Behold the great and glorious wonder of music and its neverending mindbend. Behold works of greatness trailblazing and incomprehensible. Behold Electric Masada last night at Yoshi’s.
Last night, Zorn ended his five-day residency at Yoshi’s with an explosive band that made everyone in the San Francisco audience feel giddy and made his famous hardcore-jazz albums Naked City and Torture Garden seem like mere novelties in comparison. Electric Masada, an 8-piece grouping of John Zorn, Jamie Saft, Trevor Dunn, Kenny Wollensen, Joey Baron, Cyro Baptista, Ikue Mori and Marc Ribot is not something that can be easily described in words.
Here’s some: Celestial roadkill. Controlled chaos. Blatant intensity. Eruptive slaughter. Unbridled jubilation.
The hyper-prolific Zorn, aged 55 with no trace of mellowing out, spent the evening with his back to the crowd, “playing” the seven other musicians like instruments with a series of complex hand signals. He’d point to Saft to play a solo, then wiggle his outstretched fingers to Baron, who’d rattle on the cymbals; he’d pull his hands apart and chop the air, whereupon the band would fall on a series of whole notes; he’d shake his finger up and down for Ribot to trill two notes, swing his arms up to increase Wollensen’s volume or point rapidly to individual members in succession to create a stereo ping-pong effect before pointing at his head to take everyone back to the top.
It was an full-body galvanizing experience, somewhere between Alan Silva’s Seasons, Black Sabbath’s Masters of Reality and Andy Statman’s Jewish Klezmer Music. On Thursday, while watching the Masada Quartet, the crowd was enveloped inside Zorn’s music, trying to place its brain inside of his and meditating on how it might be mentally constructed. Last night there was no choice but to sit in the chair and let the waves of sound rush by.
Electric Masada is the great and ferocious culmination of jazz’s goal toward spontaneous composition in action. During the third song, Ribot took a solo, in fits and starts. After nothing really gelled he gazed up at Zorn with a look that said, “Well, I’m done.” Zorn ignored him, and kept working the rest of the band, pulling his hand at Ribot for him to keep going.
There’s a certain frustrated freedom that comes with doing something you’ve indicated that you don’t want to do, and it was with such freedom that Ribot’s solo immediately transformed from a standard-issue blues-rock housing to the totally unique Marc Ribot that Zorn well knows looms right under the surface.
Suddenly wailing, Ribot held it down while Zorn motioned around the room for certain sections to fall apart, to go half-time, to stop entirely for a few seconds. Each twist brought out even more invention and snake-like tenacity in Ribot, and soon he didn’t want to stop. Zorn bit his reed, leaned into the mic and growled his approval.
Baptista swung a plastic tube over his head. Zorn and Mori traded high-pitched saxophone and laptop tweets. Wollensen and Baron thundered in and out of time on two drum kits. Saft and Dunn held down what shards of groove were left on a vintage keyboard and bass. And then, Zorn banging his hand against Ribot’s shoulder, he swirled his palm around and brought the whole thing to a forceful, sudden, distorted end.
No one in the standing ovation that followed is likely to ever forget it.
How in the hell to describe the show I saw last night?
I could start by explaining that John Zorn plays “radical Jewish culture” jazz, though no socio-psychological theory applies. Not, at least, on the surface. What John Zorn has done with his Masada quartet is to essentially cohere the souls of four musicians and thrust them up as one giant, overwhelming force.
Intellectualizing it is about as useless as humping a flagpole.
John Zorn is not a very imposing man, nor a particularly recognizable one. A friend at Amoeba tells the story of his being denied a sale for not having ID to go along with his credit card (another employee recognized him, and intervened). He arrived on stage last night in camouflage pants, a red T-shirt, a black sweatshirt and tassels. He barely spoke to the crowd, other than to introduce the band, and to field a shouted “Thank you!” by shouting back “No, thank you! The worst part is, we’re not getting paid to do this. We’re getting paid to travel.”
Indeed, the $50 ticket price went largely toward the cost of flying 21 different musicians and instruments from the East Coast who are taking part in Zorn’s historic five-day residency here at Yoshi’s. Every night features a different band, with a different concept and approach. $50 might seem steep to some, unless one considers the rarity of his Bay Area performances. (Masada last played in Oakland ten years ago.) Here’s my advice. Beg, borrow or steal. Raise the $50. Go see John Zorn at Yoshi’s.
