Archive for June, 2015

one voice, many styles

michael mcdonald.

michael mcdonald.

It’s one thing to call Michael McDonald one of the most identifiable voices in contemporary music. For more than three decades, his seasoned pop-soul tenor, and the frequent falsetto extremes it reaches to, has fortified a generation of hits.

But what remains so fascinating about the singer’s body of work is the sheer variety of settings you are apt hear that voice in and the styles his vocals are often surrounded by.

Sure, there are the obvious radio classics like What a Fool Believes and Takin’ It to the Streets that retooled the radio rock of the Doobie Brothers into R&B-slanted pop during the late ‘70s. But there are also chart-topping duets with soul maestros like Patti LaBelle and James Ingram as well as fusion flavored journeys with Steely Dan where, even as a harmony or background singer, McDonald gloriously stood out.

But dig deeper into the five-time Grammy winner’s resume and you discover just how many – and how many stylistically different – artists have called upon of one pop’s most recognized voices for their recordings.

A partial list includes classicists Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Joni Mitchell as well as newer generation indie acts like Grizzly Bear and Holy Ghost. Oh, and did we mention McDonald even sang under the closing credits of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut?

For McDonald, juggling vocal roles and genres continues to fuel a career that brings him back to Lexington for a Tuesday concert at the Opera House. Longtime fans will note the venue is just a few streets over from Rupp Arena, where the singer/keyboardist played regularly during the late ‘70s with the Doobie Brothers.

“Knowledge of one kind of music is always going to enhance your enjoyment of another,” McDonald said. “As a kid growing up, I enjoyed a lot of different kinds of music even though what I was introduced to as a kid probably would not have been the music I would listen to later as a teenager.

“My dad was a singer. Growing up with him, my first instrument was tenor banjo playing ragtime and music of another whole other era before I was born. Even as a kid, I loved the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, stuff like that. Those guys to me are still part of what I consider to be American classical music. So my tastes have always been kind of diverse.”

Then came the ‘60s, which turned the St. Louis native to the electric sounds of the day, By 1970, that music prompted a move to Los Angeles.

“Like most guys of my generation, I wanted to play rock ‘n roll,” McDonald said. “My first band kind of emulated all of the British Invasion bands. Then rhythm and blues got to be a favorite music. But I always saw a similarity in all of it. There was always something from one genre that I borrowed to approach the next one I had an infatuation with. That’s the thing about music. There is always going to be a similarity.”

That sense of musical kinship dominates a 2014 recording that reteamed McDonald with the Doobie Brothers. But the resulting album, Southbound, wasn’t a reunion as much as a refashioning as it presented new versions of Doobies classics cut with contemporary country artists.

For McDonald, that meant taking new looks at hits he popularized during his tenure with the band. Specifically, What a Fool Believes was shared with Sara Evans and Takin’ It to the Streets with Love & Theft. It also enlisted Vince Gill for guitar color during You Belong to Me, a 1977 Doobies song McDonald co-wrote with Carly Simon (it was a Top 10 hit for the latter in 1978).

“Oh, that was a lot of fun,” McDonald said of the recording. “We (the Doobies) don’t always get that many opportunities or excuses to get back in the studio because we’re always going in different directions at this point. So any time something like this comes up for me, it’s fun. But it was also an opportunity to work with some great new artists in the country scene, most of which we probably wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to get into the studio.”

Michael McDonald performs at 7:30 p.m. June 16 at the Lexington Opera House. Tickets: $85.50-$175. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or go to

ticketmaster.com.

in performance: festival of the bluegrass, day 4

dry branch fire squad: brian aldridge, dan russell, tom boyd and ron thomason.

dry branch fire squad: brian aldridge, dan russell, tom boyd and ron thomason.

“We always start with the instruments we know the least with the optimism that everything will get better,” said Ron Thomason as the Dry Branch Fire Squad brought the Festival of the Bluegrass to a close early this afternoon at the Kentucky Horse Park.

“But that seldom works.”

