Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

New Bop

Artists: Jim Black; Dave Douglas
Albums: Alasnoaxis (JB); Live in Europe, Stargazer, Charms of the Night Sky, Convergence, Soul on Soul, A Thousand Evenings, Strange Liberation, Mountain Passages
Source: Bought used (Alasnoaxis, Stargazer, Charms, Convergence, Strange); Promo (Live, Thousand); Bought new (Soul, Mountain)

It's kind of accurate but essentially unfair to say that I came late to jazz. I'd heard it, here and there, all of my life, but I didn't really hear it until college, when Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane hit me right between rock and some new place. It wasn't long before Miles came into my sphere of influence, and soon I was consuming the music's history. Heck, I even took a Jazz History course for real college credit my senior year. (What a scam!)

But it was always history. Trane and Miles were dead by the time I heard them, along with most of the people that I was just hearing for the first time. It seemed infinitely more hip than classical music, but at its roots it was not much more of a living document. Even the guys who were still living, breathing and playing - Ornette, Sonny Rollins, the just-now-departed Max Roach - were playing in places that seemed beyond my 20-year-old self, either by dint of their price or exclusionary vibe.

I was a jazz fan, but mostly a history student.

When I moved to Philadelphia, I was able to turn this historical knowledge into some real-time writing assignments - there weren't a lot of other people my age who wanted to write about this music that, unlike the noisy rock on the scene, seemed to be for (and by) grown-ups. Suddenly, I was going out to hear new jazz music, by living musicians. Even though I was a font of information about the genre, this flood of new exposure kind of rocked me back on my heels.

No one living jazz musician rocked me back quite so far as Dave Douglas. My introduction to him came by way of the Live in Europe disc, which featured the trumpeter with his Tiny Bell Trio (guitarist Brad Shepik and drummer Jim Black). I was assigned to review it, and it's not much of an exaggeration to say that it changed the way I listened. This was, as clear as my ears could hear it, jazz...but it didn't sound like any of those dead guys I dig so much. The guitar player was clearly of the age to have grown up with rock music, too, and the sounds made by the band swung in the direction of Eastern Europe as often as Western Africa.

This was jazz I could have, could be a part of. The adventures that Miles went on, the risks he took with the music...I only got the results, the ideas that had long since been codified by history. But when Douglas took a risk, using his horn like an agile razor to slice up the history of all the music he knew, it hadn't yet been made 100% clear that he'd land on his feet.

In a short span of 5 years or so, I saw Douglas every chance I got. And like the punk-informed rock bands with whom I'd already felt an in-the-present connection, he didn't play in the stuffy jazz clubs - he played anywhere that would have him. I saw Tiny Bell in an art gallery (no amplification!) and a swing-dance club/restaurant. I saw Douglas with Masada at Penn's International House. I saw Douglas' Stargazer quintet outdoors at Lincoln center and indoors at Tonic. I took a date to Tonic for the Charms of the Night Sky band (which charmed me more than I charmed her). He played amazing music, he played with an intensity that spoke to me in a way that was one step up from even the best jazz history had to offer. Most importantly, perhaps, he played often and was accessible. I couldn't very well talk to Miles after listening to Milestones for the 50th time, but Dave was happy to chat for a minute after a gig.

My interest has hardly waned. It's been a decade since Live in Europe, and I still seek out the music Douglas and his compatriots make. The dozen or so of his albums I have (in various formats) contain at least half a dozen radically different instrumental and compositional configurations - from the straight-up(ish) band on Stargazer and Soul on Soul, to the deeply unconventional quartet (trumpet, viola, accordian and bass) on Charms of the Night Sky and A Thousand Evenings. Some of it is sparse, some dense, some beautiful and some willfully aggressive and discordant. I even picked up Jim Black's Alasnoaxis album simply on the merits of his association with Douglas - and while I was surprised by how rock-based the music was, I still heard that instrumental voice that was speaking my language.

