Archive for the ‘jazz’ Category

Book Review: The Evolution of Mann

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Lately I’ve been mulling the age-old question: what makes a bandwagon-jumper? Pop music’s history is filled with examples of bands and solo artists who have adopted stylistic u-turns in a naked bid for the commercial brass ring. Perhaps The Bee Gees are the most celebrated example: though they started out as a Beatles-lite sort of act in the 60s (and proved they could rock when backing Ronnie Burns; see Nuggets II for proof), they jumped on the disco bandwagon and reaped serious financial rewards for their trouble.

And then there are the artists who are constantly changing if only to amuse themselves. David Bowie and Neil Young have both built careers around stylistic reinvention, and both were (often but not always) rewarded with both commercial success and critical plaudits.

Such career reboots – of the commercial or artistic kind – are far less common in the jazz idiom. But the jazz artist who first comes to mind when one thinks of hopping from style to style is flutist Herbie Mann. Biographer Cary Ginell (also author of an excellent Cannonball Adderley bio, part of the same Hal Leonard Jazz Biography Series) takes a look at Mann’s long and storied career in the punningly titled The Evolution of Mann: Herbie Mann and the Flute in Jazz.

Though Ginell was lucky enough to have interviewed the flutist extensively several years ago (Mann passed away in July 2003), he steered clear of the sort of over-familiarity that leads to hagiography. Ginell is an unapologetic fan of Mann the man and Mann the innovator, but he doesn’t make outsized claims about the flutist’s musical abilities. No, in fact, he quotes many of Mann’s former associates as being somewhat unimpressed with his chops, his ability to improvise. But none of that takes away, Ginell argues (and I would agree) from Mann’s accomplishments. What he did do was establish the flute as a legitimate instrument in jazz, and the flautist (as opposed to a player who seconds on flute) as a legitimate jazz player. For that alone he should be honored.

Moreover, Mann’s endless restlessness did result in some pretty fine music. Herbie Mann at the Village Gate (1961) is an exemplar in the soul jazz subgenre, and Memphis Underground (1968) is an incendiary set that features both Larry Coryell and the waaay-out-there guitar sounds of Sonny Sharrock.

Mann wasn’t always admired – much less taken seriously – by his peers, but he was known for crowd-pleasing, and for paying his sidemen atypically well. But back to the question of bandwagon jumping: Mann was an early proponent of the bossa nova movement that swept the USA in the very early 60s, but because of label delays and other factors, his releases came out later than, say, the Getz/Gilberto stuff. And others – notably Adderley –were well into the soul jazz bag before Mann was. As such, Mann was often criticized for following trends rather than setting them.

But, he might well have asked, what’s so bad about that? Mann was always more interested in making the fans happy. He adopted a rock star persona (one look at the cover of 1971′s Push Push makes that clear), with all the groupie-excess that connotes. By the 70s he had hitched his musical wagon to the disco train, and while his credibility took a big hit, he sold lots of records, and lots of concert tickets. And he doubtless got laid a lot.

Ginell charts Mann’s rise and fall (and sort of post-fame rise) with a reporter’s eye, drawing on interviews with those who knew him best, most notably selected sidemen and Mann’s third wife. Ginell recounts how, in Mann’s waning years as he dealt with prostate cancer, the flutist re-engaged with the ethnic sounds most dear to him. And in reconnecting with his earlier Brazilian musical bent (plus the music of his Eastern European roots), Mann – intentionally or not – made a final compelling case for his stature as an innovator in what we now call world music.

Ginell never paints his subject as a hero or a world-class musician, but he makes a strong case for Mann’s importance thanks to his popularization of his instrument, and for his role in the mainstreaming of ethic sounds into the fabric of American pop and/or jazz.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

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.

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Album Review: Bethlehem Records Reissues

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

For several years in the decade of the 1950s, Bethlehem Records released some fine jazz albums. Recently Verse Music Group has licensed those albums, and is in the midst of reissuing them on both CD (nice enough, that) as well as vinyl, in their original 10” and 12” formats. While I’ve covered a few of these in recent reviews, today’s entry will take a quick look at three more.

