Posts Tagged ‘Coltrane’

An Angel Taps Pat Metheny & John Zorn.

May 13, 2013

A Review of Pat Metheny’s Tap: John Zorn’s Book of Angels Volume 20

Hear Pat Metheny talk about John Zorn’s Book of Angels Volume 20 on the Echoes Podcast

Tap=cvrPat Metheny and John Zorn were born within a year of each other and share many of the same musical influences.  But in their professional lives, they’ve traveled in different, barely over-lapping circles.  In fact, though they both live in New York, they’ve only recently met.

Guitarist Pat Metheny is still best known for his fusion records and his long running Pat Metheny Group, but you only have to listen to albums like Song X with Ornette Coleman, Zero Tolerance for Silence or The Orchestrion to get the full measure of his musical dimensions. He doesn’t get credit for being as completely far out as he really is.

Likewise, there is a consensus perception of avant-garde iconoclast John Zorn.  This view would assert that Zorn is completely far out as a downtown renegade bouncing from the Ornette-Coleman meets 50s rock sound of Naked City, the elliptical chaos of his game theory pieces and the Coltrane meets klezmer improvisations of Masada.  But those elements don’t take into account the sublimely beautiful melodies and deep sense of introspection that turn up on Zorn’s Filmworks series, The Masada String Trio or The Book of Angels.

Pat Metheny in Old Echoes Living ROom

Pat Metheny in old Echoes Living Room

The Book of Angels is a project that Zorn has been working on for about eight years now.  He wrote over 300 compositions, each one named for an angel. Artists like Uri Caine, Marc Ribot, Erik Friedlander, Medeski, Martin and Wood, and Joe Lovano, have already recorded some of these works. The latest to take on this task is Pat Metheny on Tap: John Zorn’s Book of Angels Volume 20.

Released on both the Nonesuch label and Zorn’s Tzadik label, I think Metheny fans would spot him right away in this work, drawing influences from across his career.  Zorn fans, however, might have a harder time picking out the saxophonists impact, especially since he doesn’t play on the album.  But it’s there with the Hebraic modes and melodic flourishes that have dominated his music for the last two decades or so.

Pat Metheny & Orchestrion

Pat Metheny & Orchestrion

The opening “Mastema” could almost be a Pat Metheny Group track with the electric sitar and insistent rhythm, but then you notice the rhythm is a little mechanized because it’s coming from Metheny’s Orchestrion, his mechanical orchestra, and the guitar is running through glitched out distortions

John Zorn

John Zorn

“Sariel” starts out like Klezmer ballad with Metheny overdubbed on several stringed instruments, like some exotic Middle Eastern oud orchestra.  Metheny solos over a percussion and oud-like groove that sounds like it could’ve wandered in off the kibbutz.  But no oud orchestra would ever whip out the snarling acid blues that Metheny brings in as the percussion drives him into solo of ecstatic arabesques of intertwined feedback.  It concludes in a sprawl of distortion, riff fragments and Antonio Sanchez’s free drumming, like a meeting of Hendrix’s “1983” and Coltrane’s Interstellar Space.

That leads into “Phanuel” the most Zorn like track, if you follow the conventional conception of Zorn, a free form work of acoustic guitar and industrial electronics with radio signals bleeding through like Stockhausen’s “Hymnen.” But as a Zorn track it morphs into something else, in this case a beautiful ballad for two acoustic guitars, bass and percussion.

“Albim” will sound familiar to Metheny fans opening with an acoustic guitar solo that could’ve been off his One Quiet Night album before segueing into a jazz suffused track that could be his recent trio, except all the backing is Orchestrion.

John Zorn's Book of Angels Volume 20 Tzadik Cover

John Zorn’s Book of Angels Volume 20 Tzadik Cover

You can hear elements of Metheny’s Orchestrion Project, the expansive writing of The Way Up, the lyricism of One Quiet Night and the flow of the Pat Metheny Group.  There’s even some Zero Tolerance for Silence ear-bleeding guitar distortion, something you might expect from Zorn, but which you may have forgotten was part of Metheny’s sonic stash as well. Metheny brings it all to bear on compositions are sometimes just sketches, a head or a chord sequence.  But instead of just jamming on these themes, Metheny has orchestrated them into expansive, electro-symphonic works.  The fact that it features some of Metheny’s most unbridled and psychedelic guitar playing in years is just a bonus.

