Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Modern Classical Guitar from Andrew McKenna Lee

There may not be quite as many active classical guitar composer-performers getting exposure to the listening public today as one might wish. Andrew McKenna Lee and his release Gravity and Air (New Amsterdam) marks the presence and convincing performance of one of the very best.

He makes it clear from the start that he is preceding out of a long, evolved tradition of sound and technique by opening with Bach's rather iconic "Prelude for Lute in D Minor." He follows this with his own compositions, three to be exact. The first, "Five Refractions of A Prelude By Bach" uses thematic material from the Bach Prelude and freely extends and adapts, then goes beyond, refracting and resituating motives into contemporary vessels of expression, commenting in the light of where music has gone, utilizing the full range of modern classical guitar technique with skill, taste and intelligence. It is an impressive performance of a captivating composition.

Then follows Lee's lovely chamber work "The Dark Out of the Nighttime," a movingly luminous modernity that features Lee's vivid guitar work plus a tightly conceived sonority that involves perceptively precient part writing for guitar, flute, viola and harp. There is a natural luminescence to the sound quality, an impressionistic play of extracted light in darkness. . . wondrously evocative yet idiomatically musical poetry. Fifteen minutes of joy, mystery and contemplation are what you get.

We return to Lee's solo guitar pieces with the final "Scordatura Suite." As implied by the title Lee seems to adopt non-standard tuning. The three movements provide a convincing sort of portrait of the artist as a near-perfect vehicle of inventive brilliance and technical mastery.

Gravity and Air vies with the very best of performance-composition outings by a modern classical guitarist. Lee belongs in the ranks of the most skilled and most creative of those practicing today. The music soars.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Guitarist Gary Lucas: His 2001 Chinese Pop Album Re-Released

There are some artists out there who not only transcend category, they transcend themselves on a regular basis. Guitarist Gary Lucas is a great example. From his early days with Captain Beefheart through to today, one never knows what Mr. Lucas will do next, what musical traditions he will tap into and rework to his own needs and aesthetic. As with the best of those we should consider our consummate artists, the entire WORLD of music is the raw material with which he works.

The Edge of Heaven (Knitting Factory) shows this worthy trait in microcosm. Gary took a group of 1930s Chinese pop songs and rearranged them in a number of ways.

The album has just been reissued. It came out on an obscure label in 2001 and it is very good to have it with us again.

Gary shows both his guitar and arranging prowess in good light through the set (which includes some extra cuts not originally on the initial release). He gets into a little of his cascades of sound approach on the electric, plays a regular acoustic or resonator in finger picking or chordal styles, wields a slide guitar with raw bluesyness or in a more straightforwardly melodic way, sometimes sounds more like a Chinese Pipa in solo and duet with a Chinese instrumentalist, and plays as part of an ensemble that performs with a traditional Chinese vocalist. Western harmonies and sensibilities join with Chinese musical form in ways that keep the ears delighted.

Gary's guitar playing is out front through the entire proceedings and it is amazing and unique. He has developed a sound. . . a number of sounds that are unmistakably his at the same time as they up the bar on the expressive potentials of the instrument.

Gary Lucus turns in some moving performances and arrangements here. The music deftly combines impressive Lucas guitar stylings with some wonderful songs. It is like nothing you've heard before, I imagine. You do not want to miss it. It's available at Amazon (download or disk) as well as, I am sure, i tunes and other outlets.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Pavement Resurfaces with New "Best of" Compilation

The US alt-indie rock group Pavement reigned in the underground of the '90s. They maintained a loyal following for their magnetically loose slacker-grunge lead vocals and garage guitar band ethos. They broke up in 1999 in a state of exhaustion and have been silent for ten years, much to the disappointment of their fans.

They plan to regroup and begin playing live again this coming September. To commemorate that and celebrate the more-or-less ten year anniversary of their demise, Matador released this month Quarantine the Past, a generous 23 track compilation of their best. That includes the singles, select album tracks, and a few of the early songs, altogether covering the 1989-1999 period.

I've been listening to the comp and it most certainly puts them in a good light. It's unpretentious guitar band music, making the most out of the elemental chord progressions, lyrics that show a bit of despair and disgust, alt drum throbbing. There's good-bad and bad-bad in this genre. Pavement is good-bad. The primitive charm of their delivery does not sound dated.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Big Bill Broonzy and Country Blues

Originally posted on January 9, 2009

Big Bill Broonzy was one of the last of the folk-county bluesmen, one of the original players to follow in the wake of Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and the others. He recorded through the thirties and forties, gradually going to a more electric style until the early fifties, when he reverted to the acoustic roots of his music, becoming a part of the folk revival movement. He enjoyed genuine success in his remaining years before leaving this world in 1958. Sometime in that later period he recorded an album for Folkways Records, Broonzy Sings Country Blues. I believe I was in 7th grade when I stumbled upon a copy of the disk, rather badly warped, for something like ten cents at a local junk shop. I had learned by that point that guys who had nicknames like “Little,” “Blind,” “Big,” “Fats,” etc., were bound to be cool, so based on such a slim bit of guidance I picked the record up. Only half of the disk would play, the other skipping relentlessly in response to the warp, but what was playable got my attention!

Years went by, I had sold off my original record collection to help pay for school, Folkways' director Moses Asch had passed away, and the record went out of my memory. The Smithsonian acquired the Folkways catalog a number of years ago and began reissuing everything—as a regular CD issue, a CD-Rom dub, or a download. I remembered that old Broonzy record and sure enough, it was again available. So here I hear it all once more after so many years, this time without the skips, and hey, it still makes for great listening. Bill plays some very nice picking guitar, is in strong voice and covers a repertory of gems. He was in full flower, despite the years of scuffling that were behind him. So it’s something to check out if you have the interest. Set your search engine to “Folkways,” get to the Smithsonian site and you’ll find that and a zillion other recordings of folk, world, and generally wonderful things.

[Update: Since I originally wrote this review, the album mentioned seems to have gone out of print. However, the Folkways anthology Trouble in Mind appears to cover virtually that entire album and some other cuts as well.]

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Vocalist Peggy Duquesnel has Taste and Artistry

Jazz vocalists can make me grumpy. I get sent a fair number of new releases by such artists, and I must say it is the one category where the misses outweigh the hits by a good margin. Sometimes I can tell within about 30 seconds whether or not this person has any business getting behind a microphone; sometimes it takes a longer time. If they make it through the first listen, I usually keep on going.

Ms. Peggy Duquesnel made it through the first listen and four more. That is, her Summertime Lullaby album did, which will be out April 5th on Joyspring Music.

Why is Peggy D. worth your earful? She has a pretty, well developed set of vocal pipes, for one thing. Pitch control and phrasing are right where they should be. She writes some nice tunes, like the title cut. And her choice of standards suite her own vocal style. There are quite good versions of "The Days of Wine and Roses," and "Stay as Sweet as You Are," for example. Another thing: she plays a very decent piano, sometimes striding along, sometimes in a neo-swing style. She performs a few numbers for piano alone and they offer very pleasant going. And then there's Peggy's small band and her arrangements. They are fully integrated into the presentation and it all hits home. Guitarists Grant Geissman and Mike Higgins add some very good work, in solos, comping and in ensemble.

Peggy Duquesnel comes up with a winner in Summertime Lullaby. It has all the makings of a full throttle kicker for you, the listener. There's enough for the sophisticated listener to maintain interest, and yet it should be well received by the general pool of folks who want something enjoyable to hear in the course of their leisure and relaxation.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Fine Art of Hawaiian Slack-Key Guitar

Originally posted on January 8, 2009

Hawaiian slack-key guitar is simple in conception. Pick up a steel-stringed acoustic guitar with standard tuning, tune down (slacken) various strings until you get a chord, then the fun starts. It’s a Hawaiian style that came out of the steel guitar efforts that were so influential to country music in the early to mid-20th century. You can put Hawaiian music into a number of phases: 1. The original chants (vocals and percussion, mostly) that were a part of pre-contact times and reflect an ancient Polynesian component found on many islands in the area. 2. The guitar music that came about as indigenous elements fused with the music of Spanish-speaking Gaucho cowboys who rustled cattle in Hawaii from the mid-to-late 19th century onwards. This also includes the ukulele music that spread as a craze in the United States in the early 1900s. 3. Choral music that developed when missionaries tried to teach sacred songs but it all ended up with a Hawaiian twist, a similar development to what happened on other Polynesian islands; 4. Steel pedal guitar styles that have been a trademark of much of the music associated with Hawaii, became huge in the US in the ‘50s and were reinforced on the islands through things like the long-running radio show “Hawaii Calls” as well as ever increasing influxes of tourists with their demands to hear such music. 5. The slack key tradition which is an outgrowth of #s 2 and 4 especially.

