Archive for the ‘jazz’ Category

Review: Two New Albums featuring Larry Coryell

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

One of music’s greatest guitarists, Larry Coryell has enjoyed – and continues to enjoy – a long and storied career. After his professional start playing with Chico Hamilton, Coryell launched a solo career, enlisting the musical help of some of the most innovative, boundary-pushing musicians to aid in his own musical explorations. He’s played in most every style, and one of the qualities that differentiates him from many of his contemporaries is that he does so with an unparallelled level of authenticity; there’s no whiff of dilettantism in Coryell’s excursions into hard rock, soul jazz, classical, acoustic, or other forms and styles.

Being such a restlessly varied musician carries with it a price, as others in the rock idiom know too well; I’m thinking here of artists such as Neil Young. When you can’t be counted on to make an unbroken string of recordings in roughly the same style, you’re hard to market. Thankfully, Coryell has sustained a career that lets him remain safely above such concerns. The result is a buffet of musical wonders. And though the man rarely looks back (as he told me, he has little or no interest in his back- catalog, and he has no control over it either), there’s nothing – other than the scarcity of some of those discs – that prevents listeners from exploring his older material.

And modern-day listeners have the best of both worlds. Two new releases make this plain: Coryell has just released another new album on Wide Hive Records, Heavy Feel, and something called the LiveLove Series has a new archival release of a January 1975 concert recording featuring Coryell’s underrated and under-appreciated fusion ensemble, The Eleventh House. What follows is a look at both of these new releases.

Larry Coryell & The Eleventh House – January 1975
At the time of this recording, Coryell’s Eleventh House were near the peak of their powers and popularity. Thanks to the foresight of Radio Bremen, prime-era Eleventh House were captured onstage in Germany. This flawless recording documents twelve numbers from the show, including three compositions that have never been released before in any form. After grabbing the audience’s rapt attention with a fiery “Bird Fingers,” The Eleventh House settle into a groove that showcases the many talents of Coryell and his bandmates: Mike Lawrence on trumpet and flugelhorn, bassist John Lee, keyboard whiz Mike Mandel (by this time, a longtime Coryell associate), and powerhouse drummer Alphonse Mouzon.

It’s worth recalling that in the early and mid 1970s, musicians could get away with making music that didn’t invite easy classification. Is this stuff jazz? Rock? Fusion? It’s often all three at once; listeners unfamiliar with The Eleventh House might appreciate knowing that their approach is in roughly the same vein as John McLaughlin‘s work with Mahavishnu Orchestra, but perhaps leaning a bit more toward smaller, less busy (or cluttered if you don’t dig the approach) arrangements.

January 1975 features tunes from the 1974 debut Introducing the Eleventh House, and Level One, which was either very recently or (more likely) soon-to-be released. The highlights of the entire show, however, are Coryell’s “Low-Lee-Tah,” and Mouzon’s aptly-titled “Funky Waltz,” both from the debut disc. An extended version (twice the length of its studio counterpart) of “Suite (Entrance/Repose/Exit)” is pretty thrilling, too, what with Coryell making intelligent use of the wah-wah pedal (a device pretty well thought out of fashion by ’75) while his bandmates show that horns and analog synths can coexist (though not exactly “peacefully”).

Those three previously-unheard tunes are Mouzon’s blindingly fast “Tamari,” a Mandel multi-keyboard showcase called “Untitled Thoughts,” and a Coryell one-chord workout to close the set, “The Eleventh House Blues.” All are worthwhile, and hold up when considered alongside The Eleventh House’s official canon.

Larry Coryell – Heavy Feel
One could argue that in 2015 Larry Coryell has a lot less to prove. As such, he could – should he choose – rest on his laurels, reiterating what he’s said musically. But that doesn’t seem to be his approach. Not counting some contributions to a compilation, Heavy Feel is Coryell’s third album working with The Wide Hive Players. Produced by label head Gregory Howe, the album features Coryell on both electric and acoustic guitars, joined by bassist Matt Montgomery, drummer Mike Hughes, and George Brooks on soprano sax.

The slow burn is the favored approach by the ensemble for most of Heavy Feel‘s nine tracks. “Ghost Note” is an exemplar of that approach, with the band subtly laying down a backing while Coryell plays thickly chorded jazz guitar. After Coryell’s exhortation to his fellow musos, the ensemble launches into the romantic “River Crossing,” with Coryell providing ace acoustic support while Brooks takes the lead. There’s a north African feel to the tune. When Coryell executes some lightning runs on the fretboard, he moans along somewhat tunelessly; it’s either maddeningly annoying or disarmingly endearing, depending on your point of view.

