Guitars In NYC: Fred Frith, Frank Zappa, Jonathan Richman, Robert Cray, Lenny Kaye, Bob Mould, Frank Marino, Jim Hall & Roky Erickson

Martin Longley By

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Fred Frith
The Stone
October 30, 2010

In the old days, when English guitarist Fred Frith lived in New York, locals could bask in his constant presence on the scene. Following this 14 year period, from 1979, Frith moved to Stuttgart in Germany, and has now been teaching at Mills College in Oakland, California since 1997. On his way to a performance at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in England, he stopped off in NYC to play two sets at The Stone.

The first of these was a duo with the joint's owner John Zorn. The small corner-space had reached capacity long before its 8pm start-time, so the pair decided to begin early, at around 7.50pm. Not surprisingly, the tense chemistry between Zorn and Frith produced improvisations that were mostly constructed from curt, sudden bursts, gaggling emissions and violently curtailed phrases. The two improvisers almost became as one, uncannily knowing when to cease abruptly or continue a statement that the other had started. Or echo and sustain a particular tone. This is a notable Frith gift: the way he would catch onto the tail end of a Zorn gargle/choke/hack, matching a floating note to decay into the otherwise quiet space. All the while, balancing pressure on his two foot-pedals, to shape volume curves. Occasionally, Frith and Zorn both seemed to apply this technique whilst responding to stray honks or siren sounds outside the venue, keeping in tune with their lingering resonances.

Near the start, a disruptive argument to the rear of the room caught Zorn's glaring attention, creating a pause, then heightening the duo's equally belligerent re-commencement. Zorn made a rare return to using a detached mouthpiece, almost re-visiting his old duck-calling days. Frith prompted melodic riffs at several junctures, Zorn rapidly responding. There was an almost cartoon slapstick, a joy of bodily sounds as Zorn buzzed his lips, sucked his horn and showered the front row with spittle. Then, the mood would scythe into ragged aggression, with Frith sculpting contained distortion and Zorn blasting out the contents of his mind's ruptured stomach.

Zorn always seems to to be watching the clock. Come 8.30pm, the twosome were off downstairs. They returned to acknowledge the enthusiastic response, but resolved not to play another piece. Yes, their music is a compacted delicacy, but for an audience who had patiently lined up around the block and paid $20, this was a remarkably brief set. We savoured it while we could.

Frith's 10pm solo set was a more relaxed affair. Not that its music was in any way bland, but it was free to stretch out with a logically linear development, rich with layers as Frith sampled textures, sketched figures and juggled rhythmic clunks. He's one of the most sensitive guitarists that a person can ever hope to witness. There's a complicated relationship between picking, stroked floating, percussive striking and volume manipulation that results in a total soundworld that almost becomes removed from its source. This is at the same time as it being the absolute embodiment of all that is the guitar, inside the wood/metal body'n'strings, and extending outward to the abstractly amplified ether. The entire piece seemed like a suite, as each characterful section segue-ed into another. Frith was dropping metal containers onto the strings, then dangling small chains to create rumbling panoramas. At one stage, he was pouring what looked like lentils from one container to the other, setting up a repeated percussion pattern on the amplified string-stage. He would use paintbrushes, attach clips, glide glass, employ an e-bow, all in the name of electric orchestration. Although very different from the earlier set, it was seeing Frith alone that impressed the most, facilitating a complete immersion in his very unique guitar-world.

Project/Object with Ike Willis & Ray White
B.B. King Blues Club
November 1, 2010

Just like a classical new music concert, but at fifty times the volume: Project/Object made a swift return to B.B.'s, presenting their ongoing dedication to/replication of the Frank Zappa songbook. The towering guitarist and composer provides the sole reason for this band's existence, but they are never overtaken by musty nostalgia or precious rigidity. Zappa's music is presented with fire and forcefulness, spontaneity and extremity. 2010 has been a year out on the road. Between their last appearance at this club in early January [also reviewed by your scribe on AAJ], they have been touring the USA and Europe, and now the climax has almost arrived in this very club, with only a handful of dates to follow. Tragically, 2010 has also seen bandleader André Cholmondeley's wife Cheri Jiosne lose her two year battle with breast cancer. The guitarist dedicated this gig to her memory, and indeed the entire tour.

