Matthew T Grant

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Tall Guy. Glasses.

Tree of Smoke

I’ve just finished reading a book.

One line—”Now James felt as if his head had been chopped off and thrown in boiling water.”—made me burst out laughing.

Another two—”Courage is action. Thought is cowardice.”—made me burst into tears.

There is much more in this book than these few lines.

And a hopeful broken-heartedness about the whole thing.

Religion is Psy-Tech

Angels and demons are states of mind, perspectives.

We conjure God through chanting, trance, meditation and prayer.

While these technologies take different forms, they all operate on the same material: a self-aware nervous system.

As Dr. Leary once said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is inside you, literally, inside your body.”

Or some words to that effect.

The Mosh Pit’s One Foundation

The other night I saw Bad Brains at the Paradise.

“These guys were gods to us,” I told my friend Ken. He and I had played together in a band that was inspired by the Bad Brains and even had one song, “Our Savage God,” which was very much “in the style of.” I’d been listening to them since ’88—my kid brother saw them some years before that, so I’d heard of them way before that—but had never seen them ever.

A pit started jumping as soon as they fell into “Rights Brigade” and I was getting crushed against the people in front of me. I did find it was easier to deal with the moshers when I was aggressive, shoving them backwards en masse (I’m big-ish), but I soon tired of this (being old and frail as well), eventually drifting back to the other side of the pit where I could see and deflect what was coming at me (admittedly, with some remorse and self-criticism that I had chosen not to endure the up front intensity as my more stalwart friend did).

Before the show, my assumption was that the band (Dr. Know, guitar; Darryl Jenifer, bass; Earl Hudson, drums) was still going to rock—which they unequivocally did—but that HR might not be all there. The last time I had seen him was in Ithaca in 1993. He was touring with his reggae band but by the time he showed up at The Haunt that night, the band had quit. He had the club play his latest album over the PA and sang along and I left.

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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.

Check Out the Levels

I have a friend who, when I first met him, spent a lot of time making trompe l’oeil drawings (well, really doodles in the margins of lecture notes he was taking).

One night he was showing us some of these and every now and again, impressed by his own ability to conjure faux three dimensionality from two dimensional lines on paper, he would exclaim, in a kind of wonder, “Check out the levels!”

Now, if you teach anything like literary theory or film studies or music appreciation or what have you, this imperative sums up your endeavor. In fact, what you quickly find is that, for many students, the fact that there are levels at all, and not just the plot and the characters, is a kind of revelation.

This revelation can quickly spread into all aspects of life and is part of the natural, cognitive maturing process, I believe. When we make the transition from childhood proper to adolescence and adulthood after, for example, a big part of that proces is the realization that our childish worldview, as complete and self-sufficient as it seems to us while we are living in it, is limited, circumscribed by our ignorance, experience (or lack thereof), and the information that our environmental wardens have deigned (or not) to pass along to us. You can see this most obviously when speaking with teens who have become aware of things that their younger siblings just obviously don’t get. Read the rest of this entry »

How High Was My Fire (or Why High on Fire Matters)

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Easily the best band on earth. I sincerely hope other bands pay attention and decide to eschew all the pretension and all the trends and just focus on creating real, honest-to-God ART. That’s a rare thing these days. – urdisturbing

I went to the Metal/Hardcore festival at the Palladium in Worcester in 1999 mainly to see Morbid Angel, a band I’d been into since 1991.

After reading about Morbid Angel in Spin, I picked up an Earache compilation called Grindcrusher at Disc Diggers (long since defunct) in Somerville (I also picked up Morbid Angel’s masterful Altars of Madness there shortly thereafter) and was introduced to their sound via “Chapel of Ghouls,” a Slayer-esque monolith of strangely psychedelic, thrashy death metal.

Of course, the rest of the cassette kicked as  well because Earache’s roster in the early 90s was a who’s who of genre-defining death and grind bands (Carcass, Entombed, Bolt Thrower, Napalm Death, Terrorizer, etc.). Given my association, then, of the label with a certain level of aesthetic quality, I was happy to come across a basket of discounted Earache cassettes sitting on a table in the hustle and bustle of the “labels” area set up at the Palladium that night.

