Best Albums: Hasidic doom jazz, rap’s “bad character,” and Big Sur beauty

This week’s best albums:

– The slow, crackling burn of “Hasidic doom jazz” returns with Pillar Without Mercy, a full-length from Deveykus that shows Dan Blacksberg coaxing the dark side out of his trombone.

– Prolific hip-hop producer Madlib delivers rare cuts from his own squeaky, helium-pitched, blunt-smoking alter-ego, Quasimoto.

– Releasing his 20th (!) album since 2000, peerless guitarist/composer Bill Frisell issues another blend of folksy alt-country, this time inspired by the natural beauty of the California coastline.

Honorable mentions

Austra: Olympia (Domino)

Marco Beltrami: World War Z soundtrack (Warner Bros.)

High on Fire: Spitting Fire Live Vol. 1 & 2 (E1)

Mac Miller: Watching Movies with the Sound Off (Rostrum)

Minsk: With Echoes in the Movement of Stone (Exalt)

Sigur Rós: Kveikur (XL)

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Video Premiere: Polyrhythmic pop and abstract beauty in Allison Miller’s “Early Bird”

Allison Miller's Boom Tic Boom: No Morphine, No LiliesAllison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom: No Morphine, No Lilies (The Royal Potato Family, 4/16/13)

She might be best known as the drummer for Natalie Merchant and Ani DiFranco, but Allison Miller is an accomplished artist in her own right, standing out in a crowded NYC jazz scene with her compositions and skills behind the kit. Her sophomore album with Boom Tic Boom — a group that includes pianist Myra Melford, violinist Jenny Scheinman (Bill Frisell), and bassist Todd Sickafoose (Ani DiFranco) — is another such testament.

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Q&A: Floratone

Floratone: II

Floratone: II (Savoy Jazz, 3/6/12)

Floratone: “Move”

[audio:|titles=Floratone: “Move”]

Following its 2007 debut, Floratone was established as a highly collaborative and innovative musical force with no lack of original ideas. Comprised of guitarist Bill Frisell, drummer Matt Chamberlain (Critters Buggin), and producers Lee Townsend and Tucker Martine, the collective concerns itself with the art of “spontaneous compositions,” an approach that crosses from improvised jam sessions to cut-up production work and back again.

Floratone II was recorded over a two-year period, molded from a collaborative process of Frisell and Chamberlain laying down improvised musical motifs that were finished by accompaniments and tweaks from Townsend and Martine. For the second go-round, the members seem to have settled into a stronger dynamism, carving out vibrant layers of well-spaced grooves, rhythms, electronic ambience, and synth bursts.

And if the project wasn’t virtuosic enough, guest spots from Ron Miles, Eyvind Kang, Mike Elizondo, and distinguished soundtrack composer and producer Jon Brion make sure that all grounds are covered. We caught up with Martine to talk about the new record, Floratone’s collaborative process, and some of his favorite producers of all time.

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Bill Frisell’s tri-headed tribute to John Lennon, Wesley Webb West, and Jimmy Bryant

Influential jazz/country/rock guitarist Bill Frisell will head to Portlandia this February for a special two-night event as a part of the city’s PDX Jazz Festival. On January 24, performing at the famous Crystal Ballroom, Frisell will pay tribute to three iconic musicians: pedal-steel guitarist Wesley Webb “Speedy” West, guitarist/fiddle player Jimmy Bryant, and pop legend John Lennon. The following night, Frisell will take the stage for a solo concert and later perform with the 858 Quartet, his world-renowned improvisational ensemble.

You can purchase tickets for this special event here.

Check out the video below to see a teaser for Frisell’s John Lennon tribute album, All We Are Saying.

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Record Review: Earth’s Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light Vol. 1

EarthEarth: Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light Vol. 1 (Southern Lord, 2/22/11)

Earth: “Father Midnight”

[audio:|titles=Earth: “Father Midnight”]

Dylan Carlson‘s best work as Earth often creates a crushing sense of inevitability. Between the long-form guitar griddlings of Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version in 1993 and the panoramic beauty of The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull in 2008, Earth has erratically transitioned from smothering to sparkling.

