What’s On Your Playlist: Josh Sinton

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Brooklyn-based baritone saxophonist and bass clarinetist Josh Sinton is one of music’s most eclectic and powerful innovators. Through his bands Ideal Bread, Musicianer, and holus-Bolus, among other ventures, he’s developed a distinct identity as a baritone saxophonist whose influences range widely, from the dancing lyricism of Duke Ellington’s bari-star Harry Carney and the lowdown poetry of avant-icon Julius Hemphill, to the rocking roadhouse sound of Morphine’s Dana Colley.

A founding member of composer Darcy James Argue’s Grammy-nominated Secret Society, Sinton has also played in the Nate Wooley Quintet, Andrew D’Angelo’s DNA Orchestra, Anthony Braxton’s Tri-Centric Orchestra, and Adam Hopkins’ Crickets. The New Jersey native studied at the University of Chicago and New England Conservatory, and also learned much from his mentors in the AACM.

Sinton’s most recent recording, 2018’s making bones, taking draughts, bearing unstable millstones pridefully, idiotically, prosaically (Iluso Records), debuts his Predicate Trio with cellist Chris Hoffman and drummer Tom Rainey. The music is expressive and potent, showcasing Sinton as a major talent both as a composer and performer.

1. Edgard Varèse Amériques

There are reasons why the music of Edgard Varèse is often mentioned, but rarely listened to and this album demonstrates many of them. I re-entered Varèse’s world recently because Nate Wooley asked me to contribute an essay about Amériques for the online music magazine SoundAmerican.org. I am so glad I did. Varèse’s music offers such a perfect snapshot of all the things that happened to Western European art music in the 20th century: hermeticism (in its most positive sense), freedom from previous conventions, the re-evaluation of music’s most basic building blocks, and a powerful new sensibility about long-term form. There are many albums of his music to choose from, but I finally settled on Boulez’s 1995 recording as it offered beautifully rendered versions of music from across his oeuvre. The title track is Varèse’s second extant piece and was completed in 1921. It’s a grab bag of Stravinsky and Debussy quotations, (literal) sirens and thunderous percussion. But the third track, “Déserts,” is the one to go for: solemnly intoned, luminously dissonant chords alternate with precisely constructed percussion volleys. It’s really one of the great monuments of 20th century symphonic writing and after listening to it, so much of the music you hear around you will click into place.

2. Sleater-KinneyCall the Doctor

All hail the glory of punk! Before there were laptop computers, before you could access anyone else’s music on the internet, before internet speeds were measured in megabytes, punk music was one of the primary folk musics for teenagers in America. It was a loose kind of folk music as it wasn’t necessarily built by musicians playing each other’s songs, but it was for and by folks as the big prerogative of punk was to DIY everything you could think of. If you needed a killer riff: find one. If you desperately needed to communicate a personal feeling just to feel a little less lonely: build a song. If you needed to have fun: make some. I wish I could say I was cool enough to have heard Call the Doctor when it first came out in ’96, but sadly I was an idiot. I discovered this album after reading Jeff Jackson’s recent paean to the glories (and goriness) of being a music fan, the novel, Destroy All Monsters. He recommended this album in an interview and I’ve been hooked ever since. It’s a great and visceral yawp and it immediately shoves me back into the space where I know I have to make art.

3. The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles

Ok, yes, this is a 21-CD set. That’s an absurd thing to recommend. But, honest to goodness, there are no duds in this set. The lion’s share of them are Lester Bowie affairs – either his own groups or the Jack DeJohnette quartet he was a member of, but every album is utterly unique and if not compelling, then thoroughly salutary, if not for their demonstration of the breadth of jazz then at the very least in showing how much fun and serious and diverse a single creative music album can be. You might not love every album in its entirety (although I will absolutely buy you a beverage of your choice if you aren’t blown away by Urban Bushmen), but I can guarantee you will find several things on every disc that will both surprise you and make you fall in love with jazz all over again.

4. MorphineCure for Pain

Killer songwriter playing a two-string, fretless bass guitar plus a tight drummer, throw in one of the best baritone saxophone players of the past fifty years, and what’s not to love? Yes, this is 20+ year-old music, but it really has aged gracefully. I’ve been busy learning all this music recently (not just the saxophone lines, but all the singer’s, drummer’s, and bass parts as well) to play with a cover band I’ve created, and I’m marveling all over again at the concision, the soulfulness, and the deep emotional commitment all three of these men have to rhythm. These songs really mean something to them, and despite the laid-back feeling in the tempos, there’s an urgency and momentum to the delivery that belies any notion of this being “slacker” music.

