MAGNET Exclusive: Premiere Of Susan Alcorn, Joe McPhee And Ken Vandermark’s “Bing Says Ming”

Even free improvisers take requests, after a fashion. They’ll make up their own mind what to play, but they’re open to persuasion about where, when and with whom. It took one invitation by Nathan Cross, a promoter and the proprietor of the Astral Spirits label, to get pedal-steel guitarist Susan Alcorn on the same stage with brass and reeds master Joe McPhee in 2016. It took another to get saxophone/clarinet player Ken Vandermark to join the duo in 2017. You could say that Invitation To A Dream, the LP that documents their very first encounter, is Cross’ dream come true. 

The fortunes of McPhee, a septuagenarian from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and the Chicago-based Vandermark, who’s a quarter century younger, are inextricably tangled. Vandermark has said that McPhee’s Tenor album set him on the avant-garde jazz path he’s been on since he was 17. But since 1996, they’ve been staunch partners in improvisation. The Baltimore-based Alcorn spent years playing in Western swing and C&W bands before branching into free improvisation. While she’s performed at some of the same festivals as McPhee, she had never played with Vandermark until the day they recorded Invitation To A Dream.

But there’s nothing ephemeral or hesitant about this session. On “Bing Says Mind,” their staggered entrances create a platform for deeply affecting, musically rigorous expression. McPhee sings through his soprano saxophone, creating a hyper-emotional display that transcends language over a backdrop of radiant, droning strings. Alcorn similarly reaches beyond her instrument’s known vocabulary, fashioning an eerie tableau from abstract, plucked shapes and abrupt scrapes. Then McPhee switches to pocket trumpet, and Vandermark steps in on tenor saxophone for a brief tangle, which resolves into a coda full of longing and dignity. 

We’re proud to premiere “Bing Says Mind” today on magnetmagazine.com. Check it out below.

—Bill Meyer

MAGNET Exclusive: Premiere Of Fastball’s “The Help Machine”

Without even realizing it, Fastball has made its most Texas-centric album to date—at least from a roster standpoint. Due out October 18, The Help Machine (33 1/3) features esteemed scene fixtures Bruce Hughes and Charlie Sexton, along with members of the Band Of Heathens and Wye Oak. “We did give Charlie a call, but most of the time it was literally who was in the room,” says Fastball’s Miles Zuniga of all the local talent that casually found its way onto the Austin band’s seventh album.

Zuniga cites the title track as a prime example. Available here as an exclusive premiere, “The Help Machine” is as emotionally direct, sonically offbeat and weirdly beautiful as anything the band has recorded. At least partly inspired by Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush,” the song is also at least three years old. “My kid lives out in Marfa (Texas), and I was visiting him and decided to do some work while I was there,” says Zuniga. “I went into this studio and started fooling around, and the owner asked me if I minded if this guy came by to check out the place. It was Andy (Stack) from Wye Oak.”

Apparently, the two hit it off. “I asked him if he wanted to play on my record,” says Zuniga. “He said, ‘Sure, when?’ And I said, ‘Now.’ So he got behind the drum kit and played some keys. It all came together, and when it was done, I was like, ‘How are you gonna beat this?’”

Steve Berlin (Los Lobos, Diamond Rugs) agreed. Brought in to produce The Help Machine, Berlin loved almost exactly what he heard, adding only a few keyboard touches and backup vocals from Fastball cofounder Tony Scalzo. “I thought we would re-record it,” says Zuniga. “But he was like, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ We really let him call the shots on this album, and he saved us from a lot of bad musical decisions.”

The Help Machine (watch a making-of video for the LP below) has all the vaguely experimental earmarks of a middle-aged band seeking rejuvenation—and succeeding in its quest more often than not. Of particular note: Scalzo hands over bass duties to Hughes and moves to keyboards and guitar. After 25 years, why not?

“Tony doesn’t play bass live, so he didn’t care,” says Zuniga. “We can do the classic Fastball sound of chiming guitars and harmonies in our sleep. It was time to stretch our legs.”

—Hobart Rowland

MAGNET Exclusive: Premiere Of Mark Doyle’s “Detectives Medley”

Guitarist Mark Doyle has done it again. That is, Mark Doyle has finished the third installment of his Guitar Noir series. Watching The Detectives highlights television and film intrigue courtesy of spies and private eyes from days gone by. Conceptually sound and tastefully performed, Doyle’s instrumental album (out August 6 via Free Will) dusts off vintage tunes like Nelson Riddle’s theme from The Untouchables and Elmer Berstein’s long-forgotten “Johnny Staccato” (composed for a short-lived 1959-1960 TV show starring John Cassavetes as a jazz pianist/private dick).  

Doyle’s own list of accomplishments go back to the early ’70s when he was in an upstate New York rock band called Jukin’ Bone, followed by a stint playing some Bowie-esque glam jams with Philadelphia vocalist David Werner. While Guitar Noir III mostly sticks with the concept by embracing the “Kojak Theme,” “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and Dave Grusin’s “It Takes A Thief.” Doyle also contributes some original music as well new arrangements of Louis Cole’s “Everytime” and immortal Frank Zappa lounge parody,“America Drinks And Goes Home,” which Doyle performs in the style of—what else?—cocktail jazz.  

