Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Moving On Up

Artist: Uri Caine
Albums: Urlicht/Primal Light; The Sidewalks of New York; Plays Mozart; Moloch: Book of Angels Volume 6
Source: Promo (Urlicht & Sidewalks); gift (Mozart & Moloch)

It is not entirely accurate, but also essentially true, to say that I moved to New York City because of two musicians: Uri Caine and Jon Madof.

Nearly 9 gestational months had passed since losing my gig at the Philadelphia Weekly, and I was making a go at a handful of freelance gigs while looking for a new job. Nothing that seemed like the right direction was in view, so I kept plugging on. The City Paper assigned me to preview a show Uri Caine was playing at The Painted Bride, part of the tour for his mind/genre-bending album of Mahler adaptations, Urlicht/Primal Light. I'd interviewed Caine a few years early, was pretty familiar with his work, and the article was easy to pop out in 30 minutes or so. Plus, I got 2 spots on the guest list for the show.

Lee and I arrived early and hobnobbed a bit in the lobby. Jon Madof was there, another local musician I'd written about a few times. This was the very beginning of 2000, and Jon was a young, still-developing jazz guitarist who had caught my ear; the fact that he was also a fun guy to hang with and talk to made it even better to be a fan of his music. So when I saw him at the Bride, I looked forward to hearing the latest from him.

"I'm moving to Brooklyn," was the first thing he said. Brooklyn? Really? But, but...the scene, man. The Philly scene! Ah, nevermind...Lee had lived in Brooklyn a few years back, so they chatted about the fair borough and what it might be like to move on up to Kings County. Then it was showtime and we went to our seats.

Now, it's important to add here that Caine's music is, more often than not, incredibly complex. Even when he's playing in a straight(ish) piano-trio context or playing sideman in Dave Douglas' combo, he rarely treads the expected path. The compositions and execution are layered with unusual approaches and the friction that comes with banging seeming unlike ideas against each other. And the music he was playing that night--which took Mahler compositions and ran them through jazz (acoustic & electric), rock, funk, European folk and whatever else (plus the presence of a turntablist and chanting Cantor on many tracks). Just one solo, a lengthy violin excursion, sounded to Lee like, "the entire history of Western music." To say the least, Caine's music required focused and attentive listening.

Which I was happy to do, of course. It was a lot of work (gratifying work, but still), and every now and then I needed to let my mind relax and wander. And wander I did: What would it be like to live in Brooklyn? My father had been born there, his family there for a couple of generations. I'd visited pretty much my whole life, from early trips to my great-grandmother's apartment to more recent treks with Lee and JP. Philly had been my home base for half a decade or so...but to be honest, things were no longer really going my way there. No job and no appealing prospects; an intense relationship with Girl C that had just blown up (and hadn't really stopped doing its damage); friends who were starting to move away; and so on. I really only knew one person in NYC, JP, but I was up there often and even had subway tokens in my pocket. I moved in & out of Caine's intense, moving and brain-scrambling music all night, and by the end I had decided to look into the NYC option.

That was Sunday. Monday morning, I called JP and e-mailed a couple of NY contacts asking for tips about where I might look for New York jobs. I got a flood of replies, real actionable stuff, and spent Monday & Tuesday sending off resumes. I figured it was a start.

Wednesday I got a call back from a startup, DealTime. They asked me to come for an interview on Friday. I went, spent the day having a series of conversations that just clicked (including one with the department's VP, who it turned out had been my camp counselor when I was 10!). They offered me the job that day, with a salary roughly double of what I'd expected.

And that was it. Jon Madof (whose music I'll write about in more detail later) had planted the seed, and Uri Caine had created the circumstances to let it sprout. I took the job, I packed up the cat and moved on up to Brooklyn a month later.

SISOSIG? As mentioned above, Caine's music is knottily complex, but also sublimely pleasurable--it's never (well, rarely) so far out as to push you away. Instead, whether he's thinking about the classical canon in a post-modernist framework or just working out some harmonic moves on the keys, Caine's music invites you along for the ride, be it ever so twisty. Primal Light and Plays Mozart are both deep pleasures that never seem to stop opening up with each play. Moloch, part of the latest line of John Zorn/Masada projects, is fabulous solo piano that I'm still wrapping my head around. I wouldn't want to part with any of them, and also look forward to adding more of his straighter jazz dates to the collection.

