Guerilla Toss, on their eponymous Tzadik CD release, is like one of those baseball cards from the seventies, where you look at it one way, and you see the player; but then you turn it in the sunlight, and you see the image of the crowds in the stadium. You can hear the band one way, like noise and mud and vomit, unbearable to the ears. Then, you listen again, and you hear the complexity and lyricism of new music, or even Berg or Stravinsky. Some of the progressions have the haunting dance of *The Rite of Spring*, and there’s an interplay to the members, glamor-guy bassist Simon, cutie/wild girl singer Kassie, deft, dapper, and understated guitar player Arian, hero of heroin survival drummer/leader Peter Negroponte, and Ian Kovac, synth guy, who keeps it together like a classy carpenter – well, it’s like watching an exciting baseball play in extra innings, a last-minute double play or a suicide squeeze.
I think of Zeul groups, like Japan’s The Ruins, or Magma from France, the commune group who speak their own language of the name. It’s like prog, kind of, but more with a free jazz base than 19th century European romanticism, like Yes or ELP. Sometimes it’s as scary as watching carpenter ants eat your house. Sometimes it’s as good as your tough friend at school beating up the bully. It can be as primitive as slash-and-burn agriculture, or as advanced as linear algebra.
I got into Guerilla Toss because they are such infectious, kind people, and they create a scene wherever they play, one that transcends the music like a mushroom cloud transcends a nuclear bomb. But I stayed with them, through the unnerving first couple of listens to the album, and it’s as beautiful as the flowers after the atom storm. I just hope it’s healthy, instead of killing me. I think it is. I feel better already, and I still have half the album to go tonight.
Sophie Dickinson plays a wooden harp, which she cares for visibly, polishing it with a black cloth onstage. On the other hand, *audibly*, she outright abuses it, accompanying it with cassette tape noise augmented by a small brown amplifier. She has a reason for this, though. I asked her was it just to be cool, and she said no (though it is), it’s because it’s what she grew up with. “I didn’t grow up hearing Celtic harp music; I grew up hearing rock music, and the noise of the television set before I practiced harp in the evening.”
She just released her first CD, *Tarp*. Strange title? That’s what I thought. Duh! It’s harp and tapes, like the muppets are puppets and marionettes. There’s little point in analyzing the music, though it is delicate and complex. That distracts from the reverie it puts one in, which is pastoral and dreamy, and also, even, a little psychy.
Dickinson played to a packed house at Deep Thoughts JP tonight. She played five songs, pausing here and there to set up her “extraneous sound”. Here are some notes on the performance.
She always takes me like a mistress in dreamland another realm so placid and peaceful but a current of electricity and excitement the harp I think of angels in Ireland sipping beer at The Harp as the Bruins win the Stanley Cup across the street nice dynamics
Haze and fuzz of brown box at her feet am I worthy to touch her foot soft pluck then warm chord the tune continues interspersed with the patter of rain the high note almost brings tears to my eye intricate finger work like lace canopy over bed
She dusts wood with black cloth sets tape player sound of muffled footsteps car door slamming change drawer singsongy folk tune catchy as Frere Jacques then dark in a minor key
Sick she said the tape rewound this is her coolest audience whispering and chitchat on the tape and in the basement as the song begins honey-like and dark she sings like a little child yet the plucking so strong sure and mature beads strung on a necklace clinking now she grabs handfuls of string with the muffled voices in the background and she pauses like tentative pacing through a hall at night a young girl singing to herself waxing more confident with more drama and the strings begin again like morning sunlight with clouds obscuring rays in the breakfast garden she’s so natural with her hands it’s like she’s breaking scones with robins piping in as if it’s spring
She prepares last song to audience throng crazy recorded noise to the sound of a swan rising in the last heat of September leaves are beginning to leave their branches the bare lyricism of the wood presages October
Well, it’s evil, but as necessary, in the historical inevitable; we have to gather together what we think is best in a cultural community, to represent, like Roman archons, and to preserve, like gewgaws in a time capsule. I have been cobbling together lists of my favorite musicians since I was 13, when Pink Floyd topped my one hundred rock bands, followed by Yes and The Who. The Beatles had broken up six years before, and even the great solo work of the members was waning. Anyway, I like to make lists, and six is a good number I have found.
