At WSJ on Tim Berne and Snakeoil Incidentals

This is my pick for best jazz recording of the year.  I think it got a little overlooked because it isn’t news anymore that Snakeoil makes great music, but the way their sound has advanced in recent years is astonishing.

‘Incidentals’ by Tim Berne’s Snakeoil Review

An outsider who challenges traditional jazz structures is finally gaining recognition.

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil: Oscar Noriega, Ches Smith, Tim Berne and Matt Mitchell
Tim Berne’s Snakeoil: Oscar Noriega, Ches Smith, Tim Berne and Matt Mitchell PHOTO: LYNNE HARTY/ECM RECORDS

Saxophonist and composer Tim Berne and his group Snakeoil make compelling, complex music, but his career arc is simple. He’s an outsider’s outsider who has found success and recognition after many hardscrabble years.

Mr. Berne, who is 62 years old, has twice started imprints—Empire in the ’70s and Screwgun in the ’90s—to record his music, and he has worked in record stores to make ends meet. He has doted on figures like saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill, whose rare ability to fuse gutbucket blues and avant-garde jazz is often overlooked. There are no “Berne Plays Thelonious Monk ” recordings that might endear him to the jazz mainstream. Yet for the past five years Mr. Berne has recorded for ECM Records, a prominent label, and the timing couldn’t have been better. Since joining the ECM roster, he has released four excellent recordings with Snakeoil—the latest, “Incidentals,” ranking as one of the finest jazz albums in an exceptional year.

Snakeoil features a core of Mr. Berne, pianist Matt Mitchell, clarinetist Oscar Noriega and drummer Ches Smith ; on occasion the group has expanded to include guitarist Ryan Ferreira. Mr. Ferreira doesn’t take unaccompanied solos on the recording; instead he adds texture, as does guitarist David Torn, who also produced “Incidentals.”

Mr. Berne’s compositions challenge the theme-solo-theme structure of most jazz. Rather than return to a theme, each solo tends to take the music to a new juncture; the shifting rhythms in the play of Mr. Mitchell or Mr. Smith function as a guide to the direction of each piece. Mr. Berne is interested in collective improvisation, and the members of Snakeoil have developed a phenomenal rapport that enables each member to be heard clearly even during those moments.

Mr. Berne’s composing mettle is particularly evident on “Hora Feliz,” the 10-minute track that leads this 64-minute program. The piece starts softly with horn murmurs over firmly struck single piano notes amid atmospheric sounds from the guitar. It drifts into subtler and subtler combinations before shifting, four minutes in, to a muscular ensemble piece that is very nearly toe-tappable. It’s as if the drink of choice at happy hour shifted from Chardonnay to bourbon. Much like Hemphill’s or Arthur Blythe’s , Mr. Berne’s saxophone sound is dark, and his angular play is a good contrast with Mr. Noriega’s smooth, lean lines. The centerpiece of “Stingray Shuffle” is a collective improvisation focused on texture whose layers of sound are the sonic equivalent of a napoleon. “Sideshow” is longest piece on the recording and it features catchy themes and superb solos from Mr. Noriega, Mr. Torn and Mr. Smith; ardent fans of Snakeoil may recognize it as the second half of “Small World in a Small Town,” which appeared on the band’s 2015 release, “You’ve Been Watching Me.”

The results are entrancing. Few groups are as adept at drawing listeners in and enticing them to follow discrete musical statements that morph into bigger group declarations.

With his run of Snakeoil recordings, Mr. Berne has joined the ranks of elder statesmen from the Lower East Side scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Musicians like Bill Frisell, Steve Coleman and John Zorn were seen as stylistic rebels then, but their music has become a part of the jazz establishment. Younger musicians like Mr. Mitchell, Kris Davis, Jonathan Finlayson, Tomas Fujiwara, Steve Lehman, Dan Weiss and many others are eagerly following in their footsteps.

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At WSJ on Matt Mitchell’s A Pouting Grimace

‘A Pouting Grimace’ by Matt Mitchell Review: Crossing Stylistic Borders With Ease

The pianist and composer offers his most complex and sprawling work yet on an album that showcases the influence of con

mporary classical music and unique harmonies.

