Saturday, June 23, 2007
On the night before the first day of this year's summer, Bill Frisell looked through the cracks of light coming from behind the stage at the Iron Horse Music Hall and commented, "It's still light out here, which is good because I'm afraid of the dark."
The Iron Horse, a rustic yet comfortable music venue, appeared to be sold out for this Wednesday night show with an enthusiastic crowd of diverse ages. "Tony just said this is a really nice place to play, and I have to agree," Bill said when the trio, completed by Tony Scherr (acoustic bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums), took the stage for their encores. Their uninterrupted two hour set included free improvs, Frisell originals (Strange Meeting), and classics of American music such as Monk's Mysterioso, Surfer Girl, Just Like A Woman, and When You Wish Upon A Star. Guitarists looking for technical inspiration were, as usual, disappointed, as Frisell's stance on stage is always sideways, facing in toward his band.
Musical inspiration was, however, in no short supply. Frisell is, of course, a repeat winner many times over in Downbeat's critic's and reader's polls for best guitarist. Although he shares the conventional jazz player's love of remaking popular songs, what Frisell does with them is not simply riff over a sequence of clever chord substitutions. A typical jazz take on a standard may come across as a legitimizing effort on the part of the player to nobly elevate a pop song into the realm of "Art." Frisell's choice of songs may be outside normal conventions, but he treats them with great respect and without irony. What he brings to his repertoire is a filtering of the material through a style that renders his choices more "American," yet somewhat more alien at the same time. Frisell's musical sensibility is informed by an attitude that combines a cerebral cool with hickster quirk. His lines are a bit squirmy, and fractured in time, with sudden pauses and acidic dissonances. When he plays a longer run, which is infrequent, the notes are evenly rounded, with smooth attacks, only hinting at what a master he is. I have never heard him show off, live or on record. He seems to play only to serve the musical idea underway. Likewise, his bandmates rarely take a solo. They work at things together and, in the long run, this approach is probably more satisfying for the players as well as the audience.
Frisell has for a long time been a fan of digital devices that augment his sound. Years ago he was setting up long delay lines that added ghostly, shadowy background echoes. For quite a while now, he has been integrating digital delays to sample his own playing during performances, playing back tinkling, repitched fragments octaves above the original, or in reverse; sometimes calling up a stored repetitive figure to play against. He is getting really good at tweaking the little sampling box that sits on a stool in front of him, essentially adding another instrument to the trio.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Back when the Cardigans mattered, their producer was Tore Johansson. Saint Etienne recorded Good Humor with him at Tambourine Studios in Malmo, Sweden. When this record was released in 1999, I was over 40 and the new millennium was approaching. I didn't give a rat's ass anymore what anyone thought of my musical tastes. I had always listened with pride to the most demanding music of whatever era I was existing in, because I enjoyed being challenged and I didn't want to left out of what was considered the cutting edge. But at this point in my life I was finally in the mood to relax and try something new, fun, and different. I had read a little bit about SE and thought, "I might enjoy this, and it might not kill me." At first I was struck by the sound of the instruments - crunchy, mid-rangey drums, thin, brittle piano, cheesy synths, rubbery bass, and guitars that sounded like they were purchased at a garage sale.
The songs and the stories started to seep into my unconscious, stimulating images and memories - Mrs. Emma Peel, Goddard, Antonioni, Pucci, Quant, the International Style, mods, foreign sports cars, Cannes, James Bond, and Austin Powers. The lyrics, when understandable, referenced films in split screen, a vixenish little sister, teen angst, Dutch hotel rooms, beauty queens from Idaho... I wasn't used to the subject matter - drum 'n' bass didn't have lyrics. The arrangements were fresh but retro, and "very groovy baby!" And there was Sarah Cracknell's voice - frosty, feathery, full of gold dust, but not at all innocent, and not without a certain adult glamour. These songs were short stories about people who might have been real, with ordinary problems, although they were still quite a bit cooler than me.
