Archive for the ‘fusion’ Category

Short Cuts: July Mini-reviews, Part One

Monday, July 14th, 2014

The in-box here at Musoscribe World Headquarters is overflowing once again, thanks in no small part to my focusing on other matters (including my recent move and impending nuptials) in addition to keeping up my reviewing schedule. So here’s the first in another series of shorter-than-usual reviews. All of these albums were worth my time; they may well be worth yours as well. Dig.

Cowboy – Reach for the Sky
I’ve been meaning to cover this one for awhile. A reissue of a 1971 album originally released on Capricorn Records, Reach for the Sky rates notice as one of the label’s first signings; Cowboy got their deal with Phil Walden‘s label on the strength of a strong recommendation from one Duane Allman. The album is mellow, tuneful country rock, but (thankfully) you’re not likely to mistake this north Florida group for The Eagles. Allman associate Johnny Sandlin produced the album in a clean, unadorned, intimate style, and that approach perfectly suits the warm and friendly tunes.

Scott Schinder‘s liner notes tell the story of this modest group, and (unusually for a Real Gone Music release) the lyrics are printed in the booklet. Most of the gentle, harmony-laden tunes are written by (guitarists) Scott Boyer or Tommy Talton, but a couple are composed or co-written by piano/multi-instrumentalist Bill Pillmore, who today happens to live here in Asheville. He’s also my piano tuner; the world certainly is a small place. I saw a vinyl copy of this in a local record store just a couple of weeks ago; I might go snag it and ask for an autograph next time the apartment grand gets a tuning.

Tommy Bolin – Whirlwind
Though he lived until just past his twenty-fifth birthday, Tommy Bolin left behind an impressive body of work. Most notable as the guitarist who (a) took Joe Walsh‘s place in The James Gang and (b) replaced Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple, Bolin left behind a recorded legacy shows that his style and ability transcended the hard rock of those bands. He released two solo albums in the 70s, and a long list of posthumous live and compilation discs have been released, mostly since the turn of the 21st century.

His catalog, then, bears some similarities to that of Jimi Hendrix: seemingly there’s a push to release every note the man every committed to tape. That said, the quality of the new 2CD set Whirlwind is impressive and consistent. The eighteen tracks on this collection run the gamut from unfinished demo recordings to polished, why-wasn’t-this-released quality. The sequencing is seemingly haphazard, jumping around the various phases of Bolin’s career., but that won’t diminish the enjoyment of the set. Some of the music is meat’n'potatoes rock; some of it is much more ambitious. What most all tracks share is lead guitar work that manages to be both tasteful and flashy. The styles run from fusion to hard rock to gentle acoustic work, with some exploratory jamming tossed in for good measure. Every track here is either a Bolin composition or a Bolin co-write; the man clearly had ideas and energy to burn. An embryonic version of what would become “Marching Powder” on Bolin’s 1975 Teaser LP takes up a big chunk of the second disc; the 26-minute version on Whirlwind (titled “Marching Bag”) is a highlight, and will likely please fans of Hendrix’s later work, which it (in places) recalls. Keen listeners might hear shades of Jeff Beck in there, too, but in the end Bolin was a true original.

The Dramatics – Greatest Slow Jams
Best remembered for their hits “In the Rain,” Hey you, Get Off My Mountain” and “Whatcha See is Whatcha Get” (the first two of which are included on this new compilation), The Stax-Volt soul group’s main stock in trade was what we now (and for awhile now, really) call slow jams. This thematic collection was put together by late-night radio host Kevin “Slow Jammin” James – but of course it was – and may well serve as the soundtrack to your next 70s-themed evening of makin’ love.

The production and arranging on these twelve tracks are smooth and stellar; the Detroit band’s tight harmony is expertly backed by top-notch instrumentation. The band’s arrangers had a keen sense of the value of quiet; on numbers like the supremely melodramatic “In the Rain,” the audio shade and light take a relatively straightforward tune and make it into one for the ages.

Those looking for detailed information about the group and their music are advised to look elsewhere; the compiler of Greatest Slow Jams figures that (unlike me) you probably won’t be sitting around scanning the booklet while these tunes are spinning. Get busy, and enjoy. Greatest Slow Jams may only showcase one side of the Dramatics’ abilities, but it’s a damn fine side.

More “short cuts” to come.

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A Chat with Larry Coryell, Part Three

Friday, June 20th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: In the entry on you in the Music Hound Jazz book,  the reviewer makes the points that your back catalog is in shameful disarray, with many titles out of print, and that you deserve better. Now, that book was written in the 90s. What’s the state of your catalog today?