5. Randy WestonSound

Good lord, do I love this album! It’s extraordinary on so many levels: as an unintended summation of one person’s lifetime commitment to his culture’s music, as a relaxed, swinging statement of core musical values, and as a demonstration of old-fashioned values of showmanship coupled with restraint. Weston has a true baritone voice on the piano and a sureness of touch that so few musicians ever attain (of course Ellington and Monk, but also Richter and Horowitz). He so deftly balances propulsiveness with patience that I keep shaking my head in wonder whenever I put this disc on. Oh, did I mention he maintains this over the course of two CDs? And they are documents of live concerts? Those of us who are still here making sounds have an enormous amount to live up to.

6. Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly

No, this is not the disc that got the Pulitzer. Yes, DAMN, it’s an amazing document and work of art. But I am still digesting this album. There is so much here. Playing along with it, trying to imitate his rhythmic flow on my horns has been a regular part of my warm-up routine for the past year. As difficult as that is, it’s even trickier owing to the way Lamar assumes different guises on different songs. He becomes a different character depending on the circumstances described in the track. And to do this, he not only changes the timbre of his voice, but also the rhythmic articulation he uses. It’s been an incredible challenge, but it’s been paying big dividends.

7. Autechre NTS Sessions 1-4

OK, I know, this is another absurdly large amount of music that I’m recommending. But think of this like an investment in future listenings. This is the stuff of which repeated listenings are made. And this music links in a very direct way to Edgard Varèse’s music. Autechre often uses sound’s texture, its placement in the stereo field, its actual presence as a formal device. A sound repeats itself, but owing to its shift in physical space, your perception of it changes. This is a new kind of theme-and-variation technique that Varèse was striving for, but didn’t have the technological means to realize. Hearing it done (and so well!) is an enormous treat.

8. Nate WooleyThe Complete Syllables Music

I might be biased given my collegial relationship with Nate Wooley, but I’m quite sure I’d love this document regardless. Again, it’s a deep dive: four CDs documenting his exhaustive investigations into the possibilities of building a long-form, improvised solo trumpet piece using the mechanics of speech production. The completeness of this music both aesthetically and sonically is inspiring to say the least. Plus, listening to the development of this piece (the recordings are from three different occasions spaced years apart from each other) is a rare treat. Given that he won’t perform this piece again owing to how physically taxing it is (he’s chipped a tooth performing it!), this is our only chance to absorb this beautiful information.

9. John SurmanAdventure Playground

Why isn’t Surman better known here in the U.S.? I’ve asked myself that every week for the past fifteen years and I still have yet to come up with a reasonable answer. Like him or not, he is one of the only baritone saxophonists of the past forty years to come up with a unique sound and approach to the instrument. He has a sound like no other baritone player and he uses it to implement a harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic logic that’s perfectly suited to it. The completeness of his musical world is astounding. He’s been recorded several times playing with Paul Bley and Gary Peacock, but this is one of the only documents of his playing with the giant of creative music, Tony Oxley. Jump to the second track, “Figfoot,” and have your body relaxed and mind blown by how good the groove feels on this tune.

10. Josh ModneyEngage

Yes, this is another solo instrumentalist, but it is utterly unique. And, again, there is a lot of material to absorb here. The pieces written for violinist Modney by Sam Pluta, Taylor Brook, Kate Soper, and Eric Wubbels are really wonderful not only for the performances, but also for the uniqueness of four distinct compositional voices of people who are working now. They are all very different from each other and completely absorbing for different reasons: Pluta’s (literal) spaciousness, Brook’s plaintive and clear melodies, the push and pull of voice and violin in Soper’s piece, and the incredible attention to pulse and rhythm in the Wubbels. The justly intoned Bach “Chaconne in D minor” and Anthony Braxton “Composition #222” are startling for their freshness and Modney’s solo improvisations in the final third of the album are mesmerizing. I can’t express how happy I am that this music is in the world and in my life!

Josh Sinton’s latest album, making bones, taking draughts, bearing unstable millstones pridefully, idiotically, prosaically (Iluso Records), was released November 9, 2018. www.joshsinton.com

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