Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Music: Ben Allison

This morning I was fortunate enough to talk to jazz bassist, composer and bandleader, Ben Allison. Ben Allison is one of the most unique jazz musicians playing today. His work is imbued with a heavy influence in rock music that is rarely seen in today’s jazz world. His compositions are incredibly complex and use original and difficult rhythms.

Ben Allison’s newest album, Think Free, came out barely two weeks ago and is his third with Steve Cardenas. Coinciding with the album’s release is a contest called The Think Free Project where fans are asked to make two minute films of them playing Ben Allison songs or making movies with Ben Allison’s music as the soundtrack. More information about Ben Allison can be found at his website and all nine of his albums can be found on iTunes. He talks about his new album, other projects, and recommendations below.

Let’s start by talking about your newest album, Think Free out of Palmetto Records. What is the band?

The band is a new group, a new line up. Jenny Scheinman on violin, Shane Endsley on trumpet, Steve Cardenas on guitar, and Rudy Royston on drums.

What’s different about this album from your last albums?

Well this is really the third in a series, I think of the last three as being part of a new direction where I’m moving away from kind of the chamber jazz elements of my previous groups and moving towards this more rock sensibility. I grew up listening to a lot of rock music and folk music, it’s been part of my sound since I started writing music, but since the Cowboy Justice album I’ve tried to highlight that part of my history and really try to delve back into that and have that influence my music to an even greater degree. It’s so much fun to play rock music. I’m so intrigued by the idea of trying to write music that’s in one sense simple, in some sense simplistic; but has elements of detail and a subtle, unspoken complexity. So I like exploring that line between something that’s obvious and immediately accessible, and things that are more obscure and take several listening to hear. That’s actually been part of my sound and approach to music in general. With this group I’m using my love of rock beats and somewhat more of a rock instrumentation using the electric guitar, for instance, very prominently. Using that sound to explore some of those ideas.

I was actually just about to ask you about that, because the last three albums you’ve done have been with Steve Cardenas on guitar instead of a piano player, obviously that gives you a much more rock-based sound, is there any freedoms you’re getting from that as a musician?

Well I’ve always loved guitar, and I started playing guitar as my first instrument I’m talking about when I was five to 13 or 14. And because I’m such a fan of rock music, that was the instrument. I’ve always loved the guitar; however, when I started getting into jazz in high school and then when I became a quote-un-quote jazz musician when I moved to New York, I lost touch with that kind of concept. That’s partially the result of the musicians who were on the scene at the time, this is like mid 80s. What happened with jazz guitar is that a lot of jazz guitarists were using a very processed sounding guitar sound. This is post Pat Metheny [and other] people that influenced the way a lot of jazz guitarists approached their sound. I loved that sound, and I’m singling out Pat. I love his sound, I love his music. However, as a bass player I often found it a challenge to play with – just because my sound doesn’t gel particularly well with that sound. When I’m playing with musicians whose sounds are very processed it feels like I’m playing with an organ player, with a Hammond-B3 player. There’s a reason why there aren’t bass players in organ trios. The organ is covering all of that tonality, they’re covering it all up so you don’t need a bass, a bass sounds almost thin by comparison. I had that feeling playing with a lot of guitarists on the scene at that time, this is 80s and early 90s. When I met Steve in the early 2000s, I heard in him a much grittier, mid-range, organic, unprocessed sound. He uses a very classic rock guitar with an old tube amp. It’s a really kind of classic guitar sound that felt very rock oriented, it leaves a lot of room for me and my sound, a lot of sonic room. Our sounds together make for a very nice blend. I had it in my mind always to play with a guitarist and have a group that featured guitar, it took me finding Steve for that to actually happen.

I wanted to ask you about the Jazz Composers Collective, when did it start, when did you start doing the festival?

We started the Collective many years ago, actually in 1992. By “we” I mean me and a few of my musical compatriots in New York City: Frank Kimbrough, Ted Nash, Michael Blake, Ron Horton, Matt Wilson. Our idea was to focus people’s attention on some of the new music that was being written with a special emphasis on new compositions. So, we started a concert series that ran for 11 seasons and we published a newsletter in support of that series. In 1996 we moved the whole operation over to the New School where we did a residence as composers and teachers. Shortly thereafter we had the idea of creating a festival, so the festival is actually one of the last things to happen. The festival was a six night celebration of the music of who we called “The Composers in Residence,” those were really the central characters that made the collective what it was: the people who ran the collective, the people who were featured often in a lot of what we did. By the end, the collective included hundreds of musicians. We’d premiered over 300 works and there were over 250 musicians involved some to a greater extent some to a lesser extent. So the Composers in Residence were a special group of musicians who were involved almost daily. The festival was really a celebration of their work and we’d do 10 different bands over the course of six nights at the Jazz Standard. The festival ran for five years before the Collective went dormant in 2004.

