John D'earth - trumpet, flügelhorn and voice
Brian Caputo - drums and percussion
Greg Howard - Grand Stick
Produced by Greg Howard
Review by Gene Perry
(additional review by Emmett below)
AZUL’s self-titled debut album is a landmark progressive jazz work that explores the outer limits of the modern day trio. Their brazen approach to making an album is uncommonly innovative and simple; record a short session, completely improvised from start to finish, and then without changing the order of the tracks, release it with no overdubs as if it were a live performance. It sounds like a dare.
From the moment Chapman Stickist Greg Howard lets the genie out of the lamp in the opening riffs of "Wave after Wave after...", we are captivated with the lush wash of sound. His approach to each musical chapter is complimentary, providing a splendid canvas for John D’earth (trumpet, flügelhorn, voice) and Brian Caputo (drums, percussion) to wash over. D’earth is an impassioned and innovative horn player, at times emoting sounds of love and desperation, and then of victory and confusion. This, coupled with his creative vocal inflections, prove him an evocative storyteller. Caputo is the wildcard, willingly casting out the convention of “the drummer”, and instead opting for a more thoughtful and balanced approach to his role. Caputo conjures up a myriad of inventive percussive sounds and exhibits a level of patience not evident in traditional players of his trade. His organic rhythmic sensibility aligns perfectly with Howard and D’earth, creating a surprising and fun musical conversation.
The command each player has over their instrument is self-evident as they effortlessly bridge wicked grooves with memorable melodic elements that cascade over and under one another, so much so, that we forget that they are making this up as they go. What makes this session even more amazing is the group’s uncanny ability to engage the listener with each passing second. The music is colorful and playful at times, and then on the turn of a dime, thrashing wildly for air.
"Wave after Wave after...", video of the studio recording session, May 14, 2013
Was it a dare? We’ll never know, but we are assured that AZUL is unlike any trio we’ve ever heard. Its ingenious design is at once a fistfight and a love affair; a hard-boiled odyssey of sound and color, a blindfolded foray into the "wildlands" at midnight, and an unbending expedition through a multitude of styles and genres (progressive jazz and rock, funk, reggae, and ambient). As listeners, AZUL’s first effort has us willingly steering over the event horizon into the unknown and daring us to ask the question, "Where are you going next and can we come along?”.
Track Listing total time: 68:11
1 Wave after Wave after... 10:18 (see video at right)
2 Night Birds 6:35
3 Boys Make Noise 3:48
4 Seared, the Seer Soared 5:58
5 Wildlands 9:42
6 Tear Jay 5:02
7 Donít Be a Baby (note to self) 6:59
8 Queequeg 4:36
9 Whales Versus Ships 9:15
10 Ahabís Release 5:58
Azul, a trio of strings, wind and skins, of three ancient instrumental families now brought together with only the strings electrically powered for the lightest two-handed touch. Three musicians with a sense of acoustic space who play daring improvisational games, creating distinct songs on the fly.
The trio is compact, easy to fly, but the orchestral scope is broad. Each instrument is sovereign in its own sonic space but each musician is listening to the whole, observing the present past, the "remembered present" (a sensation of following the intervals more than the notes themselves). This is what communicates in a language of their own making.
Greg describes The Stick as "a high-speed idea conduit" and "an improviser's dream axe". In this seminal trio, he is in the process of defining the Stick's pivotal role in an improvising ensemble - very close to my heart as Stick creator. His "idea conduit" allows him full control over the harmony (the chord progressions and hints thereof from the bass on up) as well as the rhythm, texture, orchestration, counterpoint, overall mood, and an occasional lead solo as well.
This is an inspired (and inspiring) group that can draw you right into their conversations, and there are many musical subjects under discussion - much mileage ahead.
