At The Root on Jonathan Abrams Boys Among Men

Usually when I think about Grantland, the late, much lamented ESPN sports and pop culture site, my mind dwells on the great weekly scribes they had like Zach Lowe, Jonah Keri, Bill Barnwell and others.  But Jonathan Abrams was also one of my favorites.  His longform pieces were never less than provocative and his new book reads like a 120,000 word version of them.

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At WSJ on the Dave Harrington Group

‘Become Alive’ by Dave Harrington Review

Dave Harrington’s new album is a showcase of the variety of styles and genres he’s mastered.

In Darkside, a duo with Nicolas Jaar, Dave Harrington, a master of many instruments best known as a guitarist, created some of the most compelling and widely adored electronic music of this decade. “Become Alive” (Other People) is the new release from the 30-year-old’s first solo project—which is billed as the Dave Harrington Group—since Darkside went on hiatus in the summer of 2014. On the album, Mr. Harrington is wending his way back to his roots: the late-’60s and early-’70s experimental jazz that inspired his musical career.

On the album, Dave Harrington is wending his way back to his roots: the late-’60s and early-’70s experimental jazz that inspired his musical career. ENLARGE
On the album, Dave Harrington is wending his way back to his roots: the late-’60s and early-’70s experimental jazz that inspired his musical career. Photo: Kyle Good

During its brief existence, Darkside produced moody and dense electronic music that was highlighted by Mr. Harrington’s virtuosic work. The band fused dub, prog rock, electronic dance music and elements of jazz fusion into a potent mix. The name of the band recalled the 1973 Pink Floyd recording “Dark Side of the Moon,” and in many ways the sound seemed like an updating of it. Darkside was particularly well received. Pitchfork hailed the band’s amalgam of styles and cited its 2013 recording “Psychic” as one of the best albums of the decade. Darkside’s 2013 remix of Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” was named one of the best recordings of the year by the New Yorker.

Dave Harrington’s first solo project since Darkside is ‘Become Alive.’ ENLARGE
Dave Harrington’s first solo project since Darkside is ‘Become Alive.’ Photo: Chad Kamenshine

“Become Alive” starts with “White Heat,” a brooding track highlighted by keyboards and guitar. It has a pristine sound and glacial pace; no one will link it to the Velvet Underground classic “White Light/White Heat” Instead the tone and mood recall the Radiohead recordings “Kid A” and “Amnesiac” minus the vocals. The second track, “Slides,” maintains the mood but is built from stellar, serpentine bass clarinet lines from John Stanesco. The recording’s middle tracks are more atmospheric and cinematic, highlighted by “Steels,” a solo track featuring Mr. Harrington’s excellent pedal steel guitar work. But the final three pieces—the title track, “Spectrum” and “All I Can Do”—shift gears. The music is less brooding, more narrative in structure and often up-tempo. The title track features 11 musicians and “All I Can Do” has six. With the muscular bass lines, soaring harmonies, and searing solos, the music is reminiscent of bands like the Tony Williams Lifetime and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, which straddled the divide between jazz and rock in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

As is often the case with a musician’s first full length recording, “Become Alive” is a showcase for the variety of styles and subgenres that Mr. Harrington has mastered. He had jammed around New York, then met Mr. Jaar while both men were students at Brown University. Mr. Harrington grew up in the city and studied at the Harlem School of the Arts with great musicians like guitarist Kelvyn Bell and bassist Brad Jones. He loved the late-’90s Manhattan downtown, especially the music of Bill Frisell and John Zorn as well as vintage prog-rock groups like King Crimson. With “Become Alive,” Mr. Harrington illustrates the vibrance and diversity of New York music late in the 20th century while smartly updating it.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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I turned 56 this week, and received several hundred well wishes on social media.  This is how I thanked my friends.


