Archive for the ‘instrumental’ Category

Album Review: Art Pepper — Neon Art, Vols. 1-3

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

Art Pepper was a white jazz saxophonist who specialized in a West Coast style of jazz popular in the 1950s and 60s. His catalog is vast and varied; his recorded career as bandleader began in the early 1950s on the Savoy label. His work as a sideman found him working with many of the jazz greats including Hoagy Carmichael, Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard and a host of others; in his early days he was part of the Stan Kenton Orchestra.

Pepper died in 1982, leaving behind not only that catalog of sixty-plus albums, but a treasure trove of finished yet unreleased material. His widow Laurie Pepper created an imprint of her own – waggishy dubbed Widow’s Taste Music – to release the best of this previously-unheard music, In 2012 three of these were released on vinyl by Omnivore Recordings as volumes of a series titled Neon Art. Now in 2015, these titles are out on CD. Drawing from live performances in 1981, Neon Art Vols. 1-3 are crystal-clear recordings of Pepper playing onstage with some very talented cats.

The first disc in the series features only two pieces – “Red Car” and “Blues for Blanche,” but both tunes time out at around 17 minutes. The thrilling performances feature Pepper on alto sax, joined by the stunningly expressive piano work of Milcho Leviev, and the rhythm section of bassist David Williams and Carl Burnett on drums. Built around blues figures, both tracks on Neon Art Vol. 1 come from a single performance at a small Seattle venue, Parnell’s.

The second and third volumes in the series feature cuts that are sometimes shorter, sometimes even longer than the ones on the first volume. Neon Art Vol. 3‘s “Make a List (Make a Wish)” clocks in at over 24 minutes. But never does the energy or excitement flag. Pepper’s band on the second and third discs – sourced from four November 1981 performances in Japan – again features drummer Burnett and bassist Williams, but the piano chair is ably filled by George Cables. (Vol. 1‘s liner notes chronicle the defection of Williams after the Seattle dates, but he did return for the tour of Japan.)

The Japan dates, though recorded in concert halls, retain the intimate you-are-there vibe of the Seattle sides. When pianist Cables doubles Pepper’s sax lines, it’s a thing of beauty; when the two diverge, one comping while the other solos, it’s inviting and intriguing. As is standard with jazz, each player takes his turn in the spotlight, the tunes winding and twisting before returning to the head to wrap up. While most of the tracks are quite melodic, Pepper and band are unafraid to set out on music explorations that embody the hard-bop style, sometimes even venturing into free jazz territory. But the bulk of the music on these three volumes stays in a very accessible bag.

The early 1980s was no classic era for jazz; the worst elements of “smooth jazz” had rendered much of what passed for jazz as musical wallpaper, late-night FM musical fodder of the most blandly inoffensive kind. But Pepper’s jazz of that era as represented on the three Neon Art albums is nothing of the sort. Folding in elements of soul jazz (especially on the Seattle dates) and hard bop, Art Pepper’s music is finely textured, subtle and exciting. Fans of classic jazz that leans in a melodic, non-avant garde direction would do well to pick up all three of these new Art Pepper titles.

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Festival Review: Big Ears Festival 2015, Part 2

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Next, it was drone time. The minimalist work of the duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen (joined by three additional musicians) was delivered in the bright, daylit room at the Knoxville Museum of Art. The hypnotic vibe of the group’s work lent itself to simply sitting back and closing one’s eyes. But AWVFTS was having none of that: mid-set, they stopped (“Usually, we never stop playing during a set,” they told us) and asked everyone to stand up instead. Fair enough, but I for one found it more enjoyable when relaxing.

Apparently the Kronos Quartet (described elsewhere as “the hardest working act” at the festival, and rightly so) didn’t have the opportunity to rehearse much with avant garde legend Laurie Anderson before their set. You wouldn’t have known it, though. A near-capacity Tennessee Theatre audience witnessed the somber “Landfall,” a work by Anderson that recounted her personal experiences with Hurricane Katrina. There’s always a winking, slyly humorous undercurrent to Anderson’s work that belies her reputation as an avant garde performer, and the Quartet conveyed a similarly informal approach, even while following a written score.

