Monday, June 30, 2008

Shearing Pinx Homecoming - All Ages BBQ Bash!

Terrific lineup of local weirdness this Sunday at the Sweatshop, 1943 East Hastings: noise, experimentation, laptop drones, whacked-out rants, ramped-up No Wave, and unclassifiable musical mutations of all sorts! It's an all ages show, so tell any cool young people that you know (Her Jazz Noise Collective member Anju Singh, the organizer, is passionate about creating an inclusive environment where kids can feel like they're active participants in the scene, not just mere consumers). It runs from noon til 10:PM, with most bands doing 15-20 minute sets, so if you don't like one thing, you just have to wait a short while for the next! ...I'm personally excited to see i/i, whom I've yet to get out to explore, The Sorrow and the Pity (one of the smartest, funniest, most energetic projects in Vancouver), and Shearing Pinx (featuring Erin of Her Jazz and Jeremy of Fake Jazz): a project I didn't actually have much enthusiasm for until I heard their CD, and went, "Wait a minute... this is MOMENTOUS." They've just returned from a very successful North American tour, so the energy should be high!

Lots more that I haven't mentioned, plus FOOD!

See y'all there!

Joe Strummer: Earthquake Weather gets an indifferent CDr reissue

Executive One: Hey, did you hear that Joe Strummer died a few years ago?

Executive Two: Who?

Executive One: You know, the guy from that band the Clash. The 'Rock the Casbah' guy. We cleaned up on that one record.

Executive Two: Ahh, they're yesterday's news. What about him?

Executive One: Well, it turns out that we have the rights to one of his old albums, Earthquake Weather. It was a dog, back in the day. We lost a ton of money on it. But we might be able to recoup some of our losses if -

Executive Two: Don't tell me. Look, there's just not enough profit margin in a reissue. Stop being naive. Probably everyone who wants it has downloaded it.

Executive One: Yeah, yeah - I mean, fuck remastering it or doing anything new with it, but why don't we stick some MP3s online, and while we're at it, we can make a few hundred CDrs up with cheap generic liner notes and laser printed cover art, to sell on Amazon? No one will know the difference until they get it. It's easy profit, right?
Executive Two: People might feel a bit ripped off, paying money for a CDr that they could just as easily have made themselves, though.

Executive One: Ah, fuck'em, they're all a bunch of downloading freeloaders, anyhow. Most of them won't even be able to tell the difference, and the ones who can will only know AFTER we've got their money.

Executive Two: Okay, well - go ahead, as long as we don't spend a lot of money on it. Fast and cheap, that's the way to do it.

Executive One: I'll get on it right away.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

This Space for Rent

It's hot!

My jazz festival reviews sort of tapered off, but I'll have a final post with some pics by Femke in the next week or so. Mats did an amazing noise set at the Cobalt on Wednesday - my ears were hurting days later - and seemed to have fun tearing up the stage with Robots on Fire; tho' the Monday night show by The Thing was by far the high point of the festival for me. Having also gone to see Nashville Pussy and the Reverend Horton Heat on Thursday - and having briefly checked in on Rich Hope and his "Evil Doer," Adrian Mack, doing an energetic guitar-and-drums duo at Pats Pub last night, I'm feeling more than a little burned out on concert-going, and a little overwhelmed with writing assignments and life issues. May take a vacation from the blog for a few days. Keep an eye out for the next issue of The Skinny, for more of my recent stuff. (Having previously joked that The Skinny should be re-entitled The Fatty, given Vancouverites' smoking proclivities, EDR/G42's Dan Kibke has come up for a new name for the paper: The Scarce. Might be a good sign, tho' - maybe our jazzfest issue had a decent pick-up rate? I can't find the thing ANYWHERE downtown...).

Friday, June 27, 2008

Marc Belke remembers the good old days

SNFU at the Red Room, January 2008, by Morgan Beare

Marc "Muc" Belke on the 1980s in Edmonton and Calgary: “You’d get your ass kicked for being a punk rocker. There were friends of ours who had Mohawks getting their hair lit on fire on the bus! There was a general hatred towards punk rockers, for sure. It just scared them - they didn’t really understand it...”

The "new version" of SNFU's latest scheduled gig - which, we hope, will actually go off as planned, unlike their last two Vancouver dates - is July 3rd at the Red Room. I'm doing something for The Skinny, including an interview with Muc, and contributions by Chris Walter, Jon Card, and Chi. Belke, of course, has nothing to do with SNFU or Chi these days, and disapproves of Chi continuing to use the name in his absence; the interview will give him some space to air his views.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Strange Dreams and Jazz

On Monday afternoon, I dreamt while I napped: I am intensely in love with one woman, but in a relationship with another. I do not have the courage to tell the woman I am with that there is someone new. She finds out, and kills my love; she chops her into small pieces and distributes her about the town, in such a way as to incriminate me. I'm devastated, but I also don't want to be blamed for the crime. Since I am living at my parents' current apartment in Maple Ridge when this happens, I am faced with the task of concealing what is going on from them while finding a way to collect all the body parts and dispose of them.

I wake up stunned and troubled, and it takes awhile to get my head straight. Then I go see The Thing with Ken Vandermark. It was PHENOMENAL. I highly recommend anyone who cares about improvised or outside music, or passionate or energetic music, or, fuck, just MUSIC, come to the Cobalt tomorrow for Fake Jazz, where Mats will be doing old school electronica - he quipped while we drove from record shop to record shop that he uses his laptop for email and eBay - and then joining "monster truck" saxophonist Darren Williams, bassist Dave Chokroun, and the other members of Robots on Fire for what promises to be a blisteringly loud, impassioned set. Huge as Darren's sax sound can be - I suspect Mats is going to blow a hole in the ceiling. It will be his last night here.

I have nothin' else to say about the jazzfest for the moment - but I may do something for the next issue of The Skinny... And I will put up some photos, at some point!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Mats Gustafsson's The Thing tonight!

