Archive for the ‘jazz’ Category

Hundred-word Reviews for September, Part 7 of 8

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Today features hundred word reviews of archival and reissue releases from American and overseas labels.

The Brecker Brothers – The Bottom Line Archive

This is the latest from the new series of releases documenting soundboard recordings from one of New York’s most famed nightclubs. The label’s web site claims the archive contains over a thousand recordings; most of the titles to date have leaned in a singer/songwriter direction, but this set is a notable departure. The funky, adventurous jazz of The Brecker Brothers (Michael on saxophone, Randy on trumpet) will, for rock listeners, echo the best work of Chicago and Steely Dan. But these guys were stars in the jazz worlds, and their band was simply on fire this night in March 1976.

Various – Stranger Than Fiction: Rockabilly Rules Again

The rockabilly subgenre enjoyed a brief resurgence of popularity in 1970s United Kingdom. Thanks in part to (or at least reflected by) the success of films like 1973′s That’ll Be The Day (starring David Essex, madman Keith Moon, and one Richard Starkey), rockabilly classics from the past were unearthed and revived. This three-disc set from Fantastic Voyage collects no less than 104 of these tunes from American artists, and only hardcore fanatics will recognize any of the acts featured herein. It’s a consistently enjoyable set, and Dave Penny‘s fine liner note essay takes an unusual approach to discussing the material.

The Beatles – As It Happened: Classic Interviews

The life and music of the Beatles – collective and individually – are among the most well-documented in all of pop music (pop culture, for that matter) history. This four-disc set compiles interviews (and excerpts of interviews) spanning nearly thirty years. John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison each get a disc; Ringo Starr shares his with others in the Beatles orbit (Brian Epstein, Derek Taylor, Yoko Ono). Some of it is lifted from the old LPs Hear the Beatles Tell All and The Beatles Story. It’s a bit clumsily edited and somewhat padded (needless modern-day introductions) overall, but worthwhile.

Lucifer’s Friend – Awakening

There was a curious micro-trend in the late 60s: American and British bands relocating to West Germany. Texas jazz rockers Sweet Smoke did it. So did British musician Roye Albrighton with his group Nektar. And John Lawton‘s band Lucifer’s Friend was formed 1970 in Hamburg. This 2CD set presents old and new music from them. Disc One showcases the 70s era band’s heavy, hard rocking side, very much in a Deep Purple style. (The group’s progressive-leaning 70s material is largely sidestepped.) The second disc features very good current-day material that sounds like Uriah Heep with an orchestra backing them up.

John Wetton: Anthology Volume 1: The Studio Recordings

Though he rose to fame as bassist-vocalist in a number of important and noteworthy bands (Family, Uriah Heep, King Crimson, Roxy Music, Asia), John Wetton didn’t begin a proper solo recording career until 1980. This two-disc set collects his favorite cuts from his six solo albums. Wetton’s strong sense of melody and powerfully expressive voice can enliven even the dullest material, and since most listeners who will enjoy this haven’t actually heard most of it, it’s recommended to fans. Arrangement-wise, a lot of the songs recall Asia; those interested in Wetton’s progressive side will find Anthology a bit less interesting.

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Hundred-word Reviews for September, Part 6 of 8

Monday, September 7th, 2015

Today I take quick looks at excellent reissue and compilation releases from three labels that excel at that kind of thing: Omnivore Recordings, Light in the Attic and Real Gone Music.

Low Down Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

The 2014 film tells the story of jazz pianist Joe Albany and his (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to break free of his heroin addiction. Though he played for a time with Charlie Parker, Albany’s not especially well known. This carefully-chosen collection of songs for the film presents seven Albany pieces, placing them into the musical context of works by Coleman Hawkins, Max Roach, and Thelonious Monk. Pieces from contemporary jazz artist Ohad Talmor‘s film score are featured as well, and his music fits into the album like a glove. Albany’s “Lush Life” is florid (in a good way) and sonically stunning.

