Playlist, 12/11

DAVID MURRAY CUBAN ENSEMBLE PLAYS NAT KING COLE EN ESPANOl;   Motema. Nothing like the original except the tunes. Murray, always adept at finding new ways to frame his music, works with a nine-piece ensemble and strings to do what he does best: cry, caterwaul, lose control (never; it only sounds like it) and get fresh during ballads. More to come on this outstanding recording.

FURTHER EXPLORATIONS, Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez, Paul Motian; Concord Jazz, release date: January 17,2012. Recorded live at the Blue Note in NYC and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of Bill Evans Explorations this two-disc set warms us with the sort of interplay that LaFaro and Motian attained on the original. Nobody would mistake Cora for Evans and that’s the beauty of it. For the late Motian, an extension, a perfect circle.

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY SOUNDTRACK  by Alberto Iglesias; Silva Screen Records. Pedro Almovodar’s favorite composer has strung together a variety of downbeat themes that sound as a continuous whole. We hear some John Adams, some Phillip Glass, even some Steve Reich in this moody music. More on this later as well.  

Michigan Murder Mystery

Writer Jim Harrison is to letters what Woody Allen is to film. If that seems a stretch, consider: both are prolific, releasing a new work (or more) yearly. Both were born during the Depression, two years apart, both in December. Both mix drama and comedy into something that’s entertaining as well as thought provoking. Both are fixed on the complications resulting from relationships and sex. Both are obsessed with mortality. Both have tried their hand at writing from a woman’s point-of-view. Both are connected to specific locations, Harrison to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Allen to Manhattan’s Upper Westside (and more recently, Barcelona and Paris). Both are revered in France.

Okay, it’s still a stretch. The grizzled, one-eyed novelist and poet who wrote Legends of the Fall and some 30 other volumes of prose and poetry is more at home in the outdoors than the bespectacled urbanite who wrote and directed Interiors (no matter how much  of A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy takes place outdoors) . And while Harrison’s characters, like Allen’s, often dwell on the fact that their days, as everyone’s, are numbered, they don’t all take it personally. They’re more stoical about it.

Take 65-year-old Detective Sunderson from Harrison latest novel The Great Leader. “He thought just because you’re older doesn’t mean that death is imminent every day. There’s generally a tip-off when it’s coming.” Tips, being the detective’s stock-and-trade, need to be acted on. And Sunderson’s been given more than a few.

If your hunch is that detective fiction is out of character for someone as literate as Harrison, you’d be half right.  Detective Sunderson doesn’t break from the manly Harrison mold. He’s burly, fond of brook trout, dogs and deer livers.  He has a frustration-inducing appreciation for female posteriors and is prone to use whiskey as a cure. Three years ago, his troubled lifestyle cost him “the world’s finest woman,” according to his niggling 85-year-old mother. It’s his down-home style of introspection, in light of his vices, that stands him apart from the usual sleuth.

Recently retired after a career policing familial abuse, small-time drug dealing, and bear poaching, our detective is hardboiled country-style. When asked why he continues to follow The Great Leader out of the hummocks of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Arizona and the Sand Hills of Nebraska, he claims he’s investigating the evil connection between religion, money, and sex. A more accurate answer: he’s pursuing himself.

If this doesn’t exactly sound like Manhattan Murder Mystery that’s because it isn’t.  There are plenty of dark moments and intimations of mortality in The Great Leader, though balanced by comic action and witty asides. Plot? Only the barest, vulture-picked bones. Along the way, Sunderson is threatened with a sodomy charge, has a run-in with a Mexican drug kingpin, eats prodigiously and suffers gout. It’s not a thriller and there’s not a lot of suspense. But if you’re fond of existential puzzles, then The Great Leader is your rib steak.

In this age-of-anxiety sense, The Great Leader is reminiscent of Paul Auster’s1985 mystery City of Glass, an existential detective yarn in which the unraveling thread of the central charter’s psyche is more knotty than the mystery he’s trying to solve. While Auster’s tale is surreal, Harrison’s is well-grounded. Auster says, “nothing is real, except chance.” Harrison counters, “there is no truth, only stories. “ As a detective, Sunderson‘s heard plenty.

The real mystery here is Sunderson himself. Even as he plots the downfall of the cult leader for his taste in 12-year-olds, he ogles his 16-year-old neighbor girl, an exhibitionist whose bedroom window is just 30 feet from his. That and the excitement he feels almost every time a woman bends over cause him to curse “the distracting nuisance” of the biological imperative, like “carrying around a backpack full of cow manure.”

