Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 38)


Vijay Iyer Trio, Accelerando     (ACT)

When John Fahey dropped references to “dance music” on his cryptic album covers, he was constructing a joke about his own outsider status and the shifting tides of popular music, in which one generation’s party tune became another’s academic exercise. But when pianist Vijay Iyer adds r&b and electronica numbers to his own compositions and a few jazz non-standards on this album exploring the “lineage of American creative music based on dance rhythms,” he’s insisting that tempo knows neither high nor low. Unlike provocateurs The Bad Plus, Iyer would seem to have little interest in recontextualizing pop as jazz fair play - he and his expert rhythm section simply tackle each performance regardless of point of origin, which helps explain why the funkiest number here is a Henry Threadgill Very Very Circus tune and why the catchiest bassline comes courtesy of a Duke Ellington ballet. Yet the most startling moments come during the intelligent dissections of Heatwave, Michael Jackson, and Flying Lotus. The too-smooth disco ballad “Star Of The Story” sees its already basic melody simultaneously simplified and expanded upon markedly, with a mid-song drift into bass/drum revelry that helps turn the number into the funk beast it never was. Jackson’s Thriller classic “Human Nature” gets stretched to nine minutes as Iyer gently admires the enchanting melody while teasing out a radically different syncopated meter. And Flying Lotus’ “mmmhmmm” is hardly messed with at all. Rounding out these covers are a handful of modest Iyer originals that stand as spiky modernist jabs, turning the liquid flow of Blue Note-era Herbie Nichols (also present here) into clipped Monkian thunder. Not sure how this guy manages to find such a seamless balance between erudite sensibility and non-judgmental cultural appreciation, but the art form could use more of it.

Listen…..OKA!     (Oka Productions)

Seems inevitable certain reactionary forces will look past Chris Berry’s decade spent in Africa studying under the Shona and his mastery of the mbira, and simply declare this Californian yet another interloper wreaking cultural devastation in pursuit of the Yankee dollar. If John and Alan Lomax supposedly sullied the likes of Leadbelly by helping transform “Goodnight, Irene” from melody-of-the-people to Billboard chart-topper, Berry goes a step further in these field recordings of music from the Bayaka Pygmies by incorporating vocal overdubs along with bass lines, highlife guitar, and keyboards to craft wholly new “crossover” music. Yet all reported evidence suggests his collaborators were delighted with the results, eagerly listening over headphones to their own multi-tracked voices the same way Fred McDowell danced across his porch in joy upon first hearing his voice and guitar spill out of Lomax’s portable tape recorder. Such responses have nothing to do with child-like people worshiping the cargo cult of white gods, and everything to do with complex human beings taking pride in their art and embracing technology as a means to make sure their talents signify beyond immediate friends and family. True, the music of the Central African Pygmies remains a thing of wonder without overdubs. And the blending of styles from across the continent that so enlivens these short recordings couldn’t be less “authentic”. Only how come Bayaka Pygmy youths had already incorporated the Mbororo people’s “newfangled dance” craze of Bombadoo into their nighttime performances? Maybe for the same reason that some of the funkiest rhythms you’ll hear all year will come courtesy of cupped hands slapping standing water, the hammering of fists against tree trunks, or the synth-like sonorities of a string and bark diddley bow - because these performers can and will embrace any musical form they come across. 


Joe McPhee / Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, Brooklyn DNA   (Clean Feed)

Multi-instrumentalist McPhee is such a vital force in contemporary jazz that the storied Hat Hut label owes its existence to a desire at getting his unreleased tapes into the market. Since the early 1970s, he’s moved between pure agit-prop, the still-startling free-fusion blend of Nation Time, duo work with Pauline Oliveros, and a 90s reemergence with the aptly named Trio X. His bass-playing accompanist was born the same year Nation Time was released, and although here he plays it rather straight, Flaten’s past credits include a 13-minute romp through Groove Armada’s “I See You Baby (Shakin’ That Ass)” with collective improvisers The Thing. No such playfulness evident here - these are horn/bass duets of a rather minimal nature, although only the two mouthpiece exercises threaten tedium. And even one of those bummers name checks a Brooklyn club where Bird and Dizzy once did their thing, hence linking McPhee’s pocket trumpet splurts to the bop/free continuum. With Sonny Rollins’ self-imposed exile to the Williamsburg Bridge explicitly noted in the opening number, it’s clear McPhee means for the album’s title to signify literally. Brooklyn deserves its due as a jazz hotspot, he believes, and he’ll blow both loud and soft to prove it.  

