I own a CD player again

That’s not an LP. It’s too small.

I know, from a guy that only posts online about records? A compact disc? YES.

This July, I rejoined the ranks of CD player-havers with a Marantz CD player. I even ordered my first CD in probably a decade — this amazing 2014 album by composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Her string quartet “Enigma” was set to come out in August, and I wanted to hear it in full digital splendor, and it wasn’t coming out on LP. That sealed the deal.

After years of vinyl and streaming only, I am welcoming the permanence and fidelity and focus of the compact disc into my listening room. I used to have hundreds and hundreds of CDs, but sold them as I transitioned into LP-only listening. (I kept a few things which were not available on LP, about a two dozen albums or so.)

I’ve had an interest in classical, ever since my parents got that Tchaikovsky CD from Columbia House — the one with Seiji Ozawa and the Berliner Philharmoniker performing the 1812 Overture and Marche Slave and Francesca da Rimini. I should find a copy of that now, or politely ask my parents to borrow it. I don’t think they have a CD player in the house anymore. Fewer and fewer people do.

Then followed my stint in classical-friendly public radio, listening each weekend to hours of pre-produced classical programming. Not to mention a 30,000-title library, which made up a valuable part of my college education.

Almost 9 years at Public Radio International kept my interest in classical music at a low simmer, always there, always keen, but maybe second fiddle to rock or jazz. See what I did there?

My tastes shifted more fully to classical when I was nearly punched in the face at a brawl at my second Motörhead concert. After that, I started attending the Minnesota Opera and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra concerts regularly. (A logical transition, right?)

As a crate digger, eBay-er and Discogs patron, I had great fun going down the rabbit hole of finding all of the Giacinto Scelsi and Kaija Saariaho and Morton Feldman records ever made, but after a while, you start to hit a vinyl dead end, you know?

As I type this, 3,000 records are peering down at me. I’m far from abandoning it as a format. However a few events this summer have led me to pump the brakes on buying LPs for a minute:

  • Records mis-delivered to the wrong address on a holiday weekend, where they sat in the sun in 101°F heat. They didn’t fare well.
  • Weird Record Store Day shenanigans from the record labels.
  • Low-quality reissues due to cut corners and low quality control at stressed and backed-up record manufacturing plants. (Three copies of one title to get one that only had a few defects.)
  • The out-of-control color variant game for so many new releases.

There’s so much great music composed and performed today that was falling through the cracks for me and my ears. I started to add the things not available on vinyl to my streaming library, but it’s not at all the same. I was craving the focused listening that a physical recording brings. There’s an entire universe of modern classical that I’ve been missing out on until now.

I’ve since expanded my CD collection with lots of $3 jams from eBay, and it’s been a blast. I’ve avoided buying all of the things I had on CD in high school and college, as I am making a deliberate attempt to keep the momentum moving forward. It’s hard to resist that pull of nostalgia, and the shelf space says nooo.

I’m here to listen closely, support the artists, and buy CDs. There, I SAID IT.


From Opera to Heirloom Harmonicas: My Top Six Musical Experiences of 2013

My view for “Arabella”

1. Attending the opera for the first time, and falling in love with it.

In the past, I devoted my live music attendance to heavy metal acts. Partly because of a steady stream of metal acts make their way to the metro area. It’s a fairly dependable situation within my comfort zone. Apart from the violence, that is. I’ve always hated the mosh pits, and I was nearly punched at a Motorhead show. That’s why I decided to go down a different path this fall. My taste is fairly broad, so an operatic excursion didn’t seem to far afield.

I’ve now seen two positively magical operas so far, Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” and Strauss’ “Arabella” at the Minnesota Opera. My expectations were blown away. I walked through those doors not knowing what to expect, but walked out knowing that I would see as many opera performances that I possibly could from here on out. The stories, the rich sound of a live orchestra and voice, the set, the costumes—all MAGICAL.

