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Sunny Murray Still Misses That Girl

Posted by: on Jul 1, 2009 | Comments (0)

Early last week at Yoshi’s Go Left Fest, drummer Sunny Murray—easily one of the most important stickmen in 1960s avant-garde jazz—came out on stage, sat down at his kit, and started calling out for a woman he once dated in San Francisco 40 years ago. No one answered.

“You’re just hiding because you got remarried,” he proposed, directing his next comments to the imaginary husband of the absent woman. “I was going to kill her first husband, you know. Sun Ra gave me a .38. I love guns, I’ll shoot your ass, boy.”

With this, he laughed. “I’m not gonna kill you,” Murray added. “I’ll just shoot your kneecaps off.”

Murray, who established his career by drumming on famous sessions alongside Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Alan Silva, Archie Shepp and a host of other breakneck pioneers, then picked up his sticks. He is 73, and his drumming has slowed but not entirely abandoned propulsion. His trio, Positive Knowledge, played one steady stream of music for over a half hour, combining reeds, gongs, poetry and noise. For an avant-garde festival, it felt strangely behaved.

At the end, Murray was still thinking about that beautiful woman from 40 years ago who got away. He approached the microphone. “She was half Filipino, from San Francisco,” he told the crowd. “My wife took one look at her and said ‘Why’d you leave her for me?!’”

“I told her, ‘Because I love you, motherfucker!’”

Then he walked off the stage.

Live Review: Keyshia Cole and The-Dream at the Paramount Theatre, Oakland

Posted by: on Jun 23, 2009 | Comments (0)

Everything was rolling along nice and fine during Keyshia Cole’s show at the Paramount Theater in Oakland Sunday night when halfway though the set, to join Cole on “Let it Go,” who should grab a mic and emerge from the wings but… Lil’ Kim!

If the City of Oakland ever needs a fairly dependable—and loud—way to reenact the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, it should just let Lil’ Kim walk out onto the stage. The 3,000-seat theater went absolutely apeshit. Walls rattled. Fans rushed the aisles. For sixty seconds, it was uncontrolled mayhem, as if an violent act of nature was running its course. Then, with the song over, with a quick hug to Cole and a wave to the crowd, she was gone. Shit calmed down again.

Cole never quite had the crowd in her hands the way Lil’ Kim did, although not for lack of trying. Her nonstop choreography, her three wardrobe changes, her elaborate sets and gymnastic vocals all added up to an impressive display of hard work. But hard work alone is just that, and the sweat and energy Cole expels doesn’t cover up the fact that she’s touring on her weakest album yet. If Cole can get back to having classic material like “Love” and “I Should Have Cheated,” and if she can make performing those songs seem natural and effortless, she’ll be able to achieve her stated dream of headlining arenas instead of opening them—as she did the first two times I saw her, on tours with both R. Kelly and Lil’ Wayne. She’s got more talent than almost any other singer in R&B right now. She should have material to match.

After Lil’ Kim shook things up, a surprise guest visit by Too Short on “Didn’t I Tell You” was a welcome aftershock , and at the end of the set Cole took a few minutes to stop the music and thank her friends, family and fans in her old hometown for their support. She shouted out neighborhoods: “We got Murder Dubs in the house? You know I’m from Oakland when I say somethin’ like that.” It was a genuine moment, made more so at the end of a razzmatazz-filled spectacle. Then some dude took the mic and got the address of the afterparty wrong.

The-Dream is one of the greatest songwriters of the new century, and I’ve written about him a few times now. His records are brilliant in the way that early Prince records are brilliant (one of these days he will have his Purple Rain), and The-Dream’s hits for other people—“Single Ladies,” “Umbrella,” “Touch My Body”—need no introduction. But could he pull it off live, I wondered? Such is the post-ProTools landscape. I didn’t even know if the guy could sing on key.

Color me faithless. The-Dream was incredible live. Yes, he sang on key. More than that, he was simply electrifying to watch. He, too, talked openly to the crowd. Introducing “Falsetto,” a song about the noises one makes in bed, he instructed fans that “if y’all are sitting down for this song, then you’re getting’ old and you don’t know how to fuck.”