Some reviews of Coryell’s first outing on Wide Hive noted that the disc was a bit less powerful than it could have been. Whether in response to that criticism or simply as a function of where Coryell and his bandmates chose to go, Heavy Feel does live up to its title. It’s simultaneously subtle and understated while rocking.

The title of “Polished” must be meant sarcastically, because Coryell’s playing here is anything but. It has the immediacy of a first take, and could almost be called sloppy. But it’s good. The title track finds the band laying down a garage-band foundation, but the players still find interesting things to do with it musically.

“2011 East” returns to a jazz vibe vaguely suggestive of what The Bill Evans Trio might have sounded like without a piano (and with a guitarist and sax player). “Sharing Air” goes for the boogaloo, sounding not unlike something The New Mastersounds might cut in a late-night session. “Jailbreak” is not a jazz-rock reading of the Thin Lizzy classic; instead it’s a marching tune with Coryell and Brooks playing lockstep (and then call-and-response) as they execute some exceedingly trick (yet tuneful) melodic lines. It’s a highlight of Heavy Feel. The disc closes with “Foot Path to Oasis,” a return to the sound and vibe of “River Crossing.”

Heavy Feel isn’t Larry Coryell’s most groundbreaking album. But it’s thoroughly enjoyable and – as a document of where the 72-year-old guitar master is today – a recommended purchase.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 10

Friday, May 15th, 2015

Over the last nine business days, I’ve surveyed 45 albums of new, reissued, and/or archival music from a wide array of artists in jazz, prog, soul, rock and other genres. Each review has been exactly 100 words. Today I wrap up that series of capsule reviews with a quick look at five video releases.

Jack Bruce – The 50th Birthday Concerts
Though it’s long been in the archives of German television program Rockpalast, this set was presumably rush-released in the wake of Bruce‘s October 2014 death. A wildly varied set in terms of musical styles, this 2DVD document of 1993 concerts shows off the amazing versatility of the vocalist/bassist. Opening with a solo (acoustic) bass reading of J.S. Bach’s “Minuet No. 1,” switches to piano (with vocal) and then brings on supporting musicians (including multi-instrumentalist Gary Husband and Bruce’s sparring partner, drummer Ginger Baker.) All involved are in fine form as they tear through Bruce solo material and several Cream favorites.

Queen – Live at the Rainbow ’74
On the strength – or rather the lack thereof – of their 1979 double LP Live Killers, I decided that Queen were pretty dreadful live. Not Rolling Stones dreadful, but simply unable to draw upon the balance of refinement and energy that made their studio albums so rewarding. This set from a few years earlier (in other words, at the height of their powers) has set me right. Live sound reinforcement in the mid 1970s was primitive by today’s standards, but you’d never know it from this performance and recording. If anything, these versions are better than their studio counterparts.

Yes – 35th Anniversary Concert: Songs From Tsongas
Even a semi-hardcore Yes fan has to admit that they milk their repertoire pretty thoroughly. As Jon Anderson admits toward the end of this set, “We seem to get together so many times over the years.” This 2004 performance in Massachusetts was part of the Magnification tour, and featured the more-or-less classic lineup (Anderson, Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe, Alan White and Chris Squire) halfway through the final period they’d all make music together. A bit mannered – as are all Yes shows – it shows the five in full possession of their sharp musical faculties. An excellent show on Blu-Ray.

The Rutles – Anthology
Long before The Beatles got around to making their Anthology, some of the guys from Monty Python made a Beatles history (a “mockumentary” that predated This is Spinal Tap), All You Need is Cash. (They had help from one Hari Georgeson, as well.) It’s now legendary as one of NBC-TV’s lowest-rated specials ever broadcast (I saw it). This new Blu-Ray reissue greatly improves the audiovisual quality over earlier versions, and adds relevant bonus material (some earlier, some much later) to create an Anthology of their own. The packaging art alone is wickedly clever, as are the bits on the disc.

Various – A MusiCares Tribute to Paul McCartney
In 2012, the nonprofit organization MusiCares honored Paul McCartney as their Person of the Year. The gala event included a superstar lineup of artists paying tribute to Sir Macca. And while rock fans might be disappointed in the soft lineup (only Duane Eddy, Dave Grohl, Neil Young and Joe Walsh can be called rockers), the performances are nuanced and often quite good. Alison Krauss & Union Station win the night as they capture the beauty of “No More Loney Nights,” a highlight of the hour-long Blu-Ray. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, however, are in wobbly, old guy garage band mode.

