August 3, 2008

National Health - National Health (Affinity)


This writer is a sitting duck for anything Canterbury but, pressed by a gun pointed at the temple, National Health - the group's first album - would probably be my pet choice in their meagre discography. During the years in which many people were starting to be fooled by punk's corporate anarchy-cum-insubstantial imaginativeness and practically everybody felt entitled to whack a distorted guitar, genuinely dreaming English artists were still trying to delicately chisel odd-metre masterpieces lacking the typical pomp of progressive rock, executed with wisdom and dexterity and, in this particular juncture, sung by that flute-voiced angel named Amanda Parsons, a personal darling in the world-famous (ha!) trio “The Northettes” - also featuring Barbara Gaskin and Ann Rosenthal - who graced the music of Hatfield And The North and appeared in other interconnected situations.

Guess what: the craftsmen were succeeding. There weren’t audiences grateful for the attempts though, except for a bunch of romantic desperados. Money? Even less. It couldn't last, yet these kids managed to squeeze out two equally great records after this one: 1978’s Of Queues And Cures and the posthumous D.S. Al Coda, dated 1982, a homage to Alan Gowen who had just left this life's building. Phil Miller, Dave Stewart, Neil Murray (later to become a renowned heavy metal bassist), Jimmy Hastings, John Mitchell, the late Pip Pyle, the above mentioned Gowen. Need I say more? What's comprised by National Health is, purely and simply, history: “Tenemos Roads” and “Brujo” should light bulbs in the memory of any over-40 devotee gifted with sound-related emotional responsiveness. The solemnity of the main theme in “Borogoves” is unsurpassable; the melancholic chords fading the record to black in “Elephants” can make a grown man cry, a milligram of Jagger-ish hype being allowed.

And if someone ever manages to convince Mrs. Parsons to end her retirement and start writing (and especially singing) new songs, I'd be willing to stand under the hard rain to listen to that voice again.

~ Massimo Ricci

Posted by massimo at 12:52 AM | Comments (4)

July 27, 2008

Count Basie & Dizzy Gillespie - The Gifted Ones (Pablo)


The aging father of bop meets the aged father of swing in a shag-carpeted Vegas studio circa ’77. Despite what faction-minded spectators might imagine, it’s far from an oil and water mingling. Dizzy had deep roots in swing and here sounds perfectly willing to temper his battery of bop firepower to align with his elder’s less loquacious leanings. Basie’s predisposition toward pianistic pith leaves plenty of harmonic space to fill while still stabilizing the tunes’ hoary blues edifices. Bassist Ray Brown and drummer Mickey Roker settle into support roles that sublimely support both sides. No surprise in terms of songbook, but the rendering of the antiquated “St. James Infirmary” speaks to the strengths of all involved with a memorable canopy of melancholy. Basie’s economy is the epitome of easygoing confidence. Dizzy drawls long textured lines, often fixing a mute to his bell to advance a ventriloquist’s array of inflections and effects. The session photos further convey the casual feel with the heart patch stitched into Dizzy’s denim jeans echoing the soul patch hanging beneath his lower lip. The phrase “past their prime” might be applicable in a superficial sense, but this pair had an audible knack for sidestepping such shortsighted descriptions.

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July 21, 2008

Mississippi Fred McDowell (Rounder)


Been on a blues bender of historic proportions the past few days, what with the Deep Blues Festival and the George Mitchell Collection (posts on each collecting dust on the homepage). Fred McDowell factors indelibly into both in terms of spirit and influence. This Rounder comp, parsed from field recording recitals cut in Fred’s Como, MS living room, contains some of his most focused performances on record. Many of the signposts of his secular repertoire come under scrutiny from “Red Cross Store” to “Highway 61”. No space ceded for spirituals, but the buzzing brilliance of his bottleneck harmonics leavens any potential slights to the Lord. The nasally warble of his voice comes through loud and clear too, wafting over acoustic fretwork by turns biting and anodyne (only the fragment “Como” finds him cradling electric). Sounds of friends and family members in attendance are audible on the fringes and give the music an even greater fly-on-wall flavor. McDowell is part of a triumvirate of Freds in my personal canon, the other two answering to Anderson and Wesley. This is the set that cemented his status though nearly all of his albums are worth hearing and owning, ill-founded charges of sameness and laurels-resting be damned.

Posted by derek at 1:20 PM | Comments (0)

July 13, 2008

Henry Cow - In Praise Of Learning (Virgin)


Paypal-funded old farts rejoice: come next autumn, Rér will issue the definitive Henry Cow box, nine CDs of previously unreleased archival materials and, get this, a DVD containing the only existent footage of the group. This should definitely carve in stone the fact that this collective – whose name, for the still existing doubters, is NOT derived from composer Henry Cowell – has been an influence, when not the origin, in several fundamental pages of the book that delineates the transition from cultivated rock to improvisation, plus their subsequent (a-hem) fusion.

In a nutshell, 1975's In Praise Of Learning is one of those albums that divide the audience’s judgement in the classic “crucial/forgettable” dichotomy; no need to specify where this writer stands as this is the record that, at the age of 11, definitively shuffled the priorities in my approach to listening (and playing as well). After Desperate Straights - recorded in the same year - Tim Hodgkinson, Fred Frith, John Greaves, Chris Cutler and Lindsay Cooper were once again joined by Slapp Happy’s Dagmar Krause, Peter Blegvad and Anthony Moore, instantly shocking my childhood with the opening “War” – a genial piece if there was ever one, leaving the little kid wide eyed and willing to understand what was wrong in comparison with his "progressive favourites"; to this day, the trumpet solo by the late Mongezi Feza floors me.

This is also the place where two of the most brilliant songs ever written in the 70s are to be found (accepting “song” as a fitting definition for such intricate scores). “Living In The Heart Of The Beast” and “Beautiful As The Moon – Terrible As An Army With Banners” feature Krause’s dramatic interpretation of passionately politicized lyrics - by Hodgkinson and Cutler respectively - in instrumental contexts unsurpassed for emotional matter and technical adventurousness, unquestionable traits even without sharing the ideological essence. That’s what the sheer appeal of significance could once achieve. No scribbled word can testimony how hard the impact of these forms of expression was, and still is.

~ Massimo Ricci

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July 6, 2008

Fred Zimmerle's Conjunto - Trio San Antonio (Arhoolie)


Summertime is always Norteno time at Rancho de Taylor and this generously packed platter is a new found favorite this year. Zimmerle (surname stemming from a German grandfather) adroitly leads the trio with fleet-fingered button accordion (doubling on guitar or bajo sexto on several tunes), but it’s bassist Juan Viesca that often steals the spoils. Nicknamed “El Rayo” (the Thunderbolt), he pummels his strings with a rockabilly frenzy, the bombardment of punishing slaps and stops captured beautifully by Arhoolie honcho Chris Strachwitz’s mobile mics. His irrepressible antics regularly move the rest of the group to raucous whoops and hollers. The setting for the collected sessions is Zimmerle’s living room circa 1974, a good two decades subsequent the trio’s heyday. His day job was at the local air force base, but nights were reserved for raising the roofs of the neighborhood cantinas. The set list mirrors a typical weekend gig at a local watering hole with an emphasis on loping cancions and bouncing polkas, the stray corrido or redova slipped in for surprise’s sake. Zimmerle’s repertoire leaned heavily on the songbook of local doyens Los Hermanos Chavarria and the closing cut on the disc finds him in stirring duet with his idol Martin Chavarria. Arhoolie’s catalog is loaded with conjunto music of the highest caliber, but even amongst that bumper surplus this set easily stands out as one of the best.

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June 29, 2008

Lucky Thompson - Tricotism (Impulse)


There’s something of a cruel joke in Lucky Thompson’s sobriquet. Over three decades as an active influential musician and only a smattering of sides as a leader to show for it. This set is commonly touted as his finest hour and features him in two fruitful formats, one conventional, the other far less so. The eight sides placing Thompson’s ethereal tenor in the streamlined company of guitarist Skeeter Best and bassist Oscar Pettiford border on the transcendental. Bop bled through with pigments of insouciant swing, the pieces float by with such ease and accessibility that beauty and complexity of the improvisations comprising them almost seems secondary. The collection’s other eight sides highlight Thompson’s talents with a frontline partner. He and trombonist Jimmy Cleveland are kindred improvisers in terms of tone and phrasing, their melodic derivations spooling out in gilded ribbons against a pair of rhythm sections anchored by the sturdy constant of Pettiford’s strings. Hawkins and Young are obvious antecedents, but Thompson is hardly bound by his elders, his tenor achieving a superlative merging of weightlessness and profundity. The Impulse version of the collection remains lucklessly out of print though the freebooters over at the Spanish Fresh Sound imprint have found fit to circulate their own version. Hard to fault such an action when the object of their mercenary ways is music of this optimal caliber.

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June 22, 2008

Paul Quinichette - Basie Reunion (Prestige)


Truth in advertising save for the absence of the titular Count, this jam session under the leadership of the Vice Pres offers meat and potatoes jazz in the best possible sense. Quinichette took hits and praise in near equal doses for his stylistic congruities with Lester Young. The four blowing vehicles from the Basie songbook circa a three year stretch starting in 1937 only cement the similarities. The rest of the band is assemblage of what are rightfully termed “Old” and “New Testament” factions. Nat Pierce, the lone Caucasian, has perhaps the most daunting role filling Basie’s post at the piano stool. His minimalist stride-tempered touch echoes that of the master while retaining an admirable individualist streak. Freddie Green, the Jones Eddie and Jo (no relation) are well seasoned pros at setting up swinging structures for the soloists. Of the horns, the lesser known Jack Washington stands out. Diminutive in frame, he has a bit of difficulty with the baritone’s physical dimensions, but his generously paced solos lack nothing in resolve. Trumpeters Buck Clayton and Shad Collins tussle regularly and mostly stick to open voicings for a combined brassy bite. Quinichette has several good showings on tenor, but the overall feel of the record is that of ensemble camaraderie. Leader’s privileges are only rarely invoked. Producer Esmond Edwards does double duty as session shutterbug and the tinted cover photo he snapped is more than suitable for poster-sized framing. The preponderance of Basie-led sessions of this ilk makes the platter a harder sell, but those with a few shekels to spare will still find them well spent in adding a copy to the shelf.

Posted by derek at 2:22 PM | Comments (0)

June 15, 2008

Brian Godding – Slaughter on Shaftesbury Avenue (Reckless)


It's a world of guitar heroes, isn't it? Some of them can't even play the damn instrument, but they were born to be heroes nonetheless (hell, even Kurt Cobain managed to become an icon). That an accomplished guitarist and composer such as Brian Godding is so mildly recognized, despite a long tenure with Mike Westbrook and collaborations with Julie Tippetts, Magma, Centipede among the many (not to mention his own Blossom Toes), remains a scandalous injustice. This album - his only official solo release - dates from 1988, this writer calling it a genuine desert island disc, totally eschewing cliches its noticeable influences notwithstanding.

A sweat-stained effort, muscularly refined and technically heavy-handed, Slaughter on Shaftesbury Avenue features tracks recorded between 1981 and 1986 with three different lineups: G.L.S. (Steve Lamb, bass; Steve Bull, keyboards; Dave Sheen, drums), Outer Routes (Lamb again plus Dave Barry on drums), and Full Monte (Chris Briscoe, sax and Tony Marsh, drums). Highlights: "Blue Sun" begins with breathtaking volume pedal-driven chordal swells, then shifts gear to “cultivated headbanger” areas through an energetic charge of ternary compounds imbued of rock attitude. "Three-legged duck" is built upon a semitone-fueled riff that Jimmy Page couldn’t even dream about, yet is known by hardcore aficionados exclusively. "Stars in Stripes" is a carnival of furious axe-screaming and scarcely responsive guitar synthesizer over a convulsive rhythm section: if you listen via walkman on your way to work, there’s a serious risk of being nominated for the “new fool of the neighbourhood” prize due to excess of smirking in the streets. Godding’s blue collar virtuosity pumps up the whole, virulent enthusiasm dripping off every single pore of mine whenever I spin the bloody thing.

~ Massimo Ricci

Posted by massimo at 1:02 AM | Comments (2)

June 8, 2008

Paul Dunmall/Paul Rogers/Philip Gibbs - Live at the Quaker Center (Duns Limited Edition)


Dunmall’s coming to Vision this year!! Though I’m a fairly new Dunmall fan, considering he’s been on the scene as a solo artist since the middle 1980s, I’ve been waiting some four years to hear him live.

His CDR label, Duns Limited Edition, has also reached its 60th release, so I thought I’d dig back in the archive a bit to number 23, this tempestuous live date from September 2002. These veteran collaborators sometimes sound like a regular trio, or almost, during the single fifty-four-minute improvisation. Those moments of registral and timbral familiarity are quite rare as Dunmall and co. switch between all things struck, blown and plucked in gusts of dynamic diversity.

It all begins rather threateningly as Dunmall’s bagpipes blister and pierce along the thunder hurled by Gibbs and Rogers. It dies down eventually, calms so completely in fact that only an apprehensive drone leads into Dunmall’s trademark melodica, which itself contains myriad slants and sharp curves. Along the way, the Duck goes forth, manned skillfully in arco and pizz mode by one of the most versatile bassists playing today. Gibbs hammers with his usual intense subtlety, numerous timbre and pitch gradations in every gesture.

The Duns series constitutes a really fascinating journey. Along with some of the more recent entries, Quaker Center is one of the most fearless, and it’s one of my favorites for that reason. Some are beautiful, some are spare and all are worth hearing, but few plumb the uncompromising psychological depth so fiercely. Keep em coming!

~ Marc Medwin

Posted by derek at 8:11 PM | Comments (2)

June 2, 2008

Various - Midwest Funk: Funk 45's From Tornado Alley (Now-Again)


Preoccupations tend to come fast and frequent to the typical music fan. My latest was brought about last week by the confluence of a Parliament-Funkadelic concert and coming across this comp in a used bin. It’s an excellent gateway disc into the Now-Again catalog, a funk and soul reissue outfit stewarded by one Egon Alapatt. The label is also an offshoot of the larger hip-hop imprint Stones-Throw, home to MadLib and MF DOOM among others. The cuts here, originally assembled by the UK Jazzman label, have special significance to my own situation given their specific regional focus. There’s lots of cribbing and downright stealing from the popular playbooks of James Brown, Funkadelic and the Meters, but by and large the blatant thievery is put to good ends. Exemplary funk bass ostinatos abound and the general tilt toward instrumentals works well as funk lyrics have a tendency to tip over into the inane. Break beats are populous too and nearly every cut mines the pocket for memorable grooves. Even relative clunkers like Messengers Incorporated’s “Soulful Proclamation” and the Wallace Brothers’ “What-cha Feel is What-cha Get”, which mires in a weighty rhythmic roux of honking horn unisons, exhibit moments of interest. On the flip, the Dayton Sidewinders’ “Funky in Here” and The Soul Tornados’ “Boot’s Groove” deliver some of the hardest, most happening funk I’ve heard in awhile. The standout though to my ears is a seven-and-a-half minute tape snippet of Billy (Joe) Holloman, a Twin Cities B-3 organ legend fronting his trio in ’72. Other Now-Again regional comps cover 45rpm troves from Texas, Florida and the Carolinas to a similarly successful extent. I’ve made it a mandate to snap them up and so far haven’t felt even a twinge of buyer’s remorse.

Posted by derek at 8:04 AM | Comments (0)

May 25, 2008

Jemeel Moondoc - Nostalgia in Times Square (Soul Note)


Day jobs have been a necessay component of the free jazz life since the music’s inception. Cecil Taylor toiled as an elevator operator. David S. Ware drove a cab. And so on and so on. Saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc opted for a salary as an architect’s assistant and his lack of new recordings in several years leads me to ponder whether he has returned to the vocation. If so, it’s a sad loss, as Moondoc’s open vulnerability and sentimentalism is still something of a rarity within the genre. This Soul Note date from ’86 shows off those qualities on a program that evinces a heavy respect for history without resorting to regurgitation. Moondoc borrows the title piece from Mingus. His alto sound is a pleasing variant on Ornette Coleman’s precedence, tangy and terpischorian. His preference for ethnic haberdashery parallels that of Monk. None of these influences is slavish or mawkish. Moondoc adds his own personally-honed aesthetic to the mix. Sidemen Rahn Burton, William Parker, Denis Charles, and in particular, Bern Nix bring other singular colors to the canvas. Two to an LP side, the tracks are long and windy. The piquant ballad “Flora” marks Moondoc’s debut on soprano and is convincing despite a slightly shaky intonation. It and the closing “Dance of the Clowns”, a tune that would be reborn as “Dance of the Negro Lawn Jockeys” in later years are my picks of the litter. Open imperative to Jemeel: please find your way back behind the mics and soon!

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May 18, 2008

Phil Minton - A Doughnut in One Hand (FMP)


When I was a sophomore in high school, I fell in love with Lindsay Cooper’s Rags, in no small part due to the brash and impassioned singing of Phil Minton—he made those political songs come to life! Plowing through the used bins of a local record store in early 1988, I was thrilled to find a Minton solo album, A Doughnut in Both Hands—I think it was on Rift records. Those familiar with the album, now on Emanem, can imagine my reaction on getting it home. You know that one called “Wreath,” on which he chokes himself? I put it away for about ten years, and I was amazed at how great it was upon next listening.

Emanem is now releasing the third part of the Doughnut solo voice trilogy, so I figured I’d discuss the second, which is new to my collection. It’s even more diverse than Both Hands, displaying an even more stunning array of … what, extended vocal techniques? Does that overused phrase even begin to cover the imagination in evidence on every one of these miniatures?

I especially like the ones where Minton squeezes two or three notes out of his voice, as with “Ballad.” He produces spot-on fifths, the two pitch components blending in a voice larger than itself. Astonishingly, in “Tip Head,” he gets three pitches out simultaneously in something like a diminished chord.

None of this pedantry even comes close to describing the humor at ever turn; in “Ballad”’s second half, the profundo of the opening minute is imitated by what sounds like a little animal, one of Minton’s cat-fight voices put to different use. Here again, we revisit “Wreath” with even more liquid in evidence. Then, there is the master miniature “Universal Drainage,” a series of low-frequency burbles and rasps that threatens to become speech but never quite succeeds.

I have never heard a voice under better control; Minton has been engaging in myriad sound experiments for so long that it’s just part of who he is. Even in conversation, he’ll launch into any number of momentary sonic diversions. I have no idea what question I asked him, but I’ll never forget the sound he made while thinking about it: “Ooooooooooo …” If you hit the B two octaves below middle C, you’ll have it. These thirty moments have been some of the most fun I’ve had with a disc in a long time!

~ Marc Medwin

Posted by derek at 11:21 AM | Comments (1)

May 12, 2008

Allan Holdsworth/ Gordon Beck - The Things You See (JMS)


This classy guitar and piano duet from 1980 is quite an anomalous outing in Allan Holdsworth's career as it contains rather unusual elements even for such a pathfinder. For starters, two rarities: the acoustic guitar, an instrument certainly not loved by the Leeds virtuoso due to lack of sustain, is vastly utilized throughout - and in "At The Edge" our man sings, with lovely results. There's also a bit of conceptual continuity involved: the title track will re-appear in I.O.U. (1982), its vocal line directly taken from the above mentioned "At The Edge", while the record's opener "Golden Lakes" is a delicate tune from Igginbottom's Wrench (1969), another item that the author plainly hates, which happens with practically everything released until last week (famously, he threw very harsh words against John Stevens after the drummer published their sessions, despite Holdsworth's request to the contrary).

On the opposite front, Beck offers proof of a monstrous digital dexterity most everywhere, all the more noteworthy given that his flurries and articulations remain on the comprehensible side of things even for listeners not really well-versed in jazz. Beck had been a Holdsworth partner since a few years prior (they recorded Sunbird in 1979 with Aldo Romano and Jean-François Jenny-Clark). To this day the cross-pollination of Bill Evans-like lyricism, blues and quasi-atonal juggling – the latter finding a decisive demonstration in "Diminished Responsibility" – constitutes a functional complement for the guitarist's absurdly complicated yet always falling-in-place lines.

Refined, crystalline music that regularly needs to be attentively revisited, although I'm sure that one of the two parties involved would disagree.

~Massimo Ricci

Posted by derek at 12:11 PM | Comments (2)

May 4, 2008

Sonny Red - Out of the Blue (Blue Note)


Dues paying doesn’t always pay off. Altoist Junior Sylvester Kyner frustratingly found this out when his repeated efforts at attaining national notoriety were rebuffed by a string of mitigating circumstances. Market saturation for his instrument and a propensity for missed opportunities dogged his career. His moniker wasn’t much help either considering the number of others operating under similar cognomens. The resliency of his anonymity certainly wasn’t a result of the company he kept, as his sole Blue Note album substantiates. Pianist Wynton Kelly and bassist Sam Jones were first call sidemen. Drummer Roy Brooks was no shrinking violet either. All three readily abetted Red’s shot at the big time. He recognized the import of the opportunity too, diving into the seven tune studio program with confidence and creativity that suggested his scuffling streak might be near an end. Bird crops up as a chief influence in his agile phrasing along with Sonny Stitt and Lou Donaldson. The blues are at the top of the menu with several sharply rendered examples interspersed around a small handful of predictable standards. The 1996 Connoisseur reissue adds another five cuts with Red fronting the Miles Davis rhythm section, further proof of his ability to attract top tier talent. Sadly, security and success still proved elusive. Several dates for Savoy and Riverside bracketed his Blue Note carbuncle, but fall short of the modest magic captured here.

Posted by derek at 12:16 PM | Comments (0)

April 27, 2008

Udi Hrant Kenkulian (Traditional Crossroads)


Owner of the honorific “udi” signifying his doyen designation on the oud, Kenkulian first made his mark with a series of 78s recorded by RCA in the early 1920s. This collection captures him on more modern equipment in a New York City hotel room sans accompaniment. Just oud and voice in intimately rendered tandem revisiting a series of classical taksims. Kenkulian is sometimes characterized as a purveyor of the Turkish “blues” and his congenital blindness makes comparison to American Pre-War bluesmen all the more convenient. I also hear a kinship to Roscoe Holcomb in his “high lonesome” picking and singing, but any Western corollaries are merely ancillary. His repertoire has indelible roots in the musical traditions of the Ottoman Empire, filtered through the sieve of his own influential advancements on the instrument. Details and subtleties not entirely audible on his early works abound. His tactile interpretations of traditional modal structures contain plenty of grin-inducing moments as notes pile up in perfectly stacked tonal symmetry. The Ampex tape technology also allows him to stretch out, in one case to a dazzling seven minutes on the “Hüzzam Taksim”. Kenkulian’s career was the stuff of celebrated legend and these late in life performances prove why and whence the adulation. A back booklet photo pictures him holding both ud and violin. Evidence of his prowess on the latter instrument is accessible on two collections of his earlier works from Traditional Crossroads, each to my ears as essential as this one.

Posted by derek at 3:45 PM | Comments (1)

April 21, 2008

Nico - Desert Shore (Reprise)


Throbbing Gristle is working on a cover of this 1970 album, so I thought I’d give it a spin. I’m not really a Nico fan, or wasn’t; I might have been one of the few who enjoyed her contributions to the first Velvets record—a weird sort of authoritarian lasciviousness. I never heard her solo work before today except in bits and pieces, not even a single complete track.

Desert Shore was a shock. I was expecting the harmonium but not the varied orchestration—it has to be John Cale behind those arrangements, right? Nico’s vocal delivery has gained in momentum, swelling out to encompass the world and its myriad emotions as if they were somehow beholden to her. Even during the tenderest utterances, like the heartbreaking “Afraid,” Nico must be in control. “Have someone else’s will as your own.” Her ode to her child seems a lesson rather than any sort of commiseration. True, in the more abstract supplications of “Janitor of Lunacy” and “The Falconer,” she does begin to unlock some of the stark contradictions at the heart of whatever she’s harboring, but how loud her voice is! Talk about protesting too much!

What got me, really hit me between the eyes, was, of course, “Le Petit Chevalier.” I’ve read it was Nico’s little boy whose vocals grace the track. Yet, it’s her whispers to him, his little-boy breathing and gentle sniffle, all miked up so close, and that harpsichord way off to the left! The album should be heard just for this moment of obvious intimacy.

If I’ve bought into a piece of mythology, it’s a touching one. Of course the rest of the disc is very good, the arrangements strange and diverse, and please tell me what’s that penetrating little sound, sort of like a cross between an organ and trumpet? I’m not sure that I’ll return to the album often, but I’m glad I heard it.

~ Marc Medwin

Posted by derek at 4:33 AM | Comments (17)

April 13, 2008

Joe Morris Trio - Flip & Spike (Riti)


In the fall of ’92, a nondescript Larkins Talent Associates package showed up at the offices of KUPS, a student run radio station in Tacoma, Washington. I happened to be the Jazz Director there at the time: a job that, at the apex of Grunge hysteria, basically entailed opening the trickle of promo packages and adding “worthy” discs to programming rotation. This particular platter captivated me from first spin and would soon serve as my gateway into New York free jazz, never mind the formality that the players were Boston-based. Morris’ brand of harmonically oblique, but exactingly clean guitar picking was alien in one sense though also accessible with its strong blues sensibility. Sebastian Steinberg’s choice of roundly-amplified electric bass and the staggered syncopations of drummer Jerry Deupree also served sturdy bridges for my rock-weaned sensibilities. The track structures were generally of two types: long undulating vamps like “Itan” and “Mombaccus” or terse texture-oriented fragments like the quixotically-titled “Mnemonic Device” series. Morris’ single notes had a habit of slithering in subtly unexpected directions while still adhering to a central rhythmic stanchion. I wasted no time putting the disc into rotation but became disappointed when it didn’t show up on a single play list. An ad hoc PR push of my own did little to persuade the Nirvana-enamored DJs and I eventually took the disc home in a shelf clearing sale a couple months later. It’s still with me and one I return to periodically for a taste of Morris when he was initially making his recorded mark.

Posted by derek at 4:49 AM | Comments (42)

April 6, 2008

Heiner Goebbels - The Man in the Elevator (ECM)


Jazz After-hours, a show I used to hear on NPR each Friday and Saturday night, introduced me to this one in 1989. The un-named protagonist of this play—literally spoken/sung text and music—is on his way to see “The Boss” when time goes haywire; he steps off the elevator to find himself without any task on a village street in Peru. But wait … hadn’t this poor underling been unsure whether his boss’s office was on the fourth floor or the twentieth?

The music follows his ruminations with catchy yet witty precision, the participants turning in stunning performances. Charles Hayward provides the rattling of the elevator and some brilliantly in-the-pocket drum work. Ned Rothenberg and Don Cherry exist at the opposite end of the speed spectrum, but both play with heart-stopping emotion. Fred Frith’s customary inventiveness is abundant, he and George Lewis often weaving contrapuntal magic against the fairly conventional beats.

Goebbels’ compositional rhetoric is diverse, encompassing free jazz, NY scum rock and popular music of Brazil, often in fascinating juxtaposition. The text, accessible yet as multivalent as the music, travels through temporal and geographic discontinuities with ease and a certain naked charm. It is Arto Lindsay who infuses the words with just the right anxiety, rage, reflection and nervous indecision.

The composed sections are challenging and beautiful, lush harmonies and sinewy melodies abounding in equal measure against often electronic textures sculpted with extraordinary clarity. Sounding a little thin but finely detailed, this was as good as I remembered.

~ Marc Medwin

Posted by derek at 5:46 PM | Comments (34)

April 1, 2008

Bud Freeman - 1928-1938 (Classics)


Comprehensively chronological in approach, Classics caters specifically to the obsessive-compulsive jazz fan. This Freeman compilation loosely covers a decade of the underrated saxophonist’s recorded output and the resulting cross-section makes for a fascintating repast. Most appealing are the eleven trio sides, which (surprisingly for the era) dispense with bassist and find Freeman in the stark company of pianist Jess Stacy and drummer George Wettling. He sounds a little gangly in spots, but the pared down setting also applies a rare (again for the era) microscope to his diagonal phrasing and limpid tone, both of which would influence the Oval Office-occupying Lester Young. Of the other odds and ends, four tracks team him with boisterous trumpeter Bunny Berigan in a quintet and another four feature him in an octet that includes Bobby Hackett and Pee Wee Russell playing a convincing hybrid of Dixieland and swing. Two novelty tunes stand out too: Red McKenzie singing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” with gender specificity that intimates homoerotic overtones and the just plain crackpot “Private Jives” where vocalist Minerva Pious and Freeman revel in a slapstick skit of multiple personalities. The mighty Joe Milazzo hipped me to this set years back and it still finds its way into my occassional rotation when the taste meter tips toward swing tenor. Cast that ballot for Bud!

Posted by derek at 1:59 AM | Comments (12)

March 23, 2008

Richie Cole/Hank Crawford - Bossa International (Milestone)


Altoist Richie Cole is a recent acquaintance of mine. I’d encountered his name periodically over the years, but never bothered to investigate at the prompting of passing mentions. Cue cut-out bin and the subsequent acquistion of this satisfying if rough-hewn date from Milestone. Cole had reputation as a cut-up and clown, a guy for whom humor was a fundamental musical ingredient right alongside highly-honed chops. Apprenticeships with Buddy Rich and Lionel Hampton opened the door to a solo career that continues to this day, but he initially gained visibility via his admittedly gimmicky penchant for transforming popular themes into unexpectedly sturdy bop vehicles. Some of his more infamous hybrid specimens include “I Love Lucy”, “Stark Trek” and even “The Price is Right”(!) Hank Crawford, Cole’s elder by over a decade and an audible influence, joins him for this French concert gig from the summer of 1987. Cole shelves the novelty songbook and focuses instead on bop warhorses interspersed with a pair of bossas and a blues. Solos are frequent as are wailing alto chases and the date has a direct antecedent in Fifties face-offs like the one between Jackie McLean and John Jenkins for Prestige. Combining a clean tone with a Wes-influenced octave phrasing, guitarist Emily Remler distinguishes herself as a soloist of merit as well, joining bassist Marshall Hawkins and drummer Victor Jones as a rhythm section perfectly willing to engage the horns head-on. At the very least, the album has prompted me to dig deeper into Cole’s discography, though nearly all of his fertile tenure for Muse in the 70s is regrettably out-of-print.

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March 17, 2008

Booker Ervin - Structurally Sound (Blue Note)


In both title and content, this 1966 album for Pacific Jazz is reflective of Booker Ervin’s track record in reliability. The tenor saxophonist never cut a shoddy record by my reckoning, and this lesser heralded session is actually one of the better ones within a catalog already known for quality. The Los Angeles locale leads to the somewhat unusual rhythm section of John Hicks, Red Mitchell and Lenny McBrowne. Charles Tolliver spurs Ervin in the frontline with pungent trumpet playing derived from a kindred creative source. The two construct a string of thrilling unisons and exchanges. Four tracks added to the LP’s original eight flesh the disc out to a solid hour. Ervin opts for an eclectic program that bounces between standards, tunes by contemporaries like Randy Weston and Oliver Nelson, and a pair of originals. The quartet even tackles “White Christmas” (a nod to the holiday season recording date) in convincing fashion. Many of the pieces are taken up-tempo, leading to a high frequency of Ervin’s signature hard bitten cries and blistering runs. Ballads like “Deep Night” find voice through comparably virile forms of articulation. Hicks and Mitchell combine in a visceral pairing as well and McBrowne, while lower profile, does a fine job at the cans. Ervin’s sharply finite discography instantly adds cachet to this date. Even if that condition weren’t the case an unequivocal recommendation wouldn’t be hard to come by. About the only potential minus I can come up with is the relative paucity of Mitchell solos. But that’s like faulting Ervin for his preference for blues vernacular, a quibble that ends up beside the point.

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March 9, 2008

Steve Hillage - Fish Rising (Virgin)


I have a soft spot in my heart for anything Gong related. I can remember, in my junior year, forcing a friend to listen to the whole Planet Gong trilogy in an evening: “See, it’s all related man, outer and inner temple, and check out those vibes in seven, and I bet that’s where Plant got that Now and Zen thing anyway, … they eat the phone book and … why don’t you try …” Geoff was singularly unimpressed. “You got any R.E.M.?”

When I got a copy of Fish Rising in 1992, it was as if I’d found the Grail; to hear Dave Stewart do his wah-wah distorto Hatfield thing on “Solar Music Suite” along with Hillage’s spine-cracking guitar gymnastics—just blew the college kid away!! As if all that wasn’t good enough, there was drone a-plenty and a looped bell, Lindsay Cooper came onboard offering some delicious bassoon lines, all over the late Pierre Moerlen’s rock-solid but imaginative drumming! The only thing was, the CD sounded God-awful! Shallow, lots of hiss, some funny nameless cracking things …

2007 saw the reissue of the entire Hillage run for Virgin, and I couldn’t wait to give my beloved “Salmon Song” one more spin. “Knows the way to be …” The philosophy hadn’t aged remarkably well, but the music still grabbed me—complex, visceral and catchy all in the service of some damn fine playing. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that in this case, remastering had done some good, the hiss levels having been drastically reduced. Now, the crystalline opening moments of “Solar Music Suite” shine brighter, and those bubbles in “Fish” plumb further depths. The bonus tracks are fascinating if ultimately inconsequential, but Mark Powell’s notes are typically informative and fun. Anybody with a bit of nostalgia for Hillage’s glory days (I’ve never been as fond of System 7) can’t go wrong with this well-executed reissue of one of the few “prog” records to still hold my interest.

~ Marc Medwin

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March 2, 2008

Jimi Hendrix - Morning Symphony Ideas (Dagger)


Drummer Buddy Miles passed away on Tuesday. I never followed his solo career all that closely, preferring instead his protean work with the Band of Gypsys. Both Miles and bassist Buddy Cox were in obvious awe of Hendrix and that dynamic made for a very different relationship than with the guitarist’s flagship band, The Experience. No clashing egos… just three friends making music, jamming as it were. Hendrix reciprocated the respect by readily absorbing several of Miles’ songs into the band repertoire.

This Dagger Records compilation (posthumous by almost three decades) exudes that easy rapport and colloquial camaraderie. Cox is largely absent, appearing only on the comparatively concise but superlatively funky “Strato Strut”. The liners celebrate “Scorpio Woman”, a twenty-odd minute solo medley by the guitarist, as the set centerpiece. To my ears the opening “Keep On Groovin’” holds that distinction. Hendrix and Miles cycle through a succession of riffs and song fragments too numerous to conveniently catalog. Pieces of “Power of Soul”, “Steppin’ Stone”, “Cherokee Mist” and “Catfish Blues” are a handful that lodges in my head, but there are a litany of others. Throughout, Miles reminds me of another Buddy, one answering to the surname Rich. Like Rich, he had his limitations --an occasional rigidity in his rhythms and a bag of stock beats that he regularly pulled from-- but he was also a near ideal accompanist for Hendrix.

He listens intently to the guitarist’s lead and calibrates speed and direction depending upon often split second dictation. Over such a protracted duration there’s some necessary treading water, but the hit to miss ratio is still remarkably high. Miles made his mark at the helm several years later. Many of the hallmarks that would carry him through a nearly four decade career are already in evidence here.

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February 24, 2008

Andrew Liles - The Dying Submariner: A Concerto for Piano and Reverberation in Four Movements (Beta-Lactam Ring)


Sub-aquatic rumbles shot through with ice-hot piercing liquid overtones which themselves become fuller and warmer as higher fundamentals chase them—this is the world inhabited by Liles’ concerto. For those yet unfamiliar with this composer/performer, Andrew Liles is obviously one of the most gifted sound-sculptors currently active. He is often in the company of Nurse with Wound and associated acts, such as Matt Waldron and most recently Faust, but he has a strongly unique voice; If I say that his music draws equally on surrealism and drone, the pronouncement says nothing of the overwhelming and often awe-inspiring diversity he brings to every release, of which there are now many. On any given disc, Electroacoustic compositions alternate, jump-cut fashion, with swirlingly miasmic yet somehow precisely minimal layers of morphing staticity.

The Dying Submariner has feet firmly planted, or buried, in lush drone and swell, but it’s as much a study in attack and decay. The opening of the third movement, awash in soft slowly changing colors, is suddenly riddled with insurgent notes that momentarily assume all focus. Liles chooses these renegade pitches with care and executes each attack with equal concern. On a more macrocosmic level, the first movement resembles a long glance upward from some deep abyss, but each gesture also contains intimations of the whole. As complex as some of the sound sources for Liles’ work can be, this is an example of minimal means achieving maximal results.

My copy came with an equally interesting work for bowed guitar, The Dead Submariner. Similar in intent if not in execution, it’s a gorgeous soundscape, harsh and sweet by turn. As fine as these pieces are though, they constitute only a tiny fraction of Liles’ accomplishments. Long may this versatile and endlessly fascinating composer thrive!

~ Marc Medwin

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February 17, 2008

Mose Allison


Ol’ man Mose in his young man’s clothes, this is one in a recent round of Concord two-fer reissues that actually makes consumer sense. The program packages a pair of the vocalist/pianist’s early Prestige platters, Back Country Suite and Local Color, in full, and replaces their paltry previous single disc versions in the process. Listening to Allison’s early oeuvre its hard not to think of Harry Connick, Jr., a guy who’s early career is convincingly eclipsed by the elder’s superior shadow. Dryly laconic vocals? Check. Pithy and precocious blend of bop, R&B and pop? Double check. Ear arched astutely to the clever cover tune? Checkmate. Allison taps both Mercy Dee Walton’s seminal “One Room Country Shack” and Ellington’s “Don’t Ever Say Goodbye”. He also turns in early versions of “Young Man Blues” and “Parchman Blues”, two slices of minor songwriting genius that have since graced the set lists of artists as divergent as The Who and Michael Chapman. There’s also a subtle stab at radio-friendly avant garde as Allison’s hoists trumpet, backed only by bass and drums on a rundown of “Trouble in Mind”. Like Connick Jr., he’s sometimes considered lightweight in purist jazz circles. These effervescent early sides argue insouciantly otherwise.

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February 10, 2008

Ortiz Montaigne - Art of the Bass Viol (Ath)


I write Ortiz Montaigne here as that is how this musician is represented on his disc, but this is a baroque recital by bassist Dr. Ortiz Walton. I first came in contact with Walton through a conversation with the late Art Davis, who directed me to Walton’s book Music: Black, White and Blue. Published by William Morrow in 1972, it is a scorchingly intense précis of that which Frank Kofsky would later call Black Music, White Business; Walton, however, brings his musicianship to bear on a study that is at once historically broad and insightfully focused. He devotes a chapter to Art Davis’ discrimination case against the New York Philharmonic, about which my own curiosity led me to interview both men at length. In the process, Davis stated repeatedly that Walton was the best classical bassist he’d ever heard.

The first few notes of Bach’s famous air on a G-String support Davis’ claim. Walton’s tone is strident but never overbearing, and his use of vibrato is, in good period style, spare and tasteful. Throughout this exquisite concert, recorded in Paris, he imbues every note with his obvious love for and knowledge of the music. Harpsichordist Jory Vinikour is a perfect foil, both matching mood and spirit with finesse and skill. While the Bach sonata in D-Major is lush and vibrant, of particular interest to me was the work of Henry Eccles, of whom I had never heard. His faster movements exude wit, while the slower are stately and graceful, Walton’s beautiful ornaments and expressive phrasing being employed to particularly good effect.

It is no wonder that the eminent Charles Munch loved Ortiz Walton’s playing enough to make him the first African American bassist in the Boston Symphony (1957-1962) but Walton also speaks fondly of having played in one of Bill Evans’ first groups! Such an accomplished and multitalented musician, not to mention a freedom fighter, deserves as much exposure as possible. Why his early 1960s activities, with Art Davis, resulting in the introduction of antidiscrimination bylaws to the 802 book hasn’t gotten more press is beyond me. I now know that he is as formidable a musician as he is eloquent in prose, and my respect for him has increased tenfold.

~ Marc Medwin

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February 3, 2008

Ornette Coleman - The Empty Foxhole (Blue Note)


Early in his career, Ornette made a habit of blithely flipping the Bird to jazz convention. As with Parker prior he set about blazing his own path to the predictable chagrin of conservative critics and listeners. This particular shot across the collective bow of those parties was one of the more egregious, not because of Coleman’s own playing (which was pretty much on par with his past in terms of style and approach), but rather his decision to conscript his then ten-year old son Denardo for the drum chair. Listening with the benefit of hindsight it’s a bit hard to fathom what all the fuss was about. The younger Coleman is certainly a greenhorn behind the kit compared to past compatriots like Higgins and Blackwell, his staccato rhythms spilling out in sometimes wobbly fashion. But what he lacks in finesse he makes up for in exuberance and temerity. Charlie Haden does a decent job of dutifully holding the middle, his weighty lines giving the music welcome heft. Van Gelder’s attentive engineering leaves next to nowhere for any of the three to hide. Ornette’s ornery violin sawing on “Sound Gravitation” and purposefully plangent trumpet bleating on two other tunes seems almost calculated to raise critical hackles. Sure enough, the record’s reception was reliably caustic in some circles with the usual charges of hackery and artifice claiming plenty of ink. Ornette took it all in stride, even admirably holding back umbrage at the more punishing derison directed at Denardo. And he had the last laugh, considering the father and son partnership first documented on this project is still going strong four decades on.

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January 27, 2008

Carl Clements - Forth and Back (Saraswati Productions)


I had the privilege of meeting saxophonist Carl Clements in France last November, at a conference dedicated to John Coltrane. He was in his musicology costume and presented a brilliant paper concerning Indian music’s influence on Coltrane’s reading of “Nature Boy.” At the time, I had no idea that he was also a fine composer and player, but this disc confirms both.

The title track exemplifies perfectly the shifting meters and harmonic complexities that form Clements’ compositional rhetoric. Third relations abound and the quartet sound sports a glossy patina, but there’s a surprise every moment, and the tune’s focus never falls prey to needless harmonic prowess. Pianist Bennet Paster, bassist Jim Whitney and drummer Diego Voglino decorate the suggestive chords with gorgeous fills, ornaments and counterpoint, providing a vibe suggestive of Bill Evans’ best trio work under Clements’ flowing and expressive lines.

The B-section of “Fools and Kings” inhabits similar territory, but the A-section shows how Clements attacks post-Coltrane modality. The head quivers on the edges of D-Minor, toying with it and skirting playfully around it while Voglino and Whitney are way in the pocket, not to mention the mode. When Clements solos on soprano, it’s all about those neat motivic visions Trane was constantly fostering—dyads, glides and atomistic swoops with lots of space and equal vigor. However, Clements’ vibrato is flexible, as with Paul Dunmall’s most recent work, maybe due to his assimilation of Indian music performance techniques. Paster in particular also demonstrates a penchant for New Thing sweep and hammer on this track, contributing to its success.

This is a fantastic disc by a fine scholar and an insider. Like Ekkehard Jost, Clements can articulate verbally and on his instrument with ease and dexterity, and God knows we need more of those in a music that, inexplicably, is still marginalized after some forty-five years.

~ Marc Medwin

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January 20, 2008

John Coltrane - First Meditations (Impulse)


Nearly 250 ROW entries to date and for my part not a single Coltrane pick amongst them. There’s a simple reason for it: Coltrane remains a perilous listening proposition. His is a catalog of oceanic import and much of it masks an inescapable undercurrent. Just dipping an ear into the shallow end can effectively sweep a listener out to sea, to be lost for days, weeks, even months. Consequently, lengthy lacunae exist in my Coltrane listening history. I’ll go prolonged stretches without spinning any of the hundred or so discs at my disposal, precisely because exposure compels immersion. On the occasions that I do succumb, this album is usually my first stop in the marathon that inevitably follows. Coltrane revisited the material with Pharoah Sanders and Rashied Ali added, but I prefer this protean version with the core quartet despite obvious stylistic tensions in the band. “Love” alights on a cascading tenor lead, Coltrane soaring and surging forward flanked by Elvin’s powerful mallets and cymbals. It’s one of the most affecting pieces of music I’ve ever heard. The straining tear-inducing dirge “Compassion” contains the blueprint for David S. Ware’s entire career and that’s no slight intended toward the younger saxophonist. The same could probably be said for hundreds of other tenormen. It’s also my favorite Coltrane performance. Jimmy Garrison’s domination of the concluding alternate of “Joy” feels lopsided in one sense, but it’s a rare studio instance of the latitude Trane accorded him more often in concert and winsome experience because of it. Hard to fathom why such beauty as this lay ensconced in a metal can for a dozen years.

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January 13, 2008

Jim Fassett - Symphony of the Birds (Em)


Here’s one of the weirdest Christmas presents ever to grace my imaginary tree. I know nothing about Jim Fassett; I am guessing, from the voice on this reissue, that he was in radio, and it would make sense, given the interwoven history of that medium and the burgeoning “tape music” scene. This is exactly what its title suggests—the Japanese reissue of a symphony made up entirely of bird songs. The liners are, unfortunately, in Japanese, but the recording is in stereo, so I’m going to hazard a late 1950s recording date for this quaint bit of history. A quick search also unearths 1955 as a tentative date, but I’m not so sure, given that I thought stereo’s prominence came a bit later.

The music herein turns out to be more interesting than I’d anticipated—a three-movement piece that follows, loosely, a Fast-Slow-Dance pattern associated with early symphonic plans. The third movement even sports what you might call pitch-based motives, wonder of wonders, developed in what would now be a very easy series of transpositions to bring off, given the early 1980s advances in technology. Most enjoyable, though, are some beautifully layered passages in the “slow” movement, vast sweeps of atmospheric multi-octave trills that still fill the soundstage.

Fassett’s comments, both pre and post symphony, are meant for the Concret novice, providing vivid illustrations of the bird calls and of the processes by which they were manipulated. It’s all good fun, and I’m told the booklet has some great pictures, but a bit of hunting tells me that it’s a fairly expensive proposition, so dig around a bit if you’ve an itch to stuff a late stocking with this slice of lopsided nature.

~ Marc Medwin

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January 6, 2008

Harry "Sweets" Edison - Simply Sweets (Pablo)


Thumbing leisurely through the Pablo titles in my collection, of which there are surprisingly many, I recently pulled this album for some afternoon easy listening. Davis’ collaborations with Edison constituted the third successful pairing (not counting the Count) of his career. Both men changed their vernaculars little over the years. Sweets was a master of understatement, speaking volumes with just a handful of notes. Jaws had a tone that contorted and distorted like an image in a funhouse mirror, but always seemed apposite to his surroundings and attuned to cerulean hues. As first tier alumni of Basie, both could swing with the best. This welterweight date comes from relatively late in either man’s oeuvre. Though the songbook is relatively slight (there’s a better selection on Edison’s Lights, an album recorded a year and a half earlier, partially in the company of the Count) and consists mainly of easy to swallow blues, it still works well for the sort of relaxed blowing that Edison and Davis opt for. Largely anonymous bassist Harvey Newmark and journeyman drummer Jimmie Smith don’t light any fireworks either, but the presence of neo-bopper Dolo Coker brings the rhythm section up a notch. The cover shot of Sweets, replete with lamb chop sideburns, damp process, hippie medallion and wide-lapelled leisure shirt pretty much encapsulates the session vibe. Coker’s turns on electric piano and the crew’s Pall Mall-scented stroll through “Feelings” offer other clues. Even with these subjective minuses, the two principals still keep the swing torch lit and any LP that opens with a tune titled “Dirty Butt Blues” has to have some entertainment cachet, right?

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December 30, 2007

Link Wray & the Raymen - Mr. Guitar (Norton)


Link’s been in the ground a few years but his spirit lives on in the sonic DNA of innumerable bands. “Grandfather of the Power Chord” isn’t some idle boast. This generously sequenced Norton set documents the genesis of that sobriquet over the course of 63 singles cut for the Swan label in the Sixties. The crunch and growl of his signature pen-perforated amp sound is in full effect throughout. Raw-boned riffs are regularly recycled and many of the tune titles are tacked on, one fuzz-tone roof-raiser folding easily into the next. But between the various “Rumble” variations and other largely interchangeable instrumentals arise surprises, like Link’s raucous takes on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Hidden Charms” and Elvis’ “Hound Dog” and his heartfelt interpretation of Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country”. Also endearing are weirdo novelty tunes like “The Shadow Knows” and an organ-blitzed send-up of the “Batman Theme” with Wray voicing the part of the Caped Crusader. The B-sides well out number their A-list counterparts, but that attention to obscurata is a chief reason why this exhaustive collection is so much fun. The booklet contains a boon of period snapshots and Wrayological anecdotes and in true Norton style even includes a marble-patterned guitar pick. Amidst the continuing proliferation of compilations that offer piecemeal portions of Link’s catalog, this set is still the one to get, both for its Bear Family-worthy inclusiveness and its attention to his salacious salad years.

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December 23, 2007

T-Model Ford - Pee Wee Get My Gun (Fat Possum)


A bit of a relic from Fat Possum’s not-so-distant past, the label has since wisely moved on to stewarding more reliable and lucrative wards like Dinosaur Jr. and the Heartless Bastards. Back in the Nineties though, they still banked their wildly fluctuating fortunes on the blues and a specially cultivated branch of that variegated vine that T-Model Ford could easily have been the poster boy for had R.L. Burnside not beat him to the post. Ford always struck me as the most pragmatic and self-aware among the Fat Possum stable. He knew his persona as an obdurate bad ass was mostly a sham but he took to it anyway and had a helluva time propagating it. This record, his debut at the ripe old age of 75, revels in the sort of boasting and vilifying that’s been parcel to the idiom since its inception. It certainly helps to have the lyrics coupled to snarling over-amplified guitars and stomping metronomic snare beats, all filtered through brittle and bracing back porch production. Veteran bluesman Frank Frost adds Farfisa on a couple cuts and the story goes that he and Ford almost came to blows on several occasions during the session; the former man aggravated by the latter’s blatant disregard for quality control. “Cut You Loose” predictably recounts love gone past the shelf date while “Turkey and the Rabbit” burns with pure gin and distortion-soaked boogie. “Nobody Gets Me Down” is instant theme song material with Ford growling: “I been shot, and I been cut, nobody gets me down.” Several songs meander well past their welcome and calling Ford’s rheumatic wheeze an acquired taste is probably too kind, but damn if he doesn’t consistently deliver a good time. The cover and title win points too, demonstrating conclusively that even the local youth aren’t beyond the reach of Ford’s corrupting influence.

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December 16, 2007

Taj Mahal Travellers - August 1974 (P-Vine)


I’m very new to this record, but I couldn’t resist. I’ve heard all the buzz, but I now see the glory, and no, it’s not a royal scam. It’s about an hour and a half of some of the most visceral and satisfying thrum and buzz I’ve had the pleasure to ingest.

Recorded live in the studio under the loose direction of Fluxus composer Takehisa Kosugi and consisting of four long pieces, the set prefigures what would happen if Sunburned Hand of the Man met Birchville Cat Motel halfway. The drone on “Part 1” sneaks up, emerging out of a cloud of rhythmic delay, clatter and heavily-reverbed fly buzz, whistles moving across the soundstage invoking Tim Blake’s work with Gong. The instruments are largely acoustic, but they’re manipulated in such a way as to become larger than they are, marimba vying for prominence with what sounds like French horn and violin.

I cannot begin to describe the slow build and the complexities that make up the drone’s core. True, there are the sudden harmonica blasts, some sort of DeFord Bailey meets Magic Mother Invocation Jamboree, but these are subservient to the all-encompassing drone. Even when a particular instrument has a solo spot, like the muted guitar at the beginning of “Part 2,” it’s just a momentary diversion from the onslaught of collectivity. It’s mixed so beautifully, however, that each level of drone is apparent, making the whole like a sculpture that you get to see from several angles, each providing new revelations on every viewing.

Tonality, timbre, rhythm—each prove to be fluid constructions as this journey progresses. This, the group’s second album proper, is much more expansive than the first, sonically as well as temporally; yet, ironically, there is a certain stream-lined aesthetic at work here. As with early AMM, details emerge from collective obscurity with stunning clarity. This is definitely a feast for the ears, one I almost missed but whose time has come.

~ Marc Medwin

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December 9, 2007

Songs of the Old Regular Baptists (Smithsonian/Folkways)


I spent one of the best summers of my life serving as an intern for the Smithsonian/Folkways label in Washington, DC. Part of the job entailed working as a field recording technician for the Festival of American Folklife, an event held annually on the National Mall designed to explore the arts and music selected regional cultural groups. A contingent of Old Regular Baptists was on the performance roster that particular summer and the music they shared had an unexpectedly metaphysical effect on my consciousness. Versed in a centuries-old style of European lined out hymnody and steeped in the pastoral climate of their Kentucky origins, the Baptists were like beatific delegates from another age. Everyone on the recording team expected them to keep to themselves*, but those assumptions were dispelled almost immediately as the Baptists mingled enthusiastically with the West African and Mississippi musicians who were also on the festival docket that year. Their music had a similarly immediate and inclusive effect on audiences, somber and mournful in one sense, joyous and celebratory in another, communicating ardent faith in often-otherworldly fashion. There really is nothing like it and it’s one of the rare assemblages of sound that can readily bring tears to my eyes. The faith-based verses, sounded first by leader Elwood Cornett and answered in heterophonic fashion by the congregation, may not resonate in terms of meaning, but the angelic mass of shifting meters and inflections burrows straight to an emotional core. Released the same summer, this recording doesn’t do the live experience of the Baptists justice, but as a memento of a pivotal time in my life it’s still one I return to often.

*The cover graphic takes pains to sustain the Baptists’ anonymity as per their mandate. Similarly, no liner photographs are included.

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December 2, 2007

Vienna Philharmonic/Pierre Boulez - Mahler: Symphonie No. 6 (Deutsche Grammophon)


Pierre Boulez has just finished his Mahler symphony cycle with an account of the Symphony of a Thousand, and it seemed a good time to give the survey another listen. While it will never replace the contributions of Rattle, Gielen, Horenstein, Mengelberg and other top-drawer Mahlerians, the Boulez readings are consistent in an approach to detail that is somehow simultaneously cool-headed and satisfying.

His rendering of the multifariously tragic sixth, with which the whole cycle began in mid 1995, sums up the fairly complex approach. I was surprised, at the time, with just how successful the emotive qualities were brought off without being overdramatized. The opening march, or rather the march’s opening, maintains excitement with some hairpin dynamic and timbral shifts and juxtapositions, but the dense counterpoint belies a beautiful sense of long-form development rather than the modernist approach I had been expecting from Boulez. The more chamber-like sections of the huge and immensely varied finale are treated similarly, tuba, harp and strings interacting so that timbre never displaces line, as happens in the seminal Barbirolli studio recording.

Even more surprising, on re-assessment, is how beautiful the sweepingly majestic slow movement becomes in Boulez’s hands. Placed third in his reading, it is a streamlined and busily detailed but never overactive performance where the Andante somewhat overrides the Moderato. That said, a certain elasticity keeps any sense of hurry at bay; as happens so often through Boulez’s Mahler survey, slow movements are presented without drag or rush, a credit to the Maestro’s admirable sense of large gesture.

I have never understood how critics could praise this sixth, as they did upon release, and dismiss many of Boulez’s other Mahler renderings. His vision is strikingly unified, maybe a bit too unified. There is a certain clinicality in his interpretations that can be fascinating but might distract those in search of a more visceral experience. I love them, all nine, and he has a fine Das Lied von der Erde as well. Looking back, the sixth commenced a remarkable achievement from a conductor whose musical aesthetic has remained uncompromisingly his own.

~ Marc Medwin

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November 25, 2007

Big Joe Williams - These Are My Blues (Testament)


Big Joe Williams was no stranger to plugging in when he cut this live date at Rockford College in 1965. His ouevre had been divisible between acoustic and amplified blues for decades, with the druthers for either hinging mainly on his own whims rather than those of his audience. A self-taught luthier, he routinely salvaged guitars from the trash to assemble his own Frankenstein creations. The six-string he uses here has an additional three strings soldered to its neck, but more notable is his decision to jack a tremolo attachment up to the level of near distortion. The resulting waves of shimmering twang give his craggy picked lines abundant presence and smoothly oscillating texture. It’s a contrastive combination with his bullfrog croak of a voice and colloquial delivery and therefore unique in his canon. And that’s saying something considering Williams played and recorded constantly, traveling from place to place and completely ignoring copyright and contract considerations on many of his stops. The 17-song set list encompasses a few covers like John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillun” and Sonny Boy Williams’ “Good Morning Little School Girl”, but Williams primarily dips from his own bag of snuff with “Mellow Peaches” and “Vitamin A Blues” being standouts. He never concerned himself much with playing things “right” and there are plenty of switchbacks and “mistakes” in his homespun fretwork, but again, that thick glaze of tremolo has the weird effect of polishing off the points and cracks. Normally, that would seem a negative, but in actual practice it makes for a fascinating coupling of urbane and back porch moods.

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November 18, 2007

Dave Holland - Emerald Tears (ECM)


Leave it to Dave Holland to create a pioneering solo bass record both daunting to the student and dependably satisfying to the layperson listener. Holland’s been quietly making big waves since his early gigs with Miles, moving from acoustic to electric incarnations of his instrument with ease and playing in every style from free to postbop to fusion. This ECM set from relatively early in his career presents his Olympian powers on upright via an intimate program of originals and a pair of disparate ‘covers’. The label’s limpid production suits the action and resonance of his strings, leaving all the nuances of his intonation exquisitely audible. A broad melodic acumen percolates through pieces combining with a persistent rhythmic mutability. These are carefully considered song forms, not just inventories of extended techniques that would cause even the most erudite bull fiddlers to take pause in admiration. Even the interpretation of one of Braxton’s schematic compositions carries a funky underpinning. Holland keeps the prevailing mood warm and inviting, even on the introspective “Under Redwoods”. Bow leaves scabbard only on a pair of pieces and the album feels the better for its focus on pizzicato. Holland also corrals his imagination into the confines of a single LP’s dimensions. Any longer and the session might begin to suffer under the relative starkness of the set-up. Holland would wait 16 years before releasing another solo recital, this time on Intuition. That set is well worth hearing too, but this one holds the privilege of precedence.

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November 11, 2007

Seventh Wave - Psi-Fi (Janus)


I threatened to do this weeks ago and here it is. I know almost nothing about this middle 1970s “prog” duo, except that Kieran O’Connor and Ken Elliot combine the whimsy of Bowie’s most interesting work with the stereophonics of Dark Side era Floyd, and they produced one of the all-time masterpieces of any genre.

No they didn’t really, and in fact, a fair amount of Psi-Fi is interesting only in that it shows a different side of synth-pop than, say, Suicide; I barely remember the first half. However, the last two tracks on the album, “Camera Obscura” (in compound duple!) and “Star Palace of the Somber Warrior” (Not!) are truly masterpieces. “Plastic Palace Alice,” sing-shrieks one of them, “Through the looking glaaaaaaasss,” as a relatively harsh dissonance inducts the listener. Connected by a swirling droning display of technology that gives “On the Run” a run for its money, these two mini-musicals represent symphonic rock at its finest, timbre for once rivaling tone constructs for innovation. The lyrics are delivered with all the conviction of innocence, as impassioned as Peter Gabriel in finest form and as clever as … er … Ambrosia? Yes, that seems fair—Ambrosia on their first two albums anyway. Actually, the theatricality of Ambrosia’s delivery isn’t so far away from Seventh Wave, the latter boasting fine harmonies and good through-composition in the romantic style of those obsessed with the theater of Wagner-induced outward and inward journeys.

At their best, Seventh Wave combine Avant-Garde sound experiments with the often pretentious but somehow charming excesses of progressive rock, and if you’ll accept an album of the week for two tracks, they’re sure to provide some nostalgic fun.

~ Marc Medwin

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November 4, 2007

Barney Kessel - Feeling Free (Contemporary)


Barney Kessel looked the guitar geek part openly, resembling in his youth the possible lovechild of Peter Lorre and Alfred E. Neuman with a penchant for tweed coats and turtlenecks. As one of Norman Granz’s favored plectrists he took part in a steady series of dream dates with aging giants of the swing era, everyone from Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins to Roy Eldridge and Lionel Hampton. A record deal with Contemporary allowed for a contemporaneous outlet for his own work, though even there standards and show tunes served as preferred menu items. That back-story and the resultant body of excellent, if mostly orthodox, work is part of what makes this later session for the label both a curiosity and breath of fresh air. Kessel had grown disillusioned with his lucrative position as a professional LA session man. His search for higher-octane surroundings led him to tap a crew seemingly incongruous with his earlier career. The title on this album announces the personal transformation in rhetorical fashion, as the tunes aren’t “free” in the sense of Ayler or late-Coltrane. But Kessel does launch himself enthusiastically out of his previous comfort zone. The crucible is Elvin Jones, who holds nothing back in the way of muscle or momentum, building mighty polyrhythms without censure. Kessel responds by cranking his amp up and tossing welcome pinches of gravel into his previously whistle clean tone. Bassist Chuck Domanico plays complex LaFaro influenced lines and Bobby Hutcherson brings the cogent blend of harmonic creativity and luminosity that graces so much of his Blue Note work. The set list is a mix of pop hits, one by Bacharach, another by Simon, and originals geared to emphasize the casually emancipated interplay. Kessel also enforces a credo of minimal multiple takes, preferring to leave minor mistakes in rather than compromise the consistent élan. His “free” phase wouldn’t last long, but the brief stroll on the “wilder” side would inform the remainder of his lengthy career.

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October 28, 2007

Joe Maphis - Fire on the Strings (Columbia)


One among an elite fraternity of bleeding fingers plectrists, Joe Maphis set the guitar bar almost impossibly high in terms of speed and precision. While his approach on custom Mosrite double neck electric clocked velocities similar to the go-for-broke bluegrass sessions of elders Ralph Stanley and Uncle Dave Macon, his ears were also open to the genres of jazz, blues and rock and roll and his mind just as receptive to making a buck. This astutely titled program of instrumentals finds him in an ideal element with a crack studio band at his flanks and a selection of tunes arranged to feature his mercurial arpeggiations with no crooning or yodeling to compete for the spotlight. The other players settle into their supportive roles without guff and gladly accept the solo scraps Maphis tosses them; it’s clearly his show from the get-go. At times there are as many as six guitarists (including lap steel) picking away against a steady string bass thump and snare beat. The music is as fastidiously arranged as Maphis’ Opry duds pictured on the LP cover, but that doesn’t mean it lacks in the least for verve or variety. Maphis even hangs up his chief axe on a few for equally convincing turns on mandolin and banjo and slow waltz “Sweet Fern” shows off his sentimental side. Seven bonus tracks borrowed from two more LPs and a single join the original dozen for the reissue, expanding the album length to a healthy 50-odd minutes. Maphis is largely credited with bushwacking a stylistic path for the surf guitarists of the 60s and his liberal use of twangy reverb here bears out the claim. He also appears to have been the (unwitting?) model for those plastic hillbilly teeth so easily procurable this time of year.

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October 21, 2007

Various - Bix Restored: Volume 5 (Origin Jazz Library)


This is the fifth installment in OJL’s monumental survey of the complete Bix Beiderbecke. Any discussion that would do justice to the first twelve discs in the set is obviously beyond the scope of a column such as this. However, the final volume stands on its own as a compendium of artists that demonstrate, obviously or otherwise, Beiderbecke’s far-ranging influence.

There are the obligatory homage’s, notably the beautiful Red Norvo transcription of “In a Mist” for xylophone (though it sounds like marimba) guitar, bass and bass clarinet, the latter played elegantly by Benny Goodman. Recorded at the end of 1933, it prefigures the sound that would come to be labeled Chamber jazz, its texture sumptuous yet transparent.

Then, there’s the whimsy of Vaudeville singer Marion Harris’ take on “Singing the Blues.” Originally recorded by Bix and Frankie Trumbauer in 1927, their solos are given fresh lyrics, presumably by Harris, concerning how a spurned lover would dispatch with her man and the “oceans of gin” it took to build up the necessary courage and conviction. Harris sing-speaks the solos with a disarming mixture of reverence and wit.

There are also those tributes that bespeak style at a deeper level—something in the phrasing or in the way notes are paired, grouped and phrased. “Sweet Sue, Just You,” with Lennie Hayton accompanying Bing Crosby, has Bix written all over the piano part, a winning mix of stride and impressionism. The same is true with Hoagy Carmichael’s piano solo on the first recording of “Stardust;” it’s redolent of Bix, whose influence HC never tired of acknowledging.

Of course, trumpeters abound here, contributions from Rex Stewart and Jimmy McPartland especially noteworthy, but for die-hard Bix collectors, two recently discovered alternate takes are included, on “Futuristic Rhythm” and “Raisin’ the Roof.” The former is infinitely better than its original issue, Bix in better form and providing a much more energetic solo.

This is a wonderful culmination to a lovingly prepared set, and the transfers are first-rate throughout, having been initiated by the legendary John R.T. Davies and continued by Michael Kieffer. This is definitely worth investigating by anybody interested in vintage jazz.

~ Marc Medwin

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October 14, 2007

Earl Hooker - There’s a Fungus Amung Us (Red Lightnin’)


When it came to contests of name noteriety, Earl Hooker always seemed to end up with the short end of the guitar string. Unlike the famous cousin with whom he shared a surname, Hooker recorded only sporadically as a leader, spending the bulk of his career as a Chicago session man. The reasons are a bit hard to fathom considering his considerable prowess on the frets. The man could play almost anything on his customized double-neck Gibson and counted proficiency on organ, drums, piano, banjo, harmonica and mandolin as other weapons in his armory. Still, fame never fully came his way and he cashed out to TB in the spring of 1970 after a chronic struggle with the illness. Specifics on this LP are similarly hard to glean with guitarist Jimmy Dawkins the only identified sideman and that designation a dubious one, at best. The album’s eleven cuts are all instrumentals, Hooker’s preferred format since pipes were the only category where his prestigious cousin had an undeniable edge. Wah-wah and B-3 grease figure prominently in the mix and the songs are very much in a soul blues bag as the cover of Booker T & the MGs “Hold On” makes manifest. Hooker has room to try out all sorts of plectral tricks from the keening harmonics of “Two Bugs in a Rug”, a variant of his signature tune, to the treble-spackled chicken scratch that etches “Dust My Broom”. The backing band, whoever they are, is tight and well tuned to Hooker’s needs. No great revelations or strides to speak of. Instead it’s just the aural equivalent of a savory skillet-cooked meal washed down with several cans of local brewed suds. A Crumb concocted cover is a bonus, rubber-stamping the album with late 60s counter-culture character even if the music doesn’t exactly follow suit.

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October 8, 2007

Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart - Bongo Fury (Rykodisc)


“Give me Bass-Relief!” screams a frenetic Captain, my Captain, (“Oh, hell yes!) as “Debra Kadabra” kicks into one of the coolest and most kick-ass syncopated grooves offered up on a mostly live and classic FZ record. In 1975, the pair reunited for the tour that produced this marvelous slab of bizarre genius. Oh Helios, we get some great harp playing on “Advanced Romance” and “Poofter’s Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead,” but Van Vliet also contributes some of his trademark rasp to “Muffin Man”’s minimalist chorus.

Are you with me on this people? There are also beautifully cerebral Zappa constructions, like the studio trickery and tack-hammered piano of “Cucamonga” with its “Nanook No-No” bit of conceptual continuity. It’s the George Duke/Napoleon Murphy Brock that gives the vocal harmonies their luster, as “Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy” makes plain, one of the greatest songs ever about stomping all over a woman who was certainly asking for it.

That particular track also sports one of the finest FZ guitar solos, a career highlight that I’ve found myself humming often over the last 20 years, more often than I’d care to admit. Same goes for the scorching solo on “Muffin Man,” as Zappa riffs countless quasi-imponderables over a good old three-chord vamp, a bit a nostalgia for the old folks in tandem with some high-powered widdley-widdley-weeing for the young sophisticate.

There are very few moments as awe-inspiringly silly as Zappa’s band introductions, delivered preacher style, building up to that now legendary shout-out, “Goodnight Austin Texas wherever you are!” As Terry Bozzio’s emotive and impeccable drumming leads into a final instrumental chorus of “Muffin Man,” ending a superb album with a brilliant fade, no more need be said.

~ Marc Medwin

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September 30, 2007

Keith Jarrett - Changeless


Some of the best moments by Keith Jarrett’s venerable Standards Trio occur when he, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette abandon the parameters of their signifier altogether. In this particular case from early in their association, they discard the reliable territory of the American songbook in favor of collectively improvised interplay that takes on almost Eastern devotional dimensions. Jarrett’s usual tropes are present and even magnified under the circumstances, but oddly enough, they enhance rather than diminish the four performances, each taped in different U.S. city. Here is the pianist allowing his ascetic and affective impulses unbridled avenues of expression. “Dancing” works off a darkly syncopated ostinato, incessant in its recurrence and gravitas. “Endless” is epic in scope and intent, rippling out as a series of variations on a pathos-pregnant melodic motif. Peacock and DeJohnette lock and release, generating oceanic swells of rhythm while paying particular attention to building texture around Jarrett’s sweeping and dramatic patterns. The effect brings to mind the emotional peaks and valleys of a tumultuous romantic relationship and Jarrett’s audible sighs, murmurs and swoons magnify the mental impression. The liners carry the supercilious fungus that seems to sprout regularly from the the fissures in the pianist’s Ivory Tower psyche and the Zen enso inscribed on the cover is also a bit much. Musically though it all works, maddeningly substantiating Jarrett’s claims of instrumental superiority.

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September 23, 2007

George Antheil -Ballet Mechanique (EMF Media)


While the infamous “Bad Boy”’s romp through industrojazz is this fascinating disc’s centerpiece, it is certainly not the only point of interest. Among the miniatures on offer, John Cage and Lou Harrison’s “Double Music” from 1941 stands out, is this hypnotic collaborative gem for various tuned and untuned percussion with which I was unfamiliar. There is also a rather astonishing rendering of the Salterello-Presto movement from Felix Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, arranged by Paul Lehrman for sixteen player pianos, a wild expansion of the four-hand piano trope.

Then, there’s the ballet. For the uninitiated, it’s loud, a relentless half hour of rhythmic bang as a problematic child of the equally infamous Rite is born. While there have been several recordings of the piece, this is the first for the 1924 version, not quite the original version but very close. All but impossible at the time of composition, the present revision, for xylophones, tamtams, siren, airplane propellers, bass drums and sixteen synchronized player pianos, was not premiered until 1999. Jeffrey Fischer conducts the University of Massachusetts Lowell Percussion Ensemble in an engaging performance where volume never supersedes clarity. The rhythms are strong, the stratified layers well defined, and each instrument is beautifully recorded in a resonant space.

I played this performance last Sunday morning on a friend’s radio show. We programmed it to follow one of the Lassus Penitential Psalms, and I couldn’t help feeling just a bit of that bad boy glee.

~ Marc Medwin

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September 16, 2007

Billie & DeDe Pierce - Blues and Tonks From the Delta (Riverside)


A husband and wife team whose union weathered all manner of career peaks and furrows, Billie and DeDe Pierce played the Crescent City scene for the better part of forty years. Billie initially sharpened her piano chops in the black bottom bands of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Ida Cox while DeDe was a regular on the marching band circuit. Produced by Chris Albertson for his short-lived but indispensable New Orleans Living Legends series, this late in the game session visits them in the company of local percussionist Albert Jiles, who doubles on kit and an assortment of tuned bells. The blues and tonks promised in the title constitute meaty fare for the three and they celebrate such staples as “St. James Infirmary” and “Millenberg Joys” with audible zeal. Their take on the former song is one of my favorites on record, roughshod, but ripe with the regal melancholy at the root of the mortality-obsessed lyrics. DeDe’s brass style is built on an obvious Armstrong chassis, his smears and trills aping early Satchmo as Billie generates forceful rolls and fills at his flank. Her colloquial vocals encompass a belting delivery and she isn’t the least bit averse to turning a blue verse either as her frank musings on the ode to harlotry “In the Racket” ably indicate. Jiles inculcates himself expertly into the duo’s personalized sound; keeping an unobtrusive syncopated beat, but also veering off with oddly pitched accents from his struck bell tree. The trio taped enough material at the session for a second volume, but it’s this one that I return to most frequently for a ration of trad jazz refreshingly off the beaten path.