So we have a CD called Hawaiian Slack Key Masters Collection, Volume 2 (Dancing Cat). It’s a generous sampling of the music—16 tracks of the slack key in various combinations: guitar alone, with or without vocals, and/or in tandem with the ukulele, a second guitar, and/or an acoustic steel guitar. Now I am not sure why this should be so, but some of this reminds me alternatingly of Leo Kottke or Ry Cooder. And some of it just sounds Hawaiian to me. There is nothing by Gabby Pahinui, one of the more famous adepts in the music. But what IS here has a laid-back feel and will satisfy the casual listener who wants to mellow out as well as the acoustic enthusiast who will find the various picking and playing routines revelatory and instructive as well as quite enjoyable.

Kate Gaffney Steps Forward with "The Coachman"

Originally posted on January 7, 2009

I don’t know a great deal about singer-songwriter Kate Gaffney, save what I know from listening to her last album The Coachman (Dig). She has a nice voice, a little reminiscent of Edie Brickell but only a touch. Most of the songs are quite good, in the style of a slightly country-influenced songwriter rock.

She is joined by a sympatheic supporting cast, notably guitarist Steve Kimock of jamband fame. The final, title cut goes for nearly 20 minutes and has a jam component. It’s good to hear people stretching out like that. I hope for her success. The album gives you a most decent listen.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The VW Brothers: Formidable Bass, Lively Latin Funk-Fusion

The VW (Van Wageningen) Brothers are Paul VW, drums, and Marc VW, electric bass. They've been sidemen in a number of hip ensembles, namely those of Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Pete Escovito, George Duke, Sheila E., Paquito D'Rivera, the Tower of Power and Paul Winters.

They break out on their own in their new Muziek CD (Patois). Afro-Cuban Funk-Fusion with a touch of Brasiliera is what they favor here. The mid-sized unit performing on the disk puts primacy on arrangements. The originals and how they lay out have their charm. There's a sort of Weather-Report-meets-Latin-jazz feel for much of the outing, and it is not unpleasant. Then again, Tower of Power funk rubs shoulders with Latin percussion and vocals at times, but it is no mere pastiche. Plus all the musicians have solid abilities and put them to good use.

However, it is Marc VW's electric bass that most often impresses. He takes on the lead melodic voice in spots and blends with other instruments on others (bass and tenor in unison is a favorite device). His solo work shows formidable technique and good taste. Clearly he is one of "emerging" bassists that extends the Jaco Pastorious legacy forward in time and stylistic development. He is pretty hot. Paul VW plays some invigorating traps too.

If there is a kind of polish on much of these cuts that is typically found in many dates of this sort, that is only to be expected. The slick veneer gives the music commercial potential and (one assumes) radio play. With all of that this is still some of the most appealing new music within this particular genre cluster. Not every cut is a killer, but the best ones get rolling. It moves!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Jack Bruce's Classic "Songs for A Tailor"

Originally posted on January 6, 2009

Jack Bruce has made big contributions to the music world since his career launched in the ‘60s. First of all, as an electric bassist he pioneered a bottom heavy electric sound and technique that influenced a generation of players, especially through his work with Cream. Second, he is a superb vocalist and has lent his distinctive voice to rock and fusion classics. Third, he writes songs that innovate with harmonic-melodic quirks that set him way above the pack. And they have the quality of memorability. What else? As a music stylist he has been at the forefront of progressive trends and has freely extended possibilities in the music by being one of those whose blends of sounds seem effortless and beyond the experimental. He has consistently fashioned WORKING models for others to appreciate and emulate.

His first album after the breakup of Cream in 1969, Songs for a Tailor (Polydor) still sounds fresh. The CD release version I have brings in several alternate takes that are different enough from the originals to not function as mere fillers. The album brims over with strong tunes and all of the things that make Jack the opposite of a dull boy (since he works and plays at the same time. Ugh. OK, so that was pretty strained but it’s early in the day so I hope you’ll excuse me.) This is a landmark recording and belongs in the collection of those inclined to want to have and hear such things.

Pendulum Does A Kind of Dance Rock

Originally posted on January 5, 2009

Who is Pendulum? I don’t know them, but I did receive their recent CD In Silico (Atlantic). It’s dance rock, which means the beat is prominent yet there is a rock insistence throughout. Synthesizers are very present, skillfully programmed and executed, and many of the vocal tracks have been altered by a vocoder device, giving them that robotic quality.

All that said, this isn’t the sort of disk I would normally spin for my own edification. Yet once I played it a couple of times, I found it definitely of interest. It has some memorable moments and gives you a blast of hooks and riffs that keeps the fires burning in your ears, so to speak.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A New One From Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

Good songs, a solid guitar combo with a little thrash, lyrics that are intelligent apocalyptic chic, that's what Ted Leo and The Pharmacists give you with their new Brutalist Bricks (Matador) release (which came out last week). They've been touring to hone down the tunes and arrangements, and the results are well constructed.

Now would I personally make this music? No. That's just a question I ask whenever listening to something new, so I can get past any ingrained assumptions that effect my reception of the music. So what, if I would not personally make this music, if I could. So then is this music nevertheless worth hearing? Well, absolutely. It's a matter of tunes that have variety, immediacy and push. Brutalist Bricks comes through with all of that. They can play, the lead guitarist has some moments and the music drives in the best of the current indie rock ways of doing that. So then guess what? I recommend you listen to this one, if you want to know what's happening right now. The Pharmacists are happening. No prescription necessary.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Scott Fields and Chamber Jazz Interplay, 2010 Style

Some music is just not trying to be in your face. It’s music that has a somewhat refined sensibility, and it is quite serious about what it sets about doing. That would be nylon guitarist Scott Fields’ new record in a nutshell. Fugu (Clean Feed), brings Fields together with a chamber improvisation ensemble of Geoff Brady, percussion, John Padden, acoustic bass, Robert Stright, vibes, and Matt Turner on cello. This somewhat unusual instrumentation and the music it plays reminds slightly of the old Chico Hamilton ensembles that had the cello-bass-guitar-drums-winds configuration, but only because this is music of a cooler temperature, dialogic construction and similar instrumentation. It is chamber improvisation of a tonal sort and it does not feature individual pyrotechnical displays. Beyond all that though this is music of today.

There are compositional elements but the group improvisation concept is at the forefront. It’s not a head-solo-head sort of structure. Melodic and harmonic motives come in and out in the collective mix. And always there is a feeling of spontaneity and an almost classical dialogue. There are freely phrased passages and also regularly pulsating time segments. All the musicians are interesting and contribute to the total effect, which has the feeling of some friends getting together for what turns out to be a most stimulating conversation.

This is music that needs attentive listening. It is unusual and quite intricate. Oh, and Scott Fields plays some very interesting lines. A good listen. . .

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Yo La Tengo's Odd and Ends Better Than Some Bands' Primary Releases

Yo La Tengo has been around longer than cell phones (in the mass-consumption sense). Somehow that reassures me. Their 2-CD compilation Prisoners of Love has much good music that they’ve made during their initial tenure at the top of the "unpopular" (as in not pop) underground indie-alt rock pile. We’ll take a look at that set in a few days but first, I want to talk about the optional third disk available in the set (or separately as a download): A Smattering of Outtakes and Rarities 1986-2002 (Matador). This is a judicious grouping of 16 tracks—unreleased, rare, alternate versions, remixes, original versions. There’s even a very grungy version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.”