Lizzy Mercier Descloux – Press Color

When considering pop music history, 1979 isn’t often recalled as a year of innovation. But this album from this French (relocated to NYC) no wave and visual artist is some pretty edgy stuff. In retrospect, one can hear hints of approaches and textures that would be adopted by Blondie, The Talking Heads, and Grace Jones, just to name three. A sometime collaborator with Patti Smith, Descloux’s chirpy, come-hither voice should have taken off commercially. Hell, Monkees choreographer Toni Basil would have a hit not long thereafter. Unlike much from that era, Press Color doesn’t sound dated these thirty-odd years later.

Carl Hall – You Don’t Know Nothing About Love: The Loma/Atlantic Recordings 1967-1972

The saga of popular music is strewn with also-rans: worthy artists who, for one or another reason, simply didn’t break through to the big time, deserving as they might be. This collection showcases shoulda-been-hits from this soulful-est of soul singers. With production values in the Muscle Shoals/Memphis “southern soul” style, many of the nineteen tracks on this disc have what it takes to have made the charts. Thing is, only six – count ‘em: six – were ever released. The rest remained in the can until 21st century music archivists unearthed them. It’s a staggeringly significant musical find; hear it.

Ben E. King – The Complete Atco/Atlantic Singles Vol. 1: 1960-1966

Everybody knows “Stand By Me.” Fine a tune as it might be, it’s overplayed nearly to the level of “Free Bird” and “Mustang Sally.” And for most, it’s all they know of the deep catalog of Ben E. King. Okay: some of you can cite “Spanish Harlem,” too. But King was stunningly prolific, as this fifty-track (two discs) illustrates. And the quality standard is high, showcasing wonderfully arranged pop-soul. Much of King’s material was penned (and sometimes arranged) by Brill Building legends such as Carole King (no relation, of course). Keep a watchful ear and eye out for Volume 2.

Dusty Springfield – Faithful

The CD’s back-cover blurb tells you nearly everything you need to know: “Here, for the first time, are all the songs that Dusty Springfield recorded with producer Jeff Barry in 1971 for what was intended to be her third album (and a non-album single) for Atlantic Records. The album never came out and only four of the tracks were originally released as singles.” It’s every bit as good as that description implies. Joe Marchese‘s liner notes explain why the album never came out, and he provides additional background on the songs and sessions. Springfield’s Faithful is a heretofore unheard gem.

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Hundred-word Reviews for September, Part 5 of 8

Friday, September 4th, 2015

Lightening the mood a bit today with some power-pop leaning releases, leavened with some heavier, more adventurous sounds.

The Prime Ministers – Youngstown Milk Run
Don’t allow yourself to be put off by the song titles that make use of tired Prince-isms (“Can U B My Dreams,” “I Wait 4 Your Guitar”). The songs are better than all that. Betraying a strong influence of mainstream 80s rock (Huey Lewis, but don’t hold that against ‘em either), the eleven songs on this disc are catchy, rocking stuff. Sure, the occasional hip-hop vocal break is jarring, leaving a vaguely Smash Mouth flavor behind, but let’s not hold that against the band either. If you liked 80s FM radio, you won’t find this music past its sell-by date.

Gretchen’s Wheel – Fragile State
Gretchen’s Wheel is Lindsay Murray, a singer songwriter from smalltown Tennessee. On Fragile State, she handles songwriting, vocals and the lion’s share of instrumentation. The remaining instruments and production engineering duties are the domain of Ken Stringfellow (The Posies). Murray’s sturdy, inviting songs tread the space between singer/songwriter and midtempo power pop. The songs occasionally remind one of Warner Brothers era Badfinger. There’s a subtle country (the good kind!) influence imbued into the arrangement; this album rewards the listener who spends time with it. Sources say that another album is on its way soon; that’s welcome news in these quarters.

Ligro – Dictionary 3
Liner notes author Dr. Brad Stone makes the point that jazz isn’t always mellow and relaxing. It certainly isn’t on this five-track album on the MoonJune label from this guitar/bass/drums trio. The textures are warm and inviting, but there’s an adventurous spirit at work that keeps things interesting. With a high melodic quotient, and lots of engaging interplay between the instrumentalists, Dictionary 3 is an enjoyable listen start to finish. And because of its relatively accessible character, it might be a good entry point (for your non progjazz-inclined friends) into the world of MoonJune artists. Tasty piano on track one.

