Archive for the ‘fusion’ Category

Hundred Word Reviews: February 2014, Part One

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

The backlog of music here at Musoscribe World Headquarters has gotten massive; it’s nearly overwhelming. Anyone who tells you that there’s no good new music out there clearly doesn’t deserve your attention. These albums, however, do. That said, the only practical way for me to cover them is to do so in a truncated fashion. Don’t assume from the brief coverage that the music referenced below merits only a quick listen; there are some truly fine albums here. To help in my mission to give these releases at least a portion of the attention they deserve, here are 100-word capsule reviews. Today’s batch mostly falls into a prog-rock or fusion bag.

SimakDialog – The 6th Story
Try to imagine a Rhodes keyboard-led outfit that plays instrumental music that sounds a bit like some of Frank Zappa‘s early 80s material, but with a subtle world-music flavor (like several of the artists covered today, they’re from Indonesia). In places there’s a bit of Tool-like stop-and-start, but mostly this intriguing album floats by. Listen closely or casually; it works on both levels. Closer in many ways to jazz than to progressive rock, The 6th Story features no less than three percussionists. They’re fully integrated, never noisy. (That role falls to the occasional guitar bits delightfully peppered throughout the album.)

I Know You Well Miss Clara – Chapter One
The long band name conjures images of heavily-eye-makeupped pop punk boys, but that’s a red herring; this Indonesian quartet traffics in an atmospheric, jazzy progressive style. Think hard-bop meets atonal, skronky, Buckethead-at-his-weirdest metal. Renowned King Crimson biographer/spokesman Sid Smith gives the album his enthusiastic thumbs-up in the liner notes, and while song titles like “Pop Sick Love Carousel” continue the band’s mission of misdirection, this sometimes-challenging album is quite a rewarding listen. Assured playing is the order of the day here. The photos suggest these guys are very young, and the album title portends more to come from them.

Marbin – Last Chapter of Dreaming
Big-guitar, arena-rock attitude meets jazz chops and ambitious arrangements. Last Chapter of Dreaming might just be that album that leads fans of shredders like Joe Satriani into jazz territory. Not exactly fusion, Marbin’s music is perhaps best described as hard rock with jazz sensibility (often in the form of sax and trumpet). The music swings hard, but pig-squeal guitar and knotty Discipline-era King Crimson styled guitar figures keep it firmly in rock territory. And strong hook-filled tracks like “Inner Monologue” show that this band is interested in songs, not merely showcases for dazzling musical brilliance. This one’s highly recommended.

Dusan Jevtovic – Am I Walking Wrong?
Guitarist Jevtovic was born in Serbia, but he and his band mates (Bernat Hernández on fretless bass and drummer Marko Djordjevic) are based in Barcelona. This is heady prog power-trio stuff, with bass lines that threaten to loosen your innards, delightfully sludgy drums, and dissonant-yet-hooky guitar runs. Think of it as jazz with the aggression of metal folded into the mix. Djordjevic shows off his impressive percussive chops on “Drummer’s Dance,” but even there listeners will find a tune upon which to hang their musical hats. “One on One” is a prog-blues hybrid, with shimmering sheets of feedback.

Dialeto – The Last Tribe
Continuing our musical travelogue, Dialeto is from São Paulo, Brazil. Though they’ve released three albums, The Last Tribe is the first to receive international distribution. A trio featuring guitar, touch guitar and drums, Dialeto creates music that will please fans of (him again!) Joe Satriani. Sometimes the tracks are high-speed, skittery affairs; “Sand Horses” seems well-suited to a movie’s chase scene. Occasionally, the guitars are treated to sound like vibraphones and whatnot; such detours make this album only more interesting than it would already be. It’s melodic yet adventurous, with enough crunch to keep hard rock fans fully engaged.

The Wrong Object – After the Exhibition
This and all the above releases are on the internationally-minded (though NYC-based) MoonJune label; The Wrong Object are from Brussels. This five-piece (augmented with other players on some tracks) creates a playful jazz-rock sound reminiscent of Gong and Soft Machine. Too often, music of this sort is ill-served by the addition of vocals; not so here. The gentle yet assured vocals of Antoine Guenet and Susan Clynes provide lovely texture to the band’s original compositions. That said, with its deft musical pyrotechnics, the instrumental “Jungle Cow, Part III” is a heady mishmash that will impress the most jaded listener.