And so for your entertainment, MAGNET is happy to present the opening track of Guitar Noir III. Doyle’s “Detectives Medley” showcases Elvis Costello’s “Watching The Detectives” before segueing into the Get Smart theme and concludes with “The Untouchables.” The opening guitar riff is modeled after Costello’s original noir performance, and it provides an apropos introduction to the album. Overall, Doyle and his crack band play these tunes to perfection, with tasteful string arrangements and some really clever adaptations. Check out “Detectives Medley” below.

—Mitch Myers

MAGNET Exclusive: Premiere Of Ummagma’s “High Day” Video

On July 26, Ummagma will release Compass (Leonard Skully), the third album from the Canada/Ukraine husband-and-wife duo and first in seven years. Now based in Ontario, Alexander Kretov and Shauna McLarnon met in Moscow in 2003 and began a romantic and musical partnership. The dozen-track Compass follows two 2017 EPs, LCD (with Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie and Curve’s Dean Garcia) and Winter Tale (with A.R. Kane). One of the new LP’s standouts is lead single “High Day.”

Says McLarnon of the track, “It’s one of those ‘accidental songs’ that were created under odd circumstances. We were going through a tense time, living between two cities and seeing each other only when commuting ‘home’ with our daughter for the weekend. Something happened to cause us to fight; I don’t even remember what exactly and we were not talking to each other, but ended up having a guest come over—another musician. We took turns entertaining him because we didn’t want to be in the same room as each other. I hadn’t been singing anything for a few months at this point, and my husband found me singing with this guest upon returning. He took out the hand-held recorder and captured this improvisation. Later, upon playback, we knew that a song needed to be born, and we at least had an idea of the chords and stylings needed.”

So not only did McLarnon and Kretov get a song out of their quarrel, they also were able to use it to move past the argument itself. “It was a song of apology and awakening,” says McLarnon. “Not to say ‘I’m sorry for what I did or said,’ but to admit how stupid it was that we could both let something so small stand in the way of something so huge—that being us, our music and our family. This song helped us move past this to restore equilibrium in our relationship—and got me singing and writing again. This was our ‘High Day,’ and now it’s your ‘High Day,’ too.” 

We’re proud to premiere the Kretov-directed video for “High Day” today on magnetmagazine.com. Check it out now.

MAGNET Exclusive: Download The Ocean Blue’s “Kings And Queens”

David Schelzel weathered the Ocean Blue’s early success remarkably well—so well that it never really dawned on him that 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of his band’s self-titled Sire Records debut. “I guess that’s a pretty significant anniversary,” says Schelzel matter-of-factly.

Hailing from the choco-tourism hub of Hershey, Pa., Schelzel and the rest of the Ocean Blue were essentially clueless teenagers when they signed a three-album deal with Sire. Now, the band has officially been around long enough to earn the “dream pop” tag, a misnomer that didn’t even exist when they first hit the road to prove that they weren’t, in fact, British.

“We always had a pretty realistic view of who we were and who we weren’t,” says Schelzel. “We’re all really fortunate to come from loving, caring families with great support systems. For me, being in a band is not the sum total of who I am. In the late ‘90s, when having a career in music wasn’t really a viable option anymore, it wasn’t like my whole world fell apart.”

Schelzel turned his focus to academics, eventually heading to law school in Minneapolis, where he’s now a successful attorney. These days, only founding bassist Bobby Mittan lives in Hershey, though the band’s operations are still based there. “We’re fortunate that we had a history on two major labels, which promoted us extensively all those years,” Shelzel says. “We still have a fan base that cares.”

The Ocean Blue’s seventh album. Kings And Queens / Knaves And Thieves, is out on Korda Records, a Minneapolis-based cooperative imprint the band helped launch. Leading things off is “Kings And Queens,” an early-’90s throwback that efficiently co-opts the lush and airy artiness of Britpop’s more lavish leanings without sounding dated or redundant. (You can download the song below.) Like much of the rest of the album, “Kings And Queens” demonstrates the Ocean Blue’s continued proficiency as expert assimilators of all things strummy, Anglophilic and slightly world-weary. “It’s a classic existential song,” says Schelzel. “The big thing is that we’re all basically the same.”

King And Queens is the band’s second full-length release since its 2013 return after a 10-year break. Outside his law practice, Schelzel has kept himself busy on side projects like 5 Billion In Diamonds, led by drummer/producer Butch Vig and featuring members of Soundtrack Of Our Lives, Spiritualized and Echo & The Bunnymen. Fatherhood has also been a priority, and whatever’s left is reserved for music. “The Ocean Blue is still a huge part of my life, but I don’t have to look to it for a way to make a living,” he says. “And that’s tremendously freeing.”

—Hobart Rowland