Archive for the ‘instrumental’ Category

Short Cuts: July Mini-reviews, Part Two

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Here’s another entry in my short-review series; these three are instrumental albums.

Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Boy Named Charlie Brown
An entire generation grew up with the music of Vince Guaraldi, becoming familiar with he melodic brand of music even if they (we) might have claimed not to like jazz. As the background music of the enduring and popular Peanuts cartoons, Guaraldi’s piano-based tunes reinforced the onscreen emotional content of the animated characters and action. The most popular entry in the series remains A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Fantasy/Concord reissued the accompanying soundtrack several times, most recently in a cleverly designed die-cut package.

But an earlier program was made, and it too had a soundtrack featuring Guaraldi’s trio (the pianist plus drummer Colin Bailey and bassist Monty Budwig). But for a host of complicated reasons, A Boy Named Charlie Brown never actually aired on television. Yet in an unusual move, Fantasy Records (Guaralidi’s label at the time) did release its soundtrack, originally titled Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown. Subsequent pressings played down the connection to the unaired program and shortened the album’s title.

The music is just how anyone who’s ever heard a note of “Linus and Lucy” remembers it: emotionally expressive without the use of lyrics, varied in tone and style to fit the demands of the program’s scenes. The trio’s music bears close listening, but is effective as (dare I say it) background music as well. The 2014 reissue appends an unreleased alternate take of “Baseball Theme” and Guaraldi’s reading of the standard “Fly Me to the Moon,” though the latter has noting to do with Peanuts. The original edit of the accompanying animated film is lost – presumably forever – but the music remains, and it’s delightful as ever. (A limited edition orange vinyl pressing – with the original Jazz Impressions artwork – is also available.)

Express Rising – Express Rising
Music is filled with the work of outsider artists. Decidedly and determinedly avoiding the mainstream, those following their singular and idiosyncratic paths create and release music wholly free of commercial considerations. Most of these artists are, by definition, underground, neither seeking nor finding mass acceptance. Some of these artists are quite prolific: pop auteur R. Stevie Moore has self-released literally hundred of albums. Others turn out music at a much more measured pace.

One example of the latter is Express Rising. The inscrutable Dante Carfagna is Express Rising, but nobody can tell you much beyond that. What is known is that Carfagna’s earlier release featured breakbeats and sampling, two things you’ll find very little of on Express Rising. Moody, hypnotic, gauzy, impressionistic, melancholy: those are just a few of the adjectives that come to mind while listening to this album of instrumental (with occasional wordless vocalizing) music. Real instruments feature prominently here: Wurlitzer electric piano, acoustic guitar and gentle tapping of a drum kit.

But for something that at first glance seems forbiddingly outré, Express Rising is exceedingly tuneful and accessible. More textured and nuanced than new age, gentler than rock, the album’s eleven tracks are fully-thought-out musical excursion, modest in their approach but memorable. By design, the package provides little information, but the press kit offered this suitably oblique nugget: “Carfagna had this to say about himself and about Express Rising: ‘My last record came out ten years ago. Much has changed and much has not.’” The modest and assuming yet lovely Express Rising is well worth seeking out.

Percy Jones – Cape Catastrophe
Outside jazz/fusion/prog circles, the name Percy Jones isn’t well known. But within that rarefied world, Jones’s reputation looms large. As a key member of pioneering fusion group Brand X, Jones’ rubbery bass lines were an integral component of that group’s sonic attack.

After Brand X ended, the Welsh bassist relocated to New York City, where he would eventually cut a solo album called Cape Catastrophe. The album is a decidedly DIY effort, laid down in 1988-89 in a Harlem studio using drum machines, Casio synthesizers,digital delays and loads of Jones’ signature bass.