Fifty Six isn’t the sort of milestone birthday that 40 or 50 or 60 is, but this birthday felt like a landmark even if I didn’t celebrate as if it were.  For most of the last 15 years I’ve been eluding ruin in some form or another.  I was a music journalist then that stopped generating income so I became a sportswriter. That dried up, so I went back to music.  That ended abruptly so I went full time in the food business running a cheese counter.  I discovered that the business model for most cheese shops is as broken as it is for most newspapers, so I slid over to craft beer.  That works but only if I could restart the journalism.  I found two editors who seem committed to keeping my inbox full, if not overflowing.  Meanwhile, two family members died.  My health has been haphazard, and the financial ups and downs have been so extreme that for a while the guards on the ground floor in the housing court building at 111 Centre St. knew me by face.  Five years ago, I had a trip there where the only thing on my mind was forestalling eviction long enough to move my stuff in an orderly manner.  I got a continuance and landed a promising full time job and a big catering gig to make most of my arears go away.  I crowdsourced the rest and well, I’m still here in this apartment.

This time last year I’d kind of had it.  I’d begun to wonder if this well more than a decade old struggle was worth it, but I soldiered on mostly on the notion that I knew this game plan and I just didn’t have the energy to formulate another one.   Yet work was going well.  I could see the break-even mark in the offing, and I figured beyond that lay the possibility of retiring debt and rebuilding my life.

Earlier this year, I had an epiphany.  I think during the last 15 years I’ve pretty much experienced every missile that the agents of chaos can shoot my way.  I’ve dodged every land mine too, and I’ve grown immune to their poison gasses.  I realized that I didn’t need to live in fear anymore.  Sure, it’s in the back of my mind as is true of everyone that derives a chunk of their change from journalism.  But I have several plan b’s ready, and more importantly I have several initiatives in motion that will increase both my income and my stability.  This, in other words, was what the struggle was all about.  I’m beginning to think I’m winning, and I haven’t felt that way since I was 41.

Birthday was hectic and work filled.  It was Wednesday, and Wednesdays are often work-filled and hectic. I did decide to start carving out more time to chill and maybe more time to gameplan.  I feel like I’ve grown really good at changing direction in mid-air.  I’d like to limit my use of that skill going forward to dance and yoga classes and not so much real life.

So thank you thank you thank you thank you for the hundreds and hundreds of birthday wishes.  In years past, I’d see these wishes and despair over the fact that I had no idea when I would see some of you.  Now, I do know.  Not specifically, but now it just requires planning, not a miracle.  That much, thanks in no small part to this legion of friends who have my back, has been accomplished.

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An Interesting Week at The Root


After a slow month, I got back into the groove at The Root with features on food, film and business.

On Melba Wilson on Melba’s, her new cookbook, how soul food is the basis for American comfort food and how African Americans invented Farm to Table

Then the following day, I was in on a GREAT documentary, Two Trains Running about the coincidence in the search for Son House and Skip James and the Freedom Summer in Mississippi.

Finally, the next day, I was in on a unique business incubator that directs venture capital to minority and women entrepreneurs.



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Mark Feldman at The Stone

MarkfeldmanViolinist Mark Feldman is a musician whose music I like, but I don’t follow his career obsessively; there simply aren’t enough hours in a day for me to aggressively track all the musicians I enjoy and  Feldman is one of many who falls through these cracks.  Therefore, I was delighted when a friend told me he was going to Feldman’s Thursday night set at The Stone, where he was playing in various configurations that week.  I was already considering Feldman’s solo set Sunday night and my pal wanted to hear him in the company of drummer Tom Rainey, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier.  I figured it would reverse the joyous experience I had last week of hearing pianist Angelica Sanchez in a trio first (with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, no less) then in a large ensemble (with numerous luminaries).  I got to hear her exceptional compositions expand.  Here I thought I’d here Feldman’s work distill.

Wrong.  At least on the compositions part for Feldman.  When we settled in, there was a noticeable absence of music stands.  I’ve been to numerous engagements at The Stone that were entirely improvised, so I wasn’t shocked or anything.  At the outset, as Rainey, Laubock and Feldman traded virtuosic lines, I figured that at worst, the sum of the parts would be nice, but then Courvoisier began strumming some deeply reverberant chords on the low end of the piano and everything her bandmates were doing cohered.  It also set the structure as either she or Rainey would provide big rhythmic figures to contrast other musicians.  Shortly after Courvosier set the tone, Rainey repeated a series of drum licks that sounded like Roscoe Mitchell’s “Nonaah” transposed to percussion.  Feldman was reserved offering riffs to contrast Laubrock’s play or even stepping back altogether.  Toward the end there was stretch with Raney, creating martial figures with a handful of drumsticks lightly brushing against his kit while Courvoisier offered fleet, nimble runs across the high end of her keyboard.  With Laubrock contributing short staccato bursts that finished with long elegant lines, I was reminded of Cecil Taylor, Sunny Murray and Jimmy Lyons work from Nefertiti.  After about an hour they were done and the reaction nearly warranted an encore.  There was a spectacular degree of ensemble unity for an improvised set among four musicians.  My pal rushed to them to ask if they’d been touring.  It was a reasonable inquiry.

