John Abercrombie Quartet Up and Coming (ECM)

You don’t expect septuagenarian artists to amend their work much – after a full career of music making, one’s style is solidly in place. But refinements do bubble up, especially in jazz. Respected guitarist John Abercrombie has turned a corner of late, beveling the tone of his playing and making his instrument radiate with a soft glow rather than the rounded fuzz that marked his approach for the last several decades. The latter was attractive enough. But this newish complexion is enticing indeed, and it parallels the charm of the music being made by his latest quartet on Up and Coming.

Though things occasionally get heated on this pithy program (eight tracks under 50 minutes), the guitarist shapes his dreamy ballads and mid-tempo gambols with the kind of measured manner that might beget stretches of grey in the hands of a lesser improviser. But Abercrombie has a little magic on his side when it comes to keeping the lid on things – he fully sidesteps flashy runs, but the music never sounds tepid. Here he shows us he’s a tasty player by banking on the idea that forcefulness can be squeezed from a gentle touch, a soft insistence, a lithe volition.

This tack doesn’t always yield a sure thing. Last time out, he and his quartet of pianist Marc Copland, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron did fall prey to the listlessness that propriety can sometimes generate. 2013’s 39 Steps offered plenty of hushed charm, but was lacking in the liftoff department; everything seemed a tad too ethereal.

Up and Coming, a wry title after cutting more than 30 albums under his own name and participating in an similar number of sideman dates, has a bedrock tension that’s perpetual. The band’s élan is obvious on a thoughtful frolic such as “Silver Circle,” where both Abercrombie and Copland sanction some overt animation for themselves, and Baron reminds us just how nuanced a powerhouse can be. The interplay on “Flipside” swings with the kind of propulsion that hints at tumult but is tempered by grace. That said, the bulk of the album is comparatively humble, if not demure. I fell for the opening “Joy” after hearing echoes of Lou Reed’s “Magician” in its first four notes; they both unfurl themselves with a somber poise. That kind of balance marks “Sunday School” as well.

Copland is an apt foil for the guitarist. He’s long hitched his wagon to introspection, but always manages to bring a dollop of verve to the table. His extensive string of albums has proven just how cagey he can be when it comes to braiding sensitivity and splash. He’s certainly not shy about injecting Miles Davis’ “Nardis” with a bit more hubbub than you might assume, but his enviable sense of touch allows it to still come off like a rumination.

Maybe it’s a band trick. Time and again the foursome manages a show of dynamics while still providing an aura of privacy. Ultimately, the latter texture defines this music. Whether they’re responsible for a momentary ruckus, or merely conceiving the next collective exhale, they never betray their commitment to the splendor of serenity.

TONEaudio

Sunday Spinning

Sampha – Process  (Young Turks)

Noah Preminger – Meditations on Freedom  (Dry Bridge)

Alex Cline’s Flower Garland Orchestra – Ocean of Vows  (Cryptogramophone)

Chandler Travis Philharmonic – waving kissyhead vol. 1& 2  (Iddy Biddy)

Big Sean – I Decided  (Def Jam)

Theo Bleckman – Elegy (ECM)

Matt Mitchell – førage   (Screwgun)

Kehlani – SweetSexySavage   (TSNMI)

Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound (Car Park)

Matthew Shipp Trio – Piano Song (Thirsty Ear)

Craig Taborn – Daylight Ghosts  (ECM)

BassDrumBone – The Long Road (Auricle)

Kate Tempest – “Europe Is Lost”

 

Michael Dease All These Hands (PosiTone)

With mass culture perpetually threatening to swamp our country’s beloved particulars, it’s hard to overestimate the value of regionalism. The “hands” in the title of trombonist Michael Dease’s latest disc harks to those who helped shape the specifics – nuance, tone, feel, etc – of jazz’s evolution, from its N’awlins’ origins to the myriad variations that blossomed as it took hold in other domestic locales.