On the ten-minute-plus title track, clattering drum beats collide with Jones’ kinetic bass figures; “found” spoken word bits float in and out. The overall effect is a but like slightly funkier, equally arty My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Jones’ fretless work on “Slick” is expressive and entrancing, and overall the album sounds far less “dated” than one might expect. “Hex” feels like what The Police might have produced had they all given in to their suppressed prog-rock backgrounds. And the lengthy “Barrio” (which fills more than a third of Cape Catastrophe‘s run time) feels like an inspired, exploratory in-studio live jam, belying its one-guy-with-overdubs origin.

More “short cuts” to come.

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Album Review: Clearlight — Impressionist Symphony

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

With precious few exceptions, attempting a classical-rock hybrid is at worst a fool’s errand, at best a thankless task. All too often, this most ambitious of goals – bringing together fans of intricate, densely layered orchestral work and searing, heavy rock – ends up pleasing no one. At its most insipid, the result is something not unlike Mannheim Steamroller: lite (as opposed to light) classical music with late-period ELO style backbeat grafted on, a sort of Stars on Classical. At its best and most challenging, it’s the work of someone like Glenn Branca, who combines the sheer monstrous power of electric guitar with the sonic complexity and bombast of 20th century classical composition (Krzysztof Penderecki, Conlon Nancarrow).

But on the other hand, considering only those two extremes presents the listener with a false choice: commercial pap versus unlistenable (to most) clatter. In the right hands, it is quite possible to combine the two genres into something that is aesthetically and artistically rewarding while remaining tuneful and accessible. Jeff Lynne did it with the aforementioned Electric Light Orchestra, especially on the group’s second album ELO II: do yourself a favor and listen again to their long version of “Roll Over Beethoven.” And the under-appreciated, backlash-suffering Klaatu created a lovely rock-meets-classical work on Hope, their second album: “Prelude” has the instrumentation of orchestral music plus what Spinal Tap might call the majesty of rock.

Plenty of progressive rockers have made forays at bridging the gap: Yes and the group’s on again off again keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman have both enjoyed some serious success in the genre. And of course The Moody Blues made a career out of the style: their first and best Days of Future Passed is a classic, even if at their worst they may well have inspired Mannheim Steamroller.

Keen readers may note that nearly all of the artists mentioned so far in this essay did their most notable work roughly between 1967 and 1977. For the most part, the goal of hybridizing classical and rock went out of style around the time new wave presented a hybrid of its own (mainstream rock and punk). But the concept’s not dead: the new album Impressionist Symphony breathes some new life into this thought-moribund genre.

Clearlight (no relation to the 60s group on Elektra whose bassist played on The Doors‘ albums) is the nom de musq of Cyrille Verdeaux and the assemblage of musicians who join him in this latest venture. After his music was described to him as “impressionistic,” he decided to create a work that paid homage to the work of visual artists most closely associated with the painting style.

What this means from a programmatic, literal standpoint is that listeners will find eight tracks, each with a bad-pun title referencing one of the masters (sample titles: “Lautrec Too Loose,” “Time is Monet”). My advice, however, is to ignore the silly trappings of the concept and instead enjoy the music and its successful, wordless implementation of its goal. The instrumentation is largely built around Verdeaux’s Kurzweil 2600 keyboard (a real winner at recreating the textures and sonority of classical instruments) plus acoustic violin, joined in strategic places by rock guitar (courtesy of Steve Hillage) and flute (from Hillage’s old Gong bandmate Didier Malherbe), bass, Chapman Stick, Theremin, and assorted percussion in both rock and classical idioms. Oh: and more synthesizers, plus the occasional Bösendorfer piano.

The result is warm and organic, avoiding the large prog/classical pothole of becoming sterile. The music evokes a wide array of emotional tones, and while it’s nice enough as background music, Impressionist Symphony is best enjoyed when given full attention.

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Album Review: Lalo Schifrin — ‘Bullitt’ Soundtrack

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

Here’s a look at another Record Store Day release, available on limited-edition 200-gram vinyl.

