Friday, April 27, 2007

Get involved, get involved, get involved

Sweet christ on a cracker, is the RIAA still pulling this nonsense? (Click the link for a description of the problem and a probably-futile-but-worth-a-try response.)

Not that I use net radio or services like Pandora. But aside from the strong-arm intimidation tactics at work here, anything that fences in whatever little public forums are still left for listening to new music really cheeses me off.

In other news, you all probably knew this already, but I just learned that Don Cheadle will be directing and starring in a biopic about Miles Davis (you know, that guy who "rocked the trumpet"). I guess that's good, though I've never understood the appeal of the dramatic-film-about-a-musician genre. In the case of that much ballyhooed flick about another personal hero, I found myself pretty bored. Which I take it is the exact opposite reaction from the one these films are supposed to elicit. But honestly, how can a dramatic recreation compete with a documetary or concert film? Unless, of course, one isn't so interested in the music.

My feeling is, if you're going to use actors and the conventions of drama, why not deliberately err on the side of fiction? Instead of a "biopic," create something loosely based on a biography (or biographies), as was the case in, say, Round Midnight (and, what the hell, Citizen Kane).

Finally, if you haven't read Ethan Iverson's paean to Andrew Hill, it is well worth your time. I know that's sort of a redundant way of describing most anything that appears on the DTM blog, but I'm citing this piece in particular because of a few sentences that caught my attention. Iverson writes that "[e]very musician who worked with Andrew Hill in recent years confirms that he liked to keep it a little chaotic. For example, he would rehearse the music one way, and then, at the last second, change the arrangement or even the parts. This would guarantee mistakes but also freshness in the performance."

Yes! I'm really looking forward to trashing some of the IJG setlist this summer... we've been playing these tunes for a year or two now, and while it has been deeply satisfying to get to the point where most of the group knows the stuff well enough that we can play with a higher-than-ever level of precision, I want to hear a whole new set of mistakes, and more importantly, I want to get a whole new whiff of freshness.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


About time we started getting some IJG videos posted on this thingamajig, n'est-ce pas? The above is from our CD release show at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater about a year ago. (Filmed by Matt Lichtenwalner.)

Here's another, recorded in Bakersfield (August tour, 2004) in the middle of our "tentet phase"; the alto soloist is Evan Francis, and the rest of the band is Damon Zick (bari), Matt Otto (tenor), Jason Mears (soprano), Shaunte Palmer (bone), Kris Tiner (trumpet), Phil Rodriguez (trumpet), Robert Jacobson (guitar), Harish Raghavan (bass), and Aaron McLendon (drums):

And another of the IJG quintet breakout group performing at Moody's (also August 2004):

These ain't too spectacular, I know. There is actually a lot of other (and better) footage of the group, but most of it is not in a postable format at the moment. However, as I said, it's about time -- so watch this space, godammit.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Going forward to get back

I know, I know; not only am I behind on my blogging (and so many other things), but the sequence-of-events component of this thing is starting to read like the fractured chronology of a Faulkner novel. (And speaking of novelists, holy cow am I (still) bummed that Vonnegut is gone. I know he was an old guy and everything, and I know he's probably a lot happier wherever he is now. But he was one of the good guys -- and, by the way, a not-insignificant influence on my own worldview and philosophy. And so on.)

Let me explain: I still have to provide some sort of after-the-fact recap of the recent "return to SoCal" tour. That post is long overdue, and only coming together slowly. So what'll I do in the meantime? Well, why not look ahead and spill the beans on the next batch of stuff in store for the group?

Sure, that makes sense. Let's see. How 'bout starting thisaway:

May 2007, with a little luck, could be a high point in what has already been the best year the group has ever had.

For one thing, we'll be performing in a pretty sweet slot at the Bakersfield Jazz Festival on May 12 (we're the third-from-last act, followed by Matt Wilson (yee-haw!) and Lee "too smooth for school" Ritenour). That will be a milestone in itself -- not because it will be our first festival (a "distinction" which belongs to the Brewery Arts Center Festival in Carson City, NV), but because I'll actually be able to guarantee everyone in the group more than a hundred dollars for a gig (don't worry, I'm not going to delve too far here into the boring woe-is-me behind-the-scenes economics of a postmodern big band). A low three bills probably sounds like a pittance for anyone who deals in trios, quartets, and quintets, but believe me, when it comes to a group this large (playing left-of-center music, no less) it's a real coup. Credit must go to Kris Tiner (who thankfully will be rejoining the group for this gig), at whose gentle insistence Doug Davis -- the very sweet guy who heads up the festival and the jazz department at Cal State Bakersfield) finally got to check us out, first at our Bakersfield gig last August, and a second time at IAJE. I guess we made some sort of impression.

