New York Now, Pt. 1: Jazz

Our NYC trip last week included two shows from the 2018 Winter Jazz Festival and a related delight at the Jazz Gallery.

The Fest shows were on Friday the 11th and started with Michael Formanek’s Very Practical Trio with Tim Berne and Mary Halvorson at “LPR” (which literate people may remember as “La Poisson Rouge”). I will say it was easy to get a wrist-band pass to all events of the evening, but we were honked off that it turned out a line of pass-holders had to wait for a line of pass-buyers at the bottom of the stairs. No matter, there was ample room if you got there early and a saintly floor monitor got us a couple chairs so we could sit at the back wall. Now, the Very Practical Trio has not recorded anything for label ECM, but these three active and explorative hearts and minds always pull you in once they get in sync on stage. Seemed a bit acerbic at times. Off to a large EU tour. I await debut later this year with eager ears.

We had a leisurely-but-alert schedule to get to the next show (the lumpy BBQ joint we visited will not be part of the food entry here): Makaya McCraven at the Bowery Ballroom. The Chicago drummer/writer/sorcerer group’s release Universal Beings made my NPR Jazz Critics Poll and they were flat even more enveloping live. Multi-part pieces you can follow even as they surprise you, reflective passage and fierce, even a  bit angry solos that belong together. Seems the next step of the AACM tradition to me. Special nod to guitarist Jeff Parker — a ferocious, poised soul deep in the Chicago tradition.

On to the main event that drew us to the big city this weekend — Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society in a kind retro-neuvo show at the Jazz Gallery. I’ve been a member of the Secret Society ever since I came to know him online and be the only professional critic to hear his graduate-performance at NECM (one of the few way up there in the Pantheon of music moments — watching Fela Kuti give D a little kiss is another).

As always, a fun-complex-thoughtful romp all the way where the selected parts talked to each other (we left before the extended final number, which we had heard earlier at Newport) and there were chills and thrills that jazz these days struggles to grasp (Charles Mingus would know what to do with this political situation).

But I want to underscore the charm of the audience at Jazz Gallery: alert, knowledgeable, attentive, emotionally plugged in. The epitome of why I despise venues that let people eat meals while the performers amount to background soundtrack. (Good idea to sell beer and wine, though, Jazz Gallery.)

This is a special show. Sort of in a clubhouse. The password is easy: “committed fan”.

Presence of Past Sounds

Two final birthday notes. Instead of assembling a knockout-album soundtrack, my birthday surprise this year was that I played a record for one of my favorite intriguing reasons: I could not remember a single thing about it (happens when you dig into the hard-to-reach back stacks of CDs). Turned out to be very intelligent and very entertaining:

Giancarlo Vulcano, Unfinished Spaces (Distant Second, 2011)

The soundtrack for a documentary about Cuban National Art Schools (!!) that combines Cuban and classical avant-gardes from a fellow who does many TV soundtracks (??). Anyway, 20 quite short tracks that keep you swaying and bopping along the whole way. Check it. Sooner than I did.

Next, an afternoon drive in the cold sunshine where again and again I recalled that one of the last times my Mother spoke to me was on my birthday the year she passed away (about six months later). She was far from lucid then, but suddenly she came out with this:

“I remember the first time I saw you — when they placed you, wrapped up, on the counter next to me.” (This was the era of anesthesia childbirth.) She had never, ever, said this to me before.

I remember the plain little rooms of the pre-hospital  “medical center” where I was born. And yes, at least a few times each year on this day, the two of us are back there.

Mary You Wanna Down the Block

There’s going to be a public meeting (on my birthday, no less) about turning a defunct bar in Coolidge Corner (about a 10-minute walk from our house) into a marijuanna dispensary. That’s progress, I guess. Doesn’t make up for all the years the stuff loomed over my life like a cop with radiant eyes. But, hey, there’s no question it’s an improvement over a hooch hole that was notorious for selling booze to college kids even if they were shitfaced.

Here’s the scoop.


PS: I must note that the Globe added an excellent tidbit — because of its riotous, drunken atmosphere, the place was nicknamed “Scary Mary’s.”


Soundtrack Greater Than (Quite Fine) Film: “American Graffiti”

Here’s the usual blah blah blah about what is, yes, Lucas’s only “first-person” film. And I don’t disagree with the general assessment, but what’s left out is that the soundtrack album was huge: not only is it one of the most immaculate sequences of “oldies” ever made but it kicked off an enormous wave of interest in pre-Beatles rock and pop, which, to a degree unimaginable now, had vanished from the airwaves and popular culture in general by 1973. Sadly, there was a floating absurdity that pre-Brit-Invasion rock (not to mention pre-Motown R&B) was more or less dimestore tripe. The American Graffiti soundtrack was a major force in kicking that nonsense to the curb.

The Maze of Memory

Since I regularly dig through the depths of stored music in the basement for exercise soundtracks, this morning I ran across a serious surprise: Sunset Ride by Zephyr.

I had not listened to the record for so long that it was fresh to me again, but its impact was as much memories of the album in and out of my life as the music itself. I first heard it when I was working at Rishashay in the Butterfly Building in Missoula MT in 1975. It was a big favorite of my dear buddy Bruce Lee (no relation), who played it almost daily and claimed the world was divided into the fascinating people who were captivated by the album and the schlubs who didn’t get it. I’m not that absolute, but I say Sunset Ride can really grip you, especially if you get engulfed by singer Candy Givens — her emotions guide you through every moment. And her reading of “High Flying Bird” is one of my favorites.

The band was from Boulder, Colorado and had the precise zonked tone of cowland hippies like our crowd (“eatin’ hash and talkin’ trash”). I thought if our crew ever formed into a band, it would be like Zephyr (and, of course, Blind Boy Bug). So always in my mind as I listen to Sunset Ride, I’m behind the capitalist-counterculture counter in that mid-’70s dream.

It wasn’t until I picked up the 2007 CD reissue of the record that I learned the horrifying fact that Candy Givens drowned tragically in 1984 . And by that time, Bruce Lee was gone, too.



Madfunk Art After Xmas: The Hairy Who

Screamin Jay.jpg

I admit, there’s a couple Roy Lichtenstein works I like a great deal. They’re sculptures. I always disliked his comic-book art from the first time I saw it because, undeniably, it argued that his source material was commercial junk and that his treatments transformed trash into Fine Art. Flooosh. All the vitality and wit in the works sprung from the originals, not Lichtenstein’s re-dos. And it constituted a narrow, square view of what comics could do. No weirdos. No underground.

The first time I encountered work by a Hairy Who artist was when I picked up a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins LP late in my Missoula era that featured the above as a cover illustration. In the language of the day, I thought it was way outta sight. But I believed it was just ace art done by the record company. Hah. (By Karl Wirsum, as it turns out.)

So we’ll skip a couple-three hairy Hairy Who encounters over the years and get to my Art Book present to myself this holiday: The catalog of this exhibit I would love to see in Chicago.

Now, these days Art Books have a real problem. Too small and too-cheap reproductions are the norm. This book is an exception. While I would like it to be inches bigger on all sides, the reproductions are beautifully precise and color-lively and include media like ceramic dolls and photos of the artists at those dazzled-’60s art shows that I had no idea about.

This gets down to it: the raging passions of comics and design and funk and rock&roll had a deranging delight that could be represented in the gallery. Sometimes with downright ominous tones.

If you like what you see, like they say: go, go, gogo.