Sunday, May 17, 2009

PLOrk and Pharoah

Just finished a great weekend of performances. I must admit playing with PLOrk, Matmos, and So Percussion on Saturday was some of the most fun I've had making music in a while. We had a great crowd response and I thank everyone who came for stopping by.

I'm listening to Pharoah Sanders's masterwork "The Creator Has A Master Plan" from his album "Karma." Hearing the richness and variety of his sound, I'm intrigued thinking about what a Pharoah Sanders-PLOrk collaboration would sound like, especially considering how well Riley Lee was able to fit in with some of our pieces. Well, that's for another time. In the mean time, here's a review of Pharoah Sanders's performance at the Iridium in New York from this past December.

Though Pharoah Sanders is still best known as the powerfully anarchic tenor saxophonist that frequently appeared alongside John Coltrane in the mid-1960s, in the years since his stint in Coltrane’s band, Sanders has asserted himself as one of the most creative and original voices on his instrument. Sanders possesses a rich, vibrato-laden sound in addition to a slew of squeaks, squawks, and other distorted timbres. But in addition to having this uniquely recognizable sound, Sanders has always experimented with the sounds behind him. On his 1969 album, Karma, Sanders used a large ensemble featuring a host of exotic percussion instruments and the powerful vocals of Leon Thomas. On his 1980 album Journey to the One, Sanders played over synthesizers and almost hip-hopish dance beats. He has played with African, Indian, and Far Eastern instruments, in addition to more traditional jazz groups. With this track record, Sanders’s performance at the Iridium Jazz Club on December 12, 2008, was anticipated as an eclectic affair.

Instead, Sanders’s set was unexpectedly straight-ahead with a heavy nod to tradition. Instead of pushing forward with new music, Sanders and his band, channeled the music of Sanders’s former boss, John Coltrane, particularly of his early ‘60s, “classic” quartet. The set began with Sanders’s original “Doktor Pitt” from his Journey to the One album. However, the tempo was increased dramatically, turning the lightly funky tune into a ferocious burner, highly reminiscent of Coltrane’s “Impressions.” After a few false starts due to a faulty microphone, Sanders launched into his first solo. His playing was a study in extremes, jumping from dense be-bop-like lines, to long tones, to his trademark sound effects, all with plenty of space in between. For all of the contrasts in Sanders’s solo, the rhythm section remained oddly static. Drummer Mark Johnson propelled the band with high-energy insistence, but his lack of dynamic and textural contrast created a strong feeling of monotony by the end of Sanders’s solo. Pianist William Henderson did not help relieve this monotony much, as he remained locked into the same two-chord vamp for much of the tune. Though Henderson filled his solo with some gracefully swinging lines, they were covered up by Johnson’s unyielding beat and the effect of that contrast was lost.

The feel of the second tune was thankfully more subdued, yet still very much in the Coltrane vein. Henderson played a minor modal vamp with classic McCoy Tyner voicings while Johnson and bassist Nat Reeves set up a relaxed, Latin-tinged groove. This helped clear space to put Sanders front and center and he took full advantage. Sanders’s dynamic solo featured the same extremes in sound as in his first, but with the rhythm section in its restrained state, the contrasts became much more apparent and effective. In a particularly stirring moment, Sanders jumped from a low growl all the way up to a high, singing note, then sliding into a lyrical improvised melody. However, even this musical climax revealed shortcomings of the performance. The rhythm section remained passive during Sanders’s solo, not matching his energy level and not creating any interplay. Also, it showed how Sanders is still in top form on his instrument, suggesting that he could be playing much more interesting new music with more capable and dynamic sideman and is not challenging himself, content to play in an old established style.

