Archive for the ‘instrumental’ Category

Album Review: Oscar Peterson — Exclusively for My Friends [6LP box set]

Friday, November 21st, 2014

Oscar Peterson was one of the most beloved figures in jazz. His recording career began in 1945, got fully underway in the 1950s, and tapered off as his health declined (he passed away in 2007). His catalog of recorded works is vast – well in excess of 200 albums – and contains many records considered essential to serious jazz fans.

One of the most interesting chapters in his discography is the series of albums released under the heading “Exclusively for My Friends.” In 1968, Montreal-born Peterson recorded six albums, all recorded in the small German city of Villingen-Schwenningen, specifically in the private living-room studio of Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer. (A ’65 session at Brunner-Schwer’s forms part of one of the discs.) Working in various configurations – solo piano, as a trio – Peterson effortlessly wound his way through the Great American Songbook, standards, show tunes, and (occasionally) his own compositions. These intimate performances – some of which were recorded in the presence of a small, invited audience – have been combined in a lavish, 6LP set titled Exclusively For My Friends.

The six LPs that make up this set –all of which The Penguin Guide to Jazz considers part of a jazz “core collection” – were originally issued in the late 1960s as individual albums; in 1992 MPS (the original issuing label, owned by Brunner-Schwer) licensed the set to Island Records, who reissued the material in a 4CD box set. But now in 2014, MPS has brought the material back to market in its original format.

Well, more or less. In many ways, the new Exclusively for My Friends box set is the best of all possible worlds, an improved version of the originals. The records have all been pressed on 180 gram virgin vinyl. The utmost care has gone into the remastering of the albums (a liner note essay from MPS Producer Dirk Sommer titled, “Best Sound or Faithful to the Original?” explains the process (Sommer answers his own question: “Yes!”), noting that the entire audio chain of sequence is analog (AAA). The sound reproduction on these vinyl LPs may well be the finest I have ever heard. The care that went into the original recordings has been sustained straight through to the mastering and pressing of these new vinyl reissues.

The packaging is stunning as well. Each of the LPs is housed in its own gatefold sleeve, complete with the glossy, four-color artwork featured on the original LPs. The box that holds all six is quite sturdy, and classily understated in its design. But of course it’s the music that’s the real story here.

Action (Vol. 1)
The first recording in the series, Action (recorded 1968) finds Peterson joined by Ray Brown on bass and drummer Ed Thigpen. Tunes from the songbooks of Cole Porter (“At Long Last Love”) and the Gershwins (“I’ve Got a Crush on You” and “Foggy Day”) make up more than half of the disc. The watchwords here are nuance and subtlety: Peterson’s deft, lyrical piano work is the centerpiece of the session.

Girl Talk (Vol. 2)
This album – also originally released in 1968 – combines two sessions, one dating from the year of its release, and the other circa 1965. Louis Hayes (drums) and bassist Brown join Peterson on two tracks, including a medley of Porter and Johnny Mercer tunes; Bobby Durham and Sam Jones are in the studio with Peterson on the remaining numbers.

The Way I Really Play (Vol. 3)
Jones and Durham again support Peterson on the third album in the series, recorded April 1968 (and likely from the same session that yielded much of Girl Talk). This set is notable for featuring the only original Oscar Peterson compositions in the series, “Sandy’s Blues” and “Noreen’s Nocturne.” Elsewhere, it’s more classics from the pens of Gershwin and Mercer, among others.

My Favorite Instrument (Vol. 4)
For this set (also recorded in April 1968), Peterson goes solo to showcase a set of standards including “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Body and Soul.” Peterson’s readings are short and to the point: though the run time on the album is roughly the same as the others in this series (around 40-42 minutes), this set features more songs.

Mellow Mood (Vol. 5)
The title of this album – again from ’68, again with Jones and Durham on hand – is a bit misleading: it’s no more or less “mellow” than the other entries in the series. Another interpretation of a show tune (Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse‘s hit “Who Can I Turn To,” from the 1964 musical The Roar of the Gresepaint – The Smell of the Crowd) and more from both Duke Ellington and the Gershwins feature alongside Horace Silver‘s “Nica’s Dream.”