Listening to this album, I never get the feeling that these are leftovers in any negative sense. If nobody told me it was a rarities comp, I would have thought it just an excellent album, which it is.

It shows you all facets of the group, the garage sophistication, the psyche-jams, the space age retro, the melodic songs with simple but really attractive guitar-bass-drum elements, the songs where what’s-her-name the drummer sings, the mesmerizing sound tapestries.

This to my mind establishes how good the band really is. If your leftovers are very hip and excellent, then there is depth, there is breadth, there is warp, there is woof (woof-woof). I am pleased. Do you care? The point is that I think you’ll be pleased too. To hell with the “hit parade,” Yo La Tengo is currently in the top ten of MY indie charts. And that to me is what matters. Your charts might find this up there, too.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Elysian Fields and Their Thoughtful New Album "The Afterlife"

Elysian Fields is a group for a post-post-post world, for everything that comes after everything that went before. Very young people (like still in high school) don’t quite understand that world. It’s the nature of youth not to feel the weight of the recent past. And that’s good for them. For the rest of us, there is this music for us to savor.

The latest album by Elysian Fields, The Afterlife, has all the charm of their previous efforts, only there is a quieter, more reflective stock-taking in the lyrics and the music has that suspended on the edge of another epoch feel to it.

The group is Jennifer Charles on inimitable vocals and Oren Bloedow on guitars, with a solid cast of others. This is not heavy music in terms of edgy weight, thought it does have some push when needed. It is indie art song, if you pardon the phrase. It’s the darker side of life and love (and death), without dwelling on the obvious of what that means. The lyrics are thoughtful and poetic and the delivery by Ms. Charles puts the whole thing in the class of world-class dream. I dream you dream we all dream for. . . what? Elysian Fields tries to grasp that elusive feeling that is complex and ineffable, the post-post life out there to live, after what has gone from us remains only in memory.

Musically the songs are quite strong and have originally written all over (and under) them. The arrangements are very well-honed. Jennifer is in a vocal world that she owns; nobody quite has her quality. Super laid-back, impeccable phrasing and a dead-on pitch center that she has the ears and skill to play around with. This music triumphs! The album is out in a good vinyl edition and I’m sure also as a download. Their site has details.

Post-Klezmer Rock from Zakarya

Originally posted on December 31, 2008

A somewhat unusual addition of the accordion to the electric guitar, bass and drums configuration is the first thing that hits you about the group Zakarya, who celebrate their fourth release, The True Story Concerning Martin Behaim (Tzadik), with a powerfully electric set that fully fleshes out their take on the Semitic tinge and a progressive rock/fusion sensibility.

This is carefully arranged, deftly executed music with a hint of a Kurt Weil sarcasm and nice contributions from all four members. They get a little OUT from time to time but otherwise plummet the depths of a four-square post-klezmer jazz-rock. Enough of the labels one could attach, though. This transcends categories and gives you a highly substantial musical experience. The geography of their French existence means less than what Tzadik is documenting, a stylistic almalgam that forges a new identity, redefining what musical ethnicity/practice can be in the 21st century. The lesson: we can all forge ourselves anew from the pieces of the Ur culture available to us. Something to think about when you pick up a pick, a stick, a schtick, or a CD.

The New Year approaches. It is with hope that I wait for the ball to drop tonight. Ring it in. . .

Have No Fear, Anthrophobia's Metal is Here

Originally posted on December 30, 2008

If you like your rock dense and rather angry, perhaps you would like Anthrophobia’s Framework (Mausoleum), an EP I found as a cutout some time ago. It falls into the category of (you name the adjective) metal. Not death, not heavy, not doom, not grindcore, I dunno. It’s a guitar bass-drums-vocal setup and has some nice riffs and a bit of a flair.

Yoshie Fruchter and His Jewish Avant Fusion Guitar

Originally posted on December 29, 2008

Our survey of recent Tzadik recordings continues off and on for the next several weeks. Today we look at guitarist Yoshie Fruchter and his Pitom. It’s an electric rock instrumental lineup with guitar and violin as the principal voices. The Jewish tinge permeates the proceedings with minor mode melody lines and the frameworks vary between fusion, surf, avant and progressive for a mix of sounds that have a distinct Downtown flavor.

Yoshi’s influences include Zappa, Sonic Youth and Zorn’s Masada lineups. These stylistic components come together and Yoshi melds them to his own ends for a vibrant and varied set of performances you could hang your hat on, were you so inclined. This is some more “anything goes” music from Tzadik and I find it sounding depths and doing new things with older roots in ways that encourage me to believe that there’s still plenty of life left in the rock-fusion style. Good show.

Zac Brown Band Plays Solid Country Rock

Originally posted on December 23/27, 2008

This is a time of year when denial is not exactly the norm. Think of the Ghost of Christmas Present in Dickens. Whatever vices one has are probably being indulged. A few weeks from now it will be just the opposite, and that’s when fitness centers and diet people make their money. In fact they have already started, from what commercials I saw on TV Friday night. Fear of the economy makes businesses start their harangue ever earlier, until we will be buying our Christmas stuff in July, autumn cloths in April, our coffins at birth and such...

Funny but the first week after the New Year used to be the number one time for direct mail advertising deliveries. (Maybe it still is, even if there's less volume.) People feel sorry for themselves and disappointed with their holiday gifts, so the reasoning goes, and want something for their own gratification. Combine that with the New Year’s resolutions of denial and you have a hodgepodge of conflicting emotions. But of course nowadays vices are uncool, déclassé, and with the economy on the fritz, some people may be getting even less material and emotional satisfaction from their holiday goody fests. That this is not really supposed to be the spirit of the season is a truism. A truism that nevertheless bears repeating. One would hope that the joy of giving would be an even higher priority when things are tough. It’s a nice idea anyway. I do believe it myself, though I don't see much of it around me. And still, denial and disappointment may creep into people’s consciousnesses shortly, my own included. After the new year some of us will feel inadequate and need to get more stuff to feel better, if we can afford it. We are human, and most of us can't live up to the demands of the season, that we become perfect people for a few weeks. Perfectly happy, perfectly generous. Perfect. With perfect lives. Those that are perfect, I am happy for you. The rest of us bumble through.

Anyway into this world wanders today’s CD The Foundation (Home Grown) by the Zac Brown Band, a country-rock outfit where the songs talk about beer, blue jeans, mom, chicken fried steak, with the nation’s military making such “freedoms” possible. A band like this needs a hit single above all, and "Chicken Fried" seems the logical item. Who knows, it may already be one. In my Yankee household no one ever heard of chicken fried steak, let alone ate it. That came later for me. The beer, mom, the blue jeans and the military-industrial complex that allowed for it all we knew directly and intensely, though we may not have understood how it all worked together. But I guess my lifestyle does not have alot to do with the lyrics on this disk, so I cannot tell you if they will strike a nerve with enough people to make a hit. My concern is with guitars right now, and today’s band relates to that (duh).

Zac Brown plays a mean acoustic and same with the electric. He is a Chet Atkins for today, though the vocals and the songs themselves are more central to the general presentation. Now this is very good music. Anyone who prefers their Country shaded by some Rock sensibilities will probably like it. And there is some hell raising guitar going on here.

The Music of Paola Prestini: Tone Color and Originality

Originally posted on December 22, 2008

[When I originally wrote this it was:] The second day of winter, the main day of Chanukah, three days before Christmas and as cold in New Jersey as anybody could wish. This morning’s music forms a reflective soundtrack to all of that in Paola Prestini’s Body Maps (Tzadik). I must admit the graphics on the CD are all but unreadable, a typical situation in the world of post-Wired mutations of design, so I will not complain.

Such thoughts aside the music at hand is in the contemporary concert music realm. It is a series of somewhat ruminative modern chamber pieces that avoid minimalism while remaining more or less tonal. Tone color is the order of the day and Ms. Prestini shows originality and a dramatic flair for keeping listener attention. This is pretty subtle music and all the more exceptional for it. I find myself coming to appreciate these works more and more. She is worthy of notice and I would now love to hear some of her larger ensemble, longer form works. Prestini gives us modern music of a distinctly listener friendly sort and what’s wrong with that? Signing off and glad that the heat is working. . .