The other upcoming event-of-note is our May trip to the Netherlands. We'll be performing (twice) at the Hague Jazz Festival (May 16 and 18), and also squeezing in a show at the world-famous BimHuis in Amsterdam (May 17). I've been keeping this one on the down-low, partly because I didn't want to jinx it, and partly because I believed for a while that it was all some sort of cruel hoax. The booking originated in our IAJE performance this past January -- that's where I met Ruud Wijkniet, who liked our show well enough that he immediately invited us to play the festival, all-expenses paid. Again, I was more or less very suspicious, but it turns out that Ruud was for real (and, like Doug, very pleasant to work with -- where have these folks been hiding for the last seven years?). Now that our travel arrangements have beeen finalized, I feel it's safe to act as if the trip is really going to happen. Needless to say, I'm (cautiously) psyched.

For those of you who are interested, the bands for these gigs will be as follows. For both, we'll have Dan Schnelle (drums), Oliver Newell (bass), Jill Knapp (vocals), Dan Rosenboom (trumpet), Evan Francis (alto), Cory Wright (soprano), and Brian Walsh (tenor). In Bakersfield, add Stephanie Richards and (of course) Kris Tiner, trumpets; Ian Carroll and Ron Christian (bones); Gavin Templeton, Ben Wendel, and Damon Zick (saxophones). In the Netherlands, the substitutions will be Andre Canniere and Phil Rodriguez (trumpets), Beth Schenck, Katharina Thomsen, and Josh Sinton (saxes), and Wolter Wierbos and James Hirschfeld (bones). That's right, for the Netherlands gigs I'll be borrowing key players (Canniere, Sinton, and Hirschfeld) from my favorite east coast big band, DJA's Secret Society. I'll also be bringing in two heavy hitters from the Dutch scene: one lesser-known (Thomsen), and one pretty goddamm well-known (Wolter Wierbos).

The only problem with all this goodness is: where do we go next? (Ah, well, I'll figure it out when we get there.)

Given that this is an important moment in the life of the band (even if we never get any further), I have been allowing myself an unusual amount of self-analysis as I consider what we've accomplished with the last two incarnations (specifically, the Go-Go era tentet group and the Mix-Tape-era big band). Of course, just because I've been allowing myself to indulge in this sort of intro-speckshun doesn't mean that I don't know in my heart of hearts that any conclusions I draw may be more or less total bullshit. I have always found that I compose best when I don't overthink what I'm doing (not that that's an appropriate strategy for all composers). So what follows will be a very loosey-goosey sketch of what I consider to be the elements of the mature IJG "sound." It's all off the top of my head, without actually going back to listen or think through the repertoire in question. Contradict me if you must!

1. Hearty portions of the basic building blocks of popular music (mostly American popular music, but not exclusively), often tweaked and permutated beyond recognition. What do I mean by the "basic building blocks" (BBBs, I guess) of popular music? Specific riffs, phrases, rhythms, harmonic progressions (and so on) that get used repeatedly in that canon. I'm not talking about broad genre characteristics (like the blues scale, for instance), but rather more specific (though still recurring) things. (See, for instance, the bassline at the beginning of "Doo Wha?", or the repeated rhythm at the beginning of "Bongo Non Troppo" -- these BBBs can be found all over the place in American popular music (in various permutations, of course).)

2. Displacement. As a way of building tension, I like to take intact figures (a portion of a melody, for instance) and set them off, complete, against their originals. This may occur horizontally (in time), usually at some counterintuitive spot (like one beat away), or vertically (creating a parallel harmony). The crucial thing for me is that the listener be able to recognize the displacement -- so I don't try to hide it (thus parallels stay parallel most times).

3. Simple canons, rounds, etc. Canons / rounds are displacement built up in a comparatively fancy way. That's probably how I got here -- though I should also acknowledge the influence of twentieth-century round-master, Moondog.

4. Strong melodies. I started seriously writing music in high school -- a time when I was strongly influence by the Beatles. Is it any wonder that I still give a shit about a beautiful melody when I can squeeze it in? Sometimes this interest yields what I would call "pseudo-folk" melodies like the one that appears in "Bandoleero, part one." Honestly, I don't think my melodies are all that great by classical music standards (they don't usually rise and fall in the traditional way), but I can write catchy music when I put my mind to it. I used to flee from this ("it can't be weird and tuneful at the same time!" I told myself), but now I just throw caution to the winds let the notes fall where they may.