In reality, the self-effacing Thomason is no one’s fool. A staunch advocate of pre-bluegrass string music, especially gospel, he and the current lineup of the 40-year old Dry Branch band turned back the clock decades and even centuries for tunes and spirituals refreshingly open in their sense of sermonizing with Thomason’s Will Rogers-like commentary providing worldly and often bemusing between-song color.

Take the subtle but deep rooted harmonizing that fueled Then You Don’t Love God, where the tune’s non-judgmental stance was underscored by a chorus fragment that preceded the title (“If you don’t love your neighbor…”) or the efficiently affirmative a capella charm behind the subtle testifying of Dip Your Fingers in Some Water. But were relaxed, rustic and completely immersive spiritual statements that avoided the fierce pathos and pandering of contemporary country gospel. What resulted with Dry Branch was music as richly steadfast and unspoiled as the faith that fueled it.

For all of Dry Branch’s equally unassuming instrumental firepower, and there was plenty of within the banjo and dobro work of Tom Boyd, the focal point of the performance again came down to Thomason’s wily gifts as raconteur. It didn’t matter if he was reminiscing about the “man in pain” performance stance of folk renegade Dave Van Ronk or offering a summation of how country and cosmopolitan audiences regard bluegrass (“country folks still view it music while city slickers see it as acrobatics’).

But the joking halted for He’s Coming to Us Dead, a harrowing account of a father awaiting the return of his son, who is later revealed to be a Civil War casualty. Performed alone by Thomason on banjo, the tune was a sobering reminder that no matter how great the quest for heaven gets, the reality of hell on a battlefield remains disturbingly close at hand. And that’s the gospel truth.

in performance: festival of the bluegrass, day 3

dudley connell and fred travers of the seldom scene performing yesterday afternoon for the festival of  the bluegrass. the band also played an evening set. herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

dudley connell and fred travers of the seldom scene performing yesterday afternoon for the festival of the bluegrass. the band also played an evening set. herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

It was just after midnight when Robert Greer of Town Mountains channeled the rootsy spirit of White Lightning-era George Jones during Up the Ladder and ceremoniously sent the Festival of the Bluegrass into its fourth and final day at the Kentucky Horse Park.

This was a strong Saturday night for the event with three returnee acts and one accomplished newcomer closing out the bill. Town Mountain was afforded headlining status, a reflection of the North Carolina band’s increasingly strong national visibility and local popularity (it has already return shows in Lexington on the books for August and October).

Greer and company took full advantage of star billing with one of the festival’s more roughly hewn ensemble sounds, one that frequently approached the Prohibition throwback drive of such non-bluegrass string bands as Old Crow Medicine Show, as shown by the new Phil Barker tune Ruination Line. But slower works like House with No Windows (by banjoist Jesse Langlais) and a sleekly cool but still grassy take on Bruce Springsteen’s I’m on Fire underscored Town Mountain’s considerable stylistic reach.

Fellow Asheville-area troupe Balsam Range (the 2014 International Bluegrass Music Association Entertainer of the Year) preceded with its festival debut. The band neatly meshed traditional aspects that regularly strayed outside of bluegrass (occasional touches of gypsy swing), solid gospel harmonies (One of These Days) and gentler persuasions of country (Chasing Someone Else’s Dream). But the band’s ace in the whole was clearly fiddler Buddy Melton, the IBMA’s reigning Male Vocalist of the Year. His gliding high tenor was more reminiscent of Roy Orbison than Bill Monroe on Everything That Glitters (is Not Gold).

Festival mainstay Seldom Scene played earlier in the evening than usual and without the banjo services of an ailing Ben Eldridge. But the band was still in rich form, shifting from the whispery harmonies that distinguished heart tugging favorites like Wait a Minute and 500 Miles to its decades-old covers of John Fogerty’s Big Train from Memphis and Bob Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather. But the highlight was a gentle cover of Walk Through This World With Me, dedicated by dobroist Fred Travers to festival co-founder Jean Cornett, who died in February.

The evening’s true surprise, though, was The Barefoot Movement. A standout act when it debuted at the festival last year, this Nashville quartet of Carolina and Mississippi natives was a true curiosity – four 20-somethings with a group name that screams jam band solidarity but a sound that was as old-timey in design, intent and execution as any act on the festival roster.