The Broke Ensemble:
Dale Ladouceur - Chapman Stick, fretless bass lead and background vocals
Bill Hobson - drums, percussion
Barrie Nighswander - guitars
Brett Miles - soprano and tenor sax, flute
guest players and singers
Dave Babcock - tenor and baritone sax, Bob Tildesley and 4-fingered Mike Johnson - trumpet, Nathen Connelly - trombone, Kevin Cook - electric slide guitar,
Doug Organ - keyboards, Dennis McNeely - synth, DJ Dice - turntable, Duane "Wink" Smith - bass, Dave Martineau - steel guitar, Minister Faust, Nathen Aswell,
Duane Smith, Bill Cowen, Sue Hodge, Randall Kraausser, Flower, Pearl, Sierra Jamerson, Hank Lionhart, Nigel Williams,
Nathalie Clark - background vocals
Produced by Dale Ladouceur and Bill Hobson
Review by Greg Howard
Singer/Stickist/songwriter/bandleader, are all hats worn with equal verve by Canadian Dale Ladouceur. Her latest release with The Broke Ensemble, Do Ya Think
is a variety show all by itself. From the great big band tracks that back up Dale's pure and powerful alto vocal, (horns, guitar, backup singers, the whole works), to more intimate small ensembles of Stick, drums and guitar, and even little solo vignettes, these 20 original tracks invite us into explore real life through Dale's eyes, sometimes deeply personal, sometimes broadly existential, sometimes humorous, always authentic. Stylistically, the tunes range from hard-hitting bluesy rock and roll with tight horn arrangements, to funkier open-ended fusion and R & B grooves, light pop, and straight jazz. The Stick is at the core of the instrumentation, surrounded by The Broke Ensemble, a cast of truly talented and supportive characters.
Emmett's observations: "I always enjoy Dale's use of evocative language (the personal story lines), her use of phonemes (the poetry of vocal sounds sans meaning) including all those delicious diphthongs. There's power and tenderness in her voice alone. (Her "H"s blow me away.)
Combine that with nimble fingers on Stick strings, creating rich song arrangements from the warm bass rhythms on up through adventurous chord progressions and melodic counter-themes. She's a natural entertainer and it's all there in solo form.
Now add a quartet of drums, guitar and woodwinds to her Stick arrangements and you have "The Broke Ensemble", capable of huge shifts in mood, rhythm, texture, and drawing from worldwide cultural sources.
It becomes very big at this point, very broad in scope, but it's all brought together by Dale's personality on this just released CD, "Do Ya Think". All her inner layers are laid bare. "Let's get real" is how I'd describe her musical soul, but then there's also her romanticism and idealism.
What's real and what's not? It all depends on Dale, but I know that her solid Stick backup is real."
Do Ya Think is now available from Stick Enterprises
Tom Griesgraber and Bert Lams - Unnamed Lands
Live version of "War Dance", November, 2012
2012 CD, 14 tracks, $15, early release copies now available.
Tom Griesgraber: Grand Stick, synths
Bert Lams: acoustic guitar
Unnamed Lands, the debut studio release by the Stick and guitar duo
of Tom Griesgraber (Agent 22) and Bert Lams (California Guitar Trio),
takes us on a settlers' journey through the Old West, an epic tale
often told in legend and song, but now re-imagined by Tom and Bert
through the lens of contemporary sounds, rhythms, harmony and
Thematically, Bert and Tom connect more traditional
sounds and styles with the hopeful point of view of settler
protagonists. From an anthemic "Don't Look Back", to a bucolic "Prairie Suite", a
nostalgic "A Letter Home" and a sentimental "Rebecca", all these
songs are quite "acoustic" in their character. Tom's clean, minimally
processed Stick bass sounds at times like a lower extension of Bert's
guitar strings, one register blending nicely with the other to
complete an orchestra of plucked and tapped strings.
Mysterious, aggressive, cacophonous, atonal and polyrhythmic elements
represent the myriad threats faced by settlers including the unknown
landscape ("Where the Trail Divides"), the hostile natural world ("Insects","A
Red Glow Against the Sky", "Lumbering Prowlers"), and the Native American
inhabitants ("Smoke Signals", "War Dance", "Unearthly
Screams/Scattered"). Each piece has a distinct identity, with
shifting keys, tempos and tonalities propelling the listener further
A beautifully designed and illustrated 12-page booklet (by Milk Graphic Design's Jack and
Laurent Durieux) spins the settlers' tale through
brief vignettes written by Tom, one for each track. The period-inspired
drawings and graphics complete the look and guide us on our journey.