Monday, March 15, 2010

Aiko Shimada Cannot Be Pegged But She Can Be Much Appreciated

Originally posted on December 19, 2008

Singer and songwriter Aiko Shimada does not produce music that is in any way what one might expect, whatever that could be. Her Blue Marble (Tzadik) release goes from piece to piece in a way that fascinates and enthralls. She can sing a rather tender song that is arranged for voice and small string group, she can traverse landscapes of breath, breadth and significance with a recurring guitar pattern and ambient drones interspersed with nicely wrought instrumental interjections while her multi-tracked voice waxes ethereal.

She also lets guitarist Bill Frisell construct tapestries of stringed moodiness that set her voice off dramatically. It’s another really nice one from Tzadik. They impress me with the widely ranging sorts of music they release and the taste with which they select the artists and pieces involved. Someone who likes Bjork may find Aiko a subtle counterpart to such vocalisms, only rather more gentle, perhaps. The music sticks with you after a few hearings. You might want to give a listen yourself.

Anthony Braxton Back to Basics, with Trio

Originally posted on December 18, 2008

Since the later mid-sixties when Chicago AACM artists like Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Richard Abrams burst upon the scene, the lineups and playing practices for the free-er sorts of jazz began to change radically. The number of unaccompanied solo albums by any sort of instrumentalist multiplied; the use of multi-instrumental lineups burgeoned, so that a sax player, say, might also be playing any number of percussion instruments; larger ensembles and even traditional quartets or quintets began to play not just head arrangements or free improvisations, but compositions where what was “written” or pre-planned could fall in and out at any point in a performance. Also, references to music outside the spectrum of acceptable jazz styles were more frequent and lengthy, with results that could be magical, or they could be a sort of failed experiment that formed part of the process. Either way, a healthy "anything goes" attitude was in the air.

Anthony Braxton was at the forefront of all these trends. He put out a double record of unaccompanied alto performances around 1967 that I can remember a traditional player waxing absolutely livid about in a Downbeat Blindfold test. Braxton was accused of not having any technique (although he most certainly did in his own way), dubbed “anti-jazz,” and dismissed as not even worthy of consideration. That traditional fellow was completely wrong, as time has shown.

Braxton was also a pioneer as a creator of unusual musical structures in his small groups; and he was known for his multi-instrumental barrages. And further he was central for large group compositions that innovated on a number of levels.

Mr. Braxton has remained a vital participant on the scene and seems to be in a particularly fertile period today. A recent release on Tzadik (Beyond Quantum) finds him in the company of an all-star free trio in a series of lucidly expressive improvisations. He is joined by two masters of the art: the incandescent bassist William Parker and the ever interesting drummer Milford Graves. Milford, you may recall, was a member of the 1964 Paul Bley group recording reviewed earlier this month. (How do you like that for longevity on a scene that is more than a little volatile?)

This is music that gives the lie to the idea that free improvisation is aimless, indulgent, or otherwise somehow anti-music. Each player operates within well-defined performance parameters, each contributes strongly with expressive music making that combines to create a vibrant and exciting group personality. Braxton in particular is in his finest form, phrasing and finessing his sound on each instrument in ways only achievable by someone playing and exploring as long as he has. It seems like he has risen to a new plane of creativity lately and this recording certainly shows it. I look forward to what he will be doing next.

Paul Lawler's Indian-Based New Age Music, Part Two

Originally posted on December 17, 2008

Today we’re back with the second and final installment of the cosmic massage music I was inexplicably sent. This one again has music by Paul Lawler and it is directed toward True Champissage: Indian Head Massage (GeminiSun). Now how many were they expecting to sell? No offense, but the number of people practicing Indian head massage out there could not be too high. And it’s not a cheap production especially. This time the emphasis is on traditional Indian percussion and melody instruments with a cosmic new age synthesizer backdrop. It’s not half bad for what it is. If I were getting my head massaged Indian style, I might ask them to put this on. But I am not so where does that leave me?

This one is headed for the cutout bin at the speed of light. Even though it took some doing to get the Indian instruments arranged to fit with the synthesizer sounds and Lawler manages to make some pretty darned good cosmic elevator music for an elevator to someplace “heavy.” Still, it’s an elevator, and the music is not really meant to be a foreground element. Tomorrow we’ll return to something more in line with what we ordinarily consider.

Friday, March 12, 2010

DJ Bonebreak and "The Other Outside"

Originally posted on December 16, 2008

The group X always had a particular originality that made for interesting listening. Their drummer, DJ Bonebreak, turns out to be more than a solid anchor for such a group. He has been busy woodshedding on the mallet instruments to the point where he is a capable player with his own conception of what to play and when to play it.

The West Coast label Wondercap has just released a CD of Bonebreak and a tight little trio called The Other Outside. It has a jazz outlook, but finds itself developing grooves that have a vaguely rock aura in their regular pulse and cyclical repetition of motifs. But Bonebreak’s vibes (and occasional marimba) have a moodiness and personal quality that distinguish this CD from something more ordinary. There aren’t that many passages of improvisation in the conventional jazz sense, but the ultimate effect is one of a serious artist giving us a stripped down, naked presentation of the music in him.

It has a good range of pieces and it maintained this listener’s attention throughout. And he reminds me a little of the late Walter Dickerson. A good CD for those who like the vibes thing, or to get more exposure to that instrument and what it can do.

Paul Lawler's Indian Influenced Music

Originally posted on December 15, 2008

The things that I get sent sometimes! Today is an example. It’s a CD with music by Paul Lawler, designed to accompany an Eastern massage technique or related therapy. True Chakras (GeminiSun) has that cosmic drone and resembles new age sorts of music. It has a weight to it that brings it a notch above the usual vapid sounds of that genre.

It actually has moments that are quite pleasing. I am not sure what one is supposed to do for the “Third Eye Chakra” piece, but then I don’t know a thing about what Chakra therapy could be about. If this were to have been released in 1968, I am sure it would have met with enthusiastic response. As something out now, it is a bit of a puzzler. Here’s a CD destined for the cutout bin. If cheap enough, it would be worth getting for the sheer spacey qualities it has. Peace. . .

Classic Paul Bley Piano and Ensemble Reissued

Originally posted on December 12, 2008

As time passes the stature of pianist Paul Bley increases to ever higher levels. In my capacity as jazz reviewer for Cadence magazine, blog writer and as active listener I have checked out hundreds of CDs by pianists in the last several years. Although Paul’s influence has sometimes been filtered by Keith Jarrett’s adaptation of some of his stylistic traits, Bley is way up there near the top as a pianist with a continuing presence and as a touchstone for the new generation of players. His classic period style combines deep roots in modern jazz with harmonically shifting approaches, a free-floating time sense and sometimes brooding, sometimes explosive constructions of improvisatory lines.

He made two seminal recordings for ESP, one we covered in a previous entry. The just reissued Barrage, his first recording for the label in 1964, has a larger group in play and it’s an all-star cast of free players from the era. Sun Ra mainstay Marshall Allen plays an acid-tongued alto, Dewey Johnson, who was to make an important contribution to Coltrane’s Ascension, provides fiery blasts on the trumpet, and a world-class group of then-young giants Eddie Gomez and Milford Graves man the bass and drum chairs, respectively.

This is a group effort, with all contributing key moments in the maelstrom of improvisation. Paul’s then-wife Carla Bley is responsible for the pieces and they are classic. Although the album may not have had quite the impact of its trio counterpart Closer, it is an astonishingly lively performance that improves with age. This is music in and out of time. And this is music for all times. Timing out until Monday. . .

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mariusz Duda and "Lunatic Soul": Almost Goth, But No Goblins

Originally posted on December 11, 2008

In the contemporary world of neo-progressive or post-progressive rock there is a fertile inventiveness that may be under the radar for much of the mass audience, but bears scrutiny for those whose main concern is worthy music. Take today’s review CD, Lunatic Soul (KScope), a project from lead singer Mariusz Duda, the creative force behind the group Riverside.

