Wednesday, December 30, 2015

15 FROM '15

I wrote more than I expected to this year. Here are 15 of my favorite pieces.

Napalm Death Albums From Worst To Best, Stereogum (big factual error in this one, but I own it in comments)

Yes Albums From Worst To Best, Stereogum

Motörhead Albums From Worst To Best, Stereogum

How Five Finger Death Punch Got Huge By Writing Songs For Soldiers, Stereogum

The Short, Strange Music Career Of Leonard Nimoy, Stereogum

Machine Head Bring A Massive, Anthemic Roar To New York 'Homecoming' Show At Irving Plaza, Village Voice

Jandek Affiliate Heather Leigh Brings Appalachian Soul And Pedal Steel Guitar To Improvised Noise, Noisey

All of the following are from Burning Ambulance:

An interview with the members of the new John Zorn-created organ trio, Simulacrum

A review of two albums of music by composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir

An interview with Jacob Garchik and Oscar Noriega of Banda de los Muertos

An interview with percussionist Andre Martinez about his time playing with Cecil Taylor in the 1980s

A review of the Sonny Rollins Complete Live at the Village Gate 1962 box

A review of Aleksei German's Hard to Be a God, George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road, and William Friedkin's Sorcerer

An interview with Udo Dirkschneider (U.D.O., ex-Accept)

An interview with Max Cavalera (Soulfly, Cavalera Conspiracy, ex-Sepultura)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


I contributed to The Wire's year-end roundup, sending them my top 10 albums, my top 10 reissues, and some short thoughts on 2015 as refracted through the prism of culture. Those thoughts are reproduced below, but you should really buy the issue; there's a ton of great stuff in it, including my reviews of the new albums by Apparatus and Nate Wooley, both of which are very good. I recommend getting a digital subscription, which allows you full access to the Wire archives going all the way back to their first issue, plus subscriber-only music downloads and other cool stuff. Anyway, year-end thoughts:
The jazz story of the year was the arrival and rapid ascent of Kamasi Washington. His presence on the most overrated hip-hop album of 2015, Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, helped his PR team create significant anticipation for his debut The Epic. Rapturously received, even by critics who couldn't spell jazz if you spotted them the j and one of the zs, it became the music's biggest crossover success story since the 1970s. It was also a really good record, and Washington is one of the most compelling live performers around. I was privileged to review his New York debut for this magazine, and it was the best show I saw all year.

I attended more jazz performances in 2015 than any other type, and that seems likely to continue. Jazz feels like it's revitalizing itself from within, in exciting, unpredictable ways. On the other hand, my other great musical love, metal, seems to be imploding. Formerly extreme styles have become cliches and crutches; bands can either sell records or get positive reviews, but not both, and the state of the US market dictates that tour packages must include a minimum of four bands, which is two too many for an old man to put up with on a weeknight.

No year is complete without a death list, and 2015's included some musicians whose work - even if only a single towering album - permanently altered my personal soundworld: Ornette Coleman, Tangerine Dream's Edgar Froese, the Stooges' saxophonist Steve Mackay and Yes bassist Chris Squire all departed this year. Nothing here now but the recordings, in William Burroughs's phrase.

Thursday, November 26, 2015


When I clicked play on this video, it was preceded by an ad for Chili's.

Friday, July 03, 2015


Here, in alphabetical order, are 20 jazz albums I like from the first half of 2015. It was only when I started making this list that I realized there were that many. I feel like I've been listening to a lot more old jazz than new. But this is a pretty impressive list.

