February 26, 2010

An Interview with Dave Holland

On March 23, legendary jazz bassist and composer Dave Holland will issue his latest work, Pathways, introducing the first document of his eponymous Octet on his own Dare2 Records label. Culled from performances recorded at Birdland in New York City, the album features Holland’s regular working band—Robin Eubanks, Steve Nelson, Chris Potter, and Nate Smith—with the addition of three horn players in Antonio Hart (alto sax), Gary Smulyan (baritone sax), and Alex Sipiagin (trumpet).

For Holland, a three-time GRAMMY® winner, the album is but the latest manifestation of the ingenuity he
s contributed to his craft and encouraged in his fellow musicians for over 40 years. As well, his proficiency on the bass has augmented collaborations with such artists as Stan Getz, Wayne Shorter, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, and Miles Davis, the latter having summoned Holland to his band in 1968, culminating with such landmark recordings as In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew.

In anticipation of the upcoming release of Pathways, Holland offered insights to the album’s origins as well as his perspectives on jazz.

What does adding three horn players bring to your sound?

Certainly the individuals help. Their improvising style and approach to playing is a great addition to what we already have there in the Quintet players. Of course they bring some new approaches that they particularly like to work with in their music. I really like to integrate that into the music of the band. On a compositional level, it’s given me a chance to expand a little bit on the writing side of the music and to create some more full context for the music to be heard in the orchestration.

On Pathways, you revisit two songs that you’ve done in the past, “How’s Never?” and “Shadow Dance.” Why did you choose those to interpret with the Octet?

We actually had quite a big selection of music we were performing that week. There were several other pieces that we played that we didn’t decide to put on the record. I was looking to make a good album of the band. That was a strong track and it seemed to fit and work with the other pieces. And I was looking, of course, to be able to feature people in certain situations and settings. That tune fulfilled that. It’s a song anyway that I’ve revisited several times in different groups; it’s the gift that keeps giving, you might say. [Laughs]

Given the nature of improvisation in a live performance, as the bandleader how do you distinguish between a fruitful performance and of someone just winging it?

Well I’m glad to say nobody in our band wings it. Everybody goes for it no matter what they’re doing. Most musicians that have any self-respect try to do the best they can in every situation they’re in. Now, this is the nice thing about live recording, that in the course of performing for a week you have several choices often of which performance to use. And so there are times when a musician will be particularly inspired on a night or on a particular tune. And the nice thing about recording live is that you’re then able to capture it, to document it. So you make a choice. For me it’s based on which performances sound the best, which performances present the musicians who are playing and being featured in the best possible creative situation.

Do you have a preference for your bandmates as far as them having technical skill over intuitive playing?

No, I think the technique should serve the creative need. If technique is used for the sake of it, then of course it becomes meaningless. But certainly technique as it serves the creative impulse and ideas is important in order to express them. When we’re playing, we’re all listening to each other and being very, very intuitive about the music and anticipating where we’re going and what’s happening and really communicating on every level. To me, that’s really the most important thing, that everybody’s connected that way and listening and communicating in the music.

There’s long been a spirit of mentorship in jazz. Is that something you’ve tried to do as well?

It’s not a self-conscious thing; it’s just a part of the way that the tradition is in the music. I was helped by musicians when I came up and I’m still being helped and informed. I’m learning from my fellow musicians as we go—people coming up with new ideas or somebody’s heard something—and we talk about it and they turn you on to it. So the mentoring goes on all the time. Do I seek it out? I have some teaching activities that I certainly take very seriously. I’m an artist in residence at a couple universities and that part of it is an important part of my activities, to pass on experience and try to communicate what I’ve learned and pass on the heritage just as has been passed on to me.

So that’s how it continues. And I’m certainly interested in keeping in touch with young players and what they’re doing. But when it comes down to it, it’s about the player and what they’re doing and the quality of their work. That’s the most important thing for me. Of course mentoring is part of the tradition of this music in all kinds of forms, sometimes in a formal way when you’re teaching in a classroom or sometimes in a discussion with a player after a gig…[Though] if you’re talking about mentoring in terms of instructing, I don’t do that at all really. Robin Eubanks—one of the guys in my band—said something like, “Dave just winds the band up and lets it go.” I thought that was kind of an apt description in a way.