Blurred Vision – Organized Insanity

Chiming melodies and massed (chorused/overdubbed) vocals give the songs on Organized Insanity a feel not wholly unlike some of Crowded House‘s work. It’s a safe bet that these songs are “about stuff,” as the first track (“No More War”) features clips from a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The trio ostensibly plays guitar/bass/drums, but lots of electric piano, south-of-the-border horns and banjos (all but the first are uncredited) add nicely to the texture. One’s predilection toward message-y music (see also: U2) will surely indicate how one will react to this music. Often anthemic, often swinging for the fences.

Godsticks – Emergence
In the music biz, everything has to have a label; I believe the label for this music is “active rock.” You might also call it “aggressive progressive.” Musically akin to some of Porcupine Tree‘s more metallic moments (circa Fear of a Blank Planet), on Emergence Godsticks gets the chunka-chunka vibe down tight, with a vocalist who reminds this listener of Eddie Vedder. Punishingly precise riffage underpins the songs; only one track features keyboards; otherwise it’s power trio and vocals pretty much all the way. “Much Sinister” sounds like its title suggests. The Pineapple Thief‘s Bruce Soord guest-vocals on two tracks.

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Hundred-word Reviews for September, Part 2 of 8

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

More hundred-word reviews. Today it’s progjazz, prog-rock, and rock rock.

Lorenzo Feliciati – Koi
Rare Noise Records can reliably be counted upon to release challenging, outsider-flavored music that leans toward, jazz, avant-garde, and/or progressive directions. Koi is Lorenzo Felicati (basses, guitars, keyboard and more), Alessandro Gwis (keyboards and computers) and percussionist Steve Jansen. But they’re joined by various horn players and (on one track) King Crimson drummer extraordinaire Pat Mastelotto. The musical vibe is sinister yet atmospheric and tuneful, and it’s more accessible (that is to say less avant-garde) than many Rare Noise offerings. Think of it as bop-jazz influenced music (with a touch of space-rock) played on modern, state of the art instruments.

XaDu – Random Abstract
If you want to know about interesting new music (generally in progressive rock/jazz idioms) being made in southeast Asia and other non-USA locales, your first stop should be Leondardo Pavkovic‘s MoonJune Records. The artists in Leonardo’s stable are as prolific as they are skilled, and they often team up in various collaborative efforts. Two artists I’ve covered before – Xavi Reija and Dusan Jevtovic – come together to make this free-form work displaying the power of rock, the grandeur of prog, and the precision and exploratory nature of jazz. Drums and guitar duos don’t usually pique my interest; this does.

Landmarq – Roadskill: Live in the Netherlands
This long-running progressive act from the UK has largely flown under the radar for most of their existence. Their music deserves a wider audience, and clearly somebody knows who they are, as this live disc demonstrates. Tracy Hitchings is one of relatively few female lead vocalists in the progressive idiom, and while her pipes are vaguely reminiscent of Annie Haslam (Renaissance), the musical backing rocks harder (and a tad more interestingly) in a sort of Spock’s Beard kind of way. The special edition features a 78-minute concert CD plus a DVD that adds two tunes plus interviews and other goodies.

Kinetic Element – Travelog
Five long tracks – the shortest is a shade under ten minutes; the longest, more than twice that – make up this disc. The four-piece group is made up of some decidedly not-young musicians, but their sound is delightfully timeless progressive rock. Kinetic Element are and instrumental outfit, but they bring in guest vocalists for each of the tracks. That said, the pieces are still primarily instro in nature. Those who enjoy the slow burn of epic prog – think YesClose to the Edge more than Tales From Topographic Oceans – will enjoy this delightfully adventurous yet accessible set.

Marco Minnemann – Celebration
One of music’s busiest, most in-demand players has somehow found time to write, play and record a solo album. And Celebration is a solo set in the truest sense of the word: save a bit of spoken-word on one track, everything you’ll hear on this disc is Minnemann. If Joe Satriani made a progressive rock record, it might sound something like this. Metallic guitar and drums push up against vibes, synthesized horns, and uber-heavy, bone-crushing bass lines. Imagine 70s-era Jean-Luc Ponty putting down the violin and picking up a really bad attitude. Thrillingly out-there, tuneful, endlessly varied and thus unclassifiable.