If, like me, you grew up in the late 60s and early 70s, this music will feel warmly familiar. This is true even if you’ve never heard it before, or if you have but didn’t know it. Schifrin was a veteran of the jazz scene by the time he got into scoring for TV and motion pictures, and his scores were usually a mix of swinging, soul jazz with punchy horns, the kind of stuff that set the tone for countless crime- and spy- thrillers of the 70s. He’s the staggeringly prolific guy who gave us the earworm “Theme from Mission: Impossible” and many others, and he’s earned critical (four Grammys) and commercial (loads of sales) success for his efforts.

The Bullitt score is very much in line with what you might expect. Those swinging horns and edge-of-mayhem percussion bits lay down the foundation. Depending on the demands of the scene, Schifrin’s score adds vibraphones, and other instruments into the mix. Stinging string sections abound, and – let’s thank Herbie Mann for paving the way – lots of jazzy flute leads. There’s not a load of guitar here, but when it does appear, it’s very much in a mellow, octave-style Wes Montgomery bag. A bit of gurgling soulful organ pops up now and then, and some bright drumming adds splashes of excitement where it’s needed. Hand percussion (shades of Mission: Impossible) is added here and there to good effect. Some avant-garde strumming of the inside of a piano recalls Emerson Lake and Palmer‘s “Take a Pebble,” but only a little. (And the Bullitt soundtrack predates ELP’s debut by a year, so there.

If you’re wondering, “Shifting Gears” (track #2) is the backdrop for the introduction to the famous San Francisco car chase scene, perhaps the most famous of its kind in all cinematic history. But what’s interesting – and more than a little gutsy – is that most of that scene features no music at all. No dialogue, either: just the roar of engines, the squeal of tires and related sounds.

Bullitt didn’t have a lot of romantic scenes, so you won’t find much in the way of mellow mood music here. No, it’s mostly tension building, tension released. Exactly what you’d want from a soundtrack of this ilk, Bullitt delivers on all fronts. A lot of fun, and more consistent in its own way than Isaac Hayes‘ landmark Shaft soundtrack from three years later.

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Album Review: Jaco Pastorius – Modern American Music…Period! The Criteria Sessions

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

This week, I’m quite busy attending Moogfest 2014 here in Asheville NC, the adopted of hometown of both myself and the late Dr. R.A. Moog, for whom the five day event is named. I hope and plan to bring extensive coverage to this blog very soon. In the meantime, here are some shorter-than-usual reviews. Please note that the relative brevity is in and of itself no comment on the quality of the (uniformly excellent) music.

Last Saturday was Earth Day. It was also Record Store Day. As RSD has grown in popularity – I read multiple reports of long waiting lines outside independent record shops across the country – there has been an associated increase in RSD special releases. Most notably (though not always) on vinyl and in exceedingly limited quantities, these releases are also often noted for the quality of the music they contain. Today and tomorrow I’ll review my favorite.

Jaco Pastorius – Modern American Music…Period! The Criteria Sessions
The young wonder that was Jaco seemed to burst onto the scene fully formed. A revolutionary bassist, Pastorius went on to gain great fame as a member of Weather Report, and then – not too many years later – suffer a fatal flame-out, a story that included mental illness, homelessness and deteriorating health. But while he lived, his muse shone brightly, and even before he became so well known, he had created enduring works. This collection of material brings together a great deal of previously-unreleased material, most of it dating from 1975 when he cut demos at Criteria Studios in Miami. A mix of original and cover material (including some by Charlie Parker, an oft-cited influence on the bassist), the set previews material that would surface on Pastorius’ proper debut, his self-titled 1975 LP. By definition less “produced” than the trackso n that set, these demo recordings nonetheless feel full put together. Other than percussion support and Alex Darqui‘s piano and Fender Rhodes, it’s all Jaco all the time here, on electric and upright basses and some more Rhodes. The sound feels a bit muffled throughout – this is a demo, and it is bass, after all – but it’s an eminently listenable set. Pastorius’ lightning runs up and down the fretboard are the highlights here. If you don’t like “busy” bass playing and think bass players should stick to the root note, stay far away from Modern American Music…Period! But if you’re unfamiliar with Jaco yet dig Frank Zappa‘s 70s fusion forays, you’ll find a lot to discover here.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 3 (Part Two)