Larry Coryell: Oh, I don’t know, man. I’ve recorded for so many different record companies. Thanks to Apple and Steve Jobs, and the Germans who figured out how to push music into a little wire, the record business is over. It’s not even down; it’s finished. The Grammys are a joke. Soon CDs will be obsolete. Nobody knows what the next big…I call it the Next Little Thing…will be. Because they’re trivializing music.

That’s why I am glad that I’m working on projects that are not dependent on the typical business model. The way we operated for all those years was: you make a record, and you get the company to promote it, and you sell it, and you stick with the brand…that’s all over now.

BK: All that said, are there any old albums of yours that are currently unavailable that you’d like to see back in print?

LC: I don’t know anything about that. I have no control over that. Those albums belong to the record companies. And I don’t know if they even have the money to revive any of that stuff.
I just played a tour with Ron Carter last week; that’s why I’m jet-lagged. I was in Japan. And Ron happened to play on a couple tracks from my second album for Vanguard, back in 1969 or thereabouts. And he said, “I want to hear those tracks. Send me the whole album.” I don’t know how I’m gonna do it! I mean, I will, even if I eventually end up finding the vinyl disc and transferring it to a CD.

BK: I think – and I’m not sure at the moment – that one is available on Spotify.

LC: Well, the guy who owns Spotify is an arch-millionaire. All these people who have taken advantage of cybertechnology, because people still love music, they’re making money off of us. What we need is an act of Congress to tax the people who are profiting…who are getting too much of the profits. I mean, anything is possible with legislation. We need a way to give that music back to the composers or the performers, somehow, in a fair way. Justice needs to be served.

I’m sure you’ve heard this from other people in my age bracket before. So I’m not telling you anything new. I’m lucky, because I’m established. And I’ve made hundred and hundreds of records, both as a sideman and as a leader. But today, young people who are just as good or better than me have no chance to get ahead through that process.

It’s just a bunch of fiefdoms; there’s no organized radio stations, and there are much fewer radio stations that play really great music. Over the public airwaves, it’s gone. We used to have people who were kind of gatekeepers, who had good taste. You’d listen to their shows, and let’s say they’d play forty tunes over the course of a few days. And at least five or ten would be ones where you’d want to go out and get those records. Because that’s what I heard, and I hadn’t heard that stuff before.

BK: And it wasn’t based on market research; it was the choices of tastemakers. The whole payola issue aside, if you were a good tastemaker, you were successful. And if you were lousy, you weren’t.

LC: Now, someone will walk up to me on the average of ten times a week and hand me a CD. And I never listen to them. Because the few times that I had, it was terrible.  Because they don’t know what they’re doing. In many cases – not all; this is kind of a generalization – it’s all been done before. And better.

The saving grace about jazz is that you can get two thousand people who are very talented jazz improvisers, and get two thousand versions of, say, “All the Things You Are,” or “Autumn Leaves,” or something like that, and they’ll all be good in their own way. Because it’s personal. Jazz is not about the notes on the paper; it’s about the emotions that are expressed.

BK: Once you establish the head, you can go anywhere with it; you go off and make it your own, and then bring it back at the end.

LC: Sometimes not even that! I just wrote liner notes for a CD [released] in Japan, where they did the standard “Love for Sale,” and in the opening chorus, there’s no melody! And it sounded great that way. I gave them big kudos.

BK: For me, the Cannonball Adderley version with Miles Davis is my favorite.

LC: Ron Carter said something – I’m sure he won’t mind me saying this – talking about Adderley. We were listening to “Jive Samba.” It might have been playing on the radio or something. Ron turns to me and he says, “You don’t have melodies being composed these days.  You can’t hum them.” [Hums the melody line to Nat Adderley's classic.] People don’t write melodies that are hummable any more. Jazz is always complicated. And that’s a tragedy.

Note: at this point, my recorder ran out of space, though our conversation wound on for some twenty minutes more. Coryell discussed his affinity for my hometown of Asheville NC, including tentative plans a few years ago – since abandoned – to relocate here from Florida (the main reason: our airport is too small and remote for the always-on-the-go guitarist). There’s every reason to expect Coryell to follow up The Lift, his recent effort on Wide Hive, with another excellent and endless varying album; at age 71, he shows no signs of slowing down.  – bk

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A Chat with Larry Coryell, Part Two

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: Though you’re certainly grounded at least in part in rock styles, another remarkable quality of your musicianship to me is the way you take more of the jazz player’s approach to arrangement: you’re not stingy about having all the solos. Everybody gets a chance to shine. Is that a conscious goal of yours when arranging songs for recording and/or live performance?