They do a fantastic job of preparing the attendees for the experience with synopsis videos with the cast. They also project subtitles at each performance. This is handy, as my Italian is a bit non-existent. You should go. The MN Opera has three more productions in the 2013-2014 season. DO IT.

Instruments in Indian classical performance: mridangam, two violins, and ghatam.

2. Bringing my wife and 5YO to an Indian classical music concert.

The Indian Music Society of Minnesota’s concert season was the second outlet for my non-metal performance attendance.

I want to show my 5YO real-life, strong artists of both genders in all sorts of settings. With that in mind, we all went to the performance by the Akkari Sisters from India. This 5YO was attentive and lasted almost the entire three hours. Hands drummed along, there was shimmying in the seat, and many questions asked.

Now, when I have Indian music on the record player, the 5YO asks, “Is this Indian music?” which, of course, makes me rather proud.

Just dreamy…

3. Seeing Washed Out at First Avenue.

My wife and I have been fans of electronic and dreamy pop artist Washed Out for years, now. When we saw that he was set to perform at First Avenue, I knew we’d have to arrange for a sitter and make a proper date night out of it. My mother-in-law came up from Iowa for a few days, and we had green lights all the way.

That is, until we discovered a case of a certain hair-borne childhood malady upon our 5YO’s noggin on the NIGHT OF THE CONCERT. We combed and shampooed our way past our dinner reservation. Splitting a burrito at Chipotle is not what I had in mind for the ever-rare date night. There we sat, exhausted by the day, only half-looking forward to the concert at that point. But we went anyway.

It could not have been better. The lights were gorgeous, the music was loud, fresh, and familiar. Have you ever seen a show where the performer was just happy to be on stage, performing for you, at that moment? That’s what happened. Thankfully so, as we needed it.


4. Hearing the Jim Hall/Pat Metheney 1999 duo album for the first time, in a hotel at Disneyworld.

I downloaded the 1999 duo album by guitarists Jim Hall and Pat Metheney via the Rdio streaming music app on my phone. I was looking for something to calm my mind a bit, having driven 1500+ miles over several days to arrive at the Land of the Mouse.

I knew of the album, but never heard it. I’m not even sure why I chose that one. I really like Jim Hall (RIP), but the album came out over a decade ago. No matter. Playing that rich and lovely makes petty release dates seem…well…petty.

Funny how that works. I laid in a bed at a Disneyworld resort and had one of my top six musical revelations of 2013. Now every time I play it, I’m taken back to those delightful (and warm) vacation days.

Selfie at the Walker. (Too dark for concert photos).

5. Seeing Tim Hecker / Oneohtrix Point Never at the Walker Art Center.

Two of my favorite ambient electronic artists on the same bill? YES PLEASE.

Hecker played in almost complete darkness, save for the exit signs, fog, and glow from his Macbook. Every sound had me on the edge of my seat, wondering what was coming next. The set featured pieces from several albums, lending some familiarity to it all.

I only wish I would have taken place at an extreme volume. That’s an odd request coming from the guy that wears ear plugs when vacuuming the floor. Instead, the volume was very comfortable, allowing greater detail to come through. For the better, I suppose.

The Oneohtrix Point Never set featured some mind-melting projected images bordering on some sort of man/machine pop-culture/industrial dystopia. It fit very well with the music, some of my favorite in 2013.

Uncle Block’s harmonica.

6. Taking possession of my late, great-uncle Block’s chromatic harmonica.

When I was home for Thanksgiving, I noticed this petite, patinaed thing sitting in the “incoming mail” pile at my folks’ place back in Iowa. I thought it was something new. It seemed a little out-of-place there, as the only musical instrument around the house growing up was my sister’s clarinet. My dad said he’d had it for a while.

Later, I asked my uncle Bill about it at a family Christmas celebration. He said, “Block couldn’t really play. At all. Uncle Jack could though. He could play anything—fiddle, guitar, piano, harmonica.”

For me, it represents music as everyday activity. Not making a living with it or even performing in front of people. Rather, just playing to play because it feels good. That’s something to aspire to, if you ask me.