Travelin’ On (Vol. 6)
The last in the series – from the same sessions that yielded Mellow Mood – takes its title from the traditional song, here given a blindingly fast and precise reading by Peterson’s Trio. Francy Boland‘s “Sax No End” was a relatively new tune at the time of the Trio cutting their version of it here.

A limited-edition, promo-only 45rpm disc in picture sleeve of “On a Clear Day” (from Girl Talk) and “Alice in Wonderland” (from The Way I Really Play) went out to lucky reviewers. This new 6LP set is also available on open-reel tapes; those of a certain age may recall that in the late 60s and early 70s, open-reel tapes were the format of choice for audiophiles; these limited-edition tapes follow the same all-analog processing chain as their vinyl counterparts. Exclusively for My Friends is, as it happens, not exclusively for those with turntables or open-reel decks; the individual albums are also available in digital format – that would be AAD (analog recording, analog mixing, digital mastering) – for purchase/download from MPS.

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Back to Bassics: A Chat with Tony Levin

Friday, October 24th, 2014

Among musicians, Tony Levin is as close as once can come to being a household name. Among the wider public, he’s not well known at all. That may be because recordings under his own name have had a relatively low profile, despite Levin’s having played on several hundred recordings with and by other artists. He’s one of those stellar musicians about which one can say, “you may not know his name, but you’ve heard his playing.” His instrument (chiefly but certainly not exclusively bass guitar) and voice have graced recordings by everyone from John Lennon to King Crimson, from Alice Cooper to Pink Floyd, from Buddy Rich to Yes. This dizzyingly versatile musician has just finished up a highly acclaimed tour with the three-drummer version of King Crimson, and has just released a collaborative album with his brother – pianist/organist Pete Levin – called Levin Brothers. But the music on the album is neither progressive rock nor pop: it’s jazz, fifties-style.


Bill Kopp: More than any other musician I can think of, you’ve played live and recorded in most every genre. Do you bring any specific sort of mindset to bear on a project based on the style you’ll be playing? In other words, do you approach sessions for The Levin Brothers album differently than, say, King Crimson?

Tony Levin: I listen to the music (assuming it’s not my compositions that I wrote for the project); I listen and just try to hear a bass part that best suits that music. I don’t come in with an agenda of what I want to play, or even pick what bass (unless I have to travel to the studio – in that case I’ll try to hear the music ahead of time and decide then.)

That describes my playing too, not just the process — like any fan of the music, I’m listening to the song if that’s what it is, or to Robert Fripp‘s guitar line if that is what it is. And I try to do something to enhance it.

Bill: To what degree were the tracks on Levin Brothers “composed,” and to what extent did they develop in the studio?

Tony: We wrote the songs completely, like you do with jazz records – then left the soloing for the players. The drum parts, Jeff [Siegel] sorted out very quickly and easily.

Bill: You play (at least) bass guitar, Chapman Stick, NS electric cello, and upright bass. Do you view those as four wholly distinct instruments, or is it more of a case of them being different extensions — tools — of your musical expression, chosen based on the project at hand?

Tony: I hadn’t thought about it, but I’d agree with your description of them as tools. I’m always the bassist in the band, so looking at what the bottom end will provide, and the sound differences among those instruments, even subtle differences, mean a lot to me in determining what will work. Sometimes the drum sound affects the amount of low end that’s left for me, so I may choose an instrument just because it has a big warm sound, or because it doesn’t have that.

Bill: Is this the first recorded collaboration with your brother? When working with him, do you experience anything musically unique, any sort of unspoken-yet-silently-understood level of communication?

Tony: We’ve worked together a lot, in various bands, through the years. We work great together and if we’re straight on where the music is heading, we each trust each other’s vision of how to do it. We also play locally, as a duo, pretty much whenever there’s a benefit show that needs a duet to help raise some funds… so the album isn’t really the first time we’ve played jazz together — but it is our first release.

