Tag Archives: Derek Bailey

For Evan Parker’s 70th Birthday, a 2010 DownBeat Feature

The sui generis master soprano and tenor saxophonist Evan Parker turns 70 today. I’ve been enthralled with his music for several decades now, and have had several opportunities to interact with him, initially in 1990 through the auspices of Ben Young, who organized what I believe was a ten-day festival of his music, and allowed me to participate in an on-air interview. In the early aughts, on assignment from Jazziz, I interviewed Evan and photographer Thomas Struth (it wasn’t published). Then, in the winter of 2009-10, I wrote a long profile for DownBeat framed around  a long residency at the Stone. The piece ran a little shorter than I would have preferred, and for the occasion, I’ve offered a director’s cut, a bit more lugubrious than the final copy, but more thorough.

* * * *

 Evan Parker Article, Downbeat, 2010 (Early Draft):

“I believe that when you’re playing freely with other people, it helps if you know what they’re about, that there’s a life in that relationship or set of relationships that underlines the group, that there is an ongoing discussion, as it were, or dialogue. The notion of the ideal group improvisation being something that happens once, and then you say goodbye, doesn’t make any sense at all.  You have nothing to judge it by; there’s no point of reference. It can be acceptable in a context, which has not to do with the specifics of any of those people’s work, but simply the background of the context. Of course, every relationship has to start with the first hello. But I’ve found it necessary to terminate some relationships fairly soon after they were started.  I’m trying to be wiser about all of those kind of things, and not to initiate new projects simply for the sake of working or keeping busy, but to have a reason behind it.” – Evan Parker, 2003

Forty-five years into his career as a professional improviser, saxophonist Evan Shaw Parker remains a  perpetual road warrior, pursuing a lifestyle—on the move at least six months a year, long rides in cars or trains or airplanes from one destination to another, irregular sleep and meals, less than stellar accommodations—that could wear down most artists half his age. Yet Parker, who turns 66 this year, embraces the sacrifice of itinerancy with the enthusiastic attitude of a circuit-riding preacher or union organizer of days gone by whose imperative it was to deliver the message in person.

Parker travels not to praise the Lord or organize the masses, but to find as many contexts as possible in which to present his sui generis conception of the saxophone. He drew first principles from the innovations of the ‘60s avant-garde—John Coltrane and Albert Ayler were Parker’s window into the use of multiphonics, overtones, and circular breathing—and grafted onto this aesthetic bedrock the harmonic extremities of European post-12-tone modernism, a global array of scales and intervals drawn from Herman Helmholtz’s authoritative lexicon, and independent fingering and projection techniques associated with playing the Scottish bagpipes and the launeddas, an ancient three-pipe Sardinian reed instrument. He’s refined his language with micronic precision, developing his ability to articulate and develop two or three simultaneous lines in a sort of musique concrete counterpoint.

“A lot of material is completely in the muscles and in the nervous system—there’s no effort to control it, no effort to think,” Parker told me a few years back of the way his imagination functions as he plays solo. He describes a process analogous to ars memoria, the medieval system of memorizing large systems—and also the oral traditions of preliterature cultures—by placing objects in familiar places. “I enter that room where the music is,” he said. “I can do almost anything to open the door, then I look around until my attention lights on some particular place and I know roughly where I am. I look again. What is this place about?  What is new?  What didn’t I find out the last time I was here? I stay until something happens, and takes me somewhere else.  Not really leading the music, but following it where it seems to be going.”

Even by his standards, Parker took on, as he put it, “an exceptional schedule” over the last three months of 2009, bringing his tenor and soprano saxophones to an extraordinary array of encounters. There was an October duo in Barcelona with Catalan pianist Agusti Fernandez and workshops and concerts with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton in Cannes and Paris. A two-week tour with the Schlippenbach-Lovens trio included engagements in Berlin, Ulrichsberg, Prague and Brataslava, where Parker also found time to play a recital with Alvin Lucier, a concert with the Globe Unity Orchestra, and a gig with the electronic unit Groovetronic. He guested with the out-trio Marteau Rouge in Tours, Paris, and Brussels; navigated composer-cellist-electronicist Walter Prati’s processed structures with a medium-sized ensemble in Milan; triologued  with regular mates John Edwards and Tony Marsh at London’s Vortex, where he has a monthly hit, and with keyboardist Stephen Gruen and drummer Philip Marks in Liverpool.

Prior to all of these events (directly following a 3,000-mile, 7-gigs-in-7-nights tour with extended techniques sax master Ned Rothenberg that had begun on the West Coast and ended in Montreal), Parker presided over an audacious first-two-weeks-of-October residence at the Stone, John Zorn’s Lower East Side venue,where it was evident that he listens as attentively to others as to the voices deep within him. Directly after a seven-hour drive from Montreal to New York, he launched the event with a solo recital executed with characteristic derring-do, followed an hour later by an avuncular duo with synthesist Richard Teitelbaum in which Parker, playing soprano saxophone, created instantaneous acoustic responses to Teitelbaum’s assorted burbles, birdcalls, critter onomatopoeia, virtual percussion, swoopy waves, Bachian cello, celestial harmonics, and prepared piano pings—they ended spontaneously on the same pitch.

Such energy and acuity belied whatever exhaustion Parker may have felt, and he delineated the harmonics with such precision that only the most educated ear could discern that he was playing with a stock mouthpiece, having recently left his three painstakingly customized ones on a train. But to wallow in self-pity was not an option, and Parker would carry on. Hunkered down three blocks away in a small flat on Avenue D, he took on all comers, two shows a night of one-shots with partners representing vastly different predispositions and ways of thinking about music.

In the opening section of his meeting with Fred Frith, Parker projected droll tenor responses to Frith’s Dadaesque antics on lap guitar (he brushed it as though polishing a shoe and prepared the bowed strings with a tin can and chain metal); then unleashed a jaw-dropping unaccompanied interlude on soprano before rejoining the dialogue with with vertiginous intervals and audacious unisons; then uttered a long tenor drone which Frith somehow complemented with more prepared bowed strings.

Earlier in the run, before a house so jammed that the fire marshals cleared it before they were done, Parker and Milford Graves played a five-part suite marked by incessant rhythmic modulation and dynamic ebb-and-flow. After Parker unleashed Coltranesque torrents in the tenor’s lower register in the second movement, he switched to a balladic seven-note theme that received intense theme-and-variation treatment. Graves’ slow rolling tom-toms that crescendoed to jet-force, propelling Parker into a multiphonic whirlwind. An hour later, with George Lewis on trombone, laptop, and interactive electronics with which to modify and manipulate the pitch qualities of Parker’s soprano saxophone lines, Parker—his face beet-red, his embouchure visible as a dimple-line running 45 degrees from nose to jaw—went with the flow, circular-breathing to create a feedback loop of chirps and crackles and waves.

To honor Thelonious Monk’s birthday a few nights later,  Parker, Matthew Shipp and William Parker played an informed 55-minute abstraction of “Shuffle Boil,” interpolating other Monk fragments at various points. “If they’d jumped on the tune at the very outset, well, it would have gone another way,” Parker said two days later over a lunch of roast chicken, tostones, and rice-and-beans on Avenue C.  Salt-bearded and bespectacled, with a barrel chest and thick soccer legs, he wore a charcoal shirt, black jeans and black loafers, and carried a just-purchased copy of Robin Kelley’s new Monk biography. “But they played ambiguously in relation to it,” he continued. “The point is to do it in such a way that it’s there if you want to hear it, and not there if you don’t want to hear it. It’s raw material. It’s a free choice. When you say you’re playing freely, it also means you are free to play things that you absolutely know and things that are rather predictable.”

Parker related that for his sixtieth birthday, outcat pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, a constant associate since the latter ‘60s on such Eurocentric projects as the Globe Unity Orchestra and a long-standing trio with drummer Paul Lovens, most recently documented on Gold Is Where You Find It [Intakt], had presented him with a handwritten folio of Monk tunes, transposed for saxophone, that also contained a drawing of Parker (Schlippenbach refers to his mild-mannered partner as “The Bishop of Faversham”) topped with a Bishop’s mitre,

“I’ve since got the official book, which Steve Lacy told me was accurate, and I’ve been trying to memorize them all as an homage to Steve,” Parker continued. “When I was here as a teenager I heard his School Days band at a Bleecker Street coffee shop called Phase 2. At the end of the first set, Steve said to the audience, which must have been five of us, ‘We’d like to remind you, ladies and gentlemen, that we play requests; the band will play any tune by Thelonious Monk.’ On his way back to the bandstand, I said, ‘Mr. Lacy, I’d love to hear “Four In One.”’ He said, “Uh-HUH”—and they played ‘Four In One’!

“Since then, it’s become almost a rite of passage to get to grips with those things, to play on the structures or just use them as study material. Monk had a very rigorous approach to constructing a line, a melody, which Steve distilled in his own work—systematic combinatorics of limited interval types in order to bring out their inherent characters. There are a thousand ways to define what we mean by a fourth, a major third, a minor third. The material goes beyond scales and arpeggios—the idea is to get it to fall under your fingers in a way that you’re not simply playing from the riff book. You have to hear your way through, know what is the underlying cliche and how to disguise it. I make the analogy with the armature in a sculpture. A sculptor might use a steel frame underneath to hold the clay in certain positions which otherwise it wouldn’t hold. But it’s not the armature that’s interesting. It’s the form of the clay. Without those things it’s just…formless might not be the word, but lacking in structural integrity.”

[BREAK]

The weekend after Parker left town, in an odd quirk of scheduling, the Abrons Center on Grand Street, a half-mile south of the Stone, hosted a two-day festival dedicated to the legacy of Incus Records, the label that Parker, Bailey and Tony Oxley co-founded in 1970. After Oxley departed a few years later, Parker and Bailey—who died in 2005—served as co-directors. They ran an efficient operation, producing some of the seminal documents of European free improvisation. They split on acrimonious terms in 1985, with Parker keeping possession of his own copyrights and master tapes. Since 2001, he has been bringing back into print—along with new material by himself and various associates—on Psi, his imprint, which now boasts a catalog of over 60 items.

“It functioned quite well for a while,” Parker said. “But it’s very hard for two people to agree about everything, and we didn’t agree about everything. In fact, towards the end, we didn’t agree about anything. I wasn’t happy being treated as though I was number-two in a situation where we should be equal. So I just thought the best thing to do would be to take my ball and go home.”

This was all Parker had to say about the rift. “Derek is no longer here to speak up for himself,” he said. However, George Lewis, who was close to both, offered some observations.

“Derek was a very forceful personality,” Lewis said. “He was a little curmudgeonly, very determined and single-minded. That attracted a lot of people. At the same time, uncompromising people like that tend to have very few friends, because people can’t handle it for long periods of time. But Evan seemed to be a person who could handle that, and was able to mold things that Derek did to his own requirements. Derek was very private; part of him would be very suspicious if he thought people liked it too much. Whereas I think Evan is more comfortable with being liked. Being loved, really—people love both these guys. They were together so much that when they finally stopped being together, it was wounding not only to them, but to the larger community.”

Parker was willing to discuss the ways in which his and Bailey’s respective personalities played out in their musical production, “Maybe the most crucial difference between Derek’s approach and mine is that I’m interested in a much more adaptive language, a much more flexible sense of musical persona,” he said. “The main job is to select the relevant material, much more of the material that I use to represent myself, the music masks that I use to play behind, or through, varies with the context than Derek’s. ‘Mask’ is a much more complicated idea than simply a disguise, something to hide behind.  Think of the way masks are used in African music ritual. The mask is a particular chosen projection of identity.”

