Sep 30 2018
Getting acclimated to the cult’s new Kool-aid
So, there was a time when I was sizing up Chris Schlarb for a left hook. What are you even doing? It’s all going to hell!!! That would’ve been me shouting those words, right around the time I was giving Schlarb the beating he so richly deserved. He had it coming. He was fucking up my Psychic Temple ensemble.
Okay, if we’re going to be all technical about it, it was his ensemble. But since I had the indelible impression that I knew better than he what was best for it, then, by default, that made it my ensemble.
The writings of a fanboy are a terribly embarrassing conceit. A pathetic, unguarded display of feelings is a natural outcome of the proceedings, and a requisite lack of dignity in expressing them so unashamedly. So, with that preamble out of the way…
The first Psychic Temple recording hits me like it was written for me. No, it’s worse than that. It’s as if actual parts of my psyche were transformed into coded music notation, and then channeled back at me in sonic form. Hell, for all I know, I wrote the entire album and performed it all myself, and Chris Schlarb & Psychic Temple are simply my Tyler Durden… but, y’know, multi-instrumentalists instead of societal terrorists (though there’s only a slight difference between the two if you think about it while drunk).
A rotating cast of ensemble members and their diverse backgrounds in music meant there was no limit to what this album could sound like. Its seamless blend of jazz, rock, classical, pop, ambient and anything else they found in the cupboard transcends the genres that influenced it, and it feels wrong to even attempt to itemize the album’s components, as if putting name to things dispels the magic that binds it all together into a transformative sonic masterpiece. Something nameless possesses an inherent power, because if you can’t name it, you can’t control it. I have listened to that first Psychic Temple recording an obscene amount of times since it first hit the shelves back in 2010, and I have never once not been at its mercy. I cannot listen passively to the damn thing. It’s never served the role of background music. It commands my attention from first note to last, and if I had other things to do, well, that’s too bad… if productivity was my goal, I should’ve played something else. Because Psychic Temple is a force of nature. It’s elemental.
* * * * *
The more we feel connected to to a work of art, the greater the difficultly in running down the why. I’ve rambled similarly about Bill Frisell’s 1996 album Quartet. I’ve done the same about the soundtrack to the Thelonious Monk doc. If I could find a way to fit in a discussion about David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and The Motion Picture into this site’s raison d’etre, it would get the same treatment. This type of connection crosses between the conscious and sub-. It doesn’t even know they’re separate.
Three years later, when word reached me that Psychic Temple’s sophomore release was forthcoming, I was expecting more of the same. No pressure. All they had to do was offer up another transcendental work that would become one of my all-time favorite recordings. And, of no surprise to me, they came damn close to delivering it.
What did catch me off guard is how much it strayed from the debut. In retrospect, that may be more of a measure of the form of expression than the spirit in which it was delivered. They added some vocal tracks. If Schlarb had sought my approval beforehand (as he damn well should have), I would’ve nixed the proposal in a heartbeat. But this is a rare instance of me getting it wrong. The vocal tracks resonate like mad.
And they lead right out with it. The ethereal presence of Sarah Negahdari‘s voice on opening track “Seventh House” is as affecting as any Kris Tiner trumpet cry of melody. Arlene Deradoorian takes the somber tone of “All I Want is Time” and makes it feel okay to exist in a somber state. Even a left-field addition of the Aaron Roche take on Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” somehow fits into the flow of the album. I’m not sure how exactly, but it does. As a stand-alone, you’d think, nope, no way, and yet, I settle into it each time it comes around. It’s the kind of thing that would be easy to analyze to death. The thing is, it works, and sometimes that’s explanation enough. The gem of the recording is a rendition of Brian Wilson’s “‘Til I Die.” With Raymond Raposa, Nedelle Torrisi, and Sufjan Stevens combining on vocals, Psychic Temple owns this song. It’s theirs now. It’s like Aretha setting down roots on Otis Redding’s “Respect” or Johnny Cash hitting the unexplored vein on NIN’s “Hurt” or Hendrix doing the unthinkable with “All Along the Watchtower” and making everyone forget about the great Bob Dylan. Psychic Temple gave life to the complex mix of wistful hope and sublime surrender that Wilson brought into the world with his song, but never made it breathe quite like Schlarb’s ensemble. The Psychic Temple did all of that the second time around, and I was sure it was a creative arc that would never end.