That entails a lot of trust, doesn’t it?

Of course. It’s all about trust. Any leader, whether it’s in business or in music or whatever, you need to trust the people who are working with you. You need to feel confidence in them and empower them and give them a chance to show what they can do. This is the same thing, really. I’m just trying to create a setting where everybody can explore their creativity. And I choose the musicians. That’s the big choice to make, finding musicians that are sympathetic to the music that we’re going to be playing and who have the ability and the generosity to support other players in a collective way. So all these qualities are things that I think about before I ask somebody to be a part of a project. Once they’re in the band, for me it’s an important thing then to trust them, to trust my decision on asking them to be there, and to give them as much room creatively as is possible within the music.

Do you still get the same sort of rush you’ve always gotten when a live performance goes over well?

Oh yeah. When the band’s really clicking on a high and intuitive level, you come away from the performance that you’ve really achieved something as a group as well as individually. That’s the greatest feeling.

February 23, 2010

Anna Rose Is Vibrant In Debut Music Video

As the basic premise of MTV has dwindled over the past decade or so to become obsolete—a fate merely confirmed in the cable network's recent decision to drop its "Music Television" moniker—artists wishing to render their songs in a visual medium have increasingly turned to online alternatives such as YouTube and Vimeo to showcase their productions.

Since the release of an eponymous EP last fall, singer/songwriter Anna Rose has concentrated her efforts on completing Nomad, her full-length debut, which is set for release later this year. In addition to finishing up the LP, she made her first music video, for "Picture," a track that originally graced the EP and will also appear on her upcoming album.

Directed by Shruti Ganguly, the video finds Anna Rose in carnivalesque scenes on Coney Island's boardwalk, her impressionistic lyrics coming to life in strikingly vibrant ways. "I think it’s hard to emulate someone’s passion for the entire business of music and the process," Anna Rose told me in an interview last fall. "I think you can hear that in my music." And now with her video for "Picture," you can see that passion as well.

February 22, 2010

Album Review: Corinne Bailey Rae - The Sea

“This album, like everything I do, is made to try and impress Jason Bruce Rae.” Such is what British songstress Corinne Bailey Rae pens in dedication to her late husband in the liner notes of her current work, The Sea, underscoring how much its songs are shaped by circumstances that made her a widow before she turned thirty.

As she first exhibited on her eponymous debut in 2006, Bailey Rae naturally betrays a certain amount of pathos and fragility in her voice. On The Sea, she now resonates with those qualities all the more. Still throughout, she does so with serenity and resilience, never coming across as dour or self-pitying.

To the contrary, she is enchanting and at times zestful, personifying the latter especially well on “Paris Nights/New York Mornings” and “Paper Dolls,” both cuts benefiting from rich, irresistible grooves. The same can be said (and then some) for “Feels Like The First Time,” during which she echoes Marvin Gaye’s spiraling, layered arrangements on I Want You, rivaling its musical sophistication while asserting her own sensuous semblance of soul. 

Alas, she is at her most resonant when she slows the music down as if retreating to her innermost reflections, summoning moments of breathtaking poignancy from the grief of her experience. “So young for death/We walk in shoes too big,” she sings on “I Would Like To Call it Beauty,” almost trembling in a whisper above a subtle, acoustic guitar. It takes no small amount of courage to confront such mournful, mortal concerns—some people never come to terms at all with the loss they’ve endured in their lives—and by no means does Corinne Bailey Rae come across as if she's overcome her own. Yet in expressing her sorrow with such honesty and grace, she’s rendered an exquisite album that ultimately transcends its subtext to inspire solace.

February 09, 2010

An Interview with Jordan Ireland of The Middle East

Middle East
Embracing a rich tableau of influences from folk to the ambient edges of alternative rock, The Middle East seem more than capable of following their collective muse anywhere it leads. Having earned a loyal audience in their native Australia, the group is currently making waves in the States with a five-song, eponymous EP, which will be followed up by a full-length effort, The Recordings of The Middle East, slated for release on June 8.

