Bokanté and Metropole Orkest – ‘What Heat’ // A beautiful, important record

What does it take to make of good cocktail? The trick is to use the right measuring cups and shakers, a balanced mix of juices, liquor and spices and a splash of creativity. ‘What Heat’ by the multinational Bokanté is such a cocktail. A wonderous fusion of cultures and musical idioms. A blend that reveals new aromas with every sip. A keeper on the menu. Indeed, an important album.

The man behind the bar? Tireless Michael League. As if conquering the world with Snarky Puppy isn’t a fulltime job already, League is head of the GroundUP label, a champion for musician’s rights and a distinctive producer, notably responsible for the sound design of David Crosby’s sublime ‘Lighthouse’ (2016) and more recently, ‘Here If You Listen’. He really must need very little sleep as he also immerses himself in other passions, like mastering Turkish percussion and the art of the oud, a (North) African and Middle Eastern lute-like string instrument.

In Bokanté, League surrounds himself with true masters of their domain. Musicians out of five countries and nearly as many continents. On percussion: Jamey Haddad, André Ferrari, Keith Ogawa and djembe supremo Weedie Braimah (who also played on Bill Laurance‘s ‘Aftersun’). On guitar, there’s Chris McQueen and Bob Lanzetti, two of Snarky Puppy’s usual suspects. And Roosevelt Collier plays pedal steel (prominently on closing track La Maison En Feu).

And then there’s this fenomenal, multifaceted voice, which belongs to Guadeloupean singer Malika Tirolien. Together these nine unique identities make all boundaries evaporate. Just like that.

Seamless fusion

On its second album ‘What Heat’, Bokanté time travels back to the roots of the blues in Africa and the Arabic world, bringing back its finest elements and merging them with delta blues, Caribean music and a range of other influences, until someting new and exciting appears. The acoustic guitar arpeggio’s of McQueen and Lanzetti add western, almost singer-songwriter-like flair. And importantly, the Dutch Metropole Orkest gives wings to Bokanté’s sound.

Michael League and conductor Jules Buckley masterly avoid the pitfalls of the orchestra treatment – as they previously managed to do on ‘Sylva’ (2015), which landed Snarky Puppy a Grammy Award. ‘What Heat’ is all about unpredictable and exploring writing and arranging. Groove and melody come first.

The orchestral backdrop is always stylish, never ever blatant, always right on point. You can sense that these arrangements were intensely polished. But you can’t discern their screws and the seams. The orchestra rocks, soothes and rages in the background. And then sometimes it bursts out with an instrumental flash, to baffling effect.

World on fire

The song closest to my heart? Definitely Famn, which translates as The Woman. It touches a nerve unlike anything I discovered in the past few months. Its off-centre rhythm, deep bass, hissing and ominous strings, the tapestry of voices, the ‘speed bump’ at 02:32, the oud coda, … Chillingly beautiful.

Tirolien’s lyrics (often in Guadeloupean Creole) seem to focus on the state our world is in. Take Bod Lanme Pa Lwen, which means The Beach Is Not Far. The viewpoint of a sunbather or the yearning cry of a refugee on a rickety boat? The final words of the album leave no doubt about Bokanté’s social engagement: “Il est temps d’utiliser notre pouvoir / Maintenant” [“It’s time to use our power. Right now.”]

I’m far from done with ‘What Heat’, that’s for sure. It’s a deep, fun, layered and, dare I say, important album. Because it reflects on the world on fire. Because it’s a mirror of our complex society. Because it shows how boundaries and genres are merely artifects, which we can transcended. Again, ‘What Heat’ is a beautiful, important record.

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The Breeders, Fabrik, Hamburg (3 July 2018)

All smiles, all authentic // The Breeders @ Fabrik, Hamburg (3 July 2018)

It all began with coincidence. When my grandmother and I decided to visit Hamburg, I instinctively went looking for the city’s best venues and their programs. Before long, I was holding tickets for The Breeders at the Fabrik, a former machine parts factory right in the middle of the lively, down to earth Altona neighbourhood.

It had been scheiße heiß that day in Hamburg’s Altstadt and by the waterside in the harbour. The slight breeze passing over the Elbe and the sight of the glacial Elbphilarmonie provided some refreshment, along with a pint of Erdinger Weissenbier. In the early evening, the piercing sun left behind a sultry, harmless heat.

You could easily mistake the sidewalk in front of the Fabrik for an outdoor screening of a World Cup match. Hands holding Carlsberg bottles, people wearing T-shirts of their favourite team (either The Breeders or local club FC Sankt Pauli), anticipation in the air.

Sturm und Drang

Apart from the old crane on the roof, the front of the Fabrik didn’t seem to hold anything special. But once inside, I got struck by its unique architecture: a high church-like room with a glass ceiling, hefty wooden beams, a 360° gallery on the first floor and an impressive wall of fame on the second floor. U2, Killing Joke, John Abercrombie’s Gateway Trio, Alphonse Mouzon, Holger Czukay, Klaus Schulze, Carla Bley, Billy Cobham, John Mayall, Miles Davis, … These greats and many others made the Fabrik the modest music temple it is today.

 

 

The Amsterdam youngsters of Pip Blom moved the audience’s minds away from the past. The band played its first gig on German soil. And as soon as 20 year-old singer Pip (vocals/guitar) and her band started making noise and launched their energetic form of slacker pop into the former factory, people started pouring in.

Wherever they go, Kim and Kelly Deal seem to prefer (part-)female opening acts. With ‘Last Splash’ and lead single Cannonball they hit jackpot in a male-dominated music industry and did things by their own standards. No compromises. Now they support other bands to do the same. For Pip Blom, it worked. The crowd appreciated the melodic Sturm und Drang of the Dutch quartet. Some people sang along, some mirrored the shaking bodies onstage.

Tension and release

Obviously, The Breeders gave a more mature impression, marked by a 30 year history of monster success and disintegration, addiction and rehab, line-up changes and reconciliation.

In 2013, the rejuvenated classic line-up of Kim and Kelley Deal, Jim MacPherson and Josephine Wiggs embarked on a tour to celebrate 20 years of ‘Last Splash’. A reunion that eventually led to the brilliant ‘All Nerve’, released in March.

The Breeders, Fabrik, Hamburg

Not that old tensions are gone altogether. “We don’t always get along”, Kim told J Double. “I think it’s sort of key.” Of her sister Kelley, she said: “Sometimes, I just want to take a knife and gouge her eyeballs. But then at other times, she says something and I think, Wow, that was really cool.” Meanwhile, Kelley told The New York Times about the experience of recording ‘All Nerve’: “We still butted heads.” And then they went out to get some ice cream and discuss the latest episode of their favourite true crime series. (Uncut Magazine #251)

So when Kim introduced Kelley in the Fabrik as the singer of the next song (I Just Want to get Along) with the words “Mother says Kelly has to sing a song”, it was both funny and poignant.

Smiling and shaking

If past tensions had left its mark on the band, you couldn’t tell from the energy on stage. Even in the back, it was hard not to be enchanted by Kim’s beaming smile. And Jim MacPherson’s drum set was a living thing, shaking with excitement right from the beginning, which had new song Wait in the Car sandwiched between ‘Last Splash’ favourites New Year and No Aloha. The band mainly drew songs from that album, 25 years old this year, and the new one, ‘All Nerve’.

 

Not suprisingly, just two tracks from the interim period made it to the setlist. MacPherson, who had left the band after the release of ‘Last Splash’, recalled in Uncut Magazine: “Hearing the new Breeders records coming out was like a knife in my gutt.”

Kim didn’t try to beat around the bush. Before she started one of those songs, Huffer, she said: “You can all song along to this, for it is the album before rehab. So the lyrics are really simple.” A goofy stab at herself.