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Hundred-word Reviews for September (sic), Part 1 of 8

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Time to clear the backlog of discs – worthy ones all – cluttering my office. Beginning today, and occasionally interrupted by other content, here’s a solid two weeks of hundred-word reviews.

Terell Stafford – BrotherLee Love

Lee Morgan was a hard bop trumpeter who recorded between the mid 1950s and 1971, mostly for the Blue Note label. His most renowned sideman session was John Coltrane‘s Blue Trane (1957), and he was a longtime member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. On this album, Philadelphia-based trumpeter Stafford pays homage to Morgan. Stafford and a tight four-piece run through nine cuts associated with – and nearly all composed by – the late Morgan. Tasty stuff indeed, rendered in adventurous hard bop style. Plenty of solo breaks make this a worthwhile listen even for those who don’t know Morgan’s work.

Alison Faith Levy – The Start of Things

Former Sippy Cups member Levy records for Mystery Lawn Music, a label renowned for its intelligent power pop and art-pop artist stable. Levy makes music for kids, but her appeal extends far beyond the tot-rocking set. The lyrics are squarely aimed at youngsters, but not in a saccharine-sweet manner; Levy never “sings down” to her audience. And adults will find plenty to like in the music and arrangements. Levy’s music truly does bridge the gap between music for children and for grown-ups; in that way she’s heir to the music of The Banana Splits, nearly always a very good thing.

The Lucky Losers – A Winning Hand

To my ears, most modern blues is stale and uninspired. I can’t think of another genre that cranks out so much dull material. So when an exception comes along, it’s all that ore remarkable. Cathy Lemons and Phil Berkowitz sing together in harmony, and trade vocal lines on this album’s dozen tunes, backed by a solid but not showy) band and horn section. They capture the fun and excitement of a bluesy band in a dimly lit bar. And at its core, that’s what modern blues is about. That Berkowitz is a skilled blues harpist only adds to the enjoyment.

Otis Taylor – Hey Joe Opus: Red Meat
Sixty-seven year old bluesman Otis Taylor has a long and storied career. This idiosyncratic outing finds the multi-instrumentalist and singer constructing a sort of song cycle built around the chestnut “Hey Joe.” His readings don’t recall Hendrix or The Leaves; no, they have more of an Americana feel. Some of the guitar work recalls The Allman Brothers (thanks to guest Warren Haynes), and the musical dialogue between guitar and fiddle) has shades of Jefferson Airplane with Papa John Creach. Extensive use of cornet (Taylor Scott) adds an interesting character to the songs. On the whole, exceedingly eclectic, understated, and worthwhile.

Phil Lee – Some Gotta Lose…

Lee’s previous album, The Fall & Further Decline of the Mighty King of Love, knocked me out with its windswept singer-songwriter vibe. He reminds me a bit of James McMurtry crossed with Leon Russell, and his music is equally informed by blues, Americana, old-school country and plain old rock’n'roll. Some Gotta Lose… is another showcase for Lee’s well-worn voice. This is as real as it gets, straightforward poetry and stories set to music. One of these days, he and I really will meet up for that cup of coffee; until that day, I’ll enjoy his music on this shiny disc.

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Concert Review: Jaga Jazzist — Asheville NC, 23 June 2015

Monday, August 24th, 2015

Demonstrating yet again that – more than sixty-odd years after the dawn of rock’n'roll – popular music idioms remain fertile ground for experimentation and cross-fertilization, Jaga Jazzist combines rock, jazz, electronica, trip-hop, and who-knows-what-else into music that is all and none of those things at once. And as their recent show at New Mountain in Asheville, North Carolina illustrated, modern-day audiences are open to musical journeys of the sort undertaken by the group, even if those audience members don’t always completely understand what’s going on.

If one were to have polled the June 23 audience at New Mountain, asking each person whether they enjoyed jazz, my own guess is that most would give a noncommittal answer of the “Some of it’s okay, I guess” variety. Yet the audience reaction to Jaga Jazzist’s performance was enthusiastic and attentive. With eight members onstage (drums; bass/keyboards; guitar/keyboards; guitar/vibraphone/analog synthesizers; brass; brass/synthesizers; synthesizer/guitar; and synthesizer), the group occupied a very busy (and busy-looking) stage; the musician setup was obviously based more on facilitating visual and auditory communication amongst the musicians, and made few if any concessions to visual-aesthetic considerations.

