I’m primarily a jazz critic but I go off campus in my listening habits all the time; it’s a necessity. And every now and then a non jazz release crosses my desk that I can write about with authority. About once a year, I persuade my editors to let me.
‘The Time for Peace Is Now’ Review: Spreading the Good News Again
A new collection of forgotten gospel recordings advocates social justice and unity alongside religious devotion.
One of the best aspects of popular music from the Woodstock era is that the genre barriers were lower, and this is particularly evident in gospel music. Not only was gospel’s influence profound on the R&B chart toppers of the day, but gospel acts had hits of their own. “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart in May 1969. A few years later, the Staple Singers had a string of spiritually inflected top-40 songs after a decade of stardom in the niche.
Yet not all gospel acts were warmly received by the music industry or even the smaller labels that served the genre. Even though the music on the new compilation “The Time for Peace Is Now” (Luaka Bop, out now) was very much of its moment—highlights include gritty vocals, scratchy guitar riffs offset by smooth vocal harmonies, and lyrics that advocate social justice and unity alongside religious devotion—most of the 14 songs were released by the artists themselves and fell into obscurity. The recording is the second volume of a series that the David Byrne-founded label calls World Spirituality Classics; the first, released in 2017, focused on the music of Alice Coltrane. This release offers a vivid portrait of the black community in the years between the waning of the civil-rights movement and the intensifying of the war on drugs.
Most of the songs on the compilation are unmistakably of that era, but the first track, “Time for Peace” by the Little Shadows, has contemporary and international flair. While its lyrics—which optimistically dwell on an end to fighting, stealing and hating—are very much of their time, the softly lilting song features bright, pinging guitar lines; catchy, locomotive bass; and soft, grainy vocals: more akin to East African or Caribbean guitar-based music than early ’70s soul.
Part of the pleasure of the album is in its echoes of often overlooked soul greats. “It’s Hard to Live in This Old World” by the Rev. Harvey Gates and “We Are in Need” by James Bynum recall the crooner Billy Paul. “That’s a Sign of the Times” by the Floyd Family Singers brings to mind the signature, pre-disco sound of the Philadelphia International label in general and of the O’Jays in particular. The up-tempo but relaxed grooves of “Keep Your Faith to the Sky” by Willie Scott and the Birmingham Spirituals evoke Archie Bell & the Drells. The male vocal harmonies of “Condition the World Is In” by the Religious Souls are reminiscent of Bloodstone and the Chi-Lites. Not without reason do the simmering blues of “We Got a Race to Run” remind me of the Staple Singers. The song is by a group called Staples Jr. Singers—not out of family ties, but stylistic admiration; that is also a reminder that the ’70s were far less litigious than today.
It’s been a struggle for most of the year to find time for new blogging which sucks several times over since I have well several blogs. I’m getting better at carving time out to write things are not for publication by major media outlets.
I’ve posted twice in the last few weeks at The Geoffrey Owens Experience, a blog dedicated to my musings about downward mobility, aging and the vagaries of the food biz (I’m a former cheesemonger working in craft beer).
I write about sports, mostly basketball (though drill down deep enough here and you’ll find a late 2014 piece that correctly called the rise of the Chicago Cubs).
I write about gender issues; essentially I think men need to embrace rather than resist their inner goddess. Yeah, she’s universal, if she can exist inside my hoops loving, jazz listening, barbecue fanatic soul, then I think she’s everywhere; but a lot of men either don’t listen or don’t know how to act on her counsel.
I write about the new middle age. It used to be the time to coast a little on your laurels; now it’s a time for urgent reinvention.
And at times, I have written professional grade prose on contemporary classical music, artisan cheese, craft beer and cinema.
I finally realized that that’s too damned much for one blog, so I’m breaking them up into other blogs for the purposes of rebranding my work.
The music pieces will remain here for now. If the people I send this way can’t do a search on music, then I’ll break them out but for now, this blog is on my business card and I usually hand it to people in the music biz, so…
‘Good Day for Cloud Fishing’ Review: Playing With Poetry
Clarinetist and composer Ben Goldberg created recordings inspired by the poetry of Dean Young, who then wrote more poems in response to the music.