Peter Brötzmann at MN Sur Seine Festival 2006

What a night of music.

It was the second evening of the Minnesota Sur Seine Festival 2006.

We were treated to two acts; first was the trio of Dominique Pifarely, from Paris, and Craig Taborn and Dave King of the Twin Cities.

This gathering yielded much in the way of knotty improvisations. Taborn’s piano stylings point to a varied approach; not just jazz, not just modern improvisation, not just classical. How refreshing to hear a pianist with wide open ears willing to take a lead or follow the group without a cliché in sight.

Taborn and Pifarely

Pifarely’s violin, played through three pedals and a 30-watt Peavy amp, showed the same thoughtfulness. Eschewing a hard, sawing aesthetic for more refined approach, Pifarely played quick figures and phrases, matching wits with Taborn. King is a fine player, playing in unconventional ways, even incorporating a toy megaphone at one point.

Drummer Mark Sanders had a different approach – his playing in the grouping of German reed giant Peter Brötzmann and bassist Anthony Cox from the Twin Cities was marvelous. Unorthodox at times, most certainly, his playing in this context seemed to exhibit a total willingness to let the music come first. An impeccably tasteful player, Sanders. His kit accoutrements added much to the discourse. A smallish drum and cymbal next to his rack tom were used often to great effect. His collection of bells and other percussion were employed in bold manners that offered logical ideas and soul.

Bassist Anthony Cox was a man of economic expression on this evening, favoring delicious drone textures rather than busy figures. He spent the evening playing a well-mic’ed acoustic bass for a room-filling sound, especially when playing arco.

Brötzmann would lay out at times to switch between instruments or to change reeds. He changed reeds on the clarinet and tenor at least once. As when I saw him last year, part of the way through the performance he stepped to side, produced a shockingly large folding pocketknife, and proceeded to whittle the reed to his specifications. How he gets that through customs I’ll never know.

The first portion was performed with intensity right out of the gate, with Brötzmann on tarogato. After the show, he told me that he bought the instrument in a Hungarian pawn shop many years ago. It was crafted in 1830 or 1840.

Improvisations followed on clarinet and tenor. In discussing the other instruments, he had equally interesting stories – his tenor is a King brand, which he now prefers over the Selmer Mark VI he played for 30 years. It has a silver neck which Brötzmann had “reinforced” to “stabilize” it. When one plays with the ferocity of this reed-whittling man, reinforcing the instrument comes as no surprise. He purchased his clarinet for $100 in a Buffalo, NY pawn shop. His favorite technician took the tarnished item and examined it, only to discover that it was crafted out of solid silver.

After the show, I spoke with Brötzmann about his upcoming endeavors. He is working with John Corbett on a compendium of his graphic designs that will cover the 40 years after the “Inexplicable Flyswatter” book of a few years ago. We look forward to that, for sure.


Tinariwen in Minneapolis, April 8,2006

On stage, the familiar instrumentation was front and center. Guitar amps, a bass amp, and a seat clearly intended for the percussionist all sat atop a Persian rug. These amps and instruments were clearly American in origin: a Fender Tornado and an Epiphone Les Paul guitar, and the amps, a Fender Twin Reverb and a Roland give a hint at what is to come.

Just as they take the instruments from American rock music and create their own language, they have done so with the actual stylings of American rock music. This new style the band has pioneered is referred to simply as guitar. If the guitars were replaced with koras, ngonis, or njarkas, it would be remarkably similar to some of the other music of Mali.

But, Tinariwen’s music is not entirely Malian in descent – in the vocal melodic lines one can clearly hear the influence of Berber and Arab vocal inflections. Having listened to their two CD releases MANY times, this cross-pollination becomes more apparent. This is where the real music happens. When people of different traditions bring their histories to the table, and then view the recent cultural and musical happenings through that contextual lens, exciting things happen. Exciting things happened on this night, for sure.