Friday, April 4th, 2014

The final set of performances we took in at Big Ears 2014 were all centered around the work of minimalist composer Steve Reich. It was all deeply thrilling, visceral, emotional stuff, the kind of thing that’s quite difficult to put into words. It might sounds like a cop-out to say so, but this is music that must be experienced live. I had never heard most of it in recorded form, so I claim no point of reference. But it was stunning and beautiful in ways I find myself unable to articulate. So instead I offer some photos. They don’t quite get at it either, but they’re cool nonetheless. If you find my writing about music at all resonating with you, just trust me when I tell you that this music was amazing. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead solo, then a couple other Reich pieces by Ensemble Signal.




I don’t consider the word “commercial” a pejorative term, but neither do I consider it an essential component of worthwhile music. Big Ears 2014 was for the most part far, far, far from commercial, but I sincerely hope that the organizers made their earnings goals. Because as festivals go, Big Ears 2014 was well-run, incredibly thoughtful in terms of artist selection, and user-friendly in the extreme. An unqualified success. I truly hope they schedule another one soon, and if they do, I’ll make every effort to cover it.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 3 (Part One)

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Dean and Britta
I had already seen Dean Wareham and his wife/collaborator Britta Phillips on Day One of Big Ears 2014. But what was advertised for their Sunday performance – this time at the smaller Bijou – was intriguing enough to get my attention. The plan was to project thirteen of Andy Warhol‘s famous “screen test” films while the musicians provided a real-time soundtrack. I figured it would bear a passing similarity to Marc Ribot‘s accompaniment to the Chaplin film from Day Two.

I was wrong. While Ribot was shrouded in total darkness, leaving our auditory senses the only ones to process his real-time work, Dean and Britta (and band) played on a lit stage. They also provided commentary between the films.

The music was good, but there was a definite self-conscious air about it all. As each piece wound its way toward the end, Wareham could be seen intently studying a flat-panel monitor at the foot of the stage. This, I suspect, had the films on it plus a time clock. So while the songs had been rehearsed out to follow the rough run time of each film, Wareham had to signal the band to (in some cases) vamp an ending a bit longer or (other times) end sooner than planned. That’s all well and good, but seeing the wizards’ goings-on behind the curtain did indeed detract from the experience, making it seem a bit stiff.

Britta’s lead vocal turn on Bob Dylan‘s “I’ll Keep it With Mine” (accompanying a Nico screen test) was a highlight. And the sight of Lou Reed onscreen moved some in the audience to give said screen a standing-o.

One other slight off-note: when I saw Wareham on Friday, he made a comment during the second song to the effect of “There are a lot of photographers up here.” It was said with what I took to be equal parts discomfort and distaste. But I decided to forget about it. Until Sunday, when Wareham took the opportunity between songs to approach the front edge of the stage, lean down toward the front row, and scold a photographer (not me) for shining a light in his eyes. (They weren’t using a flash, and were shooting during the proscribed first three-songs period.) Now, Wareham wasn’t pulling a Cat Power, and nobody likes having a light shone in their eyes, but as I say, the episode added an unsettling feel to the show as a whole.

Rachel Grimes
The vibe could not have been more different when Rachel Grimes took the stage for her shortish yet delightful set. Initially it was just her and a grand piano, with highly melodic and expressive instrumental pieces. It was good enough that – had that been all we got – it would have been well worth the time spent.

But then it got better. Grimes, who was clearly thrilled to be onstage at Big Ears, refreshingly seeming as much a fan as a performer, introduced Helen Money (aka Chesley) on cello. We were thrilled, since Money’s earlier solo show was one we hadn’t been able to make. As she sawed expressively on her cello while Grimes played more of her lovely tunes, it was truly a thing of beauty.

