Feeling compelled to participate in year-end list-making but harboring no pretension of comprehensiveness, I offer here a few short lists of musical things I heard & did & made & loved this year. It was a good one.
New Albums of 2013
Ken Thomson and JACK Quartet - Thaw
Notes and rhythms. Lots of them. Unaffected, unwarped, un“problematized,” notes and rhythms, played.
Spektral Quartet - Chambers
Textures and timbres. Lots of them. Mind-expanding, thought-provoking, consciousness-deepening. Carefully written, carefully played, carefully recorded.
Bill Callahan - Dream River
He had me at “the only words I’ve said today are ‘beer’ and ‘thank you.’” There is a special genre of fiddle playing; just a little bit out-of-tune. Just enough.
Dawn of Midi - Dysnomia
I looked up all of them.
Io, the innermost of Jupiter’s Galilean moons, was named for a lover of Zeus who was turned into a cow by Hera. Sinope is an “irregular satellite” of Jupiter, named for an uncertain character who may have been seized by Apollo, or tricked Zeus to remain a virgin. Atlas, of course, is the inner moon of Saturn, named for the Titan who holds up the earth. Nix is a moon of Pluto, discovered in 2005. She was the mother of Charon, the boatman of the underworld, and the goddess of darkness and night. Ymir, another moon of Saturn, was in Norse myth the ancestor of the frost giants. Ijiraq is a small moon of Saturn; in Inuit myth, a child-stealing shape-shifter. And Algol, a star in constellation Perseus, is known as the “demon star,” after the word “ghoul” in the Arabic tradition. It has been associated historically, in multiple cultures, with blood and violence. Astrologically it is considered one of the unluckiest stars in the sky.
Dysnomia itself has three meanings. An inability to remember words or names. The daughter of Eris, who was the goddess of chaos, strife, and discord. And a moon of Eris, the solar system’s largest dwarf planet. Eris was discovered in 2005, and it is roughly three times further from the sun than Pluto (far).
Dysnomia is a jaw-dropping debut album. Focused, deeply realized, completely unique and bracing and compulsively listenable.
Ashley Paul - Line the Clouds
A creaky-floored haunted house of a record, full of broken-music-box melodies. An album with holes in it where the wind can come through.
Wayne Shorter Quartet - Without a Net
I’ve adored Wayne Shorter’s recent band since I heard Footprints Live in 2005. The group is a standard-bearer of the sort of free-flowing explorative small-group jazz classically epitomized by Miles Davis’ second great quintet, the group that revealed the compositional force of Wayne Shorter in the 1960s. He’s still exploring, and this group’s communication and alchemy has grown only more powerfully subterranean in the past decade. “Pegasus” seamlessly weaves the Imani Wind Quintet into the proceedings to further widen the expressive palette. This record was the inspiration of my afternoon walks at the VCCA in February.
The Necks - Open
In December it got very cold. I insisted on going out walking every day, and when I got back in the low-gathering early darkness it was sometimes all I could do to get under some serious blankets and listen to this record. For a week or so, the length of that cold snap, I listened to Open repeatedly every evening, and a narrow but walkable path opened before me into 2014.
Eamon O’Leary and Jefferson Hamer - The Murphy Beds
Songs songs songs songs songs. Song. Sing. Songs.
Live Shows of 2013
Dave Douglas Quintet at the Green Mill, 12/7
I walked to the Green Mill by myself that night and gradually consumed three Alpha Kings, so I was loose, sitting RIGHT next to the stage, about five feet from the drums, and I wrote feverishly in my notebook between sets. “This is the real shit,” I scrawled. “The real thing. This wakes me up.” Every player in the band asserted a distinct personality in the kaleidoscopic flowing of things. At the eleventh hour they slipped in a warm and expressive version of “Whither must I wander,” from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel. This was one of those moments where the music seems directed at you personally. The rest of the crowd disappeared.
Shakey Graves opening for Shovels & Rope at the Metro, 9/26
It got a bit too packed for the main event, and the sound was not good, but as people were still filtering in, Shakey Graves played a solo set with his suitcase kick drum and guitar. Fantastic time feel, quirky, unexpected tempo modulations, and songcraft. He put on a show.
Martha Scanlan at SPACE Evanston, 11/20
Certain musicians invite you, with the intimacy and directness of their music-making, to address them on a first-name basis. This is common practice in the jazz world, where great, oft-discussed musicians are often referred to by first names or nicknames. When I looked back in my calendar to check the date of this concert, I was not surprised to see it marked as “Martha -- 8pm, SPACE.” This show took place in a recording studio in the back of the venue, where about 18 people sat to listen and the musicians conversed openly with us between songs. Warm, personal, lovely. I’ve been mounting shows lately, and it was important to be reminded that a larger audience does not necessarily make for a better experience.