The night before the show, I drew up a set of dream Dream songs. My friend balked at “Purple Kisses,” and I felt redeemed that it was played. “Love vs. Money” also matched my expectations by being accompanied by guns fired in time to the intro’s gunshot sounds—a trick I’ve always wanted other bands to do—but died on the vine in the second verse after backup dancers interpreted a clock ticking down. Also: the first verse and the first verse only of “Sweat it Out,” rendered acapella.

The-Dream knows his hits. He interpolated both Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” at the end of “Nikki” and the Force M.D.s “Tender Love” at the end of “My Love.” He took his hat and glasses off and looked more like a completely different person than any other singer I know who takes their hat and glasses off. He swore often when talking about record executives choosing the wrong singles and his enthusiasm for the crowd’s support. His last song was “I Luv Your Girl,” and bearing witness to a theater of thousands of people singing its key line louder than any other line of the night was nothing short of incredible.

More Photos Below.

Live Review: Abdullah Ibrahim at Yoshi's

Posted by: on Jun 8, 2009 | Comments (0)

Despite that fact that most of Abdullah Ibrahim’s performance last night was a 50-minute, uninterrupted medley of themes largely in the same key and slow tempo, admiration was the prevailing response over boredom. To the uninitiated, the incessant piece seemed like the piano equivalent of stumbling into Guitar Center and hearing the omnipresent Dude Who Plays Unending Blues Riffs; Ibrahim would play a melody for a minute or two, change gears, play a different one in the same key for four minutes, change gears again and so on. Sound dull? To Ibrahim’s many fans who filled Yoshi’s in San Francisco, it was a celebration of a rich life and an underdog career.

Born in South Africa, Ibrahim’s music is inextricably linked with the political struggles of his homeland (Ibrahim’s composition “Mannenberg” was the first music Nelson Mandela heard in decades). He grew up amidst upheaval, was discovered by Duke Ellington, moved to Europe and lived in exile until returning to his home country after the fall of Apartheid. His latest album, Senzo, is a solo recording almost identical to last night’s concert: a pensive outing and essentially a 1,224-bar blues with so many chord changes that each resolution to the root seemed like a triumph.

Ibrahim said no words to the crowd, only bowing with palms together before sitting down and showing that he has aged in the best possible way. His playing could never go completely New Age or into the realm of post-Bill Evans fluidity. Ocassional four-fingered, octaved arpeggios recalled Jaki Byard, and at times his use of discord rivaled Paul Bley’s Closer. Snippets of “Memories of You” or “Round Midnight” crept into his playing, but for the most part it was all Ibrahim: a man no longer nimble, full-bodied or particularly fast at the keys, but a man playing as breathing proof that emotion and experience trumps technique.

Live Review: Abraham Burton at the Malcolm X Jazz & Arts Festival

Posted by: on Jun 1, 2009 | Comments (0)

The Malcolm X Jazz and Arts Festival is a sprawling celebration of the life and teachings of Malcolm X, spread out over a large field and four tennis courts at San Antonio Park in an area of East Oakland known more for the nightly news than for daytime festivals. Sunday’s celebration marked the ninth year of honoring Malcolm X’s life and message, and the positive vibe throughout the park was one of community empowerment and self-esteem. The lineup, too, was outstanding, with two of the finest living tenor players in the world today, David Murray and Howard Wiley.

Around the perimeter, numerous booths and soapbox stages broadcast the message of self-determination. A banner with a cleverly modified BART ticket paid respects to Oscar Grant. The food court adjoined a popular hip-hop stage with mostly younger dancers, bands and MCs. A skateboarding and graffiti court was filled with murals, some painted on cardboard, some painted on car hoods. A large memorial for Richard Masato Aoki stood between the park stages, where festival co-founder Marcel Diallo’s collective group Black New World alternated on the flatbed truck stage with headlining acts.

With all this activity, it pays to get there early. We arrived at San Antonio Park with a good four hours left of the day’s festivities, but would find we’d already missed David Murray and Howard Wiley. Murray I’ve seen before in New York, but Wiley lives up to his sly surname; I interviewed the brawny tenor player five years ago, but I’m 0-for-3 on seeing him live.

Little did we know what was in store—a welcome surprise in the form of Abraham Burton.