Bill: The style of music you’re playing on Levin Brothers is most closely associated with the late 1950s and early 60s. But the style has clearly endured, sounding fresh today. Why do you think that this kind of music is so timeless (assuming you do think so)?

Tony: I was indeed struck by how the cool jazz I’d heard as a kid stayed with me all these years. I attribute that to the great songwriting and soloing of those players – Oscar Pettiford on cello and bass, Julius Watkins on French horn, Charlie Rouse on sax. So we didn’t copy their songs, but we did stay with the simpler chord structures of that style, and tried — hopefully with a little success — to write some songs that will have you humming them to yourself.

Bill: The album has that everybody-playing-together feel that’s so important on jazz recordings. Was it in fact done that way, or were the pieces assembled with other parts — drums, guitar etc. – overdubbed?

Tony: We tried a variety of approaches: we did demos that were there to overdub onto, and did some stuff from scratch in the studio. Usually, though, we had worked out in advance the tempo that was just right for each song. In my experience it can be a big time waste if you’re searching for the tempo, and with Pete and I together all the time it was pretty easy to practice them at different tempos ’til we arrived at the best one.

Bill: Considering all the tracks you’ve played on, and all of the musical styles you’ve played, is there a type of music you haven’t yet but would like to work on?

Tony: I don’t think about styles too much…and though I’m flattered about your description, really there are lots of styles I don’t play, or have only played a little. I think Latin music, particularly Latin jazz, is really fun and cool, but have only done a little of it. Likewise I love the power of heavy metal, which requires a particular recording style — and I’ve only been exposed to that a couple of times.

Bill: Is there anyone you’d really like to work with that you haven’t?

Who would I love to play with? Jimi Hendrix. Think you can arrange it?

Bill: Are there any plans for live dates in support of the Levin Brothers album?

Tony: We will tour for sure, but it’s hard to predict the season at this time. It depends on scheduling of a number of bands, and we’re trying to sort that out now and make plans to bring our music everywhere we can.

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Album Review: Hedersleben — Die Neuen Welten

Friday, August 29th, 2014

According to our friends over at Wikipedia, krautrock is defined as “a form of rock and electronic music that originated in Germany in the late 1960s, with a tendency towards improvisation around minimalistic arrangements.” Though the style had its adherents in the 1970s – famed tastemaker/DJ John Peel among the most well-known of them – the style never caught on in a commercial sense outside Germany.

But the style – hypnotic, pulsing, almost tone-poem music – never went away. Julian Cope went so far as to write a book about it, 1995′s Krautrocksampler: One Head’s Guide to the Great Kosmische Musik – 1968 Onwards. And thanks in no small part of Cope’s championing of the music made by groups such as Amon Düül II and Faust, krautrock has persisted right into the 21st century.

The music of Nik Turner (late of Hawkwind) lends itself especially well to a krautrock approach, especially in a live setting. So it’s no surprise that beginning around 2013, Turner enlisted the able aid of an outfit naming themselves after a city halfway between Hanover and Berlin. Hedersleben features the guitar work of Nicky Garratt, the British musician best known for his work in seminal punk group UK Subs. American drummer Jason Willer also played in UK Subs with Garratt, and Bryce Shelton (from San Francisco) plays bass with Hedersleben. Keyboardist Kephera Moon is also from San Francisco. All of this may make you wonder what exactly is the German connection to this band. Good question; the answer lies within their music and their overall sonic approach.

The band does a bit of shape-shifting: when they record or perform with Turner, they’re sometimes billed As Nik Turner’s Hawkwind. When backing Swiss musician Joel Vandroogenbroeck, they’re the current-day lineup of psychedelic band Brainticket.

But when they play their own music – the largely instrumental examples of which are showcased on Die Neuen Welten (The New Worlds), Hedersleben have a personality all of their own. With Moon’s Ray Manzarek-like organ work out front, the dreamscapes of tunes like “Zu Den Neuen Welten” and “XO5B” take their time to unfold. The densely-layered music floats along; Shelton’s bass lines weave their way under the textures in a way that sometimes feels like Gary Wright‘s Moog bass circa The Dream Weaver. Garratt’s often heavily-treated guitar soars above the mix in a decidedly non-punky fashion, and Willer’s spellbinding drum patterns evoke warm memories of Nick Mason circa A Saucerful of Secrets.