On your website there’s a video of you playing with a symphony orchestra and I wanted to know more about that and if that’s something we will see more of in the future.

I hope so, we had a ball. That was actually my second time performing with them. This is an orchestra down in Sao Paolo, Brazil called the Jazz Sinfonica and they are a full symphony orchestra with a jazz big band embedded in it and they do popular music. It’s kind of like a much hipper version of the Boston Pops. A lot of these musicians are on the scene themselves in Brazil doing jazz and samba and popular music or today. This orchestra meets once a week and they have a whole group of staff arrangers, who are all fine musicians themselves, and they have visiting artists come down to perform their works with them. The conductor’s name is Maurizio Galindo, a really great guy. He’s a classical music conductor, but he does this for the love of it because he also loves jazz and jazz musicians. On two occasions, once in 2005 and again in 2008 I went down with my group and they arranged a bunch of my music, last time it was from my album Little Things Run the World. And over the course of three or four days we would rehearse the music and arrangements and then we did two concerts at an incredible hall called the Auditorium Ibirapuera. It was really fantastic.

Right now you’re running a contest called The Think Free Project, do you want to talk about it a little bit?

Yeah, it actually just started and it will continue for several months. We travel a lot obviously, we are a band and we’re always on the road, and we’re often in far away communities. We’ll be in a little town in Sardinia or we’ll be in a little town in Iowa. And during our travels we meet a lot of very interesting, very creative artists, musicians, filmmakers. I had this thought that it would be interesting and fun to create a youtube page where these people could submit their versions of songs we had recorded and the idea is to form some kind of online community and shine a light on some of the great creative voices out there who you might never hear. We’ll see who signs up for this, but so far the people who are signing up for this are a lot of students, a lot of amateurs and a healthy amount of professionals. There are some names I recognize and a lot that I don’t, but the idea is to show the breadth of artistic voices out there. I like the idea of everyone doing their own take on one of two tunes so each version is going to be, I imagine, so totally different from the next – which is what it’s all about. I actually got the idea from Trent Reznor who did something similar about a year ago; he released a Nine Inch Nails album, I guess mainly instrumentals, like little film cues, and they put a youtube group together. Actually they called it a film festival (that’s the idea) whereby people submitted mini films using the music from the record as the score. My music has a cinematic quality to it, and I thought the contest might be a way to involve musicians and also filmmakers and visual artists into the mix. We’re excited about it; we know a lot of people have signed up. The submissions are starting to come in; it’s going to be a number of weeks before some people get their videos together but I know from the volume of people that have signed up that there’s going to be a lot of it.

The Arts Section is a blog of recommendations, what recommendations do you have for our readers?

Oh man! Wow, I have to pick a few! I listen to so much stuff, is there any criterion or is it wide open?

Wide open.

Wide open. Uh... My good pal Matt Wilson, if you haven’t heard his music it’s unbelievable, I highly recommend that. Contemporary, New York music scene. He’s a drummer and he leads a couple of different groups, the group that’s on this new record is his long standing quartet, I think he just calls it the Matt Wilson Quartet. They’re all kind of nuts actually [laughs]. They’re very creative and very fun loving. I highly recommend anything by Matt.

I was just listening to this music that Jenny Sheinman gave me of a guy named Lionel Belasco. This might be hard to find, if you can find it at all. His music , sounds like it’s from the 30s, based on the recording quality. That’s scant information on it, I just have mp3’s. It’s really cool early calypso. Piano, violin, guitars, some shakers, I’ve been enjoying that a lot.

In terms of film score stuff, Bernard Herrmann’s Citizen Kane. I actually haven’t seen the movie in about 10 years but the score is really unbelievable. I listen to that a lot. Film score music is really interesting to listen to when I’m driving long way or on a long bus ride, just close your eyes. Especially if you haven’t seen the movie in a long time like I said I haven’t seen Citizen Kane in like 10 years, I don’t remember exactly which cue goes with which scene so you have to fill in the blanks yourself and make your own internal movie.