Zoot Sims – Down Home
A 1960 set comprising eight numbers, this LP features the tenor saxophonist backed by piano (Dave McKenna), bass (George Tucker) and drums (Daniel Richmond). While there’s but one Zoot Sims original here (“I’ve Heard That Blues Before”), the songs are well selected to showcase the players’ chops and interplay. Leaning heavily in the direction of toe-tapping, lively, accessible jazz, it’s a worthwhile outing. The uncredited production (in hi-fi, not stereo) is clear but not up to the you-are-there ambience that Orrin Keepnews was getting for his clients’ sessions.

Bobby Troup – The Songs of Bobby Troup
A curious release, since Troup was a songwriter and these are all covers, it’s a nice collection nonetheless. Reissued in its original 1955 ten-inch format, the record draws mostly from the Great American Songbook, with all but one of the eight tacks composed in part by Johnny Mercer. (Side note: I attended Georgia State University in the early 1980s, and on one floor of the downtown “concrete campus” they had a Mercer museum. I wish I had paid closer attention.) Troup’s vocals are front and center, but Howard Roberts‘ guitar is a highlight throughout. The instrumental “Laura” is the best track here.

Pepper Adams – Motor City Scene
Technically, this 1960 release isn’t actually credited to Adams (nor to any one musician, for that matter); the lineup features him on baritone sax, plus Donald Byrd on trumpet, Kenny Burrell on guitar, pianist Tommy Flanagan, drummer Louis Hayes and Paul Chambers on bass. All that said, it’s Adams’ sax that’s the highlight of this five-number set. This album has received middling reviews, but I think it warrants closer inspection. Not groundbreaking, perhaps, but it’s a lively, varied collection that showcases each of the players. And the sound (again in hi-fi) is top-notch.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Book Review: Experiencing Jazz

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

As part of my expanding odyssey of discovering the art form called jazz, I bought a book in December 2012, a title called Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz, by John Szwed. It was good, but left me feeling that the task of guiding a novitiate (one such as myself) into a greater appreciation of jazz could have been done better.

So I was quite intrigued when I received a list of new offerings from Scarecrow Press / Rowman & Littlefield. That list included Michael StephansExperiencing Jazz: A Listener’s Companion. Seeing that it was a hardcover at just shy of 500 pages, I figured that it would provide a more comprehensive overview than did the earlier title. At least the potential was there, I surmised.

And I was right. Stephans is a jazz drummer with an impressive musical pedigree of his own, having shared the stage with a long list of notables. He’s also a teacher at the college level, and his conversational, informal tone avoids the stuffy, academic approach from which too many of these sorts of books suffer.

While taking pains to offer disclaimers that his early chapters do not represent anything like a comprehensive history of jazz, Stephans does an admirable job of charting the form’s genesis, rise and development. And he does it all in about 45 pages. As such, it’s a breezy survey that never dwells too long on any one subject. While a reader well-versed in jazz history might find it wanting, it’s quite effective at achieving its stated goal of providing a potted history (my words) of jazz for the newbie.

It’s after this series of introductory chapters that Stephans really gets to what seems to be his true focus. After discussions of functions and forms, and big vs. small bands, Stephans devotes a chapter each to the instruments employed in jazz. These chapters include trumpet; trombone; tenor sax; alto sax; soprano and baritone saxes; clarinet, flute and bass clarinet; piano; bass (acoustic and electric); drums; other percussion (vibraphones etc.); guitar; and vocals. In each, Stephans breezes through the instrument’s development within the jazz idiom, discusses major artists in each, provides a survey of current artists, and spends a few grafs on young up-and-comers. Each chapter includes a brief Q&A with one current artist (the same questions are posed to all players).

It’s a lot ot take in, but a tome with the ambitious goal of providing a single-source introduction to jazz can be nothing less. The reader will come away hungry to sample those artists with whom s/he was previously unfamiliar, and I’m certain that was part of Stephans’ goal. If there’s a criticism of Experiencing Jazz, it’s the ever-so-slightly too-reverent tone the author takes when discussing currently living (or recently passed) musicians, most notably those with whom he’s either worked or conversed. In some of those cases, the reader might squirm – but just a bit – as Stephans tells us just what a wonderful human being so-and-so sax man truly is. But as I say, it’s a minor criticism, one with which many other readers might well disagree.

