Thursday, September 30, 2010

Chilled Ashes

Last night while I was making my pretentious internet reading rounds, Wilco's "Ashes of American Flags" came up on iTunes. After about 3 seconds or so, I was stopped mid-sentence on Slate, paralyzed by a piercing chill. It's been a while since I've had a musical chill that strong, probably the last one being the first time I heard "You Stepped out of Dream" as recorded by the vocalist Jeanne Lee and the pianist Ran Blake back in July.

I was surprised my reaction to the song was so strong, considering I had heard it before. Usually for me to have that super-crazy-oh-my-God moment I have to be hearing a piece of music for the first time (like my near out-of-body experience lying on the floor of a common room in Forbes listening to Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, or the time I first heard Fred Hersch's "Leaves of Grass" on a plane to Florida). So why did I respond so strongly to "Ashes of American Flags" that I stopped everything else and just stared into space, letting the music wash over me?

Certainly the opening sounds have a lot to do with it. The warbling feedback and windblown bells seem to make time stand still, suspending the world coming into your ears. Then comes that distortion-laden guitar lead that carves a red streak through a purple sky. By the time Jeff Tweedy finishes up the first verse, filled with these perfect little images of diet coke and atms, I'm gone, trapped in the world the song has created. "All my lies are always wishes/I know I would die if I could come back new."


So needless to say I wore my Wilco t-shirt today. And realized something peculiar. I had never listened to Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" all the way through.

I did just that tonight, and on the way was struck by how it's not a true rock/pop album by any stretch of the imagination. The song forms are really pretty simple, and "Radio Cure" that actually changes keys somewhere in the middle. There are backbeats, fuzzy electric guitars, wurlitzer piano. But just the way it's all put together, the way the sounds line up and mingle, is about as un-pop as you can get.

It starts with the drums. On Wilco's earlier efforts, like "Being There" and "Summerteenth," there are plenty of weird studio tricks and walls of guitar noise, but one thing that is never messed with is the drum sound and time-feel. Ken Coomer's drums sound like big rock drums and he plays like he wants you to move your butt. Or at least bob your head. But on "Yankee," new drummer Glenn Kotche adds a slew of small percussion sounds to the mix, like the soothing ring of crotales and trashy cymbals. Even the drums themselves sound like they badly miked, sounding oddly thin. And the whole thing just doesn't really groove in the way a rock album should, even the nostalgic and playful "Heavy Metal Drummer." It's not that Kotche doesn't have good groove (just check out the ferocious "Monkey Chant" from his solo percussion album), it's just that, well, the album wouldn't work as well as it does if you wanted to tap your foot to "Jesus, Etc."

"Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" feels more like an art (read, classical) musician's take on what a pop album should be. All of the aspects of a good rock album, the snarling guitars, the thumping bass, the insistent drums, the witty couplets, are passed through a thick prism on "Yankee." The familiar is transformed into something startling. You listen and think, "Everything that's supposed to be there is there, so why does it feel so uncomfortable?" Instead of pleasing the listener with expectations fulfilled, "Yankee" challenges all those who come in contact with it, much like a good piece of avant-garde concert music, be it the winding atonal melodies of Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" or the infinitely dense chords of Gyorgi Ligeti's "Atmospheres." But it is this challenge makes the music so powerful, forcing the listener to comfort the vast unknown, the pleasurable terror of the sublime.

So I can definitely see why Reprise Records wanted Wilco do make the album again. All of the songs are basically witty folk pop tunes that got radically fucked up in the studio. The execs weren't ready to peddle art music, sitting music, contemplating music. And so it also makes total sense how Wilco ended up on Nonesuch, a primarily art music label whose artists include stalwarts of progressive American art music, like Steve Reich, John Adams, Bill Frisell, and the Kronos Quartet.

In the end, no matter how powerful a listening experience "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" is, it falls victim to the same issues that plague the interaction of almost all art music with its listeners: it is music whose power can only be truly grasped in a state of quiet, of darkness, alone-ness, whether through a pair of headphones or in a dimmed concert hall. I get ecstatic chills listening to "Ashes of American Flags" alone in my room, but I'll scream out the chorus to "Being There's" "Monday" at a party with my friends.