5. Taking simple ideas to their extremes. Why subdivide by eighth notes when you can subdivide by sixteenths? Why change the tempo once when you can change it twice, or three times? And so on.

6. Layering / reverse layering. This is a Mingus-ism (see "Moanin'" on Blues and Roots for perhaps the best example, though my favorite Mingus tune ("Hora Decubitus") does something similar). Start with one instrument, add another, add another, and so on until you have the densest thing you can still hear individual voices in.

7. Long compositions with mutiple disconnected “movements.” I have always been interested in form, but with the current version of the group I seem to be going for sequential, episodic structures as opposed to organic, narrative ones. I'm not trying to tell you a story when I write. Instead, I want to make you aware of how the book is made.

8. Juxtaposition of unlike things. Beautiful melodies cohabitate with noise; genres collide incongruously; endless, seemingly-static vamps cohabitate with rapid change and forward motion (more of a Go Go era thing for me, that last one is a technique borrowed from Zappa); and so on.

9. Naturalistic use of odd time signatures. See the story in this post about people clapping along to the 3/2 section at the end of "Fuck the Muck."

10. Timbral substitution. Take a figure heavily identified with one instrument (such as a boogie woogie piano bassline) and put it in a horn (for instance).

11. Comedy. Been thinking about what I mean by this, and I know I'll have to return to it. I guess I feel most comfortable using the word "comedy" to describe a category of resistance to authority (with the assumption that authority is always corrupt / arbitrary / unkind). More specifically, for me, it's the idea of resistance-from-within (and thus is somewhat incompatible with (and suspicious of) the notion of a pure revolution "from outside"). Oh, and it also has to be funny.

I told you it was loosey-goosey.

* * * * *

Addendum: Just got the sad news. RIP Andrew Hill.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Flo & Eddie on the music biz

A little video here.

And Mark Volman's consulting site.

Have I ever mentioned that the version of "Sofa no. 1" that appears on You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, vol. 1 is one of my favorite recordings?

A short post, I know. More soon.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Return of the son of Industrial Jazz Group

[Editor's note: Ah, yes. Here is the post I would have published last week at about this time, if only I hadn't started developing what initially seemed like an innocent-enough headcold. The sequel to this post -- you know, the usual apres-tour "here's what actually happened in excruciating detail" post -- will be forthcoming later this week. But for those of you interested in the bottom line: this trip to SoCal was well worth it.]

So I'll be heading down to Los Angeles next week for more band-related madness: a pair of gigs in the San Diego area on March 28 (one at Mesa College, and one at Dizzy's -- the latter has historically been one of our favorite places to play), and then a more-and-more-illicit-sounding engagement at 2nd Street Jazz in downtown LA (it appears we'll be hitting at 1 AM on the morning of March 30). It will be my first time back in southern California since mid-Fall of '06, and I'm very curious to see what (if anything) has changed, either about the place itself, or about my perception of it.

If nothing else, it will be a rush to reconnect with some of the beloved IJG veterans, as Jill and I will be joined by key players from the east coast tour: Dan Schnelle (drums), Oliver Newell (bass), Dan Rosenboom (trumpet), Damon Zick (bari), Brian Walsh (tenor), Evan Francis (alto), and Ben Wendel (tenor) [editor's note: as it turned out, Wendel couldn't make these gigs]. Other long-lost personnel with whom we will be joyously reunited: Ryan Perez-Daple (soprano) and Ron Christian (bone) [editor's note: as it turned out, Christian couldn't make these gigs either -- thankfully, we were able to enlist the help of SD bonist Brandon Jagow for Dizzy's]. Of course, it wouldn't be an IJG tour without a few new faces as well, and so we welcome trumpeters Stephanie Richards and Clinton Patterson stepping in for Phil Rodriguez and Kris Tiner, respectively (Phil is now based in Brooklyn, and Kris will soon be based in new-daddy-land -- a country I know well), soprano saxophonist Gavin Templeton (sitting in for Cory Wright), trombonist Ian Carroll (sitting in for any one of our last several trombonists), and baritone saxophonist Gabriel Sundy (sitting in for Damon at Mesa only [editor's note: as it turned out, the very versatile Sundy played 2nd tenor at the Dizzy's gig as well]).

(Do you ever get the feeling that I use these gig-announcement posts to rehearse the names of the players?)