* * * * *
Schlarb has this thing where he calls his Psychic Temple a cult. It’s pretty funny, and there’s no doubt that Schlarb finds it as funny, too, even as he relates this belief deadpan calm. And I’m sure nobody would get a bigger laugh if it ever came about that Psychic Temple truly became a full-fledged cult. And the way Schlarb excitedly goes about constructing the myth of his cult, I’m certain he believes there’s a chance it could happen. And, honestly, I wouldn’t bet money against him.
Hell, after those first two albums, I was a card-carrying member.
But then things began to change.
The second Psychic Temple album signaled a move away from the sprawling, epic pieces that embraced both unbound improvisations and ingenious editing techniques, and, instead, became more song-like. But it still had the spirit of the debut, in both form and substance. However, the third album (as an ode to consistency, titled III) marked a sea change. It was a recording of (dammit!) actual songs. Like you hear on the radio.
The intro teases with more of the good stuff on “Overture,” a moody instrumental piece that cries out with huge melodic statements that float gently to the ground before lifting off yet again. I remember thinking, oh hell yeah, the Psychic Temple has come back home, baby. But after that, everything changed. I remember checking several times if I’d accidentally mislabeled tracks with the wrong metadata. I deleted the album from my iTunes library and immediately re-added it… watching as the individual tracks populated the screen, one after the other. But it was clearly the third Psychic Temple album, and when I played that first song (SONG!) “When I know,” there was no denying that the cult I had joined so enthusiastically was suddenly preaching an entirely new doctrine.
Look, I enjoy plenty of country rock, and the more it brushes up against other genres and parallel influences, the better. I have memories of driving over Colorado’s Wolf Creek pass, covered with the dust of an overnight backpacking trip that will forever be associated with Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere blasting over the car stereo. Richmond Fontaine’s Post to Wire was my companion on a dangerous night in Chicago when a potent mix of exhaustion, loneliness and despair were transformed into the first pages of a new writing project and a new reason for happiness and hope. Hell, that last call drink is the best thing ever when the jukebox sends you off with “Tuesday’s Gone.” But when I joined this cult, that’s not what I signed up for. This was not my Psychic Temple.
I suppose I should have seen it coming. The signs were there all along. And it wasn’t just that the sophomore release had some songs where the first didn’t. It ran deeper than that. It was the songs Schlarb was choosing. The dead giveaway was his choice of that dumb Joe Jackson tune. It has such a compelling surge of melody that hits at just the right time, and makes me forget every time how much I really don’t like the dumb song. You don’t perform a cover of that song if you’ve got plans on long instrumental pieces for your next recording.
But the less obvious and infinitely more damning evidence of the upcoming sea change on the third recording was that lovely, soul-crushing rendition of “‘Til I Die.” If it could be said to have a sibling, it would be Gram Parsons’ “Codine.” Those songs share the same dark-despair-in-bright-sunshine dichotomy that sometimes leaves me strangely hopeful and sometimes pushes me inexplicably close to tears. You put your heart into a tune like that if you’ve got plans for your next album to hit some Flying Burrito Brothers territory, and I should have recognized it for what it was. A fucking portent.
And if I didn’t know then, it sure as hell got drilled home when Schlarb released the fourth Psychic Temple one year later. It not only doubled-down on the III‘s song structure foundation, but carried it through even better than the previous effort. That’s when I knew this was how it was going to be from now on. I was in a cult that had stopped serving my favorite Kool-aid.
But then, one quiet evening in Lexington, Kentucky, things changed. The sub-title to this column, I suppose, could have been How live music made me like my favorite band again. Or something like that. Better, hopefully.
* * * * *
There is a simple joy to just going out to see a show for no particular reason. Maybe you heard a track from some unknown band’s new album and that was enough to get you through the doors. Maybe the reason you purchased a ticket was because you really dig a particular venue, and it doesn’t really matter what band plays there because the surroundings make it special. Or maybe it’s just because it’s a Friday night and that’s the way you want to celebrate it.
The uplifting experience of living life as it’s meant to be lived isn’t something that often visits us. Or, perhaps it does but we’re not always receptive to those signals to recognize it’s happening. Whatever. Going out to see a show just because, for me, is a source of that particular euphoria. And on a quiet August night in Lexington, Kentucky, it’s what triggered my personal evolution of perspective on those third and fourth Psychic Temple recordings.