As a duo, these two virtuoso instrumentalists have a chemistry that
can't be faked in the studio, but only comes through extensive
touring and rehearsing. They are both accomplished rhythm players and
soloists, trading these roles as needed, one always complementing the
other in thoughtful dialogue. The arrangements have a spontaneity
that belies the four years it took Tom and Bert to complete this
Unnamed Lands is spectacularly produced, with a clear and
integrated sound throughout, as mixed by Tom and Howard Givens of
Spotted Peccary Records. Though there are no drums present, the naturally
percussive tones of the Stick and the acoustic guitar lay out the groove
with driving precision. This sonic landscape is alive with wailing and
abstract synths, distorted Stick and guitar polyrhythms and leads, and
always that far-off horizon. Who knows what we will hear as we cross
the next ridge on our way to the glorious Pacific?
TRACK LISTING all songs by Tom and Bert, except 2 amd 13, by Tom
1 - Unnamed Lands
2 - Don't Look Back
3 - Prairie Suite
4 - A Red Glow Against the Sky
5 - Where the Trail Divides
6 - A Letter Home
7 - Insects
8 - Vaquero
9 - Smoke Signals
10 - War Dance
11 - Lumbering Prowlers
12 - Unearthly Screams/Scattered
13 - Rebecca
14 - Pacific
Unnamed Lands is now available from Stick Enterprises
Rundio - Carved in Stone
2010 CD, specially priced, $12, now available.
review by Greg Howard
Rundio: Chapman Stick, Stick loops, Zendrum, synthesizer, acoustic guitar, drum loops guest performers
Steve Dedow: guitars, vocals
Steve Clarke: baritone and soprano sax
Ellen Dedow: vocals
Ian Sinclair: djembe
Lucas Jacobson: shonga
Rundio describes his music as "atmospheric progressive rock with ancient overtones", but don't let the word atmospheric fool you. There's lots of energy here, and if you'll forgive the pun, Carved in Stone frequently "rocks", hard.
The Minneapolis-based multi-instrumentalist (a.k.a. Louis Sinclair), patiently sets his songs up with big, warm Stick bass grooves, loopy Stick melody rhythm parts, and the Zendrum, a sophisticated drum-sample triggering instrument that he commands equally as well as The Stick. On top of it all he delivers melody after melody of warm lyrical Stick leads.
In the age of "digital recording", this one sounds anything but. Rundio's distorted leads just cross the feedback line, sustaining and melding with one another in this, his sonic crucible. His Zendrum playing is incredibly natural sounding, tastefully spare, and always in the pocket, even on the more demanding polyrhythmic "prog" tracks. I found myself admiring "the drummer" more than once.
SAMPLE TRACK: "Pendulum"
The layers build and shift quickly, inviting the listener to delve deep with open ears, lest we miss a fleeting sound or texture ("hey, what was that?"). At just over 43 minutes it's a quick listen, so pay attention!
Most of the tracks are by Rundio, except for "Alchemy", a heavy rocker co-written with guest guitarist/vocalist Stephen Dedow, and Henry Purcell's "Funeral for Queen Mary", majestically delivered in the bass and baritone ranges of The Stick. The meaty, aggressive, full-bodied sound of his PASV-4-equipped Baritone Melody 10-string is all over this record, and Rundio is able to blend it perfectly with acoustic guitar, electric guitar, synths, Steve Clark's baritone and soprano saxophones, and the Zendrum samples and acousitic percussion, to great effect.
All tracks by Rundio except where noted:
1 - Pendulum
2 - Chimes of Stone
3 - Funeral for Queen Mary (Henry Purcell)
4 - Shadows
5 - Pop Culture
6 - Heartfelt
7 - Twilight
8 - Chalice and Blade
9 - Alchemy (Rundio/Dedow)
10 - Slog
Carved in Stone is available from Stick Enterprises and also from CD Baby and popular download sites like iTunes, etc.
Michael Bernier - Leviathan
2011 CD, specially priced, $12, now available.
review by Greg Howard
Michael Bernier: Chapman Stick, guitar, bass, violin, acoustic drums, V-Drums, bowed Stick and vocals guest performers
Michael Schirmer/bass clarinet and piano
Multi-instrumentalist Michael Bernier's new release, Leviathan,
doesn't so much invite as compel the listener into the deep, where
the sounds are loud, heavy, energetic and eerily beautiful. If you go
by first impressions, the odd time signatures, angular guitar licks,
soaring whammy-pedal distorted melody, and relentless polyrhythmic
drums are a clear offshoot of the King Crimson branch of the
progressive rock family tree. But Michael is adept at re-inventing
his medium, and so there's another layer to this album, that of an
original stylist with his own approach to music.