On the verge of falling apart

Watching The Breeders launch into Cannonball and the wild audience reaction from the gallery was a sight to behold. Suddenly the crowd began jumping around as if trying to walk barefoot over red hot coals.

Tracks like Spacewoman, the gentle country of Drivin’ on 9 and Off You balanced the pace, the latter beautifully played by just the Deal sisters (“I am the autumn in the scarlet, I am the make-up on your eyes”) and immediately followed by the Pretty Vacant-like mood of I Just Wanna Get Along. Allegedly, Kim wrote that song about her failing working relationship with former Pixies-bandmate Frank Black, but after all that happened in her own band, the title took on a wholly new meaning.

Josephine Wiggs, who always comes across as the most sensible of the quartet in interviews, got it right when she told of the band’s sound to The New York Times: “Often I feel like it’s right on the verge of falling apart, and then it doesn’t. And there’s something super-exciting about that.”

In hindsight, I think that’s exactly what made this gig so special. That and the amazing surroundings of the Fabrik. All authentic. The real deal.

[Full setlist: below video]

Further reading

 

The Breeders@Fabrik, Hamburg – Setlist

  1. New Year
  2. Wait in the Car
  3. No Aloha
  4. Divine Hammer
  5. All Nerve
  6. Huffer
  7. Shroom
  8. Glorious
  9. Spacewoman
  10. Safari
  11. Drivin’ on 9
  12. Walking with a Killer
  13. Fortunately Gone
  14. S.O.S.
  15. Off You
  16. I Just Wanna Get Along
  17. Cannonball
  18. Happiness is a Warm Gun
  19. Skinhead #2
  20. MetaGoth
  21. Gigantic

ENCORE

  1. Do You Love Me Now?
  2. Nervous Mary
  3. Saints
Gayle Ellett of Djam Karet in the countryside of Southern California

“We’ve always been outsiders” // A chat with Gayle Ellett of Djam Karet

“When I’m not sleeping, I’m making music,” says Gayle Ellett, co-founder of the legendary Djam Karet, from his home amid the sweeping countryside of Soutnern California. “Music makes life less painful.”

Always the generous type, Gayle took some time to sit down, contemplate my questions and answer them candidly and elaborately.

Over the past 35 years he’s composed and recorded a wide array of music, from improvised experiments with no commercial potential at all [‘No Commercial Potential’ (1985) was Djam Karet’s very first release], all the way to world-exploring library music and international film and TV soundtracks.

Djam Karet No Commercial Potential Cassette Tape 1985

He recently released his second album with improvisational jazz-outfit Hillmen [listen on Bandcamp]. And is currently recording the newest Djam Karet album, to be released in 2019. “We are very self-indulgent”, he says of the band that fires the imagination of eclectic music aficionado’s since 1984. “Really, we make music for ourselves and everyone else can go fuck off.”

If not commerce, what do you aim for as a musician?

GAYLE ELLETT // “I hope to, one day, be the peers of my idols. I want to make ‘top-shelf’ albums. I don’t want to sound like our idols, but I do want to make music that is as visionary and special as the great albums I heard in my youth. Djam Karet follows this philosophy to this day.”

“The recordings are the goal, they are the challenge. If we like the music we make, then we are happy. And if no one buys it, then we will still be happy to make albums, but we wouldn’t release them on CD.”

Which bands or musicians blew your mind when you were a kid?

“When I first heard ‘Sgt. Pepper’ in 1967, I was 7 years old, and it really freaked me out. That album formed wondrous visions of faraway places in my mind, created by these new living gods we called The Beatles. I realized than that music can be as vision-inducing as film or TV. That really impressed me.”

“Having Iron Butterfly’s ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ on our home stereo in 1968 also really freaked me out. But I was also very impressed with highly vocal groups like Simon & Garfunkel, Peter Paul & Mary, and the trumpet music of Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass. Basically, the popular groups from the 1960’s.”

“Back then, we only knew about a group’s recorded sound: their LPs and what we heard on the radio. For us, there was no live-music, showmanship or entertainer aspect to music, as we know now. No huge stages with fire and lasers, or videos of big houses, girls and dancers. Music was only music. Period. Maybe that is why I love recording so much, and why I have no interest in playing live. I hate being an ‘entertainer’.”

“We want to create mini-movies in your mind” (Gayle Ellett)

Talking about vision-inducing music, Djam Karet music has been praised by fans and critics alike for its cinematic qualities, which even inspired you to name your latest album ‘Sonic Celluloid’ (2017). What comes first, the music or the titles?

“The music always comes first, the titles last. When you do not have lyrics, finding good titles is really difficult. And sometimes they’re probably not very accurate. Usually, there will be a temporary title while we work on the song, like Chuck’s Tune, or TangerineDream thingy. Later, we try to find a real title. A very hard thing to do!”

“I think the filmic atmosphere sets us apart from other instrumental acts. Very often, the focus is on soloing. Or the music is intentionally boring, like new age. But we want our music to concentrate on the evolving composition. With this approach, we are trying to tell stories, and create unique environments. We want to create mini-movies in your mind.”

It’s funny then that it was an image that first piqued my curiosity about Djam Karet: the iconic, Residents-like guitars-for-heads promo shot that became your official band photo. What’s the story behind that pic?

“I have a Masters Degree in Fine Art. And I thought that the ‘guitar heads’ image would be unique, and show that we are a band, not individual players. Often, if a magazine is going to use one band’s photo, they’ll pick that one, because it is so unique.”

“In a ‘typical’ band photo, all members are standing by the railroad tracks in leather jackets looking unhappy! Or maybe they are all looking straight up into the wide-angle camera above them. Our photo is more unusual. And we’ve had great success it.”

Djam Karet iconic band photo

All these years, you have been the only full-time professional musician in the band. How do you keep the Djam Karet train on track?

“With a whip and a baseball bat. Just kidding! Usually, the guys in Djam Karet want to keep making new records, so it is easy to keep them on track and motivated. Anyone who does not want to play on a certain record, does not need to do it. We are flexible, and easy-going.”

“Most of us have side projects as well, so we are all doing different things musically. But Djam Karet is our main vehicle for making music. I currently play in seven bands. One of these is with my Texas friends Herd Of Instinct. And our label Firepool Records releases their albums. They are great! I also play in a contemporary Arabic music group, a Swedish shoegaze band, and many others.

You arguably created more music outside of the band than with the band. What are you most proud of?

“I am most proud of my work with my acoustic World/Americana group Fernwood. Our third album, ‘Arcadia’, is the best composed and recorded album I have made so far.”

“I also think ‘Sonic Celluloid’ came out really well. Every year I get better at mixing and producing, so I usually like our newest albums the most. But certainly ‘The Devouring’ [released 1997 – Ed.] is a real fan-favorite.”

When starting Djam Karet in 1984, what was the musical climate in California like? To an outsider, it feels like Djam Karet carved out a path of its own between the LA studio scene, heavy metal and hardcore punk.

“The 1980’s here in Los Angeles were somewhat like it is today. Los Angeles has always been a bad place to perform music. Many clubs want you to pay them, just to play there. They want you to, in advance, buy 100 tickets from them for $10 each ($1,000!) and then the band is supposed to re-sell them for more money to their fans. But we never do that. We focus instead on making our own albums, in our own private studio. We’ve always been ‘outsiders’, that was our goal, so we are used to this condition!”

“Heck, if we wanted to be popular, we would have gotten a singer!” (Gayle Ellett)

So LA was tough. How did you get your following in the early days? What was your strategy? 

“We never had a strategy of getting any fans or followers. Really, we only played for ourselves, and for the first few years all of our music was totally improvised. But we lived in a college town, Claremont, California, so we could play at a lot of casual art openings or college parties. But I don’t think we really had any fans. That’s not what Djam Karet is about.”