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September 9, 2007

Jethro Tull - A Passion Play (Chrysalis)


I read somewhere recently, or maybe I heard, that Ian Anderson viewed this album as a sendup, kind of a joke for the concept album loving progsters. I know it’s supposed to be true for Thick as a Brick, but this one? Come on!! It’s the most adventurous record they ever made, it might be the best musically speaking, and there’s a healthy chunk of lyrical meat on the bones as well.

OK, so maybe the keyboard work doesn’t stack up to Moraz in Refugee or to the best moments from PFM or Gentle Giant, but I still like the slowing heartbeat synth in the intro, not to mention the high-frequency-enhanced reverb on the acoustic guitar accompanying the line “The silver chord lies on the ground.” If the vibrato machine on Anderson’s voice gets a bit tiresome after a while, the lyrics speak to a seriousness and contemplation missing from every album they’ve released since. While the God/devil flip-flop is nothing new, the insertion of the “Hare who Lost his Spectacles” story brings things back to earth again; its musical setting is downright irresistible, and I sure wish I’d done that orchestration!

I’m assuming that much of the Bags readership has heard this, so I needn’t address the multiple power inversions, often simultaneous, found in lines like “In that forsaken Paradise that calls itself Hell.” For those that haven’t heard this, only Igor Wakevitch and Frank Zappa bring “classical” music and rock closer together. This is an album that reels in derision and lip service in equal measure, and I think it deserves a few more serious listens. It even stands up to Seventh Wave for musical excellence—anybody remember them?

~ Marc Medwin

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September 2, 2007

Jack Owens & Buddy Spires – It Must Have Been the Devil (Testament)


The tincture of influence can be a burdensome thing, an indelible mark even when its presence is more mirage than reality. Stitt had to deal with the Olympus-sized shadow that was Bird. Brötzmann’s been living down a knee-jerk Ayler analogue for decades, despite his contention that they developed their styles contemporaneously. In the realm of the blues there’s Jack Owens and Skip James, both longtime residents of Bentonia, Mississippi. James remains the household name, primarily for the string of epochal “race” sides he waxed for Paramount in 1930. Those few who have even heard of Owens often first hear him as an impersonator or at best, disciple. Closer listening divulges both subtle and substantial disparities in their styles. Owens reminds me more of hill country contemporaries like Junior Kimbrough and Robert Belfour, particularly on this 1970 album for Pete Welding’s Testament imprint. He hardly seems concerned with conventional song constraints or strict tunings, spooling out spidery, undulating guitar lines that scuttle along for durations up to several times that of the typical shellac 78. His vocals, a weird blend of adenoidal wail and sorrowful rasp don’t match the eldritch falsetto of Skip, but carry instead their own bundle of broken aspirations in dryly suspiring form. Confrere Buddy Spires adds haunting mouth harp fills and the pair shapes improvisations that sound at once ramshackle and rococo. Their renderings of “Good Morning Little School Girl” and “Catfish Blues” reduce claims of unoriginality to little more than burnt hog moss. Owens even has the huevos to cover James “Cherry Ball Blues”, divested here of its genre signifier and significantly looser in design. Asked to chose, I’d still readily pick Skip, but Owens is more than worth a lingering gander.

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August 26, 2007

Karlheinz Stockhausen - Mikrophonie I and II, Telemusic (Stockhausen-Verlag)


Last Wednesday was Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 79th birthday, and I’ve been spinning this one ever since. It’s Volume 9 of the composer’s complete works, which can be ordered, along with many scores, directly from his own site.
This is a particularly important issue as it encapsulates many of the compositional and emotive currents into which Stockhausen was then tapping with a vengeance. It is well documented that the two Mikrophonie pieces, from 1964 and 1965 respectively employ the microphone as an active instrument and represent some of the earliest excursions into live electronics. The first, for tamtam, two microphones, two filters and controllers, uses a kind of moment form to invoke an extraordinary universe of sounds usually inaudible without amplification. Beginning life as a two-man improvisation, the piece still exhibits a spontaneous quality as it follows its highly structured path. The 27th structure, for example, sounds like anything but a tamtam, taking on the surprisingly Orientalist quality of a zither. This version is beautifully recorded, each thunderous groan, slight rustle and stark silence absolutely clear and present.

“Mikrophonie II,” for choir, Hammond Organ and four ring modulators, delves deep into the human psyche, as per the composer’s directions to the vocalists: “Like a conceited snob,” or “Like a baby.” He has spoken, with justified pride, of waking the monsters within his chosen singers, a quality often amplified (exacerbated?) by the ring modulators. The eight times during the piece in which earlier Stockhausen compositions emerge, via tape, are extremely effective, combining with traditional counterpoint in certain sections of the high-register lines to create stunning temporal disunity.

“Telemusik,” composed for tape in Japan during a 1966 visit, prefigures the monumental Hymnen (1967-68) in that it draws on sounds from many diverse cultures, a kind of world music before all the clichés rendered the term meaningless. As fascinating as that is, the intuitive logic of the way each structure unfolds, skewing perception of time and space, is the real joy and innovation of the work. Structures 2-7, for example, seem to be about deceleration and entropy as the interregistral sounds decrease and decay, or disunify, over increasingly extended periods, as almost recognizable cultural markers permeate the spaces below and around them.

I am increasingly awed by these three pieces, and their presentation here is second to none, as it is in every volume I have of the admittedly high-priced but beautifully prepared Stockhausen edition. Happy Birthday, Maestro!

~ Marc Medwin

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August 19, 2007

Buzzcocks - Operators Manual (EMI)


I came to the Buzzcocks late through the back channel of Hüsker Dü and Bob Mould’s breathless encomiums about the band. It was a dubious means of ingress, akin to discovering Bad Brains via Living Colour (another among my many cart-before-the-horse musical sins). But ever since their autumnal addition to my rotation they have seldom left for very long. This 1991 compilation lives up to the utilitarian promise of its title by presenting twenty-five of the Buzzcocks prime cuts across triple as many minutes. That temporal ratio distills their role in the rise of bubblegum punk, that curious blend of aggro angst and commercial song craft that built the careers of countless bands after. As with Phil Spector before them, their best songs are two to three minute paeans to youth and romance, in this case shot through with teeth-gnashing doses of insolence, indolence and ire. “Orgasm Addict” is an ideal and instructive opener, not to mention a near-impossible act to follow. Lascivious lyrics reflecting a fevered equal opportunist sex drive couple to buzz saw guitars and a pummeling drum beat. “What Do I Get?” carries the egotism even further as Pete Shelley whines about his sorry luck with love. “Autonomy” is anthemic and disarmingly intricate in its fretwork. “Fast Cars” is fairly inconsequential from a topical standpoint; its charms cached instead in Steve Diggle’s gargantuan bass line and more layered guitars. The energy and economy of the group falters a bit on later, longer cuts, but there really isn’t a bum one in the bunch. I never bothered to check back in with the Buzzcocks on any of their reunion efforts over the years. This dog-eared and well-spun primer still has pretty much everything I need.

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August 12, 2007

John Coltrane - Olé Coltrane (Atlantic)


Olé Coltrane’s history is well known: It was Trane’s last date for Atlantic, recorded in 1961, in fact, just after his first for the new Impulse! Label. Eric Dolphy (George Lane) and Freddie Hubbard augment the emergant classic quartet, making for a great disc all around.

I picked the album, however, for Art Davis, to complement Derek’s mention of his passing in an earlier thread. To this day, his playing is underrated, if not neglected, and while the reasons are multiple and complex, he brings majesty and mystery to the title track of this seminal album.

Percussive at first, alternating arco and pizzicato, Davis’ is the higher voice in this bass duo with Reggie Workman, prophetic of Grimes/Silva in Cecil Taylor’s two Blue Note dates. When Davis finally takes a solo, he effectively annihilates much arco that preceeded him in several strokes and with a few masterfully placed harmonics. First a G, then a D, the notes drifting and hanging poised above the Moorish fray with such delicacy and grace as to be dream-like, or heartbreaking. His approach to modality is boundless, matching Coltrane’s own in gesture after gesture telling of the nascent freedom ready to burst out all over New York, all over the country, as each phrase ascends in pitch and intensity. Mirroring the recent independences on the African continent, Coltrane’s conception pulses with life and vigor, and Davis is an invaluable contributor.

For anyone that hasn’t heard this album, and I’m doubtful that Bags readership has many of those among it’s ranks, “Aisha” is a beautiful McCoy Tyner composition, and “Dahomey Dance” immortalizes, as Coltrane did so effectively and so often, the struggles for identity and freedom associated with late 1950s Africa. The disc is a marvel of diversity, both in terms of topos and playing, and it is with sadness that we bid farewell to one more of its participants.

~ Marc Medwin

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August 5, 2007

Pepper Adams - Julian (Enja)


In the pantheon of baritone saxophonists, the late, great Pepper Adams holds a special position of prominence. Adams wasn’t a fraction of the composer Mulligan was, nor did he travel exotic spaceways like Pat Patrick, but when it came to bringing out the blustery best in his horn he often had his contemporaries soundly beat. A chief reason behind that edge was the determination to embrace the instrument’s gutteral bottom end and couple it with an inherent enthusiasm that was also resolutely cognizant of form and function. An Adams solo, even a riff, is rife with vitality and muscle, but also respectful of structural integrity. To cite just one specimen: my favorite passage of Mingus’ Blues and Roots involves Pepper’s garrulous prodding bleats that open the deliriously down home “Moanin’”. This Enja set, taped in a tiny club in Munich in the summer of ’75, offers a striking contrast between Adams’ physique and sound. A booklet snapshot shows him pencil-thin and balding, presumable side effects of chemo, hoisting his horn with matchstick arms. Fortunately the rugged physicality of horn remains largely intact and comes through clearly in the clean live recording. A rhythm section of Walter Norris, George Mraz and the Makaya Ntshoko help out with swinging backdrops as Adams taps a songbook made up mainly of originals and tunes borrowed from his colleague Thad Jones. The title ballad, composed jointly by the leader and Mraz in honor of Cannonball Adderley, is particularly effective with Adams blowing bold cerulean shapes against the bassist’s steady commentary and finishing off with a soaring cadenza that belies his horn’s built-in gravity. Adams recorded all too infrequently in quartet settings, a regrettable circumstance that only augments the value of this already priceless late-in-the-game outing.

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July 29, 2007

David Byrne/Brian Eno - My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Nonesuch)


I love this album. Many of my friends, who seem to cultivate reasonable opinions about many things, hate it. Last year’s reissue partially resurrected the debate. Is it ahead of its blah blah, or just old, in the way, avoiding putting itself gracefully out to pasture? Pay your money, take your choice. I remember falling head over heels in love with the Kathryn Wheel music, and then I needed to hear everything associated with Byrne, Eno, Talking Heads, and it all still sounds pretty good to me.

There’s something visceral about the album, something so headstrong about each sound and how it’s placed, that I find it irresistible. I still thrill to the heavy-duty gospelizations as “Help me Somebody” transforms itself from jungle-primitivism to funky R&B; the eerily mechanized voices, contrasted with the preternaturally fast ones, on “Mea Culpa” still registers some vague paranoia. I find a new layer every time I listen—well, almost every time. OK, not really; in fact, I got through all the layers years ago, but is it ever fun to hear those tin cans, pots and pans, tribal boomings, skewed percussive things …

Maybe that’s all it amounts to. I have a lot of fun listening to the album, even if the bonus cuts on this most recent reissue aren’t particularly interesting. Larger than life, like the new liners exhort? Not a bit of it. A great disc to have on while domesticating? Absolutely.

~ Marc Medwin

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July 22, 2007

Maneri/ Phillips/ Maneri - Angles of Repose (ECM)


Sequestered within an aged chapel space adjacent to his rural French home, Barre Phillips second meeting with the Maneris evinces a subtle evolution in ensemble sound. Father Joe and son Mat deconstruct the “soft-to-loud-to-soft” dynamic, so often the stereotypical trajectory for free jazz, and stretch it to deliciously perplexing extremes. The “angles” referenced in the album’s title retain relative degrees of “repose” over fluctuating temporal spans only to be shattered by bursts of cacophonous dissonance. Predicting these seismic explosions can be problematic as they are often timed to the elder Maneri’s internal improvisatory clock. Phillips is the self-professed “scalar” player, constantly recalibrating his attack in relation to the atomizing pitch streams of Joe’s horns and Mat’s viola (yet another departure from the earlier trio recording Tales of Rohnlief where he played electric 6-string violin). One of the things I adore about the disc is how completely the stark ECM engineering aesthetic jibes with the complex acoustical interactions of the instruments and the recording space. The overlapping sound conjured collectively by the three ricochets off the stone walls of the chapel (another allusion to the titular geometries) and creates an auditory experience that at once demands attentiveness and rebuffs pretension. Liner scribe Steve Lake cannily likens the trio to back porch bluesmen and damned if I don’t hear it, in the hearty hiccupping of Joe’s Rosicrucian reeds, the sliding vernacular of Mat’s close-shaven viola and the reverberating thump of Phillips’ bull fiddle.

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July 15, 2007

Carla Bley/Jazz Composers Orchestra - Escalator over the Hill (ECM)


Well I had to confront this one in writing at some point. It obsessed me during my high school years as I tried to write, first like librettist Paul Haines and then like composer Carla Bley. I suppose, looking back now as I prepare to talk about this “Chronotransduction” in class tomorrow, that it was the way in which the lyrics and music almost make conventional sense that got my attention all those years ago; only just skirting logic and reason, each character delivers everything from seemingly logical aphorisms of advice (“Don’t do it if you haven’t done it.” Or “Don’t let no five-and-dime baby break your million-dollar heart.”) to stunningly evocative near-gibberish (“Tell the scheme to you, who grow on us like falling hair? Oh, Rawalpindi.”)

Taking some three years to record and amassing huge debt by its 1972 release, the three-record album boasts music so strange and sublime, so expertly performed, that it still brings on a shudder twenty years after I first heard it. It’s not just that Gato Barbieri drops one of his most awesome and beautiful solos in “Small Town Agonist,” or that Jack Bruce delivers some of the most convincing singing of his career, good as he usually is with Bley and Michael Mantler. The orchestrations are superb, innovative for the time and still effective, the tinkling purity of “Little Pony Soldier” especially fresh and evocative. Even though I now know that Don Cherry’s chanting was a stable part of his repertoire, I still find it extremely moving, the whole desert scene of EOTH defying categorization without the need for post-modern pretense. And how can I get the much lamented Jeanne Lee’s vocal acrobatics out of my mind and ears, swooping and diving over Bruce’s “It’s again!” and atop a star-studded chorus whose membership is too huge to list.

Desert scene? I still don’t know the plot, and I don’t care. I once wrote to Mantler and Bley asking the question, and of course I got the press pack in return—it doesn’t matter! From lush big band chorals to proto-fusion to tape experiments (the beginning is the end backwards) it’s as coherently incoherent as anything from the period, the last gasp of the psychedelic era proper and a wonderful testament to the efforts of many talented individuals, some of whom have indeed gone … over the hill?

~ Marc Medwin

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July 9, 2007

Mustafa Kandirali (Traditional Crossroads)


The name-only title for this collection is telling indicator of its subject’s stature. No “Master of the Turkish Clarinet” tagline necessary, Mustafa Kandirali’s name speaks for itself amongst fans and scholars of Turkish music. Traditional Crossroads gives Kandirali the royal treatment in terms of packaging too with a slipcase and 100-page hardbound book as accoutrements to a 15-track disc culling the purported best of his work from the 1970s and 80s. Where the collection falters is in the accompanying essays, which are long on superlatives and adoration, but bereft of discographical specifics. It’s an odd omission considering the number of pages the compilers had at their disposal. Frustrating as that facet of the presentation is, the music is anything but, featuring Kandirali’s keening clarinet in spectrum of settings from solo to small group accompaniment. Building on the innovations of Sukru Tunar, the acknowledged high doyen of Turkish microtonal clarinet, his is the equivalent of that “high lonesome sound” heard across cultures in everything from Roscoe Holcomb’s Kentucky hymnody to the Sufi devotionals of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Expert accompaniment on oud, violin, darbuka and def bracket Kandirali’s whirling improvisations on taksim, romani and havasi song forms sometimes at vertigo-inducing tempos. Compiled mainly from LP and cassette releases, the fidelity of the recordings is uniformly excellent. Kandirali’s passion and genius are helpful reminders that conventional Western music constitutes but a drop in the bucket in the larger scheme of global musical activity.

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July 1, 2007

United States of America - S/T (Sundazed)


In preparing my undergrad class on psychedelia this summer, I had the pleasure to revisit this Sundazed reissue of 2004, replete with bonus tracks and sporting better sound than any other version I’ve heard. For those who don’t know the disc, composer, teacher and American music historian Joseph Byrd’s vision of what a guitarless group could be, shame on you! I think this is one of the best things to come from the West Coast of 1968, although Byrd had also spent considerable time steeping himself in New York’s Avant-Garde.

I still find “The American Metaphysical Circus” delightfully disturbing, complete with Ivesian allusions and constructions, and I still chuckle at the sadistic absurdity of “I Won’t Leave my Wooden Wife for You, Sugar.” Now though, more than ever, I’m amazed at what must have been considerable compositional chutzpah, the Byrd arrangements effectively diverse and consistently interesting. Even a somewhat dated tableau like “Stranded in Time” really isn’t, thanks to the fine string writing and rapid-fire environmental juxtapositions, one sonic world swapped for another with speed and precision.

Yet, the disc would be nothing without the superb vocals of Dorothy Moskowitz—seductive, clinical and haunting by turn; on the ethereal and reverb-drenched “Osamu’s Birthday,” she’s obviously learned to sing her vocal part backwards, and when reversed, the effect is stunning, perfectly in tune with the track’s disembodied Orientalism.

USA can rock, glide, rumble and crash with any of the best groups from an extremely fertile period in American music, and Sundazed has given them the royal reissue treatment. The bonus tracks range from interesting to revelatory, a personal favorite being an alternate version of “Circus,” where “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” is right up front in the mix. This disc is worth hearing even for those familiar with the album, and for those uninitiated, what are you waiting for?

~ Marc Medwin

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June 24, 2007

Max Roach 4 - Plays Charlie Parker (Verve)


Bird tributes have been a reliable jazz staple for over a half century. This one probably ranks as my first pick amongst the Hitchcock-sized flock. Max was in the midst of a creative watershed that initially made his look back on the Parker songbook seem slightly anachronistic. Closer scrutiny exposed notable departures in his homage, most obviously in the absence of piano, a move that deposited increased responsibility on his own trap kit for shading and accompaniment under the horns. Bassists Nelson Boyd and George Morrow weren’t top tier players, but they work well enough in meeting Max’s sounding board needs. Kenny Dorham is the constant in the frontline while Hank Mobley and George Coleman alternate on tenor. An additional four tunes with the Mobley line-up are included on the Verve single disc reissue as are the Roach devised percussion preambles on two more, the opening “Yardbird Suite” and “Au Privave”. Dorham’s agile improvisations on “Parker’s Mood” and “Raoul” present potent bop statements in smooth-toned guises. Mobley isn’t quite so sure-footed in the sans-ivories setting, but it’s still exciting hearing him make his way through the limbered up changes. Coleman, conversely, isn’t hindered by any such compunction. After an initial blurred note salvo from Dorham, he blazes through a brush fire rendering of “Koko”, Max’s voracious cymbals nipping at his heels. The drummer’s home stretch solo gives peer Blakey cause for pause in the province of press roll supremacy. Max is sadly no longer in full possession of his faculties, a case where advanced age has exacted an exceedingly cruel toll. This set bookmarks his prime when there were few, if any, who could match his combination of arranger’s acuity and instrumental excellence.

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June 18, 2007

Lee Konitz - Lone-Lee (Steeplechase)


Catching a thoroughly disappointing set by the 79-year old Konitz this past Friday at the Artist’s Quarter in Saint Paul seems reason enough to comment briefly on this singular curio from his catalog. The album was first pressed back when Steeplechase was prone to bare bones packaging so there’s nothing in the way of liners or ephemera other that the basic particulars: Konitz and his alto in a Copenhagen studio summer of 1974, waxing loquacious on two standards and putting his status as top-tier improviser to a simple yet rigorous test. The acoustics are dry and a shade flat, but they do little to compromise Konitz’s debonair tone and insouciant delivery. Expanded from an LP-edit to its original nearly 40-minute length, “The Song Is You” consequently has its share of lulls and cul de sacs. Konitz takes these periodic moments of pause and possible quandary and folds them directly into the performance. Paying meticulous attention to all that transpires in the stream of seemingly endless melodic variations doesn’t seem to be the point. Instead, I find it best to let my mind drift in out of focus on the trajectories of his ornamented, slightly acerbic lines. At nearly 18-minutes the reading of “Cherokee” is far more than cavalier coda, offering another canny succession of spontaneous interpolations and extrapolations. Lacy’s many solo recitals are an obvious analogue, both in sound and scenario. Considering his success here, it’s a small wonder that Konitz hasn’t returned to this format over the years. In other words, it’s high time that he did and I only wish that he had on Friday.

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June 10, 2007

Anthony Braxton Quartet - 12 compositions Oakland 1993 (Music and Arts)


With all the controversy surrounding Yoshi’s at the moment, I thought I might bring back a fond memory for somebody with this one. I’ve come to enjoy it very much, though it’s a fairly recent addition to my Braxton collection.

The fabled quartet of Braxton, Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway was near the end of it’s tenure in the summer of 1993, when twelve sets were recorded at Yoshi’s for possible release. A two-disc set emerged, beginning with the other-worldly Composition 48. Ethereally, it rises and falls, the quartet sounding as unified as I’ve ever heard it, with Mark Dresser providing some stunningly precise yet absolutely emotive arco. By the time we swing into Composition 23M+108C, the tension is almost unbearable, the jagged unison lines doing much to lighten the mood but maintain the energy.

Hemingway’s drumming is captured quite well on this release, a mixture of raw power and subtle timbral concerns. His dynamic range is more than impressive, belying a sense of melody on the kit. Similarly, I have never heard Marilyn Crispell in better form, especially on the epic Composition 171, a solo piano piece transformed into a group effort. Its sinewy melody has a few of the hallmarks of what would emerge as Ghost Trance music two years later.

Braxton plays his usual arsenal of instruments, and the audience is respectfully enthusiastic. This is a set that deserves more discussion than it has received so far, signaling as it does the end of an era.

~ Marc Medwin

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June 3, 2007

Various - Dig These Blues, the Legendary Dig Masters


Among the multitude of storefront R&B labels that littered the regional music marketplaces of the Fifties, I can’t think of one that had a more pithy and fitting name than Dig. The roster fit the succinct title to a “T” too. Obscure personalities like the landlubbin’ Sailor Boy and Hozay, a Mercy Dee Walton devotee, vied with barely better-knowns like Abe Moore and Preston Love for paltry PR dollars. This Ace comp contains some of the cream of that tiny provincial crop. Tunes bridged rural and urban by tastes mixing hot horn sections with the equally ardent sounds of bracingly amplified guitars to the degree that the mics were occasionally overloaded. Lyrics didn’t break any molds, but the performers still managed to personalize the verses. Slim Green and the Cats from Fresno were a crew with roots more firmly planted in the menacing boogie-built sounds of the Motor City than any laidback Left Coast locale. Their “Old Folks’ Boogie” spins off the John Lee Hooker’s protean single chord “Boogie Chillun”, twin guitars dipped in acidic reverb, chugging across a loping drum beat as a booting tenor blares a honking lead. The colloquially-minded Moose John mines similar territory on the rockabilly-infused “Talkin’ ‘Bout Me” while Sidney Maiden brings some wailing harmonica to the Cats sound on “Hand Me Down Baby”, blasting through a dimestore amp with excoriating glee. Dig did eventually end up earning enough capital to record relative celebrities like Johnny Otis and Sugarcane Harris, the latter represented by two closing cuts that do little to showcase his fiddle prowess, but still pack plenty of punch. Blues works particularly well to compendium form where the potential tedium of the idiom gets broken up by individual eccentricity. The folks at Ace remain true to their name in terms of sequencing a deck with a satisfying series of selections and this early effort is no exception in terms of coming up with that particular suit.

Posted by derek at 8:35 PM | Comments (0)

May 27, 2007

Yes - Tales from Topographic Oceans (Rhino/Atlantic)


I have to go back to all my art-rock favorites once in a while. Selling England by the Pound, the first UK album, Eddie Jobson’s first, Happy the Man—some still hold more interest for me than others; Tales remains one of my favorites. Sure it’s overblown, but it’s brilliant; sure I’ve heard so much claptrap about it, but I have always loved it for being the beautiful monstrosity it is, for pulling no punches. The music and the lyrics reach for something they’ll never quite attain, the earthiness of rock and that cosmic symphonic thing, “the magic of the source,” that Yes always strove—OK, not quite always—to convey. It’s so Holst, and yet something romantic deep in my heart continues to respond to a group that makes a motivically unified suite. I still love Magma as well.

Anyway, Tales got reissued a few years ago, along with the other Atlantic Yes, and I rushed out to grab my copy, as previous issues were simply rotten, at least the ones you could get here. Nice reissues, useless bonus tracks, fairly informative notes and, above all, much better sound! I got it home, popped the disc in, and … wait, … thunder? Waves, wind? Did I buy the wrong … ah, but there’s that familiar descending second in Steve Howe’s guitar, shimmering Rick Wakeman keyboards in back, prefiguring exactly what happens when Jon Anderson’s lyrics enter; it was always an abrupt entrance I’d never really thought to question, but everything makes more contextual sense given what is obviously a new and stunningly atmospheric beginning!

The sound is everything I wanted it to be, revealing more detail than I’d heard on vinyl or CD. Lines like “But only through him we know, send flowered rainbows” still make me nostalgic for a time I never witnessed, a time, according to those that speak to me of its power, where people really believed that anything was possible. A record like Tales is impossible now without apology, and every other day or so, I think it’s too bad we’ve come this far.

~ Marc Medwin

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May 20, 2007

Ken Nordine - Colors (Asphodel)


Decades before John Zorn landed a lucrative gig composing jingles for a Japanese ad agency; Ken Nordine inked a similar deal with the Fuller Paint Company. The contract originally called for ten television spots, but Nordine’s creative tinder found flame under the project and he ended up recording forty-four tone poems, moving from predictable hues like green and blue to encompass obscure colors like sepia and cerise. Thirty-four are ensconced on this Asphodel reissue, including ten not released on the original Philips LP. Nordine lets his imagination flower, devising a rich mythology for the colors of his chosen spectrum, anthropomorphizing many and ascribing singular sets of emotions and motivations to each. Beige is nebbish and passive aggressive, Burgundy obese and lethargic. Crimson is the sociopathic loose cannon while Orange evinces a mindset of pathological optimism. My favorite cut, “Flesh”, skips the mythos altogether and braids some biting social commentary into its brief ninety seconds. It caps with this clever dictum over a fast break jazz guitar rhythm:

“We better forget the flesh and the colors it can be,
and think on the spirit and its singular light.
Otherwise, flesh as a color could be black and blue,
or even a bloody hue.”

Accompanying music ranges from lightly swinging chamber jazz to go-go rock and classical tinged-pop. According to Nordine, everything was improvised on the spot. A crack team of studio musicians brings it to life on a flotilla of instruments with flute, marimba and harpsichord being particularly dominant elements. Nordine’s narcotic voice slinks through it all, his smooth articulation investing the quip-laden lyrics with even greater resonance. Over the years, several of my friends and family have dismissed the disc as corny and trite, but to me, it is a wonderfully wonky 60s artifact and Nordine’s most satisfying album-length effort.

~ Derek Taylor

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May 13, 2007

Miles Davis - Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel (Sony)


I’ve had this eight-disc set for about seven years, and I’m only now just beginning to appreciate how fantastic it is. I’ve paid lip service to the second great Miles quintet, but how great they really are! The group was booked for two weeks in December and early January, 1965-66, at Chicago’s Plugged Nickel club, the present set presenting December 22 and 23 in their entirety.

Forget the fact that audible splices join pre-existing tapes with then newly discovered ones, allowing for complete versions to be issued of theretofore truncated takes and producing some dizzyingly strange sonic phenomena. Disregard, also, the ebullient fellow off to your left, the guy shouting “Miles, you lucky Miles” during a Ron Carter solo, and “Blew Miles right off the bandstand” after an admittedly fine Wayne Shorter contribution. I let distractions like these put me off one of the greatest recorded documents in music history for too long! None of the group’s studio material, no matter how probing and penetrating, demonstrated such telepathy, such a wealth of spontaneous compatibility. Check out “Agitation” from December 22’s second set for an extraordinary venture toward free jazz, prefiguring the so-called “lost” Corea/Holland quintet’s musings of 1969; Hancock works inside the piano, time becomes elasticized, and all is propelled by Tony Williams’ supremely and incomparably energetic drumming.

Yet, somehow, nothing is overstated in this music. Even the loudest portions of “So What,” from the second night, maintain a feeling of control, of something about to explode but contained at the last moment. Much of the music is understated, whether in Herbie’s beautifully wandering lines that never quite loose focus, or in the insanely fast interlocking as Williams and Carter blaze through up-tempo tunes. Shorter is heard as he really is, blowing through a third space somewhere between Coltrane and Jimmy Lyons, cranking out tiny compositions moment by moment, Hancock with him at every turn. The set demands much more space than I’ve afforded it, but as I’ve been unable to put it down all week, it seemed the only logical choice. Spin it again, and enjoy!

~ Marc Medwin

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May 6, 2007

The Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama - Oh Lord- Stand By Me/ Marching Up to Zion (Specialty)


Picturing suits and sunglasses coupled with calmative bible salesmen demeanors, the portrait covers of the two Specialty albums collected on this two-fer suggest starchy gospel for the suburban set. The sort of thing your pious grandparents might play as a soundtrack for a post-church Sunday brunch. The actual performances couldn't be farther from that false impression. The Five Blind Boys of Alabama may have been a marketing gimmick in moniker, but their music was brimming with bonafide Holy Ghost Power. The twenty-four spirituals here feature the fivesome in a variety of reverential moods from penitential to ecstatic. Accompaniment is suitably sparse. On the opening cuts a tremolo-treated guitar rings out shimmering chords behind their impassioned shouts. Elsewhere it's piano and drums or foot stomps and handclaps providing rhythms for the energized exhortations. Clarence Fountain and the Reverend Samuel K. Lewis share lead vocals and the lion's share of arranging chores, backed by the layered harmonies of tenor George Scott, baritone Olice Thomas and bass Johnny Fields. Nearly every track is a winner, but it's rapturous ones that I return to most. The Five's signature song "Oh Lord- Stand By Me" kicks the set off in fine fettle, their voices exuding a gruffness and candor that makes the faith-based plea of the lyrics palpable to both believers and agnostics alike. A favorite of bluesman Fred McDowell's "You Got to Move", demands that the listener do just that and the braiding voices bring the on-high directive home through another raw and regal performance. Other pearls include the Civil Rights anthem "I'll Fly Away" and the harrowing "Alone and Motherless", both imbedded with resilient kernels of hope at their cores. Gospel is always a hard sell amongst my friends, but I'm hard pressed to think of another genre where emotions are so naked and truly stated. These sightless songsters deliver some of the best.

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April 29, 2007

Andrew Hill - Strange Serenade (Soul Note)


How many deaths will I have to address this year? Andrew Hill was special to me, and his work brings me comfort in a time when death seems more present than usual, given the flood of recent events, including his own passing; his 2000 album, Dusk, helped me toward a new appreciation of what can occur when improvisation and composition merge in the most creative hands. I wouldn’t hear Strange Serenade for another five years, but my reaction to this masterpiece was similar—dumbfounded admiration.

Recorded in Italy in 1980 along with Faces of Hope, his first studio work since the recently Mosaic-released California with Love sessions, Serenade sees a considerable upping of the ante, and Hill has the group to make it successful. Freddie Waits and Alan Silva are as sympathetic partners as Hill ever had, and nowhere is the group chemistry more evident than on the vast peaks, valleys and resonances of “Mist Flower.” Silva’s arco contributions are especially luminous as the piece draws to a close, his high-register harmonic reverberations augmenting Hill’s aphoristically coherent pianism. Every stroke Waits offers is well placed, transparent but pithy, a perfect complement to Silva’s pizzicato interjections.

Hill’s playing of the period is frustratingly verbiage-resistant. More and more, I hear it as terraced, almost baroque in phrase construction as heard in many current period-practice recordings; volume rises and falls suddenly while an overall sense of flow is somehow maintained. This paradox, true also for tempo, defines the title track and “Reunion,” two studies in controlled elasticity. The pieces are tonal while remaining mysterious, Hill’s unique approach to chromaticism seeing to that. Only “Flower” gets close to the abyss, as with the title track from Compulsion, charting territory he hadn’t explored for years.

Hill is spurred on by his cohorts, and he gives them plenty of impetus, resulting in a disc that has kept me coming back for two years and counting. There are so many jewels in Hill’s catalog, most of which is now available on CD again. He will be sorely missed, but it was gratifying to watch his resurgence and subsequent return to Blue Note in the final years of his life. RIP, Andrew.

~ Marc Medwin

Posted by derek at 6:56 AM | Comments (2)

April 15, 2007

Joe Henderson - In Japan (Milestone)


The practice of touring as a "single" has a storied history in jazz, particularly amongst saxophonists. Sometimes synching with a local rhythm section yields dazzling sparks; other times the results just fizzle. This live date, recorded five days prior to my birth, is a prime example of the former situation. Joe Henderson was in the midst of an eclectic ten-year tenure with Milestone, a relationship that would produce a string of interesting albums, but nothing resembling a commercial hit. Part of the reason was the waning fortunes of jazz in the States, but in Japan, the music was experiencing an upward spike in sales. Capitalizing on this differential with a short tour of the Orient, Henderson hooked up with a pick-up band led by pianist Hideo Ichikawa at the Junk Club in Tokyo. Ichikawa's electric keys date stamp the performance, but also establish engaging retro feel to the four-tune set. Bassist Kunimitsu Inaba and drummer Motohiko Hino turn in decent support and cogent solos, but otherwise wisely staying out of the way and deferring the spotlight to Henderson who blows some of the loosest and most viscerally effective solos of his career. “'Round Midnight”, already a standard with more creases and coffee stains than most, gets a fresh reading thanks to Henderson's sagacious seven-minute solo, brimming with his signature kindling dry trills and modulations. "Out 'N' In" interpolates the title cut of one of his earlier Blue Note outings and "Blue Bossa" comes from the same label source. The four close up with a shambolic fourteen-minute blues in honor of the venue, and an album that would become an informal aural textbook for legions of saxophonists is born. It's a definitive case of wishing more had made it to tape. The shirtless, Afro-ed Joe on the cover is the ponzu on the pot sticker.

Posted by derek at 2:17 PM | Comments (0)

April 8, 2007

Leroy Jenkins’ Driftwood - The Art of Improvisation (Mutable Music)


A perfectly prosaic title for a disc whose contents are anything but. Yes, there is the expected ecstatic element so often, too often, associated with free jazz, especially apparent in “To Live” and “To Run,” but the ensemble supports Jenkins at every turn, and his playing is as good as I’ve ever heard it, equaling the vigor and conviction in his work on the stellar Swift are the Winds of Life with Rashied Ali. Jenkins does not so much lead as allow and coexist, certain as he is of the brilliant choices he’s made in cohorts, pianist Denman Maroney, pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen and percussionist/composer Rich O’Donnell.

Each player is allowed ample time to stretch out, Maroney’s unique brand of piano preparation informing and transforming “To Sing.” He adds life to whatever project he undertakes, and the decision to juxtapose his microtonal musings with the pipa’s inflections was a stroke of genius. All comes to a glorious head on “to Believe,” where Jenkins himself indulges in a brief but beautiful flight of solo fancy, the others gradually joining him in a manner much closer to the hyper-communicative gestural fragments I associate, loosely, with European improv. As the piece progresses from drama to drone, violin, piano and pipa circling each other in a motivic interweaving, it is O’donnell’s percussion that denotes change, marking strangely irregular time as the others hover in static chant-like reflection.

“To Believe,” and the disc as a whole, is a fitting testament to the late Jenkins, whose musical voice and creative spirit is sorely missed. Many thanks also to Mutable, for this document and for providing an outlet for composers and performers to push the boundaries of their art even further.

Posted by derek at 7:46 PM | Comments (1)

April 1, 2007

Huey Lewis & the News - Sports (Chrysalis)


Eighties harbinger to such early Nineties pop radio juggernauts as Hooty & the Blowfish and The Spin Doctors, Huey Lewis & the News was one of the first groups to break out of the “bar band” ghetto and attain stadium-sized stature through major label marketing and multimedia sponsorship. Their first few albums for Chrysalis faltered under uneven production and occasionally faulty song-smithing, but the formula hit stride on this, their third effort. Lewis and his pals took time-tested principles of yacht and blues-rock and integrated more timely elements of “Greed Decade” bachelor pride. Huey was the charismatic front man, his chiseled good looks, pinstripe suits and well-coiffed mullet fitting right in with the band’s calculated yuppie urbanity. On stage and in video the affable, aw-shucks persona provided a balanced blend of eye candy for the ladies and backslapping, high-fiving masculinity for the guys. The twin guitars of Johnny Colla and Chris Hayes worked as a tandem riff machine on most numbers, but Sean Hopper’s synths also factored heavily into the band’s hook-laden, radio friendly book. FM anthems like “Heart of Rock & Roll” and “I Want a New Drug” (a ditty that divulged much about the decade’s pharmaceutical excesses while retaining a public friendly candy coating) showcased the straighforwardness of the sound. Power ballads were also prime fodder, as the polished doo-woppy strains of “If This is It” made crystal clear. None of the tracks would match the Billboard performance of later colossal hits like “The Power of Love” or “Stuck With You”, but as a whole, this set still stands as their most artistically satisfying album before massive stardom and worldwide record sales signaled an inevitable creative wane.

Posted by derek at 3:54 PM | Comments (18)

March 26, 2007

Tom Waits - Small Change (Elektra)


“He’s a poser, and it makes me uncomfortable,” one man said from behind the record store counter. “I think he found a market, cornered it and has fostered this image very well, kind of like blackface, or parody at least.”

“Nah,” the other man said, “I think he’s who he is when he wakes up in the morning, same as who he is going to bed at night.”

I fall somewhere in the middle where Tom Waits is concerned. Sure it’s humorous, but I can’t help feeling an overarching love of humanity, or a deep understanding of why he doesn’t love humanity, or both. Small Change took Waits from the comedy routines of Nighthawks at the Diner to someplace else, a dark space populated with the rogues and bums that would become such an integral part of his later work. I mean for God’s sake, he even made the dwarves’ worksong into a trudgingly bleak proletarian anthem! Small Change is part surreal, anticipating later characterizations like “Tabletop Joe” in imagery while keeping to earthiness in its jazz combo instrumentation. “The Piano Has Been Drinking” is as over the top as he ever gets, but “Pasties and a G-string” is already walking bar, transcending the hoots and yells of burlesque watchers to whatever interior monologue is left after however many beers and shots. These intimations, bursts of transformed and publicized inwardness, would lead to the hauntingly strange landscapes of Rain Dogs; but then, there are the heartbreakers, the portraits of lonely down-and-outers that still bring tears to my eyes—“Invitation to the Blues” or “Tom Traubert’s Blues”, where the absurdity of Matilda killing “Bout a hundred” is subservient only to the “Battered old suitcase, and a hotel someplace, and a wound that will never heal.” Yes, the delivery’s part Louis Armstrong and part Broadway, but there’s plenty of every-man hipster guru in there as well. It’s a record so full of fused opposites, where bad livers and broken hearts meet for nothing more portentous than getting to the bottom of the bottle, that I simply can’t trust either man behind that record store counter. How wonderful to be so right and so wrong, but given the scope of Waits’ subsequent vision, “What the hell do you expect?”

~ Marc Medwin

Posted by derek at 5:02 AM | Comments (0)

March 18, 2007

Bad Brains - The Youth are Getting Restless (Caroline)


A band with more break-ups to its name than harmonious years in business, Bad Brains remains a pioneering punk institution that refuses to die. The built-in fractiousness of the foursome has also manifested in fluctuating musical quality, mainly due to the repeated retreats of frontman H.R. and drummer Earl Hudson. Guitarist Dr. Know and bassist Darryl Jenifer have long served as anchors as well as the principal architects of the group’s incongruous speed punk bridging to reggae dub sound. The Brains have always been best experienced in person and this ear-imploding set, taped in the spring of ’87 at an Amsterdam club, is arguably their finest commercially-available live document. It’s also the album I come back to most amongst their all too finite discography. Running to a tight 47-minutes, it packs in seventeen songs with only a handful of stretched out dub-inflected tracks lending respite from the pummeling onslaught of P.M.A. anthems like “Rock for Light” and “Let Me Help.” Everyone is beautifully miked, particularly the core team of Know and Jenifer whose lightspeed riffing and knee-buckling basslines propel songs like “House of Suffering” to new heights. The significance of the locale isn’t lost either as a cover of “Day Tripper” rolls out on a chest-reverberating bass vamp through what must have been a fog of ganja smoke. Other bright moments: a ferocious “Sacred Love” punctuated by Jenifer’s amp-toppling bass slaps and a version of “At the Movies” that features a some of Know’s most majestic supersonic fretplay ever. The Brains are touring once again at halfmast, H.R. and Earl predictably absent and replaced by members of the Cro-Mags. Their glory days are well behind them, but this disc is a handy reminder of the magnitude of once was.

Posted by derek at 3:11 PM | Comments (8)

March 11, 2007

Charles Mingus - Jazz Portraits aka Mingus in Wonderland (Blue Note)


Choosing quality Mingus albums from the 50s and 60s is a bit like spearing fish a barrel. Even so, this ’59 date recorded at the long since defunct Nonagon Art Gallery stands out in my personal pantheon of picks. There are many plusses that make it so, from the pared down powerhouse frontline of altoist John Handy and tenorist Booker Ervin, to the sharp fidelity that captures the Baron’s bass in all its magesterial glory. Cravat connoisseur Dannie Richmond is also in inspired form, closing in in extrasensory conversation with his employer on the closing empyrean ballad “Alice’s Wonderland” a harbinger of telepathic colloquies to come on the pair’s Candid and Atlantic ventures. An extra element of cool comes with the news that “Nostalgia in Times Square” would serve as soundtrack grist for John Cassavettes first stab at feature-length filmmaking several years later, the seminal Shadows. Ervin and Handy are magnificent foils for one another, contrastive and amicably combative, going the distance in a telepathic, truncating series of chases on “No Private Income Blues.” Mingus indulges in some of his most capacious and eloquent solos of the period, his stout, strikingly adroit fingers coming up with bracing improvisations that put his peers on immediate notice. Then there’s Rudy Van Gelder’s recording, which captures all but the pinch-hitting pianist Richard Wyands in some of the some of the best sound of the period. Filling in for workshop regular Horace Parlan, Wyands’ was a bit of the odd man out, but he acquits himself well to the setting and makes good use of the generous solo space accorded him. The only frown-worthy foible comes in the Michael Cuscuna disclosure that four more tracks performed at the gig escaped recorded capture. In light of the uniform quality of what’s here that error on the part of Van Gelder almost seems unforgivable.

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March 4, 2007

Spontaneous Music Ensemble - Quintessence (Emanem)


Finally, a chance to pay homage to one of my very favorite concerts of improvised music with this two-disc reissue. The date was February 3, 1974, and while I’m no expert on these matters, the stars or planets must have been in perfect alignment, because the SME raised the roof on the ICA Theater.

I will resist the temptation to resort to overly poetic descriptions of such epic music making, focusing instead on the details, the moments of individuality that coalesce so often and to such stunning effect, keeping the music from ever growing stale. Check out the opening of “Forty Minutes, pt. 2,” where Evan Parker slaps a dyad down on the table, then repeatedly jabs it in the air, backed by a few masterstrokes from John Stevens; Kent Carter grabs it by the tail, inverts it, and raises the second note of the dyad up an octave or so. The two engage in some whiplash dialogue. Trevor Watts moans his way into the discussion, making a momentary trio. Just as Derek Bailey snaps a customarily swelled arpeggio into place, Parker rides it with an upward gliss as if the two were born together, Watts hot on his heels in similar fashion. The players recognize the importance of the moment, allowing the natural build in dynamics to continue until time is held momentarily captive in a multilayered drone, or a single exhale …

OK, so much for avoiding hyperbole, but they keep this kind of communicative energy going for eighty-five minutes! How do I even begin to catalog all the moments of telepathic interplay, or the individual gestures that spawn them? Carter’s heart-stoppingly gorgeous double and triple stops, Stevens’ tiny pearls of wisdom that invoke Webern and Art Ensemble of Chicago in a single staccato ripple—these are subjects for volumes of analysis, and I can only hope that this single-package reissue of two old favorites will win new fans. I haven’t even touched the 21973 material, and that’s because I’ve hardly come to terms with it. John Stevens’ voice is extremely moving, almost frightening, and while I find the results extremely powerful, I think that the 1974 concert is unsurpassed in the SME catalog; it should be in the library of every fan of improvised music.

~ Marc Medwin

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February 25, 2007

Jelly Roll Kings - Rockin' the Juke Joint Down (Earwig)


February is Black History month here in the States, and the more conspiracy-minded among my friends are always fond of reminding me that it’s also the shortest month of the year. I thought I’d mark the passing with a shout out to a blues record that always manages to slip back into my regular rotation, one representative of a tiny sliver of African American tradition that now sadly teeters on extinction. Under the nominal leadership of Frank Frost on harmonica, piano and pawnshop Farfisa, the Jelly Roll Kings, were a fixture on the Seventies Mississippi juke joint scene, though Frost’s first associations with guitarist Jack Johnson and drummer Sam Carr date to a full decade earlier. The title of their debut Earwig album encapsulates their performance mantra while their chosen moniker hints euphemistically at off-stage preoccupations. Musically the trio folds in songs and styles from the four points of the blues compass. “Mighty Long Time” mimics the slowdrag Excello swamp sound. Instrumentals like “Honeydrippin’ Boogie” and “Cleo’s Back” find Johnson channeling the fret mannerisms of Long John Hunter through ferrous reverb and long snaking solos. The folksy “Slop Jar Blues” taps the stage mien of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in Johnson and Frost’s unision vocal turns while Big Jay McNeely’s “Something on Your Mind” features Johnson crooning in a nicotine dusted croak atop more chintzy organ, twangy guitar and a broom-dusting snare beat. Elsewhere, Johnson unplugs for a version “Catfish Blues” where the three trade earlier jocularity for a backwoods gravitas. Variety and informality abound and the whole thing has a gloriously low rent, cheap eats feel to it, equivalent to the carbonized edibles named in the raunchy closer “Burnt Biscuits.” The cover shot is priceless: Johnson with his mussed process, Bootsy shades and salmon-colored leisure suit and the homemade PR placard balanced in front of Fender amp being just a few of the facets that make it suitable for framing.

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February 18, 2007

Cecil Taylor - Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come (Revenant)


The merits of this reissue have been well documented. To say that these autumn 1962 recordings capture Cecil Taylor in flux is to overstate the academic and to understate their vitality and immediacy. The melodies here are sensual and disjunct, invoking Ellington and Monk as the harmonies embrace and reject modality with every gesture. Such concerns, magnified and codified as they would become in Taylor’s later years, have simultaneously thwarted and encouraged analysis, depending on the imagination and historical knowledge of the scholar.

One aspect of the 1962 recordings that remains underrepresented is the work of Jimmy Lyons. Nowhere in his own all too meager discography is his work on this seminal date surpassed, and the torrent of ideas pouring from him, not to mention the fluidity and grace with which they are executed, is awe-inspiring almost forty-five years later. “Call” provides a perfect showcase for his take on “freebop” long before the fact, as he darts and weaves around and through Taylor’s jagged but delightfully sentimental harmonic constructions, calmly negotiating lightning-fast shifts in mood, attack and, most impressively, register. Tiny whiplash scale fragments, slides and sudden rushes to unbearably full silences speak to stunning technique subservient only to an overflow of inventiveness. The second disc’s longer compositions allow for some of the exploratory developments that have come to be associated with Taylor and those who follow him, and Lyons’ innovative spirit never flags.

Do I need to say that I am in no way denying Sunny Murray’s contributions—his expansion of swing, his impeccable sense of timbre and placement? There have been many players to imitate Taylor and very few to really compliment him. Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray engaged formal complexity without the benefits of hindsight, and these concert recordings become more enjoyable, sound more achingly intimate, each time I listen.

~ Marc Medwin

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February 11, 2007

Crusaders - 1 (Blue Thumb)


It was a move easily construed as a band capitulating to crass consumerism: In 1971, the Jazz Crusaders dropped the key qualifier in their name and revamped their sound to incorporate a phalanx of electric guitars and slick studio production. Also evident in the metamorphosis were stylistic changes that introduced facets of rock, funk and AM radio pop. Saxophonist Wilton Felder added amplified bass to his instrumental range and pianist Joe Sample supplemented traditional ivories with a battery of keyboards. The ensemble’s inaugural effort on the new streamlined moniker announced these changes in unequivocal terms with the opener “That’s How I Feel.” Wah wah and fuzztone guitars weave with comping electric and acoustic keys and rubberband bass line to create savory slice of urban funk. Carole King’s “So Far Away” receives an epic treatment, stretching to almost 12-minutes and moving well beyond the familiar hummable melody into prolonged passages of mohair and Pall-Malls-scented loungeness. The remainder of the double album strikes a sometimes-wobbly balance between elements from Westbound lite funk of “Put It Where You Want It” to the Rhodes and rhythm workout “Full Moon.” The JB’s receive a nod on the twangy crawdad feed “Mud Hole” with tight horn charts riffing atop another bed of wah wah guitar and bait-bobbing bass while Sample gets back to juke and chapel roots with “Georgia Cottonfield.” “A Shade of Blues” slinks and slithers like an Isaac Hayes blaxploitation outtake with a killer Felder tenor declaration while the closing “Mosadi (Woman)” taps early Earth, Wind & Fire. The Crusaders were still finding their sea legs in a fresh crosscurrent of influences and it shows, but that doesn’t make this any less listenable or germane to a freewheeling party setting, saccharine sections and all.

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February 4, 2007

Can - Monster Movie (Mute)


I am usually skeptical about remastering. I’ve been burned with “remastered” classical discs too many times to trust anybody. Sure, there are exceptions in every genre, like the deluxe A Love Supreme, where the differences are blatant, but unless the disc has some great bonus material, I’ll stay away.

Enter the entire Can catalog, remastered in SACD hybrid form. OK, I had the whole set of original CD issues, I don’t have a SACD player, and there are no bonuses on these reissues, so I steered clear of them for about a year and a half.

After being told by people I trust that the reissues were worth the price, I broke down, took my old copies in and traded them for the new ones I really wanted, among which was Monster Movie. The treatment of “Father Cannot Yell” is worth every penny I laid down for the disc. Extra fizz and buzz, not to mention distorted grind, is apparent on the top end, severely augmented thump and bump down below. Searing guitars are punchier than before, raw-powered drums way up front, and is that some kind of rippling synth --maybe an Arp 2600-- that shrills the tune into existence? Of course, the rest of the disc is stunning, and the twenty-minute “You Do Right” still makes me wanna get up and dance!

They use some heavy noise reduction on these discs; you get about a second of hiss at the beginning of each tune before it drops out, which is a bit disturbing with headphones. That said, I’m not noticing any lack in range or color, and Monster Movie is a fantastic place to start for anybody who knows Can by reputation but not through personal experience.

~ Marc Medwin

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January 28, 2007

David Bowie – Bowie at the Beeb (Virgin)


“Out of sight, out of mind” is a regrettable malady I suffer from all too often as a music listener. I was a big Bowie fan in my late teens and the crown in my modest collection was a Ryko cassette copy of Ziggy Stardust, played ad infinitum on a cheap Sony boom box, often to my Dad’s vociferous chagrin. Somewhere along the way, I lost the tape or maybe it broke, I can’t remember which. Years passed and I kept meaning to reacquire the album on disc, but every time it cropped up in my consciousness, I’d always find myself dissuaded by Virgin’s exorbitant pricing scheme. The Ryko edition with its small cache of bonus tracks had long since fallen out of print into collector’s status. Enter and their complete line of RCA masters for six bucks a pop. Recognizing the bargain, I quickly parted with the coin for ZS, The Man Who Sold the World and this 2-disc collection gathering “the best” of Bowie’s voluminous work for the BBC. Too many highlights scroll by to detail in the short space here, among them rocking renderings of Chuck Berry’s “Almost Grown”, a pair of Velvet Underground staples and raucous takes on the best cuts from ZS. Instead, I’ll touch on the two versions of “Ziggy Stardust” that grace the second disc. Guitarist Mick Ronson earns MVP on both and practically every cut on which he appears. His fanged, fret-shredding sound, replete with scorching flange effects on the first take at the January ’72 session, ramps to a transcendent peak in equal parts glam and metal. It’s an exemplary candidate for air guitar ascendancy. The second take from four months later is more refined and in line with the iconic album version, but Ronson once again pulls the stops in a barrage of feedback-trailing riffs that infuse Bowie’s bitchy transgender vocals with even greater punch. It’s good to be back in the Thin White Duke loop after such a long hiatus and this set is a potent reminder of what I’ve missed.

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January 21, 2007

Alice Coltrane - Universal Consciousness (Impulse)


I have heard all the opinions imaginable about the late Alice Coltrane, from “She’s riding on Trane’s coat-tails and her music is wallpaper,” to “She’s the real visionary and her music is pure revelatory genius.” I have enjoyed her work, especially this fairly early effort. There’s nothing easy or serene about the title track, nor does it sound very much like husband John’s later compositions. Alice’s enveloping organ playing does much to set this disc apart from “Meditations” or “Ascension.”

Beyond clusteral experimentation, the soundworld is lush, carpeted with strings and percussion to the point of achieving a Specteresque wall of sound, to beautiful effect as the disc progresses. “Hare Krishna” floats through a haze of violins and organ drones, light bells, cymbals and harps heralding the jasmine-scented organ trills that serve as the main melodic material. Thick folds of bass and other namelessly pervasive and heavily effected lower-register instruments give the sense of opening onto the infinite, especially on a nice pair of headphones.

It is a slowly emerging wonder to hear the “world music” component become sparser throughout, so that by the time of “The Ankh of Amen-Ra,” only bells and harp, peppered with cymbals, open the proceedings. Rashied Ali and Jack DeJohnette provide sympathetic accompaniment to Alice’s often-distorted organ ruminations, whether monodic or shrieking chords.

I have not enjoyed all her discs as much, but they are all worth hearing. Yes, it’s mood music, sure it’s formulaic, but it’s a sound and vision I’d come to enjoy and respect. I always felt comforted when I heard her voice in interviews, a fact of which I’m reminded as the album fades with a gently wise whisper, exuding deep joy beyond appellation. I’ll miss her presence in the world, the upcoming release of new material providing some small consolation. My heart goes out to those to whom she provided spiritual guidance, those who knew her by quite another name. To me, at this point in my journey, her music is testimony enough, and I thank her for it.

~ Marc Medwin

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January 14, 2007

Billy Harper - Awakening (Marge)


Mingus’ memorable quip about a gunslinging Bird and a whole lot of dead copycats could easily be extrapolated to Coltrane and the saxophone climate of the late 60s and early 70s, so wide was latter’s sphere of influence. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to imagine Trane picking up a pistol and dispatching his manifold disciples in a manner that the vengeance-minded Mingus might. Billy Harper was one of the few of the era who took Trane’s teachings and used them to construct an original and instantly recognizable voice. Play a Harper platter and you’re virtually guaranteed equal parts spiritualized passion and beyond-the-textbook technique. With such an impressive persona, it’s a mystery why he’s recorded so infrequently over the years, relegated to sporadic spurts rather than a well-warranted steady succession of sessions. This Parisian date from start of ’79 finds him in preferred quintet surroundings stretching out on a customary three pieces that feel more like concert performances than a controlled studio enterprise. A youthful Fred Hersch is the standout in the rhythm section, playing McCoy to Harper’s Trane and erecting grand chordal edifices to carry the tunes. “The Awakening” opens with Harper accapella, intoning a mantra-like riff that opens into an incandescent solo that extends the length of the piece. A staple of his songbook, “Soran Bushi-B.H.” taps the saxophonist’s Asian experiences and works off an somber, yet soaring modal vamp that eventually locks onto a muscular groove, Harper and trumpeter Everett Hollins dovetailing in a controlled wail and onward to mic-melting solos. The set closes with the African-influenced “Cry of Hunger” a rhythmic suite-like piece broken by crevasses of silence. I’ve honestly not heard a Harper performance that did not succeed in unstoppering the ecstatic. This short, but energized set is no exception.

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January 7, 2007

Assif Tsahar - Solitude (Hopscotch)


I remember some discussion of this record on Bagatellen, but it never got a proper review. For me, it was one of the best discs of 2005, not to mention the Hopscotch label’s crowning achievement to date.

The crystalline opening of “Love Is” doesn’t so much set the mood—nothing so trivial!--as portend a mysterious journey; many openers function similarly only to be let down by the rest of the piece or by succeeding tracks. Not so here! Tsahar’s clarinet is exquisite, buoyed by the pan-Eastern ripples and alien bells of the always-stunning Tatsuya Nakatani, whose range of dynamics and timbre on this disc borders on frightening. The string work, a quartet from which the individualities of Katt Hernandez and Audrey Chen often stand out, can also be extremely unified. Check out the title track for exemplary quartet interplay, but also for some of the most movingly nostalgic music on the disc. It somehow breathes 1930s air, primarily due to Tsahar’s Humphrey Bogart tenor, sincere without being overly smooth, until Nakatani’s gong flips planet momentarily—American guilt usurped by Korean Han?

Whatever the underlying emotive states, and they shift throughout, this is a well-executed and extremely moving disc. The recording is also first-rate, space and detail in perfect symbiosis, making for a really satisfying listen. I hope to hear more from this configuration, sooner rather than later.

~ Marc Medwin

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December 31, 2006

Hugh Masekela – The Boy’s Doin’ It (Verve)


Like most artists who persevere long enough to see the popular styles of their origins fall sway to new ones, Hugh Masekela readily opened his music up to the sound diaspora of the Seventies. Signing to Casablanca, his LPs of the era reflected the diversity of the label’s roster, drawing on disco, funk, R&B and rock to color his core template of Township jazz. The imprint was home to both Donna Summer and the Wildflowers Loft Jazz Sessions for a time, after all. This valuable Verve comp contains the entirety of Masekela’s debut along with a pair of songs apiece from his three subsequent platters. Strong funk horn charts and percussion-thick vamps suffuse many of the cuts from the opener on down. “Toe-Jam” sounds uncannily like an unused outtake by the Westbound funk band The Counts. Vocals harmonies are also heavy elements in the playbook, with Masekela’s crisp trumpet runs usually trading in easy riffs rather than improvisations. There’s also a fair bit of Fela-style Afrobeat on tracks like the syncopated ode to maternal appreciation “Mama” and the tribal chant “Ashiko,” an extended number that allows the leader some welcome space with his horn. My favorite tune, “Colonial Man” covers some the Nigerian icon’s same political concerns blending Afro-Cuban and Reggae components into a tasty Santana-like stew and indicting a rogue’s gallery of European colonial catalysts along the way. Some cuts betray their age in corny combinations of dated keyboards and hip banter and all carry strong doses of studio polish and production. Nevertheless, the joy and brio of the performances counteracts any calculated commercialism. The cover shot of Masekela’s crew in the midst of a congenial beach party conclave captures the laidback vibe of this collection just right.

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December 24, 2006

Ira Sullivan - "Bird Lives!" (Vee-Jay)


It’s a slogan in circulation since Bird flew the coop for the great hereafter, but one given continuous credence in the sounds of countless active saxophonists. Whether explicit and implicit, Charlie Parker tributes truly are legion. A few of my personal favorites include Max Roach’s Plays Charlie Parker; Bird’s Night, a Savoy date teaming the saxes of Cecil Payne, Phil Woods and Frank Socolow; and this memorial concert taped at Chicago’s Bird House in March of 1962. Ira Sullivan is someone for whom that overused appellation “living legend” most certainly applies. Here, his formidable sax skills are silenced in favor of trumpet and flugelhorn. The lacuna leaves reed duties Nicky Hill and results in some of the enigmatic saxophonist’s most extended soloing on record. The rhythm section includes Jodie Christian, Don Garrett and either Wilbur Campbell or Dorel Anderson on drums, two of whom would soon flirt repeatedly with freer forms. The first disc focuses on nutritious and delicious Bird feed, from a rippling “Klacktoveedsteene” to a closing medley of Gillespie’s “Be-Bop” hitched to the nursery-derived “Humpty Dumpty”. The second opens the quintet’s songbook to hardbop with readings of “Milestones”, “Omicron” and John Lewis’ “Sketches” alongside a small cache of earlier standards. In addition to plenty of illuminating playing from Hill, there are also strong showings from Christian, Garrett and Campbell and the band is tight without being constrictive. Sullivan’s brass sings through it all, matching persuasive bop velocity and precision with a tonal integrity that never wobbles or wavers. A museum exercise this most certainly is not and the vibrant declaration of the title resonates true in each well-recorded number.

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December 17, 2006

Chet Baker – Lonely Star (Prestige)


Nineteen-sixty-five was a deleterious year for so-called Cool Jazz. Art Pepper was serving a prison stretch on smack possession charges. Gerry Mulligan had just dissolved his Concert Jazz Band and would spend the next few years looking for a new direction. Stan Getz was several styles removed having conquered bossa nova and successfully embraced orchestral arrangements. Chet Baker, former erstwhile poster child for Cool had just returned from Europe, his ongoing imbroglios with narcotics blackening the eyes of his previous playboy reputation. Baker was on the ropes and urgently in need of a constructive creative outlet. A rescue ladder out of the abyss came with a marathon session for Prestige that mirrored Miles Davis’ earlier cycle for the label in terms of gerund-centric titles. Richard Carpenter, Baker’s industrious manager, provided the majority of tunes and assembled a terrific backing band comprised of Memphis-born tenor George Coleman, just one year removed from his high profile post with Davis, and a Detroit-based rhythm section led by young pianist Kirk Lightsey. The other twist was Baker’s decision to stick solely to flugelhorn and the rounded tone of the larger horn suits him. Coleman’s Coltrane and Rollins influenced tenor is a surprisingly better fit with Baker than it was with Davis and as frontline partners go the two are uncommonly copasetic. Baker responds to the earthier surroundings by sharpening his attack, but the underlying polish and poise that were his trademarks are still intact. To date, I’ve only heard two in the trilogy of collections, this one having a slight advantage over its companion Stairway to the Stars. Baker would fall off and on the wagon repeatedly over the next several decades before falling out a window and ending things permanently. With that level of hindsight, there’s something overtly poetic about this survey of a damaged jazz man vying for a comeback and, for a short time, succeeding in his cause.

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December 10, 2006

Bela Bartok - Complete Solo Piano Music (Vox)


I know, I know, everybody’s got the Zoltan Kocsis set on Philips, and one can hardly blame you. Yes, there’s also Gyorgy Sandor’s digital remakes, without Microcosmos, of the mid 1990s, very good in their own right; let’s not, however, forget Sandor’s pioneering set of the early 1960s—a bit looser, rhythmically and otherwise, but very nicely recorded, not to mention cheap as hell! I just bought the set for about $20, not bad for five generously filled discs.

Sandor died about a year ago, at the ripe old age of 94, and that fact got me thinking that I’d never really studied his earlier Bartok survey. I remember being stunned by the Sony digitals when I bought them in 1997—poetic, forceful and often down-right dazzling, especially given his age when recording them. The Vox set is more complete, though it doesn’t match Kocsis for the kitchen sink syndrome, and the pianism is certainly a bit more solid. What had me concerned was the terrible vinyl versions I used to hear at Eastman, which kept me right off these fine performances for years.

The 2003 remastering is worlds better than anything I’d imagined; the recording is a bit dry but beautifully imaged, as nice on headphones as over the speakers. I should note, however, that vinyl was used for some portions of the fourth and fifth discs, but the transfer was well done, from, astonishingly where Vox is concerned, a fairly good-sounding copy! My only real complaint about the programming is that each book of Microcosmos is a single track. Beyond that, the set is superb.

Sandor’s credentials are in no need of rehearsal here; the fact that he knew and studied with Bartok, premiering the third piano concerto after the composer’s death, is ultimately less significant than the obvious delight he takes in these seminal keyboard works. A bargain, a must-have, and, might I suggest, a good stocking stuffer.

~ Marc Medwin

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December 3, 2006

Lou Reed - Ecstasy (Reprise)


Sweet (and often bitter) Papa Lou. He was my poet laureate in college, a passport to prismatic city streets where pathos and malice were opposing proprietary forces. New York was my principal entry point with its convoluted and now amusingly dated politico verses and stripped down garage rock sound. Onward through Songs for Drella and Magic and Loss, and then I lost touch, fully immersing myself in other music, mainly jazz. This summer, on a whim, I stopped by a discount music site and key-worded his catalog. Another half dozen albums added to the bottom since my early 90s break, most priced at less than two bucks. I picked three, one studio and two live, and waited patiently, wondering if my fond memories would find fresh purchase in his “new” work.

This album hit a bull’s-eye. It’s a strange amalgam of earlier directions stretched to a nearly 80 minutes that doesn’t seem overindulgent or disproportionate. Some tracks feature a horn section; many pivot on that crunchy Reed guitar sound I so love, harsh and biting but also twangy and bluesy. From the juke joint riffing of “Paranoia in the Key of E” with its rolling fuzz bass and basic backbeat he had me back on the hook, the lyrics arcane as usual in the pursuit of rhyme. The last aspect gets a bit silly on the slow drag “Mad” with Lou limiting himself to Dick & Jane simple variations on that titular emotion, but the fact that a ridiculously titled song like “Future Farmers of America” can rock as hard as it does restores my faith in his process. “Modern Dance” and “Tatters” are a couple of the album’s melodious power ballads, Lou dreaming of romantic peregrinations with a partner on the first and reflecting on a screwed up relationship in the next. “Rock Minuet” seeks to surpass his most dystopian street fantasies with a hustler protagonist completely mired in immoral muck while “Like a Possum” reels out as a Velvets-reminiscent 18-minute opus steeped in fuzz guitar that opens strong, but eventually submerges in tedium. Even misfires like these have replay value and my overdue homecoming to Lou’s personal universe leaves me with a lingering feeling in line with the album’s title.

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November 26, 2006

Sylvia Hallett -White Fog (Emanem)


This is one of my favorite discs in the Emanem catalog. Sylvia Hallett is, for my money, one of the most diverse but consistently interesting improviser/composers to come out of that loosely unified amalgam known as the British Improv scene. Her duets with Clive Bell have been beautifully transparent and strangely industrial by turn, and her solo discs for the Mash label have some roaringly funny and heartbreakingly intimate songs whose instrumentation exists just on the edge of conventionality; this doesn’t even begin to touch the multitudinous projects, for theater and concert, in which she’s been involved since the late 1970s.

White Fog is an entirely different beast. Closer in spirit to the instrumental Hallett/Bell duets but sporting lyrics, what Hallett calls “half-songs”, the discs exudes a chilly and semidetached vibe. The instrumentation is sparse and airy, sometimes damn near windy, a mixture of loops, rattles and ghostly slides and sputters.

The voice is mature, somewhat reserved except for key moments, the specifics of which I will leave to the interested listener to sort out. The characters exist, as I perceive them, in static moments that bespeak past and future conflict or isolation. In large part, these are not stories; they are tableaus, memories or visions carved, fleetingly, in the fog, absolutely brittle and seemingly ready to vanish. Ironically, this is how they achieve their greatest strength and longevity.

~ Marc Medwin

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November 19, 2006

Kenny Dorham - Matador/Inta' Somethin' (Blue Note)


Plenty of ink relates the joys of the Kenny Dorham/Joe Henderson frontline captured on a cache of sessions for Blue Note. But prior to that stellar run, Dorham shared a shorter association with another Blue Note regular that I’ve long considered on par. The results, gathered on this now out of print disc pairing single albums for United Artists and Pacific Jazz, team his characteristically charismatic trumpet with the incendiary alto of Jackie McLean. Both platters reflect the influence of Dorham’s 1961 tour of South America as a member of Monty Kay’s traveling American Jazz Festival. The first date, taped in a NYC studio, opens with a bracing one-two punch: Dorham’s darkly hued “El Matador” and the even darker “(Melody for) Melanie”, one of McLean’s finest compositions rendered here in its definitive version. Pianist Bobby Timmons accomplishes his most adventurous recorded solo on the latter and the horns precede his ingenuity in a rippling convergence of contrasting convections. Nineteen months prior to his career-making turn with the New York Contemporary Five, drummer J.C. Moses also contributes mightily to the action, Dorham closes the date with an ambitious duo reading of Villa Lobos’ “Prelude”, Timmons’ keys artfully in tow. The second date, recorded live at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop, isn’t quite so enterprising, but with the exceptional rhythm section of Walter Bishop, Leroy Vinnegar and Art Taylor, the horns still receive reliable swinging support. Musical peaks include a protean portrayal of Dorham’s “Una Mas” and a concluding romp through the set list staple “San Francisco Beat.” I’ve spun this one countless times since parting with the necessary cash at a Seattle Tower Records (RIP) in late-1991 and is shelved prominently amongst my most treasured jazz recordings.

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November 12, 2006

Picchio Dal Pozzo - Abbiamo Tutti Suoi Problemi (RER Megacorp)


Here’s a reissue of this Italian group’s second disc, one of only two released during its existence. I’d not heard them until this release showed up in my mailbox, and now I realize what I’d been missing.

This largely instrumental record defies easy comparison, though if I had to enter such dangerous waters, I’d say that some kind of Henry Cow/Frank Zappa collaboration was in the offing. If Zappa is a model, it’s the Lather material from which the Italians draw, heavy on the vibes and always sporting an undercurrent of Stravinsky. Those beautiful modal melodies Zappa could spin out at will are also in abundance; when vocals do occur, as on the series of pieces entitled “La Sgargianza”, the Cow harmonies and voicings come to the fore. Abrupt chromatic shifts speak to the compositional pallets of Fred Frith and Tim Hodgkinson, not to mention those exquisite chords!

Never, though, did the Cow engage in the “telephone” effect from “Sgargianza” Part 2. In fact, it’s as if the afore-mentioned influences were stripped down, serialized and shuffled, or blended, to create something familiar but jarringly different; it’s the disc’s strong point, seconded only by the playing itself, which is obviously virtuosic but never flashy or self-aggrandizing. Deceptively simple, the disc demands repeated listening for full effect, and I intend to do just that.

~ Marc Medwin

Posted by derek at 3:25 PM | Comments (0)

November 7, 2006

Schlippenbach Trio - Elf Bagatellen (FMP)


A germane choice given the site’s recent forced hiatus, this disc is also long overdue occupant in this slot thanks to its role in the naming of these environs. As far as I know, this group still holds the title for longevity as a working free improv collective. The trio is also a model of the superfluous nature of idiomatic boundaries and the advantages attainable by players who spend regular time apart. Parker, Schlippenbach and Lovens only convene infrequently and the intentional arcs of absence make their meetings all the more musically momentous when they do occur. It’s a sensibly modified implementation of Derek Bailey’s Golden Improv Rule. On this studio date from the spring of ’90 the trio moves swiftly and effortlessly between the nebulous jurisdictions of jazz and free improv. The mix of brief bagatelle-sized pieces with more predictable longer form fare makes it a standout. Schlippenbach’s opening “Aries” and its immediate neighbor “Beelzebub’s Tales: Revised” deploy delicate piano meditations tinged with hues of mellow Monk. Flanked by Paul Lovens precision brushes, Evan Parker’s soprano multiphonics pull from the free improv spectrum as genre boundaries continue to blur and dissipate. The instrumentation echoes Cecil Taylor’s classic 60s Montmarte ensemble with Lyons and Murray, but the players capitalized on decades of hindsight, evincing a far more inclusive dynamic range, operating within studio acoustics that cleanly corral all the action. Even split-second outbursts suggest spontaneous consensus born from an abiding rapport and while there’s a fair share of racket, it never feels perfunctory or premeditated. Also impressive is Schlippenbach’s ability to preserve a melodic center whether he’s clamoring about under the hood of his piano, as on “Analogue: Scaled” or constructing a relatively straightforward jazz line. All in all, a favorite from a trio whose severely finite discography is both intentional and meaningful.