After the Latin tune faded out, the band jumped right on to the next tune, another modal vamp, but this one was instantly recognizable: Coltrane’s famous version of “My Favorite Things.” Coltrane’s version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune is so definitive, bordering on the trite, that most jazz musicians today stay away from it. Although it is certainly a nice tune to play and long overdue for a reinvention, the performance by Sanders and his band was no such reinvention and came off as just a rehash. Though Sanders probably picked the tune as a send-up to his former boss, it ended up sounding more like a cheap imitation. A major reason Coltrane’s version of the song is so effective is that drummer Elvin Jones is able to create a relaxed mood with his loose, behind-the-beat feel. However, drummer Mark Johnson played on front side of the beat, giving the performance an uncomfortable edge. As such, the rhythm section never really gelled, each one with a different conception of where the tune should go. These differences of opinion were reflected in each one’s solo. Pianist Henderson tried to strike a balance between freedom and restraint, building up his solo with increasingly complex melodic lines. At the climax, Henderson played colorful, upper-register chords in his right hand and the tune’s melody in his left, a compromise between reverence and reinvention. Bassist Nat Reeves’s first solo of the night was both subdued and playful. He preferred to play long tones with strong intonation instead of muddled clutters of lines. He also quoted the melody of the tune’s bridge, playing out of time with a relaxed casualness that was lacking from so much of the set. After awkwardly transitioning back into tempo, Johnson turned the entire tune on its head when he began his solo. By playing the hi-hat on only beat three, he displaced the groove, making the tune feel as if in four, not three. His solo was remarkable in its energy and technical proficiency, but it had no relation to the rest of the song. These disparate solos made it readily apparent that Sanders’s group was not a tight, working band.

It seemed that by the fourth tune, the players were finally getting on to the same page. A swinging, medium-up, hard-boppish number, the tune showed potential to lift the set out of its monotony. There was greater interplay and a bit more fun in the mix, but the tune went the way of most of the others with marathon solos and awkward transitions, pulling the life right out of the tune. Sanders’s last tune opened in a rubato fashion, like Coltrane’s “Spiritual” and “Acknowledgement.” This setting again played into Sanders’s strengths, his big sound cutting through the dense piano and cymbal cascades around him. The band transitioned into another Latin feel and Sanders began another trademark solo. However, before he could reach a definitive climax, the group transitioned back into the rubato intro and ended the tune in a less than conclusive fashion, brought about by the fact Sanders’s performance had run over time. Sanders then spoke for the first time all set (a fact that created an air of seriousness, even a wall between performer and audience, all night), as he quickly introduced the band and scampered off stage. For those unfamiliar with Sanders’s work, the set would have been eye-opening, as Sanders’s sound is still intensely deep and powerful. But for those who have heard Sanders previously, the show was underwhelming as Sanders broke no new ground and did not shoot off any creative sparks.

With his long list of accomplishments, Pharoah Sanders certainly does not need to prove his worth as a player to jazz critics. Having already cemented his place among the pantheon of tenor saxophonists, Sanders is free to play in whatever manner he desires. However, because Sanders is blessed with the ability to play so forcefully and expressively at this point in his career, he has the potential to continually expand and reinvent his music, even if he wishes to revisit older styles. Sanders may wish to take a note from saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Unlike Sanders’s group, Shorter’s quartet is made up of younger players who are regarded as great leaders in their own rights. Shorter’s group is based on interplay, allowing his players to assert their own musical voices into the mix and challenge Shorter, not just let him float on top. The group’s repertoire is almost exclusively Shorter’s older tunes, but because of their format, all of the tunes are reinvented in each performance and infrequently stale. If Sanders assembles a group of challenging players to accompany him, his music will not be stale as it was on December 12. Sanders’s music will gain new relevance, ceasing to be a hollow echo of the past.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Upcoming Shows!

I have back to back shows this weekend. They both feature new music, but couldn't be more different.

On Saturday May 16 at 8 PM, I am performing with the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk). For those unfamiliar with PLOrk, the name is fairly self-explanatory: we're an orchestra of laptops. However, we do things a bit differently compared to other electronic music ensembles in that each member has a personal, six-channel speaker that replicates how sound radiates from an acoustic instrument, rather than having all sounds come out of the same amplification system. You'll see the members of orchestra play with the trackpad and keyboard, manipulate external hardware, and even move the laptop itself to create sound.