Djam Karet playing live in the early days

“Heck, if we wanted to be popular, we would have gotten a singer! Think about how many instrumental rock bands there were in the 1980’s – not counting bands dominated by one guitarist, like Joe Satriani. There were none. It is an extremely unpopular style of music. And we know that. But for us, it is really fun and challenging to compose and play it.”

You live in the countryside town of Topanga, not that far removed from downtown LA. How does that particular geographic context influence your sound?

“It is very quiet and calm where I live, here in the coastal mountains of Southern California. I live about 4 km from the Pacific Ocean, so I often see dolphins, whales, sealions and other sea creatures as I drive along the coastal road into Los Angeles. I hear more animal noises, than cars.”

“We are removed from the busy life of the city. So it does influence me personally, and the music I make. I am a country person. Always have been. I grew up spending my summers at our family ranch in New Mexico, raising cattle. So I have a great appreciation for the country life. It is the calming ingredient that I need. Many of my neighbors have horses and chickens. I feel very fortunate to live here in Topanga!”

Gayle Ellett Topanga Southern California Countryside

Back in 1991, ‘Suspension & Displacement’ and ‘Burning The Hard City’ were released as non-identical twins, separately but simultaneously, with musically very different characters. L’Un N’Existe Pas Sans L’Autre, said the notes of both albums. Do you recall why you named those albums the way you did?

“If you want to make a really good album that is 60 minutes long, then it is wise to record about 90 minutes of finished music, and then select the best songs for your hour-long album. Some of the music was rock, and some was more electronic. So we thought that there was almost two albums worth of music there, that we could divide into two different styles. We then wrote some more music, resulting in two very different sounding albums. Probably no one loves both CDs, but we do not care about being popular. Really we don’t care about making music our ‘fans’ will like. That’s not what we do.”

“Anyway, ‘Suspension & Displacement’ was a good title for the spacey-electronic music on that album. While the music on ‘Burning’ was very aggressive. Of course, at that time, we were at war with Iraq – the first Gulf War. So there were many war images on TV and on the news. So that title seemed like a good fit for that album’s music and the era it was made in.”

Prog rock, new age, jamband, techno-tribal, … Over the years, Djam Karet has been put into many different boxes. How do you feel about those categorizations?

“It does not bother me. Our focus is on making music as an art-form, not as a commercial product. We are more interested in applying the concepts of ‘theme and variation’ to our compositions, making long-form music. Often our songs are in an ABCDE-type structure: moving from one section to a new section, then to another new section, usually ending somewhere very different than where the song began.”

Djam Karet Psych Band Photo

How would you describe your music?

“Some of our albums are electronic, and some are rock. Basically, I think we play ‘artrock’. This is a concept, more than a ‘sound’. We sort of play progressive rock, but who really knows? We love the sounds of music more than the labels! It is not for us to decide, that is for the music critics to decide. And we love music critics! We get so many great reviews, with our weird music. We are very fortunate! Oddly, we have had a lot of commercial success, with our non-commercial music.”

Initially you released cassettes and then went straigt to CD. According to the listings on Discogs, Djam Karet never released a lot of music on vinyl. Yet, both the music and artwork would lend themselves perfectly for that format. Any plans for vinyl releases in the future?

“We have released a few albums on vinyl. But they are expensive to make, and they are short, usually only about 42 minutes or shorter. Our first albums were usually about 70 minutes long. Yes, vinyl is making a comeback, and it is growing in popularity. But even now … only about 5% of world-wide sales of music, are on vinyl LP. Most of my friends do not even own a record player and a home-stereo with really big speakers – I do, but I’m rather unusual.”

“A society that does not value its arts, is a society in decline, and that is where we are today.” (Gayle Ellett)

Some of your music is available of Spotify. Of course, streaming and its rewarding system have been controversial, especially if you don’t have millions of listeners. What’s your view on that?

“We make music because we want to, not for the money. So now that there is no money in music anymore, first because of Napster and stealing music, and now due to streaming services like Spotify and Rhapsody, everyone expects music to be ‘free’. This does not hurt us too much, but it is killing the music industry, and killing new music. It really takes many decades to become great at making music, and there are currently many talented musicians who will soon quit making music, because they can not even afford to buy new gear. These new trends are bad for society. A society that does not value its arts, is a society in decline, and that is where we are today. The future of the arts does not look good.”

You issued a lot of Djam Karet albums independently, but did sign a deal with Cuneiform Records around the close of the 20th century.  What did that mean for you in terms of exposure and sales?

Cuneiform has always been good to us. They always helped us sell more CDs than we could on our own. We even tested this in 2001 with the release of ‘Ascension’ and ‘New Dark Age’. The band privately released ‘Ascension’, but we had Cuneiform release ‘New Dark Age’, and they sold a lot more CDs than we did on our own with ‘Ascension’, even though they are ‘sister albums’, recorded at the same time. So they have been helpful to us.”

Cuneiform also re-released some of your back catalogue around that time. Did it manage to bring those early albums to a new audience? 

“Yes, I think they did do that. They had a bigger reach then we did, by ourselves. So they did help us get our music to a bigger audience. Now, I think that the label is no longer alive [Cuneiform is on a sabbatical in 2018, no new releases are currently schedulded – Ed.]. It is sad, because they really promoted styles of music that would otherwise not be heard.

Djam Karet 'Sonic Celluloid' (2017)

You’re preparing a new Djam Karet album, the follow-up to 2017’s ‘Sonic Celluloid’ due out in 2019. What can we expect?

“We’ve started on a new album, that would be somewhat like ‘Sonic Celluloid’, but with more acoustic instruments. Although we are thinking we might write a rock album instead, or additionally. Right now, we are writing some rock-based tunes. During  summer, we’ll record the basic tracks for this, and we’ll see what happens. Nothing will be completed until sometime in 2019. Maybe we’ll even end up with two new albums, who knows?”

In the notes to recent releases you stress the fact that you didn’t use compression or limiting. Or in the case of ‘The Heavy Soul Sessions’: “All music was played by hand … without computer manipulation.” Do you feel technology is having too big an impact on today’s music in general?

“Take the example of modern rap. It could not really exist without modern technology. It uses computers, drum machines, clip-launchers, auto-tuned vocals, etc. But I am from an older era, a time before that stuff existed in music. I am from the old days when you had to play all of the music yourself, with your hands, the old-fashioned way.”

“There is no need to make your music ‘louder’: that is why God made the volume knob on your stereo so big!” (Gayle Ellett on compression)

“As far as compression is concerned, too much of it will absolutely ruin a good record! The distortion – like a big blanket over your speakers – is horrid, and a low dynamic range makes the music sound far away and weak. So I rarely use it, or I only use a tiny bit. There is no need to make your music ‘louder’: that is why God made the volume knob on your stereo so big! It’s the main knob! Just turn it up. Even for radio play, the radio stations auto-level the music in advance, using the Orban Optimod System. So there is no need to do it ourselves.”

But you do record digitally, right?

“Yes I do and I love recording onto computers. When we began making records, everything was on tape. But tape has a lot of background noise or hiss. And you always need to be very careful, because if you record too quietly you’d hit the noise-floor, and if you record too loudly it will distort. But with computers, there is a much wider dynamic range: the noise floor is extremely low, about 30dB lower than tape. So you have a much a larger space to make music in.”

Talking about rap, I sense it’s not really your favourite kind of music?

