Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Bad Plus: Music’s recombinant DNA

When: Saturday, April 25, 2009 • Where: Cedar Cultural Center (presented by the Dakota) • Who: Ethan Iverson, piano; Reid Anderson, bass; Dave King, drums; Wendy Lewis, voice

I've seen The Bad Plus
pretty much every time they have played Minneapolis/St. Paul. I have their very early Authorized Bootleg (2001) signed by all three, and last night, following their “official hometown CD release” at the Cedar, they scrawled their names on their latest, For All I Care, their first recording with a vocalist.

The older signatures are easier to read, the new music as astonishing and rewarding as the earliest tracks (which include an insane version of “My Funny Valentine,” with Iverson singing “Is your smile, smile, smile, smile, smile, smile, smile, smile, smile a little weak?” in a way that would frighten children and puppies).

The first half of the Cedar show is the trio sans singer Wendy Lewis, opening with Stravinsky’s “Variations d’Apollon” from the new CD. Melodious and mellow, with delicious ornaments on the piano. This is the first time I've heard Iverson play a Steinway concert grand (trucked in for the occasion; the Cedar’s house piano is an ancient upright) and he makes the most of it all evening.

That TBP has brought classical music into its repertoire seems logical for a group that sees all music as its personal playground.

From “Valentine” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” (both on Bootleg) through “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (their breakout tune), the “Chariots of Fire” theme, Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” country king-of-the-road Roger Miller’s “Lock, Stock and Teardrops,” Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon,” “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” and Abba’s “Knowing Me Knowing You,” they have played and recorded whatever they pleased, crossing genres, splicing musical genes.

Along the way, they have created their own sound (and written a lot of their own music), started numerous arguments about what jazz is/isn’t, given anyone who wants to keep music in labeled bins a thumping headache, and attracted a new generation of so-called “jazz listeners” who probably don’t call themselves that. (Except for "Valentine," I've never heard them play a jazz standard, straight or not.) What seems at times like irreverence toward music is precisely the opposite.

Next on tonight’s program: Anderson’s “You Are,” lush and symphonic (and not yet recorded?), after which Iverson picks up the mic to tell us what they have just played and deliver a tall tale about what they’re about to play. This between-tunes banter is a bonus of hearing them live. “Bill Hickman at Home,” Iverson says, is about the stunt driver Bill Hickman (Bullitt, French Connection) driving to the Hollywood Hills at the end of the day, stopping by a favorite deli for chocolate milk and his nightly TV dinner, settling in, playing solitaire, and planning the next day’s chase in his mind. The not-yet-recorded tune is a lazy, loping blues, with Anderson’s bass solo punctuated by pops from King’s drums.

Back to modern classical: Transylvanian composer György Ligeti’s “Fém” (Metal), a jagged, disjointed piece that fits perfectly in TBP’s book. Afterward Iverson intros King’s “1972 Bronze Medalist” (These Are the Vistas, 2003), painting a picture of an aging athlete named Jacques walking bare-chested each day through a town somewhere in France, wearing his medal. Hilarious.

Iverson’s opening on the piano would be at home on the concert stage. Anderson pulls the piece more toward jazz, filtered through melody. Not for the first time, I'm thinking that while TBP is a trio where everyone contributes equally to the process and the results, it’s King who adds the defining touches. His unique and unpredictable rhythms, taps and crashes, whispers, thunder rolls, sly asides, and (especially in live performance) his effervescent joy are what surprise and delight me most.

The first part ends with Milton Babbitt’s 12-tone piece “Semi-Simple Variations” from the new CD (“Babbitt’s greatest hit,” Iverson asides) and glides into “Prehensile Dream” (Suspicious Activity? 2005), an exquisitely beautiful, deeply sad piece by Anderson. I first heard it live in 2007, after which a local music critic noted, “We have just heard the future of jazz.” The tune starts softly and builds; tonight the midsection seems full of doubt and uncertainty.

It's time for Wendy Lewis, wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a zip-front hooded sweatshirt, red glasses, and what look like Doc Martens. I only mention her clothes because they are so non-diva. (Okay, to be fair: Iverson wears a suit and tie, as usual. Anderson looks spiffy tonight in a shirt and blazer [and sneakers]; his sartorial habits are less predictable than Iverson’s. Or King’s. Dave usually wears a long-sleeved shirt—he rolls up the cuffs—or a T-shirt.)