Even better, PLOrk is playing with some special guests! First, Matmos is an electronic music duo originally from San Francisco that has gained notoriety for its creative use of both everyday and obscure sounds to create techno, including noises from surgery (scalpels, liposuction, great stuff!). They have also worked extensively with Bjork. Second, So Percussion is a quartet of classically trained percussionists that have traded in their timpani for cacti, ceramic pots, and a host of other obscure instruments. They like to call their proprietary blend of 20th century classical music and their own forward-thinking, genre-bending compositions "funky contemporary music." Riley Lee is the first shakuhachi (a traditional Japanese bamboo flute) player not from Japan to attain the rank of "Grand Master" and has taught and performed all over the world.

It's going to be a wild night, like nothing you've ever heard before. Check it out. Richardson Auditorium (right off Nassau Street on the Princeton campus), 8 PM. $15 for general admission, $5 for students.

And if that's not enough for you, I'm playing at Richardson the next day at 4 PM with the Tim Keyes Consort. Tim Keyes is a local New Jersey composer whose work is in the tonal and orchestral realm; there will be no laptops in sight. His music is cinematic and majestic, though I think he's at his best when he gets playful and the music takes itself less seriously. Anyway, the concert will feature two of my good friends, Soolean Choy on clarinet and Dan Choi and violin, playing concerti by Tim.

So, whatever your cup of tea is--crazy electronic/percussive freak-outs or grand, sweeping orchestral music--you can have a good time listening to music this weekend in Princeton. Hope to see you there.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Electric Mr. Davis

I'm only on my second blog post and I'm already writing something that doesn't exactly go along with new music theme. However, Miles Davis is always both hip and controversial. The breadth of his music makes him very hard to pin down--it is hard to say definitively what Miles was all about. The following is my attempt to make sense of the great stylistic shifts in Davis's career, especially from his 1960s quintet to "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew," with an emphasis on the latter.

Listening to trumpeter Miles Davis’s seminal album “Bitches Brew” is never an easy or comfortable activity. From the eerily dissonant opening chord on the album’s title track to the churning, fluctuating tempo of the final tune, “Feio,” there are few musical ideas for the listener to hold onto. The music is complex, foreboding, and long-winded (with some tunes stretching into the twenty-minute range). But what gives this music its true shock value is its departure from Davis’s previous music. Davis was as concise a trumpet player as there was in jazz at the time. In his early career in the 1940s and ‘50s, Davis became attracted to the playing of pianist Thelonius Monk, in particular Monk’s use of space. Where some jazz improvisers would play seven or eight notes, Monk would play only two or three, but the placement of those few notes made them just as meaningful as the many of other musicians, particularly bebop improvisers like the saxophonist Charlie Parker. Davis applied this approach to his trumpet-playing and was lauded for his unique style, which combined lyricism with a strong sense of swing. The critics and fans who had supported Davis’s work throughout the 1950s and ‘60s felt betrayed by his use of rock rhythms and electronic instruments on “Bitches Brew.” In their minds, the concision and simple beauty of such albums as “Kind of Blue” were nowhere to be found in “Bitches Brew”.

Even long after its initial release, “Bitches Brew” remained controversial. In the early 1990s, jazz critic Stanley Crouch wrote a scathing analysis of Davis’s jazz-rock fusion music in an article titled “On the Corner: The Sellout of Miles Davis.” In the article, Crouch universally praises Davis’s work through 1969. But for him, “Bitches Brew” bears no resemblance to Davis’s previous work and lacks its strong musical values. Crouch questions why Davis changed his music so radically in 1969 and comes up with a simple conclusion: Miles Davis sold out to rock music by adopting its rhythms and instrumentation to become more popular and sell more records. Certainly, Davis achieved those ends with his fusion recordings; “Bitches Brew” was his first album to receive gold record status and Davis played for enormous crowds around the world, including at rock and roll festivals. While his assessment turns Davis’s life into a dramatic Faustian narrative, Crouch is too quick to dismiss Davis’s fusion and the shared values that “Bitches Brew” holds with the rest of Davis’s music. “Bitches Brew” was not a dumbing down of jazz for rock audiences, but a necessary next step in Davis’s musical development, part of a continuance of innovations Davis had used throughout his career. Because he lacked technical facility on the trumpet, Davis could not just play in the accepted jazz style of his era and compete with his more gifted contemporaries, but had to rewrite the rules of jazz in order to be heard.

