Archive for February, 2013

Moscow Does Not Believe in Monkeys: Karl 2000

The record playing era is, aside from a sub culture of aficionados, largely over. The mainstream & casual listener now mostly purchases their music via digital downloads. This trend is also making extinct two interconnected aspects of what often made a great record even better, the art of the album cover and that of the liner notes. Of course there is still some image, usually in thumbnail, of the album cover when purchasing a download but it is not the same as having one of those old Blue Note Francis Wolf cardboard sleeves in hand. There was that tactile pleasure to it, a similar phenomenon as with the actual browsing without purpose in a record shop, which is how I have made some of my favorite artist discoveries. One can buy some obscure albums digitally but you must know in advance what you are looking for.  There is none of that magic of happenstance in coming upon a previously unknown gem. As for liner notes…some labels will digitally include them but it seems only the truly geeky, such as myself will bother with the extra mouse clicks to read them and getting someone to write something who is not in the band is becoming the rare exception to the rule.

Ironically when CDs first came out I had not been happy about the shrunk down image done to fit the packaging. I receive in the mail rather a lot of CDs each week which I still prefer over digital downloads even with their smaller than record covers. It seems like a lot of new acts, or people for whom making art is only one part of their lives, eschew the digital download album opting for the older CD format. It could be too that they do both and send critics and columnists the CDs as to avoid making us take up valuable space on our computer’s hard drive where the words should go.

My junk scientific method of taking CDs from my slush pile varies. I know that at least to the artist, every one of them is important. Usually if there is a form letter or no note specifically addressed to me I do not bother. And just as a mall glamour shots looking cover can instantly turn me off from its cheese factor, once in a while a cover can compel me to pick up the CD and give a listen.

Despite decades of a steady stream of technical innovations, space still smells like dirty pennies and seared steak *. The cold war was largely the progenitor behind the space race, the propaganda value of “winning” being worth more for a theological way of life than, with the technologies then available, any real practical applications of a space station or moon base.  The former Soviet Union launched monkeys and dogs into out of space, probably more than will ever be officially owned up to, not that they were by any means alone In this practice.

The eponymous album cover by Karl 2000 has the striking color scheme of red and gold. The aesthetics are reminiscent of old soviet propaganda posters if they had been done by one of today’s street artists, featuring a monkey wearing a soviet starred beret. Before even listening to the CD, I decided that this Soviet simian had somehow made his way back from space. This was Karl, cosmonaut hero. On the strength of the cover alone I grabbed this album from the pile with no idea what to expect.

The band is a New York based trio comprised of saxophone, bass and drums. The band goes for emotion over technique. That is not to say that they are not good, they are. One would have to be to have such tight but loose interplay as this trio. Overall they awe and please with how they play, not what. There is a punk(y) energy to them but not in a self-conscious hipster way of a jazz trio covering Nirvana or Radiohead. There is energy to the trio but they let it burst forth in just the right discordant amount which keeps the listener from becoming desensitized to it.

Drawing inspiration from a Russian folk melody, “Meadowlands” starts off with a sort of martial march bass and drum beat; comrades going out for morning maneuvers over which the bleary eyed saxophone staggers into formation line after a night of leave. The cadence of the song has a sort of late night downtown sound meets klezmer feel to it. The song is quick but how much must one say if they really mean it?

“A Cliff on the Volga” is also inspired by a Russian folk melody. It starts with an exclamation by Daniel Rovin’s saxophone, the dramatic declamation as can sometimes be heard in processional music (such as the Spanish Saeta).  The bass soon takes over in a deep rich solo statement until the saxophone comes back, softer this time.  It would be a misnomer to call this a ballad but it is slower and softer, yet they manage to keep their edge. Throughout this album one is reminded how gentile jazz has become. In all its myriad forms it is still enjoyable but the anything can happen, in the moment, component has been sort of pushed into the background. Of course I speak in broad generalities but people going to supper clubs drinking their top shelf cocktails as a band play really do not want to witness an artist experimenting or stretching out. They are willing to accept just the right amount of extra choruses in a song because it is live but the pieces should be a close approximation to what they are used to. The turn off to current jazz audiences with the in the moment aspect is that it could make for a bad show, an off night and the bottom line must win out. This trio brings back the discordance and chance elements that can make for memorable shows. The album has a live feel; live in the way jazz should be by a band making their bones.

The album is made up of originals and covers. There is the seemingly odd choice of covering The Partridge Family “I Think I Love You”. Here it is done with no irony but a straight read in the bands voice sans gimmick. Toward the end the horn gives a higher register almost vocalese of the song’s melody as drums and bass trade off propulsive bursts. Dave Miller’s drumming shows a hard bop muscle while also creating complex polyrhythms which are in line with some of the free/progressive elements hardwired into the bands DNA. In performance the band does allow space which they utilize for tension and coloration within their interplay. The sound of the album is pristine but with an ambient warmth so this works to great effect.

“Chocolate Wonderfall” starts off a frenzied piece serving up slabs of speaking in tongues funk. A club in Brighton Beach, it is the dance floor and stage slick with perspiration and whatever has dripped down the sides of everyone’s glasses. The saxophone squawks, a call to revelry as the drums and bass boil over.

“Derrrrr” Has a strolling bass. Austin White has a great tone light but not delicate. There is brightness along with a bit of bar surface dark woodiness. There is no flagging of intensity which can occur by musically trying to be all things to all people. The band is not repetitious in execution. Their influences and likes are diverse but they have a definite sonic identity and stick with it. There are Russian elements to some of their melodies but they are not seeking to fuse ethno-world music to jazz. It is one of many things they like, it is a part of them and it is authentic in that way without seeking out or the proclaiming of a formalized structure.

The album closes with “We’ll Meet Again” taken at a brisk pace. It has a sort of vintage sound to it with the percussion being produced by toy drums. It is the bitter sweetness of saying goodbye to a friend who then does something silly yet endearing as you turn around for one last look. The whole album is free of gimmick and engaging. There is no dichotomy between the organically occurring energy of the band and the studio. One could almost imagine friends and well-wishers in the booth, drinks in hand watching and cheering them on. I look forward to hearing more from them.

The tiles were black and white making the floor look like a chess board. I should have gone out but instead spent the day sitting on the couch contemplating the game. Finally I was shamed by the sounds down below of people coming and going swimming in the stream of an urban tide. I would run out at least for a drink.

It was not too busy and I managed to get the stool right next to my favorite one. I made some small talk but mostly listened as I wished they would either turn the music up or off. Looking out the window a monkey wearing an ushanka walks by a paper bag from which a bottle protrudes tucked under his arm. The monkey’s paws are gimp from the cold but they hang loose ready for action all the same. He no longer dreams of the glory days but will now settle for an afternoon of shadows and fur.

* A recent scientific journal article interviewed astronauts from several different eras who all commented on the fact that space had a distinctive scent. I am guessing at its bouquet.

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