Who were these people? After eight years of research, I still have no idea how they come up with their tunes, and I don't know who's doing what, except Sarah is obviously singing. In 1990, Bob and Pete, boyhood friends and rugby enthusiasts, melded club beats, indie pop and girl group influences with Northern Soul. They covered a Neil Young song because they booked a studio and hadn't written anything yet. It was a hit. They worked with a couple of singers until they met the divine Sarah, and they were forevermore a trio. Pete is a complete mystery man, but we know he's married and has two small children. Bob has a more public presence because he writes music journalism, and DJ's in New York and London quite often. Sarah eventually got married after having a couple of kids, and produced two solo records of her own smart and estimable dance-pop. They seem like nice people, they're making films with a social conscience, and doing special cultural events at the London ICA. They even perform with orchestras now, all very mature and intellectual, but stimulating fun. Bob and Pete, now over 40 themselves, are still boyishly cute with floppy Beatles haircuts, and Sarah embodies the essence of, well...Sarah-ness, which can best be defined as a genial coolness so natural, that she would be sure to possess it whether she was worshipped by hordes of fans or was simply a stay-at-home mum.
I have seen them play twice, and I'm still not sure what it is they're actually "doing," even when they're with a band. Sarah is the obvious focus, Pete is always very busy behind a synth, Bob is also behind a synth, but doesn't seem too busy, except for smiling and looking into the audience. Bob, to himself on stage: "It's bloody cool being in a band. Oh yeah, and this is MY band, that's even cooler! I wonder who's here tonight. Is that Scarlett Johansson? I think the B part of this song is coming up. What is it I'm supposed to play again? Ah well, Pete will cover for me if I forget." Pete, to himself on stage: "Here comes that B section, Bob is spacing out, I'm going to have to cover his ass again. Why do I have to do everything?? I need a pint." Sarah to herself on stage, oblivious that the upcoming B section is in jeopardy: "The fans here are lovely. I do so enjoy being worshipped." (The preceding is not meant to mock them, it's just my fanciful imaginings.)
Mention should be made, I suppose, of their eccentric production techniques. They indulge themselves in dotting their records with obscure dialogue and audio from British TV and movie soundtracks, and abuse effects such reverb in the tune Avenue, which is interrupted by a thunderclap for no apparent reason. People Get Real has some kind of rubbery engine roar coming and going through the whole song. Like the Beatles, one gets the impression that SE thoroughly enjoy embedding personal references into their work as clues hinting at something the meaning of which continues to evade us. You'll catch some of them, but never all of them, and I think it helps to have grown up in the the UK during the sixties. They dropped the obscure in-jokes for a while, until they released Finisterre. That record features the British actor Michael Jayston dropping non sequitors between tracks that truly choice.
It's hard to imagine that in 1992, while Grunge was raging in the States, Saint Etienne was concocting candy-coated delights such as Nothing Can Stop Us:
Each of their records has a particular sound within its own context. From their original indie-dance-pop beginnings, to 70's-ish soft rock, to organic brittleness, to minimal German synth bleeps, to pumping electro, to whatever it is they're doing next. Plus, each record has its own diversions beyond the style they're working in. Art disguised as simplistic pop. Saint Etienne's output is no challenge to your ears like, let's say Stockhausen, but, more subversively, it will pleasantly haunt your mind for years.
Truly, were they only a duo? Percussionist Khalil El’ Zabar alone was at times responsible for up to three simultaneously independent musical parts. When he stood to keep time with ankle bells, play the kalimba, and sing, he was a trio. Add baritone sax player, Hamiett Bluiett, and you have a quartet. If you paid attention to El' Zabar's right foot as he accented the second and fourth beats of the bar, then you had five parts.
Apart from a witty rendition of Take the A Train, and the encore, sung by El' Zabar a capella, all the tunes, although unannounced, I suspect were El' Zabar's own. They were modal, and slightly tinged with a Middle Eastern, or African flavor. As El Z played drums and sang, Blueiett would double the melody before taking solos. Mr. B's solos at times evoked a violin's raspy upper register. Coincidentally, he was filling in for violinist Billy Bang who was ill. His bari was cradled in a stand as he played, so he could just walk up, lay his fingers on the keys, and blow. When finished, he would just sit down in an swivel chair, smile and visibly enjoy El Z's emotive performance. Bluiett took one extended solo by himself, wherein he employed all kinds of extended techniques: multiphonics, circular breathing, percussive key tapping, and vocalizing into the mouth piece.
A master at anything in the percussion family, El' Zabar is a performer who practically turns himself inside out when he performs. His head swung from side to side as if it were on a hinge while he played the kalimba, or thumb piano. His kalimba was amplified, and although you can only use your thumbs to play it, he managed to have a melody with chordal accompaniment emerge simultaneously. He expresses himself not only musically, but vocally, with impulsive exclamations, and his entire body is involved in the projection of his interior being. He acts possessed, but not by devils. This is a man controlled by beneficent spirits of positive force. At times it felt as if El Z. was leading a revival meeting, and he did have a message to deliver. He would stand, clap his hands, sway and extemporize on staying positive in these bleak times. He reminded us that although there have always been warmongers in history, those of us who want peace are in the majority. It's easier to be pessimistic, we have to work on finding the positive. "You have a responsibility to dream!" he called to us.