Save for the odd bit of wordless vocalization from the two-person brass backline, the music of Jaga Jazzist is completely instrumental. The lengthy tunes – typically six minutes or more, and sometimes much more – allow the band to engage in multiple musical dialogues, and while the pieces seem designed to allow plenty of space for the individual players to express themselves, the music always seems to be headed someplace specific. Jaga Jazzist are not a “noodling” band; while what they do might be categorized as experimental jazz, the music is firmly rooted in conventional styles; that built-in contrast lets the group weave unique works on the fly, but it also keeps the group grounded enough so as to not lose an audience weaned on more conventional music.

Lars Horntveth took center stage, but rather than acting as a front man, he busied himself musically, constantly switching (often multiple times within a given musical piece) between guitar, Korg analog synth, and vibraphone. And all the while, Horntveth engaged in only an occasional quick and subtle meeting of eyes with the other players; the level of unspoken communication among the seven men and one woman onstage seemed to operate at a very high level.

Drummer (and co-leader with brother Lars) Martin Horntveth handled the daunting task of laying down a thick and solid backbeat for the group’s exploratory music; his approach drew upon the finesse of a jazz drummer, the precision of a percussionist in a metal band, and the sheer power of a straight-ahead rock drummer. His duties also included acting as the band spokesman; other than an occasional quick smile and nod of recognition and appreciation, the other seven members of Jaga Jazzist opted not to speak to the audience during the set.

The group showcased several numbers from their latest, 2015′s Starfire (reviewed here), but they also dug into their back catalog, pulling out winning tracks such as the title work from 2009′s One Armed Bandit. Expanding a bit upon the studio version, Jaga Jazzist wrapped the work’s signature melodic lines around a dense, thickly-layered arrangement that featured plenty of crosstalk between instruments. The group skillfully juxtaposed classical/acoustic instruments with throbbing synthesizers, sinewy electric guitars, and the buttery intonation of the vibraphone.

Combining such disparate instrumentation could easily result in a sonic mishmash, but the carefully arranged music of Jaga Jazzist brings those disparate instruments together in a way that suggests deeply evocative soundtrack music. Yet unlike soundtrack scores, pieces that are designed to complement a moving visual image, Jaga Jazzist’s music serves as a soundtrack to whatever mental images it conjures in the mind of the audience members.

I noticed one guy who was clearly getting into the music, trying to follow the beat. He never quite could manage to hold onto the (often tricky time signature) groove for more than a few seconds here and there, but his thorough enjoyment of the music was nonetheless manifest. In that way, he was a fairly typical audience member this night.

There really aren’t many groups to whom Jaga Jazzist can be likened. Their synthesizer-centric instrumentals occasionally call to mind the psychedelic jam of Ozric Tentacles; their inventive arrangements and hypnotic guitars coupled with modern jazz ideas suggests some of Dungen‘s work (most notably on One Armed Bandit‘s “Banafluer Overalt”). But ultimately, this eight-piece group from Norway charts their own musical path.

All photos © 2015 Bill Kopp

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Six Years of Musoscribe: Jazz

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

Other than a copy of Weather Report‘s Heavy Weather purchased back in the 80s, I never paid attention to jazz until the last couple of decades. And even then, my interest in (and knowledge of) the genre was pretty limited. Arguably it still is, but I know what I like. In addition to many album reviews and several liner notes projects (more on those at the bottom of this post), I’ve been fortunate to interview a few jazz composer/performers.

Omnivore Recordings reissues expanded versions of long-lost and/or greatly treasured music in a wide variety of genres. One of their most interesting projects is a black power/fusion album from Todd Cochran aka Bayeté. Cochran and I enjoyed a deep and wide-ranging conversation.

Larry Coryell
Larry Coryell deserves to mentioned in the same breath as John McLaughlin, but he’s less well-known. Coryell granted me an interview, and we went into some detail.

Resonance Records’ Zev Feldman
The non-profit Resonnace Records works tirelessly to unearth rare and unheard jazz recordings. The label’s A&R man Zev Feldman talked with me about their goals, with specific emphasis on ther Wes Montgomery releases.