Pianist and composer Matt Mitchell
Pianist and composer Matt Mitchell PHOTO: RICH DORAN

Pianist and composer Matt Mitchell makes some of the most interesting and complex music on the New York jazz scene, yet he’s a recent arrival. He spent nearly a decade working at the University of the Arts library in Philadelphia, coming to New York only as gigs required. He finally moved to Gotham in 2015 and since then has become one of the city’s most in-demand sidemen, an integral part of bands led by Tim Berne, David Binney, Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas, Jonathan Finlayson, John Hollenbeck and Rudresh Mahanthappa. This may prove to be Mr. Mitchell’s breakout year. “A Pouting Grimace” (Pi Recordings), his second recording as a leader to be released in 2017, showcases two of the most compelling trends in jazz today—the influence of contemporary classical music and the creation of unique harmonies—and pushes them into new and unexpected territory.

“A Pouting Grimace” is Mr. Mitchell’s most complex and sprawling album by far. He often cites the electronic-music pioneer Iannis Xenakis and the great jazz pianist Andrew Hill as formidable influences, and the recording shows this.

Four of the tracks offer solo ruminations from Mr. Mitchell on electronic instruments. And like Xenakis’s most compelling work, several of Mr. Mitchell’s solo pieces are spiky and lithe. I could easily imagine a choreographer who favors athletic movements building a work from “Bulb Terminus,” the 70-second track that leads off the recording, and from two other short bursts, “Deal Sweeteners” and “Squalid Ink,” that appear in the middle of the 47-minute program. ”Ooze Interim,” which concludes the recording, is slower, darker and more ethereal.

Although Mr. Mitchell grew up idolizing piano deities like Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, and their sway can be heard in his solo style, Hill is a cornerstone. YouTube has

Mr. Mitchell’s poignant solo piano rendition of “Dedication,” from Hill’s signature 1964 recording, “Point of Departure.” The ensemble pieces on “A Pouting Grimace” are reminiscent of that Hill recording in their unusual textures and harmonies. Mr. Mitchell employs such exotic instruments as bassoon, bass saxophone, contrabass clarinet, glockenspiel, tabla and timpani to create finely layered rhythms and bright, lustrous harmonies. On the album’s “Plate Shapes,” for instance. Jon Irabagon’s work on sopranino saxophone intertwines with Sara Schoenbeck’s bassoon over a foundation of the leader’s piano, Patricia Brennan’s marimba, Kim Cass’s bass, Kate Gentile’s drums and Ches Smith’s vibraphone. Mr. Mitchell’s group compositions typically begin with off-kilter beats that are played with such drive and intensity that they sound completely normal by the end of the track.

Mr. Mitchell, who is 42 years old, grew up with an understanding that the ’60s jazz avant-garde and ’90s eclecticism were parts of the genre’s tradition rather than outsider movements, and this is apparent both in his improvisations and in his compositions. He has created music that almost casually crosses stylistic borders; it’s an accessible, personal sound that feels rooted in the past but very much of the present.

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Can You Have a Relationship in New York City Without Dating


This spring I met somebody…somebody special.  But we’re both New Yorkers and these days you have to work almost 24/7 to keep a job and keep your head above water.  We like each other a lot but there’s been almost no time to do things like, well, date.  So what has resulted is a developing relationship on an emotional level without the nuts and bolts of dating.  How’s that?  Well she’s a bartender at a craft beer bar and I’m the craft beer buyer for a fancy grocery store and a veteran NYC barfly.  In other words we have lots to talk about when we’re not just dreamily gazing into each other’s eyes.  In addition, I cook for her since she’s a foodie and rarely gets to eat home cooked meals.  It was a way of proving that I was more than just a regular customer.  I started writing about it a few weeks ago, and here are the installments so far.

It begins with chili

It continues with craft beer

Then we muse about the new middle age

Then I question my manhood relative to her potential expectations

Episode 5 is all about cooking

Episode 6 is about an unlikely source of wisdom in this adventure, finance bros

In Episode 7 we finally plan our first date.

In Episode 8, I weather the Aftermath.

In Episode 9, We deal with the Aftermath.

Three more episodes are written and this could go 20 or 30.  Ultimately, it’s about food, love, craft beer, NYC 2017 and life these days.



View story at

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It’s Different This Time

Yes, I’m saddened that the Chicago Cubs season ended with a thud on Thursday night, but now that there’s a title in the bag, the ending feels different.