Larry Coryell: Well, if you’re gonna play with other people, you’ve got to let them express themselves. It doesn’t make any sense to me to do otherwise. I know other people have different philosophies.

BK: I mentioned to my friends on Facebook that I would be speaking with you, and a number of my friends and readers commented enthusiastically. One mentioned seeing you in the early 70s on a bill with The Faces and Argent. How was it, playing to rock-festival type crowds? Were they receptive to the fusion-leaning sounds you were turning out?

LC: Yeah. There were really no barriers. During that time, there were no barriers between the definitions of styles so much. Basically, if your group could get out there and ignite excitement in the public, that’s all that mattered.

BK: I think that’s been lost to some degree now; everything’s all about market segmentation.

LC: That’s true. But it’s a reflection of the times. The times in which we were living back then – the late 60s and early 70s – was the sexual revolution. Revolutions were going on. All kinds of weird stuff was going on; go look at the movies that were made at that time. Nothing like the movies that we have now.

BK: Your sons are musicians as well. To what extent did you encourage them to develop musically? It seems like a daunting proposition to pick up the guitar when your dad is Larry Coryell.

LC: For them, it just happened naturally. The youngest one leaned more toward learning jazz harmony early on, and the oldest one took a little bit longer to choose to become a musician. But he wanted to choose a style for himself that was not like either what I do or what his younger brother was doing. So he got into rhythm and blues a lot, and singing.

It was very organic the way they developed; I didn’t really push them at all.

BK: Another one of my readers remarked on the fact that while you can certainly play fast when you want to, you often avoid competing in the “speed demon sweepstakes.” He wants to know if you intentionally made a point of not going there.

LC: Well, when you’re playing a lot of fast stuff, you’ve got to be careful; very often you can end up not playing music. And the goal of all this is to make music. Sometimes the heady technique is required in order to express what you’re trying to do. But you still have to be musical; that’s what really touches the heart.

BK: Another friend mentioned to me that – and I don’t know anything about this – you did a gig in the 70s with Jack Bruce and Mitch Mitchell. Can you tell me about that?

LC: That was a Jack Bruce tour. Jack did a tour in 1971 – I think it was 1971…might have been ’72…some historians can pinpoint the actual year – and we did a big tour of America. We had my keyboard player, who eventually became the keyboard player in Eleventh House, Mike Mandel. So it was Jack on bass, Mitch on drums, Mike on organ, and myself. And we did Jack’s music because it was a Jack Bruce gig. And it was very…interesting.

BK: It would be nice if some live recordings from that tour might turn up…

LC: Well, everybody was so loaded. It was pretty sketchy. Pretty checquered. It all depended on how many sheets to the wind you were. The whole room was loaded. I think Keith Jarrett was the only one who was sober.

BK: We touched on this briefly a few moments ago. Every critical overview of you and your career that I read makes essentially the same point: you are under-appreciated. It’s been suggested that you get bored sticking with one style for very long. And it seems to me that had you decided to stick to one style, you might have enjoyed more commercial success. Because of course record companies – and listeners for that matter – often prefer music they can pigeonhole, that isn’t too demanding of them, that doesn’t challenge their expectations. What do you think about that?

LC: Well, there’s some truth to that. If you jump around styles, market-wise it’s a problem. But you know, I work so much…a lot of the time these days I’ll turn down work because I don’t need the money, and I don’t want to do that particular kind of music.

I had a great year last year. I think that sticking to my guns took awhile, and it was a late-blooming thing. But it’s paid off.

BK: I’ve read that you’ve done transcriptions of Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky for acoustic guitar.

LC: There are recordings of the Rimsky-Korsakov. It came out pretty good. The Stravinsky was checquered; I wasn’t happy with two of those. But the third one – and I can’t even find the record – was a masterpiece. Just by accident, that one worked out.

Last year I was given an assignment to do The Rite of Spring with six guitars, and it didn’t quite work out. It got too crazy, too complicated.

The value of doing all those classical transcriptions was in getting an education for me. Even though I wasn’t aware of it, I was getting an education, [helping me] to do my own classical music. Or classically-oriented music. One of the things that I want to bring to the world of performance is an opera that I wrote, based on Tolstoy‘s War and Peace. It’s isn’t gonna be a real jazz thing; I haven’t figured out where the jazz is gonna go yet.