Fiddler Noah Wall penned much of the material and sang with a tone and maturity that greatly exceeded her years. But that didn’t stop her or the rest of the band from diverting for an encore of the Jimi Hendrix staple Fire complete with a retooled lyric tailored for the band’s evening time slot (“Move over, move over, let Seldom Scene take over”). It wasn’t a crass stylistic sellout, but simply a fun dessert after a feast of unexpectedly scholarly tradition.

in performance: festival of the bluegrass, day 2

IIIrd Tyme Out: Justen Haynes, Blake Johnson, Russell Moore, Wayne Benson and Keith McKinnon.

IIIrd Tyme Out: Justen Haynes, Blake Johnson, Russell Moore, Wayne Benson and Keith McKinnon.

Late into IIIrd Tyme Out’s headlining set last night at the Kentucky Horse Park for the Festival of the Bluegrass, frontman and vocalist Russell Moore offered a bit of between-song praise for the virtues of traditional bluegrass. Such a proclamation inferred IIIrd Tyme Out was, itself, a traditionally minded troupe despite a history of embracing everything from ‘50s flavored doo-wop to progressive country. But last night, armed with astute performance efficiency, resounding instrumental interplay and a vocal charge both relaxed and assertive, IIIrd Tyme Out very much fell in line with string band tradition.

The setlist may have suggested otherwise with songs by John Hartford, John Denver and Hank Garland peppering the repertoire. But a darkly hued blue collar tune like Little John I Am and the remorseful Hard Rock Mountain Prison (Till I Die) proved as rustically compelling as the rural affirmation Old Kentucky Farmers that began the show. All three showcased Moore’s potent tenor without overplay its emotive hand too much. His delivery was almost conversational in flow, so much so that even the obvious country lilt of A Little Unfair could have passed for bluegrass tradition.

A preceding set by Adkins & Loudermilk offered no such distinction. Fronting a muscular sounding sextet, Elkhorn City native Dave Adkins was all country boy zeal with a vocal holler that was richly jovial though sometimes overstated. His almost Michael Bolton-ish turns during the crescendos of such non-bluegrass pop-folk fare as Please Come to Boston and Never Been to Spain (redubbed on the duo’ debut album as simply Spain) seemed more than a little calculated, although the crowd ate all the fanfare up and awarded Adkins ovations after both tunes.

Bassist Edgar Loudermilk (curiously, an alumnus of IIIrd Tyme Out) was stoic in comparison, with a grounded tenor that nicely enhanced the gospel solemnity of God Meant It For Good as well as the animated family faith of Georgia Mountain Man.

Central Kentucky’s NewTown also spruced up the bill with expert fiddle and vocal fire from Katie Penn that erupted as soon the set-opening All I Was to You got out of the starting gate. It would be nice, however, to see the band move beyond its reliance on cover tunes (All My Tears) and familiar staples (Pretty Polly). NewTown has more than enough instrumental and vocal charm to ignite material of its own. This highly engaging set was proof.

The Crowe Brothers was the odd act out last night. No, the duo bore no relation to a certain Nicholasville banjo great of the same name. Guitarist Josh Crowe and sibling bassist Wayne Crowe are Georgia natives that revealed a strong love of traditional country, especially in Josh’s solid oak tenor singing. There seemed to be intended comparisons to the Louvin Brothers throughout the set (the two even performed the Louvins nugget Must You Throw Dirt in My Face). But the Crowe’s country-bluegrass blend felt more austere. The audience didn’t seem to be buying it, either. The brothers, despite all good intentions, played to a wealth of vacated lawn chairs.

in performance: festival of the bluegrass, day 1

the lonesome river band performing last night at the festival of the bluegrass. from left: brandon rickman, randy jones and barry reed. herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

the lonesome river band performing last night at the festival of the bluegrass. from left: brandon rickman, randy jones and barry reed. herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

Where else but at a bluegrass festival will you find the headlining band conducting a live survey of which audience faction – the Baptists or the Methodists – can hoist the most cups of beers for a toast.

