Archive for November, 2010

critic's pick 152

Now this is a surprise. Who would have pegged the Portland, Oregon pop exotica pop troupe Pink Martini to come up with one of the most diversely designed holiday albums – in terms of sentiment as well as style – in years?

For the most part, the 14-song Joy to the World flirts with familiarity. But it does so with immense taste and without ever ignoring or – Santa forbid! – disrespecting tradition. As such, it opens with two versions of White Christmas. One is a slice of sleek, jazzy but reverential cool sung by China Forbes with a nod to Phil Spector’s ‘60s version (“there’s never been such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A.”). The second is just as soothing, but is sung in Japanese by Saori Yuki (proclaimed in the bio material as “the Barbra Streisand of Japan”).

Do You Hear What I Hear? is similarly transformed into a light jazz shuffle accented by brass, strings, congas and Forbes’ deliciously understated vocals. When Thomas M. Lauderdale on piano enters to play counterpoint, the song seems to float on air. The album notes also offer a sobering reminder of the song’s origins – namely, that it was penned as a 1962 prayer for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A few other staples are given similarly complimentary makeovers. Little Drummer Boy is propelled as much by Gavin Bondy’s relaxed trumpet bursts as by percussion while Stephen Taylor’s animated orchestral design for Santa Baby sounds like it now hails from Whoville (but without all the frenzy).

The rest of Joy to the World takes a more multi-cultural view of the holidays. Shchedryk is actually Carol of the Bells performed with its original Ukrainian text and a light, luminous arrangement built around the The Pacific Youth Choir and The Bells of the Cascades. Later, verses of Silent Night are sung lullaby fashion in German, Arabic and English while Elohai, N’tzor is a stark, lovely Hebrew prayer sung by Forbes, Ida Rae Cahana and – wildly enough – National Public Radio correspondent Ari Shapiro.

The finest entries in a very distinguished lot are placed side-by-side late into the album. First up is a version of We Three Kings that weaves sleek, Afro-pop jams (more in line with Paul Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints than serious world beat music) around Forbes’ singing. That leads into a Pink Martini original, a regal bit of holiday pining titled A Snowglobe Christmas that luxuriates in a lazy backdrop of slide guitar and sleigh bells.

The latter is as campy as Joy to the World gets. And even it doesn’t stray far from the refreshingly worldly wonder Pink Martini has now brought to holiday music.

Zoo gorillas head south

Chicago Sun-Times June 11, 1997 | CHUCK MCWHINNIE Six lowland gorillas at Lincoln Park Zoo didn’t win the Super Bowl, but they are going to Disney World and, best of all, escaping the city’s mean winters. disney animal kingdom

Don’t cry over the loss, Chicago, because the gorillas will be outside all year long in a habitat that is much larger than their present outdoor home.

Lincoln Park Zoo announced Tuesday that one of its three groups of great apes will get new digs in Walt Disney Animal Kingdom, scheduled to open next spring near Orlando, Fla. Lincoln Park’s desire to give other gorillas more space is a factor cited for the decision. “We’re constantly looking at our collection and what would be better from a health, behavioral and genetic standpoint,” said Zoo Director Kevin Bell. “We’re always looking to see what would be better for our animals.” Bell said the transfer will allow millions of visitors each year to the 500-acre park to learn about the endangered animals. He said the move “enables Lincoln Park to acquire another male. We’re looking for a 7- or 8-year-old.” Based on a recommendation from the Gorilla Species Survival Plan, the troop will move to Florida this month. It includes 16-year-old Gino, the group’s dominant silverback male, females Hope and Benga and younger males Hasani, M’Bizi and Zawadi. Their new home will be a 44,000-square-foot outdoor exhibit that includes waterfalls, moats, African plants and plenty of room to roam. Visitors will view the animals from a suspension bridge, officials said. Their current outdoor habitat has 6,000 square feet. When the temperature dips below 55 degrees, the apes are confined inside the Great Ape House for the winter. In Florida, the new gorilla exhibit is in two sections – one for an all-male group and the other for Gino, the two females and Hasani. Lincoln Park has recorded 43 gorilla births, more than any other U.S. zoo. All the gorillas going to Florida were born here except Gino, who was born in Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands in 1980. Benga is 16 and the mother of six; Hope is 13 and the mother of three, Zawadi is 5, M’Bizi is 3 and Hasani is 2. “We’re all going to miss them,” said Alan Varsik, collections manager for large mammals. But Varsik took the move philosophically, saying all children eventually must leave the nest. As for the zoo’s adopt-an-animal program, Bell said all participants have been notified and will be given the opportunity to adopt other animals. here disney animal kingdom


the simpsons are going to birdland!

but do they even know where birdland is?

but do they even know where birdland is?

