Archive for July, 2009

kurt rosenwinkel

[from the series “Live at the Village Vanguard,” presented by NPR and WBGO Jazz 88.  Originally posted here on January 7, 2009]

Here is the first of what is planned to be the first punkyjunk series.  NPR & WBGO have been archiving recent live performances at the famed NYC club from a variety of jazz acts.  I’ll be giving them a listen and then posting some reviews here.  Until I’m actually able to set foot in the Village Vanguard, let alone afford to attend a show there, this will have to do. 

First up: the Kurt Rosenwinkel Quartet.  Rosenwinkel, an NYC-based guitarist, is featured here alongside pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Ben Street, and drummer Kendrick Scott.  It’s no wonder that he has received praise from the jazz-guitar pantheon, including Pat Metheny and John Scofield.  The former’s clean, sharp lines and the latter’s fuzzier tone are both heard in his multi-pronged approach to the guitar, yet it’s entirely his own.

Right out of the gate, the music here is focused and dramatic, with epic build-ups, intense dynamics and a rich sound.  While the sound is at times mellow, it’s not dinner party jazz.  Parks’ piano is a nice counterpoint to the leader, as the two trade short, punctuated solos throughout the set.  It’s quite clear that they’re enjoying the conversation.

My friend over at Plastic Sax has many-a-time mentioned that the future of jazz, particularly its appeal to future generations, lies within the hands of the jam-band oriented groups.  If that’s the case, then their ravenous fan base should immediately follow the NPR link provided above and download this show, and then go buy Rosenwinkel’s The Remedy.

Maybe Phish should have this group open for them.  Rosenwinkel and Trey Anastasio could easily duel into the night, and the drums sound just like something Jon Fishman would hammer out in the Vermont-based group’s jam sessions, or in his work with The Jazz Mandolin Project.  While some of the tracks meander a bit for some listeners’ tastes, several of the them have enough movement to appeal to those with short attention spans – or those who simply can’t wait to be rewarded through a patient listen.

“Path of the Heart,” one of the highlights of the set, opens with nearly five minutes of some of the most spellbinding solo electric guitar work ever recorded.  The slight delay effect that Rosenwinkel applies to his axe is brilliant, as tiny echoes of his upper-register soloing scamper away, leaving the listener with faint traces of pure, seductive six-string beauty.  As the band comes gliding in, the guitarist steps back to let the gentle piano chords, brushed drums and soft bass wash over the venue.

Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, Rosenwinkel and his cohorts weave through a setlist of intricate, elaborate tunes that include “Peaceful Warrior” and “A Shifting Design,” both of which [through their sounds and their titles] define the evening’s mood:  music that bears both inspiring and abrasive properties while offering a rich variety of perspectives and interpretations of what jazz [or whatever you choose to call it] can be. 

[post image by Greg Miles, taken from www.kurtrosenwinkel.com]

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ben allison_seven arrows

Palmetto Records recently announced the digital-only reissue of several older titles in its catalog, including Ben Allison’s 1996 debut release Seven Arrows.  As I’ve previously posted, I’m a big fan of pretty much everything the bassist has put out, although his last two records have stood out as some of the most engaging, accessible and flat-out killer jazz I’ve heard:

“Dragzilla” kicks off the disc with a cool tempo and Allison’s flickering bassline, punctuated by dissonant blasts of piano and some wacky-yet-wonderful bluesy solos from trumpeter Ron Horton and saxophonist Ted Nash.  The track bleeds right into “Reflection of Desire,” which again has a strong foundation in Allison’s thumping, melodic bassline. 

Pianist Frank Kimbrough dances and dashes across the keys with precision and confidence here; gorgeous, shimmering chords spill out of the speakers and fade right into another fine solo from Horton before reprising the uplifting melody.

“Delirioso” is, well, delirious.  “Little Boy” is a chilling work of avant-garde in the middle of the disc, with strange-sounding bent bass notes, snippets of creepy horror-movie piano and a skittish drum pattern that rip for two minutes and then fall into an actual melody before exploding into pure chaos again.  It’s a tough listen.

“Cosmic Groove Slinky” marks a return to the groove-oriented music that Allison is so good at conjuring up.  The opening doubled trumpet-sax melody line provides sweet relief after the almost-nightmarish preceding track.  But it’s not all comforting, and it has its share of “out there” moments, including Horton’s whimpering effects-laden trumpet and Kimbrough’s mean & majestic piano – hence the track’s title.  It’s as if it were an aural replication of everyone’s favorite childhood toy, playfully bouncing down the stairs with unexpected twists and turns equally beautiful and bothersome.

“Forgetting, For Now” is a blue number and probably the disc’s most relaxing moment.  It’s a chance for the listener to catch their breath.  “King of a One Man Planet” closes out the set with another blend of sounds pleasant and painful, leaving the listener with somehwhat of an unsettling feeling. 

What did I just listen to?