After a bit of rummaging around I ended up buying some Napalm DeathFrom Enslavement to Obliteration and Harmony Corruption, if memory serves— and a tape that, like anything that matters, altered the course of my life: Sleep’s Holy Mountain.

I’ll be honest. I bought the thing because is was like two bucks and the cover boasted an intricately ornate graffiti tableau consisting mainly of variations on “pot leaf.” Listening to it while driving through the dark and wooded hills outside of 495, my mind just blew and blew. These Sabbath worshipers, thanks to their ability to craft a riff and wail trippily, took unabashed adulation to the point of mad originality. The first galloping notes of “Dragonaut” —the sinewy ooze of the bass line, the oddly chanted vocal (“Ride the dragon under Mars’ red sky”)— hooked me immediately. I couldn’t believe how great it sounded. Read the rest of this entry »

Chris Potter at the Regattabar, 2nd Set, October 6, 2010

285007703_81fe676758_mFirst thing I noticed was that Chris Potter doesn’t have an iPhone. He took a call right before the set and it looked like he just had one of those free phones, or maybe a Blackberry. A Blackberry would make sense – as one of the leading tenors of the day, he’s got a business to run – but, somehow, an iPhone would have made more sense.

Chris Potter plays with the precision, force and lucidity that I associate with Stan Getz. His harmonic conception is palpably modern stemming as it does from Coltrane, of course, but even more obviously, at least to these ears, from Wayne Shorter. Last night he led the band through a set comprised primarily of new and, as Potter pointed out, untitled compositions, many reminiscent of the cyclical openness of Shorter’s mid-sixties work, though one at least, the last number, sounding fairly Zawinul-esque.

In other words, the evening provided a healthy dose of melodic and spacious dynamism that was simultaneously grounded, cerebral, and even atmospheric.

Last time I saw Potter he was accompanied by the guitarist Adam Rogers and I was struck then by Rogers’ mastery of myriad styles from bebop to fusion to funk-rock. Last night, I had a similar feeling about Potter’s talent; he has obviously subsumed the dominant tenor strains of the last fifty years and continues to deploy and forge them into a deliberate and individualized sound.

The main challenge for someone at Potter’s level of playing is not sounding too much like any of the guys he could sound like. Following in Shorter’s footsteps helps him do this since the latter’s career was literally born in Coltrane’s shadow (Trane had recommended him as a replacement for himself to Miles). Shorter of course, whose playing in the 60s bears some un-mistakable Trane-isms, went on to build a towering body of work characterized by a nuanced, engaging and distinctive vision. Potter’s oeuvre, for its part, remains a compellingly evolved work in progress.

Potter did sound sort of Trane-y at times, especially on one self-penned ballad. In fact, he even took the band on an extended, Eastern modal workout right out of Trane’s playbook. I was glad to see him take the head with his tenor but, inevitably, he reached for the soprano and I thought we were moving straight into imitative homage territory. I was pleasantly surprised, however. Potter’s soprano tone was more in the controlled, Jan Garbarek vein and, in fact, highlighted by contrast the helter-skelter, jittery and frantic nature of Trane’s.

Potter’s supporting cast featured Larry Grenadier on bass, Edward Simon on piano, and Marcus Gilmore on drums. Grenadier is a pro – thoughtful, lyrical, focused. Marcus Gilmore is full of energy and ideas and a deft juggler of simultaneously independent rhythmic flows and phrases. Simon produced endlessly beautiful and absorbing tableaux which, unfortunately, I was not always able to adequately descry, seated as I was some five feet behind the cauldron of Gilmore’s drum kit.

A young Berklee kid sat down next to me right before things jumped off. We were chatting and he asked me if “I played.” I’ve been playing guitar for over thirty years but I’m so self-conscious about my abilities that I responded, “Ah, I’m just a hacker. A journeyman.”

Later, as the band kicked in and I started to get a little lost in the music, I realized I should have told him the truth: I’m a latter-day beatnik jazz mystic type of guy. Ever since I heard Coltrane’s Ascension, I knew that jazz was a portal into the All, a complex and transient exploration of the infinite Now. When I hear jazz live, I’m looking for a hit of that.