Sky Architect – A Billion Years of Solitude
The artwork on this album seems designed to target Star Wars fans; the cover painting depicts a sort of Boba-Fett-in-space tableau, and the back cover riffs on the “long ago in a faraway galaxy…” schtick. This five piece is based in Rotterdam, and their sound bears the hallmarks of Genesis, Marillion and other proggers. Dreamy keyboard pads and soaring guitar leads are contrasted with herky-jerky rhythms more associated with Gentle Giant. But despite that 70s name checking, Sky Architect sounds modern. Not quite in the league of Porcupine Tree, they’re nonetheless worth checking out by fans of the style.

Chris Forsyth – Solar Motel
One of two American artists covered today, Chris Forsyth describes his style as “cosmic Americana,” but I hear more of a rock-centric rethink of Brian Eno‘s work. He doesn’t sound like Eno; his busy, distorted guitar lines owe more to Television, and the four extended pieces build and fade away like Russian Circles‘ best work. The tracks might best be thought of as heavy guitar tone poems: more rocking than Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but with a similar Glenn Branca-influenced drone approach. Arty and most assuredly not background music, Solar Music is challenging yet worth the effort it demands.

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Album Review: Volto! — Incitare

Monday, August 19th, 2013

In the related and sometimes overlapping fields of marketing and customer service, “bait and switch” is – quite rightly – considered a bad thing. Drawing a potential customer in with promises of one thing only to deliver another (or worse yet, a sales pitch for another) is considered an unethical practice.

But somehow when it’s done in music — especially when there’s no malice of forethought, it seems okay to me. A case in point is the new album Incitare by an outfit calling itself Volto!. Volto! (the exclamatory is part of the name) is an augmented trio (three guys plus an auxiliary sorta-member) that plays a kind of instrumental music. What kind? We’ll get to that in a moment.

The trio includes Danny Carey of Tool on drums, Pigmy Love CircusJohn Ziegler on guitars, and bassist Lance Morrison, the last of whom has played with Alanis Morisesette and Don Henley. On Incitare, they’re joined by keyboardist Jeff Babko; he might not be a full-fledged band member, but the depth of his playing suggests he doesn’t know this. Tool, of course, is a kind of prog-metal group, and Pigmy Love Circus is (or was) punk-metal. Both Morissette and Henley, despite what one might think of them, are decidedly mainstream artists.

So it’s something of a surprise to hear Volto!, because they sound nothing like any of those. Yet the bait-and-switch continues: if you had to guess, you might expect Incitare to sound like metal, or to be some sort of progressive rock outing. But though there are elements of both of those styles, what this album really is, is jazz.

Now, we’re not talking Wes Montgomery guitar jazz here: Ziegler’s thick and distorted tone has much in common with the sounds Joe Satriani coaxes from his axes. Yet the songs and arrangements seek to hybridize Satriani’s style of tuneful yet power-packed instrumental prowess with the complexity of jazz. On some level, then, Incitare is a fusion album.

All four players approach the project giving their all. And it’s a balanced record. While on “Billz” the band musters behind Ziegler’s massive riffage, they feature Babko’s organ out front for long sections of on “Whopner.” Babko’s keyboard textures aren’t radical; they’re mostly recognizable organ stops, synth patches or warmly familiar Rhodes sounds, but the manner in which he plays them is where the interest lies. Echoes of Jan Hammer‘s 1970s work are evident on the fleet-fingered “Tocino.”

Ziegler, on the other hand, makes serious use of effects; oftentimes the kind of sound he cranks out is nearly as interesting as the notes through which he delivers it. And Carey’s role shifts between the more traditional (read: rock) approach of laying down and maintaining the beat, and doing something much more musical: on the jazz-metal of “Drumbeaux,” he trades licks (after a fashion) with Ziegler.

Jazz purists – should they still exist in 2013 – might be put off by the more metallic elements of Incitare, but they shouldn’t. There’s a level of accessible complexity at work here that adds to both genres: jazz and rock. But for those more inclined toward the jazz end of things, “Quirk” is likely to hit the sweet spot. Deft fretboard work is laid atop some tasty jazz chords, and some of Babko’s most effective (yet understated) work on the record. “BHP,” however, has sections that might conjure thoughts of Opeth. But even those are offset by knotty jazz sections that recall early 70s fusion. There’s an improvisational bent to the record, and that’s a function of the fact that all tracks on Incitare were first, second or third takes. That’s most obvious on the free-form noisefest “Meltdown,” but it’s evident on all of the tracks.

