Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

Putting It Another Way: Music, Money, and Piracy

In a recent post, I talked about issues surrounding music piracy—i.e., the reproduction of music without the consent or compensation of the artist and other interested parties—in light of a column published by David Byrne in The Guardian.

In this post, I would like to put my views another way for, in the past, I fear I have too cavalierly dismissed lamentations over the rampant piracy of music.

Why should you be able to make money from musical recordings at all?

The ability to record and distribute or broadcast recordings of musical performances was until very recently in the many millennia of human music making impossible. Given the relatively brief span of its possibility, I often pondered why would anyone think that it would be forever possible, especially now that the ability to reproduce and distribute recordings has become ubiquitous and trivial.

The fact that you can magically copy musical recordings without altering their format (by, for example, going from vinyl to cassette or even cd) has changed the reality of what a recording is. It has gone from an artifact (record) to a formula, an infinitely reproducible mathematical model.

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Two Shows: Kurt Rosenwinkel and Chris Potter, Regattabar, March 2013

It’s been a week since I saw Chris Potter play with his quartet (David Virelles (p), Larry Grenadier (b), Nate Smith (d)) and two weeks since I saw Kurt Rosenwinkel with his (Aaron Parks (p), Eric Revis (b), Justin Faulkner (d)) and I’ve been wrestling with how best to describe what made these shows so different and, not to put too fine a point on it, why the Chris Potter show was so much better.

Top of Their Game

The most obvious reason, I guess, is that Potter’s band is just better. Larry Grenadier (picture above) is a “best of his generation” bass player, David Virelles is as rhythmically inventive and harmonically adventurous as they come, and Nate Smith plays drums in a way that is commandingly funky as well as surprisingly understated (he played a solo that built so slowly and massively that he was halfway into it before you knew what was happening).

To top it all off, of course, is Chris Potter himself. Combining a pop sensibility (that reminds me of Stan Getz, though Potter sounds nothing like him) with a protean mastery of the instrument, Potter can be at turns lyrical and wild, brainy and melodic. And whether it’s a question of his acumen as a leader or the collective intelligence of the ensemble, the group moved effortlessly with him and around him into realms that seemed both uncharted and sublimely familiar, as if we had been transported to a 80s era Brecker Brothers New York funk throw-down infused with an unheard of at the time nuanced modernism.

Long story short, Potter’s set was energetic, energizing and everything I want when I go see live jazz: amazing musicians playing astonishing, improvised music.

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Dinosaur, Jr.

A friend won some tickets so I got to go see Dinosaur, Jr. on Friday night at the Paradise.

They were loud, of course, but not as loud as the last time I saw them.

This time, I appreciated and understood the volume as an essential component of what they were trying to create, rather than as something that got in the way of my enjoyment.

Volume objectifies the music in a transient yet monumental way. It makes it awesome. Megalithic.

Full disclosure: It also hindered my enjoyment. My ears have too long been battered by amplified music and now certain decibel levels and certain tones are unequivocally painful.

I’ve seen a lot of music over the last year and Dinosaur, Jr. reminded me of what I’d been missing from a lot of it: jamming. Dinosaur, Jr. totally jammed. And as their set progressed, J.’s solos started to stretch out. They became more involved. Elaborate. Articulate. As I wrote elsewhere, they literally blew my mind.

Before people jump on me about that “literally,” I want to stress that I mean it literally. If mind is an episodic and fluctuating state produced as our conscious brain processes external sense data, fluid, eidetic and phenomenological states, as well as the constant activity of the central nervous system, then this product (mind) was dispersed and dissipated by the music. Dust in the wind.

J. Mascis looks like a wizard (a sort of pudgy Saruman) and plays like one, his white hair swinging back and forth as he stares into the middle distance. His solos “spaced me out” as much as Garcia’s ever did. In fact, his epic coda on “Forget the Swan” at the end of the set nearly broke my head. Literally.

While undeniably punk at times, Dinosaur, Jr.’s music has its roots in 60s and 70s (Zeppelin, Rush, Neil Young, Robin Trower, etc.) and I felt, seeing them, that that was as close as I could have gotten, here in 2012, to something like Cream at the Fillmore circa 1967.

I was glad I went.

Update 12/3/2012: Just wanted to add one note on the volume issue. Yes, these guys were loud. But you could hear every single note that J. played. For most of the heavy and loud bands that I’ve heard of late, any lead playing gets lost in the sludge. Such bands would be well-served to learn from the masters.