Miles Davis’s lack of technical facility on the trumpet could not have been due to a lack of formal training. At the age of 18, Davis arrived in New York City from East St. Louis, Illinois in 1944 to study music at the Juilliard School. However, Davis’s real musical education took place at late-night jam sessions with such players as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. These two musicians were the foremost progenitors of a new style of jazz called bebop, a hard-edged masculine style that placed great emphasis on technical virtuosity and harmonic complexity. In the world of bebop, one’s technical virtuosity was judged by how fast, how loudly, and for how long one could play. A devotee of Parker and Gillespie, Davis shadowed the two players, trying to learn their solo vocabularies and eventually played alongside Parker on several recordings. However, Davis was never truly comfortable or proficient playing in the bebop style. On a recording of “Crazeology” with Charlie Parker, Davis’s solo features many bebop styled licks borrowed from Parker, but it lacks the confidence and clarity of a Gillespie solo. Davis’s solo lines are a mediocre facsimile of Parker’s and his sound is thin and quiet, staying within the trumpet’s middle range—almost the antithesis of what Gillespie would do. Davis could not keep up with the best beboppers and he knew it. But instead of admitting defeat and remaining a second-tier bebop player, Davis decided to rewrite the conventions of jazz to showcase his true strength as a player: his diaphanous and expressive tone.

Davis’s transformations of jazz conventions can be separated into two main categories: alteration of group sound and texture and the simplification of harmonic language. These changes contrasted sharply with bebop, a style that featured many chord changes at breakneck speeds and relatively standard instrumentation (usually one or two horns accompanied by piano, bass, and drums), illustrating Davis’s attempt to break out of the style. As a bandleader, Davis frequently experimented with unusual instrumentation outside the accepted norms for a jazz group. On his first major album as a leader, “Birth of the Cool,” recorded in 1949, Davis used instruments like the baritone sax, tuba, and French horn. By using these instruments, Davis placed less emphasis on his own individual improvisation and more on the unique group sound: the blending of the different instrumental textures with his trumpet tone. This use of texture proved effective in creating different moods, especially on the impressionistic ballad “Moon Dreams,” whose Debussy-influenced harmonies certainly create a scene that reflects the song’s title. By placing such emphasis on texture and mood, Davis was able to create lasting and interesting jazz without needing to satisfy the bebop concept of technical proficiency. This album helped launch Davis’s popularity, as listeners loved his romantic lyricism that was featured so prominently. As such, listeners did not see him as a failed bebopper who was attempting to get noticed, but rather an alternative to the overtly aggressive bebop style. By playing jazz that accentuated his lyrical, expressive tone and not his speed and power, Davis created music that proved just as innovative as bebop, spawning a new jazz style known appropriately as “cool.”

Throughout the 1950s, Davis continued to experiment with different musical textures within his groups. In a series of collaborations with the arranger Gil Evans, Davis was backed by a twenty-piece big band that featured atypical jazz instruments, like flute, and textures derived from European classical music. But as he experimented with instrumentation, Davis also began experimenting with new forms of improvisation that would once again bring out his strengths and cover up his technical deficiencies. First on his album “Milestones” and then on his seminal recording “Kind of Blue,” Davis performed tunes that were not based on complex chord progressions but instead based on modes, different formations of the standard major scale. Instead of chords changing once or twice a measure like in a common jazz standard or bebop tune, these modes would stay in place for as much as eight measures at a time. This slowing of the harmonic motion created more improvisatory freedom as the soloist could concentrate on phrasing, melody, and alterations in sound instead of trying to navigate complex chord progressions. This freedom made modal tunes much easier to play from a technical standpoint, as a soloist did not need a strong vocabulary of learned licks or even a comprehensive knowledge of harmony to produce an interesting solo. In this way, modal improvisation once again played to Davis’s strengths and minimized his weaknesses. The slow harmonic motion allowed Davis to stretch the space between the notes of his solo, making the listener concentrate not on what he was playing in terms of notes and rhythms, but how he was playing it—the volume, tone quality, and inflection.