One thing that remains, though, is how Carlson and his assorted bandmates move through their instrumentals: with slow but ever-emphatic steps. Since Hex: Or Printing In The Infernal Method in 2005, people have often said that Earth is creating something more like “Americana” than its earlier doom metal. That isn’t wrong at all, but more fundamentally, Earth’s recent music revels in the basics of melody. It often uses blues-like scales — though rarely as grindingly dissonant as those on Earth 2 — but always explores them with an almost mad patience. It has the frank sureness of a force that knows it will catch up with you eventually.

The new Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light, Vol. 1, might be roughly part of the Hex phase, and might sound just as good as Bees, but with the addition of cello and greater willingness to vary Earth’s format from song to song.

Carlson has said that he likes to find his melodies “within the drone.” It’s clear on the new Angels that he’s as ready as he’s ever been to let his collaborators seek alongside him within the expanses of sound they create. Where Bees relied largely on layers of guitar from Carlson, and, on three tracks, Bill Frisell, Angels finds bassist Karl Blau and cellist Lori Goldston — both new members — pushing right alongside him, and sometimes ahead of him, rather than simply thickening up the core melodies.

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World in Stereo: Bill Frisell & Vinicius Cantuária’s Lagrimas Mexicanas

Each week, World in Stereo examines classic and modern world music while striving for a greater appreciation of other cultures.

Bill Frisell & Vinicius Cantuária: Lagrimas Mexicanas (E1, 1/25/11)

Bill Frisell & Vinicius Cantuária: “Aquela Miller”

[audio:|titles=Bill Frisell & Vinicius Cantuária: “Aquela Miller”]

The fretwork abilities of guitar luminaries Bill Frisell and Brazilian singer/songwriter Vinicius Cantuária meet on a fantastic Latin jazz record titled Lagrimas Mexicanas (“Mexican Tears” in English).  An expert collaboration that shows itself in every detailed note, Lagrimas Mexicanas has the harmonic twists and turns of a bossa-nova record sliced up by the experimental sounds you’d expect from Frisell. Whether sung in Spanish or Portuguese, Cantuária anchors much of the album with a voice as timeless as Gilberto Gil’s, capturing a worldly romanticism that comes off as seductive as the music that accompanies it.

Though it’s the first exclusive partnership between the two, the musicians have kept good company with each other in the past, playing together in a variety of settings — most notably Frisell’s guest spot on Cantuária’s second international release, Tucumã, in 1999. Cantuária, in return, was a part of the impressive global roster that made up Frisell’s Intercontinentals group.

Growing up in Manaus and Rio De Janiero, Cantuária’s Tropicália sound is informed by the places and people of Brazil. Taking Brazil’s rich musical tradition and relocating to New York in the mid-’90s, he has made a career in pushing the bossa-nova sound forward into the 21st Century.

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Vic Chesnutt: Warm Heart, Dark Folk

[Ed. note: This interview was completed shortly before Vic Chesnutt passed away on December 25, 2009.  It subsequently ran in ALARM 37 as a tribute to a unique and prolific singer/songwriter.]

Vic Chesnutt: At The CutVic Chesnutt: At The Cut (Constellation, 9/21/09)

Vic Chesnutt: “Flirted With You All My Life”

[audio:|titles=Vic Chesnutt: Flirted With You All My Life]

“I make films.  I’m no record producer, but I needed to bring these particular people together in this particular place.  I thought they might hit it off.  They hit it hard.  I thought it might get heavy.  It did.”

So says filmmaker Jem Cohen in the liner notes for Vic Chesnutt’s dusty 2007 masterpiece North Star Deserter. More than 20 years into Chesnutt’s recorded career, and with an impressive discography already 10 albums deep, North Star was a surprising, furtive burst of energy, bringing together some of the brightest lights that the underground music community had to offer.