And the most unlikely musical reference on network TV over the holiday weekend goes to (drum roll, please)… The Simpsons!

Last night, the 22nd season of the animated series offered another purposely convoluted storyline involving Marge coming to blows with Danica Patrick and Nelson Muntz offering the episode’s funniest line as a lament: “My mom ran off with the birthday clown.”

It all ended – where else? – at an ostrich farm.

But the carnival ride began with Bart nursing a wounded carrier pigeon back to full flying form. And the music that was playing underneath? Weather Report’s Birdland.

Jazz has always gotten a fair shake on The Simpsons, mostly because Lisa is so enamored with it. But an incidental scene using one of the great instrumental fusion hits of the ‘70s as a backdrop? If any TV show did that, The Musical Box would have stood and cheered. But The Simpsons? We should have known that would be the only program cool enough to try such a trick.

current listening: 11/27/10

Can’t really explain why, but Thanksgiving week guided me back to these sublime solo piano works…

+ Liz Story: Night Sky Essays (2005) – Like Story’s fine Windham Hill recordings, Night Sky Essays – 12 pieces, each composed for a specific zodiacal sign – is a direct, emotive and at times atmospheric blend of folk and jazz stategies. The album emerged with almost zero fanfare five years ago. Sadly, Story has all but disappeared since then.

+ Yngve Goddal and Roger T. Matte: Genesis for Two Grand Pianos, Vols. 1 & 2 – (2010) – Yngve who? Roger what? Don’t worry, the pianists underscore their anonymity by purposely omitting their names from the cover credits so as to fully promote a fascinating concept – interpretations of Genesis’ most prog-ish music performed on only two pianos.

+ Matthew Shipp: Creation Out of Nothing (2010) – A double-disc outing pulled from a February 2009 concert in Moscow by one of today’s most inventive piano improvisers. Musically, Shipp possesses the playfulness of Thelonious Monk with the daring of Cecil Taylor. But when Shipp’s own piano voice is asserted, as on Patmos, Creation shines.

+ Chuck Leavell: Forever Blue (2001) – The longtime Rolling Stones pianist offers a solo piano set that reflects his rich Southern background. Echoes of blues, ragtime, boogie woogie, jazz and more surface. But Forever Blue is at its best when it regally mixes such melodic sounds, as on Leavell’s decades-old Sea Level tune, A Lotta Colada.

+ Keith Jarrett: The Carnegie Hall Concert (2006) – Not the best solo piano concert album cut by Jarrett (although it’s close), but certainly the best recorded. Carnegie Hall provides every storm-gathering soundscape, every fanciful turn and every vocal grunt with the clarity only a great record label (ECM) and ever greater concert hall can provide.

blues for black friday

Black Friday. Seems like an awfully sinister name for the day-after-Thanksgiving shopping bonanza that officially christens the Christmas season as act of unforgiving commerce. But there you have it.

By the time you read this, the 4 a.m. department store runs are history, so maybe that wacko lady from the Target commercials can finally chill. But we couldn’t let the rest of Black Friday slip by without presenting our annual shopping guide of newly released music.

We’ve been assembling these guides since at least since 1983. Originally, they were split into genres. Of late, the decision was made to simply streamline everything. Gone are the categories. Instead, we offer 25 critic’s pick selections, all of which are designed to ease holiday blues and bring a little holiday color to Black Friday.

Here we go…

elvis costello: national rannsom

elvis costello: national rannsom

+ Elvis Costello: National Ransom – Ever the artful cynic, Costello offers up 16 T Bone Burnett-produced songs that merge his Imposters and Sugarcanes bands. The resulting music, all of which is rich in themes of death and deceit, rocks, pops, swings and stings.

+ John Legend and The Roots: Wake Up! – A soul summit teaming R&B champ Legend with hip hop warhorses The Roots for hits by Harold Melvin, Donny Hathaway, and Curtis Mayfield as well as Bill Withers’ anti-war manifesto I Can’t Write Left Handed.