Burton introduced himself to the mid-afternoon scene with a subtle and wordless introduction that exploded into fire and grace with his trio. Playing both intensely and thoughtfully, his explorations cast an upper-register Coltrane-like quality with an even more abstract edge—imagine if Coltrane had recorded for ESP-Disk. After soundchecking with the instantly recognizable first four notes of A Love Supreme, he dropped both “Naima” and another Coltrane original into the set, segueing through “A Night in Tunisia” and a handful of others.

Burton, who’s recorded with a veritable who’s-who of talented underdogs including Louis Hayes, Horace Tapscott and the fantastic Japanese trumpeter Terumasa Hino, said few words to the crowd—verbally, that is. His playing nonetheless spoke volumes on its own and his trio, with childhood blood brother Nasheet Waits on drums, washed over the congregation on the lawn. The backdrop of an empty lot, an abandoned church and the distant ocean slowly turned pasty and bright as the sun hung low. Laying in the grass, eyes closed, you’d swear you were at Newport in 1965.

More Photos Below.

Live Review: Bettye Lavette at the Independent

Posted by: on May 11, 2009 | Comments (0)

Of all the ways to shoot down a heckler, Bettye Lavette has the most effective method by far.

During Lavette’s heart-stopping, unfathomably brilliant performance Friday night at the Independent in San Francisco, after the same fan had three times been denied the same request for the Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me,” she strutted right up to the gentleman, demanded “What did I tell you?!,” and planted a big kiss right on his lips.

The guy didn’t shout anything for the rest of the set—or, if he did, he was drowned out by the chorus of cheers that followed every song, every story, every single outpouring of emotion uprising from every cell and molecule in the depths of Lavette’s body and up to her throat and out of her mouth.

Lavette’s story by now is one all to familiar, even if her music is not: supremely talented singer eludes solid footing at record labels and languishes in obscurity until rediscovered decades later and, at least in Lavette’s case, sings Sam Cooke songs for Barack Obama. During a medley of early hits on Friday, Lavette ran down a quick biography by year: “By 1963 I thought I had grown,” she said, introducing “You’ll Never Change.” “I thought I was a star. I made this record, an’ boyfriend”—putting her hand on the shoulders of a man in the front row and staring him straight in the eyes—“it did not sell one copy. But I made it, I liked it, and I’m gonna sing it for you.”

Or, leading into her career-defining hit “Let Me Down Easy”: “This is the single recording that has literally kept me alive. When there was still black radio, this was number one in San Francisco,” she said to the blue-eyed crowd, “and I’d like to introduce it to the rest of you.”

And yet a good story alone does not a stellar performance guarantee. What sealed the night as Lavette’s—and not Booker T.’s, the headliner—was the constant intensity of her presence. During the third number, a beautiful, achingly pleading version of Willie Nelson’s “Pick Up My Pieces,” the sold-out club was pure silence, save for the whirring of the drummer’s electric fan. During “Souvenirs,” the John Prine song that she credited Village Music’s John Goddard for introducing to her, she sat on the floor of the stage, sometimes singing off-mic and holding the audience rapt.

And yet Lavette wasn’t all poignancy and heartache. In high-heel stilettos, she stomped, kicked, danced and jumped across the stage, delivering hip bumps on the beat and grinding away with guitar solos. By the end of the set, after leaving the stage, the applause was so strong that the soundman turned down the house music, Lavette came back out on stage, and she stood there awestruck, genuinely grateful for the turn in her career and the chance to sing again for a receptive audience.

And then, Bettye Lavette clutched the microphone and alone, sang an unaccompanied acapella of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” She dominated the song, set the microphone down, waved, and left the place in disbelief.

Booker T. didn’t have a chance.

Set List:
The Stealer
Take Me Like I Am
Pick Up My Pieces
It Ain’t Easy
How Am I Different
I Guess We Shouldn’t Talk About That Now
-1960s Medley-
You Don’t Know Me At All
Souvenirs
Right In The Middle
Before the Money Came
Heaven

I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got

Live Review: Bassnectar at Hopmonk Tavern

Posted by: on May 5, 2009 | Comments (2)

It’s unlikely that Sebastopol is going to see a Monday night anything at all like this for the rest of the year. It felt like Bassnectar’s show at the Hopmonk was everything that the old stone building was built for, all those eons ago: “Avast! One Monday, these walls shall absorb the Earth’s pinnacle of gut-rumbling bass. Build strong, gentlemen!”