The group will make its first U.S. appearance at next month's South By Southwest Music Conference and Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. And on April 18, the group will perform before its largest live audience yet on the final day of the Coachella Music and Arts Festival, sharing the bill with the likes of Thom Yorke, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Gorillaz.

In anticipation of The Middle East's upcoming U.S. debut, lead vocalist/guitarist Jordan Ireland checked in with Donald Gibson to lend a bit of insight to the group's creative process.

For those unfamiliar with the Middle East, who are its members and what is each of their roles? Is songwriting a collaborative effort between everyone in the band or the work of one or two principal writers?

There are seven of us: Ro, Jack, Bree, Mikey, Mark, old Joe and myself. It's based around the songwriting of Ro and myself. Most of us swap around on our instruments. Lately we've been using electric and acoustic guitars, drums, banjos and mandolins, pianos and organs and accordion.

Your songs sound meticulously crafted. What's the band’s songwriting process generally like?

Usually Ro or myself will bring the skeleton with some ideas and then we mull it over as a band. It can be different every time.

Because you present such a collage of styles, I suspect that each member of the Middle East brings his/her own musical preferences or talents to the band. How does everyone harvest all of those assorted sensibilities into the structure of a song, or even an album?

Most of our songs are guitar music. So there will usually be some chords and melody in the guitar playing and singing. Then we'll add some color with instrumentation and arrangement. All of us are better at one instrument than the others so we usually add our own little nuances within that realm. I can't play flute like Bree and she can't pick the strings like me. 

Songs like "Lonely" and "Beleriand" (off the EP) underscore the band’s eclectic styles and sounds, whether with an acoustic guitar or in blending intricate harmonies and layered instrumentation. How do you foresee your group progressing in the near future? You seem to have a range of directions you could explore. 

Those recordings are from 2007 and the songs are even older. Since then we've been playing a little more acoustic music and now I'm tired of it. I usually try and play what I think sounds good. Right now electric guitar sounds very good. There's a two-piece band from Melbourne called Kid Sam who are doing electric guitar music very well.

How will the band translate the fragile nuances of your music to the stage at Coachella? How are you approaching your performance there in comparison to the concerts you've recently played in Australia?

I'm hoping to have a mostly brand new set when we're in the States. I haven't thought about it very much yet though. I think I'd like to hit a few more blue notes.

For more information, including the The Middle East's upcoming full-length debut (out on June 8), please visit the group's official website.

February 08, 2010

On Battle Studies Tour, Mayer Triumphs in Tampa

John Mayer, 2/5/10 in Tampa; photo © Donald Gibson
It often seems that to admit to enjoying the music of John Mayer, one must develop certain defense mechanisms in order to deflect criticism from those who give more credence to the drama of John Mayer. Granted, the artist has admittedly done himself few favors in this department, as evidenced most recently with his less-than-flattering Rolling Stone interview. Yet, regardless of however self-absorbed he seems or whatever character flaws he may have, Mayer regards his craft and, perhaps more importantly, his audience, with consummate sincerity.

Friday night (2/5) at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, on just the second night of his U.S. tour in support of his latest LP, Battle Studies, Mayer engineered a purposeful and stirring two-hour performance that showcased the album nearly in full (playing nine of its eleven songs) along with a handful of older selections that served the primary material well.

On his most thematically cohesive effort to date, Mayer contextualizes Battle Studies by looking at intimate relationships as having an adversarial dynamic, rife with selfish motives and deep-seated suspicions. And he reflected as such in his performance, inciting “Heartbreak Warfare” at the outset amid an intense, simmering groove. On other album cuts, most notably “Edge of Desire” and “Assassin,” Mayer fared even better, his impassioned sentiments benefiting from the precision and richness of his stellar seven-piece band.