And then it got better still. Sax player Jacob Duncan joined the two women onstage. And – shades of Rashaan Roland Kirk – he played two saxes at once. It was amazing from a technical point of view, but none of that would have mattered if the music wasn’t breathtaking. It was. As was the entire set.

Earth
We then headed over to the tiny Scruffy City Hall for what would be our only show at that venue. The standing-room-only crowd there was – at least in terms of my own Big Ears experience – an anomaly, but we didn’t mind, since we were going to see and hear a buzzworthy band.

About all I can say regarding Earth is that they’re the perfect band for anyone who thinks Black Sabbath plays too fast, or doesn’t drop-tune far enough. The low groan of Earth’s songs offered little in the way of melody or variation. And please understand that I say this as rock fan who’s been to hundreds of concerts, but it was fucking LOUD. And, honestly, pretty boring.

Amusingly, a look around the packed room found countless heads nodding slooowly in time to the music, like a flock of stoner dippy birds. They all reminded me of someone struggling to stay awake but nodding off anyway.

After several samey songs, they announced that the next piece would be “a new one.” We decided to stick around and give it a chance. The piece started off every bit as monotonously slow, uneventful and deafeningly loud as the others, but what we heard felt like an extended intro. So we waited, half-expecting at any moment after an endless droning squall of feedback to hear the drummer count off a quicker one-two-three-four and kick up the tempo.

It never happened. We left.

Coming in the next installment: review of a set of Steve Reich compositions that capped the three-day festival, and some closing thoughts on Big Ears 2014 overall.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 2 (Part 2)

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

After getting (respectively) a headache and a power nap, my sweetheart and I headed back to the Tennessee Theatre, remarking all the while how well-thought-out Big Ears 2014 is as a whole. The four primary venues all lay in a straight line in downtown, the farthest apart being no more than about six blocks. And while the lack of crowds might not have exactly been part of the game plan for the organizers, it sure made things nice for those of us who were attending. No lines, no jostling…just music and good vibes.

Wordless Music Orchestra
I wasn’t altogether sure what to expect from this outfit. The festival guide described it as performances of film music, mostly by Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead), and mostly from a handful of critically well-received films, There Will Be Blood and Norwegian Wood among them.

Greenwood himself wouldn’t figure into this particular performance (that would come on Sunday), and what concertgoers got instead was a smallish ensemble mostly made up of violinists (with some celli, some basses), seated in rows facing each other. The sight of a projection screen above the musicians led me to anticipate scenes from these films flashing by whilst the players ran through the scores, but that was not to be. Instead, the screen merely indicated the name of each piece, its composer, and the film from which it came (if it was a film piece; some weren’t).

Overall, it was a bit monochromatic. The musicians were all fine; excellent, probably. But the music was less varied than I might have hoped, and a good portion of it was melancholy, sometimes almost dreary. The Greenwood pieces were the best; some of the other pieces bordered on the unpleasant. As a way to spent an hour on a Saturday afternoon, it was worthwhile, but the excitement quotient was largely nonexistent.

Steve Reich’s Drumming
Another case of the putative marquee name not being part of the performance, this one was nonetheless a stunning showcase. Featuring a pair of ensembles called So Percussion and nief-norf Project, this concert was one nonstop piece of percussive music. The work started from nearly nothing – one person hitting some small tuned drums – and built to a climax. Then it ebbed, flowed, swelled and receded. Players were added. Players sat down. The music never stopped, and the audience was held in thrall.

Occasionally vocalists were added to the mix; while the piece was totally scored, it had an organic, seemingly improvised feel to it. The vocalists, for example, seemed to seek out the patterns and melodies as opposed to merely react to them. A recognizable pattern would emerge, and then as soon as a listener such as myself started to groove on it, it would disappear into the percussive maelstrom. I’d never seen nor heard anything like Drumming before (and no, the drum circles here in Asheville don’t compare), and felt honored and awed to be in the presence of such an amazing performance.