See you next week as we return to one-a-day full-length reviews, features and interviews.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 7

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

It’s an all-jazz-legends day here on Musoscribe: three new compilations and two reissues document some important music from some of jazz’s innovators.

The Elvin Jones Jazz Machine – Remembrance
Post-bop drummer Elvin Jones launched his recording career in the late 1940s as a sideman with Billy Mitchell; he’d go on to play on well over a hundred albums, including titles by John Coltrane, Larry Coryell, and many others. His career as a bandleader on record began in 1961 and continued until the end of the century (he passed away in 2004). This timeless 1978 MPS release (now reissued) was recorded in a mere three days; Jones swings, and the ensemble crackles with excitement. Two horns, bass, guitar and drums: Remembrance is the real (not watered down) stuff. Dig it.

Joe Pass – Intercontinental
Legendary guitarist Pass mixes classics, stands and even his interpretations of pop hits (Bobbie Gentry‘s “Ode to Billy Joe”) on this characteristically understated outing from 1970. His twentieth album under his own name, Intercontinental was his first and only release for German-based MPS. It’s a testament to just how much a trio (electric guitar, Eberhard Weber‘s upright bass, drummer Kenny Clare) can do when the talent’s there. Decidedly mellow, there’s not a note out of place on the record. Pass’ occasional scale runs are a thing of beauty. The Latin flavor of “Meditation” is a highlight, but it’s all great.

Jimmy Smith – The First Decade: 1953-62
Jazz Hammond organist Smith recorded prolifically, and much of his work crossed over to pop success; he’s an exemplar of soul jazz. But material from the first ten years of his recording career is sometimes more difficult to locate than later output. This 4CD set aims to set things right. The sound quality on the very earliest cuts (including “Sonotone Bounce” from The Don Gardner Trio) is a bit dodgy, but the energy more than offsets any sonic shortcomings. Smith’s runs on the Hammond’s two manuals seem effortless, and helped define a genre. An excellent entry point for the novitiate.

The Miles Davis Quintet featuring John Coltrane – All of You: The Last Tour 1960
Miles Davis’ 1960 European tour was the bandleader’s last to feature John Coltrane. While bits and pieces of live recordings have circulated among collectors, All of You is the first legitimate release to attempt exhaustive documentation of those dates. A compilation of radio tapes and private (cough…bootleg…cough) recordings of performances from March 21 (two shows), March 24th and 30, April 3 (two shows) and April 8 (the most complete recording) spanning four CDs, this is essential for fans of Miles, Coltrane, and/or of both. Considering the age and provenance of the source tapes, the overall sound quality is very good.

The John Coltrane Quintet – So Many Things
Shortly after Coltrane parted ways with Miles Davis (see above), he embarked on his own 1961 European tour with a band of his own. Those players are all now jazz household names: Eric Dolphy on sax, bass clarinet an flute; pianist McCoy Tyner; Reggie Workman on bass, and Elvin Jones (see above) joined Coltrane in this short-lived lineup. This four-disc compilation brings together recordings of five concerts (in six days!) in Paris, Copenhagen, Helsinki and Stockholm. Multiple versions of “Blue Train,” “Impressions,” and of course “My Favorite Things” make up the bulk of the set. Sound quality is surprisingly good overall.

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 3

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

I’m not complaining; it’s a good problem to have. But even after culling the ones I don’t like (and skipping the ones that impress me only mildly), I still end up with a massive pile of albums for review. And when said pile gets out of hand, I do a string of 100-word reviews. I’m right in the midst of that now; today’s collection features artists that fall more or less into the jazz category.

Nekozurashi – Ahostractions
This Osaka-based collective is led by composer/arranger/guitarist Koota Tanimura. The group’s sound distills a wide array of influences, including free jazz, big band, rock, hip-hop and more. Those who came to appreciate jazz form a rock-oriented point of view are likely to enjoy this disc, and will discern echoes of Grand Wazoo and Waka/Jawaka-era Frank Zappa. The tunes always swing, and sometimes swing for the fences. And there are even some ginchy pop songs (sung in Japanese) thrown in; those recall Absolutely Free-era Mothers crossed with, say, The Mops, and approached with a sensibility that recalls Le Sacre du Tympan.