Unlike Bailey and most of his contemporaries from the first generation of European experimental improvisers, Parker chose to embrace American jazz as a lineal, if often hidden influence. “It’s just where I come from,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I don’t know about Boulez and Stockhausen and Xenakis and all those other things. But in shaping the idea of personal direction, the point that Coltrane got to, especially in Interstellar Space, is a kind of defined place. Even the idea of kind of multi-linear approach to soprano is derived from thinking about certain things Coltrane was doing on the longer solos on “My Favorite Things,” where he’s sort of hinting at two lines and keeping two lines going. There’s an enormous lack of modesty involved in thinking you can do anything past that, and you have to be aware of this. But through practice and effort and concentration on what makes your direction YOUR direction, there are some corners left to work in.”

Told that Rothenberg had remarked on his “whirling” time feel, “with a pulse that tends to breathe in a kind of ebb-and-flow,” Parker described it as his “default mode,” citing not only “the work I had to do to play with John Stevens,” the British drummer with whom he made much music in the ‘60s and ‘70s (“it was a baptism of fire”), but also “the constellation” of the New York Art Quartet with John Tchicai and Milford Graves, Milford’s duo with Don Pullen, the Coltrane-Rashied Ali duos, the Jimmy Giuffre Trio. “These were the very last bits of concerted influence, where you feel, ‘Ok, these are the materials that I must learn to deal with,’” he said. “After that, it became essential to deal with what John Stevens was doing, what Derek, Paul Rutherford, Paul Lytton, Barry Guy, and all the people associated with that first generation of London-based free improvisers were doing.”

Parker’s simpatico for the American—or, more accurately, New York—context stems from the summers of 1962 and 1963 when, by dint of a free flight enabled by his father’s position with BOAC, the predecessor of British Airlines, he was able to see his musical heroes on their home turf. Ensconced in a YMCA on 34th Street, he bought records by day and haunted clubs and coffee houses at night. In addition to the aforementioned encounter with Lacy, he heard Eric Dolphy with Herbie Hancock at Birdland, Cecil Taylor’s trio with Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray at Phase 2 on Bleecker Street, Carla Bley in duo with Gary Peacock.

“Coltrane was always out of town, so I didn’t hear him here, though I’d heard him in England in 1961,” Parker recalled. “But to hear Cecil Taylor before he came to Europe for the first time, to hear Dolphy and Herbie Hancock before Herbie went with Miles—I’m not going to forget those things. From that point, New York was the center of the world as far as the music I was interested in.”

[BREAK]

“I’m ready for a break,” Parker said at the beginning of February from his home in Kent, referencing his recent travels. Over a month or so of down time, he would work on “thinking about how to practice, practicing, organizing for the label and for events coming up.” Most important among the latter, he said, were several concerts with his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, a project that he has documented since 1997 on five ECM CDs, increasing the number of participants from six to 14 on the most recent iteration,  The Moment’s Energy, which includes Rothenberg on clarinets and shakuhachi, Peter Evans on trumpets, and Ko Ishikawa on sho, a reed-based Japanese mouth organ, an orchestra’s worth of real-time electronic processing vehicles. In distinction to the prior ECM dates, Parker used the studio as another instrument, remixing and realigning the  materials of the real-time version to construct a final document. It’s the latest development in Parker’s ongoing investigation of digital media as a tool to transcend the limits of what he can do with the saxophone.

“What works for a concert is not necessarily what works for a record to be played in people’s homes,” Parker said. “It’s partly to do with dynamic range, partly with what Manfred Eicher  calls dramaturgie. You don’t quite know the circumstances under which the record will be played. So the idea of modifying something in response to that is no longer a kind of heresy for me. It’s just part of the work, and if people want to discuss it and take positions for or against, well, that’s fine.”

For all the audaciousness and fire that he projects through his horn, Parker’s extraordinary chops have brought him trouble with members of the “avant-garde police,”  who have accused him of being a sort of overly technical, non-interactive Johnny-one-note more concerned with attaining individual transcendence than dialogic interaction. Bailey’s biographer Ben Watson, a doctrinaire Trotskyite, most memorably expressed this critique with the shit-sling, “the totalitarian afflatus of [Parker’s] technique steamrollers specific ambiance, turning his music into the kind of dependable commodity required by promoters and applauded by the general public.”

Lewis addressed this issue in a more nuanced way. “Derek liked to smash genres together, people from different traditions and practices,” he said. “Evan was starting to do this as well, but then he broke away from it. Now it’s reached a new level where he is content to be at the center of his own world than ever before; he’s found ways to make music that bears his stamp, music that’s him,  through the medium of improvisation. It’s not being an improviser that’s important. It’s what Evan’s music is.”

For Parker, who developed Anarcho-Socialist leanings during university days, philosophical materialism coexists in pragmatic equipoise with his investigations into the mysteries of shamanism, as he denotes with his label’s name.

“I juggle those things every day,” he said. “I’m very encouraged by current developments which are more related to finding consensus on the solution to specific problems, and less concerned with building an overarching ideology that purports to solve all problems at a stroke. Shamanism, by the way, is one of the ways that you can solve some of those small problems. It’s metaphysics, but it’s also practical. Spiritual is material, too. If you define materialism as to recognize the way things work, then we have to include psi phenomena, the things which physicists can’t explain.”

Parker himself found it difficult to explain the criteria he uses to decide what constitutes a successful performance, and what to release and not-release, either on his label or others. He had not yet found time to evaluate his massive output at the Stone, which was professionally recorded and line-mixed. “It would be crazy not to release some of it, but I want to make sure I do it properly.”

“It’s a total response,” he added. “It can be a good idea sometimes to wait a year or more before you listen, otherwise you just reinforce the memories of the struggle that was involved, which may affect your objectivity and not be at all important in the bigger picture. It’s easier to be positive about some solo thing that you feel came out well. Everything else is complicated about expectations about what other people may or may not do. All I can say is that if I think that the thing is a failure, I have no problem leaving it on the shelf.”

He remarked that he had worked for a decade on Time Lapse [Tzadik],  a critically acclaimed high-concept unaccompanied suite in which he juxtaposes unaccompanied and overdubbed solos, an endeavor he launched in 1991 with Process and Reality [FMP]. “I wanted to give John something special,” he said.  “I had to think and plan something that wouldn’t disappoint John, who I think of as a man with very high standards, both ethically and aesthetically,” Parker said. “It’s not that I would set out to disappoint anybody. But in John’s case, it’s a case of ‘Among roses, be a rose.’”

He added that he had taken similar care with House Full Of Floors,  his 2009 Tzadik release, on which Aleks Kolkowski, playing Stroh viola, cylinders, and musical saw, joins Parker, guitarist John Russell and bassist John Edwards on a pair of quartet  improvs—on the final track, the trio responds to a Kolkowski-generated wax cylinder of their playing.

“John proposed the New York event, and we negotiated the programming,” Parker said. They met in 1978, the year Parker first came to the U.S. professionally, doing 29 solo concerts in 33 days, and remained in touch ever since.

“It was a highly memorable two weeks,” he retrospected. “New York was always a special city for me, from its mythic origins to my first experiences there as a young man. Every time I come back, I get a feeling that I don’t get anywhere else in the world. There’s an incredible community of players to draw on. And John’s support for the venture allowed me to be among friends. The Stone is absolutely my kind of space, like a non-denominational chapel of music. There’s no frills. It’s a room where you can play some music and some people can come and listen.”

[—30—]

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For Bill Frisell’s 63rd Birthday, A DownBeat Article, An Uncut Blindfold Test, and A Few Other Pieces

Best of birthdays to guitarist Bill Frisell, who turns 63 today. Most people who would read this blog don’t need me to say much about him. But on the personal tip, I’ve admired Frisell’s unique sound and concept since the  early ’80s, when he first recorded with Joe Lovano in the Paul Motian Trio, and that decade with John Zorn’s Naked City. During my years at WKCR, I was fortunate  to have a number of opportunities to host him on-air, several times by himself, once in dialogue with Paul Motian, another time in dialogue with trumpeter Ron Miles, his old friend and fellow son of Denver.

I’ve posted below my “directors’ cut” (about 1500 words longer) of a DownBeat cover piece I wrote about Bill and his long-standing trio partners Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen, during a week in Perugia for the 2008 Umbria Summer Jazz Festival. I’ve also appended the uncut proceedings of  a Blindfold Test that he took with me around 2000 or 2001, in his extraordinarily cramped room at the former Earle Hotel on the corner of Waverly Place & MacDougal, on the northwest corner of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.

Bill Frisell Trio in Perugia, Downbeat, 2008:

At midnight on the first Sunday of the 2008 Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, an impromptu party was in full swing on the cobblestoned  streets outside Teatro Pavone, a horseshoe-shaped, five-tiered acoustic marvel with with a giant sunflower chandelier hanging from the ceiling.  It opened in 1740, when Perugia was still an independent city-state, as the gathering place for the local aristocracy. In response, forty years later, a consortium of Perugia’s merchants converted an abandoned nunnery perhaps a quarter mile down the hill into the grander, showier Teatro Morlacchi, a 785-seater with ceiling frescoes.

Inside, however, about 250 listeners paid close attention as the Bill Frisell Trio, with bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, positioned themselves on stage to begin a six-night run.

Smiling, Frisell touched a pedal with his black-shoed foot. Nachtmusik birdsong plinks came forth, resonating against the old wood facades. For the next several minutes, Frisell followed the sounds, weaving an abstract web of tone color—whispery one moment, skronky the next. He inserted electronic sounds into the dialog with pedal taps and dial switches. Wollesen scraped his snare drum, hand-drummed on his hi-hat and stroked a gong on a tree of little instruments placed next to his kit. Gradually, a familiar melody emerged. Scherr inferred a walking bass line, and the tempo began to coalesce from rubato to meter. Then, on a dime, Frisell launched the melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso.”

This launched a free-associative, genre-spanning suite of songs, each declarative melody transitioning into another—“Moon River,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “You Are My Sunshine,” Monk’s “Jackie-ing,” Charlie Christian’s “Benny’s Bugle,” Boubacar Traoré’s “Baba Drame” and Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee.” Seemingly able to call up guitar dialects ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Mali to Charlie Christian at a moment’s notice, Frisell went for equilateral triangle dialog, simultaneously feeding information to and drawing it from Scherr and Wollesen. The band displayed implacable patience, grabbing sounds, constructing lines and creating musical flow from the environment. If you thought about it a certain way, you might reflect on how the architects and painters who created the look of Perugia between the 12th and 18th centuries responded to the particular light of the Perugian sky and the planes of its topography when they conjured their images and structures. You might also reflect on the ingenuity and learning that went into their designs, and the amount of labor that went into actualizing the final product.