Kephera Moon makes extensive use of synthesizers: Mellotron-sounding samples recall early Tangerine Dream, and gurgling analog synth sounds show that she understand the intelligent uses to which synths can be applied; the synthesizers are never used as mere “sound effects.”

Garratt’s lead guitar is a highlight of “On the Ground (Safe and Sound),” in which he solos over a chugging one-chord vamp. As with most of the band’s work, vocals (here little more than the whispered/chanted recitation of the song’s title) are mostly used as a textural element, rather than to convey anything like a story. That role is left to the music.

Garratt’s acoustic guitar underpins some stinging lead guitar overdubs on “Nomad World (Dreamstate).” It’s the gentlest tune on the disc, and some chanted ahhh-style vocalizing from Kati Knox adds to the dreamy vibe made explicit by the title. The faraway-sounding “XO5B” feels like a Pink Floyd jam from the More/Obscured by Clouds era; Garratt’s fret-buzzing guitar and Moon’s celestial organ work are the track’s highlights.

The five-track album closes with “Tiny Flowers/Little Moon,” at once the most conventional and most accessible tune on Die Neuen Welten. With standard signing (again courtesy Knox) and recognizable lyrics, here Hedersleben sounds of a piece with bands like The Black Angels. A vaguely sunshine-pop texture lends the tune an air not unlike the rare pop-leaning moments of The Velvet Underground and Nico. Moon’s delicate piano work – occasionally punctuated by guitar stabs from Garratt – ends the album on an extended, reflective note.

Though there are no Germans on the album; though it was recorded in Oakland, California; , though it veers close to tuneful rock in places; Hedersleben’s Die Neuen Welten is highly recommended on its own merits.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 5

Friday, August 15th, 2014

My week-long run of hundred-word reviews wraps up with five new and recently-released jazz albums.


Michael Bellar and The As-is Ensemble – Oh No Oh Wow
Keyboards anchor this varied release that goes in many directions at once: even on the opening (title) track, Bellar alternates between creamy, fusion-y electric piano and Vince Guaraldi-styled acoustic piano runs. Too melodic to be prog, too rocking to be jazz, too adventurous to be labeled rock’n'roll, Oh Now Oh Wow is delightfully all over the map. The ten instrumentals – all Bellar originals save a reading of Jimi Hendrix‘s “Voodoo Chile” and a Bob Marley song – show a dizzying command of instruments, the studio, and arrangement. Your ears might fool you into thinking you hear guitars. (You don’t.)


Elias Haslanger – Live at the Gallery
This disc features tenor saxophonist Haslanger’s quintet at their weekly haunt, Austin Texas’ Continental Club Gallery; the gig is known as “Church on Monday.” And the group does testify, as they blow their way through a mix heavy on standards (“Watermelon Man,” “In a Sentimental Mood”). Jake Langley‘s electric hollowbody guitar runs are alternately mellow and biting. Dr. James Polk’s B3 adds a soulful foundation to the mix. The inventive yet solid rhythm section (Scott Laningham on drums, bassist Daniel Durham) take their turns in the spotlight as well. The appreciative but unobtrusive audience adds the right amount of texture.


Alessandro Scala Quartet – Viaggio Stellare
I’m still working to be as well-versed in jazz as I’d like to be; I suspect it will be a lifelong process. But the opening strains of “Mood” sound to these ears like a hard-bop reading of something off of Dave Brubeck‘s classic 1959 Time Out LP. It’s more than the 5/4 meter; there’s a vibe that this Italian quartet-plus-two seems to achieve effortlessly. But then that’s the trick, isn’t it: making the difficult seem effortless. Perhaps it was: the entire eleven-track album was cut in a single Summer 2012 session. Fun fact: the album title translates as “Star Trek.”