Max Richter is a modern classical composer, and his “The Blue Notebooks” is a piece performed on piano with string accompaniment, and a seated woman in formal evening dress reading brief written passages in lovely “RP” English. Modern classical has an undeserved reputation for being solely atonal, angular and jarring; Richter’s work is nothing of the kind: it’s elegiac, stately, beautiful and evocative. “Infra” did not feature the spoken-word component but was equally enjoyable. The intimate setting of The Bijou (an old theatre that has been home to many great performances I’ve enjoyed in the past) was the perfect setting for Richter’s work.

Unfortunately, by this point in the weekend, the cold that I had been denying was starting to overwhelm me. I stuck around long enough to take in part of tUnE-yArDs‘ set, and I am sure that had I been able to stay for all of it, I would have enjoyed it thoroughly. Brightly-colored costumes and a stage setup that put percussion out front (literally) were the hallmarks of their lively, uptempo set. They reminded me of a less-mannered Talking Heads with far more appealing vocalists, and their playful manner seemed focused squarely on having a good time and sharing that with the gathered audience.

By the time Sunday rolled around, it was all I could do to stay vertical, the head cold having overtaken me completely. I ventured down by the railroad tracks to the funky Standard for a performance (“installation” might be a more apt term) by Tyondai Braxton, presenting a work he calls “HIVE.” Braxton’s avant garde bona fides are without question: his father is jazz multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton. The younger Braxton’s work is based equally on percussion and modern technology. “HIVE” was originally commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum, but its arty beginnings belie its modern, techno-leaning qualities. Five musicians, each seated atop a table-sort-of-thing, are armed with all manner of sound-producing devices. Lights and fog are part of the scene, too, placing “HIVE” somewhere between highbrow art installation and all-night rave soundtrack. And it was very loud.

Unfortunately, after that, it was home and bed for me. As a result, I missed sets by Bill Frisell and others, but my overall impression of Big Ears Festival 2015 was one of awe. Big Ears is easily the best-run major music festival in the region. Bringing together the best characteristics of a festival (wide variety of artists in a compact area and timeframe) while minimizing or even eliminating its less-appealing aspects (crushing crowds, intimidating security, AC Entertainment and everyone else involved with Big Ears continues to do an amazing job, and in doing so they attract not only discerning music fans, but top-notch talent the likes of which are rarely seen nor heard in such a setting.

Bringing together this caliber and variety of notable and groundbreaking musical artists is in and of itself a staggering feat. Doing so outside, say, New York or San Francisco is even more impressive. Taking the expertise gained from successful staging of massive festivals (Bonnaroo, for example, takes in more than 80,000 concertgoers) and applying those skills to a relatively small-scale, city-based festival, AC Entertainment has created and sustained one of the most remarkable festivals ever in Big Ears. For anyone interested in where “serious” music is headed in the 21st century, a springtime trip to Knoxville Tennessee can provide some clear direction. I hope I attend again in 2016.

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Festival Review: Big Ears Festival 2015, Part 1

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Typically, I don’t make a point of attending “kickoff events” at the start of music festivals. My thinking is that they’re generally an opportunity to spotlight the event sponsors and so forth. That’s all well and good, but it’s not, strictly speaking, entertainment. But since I had gone to Moogfest 2014‘s opening event and enjoyed it, I figured, why not do the same in Knoxville. Plus, I was there, and no other music events were scheduled until later.

Lucky me. True, the event did include some speeches, but even those were worthwhile. Festival organizer Ashley Capps (he of AC Entertainment, the outfit behind Bonnaroo and many other high-profile festivals) gave a heartfelt speech that helped attendees understand the answers to two reasonable questions: Why Big Ears? And why Knoxville?

But the real highlights of the opening event were four musical performances. First off, Kronos Quartet and pipa virtuoso Wu Man staged a “popup concert.” Rather than make use of the stage, they set up their stools and music stands on the floor in front of it – all of six feet from where I had situated myself – and played a brief, unamplified set. It was sublime, and held the audience (a near-packed room at the Knoxville Museum of Art’s Ann and Steve Bailey Hall) spellbound.