Posted by derek at 2:55 PM | Comments (6)

October 15, 2006

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan - En Concert a Paris (Ocora)


As much as I tend to be absorbed in contemporary improvised music (taomud), I try to consistently remind myself that, objectively, it’s just one of many approaches and, indeed, a particularly Western one (allowing Japan into the “Western” purview for this purpose). When I actually drift into a record store, my bent (if I don’t head up to the classical section to replenish my endless supply of Feldmans, Xenakisae, etc.) is to visit the “world music” area, to be overwhelmed by the enormity of things I haven’t heard, but should. By the way, it’s been commented on forever, but what a hateful term that is. As though everything outside of US and Britain can be lumped into a single, general category. Anyway, I usually choose a geographic division and begin browsing, often quickly losing myself in the depths of my ignorance. I’d been meaning to listen to more Indian music for some time but how to choose? Even if I go for a “safe” choice, say, Ravi Shankar, I’m clueless as to which disc to opt for, guided only by the relative repulsiveness of the packaging on a given recording (but even then, who knows?). A losing battle in that sense: there will never be enough time to hear all these things. I can only take a semi-educated stab and see. If nothing else, I’ll go by record labels, knowing that Ocora, the Nonesuch Explorer series, King’s World Music Library, etc. are time-tested for quality.

So there I am the other day, browsing the Indian section, when I look up and see (Pakistan being close enough for the purposes of Tower, I guess), this 5-disc set of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s. I didn’t own anything by Khan though, of course, I’d heard him on radio any number of times over the years and had always greatly enjoyed his work. I may have been a little put off 15-20 years ago when the likes of Peter Gabriel championed his music a bit (several things on Earthworks, right?) figuring there must be some nagging problem if that crew was pushing him. But I brushed those prejudices aside and, happening to have the cash on hand, went ahead and bought the set.

Excellent decision. As I’m writing this I’ve only listened through twice but damn, what wonderful music. Two lengthy concert recordings from 1985 and 1988, not very different from what I’d expected, but endlessly fascinating to experience. I gather Khan had done some projects within more dubious, pop-like surroundings, but this, as near as I can ascertain, consists of straight ahead Islamic religious song. That’s another thing. I’m as irreligious, indeed anti-religious, as anyone you’re likely to meet. Had Khan been singing in English about the glories of Jesus, I’m not at all sure I could have blocked out the meaning level of the music; it likely would have irritated me enough to mar the overall enjoyment. Happily, delivered in Urdu (?), I can blithely ignore its fundamental meaning. Right, blithely. Is this an honest thing to do? Probably not, but you have to draw a line somewhere. I’ve always figured that the enjoyment I derived from the vast majority of, say, Afro-Pop I’ve listened to would have been greatly reduced were I able to understand the lyrics, which I assume to be pretty much as vapid and cretinous as Western pop lyrics. But in the same way as you (or, at least, I) can admire a Velazquez crucifixion regardless of the creepy theology behind it, you can put aside the Islamic trappings of Khan’s song and simply revel in the glorious sound.

The image of this rather portly personage, sitting mound-like on a bed of pillows, arms flailing in abandon as alien glossolalia emerge from his mouth is a strangely captivating one. When he erupts suddenly from a languid alap section into one of these torrents it’s like a flash flood cascading over a rocky parapet. Couched with two harmoniums and a tabla as well as backing singers, the shuddering ecstasy encountered in many of the pieces is as satisfyingly orgasmic as any proper religious experience should be. I have no basis whatsoever to comment on the performances critically—I’m guessing they’re deemed pretty hot stuff within the genre though who am I to judge? —but I will say that to the neophyte in Pakistani music as well as to anyone with ears even slightly ajar, this is some spectacular stuff. The discs are apparently available individually but that would rob one of the cumulative effect of each evening. I may well be preaching to the choir and perhaps most of you have long since sampled the late Mr. Kahn’s wares but, if you’re like me and had simply never gotten around to it, do yourself a favor and wallow away. It wouldn’t surprise me if Khan hadn’t the foggiest notion who John Cage was (let alone AMM or Bill Dixon), but who cares?

Posted by Brian Olewnick at 3:05 PM | Comments (5)

October 8, 2006

Stan Getz - At the Shrine (Verve)


For certain players, career fecundity ensures that examples of their work will always be commercially available no matter how fickle the public’s buying tastes. Stan Getz certainly fits in this privileged circle with a discography running well into the triple digits. Still, even with the surfeit, several prized albums in his vast catalog are currently out of print. This late ’54 concert set from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles is one of the most unfortunate casualties. Getz is coupled with Bob Brookmeyer, a partnership that largely circumvented the usual interpersonal friction that the cocky saxophonist so often seemed to engender in his collaborators. The duo make for a mutually satisfying match across the ten tunes, not just breezing through easy heads solos schematics, but instead delving into exceptional interplay on numerous occasions. Getz even changes up mouthpieces between pieces to enhance the band’s tonal possibilities. The rhythm section of John Williams, Bill Anthony and Art Mardigan keeps pace, but doesn’t crowd the horns. Getz and his valve trombone-slinging colleague are free to parse apart the tunes that include ringers like “Lover Man” and “I’ll Remember April” as well far as less referenced fare like “Pernod” and Brookmeyer’s “Open Country” and there’s not a clunker in the bunch. Fidelity is also impressive, especially for the vintage, with clean separation between the instruments and a full warm ensemble sound. Getz’s announcements from the stage are intimate and surprisingly self-effacing, though one early segment finds him unflinchingly belittling a heckling audience member. There’s a truckload of Getz available out there for purchase, but this currently sidelined set stands as one of his early best and a well-played favorite of mine.

Posted by derek at 2:09 PM | Comments (8)

October 1, 2006

Son House - Father of the Delta Blues (Columbia)


Comparisons are a common, if ultimately dispensable, part of music appreciation. This artist is better than that one; this album puts that one to shame. Bagatellen probably wouldn’t exist in the absence of such completely subjective pursuits. This brings me in a roundabout manner to Son House and this particular late period collection from Columbia. Every time I spin it I find myself unconsciously measuring it against the benchmark of House’s epochal Library of Congress Recordings, now available in at least a half dozen commercial guises. These New York City performances, taped during a fertile three-day stretch in April of 1965, have a number of cosmetic advantages over those earlier Delta sides. Firstly, there’s the untarnished studio sound, leagues ahead of the Lomax field sessions of the Forties in terms of fidelity. House’s National Steel Body guitar rings out with stentorian size, free from surface grit and aural grime, his slide raking across strings to create slicing rhythms in line with his age-weathered vocals. Next, there’s the temporal elbowroom available through modern tape technology. “Levee Camp Moan” stretches to nine-and-a-half minutes and eight more tunes ease well past five-minutes apiece. Far from sterile or overly rehearsed, these tracks bring out House’s protean talents, particularly on the spirituals where he sets down his guitar and switches to simple, but penetrating handclaps. Great as these are, my prized moments come with the two versions of “Death Letter,” a harrowing lament with topical roots in common with “Saint James Infirmary” and for my money just as monumental. House was one of the giants, not just of the blues, but also of American music in general. Are these his definitive performances? Who cares. They encompass an indispensable body of song, one that I’ll continue to return to with regularity until the day they lay me on that cooling board.

Posted by derek at 6:15 PM | Comments (3)

September 24, 2006

Jack Wright/Michel Doneda/Tatsuya Nakatani - No Stranger to Air (Sprout)


Last year, Nate Dorward reviewed this trio’s beautifully enigmatic SOS Editions debut, and his experience matched my own. Earlier this year, I bought a bunch of Wright’s back catalog, and this newer offering was tucked away in the package. I heard it once and was so surprised I put it away for several months.

Elegance and understatement have now been replaced by some of the most in-your-face skull-boiling I’ve heard from any of these three, and I’ll admit to some initial disappointment. However, on coming back to this one over the past couple of weeks, the almost unbearable tension and release in the music have changed my listening completely. Where the SOS disc presented sound and silence serially, the boundaries between them even slightly blurred, No Stranger is much more unified, the fact that the trio sounds physically closer together here fostering the aesthetic. Whether or not this results from the mix, the playing is condensed, a series of overlaps, interruptions and half-finished phrases that smell like old-time radio dialogue.

The music moves in waves of innovation and retrospection. Linkages with the past are somehow simultaneously more present and buried. Shrills and overtones abound, the two saxophonists reeking “new thing” havoc on my unsuspecting ears when I was prepared for 21st century intricacy. Then, without warning, some kind of dial-tone drone, an illusory hint of electricity and an ending, a hollow pop, the sudden stop after a long fall, the slow decay of a rhythm. For the last of these, just check out Nakatani’s opening gestures—a clattering roll that slows to a trickle, slickly picking up a bit of momentum again before disintegrating. Transient peak whistles, thuds and tiny engines drone, buzz and chirp above Nakatani’s expertly recorded bass drum and equally forceful chimes, until they suddenly disappear with a mild clatter.

The horns are of a piece, breath matching shake and flutter matching slow trill in ways that are both beautiful and almost too vocal for comfort. Bowed and struck percussion of all sorts complement perfectly every nuance Wright and Doneda can serve up, admittedly no mean feat and even more convincingly accomplished on this new disc.

The live recording is very nicely detailed, the entire frequency spectrum being wonderfully captured, and it’s all here, from the lowest rumblings to the most piercing sopranino, almost bell-like at times. I’m glad I didn’t try to talk about this disc when it came out. Some things just take time.

~ Marc Medwin

Posted by derek at 6:15 PM | Comments (7)

September 17, 2006

Soprano Summit - Live at Thatchers (J&M)


Ever ponder the possibility of alternate career courses for your favored musicians? A long while back we had a thread discussing just such divergent realities and recently, in the spirit of that exercise, I got to thinking: What if Steve Lacy had chosen to stick with a career in Dixieland jazz and not switched tracks to the avant-garde via the music of Cecil Taylor and Thelonious Monk? I like to think he would have followed a path similar to that of Kenny Davern. Davern has been a purveyor of trad jazz sensibilities for going on a half century, but his perspective on the idiom are far removed the creaky repertory music of Preservation Hall. He’s regularly welcomed younger, more freewheeling, players into his fold, among them, bassist Greg Cohen on leave from his Masada post. Davern’s most popular and enduring association has been as part of the ensemble Soprano Summit, teaming him with kindred soul Bob Wilbur. The band was a festival favorite in the Seventies and has engaged in recurring reunion tours over the years. This early concert taped in the fall of ’76 documents one of their strongest conclaves. Guitarist Dave Cliff and bassist Peter Ind, two players linked to the Tristano School through collaborations with Warne Marsh, make for sympathetic and intrepid consorts with the horns. Drummer Lennie Hastings keeps the crew moving with an unfaltering sensitivity from behind his kit. The set list is a typical cache of blues and early swing standards with plenty of exuberant blowing room for all involved. The dual vibrato-weighted soprano attack on version of Ellington’s “The Mooche” is as fine a distillation as any of the co-leaders deep rapport. Davern and Lacy shared salient similarities (both initially doubled on soprano and clarinet) and the two even recorded a date together (w/ Steve Swallow & Paul Motian as rhythm) titled, appropriately enough, Unexpected. Lacy is gone, but Davern is still with us, still making tradition-true music that still manages to test and temper parameters.

Posted by derek at 5:09 PM | Comments (0)

September 10, 2006

Burkhard Stangl/Dieb13 - eh (Erstwhile)


There are moments in life when what was once familiar can appear startlingly strange. Perhaps it is the way the light falls on an ordinary object, casting its features in a dense curtain of shadow that obscures its ordinary dimensions and reveals an aspect utterly foreign to the eye. The same holds true for words: there are moments when a word, taken for granted after being written, spoken, or heard thousands of times in the course of a life can inexplicably look like an awkward assemblage of letters that have no internal logic, but are rather the bearers of a foreign dialect long buried by centuries of neglect. In my experience, these moments of discovery can be quite unsettling, as if the familiar ground under one’s feet has been rolled away, exposing a heretofore hidden terrain that was also always underfoot but never before examined or appreciated. Certainly, there is a loss of comfort that attends this fracturing of what was once familiar, but such experiences are also a window to a kind of beauty that has the ability to astonish.

This is the effect that this record has on me whenever I listen to it. Like the names of the ten track titles, each recombining two letters into patterns both recognizable and oddly disconcerting (some of them look less like expressions or proto-words than exhalations of breath that have never been codified into language), the music on this disc takes familiar elements and recasts them into forms that are all at once strange, haunting, and beautiful. The first track, ‘eeeh’, is an excellent illustration of the power of this music. Fragments of melodies that sound as if they must have come from some song we’ve heard before waft through the air, at times contrasting, at times merging with, the familiar rhythm and texture of the needle spinning on a turntable, or the submerged singing of a century-old recording projected through an old gramophone. One of the hidden gems of the Erstwhile catalog, ‘eh’ is an important musical document, combining and recombining old idioms into new patterns, new languages.

David Jones

Posted by djones at 10:09 AM | Comments (10)

September 3, 2006

Old and New Dreams (ECM)


Dewey Redman’s gone. They’re dropping off like flies this year, as I suppose they do every year, and yet I can’t help but feel a bit lonelier in the world while the first half of “Orbit of La-Ba” plays as I write.

I’ve always been drawn to drone, to the exotic simplicity it offered, for the myriad possibilities that become fact over a beautiful long tone, or some phat beetz shot through with bass punctuations; for my money, nobody put down a better jazz groove than Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell. At their best, they were the loosest and tightest support you could work out over, and Redman takes every advantage of that on “Orbit”, tearing increasingly frantic holes in space and perception with a musette that keens and screeches.

Every track on this second Old and New Dreams record is a minor miracle, the Don Cherry/Dewey Redman axis a perfect foil for the semi-static rhythm section. My favorite though, the one I return to most often, is the stirring rendition of Coleman’s masterpiece, “Lonely Woman.” Beautifully paced, reverberant and just a bit hot around the edges, it represents what this quartet could do so well. Cherry’s sudden braps and frenzied bursts are balanced by Redman’s steadier but equally passionate lines, fusing bebop exploration with more immediate and heartbreaking blues references, slides and meditative swirls. The album is a high point in a wonderful career, and I’m only sorry I have to write about it under these circumstances.

~ Marc Medwin

Posted by derek at 4:07 PM | Comments (77)

August 27, 2006

Jenks “Tex” Carman – Chippeha! The Essential Dixie Cowboy (1947-57) (Revenant)


Even within the tiny novelty niche of yodeling Hawaiian Steel guitarists, Tex Carman stood out. Record companies sold his music under a country canopy, but it only subscribed to the signifier in a loose sense. Claiming Cherokee blood, Carman further bucked the cowboy code by cross-dressing as an Indian. His stylistic tastes were equally idiosyncratic mixing hulas, railroad songs, rags and polkas into repertoire that refused fealty to any single idiom. This handy Revenant compilation gathers a cross-section of his work for the Capitol and 4 Star labels along with a three-song air shot for the U.S. Airforce’s “Country Music Time” (ca. 1957). Carman’s crazy stage persona and boundless enthusiasm deflects some of the glaringly dubious aspects of his technique, including a sense of rhythm that could kindly be described as “distinctive”. He was a self-professed expert at imitating locomotives, cannon fire, bugles and drum corps on his guitar and examples abound of his skill at crafting aural facsimiles of these and other sound effects. “The Artillery Song” with its staccato guitar strums and bizarre jangly breaks sounds downright cracked. His singing suggests a weird crossbreeding of Uncle Dave Macon and Bascom Lamar Lunsford, with a reedy wizened inflection that sounds aged beyond his years. “The Stutter Song” tosses the P.C. handbook in the trash heap as Carman imitates the titular impediment both vocally and on frets with aplomb. “Hillbilly Hula” finds him blending Cherokee and Polynesian patois into an incomprehensible war whoop all his own. A fair bit of surface crackle coats the earlier sides, but the later Capitol selections sound clean as a whistle. Carman’s unabashed kookiness is something I find inspiring every time I spin this disc.

Posted by derek at 4:30 PM | Comments (11)

August 20, 2006

Freddie Hubbard - The Night of the Cookers (Blue Note)

Hubbard_Night of the Cookers.jpg

Nobody carried the hard bop banner better than trumpeters Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard. Long after hard bop’s innovators had become bored with the genre’s limitations and moved into newer territory, Morgan and Hubbard were still there, grinding out album after album for Blue Note from the late 1950s through the mid-1960s. For the most part, there isn’t much to distinguish between the Sidewinders and Rumprollers, the Goin’ Ups and Here to Stays. All were played competently and passionately, doggedly sticking to the same forms, techniques, and materials that had brought both musicians their fame.

I find something admirable in this sort of artistic consistency, when it is done well. Too often, I think, we tend to focus on whether a piece of music is “challenging” in a conceptual sense, or whether or not it “explores new territory.” As a value in itself, exploring new territory is problematic: sometimes it works, sometimes you end up making New Grass.

The Night of the Cookers might be the last great album of the hard bop era. From Morgan’s brilliant muted solo on “Pensativa” through Big Black’s conga assault on “Breaking Point”, the music bristles with energy and life. The recording takes place at Club La Marchal, which provides a more boisterous atmosphere than Blue Note’s usual haunts at Birdland and the Café Bohemia. Morgan and Hubbard seem to feed off the crowd’s energy, and off each other throughout the two discs, and the rhythm section of Harold Mabern, Larry Ridley and Pete La Roca provide excellent support.

If that sounds formulaic, well, it is. In the years after this recording, both Hubbard and Morgan would drop the hard bop banner; Hubbard to chase the fusion pot of gold, and Morgan to die at the hands of a jilted lover at Slugs on February 19, 1972. This live recording, made seven years earlier, captures both of these hard bop giants at their very best, and is not to be missed by fans of the genre.

David Jones

Posted by djones at 8:32 PM | Comments (2)

August 13, 2006

Pink Floyd - Piper at the Gates of Dawn (EMI)


In 1997, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Floyd’s first full-length, a mono version was released, and I only got to hear it within the last few months. I’d cut my teeth on the inexplicably truncated Nice Pair version, finally reveling in the studio rendition of “Astronomy Domine” in about 1988, but the mono mix simply knocked me out, making me hear the album anew. Subtle changes in effect abound, moment to moment gradations that can alter the flow of an entire track.

I’m sure many have heard this, so I’ll limit myself to a few examples. The much lamented Syd Barrett’s whoops and shouts on “Take up thy Stethoscope and Walk” are simply dripping with delay, and instead of an environment being set, as with the stereo version, the contrast between “Dry” and “Wet” is continually morphed, probed and explored.

Radical structural changes also made the album fresh; the coda of “Flaming” is shorter than on the stereo version, as is the case with “The Gnome.” All told, the disc comes off as more whimsical and less sloppy than its stereo counterpart, and while I have not actually compared the CD reissue with a mono LP, any Piper fan would do well to seek out this now out-of-print gem. For me, it really defined an era that was somehow larger than itself without ever really being sure of what it was, a kind of pop non-containment that could only fragment. Newer psych, in following the leader, diminishes itself in a small but irreparable fashion; the music is often very good, but the strangely haunting spontaneity of Barrett’s Floyd vanished with the crazy diamond.

Personal note: I was teaching Piper to a class of undergrads the day Syd died. I’ve been listening to him since I was nine years old, and I felt like I’d lost an old friend. RIP.

~ Marc Medwin

Posted by derek at 3:51 PM | Comments (3)

August 6, 2006

Benny Goodman - The Complete Capitol Trios (Capitol)


It’s a rare occasion when I choose to duplicate music in my collection. Eyeing this disc in a budget rack several weeks ago prompted one such decision. I’m pretty sure all of the material is contained on the Goodman Mosaic set currently buried in a cardboard box in my closet, but not having it handy made the prospect of a catch-all single disc seem like a sound investment. Ken Burns’ lionizing of Goodman as a consummate Caucasian jazz technician did little to fortify his reputation with postbop and free jazz cognoscenti. These twenty sides, taped by four different Goodman trios in ’47 and ’54 make as strong a case as I can think of for reconsidering the claim. Goodman’s clarinet is a beguiling marvel and his pianistic partners respond with poise and personality. Given his illustrious history with the clarinetist, Teddy Wilson tends to garner the most consistent praise, but Jimmy Rowles and Mel Powell, two disparate and highly adroit technicians in their own right, give as good as they get. By comparison, the string of drummers starting with Jimmy Crawford and tying off with Bobby Donaldson isn’t as dynamic, but each does a respectable job on sticks and brushes. Anyone arguing Goodman as starch-collared or stiff-backed need only audition smoking numbers like “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” to have such allegations summarily dashed. It’s interesting to note that the later cuts, while recorded in the LP era, still adhere to the time strictures of 78s. Goodman doesn’t need any extra time. His lines evince the elegance and symmetry of cursive script, tracing melodies with a toothsome tone that never seems to falter or sour. I’ve taken to listening to this disc on commutes in the city where the temperature of the pavement often parallels rising driver temperaments. It’s proved the ideal reagent in reattaching unglued nerves and keeping an even emotional keel.

Posted by derek at 6:53 PM | Comments (0)

July 30, 2006

The Modern Jazz Quartet - Fontessa (Atlantic)


Most music makes too much noise. This is what I have concluded after years of listening to head-banging power chords and free jazz blowouts. Especially in our currently overheated climate, sometimes the best thing a musician can do is shut the hell up, or, to put a finer point on it, allow the spaces between the notes the room and air they need to breathe. It is for these reasons that most of the contemporary music I listen to now is of the lowercase variety, and it is also for this reason that I have recently found myself returning to the understated improvisations of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

I have long had my issues with the MJQ. I never much cared for their concert hall aesthetic, which has evidently long appealed to the more conservative element in the jazz community. (Honestly, there is no reason why any grown man should willingly choose to wear a bow tie.) Be that as it may, a listening session with a friend earlier this week forced a reappraisal. After a few minutes of chatting, my friend put on Fontessa, originally released by Atlantic Records in 1956. I was immediately drawn into the placid waters of this music, the ringing solos of vibist Milt Jackson, John Lewis’s elegant figures on piano, and Connie Kay’s deft touch on percussion. But for some reason, Percy Heath on bass stood out the most. When he walked down a line on the standard “Willow Weep For Me,” playing notes that a thousand musicians had played before him, and a thousand more would play after him, somehow the sensitive way in which he handled his work, imparting to his notes a soft, boozy sentimentality that one often experiences after that fifth glass of beer, made me feel completely at home, happy to be lost in the music. My friend, noticing the pleasure I derived from Heath’s playing, leaned towards me and said, with some urgency, “You need to play the bass. Don’t worry about being any good. I’m not talking about playing in a band or for anybody else or anything like that. You need to play the bass for yourself. Get a bass, and play it until your fingers bleed, and then keep playing it. Then you’ll be able to hear music like this from the inside.”

~ David Jones

Posted by djones at 9:42 PM | Comments (1)

July 23, 2006

Lou Gare - No Strings Attached (Matchless)


In the recent Topography of the Lungs thread on this site, some discussion about Lou Gare and his role in early AMM music caught my interest, leading me back to listen to this solo disc with revitalized historical curiosity. I was surprised by what I heard, as I was when I first received it several months ago. It’s deeply resonant listening on many levels, and repetition brought clarity for me.

I have never heard Gare play solo before, and to my knowledge, this is the first disc under his name. His approach to soloing is centered—meditative, endlessly alert to every dynamic and articulative detail; I have also never heard anyone play tenor with a sound quite like his, and the closest I can come to worthwhile comparison involves a mixture of Don Byas’ fluid lightness and Coleman Hawkins’ warm phrase endings, vibrato and sudden bursts of raw power.

Such historical precedents say nothing about the material, which thrives on the reiteration of scalar and melodic fragments that seem to unfold over glacially slow but unheard changes—detached harmonic areas rather than established tonalities or modalities. Some recur; some disappear, especially over the 20 minutes of the title track, occasionally augmented by “New Thing” cries, multiphonic honks, swells and shudders that never cross the boundaries of taste.

There is fire here, but it’s a cold, slow burn, the spaces between utterances and the live acoustic on much of the disc reminding me of environmentally produced dissonances in recent Aquatanian polyphony recordings. Speed and agility, while occasionally stunning, are never a primary concern. I am unable to avoid hearing something aged in the playing, and as much as I’ve tried to put it down to my respect for the artist, all five tracks insist on breathing some nostalgia into every listen. I never would have expected it from a member of one of the most innovative groups the 1960s produced, but it is presented without pretense. I am left with the impression that the playing is never meant to make any further statement than existence. It is one of the most personal and intimate discs I’ve heard in some time, and I love it all the more for that.

~ Marc Medwin

Posted by derek at 11:59 AM | Comments (1)

July 16, 2006

The Skatalites - Foundation Ska (Heartbeat/Studio One)


In my internal seasonal music schematic, summer shouts Ska. The loping, southpaw rhythms originally-spawned out of Roscoe Gordon’s R&B single “No More Doggin’” are perfectly suited to high heat and humidity accompanied beach front strolls. Amongst scores of would-be successors, the Skatalites still hold the genre-defining crown both in terms of reach and longevity. Far more comprehensive compilations of their catalog exist, but this 32-track bonanza is still my go-to source when I’m visited by the jones. I caught the band in Flagstaff during a whiteout blizzard around the time of its release. Trudging to the club early, I mustered the courage to knock on their tour bus door. A bag of graduate school herb secured my entry and we spent the remainder of the pre-show hour hanging out. All I really remember was the incongruous sight of three foot snow drifts outside the window and the soundtrack of warm island riddims and ganja-scented horns enhancing the ensuing confab. But I digress; back to the topic at hand. All the early hits are here: slippery Don Drummond spectaculars like “Fidel Castro” and “Occupation” where he nods to J.J. Johnson with his lubricious trombone; tag team tenor numbers like “Hot Cargo” featuring Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso; even a handful of tunes as the backing band for vocalists like Bob Marley and Ken Boothe. Each of the two discs clocks at generous LP length, avoiding overkill and supplying just the right dose of consummate ska in easily digestible three-minute morsels.

Posted by derek at 9:05 AM | Comments (0)

July 9, 2006

Faust - Faust IV (Virgin/EMI)


I did not like this record when I first heard it—yes, I was one of those, and my only consolation for my nearsightedness is that I wasn’t alone. I bought the new double-disc reissue because … well, because I had to; because I love the group, because my devotion to Faust means that if they put out the sound of a cat scratching a table-leg, there’s probably a reason, and I’ll go for it!

The best part of the whole scenario turned out to be a new appreciation for what is a fine platter. I’d never realized just how much fun “The Sad Skinhead” was, or how demonically Rudolf Sosna’s guitar work ejaculates from “It’s a Bit of a Pain,” skewing the chansonesque vocals, presumably courtesy of Jean Herve Peron.

Enough has been written about “Krautrock”, and the reverence with which the powerful instrumental is justly treated means I needn’t add any extra ink to the flood. I’ll only comment on “Jennifer,” to which the “Dirge” descriptor does an injustice. It’s gorgeous, hypnotic and achingly simple, Sosna’s voice sounding like Peter Synfield at his most childlike without the theatricality. It should be heard with headphones, if for no other reason than the majestically acousmatic wash at its conclusion—simply stunning!

I hear very little difference in the reissue’s sound, save for some welcome hiss removal in “Bit of a Pain”. However, some alternate versions make the second disc worth hearing, including an interesting remix/recasting of the track I know as “Psalter”—a whimsical acoustically driven romp in thirteen with rhythmically atmospheric psalter set just far enough back in the mix to be edgily unobtrusive. There’s also a piano piece that sounds remarkably like Neu! Circa 1975, very atmospheric and permeated with similar electrobreath.

Owners of RER’s Faust box or of the BBC Sessions disc will duplicate some material here, but the BBC material here is better indexed. I’m not convinced that the track list on the album proper is correct yet—isn’t that “I’ve got my Car and my TV” at the end of “Giggy Smile?” So, for anyone not in ownership of the disc, the reissue’s the way to go, and for those in search of yet another alternate Faust track, this set doesn’t disappoint.

~ Marc Medwin

Posted by derek at 3:34 PM | Comments (5)

July 2, 2006

New York Dolls – Rock ‘n Roll (Mercury)


The Dolls are a band best digested in morsels. Dave Johnansen’s whiny flamboyant shtick (spawn of Aerosmith’s Stephen Tyler and so many other silk-scarfed clones) was meant to grate and bait; the glam personas of Mick Jagger, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop decked out in nylons & cabaret top hat, and soaked in a heavy solution of snotty irreverence. The sloppy rockabilly riffs of Johnny Thunders and Syl Sylvian delivered a jittery, jangly counterpart to Johnsanen’s manic antics at the mic. Androgyny and aggression shot up with stiff doses of coke and smack and tossed in the faces of any audience willing to pay a cover. They were a joke at first, much like their progeny the Sex Pistols, which gradually gained cult credence and a record contract. This compilation gathers material from their only two label-financed albums along with a small clutch of outtakes. At nearly 77-minutes of music, it’s probably all a casual listener will ever need. The song craft is fairly mediocre throughout, largely interchangeable proto-punk riffs played under lascivious lyrics with lots of parodic attitude. But in small doses, it’s a hoot and there are regular flashes of brilliance amidst the caked-on trash and raunch. “Lonely Planet Boy” channels Bowie, trading up electric guitars for strumming acoustics and distant stereo-bifurcated sax. “Who Are the Mystery Girls” brings stomping Detroit garage rock to the Bowery replete with a cadre of female back up singers while the schizophrenic “Stranded in the Jungle” gives Screamin’ Jay Hawkins a run for the money in terms of genre demolition absurdity. From Johansen’s mealy blues harmonica on the honky tonk “Lone Star Queen” to the power chord superhero anthem “Jet Boy” the Dolls prove that their enduring reputation as punk pioneers was well earned.

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June 25, 2006

Tom Djll - Mutootator (Soul On Rice)


I just bought this; it arrived a few days ago. The more I listen to it, the more I like it. I do think it’s good, a veritable circus of talent in cleverly and closely juxtaposed snapshot.

Released in 1993 to inaugurate the now thankfully re-awakened Soul on Rice imprint, this is a series of duets, some readily discernable as such and many not; I was struck by how much of this record faces forward, anticipating music in which many are now reveling as innovative. True, there’s a lot of cutup here as Djll’s live sampling keeps things fresh, but listen to “Magnetopause” as it quenches the claustrophobic semi-smoldering of “Wipum”, one of the Djll/Jack Wright pairings. It shimmers into life, following its own path of overtones in beautifully harmonic manifestation of sonic temporaries, the Djll/Ed Herrmann duo conjuring drony visions of recent William Basinski. Temperaments and timbres morph and fade with tortoisian inexorability, a stunning contrast to the disc’s largely jump cut and whiplash aesthetic. It’s one of the longest tracks on offer here, and one of its most successful.

I’ve made this stuff sound so damn serious! The disc is huge fun, as much Zappa as Stockhausen, the titles often as humorously evocative as the half-recognizable samples flitting in and out of focus. “Carnivore of Venice” finds Doug Carroll providing a basso continuo while Djll busts out misshapen loops that chase their own tails right out of the gate.

Veterans like Myles Boisen and William Winant appear and disappear along side folks with whom I’m entirely unfamiliar—who’s this Hillary Double-D, (Please don’t let my ignorance rob you of veteran status, Hillary!) and where can I hear more of her incisively random and socio-politically abstract poeticizing? Oh, I’ll just press play and enjoy it all again!

~ Marc Medwin

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June 18, 2006

Walt Dickerson – Serendipity (Steeplechase)


Walt Dickerson’s Seventies output for Steeplechase gets surprisingly sparse consideration these days. Cruise the net and there’s precious little commentary on the vibraphonist, let alone that segment of his career where he let his coiffure grow, and his chest hair show through the low-cut collars of garishly patterned leisure shirts. This concert set, taped in his hometown of Philadelphia in the bicentennial summer of ’76, delivers instructive goods on his working trio of the era with electric bassist Rudy McDaniels, recently rechristened with the far more funky nom de fretless Jamaladeen Tacuma, and drummer Edgar Bateman in tow. Dickerson’s more discursive improvisatory tendencies are in full evidence, his mallets birthing luminous chains of notes that defy easy enumeration and traverse multifarious trajectories. All but one of the five pieces blossom to labyrinthine lengths. Tacuma’s melodically sensitive bass lines work as reliable contrapuntal shadow to the leader’s less-gravity reliant structures and his tonally-rich solos evince a facility on par with his far better established contemporary Stanley Clarke. Liberal doses of pedal sustain further enhance an ethereal feel, particularly on the solo opener “My Prayer.” Various junctures arise where the three sound in danger of dispersing in completely different directions. Bateman’s ambitions behind a kit sometimes outpace his abilities. But his decision for subtlety and delicacy over brashness and momentum works as additional agent in the music’s consistently contemplative cast, especially during several tandem detours with his employer. At a solid hour, it’s the sort of disc appropriate for solitary dimmed lights listening, ripe with quiet, but continuous interplay indicative of Dickerson in the midst of his second artistic wind.

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June 11, 2006

Cecil Taylor/Bill Dixon/Tony Oxley (Victo)


This was one of the first discs I’d heard involving Bill Dixon, and it continues to be a favorite. I have enjoyed the disc for what it is rather than what I’d hoped it would be or thought it should have been.

The disc has garnered a fair amount of negative press, the most scathing of which blames Dixon for ruining the May 2002 Victoriaville concert by forcing the other musicians to approach him on his own terms. If it was Dixon that facilitated the interplay I hear on this disc, bravo to him! I have never heard these three stellar musicians listen, really listen, in the way they do here.

I now view the performance as a real act of courage on the part of all three participants. The proceedings are generally quiet, but not exclusively. By this time, Dixon had largely transcended traditional trumpet vocabulary, even pitch itself, preferring to juxtapose meditative passages with exuberant exclamations of varying durations and intensities. It is he that sounds what I will call, for convenience, the first few notes, in truth demonstrating the vast range of sound he can invoke with the smallest gesture. Throughout, he plays orchestrally, every dynamic shade and overtone evidenced with fluidity and precision.

What Dixon accomplishes from moment to moment, Taylor and Oxley expand and amplify. Taylor’s work is all the more admirable for its restraint; like Alfred Brendel’s third set of Beethoven sonatas, wisdom, borne of vast experience, keeps virtuosity in check until the precise moment that it’s required, and then no holds are barred. This concert has many of these moments, Taylor’s customary cascades swelling out of the expectant calm like titans only to disappear again.

I have long admired Oxley from a purely sonic perspective; he brings multicolored life to every context, and this has obviously included several classic records with both Dixon and Taylor. On the Victo set, he seems eternally poised, ready to interject responsively at any opportunity, complementing Dixon’s tuba-range utterances with high-frequency resonances, aiding and abetting Taylor when the volume rises and density increases.

As with so much of the improv discussed on this site, volume and energy are completely unrelated, and this disc is absolutely suffused with energy. It’s unlikely that we’ll hear these three make music in this way again, and I find it a shame. I’m only glad that the document exists, and I appreciate the opportunity to speak on its behalf.

~ Marc Medwin

Posted by derek at 1:54 PM | Comments (85)

June 4, 2006

Dominic Duval String&Brass Ensemble – American Scrapbook (CIMP)


I’ve been reviewing CIMP titles regularly for going on seven years. Over that span, I’ve followed the triumphs and tribulations of the imprint with spectator’s interest: the controversy over Bob Rusch’s recording philosophy (called visionary by some and stubbornly Luddite by others) that seems to come and go in waves; the ever-blossoming roster of improvisers and projects; and the label’s subtly changing visual esthetic reflected in Kara Rusch’s hand-painted cover art. After about a year of polite financial solicitations in the form of folded pamphlets included with each release, the label is the midst of auditioning a new marketing tack. Their fulcrum is a fancy new full-color website that will make the vast catalog far more browser friendly to visitors. The news prompted me to peruse their output of the past half decade, stored mostly in a single Napa Valley cd crate thanks to the space-saving plastic sleeves that are another facet of Rusch’s preferred aesthetic. This nominally Duval-led album strikes me as an apposite encapsulation of both the strengths and occasional encumbrances of the CIMP approach. The cast is stellar collection of talent. Three brass (Joe McPhee, Tom Varner and Steve Swell) and three strings (Duval, Jason Hwang and Tomas Ulrich) exploring a patch quilt of a dozen pieces with a loose unifying theme of Americana as inspiration. Resplendent renditions of “America” open and close the album and make full use of the rich chamber sonorities of the ensemble to create Aylerian overtones. Duval organizes several smaller combinations ranging from a duet with McPhee’s cornet on “Jomanik Duphee” to brass plus bass quartet on the two-part “Plumbing the Lines.” Some of the pieces have minor technical flaws, a ragged cue here, a rambling stumble there, but the blemishes give the date a homespun feel that fits beautifully with the material. The zenith comes with “Amazing Grace,” a frequent Duval and McPhee feature in their Trio X configuration with Jay Rosen, here given an even deeper resonance through the blend of instrumentation and madrigal-like arrangement. They even tackle Monk’s dog-eared “Round Midnight” and once again the mesh of reverberating metal and wood yields nascent improvisatory magic.

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May 28, 2006

Mount Everest Trio - Waves From Albert Ayler (UMS/Atavistic)


This second release from the Unheard Music Series is still my favorite in a catalog that now numbers well into the double digits. The cover gives it instant cultural currency: three swarthy Swedish longhairs, looking more like a Hawkwind tribute band than a free jazz combo, paying homage to their titular hero with an album of muscle-flexing musical ebullience. Led by saxophonist Gilbert Holmström and enlightened by drummer Conny Sjökvist’s Sixties sojourn spent hanging out and sponging up the sounds of Big Apple luminaries like Don, Albert and others in the ESP orbit the band races through eight-track program of covers and originals beginning with a rousing rendition of Ayler’s “Spirits.” Holmström’s whinnying tenor chews up the familiar singsong theme while his mates crash and cavort at his flanks. Kjell Jansson’s electric bass strings feed febrile funk into Ornette’s “Ramblin’” and the seeds of such latter day outfits as Mat Gustafsson’s The Thing and Vandermark’s Spaceways Incorporated are sown. And I love the fact that they choose to plant their flag in a groovy Gary Bartz composition right alongside the so-called outré fare. The homegrown tunes are great too, especially Holmström’s supple ballad “Bananas Oas” where Sjökvist unexpectedly trades explosive-tipped sticks for muslin-soft brushes and the epic ensemble conflagration “No Hip Shit,” a riveting blowout that echoes primetime Frank Wright. The three bonus tracks recorded two years later at the tail end of the trio’s existence boost running time to an even hour and find them toeing closer to a postbop line. Holmström’s heartfelt work on “Consolation” in conversation with only Jansson’s bass puts him on par with any mainstream contemporary I can think of when it comes to creatively playing the changes. I’ve spun this in a multitude of situations and it has yet to sound the least bit stale. The trio’s name reads like clever hyperbole, but the commensurate music proves their height and reach no idle boast.

Posted by derek at 8:26 AM | Comments (0)

May 21, 2006

The Red Clay Ramblers – Twisted Laurel/Merchant’s Lunch (Flying Fish)


String band music has long grappled with stereotypes of fogeyism and obsolescence. Iconography of wizened geezers confined to rocking chairs on porches, playing tunes older than the hills on antiquated banjos and fiddles continues to cause younger audiences to grimace and turn up their noses. As one of the most revolutionary revivalist outfits, the Red Clay Ramblers infused welcome vitality and creativity into the idiom while still holding fast to its roots. First, by drawing on an instrument cache that rivaled Art Ensemble of Chicago proportions and included: fiddles; banjo; guitars; 5-string Merrywang; mandolins; bass; trumpets; pennywhistles; harmonica; trombone; piano; organ; kazoo and Autoharp. Second, by revivifying familiar song forms with a fresh array of influences and droll humor. This Flying Fish twofer reissues a pair of their definitive studio efforts from ’76 and ’77 with a five-man line-up holding court over 25 tracks. In addition to being accomplished multi-instrumentalists, the band members were also fine singers. Warm vocal harmonies breathe life into tracks like “Twisted Laurel” and “Daniel Prayed.” The poignant reading of the Carter Family classic “Will You Miss Me” features the rich pipes of Mike Carver with simple acoustic guitar support. Other pieces like “The Corrugated Lady” and “The Ace” tap the crew’s ample keg of corn liquor-fed whimsy in a Country Joe McDonald vein and with surprising lyrical complexity. Playful puns fly freely and brass band pungency further sweetens the stakes alongside some hot skillet fiddle from Bill Hicks. Elsewhere, breakneck banjo numbers like “Molly Put the Kettle On” and “Rabbit in the Pea Patch” plant socks in the mouths of skeptics unwise enough to claim the Ramblers couldn’t play it fast and straight when the shared whim struck them. I’d stack the latter ditty against the finest Flatt & Scruggs has to offer with a sawbuck on the line as ante. This isn’t a disc I dust off often, but when I do, a persistent and pleasing tingle of satisfaction always arrives within the span of a few songs.

Posted by derek at 5:59 PM | Comments (0)

May 14, 2006

Thelonious Moog - Yes We Didn’t (Grownup Records)


One aspect of Monk’s music that doesn’t get enough air these days is its wry humor. If you’re tired of Monk tributes that sound more like Monk dissertations, Thelonious Moog has the antidote. Take a Love Bug full of analog synth gear, a Nashville studio rhythm section, and two seriously demented arranger-performers (Joe “Guido” Welsh & Steve Million), and before you can say, “Pass the patch cord,” boinnng! Thelonious Moog! A chorus of unabashed whoops and yibbles fill out the harmonies of a broadshouldered pack of Monk tunes. Worse, it’s all set to the cheesiest funky/loungey/Latiny/u-name-it-jazz beats you’ve ever smelled.

I love it.

Yes We Didn’t isn’t a lounge record. It’s a synth-geek record, with all the kitchen-sink sounds, taste-defying gimmicks, and nerdy in-jokes you’d expect from obsessive-completists. “Bye-Ya” and “Rhythm-A-Ning” dish up Esquivel; “Ugly Beauty” is a W. Carlos space oddity; “Mysterioso” is a Moog-Monk-surf bash. Sometimes the fun gets wearisome, as on “Oska T”, where the repeated banjo punchline has one groping for the remote. The same kind of hump-till-sore repetition actually enlivens “Jackie-ing”, with its layered circus-tent psychedelia. This one, along with “We See” and “Evidence”, gives the best testimony for the lost glory of the analog era. Vocoders, a Buchla Music Easel, Arp 2600, Moog System 12, Moog Voyager, Minimoog, Mellotron—all these (and more!) plug in to the time-portal to shout across the decades. Perhaps my favorite piece is the quacky-quilt title cut Welsh & Million stitched out of five Monk classics. Here, a thick layering of boogaloo, spoken silliness and mixed chorus bring the George Clinton tribe to mind. (One nation under a Moog?) Is it earnest, or ironic? Who cares? Let’s plug in and get down!

~ Tom Djll

Posted by derek at 3:32 PM | Comments (0)

May 7, 2006

Ray Lynch - Deep Breakfast (Windham Hill)


In the mid-Eighties, my Dad made it his audiophile mission to procure most of the Windham Hill catalog on the still nascent format of compact disc. George Winston’s December and Liz Story’s Solid Colors were staples of his collection, but Lynch’s Breakfast delivered something different and quickly rose to the top of his play list. Awash in carbonated keyboard pastels with the occasional presence of processed flute and viola, it blended pop classical leanings (Lynch was conservatory-trained on guitar and piano) with the kind of contemplative navel-gazing at the core of the label’s adult contemporary aesthetic. My parents’ study had a huge set of bay windows overlooking the Pacific and I remember spinning the album regularly at sunsets, the deep reds, oranges and blues of the dusk-darkened sky supplying a visual analog to Lynch’s color and texture saturated melodies. In true pseudo-philosophical fashion the song titles were borrowed from a then-unpublished tome by Sri Da Avabhasa, a leader of the Free Daist Communion, giving the music a heightened esoteric air. “Celestial Soda Pop” was the big radio hit. It and swirling “The Oh of Pleasure” reminded me most of my boyhood hero Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I could imagine corduroy sport-jacketed Sagan seated in his crystals-powered spaceship, sailing through the Magellanic cloud to the strains of the dancing synthetic strings. Sort of Pink Floyd lite filtered through a porous Vangelis sieve. Home for few days at the Old Pueblo outpost of Rancho de Taylor, I revisited the record, this time with the brilliant Southwestern sunsets against the Rincon Mountains as visual counterpart. My findings: the desert landscape works just as well as a northwest coastal one and Lynch’s music still stands up to my nostalgic recollection of it.

Posted by derek at 11:09 AM | Comments (0)

April 30, 2006

Madvillain - Madvillainy (Stones Throw)


At the risk of going out on a serious limb (I’m really not much of a rap fan; more of a recent, potential convert) and also over-intellectualizing (a vice that is hardly new for me), this album strikes me as a post-postmodern exploration of sound, identity, and popular culture. With this collaboration, underground rap artist MF Doom (the mask-wearing fellow on the cover who constructed an alterego based on the Marvel Comics classic supervillain Dr. Doom) and underground mix artist and producer Madlib, push rap’s aesthetic of pop appropriation and self-aggrandizement to new (?) levels of absurdity. The album’s 22 tracks are filled with fleeting sound clips from third-rate horror flicks, fourth rate pop songs, Doom’s typically blunted lyricism, and various other scraps of pop detritus. Sun Ra also makes an appearance, in a clip taken from Space is the Place (the movie), and there are at least two snatches of lounge piano jazz.

Each track averages slightly over two minutes, which makes for a jarring listening experience, as if Doom and Madlib want to make sure that the music never falls into a long groove. In this respect, it’s an unsettling, schizophrenic album, never comfortable, jumping from sound to sound, throwing out images and clips that obliquely relate to the music’s message. If indeed there is a message.

Posted by djones at 5:03 PM | Comments (2)

April 23, 2006

Gary Bartz Ntu Troop - I've Known Rivers and Other Bodies (Prestige)


I’ve been on a serious Gary Bartz jag lately. It’s a bender bolstered mostly by his parts on the Cellar Door Sessions, which, while hardly revelatory, still throw down hard. Along with the listening, I’ve come across commentary from a couple folks on a sister jazz site busting Bartz’s chops. This ROW pick is meant as both a recrimination and a general cry of phooey toward such claims. Any of the Ntu Troop records waxed for Prestige in the early Seventies could lend credence my side of the debate, but the live nature of this one gives it an edge.

Bartz was still feeling the contact high of his Miles assignment a few years previous when he and his band gigged the Montreux Festival in ’73. Crowds were smaller by an order of magnitude than the gargantuan dates with Davis, but Bartz brought the same level of enthusiasm and showmanship to the stage. The Troop mustered at his flanks exposed his Blakey-like proboscis for sniffing out young talent. Harold Eaves replaced the absent Andy Bey on keys both electric and acoustic, his Fender working from a particularly groove-rich reservoir. Stafford James exhibited a similar versatility on basses both upright and slung. Bartz assumed vocal chores alongside his customary alto and soprano, and Howard King, all of seventeen, fashioned exuberant funk and rock-fed rhythms from behind the drum kit.

Bartz establishes the laidback mood on the double album opener “Nommo-The Majick Song” with an Africanized entreaty to everyone in the audience with “bad thoughts and bad vibrations” to split forthwith. Subsequent tracks also borrow from other Ntu Troop albums. “Jujuman” cops its core theme freely from Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” while “Bertha Baptist” gets into swirling funk fireworks on the strength of Eaves’ rippling lead line and a driving rhythm from James and King. Bartz’s soprano is tart, his alto less acerbic, but exhibiting equal agility through a steady succession of solos. Lyrics are lame in spots with slogans like the “dancing is part of being black” directive of “Don’t Fight That Feeling” bluntly dating the set. If anything though, they also indicate that Bartz’s world-class afro wasn’t just for show.

Posted by derek at 7:53 PM | Comments (0)

April 16, 2006

Chuck Berry - The Great Twenty-Eight (MCA)


In the annals of Greek myth, it’s said that Helen of Troy’s face launched a thousand ships. In the chronicles of rock & roll, Chuck Berry’s guitar could lay claim to launching a thousand bands. Actually, that figure should probably be recalculated by several orders of magnitude to reflect any sort of accuracy. Berry’s influence on popular music is at once indelible, and in today’s American Idol-narcotized culture, largely taken for granted. His seminal Chess sides still work as a perfect memory tonic and while I don’t revisit them often, when I do this single-disc collection is the only time-traveling apparatus I need. With a simple, marquee-ready title that says it all, The Great Twenty-Eight assembles nearly all of Berry’s early jukebox hits onto a 70-minute silver platter. Back in the spring of ’56 Berry hit like a Space Age T-Bone Walker, sped-up and amped-up with a metallic tonality on par with the orneriest juke joint bluesman. Together with Willie Dixon’s tall timber slap bass and a succession of skinsmen laying down the signature-perambulating beat he brought a planet of teenagers to their knees in giddy supplication. In addition to the indispensable presence of Dixon, Berry’s payroll reads like a roll call of Chicago Blues royalty including Fred Below, Otis Spann and Lafayette Leake. On the first couple of cuts, there’s even an appearance by forgotten maracas maestro Jerome Green, on loan from label mate Bo Diddley. Berry’s epochal tune-smithing relied heavily on locomotive rhythmic momentum coupled to cutting lead guitar riffs, but his talents as a lyricist frequently occupied the same crackerjack league. The 1984 remastering is undeniably long-in-the-tooth, especially when indexed against the near pristine-fidelity of subsequent comps like Anthology from 2000. Nevertheless, it’s good enough for my Plebian ears and the specific sequencing has long since become a familiar security blanket. Cranking cuts like the high-octane hotrod anthem “You Can’t Catch Me,” and the reverb-drenched “Too Much Monkey Business” in my jalopy, speeding tickets become a very real possibility.

Posted by derek at 8:19 AM | Comments (1)

April 9, 2006

Jackie McLean - Capuchin Swing (Blue Note)

McLean_Capuchin Swing.jpg

I arrived very late to the Jackie McLean parade, and by the time I got around to this record, the parade was already over and everyone was in the bars crying over their beer. The Penguin Guide, which has so often in the past guided the order of my purchases, is not very charitable to Capuchin Swing, implying that the participants in this April 17, 1960 session sleep-walk through much of the proceedings, flubbing notes, losing the beat, and so forth. Not to these ears.

In choosing this record, my intention is not to proclaim that Capuchin Swing is even one of the five best McLean Blue Notes. Surely, his later explorations of the terrain between bop and free merit top consideration: Let Freedom Ring, One Step Beyond, Destinition Out, Right Now, Action, and others. However, sometimes we focus too much on the top echelon of records, and not enough on the "middleweight" offerings in an artist's oeuvre. The five players on this date, McLean, trumpeter Blue Mitchell, pianist Walter Bishop, Jr., bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Art Taylor all play with the kind of crackling intensity that made hard bop such a rich idiom. Bishop in particular stands out in this session, laying down soulful proclamations on "Francisco" and "Don't Blame Me." As an ardent Chambers fan, one of the highlights of this outing is his ever-so-brief bowed solo on "Francisco." It lasts for only 15 seconds or so, but Chambers launches into it with such gusto and swing that it carries me away like a tornado, then abruptly places me right back in the center of the music, as if I had never left.

Finally, there is McLean, his acidic tone and pungent phrasing so well-versed in the bop idiom, and yet even here constantly trying to challenge the imposed boundaries the music erected around his ambitions. We know to what heights this journey led him, but sometimes it is nice to retrace his steps and listen to the process as it unfolded, record by record, in those days of giddy creativity in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Posted by djones at 10:23 AM | Comments (1)

April 2, 2006

Various - Traveling Through the Jungle (Testament)


What music would you wish played at your funeral? That sobering question revisited me yesterday when I learned of the passing my grandmother Helena Lawson, aged 86, in Tucson, from pneumonia. I last visited her this past Christmas and realized then that we probably would not have much time left with her. While not a shock, the news still left me with a shroud of sadness and emptiness that will likely linger for some time. This collection of elemental African American fife and drum music has worked as an aural paregoric in the hours since. Many of the 28 tracks are mere fragments culled from field recordings made in and around Waverly, Georgia and Como, Mississippi in 1942 and 1970, respectively. The patriarchs of the rural argot are all in represented: Otha Turner, Sid Hemphill and Napoleon Strickland among them. Hemphill was laid to rest in 1998. Strickland passed on in 2001. Neither released a full-length record during his lifetime. Turner, widely regarded as the last living griot of the tradition, died in 2003. But not before putting out a pair of discs and passing on the practice to his grandchildren. The music here is raw and unpolished, particularly in the case of the few selections from the ’42 session, but MS dates boast well-balanced sound. Carved out on drums, washtubs and even waste baskets, martial beats that echo New Orleans second-line and Hill Country blues rhythms underlie whistling cane fife melodic leads. The music’s history is another example of African American reclamation of European musical implements that were originally African in origin. The songs suggest a sampling of secular folk staples like “John Henry” and “Shout, Lula with the Red Dress” and sacred fare like “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Crowns of the collection include rough and tumble renderings of “My Babe” and “Granny, Will Your Dog Bite” with Strickland handling fife and Turner weaving an cardiac beat on kettle drum in tandem with R.L. Boyd’s bass variant. Obvious funereal aspects arise in this music, but the performances are also the celebratory soundtrack to community barbecues and picnics. It’s my educated guess that my grandma never heard these sounds, but I can’t help envisioning her smiling and dancing along if she had. They’ll be piping through the chapel speakers at my own send off if I have any say.

Posted by derek at 9:01 AM | Comments (9)

March 26, 2006

Martin Siewert/Martin Brandlmayr - Too Beautiful To Burn (Erstwhile)


Four days after the spring semester ends, I am taking a plane from New York to Amsterdam. From there I will catch a connecting flight to Johannesburg, and then a flight to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. The trip, including layovers, will take in excess of 30 hours. My stay in Namibia is going to last 28 days, and I’m going by myself.

As I think about how I am going to manage living by myself in a Third World country for one month (this will be my first trip to Africa, let alone Namibia), I try to focus on bringing things that will remind me of home: pictures of my family, yes, but mainly music. I don’t have an Ipod (and no, I’m not getting one anytime soon) so I have to strategize about which cds to bring. What are the really essential items in my collection? Many nominees come to mind, but this I know for certain: if I could only bring one disc, it would be this one, Too Beautiful To Burn, which I’ve compared in the past to Kind of Blue. But really, that isn’t a fair comparison. Too Beautiful To Burn is better.

For some reason, I remember very well the day that I bought this album. It was late May, 2004, during the Vision Fest in New York City. I didn’t go to the festival, but I did attend one of the hangs in lower Manhattan, where for the first time I met several people I had previously known only through online message boards, including Brian Olewnick, Jon Abbey, and Michael Schaumann. The only thing I remember about the conversation we had over our imported beers was a discussion of the outfit Cecil Taylor wore to Elvin Jones’s funeral, and also something about Boston Red Sox second baseman Mark Bellhorn.

As I got ready to leave, Jon, playing the role of a drug pusher to perfection, opened up his black duffel bag filled with cds, and asked me if I wanted to buy any. (I’m not sure if I have ever seen Jon without his duffel bag full of cds. I like to think that if I ever run across him in the supermarket or at the bakery, he’d have that duffel bag with him.) Anyway, he asked me if I wanted to buy Too Beautiful To Burn, which I had never heard of before. I was a bit dubious; up to that point I had only purchased two or three cds from Jon, and while I liked what I had heard, I recognized that the music he was pushing was a radical departure from everything else I listened to. I think I feared that the music would brainwash me to the point where all I would want to do with my life would be to sit in an empty room and stare at a blank wall, pondering the futility of all human activity. Of course, later on I discovered that this is pretty much what eai does to listeners, but it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. Anyway, I was unsure whether to get the disc, until Michael jumped in and said, “Yeah, get it. It’s fucking awesome.” So I did.

I went home and listened to it, and felt something I had never before experienced as a music listener. It wasn’t quite as profound as an epiphany, but nearly so. The music was like the sculpture of Apollo which prompted Rilke to conclude one of his poems with this stirring line: “You must change your life.” That is what this music was saying to me: You must change your life. You must think differently about music. Listening to the music for the first time, all categories dissolved. I didn’t care which musician was making which sounds, whether what I was hearing qualified as “electro-acoustic improvisation” or which portions of the disc were improvised and which the result of post-production editing. It didn’t matter. It still doesn’t.

I realize that I have made it this far into this piece and haven’t actually described any sounds on the disc. This is as it should be. The music is there to be heard, and it certainly doesn’t need any artificial elaboration from me. Rather what I have tried to focus on is the human dimension of my encounter with this music, the memories and feelings it evokes for me when I listen to it. That warmth, that vitality, is what the album conveys: on the first listen, the fiftieth, and the hundredth. It is not just another disc to be assessed with a one sentence review, another piece of plastic to be piled onto the heap of “good” or “great” releases that emerge every year to earn our praise. It is sui generis, too beautiful to burn, and too beautiful to pass over.

Posted by djones at 11:15 PM | Comments (8)

March 19, 2006

Willie Humphrey & Brian O’Connell - Two Clarinets on the Porch


The mentor and pupil relationship has been a musical staple since the first proto-sapiens struck wood on stone. In jazz, there exist innumerable albums where youthful students join aged teachers in celebrating the lineage they share, so it’s always a welcome occurrence when one stands out. At the time of this ’91 studio recording, thirty-year old O’Connell was sixty years Humphrey’s junior. Willie, brother to trumpeter Percy, was a peer to licorice stick legend George Lewis and a New Orleans mainstay since the Roaring Twenties. Banjo player Les Muscutt, bassist Frank Fields and drummer Ernie Elly serve as a revolving miniature bullpen and the generously sequenced disc features ensemble aggregations ranging from trio to quintet in size. There’s also a solo steel string guitar version of “Lover Come Back” that shows off Muscutt’s nimble arpeggiated fret play in fine fettle. All of the tunes originate from the august Crescent City songbook with renderings of “Stardust,” “Bourbon Street Parade” and “Little Liza Jane” winning my ears over as lively standouts. Humphrey wears his advanced years through sometimes slightly dodgy phrasing, but his jowly tone and infectious pep eclipse any chops troubles. He even finds inspiration to sing on a trio of tracks, most beguilingly on a droll rundown of the double entendre-driven “The Cabbage Song.” O’Connell quickly corners the distinction as the more technically adept of the duo. His seven numbers with only Fields and Muscutt in tow draw delightful parallels to Louis Cottrell’s Bourbon Street album for Riverside, both in terms of basic instrumentation and temperament. I’m sucker for this sort of chamber style Dixieland and this is as agreeable an example of the custom as I’ve yet come across. The titular porch may only be figurative, but the dulcifying vibe of a laidback afternoon hang amongst congenial compadres comes across loud and clear.

Posted by derek at 8:39 AM | Comments (0)

March 11, 2006

Charles Mingus - Let My Children Hear Music (Columbia)

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In addition to being one of my favorite bassists and composers, Charles Mingus is also one of my favorite vocalists. Of course, I use that term very broadly, to refer to any and all sounds created by his voice—from his celebrated grunts, yelps and hollers to the poetry that embellished a few of his albums, including this Columbia recording from 1972. “The Chill of Death” is not a great poem—it was written when Mingus was still a young man and on the page it reads like a third rate version of Poe or Frost—but the manner in which the graying Mingus delivers it is indeed extraordinary. At times his voice, deep and resonant, thick as gravel, trembles in a way that somehow manages to convey both strength and vulnerability, wisdom and uncertainty, fitting combinations for its Whitmanesque composer. Though he went on to make other recordings, I always like to think of this as Mingus’s epitaph.

Posted by djones at 8:39 PM | Comments (35)

March 5, 2006

Various – Sacred Steel: Traditional Sacred African-American Steel Guitar Music in Florida (Arhoolie)


I’m not a religious person; as a lapsed Presbyterian, the noncommittal crown of the agnostic now sits snugly around my forehead. Even so, sacred music remains one of my chief sources of aural pleasure. From predictable purveyors like Mahalia Jackson and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, to the darker Old Testament tributaries traveled by Blind Willie Johnson and Reverend Utah Smith, my ears are always open to sounds touched by theistic hands even if I’m not always on board with the sentiments underlying them. Such is the case with this collection from Arhoolie, the first of label’s forays into documenting sacred lap steel music and an excellent cross-section of some of the more talented movers & shakers on the instrument. The program breaks conveniently into two halves with the first covering a selection of instrumentals and concert segments by three distinct Floridian stylists: Sonny Treadway, Glenn Lee and Willie Eason. Part Two focuses on samples culled from live congregational services again featuring the work of Treadway along with selections from Henry Nelson and Aubrey Ghent. The songs are mostly public domain spirituals with only Eason represented by original material. Most cuts feature a minimum of drums accompaniment with a fair number also featuring small bands in support of the guitarists. Sterling slide work stays front and center and ranges from the polished tonal vacillations of Treadway on tracks like “At the Cross” to more openly ebullient stylings of Lee who slips in some shaggy blues licks along with the more sectarian riffs. My favorite of the cache are the solo numbers by Eason whose limpid crying tone, hotly amplified lines and unvarnished vocals remind me of a mellowed out and more pious Hop Wilson. As usual with an Arhoolie release, accompanying notes and photos are generous. Chris Strachwitz parlayed the success of the disc into an entire niche for his label’s catalog, though the stream of releases seems to have stoppered for the time being. This is a choice place to drink freely during the dry spell.

Posted by derek at 8:30 AM | Comments (0)

February 25, 2006

Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra - When Angels Speak of Love (Evidence)


“A race needs clowns. In earlier days people knew that. Kings always had a court jester around. In that way he was always reminded how ridiculous things are. I believe that nations too should have jesters, in the congress, near the president, everywhere…You could call me the jester of the Creator. The whole world, all the disease and misery, it’s all ridiculous.”

Though it remains an important part of his legacy, in many ways Sun Ra’s outrageous persona, his personal mythology and bizarre Astro-Afro-Egyptian equations, have clouded our appreciation of his contribution to American music in the twentieth century. Indeed, when one considers his early experimentation with electronics and recording effects, his technical adroitness at the piano, his brilliant ensemble writing, and his fluency in multiple musical languages—from swing to free jazz and beyond—Ra suddenly looms very large in the musical pantheon. This opinion, developed over the past few years as I have taken a crash course in Ra’s life and music, seems all the more justified after listening again to When Angels Speak of Love, originally released on Ra’s Saturn label in 1966, and reissued in 2000 on Evidence.

Though not usually the first Ra album to be name-checked when listing his greatest works, When Angels Speak of Love remains my favorite, at least of the titles that have made it to compact disc. The genius of this music lies in the way it was recorded. The liner notes to the Evidence reissue tell us that Thomas “Bugs” Hunter, a percussionist in the Arkestra, created the album’s distinctive electronic echo by (accidentally?) connecting the reel-to-reel tape recorder’s output to its input. As John Corbett writes, “By plugging a live microphone into the other input and controlling the output level, Hunter was able to create an interactive signal processing unit, turning the tape recorder into a crude effects box that he ‘played’ while the band was also playing.”

This process was used on other Arkestra albums, but it works to greatest effect here, where the relatively (by Arkestra standards) minimalist orchestration takes on an other-worldly quality. Separated from the performance by two layers of technology (the actual recording and the reverb), the listener is placed into a disjointed sound world that seems to echo from the distant past, submerged in the off-center accompaniment of Ra’s piano and the distant beat of Clifford Jarvis’s drums. Yet at certain moments, the past pushes insistently into the present, through Walter Miller’s haunting trumpet or Marshall Allen’s frenzied saxophone. To put the experience in Ra’s cosmology, it is almost like excavating a rare artifact from ancient Nubia, and after removing the sand and dust, discovering that the object in your hands is actually an issue of the 1950s comic book The Crypt of Terror. From Piankhy to William Gaines, the universe of Sun Ra enveloped the past and the future, the majestic and the vulgar.

Posted by djones at 8:39 PM | Comments (77)

February 19, 2006

Frank Lowe - Vision Blue (CIMP)


I’ve been missing Frank Lowe a lot lately. The condition comes and goes. But when the pangs pop up I reach for and spin this CIMP date the most. It’s not his best album and there are some connoisseurs of his catalog who actually might rate it rather low, especially when stacked beside his earlier efforts on Soul Note and Black Saint. For me though it’s a near perfect prospectus illustrating his approach to improvisation, deep understanding of jazz, and the strong humanist appeal of both. The presence of sixteen tracks makes the promise of extended improvisatory flights rather slight. Instead, Lowe and his colleagues Steve Neil and Anders Griffen focus on paring each tune down to its skeletal constituents and rebuilding up from there. Lowe had insatiable ears and the diversity of material here is another instantly endearing feature. In addition to a nice clutch of originals he stacks the deck with canny selections from the songbooks of Rollins, Coleman, McLean and even Percy Mayfield. His version of “Alfie’s Theme” is emblematic of the trio’s collective economy. Lowe slinks through the Rollins-cum-Mancini theme, lacing his phrasings with grainy rasps as Griffin’s clipped cymbals and Neil’s sedulous bass keep loose burlesque rhythm. “Softly As in a Morning Sunrise” sounds echoes of Rollins’ seminal Vanguard version while “Little Melonae” distills to its JacMac cerulean essence. Lowe’s latter-day porous tone and wounded articulation, two attributes that could be considered liabilities in lesser hands, are in full effect and add immeasurably to the performances. He’s like a post-loft jazz Paul Gonsalves and the arid Spirit Room fidelity furthers the comparison. On the originals front there’s a pithy, but unhurriedly swinging take on “Addiction Ain’t Fiction” and a funky rundown of “Lowe-ology” buttressed by Griffen drum solo that nods meaningfully to the memory of Lowe confrere Charles Moffett. All that’s missing is an epigrammatic rendering of “Nothin’ But Love.” Some of the tracks are near high wire acts, with Lowe slipping on occasion, but always catching his footing before a fall. That supple and subtle testing of slowly-fermenting personal capabilities reminds me of twilight Lester Young and it makes me miss him all the more.

Posted by derek at 7:16 AM | Comments (9)

February 12, 2006

Andrew Hill - Smoke Stack (Blue Note)


I have always had a strange relationship with the 1960s recordings of Andrew Hill. After discovering him through the indispensable Penguin Guide to Jazz three years ago, I have picked up every Hill session in print, beginning with the highly-regarded Point of Departure and continuing through Smoke Stack, a December 1963 session reissued as a Rudy Van Gelder edition last week. Oddly enough, considering that I keep buying his stuff, I have been almost uniformly disappointed by every release. With each album, I sense that I am supposed to think this music is good, but find myself underwhelmed all the same. And yet I keep digging into the catalog, perhaps more out of habit than anything else.

Reading through the liner notes and listening to the albums again over the past couple of weeks, a common theme emerges: in its attempt to sell Hill’s music in the increasingly-narrow jazz market of the 1960s, Blue Note sought to portray Hill as, above all else, a musical problem-solver, daring enough to push against the boundaries of the jazz idiom, but yet sufficiently respectful of the music’s tradition to remain within that framework. Listening to those sixties Hill sessions again through this prism, my troubles with Hill’s work became clearer. Too many of his compositions feel like academic exercises rather than artistic statements (if one can even draw a distinction between the two!) It was almost as if Hill set out to write a piece of music in order to prove that he could, for instance, write a 50-bar tune that maintained some semblance of a cohesive structure. Complexity became the central purpose of Hill’s art; his ideas became more impressive precisely because they were so convoluted.

Yet with Smoke Stack, something causes me to pause at these over-generalizations. With a two-bass lineup of Richard Davis and Eddie Khan, the music on this date attains an unusual thickness, a propulsive density that seems to force Hill to make his playing more declarative and insistent. With Khan playing a supporting role, Davis is also free to push his music into more melodic terrain. His bowed work on “Wailing Wail” provides the album with its most moving performance, and is part of what makes Smoke Stack the finest Hill session of the 1960s.

Posted by djones at 5:40 PM | Comments (35)

February 5, 2006

Carlos Montoya - Flamenco! (Tradition)


Segovia on speed: that’s how a friend of mine described Carlos Montoya when I spun this disc in her presence several years ago. It’s a clever cache phrase, and both men did share the lifelong goal of taking the guitar to new places. But ultimately it’s not an entirely fair comparison considering Montoya’s skills were audaciously subservient to his desire to astound audiences. By most accounts he was foremost a shamelessly populist performer at heart. He used revered flamenco conventions to create a personal and frequently peacockish solo improvisatory style. His modifications attached lots of flamboyant flash to the gypsy idiom, pioneering tactics that served as the primary source of the combustive connotations so often ascribed to it today. In predictable fashion classical purists balked at the revisions, denouncing them as catchpenny parodies and affronts. But Montoya’s music found a global audience just the same. The difficult-to-date pieces in this Tradition collection are loaded with blindingly fast displays of dexterity. Ripping legato strums slice away at acoustic strings, no doubt taking a fair share of underlying body lacquer with them, on tracks like the boisterous “Bulerias” where unidentified voices join clapping hands and stomping feet in supplying rhythmic punctuations. It’s a performance that would likely leave most deified thrash metal guitarists awestruck with fingers bleeding after attempts at following suit. Elsewhere callus-cracking single string tremolos contribute to delicate webs of gilded melody as on the haunting ballad “Granadinas.” Montoya unequivocally had chops and they’re on exhaustive display here, but his music is best digested in small parcels as his ferocity tends to fray the senses over the long haul. When I’m in the right mood this music is like a caffeine-saturated cup of gourmet Iberian coffee, perfect for clearing mental cobwebs and tapping sleeping toes awake.

Posted by derek at 9:30 AM | Comments (7)

January 29, 2006

Cat Stevens - Gold (A&M)


Any consumer afflicted with the addiction of music acquisition is sure to have a checklist of quests in various stages of completion. Mine own are myriad, but one recently came to a satisfying close several weeks ago when I forked over bills for a copy of this collection. I’ve been hunting, rather lackadaisically, for years for a budget priced comp that covers all of my Cat Stevens bases and needs. The pricey box set On the Road to Find Out offers overkill. Single discs like the antiquated Greatest Hits and the more recent The Very Best of… and Remember: The Ultimate Collection don’t hold enough. And it’s strange to think that a musician as vilified as Stevens was after his admittedly dunder-headed comments surrounding the fatwa against Salman Rushdie has seen so many retrospective projects in the wake of the transgression. For me, the biggest boon of Gold is the inclusion of the full “Foreigner Suite,” all 18+ minutes worth of the experimental pop salmagundi that sounds like Headhunters, John Williams, Davids Axelrod & Shire, Henry Mancini, Lalo Schifrin and a dozen other eclectic referents tossed together into a blender, set to frappe & filtered through a wall of vintage keyboard consoles. The predictable hits are here too, like the stripped down “Father And Son,” a strikingly effective encapsulation of the generation gap that still resonates with me today when I reflect on my own strained relationship with my dad growing up. Signature pieces like “Peace Train,” “Wild World” and “Where Do the Children Play?” alternate with b-sides like the fast-rocking rhythm feast “Bitterblue” and “Angelsea,” which sounds like Cat fused with Rush circa “Closer to the Heart,” bright acoustic strums strung with swelling drone keyboards and phantasmagorical lyrics. At the center of nearly all the tracks lies the vibrant and creative song craft, so often cached in highly potable pop folk forms. Spinning these discs in the car the rush of nostalgia is face-flushingly potent, prepubescent memories of cruising the freeway with my folks in their purple Ford van, the miles peeling by to the strains of Stevens’ passionate sentiments and songs.

