Category Archives: NYC

Shifting Into Summer: john Shannon’s newest project debuts in Florida


The Shift

Jack Rabbits

Thursday, June 11

“7th Direction” is an impressive debut EP from The Shift, a New York-based trio whose show at Jack Rabbits this Thursday comes at the end of their first-ever swing through the Sunshine State, amidst a tour that’s taking them from coast to coast. “The tour has been great,” says lead singer/guitarist John Shannon, writing in from the road. “Our starter went out on our van the other day in Alabama but luckily there was a bowling alley with a bar across the street from the mechanic.”

I’ve known Mr. Shannon for nearly a decade, having met through mutual friends at his old Brooklyn loft back in 2006. Our party watched “An Inconvenient Truth” at the Sunshine Theatre one night, with Questlove’s afro partially blocking the view. I first saw him perform a couple nights later, at Manhattan’s venerable Jazz Gallery, playing guitar in the sextet backing ace cellist Dana Leong; it remains one of the ten best jazz sets I’ve ever witnessed, anywhere. He was then leading his jazz group Waking Vision Trio, which put out a couple of excellent albums a decade ago.

From that first initial meeting through the week spent pacing the circles he runs in, he made an immediate and impactful impression on me, not just as a person, but as one of the most prodigious musical talents in a dense, dynamic scene that was then just beginning to be branded as the borough we know and love (and kind of envy) today. His current group, which includes bassist Ben Geis and drummer MJ Lambert, is his newest and most polished vehicle on a musical journey that has already taken him around the country, more than once.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1980, John Shannon’s released three albums under his own name: “American Mystic” (2008), “Songs of the Desert River” (2010) and “Time Was A Lie” (2012). Critics have compared his work to masters like Tim Buckley, Nick Drake and Paul Simon; the albums have earned praise in places like Rolling Stone, Minor 7th and Time Out NY. His credits include sideman work with Bob Reynolds, Ben Harper, John Mayer, James Maddox, Lauryn Hill and Hiromi Urehara; he’s also recorded with Gary Go and Sonya Kitchell, whom he also backed on tour, as well as composed music for the FX show “Louie”.

In many ways, The Shift represents the present culmination of careers cultivated throughout the 21st century, a syncretic smash-up of the members’ traditional training, processed through years of long nights working club gigs in one of the most competitive commercial markets in the world. The album was recorded in less than a week, using a mixing board in Brooklyn that had once been used by George Martin to record the Beatles. Shannon writes the lyrics, while his colleagues build the music together.

The New York of their generation is simply not a place where you can last for long unless you’re good, and all three have put in practically a decade, ample time earn the confidence that comes through so clearly on the album. Shannon’s voice evokes nothing so much as mid-70s Robert Plant, while the clean, crisp tonality of the instruments gives it a prog-rock flavor, with the kind of tight, dextrous articulation that one would expect from three alumni of the Berklee School of Music—a school so prestigious that using the word “prestigious” to describe it is practically a cliché in music journalism. “It’s kind of a microcosm of the future music business when you’re there that seems to than move out into the real world—at least it has for me,”  says Shannon, who randomly encounters fellow alumni on a regular basis in his travels.

“If you know you have something strong, unique and a band willing to persevere,” notes Shannon, “you end up in more of a relationship/competition with time than with other bands. If you can use that inevitable pressure involved in the process of getting recognized to be more creative, resourceful and alive, then you are already winning.”

Book review: “The Squared Circle”


The Squared Circle: Life, Death and Professional Wrestling, by David Shoemaker, aka “The Masked Man”. New York: Gotham Books/Penguin. 386pp, ill.

David Shoemaker’s The Squared Circle is only the latest entry into a literary market already well-saturated with books about professional wrestling. Most of these books have been hagiographical scribblings by ghostwriters, passing themselves off as memoir; these books are useful, given their access to the subject at hand, but they often fail to pass muster in terms of actual readability. Others have been written by outsiders, by fans and nominal wrestling “journalists”, some of whom are legit, while others are hacks who lucked into a small-press book deal.