When you learn to play – for example – The Rite of Spring, a lot of that rubs off on you in your future approaches to composing and playing. So I’m not so eager to perform Stravinsky as I am to perform what I’ve learned from Stravinsky. It was like an extremely serious music lesson. Stravinsky is absolutely amazing.

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A Chat with Larry Coryell, Part One

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

One might describe Larry Coryell as something of an undiscovered legend. To those in the know – jazz/fusion aficionados and those like me fortunate enough to stumble onto his vast catalog by accident – he’s one of the greats, certainly a peer of names such as John McLaughlin and Pat Metheny. But to the world at large, he’s much lesser-known, despite dozens of highly-acclaimed albums under his own name, not to mention even more brilliant sessions in which he lends his expressive and highly varied playing to the work of others. His first solo album Coryell was released in 1969, and his most recent, The Lift, came out a few months ago. I spoke to a very jet-lagged guitarist mere hours after his return from a tour in Japan with famed bassist Ron Carter. Though clearly exhausted, he took the time to engage with me in a wide-ranging conversation. Here’s Part One of our talk. – bk

Bill Kopp: I’ve been listening to a lot of your music lately – from The Free Spirits to your first couple of solo albums, from the Gary Burton albums in the mid 60s to Eleventh House, from the reunion album with Alphonse Mouzon to the Young Django album with Stephane Grappelli, from Herbie Mann‘s Memphis Underground to your new album The Lift. The thing that amazes me the most about all of it is how nothing sounds like anything else. Unique among all the well-known guitarists I can think of, and I mean this in the best possible way, you don’t seem to have any particular “signature sound.” Is that by design?

Larry Coryell: Yeah. Most jazz guitarists — most instrumentalists, for that matter – have done really well to have the same sound. So it’s recognizable, so they can have a “brand.” So they don’t get lost in the shuffle, because there are so many musicians out there vying for your ear.

I didn’t do that; I don’t know why. I try to do a lot of different things, because for me – and this is just for me – staying in just one place hasn’t interested me that much.

BK: Similar to John McLaughlin but unlike most other guitarists, you work equally effectively with both electric and acoustic guitars. Do you approach them as wholly different instruments, similar to, say, the difference between piano and organ, or do you see them as basically similar?

LC: Oh, they’re different. You have to have a different technique on the acoustic. Because you’re not aided by anything electric. Generally I have to use more power on the acoustic; your hands have to be stronger. But that’s just generally; there are exceptions to every situation.

BK: You’re classically trained, though that training has never manifested itself in your playing in a way that makes you sound stiff and mannered.

LC: I certainly hope not.

BK: What kind of music did you listen to in your formative teenage years?

LC: Well, I grew up in the sticks. So I listened to a very limited amount…not very much classical, not much jazz. But I had a guitar teacher who had a great record collection of jazz people, and those were the core.

Where I grew up was so provincial – how can I describe this – I was more focused on the guitar and different types of guitar playing before I understood the subtleties of jazz playing per se. I didn’t know there was a history of jazz; I didn’t know it had roots going back, maybe, to the 19th century. I just wasn’t aware of that. I was not aware at all that jazz was essentially an African American music. I was just listening to people play it, and I liked what I was hearing. I was totally naïve. The first Wes Montgomery album I got, I thought it was incredible, whatever it was.

BK: I’ve read that you started playing locally and regionally in the Pacific Northwest in the early 60s. Were you a fan of – or perhaps even involved in – the scene that included groups like The Wailers, The Sonics, The Viceroys, Don & the Goodtimes, Paul Revere and the Raiders?

LC: That’s a pretty hip question.

You couldn’t avoid it at my age. It was what we called “youth music.” And it was nice. Rather than playing what my parents wanted to hear, I was motivated to play what I wanted to hear.

I played in a band that was like The Wailers and The Dynamics. I was interested in all music. And in regard to young people’s music at that time, we were all networking. When I was in college in Seattle, for one year I shared a residence with the lead guitar player of The Wailers. Back then, a lot of us got into playing through rock’n'roll, more simple-oriented stuff. It was more youth-oriented stuff, which is neither bad nor good. And that kind of opened the door to jazz. Because both jazz and rock’n'roll have the blues as a foundation. There’s a living connection that way.

BK: The Lift almost sounds like a sampler of your abilities, a collection that displays your various musical interests. There’s a track that has the sound and feel of early Led Zeppelin; there’s some boogaloo-style stuff with some tasty organ work; there are solo acoustic pieces. When putting together the album, was it specifically your intention to present a cross-section of your stylistic abilities, or is that simply how it turned out?