The title track is by turns dense and powerful, then spacious and
open, giving guest drummer Pat Mastelotto plenty of room to stretch
out, and for Michael to take a truly lyrical bass solo. "Sunrise" is
lushly layered with ambiguous chords and rhythms, a most effective
contrast to the opener.
Though he could easily have made Leviathan a one-man show (his own
drumming, guitar, bass, vocal and Stick work are on display), the
guest performers add their own personal color and brilliance to the
album. "Parasite" introduces us to Michael Schirmer's voice-like
bass clarinet, and Caryn Fitzgibbon's driving "rhythm volin".
"Burbur" and "Circus Elephant" with their electric piano and rolling
open-ended cadences recall a heavier side of the progressive music
family tree (bands like Soft Machine and even echoes of Frank Zappa).
His use of these sounds pushes the bounds of the heavier progressive
context. It's a kind of inventiveness that shows up in other distinctive
ways, like when he takes the cello bow to The Stick (a Bernier signature
technique), or pairs bass clarinet in unison with chunky heavy metal
guitar chords. It's great to hear Michael's fast and fluid Holdsworthian
two-handed melody soloing applied to the bass side of The Stick as well.
After four instrumentals, "Leviathan" itself is reinvented the powerful vocal track, "The Old Ways".
Half rock ballad, half death metal, somehow
it all comes together as a memorable song. His standout Stick bass
part provides a powerful counterline to the vocal. You'll find
many great arrangement ideas for The Stick throughout this CD.
Unlike his recent Stick Men CD and live tours with Tony Levin and
Pat Mastelotto, this music was not born in live performance, but was
carefully crafted in the studio. Here the elements fit together in
compositionally imaginative ways, proving that Michael is as adept in
the studio as onstage.
2011 CD, specially priced, $12, now available.
review by Greg Howard
Nima Rezai - Grand Stick, AcouStick, santour, Stick-controlled synths, electronic drums
Jesus Florido - violin, viper violin
Dan Heflin - flute, soprano and tenor sax
Christopher Garcia - drums, shaker, clay drum, tabla, djembe, kanjira, frame drum
Adam Darling - electric guitar, classical guitar, electronic drums
Delton Davis - cajon, shaker, triangle, chimes, bongos, vibes, Darabuka
Brad Ranola - Pocket pandiero, ribbon crash, surdo, talking drums
Houman Pourmehdi - Daf, Udu, bass drum
Harry Scorzo - violin
Milad Derakhshani - Taar
John Zeretzke - kamanche
Michael Alvarez - cello
Kevin Goode- piano
Randin Graves - koto, guitar, ebow, didjeridu
Nima Collective is the new project from Bay Area Stickist and composer Nima Rezai.
Nima has expanded his Merge quartet into a full-blown world music orchestral ensemble, supplementing the core sound of Stick, drums, violin and saxophone with Persian string instruments (taar, santour and kamanche) koto, didjeridoo, and unusual percussion instruments like the Udu drum and darabuka, as well as synthesizers and electronic drums. With such a broad array of sound and musical traditions to draw from Nima collective spans not only the globe but also the centuries.
The orchestrations are deep.† Each new listen reveals new sonic layers sounds.† On some tracks, like the opener "Division",† the mood shifts dramatically even with† steady pulse ó from mystical soundscape to ancient, percussion groove, through a contemporary World Beat melody and then into an "electronica" interlude, all in the space of five minutes.
Their version of what is arguably the first "world music" pop recording, the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood", takes its time,† languidly laying the familiar melody over an "orchestra" of exotic acoustic and electric strings.† Nima sounds out his roots on "Persia", with a majestic melody and an epic cadence that sounds like it could be have been played in Cyrus's court.† The AcouStick prototype even makes a brief and powerful appearance at the center of "Memory On", which recalls John McLaughlin's foray into Indian music with the band Shakti. †
Nima is a generous band-leader, letting violinist Jesus Florido and saxaphonist Dan Heflin assume many of the melodic and solo roles, but when it's his turn, as on the original "Three Steps", he lets loose with a dramatic and daring lead.† He's just as adept at weaving his clean ACTV-2 equipped Grand Stick's tone among the edgier acoustic instruments, or laying down a delicious synth pad under his two colorful soloists.