Six hours earlier on the same stage, Pat Martino had played the third concert of a parallel 10-night engagement, leading his quartet through a sparkling seven-tune set. Dressed in a crisp white-on-white shirt, black vest and pressed black pants, barely moving a muscle, he spun out a series of high-degree-of-difficulty declamations, each a little sculpture of its own, marked by flawless articulation, an unfailingly plush tone, attention to melody and an enviable sense of form. Martino tore through the swingers and created high drama on the ballads; it was hard to determine whether the solos were set pieces or spontaneous inventions. Ascending the stairs after the concert, a guitarist from another band shook his head at the futility of it all and said, “I’m going to go back to the hotel and throw away my guitar.”
Throughout the week in July, the daily juxtaposition of these two—Frisell a master of space and implication, Martino determined on every tune to display his efflorescent gifts—was a fascinating programming subplot.
“You wouldn’t know it from listening to what I do now, but I’ve listened to Pat Martino a lot, and at one time I was maybe trying to do that,” Frisell said the following day. We sat in a walled-off space in the back of the dining area of the Rosetta Hotel, situated down the block from Teatro Pavone. Frisell wore a white t-shirt, paisley shorts, white Converse high-tops, and horizontally striped socks in bright colors. As we spoke, the kitchen staff prepared a luncheon buffet as diverse as the program he had presented the previous evening.
“I was checking Pat out yesterday, trying to unravel this mysterious stuff he’s doing, and it blows my mind,” he continued. “John McLaughlin was another hero. Day-in, day-out, I tried to play like him, and I couldn’t come anywhere close. I saw a concert with Shakti in the early ‘70s, heard this incredible stuff coming out, and  it was this moment of despair. I realized that I’d never, ever be able to do that. I wanted to quit. Then the next moment it was like, ‘Oh, thank God that’s over with; now I’ll deal with what I’ve got.’”Frisell noted the spontaneous quality of the previous evening’s concert. “It wasn’t planned,” he said. “My mom died a few weeks ago, and I had to miss a bunch of gigs, so I hadn’t been playing. I was feeling, ‘Wow, here I am—now I’m back with my buddies and I really want to play, but my hands are like…I haven’t been playing my guitar very much. So I thought, ‘Okay, I just want to make a sound and see what it sounds like.’”
Perhaps more in touch with formative memories than he might otherwise be because of his mother’s recent passing, Frisell mentioned reconnecting with painter Charles Cajori, now 87, an active member of New York’s art world since the early ‘40s, and a family friend. “His father worked with my father in Denver in medical school, and when he was in Denver he’d come over for dinner,” he recalled. “He’d tell me all this New York stuff: ‘I heard this incredible drummer—I went to the Village Vanguard and I was sitting right under his cymbal.’ That was Tony Williams when he first started playing with Miles. The first Monk record I ever saw was from this guy.“Forty years go by, I’m in New York, and I thought about him. I looked him up on the Internet, and he was teaching at the Studio School on 8th Street in Manhattan. I hadn’t talked to him since I was 14. I wrote a note, and brought it to the front desk at the school, which is around the corner from my hotel. A few weeks later, I got a letter from him. He’d seen me play at the Vanguard, and knew me through Paul Motian and so on, but didn’t connect that I was that kid from way back. Now we’re friends, and he comes when I play. There’s a picture of Monk playing at the Five Spot, and right behind him is a poster that says ‘Cajori’. He was friends with Morton Feldman. He’s in his late eighties, and he said this amazing thing: ‘One thing I’m certain of is that drawing is a worthy endeavor.’ He teaches, and he sees that some of these things are slipping. To be able to draw is important. To be able to play an instrument. The fact that your fingers have to move around. Just that one little thing he said—it’s a worthy endeavor.”
[BREAK]
The first half of Frisell’s 2008 release, History, Mystery [Nonesuch], consists primarily of music that he composed for three collaborative projects with Jim Woodring, a Seattle-based cartoonist who transforms biomorphic shapes into characters in phantasmagoric narratives. He arranged it for a Fall 2006 tour by an octet propelled by Scherr and Wollesen. It’s far from Frisell’s first sounds-meet-images project. The 1995 Nonesuch CDs Go West and The High Sign/One Week document his responses to a pair of silent films by Buster Keaton, and several years ago he scored Tales From The Far Side, an animated film by Seattle cartoonist Gary Larson, a close friend. Indeed, Frisell’s wife, Carole D’Inverno, is a painter whose canvases, both figurative and abstract, reveal an economical command of line and color.
“When the music is happening, it’s not visual,” Frisell said. “But I like to look at art. I can’t draw, but if I didn’t play music I’d probably do something like that. We probably have some instinct or motivation coming from the same place. I’ve said before that when I met Jim Woodring and saw his art, I felt his drawing was a lot closer to what I’m trying to do with the music than a lot of musicians I know. It’s the place you’re trying to get to—to bring something to the surface that’s not always visible or audible, something people feel in this reality that isn’t always there.”
In a drawing dated 1997, Larsen portrays a bespectacled Frisell playing guitar. He scalps him, revealing his brain as a laboratory in which a mad scientist sits in a sort of director’s chair atop a ladder, blowing notes into a large funnel, through which they pass into a complex, Rube Goldbergesque processor, which in turn feeds them into Frisell’s guitar, which is plugged into his left temple lobe.Frisell’s father was a biochemist, and I asked whether, in any way, he references that aspect of his background in his musical production. He demurred.
“I didn’t connect with that at all,” he said. “Chemistry classes and that stuff, I failed right out of all of it.”That being said, Frisell’s instantaneous use of electronics—he deploys a distortion pedal and a fuzztone device, two delays, a reverb, and several small music boxes that he attaches to his guitar pickups—within the flow to trigger random elements within a performance, and his ability to work those sounds seamlessly into the warp and woof of his improvisations is a quality that continually astounds the people who hear him most.
“Bill totally embraces all this technology,” said Claudia Engelhart, Frisell’s sound engineer and road manager. She met Frisell in 1989 while touring Brazil with John Zorn’s Naked City band, after spending her early twenties mixing for Willie Colon and Eddie Palmieri. “Sometimes he’s creating loops without us hearing them, and then he’ll turn them on and there they are at precisely the right moment. It’s like he’s composing, thinking ahead, when he’s playing other stuff. I don’t know how he does it. My job is to sit and listen, but I daydream a lot when while I’m mixing sound for him—he takes me on these trips.”
By his account, Frisell began using effects towards improvisational imperatives in 1975. “I heard Santana play this incredible sustain sound that sounded like a trumpet,” he said. “I was trying to play like a horn player; I wanted to sound like Miles Davis. So I got a distortion thing. Then I was listening to pianists and admired how they could hold notes down and let them ring. Back then, there was a little cheap delay that had a cassette tape in it which sort of did what my little digital delay does for me now—that piano-y sustained thing.”
He remarked that he practices neither the sonic combinations that he conjures up nor the gestures by which he puts them forth. “It doesn’t make sense to do it by myself,” he said. “It developed from playing live with other people. I like the element that I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the machines. I trigger a loop, and it goes haywire. It’s not like I have something pre-programmed on a push-up button, and, ‘okay, now I’m going to get that sound.’ Sometimes, though, I feel like I get into certain patterns—I can build things up in ways that become predictable to me, and probably eventually to the audience, too. I try to keep it so that it’s not.”
To avoid the predictability pitfall, and break things open, Frisell frames himself with numerous configurations drawn from what is now a repertory company of musicians familiar with his language. Since 1996, when his long-time trio with bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron dissolved, he’s triangulated Scherr and Viktor Krauss with drummers Wollesen, Jim Keltner, Rudy Royston, and Matt Chamberlin; used several rhythm sections to propel ensembles of varying size with violinists Jenny Scheinman and Eyvind Kang, lap steel guitarist and banjoist Greg Leisz, trumpeter Ron Miles, and reedmen-woodwindists Billy Drewes and Greg Tardy. He’s developed a corpus of string quartet music and formed a quasi-world music ensemble (the Intercontinentals). Then there are the one-off projects—a trio CD with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones, a standards duo with Fred Hersch, a more recent trio date with Ron Carter and Paul Motian, the latter his employer since 1981 with the Paul Motian Trio, with which he continues to perform annually around Labor Day at the Village Vanguard. Still, as he puts it, the trio with Scherr and Wollesen—which first convened for a 1999 week at the Village Vanguard, and performs on Unspeakable, East, West, and History, Mystery—feels like “home base.”
“I’ve listened to thousands of records with Ron Carter, but when I stand there and play a chord, and he plays some note I’m not expecting, and your mind has been obliterated…,” he said animatedly, before breaking off the sentence with a laugh. “You want to stay up in that thing. I want my mind to be blown. Then along come Tony and Kenny. By this time I’d been looking at a lot of other music, songs with words, listening to Hank Williams songs, Roscoe Holcomb and Doc Boggs—things I hadn’t listened to much before. It wasn’t just about I want to play a Monk tune or a Lee Konitz tune, or I want to write my own tunes. I was also trying to remember where I come from—when thinking about a Bob Dylan song when I was a kid, playing this Lovin’ Spoonful song when I was 16. Being honest about what got me playing. I did a record in Nashville, played with a banjo player for the first time. Some people said, ‘Wow, he went to Nashville, and he’s selling out,’ and so on, but for me, it was like, ‘Whoa, this is really weird.’ I was stretching myself, playing with people I’d never met before, people who come from different places, people who didn’t think about music or learn music the same way I did. I couldn’t write out charts for them, the way I used to. It was a whole different way of playing, and I learned so much. Still am.
“Both Kenny and Tony are like my teachers. In so many areas I want to go into, it’s like they know 20,000 times more than I do. Last night, as an encore, we played this Ron Carter song, ‘Mood.’ Tony’s heard that, and he knows 20 different versions of it, and any other song I’d ask him to play. He’s an awesome guitar player and also a singer—he knows the words, too. When I discovered Roscoe Holcomb, who came out of nowhere for me. Kenny went, ‘I got that record when I was 12.’ I’ve put myself in this amazing situation where they can challenge me. But then at the same time they respect me! They just play, and they’re not intimidating. Like I said, they blow my mind.”
[BREAK]
“Bill accepts the way people play, and plays with who they are, rather than with who they’re supposed to be,” said Scherr the following morning. “He’s constantly open to anything he hears. It’s sincere. If somebody is playing an instrument, that’s music—if it’s musical. There’s no preconception of what somebody is supposed to know or not.”
The sky was clear, facilitating a spectacular view of the Tiber River Valley from the terrace outside the Hotel Brufani, the festival’s nerve center. It stands atop the remnants of Rocca Paulina, a massive fortress constructed in 1543 on the order of Pope Paul III to show the town’s staunchly anti-clerical citizens—who had battled for autonomy against Papal authority since the 11th century—who was boss. To emphasize the point, Farnese, then 75, commanded that 138 buildings belonging to the Baglione family, Perugia’s most powerful clan, be razed to the ground.
“I didn’t grow up hearing jazz,” said Scherr. Early in his teens, he played guitar in a rock band in which his older brother, Peter—now a Hong Kong-based classical contrabassist—played bass. “I heard rock-and-roll and soul and all kinds of other music. That’s when I got bitten by the bug of playing with other people—that feeling of discovery and learning how to play together. When I was 14, my brother brought home Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson, and we went backwards from there. Around then I met a guy who would take me to his house, and we’d play guitar. He showed me who Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were. We would play vamps, what people think of as a standard, a song by the Animals, then we’d turn off the lights and play free. In my mind, it all lived in the same room, because that’s the guy I was in contact with. I suppose it took me a while to recognize that ultimately I was looking for that kind of guy. I never really thought about the difference between the genres. I recognize that in common with Bill, because Bill seems to just hear a song—it doesn’t matter if George Jones or Billie Holiday sang it. He writes beautiful, classic songs, too, with melodies that go around in my head. When it comes down to it, there’s just great songs, great melodies, and people hear them, and want to interpret them and be themselves and have a language with the people they play with.”
Scherr wore a retroish short-sleeved shirt over black jeans, the way young Manhattan hipsters dressed in the ‘80s, when Scherr, now 43, went on the road with Woody Herman. In the ‘90s, he played numerous jazz gigs on bass, joined the last edition of the Lounge Lizards, played with Maria Schneider, and joined Wollesen in Stephen Bernstein’s Sex Mob Quartet.`
“Maria Schneider started asking me, ‘Have you played a lot of rock music or something?’” he related with a laugh. He spoke in a deliberate baritone perhaps an octave lower than the gravelly tenor he displays on his new release, Twist in the Wind, on which he sings 13 songs, including 10 with his own lyrics. “In Sex Mob, which is a kind of a combination of Louis Armstrong and Led Zeppelin, I realized how I actually hear the bass. We went through Seattle, and Bill came to the gig, and called me up soon after, and we started playing. I’m glad that it didn’t happen until I had some idea of what I sound like. At that point, I had been a fan of Bill’s music for quite a long time, and would check out every album, so I had some idea of who he was and what his language is about. It was very comfortable to hear this guy who had his own voice on guitar. An enormous part of what he does is very sophisticated, much more complex than I would understand—though I’ve heard him do it for years, so I might be able to hear something that goes with it. The simpler part that I do understand comes from the guitar language that I know. Bill reminds me to be more open, to wait and surrender to what actually happens, rather than thinking I know already. I used to think I knew. Now I’m sure that I don’t.”
As if on cue, a slender, elderly man in gray shorts, a sleeveless sweater and walking boots appeared before us, took a breath, and began to sing a tarentella of indistinct origin in a clear tenor. He finished, began another, halted, said, “Gusto. Musica.” Then he walked off. Scherr laughed and applauded. “I couldn’t have said better than that,” he said. “Music. Love music.”
About half-an-hour later, Wollesen and I were strolling through the narrow streets, past pasticcerias, pizzerias, gelato shops, and taverns setting up for lunch. We settled on a café not far from a wall built by Perugia’s original Etruscan settlers as a fortification against invaders. It was a touristy place, and his red wine was served cold. In the background, you could hear the Coolbone Brass Band, out of New Orleans, warming up for their daily noontime ballyhoo.
“Bill’s rhythm is killing, and he hears everything,” Wollesen said. “I think his ears are supernatural. Right now, we’re talking at this table, and I hear what you’re saying, but there’s all kinds of sound happening around us. People would think of it as background noise. I think Bill somehow hears all of it. It’s kind of uncanny.“I’ve never really talked with Bill about music. I don’t think he’s ever said one thing to me about what to play. I have to figure it out on my own. It seems strange to me, because almost all the bands I play in, somebody says something about that.”
Perhaps Wollesen  was referring to John Zorn, with whom, several weeks before, he’d played two concerts in Paris, one placing him alongside Joey Baron; or to Butch Morris, whose conduction projects he frequently participates in; or to Stephen Bernstein in Sex Mob; or to Norah Jones and Sean Lennon. “Stephen often tells me exactly what beat to play, and he conducts the band on the bandstand,” he said. “It’s a totally different aesthetic somehow. It’s also a lot louder.”Because of these associations, listeners tend to peg Wollesen as a deep groover and texture-maker rather than a swinger. But as a teenager in Santa Cruz, California, he played in a popular local hardcore jazz unit with saxophonist Donny McCaslin, a peer, and, at the Kuumba Jazz Workshop, where he worked as a janitor in order to gain free admission, observed such drum icons as Elvin Jones, Ed Blackwell, Tony Williams, Billy Higgins, and Paul Motian on weekly Monday night concerts.
“I wasn’t into pop music as a kid,” he said. “It was just stuff that was on the radio. I was into Elvin Jones. All my friends were into that, and so was I. But I listened to a lot of different music—I played in klezmer bands, and I was really into Cecil Taylor and a lot of the really out stuff.”
Towards the end of the ‘80s, not long after he turned 20, Wollesen relocated to New York, moving into a funky apartment once occupied by Deborah Harry. “Purely for economic reasons, I made a conscious decision to take whatever work I could get,” he said. “Playing in so many different bands, different worlds—a rock band, a bebop band, Zorn or Butch—you realize that the fundamentals remain the same. You still have to take care of business, make the shit happen somehow. That means ultimately being in the moment when the music is happening, not projecting something that you learned or something that you already knew, or what somebody told you to play. If you’re still hooked into some other stuff, then you lost it. You’re not there.“I think about painters. They’ll spend hours and hours by themselves, but when it comes down to it, there’s the moment where they put the paint on the canvas. But they spend years getting to that place. It’s like that with music.”
[BREAK]