LC: It’s the way it turned out.

Basically we went in there saying, “okay, if Jimi Hendrix had stayed alive, what are some of the things he might be doing?” Because Hendrix really set the standard for creative, electric, overdriven playing.

BK: And toward the end, he tipped his hand toward a greater interest in jazz…

LC: Toward the end, yeah. But we’ll never know. Charlie Christian died even younger.

BK: From the note on the back of the album, I see that The Lift was recorded in just a couple of days. And the photo suggests that much of it was cut live in the studio. Is that correct, and to what degree did spontaneity play a role in how the album turned out?

LC: That’s what it was; it was all about spontaneity. Learning the stuff right then and there.

I was actually doing a regular gig down the street from Berkeley, in Oakland. I was doing a project at Yoshi’s club. So after I’d do my gig at Yoshi’s, I’d go up to Oakland and play a couple of hours, in the wee hours of the morning. It was fun.

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Album Reviews: Brand X — Is There Anything About? / Missing Period / Live at the Roxy L.A.

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

It’s a popular (and not wholly inaccurate) contention that Phil Collins did his best work with Genesis in the immediate years after Peter Gabriel left, and then – around the release of ABACAB, headed for the ditch creatively. Of course the commercial approach reaped rewards in terms of album sales; once Genesis quite being challenging (and, I’d say, interesting) they shifted a helluva lot more product.

Still, there’s no knocking Collins’ ability as a drummer, and in fact his musical taste in those days was a mite better than he sometimes got credit for. For several years he was deeply involved in a side project, a jazz fusion band called Brand X. As it happened, Collins was an on-again, off-again member of this aggregation, owing largely to his commitment in his other band.

Being that it’s jazz fusion with which we’re concerning ourselves here, it’s safe to assume that Brand X rarely troubled the upper reaches of the album charts. Though in fact four of their eight studio LPs – including 1982′s Is There Anything About? the last to feature Collins – did in fact crack the US Top 200 charts, albeit briefly.

That 1982 album – actually culled from session tapes after Collins had left – has recently been reissued by Gonzo Multimedia, along with two other Brand X titles. Missing Period is a 1997 collection of “lost session tapes,” and 1996′s Live at the Roxy L.A. is a bootleg-quality document of a live Brand X gig from 1979.

Belying its cobbled-together nature, Is There Anything About? features some catchy fusion playing; highlights include the opening track, “Ipanemia” and the synth-based “TMIU-ATGA” (short for “they’re making it up as they go along”). Collins is in fine form, but the real stars here are guitarist John Goodsall and fretless bass virtuoso Percy Jones. Jones’ work on “Swan Song” suggests what The Police might’ve sounded like had they given weight to their own jazz inclinations. The band’s approach is perhaps best summed up on the aptly-titled “Modern, Noisy and Effective” (though the signature melody sounds, er, borrowed).

Missing Period collects session tapes dating from the band’s earliest days. Here they sound a bit like a more hyperactive version of Phil Manzanera‘s Quiet Sun; the various instruments all seem to be soloing at once, yet somehow it all (just) hangs together. “Dead Pretty” might not have impressed Genesis fans of the era, but for anyone who enjoys knotty, precise jazz fusion with equal emphasis on chops and melody, it’s impressive stuff. “Kugelblitz” recalls Frank Zappa‘s work around the same time. Collins and his bandmates are on fire and they play with a mix of reckless abandon and cold precision. Overall, though, the album seems to focus primarily on the work of keyboardist Robin Lumley. And that’s just fine. Comprised of six longish tunes (none clocks in under seven minutes), Missing Period flies by quickly, but deserves repeat plays.

Judging by their prowess in the recording studio, it’s intriguing to wonder how Brand X would have sounded in a live onstage setting. Billed in the liner notes as capturing Brand X “at the peak of the band’s career,” Live at the Roxy L.A. is little more than an authorized bootleg. That said, it’s not at all unlistenable if one accepts it for what t is, and appreciates the rarity of its contents. The band runs through numbers from its various albums, and though the perfomrance is intially a bit on the subdued side, once the players warm up (around the thirds track, “Don’t Make Waves”) they firing on all cylinders. The presence of Collins’ lead vocals on some cuts plants the music more in a pop vein than would otherwise be the case, but it’s still arguably superior to most of Duke (Genesis’ 1980 release).

It’s good to have these three generally overlooked releases back in print. The Gonzo reissues don’t add new liner notes or bonus tracks, but the original albums all have enough winning qualities to justify straight, no-frills reissues.

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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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