Jason Miles and Ingrid Jensen – Kind of New
The album title is a play on Miles Davis‘ immortal Kind of Blue, but it’s not hubris for this team to reference the master; Jason Miles was Davis’ keyboard player for several years. This delightful disc features Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, and while the tracks occasionally evoke memories of Davis’ Jack Johnson period, the groove and melodies are rooted in a more accessible foundation. Mellow but never, ever falling into the tepid “smooth jazz” trap, Kind of New works equally as well as rewarding subject of active listening as it would for groovy background music for your next cocktail party.

The Aristocrats – Culture Clash Live!
Truth told, The Aristrocrats aren’t most people’s idea of jazz. But while the trio – shredding guitarist Guthrie Govan, monster bassist Bryan Bellar and drummer extraordinaire Marco Minnemann – rock out with the best of ‘em, they do in fact come from a jazz sensibility. Those who enjoy the pyrotechnics of a Steve Vai or a Joe Satriani definitely need to check out this group. There’s a bit of overlap between the tracks on the live CD and the live DVD in this package, but they’re different enough not to be redundant. Fun instrumentals include “Sweaty Knockers” and “Blues Fuckers.”

Jack DeJohnette – Made in Chicago
A giant in the jazz-rock fusion world, drummer DeJohnette was an early member of the venerated Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. This live disc finds him reuniting with old friends and musical associates including sax/flautist Henry Threadgill and ECM head Manfred Eichler (the latter mixed the recording). That said, this isn’t fusion; it leans in a much more improvisational/exploratory direction, with little in the way of rigid meter or conventional melody. Put another way, it’s the kind of thing that those who dislike jazz point to to support their view. Recommended for fans of the abstract and adventurous.

Chris Potter Underground Orchestra – Imaginary Cities
Another title from the venerated ECM label, Imaginary Cities often feels more like modern classical music (of a most accessible kind) rather than jazz proper. But as soon as one acclimates oneself to that style, the music shifts into some highly melodic movements that give the various players in this large ensemble their chance to shine. The expansive title track is a four-part suite that makes up the bulk of the disc, and it’s exceedingly effective at conveying a wide range of moods. Beautiful, contemplative stuff, Imaginary Cities is worth your undivided attention. A sublime triumph from start to finish.

More to come.

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Album Review: The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings

Friday, May 1st, 2015

Vocal great Tony Bennett and jazz piano legend Bill Evans both had long, successful and impressive musical careers by the time they decided to collaborate. The pair met in the studio on two separate occasions – the first for three days in June 1975, the second for four days in September of 1976 – and the immediate product of those sessions was a pair of LPs, The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album and Together Again. Each was released shortly after its sessions concluded.

Fast forward to 2009. Bennett is 83 years old still very active musically, while Evans has been dead nearly thirty years. Concord Music owns the Fantasy Records catalog, and issues a 2CD box set called The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings. That set compiles the tracks from both 1970s LPs, and adds twenty alternate takes, plus two songs (the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley composition “Who Can I Turn to (When Nobody Needs Me),” written for the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, and Cole Porter‘s “Dream Dancing”). The set receives near-unanimous acclaim and will remain an in-print part of the Concord catalog offering.

Fast forward again, this time to 2015. Bennett is now 88 years of age, and he’s still at it musically; of late he’s been working with Lady Gaga, giving listeners – those who might otherwise not give her a listen – a chance to discover just how talented the woman born Stefani Germanotta truly is. Meanwhile, Concord takes well-thought-out advantage of the resurgence of interest in vinyl, and releases The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings as a 4LP set.

The first LP reproduces the contents of the 1975 album. Produced by Evans’ longtime associate Helen Keane, the record features only the two men, in live-in-the-studio performance. There are no overdubs, and no additional instrumentation beyond Evans’ piano and Bennett’s voice. Tunes from the Great American Songbook make up the bulk of the record, and a reading of Evans’ classic “Waltz for Debby” is included. Bennett sings in his trademark strong voice with liberal use of vibrato, and Evans delivers in his trademark style too: rarely does the piano carry the melody. Evans skitters across the keyboard using his block voicings, remaining free of the song’s meter yet somehow within it.

