The main problem with authorized biographies is that, well, they’re authorized. This means certain vital facts may be left out due to jealousies, estate disputes, etc. Such is the case with the long-awaited Moondog by Robert Scotto. But if you’re a fan like I am, you will overlook this very readable bio’s one major historical gap, namely Moondog’s many years living in Germany, some of which were spent with two now-dear friends of mine. After prying him away from them, his last companion, Ilona Goebel (who helped Moondog set up the primary holding company for his artistic endeavors, and now controls his estate), has for some reason decided to obliterate Norbert Nowotsch and Tom Glott from the Moondog history, a hard thing to do when there’s enough proof to sink a ship.
But aside from this serious omission, the book is a vital addition to the Moondog canon, covering his entire life and music up to his death, with a small mention of his German years and a wonderful CD sampler. I give this piece about a great underrated artist’s life in sound and art a B+.
And speaking of sound art, there’s a fantastic new book by Alan Licht on the subject aptly titled Sound Art, with a foreword by Jim O’Rourke and a great companion CD featuring the likes of Jean Dubuffet and Charles Curtis. The book is a veritable bible on the subject, with explanations and examples from the Futurists to the present and an abundance of illustrations and photos. It’s a bit pricey at $55, but I highly recommend it to connoisseurs as well as novices. A+.
Now on to a few recent concerts that I saw and almost completely loved, to end 2007 and begin 2008.
Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, and Paul Motian at the Blue Note. I couldn’t have been happier when it came to hearing such well executed “inside” music by this stellar trio. Frisell kicked butt, taking us through everything from Hank Williams to Monk. Carter played more than I’ve seen him play in years (though that’s not saying much), and Motian proved that, besides being one of the most innovative drummers around, he’s also one of the best timekeepers and backbones in any combo, using primary brushstrokes to paint a landscape for Frisell and Carter to walk through with luxurious, austere, elegant tones by all.
At her recent concert at Roulette, Okkyung Lee presented a four-part composition entitled then, there, that corner…, which, except for some tottering moments, I found masterful. I’ve watched Lee’s growth as a musician since her arrival in New York a few years ago and am consistently impressed by her daring and forthrightness.
At Roulette she played the role of conductor, never once touching her cello. It is rare, however, to see a score so well navigated by the crew that the captain has assembled—that rare occasion when the conductor at times allows herself to be conducted. The piece was an oral history of biographies without conventional melodic structures—with melody playing second fiddle to form, so to speak. Lee’s piece showed how scores can be fractured and marginalized, how sound can mingle with rhythm. The performance explored ways that space can be handled, treated, and mistreated, and at times one couldn’t be sure where a solo began and the ensemble ended. Let’s hope this work reaches a CD audience one day.
Matthew Shipp’s solo concert at the Rubin Museum proved once again that he is still one of the most daring and individual voices on the scene. This was Shipp’s first concert since the passing of his mother, and some of the raw emotion he still felt shone through. The evening consisted of two completely different sets presented in Shipp’s signature fashion of continuous loops, each lasting about thirty-five minutes. The first started out a bit choppy and uneven, as do most Shipp sets—not so much because of musical instability but almost because of a deliberate need to throw us off-balance with disjointed, off-kilter banging in the low register—opening up the Scriabinesque color field with the seeming imbalance of form that he is a master of. The set was vibrant, alive, and rhapsodically abstract, with Shipp’s usual imprint of repetition: pounding left hand contrasting with midrange right-hand tenderness. In this case he repeated throughout a boppish riff he had written years ago for the CD Gravitational Systems.
His second set was sweeter and quieter, and stayed mostly mid-range. It came with a backdrop of slides Shipp had picked from the museum’s fantastic holdings of Tibetan art. The tunes repeated most here were the Shipp original “Module” and a creative dissection of “My Funny Valentine.” Later in the set he threw in a hint of “As Time Goes By.” When I asked him afterward why he didn’t continue with it, he said it had happened accidentally, then shrugged, saying it had felt too mushy.
My second concert of the New Year was at John Zorn’s club, the Stone, curated this month by Hal Willner. It was by one of my all-time favorite musicians, Charles Gayle, leading a trio consisting of Hill Greene (a long time associate of Gayle’s) on bass and Ryan Sawyer (a newcomer to Gayle’s trio) on drums.
Gayle, wearing black and playing a white alto sax, came out screeching in a strange intervalic way that I’d never quite heard him do before. The music went from intense to extremely tender, when by the fourth selection he played a lilting, catchy “medley,” which he later told me was a variation on two folk songs he had learned as a kid. Almost everything he played throughout the night, as with Shipp in his gig, sounded like dissected recognizables, though like Shipp Gayle never brings any written music to a gig—it all being completely spontaneous and improvised. For his last tune Gayle played the piano, and for the second time in public he did so blindfolded and wearing a laughing clown mask. He explained that it’s easy to play the sax without looking but not so with the piano, hence the handicap. And he played his heart out, starting sweetly and then erupting into a chaotic flurry. Throughout the set Greene and Sawyer did not miss a beat, both displaying impeccable timing and intuition while following Gayle’s every move.
I also saw a great Zeena Parkins/George Lewis/John King/Fast Forward concert at the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio (part of Experiments in the Studio: An MCDC New Music Series); the show consisted of all composed works by the four, with both acoustic and electronics elements. Especially enjoyable was the witty musicality of Fast Forward’s percussion work on spoon, forks, bags, pots—or as they say, everything but the kitchen sink.
Upcoming events for me in the new year will be the Vision Festival Collaborations Series, David Murray, Boulez, and Elliot Carter, to name a few—and that’s just in the next few weeks. But for now I will leave you with one word: LISTEN.