Tap: John Zorn’s Book of Angels Volume 20 is an exhilarating ride. After hearing it the only real surprise is why hadn’t this happened before?

~John Diliberto (((echoes)))

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Ravi Shankar’s Last Raga Ride

December 12, 2012

or I Dropped My Microphone on Ravi Shankar’s Sitar.

121212054903-ravi-shankar-horizontal-galleryThe word “icon” is tossed around pretty freely these days, and I probably fling it out there more than most.  But put the name Ravi Shankar next to “icon” and you reset that bar to stratospheric heights. There are only a few musicians who stand out as icons when you think of a particular music or instrument. For Be-Bop it’s Charlie Parker; for the electric guitar, Jimi Hendrix; for classical music, Beethoven.  Add to that list Ravi Shankar, the first name you think of when Indian music and the sitar come up. And now, like those musicians, Ravi Shankar is gone.

When Ravi Shankar plays an alap, the slow, improvised introduction to a raga, he closes his eyes as if lost to the world.“Somehow I don’t know my eyes become closed especially those parts which are slow and serene,” said Shankar during one of my two interviews with the artist.  “That’s when I cannot keep my eyes open and watch my listener or watch everything like one can do later on when one plays faster pieces. And that’s one place where I completely lose contact with the outside world.”

Ravi Shankar didn’t start out playing sitar.  Born on April 7, 1920 in Varanasi, India, he began as a dancer in an international performance troupe led by his brother, Uday. Shankar traveled the world in his teenage years living a cosmopolitan life.  Opening up the booklet of his 75th anniversary CD, In Celebration, I pointed out a photo of a young handsome man, his long black hair is slick backed and strings of beads crisscross his bare chest as he strikes a seductive pose that wouldn’t be out of place in a Prince video.

John Diliberto & Ravi Shankar, New York 1996

John Diliberto & Ravi Shankar, New York 1996

“Who is that young man?” I asked facetiously

“That’s me dancing,” laughed Shankar, looking at a picture of his teenage self.  “This is my solo I choreographed myself.”

“How is this person different from the person sitting in front of me right now?” I probed.

“Well this person about 16 to 17 going 17, 19,” he answered. “And now I am going 76 almost. So there has to be a lot of difference, but I still have him inside me. I cannot get rid of him.

“What parts of him do you like?” I asked.

“Well that sometime I really feel like very young and very childish, especially after the sensation of coming to New York,” he said wistfully.  “All my memories become so alive. My first sensation is the San Moritz Hotel in front of Central Park. That’s where we stayed. And New York was my first love, it’s very special. The whole Times Square, seeing 3 films a day, going to the Cotton Club, hearing Cab Calloway and all the famous people, seeing them on stage, Ed Wynn, Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor.”

That’s not the frame of reference that comes to mind when you think of Ravi Shankar.  Even 16 years ago, Shankar was a frail man with a cloudy yellow ring around the irises of his eyes.  But as he embraced his sitar, you couldn’t  forget his stature as a master musician who seduced the world with an ancient sound and spirit.  But before he attained a status of musical sainthood, he had to leave the world behind.  In the midst of traveling the globe with his brother’s troupe, he decided to return to India with Master Baba Allaudin Khan and studied the sitar.

1313275438_ravi-shankar-yehudi-menuhin-west-meets-east“I covered my eyes to all my near past and went to a very distant past,” reflected Shankar. “So it was a difficult job to do but I so wanted to acquire and learn music from this great man that I tried to live exactly the way he wanted: Old fashioned the old guru-disciple system. You become a celibate, you give up everything, you live a very simple life and nothing else but just work, you know.”

In fact, Shankar experienced the chilla, a forty day period of isolation and virtually non-stop playing.  “That sort of thing is not possible today,” he conceded. He emerged from this stark period with formidable technique and a music whose spirit would suffuse several generations.

Almost from the beginning, Ravi Shankar reached out to other musicians, finding a common ground between Indian music and the jazz, rock and classical worlds.

“Imagine my background of those 8 years in Europe and America, listening to so much of world music at that time” he asked.  “So it was very natural for me when I matured as a performing artist, that apart from keeping all the pure things there was something in my head going on to do new things, new expressions.”

One of the first western musicians to embrace Shankar was classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin.  They began paying together in the 1950s and in the late 60s recorded West Meets East.