After that, we were treated to onstage performances from Hildur Guðnadóttir (futuristic-looking cello and vocals treated by sonic effects and looping), a sight-impaired teenage pianist Tate Garcia (an exceedingly clever mashup of his own arrangement of works by Scott Joplin, George Harrison and Chopin), and finally vocalist Breyon Ewing. In less than an hour’s time, the gathered audience had the essence of Big Ears Festival laid out in front of them. Things were off to a superb start.

Igor Stravinsky‘s “The Rite of Spring” is one of those classical pieces that you know, even if you don’t know you know it. A reading of the work formed the centerpiece of the 1940 Walt Disney film Fantasia, and the onscreen visuals that accompanied it (dinosaurs, not Mickey Mouse) seared it into the memory of those who witnessed it. The work remains popular, and received perhaps its most innovative and outré reading by The Bad Plus on their 2014 album The Rite of Spring. The group (pianist Ethan Iverson, upright bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King) is nominally a jazz trio. But they’re jazz musicians playing classical music, and playing it with a rock (or progressive rock) level of power.

Whole sections of the Bad Plus’ take on Stravinsky’s work might be unrecognizable to those familiar with the original work, but the trio’s reinvention of the piece was thrilling; one couldn’t turn away. The interplay between the three was remarkable; even though they were working from sheet music (as did nearly every Big Ears performer I saw, yet another thing that makes this festival unlike any other I’ve witnessed), there was a jazz musician’s mentality of unspoken communication at work.

The trio followed up Stravinsky’s work with a set of their own original material; avant garde rarely gets as accessible as The Bad Plus.

Later on Big Ears’ first night, I caught a set at The Square room featuring guitarist Steve Gunn and his band. Musically conventional – at least compared to most of the other acts on the bill – Gunn and band showcased the guitarist’s impressive fretwork. Gunn’s not a flashy guitarist, not at all. But his powerful music was the closest thing to rock music on the entire three-day schedule. It was also plenty loud, not that that’s a band thing. (No doubt Swans were much louder, but having witnessed part of their punishing set at 2013′s Bonnaroo Festival, I made the decision to avoid a repeat.)

After a visit to a local used record store (something I try to do in every city I visit, because every town has its own used-record character), my Saturday list of performances began with Kronos Quartet onstage at the massive and beautiful Tennessee Theatre. Joined by Americana artist Sam Amidon on vocals and banjo, the Quartet applied their multigenre-spanning expertise to folk songs. At this point I thought to myself, “I don’t think I’ve ever taken in so much live classical instrumentation at one time before.” But it was lovely, and I even sat still for music that included banjo (one of my least-favorite instruments).

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Rick Wakeman, Cannonball Adderley, and Me

Friday, April 3rd, 2015

Today I’m going to indulge in a brief change of pace. I’d like to tell you about a pair of reissues with which I am involved. I won’t be reviewing either title – what would be the point? – but suffice to say that if I didn’t think they are superb albums, I wouldn’t have written the liner notes.

The first, reissued earlier this week, is Rick Wakeman‘s final album for A&M Records, Rhapsodies. This 2LP set capped his association with Herb Alpert‘s label; the Yes keyboard player’s first album – The Six Wives of King Henry VIII – remains his best-selling (and arguably best) album, but Rhapsodies is a successfully varied lot as well. Though he had employed vocalists on some of his earlier A&M albums (even Rick Wakeman’s Criminal Record, another album reissued with liner notes by yours truly), for Rhapsodies, Wakeman stuck to his strengths: piano, organ and synthesizer. A crack band is on hand, and as often as not they play in what might be termed a disco fashion, but the results are not nearly as gruesome as that description might suggest. Flashes of humor are shot through the album, and save for an interesting misstep (a bizarre reading of Gershwin‘s “Rhapsody in Blue”), Rhapsodies is a highly recommended album. My liner notes contextualize the album and even sort of review the tracks therein.