VIDEO MONTAGE OF SELECTED TRACKS
There's a fresh interpretation of Sting's "Fragile" with Florido getting down into the deepest range of the violin for some soulful soloing.† Fans of Bob Culbertson will recognize "Float", a tune he co-wrote with Rezai and Heflin, and there are some really catchy original melodies as well.† The climactic Hendrix "Little Wing/Machine Gun" medley is perfectly answered by the coda track, "Take Me Down", with it's casual elecronic backing track and moving on melody.
Each track highlights the Collective's skill as arrangers, as well as Nima and Toby Rosen's excellent production.† And while each cut is very complete in its own right, taken as a whole Songs of Strange Delight is really a pleasure to listen to, again and again.†
There's a line somewhere between the solo musician and the duo where Stick players often find themselves — between laying down a groove with their left hand for the right to take a solo, and building complex interwoven two-handed chords or two-handed bass parts.
In his new CD, All No Talk, Jeff Norem obliterates the line, using any and all sub-techniques to create energetic and intimate instrumental solos and duets between his two hands, and even duets between layered Chapman Stick and Alto Stick, reminiscent of "piano four hands".
Among Stick soloists Jeff may be the most guitar-like to come along yet, both in sound and style. He has a remarkable ability to integrate his two hands to create an open, rolling "finger-picked" sound just by tapping.
His ACTV-2-equipped 10-string reminds me of Ralph Towner's acoustic 12-string guitar, bathed in spacious reverb. The sound resembles carefully plucked strings, which Jeff holds onto, coaxing out every last vibration before moving on. When doubling his long-scale Stick and Alto together, offsetting them by octaves, it sounds like a gigantic 12-string guitar (but with a deeper bass range). On solo Alto tunes, his tone with the PASV-4 is warm and ringing, like John Abercrombie's hollow-body electric.
"Projections", the opening track is something of an opus, nearly 10 minutes long, and built largely around a pulsating midrange loop. Themes and tones appear, disappear and re-emerge, and there's a refreshing conversational looseness about it that seems to expand the possibilities of loop-based music.
On the Flamenco-inspired "New Quixote" Jeff's high-energy interlocking hands create a percussive finger-picked guitar effect, sonically recalling Micheal Hedges's no-holds-barred approach to using all possible techniques on his acoustic guitar. "Just a Minute" offers another take on the Alto, an intense, almost frenetic, bluesy two-handed dialog. His right-hand solos are often soulful and expressive, but at other times are fast and furious.
"Blue is Your Color" is a true solo on 10-strings, that starts out with some languid octave lines and jazz chords, but then Jeff ratchets up the energy with some blindingly-fast improvised passages. Even though it's clearly a two-part piece, Jeff finds the relationship and makes the musical connections.
On the "The Oval" Jeff explores a driving two-handed melody, stretching it out in all directions with subtle variations on thematic patterns.
Jeff's use of subtly different ambient effects for song adds a sonic flow to the album, which was nicely produced and engineered by John Durr. The natural energy and flow of the performances is captured ó particularly refreshing in an age of perfectly sliced, diced and and re-spliced digital music.
Track Listing (all songs by Jeff Norem)
2. Blue Is Your Color
3. Enter Here
4. The Oval
5. A Few Words
7. New Quixote
8. Just a Minute
All No Talk is now available from Stick Enterprises.
Stick Men - Soup
2010 CD, Papa Bear Records, $15, now available.
review by Greg Howard
Tony Levin - Chapman Stick and vocals
Michael Bernier - Chapman Stick and vocals
Pat Mastelotto - traps, buttons and vocals
Some recordings are bound to make waves. Soup, the debut CD by the new band Stick Men, might just create a tsunami. Soup turns conventional ideas about rock bands on their heads, and churns up some surprising new musical pathways for The Stick in its wake. The band is a trio of Tony Levin and Michael Bernier both on Stick, and drummer Pat Mastelotto (on sticks, no less). This isn't just a first CD for this new trio, it's also the first time we get to hear Tony in a full-fledged composers' collaboration with another Stick artist.