Yes, it sounds like a spiel from one of Zorn’s many diehard followers, who are glossy-eyed in their reverence for the man to the point of extreme narrow-mindedness. We’ve all known people who preach the gospel of Zorn, listen only to Zorn, and eschew other musics as lacking sufficient Zorniness. Do you want to join Heaven’s Gate, they ask? Zorn, Zorn, Zorn, they chant.
But the truth is that to see Masada last night was to be baptized in the blood. The opening: a slow, simple melody. A little flourish here and there, basic all around. It grew, slowly. The control and restraint, the fluid incremental rise into exhortation, the climbing atop of each other until the song’s peak with everything before it laid visible and small. Gliding, and out, and holy shit.
The songs, fine and modal as they are, didn’t matter; it’s what this band did with them. We caught the 10pm set, which featured compositions from Book II of the Masada songbook—songs that the group is not nearly as familiar with as Book I. Rather than an obstacle, this was a blessing of innocence and discovery.
Joey Baron smiles widely while playing incredibly, and his solos were among the most lyrical drum solos ever. Greg Cohen’s interplay with Baron couldn’t have been more prescient, as he’d anticipate where Baron’s playing stopped to slide into his own incisive solos. Dave Douglas and Zorn were just as in step with each other, listening for the slightest fluctuation to capitalize upon in each other’s eruptive bursts, with Douglas at times running around the stage.
And Zorn. Does he have an endless reservoir of tone? Does he carry the history of every saxophone player before him and take that history to new places of imagination? Does he play with his mouthpiece upside down? He bogglingly unleashed his circular breathing, rabidly dancing lines and his trademark growl throughout the hour-and-a-half with just a tiny sampling from his hundreds of compositions. Is he a genius, or merely possessed?
On the way out, we bought tickets for Sunday. Euphoria carried me home.
Billy Corgan made a less-than compelling case yesterday before Congress in support of the Performance Rights Act, which would force radio stations to pay royalties not only to the songwriters of the songs they play but to the performers on those songs as well. It’s a nice thought and all, especially considering stories such as Standing in the Shadows of Motown, but not a very nice thought when considering Billy Corgan, who is a multimillionaire.
Though I myself am a music performer who has been played on the radio, I’m against the Performance Rights Act and I’ll tell you why. It should have been enacted 60 years ago, when the “hit single” came into being and when radio had the prominence to absorb such payments. Corgan states the laws on radio compensation haven’t changed for 80 years. That’s the very reason radio can’t bear the undue burden.
The business model of radio stations has evolved around the long-held and reasonable idea that it’s the record labels’ responsibility to compensate their performers. Radio advertises the record, the public buys it, and the artist gets whatever deal the artist signed with the label for.
If the artist signs a shitty deal (all major label deals are shitty deals), or if the label is stiffing the artist, or—this one’s good—if the digital age comes along and destroys music sales, why go after analog radio? Simple: because people like Corgan can. Because it’s there. He can’t demand money from “sdream75,” an anonymous user who can’t stop uploading torrents of Siamese Dream, but he can go after radio stations, who are one of the few institutions left in the music business doing the relatively right and honorable thing.
The Performance Rights Act would misdirect understandable frustration with the self-cannibalization of the music industry at large toward a valuable—and similarly struggling—friend of the performer. It would absolutely kill small local stations like the KRSH. What we’d be left with is ClearChannel stations with corporate-issued playlists, prerecorded shows streaming from a computer, and DJs who may as well be programmed robots.
Incidentally, Corgan also spoke out a few weeks ago in support of the Ticketmaster / Live Nation merger (he’s managed by Ticketmaster CEO Irving Azoff), which officially makes him a mouthpiece of the devil.
Shea Stadium, July 13, 1977. 9:30pm. A 28-year-old slugger best known for punching out his former manager steps up to the plate against the Cubs. Bottom of the sixth, Mets are losing. Suddenly – POOF.