Posted by derek at 3:25 PM | Comments (54)

January 22, 2006

Taku Sugimoto Guitar Quartet (Bottrop-Boy)

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For me, the most interesting performance from last year’s Erstquake festival (or at least, the most interesting performance during the two nights I attended), was also among the most maligned in many post-fest write-ups of the event. If I could summarize the criticism of the meeting between Keith Rowe and Julien Ottavi, it would be that Rowe and Ottavi fiddled around with their radios for awhile, predictably fishing up reports of the war in Iraq and the devastation in the Gulf Coast before surrendering the performance when Ottavi snagged a string quartet from the airwaves and the duo walked off stage, the quartet still playing on Julien’s radio.

All this is more or less accurate, but for me what made the performance was what happened next. The lights came on, and for a few moments the audience seemed unsure of what to do. When does the performance end? The performers had taken their seats among the audience, and for just a few moments, sat as they did, hunched over, quietly listening to the radio signal. Then, it began to unravel. A few people started clapping, and soon the whole room was applauding. Since this was the last performance of the evening, people began to stir about the room, chatting with each other and generally packing up their things to head home. I remained seated, however, still bending my ear toward Ottavi’s radio, which was still playing the music from the string quartet. Gradually, the people moving about the room disrupted the radio signal, and the quartet performance became submerged in static. A few minutes later, the radio was turned off. Walking back to the hotel that night, it occurred to me that the audience, rather than the musicians, had ended the performance. By walking off the stage while the radio was still playing, Rowe and Ottavi had effectively handed the car keys over to the audience, which became a third participant, deciding when to officially end the proceedings. Theoretically, the performance could have continued indefinitely, with a room full of people quietly listening to the radio still playing in the center of the small stage.

Which circuitously brings me to this recording, Taku Sugimoto Guitar Quartet, released on the German label Bottrop-Boy in 2003. For those familiar with Sugimoto’s work over the past few years, there is really nothing surprising about this music. Like its neighbors in the Sugimoto discography, TSGQ explores the infinite space between 1 and 0, placing smaller and smaller fractions of music within longer and longer periods of inactivity. A guitar note is played, it hangs in the air for a moment, then dies away. A few minutes pass. Another note is played. More time passes. Another note. And so forth, for 60 minutes or so.

Given this somewhat repetitious minimalism, what has distinguished each Sugimoto recording is not what happens when Sugimoto (or in the case of TSGQ, the other three musicians accompanying him) plays, but what happens when he doesn’t play. There is the rainstorm from Live in Australia, the distant mechanical hum of passing cars in appel, and in this recording, digital silence cloaking the slightest movements of bodies, inhaling and exhaling, shifting in their chairs. In each of these live performances, the degree of unintended ambient noise that we hear in the recording is determined not just by Sugimoto’s reticence, but also by the audience’s willingness to match it. After all, when Sugimoto doesn’t play his guitar, why should the audience remain quiet? Because they are gripped by the tension building between each note? Because they are bored out of their minds? Regardless of their reasons, the audience has become Sugimoto’s most important collaborator, entering and shaping each performance in utterly unique ways. In this sense, Sugimoto’s work could be rightly viewed—perhaps paradoxically—as among the most democratic and participatory in improvised music today. And like the Rowe/Ottavi performance at Erstquake, in many cases the audience may be collaborating in the performance without even realizing it, unaware that the line between performer and listener is slowly dissolving, the musician’s restraint a reflection not just of an evolving set of aesthetic principles, but also a mirror aimed at the small crowd of devotees who have assembled around them, hanging on their every gesture.

David Jones

Posted by djones at 9:48 AM | Comments (6)

January 15, 2006

Johnny “Hammond” Smith - That Good Feelin’ (Prestige)


Saddled with a name that’s about as generic as they come organist Johnny “Hammond” Smith also had the added baggage of sharing a surname with the reigning emperor of his chosen instrument. Jimmy Smith was the undisputed king when the pair of records on this Prestige two-fer were taped at Van Gelder studio. But his rule fortunately left of room for plenty of peers to share in the popularity. Further suggesting superficial ties to Jimmy, Thornel Schwartz, a Smith alum, handles guitar and second chair soloist duties. Drummer Leo Stevens and bassist George Tucker complete the laidback Harlem lounge-style ensemble. Smith skates easily and expressively through 14 tracks calculated to mirror a handful of his typical club sets. It’s all fairly predictable to any connoisseur of the idiom, but also laden with numerous groove-suffused moments and capacious amounts of “soul” in a down home, unaffected sense. Standards like “ Secret Love” and Bye Bye Blackbird” alternate with vamp-rooted blues numbers to create an overarching mood of imperturbable agreeability. Schwartz’s loose-gaited single note improvisations bookend a seven-minute stroll through an original blues “Easy Like.” Tucker’s solos are exceedingly spare and Stevens hides shyly behind his hi-hat much of the time. But Smith’s the star after all and capitalizes on earned latitude to explore virtually every setting on his console at one point or another. His numerous experiments include a crazy take on “I’ll Remember April” that sounds like he’s filtering his strings of notes through a cheap Casio attachment. Prestige was something of an assembly line for these sorts of sessions in the late 50s and early 60s -Smith cut nearly two dozen himself between 1956 and 1971- but as organ dates go these two early Smith sides are rich in charm and replay value.

Posted by derek at 10:35 AM | Comments (0)

January 8, 2006

Trio Matamoros - Los Exitos Originales (Ansonia)


Here’s another one of those fortunate finds. You know the kind. Those conveniently forgotten platters tucked away amongst stacks of dross in the bargain used bins of a local record shop, procurable for the pittance of a single dollar bill. The cover, a high contrast photo of what looks like a historic Havana plaza lifted from an old 50s postcard, caught my eye along with the Ansonia label and the typed assurance of: “Long Playing High Fidelity”. Trio Matamoros, led by one Miguel M. whose surname serves as band moniker and whose composerly skill yields 11 of the 14 tunes was formed in Santiago de Cuba on May 8, 1925. This album comes from almost a quarter century and countless gigs later. Some quick Googling reveals Miguel’s cachet as one of the most talented Cuban son and bolero composers of the 20th century, second only to Ernesto Lecuona in the estimation of many. Here he occupies the first guitar chair and handles lead vocals with Rafael Cueto on second guitar and Ciro Rodriguez lending colorful accents with clave and maracas. A string bassist and a conga player are also present on most cuts, though openly solving the mystery of their identities would no doubt have weakened the trio mystique. Songs like the percolating “Mientes” and “Oye Mi Conga” mix lilting guitar chords, sturdy hand percussion beats and distinctive folk-informed vocal harmonies in an insouciant mien that recalls the colloquial appeal of a rural cantina combo. A sultry “Guajira Ven A Gozar” amplifies the heat with a syncopated son rhythm and more filigree fretwork as voices recount a tale of amorous woe in rondo fashion. Over the holiday I burned this disc to my portable Muvo player and listened to it on long jogs in the desert. It proved an optimal soundtrack supplement to the cloudless cyan skies and red-rock topography of the Western Tucson foothills- sunburns be damned. Now that the wave of the Buena Vista Social Club craze has largely broken on the reef of consumer capriciousness, the time seems opportune for a Matamoros renaissance. I’m just happy to have found my own taste in the most unexpected of places.

Posted by derek at 2:31 PM | Comments (0)

January 1, 2006

Ankle to Nose (AMF Music)


It's pretty absurd I didn't come across this 1994 release until recently, because it's nearly as great as the best works of Doctor Nerve and possibly one of the three or four best albums in Nick Didkovsky's oeuvre. A trio with avant-garde superhero Kevin Norton and saxophonist Gitta Schäfer, this lean, stripped-down format brings Didkovsky's electric guitar genius into the foreground where it can be savored with less distractions. Didkovsky's singular talent and concept for the instrument is something like a mix of Jimi Hendrix, Milton Babbitt, Fred Frith, metal, and fusion. Compared to his disappointing (but still wonderful) power trio guitar feast from 2003 under the Bone moniker with Hugh Hopper and John Roulat, this sole release by the Ankle to Nose trio captures Didkovsky as a player in a real-time ensemble more than a multi-track-happy studio craftsperson and composer, with corresponding rewards in space, clarity, and rhythmic breathing. Particularly on "Laubgesänge", the open bass-less trio sound occasionally hits the magical post-jazz territory of Dave Douglas' Tiny Bell Trio, A.D.D. [Arguelles/Dick/Doran] Trio, A.B.D [Anderson/Bennink/Doran] Trio, Lucas Niggli's Zoom, etc.

Curiously, the compositional work is assumed by Schäfer more than the other two, yet Didkovsky's characteristic aesthetic of jagged and interlocking parts permeates the entire disc. The opening cut, Schäfer's "Belated Woman", has the herkyjerky feeling of vintage Doctor Nerve, Kombinat M, Chainsaw Jazz, Blast, and Il Berlione. Didkovsky's sole extended composition on the disc, "Eyes Bigger Than Her Forehead", is unsurprisingly even closer the Nerve template, with a bit of the metal riffing he brought to the forefront in the Doctor Nerve album recorded around the same time as this, Skin. As much as I have heartily enjoyed Skin from the day it was released, in my view it was the beginning of a mild downward trend for the band in which their pioneering rhythmic concepts lost their frenzied vigor and visceral punch, perhaps something of a post-punk edge in the early Nerve albums that makes me want to flail my limbs with spastic abandon. Ankle to Nose definitely doesn't have this edge either, but I like this disc more than Skin because it has more detail and nuance in the timbres and rhythms, especially on the eight great free improv miniatures (12 to 80 seconds) sprinkled throughout.

Kevin Norton's playing is what really pushes this one to the level of a high-rotation album for me. Even in his jazz and post-jazz projects he's fond of angular and precise rhythms, so he's absolutely perfect for this batch of compositions, where his advanced control of timbral and dynamic details can elevate the simple jagged groove passages. The disc has one nugget of blissful aggression, the 99-second "The Ballad of Dean Melberg", with ripping avant-shred from Didkovsky and a rare example of Norton playing something like blastbeats! Norton contributes a single composition to the program, the 7-minute "Uncommon Sense", in which he foregoes his drumkit to focus on tuned percussion. The piece splits its rhythmic backbone between Norton and Didkovsky and slowly evolves through loop structures, reaching only a few brief, sublime moments of intensity. Highlighted by Didkovsky's intricate riff patterns and understated distorted tone, this fabulous piece would sound perfect on a Bang on a Can album.

Schäfer writes some clever and exciting pieces and kills on alto sax in the vein of Urs Leimgruber. Who is this person? And why hasn't this perfectly matched and deeply inspired trio made another album in the 11.5 years since this self-titled debut was recorded?

~Michael Anton Parker

Posted by maparker at 6:31 AM | Comments (0)

December 25, 2005

Lee Konitz & Warne Marsh – London Concert (Wave)


[The sorrowful news of Derek Bailey’s passing should alone warrant a platter by the plectrist holding this spot. Alas, I’m at my parents' place for the holidays and didn’t pack any of his catalog for the trip. Since I don’t feel comfortable attempting to do any album justice solely from memory, it’ll have to fall to someone else to handle the eulogistic duties elsewhere on-site & I sure hope someone does.]

Considering their common Tristanoite origins, clambakes between Konitz and Marsh were comparatively rare over the course of their careers. On occasions when their schedules did overlap the outcome was certain to yield memorable musical repartee and synergy. The mid-70s represents an especially prosperous time for recordings by the pair. This archival set released on Peter Ind’s Wave imprint dates from a stretch when several European tours were organized in succession. It’s basically a straight reissue of the original LP with no material added, but what’s here is relaxing and exhilarating in equal measure. Ind and drummer Al Levitt, mostly on brushes, cloak the horns in a transparent halo of supple, responsive rhythm, one that fits snugly, but never stifles or constricts. Proof of shared improvisatory bravado, the principals also repeatedly jettison the support for brief spells, braiding helium-light lines in acapella tandem on pieces like the jovial Bach fragment “Invention in a Minor.” The majority of other pieces resolve through lithe improvisations based on basic chord progressions of denuded standards like “It’s You or No One” and “All the Things You Are”- the general preferred diet of both saxophonists, Marsh’s palate in particular. Each man sits out on a tune apiece, leaving his colleague to coast and cavort in the company of the rhythm section alone. Konitz tackles “You Go to My Head,” his wistful gauzy tone voicing a lilting extemporization built on lucent legato phrases. Warne’s ingenious reading of “Easy Livin’,” rendered under similar conditions in a mere (4:24), arrives as a high point amongst already skyscraping peaks. Conventional wisdom argues the apogee of Konitz/Marsh encounters as being the now out of print 3-disc Storyville set preserving their meeting at Montmarte in 1975. I wouldn’t know as I haven’t heard it! So at the risk of revealing the true reasoning behind this ROW & in the spirit of St. Nick, is there anybody out there who might be able to help a fellow music maven out & burn them for me? I’ve got an extra copy of this disc that I’d be more than happy to offer up in exchange.

Posted by derek at 7:47 PM | Comments (2)

December 17, 2005

Joachim Kühn / Mark Nauseef / Tony Newton / Miroslav Tadic - Let's Be Generous (CMP)


This 1991 release is a pinnacle of avant-fusion and most of the credit goes to Joachim Kühn's gloriously raw and distorted electronic keyboard sound. As a guitarist, it's hardly surprising that Miroslav Tadic would summon prototypes of ecstatic electric music like Jimi Hendrix and Allan Holdsworth, but for a musician best known as a pianist, and occasionally a rather bland one, it's a real shock to hear the same prototypes summoned by keyboards. The timbres don't overlap with Mike Ratledge's mythical playing in The Soft Machine, but the intensity and dirty analog feeling are comparable, a rare achievement to say the least. The combination of Tadic and Kühn equally assaulting a bevy of warm jazz melodies and harmonies with slurred, fuzzed, blistering fury is a feast unlike any others I can cite. It's easy to hear the similarities to the heavy guitar attack of stuff from the same rough time frame like Ronald Shannon Jackson's fantastic Red Warrior, Sonny Sharrock's uneven rock-oriented platters, and the Christy Doran / Stephan Wittwer collaboration Red Twist and Tuned Arrow, but even as he explores sonic territory typical of electric guitar Kühn's sound here is so distinct from any guitar sound that his blend with Tadic is a singular wonder.

If you put this amazing blend on top of a hot rhythm section playing typical fusion pulses and grooves, you'd likely get a masterpiece. Instead of this, electric bass guitarist Tony Newton and drumkitter Mark Nauseef did something slightly better: they deconstructed fusion rhythms into multidirectional, unpredictable, unstable motion. In the same sense we often speak of free bop, this music is a perfect example of free fusion. Newton and Nauseef's playing is almost as adventurous and intriguing as Tadic and Kühn's, and the conventional bipartite structure of rhythm section and lead instruments often collapses so that the entire quartet becomes a rhythm section and Newton often deals with pitch material as much as the guitar and keyboards. A great example of Newton's virtuosity and flexibility is the three-way interlocking geometric phrases in "Don't Disturb My Groove", but Kühn probably deserves even more credit for this passage as the composer. He's clearly the conceptual engine behind the project; almost all of the original material on the album is composed by him and the three very short pieces from the other three musicians' pens are interludes that serve the album only by way of contrast to its main stylistic thrust.

Newton's bass guitar also occasionally gets almost as dirty and wanton as the guitar and keyboards. One of his best moments is the ingenious subterrenean locomotive growl-riff-chugging he does towards the end of "Heavy Hanging", elevating an already fascinating passage that trades the quartet's signature gourmet skronk for a fairly sparse passage of clever, uncliched call-and-response interplay without any idiomatic references to jazz, rock, or fusion, including some great clean, jagged, spiky guitar lines from Tadic. The album is nearly as impressive for its compositional cleverness as for its bristling raw energy and rare timbral blends.

This disc can put a gut out of commission right from the gate with ten minutes of mind-blowing avant-shred to the tune of Dolphy's "The Prophet". The only version I know of this piece is the loquacious reading on the 1961 Five Spot set. Curiously, there's yet another Dolphy cover on the program, a take on the post-"Hat and Beard" chill-out "Something Sweet, Something Tender", short at only 3 minutes. The core melody is there, but it's hardly recognizable otherwise. And not just because of the dirty electric sounds, but in terms of the entire arrangement. Newton and Nauseef take a pretty generic constant-activity approach in contrast to the measured and brief pizzicato episodes of Richard Davis that magically offset the floating harmonies in the original. Unexpectedly, the intrigue of this liberal variation on "Something Sweet" has little to do with Dolphy and presents a strange connection to a certain musician that lurks right below the surface of this music for much more obvious reasons. I find Tadic and Kühn's flowing long lines in the piece to be incredibly similar to Allan Holdsworth in their specific harmonic content, and it becomes for me a tantalizing glimpse into the post-bop jazz sources of Holdsworth's music that are often obscured by his timbral and phrasal innovations.

A strange connection, but it's downright uncanny to consider Newton's history. In fact, I know nothing of Newton aside from this album and his work on the two albums by The New Tony Williams Lifetime where he lent a warm subtle funk-tinged muscle to some peak excursions by none other than Allan Holdsworth. 1975's Believe It is one of the landmarks in fusion history, foreshadowing numerous developments in the next decade and holding up damn well 20 years later. 1976's Million Dollar Legs holds up quite well too in its peak moments (e.g. the explosive ending track "Inspirations of Love"), but of course suffers from a few throwaway cuts and greater concessions to the commercial funk fusion zeitgeist. Williams' supple, loose heaviness was just the icing on the cake of memorable melodies and warm, round, legato heaviness, though Alan Pasquale's electric piano work in that group sure seems timid and merely functional if we're thinking about Kühn's scorchery here. The unforgettable melody of "Snake Oil" that leads off the 1975 classic is taken for a 81-second ride here, surely with light-hearted intentions as Nauseef spits out some fucked up electronics and digital drum sounds into the slashing splatters that overlay the repeated catchy core melody. It bears observing that the overdriven dirty sound of the disc is actually closer to the original McLaughlin/Young version of Lifetime, while at the same time Newton's bass guitar is firmly planted in the Believe It-->One of a Kind-->Brand X-->Atavachron-->Tribal Tech-->etc continuum and Tadic's guitar playing owes much more to Holdsworth, not to mention Starless and Red era King Crimson (an aspect of the Tadic/Nauseef synergy best heard on Dark's Tamna Voda, an album as mind-blowing and intense as the present one), than to McLaughlin. For my tastes, any combination of all these fusion building blocks is bound to be bountiful.

I found this rather strange remark about the album buried in a Kühn bio page during my googling for this review: "Here, combining the influences of Béla Bartók, Eric Dolphy, Jimi Hendrix, Captain Beefheart, and Tony Williams' Lifetime, he set new standards for a contemporary and distinctively European blend of concert music, rock, and jazz." Sure, there are two Dolphy covers, fair enough, though they sound almost nothing like Dolphy save for the lifted harmonies. The Hendrix and Lifetime bits are pretty obvious, but I don't get the Bartok and Beefheart references. Maybe it's just that I take for granted the sort of great, asymmetrical Drumboing around Nauseef dabbles in here. But I thought it would be fun to share this quote if only for amusement value. "distinctively European"??? Whoa, where did that come from? A bizarre nonsequitur if I've ever seen one. The world could get along quite well without nonsensical PR blather like this. At the least the author has great taste in music.

The Bill Bruford flavorings of Nauseef's playing here is almost too obvious to mention, and somehow it's not suprising to see a quote on the Nauseef/Tadic joint website from Bruford (1991 interview in the Wire) praising it. I recommend visiting that page if you don't have this album, because there are three sound clips you can weigh against my present gushing. They also quote Henry Kaiser's effusive praise, and with his well-documented love for electric Miles, it definitely makes a lot of sense that he was blown away by this album. After all, major rhythmic differences aside, that is the most obvious dirty avant-fusion this album owes a major debt to and I think this album would be as likely to thrill an electric Miles fan as a King Crimson fan or a fan of the more creative strains of 90s fusion like Scott McGills' Hand Farm, Attention Deficit, etc.

CMP has an impressive and singular legacy, but I can't think of another CMP release (not counting the priceless ethnomusicological stuff) that has stung me this hard. Bill Milkowski's nice historical overview of the label suggests I'm not the only one accounting this album in a special category.

~Michael Anton Parker

Posted by maparker at 6:26 AM | Comments (0)

December 11, 2005

Franco Battiato - Pollution + Fetus (Bla Bla)


Like a woozy greco-roman art-deco sun-marine destroyer, "Pollution" is the revolution in sound abounding like a cantankerous cacophonic cloud surrounding the shrouding pale. Franco Battiato's first two masterfully pieced-together reliefs give more respite and resolve than any reconstituted weed or leaf between your gritting teeth. This is and was evermore shall beast. It beat and bleat and breathe avant-garde idiomatically auto-didactically entrenched inestimably on electronic stifled sullen proclamation. In rough-hewn dedication to breaking fashions and hodge-podging his own meshed sonic clothing exterior marked refuting to be sparked by nothing less than cyan matter not no god art alive, striving writhing googolplex cortex brain matter splatter jumble yaya across the plains rebuffing sage and subtly sprayed with the age of 'future we upon us,' this classic from the early year of 1972 and paired up toddy-boo with it's predecessor "Fetus" stressing and genuflecting before this newly constructed shrine spine supper sublime. These are two distinct and spectacularly brilliant albums shining brightly to the foreground of the mind's eye imagination-speak. It is simply no wonder that they are still aeons ahead of their time. He and those works are a haze pathogen to the very core and crux of the creative lifeforce itself - nevermores and wheretofores will undoubtedly not be able to be refracted sharply enough from the stuff of alien threshing heaving the chest, rings the navigation incessant, blessing the present most pleasant.


Posted by cesar at 6:21 PM | Comments (0)

December 4, 2005

Louisiana Red – Sittin’ Here Wonderin’ (Earwig)


There’s a particular scene from the too-little-seen The Woman Chaser, a film based on Charles Willeford’s pulp novel of the same name, that periodically pops into my head. In it the story’s protagonist, a sociopathic used car salesman turned movie director, hires a young blues guitarist to score his fledgling film. His one directive: “I want you to play as loud & mean as you can.” I’m always on safari for this sort of thing- music played by guys (and occasionally, gals) who take the Modern label sides of John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins as their templates for frying fuses and blowing amps, tone and attitude trumping finesse and technique. Luckily there are many that fit the bill, from pioneers like Hop Wilson and Slim Green to more recent purveyors represented by much of the Fat Possum roster. Louisiana Red also belongs among the anointed and this album from ’82 originally waxed for the B.O.B. label revels in a stripped-down, speaker-imploding sound. Red plugs in and unceremoniously plays eleven tracks, sometimes pausing for anecdotal asides, but generally sticking to the task of keeping the needles angled well into the red. The slashing opener “E Street Bridge” sets the bar for intensity, a single excoriating chord scalding the mics with acidic electricity. Crank the volume dial and the effect cements into an all-enveloping auditory ring. Red’s vocals aren’t particularly fetching or inspired, scarred by the dual pipes-eroding agents of liquor and cigarettes, but they do the trick. Besides it’s the tone and feel that matters most here. “Sadie Lee” and “Back Door Friend” are all broken glass strums and barbwire string shredding, millionth-something missives aimed at enterprising two-timing women. Thankfully, Red reels back the ugly misogyny that pollutes some of his earlier work (see his tune “First Degree” on the Tomato label for a bitter taste of that fetid fruit) and turns in a tight little record, heavy on jangling primitive riffs and free of the feel-good sentiments that pass for the blues in friendlier, less socially-crippled circles.

Posted by derek at 2:58 PM | Comments (0)

November 27, 2005

Doctor Umezu Band - Eight Eyes and Eight Ears (ITM)


Out of the many records cut by the Doctor Umezu Band during the 80s, this 1985 session released by the German label ITM is the only one I've come across. If this discography (Japanese only) is accurate, it's their sixth album, so I can only wonder how their music developed. In any case, it's a wonderful early slice of the soulful and vibrant sound Kazutoki Umezu has continued to mine for the past twenty years and it marks the period when he first came into contact with the thriving post-jazz underground in Manhattan, then in the peak phase of the celebrated "downtown scene". Umezu would go on to collaborate extensively with downtown folks, making the trek over from Tokyo often enough to become a familiar presence at the Knitting Factory and releasing a handful of notable records, highlighted by 1987's Abandon in duo with cellist Tom Cora and the 1992 masterpiece Eclecticism, possibly the finest hour for both Umezu (not counting Omedeto) and guitarist Marc Ribot (sitting right alongside his monstrous Rootless Cosmopolitans) and one of the truly essential documents of that era that captures a prototypical downtown synthesis of post-Ayler jazz, rock, swing, blues, surf, and funk.

Eight Eyes and Eight Ears is an unmistakably dated album; Takeharu Hayakawa's electric bass guitar and Takashi Kikuchi's drumkit never stray from the sort of lockstep stiff funk grooves that ruined countless albums in the 1980s as the human race suffered through the growing pains of drum machine technology. I generally can't abide that slick, mechanical rhythmicality, but I count this disc as an example of how great music can be made within any aesthetic framework, no matter how depraved. I won't go so far as saying these grooves actually breathe (to hear that achieved in the most profound way within the same rhythmic zeitgeist, look no further than Bill Connors' timeless work from the same period), but they do move in all the right directions to enhance the explosive joyfulness of Umezu and Hiroaki Katayama's catchy riffing and squealing, so the music transcends its dated sound. There's also an impressive level of nuance and craft in Hayakawa's playing on the ever-problematic bass guitar.

In "Dekoboko-Yama/The Bumby Mountain on the Bank", Hayakawa and Kikuchi jump from the gate with a punchy, slightly jagged groove that could almost pass for something off Massacre's Killing Time (but of course neither this album nor any other album ever made short of The Stick Men gets anywhere close to the rhythmic ecstacy of the mythical Frith/Laswell/Maher unit). Somehow these clipped and clear rhythms remind me of a video game that I played a few times when I was a kid called Pac Man, in which the player maneuvers a crude round yellow thing with eyes and a pie wedge mouth meant to suggest a head whose sole purpose is to traverse a maze and chomp on little electronic nuggets without getting eaten by other critters from the zoo of vintage digital minimalism. Curiously enough, via overdubbing Hayakawa also provides some soft background electric guitar spikes alongside his ripping bass line, as if to make explicit reference to Massacre, though only briefly and weakly before Umezu and Katayama take over with twin sax riffing and the tune playfully bounces between themes and tempi with a passing episode of jackhammer breakdowns a la Etron Fou Leloublan.

The use of overdubbing, while fairly limited, tasteful and effective (except Umezu's superfluous piano jabs in the first track), is another aspect of the album that pins the music down to an era when jazz records became produced more like pop albums than attempts to capture the feeling of a live band. Happily Umezu survived this with a session that invigorates and delights twenty years later instead of the hideously popified skeletons in the 80s closet of creative jazz peers like Oliver Lake and Jamaaladeen Tacuma.

While I can't say there's anything truly great about the rhythm section playing here, it maintains a consistent creative edge and justifies the post-funk alternatives to bop rhythms as an expansion of the jazz lexicon that isn't limited to slick commercialism. What makes the record great is Umezu's tunes and his killer alto sax and bass clarinet playing in tandem with Hiroaki Katayama's tenor sax. Their styles are so idiomatic they almost seem quotational (Rollins, Ayler, Adderly, etc), so everything boils down to good old fashioned melody and soul carried on a fat, beautiful tone. These guys have the gutbucket soulfulness and melodic clarity of George Cartwright in the classic early days of Curlew, most certainly a kindred group in the pursuit of avant-garde party music at the time and probably the most musically successful. The sheer tunefulness of the music is hard to resist; almost every melody on this album sounds lifted from a traditional folk tune of some East European or Mediterranean variety or another, and counts as an early entry to the rich explosion of klezmer-infused creative music of the past two decades. A precursor to some of Ken Vandermark's great reconciliations of post-Ayler reed rawness and concrete grooviness, tracks like "Keep Your Hands Off the Door" find Umezu and Katayama in hard funk riffing synchrony with bass guitar and drumkit grooves going hard and deep into the pocket, only to rip into unbridled screams of passion a moment later.

Free of any blemishes I could cite, Eight Eyes and Eight Ears is a minor classic of light-hearted post-jazz that's gassed me up everytime I've pulled it out since it first passed through my stereo some six years ago and I've yet to be disappointed by an Umezu disc.

~Michael Anton Parker

Posted by maparker at 6:57 PM | Comments (1)

November 20, 2005

SHAMPOO - Volume 1 (Motors)


Bouncy merry. Elastic plasticene walls crumbling all around you.. this is the sound that first emanated from Kentish England: the thrall of Canterbury is difficult to resist and it persists in elevating spirits to lofty regions of heaven-soaked, lighthearted jazzy cakes tenderly eked out from the ovens of Miss Bliss Blitz. There is hardly a genre that exudes hopping mad happiness and a life devoid of strife than this.

Non-native purveyors we have here, spilling into our ears with their whalloping dose of syncopated perfection, a confection to be treasured above others. "Volume 1" is all there ever was and evermore shall be - an exercise in Belgian finery of the aural kind - melting euphoric chutzpah and hoo-hag-haw. In the 70's, there is much to the reflection of comely musical goodness to appear peeking from this corner.

Strains of tippled sax lines ripple from the stratosphere, doubling over and frolicking with hefty swatches of patched keyboard jelly in a near-acrimony.. conversing in playfully teasing, tersely intertwined, jocular retorts.

Lumpy-bumpy beds of "I can't believe he just chunked me, all thumply and bo-humply with the four thick-stringed splatter, haltering to falter all over my face," leaving crinkum-crankum splotches of bass in its place.

Drum somersaulter kicks the kit, stop-start her, time-keeping grandfather tick-tockler, filling the crevices in the morass of this musical crevasse. It's no wonder that it is easy to get lost in this marmalade jammed all up onto the shelves' high cupboard.

Guitar lines snake.

Vocal discourse woos.

- - - - -
Wash your own hair clean and listen for yourself, never officially issued on CD:


~Cesar Montesano

Posted by cesar at 3:38 PM | Comments (0)

November 13, 2005

The Red Norvo Trios (Fantasy)


The pleasures of Kenneth Norville can be a tough sell to listeners weaned on the lingoes of hardbop or free jazz. Norvo’s xylophone-derived style on vibes favors the instrument’s most dulcet and mellifluous associations. No quadruple mallet dissonance a la Dickerson or Hutcherson here. No eerie, gravity-nullifying sustains either. But what’s not always appreciated is his placeholder as one of the progenitors of free jazz. “Dance of the Octopus,” waxed way back in 1933 with the spare chamber combo of guitar, bass and Benny Goodman’s bass clarinet presaged the free-interplay of Tristano’s “Intuition” by fifteen years. Taped two decades later these trio sides for Fantasy were as adventurous in their own way and an evolution of Norvo’s earlier incarnation with Charles Mingus and Tal Farlow. Bassist Red Mitchell succeeded Mingus in ’52 while Jimmy Raney joined as a replacement for an injured Farlow in ’53. Norvo recalls that formal arrangements were rarely if ever employed and that collective improvisation was the strategy on every tune. The extrasensory nature of the trio’s rapport makes the absence of charts all the more suprising. Norvo may be the nominal leader, but when the three leave the starting gate all are equals. Raney swaps lead and accompanist roles without ceding a single wrong note, his delicate strumming approximating the scuttle of a brushed snare beneath his partners’ solos. The placement of Mitchell’s rotund pizzicato is always the harmonic equivalent of a bull’s eye. His may not be as edgy and angry as Mingus’ arco stylings in the earlier unit, but the trade-off arrives in a more consistent and cohesive swing. Norvo adjusts amicably to his colleagues youthful bop proclivities, encouraging their swift interlocking runs on tracks like the mercurial “’Deed I Do,” a number that finds Raney and Mitchell in full gallop race of neck-and-neck single notes. The three are like super-intelligent laboratory rats negotiating the twisting contrapuntal mazes of each track, the figurative cheese earned through flawlessly executed circuits from start to finish. Appended to the original fifteen titles are four more commemorating Farlow’s return to the ensemble. Sweet and charming on the surface, the extrasensory interplay in abundance here could put the vast majority of harder hitting ensembles to shame.

[this ROW respectfully dedicated to Tom Djll- mallets & planks, amigo!]

Posted by derek at 3:54 PM | Comments (15)

November 6, 2005

The Vejtables - Feel...The Vejtables


There are two reasons why I think this is a very interesting disc to talk about. First off, there's a clutch of songs on here I'm really addicted to; I'd rate this is as an essential obscurity for fans of the two or three 60s pop prototypes it mines. Secondly, it mines these prototypes so unabashedly and successfully that it offers a solid conceptual handle on the phenomenon of idiomaticity so central to discussions of the avant-garde music in which it often fades into the ether. So I shall regale you on my currently preferred very non-avant-garde song-drugs and hope we walk away with some thoughts more broadly useful.

Before going any further, let me as frank as possible. I'm obsessed with The Byrds. You need to know this, because there are songs on this disc that basically sound like The Byrds except with the familiar male vocals swapped for splendid female vocals. Simple enough, but, damn, this is just what the doctor ordered. I've been listening to The Byrds absurdly often for the past few years, catching up on an timeless and astounding chapter in the history of song music. Writing this review, I'm tempted to go off on some marathon tangent about The Byrds, but it's really not necessary.

Saying "sounds like" is the big point I'd like to dwell on here. I've played the first five Byrds albums literally dozens of times each in the past year or two alone, with an almost academic obsession of knowing the songs in and out, forwards and backwards. In a way I've tried to simulate the experience of being there in 1965 when the first one hit, spending time with each album and moving slowly forward chronologically as I "release" each one to myself. So I chance to get this Vejtables disc about a month or two ago and, wham, it hits me hard right away and as I play it over and over I keep thinking "damn, this has to be a Byrds cover", but I really couldn't place any of the songs in a specific way at all. What a bizarre feeling, to be playing songs over and over thinking they are covers of songs I know in and out, forwards and backwards. It drove me nuts, but only in the cognitive background as my total immersive pleasure in The Vejtables jangle-blissed out the foreground to the point where it really didn't matter. So I decide to write this review and force myself to get to the bottom of this matter. After having played this Vejtables disc a good 20-30 times (or at least the handful of songs that really kill me on here), just yesterday I finally looked at the song titles, credits, liner notes, etc for the first time. No hint of there being a Byrds cover. I played the first five Byrds albums back-to-back to see if I could catch any quotes or the like. Nada. Wow. There's not a single Byrds song that sounds specifically similar to these songs, and in fact there's only one cover song on this disc and I'd never heard the original before. These songs are originals penned by a short-lived San Francisco era band in the period of 1965-66 that only had one song to even crack the top 100 chart. But still, damn, there are a handful of songs here that really truly feel like The Byrds but with a great female singer! And they're as good an example of that formula as you'd hope for!

Then again, maybe these songs really sound like some other pop group from the same era, rendered anonymous in my mind through the boggling quantity of similar music made in that era. For several years about half of my music-listening has been devoted to the pop music of 1965-1969, trying to sort my way through the endless stream of great songs put on record in that seminal burst of rock creativity, but it still can blur together in the most unsettling ways. The blurring is enhanced by the simple fact that I don't really pay close attention to this kind of music in general when I'm listening. Once in a while, I get totally fixated in rapture, but it's generally some kind of soundtrack to other life/mind activities, and my listening concentration is generally reserved for avant-garde free improv. As well as I know a big chunk of this music, I'm continually amazed by the degree of idiomaticity achieved in this domain. Bands would literally spring up in every town across America and elsewhere virtually imitating the latest breaking development in pop songcraft. Seemingly every permutation of elements was tested for every song template. Sound familiar? Yep, this is the recipe that all traditional music follows to some extent and in a global socio-informational context like the 20th century the process can run amok. Take a look at the history of jazz and 90s dance music for two profoundly analogous examples. Idioms get beaten into the ground and every tiny twist in the formula is like a new scene, to the utter delight of the folks who've installed the right musical grammars in their minds. You like X? Well, here's a few hundred other things you're sure to like. Modulo the sociological scope of the artform, it's really no different in essence from any traditional music, whether it's Indian ragas, Italian folk dances, klezmer, or whatever. Finding a musical formula that works is vastly more useful and desirable to human beings than finding a new one. Tradition will always be deeper than novelty. 60s pop is traditionalist business-as-usual gone exponential in the incipient throes of the information era.

And thank the computationally intractable universe for it, because a band like The Vejtables counts about as much for me as any of the canonized and famed groups of the era. It's a reminder of how much a culture's canons can be arbitrary shams. For many fans of 60s pop, this disc might seem second-rate, but it's first-rate to me. The proof is in the playback frequency. I often play pop albums in my bathroom stereo while showering, shaving, etc. Half-awake and blurry-eyed in the morning, I'll just press the "play" button without having to worry about selecting music for that little chunk of quality listening time. In practice, I simply leave the same disc in the player until I grow weary of it in some way. It's a great way to really test a pop album. Last year I had one of the Byrds albums in there for over a month! So here's the data: this Vejtables disc lasted for almost two weeks before getting ejected. Actually, sometimes I feel guilty for playing something too much when I think about the hundreds of discs I've got sitting around waiting to even get a single audition. I can't say I'd really gotten weary of it as much as I'd felt I really "mastered" it well enough. Well, the only way to put this Vejtables disc to rest is to review it! In the course of playing it again and again and really paying attention in the hope of finding something interesting to say, I'm sure to wear it out. At least temporarily, that is, because there's some songs here that'll make my permanent high-rotation 60s pop canon.

"Cold Dreary Morning" sets my spine tingling with warm joy, and I can play it repeatedly without losing much of the effect. In the comically elaborate quest for the gems amongst the endless piles of filler undertaken by obsessive pop-sound-processors like me, it's songs like this that justify everything. Like those others, the song is oh so familiar sounding. I swear it could be a cover of a tune from the first Fairport Convention album or Eclection, two of the folk-rock platters I'm hopelessly addicted to. "It's a cold dreary morning. It's a drab, crabby day... Watch men live or watch men die, and there's no difference...We're a cold, dreary people; we're a drab, crabby bunch..." These bleak words are sung with such cheerful, serene, Grace Slick style authority that they stand in sublime contrast to the scrappy, upbeat, uplifting feeling of the song.

As far as the scrappiness goes, chalk it up to the fantastic drumkit work on this track. It's pretty basic playing, but the rhythms have such exuberance and vim I can focus in on them alone and get my jollies. The cymbals get absolutely smashed and bashed in an unusually dense offering of accents, a handful per measure at times. The rawness and energy reminds me of how important the drumkit work in classic late 60s Fairport Convention was to making that music folk-ROCK and not just folk. It's all in good clean time, but with a restless, almost punkish energy and she really bashes the living daylights out of those cymbals. For a 60s band, the gender is a surprise. Nowadays it's bad taste to refer to the gender of instrumentalists, though sadly still a common habit, but in the 60s it was a bold and rare phenomenon to challenge gender norms and people took that stuff pretty seriously. Having just finally read the wonderfully informative essay in the liner notes to this Vejtables disc, I'm surprised to learn that this awesome drumkit playing was the work of a teenage girl who started playing drumkit about one week before her first gig with the band in 1965! It's a nice story: her dad was a drumkitter and always wanted his little girl to take up the trapset, but she resisted until a chance event at a rock club got her invited to join a band as the drumkitter, at which point her many years of piano lessons, love of music, and natural singing talent suddenly came to the fore and made for a group that launched into a promising career before anyone could blink. Even if the original motivation to have Jan Errico play in the band was heavily based on the gimmick-aspect of her gender and nubile attractiveness (there was another band in the same scene making a big splash with a female behind the traps), she turned out to be a real talent as a instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter, all the more remarkable for her young age and lack of experience.

The group got a lot of minor breaks, but no major breaks, and Errico left the band in 1966. She wound up in The Mojo Men, a band I'm looking forward to checking out soon. Before that lineup dissolved, it had released two exceptional singles to little response and tried to release a single under Jan Errico's name as a solo artist, for which Errico adopted the name "Jan Ashton". She recounts: "I picked that name because it sounded British. I adored Paul McCartney and his girlfriend was Jane Asher." The single was never released, and the band moved on to various lineups without Errico. "Cold Dreary Morning" was the A-side and went criminally unreleased until 1985's issue of Nuggets, Vol. 7: Early San Francisco. The equally great B-side, "Smile Smile Smile" is one of the two Errico-vocal tracks on the disc that finally saw the light of day on this 1995 Sundazed reissue that collects every last morsel the band laid down. The other Errico cut unveiled here is a killer alternate version of "I Still Love You", the A-side to the band's first single from 1965.

1965 is fairly early in the game for this stuff, and here's a band who really dished it up about as well as the big names of the same months. They were from the same San Francisco scene that the Beau Brummels came from, and shared both musical qualities and the seminal support of the Autumn record label. I've spun the first Brummels album and their other early work a few times, but it hasn't stuck and is pretty well filed in the archives at this point, whereas The Vejtables are in heavy rotation. It's not just because of Errico's great female vocals, though; the tracks with male vocals that comprise the bulk of the band's output are excellent too. Historically, though, the Beau Brummels are a very important band. They were the first California band to break big and were even a significant influence on The Byrds. On the other hand, The Vejtables are a real obscurity at this point. It's really enlightening to see how all this music was happening around the same time and interacting in all sorts of subtle and retrospectively surprising ways. On a site billing itself as The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, I found a "Chronology of San Francisco Rock 165-1969" documenting a remarkable event: "May 14, 1965 “Boss of the Bay,” KYA presents the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, Beau Brummels, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Vejtables, at Civic Auditorium." So The Vejtables were contenders in the scene for sure. Uncovering the tangled history of these song styles and listening to some of these gems tempers the tendency to put famous bands like The Byrds, or even the Brummels, on a pedestal above the also-rans and lose sight of the arbitrariness that drives the successes and failures of the commercial music business. I'd be the last person to question the monumental greatness of The Byrds, but, damn, a few of these Vejtables tracks with Errico's vocals are right up there!

Another historically intriguing connection is the role of Sly Stone (then known as Sylvester Stewart before he became a pop icon) in the group's music. According to an excellent article on Stone, "After Stone took courses from Vallejo Junior College in music theory, he met pioneering radio DJ Tom Donahue in 1964, who asked Sly to record and produce for his Autumn Records." Errico and Stone knew each other from before the Vejtables days, and Stone was an active artistic factor in the recording of the group's early singles, cited for an advanced creative sensibility and studio panache.

There's more to be said about the un-self-conscious acceptance of the traditionalist essence and the quest for refined idiomaticity that marked these groundbreaking days in the history of pop music, which is hopelessly lost in today's sterile mass-market music culture with its tenuous adoption of the originality criterion and discouragement of cover tunes. The lone cover tune here is Tom Paxton's "The Last Thing on my Mind". Paxton created the song in the Fall of 1964, and by the time The Vejtables took a stab at it in early 1966, three other acts had already hit the charts with their own versions! Mitchell Trio, Peter, Paul, & Mary, and Marianne Faithful, to be specific. What's more, according to William Ruhlmann's researches for All Music Guide, the song went on to enter the songbooks of a boggling array of acts in the following years: Charley Pride, Hank Locklin, Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton, The Move, Neil Diamond, Bill Anderson, Chet Atkins, Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Glen Campbell, Judy Collins, Sandy Denny, José Feliciano, Flatt & Scruggs, Anne Murray, Willie Nelson, the Seekers, and Hank Snow! I can't imagine something like that happening in the current popular music climate. In any case, it's a damn fine song, and I'd be surprised if I'd enjoy anyone's version more than the Vejtables'. Then again, Sandy Denny's takes are unfortunate gaps in my collection of her uniformly impeccable work, and she's likely to set the standard. It appears that she issued a take on 1967's pre-Fairport Sandy and Johnny and an alternate version came out on 1970's It's Sandy Denny.

If the six Errico cuts leave me with a nebulously delicious "déjà entendu" feeling, the generous helping of eleven non-Errico male-vocal tracks on the disc are downright maddening. I hardly have the fortitude to investigate the matter, especially since they largely mine a Them/Yardbirds type idiom I'm not really attracted to or versed in. As far as I can tell, they're credited as originals, but you can't get more idiomatic than a cut like "Feel the Music", with its blatant nods to the famous song "________". Aaaaargh!! Those blanks are maddening! In any case, with those six Errico vocal cuts, I'd file this disc under "essential 60s rock", but even without them the remaining cuts are strong enough to warrant a hearty "recommended for specialized lovers of the era" rating. The proof is in the playback, and as much as I pick out the Errico tracks for high rotation, I've let the full disc spin a good many times without any urges to pull the plug on the group's completely uncelebrated later work as it hobbled on its last legs through various lineups before crashing to the history books.

~Michael Anton Parker

Posted by maparker at 6:18 PM | Comments (4)

October 30, 2005

Jacques Berrocal - Paralleles (D'Avantage)


Is your bicycle broken? Don't let the joke run along, getting mighty sprightly ahead of you, strong stroke those spokes and become a muse sick wish with this man. The terrain is the map, scraping jiggly-wiggly pedal-metal, this is designed of the wide end of the track with lots of latitude for your longitudinal attitude readjustment frock cemented into the zone relegated for and scored in the free-form stratosphere invisible ink paste gumbo stilt throw. Charts? What charts? Improvisational is where it starts and barring one elegiacally perfected tune room at the 'Rock'n Roll Station,' reaching seekers freaking for a fixated melody embellished plea are left in the lurch sans the search.

Squelching Neanderthal parrot. Charlie parks one lip asleep skip town. Blubbering chiggle-chaggled and you feel the teeth dangle impressionistic sputtering farts, soft squawks, rippling retorts amidst staccato sharps poking the jolly jester in the arse. Feel the breathing become part of the music, flittering mouse patter leads the trail to comforting and familiar, yet obtuse squall and response alliteration saucier and fluffier until pup-puh-puh-pum-pumpum-pumpeh makes smile.

Machinery. Strained kite string lollygag horn trill. Randomly interspersed impromptu comments seeming story in French. Before you know it, your shift at the fantasy avant-garde factory is over and you can go home to the next song.

Making a horse neigh. Staying the course lain. Jacques Berrocal has the power to ensconce with his deft use of independently structured spontaneous creation. These are ideas that may have been toyed around with before, but were not dropped to trollop unsuspecting ear cheers releasing fears that continual beat impressions are necessary for the mind to make connection directions with what seem like obtuse chortles colliding in space, bouncing, and the swerving wending the same path immediately.

The doormat reads 'everything is possible' - you are at the original 'second pirate session of a strange wax:' "Rock'n Roll Station" - Nurse With Wound covered this tune to great effect, naming an entire marvelous album afterwards in nepotistic frenzy alluding to the steady dour retelling in repetition of Vincent Canby accompanied by steady 3-notes-bass thrung-thum-blugneah wheel spinning crank clickety-clack interference bells, whine on rubber, words slightly morphing elongated syllable perplex. 'Jacques bicycle is music to my ears, do you remember?' Final wheel screech click-tap matched for tring-a-ling fades to coughing, and frog, lighter, poured water, laughter, muted bike vamp, utensil plated tangle stop.

'Bric-a-brac' is over 25 minutes and takes the entirety of side two into submission. This is opus direction, outré style. Dining with pleasure, listening to all the sounds around wooing for flickered dispersion. Mounted violin parapet intermittently stroking a straddle, evolving rubato in anomalous supportive crumble. All in chip fin and disquieting escapes the face making master powerful, juiced avant-pounce by the ounce, poured in a splash at a time. Incorporating footfalls, plate wobble, pot lid organic percussion, string struck
precision childlike mercurial atonal pluck, megaphone grunts, metal sheet wobbler, requisite pterodactyl shrills from elephantine monster spills of sonic departure ticket-stamped voucher felling the glacier hearts for the 'out-there' that is easy to feel 'in-here.' Sterile is not to be, cacophony reigns supreme and ropes the corralled scene warm blanket sheen away to cortex inner drum posed leaning to. Not to think of no, periodic shifts to rudimentary follow me simple attention. Getting surprised and being able, on follow stride short sublime, to
then reel from getting trapped in the belly walrus shell again, a piano comping akimbo percussive scatter jagged swagger introduces itself and a winding horn innuendo distend blow. Coiled runs afterwards and the return of the sun melody 3-note upright-chunked stomp from the only verifiably structured tune, now accomplice typewriter in tow, rhythm sectionally lunch lurch unclothed jubilant quasi-musical stenography replete - a new narrator recalls fragmentary discussion of another whole whale of a history tale all together, a French accent giblet freshly mustachioed story: 'interested simultaneously by moving.. and by noises... like music... [...] you know what, I am just waiting for Vince... I mean, Rock'n Roll Station... I'm just waiting for him... always in love, but is not.. here.. anyway, go home, go on.. [...] during a surrealistic demonstration by the Camelots of the king... what a strange thing he is making me doing... what a strange story.. you know I don't know what I am doing there.. you know, really... what a strange story, what a strange thing;' fade the flock out, big hawk lands throned. Swoon baboon new golden dongle spoon soon, put your cap tarts on, staring ague eyes open meden agan agar-agar. Everything is possible and this album just made it probable. 'We can do what we want to do.' Hear here.

~ Cesar Montesano

Posted by derek at 6:20 PM | Comments (23)

October 23, 2005

Steve Lacy & Evan Parker - Chirps (FMP)


Steve Lacy may have monopolized the magazine polls over the years, but few would contest Evan Parker’s mutual place amongst soprano nobility. Each man wears his virtuosity prominently like brightly-hued plumage on this 1985 concert meeting, making the pate-slapping moments of stupefaction at their joined ingenuity manifold. What’s even more gratifying and downright entrancing is how each man bends to the others’ ticks and preferences: Parker embracing Lacy’s meticulous melodicism, and Lacy tailoring to Parker’s prevailing tonal latitude. The accords are so amicable that if not for the stereo channel separation, their identities could easily overlap and blur during certain segments. Listeners who off-handedly lodge pejoratives like “aloof’ or “overly-academic” at either player would be wise to spend some time assimilating the warm and inquisitive colloquies of this set. “Full Scale” spools out with a narrative improvisatory logic intact across a full third of an hour, countless expository notes and tones issuing forth from the respective raised fish horns. In the waning minutes it’s Lacy, not Parker, who coarsens his tone with growling trills and stutters prior to a final tandem display of spiraling airborne acrobatics. Everything is accomplished with surprisingly slight reliance on the sort of extended techniques so often used to gauge an arch improviser’s mettle. Parker’s storied circular breathing doesn’t even enter until the final minutes and then only for a brief spate. With “Relations” the pair once again commences chatting in limpid, tonally-forthright language. While the disc omits the solo recitals that preceded the duo portion it does contain three bonus “Nocturnal Chirps” taped after the audience’s exit from the recital hall. Miniatures by comparison to the main pieces, they still offer plenty of gorgeous reciprocity and with a fidelity that feels even more inclusive of the performance space. Another side perk comes with the photos of saxophonists together in the accompanying booklet. Lacy shows himself among the few who can match the stern countenance of Parker when so inclined. And the flying saucer street lamp cover makes me smile too.

Posted by derek at 6:10 PM | Comments (1)

October 16, 2005

Various – Mississippi Delta Blues: “Blow My Blues Away” Vol. 2 (Arhoolie)


With the Blues, more than most idioms, the onus lies not on the song, but on the performer to stamp it with his own peculiarities and personality. It’s the chief reason why a tune like “Catfish Blues” can reveal a fresh catch even on its nth reading, providing the bluesman doing the fishing is using his own pole and bait. This collection of folklorist George Mitchell’s field recordings from ’67 and ‘68 makes that case in bold letters with the caps lock emphatically in place. Deviating from the first volume, which features a dozen names, this second sampler shaves the cast down to three, five if you count Robert Nighthawk and James “Peck” Curtis (dubbed The Blues Rhythm Boys) backing Houston Stackhouse on the final four cuts. Joe Callicott gets eleven, including two vintage 1930 sides from his youth, and R.L. Burnside receives ten. The music is definitely of the Delta and its adjacent Hill Country zip codes, but takes an array of surprising detours. Callicott sounds like Mississippi John Hurt might if the latter man had the wind in sails sucked away by chronic insolvency and world weariness. A warbly yodel invests his “Lonesome Katy Blues” floating above an anchoring acoustic strum. On “Laughing to Keep From Crying” the steady buzz of a bass string keeps rhythm as he voices vignettes that advance an almost Buddhist mindset: life is suffering so you might as well have a long hard chuckle in the face of inevitable and unending adversity. Burnside’s program pays heavy respect to Muddy Waters on tunes like “Goin’ Down South” and “I Rolled and I Tumbled,” but there’s far more menace and angst imbued to his versions. Early minimalist takes on tunes like “Skinny Woman,” where a knuckle-on-wood rhythm laces his raspy vocals to create the aural illusion of the title entity tap-dancing in clogs on spindly tree branch legs, and “Long Haired Doney” presage the misogynistic persona cultivated during his later career. Amplified and heavily soused, the Stackhouse cuts are bit incongruous with what’s come before, but Curtis’ quixotic beats and daffy cowbell accents readily fulfill the requisite originality quotient.

Posted by derek at 4:18 PM | Comments (0)

October 9, 2005

Tremè Brass Band - "Gimme My Money Back" (Arhoolie)


Parts of New Orleans are still underwater. Large portions of the populace remain displaced; their residences devoid of basic civil amenities like electricity, running water and working sewage. Hollow apologies for FEMA’s colossal fuck-up in the face of the disaster have come and gone. But saints be praised, Fats Domino was found safe and sound. If that last point reverberates with a bit of cynicism, so be it. Fats’ plight coupled with celebrity status made for good news copy. But his story was just one of hundreds of thousands of others, most of which will never receive a drop of reporter’s ink. Listening to this choice album by Tremè Brass Band over the weekend my thoughts went out to the members of the group, wondering about their whereabouts, their safety in relation to Katrina’s city-razing swathe, above all just wishing them the best. The nearly eighty-minute program here serves up a traditional Nawlins gumbo of joy and solemnity, powdered jazz stirred into a fizzy ameliorating concoction of liquid blues. Tremè celebrates Canal Street history with collective ears equally enamored of the more modern argots of postbop, funk and hip hop too.

The opening title jam ambles out on an infectious fatback meets Congo Square rhythm. Kirk Joseph’s moist tuba burbles a cool-stepping bass vamp as the saxes of Eliot “Stackman” Callier and Fredric Kemp riff and solo boisterously across the syncopations. The trumpets of James Andrews and the higher profile Kermit Ruffins (the pup of the band at “30”) join trombonist Corey Henry as a hot-blowing brass battery. Benny Jones, Sr. and Lionel Batiste, Sr. supply the serviceable snapping beats on snare and bass drums respectively, the latter man also furnishing raspy lyrics on the vociferous vocal numbers. Most of the men have direct ties to other city brass band royalty like the Rebirth and Dirty Dozen outfits. They cover the typical bases, delving into lengthy expositions of “Hindustan,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “The Old Rugged Cross” along with couple original blues. Four of the tunes even find a pair of fearless Japanese tourists joining the rambunctious professionals on borrowed banjo and piano. Some cuts are overly circuitous with a fair amount of ramshackle riffing replacing tightly rehearsed charts, but if anything the roughshod informality only adds to the listening experience. News agency opportunists from CNN to MSNBC have taken recently to expounding endlessly on the indomitable Spirit of New Orleans. It’s right here for the hearing as far as I’m concerned.

Posted by derek at 7:36 PM | Comments (0)

October 2, 2005

Misha Feigin / Craig Hultgren / LaDonna Smith — They Are We Are


After encountering LaDonna Smith for the first time last week and witnessing a fabulous performance, I was happy to recall this fine recording and pull it out for some overdue proper attention. Smith is one of the pillars of improvised music culture in the US, especially known for her duo with Davey Williams, a musical partnership running for around 30 years and still going strong as I heard from the violinist herself last weekend. Smith's writing and editorial presence in the pages of The Improvisor has been registered in my mind ever since I devoured a few issues of that remarkable magazine as a nascent free improv fan, and I'm pleased to report that the publication is still alive online these days, with a compilation of intriguing essays well worth digging through. While Smith's reputation as an underground legend must surely owe a lot to her irresistible spirit of creativity and immersion in live performance I was finally able to enjoy first-hand, she's a formidable improv violinist and violist taken solely as a recorded entity in this trio program with Misha Feigin and Craig Hultgren recorded and released in 2000.

Misha Feigin is a key example of an artistic career paralleling the transformation of Russian culture from Communist restrictions to Capitalist freedom, and alongside so many other artists documented on Leo Records, he's a pioneer of improvised music in Russia. More than an improvisor on classical guitar and balalaika, Feigin has formed his reputation as a troubadour of sorts, bridging gaps between Russian-language and English-language audiences with his synthesis of folk tunes, improv, singing, and storytelling. While primarily capturing his skills as a pure improvisor, this disc portrays the scope and aesthetic diffusion of an artist resolving the conflicts between a foregrounded singer/storyteller role with accompaniment and an equal collective free improv format. All told, his voice weighs in as the feature on three pieces totalling about 16 minutes out of a 64-minute program. Additionally, on "Curley" his voice elevates the music considerably as a subtle element of collective interplay for one passage. On "The Singing" and "Dimensions Lost (A Giant Twang Out of the Sky)", Feigin more or less recites English poetry from his own pen, and while it's easy to cite the virtues of his wordcraft and the tremendously effective improv that Hultgren and Smith wrap around it, I honestly have found his mildly jarring accent and effusive melodrama to be a bit too much to take on repeated spins through the disc, skipping ahead to the tracks without vocals.

On the other hand, the title track and sole example of Feigin as a flat-out singer is absolutely stunning and not only bears plenty of repeated listening, but is reason enough by itself for anyone to acquire this album. Feigin's voice has both the confidence and power of a stalwart torch-bearer of some folk tradition and the uninhibited expressive urgency of scattish free improvisor, freely alternating between linguistic and non-linguistic vocal contours as he attacks the moment in genuine free interplay with Hultgren's cello and Smith's violin. It's all too rare to hear vocal improvisation suggesting some imaginary folk music and the accreted treasures of wailed melodies, holding itself accountable to no idiom in particular but accepting the underlying old-fashioned musicality shared by traditional idioms. The Russian feeling of his voice is so strong, however, that it could also just be considered a kind of Russian free folk music. I only wish that the album had a few more tracks with Feigin's unbridled vocal improv, especially since the string improv in a few pieces can veer towards tedium for all its consistent balance and craftmanship.

It's hard not to be floored by this disc after the free song music of the title track, mainly because it appears second and the disc's opener is nearly 15 minutes of flawless and profound free improv fully mining the timbral riches of the three acoustic instruments. "Summer Wind, No Sleep" is also the only piece where the trio dips into the tense and edgy abstraction associated with prototypical non-idiomatic free improv like MIC and the golden years of the Russell/Durrant pairing. Hultgren and Smith squeeze out some gripping sustained soft squeals with their bows and Feigin plucks his way into some uncharacteristically non-linear paroxysms. Delicate harmonics are given as much attention as sawing and riffing, and the mood hovers in elegaic territory contrasting with the more sprightly leanings of other pieces.

Even in this epic wonder, the trio displays its distance and independence from the free improv avant-garde. This is a kind of timeless free improv bearing no self-conscious aesthetic agenda or aversion to familiar musical habits. The tremendous compatibility among the players reflects shared old-fashioned musical values; melody, repetition, riffing, phrasal alignment, and extended motivic development are the primary stuctural concerns. With the adventurous spirit to be expected in a free improv setting balanced against a conservative Euro-centric folk/classical underpinning, the music strikes me as a free improv counterpart to the old-world strains in mid-20th century academic music, especially the full-blooded anti-hermeticism of Alfred Schnittke's string quartets. The strident, angular rhythms and narrative unfolding of Feigin's strumming patterns seem rooted in the same East European traditional folk aesthetic that Bartok and so many other pioneers of notationalism adopted to varying degrees of abstraction. Hultgren's playing in particular has the unswerving sense of purpose and control of someone playing a part in a string quartet they've committed to memory as a personal reference point. His virtuosity and confident willingness to repeat lucid motifs instead of constantly searching for new material is evidence of his success in reconciling an academic music background with free improv instead of abandoning this background and groping for a new vocabulary as so many academically-trained players tend to do in free improv situations.

Rarely using extended techniques, but freely accepting harsher sounds as part of their instrument's full timbral spectrum, Hultgren and Smith revel in the warmth and depth of bowed strings, and that's at least half the explanation for the copious rewards I've found in this album; I really just have an endless appetite for the nuances of cello, viola, and violin in pretty much any aesthetic context, but especially in a context like this where the nuances are brought well into the foreground. Of course, delicious timbres alone don't tell the whole story; it's the split-second sensitivity and creativity of master improvisors like these three that complete the timeless package.

~Michael Anton Parker

While visiting the Leo Records page for this album, I discovered that it's currently being offered as a download for a mere $4. However, if this doesn't get you the text in the CD's booklet, it's worth paying a normal price for the CD because Feigin's tale of youthful rock 'n' roll adventures in Russia is a damn good read!

Posted by maparker at 6:58 PM | Comments (6)

September 25, 2005

Gil Melle - Primitive Modern/Quadrama (Prestige)


Even by musicanly standards Gil Melle’s ego stretches capacious borders. The odor of the impresario is redolent throughout the self-penned liners to his Complete Blue Note Recordings (now lamentably out of print). In those pages he boldly claims ownership to a number of precedents: first Caucasian musician signed to Blue Note as a leader; inventor of the first prototype drum machine; first to incorporate electronics into a jazz setting through his pioneering ensemble the Electronauts; etc. All are boasts that whether true or false can’t help but carry a stale air of hucksterism. The notes to Primitive Modern are similarly pedantic, but they go into far greater detail toward substantiating Melle’s declarations of grandeur. His sage name-drops of Bartok, Lars Gullin and Herbie Nichols are not idle avowals. The music on the album and Quadrama, its companion in this two-fer, make a case for his prestigious musical place in unequivocal terms.

Melle’s modus is essentially one of potentially jarring juxtapositions: jazz swing with classical consonance and dissonance; simplified rhythmic meters with complex harmonic and melodic patterns, vice versa, and so on. The outcome of these cunning stabs at seemingly-incongruous synthesis is a portfolio of compositions that still possesses the ability to surprise and stimulate nearly a half century after its scripting. Outside the athletic oration of Melle’s throaty baritone saxophone, the chief reason for the albums’ success resides in the supporting cast assembled for the recording dates. Guitarist Joe Cinderella is an unsung revelation. His advanced harmonic sense equals any contemporaneous plectrist from Raney to Farlow on down and it’s combined with chance-taking brio and tonal incisiveness that make tracks like the intricate, rabbit-paced “Ironworks” such memorable excursions. Ed Thigpen’s eloquent showing on traps is strong point too. The accents and textures he achieves on the opening “Dominica,” augmenting his kit with various Melle-designed percussive devices to create an orchestral sound enhanced with surprising moments of dissonance, give the tune a forward-thinking resonance on par with the best Third Stream experiments of the era. Bassist Billy Phillips completes the group, unobtrusively shaping arco and pizz patterns that augment the unshakeable modernity of his colleagues.

A year later Melle hired session pros George Duvivier and Shadow Wilson for Quadrama with confrere Cinderella returning to the guitar stool. While not quite on the same rung of originality as its predecessor, thanks mostly to Melle’s mixing a pair of (beautifully-tweaked) Ellington standards with his own challenging pieces, the session still stacks favorably with the most adventurous jazz of the ’50s. Melle’s sojourn as a jazzman ended up relatively short-lived as he soon became distracted by full-time forays into the visual arts (both albums here showcase his own striking cover art conceptions). The urge to ponder what he would have come up with had he continued to rudder a jazz course is powerful. These early efforts remain vital representative heirlooms of a man who made it his mission to prove the pliable nature of the parameters of jazz.

[for a different take on the disc check out this Ron Wynn review]

Posted by derek at 2:43 PM | Comments (8)

September 18, 2005

René Thomas – The Real Cat (Gitanes)


“All modern guitarists sound the same.” That blanket assertion comes from plectrist Bill Jennings who made a name for himself in the soul jazz bands of Willis Jackson and Jack McDuff. As a provable thesis his theory accumulates veracity much like a sieve holds water, but Jennings argument does ring true on some levels and in some instances. Take guitarist René Thomas for example. On the surface his sound is very much like that of contemporaries like Jimmy Raney and Tal Farlow. Versed in swing and bebop he quickly came under the spell of Django Reinhardt, adapting some of the gypsy’s fingerings to amplified hollow body and moving to Paris with the hopes of breaking the big time with his extrapolations. The aspirations never fully reached fruition, but he did find the time and means to cut a handful of records. The pair of sessions on this Jazz in Paris collection dates from ’54 and ’56. Originally released on the Parisian Barclay imprint, they visit the transplanted Belgian in the company of two small French combos. Both units are stocked with serviceable, if unmemorable players like pianist René Urtreger and drummer José Bourguignon, the latter a minor ace with the whisk brushes on tracks like the mellow “Someone to Watch Over Me.” The Lestorian tenor saxophones of either André Ross or Serge “Bib” Monville join the leader’s limpid single-note picking on ten out of sixteen numbers.

The songbook is mostly standard bop with pieces like “A Night in Tunisia” and “Lover Man” receiving earnest, ultimately debonair readings (on the latter tune a weird and fascinating moment arises where Thomas’ normally tractable phrasing frays and self-destructs). All are terse and sweet in execution, the longest clocking at a mere 4:48. Monville’s presence on the second date creates something of a poor-man’s facsimile of the far more influential concert sides Stan Getz and Johnny Smith cut for Roost a few years earlier. Thomas taped what was easily his finest session for Riverside a few years later with modernists JR Monterose and Hod O’Brien on the payroll. It’s a better record on almost pretty much every count, but this Continental compilation still possesses ample charms. The snapshot on the back of the digipack channels Thomas’ academic inclinations in humorous fashion looking as he does like the starch-suited love child of Woody Allen and Morton Feldman. He may have moved relatively little beyond the sway of his influences, but his chops were sufficient enough to save face on a regular basis as an improviser with something significant to say.

Posted by derek at 7:08 AM | Comments (13)

September 11, 2005

Neil Feather — Revelation of an Anaplumb (Recorded Field Recordings)


Recorded Field Recording 001 (1999)

"The Anaplumb is a Bowling Ball Instrument with a complicated weight or "bob." This Anaplumb bob consists of a spring, three heavy vibrators at different speeds, and a large magnet. This bob hovers over another heavy magnet, creating a repellant and anti-gravitational force. The three vibrators vie for resonance with the string and the spring. The frequencies of the string and spring are determined by weight which is fluxed by the magnetic field. This is a finely balanced chaotic system." The Anaplumb, dilemma of jiggle to things without DNA, is, fear of not bouncing enough, a Bowling Ball Instrument, waiting for something not to happen, with a complicated weight or "bob", suffocating velvet mask, This Anaplumb bob, toe stuck in a machine that builds nothing, consists, the dilemma of stillness always a dance, of a spring, it's a recurring dilemma to eat stones, three heavy vibrators at different speeds, if it stopped we wouldn't notice, and a large magnet, one bark doesn't make a dog, This bob, was that enough?, hovers, it was like stubbing a toe but it didn't hurt, over another heavy magnet, it was an excuse not to scrape, creating, I don't know how to choose, a repellant and anti-gravitational force, dilemma of not stopping, The three vibrators, severe restrictions on puffiness, vie for resonance, it's more comforting than a host of other medium-sized objects, with the string, I don't know where to put my ears, and the spring, recurring dilemmas can be ignored, The frequencies, it's a recurring dilemma of bouncing too much, of the string, the alternative was stillness, and spring, I refuse to get upset when shrinking objects get larger, are determined, they told me it was okay to stick my ear there, by weight, the dilemma wasn't shared, which is fluxed, I rarely stooped over in the process, by the magnetic field, if it stopped we wouldn't notice, This, I am not jiggling, is, no jiggle lasts forever, a finely balanced chaotic system, I find jiggling difficult, the solution might lie in aggressive buzzing, The Anaplumb, nobody taught me how to jiggle, it was smaller than a whale but we couldn't measure the microscopic air pockets, and a large magnet, if it stopped we'd just start kind of aimlessly muttering, I'm willing to jiggle, This bob, there are no electric sidewalks in this part of town, alternatives prevailed, hovers, I don't know where to put my ears, it's a recurring dilemma of bouncing without funking, over another heavy magnet, nobody will just come up and stop any of us from jiggling, I don't know how to choose the angle, creating, there are no electric sidewalks in Baltimore, jiggling is almost always optional, a repellant and anti-gravitational force, necklaces that noone would wear, it's a recurring dilemma of how fast to walk, The three vibrators, alternatives prevailed, the anti-bouncing laws were discreetly repealed, vie for resonance, it's frankly okay to leave your ears at home, with the string, it was an excuse not to buzz, the request to stop wasn't clearly articulated, and the spring, I jiggle way more often than that, if it stopped we'd have nothing to talk about, The frequencies, I know where my ears are but I don't want to leave them there, not scraping a banana against a three-hundred gallon teacup, of the string, it's a recurring dilemma to not bounce enough, non-dildo vibrators are unlikely, I'm just gonna stick my ears there and call it a day, and spring, it was an excuse not to stroll along the ocean, the knob was stuck, are determined, if it stopped we wouldn't notice, by weight, the breathing will proceed regardless, I refuse to buzz on demand, which is fluxed, we can always choose the bottom one, palpations don't grow on trees, by the magnetic field, I don't know where to put my ears, I have just the spot for that, a stream is an accident if the earth is tilting in the right direction, the dilemma of being interrupted by what you're in the middle of, there are no electric sidewalks in my home, the recurring dilemma of categorizing frequencies, The Anaplumb, I don't know how to choose, we all wish we could jiggle that way, back when those hominids were still around eight-hundred years ago this stainless steel park was a zoo, it's a recurring dilemma of re-entering the room, gravity and rigid objects are purely obedient, the observation of disobedience stymied by the act of observation, a Bowling Ball Instrument, which recurring dilemma should we suffer?, if it stopped we'd have to practice paradiddles, the dilemma of being interrupted by what you're in the middle of, I don't know how to choose, everybody knows Swinging Steve, hands and fingers are like rusted rollercoasters missing unstrategically unplaced rails, gravity and rigid objects are purely obedient, the observation of disobedience stymied by the act of observation, with a complicated weight or "bob", I don't know where to put my ears, I know where my ears are, my ears are around here somewhere, if it stopped we'd have to start something else, I may or may not be jiggling right now, anaplumb, nobody taught me how to jiggle, bouncing is optional, before breaking it often worked, This Anaplumb bob, I moved my ears to the left but they are in the same place, a stream is an accident if the earth is tilting in the right direction, stopping is the problem of starting again, was that enough?, I'll just buzz later when I'm done waiting, consists of a spring, I don't know where to put my ears, ardent tools with no function, there are no electric sidewalks in this part of town, the dilemma of being interrupted by what you're in the middle of, it's a recurring dilemma to bounce at all times, I don't care if you jiggle, three heavy vibrators at different speeds, the fine ridges of texture in the skin of an elephant cannot be seen without an elephant, if it stopped, not scraping a banana, I don't know how to choose, there's a power switch around here somewhere, a stream is an accident if the earth is tilting in the right direction, it was like stubbing a toe but it didn't hurt, a large magnet, we want to do something with our ears reasonably often, I don't know how to choose, I am not jiggling, if it stopped, alternatives prevailed, stopping is the problem of starting again, I'm not experiencing a power outage—how convenient, it was an excuse not to fall of the rails and get badly injured, I don't believe in ghosts even when they're etched in silver, I'll just move around occasionally, This bob hovers, I don't really need to choose, there are no electric sidewalks in this part of town, Jon Abbey likes this tone, I gather jiggling is not as popular in these latitudes, the fine ridges of texture in the skin of an elephant cannot be seen without an elephant, I haven't chosen anything, gravity and rigid objects are purely obedient, the observation of disobedience stymied by the act of observation, if it stopped we'd just be inept breakdancers, stopping is the problem of starting again, stopping is the problem of starting again, over another heavy magnet, stopping is the problem of starting again, Neil Feather, horses will jiggle but not reliably, the dilemma of being interrupted by what you're in the middle of, I don't care if you jiggle, before breaking it often worked, the recurring dilemma of unceremonious buzzes getting lost, spectation is reasonable, it was like stubbing a toe but it didn't hurt, it worked at least once, I'm not sure where my ears are, creating a repellant and anti-gravitational force, if it stopped, I don't swim habitually, I heard that it worked at least once, I don't know where to put my ears, it's a recurring dilemma of not bouncing enough, I assumed it was working in the absence of any indication of what it was supposed to do, the alternative was stillness, some objects are not falsely labelled shrink-proof, The three vibrators vie, it's a recurring dilemma of severe restrictions on puffiness, I couldn't tell if it was an electric sidewalk because I was kinda doing a brisk jog anyway, there no are dilemmas but plenty of recurrences, the alternative was stillness, most requests are gently ignored, stopping is the problem of starting again, a box of those jiggles was lost somewhere during the delivery but it's okay because we have copies, resonance with the string and the spring, I don't care when you jiggle but just let me know about it, I refuse to get upset when shrinking objects get larger, there are no electric sidewalks in this part of town, those aren't dilemmas—just syllables, just stick my ears wherever they'll fit, I am not jiggling, if it stopped..., the expense of the electric sidewalks was prohibitive but they existed, alternatives prevailed, it's smaller than a whale but we couldn't measure the microscopic air pockets, there are no electric sidewalks that felt spongy enough, it's way too easy to step off an electric sidewalk, it's a recurring dilemma of bouncing without advance notification, gathering materials and leaving them there to unbuild themselves into a vacuum for frozen stares, it's a recurring dilemma, it was like stubbing a toe but it didn't hurt, I'm glad I'm not the only one who occasionally fails to jiggle, The frequencies of the string and spring, the electric sidewalk never makes our hats blow off, one bark doesn't make a dog—you need a stomach, a few legs, a nose, a liver, and other stuff, one bark is one bark at most and possibly much less, I don't know how to choose, the dilemma of being interrupted by what you're in the middle of, a stream is an accident if the earth is tilting in the right direction, speed 1, the recurring dilemma of unceremonious buzzes getting lost, there are no dilemmas in this part of town, I couldn't tell if it was an electric sidewalk because I was kinda doing a brisk jog anyway, the alternative was stillness and wasn't appealing 'round the clock, alternatives prevailed, it's a recurring dilemma to bounce, I refuse to ride an electric sidewalk without jiggling, if it stopped we wouldn't notice, the dilemma of being interrupted by what you're in the middle of, arches are for bridges, was that enough?, fluxed by the magnetic field, alternatives paused before prevailing, if it stopped..., the expense of the electric sidewalks was prohibitive but they existed, there are no electric sidewalks in this part of town, how can you can tell if you're even jiggling in the first place?, I am a buzz detector with elbows and kidneys, the dilemma of being interrupted by what you're in the middle of, we are not aware of any dilemmas, there are no electric sidewalks in this part of town, it was an excuse to rest uncomfortably, we were unable to attend any of the ceremonies for dearly departed jiggles, we were trying to find a place for our ears, there are no electric sidewalks that felt spongy enough, This is a finely balanced chaotic system, alternatives prevailed but I didn't choose them, thanks for taking such good care of my ears even if they have lost their pink hue, it was like stubbing a toe in the slowest motion afforded by current technology, the dilemma of being interrupted by what you're in the middle of, it's a recurring dilemma to not bounce enough, there are no electric sidewalks that felt spongy enough, there are no electric sidewalks that felt spongy enough, there are no electric sidewalks that felt spongy enough, there are no electric sidewalks that felt spongy enough, there are no electric sidewalks that felt spongy enough, there are no electric sidewalks that felt spongy enough, there are no electric sidewalks that felt spongy enough, there are no electric sidewalks that felt spongy enough, there are no electric sidewalks that felt spongy enough, there are no electric sidewalks that felt spongy enough, there are no electric sidewalks that felt spongy enough, there are no electric sidewalks that felt spongy enough, there are no electric sidewalks that felt spongy enough, there are no electric sidewalks that felt spongy enough, there are no electric sidewalks that felt spongy enough, I may or may not be buzzing.