Lastly, if our readers want to go to a Ben Allison concert, where can they find you?

The best thing to do, shameless plug, is go to benallison.com. We have an email sign up where you can add your email address and your city and state so if we’re playing in your area you will automatically get an update. We also have now, the latest thing, a Ben Allison iPhone app that’s available for free that also has all of our tour information. You open that up and it will show where I’m playing and how to get tickets and stuff.

Thanks a lot for spending your time with us.

Thank you.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Music: "Vapours" by Islands

Nick Thorburn is someone you might call a shape shifter – he fronted the great indie guitar pop outfit The Unicorns in the first half of this decade then formed the more mature Islands in 2005. Since the formation of Islands he has had a folk side project with Jim Guthrie in Human Highway, a collaboration with underground hip-hop producer Daddy Kev in Reefer, and a currently hibernating (see below) indie hip-hop group Th’ Corn Gangg. With all of these projects, it is no surprise that Islands has gone through some transformations.

The amazing Islands debut album Return to the Sea opens with the epic, nine and a half minute “Swans (Life After Death)” and continues with great indie pop in “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby,” “Rough Gem,” and “Jogging Gorgeous Summer,” only to end with the heartbreaking “Bucky Little Wing.” Islands second album, Arm’s Way, finds the band taking epic to a new level with many songs featuring sweeping string instrumentation and the album running about sixty eight minutes in twelve tracks. The album was not as well received for its unrelenting darkness, but it is still strong overall with tracks like “The Arm,” “To a Bond,” the eleven minute album closer “Vertigo (If It’s a Crime),” and the outlier on the album, the incredibly catchy “Creeper.”

Islands third album, Vapours, was released last month. Jamie Thompson, who was also in The Unicorns, rejoined the band after a one album hiatus and the album could not be more different from the band’s last. While the songs on Arm’s Way are intricately orchestrated with strings and last an average of more than five and a half minutes, there is not one track on Vapours that lasts more than five minutes and the strings are replaced with a more straightforward synthesizer and drum machine set-up. The album is lighter than the last and even features Auto-Tuned vocals on “Heartbeat” – while I rarely enjoy any use of Auto-Tune, it works perfectly in adding a layer of vocals to the song. From the beginning of “Switched On,” it is clear that this album is going to be more enjoyable synth/guitar indie pop. The new Islands shift is appreciated and no one could predict where they will head next. Nick Thorburn discusses future side projects and more below:

Have you seen, heard, or read anything that you would like to recommend to our readers (film, art, music, literature)?

I just saw the new Coen brothers film last night. That was pretty good. I'm reading Gay Talese's A Writer's Life, a life and times bio of Brian Eno and a short story collection of Flannery O'Connor. I have been listening to the best show on WFMU, the new Anti-Pop Consortium, the new Raekwon, Guilty Simpson, Fever Ray, Clues, and an incredible band out of Canada called The Magic who are so good, I filched them for Islands.

What is your songwriting process like?

The process is extremely consistent, which may mean it's time for me to shake things up. It involves me sitting with an acoustic guitar scrutinizing with belaboured detail every minute lyric and musical note until I'm content with the result. I'd like to try doing composition with more gear from now on- I would yield different results with a synth hooked up to a space echo.

You're new album is almost the complete opposite from the last in that it has shorter songs with far less instrumentation done primarily with synthesizers - what was the motivation behind the change?

Some of these songs predate Arm's Way, and in fact, one of them was written before the first album came out, so it's not a direct reaction to the critical reception or personal feelings about it. I already had this record in me, I was just waiting for the right time to make it.

Is Th' Corn Gangg still active?

Is hibernation active? We're on ice at the moment but there's always talk of resuming work on the project. But there's no rush- rap music is in pretty rough shape these days (LOL smiley face, ice cream paint job), so we might want to give it a minute anyway.

Do you plan on recording Human Highway, Reefer, or any other side project material in the future?

No definite plans but I'm always open to these sorts of things. One thing that has been floated around is Honus from Man Man and I making a record in a new (sub)genre we are developing, called Doom Wop, which is essentially low frequency, and extremely slowed down music atop traditional doo wop harmonies. Or something.