The band took the stage in their striking full-length wardrobe and face-covering scarfs. The textiles were a brilliant white, with elaborate patterns woven right in the cloth itself. The scarfs and head coverings were removed by almost all members as things heated up throughout the night. Most were in sandals, while the eldest wore black dress shoes and the bass player wore motorcycle boots. Again, another nod to the living musician, rather than the museum artifact or cultural curiosity; these people are real people.

The music, on the other hand was unreal. The first few songs were with an amplified acoustic guitar. While as many guitars on stage as those that could play them, only two played simultaneously during each song. One guitarist, the one closest to us, played rhythm guitar all night long. About 95% of his playing was a variation of a power chord; the ‘A’ string would be played with the thumb, followed closely by a quickly muted strum of the rest of the strings. This technique filled out the sound, kept rhythm, and most interestingly, turned the guitar into a percussion instrument. This phenomenon of using a melodic and chordal instrument as percussion is also seen in traditional West African music.

When one of the other men played lead guitar, they also sang. In each song there was a lead vocal part as well as a section for the rest of the group to join in chorus to drive everyone further into ecstasy. After the first 3 or 4 songs with the acoustic guitar in the lead were finished, the rest of the band took turns donning guitars and singing. Along with the wailing Fender Tornado mentioned above, the other lead electric guitar was a strikingly modern/retro Danelectro purple axe. It looked great, but the sound did not match the bite of the Tornado. One of the players even got this guitar to sound like a pedal steel guitar.

Each tune followed a similar arc: intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, insane blazing solo, verse, chorus. The voices were beautifully rich, and in the upper levels of their natural range, revealing the Northern African / Arabic influences. The single variation was a rap in French that one of the member had put together. The studio version of this tune, is on their most recent album, Amassakoul. The crowd went nuts for his smooth and convincing delivery. Look out Jay-Z!

The percussionist played a single hand drum similar to a doumbek for the entire evening. The rhythms were in 4/4 and 5/4 from what I could surmise, and all were comfortable with it. Never have I been at a concert where I was to be so enraptured by the rhythm — while clapping along, I found myself nearly in a trance, with goosebumps. Several times. Amazing.


Peter Brötzman & Nasheet Waits in Minneapolis

Flip phones did not take good pictures

So I walk in about 30 minutes before the gig was to go down. No problem, I think. Except for the fact that I walk in hearing the two men featured in tonight’s performance warming up and setting levels for the taping of the show. As there was no green room at the venue, all they could do was warm up the chops behind a heavy felt curtain.

Brötzmann worked his way through all of his horns. He was on the tenor when I started recognizing licks. One in particular sticks in my mind — Brötzmann worked with a five note riff that is Sonny Rollins’ “Blessing in Disguise” from the East Broadway Rundown album on Impulse! An interesting confirmation of his admiration for Rollins in that. My ears perked up right away. He played it pretty straight to start, and made that heavy-ass burr in his tone do all of the work. I knew I was to be in for a treat this night.

Waits spent some time tuning the head on the floor tom on the night’s aqua colored drum kit. Both men left the stage and one chap remained, gaffe taping a cord to a mic stand. It was Michael Ehlers, the man behind the fabulous record label Eremite Records. I talked with him for a moment, and he said that they were taping all of the performances of the tour. This night was the last night, and each was to venture to their next journey-point, as this short-lived duo had come to a conclusion.

After a few short announcements from the event coordinator they took the stage. She made the observation that it was interesting to have Brötzmann again playing at an art school, as he started his journey at an art school in the 60’s. Brötzmann plays with the same fire you hear on those first recordings from the 60’s — he started on what was to be the first of four pieces of the evening on alto sax. They came out with guns blazing.

Having not seen the man play a horn in person, I was intrigued to see how he works the sounds out of the axes. The whole of his upper body seemed to be involved, not just the muscles in what must be an Olympic strongman-level embouchure. Part of his vibrato comes from shaking his head most vigorously from side-to-side, all while maintaining a consistency of tone. This is not a gentle motion; I was alarmed to see it in person, at first. The melodic lines he creates must take an immense amount of thought. (It was difficult enough for me to keep up, to comprehend it all, and I was merely listening.)