~Michael Anton Parker

Posted by maparker at 1:55 PM | Comments (2)

September 4, 2005

Charles Earland - Leaving This Planet (Prestige)


Earland, better known as The Mighty Burner, made a name for himself via a handful of soul jazz ventures in the late 60s. These early sessions offered a blend of flashy B-3 fireworks and an emphasis on baroque feeling over polished functionality. At the dawn of the Sunshine decade his projects for Prestige veered into some fairly adventurous directions, ensnaring rock, Latin, electronics and even free jazz in a widely cast net. This disc reissues what is arguable prize of the bundle, a concept album that takes its primary cues from fusion and science fiction. Earland espouses a manifesto in common with the more accessible sides of Sun Ra. Surrounded by a nest of then-cutting edge consoles that includes ARP and Moog synthesizers, clavinet, electric piano and organ; he leads a revolving studio band through an episodic cosmic melodrama. The sphinxlike Dr. Patrick Gleeson, a colleague of Earland’s on other records of the era, aids and embellishes from his own ARP and Moog amalgamation. A core flight crew of Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Dave Hubbard, Mark Elf and Larry Killian mans the mothership. Guests like Eddie Henderson, Eddie Arkin and Brian Brake bolster the band in other key soloist slots. Oddly enough there’s no bassist. Earland himself handles that chore, his pedals working overtime so that a conventional upright presence isn’t even missed.

As the undisputed blue chips in the horn section, Henderson and Hubbard display their indefatigable chops on nearly every track. No matter how grandiose and congested the backdrops become, the saxophonist’s machete-sharp tenor still manages to slice through with a postbop phraseology punctuated by emotive honks. Hubbard triggers the boosters numerous occasions too, his rocket-tail runs arcing above the tangled nebula of wah-wah guitars, aqueous recombinating keyboards and slippery funk beats. The other Hubbard and Henderson (Dave and Eddie, respectively) hold their own, but are continually outclassed by their frontline peers. The title cut sets the mood as a perfect opener. Rudy Copeland’s pinched, entreating vocals sketch the skeletal plot points of a dystopian futurist fantasy as the ensemble quickly achieves escape velocity from a socially and environmentally blighted Earth. “Warp Factor 8” layers strata of heavy vamping guitars and keys in a call and response between rhythm section and horns. Other tunes like “Asteroid” and “Mason’s Galaxy” advance the extraplanetary fixations even further. There’s even room for amped-up readings of Hubbard’s “Red Clay” and Henderson’s “No Me Esqueca” in the capacious 79-minute flight plan. The package presents a rare instance where a Prestige two-fer arrives with its original program completely intact without the usual excising of a track or two due to time constraints. Not everything works at an exemplary level, but the overall trip remains a damn engaging and entertaining one just the same.

Is it dated? Definitely. But among Earland’s early oeuvre it’s virtually guaranteed to please.

Posted by derek at 12:17 PM | Comments (0)

August 28, 2005



With a name coined by Joni Mitchell to acknowledge the eclectic nature of the UK assemblage of musicians from Norway (Georg Hultgreen), Canada (Michael Rosen), Australia (Kerrilee Male, Trevor Lucas), and the UK (Gerry Conway), Eclection was a band perched at the nests of jangly folk-rock, sunshine pop, and symphonic rock. This criminally obscure orchestral folk-rock platter was recorded and released by Elektra in 1968, meeting with no commercial success, but winding up firmly ensconced in the pantheon of connoisseurs of that era. It's the kind of record that could've easily launched a group into the stardom that Fairport Convention was quickly acquiring at the same time, but even with the imprint of a prestigious and hip label, somehow got a short straw in an explosion of creative rock music that's still being sifted through to this day.

The multi-national quintet bore an overabundance of talent, quite conspicuously in the case of vocals. Female vocalist Kerrilee Male was in the same league as Sandy Denny, and the way her heavenly voice floats above concise and rich symphonic textures recalls the finest moments of Annie Haslam in Renaissance. Just on the basis of this album, Male has a solid place in my top thirty or so female vocalists. It probably would've been better if the group had just one great male vocalist to balance the sound, but instead they had several men with enough talent to carry a band on their own as a frontperson. Happily for us, all this vocal talent makes the album a benchmark by which to judge the male/female vocal harmonies that flourished in that era and sadly have long lost their foothold in popular music culture. Between the vocal harmonies and the bright, sunny blend of acoustic and electric guitars, it's understandable they're sometimes compared to The Mamas & The Papas, but I find Eclection vastly superior to the underwhelming pleasantries of that California unit. For me, perhaps the only 60s group that I'd rank as high in terms of male/female vocal blends is The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, a group that was so consistently stunning in every aspect that they make my 60s pop top five (alongside The Beatles, The Byrds, The Idle Race, and The Action).

It's noteworthy that the group beckons those American references. While the similarities to Fairport Convention and other UK folk-rock bands is unmistakable, Eclection was a rare bird in that scene, and the sunny orchestral part of their sound is marked contrast to Fairport's stripped-down and edgy tendencies. Primary songwriter Georg Hultgreen (who later changed his surname to Kajanus—his mother was Norwegian sculptor Johanna Kajanus) was a Norwegian who made his way to the jumping London scene by way of stints in Paris and Quebec. The notion that Eclection were on the wrong side of the Atlantic is corrorobated by Kajanus in an interview:

I would agree that the musical direction of the group was probably closer to American folk-rock than anything else. I must confess, having spent my formative musical years haunting the folk clubs in Montreal, Canada and watching all the current folk and folk/rock programs on TV, I was strongly influenced by this music. The most influential artists for me at the time were people like Dylan, the Byrds, Fred Neil, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, and Gordon Lightfoot. Pre-Eclection, I was a purist fighting the acoustic battle versus the electric "demons" creeping into the scene. I remember being shocked when Dylan went electric. It is therefore ironic that I should end up a few years later playing an electric 12-string in Eclection.

The connections to UK music won out in the end, though. Bass guitarist Trevor Lucas was the boyfriend and future husband of Sandy Denny and went on to form Fotheringay with Denny and Eclection's drumkitter, Gerry Conway, resulting in their magnificent eponymous release in 1970. Denny went on to a solo career; Lucas went on to join Fairport Convention (as did Conway a few years ago); and Conway went on to be a fixture in the Cat Stevens camp for a while.

"Nevertheless" was one of several singles spun off the album to little public response, and it's not only my favorite Eclection track, but probably my all-time favorite folk-rock tune alongside Judy Dyble's addictive rendering of "I Don't Know Where I Stand" on the first Fairport Convention album. Like so many great songs, it's a brief sweet spot in the core melody that makes it transcendent. The modulation of tempo before the chorus is another part of the song that pushes it into the realm of the sublime. Everything else about the song is perfect too, but that's not to say the other songs aren't just as rich in crafty details and timeless melodies. Not a single cover in the bunch, every song on here is a masterpiece and it's a reliably uplifting disc when lilting, gorgeous vintage folk rock is called for. I find myself returning to it again and again, sometimes heading straight for "Nevertheless", but usually winding up in a reverie that gives the whole program a spin, if not two or three.

~Michael Anton Parker

Posted by maparker at 12:17 PM | Comments (2)

August 21, 2005

Jo Jones - The Main Man (Pablo)

il papa

Basically a Basie band minus the Count, Jo Jones sole Pablo date (and one of his paltry few as a leader) mines a familiar swing-based songbook of blues, ballads and burners. His rep as the father of modern drumming more than warrants the Murders Row assembled in support. “Sweets” Edison AND Roy Eldridge, trumpets; Vic Dickenson on ‘bone and the pit-bull tenor of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, able to chew expressively through a riff like few others; how about that for a take-no-prisoners horn section? Also on loan from Jones’ former employer, the redoubtable rhythm sense of one Freddie Green, plectrist par excellence. Tommy Flanagan occupies the piano seat, but his flowery, urbane style isn’t always the best fit for the down-home propensities of the ensemble. With a surname shared but no relation, Sam Jones is an elastic ballast on string bass. He settles comfortably into a wallflower walking role that requires only a modicum of his prowess, giving frequent nods to elder Walter Page.

But enough ink about the roll call. A jam session flavor of old chums, carousing and confabulating, pervades the six tunes. Basie’s “Goin’ to Chicago Blues” commences the party with a couple choruses of rhythm section sans horns sounding off in ode to Jones’ hometown. Stamped by the leader’s pile driver snare, the frontline’s entrance quickly narrows into a gurgling tailgate of Dickenson’s brass and onward to solos by Eldridge, Davis, Edison and Flanagan. Jones’ brushes sashay through “I Want to Be Happy” and sculpt spry time and sibilant volume on par with the harder sonorities achieved with his sticks. “Ad Lib” arrives as his only compositional contribution and it’s little more than riff-piece excuse for more rambunctious horns-and-drums horseplay. At odds with an overly academic title, “Metrical Portions” finds him toying blithely with tempo and mixing up syncopated lather on cymbals amidst sturdy bass fills by the other Jones. A lengthy Buck Clayton arrangement of the old tear-jerker “Dark Eyes” and the gray-mane warhorse “Old Man River” complete the package.

Norman Granz regularly earned black eyes in the critical press for bankrolling albums that favored friction and excess over congeniality and finesse. Running contrary to this conventional ‘wisdom’, this session (and fairly-speaking a slew of others) speaks to his substantive skills as a producer. While it’s a shame there aren’t more Jones-led dates for posterity this late-in-the-game document is also a fitting monument.

Posted by derek at 2:20 PM | Comments (0)

August 14, 2005

Betsuni Nanmo Klezmer - Omedeto


Klezmer bands with 18 members are not exactly common anywhere in the world, but it's safe to say this is the only one of Japanese provenance. Reed giant Kazutoki Umezu formed Betsuni Nanmo Klezmer in 1992 and the sprawling ensemble left the world with three public recordings, the 1994 debut Omedeto I shall be celebrating below, and two 1996 releases, Waruzu and Ahiru. Surely a monumental challenge to organize and sustain, the orchestra project was supplemented and eventually supplanted by Komatcha Klezmer, a small group vehicle for Umezu's klez urges that formed in 1995 and continues to be active, with releases in 2001 (Komatcha Kle) and 2003 (Gekkoishi no Shippo). With the exception of drumkitter Kozo Nida, the members of Komatcha Klezmer are BNK alumni: alto saxist Yoko Tada, violinist Ayumi Matsui, accordionist Koyo Chan, and tubist Takero Sekijima, and the two stars (in my mind) of BNK, wunderkind vocalists Tokyo Nammy and Koichi Makigami, have joined the group as occasional guests.

Omedeto is one of the strangest and most cherished items in my music collection. For starters, it's a positively ass-kicking, burning klezmer disc with inspired solos and a rare and devastating orchestral punch. Even more distinctively, the vocal performances by Makigami and Nammy are astonishing triumphs of creativity and virtuosity. More than anything, though, the group stands alone in the annals of klezmer for its alternately sublime and zany postmodernism. The musicians were clearly chosen for their freewheeling embrace of humor and playful antics as much as their instrumental chops. The lineup is something of an abridged who's who of Tokyo's bohemian prankster avant-garde. The total package unfolds as a seamless, ambitious, far-ranging album that doesn't falter for a single moment.

The festivities begin with "Ale Brider", a traditional tune rendered as five minutes of straight, passionate klezmer. The playing is flawless and bursting with the invigorating spirit of the timeless rhythms and melodies. I could listen to music like this for hours on end. My appetite for klezmer has been insatiable since I discovered the music early in high school and launched my obsession with The Klezmatics' Rhythm and Jews, so it's fitting that a tune I find so utterly addictive as this leadoff track on Omedeto features a quotation from The Klezmatics, specifically their 1988 debut, Shvaygn=Toyt. Credit is given to recordings on two other tracks: "Dona, Dona" quotes The Klezmer Conservatory Band's Oy Chanukah and "Der Gasn Nigun" quotes Theodore Bikel Sings Yiddish Theatre and Folk Songs.

For a guy who doesn't speak the language, Koichi Makigami's Yiddhish vocals on "Ale Brider" and throughout the album are unbelievably compelling. He rips through each line with utter clarity and verve, and there are few singers in the world who can rival his booming tone and precise, hovering vibrato. Just as his two mind-blowing landmark solo vocal albums on Tzadik (Kuchinoha and Koedarake) and his similarly astounding duo disc with Ryoji Hojito (Over That Way) place him alongside Jaap Blonk and Phil Minton as a benchmark for extreme extended vocal techniques, his work here (and plenty elsewhere, e.g. the twisted lounge pop of Koroshi no Blues) ranks him among the most advanced conventional singers. And for all the ace instrumentalism here, it's these robust vocals that really captivate me to the point I'd readily leave individual pieces like "Ale Brider" on repeat play. What's more, with 18 members, the vocal possibilities of the group certainly aren't limited to the two frontpersons; spirited unison group vocals push the energy level a notch higher on this song and a few others. When an insistent chanting chorus of "oy oy oy" in several catchy variations kicks into full gear towards the end, I feel like I'm part of the band, vamping away on this glorious diphthong with sheer bliss and abandon, or if not part of the band, at least there at the party partaking in the communal groove. Great klezmer does that.

The strident chorus, Tokyo Nammy's operatic background wailing near the end, and the sheer vigor of the tune as a whole is analogous to Koenjihyakkei, Tatsuya Yoshida's caffeinated and unabashed revision of Magma, in the sense that both ensembles take an idiom and reproduce it so literally and earnestly that it takes on a surreal absurdist comicality. Even while I'm bathing in musical pleasure, as both BNK and Koenjihyakkei fit my musical preferences like a key in a lock, I can't help but simultaneously experience a detached recognition of the parodism lying on the other side of the top they nearly go over. Curiously enough, aside from minor parts on other albums, my familiarity with Nammy is limited to her work in both of these ensembles (she's a pivotal third of the post-Kobaian "choir" on Koenjihyakkei's monumental masterpieces Nivraym and Live at Star Pine's Cafe), which may simply be coincidence given that this personnel overlap was not at all what motivated the analogy. Nevertheless, she's certainly a prime example of virtuosity married to fringe aesthetics, although she also maintains a more prolific parallel career performing commercial music under her real name, Nami Sagara.

After Makigami's lead vocal on the first cut, Nammy steps into the foreground on "Dona, Dona", where she not only rivals Makigami's uncanny ease with Yiddish lyrics, but goes even farther out into the realms of exaggerated vigor, singing with an exuberance that borders on ferocity. Boisterous accenting strikes me as a key feature of klezmer in general, at least in its thankfully ubiquitous hard-driving form, and Nammy conspires with the rest of the ensemble to give certain phrases explosive ending accents, practically shrieking "kalb" in unison with Sachiko Nagata's xylophone cluster in the line "Ver zhe heyst dir zayn a kalb?", and accenting the living daylights out of "shekht" alongside a saxophone blurt in the line "Un men shlept zey un men shekht". Beyond that, she puts some kind of articulatory spin on virtually every syllable. As an indication of the passion she attacks this material with, even when the same chorus is repeated later in the song, it comes out with a spontaneous rephrasing. At a mere 2:24, "Dona, Dona" works as a total joy-juice blowout pop nugget.

Trying to convey the extraordinary nature of the vocal performances on this disc, I find myself tempted to suggest that without the vocals, this disc would be quickly buried somewhere in a stack of great klezmer discs, but such thoughts are quelled when I turn my attention to the instrumental "Der Shtiler Bulgar", with its barnstorming massed horn riffing and wild solos. After a heavy-hitting orchestral run through the tune for almost two minutes, an insane clarinet solo launches a classic mid-section of turn-taking soloism. I can't say for certain which of the two b-flat clarinettists in the group get credit for this incredible upper register playing, but as a long-time Umezu fan with a solid stack of his records, the tone does sound familiar. Wataru Okuma is a ripping clarinettist too, the leader of Cicala Mvta, a wonderful kindred ensemble to BNK based around a kind of rowdy Japanese street music known as chindon in which a small drum is used to accompany peripatetic reedists—a role Okuma adopted himself for many years— but freely wandering into other areas, like Turkish traditional music, Albert Ayler, and, indeed, klezmer, with recent lineups benefitting from the explosive drumkit work of none other than avant-kingpin Tatsuya Yoshida. In any case, that mercurial clarinet playing is just the tip of the iceberg as a handful of reeds swirl around each other for about 30 thrilling seconds. Assuming the steady bass clarinet part is coming from Kazuhiro Nomoto, it sounds like all three clarinettists together for a bit, and some of Kanji Nakao's soprano sax too if I'm not mistaken. The reed thrills give way to brass thrills as Hiroshi Itaya launches into a devastating, roof-raising trombone solo, and the ensemble downshifts a bit to make room for Hidehiko Urayama's banjo solo. After a fake ending that gives Cicala Mvta member Takero Sekijima a chance to go out on tuba for a few seconds, the ensemble kicks back into the high-octane big band themes. A stunner even without a peep from Makigami or Nammy.

After the unrelenting energy of the first three tracks, the opening passage of "Terk in America" is especially effective, a taciturn doublebass solo that evolves into a brawny improv with some percussion. Two doublebassists are in the group, Joji Sawada (a notable composer in his own right) and Yasuhiko Tachibana, so it could be either of them I'm hearing. It's surely an unexpected and welcome pleasure to hear free improv that could pass for a Barry Guy and Paul Lytton duo right smack in the middle of all the smoking klez jams, which is exactly what the ensemble explodes into after about 111 seconds of this inspired improv detour. After ripping through the main themes, the ensemble drops out for an extended drumkit duet between Yasuo Sano and Yasuhiro Yoshigaki. Yoshigaki is easily the drumkit MVP of the Tokyo avant-garde, a master of every permutation of jazz, rock, and improv ever dished up by Altered States, Ground Zero, Otomo Yoshihide's New Jazz Quintet/Orchestra, Rovo, Shibusashirazu Orchestra, etc. His nimble, powerful style is unmistakable on this album, one of the key instrumental factors that pushes it well beyond an average klezmer platter. On top of the rumbling, popping bed of drums and cymbals, Hiroshi Itaya delivers another devastating (seriously, this guy is the real deal) trombone solo, but this time taking things out into fire music realms, as does Kazuhiro Nomoto with a vicious baritone sax workout. Free jazz this good sandwiched in between klezmer this good—this album is a rarity indeed. And with two drumkitters, two doublebassists, and these kinds of heavyweights on horns, there's a supple, aggressive edge to even the tightly rehearsed klezmer romps. Not to say it's without peers though; we need look no further than Zorn's Masada or the New Klezmer Trio for well-known examples of music that consistently smokes across a similar expressive range.

After these two distinctive and incredible instrumentals, I'm almost tempted to suggest "Vocals? Who needs vocals? An afterthought."! But surely it will come as no surprise when I shortly launch into praise of Nammy and Makigami with effusion to make my earlier encomiums seem lukewarm. You see, as the expansive 8-minute tour de force of "Terk of America" fades out and the tribal drums and vocal freakouts of "Mahouzukai Sarii" enter, I'm jolted back into my main BNK zone. It's all about the human voice. It's rather charming that the lovely foldout paper with lyrics, credits, etc lists the Yiddish song titles (and one English title too) with Japanese translations below, only to give a Yiddish gloss for the album's sole Japanese song title! Then again, these things are all chicken-and-egg escapades anyway. "Mahouzukai Sarii" is given in Yiddish as "Di Makhsheyfe Sally" and translates into English as "Sally the Witch". While all the Yiddish lyrics are faithfully translated into Japanese on the lyric sheet, they didn't go so far as giving a Yiddish translation for the Japanese lyrics though!

I'm getting a bit ahead of myself even talking about lyrics though; nothing like intelligible vocal utterances factor into this song until the 1:27 mark. What comes before then is something that you'll not only never hear on another klezmer record, but on no other record period! But it's not only incredibly strange stuff, it also blows my mind as a triumph of fully realized creativity. Basically, the two drumkitters generate a percolating bed of dense, loose tribal grooves (somewhat reminiscent of Yoshigaki's work in Rovo, a decent group I have no special enthusiasm for) and a handful of the others go nuts on top of it, especially Makigami and Nammy. The closest thing I can think of is Jefferson Airplane's wacky miniature "Ribump Ba Bap Dum Dum" (never released until a CD reissue of Crown of Creation, where it appears as a bonus track), but this is a hundred times crazier. Far from being a chaotic freakout, though, the violin scribbles and xylophone darts are measured, balanced interjections and the whole thing works as a delirious swirl of rhythm and coloration. But most importantly, Nammy and Makigami go out; I mean far out. Hearing Makigami's extended vocal vocabulary is, of course, no surprise, but no less welcome and riveting for that. On the other hand, this precious passage is the only one I've encountered with Nammy offering a parallel thread of invention. Step aside Shelley Hirsch, Lauren Newton, and any other diva of the deranged, this lady is a few zip codes away from her rocker here. Completely mind-blowing stuff. It would be stretched out to album-length in a perfect world. Then again, it is an intro, and what it introduces is so great I can hardly wait till it kicks in! So you're starting to get the gist here. This song would be played on every radio station at least once an hour if the world was full of aesthetic pathologies like me. The fact is that as much as I love every track on this disc and relish it as a continuous experience, in practice "Mahouzukai Sarii" is the song I play most often, a track I pluck for handmade comps and often pop the disc in just for the sake of hearing as a quick fix.

So the song proper kicks in after this magical madness, and how does it begin? With one of the most scalding, gripping, medicinal vocal lines I've ever heard this side of "Civet's Tango" by the Sun City Girls (the leadoff track on disc one of 330, 003 Cross Dressers from Beyond the Rig Veda). Lasting only about seven seconds, it's all-too-brief; Nammy repeats a short line twice and then it's off to the next section of the song. The linguistic provenance of her utterance defies my grasp entirely. While clearly structured syllabically and transcribed in the lyric sheet, it's not any Japanese I can recognize, so I can only speculate it's some kind of adaption from another language or an outright phonetic invention, perhaps intended to suggest a magical incantation befitting the song's playful lyrics about a charming young witch. The best way I can think to describe Nammy's singing might be rather on the mark given the topic of the song: it's like the high-pitched cackle of a witch! Whatever it means and whatever Nammy's doing in her delivery, this singing makes my endorphins curdle.

After this mercurial micro-song, Nammy launches into the delightful Japanese verse about a young witch flying into town on her broom, flashing a mischievous grin, chanting some magic words, and so on—really playful, charming stuff entirely befitting the manic, wacky singing by Nammy and Makigami (in alternation), klezmer rave-ups, and even a irresistible heartfelt group vocal chorus. Being the only song in their native Japanese on the album, Nammy and Makigami clearly are in a comfort zone where they can push themselves into even more expressive depth than the killer Yiddish songs. What's more, the full-out complex group chorus would've been a daunting affair in a non-native language. Everything about this song just bursts with joy, passion, and fun. Best of all, that seven second vocal part comes back near the end!

The next track, "Doina", passes its first half as a simmering sparse klezmer reverie that gives Makigami a chance to go into his experimental vocal wackiness, notably including his Tuvan-inspired techniques, before it suddenly bursts into a breakneck klezmer hoedown with ripping Yiddish vocals so catchy I've caught myself virtually reciting them from memory in idle moments after a session with the disc. I start to wonder if I'm subconsciously learning Yiddish! Probably not, but it's not especially different than English, German, and other close Germanic siblings.

The album closes out with "Der Gasn Nigun", a traditional tune rendered as a slightly somber, sensuous, slow march with drones and langorous melodies from (I believe) all three of the group's bass clarinettists at once, with violins, accordion and xylophone laying out the melodies with old world phrasing . It's a chance to wind down and revel in the vibrant acoustic timbres of the ensemble and hear a side to their musicality besides the high-energy romps.

~Michael Anton Parker

Posted by maparker at 2:07 PM | Comments (0)

August 7, 2005

The Fabulous Sidney Bechet (Blue Note)


There’s better Bechet to be sure, but this comp collecting a deuce of early 50s sessions by the aging straight horn savant has several advantages, sonically speaking. First there’s the fidelity afforded by studio tape technology that renders both bands in clarity not present on earlier shellac sides. Next there’s the ensembles themselves: two sextets manned by specialists of Nawlins swing vernacular both elder and acolyte who are clearly enamored of their famous front man and more than happy to follow his lead. Trombonist Jimmy Archey is the only sideman shared between the two and his staccato tailgate style jibes jovially with wailing soprano in the customary layered horn polyphony. Bear-shouldered bassist Walter Page lends a slightly more modernist bent to the second session by straying from the usual slap time syncopations with frequent walking detours. It’s great fun juxtaposing his Basie-born approach with that of the venerable Pops Foster who pounds his own strings with merciless glee on the first clambake. A similar contrast arises between brassmen Sidney de Paris and Jonah Jones, the former firing away with crisp clarion clusters while the latter, on the cusp of his career as a mood music cash cow for Capitol, plays it with greater degree of lissome cool. And the drummers display fealties to different eras too. Johnny Blowers’ tribal tom rolls on “Rose of the Rio Grande” recall classic Chick Webb while Manzie Johnson’s lively cowbell and woodblock accents on “Original Dixieland One-Step” give nod to Baby Dodds. The tunes on both dates represent little remove from Bechet’s usual repast. Hardscrabble blowers like “Ballin’ the Jack” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” alternate with cerulean dirges like “Black and Blue.” Bechet’s rapaciously tilted horn holds court at the center of the action, manhandling melodies and subjugating rhythms with a sumptuous vibrato that swells to fill the rooms. “Fabulous” isn’t superlative enough to describe the half of it.

Posted by derek at 8:10 AM | Comments (0)

July 31, 2005

Charlie Byrd - Byrd By the Sea (Fantasy)


Certainly a serious contender in any “Ugliest Album Cover” contest this concert recording by Charlie Byrd is also one of the guitar albums I reach for most. Byrd was one of those bonafide virtuosos who had the Zelig-like ability of being at the right place at the right time, repeatedly. A student of Segovia, a jam-partner of Django Reinhardt, a cornerstone of the bossa nova movement through his work on Stan Getz’s Jazz Samba, and a man with an inveterate sweet tooth for pop tunes from Tin Pan Alley to A.M. radio, he was a walking set of contradictions when gauged against the archetypal recital guitarist of the 60s and 70s. Despite his massive chops and near-regal pedigree he always remained an unapologetic populist at heart- the Jack Nicholson character in the film Five Easy Pieces, hold the anger and angst. This set, recorded at Redondo Beach, CA in 1974 as part of a Howard Rumsey concert series and expanded to twice its length for the cd reissue, features him in what was probably his favorite format, dipping into a conspicuously eclectic songbook in front of a responsive audience. Brother Joe girds his gilded chords on acoustic and electric basses and the “paint brushes on coffee cans and phonebooks” percussion of Bertell Knox completes the triangle. Byrd’s amplified Spanish guitar approaches the program as an equal opportunist, applying the same industry and brio to each tune regardless of its provenance. Whether it’s a mellow, but slinky rundown of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song” where the Byrd has fun fooling the audience with a false ending and drawing out premature applause, or a pastoral reading of Vivaldi’s “Concerto in G” that evokes the ambience of a sun-dappled country courtyard in spring the results are always marvelously listenable. Also of special note on the scorecard, Jobim’s “Wave,” Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean Thing” and a gorgeous interpretation of “Norwegian Wood” that finds Byrd adding rippling syncopations to the familiar wistful theme. Conservatively speaking, I’ve probably listened to this disc a hundred times and the replay value has yet to atrophy. Calling Byrd the Bird of the guitar in terms of the reach of his artistry and worth doesn’t seem a stretch by my estimation.

Posted by derek at 3:40 PM | Comments (0)

July 24, 2005

Issa Bagayogo - Tassoumakan (Six Degrees)


My Afrobeat tastes run pretty catholic. Fela sits head and shoulders above any other contender and it’s his ample catalog I reach for when the urge for funk-inflected grooves from the Continent strikes. But Malian Issa Bagayogo’s vibrant and forward-reaching music has recently upset my carefully packed applecart. Over the past few years the n’goni-playing composer (an instrument family incidentally also favored by William Parker) has been steadily building an audience for his fusion of Wassoulou folk forms, Afro-dub breakbeats and Euro-trance electronica. His fourth album on Six Degrees, distributed domestically by Ryko, constitutes the most seamless and inviting blend of these elements yet. Fourteen tracks, nearly all in the four to five minute range present an instantly appealing diaspora of organically-combined ingredients. Wood flute dances with wah-wah guitar; the brittle strum of n’goni rides an undulating current of electronic bass; a choir of back-up singers responds to the rich tenor of Bagayogo’s voice and lateral visions of Fela’s charismatic orations slideshow through my mind. Tracks like the tensile funk of “Koroto” where acoustic and synthetic drums weave reverberating syncopations around an anchoring hip-shaking beat and “Kalan Nege” where keyboards and drum machines mimic balafon and djembe in the service of another slippery set of grooves establish the backbone of the album. Mellower tracks like “Djigui” and “Chauffer,” the latter imbued with some convincing blues guitar, convey the comfort of a dry desert sirocco with the leader’s own filament strings prominently featured, an exotic blend akin to the pungent fragrance of pit-roasted coffee beans. The lyrics, sung in Bagayogo’s native Bambaran tongue, might be unintelligible to most Western ears, but their emotional import crosses any linguistic lacuna. These are the sorts of sounds that subvert cultural borders, equally at home in a Koulikoran open air market or Parisian discotheque. As a sum they achieve a supple resonating depth beyond the reach of a lot of world beat, skillfully skirting the over-production and bombast that saddles so many efforts and yielding an album rich in replay value. Fela’s seat at the head of the table remains secure, but Bagayogo well-deserves a chair as a worthy apostle.

Posted by derek at 12:42 PM | Comments (3)

July 17, 2005

Magali Babin

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The first time I heard the music of Magali Babin was in an evening that included, among other rather distinctive ploys for my attention, two men shoving a few dozen sticks of butter into their mouths and letting it dribble down their chins and onto an amplified table, beneath which John Berndt was crouched on four limbs stark naked uttering animal sounds. It was the touring Québécois performance trio of Babin, André-Éric Létourneau, and Alexandre Saint-Onge. In total contrast to the perplexing conceptual extremes of their two pieces and the utterly disgusting, abominable, shameful attempt at music-making by the trio of Donald Miller, Jack Rose, and Ian Nagoski that began the non-festivities that evening, Babin performed a solo set that gave me an unequivocally sublime experience I still fondly recall some five years later. Instead of indulging a sado-masochistic obsession with loud volume like Miller, et al, she presented an impeccably focused improvisation on a sound vocabulary of her own creation at a medium volume that was ideal to draw the listener into careful and comfortable attention to the nuances of each passing moment without the slightest hint of pretension or bombast.

Babin used a modest array of small metallic objects with pickups and guitar pedals, gently amplifying the hidden world of complex sound as metallic objects touch each other in sundry ways. Her methods are simple, but her music is exquisitely rich in detail and variation. A year or two after that memorable performance I saw in Philadelphia, her solo masterpiece Chemin de Fer was released by the Canadian label No Type, and if you listen to the very first track, "Triturations", you'll have a pretty good idea of the delicate electro-acoustic sound sculpture I heard that evening. As the album artwork suggests, however, Babin's array of equipment is quite a bit more extensive than what she'd brought on that tour. In her native recording environment she explores the microscopic idiosyncracies of a much wider array of metallic objects, especially pots, pans, and kitchen utensils. The notes accompanying the disc report that Babin created this music by improvising, a simple fact that becomes meaningful when I recall the live performances I've enjoyed from her.

"Triturations" is nine minutes of electroacoustic micro-timbral heaven. Some layers of the piece sound like heavy breathing muted and compressed into a detached, nonreferential, yet still vaguely biological texture. With its evenness of texture and density amidst the cornucopia of crackling, rustling, and rubbing details, it feels like a warm cloud of gentle, unpatronising sound that envelops and comforts me.

When Steve Roden coined the phrase "lowercase sound" in the mid-90s he was expressing an incredibly elegant and timeless concept that both echos and splits away from the Cage/Oliveros paradigm. The sounds sought were simply the ones usually hidden or masked, the details that don't call attention to themselves. The phrase went on to be widely misunderstood as having specific implications about volume, velocity, and density, but all of this is extrinsic to that jewel of aesthetic crystillization Roden proffered. "Triturations" and so much other work by Magali Babin stands as an eminent prototype for lowercase music in my mind. It's worth noting that there's nothing especially quiet, nor loud, about it. In fact, it's rather medium-volume, medium-velocity, and medium-density music as a whole. It's at just the right volume so you can hear everything clearly, which seems like the point to me. It's simply the sonic microscopy of moving metal, sounds heretofore unknown and otherwise inaudible. I happen to find most of them sublime and intoxicating.

The second track, "Petit Jardin", is methodologically continuous with "Triturations" but the soundworld is fresh. Two sounds complement each other: a beautiful, softly resonant gong-like sound (probably obtained via a pot or pan) and the tinkling of small metal objects (perhaps something like paperclips?) being dropped against a metallic surface. It's the hidden world of an ad hoc metallic idiophone. "Monsieur et Madame Watt" is another track based on lucid juxtaposition, this time between some faint Erstwhilian amplifier hum and some indistinct rubbing (suggesting to me the sound of a microphone's metal grating moving against another metallic object). I found something ecstatic in these humble sounds, though my feeling dissipated later in the piece as the hum began modulating and assuming greater prominence in the mix; it became mundane.

For more years than I can recall I've had this perversely cherished Kevin Drumm CD listing neither a title nor release date, but it has a solid green cover and says it was recorded to tape in 1996; the label is Perdition Plastics and it's catalog number per007. I don't know much about Drumm's discography and have only lightly sampled his other work because I really hated this CD. In fact, I probably never made it all the way through. But it's always persisted in my thoughts because it's so rare I have a such a strongly negative reaction to any music. It symbolizes something for me, the very extremes of harsh and difficult music. I have no problem with conventional harsh noise; heck, it's just a twist on new-age music in a way, but this Drumm disc is mostly silence sporadically and irregularly interrupted by loud, screeching, painful sounds made by fucking with an electric guitar and amplifier. It was just too much for me and the thought of playing it still scares me. The reason I mention it is that some of Babin's music sounds like the precise opposite—gentle and smooth—yet draws from the same dangerous sound vocabulary of conductive surfaces and amplifiers operating at the threshhold of functionality. It's a fascinating contrast.

This disc is studded with jewels, but it's time to report on the rarest, "Jogging dans la maison hantée", which was "crafted in joyous collaboration with Alain Chénier and Mario Gauthier". Its seven minutes are filled with some fairly generic electronic interjections, but they comprise fairly neutral background to one of life's greatest pleasures: extremely clipped squeaks. A major piece of background information is required here. If there's one piece of music I've played most often in my life, probably upwards of 2000 times by a rough estimate, including a six-month stretch where I played it at least once per day and typically a good handful of times, it's "Bluebird" by Judy Dunaway and Yasunao Tone, from Dunaway's seminal Balloon Music. A piece that should stand in the public consciousness of the current era as an analog to Duke's "Take the A train" or the like, it is in fact unknown to virtually every person I've broached it to among the relevant demographic. Without attempting to account for its unyielding grip on my aesthetic relationship to sound, I'll describe it here for you. It's a seven-minute excerpt of a recording made by Tone applying his standard technique to a CD of solo tenor balloon improvisations by Dunaway. In other words, it's glitching balloon sounds. So to account for my experience of Babin's "Jogging dans la maison hantée" I need to make it clear that there is a thrilling resemblance in these clipped and irregular squeaky sounds that flit across the piece's uncluttered canvas (mingling marveously with the many birds outside my open windows this lovely hot summer afternoon I might add). Further, I don't want to mince any words here: "Bluebird" is by far my single favorite musical composition among all I've heard in my 28 years so far. It's the pinnacle.

A non-squeaky moment in this piece demands special mention. Among self-contained musical events I've heard of roughly one to two moments in duration, [6:22-6:27] is exceptionally exciting, a kind of split-second burst of somewhat ordinary electronic sound that merges with a sine-wavish tone that evenly decays across four seconds. It's not that there's anything special about these two sounds, just like the greatest moments of violin music are made with essentially the same notes that appear in countless other contexts, but the timing and the dynamic contours combine these two gestures into a single unified event that functions as a higher order version of the note, where I'm referring to the familiar category of sound events prototypically represented by a short episode of relatively constant pitch and timbre. It's as if an impossible decay pattern suddenly occurred for an unruly burst of noise. This is a kind of sound event I often fantasize about, but rarely encounter in the external world. It is part of my objection (with respect to individual aesthetic desiderata, aka taste) to the typical high levels of density found in so-called noise music that these kinds of momentary shapes are masked. In the brave new sound world of the technologically-facilitated explosion in timbral possibilities for music in recent decades, I perceive a bifurcation in the way new aesthetics are derived from the new sounds. In one direction, exemplified by the sound event being discussed presently, the new shapes and internal structures of the sounds justify a topology of gesture. In the other direction, the sounds are maximally and continuously generated to create texture and immersion in their brute timbres. I'd argue that because the latter aesthetic can often be achieved with such a lack of technical refinement or effort that it has become undeservedly ubiquitous, regrettably displacing the former aesthetic.

Three of the pieces on the disc—"La Corde", "L'entonnoir", and "Pluie de Homards"—don't go much beyond pleasant for me. "L'entonnoir" is instructive in its contrast with the main thrust of Babin's work. It feels a bit ugly and overbearing, with a sound palette and approach close to conventional textural electronic noise music. The key word here is "electronic". The distinction between electro-acoustic sounds and electronic sounds is fascinating and truly central to contemporary music, a topic I find myself returning to again and again, always winding up in a theoretical quandary. Concretely experienced distinctions like that provided by "L'entonnoir" are surely the key to sorting this out. In the pieces I've praised from Chemin de Fer there is a resonance and spatiality I associate with acoustically derived sounds. There's also a wealth of odd non-repeating details. These are qualities that I'd cite to account for enjoying Mikrophonie vastly more than any other work by Karlheinz Stockhausen, most of which suits me well. Thinking about the metal objects Babin patiently manipulates, I'm driven to speculate that perhaps the true musicological antonym of "electronic" is not "acoustic", but rather "mechanical". In fact, it's the similarities I feel between Babin's work and Howard Stelzer's (arguably prototypically electroacoustic) abstract hissing and crackling cassette vocabulary that inspired me to revisit this disc recently after being immersed in Stelzer's art . Surely it's not trivial that the monumental Stelzer-curated Intransitive Twenty-Three features "Thermidor", a work by Babin that I would cite among her best.

warm coursing blood.jpgThe placement of "Pluie de Homards" as the final track here was wise. An album of moderation concludes with some annihilatory extremes. Babin created the piece with Mario Gauthier's assistance by mixing some of her characteristic sounds with "Rain" by Ian Nagoski, a track from Ian's drone classic Warm Coursing Blood, a 1998 recording released by Colorful Clouds for Acoustics. As Ian recounted to me recently in a chance encounter that allowed me to broach my recent revisitation of Chemin de Fer (recorded in 2000 and released in 2001), he created the piece by recording the water from a shower striking a huge metal pot designed for cooking lobsters and subsequently layering the recording on top of itself more than a few times. When Babin learned of this kindred metallophonic endeavor, she enthusiastically sought to adapt it to her world. "Rain" was already an extremely thick and static slab of sound; with Babin's additions it's that and a lot more sound. I took this review as an opportunity to revisit Warm Coursing Blood, a truly brilliant album in a style of music I have only a nominal attraction towards. One of my listening sessions was a breakthrough for me. One day I somehow found myself in the mood to lay down for a bit and see if I could enjoy being enveloped by Ian's music played at room-filling (but not biologically irresponsible) volume, something I'd not actually tried before. Ian's textures opened up for me and I was mesmerized for two long pieces, "Feather" and "Rain". It was a smashing success. Comparing this to my experiences of "Pluie de Homards", I've concluded that Babin's augmented version of "Rain" is a pleasant and novel whole, but her distinct vocabulary actually subtracts from the eminently cohesive power of the original, which relies on the shading revealed by an extremely narrow and focused range of sound.

~Michael Anton Parker

Posted by maparker at 2:06 PM | Comments (1)

July 10, 2005

John Fahey - God, Time and Causality (Shanachie)


Near as I can figure Shanachie pioneered the practice of including detailed guitar tablatures with Pre-War blues reissues. Their two-volume Charley Patton set (now made obsolete several times over by a succession of superior releases on other labels) is a prime example. The liner author (who’s name escapes me since I’ve long since anted up for the aforementioned upgrades) goes to great (some might say exorbitant) lengths in ascribing each string stroke and fret slide by the Masked Marvel with the proper terminology. For the layperson all that lingo quickly wears out its welcome. My pet theory posits Fahey, and albums like this one, as the culprits for this practice. With Fahey and apostles like Peter Lang, John Renbourn and Stephen Grossman came a fascination and occasional preoccupation with the technical side of acoustic guitar lore. But to his credit & like fellow iconoclast Robbie Basho, Fahey never lost sight of the mystical, primordial side of his art in a way that peers like Leo Kottke did. In his callused hands the guitar becomes vessel for ingress into the limitless sound cosmos that Folkways swami Mose Asch believed the principle pipeline of cultural information.

This disc is among Fahey’s most nakedly virtuosic. It’s a master class recital in steel-string technique, employing a familiar cache of Fahey themes as fodder for some truly staggering displays of fret dexterity. In his own words: “I practiced a lot to save on studio time. I don’t think there’s one edit on the whole record.” A plurality of sources serve as launching pads: blues, old timey, classical, flamenco, bossa nova, raga forms and Tin Pan Alley, to name a few. Another advantage is the limpid studio fidelity, scrubbed clean of the fine-grain Sligo silt that dusted so many Takoma platters. Annotations take the place of strict tablatures in the notes with each tune and medley placed in proper context. Fahey’s playing is near flawless. The glissing slides that punctuate so much of his playing on previous records are largely absent here, but the results are hardly antiseptic or stolid. Dark locomotive runs dominate “The Red Pony.” Fahey undercuts the staccato main line with a shimmering bass string drone that targets the shadowy side of the psyche- a murder ballad without words. A bottleneck medley of “Snowflakes/ Steamboat ‘Gwine Around the Bend/ Death of the Clayton Peacock/ How Green Was My Valley” exhibits startling lap steel skill as Fahey adroitly massages Dobro bar against frets to create a dew-dappled web of harmonics. There’s a wealth of great Fahey out there, but this is one I reach for when attempting to persuade neophytes of his lionized worth as both visionary guitarist and tongue-in-cheek thaumaturgist.

Posted by derek at 1:06 PM | Comments (0)

July 4, 2005

Cheval de Frise — Fresques sur les parois secrètes du crâne

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There's something about a clean, pointillistic guitar sound that has always been a magnet to my ears, phrases demarcated by infinitesimal points of sound, each like a motion vector pointing in a new direction. When it comes to representing shapes, a line drawing trumps a smear. Some large chunk of my musical pleasure seems to be about sound shapes in motion. Perhaps that's vacuous, but whatever texture is, something must be its negation. I like to think of it as phrasal clarity. A Wes Montgomery solo is like a rollercoaster ride, every few notes careening around a new corner; the thrill is in the lapses of kinesthetic stability. Just like there's little room for error in where you place the steel guides and bolts that keep the rollercoaster cabs on course, its musical equivalent requires each note to have definite and precise space-time coordinates. Some music is about the individual notes and the way they wiggle and slide, but what I'm talking about here is the syntax of velocity and I wish to celebrate its most extraordinary concretization in the music of Cheval de Frise, a duo of drumkit and amplified acoustic guitar from Bordeaux, France.

If pointillism and clarity is the goal, an acoustic guitar is certainly a logical choice over an electric. The past 40 years of music history has been dramatically dominated by countless attempts to harness the timbral and textural potential of the electric guitar, from Hendrix to Holdsworth to Haino. Its humble acoustic progenitor has by and large been relegated to strum-and-sing music and post-Bach museum music (aka the dead white European male tradition). But wait, what about Derek Bailey and flamenco? What if they were combined? What if it was augmented with post-punk riffing and slashing? Now we're getting a bit closer to what Thomas Bonvalet does with his amplified acoustic guitar in convulsive tandem with Vincent Beysselance's drumkit.

Bonvalet's clean, spiky notes transcend the permutations of pitch, timing, and accent that drive Wes Montgomery, Larry Coryell, Forever Einstein, Ahleuchatistas, Robert Fripp's League of whoever, Philharmonie and other eminent examples of guitar pointillism. The clarity is there; the precision is there, but it's subjected to the most extreme fits of asymmetric lurching I've ever heard in rock music, or perhaps any music for that matter. Cheval de Frise's compositions stand alongside The Stick Men, Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band, Hella, Rich Woodson's Ellipsis, Yowie, and Fred Frith's Massacre (Killing Time) as a pinnacle of a musical phenomenon I like to call herky-jerkiness, a barrage of contrary motions and metrical implosions that play like a soundtrack for an epileptic seizure. For me personally, herky-jerkiness is the holy grail; it's what I live for as a listener and everything else is a supplementary diversion.

Bonvalet's shards and splays of sick picking come in sudden fits and starts, with wide dynamic leaps and split-second accelerations and decelerations. He's perpetually setting up little themes just for the sake of deconstructing or outright obliterating them. The music is clearly heavily rehearsed, permeated with impossible rhythmic unisons and counterpoint. I've simply never heard this level of detail and complexity in non-improvised music before, and sometimes an entire musical thought is conveyed with a single sound, a kind of minimalistically wrought maximalism where multiple phrases are suggested in a split-second, but none are completed. The very first time I listened to Cheval de Frise it was like a dream come true; this is truly music I've fantasized about, as if these two Frenchmen have the same twitches and glitches in their nervous system as me, the barely noticeable muscle spasms beneath the surface of a biological organism's roughly even flow of overlapping cycles in cellular activity.

Repetition plays a major role here; the formula is disorder via order. Beysselance's drumming is clearly rooted in an aggressive math rock style, but he brilliantly achieves the balance of groove and unpredictable accents and sidepaths that characterizes Jim Black and Tom Rainey, and sometimes it's like Bonvalet took a fragment of a Derek Bailey solo and starting riffing on it, trying to make it groove, but preserving the slowness and sparseness. Other times the pair rocks out with loud, high-energy slow riffing in a fairly generic 90s post-punk or math rock style. Perhaps Shellac would be a good point of reference here, but the heaviness is tempered by the simple fact an acoustic guitar is being used with very little in the way of processing. These passages are very brief and serve as powerful foils to the duo's default mode of microscopic, pointillistic, jagged twitching.

Fresques sur les parois secrètes du crâne is the group's second release, a slightly more introspective album than its eponymous predecessor released in 2000. Released originally in France on RuminanCe in 2002, it was also given a US release by San Francisco's Frenetic Records. The title work is a noteworthy anomaly in their oeuvre. Despite being a very busy, active, mid-tempo piece, it foregoes the standard lurching juxtapositions and proceeds with a calm, even, meditative feeling that reaches a poignant conclusion with a delicate, sustained, thin tone for the last minute or so that wouldn't sound out of place in the electroacoustic improv of the current era, Günter Müller or the like. "Phosphorescence de l'arbre mort" is another example of the group expanding their aesthetic into extraordinary new territory, with some tantalizing vocal timbres I'm assuming Bonvalet somehow conjured with his humble instrumentation, a mysterious and elusive composition that defies much of my above attempts to characterize the group.

Because it both equals its predecessor at its best and introduces a wider compositional range, I'd recommend this second album to anyone wishing to consider a role for Cheval de Frise in their life, but to be honest, the first album will also convey their essential aesthetic equally well and my own listening is split fairly evenly between the two. Since discovering this body of work almost one year ago, I've played these discs dozens of times in a state of peaceful rapture—the herky-jerkiness is so subtle and intricate that I'm not compelled to find expression through bodily movement—and like Trout Mask Replica or Yowie's Cryptooology, I'm sure they will be a constant presence in my life till the end, always kept within convenient reach.

~Michael Anton Parker

Posted by maparker at 4:22 PM | Comments (16)

June 26, 2005

Clive Bell and Sylvia Hallett - The Geographers (Emanem)


Emanem 4112

In order to find the roots of improvisation, the communicative act that has infused music since its earliest inception, it is necessary to look beyond the tempered scale and bandstand practices to non-tempered and ritualistic practices that imbue those most ‘basic’ ways of making music. To be sure, there are several ways in which non-western source material have found their way into contemporary improvisation. As a spiritual communion, a celebratory act of reverence and worship of sound run through the mill of jazz and western classical music as well as China, India, Japan, Turkey and points in between, ‘ethnic improvisation’ has informed the Sea Ensemble and Don Cherry’s Organic Music Society, among others. Of a more direct approach, and conceived to gain both a more diverse palette and a constancy of new playing situations, the use of an entire catalog of non-western and homemade instruments has informed the work of composers like Mauricio Kagel and the improvisation group New Phonic Art (Michel Portal, Vinko Globokar, Carlos Roqué Alsina, Jean-Pierre Drouet).

Somewhere in between reverence and a knotty neo-dadaist approach to process lies the duo of Clive Bell and Sylvia Hallett. Hallett, a regular fixture in the London Improvisers’ Orchestra as a violinist (see Bagatellen for a review of the LIO’s latest), has worked since the mid-1970s with many of England’s most vanguard improvisers, a tireless explorer of high harmonics and lengthy bowed tones: violin, viola, cello, sarangi, bowed bicycle wheels, saws, electronically-produced sounds and voice have all entered into her lexicon. Bell, primarily a shakuhachi player (he studied the instrument in Tokyo) and a collector of Asian mouth instruments, has worked in the LIO as well as with the BBC Symphony; The Geographers is their first recorded duo. Something one has to keep in mind when listening to Hallett and Bell (or any of the above mentioned ensembles) is inherent in the title of The Geographers: making an aesthetic, creative map of the world does, on many occasions, require cultural juxtaposition. Such a concept is part and parcel of this music – as in New Phonic Art, where it is highly doubtful that any other musical situation could employ zurna, alphorn, pipe organ and tabla in a quartet improvisation, so Cretan pipes, electronics and bowed bicycle spokes probably have not met before this duo. Luckily, The Geographers appears as a balance between reverent and post-structural juxtaposition, humming electronics and high harmonics from Hallett’s arsenal girding and filling out the traditionally-played, plaintive and full-bodied sound of Bell’s various pipes and flutes. “Shrugging into Spring” opens with percussion and dissonant reed cries from Bell’s pi saw (a Thai free reed instrument) before segueing into an intense bout of shakuhachi and viola, a slowly building overture of disparates. Sarangi and shakuhachi are employed for “Flying on the Landing,” an exploration of controlled violence, Bell’s shakuhachi given a pinched, terse vocabulary to mate with the sarangi’s 35 tuned blades. The khene, a Chinese harmonica, is given a hymnal workout (indeed, as an instrument, it has a processional quality) to an underpinning of bowed bicycle spokes in “With the Book Propped Up Against the Horse’s Mane.” To be sure, there is a foray into wispy bent notes and wide vibratos commingling, saw and breath in “The Weald,” the thirteen-minute centerpiece in which Bell’s shakuhachi takes on a distinctly bowed, shrill character, a thicker grade of metal to match Hallett’s saw.

Juxtapositions, while undeniably present, are often subtle and, as Bell and Hallett are well aware of the potential of both instrumentation and listening ability, ironic commentary is quashed by the complementary beauty that each is able to bring from their vocabulary. With The Geographers, Clive Bell and Sylvia Hallett have created a rather visceral meditation on sound – leaving one to wonder whether the originators of musical communication had such power in mind.

Posted by clifford at 8:12 PM | Comments (7)

June 20, 2005

Waylon Jennings - Waylon Live (RCA/BMG)


Waylon didn’t coin the outlaw attitude in country (that honor arguably belongs to Johnny Cash), but he certainly lived it and sold it to legions of fans. Whether with his single finger salute to the Nashville old boy’s network or his willingness to plunder the regions of rock, blues and pop for bricks in his personal sound, Waylon bucked tradition while still borrowing the best it had to offer. The “take it or leave it” aura also reflected in his stripped down band the Waylors- a tough as hardtack seven-piece of three guitars, pedal-steel, harmonica, bass and drums. No schmaltzy keyboards or strings allowed within sight of the stage. His personage likewise struck a purposeful pose. From the hand-tooled saddle leather carapace of his Telecaster to the high-collared rhinestone shirts, cowhide vests, dungarees and boots, to the shaggy Southern rock mane and beardstache, all crowned with the rich wounded drawl that was another cousin to Cash, Waylon emphasized wide open space over the confining weight of overproduction and artifice. Everything comes to boil on this seminal live smorgasbord from ’74, a body of music that’s ballooned to over four times its originally circulated size over the course of consecutive reissues. Dubbed The Expanded Edition, BMG’s 2003 version looks to be definitive: 42 cuts (22 previously unreleased) and well over two hours of material culled from a three show stint in Dallas and Austin. It’s more than enough for any self-respecting country fan to gorge his or her ears on several times over. From the crowd-coaxing cover of Jimmy Rogers’ “T for Texas” with a chugging freight train rhythm, stinging pedal steel from old pro Ralph Mooney and wailing blues harp by Roger Crabtree, to the sturdy sign off “You Can Have Her” the band jockeys that tight/loose continuum we here at Bags are so fond of debating. Other burners include “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean” where Waylon captures the autarchic Americana spirit in a concentrated 3:23 receptacle, autographing the lyrics with some ripping twang-saturated runs and “Honky Tonk Heroes,” one of his hugest hits were he pays respects to the rowdy ways of the past masters. All are in the two to four minute range and their brisk pacing keeps things from lagging or faltering. Even tears-in-beer ballads like “Amanda” and “Mona” preserve a satisfying simplicity. It’s like a killer honky tonk jukebox made flesh with stimulants aplenty for the involuntary onset of White Man’s Overbite. Stacked beside Live at Fulsom Prison and Joe Ely’s Live Shots it ties as a tip-top trifecta soundtrack for any interstate road trip.

Posted by derek at 12:00 AM | Comments (1)

June 12, 2005

Robert Fripp and Brian Eno - The Equatorial Stars (Opal / DGM)


Fripp and Eno’s first joint full-length in some thirty years drags along with it the noiseless chain of history and anticipation that threatens to keep it from even a first breath. While the disc is definitely a retread of now-hallowed ambient ground, sheer sonic depth and tempting textural play lift it just above the mythological nightmare of its own making.

Largely due to a resurgence in popularity of all things droney -- thanks to Fripp and Eno’s work with Matching Mole, which got the ball rolling in 1972 -- parts of Stars even exhibit a degree of fashion sense. “Meissa” opens with the staccato stutterings of what sounds like Eno-tweaked guitar, an advance in the Frippertronics camp bespeaking at least a wink in the direction of recent technological developments. The odd beat even shows its face, best integrated on “Lupus” yet sounding most pedestrian -- not so much offensive as simply outdated and plainly tasteful -- in “Altair”. In fact, “Meissa” might be viewed as the template from which almost every track on offer here is struck. As has been this duo’s wont, long loops swell, fade and then disappear. The overriding atmosphere is one of bliss, static and serene, and anyone familiar with Evening Star knows the formula. Such floatiness does not preclude a few moments of stock sinisterity, as in the first few moments of “Lupus”, and at the right volume, these are fairly effective.

What saves the disc from itself, and what I found most refreshing, are Fripp’s contributions. Occasionally, the worn-out synth patches I’ve come to dread with the audition of each new Crimson album rear their ugly heads, but by and large, we are treated to some beautifully textured improvisations, full of the gorgeous sustains and controlled feedback any Fripp fan has loved for so long. Much of Evening Star’s distortion has gone, or been somehow subsumed, but the playing is even more mature, each note bent, quivering or arrow-straight, fitting perfectly in its surroundings as if it had sprung up and grown tall just there. The disc ends with one of the longest and slowest fades I’ve ever heard, and this might be the most astonishing revelation from a disc that gets better with each spin.

~ Marc Medwin

Posted by marc at 5:17 PM | Comments (1)

June 5, 2005

Khan Jamal - Dark Warrior (Steeplechase)


The Philly-Chicago nexus in creative improvised music has few proponents as persistent as Khan Jamal. The vibraphonist’s career has traveled more troughs to peaks than most, but he’s yet to concede a KO and flip the switch permanently silencing his instrument’s motor. A three album deal with Steeplechase in the 80s notched one of his most artistically noteworthy periods, free from cloying pop jazz proclivities and oriented instead toward adventurous postbop forms.

Coming on like Frank Lowe on alto on the opener “Johnny’s in Malmø,” Charles Tyler jockeys the AACMish head with a bit of difficulty but perseveres with a singing ebullient tone. A languorous waltz, “Just Us” coaxes his romantic side with a subdued Aylerian cry still threaded through his canny articulations. Tyler’s baritone bucks and blusters on “Principal,” bluntly plowing through the leader’s delicate china shop clusters like the proverbial bull to great contrastive effect. Jamal alternates plush cumulous clouds with propulsive lead progressions. His felt-capped mallets, four in number, parse out pastel patterns on the tubular bells that rarely relinquish their melodic import and add luminous breadth to the ensemble politic.

Bassist Johnny Dyani surfaces as unobtrusive linchpin. His stout pizzicato anchors the interplay, but never overwhelms or undercuts it. At various key junctures such as the potent slapping vamp on the title track and the fluid groove of “Hucksterman,” an R&B number straight out of the Noah Howard songbook, his ability to augment instead of grandstand calmly earns him the crown of MVP, a mantle he holds here and on the other Jamal led albums for the label. While hardly a heavyweight drummer Leroy Lowe actually ends up a shrewd choice for the seat. His sticks and skins keep the quartet moving and make the most of the ample space provided by Jamal’s compositions, but also address a willingness to defer to the bigger guns. Tyler’s “Space Traveller,” the only non-Jamalian tune of the set, wears its Arkestral pedigree proudly and the composer pays elegiac homage to that most famous Saturnian with more rocket booster baritone.

After a rather lackluster decade subsequent to this session Jamal’s career got a lift through a signing to CIMP. The relationship survives to this day and it recently yielded an album Black Awareness, teaming Jamal with longtime colleague Byard Lancaster and surprise celebrity guest Grachan Moncur III. The Steeplechase trifecta stands in nostalgic good company with Jamal’s renewed creative edge.

Posted by derek at 4:56 PM | Comments (0)

May 29, 2005

La Negra Graciana – Sones Jarochos with the Trio Silva (Corason)


Okay, I’ll admit it; I bought this one based on the cover.The portrait of Graciana Silva in paisley mu-mu poised at her harp, front-teeth capped with gold, won me over instantly when spotted in the bargain bin at Let It Be Records. The venerable Minneapolis brick & mortar is bolting its doors in few weeks, another casualty of the condo gentrification that’s sweeping downtown acreage. With it goes a prime source for procuring on the cheap such finds as Trio Silva’s lone disc for the Rounder-distributed Corason label. Graciana’s been plying her harp in the market and cantina centers of Veracruz since the age of ten. Fifty-eight at the taping of this ’94 recording she’s joined by her brother Pino on jarana guitar (a minature mandolin-like variant used in mariachi combos) and Elena Huerta on second harp. With just three sets of strings (though a combined eighty or so between them), the trio crafts a lithesome and fulsome ensemble sound. The repertoire centers on the son jarocho, a songbook popular among mariachis that blends subtle African-influenced counter rhythms with an epoxy of Spanish and mestizo-derived melodic content. Graciana’s boisterous and occasionally strident vocals dance atop a scintillating surface of braiding harp chords, her “ll’s” trilling with comparable coquettish enthusiasm. Pino strums his jarana jovially beside her, barking out a series of hoarse responses to her calls and sustaining the incessant strutting beat for the zapateado, or traditional foot-stamping dance. Elena plays the wallflower, insinuating supple fills, but leaving the dramatic repartee to the siblings. The music is at once delicate and exuberant, candid and complex. Most of all, it’s contagious, causing toes and heels to tap in instinctual response to the frolicsome fluctuating cadence. They even do a version of the familiar “La Bamba” that playfully strips the polished pantalones off the popular Los Lobos version. A few amigos, a six-pack of Negra Modelo, a grande order of papas fritas y salsa & this disc are all the ingredients necessary for a satisfying late afternoon fiesta.

Posted by derek at 5:02 PM | Comments (0)

May 22, 2005

Shakey Jake - Good Times (Bluesville)


Back in the pivotal 50s and 60s, Rudy Van G’s storied recording studio residence wasn’t just home to jazz musicians. A fair share of bluesmen also made the trek to suburban Englewood Cliffs, NJ to lay down tracks, mostly for the Prestige subsidiary Bluesville. Few featured instrumentation as unusual as this Shakey Jake platter. It’s a configuration that to my knowledge hasn’t been duplicated on disc since. The absence of any sort of conventional rhythm section (no bass, no drums, etc.) definitely absolves the session from the ordinary. Jake’s harmonica and vocals join Jack McDuff and Bill Jennings and the result is a weird kind of chamber blues sound. McDuff and Jennings were a familiar fit, the latter holding the guitar chair in the B-3 organist’s band. Both men stayed musically fit on steady rations of gutbucket blues goulash. All composition credits go to the mouth harp ace’s mild-mannered alter ego Jimmie D. Harris. But it’s a bit of a ruse since most of the selections pilfer blatantly from existing blues tropes. Shakey stamps each with his cocksure signature, but only minor lyrical modifications. His vocal inflections borrow heavily from Muddy Waters (not surprising considering his Windy City digs) on tracks like the opener “Worried Blues” where his whoops and harp breaks ride out a rhythm of chugging guitar and well-endowed organ swells. “My Foolish Heart” a barely camouflaged retread of “Mannish Boy,” is even more conspicuous in its borrowings. The trio also tackles a handful of instrumentals like the slowly smoldering “Sunset Blues,” which features killer relaxed fretwork by Jennings and a molasses-paced groove from McDuff built on plush sustains and staggered trills. These numbers reveal fascinating collisions in styles and levels of experience between the leader and his ‘sidemen’. Despite the differentials Jake’s reedy blowing and spirited singing dishes out instant charms. From its field holler beginnings the blues has depended on creative appropriation. Jake just does right by the long-standing custom and in so doing crafts one of the singular records of the idiom.

Posted by derek at 7:49 PM | Comments (0)

May 15, 2005

Marko Melkon (Traditional Crossroads)


“One of the most beloved cabaret musicians of New York’s 8th Avenue Middle Eastern club scene of the 1950s”- so asserts the blurb on back of this Traditional Crossroads comp and it’s not an overstatement. Udist Marko Melkon did much to popularize his lute-like, watermelon-shaped stringed instrument on American shores, but he accomplished it with ears, fingers and intellect attuned to custom and tradition. Like Markos Vamvakaris, his Greek counterpart on bouzouki, Melkon subtly tailored his songbook of folk melodies and rhythms to the fickle tastes of his Westernized audiences without ceding any of their old country integrity. The 21 tracks here, most rescued from heirloomed sides on long defunct labels like Kaliphon and Me-Re, furnish an edifying extract of his lionized career. Many of the tracks suggest a soundtrack equally at home in a bustling Turkish market or a Lower Manhattan speakeasy stage. Melkon works mostly with a small revolving ensemble of violin, kanun, dumbek and finger cymbals. Gliding microtones abound in the string playing and the leader’s vocals make for pathos-padded counterpoint to the serpentine structures of the tunes. There’s even a small clutch of brilliantly executed solo taksims that zero in on Melkon’s adroit fingering skills and substantiate his storied standing among peers. The set caps with an incongruous artifact: “Asia Minor” an early Armenian/Afro-Cuban alloy that finds Melkon’s amplified axe fronting his son-in-law Roger Mozian’s jazz band. It can’t hold a clave to Machito’s majestic version of the tune, but Melkon does manage to summon some masterful Dick Dale-presaging tremolo in the closing seconds. This set is just one of several Traditional Crossroads discs celebrating canonical doyens of the ud. Others of note include compendiums of work by Udi Hrant Kenkulian and Udi Yorgo Bacanos.

Posted by derek at 4:25 PM | Comments (0)

May 8, 2005

Bukka White - Memphis Hot Shots (Blue Horizon)


Nearly thirty years before tastemakers at Fat Possum capitalized on the scheme of fusing garage rock with country blues Bukka White cut this asymmetrical album. The aged bluesman was still riding the swell of his “rediscovery”, regularly appearing at Folk and Blues festivals on both sides of the Atlantic. Sensing the Zeitgeist he expressed an interest in recording with a backing band, preferably comprised of young turks. Trouble was, like other idiosyncratic troubadours, White’s music worked best as a solitary affair or with minimal (usually washboard) accompaniment. British producer Mike Vernon honored the desire anyway and organized a pick-up band of second guitar, harmonica, piano, string-bass, drums and washboard. Two of the sidemen even adopted the colorful monikers of Harmonica Boy and Anchor for the session. All were mere fractions of their frontman’s age.

The set list is a predictable mix of White’s “hits” as well as ‘standards’ sifted through the Buddha-smiling raconteur’s improvisatory sieve. White called his extemporaneous creations “sky songs,” a phrase touching on his tendency to pluck ad-lib verses and chords from out of thin air. The band responds to his unscripted anecdotal ditties with varying efficacy. The most startling collision occurs early on White’s signature “Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues,” a train wreck on the surface that reveals an odd syllogistic solidarity within the tangled wreckage. Here it almost sounds as if Bukka layed down his vocal and guitar tracks first and the band overdubbed their parts on top days later with the tape decks set to the wrong speed. Chugging backbeat drums, slapping bass and wailing harmonica approximate a speeding locomotive while White resolutely rides a completely different rail. As incongruous as the fit is there are improbable moments where everything synchs up and the effect is electrifying.

The band sits out on a handful of tracks too, like the dour “Drifting Blues” and harrowing “(Brand New) Decoration Blues” ideal vehicles for White’s gravelly bark and hard-strumming fret-play. On the latter he refurbishes the habitual lyrics with a string of virginal verses, slapping his surname on the song credit to boot. With “Give Me An Old, Old Lady” White acquiesces to his band, whooping and grooving on a stomping rock beat and rolling out the lyric: “Got an old lady, sittin’ in my bed, when I come ‘round, she gonna rub my head…” without the least bit of bashfulness. White’s Pre-War sides for Vocalion are a benchmark of his career (and arguably Pre-War blues in general), but this Blue Horizon set makes for a very pleasing detour and anomaly. One lingering question: is that Bukka in the spacesuit or some defacto substitute?

Posted by derek at 3:07 PM | Comments (0)

May 2, 2005

Michel Doneda, Jack Wright, Tatsuya Nakatani - From Between (SoSEditions)


The elegant cover image reproduced above is, as it happens, virtually impossible to make out on the physical artefact: printed black on black, the texts and images are only legible because of the indentations left by the old-fashioned letterpress printing. Similar games concerning legibility and communication play out inside the packaging – a Jerome Rothenberg poem printed in light grey on white, a CD covered in Morse code (a reference, I take it, to the label name). The music itself has a simplicity and stateliness that often suggest a ghostly afterimage of Cage’s Ryoanji. Percussionist Nakatani places each click and drumtap with the precision of a step taken in a ceremonial dance, and often adds soft touches of chimes. Doneda (on soprano and sopranino) and Wright (alto and soprano) both make their horns sound slender as a reed, often concentrating on thin wire-drawn tones perpetually on the verge of disappearing entirely into the musical ether. The resulting music is far from austere: a kind of gradually unfolding micro drama, comprising a series of tiny vulnerabilities, frayings, insinuations, and stretches of miniaturized song. Like so many of the best improv recordings, this one seems to change shape and emphasis with every listen: delicate, languorously paced, yet tough as steel.

~ Nate Dorward

Posted by derek at 4:38 AM | Comments (86)

April 24, 2005

The Roots - The Tipping Point

the tipping point

Shall it be said again? Their own instruments. Now that that's out of the way, The Roots have arguably outdone themselves with The Tipping Point, released late last year. Consider the opening segue into "Star/Pointro", from a beautifully reverberated sample from Sly & the Family Stone's "Everybody Is A Star." The Roots fuse their own nostalgia with retrofitted slices and understated beats to deliver allusive messages overflowing with metaphor. Questlove's drums are a high point as usual -- see the stop-time post-production that drives "Web" -- and Black Thought is at the top of his game, "It's Philly world-wide phenomenom/ And reinforcin' that shit is my 9-to-5." There's plenty to sit with, including "Guns Are Drawn," perhaps a necessary counterpart to Phrenology's "Sacrifice", albiet without the luscious vocals of guest Nelly Furtado. Nonetheless, the guest spots on "The Tipping Point" are wonderfully spaced, never stealing from the main act, and always on point as elements -- rather than cosmetics -- to the music. The album's a solid bet for middle-of-the-roaders looking for a safe snapshot of current American hip-hop. For the initiated, you already know the potency of the record.