What else are you up to?

I finished my first comic book, called This is Howie Doo, which should be out in March on Drawn & Quarterly. It's a humour book, kind of akin to R. Crumb and Life in Hell.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Art: New York Minute

Not long ago, I witnessed history. A new exhibit called, "New York Minute," opened at the MACRO Future Museum in Rome, Italy. The opening was unlike anything I've ever seen. When I arrived, the line started at the front gates, snaked through the piazza and ended in the middle of a busy street. Traffic was backed up for miles. After two hours and a pint of beer, I finally made it inside...the courtyard, that is. I then navigated through a sea of drunk people and finally made it into the exhibit. The gallery space was crowded, chaotic, and confusing-- kind of like a packed New York subway car (surprising?). The whole scene was a New-York-art-world frenzy, and the Romans loved it! As I ducked in and out of the tide of glamorously dressed women and Italian artist-hipsters, I caught a glimpse of some pretty sweet art. Curated by Kathy Grayson, the show was comprised of 60 artists, all based in New York City. While 60 artists was a lot to see and too much to talk about, I'd like to recommend my favorites.

Taylor McKimens had a great painting in the show that seemed to explored the idea of isolation within an urban wilderness. McKimens' style is very graphic, almost cartoonish, but very compelling. The way he layers his brush strokes often brings out a beautiful, gritty texture on the substrate. At the same time, his use of subjective line is impeccable. The combination of these seemingly disparate elements creates imagery that is crazily suspended between the second and third dimensions of space. This complex style is juxtaposed by McKimens' apparently mundane subject matter-- a garden hose, a backyard, a cactus, a woman sitting on her apartment floor. However, there's something unnerving about how these objects and scenes are rendered. They appear old, filthy, forgotten, and on the verge of falling apart. At the same time, they appear so familiar. In all of McKimens' work, I see a connection between the threadbare world he creates and the inherent frailty of human existence.

Overall, the show is kind of a mixed bag, but it's definitely worth exploring. So if you're passing through Rome anytime soon you should check out the show-- it will be up until the 1st of November, 2009. If you can't make it, you should go here.

Here are some other artists I wish I had time to talk about, but think you should check out:

Friday, October 9, 2009

Music: The Ruby Suns

The Ruby Suns formed in 2004 when California native Ryan McPhun moved to New Zealand and started playing with a couple Auckland bands. After some time together his band, then known as Ryan Mcphun & The Ruby Suns, released their eponymous debut album in 2005. The band’s breakthrough came in 2008 when they released their sophomore LP Sea Lion on indie super label Sub Pop. The album was praised by critics and allowed the band to expand their fanbase.

Sea Lion, as suggested by the band’s name, is a sunny album. It’s an album that mixes influences from all over the world to make a layered and fun guitar pop album. Listen to the album and you’ll hear African, New Zealand Polynesian (stand out track “Tane Mahuta” is sung in the native language Maori), and good old-fashioned Californian pop influences. Add on psychedelic and tropical layers and you have yourself a refreshing album. The Ruby Suns third album, which is tentatively titled Fight Softly and due March 2nd, 2010, is now completed as Ryan McPhun discusses below:

Have you seen, heard, or read anything that you would like to recommend to our readers (film, art, music, literature)?

I’ve been getting into Toro Y Moi from South Carolina a bit. He does a nice "Human Nature" (by MJ) cover.

What is the songwriting process like?

The songwriting process for me is pretty random. I don't have any set way that I do things. Sometimes I just think of stuff when I'm trying to go to sleep, or I'll accidentally play something on guitar or synth or drums that catches my ears. Then I just start messing around with ideas that might somehow fit with the track and I start layering stuff on top. I do most of the process by myself so it usually takes ages for me to finish stuff.

Are you working on your next LP? If so, how far are you and what's the process like this time around?

I just finished the next record. The process has actually been the same as always for me. I do everything pretty much by myself. I'll start with an idea, and build ideas and sounds on top of that. The difference will be in the sounds that I'm making and using. Different sounds have been inspiring me this time.

What else are you up to?