In November, the Bill Frisell Trio will tour Europe playing to movies—music from Frisell’s Buster Keaton and Jim Woodring projects, and also to a new film by Bill Morrison, who on a previous work used Frisell’s eponymously entitled 2001 encounter with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones as soundtrack music. “It will completely take us out of a lot of the things we’re playing now, force us to deal with a different batch of music, and push us into another zone,” Frisell said. “In some ways, it’s more restrictive, but I’ll have to figure out a way to keep it from being a show, where we do the same thing every night.”

Frisell, Scherr, and Wolleson sat around the same table in the same wood-paneled adjunct of the Rosetta Hotel dining room. That night, they would play their fifth concert of the week.

“I’m writing music with no parameters, which I love,” Frisell continued. “Having the film there boxes you in, in a certain way, but those limitations sometimes will push you out into someplace you’ve never been. It’s another way to get pushed into moving ahead.”They quickly turned the subject matter to qualities described in our one-on-one conversations—mutual intuition, shared language, trust.”

“The time between our gigs always seems too long, but when we get back together we start almost beyond where we left off,” Scherr said. “The conversation just keeps going. I’ve always liked being in bands that really develop something together, like when my brother and I would put together a rock band. and we’d find a drummer, and play, and it would really click, and we’d learn a lot all of a sudden and be real excited about it, and you just couldn’t wait til the next time you played. When people play music together and travel, you get in close quarters, and people’s personalities come out. A thematic language—literal language—goes around the band, a couple of terms that get used for the entire trip or something, a running joke or a running topic. Then the next trip you find new ones. Sometimes it gets totally ridiculous, like that day in Peekskill when we started playing all the major tunes minor and all the minor tunes major. It was so silly, and it had everything to do with who we are. Those kinds of things emerge when you’re not worried about making mistakes, and you’re coming up with ridiculous things because it’s fun. The music becomes less precious and opens up— you feel free to demolish stuff together, and it’s totally okay.”

Scherr gave an example.

“On a lot of tunes we’ll go through the form, and although I’m not thinking about it this way while we’re doing it, it’s like playing a game,” he continued. “For instance, at a certain point on ‘Keep Your Eyes Open’ there’s a little melody, a chord, another little melody, and a downbeat. We’ve played that tune for years, and it’s almost unbelievable how many different ways we can play that chord—a snotty little swipe at it, or a broad, beautiful way of hitting it. Often it’s being open enough to just SEE how we’re going to do it, and toss it back and forth. Sometimes it’s as simple as hitting one note or one chord together on the first beat of the measure. When I first played with Bill, I paid a lot of attention to that. Now that notion has expanded to trying not to think, just to support the new thing I hear, whatever it is, and not answer the question before it needs to be answered.”

“What you play can be determined by the way things bounce around in the room,” Frisell said. “Every day is different, even in the same room—the number of people, the air, the humidity.”

“Bill will start playing a song because something is going on in life, and usually the lyric is totally relevant,” Scherr added. “To me, listening to him is the same as listening to a person I know talk, or hearing a singer.”

“In this group, I’m trying to sing the song on the guitar,” Frisell agreed. He referenced a 2003-2005 engagement as musical director of the Germany concert series, Century of Song, in which the trio joined various singers—among them Rickie Lee Jones, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, Vic Chestnutt, Loudon Wainwright, and Chip Taylor—in creating new arrangements of iconic repertoire.

“I talked about trying to copy Pat Martino or John McLaughlin years ago,” he continued. “Now it’s more about I’m trying to copy Aretha Franklin or Sam Cooke or Hank Williams. We’ve played “Lovesick Blues” a couple of times  and I’m playing what I got from trying to get even these little nodal things he does with his voice, which is sort of impossible.”

“Bill’s got the meaning of the tune, too,” Scherr said. “Well, there is no one meaning for any tune. We played ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ a bunch of different ways, a bunch of times. But I always feel that tune means whatever it means that day, and that’s where it’s living. It’s got a lot of room to be played.”

Lunch was ready, so it was time to clear out, get on with the day, prepare for the evening’s concert. “None of this is secret,” Frisell said. “But it’s this weird, super-intimate thing that we don’t talk about. For me, playing is as close as you can get to another human being. I don’t think whatever we’ve tried to say will break anything, but it’s not remotely close to what’s happening as we’re doing it.”

* * * *

Bill Frisell Blindfold Test:

1.    Richard Leo Johnson, “Sweet Jane Thyme,” LANGUAGE (Blue Note, 2000) (Johnson, 12-string and pedal steel guitar) – (4 stars)

Holy moly!  Oh my God.  I have no idea who that is.  [How did it sound to you?] It was…nice.  I’m trying to…I’m baffled by… It reminded me of some things that I’ve heard, like, Leo Kottke do, and there was a tiny bit of some of the things that Daniel Lanois did with Brian Eno back a ways, like the sort of secondary…whether it was a steel guitar or the kind of echoey, shadowy guitar behind the acoustic guitar.  But I have no idea who that is. [Was it one or two players?  How many guitarists?] I don’t know if it was overdubbed.  But there were at least two, I think. [LAUGHS] There was…was it a 12-string? [There was one guy on a 12-string in real time.] It sounded like there was a 12-string and then some kind of more atmospheric electric guitar as a background, the sort of cloudy sound… [He was playing a pedal steel and a 12-string, so there were two guitars overdubbed.] But there was one person. [One person.  He has a technique to create several voices.  Did you like the song?] Yeah, it was nice.  It didn’t like knock me out.  It was really cool and pleasant to listen to.

I have to think about how I’m going to do the stars.  Because to me, anybody who has decided to play music should get five stars, I think. [That said, there are gradations and…] [LOUD LAUGH] You’re trying to get me to… [I’m not trying to get you to slam anybody.  But the Blindfold Test is what it is.  If you want to give everyone a blanket five stars…] I really don’t like… Well, there’s things I like and things I don’t like, and I think certain things suck, just like everybody else.  But I still…somehow… I don’t like the idea of competition in music.  Also, with what I just heard, it kind of…I couldn’t place what… I don’t know where it’s coming from or what it is.  I don’t know if I would think it was better or worse depending on where it was coming from.  I could almost hear in a film. [He laid down guitar tracks, then he sent the guitar tracks to various improvisers, and they each laid down their tracks on top of his guitar track.  (ETC.) His name is Richard Leo Johnson.] I’ve never heard of him. [This is his second record.  He plays different guitars, and he’s a virtuoso, but he only started playing full-time four years ago.  He’s 45.  And he’s from Arkansas, the north Delta.  He’s self-taught.]

It made me be curious to hear how that is juxtaposed to other things on the record.  That’s something I would go do on my own now.  I guess I’m going to have to give it five stars… [If you give 4 stars to something that doesn’t knock you out, but you like and respect it, you’re really not insulting the musician.] Okay, I’ll give it four stars. [I think if you’re going to agree to do the Blindfold Test…] I did it once before, and I gave everybody 5 stars.  But also, everything was Jim Hall and Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery.  Maybe I’ll give it 4.  Maybe that rating system will assert itself as we go along.