“I do not like rap music. But being nearly sixty years old, I am not supposed to like rap. It’s for the young kids of today. It is supposed to annoy older people. People that make successful music know very clearly who their target audience is. Besides, kids desperately want to be different from their parents, and music helps them achieve that sense of independence. They have very different values. So when a rapper writes about violence, sexist womanizing, cash materialism, breaking the law, fame and fortune, those values might appeal to the kids, but not to their parents or grandparents. The same was true when rock music came into being. Jazz, new age and classical on the other hand are intentionally targeted to older people or musicians. Well, that’s my view.”

You reinvigorated that view by releasing the second Hillmen album ‘The Whiskey Mountain Sessions Vol. II’, which was recorded with just four people in a room. No edits at all, just three long-form, organic jams. What are ambitions with that particular band?

Hillmen Whiskey Mountain Sessions Volume 2“Hillmen is a group that only plays entirely improvised music. We just tune up and begin playing, with absolutely no pre-determined structure or plans. This style is very challenging and difficult to play well. And it is extremely unpopular! It is often ‘hit & miss’, sometimes it results in good music, but many times it falls flat on its face! But it is always great ear-training, great practice, and it makes you a much better player. We all play in other bands too, so Hillmen is like taking a vacation from ‘regular’ music.

Finally, what does Gayle Ellett do when he’s not making music?

“Sleep. When I am not sleeping, I am working on music. I am obsessed with music. It makes life less painful.”

Head over to www.GayleEllett.com to see how Gayle spends his waking hours.
Find out all about Djam Karet’s massive back catalogue on Bandcamp.
And tune in later to discover five great albums recommend by Gayle.

 

‘Homerun’ // TaxiWars (try-out, Turnhout, 10 Apr 2018)

Yesterday, TaxiWars took to the stage at the Keizershof in Turnhout to perform a daring set of mostly new, unrecorded material. A homerun for prodigal son Robin Verheyen, who was born and raised in Turnhout and went on to immerse himself in comtemporary jazz, headquartered in his adopted hometown New York.

When Verheyen started playing the weathered, but great-sounding tenor sax he inherited from his grandfather (on signature tune TaxiWars), the Keizershof immediately got the atmosphere of a smoke-filled jazz club in a dark cellar. And while some details were certainly discussed between band members after the show, the try-out suggested that TaxiWars’ third album could be their best yest.

Upright bass player Nicolas Thys laid down irrestible grooves, though at times he seemed not fully at ease, glancing at drummer Antoinne Pierre for directions. Pierre himself wore a mild, but continuous smile as he effortlessly played the most tricky parts, like during the great new Iberian Moon, which was written in septuple meter.

Lots of fun

Tom Barman, who’s used to far bigger crowds and more onstage moving space with dEUS, communicated with his inner Beefheart, toyed with vocal effects, put his mic in Verheyen’s horn, and clearly had lots of fun.

So did the audience, which as it happens included my dad. Years ago he firmly proclaimed “I don’t like jazz”, but yesterday he left the venue genuinely impressed by TaxiWars’ punk jazz. Even when Verheyen sometimes recalled Coltrane’s wildest moments. For me, it shows just how big the crossover potential of TaxiWars really is.

TaxiWars@Keizershof: setlist

  • Taxiwars (‘TaxiWars’, 2015)
  • Soul Repair (‘Fever’, 2016)
  • Drop Shot (new)
  • The Glare (new)
  • Tell You You’ve Changed (new)
  • Bridges (‘Fever’, 2016)
  • Iberian Moon (new)
  • Who That (‘TaxiWars, 2015)
  • Different Or Not (new)
  • Infinity Cove (new)
  • Irritated Love (new)
  • Ping Pong (new)
  • Artificial Horizon (new)
  • Sharp Practice (new)
  • Death Ride Through Wet Snow (‘TaxiWars’, 2015)
  • —————————
  • Safety in Numbers (new)
  • Colloseum (‘TaxiWars’, 2015)

 

More jazz on UnearthingMusic?
Read ‘Machine Gun: a Rapid-Fire History of Epic Jazz’.

 

TaxiWars_Setlist

Morrison Kincannon Beneath The Redwoods vinyl

Interview / Morrison Kincannon (Spacetalk)

I discovered the initially mysterious Morrison Kincannon earlier today. Turns out these two Californian guys released one single back in the 70’s, but kept recording cool West Coast jazz-inflected folk-rock / yacht rock together for over a decade.

Ban Ban Ton Ton tells their remarkable story and talks to one half of the criminally overlooked duo: Norman Morrison.

‘Beneath The Redwoods’, which gathers some of Morrison Kincannon’s long-lost, dust-covered recordings, was released January 26, 2018 by UK label Spacetalk.

Have a listen and buy the limited edition CD, double vinyl or digital album, over at Spacetalk’s Bandcamp page.

 

Ban Ban Ton Ton

Norman Morrison and Terry Kincannon (TK) started making music together in their teens. Composing during “Saturday Jams” at TK`s parents` house, in Hayward, California. With Norman responsible for the songs, and TK, the arrangements. In the early `70s, for a one-off payment, they secured unlimited studio time at a small San Francisco studio. Allowing them to self-release a few 45s. Which lead to a recording contract with a local company, Chandos. The deal, however, produced only one single. The B-side of which was a tune called To See One Eagle Fly. Undeterred, the friends continued to write, rehearse, and use that studio time until 1986. When family commitments took over, and they put their musical dreams on indefinite hold. Then nearly thirty years later, in 2013, Norman got a call from UK-based label, Spacetalk. Inquiring about licensing To See One Eagle Fly. Pete Beaver, a friend of…

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Machine Gun - Rapid fire History of Epic Jazz

Machine Gun // A Rapid-fire History of Epic Jazz (1960-2015)

Think of a well-known Smiths melody and start scatting: “Some jazz is more epic than other.” It might not be one hundred procent correct grammatically. But as Miles Davis would say: “So what.” He rewrote the rulebook more than once: most notably on modal jazz milestone ‘Kind of Blue’ (1959) and on the monumental – one might say epic – double album ‘Bitches Brew’ (1969), which paved the way for a cornucopia of fusions between jazz, rock, funk and world music.

Miles Davis - Bitches Brew (1970)

So what … is ‘epic’? It’s a feeling, a mood, certainly not a genre. A timeless atmosphere or cinematic quality that oozes out of jazz’s most grand and often groundbreaking gestures. Epic jazz unfolds its stories patiently, sometimes violently, and might deal with matters that transcend our understanding, such as time and space, inhuman suffering and superhuman achievements, …

Here’s a list of records that sound epic or cinematic to my ears, ordered counter-chronologically, honouring the unruly nature of many of these albums. They were released between 1960 and 2015, which raises another question: was 1959, when  ‘Kind of Blue’ (Davis) and ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’ (Ornette Coleman), iconoclastic statements in their own right, freed musicians from their harmonic and compositional straight jacket, the year when jazz became more epic?

Kamasi Washington – ‘The Epic’ (2015)

Kamasi Washington - The Epic (2015)Look at Washington’s overlord pose and confident glare, and tell me this album isn’t epic. It spans almost three hours of highly addictive music. A sidemen to people like Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, saxophonist Washington and his impressive troupe of musicians channel everything from Debussy’s Clair De Lune and Donald Byrd’s jazz and gospel choir classic ‘A New Perspective’ to modern soul and Fender Rhodes explorations by the likes of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. An epic of biblical proportions indeed.

Brad Mehldau – ‘Highway Rider’ (2010)

Brad Mehldau - Highway Rider (2010)

Piano player Brad Mehldau doesn’t dwell in the same place for too long. He travels between trio recordings and sharp-edged collaborations. Most recently, he teamed up with Mark Guiliana on jazz-funk-prog album ‘Taming The Dragon’.

