Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Five 2016 Albums I Didn't Hear Until This Year

My best of 2016 list was just five new albums.  Had I known about these five additional recordings, it could have been 10.

Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids - We Be All Africans
Learning about Strut Records this year was a treasure trove of great music.  One of their best newer releases was this album by Idris Ackamoor.  I don't really know much about it other than it sounds good.  Once discovering Strut Records, I checked out every single recording on that label, and this is one of the ones that stood out.  Part African traditional music, part experimental jazz.

Psychic Temple - Plays Music for Airports
Music for Airports, as played by Bang on a Can Allstars, is one of my favorite all-time CDs.  When I learned of this interpretation of that music I was all ears.  Psychic Temple has taken Brian Eno's classic minimalist composition and loosened it up in electrifying ways.  The bonus track, Music for Bus Stops, ventures even farther into Electric Miles territory.  I only wish I had been able to order this on vinyl when it came out.

Kevin Morby - Singing Saw
Morby has put out another album since Singing Saw - called City Music - but for now I'm still catching up on this 2016 release.  There's a reserved, unresolved nature to the songs, waiting to break free.  Kevin Morby's secret weapon might be guitarist Meg Duffy.  She plays that instrument with a skill and depth that seems increasingly hard to come by.

Allison Miller's Boom Tic Boom - Otis Was A Polar Bear
From the tradition of great albums with drummers as the band leader.  I may be naive, but the music here sounds as good as anything I could find by digging decades deep into a jazz catalog.  Otis Was A Polar Bear should have more recognition than it has received.  Cornet, clarinet, violin, bass and piano - those instruments combine with Miller's drumming to give this an almost chamber music, Third Stream type of feel.

Nolatet - Dogs
Yeah, this sounds modern but I really can't tell you why.  On the other hand it should be from another time.  The tunes come across as familiar even on first listen, like they are culled from some kind of public domain of the mind meld.  Dogs always seems to go by too fast - ephemeral...not even there.  I swear I heard this in the 90's.


Friday, December 8, 2017

Six Water Grog's Best Albums of 2017

Albums have been around for 70 years, but this list is only about ones that came out in 2017.

Courtney Barnett / Kurt Vile - Lotta Sea Lice
This one ended up being my favorite of 2017.  At first I laughed at it sounding exactly as expected: witty yet abstract observational songs about writing songs and playing guitar.  Then it grew and grew into something warm and fuzzy all over - just what was needed this year.  It's debatable as to whether Lotta Sea Lice is more like a Courtney Barnett album or a Kurt Vile album.  Let's just say it's the perfect mixture of both influences.  The drumming on here is great, by the way.

The War on Drugs - A Deeper Understanding
A Deeper Understanding could pass for an ahead of its time 1986 album by a German band trying to sound American.  Its expansive, 66-minute running time follows a pretty consistent path throughout, relying more on atmosphere and sonic delivery than on variations in song form and time signatures.  The overall mood is one of cautious optimism.

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan - Small Town
Small Town might now be my all time favorite Bill Frisell record on account of song selection, demeanor, instrumentation, arrangements, and more.  This is an intimate live album of just Bill Frisell, guitar and Thomas Morgan, bass from a March 2016 run at the Village Vanguard.  The sound is clean and sparse, occasionally adorned by the clinking of cocktail glasses.  Not since East/West has Bill's artistry been so clear.  Thomas Morgan's impeccable bass accompaniment is subtle and psychic.

Ches Smith's We All Break - We All Break
Primarily a percussion album, We All Break combines traditional Haitian drumming with the avant-garde. The band/concept of We All Break is the creation of Ches Smith, a New York city based jazz drummer. Smith composed this music for drumset, two hand percussionists and acoustic piano, and recruited Daniel Brevil and Markus Schwartz - two of his early traditional music mentors - to play the rada and petwo tanbou (Haitian drums) alongside adventurous piano player Matt Mitchell. Success!

Jenny Scheinman - Here on Earth
It is one thing to compose new fiddle tunes, it's a whole 'nother thing to do so from a place of legitimate inspiration that elevates such a traditional practice into an artform.  The music on Here on Earth was inspired by footage captured between 1936 to 1942 by a North Carolina photographer who traveled across the Piedmont, taking short movies of ordinary, small town folks living through the Great Depression.