The show is sold out, I'm told, so there's not much that my posting this can accomplish, but here's an excerpt from my Mats Gustafsson interview (the full text of which will appear in issue #5 of Bixobal). People missing tonight's gig can also catch Mats Tuesday with the Barry Guy New Orchestra, and... I think there's another opportunity to see him on Wednesday, too.

Anyhow, we'd been talking about his discovery of the music of Don Cherry - The Thing are named after a Don Cherry compositions - which is why he says "also pretty early" at the start...

Allan: Let me ask you the same thing about Albert Ayler. What was the point of entry into his music for you?

Mats: Also pretty early. Together with this friend Edvard, who was here now - we grew up in Umea in the north, on the border to Lapland, and we were, like, figuring out all the shit with music and art and blah-blah-blah, basically through records, because there was not much music coming up there, you know? So we pretty early went from punk rock into free jazz, because we thought it was the same thing, it just sounded a little different. Brotzmann changed everything for us, that twisted the mind around completely. Pretty fast we found Coltrane and Ayler and Shepp - at the same time, basically. I think we were fifteen, basically, the first time hearing an Ayler record.

Allan: Were you playing an instrument at that point?

Mats: Yeah yeah, I played flute since I was seven. I had just started to play the tenor, actually, after hearing a Sonny Rollins concert, when I was fourteen and a half or maybe even fifteen. I could borrow, actually - we have a really good system, still, of music teaching for kids in Sweden. It’s run by the different cities. It used to be free, if you want to learn an instrument. Now it’s changed a little bit, because of political reasons, but it’s still really cheap. My daughter was learning the bass and for a whole year of lessons I paid, like, thirty bucks or something. It’s a really, really good system, and you can borrow an instrument for free. So I just went down to the music school and borrowed a tenor sax and started to play, without knowing anything. So that’s the point where I started to play the tenor, and that’s about the same point that we started to figure out all the shit with Brotzmann and Ayler and all that stuff...

no blood on THIS ice

It's kind of funny. Musicians, like people in any other field, CAN be a competitive bunch, wanting to show off what they can do, but last night at the Ironworks, where the alleged purpose of the hockey themed night was to defeat the other team, to adopt the model of a competitive sport, people were as polite and supportive as can be; the Swedes very nearly out-polited us, and there certainly was no clear winner. Team captains Houle and Gustafsson introduced their players, each doing a solo set (with one Swedish player - lacking muscles because he's been teaching philosophy for fifteen years, Gustafsson joked - being absent: "I sent him to training camp.") Goalie/drummer Dylan van der Schyff was absent for the first set, since he was swinging with Michael Blake elsewhere (which, I'm told, he was marvellous at); Houle joked that the absence of a goalie was a measure of Team Canada's confidence.

There were few surprises on the Canadian team, since I've seen all these players before; when Dylan did arrive, to start the third set, it was one of those times where I really delighted in what he did and thought he acquitted himself brilliantly (as opposed to those times when I find him an unsubtle, too-dominant, too-damn-drummerly drummer - as when he played with Fred Frith, or Roswell Rudd, a very long time ago; there was a period where I actively avoided van der Schyff concerts, truth be known). Peggy and Torsten were a pleasure to hear as always (our team, which also featured Jesse Zubot, was "stringier" than Sweden's, tho' we did have two horns, Houle and Korsrud); I've also heard people criticize Torsten for being a bit too noisy and heedless of what other players are doing, but this is something I have never noticed myself. The only thing that seemed altogether new from Team Canada was Jesse Zubot bowing the BACK of his violin, while still fingering the strings: a new trick, and an interesting sound; he was nominated MVP by Gustafsson, which was no surprise.

I was less familiar with the Swedish lineup, so a bit more excited to hear what they would do: I thought Kjell Nordeson did some lovely, subtle stuff on vibes, and their most valuable player, Raymond Strid, whom I have not seen before, was delightful - a shambling, kidlike, joyously experimenting drummer whose percussive techniques - often involving little objects and odd tools, dropped, rubbed, or slid over the surface of skins or cymbals in a tingly, scratchy clatter - were not wholly separable from the noise he made rummaging on the floor around his kit to dig new things up. Like Han Bennink, he's a drummer that's a lot of fun to watch.

After the solos, what we got was more or less what we would usually see at a Time Flies event - different permutations of players, in pairs or small groups, improvising together. One joking bit of "high-sticking with a clarinet" that Houle directed at Gustafsson aside, and a few loud thumps from Strid or van der Schyff, there wasn't much that was aggressive in the night, and certainly not much sense that anyone was setting out to "defeat" anyone. There were a bunch of hockey jokes between numbers, and a final group improv where everyone got on stage. I drifted and dreamed and enjoyed my beer for most of it: there's something so comfortable about the Ironworks (as opposed to the ass-crunching seats at the Roundhouse) that makes it pretty easy to enjoy yourself, even if deprived the vicarious bloodlust of a hockey brawl. It'll be interesting to see if, as the piece develops - through the next Time Flies and Jazz Festival, with a trip to Sweden in the works- the players get a bit more aggressively nationalistic about things. I kind of hope so. Hell, I may even go there myself... I never would have thought it a few years ago, but after last night, I think we might actually be able to beat these guys...

That said, tonight's the show I'm most excited about, though, and it's a Swede and two Norwegians; nationalism be damned. I may bring a pillow, though. I wonder if my sore ass was one of the reasons I didn't get into the Ab Baars/Ig Henneman - Free Fall show so much?