Posted by al at 12:20 PM | Comments (6)

April 18, 2005

Art Blakey - Free For All


It’s amusing to ponder the reactions of certain button-down record buyers upon their perusal of Art Blakey’s classic albums on local Woolworth’s racks during the racially-stymied 50s and 60s. Picture Blakey, as snapped by Blue Note shutterbug Francis Wolff: a succession of proud, usually intense, sometimes defiant expressions on his various visages, and always, a healthy supply of sweat. Perspiration is such an intrinsic component to the covers and the music insulated inside. Beaded across his furrowed bald pate on Moanin’, trickling in glistening rivulets down his cheeks and chin on Three Blind Mice- the liquid results of his athletic workouts are a sure-fire evidence of the exponential calories expended in putting his impregnable kit through its paces. A Galactus with sticks, Blakey concocts tsunami-sized cross-rhythms with enough propulsive force to topple skyscrapers. That caricatural comparison isn’t ideal though since the infamous Marvel Comics world-devourer couldn’t command even a fraction of Buhaina’s dynamism or agility.

Free For All embodies the arguable apogee of the fabled Blakey ardor. At just four cuts, it’s a short jaunt, but any longer and the ensuing bumps and bruises might prove chronic. The title cut and “The Core” are tornados of gloriously stentorian rhythm, but the action avoids devolving into Buddy Rich-style bombast. Blakey always holds the helm, but he never browbeats his sidemen. He’s the general who galvanizes his troops and garners the best from them by leading by example. Shorter responds in kind, conjuring some of his most florid and fulminating solos on record, statements that retain their improvisatory incisiveness without ceding an ounce of zeal. Hubbard scales similar heights. Matching Blakey’s mettle on the title piece in a game of dramatic brinksmanship, the clarion-toned trumpeter eventually pulls back. The drummer ploughs forward and past him, detonating a solo that rattles the rafters of Rudy Van Gelder’s studio and likely the dentition of everyone present with a barrage of pile-driving press rolls. Even the characteristically genteel Curtis Fuller reciprocates in the fervor. “Pensativa” acts balm to the towering infernos of the earlier cuts, but Shorter doesn’t let the relative calm restrain him from lighting another bottle rocket of a solo. With more energy unfettered and expended than the majority of the Jazz Messengers live dates, this is also among the venerable outfit’s most incandescent.

Posted by derek at 4:39 AM | Comments (0)

April 11, 2005

Tamba 4 - We and the Sea (A&M)


One of the freer-thinking Brazilian outfits of the late 60s, the Tamba 4 were something of sore-thumb signing on the Herb Alpert officiated A&M imprint. On one end of the label’s roster sat the brazenly milquetoast Tijuana Brass. The industriously inquisitive Tambans held court at the other. Led by canny pianist Luiz Eça, the ensemble also included: José “Bebeto” de Castilho e Souza on flutes, bass and vocals; Dorio Ferreira on bass, guitars and percussion and Rubens Ohana on drums, jawbone, conga and other sundry percussion. Together they roped in an ambitiously eclectic array of elements from Debussy-indebted lyricism, to pervasively popular Jobim, to indigenous sonorities borrowed from their country’s melting pot culture. Even forays into free improvisatory dissonance weren’t outside the reach of their explorations. “O Morro (the Hill)” uncovers early evidence of their multiplicity of interests as they adapt the Jobim-scripted theme to a shortlist of permutations from rhapsodic piano samba to a romping percussive solo rife with martial stick-play from Ohana that would make Buddy Rich reel in envy. “Moça Flor (Flower Girl)” suggests something else entirely, a moody flute-nourished ballad feature for Bebeto’s satin-soft vocals. “Iemanjá,” a Baden Powell number, evokes mystery via whirring organ, percolating hand percussion, flute and lush harmonizing vocals on a chassis of dark rolling piano chords. Other standout cuts encompass two more Powell-penned tunes. “Chant of Ossanha,” further spotlights Bebeto’s flute and Ohana’s fluttering palms and fingertips on tautly stretched animal skin. The closing “Consolation” revels once again in Eça’s digital dexterity as a fulcrum for fast break improv, the theme to “O Morro” resurfacing repeatedly in his wild interpolations amidst precocious rhythmic stops. Despite the sometimes dizzying thematic shifts, the four remain boldly creative and tightly attuned to each other. It’s this shared consistency and vision that easily earns them the trophy amidst many of the other so-called “Brazilian” albums of the same era on A&M.

Posted by derek at 1:54 AM | Comments (0)

April 4, 2005

Tom Bruno & Sabir Mateen - Getting Away With Murder (Eremite)


Certain musical projects embody a continuum of ponderable pleasure from germinative idea through eventual fruition. This is one of them. Saxophonist Sabir Mateen and drummer Tom Bruno, together one half of the NYC free jazz ensemble Test, jamming for the Manhattan masses and captured for posterity by a single stereo microphone to DAT. The album’s title is perfect, but the more utilitarian subtitle: “2/28/95 12:48-1:33 PM Grand Central Station” would’ve worked just as well. Both men are veteran buskers, well-versed in the DIY set-up and strike-down strategies honed through innumerable subway gigs. The cover shot shows Bruno grimacing behind a simple three-piece kit-- just snare, ride cymbal and hi-hat-- but I swear I can hear a kick-tom undergirding some of the rhythms. He favors an assiduous akimbo-limbed approach at the traps that reminds me of Louis Moholo in its liquidity, like the waters of a mountain creek washing all manner of flotsam and jetsam downstream. Beats bounce off his skins like a profusion of ping-pong balls, his brushes sustaining a near constant stutter as Mateen’s horn surfs the ripply support. Limiting himself to tenor for sake of mobility and economy, Mateen comes off like a slightly anemic, if no less loquacious, Sonny Rollins, reeling out one fluttering phrase after another and never straying too far in his fealty to melody. No Test-style wailing and combusting here; instead the pair keeps things to a smoldering simmer that regularly stops just shy of boiling over. Train schedule announcements, mimicking the mush-mouth speak of a Peanuts™ school marm, regularly intersect their interplay, though the fleeting conversations of the countless passerby largely escape the sonic scope of the mic. Byron Coley’s typical blotter acid liners (radiant candira catfish, pineal glands and urethral entryways, all referenced in a single sentence) supply the buttery icing. The Eremite catalog is chock-full of precious bullion, but this particular ingot is the one I return to most, perfect for spinning on an afternoon drive in the country as the scenery speeds by.

Posted by derek at 3:09 PM | Comments (20)

March 28, 2005

Jim Pepper & Flying Eagle – ‘Live’ at New Morning, Paris (Tutu)


At its historical core jazz is an African American art form. Today the link is widely regarded as axiomatic, despite fallacious claims to the contrary by such superannuated ensembles as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Still, these proprietary rights are far from inalienable. Nor have they precluded other ethnicities from shaping and adopting idiom to their own designs, enriching the music’s history while simultaneously ensuring its future. Saxophonist Jim Pepper was a lonely figure in the somewhat rarified region of Native American jazz. Don Cherry explicated on his own Choctaw origins through musical means on various occasions, but other jazz figures embracing American Indian culture part and parcel with creative endeavors are seemingly few and far between. This paucity makes Pepper’s extant recordings all the more enjoyable and enlightening.

One of the finest and most representative is this compilation gathering concert recordings from three European dates in 1989. Pepper fronts a rhythm section comprised of Mal Waldron, Ed Schuller and John Betsch, Mal’s working trio of the day. The program offers a pithy survey of Pepper tunes: four stand alone originals, plus a closing medley that includes the title track and three Native chant-inspired pieces, among them the saxophonist’s seminal “Witchi Tia To.” The band also ventures through an elegant reading of Waldron’s signature “Soul Mates,” a performance that shows off not only the composer’s impeccable touch, but Pepper’s premium prowess with a ballad. And so as not to completely don the dapper duds of genteel dinner combo, the latter isn’t averse to punctuating a lush phrase with a hard-bitten squeal. Schuller and the normally cocky Betsch supply support with supple delicacy and a whisper smooth attention to detail.

Pepper also indulges his romantic proclivities on a lengthy rendering of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that opens with a gorgeous unaccompanied extemporization by the leader. It’s edifying to ponder his conception in contrast to that of another dues-paying Pepper who took this Ozian ode as his saxophonic calling card late in career. Here the optimism at the root of the song’s lyrics unfolds untempered and is positively palpable. There’s even room in the set for a cheeky salute to more gutbucket sources in Pepper’s own “Ski Jumping Blues,” a riff-based barrelhouse jam replete with quirky existentialist lyrics and a liberal dose of deep cerulean blowing. Pepper legacy is one often mentioned in the context of his cultural background. Dates like this one and others on the Enja-affiliate Tutu imprint demonstrate how seamless his blend of cultures could become.

Posted by derek at 5:21 PM | Comments (0)

March 20, 2005

Various - Alan Lomax: Blues Songbook (Rounder)


The Lomaxes logged more miles in jalopies both wheeled and winged than most of their academic brethren combined. They plucked the operative “armchair” out of the prevailing musicological attitude of their day and hit to the roads both domestic and foreign, searching out and preserving human culture through recorded sound. This set holds the dubious ‘cachet’ of a release date contemporaneous with Martin Scorsese mixed-success Blues Project for PBS. The director pens the preface to the liners, but the real annotative gold comes in a lengthy essay by John Cowley, track-by-track distillations and period photos that follow. Yet these absorbing trappings are a distant second to the trove that embodies the music: 41 performances parceled over two generously programmed discs and occupying just under 140-minutes.

Reach here encompasses a breadth of blues styles from Delta dirges to Old Timey string band to barrelhouse stomps, by both black and white purveyors. Rather than adhering to strict chronological or catholic parameters in their selections the compilers go for playability. The ad hoc-sounding order allows for some surprising confluences. Just A/B the antediluvian croak and spidery banjo twang of Dock Boggs’ “Country Blues,” taped in concert at his Newport Festival appearance in ’66 with Skip James’ ethereal falsetto menace on a rendering of “Cherry Ball Blues” from the same stage location (oh, to have been in attendance at that event). Elsewhere, Jack Owens & Buddy Spires, contemporaries of Skip and interpreters of his Bentonia style, try their hands at the tune and come up with a deliciously ramshackle improv jam. Another track that took me unawares, the original 1937 field recording of “Trouble So Hard” by Dock Reed and Vera Ward Hall that was copped by Moby and transmogrified into an international dance club hit (!) Also in the mix: vintage Jelly Roll Morton, Leadbelly, Blind Willie McTell, Hobart Smith, Pete Johnson, R.L. Burnside, Canray Fotenot & Bois sec Ardoin, Mississippi Fred McDowell and a slew of others. Ten titles are previously unreleased.

Spinning these discs in the car makes the miles melt away in a manner the Lomaxes would no doubt have appreciated on their own enervating travels. It’s akin to winning an admission ticket to a wang dang doodle at the Great Juke Joint in the Sky (or its afterlife analogue officiated by Old Scratch down below, as the case may be).

Posted by derek at 5:35 PM | Comments (0)

March 13, 2005

Wire - On Returning (1977-1979) (EMI/Harvest)


Not much to say relating to a new ROW entry at the moment. But in the interest of keeping the slot current this very enjoyable & dare I say influential Wire comp will serve as good a placeholder as any- the first ten cuts (outta a total thirty), especially. 1.2.X.U.!

Posted by derek at 3:59 PM | Comments (0)

March 6, 2005

Ron Carter - Piccolo (Milestone)


One of the more frequently posited questions on jazz chat boards deals with fecundity, specifically which musician holds the largest body of work. Ron Carter’s name often crops up amongst the answers. His prolific pace is both boon and bane depending upon the listener polled. When the color line stymied his early attempts at earning a cello seat on larger symphony orchertras Carter turned the squashed grapes of his initial ambitions into an expansive cellar of wines. From the bold cabernets of his vanguard work with Dolphy and Davis to the cloying desert aperitifs that constituted some of his 70s albums at Milestone, Carter’s rarely taken time off from behind the mics. His more recent efforts are similarly checkered with ill-advised Bach concertos and session stints of nearly every stripe and shade. Then there’s the tendency, particularly in the 60s, for his instrument to be improperly recorded from a myriad of angles: too muddy, too leaden, barely perceptible, overly effervescent. Carter hasn’t always had it easy and a significant portion of his foibles are his own doing. That’s a big part of the charm and curiosity behind this two-fer from ’77.

Due to what was possibly vestigial chagrin from his earlier symphony experiences and the lingering stigma attached to the double bass concerning its viability as a frontline implement, Carter commissioned the construction of a new hybrid axe of his own design: the piccolo bass. Pitched between the bass and cello range with an easier action and lighter strings the contraption was intended to allow Carter the flexibility to regularly assume the melodic lead. Unfortunately the murky amplification that was so en vogue during the era often ends up tarnishing his tone and impairing his pitch. The rhythm section on hand consisting of Kenny Barron at the acoustic keys, Buster Williams on bass and Ben Riley on drums (a trio that would coalesce five years later into the nucleus of the Monk repertory outfit Sphere) counterweights these contretemps. I can think of few if any albums of the 70s that accord this level of adulation to the bull, or in this case calf, fiddle.

Originally a double album, the reissue version shaves off a reading of “Blue Monk” and pares the program down to six cuts. Even with the edit, four are well over 12-minutes apiece and the sum nearly maxes out the disc’s running time. The opening “Saguaro” sets the standard, sprawling out to almost a third of an hour with several protracted forays by Carter on his prominently positioned strings. There are points here where I wish he would splint his fingers together or pack his signature Sherlock Holmes pipe and step off stage for an extended smoke break. “Sunshower” shows off his arco abilities on the new axe and the pitch problems are wincingly evident despite some very nimble bowing. Williams, also tethered to an amp, is the anchor underneath, but better calibrated to the electricity with his heavier gauge strings and less effusive attack. Barron is the real star, parceling out sparkling solos and comping elegantly against all the prolix string bending. Riley mostly keeps time, but also finds space for a few subtle surprises. The set closes with an obligatory Latin tune “Tambien Conocido Como” and more tree-felling sawing, flamenco style. A year and nine months later the same band would convene at the Van Gelder studio with, yep, you guessed it, an even larger contingent of strings in tow.

Carter’s doyen-sized rep is well deserved, but it’s indulgent and entertainingly verbose outings like this one from his younger years that show his human side and keep him honest.

Posted by derek at 12:01 PM | Comments (6)

February 28, 2005

John Carter - Fields (Gramavision)


Long before I ever heard Horace Tapscott's The Dark Tree or learned of the man's Revelation recordings with long-time collaborator Bobby Bradford, I had read and heard stories about John Carter. The premier clarinetist of the "free jazz" era, an esteemed educator, and, most intriguing to me, a Dallas native who spent years, decades perhaps, creating a conceptual masterpiece similar in concern but towering and windy than anything Ellington, Mingus or Marsalis ever tilted at, Carter nevertheless proved to be quite invisible by the time I was ready to start hunting down his records and exploring his legend. My searching finally paid off one terrifically hot July afternoon in 1995, at a tiny Half-Price Books off Garland Road. That's where I found a cut-out copy of Fields in the "50 Cent" vinyl racks. Ring me up, please.

But I was not exactly sold on the music itself until much later. On my first listen to this, the fourth of five installments in Carter's Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music, I was put off by Don Preston's wacky synthesizers, Terry Jenoure's histrionic vocals, Carter's rather cloaked presence as a soloist, and the general lugubriousness of the whole thing. Then again, a musical suite that purports to portray the life of subjugation, back-breaking toil, and yearning for deliverance to which Black agricultural laborers in the American South were yoked is not going to be a real briar patch. And the four tracks that make up Fields original side 1 are a dark and troubling and spiky affair indeed. The record begins with a sort of death chant -- "Ballad to Po' Ben" -- in which the singer does not intercede for the departed's soul as much as she bitterly mourns the lot of those Ben has left behind. "Bootyreba at the Big House" carries echoes of N'Awlins second line parade, but, as expressive as the individual instrumental voices are, they are too workaday woozy -- drunk, exhausted, beaten -- to be grotesque. Escape via heightened states of distraction is fruitless. "Juba's Run", the pace and tone of which is set by the desperate sprinter's panting, finds literal flight from these circumstances equally impossible. The final track delivers the coup de grace. But this blow does not take the form of a last lash across the back. It is shod within a boot, the toe of one kicking the defeated of off their belly so they be reminded that the victor is always gazing down on them. "Seasons" serves to remind us that it is not just the whip of merciless masters that harnesses (to use the verb Carter does in his annotations) these lives to cycles of anchoring, extraction, and accumulation. It is the nature of the land, which may or may not be the promised land, and it the state of the universe, which is indiscriminate with its promises. Spring, autumn; fat years and lean years; more hands to send out to the field, but more mouths to feed. What faithful servant or even army of righteous men will not be plowed under by the turning of this wheel? "Seasons" with Jenoure reciting the following:

What time is this? What place? What space does my existence fill? What melody sings in this song of pain and sorrow? Am I enduring some intense drama judging my own right to my own initiative? Or am I the prisoner of some ungodly historical circumstance? Is home tomorrow, or is tomorrow another hour, another season, or another lifetime in this cruel drama?

This is no doxology. And these are not the questions of an Uncle Tom, but of a Schopenhauer or Kierkegaard.

If the album ended there, on that deterministic and despairing note, well, we would be left with something that, while infinitely more interesting musically than Marsalis' Blood On The Fields, would be just as grave. Not to mention just as exploitatively violent, and just as petulant in its attitudes towards guilt and exculpation -- shaking the first in the audience's face in a game of "keep away"; pushing away an offer of the latter like a child refusing to eat his lima beans. But Carter knows this more about this rural life than Marsalis can imagine, and his "research" of it grounded in actual and personal experience. Carter knows he cannot completely shun pastoralism. He also knows that, with pastoral ways, he cannot wholly separate out the threads of adversity and contentment that weave through it. Marsalis, with the narrow-mindedness so many African-American associate with "white people", is out to erect a monolith. But Carter is making a quilt. He takes a scrap here, finds a scrap there and the stuffing may be thin in one spot, but it is so pillowy in another. Carter is working in a completely different economy. He embraces his grandchildren, whose playful yet thick, firm voices leap up in the mix on "Children Of The Fields", but he acknowledges the filthy rednecks that live a few acres over. Carter understands that you have to take the bullshit with the sunshine. The apparently bifurcated structure of Fields is a n ingenious and even necessary narrative strategy. It is almost a ruse. The form of the piece reflects not history in simple Antebellum / Reconstruction halves, but that very same dialectical state of mind which Carter wishes to transcend, in the sense of rising above it, and not to fly away, but just to get the bird's-eye view. Moreover, Carter knows such transcending cannot be purely providential. Although the triumph is touched by grace, what is more fundamental to its savor -- and solace -- is that it is earned.

It all comes together on the long, long title track. It begins in Africa, or with memories of tribal chants (so it sounds), and goes on to incorporate "field recordings" of children's song as well as the reminiscences of Carter's namesake, his own Uncle John. In the field, of the field, surrounded by the field, but, metaphysically, so far distant from it, yet transported in part by its sights and smells and difficulties… Something is brewing, and brewing with mysterious indolence, here. Eventually, everyone solos, and the composed elements are handled brilliantly by his Carter's ensemble, especially Benny Powell, Marty Ehrlich (this is the record that made me notice him) and Andrew Cyrille. Just as it seems that the labor must continue, that everyone is bending back down into the harvest -- or shoeing mules or blocking out wagon wheels, or swinging the hammer; stepping back into a river of sweat -- there is a flurry of little airs, those songs meant to make work more endurable. Quickly, it grows into jubilation, honest-to-goodness jubilation. It still sends the chills up my spine, the way it arrives, and the sheer presence it has. Then the track plays out, Jenoure's ecstatic screams fade, and we hear old Uncle John muttering out the rhythm that supplied the force for that eruption. There is still something imponderably joyous about this little revelation, not least because of the way Carter stages it. I know it should not be momentous, it is textbook stuff (field hollers, blues jazz, etc.), but pivotal, thus full of implications for the future, is how I experience it.

With Fields, Carter to be saying: if you don't understand the complexity of slavery and its byproducts, and if you don’t understand all this through individual character, how can you hope to recognize slavery as it is present today, and the ways in which it is coercing you into doing that which, at your core, you would never want to do? Loathe the powers that be, but don’t shrink from them in fear. But -- and this, more than its ostensible scope, is what lends Carter's great projects its greatness -- that is just of Fields' layers. There are a lot of stories imbedded in Fields, but Carter isn't telling them for the sake of scaring or admonishing his audience. Carter is telling tales because he wants them to be remembered. Only on Fields's last performance, "On A Country Road", does Carter step forward, playing the "circular breathing" phrases that were his trademark. With it's old-folks, loping gait and its use of instrumental colors that were familiar to a curly-headed, bespectacled post-adolescent who never farmed a day in his life but who spent many a summer in Omaha, Texas, draining Dr. Pepper bottles and waiting for the next train to rumble hootingly by and punctuate the growing of the tall, brown grass, for a good while "On A Country Road" was the one piece here that immediately resonated with me. Later, I began to comprehend how all of Fields is about the confluence of West and South that is East Texas. Though I can’t explain exactly how, but I can assure you that there is something of the humidity and heat of the region in the music, the oppressive air that you gulp as much as breathe. And the brilliant greens, blues, yellows and oranges, each as hot as the exposed head of a nail glinting in the noonday sun. The music is daubed too with the red dirt of this place, and, like that clayey soil, the music smells of both dust and mud. But, gradually, in my experience with Fields, I ceased having truck with mudpies and started to wonder about exactly where that country road led… Carter, I think, has a certain destination in mind, one that is essentially poetic and resembles a country described by fellow East Texan (and perhaps even kindred spirit) William Goyen in his "A Shape Of Light":

So following this ghostly little lamp of light, we came, of a sudden, into this unearthly landscape, the one I have told you about, with the white beings. We knew the country, you understand -- our ancestors had broken it as wilderness and started all their seed there, my grandfathers and their fathers, me, all my blood-kin, children and children's children. We descendants thought we had measured and blazed it all. But there is always some unknown part of all that is known -- and we had stumbled into it, following this light. I knew my ancestors had followed this light, it was that ancient a thing, this light; that they had ridden behind it, over branch and pasture, thicket and prairie, from supper till sunrise, when they saw it sink into the ground. There are the records to prove it, for these old men made records, stopping to put down what happened, even as I am doing: "Around us were disorder, rancor, words gone sour in the mouth like persimmons; thoughts turned rotten in the mind, crops eaten, droughts and floods, poorly wives and an evil chance of children; but when we saw this light, we left the worst behind and followed to see what it was, that it might show us what our sorrow meant." (The Collected Stories Of William Goyen, p. 108).

~ Joe Milazzo

Posted by joe at 6:26 AM | Comments (13)

February 21, 2005

Deep Purple - In Rock (Warner Bros.)

they been causing trouble since it all began

To appreciate Deep Purple -- whether the "Mark II" Ian Gillan / Ritchie Blackmore / Jon Lord / Roger Glover / Ian Paice group that turned out this classic slab an was soon to be ranked by Guinness the "world's loudest", or later editions featuring the ill-fated Tommy Bolin and that odd Stevie Nicks look-a-like (feathered hair, snakeskin, diaphanous white blouses) David Coverdale -- you have to accept that a real, working metal band can be campy without inevitably turning into Spinal Tap.

If this idea seems terminally English to you, that's OK, too, because the records still hold up. While no masterpiece of goofy heaviosity ala Machine Head, In Rock is still touched by genius. Ian Gillan, in addition to be being one of rock's champion screamers, is also one of hard rock's quintessential lyricists. "Speed King" remains one of his greatest odes to testosterone. Nothing doomy (Sabbath) or flowery (Zeppelin) here, just a knucklehead extension those tried-and-true Chuck Berry tropes. IMO, only Motorhead's Lemmy and Kyuss' John Garcia have come closes to capturing the carefree nihilism of Gillan at his best, yet neither one possesses his sense of theater. Lemmy grimaces and yowls at the slow pace maintained by the apocalypse, Garcia is furious about the buzzkill he finds everywhere in his world, but Gillan struts in the role of "rock singer" the way Charles Laughton tears into the juicy part of Henry VIII.

Of course, this record also signals the beginning of this group's end. For it is here that Blackmore starts to assert his dominance on the band. No more steely blue-eyed soul, and no more Jon Lord-led excursions into jazz odysseys or collaborations with the Royal Philharmonic. Man, it is time to shred, and "Child In Time" and "Flight Of The Rat" do just that. The long solos on these tracks still click, and they still make Eddie Van Halen sound vapid by comparison, but they also reveal how much ego tripping was going on. In three short years, it would all be over, and the sucking (Stormbringer, anyone?) would begin.

With the result that most would forget the effective and sometimes brilliant strategies Deep Purple made to the metal playbook. There was not an eighties hair band that did not rip them off in some wise, and, it goes without saying, without a tenth of the flair that these five had. And, as long as Slash and Kirk Hammet are still wielding axes, Deep Purple's influence remains vital to this day. If you want hipper proof, just put on the oh-so-earnest Mars Volta's Frances The Mute and tell me those guys haven't been going through the Nag Champa by the case and scribbling late into the meth-ed out night while Made In Japan and Burn (the title tracks is so absurd it achieves something like profundity) are bled white under the diamond stylus.

Just remember, though, if you're going to have a party to save your soul, still you gotta be sly. Like a demon's eye.

~ Joe Milazzo

Posted by joe at 8:14 AM | Comments (0)

February 14, 2005

Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis - Streetlights (Prestige)


This Prestige two-fer garners heavy rotation in the Taylor household with more spins spun than I can now comfortably count. It's arguably not Jaws best, byt there’s something about the package, most likely the vintage and band dynamic that earns it a top tier slot. Davis was at a bit of a crossroads when the two albums- I Only Have Eyes for You and Trackin’- were birthed at the Van Gelder compound on the single day in ’62. His once profitable partnership with Johnny Griffin was recently wrecked on the fiscal shoals and he had yet to fully immerse himself in the enterprise of earning an income as a booking agent. The gig revealed business acumen akin to his prowess on tenor and built on an earlier position held in Prestige A&R where he lobbied the signings of young hopefuls like the Curtis Peagler Jazz Disciples to the roster.

Opting to fall back on a format that he helped pioneer, Jaws put guitarist Paul Weeden’s trio (w/ organist Don Patterson and drummer Billy James) on the payroll, rehired his old confrere George Duvivier for the bass chair and wrangled up a modest songbook of standards. Both dates deliver a revealing bridge between Jaws in his nascency (the raw and ribald R&B rooted raconteur heard on early sides for Savoy and King) with the more mature and genteel stylist that emerged through his partnerships with Shirley Scott and Count Basie. As far as I know Davis never cut an album without a chordal instrument in tow. The section on “The Way You Look Tonight” where Patterson and Weeden lay out spoons a tantalizing taste of what might’ve been had he done so. Just a fast-walking Duvivier and churning James at his back.

Both guitarist and organist make responsive foils for the leader’s lone horn. Weeden’s delivery is textbook, but with all sorts of hand-written asides crammed in the margins. On “I Only Have Eyes for You” he mixes ringing Wes-style octave work with brass tack-sharp single note runs. Patterson is similarly all over his console, flipping the switches and mixing in equal parts church and speakeasy with a bit of roller rink as a garnish. Davis sounds both above and appreciatively attenuated to the prodding, riding the changes with his own logic and a mandible-dropping command of both tempo and key shifts. Check his sudden spur to emphatic double-time braying on the title-track.

Davis' toothsome tone slow-dissolves with the pleasing piquancy of a sugar-dusted lemon drop, though he’s never one to apply syrup or saccharine sentimentality in his robust voicing of a line. At other times, especially on ballads like “Sweet and Lovely,” his phrasing carries an amorous insouciance, spilling across bar lines like a feathered boa draped over the shoulders of a fine lady. But Jaws could also lock on and grind through reeds with the most edacious, akin in appetite to the identically-monikered Marvel comics canine that came much later, chewing off whinnying blurts and curt asides at idiosyncratic intervals.

Davis is one of the few artists whose work brings out the completist impulse in me (a nigh impossible pursuit given his proliferation of sideman appearances over a four decade-plus career). This set makes me pine for the long shot find of more of the same.

Posted by derek at 4:27 AM | Comments (0)

February 7, 2005

Double Leopards - Halve Maen (Eclipse)


Here’s a CD reissue for those who think Merzbow’s got the right idea but is too loud, Pelt is too folky, Stars of the Lid too precious and Sunburned Hand of the Man too abstract. Halve Maen has been lovingly transferred to CD by Eclipse as a miniature reproduction of the original vinyl, and both the music and the package are immensely satisfying.

New York’s Double Leopards inhabit a world of what might be described as comfortable darkness, and possess the ability to float fearlessly over an abyss. Familiar sounds are injected, often with force, but they remain somehow alien, existing within and just above the continuous and constantly morphing and expanding drone that pervades this double album. "The Secret Correspondence", the final, originally side-long composition (here broken into two tracks), exhibits definite references to free-jazz drumming, and the juxtaposition of conflicting traditions is surprisingly successful. "Druid Specter"'s sonic wash is replete with low piano tones and thudding percussion reminiscent of both early AMM and of Stockhausen’s 1950’s piano works, but again, the thick organ-like drone and scalar melodies render all else mysterious and somehow "other".

The notion of "otherness" or the uncanny seems both appropriate and deliberate. "Sound Holes", a brief but majestic opener, invokes the "floating anarchy" of the typical space-rock gestalt with synth swoops and swirls that simultaneously suggest popular science fiction or outer space as topos. Similarly, "Hemispheres in your Hair" conjures "jungle" percussion and the thrum of exotic birds and locusts, aided by yet another drone permutation.

The drone itself is never the cut-and-dry static accompaniment found in traditional North Indian music or in so many medieval western "classical" compositions. These are nebulous constructions, constantly swelling, distorting and shrinking, brimming with unidentifiable sounds that could be any combination of voices, flutes, cymbal washes, guitars and/or keyboards. In this case, the various indistinguishables enhance the beauty and serenity of the project as an indivisible unit, as a unified expanse of meditative space punctuated with brief silences.

As with the group’s concert recordings, each improvisation changes so gradually that a blow-by-blow would do the music an injustice. An appreciation of minimalism is most likely a prerequisite, but beyond that, Halve Maen should appeal to a wide variety of attentive listeners hungry for something beyond "indie". I hope that Eclipse will follow this welcome reissue with CD versions of the other Double Leopards albums.

~ Marc Medwin

Posted by marc at 7:53 AM | Comments (5)

January 31, 2005

Earl Bostic - Jazz Time (Le Jazz / Charly)

The Earl of Bostic

I was listening not long ago to guitarist Rodney Jones' The "X" field, a 1995 Musicmasters set featuring frequent collaborator Greg Osby. Fine, stream-lined M-Base style date, and on it Osby takes several unusually up tempos. That's when I started hearing, of all things, an Earl Bostic influence in that "skipping" rhythm Osby trips into here. I'd always pegged this characteristic of Osby's playing as an Anthony Braxton influence, and thus something that came partly out of the elder reedman's study of Paul Desmond. But what if those steps were first laid on the light fantastic by Bostic? Which got me to thinking and flipping through the private collection...

Beginning in the late 1940's and carrying through to the early 1960's (at the least), there was collection of sax players that, in hindsight, really straddled the worlds of R & B, rock 'n roll, and jazz. Louis Jordan (justly celebrated), Big Jay McNeely, Lee Allen, Lynn Hope, King Curtis, Tab Smith, Red Prysock, Eddie Chamblee, and Bostic -- arguably Bird's rival as the most immediatedly recognizable alto saxophonist of the era. And, as my friend Jim Sangrey said when I once asked him if he thought Rahsaan Rolad Kirk "was familiar" with the Bostic school of playing:

Dude, you look at the background of SO many "avant garde" players, and what do you find?

R&B backgrounds. Blues backgrounds. Southern/Midwestern/and/or rural backgrounds. Gospel backgrounds. "Common" backgrounds.


I think not.

But despite (or because of?) his popular success, and even thought he was probably the most technically accomplished of these musicians -- not that that's any guarantee of good music -- Bostic seems to have been treatly pretty roughly by critical opinion over the years. Granted, I don't really enjoy hearing him play "Twilight Time", and some of the Latin numbers he did are terminally ricky-ticky, mechanical affairs (though they sure do remain dance-inducing). But turn Bostic loose on a good blues or a ballad; wow. One of the best examples of his abilites as a "true jazzman"... whatever that ultimately means; its helpful to remember that at certain points in their careers, jazz "stars" such as Arnett Cobb, Lockjaw Davis, Gator Jackson, and even Gene Ammons were given the same high hat flipped to Hal "Cornbread" Singer... can be found on the 1963 King session Jazz As I Feel It (reissued on Charly / Le Jazz as Jazz Time), with Joe Pass, Shelly Manne, Groove Holmes, Jimmy Bond, Charles Blackwell, and Buddy Collette (as arranger). Fantastic stuff that shows off Bostic's improvising chops, his infectious rhythmic feel, and his distinctive, piquant but huge, tone.

Of course, Bostic's earlier King material can be found in plentiful supplies on CD, of course, and at budget prices (usually), but Chronological Classics has recently issued Bostic's very first recordings in a package that finally begins to accord him some of the respect he deserves. 1945-1948 collects Gotham and King material, and those interested in the transition from swing to bop should certainly look at the bands Bostic assembeled here; sidemen include Tony Scott, Tiny Grimes, Cozy Cole, Benny Morton, John Hardee, Don Byas, Little Benny Harris, Jimmy Shirley, and others. Still, doubters should start with this release.

~ Joe Milazzo

Posted by joe at 12:46 PM | Comments (0)

January 24, 2005

Johnny Coles - New Morning (Criss Cross)

Johnny Coles

There’s a single, or singular, maybe, reason I love this record: Johnny Coles’ tone. Yes, "warm" as the title of his first session as a leader (Epic, 1961) described it in near space-age bachelor pad terms, but with a cool center. Breathy, slightly hoarse. Maybe its better to say his timbre is singed at the edges. Whatever; the Coles sound is a careful, maybe even trembling grasp of oppositional elements. Coles holds them together as much as their natural tension -- like magnetic repulsion -- does. His is a sound difficult to describe adequately, in such a way that it calls to mind the late David Rosenthal’s description of Art Farmer’s sound – “tart”. Sour, but... sour cream.

Now, usually, I don't dig flugelhorn all that much. Its a little too roly-poly for my taste, and its mechanics can make even the most fleet player sound logy. But listen to how Coles exploits the fullness of the instrument’s qualities on this record. “Johnny Coles... in PANAVISION!” Couple this tone with Coles super-hip articulation, and you have a rare brass player who somehow bridges the gap (which may anyway exist only in my mind) that separates Rex Stewart from Chet Baker. Maybe this is why Gil Evans showcased Coles in the 60’s whenever the arranger wasn’t re-negotiating with Miles and Teo Macero.

I almost don’t have even to listen to Coles’ solos on this record. I could just listen to him play the unusually lyrical theme to saxophonist Charles Davis’ "Super 80", hit the stop button, and be happy. But my curiosity invariably gets the best of me, and I let the track play. Listen to how involved he gets in the harmonies during his solo. In some ways, the solo on “Super 80” is a jazz improvisation that spins out so many arabesques and penetrates so deep that it is nearly "out". And speaking of "out" –- isn’t the title track something else? A modal, flamenco-tinged construct that really keeps your interest and doesn’t just see-saw back and forth from major to minor. This is the track, I feel, on which Coles’ esteemed accompanists really out-do themselves, from Billy Hart’s quasi-AEC opening gong to the oft-kilter, killer groove that the Parlan / Johnson / Hart trio sets up.

It seems to me, in listening to this disc yet again, that, much as I feel that Coles, and not Miles, was the trumpet player born to bring life to Gil Evans’ scores, that the association with Gil may have hurt Coles’ career in the long run. Not only did it force him somewhat into Miles’ shadow, make him Miles’s understudy for many fans, but -- oh, irony -- it deflected attention away from his considerable abilities as a soloist onto his talents as a musical colorist. (I know some have complained that Coles is habitually out of tune. I can’t tell. Or I don't care.) And there’s no question that Coles could shade like few other players could. Perhaps more than his other few leader dates, New Morning really shows off what Coles could do, and how inventively he could do it. That the opportunity came so late in his career seems both a shame and a blessing.

~ Joe Milazzo

Posted by joe at 6:59 AM | Comments (3)

January 17, 2005

Millie Jackson - Caught Up / Still Caught Up (Hip-O)


Love affairs and their ruinous consequences have long served as fodder for musical commentary. From “Frankie and Johnny” to Bob Mould’s “Thumbtack” popular song is rife with indictments of infidelity and the cheating heart. Most of the time the point-of-view fixates on the jilted spouse or lover, the lyrics scripted as a cathartic means of leveling guilt and weathering grief. Millie Jackson tilled a fresh plot of ground with the back-to-back albums captured on this budget-priced two-fer. Widening her lens to encompass not only the voice of the archetypal wronged woman but also the unpopular angle of the woman doing the wronging she crafted an influential landmark. Both records are high concept Soul sagas. Caught Up outlines each side of the affair (conspicuously leaving out the vantage of the man in the middle) as first the “other woman” and then the wife state their emotion-fueled cases and concerns. Side A is a minor revelation as Jackson pulls no punches in running down a first-person account of the nameless coquette’s conceits and deceits. “The Rap” proves especially revealing as the woman rolls out a cold-hearted checklist of her devious tactics in snaring a married man, noting: “you can think of a whole lotta good stuff to tell a nigger when you're by yourself” over a tight funky backdrop supplied by the legendary Muscle Shoals Swampers. Another kernel of callous wisdom: with a married man “the sweetest thing about the whole situation is the fact that when you go to the Laundromat, you don’t have to wash nobody’s funky drawers but your own.” The inevitable confrontation between seductress and scorned wife occurs on “All I Want is a Fighting Chance” with the former audaciously pronouncing to the latter “we’re wives-in-law” atop a chugging fuzz-tone guitar and riffing horn rhythm. Later songs sketch the ensuing train wreck of the triangle with tight (if occasionally sappy) musical arrangements and Jackson’s always passionate oratory. Still Caught Up reverses the testimony order, opening with the somewhat implausible plot turn of the wife offering an olive branch to the adulterous husband and the tables turning poetically on the duplicitous “other woman.” Everything wraps with the now-abandoned vixen’s colorful and histrionic descent into cackling jealous hysteria. Plenty of supremely soulful jams pave the story along the way from inception to denouement, making the journey’s various excesses more than potable.

Posted by derek at 4:15 PM | Comments (2)

January 10, 2005

William Parker - Testimony (Zero In)


Pressed on the tiny and now extinct Zero In imprint out of Austin, TX (an apartment address on the tray card is always a telltale sign of shoe-string finances), Parker’s second solo recording represents the good, the bad and the ugly of his monologue style on bull fiddle. I first caught him in person in just such a setting, summer of 97’ while doing an internship at Smithsonian/Folkways. His was the second concert presented by the then fledgling Transparent Productions -- a cadre of volunteer "promoters" who would go on to curate over a hundred performances under the aegis of awarding players one hundred percent of each event’s proceeds. Against the odds, they’re still going strong. The recital took place at Kaffa House, a tiny corner pub (much like the Knit where Testimony was taped) and WP pulled out all the stops, at one point cantilevering a separate bow against each of his four strings to create a floating grid of tentacled harmonics. Similar tactics deploy on disc. The five tracks represent full two sets, tugging at the maximum capacity of the medium. Parker punishes and massages his bass in equal measure, falling prey to his tendency to cleave and burrow away mercilessly at his strings to the point of near tedium. The fidelity, rendered by a single stage side engineer, is coarse-grained and muddy. These are the major minuses, but the music still ends up transcending them. Parker’s massive technique, his canny ability to coax, in his own parlance, tonal rainbows is frequently in full, sweeping effect. Streaks and splatters lift from his fingerboard like arcs of paint flung from an action painter’s brush. There’s so much incandescent and percussive bowing, that a place of prominence for his mighty pizzicato capabilities is hardly missed. Parker has recorded at least one more solo album since this one, ‘97’s Lifting the Sanctions, but my preference goes to its predecessor as the more engrossing and electrifying excursion. Today marks his fifty-third birthday; hopefully his celebrated fecundity will continue for many years to come.

~ Derek Taylor

Posted by derek at 5:57 AM | Comments (0)

January 3, 2005

André Previn - Previn At Sunset (Black Lion)


André Previn is a brilliant nuisance. A bona fide prodigy, a superb orchestra leader, and an arranger / composer of distinction, he is also one of the least convincing "jazzmen" I've ever heard. Try as hard he might – and such effortfulness is part of the problem -- he never quite swings, and his solos often burst with as much filler as with effervescence.

However, Previn has never been slavishly imitative; he is simply too prodigious a musical thinker to slip into others' routines, even in the most heated moments. What is surprising about the 1945 / 1946 recordings (originally made for the Sunset and Monarch labels) is not that they were made when Previn was all of 16 years old. Rather, these trios startle to the extent that they reveal a piano stylist who has already made something personal out of powerful influence Art Tatum's music had on him. So, at least for a few moments "back then" the mid-1940's, Previn stands alongside Bud Powell as one of the few pianists of the era to work both through and out of the older virtuoso. This is apparent on the trio performances, which borrow the Nat Cole Trio instrumentation (Dave Barbour, the once Mr. Peggy Lee, or Irving Ashby on guitar; John Simmons or Red Callendar on bass) but not that ensemble's relatively even temperament. This version of "Take The 'A' Train" does not steam ahead, or glide ahead on rails of luxury, but accelerates and decelerates as slope necessitates, rattles around, spins it wheels. As an interpretation, it is speed as Impressionism. How the performance avoids preciosity is something of a mystery to me, but it does. Previn's solo performances are similar if more startling exercises in almost going overboard: a torrid "Body And Soul"; a rather convincing blues "That Old Blue Magic" that tantalizes with echoes of both Jess Stacy and Chopin; and, more to the point, "Variations On A Theme", which seems to deliver on the promise of so-called "Third Stream Music" a full decade before that genre was ever defined, and thus calls to mind some of Charles Mingus' earliest West Coast-based experiments in "legitimate" composition. Consider the jam tracks with Willie Smith, Howard McGhee, Vido Musso, Buddy Childers and Eddie Safranski mere bonuses.

Could it be that this brat Previn was crafting his own form of modern jazz, one contemporary with bop but that had little or nothing to do with the innovations offered by the Parker, Gillespie, Powell and all those other great African-Americans working at the opposite end of the continent? I don’t know, but Previn At Sunset is an excellent place from which to begin to try and understand a very misunderstood musician.

~ Joe Milazzo

Posted by joe at 7:54 AM | Comments (4)

December 27, 2004

Lisle Ellis / Marco Eneidi / Peter Valsamis - American Roadwork (CIMP)

Eneidi Ellis Valsamis

CIMP 312

Recorded in CIMP's Spirit Room on May 17th and 18th 2004 (as usual Bob Rusch's liners go into all kinds of detail, including even the local weather forecast), this is a smoking session from a trio that deserves the kind of attention and exposure usually reserved for the likes of Shipp, Parker and Ware. Marco Eneidi's running head to head with Ivo Perelman for the Most Unfairly Neglected Living Great Free Jazz Saxophonist Award, but it's to be hoped that this outing and the recent Botticelli release Live At Spruce Street Forum (with Peter Brötzmann, Jackson Krall and Ellis once more) will turn some more heads his way. The fact that no fewer than 7 out of 12 tracks on American Roadwork are entitled "Blues" is significant, as Eneidi digs deep into the blues -- we're talking the spirit rather than the letter of the law -- to reveal some dirty and sweaty roots to his playing. He's all too frequently compared to his erstwhile teacher Jimmy Lyons, but as I've said elsewhere there's plenty of Ornette and Moondoc in there too. Of course, Lyons has left his mark in the fleet post-bop flurries of "Shock and Awe Shucks", "Dreamt Up Blues #5" and the title track, all of which go so damn fast you can almost hear a Doppler effect, but the dangerous curves he drives on a dirty sheet (to quote Tom Waits) in the opening "Baby Please Don't Go" and "Contractual Obligation Blues" are low, slinky, musky and irresistible. Bassist Lisle Ellis is the ideal partner, melodically curvaceous and suggestive on the slower cuts and impossibly agile on the up-tempo numbers, and drummer Peter Valsamis inventive throughout, especially as a soloist. Sorry to bitch once again about the CIMP recording aesthetic -- I have total respect for and understanding of Marc Rusch's work -- but I wonder if a slightly flashier drum sound might not have helped matters a little. Still, a piddling quibble, to be honest. This is great stuff and copies should be sent post-haste to every major festival promoter throughout the civilised world.

~ Dan Warburton

Posted by danw at 6:17 AM | Comments (5)

December 19, 2004

Roy Dunn – Know’d Them All (Trix)


Remarkable in his frank unremarkableness, Roy Dunn is my kind of bluesman. His life traces familiar arteries of itinerant gospel and harmony group singing pocked by derailments due to tragedy. The most recent in relation to these early 70s sessions was a car wreck that killed his infant child and landed him and his wife in the hospital with a profusion of broken bones for months. His chosen repertoire here is derivative, but erudite, learned mostly from old phonograph records. This sole Trix offering (as far as I know his sum total of recordings) contains reworkings of tunes by Tampa Red (“Stranger’s Blues”), Jim Jackson (“Move to Kansas City”) and DeFord Bailey (“Don’t Tear My Clothes”). His plectrum and finger-picking approaches are respectably spry, but rarely stray from rote pre-existing forms. Each song receives the stamp of a personal watermark- an inserted verse here, a deft complementary riff there. Voice and inflection-wise he reminds me a bit of Brownie McGhee, sharing the same dry warmth and laconic locution that can segue from a slow drawl to an emphatic whoop over the span of a verse. Taped by Trix kingpin Pete Lowry (a guy whose A&R acumen mirrored Testament’s Pete Welding) the tracks carry crisp fidelity with Dunn exquisitely miked and in a congenial and crafty mood. Some nifty string percussion effects spice up “Further on Down the Line” and some tart harp work sounding a bit like rice paper and comb adds flavor to the aforementioned Bailey song. “Everything I Get a Hold To” finds Dunn decrying his diminutive stature and how it so often leads to his susceptibility to bullying while “Pearl Harbor Blues” constitutes his stab at a topical blues. “Mr. Charlie” offers a clever extended meditation on the ability of song to transcend disability. The shot on the cover typifies the overarching arcadian ambiance of the music. Just Roy and his guitar(s) sitting porch side and playing for himself and whatever passerby might stroll past.

Posted by derek at 5:32 PM | Comments (3)

December 13, 2004

Galaxie 500 - On Fire (Rykodisc)

come ride the fiery breeze of…

They were the non-Pixies. By which I mean to say that Galaxie 500 and the Pixies are divided as much by what they shared in common as they are unified by that which made them such distinct propositions. Both bands came together in Boston in 1986, and both featured laconic visionaries in the lead guitar / vocals chair, both also hailing from foreign climes: in the case of Galaxie 500's (and later Luna's) Dean Wareham, New Zealand; for Black Francis Black, the no less antipodal (culturally speaking) Southern California. Both bands were also gender-integrated, with a "chick bassist" -- Naomi Yang and Kim Deal -- who, while not conventionally hot, sported unconventional looks that meant that, no matter where she stood on stage and regardless of how much of her raven hair covered her faces, she was always intriguing. And both groups have had a tremendous influence on what has since become "alternative rock", even though both began as simple little college bands. Formed by students, each band catered to a similar youth audience: Reagan-era smart-asses and slummers discovering the bleak joys of garage rock, the Beckett-esque pronouncement, poseur-ism, and cheap, strychnine-heavy acid tabs. But where The Pixies' shoulda-been hits were cranked-up, all deflecting irony and searing flash, Galaxie 500 specialized in a narcotized lyricism, were into swell, scatter and soar; their "heaviness" was the cumulative effect of ample reverb and high volume, and of feeling suffused. Otherwise, the trio actually would have been what a British interviewer (see the Plexifilm Galaxie 500 1987 -1991 DVD) rather scurrilously reported some people had said they were anyway: "wimpy".

Nowhere is the peculiar tension Galaxie 500 could establish -- assuming that verb makes any sense vis-à-vis tension -- more apparent than on their sophomore album, On Fire, from 1989. True, there are few moments in all the brief history of shoe-gazing as glorious as when Wareham's guitar cuts through the pastel murk of "Flowers", the very first track on Galaxie's very first album (Today). True, too, that their last record, 1990's This Is Our Music contains the band's most sophisticated work, both in terms of song-craft and actual performance. But On Fire stands up best as a coherent artistic (arty?) statement. The noise -- primarily guitar feedback, but also saxophone (courtesy Ralph Carney), shaken and stroked percussion, and the muted howl of backing vocals -- is more chromatic here, the echo more expansive, the pop fizzier, the psychedelia sillier yet also less cloying (cf., "Leave The Planet", which also incorporates "Love Me Do"-style harmonica, as if the band were confused about which Beatles they want to pay tribute to), the evanescence, as on the follow-the-bouncing-ball sing-along "Another Day", more immutable, the cheerlessness more honeyed, the sensuality starker, and the emotional denial seems as if it is being put under pressure in some even further recess. Take "When Will You Come Home", which seems to start out as a jangle-ballad but ends as a seething freak-out. Has the song's protagonist tired of waiting and "watching TV all alone" and finally gone out of his apartment to search for his erstwhile love? Or is he just spinning mad, frustrated circles in his ennui? "Snowstorm", On Fire's other epic track, is pure "first winter in the big city" impressionism, with wah-wah guitar simulating the waft and impact of fat, moist flakes. And here, as elsewhere, Wareham's observational lyrics are so mundane (but not gritty, i.e., with the cockroaches in plain view) they become oblique, then so oblique they swirl into the uncanny. In this respect, "Strange" and especially "Plastic Bird" represent the twin apotheoses of Galaxie 500's music. The music is so big, nearly anthemic, but the sentiments as intoned are so small -- petty, even. The complete lyrics to "Plastic Bird": "And when I left your place / Gave me a plastic bird / You won it at the festival / Well I pulled both legs off / And then I smashed its nose / And left it on First Avenue".

Coupled with Yang's imperturbably melodic bass lines and Damon Krukowski's asymmetrical pitter-patter thrash, and the results are stirring, but not immediately, as though one were burning up in the core of a time lag, or spinning down in the comet tail of super slo-mo. Of course, it is conceivable that I'm just too close to similar personal experiences. I've been through those break-ups during which personal effects which might otherwise be trivial are invested with great emotional significance only so they can be flung over fences, backed over, burned, trod upon, or rent in two with a mighty scream. Yet I think my admiration has much more to do with the collision of scales, maxi and mini, in Galaxie 500's music. The plaintiveness of their best songs is so intense that you can only do justice to what it means to listen to them by calling them "hallucinatory." Together, Krukowski, Wareham and Yang were gracefully stoned entity. Only not literally. They were actually high on emotion: stunned by the ordinariness of their own feelings and the ease with which those feelings reach escape velocity. Hardly ever before and certainly never since has the poetry of the humble "Whoosh!" been probed so fruitfully, or with such undaunted aching.

~ Joe Milazzo

Posted by joe at 9:51 AM | Comments (7)

December 5, 2004

Bob Mould Band – LiveDog98 (Granary Music)


Here’s one I seek out every six months or so. Cut on the London leg of a European tour, it’s a pretty generous live document from the year Bob decided to serve his band its walking papers and swear an oath to a solo-gig-only lifestyle for the foreseeable future. The move was an attempt to avoid what he perceived as the Neil Young Syndrome. The tendency for aging rockers to forgo the auguries of their advancing years and flaunt a foolhardy belief in the Jethro Tull adage: “Never too old to rock & roll, if you’re too young to die.” Consciously or not, damn if he doesn’t do his best to prove them right, shredding and stomping through an 18-song set running the gamut from Workbook-era anthems like “Lonely Afternoon,” given here a Promethean punch by snarling white noise guitars and skull-ratting low-slung bass, to Bob Mould rave-ups like “I Hate Alternative Rock.” Michael Cerveris rides shotgun on second guitar, matching the front man flange for flange and fuzz for fuzz. The two-prong skyscraper sound works magic on tracks like the opening “Moving Trucks,” Bob’s nth paean to a broken relationship. Bassist Jim Wilson tunes low and subterranean fleshing out the band’s sound beautifully. Drummer Matt Hammon sustains a foursquare propulsive beat. Other highlights to my admittedly-biased ears include an almost dub style hardcore reading of “First Drag of the Day” and an epic seven-plus minute flameout on “Hanging Tree” that finds Bob scraping the bottom planks of the ennui barrel. There’s even room for what might be his most over-the-top angst-ridden title “Roll Over and Die.” Everything culminates with a ripping carousel version of “Man on the Moon”, a tune that playfully borrows the Sun Ra mantra “Space is the Place” in its closing chorus. The Vesuvian racket is fierce and the eighty-or-so minute gig always hits me very similar to the Milwaukee show I caught a month prior to this one. Especially on ear goggles with the volume cranked open enough to send tsunami-sized tendrils of distortion slamming into my Organs of Corti. Bob took stage wearing a light gray t-shirt. By the close of the fifth song it was stained a much darker hue by a heavy saturation of sweat. The memory makes me wish he would toss his ad-hoc moratorium in the trash, reconvene a band (preferably Sugar, Hüsker Dü is too much to hope for) and hit the tour circuit, hard.

Posted by derek at 1:01 PM | Comments (0)

November 28, 2004

Serge Baghdassarians / Boris Baltschun / Alessandro Bosetti / Michel Doneda - Strom


Serge Baghdassarians / Boris Baltschun / Alessandro Bosetti / Michel Doneda
P 204

I admit that my first thought upon seeing this disc was, “There goes Jacques with his soprano players again!” Happily, “Strom” manages to achieve a strong, harsh balance between the reeds and the electronics employed, resulting in a cleansing, abrasive bath of sound.

The first of six pieces begins with sharp, sandy whistles from Doneda and Bosetti, augmented in kind by Baghdassarians (guitar and mixing desk—incidentally, no recognizable guitar sounds are to be found herein) and Baltschun (sampler—possibly one operated along Sachiko M lines?). This sets up the general mode of the disc, the four musicians remaining within touching distance of each other, intertwining with enough ease so as to often make distinguishing who’s doing what a futile exercise. The saxophonists favor long, whooshing lines, lending the pieces an automotive sense of forward thrust. The evocation of metal scraping metal, like old train wheels making a tight bend in the track, is almost inescapable. Things edge several more steps into brutality with the next track (all are titled “Stromung”, I, II, III, etc.), rasping flutters high and low, pinging flanges, massive engines beneath the floor, subsiding just a bit as the evening shift takes over. While that might be the single most impressive piece here, none of the others falls far short. Each is wonderfully self-contained, both concentrating on a given sound-area and still leaving the feeling of unconstrainedness. “Strom V” is quieter at its start but no less disturbing for its guttural belches and thin wheezes and it too erupts into a fantastic spray. The last selection, atwitter with spittle and buzz from the beginning, is a fine conclusion, blasting through subterranean passages, up into heavy traffic and out into the icy night air.

It’s an excellent recording, matching the strongest work I’ve heard from all of these musicians individually. Highly recommended.

~ Brian Olewnick

Posted by brian at 9:30 AM | Comments (7)

November 21, 2004

Joe Newman & Cootie Williams - Jazz at Midnight (Gitanes)


Cut-out bins can often be a music maven’s most efficacious supply chain. I discovered this unassuming slim-line two-fer on an afternoon jaunt to a local brick and mortar yesterday. The quirky coupling of Cootie Williams with organ first piqued my eye, but the presence of a Joe Newman 10” as opener wasn’t a bad bargain either. The Newman cuts find the Basie brass staple fronting what appears to be a pick-up septet in at a Parisian club. Frank Wess, another longtime member of the Count’s coterie, is the only other name I recognize in the ensemble the players make for a relatively tight unit roving through two long jams (the first book-ended by crackling solos by the leader) and a comparatively budget rendering of “Loverman,” where Wess lets his lust-light shine. Always nice to have a baritone saxophonist in a swing band’s ranks and Henry Cocker’s heavy horn adds a welcome gruff patina to the charts and in solo. Newman sounds a shade rangy in spots but the crew pours a lot of gusto into the date and keeps the swing meter needle tilted to the red. Concert fidelity is of its era, but the rhythm section gets a surprisingly fair shake in the mix. The Williams cuts are both curiosity and revelation. Cootie was an icon in twilight, the laurels of his Ellington years somewhat threadbare after a detour into commercial R&B and still years away from his belated reunion with the Duke. The chosen fare isn’t exactly fraught with risk. “Night Train” and “Mood Indigo” make predictable appearances, the latter achieving an ambience akin to if it had been lifted from an old Victrola. But Williams’ officiates the pick-up band of tenor, organ, guitar and drums, which sounds more like an early rock combo with its hot skittle grease organ ladled with plenty of shimmering Sun-Ra style distortion, hard chugging blues guitar and foursquare traps beats, with comfortable aplomb. Downright weird to hear his Armstrong-reminiscent bugle patterns fastened to such a chassis. All but the straight up juke joint blues sign-off “Three O’Clock in the Morning” (a reference to the music’s birthing hour?), which openly flouts the disc's title, allow room for lengthy solos. The group demonstrates their mettle at playing soft and syrupy too on "Lil' Darling." There’s a pleasing piebald texture to these cuts that rubs me right. All in all a stone cold steal for the five-spot shelled out.

Posted by derek at 8:03 PM | Comments (1)

November 14, 2004

+Minus - A Rainy Koran Verse


A Rainy Koran Verse
Trente Oiseaux

“A Rainy Koran Verse” is a quick follow-up to +Minus’ first disc, released earlier this year (and one of my favorite recent recordings). This one consists of three live performances, or sections thereof, recorded in May 2004 during an English tour. Before I get to the music, I’d like to mention one interesting extra-musical aspect of the disc: the “liner notes”, which include photos and a fun-to-read tour diary by Mark Wastell, are included on the disc itself in .pdf format. It’s a nice idea, one I wouldn’t at all mind seeing become more popular, at least for those musicians concerned with elaborating verbally (and graphically) on their work. In this case, I was happy to read of the source for the lovely cover photo as well as the derivation of the disc’s title. Before learning of its genesis, I was convinced it was an anagram and was intent on sitting down and “solving” it.

As on the prior disc, the modus operandi is for Gunter to supply “basis tracks” (pre-existing, generally drone-like electronic compositions) often augmented by live playing on his recently invented cellotar while Halliwell confines his alto work (as nearly as I can tell) exclusively to feedback, something he does superbly. Wastell, in the interim, has abandoned his “amplified textures” and works directly with tam-tam, bowed prayer bowls, snare drum and bells. My problem, such as it is, with this alignment is that all three musicians often end up occupying a very narrow sonic sliver, all in the mid to high range, ringing hum sphere. Now, I can easily see where the subtle variations within a tightly focused stratum could make for fascinating listening. Alvin Lucier’s juxtapositions of sine waves with equally pitched instruments, for example, set up all manner of amazing aural moiré patterns. Here, for the most part, I just don’t get that same sense of absorbance, I don’t lose myself in the drones. Part of me feels like I’m simply missing something, but repeated listenings have, more often than not, failed to transport this listener. There are moments in each section, such as when Wastell switches to brushed snare in the opening track, where my interest gets piqued, but they tend to be more episodic than thought through. Gunter’s cellotar lines, when the instrument’s being played more or less like a traditional cello, can take on an appealing, slightly Romantic character and occasionally, as happens toward the end of the first track, the trio sounds rather startlingly like a section of one Gavin Bryar’s subtler pieces. It’s a nice area, one I’d love to hear developed further.

The second track worked most successfully for me, largely due to the handfuls of sonic grit tossed into the mix. It’s not an overt change, more, perhaps, a basis track with an increased amount of rumbling, some scratchier cellotar playing, Wastell doing a greater percentage of clicking and tapping instead of bowing. But it creates an atmosphere that varies in a very natural way, flowing from one field to another. Gunter’s languidly sensuous cello comes even more to the fore here but, balanced by that undercurrent of edginess, there’s a palpable sense of embeddedness, of rootedness in the world rather than ethereality. It’s a lovely, rich track, the one piece on this disc that compares most favorably with the earlier album. A jarringly awkward edit (intentional?) leads to the third piece wherein the performance reverts a bit to the territory covered in track one. There’s a nice wind-buffeting undertone at one point, but the ringing sonorities overhead are a bit too…just there. Hard to explain, except that I don’t pick up a purpose for them. There is some attractive ambient sound on this track, some shuffling and banging and I get the impression that, sitting in the space itself, I might have found myself far more drawn in.

My ambivalence about the disc probably stems from several factors, including my great appreciation of their first. “A Rainy Koran Verse” rings true less often than I would have hoped or expected but it’s still, overall, an enjoyable recording and I remain anxious to hear subsequent ones. I'd even argue that the second track is worth the price of admission.

~ Brian Olewnick

Posted by brian at 8:40 AM | Comments (25)

November 8, 2004

Joe Falcon - Cajun Music Pioneer (Arhoolie)


I live in accordion country. From local VFW halls to neighborhood Polish restaurants like Nye’s Polonaise Room where The World's Most Dangerous Polka Band, led by the dentition-challenged Ruth Adams, holds court three nights a week, squeezebox outfits still speckle the Midwestern topography. But as much as I dig live Polka; my favorite context for the instrument is Cajun and/or Zydeco music. Along with Amédé Ardoin and Boozoo Chavis, Joe Falcon completes a triumvirate of practitioners who never fail to get my feet tapping and my gums flapping. Recorded quite late in Falcon’s storied career- just two or so years before he found his heavenly home- this live date taped at The Triangle Club in Scott, LA still rivals (and in my mind surpasses) his legendary shellac sides cut for the Okeh label in the 30s with his first wife Cleoma. Tunes like “Joe’s Breakdown” cement a simple two-step template built on circular rhythmic motifs that chug along cheerfully. Even the waltzes carry an underlying insouciance. Emphasis rarely strays from loose ensemble interplay with few solos. Joe’s keening vocal style fits felicitously with vacillating tonalities of his accordion, creating an intoxicating harmonic push and pull, especially on songs like “Les Flambes D’Enfer” (“The Flames of Hell”). Theresa Falcon’s (Joe’s second wife) drums are rudimentary, but extremely effective in establishing an anchoring beat. Her crashing cymbal splashes cobble a surprisingly steady cadence around which fiddler Lionel Leleux and Falcon (both amplified) twirl and cavort. Guitarist Allen Richard usually steers the bass pulse, tugging at his bottom strings plugged through a fuzz-cranked amp. The resulting sound arrives unvarnished and raw. The juiced up atmosphere at the Triangle Club is akin to that of a Mississippi juke joint, jubilant and raucous with the audience frequently encroaching on the music. But far from a failing, this audio verité quality only accentuates the experience. Falcon was the real McCoy and this is some of the best his all too scant discography has to offer.

Posted by derek at 8:07 AM | Comments (0)

November 1, 2004

Jimmy Halperin / Dominic Duval / Jay Rosen - Joy & Gravitas (CIMP)

Joy & Gravitas

Jazz history is often boiled down to a procession of geniuses and innovators. There's a certain truth to that; but I can't help wondering: what would jazz history look like as a history of mavericks? The answer to that question would probably require a close look at the Cadence/CIMP family of labels, which makes a specialty of figures who don’t fit easily on anyone's map. Though both labels' catalogues contain their fair share of meat'n'potatoes free-jazz blowouts, a high proportion of the list is genuinely one-of-a-kind discs – the kind of quirky musicmaking that most producers try frantically to normalize out of existence. This tolerance of idiosyncrasy doesn’t always pay off (the notorious Braxton-with-standup-comic CIMP comes to mind), but you’re usually guaranteed a few discs in every fresh batch of Cadence/CIMP releases (and they tend to come fast'n'furious) that are not merely worthwhile but genuinely unique musical documents.

Saxophonist Jimmy Halperin's new disc fits this profile pretty well. He's a protégé of Lennie Tristano and Sal Mosca, and his most prominent recorded appearances so far have been on Warne Marsh's Back Home and a duo with Mosca, Psalm. So, latterday Tristano-school –- already the "maverick" tag is firming up. But what’s he doing here with Dominic Duval and Jay Rosen, more usually found behind Joe McPhee in Trio-X? I'm tempted to see this as part of a larger pattern – Connie Crothers has been known to turn up at the Vision Festival, and Liz Gorrill's been doing very strange (and, frankly, terrible) experimental stuff lately under the name Kazzrie Jaxen. To be sure, the program is virtually all familiar standards and jazz classics, which sets it apart from the majority of CIMP sessions. But Halperin's delivery, even on ballads, is hectic and wilfully over-the-top: he blows so hard the notes are perpetually on the verge of cracking; solos are full of fast, angry trills and obsessive downwards flutters that don't go anywhere in particular. The arrangements are again almost wilfully revisionary: Duval's counterlines on "My Funny Valentine" and "Love for Sale", for instance, are virtually at odds with the tunes. Some of this just doesn't come off: the first take of "Don't Explain" ends messily, for instance, and "Witch Hunt" features an excessively harsh soprano solo and is marred by Rosen's overenthusiastic bomb-dropping. But there are some memorably effective pieces here too, including a "Naima" unlike any you’ve heard before (how often do you hear it delivered with a hint of anger?), a demonic "Night in Tunisia", and a bruising cover of Hendrix's "Spanish Castle Magic". A very mixed bag, then -- but sufficiently audacious that it's still worth hearing. There’s nothing else in my record collection quite like it.

~ Nate Dorward

Posted by nate at 8:35 AM | Comments (4)

October 25, 2004

A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings (Rounder)

iron merrimacs and sea lion women

(Being an attempt at suasion in the form of a series of otherwise unrelated conditional statements.)

You'll love this album

  • if you own a pea coat, second hand, just a little bald at the cuffs.
  • if you gaze out the window in mid-continental flight only to look down at the brown of the mountains, the dapples of light and dark made by the individual peaks' overlapping rain shadows, how low their thrust spreads upon the ground.
  • the dissonance of traditions aside, if you reel with your own understanding of the last scene of Fellini's Nights Of Cabiria.
  • if you agree with Sly Stone's observation that "there's a rhythm / when you don't know what you're doing" ("In Time", Fresh).
  • if you take a walk through the neighborhood at twilight just to see your known world through a veil of rust.
  • if you smell something sweets as peaches in the acridity of smoldering autumn leaves.
  • if you've learned it.
  • if you think a "Panegyric" is a patent medicine.
  • if there is a ghost haunting your coal chute.
  • if you find that the State Fair seems to stay in town a few days fewer with each passing year.
  • if you can dance with your collar buttoned tight on your Adam's apple; if you can dance with a bow pendant at the small of your back.
  • if you see a dirt road and think of mud pies.
  • if you know from which song the lyrics "the children look up / all they hear / is sky blue bells ringing" have been quoted.

If you know a private, pathless place deep in the woods, then this is the CD you'll leave behind when you go there to your secret.

If you are the village idiot, and the lovely, chestnut-haired lass who you dare not court is leaving soon, or at least with the coming of the first snow, for a long visit to a far-off place, then you can sheepishly toe the dirt and make of this CD a fine going-away gift.

If you prefer coffee to tea, and pie to cake, then you will want your short-order cook to have this playing over his hot plates.

If you are crying because you think you're all alone, and you can't make the tears stop even though you know you're wrong, you're mistaken, you're mistook, that you are never abandoned, then you've heard someone down the hall singing along with you and Texas Galdden... and Bozie Sturdivant... and Jess Morris... and Woody Guthrie.

If the only empire in which you believe exists in the hereafter, then you'll find its anthem here.

~ Joe Milazzo

Posted by joe at 6:00 AM | Comments (0)

October 17, 2004

Various - Italian String Virtuosi (Rounder)


Dave Grisman nearly ruined the mandolin for me. Guys like bluesmen Yank Rachell and Johnny Young along with the Italian gents on this Rounder compilation rescued it. Grisman’s self-styled dawg music, an amalgam of bluegrass, folk and jazz idioms, has its moments. But more often than not it carries too many of the conceits of his friend a colleague Jerry Garcia. The assemblage of vintage ensembles resuscitated by this survey are relics of a different age. Most carry their own conceits including a straight-laced propensity for toeing the melodic line and only occasionally venturing beyond genteel tweaking of the rondo structures. But there’s an umbrella of authenticity here that makes these conventions easy to forgive. The pieces range from lively mazurkas to moody tarantellas with occasional tangos and polkas tossed in. The bands cover an eclectic range of instrument combinations. Most revolve around a core of mandolin, banjo, violin and guitar in various ratios. Several incorporate castanet percussion and even saxophone and brass bass in a couple of instances. Performances like Giovanni Vicari’s “Visione,” a tango brought to sonic life through a string of parceled arpeggios, are perfect vehicles for the pinched pitches of the mandolin’s taut tunings. The Giovali String Trio gives Vicari a run for his lira with “Costumi Siciliani” as webs of scalar notes reel out from two mandolins, their respective melodic threads embelished by the loping counterpoint of a single guitar. Listening to society plectrists like Frank Fazio and Mario De Pietro strut their stuff it’s easy to imagine reclining on a vine-laced veranda in Sicily, sipping a goblet of aged Marsala and soaking in the Mediterranean sun. Programmed for variety and playability the twenty-five tracks serve as a generous and accessible time capsule. The bold nomenclature of the title may not fit every selection, but there’s plenty of impressive string-picking on display. Some that I’m certain would leave Mr. Grisman’s mouth agape.

Posted by derek at 5:51 PM | Comments (3)

October 10, 2004

Toshiya Tsunoda - Scenery of Decalcomania

Toshiya Tsunoda


Scenery of Decalcomania

My sole complaint about this recording is that there are seven tracks, ranging from about five to seventeen minutes instead of its being a seven-disc set, with each of the pieces allowed an hour or so to breathe. Though comprised of, more or less, naturally occurring aural phenomena, these aren’t pure field recordings in a technical sense, as Tsunoda tends to use specific and unusual set-ups to capture his sounds. So, he’ll place small microphones inside a length of U-shaped pipe, in a tiny cavity at the base of a metal cylinder or between thin sheets of copper foil, transmuting the sound vibrations that find their way into these spaces.

Given that so much of the actual input is pre-existent sound, channeled through specific “funnels” but otherwise untampered with, making qualitative evaluations of the final work, as far as Tsunoda’s contribution, perhaps devolves into a simple appreciation for the choices made, both as to the means of recording and which samples (from, one would assume, an enormous library) to issue. In this regard, I think Tsunoda has curated wonderfully. There’s a wide-ranging variety of timbres, high, whistling tones to wooly, low ones, variations in spatial imagery from compressed to expansive, etc. Most of the pieces are relatively steady-state, focused on a particular phenomenon, such as wind passing from a small aperture in a metal handrail, the loose exterior billowing contrasting with but clearly relating to the tightly enclosed keening heard within the tube. Similarly, the piece involving the cylinder cavity contrasts the deep, almost liquid-sounding rushes of air through that tiny space with the chirps and tweets of area birds, unconstrained in an entirely different sonic space. The final work, “Cut Diagonally”, uses voltage gates to cut off sounds beneath certain frequency levels, leaving only the irregular “peaks” and resulting in a fascinating, difficult-to-translate welter of sonic debris that’s strongly reminiscent of some of Xenakis’ electronic explorations.

The exception to this general rule, and the standout track on the disc, is “Ferry Passing”, recorded on a bridge in Kisarazu Bay, Japan, apparently with little in the way of enhancement. It unfurls like a freeform short story, narrative with no preconceived plot, leaving the listener in an anticipatory dither waiting for the next event. The harbor noises, PA announcements, scattered snatches of conversation, chimes, motors, wind and water all provide an extraordinarily rich sound field only heightened by the natural, everyday drama of small events. It’s one of the most rewarding pieces I’ve heard this year and “Scenery of Decalcomania” has been one of my most played discs in recent months, a superb recording.