At first, the idea might seem too crazy to work and too good to be true: combining the unearthly, slow-building machinations of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s avant-orchestral spin-off A Silver Mt. Zion with the precise, metallic guitar squall of Guy Picciotto — the oft-shirtless, wailing, and writhing co-frontman of Fugazi — to play the quirky, personal, and often darkly humorous songs of lauded Athens, Georgia-based singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt. Yes, it would take some kind of otherworldly cosmic force to get these people together at the same time.

In this case, that otherworldly cosmic force was Cohen, whose long-time friendships with and intense love and respect for the musicians involved led him to begin building what would become North Star Deserter.

“It was all Jem’s idea,” Chesnutt says. “I guess he didn’t like my last two records so much (Silver Lake and Ghetto Bells, both for New West). He told me he wanted me to make a good record again, so he set the whole thing up.”

Chesnutt has never been one to shy away from collaboration. He’s released records with groups as diverse as Athens-based jam band Widespread Panic, Nashville country-politan favorites Lambchop, jazz innovator Bill Frisell, and most recently, indie-folk collective Elf Power. As it turns out, the connections that were required to make Cohen’s vision coalesce were only separated by one or two degrees. And everybody already knew and had the utmost respect for Cohen, his whole-hearted approach, and the indelible thumbprint that he’s left on any project he’s touched.

“Collaborating is very fulfilling for me, just hearing what everyone comes up with. I realize I’m probably the only guy on Earth who’s worked with Widespread Panic and Guy from Fugazi. I feel very lucky that way.”

In his 1998 documentary Instrument, Cohen carefully and obsessively follows the trajectory of punk pioneers Fugazi from local DC hardcore punks to groundbreaking indie virtuosos of international acclaim. Cohen had formed a close bond with Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye, a friend since their high-school days, thus allowing him a unique perspective on the band and the ability to closely watch its members grow from sapling to oak.

Just a few years later, Cohen would become enamored with the musical/visual dichotomy of Montréal post-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor, even traveling with the band as a projectionist for some time. These connections, coupled with a resounding and long-standing respect for Vic Chesnutt and his music, led Cohen to begin mulling over the idea of getting everyone together to record an album together.

North Star was Jem’s brainchild,” says Ian Illavsky, founding member of A Silver Mt. Zion and co-owner of Montréal’s Constellation Records. “He’d been rabidly collecting and cataloguing Vic’s live bootleg recordings and going to his shows for years. He might know Vic’s songs better than Vic does.”

Fortunately for Cohen, his would-be cohorts had a long history together as well.

“Every time Fugazi was in Athens, we’d hang out with Vic,” Picciotto says. “He first opened for Fugazi at the 40 Watt Club in Athens back in 1988. I feel a real kinship with him. He has such a wide musical heart, and loves and appreciates so much stuff.”

“Vic Chesnutt was one of the first musicians that [Constellation co-owner] Don Wilkie and I bonded over in college,” Illavsky says. “It was like a dream come true seeing that whole project come together.”

Chesnutt says that he sent Cohen 30 or more new songs to choose from for the project. From those, he picked which songs he wanted and snuck in a few old favorites that had yet to be officially recorded. “He decided what order they should go in and already had all the players in mind,” Chesnutt says. “It was like he was directing a movie.”

“Jem had a real 1950s-producer type of role,” Picciotto says. “He was coming from an aesthetic perspective rather than a musical one and structured everything very specifically.”

The culmination of that meeting of minds in Montréal resulted in an album both surreal in its subject matter and epically cinematic in its scope and execution. North Star Deserter gave Chesnutt’s songs a cohesive mood and essence that had never before been fully realized on record.

The ominous and dark mood always just below the surface in Chesnutt’s songwriting was here explosively brought to the fray and cast in a sharply focused light, and the sonic peaks and valleys and cohesive narrative flow of the album were more properly used to the advantage of his songs than ever before. With the North Star sessions, mutual fans became mutual friends, and open appreciation of craft morphed itself into something deeper.

“It became a big mutual love-fest in studio,” Illavsky says. “It was refreshing to graft onto a musician we all have such intense respect for. Vic is a charming and enthusiastic guy, and it’s hard to imagine an easier person to work with.”