But a lot of it is context.  I could see this being in a film or something, or seeing it up against something else where it might be very powerful…

2.    Jim Hall-Pat Metheny, “Django,” BY ARRANGEMENT (Telarc, 1995) (Hall-Metheny, acoustic guitars) (5 stars)

That’s “Django,” I can tell you that. [at 3:35] Oh, I think I finally got who this is.  [at 5 minutes] I guess I’m ready to talk.  Is there a string quartet?  From the first moments of these strings, I thought…Jim Hall was what came into my mind, something in the sound of the writing.  Then I started listening, and I hear one guitar and another guitar, and I didn’t recognize the sound.  But when the first guitarist started playing nylon string guitar, it took me longer than what I thought it should too… I heard a bit of Pat Metheny stuff going on in there, and then I figured that’s got to be Pat playing nylon string guitar.  Then I figured… They did a duet record, but this isn’t that, so this must be Jim’s record where he did these arrangements, and the song, “Django”… [Absolutely.] Thank God I got that right.  But it was kind of confusing, because sonically it was so strange.  First I thought it was an old recording… I thought Jim Hall, and I heard the strings and I thought maybe this was going to be one of those things Jim did with Gunther Schuller years ago or something like that.  But it’s interesting how, without him playing, it fired some kind of response in my brain that me think Jim Hall right away.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m expecting at some point I’m going to hear Jim Hall in a blindfold test.  So I figured out it was Pat playing nylon string, and then Jim later playing acoustic guitar, which you don’t hear that often.  Also, I’ve never heard him make that much racket, singing along, groaning… Sonically they both sounded quite a bit different than you’re used to hearing.  But that was cool.  So now I have to give it stars.  That I’ve got to give 5.  The tune and that he could figure out something else to do with that tune, and those guys… That was great.  And it was cool to be that confused by… Those guys I’d figure I could recognize in two notes anywhere.  Is that on the record “By Arrangement”?  I should have known it right away.

3.    John McLaughlin, “Only Child,” TIME REMEMBERED (Verve, 1993). (McLaughlin, acoustic guitar, The Aighetta Quartet, acoustic guitars, Yan Maresz, acoustic bass guitar) – (5 stars)

The first thing that came into my mind was I couldn’t tell how many guitars were playing, and there’s a very low-tuned guitar, and I didn’t recognize the tune.  But then as soon as the soloist started… I was thinking, “What is this?”  Does someone have a 7-string?  It almost sounded like it could have been Johnny Smith or George Van Epps, that beautiful, just lush… I couldn’t tell how many guitars were in there.  Then as soon as my man started playing, I knew it was John McLaughlin playing Bill Evans songs with a guitar quartet.  I might even have this record. [You played some of these songs with Paul Motian.] Well, I’m not sure if I played this tune.  But I thought it sounded just exquisitely beautiful.  He keeps on being one of my heroes.  He keeps holding up.  Every time I hear him…sometimes I think he gets taken for granted a little bit.  He’s just a monster.  I remember going to hear him in Seattle a couple of years ago, and it kind of hit me in the face how heavy he is!  I don’t know what to say.  It was so beautiful to hear that orchestration, lush, thick… Whoever arranged that, it was really beautiful, just listening to the kind of written part and then real kind of moving, and when he started playing it was… He always blows my brains out.  There was one moment when I went to a Shakti concert, and I almost quit playing the guitar.  I just thought, “Man, this is hopeless.”  But it was a good moment because it made me figure out that I had to figure out something else to do other than that.  I’ll never be able to… But he’s so much more… He’s known for being, you know, fast, but he’s a soulful… And rhythmically and harmonically, so…it’s some far-out stuff he’s doing.  I can’t figure out why people don’t… He’s right in there in that line of… There’s Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery and Jim and whoever all other guys, and he’s one of those main guys for me.  Five stars.

4.    Derek Bailey, “Tears of Astral Rain,” ARCANA: THE LAST WAVE (DIW, 1995) (Bill Laswell, electric bass; Tony Williams, drums) – (5 stars)

It’s hard to talk and listen.  I think it’s Derek.  The thing that’s confusing me is… I’m going to just guess.  There’s Derek who I sort of got right away.  The other is maybe a guitar, but sounds… Is it Bill Laswell?  Because it sounds like a 6-string… It’s higher than a bass.  The distorted one is sort of… And I know Bill Laswell does that 6-string bass thing, so it must be that.  Then I know that they did a thing with Tony Williams.  I kept thinking that sounds like Tony Williams’ tom-tom or something.  It sounds like Tony Williams.  But I didn’t hear him do his Tony Williams yet!  I kept listening to be sure is that Tony.  The sound of the drums, it sounds like Tony Williams, but he was playing so
minimally.  This was also really cool, the way the thing moved forward.  There was this feel, this forward rhythmic motion.  You can’t say 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.  It’s interesting how just with the sound, they have that…a person’s sound… I heard a tom-tom, and it sounded like Tony Williams.  Is there more than one… I heard some of this, and it was really edited, and it sounded like they didn’t really put… The other thing about what I just heard is it really sounded like they were playing together in the same room.  The thing that I heard sounded much more pieced-together, like Derek overdubbed or they used a Tony drum track.  Maybe this was done that way, too.  I’m not sure.  But as I was listening, I at least felt like I was in the world of being in the same room with these guys playing.  Either it was pieced together really great or they were actually playing together.  But I think I heard that they weren’t all playing together when they did this.  That’s got to be 5 stars.

5.    Jimmy Bruno-Joe Beck, “Lazy Afternoon,” POLARITY (Concord, 2000) – (Bruno, acoustic 6-string; Beck, alto guitar) – (4 stars)

I don’t know what the tune is, but I know I’ve heard it somewhere.  I’m going to make a wild guess.  I don’t really know these people.  One of the guitars has to be a 7-string or something; it sounds really low.  I heard something on the radio, and this sort of reminds me of it.  It’s not Joe Beck and Jimmy Bruno?  I might even have heard this song on the radio.  I don’t know Joe Beck’s playing… He’s one of those guys who’s been around forever, and he’s been on a lot of records in real supportive ways, since the ’60s.  His name is always around, but it’s not like I hear a sound. Recently I’ve been hearing about Jimmy Bruno.  Talk about technique, he’s probably the most monstrous… But then I had heard a little bit of Jimmy Bruno, and I was surprised that he seemed more restrained… See, I don’t know him well enough even to know… I’m sort of assuming that on this tune Joe Beck was probably playing the melodic part and Jimmy Bruno was doing a lot of quite involved bassline and… [Oh, Joe Beck was playing that on the alto guitar.] Oh, he was.  I was thinking that if Jimmy Bruno had been playing the melodic part, it would have been twice as fast.  I heard some live thing with a bass-drum trio that was just off the scale of super fast tempo which was like how could you possibly do that… So I figured out what it was.  But that’s one of those guesses, thinking I’d heard this on the radio and I’d kind of heard about this guy.  It wasn’t based on knowing their sound; it was more an intellectual piecing-together.  It was pleasant.  It didn’t kill me or anything.  It was kind of easy… It didn’t wrench my guts out, so I’ll have to go 4.  But they definitely certainly play their instruments.  I guess there’s a thing with the guitar.  I mean, who am I to say… They can play circles around me as a guitarist.  I mean, they really play their instruments.  But I would maybe have liked to hear… The tune didn’t kill me or something.  Maybe if I’d heard them playing a tune that was richer, it would have been…

6.    A.D.D. Trio, “Three Characters, A.D.D. TRIO: SIC BISQUITIS DISINTEGRAT (Enja, 2000) (Christy Doran, guitar; Robert Dick, flutes; Steve Arguelles, drums) – (5 stars)

This is a guess again.  Is it Sonny Sharrock?  Then I’m lost.  I don’t know.  I really like the feel of the drummer, but I’m pretty well lost on this.  I might be getting in trouble here?  Is it possible that that’s Kenny playing drums?  I like this piece a lot.  But I have no idea who it is. [AFTER] Oh, Steve Arguelles!  I know him and I like him.  There was one moment I thought Robert Dick, but most of what I’ve heard of him is solo things or concert recitals, not in this… I like the feel.  Was the guitar generating some kind of loop?  I like the way the drums were interacting with that…the bass drum.  There was a moment where I thought about Joey Baron.  He had this super-low-tuned bass drum that’s really cool.  I like the feel of the drums.  That confused me, though Robert Dick flashed through my mind.  Then when he did these sort of slide things, something about the tone made me think about Sonny Sharrock.  But it was maybe a bit more reined-in than Sonny Sharrock.  I hate to give it less than 5 stars… I really liked that.  I’ll give it 5.

7.    Bar Kokhba, “Hazor,” ZEVULUN (DIW, 1997) (Marc Ribot, guitar; Eric Friedlander, cello; Mark Feldman, violin; Greg Cohen, bass; Joey Baron, drums; Cyro Batista, percussion, John Zorn, composer) – (5 stars)

Again, this is an intellectual piecing-together.  Is it Ribot?  So it’s the Prosthetic Cubans.  Then what is it?  The cello player… [Who do you think wrote the music?] I don’t really recognize it. [AFTER] Oh, okay!  Wow, now it all comes in there!  I haven’t listened to this stuff.  Now that you say it, I recognize the melodic…the thing with all the sort of Latin stuff, I’m thinking, “What…”  I recognize Ribot.  So that’s that!  That’s Cyro, and Eric Friedlander on cello.  I’ve heard so much about that band, and I think I have the CD at home in my pile of… I liked it a lot.  And Ribot sounded really cool.  He really got the killer tone on there.  I can hear that melody being played by the other Masada.  Aren’t some of these reorchestrations of that material? [He pools the book.] Right, but orchestrates it differently.  I should have known the melody.  But with that kind of Latiny stuff going on, I got sidetracked.  5 stars.  The guitar seemed sort of dominant, so I thought it was the guitar player’s thing.  He got a great tone on that.  There’s a couple of times I’ve heard him… He said he was going to give it to me.  I think he made a solo record of standard songs.  We were in the middle of the night driving somewhere, like to the airport somewhere, and Kenny Wolleson had this tape, and this thing came on, and it was “Body and Soul,” and I thought, “Who is this guy?”  It sounded like an old guy.  I mean, in a good way.  It sounded like some kind of old real guy that I’d never heard of before, and I couldn’t figure out who it was, and he was playing “Body and Soul.”  It turned out to be Ribot.  This had some of that real clean-enough but fat and kind of dirty, real good sound he got on there.  I really liked that. Oh my God. [Think older.] Well, the reason I thought Mark… I’m really going to stick my wiener out!  I heard bit of George Benson in there… [LAUGHS] I thought he’s had some impact on Mark.  Okay.  Wow!