As a very successful attempt to draw interested parties into the world of jazz, Experiencing Jazz is highly recommended.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Hundred-word Reviews: New Jazz

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

So much music, so little time. I’m still a relative novitiate when it comes to jazz, but I know what I like. And I like these. All new/contemporary artists, these five albums represent a wide swath across what’s happening in jazz today, though each has a sonic foundation in earlier styles (most notably but not exclusively, bop). Here’s a quick look at each of them.

Scott Jeppesen – El Guapo
The title and cover art telegraph a Spanish flavor to the proceedings, but once you get to the CD, what you find instead is accessible, straightforward jazz. Jeppesen plays various saxophones and bass clarinet, and is backed by a quartet (guitar, keys, bass, drums), plus trumpet and flugelhorn on two tracks. The Spanish flavor does indeed crop up, but not on the title track; instead it’s on the mellow acoustic guitar and alto sax outing “Elm.” Occasionally veering perilously close to lite jazz (if not Kenny G-styled fuzak), it’s redeemed by cuts like the adventurous “Great Odin’s Raven.”

Wide Hive Players – Turnstyle
Effectively the “house band” For the Wide Hive label run by Greg Howe (who also writes, engineers and plays B3), on this disc the band also includes ace guitarist Calvin Keys. While the WHP often engages in soul-jazz, they’re adept at styles beyond that: the well-named “All the Wrong Notes” has shades of a small-band take on Frank Zappa‘s “Music for Guitar and Low Budget Orchestra.” In some ways, Turnstyle sounds like a sampler of the group’s range, a sort of “hey, hotshot players: we can back you on whatever kind of music you wanna make.”

Kenny Garrett – Pushing the World Away
Traditionalists of the sort who enjoy bop and post-bop will want to know about the latest from the alt/soprano sax player. Full of nods to influences (Chick Corea, Sonny Rollins and others), the album still manages to sound contemporary. Dissonant piano, abstract melodic lines, odd, murky time signatures and atmospheric blowing are all hallmarks of this release. Taking a page from the bop greats of years past, Garrett uses a standard (Burt Bacharach‘s “I Say a Little Prayer”) as a musical launching pad. He plays it straighter than some of his forebears might have, but it remains a highlight.

Warren Wolf – Wolfgang
Wolf’s mellifluous, buttery vibraphone is the centerpiece of this nine-track album, containing six originals and three interpretations. While Wolf’s compositions are sturdy and enjoyable, he really seems to shine when freed from the responsibility of writing the tune: his work on the bluesy “Frankie and Johnny” is a standout on an already consistent engaging album. Still, his breakneck-paced mallet work (plus backing by ace players) on “Grand Central” evokes the hectic, nonstop pace of its transit hub namesake. From the meditative title track to the yearning, cello-centric “Annoyance,” this is a varied and lovely collection of songs.

Jim Clayton – Songs My Daughter Knows
What a delightful album concept: collect ten songs that your toddler recognizes – from hearing them on the stereo, in the car, or on television – and build your own versions of those tunes. That’s what Clayton has done here, and the results are a delight. Hewing close enough to the core melodies so that his daughter will recognize the tunes, Clayton (on piano) leads a relatively minimal backing group through the songs. You’ll find standards (“Autumn Leaves”) and TV themes (“The West Wing”) alongside songs that will be mostly familiar to kids and their youngish parents (“The Rainbow Connection”).

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Hundred Word Reviews: February 2014, Part Five: Jazz

Friday, February 14th, 2014

As previously threatened, here is another clutch of jazz capsule reviews. Each of these albums is a reissue of an old release, but is worthy because of its (a) relative unavailability of late or (b) the addition of some bonus tracks of note. And, of course, (c) its unassailable musical value.

Oscar Pettiford – Oscar Pettiford Modern Quintet
As I mentioned in a recent review of another Oscar Pettiford release, this man doesn’t get his due. A bassist on a part with Mingus, he played in a sprightly, nimble bop style. This 1954 album dates from the earliest part of his relatively short career. Though – like many of his jazz contemporaries — he would relocate to a more musically receptive Europe, Pettiford was still stateside when he cut this delightful collection. In addition to bass, Pettiford played cello, rarely found in jazz of this type. The music – like Burt Goldblatt‘s striking cover art – is timeless.