Fortunately, Chesnutt has always been utterly flexible in his approach to songwriting as well. This, coupled with his ongoing interest in collaborative projects, led to an open interpretation of the songs in studio.

“Vic is an incredible, hardworking motherfucker in the studio,” Picciotto says. “He’s incredibly generous about letting people come forward and hearing what they come up with. His songs are extremely versatile; you can play them as slow, sad ballads or fast, epic punk songs — and they sound great no matter what.”

“His songs are extremely versatile; you can play them as slow, sad ballads or fast, epic punk songs — and they sound great no matter what.”

Chesnutt says, ever humble, “Collaborating is very fulfilling for me, just hearing what everyone comes up with. I realize I’m probably the only guy on Earth who’s worked with Widespread Panic and Guy from Fugazi. I feel very lucky that way.”

The band toured Europe together twice in support of the record, beginning at the 2007 Vienna Film Festival, where the band scored Jem Cohen’s short film Empires of Tin live, an event that came together after their in-studio successes. A US tour never fully materialized, but throughout the band’s travels in Europe, a strengthened compatibility and friendship amongst the musicians developed, along with a heightened ability to read each other in a specific, symbiotic way that can only come from weeks spent playing shows on the road.

Upon returning stateside, Chesnutt set out on a lengthy tour with the Modern LoversJonathan Richman (their own collaboration, Skitter On Takeoff, was released in October of 2009 on Vapor Records) as well as a tour with Elf Power, his co-conspirators on the 2008 album Dark Developments.

But with the rare magic captured on North Star Deserter, it was a no-brainer that those involved — now fully comfortable with each other after their time spent touring France and Europe — would head back into the studio at some point. To Chesnutt, it seemed that now was a great time to see those familiar faces again.

“Vic was writing new material right up until the session,” Picciotto says. “He came in, played a ton of songs, and we all listened and hand-picked which ones we thought would be the best to focus on. Vic is like a faucet; you turn him on and all this amazing shit comes out. The variety of kinds of songs and sounds he comes up with is incredible.”

Initially, Chesnutt had intended to make a track-for-track recreation of North Star Deserter. But when he showed up at the studio, his collaborators had other ideas. “Everybody told me I was insane,” he says. “So I let it go and we just started playing.”

The renewed camaraderie from the road resulted in a much freer, more open discourse in the studio, giving their new record, At the Cut, a distinctive feeling all its own, only vaguely reminiscent of its predecessor. The mood is intense but looser, more comfortable and lived in, and more varied stylistically. “The new record is different in that Jem wasn’t in charge; it was a real collective, group process,” Chesnutt says. “After being out on tour, we knew what each other did. We’d all found our spot in the army and knew what our jobs were. It felt like a real team.”

At its core, the initial, strong mutual admiration that made North Star Deserter such a surprise treat is palpable, if even stronger, around every turned phrase and tempo shift on At the Cut. But Cohen’s influence is not entirely absent. During the sessions, he was on hand as a producer, and he helped create the artwork for the album. Picciotto says, “This time around, the engineers, producers, and really whoever was in the room at the time had a hand in what we came up with. Jem was very much involved this time around, and his presence is strong, but this is a band-produced album at heart.”

The relaxed atmosphere and open discussion in the studio led to numerous happy accidents along the way. Case in point: the track “Concord Country Jubilee” is a song that Chesnutt wrote in 1985 but never recorded. It randomly came back to him in the studio and ended up on the album.

“Everybody was doing experimental things,” he says. “Every song was a shocker. We’d go back and listen to what we’d just recorded and come out saying, ‘Whoa! How did that happen?’ Everybody was very vocal and participated a great deal in arrangements and ideas on how to approach each song. Even things like tempo, beat, who plays what, overdubs, and all that was up for discussion.”

With the joyous reunion of At the Cut recorded, pressed, and in stores, that ol’ road bug has begun to itch yet again. “This is a crazy band; there are all kinds of wild dynamics live,” Chesnutt says. “I can’t wait to get back out on the road with these guys and gals. The live show is like riding on a rocket.”