Davis uses the space allowed him by the modal improvisation approach most effectively on the final track of “Kind of Blue”, called “Flamenco Sketches.” Although the piece lacks a preconceived melody, Davis’s opening solo is so intensely melodic that it comes off as composed and not improvised. As in many ballads he played, Davis uses a Harmon mute in his trumpet, creating a thinner and more fragile sound that begs the audience to listen in more closely. By changing this tone in such a way, Davis puts the audience’s attention on the quality of his sound, rather than the number of notes he is playing. For example, in Davis’s opening solo as the band transitions from the first to the second mode, Davis blurts out a high note, not piercing like a bebop sound, but again fragile, appearing to falter. Later in the third mode, Davis reaches another high note, but instead of hitting it cleanly, he bends up into it, giving the note a more vocal quality. The fact that these single notes are so notable shows how Davis used modal improvisation to distract the audience from his technical defects. Although the subsequent solos of John Coltrane on tenor saxophone and Cannonball Adderly on alto saxophone feature many more notes and greater technical prowess, their solos are not any more interesting or expressive than Davis’s. Because of the simplicity and freedom of modal improvisation and his exquisite melodicism, Davis was able to play at the same level as more virtuosic soloists.

But while “Kind of Blue” marked a new development in improvisational freedom for Davis, the improvisations on it were still restricted by the use of the traditional swing rhythm. On “Flamenco Sketches” drummer Jimmy Cobb simply lays down the rhythm at an even tempo. While Davis is able to place more space between his notes than in bebop, he can only do it in relation to the steady dictated tempo. In the next decade, Davis would expand improvisatory freedom in terms of rhythm with his quintet featuring the young phenom Tony Williams on drums. In the period between 1964 and 1968, Williams blew up the traditional jazz rhythm as it had been known. Instead of playing the standard ride cymbal pattern with the hi-hat cymbal on beats two and four, Williams freed up all of his limbs and merely implied the time, sometimes implying multiple tempos on top of each other. Again, this freedom in rhythm allowed Davis more freedom in his solos—to stretch and shrink the tempo as desired. And once again, this freedom drew attention away from Davis’s lack of technical virtuosity. This improvisatory freedom and Williams’s propulsive drumming even coaxed Davis to play long, almost bebop style runs, convincing many listeners and critics, Stanley Crouch among them, that Davis did indeed have technical mastery of the trumpet. However, these licks are not as virtuosic as they first appear, as they are not used to connect fast-moving chords like in the traditional bebop style, but rather are just flurries of notes that do not imply harmonic motion like bebop runs do, and are therefore less demanding in a music theoretical sense. What Davis’s playing in this period does suggest, though, is a shift to a more aggressive, blues-influenced style. Williams’s drumming certainly played a part in this development. For example, the performance of “Freedom Jazz Dance” on the album “Miles Smiles” features Williams playing a dressed-up R&B/Funk beat, rife with heavy backbeats and active bass drum patterns. While the aggression of Davis’s music suggests he could capably play in the aggressive bebop style, the music is not more technically demanding than previous kinds because it is based in the simple chord progressions of the blues. Because Davis had exhausted the rhythmic vocabulary of traditional jazz, the potential textures achievable with acoustic instruments, and the greatest simplification of traditional jazz harmony, Davis had few musical directions in which to go in 1969 if he wished to continue to make progressive music.

In this way, Davis’s foray into jazz-rock fusion was not only a viable next step in his artistic progression, but his only choice based on his technique. Many younger trumpeters, most notably Freddie Hubbard, were adopting the style of Davis’s late ‘60s quintet and because of their technical mastery, were doing it better than Davis could. In order to stay ahead of the pack, Davis had to once again rewrite the conventions of jazz and he did it in the same way he had throughout his career: by altering texture, improvisation, and rhythm. The title track on his album “Bitches Brew” is a prime example of his new style, as it features all of the new developments in his music. Firstly, from a textural standpoint, Davis’s use of multiple electric keyboards and guitar gave the music a startling new sound, a sound that like on “Birth of the Cool” took the emphasis off Davis’s trumpet playing and onto the individual sounds made by each musician. Davis settled on these electric instruments not to relate to younger rock-savvy audiences, but because they helped him achieve a clarity and fullness in the accompaniment Davis had only previously been able to achieve in the large big bands orchestrated by Gil Evans. Davis also changed his own trumpet sound, adding percussive articulation to mimic the blues guitar of James Brown’s band and electric wa-wa and delay effects to create an eerie, floating mood in the beginning of the “Bitches Brew” title track. Secondly, from an improvisation standpoint, Davis, instead of merely simplifying the harmony, did away with it entirely. The solo sections are not based on a sequence of chords, but are rather based on a repeating bass line ostinato that allowed both the soloist and accompanists to improvise freely. Again, this improvisation placed emphasis on Davis’s sound, not improvised runs and patterns. And on this album, he was even freer to play what he wanted from a rhythmic standpoint. The first section of “Bitches Brew” is out of tempo entirely, with the multiple drummers and percussionists adding textures instead of dictating rhythm. Once again, Davis was able to mask his playing deficiencies and in the end produce intriguing and popular music.