What’s perhaps most interesting about Volto! is that while on paper, one might expect them to sound a bit like modern-day King Crimson, they don’t. Not a bit. They feel more like Pat Metheny‘s band fronted by Steve Vai. Or something. The high melodic quotient draws in more conventionally-minded listeners, while the instrumental prowess and ambitious arrangement will tantalize and satisfy more adventurous listeners. Recommended.

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You Can Be Who You Are: The John McLaughlin Interview, Part 4

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

Continued from Part Three

Bill Kopp: Speaking of playing onstage, how do the live pieces differ from the studio versions? Do you open them up for improvisation, or are they tightly structured?

John McLaughlin: Oh, yes! The minute we start playing. They even change in the studio; take 1 could be different from take 2. And onstage, they change every night. Of course we have to adhere to the structure, but we use the structure as a vehicle, a springboard, in a way.

But depending on the feelings of the musicians, you never know what kind of night you’re going to have. You could feel really perky, really “Wow, I feel good tonight,” and go onstage and play like a dog. And you can go onstage all tired: “I just want to go to my hotel room and sleep,” and you can have a fantastic night. It’s so unpredictable that all we can do as musicians is to be ready when inspiration comes. And not only be ready, but work at your instrument. This is the whole point of the life dedicated to your instrument and to music. Inspiration is the one thing nobody has control over. But as long as you’re ready, then that’s cool.

BK: Do you delve into your substantial back catalog on these dates, or are you concentrating solely on the newer material?

JM: No, we do stuff that goes way back. Strangely enough, I was looking at a couple pieces today, one going back to the Mahavishnu [Orchestra] days. I had gotten a link to a YouTube of Jeff Beck, who…ooh…has got to be my favorite guitar player of all time. And he did a version of “You Know You Know” [from The Inner Mounting Flame] recently, and somebody sent me a clip. He had turned the beat around.

That was about a week ago; I’m going to send Jeff a little clip, and tell him, “This is where the one goes!” [laughs] But it’s beautiful what he does; Jeff is crazy.

But since I saw that, I though, “Hmm…we could play that tune, too!” And then I thought of a tune that goes back to Birds of Fire [1973], one called “Miles Beyond.” Both of those tunes have been sampled by rap artists, if you can believe it. Mos Def took “You Know You Know.” And it’s really nice what he did; I like it.

I haven’t even thought about what songs will be in the show; I’ve got to talk to the guys about it! I’ll ask them, “Are you interested in this tune?” Because I want them to be comfortable, too. But we’ve got tunes from the 80s, the 90s, and even a tune that’s not been recorded yet. We’re doing a really broad spectrum of material. Hopefully there will be something in there for the majority of people.

BK: I know you did a lot of session work back in the sixties, and you might not have any particular memories of one-off session dates…

JM: Oh, I do. In the sixties, I was a studio shark. Eighteen months; that’s all I could take. It almost killed me. And of course in those days, in the studio everybody was there: the star, the backup vocalists, the orchestra, the brass, the rhythm section. And I played so much garbage it was shameful. But I had to survive.

BK: I’m something of a hardcore fan of obscure sixties recordings, and there’s one on which you have rumored to play, so I’d like to ask you about it. The artist was called Biddu, the song was “Look Out Here I Come” from 1967. Supposedly the lineup was you, Jimmy Page, Nicky Hopkins and John Paul Jones. It was on Regal Zonophone and produced by Tony Visconti. That’s a lot of big names helping out an unknown.

JM: Yes, that was me. We did a whole lot of stuff for Tony Visconti.

You know, I used to teach Jimmy guitar, a long time ago. I was 18 and he was about 16. And John Paul Jones, I taught him harmony, too. We were in an r&b band called Herbie Goins and the Night-Timers. We were doing James Brown covers.

But for special recordings, we’d get called for those. And we all knew each other, and we’d do what they wanted: “A little more toppy, please!” “A little more chunky guitar, please!” All right, coming up, I’d say. I’d hit the “chunky” button. [laughs heartily]

We go back a long time. We’re all old hippies, Bill. But that’s how we made a living. It was tough; making a living as a jazz musician in those days? Forget it! I was playing jazz, but I was making five bucks.

BK: “Look Out Here I Come” is a pretty good pop song. It’s very obscure, but it’s the kind of thing that – in retrospect – sounds like a hit, even though it certainly wasn’t.