Mehldau’s restless ambition reached its peak on ‘Highway Rider’, a 100-minute cycle of jazz and classical music with elements of pop – there’s even a salute to Elliott Smith – and electronica, beautifully arranged and executed by Mehldau’s trio, sax player Joshua Redman and a full-blown orchestra.

Exploding Star Orchestra – ‘Stars Have Shapes’ (2010)

For Exploding Star Orchestra,Exploding Star Orchestra - Stars Have Shapes (2010) a large band led by Chicago musician Rob Mazurak, everything seems to revolve around … the sun. Or should I say Sun Ra? They’re certainly at ease with the cosmic side of things.

Dropping listeners in mid-space, Ascension Ghost Impression no. 2 floats towards complete astral chaos, with gigantic wooshes of sound and near-collisions of cosmic debris. After a brief soothing middle section, the turmoil returns, and then transforms again. Three Blocks of Light represents a different type of avant-garde jazz from outer space, and while Impression no. 1 contains some familiar jazz elements, it’s equally disorienting.

Patricia Barber – ‘Mythologies’ (2006)

Patricia Barber - Mythologies (2006)Deep-voiced jazz pianist and composer Patricia Barber meanders through Ovid’s classical masterpiece ‘Metamorphoses’ and turns it into a thrilling suite on ‘Mythologies’. Despite her often offbeat sense of melody, the album progresses smoothly, propelled by subtle piano, brief sax improvs, spirited percussion and blistering guitar, courtesy of Neal Alger.

On songs like Icarus and Phaeton Barber’s voice is out of this world. Just spell-binding. A timeless album, ‘Mythologies’ clearly flies close to the sun. But never too close.

Electric Masada – ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ (2005)

Masada is the name of a series of insanely versatile Electric Masada - At the Mountains of Madness (2006)klezmer-inspired songbooks written by John Zorn. Versatile? Because these compositions have been interpreted by numerous bands and musicians, both within and outside of Zorn’s immediate entourage. In 2013, Pat Metheny had a shot at taming Zorn’s ‘Book of Angels, Vol. 20’.

Almost a decade before that, a rather extreme ensemble aimed at the Masada repertoire too. No surprise it was one of Zorn’s own groups: the allmighty Electric Masada, which took a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde approach to the music.

Compare the quiet Abidan to the complex and brutal Metal Tov. The obi that goes with double-disc live album ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ puts it right:

“Tight as a drum and hot as a blowtorch, these two incredible live performances will leave you breathless. Astonishing group conductions, searing solos and crazed insanity from one of the most amazing bands Zorn has ever had.”

Pat Metheny – ‘The Way Up’ (2005)

Pat Metheny - The Way Up (2005)Guitarist extraordinaire Pat Metheny and keyboardist-sidekick Lyle Mays took their Pat Metheny Group recordings to the next level with this 68-minute twisting and turning piece of music. Partnering gorgeous melody with bursts of bebop improvisation, and Steve Reich-like pulses with a proggy compositional structure, ‘The Way Up’ is one of a kind.

Metheny had embarked on such grand-scale adventures before. ’80/81′, ‘As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls’, ‘Zero Tolerance for Silence’ (his take on ‘Metal Machine Music’), … anyone? After ‘The Way Up’, Metheny’s next step was to replace his Group by a stagewide construction of automated instruments, the orchestrion, which he dragged aIl around the world.

Dave Holland Quintet – ‘Extended Play. Live at Birdland’ (2003)

Dave Holland - Extended PlayHonestly, the first track on ‘Extended Play’, The Balance is one of the most celestial pieces of music I know. The way the horns parts fight each other, and then fall into each other’s arms, is beyond words. As is the polyrhytmic base provided by Dave Holland (bass), Steve Nelson (marimba) and Billy Kelson (drums). ‘Extended Play’, an ECM release, was recorded live at Birdland in 2001.

Every single track on this massive set is a stretched-out version of a composition that was first recorded in the studio. In other words: Extended. And Play-ful most of the time, especially during the Chris Potter-Kevin Eubanks battle on Prime Directive. ‘Extended Play’ remains a crowning achievement for one of jazz’s finest band leaders.

Jaga Jazzist – ‘A Livingroom Hush’ (2002)

Jaga Jazzist - A Livingroom Hush (2002)The last track on ‘A Livingroom Hush’ by prodigious Norwegian ensemble Jaga Jazzist is called Cinematic. Tellingly, this minor-key noise elegy is the least cinematic of all.

Main composer Lars Horntveth has a sixth sense for grand melodies and brightly coloured arrangements. Take Animal Chin and its huge, textured sound, which couples jazz marimba with electronics and turntables. One great theme is followed by another followed by another … culminating in a strange voyage through Lithuania, which couples Tortoise-like minimalism with orchestrated house. Now that’s cinematic.

The Necks – ‘Next’ (1990)

The Necks are an unusual Australian experimental jazz combo,The Necks - Next (1990) with a very common set-up: piano, bass and drums. For years now, they have been releasing single, looooong compositions as albums, like ‘See Through’ and ‘Mosquito’. Meticously crafted acres of improvised music, time and time again. Debut album ‘Sex’ introduced the format. Follow-up ‘Next’ broke it.

It’s 28-minute centerpiece Pele, which patiently and brilliantly builts towards a gently pounding climax, sets the tone for The Necks’ further career, together with final piece The World At War. The ghostly guitar funk of Nice Policeman Nasty Policeman and the Seinfeld slapp bass of the title song only add to the fun on this overlooked album.

John Zorn – ‘Spillane’ (1987)

John Zorn - Spillane (1987)One of the most versatile composers around, John Zorn had released challenging ‘game pieces’ and a splendid tribute to Ennio Morricone (‘The Big Gundown’), before seeking inspiration from cult crime writer Mickey Spillane. The 25-minute title piece wouldn’t have sounded out of place in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, the cartoon/live-action film that hit the theaters a year later. Both ‘Spillane’ and ‘Roger Rabbit’ share the same setting: the 40’s-50’s LA underworld.

Zorn’s jumpcutting technique (from cartoons to harsh reality in a split second), samples and Morricone-mystique all work brilliantly. Besides Spillane there’s a thunderous blues jam featuring Albert Collins (Two-Lane Highway), and a mindblowing modern classical piece performed by the Kronos Quartet (Forbidden Fruit). Together with the Ornette Coleman readings of Spy vs. Spy’, ‘Spillane’ would lead directly to jazz/hardcore masterpiece ‘Naked City’.

John Abercrombie – ‘Timeless’ (1975)

‘Timeless’ begins with rapid-fire interaction between gJohn Abercrombie - Timeless (1975)uitarist John Abercrombie and keyboard player Jan Hammer (the Miami Vice guy). Meanwhile Jack DeJohnette holds everything together with his automatic weapon drumming.

But very soon, the trio sails into calmer water, evocating a wide range of moods: Love Song is a moving acoustic, well, love song. Just piano and guitar. 

Red and Orange, by contrast, seems to predate early 1990s rave music like Nightmares on Wax. And the first four minutes of the title song provide an early example of ambient, while the next part has an elegant repetitive motif, which makes you think of Portishead, or even Radiohead. To top all that, ‘Timeless’ has that cystal clear ECM production. It’s a classic without expiration date.

Keith Jarret – ‘The Köln Concert’ (1975)

Keith Jarret - The Köln Concert (1975)When on 24 January 1975 Keith Jarret finally sat down on his piano stool in the Köln Opera House, he didn’t have the slightest idea of what to play. He improvised his solo concert from start to finish. And still it became the best-selling solo piano album in jazz history.

But even more wonderous than the sales figures, is the fact that Jarret’s on the spot invention maintains a constant quality throughout two lengthy pieces, and knows no boundaries whatsoever – you’ll even find a Laura Nyre-like pop melody at about 02:25 in Part II c. Pressed on two LP’s and released on ECM Records, ‘The Köln Concert’ is a sincere work of art.