Shoemaker’s book, however, is something of an anomaly within the genre—a full-length, hardcover book about wrestling published by a major imprint (or, at least, a subsidiary thereof) and handled with the sort of care that makes clear that, however bizarre and ridiculous pro-wrestling can be, the author retains real passion for a business that, frankly, makes no sense to the average person. In entertainment terms, pro-wrestling may be the ultimate niche market.

“This is a book about dead wrestlers,” he writes in the introduction, as if he’s offering the reader a spoiler alert for a pre-taped wrestling show that you personally attended. That is, there is no way to tell the story of professional wrestling over the past 30 years with any kind of historical accuracy without directly addressing the unprecedented wave of premature death that has befallen the business in that time, starting with that of David Von Erich in February 1984 and culminating with what the wrestling media now euphemizes as the “Benoit Family Tragedy” in June 2007.

Writing as “The Masked Man”, Shoemaker has done some of the most interesting writing about pro-wrestling in recent years, working mostly for Grantland and Deadspin. This book is not an anthology of that material; it’s rather takes a fresh look at a subject that has already been covered extensively from almost every conceivable angle. The fact that he manages to consistently generate new original insights speaks to his skill as a writer and, more important, his almost-intuitive grasp of what makes the business click. Shoemaker is at his best when explaining why certain characters resonated with fans as well as they did, breaking down their inner motivations and our own subconscious affinity with their message. Basically, he writes like someone who actually respects pro-wrestling; imagine that!

To say that The Squared Circle is a page-turner would be a gross understatement. Making the point more finely, it’s one of the more interesting wrestling books ever written by a non-wrestler. It has a good bit of new material that even seasoned fans will be unfamiliar with, but much of the stories spin around plots well-ingrained in the memories of casual fans from the ‘80s and ‘90s boom periods. Even so, Shoemaker renders all his information in a peppy, easy-to-digest style that, in itself, offers an object lesson in how the wrestling business has managed to achieve a new level of mainstream appeal that, while not as lucrative as in previous eras, is far more pervasive in the long-term, as well as the tragic price that so many stars paid for their success.

November 27, 2013

Notes on Gannett layoffs, and the business in general…


I just finished reading about the latest round of layoffs in the newspaper industry, in this case Gannett, arguably the most powerful media organization in America today. Props to Jim Romenesko for breaking the story, which is Brutal–just brutal. As a journalist based in Florida (where Gannett owns seven newspapers, three TV stations and four radio stations), I’ve watched in horror as this process has unfolded over the past decade.

This is the first generation of newspapermen who’ve proven incapable of doing business correctly. The number of veteran reporters, photographers, cartoonists, etc. laid off over the past decade could fill a medium-sized arena–and the papers and magazines they left behind are, in most cases, either shells of their former selves or just out-of-business altogether. A number of papers have installed pay-portals in hopes of increasing revenue, but that has the effect of limiting the size of their audience; even The New York Times, the greatest newspaper of all-time, is suffering, although it appears new editor Jill Abramson has done a really great job getting the “Old Gray Lady” back in fighting shape.

Consumers of media need to be more aggressive about using their power to make clear what they want from the product, and editors and publishers around the country need to grow some balls and stop playing a defensive game with new media. The web caught fire in the late-’90s, right as the old guard of print media management was exiting the stage; having weathered multiple storms in the post-war era, they might have managed the transition more effectively, but their replacements seemed to instinctively view the Internet as an existential threat to their operations. Around the country, editors and publishers alike were largely dismissive of the potential of “new media”, and the bias can still be discerned from their public statements. As a result, most papers did not begin to develop their digital game until it was almost too late–and once they did, the transition was handled badly, because their heart wasn’t really into it.

I’ve always likened the dynamic to that of the radio industry at the dawn of television. Many performers and executives for those networks similarly dismissed the new technology’s potential, and either refused to familiarize themselves with it altogether, or waited until it was too late. As a result, many careers ended, and several companies went defunct. But those who were open to the new technology, and made sincere efforts to acclimate themselves to it, ended becoming the people we now recognize as the pioneers of television; most of the top stars thus remained viable for the rest of their lives, and their families benefit from the royalties to this day. Likewise, print media outlets should stop thinking of the web as competition for the business, while engaging in counter-productive, reactionary decision-making, and instead start appreciating it as simply a powerful new tool to augment and enhance their business. Those who prove capable of doing this correctly will end up as the dominant forces in the media environment of the future–a future that may already be upon us.

Interview with Alessandra Altamura, author of “Music Club Toscana”


Music Club Toscana: Music time stories, by Alessandra Altamura. Piombino, Italy: Edizioni IL FOGLIO. 192 pp.

"Music Club Toscana" cover

It was mid-afternoon in late March when the postman’s knock interrupted my nap. (Being in journalistic exile leaves much room for napping, and other forms of self-reflection.) The package I signed for had ten stamps on it—five depicting the Terme Di Bonifacio VIII, and a row of five up top depicting the late singer Nino Reitano (1944-2009)—totaling 12.50 Euros, the equivalent of $16.07. Interesting: I hadn’t even opened the package yet, and I’d already learned something! That was to prove a useful omen.

Inside the envelope was a fresh new copy of the debut collection of 22 short-stories by Alessandra Altamura, an Italian-born literature teacher who turns 40 this November and graduated from the Liceo Classico Macchiavelli and the University of Pisa. The contents were pleasant, but of no surprise; I’d been waiting for it for a few days. Altamura, the author, had sent it off from her home in Lucca (near Pisa), in Tuscany in the great historic country of Italy on March 12. Two weeks days to travel across the Mediterranean, the European continent and the Atlantic Ocean seemed quite reasonable.

I was looking forward to seeing it for myself, and I was in no way disappointed. Music Club Toscana: Music time stories is a labor of love in the most literal sense; it combines her dual passions for music and her own native culture. Translated from the original Italian, the writing is vibrant and briskly-paced; the text moves fast over 192 pages. The book’s contents are like its packaging: smooth, compact and colorful. Speaking as someone who no longer makes regular practice of reading much fiction, I enjoyed the book immensely. After reading her book, I got the chance to briefly interview Ms. Altamura via email from New York City, where she arrived to begin her book tour last week.

SDH: How long did it take to write this book? Where did the idea come from?

AA: I wrote my book in a few months, less than one year, but I collected the material for these stories [over] my whole life. The idea comes from my love for music, especially live music. I have many friends who are musicians, also my brother plays the guitar. Other than that, music clubs are full of stories and characters.

SDH: Are your characters all real people, all fictional, or a combination?

AA: Some characters are real, with their real names, some are fictional and some are a mix of reality and fantasy.

SDH: What kind of music do you like?

AA: The first story was born in a club in Florence where my friends usually play, then came all the others. In the book there are many kinds of music, because each person needs a different kind of music. Personally I prefer jazz, the great songwriters and in general a music that makes people meet and think.

SDH: Which of the venues did you visit first?

AA: I visited first the places closest to my town. Lucca, Pisa, Florence. Then I went to the farest, like Siena, Arezzo or Grosseto, just to have a complete vision for my book.

SDH: Which venue in the book is your favorite?

AA: My favorite venue and also my favorite story is the one that takes place at Le Murate, that was the prison of Florence before becoming a club.

SDH: Tell me a bit about the lady who translated the book into English…

AA: Shayna Hobbs is a friend of a friend, who lived some time in Italy and taught me English. Now they live in Georgia and they will host me after Florida. oh, this is a funny thing, because each story is translated from a different friend. So in English there are really many characters and voices. Then a lady read it to see if there were mistakes. Maybe there are still some mistakes, because we did all quickly when I was leaving to London, but the English version is a proof that my friends love me…

SDH: Do you plan to write more books? Have you decided on the topic yet?

AA: I think to write another book, with stories that take place all over the world. In fact I’m trying to travel and know better other countries.

SDH: Who are your favorite Italian musicians?

AA: My favourite Italian musicians are the big songwriters, who are also poets: de Andrè, Fossati, Guccini, De Gregori and others. I went to the concerts of many of them and I liked much, but I’m sorry, because I never listened to a concert of de Andrè, before he died.

[She will be at Chamblin’s Uptown, in downtown Jacksonville, on Sunday, July 21 to sign copies and give a presentation on her work. If you’re into travel literature or jazz, it’s well-worth checking out.]

July 19, 2013

Gang War (1940) [a.k.a. Crime Street]


Really grimy, even by Harlem 1940 standards. Not sure why this film isn’t a classic; it hits the marks like Brody in Japan. Star Ralph Cooper went on to become the long-time host of “Amateur Night” at the Apollo…

“Cast (IMDB): Ralph Cooper as Bob ‘Killer’ Meade; Gladys Snyder as Maizie ‘Sugar’ Walford; Reginald Fenderson as Danny (Meade’s chief henchman) (as Reggie Fenderson); Laurence Criner as Lew Baron (as Lawrence Criner); Monte Hawley as Bill (Baron’s henchman); Jess Lee Brooks as Lt. Holmes (as Jesse Brooks); Johnny Thomas as Phil (Meade’s driver); Maceo Bruce Sheffield as Bull Brown (as Maceo Sheffield); Charles Hawkins as Tip (Brown henchman); Bobby Johnson as Waxy (Baron henchman); Henry Roberts as Slim (Meade henchman); Harold Garrison as Slicum (Meade’s publicity man); Marie Bryant as Dance Specialty (uncredited); Willie Covan as Dance Specialty (uncredited); Louise Franklin as Phil’s Girl (uncredited); Halley Harding as Baron Henchman (uncredited); Ray Martin as Man in Bar (uncredited); Ernest Morrison as Gang Member (uncredited); Edward Thompson as Man in Courtroom (uncredited).”  

Notes on Gene Krupa: “Dial M For Music”, 1967


May 11, 1937: Krupa sweats through his suit as the Benny Goodman band challenges Chick Webb at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Some estimates suggest that between 4,000 and 20,000 people went in, through and around the venue that night…

Multi-instrumentalist Eddie Shu did epic work with Gene Krupa in the mid-’50s, following up from Charlie Ventura in the ’40s. Parts of this were in the old DCI VHS on Krupa (which, like the whole series, never went digital); so was the session with Sid Catlett on “Boy, What A Girl!” For some reason, after 20 years, the full videos of both find their way online, entirely unrelated–in this case, thanks to Shu’s children. Here Krupa, a devout Catholic, lays it down for some teenagers in Chicago, and basically does a shoot interview; truly essential stuff. He’s 58 here. If Krupa were a wrestler, he’d be Lou Thesz

EAUF Presents Brotzmann/McPhee at the Karpeles, June 4


Peter Brotzmann/Joe McPhee, presented by Experimental Arts Union of Florida Karpeles Manuscript Museum, 101 W. 1st St., Jacksonville Tuesday, June 4, 8pm Tickets: $20 (advance) $30 (at the door); http://

Brotzmann/McPhee, at the Karpeles…

Free-jazz is a niche market within a niche market, so all of those involved in making, marketing and presenting such music are engaged in a labor of love—as are the fans, of course. Literally so, in the case of Jamison Williams: The saxophonist, who helped found the Experimental Arts Union of Florida (EAUF) late last year, took a financial leap to bring the pioneering saxophonist Peter Brotzmann to town for a duet concert with Joe McPhee on Tuesday, June 4. Williams spent much of the two months prior to the performance working random jobs to cover his ass in case the ticket-buying public flaked on him the way local media often does with such material. (Although my colleague Nick McGregor did write an excellent article and inteview with Brotzmann/McPhee previewing the show for Folio Weekly.) Thankfully, Williams is used to thankless work on behalf of the cause. This writer has heard him sing the praises of Brotzmann since we were both teenagers in the Clinton Years, building our out-jazz skill-sets via retailers like Stripmine Records, Coconuts, CD Warehouse, and public assets like the Jacksonville Public Library and the one at UNF, both of which maintain boss jazz collections; and one can’t forget the libraries in Gainesville and Orlando—studded with out-of-print titles like precious jewels in brass knuckles, glorious. Trade notes, trade fours, trade mix-tapes, building archives. Being a jazz fan is fun, first and foremost, but it’s also the hardest work in fandom, and Williams embodies that spirit. A former punk-rock drummer, Williams abruptly shifted into jazz over a decade ago, becoming largely self-taught on alto and soprano while founding his own Vantage Bulletin Publishing label to market the music being made within his circles. After years of performing in random bars, clubs and coffee-shops (often as part of the region’s burgeoning “noise” scene), Williams made the jump into opening his own place. +SoLo Gallery opened on Bay St. in 2012, right by Underbelly, and it was a hub for improvised music of all kinds prior to its premature demise that same year.