As with the January show, the New Jersey band were fronted by singer/guitarists Ike Willis and Ray White, both of them long-serving Zappa sidemen. This guarantees a high level of authenticity to the treatments, as if Project/Object weren't already sufficiently imbued with the FZ spirit. As Willis and White were the lead vocalists on many of Zappa's late-1970s and 1980s albums, they make it possible to capture an extremely sympathetic set of renditions. Cholmondeley is always maintaining freshness by switching around the set-list, including old favourites, but frequently pulling out a less expected chestnut. Mad Viking scientist Erik Svalgard (for this is how he appears, with his plastic horned helmet and theremin aerials) is still surrounded by Moog, organ and clavinet (at the very least), and the combo's original drummer John 'Mumbo' Cochrane has returned to the fold.

Willis has more of the caustic FZ demeanour, adopting the role of arch cynicist, whilst White emanates a more cheerful and peaceful aura. It's Willis who grabs much of the distorted guitar solo responsibility, sharing this equally with Cholmondeley. White tends to craft a more soulful or funky-chopping set of figures. Project/Object, astoundingly, played for virtually four hours, starting not long after 8pm, and stormtrooping up until around midnight, with only a brief intermission. At no point did their playing slip below the electrifying level. It's difficult to ascertain whether an audience member who had little previous FZ experience would be neck-grappled to such a degree, but your scribe had his wobbling stack of Zappa vinyl, CDs and cassettes in clear mental view.

The absolutely outstanding exhumations this time around included White singing "The Illinois Enema Bandit" (last time here, he aborted any attempt due to a throat infection), pure soul emoting with a most unlikely subject. Also, the substantial section of Joe's Garage (side 3's Act III) was presented in all its glory, the guitar soloing against the eternally ascending riff of "Packard Goose" providing the fullest release.

Jonathan Richman
The Bell House
November 2, 2010

The eternally youthful Jonathan Richman is now actually on the cusp of being sixty years old, but he still has the mind of an enquiring child, and he can still dance like a teenager, even if that's a teenager from 1957. In fact the act of dancing has become increasingly important to a Richman performance. As he long ago forsook any attempt at touring with a band, or even a small band, the dancing outbreaks have taken on the role of an instrumental solo, alternating with Richman's own Spanish guitar flourishes and the sparse paradiddles of drummer/congaman Tommy Larkins. Richman's dance steps spring from the retro-beach beatnik scene, with a vocabulary of hand-rolls, high kicks and held poses, his thinking-man posture being a particular success. On this evening, Richman revealed that much of his guitar language is descended from that of Clifton White, particularly his work for soulman Sam Cooke.

In his superficially simple songs, Richman and Larkins are all that's needed to paint life's tableau. Apparently, the night before, at The Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan, Richman's voice completely seized up, but he fought on, and on this second gig he was glugging water as another alternative to singing, strumming, dancing and talking to the audience. Famed for always demanding that circumstances be just right, and ever-sensitive to his habitat of the given night, it was praise indeed that Richman took an immediate liking to The Bell House in Brooklyn. He's been known to demand the switching off of thrumming air conditioning in high summer. The crowd were mostly exceedingly rapt, concentrating in silence whilst the delicate intimacies unravelled, but responding with enthusiasm when some kind of dialogue was appropriate. Richman reveals that the rapport between himself and longtime sideman Larkins has become so intense that the drummer can often anticipate which song Richman is about to play. Then, Jonathan decides that he can now tell when Larkins is feeling this emanation, and sometimes this will make Richman change his mind again. Regardless, Larkins will probably pick up on this shift too...