JD Allen, Graffiti (HighNote)
David Chesky/Jazz in the New Harmonic, Primal Scream (Chesky)
Duane Eubanks, Things of That Particular Nature (Sunnyside)
Ghost Train Orchestra, Hot Town (Accurate)
Stephen Haynes, Pomegranate (New Atlantis)
Albert “Tootie” Heath, Philadelphia Beat (Sunnyside)
Eddie Henderson, Collective Portrait (Smoke Sessions)
Jeremy Pelt, Tales, Musings and Other Reveries (HighNote)
Chris Potter Underground Orchestra, Imaginary Cities (ECM)
Nate Radley, Morphoses (Fresh Sound New Talent)
John Raymond, Foreign Territory (Fresh Sound New Talent)
Matana Roberts, always. (Relative Pitch)
Matthew Shipp Chamber Ensemble, The Gospel According to Matthew and Michael (Relative Pitch)
Alex Sipiagin, Balance 38-58 (Criss Cross)
Jim Snidero, Main Street (Savant)
Terell Stafford, Brotherlee Love (Capri)
Dayna Stephens, Reminiscent (Criss Cross)
Tom Tallitsch, All Together Now (Posi-Tone)
Tim Warfield, Spherical (Criss Cross)
Doug Webb, Triple Play (Posi-Tone)

Sunday, August 03, 2014


On July 31, the New Yorker published a piece called "Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words," by Django Gold. It followed the format of articles like Esquire's long-running "What I've Learned" series, in which cultural eminences (Merv GriffinRachel HunterJohn McCainWayne Newton, etc.) share the wisdom they've gathered throughout the course of their lives.

The Rollins "interview" begins: "I started playing the saxophone when I was thirteen years old. There were some other kids on my block who had taken it up, and I thought that it might be fun. I later learned that these guys’ parents had forced them into it." It continues along the bleak path suggested by that introduction, including observations like, "Jazz might be the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with. The band starts a song, but then everything falls apart and the musicians just play whatever they want for as long they can stand it. People take turns noodling around, and once they run out of ideas and have to stop, the audience claps. I’m getting angry just thinking about it."

"Rollins" tells stories about other jazz greats, too: "I remember Dexter Gordon was doing a gig at the 3 Deuces, and at one point he leaned into the microphone and said, 'I could sell this suit and this saxophone and get far away from here.' The crowd laughed." and "Once I played the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Switzerland, with Miles Davis. I walked in on him smoking cigarettes and staring at his horn for what must have been fifteen minutes, like it was a poisonous snake and he wasn’t sure if it was dead. Finally Miles stood up, turned to his band, and said, 'All right, let’s get through this, and then we’ll go to the airport.' He looked like he was about to cry."

The piece's final paragraph? "I released fifty-odd albums, wrote hundreds of songs, and played on God knows how many session dates. Some of my recordings are in the Library of Congress. That’s idiotic. They ought to burn that building to the ground. I hate music. I wasted my life."

I've been listening to jazz since I was 14 or 15 years old—close to 30 years at this point. I have something like two dozen Sonny Rollins albums in my iPod right now. I've seen him in concert multiple times, and interviewed him (twice). And I laughed harder at this piece than I've ever laughed at anything published in the New Yorker. It's a hilarious, biting look at the dark side of the artistic temperament and the dismal fate awaiting most artists in a capitalist society.

Mine seems to be a minority opinion, though, at least if Facebook and Twitter can be believed. Comments like "This piece is listed as humor in The New Yorker, but it doesn't seem all that funny" and "I expect better from The New Yorker. But I won't in the future." and "I hope Rollins sues them for this." and the like are littering social media. A few bloggers have weighed in, too, of course; Philip Booth writes, in part, "[S]ome who casually stumble across the piece online might mistake it for the real thing, and wonder why Rollins is being so wacky" (because, you know, anyone who's not already a Rollins fan must be an imbecile too dumb to spot the "humor" tag at the top of the page), while Howard Mandel thinks it "turns on the seed of punkish resentment sophisticates presumably harbor against the music" (because "sophisticates," whoever they are, resent jazz's...what? Vast commercial success? Public prominence?).