Lionel Loueke, Regattabar, Cambridge, MA, 10.11.12

Lionel Loueke is an astonishing guitar player and I would like to call the performance I saw last night at the Regattabar “virtuosic,” but that wouldn’t quite cover it.

It woudn’t cover it because, while Loueke is undeniably a virtuoso, the music I heard last night, really, the act of continuous, protean, phenomenal creation to which I bore witness, seemed less a testament to or the pinnacle of human achievement, as virtuosity often is, and more like the act of a god.

And yet, of course, Loueke and his accompanists—the ecstaticly focused Michael Olatuja and the nerdily spectactular Mark Giuliana—are mortals. For this reason, their performance reminded me instead of the infinite possibilities of music, the unending invention of which the musical mind is capable, and not simply that in music there are, on the one hand, the gods, to which these gentlemen would be unquestionably numbered, and on the other, everybody else.

The scope of the music they played was very broad, encompassing everything from jazz and blues to mathy prog to funk to Juju and other west African traditions. At times, it sounded like a more melodically and harmonically rich version of James “Blood” Ulmer’s early 80s work, with the bass and drums tumbling over each other while Loueke showed just how many sounds a guitar could make and how varied a Klangwelt one could conjure with electricity, wire and wood.

At other times, the music was perplexing in its vorticism, its unbridled chaoticism, a maelstrom which caused the bewildered listener to wonder at the apparently telepathic connection between the players (an overused trope in jazz criticism, I know) and, ultimately, to question all assumptions about what music and, in fact, the world could be.

And, at other times, the music was simply beautiful, joyous and entrancing.

I love seeing music that is amazing, surprising and inspiring and last night I was amazed, surprised and inspired not only by the incredible, overwhelming musicality of what these mortals, if that’s what they were, played, but also by the sheer, visible delight with which they played it.

If you like music, you have to see and hear Lionel Loueke.

Three Things I Learned Watching Joe Lovano’s Us Five at Scullers on 9.13.12

Us Five, a jazz ensemble led by reedman Joe Lovano and featuring James Weidman on piano, Esperanza Spalding on bass, and drummers Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela, opened their two night stand at Scullers last night. I saw the group almost exactly two years ago (sans Spalding—Peter Slavov handled bass duties) and, at that time, thought that they were the best jazz band I had ever seen. That may have been an exercise in hyperbole but they are a ridiculously talented group of people, and if anything, were even better this time around. The level of creativity and invention they brought to the stage was of such a high caliber, the music they made of such exquisite quality and played with such raucous refinement, I was literally moved me to tears.

There were three things I learned last night watching this group in action:

1. One Must Appreciate and Acknowledge Mastery

Two years back, I got real hung up by what I heard as excessive Trane-isms in Lovano’s playing. That was my problem, not his. Joe Lovano is a master who can play whatever he wants and everything he plays is dead-on—rhythmically engaging, intricate, elaborate, beautiful. And everyone in this band is as much the master. Last night, I focused on appreciating this fact and allowing myself to be amazed by these human beings and their stunning ability not only to spontaneously create remarkable music, but to do so collectively, “like they were one being,” as my friend Mike said after the show. I am insecure and am prone to neurotically transform encounters with incredible people into bouts of self-loathing. In this instance, however, I was simply glad  to be in the presene of these inspiring and illuminating masters.

 2. Go All Out, Every Time

The set I saw was, as I said, the first of a two night stand. Yet the band played with such intensity, joy and abandon that you would have thought it was the last time they would ever play together on this Earth. This aspect of their performance, this striving after the ultimate, made me realize that what made the evening special wasn’t simply how gifted they were as musicians or how impressive their technical virtuosity, particularly when exercised with such a relaxed, even casual air, but that they threw themselves into it so utterly. They didn’t have to do that. They didn’t have to play as if they were aiming to produce the best music possible, the most finely-wrought solos, the most ingenious accompaniment, but they did. To have ability is a good thing. To have the will to make the most of that ability and then to actually put in the effort (though it appear effortless) to do your utmost—for what? the audience? the art? the sheer joy of masterful performance?—that is the better thing. Go all out. Every time.

3. Esperanza Spalding Is Astonishing

She really is! I had heard of her, of course, (wasn’t she on the Oscars or something?) and seen some video on YouTube but I had no idea what a badass she really was. Laughing, smiling, swaying, lost in the music, she melded deftly with the chaotic, surging rhythmscape conjured by Brown and Mela and played several bravura solos of jaw-dropping artfulness. My only thought was, “I hope that this young woman, who could do whatever she wants musically, doesn’t get sick of doing this, because she’s awesome at it!” As good as the rest of the band is, and as great and irrepressible as Lovano himself is, Spalding was the unequivocal star. She’s astonishing.