For one, their opponent was the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The question entering the postseason was whether the 91-39 Dodgers of the first 130 games or the 13-19 Bums of the final month would show up.  Ask any Diamondbacks fan to confirm, it’s the former.  .The Dodgers have now won seven of eight playoff games. 
For another, the Cubs are still very much a work in progress.
Consider the data.
Age 23
Albert Almora Jr. 1.0 WAR
Addison Russell 2.0 WAR
Age 24
Javier Baez 2.9 WAR
Kyle Schwarber 0 WAR (but 30 HR)
Age 25
Carl Edwards Jr. 1.5 WAR
Willson Contreras 3.9 WAR
Kris Bryant 6.1 WAR
And oh yeah, Age 22, Ian Happ 1.8 WAR
Other key performers like Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Hendricks, and Jason Heyward are all younger than 29.
All the position players appeared in 115 games or more.  Edwards, the principal set up man appeared in 73 games and Hendricks made 24 starts.
For another this is a season where lots of things went wrong.  Russell and Schwarber didn’t hit til August.  Baez struggled in the first half too.  Every pitcher in the rotation both struggled and spent time on the DL.  The team never really settled on a fifth starter until the Quintana trade in July.
And yet 92-70.  49-25 after the break.  
They just ran into a buzzsaw
Wait til next year isn’t defiant optimism anymore; it’s a logical projection.
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At WSJ on Matt Wilson’s Honey and Salt

‘Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg’ Review

Drummer and composer Matt Wilson’s new album does more than wed words to music—it points toward a new kind of jazz recording.


Drummer and composer Matt Wilson
Drummer and composer Matt Wilson PHOTO: JOHN ABBOTT

Poetry and jazz seem like natural allies. The elegant brevity of the words would appear to be a perfect match for the abstract tones of the instrumentation; after all, the Great American Songbook is full of poetic lyrics that are rendered best by jazz musicians. Yet, in practice, projects that blend poetry and jazz have been a mixed bag. All too often the cadences of the words don’t mesh well with the accompaniment, resulting in a combination that is less than the sum of its parts.

But not “Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg ” (Palmetto), the new recording from drummer and composer Matt Wilson. Not only does it succeed in wedding words to music, but it may point toward a new kind of jazz recording.

Mr. Wilson, who is 52, is unusually well suited for this project. He grew up in Knoxville, Ill., near Sandburg’s native Galesburg, and verses by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and biographer have been part of the drummer’s cultural diet from an early age. After Mr. Wilson moved to New York in the late ’80s, he found in Sandburg’s work both the spirit of home and, in the poet’s free verse, inspiration for exploring all varieties of music. Mr. Wilson’s debut recording as a leader, “As Wave Follows Wave” (Palmetto, 1996), is named for a Sandburg poem, and his ensemble also performs the great poet’s “Wall Shadows” on his 2003 release, “Humidity” (Palmetto).

The drummer began his Sandburg project in 2002 after getting a grant from Chamber Music America, and he’s divided the new recording into three sections—poems with urban settings, those with rural themes, and those that mix the two—plus an epilogue.

In the first section, the music is big and catchy. A rambunctious and soulful beat drives “Soup,” while “Anywhere and Everywhere People” is funky and puckish. Some of the words are sung by guitarist Dawn Thomson, but on “People” Sandburg’s verses are recited by bassist, radio host, festival director and renowned jazz personality Christian McBride, who adds clever inflections to the prose.

The great poet’s words are recited by a host of well-known figures in the jazz community, including Carla Bley, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano and John Scofield ; in addition, actor Jack Black recites “Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz.” A recording of Sandburg himself is featured on “Fog” accompanied only by Mr. Wilson’s drums. The percussion initially surrounds the recitation, but Mr. Wilson’s percussive phrases become tighter and tighter until, in the last verse, the drums accent each word of the poem. It’s emblematic of how well the music fits the verses overall. Mr. Wilson will present this project at the Jazz Standard on Sept. 19

fits the verses overall. Mr. Wilson will present this project at the Jazz Standard on Sept. 19 and 20 and at various venues in California, New England and Seattle this autumn.

Mr. Wilson has built a formidable reputation as one of jazz’s leading drummers. He plays with an effusive swing reminiscent of jazz great Art Blakey. Besides the Carl Sandburg Project, Mr. Wilson leads a quartet under his name, Arts and Crafts and Christmas Tree-O.