Out next week is an album that’s near and dear to my heart. I’ve written often about how the music of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley changed my life, serving as my adult gateway into jazz. (Audrey and I even had “Mercy Mercy Mercy” played at our wedding last year.) Adderley’s final project was also his most ambitious: a sprawling double LP that combined Broadway, blues, folk tale, avant/free jazz, funk and more. Big Man: The Legend of John Henry was met with mixed reviews upon its release shortly after Adderley’s untimely death. But it’s a fascinating album, with a modern-day allegory that (to my mind, anyway) spoke to the Black Power concerns of the early 1970s through the retelling of a Reconstruction-era folk tale about the “steel drivin’ man.” Famed actor Robert Guillaume (known to a generation as Benson, a core character on Soap and later a self-titled sitcom) got one of his first big gigs providing vocals for this album. And Mr. Guillaume consented to an interview with me, which formed the basis of my extensive liner notes. I also did the package design for the reissue (which includes the entire work’s libretto) and got my first (co-) producer’s credit on an album.

At present I’m writing liner notes for another upcoming reissue, Iron Butterfly‘s classic Ball LP, which will be out later in 2015. With luck, there will be other projects to tell you about in future days.

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Album Review: Harvey Mandel — Snake Box

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

Meaning absolutely no disrespect to the artists to whom I refer, the music scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s was filled with what one might call second-string guitarists. These guys (and at this point in history, nearly the entire roster was male) weren’t on the notoriety level of Jimmy Page, John McLaughlin, or Eric Clapton. But at their best, they were as good, even if their music was known (much less heard) by fewer listeners. Some of the names that come to mind include fusion great Larry Coryell; three of pre-pedestrian Fleetwood Mac‘s guitarists (Peter Green, Danny Kirwan, Jeremy Spencer); and Canned Heat‘s Harvery Mandel (I am certain readers can think of many others).

Alongside his work with Canned Heat (he was a member of the group’s “second classic” lineup circa 1969-1970, and rejoined briefly on several later – and less noteworthy – occasions), Mandel maintained a solo career. Between 1968 and 1972, Mandel released six solo albums. Five from this period – all but the ’72 release Get Off in Chicago – have now been released in a set titled Snake Box (Mandel’s nickname is “The Snake”). While all of the original vinyl albums (Cristo Redentor from 1968, Righteous from 1969, 1970′s Games Guitars Play, 1971′s Baby Batter, and The Snake from 1972) can still be acquired for small sums (i.e. often under $5), none of the albums has had a recent CD/digital release. So the new box set presents them all together, each housed in an LP reproduction style sleeve, in one tidy package.

Snake Box also includes a rare onstage recording called Live at the Matrix, a set from Christmas Eve 1968 in San Francisco that features an all-star lineup of Frisco locals: Mandel with Jerry Garcia, Elvin Bishop, Steve Miller, Mickey Hart, and John Chambers.

Mandel was and remains a guitarist of great versatility, and one with a wide stylistic vision. Nominally a blues player, he sounds comfortable in any number of musical idioms. Widely recognized as an originator of the two-hand tapping technique (see also: Eddie Van Halen and Stanley Jordan), Mandel sounded as comfortable playing jazz-inflected licks as he did within the context of blues (or blues rock).

Mandel’s ability to trade in multiple styles resulted in albums that could seem all over the place. His interests and influences on these disc are so vast that it’s quite difficult to pin down a Mandel style. As often as not working with an ensemble, Mandel created albums that were cohesive wholes, not merely showcases for his guitar playing. For example, the first track on his first album, the title track of Christo Redentor, features a wordless female soprano vocal that sounds eerily like a Theremin. And the track’s lush string arrangement (complete with harps) is pretty well outside the rock idiom. From there Mandel left-turns into “Before Six,” a tune that anticipates early Blood, Sweat and Tears, and sounding not unlike The Paul Butterfield Blues Band crossed with, say, Cold Blood.