And then came the 60s revolution when Indian music was embraced by psychedelic rock.  It was this movement and Shankar’s association with George Harrison of The Beatles that really launched the sitarist towards global renown.  But he has always been disparaging of the times even though he made notorious appearances at the Woodstock and  Monterey Festivals as well as The Concert For Bangladesh, where the audience mistook his tuning for an actual piece music.

“And many times I had to walk off with my sitar really because I couldn’t take it anymore,” he ruefully recalled, “because our music is so sacred to us. But they took it for granted because George happened to be my student.  So they took it for granted they come with the same spirit to hear our music, whistling and shrieking and doing all sort of things.”

Jazz saxophonist John Coltrane dialed into Indian modalities in the mid-60s through Shankar..

“I taught him the rudiments of our ragas and the way we improvise,” remembered Shankar. “He was so interested to know how we can create such peace, the feeling of tranquility in music. I used to tell him, ‘John, I’m amazed.’ Because when I saw him he had become a vegetarian, he had left drugs, drink, everything. He was studying Rama Krishna. So I asked him ‘Why do I find so much disturbance in your discordant in your music?’ So he said, ‘That’s what I want to find out, if you can help me, Ravi.’

Philip Glass tuned up his minimalist concepts while arranging Ravi Shankar compositions for orchestra.  Space music bands like Popol Vuh dialed in to Shankar’s raga excursions and countless guitarists like Terje Rypdal and John McLaughlin brought Indian phrasing into their playing.  World fusion was born in Shankar-influenced groups like Oregon, Shakti, and Ancient Future, all of whom ingested Indian music through Shankar.

Ravi Shankar & George Harrison

Ravi Shankar & George Harrison

Despite his misgivings, the 1960s and early 70s were times of feverish collaborations by Shankar, especially working with George Harrison. It’s something he picked up on again in the late 1980s when he made three albums for the Private Music label, including collaboration with Philip Glass, the minimalist who has cited Shankar as a primary influence.  But no matter what the combination, Shankar says he’s still bringing the same spirit to the music which he learned from his guru, Baba Alaudin Khan.

“We always had oral tradition,” reflected Shankar.  So the guru taught the disciple and along with the music it was not just the technique of some of the compositions but it was the whole spirit the whole way of life the whole religious aspect. The deep introspective feeling brought tears to the eyes, made you feel like you were near the god. That still exists in our music. And that’s something which I have been trying in many of my compositions.  If you hear pieces like “Shanti Mantra,” you’ll see I have utilized western musicians, western choir and also things I tried to bring that feeling.”

He taught that oral tradition to his daughter, sitarist Anoushka Shankar.  I first met Anoushka at her father’s home in Southern California.  She was 19 then and just on the precipice of her own musical career.  Sitting in their practice room, Ravi Shankar sang melodies and Anoushka played them back.  As he played improvised lines on his sitar, fresh in the moment, Anoushka shook her head from side to side, acknowledging the mastery of his melodies even as she replicated them herself.

Ravi & Anoushka Shankar

Ravi & Anoushka Shankar

“It’s very much a call and response type of situation,” she explained. “When he is teaching me, he’s either playing a composition that he is teaching me or he’s improvising.  I watch him and listen and repeat, and it’s that sort of repetitive process of just playing it over and over again.  It sinks in after a while.”

“We always had oral tradition,” her father concurred. “But it was also the whole spirit, the whole way of life, the religious aspect, to make you feel being near the god. That still exists in our music.”

For all his spiritualism, Shankar was a man of the world.  He laughed easily and I can still remember him opening his fortune cookie in a Chinese restaurant.  “You will have a happy life,” read the fortune, to which Shankar added, laughing hysterically, “in bed.”

And he was gracious.  In our first interview in 1996, Shankar had demonstrated his sitar for me and was still holding it in his lap as we talked.  For some reason, my microphone slipped out of my hand and crashed into his sitar.  I stood frozen, as did his entourage around me.  Before I could utter an apology, Shankar reached out and said, “It’s okay.  It’s only a practice sitar.”

Ravi Shankar Towards the End

Ravi Shankar Towards the End

It didn’t matter what kind of sitar Shankar played, the logic and invention of his solos was extraordinary and his quicksilver interplay with tabla players like Alla Rahka is the stuff that would inspire jazz and rock musicians for decades.    The concerts that I  saw him play were always transporting experiences as Shankar wove entire worlds with his ragas.