Conor Oberst - Salutations
Over half of Salutations is a re-do of 2016's brooding solo demo Ruminations. All ten songs from Ruminations plus seven additional ones make up Salutations, now with more polished full-band folk-rock arrangements (thanks to the Felice Brothers).  It's boozy, dark and druggy.  Not really a background music kind of album.  Best for listening with your full attention, hanging on every word.

Afro-Zen Allstars - Greatest Hits
Ready to groove? Then check out this release by Richmond, Virginia's Afro-Zen Allstars. Despite its title, Greatest Hits is the studio debut by this 8-piece+ that channels the psychedelic-soul sounds of 1960's/70's Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. With horns at the forefront, Afro-Zen Allstars' tunes frequently jump out out of the gates with arresting melodies, but also have a way of settling into reflective jams - hence the "zen" part of the band name. The all star band members are cut and pasted from several renowned RVA groups of the past and present, including Bio Ritmo, No BS! Brass, Hotel X, Rattlemouth, and more.

Greg Saunier/Mary Halvorson/Ron Miles - New American Songbooks, Volume 1

Recorded for the magazine Sound American, this concept album documents a first-time meeting between cornetist Ron Miles, Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier, and guitarist Mary Halvorson.  The idea was to suggest new standards for the American Songbook: songs with simple, catchy and easy-to-sing melodies that were open to interpretation.  Selections include pieces by Elliott Smith, the Partridge Family and from the score to Star Wars.  The instruments function well together and no one musician outshines the other.

Yazz Ahmed - La Saboteuse
I had a thing for trumpets, world fusion and vibraphones this year.  All three of those elements combine on this album by London-based trumpeter Yazz Ahmed.  On La Saboteuse, Ahmed takes modal style jamming and applies it to middle eastern scales, and then adds a level of modern production acumen beyond what you might expect from jazz.

WOLF! - 1-800 WOLF!
This actually came out in October 2016 but I didn't hear it until this year.  On record, WOLF! explores guitar driven micro-jams over simple themes inspired by surf rock and spy movie / spaghetti western soundtracks.  Nothing too complex here or overly serious.  Lots of fun.  I bet they can really take these out there live.


Saturday, December 2, 2017

Seven November Tunes

Back in June I set a goal of writing 50 tunes in a year's time.  With 7 tunes added in November, I'm now up to 33 total - on the way to having 50 tunes by the end of May 2018.  Calendar-wise, this is the half-way point (6 months in).  The act of writing tunes is now more familiar, however, the concern over when is this going to get difficult is now apparent.  Am I repeating myself?  Falling back on repetitive patterns, characteristics, or intervals?  Is that wrong?  I had these concerns a few times in November.

The first November tune was actually written on November 1st.  To compose it I took some personal catchphrases from my childhood and added melodies to the rhythm of those nonsense sayings.  That supplied an A and B part.  Then I tacked on a winterish melody I had been playing around with to make a C part.  I don't always care if parts go together musically or thematically.  If I was writing them both around the same time then they fit together for other reasons.

Fall Winter Cold

After writing Fall Winter Cold, which arrived almost effortlessly, most of a week went by with no tangible results.  For several days I played around with an idea inspired by the sound of a children's TV show theme and/or a 1950's girl singing act.  I almost gave up until I realized that I might have something there.  What I arrived at was almost too minimal - more of a jingle than a fully fleshed out tune - but I really like it. 

Virginia Fur

I have a book called Musical Scales of the World by Michael Hewitt.  If/when I run I run out of ideas, my thought was that I could refer to that book and see if any melodies could be derived from an unusual scale.  On the morning of November 14th, I had about ten minutes to spare before I had to leave for work so I opened the book randomly to the page on the Major Blues Scale, which, believe it or not, was brand new to me.  The very first thing I played upon looking at that scale has become the A-part to The Sparrow Blues.  It seemed good enough to me.  I wrote down those notes before leaving for work.  By the time I had gotten home that evening I had an idea for the B-part: take a Russian folk melody and alter the notes to conform to the Blues Scale.  I walked in the door, got out the banjo, and within 30 minutes had the B-part.