RIP George Carlin

Carlin's records were really important to me in my teen years, and I went through a period of revisiting them last year, finding much to be fond of; sometimes when I leave my class at school to walk the hall and squeeze out a few farts before returning to teaching - so as not to pollute the classroom, you understand - I think of his philosophy of "controlled release," as explained on Toledo Window Box. My friend Michael and I went to see him at River Rock Casino not too long ago - being somewhat surprised that he had a big book of notes that he referred to, and was treating it, it seemed, like a practice gig. I frankly don't remember any of his jokes, but was looking forward to revisiting the material when he put out a new HBO special (his previous focused almost entirely on death and dying); turns out that it aired in March, and it looks like it will be the last such show to come out, because George Carlin died yesterday of a heart attack at age 71. We salute you, George.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Hockey Night Tonight! Improv Power Play at the Ironworks

(Hanson Brothers pic provided, I believe, by John Chedsey... by the way, the Hanson Brothers have a new live album coming out this fall and are planning a tour of Europe. What follows, however, has absolutely not the slightest fucking thing to do with them; this was just the only vaguely hockey-themed picture in my files)

Tonight's the night, folks: training camp for the Improv Power Play hockey-themed showdown between Mats Gustafsson and the Swedish Tre Kroner and Team Canada, as led by local clarinetist Francois Houle. A few months ago, Ken Pickering described the project to me thus (when I'd asked him about the Olympics and funding): "There is a commissioning program in place (supported by the Cultural Olympics, Canada Council and other partners) that we have successfully applied to, to develop a project based on the rules, systems and culture of ice hockey (for 14 musicians), two teams of 6 players with each team assigned a neutral country referee with the ability to process the sounds of each team. The concept is to then further develop the two compositions (over five days) in a workshop setting in February 2009 (either before or after Time Flies - dates TBA) in Vancouver with all of the musicians in attendance. The world premiere would take place at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival in June 2009 at the VECC or the Roundhouse. The commissions go to Francois Houle and Mats Gustafsson to develop 60 minute compositions for 6 Canadian musicians and 6 Swedish musicians and 2 neutral referees. Musicians involved will include: Torsten Muller, Peggy Lee, Raymond Strid, Magnus Broo, Kjell Nordeson, Dylan van der Schyff, John Korsrud and MORE!" ("More" seeming to include Per Ake Holmlander on tuba and Jesse Zubot on violin). The event is at the Ironworks - two sets, one starting at 8PM and one at 11. Alas, I don't think the rhythm section of The Thing will be playing tonight; I'm told they're indifferent to hockey (as, truthfully, am I), and besides, they're from Norway...

See y'all at the Ironworks! (And try to track down The Skinny for more of Mats' comments on hockey).

Vancouver International Jazz Festival Night Two! (A weirdly new agey review)

(Photos pending!)

Back when I did "Life Skills Coaches' Training," a sort of weird, quasi-culty group therapy designed, in part, to put the participants in touch with their emotions, there was a concept that got batted around a lot, of congruency. If someone is visibly twitching with anger, but speaking softly and apologetically; or smiling while clenching their fists; or saying they feel fine whilst staring sadly into the distance - they are not congruent. Not really sure where the idea came from - Life Skills was a mixed bag of influences, from EST/"the Landmark Forum" to Fritz Perls to Reality Therapy to Native American spiritual practice - but it was very useful for the collective project we were engaged in; people would put up various layers of dissimulation to protect their emotional state, and if you wanted to "call" them on what they were really feeling, to acknowledge it and deal with it and get them thinking about it, then observing contradictions between things they said, or between their behaviours or body language and their words, was a pretty good way of going about it.

I still haven't seen Mats Gustafsson play this festival, but I realized last night that one of the things I really, really like about his playing is that he seems totally, utterly congruent. Everything about him fits together: his athleticism, his shooting, his love of garage punk and record collecting, even the way he devours barbeque all make perfect sense as aspects of his character, each piece obviously fitting with the next; and so with his music. If Mats Gustafsson were playing the soft, textural stuff one now finds on ECM, or country music, or Weezer-like geek rock, it really wouldn't make much sense. When you're listening to him perform, you get the sense that what he is doing is a perfect and natural expression of his character, part of who he is. It's all one thing, the various pieces fitting together to make the man, without spaces or jagged pointy bits that don't quite fit.

Though it may be an odd way to go about a concert review, I think that's the main reason I couldn't settle in to really enjoy Ab Baars with Ig Henneman, Ingibrigt Haker Flaten, and Paal Nilssen-Love last night; or the headliners, Free Fall, with Flaten, Atomic's Håvard Wiik, and Chicago clarinet player Ken Vandermark. I don't mean to fault the performances - I can't, really; all the musicians were phenomenally talented people, and played up a storm, and even if I could write about technique at length - which I can't, being a non-musician - I doubt I could find fault with anything they were doing on that level. However, Ab Baars presents as a fairly cerebral, fairly restrained, fairly controlled and observant human being, so when he opted for a hypermasculine* mode of powerhouse blowing, which dominated several of his numbers, both on saxophone and clarinet, it seemed, to me, just slightly out of place. I don't know the man, and I don't know his music that well, but what he played last night didn't seem like an expression of what I could see of his character; I enjoyed it a lot better when, during the same set, he opted for more intense, quieter, more perceptually dense music, often on clarinet or what I believe was a shakuhachi, using his playing to invoke and query the silence around the notes and investigating the other players' lines, as if inquiring why there should be music rather than nothing, and wondering what it meant; that fit, and, in fact, way much more intense. Much of what he played, tho', seemed like it was about something other than self-expression - be it a need to display his force, a compensation for something, a belief that free jazz "should" be played like a windstorm, or so forth. Some people do seem to think that, but there are so many ways that free jazz can be played - look at Ornette and Don Cherry, for instance - that it seems a shame to restrict oneself to the "onslaught" concept of improvisation; I'd rather get the sense - and maybe this is a romantic delusion on my part - that the music is emerging from the player as an organic, natural extension of who he or she is, and when I don't, it jars, blocks me, makes it harder to enter the performance.