+ Bob Dylan: The Witmark Demos, 1962-1964 – Some of Dylan’s earliest recordings outline the folk genius to come. Blueprint versions of Ballad of Hollis Brown and Girl from the North Country are balanced with Woody Guthrie-style ruminations.

+ Brian Eno with Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams: Small Craft on a Milk Sea – A mix of the serene ambient soundscapes Eno began to promote in the late ‘70s and modern indie-pop distractions. The resulting album sounds like a soundtrack full of grace and tension.

+ Bruce Springsteen: The Promise – A two-disc set of 21 unreleased recordings from the sessions that gave us 1978’s classic Darkness on the Edge of Town. As such, the music is full of Jersey-inspired pop soul romanticism but with a deep lyrical restlessness.

cassandra wilson: silver pony

cassandra wilson: silver pony

+ Cassandra Wilson: Silver Pony – Pulling from intimate concert and studio performances, vocalist Wilson again blurs lines between jazz, soul and blues with a striking revision of Forty Days and Forty Nights and the regal, rootsy resolve of Beneath a Silver Moon.

+ Randy Weston and his African Rhythms Sextet: The Storyteller – The bass, percussion and brass accents may be rooted in multi-cultural swing and blues, but jazz pianist Weston still tells a mighty story on the keys with bright, boppish melodies.

+ Marc Ribot: Silent Movies – Part avant garde renegade, part progressive Americana artist, Ribot tones down the abstractions along with the guest list for a spacious set of predominantly solo guitar selections. An album of quiet but uneasy beauty.

+ The Doors: Live in Vancouver 1970 – This latest unearthed Doors concert recording centers on a full performance from June 1970 (roughly a year before Jim Morrison’s death) that is highlighted by four jams with blues/soul guitar great Albert King.

mavis staples: you are not alone

mavis staples: you are not alone

+ Mavis Staples: You Are Not Alone – The veteran gospel dynamo hooks up with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy for a set of spirituals and forgotten rock classics, like Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Wrote a Song for Everyone, that sound righteous enough for a Sunday service.

+ Oregon: In Stride – On the sublime In Stride, Oregon sheds much of its world music profile to become a more streamlined jazz quartet. But the sound remains distinctive with the blend of Ralph Towner’s classical guitar and Paul McCandless’ unearthly reeds.

+ Charlie Hunter: Public Domain – The inventive jazz/jam band guitarist goes it alone on an album that, as the title implies, focuses on folk and blues gems from past generations. The grooves however, on Ain’t We Got Fun and St. Louis Blues, couldn’t be fresher.

+ Dave Brubeck: Legacy of a Legend – A two disc collection that covers music from 17 albums Brubeck cut for Columbia Records between 1954 and 1970. Designed to celebrate Brubeck’s 90th birthday, Legacy is an ideal introduction to the piano jazz titan.

+ Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band: Almost Acoustic/Ragged But Right – A re-issue of 1988’s Almost Acoustic with the previously unreleased Ragged But Right (collected from several 1987 shows). Both highlight Garcia’s blues and bluegrass temperaments.

john lennon: power to the people

john lennon: power to the people

+ John Lennon: Power to the People, The Hits – Part of Capitol Records’ reissue campaign of John Lennon’s solo recordings is this essential single disc primer anthology. The music spans a mere decade, from 1969’s Give Peace a Chance to 1980’s Starting Over.

+ Paul McCartney and Wings: Band on the Run – Not to be outdone by the Lennon reissues is a complete overhaul of McCartney’s solo catalogue. First up is this 1973 smash, which remains, hands down, Sir Paul’s strongest post-Beatles outing.

+ Punch Brothers: Antifogmatic – Chris Thile picks up a new bass player (Paul Kowert), enlists a major league pop producer (Jon Brion), cools the compositional design from multi-movement suites to concise songs and emerges with another new grass delicacy.

+ Vijay Iyer: Solo – An industrious unaccompanied work by jazz piano sensation Iyer. The repertoire shifts from Duke Ellington to Michael Jackson, while the inspirations on this rich, dark piano adventure echo such challenging giants as Andrew Hill and Sun Ra.

