From: Chris Barton
Dear Shaun, Jen, David and Nate:
Greetings and happy year-end to you all -- and we’re off and running, I’ll do my best to keep the torch upright.
First off, thank you for putting that Mtume v. Stanley Crouch face-off in your kick-starter post, Nate. I saw that video make the rounds awhile back, but never made time to watch. For what it’s worth, I had to take a second to make sure this was a new flare-up and not something that had surfaced recently from some roundtable years ago when that argument seemed to peak, like some long-lost outtake from an old album. Needless to say, this argument about Bitches Brew and acoustic music and what makes jazz *jazz* and all that blah blah is still raging somewhere just makes my teeth ache.
But that aside -- and may such border-wars fall quiet in 2011, if that’s possible (is it?) -- I want to follow your lead about two of the pianists you mentioned in Mehldau and Iverson (and I completely agree about this being a great year for pianists -- Aaron Goldberg’s another that turned my head nicely). Being at a paper that adheres to the ‘star system’ with album-rating, I hung a four-out-of-four on Highway Rider, something I’ll stand by even after listening all year. It was the sort of record that once I heard it I wanted to pass around to so many people I knew, and that’s even before seeing what happens with it live next month.
Interestingly, however, in the fractious Internet/social-media/insta-react-o-tron space your mentioned, a backlash hit that album fast, with a vigor that reminded me of the one that fell all over Franzen’s Freedom, another one that earned so much early praise. On one hand that seems to be some branch of human (or at least critic-human) nature, to throw up a ‘hold on a second’ when rave reviews start piling up, but on the other I wonder if Highway Rider took some heat for not sounding like either Largo or how anyone supposed it should have -- as if it was a sort of classical-inclined Bitches Brew, if I may strangle the transition. Or maybe since Mehldau gets slapped with some kind of pretentiousness badge here and there people react against that too. Then again, maybe some people simply thought it stunk and whattayagonnado. Still, it was interesting how heated the response to that became.
As for Iverson, and maybe this is simply the difference in being on the West Coast, but along the lines of the ‘mainstream conversation’ you mentioned it strikes me how little (present company excepted) the Bad Plus gets talked about anymore. Maybe after 10 years they’re just “that trio that does wacky stuff with the ‘120 Minutes’ songbook,” which would be a shame because I’m right there with you, Never Stop was their strongest record yet. Maybe there’s something in the ever-fractured promotion machine of 2010 that’s not serving them right, or maybe it’s a byproduct of not fitting into one category or another (whatever he might think of their songs, surely ‘Brother Stanley’ above would approve of how many things they plug in every night). It’s probably the sort of ‘what if’ talk that might be better left in our few remaining record store stockrooms, but I wonder what would happen with those guys if they landed an opening slot with like the Black Keys or something, where would the public consciousness go from there? Could that kind of bill-mixing even happen at this point? I’m guessing If anyone could or would even want to do something like that it would be Kanye, which might cause the internet to collapse.
(One more thing: after seeing the Bad Plus again in a tiny club in West LA last week, I hope New York at least had some period in the last 10 years where ‘Dave King is God’ was tagged on subway platforms across the city. Too far-fetched?)
Speaking of virtuosi, that brings us to Nels, someone else who enjoyed a 10-year-anniversary with the Singers’ Initiate (maybe there’s some kind of ‘the year of the 10 year’ list that should come together). On top of that record’s madcap dip into ‘70s fusion in its own right, yes, Dirty Baby was really something. Though its message got a little heavy handed in spots, musically it was remarkable seeing all the moving parts all come together, something that didn’t happen so easily for me on paper. So, I’d say about a level 8 out of 10 kicking yourself, if there was a possibility of catching it, though I’m betting we’ll hear echoes of Dirty Baby in where Cline goes from here.
One surprise late this year is how that show set the table nicely for Cline’s appearance at an Alice Coltrane tribute months later, one that surprised me by not being a showcase for a galaxy of effects and sonic splatter-art (which, to be clear, I completely love) and instead again going someplace further inward that was more composed and orchestrated. I don’t know where iPhone Nation was during Cline and his crew’s cover of Charlie Haden that night, but I’ll settle for the Singers’ (w/ Yuka Honda) doing a Tiny Desk concert for NPR by way of example:
Having said that, most of you all may now tell me the 10-out-of-10 level kicking myself I should be embarking on for not seeing that Undead Fest, to say nothing for just about any given night at Ars Nova. I hope someone somewhere is working on an effective way to fold the country in half.
And did anyone try Dogfish’s ‘Bitches Brew’? Will they make more or will I have to wait 40 years until it’s remixed and reissued?