First up, the first track from the CD: “Lithium.” The trio does strange things with the rhythms at the end of each phrase—even stranger than on the recording—and Lewis doesn’t miss a beat. On their current tour, which began in October of last year and has taken the group all over Europe and the US, she must have sung this Kurt Cobain tune a zillion times but it’s still a mystery to me how she does it. It’s like watching a surfer stick the board on choppy seas.

Voice and bass begin Wilco’s “Radio Cure” (“Distance has no way of making love understandable”). On long-held notes, Lewis keeps her voice straight, steady, waiting to the end to add vibrato. During Anderson’s solo, she stays at center stage but turns to face him and crouches down, out of the way.

“Blue Velvet.” I was hoping they would do this. I spoke with King in December and he said they had recorded it and it would be on the vinyl version of For All I Care and on iTunes. I haven’t found it yet (after the show, King says again that it will be on iTunes so I’ll keep looking). Iverson plays high tink-tink-tink, tink-tink-tink triplets, that old doo-wop riff. Sung slow and dreamy, Lewis’s interpretation is velvet worn and frayed.

On my TBP wish list: “Town Without Pity.”

A strong drum solo opens U2’s “New Year’s Day,” another song not on the CD but recorded for vinyl/iTunes release. A lovely bass solo begins the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love,” which I suddenly realize has decent lyrics. It has often been written that TBP deconstructs pop songs, but as I hear this slowed-down, stripped-down version, it seems they do something else besides: remove the studio-perfect sheen, the audio equivalent of Photoshopping, to reveal the real melody and lyrics. If a tune survives a TBP makeover, it has good bones.

On “Comfortably Numb,” the great Pink Floyd tune from The Wall, both Lewis and Anderson sing the chorus, his sweet voice twining with hers. Sighs of happiness all around. (Except for Mr. Drunk and Stupid sitting behind me, the audience has been wrapped around the band’s little finger since the first notes of the Stravinsky.)

The final tune: Heart’s big, bad “Barracuda.” An opening pile-up: bass, then drums, then piano, and finally Lewis’s clean, clear voice. We want more and we’re the hometown faithful so we’re given two encores. First, Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” They’ve done this before, both without vocals and with (usually Anderson and King); tonight it’s Anderson with Lewis on high harmonies. After a soft a capella section comes a bashy instrumental end. Second, The Flaming Lips’ “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate,” which Lewis and TPB pare down to the basics, a gentle dissolution.

Another way the second half differed from the first, besides the singing: No talking, no stories. Just music. A bit of a different vibe but still pure TBP. Supposedly For All I Care is a one-off and their next CD will be all originals, no covers, no vocals. But I would welcome the return of Wendy Lewis. Especially on “Town Without Pity.”

They all hang out afterward, greeting friends and fans and signing autographs. Outdoors in the Cedar’s courtyard, fire dancers celebrate the relighting of the old theater's historic marquee.

Hear a mini-concert (“Lithium,” “Metal,” “How Deep is Your Love”) recorded live in the studios of KPLU radio, broadcast on NPR’s Session Spotlight on April 21, four days before the concert reviewed here. Read what Iverson says about TBP’s modern classical covers. As long as you’re there, click on over to YouTube to see three members of the Mark Morris Dance Group do their interpretation of the music, in short fringed dresses and high heels. See Wendy’s blog of her tour with TBP.

Photos by John Whiting.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

News about e.s.t.

I received this email yesterday from B.H. Hopper Management and include it here for fans and friends of the Esbjörn Svensson Trio. Last night, as I listened to Marco Benevento and his trio at the Dakota, I heard whispers of Svensson in Benevento's piano. It made me sad. I miss e.s.t.

Here is the email.
Ten months have passed since the devastating news of Esbjörn Svensson´s tragic diving accident that left the music world in shock. “Leucocyte” the final e.s.t. album has been released last autumn and received amazing critical acclaim and lots of awards (among others the Swedish Grammy, the Vierteljahrespreis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik, Gold and Platinum-Awards in Germany, Sweden and France) - and had pop chart entries in all key European countries (# 2 in the Swedish Pop Album Charts!!). Thank you all for making this a very special album !

In those months we have received uncountable mails from our e.s.t. fans from around the globe, a lot of whom were wondering what the other members of e.s.t. and related persons are up to now. Here is the very first glimpse at what is going on:

Dan Berglund just started with the recording of a solo-project for ACT, which will get released in early 2010 and will be supported by touring from March 2010 onwards (please stay tuned for further info and tour dates). For this solo-project he has put together a quartet of great Swedish musicians and composed all the songs himself ! Insiders that have heard demos of the first few tracks are already very enthusiastic – so watch out !