While not as immediately striking or memorable as Allison’s recent efforts, Seven Arrows is an excellent debut from one of the most unique voices in modern jazz.  It’s an appropriate title, too – as if the bassist has fired seven distinct tracks at the listener, each one either nailing a bull’s-eye or sailing past the board.  Whether it’s breezy or barbed, the music can pierce you, filling you with a pleasant poison seeping deep beneath the skin.

Although his focus has shifted more towards creating a sound textured with rock and folk forms, Allison’s tasy basslines and solid songwriting have been a strong current running through all of his releases.  Peppered with great [and often brilliant] moments, his music will make you bob your head.

[listen to Seven Arrows in its entirety here]

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Popsicles in Summer.



Neko Case, the gorgeous, fire-haired alt-country/indie-pop vocalist with the sweet siren voice, is coming to the Uptown Theater on Sunday.  I’ll be there, and have already forewarned my wife that my eyes will be fixed on another woman all night.  She’s ok with it; after all, she’ll be there too, and she thought my infatuation with Karen O was “cute.”

Blacklisted was what first grabbed me about Neko Case: it’s a late-night affair, hushed, brushed drums; swampy, reverb-drenched guitars; and a voice that can leap from a fragile whisper to a soaring, epic wail. 

Key tracks, for me, include “Deep Red Bells,” “Look For Me (I’ll Be Around),” and my favorite, “I Wish I Was the Moon,” which at the same time sounds like a lonesome  country lament and something that wouldn’t be out of place sung by a damsel in distress in a musical. 

Regardless, she sounds like a damsel in distress, and it’s one of the most beautiful recordings of 2007.  Case’s whole catalog has been a consistent string of solid releases – Live from Austin, TX features her in a stripped-down setting on the renowned PBS show and The Tigers Have Spoken is a great-sounding live disc and includes another cut I hope to hear on Sunday, “The Train from Kansas City.”

The setlist will likely be heavy on new tunes from 2009’s Middle Cyclone, one of the likely contenders for best album cover of the year, along with Wilco’s Wilco (The Album). 

But it’s sure to be another of the best shows of the year in Kansas City.  The Kansas City Star interviewed her this week; you can read the Q&A here.

So – have a happy weekend, and enjoy “I Wish I Was the Moon.”

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[originally posted 7/15/2009 at www.popmatters.com.  Direct link here.]

Book by Stuart Baker & photography by Beth Lesser; Soul Jazz Records, published September 2008 

Review by Andrew Zender

This is the story of Jamaican neighborhood block parties and the music geeks who crafted the soundtracks to the daily struggles and lives of the people therein. Between Stuart Baker’s deftly detailed accounts of dancehall’s biggest stars, promoters and labels, and Beth Lesser’s fascinating photographs, Dancehall is an intriguing portrait of a rapidly budding form of music and the communities that thrived on it.

This could have been published solely as a work of photojournalism. Lesser’s images are as haunting and provoking as they are inspiring and breathtaking—showcasing communities and a country full of parties and poverty, music and militants, passion and politics, bosses and bling.

Some of her subjects are plainly pleased at her presence, while others are clearly cautious of this outsider who has ventured onto their turf. Spliffs and suds share space with speakers and selectors, the individuals responsible for sifting through crates of records to pick the tunes for an evening’s affairs.

DJs and promoters strike playful poses for the shots, displaying their unmatched taste for gold chains, Kangol caps and argyle sweaters, a fashion statement reflecting a style of music less political and religious—and more apt to incorporate digital sounds and instrumentation than their counterparts in reggae.

It’s often difficult to discern whether life is imitating the art or vice versa, but one thing is clear: the subjects here are living a life delicately balanced between force and fragility, and poring over these images draws the reader into a world where they can almost share the moment with the photographer.

Stuart Baker’s narrative provides a slightly more challenging lens through which to peer into the intricate details of dancehall’s development. Much of it is an entangled web of DJs, promoters, selectors and other individuals who played key roles in the formation of the genre, as well as distribution and live performances. Focused bios on the most influential artists are peppered throughout the book and provide additional insights into the careers, artistic development and sound of each.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the story is the importance of “dance-halls” and “soundsystems”, a.k.a. backyards, alleyways and P.A. systems—and their functions as outlets for the people of small, impoverished towns in Jamaica. All gathered here, most any night of the week, to hear fresh sounds, beats, DJs, vocalists and other ‘personalities’.

Music was at the core of the communities, a binding agent that brought folks out of their homes, into the heat, and back into the darkness, where rhythm was the only thing you needed to move through the densely packed crowds. Dancehall sessions were held in the dark, where only a tiny lamp shone at the soundsystem, enough to cast a shred of light onto the faces of the selectors & DJs so they could keep the music spinning.

But Baker’s story can often be a tough one to navigate through, when the stories are frequently cut up by several pages of photos and mini-bios—but this is only a minor flaw of the book. Dancehall should be packaged with the CD version, where one can hear two discs worth of classic cuts from Tenor Saw, Yellow Man, General Echo, Barrington Levy, Sister Nancy, Eek-a-Mouse and other defining artists of the genre.