JM: No, no…I had some very nice experiences. They weren’t all crummy. [laughs] I did [music for] a movie with Burt Bacharach, with orchestra. I used to do Tom Jones‘ things, like “What’s New, Pussycat?” I did Dionne Warwick‘s recordings when she came to the UK. The Four Tops, Wilson Pickett…some nice people in there. Some nice rock’n'roll, soul and r&b singers there. The problem was that those were the great ones, and a lot of the rest were…rubbish. So after eighteen months, I quit, and I became poverty-stricken again. But I was happy. I was doing my music, and I survived. And I’ve never regretted it.

John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension will be at Asheville’s Orange Peel on June 13, and at the Bonnaroo Festival the following day (June 14). See you there! — bk

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You Can Be Who You Are: The John McLaughlin Interview, Part 3

Monday, June 10th, 2013

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: This is an obvious thing to say, but since instrumental music has to convey its messages without the benefit of lyrics, it has to do so using tone, volume, melody, harmony and so forth. When you compose a piece, do you think about it in extramusical terms – that is, in terms of the emotion or feeling that it is meant to convey? And how do you set about getting that across to the listener?

John McLaughlin: I don’t really do anything; the music is what does it. In a way, it’s frequently like dictation. I’m just sitting there, and the music will come and say, “I want to go this way.” It’s a very peculiar – and lovely – experience. And until now – and God bless it – the music still comes. Because once it stops, then [laughs] the party’s over!

I just want to get out of the way, to tell you the truth. I don’t want to [laughs] contaminate the music! I want to hear a musical idea – it might be a melody, a rhythmic pattern – and then get out of the way and let it be. I don’t want to mess with it. I want to at least try to keep the integrity of it.

You take risks with instrumental music – especially so if it’s complicated – you take the risk of alienating your audience. But that’s part of the deal; nobody said it was going to be easy.

Anyway, I grew up with classical music; I listened to it a lot. And not just classical. Coltrane‘s A Love Supreme. This record was recorded in 1964, and came out in ’65. It took me a year of listening to hear that album! To hear, and feel, and understand what that guy was doing in music. It was amazing. That was a real labor of love. When I first put that record on, I thought, “What is going on here?” But I knew that he was right, and that I was just too dumb to understand and appreciate what he was doing. I persevered, and after a year, finally I said, “Oh my! That’s it! Genius! Wow! What beauty!” And all that effort was worthwhile, because suddenly the listener is allowed into his world. And it a marvelous world, one of beauty and depth and color and animation. And those words don’t even do justice to what the music was saying to me.

My whole life, I’ve been assuming responsibility. And I have some irate mail: “Why did you do that?” or “Why don’t you do this?” And what can I say? You’ve got to go with the flow. It’s okay if you don’t like it; I’m just being myself. And as long as I’m being honest with myself, I think I’m cool with everybody.

BK: To many people – especially those who don’t actively listen to jazz, fusion or progressive music, time signatures other than 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4 sound – and more significantly – feel “odd.” Why do you think that is, and why don’t they feel odd to you, do you think?

JM: But they are odd. Even 3/4 is odd. Because they’re odd numbers. The thing is, I’ve always had a fascination for different rhythmic cycles. Now, don’t ask me why, because I don’t have an answer for you. Of course having studied under Ravi Shankar in the 1960s and 70s – and all of the experiences I’ve enjoyed with some of the great Indian musicians who are masters of rhythm – this helped me a lot. I even did a DVD on how to master rhythms, with one of the rhythm players in Shakti.

It doesn’t matter: even, odd, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15. They’re all just shapes to be enjoyed. Because the minute you move out of 4/4, as you speak of it, people find it odd. But it’s just because they’re not used to it. You listen to Greek music, I mean folk music…they’re playing in 13, 15, 9. And this is folk music! And the Greek people, they hear this and it’s normal. Natural. It’s just in the western musical way – and classical music, too, of course – it’s all basically in 4/4, 3/4, 6/8 and so on.

But pop music, you go out of 4/4 and you’re already in trouble! But you go into central Europe, whether it’s Bulgaria or Romania or Hungary, and these folk musicians – unbelievable musicians; I know, because I’ve seen them and heard them – are playing in all kinds of time signatures. So it’s just the conventions of western music, and particularly western pop music, that make those things seem so odd.

But if you look at the young jazz musicians of today, they are playing in 5/4, 7/4, 9/4. Even Sting did a thing in 5/4! And it’s not bad, is it? Once people get used to those time signatures, they can really enjoy it. Because it has a different effect on the body, on the mind-body complex or whatever you want to call it. As a result, it gives a different experience. And if you can follow it, then it can be a very satisfying experience. I can personally guarantee it. But you do have to make some effort. And in this world of instant gratification, people are a little less ready to make that effort.