It’s telling that all guitars are acoustic, and yet there is an electricity in the power of the group sound. All ten tracks have a haunted, haunting quality and a mood that has a touch of goth in its darkness without resorting to facile hobgoblin imagery. Each cut is its own musical world, and like Porcupine Tree or Pineapple Thief, there are those horizontal planes of sound prosody that envelop and engage the listener. There is musical substance to all this. It has ravishing passages that lack the lightweight quality of something like your typical new age music. It’s what new age would be if new age had any lasting value. New age always has been a kind of bastard child of the progressive scene and also of ECM-style jazz. And perhaps it is all-but-dead in any way that matters.

If so it is because there are new groups of artists such as Duda who have a clear vision of how to create moody sound sculptures devoid of claptrap and contrivance. The best qualities of classic period Moody Blues productions had a certain empty-longing-for-the-something-missing in the everyday life of the time, and the best of this post-progressive sort of music does all that but more subtly, with a better feel for the long form.

In our increasingly private lives filled with solitary TV watching, internet surfing, and ipod enclosures in personal cocoons of sound, we are like the Victorians--with the gulf between public and private ever widening--except there is perhaps an increasing emptiness, and nothing to hide worthy of mention, a generic privacy of exposure. While community dissipates and degenerates, we wait for the inevitable in solitude--death, or foreclosure or just further coffin-like isolation. Now that is not especially cheery, but these post-progressive folks seem to capture the Zeitgeist we all experience in some form today with something akin to true art. Generations in the future may look to music like this as clues to what we were like, what the 21st and 22nd century felt like to live in. Maybe.

Listen to the cut “Adrift” for a lyrically cosmic ambiance that is not beholden to anyone but hearkens backwards and points forwards simultaneously. Lunatic Soul has that. It engages without pandering to mawkish taste or plundering the flotsam of ready-made, formulaic “product.” It’s very good, and a very encouraging sign for those who watch and listen, who wait for something worthwhile from our rock brethren. Or more of it at any rate. Off to make coffee. . .

Avant Pioneering by Alan Sondheim, 1967

Originally posted on December 10, 2008

Those dedicated to the art of free improvisation are probably not destined to become household names. Take Alan Sondheim, who in 1967 made a historically important record for ESP Disk entitled Ritual-All-7-70.

His group consisted of himself plus five other instrumentalists and a singer. The record hardly catapulted him to fame or fortune, yet it stands today as an unrecognized landmark in the evolvement of the music that stemmed off from jazz per-se and to some extent contemporary concert music.

That ESP is reissuing the recording now after many years can only be a good thing. There are thirteen cells of sound & music with unique instrumental combinations and colors. Sondheim plays a battery of instruments, including electric guitar, alto sax, the Indonesian suling, koto etc, and his bandmates complement him well in a series of short musical excursions that vary in tone and mood.

What strikes one now is the multi-instrumental aspect of the mix and the multi-stylistic parameters covered. All of it has a free sound but also a sort of post-modern eclecticism that is distinctly world-oriented or pan-ethnic. Its dubbing as “Ritual-all-7 70” is apt, because there is definitely a ritual performance feel to the program. It’s an unstated ritual with no special tradition behind it.

Sondheim and his crew realized sooner than most. . . perhaps he was one of the first to realize that music could partake of any and all world sounds and instruments, that no one had to stick rigorously to some previously predefined rules of what should go with what. So you get things that sound a little Asian, African, bluesy, free, rockish and/or whatever else that happened to transpire with the instruments at hand. That many ensembles after did similar forays into the infinitely ethnic is in part thanks to Mr. Sondheim. He apparently remains somewhat active and we can be glad of that. Ritual All is an important and successful experiment in improvisation and collage construction. Thanks to the digital transfer from master tapes and the evolution of our listening habits, it sounds better today than ever and once again ESP re-presents an important musical documentation it fearlessly produced back in an age that was scarcely ready to hear it. This music’s time is now. It’s all for now.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tracy Chapman and Some Thoughts On Music Making

Originally posted on December 9, 2008

My brother no longer has any CDs (or cassettes or vinyl). All his music is on a dedicated hard drive. I went to a holiday party Sunday where music came from a laptop hooked up to amp and speakers. I talked to the guy (actually my brother-in-law) and he too said he now had all his music on his hard drive. I can understand there is a convenience and non-clutter factor for these people. Still, given that a hard drive has an average life of three years (according to an IT guy I used to work with), and that they probably have not backed up these files, they will lose their entire music collection when the drive wipes out, and fairly soon at that.

Along with their way of music listening is that of the ipod folks. Either way the music itself becomes decommodified and deobjectified—there are no pictures, no liner notes, no “thingness” to the music, and usually the album as a unit is diminished or non-existent, as sometimes is also the case with the musical artist involved. The music becomes a temporary ephemeral phenomena, one would think not especially important. It recedes to be replaced by the importance of the player—what kind of ipod or phone-pod or laptop, what color is it, etc. And it seems that the money is with the player device too right now. (At least the way advertising fills the airways for musical phones and things like that.)

But there is much else to consider today. That ringtones have become a big aspect of "music" is all too telling, so far as a diminishing presence of music-as-music goes.

Since I was a kid music on one level was that stuff that people asked you to turn down. Some people like music to be at sufficiently low levels so that it can be ignored. It just functions as a kind of wallpaper, like the TV in the background while other, more important things happen. In that situation it has already become an undifferentiated lump of sound with no identity and little real significance. It's sound emptied of its meaning.

That wasn’t always the case. When local teenagers traded in their Champ amps for Marshalls, and music got ever louder, the amount of social space (and social identity/meaning) taken up with the stuff increased dramatically. For example I lived in a valley as a kid. One weekend night there came an overwhelmingly loud wave of rock music from the adjacent hill some three miles away. It seems that someone’s parents had gone away and the kids decided to have a party, get a band to jam in the back yard outside. Of course I found my way there and heard some music before inevitably the police arrived and put a stop to the whole thing. It was an extreme homemade example of projecting a social identity by a mass invasion of aural space. Today for better or worse that projection of identity gets less and less as music becomes more and more private along with the privately watched DVDs and other non-communal things. That is how it is.

Music has always been a projection of who you are as a human being. I listen to x kind of music. That defines me as x kind of person. When transistor radios were huge, the tinny music projecting out of those radios was pretty generic AM, limited by the choices, and usually was confined to the top 40 hits. Like the ipod the projection of that music into social space was limited. Of course the ipod gives you almost unlimited choice for what music you define yourself by. But as the physical animals that we are, we experience a virtualization of the material properties of the music that we associate with our identity.

As humans, we see what we believe and we make our beliefs visible by things we choose to populate our world. In a cave a rock was a rock. If you painted it, it became a projection of who you were. Or even if you didn’t paint it, it had something to do with the space you inhabited, so was a part of your identity. The color of your ipod, its model type and such now becomes the main identity marker. The music less so because it is a private experience. There is no projection into social space. If the trend continues toward nameless temporary conglomerations of sound, the identity of artists, musics and genres will become more and more blurred and ephemeral. Along with this people often download free music and perhaps because it is free have a much more casual attitude toward that music. It’s just this undefined “stuff” you fill your machine with—like Coke syrup for the old soda fountain, only it’s all mixed up with other kinds of soda types, and just becomes an undifferentiated blob. What does that all mean?

One might have become alarmist about transistor radios back in 1960 along similar lines. I just don’t know about that. It seems to me that music makers begin to become more anonymous, their music interchangeable or replaced with whatever is new. And if music people aren’t paid for their efforts, they may well disappear sooner or later, to be replaced by a couple of button pushing businessmen in a marginalized operation that brings in less and less money. That’s a vision I don’t care to participate in. But the future really cannot be predicted. Still it disturbs me and the implications are only just scratched upon in these lines. An issue mixed in there of course is the unauthorized free downloads many people get involved with. It’s cool right now to be down on the music business, and certainly some of the contracts musicians sign are not especially good for them. But if you illegally download something legitimately issued by a music concern--and it’s available and you do this instead of buying it, you are taking food out of the mouth of the artist. Remember that. If they are doing something in the Creative Commons category and they want you to have that music, that’s another thing. It’s a complex world but that part of it all is pretty simple.