Radiohead. Mansfield, MA. May 29, 2012

Saw the Radiohead last night at Great Woods (they call it the Comcast Center now, but it will always be Great Woods to me).

The show was solid. They’re a good band; they played (with two encores) for about two hours total. The light show (relying on multiple, moveable screens and two huge backdrops) was a technical marvel used to good effect, especially when the focus was on abstract patterns rather than shots of the band (though even those were cool).

Overall, the show made me think: If this is the kind of entertainment that our civilization has to offer, then it (Western Civ, that is) can’t be all bad.

From a musical standpoint, there were some moments of real transcendence, whether in the form of bass-heavy, Krautrock jams or extended, beat-heavy sound montages. For my tastes, however, there could have been more of these moments, or the moments themselves could have been greatly prolonged. Whenever it seemed like they were on the verge of taking things to another level, they would just end the song.

I’ll admit that I have a high tolerance for endless jams and I understand that that’s not everybody’s cup of tea. However, when you are a band as talented as Radiohead, and obviously have an at least latent tendency to indulge in this sort of music making, why not just go for it? I’ll tell you that Spiritualized does, and they’re awesome!

Kurt Rosenwinkel Revisited

I saw Kurt Rosenwinkel and his New Quartet (Aaron Parks, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Justin Faulkner, drums) last night at the Regattabar, almost a year to the day after I last saw him with his “old” quartet. While it took a couple numbers for the house to get the sound together (which seemed a little odd given this was the fourth set of a two day stand), this ended up being a capitivating and even beautiful performance.

Kurt continues to play with an astonishing fluidity and a marked lack of cliche; he also remains the master of the cascading, intricate pattern and the loping, open-ended composition reminiscent of Wayne Shorter. He tends towards an “atmospheric” tone that combines, at turns, chorus, delay, and distortion with a somewhat odd tendency to sing the lines as he plays them (he wore a mic to pick up these vocalizations). At times distracting, this sing-a-long approach did add an ethereal depth to his playing.

When I last saw him, I lamented that the group didn’t really shine as an ensemble. With this group, while it is definitely Kurt’s, it felt more like a band. Once they hit their stride, they really rocked.

My mystical tendencies seek transcendence in musical performance. Given the brainy, secular approach taken by Rosenwinkel, any transcendence on offer is strictly of the cool, technical variety.

That being said, this group, at its best, achieved something even more compelling: an immanent intensity rooted in the Now, focused on the openness of the moment, and imbued with a refreshingly human warmth.

A Disappointing Film About Norwegian Black Metal

I watched the documentary film Until the Night Takes Us and was disappointed. I really think it fails on every level.

Neither a true “history” of black metal (Norwegian or otherwise) nor a revealing portrait of the genre’s main innovators (Fenriz of Darkthrone and Varg Vikernes of Burzum), the film never even raises the questions it should answer.

For example, wherein lies an engagement with or appreciation for this genre, especially in its purest, “necro” form (as one might find it on Emperor’s Wrath of the Tyrants, for example, or Darkthrone’s incomparable, Transylvanian Hunger) as an aesthetic experience?

Sure, Fenriz and Varg talk about choosing the crappiest amps and mics, etc., but why does the result sound so compellingly haunting?

And, frankly, how did it even become a recognizable genre and how do we categorize its defining characteristics?

On the other hand, where is the discussion of the neo-Nazi ideology associated with this music, so associated with it, in fact, that there is a sub-genre known as NSBM, or National Socialist Black Metal? I use the term “sub-genre” here guardedly since some of the genre-defining artists have produced music that falls squarely in this dark realm.

On that last front, why don’t the filmmakers actually call Varg on his bullshit?

For example, during the segment about his trial for the murder of Euronymous, Vikernes states that he was given a stiff sentence (by Norwegian standards, not American) because, in his words, the authorities wanted to say, “We don’t tolerate this kind of rebellion.” What kind of rebellion was that exactly? Stabbing a man, fleeing from you in his underwear, to death?