Lee Ranaldo, Between The Times And Tides    (Matador)

The biggest hippie in a band that always had more Summer Of Love embedded within it than post-punkers cared to admit kicks things off with a bold “Paint It Black” rip, and concludes matters with a Revolver-nodding “Tomorrow Never Comes”. Since this will be an unavoidable subtext for any listener checking out these ten songs that were “ten years in the making,” yes, the wobbly psychedelic drone “Xtina As I Knew Her” would fit just fine inside any latter day Sonic Youth album you’d care to name. Still, Ranaldo’s direct songwriting, acoustic ballads, Michael Stipe-like vocals, and folkie hooks dominate this statement of purpose far more than guitar squall. Unfortunately, clumsy or at least uninspired lyrics also dominate, from shattered rainbows to the oft-cited “I don’t wanna throw a wrench in the works/ but this whole town is full of jerks”. Fascinating to hear a major player from our greatest New York noise outfit lace his compositions with thin white mercury organ and pedal steel. But it’s also impossible not to at least consider whether Kim and Thurston’s egos had very little to do with the fact that Ranaldo rarely contributed more than one song per SY outing.


Margot & The Nuclear So And So’s, Rot Gut, Domestic    (Mariel)

How besotted with Wes Anderson are the members of this “cinematic chamber pop” outfit? Besotted enough to have named themselves after an ancillary character from an Anderson film, to have put in time with other outfits named after street addresses from Anderson films, and to have named at least one album after Wes Anderson’s favorite Muppet. Normally, when such a troupe of twees decides to pile on the distortion and namecheck Pavement, it should be a sign of progress. But all the noise in the world couldn’t cover over the disingenuousness dripping from every fake drawl and whine on this simultaneously over-dramatic yet laconically distanced exercise. The c&w narrative “A Journalist Falls In Love With Death Row Inmate #16” is pretty much exactly what it says it is, only far more arch, and if the parting lesson here on why convicted murderers attract the attentions of lonely women is because they make said women feel thinner, perhaps these armchair psychologists need to invite a few actual females into their ensemble. Another song repetitively notes “I hate my friends / I hate my friends”. Yet another claims the narrator’s house is filled with books about trains and films about France, which suggests the Wes Anderson obsession burns on.  

Lil B, God’s Father     (self-released)

However one chooses to measure the output of this wide-eyed huckster, I count a minimum of thirteen albums released since 2009, although other sources claim a mere five plus 22 “official mixtapes”. And as one might expect from a NorCal product of the non-phenomenon that was hyphy, the positive critical attention B has attracted trends towards those excited enough by the existence of an underground to overlook questions of quality and worth.  True, his weird flow and adherence to stream-of-consciousness thought patterns do at times justify the honorary descriptor “post-Lil Wayne”. Yet how low has the hip-hop bar been set if this supposed visionary’s AIDS anthem gets the nod for avoiding homophobic sentiments, as if discussing HIV without blaming “faggots” makes you a Person Of The Year contender for The Advocate. Besides, why blame the gay community when you can blame a bitch - “on top of that / I got herpes when she gave me AIDS,” B thoughtfully limned on 2011’s direct “I Got AIDS”. Listeners willing to brave it through the nearly 120 minutes of this self-released mix will find less in the way of such PSA’s and plenty of basic soul samples rubbing up against Casio lines and deep bass. “I gotta lotta shit on my mind,” B warns early on, before breaking new ground by claiming he “loves everyone” and that he “changed the game”. The second track offers a glimpse of this game-changing shit - “pumped a viagra and I’m feelin‘ like ma$e / no homo, bitch, I’ma take that case / real talk, bro, I’ma fuck her in the face / little pretty bitch, here all day / sittin’ on my ass makin’ a mil’ all day / call me Obama basedgod / call me Obama basedgod”. If that kind of stuff blows your mind, 32 more tracks beckon.