Can we be objective in such an endeavor? No, of course. Even Einstein said the mass of objects is never stable; that said, some things are heavier than other, and there are six musicians in the Boston area who have made more of an impression on my mind than the others. The list may change, to be sure, and in some ways I hope it does, and expect it will, at other points of time. But here are my six favorites, today.
Kate Lee & Arkm Foam
Adam, as I call Arkm in the vocative, is the president of JP, mature beyond his years, having already organized a benchmark cultural event last summer in Woodstock, which I will never forget. He and Kate Lee are one mind, like The Beatles. And like The Beatles they are visionaries. Their human presence is so great it can eclipse their musical contributions, but check out Illusion of Porpoise, their inside/out trip band as heavy as The Holy Modal Rounders. Adam is an electronics whiz, and Kate is a singer/songwriter as touching as Carole King; but to really experience them you have to be tuned in to how much they help their friends with their musical projects. Music for them is cosmic, the lines between musicians are fictive like changing state borders; and even we as listeners are part of what they do.
Argentina Bred, Pensado is a fiery Latina, with a puritan streak that agrees with New England. Think of baked Alaska, hot and cold. Her music is like hot and cold medicine, homeopathic, like primal scream therapy. It is intense. It took me four months to understand what she was doing when I met her a few years ago. She does in music what a cryptic writer like Jorge Luis Borges or Kafka do in fiction – and, as I have said to her, Borges is a mirror and Kafka is a hammer. She is the mirror after it has been smashed by the hammer.
Peter has a keen, cerebral mind, which he uses in demolition and slash-and-burn artistic endeavors. Guerilla Toss, which he leads, plays the most exciting shows on the house scene, here, and, from what I’ve heard, in the underground world across the country.
Dave has a soul like Coltrane’s – ever searching, no matter how much pain it brings him. His solo work is unnerving and exhilarating, sensitive and surprising. And like Coltrane, in his group projects, other musicians play above themselves, finding new inner dimensions. He performed an open composition of the late great Lou Cohen’s at the latter’s funeral, and it turned an occasion of mourning into something light and happy.
Yoko Miwa plays beautiful music, which is loyal to tradition, but in such a way that her prodigious innovation can be missed like the forest for her trees. I follow Miwa regularly, when she plays her regular dates at Ryles, and I spent a whole spring as her exclusive listener in the late afternoon solo performances she did on Tuesdays at Les Zygomates in downtown Boston, dedicating a book of poetry to her inspired by her music. Other new pianists have started working modern pop and rock into their repertoires, but few, if any, with her passion and depth.
Forbes is dark and mysterious, and deep. Though my knowledge of Coltrane is broader, having listened to him since ’78, when I was fourteen, his is deeper. At a wedding, we speculated what Coltrane would be playing if he had lived. I mentioned Indian music, and Forbes extrapolated that into a conjecture of the master spinning new sounds from other, organized non-Western traditions. Forbes has exquisite, classical timbre, but he uses it to take music into other galaxies.
Connie Crothers – A New Jazz Language
New York pianist Connie Crothers is pedigreed, having attended Berkeley in the 1960s: though she has spent her jazz career extrapolating from unsung heroes. Her odyssey started with her study under early modern jazz piano icon Lennie Tristano, and culminated in her long-term love and creative partnership with Max Roach, who revolutionized jazz drumming—and world culture itself—beginning in the late 1940s, stretching up well into the end of last century.
Crothers is a pianist who works best in the foreground, with a dominant strain, and many fine solo efforts. Effective collaborations include Swish, with Max Roach (New Artists, 1982); Primal Elegance, with guitarist Bud Tristano (New Artists, 2001); Hippin’, with singer Alexis Parsons (New Artists, 2012); and her masterpiece, Spontaneous Suites (Rogue Art, 2011), a two-piano duet with David Arner that lasts four hours. She has a romantic, eccentric style, like she’s teasing wool, or pulling snarls out of long, curly hair. It can be as funky as Thelonious Monk, or spacier than Sun Ra. In a very real way, she has extracted a new tongue out of an ancient language, jazz, in the way the poets of Dante’s time brought Italian out of Latin.