As with many horn players, Brötzmann’s language is shaped in large part by what his body is capable of doing. His enormous lung capacity allows him to create phrases and lines with the volume and intensity that would fall to pieces in the hands of others. Not that hard and loud is the only language – we would find out later in the performance that he can summon the same level of expressiveness at pianissimo and quieter!

The second piece on bass clarinet started out very quietly and solo. Soon the notes were surging forth at great volume, especially considering it was a clarinet. This piece was more dynamic than the previous. He made great use of multiphonics as introduced by vocalizing through the horn. Huge descending wails filled the room, joined soon by Waits’ percussion. Waits was much more than someone that is able to “keep up” with Brötzmann. The dynamism of Waits’ approach, and his ability to absorb the entirety of the conversation while organically adding to it made this more of an event than I would have ever hoped.

You will not be snapping a finger to these rhythms, but there was more than just an implication of rhythm. I would compare it to another player Brötzmann has worked with in recent years, Hamid Drake. Drake can swing as well as Waits, but the gear they engage in when in situations like this has that implicit groove. In the third piece, with Brötzmann on tenor, this was more apparent as Waits started playing in this mode, but it morphed into a more explicit rhythm, quite nearly a ferocious swing. It was present for a few moments, and drifted away again.

Waits left the stage, and Brötzmann picked up the tenor. He launched into a truly frightening blast of scorched earth saxophonics that I was nowhere near prepared for. The sound his tenor makes when recorded on tape is at least somewhat misrepresentative. In person, that snarling, robust, and wooly tone is larger than life. The intensity would lead the listener to believe that the reed is teetering on the edge of being blown into 100 splinters. He uses natural reeds, unlike one of his great influences Albert Ayler. Ayler, too, had that gravity of tone, but used plastic reeds. Brötzmann’s reeds only fared so well. At a couple of points when he laid out to give the drummer some, he produced a folding pocket knife of considerable size to whittle on them. This was new to me.

Waits joined Brötzmann on stage and was to reach his apex of the evening. He pulled more creativity and turned more inventive phrases out on a limited kit than any lesser could muster on a kit twice its size. The fourth and final piece featured a metal Bb clarinet. There would be no tarogato played tonight. This clarinet was again featured alone in the piece’s introduction. Brötzmann once again showed the audience of about 125 people his abilities beyond that of being merely another fire breather. His fleet and facility on the clarinet were best demonstrated in the pianissimo and quieter passages.

These were no schoolboy exercises performed under the guise of improvisation. These were witty and soulful thoughts poured forth on the last evening of a tour featuring an established legend, and quite possibly, another in the making.


Daniel Lanois and Tortoise live! 10-13-2005

Another flip phone photo, sorry

What an interesting idea. Pair one group that makes albums that sound like soundtracks with a guy that actually creates soundtracks, and viola! An evening filled with music that sounded like soundtracks.

I have had a long-standing preference for instrumental music, tracing back to the B-side of an Andy Taylor 45 in my youth. Some disposable rock-ish A-side from a movie did not stick with me. It was that solo instrumental voice, that freedom from the task of ascribing meaning to or interpreting lyrics. Music as sound. 

Soundtrack music appealed to me for some of the same superficial reasons that jazz holds my interest so completely. The mood set by soundtrack music was often more profound that the music with words, to these ears.

Putting two of these together gets us to another personal milestone: Lily was Here. This was a film whose soundtrack produced a sizable hit as played by Dave Stewart and Candy Dulfer. Soundtrack music and jazz. Instrumental. Moody. Solos. Big, grown-up impact on my 6th & 7th grade ears. Then there were dad’s Pink Floyd tapes. All

Granted, not all of the music I place in this category even has a movie. It gives me the rare chance to roll out the cliché of “soundtrack music without a movie.” I think I’ll go with that. Fast forward >> to 10-12-05 at the Fine Line Music Café in Minneapolis. Chicago’s favorite sons Tortoise opened for Daniel Lanois, who was, paradoxically, backed by members of Tortoise.