For the record, the Methodists won out as the 42nd Festival of the Bluegrass got underway at the Kentucky Horse Park last night, but only because Lonesome River Band guitarist and co-vocalist Brandon Rickman goaded then on more. With an audience participation interlude this reverential, one couldn’t help but wonder what the tone will be for the gospel performances that will close the festival on Sunday morning.

For the Lonesome River Band, the set was a homecoming of sorts. Festival regulars absent from the lineup last year due to scheduling conflicts, banjo great Sammy Shelor and what is easily one of the veteran band’s strongest lineups returned with an assured set built around a roster of expert players (including mandolinist and Strunk native Randy Jones, who doubled as a commanding high tenor vocalist) and a setlist that leaned heavily on the fine 2014 album Turn of a Dime.

While tunes like Teardrop Express offered a checklist of requisite bluegrass woes (“heartache, trouble and pain”), the band continues to be driven by a level of musicianship that stressed ensemble feel over solo grandstanding. Even the jam Shelor instigated during Jack Up the Jail provided plenty of room to showcase fiddler Mike Hartgrove before the instrumentation giddily shifted gears.

Chris Jones and the Nightdrivers preceded with a set that stressed a hushed, husky vocal style akin to the singing of Gordon Lightfoot and a sense of stylistic variety also shared by the two Central Kentucky bands – The Velvet Blue and The Wooks – that opened the evening.

Jones and company opted for a country accent for much of its original material. Some tunes were decidedly contemporary by bluegrass standards (Lonely Comes Easy, the title tune to the group’s 2013 album). Others revealed a more vintage cast like the C.W. McCall spoken verse trucking song Wolf Creek Pass that closed the set. The biggest curiosity however, was a delicate and exact reading of Edelweiss that became an exhibition of brilliant tone by mandolinist Mark Stoffel.

The Wooks, with Frankfort favorite Kati Penn sitting in on fiddle, was by far the most progressively minded troupe of the night with a set split between jam-savvy originals (Turtle in the Creek) and covers of staples by Robert Earl Keen (The Front Porch Song), Bruce Springsteen (a take on Atlantic City that owed more to The Band’s 1993 remake than the Boss’ original) and the Grateful Dead (Franklin’s Tower).

The Velvet Blue asserted comparative traditionalism with a set-closing My Old Kentucky Home delivered as a weepy mountain ballad. Though purposely melancholy, it still got the festival crowd – Baptists and Methodists alike – on their feet.

ornette coleman, 1930-2015

ornette coleman.

ornette coleman.

As a precocious fan of fusion music, my gateway drug into the world of jazz, Ornette Coleman was a total mystery at first. Try as I might as a teenager, I just couldn’t connect the dots within the kind of abandon his music reached for. But then some things, especially fine art that steers clear of the obvious, takes times to understand and ultimately appreciate.

In a life that ended yesterday in Manhattan at age 85, Coleman shattered harmonic, compositional and especially improvisational expectations of jazz music.

The standard line from traditionalists was that Coleman’s music was, in essence, anti- jazz. Many dismissed it as noise and “jive.” But while he indulged in free forms of time and harmony, there were also strong undercurrents of bebop in the saxophonist’s playing. But when he met up with like-minded proteges like Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, the unorthodoxy of Coleman’s music simply exploded.

The quartet’s groundbreaking 1959 Atlantic album The Shape of Jazz to Come is considered a vanguard work for so-called “free jazz” expatriots. I have to admit later works for Blue Note (the live 1965 trio date At the Gold Circle), Columbia (1971’s Science Fiction) and a jumbled fusion/funk work for Horizon/A&M (1977’s Dancing in Your Head) pulled me in first, albeit reluctantly. But once those Atlantic records soaked in, the freshness and immediacy of Coleman’s sound didn’t seem so offsetting. It just seemed wonderfully of-the-moment, as all did great jazz.