But back to "Ashes." I still haven't quite figured out why I had this reaction to the song now, rather than when I first heard it. My one guess is that it has at least a little to do with the fact I'm in London and what's happening back home. Come to think of it, my pretentious nightly reading may have a bit to do with it then because at the time "Ashes" came on last night, I was reading a piece about Christine O'Donnell. With Tea Party hysteria in full swing, a government paralyzed by polls (and some pure godawful stupidity, ie Jim DeMint), and an election about a month away, it's very hard for me to be watching this all from half a world away. Though "Ashes" doesn't have an explicit political statement, it does speak to the heart of how I feel about the political situation right now: vapid, full of desire for change, just hoping someone has the balls to proverbially burn the American flag - do something that's deeply controversial and unpopular, but something that needs to be done.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Musical Dumpster Diving

Today, one of my friends convinced me to go to the Portobello Market with her. Portobello advertises itself as the world's largest (no, not mushroom) antique market, so it sounded a bit more up my uncle's alley than mine. But no matter, sunny weekends in London are a valuable commodity and seeing the market would be pretty miserable on a cold wet day. So onward! Oh, the tube isn't running to Notting Hill Gate? We'll just walk!

Anyway, I was pleased to find that Portobello Market was more of a kitschy street fair. So there was new kitsch, like t-shirts that read "My Boyfriend went to London and all I got was this T-shirt." And old kitsch, of course. I was especially excited by the musical kitsch. First, I found a stall specializing in CD box sets, like those ones from the Time Life informercials (The Folk Years! The Swing Era! Motown Gold!). Then there was a guy with a pretty big stack of used CDs, and a surprising amount of material from the ECM label. I almost went for a CD by the drummer Alex Cline from the late eighties, but the scratched condition didn't warrant my £8. I later passed by a used vinyl store with a super neat jazz collection, including a lot of weird '70s avant garde stuff. But they were more collectors items and priced as such. So I continued to window (err, what do you call window shopping without windows?) shop.

While standing on line for some lunch, I saw an OxFam bookstore. It was like Goodwill meets Princeton Record Exchange/Labyrinth Books, except all the money goes to help people. So, I thought to myself, if I buy something in there, I will be doubly happy! After chowing down on my hefty bruschetta, I walked in and peered at the jazz vinyl collection. Just a couple of LPs in, my jaw dropped.

PAUL BLEY! With Paul Motian and Bill Frisell too!!!???

Bley is kind of like the most distinctive jazz pianist since like ever. Motian is one of my favorite drummers with quite the surreal style to complement Bley's pointillism. And if you look a few posts down, you can get an earful of why anything Frisell does is worth listening to.

I had known about this group (which also included British sax-off-onist John Surman), but had never found one of their albums. I was friggin' pumped. Then my eye went slid up to the price tag. £10.

A slight grimace. That's like $15 for something I won't be able to listen to until I get home. Or what if it's scratched and it won't work at all? Oh screw it. It will still be awesome just to tell my jazz nerd friends I have it. And think of the children in Haiti!

So I picked it up and walked over the cash register to look at their cd bin. Over the next few minutes, I felt less and less attached to the LP. I've lived down the street from one of the best used vinyl stores in the US and never bought one. There's something about vinyl that makes me just not want to get into it. Maybe its the inconvenience. Or the fact that it's now "cool" to release new albums on vinyl. I looked up from the cd bin, walked back to the record rack and slid the Bley LP back behind some Ellington compilation. Some Pakistani child must be crying.

It was getting late and I needed to get back to my place before heading out to the London Philharmonic in the evening. But on my way, I walked through Notting Hill back towards Hyde Park. Again, more kitschy shoppes. Including the Music & Goods Exchange.

Music? Exchange? Sounds a bit familiar, I must check it out!

The store is definitely a throwback, something you find in trendy college towns across the US. Like they had an entire small section of Tangerine Dream LPs. You know, that band that made music that was meant to mirror the fealings of an acid trip, time to the t?

Right. But they had a pretty extensive used CD collection, including a section dedicated to contemporary "classical" music. I passed a CD on the Innova label, a small midwestern label dedicated to the weird and wonderful - a very good sign. I then came to the debut album by the hip New York string quartet Ethel. £3? I'll take it. A little farther down the stack was an album from another hip New Yorker, Phil Kline. I had listened to some of his stuff from the University library and dug it quite a bit; it's ambient but richly textured, with lots of bell sounds. I had wanted to check out this CD, Zippo Songs, as well, but it was like on permanent loan or something. Theo Bleckmann sings on it too, which means it's at least going to be super interesting with weird falsetto jumps and inward singing. So £4? I had to.

With both CD's in hand and a wallet seven pounds lighter, I walked happily across Hyde Park back to my res-hall.