8.    George Benson, “Hipping The Hop” (#6), ABSOLUTE BENSON (Verve, 2000) (Benson, guitar Joe Sample, piano, composer; Chris McBride, bass; Cindy Blackman, drums) (5/4 stars)

[GRIMACES] Man!  This is kind of a strange juxtaposition of things.  When it first came on, I thought it was going to be some smooth jazz thing, then it goes into… It’s an odd convergence of styles.  I’m going to guess Mark Whitfield.  The reason I say that is I heard maybe some of… Most of what I’ve heard of Mark has been more straight-ahead, and I knew he recently did something that I hadn’t heard, and I wondered if that could be it.  Wow!  Is this from George Benson’s new one?  Because I heard another thing on the radio, one song, I don’t know what it was, from George Benson’s new record.  Man, what a monster player!  The other thing I heard was a little more straight-ahead, and it reminded me of what a giant great player he is.  Christian can go from this funk thing to the straight-ahead thing, but it didn’t… It seemed a little on the light side.  The funk thing… It didn’t totally go to the straight-ahead thing and it didn’t go to the funk thing either.  The two things that were going on, going back and forth, sort of caused some restraint on either end.  It was really interesting, though.  Oh, boy, I can’t… So it was George Benson.  How is it that I get in a position that I’m sitting here talking about George Benson like I’m some kind of big-shot?  He’s a giant.  I guess it’s one of those things…the context is… He always sounds good.  It would be great to hear him play with Ron Carter and whomever and just play some tunes.  But who am I to say that?  5 stars for him and 4 stars for the arrangement.  Those guys are great.  Cindy plays great and Christian plays great.  Who knows what was going on in the…

9.    Duduka DaFonseca, “Por Flavio,” THE ART OF SAMBA JAZZ (self-produced ,2000) (Romero Lubambo & John Scofield, guitars; Nilson Matta, bass; Duduku Dafonseca, drums & percussion; Valtinho, percussion) – (

I’m getting confused.  I have to start guessing… I guess I’m obsessing over who… The guitars are very separated.  I really thought the one on the left was John Scofield.  It is John Scofield?  But I couldn’t quite get… Then I started thinking who is this other guy?  He’s playing a nylon string guitar.  I was kind of going off on who’s the drummer.  Then it sounded like there was  a percussionist.  I was thinking about Jack De Johnette for a second, but that didn’t seem right.  It’s getting more confusing.  Then I thought maybe it’s not Scofield.  There’s a lot of guys out there who picked up on some of his stuff.  It doesn’t seem quite like a Scofield record.  [It’s not.] The kind of dialogue between the two guitarists was cool.  I like that. [AFTER] I don’t know Romero Lubambo or Nilson Matta.  I knew it was Scofield, but the context seemed so… The piece was great.  I liked the two guitars going off of each other.  5 stars.  It felt great.  Oh, that’s bad.  Did I say Jack de Johnette?  I guess I was thinking too much, “if that’s him, then this must be that.”

10.    Liberty Ellman, “Blood Count,” ORTHODOXY (Red Giant, 1997) (Vijay Ayer, piano) – (5 stars)

I’m pretty sure it’s Steve Swallow.  It’s not?  Oh, my God.  That was a guitar?  It was an awful low-pitched guitar.  But it sounded like a 6-string bass to me.  Now you’ve got me really screwed up!  I just got it fixed in my brain that it was… [So it didn’t sound like any guitarist you could pinpoint.] No.  Also because it went much lower than a guitar.  I didn’t know the tune. [AFTER] I should know that tune.  I was thinking this was Steve Swallow playing his 6-string bass, just the sort of pure tone where Swallow gets this sound in between a guitar and a bass.  Now I’m really confused, because it didn’t sound like a guitar to me. [AFTER] I’ve never heard of him.  I really liked it.  I had it totally planted in my brain… I thought it was Swallow playing with Carla Bley or something.  Who was the piano player? [LAUGHS] I don’t know him either!  I heard this chord on the piano and I thought Paul Bley.  I thought Paul Bley and Steve Swallow.  Then I thought, no, that’s not Paul Bley, it’s Carla Bley.  Then I just settled into thinking that’s what it was.  I’d like to check out these guys some more.  5 stars.  Definitely his guitar was tuned…there was some super-low stuff going on there.  I’ve got to check him out.  Moments like that I really notice maybe I’ve been away from New York too much or something.  I don’t even know who any of these people are.  Not one person on this record I’ve ever heard of.  I’m old.  I’m a has-been.

11.    Kevin Breit-Cyro Baptista, “Sao Paulo Slim,” SUPERGENEROUS (Blue Note, 2000) – (4 stars)

I like it.  It’s another one of those weird juxtapositions of things.  It sounds like two kind of slide guitar guys.  Oh, it’s only one?  There’s a statement of the melody and then it sounded like another guy.  It sounded almost like another personality.  But maybe not.  Maybe it’s just the sound.  But he had sort of a… I didn’t sense it right away, but then when he played the solo I got a bit more of that country thing in there.  But then with the…I don’t know what this was.  He sounded, I thought, like somebody from down South, but then the rhythm section I couldn’t… The bass player playing all this little chordal stuff.  I think it was a bass player.  An electric bass player.  Maybe it was a rhythm guitar part that was hidden away in there.  So a kind of active… I’m just lost.  I don’t know this.  I guess I have to… Everybody sounded really great.  The tune didn’t kill me.  So I guess I’ll have to say 4.  But everybody played cool. [AFTER] Oh, shit! Oh, fuck!  Oh, no!  Oh, no!!  I asked him to send me this record.  Oh, shit!  Oh, fuck!  I love him!  I did a gig with him…we did a gig in Seattle where I had Greg Liesz… It was a thing where I had four guitarists.  I had Greg Lies, and Kevin, who has played a lot with Greg, like with k.d. Lang and… Man, I can’t believe it.  And Brandon Ross.  We sort of did a lot of my music that I had already arranged like for horns and stuff, but I had these four guitars.  And Kevin played sort of everything that anyone else wouldn’t play. Like, he had a low-tuned guitar.  So there’s a lot of overdubs on here.  Because it sounded like a band actually playing.  And he’s like a killer… Oh, he plays everything — mandolin, banjo.  I just love him, and I had such a good time playing with him.  I felt a real strong hookup playing with him.  But I never heard him play slide guitar at all, I don’t think.  It was like lap steel or whatever it was.  I don’t know how he can play all these instruments.  I’ve heard him play regular guitar, I’ve heard him play mandolin, I’ve heard him play this kind of 6-string bass guitar, and he KILLS on banjo — he really plays great banjo.  But I’ve never heard him play that slide stuff.  Wow.  Anyway, I really like him.

12.    Tim Berne-Marc Ducret-Tom Rainey, “Scrap Metal,” BIG SATAN (Winter & Winter, 1996) – (5 stars)

Well, it first came on and I thought it was Tim.  Then the guitar player started playing.  It’s interesting.  The writing is very cool, the first statement.  Is it Tim?  Thank God.  It’s weird how things… It’s cool to hear somebody after… I played with him a lot, and we’ve sort of gone on our separate ways, and I haven’t kept track of a lot of what he’s done.  This was really strong.  The writing and how the group was… This is stuff that had always been there in his music.  It’s real distinctive… It’s weird, these little electronic or whatever impulses that shoot through your brain.  Like, the first instant the thing came on, Julius went through my mind.  But then almost immediately, then, I thought, “Oh, that’s got to be Tim.”  Then I started thinking it’s really inspiring the way he… He’s stayed on his writing and…he’s stayed on this path all this time.  I felt really strong that compositionally, whatever was going… I don’t know what that was.  It’s stuff that was going on a long time ago, but you can hear how it’s…it’s just clear and it’s strange and it doesn’t sound like anything else.

There’s a lot of guitar players I’m not quite sure…I haven’t heard enough to know for sure.  Brad Schoeppach passed through my mind at one point, and then I thought Marc Ducret.  It must be Jim Black.  No?  Is it Previte?  Then I don’t know who the drummer is. [AFTER] Oh, shit!  Somehow I was thinking about Jim Black.  That’s embarrassing, because that’s another person I played with… We played a lot, like REALLY a lot, not so much gigs, but we’d get together and play for hours and hours, and I should know him.  But it’s strange, what goes on in my mind, because a lot of time has gone by, and we’re sort of off on these different… I’m over, wherever I’m playing, doing some hillbilly song, and he’s doing this.  It’s kind of…it’s weird.   5 stars.  It sounded great.  I haven’t heard Marc enough to always instantly know that’s him, but every time I’ve heard him, he’s kind of flipped me out. . I heard one time I think in Italy with this group where he just played acoustic guitar with no pickup or anything.  I’ve heard him in a lot of different contexts, and he’s just an off-the-scale great guitar player.  In this context, I thought he really sounded… There’s a kind of soulfulness in there that’s… Different people set people off in different ways.  There’s a feel Tom has that maybe makes Mark play in a certain way.  Anyway, I thought he sounded really great on that.

13.    Attila Zoller-Jimmy Raney, “Scherz 1,” JIM AND I  (Bellaphon, 1980/1995) – (4 stars)

What in the world… You’ve got me there.  I’m lost.  The recording was a little distracting to me.  The guitar in the left ear in the headphones was louder.  I mean, I’m not one to…I use a lot of reverb.  But it sounded like the reverb was kind of hitting on some stuff that was in the headphones.  Sometimes the headphones kind of amplify that stuff.  The one on the left was a lot louder.  And I kept thinking, is this overdubbed with the same guy?  Then right at the very end, the guy on the right, who was softer, came out for a moment by himself.  And I couldn’t recognize the tune.  I just felt lost, kind of.  I kept hearing little bits of something; I thought of a tune, then it sort of went off and I couldn’t follow it.  I liked the idea that there was all this dialogue going on.  It was never clear who was… I almost thought it was the same person.  Sometimes they were so on top of each other that then… Okay, tell me who it is. [AFTER] Attila crossed my mind.  Jimmy Raney was the one on the right.  I know that.  Because right at the very end he played this little phrase by himself, and it had the feel, the eighth note thing.  But the guitar player on the left, which was Attila, I don’t know his stuff that well, but… I guess it was the recording.  It was louder, and it kept sort of dominating the… I wish I could have heard it with Jimmy Raney being louder, because for me the actual rhythmic… Okay, I’ll be critical.  It was just that moment where Jimmy Raney played alone that the feel was killing.  For me, on this particular thing… Maybe it was the recording or the sound…he had also a brighter sound.  Attila seemed to dominate the whole thing.  Maybe Jimmy Raney was sort of following him.  That’s how I would critique it.  I love Jimmy Raney.  But that’s why it made sense when you said that.  4 stars.  Those guys were great, though.

14.    Brad Shepik, “Zdravo,” THE LOAN (Songlines, 1997) (Peter Epstein, alto sax; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wolleson, drums; Seido Salifoski, percussion).

Got me again.  When it first came on… For a moment I… I’m guessing.  It doesn’t sound old guys to me.  It sounds like young guys.  Maybe it’s because I’m getting old; it seemed kind of hyper, like “let’s play this thing in 7.”  But they play great.  It just had this kind of real energetic thing that… I guess maybe it’s this being the last thing, we’ve listened to all this music, and I’m ready to cool out and relax.  And there’s people… See, there’s all these guys who I should… There’s people who went through my mind.  I mean, there’s people I still haven’t heard enough to know for sure.  There was a moment I thought of Briggan Krauss when they were playing the melody, but then when he started soloing I didn’t think it was Briggan.  For a moment I thought Briggan, then again I thought Brad Schoeppach.  It was Brad?  But I don’t really know his… It’s more like an intellectual thing.  Then I thought about this group of guys who haven’t fully formed in my brain when I hear them, like Jim Black… [It was your rhythm section.] It was MY rhythm section.  Oh my God!  Now I’m really… If I say Jim Black… I didn’t recognize who it was, and so let’s think who would be playing with who.  But I also have to say that for a moment Kurt Rosenwinkel went through my mind.  So I hope these guys don’t get pissed at me for this.  I guess so much of the music that I play with Kenny and Tony is so different than that.  But I thought I would know those guys, because I’ve listened to other things they do.  When I say energetic, they’ve got a lot of energy, but a lot of stuff they play is slowpoke, right, or Sex Mob.  A lot of stuff is about these kind of slower feels.  Was this Brad’s stuff?  It sounded live.
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There were guitar players in everything, and a lot of the music I listen to is not guitar-based.  On the last blindfold test I did, there was something, and I said, “Well, that was Paul Chambers on bass and that was Philly Joe Jones… But I screwed that up bad on this one, too; saying that was Jack de Johnette.  I guess it’s weird to zero in just on guitars.  I guess there’s so many different ways.  No one has ever done a Blindfold Test with me and played Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis.  Those are the things that have affected me.  But this is good.  I hope I didn’t say anything bad about anybody.  As I get older, it’s frightening how much… There’s more and more music accumulating, and less and less I feel like I can hear it.  It seemed like 20 years ago I would spend thousands of hours with one album, listening to it over and over again, and now it’s like you’re sort of flitting from one thing to another fairly quickly. [The music is sort of like that, too.  A lot of people don’t go into one sound so much as they delve into a lot of different ways…] But it seems like a lot of people are able to actually absorb and retain a lot of stuff.  I’m less and less able to do that, and there’s more and more stuff piling up.  I have piles of stuff at home that I think “I’ve got to listen to this or that.”