BK: Extrapolation came out in 1969; I have it on vinyl. So your musical career has been going on for about 45 years. Within the idiom of rock’n'roll, there’s long been the idea that it’s a young person’s game. Not so, thank goodness, in jazz, blues and other forms…

JM: Thank God! Thank goodness! [laughs]

BK: How do you think that your playing has changed over the years, and do you plan to continue playing, recording and performing as long as you can?

JM: I think it’s all down to love. I love the guitar. I love my guitar; I love all guitars. That’s my instrument; I started off on piano, but just by chance a guitar came into my hands when I was ten or eleven. And it’s never left them; I always have a guitar near me. And I play every day, just because I love to play. It’s as simple as that.

The fact that I’m still going at 71 – which is a mind-blowing number; I’m already in the biblical realm! – it’s amazing. Because I’ve lost friends over the years, of course. People younger than me. And here I am. But as long as I can play…not just play. Because in a way, I feel I’ve never played better than at this time in my life. Maybe because of experience, maybe I’m maturing, but I don’t know about that.

But you be the judge. You come see us at Asheville [or Bonnaroo]. And I’ll let you tell me: how did we grab you? Personally, as a player and a human being, I’ve never felt better.

Click to read the conclusion

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You Can Be Who You Are: The John McLaughlin Interview, Part 2

Friday, June 7th, 2013

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: A Tribute to Jack Johnson is among the most underrated of all Miles’ works, I think.

John McLaughlin: A lot of people don’t underrate it, though. Especially him. And in the end, he’s the one that counts.

BK: You composed all of the tracks on the new album. How do you approach composition: a melodic line, a chord sequence, or something else?

JM: You know, I don’t have a formula. In fact, it’s impossible for me to sit down and write music. And believe me, I’ve tried. It’s doesn’t work; I can’t sit there and say, “Now I’m going to write something.” What comes out? Nothing. Because I haven’t got anything in my head. And then I’ll be…I don’t know…in the shower, driving, at a restaurant, and I’ll get some crazy idea coming to me. And that’s why my wife always brings paper and pencil with us: so I can write it down quickly; otherwise I forget. I’ve been known to do it on napkins, serviettes, even once in the cabin on a plane, I filled an entire barf bag with notes! I ripped it apart so it was a sheet, and I [laughs] wrote all over it.

So that’s how it comes. No formula; the music tells me straightaway, as we talked about before, if it’s acoustic or electric. Or synth. The music comes, and tells me where it wants to go. That’s the only way I can describe it; it might sound strange, but that’s how it is.

BK: It doesn’t sound strange at all. The famous story that Paul McCartney tells about “Yesterday” is that it came to him fully formed, that he initially didn’t think he had written it. Sometimes musicians describe themselves as conduits for music, as opposed to people who sit down and write music.

JM: Yes! And sometimes we pick something up and think it’s ours. One time what happened…there was a movie that came out a few years ago called Tower Heist [2011]. The opening music comes from [To the One]. And I think that the guy heard it, and carried around with him, and then thought, “Oh, wow! That’s really nice. I’m gonna use that.” And I got emails from people saying, “John, listen to this! He stole your music!” It’s the bass line, the time signature…but hey, you know. What to do?

BK: To what degree in your compositions do you leave spaces open for the other players to develop their own parts?

JM: As much as possible, really. They [only] need a skeleton form. When the music comes out, I see it, and of course I’m the one that has to organize it. Then the band – with Etienne [M'Bappe, bass], Ranjit [Barot, drums], and Gary [Husband, keyboards] – can be who they are.

There’s a great lesson that I learned from Miles. And it’s a great lesson of jazz. It’s that the whole point in jazz music, and why it’s so wonderful, is that you can be who you are. Even if you’re crazy; it doesn’t matter. Because in music, everything’s fine. All the years I worked with Miles, all he ever wanted was for me to be who I am, in a way that fitted into his music, into his concept. And it was a fantastic lesson for me. And all of Miles’ boys were this way. Whether it’s Wayne [Shorter] or Herbie or Tony Williams or Jack [DeJohnette].

Because if you have the respect of the musician, they want to contribute. But at the same time, I want them to be who they are. So of course when we go into the studio, they know. Because I’ve sent them a demo and a score. They’ll know which way I want to go, the concept of the tune. The music will speak itself to them. And I will make sure that the space is there so that they can be themselves.