+ Jimi Hendrix: West Coast Seattle Boy – A single disc distillation of the mammoth four-disc anthology of the same name, West Coast Seattle Boy relies mostly on alternate takes of hits and newly unearthed gems, such as a stunning, mostly solo version of Tears of Rage.

old 97s: the grand theatre

old 97s: the grand theatre

+ Old 97s: The Grand Theatre, Volume One – An album more in line with the jittery pop Old 97s frontman Rhett Miller has cut on his own, The Grand Theatre is nonetheless a fun and efficient arsenal of big beat pop enhanced with nervous country energy.

+ Chris Hillman and Herb Pederson: At Edwards Barn – A crisp concert document that doubles as a dual career retrospective of a decades-old musical friendship. The singing and musicianship is sterling throughout, yielding a glowing Americana intimacy.

+ Trey Gunn: I’ll Tell What I Saw – A double-disc anthology highlighting 17 years of solo encounters and side projects by ex-King Crimson-ite Gunn. The music may be proggish in design but the spacious, often orchestral charm makes the songs gloriously indefinable.

+ Eric Clapton: Clapton – A new Clapton album that is actually worth recommending? Believe it. On Clapton, the guitarist purposely cools his own star power to examine lanky blues jams with J.J. Cale and Derek Trucks along with deep pocket New Orleans swing.

+ California Guitar Trio: Andromeda – Two decades on, the CGT finally give us an album of all-original material. It’s a beaut, too. Global references abound, but so do wonderfully lyrical feats like Cathedral Peak. As always, three acoustic guitars lead the charge.

+ Bill Frisell: Beautiful Dreamers – A guitar/cello/drums trio session from the always astounding Frisell that weaves wiry, wheezy original melodies together with generously reworked music by The Carter Family, Benny Goodman and, of course, Stephen Foster.


One of the best loved and certainly most recorded songs in the country canon of Willie Nelson is Funny How Time Slips Away. It’s a classic so familiar that most people who have heard it don’t even realize ol’ Willie penned the yarn for his debut album some 48 years ago.

That tune has been flying around my brain a lot of late. Well, actually the 1973 version by Al Green has. Regardless, the sentiments of the song seem inescapable. Time always slips by at an unappreciable rate.

How many times, for instance, have you sat around with good friends immersed in nothing but conversation and found how quickly the hours pass? How many times when the first chill of fall arrives do you realize you were just now getting accustomed to summer? How many times has the growth of a child into an adult seemed as immediate as the snap of fingers?

Now try this far less accessible example. Have you ever taken up a vocation and become so immersed yet invigorated by it that not only years but decades speed by? That’s my scenario. In my case, I picked up a pen in 1980 and have never put it down.

In short, as of yesterday (Nov. 24), I have been writing about contemporary music for the Herald-Leader for 30 years. My editor tells me that’s a milestone. I see it as something wholly unintended. On one hand, to engage in any line of work for 30 years seems like madness. On the other, I feel like a novice who has only scratched the surface of what he has to say while still searching for a voice authoritative enough to properly say it.

Why, then, stick with this work? Well, mostly because I want to. Music has been a friend of mine nearly all of my life. It has made good times great and bad times bearable. I have come to crave its company while learning to respect its inspiration and reach. Music is something that touches everyone – save, perhaps those few piteous cultures that display the cowardice of outlawing it. And yet, the way it is created by an artist is as distinctive as the way an audience receives it. One man’s Mahler is another man’s Zappa, so to speak.

My first review was of a Don McLean concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts, which had opened only a year earlier. I remember taking a copy of it to show my then-girlfriend in Pittsburgh over Thanksgiving, feeling as if I had just won the Nobel Prize. I also remember the disconcerting appraisal from her father, as the review was less than complimentary, that I was destined to be a “negative thinker.”

That in itself was an education – that music criticism is so openly viewed as a high profile but classless means of spite, power and ridicule. I never saw it in anything that ever resembled those terms. I found it to be the exact opposite, a way to share the excitement of something that moved you in some seemingly profound way – good as well as bad. Either way, it’s a respect of that expression that has to guide you.

Over the years, it has shown me through changes in music composition, production, manufacture – everything, really. If it’s good, it stills excites with the same fire that John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival did when they changed forever my perception and appreciation for popular music in 1970. If it’s bad, you still take something away from it. You don’t unduly ridicule it or dismiss it, but you don’t sugar coat your feelings either.