Near as I can tell, Coleman never played anywhere close to Lexington. But the legacy his music bares is more than apparent in the Chicago, New York and European artists that have performed locally for the Outside the Spotlight Series. In their hands, as it was in Coleman’s decades earlier, the music didn’t wear its traditional reverence openly. But it was there, a stepping stone to a brave and unflinching musical territory where possibility was boundless.

Ornette Coleman opened the door to that world and dared naysayers to enter while simultaneously welcoming them.

critic’s pick 278: ryan adams, ‘ten songs from live at carnegie hall’

ryanadamsRyan Adams has long been one of those Jekyll and Hyde artists that intersperse performances of poetic intimacy with outings of full-tilt electric immediacy. It’s a balance that mirrors such classicists as Neil Young without ever sounding imitative.

Ten Songs from Live at Carnegie Hall is a curiosity that allows the Jekyll persona to emerge out of a Hyde outburst. Specifically, it documents two solo acoustic dates at the landmark New York venue last November that fell in the midst of nearly a year’s worth of grungey electric shows. That doesn’t keep it from being a wonderfully unsettled concert keepsake, though.

The entirety of both acoustic performances was chronicled in the spring on the limited edition, 6 LP vinyl-only package Live at Carnegie Hall. It sold out quickly but remains available for hardcore fans in digital form through the usual online outlets. This week brings us Ten Songs from Carnegie Hall – a fine 50 minute sampler split evenly between songs from both shows.

While the full vinyl set serves essentially as a career retrospective, Ten Songs is a bookend affair that offers five songs from Adams’ first two solo albums (2000’s Heartbreaker and 2001’s Gold) with the remainder representing the here and now (three from 2014’s Ryan Adams along with two new tunes).

Sometimes these new readings vary greatly from their studio originals, like the reconstruction of the churchy, power chord-fueled Gimme Something Good into a pensive, internalized confession and a gorgeously delicate update of Gold’s Nobody Girl stripped of its mounting electric charge.

In other instances, these takes very much follow the lead of their previous incarnations, as with two Heartbreaker works that begin and end Ten Songs – a reflective Oh My Sweet Carolina rich with country despondency and the stark guitar/harmonica kiss-off incantation Come Pick Me Up.

For those thinking Ten Songs is a strictly melancholy affair (and the brooding piano balladry of Gold’s Sylvia Plath and the very Nick Drake-like cast of the new This is Where We Meet in Our Mind certainly enforce that notion), there is a bright retooling of Gold’s New York, New York to serve as a pop affirmation.

That Ten Songs leaves you hungry for more goes without saying. Loads of treats from the vinyl set are absent here, including the title tune from 2011’s extraordinary Ashes & Fire, the robustly brittle cover of Bob Mould’s Black Sheets of Rain and a truckload of hilarious between-song banter. Still, this is a sublime little trip through Adams’ brilliantly restless musical mind, complete with enough four-letter bombs embedded in the lyrics to earn Ten Songs a parental advisory label.

Having that plastered on the back and white cover photo of Carnegie Hall in all its grandeur was no doubt viewed by Adams as a point of pride.

billy joe shaver’s diamond status

billy joe shaver.

billy joe shaver.

Peruse the songs that have flowed from the pen of Billy Joe Shaver over the past 40 years ago and you will find one fabulous yarn after another. All may be country by design. But even a perfunctory listen reveals how worldly the lyrics are.

“I’m just an old chunk of coal, but I’m going to be a diamond someday.”

“The devil made me do it the first, the second time I did it on my own.”

“I’m a pistol packing papa with a million dollar smile. I’m fit to kill and going out in style.”

At age 75, the fire and spirit of Shaver’s music has not remotely begun to settle. In a lifetime full of personal loss (his son and musical partner Eddy Shaver died of a drug overdose in 2000) and artistic triumphs (Bob Dylan referenced the elder Shaver in the 2009 song I Feel a Change Comin’ On), the songsmith remains a Texas soul unspoiled by Nashville country consumption. He also has no interest in letting the dust settle under his boots. Shaver remains a prolific writer and concert performer that doesn’t understand why other artists of his generation (or younger) haven’t remained similarly invested in their craft.