Television
It was quite a temporal shift, then, to remain in our seats when the next act came out. New wave / no wave/ punk heroes Television took the stage at the Tennessee Theatre. With three-fourths of the classic lineup – guitarist/vocalist Tom Verlaine, drummer Billy Ficca and bassist Fred Smith – the band was joined by longtime Verlaine associate Jimmy Rip (guitarist Richard Lloyd left the band amicably in 2007).

Television have long held an odd place in rock history; they’re often (rightly or wrongly) lumped in with the late 70s NYC scene that included The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and the like. But with two stellar lead guitarists (there’s rarely any “rhythm guitar” in Television songs) the group came on more like the era’s answer to Thin Lizzy. Or something.

Guitar heroics without all the histrionics and posing: that was a big part of what made Television great then, and it’s what brought the house down this night. Rip is an ace player, and did a great job of both satisfying those who wanted to hear the songs done the way Lloyd woulda done ‘em and making sure that people knew he’s his own man with plenty to say in his own playing.

The songs were long, but never meandering; the guitar dialogue between Verlaine and Rip was electric, and Ficca and Smith provided a thrilling yet rock-solid foundation for the guitarists. The group even pulled out a new song that will hopefully show up on a new Television album…some day.

Stay tuned for more Big Ears 2014 coverage.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 2 (Part 1)

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Marc Ribot (Again)
The second day of Big Ears 2014 kicked off with a most unusual event: Marc Ribot seated in total darkness, armed with only a classical acoustic guitar. Above him on the Bijou stage was a projection screen, upon which was shown Charlie Chaplin‘s 1921 silent film, The Kid. Ribot’s charge was to create a real-time audio accompaniment for the film. This he did with amazing skill.

In fact, while this was ostensibly a Ribot solo gig, in fact the guitarist’s presence meshed so seamlessly with the film that it seemed almost not to exist on its own. His highly expressive guitar lines fit so perfectly with the onscreen images – alternately conveying, joy, menace, whimsy, pathos and the other sensations that encompass the human experience – that one could easily forget about them and simply enjoy the movie.

Which is exactly what the packed house did. Fro the entire film’s run time (approximately an hour), the audience, laughed, gasped and otherwise sat enthralled with the antics portrayed by Chaplin and his seven-year old sidekick Jackie Coogan (known best to my generation as The Addams Family‘s Uncle Fester). Ribot’s real-time score was so perfectly integrated that one could have been forgiven for thinking it has been pre-recorded. As it was, the solo performance was a tour de force, one not likely to be bettered.

David Greenberger
Greenberger and I have been Facebook friends for years, but as a byproduct of his status postings there, I know of him primarily as a writer and visual artist. So when I learned that he’d be doing a sort of spoken-word piece at Big Ears, I knew I’d have to catch the performance.

It was a thrill. In the intimate setting of the Square Room, Greenberger took the stage accompanied by a lively and expressive upright bassist (Evan Lipson), nimble and nuanced drummer/percussionist Bob Stagner, and Amanda Rose Cagle, a multi- instrumentalist who played piano, melodica, accordion, electric guitar, percussion and Theremin (and that’s only a partial list).

The premise was rather straightforward, on paper at least: Greenberger read a number of shortish pieces (“a dozen and a half or so,” he told us), all monologues by characters based on conversations he’s had with residents of nursing homes. These raged from barely-lucid ramblings to bitter tirades to bizarre, Dada-ish rants that made little or no sense in any context. And they were unfailingly entertaining.

The musical backing was as varied as Cagle’s instrumental arsenal. Always well-suited for the monologue at hand, the trio provided deep tone color backdrops to Greenberger’s monologues. Initially I thought the trio was improvising; it quickly became apparent that they were instead working from a highly structured – although often seemingly abstract – plan. The only pop-culture equivalent I can think of to describe Greenberger’s performance (with the trio dubbed And Prime Lens — an anagram of their mutual friend, collaborator and guiding light, the recently-deceased Dennis Palmer) is the word-jazz work of Ken Nordine. While Greenberger’s delivery is less stylized than Nordine’s, it’s every bit as enthralling.