Many jazz musicians have integrated poetry into their music, but very few have taken their interest to the levels of clarinetist and composer Ben Goldberg on his new recording, “Good Day for Cloud Fishing” (Pyroclastic), out Friday. Mr. Goldberg creates 12 tunes with an extraordinary trio—himself, guitarist Nels Cline and trumpeter Ron Miles —inspired by poems of Dean Young. Mr. Young joined the musicians in the studio (in the credits, he is listed as playing typewriter) and wrote new poems in response to the music he heard. The poetry that motivated the music or was prompted by the recording session is included in the album package.
Poetry has been of vital importance to Mr. Goldberg’s recent work. For some of the lyrics of his 2015 release, “Orphic Machine,” he adapted “Summa Lyrica: A Primer of the Commonplaces in Speculative Poetics,” an essay by Allen Grossman. Also, he is a member of the eclectic chamber group Tin Hat, whose 2012 release was “The Rain is a Handsome Animal (17 Songs from the Poetry of E.E. Cummings ).”
Messrs. Cline and Miles have played with Mr. Goldberg before, and the trio’s easy rapport elevates the music. The absence of a conventional rhythm section results in a lighter, nimble sound with either Mr. Goldberg’s clarinet or scratchy guitar riffs from Mr. Cline forming a musical bottom for many of the pieces. The fanfares and harmonies are delicate. Taken alone, the music stands as a stellar document of small-group jazz, but the poetry enriches the experience.
The poems that moved Goldberg to compose each of the 12 tracks on the recording, called the “Entry Poems,” are printed on jewel-box-size cards. On their flipsides are the verses written by Mr. Young in response to the music—the “Exit Poems.” In many cases, the performances accent the whimsical insights of the words. Lines from “Parthenogenesis”—“The goat eats god. Good for the goat, good for god, especially good for the cheese”—are reflected in the curlicuing clarinet figures that begin the piece and in the probing trumpet licks that follow. In “Corpse Pose” the spirit of Mr. Young’s line “I shouldn’t have expected so much from sex, 3-D printers and swans” is enlarged through a comparatively burly musical passage built around Mr. Cline’s gritty guitar lines and basslike murmurs from Mr. Goldberg’s contra-alto clarinet. In the case of “A Rhythmia,” a jaunty, melodic piece that could easily fit into a jazz-radio format, the poem written afterward—titled “Ornithology,” the same name as a jazz standard written by Charlie Parker and Benny Harris —connects more with the music.
Mr. Goldberg recently celebrated his 60th birthday with a series of five concerts at the Stone in New York. Each show presented a strikingly different ensemble, placing his economical clarinet style in a range of contexts.
The largest group, a 10-piece band with three vibraphonists and three guitarists, illustrated his approach well. Mr. Goldberg entered the venue alone, repeating a short melodic line on his clarinet; he was followed—one by one—by other band members, each accenting that line. The music built in complexity and heft, becoming atmospheric and abstract before gracefully transitioning into catchy, up-tempo songs.
On the final night of the run, Mr. Goldberg played in a trio that included Mr. Cline, and at times they seemed to revisit exchanges from the recording. During the show Mr. Goldberg announced his landmark birthday, then repeated advice he received from trumpeter Bobby Bradford. “Don’t worry,” the 85-year-old told him about aging. “You’ll get used to it.” It was a line that resonated with multiple implications and humorous insights, much like Mr. Young’s poetry.
‘The Hope I Hold’ by Ryan Keberle and Catharsis Review: Toward a Pan-American Jazz Sound
The trombonist-composer returns with his adventurous band on a new album marked by political concern and wide-ranging musical influence.
Even in an age of eclectic musical careers, few can match the diverse résumé of trombonist-composer Ryan Keberle. He has recorded with David Bowie and Alicia Keys, toured with Sufjan Stevens, performed with several Afro-Cuban bands, and is a staple in some of the leading contemporary jazz orchestras, including those led by Maria Schneider and Ryan Truesdell. He was music director of St. James Roman Catholic Church in Manhattan from 2001 to 2007, and for the past 15 years he has served as the director of jazz and brass studies at Hunter College.