It was a warm Tuesday night in Lexington’s Distillery Distrinct when Chris Schlarb, Leeann Skoda and Philip Glenn performed at The Burl. They were touring in support of the fourth album.
The Burl is a neat venue. It’s got the feel of a renovated barn, all signs of farm life swept out the door and replaced with the immaculate rustic ambiance of a high-end Smoky Mountains cabin. Lots of wood in a shotgun building, stage and stained glass at one end, bar along its length, and plenty of spots to stand and listen. Lexington’s Distillery District is a relatively new thing. Located northeast of downtown (and the Rupp Arena), it sits along an intriguing stretch of Manchester Avenue, where old lofts and abandoned buildings and empty fields and installation art and crazy murals are embedded near railroad tracks and a neighborhood of aging bungalows and shacks. The Burl is part of the neighborhood’s refocus, and one of a handful of bars, restaurants and music venues to join the existing distilleries. The ‘hood still has that beauty of decay and sprouting of art that made it so magnetic to walk through in the first place. It’s a good place to go catch a show and hang afterwards. I was thrilled for the opportunity to see Psychic Temple in that very spot.
Lexington didn’t see the wisdom in joining me. It was a sparse crowd that evening. Schlarb, Skoda and Glenn took it in stride, got on stage and began playing songs from their fourth album. And, yes, even though I was face to face with the stage and the musicians on it, and even though I knew they were touring in support of the fourth Psychic Temple recording, I still had a hope in my heart that they’d perform pieces from the first two albums. As I alluded previously, when it comes to those recordings, I am pathetic.
I also went unrewarded.
However, by the third song, I stopped caring. By the fifth, it all became clear to me. Looking back on it now, I’m not entirely sure what exactly became clear, but that thought is still embedded in my memory as I recall the night. But it was the moment I began liking the third and fourth recordings.
This isn’t going to become some bait-and-switch column where I ultimately reveal a turn of events where surprise! Psychic Temple albums III & IV are now my favorite recordings ever. Because I’m not and they’re not. But those chronicles of the Psychic Temple bible speak to me where previously they hadn’t. The ringing clarity of music experienced live creates a line of communication that speaks with a different voice, and resonates at an entirely different frequency. I recognized many of the songs the trio performed that evening, but there was an unmissable sensation of hearing them for the first time, as if my ears and memories had been rebooted. As if the chant of the cult had found a new way in.
I was out to see a show. That was my world at that moment, and it allowed me to detach myself from all of the memories and opinions that bound me to the first two Psychic Temple recordings. The melodies of “Paper Tiger” and “Dream Dictionary” walked up to my ears with a warm hello, and my ears returned the greeting in kind. The hazy harmonic presence of “Spanish Beach” and “Nazarene Dream” shined bright and clear from the stage that evening. Everything felt new, and it was exhilarating to undergo the transformation of genuinely liking songs that I had previously tried so hard, and failed, to like. Live music had overcome the massive obstinacy of a cult member whose belief system had been shaken to the core. Instead, I had a fun night. I drank some whiskey, listened to some music, bought some CDs. I chatted with Chris after the show. It was a good night.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m still hoping Psychic Temple returns to the territory I so greatly adore, and that this whole song thing is a momentary diversion (and, yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds… please refer to Paragraph 3 inre: pathetic fanboy musings). Besides, things did get better. Schlarb got the cult back together again for a cover of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, which is one of the most ingenious things lately to hit the shelves. Somehow he traverses the distance between ambient minimalism and modern post-bop, and devises a strategy to make every step along the way a logical series of simple connections. It’s brilliant as much as it is beautiful. It’s different from those first two recordings, and yet still bird-of-a-feather. It makes me happy just thinking about it as I type this. So, there’s reason for hope.
There’s also faith, an essential component to any religion. And so when the fifth Psychic Temple album (inevitably titled V) finally sees the light of day, if my hope for its sound isn’t rewarded, I’ll have faith that hearing it live will reveal the majesty the recorded medium kept hidden.
Go explore, listen, and purchase, the music of Chris Schlarb and Psychic Temple on their Bandcamp page. However, there’s also Amazon if that’s your preference.