Although Mr. Wilson’s music spans a wide range of territory, it never feels as if it’s solely for jazz geeks, and that’s an important strength of the new disc. Jazz musicians are creating an extraordinary amount of great music these days, but most of it is buried inside the genre’s niche. Recordings like “Honey and Salt”—and “Find the Common, Shine a Light” by Ryan Keberle and Catharsis, which dealt with protest songs, and “Hudson” by the all-star quartet of Mr. Scofield, drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Larry Grenadier and pianist John Medeski, which focused on Woodstock-era rock—point toward a broader audience without musical compromise. These recordings are not solely for specialists; their music builds a bridge.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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At WSJ on Tyshawn Sorey’s Verisimitude

‘Verisimilitude’ by Tyshawn Sorey Review: Building a Bridge From Jazz to Classical

Drummer, pianist and trombonist Tyshawn Sorey offers a somber, austere album influenced by Claude Debussy, Morton Feldman and Iannis Xenakis.

Tyshawn Sorey’s new album is ‘Verisimilitude’ PHOTO: JOHN ROGERS

After a decade or so where jazz innovation was led by pianists, drummers have now taken charge, offering innovations that open ensembles to a wider range of rhythms and in some cases create new, subtle hybrids of jazz and other styles. The work of Tyshawn Sorey, who is also a virtuoso on piano and trombone as well as a heralded composer, fits right into this trend. His new recording “Verisimilitude” (Pi Recordings) is his third significant release since 2014 and solidifies his role in bridging the gap between jazz and classical music.

Mr. Sorey, who turned 37 in July, celebrated with a drums-and-saxophone duet concert at the Stone in New York featuring kindred spirit John Zorn. In the concert, Mr. Sorey’s

eruptions of percussion contrasted with Mr. Zorn’s pithy squeals and urgent roars. On this new recording, his approach is completely different. The music is austere and often somber. In the “Verisimilitude” press release, Mr. Sorey cites classical composers Claude Debussy, Morton Feldman and Iannis Xenakis as major influences. On podcasts, he has also spoken of Elvin Jones’s work with the John Coltrane Quartet as being an inspiration. “Verisimilitude” most directly links to ’60s jazz classics like Roscoe Mitchell’s “Sound,” Muhal Richard Abrams’s “Levels and Degrees of Light” and the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s “People in Sorrow.” He first heard this music as a teenager growing up in Newark, N.J., where he was mentored by the poet Amiri Baraka, who occasionally performed with jazz accompaniment.

“Verisimilitude” features pianist Cory Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini, which makes it look like a conventional piano trio, and drummers have done great work in that setting in the past decade, most notably Chad Taylor’s 2009 recording “Circle Down” (482 Music), but “Verisimilitude” goes in a different, more abstract direction. “Cascade in Slow Motion,” the first and shortest track on the album, is a slow, brooding piece that smartly builds a gentle flow of piano chords, bowed basslines and percussion into a dramatic climax. “Flowers for Prashant” is a tribute to the late filmmaker Prashant Bhargava, with whom Mr. Sorey worked. The music is elegant and spare. The centerpiece of the recording is “Algid November,” a slow, 30-minute piece with episodes of scintillating play. Like Feldman’s best work, it rearranged my sense of time. Mr. Sorey’s ensemble uses space magnificently, thus it’s a recording that is either best heard through headphones or played at high volume so that it doesn’t risk receding into the background.

The release of “Verisimilitude” continues Mr. Sorey’s breakout moment. His previous two releases, “Alloy” (Pi Recordings, 2014) and “The Inner Spectrum of Variables” (Pi Recordings, 2016), won praise in both the jazz and classical communities. He presented his work “ Josephine Baker : A Portrait” at the 2016 Ojai Festival and he has been commissioned to write a piece that will have its premiere at Opera Philadelphia and at Carnegie Hall in 2018. Earlier this year, he received his doctorate in musical arts from Columbia University, and he was named an assistant professor at Wesleyan University.

In addition to Messrs Sorey and Taylor, such drummers as Jeff Ballard, Marcus Gilmore, Eric Harland, Allison Miller, Kendrick Scott, Ches Smith, Nate Smith, Nasheet Waits, Dan Weiss and Matt Wilson are reshaping jazz’s boundaries. On “Verisimilitude” Mr. Sorey’s music may sound as if it’s closer to contemporary classical conventions, but much of it was worked out during a November 2015 gig at the Village Vanguard, jazz’s most famous venue, where during 12 sets in six nights his trio amazed audiences with its unique blend of composed and improvised music.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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Charles Bradley R.I.P

Six years ago, I wrote on Bradley who passed away today. He was one of my favorite feature subjects.