Magnus Öström is in the middle of producing an album for his fellow countrywoman Janet Lindstroem. Later this year he also intends to record a solo-project. Currently he is pretty busy with composing the music for that solo-project. He also performed the one or the other very selected show with Lars Danielsson´s band in order not to lose his skills.

Ake Linton, our sound engineer, is working most of the time at Bohus Sound Recording studios in Gothenburg and has from time to time done live-mixes for Norwegian outfit Suzanna & In the Country – he can´t wait for Dan Berglund´s touring endeavor next year and rumors have it that he already sits on packed suitcases at Gothenburg airport.

Anders Amren, our light designer, works closely again with Benny Andersson for the “Mamma Mia” musicals and presentations and is busy with creating short films.

Siggi Loch from ACT continued releasing first class albums of nowadays jazz outfits – the recent release is an album by Korean singer Youn Sun Nah, which was recorded in Denmark with the help of Lars Danielsson and Ulf Wakenius.

Burkhard Hopper moved at the end of last year to London. He continues to work with Dan and Magnus, but has also signed a few new artists, e.g. Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, who is releasing his brand new album - “Hamada” - later this month.

Happy Easter holidays !!!

e.s.t.'s website Click on Videoclip. Just do it.
Jamie Cullum's eloquent tribute to Esbjorn Svensson.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Martino Unstrung

What: Martino Unstrung: A Brain Mystery, a film by director Ian Knox and neuropsychologist Paul Broks • Where: Bryant Lake Bowl Theater, part of the Jazz88 REEL Jazz Film SeriesWhen: Thursday, April 2, 2009

I'm trying to remember the one and only time I saw guitarist Pat Martino play. Friends insist it was at the new Dakota (the club moved from its original home in St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis in late 2003) but I know that's not right--I clearly recall seeing Martino on the old Dakota stage. That's because I have a memory (sort of), and for a while, Martino didn't.

The great jazz guitarist--a technical virtuoso and a legend in the 1960s and 1970s--suffered a life-threatening brain condition (tumor? aneurysm? combination?) in the 1980s. Last-minute surgery (he had been given two hours to live) saved his life but left him with total amnesia. His parents were strangers, his guitar was a stranger, music was a stranger.

The fascinating film Martino Unstrung (2008), which screened last night as part of jazz radio station KBEM's inventive REEL Jazz Film Series, tells the story of Martino's fall through misdiagnosed mental illness, shock therapy, and near death to blank slate, and his astonishing rise to a level of proficiency and musicality that many believe exceeds where he was before the surgery. We see him trying to name words that start with the letter A (it's a struggle) and titles of Beatles songs (not one). We learn how his parents took him again and again through family photo albums, how his father played his old recordings endlessly. How he knew Joe Pesci the actor but not Joe Pesci his friend. How he was nobody and came back to a new life, a new wife, and a career. Maybe a new self as well. How can we tell?

I saw Pat Martino play at the old Dakota in March 2002. I confess, I didn't remember the month and year; I found a tour schedule on All About Jazz. I'm listening now to the CD that was new at the time: Live at Yoshi's with Joey De Francesco and Billy Hart. "All Blues." "Blue and Green." The poignantly named, defiantly upbeat "Recollection."

In a recent (August 2008) Jazz Times article about Martino, he makes several provocative observations. A sampling:

• "I don't think about the future. I think about now, and I have faith in what comes next."
• "I'm never not working. To me, work is play.... I can't relate to vacations, because I have nothing to vacate."
• "I'm less occupied with thoughts about the future, which doesn't exist, or memories that are weighty."
• "Recovery is, in my opinion, a loss.... To recover something is to return to the way it was."

More about the film, including the trailer. The cast includes Pete Townshend, Carlos Santana, John Patitucci, Eric Alexander, and Les Paul, inventor of the electric guitar.
Pat Martino's Web site. Note his ferocious touring schedule. When he tours with a quartet, Rick Germanson is his pianist. A favorite of mine, Rick returns to the Artists' Quarter in St. Paul later this month (Friday, April 24-Saturday, April 25, with trumpeter Jim Rotondi).
The complete Jazz Times article referenced above.

Photo: A still from Martino Unstrung.