Fans of Sublime will hear the roots of some of its most memorable tunes in Tenor Saw’s “Pumpkin Belly” and General Echo’s “Arleen”, among countless other beats, samples and riffs heard throughout hip-hop, soul, reggae and rock.

Although Dancehall isn’t about hearing the music firsthand, reading about it will likely spur an aural investigation by readers. Put on some headphones, study the images, and listen to them come to life.

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Colorado 2009 Images

Back from the mountains and into the full-work-week routine, I’m happy that I was able to get out to Granby again this year.  In fact, I plan to visit the charming spot every year.  Here’s a quick rundown of some random photos I took while there, ranging from Red Rocks, trees and rivers to beat-up trucks, boats and animals.  It’s an amateur photographer’s playground out there.

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Deep river...

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Poor Miss Lupe, the boat abandoned in Ellie Mae & Jethro's yard...

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Where the family of foxes hides...

House upon the hill...

House upon the hill...

Miss Lupe's yard buddy, an old abandoned Jeep.  There are thousands of these things...

Miss Lupe's yard buddy, an old abandoned Jeep. There are thousands of these things...

Come to me, jungle friends...

Come to me, jungle friends...

Red Rocks.

Red Rocks.

While it was still light out and the camera was working...

While it was still light out and the camera was working...

I named this fallen tree Burton, because it reminded me of one of the creepy sculptures from Beetlejuice..."we've come for your daughter, Chuck."

I named this fallen tree Burton, because it reminded me of one of the creepy sculptures from Beetlejuice..."we've come for your daughter, Chuck."

Watched the July 4th fireworks show beside Grand Lake, CO - where it was in the upper 30s.

Watched the July 4th fireworks show beside Grand Lake, CO - where it was in the upper 30s.

Messed around with the camera settings and got some decent stuff here...

Messed around with the camera settings and got some decent stuff here...

"Let's...do...the time warp...again..."

"Let's...do...the time warp...again..."

"Thunder bolts of lightning, very very frightening!"

"Thunder bolts of lightning, very very frightening!"

Cousin Andy named this shot...and I won't tell you here what it is.

Cousin Andy named this shot...and I won't tell you here what it is.

If you can't tell what this is, look very closely.  It's one of the foxes.  Kelly got this shot on the last night.
If you can’t tell what this is, look very closely. It’s one of the foxes. Kelly got this shot on the last night.

(photography by punkyjunk AND punkyjunk contributor KZ)

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 Artists like Jay Farrar might often find themselves in a sticky situation.  If they consistently put out music of the same scope and style, they’re either lauded for their efforts or accused of being unimaginative.  Or, if they’re apt to shift and shape their sounds from disc to disc, those pointing their fingers attack the artist for lacking focus. 

I’ll tip my hat to Jay Farrar for sticking to his artistic convictions.  His latest effort with Son Volt [2.0], American Central Dust, is a collection of more protest songs, fighting the good fight for the working man and the plight of many Americans.  As is standard for Farrar, the arrangements are sparse: warm acoustic guitars, weepy fiddles and lap steel, plodding drum beats

Dust expands upon the new sounds explored on Son Volt’s 2007 disc The Search, with several tunes bathed in organ fills and pleasing vocal harmonies.  Farrar is certainly opening up to new sounds – which is good, because the songs themselves are still not up to par of Son Volt’s widely-accepted best [and first] album, Trace

It’s quite a challenge to pick out memorable melodies through Farrar’s limited vocal range.  Although his voice is in fine shape, what it lacks is expression.  The passion, fury, courage and earnestness in his songs just aren’t as convincing when he doesn’t sound pissed off. 

*I tried to write this review without mentioning Wilco or Jeff Tweedy at all.  Fans of Farrar’s old sparring partner [myself included] know the history of the two songwriters well, from the love affair to the bitter divorce, and the solid four-album legacy of Uncle Tupelo they left behind. 

Much like Tweedy/Wilco, Farrar/Son Volt might have raised the bar a bit too high for themselves earlier in their career.  As previously mentioned, Son Volt’s 1995 debut Trace still stands as their finest moment.  Wilco is another story altogether, although the general consensus seems to be that their 2002 release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the pinnacle of their work.

Both artists have continued to write solid songs and explore the corners of their musical minds, but it seems that the rest of the world has already made their mind up and probably agree on one viewpoint: we still love you and love your songs, but it will never be as good as ___________.

What’s an artist to do?

Listen to American Central Dust here.

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I’m off to Colorado for a bit.  It’s time to enjoy some fresh mountain air, cool night winds, and some mean games of Scrabble on the back deck.  Plus, I’ll be seeing Wilco at Red Rocks on Friday, a one-of-a-kind fireworks show by Grand Lake on Saturday, some trout fishing, and perhaps some hiking.

It’s a gorgeous place.

[original photography below by punkyjunk from a 2008 Colorado trip ]

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