All 13 tracks have a hard metal edge, and occasionally veer into "atonal", primal thrashing. They rarely follow conventional forms, and frequently shift direction, introducing new themes and grooves in rapid succession. Even the tunes that slow things down a bit have a smoldering energy from the ever-present distorted Stick lines and Pat Mastelotto's battling drums and mysterious triggered samples.
Comparisons to Tony's previous work with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson will be inevitable, I believe, and fans of those bands will surely find a lot to enjoy here, as there are many connecting points in sound, rhythm and orchestral timber. Tony's role as a composer and arranger in those earlier ensembles was well known, and his sensibilities seemed to focus on the overall sound over and above isolated notes and lines. His signature sound has always been warm, punchy and decidedly "analog", even when opting for a serious dose of bass overdrive or a crunchy rhythm part. The main thing that separates Stick Men from these earlier groups is that all the parts you'd expect from electric guitar and keyboards are now being done on dual Sticks by Tony and Michael. The sounds they come up with are often truly "guitar-like," even without a picking hand.
Michael Bernier's lead lines are blazingly expressive, rivaling some of the best lead guitarists. He may just do for two-handed Stick melody what Tony did for two-handed Stick bass. Both players are fast, precise, versatile in every register, and they make it all look and sound easy. In live performance, these two Stick artists trade roles frequently, Michael jumping on the bass as Tony plays overdriven rhythm and lead parts, then vice versa. Each player can focus both hands in any musical register with laser like concentration. Thus the whole range of the instrument is covered all the time, and even the most ambitious of the material on the CD has been making it into their live performances.
One of the hallmarks of Tony's career must be that he has never stopped searching for new sounds, new sub-techniques and new musical roles. This desire to explore new territory is at the core of what makes Stick Men work so well. Tony's and Michael's collaboration began as an exchange of techniques and ideas. Even though Michael was not the first player to bow the Stick's outer strings or the heaviest bass string that sits highest at the center, he is the first I've heard to develop this technique far beyond "novelty" status. Where other players have relied on E-Bows and volume pedal swells to approximate orchestral strings, he manages to create everything from high trilling strings to the deep viola-register lines on "Firebird", and the haunting sounds of the Middle Eastern rabab on "Inside the Red Pyramid", using the real thing, the bow with all its lyrical control and dynamics. It's an exciting new development in Stick technique that's sure to inspire imitators.
Both Tony and Michael use the standard "Stickup" module, and both play through separate guitar and bass amps. But their setups diverge in one key way. Michael uses a lot of digital processing (modulation effects, pitch transposition and filtering) before running into his amps. Tony's signal path is all analog - warm, chunky, full and articulate. Both of them use a wide variety of tones with volume swells, filters, and lots and lots of distortion. Did I mention they use a lot of distortion? This has got to be the "heaviest" Stick music ever created, and a bit mind warping. So let's dig in...
From the first minute of the CD, it's clear that "Soup" is no ordinary consommé. It comes at you with relentless energy, shifting textures, thunderous grooves and explosions of intensity. This is the primordial soup of a nascent musical planet, ionized by lightning, and giving rise to a new life form - a band that can really rock out without any guitars.
The opener and title song finds Tony and Michael "rapping" about supercolliders over a funky bass harmonic and drum groove, which alternates with an apocalyptic heavy metal instrumental section. Michael's solo is positively searing. This is music that will surely appeal to fans of guitarist Steven Wilson, leader of Porcupine Tree, who mixed this track. The other two additional "Soup chefs" are Tony Lash, and Larry DeVivo, with the band mixing "Firebird" themselves. (I think you'll agree, it's the perect number of cooks...).
Next comes the three-part "Hands", the first of two suites on the record. Initially, "Hands" recalls the high-intensity guitar polyrhythms of Thrak-era Crimson before settling into a primal drum and "noise" backing track for Tony's mask-filtered vocal. "Hands" hints at what's to come, with rapid-fire two-handed arpeggios, resounding bass notes and crashing drums.
"Fugue", with chorused chords, swelling "synth" pads and ska/reggae/dub bass and drums is reminiscent of The Police, that is, except for the high-speed, percussive, two-handed bass part that occupies the foreground. It's the kind of part that could only be played by two hands tapping in tandem (as with Tony's work with Liquid Tension Experiment).