Yes, the bass could be heard two blocks away. I am surprised the windows are intact. Inside, the sweet combination of smells that only a packed club creates, fueled by Bassnectar’s singular style that had fans driving from hours away (the show was sold out days ago, but if you had a $20 bill, or a good story about your car breaking down, or were pregnant in a tube top and skirt, the guys watching the side doors seemed amenable).

Bassnectar has been in heavy rotation around these parts, and once an album receives that distinction, it’s time for the knighting ceremony, a.k.a. putting it on cassette. The Side Two to my Bassnectar Underground Communication tape is Spank Rock’s YoYoYoYoYo, a record which shares a lot of the same breakbeat production but has rapping, which is nice. One of my favorites from that album is “Bump,” with a killing verse by Amanda Blank. She’s got a solo album out in June, and judging by the first peek, it looks to deftly rule.

For those who weren’t able get in tonight, across the alley at Jasper O’Farrell’s was the place to be, at the long-running Monday Night Edutainment (“WBLK a dun di place every Monday at Jaspers.” “Seen? Yes Iyah! I-man WBLK a wickid!”). Jacques and Guacamole come up on eight years this summer, and they bring back the Coup’s Pam the Funkstress on June 1 to celebrate. Before that, for some of the best in Bay Area beats, Hopmonk’s got Greyboy coming in on May 14’s Juke Joint, too.

I sometimes have a hard time explaining to adults why a crowd can get excited about a person on stage pushing buttons. I’d hope that tonight would set some of the naysayers straight, if only for variety alone—it’s the only set I’ve heard that’s referenced the Gorillaz, Bill Haley, and “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun.” One thing, though, is undeniable: Sebastopol is whipping Santa Rosa’s ass on Monday nights. I drove home, brain still slightly curdled, and downtown Santa Rosa felt like a whimpering dog with its tail between its legs in comparison.

On the Stereo: Many Thoughts, One Myc

Posted by: on Apr 29, 2009 | Comments (0)

I write this week about the new hip-hop compilation released by teenagers in San Rafael, Many Thoughts, One Myc, which is as pure a representation as possible of what kids are thinking, hoping, wishing for, copying, creating, decrying and delineating in Marin County. Not everyone wants to grow up to drive their PT Cruiser to yoga class, it turns out. Even intellaFLOW’s track “GoodLife”—he’s the focus of the article—puts a realistic bent on what defines success: “A little bit material,” he raps, “and a little bit spiritual.”

I wasn’t able to talk up the rest of the CD in the paper’s limited space, but Many Thoughts, One Myc reflects a post-Hyphy Bay Area, where stunna shades might be dead but the beat goes on. Consider it a gas, brake, and dip—with a left turn added. Characteristic of the album is Bay S.L.A.M.’s “We From the Bay,” which preaches unity among all races, and H-Block’s piano-driven scraper anthem “Fast and Furious,” which makes me wish I didn’t drive a clunky 1989 Ford van.

Two tracks in particular stick out: the dark instrumental “Flatline’s Slap,” by quiet, 15-year-old producer Flatline. He loops a didgeridoo sound over perfectly synched bass and drums, and when the hi-hats come in, it kills. The flipside is “Taste My Rainbow,” an incredible spoken-word piece from Chinita, which stresses maintaining mentality, showing confidence and staying true to oneself in the face of haters. I’m not sure the BPMs match up, but the two are begging to be mixed together.

Many Thoughts, One Myc can be ordered here.

Arcade Fire: Mirroir Noir DVD

Posted by: on Apr 28, 2009 | Comments (0)

Who will be the next U2? Spike and I discussed it the other day, and even three years ago, the Arcade Fire were the only serious contender; Mirroir Noir cements it. They have uplift, they have bombast, and now they have the requisite artistic film-document thing. I did not come right out and say that they were the next U2 in this Neon Bible review, but read between the lines.

Wasn’t Neon Bible, like, so 2007? To be reminded of it now by this DVD is to force a reassessment. I was interested in its haunting quality. In hindsight, I don’t understand what the album’s uncertainty was all about. Wasn’t uncertainty, like, so 2002?