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Filed under Bill Frisell, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar, WKCR

John Abercrombie’s Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test

It’s John Abercrombie’s birthday, giving me an excuse to post the complete proceedings of a Blindfold Test I conducted with him about ten years ago.  His responses were terrific.

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John Abercrombie Blindfold Test (Raw Copy):

1.    James Blood Ulmer, “Sphinx” (from MUSIC SPEAKS LOUDER THAN WORDS, DIW/Koch, 1995/1997) (James Blood Ulmer, g.; Calvin Jones, b.; Rashied Ali, d.) – (5 stars)

I love the feel of this piece.  It reminds me a little bit of something from sort of semi Sonny Sharrock, but not really.  It could be one of these Albert Ayler tunes or something like that, something in that vein.  It sounds like somebody who’s playing with their thumb a little bit, but it’s not Wes!  It doesn’t really sound like him, I didn’t know he played anything this out, but it could be… Could it be Kevin Eubanks?  It sounds too harmonically oriented to be Sonny Sharrock, but that was still my first take on it.  It still could even be somebody like that, but… James Blood?  Wow!  This is great.  I don’t know that tune.  I have to get this.  I’ve heard some other stuff by Blood and I liked it.  I have some of this stuff where he was singing that I enjoyed, but I’ll have to get this.  This definitely sounds very hip to me.  Very open.  And it’s kind of funny; that’s why I thought it was Sonny Sharrock, because of some of the similarities.  He sounds to me more harmonic.  I hear more harmonic information in his playing.  It’s cool.  And I think he does sort of play with his thumb a little bit, because it’s got a little bit of that feel.  It’s plucky.  He chokes the notes a little bit, so it… I’ll give this 5 stars.  I still like it. [AFTER] Now that you tell me it was Rashied Ali, it makes total sense, because I played with him once, and he has a great way of playing a sort of open music.  you really feel like they’re playing on a form or something.  It really has a great swing, a pulse to it.  It’s not just free.  I think that’s what makes it work.  That’s what makes everything sound so great.

2.    Gerardo Nunez, “Calima” (from CALIMA, Alula, 1998) (Nunez, guitar; Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, b; Arto Tuncboyaci, d) – (4 stars)

An acoustic guitar.  Two players or it’s overdubbed.  I hear other parts.  That first part with just the guitar overdubs was just impeccable technique, whoever it is.  I mean, it’s almost perfect technically.  But I can’t tell from that who it is.  I might know, not by the content of what he’s playing, but just somebody playing the guitar that well.  This sounds like a Spanish Classical piece.  I’ll make a stab.  It’s not that guy Fareed Haque, is it?  Fareed is so technically proficient, that that’s what this kind of reminded me of.  The little bit I’ve heard him play Classical stuff, he has that kind of flawless technique.  I like it.  The beginning was beautiful, and this has a nice rhythm feel.  The approach of the guitar player… It sounds like everything’s almost kind of written, or it’s things you would include in a Classical or a Flamenco technique.  But it’s not a famous Flamenco player, I don’t think.  Now you’ve piqued my interest.  It’s not Paco, is it?  I’ve heard Paco do things that are kind of like this, with hand drums and of course that kind of technique is akin to a Flamenco player.  So it’s definitely somebody Spanish.  I can’t guess.  It’s very nice, but I can’t figure out who it is.  I’ll give it 4 stars for the really great feel.  Flawless guitar technique.  Wow.

3.    Jim Hall-Dave Holland, “End The Beguine” (from JIM HALL & BASSES, Telarc, 2001) (Hall, g; Holland, b) – (3-1/2 stars)

The bass player almost sounds like it could be Dave Holland, playing one of his little… But it’s probably not.  The only reason I mentioned Dave Holland (and I don’t think it’s Dave) is because I’ve played little pieces with Dave where it has this kind of feel.  Dave writes some of these little Indianesque-sounding, Arabian… The bass player does sound like he has some of Dave’s rhythmic concept, but I don’t know who… [Why don’t you think it’s Dave?] I don’t know.  I have to listen more.  I have to hear him solo to really know.  [Can you glean anything from the guitar player?] I’m not gleaning well right now.  It’s someone who’s Dave-like, but I don’t think it’s Dave.  The sound is not quite what I’m used to hearing; Dave has a bigger sound.  But then, he could be recorded differently.  And Dave usually sounds a little punchier.  And also Dave has certain rhythmic phrases that he does, because I’ve played with him so much, and I didn’t hear any of those.  But it does have an aura of that. It’s Dave?  Wow.  The guitar sounds like a 12-string.  I thought maybe it was Gismonti playing the 12-string, but I don’t think he and Dave ever played together. But the opening thing didn’t sound anything like something Gismonti would play.  That sounded more jazzy.  This is definitely somebody who’s a jazz player of sorts.  I know it’s not Ralph Towner, because it’s not good enough to be Ralph Towner playing 12-string. [LAUGHS] It’s good, but it’s not like what Ralph would play.  I don’t know if he started out on this instrument.  Did he change… No, there it is.  It’s all the same instrument.  I’m not going to get it. Can you give me a hint? [You’re going to feel bad if you don’t know who it is.] Oh, I think I know who it is now.  See, that’s all you had to say.  It’s Jim.  This sounds so different than what I’m used to hearing Jim play.  Harmonically and rhythmically, some of the chords… Now it does make sense that it’s Jim to me.  But at first it didn’t.  Maybe I still have Blood’s music in my head.  Because the opening, the first reading of the opening sounded a little Delta-like.  I got Dave, though.  I was pretty sure.  This is that album where Jim plays all the different duets.  I haven’t heard it.  Not that I have to, but I’ve never heard Jim play a 12-string guitar.  It’s not the instrument he normally would play.  It’s not the most interesting thing I’ve heard Jim do, but it’s still good, and I needed a hint from you to actually figure out who it was, although I was pretty good about Dave.  3-1/2 stars.  I think if I had heard him play on an electric guitar, with his more rounded tone and the tone I’m used to, playing a similar thing, I would have probably nailed it.  But like you said, it was hearing him play that instrument.

4.    Arsenio Rodriguez, “Rhapsodia del Maravilloso” (from Sabu, PALO CONGO, Blue Note, 1957/1999) (Rodriguez, guitar; “Sabu” L. Martinez, Raul Travieso, Israel Travieso, Ray Romero, congas; Ernesto Baro, bass) – (5 stars)

That’s a different instrument, too.  That’s either a 12-string or a tres.  A tres.  I got it.  That’s not Arsenio Rodriguez, is it?  I love this stuff.  The main reason I know about him, when I used to work years ago in a band called Dreams, was a trombone player who passed away named Barry Rogers, and Barry’s second instrument was the tres.  He used to play trombone and tres with a lot of the Latin bands, and he played me some Arsenio Rodriguez and said this was the cat.  This is more in the context of a rhythm section, but the bass player is very strongly prominent here, too.  This sounds not unlike the duet with Jim Hall and Dave Holland, in a strange way, because the tres is a double-stringed kind of instrument, if I’m not mistaken.  This gets 5 stars.  I’m not surprised I got it. But once I figured out what the instrument was… I know Wes didn’t record on tres!  I can make jokes.  But I know that other people didn’t, so it has to be either the heavyweight guy or somebody I didn’t know.  Beautiful music.

5.    Nels Cline-Gregg Bendian, “Mars” (from INTERSTELLAR SPACE, Atavistic, 1999) (Cline, el.g; Bendian, drums) – (3 stars)

Definitely sounds like a real free electric guitar player, but somebody with a lot of chops.  I don’t recognize… Wow.  Twisted.  I like it.  I can’t tell from the content of what he’s playing who it is. [Do you have any idea of what it is they’re playing?] I may know it.  I’ll listen a little bit more.  That part sounds like a tune!  There are a lot of guys I haven’t heard maybe that much.  Could it be Vernon Reid?  I don’t know.  It’s too jazzy to be Vernon.  Vernon would be more like Hendrix and Rock.  This has that tone, but it’s obviously somebody who’s played… [It’s a West Coast player.] Now I know who it is.  Nels Cline.  Nels is the only guy I know on the West Coast guitar-wise who would play something that might sound like this.  It sounds great.  For my ears there could be a little more dynamics, but I’m not playing it.  It maintains a real high density level at all times.  Which I enjoy playing more than I enjoy listening to, I think.  But I like it.  It’s definitely got some harmonic knowledge and some lines that he’s using… I’ll give it 3 stars. [This is “Mars” from INTERSTELLAR SPACE] Oh, I would never get that!

6.    David Fiuczynski, “Down Under” (from CHARTBUSTERS, Hip-Bop, 1995) (Fiuczynski, guitar; Dr. Lonnie Smith, organ; Lenny White, drums) – (4 stars)

Nice guitar tone.  I like the tone.  It’s over-driven, but in a nice sort of sweet way.  I like that. That part sounded like something Scofield would play.  Amazing technique.  All these lines here are pure Scofield.  Pretty pure.  But the other stuff isn’t.  He’s a funny composite of things, real blues-drenched, a great tone, some real heavy… Those lines didn’t sound… Super slinky technique.  Amazing.  Some of it sounds pretty original.  He definitely sounds like a pastiche of a lot of different players, but amazing control.  This sounds like Larry Young almost.  Dr. Lonnie.  I could tell by these sort of broken arpeggiated things he does that kind of go across the keys.  That’s beautiful.  Now I can guess on the guitar player, and it may be a wrong guess.  Is it Paul Bollenbeck?  I’ve heard Paul play things that are technically like speed of light.  This guy’s got speed-of-light technique.  Definitely 4 stars. [AFTER] Fiuczynski!  He sounds amazing.  He really does.  It’s amazing technique.  Great lines.  Some of them directly culled from the Scofield vocabulary.  Sounds great.  Like I say, he’s a pastiche of many things.  But he sure has picked some good things to put in his trick bag.

7.    Russell Malone, “Heartstrings” (from HEARTSTRINGS, Verve, 2001) (Russell Malone, g.; Kenny Barron, p.; Christian McBride, b; Jeff Watts, d.; strings; arr. Johnny Mandel) – (4-1/2 stars)

Another great guitar sound.  I like this sound.  This sounds a little more familiar to me.  I think I know who this is.  Is it Russell Malone?  I heard this actually driving in a car one time, and I was so taken with the pretty sound he got… It really is a lovely sound.  I distinctly remember it.  When I first heard it, I wasn’t sure who it was, so it was like in a blindfold test.  I was driving my car waiting for the announcer, and I was kind of going through my mind, and Russell’s name was one of the names that popped into my head.  I don’t know his playing that well.  I’ve only heard him on a couple of things, but this is the best thing I’ve heard him do with his tone.  His solo is very bluesy, more than I’m used to hearing him play.  Maybe he’s more of a bluesy player than I realize.  I haven’t checked him out that much.  Isn’t he from Georgia?  I thought the solo was really good.  The time when I did hear this record in my car, this is exactly the tune I heard, and I was struck not only by the sound, but by some really interesting parts in the solo that I wasn’t expecting.  Because the solo has kind of a very laid-back, bluesy feel, and all of a sudden there’s these oddball notes and a couple of funny phrases.  So I thought it was a very good solo, well-constructed and a beautiful tone.  I’ll give it 4-1/2.