Harrison is skilled at straight-talking life’s big issues and the book is full of homily. “Crime did pay but usually very little,” Sunderson observes. Or, when marveling at the rejuvenating powers of time spent in the wild, “A creek is more powerful than despair.”

Not all such insight seems worthy: “Men would say they were as horny as a toad but who among them knew if a toad was horny?” Sometimes, Harrison’s dialog seems unnaturally smart, as when a tough plainclothes cop, describing religion as a drug, says, “you know, the Marxian opiate of the people.”

But by and large, Sunderland’s social and political one-liners give a jolt on almost every page. He’s outspoken on religion, Republicans, the FBI, American history (especially when it came to Native Americans), 9-11 and justice (“When a guy with four DUIs runs over a kid and receives less time than a college kid with a half-pound of pot…”); all tempered by his unruly self-doubt: “…what were his conclusions worth? Hadn’t he been put out to pasture?”

Sunderson eventually chases down a sort of religion of his own, one anchored in extended family and the natural world. Like Alvy Singer in Allen’s Annie Hall, he finds solace in his surroundings, a beauty and buzz of life that’s present no matter which landscape he’s in. It’s this revelation that helps him get his man. I won’t tell you which one.–Cabbage Rabbit




Joe Henry, Stripped

Joe Henry is best known in service to others, a writer of songs for stars (Madonna “Don’t Tell Me To Stop”) and producer to everyone from Meshell Ndegéocello and Ani DiFranco to Elvis Costello and Mose Allison. His own recordings tend to be noisy affairs with confessional, expressionistic poetry set to pop-savvy melodies framed in cartoonish cacophony. Over the years, he’s included jazz musicians including Brad Mehldau, Don Byron and Ornette Coleman to bring added spark and soulfulness to match his often surreal words. Reverie manages the soulfulness without the static. It’s stripped down Henry with even more obscure lyrics (“I keep wooden boxes like traps strung with wire/In the light of old ties, piled and on fire”). The acoustic quartet of guitar, piano, bass, and drums is occasionally decorated with pump organ, added guitarist Marc Ribot’s ukulele, and backup vocals from Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan. The effect is even more melancholy than the often down-beat singer has conveyed in the past, and with reason. “Room At Arles,” dedicated to the late, tragic Vic Chesnutt, is particularly somber (“The curtains wave a flag to say/This afternoon is done/And giving in to evening who has/Beat him like a brother”). Despite the mood and minimalism, Reverie is still “raucous and fractured and noisy” as he asserts in the liner notes’ dedication to his parents. And that’s just the way we Henry fans like it.   —Cabbage Rabbit

Jarrett Miniatures

Pianist Keith Jarrett’s quarter-century of trio recordings with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette sustains his reputation as one of music’s most inventive improvisers. But it’s his infrequent solo work, beginning with his 1971 release Facing You, that best displays his improvisational genius. Rio, recorded live in the Brazilian city in April of this year, reflects the 66-year-old keyboardist’s entire canon, a body of work that includes excursions into Bach and Mozart as well as jazz standards. Unlike his early solo recordings with their long, evolving variations on rhythmic and melodic themes, Rio is a collection of 16 miniatures that range across blues, impressionism, contemporary boogie-woogie and the avant-garde. The wide variety of material here, including tango-tinged dances and Middle-Eastern moods, spotlioght the pianist’s wide and ambitious vocabulary. It’s hard to believe that these are spontaneous improvisations, as Jarrett has explained in recent interviews. Even the most modern, formless excursions have a substance that lends shape to their off-beat harmonics and aggressive tempos. Best are the sensitive, emotionally-revealing pieces (Jarrett recently divorced after 30 years of marriage) that develop narratives a short story writer could envy. If he sometimes lacks a way to end his stories—more than a few seem to just tail off—it’s easy to excuse him by the wonderful path each piece has taken. —Cabbage Rabbit

Playlist: 11/27

REINCARNATION OF A LOVE BIRD, Paul Motian and the Electric Bebop Band ; JMT, recorded June 1994. Motian had a way of layering his sound against the ring of electric guitars and for a while in the ’90s had bands that doubled up on them and saxophones (see Garden of Eden, below). Here’s it’s Kurt Rosenwinkel and Wolfgang Muthspiel adding sustained atmospherics and plucky bebop lines. This may be the best example of Motian’s skill at choosing and reworking jazz standards, taking them from innovators including Monk, Miles, Mingus, Bird and Gillespie. And while there’s only one Motian original, “Split Descision” performed twice, beginning and  end, it illustrates how Motian, that most color-conscious drummer, was extending the moods and harmonic construction of the greats he covers. Would we have pulled this out if the man hadn’t passed? Eventually. Motian’s in our infrequent rotation list, someone we return to again and again as time rolls on.