Love how her feet manage themselves when she plays the pipe organ. Think that the band is giving Bjork a run for her money in the “everything is music” department. Magazine ripping is percussion, and it is done together! Everything is done together! We dance in the studio! We dance backstage! Two people beating on a cymbal is better than one!

No song is completed all the way through. People walk across parking lots. People swim in the 1920s. The illusion of falling. Hypnosis. When your eyes are half-closed, distant lights become circles. People call in and hypothesize about the meaning of “neon Bible.” On and on. What it means is religion is chintzy. No uncertainly required.

Dear Arcade Fire: The longtime host of The Price Is Right is Bob Barker.

“Power Out” and “Rebellion (Lies)” happen at the end, reminding you that Funeral was way better. My favorite Neon Bible moment was one that didn’t happen on the album, nor did it happen in this DVD. It happened when Bruce Springsteen gave his approval by covering “Keep the Car Running” at a show in Ottawa, and when a fan in the crowd was completely overcome with joy, surprise, happiness, confusion, elation and disbelief all at once.

Live Review: Throbbing Gristle at the Grand Ballroom

Posted by: on Apr 24, 2009 | Comments (0)

In the further adventures of Throbbing Gristle as the most ingratiating band on the planet, the four original members turned on all the house lights in the Grand Ballroom last night, uncoiled an incessant low, seraphic noise from the stage, and started their first set in San Francisco since 1981’s famous show at Kezar Pavilion with “Very Friendly,” a peppy little tune about murdering children.

“No matter how fucking loud you yell,” declared a sort-of-almost-halfway-transgendered Genesis P-Orridge, “my voice will always be louder than yours.”

That could very well be Throbbing Gristle’s motto: Our voice will always be louder than yours. Of course, the band was quiet for years. In the aftermath of the Kezar show, they stopped performing, and the live album from that swan song, Mission of Dead Souls, served as a final spurt from one of the world’s most abrasive, interesting and unique groups. Last night’s return to the city of Dead Souls was a historic event, yes. It was also a sonically vicious onslaught, and its voice, definitely, was louder than yours.

In front of the speakers was not the healthiest place to be standing, where both physical and mental faculties were repeatedly strained by jarring stabs of digital knifeplay from the laptops of Chris Carter and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson. And yet in front of the speakers was the most appropriate place to fully absorb the live experience, a full-body workout unavailable on Throbbing Gristle’s albums. The health of their audience is not a concern. The bass sounds blew loose-fitting clothes with each gut-churning wallop; up in the piercing tweeter range lay Cosey Fanni Tutti’s slide guitar abstractions; and in the middle of it all, the soul of the band, P-Orridge, delivering litany after litany on death, bondage, masturbation, mayhem and disorder.

In a blonde wig, orange blouse, pink skirt and brown vest, the bosomed P-Orridge commanded the stage, intractable during the frightening narratives of classic Throbbing Gristle material like 20 Jazz Funk Greats’ “What a Day” and “Persuasion,” and Mission of Dead Souls‘ “Something Came Over Me.”

A dash of humor came when a note was thrown on stage. “Genesis: Thank you for creating you,” P-Orridge read out loud, reciting the note. “Love, Stephanie. Call me.” Then, to make sure that everyone had a chance to write it down, P-Orridge twice read off Stephanie’s phone number. “Stephanie has brown hair, a blue dress, some cleavage,” he continued, “and she’s ready to be created with you.”

For as much as P-Orridge is painted as an antagonist, an iconoclast, and an artistic anarchist, he is still, in his heart, a human being. During the lone song played last night with the lights dimmed, the new song “Almost a Kiss,” he stepped back from each verse to unfurl his arms and plead to the skies for a love that had mysteriously disappeared. It was a dark, revelatory moment, unveiling the universal sadness that is so often shrouded in Throbbing Gristle’s industrial venom.

The show ended sweetly, with P-Orridge introducing his daughter Genesse to the crowd, and concluded with a long, long version of “Discipline,” which the up-till-then staid crowd took to heart by finally becoming undisciplined; bodies started moving, someone in the back dropped their drink, a fight broke out in the balcony. Finally, all the ingratiation had worked. Finally, Throbbing Gristle had made their grand return. And just like that, with an appreciative bow and no encore, they were gone again.

