Essential New Music: Dean Roberts’ “Not Fire”

Photo by Denis Laner

A dozen years separate Not Fire from Dean Roberts’ previous album, Uneasy Flowers, which he released under the name Autistic Daughters. Given the span of time, perhaps the most surprising thing about this new work is the sturdiness of the thread connecting it to its predecessor. Both were pieced together from recordings made all around Europe and the Antipodes. Necks keyboardist Chris Abrahams and sound manipulator Valeri Tricoli appear on both, and certain musicians who play on Not Fire have played with others who were Autistic Daughters. And both records impart a similar experience, which is that if you listen to them closely, they seem to get further away. 

It turns out that while Roberts’s pace of recording flagged, he never stopped; some songs on Not Fire have been in his live repertoire since 2008. He just got busy with other things, like teaching art and composing dance-performance soundtracks. Quite likely, the passing of time contributes to the perfectly pulled-apart sound of this music. While it contains all the necessary elements to be a fairly straightforward singer/songwriter album, they have been arranged so that the scale seems all wrong. Guitars peek out from way behind the drums; a piano and a slide guitar seem to be conversing from different rooms in the same house.

On album centerpiece “Heron,” the backing vocals cut loose from Roberts’ singing and strumming to dip and wheel and dematerialize like ghosts checking in and out from another dimension. These disorienting influences correspond to words that linger over vivid memories of old New Zealander talk shows and much less lucid depictions of people trying to sort each other out face-to-face. In that respect, Not Fire feels very reflective of a present in which not much works out and things don’t fit together.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Irreversible Entanglements’ “Who Sent You?”

When free jazz first manifested in the middle of the 20th century, it quickly became linked to the fight for civil rights. While framing it in those terms missed a lot of other things that the music had to say, the connection still holds, if only because freedom from poverty, incarceration and arbitrary death is still out of reach, and the music proves uniquely resistant to cooption.

Enter Irreversible Entanglements. Three years ago, the eponymous first album by the quintet—which comprises musicians from Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia—struck with the force of a comet no-one saw coming. The stern voice of poet Camae Ayewa (a.k.a. Moor Mother) rendered the music’s outrage and yearning with unmistakable clarity. But you get to be that surprising once, and Irreversible Entanglements is in it for the long haul. So instead of bowling the listener over, on Who Sent You?, the horns flank you with indelible melodies while the rhythms carry you at triple speed to exactly where you need to be. Ayewa’s voice seems to glide over the top, dropping truth and skepticism and memory with unerring precision, but she’s flying in close formation with the other musician. The fluidity and cohesion with which they throttle back and surge forward will bring you back again and again, all the better to hear the messages imparted by sounds and words. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Shane Parish’s “Death Bell Knellin'”

You could call Shane Parish a guitarist, or you could call him a cottage industry. Either way, you’d be right. The Asheville, N.C., resident has played pan-generic electric music with Ahleuchatistas, free improvisation with percussionists Frank Rosaly and Tatsuya Nakatani, and old American folk songs on Undertaker Please Drive Slow (a splendid CD released by Tzadik a few years ago). But in order to keep a household going, Parish is also a musician and instructor for hire; you might catch him playing rustic background sounds at the Biltmore Mansion, and you can drop him a line if you need a guitar lesson. He’s fully embraced the potentialities for self-releasing music that the internet affords. If he has a good session with a musician, he might put out a digital single, and if he goes down a topical rabbit hole, you’ll find the evidence on his Bandcamp page. 

A couple years ago Parish was gifted a copy of Fireside Book Of Folk Songs. He set himself the task of not only learning its contents, but documenting the effort, and over the summer of 2019, he put 14 volumes of solo recordings on Bandcamp. That’s 147 songs in all, and it’s all there if you want to take the deep dive with him.

If that sounds a bit overwhelming, however, there’s Death Bell Knellin’, which cherry-picks 11 tracks from the Fireside project. These include songs deeply familiar to American listeners (“Barbara Allen,” “Loch Lomond”), while others (“Hatikvah,” “Marche Lorraine”) are better known in other lands. One thing that’s apparent from the outset is that Parish didn’t just sit down and play these songs straight. He uses them as launchpads for improvisations informed less by the prescriptions of jazz or bluegrass than by his curiosity of where his ample technique might take them. Parish might halt the progress through a familiar melody to savor a bent note, or dig deep into a tune’s emotional vibe. Note that while these are songs with lyrics and vocal melodies, Parish lets his guitar do all the singing.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Charlie Parker’s “The Savoy 10-Inch LP Collection”

Whatever fails to kill a creative endeavor makes it stronger. You can argue that the music of Charlie Parker and the cohort of like-minded musical radicals that join him on this collection of music recorded between 1944 and 1948—Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Bud Powell and others—put a stake through the heart of popular, crowd-pleasing jazz. The tunes were unfamiliar, the solos flew at lightning speed and banked on the winds of inscrutable logics, you couldn’t dance to it, and some of the musicians playing it didn’t even smile. But instead of dispatching jazz, they gave it new life as art music, a conception that has kept it going half a century past its commercial zenith. You could say that Charlie Parker was actually an embodiment of Shiva, an agent of destruction and grace. 

Parker’s career was not a long one; he recorded his early sides in 1944, at the age of 24, and died 11 years later. The Savoy 10-Inch LP Collection captures him at the moment when bebop emerged, apparently fully formed, in the years right after World War II. Pressed to coincide with the centennial of his birth, this boxed set duplicates four 10-inch records that were originally compiled just as long-playing formats first overtook the 78-rpm single. The beefy cardboard of the sleeves and the modest-yet-palpable heft of the brand-new vinyl may help you drift away into a reverie of past times, but the music itself still bursts with the genius of invention, which cannot be obscured by over seven decades of emulation and evolution. Over and over, jazz has expressed the impulse toward freedom by advancing the language of the time, but the frenetic joy of “Ko-Ko,” “Donna Lee” and “Constellation” still speaks loudly today. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: CP Unit’s “One Foot On The Ground Smoking Mirror Shakedown”

Any tool can be used for either good or ill, but in music, virtuosity is especially double-edged. The ability to do something, or many things, really well certainly opens up possibilities. Unfortunately, one road often taken at that juncture is the one that treats displays of skill as sufficient ends in themselves.

CP Unit, which is led by alto saxophonist Chris Pitsiokos, makes all the right turns on One Foot On The Ground Smoking Mirror Shakedown. Everyone in the band (whose lineup changes from album to album) has the chops to negotiate the white-knuckle shifts in direction that are built into Pitsiokos’ four compositions, which encompass acrid blues and rubbery, baleful funk. But CP Unit is also attentive to balance and dynamics, and the musicians’ interactions during the pieces’ free-form interludes are short marvels of collective creation. Special credit must go to Jason Nazary, who doubles on electronics and drums, and admirably acquits the contradictory tasks of keeping the grooves on track as well as spinning the others’ playing through hall-of-mirrors distortions. 

—Bill Meyer