"Scarlet Wheel", the closest thing to a ballad on the record, builds on Tony's classic percussive Stick bass sound plus swirling mallet percussion. It's a chance to rest up a bit before climbing to the apex of the album - four movements from Igor Stravinsky's "The Firebird Suite".
While many progressive rock bands have covered works from the classical repertoire, this can frequently come off as an adaptation of the music to fit the band's established style, and the pieces are often less harmonically adventurous than the original score. Stick Men, however, isn't just a band, it's also an orchestra with all three members making the most of their full-range instrumental pallets and virtuoso chops. Thus these three "Stick Men" approach "Firebird" from a different vector, defining the band through a truly original interpretation of this challenging music, rendering it faithfully, yet in a completely contemporary style. They are not merely performing their "take" on some famous classical composition, rather, they manage to put a whole new perspective on Stravinsky's music. In the interest of not giving too much away, it's safe to say that fans of this piece will be pleasantly surprised to hear it re-imagined with such sharp discipline, and those of us who don't know Firebird can discover why this influential 20th-Century masterpiece is still ahead of it's time a hundred years later.
(Yum!) Please, Sir, may I have some more?
Track Listing (all songs written by Stick Men, except "Firebird", by Igor Stravinsky)
Hands - part 1, 2, 3
Inside the Red Pyramid
The Firebird - part 1,2,3,4
Jim Meyer - Stick
Mike Michalkow - drums and percussion
Don Schiff - NS/Stick and GuitarVol (bowed guitar) on Downshift 405
Zoran Todorović - Synths on Morning Light, Camucia and The Berrypatch
Boris Dražić - The Eggman
These eleven original instrumentals are presented in a mainly Stick/drums duet format, with some additional colors added by percussion, synths and a wide array of effects on Meyer's Stick as well. Some have a straightforward "rock" feel, while others are more progressive, with intricate shifting polyrhythmic layers.
Jim's ACTV-2 bass sound isn't "heavy" but rather clean and articulate, like a big baritone guitar, interweaving accompaniment arpeggios with Mike Michalkow's driving drums. He uses many familiar melody colors, like the whirling, distorted organ effect on the opener, "Ignition", and soaring distorted lead sounds and growly overdriven rhythm parts.
"Downshift 405", a mid-tempo rock ballad, introduces some great sounds from guest artist Don Schiff including a fretless-sounding NS/Stick bass part and sliding fuzzed-out lead, and the enigmatic bowed GuitarViol.
After three fairly straightforward tracks comes "Jade", a "conversational" piece that changes direction and feel many times, with all the themes relating to each other nicely.
Several of these tracks find Jim really "rocking out", his bass strings in tight lock-step with Michalkow's drums. Other's are more laid-back, like the lush "Camucia". Jim is clearly influenced by other contemporary instrumental composers (Pat Metheny and Tom Griesgraber come to mind), but his voice is definitely his own: energetic, emphatic and lyrical.
Boris Dražić, who honed his mixing skills in the underground studios of the former Yugoslavia, has blended things perfectly, setting the stage for Jim to make his entrance. Even though the drums have a big rock sound, Jim's Stick grooves and leads are clear as a bell.
No Matter How Faint There's Light In Everything 2009 CD $15.
review by Greg Howard
Alex Nahas: vocals, Chapman Stick, keyboards, melodica, percussion
Nick Smeraski: drums, percussion, keyboards, acoustic guitar, trumpet
For those of you who may have been wondering what Alex Nahas (Laughing Stock) has been doing for the last 10 years, this is it — writing, singing and recording some brilliant songs, full of pathos and alienation, but sweetened with strong doses of optimism. Together with fellow multi-instrumentalist Nick Smeraski (drums, percussion, keyboards), the now Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter looks to the American West for sonic and thematic influences on this new collection of cinematic originals. Singing Stickists are something of a rarity, perhaps because it would seem even more difficult to play two parts and sing simultaneously (a debatable point). True or not, Alex doesn't minimize the musical underpinnings of these songs; there's a lot of creative Stick playing going on as well.
Alex is a singer for our time. As we ponder our post-millenial and post-9/11 zeitgeist, feeling like aliens in our own society, we live out our lives waiting for something big to happen ("gray sky, make up your mind..."). Alex invites us to be more in the present, but there's a catch. He willingly pulls our cultural reference points out from under us ("There never was the 1950s...no such thing as the American Dream"), but he's kind enough not to leave us sprawled out on the floor; there is something more.