Chris Connor – Sings Lullabys for Lovers
As a rule – with exceptions – I don’t gravitate toward jazz vocalists. But Connor‘s nuanced, cool, controlled pipes are in fine form on this, her debut recording. Originally released on the Bethlehem label as a 10” vinyl record, this collection of standards – not really lullabys – features wonderfully varied musical backing on each of its eight tunes. On each, The Vinnie Burke Quartet plus drummer Art Madigan provide a sympathetic musical backdrop for Connor; they’re interesting enough on their own, but never compete with the vocalist for the spotlight. And the monaural (“Micro Cosmic Sound”) recording is stellar.

Dexter Gordon – Daddy Plays the Horn
Gordon had been recording for a decade by the time he got around to cutting this six-track record for Bethlehem in 1955. His tenor sax is ably supported by drummer Lawrence Marable and Leroy Vinnegar on bass, but for me it’s Kenny Drew‘s piano work that provides the most interest, with a style that feels a bit like more mainstream Thelonious Monk. Not to take away from the other players, including Gordon himself. The upbeat, melodic tunes swing, most notably on a reading of Charlie Parker‘s “Confirmation.” The sultry ballads (check “Darn That Dream”) work quite quite well too.

Nina Simone – Little Girl Blue
If fans of Julie Driscoll (of Brian Auger’s Trinity) want to know from whence came that British vocalist’s biggest influence, they’d do well to discover this, the debut recording from Nina Simone. As something of a jazz novitiate, I wasn’t even aware that Simone played an instrument; her chops on the piano are equally amazing. The cover of this 1958 record describes it as “jazz as played in an exclusive side street club.” A helluva club, I’d wager. Simone on piano is joined only by Al Heath on drums and bassist Jimmy Bond. But then, nothing more is needed.

Red Mitchell – What I Am
One of the more modern albums in this group of reviews, this album collects a number of recordings made at the bassist/vocalist’s apartment in Stockholm. Seeking a political climate more in tune with his values, Mitchell left the USA in 1968. This pop-jazz outing has a distinctly Ella Fitzgerald vibe to it. On the title track, Mitchell name-checks musicians he digs, a list not limited to jazzers (“I could go on all night,” he sings). His humorous lyrics are the album’s highlight, and the new CD reissue of this Caprice LP includes those lyrics and more in the informative booklet.

James Booker – Classified: Remixed and Expanded
Pianist James Booker coined any number of highfalutin titles for himself, including “The Piano Prince of New Orleans.” Luckily he had the goods to back up such a claim. This 1982 album was one of only two albums completed during his short time on this Earth (he didn’t make it to his 44th birthday). The 2014 Rounder reissue adds nine cuts not included on the original release, showing Booker as a master of many styles. A deft pianist and expressive vocalist, he was as at home performing swaying, gospel-inflected numbers as he was doing blues, r&b, rock’n'roll and classical.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Hundred Word Reviews: February 2014, Part Four: Jazz

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

I’m still working through an enormous backlog of CDs in my must-be-reviewed pile. You should see the rejects pile: a lot of pretty good music didn’t make the cut, owing to a simple lack of time and space (though I’ve spared you from coverage of some dreadful stuff as well). Today I’ll take a quick look at some fine jazz reissue/archival releases; these are either (a) classic albums reissued for modern listeners or (b) old recordings that haven’t been released before for one or another reason. All are worthy, and – please note – they’re covered here from the (relatively unschooled) point of  view of a rock fan who’s only come to appreciate jazz in the last several years.

Charles Mingus – The Jazz Experiments of Charles Mingus
Originally a pair of ten-inch releases (Jazzical Moods Vols. 1 and 2) issued on the tiny Period label, this 1954 album serves up six tracks (three originals, three interpretations of others’ work) on a record that features – among others — Teo Macero, later to gain fame as Miles Davis‘ producer/studio collaborator. In a slightly unusual move, this record featured liner notes by the artist himself, in which he sought to explain the goals and nature of each track. As expected, Mingus‘ bass work is propulsive and thrilling, but everyone else (notably trumpeter Thad Jones on four cuts) blows as well.

Booker Ervin – The Book Cooks
Perhaps the least well-known artist covered in this set of reviews, tenor saxophonist Ervin was an exemplar of the hard bop style. This 1960 album was his debut on record as a bandleader, though he’d busily go on to release well more than a dozen albums before his death in 1970. Here he often duets with Zoot Sims (another tenor sax man) on six numbers, all but one an original. This bluesy set subtly presages soul jazz of the coming years. Ira Gitler‘s original liner notes even mention the word “funk,” a term not in wide use in 1960.