I know what I’m doing Sunday night.

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At WSJ on Allison Miller and Boom Tic Boom

I have wanted to write on Miller for a long time.  I first heard BTB at Winter Jazz Fest 2012 in one of those very WJF ways.  My friend and I were squished into a Bleecker St. club for a 11 pm band that we knew and liked and we wanted to hear the 1 am band at the same venue.  Somehow we lucked into seats all of sudden.  Well, we weren’t going to leave just because we didn’t know the Midnight band, some outfit called Boom Tic Boom.  I mean I’d seen Allison play but she wasn’t on my WJF short list…but sitting was.  I remember telling my friend that since Jenny Scheinman and Myra Melford were in the group, that it it was worth hearing.  So we skipped out on our plans to club hop and stayed.  BTB was just Miller, Scheinman, Melford and Brad Jones and they blew the roof off the place.  I don’t even remember what the 1 am band was anymore.

Here’s the link.  Story below

‘Otis Was a Polar Bear’ Review

The sound of Allison Miller and her ensemble Boom Tic Boom recalls classic drummer-led ensembles of 50 years ago.

Drummer Allison Miller ENLARGE
Drummer Allison Miller Photo: Shervin Lainez

Jazz has changed substantially in the past two decades, and the new sounds are best illustrated in bands led by drummers. The ensembles of percussion masters like Jeff Ballard, Tyshawn Sorey and Ches Smith offer spare and nuanced chamber music where the slightest cymbal shimmer is magnified by the austere compositions. The music of Allison Miller and her ensemble Boom Tic Boom runs counter to that trend. Her group has a razor-sharp precision that recalls classic drummer-led ensembles of 50 years ago—the music of Art Blakey, Art Taylor and Max Roach come to mind—but Ms. Miller’s band works from a diverse sonic palette that is unmistakably contemporary.

On Friday, Ms. Miller will release her latest recording, “Otis Was a Polar Bear” (The Royal Potato Family), with the group, and it’s that precision that unifies a range of sounds that might otherwise seem like a musical dilettante’s playlist. She is surrounded by a stellar cast of improvisers that includes clarinetist Ben Goldberg, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, pianist Myra Melford, violinist Jenny Scheinman and bassist Todd Sickafoose.

“Fuster,” the opening track, begins with a looping clarinet and harmonium duet that suggests a Middle Eastern and Pakistani musical merger; then a bassline kicks in and the music seamlessly shifts toward Afro-Cuban flavors. Mr. Goldberg and Ms. Scheinman trade striking solos over the big, catchy grooves. Another highlight is “Shimmer,” which begins by recalling the sunny propulsion of Horace Silver’s classic work for Blue Note Records, but soon morphs into a gentle mix of violin, piano, clarinet and cornet before settling into a cooler, wistful finish. The rapidly changing moods in Ms. Miller’s work are augmented by unique harmonies. The music always seems one false move away from a mess, but with Ms. Miller’s steady hands at the helm, the results are sublime.

Ms. Miller, who is 41 years old, was born in Texarkana, Texas, and grew up Olney, Md. When she was a teenager, Downbeat profiled her as an up-and-coming musician. After graduating from West Virginia University in 1996 she moved to New York, where she has become a leading drummer, working with dozens of jazz ensembles as well as singer-songwriters like Natalie Merchant, Ani DiFranco and Brandi Carlile. In addition, the Brooklyn-based drummer occasionally plays in the band on “Late Night With Seth Meyers” and is a Jazz Ambassador on behalf of the State Department. What’s impressive isn’t just the range of gigs but how she melds all these experiences into her own music. In a promotional video for the new recording, she says that many of the pieces were inspired by the birth of her daughter two years ago. In contrast to “No Morphine No Lilies” (Royal Potato), the band’s 2013 release, where the episodic nature of the tunes came within the solos, here it is in the compositions.