As I say, this was only an issue sometimes with Baars, and with the other players, it wasn't an issue at all. When Ig Henneman used her viola to produce insecty* screeches, whipping them with frenzied bowing into a vast cloud of locusts that flew about the space with their mandibles chattering - which I liked a lot, by the way, in case that seems negative - you got the sense that this was, well, coming from Ig Henneman's deeper reaches; this was her music, slightly chilly, a tad quirky, extremely smart, and immensely accomplished, just like (one images) she might be... Congruency! Ditto with Nilssen-Love and, especially, Flaten, who was so intensely and physically connected to what he was playing that a) he started doing a Glenn Gould "humming and moaning" thing, making rather, er, horrible but delightful vocalisations to accompany himself; and b) he was full of movement that seemed absolutely superfluous to the playing of his music in a technical sense, but which was probably intimately connected to the playing of his music psychologically and emotionally, as he rose up and down above his double bass to accompany his gestures. This is a guy who plays bass with ALL of himself, not just his hands. He plays bass with his balls, with his intestines, with his whole goddamn body. You can't make a division between any aspects of what he's doing - he gets the Alienated in Vancouver "congruency" award for sure.

I'm going to get in trouble for this weird fucking review, I'm sure, but some of the same issues I had with Baars rose up watchin' Ken Vandermark: between numbers - he was chatty, funny, friendly, a very warm and engaging person - perhaps a bit nervous, he confessed, to be following an opening act of such stature and force. He made a joking announcement to start things off that "when we played here a couple of years ago, we were criticized for our poor interpretations of Jimmy Giuffre's music, so I thought I'd clarify: we don't play Jimmy Giuffre's music. We have similar instrumentation" - bass, piano, clarinet - "but we're playing our own compositions." The audience was already amused by this introduction, and laughed outright at his understated conclusion: "if you want to criticize us for poor interpretations of our music - that's okay." What a likable guy! The trio then opened with a rather amusingly-titled piece, "Accidents with Ladders." Given all the human warmth on display here, though, often his playing - while less difficult-to-process than Baars' approach - seemed rather abstract, neglecting, unless I just missed it, the apparently abundant playfulness in Vandermark's character; I wanted more of the guy who goofed around with us between songs to be in evidence! My favourite piece during their set was an immensely tuneful, cookin' number, rather self-deprecatingly (?) entitled "Music for Clocks," a title he explained was "not meant as a reference to the audience" (again, getting laughs). After starting that piece with an intense bass and piano workout, Wiik layed down a tuneful rhythm on piano that reminded me of an African-influenced piece Randy Weston once recorded, and Vandermark stepped in with the most fun music of the night, a veritably toe-tapping line on bass clarinet that was a joy (and a bit of a relief) to hear. Are free jazz musicians nervous about making music that could be described as "fun?" Vandermark even ended that piece on a screeching improvisation, as if to erase or apologize for what had gone before, lest he be judged too harshly for it; later, when various audience members walked out, he saluted them with his water bottle, advising them with a smirk to be careful on their way out. Which also seemed funny and likable, mind you - not hostile or snide in the least; but why would a man who wants his audience to like him between songs, be amused or proud when his actual playing alienates them? I ain't saying that either attitude is wrong, just that they don't add up.

I should clarify that I have nothing against powerhouse improvisation. It may sound like I do, but I have, for instance, eleven Brotzmann CDs at the moment. No, fuck, I have twelve - Mats Gustafsson convinced me I needed to buy Machine Gun. Admittedly, I'm rolling my eyes to see that there's a Brotzmann project kicking around the merch tables with Nilssen-Love and Japanese virtuoso koto player Michiyo Yagi, because I instantly coveted it, but really don't want to feel like I have to buy ANOTHER Brotzmann album - I'm not so diehard an enthusiast that I need a baker's dozen of his discs, and I overcame my completist tendencies years ago. The point is that Brotzmann is so goddamn good at being Brotzmann that I really don't need anyone else to play that way; and if someone IS going to opt for the powerhouse approach to things - like Mats, for instance - it really ought to be because they HAVE to play that way, because that's who they are. If it's not who they are - why play it? I've felt that way about quite a few shows I've seen at the jazz festival over the years, and I'm really happy to be able to put my finger on the logic of it.

So: night two not as fun as night one, tho' it was great to hear Flaten humming, and I really did like what Ig Henneman did, and I'm very curious what Vandermark will be like when he plays with The Thing on Monday. By the way, Henneman - who also plays with Canadians Lori Freedman and Marilyn Lerner in the Queen Mab Trio, tho' they're sadly not performing at this festival - will be at the Western Front today at 5:30 with Ab.

And fuck, I just realized, I forgot to count the Last Exit CD I have. I DO own 13 Brotzmann discs. Maybe that's bad luck, and I should buy a 14th just to even things out...? No, no, goddamn - I have ENOUGH BROTZMANN! ENOUGH! STOP! STOP! STOP!

*For the record, I owe two adjectives in this piece to other people: hypermasculine and insecty. I'm thinkin' the people who provided these terms may not want to be credited for them, given the context.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Requiem for a Photobooth: Femke's new show at the JEM Gallery

The Skinny's photo editor, Femke van Delft - an amazingly hardworkin' and gifted photographer who has been documenting almost every punk and avant-garde show of note in Vancouver for the last while - has a new show at the JEM Gallery, 225 East Broadway; the opening will be on Thursday June 26th, from 7-11 pm, and is open to all who are interested (I guess this means Femke won't be coming to shoot the Reverend Horton Heat that night; ah, well!). The title for the project is Requiem for a Photobooth: 3 punk bands, 4 shots, 1 minute of silence; she's been working on it for awhile. I'm not entirely sure who will be in the shots displayed - I know that varied members of the Pointed Sticks, the Furies, the Dishrags, and various other local punk bands have participated in the project - but it sounds like her photobooth will be there. Here's Femke's blurb!