The New York City blackout of 1977 would become notorious. In the 24 hours of darkness, the city was ridden with looting, fires, arrests and a neverending din of blame. But what of Lenny Randle, the batter left at the plate?
Evidently, in 1983, Lenny Randle teamed up with fellow Major League Ballplayer Thad Bosley—they both had afros, they both loved music. They chipped off some of their pro sports salaries and went into the recording studio. They released three records, which somehow caught the ear, 25 years later, of People’s Potential Unlimited, who have just re-released four songs on Ballplayers, a 7″ EP. It sucks so bad that it doesn’t suck, if you get what I mean.
1983 was a weird time in music—the sound of electronic synthesizers, especially, was in flux, hovering between the modular analog Arp sound and the now-classic Casio sound. Funk music in 1983? Forget about it. Disco had leveled the scene. Those who tried failed in spectacularly awkward fashion, which is why now, of course, everyone wants to hear the stuff. Enter PPU, who’s been reissuing the era, and Ballplayers.
“American Worker” kicks things off with a Springsteen anthem via drunk O’Jays and terrible lyrics. If this is the theme for the American worker, then c’mon, unemployment. “Bos Music” is basically some drum machines with a poorly-played outtake from the War Games soundtrack. But things pick up on Side Two, with “Universal Language”—boogie handclaps by just one guy, hand drumming on a plastic bucket, space disco, wah-wah guitar, and the cruddiest breakdown of the early ’80s! (There’s competition.) There’s also no way, on top of it all, to resist “Jam With Us,” wherein Bosley and Randle repeat over a totally killer bassline, “Don’t you wanna jam with us?” Of course, the answer’s yes, because though they might have been intimidating ballplayers, their musicianship is on a level that just about anyone could join in, no prob.
As for that postponed game at Shea Stadium in 1977? The game was resumed—two months later. The Mets still lost.
If you decide to order Ballplayers and wanna pick up some other People’s Potential Unlimited releases while you’re at it, here’s a few good ones:
Sir Bentley, “Sir Bentley Street Shuffle” – The sound of a slicked-out player in a polyester suit sliding down a 1976 side street, giving breathy directions. Whether they’re to the listener or himself, it’s hard to tell, and hardly matters. There’s a bitchin’ conga solo, and backup vocals that sound like they’re sung by iguanas. B-side is the extended version.
Crunch, “Cruise” b/w “Funky Beat” – Totally unbelievable analog entanglement, enjoyable at both 33 and 45 rpm. Kinda like if Liquid Liquid were more into meth. Every single fret buzz and pick sound is audible on the bass—a Hohner? a Rickenbacker?—and when the vibrato synthesizer hits near the end it’s like the arrival of the Zyklon droids. “Funky Beat” finds Crunch fucking around with the portamento switch and rapping in a horny Dracula voice about how funky the beat is, in spite of the fact that the beat is not really funky.
George Smallwood, “Lady Disco” b/w “Mr. Sunshine” – A man describes his plight: His girl cannot stay away from the disco floor. How can he keep up? Especially when she is the type of girl who warbles “III Liiikee Myyy Dannnncceiinngg!” after every chorus? Hence, the eternal struggle. Her man, or the disco ball? He accuses her of making “disco babies,” and the song fades with no resolution. (How many songs start with a hi-hat solo?) “Mr. Sunshine” gets a genius shuffling drum beat, at times totally rushed and wrong. But I get it. Sounds like something DFA would put out, except they’d make it slick and perfect. This isn’t even close to perfect, and it’s beautiful.
My man Jay Howell had to bow out last night, which meant that yours truly played records for four hours straight at Jason Vivona and Brian Henderson’s art show at Daredevils & Queens. I say “played records” instead of “DJed” because unless you’re matching beats and blending mixes, I don’t really consider it DJing. “DJing” also insinuates the presence of dancing, and luckily, that was not on the tab.
The events at which I’ve been behind the decks before—weddings, parties, and once, Rock ‘n Roll Sunday School—have always carried the pressure to supply rhythm of appropriate popularity and/or contagion for body movement by the masses. That’s nice if you’re trying to make more friends but a nightmare for me, and I was glad to evade that pressure by asking Vivona beforehand if I could play Born Against. He’s got a D. Boon tattoo on his hand. He said yes.