In jazz, writing the music, the arrangement, is very important. Of course it is. But what’s really important is the space that the soloists get to have in which they can be themselves. And there has to be a situation whereby we can have a collective experience. That’s one of the most important aspects of jazz to me. When we go into the studio, we play live. The great thing about being in the studio is that you can do several takes of a given tune, until everybody’s happy. And inside of that, you’ve got to have this collective vibe going on where it’s just spontaneous and together.

And this really happens on Now Here This. I try to get it on every recording. But I’m particularly happy with this band at the moment; they’re just marvelous players. And great people, great human beings.

And this is important, too: if you’re playing with somebody who’s head is…if he’s thinking about his girlfriend, or wanting to buy a new car…there’s no room for that. It’s a spiritual experience, if you’ll allow me to use that much-abused word. The music unites us in the studio when we start playing. And in fact, if the music doesn’t have any spirit in it, then it’s pretty worthless, I think.

BK: It’s just product, then…

JM: Right; you might as well have a computer play it. The whole point is that I want the deeper feelings of these men whom I admire and love and respect; I want to know what they feel. And they want that too: knowing what we each feel about ourselves, about the world, about music, about everything. Because that’s really the story we tell in jazz music: what story can you tell when you improvise. What are you going to say? The only thing you can say is the story of your life, and how deeply you feel about where you are, who you are, and the environment and people that are around you. And even the universe. And those deep feelings help enrich the music as a consequence.

Click to continue to Part Three

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You Can Be Who You Are: The John McLaughlin Interview, Part 1

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

Far be it from me to attempt to introduce John McLaughlin. One of the world’s greatest guitarists, his career has spanned five decades. His latest album Now Here This is credited to John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension, and it’s the third studio album from this particular improvisational jazz outfit. The band’s 2013 tour will take them to Asheville NC’s Orange Peel on Thursday June 13, and that is where I had planned to see McLaughlin onstage (for the first time in my life). But my plans have changed, and next week I’m instead headed to the Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester TN. Fortunately, so are John McLaughlin and his band, so I’ll see them there.

Several days ago, John was kind enough to spend an extended period of time with me, discussing various phases of his career, the new album and tour, and – perhaps most fascinating of all – his philosophy of playing, composing, and music in general. I’m pleased to present that conversation in its entirety as a four-part feature – bk

Bill Kopp: Throughout your career you have – or at least it has seemed like you have – switched your focus back and forth between electric and acoustic guitar playing. Can you tell me a little bit about the ways in which your approach differs for each of those instruments?

John McLaughlin: Well, I think in addition to the acoustic and electric guitars, we shouldn’t forget the synth guitar. I already began experimenting with the synth guitar in the 1970s. I used it in the second Mahavishnu Orchestra. It was a real monster, but the technology today is far superior. I don’t know if you’re aware, but there is one piece on the last album [To the One, 2010] and two synth guitar pieces on the one before that [2008's Floating Point].

Let me put it this way. I began my “guitar life” as an acoustic guitar player. Because when I was ten or eleven years old, I actually didn’t know what an electric guitar was. It was a while ago [laughs] and I was living in a little town just south of Scotland; [there was] not too much going on.

In any event, I fell in love with the acoustic guitar, and subsequently with the electric guitar. But I never stopped having this profound affection for acoustic guitar. And in a way, that’s how my career has oscillated between the two.

Now, the approaches are quite different. Because the instruments are so radically different. I think if you spoke to a keyboard player, a piano player, particularly…take someone like Herbie Hancock, who is just a wonderful pianist. He has an approach to the piano that’s his approach, and it’s very pianistic at the same time. But you hear him on the synthesizer, and he has a completely different approach. Because the instrument, in a way, demands it.

And it’s the same between acoustic guitar and electric guitar. I cannot play acoustic guitar in the way I play electric. And the music I play is really a different form. The acoustic and electric – and synth guitar, for that matter – demand a particular kind of form in which they can expose themselves in the best way.

When music comes into my head and it’s acoustic, I know it’s going this way, and if it’s electric, it’s that way. Carlos Santana and I just just mixed music for a DVD that both of us did about eighteen months ago in Switzerland. You’ve got two percussion players, two drummers…I mean, how can you play acoustic guitar?! It’s impossible. But Carlos and I, because we had played acoustic guitar together before – it was a kind of reunion, a 40-year reunion – we sat down and played two acoustic guitars, but with nobody else.