Jan 25 2019
So… about 2018, Part I: Me and the NPR Music Jazz Critics poll
This was my sixth year to be invited to participate in the Jazz Critics Poll at NPR Music. Begun originally by respected jazz critic Francis Davis back when the Village Voice was his home turf, this nifty compilation of Jazz’s best of 2018 is now housed over at the NPR site. This was the poll’s 13th edition, the 6th since switching residence to NPR. I’m no less flattered today than I was the first time around I was asked to submit a ballot, and it is an honest source of pride for me to be included. Of the many polls and composite end-of-year lists out there, I find the Davis/NPR poll to be one of the more thoughtful, inclusive exercises out there.
The amalgamated results feature the top ten and list the top fifty, as well as some sub-categories. It includes comments from Davis on each of the top ten results. They also have sample tracks from each of the albums that fell in the top ten, and links to various other articles about the artists. Also, Davis talks further on 2018 in jazz and his own ballot with a separate column on the NPR site. I’ve embedded some music that appears on his list and the amalgamated list throughout this column.
Also, the individual ballots are compiled and maintained by Tom Hull over on his site, Hullworks. In addition, there’s a list of all of the jazz critics, with links leading to their specific ballots. My ballot (Dave Sumner) can be found HERE.
Every year that I compile and create my own site’s year-end Best Of list reinforces my genuine respect for the work Davis, Hull and the NPR staff put into making this thing happen. It’s a mammoth undertaking.
Here was my ballot:
REISSUES/HISTORICAL: No choice.
VOCAL: Marije Van Dijk, The Stereography Project Feat Jeff Taylor and Katell Keinig (Hert)
DEBUT: Quin Kirchner, The Other Side of Time (Astral Spirits)
LATIN: Dos Santos, Logos (International Anthem)
I’m not going into the details of my list, since I pretty well fleshed out my thoughts and feelings in the official Best of 2018 list, as well as the various write-ups the albums received on this site and The Bandcamp Daily.
As I have every year (except for the first year I voted), I didn’t select anything for the historical/reissue category. I just don’t have time to listen to that stuff. There’s too much great new music out there for me to look back upon older stuff… especially considering that so much of the archival finds are typically mediocre live performances or studio sessions/tracks that were justifiably shelved back in the day. Be that as it may, the music of John Coltrane may very well be my blood type for how important that music has been to my life, so I did write something for this site about Both Directions At Once.
The thing of it is, some of the archival finds and reissues of long-dormant recordings are actually pretty spectacular. For me, this is especially true when it opens a window into the past, and in doing so, becomes more than just another audio tape covered in cobwebs, behaving, instead, as a postcard or time capsule to another place and time. I wrote about one such recording for The Bandcamp Daily: The Valley of Search, by Alan Braufman. I seriously considered making this my sole submission in the reissue/archival category, but chose not to. It would have been disingenuous for me to forego listening to most reissue/archival material but then include a couple things I really liked for a best of list. I would be guilty of the same criticism I level at some people voting in a best of list when the total new releases they’ve listened to number in the dozens or low hundreds. As such, I withheld my vote in that category. But definitely check out the Valley of Search recording.
Some thoughts about the amalgamated top ten recordings of 2018:
Here’s the Critics’ amalgamated list (with total points and total voters following each):
A rather novel experience for me is how much comparison there is between the amalgamated top ten and my own ballot. Albums by Makaya McCraven, Ambrose Akinmusire, Myra Melford and Thumbscrew make an appearance in both mine and the NPR list. And at the other end of the spectrum, only three of my top ten selections (Juan Ibarra, Marike van Dijk and Roller Trio) went unselected by any other critic. That number has typically been twice that amount in previous years. In truth, I expect it to be higher most years. My site typically covers music that most other sites do not, which means the inclusion of that music on other writers’ top ten lists is unlikely to happen. But that’s where I think this site provides value to the ecosystem of modern jazz and improvised music writing… discovering the hidden gems from the obscure places and self-produced and small label sources, and spreading the word as far as I can. It’s a role I happily fill, and one that is endlessly rewarding.
This is the part of the year-end column when I continue to examine my ongoing struggle with the music of Mary Halvorson.
Mary Halvorson makes an appearance on the list both with her own Code Girl and the trio project Thumbscrew. Writers’ preoccupation with her music appears endless. That statement, apparently, also applies to me. I continue to find her music confounding.