At this point in my writing, I've listened through most of Zippo Songs and it's really quite striking. It's a series of songs about war, with texts taken from Donal Rumsfeld's briefing of the Iraq War, and poetry soldiers wrote on their Zippo lighters during the Vietnam War. The texts run the gammut disheartening ("There will be some things that people won't see. And life goes on," from the Rumsfeld briefing) to the hopeful ("When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace") to the bitterly funny ("When I'm dead and in my grave, no more pussy will I crave"). Kline adorns the text with simple textures of guitars, violin, and tuned percussion. The music is varied enough to hold your attention, but never gets in the way of the poignant words. I'm definitely going to have to listen to it a few times to really get the emotional heft of it all.

Based on this assessment, I'd have to say bargain hunting in London was a success. It's probably a good thing that Music & Goods Exchange is a little too far away for me to go every week.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Tenth Avenue Blog-Out

An Immortal Ode

I have a friend named Billy,
In my band he would sing willy nilly.
He now has his own blog,
His insights will leave you agog,
So check it out, it sure is a dilly.

The esteemed Billy Hepfinger, alumnus of my band Funkmaster General (in addition to the Nassoons a capella group and the Princeton Triangle Club), has started his own music blog,

There are many fun and interesting things on his blog, such as reviews of Weezer's new album and Sufjan Stevens' unexpected and epic EP "All Delighted People," and some humorous insights into the making of legendary albums, most recently Joni Mitchell's "Blue."

But in a move of dubious wisdom, he asked me to write a companion piece to his "Blue" post. So, my near hero-worship of Joni Mitchell's infinitely underrated album "Hejira" is now up and ready to read.

Check it out here:

Completely unrelated, I somehow acquired £1 tickets to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra on Saturday. Stay tuned for a review of one of London's other orchestras.

N.B. I meant to add in links, but blogger is not letting me, so just copy and paste the web addresses into your command bars and it'll go swimmingly.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Images coming into focus

On September 7, Britain handed out its highest award in popular music, the Mercury Prize. Before you dismiss it as another useless music prize handed out by the music industry to boost its own lagging sales, the Mercury Prize is voted on by musicians and critics, and always features self-directed artists among its nominees. While the band The xx took home this year's Mercury for their debut album, the bigger surprise came in the nomination of a jazz album: "Golden," by the 24-year-old pianist Kit Downes and his trio.

Sounds like Herbie Hancock getting that Grammy album of the year nod in 2008 right? Uh, not exactly.

It's more like that guy that lives down the dorm hall from you was nominated. You know, that guy that seemed pleasant to talk to, was very polite, kind of kept to himself, supposedly played a lot of "jazz" gigs at some clubs off campus that never went to see...

So yeah, I'd have to say that was a surprise. And it also suggests that there are young jazz musicians in the UK playing engaging and vital music that appeal to listeners of all ears. So in regards to my earlier post, I had to go out and find where Kit Downes and like-minded people play.

Ok, it was a little easier to find than I initially thought. From September 9-12, a combined visual arts and concert venue called King's Place (located down the street from Platform 9 and 3/4, muggle side of course) was hosting a huge festival to kick off their eclectic season of music. On Saturday, one of the halls at King's Place was taken over by London's F-IRE Collective, a hip young (ish) organization of progressive jazz musicians. One of the organization's members, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, had just played a killer show that I saw at the Stone this summer with drummer Tyshawn Sorrey (so the group seems legit). Kit Downes' trio was on the program. It was almost eerily precisely what I had been looking for when I got to London. I had to be there.

Before Kit Downes, I caught a set led by trumpeter Tom Arthurs. In addition to his usual trio, Arthurs invited a string quartet to the show in order to try out some new music he had written for the slightly askew combination of instruments. Arthur's own playing own playing resides in the abstract regions of free improvisation, but he also comes armed with a tone more enveloping than abrasive and a quirky melodic sense. The music felt as an experiment, as the string quartet members sometimes looked a bit quizzical trying to figure out how they're written parts were going to work after Arthurs' freely improvised cadenza. The music was most convincing when Arthurs dispatched with the free improv for a bit and played some zig-zagging tune, harmonized by the strings. Arthurs certainly is a thoughtful player with a great group (drummer Stuart Robbins really shined, flying around the kit armed only with chopsticks), but his new music lacked organic flow from section to section. You could tell what was on the page and what wasn't.

