Back to His Roots
Howe Gelb is one of those guys you assume must have been an original punk, because he’s unsettling to behold when not styled punk at all (Zappa-ish hair-mustache-goatee with decidedly unindie silver necklace), and because when he shambles into the set of shambles that time has proven to be his own, uninterested in alternative categories, the crowd skitters out of the room. Since the last Giant Sand studio album, Glum, in 1994, Gelb lived the death of his tumor-stricken collaborator Rainer Ptacek, recording part of his 1998 solo album Hisser from Ptacek’s hospital room. His comeback was to have begun last fall, but V2 at the last minute declined to release Chore of Enchantment, which will now come out in March on Thrill Jockey.
But Gelb isn’t totally alone: Drummer John Convertino and bassist Joey Burns have played with him for years, and when Gelb dropped out they formed Calexico, enlisting guitarist Nick Luca. As Gelb got moving at the Bowery Ballroom last Thursday, starting at a double-keyboard setup, switching to acoustic guitar and some electric, triggering at near-random intervals DAT tapes of opera, Mexican folk music, and Kansas City boogie-woogie piano, wandering through vocals on microphones that kept distorting, the three weren’t fazed. When Gelb said he’d just been to Sammy’s Roumanian Steak House (he identified with the comedian there from the dawn of shtick who tells awful jokes and plays worse keyboard) and launched into a gypsy reel, they were right behind him. They know his sound.
And it’s a real sound, as distinct as harmolodics or Beefheart, if less trailblazing. Gelb and Luca fast-picked some country at one point. This is roots music that accepts that roots is anything you feel like listening to, given a western sense of space and a hippie-punk sense of slack. Gelb rocks out less often, but his pacing and textures have never been more musical, and Chore of Enchantment, recorded with PJ Harvey’s John Parish and Memphis auteur Jim Dickinson, might be his best-sounding record. Does it have the strongest set of songs, you wonder. Hey, haven’t you been paying attention? —Eric Weisbard
Sporting hair the color of black cherries and a gauzy, floor-length black outfit that Queen Guinevere might have worn had she been a rock star, Chaka Khan confided to those assembled at the Blue Note last Tuesday that the very next day would see her in the studio cutting tracks for her new jazz album. Since for many of her fans each of Chaka’s albums is beyond category, it was interesting to hear her nail herself to a genre. But everything about this gig suggested Khan’s need to make a point about her career-long flirtation with jazz standards and jazz technique, which no amount of protean improvisation over funk, rock, or disco beats could provide. Oozing charisma and good cheer, Khan fronted a well-drilled quartet on keyboards, bass, drums, and cornet. The instrumental textures were intentionally heavy on fusion-era atmospherics, but the vocals were all bebop sass delivered with a subtle sense of Broadway drama.
Versions of “Them There Eyes” and “I Loves You Porgy” were given confident, imaginative readings. Her sly and triumphant performance of “I’ll Be Around” turned the song’s implicit resignation into wicked glee. She sang “Reconsider,” cowritten with Prince for her recent funk album, with a mean scat break. She recapped her soft-focus rendition of “My Funny Valentine” from Waiting to Exhale, and did a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Man From Mars” that underscored similarities between Mitchell’s unorthodox phrasing and her own. It was an all-too-brief set (a mere eight songs and opening instrumental), but a graceful career transition nonetheless. With both her daughter and Mary J. Blige in the audience that night, Khan was singing both to and for her legacy as the standard all the boldest, hippest, would-be divas have to beat. —Carol Cooper
Getting in Tone
Even while spending the last 30 years studying North Indian music, Terry Riley has never excluded the influence of ragtime and barrelhouse piano, which he once played in bars to earn college tuition money; the power, speed, and touch in this bearish 64-year-old’s left hand bring to mind John McEnroe, if only because Riley’s vagabond piano playing leaves you searching beyond music for comparisons.
In a program at the Merkin Concert Hall on Friday night, Terry Riley and the All Stars performed together only once. Though the ensemble switched formats (solo, duet, quartet) as often as they did modes (composed, improvised, or a combination), Riley’s imprint was prominent, even when he was offstage. He writes wandering sojourns that merge Western and Eastern styles; paradoxically, his music has a kind of restless restfulness. He plays piano with a glassy tone that’s pretty but not simplistic, and—in marked departure from the episodic pulses of “In C,” his 1964 landmark, arguably minimalism’s first meme—he amiably shifts form every few seconds, from witty, repeated chords to silence to fleet, trebly runs.
His group, on violin, saxophone, contrabass, and guitar, answer with subtle inflections, exploring the galaxy of tone. On “Diamond Fiddle Language,” the one quintet piece, Stefano Scodanibbio began by tapping his bow rhythmically on his contrabass, setting a swaying pulse that anchored the music. Riley sang in the Indian raga style of droning microtones, and after the others improvised delicate responses that goaded or delayed the sensuality, Scodanibbio capped the piece by attaching percussive shakers to his strings and gently plucking them. To these rock ears, the remarkable effect was like hearing Astral Weeks being rehearsed by a Bombay chamber orchestra. (Aside: With all five musicians performing, the stage was aglow with braided hair, pastel shirts, vivid vests, and Kenny G curls. Can’t the NEA fund a study to determine why new-musicians dress so badly?)
Riley’s baby-faced son Gyan played about 20 minutes of guitar music written by his dad, virtuosic displays in the classical-guitar tradition, with deft zigzags and finger-picked harmonies, like flamenco played with Buddhist pliability instead of Mediterranean bravura. In “Missigono,” Terry Riley applied his homely voice to mirthful verse that would’ve pleased Allen Ginsberg. “four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten/Judeo-Christianity, Muhammad, Zen,” Riley sang, obviously savoring the tone koan. —Rob Tannenbaum