John Coltrane – Afro Blue Impressions
Some quick history: this album was recorded live in 1963, at a pair of dates in Stockholm and Berlin. The tapes remained unreleased until 1970, at which time Norman Granz‘s Pablo label released a double album. Now in 2014, additional stray tracks from those dates (ones that had appeared on other albums) have been added back to create a 2CD set. Coltrane and his band (McCoy Tyner on piano, bassist Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones on drums) turn in stunning performances that cover a great deal of stylistic range. Neil Tesser won a Grammy for the definitive reissue’s liner notes.

Don Cherry – Live in Stockholm
Like the above album, this was recorded live onstage in Sweden, but that’s where the similarities end. Cherry‘s avant-jazz stylings on three extended pieces veer much closer to the style of Ornette Coleman (a frequent Cherry associate). Playing his “pocket trumpet” as well as flutes, piano and percussion, Cheery leads his band – here, mostly Scandinavian players from his then-newly adopted home country – through impressionistic, difficult pieces that rock -centric listeners might find vaguely similar to some of Frank Zappa‘s early 70s work (circa Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo), though certainly without the rock trappings of the latter.

Paul Bley Trio – Closer
Recorded in a single December 1965 session, this features pianist Bley plus Steve Swallow on bass and Barry Altschul on percussion. All but one of the tracks are composed by Carla Bley (them married to the pianist), and predate her compositions for Gary Burton (A Genuine Tong Funeral) by nearly two years. Though Ms. Bley is known as a giant of the free jazz movement, the Vince Guaraldi-ish “Ida Lupino” opens the set. Then things get very weird, with rambling piano and disorienting percussion. Occasionally it’s quite accessible (“Sideways in Mexico” ) but generally this is an avant-jazz outing.

Hans Koller & Friends – Legends Live
Another winning release from the Jazzhaus vaults, this features selections from a pair of live dates in Germany in 1959 and 1960. Viennese tenor saxophonist Koller leads a mostly European ensemble (plus acclaimed American bassist Percy Heath) through mostly original material, with Jerome Kern‘s “All the Things You Are” added in. (That track features Martial Solal‘s kinetic piano.)The 1960 tracks from Stuttgart feature a brass ensemble. The live sound quality captured here is impeccable, a hallmark of all Jazzhaus archival releases. The performances tend toward a traditional, classicist, big-band-writ-small feel, but there’s plenty of tasty playing and soloing throughout.

More jazz reissue/archival capsule reviews to come.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Hundred Word Reviews: February 2014, Part One

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

The backlog of music here at Musoscribe World Headquarters has gotten massive; it’s nearly overwhelming. Anyone who tells you that there’s no good new music out there clearly doesn’t deserve your attention. These albums, however, do. That said, the only practical way for me to cover them is to do so in a truncated fashion. Don’t assume from the brief coverage that the music referenced below merits only a quick listen; there are some truly fine albums here. To help in my mission to give these releases at least a portion of the attention they deserve, here are 100-word capsule reviews. Today’s batch mostly falls into a prog-rock or fusion bag.

SimakDialog – The 6th Story
Try to imagine a Rhodes keyboard-led outfit that plays instrumental music that sounds a bit like some of Frank Zappa‘s early 80s material, but with a subtle world-music flavor (like several of the artists covered today, they’re from Indonesia). In places there’s a bit of Tool-like stop-and-start, but mostly this intriguing album floats by. Listen closely or casually; it works on both levels. Closer in many ways to jazz than to progressive rock, The 6th Story features no less than three percussionists. They’re fully integrated, never noisy. (That role falls to the occasional guitar bits delightfully peppered throughout the album.)

I Know You Well Miss Clara – Chapter One
The long band name conjures images of heavily-eye-makeupped pop punk boys, but that’s a red herring; this Indonesian quartet traffics in an atmospheric, jazzy progressive style. Think hard-bop meets atonal, skronky, Buckethead-at-his-weirdest metal. Renowned King Crimson biographer/spokesman Sid Smith gives the album his enthusiastic thumbs-up in the liner notes, and while song titles like “Pop Sick Love Carousel” continue the band’s mission of misdirection, this sometimes-challenging album is quite a rewarding listen. Assured playing is the order of the day here. The photos suggest these guys are very young, and the album title portends more to come from them.