Years of ambivalence about working as a photographer led me to purchase a second hand photobooth, instantly dealing with a couple of issues. First, there is no photographer. Second, it returns the power [a self-portrait] and the property [no negative, but a paper positive photostrip] back to the subject, the only recipient of the only print. By removing myself from the process, I could explore the subversive role of this common photobooth experience to look at the ways that people mock their school pictures, their passport, their driver's license, security tags and mug shots. When the photobooth camera is pointed at us, we feel more comfortable, we laugh freely, but not with any other camera.

There is no other public place that allows this subversive kind of privacy. In a digital age focused on security and surveillance, this amazing mechanical booth is near extinction. So, who will go in, sit down, stick out their tongue and sing the requiem?

This will be your only opportunity for your own requiem shot in my photobooth!

Hope to see you there!

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Jazz Festival Commences

Atomic at the Western Front by Femke van Delft

The jazz festival began for me, yesterday, with my running from work to meet Swedish saxophone player Mats Gustafsson, photographer and artist Femke van Delft, and local bassist/drummer/songwriter/witty guy Dave Chokroun at Mats' hotel. I'd interviewed Mats for The Skinny and concocted a plan to take the man - noted for world class diskaholicism - to various used record stores of Vancouver. This was delightful fun, and will be the basis for an upcoming piece of writing ("Shopping with Mats," perhaps?). Things started out with sad news, however, something I didn't know until Mats told us: one of the festival's planned performances, e.s.t., set to open for the John Scofield Trio, was cancelled because the founder, Swedish pianist Esbjörn Svensson, died last week in a diving accident at age 44. We talked about this and about many other things - from Albert Ayler to straight edge punk to the prevalence of women with tattoos in Vancouver - while doing a loop from Zulu to Neptoon to Dandelion to Audiopile, gathering much choice moss along the way (Dandelion had the stuff Mats got most excited about, garage rock of yore, including a vintage Ugly Ducklings LP - sample them here). After chatting with Jeremy at Audiopile - he gave Mats a free Shearing Pinx single and the men discussed a special Fake Jazz Wednesdays in the offing - we stopped at Memphis Blues for barbeque, Mats telling us over beer and pork how some jazz musicians just have no sense of humour when it comes to The Thing's choice to wear Ruby's BBQ t-shirts when performing. I can't speak for Ruby's, never having been to Austin, but damn, Memphis Blues serves some fine meat.
Anyhow, Mats and I parted from Femke, who had other things to shoot, and transported our meat-and-beer-filled bodies to the Roundhouse to catch Evan Parker (saxes), Francois Houle (clarinet), and pianist Benoit Delbecq. The three men played as tuneful a set as imaginable without playing tunes, creating a gently interlaced tapestry of colours and sounds that was exploratory and free, but welcoming to more trepidatious listeners. Maybe I've misunderstood him in the past - I've never been a devotee of his music, though I've enjoyed performances I've seen - but I don't think I've heard Evan Parker play this way before. Usually I associate him with fairly abstract, somewhat chilly explorations of sound; last night, he offered soft, pulsing, almost mournfully blues-based lines that rather humbly surrendered the lead to the just-slightly-more-extroverted Houle, who also seemed very sensitive (I think of Houle as a bit of a show-stealer, but he wasn't last night). Gustafsson had pointed out in our interview that he was attracted primarily to the energy of punk or free jazz, and said - you can read this in the Skinny, at greater length - "energy doesn’t mean that it has to be loud; like, Derek Bailey playing really really silent can be extremely high energy, you know? For me, good music is always when there is energy inside of something. It doesn’t mean it has to come out, if you put a lid on. But you can’t play at 90%, you know? You have to give everything." The Houle/Parker/Delbecq set put me in mind of this quote. There were noisier passages later in the set, and Delbecq's prepared piano gave an appealing percussive quality to things, but it wasn't a catharsis; it was a focused, controlled performance, that felt like - I scribbled in my notebook - watching "three men having an impassioned but civilized conversation in a language you can't speak, but recognize the cadences of."

Between sets, I got to chat briefly with Masa Anzai in the audience. Masa has set aside his sax, I discover, to play electric bass in the metal band Bison ("I figure I'll always have time to get back to the sax when I'm older and can't play metal anymore," he shrugged, smiling. Funny how people who play such scary music are usually so warm and friendly). The last I saw Masa doing anything metalish, he was doing electronics for the intensely tribal-seemin', intimidating Goatsblood at the climax of a noise night at 1067. Bison, he reports, have just signed with Metal Blade records, something I'd missed. Unfortunately, his duties with Bison will preclude him seeing any of Mats Gustafsson's shows (The Thing, on Monday, is the one not to miss, for me); sounds like Masa's hoping to catch Tim Berne's Bloodcount, though.

Atomic, of course, features Gustafsson's rhythm section, bassist Ingibrigt Haker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love, though last night it was in fact Atomic/ School Days that performed - a melding of bands around these two men, who serve in both. School Days, in addition to Haker Flaten and Nilssen Love, features Ken Vandermark (bass clarinet, baritone sax), trombonist Jeb Bishop, and Swedish vibist Kjell Nordeson; Atomic adds Håvard Wiik (piano), Magnus Broo (trumpet) and Fredrik Ljungkvist (sax). (Photos illustrating this article are from Atomic's performance this year at the Western Front; Femke couldn't be there last night, but provided these in lieu). Unforunately - either because of my proximity to Nilssen-Love's kit, or, I suspect, because of a miking problem, I could barely hear Ingibrigt Haker Flaten's bass for the first half of the set, save where he solo'd or did a duo or trio with the other players. I could see him - see his head turning red with the intensity of his performance, could tell that he was putting out some amazing stuff, but it was sadly quite difficult to discern.