Dawn of MIDI
The festival guide’s preview of this trio painted an intriguing picture: a lineup that essentially follows the classic jazz trio format (piano, bass, drums) plays a highly repetitive, minimalistic totally acoustic kind of music that evokes the sound and feel of early synthesizer music ad/or motorik. The truth was, I suppose, quite close to that description, but my reaction to it was unexpected.

As my sweetheart and I arrived at the darkened confines of the Bijou, we could barely see our hands in front of our faces as we crawled around looking for seats. Once we found those seats, we sat down and I snapped a few photos. The next thing I recall took place approximately thirty minutes later, when I was awoken by my sweetie’s whispered words: “I have two words for you: water torture.” While the insistently repetitive music had almost immediately lulled me to slumber, it had given my partner a headache. Looking around into the darkness, I saw that several nearby fellow concertgoers were also splayed out in their seats, fast asleep. One guy, however, was physically gyrating his torso and head in (attempted) time with the music. Go figure.

My coverage of the second day of Big Ears 2014 will continue.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 1

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Dean Wareham
We arrived in Knoxville in plenty of time to grab front-row seats in the beautiful Tennessee Theatre. It certainly helped that attendance for Wareham’s set was light (the venue filled in pretty well as the performance got under way). A relatively low-key performance free of any sort of visual effects, Wareham’s set included songs form his new (and first) solo album, titled Dean Wareham (“I couldn’t think of anything else to call it,” he deadpanned).

The set also included some numbers from his Luna and Galaxie 500 days; the crowd helped the relatively uninformed among us (myself included) know when one of these was beginning by helpfully applauding a bar or two into the tunes. Wareham’s spouse and musical collaborator Britta Phillips held down a nimble bottom end on her p-bass, while the second lead guitarist added plenty of tone color via understated but highly effective lines on his SG, and some lovely slide work.

Wareham’s tunes hit the sweet spot between indie-rock and catchy, hooky pop, providing a surprisingly accessible opener for what I had assumed would be a rather avant garde festival.

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog
That assumption was confirmed, however, with the second set we witnessed this evening. At the Bijou (conveniently located mere steps form the Tennessee Theatre; Big Ears is nothing if not an intelligently laid out festival), thanks in part to the later start time, a relatively larger (adjusted for venue size) crowd turned up.

In general, I often equate seated musicians with low energy, laconic performances (see: Grateful Dead, 1987). But Ribot and his band mates – drummer Ches Smith and Shahzad Ismaily on bass, percussion and electronics – put the lie to that assumption. Tearing through a set of mostly original material, the trio served up what will stand in my memory as one of the most musically unclassifiable performances I’ve ever witnessed. There was punk-skronk, avant-jazz, and even a sort of weird rethink of heavy 70s rock done in some bizarre time signature that would threaten to break the ankle of anyone who dared try to tap their foot along in time.

While Ribot’s original material was fascinating – especially his acerbic “Masters of the Internet” – for me the highlight was a heavily rearranged take of Dave Brubeck‘s “Take Five.” The basic structure of the tune was there, but the band headed off into myriad exploratory directions, making the chestnut truly their own.

Most assuredly not the easiest of listening, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog brought together the experimental and accessible in a way that was at least intriguing, and at best thrilling.

Susanna
The Norwegian thrush is possessed of a crystalline voice and stately, regal manner. Seated at her grand piano on the dimly lit stage of the Tennessee Theatre, she delivered her icy-cool yet emotionally wrought songs with the subtle aid of a drummer who as often as not played mallets and provided splashes of percussive color rather than a beat) and a guitarist who was equal parts understatement and finesse.

Susanna’s songs conjured strong images in my imagination: cold, grey, desolate landscapes that are somehow beautiful in their own way…that kind of thing. Her songs about death and whatnot are designed to produce just such a reaction, I suspect. Early on in her set, Susanna explained to the crowd that “I am Susanna, and,” gesturing to her bandmates, “we are Susanna.” She further explained that she has released many albums in the last decade, under her own name and other guises as well, and that she has something of a reputation for doing unusual covers (reinterpretations is a better word) of other artists’ material.