Picciotto hasn’t toured the US since his swansong run with Fugazi back in 2002. “We’ve all learned each other by playing together live,” he says. “That’s the same way we did it with Fugazi. I was used to touring six months out of the year for many years, and when it stopped, it was like getting the bends. I found myself wondering, ‘Hey, shouldn’t I be jumping up and down for two hours on the other side of the Earth right now?’ I’m chomping at the bit to get out there and play again. I feel like that’s what I was meant to do, and I’m very happy we’re doing this again.”

If the exceptional growth among these players captured on At the Cut was the result of their last bout of touring together, one can’t help but wonder what the future holds for this evolving band of musician’s musicians.

“I don’t really feel yet like this is my band,” Chesnutt says. “But sometimes, on accident, I catch myself saying out loud, ‘Holy crap! I’m in a band with Guy Picciotto from Fugazi!’ Collaborating with other musicians is very fulfilling, and each project is a brand new experience. It keeps things interesting. But I’ve been on tour with these people, and we’ve become like a real family band. Considering everything that’s happened since the last time we were all on the road together, this tour will be like the World Series of tours.”

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Ben Goldberg: A Clarinetist’s Journey into “Radical Jewish Culture”

Ben Goldberg: “Asimor”
[audio:|titles=Ben Goldberg Quartet: “Asimor”]

The first time that Ben Goldberg heard a clarinet being played, he was struck by an unfathomable quality that he still hears to this day, even after spending decades playing the instrument. “I don’t know if other people hear it this way,” he says, “but to me, a clarinet has no end. It’s like it just disappears into…”

Goldberg trails off as he attempts to find words to describe the sensation that the sound of a clarinet gives him.

“It’s very deep,” he continues. “It has no bottom to it. And it always strikes me this way, no matter who’s playing it: that there’s something down in there that you just can’t reach. When you find something like that, you just start wandering towards it.”

“I realized that I had come up in a world where there was an axe to grind. That was an essential part of New Klezmer Trio: ‘God damn it, we can do this in an avant-garde way; watch this!’”

One of the principal forerunners of a musical movement that John Zorn dubbed “radical Jewish culture,” Goldberg blazed a new trail in the late ’80s by blending traditional Jewish folk music with avant-garde jazz, and he also has found new shades of expression for the clarinet in a jazz and experimental context. When he founded the New Klezmer Trio in Berkeley, California in 1987, Goldberg experienced what he refers to as the “musical big bang” of his career.

Ben Goldberg Quartet / John Zorn: Baal

Ben Goldberg Quartet / John Zorn: Baal

At that time, Goldberg had already studied klezmer music for years in college and was heavily steeped in its tradition thanks to a rigorous itinerary of bar mitzvahs, weddings, and various social events. “I honed my style,” he laughs, “playing a thousand bar mitzvahs.”

Those types of gigs, Goldberg soon discovered, came with a hefty reward of instant social approval. “My choice to study it definitely had something to do with identity,” he explains. “Plus, you get a lot of praise. If you’re Jewish and you start playing klezmer at weddings, it’s like you’re an automatically esteemed member of the Jewish cognoscenti or something! They really treat you that way, like, ‘You’re doing such a good thing for the Jewish people.’ And that pleased me.”

But, despite the cultural affinity, Goldberg started to feel an acute sense of disconnection — a kind of generation gap, if you will — between klezmer’s old-world underpinnings and his own life experience. “Sounding authentic was beginning to feel pretty inauthentic to me,” he writes in his essay “New Klezmer Trio and the Origins of ‘Radical Jewish Culture.’ ”

A lifelong jazz aficionado, Goldberg wondered why klezmer hadn’t evolved and branched out into a variety of modern permutations along the same lines as jazz had — and he wondered how it still could. Simultaneously, Goldberg wanted to use the clarinet as a vehicle for jazz. (If it’s a mystery as to why klezmer, itself a vibrant polyglot fusion of music from several different parts of the world, hadn’t continued to develop once it was transplanted into an American setting, it is perhaps an even more compelling mystery that the clarinet still hasn’t achieved the same visibility in jazz as, say, the saxophone or trumpet.)