El' Zabar offered an amusing anecdote about when he, Bluiett, and Billy Bang played the Apollo theater as a trio. Wynton Marsalis thought El' Zabar was trying to sneak into the theater for free until he was informed that El' Zabar was actually performing that night. Bill Cosby was the MC, and when he saw El' Zabar's trio, he asked, "Where's your band?" After their set, Cosby asked them, "What do you call that kind of music?"
Monday, June 4, 2007
Swing Out Sister occupies a singular niche in the 21st century. Their somewhat outmoded style is reminiscent of the deliberate and carefully arranged pop songs of the early to mid 1960's taken from movie soundtracks of the time, songs that would have appealed to one's parents, who would have been otherwise annoyed by the clattery "noise" of the rock 'n' roll hits on the radio. SOS's experiments with odd meters and swing tempos, harpsichords, tympanies, string orchestras, and background choruses remind one of the work of composers such as Burt Bacharach, Henry Mancini, and John Barry, with the hipness of Quincy Jones.
They started out as a trio 22 years ago with two ex-members of A Certain Ratio and a fashion student with a most distinctive throaty voice. They had a hit with the endearing "Breakout" in the States in 1986, a bright, propulsive and spunky jewel of a tune.
Attention in the States and the UK began to decline, until they reached a low-profile cult status. But they became so big in Japan they were signed to the Japanese division of Mercury for years, so some of their records were not even released in North America. Over time, their music has begun to slow down, turn moody and veer into cinematic storytelling. Corinne and Andy became a duo of mature hipsters rather than young pop icons, the kind of couple that doesn't stay at the most expensive hotel, but the coolest, most secluded one.
Somewhere Deep In The Night, their superb cd from 2001, is perhaps the best of their work released in this century. Neither blues nor groove oriented, the melodies arch and spin, with leaps and colorful non-chord tones. They have not abandoned rhythmic interest, but their songs mostly seduce with a rich harmonic language, the chord progressions continually refreshing themselves with surprising twists, displaying almost a Wagnerian delay of resolution.
So, what's the problem with SOS? Way too jazzy for pop, too pop for jazz, and too complex for even "smooth jazz." Last year, Saint Etienne signed with Savoy Jazz as their North American label. SE is an indisputably brilliant group, but have not a shred of jazz in their work. Savoy would be wise to pick up Swing Out Sister and do them, and us, the same favor.
Friday, June 1, 2007
On a warm and sunny July evening last year, Puffy rocked the Hudson River waterfront on lower Manhattan. They were celebrating 10 years as a duo and touring for their new cd, Splurge. The audience was predominantly college-aged Asians, probably not the demographic that was necessarily familiar with their popular cartoon. When Puffy started out in 1996 they were more on the pop side of rock, wearing matching t-shirts and attempting coordinated dance moves. But on this night they were really trying to work on their indie rock cred. The backdrop on the stage was in black and gold and looked as if it were designed by a Hell's Angel, reading, "Puffy AmiYumi - Rock Show From Tokyo, Japan." They seemed to be distancing themselves from the seven year old fans of their cartoon show. They tried out some songs that showed their new direction, co-written with Jon Spencer (Blues Explosion), Dexter Holland (Offspring), and Butch Walker. Ami and Yumi prowled the stage wearing Boho dresses over jeans. Between songs, they opened their little spiral-bound notebooks and read prepared anecdotes about long train trips on Amtrack, minor health problems, musical flubs and leaving a fly unzipped on stage, all delivered in polite but giggly, little-girl voices. They have to be given credit for attempting to speak in English.
Although they are both incredibly attractive, Ami and Yumi have never traded on their looks to achieve success. Their appeal lies more in their wacky senses of humor, their zany fashion style, their embodiment of whimsy, and buckets of charm. Puffy's career has been distinguished by their talented presentation of recycled forms of pop music, convincingly emulating the stylistic expressions of The Who, The Beatles, Elvis Costello, Abba, and ELO, as well as detailed pastiches of punk, country, jazz, and disco, and the varied niches of 1960's American bubblegum pop. On their latest cd they delve into ska and rockabilly. They combine a peculiar Japanese perfectionism along with a wide ranging approach to imitation while retaining a refreshing and idiosyncratic originality.