The album is designed as travelogue. The breezy “Creole County” and steamy “Delta City Crossroads” echo the strong basis that the South provided jazz. Georgia-native Dease mutes his horn for the latter, a duet with guitarist Randy Napoleon, and it’s just as gritty as it is fetching. Like a few of the tracks, it’s a miniature that buffers ensemble pieces. It’s cousin, a nod to the mid-west territory bands of the ’30s, puts bassist Rodney Whittaker up front, a homage perhaps to that ancient scene’s key figure, Walter Page.

The ensemble brings zest to this solid book. Renee Rosnes, Gerald Cannon, Lewis Nash, and Steve Wilson form the core band, with guests steadily cropping up. From the Philly hard bop of “Benny’s Bounce” to the itchy pulse of “Chocolate City,” they form a strong alliance. Both trumpeter Etienne Charles and the leader shine on the latter, a tone-poem salute to the clattering bustle of D.C. train cars. Indeed, the authority of Dease’s playing resounds across the album; as an improviser, he’s firing on all cylinders these days, and this robust affair is not only a fun glance at the music’s diversity, but an entertaining study in blues permutations.

Posi-Tone

DownBeat

Nashville Scene Country Music Critics’ Poll – My Ballot

TOP TEN COUNTRY ALBUMS OF 2016:

  1. Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
  2. Lori McKenna – The Bird & The Rifle
  3. Brandy Clark – Big Day In A Small Town
  4. Robbie Fulks – Upland Stories
  5. Drive-By Truckers – American Band
  6. Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings
  7. Maron Morris – Hero
  8. Del McCoury – Del & Woody
  9. Willie Nelson – For The Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price
  10. Pinegrove – Cardinal

 

TOP TEN COUNTRY SINGLES OF 2016:

  1. Aubrie Sellers – “Sit Here and Cry”
  2. Eric Church “Record Year”
  3. Maren Morris “My Church”
  4. Lori McKenna – “Wreck You”
  5. Jason Aldean – “Any Ol’ Barstool”
  6. Miranda Lambert – “We Should Be Friends”
  7. Margo Price – “Four Years of Chances”
  8. Justin Moore – “You Look Like I Need a Drink”
  9. Elizabeth Cook – “Straightjacket Love”
  10. Sara Watkins – “Young In All the Wrong Ways”

 

Almost Perfect

File under not shocking: the yen to whittle down Miranda’s The Weight of These Wings from 24 songs to say, 14 or so, in hopes of moving from a damn good album to a fuck-yeah masterpiece. One that doesn’t repeat itself, doesn’t buy into its own importance, doesn’t fall prey to woe-is-me navel-gazing no matter how hard the band kicks. Lambert is most convincing when flaunting her authority and riding a beat (can ya tell I’m still hung up on “Little Red Wagon”?). The snare rolls of “You Wouldn’t Know Me” go a long way towards voicing the disc’s moving-on message than say, the boo-hoo fragility of “Tin Man,” no matter how pretty her voice is on the latter. The more wise-ass quips she flaunts, the more attractive she becomes. The more heartbroke she acts, the more susceptible she is to mush. With just a smidge of editing, Blake’s crazy ex-girlfriend could’ve been standing on the top of my mountain this year. (Of course, she did win the whole shebang.)

 

The Voice

Those truly impressive women songwriters who take up the top three slots of my album list are also wonderfully convincing singers. “It’s been a 40-hour week and it’s only Tuesday,” sighs Brandy Clark on “Three Kids, No Husband,” and you feel like you’re looking straight into that weary mom’s face, feeling both distress and heroics radiating from her. And the way Margo Price milks Loretta Lynn while trusting her own sense of twang in “About To Find Out” was an asset that bolstered the emotions of that tune and the rest of her pithy character studies. But it’s Lori McKenna’s just-folks warble on “Wreck You” and “All These Things” that colors in the hues of the music’s already-fierce imagery. The way she sings “worth half a shit” on “Halfway Home” or lets us know that her mother sang in a choir in “Giving Up On Your Hometown” – her glide underscores the nuance, bubbles up the details. We should probably call Iris Dement the queen of this skill, but in 2016, it was these three who warrant applause for their vocals as well as their tunes.

