The Bad Plus Rocks

Last Friday, we saw The Bad Plus and Color and Talea at the Somerville Theatre. It was one of the best live shows I’ve seen in a long time. The two groups, while superficially similar in that they are both avant garde jazz/funk influenced bands with similar instrumentation, were fundamentally different in influences and vibe. They were both quite innovative, though, and pushed boundaries in ways that felt really fresh.

The Bad Plus was particularly remarkable live. I’ve been listening to their album, These Are The Vistas, for a long while, but I wasn’t prepared for the dynamicism and almost-falling-off-the-edge feeling of their performance. Rather than the typical “jazz trio” with two musicians performing backup rhythm section while the other one does an improvisational solo, the image that came to mind for me were three jugglers conversing on a party line. They created more combinations of three standard instruments than I thought possible. You don’t really pick up on it in on the album, at least not until after you’ve seen them live.

I’m not sure who best to compare them with; there’s definitely some Keith Jarrett in there, but otherwise, I’m at a loss. Maybe Stravinsky, and Bach or Chopin. Their pieces feel more like “compositions” than most jazz, but somehow that doesn’t undercut the spontaneous feeling of it.

Their new album (the fourth), Suspicious Activities, is even better than the first. They are masters of giving you just enough of a funky groove to get into it, and then sliding into something more free form, and then just when you feel like you’re about to lose your grounding entirely, they’ll slide back into the funk. Here’s a less-than-30-second clip from “Theme from Chariots of Fire” which is a good illustration: ogg format (388k) and mp3 format (697k). (For some reason, they called this “The Theme to Cagney and Lacey” in concert.)

Most of the songs on Suspicious Activities have some accompanying narrative story, which is unusual for an instrumental jazz album. For example, ‘Rhinoceros is My Profession’ is about a bullfight. After the matador slays the bull and is basking in adulation, the gate opens and a rhinoceros comes charging into the ring. Ethan Iverson, the pianist, introduced this story by saying (in a perfectly dry tone of voice), “If there’s one thing we in the Bad Plus all agree on, it’s our mutual disapproval of bullfighting.” Another song, ‘O. G. (Original Gentleman)’ was originally intended to be a tribute to legendary drummer Elvin Jones, but since that was too ambitious a task, it ended up being about the lingering feeling in a donut shop after Elvin Jones has left the place.

They also posted some odd photos of their visit to Somerville on their blog.

In the iRiver…

New in circulation on my iRiver iFP-799:

If you’re like me, you’ll like all these albums.

I’ve been quite happy with my iRiver MP3 player (which I’ve taken to calling “my iPod” which tends to confuse people). It’s tiny, holds 1G of music, and plays ogg files. I only yesterday discovered its great flaw: you can’t move files off of the device. According to the FAQ:

Why can’t I upload my MP3 / WMA files from my iFP player?

A. Due to copyright protection laws that apply towards our technology, media files (MP3 / WMA files) cannot be uploaded from an iFP player to a PC. All other non-media files (documents, images, etc.) can be uploaded to a PC from the iFP player.

This restriction is in the firmware, so there is no trivial workaround. Apparently one workaround is to rename your files so they don’t have a music extension before moving them off the device, but that didn’t work for me, and is also terribly inconvenient.

I suppose iRiver implemented this control to avoid liability for contributory infringement, but it just seems damn silly to me. My Neuros Audio Player had no such restriction, and my impression is most portable music players let you move music on and off as desired. There is also apparently an alternative firmware that turns the device into a simple USB storage drive (while still functioning as a music player) that eliminates the restriction.

My biggest fear is that, by implementing this sort of unnecessary and unhelpful copy protection technology, hardware makers who fail to implement such controls will be accused of contributory infringement because they didn’t meet “industry standards.”

In the Ghetto

I was recently searching for an MP3 downloadable version of Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto,” having heard an excerpt in this episode of This American Life. I came across this version, which is quite likely the strangest cover of an Elvis song I’ve ever heard. I hope it’s not a sign that I’m out of tune with popular culture because I’ve never heard of dictionaraoke before.

Rather have a bottle in front of me

Tom Waits is featured on this week’s American Routes public radio music show (archived herereal audio link). There’s a great interchange where you can’t tell if Waits is totally screwing around with the host, or just being himself. Here’s the clip (10 second ogg):

Q: I don’t want to misquote you, but I think I saw you once said something like “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”
A: Oh right right right…
Q: Very succinct and poetic line.