Correspondingly, Vivona and Henderson’s art doesn’t exactly cry out Rapture mashups and Lady Gaga. Vivona paints psychedelic characters with ooze for heads and Playmobil toys for penises, usually staring into nothingness with 28 eyeballs. Henderson photographs the undead; his bodies splayed out in abandoned warehouses, contorted, naked and covered in blood. Thus: Flipper, Archeopteryx, City of God, Lightning Bolt, Dewey Redman, Battles and of course, the Minutemen. There’s only one thing I love more than playing records for four hours straight, so thanks, guys, for having me.
I should let you know that on May 23, I’ll be joining my friend Larry Slater for his Jazz Connections radio show on KRCB. We too will play records for four hours straight, except that all of those records will be by Charles Mingus. Since I have more records by Charles Mingus than by any other jazz artist (unless, like me, you count Frank Sinatra as a jazz artist), this is a natural fit; Dr. Slater and I will cue up, play, and discuss the great man’s music, about which there are an infinite number of insights to make. (I’m still working on my volatile axe-throwing accusatorial temper-tantrum Mingus impersonation for a special segment called “What It Was Really Like To Play In Mingus’ Band.”) That’s on KRCB, 90.9 FM, on Saturday, May 23,from 8pm-midnight.
How about Devendra Banhart coming to the Mystic? How about Bassnectar coming to the Hopmonk? How about K’Naan being marketed through MySpace and MTV instead of NPR? Oh, wait. Sorry. The NPR interview’s here.
Halfway through “Swagga Like Us,” Torman Jahi hopped on stage at the MYC, got the people on their feet, and then passed the mic one by one to a group of young rappers for a full-on all-ages posse cut. Some of ‘em killed it, some of ‘em rapped the alphabet, and some essentially trainwrecked, but all of ‘em got cheered. Come to think of it, the guy who trainwrecked got cheered the loudest.
This is the philosophy of the MYC, or Marin Youth Center, in San Rafael. Everyone gets a shot, and everyone gets support no matter what. This would be laudable enough by teen center standards, but there’s the extra added benefit that the shit happening at the MYC is actually completely cool. Forget cookies and punch; over the last two years, they’ve been hosting jazz groups, school-of-rock band camps, hip-hop sessions, recording workshops, acapella groups, art programs, breakdance troupes, cooking classes and far, far more.
On Friday night, the MYC opened the doors in downtown San Rafael and invited the public for an open house. It’s got that Emeryville loft thing goin’ on, with exposed rafters and ducts in the main performance room. Elsewhere, the walls boast posters of Malcolm X, bulletin boards warning of the dangers of smoking, a framed certificate for the current champion of the pool table, and tons of photos chronicling the varied activity that takes place here. It’s a new building, with a tinge of the municipal. That feel will surely and eventually lose out to the very communal and cutting-edge spirit of the place.
The band, from the Oakland School of the Arts, was ruling it. Three female singers with stellar pipes, all still in high school. Three guys on bass, drums and keys, layin’ it down on covers of “American Boy” and “Crazy in Love.” To close the night, ‘Til Dawn, an acapella group who rehearses at the MYC, took the stage. They sang “Tell Me Something Good,” “Steal My Kisses” and “Something to Talk About”—and were great. As I left my too-brief visit, kids with cameras ran back to the high-tech studio to edit their video footage while visitors and young staff were clustered around a pool game, dancing and singing “Ms. Jackson.”
I know it must be a common reaction, but where was this place when I was a kid?
More photos below. (more…)
Plenty of acapella groups these days, especially college acapella groups, revel in the cheekiness of performing unlikely songs in an acapella style. So many, in fact, that the “offbeat” performances are the majority, and the unlikely becomes likely, and the old-timers in the audience long to hear “Heart of My Heart” or “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball” instead of “Carry On My Wayward Son.” This doesn’t make hearing fantastic versions of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” or John Legend’s “It Don’t Have to Change” any less enjoyable, but it does mean that sometimes, acapella groups act more like a DJ whose sets are all about selection instead of technique. Mika’s “Grace Kelly” is not necessarily made good simply because it has been chosen, nor is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” going to further bless an overly “Hallelujah”-ized world due solely to being performed without instruments.