The Sparrow Blues

The Sparrow Blues was ridiculously easy to come up with and it is super fun to play.  A tough act to follow.  Whatever I came up with next was going to be my 30th tune, so that made things a little more difficult.  It took a few days of ruminating, but I pieced together an odd, chilling melody called Change for a Thirty.  Something I've been doing recently, which really helps, is to quickly make up words to go with the melody.  In this case those words are (A part) "hey now how 'bout you, have you had enough to do, did the seasons change, be the change you're looking for", and (B part) "take it easy don't look back, it's the same old song, be the change you're looking for".

Change for a Thirty

There's a screw in my bed roll isn't anything I had to write - it was just....there.  Words and melody.  It was a non-premeditated improvisation that I played on 11/20/17 in real time out of the blue by thinking/singing the words "there's a screw in my bedroll" (whatever that means) while simultaneously playing a melody to go with it.  Without pausing I added "and it's nailed shut doors ten fold", then "all the people there complain about things that they don't know", then returning to "there's a screw in my bedroll".  I played that part again and knew I needed to go higher for the B-part, so without hesitation I went higher and improvised the words/melody "there's a brighter side I know, through open doors once closed, not ev-ry one needs another one, there's a brighter side I know".  Done.  I played it again, and again, and again to make sure this could legitimately be a composition.  Then slept on it.  I might have ultimately changed one note.  Will this ever happen again?

Screw in my Bedroll

At this point I was good for the month of November.  Five tunes.  I felt pretty sated, but the inspiration kept coming.  Change for a Thirty and Screw in my Bedroll are both pretty dark and cold, so I pulled a switcheroo with a cliche Jamaican-style melody called Job To Do. (formula = melody first > then words > name of tune taken from words).  Before I decided to write and play my own tunes, I had been learning and playing Caribbean melodies.  The 5th tune I wrote - Bougainvillea Moon - is a Caribbean melody, but Job To Do might be the first overtly Caribbean feeling tune since then.  I try to write melodies without any discernible relation to a style of music other than my own, but with Job To Do it's inevitable that it sounds Jamaican.

Job To Do

I was home sick on November 30th with a cold, but not too sick to play the banjo.  So with instrument in hand and the general sound of three songs in my head (I'm A Lonesome Fugitive by Merle Haggard, As I Went Out One Morning by Bob Dylan and Greenville by Lucinda Williams) I started plucking out a melody, with no intention of actually composing a tune on the last day of the month.  Four hours later, after having being sucked down the creative wormhole and forgetting to eat or drink or dwell on the fact that I was congested with a sore throat, I had something.  I love that feeling of churning out a melody.  After letting it sit for 48 hours, I just played through Night Time To Day again this morning and it can stay, having gotten in on the last day of November.

Night Time Today

That was the November re-cap.  I'm 66% of the way at the half-way point.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

John Prine Live Concert Review - The Singing Mailman Delivers

Pretty good, not bad, I can't complain

Actually, every John Prine concert review should be just about the same.  Fully invested audience members are going to be taken on a 90+ minute emotional journey that includes laughter, tears, love and sorrow.  That was the case with the show I saw on 11/11/17 at the Altria Theater in Richmond, VA and it was also the case with the last concert I saw him do about 10 years ago, and yes it was pretty much exactly the same when I first saw him live during the summer of '95.

In all these years the setlist and arrangements haven't changed that much.  A few new songs have trickled in over time, equally as brilliant as the ones before, while a few of the old standards have been left behind.  It doesn't matter.  John Prine is really, really good at writing John Prine songs.

I've been wanting to say something about this most recent concert ever since it happened, but I really can't find the words.  "Nostalgia" isn't exactly what I'm looking for.  Prine's songs have always been loaded with nostalgia, even on his first album when they were new songs.  So it is nostalgia, but it's also not nostalgia.  There was something incredibly enriching and cathartic at this point in time to be completely engrossed in the concert experience.  It felt like a time-jump that could have been any decade among Prine's performing career, and/or a quantum leap to any point along my concert-going life up 'til now.  Time went out the window.

This audience was right there, with him one-hundred percent, just like I remember in Roanoke many years prior.  The energy in the Altria Theater was tingling, same as it ever was.  Prine's genius and delivery perhaps even more apparent than ever before.  His songs are so simple and yet so genuine, the lyrics embedded deeply into the minds of anyone who has ever taken the time to enjoy his music.  Every word hit home and every note rang true on several levels.  I was entertained, to say the least.  Maybe that's part of the nostalgia as well?