I had no such problems hearing the drums! Nilssen-Love is among the most amazing drummers I've seen; he carries a phenomenal amount of melody into his playing, and lays down lines of percussion so complex and rapid-fire as to guarantee that there will be no spaces in the music not propelled forward by rhythmic gesture; the spaces between each and every note are coloured in. With such dextrous players, the set was a pleasing, easily-ingested mixture of group improvisation, tuneful thematic statements, and rotating permutations of players, working off each other: one man would begin a solo passage, a second would join, then a third, and the three would play off each other for several minutes before the rest of the band kicked in. Then several players would drop off, again allowing space for individuals to stand out, or interact in small-group formation, before returning to some sort of variation on the theme (which seemed to shift with each playing). The most striking passage for me involved a lengthy and highly abstract trombone solo by Jeb Bishop, which was punctuated by rapid, short bursts of sound from the rest of the band; though it didn't seem designed to, it showcased their amazing musicianship, since - despite the lack of visible cues or obvious cadence in his solo, and the absence gestures from a "bandleader" - they timed each explosion perfectly, each player sitting silent as Bishop improvised, then suddenly simultaneously firing a loud BAP! into his line. Then returning to silent waiting. Given a stopwatch, handsignals, a click-track, and ten years to prepare myself, I couldn't have done the same thing. Ending with a tune by Ingibrigt - whom I could finally hear - called, pleasingly, "Irrational Ceremony" - the band started off the fest in fine form, and the packed audience at the Roundhouse Perfromance Centre were very appreciative. I'm looking forward to seeing Ingibrigt Haker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love again tonight, with Ab Baars and Ig Henneman. Other highlights are the Improv Power Play sets on Sunday, which will pit Mats Gustafsson against Francois Houle for a hockey-themed competition (this is actually just a warm up to the finished piece - a "training camp," Mats called it); The Thing on Monday; and then the Barry Guy New Orchestra. (Masa Anzai enthused about Barry Guy's powerful bass playing during our chat, come to think of it). There's a lot else to see, but this seems a good start.

All photos by Femke van Delft

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A brief defense of M. Night Shyamalan

M. Night Shyamalan seems someone whom the critical establishment greatly enjoys assaulting, following some hostile (but still bovine) herd instinct. His newest film, The Happening (official site here), actually is managing to acquire a lower rating than Lady in the Water on Rotten Tomatoes, which is rather surprising, as it's the far more straightforward film, less likely to be punished for its ambitions. Granted, he makes it somewhat easy on his detractors; he's hopelessly earnest, at times embarrassingly unsubtle, and certainly doesn't appear to be able to direct actors very well - the performances in his current film being particulary weak. That aside, there are strikingly original moments in all his films, unsettling visual tableaux that have both an immediate and lasting impact.

In The Happening, these take on a more misanthropic cast than in any of his previous films - for instance, when a carload of protagonists turn down a suburban street to discover that a crew of landscapers have hanged themselves from the trees, or when - in the film's most striking moment - a suicidal man sets a large power mower running and then lies down in front of it, waiting passively as we watch from a distance for the blood to spray, which it does. The film - most people know this, I think - deals with an event that threatens to decimate humanity, with people killing themselves left-and-right, for reasons that we at first do not understand, but which will ultimately be connected to the environment. One particularly bloody image - the lawnmower guy, I believe - is followed by a shot of a real estate sign with the words "You Deserve It" writ large, suggesting that in his own New Agey environmentalist way, Shyamalan has quite the hate-on for certain segments of the population (in his previous film, his loathing seemed mostly restricted to movie critics). It's interesting to see him indulge his dark side; this is easily his darkest film since The Sixth Sense, though its nowhere as effective.

The Happening is not a great film, by far - it offers a simple in-group/ out-group moralizing message, that either you get on the side of the good guys or suffer a horrible fate - but it touches on very real paranoias, from the disintegration of the family (yep) to worries about bee disappearnces and a general sense that we have done great damage to the environment and must soon pay the cost. It's relevant, fairly creative, and sincere, and manages to have some genuinely unsettling, even upsetting, moments. I can't help but think - in an year where a morally bankrupt, smarmily cute, pandering FX-fest like Iron Man is a box office leader - that Shyamalan is being hated for exactly the things I like about him.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Smiley Face, Gregg Araki, and the fine art of autofellatio

I finally found and watched Gregg Araki's new comedy today, Smiley Face.

Araki fascinates me. My first experience of his cinema was The Living End, which I saw at least close to the year it was released (1992), I believe theatrically. I would have been about 24. I don't recall why I sought it out; probably just because I was exploring any independent cinema that I heard mention of, and read some positive press for it, but possibly also because I was interested in learning about gay cinema; I was watching Derek Jarman and Monika Treut films back then, too, for instance. These were the good old days in Maple Ridge, when I would commute by bus to Videomatica, rent five films or so, usually by a director I was trying to learn about, or maybe that I'd just heard something interesting about, and bring them back to the 'burbs, dub them onto my own VHS tapes during an all night session - sometimes three to a tape; remember EP mode? (or SLP, as it was sometimes known?) Then I'd return the rentals the next day, bussing all the way back into Kitsilano. I had no real cinematic map, more just a series of threads that I was following; I wouldn't have known - though I see it now - that The Living End is very much an exercise, stylistically, in Godard-worship (tho' now that I'm rewatching it, it reminds me more, formally, of another exercise in Godard-worship, Reg Harkema's Monkey Warfare, than Godard per se... perhaps because I am shamefully undereducated when it comes to Godard...). Anyhow, I heard about The Living End and I watched it and I really liked it.

I should mention that I stand in a strange relationship to the queer community. Despite having written for awhile for Xtra West, I can't really call myself gay, never having acted on any homoerotic impulse I might have had, unless you count the times I tried to fellate myself, or a couple of episodes from my childhood that were more about curiosity than sex, or certain thoughts that have flickered in my head from time to time, or that one time, that one time, I actually set out to meet this guy who offered to blow me, but couldn't find his address, which was kind of a relief... I don't think that these things give me the right to call myself "gay," whatever might go on in my head. The vast majority of my sexual thoughts are for the female of the species, and experimenting seems too complicated, too potentially identity-destablizing. Plus really I DO like the thought of going down on women WAYYYYY more than the thought of going down on guys. That's really what it boils down to, innit? I know very well what a penis does at the point of orgasm and I am quite happy not to have that happen in my mouth. It's bad enough having it all over my hand.