So, after reaching a high degree of fluency brought on by year after year of intensive practice and analysis, he set about looking for ways to reinterpret Jewish folk music so that it might sound truer to himself and speak to contemporary sensibilities. One of his solutions was to apply the improvisation of jazz to klezmer’s heavily codified rules and parameters. Another was to, in a sense, crack the music open by attempting to dig deeper into the rich bedrock of Eastern European rhythms and uncover an essence that could be used as a living musical style.

Tin Hat: Foreign Legion

Tin Hat: Foreign Legion

Revisiting how he felt back then, Goldberg wonders aloud: “Why is it that very few musical traditions are consciously involved with the idea of evolution?” It’s a rhetorical question, but Goldberg is less concerned with finding the answer these days, and he no longer feels as pressed to invent new languages as he once did. In a poetic twist to a career that spans work with individualist visionaries like John Zorn, Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, and Trevor Dunn as well as several of his own groups, Goldberg became a full-fledged member of Tin Hat in 2005.

The brainchild of violinist Carla Kihlstedt (Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, 2 Foot Yard) and guitarist Mark Orton, Tin Hat (originally named Tin Hat Trio before the group reconfigured with the inclusion of Goldberg) weaves together chamber music, jazz, Gypsy folk, experimentalism, and pop into a sound that gives Goldberg room to feel at ease, at least in terms of the ethical considerations of his creative decisions. In a sense, Tin Hat, which released its live album, Foreign Legion, this spring on Goldberg’s own label (BAG Production), represents the fruit of all the time that Goldberg spent questioning the integrity of his innovations.

“In some ways,” Goldberg muses, “Tin Hat fits like an old glove. But when I first started playing with them as a guest in 1997, there’s something that really impressed me about them and, at first, even confused me a little bit: they didn’t have an axe to grind. I’m a little bit older than those guys, and when I first started playing with them, they really showed me something. I realized that I had come up in a world where there was an axe to grind. That was an essential part of New Klezmer Trio: ‘God damn it, we can do this in an avant-garde way; watch this!’ There was a sense of ‘look out, everybody, we’re really going to fuck with this song.’

“Mark and Carla were another generation. They just found the beauty in all this different music — whether it was avant garde, traditional, this style or that style. If you listen to ‘Waltz of the Skyscraper’ on the live record, it starts off as a waltz. And then all kinds of strange things start happening and it turns into — I don’t know what you’d describe it as — new music or free improvisation or a free-for-all, but it sounds like all those things are what belong there. It doesn’t at all sound polemical. In a way, it’s taking the next step. It’s saying, ‘Look, these musical ingredients that seemed antithetical to each other can live together happily!’ But it’s no less a concerted and well-considered and brave musical statement to make that step. Different generations have to take different steps.”

Ben Goldberg: Go Home

Ben Goldberg: Go Home

Goldberg stresses, however, that Tin Hat’s uncanny ability to craft accessible music out of what are often presented as highbrow forms belies the group’s musical sophistication and depth.

“It totally kicked my ass joining that band,” he says. “They have a very high standard of composition. In their world, it’s not just the idea of writing a tune. Partly because of the instrumentation — there’s no drummer or bass player — the emphasis is on compositional thoroughness. And I feel like my own ability to write had to be stepped up a notch or two. That had a huge effect on me — the way that I think about what a song is, and also orchestration, form, what’s required, and what a piece of music can be.”

In addition to the new Tin Hat live album (which consists of performances from 2005 and 2008), Goldberg also recently released an album as a leader, Go Home, again on his BAG Production imprint. Go Home features guitarist Charlie Hunter and showcases Goldberg in a decidedly more groove-oriented setting. Despite the fact that it has the word “home” in the title, the album represents anything but a final destination or resting place for Goldberg’s art.

Go Home follows 2009 release Speech Communication, a new album on Zorn’s Tzadik label from a reactivated New Klezmer Trio. Yet having let go of the “mission” that New Klezmer Trio once represented for him, Goldberg feels free to venture well outside the very paradigm that he helped create. And as he continues to cover more disparate territory, Goldberg is proving himself to be a rare musician — one who hits a comfort zone while simultaneously stoking his inspiration.