Les McCann
Soul jazz legend Les McCann will likely remain one of my all-time favorite interview subjects. Here’s my Les McCann interview/feature.

John McLaughlin
I was fortunate enough to land an in-depth conversation with the jazz and fusion guitar legend. Here’s the multi-part feature. I was scheduled to meet him soon thereafter, but things went horribly wrong. Here’s that story, too.

Jazzhaus’ Ulli Pfau
A German-based label called Jazzhaus has rights to the tapes of the country’s national radio station and television companies, and they released a good bit of excellent quality archival material from their vaults. My interview with curator Ulli Pfau dealt with the label’s efforts.

Fred Pallem of Le Sacre du Tympan
When on a vacation in Montréal in 2007, I stumbled across a wonderful big band called Le Sacre du Tympan. (Seemingly I was the only person in town who didn’t know ahead of time that the Montréal Jazz Festival was happening.) A few years later I managed to contact and interview band leader Fred Pallem.

Concord Music Group
The music conglomerate that currently holds the rights to the jazz (and other genre) catalogs of Riverside, Fantasy, Prestige, Stax, Specialty and others is doing a fine job of reissuing old jazz titles. I spoke with the company’s Chris Clough about the reissues and more.

There are simply too many jazz-related reviews on this blog to list them all. This link will point you to some of the more recent ones. And I’ve curated and/or written liner notes for a couple of Cannonball Adderley reissues, Black Messiah and Big Man.

More to come; next time I’ll look at some power pop-related interviews and writings.

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Album Review: Thelonious Monk — The Complete Riverside Recordings

Monday, July 13th, 2015

In my final year of college, I was exceedingly fortunate to have signed up for a course called American Popular Music History: Stephen Foster to the Present. There were only six of us in the class, and our professor was one Murray Silver; he had just co-authored Myra Lewis‘ book, Great Balls of Fire. But I digress, already.

One of the things we learned was that – according to at least some music scholar-historians – the term jazz was a corruption of the slang term “jass,” which was another word for “mistake.” (Of course there are other, less, um, savory theories as to the etymology of the word jazz, but this one suits my present purpose.)

Few jazz artists have more fittingly embodied that theory of the word’s origin than Thelonious Monk. Though an advanced and expressive technician, Monk’s unorthodox, dissonant phrasing and chording (if one can even call it that) led many to think he was just plain sloppy, that his performances were full of mistakes. In truth, that was simply not the case.

Monk recorded and released some forty albums under his own name; more than half of those came from the periods during which he was signed to Riverside (1955-1961) and Columbia (1962-1968). A Grammy-winning 1986 box set, The Complete Riverside Recordings, compiled all of Monk’s recordings for Riverside onto 15 compact discs. Taking note of the present-day music consumer’s preference for physically more compact sets (see also: parent company Concord Music Group’s recent small-size reissues of 2009′s The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings and The Complete Stax Soul Singles Vol. 3), 2015 sees the CD set reissued in a box measuring 5” x 5½” x 1¾.” The fifteen discs are each packaged in a thin cardboard sleeve, and the original set’s booklet – featuring liner notes from the late, famed producer Orrin Keepnews – has been downsized to a 60pp CD size as well. With the new reissue’s decreased focus on packaging, the music returns to front-and-center.

Rather than taking the approach of compiling Monk’s Riverside albums and then appending each with unreleased bonus tracks (alternate takes and such), The Complete Riverside Recordings presents a chronology based upon recording dates. Thus, regardless of when a track was originally issued (or, in some cases, not issued), the set presents an audio document of 153 studio, club and concert recordings – solo and with sidemen – in the order that Thelonious Monk experienced them.

The list of sidemen whose work shows up on the set is, of course, a who’s who of the era’s jazz giants. Drummer Art Blakey, John Coltrane (sax), Johnny Griffin (sax), Coleman Hawkins (sax), Thad Jones (trumpet), Gerry Mulligan (sax), Max Roach (drums), Oscar Pettiford (bass), Sonny Rollins (sax), Charlie Rouse (sax), Clark Terry (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Wilbur Ware (bass) are just some of the musicians who appear.