For those who haven’t heard Mandel’s solo work, the nearest artist to whom he might be compared is Shuggie Otis, another musician of singularly wide musical vision. Mandel’s playing is often exciting, featuring thickly sustained notes that are both economical and expressive at once. For his albums, he enlisted some legendary talent, including Graham Bond, Larry Taylor, Eddie Hoh, Pete Drake, and Emil Richards (to name but a few). Vocals show up occasionally, but Mandel seems to understand his strengths (and they are many), sticking to those.

Dave Thompson‘s liner note essay is informative, but the reader may be left wishing the box’s producers had given him more space. But that’s really a minor complaint, as the music on Snake Box largely speaks for itself. Snake Box is a treasure trove of heretofore underappreciated gems. Harvey Mandel is an artist who starts with blues and then pushes far beyond the supposed boundaries of the genre. Those receptive to such an approach are well advised to dive into this box set.

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Album Review: The Ben Webster Quintet — Soulville

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

The folks at Vinyl Me Please have struck gold once again. The mail-order subscription label has carved a unique niche in the music marketplace with its carefully-chosen and -curated monthly LP releases, and its latest offering – The Ben Webster Quintet‘s 1957 Soulville – continues the label’s trend of exquisite reissues.

Tenor saxophonist Webster had played with Duke Ellington for many years, but by the time of this album – the fourth under his own name – Webster had made a name for himself as a soloist and bandleader in his own right. With a who’s-who band that featured Oscar Peterson on piano, bassist Ray Brown, Stan Levey on drums, and guitarist Herb Ellis, Soulville is peak Webster. The songs vary from understated, bluesy workouts to more uptempo cuts, and throughout, everyone takes his turn at soloing.

The aptly-named title track is cool and understated, built around a blues framework. “Late Night” is a blues as well, but a much more sexy, uptempo one that swings. The romantic “Time on My Hands” features some exquisitely expressive sax work from Webster. “Where Are You” is skillful, subdued, late-night minimalistic jazz. The familiar “Makin’ Whoopee” is given a suitably playful reading by Webster, with solid support from is band mates.

A 2003 reissue of Soulville (on another label) appended the set with three bonus tracks that featured Webster on (sprightly if loose-limbed) piano; one of those cuts (“Boogie Woogie”) is included on the Vinyl Me Please reissue; other than that, it’s a straight reissue of the original Verve LP. It’s noteworthy (and odd) that the new LP doesn’t have a paper label; instead, the Verve logo and other info that would have been printed is instead tooled directly into the black vinyl.

The heavy-gauge LP comes in a deluxe paper sleeve, and – as with all Vinyl Me Please reissues – includes a poster featuring new artwork, and an overleaf sleeve that features brief notes from VMP’s Tyler Barstow. And as ever, the overleaf includes a recipe for a cocktail that Barstow believes well-matched to the music; in this case it’s a very old-school Gin and Tonic. I can vouch for its successful pairing with Ben Webster’s Soulville.

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Hundred-word Reviews: January 2015, Part 4

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

There’s a never-ending stream of new music, so it’s time once again for some hundred-worders to work off some of my backlog. As always, these all deserve full reviews, but with limited time and resources, 100 words will have to do. I’ll cut to the chase. Today I look at five new releases form indie (i.e. not on a big label) artists.

Jason Sadites – Tales
The prog community is rife with all sorts of cross-fertilization, collaboration and creativity. Guitarist Jason Sadites is well plugged into this scene; his list of collaborators on his previous four releases reads like a who’s who of progressive rock. On Tales, he’s joined by the ubiquitous Marco Minnemann (drums) and bassist Ric Fierabracci. The eight accessible instrumental tracks on Tales have enough melodicism to hold the interest of a general audience, while the players execute enough musical twist and turns to keep prog fans’ attention. The album’s excellent mix makes the listener feel as if s/he is in the studio.

Arrica Rose & the …’s – Wavefunction
Gently rocking, catchy indie rock is the order of the day here. Rose’s smoky, alluring and slightly breathy voice is mixed out front, with the band sometimes sounding as if they’re in the next room. Rose and producer Daniel Garcia are confident enough of her pipes to keep the production free form effects on her vocals. Rose is up-front about the importance of song sequencing; the tracks on Wavefunction are arranged around two different moods. The later tracks are more subdued and contemplative, but Rose’s voice is the glue holding everything together. “Love You Like That” is the standout track.