Best of all, 30 years of music has deepened my admiration for countless artists that have moved on from this world while their often incendiary music lives on. Among them: jazz titan Sun Ra, blues-rock guitar demon Roy Buchanan, seminal pop craftsman Alex Chilton, bluegrass dobro pioneer Josh Graves, regal vocalist Shirley Horn and rock troubadour Warren Zevon – all of which I was lucky enough to have interviewed.

Recently, I came across a 1971 essay by then-Rolling Stone writer Jon Landau called Confessions of an Aging Rock Critic, a title that resonates in frightful terms with me these days.

“Professional critics are usually people who begin as cultists and wind up careerists,” Landau wrote. “Some initial love of an art form (books, theater, movies, art, music) drives them to express themselves through writing about it.”

That’s a somewhat voyeuristic appraisal, perhaps. But then, Landau made good in the rock ‘n’ roll world. Since the late ‘70s, he has served as Bruce Springsteen’s manager. But Landau’s essay rings true – well, at least it does until it begins detailing a purgatory of boredom and burnout that awaits most critics.

“Initial love” for music was indeed the firing pin for me. Today, 30 years on and with music critic purgatory still at bay, writing about something that has so generously befriended me has never been more fun or enlightening.

in performance: ballister

dave rempis of ballister.

dave rempis of ballister.

Ballister landed in town last night very much a force of nature. A sharp, violent snap of percussion by Oslo drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and a tenor sax wail of truly terrifying proportions by Dave Rempis triggered something of a storm within the contained concrete walls of Collexion. With the building’s natural resonance serving as a sort of organic amplifier for the two completely un-amped players, the resulting 20 minute improvisation possessed an earthshattering and – during several cyclic percussive patterns from Nilssen-Love – almost rockish intensity.

fred lonberg-holm

fred lonberg-holm

Then, practically on the turn of a dime, the sound receded so that the tapped (with a bow) melodies of cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, the trio’s remaining member, emerged as a countering voice. It was as if high tide had receded, leaving a newly charmed sound in its wake.

Such was the appeal of the three extended, untitled improvisations (two 20 minute excursions, which comprised the first set, and a single 30 minute marathon that took up all of the second) that Ballister engaged in during the evening. The primary differences in the works from a design standpoint was Rempis’ choice of weaponry. His tenor sax drive fueled the first improv, a raw and unforgiving alto charge ran through the second, while a beautifully luxurious baritone luster – which unfolded in drone-like atmospherics, playful honks and hushed, melodic tones – ignited much of the third. The latter improv set up especially mischievous dialogue between the saxophonist and Lonberg-Holm.

paal nilssen-love.

paal nilssen-love.

All in all, the concert was a potent display of instinct, dynamics and a little good ol’ improvisational terror.

A footnote: Ballister’s performance doubled as an anniversary for the ongoing Outside the Spotlight Series of improvisational and free jazz concerts. Its first show was staged on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 2002. Since then, a host of world class jazz sessions, including multiple outings in other groups by all three Ballister members, have found a performance home in Lexington. Cheers to OTS chieftain Ross Compton for cultivating and maintaining an audience for the kind of jazz that favors artistic invention over commercial routine and visibility. Lexington’s overall artistic profile is all the richer thanks to his work.

critic's pick 151

brian eno: small craft on a milk sea

brian eno: small craft on a milk sea

Some 37 years have passed since Brian Eno and Bryan Ferry were bandmates in the glammed up progressive pop enterprise known as Roxy Music. Since then, Eno has gained international accolades for his production work with, among many others, U2, while redefining boundaries for contemporary instrumental music with so-called “ambient” atmospherics and abstractions. Ferry, on the other hand, has stuck mostly to what he knows best – densely woven pop with dark, dance-savvy rhythms.

On their fine new albums, each artist reclaims stylistic turf staked out in the post Roxy age. On Eno’s outstanding Small Craft on a Milk Sea, the music initially approximates the serene chill of such past ambient adventures as Music for Airports – meaning, glacially paced keyboard orchestrations that seduce from a distance to function very much the way a film soundtrack would. But Small Craft also playfully deviates from its own ambient norm with the help of British electronica stylist Jon Hopkins and guitarist Leo Abrahams.

As a result, the gorgeous, chiming chill of Emerald and Lime, as well as its mustier sequel Emerald and Stone, is balanced by the percussive tension of Flint March (which recalls the more ominous dance fracture of David Byrne’s The Catherine Wheel) and the cavernous, nocturnal echoing that gives Calcium Needles such a stark beauty.

