Saturday, July 23, 2011

The 27 Club

Screw "the 27 Club." It's yet another shallow media angle on tragedy, which is always of a supremely individual nature in these circumstances. Amy Winehouse's body isn't even cold and talking heads are already concocting their idiotic theories about the magic, tragic number.

Here's what it is: the human body can only take so much abuse. You spend a decade or so swallowing, smoking, snorting, shooting or otherwise ingesting opioids, stimulants, and hallucinogens, and long about day 3,500 - 4,000 the heart stops working. There's your magic numbers for you. You can take that to the bank, or the mortuary, as the case may be.

Here is a young, talented woman, now dead because she could not stop destroying herself. No doubt we'll have the media circling the body like vultures, ready to canonize her as an official member of the Tragically Dead Rock Pantheon, the Fucking 27 Club, and this ridiculous, supremely destructive myth will be perpetuated. Been there, done that, got the NA keychains to prove it. Mourn the young woman who could not escape the grip of addiction. That's always tragic. But I don't want to hear about the 27 Club.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Brad Mehldau

Solo jazz pianists are an endangered species, and for good reason; most of them should be shot. Keith Jarrett, as great as he is, should never be forgiven for the noodling hours and orgasmic groans he has committed to his solo recordings. Even at its best -- Monk's sides for Blue Note, say, or Bill Evans' exquisite "Peace Piece" -- solo jazz piano is best experienced and appreciated in short bursts. Push it much beyond five minutes and the eyes start to glaze over.

So, how to explain Brad Mehldau? Mehldau essentially operates in three modes -- as the maestro of the standard piano trio, as the daring obliterator of genre boundaries (see his work with Anne Sofie von Otter or Joe Henry, or his stirring takes on Nirvana and Radiohead), and, yes, as a solo pianist. The weird thing is he's good, very good, and fascinatingly listenable, even when he's playing all by his lonesome for hours at a time.

Consider his 1999 album Elegiac Cycle, an hour-long solo piano test of endurance that turns out to be nothing of the kind. Instead, the ravishingly lovely songs spin out in endless variations, the perfect distillation of classical impressionism and jazz improvisation. There's a bit of Debussy there, a bit of Monk in the stabbbing left hand, a whole lot of Bach counterpoint and Bill Evans meditative rumination, all rolled into a seamless whole that remains startling more than a decade after its release. I still listen to this album every couple months or so, and I hear new delights every time. Or consider his latest album Live in Marciac, a 2-disc solo set that surely seems like it could be marketed as a possible insomnia remedy, but which instead offers one astonishing delight after another. It's difficult to sleep when your jaw is on the floor.

Mehldau has prodigious technique, to be sure, but what impresses me even more is his ability to wed those classical chops with the jazz and blues chord structures that invariably communicate deep soulfulness and melanchology. He's the most gifted synthesist currently working in jazz. I'm astounded that I'm about to write this sentence, but I'd be hard-pressed to recommend a better starting point than his latest 2-hour solo piano set. You get the Bach counterpoint, the Great American Songbook, and Nirvana, Nick Drake, and Beatles covers, plus a DVD that does little more than show Brad Mehldau's hands at work. He's a good worker. You should check him out.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Jeff Bridges -- The Dude Records

It's an old and usually horrendous game: a successful actor or actress takes a musical turn, believing that talent in one medium will automatically translate to talent in another. William Shatner and Scarlett Johansson, anyone?

So the Dude has made an album. A self-titled one on Blue Note Records, due out in the middle of August. Go figure. He's surrounded himself with top-notch talent -- T Bone Burnett in the producer's chair, the Joe Henry house band, Sam Phillips and Roseanne Cash on backing vocals. Predictably, the sonic pieces sound great. Less predictably, so does Jeff Bridges. Those of you who saw him in Crazy Heart probably aren't completely surprised by this. Bridges can do the grizzled, world-weary Country Dude about as well as anybody, even approaching hallowed Johnny Cash territory. What is more surprising to me is how well he does buoyant, swaggering country rock. Opener "What a Little Bit of Love Can Do" sounds like a bona fide hit, its jangly Buddy Holly riff scuffed up by Bridges' raspy vocals. But Bridges has that grey hair for a reason, and on the late Stephen Bruton's "Nothing Yet" he pulls off a harrowing tour-de-force, a deeply rueful stocktaking that barely rises above a whisper. It's a marvellous lesson in both soul and restraint, the verses made all the more powerful because you have to strain to hear them. It sounds like a deathbed confession.

In the end, it's a moot question as to whether Bridges has the musical goods. He sings well enough to be totally believable. It's a talent he's transferred over from his movie roles, and the Dude abides just fine in the recording studio. I'll have a more detailed review out in Christianity Today, but this one is a delightful, moving surprise.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Fucked Up - David Comes to Life

First, I didn't name the band. Don't blame me.

Second, they're pretty good anyway. Given the name, what's surprising is not the feral howl of behemoth frontman Pink Eyes, but rather the prog rock shredder underpinnings of these 18 very long songs. This is melodic hardcore with hooks, and with at least a rudimentary knowledge of metaphor, character development, and lyrical nuance. Imagine.

I pretty much missed Fugazi and Black Flag, although those are some obvious touchstones. But so are Rush and Van Halen. Pink Eyes basically alternates between bellowing and screaming, with occasional bouts of ranting thrown in for good measure, but the female backing vocalists add some needed humanity. The press release assures me that this is a concept album about something or other (Love? Murder? Vengeance? George Bush? Astral projection? I think they're all in there somewhere), but I wouldn't worry too much about it. Much like last year's album The Monitor from Titus Andronicus, this is a whole lot of blustering noise and literary pretense, probably all deeply indebted to weed. What matters are the guitar riffs, and they are unsurprisingly fierce and surprisingly nuanced and dynamic. This is a punk band that can really play, and they've certainly released my favorite Rawk album so far this year.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

The Second Tier?

More and more I'm convinced that the mid-'50s through the mid-'60s were the true Golden Age of Jazz. Not only were the acknowledged giants roaming the earth and laying down their masterpieces -- Miles, Trane, Mingus, Monk, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins -- but there were a whole host of "second-tier" musicians who released one stellar album after another. God only knows why these folks aren't better known, but they're not. I'd argue that there's at least a couple albums from each of these relative unknowns that can hold their own with the greatest jazz ever released.

And so this morning I've been sampling the wares of a few longtime favorites who frequently get pushed aside (at least by me) in favor of their better-known contemporaries. Specifically, I've been listening to:

Sonny Stitt -- Stitt Plays Bird
Booker Ervin -- Cookin'
Dexter Gordon -- Go
Eric Dolphy -- Out to Lunch
Hank Mobley -- Soul Station
Horace Silver -- Blowin' the Blues Away
Jackie McLean -- Right Now
Jimmy Smith -- The Sermon
Lee Morgan -- The Sidewinder
Rahsaan Roland Kirk -- Domino
Stan Getz and Joao Gilbert -- Getz/Gilberto
Sun Ra -- Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth

Every one's a masterpiece, I'm telling you. There's hundreds more where those came from.