Increasingly, many of these experiences can be heard in his group Catharsis. Formed in 2012, the band has just released its sixth recording, “The Hope I Hold” (Greenleaf Music). Catharsis has unusual instrumentation—Mr. Keberle is joined by drummer Eric Doob, guitarist and vocalist Camila Meza, bassist Jorge Roeder, and saxophonist and trumpeter Scott Robinson —and it reflects Mr. Keberle’s fascination with textures and unique harmonies, as well as his interest in developing common standing for instruments and vocals in performance.
In its first incarnation, Catharsis featured a different lineup—trombone, trumpet, bass and drums—and it felt like inspired speculation: What if the classic Chet Baker/Gerry Mulligan piano-free quartets of the late ’50s featured Mr. Keberle’s probing, cerebral trombone sound instead of Mulligan’s warm, complex baritone saxophone? Early performances by Catharsis had the same tunefulness and melodic emphasis of those earlier groups, and it moved even further toward conventional song forms with the addition of Ms. Meza in September 2013. Originally from Chile, she joined the group as Mr. Keberle began to deepen his interest in South American musical traditions. One highlight of the Catharsis discography is their cover of “Madalena,” by the great Brazilian singer-songwriter Ivan Lins, which can be found on their 2016 release, “ Azul Infinito ” (Greenleaf). On their 2017 release, “Find the Common, Shine a Light” (Greenleaf), the band covers the Lennon-McCartney nugget “Fool on a Hill” and the Bob Dylan classic “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
Some of the lyrics on “The Hope I Hold” are from the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again,” which was originally published in Esquire magazine in July 1936. In the press release to the recording, Mr. Keberle says that he was struck both by the similarity of the poem’s title to President Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan and by the poem’s coupling of dismay that the American dream had been limited for disenfranchised populations with optimism that those oppressions would end.
The music on the recording both expands and streamlines the band’s sound. Mr. Keberle is heard on keyboards on some tracks, and the songs swell and recede in a graceful way reminiscent of the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Wordless vocals, lyrics and solos emerge from gorgeous weaves of musical textures. Yet for four songs of the 56-minute program the band reduces to a trio of Mr. Keberle, Ms. Meza and Mr. Roeder, and the sound becomes more intimate.
The recording begins with “Tangled in the Ancient Endless Chain,” which nearly encapsulates their sound. Keyboards, bass, saxophone, guitar and wordless vocals lead a sumptuous swell of sound that transitions seamlessly into a drum solo that propels the piece into a more conventional song form with lyrics sung by Ms. Meza and solos by her and Mr. Robinson. Mr. Keberle’s trombone virtuosity highlights “Despite the Dream,” “Fooled and Pushed Apart” and “Campinas.” Mr. Keberle emphasizes his South American influences in the trio portions of the recording with “Para Volar,” a gorgeously complex composition, and “Zamba de Lozano,” which was written by the great Argentine folk musician Gustavo Cuchi Leguizamón.
Catharsis has a unique sound but some distant, obscure antecedents. The pan-American sonic blend recalls the early ’70s editions of Return to Forever that featured Airto Moreira and Flora Purim. The way that Mr. Keberle’s arrangements bring instrumentation and vocals onto the same level is reminiscent of the Steve Lacy ensembles of the ’80s with Irene Aebi. Like those groups Mr. Keberle’s band makes innovative yet accessible music. Catharsis will perform at the Jazz Standard in New York on Wednesday.
Pilsners have one of the most dynamic backstories in beer. The style was developed in the Czech village of Pilsen in the first half of the 19th century, and soon became a dominant global force. In the early 20th century, the style comprised more than 90 percent of beer consumed worldwide, according to the “Oxford Companion to Beer.”
Yet pilsners and their role in craft beer currently raise questions. Today’s craft beer drinkers gravitate toward brews with strong, bold flavors and vivid colors. India pale ales (IPAs) have come to dominate craft beer bar tap lists and are the third most popular style in America. Dick Cantwell, founder of Elysian Brewing Company, says “we are living in the heyday of the IPA.” Sours and stouts have emerged from their niches and are edging toward the mainstream. Pilsners, on the other hand, are bready, crisp, and subtle.
Are pilsners on the verge of becoming the Bordeaux of the craft beer world — e.g., a respected style favored primarily by older drinkers and contrarian geeks? Or is there a change coming that suggests pilsners will find solid ground and mainstream success amid the rapidly shifting trends of craft beer of 2019?