Sidewalks of New York, on the other hand, is something I can pretty plainly say I will never listen to. More a bit of conceptual curating than an actual Uri Caine record, Sidewalks is a collection of old-timey tunes of/about old-timey New York that is simply too much from the head and not enough from the heart; Uri doesn't connect here, but instead has made something like a novelty record that was never all that novel. This one can go.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Teacher Man, Preacher Man

Artist: Don Byron
Albums: Bug Music; Romance with the Unseen
Source: Bought used (Bug); promo (Romance)

Having a mid-June birthday was kind of a drag as a kid, since it fell just after school ended but before camp started. From K through 12, I never got to have the in-class birthday cupcakes, nor the extra canteen treats that a bunk would get for a camp birthday.

But I got mine once I was a bit older. Now, a Solstice birthday means I'm smack in the middle of Jazz Festival Season, and it's been working out in my favor for more years than the cupcakes ever would have. When the date rolls around each June, there's always a cool jazz gig to go to, and someone willing (or at least gently compelled) to take me. Happy Birthday to me!

There are people, however, that this doesn't always work out for: the family members, girlfriends and now wife who accompany me to these gigs. My jazz tastes start in the straight & narrow, but then meander forcefully away from the center. So while some years there's been a festival gig that was easy for my birthday patrons to swallow (Dave Brubeck & Bill Cosby, which the missus made it through just fine), just as often there's a show that clearly only I'm enjoying (sorry about the Marty Ehrlich & Myra Melford duo, Mom & Dad).

Oddly enough, one of the most successful of the Birthday Jazz Shows was a Don Byron appearance at Philadelphia's fest in the mid-90s. On paper, Don's a tough pill for the casual listener to swallow: playing the clarinet, an instrument that isn't often pushed front and center in post-bop jazz, he is a restless explorer who travels the paths of Klezmer, funk and many avenues of the avant-garde. Sometimes playfully melodic but just as often plangently noisy, Byron can't be pinned down to one sound or style, and as a result toils in fields that rarely catch the ears of the mainstream.

But the reason Byron could get my parents' toes tapping is that he adds an important role to his list of player, composer and bandleader: educator. No matter what context or concept he brings to the stage, Professor Byron always arrives with lessons to impart. He explains what he's up to, gives the audience some specific things to listen for ahead of a tune, and comes back at the end to explain a thing or two about what just went down. You could have never heard Byron's name or any of his albums, or even not be overly familiar with jazz in general, but a Don Byron gig invariably turns into a quick masterclass in the music you're about to hear.

So at the Philly gig, in support of the then-new Bug Music, Byron talked about how & why jazz made the crossover into cartoon soundtracks (the album is comprised entirely of music by Raymond Scott, Duke Ellington, et al, which had been used in cartoons) and even went so far as to explain which instruments would be audibly describing certain bits of cartoony action. When I saw Byron do a free gig at the World Financial Center years later, he was exploring the history of Sugar Hill Records with a large funk/hip-hop ensemble; the lessons that day included a backgrounder on the copious use of kazoos in the tunes, and an examination of the sociological effects of the label. When he was leading a quartet at the Jazz Standard a year or two ago, his notes from the stage about a particular moment in Lester Young's career made the unfamiliar music both familiar and familial.

It's hard to be a fan of Don Byron for any particular sound, or even a specific sensibility, since he's typically all over the map. But he's the opposite of Miles turning his back on the audience to solo into the electro-funk miasma - Byron faces front & center each time, the teacher man & preacher man for what can seem like the entire history of music. He's got a convoluted musical map in his catalog, but he makes sure that even someone forced to take me out for jazz on my birthday is able to come along for the ride.

SISOSIG? Byron's tendency toward constant motion makes it a little hard to settle into his body of work; just because you loved the last thing doesn't mean you'll dig the next one. Aside from some of the sideman dates I've got in The Beast, these two discs are the only Byron albums that I've actually acquired (instead of just hearing somewhere or experiencing at a show). Bug Music is a constant fave - it's both cartoony fun and deeply satisfying music. Plus it's got penguins on the cover, which makes Eileen happy.

Romance with the Unseen
, on the other hand is one of the rare Byron discs is one of the few without a formal concept. It seems like he mostly had just assembled a band that excited him (the wonderful BillFrisell on guitar, Drew Gress playing rock-solid bass, and drummer extraordinaire Jack DeJohnette) and put it through the paces. The tunes include originals, more Duke, classic-era Herbie Hancock and even The Beatles. None of it is revelatory, no lessons are imparted, and not all of it quite catches fire...but on the other hand, I'd be loathe to part with anything featuring Frisell, and Romance is still a reliably satisfying listen.