ECM Records Catalog Now Streaming

My music nerd intuition told me that the news I learned of last Friday that the entire ECM Records catalog was now available on streaming services such as Spotify was a big deal. The knowledge registered as important - I had a sense that ECM was "cool" - but I honestly didn't know much at all about the German label until the last few days. Previously, I was probably only familiar with ECM because I knew it was the company for which Bill Frisell made some of his first recordings.

I hadn't really even thought about the fact that ECM wasn't streaming before, but past unsuccessful searches for some Pat Metheny and Vijay Iyer records make more sense now.

Over this past weekend I did some research into the ECM catalog and jumped in with open ears ready for discovery. One thing that quickly became apparent is that the music on ECM isn’t quite what I expected, because I wasn’t expecting it to be so “new agey” and “fusiony”, or maybe so minimalist and atmospheric. I’ve only scratched the surface, checking out about 2.5% of the more than 1,600 ECM titles, but so far it’s more Windham Hill than Tzadik; more Kenny G than Coltrane. That perspective will change I'm sure as I hone in on specific areas of interest.

One of the first albums I listened to was A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke by Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith because I had already been hoping to hear that one and it turns out that it is on ECM. Bill Frisell's new double album with Thomas Morgan called Small Town is among the many now streaming. I already own a copy of Small Town on vinyl. It's superb! And of course, my life-long neglect of Pat Metheny's Bright Size Life came to a satisfactory end. That one is a headphones jam for the Jaco effect.

Some other things have had my initial attention. A band called Codona featuring Don Cherry is definitely worth a listen. They offer a global music take on free jazz - bird sounds and sitar. Bassist Dave Holland has made a lot of recordings for ECM. His album Conference of the Birds under the name the David Holland Quartet is the first one of his I've been listening to. It features Anthony Braxton in a surprisingly melodic mood. Charles Lloyd is another ECM guy - at the least the latter half of his career. I don't know where to begin there...maybe The Water is Wide. Come to think of it, Charles Lloyd might be a pretty good example of the ECM sound.

This interest in ECM also offered an opportunity to finally listen to the legendary experimental group Art Ensemble of Chicago. I've run through Urban Bushmen and Nice Guys so far. You definitely have to be in the mood for this and already be accustomed to avant-garde music to appreciate, but I really liked Nice Guys on the second listen. It was too much the first time though.

I should have known about him already, but I learned of guitarist John Abercrombie through this ECM discovery. I can't say that I love his stuff so far, but there's a certain wah-wah funkiness to Gateway that's appealing; similar in some ways to the Jerry Garcia/Howard Wales album Hooteroll from that same time period. Oh's not on ECM, but becoming aware of Abercrombie led to an early band he was in called Stark Reality that I really like so far! Stark Reality reminds me of a zonked-out take on Zappa style music.

There are some mainstays of ECM Records - people like Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem. The early Jan Garbarek stuff, like Afric Pepperbird, has a hip, driving sound. Garbarek's more recent recordings run dangerously close to Kenny G-land, but his keen sense of melody - often from a folk perspective - keeps even these New Age works interesting. In the case of Brahem, it is fascinating to hear his oud in a jazz context but I need more time to develop a better opinion on this type of world fusion music. At times it can sound like a hodge podge.

Other names on the ECM "to do" list include Chick Corea, Eberhard Weber, Paul Motian, Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich.  

Jazz and experimental music is pretty male dominated, but I was reading how ECM is known for featuring female artists. Carla Bley, Meredith Monk and Agnes Buenas Garnas are names that have come up.

I'm glad that ECM has put this music out there, allowing it to be heard by a wider audience. Obtaining vinyl copies of favorite standouts is the next logical step.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

I Wrote Seven More Tunes In October

Mose Tolliver - "Blue Bird"
In June of this year I happened upon a Mose Tolliver painting at the Taubman Museum in Roanoke, VA. Mose Tolliver was an African-American farmer and laborer from rural Alabama who took up painting after a work-related accident crushed his legs and left him unable to walk without crutches. As an adult in his late 40's he became a prolific self-taught artist who would sometimes produce ten or more paintings a day on plywood or fiberboard using house paint. Simple, expressionistic birds, plants, turtles, fish, "Ladies on Scooters", and more were the subjects of his work, painted with an oddly limited palette. I was impressed by Mose T's art brut originality and his outsider status.

