyone can give a little more of themselves than they feel comfortable giving without causing too much strain. Seven Storey Mountain is a chance for the performers to turn themselves inside out in a way that feels safe. Together! Everyone in every ensemble, from the first trio with David Grubbs and Paul Lytton (SSM) to those who have signed on in Germany (SSM5) or Belgium (SSM6) have given something deep and personal. This is especially true of the huge force that came together to perform and record the music on this disc. I call them ‘the family’ with no sense of irony. These are my people and I’m happy to have them in my life.


When we get ready to rehearse a version of SSM for the first time, I remind the ensemble that our goal is to make the room vibrate in a different way, and to make that room continue to vibrate long after we’re gone. In the past, we’ve achieved this through a variable concoction of volume and a certain feeling of power.

When I was preparing this version of Seven Storey Mountain, I found that this kind of energy wasn’t at my fingertips any longer. For the first time, I was angry. I was truly angry as I watched what people do to each other: how some make decisions about peoples’ lives as if they were objects. I was fucking angry watching the government attempt to wrest control of women’s bodies and angry watching Black people be incarcerated and killed with impunity. This anger manifested as the desire to sing loud, but not just with my voice. I didn’t trust my strength alone. Instead, I put my trust in the voices of the women around me. They have a different kind of power that I can’t explain.

At the end of the premiere—after much gnashing of teeth and feedback sculpting by the instrumentalists—a choir of twenty-one women led by Megan Schubert stood up in the back rows of a church and, with no amplification, made its walls shake with Peggy Seeger’s words. I hope they are still vibrating and will continue to do so for a long time. To share a room with those voices moved me and, for a moment, I felt whole.

Well, OK. What I can say is that Wooley is a brilliant musician but compared to some of the other great music of his career, this isn’t my favorite work. It’s a high bar, what can I say.


Yard Act, The Overload

Good solid poppy British post-punk, though pretty smooth for the genre. Like any good British punks, they are pissed about Brexit and the racism of their society. If they aren’t the most original band of all time, they are still a damn fine genre band. And yeah, punk is as much a genre at this point as country or R&B. And they can hate. These songs show a lot of contempt for the various forms of assholes that populate the UK, but is also surprisingly tender toward some of the some of their subjects. Surprisingly level of emotional complexity here.


Alicia Lee, Conversations with Myself

Albums for solo clarinet are not exactly hot sellers these days. Or, you know, any days of the past either. But that doesn’t stop Lee, a master of the instrument who put this album last year on the New Focus Recordings label that gives voice to young modern composers and performers. In this case, Lee interprets work from Pierre Boulez, Dai Fujikura, Isang Yun, Unsuk Chin, and Hideaki Aomori. Why solo clarinet? This is the classical version of a Covid isolation album.

Normally, I might think was a bit much, but Lee’s clarinet tone is so powerful that this is lovely to hear. Lee, who is Korean-American, is heavily influenced by other Asian composers, as well as Asian folk musics, so Boulez is the only non-Asian on the set. Is there anything specifically “Asian” about these pieces? I dunno, it’s not obvious to me. They are very solid compositions warmly performed by a great clarinetist. I’d listen to more of Lee’s conversations with herself in any case.


Vinny Golia/Bernard Santacruz/Christiano Calcagnile, To Live and Breathe

One of these jazz albums where only 2 of the 5 pieces are available to stream, but I’ll go with that and give a tentative evaluation.

It’s interesting to hear this after the Lee album because Golia mostly plays the soprano sax here and since that instrument is not that different in sound and tone than the clarinet, it feels like a natural progression, almost as if the two albums are related. Of course this has the jazz background of these three artists, but there’s also plenty in the way of chamber jazz coming through in these tracks. They tend to be mostly quiet, with understated but quite interesting playing, a slow dissonance building from the bottom. Another fascinating thing about this album is that none of these three guys had ever played before. This was recorded live in Italy in 2017 and it was these three guys learning from each other as they went. We are a long ways from the orchestration of the Duke Ellington Orchestra here my friends. The question is whether it works and I definitely think it does. So did the audience. This just builds and builds and reaches an amazing tension. Again, I’d have to hear the entire thing to really say, but just based on these two tracks, this is worthy material.

None of this is available on YouTube, so here’s a Golia performance from 2018.


Buffalo Nichols, Buffalo Nichols

I had heard Nichols a few times, opening for Drive By Truckers. But the thing about DBT shows is that the opening act is not turned up all that high, so it tends to be stripped down to an extent that I think it sometimes undermines what the performer can do. Being the opening act is an opportunity and a frustrating experience, I can imagine. Anyway, hearing Nichols, it felt like OK singer songwriter music but the words weren’t always too easy to hear and too many talk through opening acts anyway.

So I finally decided to just sit down and listen the album. It’s pretty good! This is new blues, someone really taking the tradition and moving it in new directions, which is all too rare in blues these days, where most of the acts are basically imitations of previous greats or white guitar people who really want it to be 1968 again. Nichols is a very good songwriter and his expression through the blues reminds you of how fresh that genre can still sound. I don’t think this is a great album exactly, but I think he has the potential in him for a great album.


As always, this is an open thread for all things music and art and none things politics.

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