Small Craft is a soundtrack in every sense. Its music is calming, contemplative, queasy and unsettling, moving deftly from the pastoral to sound sculptures that seem to shatter before your ears.

bryan ferry: olympia

bryan ferry: olympia

Ferry’s Olympia opens with a splintered synthesizer melody lifted pretty much in tact from the epic Roxy Music swan song album Avalon. A chunky guitar pattern, a tapestry of percussion and a wonderfully jittery bass riff from Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers suggest a few stylistic offramps. Then Ferry enters to underscore the tune, the album-opening You Can Dance, with that breathy, world-weary vocal tone. Suddenly, we’re back in Roxy land.

And so we have the cosmopolitan Ferry dance-pop make-up that continues to endure, although its popularity remains far stronger in Europe than on these shores. As usual, Ferry stacks the deck with primo guitarists, from Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour (who wildly howls against Ferry’s piano work on Me Oh My) to Roxy mate Phil Manzanera (on the dance funk groove-a-thon Bf Bass: Ode to Olympia). And, yes, even Eno adds a few cameos (including sleek keyboard help on the anthemic Song to the Siren, where the entire guest list happily converges).

Though hardly as astounding as Eno’s new adventures on Small Craft, Olympia is the sound of a Brit pop forefather corralling the usual suspects for another mighty swing at the dance floor.

One specification that is frequently overlooked when considering power supplies is the operating temperature. The operating temperature is the temperature range at which it will work as advertised. site power supply calculator

With lower-quality power supplies, the power output drops significantly after the temperature exceeds the stated operating temperature. Some lower-quality power supplies have an operating temperature of zero to 25 degrees centigrade. This basically means that the power supply will start the PC, but then will slowly lose power after the temperature rises above 25 degrees centigrade. At one point the power supplied will not be enough to power the PC and the PC will turn off.

This is one reason why lower-quality power supplies seem to work well initially and then shut off after a while.

Good-quality power supplies will have an operating temperature of at least zero to 50 degrees centigrade. Check to see that the power supply is certified by the standards bodies of various countries. If so, their logos will be present on the label. If you have a lower- quality, “generic” power supply, try one from a company with reasonable quality control measures. web site power supply calculator

Also ensure that all connectors are secure (the ATX power plug especially can be a bit tight). Ensure that the plug fits securely and the latch is positioned over the notch on the mainboard power connector. An automatic voltage regulator is also recommended. This helps regulate power delivered to the power supply unit.

Ng Ken Boon

ballister takes aim

dave rempis of ballister.

dave rempis of ballister.

On one hand, Ballister is an unproven commodity, even within the fertile improvisational music scene of Chicago that has sent so much creative jazz to Lexington as part of the Outside the Spotlight Series.

But the members of the trio – saxophonist Dave Rempis, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love – are all musical brethren that have played in the same bands or on the same concert bills with one another for years. It’s just that it took a Stateside visit by Nilssen-Love during the spring of 2009 to bring these jazz thrillseekers together in a single group.

“It’s been something we have been talking about for awhile,” said Rempis, who performs with Ballister on Tuesday at Collexion for the OTS series. “We have kind of worked together in various ad hoc contexts. I’ve been playing with Fred for awhile in the Vandermark 5 (one of Chicago’s leading improvisational music ensembles and a veteran of several OTS performances). Also, Fred and Paal have been playing together in the Tentet (Peter Brotzmann’s Chicago Tentet, another OTS alum) for several years.

“So we have discussed the idea of a band for the three of us for some time and finally found the opportunity to get together when Paal was in town for a little while last year. We did a session just to see how it went and it felt really, really good. So we decided to follow it up this year when Paal was back in Chicago. We made a recording up here at a club called The Hideout back in June. Now we have the chance to get into the music more deeply and see where the band can go. So the tour we’re on, in many ways, is an experiment.”

The album made at the Hideout performance is titled Bastard String and consists of three improvisational pieces, two of which clock in at over 30 minutes. In many ways, it takes that long just for the trio’s musical vocabulary to express itself.