A Dream 48 Years in the Making

62-Year-Old Soul Singer Charles Bradley Is Set to Release His First Album

Few musicians have traveled as circuitous a route to a debut recording as Charles Bradley. The 62-year-old soul singer will release his first album, “No Time for Dreaming” (Daptone), on Tuesday, and that night he will celebrate with a concert at Southpaw in Park Slope.

Charles Bradley performs at Dunham Studios in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Charles Bradley performs at Dunham Studios in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. AGATON STROM FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“They say God has a plan for everyone,” said Mr. Bradley last week at the Dunham studios in South Williamsburg. Then he added, with a warm chuckle, “His plan for me meant working 48 years to achieve my dream!”

Mr. Bradley was 14 when his sister took him to the Apollo Theater to see James Brown. The performance inspired his ambition to become a singer, but he had many obstacles to overcome. Mr. Bradley had a turbulent youth; he ran away from home as a teenager. “I slept in the subway—find the longest line and sleep till you reached the end of the line and the cops would chase you off. You just take the next train and ride it. Do that three times, and it’s morning.”

After joining the Job Corps, he received training as a cook and job placement in Bar Harbor, Maine. During this time, he continued to pursue his passion for music, developing a James Brown tribute show called Black Velvet. He formed a band and played Mr. Brown’s repertoire throughout New England before too many of his bandmates were sent to fight in the Vietnam War. Wearying of battles over pay and in need of a change of scenery, Mr. Bradley in the mid-1970s relocated to California. He found work cooking in a retirement home in Menlo Park and pursued his musical interests in the Bay Area.

Mr. Bradley speaks with a gentle rasp, and he has a passion for telling stories. “There were a lot of great musicians out there, especially in Oakland. It was a very good place to play.” He was content to cook during the day and do his James Brown tribute show at night. He returned to New York and settled in Bushwick in the mid-1990s to take care of his mother and be closer to his siblings. He continued to perform in Black Velvet at various nightclubs in Brooklyn.

Soul singer Charles Bradley's first album is titled 'No Time for Dreaming.'
Soul singer Charles Bradley’s first album is titled ‘No Time for Dreaming.’ AGATON STROM FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Then in 2000 two pivotal events occurred. His brother was shot to death, and he met Gabe Roth of Daptone Records, the hub of the local soul scene. Mr. Roth, who saw Mr. Bradley perform, introduced him to Tom Brenneck, a guitarist who had two instrumental bands playing music inspired in part by James Brown’s backing band. They got together in a studio and Mr. Bradley began improvising lyrics to the bands’ grooves. Mr. Brenneck encouraged the singer to begin writing.

“Heartaches and Pain” was one of Mr. Bradley’s first collaborations with Mr. Brenneck. The death of Mr. Bradley’s brother had left the singer very depressed. “I didn’t know how to deal with it until the lyrics came to mind,” the singer said.

Mr. Bradley stayed in touch as Mr. Brenneck’s other endeavors kept him busy. One Brenneck group changed its name to the Budos Band, shifted its focus to Afro-Beat and became a national success. Also, Mr. Brenneck began playing with the Dap Kings, the backing band for Sharon Jones, who is one of the biggest stars to emerge from the Brooklyn soul scene.

Messrs. Bradley and Brenneck resumed working together about four years ago. Mr. Bradley continued to write lyrics, some personal and some with social commentary. They began recording the album in Mr. Brenneck’s home studio in Bushwick.

“Since he’s new to the recording process, I think the informal environment was really good for Charles,” Mr. Brenneck said by phone from the Dunham studios last week.

“No Time for Dreaming” is an impressive recording. The soulful grooves of Mr. Brenneck’s Menahan Street Band are self-assured and deep. Mr. Bradley’s vocals have vintage grit—at times he sounds like Otis Redding, at others he recalls his idol. There is urgency and passion to everything he sings.

When asked about current pop music, Mr. Bradley laughed. “I’m not a fan of all that boom bap,” he said. “The lyrics are too sexual; they aren’t about what’s really happening out here.”

“That’s the unique thing about Charles,” Mr. Brenneck said. “You can hear that he believes everything he sings deeply in his heart. That’s real soul.”

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