On to today’s CD. Tracy Chapman put out her first album in 1988 and hit the public nerve for the way some people saw their lives in the song “Fast Car.” People were stuck in a world that offered them a small escape route to the “good life” and that car symbolized a desperate attempt to get on the road out of the trap they were in. The melody was a distinctive one, the lyrics artistically melded, and her voice was quite engaging. Oh, and her acoustic guitar was a big part of it all, not unskillfully played. She has had her commercial ups and downs over the years. In 2008 she put out her seventh (I think) album with Our Bright Future (Elektra). It may not be selling hugely, as far as I know, but the magic of her art remains in great evidence. There are some religious songs here and there now. If you like that or you don’t like that, it’s a part of what she is and expresses and you must either embrace it or leave it alone. There is a glimmer of hope in her music, just as there always has been. “Spring,” the last song, urges you to live life like every day was the first day of that season. Good if you can. Especially right now. The acoustic is still strapped over her shoulders, and that voice still has great appeal. All that is enough to make me happy I have had the chance to hear what she is doing today. That music is now part of my identity when I play it.

Medeski, Martin & Wood Do Zorn's "Zaebos"

Originally posted on December 8, 2008

John Zorn’s music captures our attention again today on the CD Zaebos (Tzadik), which consists of music from his Masada cycle as performed by the versatile and talented keys-bass-drums trio of Medeski, Martin and Wood. This is music with a freely charged electric jolt. And there’s certainly a rock component to this Semitic tinged set. MMW puts in one of their best performances ever. A tightly melded fusion of the written music and the trio’s interpretation makes for an organic compound of sound and energy that grooves, digs deeply into the roots of the minor mode sound, soars with musical wings of fire, and rests momentarily on a musical thought before returning again to the driving momentum of the music. The injection of interesting melodic sound blocks, cliché-less riffs and harmonic frameworks combine for an exceptional package of invention.

There was an old NYC ad slogan when I was young. It was for a bread company and it went “You Don’t have to be Jewish to Like Levys.” Zorn and MMW’s appealing disk has that same attraction. Imagine an incredibly hip Emerson, Lake and Palmer playing with an assuredness you’ve never heard from them before. It’s beyond that by a wide margin, but it might give you some idea of the power of this music. Both Zorn and MMW have taken some of the tenets of progressive rock and applied them to a jazz and beyond perspective that doesn’t forget the immediacy of powerful driving waves of sound. That’s an achievement and disks like these truly should be recognized more widely for what they are and what they do. Listeners must abandon what they think they should be hearing and they will surely get more than they imagined. The boldest sound adventures can do that. Keeping warm in a COLD New Jersey. . .

Alex Macguire and A Kind of New Canterbury School

Originally posted on December 5, 2008

When keyboard/pianist Alex Macguire puts together a sextet that includes guitarist Michel Delville and other key members of The Wrong Object (see previous blog entries) as well as saxman Robin Verheyen, one expects something worthy. And that’s what you get on Macguire’s new Brewed in Belgium release (MoonJune).

It has moments of jazz freedom and also grooves with pulses and riffed based improvisations that hearken in part to the Canterbury School of jazz-rock. The live situation seems to inspire all to create coherently elegant improvisational prose in an hour of well-paced music. Although Macguire shows himself to be adept at both freely articulated AND forward driving line weaving, it is a group effort with good contributions from all. This is yet another example of today's rich development of the jazz-beyond-rock genre that MoonJune Records captures and extols with good taste and intelligence. We have a winner!

The Other Side of Los Angeles

Originally posted on December 4, 2008

We live in an age where music styles that aren’t directly hooked up to the corporate mass profit machines come and go, revive, fade, then return again. There was a time when if you put on some music of this sort, there were always going to be guitars in the mix, if the music had some relationship, no matter how tendentious, to the “youthful,” the “hip.” Today it is not unusual to put on a CD in this category and never hear a string plucked. That is not entirely the case with today’s CD, but the string plucking is pretty minimized. That should not be a criterion for whether anything is worthy or not, but nevertheless it is simply a fact of part of the scene.

One thinks of the defunct viola da gamba—an earlier stringed instrument with a different string configuration and sound from the later conventional bowed string family. It gradually went out of fashion and disappeared by the end of the baroque era—the early-to-mid 1700’s. Is the guitar destined to share that fate? I don’t think so, but there’s no denying that big pockets of music making today favor the button pushing, keyboard based studio production. Like with hip hop, certainly. Things come in and out of fashion though. There was a time when disco threatened to kill rock, then with a rapidity that is pretty astounding in retrospect, it became really, totally passé. I remember in the later ‘70s seeing some guy at the mall walking past with his boombox blaring one of the Bee Gee's big disco numbers, and people were laughing at him. Flat out laughing. He had become an anachronism, like the music, in a matter of months. Of course dance music never died, but it had to take some time to resurrect itself in the mass public mind. From the ‘80s through to today, there’s an awful lot of pop that really is disco with a new hat on. Well, like it or not things come and go and we don’t have much control over it individually, do we?

Anyway, that’s a prelude to the CD playing on my computer this morning. It’s a CD/DVD called The Other Side--Los Angeles (Deaf Dumb & Blind/Time Out). And it is a representation of what is “hip” today on the LA scene. The DVD is a Peanut Butter Wolf video of the city and what’s cool—shopping for the right sneakers, going to the right dance clubs, eating at the right places. Then there’s talk by Mr. Wolf about his CD Label and some videos of the artists involved. hip-hop chic is definitely what it’s all about. As I checked it out I felt like somebody in the middle of the desert watching a video of people drinking water. (Although I did find out that the sneakers I am wearing right now are cool again.) My lifestyle has become so diminished that I can’t think of nightlife, new sneakers or anything else of that sort. But hey, it was an entertaining survey of LA from a point of view.

One thing funny to me—it all takes place in an ever expanding present. Forget the past, forget history, there just isn’t any on this scene. Yet the dance club shots reminded me how it all seems pretty close to the Disco culture of the mid-70s, only now it’s hip, it’s underground, you have to be in the know to be showing up at these places.

It brings me back to yesterday’s blog. It is hip to be unpopular, at least not too popular. That’s how you build a legend around yourself and your music. I mean, what could be less “cool” right now than Britney or Paris Hilton and her BFFs. Like Tiny Tim, their 15 minutes of fame have been extended but their days may be numbered on the media scene. Our failed Republican VP candidate Ms. Palin is like that too. She’s become much too much a sensation to last out another season or two. And she's popular for all the wrong reasons. (People mostly did NOT vote for her, after all.) She will fade. But that’s politics, so let me drop it.

Back to this music. The program on the Madlib CD that’s a part of today's set is definitely hip—there’s new hip hop stuff, some electric jazz, reggae, even a Sun Ra number with an anti-nuke chant. Almost no guitars here though. Still, I found the music an interesting compilation of things slightly on the edge of the mass media world, and so conveying a particular hipness that I guess the LA underground goes for. What, me worry?

"Unpop" From Yximalloo?

Originally posted on December 3, 2008

“Unpop”, something that Japanese underground music man Yximalloo apparently embraces, is the kind of music that has self-determination as its goal. The Unpop artist, according to Momus, who wrote the liner notes to the Unpop CD (ESP) considered today, is someone who thrives making a music that does not have huge mass appeal as its goal. It is a music that is determined to be unpopular in the conventional sense, yet is fiercely dedicated to an underground reception and eventual recognition in the larger scheme of things.

Now this is a pretty brave stance. Of course, it sort of assumes that this guy could turn around and make a widely successful pop recording. But more likely this CD presents the music Yximalloo hears and expresses come what may. It’s like imagining that Leadbelly could have led a Guy Lombardo type band, if he really wanted to. Probably not. That music just wasn't in him. Though I would have liked to have heard it if he tried!