“I figure if the boot fits, then wear it,” said Shaver, who kicks off this year’s Best of Bluegrass with Tuesday performance at Willie’s Locally Known. “I don’t put nobody’s name down or nothing. There are just guys that are capable of writing real good stuff, but they’re just kind of slacking off.”

Defining the current state of Shaver’s tireless career is a 2014 recording that takes a friendly jab at his own professional and personal stance. It’s titled Long in the Tooth.

“It’s a challenge for me to write songs,” Shaver said. “But I love a challenge. I want to write these suckers right, too, man. I always feel that way when I’m writing this stuff, and I can tell when I have a good one. Long in the Tooth just leans more toward the truth. You get a little older in age, so you just try to be as honest as you can be. But I guess everybody else is, too.”

The record kicks off with a tune destined to a Shaver classic, Hard to be an Outlaw. New generation country stars may sing of trucks, beer and beaches. Shaver sings of mortality and sin, but does so with the same Lone Star honky tonk soul that has drawn artists like Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, The Allman Brothers Band and dozens of other notables to cut his songs.

“It’s hard to be an outlaw,” Shaver sings, “who ain’t wanted anymore.”

Far more sobering is American Me, a decidedly non-jingoistic tale centering around South of the border mischief with a devastating climax. (“The woman I loved was left waiting for me. I broke her sweet heart, American me”).

“I kept hanging on to that thing for years and years,” Shaver said of American Me. Finally, Ray Kennedy (who co-produced Long in the Tooth) heard it. He threw a couple of fantastic words in there and made it come together real good. It’s a real good song, really poetic.”

Of course, Shaver is well aware that fans, critics and fellow artists still flock to warhorse songs like Georgia on a Fast Train, When the Word Was Thunderbird and especially Old Five and Dimers Like Me (the title tune to his 1973 debut album) that defined his career and songwriting reputation decades ago.

Old Five and Dimers… man, that one was loaded for bear. Actually, that’s the song I keep trying to beat. It’s pretty true to life. I mean, these songs are so old they’re new.”

Billy Joe Shaver and The Kentucky Hoss Cats perform at 8 p.m. June 9 at Willie’s Locally Known, 805 N.Broadway, for Best of Bluegrass. Tickets: $20-$40. Call (859) 281-1116 or go to www.willieslex.com.

pop pilots heading homeward

twenty one pilots: josh dun (right) and tyler joseph. photo by jabri jacobs.

twenty one pilots: josh dun (right) and tyler joseph. photo by jabri jacobs.

While they haven’t fully comprehended the success that has greeted them this summer, Tyler Joseph and Joseph Dun are returning to Ohio this weekend as champions.

Known collectively as the modern pop, dance and beat-savvy duo Twenty One Pilots, the two will help close out this year’s Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati – a skip down the Interstate from their hometown of Columbus.

What makes this quasi-homecoming so momentous is the Herculean task Joseph and Dun pulled off. Last week, the band’s newest album, an indie record of wildly varied pop called Blurryface, entered the Billboard 200 chart at No. 1. By selling over

146,000 units in its first week of sales, the album edged out the Pitch Perfect 2 soundtrack and the un-killable Taylor Swift for the top spot.

“To be totally honest, I had no idea what that meant,” said drummer Dun by phone earlier this week. “Part of me didn’t really want to know just because I like going onstage and playing my drums. I never wanted to get too focused on all the other stuff going on. I was like, ‘Hey, as long as you’re telling me things are going well, I’m good with that.’

“But what I’ve really taken from this is somehow this crazy number of people have decided to buy into what we’re doing and want be a part of it. To me, the most powerful marketing tool is word of mouth. That’s why this is really an honor, to have people really resonating with this.”

Blurryface is like an exploding scrapbook of pop references from the instant the album opening Heavydirtysoul uses hip hop verses to mask for a lyrical unrest (“this is not rap, this is not hip hop; just another attempt to make the voices stop”) that explodes with a Pet Shop Boys-like chorus that will likely bounce in your brain for weeks.