Rempis establishes himself on volcanic free jazz excursions on alto, tenor and soprano saxophone, especially during the unaccompanied passages from the album-opening Belt and Claw. Nilssen-Love echoes the trio’s very physical musicianship, balancing bits of fractured, dizzying swing with a brutish, percussive charge. Lonberg-Holm, who will be making his fifth OTS appearance (all with different ensembles) in 11 months, offers a typically broad and redefined sound for the cello, from bass-like counterpoint to blasts of abstract, electronically enhanced color.

“Playing with Fred is always a thrill,” Rempis said. “Sitting down and talking with him is much like hearing him play. You hear this wellspring of ideas and energy. A conversation with him can go in a million different directions. It’s the same onstage. He has such an ability to really pull anything out of his hat.

“Paal is great, too. There are a lot of fantastic drummers that I have been lucky enough to work with over the years. Paal is simply one of the best drummers working in improvised music right now. He can really power a gig. But he also knows how to pare it back and play some very beautiful, subtle, almost minimalist stuff. So between him and Fred, this music can go anywhere.”

Still, there is a sense unpracticed order to the music of Ballister and many of today’s more adventurous free jazz ensembles. To unfamiliar ears, the music might seem to have a random quality to it, where improvisational ideas are generated and disposed of without any real sense of intent. That, Rempis emphasizes, is not what Ballister is about.

“That’s actually a misconception about improvised music,” he said. “To a lot of people, it’s about just one idea being randomly spewed out. I think what is really going on in the music is the development of an idea. That usually leads to a series of different approaches about how to develop that one initial thing.

“In a lot of this music, there is a narrative that is being followed. There’s a flow. And, to me, that is one of the things that still relates what we do to jazz.”

Ballister performs at 8 p.m. Nov. 23 at Collexion, 111 E. Loudon Ave. Admission is $5. Call (859) 536-5568.

friend of the dead

jesse mcreynolds. photo by j&j music.

jesse mcreynolds. photo by j&j music.

There is a tale that Sandy Rothman, traveling companion of the late Jerry Garcia during his pre-Grateful Dead days, has been telling a lot of late. It places the two friends in the front seats of a Corvair with Garcia behind the wheel. They are journeying, as the story goes, “somewhere down South” during the spring of 1964. Then a sound comes on the radio. It’s bluegrass music, for sure.

“Friday night… Jim & Jesse must be on the Opry,” Rothman said.

“Can you tune that in any better?” Garcia replied.

Rothman offers the story in the liner notes to Songs of the Grateful Dead, the new tribute album to the music Garcia penned during the Dead’s heyday with lyricist Robert Hunter. But it’s not Rothman’s album. While he was one of the catalysts in getting it made, the record is the work of Jesse McReynolds. He is the surviving, mandolin-playing half of Jim & Jesse, the acclaimed bluegrass duo that practiced and pioneered string music for 55 years before elder brother Jim McReynolds’ death from cancer in 2002.

Jessie McReynolds, 81, used the album to solidify the links between two seemingly opposite musical greats that never met. Garcia, a versed banjoist and fanatical bluegrass supporter that played the music in side bands throughout the Grateful Dead’s reign, was an avowed Jim & Jesse fan. McReynolds, in turn, had an appreciation for Garcia’s music that seemed to intensify in recent years. Among the devoted Dead fans that surround him, in fact, is his wife Jay.

“I came to find out Jerry was a big fan of ours,” said McReynolds, who will perform selections from Songs of the Grateful Dead along with music from throughout his 63 year career on Monday for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. “He watched our TV shows, went to a lot of our festivals and listened to us on the Grand Ole Opry on the radio.

“My wife, she’s a Dead Head herself. She got me listening to a lot of the Grateful Dead’s music while we were traveling. So she and Sandy suggested doing the album. There have been a lot of tributes to the Grateful Dead as a band. But I just wanted to something for Jerry and Robert as they were the people that wrote so many of their songs.”

With that, McReynolds teamed with two cross-generational Garcia guitar disciples – David Nelson, a cornerstone member of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, the country-fied band Garcia co-founded in the early 70s, and Stu Allen, a member of the ongoing offshoot of the Jerry Garcia Band (Garcia’s longest running side project during the Dead years) now known simply as JGB.
“We tried to pick a way to do this music where it would be accepted by anybody. I didn’t want to offend anyone on either side – the bluegrass fans or the Dead Heads.