GARDEN OF EDEN, Paul Motian Band; ECM, recorded November, 2004. We pulled this out a couple weeks back when the man was still on the planet and haven’t let go. Another example of Motian’s two-guitar,-two sax ensemble; this time with seven Motian originals of the kind that send us (the drummer also gets great contributions from his sidemen; hear Muthspiel’s “Waseenonet” from Reincarnation above, saxophonist Chris Cheek’s “Desert Dream” here. What we said before: “Paul Motian plays drums like Bill Evans played piano. Here’s it’s in support of a larger group; the tangle of guitars (Steve Cardenas, Ben Monder, Jakob Bro), brother saxophones of Chris Cheek, Tony Malaby, the try-this-on-for size bass of Jerome Harris. Some Mingus, some originals from the band. But it’s Motian’s “Mesmer” that has a mesmerized. It’s like an Ornette tune at half-speed; inviting, entrancing and ultimately about the human condition.” I forgot to mention the great rework of Mingus’ “Pithecanthropus Erectus.”

MICHAEL TIPPETT DIVERTIMERNTO ON “SELINGER’S ROUND,’ LITTLE MUSIC FOR STRING ORCHESTRA, THE HEART’S ASSURANCE, CONCERTO FOR DOUBLE STRING ORCHESTRA, City of Londo Sinfonia condcuted by Richard Hickox; Chandos, recorded March, 1995. There’s a variety of music here, indicating a range not often associated with the 20th century English composer. Sure, the dancing  “sprung” rhythms of the Concerto catch our off-beat ears but it’s the audible empathy for simple lives, especially heard in the Lament from “Sellinger’s Round” that sticks with us, so much that tenor John Mark Ainsley has to wrestle us back in “The Heat’s Assurance” with a display of  compassion (the music ponders a woman’s suicide, inspired by poets killed in World War II) and passion lost.

APPEARING NIGHTLY,Carla Bley and Her Remarkable Big Band; ECM, 2007. Lively, playful, wonderfully arranged music that jumps jives and gets serious all in a matter of moments. Full of respect for the tradition as well as inside jokes and running gags, the bulk of them perpetrated by trumpeter Lew Soloff. The 25 minute suite that lends the disc its title is a historical overview with the band shouting jive to accent the period feel. “Greasy Gravy” and “Bad Coffee” burns with sax and trumpet reflux (although at different tempos). Emotional highpoint: when the trombone (is it Beppe Calamosca?) blares a warning above the groove and shimmer from Bley-mates bassist Steve Swallow and Karen Mantler on organ. Did I mention Steve Swallow? Who else could play with this noisy of a band and sound like an entire section on his own?

Paul Motian: Time To Keep

I first saw Paul Motian in the early ’70s with the Keith Jarrett Quartet. The group came to our modest Midwestern university one cold Saturday night and set up on risers in the student union ballroom. Except for Motian, none of the group, which included bassist Charlie Haden and saxophonist Dewey Redman, seemed glad to be there. Jarrett, reportedly upset with the condition of the piano, spent most of the concert prowling around the make-shift stage shaking things and beating his fists on the piano box. Occasionally, he would reach inside and grab at the instrument’s strings as if trying to pluck something out of it. For a brief moment in the second set, he sat down on the bench and began to roll out his signature harmonic churn. But he soon grew bored of it and walked off the stage leaving Redman, as he had done all night, to solo at length.

The performance proved a showcase for the drummer. Motian, smiling and slapping sticks at his kit, played in an off-beat fashion that seemed odd to our young ears. When we thought the accent should come just there, he brought it a split second later. When we anticipated an extended press roll, he cut the rumble short. At the break, we foolishly described his playing as sloppy and carefree,  as if he’d had one too many beers (we didn’t know if he’d had any, and probably not). By the end of the show, especially after his sonically-rich solo that highlighted the second set even more than Jarrett’s brief stint at the keys, we better understood what he was doing, how it fit in and what all the color and shading he applied did for the quartet’s sound. Motian had made us believers in a different kind of timekeeping.