Abbie Barrett & the Last Date – The Triples
In 2011, I made an exception and reviewed a three-song EP by Barrett; the tunes were strong enough – and showed enough promise – to warrant the coverage. Her preferred format continued after that, but this disc offers nine tracks, half of which are new. The promise suggested on the earlier EPs is delivered upon here. Fans of New Pornographers – at least ones who enjoy the more rocking end of their oeuvre – should check this one out. And those who missed the earlier discs will find their highlights collected here. You can expect more good things from Barrett.

David Bierman Overdrive – Standard Skies
On Standard Skies, the former Junk Monkey guitarist presents an indie-rock perspective on classic melodic midwestern rock. Catchy, near-singalong melodies are placed into straightforward arrangements that feel warm and intimate. When Bierman plays it up close and personal (“Clock”), he’s effective, but when he rocks out (“Superhuman”), that feels every bit as authentic. Subtle shades of Gin Blossoms are given added weight by the Cheap Trick-like energy of Bierman’s band; the word “Overdrive” is part of their name for good reason. Every tune has a strong hook, and that’s no small feat. Apparently live gigs by the group are rare.

Anton Vezuv – Into the Sea
In 2012, I was turned onto the wonderful guitar pop of Budapest-based The Poster Boy. I had always assumed that there would be good music coming out of the former Eastern bloc, but most of it would never reach the ears of most westerners. So I was pleased when one of The Poster Boy’s members referred me to Anton Vezuv. (That’s a band name, not a person.) Leader Istvan Gyulai sings in English, and is pointedly credited for the band’s “sad songs.” I’d suggest the words wistful and melancholy instead: wonderfully textured songs in classic tradition with a rainy-day vibe.

Still more capsule reviews to come.

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Hundred-word Reviews: January 2015, Part 3

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

There’s a never-ending stream of new music, so it’s time once again for some hundred-worders to work off some of my backlog. As always, these all deserve full reviews, but with limited time and resources, 100 words will have to do. I’ll cut to the chase. Today’s five all feature guitarists, but the styles vary widely.

Udi Levy – A Sudden Transition
A Sudden Transition is melody-forward power trio excursion in the manner of such shredders as Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson. Equal parts technical finesse and dogged determination to keep the melodic quotient high result in a winning album from guitarist Levy. Here he’s joined only by bass and drum, and that’s enough. Occasionally he veers a bit too close to his heroes – the tasty original “The Fast Lane” sounds like an Satriani tune (circa Surfing With the Alien) you just haven’t heard before – but Levy’s chops are undeniable. Fans of Jeff Beck and Steve Vai will enjoy this.

Steve Hunter – Tone Poems Live
For me, Steve Hunter will always be treasured as the guy who – with Dick Wagner – gave us the transcendent live “Intro” to Lou Reed‘s Rock’n'Roll Animal live album. These days he’s in more restrained blues rocker mode. Hunter is backed here by some of the best in the business, including Tony Levin. The album was cut live in the studio, and filmed for a DVD (available separately). Nine sturdy originals sit nicely aside covers of Peter Gabriel (“Solsbury Hill”) and Steve Ray Vaughan (“Riviera Paradise”). Tone Poems Live is a solid collection of flawlessly executed instrumentals with heart.

The Vibrators – Punk Mania: Back to the Roots
One thing about the genuine, authentic punk ethos is that it never, ever relies on nostalgia or looking backward. And that makes a “return to the roots” project by a punk group a bit problematic, perhaps even a bit suspect. The Vibratorslast album collected collaborations with a bunch of their pals; this latest disc attempts to recapture the fore if the band’s early days. The thing is, Punk Mania! is reasonably successful on that score. From the politically incorrect opener (“Retard”) right through the bonus tracks (including a cover of Flamin’ Groovies‘ “Slow Death,” the band still rocks out.