Kalispell and Cuddle Magic at Music Means Family, 914 California, 11/13
The warmth of music-making among a few humans in the coldness of the city. Most of them knew each other already, and they were overjoyed to reconnect, to listen to each other’s songs, to hear how things were developing in each other’s musical worlds.
Sam Amidon at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 10/2
I’ve been a great admirer of Sam Amidon’s records, but it was never clear to me which specific credit belonged to Sam and which to Nico Muhly, who was responsible for the beautiful orchestrations, and (I thought, to some uncertain extent) for the arrangements. But in this solo set mostly comprised of old standards and unknowns, Sam played guitar and fiddle and banjo, and the personal level of his folk transformations became perfectly clear, his own humorous, musically deep personality totally palpable.
Meehan/Perkins Duo - Tristan Perich’s Qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq at Constellation Chicago, 8/25
Focus, focus, intensity of focus.
Owen Weaver and Vicky Chow playing Chris Cerrone / John Luther Adams at le poisson rouge, 4/22
This concert was a wonderful meeting-of-worlds between musicians I know and musicians who I admire but don’t know personally--in the audience as well as on stage. JLA has been a compositional role model since undergrad, and I’ve rarely had the chance to hear his music in live performance. Chris Cerrone is close to my own age, and I was touched by the warm, dusty, lived-in quality of his spectacularly-titled solo percussion piece Memory Palace. This intergenerational composer pairing offered some unique perspectives. I’d never thought of him this way, but JLA, as Chris pointed out to me, is essentially a modernist, at least insofar as he adheres to a purity of formalism in his music, a particular set of assumptions that Chris doesn’t share (and neither do I). This is not a criticism. I love JLA’s music and admire its precision and strength. But this night, I felt more personal resonance with Memory Palace’s formal scruffiness.
Karl Larson - Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories at Constellation Chicago, 11/3
We all sat for an hour and a half and listened to Karl play quiet music on the piano. It was completely impossible to determine how much time had elapsed, after a while. We fell into a more comfortable relationship with the music, freer of expectation; the music had been proceeding for a while, now, and would continue.
Old Albums of 2013
Thelonious Monk - Alone in San Francisco
Here is the sound of a composer at the piano. You can hear Monk thinking through each motion, savoring every chord change. At each final cadence, he adds a careful dissonance up high, plays it again, maybe a third time. This is a special recording that displays high-level jazz syntax encountering pure love of sound.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy - Master and Everyone
I listened to this record as I drove alone across the plains states from Iowa in a crooked line across Kansas to windswept eastern New Mexico. It sounds like he took a pile of half-written love songs and left them out in the rain. Now they are soggy and pulpy, but he sings them with perfect sincerity, holes and all. Sometimes the lyrics just stop. Often an idea or metaphor is half-formed. It feels more honest this way, like it is depicting things as they actually are, not as we usually imagine them in songs and stories.
Some Things I Did in 2013
I wrote a maritime mini-musical with my Grant Wallace Band brethren for ourselves and members of Ensemble Dal Niente. We’ll premiere it at Constellation Chicago on January 5th, as part of Chris Wild’s CD release concert. I’ll write more about this intensive collaborative experience soon.
“White Owl Invincible” music video
The first official demo from GWB’s upcoming album, “White Owl Invincible” is a murder mystery I wrote about a mountaintop cabin in the Gila, and we brought in our whimsically brilliant band artist Alex Mitchell to create an animated music video for it.
“The Game of 58 Holes”
This tale of a forgotten deity living alone in an abandoned city is another sample of the upcoming full-length from Grant Wallace Band.
In Banff in February 2012 I checked out an outsider art book and fell into the ornate drawings of Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930). I adopted his titles and atmospheres and wrote a few disembodied folk carols on the Yamaha upright in my little snowbeset studio hut. This year I properly recorded them on a beautiful Steinway.
To Evening Lands
At the wildly inspiring Ucross Foundation in March I wrote a short album called To Evening Lands. The recording will release come spring. Today I’m happy to unveil a preview, “The House.”
By these limits were they circumscribed and of them were they locus
The latest Golconda collection is named for a passage in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. These songs emanated from the New Mexico desert in summer 2012.
Commissioned by Singers on New Ground and the Poetry Foundation; text by Chloe Honum; composed at the VCCA in February; premiered at the Poetry Foundation in May; recorded at Experimental Sound Studio, Chicago, in December. Alison Wahl, soprano; Kate Carter, violin; Ammie Brod, viola.
Eric Malmquist’s Piano Sonata
I was honored to premiere this piece in May 2012, and this year I recorded it. It’s a kind and generous work, a joy to play and hear.
Words I Keep Using to Describe Positive Musical Experiences Lately
(or, Mantras for Music-Making in 2014)
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues