photo by Keith Sirch
Reinventing the song as an artformWho is Ed Pastorini? He's a songwriter, composer, accomplished pianist and self-taught guitarist and if you haven't heard his music, then I feel sorry for you- you're are missing one of the most interesting songwriters of our time. He leads the 101 Crustaceans, has toured with Beth Orton, has long been associated with fellow NYC Downtown staple Elysian Fields, and has worked with M. Ward and Badly Drawn Boy among others. His music is striking in how it combines elements of ground-breaking and diverse musicians such as Lennie Tristano, The Beatles, King Crimson, Captain Beefheart. But it is also starkly original by nodding to its precursors while kidnapping them and taking them for a ride through his dystopian realm. The result of it all is a wildly varied set of dense, dark compositions.
by Peter L. Herb
Pastorini has been mining the dark underbelly of human existence in his music for over twenty years, having first come to prominence as part of the 90's wave of NYC's downtown music scene at the original Knitting Factory. While his music has been woefully underexposed for years, recent events point to a break in his travels in obscurity and he may finally be getting the attention his music deserves. In May 2010, he was one of the performers at a New Sounds Live concert at Merkin Hall in New York City (which was broadcast on WNYC, New York's public radio station). And now he is finishing up three different recoding projects.
I met with Pastorini on St. Patrick's Day, 2011 at his studio to talk about his music and the recordings that have been in the works for a while.
Pastorini grew up in New Jersey, studied classical piano as a child and went to Trenton State College to study music. His parents listened to Liberace, Jimmy Roselli, Sinatra and Ferrante & Teicher. This was not what inspired him though. He had little interest in writing music until a co-worker of his gave him a copy of Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica and told him he needed to listen to it. He took it home and one of his housemates at the time was stunned by it although Pastorini did not instantly comprehend its worth. After repeated listenings however, he was convinced that it was wildly different and brilliant and that he needed to start writing music.
As he tells it, a bit later "I heard Lennie [Tristano] on the radio. I had never heard piano playing like that, I didn't know what the hell it was. It was kind of like the Beefheart experience. I thought it was great. In contradistinction to the Beefheart thing, I heard this as being great right away. I think I heard 'C minor complex' or one of these solo piano pieces. Improvs on a standard. I didn't know what the standard was. I had to learn how to learn to play like that."
So around 1976, he began lessons with Tristano. One of the exercises that he was assigned was singing Warne Marsh's solos from a recording called Warne Marsh: The Art Of Improvising Vol. 1, which is recording of a Half Note gig in NYC in 1959 but edited down to feature just Marsh's tenor sax solos. You can hear the product of this training in Pastorini's singing. He has a gritty, yet tonally exact, voice that at times mimics the dynamics of a sax player's melodic movements in pitch and timbre and in phrasing.
The result of the formal training and the weirdly divergent sources of musical inspiration, is that Pastorini writes songs that are "the kind of songs he wants to hear when he walks into a club." And in Pastorini's world, that type of song is something that needs to be heard over and over again. Songs that are easily digested are fine in his world but he doesn't need to buy a record if he "gets it" on the first listen.
101 Crustaceans is the band Pastorini founded over 20 years ago. The band formed because a housemate of Pastorini's in the late 1980's decided that Pastorini's music needed to be heard and put an ad in the Village Voice, seeking female musicians on any instrument for paid rehearsals. The first album, the long out of print Songs of Resignation, was recorded with the musicians that answered the ad.
The band as a performing entity has had the same line-up since about 1999. Pastorini calls them irreplaceable because he cannot imagine ever assembling a group that performs his music in the intuitive way as this one does. Oren Bloedow (co-leader of Elysian Fields and alumni of The Lounge Lizards and a past member of the touring bands of Dr. John and Martha Wainright among others) plays bass and has been part of the band since it first started performing. The ubiquitous and virtuosic Ben Perowsky plays drums. Perowsky has several of his own bands, is also a Lounge Lizard alum and has played with the likes of James Moody, John Scofield and John Zorn. Indigo Street plays guitar and sings back up vocals and is the only lesser know member (this however is merely an oversight on the listening public's part and no slight to her chops). She has also played with Yoko Ono which places her in similar professional turf as the other members. Street's guitar playing is unlike that of almost any other guitar player, in part because of a lack of a point of reference. She is self-taught and plays the way she thinks a guitar should be played not how someone told her it should be played. Her playing gives the impression that she is somehow telepathically linked to Pastorini as her playing perfectly complements his musical ideas.
Given this setup, it comes as no surprise that Pastorini's songs are wonderfully complex and seem to cross genre boundaries like a diplomat (or narco-terrorist) passes borders. He welds rock riffs to lushly dissonant chord progressions and knits altered blues riffs to dirge-like verses. The songs however don't sound like they are combinations of mismatched parts. Rather they slide from one movement to another with an ease that belies the complexity of the music.
The six songs on the just completed and forthcoming Crustaceans album tentatively titled Train Bolt Roller, are "a progression from birth to detachment." Pastorini is loath to elaborate much more as he believes that interpretation of his lyrics should be left up to the listener. The songs all feel like journeys through a sonic landscape because the music travels to such distinct parts of the musical geography that we are familiar with. But you realize early on that it is not a resort you are going to. No, you are being taken to the underbelly of the outback or the rainforest and the soundscape will not be sanitized. And you are going to have to think about what you have heard.
The record's first track, "All Sewn Up," starts with a blast from Ms. Street, followed by a soft, slinky and sinister bass line and Pastorini's staccato vocal. The sense of unease that he is trying to convey can't be missed and it follows through dissonant guitar assaults and pastoral interludes intertwined with a kind of complex subdued funk ("Nothing's Ever Level"). Even though you are off in the wilderness, the music is savvy enough to at least remind you in vague ways where it came from. Carmelite has a bluesish-sounding piano riff even if a blues never quite sounded that way and "Nothing's Ever Level" reminds you that Bloedow has worked with Medeski Martin & Wood. This is not a simple rock record. This music grabs you by the ears and insists that you pay attention. And if you do, you are rewarded in the way that a radio friendly single never does. There are layers here. Peel Slowly…. Also there are a couple of featured guest appearances on the record that reinforce Pastorini's stature in the musical community. J.G. Thirlwell (Foetus) contributes samples and noise to the track "Train Bolt Roller"; Nadia Sirota, a violist known for commissioning and performing works by new composers, contributes her wonderful skills as does Clair de Brunner, who plays bassoon, and is the only remaining musician from the original lineup that responded to the VV ad still working with Pastorini.
Pastorini has also nearly completed an album of songs for solo piano and voice and is nearing completion of a recording of solo piano improvisation. If those recordings are on the same level as Train Bolt Roller, we have many hours of hard listening ahead.
Also see the 101 Crustaceans site
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