A: Mmm… Um, I read that on a bathroom wall.
Q: Oh — did you really?
A: Uh huh. Yeah.
Q: But it strikes me it’s also somebody that sang that at that time that maybe — drinking was probably pretty important to you at that point?
A: Oh, well, I haven’t had a drink in like fourteen years.
Q: But… I… when you said that, my guess would be that you probably were, unless you were totally playing a character…
A: Oh, yeah, I was drinking in those days, yeah, sure.
Q: Yeah, yeah.

Apparently, the “lobotomy” quote, often attributed to Tom Waits, is actually written by Atlanta physician Randy Hanzlick. But it’s entirely plausible it got to Tom Waits via a bathroom somewhere. I’d believe it.

Update: a commentor points out that Hanzlick himself actually got the quote from graffiti on a bathroom wall. The plot thickens.

Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

Richard Shindell’s new album, Vuelta, is great. (Vuelta means turn, reconsideration, or homecoming). I’ve been a Richard Shindell fan since I first saw him at a free folk festival at Harvard in 1996 or 1997 (anybody know what that festival was?). I’ve always preferred his live performances to his albums, though, because I find the full backup band on the album gets in the way. A lot of folk performers seem to like to record with backup bands, maybe because it makes it more interesting for them since they often tour solo—but I almost always prefer the solo acoustic performance.

Shindell has moved to Argentina since his last album, though, and this one is much more sparse by way of instrumentation. The album is also more brooding than his others—although Shindell has never been a lightweight pop songwriter by any standard—and Shindell’s outlook has clearly been made dark by world events since September 11.

My favorite song on the album is Shindell’s adaptation of Pete Seeger’s Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, a story about a World War II army training operation in Louisiana gone awry. For some reason, it only recently became obvious to me that this song is actually about Vietnam.

The song has fresh relevance now in the context of the Iraq war, even if you don’t buy into a simplistic “another Vietnam” analysis. Here is an excerpt (OGG file, 30 seconds, 630K) from the song that goes to the heart of the matter:

“Captain, sir, with all this gear
No man will be able to swim.”
“Sergeant, don’t be a Nervous Nellie,”
The Captain said to him.
“All we need is a little determination;
We’ll soon be on dry ground.”
We were waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the damn fool kept yelling, “Push on!”

Or, as Secretary Rumsfeld puts it: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

They Might Be Giants Is (Are?) Doing The Right Thing

They Might Be Giants, perhaps my favorite band when I was a teenager, is doing the right thing and selling unencumbered high-quality MP3s online at a reasonable price. Directly from the artists. Please support Them—They really seem to “get it.”


Johnny Cash’s music video Hurt may well be the saddest music video I’ve ever seen. I’d heard the song several times without realizing quite how sad it is.

The Gray Album

DJ Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album· is great. Get it while its available, and spread the word.

Also check out the New Yorker· story on the making of the album: The Mouse That Remixed. Also, from EMI stomps Grey Album·:

So why did EMI yesterday demand that the handful of stores that were selling the album destroy it, and send Cease and Desist letters to Danger Mouse?

EMI rigidly controls all Beatles sound recordings for Capitol Records. Sony Music/ATV Publishing controls the publishing side. And both are, of course, founding members of Big Music whose avowed purpose in life is to make sure all music ‘products’ are the sole property of its members.

It’s good to see such a salient conflict between copyright and creativity. The more frequently this occurs, the harder it is to ignore the fact that copyright law so frequently works against its original purpose.

Tears Inside

Ornette Coleman’s 1960 album Tomorrow is the Question had a profound influence on me. I believe I first started to understand Coleman when I was living in Belgium in 1993, and ten years later this album remains an emotional tour de force.

“Tears Inside” gets at that feeling of crushing sorrow which drains away even the energy to cry. The melody is beautiful, hesitant, almost swallows itself. The rhythm section (bass and drums) is sparing, in some parts playing only in the space between Don Cherry’s trumpet lines or Coleman’s sax solo.

I get the feeling of “Tears Inside” in dreams. It stays with me for the rest of the day, eerily unattached to a particular event or even thought.

El Padre Antonio

I never understood salsa music until I saw Panimanian legend Ruben Blades at the 9:30 Club. On a Tuesday night, the club was packed past capacity to see Blades and his 15-odd member band, which included at least three separate drum sets and four keyboards. I was glad that I wasn’t responsible for setting up and doing sound checks.