Monk’s arrangements on the band material are quite democratic – most everyone gets his turn in the spotlight. And the live tracks have a level of excitement that the studio cuts – no matter how inventive and well-executed – simply cannot match. His solo pieces are by definition a bit more idiosyncratic, but once one allows for and accepts Monk’s unconventional approach to the piano keyboard, they’re fascinating.

The alternate takes demonstrate the level of inventiveness and spontaneity inherent in Monk’s (and his sidemen’s) playing. While it’s generally clear why one take was ultimately chosen for (original) release over another, even the initially-unused takes and breakdowns, for that matter) are a treasure. The alternates and breakdowns constitute about 10% of the total music on these discs, but their presentation in context helps provide the listener with a sense of how the original sessions unfolded.

For anyone whose interest in Thelonious Monk extends beyond casual – in other words, for anyone whose appetite has been whetted by, say, Misterioso – the comprehensive The Complete Riverside Recordings merits serious consideration.

Note: A vinyl version of this set seems only to have been released in Japan (circa 1988) and sells on eBay – assuming you can even find one for sale – for more than twice the price of this new, slimmed-down CD set.

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Album Review: Buddy Rich — Birdland

Friday, June 12th, 2015

There has lately developed a trend of dubious merit. Some legitimate (that is, for-profit) record labels have begun releasing what can only be called bootlegs. Tapes – often recorded by audience members on inexpensive amateur equipment – of live performances are now finding their way into the commercial marketplace. And I say this as an aficionado of ROIOs (recordings of indeterminate/illegitimate origin), but while these recordings certainly deserve a hearing, many of them are of a quality that simply doesn’t justify full list price.

It’s one thing if you’re a hardcore fan of, say, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera, and you’re willing to trade for or (more likely these days) download a collection of their 1968 appearances on BBC radio. And if you’re a rabid follower of Fountains of Wayne, Liz Phair, or John Fogerty, you might be satisfied with hissy, cassette-sourced, unknown-generation copies of (respectively) Pinnwheel, The Girlysound Tapes, or Hoodoo. But if you’re a more casual (read: well-adjusted) admirer of those artists’ works, you’d feel cheated if you spent full retail on any of those titles (if they were legitimately available; at press time, they aren’t). There’s a good argument to be made for bringing rare juvenilia of acclaimed artists into a wide audience; it just needs to be labeled (and priced) as such. Recent “legit” releases of some Captain Beefheart tapes are especially egregious examples of dumping substandard product onto the (virtual) shelves.

Happily, there are exceptions, examples of quite-good recordings that have never seen previous release. And Birdland is just such an exception, the kind that proves the rule. Renowned big-band jazz drummer and bandleader Buddy Rich had a bad haircut and a temper to match it, but in his long heyday, he and his band really, really swung. They swung hard, man.

Sometime between 1977 and 1980 – the liner notes are oddly cagey about both the date and location – one of Rich’s saxophone players (Alan Gauvin) captured some live performance (or performances) on one of those consumer-grade Sony portable AM/FM/cassette players. Gauvin’s only concessions to professional recording techniques were the use of an external stereo mic, and clever (or serendipitous) choice of mic placement. With the recording device set up right in front of the sax section, Gauvin ended up with some recordings of surprisingly high fidelity, and a balance that couldn’t have been greatly improved upon with a pro setup. As time went on, he upgraded the recording device used, the microphone(s) and the mic placement.

That tape (or those tapes; again the specific provenance of the eleven cuts on Birdland is unclear) has been subjected to some very minor post-production cleanup – probably the judicious removal of a layer of tape hiss – and the resulting collection is a highly listenable document of Rich’s late 70s band.

Buddy Rich occupied an odd place on the musical landscape. While his chosen genre of big band music had fallen all but completely out of style by the 1960s, he pivoted in a way that – somehow – kept him and his band relevant. Pick up most any Buddy Rich LP from the mid 1960s onward, and you’re likely to recognize many of the song titles. The Doors‘ “Hello, I Love You,” Bobbie Gentry‘s “Ode to Billie Joe,” and a medley of tunes from The Who‘s Tommy are highlights of those records. To say that Rich had a canny pop sensibility is no stretch. While his band’s set lists provided a number of classics loved by an older generation, Buddy Rich was always a pretty hip dude. And his selection of material showed it. The percussionist once known as Traps the Drum Wonder was about sixty years of age when Birdland was recorded; Rich was a pretty tuned-in sixty-year-old.