Mayer summoned other highlights with a jazz-flavored version of “Waiting On The World To Change” (that segued into The Police’s “Walking On The Moon”) as well as with one of his earliest hits, “No Such Thing,” which inspired the biggest audience singalong of the night. Capping off the main set with an extended take on “Gravity,” Mayer was exhilarating on the guitar, making the inevitable encore — a couple of acoustic moments, with “Who Says” and “Friends, Lovers, or Nothing” — seem a bit anticlimactic in comparison. Even still, Mayer proved himself an inspiring musician overall, giving his audience one more reason to appreciate his talent.

February 03, 2010

An Interview with April Smith

It never hurts to put faith in those who believe in you most. For burgeoning singer/songwriter April Smith, that meant depending on her fans to finance the making of her second and latest album, Songs For A Sinking Ship.

Facilitated by the artist-fundraising website, Kickstarter.com, the project generated over thirteen-thousand dollars in donations, easily exceeding its ten-thousand-dollar-target amount. When asked if the finished album measures up to what she’d originally envisioned irrespective of any thought to budget, she says without hesitation, “
Its even better.

Slated for release on February 23, Songs For A Sinking Ship finds Smith shifting from the pop/rock approach of her debut effort, loveletterbombs, to a decidedly bold and vivacious, ragtime-styled affair. She brandishes saucy bravado throughout much of the album, particularly in songs like “Wow and Flutter” — “Don’
t hate a girl because she knows/All the ways to get beneath your clothes” — as well as Drop Dead Gorgeous, in which she cheekily puts some pretty boy in his rightful, feeble-minded place. She reveals her softer side a time or two, evoking the pain of unrequited love as in the piano ballad, Beloved, and Whatll I Do, in both cases summoning all the yearning of a classic torch song.

Together with her band, April Smith and The Big Picture Show are currently on the road opening for Langhorne Slim, which is where Donald Gibson caught up with her recently to talk about her new album, the perks of being an indie artist, and the ways in which she writes her songs.

What did you see as the benefits of going this independent route as opposed to shopping for a label?

I can’t really speak from the other side of things because I’ve never been on a major label, but I do feel like when you’re doing things on your own and when you don’t have to answer to a label, it probably gives you a lot more freedom to do things the way you want to do them. And to have it sound how you want it to sound and not have rules to follow.

Countless musicians, early on in their career, have naively signed bad contracts that have come to haunt them years later. For someone who’s relatively new at making records, you’re quite savvy toward the business.

I try to keep my ears open as much as possible and really just try to be aware of what’s happening out there. And you can learn from people’s mistakes... I think a lot of newer artists are wary of labels right now for that fact. They're getting burned a lot of the time. They're putting a lot of work into their albums and unfortunately it’s not as fruitful as they would hope.

On the new record, what drew you to its retro, ragtime sound?

My writing just took a different turn. It wasn’t really a conscious effort. My first album is a lot more pop/rock. Then I wrote “Wow and Flutter.” After that, my writing sort of changed a bit and I just went with it.

What’s your songwriting process like?

It’s a little bit different for each song. I tend to start out with a line; and then I sort of build the song around that. It all depends on what the song is about. And the flow of the lyric, whether it works better with a fast song or with a slower number is key too. For the most part, typically I start out with one line in my head and it kind of snowballs from there. With the exception of a couple songs that it's like they write themselves because they’re written so fast. Unfortunately that doesn’t come too often.

The last song on the album, “Stop Wondering,” sounds a little like “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?” when it starts.

[Laughs] That was one that basically wrote itself. I wrote that so quickly. I just thought it’d be a funny, little interlude with the [line], “Bitch, please!” And that’s the one we get the biggest reaction from at shows; people just go nuts for it.

How do you see yourself evolving as a songwriter in the future?

I’m not sure, because my influences haven’t really changed much. I’ve always been a fan of big band and swing and early, turn-of-the-twentieth-century pop. And I feel like that just came out more on this album. I do like the feeling of that retro-pop with a swing to it, but I couldn’t see myself writing a song like “Wow and Flutter” before I wrote it. So I’m interested in what’ll happen in the next year or so. Maybe it’ll be a totally different style or maybe it’ll hang here for a little while.

Please visit the official website of April Smith and The Big Picture Show for more information, including tour dates and the 2/23 release of Songs For A Sinking Ship.