But for some of Davis’s longtime fans and critical supporters, this last musical development was not a next step for jazz, but a giant leap into another genre of music that was far below his previous work in terms of artistic quality. A critic like Stanley Crouch would argue that Davis’s mid to late ‘60s music was already extremely progressive, as Crouch says Davis’s first quintet album with Tony Williams, “E.S.P.,” still sounds fresh today. Davis did not need to use electronic instruments or rock rhythms to stay ahead of the pack, and he only adopted these techniques to gain popularity and increased record sales. However, Davis would not have been able to make more acoustic jazz albums without stagnating, not just from a technical standpoint, but because of Davis’s itinerant musical personality. At the end of the ‘60s, Davis had been playing jazz that was heavily influenced by European classical music for twenty years, be it the instrumental textures of Gil Evans, or the use of European church modes. “Bitches Brew” was also Davis’s attempt to recapture his musical roots in the blues, especially in the vein of James Brown and B.B. King, whose music Davis frequently listened to. This act is not a sellout, as stated by Crouch, but rather an honest reassertion of his African-American musical heritage. Ironically, Crouch himself acknowledges that “…blues should be the foundation of any innovation in jazz,” and Davis’s innovations on “Bitches Brew” are much more blues-based than any of his others. In the end, Crouch’s criticisms are merely based on his predilections against the sound of electronic instruments and free jazz improvisation, which are mere preferences and not grounds on which to make an artistic judgment.

While Miles Davis will never be remembered for the licks he left behind, his stature as a giant in jazz was in effect caused by his less than remarkable technique. Innovation became a necessity for him and over the length of his career he reinvented jazz multiple times, spawning new styles and inspiring a host of imitators and acolytes. Although critics like Stanley Crouch may always see Davis as a sellout, his legacy among and influence on other musicians is not in doubt. For example, trombone player Conrad Herwig has recorded a “Kind of Blue” tribute album with Latin reinterpretations of those Davis tunes. Davis’s embrace of sounds and rhythms outside the jazz tradition is carried on by countless forward-thinking jazz musicians today from Dave Douglas to Robert Glasper to Darcy James Argue. By never settling for being just another trumpet player, Davis helped open up jazz to new influences that traditional jazz players, comfortable in the accepted style, would not have thought of.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Welcome... Here is the News

Here begins my initial plunge/climb into the blogosphere, depending on whether one thinks this proverbial land is above or below sea level. To begin, I feel I should explain why I'm doing this anyway. It's pretty simple. I want a $100 check signed by Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus. Seriously. I may not even want to cash the check because I'd certainly be up for keeping an Ethan Iverson autograph.

Ok, maybe not that simple. But certainly this is incentive enough for me to stop studying for my US History final this week and do something I've thought about doing for a long time. While part of me wants to be the fifth member of So Percussion, another part of me wants to be a hip music critic.

This blog will be a clearinghouse for my various writings on music, especially new music, as implied by my uncreatively goofy title. As a student at Princeton University, I get to share classrooms with some really forward thinking musicians and composers and am a train ride away from arguably the largest musical community in the world. From those that regularly converse with me, I am known to frequently direct discussion toward musical topics and have a lot to say. I hope this blog will be an environment where I can clarify my musical opinions and hone my writing to make my opinions worth hearing. As I am also an active performer, the blog will promote my performances to an unknown number of fans (the number is probably irrational).

We'll see what happens. Especially regarding that Ethan Iverson check.