Geoff Himes on Brandy Clark

 

A Moment of Meh

Props to ambition, but I’m thinking Sturgill bit off a little more than he could chew with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. On the highway, at the desk – I let it drift over me several times, but the same reactions kept cropping up. Too strident, kinda unfocused, overly decorated. From the strings to the horns to the synth burbling underneath “Brace For Impact (Live a Little),” it seemed like the more he padded his advice to his son, the more he swamped the impact of his missive. Maybe it was the operatic Roy Orbison opening moments, the Otis “Hard to Handle” echoes on “Keep It Between the Lines,” or the surf-crashing sounds and David Clayton Thomas boogie of “Call To Arms” – hard to say, really; maybe its their cumulative clout. When the dust settled, I deemed his Grammy-nominated suite a victim of earnestness and filed it in the tried-too-hard category.

 

Records Go Round

From Hylo Brown’s “Grand Ole Opry Song” to Johnny Paycheck’s “Meanest Jukebox in Town” to Jason Aldean genuflecting to Joe Diffie in “1994,” I’ve always been a sap for country songs that throw to the thrills of listening to music, so Eric Church’s “Record Year” found a lot of replay time in my living room in 2016. Riding the vinyl resurgence, I dusted off my turntable too, and was tickled by all the inescapable verities, from the pleasures of fidelity to the goose pimples of nostalgia. Extra points for the video putting all those platters on that pole – fun stuff. See you at the yard sales.

FULL POLL RESULTS 

Critics Polls in the Time of Trump

The Pazz & Jop results are in.

Here’s my ballot.

Below are some dear faves that move me all the time.

Don’t skip Huerco S.

Don’t miss the Tate Talk on Bey and Bowie.

Mekons – Existenialism – The older you get, the more face palms you clock. Life disappoints with regularity, and from the Metal Box opening groove to the dire warning that fades into oblivion at the close, the graying punk circus once again drags us to Nostrodamus’ local pub for a dose of bleary laments and some woeful prognosticating. The future does look grim, we do shoot ourselves in the foot with too much regularity, and between Brexit and Trumpmania, we’re still our own worst enmies. Existentialism holds up a mirror up to our collective faces to see if we can stand what we’ve done.

Darcy James Argue – Real Enemies – Suspicion now has a soundtrack. Taking his cue from Kathryn Olmsted’s book of the same name, Brooklyn composer Argue built Real Enemies around the culture of doubt that drives conspiracy theories. The tick-tick-tick of a doomsday clock he visually referenced onstage when this extended suite premiered in 2015 can be heard in every note of his large ensemble’s swoops and crashes, and each is potent enough to conjure the sinister state of paranoia the composer sees surrounding us all as we hurdle towards the pernicious world that’s just around the bend.

Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN –  As I played and replayed, I dug the way she busted out of whatever limited artistic persona she crafted early on. Some of these tracks have a woozy cinematic sweep, others sound like punk-pop purging. Like, “Give It Up” could be the Slits singing a Buzzcocks song, which is a long way from that moody roots princess we were first introduced to in Strange Cacti. Drones, buzzes, keybs, and the kind of poesy that makes you believe purging is a mission statement – it adds up. With echoes of both Sky Ferreira and Neko Case floating in the air, Olsen turned a few corners, blew a few minds.

Margaret Glaspy – “You And I” – With some love affairs, the end starts about three seconds after the beginning – you know, a fait accompli that fucks with your head but not enough to truly flip the script and provide an immediate exit strategy. Glaspy’s purrs have a snarl at their edges; she strums that Telecaster like she’s picking at a scab. With each new chord, the woman who titled her album Emotions and Math runs the numbers on an inevitable breakup.