The music on Unpop is a multilayered solo effort from Yximalloo--on guitar, laptop and a twisted vocal style that is much more a mumble and a voice inside your head than a clear “pop” presentation. So what of this music? At first I thought, “Ah, one of those home-made tapes made by a crank.” And in many ways it is that. You have a half-rendered version of Donovan’s “First There is a Mountain,” some interesting all-electronic pieces, some rather weird effects-laden vocalisms, and some other pieces in a more rhythmic style.

It’s pop, I suppose, in its linearity—it mostly has a one-damned-thing-after-another approach in common with your everyday fare. And there are occasional musical moments that allude to the conventional music world. Otherwise it’s a kind of punk electronics, a brazen button pushing plus human body producing collage of sounds, in a series of vignettes that have their own inner logic.

After a number of listens I assured myself that this guy is certainly an oddfellow, but the music has an eccentric appeal. It’s not for those with expectations of beats, riffs or hooks. And it surely will be unpopular in the sense intended. So he has completely succeeded—only if he finds a select group of listeners who appreciate what he hath wrought. I believe that will be the case. Oh, and if you want more information or want to order this CD, go to the ESP website ( Happy days of light to you.

Latin Hip-Hop From Tego Calderon

Originally posted on December 2, 2008

Every once in a while a CD comes along and I don’t have much to say about it. That’s happening today. We have some Latino hip hop with a touch of salsa. Tego Calderon’s The Underdog (Jiggiri) has the essence of hip-hop with a Latin flavor and, since I don’t know Spanish aside from the few words and phrases remembered from high school, remains a mystery as to meaning.

Acoustic and electric guitars make an appearance here and there, but they do not form a focus. Nevertheless, the program is well done if you like the bag at hand. Tomorrow we travel to Japan for a performer that offers a music that he calls “Unpop.”

The Levitts and Some Other Thoughts

Originally posted on December 1, 2008

I am standing in front of the sunrise (actually sitting—at my desk—looking out my window) for the first day of the last month of the year. This is the holiday season and retailers traditionally lick their chops in anticipation of big sales volumes. Of course with today’s climate, brutal price cutting wars, desperate get-up-at-2AM sales, deaths by trampling, shots fired in the melee of who-gets-what, ads insisting that if you love her you’ll buy that diamond turd, and on and on. . . . It has put a tarnish on anything the season is supposed to stand for. It disgusts me, to tell the truth. Yet I am in retail too and so I have my sale going on. I can’t help feeling though that we as a “civilization” are bigger than all this personal greed and acquisitiveness. Jobs and livelihoods are at stake, in any event, so one takes it seriously regardless of the means by which it all takes place. So my prices are cut to the bone and I hope the result is that more people can bring real music into their lives, not some game that convinces them they make music when they do not. Real music is made the hard way—practice, calluses, clam notes and frustration—that eventually leads to something that in its own way contributes to the music of our age. And yeah, sure, I hope I get a living wage out of this and the ability to continue with music and life. [Editor's note: or not!]

When I was working on a musical number in my home studio a few years ago and ended up with what I thought was a decent mix of it, I thought I might play it for a fellow worker where I toiled at the time. He wasn’t a musician and I wanted to get the reaction of such a person. I burned a CD of it. He listened in the car on his way home. Next day I asked what he thought. “My friend tells me that nowadays to make music, all you have to do is push a button or two,” he said. “Well, that’s not how this was made,” I countered. In fact, there were 60 or so tracks painfully assembled, each containing notes produced the hard way, with two hands, feet and vocal chords. That my music was good, bad or indifferent didn’t really matter. It was the fact that he couldn’t tell the difference between machine-made and hand-made music that was disturbing to me.

Zap back into the past, 1967. There were a few electronic music studios then where yes, some buttons were pushed, but musical results took weeks, months, years, and no one mistook that music for the “organic” variety. [And as we've discussed in this blog, today there are electro-acoustic music makers and studio producer-musicians who are doing far more than pushing buttons.]

So we turn to our CD of the day, We Are the Levitts (ESP) a portrait of a musical family that did things the hard way, like just about everybody else. No buttons took the place of human music making. Family bands were big then. There were groups like The Partridge Family, The Cowsills, The Brady Bunch (who on occasion attempted to make music that is best not heard now), The Monkees (OK, they weren’t related, but they sometimes acted like it), The Airplane (who lived together like a family anyway), and way before them, The Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, the King Family. . . . then there were The Levitts, a real family band, 1967. Eight family members assembled for a recording session and the results, while in parts quite impressive, may not speak to us across time to where we are today. There is some hippie pop a la the Mamas and the Papas (minus much from the Papas in this case), some novelty numbers, some bossa nova, and some modern jazz. The latter certainly cannot be faulted, and there are some ringers to help that out—Chic Corea, Ronnie Cuber, etc.

Nonetheless the end result is an overabundance of stylistic elements and a lack of a cohesive framework to put them in. It’s a fascinating document of an age long gone. It is decidedly not a classic recording.

Charlie Parker and the "Bird in Time" Box Set

Originally posted on November 26, 2008

Alto sax and bebop godfather Charlie Parker has been represented on disk by hundreds of releases since the beginning of his career and especially after the advent of the long playing record. Private recordings, radio airchecks and other rarities have come in and out of print rapidly and, in some cases, repeatedly. There’s a new CD box set out there that consolidates some of the best and the most rare, along with some of his commercial recordings, all covering the important period of 1940-1947, when he and Dizzy Gillespie established their revolutionary innovations as a full-blown musical movement. That set, Bird in Time (ESP), gives you four full CDs and a duo of informative booklets.

They approach Bird’s career chronologically, allowing you to follow his first entrance on the scene with Jay McShann and others, and then on to the Parker style in full flower. It’s remarkable to listen to his first demo and compare it with some of the last recordings in the set, to see how much he matured in that period. The compilation is sprinkled with interesting interviews with Charlie himself and some of his fellow travelers. But the thrust of the music is what is critical.

This boxed collection is a well-produced, thoroughgoing supplement to the absolutely critical sides he made for Savoy Records from the latter half of the forties, as well as many of those he made for Dial records at that time. There are a few of the Dial recordings in this set, but someone who wants a truly representative slice of Bird at his most influential and astounding should look for the complete master takes on those labels, which are readily available last time I checked.

The Bird in Time set fills in with Bird evolving stage-by-stage, mainly in a live setting. It is certainly a must for dedicated Parker aficionados and an ear-grabbing listen for anyone who wants to know how this music developed. His breathtaking performances with Diz and others show you that, when the music was fresh and everyone in good form, this was a major milestone in American music, truly the beginnings of what we call modern jazz. And it’s just great music!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Ry Cooder Scores with "I, Flathead"

Originally posted on November 25, 2008

When it comes to electric guitar styling, Ry Cooder established himself in the late ‘60s as a formidable player and has been around the block since, with success as well as staying power. His latest release is in the form of a hard cover novelette and companion CD, I, Flathead: Kash Buk and the Klowns (Nonesuch). It is not designed as a guitar showcase, but there is plenty of his talent on display. A loose story line strings together the songs, and it's apparently related to the plot of the book (I’ll admit I haven’t read it yet). Some of his great slide work is in evidence, as well as some of his skillful and tasteful semi-picking finger articulations.

The lyrics center around a white-trash fellow, a fast-car driving, cash-strapped, hard-living guy and his tribulations. They have that melancholy, fictional-autobiographical tone of classic country music; it rings true without necessarily being strictly factual. And David Lynch's depravity-in-normality vibe comes to mind. The despair of the everyday life of an aging has-been or never has-been slob. . .

Cooder’s laconic vocal style and way with quirky songs are here in abundance. It’s equal parts retro, low-down country rock, blues drenched soundings, Mexicali influenced moments, old-timey flavors and all-around eccentric Cooder. He is the consummate artiste and it is nice to hear him again in this new release. I can’t vouch for the novelette, but it’s all about the music, ultimately, isn’t it?