Check it out at:

~ Brian Olewnick

Posted by brian at 3:25 PM | Comments (16)

October 3, 2004

Trudy Pitts - Legends of Acid Jazz (Prestige)


A recurring choice for when lights are dim at the Taylor cabana, this disc is much like that matchbook with the kitsch-cool cover you keep finding in the breast pocket of your smoking jacket and can’t bear to toss out. Pitts had an encomium-worthy career that sadly didn’t transfer to fecundity on vinyl. She’s the only organist, to my knowledge, to have gigged with Coltrane in their native Philadelphia (where are the tapes!?!) and one of handful of female purveyors on the B-3 who could easily hold court with her male peers. She’s since been shrouded under the shadow of her counterpart in the sisterhood, Shirley Scott; a fate shared by fellow unsungs Gloria Coleman and Rhoda Scott. This two-fer, combining Pitts’ first and second platters for Prestige, is totally of its era. On the first nine numbers the soda pop conga of Abdu Johnson joins the core trio of plectrist Pat Martino, playing a fair bit of acoustic along with his customary hollow-body electric, and drummer Bill Carney (also Pitts’ spouse and manager). All nineteen cuts are draped in the pungent, instantly appealing aura of an intimate lounge date despite their origins in Rudy Van G’s Englewood Cliffs studio bunker. The set is so ripe with atmosphere that you can almost smell the wafting aromatic blend of cheroot smoke, mohair fibers, freshly poured Johnny Walker, and Naugahyde upholstery lingering in the patron booths. Pitts proves herself a pro at building and sustaining ambiance, rotating favorite pop songs of the day (“It Was a Very Good Year,” “House of the Rising Sun,” “A Whiter Shade of Pale”) with bop-tailored tunes from Carney’s songbook. Her command of the organ’s available nuances and willingness to incorporate a wide range of settings from reed-like twitters to thick vespertine fills and narcotic swells ensures that the bromidic nature of some of the material is undercut by an adventurous uncertainty. The summit for me is a rendering of “Eleanor Rigby” where Pitts’ captures song’s sentiments of urban alienation completely without sacrificing a sliver of groove, rubber-stamping her swirling indigo-hued solo with an emphatically hip “Yow!” Don’t let the garish Kool-Aid™ acid test cover art faze you. This is music that targets both the hips and head and sets the tumblers in each to locking on a deeply pleasing groove.

Posted by derek at 6:21 PM | Comments (0)

September 28, 2004

Cocteau Twins - Treasure (4AD)


Chronic Town-era M. Stipe, Starsailor's Captain Buckley, Gollum Yorke, they've got no ululation on E. Fraser.

Souxsie Sioux sprechstimme, scat and Lillywhite echo winding through tear- and tea-stained doilies hung out to dry. Cherubs mumble, of course, bad poetry and all. Choirs can't fill the void vacated by sense. And harps are only muted by the heavenly hash of the clouds. So these fantasies -- not wholly aurual -- spin themselves out of Aegean taffy, pumice, Joseph Mallord William Turner landscapes (rather than Wyndham Lewis vortices), and the heavy floral perfumes favored by women who become little girls all over again, demurring as they do to the swathe and billow of their taupe, shapeless frillery. For all its synthesized sparkle, this pop is more Victorian than The Kinks at their most gazing-back-over-the-garden-wall.

Ciò è tutto il così mess bello, risposte, parole che non erano mai. Cela est tout l'ainsi mess beau, réponses, mots que pas erano jamais. Aquilo é todo l'ainsi mess bonito, respostas, palavras que não erano nunca. Αυτό είναι όλο l'ainsi όμορφο δεν βρωμίζει, απαντήσεις, λέξεις εκείνο το όχι erano ποτέ.

The twins jumped the wall on the back of a hiccup.

~ Joe Milazzo

Posted by joe at 7:06 AM | Comments (1)

September 20, 2004

Tina Louise - It's Time For Tina ( P & S / Fresh Sound)

... the movie star ...

Believe it or else, but the former Miss Tina Blacker and the future "option" for regressive drunkards -- as in the bar game WOWY, or "Which one would you?" -- actually studied at Strasberg's Actor's Studio in the 1950's. And what you will hear on this, her lone long-playing record, is something like Method balladeering. The torchy Louise can carry a tune, and not as if she's hauling coconuts or buckets of lagoon water. (On a related note: a close inspection of the original cover for this LP reveals that the come-hither photo of the actress has been modified. Where she was no doubt wearing only a bikini top in the source shot, an artist has painted her torso so that it looks as if she is wearing evening attire. Reminiscent of the necktie painted over Blind Lemon Jefferson's collarless farm-boy shirt in the only known image of the bluesman... The 1998 Oglio reissue of It's Time For Tina uses a 1960's vintage close-up of Ms. Louis, ruining half of the record's effect.)

In fact, Louise's breathy, sub-sub-Marilyn Monroe vocal stylings lace together to form a unique enthrallment. She is never far from panting over orchestra leader Buddy Weed's raunchy yet gossamer arrangements, but who ever thought panting could be so expressive of a whole range of, if not emotions, then at least levels of desire. Singing like this was supposed to be winkingly exhibitionistic for its time, I guess, but 50 years later, the pleading boudoir mannerisms leave the listener feeling much like a peeping tom. Music heard from the other side of a fogged-up car window, or through a key-hole. The music is coming from a place where one is not supposed to be.

Quite apart from Louise's performance, there are guest appearances on this record by Tyree Glenn (trombone, no vibes), Hilton Jefferson, and Coleman Hawkins. Jefferson's obbligatos in particular are stunning; why one of the most accomplished alto saxophonists in jazz made so few recordings after his star turn with the Calloway orchestra remains a rather sad mystery. But while Glenn and even the majestic Hawkins are still knocking on the bedroom door, Jefferson is draining another bottle of champagne and contemplating the nape of his lady's neck as if it were moonlight itself.

~ Joe Milazzo

Posted by joe at 8:16 AM | Comments (1)

September 12, 2004

The Ink Spots - Anthology (MCA)

In memoriam, Lee Milazzo (1942 - 2004).

This CD was the last Christmas gift I ever gave my father (2003), and he received it in some wonder. He had no idea that I remembered his fond reminiscences (the few he had of his earliest childhood years, most them being set in the hot, clangorous polio wards of Scottish Rite hospital here in Dallas) of this vocal group, and he certainly did not think that any such compilation existed. Though I prefer Jimmy Ricks and the Ravens, or even the Mills Brothers, something about the "original" Bill Kenney / Decca Ink Spots spoke to my father, who otherwise would rather have been listening to the Vienna Philharmonic. Or Jussi Björling.

I'm taking Anthology back with me now. I know he listened to it by the way the CD booklet was re-inserted into the case: rotated 180 degrees, as if to confuse browsers of his collection who were greedy enough to want to open the thing for a closer look. Sometimes I even still fall for that ruse and pull on the lid that swings up from the other side. It never fails to be an episode which tells several stories all at once.

I'm not sure how soon it will be before I am able to play these discs. Maybe I'll finally hear what it was that remarkable man heard in this music. I can only hope I will.

~ Joe Milazzo

Posted by joe at 3:45 PM | Comments (8)

September 5, 2004

Cindy Blackman - A Lil' Somethin', Somethin' (32 Jazz)


Publicity is a precious commodity within the anemic niche that jazz occupies in the public consciousness. Perceived precedence is a draw, but it can also be a nuisance, particularly when it comes to gender. Drummer Susie Ibarra sometimes found press more interested in the politics of her femininity than her considerable talents behind a trap kit. Cindy Blackman, whose debut on disc predated Ibarras’s by nearly a decade, probably experienced ambivalence toward her skills on similar grounds. I first got hip to her existence watching a video for Lenny Kravitz’s retro fuzztone rocker “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” her trip-hammer beats fueling the jet-propulsion thrust of the song along a stratospheric trajectory. Even within the rigid dynamics of that context she showed a beguiling rhythmic charisma. Doing some legwork I discovered her four-album run on Muse (the best of purportedly collected here) and a well-nourished resume of gigs with a diverse assembly of employers including: Sam Rivers, Sonny Simmons, Michael Marcus, Frank Lowe’s Saxemble, Rachel Z and Patti Labelle. The material here pulls from a postbop mainstream bag. An almost even balance between standards and originals occupies nearly an hour of music, the latter portion evidencing a competent, if fairly derivative approach to hardbop tune-smithing. Rivers’ “Beatrice” joins more pedestrian fair like “’Round Midnight” and “Tune Up.” All of the cuts contain ample space for expressive playing. Then-young lions like Kenny Garrett and the Roney Brothers (Antoine and Wallace) alternate with graybeard royalty like Joe Henderson and Gary Bartz in Blackman’s various bands. The rhythm sections represented are also gold standard and include the likes of Kenny Barron, Ron Carter, Buster Williams and Jackie Terrasson. Blackman exercises welcome restraint on many of them, recognizing the value in abetting her colleagues with steady accents and asides rather than bowling them over with obvious and easy bombast. Plenty of drum gymnastics grace the set with solos allocated for nearly every tune. Standouts include the press roll extravaganza of “Spank” and the delicate brush ornaments of “Missing You.” Hearing Blackman put her kit through the paces it’s easy to wish that she would quit her current lucrative gig as drummer with British Soul diva Joss Stone and assemble another band of her own. The canyon-wide financial differential probably precludes such a move.

Posted by derek at 8:50 PM | Comments (0)

August 28, 2004

Dorothy Ashby - Hip Harp (Prestige)


The gimmick epithet was regular obstacle for Dorothy Ashby, a consequence of her choosing an instrument outside the usual jazz ordinance. She wasn’t the first Aeolian improvisor but based on a body of work that stretched into the Eighties I’d hand her the crown (the contemporaneous Corky Hale, and Alice Coltrane being strong runner-ups). Her first Prestige album follows closely on the heels her Regent Records debut, employing the same then-exotic quartet instrumentation. The session favors lighter fare with an emphasis on balladic standards. Some like the overly demulcent “Moonlight in Vermont” mire in sticky sentimental sap. But elsewhere Ashby swings with conviction. “Pawky” feels like vintage Mancini refitted with a moody hardbop shuffle beat. “There’s a Small Hotel” is an ear-popping marvel of digital dexterity as she sculpts an aural cat’s cradle out of the opening melody. Her harp often sounds like a medusa-stringed guitar with the shimmer-switch toggled to “11”, transfixingly hypnotic and hauntingly alien in equal measure. Gilded notes float and extinguish in glittering swathes like swarms of fireflies flittering above a sylvan glade. Herman Wright isn’t the most nimble-fingered bloke on bass but he handles the extra pressure saddled to his shoulders in the absence of piano with aplomb. Ashby’s iridescent chords pick up additional slack, filling in cracks and adding further harmonic helium to the mixture. Basie-alum Frank Wess leaves his tenor horn at home and focuses solely on flute, his gossamer melodic flights dancing pirouettes through the chamber-flavored tunes. Ashby also holds aces in her two drummers, Art Taylor and Roy Haynes. Brushes are the order of the hour and each man wields his whisks with Picasso-worthy precision. Herr Van Gelder captures it all with clarity and warmth from behind his Hackensack console.

[Sidenote: Three out of sixty-nine. That’s the number of picks in the ROW featuring women as leaders/co-leaders since the section’s inception. Kind of a piss poor ratio IMHO. So I’m throwing down the gauntlet to myself, Joe and whomever else wants to step up. Just for fun let’s make the selections over the next four or so weeks female-centric & see what we come up with. This site is Y chromosome-saturated enough as is.]

Posted by derek at 3:39 PM | Comments (0)

August 22, 2004

Shelly Manne / Jack Marshall - Sounds! (Capitol)

FDS RIAA hoo-hah


Enough has already been written in the last decade about the hi-fi culture of prosperous mid-century America to make this a rather short entry, but it is worth remarking that the duet setting is a rather intimate one on which to base a "sound spectacular". For that is what you get with this LP, the sound of two highly professional musicians enjoying each other's backstage conversation. The recording itself -- by Hugh Davies -- is both up-close and spacious: a classic example of the kind of analog sound that audiophiles still pine after.

Jack Marshall plays guitar "Classical Gas"-style throughout; fun enough. But it is Shelly Manne, one of the most unfailingly musical drummers in the jazz idiom -- cf. his Impulse! 2, 3, 4, recorded about the same time as this session -- who raises this LP to the level of the extraordinary. Manne seems to have lugged every exotic percussion instrument in his private collection into the studio with him, and he uses each maraca, steel drum, wood block, Philippino loo-jon, tambourine, boo-bam, suitcase and piece of discarded cardboard to restore some color to faded popular fare such as the theme from Lawrence Of Arabia, "Am I Blue?" and "Yesterdays". Outsider euphony by the likes of Orientalists Harry Partch, John Cage and Colin McPhee, as well as neo-Viking Moondog, plays in the background of many of these pieces, though the arrangements on Sounds! circumnavigate the Southern hemisphere. There is also the sense that Manne's work here anticipates that of Roscoe Mitchell's groups in that leader's fascination with "little instruments". Or at least anticipates it as much as Capitol was trying to cash in on the phenomenal success of Enoch Light's Persuasive Percussion recordings. Yet, if we have learned nothing in the post-hip-hop age, it is that you take your avant-garde wherever you can get it. Traditions are just waiting to happen.

Not bad for a record by a couple of "squares" (as seen from this end of the telescope), jacketed in a fairly tame -- I won't go so far as to say "classy" -- cheesecake cover, no doubt sold simply as accessory to a bachelor pad evening of grilled steaks, dry martinis, "low-tar" cigarettes, and necking with the secretary on the bearskin rug.

~ Joe Milazzo

Posted by joe at 3:11 PM | Comments (1)

August 15, 2004

Jaco Pastorius - Trio: Live In New York City, Volume 2 (Big World)


I’m a resident of the Stanley Clarke camp when it comes to electric jazz bass. Clarke’s contributions to Return to Forever were that band’s primary saving grace in my book. Plus he gave Sam Rivers some serious competition for the mantle of coolest coifed afro in the Seventies. I’ve only had dalliances with the discography of Jaco. A completely solo disc culled from Italian gigs nabbed in 92’ served as a faulty indoctrination and I quickly lost interest. Over the years though the curiosity kept creeping back and eyeing this disc in a used bin recently I handed over half a sawbuck to take it home. It’s part of a seven volume set and a bit unusual in that Jaco opts for a fretted axe. The tune choices are fairly telling of the date’s age and the trio’s decision to open with the antiquated “Wipe Out” doesn’t help the case for a cutting edge designation. Art Pepper’s “Straight Life,” rendered surprisingly straight, leads into more pop cover fare like “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Dear Prudence.” On the latter Hiram Bullock squashes his notes with a wah-wah pedal, squirting them out like squiggles of ochre acrylic squeezed from tumescent paint tube. The guitarist even accesses his inner arena rock child for the groove staple “Ode to Billie Joe” coaxing out hard crunching power chords at the conclusion while drummer Kenwood Dennard lays down a fair share of healthy funk. “Continuum” becomes a bit lost in sparkly echo-etched riffing and turgid noodling. “Three Views of a Secret” proves a snoozer too as both Jaco and Bullock switch to corny organ-style keyboards. But the Meters’ “Cissy Strut” is another matter, the prime conduit for his percolating fingerings as he plays Porter Jr. to Bullock’s Nocentelli. The cover photo is a kepper too, picturing Pastorius with aquamarine Rasta cap and tye dye tunic, sporting his usual look of smug constipation. Creative blockage gets piped through his contorted countenance leaving his cerebrum and fingers free to conspire in crafting those furiously fibrillating runs. Sure it’s sloppy and overly bombastic in spots, but I’m betting that’s just how Jaco was the majority of the time in person. This after all was a man whose insufferable ego could easily occupy its own zip code.

Posted by derek at 2:22 PM | Comments (15)

August 9, 2004

Led Zeppelin - Presence (Swan Song)

shipped platinum

The Song Remains the Same didn't suddenly make Led Zeppelin ludicrous; the film just confirmed for many of the band's critics how much of a caricature they had always been. Zeppelin had the loudest drummer, the busiest bassist, the sloppiest, most indulgent of guitar heroes, the lead singer with the biggest hair and the tightest trousers. They also had the phoniest anti-establishment stance (no interviews, no TV, no identfying marks on album covers, no singles in the UK), the roughest-necked of managers, the most exagerrated stage gimmicks -- "The Bow! The Bow!" -- and the most insensitive and avaracious "understanding" of African-American popular music ever (cf., "The Crunge", "Hats Off To Ray Harper", "The Lemon Song", and this album's "Royal Orleans").

Of course, this is all just another way of saying what a great rock and roll band Zeppelin was -- at least a far as rock and roll is an expression of the male libido. In many ways, Presence -- the only Zep album I still own -- is their purest record. Recorded on the cheap (for them) and on the fly (on tax exile) in Munich following Plant's infamous North African smash-up, the album is definitely a downer. But the band is so unbelievably tight here, and not just on the tunes -- "Achilles Last Stand", "Nobody's Fault But Mine" -- we all know from classic rock radio. Relatively minor works like the staggeringly sleazy "For Your Life" and the jumpy (but cynical) "Hots On For Nowhere" are as muggy with the same regret... or foreboding?... associated with many post-coital experiences, from speechlessly picking clothes up off the floor to being sprawled out in your own drying up, wondering when it will be safe to leave your partner to go stand under the shower.

Factor in some of Jimmy Page's finest work, including what may be his best solo on record on the slow blues "Tea For One", and you may have the best -- i.e., most true to life -- hot weather / hot places of the earth album ever made. By 1976, the year Presence was relased, the flame of Me Generation romance had not died; rather, romance had burned itself, as the cliche goes, to a crisp. And, as an icon of the following decade, Raymond Carver, liked to point out, we not only make our homes within cliches, we travel through them as well, collecting mementos and dispatching missives as we go. All Presence is missing is a postmark.

~ Joe Milazzo

Posted by joe at 10:06 AM | Comments (0)

July 31, 2004

Raphe Malik / Joe McPhee / Donald Robinson - Sympathy (Boxholder)


You'd expect more fanfare. But the enterprising Boxholder label, based out of Woodstock, Vermont, seems to specialize in modestly excellent releases such as this. The listener would typically be well-advised to approach a 75-plus minute free jazz recording that opens in media drum solo with some trepidation, but, then again, these are not typical virtuosos of the aforementioned style. From his days as a young firebrand clamoring to be heard in the Pentecostal fervor that was the classic Cecil Taylor Unit of the mid-1970s (with Jimmy Lyons, Ramsey Ameen, Sirone, and Ronald Shannon Jackson), Malik has developed into a conversational trumpeter with an attractively throaty tone. Drummer Robinson plays with true circumspection, even when he swings, which is not infrequently; his contributions to the late Glenn Spearman's music should be more widely celebrated. Joe McPhee, of course, is the traveling star of the global free jazz scene, a multi-instrumentalist (heard here on pocket trumpet and soprano sax) whose intensity and mastery of color -- refracting his own white light, as it were -- is never gaudy and never sheds any glare.

Nor is Sympathy a collective improvisation blow-out. Although all three men receive (relatively) equal billing here, this is definitely a Malik session. Not only are all the compositions credited to him, they, well, actually sound like compositions. Moreover, they sound like extensions of the distinctively restrained material Malik has been writing and performing since at least the early 1990's. It is music that shares some of the same beautiful lugubriousness that falls like autumnal sunlight through the veils and shrouds that hang across the work of fellow brass players Bill Dixon and (yes) Kenny Wheeler, but is less weighty and both more sinuous and more capable of inspiring exuberant solos. Although themes such as "Testament", "Space March" and "Motivic" are not exactly catchy, they are quite sturdy, and reinforced by Malik and McPhee's tendency to underscore each sound and give each sound enough room in which to unfurl to its full definition. This is true even of the fast runs that dominate "Resolving A Quote" or the circular-breathing phrases, hewed out with a careful eye fixed on asymmetry, that are the coda to "Call And Response". Occasionally these performances have a tendency to plod along, with Malik slipping into "routine" rather than "pulse". Yet, although both are used rather sparingly here, Robinson, especially with his cymbal and tom-tom work, and McPhee call blither spirits back to the proceedings. McPhee's solo on "Escape Route" is remarkably playful and sensitive. In fact, his solo is positively Steve Lacy-esque; it is bouncy, angular, and charming.

Those hoping that this disc will shake the pillars of their one's own private heaven, or those listeners looking for the diversity of brainiac approaches they customarily find on McPhee's own leader dates, or even those looking for a continuation of the original What We Live might conceivably be disappointed by Sympathy. Which is not to say that there isn't much here. As with a great many of Boxholder's productions, there is well-prepared, well-executed, well-recorded, but non-insistent music, presented with an attention to craftsmanship -- a quality not often respected in an art that enshrines the passions and their volatilities -- and offered to the listener with few frills… which really are not missed at all, honestly.

~ Joe Milazzo

Posted by joe at 12:32 PM | Comments (0)

July 25, 2004

Various – A Warrior on the Battlefield: A Cappella Trailblazers: 1920’s-1940’s (Rounder)


Dredging deeply into doo-wop has never been high on my listening priority list. I dig the snatches of the genre that I’ve come in contact with, but frankly a capella combos don’t usually gas my engines. This trepidation is a chief reason why this Rounder comp turned out to be a bit of a revelation. The detailed (if toast-dry) liners to a solid job of tracing the web of relationships between minstrelsy, vaudeville, barbershop (a tradition often attributed to white pioneers which in point of fact actually arose out of black sources) and jubilee styles and how all have tenacious roots in the Church. What’s most impressive to me is how well this evolutionary pattern plays across the 25 tracks chosen by the compilers. Rousing vocal harmonies abound in the gospel hymns brought to life by ensembles like the Norfolk Jubilee and Pullman Porters Quartettes. The latter group revels in a secular call and response rondo on “Jog A-long Boys” braiding a rich bass croon with a pair of soaring altos. The Bethel Quartet returns listeners to a place behind the pews with a pious rendition of “Jesus, the Light of the World.” Both songs follow fairly regimental patterns of soloist backed by unison support and only hint at the innovations in the wings. As involving as the early cuts are it’s the later ones by the Golden Gate and Silver Leaf Quartets that truly set the bar. With complex harmonies and polyphony of pitched lines these groups attain magnitudes of mellifluous synergy far greater their foursquare configurations would suggest. Rescued from heirloomed 78s, many of the sides carry the signs of age endemic to their shellac origins, but a strong emotional euphony still seeps through. Give this comp a spin & I’m quite sure it will stimulate your senses for more.

Posted by derek at 9:48 AM | Comments (0)

July 19, 2004

Mandarin - fast>future>present


In the not-so-distant past, Denton, Texas was a tiny, sprawling cultural center, comfortably cooling in the shadow of Austin's bigger, better music scene, but with arguably more talent. Now Denton is a cultural hub in the state's north, and not without its own capital from the ever-evolving dynamic of the University music school and its core of students who both individually and collectively want to do something new, and for themselves. The town has a Wal Mart now, too. Its local Indie scene has always been hit or miss as a result of college student overeagerness, and the bands share a mortality rate with the bars, but when the town hits, it hits hard.

Mandarin is the latest product of the Denton scene, a guitar band with catchy, unassuming riffs and spoonfuls of edge sprinkled into swirling compositions distinguishable enough to give this young ensemble their "sound" but independent of one another nonetheless. They're Kaleidoscope-era Banshees with punch and Death Cab for Cutie without frailty.

Jayson Wortham's whiff-laden vocals appeal to side of the brain that yearns in passivity for the apocalypse, just to see to what degree your world will change. "Shadow Your Shadow", an infectious number where spare crunch chords climb the fretboards, addresses paranoia and the tendency to succumb to unqualified adivce. The music is not ashamed of influence, as with "Smother the Spark." A double take reveals this is not Sonic Youth, further clarified by the tune's atmospheric piano interlude and quick return to the upbeat. Clever hooks abound and complicated signatures meet the wonderfully sublime ("When Heat Sleeps," "Eye on Time"). Vanilla song titles and Wortham's songwriting are workable on their own but his delivery render the lyrics erudite, punctuated by the guitar/drum combo of Matt Leer and Dave Douglas.

Mandarin's debut shows the 54°40 or Fight! label continuing its steady performance as one of the most dependable outfits housing today's indie music. That the label is able to to grab outstanding acts from Oregon, St. Louis and Denton from their headquarters in Podunk, Michigan is either indication of PR savvy or simply a set of good ears. I'm inclined to think the latter.

Posted by al at 10:32 AM | Comments (1)

July 12, 2004

Allan Chase - Dark Clouds With Silver Linings (Accurate)

silver linings

This week I'd like to revisit an old -- or it is a younger? -- enthusiasm for this recording.

Having been exposed to the Herbie Nichols Project discs, Andrew Hill's Dusk and intimate sessions led by Dewey Redman, Cecil McBee and Lee Konitz, it has gotten to the point that, if I see trumpeter Ron Horton's or drummer Matt Wilson's listed in the credits, I'll give the CD in question at least a cursory listen. Both musicians are present here, along with Tony Scherr on bass and the leader himself -- a veteran of both Your Neighborhood Saxophone Quartet and Rashied Ali's Prima Materia -- on soprano and alto saxophones. Yes, another pianoless quartet, but with a twist, one that flirts deliciously with the arch: as the liner notes say right up-front, these musicians are "playing music associated with pianists".

So we have the Sun Ra title track, with its characteristically unusual proportions (those melodic lines seem to be of random lengths) and elliptical harmonies, two rarely played pieces from the twilight of Bud Powell's career as a composer (the Monkish calypso "Comin' Up" and the children's song sketch "Borderick", each of which presents the improviser with unique challenges, one of Horace Silver's knottiest bop themes ("Yeah!"), and some cherry-picked standards, including an exuberant version of "Poinciana", the into to which would make Albert and Donald Ayler proud. Wilson, a truly swinging drummer who also knows how to exploit the vast array of colors available to him, is a terrific asset here. Horton is engaging as usual; some may find him "derivative" of the increasingly dour Tom Harrell and Dave Douglas, but, where both those men sometimes ignore the most musical option in their solos in favor of the idiosyncratic effect, Horton is a brass player whose ideas are equal to the beauty and strength of his tone -- an Art Farmer for the post-modern age. Chase himself excels more on alto than soprano. Like so many technically proficient sax doublers, Chase adjusts himself to the smaller horn, rather than reshaping the instrument into a medium for self-expression. On alto, however, Chase commands a sound that is both rubbery and crystalline, or not too juicy yet not desiccated (otherwise know as the Pete Brown / Earl Bostic "chicken fat" factor). On his feature, ("East Of The Sun"), he blows lithe, skipping, cart-wheeling phrases in a half-smiling, nonchalant manner that recalls both the "Dolphy-esque" Makanda Ken McIntyre and the "cool" Hal McKusick.

The arrangements here may lack the garret-dwelling, scribbled intricacy of George Russell's classic mid-1950's Jazz Workshop masterpieces, but all the members of the quartet evince the poise and versatility that Russell's favorite soloists of that era -- Farmer, McKusick, Barry Galbraith, Bill Evans, Don Ellis -- possessed. This is not to say that, as expression, Dark Clouds With Silver Linings lacks that lofty quality of ambitiousness. Chase and company may be well-schooled ("Berklee" and "The University of North Texas" appear on most everyone's c.v. here), but they aren't shut away in any ivory tower, either.

Posted by joe at 7:00 AM | Comments (0)

July 5, 2004

Roy Ayers Ubiquity - Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival (Verve)


Fusion had the commercial edge in 72’. Roy Ayers’ set from the Montreux Jazz Fest of that year suggests solid evidence as to why it held supremacy. Originally circulated in heavily edited form, the album features Ayers’ quartet Ubiquity just two years old and at a stage nascent to the massive popularity that would greet them in the coming years. The cover shot conveys the most obvious bon mot, depicting as it does Ayers peeking out from inside an upright bamboo coffin with a handful of mallets outstretched, looking like Marley’s Mr. Brown (controlled by remote?). The Verve/Polygram reissue adds four unissued tunes and nearly an additional thirty minutes. Ayers’ ensemble is economical in instrumentation if at times a bit too prolix in deployment. Pianist Harry Whitaker’s preference for electric over acoustic keys and Clint Houston’s turgid amplified bass strings give the music a healthy dose of funk-inflected juice. The fizzy “Daddy Bug,” ripe with rapid fire note chains, vivid splashes of tonal color and a corpulent unison line voiced by Ayers mallets and Houston’s plucking digits, arrives after a preface peppered with percussive gongs and boom-bams. Whittaker regularly apes the more luminescent tonalities of the leader’s vibes in an effulgent cascade that works well with Lee’s hyperactive traps. On a garrulous rundown of Miles’ “In a Silent Way” he flips a switch and prickly guitar distortion suddenly impregnates his swirling clusters of chords. Houston peels off a percolating ostinato against the steady clip-clop of Lee’s cymbals and cowbell. “Move to Groove” draws on the simple directive of its title and is the most overtly funky of the concert’s tracks with a break beat that all but begs to be sampled. There are misses too, such as the Whittaker-penned “Thoughts,” which winds up sounding quite empty-headed with all its muzzy introspective noodling. Randy Newman’s “He Gives Us All His Love,” revamped as a sparkly slow-grooving ballad and a funkified double-time reading of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” might be pop-pandering choices, but Ayers makes them work in a loungy incense and peppermints sort of way. It’s an album optimal for lazy summer afternoons when heady humidity creeps at the corners of your consciousness and respite comes in the form of a several ice cold beers in quick succession.

Posted by derek at 1:44 PM | Comments (0)

June 28, 2004

Lee Morgan - Unforgettable Lee! (Fresh Sound)

insert bad lee pun here

The 1960 edition of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers -- featuring Wayne Shorter, lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons and Jymie Merritt -- was an explosive unit, and one whose star soloists were also masters of their own brand of "sick" humor -- as such yuks were known in the late 1950's from which these men were departing. Yet the 1960 Messengers were much more than a collection a well-drilled rogue elements. I always thought it appropriate that one of Shorter's compositions for this group was entitled "Giantis" (see Like Someone In Love on Blue Note). It is a name that conjures up for me images of Stan Lee's original X-Men, inked so as to look like slimmed-down bumblebees and battling some green- and purple-visaged, adamantine-shelled, blunt-clawed (in the best Jack Kirby tradition) creature breaking free of its cosmic bonds and bursting through the concrete of a pseudo-Manhattan thoroughfare: fire hydrants take off on rockets of municipal supply spray, faceless citizens scream or cower, and brownstones cant like windowed dominos in a Cold War chain of wavering nation-states.

Come to think of it, Stan Lee's genius was not unlike Blakey's. Both men created genres in which their leading characters were at war with themselves as much as they were opposed to a world that refused to understand them or recognize their humanity. Giantis: one's own grandiosity? Giantis is, ultimately, easily dispatched, but one's insecurities, envies, and hormones coalesce into an energy that is both one's best friend and one's most vile nemesis. Both the Silver Age Marvel comics and hard bop are narrative styles that mutated into genres. Both are meta-narratives, and both lend the simple and occasional downright petty emotions of prolonged adolescence a gravitas. A gravitas, moreover, that has proved nearly inexhaustible and addictive for more than three successive generations of audiences.

(FWIW, I don't buy the connection between Greek tragedy and the Marvel superhero yarn, and I won't be convinced until someone sorts out all the theological and psychological dilemmas inherent in these forms.)

Although Wayne Shorter is the first soloist on many of these Birdland broadcasts, and although his work here only further underscores how his first mature style, a synthesis of Rollins'-like ribald humor and Coltrane-derived "sheets of sound" (cf., "It's Only A Paper Moon"), was among the most unique and important of its time, it is Lee Morgan whose name appears above the title here, and for good reason. A good chunk of attention has been focused, and rightfully so, on the work of trumpeters such as Don Cherry and Booker Little as being on the most leading edge of jazz trumpet playing in the early 1960's. But Lee Morgan's odyssey is both one of the most personal and most informative in all of jazz's history. It may be that Morgan recorded too prolifically for his own posterity -- a pretty counter-intuitive notion, that -- but most analyses of Morgan's work do him a disservice, sputtering out into claims that he made a number of largely indistinguishable, boogaloo-bloated albums after returning from his a sabbatical in his native Philadelphia in 1963.

It helps to remember, however, that Morgan is all of 22 years old here. This is the sound of a very seasoned prodigy. Each solo by the trumpeter finds him stripping away the lingering influence of Navarro and Brown. The core that is left is a voice that is nearly strangulated by its own fervor, and one whose penchant for braggadocio is balanced by a propensity for cold-blooded introspection. My own taste takes over when I say this, but I do feel that one of the most convincing indications of Morgan's mastery is that he so obviously began to listen to and emulate the highly vocalized approach of Kenny Dorham at this stage of his career. In any event, Morgan's wild maturation can be witnessed at every index point on this 2-disc set. It is all there in a pealing, yearning "Along Came Betty"; an argumentative "So Tired"; a "Dat Dere" that starts off subdued, then shifts immediately from soft, bent cries to a crescendo of long, high, vibrato-less tones, and ends with a blat that sounds, in this context, like self-deprecation; and three versions of "This Here" that each serve as wonderful examples of his sardonic eloquence. (Did anyone ever use the trill as brilliantly as Morgan? And just listen to how he responds to Blakey.)

Ah, to be young, incredibly talented, and a complete misfit with an ill-defined, inexpressible grudge to grind... To be the James Dean of hard bop stars: dreamy but gawky; capable of both crocodile tears and true lamentation; so fashionable and frail as to gamble with effeminacy; and driven by appetite for fast living, that for all the vicarious pleasure it gives us, is only going to be the death of him.

Posted by joe at 6:15 AM | Comments (4)

June 19, 2004

The Bevis Frond - Inner Marshland (Reckless)


The British have always had an edge when in comes to top-flight psychedelia and acid rock. Bands like Pink Floyd and Soft Machine pioneered the precedence for others to follow. Opening the Doors of Perception once more for late millennial American acts like The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev and Bardo Pond, Londoner Nick Saloman, under the nom de cachet The Bevis Frond, reconciled the vintage trappings of the argot with a post-punk viscerality. He did it largely as a one-man enterprise, recording much of his earlier material at a DIY studio in his rented flat. This album, his second, is one of his best. The invocational “Cries of the Inner Marshland” gives a mescaline-tinged fix on Saloman’s attic coordinates with sonar blips piercing through a percolating froth of bong water and back-masking guitar arpeggios dovetailing into shimmering flange effects. “Termination Station Grey” expands from a low-fi passion pop center with more fuzz tone guitar, stereo-channeled vocals and the rhythmic push of murky drums. Keening Farfisa organ fuels “Window Eye” as Saloman once again layers thickly striated slabs of riffage over stoned-out hallucinogenic lyrics that recall the work of his countryman Lewis Carroll. Inserted between are a motley assortment of humorous skits and samples in which he adopts a small cadre of alter-egos. My favorite of these: a scratchy LP-lifted quote from The Riddler that presages “Defoliation Part Two.” “I’ve Got Eyes in the Back of My Head” finds Saloman making like Bob Mould circa Metal Circus, a tsunami-sized wave of feedback trailing his ten-story tall stereo-bifurcated licks. “Medieval Sienese Acid Blues” takes the laconic rock-star conceit even further as coarse-grained blues chords spool out from both sides of the stereo spectrum and Saloman filters his nasalized voice through some sort of reverb mic attachment for added attitude. But some of the most impressive and excessive fretwork flames on during the long-form melodic masterpiece “Once More.” The 1988 cd version of the album appends three cuts from Bevis Through the Looking Glass including the nearly 20-minute lysergic jam “The Shrine” to the original album.

Posted by derek at 4:14 PM | Comments (4)

June 12, 2004

Ray Charles - True To Life (Atlantic)

Brother Ray

Ray Charles, post-SNL recognition but pre-GOP -- 1977 to be exact -- partnered with M.O.R. arrangers Larry Muhoberac (Neil Diamond, Glen Campbell, Tanya Tucker, and Silverchair) and Sid Feller (Paul Anka, The Osmonds, Eddie Fisher) and interpreting lounge and fern-bar staples such as "Let It Be" and "I Can See Clearly Now"... you'd be excused for thinking I've chosen a strange (to be polite) way to pay tribute to one of the most important figures in American popular music.

But drop the needle on Charles' reading here of "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning" and let Side A roll on from there through "How Long Has This Been Going On?" These two performances, amounting to a rather momentous 10 minutes of music, may be some of most powerful Charles vocals ever committed to record. And if that statement isn't enough to convince you that you need to hear this record, I don't know what else I can say. As the musician himself said just months ago:

"I guess I'm kind of a strange animal. What works for me is songs that I can put myself into. It has nothing to do with the song. Maybe it's a great song. But there's got to be something in that song for me."

It is a an odd compulsion, but, as someone who almost cannot function without the daily presence of music, I do understand it. Only too well.

R.I.P., Brother Ray. The peace is well-deserved.

Posted by joe at 3:11 PM | Comments (18)

June 7, 2004

Buck Hill - This is Buck Hill (Steeplechase)


Loyalty to hearth and home can be a liability to the jazzman as touring has long been a staple tactic in the hunt for notoriety and success. Most musicians accept the reality of the road as a necessary tribulation of their trade. But there are also those that buck the trend and choose to eke out a localized existence regardless of the professional consequence. Like his older Chicago peer Von Freeman, D.C.-centric saxophonist Buck Hill knows the costs of the trade-off first hand. Hill has been a Capitol-area treasure for going on four decades. He first started gigging in the 40s and the 50s led to high profile stints with the likes of Stitt, Ammons, Getz and Roach- heavy company and proof of chops that still serve him well today. There are also shades of the first four horn men in Hill’s robust tenor vernacular. Like Von Freeman and Fred Anderson his recording debut came comparatively late in the game. Prior to the date and well after Hill made his primary income through day jobs as a cabbie and post office employee (fodder for another screed entirely). He caught the ear of Steeplechase producer Nils Winther on the recommendation of Billy Hart who also supplies traps for the date. The rhythm section also includes Kenny Barron on keys and Buster Williams on bass, blue chip all the way. Jerome Kern’s ballad “Yesterdays” and Sonny Rollins “Oleo,” the two standards of the session, join Williams’ tricky “Tokudo”- a track that allows Hill a chance to show his harmonic acumen and allegiance to Trane- in comprising the record’s first half. The middle tune even makes room for an unaccompanied center section where Hill waves his band mates to the sidelines and rips through three explosive choruses alone. The platter’s second half holds three Hill originals, including the shimmering “I Am Aquarius,” the triple-time sprint “S.M.Y” and the modal “Two Chord Molly.” “…Aquarius” proves to be the standout and one of the most satisfying horn plus rhythm performances I’ve ever heard. A bold statement I realize, but one I’ll gladly stand behind. A second take of “S.M.Y.” beefs up running time to a healthy fifty-six minutes. Hill cut three more records worth of material for Steeplechase before dropping out for a stretch and returning in the late 80s with clutch of dates for Muse. His debut remains one of his best efforts and a dazzling gold doubloon in the treasure chest of 70s jazz.

Posted by derek at 4:21 PM | Comments (0)

May 30, 2004

Low + Dirty Three [EP] (KonKurrent / Fishtank)

low trio

A meeting of two of the most idiosyncratic and atmospheric bands of the 1990s -- one looking very Australia, the other feeling very Minnesota -- recorded in Amsterdam, 2001. I mean for you to take "atmospheric" as literally as you can manage, each band's personality an expression of dominant climactic conditions in the place they call home. Low's melodies are chilly, uninflected, and slowly circle nowhere. The husband / wife vocal harmonies of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker evoke the High Plains and open fields of old-time country and western music, and words they sing call to mind a sedated, more Biblical X. The Dirty Three, on the other hand, specialize in sweltering, waterfront dive rhapsodies. The sawdust on the barroom floor is thickened with spilt blood and pints of stout, their colors indistinguishable, and people are groping in the dark here in more ways than one. Warren Ellis' caught-in-the-throat violin, Mick Turner's highly individual take on the blues guitar tradition, Jim White's freely accented dance-hall rhythms... even at its most forlorn, there is something defiant about The Dirty Three's music. And maybe you'd think as I did, which is that, if you exposed these two approaches together, you'd only end up with something lukewarm and gelatinous, like the air in a ruined hothouse. Those stalks that end in huge, delicate flowers are bent double by the weight of the blossoms themselves, and even if their colors are that much more vivid under the light-diffusing influence of humidity, there is something oppressive about the fragrances breaking out all around you.

But, as it turns out, of course these extremes of temperature are compatible, and, dare I say it? sanguine. Each powered by its own steam, both bands produce a sweet but not intoxicating immobilization in the listener, and both blear clarity. Low... a veil of fog, a curtain of ice, a fall of snow that disguises the stars. The Dirty Three... a haze of antipodean heat, a spray of warm ocean, a pouring down of sweat. These sensations may last, but they don't endure, really. What is more significant is that both bands confront all the pleasures and pains of loneliness in their work. In Low's case, this loneliness is a spiritual desolation. God is so far way, the world is fallen, trust must span such vast spaces. The lyrics to the opening "I Hear... Goodnight" can serve as a summation of the Low's particular religiosity:

I hear the cars go by
I hear the baby cry
I hear the darkening sky

I hear the window shake
I hear the silence break
I hear the moon turn to blood

It says... [oooohhh]
It says... [ooohhhh]

For The Dirty Three's, the struggle involves disappearing into and emerging out of human intimacies. Every one of their songs truly is a full romance, and I think it is no coincidence that the lead-off track of their self-titled album (first issued on the Torn And Frayed label) is entitled "Indian Love Song".

As for the recording at hand, it was achieved using overdubs. Not surprising given the participants, then, distance still defines these collaborations. But if it can produce performances as lovely and palpably yearning as "Invitation Day" (in which the sun also rises) and the organ-dominated hymn "When I Called Upon Your Seed", then I have underestimated separateness. It wouldn't be the first time. I was also stupidly afraid these two bands would attempt a straight retelling of Neil Young's "Down By The River", arguably the record's centerpiece. But had I forgotten who I was listening to? Of course, they detain original's violence in whispery, echoing guitar, sighing, scraping violin, and percussion thrum and murmur as "lowercase" as anything on Dean Roberts' Be Mine Tonight. Where Young's performances of the song are still living through the violence -- "I shot my baby" -- that has just recently past. Low and The Dirty Three have not even lived through it yet, but can envision its aftermath, feel its pull. The whole track, as long as Young's version from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere but really only drawing upon a fraction of the musical material in the "composition" creates a sense of the imminent resisted. In fact, Mimi Parker's vocal chorus, culminating in a single refrain, basically occupies the territory -- that high river bank -- occupied by the guitar solos on Young's 1969 album. The air is sodden but super-charged, and the storm never really breaks, except in the sight of far-off, silent lightning and the sound of softly falling water that could be rain, or could be the river -- the witness -- itself.

Yes sir, it's such strange weather that prevails 'round these parts. But is it as capricious as it appears to be? My skin and my nose and my tongue scream, "Yes!" but my soul responds with thunderous, "No".

Posted by joe at 2:55 PM | Comments (3)

May 23, 2004

Kid Ory - Creole Jazz Band 1954 (Good Time Jazz)


Back in the 1950s, California-based Good Time Jazz functioned much like Delmark still does today. Keeping the torch of traditional Nawlins music aflame with a succession of fresh sides from the legends of the idiom along with the revivalists. Ory, linchpin of the seminal Oliver and Armstrong outfits, inked a contract and cut a half dozen or so records for the label. Nothing much new in the way of repertoire, but the real draw here, then as now, is hearing classic tunes, previously the province of groove-eroded 78s, in the high fidelity and extended running times allowed by the LP format. Ory’s combo, cacheted under the generic sobriquet described by the disc’s title, contains colleagues both long standing (Alvin Alcorn & Minor Hall) and new (George Probert & Don Ewell). Together they climb nine robust evergreens from Dixieland’s halcyon era. Probert’s clarinet adopts a Jekyll & Hyde persona, dapper and dulcet on “Yellow Dog Blues,” tart and ornery on “Maple Leaf Rag.” Ed Garland slugs his upright like a pugilist pummeling a punching bag and produces a fat snapping thump alongside Hall’s peppy snare beat. Ewell’s spit-shine strutting piano chords are certainly spry, but carry a bit too much poise in places. Something Ory’s recalcitrant trombone seems more than happily strip and stomp away. His tone is cavernous, gruff and chocked with grit, scrawling ropy smears across the hot-stepping cadences of the tunes. With plunger pistoning in and out of bell, he gives a textbook lesson in proper tailgate enunciation on practically every track. Ory even finds space for a quick leather-throated vocal on the opening rundown of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Almost a half century before Tim Berne put the culinary liner note custom back into practice, there’s also two tasty recipes from the Ory Creole Cook Book included- one for gumbo filé, the other for shrimp jambalaya. Both sound just as tasty as the music.

Posted by derek at 8:21 PM | Comments (0)

May 17, 2004

Leroy Jenkins' Sting! - Urban Blues (Black Saint)

Not Gordon Sumner

Of all the first generation AACM'ers, I've always like violinist and violist Jenkins' music the least. Sure, the Revolutionary Ensemble (Jenkins, bassist Sirone [aka Norris Jones], and percussionist Jerome Cooper) could be thrilling as the similarly configured Air, but the group's discography is all but non-existent in the CD era, and it never really did great justice to what was much more than a "free jazz cooperative." Jenkins own projects -- Space Minds, New Worlds, Survival Of America (1978), The Legend Of Ai Glatson (1978), Mixed Quintet (1979) -- all feature impressive ensembles and inventive, vibrant scoring, but, in large measure, I have failed to connect to that music so that it lasts for me once the stereo has been switched off. Maybe it is Jenkins' compositional sense, which is more conventional than Braxton's, George Lewis', Wadada Leo Smith's, Roscoe Mitchell's or Muhal Richard Abrams'. Maybe it is Jenkins' intonation, which, to my ears, has definite longhair associations; at times, he sounds as if he is angling for a legitimate sound on a period string instrument, such as a viol or violino piccolo, instruments whose resonance is thinner than what I have come to want from the fiddle. And I do mean fiddle.

More than just stating a preference for less trebly, grittier players such as Stuff Smith, Rat Nance, and Billy Bang Maybe all I am revealing here is that Jenkins' music violates too many of the personal stereotypes I have attached to the jazz violin. If so, shame on me. Having said that, then, how to convince you of the excellence of this live recording from 1984, which may do nothing more for some listeners than make them want to rip it off the turntable and slip on their Sugarcane Harris' LPs instead? Well, Urban Blues is different altogether. It is also a record that makes perfect sense to me, in that it is quintessentially of its time, and because, in being so uncharacteristic of Jenkins' work up to this point in his career, it most fully communicates how and where he concentrates his instrumental and formal energies.

Sting! consisted of Jenkins and Terry Jenoure on violin, a pre-Cassandra Wilson Brandon Ross on electric guitar, James Emery on amplified acoustic guitar, Alonzo Gardner on electric bass and Kamal Sabir on drums. Despite all the electricity, the chief characteristic of the band is the preponderance on stringed instruments. In fact, Sting! itself is like one giant violin, one in which the pizzicato and the arco engage each other in a cutting contest. You can hear this within the ensemble itself, in the juxtaposition of Gardner's pop-pop funk bass and the sawing lyricism of Jenoure and Jenkins in particular, or in the way the Emery's jagged, multi-noted lines prickle against Ross' sinuous, sustained twang, like a barbed-wire fence running alongside a river bank. You can also hear it in the compositions, all of them by Jenkins, in which ecstatically bent tones, notes articulated with fat vibrato, vertiginous glissandi and hard-strummed passages fall into step and then dance free of charging staccato and stop-time rhythms. This is electrified, jazz-based improvisational music that also makes reference to rhythm and blues, old-time stomps and hollers, gospel, and early hip-hop. The twinning of the instruments may initially suggest that Ornette's Harmolodics offer a point of comparison. But although collective improvisation is prominent in the Sting! repertoire -- the resulting cacophony is often impressive, as "O.W. Frederick", a tremendously exciting performance that belongs on any Black Saint label sampler ever assembled or ever to be assembled, bears out -- Jenkins' approach here is much more single-minded than Coleman's. At times, the accompaniment is so precise that it almost slackens into Fuzak ("Looking For The Blues", a "string of solos" piece which is less about flash than it sounds on first audition), but Sabir especially does not allow the tension to slip. These beats belong to the boom-box blaring at the corner where the break-dancers are spinning out on flattened cardboard boxes, not the dentist's chair.

In addition to funky work-outs, Urban Blues features a selection of pop songs, all of which serve as reminders of the talents of Terry Jenoure, a fine improviser and piquant, declamatory vocalist who has not been heard from on record, it seems, since John Carter completed his Roots And Folklore cycle. One of these songs "Why Can't I Fly?" is one of the album's highlights. I'd like to think the lyrics were inspired by Toni Morrison's Song Of Solomon, for as universal as its sentiment of wondering is ("Here I am / once again / right back where I started from... / Why can't I fly?"), it assumes a more variegated, subtly graded hue in light of music which soars upward, glides a bit, then swoops down into a landing that becomes a trudge. The performance also features Jenkins best solo on the date. His somewhat delicate sound renders the feelings of hope, awkwardness, distress and defiance the solo carries all the more poignant.

I wonder myself what the folks at Sweet Basil that January in the mid-1980's thought of it. "Why Can't I Fly?" seems to me to fit right into a tradition of coded African-American songwriting in which the lyrics, at a strictly literal level, remain inoffensive to a mass audience even while they convey a message of protest against a systemic evil in which that same audience is complicit. Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone To Love" is a great example of this art, as is Waller and Razaf's "(What Did I Do To Be So) Black And Blue". Is it strange that an avant-garde musician of Jenkins' (supposed) inclinations would try his hand at this? Art Lange, who wrote the liner notes for Urban Blues quotes Jenkins on Sting!'s origins as follows:

Musical periods come and go, and there seems to be particular styles popular in each period. I had heard a lot of the other "electric-type" groups, and I wanted to feel like a part of this time. I always felt that I could do that sort of thing, put together a band, with a more commercial sound -- at least, in my own style -- and get more people involved in my music, get more people to hear me.

What happened to the African-American audience for "jazz" beginning in the late 1960's? Is there any way for today's creative musicians to get that audience back? Yes, we've all heard the questions before. Perhaps they have even been bludgeoned to death, or, if not, then at least to the very limits of their endurance. But I beg of you not to perform the autopsy just yet. I do not think these questions have gone away. Whatever the case, they are questions that deserve to be treated with the complete disregard for dispassion that Jenkins and his worthy constituents demonstrate on this occasion.

Posted by joe at 6:25 AM | Comments (10)

May 10, 2004

Charlie Feathers - Tip Top Daddy (Norton)


Rockabilly isn’t a genre renowned for its restraint. Knocking em’ back and tearing shit up goes part and parcel with the pomade-slicked ducktails and creased-cuff dungarees. Charlie Feathers had the package down pat and in spades. Present at the early Sam Phillips Sun sessions and author of some of the label’s earliest hits, he started cutting his own platters comparatively late in the game. As one of the ghostwriters for Elvis he also enjoyed financial compensation for his tune-smithing, if not public notoriety. Still, his situation was a damn sight better than that of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup who had his songs swindled wholesale by Sun. The stuff here, mostly solo acoustic demos from a fifteen-year span, lacks the punch of his more polished band sides. The swap is an even more persuasive pathos and often startling amount of musical integrity. Twenty-three tunes trot by in just over three quarters of an hour. Rudimentary guitar, frequently in the form of just a single strumming chord, brackets Feathers’ singing verses in a sparing laidback style. Topics trace a typical ‘tears and beers’ trajectory, but an underlying poetry permeates the lyrics. “Bottle to the Baby” wraps in just under a minute and the stark “Live and Let Live” finds Feathers audibly choking up with emotion during the plain spoken plea to his woman not to leave him. Not much in the way of gloss or frills, but it’s enough and the intimacy of his songs in this setting almost demands the Spartan delivery. Feathers’ voice was one of the most offbeat in all of ‘hillbilly’ music, his singing often imbued with a preternatural throat warble that drew on the crooning yodel of guys like Jimmie Rodgers and Cliff Carlisle and commingled it with the high lonesome cry of such hill country eremites as Roscoe Holcomb and Clarence Ashley. There’s also more than a hint of the minimalist esthetic of Feather’s boyhood friend Junior Kimbrough in the twangy embryonic riffing and a loose adherence to lyrical content. Revenant has a more comprehensive collection available that includes a handful of these tracks. But the overlap isn’t enough to preclude the purchase of this disc right along side it.

Posted by derek at 4:33 AM | Comments (0)

May 3, 2004

Eddie Harris - Live At Newport (Atlantic)

Eddie Who?

Poor Eddie Who?. In the years since his death, the musician has all but vanished within the hall of mirrors that was the several personae he buffed to a high polish over the course of a long, habitually frustrated career. For a subsequent generation of saxophone players, Harris has perhaps been most influential as the author of several instructional texts. Paid tribute by the Beastie Boys ("So Wat'cha Want", Check Your Head), many listeners still know his as a freak crossover hit-maker for "Theme from 'Exodus'", "Listen Here", and "Compared To What?". As Ray Stevens was a zany oracle to many Red State Americans in he 1970's, so was Eddie Harris to African-American audiences of the decade. For those who also bought Parliament / Funkadelic and Millie Jackson LPs, Harris was know primarily as the mastermind of records such as That Is Why You're Overweight, I Need Some Money and the "live" album The Reason Why I'm Talking Shit, which consists of (virtually) nothing but on-stage, off-color patter by the bandleader. (The latter remains as revealing a document of the "jazz life" as, say, Babs Gonsalez's various outsider crooner albums, or Art Pepper's autobiography Straight Life.) Established critics have tended to fixate on the overtly comedic aspects of Harris work, as well as his pioneering use electronics, and dismiss him as a medicine show trader in gimmicks and shoddily-cast frivolities. The situation is not likely to be improved given the fact that Harris' mature work for the Atlantic label has been safeguarded to chop-shop labels. Important documents such as The In Sound, The Electrifying Eddie Harris, Free Speech and Excursions have drifted in and out of print in the digital era, sometimes with inferior remastering, sometimes with tracks abridged or removed altogether in order that two original albums can be crammed together on one 80 minute disc.

Live At Newport (from 1970) is one album to be treated to rough handling, yet, even in its current format, it offers one of the best introductions to Eddie Harris in all his audacity: as an experimenter whose passions are proximate to those of contemporary musicians as diverse as The Bad Plus, John Butcher, David Murray and Otomo Yoshihide. "Children's Song" opens with Harris yodeling through a delay switch -- spoofing Leon Thomas? -- and taking a solo that is nothing more than the amplified sound of his saxophone pads clicking open and shut. Sure, it is something listeners to free improvisation have heard countless times, but, I'd wager, probably never in this particular context. "Carry On Brother" is one of Harris' very best funk pieces, a showcase not only for his estimable skill at crafting deceptively simple solos but for drummer and former AEC-associate Robert Crowder as well. "Don't You Know The Future's In Space" is an almost unclassifiable opus in three movements. The first is fast, pseudo-modal jazz, full of harmonic indirection. After some fine work by Jodie Christian on electric piano and a drum solo, tempo is dis-established and the band references Bitches Brew, with Harris sounding rather Miles-ish on trumpet. Finally, the band hits -- bull's-eye! -- a funky groove, and here Harris exploits the potential of his Varitone shamelessly, making his tenor saxophone sound like a baritone attached to a fuzz box and a wah-wah pedal. Rude and colorful stuff. Harris was never one to waste notes, though, as "South Side" demonstrates,. "South Side" also offers evidence that he knew his Coltrane backwards -- mostly backwards -- and forwards. "Walk Soft" has a brief, characteristically loping theme that is so catchy the saxophonist can dispense with it immediately, and his solo emerges directly from the melody. Here is Eddie Harris as James Brown, telling the band how and where to start, but also three steps ahead of them at every turn.

Predictable comparisons that aim for street cred aside, however, the truth is that Harris had deep and awkwardly tangled roots in the Chicago jazz community of his time: the Chicago of Sun Ra, Von Freeman, the Chess Brothers, and the AACM. No dubious distinction, Harris helped invent "soul jazz" by modernizing -- read: "streamlining" -- many of the features of hard bop, perhaps most crucially, by realigning it metrical patterns in accordance with polyrhythms. An attempt to separate the riffs of pieces such as "Freedom Jazz Dance" and "Olifant Gesang" from their very individual syncopations is ultimately an exercise in frustration, but it is valuable insofar as it reveals reveals an elusive and Escher-like intelligence on the part of the composer. It is just that Harris' medium is not Euclidean geometry, but an African-American musical vernacular. So, although not true funk, Harris' music, no matter how hard it drives, often opens up into the same spaciousness. As for his tenor saxophone tone, I suppose one could side with those who have remarked that it is somewhat scrawny, but I like to think of it as being a classically, idiosyncratically broad-shouldered Chicago tenor sound, only more light and darting in its athleticism. Scottie Pippen, not Dick Butkus. Eddie Who? was also the most gifted Varitone player in jazz; and don't laugh, either, as Harris' accomplishments on the electronic saxophone are every bit the equal of Miles Davis' on his plugged-in trumpet. In fact, his contributions as an instrument builder are still awaiting proper recognition. The saxophone-style mouthpieces Harris designed for trumpet and trombone were intended to be a boon to brass players; at the conclusion of this record, you can hear Harris give an explanation of just how to the Newport audience. Yet this generosity of spirit seems slightly at odds with Eddie Harris the professional musician. As Iain Lang wrote of Fats Waller, a figure whom he resembles in a number of other respects (though not gastronomically), so it could be said of Harris: "on the stage, [he] played brilliantly, yet never too brilliantly... He accepted that there was no paying audience for the best he had to give." Eddie Harris did almost always kept something in reserve. And, as Waller's are, some of Harris' most memorable performances are very public struggles with the formulas mass produced by his own popular success. So The Little Tramp -- clever but hungry and ill-starred – pitches himself against the modern assembly line all over again, and the attrition that results from waging this losing battle leads to a rather sad, cynical detente.

By the time of this 1970 Newport performance, Eddie Harris had already paid his dues in full, but I'm not sure he ever lost that feeling of being an apprentice. By which I mean to say that I think Eddie Harris never really broke out of the circuit he imposed on himself as a working entertainer. Stand-up comedian, pop star, jazz improviser, funk godfather, Vegas act, educator, ringer... Until his death in the late 1990's, Harris moved among these roles just as he toured from city to city for three decades. Always the same cities, but, by virtue of the fact that they are visited at different times, not the same places. I wonder what the passage of time looks like from the perspective of one who just passes through. The glimpses are progressively more disheartening with each return. You arrive, you rest for a moment in comfort, you feel connected to this place. Yet, simultaneously, you understand that you have no real claim to intimacy with where you are. This place is just another distance seen in close-up, familiar, maybe, but not as familiar the sound of your conscience's voice. You know you really make no difference to this place. Although you need it, it has no use for you, only your absence; there will be someone else occupying this dressing room tomorrow. And suddenly you realize that all is callousness, and there is nothing you can do to alter, to restore, to develop what you see has happened here, and you accept it for what it is, until it has been utterly dismantled and your acceptance cannot settle anywhere anymore. And then where do you find yourself?

Posted by joe at 6:10 AM | Comments (2)

April 24, 2004

Martin Denny - The Enchanted Sea


A choice palate-cleanser after a main course of Gayle’s More Live or Silva’s Seasons, I also reach for Denny when the morning commutes to work screech to an irritating stand-still. There’s just something about Martin’s mélange that returns the discombobulated mind to a steady course. Sea is my favorite of his numerous platters, less dramatic and self-conscious than earlier albums like Exotica and Hypnotique, it’s thusly more effective at evoking a prevailing mood- that of a sleepy seaside port-of-call, a tropical paradise beyond the reach of twentieth century stressors. Julius Wechter’s vibraphone and marimba frequently take the lead on the dozen tunes and he makes luxurious use of his the former instrument’s sustain pedals. Augie Colon handles an array of Latin percusion while doing double duty on counterfeit bird calls while Harvey Ragsdale anchors the action on string bass and Roy Harte enhances the band’s rhythmic clout with a caboodle of little percussion devices. Muppet gooney birds take flight on “Beyond the Sea,” flapping directly into the sound painting that is “Off Shore.” “Sentimental Journey” is, surprisingly enough, the record’s swingest track, a chance to hear Colon and Harte trade licks with Denny’s groovy harpsichord. A faux Hawaiian vocal even crops up on “Song of the Islands”- Polynesia by way of Burbank. With “Cross Current” the leader comes on like Mantovani playing baby grand on the deck of a Spice Islands tugboat. Eerie echoes of Morricone arrive on the closing title track with its moody choir chorus, dreamy melodic whistling and a lilting beat that mirrors the gentle lapping of an evening tide. Most impressive overall is the restraint with which Denny deploys his usual trappings. Sea may not have been as popular with the blue hair crowd at Don the Beachcomber’s as a result, but for me it stands out. Original running time barely exceeds 29-minutes so Scamp’s reissue pairs it with Quiet Village for added value. Denny remains a long-standing poster boy for campy kitsch. Sadly, it’s a guise that sometimes obscures the genuine creativity he often channeled into music such as this.

Posted by derek at 2:36 PM | Comments (1)

April 17, 2004

Sophie Agnel/Olivier Benoit - Rip-Stop (In Situ)


With a systematic approach to improvisation that may well define a new subset of music in the continuum stemming from AMM, this new offering from France's In Situ imprint is as beautiful as it is addictive. The duo of piano and guitar has been done time and again, the possibilities being endless for two instruments capable of multiple octaves, endless single note runs, and every chord under the sun. Agnel and Benoit exploit the lesser explored sonicities inherent in those instruments' physical construction, adjoining familiar sounds with electronics and mechanical effects. Comparisons to Keith Rowe and John Tilbury are bound to spring up, given the areas Rip-Stop works in, but the likenesses are few in the matters of sound and delivery. The disc's heaviest moments are laced in Agnel's sustain pedal and copious reverb from the guitar, the music sounding as if recorded in a moist tunnel. It's a gorgeous disc and its four long tracks (each over 12 minutes) are diverse, while essentially thematic. Agnel and Benoit are a huge find for anyone needing a break from the usual suspects in improvised music.

Posted by al at 9:58 AM | Comments (0)

April 12, 2004

The Budapest String Quartet - Beethoven String Quartets: Op. 127; Op. 131; Op. 132; Op. 135; Minuet From Op. 18, No. 5 (Sony / Columbia Masterworks Heritage)


Hey, let me try my soft sell out on you, OK?

You're alive now, right, in the year 2004? You're a listener, too, correct? You prefer the designation "sound artist" to "musician"? You've got the ducats and the cajones and the erudition; you dig Deerhoof, Lightning Bolt, Philip Jeck, Scorces, Iannis Xenakis, Ami Yoshida and John Butcher, to name but a few. (The litany will resume after a brief message.) And you prefer vinyl, audible textures, wrinkles, the item secreted in a dark corner or at the bottom of the pile, the oversight, the slightly fetid yet somehow soothing reek of the past? Yes, you, my friend. Switch off the iPod for a second and browse through my picks rack. I know, nothing here you haven't seen or heard before. Some of the same old bullshit, sure, bourgeois sentiments and pastimes. Some things never worth puffing out your lips with a "whatever" over in the first place. Hmmm? No sir, it is a deliberate inclusion. Absolutely. I promise no one has a grip on your chain.

See, Little Alex, if you care at all about music, and if at all value what, for the purposes of this transaction, you and me can here coin as "transcendental style", from Melville and Mishima to Burning Man to Bresson to Scelsi to Barnett Newman and Rothko and Bernhard Günter, then you need to own at least one recording of poor old deaf Ludwig Van's 15th String Quartet (In A Minor, Opus 132). The third movement, the "Canzona di ringraziamento. Molto adagio" is perhaps the most exalted quarter-hour in the entire (and still accreting) canon of Western music. The composer's own inscriptions on the score (completed in 1825) provide enough backstory... I mean, assuming you've never heard this piece. With reference to the adagio, "hymn of thanksgiving to the Almighty, in the Lydian mode, offered by a convalescent"; as a combination instruction and explication of the theme (in D major) that alternates with the hymn itself, "feeling new strength".

Now, this particular recording your holding has some virtues in addition to featuring this particular golden oldie. First, it is in lavish monophonic sound, here restored using Sony's trademark Super Bit Mapping technique. I know you're no audiophile, but surely you can appreciate how these recordings possess a unique hue, grain and luster. Secondly, this recording will also give you some exposure to the work of the Budapest Quartet itself. By 1942, the year these readings were "waxed", as they were wont to say in those days, the members of the Quartet were not Hungarian but Russian, and leadership of the ensemble had been assumed by 1st violinist Josef Roisman. Trust me, you'll want to learn of this; you're getting it for a bargain right now. The Budapest Quartet was renowned for its Beethoven interpretations, several recordings of which were made until the group's dissolution in 1967, the idea being, I suppose, that each new generation of listeners needed its own version of these works as understood by the Budapest Quartet. This, then, it where it all began.

And, more than that, The Budapest Quartet was the most influential chamber ensemble of its time: the Arditti's and Takács' and Emerson's of our day owe something to Roisman and company. The Budapest Quartet set the standard for technical accomplishment, for impeccable (i.e., not excessively ornamented) phrasing, for a certain individual and collective astringency of tone, for rhythmic "snap", and for an unfailing and intrepid sense of tempo. Their music, however, does not lack warmth, and to call describe the group as being "Modern" in their conception is not to offer a euphemism for "clinical". It is just that the emotion is not rendered so intensely that it crowds everything else out of your mind. And, if you expect a Romantic icon such as Beethoven to fold before a group of perfectionists, though, think again. The "Molto adagio" benefits immensely from the Quartet's meticulousness as well as the subtlety of their detachment allows one to appreciate the order slumbering within and slowly awakened by the music itself. This 15th does not grant me, as it did Beethoven, rebirth, but it does lead me to an utterly fresh and invigorating and even, if I'm very fortunate, a cleansing receptiveness to a truth with which I have long lived. It is a truth whose complexities I think music, more so that just about any other art, can bear and can clarify. A cycle, the nature of which warrants an experience of it that is itself repetitive. Not unlike a compass needle floating in its medium, the listener orients his or her listening self within purlieus of reoccurrence, routine, regularity. Of course, this observation is descended from common sense, they share common alleles, and Darwin, even showing the utmost kindness, could not give it good odds. I should correct myself: I speaking of the, you know, that cycle... that thing that is the most rara of avis to be spotted in the pages of The Wire. Although a hardy species, and by now quite widespread, its coloring renders it one of the great challenges in all of birding; it nests in dense, thorny foliage, but its mating song is very distinctive, piercing as well as peculiarly pleasing to the ear. Yes, that form of flight. You know. Mortality.

Be sure to keep your receipt.

Posted by joe at 6:20 AM | Comments (17)

April 5, 2004

Milt Buckner & Buddy Tate - Them There Eyes (Black & Blue)


Jimmy Smith held the trump cards of bop and timing. He wasn’t the first jazz organist, but he’s still widely reverred as the most idiomatic. It’s a bit of a pity considering the pool of talent that preceeded him. Waller, Basie, Doggett and Buckner- each of these guys had distinct swing-grounded styles that were subsumed when Smith hit the scene, salubrious Blue Note contract in hand. Once domestic record dates dried up Buckner spent a lot of his time across the pond, touring and recording for Euro labels like Black & Blue and MPS. This seven-tune set, taped in a Paris studio in the winter of 67’, has all the earmarks of late evening club date and much in common with Illinois Jacquet’s Comeback (Black Lion) from 71’, another session teaming robust tenor with Buckner’s organ and a drummer. Here as there, Buckner routinely plays the part of mad ice rink organist, leap-frogging between notes like the famous bouncing lyric ball. Gruff hiccups, gutteral scatting and swaggering shouts of self-encouragement dapple his steady grooving fills and flourishes. The vocal histrionics make Keith Jarrett look like a monosyllabic milksop. Tate plays it straight for the most part, swinging hard and blowing smooth, striking a cool contrast to his partner’s ebullient gesticulations. Odd thing is, Buckner’s almost ceaseless hand-waving never gets old and ends up being a lot of fun. There are also exceptions to the arrangement and Tate is goaded into a more aggressive, overtly preaching stances on occasion by Buckner’s strenuous comping behind him. Such is the case on the 10:29 rundown of “Margie” where a string of ruddy choruses spills from his tenor’s bell, pocked by Buckner’s syncopated exhortations. Largely unassuming, drummer Wallace Bishop sketches plumb bob rhythms behind the soloists, content in his peripheral placement in the presence of two strong personalities. All in all it’s a healthy dollop of good time jazz with nary a bum note heard.

Posted by derek at 1:57 PM | Comments (0)

March 29, 2004

Shankar - Pancha Nadai Pallavi (ECM)

Pancha Nadai Pallavi

At the heart of Satyajit Ray's majestic film Apur Sansar (The World Of Apu) (1959), there is a brief (perhaps no more than 2 minutes in length), wordless sequence that stirs something so fundamental within me that the only expression I can give to the experience is to say that it haunts me. And that it will continue to haunt me for the rest of my life. Apu Roy has just lost his wife, Aparna; their first child arrived prematurely. Although Apu married this girl in order to rescue her from a decidedly dishonorable form of spinsterhood, we have seen him fall helplessly in love with her, and with the ways in which she is, in fact, so much stronger than he is. Apu is immobilized by grief, and rouses himself only as if to make his body respond in some way to the terrible spiritual force that is his mourning. And a real force it is to, for it resists his will at some level; Apu is unable to commit suicide, even if all the act entails is waiting to be crushed under an oncoming train. Unable to think of his duty to his son, Apu finally turns to wandering. He writes to his friend (and brother-in-law) Pulu. "I am going away. I do not know where, but I know why." Words I myself have said, and written, and acted upon... Apu leaves Calcutta and we see him, far from the crowded thoroughfares of urban India, staring out at the tides. He passes through a bright forest, his eyes turned up toward the light and the mingled song of many unseen birds. After a time (and a quick cut), Apu reaches the summit of a mountain. Before him, the sun is either setting or rising over the landscape that lies on the other side of what he has just traversed. The moon is a small white shadow just at his right elbow. To the melody from the raga "Jog", Apu sits himself so as to face that horizon where the rays of the sun and the rolling of the hills meet. Apu reaches into the bag -- his only company -- he has been carrying all this time and extracts a double-folded sheaf of papers covered in longhand (the characters you can faintly make out are Bengali characters): the novel, based on his own life as an orphan, that he has been exerting himself towards over since his days as a student. The novel is not just his autobiography in some form, which, honestly, is enough in terms of what follows. Yet this novel, the title of which is never given to us, has also been the living receptacle into which Apu has "poured" -- as it is so often and so often glibly said -- himself. The book was, before Aparna, Apu's true love. It contained both his past and his future, both the frustrations of his youth and his adult ambitions. Taking the first page of the manuscript into his left hand, Apu glances down as if he would begin reading. But no, he lets his novel go. The fall from his hands, raised as if in offering, is thus slow, gradual at first, then suddenly utter. From his right hand, one huge section unrolls and plummets, then another, slightly lesser, and it is gone, all of it. We see the translucent pages flutter above the treetops of the forest below Apu, as if in play, twisting around themselves or swooping lazily... easterly, westerly... toward the bottom of the frame. One last page swings upward in a breeze, accompanied by an incredibly expressive flute trill, then floats away. This sequence -- it is really a single shot -- is so sedate a "presentation" or, to use a term from a much older critical discourse, "objective correlative", that it is nearly beyond common "feeling", except there is a hidden wonder and exhilaration in it.