Solange – “Don’t Touch My Hair” – Otherness surrounds us all, and sometimes it has a positive slant, because pride and perseverance have a way of going hand in hand. With her butterfly warble up front and some classique R&B motifs in play, A Seat at the Table placed its bombshells on a comfy center. Ultimately a few snoozy moments bubbled up. But man, its message moments were not only many, but incisive, piercing and eloquent. And this is def one of ‘em – everything aligned.

A Tribe Called Quest – “We The People…” –  We blasted it at work and each time it came around again, the weight of Tip’s indictments – from the VH1 jibe to the gentrification quip to the ramen reality – got sharper and sharper. I would’ve accepted grooves and whimsy from them at this late date, but their truth to power moves sounded just as effective as their old-school frolic.

Lori McKenna – “Wreck You” – Sometimes we all push and shove, and hide our grace in our pockets, but this break-up anthem about relationship bruises is about the those seasons when it’s nothin’ but pushin’ and shovin’ and hidin’. And leavin’. McKenna is a deft enough singer to convey it all – and it’s a lot – with a shrug.

Singles Comments

Where Is “On Down the Line”? How Far Away?

 

Maggie Roche has passed.

Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau (Nonesuch)

The start of Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile’s “Fence Post in the Front Yard” contains picking so fleetly virtuosic, it is to laugh. Chops city yo, and in case you’re unfamiliar with the esteemed bassist and beloved mandolin player, they have all sorts of eloquence at their disposal. But speed is a momentary titillation and guys like these know it. Useful, sure—in short doses.

Thile, of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers fame, likes playing rigorous passages but chooses his material wisely. The aforementioned 2008 duo disc is built on motifs much more informal than the frenetics of “Fence Post” would have us believe. That’s a plus. Regardless of his prodigy childhood and expert way with Bach, the new host of “A Prairie Home Companion” proves most engaging when a bit of tradition stays tucked into his pocket.

That’s not to say the Punch Brothers, a string band built on prog notions, wasn’t a hoot. Yet they had arcane moments, usually when grandiosity swamped a tune’s allure or complexity yielded a cul de sac. Thile’s new duet disc with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau occasionally feels like it could get soggy with excess. Ornamental moments dot the landscape. But—ta da!—the pair showcases myriad ways of lining these performances with persuasive aplomb.

“Daughter of Eve” sports a sideways structure, zigging left when you think it might zag right, and tilting toward the labyrinthine in an intriguing way. The duo kicks off its filigreed interpretation with baroque flair, but their commitment to both clarity and vernacular remains deep enough to ground the action. As its eight twisty minutes conclude, it feels as if a symphony gets hidden inside a folk song.

Although an oddity on paper, the mandolin/piano choice makes for a fetching combo. The instruments cover lots of turf, timbre-wise, and the alliance between these players is terrific. They toured together a few years back, establishing a songbook and nurturing camaraderie. Here it feels like they’re not only on the same page but simultaneously writing the same sentence. The braided lines of “Tallahassee Junction” speak to the kinship of counterpoint. A gliding momentum energizes the Mehldau original “The Watcher.” Synched nicely, these guys prioritize poise. As the latter track alludes to “Love for Sale,” the action dips and swoops exactly the way it should if it’s going to claim the victory of total integrity.

The old-guard bluegrass formulas and simpler song designs that bubble up are enticing in their own ways. By keeping things sparse, the duo accentuates the dread of Gillian Welch’s “Scarlet Town.” And, rightfully, there’s no flash in play on Joni Mitchell’s “Marcie.” Mehldau simply provides his partner with a plush cushion to sparingly decorate. While they have some fun prancing through a vocal-less version of Elliott Smith’s “Independence Day,” the modesty of Ruaidri Dáll O Catháin’s “Tabhair dom do Lámh” resonates just as much. As a duo, their artistic persona comes across as convincingly during the ornate drama of “Noise Machine” as it does amidst the jaunty lilt of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”

Splitting the difference between embellishment and restraint is the true achievement at hand. Seems like their signature virtuosity can be summoned at any time, but it’s only dispensed when needed. Maybe this is actually a trio, with judiciousness always riding shotgun.

TONEAudio