Crothers has been a friend of mine for three years now. When I first saw her perform at The Stone in November 2010, with upright bass legend Henry Grimes, she told me that playing a good solo is like “finding a wormhole in space.” She is continuously searching, from a long sojourn in the shadows of recognition in the United States, to the love and celebration she now receives here, and all over Europe. She never stopped believing in her art, anymore than the men who inspired her – or in the men who inspired her, for in her new jazz language, the past is as palpable as the present.
for two pianos (Connie Crothers and David Arner)
A hard surface cracks like dry mud
the cracks become water, flowing
like music through a desiccated
Now the beat is warm and strong
a singer strutting her stuff in New Orleans
riding up the river and hopping
a train to Chicago, spilling the history
of jazz into Lake Michigan
The wind is rough on the waters
the skies metallic gray
propellers are soft and fast on moving boats
the party boats with the dances
The night is soft and the clouds
are like pillows, starlight sending
seesaw symbols riding and crashing
like the ships on the water
The tone is cool and even now
with a bounce in the step then a stop
and a zombie beat down the sidewalk
as the ghostly town reflects
the funhouse miracle of the night
Now descending a staircase
into the fray of the ball
the step hard and heavy
breaking into freedom
Mad rush of people
popping down the street
Stopping and going in slow motion
Succumbing to the shock of the shady night
Gentle and soft again, trinkling
and tinkling, thin lava flowing
Modal vamps brief, and new
ornate flurries baroque and benign
flourishing like purple flowers on a bush
Tense pleasures under the sun
beach weather on the porch
the shade eases its way
into the secret heart
Cracked stained glass
shattering on the cathedral floor
low hum of the organ
leading to silence
the glass settling into the soil
washed over by the river
until the mud cakes again
in the dry bed,
and the ruins rise again
soft and gooey under the spade
to salve the skin down to the soul
for another century’s children
breathing down the hole
Whitehaus, September 16
Lucy killing on vocals in sexy sequins and black she’s so romantic with the flowers on her arm and in her hair the beat funky and bluesy Heather ‘s twangs straight from Deep South Ada happy baby so cute bobbing in mommy ‘s arms bright blue eyes little hands reaching for keys best front lady I’ve seen in a long time Sydney floats like a moonwalker on the fretboard of her bass Adam so slow on drums he’s like stop and go traffic and the sound is hippy and hazy long slow afternoons fading into evening like a plane landing in Indian Jungle
Teens of July is a beautifully packaged EP with a red and white picture of a kind of angel/butterfly on the paper pullout cover. The music has that kind of charm; natural spark and splendor with a touch of fantasy pulling it through the flowery skies of its chamber of lo-fi space. Cult & Leper draw from all kinds of bright and shiny sources.
The band has bizarre symmetry and balance to it, with nodes that threaten to break it apart, except for the spring of Jeff Balter’s zingy drums, bouncing them into new, propulsive places.
Patrick Kuehn sings like a spaced-out teen idol from ’60s pop, and he also plays a driving, hypnotic bass. The group has great dynamics, bubbling like a spring, then bursting into anthemic grandeur.
“Brand, Chances” has a salsa/calypso feel, with Cale Israel’s keyboards ringing like steel drums. Sam Lisabeth’s guitar has the keen desperation of a man making a prisoner’s cut, and he sparkles on “Bunkbed Uncle” like kids shooting fireworks on the beach on the Fourth of July. This song bleeds with angst, with a melody that has the feel of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart Again”. “Whoa God” has a Bruce Springsteen summer circus feel, alternating it with incandescent prog guitar. It keeps gathering together its loose ends, splicing them into tighter wholes.
The heavy twang of the bass strings gives “My Favorite Thing About Her”, the final number, a Western feel crossed with a mellow ’70s style love song. It burns, as it fades, like the tones of a Farfisa organ, drawing a last breath of summer into drum and guitar sparring, sputtering into the waves with the grace of a teenage diver off a high dive into the September sea.