The set-up on stage is present as it was when I saw them a couple of years ago at First Ave: two ‘classic Bonham’ drum kits, one real vibraphone and one MIDI, four amps for the two basses and two guitars, and a set of keyboards.

They hit the stage with the opening salvo to which I can only refer to as “the first song on side A or B on the Standards LP.” (Being the clever folks they are, you are only able to determine which side of the LP is which via the the suffix of the matrix number stamped in the dead wax. The song titles themselves are equally enigmatic.) This piece on LP and live reminds me, in its first section, of some heavy Sun Ra thing, with everyone playing a crashing, cacophonous rubato melody. It settles into a groove after a while. They do that groove well. It is no JB’s or Meters’ groove; more of a krautrock / motorik via dub groove. It is a groove nonetheless. I ain’t complainin’.

They played half of the set with tunes I am not familiar with, and the other half I am familiar with but only able to reference as ‘side A or B, cut 1’ and ‘side A or B, cut two.’ Coincidentally, these are all of the cuts I love from that LP.

As a jazz fan, I am no stranger to the notion of ‘multi-instrumenalist.’ Tenor players double on flute or clarinet, drummers are vibraphone players, etc. These cats, however, acted like the concert was a game of musical chairs. Everyone doubled if not tripled. Everyone played some percussion. To invoke the name of Sun Ra again, a relevant quote came to mind — on the back of the Space is the Place CD reissue, this quixotic gem appears: “As all Marines are riflemen, all members of the Arkestra are percussionists.” Hmm… Sometimes the two drummers played together [no easy feat, done properly]. Other times one could see that there were two bass players operating within the same song. It makes for some interesting possibilities, some of which they mined that night.

Daniel Lanois came out to the stage after a brief intermission. The guitar player / producer extraordinaire was backed in performance from anywhere between zero and all of the Tortoise collective. His set was more of the moody textural business heard on his real soundtracks and soundtrack like albums. His gear consisted of a gold Les Paul, an old pedal steel, a Vox 2×12 combo amp, and a set of effects pedals.

Perhaps most interesting was his final piece of equipment — an octave of bass pedals as you would see under an organ. These were the bottom-most octave, as when he played, the sound was felt as much as heard — a neat effect for this kind of music. The man plays without a pick. He does some traditional fingerstyle picking in addition to picking up and down with the thumb and finger respectively. He did the thing with his so vigourously as to open a wound on it, causing blood to show up on various parts of the Les Paul. Not a serious wound, but enough for people to notice it form the front. He used no fingerpicks on the pedal steel, either. Speaking of the pedal steel, it was a delight to see the device played in such close proximity. I stood there trying to figure out the relationship between the pedals and harmonic shifts. No luck. Great sound on it through the Vox and volume pedal.

One of the highlights of the new album Belladonna, is the track titled “Frozen.” It was done in a trio live, as on record. It’s a great little moody dub-flavored thing. This was where I first noticed how nervous the Tortoise folk were in playing with Lanois. They were loose in there own, well rehearsed set, but when playing these arrangements (which Lanois said were largely created on the go) they seemed at least more … alert to the whole of the situation. During “Frozen,” as Lanois was making the pedal steel sing with the bar in his left hand, he motioned to the drummer (who was watching him like Count Basie was watched) to ‘give him more.’ Herndon, the drummer, obliged, turned up the heat, and prodded everyone to take the tune to a higher level.

That was the story of the evening. Lanois send the band packing for a couple of solo interludes and some songs. In fine voice, he sang songs of his that folks called out. Very nice. So there it is. We have complicated the conundrum / cliché of the “soundtrack without a movie” by having it performed live. All the better, I say.