But this doesn’t really work with electric guitars, does it? You put the drums and bass and keyboard and electric guitar together, and everyone’s happy. It’s really two distinct forms. But of course related.

BK: I know that genre labels aren’t always useful, and that they can be limiting. But how would you classify the type of music you’re doing on Now Here This?

JM: Well, let’s say that by discipline, by love, I’m a jazz musician. But in the sixties, of course, I grew up listening to rock’n'roll. And there’s some great rock’n'roll; that’s my generation, too. And rhythm and blues even more, because that’s how I survived in the sixties, playing with rhythm and blues bands.

Whatever we do, the thing is: if you’re gonna play rhythm and blues, you’ve got to really do it. You can’t just [moans] “Oh, let me just get through it.” I love r&b, because it’s part of jazz. I think that if you take the r&b out of jazz, you don’t have much jazz left!

BK: It’s all head and no heart if you do that…

JM: Yeah! So from 1969, I’m involved with Miles Davis. Miles made his big move; I just happened to be there at the right time. He wanted guitar; he wanted to move out of this kind of quintet thing that he’d been doing the whole of the sixties. And it really began with that first record I did with him, In a Silent Way; he started to move out. And of course by the time we got to Bitches Brew about six to nine months later [1970], he was really…he was a fusion musician before all of us.

BK: Absolutely. I love the A Tribute to Jack Johnson [1971] material. People don’t know as much about that one.

JM: It’s an r&b thing. That whole first number [the nearly 27-minute “Right Off”] came out of a jam that I actually started in the studio. We were waiting for Miles to come and give us some music, and that thing just came out of a jam. And it was marvelous. In fact, Miles subsequently told me that [Jack Johnson] was his all-time favorite record. Isn’t that something? Unbelievable! Out of all the records he made. Because I’ve got to tell you: we were sitting around…there was Billy Cobham [drums], Herbie Hancock [organ], Michael Henderson [bass guitar, and Steve Grossman on tenor sax]. We were sitting there for twenty minutes, and I got bored. So I started doing an r&b thing; that’s what I go back to. And it was a sort of variation of an idea that eventually became “The Dance of Maya” [from Mahavishnu Orchestra's 1971 album The Inner Mounting Flame]. If you listen to the Jack Johnson album, you’ll hear similar chords. I did those r&b shuffles, and Billy locked in right away. Michael Henderson, too.

And then Miles ran into the studio with his trumpet, and he just played. And I think he was just waiting for something like that to happen. I had never heard him play like that, either onstage or in the studio. And he just soared; it was fantastic.

Click to continue to Part Two

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Capsule Reviews: January 2013, Part 6

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Here’s the final — for now — of four installments in my occasional series of capsule reviews; you’ll find rock, blue-eyed soul, fusion and breezy SoCal pop. I had a huge stack of CDs deserving of review, but time doesn’t allow for full-length reviews of everything, and these were beginning to gather dust. They deserve better. My self-imposed limit for this particular exercise is 150 words on each album.

Bill Nelson and the Gentlemen Rocketeers – Recorded Live in Concert at the Metropolis Studios, London
While the 1960s (defined here as February 1964 to December 1969) are my favorite era for pop music, the 1970s were pretty great, too. And as rock’n'roll became rock, all manner of great bands came out of the woodwork. An untold number were lost in the shuffle. I have about 6000 records, yet many great 70s acts that I like (or might like) haven’t found their way onto my shelves yet. One of these was Be-Bop Deluxe. I used to see their LPs in the shops, but never got ’round to checking them out. Well, they’re long gone now, but their spirit lives on in leader/guitarist Bill Nelson. His latest (a 2CD+DVD set) shows him in fine form, serving up a sort of 70s-styled alternarock. Musically and vocally there’s a passing similarity to Roxy Music, but Nelson cranks out more gnarly textures from his guitar than is Phil Manzanera‘s wont.

Sanford & Townsend – Smoke From a Distant Fire / Nail Me to the Wall
I would never tell you that the 1970s were only about great music. I respect you far too much for that. Plus, you’d never buy such a line of utter bullshit. But it remains true that even when the music wasn’t exactly immortal, it often served its purpose as in-the-moment entertainment. Such is the case with the breezy, slightly soulful Hall & Oates soundalikes Sanford & Townsend. If you liked The Doobie Brothers, Chicago and other FM radio fodder, chances are good you liked “Smoke From a Distant Fire.” Regardless, you sure-as-hell heard it, didn’t you? Real Gone has paired the album of that same with the group’s third album, Nail Me to the Wall (the second LP gets only a perfunctory mention in the liner notes). If you like the hit, you’ll like the eighteen other tunes of slightly lesser merit. Gene Sculatti‘s liner notes provide helpful context.