John Coltrane – ‘Interstellar Space’ (1974)

John Coltrane - Interstellar Space (1974)‘Interstellar Space’ is Coltrane’s posthumously released, deeply spiritual cosmos voyage. Recorded just five months before his untimely death in July 1967, his odes to Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Saturn and the constellation of Leo are among the final sounds he put to tape.

On ‘Interstellar Space’, it’s just Coltrane, his wildly inventive sax improvisations, and the equally intense drum parts of Rashied Ali. As a listener you’ve got very little to hold on to. No melody to whistle along to. No beat to tap your foot to. This album is lightyears away from his beautiful ‘A Love Supreme’ (1965), which he had recorded just two years before, and therefore a witness of his increasingly restless soul.

Sun Ra – ‘Space Is the Place’ (1973)

Sun Ra - Space Is the Place (1973)It takes just one Google Images search to find out that Sun Ra was a mythical character, inspired by ancient Egypt. As you start digging into his vast body of work, another lifelong obsession emerges: outer space and the future. No wonder he confused audience and critics alike.

‘Space Is the Place’ – especially its sidelong, freeform, cosmos-worshipping centerpiece – is a gentler (i.e. more easily digestible) ode to all things celestial than Coltrane’s ‘Interstellar Space’. And its title track, a whirlwind of repetitive voices, horns and keyboards, is a testament to the genius of one of jazz’s maddest mavericks. But let’s not fall into the trap of explaining too much, as Sun Ra warns in his liner notes:

“What can I say other than the music itself? Music? Yes, to the ears that dare to hear, that dare to hear, that dare to hear. Both the silence and the sound.”

Miles Davis – ‘A Tribute to Jack Johnson’ (1971)

Miles Davis - A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)The genesis of Right Off, the first of two +25 minute tracks on ‘A Tribute to Jack Johnson’, is a special one. Apparently, while waiting for Miles, guitarist John McLaughlin started a riff on his guitar. Drummer Billy Cobham and bass player Michael Henderson joined in. Together they built an explosive foundation for Miles’ solo, which starts at 02:19.

In the meantime, Herbie Hancock, who happened to be in the NYC building for some other business, was ushered into the 30th Street Studio to play keyboards. Track two, Yesternow, may be a less succesful cut-and-paste affair, but ‘Jack Johnson’ emulates the power of the legendary boxer it was inspired by. Johnson himself, voiced by actor Brock Peters, had the final word:

“I’m Jack Johnson, heavy-weight champion of the world. I’m black. They never let me forget it. I’m black all right. I’ll never let them forget it.”

Soft Machine – ‘Third’ (1970)

With tensions within Soft Machine rising, and the sword of DamoclesSoft Machine - Third (1970) hanging above his head, drummer, singer and songwriter Robert Wyatt remained silent on all tracks but one, his own composition Moon In June. The other members of Soft Machine wanted to pursue purely instrumental jazz, a schism which would very soon lead to Wyatt’s dismissal from his own band. All brilliantly described by Marcus O’Dair in ‘Different Every Time’. 

Luckily, the internal dissonance is not evident from ‘Third’. The album comprises four glorious side-long tracks. And though its sound and scope  seem modelled on ‘Bitches Brew’, it was recorded before Miles even released that set. It’s a defiantly idiosyncatric and British sounding record, and arguably one of the all time finest marriages of jazz and rock.

Peter Brötzmann Octet – ‘Machine Gun’ (1968)

Peter Brötzmann Octet - Machine Gun (1968)“This historic free jazz album is a heavy-impact sonic assault so aggressive it still knocks listeners back on their heels decades later”, writes Allmusic’s Joslyn Layne. And she’s not exaggerating. It takes some nerve to get ‘Machine Gun’ out of its sleeve, to put it on the turntable and to let a wild bunch of sax players, bassist, pianists and  drummers trash your ears, your walls and your furniture.

It’s an even bigger challenge to sit through the entire thing. But it will send chills down your spine. Albeit chills that feel like bullets. To quote Layne again: “Much like standing outside during a violent storm, withstanding this kind of fierce energy is a primal thrill.”

Charles Mingus – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)

An orchestrated tour de force divided into four parts,Charles Mingus - The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963) ‘The Black and the Sinner Lady’ was ahead of its time. It had nothing to do with free jazz. Instead, the record seemed to come entirely out of Mingus’ mind. So much, in fact, that his psychologist Dr. Edmund Pollock provided liner notes to the original album:

“To me this particular composition contains Mr. Mingus’ personal and also a social message. He feels intensively. He tries to tell people he is in great pain and anguish because he loves.”

Anyway, whatever Mingus tried to say, he did so in a heart-stoppingly beautiful way. Incorporating everything from avant-garde to flamenco guitar in neat – in turns elegant and heavy – arrangements.

Ornette Coleman – ‘Free Jazz’ (1960)

Ornette Coleman - Free Jazz (1960)Back to where we started: according to Fred Kaplan, 1959 was the year everything changed. Miles went modal and Ornette Coleman went free, with ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’. The latter then further revolutionalized jazz with ‘Free Jazz’: one monumental improvisation – created on the spot by his double quartet – split into two sides.

“No re-takes, no splices”, say the original liner notes. It’s a quintessential stereo record, with a set of horns, bass and drums in each speaker. There’s always someone keeping a familiar rhythmic pulse somewhere. That’s why ‘Free Jazz’ is a more relaxing listen than Brötzman’s ‘Machine Gun’. Still, Coleman provided the original landmark. One which impact on the shape of jazz to come is epic in its own right.

What are your views? Which records did I miss? What about the void I left in the 1980s? And was 1959 a landmark year for increasingly ambitious jazz albums?

Special thanks to Jonas Aerts for his suggestions and feedback.
And to the devoted followers of Facebook-group ECM Records for their input and support.

Field Music - Find A Way To Keep Me

Field Music – Find A Way To Keep Me // Song Review

Find A Way To Keep Me − not to be confused with 2005’s Tell Me Keep Me − is the final bow of Field Music’s excellent album ‘Open Here’, released earlier this month.

It’s the kind of song that deserves to be kept in a velvet box, because you don’t want to ruin its spell by overexposure. Only to take it out on special occasions and feel its magical glow on your face. In the end, I know, I’ll probably have to give in.

Watch Field Music perform Find A Way To Keep Me live at Northern Stage, 3 February 2018 – from 01:56:00 onwards:

Bittersweey sense of joy

I experienced the same protective feeling when I was introduced to the layered symphonic coda of Caravan’s L’Auberge Du Sanglier (1973), which took inspiration from the final minutes of fellow Cantuarians Soft Machine’s Slightly All The Time (1970).  And again when I became enchanted by Snarky Puppy‘s The Clearingrecorded live with the Metropole Orchestra and released in 2015. I’m referring specifically to the ‘camel cadence’ bit that starts around 04:00. Like the sound of a mellotron or a Fender Rhodes, there’s something about those sweeping proggy orchestral arrangements that fills my head with a bittersweet sense of joy.

At the outset, Find A Way To Keep Me could be an Peter Hammill song, dark, restrained, making great use of silence. But then it evolves into a meticulously arranged perpetual motion. An ever-changing cycle of tension and release. All flutes and woodwinds, strings and voices.

Right! Stop that!

Compared to those rich textures, the ending of the song – a deadpan flute flourish and drum thud – radically breaks with what went before. Like an alarm clock that ends an impossible dream. Or Graham Chapman’s colonel, who abruptly terminated Monty Python’s absurdity by declaring: “Right! Stop that! This is getting far too silly.”