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The Tango Saloon: Transforming Tango in the 21st Century

The Tango Saloon: “Transylvania”
[audio:|titles=The Tango Saloon: “Transylvania”]

The Tango Saloon: Transylvania

The Tango Saloon: Transylvania

Some artists seek pleasure, some seek fame, and a rare few fall in love with the very process of creation. “My grand plan is just to keep making music,” muses multi-instrumentalist Julian Curwin, and his plan seems to be working. A veteran of the Sydney jazz and experimental scenes, he divides his time between Monsieur Camembert, Darth Vegas, Gauche, The Fantastic Terrific Munkle, and his personal project, The Tango Saloon.

Dancing its way through an expert blend of styles, The Tango Saloon creates a contemporary tango fit for barrooms and brothels, lounging comfortably in any international port of call. Gypsy jazz runs smoothly into tenacious Latin rhythms; soulful accordions add an old-world touch, while elegant electronic atmospherics anchor the sound firmly in the 21st Century.

Achieving this rare synthesis requires musical manpower, and the group’s first album featured 15 musicians culled from Australia’s jazz-drenched underground, including double-bassist Mark Harris and accordionista Svetlana Bunic, both from Monsieur Camembert, as well as Danny Heifetz, former drummer for Mr. Bungle and Secret Chiefs 3.

Successful execution of such a take on traditional music stems from a diverse diet of influences. Curwin’s compositions find inspiration in the revolutionary style of Ástor Piazzolla, the Argentine provocateur who revolutionized traditional tango in the 1950s despite the outcry of purists, and the wide-ranging and colorful soundtracks of Ennio Morricone.

Piazzolla and Morricone both created music that sounds fresh 50 years on, and The Tango Saloon teases out the nuances of these masters, adding a visionary holism where most musicians would stumble into pastiche. Taking some cues from the experimental traditionalism of downtown New York jazzists such as John Zorn, Marc Ribot, and Bill Frisell, Curwin composes pieces that are complex conversations between instruments and expressionist themes.

His works have been compared to film scores “by everyone but those in charge of scoring films,” he says with a smile. The visual elements in The Tango Saloon’s music are undeniable, but the composition is based on pure aural exploration. “A lot of bands do the ‘pop’ album first; we took a different approach and experimented wildly on the first album. I guess we were able to do so because we weren’t really trying to prove anything to anyone.”

The band’s self-titled debut — released in the USA in 2006 through Mike Patton‘s Ipecac label­ — presented an experiment in twisted traditional forms that remains authentic despite reaching far into the fringes.

Dancing its way through an expert blend of styles, The Tango Saloon creates a contemporary tango fit for barrooms and brothels, lounging comfortably in any international port of call.

More recently, songs such as “Into the Castle” — from Transylvania, the band’s 2008 sophomore album — have dragged the experiment into a dungeon laboratory. With droning chords, picaresque guitar accentuated by sparse snare rolls, and the sounds of birds in the distance, the track captures a full cinematic scene and while standing as a solid musical expression.

As the fog lifts, the listener is sent running on “The Chase,” with Heifetz’s military percussion leading the way for tremolo guitar and pensive piano that pull the song into anxious violins. “I might start writing,” Curwin explains, “and then go, ‘You know what? This sounds like Dracula creeping around his house,’ and follow that instinct. Though often the process is purely musical, and images and titles come later.”

Curwin’s compositions are adept at setting individual parts against the whole and manipulating tension through effortless thematic shifts. Each song could develop into an entire album. Nothing is safe from surprises; the changes are painless and unexpected, with vibrant experimentation sitting next to songs like “The Dance of the Dead,” which captures a more traditional style while shifting the listener’s expectation with Bunic’s accordion flourishes.

Now The Tango Saloon is preparing to release two new explorations, a chamber set and a full-length, continuing its deep dive into the hidden side of traditional sounds. The chamber set, affectionately titled The Mango Balloon, provides a glimpse into the band’s quieter moments, bringing out the intimate side existing on the edges of its last two works. “I must admit, sometimes I’ll take on a project partly to educate myself about a particular type of music,” Curwin says. “It’s always important to keep a sense of humor about it. The Tango Saloon can be seen as a tango project, but we’re definitely not treating it academically. We try not to take anything too seriously.”