Varg is also shown saying, “It’s very hard to recognize the truth, when you are bombarded by lies all the time.” This may sound noble, until you realize that this is the kind of “truth” he’s after:

If we have a positive relationship to our homeland, to our blood, to our race, to our religion and to our culture we will not destroy any of this with modern “civilization” (id est capitalism, materialism, Judeo-Christianity, pollution, urbanization, race mixing, Americanization, socialism, globalization, et cetera). The “nazi ghost” has scared millions of Europeans from caring about their blood and homeland for sixty years now, and it is about time we banish this ghost and again start to think and care about the things that (whether we like it or not) are important to us.

Finally, why do they let it slide when Hellhammer—known for saying things like, “Black metal is for white people”—refers to the man Bård Guldvik “Faust” Eithun (erstwhile drummer of Emperor) killed as a “fucking faggot”?

I’m sure they’d fall back on the “we’re letting our subjects speak for themselves” ethos of some documentarians (and if you’re reading this, please feel free to comment!) but even there they don’t let their subjects speak enough or at length. One of the most interesting segments involves Fenriz being interviewed by a German journalist (in which he says, “We’re not just sitting around in a trailer camp listening to Anthrax!”). Why couldn’t we have more of his views or ramblings (and, while we’re at it, a conversation about his use of the phrase “Norwegian Aryan Black Metal” back in the day)?

For good or ill, I don’t tend (any longer) to reject music or other works of art based (solely) on the politics or behavior of the maker.

Nevertheless, I firmly believe that one should at least explore the ways that politics and aesthetics inform and influence each other and, if only on a personal level, ask ourselves why our response to something, on a visceral level, may be positive when we would reject it on an intellectual level.

Anyway, if you have the time and interest, Lords of Chaos is a much more satisfying account of black metal, its origins, and its consequences.

Fishing for Jim

I never call into On Point, but when I heard Greil Marcus on there talking about The Doors, I did.

Unfortunately, no matter how many times I dialed, I always got a busy signal.

Fortunately, there’s this thing called the Internet where I can tell my story to the whole wide world. Who knows? Maybe Greil Marcus and Tom Ashbrook will read this along with everybody else! <crosses fingers and closes eyes to make that “I’m wishing really hard” face>

Why was I moved to call in? Because I had a story I wanted to tell and a question I wanted to ask.

My story goes like this:

In the early 80’s I used to go to a club called the Cathay de Grande which was behind the Hollywood Palladium. I went with my girlfriend, Flannery.

Basically a basement with a bar—I don’t think there was even a band riser—at the Cathay de Grande you were just standing there with the bands. I saw some amazing and some frightening music there and one night I even saw Ray Manzarek sit in with Top Jimmy and the Rhythm PigsJohn Doe was on bass.

They played “Backdoor Man” and “Roadhouse Blues.” In between, Manzarek teased with the opening run to “Light My Fire.” Top Jimmy was in his prime then and the band—which included blues guitar’s unsung hero, Carlos Guitarlos—rocked these tunes hard.

It was as close as I ever got to seeing The Doors (and it might have even been better!).

My question is this:

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“Flowers” on MOG

I am listening to Flowers by the Rolling Stones on MOG.

I have never owned this album and, although I have yet to hear a song I haven’t heard before (I’m on “Let’s Spend the Night Together“), I feel like I’m hearing it for the first time. It’s pretty amazing.

The first thing that hits you is the bass. It’s way up front and in the stereo mix a galloping, insistent presence.

There’s also a dark noisiness—the blunt organ, the shattered drums, the jumpy, rawly harmonized vocals—that makes this thing seem both straightforward and experimental.

More interesting to me than the music—”Lady Jane” is a weird anticipation of the Grateful Dead (“Rosemary,” “Mountains of the Moon” on AOXOMOXOA) and Depeche Mode (“One Caress” on Songs of Faith and Devotion))—is the fact that I’m listening to music on MOG.

I’m sure others have written this elsewhere (if there were only a way of searching the Web to find out if anyone else has posted anything about MOG), but there is a “dream come true” quality to MOG that I can’t get over: almost any music I think of, I can listen to at will.

After a lifetime of listening to music as chosen by others, in the case of radio, or to the extent that I could access its recorded form (I include mp3 or other rips of albums to be essentially the same thing in a different recording medium or, more accurately, encoding), I am now plugged in to a vast, explorable library of music.

I must say it means that I haven’t used iTunes in going on two weeks.

And that my burgeoned cd collection seems even more archaic than ever.

As long as we have electricity and connectivity and a robust information infrastructure—and are not being attacked by government forces or rebel militia—this is how recorded music (and all recorded media?) will be consumed henceforth.