The source of this movement of mind and heart is not really to be found in the poetic visualization of destruction offered by this scene, even if, as it may be for some writers, it is slightly nightmarish. Apu's life, put in a form that resembles scripture, is dispersed and descends as the divine light itself dies. This is only one reading, however. For there is Apu himself, who we see again in close-up once his novel is no longer what it was. Apu is still, his hands upraised, slightly open. He seems not to have moved at all, not to have noticed or responded to what he has allowed to happen. Except that on his face is an expression that is at one and the same time frozen and searing, static and yet in constant upheaval. With one look into a distance that does not include those of us watching him in his suffering, though it could be directed at us (yet why would he beseech the audience at this moment?), Soumitra Chatterjee as Apu gives what would otherwise be an entire performance. Anger, pain, disgust, scorn, exhaustion, and, above all, yearning for surcease are all contained in Apu's gaze.

Of course, I believe that there is some drama in self-abnegation. Self-abnegation in the case of Apur Sansar or devotional music from India -- of which this album by "double violinist" L. Shankar (a founding member of Shakti) is a stunning example -- is not an emptying or, more radically, a voiding. If Ray had wanted to convey that, he would never have shown us the pages of Apu's manuscript in their release. If the practitioners of Indian classical music intended to convey as much, they would not fill their music with virtuoso displays of instrumental command and improvisatory imagination. Self-abnegation here is a nothing that possesses a positive charge. It is a zero that is really an open parenthesis and a closed parenthesis (a plus and a minus) in the state of attraction: the edges of the curves do meet, but only after covering a certain distance filled with many occurrences. Self-abnegation, reducing the self to a zero state, if you will, is really an openness to the nigh-overwhelming complexity of the cosmos. Self-abnegation is a passion for projection, or for one's self -- every vein, every sinew, every neuron, every tendril of desire and memory -- to be expelled out of one's self in order to find its true place in Nature.

If all this sounds somewhat carnal in its intensity, I think it's no mistake or matter of misrepresentation on my part. Devotional songs in India music are, by and large, "love songs" in the sense that those of use well-versed in the American popular songbook would understand that designation. And if you have read the Vedas or the Upanisads or even Tagore's Sadhana, which lays bare the bride that is the human soul in Hindu theology, then you've been exposed to this notion. And if the idea still seems strange and perhaps heathenish to you, take a listen to this ragam-tanam-pallavi (no WorldBeat here…) -- dedicated to late mridangam (drum) master Palghat T. S. Mani Iyer "with love". A ragam-tanam-pallavi is a distinctly Southern Indian (i.e., not Hindustani) performance that moves from pure scalar improvisation in "free time" (ragam or alapana) through further modal ornamentation set now against ebbing and flowing, yet always accelerating pulsed material (tanam) to, finally, improvisation in strict meter based on a formal composition, often a kriti or a strain from a kriti, kritis being explicitly religious in nature (pallavi). Shankar's custom instrument, capable of unleashing both high, keening melodies and deep-pitched, warm, sobbing counterpoint, is as powerfully androgynous in sound as the voice of the great Carnatic / Karnatak vocalists such as Ramnad Krishnan. Shankar also sings as he plays, so that we have a violin mimicking the sounds and cadences of a human voice, that voice itself embodied in vowels and aspirated consonants that are not enunciated as part of any text per se but rather allude to the most ancient and most generative of breaths. More than this cycle of imitations that are never immaculate and repetitions that are never without flaw, there are also sounds for which there are no strictly syllabic and semantic vocal equivalents, not even in the "percussion language" of konnakkol. Shankar's double-stops and bass thrummings, those pluckings and rubbings, those manipulations that belong almost entirely to the hand, that are brisk, that require only a short, taut gap between manual and objective extremities, that are acute... those sounds, make the central section of the ragam portion of this performance ("Ragam: Sankarabharanam") ache with a palpable tension.

Some listeners are quickly irritated by the melismata and the marathons of increasingly frenetic antiphony, often between the principal voice (sitar, e.g.) and tabla drummer, which characterize Indian classical music. Is the restlessness these listeners experience in the music itself, which is undeniably active, or is this impatience one with a disarray that is revealed in and to those listeners by the music itself? Inundated with content, perhaps, they miss the form that is at work, guiding what they "hear". Or, worse yet, they have taken form to be an enemy, a vandal, and they douse every one of form's fires before it can fully ignite -- and illuminate.

Me? I could never be bored by this music. I could never appreciate it as exotica, even with the most well-meaning or humble appreciation, that is, by saying how much I feel reveals to me my shriveled, rootless, neurotic Western self. I don't think this music aims at any sort of reduction. In the same way, I have to accept that Apu's story is, by all rights, as much Ray's, and yours -- and hers and his and yes, theirs -- as much as it is mine. Even when I sit in a room of complete strangers watching Apur Sansar (which I have done recently), I am confident that each person in that room releases something in response to Apu's letting go. The Personal and the Universal... it's a conundrum, sure, and irresistible, but not one that flattens everything in its path. Instead, it is the kind of mystery that dictates that certain vibrations traveling at a certain speed result in identifiable sonorities that have specific properties which, if plied just so and arranged in one of a variety of established patterns, can evoke certain emotions and states of mind. It is also an enigma that, come to think of it, leads me to suggest that the image of those pages in flight from Apur Sansar may even be as profound an image of life itself... of the human lifespan, anyway... as the film's final, redemptive shot of the father, Apu, united with the son, Kajal; of new life, of the boy embraced, held on to, and lifted onto the man's shoulders, the two of them moving together down a road that itself winds beside a winding river.

Posted by joe at 5:43 AM | Comments (5)

March 22, 2004

Flat & Scruggs - Complete Mercury Recordings (Polygram)


John Fahey titled one of his recent anecdotal biographies “How Bluegrass Destroyed My Life.” The dire assertion works just as easily in reverse in my own experience. I discovered bluegrass at a time when my listening habits were largely mired in late-80s pop rock. The melange of banjo, mandolin, string bass and fiddle tied to rich vocal harmonies was like a rescue ladder rolled down into my narrow musical cave. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys were my first ambassadors into the art form. This disc collects every extant Mercury side by the band, spanning from just after their highly contentious defection from the ranks of Bill Monroe’s outfit in 1948 to a Florida radio spot in the fall of 1950. They dubbed their sound “Mountain Music” to further separate themselves from Monroe, the self-styled Father of Bluegrass. Plenty of classic ditties fly by including “Down the Road” and “My Cabin in Caroline.” Sacred songs are more prominent in the collection’s second half and there are also a handful of breakdowns that feature Scruggs blindingly fast banjo runs peppered throughout. His insanely accelerated and exacting method picking would influence everyone from surf guitarists to thrash metal rockers in the decades to come. O Brother Where Art Thou? and its brethren of soundtrack sequels put a modern commercial spin on this sort of music, dusting off veterans like the Stanley Brothers and taking the public by storm, Buena Vista style. My money’s still on the source.

Posted by derek at 6:07 AM | Comments (0)

March 15, 2004

Sten Sandell - Solid Musik (nuscope)

I was lowercase when lowercase wasn't cool

Pianist Sandell is known, if known at all, to a great number of listeners primarily as a sometime associate of Mats Gustafsson, and, by extension, Ken Vandermark: another proficient yet sly improviser, another musician happily occupied with both fastidious investigation and sheer play. By virtue of his association with two of the most cited names in contemporary transatlantic "free jazz", Sandell is also something of pre-approved taste, a musician -- slightly rumpled, avuncularly middle-aged, largely unheralded -- whose work is much esteemed among fellow musicians but whose work is also deemed to be a bit too subtle for those of us on the outside. Which is all very strange, because not only is Sandell a charter member of the Gush ensemble, he is also the mastermind behind two substantial releases on the (lowercase before lowercase was cool) nuscope label, an enterprise that has made a specialty of documenting pianists (Fred Van Hove, Georg Graewe).

Solid Musik, Sandell's second nuscope effort, is highly individual solo piano recital made up of rather diverse exercises in instrumental preparation. Sandell avoids obvious modifications to his "Baldwin SD-10" and instead concentrates on exceedingly subtle refinements of the manner in which strings are muted and otherwise made to resonate differently; in his deployment of uncommon yet abundant acoustical resources, e.g., the wood of the piano's frame; and in his own keyboard "touch". This is not to say that Sandell is a technician who has little to no use for thematic material. He has a fine, prickly sense of melody. His rhythms often allude to ragtime and boogie-woogie... as re-imagined by Conlon Nancarrow. Sandell introduces space -- rests -- into his extemporizations (most notably, "not gas") the way a photographer negotiates with light, through an aperture. Dilating, dwindling. Suffused, penumbral. Quite partial to contrasts, particularly of pitches and tempi, Sandell nonetheless loves unifying these contrasts within carefully rendered dynamic ranges. The pianist also makes his own overtures to the kind of processes favored by minimal composers -- addition in small, nimbly manipulated increments; transpositions that "chase", and sometimes "catch", one another -- but, because these flourishes are just several strategies among many in the development of a rather capacious design, they emerge, if not randomly, then at least considerably transformed by an exponential unpredictability: their own raised by their own circumstances'. Sandell's is a surreptitious, ever-branching rigidity, presuming the term is not lost completely in this adjectival thicket. So that listening to Solid Musik is a little like learning about the curvature and consistency and texture and thickness of the invisible walls of an enclosure by observing the behavior of tiny particles as they deflect and are deflected about, then scintillate in destruction.

Any resemblance to popular accounts of matters quantum mechanical is purely coincidental.

Posted by joe at 5:42 AM | Comments (0)

March 1, 2004

Gilberto Gil - Copacabana Mon Amour (Polydor)


Wise friends are essential to the proper maintenance of any personal musical library. My pal Ted hipped me to this album when he spotted a cheap used copy on one of our forays to Kim’s, that venerable East Village record emporium on St. Marks. I picked it up at his insistence and it instantly won me over. Gil’s long been my favorite exponent of the Tropicalia aesthetic. Not as eclectic as Caetano, not as funky as Jorge and not nearly as unhinged as Tom Zé, to my mind his early 70s work is still the most intuitive and organic of the loose-knit cadre of Brazilian troubadours. This one, the soundtrack to an eponymous film by Rogério Sganzerla, distills Gil’s folk roots and filters them further through a friendly hipster seive. Just a quartet in instrumentation with his unvarnished guitar and vocals augmented via overdubbing by Péricles Cavalcanti’s second guitar, David Linger’s sweet & salty flute and Claudio Karina’s battery of small percussion consisting of hand drums, claves, triangles and shakers. Seed time in the studio was likely minimal and the improvisational flavor of the pieces sparks some wonderful off-the-cuff interplay. Gil sings in both Portugese and English, but more often just scats along with the winding colloquial rhythms, most impressively on the fourteen-minute “Yeh Yeh Yah Yah.” I’ve found that this set works as an equally effective aural tonic winter or summer, melting away the film of frost and gloom in the former, or serving as supplement to deck chair, iced rum and perhaps a puff of stronger substance in the humid bliss of the latter. Obrigado, Ted.

Posted by derek at 12:14 PM | Comments (1)

February 23, 2004

Sonny Clark - Leapin' And Lopin' (Blue Note)

Sonny Clark: Leapin' And Lopin'

This is one of those recordings with which I am so intimate that I am swiftly thwarted in attempts to make anything original of it in my writing. One of the reasons I have always loved this record, though, is that Clark, for much of his recording career something of a nondescript, "professional" accompanist, managed to make a quintessential Blue Note album that nonetheless breaks -- rather, elides -- many of that specific "sound's" formulas. Without question, it is one of the coolest -- in terms of overall emotional temperature -- yet brightest of all the classic sessions made for that label during the early 1960's. The Sonny Clark / Butch Warren / Billy Higgins rhythm section, entirely a studio creation (almost like a tromp l'oeil soundstage setting or matte painting), was one of the finest there ever was, and there is both an effortlessness and lyrical bounce to their work -- a feel which is quite different from the insistent, backbeat-heavy swing you feel on those sessions with Art Blakey and Art Taylor on the drum riser. I'm tempted to say their swing was understated, but I know that's not the word I want. Placid? Unemphatic? Relaxed, definitely. But also joyous, and joy implies at least the letting loose of some tension, an event explosive... Leapin' and Lopin' also features one of the more uncharacteristic front-lines to be given the OK by Lion and Wolff: the Ben Webster-cum-Dexter Gordon stylings of Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, and the quirkily surging, silvery soloing of Tommy Turrentine (older brother of Stanley) on trumpet. The tunes Clark wrote for this date are uniformly delightful, even infectious. Clark's spacious modal structures -- "Melody For C", "Something Special", "Voodoo" -- are not callow or expedient hard bop "heads". On this album, more so even than the impeccable Cool Struttin', Clark has outgrown overtly macho poses of virtuosity, and he has found idiosyncratic partners that do not require him to make his blues nothing but funky and his ballads all about the longing. Clark sounds completely at one with his instrument here, in the flow -- in the zone -- as if, as I think it is possible to do, he has seduced himself into true discipline.

Sure, if you introduce biography into the assessment, Leapin' And Lopin' is surrounded by squalor, infamy, and madness. Charlie Rouse returned to his regular gig with Monk's quartet and much of his subsequent work for Blue Note was filed away as "not for release", Tommy Turrentine struggled for the remainder of his career with mental illness, and Clark himself was dead from an overdose not too long after this recording was completed in November 1961 (he was also mourned quite memorably by Bill Evans, "N.Y.C.'s No Lark" [Conversations With Myself]). Narcotics were a critical variable in the Blue Note formula, too, after all. One could pshaw that Leapin' And Lopin' is just a junk-streaked mirror held up to Miles' Kind Of Blue. But I'll take my cue from the invariably tasteful pianist / composer himself and assume a sublime impassivity with regard to such matters.

Posted by joe at 6:33 AM | Comments (12)

February 17, 2004

MC5 - Ice Pick Slim (Alive)


Far better MC5 albums exist. But this forty-or-so minute slab of propagandistic sonic insurgency still holds a special slot in the band’s discography. The title spins a more aggressive slant on the moniker of ghetto screed orator Iceberg Slim. Under that aegis, grass roots guerilla warfare and hedonistic libertarianism combine in a volatile amalgam. “Motor City is Burning,” pulled from fellow Detroit mainstay John Lee Hooker’s songbook, sparks tinder as the opening anthem. Hook’s original version carried a ballast of fear and the desire to get the hell out of Dodge. The Five’s reading is just the opposite, full of such brio and swagger that it seems they’d just assume stick around to see everything fall apart. Squares and Suits- the mouthpieces of The Man- are the enemies burned in aural effigy. Fidelity on the next two free jam tracks is for shit, though each sprawls over nearly twenty minutes apiece. The tape source for these sounds as if it was recorded covertly from inside some fan’s rusty, reverberating lunchbox. Firing round after round of guitar noise, Brother Wayne Kramer erects a wall of sound alongside fellow fret-splinterer Fred “Sonic” Smith. One that’s eventually toppled by the hollow thrashing drums of Dennis Thompson. “Mad Like Eldridge Cleaver” is even more ragged, with vocalist Rob Tyner turning to twittering flute & John Sinclair (the band’s erstwhile manager & dubious Minister of Information for the White Panther Party) doing a sorry caricature of Coltrane on sax. The improvisation’s core is ultimately nothing more than a wobbly reworking of another Hooker staple, “I’m Bad Like Jesse James.” Even with all the contretemps the Five’s livewire energy spills through and makes this both an entertaining and enlightening artifact.

Posted by derek at 5:38 AM | Comments (0)

February 9, 2004

The Complete Blind Willie Johnson (Columbia Legacy)

Blind Willie Johnson: Complete

While the rapture lasts, these 2 CDs and more than 90 minutes comprising just about everything this great itinerant, indigent Black Moses of the American South ever recorded can seem pretty paltry, stone tablets reduced to a fine dust in which preternatural mineral fires have been banked for all time. If I ride through the new night lights of Deep Ellum, and if I can dodge the men in fluorescent yellow and orange slickers, the majority of them recent African immigrants, who step out into traffic and try to wave in your car-parking dollars, the emo-core kids stumbling out of body art emporiums, the greasy coke and Ecstasy pushers, it blows my mind to think that, a short 80 years ago, Blind Willie was prophesying with his bull-roaring but oddly plangent voice and slide guitar (according to Samuel Charters, probably a pocket knife... a telling detail) against the dumb walls and segregated streets of the city I call home.

It's easy, perhaps even comforting, to listen to Johnson's recordings today and hear the nothing but the "blues" in their harsh syncopations and distortions of pitch and harmonic rudiments, but it is important to remember that these songs, recorded right on the cusp of the Reckoning that was the Great Depression, set those old microphones as to vibrating with holy, if not liturgical, currents. For every down-low, introspective ("Dark Was The Ground -- Cold Was The Night") and confessional ("It's Nobody's Fault But Mine") piece, there are three performances that construct an at-times forbiddingly private eschatology: the chilling reflection on plague, "Jesus Is Coming Soon"; "If I Had My Way I'd Tear The Building Down", a re-telling of the story of Samson and Delilah; "God Moves On The Water". As his faith told him it would, the world Johnson traversed has perished, and the paths he followed have faded utterly, even if his footsteps continue to echo. I'm confident he and his peers would be shocked and awed at the transformations their art has wrought upon both the musical and social infrastructure of today's America. "Trouble soon be over, sorrow will have an end..." Dallas has laid down new "green belts", lined by monumental bronze heifers and ropers smoking thin brown cigarettes, to commemorate where cattle trains may have passed through downtown's banking districts; meanwhile, scholars fear they will never be able to determine exactly in which Dallas building Robert Johnson recorded his great mid-1930's testaments. You can now pay the State a $40 dollar fee for a license plate celebrating Texas music and bearing the likeness, the only known likeness, of Blind Lemon Jefferson. My great Aunt Grace, one of the most soulful singers I've ever heard -- we never had to switch the radio on in her old Impala on those June days when she brought my brothers and sister and I from Omaha to Mt. Pleasant and back again -- has been gone for 10 years, taking with her a way of life my family can never reclaim, no matter how badly a connection to its customs and rhythms are needed (and, these days, they are). Contemporary Christian music has become multi-billion dollar a year entertainment enterprises, messages of love and salvation wrapped in every conceivable stylistic variation -- rare rhythm and blues, well-done country and western, tartare alternative rock -- so as to be palatable to all of God's hungry children. But I fear the world is too much with them all, Lord. The triumph of Johnson's gospel blues is not in their earth-bound poignancy, in how they seem to offer commiseration and strange kindnesses irrespective of what particular failings stain our own souls. Rather, these recordings endure insomuch as they portray a humble man who nonetheless did earn a glimpse of the Great Reward, and not the little bit of broken heaven that floats at the bottom of a bottle, clings to the curves of the female form, tumbles forth in the wake of a roll of dice, or gushes out of wounds inflicted in a thrust of retribution, however righteous. There is moral rectitude, in Johnson's music, but, thank God, there is no abundance of simple goodness.

Posted by joe at 6:33 AM | Comments (3)

February 2, 2004

Malachi Favors - Natural & the Spiritual (AECO)


Pressed and circulated on the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s tiny eponymous imprint, Favor’s sole solo album from 1977 is a mixed medicine bag of aural liniments and nostrums. What it lacks in cohesion and polish, it more than compensates for in the amount of personal intimacy conveyed. Favors rarely had the room to exposit in isolation within the context of the AEC so the chance to hear him away from his colleagues carries even more worth. Like William Parker after him, Favor’s essays on peripheral instruments (hand drums, marimba, zither, whistles, what sounds like a ney) are of lesser appeal than his longhand manipulations on stout-stringed bass. The opening deep pizzicato of “The Procession,” dedicated to deceased drummer Phillip Wilson, wastes no time zeroing in on the kinship shared by Favor’s calloused fingers and their principal agent of expression. “Peace Be Unto You” is even better, an athletic ten plus minute workout speckled with the clink and rattle of bells and chimes hung from the bassist’s limbs. Superb arco work arrives in the album’s final pieces. Favors also employs vocals on occasion. In combination with lambent marimba on the first of two title tracks has voice creates a tone poem saturated with space and tonal color. Lyrics sung on “Womans Takeover” marry mildly misogyny to equal parts anger and humor. All of the pieces appear to have been taped in front of an audience as appreciative applause trail various tracks. What was it Lester Bowie used to say: Great Black Music- Ancient to the Future? The credo certainly holds here.

Posted by derek at 6:32 AM | Comments (2)

January 26, 2004

Oliver Nelson - Nocturne (Prestige / Moodsville)

Oliver Nelson: Nocturne

A good friend of mine once likened Oliver Nelson's playing to a "silent scream". Literally, the comparison may make more sense if one were talking about the work of contemporary saxophonists such as Urs Leimgruber, whose work seems increasingly concerned revealing the musical qualities of what typically passes by “unheard” when he chooses to interact with his instrument. A concern with the fundamental issues of utterance, if you will… But what my friend was trying to get at was the sense that, underneath Nelson’s formidable technique — along with the still under-valued Bill Barron, was one of the first saxophonists to achieve a true (i.e., personal) understanding of John Coltrane’s "sheets of sound"; he also logged some time as a pupil of Elliott Carter — and almost implacably "legitimate" tone, there is a roiling emotional complexity that never quite found full expression.

Few albums showcase Nelson's abilities as a "jazzman", and not just a crack arranger, as well as this one. Because you can hear that raggedness beneath the sheer, smooth glissandi, the dissonance beneath the gorgeous lyricism (derived chiefly from Ellington and strictly non-jazz based saxophone literature), and the discontent beneath the ostensible “moods” assumed, like camouflage, by the entire ensemble (Lem Winchester, vibes, and one of Nelson's most compatible collaborators; Richard Wyands, piano; George Duvivier, bass; Roy Haynes, drums) from piece to piece on Nocturne. The title track is an etude devoid of any improvised content that manages to be both scintillating and haunting, and the two blues performances ("Bob’s Blues"; "Early Morning") strain against perfect relaxation. But it is the readings of "Man With A Horn", "Azur’Te", and especially "Time After Time" that are characteristically extreme in the way only Oliver Nelson can be. His solos on both pieces glide down the AABA runways of each song like handsome, fastidious models, each accoutrement a necessary element in the balancing of line (stationary as well as mobile), color and texture that is also an agonized attempt to transform the human figure into a demonstration of Euclidean "beauty". But what happens when one's own skin begins to feel like a costume? People are not statues, and poses, like all surfaces, are inevitably broken: a hand trembles; a blink, like a tiny writhing, mars the face; the course taken by a drop of sweat drives hairs out of place. Far from being a tease, this is what counts for nakedness in Nelson's music.

Posted by joe at 5:57 AM | Comments (0)

January 20, 2004

Peg Leg Sam - Medicine Show Man (Trix)


With a sobriquet straight out of the pages of a pirate novel Peg Leg Sam promises much in the way of flamboyant musical knavery. His sole entry for the Trix label makes good on the pledge. Sam’s songbook transcends the blues’ porous boundaries and overlaps with old-timey country and folk repertoires. All were learned on his peregrinations through the States and even overseas to Cuba, Jamaica and the Bahamas. Friendship with songster Pink Anderson led a lengthy career in the medicine shows. As such, the disc’s title isn’t some flippant marketing ploy. Substantial technique informs his extempore harmonica style and he accomplishes some amazing feats, but it’s all in deference to the various moods that strike him. “Peg’s Fox Chase” suggests the pinnacle of his powers. A favorite staple of harp players, Sam puts a charming spin on the tune in a virtuosic display of coarse breathing and blowing punctuated by jocular shouts, whoops and hollers that evokes the harried fox’s efforts to outwit the hounds. On “Greasy Greens” an ode to his favorite cuisine of lard-soaked collards, he crafts one clever rhyming verse after another. Guitarists Henry Johnson and Baby Tate each guest on a handful of cuts, laying down string bean licks and harmonizing vocals under Sam’s gesticulative lead. Handclaps and scuffling foot shuffles act as other instrumental agents for the colloquial house party on hand. Sam didn’t record much beyond what’s preserved here, but at an hour-plus a picture of his peculiar homespun artistry develops in vivid relief.

Posted by derek at 5:46 AM | Comments (0)

January 12, 2004

The Fall - Bend Sinister (Beggar's Banquet)


Most fans would rate the earlier Perverted By Langauge, The Wonderful And Frightening World Of The Fall and This Nation’s Saving Grace as the high points of this particular incarnation of The Fall’s discography, but this 1986 release was the first Fall album I ever bought, so it holds a special, even singular, meaning for me. For me, no other band captured the enraging bleakness, the deterioration and the stagnation, and the feeling of impending if rather nebulous doom that defined the era. Even if, when I bought the cassette version back in the day, it was being sold here in the States under the title Domesday Pay-Off. The glances at pop music that define Fall music in the mid-1980’s are especially scathing and sidelong on Bend Sinister: ramshackle grooves and either stone-faced or intentionally cloddish dance rhythms, especially on the unholy Trinity of “R.O.D.” (in which a creature of “gas and flesh” roams the streets in monstrous mediocrity), “U.S. 80’s-90’s”, and “Riddler!”; half-spoken, half-sung, wholly mangled – words are mispronounced and elongated, and the vocalists revel in “perversions” of standard syntax – yet unmistakably spleen-venting lyrics, including a great one from the two-part “Shoulder Pads” targeting fadsters who “couldn’t tell Lou Reed from Doug Yule”; turgid, highly-textured Hank Marvin-isms (yep, there’s a Rickenbacker in the bass-heavy mix somewhere); and a subtext of musique concrete sounds, courtesy of Craig Scanlon’s tapes and electronics. Fall mastermind Mark E. Smith no doubt has taken the piss out of them elsewhere, but there are tracks here that really do approach the kind of monochrome goth splendor of which Bauhaus was in such damned dogged pursuit (“Gross Chapel – British Grenadiers”).

Maybe that’s why Smith has tended to discount the music on Bend Sinister as possessing “too much perfection” and for being “too sluggish” as a result, but, as with all Fall music, there is a refreshing disregard for precision here. Its a dense, D.I.Y. collage of sound produced not by any careful placement of element but by random collisions and maneuvers of sabotage within the ensemble. It is seldom pretty, though “Living Too Late” is almost poignant, and it is sometimes so weird it becomes arch – the street vendor interjections in “Dktr. Faustus” – but there are many days, like today, when I’d choose the penetrating glare of The Fall over the hazy focus of the innumerable indie rock bands that have taken inspiration from them.

Posted by joe at 5:52 AM | Comments (0)

January 5, 2004

Charles Gayle - Solo in Japan (PSF)


What’s happened to Charles Gayle? The arguable crown-holder in a trioka of free jazz tenors that rose to prominence in the early 90s, he’s slipped a few rungs since in the hierarchy. Perelman’s turned to painting. Ware fell into a rut he’s yet to fully extricate himself from. Gayle healed from a nasty hernia, shelved his “Streets the Clown” shtick and turned his attentions largely to piano (as far as I know he still holds a regular weekly dinner gig at the 5C Café in NYC). But as yet he hasn’t chosen to reclaim the crown. This solo set comes from a summer 97’ concert and captures Gayle at the peak of his prowess and single-mindedness on saxophone. Two traditional hymns and three originals, all working from simple thematic skeletons, supply the sacraments for his pious improvisatory inquiry. The last, “Woe and Joy,” is vehicle for piano, but it’s the others, particularly the 15-minute “Walking Nearer” that proclaim the breadth of Gayle’s powers. During the opening orison “Come Ye” Ayler’s ghost feels palpably present in the perfect juxtaposition of jubilance and sadness siphoning through heaven-raised tenor. The fidelity is stark and unequivocal, microphone placed inches from the bell of his horn and adding to the massive cleansing sound. Word is that Gayle has a new trio record coming out on Clean Feed. Here’s hoping it’s sufficient catalyst to catapult him back into the limelight.

Posted by derek at 5:30 AM | Comments (4)

December 29, 2003

Lee Konitz / Enrico Rava Quartet - L'Age Mür (Philology)

Album Cover

This is not a great record, I won't claim that, but it is an insistently fascinating one. At times simply gorgeous in its asymmetrically lyrical caprices, at other times perplexing and even disconcerting in how close it hews to darkness. The fact that Konitz is coursing down his own inimitably Konitz-ian stream of consciousness here – cranky, then tender, then morose, then on the verge of something hummable – promises only partial explanation. The rhythm section for this pianoless quartet (Rosario Bonaccorso, bass; Massimo Manzi, drums) follows that rather than propels, flexible (cf. "Cherokee") in the best “bend but do not break” manner. One also has to account for the odd pauses and intervals, both perhaps different instances of true gaps, in Rava’s phrases, built up, as always, from the Miles Davis model. As Charles Mingus once famously said of Ornette Coleman, “its like disorganized organization”.

If we choose exploration as our metaphor for the kind of music that most engages us, L'Age Mür, with a program that includes “What’s New”, “Darn That Dream”, “I’ll Remember April” and “Solar”, does not consist of excursions over new terrain, as you may find in the most conceptually aggressive improvised music (both acoustic, electric and in between) but it does report on revisitations of familiar haunts after some distance and time have intervened. The general contours are the same and the passages remain mostly navigable. The old landmarks rise up, sometimes in the exact same places, sometimes not, always looking different because of the material vagaries (erosion, discoloration, restoration) introduced by time, or the quality of this light, or the rate of passage and angle the traveler now adopts (growing taller makes everything you once knew look different). And your noticing of one detail sends you off down a different path of spatial and temporal remembering, as if your mind temporarily adopts the features of the ecology in which you are a part(icipant): the sulci in your cerebral cortex become rivers you can only step in once.

Posted by joe at 10:31 AM | Comments (0)

December 22, 2003

Lee Hazelwood – The Cowboy & the Ladies (LHI)


Singer/songwriters don’t come much more whacked out and libidinous than Lee Hazelwood. Calling him an American counterpart to Serge Gainsbourg isn’t that far off base, especially given his European ties. This German comp gathers cuts from his various musical couplings with female collaborators in the 60s. The grist of harvest is with Nancy Sinatra (the liners even include cheesecake bikini shots of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ little girl). Tracks like “Some Velvet Morning” and “Lady Bird” are miniature pop masterpieces, melding mod, country and go-go roots with orchestral swells and wader-deep veneers of psychedelia. On the former Hazelwood recalls his amorous rendezvous with a nymphish spirit Phaedra, a part Sinatra’s seductively lilting voice plays to the hilt. The latter weds Dating Game brass and sweeping dramatic strings to a tale of star-crossed lovers. “Summer Wine” traffics in the same sort of alchemical ingredients and yields a similar winsome combination replete with veiled drug overtones, swirling string charts and killer 007 horn line. The cuts with Ann-Margaret aren’t nearly so endearing, but the kitschy bad man ballad “Chico” and harpsichord-heavy “Victims of the Night” are standouts. Other ladies on hand include Susie Jane Hokom, Ann-Kristin Hedmark and Nina Lizell. The disc’s variant interior cover is the icing, a shot of Hazelwood and Margaret, the latter clad only in parisol, boots and bonnet while Lee stands proud and pasty in Stetson, neckerchief and strategically placed gun belt as fig leaf.

Posted by derek at 6:38 AM | Comments (1)

December 15, 2003

Gene Ammons - Up Tight! (Prestige / Fantasy)


In electronic digital correspondence last week, as I indulged myself with exegeses of my own particular blues, one of my closest friends said to me my problem is that I deny myself a good many of the joys in life. Which prompted to think about how, in July, I had thought to write about this album but had never gotten around to it. And God knows Jug is one of the greatest joys any of us who deign to call ourselves jazz listeners can ever hope to know. Jug, the great synthesizer, of the Pres and Hawk tenor traditions... That tone like black coffee with a twist of lemon... or really lonely at times like man exhaling across the mouth of an empty bottle, with its hidden depths and shadows... The tendency to be ever-so-lasciviously tardy on the beat... If hip is studied affectlessness, explain to me how Jug can be so cool and so galvanized at the same time. To me, it is a mystery the answers to which are partially locked away in an urban American culture that is no more – for both good and for ill. Jug, after all, was a musical hero to countless working class African-Americans, one of rare "serious" jazz artists of his time to tour American city after American city, bringing Saturday night -- and a little Sunday morning, too -- with him wherever he went and whenever he played.

Up Tight! is a Prestige "2-fer" containing all the music to be found on the original LPs Up Tight! (Prestige 7208) and Boss Soul (Prestige 7445). Recorded in 1961, with Ammons on furlough from prison (he was to spend the bulk of the 60's in jail on narcotics charges), these are, in their own way, very conceptual records built from the record label's ideas for Jug's post-Weinstock blowing sessions. Both sessions here were produced by Esmond Edwards (one of the first African-American to achieve that position in the industry) and they build upon the great popular success of the earlier Prestige albums Boss Tenor and Jug. This is Ammons' tenor plus rhythm accompaniment, relying on a pianist with a light but firm, modern touch, plus a Latin percussionist (soon-to-be-Fania superstar, congalero Ray Barretto) for extra push and cushion, working through a program of ballads, blues and up-tempo pop tunes.

But these records are not predictable as all that. They bring to life the ample meaning the word "swing" has: as a noun, an adverb, an adjective, and, of course, a verb both transitive and intransitive. The feeling of joy, of being freed (even if only temporarily) from a whole host of worries, is most palpable on the October 17 session with Walter Bishop Jr., culminating in renditions of Ellington's "I'm Beginning To See The Light" and Young's "Lester Leaps In" that groove so hard they literally make it difficult to sit still. Groove can be a mysterious thing, because it is such a collective responsibility, but it is here in abundance, even on the more low-key Patti Bown session. Couple this with the effortless soulfulness of the playing, and you have the chimera that less-skilled hard bop players were and still are after. I don't believe it make me a simpleton to praise this music by calling it "powerfully upbeat"; even the ballads and slow blues are suffused with so much tenderness that Jug, unburdening himself with true magnanimity, transforms whatever melancholy is pent-up within them into something nearly beyond fulfilling.

There's a great double-time passage at the heart of track 2 here -- "Carbow" -- that is so apposite to what I want to convey that all I can do is prevail upon you to listen to it several times in a row and then hope you hear it the way I do. Let's say I'm buying this round, and, hey, Lise -- here's to you.

Posted by joe at 6:07 AM | Comments (2)

December 8, 2003

Korla Pandit - Odyssey (Fantasy)


The original Turbanator, years before Dr. Lonnie Smith took the title, Korla Pandit cornered the market on organ-based mood music through daily television transmissions beamed out to bored housewives nationwide. His beguiling and often haunting melodies capitalized on the pipe organ’s populous tone settings coupled with a percolating percussive attack. He cut fourteen records for Fantasy; this two-fer reissues Music of the Exotic East and Latin Holiday. The former plays up Pandit’s mystical persona with exotic sounding tunes like “Kartikeya,” “Tale of the Underwater Worshippers” and “Kashmiri Love Song.” He even turns in the obligatory cover of the Fifties staple “Miserlou” and manages to make the shop-worn song his own. All make clever use of a range of effects including whirring pedal sustains, racing keyboard runs and crashing gongs and cymbals. The Latin album has more tracks, but is less engaging from a creative standpoint. Mostly standards, the pieces are throwbacks to the repertoire of Pandit’s earlier incarnation Juan Orlando, an alias he had to adopt in order to join the Latin musician’s union. Like his exotica colleague Yma Sumac, Pandit forged a personal mythology that fanned his commercial appeal complete with New Delhian origins and silent Sufi-like demeanor. The detailed liner notes do little to dispel the fabrication and the charming music makes clear why the vinyl-buying public bought it hook, line and sinker.

Posted by derek at 5:58 AM | Comments (0)

December 2, 2003

Pink Floyd - Meddle (EMI)


I can't believe this record still means anything to me.

Up until roughly a month ago, when I had occasion to yank a mid-80's EMI (not Harvest) pressing from a stack of vinyl a buddy of mine had entrusted to high school acquaintances upon leaving his West Virginia home town and had only recently reclaimed, I had been 17 years old the last time I sat down with this album. Now, after spending another late night inhaling the peculiar anesthetic compressed in these grooves, I lack whatever motivation I might otherwise have to shake off these songs' palliative fog of despondency. Post-Barrett Floyd is, to me, terribly oppressive. The minute I hear yet another cut from The Wall or Wish You Were Here on classic rock radio, I'm transported to a provincial town where the deserted streets are lined with identical, windowless concrete blocks of buildings, the sky is a uniform gray, and the light wind isn't cold enough to bite to the marrow, only merely chill enough to cause your nose always to be running. It is too boring and cheap to complain about being burned out on Pink Floyd. I want you to understand that I hate them for their conglomerated ubiquity, and that I resent the fact that, in trying to fill as many arenas as possible, this band managed to transform the splendors of psychedelia's liberation of the senses into the tenets of a queasy pop-psych nihilism.

But at least Meddle is a reminder of the magnificence they could achieve. Dark Side Of The Moon will always be the "heavier" album; it is also megalomaniacal (which was probably essential to its multi-platinum triumph, come to think of it). But the music on Meddle has a poise and maturity to it that mark the work as being that of an actual band. For example, there really is no "lead vocalist" per se on this album. By this time, Floyd had perfected a very idiosyncratic kind of harmony vocalizing. Wispy as David Gilmour's voice is, the higher-pitched unison lines sung by Richard Wright -- and, occasionally, Roger Waters -- do not blend as much as they blur all the voices into one indistinct, if recognizably English, composite character. The willed facelessness of Floyd's presentation to the average consumer was not just a marketing gimmick. It was another expression of how they really did sound.

The only track I ever skip now that I've re-discovered Meddle is the chugging phase-piece "One Of These Days". Not only is it out of step with the languid acoustic ballads that fill out the rest of the record's original side one, but it also makes me think of the bloated, litigious entity Pink Floyd became in the late 1980's, when it became a concert show-stopper. Meanwhile, back in the ocean that has submerged the ear depicted on the album's gatefold sleeve... "Pillow of Winds" may be the only successful love song this group ever recorded. Picked and not strummed on acoustic guitars, there's a refreshing lack of mannerism to this performance, even if it does take off toward a happy ending. "Fearless" begins as a near-country tune, but its main riff is a great, ascending, pseudo-Dravidian thing that somehow ends up in the Mississippi Delta. The song's chorus is like a prolonged sigh, with the singers dropping down in register and swallowing the syllables they are running out of breath for anyway. Yet the lyrics offer oblique affirmations such as "and every day is the right day" and the track ends with the sound of a crowd (soccer? outdoor rock festival?) singing Rodgers' and Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone".

Of course, the track those listeners who went back through Floyd's catalog post their Dark Side conversion and bought this album for is the 20+ minute "Echoes". For good reasons; "Echoes" is still one of the Pink Floyd's major statements. Yes, the jam section is nearly Krautrock. Yes, the track shows that no band before or since has understood how to use the multi-track studio to achieve sonic layering effects of such shading and delicacy. Yes, "Echoes" further proves that pioneering electro-acoustic efforts can even be found in hoary hippie artifacts like this one -- even though I suspect the screaming sounds that occupy nearly five full minutes of the listener's time here are meant to be imitative of the cries of the albatross sung about in the song's opening line. Yes, the scraping, chiming, guitar climax that sets the stage for the song's final verses also stamps out the template for classic arena-age Pink Floyd, simply anthemic but profoundly effective. But I'd rather think about the poignancy of "Echoes" itself, the gentleness of its harmonies, and the way in which, more so for me than "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" (which I believe it anticipates) "Echoes" retains a feeling of intimacy despite its rock epic proportions. In fact, the "green and submarine" of the song's first verse recall to me the cracked ingenuousness of Syd Barrett's "Astronomy Domine", and when WatRightMour sings "Strangers passing in the street / By chance two separate glances meet / And I am you and what I see is me", "he" could be talking about a casual encounter with the group's abdicative leader. I think I get it now, because, when I was 17, Syd Barrett's fate actually seemed attractive to me. But one can soar through the cosmos for only so long, and Meddle is the sound a band drifting back towards earth and earthly things such as personal responsibility. "And no one sings me lullabies / And no one makes me close my eyes..." I find that this, too, is how I want things to be, today.

Posted by joe at 9:20 AM | Comments (8)

November 23, 2003

Woody Guthrie - Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti (Smithsonian/Folkways)


"This machine kills fascists"- so spoke a sign on Guthrie's guitar. The mantra might have been at odds with the pacifist folkie image cultivated by many in the musical movement he inspired. But it was an effective synopsis of his deep indignation toward social injustice and stubborn commitment toward radical change. Few of his recordings evoke that reservoir of righteous anger like this album. Commissioned by Moses Asch in 1945 and composed by Guthrie between 1946-47, the project brought out the songwriter's perfectionist impulses to the point where resulting writer's block forced him to shelve song drafts for months. Guthrie spins the story of the immigrant anarchists from several angles and makes no secret as to where he stands on their controversial trial for murder. Working off skeletal chords that sometimes carry over across songs, his chief strength lies in lyrics that are masterful in their ability to limn pictures and ferry emotions. The most harrowing of the bunch for me is "Root Hog and Die," where the inevitability of the pair's fate mirrors the narrator's struggle to reach Boston before the flipping of the executioner's switch. "This Land is Your Land" it's not, but the root resolve remains intact, that of freedom (and due process) for all creeds, colors and political persuasions. An essential human right and one undermined with alarming regularity these days.

Posted by derek at 5:08 PM | Comments (3)

November 16, 2003

The Flow - Greatest Hits


Shadoks Music 050

Thanks be to the German-based Shadoks label for resuscitating platter after platter of the long, lost recordings of fringe rock. From their efforts, bands like My Indole Ring, Mendelbaum and Brush are finding their way back into circulation, and The Flow, as they were three decades ago, are blaring through the speakers of many an indie music junkie. A predecessor to the yet-to-be-solidified prog rock wave of the early 70's, Greatest Hits is loaded with infectious little numbers and myriad fuzz guitar riffs. The opening church organ on "It Swallowed the Sun" quickly gives way to almost-grunge mechanics and bright, burning snare. Each of the tunes are well-crafted, concise and full of hip shaking hooks. The next best thing would be the recovery of b-sides. It's psych-rock with Mott the Hoople's balls, so beware.

Posted by al at 7:06 PM | Comments (5)

November 9, 2003

Paul Desmond Quartet - Live (A&M)


Though he dwelt in the shadow of Brubeck during the early part of his career, Desmond later fostered a cult of fans whose loyalty was legendary. This disc’s notes suggest that the lure back to the bandstand was far from monetary. Thanks to his Brubeck-era tune-smithing royalties, his bank accounts were well nourished. Desmond simply got bored with the posh lifestyle he was living. Fortunately, a steady diet of cigarettes, black coffee and sirloin steaks in the 70s hadn’t stunted his sound. The album’s running time creeps in just under cd capacity. Nine tunes receive generous readings and span the spectrum of Desmond’s songbook from Mulligan and Rogers & Hart to Jobim and Bonfá. Fidelity is much tidier than earlier vinyl pressings, with the audience audible in the form glassware clinks and muttering conversation, but rarely intrusive. As if in deference to his earlier pact with Brubeck (but probably due solely to preference at this point), Desmond once again eschews piano and leaves chordal duties to guitarist Ed Bickert. Bassist Don Thompson and drummer Jerry Fuller, both closely miked, complete the band. Lyricism reins supreme through pliant improvisations that play gently with melody and harmony at loquacious length. Standout tracks for me include a mellow swinging version of “Manhã de Carnaval” and an umpteenth takedown of “Take Five.”

Posted by derek at 8:19 PM | Comments (4)

November 3, 2003

Bluiett Baritone Saxophone Group - Live at the Knitting Factory (Knitting Factory)


Four Flutes (w/ Billy Taylor on Riverside), Four Trombones (Debut), hell, there’s even been Four French Horns (Savoy). Four-prong frontlines featuring the same instrument are nothing new. Same goes for saxophone quartets with the WSQ and Rova, both long-standing institutions. So there’s plenty of basic precedence for Bluiett’s baritone bonanza here, much of it set by the man himself given that he’s been tweaking the template since the early 70s. The idea is an instantly promising one. Assemble four of the rowdiest, most raucous raconteurs on the fleshy reed and set them loose on each other over unfettered, roaring charts steeped in blues, funk and free-associative interplay. Add to the mix Ronnie Burrage’s backbeat stomping trap kit and the end result is directly akin to the most boisterous Nawlins brass band one could think of. This live set taped at the Knit has a coarse fidelity to match the brawny pugilistic punch of the music. Most of the tunes are propelled by simple riffs, with horn lines grappling and snaking out in spontaneously harmonizing fits and starts. Patience Higgins and Alex Harding are big strapping men, with physiques to match their bellowing, blaring horns. Bluiett and Carter are smaller in physical stature, but make up for it with equally imposing tones. Bow down to the burly baritone brilliance.

Posted by derek at 6:13 AM | Comments (0)

October 28, 2003

Ravi Shankar - Ragas & Talas (Angel)


Indian classical music was one of the many musical forms to benefit from the arrival of the long-playing record. Ragas that stretched to thirty and forty minute lengths could finally be contained on single albums. Still, there was the chore of flipping sides to contend with. Ravi Shankar recognized this problem along with the propensity of Western ears to wander in relation to the intricate lattices of traditional ragas. His World Pacific sides from the Fifties and Sixties were specifically tailored to subvert these prejudices of American audiences. On them he parsed longer pieces down into easily ponderable parts and placed focus primarily on the melodic/rhythmic fulcrums. Angel has reissued a good dozen of them and this is my favorite of the currently available crop. Two ragas, a dhun, and a tabla feature comprise the record. Shankar’s sitar plays sans usual tamboura support with only Alla Rakha’s tabla as counterpoint. “Raga Jogiya” contains some thrilling improvised passages of his characteristic blinding fingering, while the concluding “Raga Madhu-Kauns” spreads the action out, building in ascending & descending waves that are more meditative in cast. All in all, an ideal entry point into Ravi’s early art.

Posted by derek at 9:22 AM | Comments (0)

October 19, 2003

Taku Sugimoto - Italia (A Bruit Secret)


Italia, aside from standing on its own as the definitive solo statement from Japanese improv guitarist Taku Sugimoto, is the first bullet in the catalog of A Bruit Secret, the young French label. Sugimoto has been a primary force on Japan's Onkyo scene for now over a decade, and these three pieces from two performances in late 2000 provide a telling capture of his abilities and, more importantly, a snapshot of traditional guitar playing discolored by contemporary trends in experimental music. The music here is incredibly quiet albiet thriving with energy and, strangely, wants to tell its own quirky cryptic story. Gone for the most part are Sugimoto's brief chord washes; instead the disc pedals along -- sans a few non-critical spokes -- in untempered flurries of single note steps, most of them exercises in timbre and attack, but often a look at the circumstantial relationships of tones. "Bologna" is a progression that I just can't get out of my head. I love this disc.

Posted by al at 9:11 PM | Comments (3)

October 13, 2003

Albert Ayler - Love Cry (Impulse)


One of my friends once described this album as Ayler Lite and she’s right to a certain extent. The original six-song play list encompasses little of Albert’s ecstatic energy, at least overtly, and it’s almost as if the saxophonist checked his signature screams at the studio doorstep. These initial tracks tick off in rapid succession, spinning like jukebox sized slices of the Ayler siblings’ embryonic folk themes that could’ve been hit singles on some other plane of there. “Ghosts” and “Bells” fly by in brisk three-minute versions joining newer pieces like “Omega” a melodic kernel that sounds hauntingly similar to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” On the title track Ayler’s vocal glossolalia flutters atop Call Cobb’s cracked harpsichord fills creating a tuneful blend strangely akin to Moondog’s madrigals. Milford Graves mans the traps, milking a savant style of drumming that further sets the session on its figurative ear. Alan Silva saws his bass strings down to fibrous stubs and poor brother Don toots boisterously at his brass, building up staccato street band fervor. Several alternate takes and a fully restored reading of “Universal Indians” complete the kaleidoscopic carnival show. These concluding cuts find the players repasting on more familiar free jazz fennel and include snatches of frenzied improvisation at odds with earlier order and restraint.

Posted by derek at 8:19 AM | Comments (0)

October 6, 2003

The Pixies - Surfer Rosa (4AD)


Spurned by hearing the Pixies cover band, No. 13 Baby, at the Crocodile Cafe last week, I was inspired to dust off my copy of Surfer Rosa, possibly the brawniest, greatest post-in-your-face rock album of the 80's. The record was cut at a time when the band's dramatic periods of strife were at a minimum, and you can hear it in Black's delivery on each of the cuts. The harmonies with Kim Deal are raw, perhaps purposefully unpolished, and her singing on the pseudo-love tune, "Gigantic", may even stand tallest among Rosa's barrage of dreamily catchy numbers. Tunes like "Bone Machine", "Broken Face" and "Where Is My Mind?" haven't lost any of their luster in 15 years of aging, tending to remind us that great music goes well beyond times, trends and tensions.

Posted by al at 11:20 AM | Comments (10)

September 30, 2003



The human voice has no instrumental equal. There, I’ve said it. Why then do many fans of improvised instrumental music have such a problem with vocals? That’s a question beyond the scope of this blurb, but this Yazoo compendium might have a hand in converting the cynics. Among sung music few singers can match the classic Jewish cantors in terms of pious beauty and transcendency. When Leib Glantz soars atop a swirling sea of swelling pipe organ chords, reaching for the heavens, while realizing the timeless juxtaposition of joy and sorrow one cannot help be moved. Others, like Pierre Pinchik and Yossele Rosenblatt align along similar skyward trajectories, singing Hebrew verses in angelic voices that burst with elegiac emotion. Choir pieces intersperse with solo ventures and it’s the latter hymns that harbor the most intimacy. The first two cantorials alone easily offset the set’s cost in terms of undiluted listening pleasure. Thorough notes also offer insight and photos, revealing the cantors lives just as the sounds reveal their faith. What’s perhaps most surprising is the religious rigmarole surrounding the recordings that nearly resulted in their extinction. The old suspicions of secular technology touching and tampering with the sanctity of the sacred almost won out. Fortunately for modern listeners, the record label lobbyists persevered and these crackle coated sides survive to be marveled at and savored.

Posted by derek at 7:46 AM | Comments (0)

September 23, 2003

Sun Ra - Supersonic Jazz (Evidence)


Take your pick between covers- garish blue or gaudy pink- this early tome of Arkestrology includes some of the band’s most succinctly stated music & emblematic melodies. Light years distant from Magellenic maelstroms like The Magic City and Atlantis, the album is instead a thoroughly entertaining embodiment of Ra’s Windy City tenure with the maestro fronting a healthy twelve-piece incarnation of the ensemble that includes then-jazz oddities like Jim Herndon’s trampoline tympani and Wilburn Green’s febrile electric bass. Ra’s early electric piano also receives prominent billing, most marvelously on the minature “Advice to Medics,” which sounds like Fred Rogers beaming friendly-neighbor beacons from the farside of Mars. Marshall Allen had yet to join the ranks, but mainstays John Gilmore and Pat Patrick lead the horn roster alongside such brass aces as Art Hoyle and Julian Priester. Together they rollick through Ra’s customarily quixotic charts, blending big band swing and bop with hints and traces of later obsessions including radical rhythmic shifts and percussion heavy panoplies of sound. The albums notes, presumably penned by Ra, are equally endearing and contain expressions of the cosmic axioms that would serve as the band’s ontological fuel for decades to come. There are arguably better and more representative Ra records in the Saturnian canon, but this one rates as my favorite of the lot.

Posted by derek at 8:04 AM | Comments (3)

September 16, 2003

Fela Kuti - Shakara/London Scene (MCA)


The original U.K. album cover to the Jimi Hendrix milestone Electric Ladyland pictured a bevy of nude models cradling copies of his albums in their laps. Fela’s Shakara (paired here with the commensurately groove-packed London Scene) does the guitar god one better by featuring fifty topless admirers arranged in a facsimile of the Africa 70 logo, with Kuti himself reclining good-naturedly at their center. The music lays bare his legendary chauvinistic tendencies even further in the tune “Lady,” an ominously funky tune with lyrics that take an archaic stance towards gender politics while simultaneously celebrating African womanhood. On the title song the band hunts down an equally propulsive prey with Igo Chico’s roaring sax and Kuti’s comping electric piano supplying the seductive spoor. Tracks on Scene, recorded at Abbey Road in 71 and released the following year, are shorter and simpler by design, but still lay down heavily intoxicating doses of afro-infused funk. The sudden rhythmic shift on “Chop Teeth,” from loping lounge tempo to hard-riffing go-go beat, comprises but one of the highlights. Tony Allen’s acutely responsive drumming, which is at once pervasive and entirely unobtrusive, is another. This MCA release replaces an earlier reissue on the French Barclay imprint and is both affordable and easily obtainable, along with twenty-four other discs in the reconstituted US Fela catalog. Get it.

Posted by derek at 8:50 AM | Comments (4)

September 9, 2003

Margaret Barry – I Sang Through the Fairs (Rounder)


Ireland’s answer to the high lonesome sound, Margaret Barry was a mainstay of the English folk music scene for decades. Her songs, mostly culled from traditional Irish sources, celebrate the vibrant verities of reels, jigs and mythological parables. Familiar fare like “The Blarney Stone” and “Moses Ritoora-Li-Ay” alternate with lesser known canticles like “My Lagan Love” and “Gra Machree.” The harsh, brittle tunings of the banjo are a product of her countless years spent as a busker trying to be heard above the din of fairs and farmer’s markets. Serpentine arpeggios, often in an idiosyncratic claw hammer style, regularly twine with a voice that shears to the emotional quick of each song. Barry’s pipes can calm in lilting lullabying strains or climb in keening threnodies of sound. In either guise the effect is at once otherworldly and totally immersive, much like the music of American counterparts like Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb. Exemplifying the songstress’s legacy further, a series of interview snippets intermingled amongst the songs allow Barry to expound on the origins and importance of many of her tunes. The collection is part of Rounder’s Portrait series focusing field recordings by Alan Lomax of single artists where there exists enough material for full-length discs. Others entries by Davie Stewart, Hobart Smith, Neville Marcano and Mississippi Fred McDowell are worth owning as well.

Posted by derek at 9:08 AM | Comments (0)

September 3, 2003

Henry Cowell - Piano Music (Smithsonian/Folkways)


A deceptively simple title for a disc that is anything but. Cowell’s signing with Mose Asch’s Folkways label makes perfect sense since both viewed sounds of any stripe and sort as potential conveyers of musical & cultural information. He regularly looked to the natural and industrial worlds for sources of inspiration, rigorously eschewing conventional structures and patterns in his piano works. He also pioneered elements of atonality and ‘extended techniques’ such as venturing into the innards of his instrument to maneuver the strings directly. The nineteen pieces collected here are mainly representative of his early works, which made groundbreaking use of tonal clusters amongst other innovations. But Cowell plays them in a relaxed, offhand style that leavens some of surprise. The clever titles mask music that is often of equal or greater intrigue. My favorites are “Harp of Life,” which veers close to melodrama in its grand thundering chords and stabbing melody, “The Banshee,” a wash of rubbed strings that result in an interlude of spectral scraping tones, and “Aeolian Harp/Sinister Resonance” where Cowell’s fingers forge a harmonic maze of pizzicato piano filigrees. An interview segment closes the disc and finds Cowell verbally running through the program’s pieces, offering brief explanatory comments on each, once again in a matter-of-fact mood. With a current discography so deplorably slim this disc is an instant keeper.

Posted by derek at 6:33 AM | Comments (0)

August 26, 2003

Jazz at the Philharmonic – The First Concert (Verve)


JATP: the concert that created a cottage industry and in the process sent many jazz critics cringing in contempt. Say what you want about Norman Granz’s populist bastion of bombast and crowd-goading histrionics, but this inaugural salvo swings like crazy from start to finish. An All-Star affair in every sense of the term, the seven cuts included contain some of the fiercest solos ever waxed by the participants. Illinois Jacquet’s freak register foray on the straightforward “Blues” sets the bar as phrases pour in squealing spouts from the bell of his upraised tenor. Saxophonist Jack McVea is no slouch either and he burns through his fair share of choruses, as during the opening hard-riffing rundown of “Lester Leaps In.” Les Paul and J.J. Johnson often act as cooling agents, the former displaying formidable jazz chops that counteract the later pop pap that would become his trademark. Then there’s Nat Cole, operating under the cryptic alias of Shorty Nadine, who spins out stride-stamped piano rolls that keep the beat to jumping. Amidst all the hoopla there’s even room for the ballad “Body and Soul.” Rampant wolf whistles and riotous applause which intersperse the solos are but one indication that this was an afternoon for the ages.

Posted by derek at 6:15 AM | Comments (0)

August 19, 2003

Gétatchèw Mèkurya – Ethiopiques 14: Negus of Ethiopian Sax (Buda Musique)


Accorded the ill-fitting mantle of the African Ayler in some circles, Mèkurya did share Albert’s penchant for adapting folk forms to new conduits of expression. Reshaping traditional shellèla songs, improvised war chants sung prior to battle, through the mouthpiece of his saxophone, Mèkurya coined a style of music that had uncanny parallels to the emancipated tonalities of free jazz. Across this generous French compilation the creepy parlor trick organ riffs of Girma Bèyènè and distantly recorded drums of Eshètu Haylé as rhythmic backdrop leave his horn free to arc and soar. Trumpet and a second sax also add to the fray on occasion and it’s on these tracks where the saxophonist’s combative nature really comes to the fore. Favoring a quivering vibrato and flinty style of phrasing, Mèkurya scalding lines compromise little in the way of attitude or potency. Curiously, he rarely strays from similar Arabic-sounding scalar patterns during most pieces, creating a symmetry that starts to pall over the long haul. Still, it’s the riveting intensity of his tone that long outlasts any transience in the material.

Posted by derek at 6:32 AM | Comments (3)

August 12, 2003

Stanley Turrentine - Hustlin' (Blue Note)


Not to be mistaken as the long lost sixth entry in Miles Davis’ verb-centric Prestige cycle, though based solely on its title this classic 60s blowing date could fit snugly between Workin’ and Relaxin’. Turrentine & lovely wife Shirley Scott front their regular rhythm section of Bob Cranshaw on bass and Otis “Candy” Finch on drums. The wildcard is pinch-hit plectrist Kenny Burrell who sounds far more pugilistic than usual on the opener “Trouble,” a not so subtle send-up of the standard “Fever,” trading in his usual crisp single notes for sparser slashing strums. He cools out on later numbers like the title track where Turrentine quotes cleverly from “Blue Skies.” Scott shapes a plush featherbed of comping organ fills for her spouse to recline on and comes up with some crackerjack solos of her own. Virtually everything about this session substantiates the swaggering power of so-called soul jazz. Particularly the Francis Wolff cover photo featuring the gaping black maw of Stanley’s tenor mirroring the mouth of a Space Age Electrolux™ vacuum engineered specially to suck all your sadness and ill will away.

Posted by derek at 6:37 AM | Comments (0)

August 4, 2003

Minutemen - Double Nickels on the Dime (SST)


Three guys from Pedro: D Boon on gits & throat, Mike Watt on thunder broom and George Hurley on traps. With the geeky chops of a tight jazz combo, the no-frills convictions of a garage band & a seemingly indefatigable credo of spieling cross-country, they created a bastion of post-punk cool that magnetically attracted flocks of fans. Add on an unapologetic affection for such classic rock staples as Van Halen and CCR and their ‘punk’ credentials became even more of a contradiction. This, their magnum opus, spools out a rambling tapestry of 45 vignettes with the common stitched thread of a vague road-trip to tie them. The grooves and hooks run rampant, realized on the sturdy backs of Watt’s elastic popping bass, Boon’s ferociously choppy frets and Hurley’s combustible skins. Together they can turn a note to an absent-minded tenant into a droll existentialist epic as on “Take 5, D,” or stretch the boundaries of space and time as on the hypnotically oscillating funk of “The Glory of Man.” Other titles for the ages include “The Roar of the Masses Could Be Farts” and “Maybe Partying Will Help.” Greatest indie rock double album of the Eighties? It’s got my vote. Not one domino shall fall.

Posted by derek at 7:12 AM | Comments (3)

July 29, 2003

Various - Calypso Breakaway (1927-1941) (Rounder)


Trinidad in the Thirties: a melting pot of American and Caribbean cultures & the birthing ground of Calypso. Born out of Patois kalindas, the musical style incorporated facets of jazz, Creole beguines, and African rhythms, and placed a premium on narrative virtuosity. Calypsonians were the hip hop celebrities of their day, adopting colorful & intimidating sobriquets like Atilla the Hun, Lord Executor and The Growler. As lyrical raconteurs they used the flexible rhyming structures of their songs to poke fun at and critique everything from politics to social ills and sexual mores. Other band leaders like Lionel Belasco and Gerald Clark emphasized tight, syncopated arrangements and instrumental prowess, featuring some of the finest musicians the island had to offer. Rounder’s second collection of vintage 78s has many highlights including Lord Executor’s “Seven Skeletons Found in the Yard,” a morbid rumination on the relative severity of several tragedies that would make Edward Gorey proud, and Lord Beginner’s “Anacaona,” a tune that wears its wanton lasciviousness on its sleeve. An added bonus: there are four uncredited extra tracks on the cd.

Posted by derek at 6:43 AM | Comments (0)

July 22, 2003

Flaco Jiménez – Flaco’s First (Arhoolie)


Just a teenager when these thirty Rio sides were waxed in the late Fifties, Flaco would go on to become one of the most influential exporters of Tejano music to the world beyond his San Antonio stomping grounds. His Los Caminantes (The Pedestrians) cover all of the then-popular dance hall bases from oompa-driven polkas to romantic boleros and bouncing, lightly syncopated rancheras. It’s the latter style of tunes that have the most pervasive representation and Flaco attacks them with youth-born brio, his fleet-fingered accordion fluidly filling in the cracks across a loping bass and bajo sexto fueled rhythm. The mature vocal harmonies that accompany many of the tracks also belie the adolescent ages of the band’s principals and point to another reason why these platters were so popular on regional jukeboxes back in the day.

Posted by derek at 7:57 AM | Comments (0)

July 15, 2003

Reverend Gary Davis - Complete Early Recordings (Yazoo)


Pre-War gospel doesn’t get much more sacrosanct & stripped down than this. Davis’ refusal to defer to secular material in the studio effectively derailed his recording career for over a decade. Still, nearly all of the tunes on these first sessions became anchors of his repertoire. Several find the blind street busker breaking into spontaneous sermonizing mid-song, as on “Lord, Stand By Me” where he shouts freely & passionately about The Savior’s stalwart role in keeping him safe from harm. His is a New Testament God invoked with Old Testament fervor. And then there’s the sterling fretwork, filled with clever rhythmic counterpoint, multiple keys & clarity of voicing rare even in guitarists today. Davis subsequently got scooped up in the Folk and Blues Revival of the Sixties, but these earliest sides remain his most lasting musical achievement.

Posted by derek at 7:45 AM | Comments (4)

July 8, 2003

Grant Green - Standards (Blue Note)


Rather plain vanilla packaging hides one of the lost treasures in the Grant Green catalog. This session had its first incarnation as REMEMBERING (a fitting title given the ballads only credo of the program). Later recast in the Blue Note Standards series of the late 90s it’s the only extant evidence of Green’s association with the redoubtable bassist Wilbur Ware. The naked nature of the instrumentation only adds to the value, as the simplicity of guitar, bass, drums exposes Green’s gifts along with his proclivities. A tone as limpid as sheet glass and a crisply articulated fret style that relies at times a bit too readily on repetition and filigree note placement. Ware and drummer Al Harewood are slightly ill-served by the Van Gelder mix (and later mishandlings of the tape masters), but the former still manages to craft a clutch of solos that uphold his reputation as one of the most harmonically astute bassists of the era. Like a stick of flavorful wintergreen gum, this music has the power to both freshen and exercise the senses.

Posted by derek at 8:01 AM | Comments (0)

June 30, 2003

Hoosier Hot Shots - Rural Rhythm (Columbia Country Classics)


What can I say; summer is the season for novelty tunes. Probably the weirdest outfit ever to take The National Barn Dance stage (a precursor to the Grand Ole Opry), the Hoosier Hot Shots’ mission was simple: brighten the hearts of their down trodden Depression era audience and make some bucks on the side. Paul “Hezzie” Trietch hits spooky near-overtones on slide whistle, twining with Otto Ward’s rootsy clarinet & saxophone trills. Brother Ken Trietch contributes chugging guitar and banjo and Frank Kettering supplies the anchor on slap-happy string bass. But the most bizarre ‘instrument’ in the band was Hezzie’s home-made Goldbergian contraption of washboard, bicycle horns, woodblocks, cymbals & various & sundry sound accoutrements. The song topics are just as winsomely wacky with “From the Indies to Andes in His Undies” and “Connies Got Connections in Connecticut” providing particularly corny fodder for these musically clucking chickens.

Posted by derek at 1:53 PM | Comments (0)

June 24, 2003

Cedell Davis - Feel Like Doin' Something Wrong (Fat Possum)


Butter knife balanced in polio-ravaged fingers, Davis scrapes his frets with jagged fits and starts, carving out janglely ramshackle riffs in gaping, irregular intervals. The ‘alternate’ tunings of his strings initially sound faulty, but once the addled logic settles in everything seems to fit in its own off kilter way. Producer Robert Palmer astutely makes comparisons to Ornette Coleman and even more accurately John Lee Hooker in attempting to explicate Davis’ idiosyncratic style. Just like The Hook, Davis often insists on a stubborn autonomy from his band. On several of the tunes his eccentricities force drummer Walter Perkins (yes, that Perkins) to pound out simple driving beats that compound an aura of tension and menace. It’s also the sort of ‘who gives a fuck’ attitude that can infuriate and endear in equal measure. Further shoving fence-sitters off their perches, unrepentant misogyny infests many of the lyrics, which Davis belts out with the kind of rheumatic croak that comes from tar-caked lungs. In sum, the album’s title says it all & acts as a perfect precursor to its follow-up- the equally fatalistic The Horror of It All.

Posted by derek at 12:23 PM | Comments (0)

June 16, 2003

Curtis Mayfield - CURTIS (Curtom)


Archetypal orchestral Soul from the Man in the Big Yellow Suit (minus the hat). Prescient hard funk tracks like “If There’s a Hell Below…” coexist alongside more optimistic fare like the sprawling “Move On Up”- a song that spoke to black cultural independence more than the glass-ceilinged Jeffersons ever could. “The Makings of You” distills agape down to its purest constituents, while “Miss Black America” charms with its almost naïve sense of empowerment, replete with the stated hopes of Mayfield's young daughter earning the titular crown. Along with the customary fuzz bass, wah-wah guitar and in-the-pocket percussion are some of the tightest, most imaginative arrangements of the Seventies, incorporating strings, harp and a formidable horn section on a grand scale. It’s easy to see why this platter retained the #1 slot on the R&B Album chart for 43 weeks. Rhino’s reissue augments an already pristine package by nearly doubling the playing time with demos & backing tracks from the sessions. What are you waiting for? Make like Curious George and check this shit out.

Posted by derek at 10:10 AM | Comments (11)

June 2, 2003

Gene Ammons & Sonny Stitt – Boss Tenors (Verve)


Not to be confused with Ammons’ own Boss Tenor (a classic in its own right), the “s” signifies a crucial plurality that also marks the presence of Stitt. As arguably the most beloved tenor tandem in the history of bop-based jazz, these two swagger across five long-blowing tracks including a nearly nine-minute sally through their signature “Blues Up and Down.” Along the way, the largely anonymous Windy City rhythm section of John Houston, Buster Williams and George Brown keeps pace & leaves space for Jug & Sonny to do what they do best. There were other meetings, but this one bottles all the excitement in one economical canister.

Posted by derek at 5:59 AM | Comments (1)

May 7, 2003

Various - The Modern Downhome Blues Sessions: Arkansas & Mississippi: 1951-1952, Vol. 1 (Ace)


Blues lore is ripe with tales of expeditionary road trips: the Lomaxes criss-crossed a fertile grid in the Forties and the German pair of Lippman & Rau traced a similar route in the Seventies. On this first in a projected trilogy of reissues Ike Turner plays Virgil to Joe Bihari’s Dante, guiding the Modern Records label honcho through a tour of the dusty by-ways of the Deep South. Deviating from the itineraries of the others, this team eschewed the back porches and cotton fields and focused instead on the dancehalls and the juke joints that littered the landscape. The results showcase performers that fuse the region’s coarse acoustic traditions with the new-fangled demon of amplification. Antique Delta riffs are transmogrified into spitting electric snakes as even-then obscure purveyors like Junior Brooks and Houston Boines plug in and pitch a wang dang doodle all night long. Also included are stinging tracks from more well-known names like Elmore James and Drifting Slim that slice with the same serrated edge. 24 cuts in all, each lifted from vintage tape reels & 78s and exhaustively annotated. If there’s a downside to the collection it’s found in the thematic repetition that creeps through as the program progresses, but swilled in moderation this is some mighty strong stuff. Perfect for the car, cranked up on a cruise down a limitless stretch of asphalt.

Posted by derek at 9:02 AM | Comments (0)

April 14, 2003

Fred Anderson - Chicago Chamber Music

Fred’s finally got a folio worthy of his talents, but this is one that’s largely eluded critical plaudits. Surprises me because I think it’s one of his best. Two generously-packed discs recorded in the warm acoustics of Bradley Parker-Sparrow’s Chicago studio. First one’s a trio with right hand man Tatsu Aoki on bass and Windy City regular Afifi Phillard on trap set. Fred deals liberally in his singular blues curlicues and the cuts are mostly long, just like a typical Velvet Lounge set. “Indiana” a reference the South Side Street that the Lounge calls home, is a highlight. Disc Two dispenses with drummer and shifts focus to the empathic improvisational interplay between Aoki and Fred. Sparrow’s piano sits in on two tracks, but he’s largely a distraction. “Sand” is the stand-out here, a contemplative tone poem that cunningly contradicts the strictures of its six minute duration. These days there’s plenty of Fred to choose from, but this Southport set has both muscle and moxie that separates it from the pack.

Posted by derek at 8:12 AM | Comments (0)

April 11, 2003

Einojuhani Rautavaara - Thomas

I've been digging this 1985 opera about a 13th Century Finnish Bishop. The notes to this Ondine recording indicate that the background of the work is the clash of the prevailing pagan shamanist culture and the new X-tian stuff being brought in by conquerers from the West. This is reflected in Rautavaara's score, "where differing tonal systems, diatonic, synthetic-modal, dodecaphonic and free atonality all appear in parallel, overlapped and organically linked to one another." Very expertly, I'd add.

One somewhat more familiar work it reminds me of a bit is Stravinsky's "Threni". It's a wonderful and important work, I think.

Posted by walterhorn at 8:43 PM | Comments (4)

April 8, 2003

David Holland / Derek Bailey - Improvisations for Cello and Guitar (ECM)

The back cover reads from E.E. Cummings poem, "One's not half two. Its two are halves of one... All lose, whole find." Cummings' words, as do the improvisations here, speak to the numerous effects of controlled collaboration that transcend far beyond what just one experienced musician might rear. In a rare recorded meeting, Bailey and Holland performed together before a small audience in London's Little Theatre Club in early 1971. Of those hours, only 40 or so minutes made it to the original issue. True to form, Bailey and Holland show wonderful command of their instruments and communicate in such a way that divergence comes off natural, even in the most antipodal of their instruments' tonal stances. Holland's training in orchestral music is largely evident as he latches on to Bailey's unparalleled approach to guitar. The results, as one might guess, are far detached from certain improvisational advances of the time, even as Bailey's Music Improvisation Company was well under way. Today, the music is fresh, and somehow archival. It can be argued that modern improvisation in the hands of current Western musicians undoubtedly flowered from roots such as those heard here.

Posted by al at 7:54 PM | Comments (0)

April 3, 2003

Ornette Coleman - Chappaqua Suite

Coleman introduced larger instrumentation to his extended forms with the Town Hall concerts. Here, in an effort to score for Conrad Brooks' feature film (the results were never used), Coleman directs his trio, Pharoah Sanders, and a full orchestra for a long set of music that, while not flawless, succeeds in its own adventurousness and far-reaching vision. If there are any drawbacks, it is that Izenzon's bass is way under the mix; an earsore that should never have happened, especially when the trio are wailing at the fore. Coleman is at his most inspired and appears to have a ball in this environment, one that he would later perfect with Skies of America.

Posted by al at 12:40 PM | Comments (4)