Or is the Brewis way of saying: “Now don’t expect our next album to be a triple gatefold symphonic affair, because it won’t.” Anyway, as ever, Field Music chooses to explore epic ideas rather than epic length. It’s that pairing of brevity, audacity and invention that will always leave you wanting for more.

Jilted John - True Love Stores

“Gordon is a moron” // ‘Jilted John’ by Jilted John

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon an episode of The Guardian Radio Hour Podcast, in which comedian Stewart Lee talked about the cross-pollination between music (or more precisely: punk) and alternative comedy in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

A fascinating listen. In fact, I listened to it twice. The first time while falling asleep, smiling like an idiot. The second time to make extensive playlist notes … smiling like an idiot.

The one track I couldn’t shake off, was ‘Jilted John’ by Jilted John, a brilliantly funny slice of teenage life which reached no. 4 in the UK single charts in 1978.

John and Julie

At just 19 years old, Manchester-based comedian Graham Fellows created the character Jilted John and released the album ‘True Love Stories’ that same year. The back sleeve of ‘True Love Stories’ provides some insight into Fellows’s alter-ego:

“Jilted John, otherwise known as Graham Fellows, is a full time drama student in Manchester and his ambition is to become a full time actor. He has 3 sisters and a very nice mother and father who live in Yorkshire. Jilted John likes fancy mice, Kate Bush and the countryside. His dislikes include Gordon the Moron, anyone successful with girls and gardening.”

Gordon the Moron being the name of interest there.

I think I can safely say that Gordon is Jilted John’s nemesis. The song ‘Jilted John’ wouldn’t be half as good without a depressed and angry John bemoaning losing his girlfriend Julie to Gordon, who is – so he keeps repeating – a moron.

Yeah yeah, it’s not fair

In just a few lines, Fellows paints a series of vivid, tragicomic scenes, that gain power through John’s mildly revengeful cockney-voiced delivery:

“She said listen, John, I love you
But there’s this bloke I fancy
I don’t want to two-time you,
So it’s the end for you and me”

“Who’s this bloke, I asked her
Goo-oo-oor-don, she replied
Not that puff, I said dismayed
Yes, but he’s no puff she cried”

(He’s more of a man than you’ll ever be)

Later on, while crying “all the way to the chip shop”, John is mocked by Gordon and Julie, “standing at the busstop”.

“Gordon is a moron”, John decides, before he launches into a feast of insults and hilarious threats.

In ‘The Rough Guide to British Cult Comedy’ (2006), Julian Hall writes: “[Jilted John’s] lament that “Gordon is a moron” made for one the most bizarre singles of the 1970s – no small feat in a decade that also gave us punk and the Wombles.”

Listen to ‘Jilted John’ on Spotify.

Factoid: ‘True Love Stories’ was produced by Martin Hannett – then Martin Zero – who went on to produce such landmark albums as ‘Unknown Pleasures’ by Joy Division and ‘The Return of the Durutti Column’, as well as work by Magazine, New Order and Happy Mondays.

Further reading / listening

 

Bill Laurance interview

Bill Laurance: “Snarky Puppy is a band of brothers” // Interview

“I want to break down as many barriers as possible.” An in-depth chat with Snarky Puppy co-founder and Grammy-winner Bill Laurance about struggling for succes with the Snarky family, carving out his own solo path, the state of jazz today and working with the legendary C of CSNY.

“That’s crazy,” emits Bill Laurance as he leans over the mindmap I made in preparation of our conversation. It’s a surprisingly supportive and amiable remark from someone whose sacrificing his precious pre-gig pastime to talk to a complete stranger. Less than two and a half hours later Bill would hit the stage with Snarky Puppy in Brussels, promoting Grammy-winning album ‘Culcha Vulcha’. And still, he seemed thrilled to sit and talk.

Over the sixty or so minutes that followed, Bill greeted every question with enthusiasm, thoughtfulness and genuine kindness, showing that behind the amazing musician of albums like Snarky’s ‘We Like It Here’ [released 2014] and his own ‘Aftersun’ [2016] is an equally wonderful person. Even in the midst of months of worldwide touring.

“Night after night
people in the band take
turns in having the heat”

Bill: “Whenever we play live, we try to be as much in the moment as we can. And to find something new to say every night. Night after night people in the band take turns in having the heat, you know. We’re learning all the time, we keep pushing other.”

A Snarky gig typically features tight interplay and blistering solo’s. How do you achieve that intensity every single night?

“Well, Michael is our musical director really. He’s giving the cues. But we’ve also got a great deal of freedom. Solo spots tend to change night after night. There are certain solo’s that are fixed, and then there are others that aren’t. The lengths are depending on the song. But if they’re really feeling great, they can keep going for quite a long time. As a musician in Snarky, you’re always open to that possibility.”

And yet, Snarky Puppy doesn’t have a fixed line-up.

“It’s quite a cool thing that. The rotating of musicians was born out of necessity. Members of the band would be booked for other shows early on. So Michael would have to find other people. That in itself has ended up in evolving the band to a cooperative. Right now there’s about 20 guys in regular rotation and an extra 10 who know the material and come in and out. Where now effectively on tour for about 2.5 months but our line-up changes 3 times. Generally there’s a core group that always remains the same. After Seattle, me and Marcello [Wolaski, percussion], Chris [McQueen, guitar] and Bob [Reynolds, saxophone] are leaving, being replaced by other people.”

[note: Bill was replaced by Bobby Sparks (Moog and Hammond) and Bob Lanzetti took on guitar duties. The horns department didn’t get a replacement for Reynolds. Instead, electric violinist Zack Brock was added to the line-up. I had the chance to attend two shows with different band, and wrote an account on how the sound changed.]

Family

For an outsider, Snarky Puppy and its related record label GroundUP seem like a tight community. Is that correct?

“Definitely. I think it’s one of the things that sets us apart. We’re like a band of brothers. We’ve been in this together for about 14 years now. During that time we’ve toured the world several times and we all had to sleep on floors and share beds at some points. Snarky’s like a family. And that sense of community is always there. It even extends to our audience. After a show we always try to come out to do signings and have a chat. That’s not a very common thing among artists.”

You’re suggesting the early years in the band were no bed of roses.

“It’s been a real struggle. We toured the States tirelessly before we got our break, often playing in front of tiny audiences and hardly making any money. But I think one of the most important things is that somehow we always managed to turn any difficulty into an advantage. We never got too pulled down by troubles, even tough we had plenty. We were driven by this unwritten rule. We would always find a way to keep coming back.”

Snarky Puppy Bill Laurance interview

Democracy

In the meantime, you’ve won three Grammy Awards with Snarky Puppy, arguably the biggest music prize in the world. What’s the impact of that? Did those Grammy’s open new doors for you?

“There’s no question about the difference that it has made. When we received that first Grammy for the song Something [with soul singer Layla Hathaway, 2013], everything happened. It still can be tricky. But we’re lucky now to be able to develop our own solo projects and play in front of sold-out rooms. Those Grammy’s definitely make people raise their heads. We just sold out Brixton Academy in London, a 5000-capacity. Ticket-wise it was the biggest show we ever played. This tour really marks the point were we really are becoming well-known beyond our circles. People who aren’t jazz musicians themselves are finally noticing us.”

“We all try to serve
the greater good
of the song”

You’re all very advanced musicians. How do you avoid clashing ego’s?

“We are all very aware of the others musicians around us and are sensitive to what’s required within the context of a composition or arrangement. You have to. Especially since there’s so many people on stage. More often than not, for example, I’m playing melodies with one hand, because the bass part is covered by somebody else. We’re happy to show some restraint if it serves the greater good of the song. That’s what drives Snarky Puppy as a collective.”

Sound like real democracy.