Though if the autofellatio thing had worked I probably would have gone for it.

(Okay, I can sense your curiosity, so, like - it's a yoga pose, modified. You gotta be pretty supple, but I think with enough practice, almost any man can learn how to blow himself, sort of. After a few months of regular yoga, and a warmup - because you could hurt yourself quite easily doing this - you lie with the top of your head about two feet from the wall, at a 90 degree angle, back on the floor, nice and straight, and raise your feet up over your head, so that they touch the wall; and then you "walk down the wall," toes pointing towards the floor, bending your knees so they head towards your ears, as your spine curves and you start to feel the blood pounding in your temples. With the weight of your folding body acting on you, gravity pushing your ass down further, your cock, if you're a male reader, will eventually be dangling just above your face, and if you crane your neck up, you can fit it between your lips. You can tongue the tip of it. You might even be able to get it so it's in your mouth. And then you'll discover the ultimate irony, the black joke at the end of the pretzel, because, with your cock in your mouth - something that, if you're at all like me, you have long wondered about - your back, neck, and head will be in such horrible discomfort, and your blood will be so oddly distributed in your body, that there will be no way in hell that you could get an erection, let alone come. The horse, led to water, blinks at you with his one eye, head hanging down, and your balls sure look ugly that close to your face, and after about fifteen minutes of screaming discomfort, you give up and unfurl, feeling sore and kind of pissed off. You will try it again three more times over the next few months to establish the futility of the endeavour, then give up and stop doing yoga; what fucking good is it?).
Anyhow, The Living End is a road movie and, really, a very dark comedy, about two HIV positive men - this made when AIDS was still spreading rampant through the gay community and killing people in vast numbers - whose mortality, their long lists of infected friends, and their awareness that the political and straight establishments don't much care, drive them to a sort of odd criminal freedom. A homophobe insults one of our (queer) heroes on the street, and so said hero beats the homophobe to death with a ghetto blaster; why the hell not? Why obey any law, respect any convention of a society that has turned its back on you? A title in the film labels it "an irresponsible movie by Gregg Araki," but it was very, very well-liked, angry for the right reasons, and - dark as it gets, is, I think, positive and funny and clear-headed. (It's also been reissued in DVD format - the first proper release - with a commentary by Araki, restored sound, and remixed audio, and it looks great). In the very straight suburbs, pretty insulated from the gay scene, most of the reason I liked it, aside from my being able to pin some sort of liberal-brownie-point-button to my chest for digging a queer film, was because I also felt an outsider sexually. As a geeky, overweight, cerebral, socially clueless, terrified and intense young man - who at that point in his life was dropping acid twice weekly, reading WAY too much Nietzsche, and - well, I think I'll leave some details out, but suffice it to say, women stayed VERY far away from me, and I felt pretty lost and unloved (by anyone but my parents and a few friends, mind you). Certainly I didn't get laid. So I felt good to see someone raising a cry for some other version of sexuality than the one that had disenfranchised me, even if he was speaking from some place rumour'd to have been Sodom, where I'd never actually been (I love that poem, by the way).
(Oh, well - actually, have I been to Sodom? This essay by Leo Bersani, "Is the Rectum a Grave," convinced me that I should "reclaim" my anus as a site of sexual pleasure and overcome whatever trepidation I felt about touching or penetrating it... but that was strictly a solo act, you understand. No, really, I'm not gay. Really. I hope Michael V. Smith doesn't read this - he'll tease me about it, I'm sure.)
Then I saw The Doom Generation, in a chopped up VHS release. It wasn't until I got to Japan that I'd realize how wonderful that film was, being able to view it more-or-less uncut. Araki very carefully contrives to set us up on a certain trajectory: a straight young couple of punked-up, nihilistic-seemin', but oddly innocent kids hook up with a sort of dark bisexual demon, an odd tempter who seems to have stepped out of The Living End with an even fiercer sense of purpose to obey no law but his own. He flirts with both of them. Their "ride" with this figure - because it's also a road movie of sorts - is a ride further and further out from "normalcy," including a safely hetero-normative world; just as we move to greater and greater acts of lawlessness, assenting when our heroes have to rob a convenience store or kill someone in self-defense, Araki slowly and intelligently teases us with the male-male flirtation in the film until we REALLY want to see them get it on. (SPOILERS FOLLOW, skip to the next paragraph if that's an issue). And then, at the peak of sexual tensions between the two men, a crew of fucked up homophobic jocks, who have surfaced now and then in the film to demonstrate how screwed up American youth's ideas of love and romance can be, burst onto the scene and castrate and kill the innocent young man whom the audience has most identified with up to that point, while the American flag waves and, if I recall correctly, the "Star Spangled Banner" plays. It's an amazing film, politically and morally. It's also really fuckin' fun to watch, as Araki pushes our buttons and winks at us. There's much more to it than I will even try to do justice to here.

It was also the last Araki film I really liked. I missed Nowhere, partially due to the format shift from VHS to DVD; I never got around to it when I had access to it, and now I don't even have a VHS player hooked up, were I to find a copy, which is not easy to do. (It's only available on DVD in Europe and Australia, to my knowledge; there's still no Region 1 release). Splendor and Mysterious Skin both seemed compromised in various ways - Splendor an attempt to get wider audience appeal, by making a too-too likable, toned down bisexual comedy for the youth market, while Mysterious Skin seemed a rather flat attempt to ingratiate himself with the arthouse crowd. As such, it worked, in that it was widely distributed and well-reviewed, but the best I can say for it was that it made me very curious about his next film; it had nothing of the toothy, razor-edged grin of the films of his I liked most, none of the perverse inventiveness. It just wasn't shit-disturbing enough. Araki seemed to be struggling to find a location for himself as a filmmaker, an audience, a mode of address that suited him and gave him a place in the mainstream. I preferred him as a cult taste.