Because there is no discernible “production style” to these sessions – because they’re both simply documents of what was being sung and played, both men in a room together – there is little or no sonic difference between the two sessions. That said, Evans’ piano seems a bit brighter on the first, slightly warmer on the second. The second album (the second LP on this vinyl reissue of Complete Recordings) showcases Evans to a greater degree; “The Bad and the Beautiful” is a solo spot with Bennett on the sidelines. The highlight of this disc is a song closely associated with Tony Bennett, “Make Someone Happy.”

The third and fourth records in the set present additional material from those 1970s sessions. The pair of unreleased tunes mentioned earlier kick off the third disc. The remainder of that and the fourth disc feature outtakes. These are alternate takes of most (but not quite all) of the songs on the original albums. These are noted by their sequence in the recording session (“The Two Lonely People” alternate take 5, for example), which raises an interesting point about semantics. This set is not, strictly speaking, the complete recordings. Instead, we can safely assume, it’s a document of the completed recordings. When the set indicates two alternate takes of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” (takes 16 and 18) we can safely assume that all but one of takes 1-15 and 17 were breakdowns, that is, incomplete takes.

In the end, one wonders how the decision was made to choose the takes that would end up on The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album and Together Again. There’s little difference – subtle nuances, really – between the initially released versions and the outtakes. Of course Evans never plays the same way twice, and Bennett’s voice seems to occupy slightly different spaces on various takes. But it’s all pretty wonderful.

Those who bought the CD set won’t find anything new on this 2015 4LP release, other than the restored warmth of analog. But then that’s something, especially on an organic recording that features only a man’s voice and a piano. Those who bought the original vinyl LPs, however, should give serious consideration to this 180-gram vinyl set.

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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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DVD Review: Freak Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Mothers

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

The back catalog of Frank Zappa is massive, and massively intimating. Never the most commercially-minded of artists, the virtuoso Zappa recorded and released more than fifty albums during his lifetime. (His estate has more than doubled his catalog, with all manner of posthumous releases; his so-called “100th album” is due out soon.) With albums that explored everything from doo-wop to fusion, from big band jazz to musique concrète – not to mention a lot of scatological lyrical content – Zappa’s oeurve could easily scare off (or even repel) the casual listener.

None of which seemed to bother him in the least. Zappa was a restless innovator, and what that often meant in practical terms is that he’d make what could seem (especially at the time) as one musical left-turn after another. Just when you’ve gotten used to the early Mothers records, exemplified by We’re Only in it For the Money, Zappa fires the entire band and makes a weird orchestral album (Lumpy Gravy) and then a blues/jazz LP (Hot Rats).

To make dealing with his vast catalog a bit easier, fans, critics and the like have attempted to divide Zappa’s work – his so-called “project/object” – into eras. There’s certainly overlap between some of those era – his work doesn’t lend itself to neat classification – but it’s a worthy endeavor to break Zappa’s music into more easily-digestible pieces.

And the piece that remains most controversial among his fans is what one might call the Flo and Eddie years. From around 1970 until 1971, Zappa’s band was fronted by a pair of vocalists who – for contractual reasons – called themselves The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie. Better known as Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, the duo had come to fame as the front men of The Turtles. The Turtles were always known for their sense of humor and lively stage personae, so on some level, they were a good fit for Zappa. Enlisting top-notch musicians who were able to play the increasingly complicated music that he was composing, Zappa brought Flo and Eddie on board to handle vocals, a task that was not among the strongest qualities of the original Mothers.

Taking a detailed and incisive look at this period requires backing up a bit to provide proper context. And that is why the new documentary Freak Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Mothers covers the period 1969-1973. Beginning with a quick history of the Mothers up to the start of that era, the lengthy (more than two hours) documentary seeks to put the work of the Flo and Eddie period into its proper historical perspective.

Another in the long series of music documentary DVDs from the Sexy Intellectual team, Freak Jazz relies on true experts to weave its narrative. Some of these are faces familiar to those who’ve screened other documentaries from the team: Zappa biographer Billy James and Mojo Magazine‘s Mark Paytress weigh in with their own informed perspectives. And a number of players and Zappa associates from that era provide their own accounts: Ian Underwood, Jeff Simmons, Aynsley Dunbar, and (most notably) the late George Duke all get a good amount of screen time to tell their stories.

Two hours and forty minutes might seem like a long time, but it breezes by when watching Freak Jazz. The knotty twists and turns that Zappa’s music, band and personal life took during this period require a good bit of explaining, and this DVD does just that in an exceedingly expert fashion. The filmmakers rightly hold Zappa’s work to a high standard, and the onscreen commenters are unafraid to criticize what they see as ill-advised (say, “Billy the Mountain”) or just plain lousy musical output.