Photo by Anna Funk…

The EAUF emerged from those experiences, as Williams and his colleagues wanted to devise a more formalized mode of streamlining their collaborative efforts. It may well be that, the less structured the music is, the more necessary it is to organize the musicians, so as to make the most of what is ultimately a limited audience. Williams has shown infinitely more patience in that regard that most could muster, and it is for that reason only that Brotzmann, 72, is coming here from Germany for what may be his only performances in the state of Florida ever. There was no other alternative, no second choice. Williams has gone 180 degrees, and then 360, and then another 180, coming back around to the place he began with Brotzmann: as a fan. “I used to go to the Jacksonville library three times a week, checking out stacks of discs,” he says. “I wound up picking up an album with a great cover, simple, clean, and resonated with me, called ‘Machine Gun’ by Peter Brotzmann.” Recorded in May, 1968, “Machine Gun” is the seminal document of the European free-jazz scene, a commercial tipping-point in both the LP and (later) CD formats. Brotzmann’s sidemen include other heavyweights of that scene like saxophonist Evan Parker, bassist Peter Kowald and ace drummer Han Bennink; the music burns with an intensity appropriate for what was, at that very moment, the height of disorder, discord and discontent in the post-war western world, and small wonder that resonated so quickly. Its re-release in 1971 helped put the Free Music Productions (FMP) label on the map, helping to spawn an explosion of this type of material in the 1970 and ‘80s through labels like ESP-Disk, Soul Note, Hat Hut, etc., running parallel to stuff like the AACM in Chicago. The album was first issued on CD in 1990, and ended up at the Jacksonville Public Library soon after; I listened to the same copy Williams did, but it not leave as profound an impression. Today, there is a global network of improvised musicians and labels and venues catering to that stuff, including hundreds of musicians and fans just here in Florida (for whom the EAUF was created), and Peter Brotzmann’s contributions are a very big reason why. “Black Flag is ultimately my rooted source of musical passion, [and] everything Brotzmann said just seemed like a perfect and natural communicated message for my ears. I could listen to ‘Machine Gun’ all day, and I did. ‘Machine Gun’ reminded me of Black Flag, only with horns, and much much bigger. I could understand it. I can appreciate that sound, brute power, acoustically; he makes a non-amplified instrument instantly electric. Listen to his tone, the power, his musical constitution; that is singularly the most powerful projection a horn has ever made; I mean, people talk about [Pharoah] Sanders’ sound, [Albert] Ayler’s and [Ornette] Coleman’s, [but] Brotzmann is a living sonic beast: he is hardcore punk gone jazz.” The Karpeles is a really interesting choice for hosting Brotzmann/McPhee. It’s got a very scenic exterior, sitting just a couple blocks back from downtown—well within walking distance of the jazz festival action. Imposing columns and high stairs lead into big wooden doors; the place was built as a church in 1921 and reborn as the Karpeles in 1992. The building is part of an organization comprising a dozen privately-owned museums working together to house and present key documents and manuscripts from history. With over a million items in the collection already, a steady stream of new materials are rotated freshly through the buildings; other nearby branches can be found in Charleston and Shreveport. The acoustics are great, as you’d expect from an old-school church; voices from the stage can be heard in the balcony, without amplification, and there’s an an in-house piano, which usually sits on the stage and may well come into play—or, shall we say, interplay. The Karpeles has hosted all kinds of events over the years; there was an exhibit of Alan Justiss memorabilia last year, and I helped judge an oratory contest there for the American Legion just a few weeks ago. For years, it was obvious that the Karpeles was an ideal spot in which to present chamber music or jazz, but as far as I know it’s not really happened before; it was the vision of Jamison Williams and the EAUF that finally put that notion into motion. Joining Brotzmann will be Joe McPhee:“He’s a powerhouse, a tentet contributor, and an American asset,” says Williams; “his direct involvement with outstanding historic free jazz figures since the 80’s is unsurpassed: Borah Bergman, Rashied Ali, Evan Parker, [Ken] Vandermark, and Brotzmann.” To call him an “instrumentalist” would be putting it lightly. Born in Miami in1939, McPhee trained on trumpet and flugelhorn, then self-taught himself on a variety of saxophones, as well as valve trombone; Williams cites Ornette Coleman as a rare example of someone proficient on brass and reeds, and I’d add UNF’s Bill Prince to that list. HatHut has released over 300 recordings since 1975—featuring artists like Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy, Sun Ra, Matthew Shipp, Lee Konitz, Max Roach, Mary Halvorson, Taylor Ho Bynum, Clusone 3, John Zorn and Braxton [whose “Eight (+1) Tristano Compositions 1989, for Warne Marsh” is my favorite; bought it at Stripmine Records]—and has now spun off into five distinct labels under a 15-year sponsorship deal with UBS (who’ve also helped underwrite Art Basel operations in Switzerland, Spain and Miami Beach) but the Swiss label was founded specifically to document the music of Joe McPhee. Brotzmann/McPhee are working nine cities in 13 days, from May 31-June 12: Austin; Chicago; Orlando; Jacksonville; Philadelphia; Peterborough NH (a stacked bill with Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley and saxophonist Paul Flaherty); Washington DC; Montreal; and Buffalo. In terms of the cities, and the organizations involved in booking all nine of those events, that’s really good company for Duval. It’s worth noting, also, that Florida and New York are the only states hosting Brotzmann/McPhee twice, and both shows were put together essentially by artist-run collectives. (The Civic Minded 5, in Orlando, is also hosting a free show by the Mary Halvorson Septet on Monday, July 1; more about that elsewhere.)

Poster for Brotzmann/McPhee’s Orlando show…

These two masters of modern music will work duets that night, their highly individual sounds contrasting each other, unadorned by sidemen. Coming just days after the yet another successful Jacksonville Jazz Festival (where Williams led EAUF members in a tribute to Ayler at Burro Bar), this show further cements this city as a hub for free and improvised music, which is proving an increasingly lucrative market. Tickets start at $20 for advance tickets, with some prices at $30 on the day of the show. To say it’s a once-in-a-lifetime musical opportunity puts it mildly; most American jazz fans won’t have the chance to see this even once in their lives.

Jamison Williams at work. Photo by Anna Funk…