Many of these interesting experiments reside on YouTube, but last night, they arrived live and in-person at Napa Valley Union High School’s theater. The 4th Annual Acapella Extravaganza contained plenty of vocal-only jams by Toto, the Beatles, Eric Carmen and the like, though the real reason I made the one-hour drive was the addition of OC Times, who are currently the world’s greatest barbershop quartet. That’s not just superlatives falling out of my mouth, either; they truly are the world champions according to the foremost authorities: S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A.
Why the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, after existing 76 years with the beautiful acronym S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A., changed its name to “Barbershop Harmony Society” is beyond anyone’s imagination. Refreshingly, a sizable backlash contingent still calls the organization S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A., while the main thing is that there’s even an organization at all that promotes a dying part of our heritage. The core ideals remain the same—sing the hell out of that tag!—and the annual contest is a fine determiner of the barbershop quartet with the most talent and style. So when it was announced that current S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. champions would be performing in Napa, how could I stay away? (Lots of my friends and family have already discovered quite a few reasons, thank you.)
OC Times opened their set with “Oh! Look at Me Now,” from 1941, which paved the way for a concert more Brill Building and less MTV Music Awards. Contemporary hits were limited to “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident)” by John Michael Montgomery, from 1995, and then going back to “What a Wonderful World,” which entered the barbershop repertoire long ago. Plenty of 1950s doo-wop songs peppered the set—“So In Love,” “Teddy Bear,” “Sixteen Candles”—but it was classic barbershop arrangements of “Come Fly With Me” and “Blue Skies” that highlighted most a sharp performance.
Part Elvis, part Sinatra; part Nashville and part Los Angeles, OC Times has such a pitch-perfect blending of voices and timbre that it’s no wonder they’re the country’s best. Words can’t really convey how absolutely in step each phrase sounds. A little too-corny patter helps, too, and they keep one of the great S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. traditions alive by holding afterglows (casual receptions with singing and mingling) after their performances. By the time they sang their final number, “A Fool Such As I,” I was glad I made the drive, and ventured back to Santa Rosa with a heart, as they say, full of song.
P.S. One of my favorite acapella renditions right now is Of Montreal’s “Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games),” memorized and medleyized by The Stereotypes, from Washington University:
And so it’s happened. The residents at the Boogie Room, home of some of the most exciting subcultural activity of the past two years in Santa Rosa, have received a 60-day notice to vacate. They’ll pack up and call it a day in mid-April.
Speculation that the property might go on the market had been brimming for a while, and to be fair, most everyone so far seems surprised that the Boogie Room lasted as long as it did. “I’m one of them,” Bryce Dow-Williamson, a heavily-involved volunteer, told me today. “I thought it was gonna be, like, two months.”
“But I’m grateful for what we were able to do,” he added, proposing that perhaps now that the Boogie Room has set the example, “people have seen how it can work. Maybe someone’ll come along and do it right.”
There’s a handful of house concerts left on the calendar, and then the Boogie Room’s two-year run culminates on April 10 in a farewell show with the Crux, Pete Bernhart from the Devil Makes Three and more. It’s also Bryce’s birthday the next day, so a slumber party is rumored, along with a “memorabilia sale.”
I suppose it goes without saying, but Santa Rosa isn’t going to be the same.
My friend Jeff over at Waxidermy has just posted some clips from a record made by the Sonoma Valley Jazz Band in 1974, and man, it’s worth a listen. There’s some seriously crazy drums on “Spinning Wheel,” and the arrangements are out of this world for a high school band. Who knew this stuff was happening in Sonoma in 1974?
In related news, the Sonoma Jazz+ Festival has announced its lineup for 2009. Count the jazz artists.
This is good for a million laughs: The glory days of ridiculous rap album cover art, recounted in Legacy Document’s look back at the finer moments of Pen & Pixel.
Pen & Pixel was the graphic “design” outfit responsible for the most preposterous Photoshop jobs in the history of the music industry, most notably on CD art by Mystikal and and the rest of the No Limit label. As previously discussed, I’m a huge fan of Master P’s Ghetto Postage, but Aesop over at Legacy Document has unearthed some true gems of absurdity.