Here's what I find interesting about the whole outcry: It's all coming from old school jazz critics and Rollins' publicist (who I consider a friend and have worked with quite amiably for years). The jazz musicians I know have mostly remained silent. (A notable exception would be Nick Hempton, who tweeted, "I'M SO OUTRAGED AT SOMETHING I READ ON THE INTERNET, I'M THROWING MY COMPUTER OUT THE WINDOW!" with the hashtags #JazzIsSerious #RespectMe.)

Hempton gets it. Why don't these writers?

I suspect it's because they've devoted even more decades than I have to listening to jazz, learning its history, interviewing the players, and writing about it, and they've done so from the perspective common to most jazz critics: that the music they like is great art, much more than mere entertainment, and deserves the highest honors our culture can bestow, all the time. It should certainly never be poked fun at or satirized—that's for performers they think of as lesser, like Miley Cyrus or whichever other pop figure they happen to have somehow heard of. (Your average jazz critic's unfamiliarity with contemporary pop culture would make a normal person weep with baffled laughter. Especially when the jazz critic goes on an intemperate Facebook rant about something pop-related—like, say, the use of Autotune on pop singers—from a position of near-total ignorance regarding modern production methods, technology in general, or what a given audience might actually want from its entertainers.)

Here's what I think: Jazz is entertainment. Now, 99 or so percent of America's (and the world's) population fails to find it entertaining, but that's not because they're stupid, or uncultured. It's because most of the time the music isn't entertaining—it's overly complicated, and presented like homework, like you're a spiritually shriveled asshole if you don't want to hear hookless melodies barely punctuating long passages of squawking, clattering and clanging, all while paying substantially more than you'd pay to hear a rock band that might actually play something you could dance or bang your head to. There are many, many exceptions, bands that swing hard as hell, play tunes that actually sound like something and solos that actually go somewhere. But you've got to know what you're looking for—and looking on the covers of jazz magazines won't help, because it's the critics' darlings who wind up there, and for the most part jazz critics like jazz that makes them feel smarter for liking it.

People who do like jazz aren't smarter than people who don't. But people who think jazz musicians are precious flowers who must be protected from cruel japery because their art form is insufficiently appreciated by the lumpen are fucking idiots.

I remember reading something a long time ago to the effect that you could tell when an ethnic group had successfully begun the process of assimilating into American society when they started to become the subject of jokes in movies. Not hostile, racist, dehumanizing jokes, but jokes poking welcoming fun at these new people and their weird folkways.

Jazz fans should welcome jokes about their music's unlistenability and dismal commercial status. Why? Because it proves people still give enough of a fuck about jazz to make fun of it. Do you think they would have written a satirical interview with Jimmy Sturr, complaining about how awful the accordion sounds and how much he hates polka? Do you think anyone would have read it if they had?

Another important thing to remember is that good satire is about "punching up." Culturally speaking, a shot at jazz is exactly that. It may be dead from a record-sales and gig-attendance standpoint, but on the cultural ladder, jazz is several rungs above rock and pop. It's considered important music. Of course, that's helped doom its sales, because nothing sends albums flying off the shelves like guilting people into listening to something that's supposed to be good for them...but congratulations, jazz critics, you won the battle for prestige. The music you love has been 100% accepted by the elite. It's the soundtrack to arts benefits, awards shows (the Oscars still big-band up the music from the previous year's releases), and any scene in a film or TV show where someone needs to be portrayed as classy...or old.

It's just too bad nobody else gives a shit. But maybe this fit of public foot-stomping will be just the thing that turns jazz's decades-long cultural disappearing act around! Maybe acting like petulant children ("How dare you say something mean about Sonny Rollins! You take that back right now!") will be what leads all those people you think are idiots, too dumb to tell whether an interview is real or fake, to appreciate the awesomeness of his music. (And it is awesome.) Because as noted Twitter philosopher JazzIsTheWorst put it, "People don't enjoy jazz, they 'appreciate' it...and nothing sells records like music people can really 'appreciate.'"