Ms. Miller and Boom Tic Boom begin a five-week tour on Friday in Seattle. Their itinerary includes stops at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and at the Kennedy Center in Washington. When she arrived in New York 20 years ago, jazz was engaged in a turf war between the institutions and the outsiders. It was often miscast as the traditionalists versus the innovators. That an eclectic band like Boom Tic Boom can play these settings now is a sure sign of jazz’s renewed artistic vitality.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.


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Three Pianists in a Week

One of my first quarter ’16 goals was to go out and hear more music.  I fell out of the habit four years ago when I took a full time job in retail then stayed out of the habit because of lower body injuries that made going down steps difficult if not outright traumatic.  I’ve been consistently healthy for the last six to eight months, so much so that going out after a retail shift is redemptive rather than taxing.  So it was great to hear three amazing pianists in the last ten days—all in gigs that took place after a retail shift–and that’s despite missing a gig by working late in retail.

Matt MitchellMy keyboard week began on Wednesday at The Stone on the second night of Matt Mitchell’s weeklong residency there.  I’d admired Mitchell’s work with Tim Berne, Dan Weiss and Rudresh Mahanthappa, but I’d never seen him lead a group.  This evening he was playing with Snark Horse, a quintet he co-leads with drummer Kate Gentile; other members include  saxophonist Jon Irabagon, trombonist Ben Gerstein, and guitarist Mary Halvorson.  The music reminded me somewhat of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (no, they weren’t face painted, silly wabbit).  My most vivid memories of AEC is in how they took discreet rhythmic figures and built them from solos  and duos to quartet and quintet play and that as the show progressed, and how the music moved from abstract to foot tapping accessible.  Initially as Mitchell’s charges engaged this strategy with Gerstein playing off of Gentile or Halvorson and irabagon developing charged little figures between them, I thought it was a way of moving the bass responsibility around, but as the show progressed, the duets built and thoughts about a bassist vanished.  Instead the lasting takeaway was five stellar players meshing in unique and compelling ways.  I need to track down a copy of Mitchell’s latest recording, Vista Accumulation.

Myra Melford

I missed Mitchell’s set on Friday, which was frustrating since I consider proximity to The Stone one of the big reasons I still live in the East Village, but retail work ran way late.  It ran late on Sunday too, but that didn’t keep me from dashing across town to hear the final set of Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret at the Village Vanguard.  I had wondered how the band would fare in their debut engagement at the august club but I got part of my answer before the music started.  Club owner Lorraine Gordon was seated on a barstool with that beam she gets when she likes what she’s just heard.  I’ve seen that beam dozens of time, but it’s no guarantee; sometimes she looks like it’s just another day at the office.  Once Melford began her set, I began beaming too.  Her group is also a quintet with cornetist Ron Miles, bassist Stomu Takeishi, guitarist Liberty Ellman and drummer Tyshawn Sorey.  In the early going I began wishing that Myra would do a series of duet concerts with Tyshawn; their rapport was amazing and yes, nearly telepathic.  But as the show wound on, I realized that after playing two sets a night since Tuesday, the entire band was on another level of interplay.  The narrative followed the same pattern as Mitchell’s but with more interaction.  Myra played a week at The Stone last year, so here’s hoping that there’s an East Village to West Village bandwagon going on.

Jason Moran

Monday night after retail I schlepped uptown to the Park Avenue Armory for the inaugural concert of a new series curated by Jason Moran, and the pianist played solo.  Although I’m a big fan of Moran’s trio The Bandwagon, I don’t think I’ve heard him play a solo concert.  He played very stately and elegant pieces at first, which was a pleasant surprise.  I’ve come to regard Moran’s music as a soundtrack for postmillennial New York City, where he turns quirky rhythms into the most natural sounding sequences, an homage in ways to Randy Weston, Andrew Hill and Jaki Byard.  The rhythms arrived in his tribute to Byard and the two tendencies merged nicely in his closing number, Duke Ellington’s “Single Petal of A Rose.”

On the way home, I’d realized that I had regarded these shows as redemptive, but now they felt absolutely uplifting.  The next goal will be to witness more cinema.

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