One advantage that pilsners have over trendier siblings like double India pale ales (DIPAs) and imperial stouts is a lower alcohol per beer volume (ABV). Most pilsners check in around 5 percent ABV, whereas some imperial stouts run into the teens.
Kevin Bradford, co-founder of the craft beer bar Harlem Hops, says this is a factor among his clientele. “We have customers that will come in only looking for pilsners,” he says. “These customers usually comment that they’ll want to drink more than one or two rounds of beer and still be in control of their mental awareness!” The bar always has a pilsner on the draught list and two or three can options.
Some pilsners have figured prominently in craft beer’s rise, too, such as Post Shift Pilsner from Jack’s Abby, Pivo from Firestone Walker, Prima Pils from Victory, Pils from Lagunitas, and Pony from Half Acre, just to name a few.
One of the most popular pilsners in the New York craft community is Vliet, the flagship brew of Brooklyn-based Threes Brewing. The beer was named the best beer brewed in New York State in the 2017 Governor’s Excelsior Cup, besting more than 600 entries. (The brewery’s grisette, Passing Time, won the 2018 competition.)
“From the day we started conceptualizing what Threes Brewing would be, we knew making pilsners would be an important part of the project,” two of the brewery’s co-founders, Justin Israelson and Josh Stylman, write in an email to VinePair. “While the style isn’t as fashionable as the bolder, hoppy ales that American craft breweries have become known for, we believe that pils is the perfect representation of what beer can and should be.”
They recognized that they were going against the grain. “We could have chosen a style that had a more obvious product-market fit; many so-called insiders warned us we could not sell a premium pils (Vliet is expensive to make and thus sell!), but this style is now 20% of our overall production and featured on the menus in some of the best restaurants and beer bars across the state.”
Phil Schwartz, Lower Manhattan territory manager for Remarkable Liquids, is one of the insiders on board with pilsners. His experience suggests that beer enthusiasts’ palates evolve.
“I had a pretty serious distaste for pilsners when I first started getting into craft beer and was really attracted to the stronger flavors found in IPAs, stouts, and sours,” he says. The more he got into beer, however, the more he appreciated pilsners for the skill reflected in brewing.
“There are no adjuncts, or huge amounts of hops to hide flaws,” he adds. “Since I started getting back into pilsners, it’s honestly great to be able to have a handful of crisp, clean beers without getting full or buzzed too quickly from an IPA or stout, or heartburn from a sour.”
Now, some breweries known for other styles are introducing pilsners into their mix. Oxbow, best known for superb farmhouse ales, is making Luppulo; Crooked Stave and DeStihl, two breweries best known for sours, have introduced Normal Pilz and Von, respectively; and Grimm, a Brooklyn-based brewery that has elicited cultish attraction for its IPAs and sours, makes a few pilsners, most notably Chronos and Topos.
“Since many of the beers we make are so flavorful and hazy, we love the contrast when we get to brew crisp, clear, subtle beers,” says Joe Grimm, who co-founded the brewery with his wife and fellow brewer Lauren Grimm. “Our pilsners are some of the most traditional that you will find — they are step-mashed with five separate temperature rests, cold-fermented, and lagered.“
He notes some aspects of pilsners may surprise even the most avid beer enthusiast. “Pilsner is a very hop-focused beer style!” he says. “Ours are very hoppy indeed, but since we are using low-alpha, old-world noble hops, the flavor is in a completely different world from what an IPA fan is used to; instead of the citrusy, tropical, and cannabinoid flavors we get from American hops, our pils is floral, spicy, and elegant.”
Meanwhile, at Threes, experimentation is key — not to bring pilsners in line with current trends, either, but to take it back further into its traditions. The brewery recently introduced Kicking and Screaming, an unfiltered pils.
“It initially started as a bit of a goof,” write Israelson and Stylman. “Our team had spent a lot of time experimenting with wood fermentation and aging, but mostly with farmhouse ales. We were curious what Vliet would taste like if it went in our newly procured foudre (a giant oak fermentation tank), so we tested a batch and were pretty blown away by the outcome. The final result had a substantial oak character that added depth and creaminess to the crisp lager without overpowering the style’s simplicity. The wood adds a subtle toasted marshmallow note that softens the hop character.”