More Photos Below.

Live Review: Adam Theis' 'Brass, Bows & Beats' at the Palace of Fine Arts

Posted by: on Apr 19, 2009 | Comments (2)

Last night, the City of San Francisco belonged to Adam Theis.

At 8:06pm, the lobby of the Palace of Fine Arts was full, over a hundred people, with two lines for will call and another line for ticket purchases. Inside the theatre, all seats were occupied; standing-room overflow lined the aisles. Onstage, the orchestra had already begun playing, trying to fit as much music as possible into the tiny time frame allowed.

At the front was the man of the hour, Adam Theis, conducting this impossibly huge ensemble after a year of nonstop writing. San Francisco’s own Theis—of the Jazz Mafia, the Realistic Orchestra, the Shotgun Wedding Quintet and an upbringing in Santa Rosa—stood casually in sneakers and a hooded sweatshirt, overseeing the premiere of his magnum opus and life’s work thus far.

This is no local-boy-makes-good story. After the incredible composition unveiled last night, it’s time to stop with the hometown platitudes and officially herald Adam Theis as a major talent.

Brass, Bows & Beats is a work on par with Miles Davis & Gil Evans’ Live at Carnegie Hall or Charles Mingus’ Epitaph—visionary in scope, staggering in depth. Rarely have I heard live music of greater variety without the variety itself taking center stage. If there is a dominant theme to the work, it is that we are all one, and it makes its case with dizzying arrangements, evocative poetry and an impossible-to-resist urge to get down.

In the great jazz tradition, Adam Theis has spent ten years playing virtually nonstop in San Francisco’s small nightclubs. Sometimes he’ll play a whole set of loose, free-form funk songs. Sometimes he’ll stick to strictly jazz. Lately he’s been showcasing special sets of instrumentals sampled by De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, bringing attention back to the sources of classic hip-hop songs. Beats, Bows and Brass combines all of this activity with cerebral aplomb and an unerring personality that widely circumvents the rudimentary hokum of early jazz/hip-hop hybrids like Jazzmatazz or Hand on the Torch.

Theis conducted his 48-piece orchestra, played trombone and bass, spoke humbly between segments and animatedly tossed his charts to the stage floor throughout the performance. He allowed his players, and particularly his vocalists, to take the limelight. He stepped aside when violinists Anthony Blea and Mads Tolling went head-to-head in the dual jazz improvisation “Blea vs. Tolling”; when rappers Lyrics Born, Aima, Dublin, Seneca and Karyn Paige evoked the Mission District in “Community 2.0”; and when DJ Aspect McCarthy scratched along to beatbox breakdowns while the brass section swelled and ebbed dramatically.

On the surface, Brass, Bows & Beats is akin to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in that it brings a genre associated with black music into the symphonic realm. Theis does the same for hip-hop with Brass, Bows and Beats, but a closer cousin is Gordon Jenkins’ 1949 vignette Manhattan Tower, in which a great city is realized through a work of music that feels as alive as the city itself. Without a doubt, Brass, Bows & Beats is the sound of San Francisco in 2009; intelligent, soulful and diverse.

Once the official symphony was over, a second, looser set opened with an Astor Piazzolla song featuring Colin Hogan on the accordion. Joe Bagale brought the house down with his soul cry “Love Song,” and Jon Monahan conducted Eric Garland’s “Arc Line.” Those awaiting a party-rocking amalgam—in line with the Jazz Mafia’s many nights at Bruno’s—were rewarded near the end when the intensity level was raised markedly by Lyrics Born, who had been a small accessory to the first set.

Working the front of the stage, Lyrics Born brought the entire Palace of Fine Arts to its feet with full-orchestra versions of his own album tracks. A slow, sultry “Over You” and the hands-in-the-air “Hott 2 Deff” balanced the serious nature of the first set; the veteran Bay Area rapper then joined a full-frontal freestyle by all six vocalists for a television crime drama “Streets of San Francisco / Theme from S.W.A.T.” medley, arranged by Jeanne Geiger, that thrillingly increased in tempo toward the euphoric finish of a great night.

Attention, rest of the world outside the Bay Area! Adam Theis and the Jazz Mafia: Recognize!