After a short interval where some angsty spectators did some rocking out on a junk percussion setup outside the hall, Kit Downes and his trio came on. Downes, bassist Calum Gourlay, and drummer James Maddren have been playing together since starting at the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2005, and they took the stage with a relaxed politeness. Like those "nice boys" your mom always wanted you to date. Except that Downes has a mighty beard and pony tail.

The ensuing set was filled Downes' original compositions, music that was warm and inviting, but never constrained by tight forms. The tunes were nearly hummable, but that didn't stop Downes from flying into the stratosphere with piano-spanning runs. Even with the feats of technical prowess, the music was humble, content to let you listen as you pleased, as opposed to grabbing you by the collar and smacking you in the face. It all was a little too polite, as if Downes wasn't confident enough in his music to demand your attention. At this point in the game, Downes' music sounds that it is still searching for something. Downes certainly isn't a carbon copy of Brad Mehldau or Esbjorn Svensson (which is a lot better than a lot of his peers both in Europe and the States can boast) but he hasn't fully arrived as an artist yet.

One thing is for certain though: I will continue to check up on Mr. Downes after returning to the states.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Snap Judgments

I have been in London for about 36 hours, and I am already making rash generalizations about its music scene, or at least its jazz/improv scene.

It all started when I began exploring the lineup for this year's London Jazz Festival that runs from November 12 to 21, inclusive as the Brits like to say. The festival is full of the heavy hitters in jazz - Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Gary Burton, Terrence Blanchard - not to mention some younger (and not so younger) hip cats like the Bad Plus, Darcy James Argue, Robert Glasper, Brad Mehldau, and Dave Douglas. But wait a second, I'm sensing a pattern here. Why are all these folks American? Isn't this the London Jazz Festival?

Well, I may be oversimplifying the issue here. Django Bates and Norma Winstone get featured performances. There are plenty of names I don't recognize on the lineup, so this could be more about my lack of familiarity with British Jazz (It goes dark after Evan Parker and Kenny Wheeler). However, the pattern I can confirm is that the big venues, like the Barbican, are stacked with American acts.

Though I am excited at the chance to see some great shows here in a couple of months, I feel that the lack of Londoners in their own jazz festival could say a lot about the jazz/improv dynamics here.

From perusing the LondonJazz blog and specific venues, most jazz gigs in town are meant to accompany a meal. Not a good sign. Jazz as accompaniment to classy dinner is never jazz you want to pack up in an audio doggie bag.

But hark! Two venues in particular caught my eye as places where adventurous improvised music has a home - The Vortex and Cafe Oto. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly), the two clubs are virtually next door, a quick walk from the Dalston Kingsland train station in northeast London. While their "what's on?" pages also have a share of internationals (Pieter Brontzman! Ken Vandermark! Sax anarchy!), it's not at the expense of local musicians. I'm particularly interested in hearing drummer Steve Noble, who appears as a nexus of several groups, and the London Improvisers' Orchestra, who have a monthly residency at Oto.

Geographically, these clubs are really on the fringe of London. I'd have to change tubes twice to get there. I wonder if the location of the clubs suggests something about the intensity of the music, or the press they get. Though it is interesting that some of the Americans at the London Jazz Festival (Dave Douglas, Darcy James Argue, William Parker) come out of fringe New York improv scenes in the Village and Brooklyn. This story begs further investigation, and hopefully an interview.

Please pardon all the namedropping, and on the subject of snap judgments, here is a list of the top 5 paintings at the British National Gallery, where I spent 4 and half hours today.

5. Hans Holbein - The Ambassadors

4. Bronzino - An Allegory with Venus and Cupid

3. Caravaggio - The Supper at Emmaus

2. JMW Turner - Rain, Steam and Speed

1. Jan Van Eyck - The Arnolfini Wedding

Monday, September 6, 2010

East of the Sun

As of 7:20 PM tomorrow, Music in the Bubble will no longer be south of downtown, but east. Quite east. Like across the Atlantic east.

I will be spending the next 3+ months at the Royal College of Music, in the heart of London. In addition to my music studies, I will try to soak in as much music as London has to offer and squeeze out my liquid observations here. I'll have to catch the each major London orchestra at least once (and I wonder if any premieres will have eerie quotes of Lady Gaga or something ). There's also the London Jazz Festival in November. Definitely looking forward to Django Bates jamming with the Bad Plus.

I've never been much of a photographer, but I will bring a camera along. Stay tuned for image-enhanced blog posts.

Ta ta for now...