SISOSIG? Of course, all of this stays, and there's more TK. In addition to this music in particular, Douglas helped open the door onto a whole world of modern, living, breathing jazz music, and I feel pretty deeply in his debt for making the introduction. Even now that I can afford the occasional trip to see an older living legend at the high-end venues, I get more sheer musical pleasure from seeing the emerging voices playing in the back of the smaller room. That Douglas has gone on to higher level of success (it's a little harder to see him play these days) without altering his music or compromising his approach is a little bit amazing to me, and he's taught me what too look/listen for in a new jazz musician: someone who understands the Marsalis-sanctioned version of the music's history, but evades its traps, instead using it as one of many arrows in a quiver of possible music.

Monday, August 13, 2007

What Comes After

Artists: Barry Black; Crooked Fingers
Albums: Tragic Animal Stories (BB); Crooked Fingers (CF)
Source: Bought used (BB); promo (CF)

We expect weird, often contradictory things from our favorite bands. When they make music that is too different from what we expect, we'll often complain that they've strayed off the path. When they make a string of albums that seem to be the same thing over and over, we accuse the band of not trying something different.

Having dedicated fans must be kind of a pain in the ass, eh?

The Archers of Loaf were one of those bands that pretty much nailed the fine art of walking the fine line. Over half a dozen records in about as many years, they managed to solidly hold their center while also nipping at the outer edges - reaching just far enough from their core sound that it kept expanding, all the while making music that fit inside a recognizable aesthetic. So even when the inevitable pianos poked through the fuzzy guitars on All the Nation's Airports, it was still comfortably "Archers music" or some such thing. They kept it fresh while keeping it within the boundaries they'd defined on Icky Mettle.

But as Steve Wynn asked in a song he wrote years past the demise of his most famous band, The Dream Syndicate, what comes after? In the case of Archers lead singer and songwriter Eric Bachmann, he went way off the reservation when it came to non-Archers recording.

His first solo project, Barry Black, actually appeared contemporaneously with AOL's run. He made two BB records - a self-titled LP in 1995 and Tragic Animal Stories in '97 - that are weird, wonderful and wonderfully weird. And they sound nothing like Archers of Loaf. Often quiet instead of always noisy, instrumentally eclectic instead of guitar-centered, lyrical instrumentals instead of lyric-driven songs, each track on the Barry discs sounds like it was made by someone who would never listen to Archers of Loaf. Though if pressed, you could probably locate some sort of tonal center in the tunes that was buried in AOL tunes all along. If there's any analogue to this kind of ethno-musical indie rock, it might be the current group Beirut. But a decade ago, when the distorted, oddly-tuned guitar reigned supreme, it was kind of had to imagine where Bachmann was going with this.

When the Archers disbanded near the turn of the century, he went in even still yet another direction. Crooked Fingers was his next "band" (again, initially just him) and again it sounded nothing like the Archers. In fact, it kinda sounded like Neil Diamond. Seriously - listen to the self-titled debut, and the vocals, melodies and phrasing sound like they're coming from the Jazz Singer himself. But they were coming from our beloved Archer...and again, it was a bit disconcerting.

But over time, I guess I see where he was coming from. When you know what's expected of you, there's probably a limit to the thrill of easily fulfilling those expectations. And if you've got more going on in your head - in addition to Neil D, Crooked Fingers plays with some Tom Waits, some light Frippertronics and some oddly folky rhythms - then maybe a gradual curve in a new direction isn't enough. You have to pull over, put it in park, torch the Econoline van and hop on the motorcycle that you've been hiding from everyone.

SISOSIG? In the end, I still don't like Crooked Fingers as much as Archers of Loaf, but that probably isn't fair anyway. And on its own, Crooked Fingers is pretty cool. They lyrics and singing are more sophisticated than the insistent din of the Archers allowed for, and on subsequent albums Bachmann has added in strings, Spanish rhythms and all sorts of cool little sounds and fact, Crooked Fingers has kind of become Barrry Black with vocals. All of which means I still enjoy the heck out of these two discs, and not just because they're Archers-related. They've become their own autonomous musical entities. This isn't just what came after a great, great band - they're two of several branches that have grown off the main root and are becoming their own thing, something that I'll look forward to hearing what comes next.