Before hearing Blades, I thought all salsa music was fairly similar. Blades’ band played with such intensity, depth, and complexity that I realized I hadn’t really heard salsa before. He incorporated African and American Jazz rhythmic and melodic structures without losing his grounding in Latin music or falling into a generic “world beat” fusion sound.

Throughout the concert, Blades signed whatever objects were passed him from the front of the crowd, kissed audience members, accepted personal notes to be read later, all the while coordinating extraordinarily tight and complex arrangements and maintaining a formidable yet modest stage presence. When members of the ensemble took solos, he stepped back behind the percussion so as not to steal the show.

Between songs, he imparted wisdom, 80% Spanish 20% English (most of the audience were hispanophone anyway). He mentioned several movies he was in last year and this year, and said that far more important to him were the two law degrees he was about to receive. The most important thing for us to do, he said, was to educate ourselves as much as possible. It’s easy to see why he won 20% of the vote when he ran for President of Panama; the world would be a better place if he had won.

El Padre Antonio was one of many memorable songs; with almost no Spanish knowledge, I’ve attempted a translation below (ongoing at this point).

 El Padre Antonio Xejeira vino de España, buscando nuevas promesas en esta tierra. Llegó a la selva sin la esperanza de ser obispo., y entre el calor en entre los mosquitos habló de Cristo. El padre no funcionaba en el Vaticano, entre papeles y sueños de aire acondicionado; y fue a un pueblito en medio de la nada a dar su sermón, cada semana pa' los que busquen la salvación. El niño Andrés Eloy Pérez tiene diez años. Estudi an la elementaria "Simón Bolivar". Todavia no sabe decir el Credo correctamente; le gusta el río, jugar al fútbol y estar ausente. Le han dado el puesto en la iglesia de monaguillo a ver si la conexión compone al chiquillo; y su familia está muy orgullosa, porque a su vez piensa que con Dios conectando a uno, conecta a diez. Suena la campana: un, dos, tres, del Padre Antonio y su monaguillo Andrés. El padre condena la violencia. Sabe por experiencia que no es la solución. Les habla de amor y de justicia, de Dios va la noticia vibrando en su sermón: Pero suenan las campanas: un, dos, tres del Padre Antonio y su monaguillo Andrés. Al padre lo halló la guerra un domingo de misa, dando la comunión en mangas de camisa. En medio de un padre nuestro estró el matador y sin confesar su culpa le disparó. Antonio cayo, ostia en mano y sin saber por qué Andrés se murió a su lado sin conocer a Pelé; y entre el grito y la sorpresa, agonizando otra vez estaba el Cristo de palo pegado a la pared. Y nunca se supo el criminal quién fue del Padre Antonio y su monaguillo Andrés. Dobaln las campanas: un, dos, tres, del Padre Antonio y su monaguillo Andrés. 

Here is my attempt at translating this song. I don’t really know Spanish, so I would appreciate suggestions:

 Father Antonio Xejeira came from Spain, seeking out new promises in this land. He arrived in the forest with no desire to become a bishop, and surrounded by heat and mosquitoes he spoke of Christ. Father did not work in the air conditioned Vatican surrounded by documents, and he went to a tiny shack in the middle of nowhere to give his sermon every week for those searching for salvation. Andrés Eloy Perez is a ten years old boy, he attends "Simón Bolivar" elementary school. Todavia does not know how to say the Lord's prayer properly, he likes the river, playing soccer, and skipping school. They have made him the church choir-boy to see if the kid will connect; and his family is proud, because they think that when God connects with one, He connects with ten. The bell rings: one, two, three, for Father Antonio and his choir-boy Andrés. The Father condemns violence, He knows from experience that is not the solution. He tells them of justice and love, of God, the news resonates in his sermon: But the bells ring: one, two, three, of Father Antonio and his choir-boy Andrés. War came to the Father during Sunday mass, while giving communion in shirt sleeves. in the middle of an "our father" a matador shot him without confessing his sins. Antonio cried, a hole in his hand without knowing for what Andrés died on his side without knowing Pelé; and between the cries and the surprise, in agony again he was the Christ on the Cross. And the criminal himself never knew who was Antonio Father and his choir-boy Andrés. Ring the bells: one, two, three, for Father Antonio and his choir-boy Andrés.