The repertoire was quite similar to that of two years ago, when I saw Richman at The Concert Hall in the New York Society For Ethical Culture near Central Park. He's gradually dropped most of the older staple songs that folks still cry out for, though Richman did skip through a very brief "Egyptian Reggae." Highlights from the active songbook include "No One Was Like Vermeer," "Let Her Go Into The Darkness" and "If You Want To Leave The Party, Just Go." He only sings songs if he's still feeling their sentiment.

Experiencing a Richman gig always holds the excitement of whether his natural innocence and defiant naïveté will breach slightly to comment on the sinister world outside. Was it my imagination, or is our entertainer more willing nowadays to reveal his darker observations?

The Robert Cray Band
B.B. King Blues Club
November 3, 2010

Speaking of darker observations, the twilight realms of diseased relationships have always been a favoured subject in the sometimes fatalistically resonant songwriting of Robert Cray. Over the years, this bluesman's gigs have sometimes been subject to variable qualities, ranging from the intense to the pedestrian. In recent times, though, he has attained a regal peak, playing to the height of his abilities on both record and stage. Cray had already appeared at B.B. King's earlier in the year (March 2010), smoking stronger than their kitchen's barbecue. This swift return was not quite as blazing, but was still packed with prickling vocal refrains and stinging guitar solos. Indeed, Cray's guitaring has such a voice-like expressivity that his waterfalling string statements seem like a continuation of his lyrics. There are certain of Cray's songs down the years that have become classics of forlorn love, or perverted romance. These include "Strong Persuader," "Back Door Slam" and "Right Next Door (Because Of Me)," all of them doom-steeped stand-outs at this gig. Now, from his latest album, "Chicken In The Kitchen" has taken its place amongst them, and was an impeccable choice of opening song.

Bob Mould/Lenny Kaye
City Winery
November 4, 2010

This double bill of singer-guitarists was an odd coupling of rock generations, although they were both presenting songs that were reasonably removed from the works of the bands that bred them. Lenny Kaye went on first. It's hard to decide who should have been headlining here. Kaye's status might be higher as a longtime sideman to Patti Smith, but his solo existence has had a lower profile, as he self-deprecatingly joked during his set. In keeping with the singer-songwriter vibration, his electric guitar was held at a conservative volume, with most of the freed-up solo licks delegated to his accompanying bassist. Kaye's original material was moderately engaging, and his presentation likable, but this ended up being merely a moderate showing.

In a syndrome that seems to affect performers who have long ago left the influential bands that gave them their rock'n'roll status, Bob Mould's solo sets frequently seem to produce a feeling of frustration. We always yearn for the electric storming of the old Hüsker Dü, their melodic wall of sound. This is not because we are aging nostalgia freaks, unwilling to taste new musics. It's because those recordings often represent the highest point of an artist's career, an achievement which they are cursed to chase forevermore. I'm just attempting to explain the surge of relief at the point where Mould put away his semi-acoustic guitar and picked up his electric. He did this much earlier in the set than has recently been the case. I think that he's feeling the urge to rock out, more and more. An important point to make is that much of his songwriting skill revolves around the layering and sculpting of tuneful noise-cascades, and that this activity sounds best when utilising a feedback or distortion wall, however restrained in volume. Mould's voice is made for this setting. The earlier semi-acoustic songs tended to involve a jangling sameness that's not suited to how folks hear the songs in their heads. Mould is one of those players who we really would like to appreciate more, but it's just a question of circumstance. Interestingly, he wore his semi-acoustic axe slung even lower than his electric, with an amazingly long strap that left it almost at knee-level. Such low-hanging is almost always the province of the electric guitar.

Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush
B.B. King Blues Club
November 5, 2010

Now, here's an example of the full electric behemoth. Even standing right back at the B.B.'s bar, this gig was immensely louder than the club's Project/Object gig earlier in the week, which was experienced from a frontal table. This was no bad deal. The Canadian veteran guitarist doesn't particularly look like a veteran. He looks very much like he used to look 30 years back, at least from a distance. Long hair and fringed jacket. Possibly his psychedelic guitar solos have increased in duration. Marino doesn't sing much: in fact, when he opens his mouth for a song, or to occasionally speak to the crowd, this comes as a shock. When Marino embarks on a guitar solo, we can expect to be transfixed for at least 20 minutes. Then his band's second guitarist might break out for a spell. Most of the shorter (the word 'shorter' is subjective) songs are Jimi Hendrix covers, or songs that you'd swear were Hendrix covers, but are in actuality Marino originals. It's easy to identify his greatest influence. At first it looked like Marino's self-imported sound engineer was amusing himself by gobbling a full table of B.B.'s provender, but upon closer observation it became apparent that he was also an old timey real-live liquid lightshow creator, responsible for the psychedelic back projections that were turning the Mahogany Rush set into a literal trip through the cosmic oceans. He might have been secretly squirting barbecue sauce onto his illuminated stellar light-stage, though.

The Jim Hall Quartet
November 9, 2010

After a few days in which to recover, your scribe headed to the near-Times Square zone once again, this time for the late set at Birdland, where the music was resting at the furthest possible point from Marino's excesses. The very-nearly-80-year-old guitarist Jim Hall was perched on his stool, with fellow quartet members gathered in an intimate circle to make music of the utmost sensitivity and quietness. New York native Hall has chosen players from varied backgrounds, creating a chemical formula that's unlikely in its composition, yet very comfortable in its meshing. Drummer Joey Baron is increasingly found within the mellower realms of jazz, where his detailed approach to percussion and rhythmic suggestion can find startlingly fresh expression. Likewise, the bassist Steve LaSpina was adopting the lightest possible touch, delivering detailed lines that left plenty of open space. He prefers a singing, smooth sound rather than any gutstring brutalising or grainy dragging. Altoman Greg Osby seemed at first like the outsider, as though this normally extroverted blower was having problems operating at the required level of restraint. His first few solos would tail off without a fitting conclusion. This tendency was soon rectified, though. For the rest of the set, Osby seemed to perfect the art of making capsule, logical structures with a clear climax and conclusion.

The set was, on the surface, concerned with a very predictable run of standards. It didn't take long to realise that "Bags' Groove," "My Funny Valentine," "In A Sentimental Mood" and "Chelsea Bridge" were set to be lovingly deconstructed. Softly swilled around the mouth by a team of connoisseurs, but fortunately swallowed lovingly rather than spat, unwanted, into a bucket. About half way through "My Funny Valentine," I'd forgotten which tune we were hearing, only to be reminded when its theme eventually returned. This was a wonderfully labyrinthine soloing journey.

Hall was fiddling with his amplifier, never satisfied with his sound. However, his guitar has an attractively muted, clipping sound, not overdoing the jazz reverb. It's almost as though Hall is trying for a certain dryness, to maximise the percussive striking of his strings. The second half of the set moved into less likely compositions, with the Brazilian standard "Beija Flor" (named after a hummingbird), "Furnished Flats" (based around Benny Goodman's "Six Flats Unfurnished") and the tricky 16-bar blues "Careful." This was an ample performance, with an abundance of impeccable solos from all four players, not only masterful when alone, but also in their relationships with the glowing musical whole. Exquisite.

Roky Erickson
The Bell House
November 10, 2010

The following night, it was back to the psychedelic rock. In fact, singer-guitarist Roky Erickson is one of the genre's creators, as a founder of the 13th Floor Elevators in the late 1960s. Lately, he's being backed up by the much younger Okkervill River combo (also Texans), and it's a marriage made in acid heaven. Although this show wasn't up the orgiastic standard of their 2010 New Year's Day gig at Park Slope's Southpaw, they still roked out with gusto. Erickson frequently starts up each song with an abrasive guitar figure, before the rest of the band leaps in, churning up an insane miasma of freak. It's actually Will Sheff who provides the manic guitar solos, with Erickson sticking to a deep-toned rifferama, leaving him free to sing in his theatrically ominous tones. They should have played on Halloween, as "Night Of The Vampire" and "I Walked With A Zombie" were particular stand-outs, revealing some of Erickson's major obsessions. He is surely the king of gothic acid rock.

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