Barnacled Weave Music Narratives of Avant Charm

Originally posted on November 24, 2008

Barnacled is a seven-piece band that defies easy categorization. They certainly come out of an avant jazz perspective but there is something about them that reminds me of the progressive-jazz-rock bands of earlier eras—the Soft Machine for example.

Their November release Charles (ESP) has edgy compositions that are apt to madly zig and zag like those UFO citings from the ‘50s, It is their sheer unpredictability that pleases, but they obviously have worked to get where they are. There is a conceptual tightness seemingly belied by a looseness in performance, but under the surface they are one consistent musical entity. There doesn’t seem to be anything aimless in what they do. Each sound event takes place as an episode in the overall musical story. They intrigue as they spin out the yarn. If you like the outer fringes of rock and jazz, here’s one for you. Check out the site for more information or to order.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Porcupine Tree Climbs Post-Progressive Heights

Originally posted on November 21, 2008

The English phenom Porcupine Tree and its various offshoots have created a genre of their own by combining various influences in the prog rock family, transcending them and doing something unique with that.

Their April release Fear of A Blank Planet (Atlantic) continues their saga with strong, moody music, on a regular CD and a 5:1 version DVD with stunning photography projected from your TV screen. The vibe is you are starkly alone but you’ve got this great music to help you through it. Steve Wilson and company are one of the truly good things going on out there, and they have been for a long time, even though I’ve missed some of it. They have that sprawl, the long form song that follows its own path and gets there in a most satisfying way. They are one of the best, most talented groups in the field. If you don’t have this one, and you have the money for it, by all means check it out.

John Zorn's Xaphan

Originally posted on November 20, 2008

John Zorn is a complex person, musically and perhaps in many other ways as well. He started out as an avant jazz alto sax player, known for his high intensity approach. He became interested in the idea of game music, pieces with various instructions and parameters for the players with open-ended results. Then he has flirted with death metal, the music of spaghetti westerns, spy and film noire cinema, and surf-psychedelia from the ‘60s, fusion, and most notably, an exploration of his Jewish heritage. All these facets of his music intersect from time to time, with the latter aspect framing most of his later work.

In a Tzadik release that has become available in the last couple of months, many of these influences and styles come together in a most interesting meld. Xaphan is music from his Masada project, arranged with particular skill by Trey Spruance for Secret Chiefs 3. It’s a fairly large ensemble and they run the gamut for nuances of style and combinations thereof. The mideastern sound is always present in one form or other, but it’s transformed in so many ways as clearly to form a new music of its own. I can’t recommend this disk strongly enough for those exploratory souls that are tired of the same old routine. This will shake you up and there is enough of a rock-fusion edge to it that those coming out of that bag will not feel like they are in completely unfamiliar territory. I can’t help wonder what the reaction to this music is in Israel and the mideast in general. Some certainly might express some surprise that American music can sound like this. Zorn is one of our masters. He should help tilt the balance of trade (albeit the musical trade) out there.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Kurt Vile Makes Snotty, Repetitious Music. That's Good!

Sometimes bands lose sight of part of what makes rock work. Now there’s more than one way to skin a drum, but repetition has been an important aspect of the music since its evolvement out of blues and jump in the ‘50s. Kurt Vile (not to be confused with German composer Kurt Weil, obviously), picks interesting musical hooks and then hits on them with a burning presence, varies them, and adds a nicely raw vocal style. Now if you think all of that is easy, listen to much of the music made in the name of rock for the past 20 years. Many artists either avoid grooving repetition or just don’t have the knack to get the right ones and hit on them with style. Subsequently the music doesn’t always rock out the way it could.

Vile’s latest, Childish Prodigy (Matador) rocks out. Listen to “Freak Train” and you’ll find yourself sinking into the groove. It’s hip and it’s hypnotic. Compared to some music, it may be simple, elemental, but that’s deceptive. This is rock that has the kind of smoldering energy of classic urban blues. And the music has contrast. A song may center around an acoustic guitar figure for Mr. Vile, or there may be a bigger wall of tone and a more electric ambiance. And the vocals are just snotty and impolite enough to speak truth.

Kurt Vile has the kind of regenerative balls that rebirths the alt scene, or whatever term one might want to use. Categories are just convenient pigeonholes, shorthand ciphers to indicate what to expect. Expect solid, heartfelt rocking on Childish Prodigy. Kurt goes back to elemental roots to recharge the music. Listen and you’ll understand that we're not talking about something simple or limited. Approach his music on its own terms and you’ll see that everything lays out just right. He has it.

Blazing, Melodic Metal From Mastodon

Originally posed on November 19, 2008

The metal band Mastodon has a new album coming out next year. Now a few weeks ago I would have met that fact with some indifference. That was before I was sent their 2006 disk Blood Mountain (Relapse). This is no ordinary metal album. The group has worked hard on their arrangements and songs. They are very good musicians. It’s not just speed metal and/or power chords; there’s more here. More variety and innovation in the music itself.

Guitars, bass and drums are all meshed into a playing octopus and each limb is indispensable for the group sound. And each player plays some great things on his instrument. Vocals have the emotion-wrenched angst you would expect from such a band, but they also can zero in on a more classic rock style, more melodic. The CD comes with a DVD disk that documents the making of the album and is one of the better such videos. You get a clear picture of the rehearsal and recording stages at various points in time, and it helps you understand the exceptional musical talents involved.

If I hadn’t stumbled on this one a year late, it would be at the top of my rock records of the year list. What the hell, I mentally put it there anyway. Nice production job too. Mastodon may give you a respect for metal you didn’t already have, if you are a skeptic. Fans of the genre probably already know them and I preach to the converted. Well, I am impressed. I look to the new album with anticipation!

Brad Lubman's Muscular Avant Garde Music

Originally posted on November 18, 2008

One more in the contemporary classical mode and then it’s on to other things. Brad Lubman cannot be said to be a household name. He is a prominent conductor in new music circles and Tzadik recently put out a disk of his compositions called Insomniac. As with some of the previous composers discussed recently, his music combines in various ways instruments in real-time along with electronically altered and pure electronic sounds. He gives you dramatic contrasts and reference to machine-like tapestries as well as sounds more conventional to the modern concert arena.

He tends to grab the listener a little more aggressively than some of the other composers we’ve been reviewing. His music is a little in-your-face and in the end it makes for a memorable program. This is more muscular material, less involved in dreamscape weaving. The music decidedly will not accept relegation to a background role. You either listen to this music or you turn it off. It demands to be accepted on its own terms. If you agree to that, you get a program of music in a whirlwind. Music for an age where our machines still create infernal clatter out there. It’s consequently more of an urban thing, more industrial in the many ways one could use that word. Good for us when there can still be drastically differing approaches to organizing sound. Here’s one of them—a completely valid way to go about things, executed with a good ear for melding the unusual and the familiar in a personal blend. It will give your ears a workout and you might just like it. Give it a shot.

Lafayette Gilchrist Takes Funk Into A New Zone

Originally posted on November 17, 2008

Lafayette who? Lafayette Gilchrist. He’s a pianist-bandleader-writer-arranger out of Baltimore. His fourth album Soul Progressin’ (Hyena) cooks up jazz-funk with a magic charm laid on it. It has a roots funkiness with a very quirky and cool approach to avoiding the usual funk-drek ho-hum sort of thing. He writes long sprawling lines for the horns, reminiscent slightly of George Russell’s later work, and those horn cats play with a real spirit not born out of session work or other must-be-polite situations. They play with a raunchy liveliness that has that acid tinge of the Art Ensemble of Chicago in their classic serious-making-fun sorts of moments. Gilchrist plays an interesting piano too.

The eight-piece band has obviously worked to get these results, an out-of-the-ordinary group dynamic. It is one of those records that you might at first pass off as a commercial foray if you don’t listen to it with some attention. It may be welcomed by plenty of people, but it won’t be because Lafayette is trying the slip one by them on the way to the bank. This is music from his inner sanctum of sounds, Lafayette’s soul. No kidding it’s good.