The title track of the chamber release turns the sexual intricacies of klezmer into terse melodic movements with accordion and guitar engaging in a close-knit dance. “Dog Day Night” floats over Spanish guitar rhythms on a melancholic trumpet touched by accordion counter melodies.

Whereas the thematic color of the first two albums relied on a close blending of each band member into a full-bodied atmosphere, the chamber set highlights the individual players, creating intricate interplays of solo virtuosity. The songs give the listener an opportunity to meet each musician directly, approaching their unique voices in arrangements centering on more isolated compositional elements.

That’s not to say, however, that The Tango Saloon has lost its edge; the chamber album is a side step prior to the release of its third full-length. “The other album we’ve been working on for the past year or so continues the darker themes we had in Transylvania, possibly even a bit darker, focusing on more of a crime/noir theme,” Curwin says. If its predecessor’s wide-ranging exploration of vampirism is any indication, there’s no one more qualified to tackle this angular expressionism of noir.

Curwin already is devising ideas for a fourth album, which he imagines will be a complete change of pace from the group’s recent dark descent (likely a “bright, cheery affair,” he says). He remains active with his other groups — including Darth Vegas’ live accompaniment to F.W. Murnau’s classic film Nosferatu at the Sydney Opera House earlier this year. But The Tango Saloon, now hitting its stride, reflects Curwin’s personal passion.

“With the Tango Saloon, we’ve become a tight-knit unit,” he says. “The first album was a real labor of love, where the band comprised 15 musicians that I connected with playing in various groups. Now the core nine or so players have become like a family.  Five years in, now we’re getting into the groove of it — really playing music, not just reading off a page.”

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World in Stereo: Rahim AlHaj’s Little Earth

Each week, World in Stereo examines classic and modern world music while striving for a greater appreciation of other cultures.

Rahim AlHaj: Little EarthRahim AlHaj: Little Earth (UR Music, 9/28/10)

Rahim AlHaj: “Morning in Hyattsville”
[audio:|titles=Rahim AlHaj: “Morning in Hyattsville”]

If you’ve ever dabbled in Arabic music, whether realizing or not, you have probably come across the short-necked Arabian lute known formerly as the oud.  If you’ve never explored the musical styling, however, the recordings of Rahim AlHaj may be the place to start.  Hailed as one of Iraq’s most paramount composers and an esteemed oud musician, AlHaj studied under Munir Bashir, perhaps one of the most quintessential innovators and players of the oud, at the Institute of Music in Baghdad.

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Morrow vs. Hajduch: Bongripper’s Satan Worshipping Doom

Scott Morrow is ALARM’s music editor. Patrick Hajduch is a very important lawyer. Each week they debate the merits of a different album.

Bongripper: Satan Worshipping DoomBongripper: Satan Worshipping Doom 2xLP (August 13, 2010)

Bongripper: “Hail”
[audio:|titles=Bongripper: “Satan Worshipping Doom”]

Morrow: Chicago’s Bongripper makes the type of music that you might glean from its name — bleak, crushing doom metal that’s built on stoner riffs and down-tuned guitars.  I will preface this by saying that I’m not a huge fan of the genre, but the band already has two strikes in my book for the lame pot-related name and the (presumably tongue-in-cheek) Satanism.

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Bill Frisell’s Beautiful Dreamers due August 31

Slated for release on August 31 by Savoy Jazz, jazz/Americana guitarist Bill Frisell’s new album, Beautiful Dreamers, will feature original compositions alongside reinterpretations of the work of other music greats.

Produced by Lee Townsend (Songline / Tone Field Productions) and engineered by Adam Muñoz at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, and mastered with Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound in New York, Beautiful Dreamers showcases musicians Eyvind Kang (viola) and Rudy Royston (drums) lending their talents to present an engaging and seamless dynamic between the band mates and their instrumental voices.

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