And frankly, listening to Chris Potter’s angular, sinewy, but fleshed out and utterly human solos, and everything the band did around and through them, I got my fix.

Image source: Olivier Bruchez.

My Santana Problem

317438083_2e3067b329_mFine. I’ll admit it. I like Carlos Santana.

Not the resurgent, iPod friendly, Michelle Branch cum Matchbox 20 Santana of several years back, but the Evil Ways-Black Magic Woman -Oye Como Va-Santana of the hippie era.

Heck, I even dig the jazz-rock-fusion Santana of Love, Devotion, and Surrender and Welcome. And while we’re at it, I’ll cop to having a big soft spot for Moonflower, or about half of it anyway. There, I said it.

Why do I feel like I am herewith confessing to a regrettable aesthetic peccadillo? Because Santana is a one (or two) trick pony who plays a handful of licks with an albeit distinctively fat, warm tone, but who, when required to branch out on extended jams, quickly repeats himself and even more quickly falls back on a weird, wah-wah-fueled, ascending chromatic accelerando which is cool when you hear it for the first time as a thirteen year old but makes you shake your head when heard ever after.

Nevertheless, periodically I find myself listening to Santana, especially the first two albums and any live stuff I can dig up from the early 1970s. The Tanglewood concert on Wolfgang’s Vault is a good example of what I find compelling from this period of Santana’s oeuvre, particularly things like his frenetic but concise phrasing on “Batuka/Se Cabo.”

I think I return to this music, ultimately, because I consistently appreciate Santana’s unabashed devotion to melody, his rhythmic fluidity, and the fact that his playing frequently exhibits enough psychedelic bite to excuse me while I kiss the sky. To get a sense of what I’m talking about, check the outro-solo on “Evil Ways” where the guitar line twists and whips around like a paisley rattlesnake. My mind just blows and blows.

Certainly there is something clichéd about Santana (something which Zappa lampooned with his “Variations on the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression”), but it’s important to remember that it’s a cliché  Santana minted and coined himself on his journey from the strip clubs of Tijuana to the patchouli soaked stages of the Fillmores East and West. He’s an icon and a dinosaur who speaks in a hilarious hipster patois that I can never get enough of, but he is also the classic example of a musician whose art is inseparable, for good or ill, from the spiritual longing that burns at its core.

I don’t know how you feel about him, but if you like Santana, you’re going to love him live in Ghana. Enjoy:

Image Courtesy of dgans.

The Ecstasies of Metal

Learn from the mystics is my only advice. – Roxy Music [misheard]

opeth super metal mages and spiritual conduit to other dimensionsA friend suggested that I write a review of the Opeth show I attended on Saturday, May 2, 2009. I find myself quite incapable of doing so because, frankly, I cannot judge their music objectively or provide an accurate recounting of their performance.

This inability stems from the fact that my experience of Opeth was not primarily aesthetic in nature. Rather, as has been the case with the best metal shows I have attended, my experience in the presence of these masters of the art tended more towards the mystical/ecstatic realms of human consciousness.

Indeed, my most immediate memory of the show finds me in a state of frenetic, possessed movement accompanied by an ego-annihilating oceanic feeling. I give Opeth credit for inducing this state, a thing they accomplished via a sometimes subtly, sometimes savagely evolving rhythmic intensity coupled with serpentine melodies, strange words, and the trance-inducing repetition of droney, modal patterns.

Through its deliberate and complex structures – not to mention the aggressive amplification of sound and hypnotic manipulation of light – Opeth’s music invited the listener to become lost in its labyrinth.

However, it was not an all-devouring minotaur that awaited it us at the center of these intricate and winding passages. It was, instead, a refreshing, liberating, and, dare I say, “communal,” transcendence.

For all who seek the fortuitous and often unexpected profane illumination sometimes afforded by the marriage of technology and spirit in this post-everything age, I recommend that you seek out Opeth and especially the public display of their conjurings.

Image Courtesy of deep_schismic.