Shankar was the last of an Indian music triumvirate that including sarod master Ali Akbar Khan and tabla master Alla Rahka.  Ravi Shankar passed away last night, December 11, 2012 at the age of 92.  It truly is the end of an era, but his influence resonates like the sympathetic strings of the sitar.

You’ll find of a list of Five Essential Ravi Shankar CDs that I compiled for his 90th birthday.

~© 2012 John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

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Heaven is Torn Asunder by The Celestial Septet.

February 24, 2011

Two storms collided when The Celestial Septet hit the International House stage on February 22.

This was a rare meeting between the Rova Saxophone Quartet and the Nels Cline Singers.  They put out a CD last year, The Celestial Septet, but this show, produced by the Ars Nova Workshop, was their first live public performance.  And it was a monster.

Rova is a long-lived ensemble who started in 1977 playing a music steeped in complex compositions mixed with furious free improvisation.  The Nels Cline Singers are headed up by Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and they play their own complex works mixed with equally furious free improvisation topped by Cline’s, expansive, electronically altered approach to the electric guitar.   Together these ensembles played a music that ranged from Hendrixian forays to Coltrane like “ascensions” with nods to Forbidden Planet, Albert Ayler and Raymond Scott.

The opening piece, “Cesar Chavez,” set a deceptive mood of contemplation as drummer Scott Amendola looped a tom-tom that  sounded like rolling thunder just over a distant horizon.  But as Rova’s saxophones began intertwining in elongated counterpoint, energy built as tension released around Cline and Amendola’s scrapping haunted house effects and the horns agitated into a slow, abstracted Albert Ayler-like blues. The storm had arrived.

The Celestial Septet played long tunes that shifted through many moods.  There were no grooves to speak of and rarely even a pulse as Amendola shifted liquid colors against Rova’s saxophones.  On “Trouble Ticket,” they alternated between a deconstructed Looney Tune and a romantic Hollywood theme.  A gurgling baritone sax solo from Jon Raskin and a wild alto workout from Steve Adams led into a crosstown traffic intersection before Nels Cline finally stepped out from the background, with a muted, chopped and diced solo.  Rova seems to be a leaderless band in that everyone changes roles directing traffic, counting down beats and designating configurations.

It often felt like The Nels Cline singers were just back-up musicians to Rova.  But on “Whose to Know” (which I misheard as “Ooze to Know”) they finally stepped out on one of the few tunes to hit a pulse of a groove.  Nels Cline ripped into a mutated rock solo that bent through his effects boxes, whose knobs he obsessively twisted, building to a screaming crescendo that recalled Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” Woodstock performance.  It made me want to hear more of that sound which I had heard in full effect when The Nels Cline Singers played Johnny Brenda‘s last year.  (Read review). That foreshadowed the climax when Rova entered and created a fury of horns like the National Anthem meeting Coltrane’s “Ascension.”

The final piece of the concert, unnanounced, was a curious work.  The horns slowly left the stage to the Nels Cline Singers who orchestrated a random array of effects and sounds, gradually leaving just Scott Amendola’s alien bloops and bleeps from his electronic and looping devices.  It was like a transmission from outer space, recalling Bebe & Louis Barron’s score to Forbidden Planet and maybe Sun Ra in his final earthly home (Philadelphia).    As the signal settled in, you could hear the bleating horms of Rova emanating from the back of the theater as they walked to the front,  slowly converging on the signal.  They huddled like members of scattered lifeforms gathering around a foreign object, having alien dialogues that basically sounded like “What the hell is that?”  Once they figured that out, they gathered back in the front for one more blowout of pulsing free jazz with a Herculean tenor solo from Larry Ochs.”

The Celestial Septet’s performance was epic in length, dimension and depth.  Rova can assume a hymnal stance of subtlety overlayed lines like a Gregorian hymn and they can also channel a wilder gospel in saxophone supralingua dialects.   There were occasions when the music begged for a little swing, a touch of groove or maybe just a steady pulse from hyper-active bassist Trevor Dunn or Amendola.     And you can never have enough Nels Cline.  That kind of balance would probably come from more performances.  But if this is how they sounded on the first gig together, their last concert,  which will be Sunday, February, 27th in Baltimore, should be even more revelatory.   You can see their remaining tour schedule.

Hopefully the Celestial Septet will gather a little more frequently than Halley’s Comet.

John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

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