Rather than moving away from the tradition, they cited classic wood-aged, bottom-fermented beers like Pilsner Urquel and Schlenkerla Helles as antecedents for their experiments. Israelson and Stylman weren’t sure how the market would respond, they say, but Kicking and Screaming has become a staple.
”Between [the popularity of] Vliet, Kicking & Screaming, and the other lager beers we’re making right now, we’re hopeful that we’re at an inflection point of consumers tastes in beer evolving yet again.”
‘Far Away From Any Place Called Home’ by Joanna Wallfisch Review: Chronicle of a Road Trip
The jazz singer-songwriter’s latest album draws on a solo bicycle tour she took from Portland to Los Angeles.to create crystalline, inquisitive music.
In the summer of 2016, jazz singer-songwriter Joanna Wallfisch hit an emotional and artistic impasse. She had just released her third album, “Gardens in My Mind” (Sunnyside), but had grown weary of the hustle and bustle of urban life in New York and was daunted by the cost of going on tour to promote her latest recording. She was wondering where her adventurous spirit had gone.
Ms. Wallfisch, who is 33, resolved the situation in a most unusual way. She performed music from the album solo on the West Coast and got from gig to gig—a total of 1,154 miles from Portland to Los Angeles—carrying her instruments and a tent in bags strapped to her bicycle. She has chronicled the 16-concert, six-week journey in a book, “The Great Song Cycle: Portland to Los Angeles on Two Wheels and a Song,” which will be released by University of Western Australia Publishing in September, and she presented a 50-minute theatrical piece, “The Great Song Cycle Song Cycle,” at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018. Now there’s a new recording, “Far Away From Any Place Called Home” (Her Own Label).
Road trips as inspiration for entire albums are somewhat rare. One appropriate comparison is Joni Mitchell’s 1976 opus “Hejira” (Asylum), which was written during the great singer-songwriter’s solo automobile trip from Maine to California. Ms. Wallfisch is an ardent fan of Ms. Mitchell’s work (her YouTube page features a stunning cover of “All I Want”), and the singer’s crystalline voice brings to mind early recordings by that legendary songstress as well as the less heralded work of British jazz singer Norma Winstone.
But while many of Ms. Mitchell’s songs view the world warily, Ms. Wallfisch brings a wide-open sense of wonder to the lyrics on “Far Away From Any Place Called Home” and a bright, spry tone to its music. And no, she does not seem to tire.
The 14-track, 47-minute album begins with “When We Travel,” which parses the difference between dreams and the struggles to make them a reality. Then her chronicle of the road trip begins in earnest, with songs and spoken segments recounting the expedition with disarming cheerfulness. Ms. Wallfisch bikes by day and camps and couch surfs by night en route to Los Angeles. She reflects on sharing single malt scotch with a host she just met, deflecting the whimsical advances of a lifeguard, or the thrill of having the Pacific Ocean as a sidekick throughout. Her band on the recording includes reedman Oran Etkin and bassist Chris Tordini; Ms. Wallfisch plays baritone ukulele, melodica and toy piano, and on “Rex, the Traveling Dog” she takes a mean kazoo solo. She mostly encounters fellow outsiders, and the exchanges exhilarate her—so by the time she reaches Southern California, her ambivalence about the voyage’s end is understandable.
Ms. Wallfisch is from London, though she’s been in the U.S., spending time on both coasts, since 2012. Her family has a remarkable array of musical accomplishments. She is the daughter of two classical musicians, violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch and cellist Raphael Wallfisch; her grandmother Anita Lasker Wallfisch survived Auschwitz because she played cello in the camp orchestra. Her brother Simon is a cellist and opera singer; her other brother, Benjamin, is a Grammy-nominated film composer. She took an interest in jazz at age 11 when she heard Ella Fitzgerald sing “My Old Flame,” which inspired her ambitions.
In the crowded world of jazz vocals, Ms. Wallfisch may have found her niche. This September, she will embark on a second song cycle, this time biking in Australia from Brisbane to Hobart, with another recording and a second book in the works. She’s putting a new spin on music for a road trip.