Scott Henderson, Jeff Berlin and Dennis Chambers – HBC
As a well known and widely admired jazz fusion bassist, Jeff Berlin has lent his talents to many recordings. Both under his own name (with ten albums to his credit) and as a sideman to some of the biggest and best names in progressive/fusion (Bill Bruford, Allan Holdsworth, and even briefly as the unbilled replacement for the also-unbilled Tony Levin in almost-Yes aggregation Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe), Berlin lends his considerable talents to the music, and is clearly not overly concerned with being in the spotlight. That explains why he’s the “B” in HBC, an album featuring him plus Scott Henderson (guitar) and Dennis Chambers (drums). This is fusion jazz with shredding guitar work and plenty of Berlin’s deft, fleet-fingered Jaco Pastorius-styled bass (according to Wikipedia, Berlin dislikes the comparison). You’ll find few vocals to trouble your soul on HBC, just plenty of taut, expert and thrilling instro-fusion.

Brewer & Shipley – Down in L.A.
Real Gone Music, Numero Group and Omnivore aren’t the only labels run by crate-diggers intent on unearthing forgotten music from our collective past. In the UK there’s Now Sounds. One of their recent releases is a reissue of the 1968 debut from Brewer & Shipley. The songwriting duo who’d later have a hit with “One Toke Over the Line” (a song so ubiquitous it got covered on The Lawrence Welk Show; see YouTube) cut an album for A&M called Down in L.A. To say that the album sank in the marketplace of its time would be understatement. But the folky, country-flavored songs and arrangements (shades of The Association and Buffalo Springfield) deserved a better fate. Support by Jim Messina (bass) and drummers Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon guaranteed that the album would be tasty, but the songwriting’s pretty fine too. A helluva lot better than “One Toke,” too.

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One You May Have Missed: Miles From India

Friday, November 16th, 2012

I don’t claim to understand jazz. I think, I believe — and this is the thought, the belief of a rock fan, please understand — that at its most successful, its most transcendent, jazz is the intersection of mathematics and soul. It’s the crossroads of mind and spirit, of intellect and feeling.

I don’t claim to know a whole lot about Miles Davis. I own a few of his albums, and that’s it*. Offhand, I think it’s Miles Davis’ Greatest Hits or something like that. And I know him as a sideman of one of the jazz artists I truly enjoy, Cannonball Adderley. What little I know about Miles is that he pushed boundaries, was an incredibly demanding bandleader, and — to put it mildly — was not known as a sweetheart. A bit like Frank Zappa, to make a reference that brings things back into an area in which I’m on more solid footing.

To continue the Zappa parallel, if you worked with Miles, that was shorthand for your being good. Damn good. Scary good. It also meant that you could traverse musical boundaries the way mere mortal musicians could play in different keys.

A bunch of Miles veterans — people one or at most two degrees removed from Davis’ orbit — got involved with this project, this Miles From India: A Celebration of the Music of Miles Davis. The other half of the musicians are traditional Indian musicians, people from a culture in which (as the liner notes helpfully explain) there is no jazz tradition. So all these cats got together and played a bunch of Miles tunes. Not willing to leave well enough alone, they did challenging stuff like change the time signatures. Not from 4/4 to 3/4, mind you; none of that simple stuff for this crew. Instead they took a track like the already mind-blowing “All Blues” and recast it from 6/4 into 5/4. That track starts with a long sitar solo intro; beautiful stuff, but nothing way out of the ordinary. But then the horn section comes in, and it’s on familiar (read: Western) ground. Juxtapose the two and you’ve got something that is unlike anything I’ve heard before.

The two-disc set is full of this kind of thing. On “Jean Pierre,” guitarist Mike Stern takes things into another dimension. This stuff defines psychedelic, and not in some lame Grateful Dead space-jam noodling way, either.

Look. I don’t know how to explain half of what’s on this set. All I know is that it’s amazing. Perfectly suited in turns for pleasant background music, close and critical listening, or zoning out in a “wowwww” mode, Miles From India is perhaps the most provocative release of 2009. That in itself would be enough. But it’s quite accessible as well. Required listening.

* That was true in 2009 when I wrote this review. I have (and treasure) many more now.

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