We're currently on tour in the U.S. with The Dodos. It's been fun. We've been friends with these guys for a while so it's great to be on tour with buds. I'm also starting to work on ideas for a record I'm doing with my bandmate Bevan Smith aka Signer. I play and help in his project Signer, and he plays and helps with The Ruby Suns. We're trying to make a record that neither of us have made before. Something more straightforward and fun. Something that would sound good in a club and make people want to dance. That's the idea anyway. We'll see happens.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Literature: James Tate's "The Ghost Soldiers"

I've never read poetry as terrifying as James Tate's The Ghost Soldiers. I didn't realize that until about page 200. Yes, there's a book of poetry-- new poetry, not any sort of anthology-- that's well over 200 pages long. Perhaps it has something to do with the format: each poem is more like a rambling paragraph of short, simple-clause sentences. Tate's one of those Pultizer Prize-winning poets who's got some chaired position at some college, but unlike many old poets, he's consistently reinventing himself. Maybe that's not exactly right; he just keeps getting weirder and weirder. He's written books that made less sense-- Worshipful Company of Fletchers is hard to get through-- but he's never written anything that messed with your mind so much.

Look at the cover of the book up there. Trees, teddy bears, boxers, silhouetted hares, guns. Going through the book, I can't find any of these objects appearing in the poetry (except guns... there are definitely guns), but the flavor of the cover is true to the content. The poetry is relentlessly anecdotal, suspiciously easy to read, and it does not add up to anything. Poem after poem about spies, mysterious strangers, secret wars, and-- more than any of these-- a shifting male narrator with a thousand names, united only by his inability to come to turns with the bizarre nature of the world around him. Tate's aesthetic becomes something irreverent, hilarious, page-turning, and simply fun.

But it's also disturbing. If you're looking for answers to any of it, you won't find one. Once, I read one of the poems to my friend Nathan, who insisted that there was a moral to it. Then I read him another, and another, and he started to agree that Tate was deliberately confounding the reader. But so gracefully and hilariously. Sometimes, because of the intrigue-obsessed content and the "anti-poetry" style, I was reminded of bad sci-fi movies: unimportant things last too long, and the important things are sloppily presented. This is like a bad sci-fi movie directed by a master filmmaker.

So why is that terrifying? Maybe it's because when I read poetry, I find comfort in knowing that someone else is trying to find answers, and is making a weak, beautiful attempt at offering a few suggestions on how to live. Tate seems intent on making the search harder. It's awesome.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Music: Suckers

Suckers is a four-piece band from Brooklyn. Yes, it seems like every week there’s a hot new band out of Brooklyn, but these guys are different. They often draw comparisons to several bands, including Yeasayer, which in many ways is fair because Yeasayer guitarist Anand Wilder produced the Suckers EP, but at the same time they have a sound that is their own.

Their debut EP, out now, features tribal drums, whistling, and choruses that are epic yet catchy. Standout track “It Gets Your Body Movin’” is a beautiful earworm that forces you to sing the chorus more often than you would expect after first listen. The EP features everything from the basics of guitars, drums, and synths to crescendos of horns, piano, and layers of the human voice. This is a band who is not necessarily redefining anything, but instead takes what they know and makes it layered and grand, leaving the listener wanting to hear an album’s worth of material. The band has just started a nationwide tour that will carry them to the end of the month. Guitarist/vocalist Austin Fisher of Suckers was nice enough to answer some questions for our readers:

Have you seen, heard, or read anything that you would like to recommend to our readers (film, art, music, literature)?

These are all things that I've recommended to myself, and so I'll recommend to your readers, too:

FILM: I want to see "The Informant!".

ART: I want to check out Abstract Abstract at Foxy Production, and also Robert Frank: The Americans at the Met.

MUSIC: I'm excited to hear the new Bear In Heaven record.

LITERATURE: The next book I'm going to read is Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell, having finished Justine.

Have you started working on your debut LP? If so, how's it going?

Yes, we've been writing songs for our debut LP. It's going pretty well. No one has lost an eye and we have at least one and a half songs written.

What is the songwriting process like?

Generally, we meet up in our rehearsal space start messing around, lots of times jokingly, and then if we hit on something we like, we'll try to develop it into a song. We work fairly quickly, and democratically.

What else are you guys up to?

I'm just trying to sleep as much as possible before we go on tour.

Anything you're specifically looking forward to on your tour?

I'm looking forward to seeing friends in other cities that I haven't hung out with in a while, and wandering around in Austin, Texas for a few days.