She proved this last point by performing an elegaic rendering of Thin Lizzy‘s “Jailbreak.” Slowed to the breaking point, and punctuated with simple yet lovely piano melodic lines, she offered a wholly original concept of the hard rock classic.

More Big Ears 2014 coverage throughout the next several days.

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Album Review: Volker Kriegel — Mainz 1963-1969

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

Consider yourself forgiven if you find yourself unfamiliar with the name Volker Kriegel, and even more forgiven if you’re unfamiliar with his work as pioneering artist in the soul-jazz genre. I mean, who would expect a mild-mannered German guitarist born in 1943 – the same year as George Harrison, for goodness’ sake – to make serious inroads in a musical style more closely associated with Americans, specifically African Americans.

In fact Kriegel’s earliest material finds him working in more of an electrified Django Reinhardt style. Only around 1967 did he begin to develop a sound more in a soul jazz vein. But when he did, the results were thrilling. The latest Jazzhaus release – another in its “Lost Tapes” series – collects 29 studio recordings Kriegel made in the early parto f his career. Mainz 1963-1969 is a 2CD set of pristine studio tracks featuring smallish jazz ensembles with Kriegel leading the way on amplified hollow body electric guitar.

Many of the tracks feature Kriegel accompanied by one of a few upright bassists and a drummer; and while those are interesting and a delight to hear, they’re not revelatory in the manner of the other cuts. Those other ones feature vibraphonsits (either Claudio Szenkar or Fritz Hartschuh) and show a dazzling interplay between Kriegel’s nimble guitar work and the vibes.

On the vibes-less tracks – mostly recorded in a November 1963 session – Kriegel’s clearly enunciated single note guitar lines lead the trio through appealing jazz arrangements; the rhythm section is able enough, but is rarely called upon to do much beyond supporting the guitarist. This they do well, but listeners will have no trouble deciding who the star is here. Kriegel’s guitar mimics the sound and feel of a jazz vocalist. His lightning runs (and dissonant fills) on Thelonius Monk‘s “Rhythm-a-Ning” are the undisputed highlights of the 1963 set of recordings. The spare accompaniment on a reading of “Autumn Leaves” is lovely, and the track subtly points the way toward the future.

Because once Kriegel began working with vibraphonists on his Mainz recordings – mostly in three sessions from 1967, 1968 and 1969 – the band became a more democratic institution. His own playing is even more fascinating, and now that he’s joined by soloists of comparable skill and invention, his own playing improves. The interplay between guitar and vibraphone is a study in economy and taste. From the first cut of this era – a 1967 reading of “Tea and Rum” it’s clear that Kriegel has arrived; he’s barely recognizable form his sound of just a few years earlier. Even the rhythm section charges harder. And so it’s here that the soul jazz leanings come to the fore: on cuts like “Soul Eggs” – a tune he’d cut for official release with The Dave Pike Set in 1970 – there’s a thrilling, soulful feel to the entire affair. Even the more contemplative numbers — like “Morandi” — feature more in the way of texture.

The less well-known cuts that make up Kriegel’s ’67-’69 sessions on this disc are nearly as exciting. Surely the highlight – perhaps second only to “Soul Eggs” – is Kriegel’s unexpected cover of “Mother People,” a manic Frank Zappa track that originally appeared on The MothersWe’re Only in it for the Money album (and a tune which Zappa memorably “performed” on a TV episode of The Monkees).

Jazzhaus archive curator Ulli Pfau recounts in the accompanying booklet how he stumbled across the tapes that make up this set. Readers are left wondering what other treasures may yet lie undiscovered in that archive. And Pfau’s editorial note tantalizes further: “This double CD contains only a selection of the recordings. Others are available for download online.” Anyone who enjoys the CD tracks will doubtless want to pursue the other cuts.

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