“So I didn’t change the concept of what Jerry and Robert had in mind. Robert, he had some great lyrics. And, of course, Jerry had these incredible melodies to put to them. So I just did the best I could to get into the song without changing it into straight bluegrass. I wanted the Grateful Dead fans to be able to say, ‘Well, that sounds familiar.'”

In many ways, Songs of the Grateful Dead sounds very familiar simply because there was such a strong grassroots flavor to some of the Dead’s material – especially songs like Ripple and Black Muddy River – that McReynolds’ album winds up with more of an Americana accent than a strictly bluegrass feel. After all, drums and electric guitar color much of the music.

But there are some very fun surprises, too. Alabama Getaway, for example, winds up sounding less like the Dead and more like vintage George Jones. The killer, though, is Standing on the Moon. Pulled from the Dead’s final studio album, 1989’s Built to Last, it stands as one of the most emotive but underappreciated songs in the Garcia/Hunter catalogue. Fittingly, McReynolds’ vocal performance on the tune is as strong as oak with a clean country tenor that sounds majestic but unassuming.

“That’s one of my favorite songs on there,” McReynolds confessed. “That and Black Muddy River. They’re both such great songs.”

Songs of the Grateful Dead concludes, somewhat ironically, with something that isn’t a Dead song at all – but a newly written collaboration between McReynolds and Hunter called Day By Day.

“Robert had some lyrics he wanted to send me, to see if I wanted to put some music to them. This was the first time I ever did anything like that. I kept emailing him, saying, ‘I want to send you the music I have so far.’ He said, ‘I’d rather you wait until you get finished.’ So he didn’t hear what we had done on Day By By until the record was ready to come out. He was very pleased with it, though.

“I tell you, it’s just a great thing to be a part of this music. I get emails every day with reviews of the album. It’s amazing how much people seem to enjoy it. All these years and I have never received the kinds of compliments I’m getting now.”

Jesse  McReynolds performs at 7 p.m. Nov. 22 at Kentucky Theatre, 214 East Main for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. The taping will also feature blues guitarist Lucky Peterson. Ttickets are $10. Call (859) 252-8888.

critic’s pick 150

“Open your eyes and look down your illusions,” sings a youthful Bruce Springsteen on Wrong Side of the Street, a jubilant blast of rock and soul salvation unearthed for a new album called The Promise that re-examines one of the most creatively fruitful eras of The Boss’ career.

The time was 1978 and Born to Run was now three years old. Legal entanglements sprouting from a split with former manager Mike Appel had prevented any kind of recorded followup. But the songs kept coming – songs that were hardened reality checks when compared to Born to Run‘s fanciful tales of escape. What finally surfaced that summer was, arguably, Springsteen’s greatest work, Darkness on the Edge of Town. Still immersed in the zeal and urgency of youth but with a wary eye to an uncertain and, at times, unwelcome future, Darkness made good on every pop promise made on Born to Run.

The Promise scans the considerable amount of prime material left off of Darkness. It is available in several formats, including a massive notebook-style package with loads of DVDs full of ‘78-era performances as well as a full 2009 live version of Darkness. What we’re examining here is a double disc set devoted exclusively to the unreleased studio material.

There are a few blueprints within the album to suggest what was coming on Darkness, beginning with a rockier take on the ’78 record’s greatest work, Racing in the Street. It comes adorned with a tougher tempo wrapped in piano and harmonica, making the tune sound like a second cousin to Born to Run‘s Backstreets. Similarly, Candy’s Boy is a summery prelude to DarknessCandy’s Room while Come On (Let’s Go Tonight) curiously employs the melody that became Factory but with a storyline that deemphasizes the latter’s blue collar theme.

Then we have songs that have popped up in different versions on past collections, like Because the Night and Fire, both of which are presented here in crisp, efficient form. But the real magic of The Promise sits in its overall vibe. Jersey-style boardwalk soul dominates the record, from the piano-led party tunes Ain’t Good Enough for You and Save My Love to the regally Dylan-esque ballad Spanish Blue.

The Promise saves its biggest gems to the end, however. Breakway and the title tune are quiet, uneasy anthems that were likely left off of Darkness due to its thematic and temperamental similarity to Racing in the Street.

But after the heartache and restlessness settle, Springsteen climbs into a cab for City of Night, a wonderfully cool and, dare we say it, happy coda where The Boss heads to the horizon with cash in his pocket and a smile on his face. It’s the golden moment where Darkness comes to light.

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