Carl Verheyen – Mustang Run
One can’t ( and shouldn’t) begrudge a musician – or his publicist – for flogging his credits in the press kit; how you got this far is a relevant subject. But the fact that Carl Verheyen had three long-term stints with Supertramp has zero to do sonically with the music on Mustang Run. His work has certainly given him an impressive Rolodex: the album includes instrumental support from Greg Bissonette, Simon Phillips, Chad Wackerman and Bill Evans (the sax player, not the dead jazz pianist). What you’ll find here is Steely Dan-ish instrumental stuff: lots of precision, not much fire.

Marty Walsh – The Total Plan
Here’s another guitarist whose music doesn’t sound like his pedigree. In this case, it’s pop-jazz guitarist Marty Walsh, who was involved with Supertramp (them again!) in the post-hits period. Walsh’s many guests get solo showcases, but it’s still the guitarist’s show all down the line. The Total Plan features more uptempo and rocking tunes than one night expect, and Walsh’s songwriting chops (he wrote or co-wrote all ten cuts) is undeniably impressive. The melodies – mostly but not exclusively in the form of guitar licks – stay in the listener’s head after the songs end. This one’s worth seeking out.

Yet more capsule reviews to come.

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Best of 2014: Concerts

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

One of the many pleasures associated with living in the small mountain city of Asheville NC is access to great live music. I grew up in the 70s and 80s in Atlanta, where going to a concert often meant traveling to a sports arena, and watching the tiny performers from the nosebleed seats (where you’d get a “contact high” from the pot smoke).

Here in Asheville, I go to shows that have anywhere from a few dozen to just over a thousand people in the audience, and the bands are up close and personal (especially when I have a photo pass). Because my town is such a go-to destination for touring acts, I get the pleasure of seeing high profile performances in small venues. That just wouldn’t happen in other cities.

I go to a lot of shows here in town. That said, I travel to regional festivals fairly often as well. Looking back on 2014 – an especially eventful year for me all ’round – three of my four favorite concert events were festivals.

Big Ears
Designed as a relatively small-scale festival with a decided emphasis on the edgy, this Knoxville TN festival presented a long list of fascinating acts, few of whom do the festival circuit as a rule. The scale of the event meant that it felt almost like a series of house concerts. Highlights included Marc Ribot, David Greenberger, Steve Reich, Television, Dean Wareham, Rachel Grimes, and Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood.

Moogfest
This one’s a sentimental favorite: it takes place in my hometown; it honors the late, great Robert A. Moog (a man whom I was lucky enough to meet a number of times), and it features some great music. Without a doubt the highlight of 2014′s Moogfest for me was meeting and interviewing Keith Emerson, but the three-day event (all within walking distance of my home) was packed with memorable experiences.

Musical Box
For me, Genesis lost their magic not long after the departures of Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett. This Canadian tribute group recreates said magic in a most authentic fashion, both visually and aurally. It’s a total experience, and from the packed house at The Orange Peel that night, I’d say that classic 70s progressive rock still has a significant following.

Transfigurations
In celebration of ten years of success, Asheville’s Harvest Records staged a festival that leaned toward the delightfully eclectic. For me the highlights were Quilt (modern psych), The Clean (Antipodean janglepop), Reigning Sound (garage rock), and Lee Fields & the Expressions (soul). Transfigurations featured all of the best things about a festival, and none of the negatives.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t make note of the Zombies show here in Asheville as well. Four decades on, Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (and their bandmates) have still got it.

More 2014 best-ofs to come.

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Album Review: Wadada Leo Smith et. al. — Red Hill

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Lots of people I know – the ones who like jazz, anyway – tend to prefer Miles Davis‘ music best from the era around Birth of the Cool. Me, as a rock guy, I’m much more fascinated with the work he did around the time of Jack Johnson. And this avant jazz album from trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith sounds to these ears like that exploratory-era Miles, without John McLaughlin (or anyone, for that matter) on guitar. I can’t define this music much more sharply, but if you dig the musical references, you’ll quite likely appreciate the music on Red Hill.

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