I also find it unpleasant at times while also experiencing an odd fascination by it. She has about as singular a sound as any artist could possibly aspire to. She does her own thing in her own way and her music is a direct reflection of that personal journey… and it’s something that has my undying and sincere respect. But like Code Girl, it doesn’t end there… Halvorson gets involved in projects that see her stretching out further from her own unconventional sound in wide open, unexplored territories of unconventional music. Code Girl is a prime example, both in how the music manifests but also with the birds-of-a-feather she collaborates with. WTF is my response to this. WTF?
I’ve have been listening to the music of Ornette Coleman for a great many years. For a time, I was a bit addicted to it. That addiction incorporated much of the classic free jazz recordings of the day. Even that which I didn’t much take to, I felt a certain appreciation for. But Mary Halvorson has my wondering what my reaction would have been like had I been alive and a full-functioning adult when the free jazz wave hit during the sixties. I think perhaps my reaction to Ornette Coleman would not have been one of adoration, and would not have led to addiction. I think I would’ve been typing about Coleman’s music on my blog with the exact same word usage and descriptive terms as I do that of Mary Halvorson.
That gives me some hope that, with time, more of Halvorson’s music will eventually connect with me. It also has me increasingly convinced that the modern day Ornette Coleman is not a saxophonist at all… but a guitarist named Mary Halvorson. I really hope Halvorson keeps doing what she’s doing, and I hope eventually her music and my ear achieve a sort of communion. But even if that completeness isn’t achieved, I look forward to the experience… no matter how it shakes out.
That said, it’s obviously not complete alienation between us. The Thumbscrew dual release Ours/Theirs was my site’s #4 album of the year, and like many of the albums slotted in the top ten, it received some consideration for album of the year. All of these conflicted feelings and contradictory reactions make me very happy. Some art should do that to us. Sometimes the challenge presented is more subtle, and sometimes it’s a slap to the face. As it should be.
I have to admit to my enjoyment of this exercise, annually working my way through my latest explorations of Halvorson’s music, and its continued status as eternal adversary.
Wayne Shorter Wayne Shorter Wayne Shorter. It doesn’t particularly surprise me that the underwhelming Emanon received the top slot in the amalgamated list. Shorter is a jazz giant, one of the all-time greats, so any new recording is going to get an obscene amount of attention. And if it happens to be an event, like the multi-media project came to be, the pre-admiration of it is likely to be extravagant. Overall, I found the album tedious. There was moments to like, some moments shined bright, but, for me, the album just dragged along far too often. The graphic novel that accompanied it was, well, pretty cheesy and strangely archaic. It reminded me of the facile science fiction/fantasy stories of the 70s in magazines like Heavy Metal and Epic Illustrated… superficial tales attempting to make grand pronouncements and profound observations that the writers and artists simply weren’t up to the task to communicate.
But, shit, whatever, I’m glad Wayne Shorter is still out there making new music and trying new things. He recently received Kennedy Center honors, and watching him regaled for all of his career work made me so happy. I was teary-eyed seeing his reaction to it all. It was just so gratifying to see this artist who had made so much great music receiving the recognition he so richly deserved.
I was having a pleasant evening eating dinner at J.Gumbo’s Lex, a cajun and creole restaurant in Lexington’s NoLi neighborhood. I had a good book, a wonderful meal, a pint of beer from the nearby Rock House Brewing, and experiencing one of those sublime evenings where the simplicity of the details somehow add up to a subtle complexity of highly-charged emotional reactions that are best described as subdued magic. That magic truly manifested when the restaurant put on a new playlist that began with Wayne Shorter’s “Night Dreamer,” a song that is indelibly woven in the fabric of my past and of comforting, happy memories. That melody was the final ingredient to conjure up the spell that made my evening magical. That’s what Wayne Shorter means to me, and a thousand Emanons won’t ever change that. I stare at the album cover to Night Dreamer or Juju or Speak No Evil or hear any of that music, and windows open to past, wonderful memories that flood into my present consciousness, and fill my life with the residual happiness of days well lived.
And that about wraps it up for today. Remember, as I stressed previously, go to town on that NPR Music Jazz Critics list… and not just the top ten list, but all the albums that received votes. Many of them have been written about on this site, but this is a great opportunity for you to revisit some albums that maybe you didn’t give enough attention before. Or, inconceivably, albums I might not have sufficiently recognized for their genius and joy.
Thanks again for stopping by. I hope 2019 is the best year ever.
By davesumner • Essays & Columns & Lists, Other Writing • 0 • Tags: Jazz - Best of 2018