Marbin – Last Chapter of Dreaming
Big-guitar, arena-rock attitude meets jazz chops and ambitious arrangements. Last Chapter of Dreaming might just be that album that leads fans of shredders like Joe Satriani into jazz territory. Not exactly fusion, Marbin’s music is perhaps best described as hard rock with jazz sensibility (often in the form of sax and trumpet). The music swings hard, but pig-squeal guitar and knotty Discipline-era King Crimson styled guitar figures keep it firmly in rock territory. And strong hook-filled tracks like “Inner Monologue” show that this band is interested in songs, not merely showcases for dazzling musical brilliance. This one’s highly recommended.

Dusan Jevtovic – Am I Walking Wrong?
Guitarist Jevtovic was born in Serbia, but he and his band mates (Bernat Hernández on fretless bass and drummer Marko Djordjevic) are based in Barcelona. This is heady prog power-trio stuff, with bass lines that threaten to loosen your innards, delightfully sludgy drums, and dissonant-yet-hooky guitar runs. Think of it as jazz with the aggression of metal folded into the mix. Djordjevic shows off his impressive percussive chops on “Drummer’s Dance,” but even there listeners will find a tune upon which to hang their musical hats. “One on One” is a prog-blues hybrid, with shimmering sheets of feedback.

Dialeto – The Last Tribe
Continuing our musical travelogue, Dialeto is from São Paulo, Brazil. Though they’ve released three albums, The Last Tribe is the first to receive international distribution. A trio featuring guitar, touch guitar and drums, Dialeto creates music that will please fans of (him again!) Joe Satriani. Sometimes the tracks are high-speed, skittery affairs; “Sand Horses” seems well-suited to a movie’s chase scene. Occasionally, the guitars are treated to sound like vibraphones and whatnot; such detours make this album only more interesting than it would already be. It’s melodic yet adventurous, with enough crunch to keep hard rock fans fully engaged.

The Wrong Object – After the Exhibition
This and all the above releases are on the internationally-minded (though NYC-based) MoonJune label; The Wrong Object are from Brussels. This five-piece (augmented with other players on some tracks) creates a playful jazz-rock sound reminiscent of Gong and Soft Machine. Too often, music of this sort is ill-served by the addition of vocals; not so here. The gentle yet assured vocals of Antoine Guenet and Susan Clynes provide lovely texture to the band’s original compositions. That said, with its deft musical pyrotechnics, the instrumental “Jungle Cow, Part III” is a heady mishmash that will impress the most jaded listener.

Sky Architect – A Billion Years of Solitude
The artwork on this album seems designed to target Star Wars fans; the cover painting depicts a sort of Boba-Fett-in-space tableau, and the back cover riffs on the “long ago in a faraway galaxy…” schtick. This five piece is based in Rotterdam, and their sound bears the hallmarks of Genesis, Marillion and other proggers. Dreamy keyboard pads and soaring guitar leads are contrasted with herky-jerky rhythms more associated with Gentle Giant. But despite that 70s name checking, Sky Architect sounds modern. Not quite in the league of Porcupine Tree, they’re nonetheless worth checking out by fans of the style.

Chris Forsyth – Solar Motel
One of two American artists covered today, Chris Forsyth describes his style as “cosmic Americana,” but I hear more of a rock-centric rethink of Brian Eno‘s work. He doesn’t sound like Eno; his busy, distorted guitar lines owe more to Television, and the four extended pieces build and fade away like Russian Circles‘ best work. The tracks might best be thought of as heavy guitar tone poems: more rocking than Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but with a similar Glenn Branca-influenced drone approach. Arty and most assuredly not background music, Solar Music is challenging yet worth the effort it demands.

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

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.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Album Review: Blodwyn Pig — Pigthology

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

On their two well-regarded late 1960s albums, Blodwyn Pig forged a singular musical path, one some might say paved the way for such acts as Roy Wood’s Wizzard. This is epecially true on tracks like “Drive Me” from 1970′s Getting to This. Elsewhere they sounded not wholly dissimilar to Jethro Tull; this is unsurprising in light of the fact that founder Mick Abrahams played guitar in Tull’s early lineup.