At the other extreme of a record dominated by Joseph’s cinematic keyboards and Dun’s roaring percussion is perhaps the most unexpected instrumental voice of any dance-pop hit this year: ukulele. Its sound saddles up alongside the pounding Dun drum intro of We Don’t Believe What’s on TV without diffusing the song’s underlying agitation.

“I’m a fan of my own band,” Dun confessed. “I know that sounds weird. I think sometimes even talking about art can be weird.

“Everything we’ve ever done we’ve approached with the idea of the live show. Tyler and I were picturing ourselves onstage playing these songs while recording them. There’s nothing more exciting than that.

“We’ve been able to do a couple of festivals and a couple of small shows in the UK so far. But with Bunbury coming up and having it so close to home for us, we’re excited to bring this music to life for friends and family in an atmosphere that feels like home.”

While the sound of Blurryface is, for all its stylistic variance, huge, don’t expect any kind of expanded lineup of the band to take the stage at Bunbury. Onstage, as on record, Twenty One Pilots is the creation of just two people.

“It’s just us. I play drums and Tyler sings and plays piano, a little ukulele and some synth stuff. We rely on electronic technology for some of our sound.

“Since the beginning, when we decided on just having two of us in the band, we both realized a bit of an insecurity. We were feeling like a duo might not be entertaining enough. So to go out onstage every night and battle that insecurity, that sort of fear, is good for us. I don’t know if I would ever want to be at a place where I go onstage and have nothing to conquer. There are mental, emotional and maybe even spiritual things happening that potentially need to be defeated. That’s part of playing live. It’s such an addicting feeling.”

critic’s picks 277: keith jarrett, ‘creation’ and david torn, ‘open sky’

keith jarrett creationAside from their alliance as bandmates on the ECM label, Keith Jarrett and David Torn exhibit little stylistic simpatico. But on their newest recordings, that very distinction expands the art of solo performance.

Jarrett has come to define the role of modern piano improviser over the past four decades, infusing his solo concerts with impressionistic rapture and chamber-like completeness. Torn is more of a sculptor whose solo work welds together shards of electric ambience, unrest and distortion for an unclassifiable sound both delicate and disturbing.

Each artist regularly performs and records in collaborative settings. But on their splendid new ECM releases, Jarrett and Torn explore their opposing musical worlds on their own.

Jarrett’s Creation differs from his other solo piano albums in design and well as temperament. In the past, his solo concerts have been preserved in essentially complete form regardless of length (1978’s infamous Sun Bear Concerts even went so far as to chronicle five full concerts on 10 LPs).

Creation instead opts for selections pulled from spring and summer 2014 performances in Tokyo, Toronto, Paris and Rome. Obviously, the full continuity of a singular concert is absent. But in its place is a nine part suite rich in exploratory texture that possesses a flow quite separate from the concerts themselves.

You hear a gorgeous transition, for instance, from the opening Toronto excerpt, which establishes a subtle but brooding tension, to the ballet-like grace from the Tokyo performance. It’s as if someone opened the curtains and let the sun pour in.

While Creation has its darker moments (Parts VII and VIII, both from the Rome concert, sound beautifully turbulent yet still pastoral), the overall feel is lighter and more understated than the music on many Jarrett piano records.

With hints of Jarrett’s debut ECM album Facing You also bubbling under the surface, Creation is a summation as well as reflection of a champion improviser’s musical intuition at work.

david torn open skyTorn’s Only Sky oozes in with waves of plaintive electric sound, an ambience that howls in the background before serving as a choral effect for the jagged and sometimes industrial guitar sounds Torn detonates on top of the music.

There are echoes of Robert Fripp and ECM veteran Terje Rypdal within sound sculpture pieces like At Least There Was Nothing, which zooms into the audio cosmos before Torn pulls the music back to earth with Eastern colors on the lute-like oud, the only real non-guitar voice on the record.

But Torn manipulates sound so completely throughout Only Sky that guitar takes on keyboard, string and even percussive qualities. Yet on Spoke With Folks, his sound is laid almost bare with a chattering, chiming folk melody that serves as a rootsy retreat in the eye of this sonic hurricane.

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