“It is. 70% of the material is written by Michael. But as far as the more detailed arrangements go, they kind of evolve through playing them live with the band. It’s reflective of the way the band has grown. For years, we all invested our time in the band, and weren’t making any money. So now that it’s finally a sustainable undertaking, there’s this very strong sense of looking after the band.”

Right time, right place

Ever since you serendipitously met Michael League at a gig in Leeds, you’ve been the only British guy in the band. What did it take for Michael to convince you to come to the States and join Snarky on its first recording session?

“Me and Mike, you know, we hit it off and I loved his playing. And I think he liked mine. So he invited me out. And it was very much a right time, right place thing. It was looking to spread my wings. And he was looking for a keys player to record ‘The Only Constant’ [released 2006]. The rest is history, I guess.”

[About Michael League]:
“It was an opportunity to
travel with someone who
had a very creative vision”

What were your plans at the time of your first meeting?

“To be honest, it was exactly what I was looking for. It was an opportunity to play with better musicians than me and to travel with someone who had a very creative vision of what he wanted to do. I had just left university and was trying to develop a career in music and to immerse myself in as many opportunities as possible.

A record like ‘We Like It Here’ almost reached mythical status among fans. I suppose a lot of people wish they were actually there in Utrecht (Netherlands) to witness to recording, which was done in front of a small studio audience. Was that a one-off?

“From ‘Tell Your Friends’ [released 2010] onwards, it’s always been in the studio with an audience. ‘Culcha Vulcha’ was a different case, we did that one in the studio with overdubs, it wasn’t actually live. We recorded the backing tracks, came back and overdubbed. So we could really go to town on effecting the sounds and everything.”

“For ‘We Like It Here’ we performed the songs to three different audiences on three different nights. We might have played two sets a night. We had a lot of takes to choose from. So we picked the best. We didn’t piece bits of different performances together into a final song. I think we only used full takes.”

One song I find particularly interesting is Jambone, largely because of Mark Lettieri’s majestic guitar solo. Did he invent that one on the spot?

“I think he definitely thought about how he was going to pitch it. And we played it a few times already so you got a sense of were the peaks and troughs are. But if I remember correctly, the ideas he’s playing on the record are of the moment.”

Crazy, allow me to raise the level of nerdiness: did you use a mellotron on Semente (from ‘Culcha Vulcha’)? There’s a lot of real flute, but in the background there seems to be some flute toned mellotron as well.

“I don’t think we had a mellotron in the studio. And I’m not playing that part, that would be a question for Justin [Stanton]. I suppose he played it on a Prophet, but it does sound like a mellotron, you’re right. That said, I did use mellotron on my records ‘Swift’ [released 2015] and ‘Aftersun’.”

on page 2 of this article, Bill talks about his solo work. On page 3, you’ll finds his thoughts on jazz today and working with David Crosby.

Snarky_Puppy_Eindhoven_1

Snarky Puppy in Eindhoven: Grown Folks

Yesterday Snarky Puppy ended their ten-week tour of the world, showcasing Grammy-winning album ‘Culcha Vulcha’ and playing in three different line-ups along the way. I had the chance to watch two of them in action. And while the setlist and group partly remained the same, I left the Muziekgebouw in Eindhoven with a entirely different feeling.

The circumstances of both shows could’nt have been further apart. The AB in Brussels is a revered rock hall in the center of Europe’s capital. A plain rectangular room, mostly for a standing crowd, painted bright red – the room, not the audience. There’s very little space outside of the actual concert hall, which gives way to a busy, electrifying atmosphere that reflects the vibrant metropole around the venue.

The energy that floats through the Muziekgebouw in Eindhoven is more easy-going, more relaxed. The audience is waiting in line to get their tickets scanned – imagine that!

Situated in the middle of the Netherlands fifth-largest city, the Muziekgebouw is a rather luxurious venue, comprising a grand audiophile auditorium (mainly for jazz and classical) and a wealth of plush surroundings. While the audience in Brussels (9 May 2017) sang along to tunes and ooh’d and aah’d their way through every solo, the Eindhoven crowd (7 June 2017) seemed to be more focused on hearing every detail.

The difference is exemplary of the two hemispheres of Snarky’s universe: classy jazz and world music themes coupled with rock, funk and dance vibes. Melodic, harmonic and improvisational subtleties played in ecstacy-inducing manner.

Sonic hurricanes, then and now

With keys player Bill Laurance replaced by Bobby Sparks, guitarist Chris McQueen replaced by Bob Lanzetti, percussionist Marcelo Woloski (a lot of feeling) replaced by Nate Werth (a lot of power), a reduced horns section (sax player Bob Reynolds left) and Zack Brock on violin, we got introduced to a ‘new breed’.

I didn’t really have to analyze both shows – one month and two days apart from each other – in order to notice what’s changed. I listened a lot to the FLAC recording of the Brussels concert, so variations, both subtle and radical, revealed themselves right away. Let’s mention the big ones:

  • Chris McQueen played a wonderful rootsy guitar solo on Grown Folks in the AB. While in Eindhoven, Bob Lanzetti spiced things up with a big fat phaser effect. He also took the first solo of the night: a spiky, heavily harmonized improv on .
  • Solo interplay between keyboardists Justin Stanton and Bobby Sparks was limited in Eindhoven, unlike the chemistry between Stanton and Bill Laurance in Brussels. That’s just an observation. Both musicians played blistering solo’s, with Stanton ripping What About Me? to pieces and Bobby Sparks delivering the highlight of the evening with his volcanic Hammond-cum-Moog exploration on Gemini. Sparks later Mooged his way through fan favourite Thing of Gold, the oldest song on the setlist.

Snarky Puppy Bobby Sparks

  • Percussion had a predominantly supporting role in the AB, while Nate Werth and Larnell Lewis brought things to boiling point during Tio Macaco in Eindhoven. Great to hear that song, along with other songs that didn’t make the stage in Brussels: Semente, Thing of Gold and Shofukan.
  • Apparantly, the Brazilian-inspired Semente (which I mispronounced until Michael League announced it correctly als ‘Semenchi’) got a bass solo by Michael League for the first time ever.
  • The atmosphere of GØ changed dramatically when Zack Brock graced it with a near-perfect violin solo.

Who did I forget? Sax player Chris Bullock (see picture) and Mike ‘Maz’ Maher, of course. While they didn’t step into the spotlight like they did in Brussels, they played multiple imaginative solo’s. Maz is a great at playing fluid lines. Bullock specializes in more angular improvisation, taking small motifs and developing them into sonic hurricanes that make your hairline recede.

Snarky Puppy Chris Bullock

Close to tears

Being the last show of a ten-week worldwide tour, there was a sense of friendship and nostalgia in the air. Magda Giannikou (see picture), the brilliant Greek singer of GroundUP’s Banda Magda who was joined by the Snarky crew for the opening set of the evening, was both overjoyed and close to tears. During one of the solo’s Chris Bullock and Justin Stanton fist-bumped casually at stage left.

Snarky Puppy Banda Magda

Addressing the audience in between songs, Michael League seemed a bit tired (no wonder after such a mammoth run of show). After the show, he told me he was plagued by a sore throat. But that didn’t prevent him from delivering a passionate speech about the importance of supporting artists (not just streaming their music) – I previously transcribed his similar call to the Brussels crowd.

Danish dog

Over the last month, attending two very different shows and talking extensively to Bill Laurance (interview coming soon!), I enjoyed the opportunity to have an exceptional look into the DNA of this very special band: the inner dynamics, the brotherhood, the adventurous spirit and endless versatility, … What once started as Snarky Puppy is now a full-grown Danish dog. And still our favourite pet.

All of Snarky Puppy’s 2017 live shows are now available for download.
And they sound amazing!

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