It will be an IJG-packed four days for me. Aside from the shows, I have set aside ample chunks of time to continue working on the new album(s) (why the plural? ...well, it looks like there is enough material for two releases... more on that later), which have already been in progress for almost a year now. Maybe it's because of this preoccupation with getting the record(s) done that I have been particularly interested to see the little blogospheric flurry of musings on the question of recording and jazz. For me it started with KT's sharing of Nate Dorward's Signal to Noise review of two of his quartet's releases. Check it out for yourself. The thing that sort of jumped out at me was Dorward's apparent discomfort with the quality of the recording of the live Hello the Damage discs (as if somehow "poor audio quality" isn't a factor in some of the best jazz records you will ever hear (Hello, Birth of the Cool)). The always-thorough DJA picked up on this too, and nicely folded it into a response to one of Daniel Melnick's posts over at Soundslope (with me so far?). That Soundslope post is rather sophistimacated (as most of them seem to be), but let me try and do it justice: after three paragraphs on microlending, Daniel jumps into the subject of recording, helpfully pointing toward two relevant essays from the OkkaDisk site: Kevin Whitehead's "Why many records are very bad -- and a few are good," and Stu Vandermark's "Recording Jazz: A Questionable Practice? (or, a Call for Re-examination)."

When you take all this stuff together (or at least when I did), it seems there are two bottom-line issues here. I'll try and address 'em one at a time, while simultaneously remembering my desire to lose self-importance:

1. Issue the first: the idea that, when it comes to jazz, "live" is better than "recorded" (a view articulated in the Vandermark piece). Honestly, I almost choked on my coffee when I read that. Why don't we try and prop up old saws like "east coast jazz is better than west coast jazz" or "it can only be jazz if it swings" while we're at it?

Look, I love live jazz. I love live music, period. But I love good records too, and I refuse to see them as pale reflections of some pure, authentic experience. That's a little too churchy for me. Hell, I'll admit it: there are times (like when one of the exceedingly uncomfortable chairs that tend to populate most venues wreaks havoc on my arthritic back) that I would much prefer to be listening with headphones at home.

Maybe the thing that is so frustrating about the Vandermark piece is that some of his observations are actually pretty right-on. F'r'instance: of course jazz is "an ongoing process" -- all art is, really, regardless of the myths we tell ourselves about "finished" works -- and that's why folks like Ellington, Mingus, and Monk were constantly re-recording their pieces (in addition to re-performing them live).

But a lot of SV's statements can be turned inside-out and still ring true in an entirely different way, for an entirely different audience. For every listener who finds that recordings don't live up to the "magic" of a performer's live vibe, there are others who could safely argue that live (or other recorded) renditions of a given tune inevitably fail to match up with the je ne sais quoi of a certain recording. It is hard to imagine a version of "Lotus Blossom" as powerful as the almost casual solo piano one that appears on ...And His Mother Called Him Bill. And for all the great instances of "Mood Indigo," none comes close to the Okeh version, which, incidentally, actually derives some of its beautiful creepiness from the recording technology itself (it's the same phenomenon in black and white films; a technological "limitation" becomes a part of the aesthetic). Of course, there are more (and more famous) examples from the world of rock: "Like a Rolling Stone" is one of those tunes that only seemed to work at one specific moment in the context of its original recording session (as Greil Marcus has argued).

2. Issue the second: the idea that the "lo-fi" aesthetic is verboten amongst those of the jazz persuasion. This is actually true, at least in my experience, but I want to bemoan it with all of the sense of tragedy I can muster.

I don't see lo-fi so much as a question of cost -- strictly in terms of "man hours," a competent jazz quartet recorded by an expensive engineer with all of the best gear in a nice room can probably get their record over and done with long before (and thus at a lower price than) their endlessly-fiddling post-rock "home studio" comrades. The "fi" in "lo fi," of course, refers to "fidelity" (aka "authenticity") and this is where I start to ponder the situation. It should be obvious by now that I adore the sound of acoustic instruments, and the possibilities you get when you assemble a lot of them together in a room -- clearly, if I didn't, I could do what I'm doing with the IJG much more cheaply with some sort of elaborate keyboard/guitar setup. But I have never understood why jazz records are held up to the standard of verisimilitude above all else -- why they strive to create the impression that somehow there is no studio, and why they altogether miss the artistic potential recording technology has to offer.

The studio is just another creative device, like a key, or a time signature, or a horn. But it's as if we jazzers see it as purely an inscription tool, and aren't the least bit curious about what all of those freakin' buttons and dials can do for us.