From the dessicate "Like Texas" to the plaintive and even more partched "King of Thirst", this music often broods along with us, but Bright Brown never fails to counter our collective agita with healthy doses of climactic major chords and high-arcing vocal choruses. Here are echoes of Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake, but with much more urgency ("I come to you seeking relief. Are you listening? Do you hear my plea?"). Alex's voice is immediate, dry and full of emotion, perfectly suited to these self-described "melodramatic pop songs." He's also become a father, and turns his imagination as the ultimate outsider to his infant son Aurel's new life, inside and outside of the womb ("...want to know what it was like inside"). These songs are about relationships, between father and child, individual and society, ("am I moving or just another roadside attraction?"), dreams and reality.
The musical relationship between Alex and Nick comes through loud and clear, and soft and sure. Smeraski knows how to hold back, and then rain down drums upon us at just the right moment. There's an unmistakable "band" tightness between the two. Sonically, Bright Brown is a classic rock trio of bass, guitar and drums. Together they know how to weave a quiet tale, but they also know how to "rock out." The "bass" and "guitar" are Alex's ironwood 10-string Stick, run through old tube amps, and sounding all burbly and warm, with chunky, overdriven leads, and a twangy tremolo that spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone would be proud of. While the role The Stick occupies in this music is already clearly defined, many of the lines are unique to tapping and the interweaving between the hands that it brings. Sometimes painfully spare, and sometimes lush and clamorous, these are masterfully produced tracks - dynamic, engaging and full of heart.
Argentine Stickist Matías Betti's Verdadero Fruto is a diverse and impressive debut Stick CD. These eleven instrumentals run the stylistic gamut from his own raucous composition "Tras los Pasos del Gigante," where he slaps and whacks his ten string Stick in time with the heavy rock drums of Andrea Alvarez, to romantic ballads, like the theme from Charles Chaplin's 1952 film "Limelight" ("Candilejas"), also composed by Chaplin. "Alfonsina Y El Mar" is a lilting waltz by Félix Luna and Ariel Ramirez, a tribute to Alfonsina Storni, the Argentine poet who ended her life by drowning herself in the sea. Matías shows a remarkable gift for getting inside the tune, telling it's story patiently, awash in the softly swelling zanfona (hurdy-gurdy) played by Adrià Grandia.
For anyone to attempt a recording of Ravel's "Bolero" in this day and age is remarkably brave, as it has been recorded so many times before. Matías offers a truly contemporary take on Stick with drums, guitar and percussion, and soaring electronically harmonized Stick melody lines. It's an engaging and fresh version of a widely popular piece of music.
Matías's Stick sound bridges the divide between acoustic and electric instruments. There is a real punch, edge and growl to the bass, and his melody is sometimes sweet and lyrical, and sometimes distorted and heavily processed. In his left-hand chord accompaniment I can clearly hear his fingers engage the strings. He seems perfectly at ease with the whole range of sounds at his fingertips, and uses them all with good effect.
Matías and his supporting cast of musicians perfectly complement each other. Most of the pieces are duos or trios with clearly conceived overdubs. The sound is deep but never cluttered. Cides contributes an ambient wash to "Floreciendo," providing an ambiguous tension against the broad major and minor tonality. Matías's own compositions are melodically often as sophisticated and memorable as those he choses to cover, especially "La Esencia", which lingers playfully in my head after each time I hear it.
Stylistically, Matías brings a clear and distinctive new voice as a composer and interpreter of his musical roots, capable of looking backwards into the music of the past and bringing it forward into the present. I wonder what the future holds for Matías?
1. Tras los Pasos del Gigante (Betti)
2. La Esencia (Betti)
3. Bolero (Ravel)
4. Candilejas (Chaplin)
5. El Camino de lo Imprevisto (Betti)
6. Tribal (Betti)
7. Alfonsina y el Mar (Félix Luna and Ariel Ramirez)
8. Mar Aéreo (Betti)
9. El Sostenido y Vertiginoso Avance del Tiempo (Betti)
10. Floreciendo (Betti)
11. Verdadero Fruto (Betti)
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