At the time of that museum visit I had just begun writing my own tunes and I wasn’t sure where I was going with it. Now, five months and 25+ tunes later, I’ve reached a critical mass where the act of playing/practicing music can now be the same as writing my own tunes and playing the music that I’ve written. Mose Tolliver didn't "cover" Picasso or van Gogh or try to re-interpret their paintings, he created his very own Mose Tolliver paintings.

I think it was Steve Earle who said something to the effect of “they can’t tell you you’re doing it wrong if you write it yourself”. In every situation except for a tune I’ve written myself, there is going to be a source recording (or multiple sources) that sets a standard that I can't live up to. But, what I've realized is that if I take Ornette Coleman's words to heart and make a sound that has no parents, then there is no version other than my version; no better sounding version to compare to my inferior take. The only way for this to be the case is to write the tune myself and consider it a unique piece.

This realization feels like an arrival, especially now that I've got these 25+ tunes under my belt. I thoroughly enjoy the act of creation, of bringing something into this world that didn't exist before. In this case it's melodies, and I don't have to worry about any of the things that tend to frustrate me about music. I just turn on the tap every day and see what's ready to come out.

OK, all that said here are the seven tunes I wrote in October.

Iguana Bridge

Skull Provider

Take It or Leave It Bloom

Common Carriage

Loco Motion


Looks on the Ground


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

CD Collection (Then) vs Vinyl Collection (Now)

My CD buying years were from about 1993 to 2006.  I still have a bunch of these discs in a couple plastic bins.  (For the liner notes, of course).  This collection has a disproportionately large number of Phish and Grateful Dead CDs, followed by Frank Zappa, Norman Blake and John Prine.  Other prominently represented artists include Ween, Medeski Martin and Wood, My Morning Jacket, Gillian Welch, Miles Davis and Leftover Salmon.

It's safe to say that this old CD library is dominated by jamband and Americana music.  During those CD years I subscribed to both Relix and No Depression magazines, gaining music recommendations from each.  I also read Dirty Linen magazine on a regular basis, so there's a fair amount of folk and world music mixed in as well.

After about a ten year span of non-physical music buying - iTunes, online downloading, Spotify - I got on board the retro vinyl trend.  At first I sought out vinyl versions of desert island discs, like The Flaming Lips' Yoshimi, My Morning Jacket Z, Ween The Mollusk, Frank Zappa Grand Wazoo, Culture Two Sevens Clash, The Grateful Dead Reckoning, Tortoise TNT, and Camper Van Beethoven Telephone Free Landslide Victory.

However, with the possible exception of Tortoise, I don't find myself putting on these old favorites very much, if at all.  Instead, the type of music that dominates my record player tends to be both instrumental and older - jazz or jazz-like.  Lots of Sun Ra, plus Mulatu Astatke, Eric Dolphy, Horace Silver, Grant Green, Mary Halvorson, The Souljazz Orchestra - stuff like that.

I don't know what triggered this shift in preferences, but I think it has to do with honing in on an agreeable sound rather than an isolated focus on disparate bands.  For example, I'm sure I could make a Pandora channel centered around Sun Ra or Eric Dolphy and like a much higher percentage of the music it selects than a channel based on Phish, Steve Earle or Wilco.  Another way of looking at it is a festival like Knoxville's Big Ears seems much more appealing at this point in my life than Lockn' or the Newport Folk Festival or DelFest would be.

As I write this, I am sensing a gravitational pull towards music of the 1980's that isn't really nostalgic in my case due to a lack of exposure to it or genuine interest in it until now.  I just listened to The Smiths' first album for the first time last night and enjoyed it a lot.  New Order, The Cure, Joy Division and Bowie must be next.

I'd really like to find some cool instrumental music albums from the 1980's.  Something sorta trippy and groovy with synths.  Maybe like the STS9 or Maserati of the 1980's.  Does that exist?  I checked out some of Herbie Hancock's mid-80's output last weekend and that was getting closer to that feeling.  Arthur's Landing has that dancey, disco sound but that's newer.

There's lots and lots to check out and one thing always leads to another.  New revelations are happening quite frequently.  Music that I never would have considered listening to during the peak of my Grateful Dead related obsession now seems interesting, while The Grateful Dead and all of its offshoots feels momentarily(?) stale due to overexposure.