Today, with his passing  , I’ll lament not only his loss  –recent recordings showed he had much left to add — but also the loss of my vinyl copy of Conception Vessel (scroll far down), his 1972 date with Haden, Jarret, violinist Leroy Jenkins and others.. I’ll pull out I Have the Room Above Her to hear him with long-time mates guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano, Monk In Motian to enjoy his comprehension and extension of the Monk sound and some of those wonderful JMT recordings of the ’90s (I’m listening to the cymbal-shimmered twang of Trio i sm  now) and to Reincarnation of A Love Bird  with its two guitars, two saxes and fine Steve Swallow bass work (truly a reincarnation of Monk, Miles, Mingus and Gillespie). And I’ll listen to what he’s done for younger emerging artists, like pianist Anat Fort whose music seemed the perfect canvas for Motian’s painterly ways (he’s on her first ECM recording Long Story, the opening and ending cuts of her latest are titled “Paul Motian”). Recordings make it too easy to miss our lost musicians.

Maybe Richard Cook and Brian Morton say it best in The Penguin Guide To Jazz Recordings:

Time will tell how important Motian is ultimately considered to be in the development of jazz since the war; but if all revolutions in the music turn out to be upheavals in the rhythm section, then it seems likely that he will be seen as a quiet revolutionary.

Cabbage Rabbit




Independents Or…

The story today in The New York Times about the birth –rather than the death– of an independent bookstore is cause for celebration. Novelist Ann Patchett, joining with much of Nashville’s reading community, has spurred the opening of Parnassus Books after the closing of the city’s  Davis-Kidd bookstore last December. It was Nashville’s last, truly independent, non-university affiliated bookstore. The city’s Outloud Bookstore that focused on progressive and GLBT issues  preceded Davis-Kidd in closure last year.

The Times article paints the dilemma in predictable terms: “…it’s sort of everybody against Amazon,” says Daniel Goldwin, owner of Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee. Of course, that’s only part of the problem. The Outloud store’s webpage cites the high cost of borrowing (those evil banks, again), unfair price advantages enjoyed by large retailers like Wal-Mart, the sales-tax advantage of out-of-state corporations and “the inability of congress to pass meaningful legislation that would support small businesses” among reasons for  its demise.

What makes  the closing of an independent book store a tragedy, not just for its owners but for its customers and readers (and authors) everywhere? The opportunity to browse, of course. Thumbing through books, seeing unknown books, hearing about books that might otherwise be missed not only encourages sales but expands the number of titles faithful readers would otherwise miss if they only followed what (little) was reviewed in the general press and recommended for them by Amazon. New and lesser-known, but equally worthy, writers go by the wayside as do the small, independent presses that publish them. Independent books stores provide for a more diverse, if smaller, selection; giving potential readers a chance to focus on books that might have otherwise been invisible. This is a good thing, not only for readers, but for writers, publishers and communities at large. To its credit, the Times also points out ways independents have sought to stay alive: negotiating new leases with sympathetic landlords, operating as co-ops, seeking partnerships with libraries and other institutions as well as raising money from its patrons.

I fondly recall a few visits to Shakespeare and Co. Booksellers in the unlikely location of Missoula, MT this summer. Hosting a modestly-sized but eclectic collection, it enticed me into buying a credit-limit busting (yes, I know I should have used cash) handful of titles I otherwise might not have seen: Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen from Red Lemonade , Francis Levy’s Seven Day in Rio  from Two Dollar Radio,  G. A. Bradshaw’s Elephants On the Edge from Yale University Press (independent books stores are a great resource for university presses) and others. There was poetry, local and international, that I could sample and graphic novels that hadn’t made the usual lists. Browsing Shakespeare was an education. Now I have Collected Works Bookstore & Coffee House in my new home of Santa Fe, providing the same sort of experience with a more regional slant, just as Small World Books, with it literary and mystery emphasis, did for us when we lived in Venice, CA. What great part of our lives would be missing if not for independent book sellers? Sadly, we occasionally find out. That’s why the opening of Parnassus, even if it’s nowhere near, is welcome news.–Cabbage Rabbit