Yves Léveillé – Essences du Bois
This light, airy and gentle album is full of classical-leaning instrumentation (flute, oboe, Cor Anglais, clarinet and bass clarinet) along with instruments more readily identified with jazz (piano, upright bass, saxophones and drums). The result is pretty, impressionistic and contemplative, but not really adventurous or exciting (the subtle and varied drum work of Alain Bastien is a notable exception). Only on the strutting “Monarque” (with a very nice bass solo and some skittering piano) do things get inventive. Extra points are happily given for the fact that all eight pieces by this French Canadian ensemble are pianist Léveillé’s original works.


Vincent Gagnon – Tome III Errances
This 2013 Québec concert date showcases the compositions of bandleader and pianist Vincent Gagnon (plus one cover). The small band consists only of Gagnon plus two sax players, a double (upright) bassist and drummer. But that quintet makes the most of what they have, and the result feels like refined yet swinging Eurojazz, occasionally leaning in a big band style (if not arrangement). There’s a pleasing groove even when the rhythm section is blowing in something outside the 4/4 format. Plenty of tasty solos abound on this seven-track collection culled from the best of a three-night stand at Palais Montcalm.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 2

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Today’s set of five 100-word capsule reviews looks at recently-reissued, previously-unreleased, and/or compilation albums.


How to Stuff a Wild Bikini: Original Stereo Soundtrack
What we have here, in my estimation, is a fascinating and extremely well-written essay that happens to include a CD. How to Stuff a Wild Bikini is not anyone’s idea of great cinema, but the 1965 American International Pictures release has its period charms. This record – originally released on The Kingsmen‘s Wand label – is the only soundtrack LP from the string of Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello vehicles. Tom Pickles‘ liner notes put the soundtrack into perspective and context, explaining the musical contributions of The Kingsmen, Lu Ann Sims, Harvey Lembeck(!) and Mickey Rooney(!!). Skip the film, dig the soundtrack.


Spanky and Our Gang – The Complete Mercury Singles
Often thought of in the same category as The Mama’s and The Papa’s, this group, fronted by vocalist Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane, had deeper roots in a sort of Tin Pan Alley style. This collection presents 21 songs in their original punchier-than-stereo monaural mixes. The group’s hit “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” – a tune that rivals any single of the era for its transcendent mix of melodrama and shimmering vocal arrangement – is here, but many of the other tunes are nearly as good. Of special note is the group’s cover of The Beatles‘ “And Your Bird Can Sing.”


Billy Thermal – Billy Thermal
This band, led by Billy Steinberg, cut an LP in 1980 full of uptempo, nominally new-wave tunes. For various reasons, the disc went unreleased at the time, but the tapes served their purposes as songwriter’s demos: Steinberg’s “How Do I Make You” would be a hit for Pat Benatar Linda Ronstadt, and brought the man’s talents to the attention of The Bangles, Cyndi Lauper, Whitney Houston, Madonna, etc., all of whom would score hits with his songs. This collection includes bonus tracks, but the whole package – now rescued from obscurity by Omnivore Recordings – can be thought of as a bonus.


Stick Against Stone – Live: The Oregon Bootleg Tapes
At first hearing, this Pittsburgh group sounds like they’re from a provincial city (perhaps Leeds?) in working class, Thatcher-era England. Truth is, the era is the only detail that’s correct: this 1985 live set – long thought lost but recently discovered – sounds like a cross between Gang of Four, the two-tone ska movement, and Living Colour. Any written description of their complex sound will fall short, but I hear angular funk with plenty of assured polyrhythmic percussion, rubbery bass, and saxophone backing the Lene Lovich-sounding vocals of Sari Morninghawk. A modified lineup of the band (SASO) still performs today.


Buddy Rich – The Solos
The idea of a compilation of live concert drum solos might strike some as a surefire way to a headache, or at least folly. But when the drummer in question is the legendary Buddy Rich, the idea makes some kind of sense. Endlessly inventive and always swinging, the man with a bad haircut and a worse temper may have been sixty years old when these tapes were made, but what you’ll hear sounds like a man half his age. Power, finesse and humor can all be found in Rich’s solos. Background music for a cocktail party? Perhaps not. Essential? Indeed.

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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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