8.    Simon Shaheen, “Blue Flame” (from BLUE FLAME, 2001, Ark-21) (Simon Shaheen, oud; Bassam Saba, nay & fl.; Billy Drewes, ss; Adam Rodgers, ag; Francois Moutin, b; Lorenzo Martinez, bongos; Steve Sheehan, caxixi, brushes, cymbals, diembe, durbakka; Jamie Haddad, hadjira drum, cymbals, hadgini) – (5 stars)

It’s an oud.  There’s a couple of oud players I’ve heard, and one is the guy who records… I’ve heard a few.  I brought back some music from Istanbul.  But I can never pronounce this guy’s name.  Isn’t this Rabih… No?  Then maybe I don’t know who this person is.  There’s a couple of guys I used to listen to.  There’s a guy who records for ECM, Anwar, but he wouldn’t play this kind of stuff. This is more rhythmic; he’s more floaty, from what I’ve heard.  Then there’s the guy that used to make the records for Enja years ago, Rabih ..(?).. This is what it reminds me of.  I like the solo a lot, maybe more than the composition.  I like the feel of the composition, but I like the sound of the solo.  I like this part.  It’s really open. It’s almost like a jazz player playing oud.  But it’s not.  It’s an oud player playing oud.  It’s got a looseness to it, though.  Makes me want to play with a pick again, hearing some of these fast lines.  The solo was absolutely beautiful with the rhythm section.  It’s so loose.  It sounds like they’re playing in 5/4.  It takes me a while to figure out sometimes what the odd time signature is, but I’m pretty sure it was 5, which is a very hard time signature to play in — at least for me.  But it was so loose and so effortless.  And the sound of the oud, it’s like one of my favorite instruments.  It almost sounds like somebody took a classical guitar and tuned it down real low so the strings are really elastic.  It’s really one of the warmest instruments.  But this guy, I’m sorry I didn’t know him.  Now I’ll have to go and listen more to him.  5 stars.  It’s totally happening.  I wish I knew him.  Now I will know.

9.    Joe Morris, “Manipulatives” (from UNDERTHRU, Omnitone, 1999) (Morris, guitar; Mat Maneri, violin; Chris Lightcap, b.; Gerald Cleaver, d) – (3 stars)

This almost reminds me of something I did years ago with Barre Phillips and John Surman and Stu Martin.  I played on a couple of tunes on Barre’s record.  The rhythm section sounded like this, kind of in time but really kind of wacky.  This is kind of how I played back then!  It’s interesting, but I wish it was a little more cohesive somehow.  The rhythm section seems to be almost overpowering the soloist a bit.  It also could be the mix.  If you heard these guys play live, maybe it would be the opposite, or maybe it’s perfectly balanced, but it sounds a little more… The thing about this kind of playing to me is… Which is what I liked more about, say, the Blood Ulmer thing.  Even though that was rambling and a little wacky, it’s clear somehow.  It has a real cohesiveness.  This doesn’t have that.  This feels scattered, kind of.  It’s not my most favorite stuff.  It’s probably me!  I have no idea who he is.  I could make an educated guess. Joe Morris.  Wow!  I’m a good educated guesser.  I like this, but for me it lacks the cohesiveness of the Blood Ulmer thing or maybe even the Nels Cline thing you played me.  It’s in that same genre.  Well, my band can no doubt at times sound like this!  It sounds more balanced during the violin solo in terms of the actual sonic density of it.  This is another kind of music that maybe I like to play a little more than actually sit down and listen to it.  But because I play this way, I can appreciate it.  It’s fun to play this way and they sound good.  My educated guess for the violin player is Maneri.  But I don’t know him.  He sounds good.  Now the music is starting to gel for me.  Even though it’s more dense, it sounds better now.  3 stars. I like what they’re trying to do, but it doesn’t sound as cohesive as some of the other stuff to me.

10.    Kurt Rosenwinkel, “A Life Unfolds” (from THE NEXT STEP, Verve, 2000) (Rosenwinkel, guitar; Mark Turner, ts; Ben Street, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums) – (5 stars)

I’ve got to know this.  It’s probably a 7-string guitar.  Very nice.  Again, sometimes I go for the tone first.  Even if I’m not trying to figure out who it, almost all the players… Actually, everybody you played me today has a good tone, in their own way.  They’re all different, too.  Every one of them had a completely different approach to the tone of the guitar.  This sounds so familiar to me.  It’s a very nice composition.  It’s beautiful.  I think I know who this is.  I think it’s Kurt Rosenwinkel.  I know this.  This is from his second CD.  This is gorgeous.  I remember when bought this CD, and I liked the whole CD, but I remember when I got to this tune, I played it three or four times.  I had to hear it that many times.  This guy has got something that’s different.  I don’t know what the tuning is.  He’s definitely got the guitar retuned on the bottom on some lower strings.  You can hear them… A very clear but warm tone.  Again, I’m attracted to the tone, but he also is a very fluid, melodic player — lyrical, let’s say.  He also sings when he plays.  When I’ve heard him, he sings these little falsetto things.  Sometimes he’ll actually sing the lines, and he’s not just playing some blues ideas.  He’s playing some complicated lines and he sings with it.  So the response to that is he actually hears what he plays!  It’s amazing.  This is a great composition.  5 stars all the way.  Playing, composition…this is great.

11.    St. Germain, “Montego Bay Spleen” (from TOURIST, Blue Note, 2000) (Ernest Ranglin, g.; Ludovic Navarre, conductor; Alexandre Destrez, keyboards; Idresse Diop, talking drum; Carneiro, percussion) – (3 stars)

Nice groove, nice atmosphere.  It’s hard for me to tell who the guitar player is.  The actual guitar playing sounds a little more mainstream than I thought it would sound hearing the rhythm.  I thought the guitar player might play further out, but this is more in playing.  Very sparse.  He’s not playing a lot.  Sure it’s not one of my records?  No… What the hell was that?  That sounded like an edit.  I couldn’t tell; it was so strange. It’s strange, because most of what he’s playing is kind of straight, and then when he played these quirky lines, it didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of what he was playing.  This is a hard one to even make an educated guess at.  The tone is like a jazz guitar tone, a sort of brighter sound.  It’s not my favorite; I like a darker sound.  Well, that’s HIS sound.  I shouldn’t comment. But it sounds like a big guitar with sort of a bright sound, like a big jazz box — or at least a medium-size jazz box.  This one completely stumps me. 3 stars. Ernest Ranglin!  Sorry.  There’s no way I could get it.  I know the name.  Is he from Jamaica?

12.    Sylvain Luc & Bireli Lagrene, “Stompin’ At The Savoy” (from DUET, Dreyfuss, 1999) (Sylvain Luc, Bireli Lagrene, guitars) – (4 stars)

Acoustic guitar duo.  Wow, he’s so astute!  I like the way they’re breaking it up. The one guy is playing almost like a percussion instrument, tapping.  The guy playing the solo sounds very blues-like.  Good blues player.  Mmm!  I like this guitar player a lot.  Whoo!  I want to steal some of his lines.  Impeccable kind of technique, but very bluesy at the same time.  I mean, he’s not like somebody who I’d all of a sudden go, “Oh, that’s Wes or Kenny or Sco or Bill Frisell or Grant Green.”  A lot of this kind of playing… I think it’s great.  I totally admire it, and think it’s fantastic.  But it doesn’t have as much of an instantly identifiable thing.  It’s like amazingly great guitar playing.  Is this the second guy playing now?  I can’t tell.  I think maybe it’s the second guy.  It almost sounds like something I’ve heard before, but I can’t put my finger on it.  I mean, it’s “Stompin’ At The Savoy.”  I know the tune, but I don’t know the… Some of the other things you played me, I might know the player but not the tune.  Here I know the tune but not the players.  Is it Bireli Lagrene?  Yeah, and there’s another guy on this.  I’ve heard this before.  I think this is the other guy playing, but I can’t remember who it is.  Sylvain Luc.  Okay.  I may even have this.  It’s amazing playing. I’ll give it 4 stars because it maybe didn’t sound as original as some of the other things, but man, I wish I had those chops.

13.    Derek Bailey-John Butcher, “High Vortex” (from VORTICES AND ANGELS, Emanem, 1992/2001) (Bailey, guitar; Butcher, ss) – (4 stars)

Sounds like my train is here!  I’d better run and get to the platform.  It’s the 5:07; it’s in early.  I’m trying to figure out if the instrument on the right is actually a guitar, whether it’s processed, or if the bass is being bowed… Derek Bailey?  It’s a horn.  Is it a horn?  I can’t tell. Soprano saxophone?  Then maybe it’s somebody like Evan Parker.  No?  Somebody whose name I probably know, but wouldn’t be able to… [He’s English] I figured he’d be a gentleman.  I’m sure when I hear his name, I’ll know it.  I may even have played with the guy, because I’ve played with some English musicians.  This is the kind of thing that unless you really listen to this music a lot, it would be hard to tell.  But it’s instantly identifiable as Derek Bailey…because he’s instantly identifiable! [LAUGHS] It’s the least guitar-like in terms of what most of the world thinks of as guitar playing, but I knew who it was pretty quickly, whereas some of the other things I wouldn’t know, especially when it’s amazing feats of technique.  I’m impressed with that.  But I know who he is when I hear him.  So that’s kind of an interesting take on it all — style or being able to recognize somebody, even if it’s just abstract, in comparison to what you played before. I’m really nice today.  I’ll give it 4 stars.  I like it.  He sustains a mood that’s kind of interesting. It’s like free playing that’s sort of… You can go on for a long time, because the density is not so dense as a couple of the other things you played for me, that are hard to listen to.  It’s very quiet, it’s almost chamber-like, so you can listen to it and get inside it.

14.    Mark Elf, “Cheek To Cheek” (from DREAM STEPPIN’, Jen-Bay, 2002) (Elf, guitar; Neal Miner, b; Lewis Nash, d.) – (3 stars)

“Cheek to Cheek.”  Again, I know the tune.  We’ll see if I know the player.  But this sounds like somebody, just from the outset, who’s a real traditionalist.  Nice-a feel, like Lawrence Welk used to say.  They’ve got a good feeling.  This could be a lot of different people.  Again, it’s not one of the major guys that I grew up listening to.  It’s not Tal or Jimmy Raney, but it has that kind of sound.  It sounds like a more modern recording.  Nice.  It’s someone who kind of bridges.. They’re a bebopper, but they’ve also got a swing kind of feel to it.  Is it somebody like Howard Alden?  It’s great playing.  I just don’t know… It could be several different people.  That’s why I mentioned Howard.  But yeah, this is maybe a little more bebop than Howard, a little more Howard.  This has a little bit of that swing feel.  He loves the eighth note, and he manages to play just about every one.  There’s a little space.  It’s not somebody like Cal Collins, is it?  There’s a lot of these guys whose playing I’m sort of familiar with, but I don’t really know them that well. [He’s not a Concord artist] Then I wouldn’t know him.  If it’s not ECM or Concord, I’m screwed.  It’s none of the guys I really know.  And I don’t think it’s someone like Bucky Pizzarelli, because he doesn’t play this many lines.  It’s not someone I know.  It’s not Jack Wilkins.  That’s a modern voicing.  Wow!  It’s got me stumped.  I don’t recognize the bass player and drummer particularly.  Everybody is good, but nothing is grabbing me.  It’s funny, he sort of ends with something a little more modern, a little harmonically different.  The other playing was pretty inside, in a way.  It’s very good, but it didn’t strike a bell with me.  3 stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar, John Abercrombie