About a year ago, I heard Araki had completed a new film, and got very excited about the prospect of interviewing him, perhaps for Xtra West, for whom I was still writing at that time. The film was some sort of pothead comedy with little-or-no queer content. I contacted the distributors to try to arrange an interview with Araki. To my amazement, they wouldn't set it up. It took me around a dozen emails to establish this. They weren't sure if they were going to bother with a theatrical release of the film; it might just get dumped onto DVD, and I guess they just didn't think it was worth it. They suggested I contact Araki's people through IMDBPro. They blew me off. Later I heard other stories, of a major film festival that wanted to play the film, and was denied a print. I didn't know what to assume: either Araki had made a film that was atrociously, unwatchably bad, an embarrassment to be associated with, or else he'd delivered something too politically dangerous to be a safe consumable. Something that scared the executives and led to their sabotaging the very film they were supposed to be distributing.
Which would mean, maybe, that he'd returned to form. The very burial of the film got me kind of excited about it. And I made a resolve to see it - though I also resolved not to try too hard. I figured that eventually it would cross my path.

It was released several months ago on DVD (I'm guessing on April 20th); I've attentively watched to see when people might acknowledge that the movie exists. This very week, copies finally made it into the rack at HMV. And yes, it's a return to form; it's a delight - it has all the energy and charm and passion of the best of Araki's early films, while being nowhere as dark; and the higher you are when you watch it, the better, REALLY. It is a shame that this film didn't find it's proper audience, was handled in such a cowardly and indifferent fashion. It's a dose of good medicine in dark times. It's on the side of the good guys. And there are delightful cameos - notably Harold and Kumar's John Cho. I won't say anything more about it right now, but trust me - especially if you smoke a bit now and then - it's a film to see, even better with friends. Make some special cupcakes and have a party.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Dennis Kucinich reads Bush Impeachment Articles to House of Representatives

It was by far the most remarkable public statement I have heard an American politician - ANY politician - make, something I did not think one could see delivered in an American government body: everything that intelligent people know and fear about the Bush regime was articulated with razor clarity and abundant examples in the House of Representatives yesterday by Rep. Dennis Kucinich. I spent over two hours watching C-Span last night, in awe, as he went point by point, from lying to the American people to get them embroiled in war, to Guantanamo and the process of extraordinary rendition - which he compared to "disappearing" in Latin American dictatorships, and illustrated by citing the Maher Arar case - to issues of illegal surveillance, violations of due process and the Geneva Conventions,reckless misspending in Iraq - the Halliburton no-bid contract... and much more. It went on for several hours. After each point, he said more or less the same thing - like a prayer, of sorts, which I copied out: "In all these actions and decisions, in violation of US and International law president George W. Bush has acted in a manner contrary to his trust as President and Commander-in-Chief, and subversive of constitutional government, to the prejudice of the cause of law and justice and to the manifest injury of the people of the United States, wherefore President George W. Bush, by such conduct is guilty of an impeachable offence, warranting removal from office." The list is not yet online that I can see, though you can probably find it in the next few days by checking the "Impeachment" link on this page. Right now there's just a PDF of his proposals to impeach Dick Cheney, which he read to the House in April. The Bush impeachment document is apparently some 50 pages long...

Nothing will come of this, of course, except that I will now follow the career and actions of Kucinich - who ran for the Democratic leadership earlier this year - with some curiosity, and I will no longer automatically assume that all American politicians are corrupt, contaminated creatures acting in the service of private interests. Kucinich appears to be virtuous, courageous man. In a way, it's horrifying that statements so transparently true can be read aloud in the House without it actually changing anything... but who knows...

Post-script: here's a measure of how remarkable (or ineffectual?) Kucinich's statement was: mainstream media stayed far, far away. No mention in the Independent, no mention in CNN - brief mention on Reuters saying that the action was not likely to amount to anything, which fails to detail any of Kucinich's more resonant charges against Bush, and ends with a White House denial... Too much honesty is bad for business, I guess, but the fact that this happened seems like news to me...

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Japanese medical story

I personally had great experiences of medicine in Japan. When something I ate at an Izakaya caused severe kidney pains - I think it was the squid - I ended up getting X-rayed and blood tested and taken great care of until, slumped sweaty in a wheelchair, I puked explosively into a plastic bag; I remember Japanese nurses patting me on the back and actually HOLDING THE BAG, which is what I call service... On another occasion, when I dropped a drawer on my toe, the doctor patiently did exactly what was needed to stop me from losing the whole toenail, cutting a small hole in the nail to let the blood out from under it; western doctors hadn't known how to do that in my teen years, when I dropped a fucking barbell bar on myself, and ended up losing the whole nail, in a black and uncomfortable mess. Finally: I had this rotten wisdom tooth that needed pulling, that two Canadian doctors had refused to work on, saying that the fact that I could feel every slight cut they made in the gum was because I was "exceptionally squeamish," not because they couldn't find the artery or whatever that they needed to inject their goo into. The Japanese dentist I ended up seeing about it - after having lived there for three years, and delaying my visit, based on my Canadian experiences - was much more competent: not only did he have no trouble freezing me, but he cut the tooth in half and pulled it out with a minimum of tugging or struggle, unlike when I got my other three wisdom teeth removed here, which involved my dentist going to work with a wrench and elbow grease, actually putting his knee into my chest for leverage (or at least that's how I remember it).

Anyhow, based on my own experiences, I give Japanese medicine the thumbs up, despite the many horror stories I heard from other teachers over there. All the same, a story like this really amuses me. I love how they're not sure what the original colour of the towel was...