The title track of this new collection is a case in point. Weather Report were enjoying the crossover success (and Grammy nomination) of “Birdland,” a track off their 1977 Heavy Weather LP. Rich took notice and added the number to his band’s set list. With all the energy and swing-ness of the original intact, Rich and his band tear through the song, allowing showcases by individual soloists.

Other tracks veer between brassy showstoppers like “Moments Notice,” a slower, romantic reading of “God Bless the Child,” and the surprisingly funky “Three Day Sucker.” Assuming – in the absence of tangible evidence to the contrary – that Birdland represents a single concert, Rich and band constantly change up the tempo, with a barnburner followed by a sweet melody. It’s alternately a thrill ride and a lovely listen. But one thing it never is, is dull. While 2014′s Buddy Rich archival release The Solos is by its very nature an item of specialist interest (hey, I love it), Birdland deserves to be heard by anyone who appreciates Buddy Rich’s big band style. And if it’s not your thing, maybe give it a try anyway; you might just be surprised. To quote the title of a song long associated with the man (the tune is included as the closer on this set), Buddy Rich always strove to “Keep the Customer Satisfied.”

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Album Reviews: Four MPS Jazz Reissues

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

MPS is the highly revered label headed by Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer and several associates. Founded in the mid 1960s, MPS became home for many highly-regarded jazz musicians. Between 1966 and 1983, MPS released more than 400 albums. Many of these are out of print today, and ownership of the MPS catalog has changed hands several times since the label ceased operation. In 2014, German independent entertainment conglomerate Edel obtained the rights to MPS titles, and under the Kultur Spiegel banner, began a program of reissues. I’ve provided brief reviews of two of these already; today I take a look at four more newly-reissued jazz titles from MPS.

Monty Alexander – Rass!
Rass! was the fourth album from this Jamaican pianist who’s often described as a follower of Oscar Peterson‘s style. But on this 1974 disc, Alexander favors the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Joined by two electric guitarists, an electric bassist, and three percussionists, he leads the band on a tuneful outing that’s both low-key and intriguing. Rass! could be considered a forerunner of the dreaded smooth jazz era (think of “Theme from Taxi,” for example), but taken on its own terms, it’s quite good. Ernest Ranglin‘s busy, inventive guitar work is a highlight of the disc. Alexander remains musically active today.

Joe Henderson – Mirror, Mirror
On this 1980 album, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson shares billing with keyboard ace Chick Corea, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Billy Higgins. Though he released nearly three dozen albums as a leader, Mirror, Mirror is his only MPS release. Like all MPS titles, it’s flawlessly recorded, but there’s an especially warm and intimate vibe to this session. It’s an all-acoustic session, which might be an example of backing away from the more aggressive electric fusion sounds of the previous decade. In particular, Corea’s piano positively sparkles, adopting a Bill Evans-like approach to melody. Carter’s “Keystone” is the most uptempo number.

Sun Ra and His Intergalactic Research Orchestra – It’s After the End of the World
There’s no such thing as a truly accessible Sun Ra album; his outsider approach to jazz meant that his releases never fit comfortably into the genre. This 1970 live album does nothing to change that impression; in that year Sun Ra released two other live albums, and three studio records. His musical trademarks – atonal melodies, “snorking” saxophones, bizarrely chanted vocals, electronic distortion – are all present in varying degrees. This set is most assuredly not for the faint-hearted, but it’s recommended to those with an ear for Sun Ra’s otherworldly brand of musical exploration. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Patrick Williams Orchestra – Come On and Shine
In retrospect, this 1977 disc is something of an all-star affair. Everybody’s favorite bass player Tony Levin joins guitarist Steve Khan, harmonica star Toots Thielemans, and keyboardist Dave Grusin. A crack horn section is on hand as well. But the resulting album isn’t exactly jazz; funky disco might be a more accurate description. And in those moments when it’s not discofied, the tunes on Come on and Shine sounds like TV or movie theme music (there’s even some Shaft-esque guitar work amid the Love Boat-style horn charts and syrupy strings). Jazz purists will be horrified by the unabashedly commercial arrangements.

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