A good amount of time is spent discussing the film 200 Motels, and while there are very few clips from the actual movie (likely due to licensing issues), some behind-the-scenes footage helps tell the story. And while Howard Kaylan isn’t involved in the documentary, Mark Volman provides the Flo and Eddie perspective. Rarely-seen photos and onstage footage make Freak Jazz essential for the hardcore Zappaphile, but the conversational tone of the DVD makes it recommended viewing for even the most casual Zappa fan.

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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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Back to School with Les McCann (Part 3)

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Continued from Part Two

I make the (not at all original) observation that many American musical forms seem to get more respect in Europe than at home. “That’s all right,” says Les McCann. “Ninety percent of the stations are playing the same thing every day. It’s about playing that number-one. And it’s songs, not really music. People talk about ‘rap music.’ I say, ‘Where’s the music?’ People have been talkin‘ on records ever since they were first recorded. You ever heard The Ink Spots? Early Eddie Harris? Ever heard of Les McCann? I’m talkin’ on my records. I’ve even got a record called Talk to the People. But every rapper I meet tells me they’re the greatest, they started all this. ‘I got the beat. These are my beats.’”

When I point out that his work has been sampled by quite a few hip-hop artists, McCann bristles. “Those guys who sample, they don’t know what they do. They’re not musicians; they’re technicians. It takes it to another place. I’m not calling it right or wrong, because it goes where it’s got to go.”

I mention to McCann that a yard sale purchase of Cannonball Adderley‘s Somethin’ Else LP changed my life. “That’s how it works,” he observes. “Some people say, ‘I just like what I heard when I was in high school.’ They hear something new that they enjoy, and it’s like, ‘What’s that?’ ‘It’s jazz.’ ‘Oh, I don’t like jazz.’ I say, don’t call it jazz. Just like it, and take it home with you.”

Something unclassifiable that many listeners liked and took home with them was the 1966 LP Freak Out, the debut record from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Inside the gatefold of the 2LP set, there’s a photo of – of all people – Les McCann with blues singer and harmonica player Paul Butterfield. The caption says the pair are “freaking out,” but there’s no further explanation. McCann laughs heartily at the mention of this. “Nobody ever believes me when I tell them about that!”

“It was a moment that happened,” McCann recalls. “I didn’t really know [Zappa] but I knew there was something he was looking for. As we talk about Invitation to Openness, it’s exactly the kind of thing that Frank Zappa did. He handed an instrument to everyone that walked into the room that day. There were more than three hundred people there, and he recorded it.” I note that the instruments assigned had nothing to do with a person’s ability to actually play them. “Half of ‘em weren’t even musicians!” McCann laughs. “And that was the beauty of it all; it was great. And I am sure that stuck in my mind as a great way to approach my music from a different angle, too. We’re all connected to each other. When something beautiful comes, expand on it. Take it to another place.”

Returning to his favored concept of life-as-school, McCann makes this observation: “The curriculum in this school is complete. There’s nothing that needs to be taught; nothing new that’s going to come around. We are all in school. And everything you think of is what you can have. Everything you think of – good or bad; I don’t care what you judge it as – it is happening. Period.”

Les McCann is a vocalist, a keyboard player, a painter, a photographer. He tends to view these various sides of himself as dimensions of the same creative and artistic impulse. “There’s one thing that’s same [in all of them], and that’s me. What mode we come out of and how we do it is a choice we make, maybe. Music is part of what I asked God to give me when I chose to be human and to have a great earthly experience: ‘Let me know what I need to do; take me to where I need to go.’”

“Sometimes,” McCann concludes, “we come in with different colors, different height, different sizes. We eat different food, we’re born in different places. That all accommodates the goal we’re looking for, and leads us to that. So you can’t go wrong. You can fight it, but it’s already in your DNA. My only message to the world is this: at all times, choose love above fear.” After I thank him for his insight, he laughs and says, “Now I’m gonna go smoke a joint and see if I can take it up a notch.”

Omnivore Recordings’ deluxe reissue of Les McCann’s classic album Invitation to Openness is available now. And McCann’s book documenting his lifetime of photography, Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann 1960-1980, will be released officially on April 19. McCann made an in-store appearance last weekend (March 28, 2015) in Los Angeles, showing slides from his book and telling stories about the old days.

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