While Blodyn Pig formed and re-formed over the years, the two albums cut before their initial 1970 split form the core of what the group is remembered for. Subsequent lineups included Peter Banks (later of Yes and even later of Flash), but the sonic centerpiece of the group was the jazz-leaning Jack Lancaster. He played saxophone, flute, violin and (occasionally) piano.

Fast forward to 2013. The original lineup – not some of ‘em, but instead all of ‘em — have reunited to release something called Pigthology. I approached this release with some trepidation, owing to the fact that its provenance is a bit murky. Yeah, all the guys are here on this album subtitled “An Anthology Featuring the Original Band.” In addition to Abrahams and Lancaster, original bassist Andy Pyle and drummer Ron Burg are on board. So far, so good, right?

Here’s where tings got troubling, where red flags popped up. The term “Anthology” connotes – but doesn’t strictly mean – a collection spanning an artist’s career. Most people think of Beatles Anthology, a collection of unreleased material from the old days, chronologically sequenced. But a look at the back cover of Pigthology shows that among Lancaster’s instrumental credits is this: “Yamaha WX7.” If you don’t know, I’m here to tell you that the WX7 is a modern MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) device. Simply put, it’s a synthesizer controller that one plays like a wind instrument. It was first sold in…1987. Math enthusiasts might note that this is some seventeen years after the release of Getting to This.

So Pigthology is an adventure in modern recording, then? Well, it’s simply too tough to tell. The liner notes – penned by Mick Farren, who has since passed away – notes that most of the recordings on the album are from the period during which the band “played alongside Led Zeppelin, The Who…” and so on. That places this recording in the late 60s or 70s. So which is it?

At its core, this question is one that ought to be simple enough to answer. But neither the packaging nor liner notes* clear up the mystery. What we’re left with is the music.

And of course that’s what it’s all about. Regardless of when the band cut these twelve tracks, they had it together. That curious British interpretation of the blues, imbued with a roadhouse boogie feel, forms the foundation of the songs. Lancaster’s jazz feel pulls things in that direction. The end result sounds – once again – like Roy Wood’s solo work, and his recordings with Wizzard and with the Super Active Wizzo Band. Beefy sax lines give the band a grittier sound than Jethro Tull ever had; this stuff rocks a lot harder than Ian Anderson‘s band ever did, and sports little in the way of medieval trappings (even when Lancaster’s blowing flute).

Yet Blodwyn Pig are pleasingly eclectic. On “Dear Jill,” acoustic slide guitar and fiddle create a folk-blues ambience that is extremely atmospheric. A few of the tracks don’t work: “Monkinit” sounds not at all like the product of an actual band; nearly everything about it – especially the stuttering drums – sounds like a band-in-a-box, laptop-sourced recording. Maybe not, but that ‘s what it feels like. Only Abrahams’ stinging guitar playing saves it from being completely bloodless.

But that’s the exception. Most of the material here – regardless of when and how it was created – is first-rate. A remake of “Drive Me” adds little to the 1970 original, but it’s still worth hearing; Abrahams is in fine voice, belting out the tunes in a Lonesome Dave Peverett style. An acoustic live reading of “The Change Song” shows off the group’s perhaps-unexpected quiet, reflective side. “Cosmogification” does The Average White Band one (or two) better, wedding the funk of that group’s style with the ambition of Colosseum. “Same Old Story” rocks like mad, and an instrumental country blues “Sly Bones” is a highlight.

“It’s Only Love” amps things up again, and would have sounded right at home on 1969′s Ahead Rings Out or the second LP. Save for an unnerving vocal effect (digital echo?) “Stormy Monday” wraps the album up on a delicious note.

Ignoring the slapdash packaging, the murky origins of the material, and the AWOL status of one track (a cover of “Hound Dog”), this is a worthwhile package.

Postscript: A quick check suggests this album was first released a decade ago; that fact – like most all other facts – is noted nowhere on this album’s packaging.

* Postscript #2: As it happens, source info is included on the back of the one-sheet sent to reviewers. I completely missed it when I first wrote this review. Most tracks date from 1969-70; a few are from the early  70s. The suspect ones (including the Thelonious Monk tribute “Monkinit”) are — not surprisingly — listed as “date unknown. Well, okay then. I think that’s linernote-ese for “recently.”

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.