Archive for the ‘jazz’ Category

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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Album Review: Wes Montgomery — The Classic Recordings 1958-1960

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

The world’s a much smaller place today than it was a quarter century ago. When I frequented record stores – even once the CD era began – import albums were pricey. They simply weren’t in the budget of the average music consumer in the United States. Things are very different now, thanks in no small part to international retailers like Amazon. American consumers can purchase albums that were heretofore available only in Europe, for example, and have them delivered for retail price plus little more than what they would pay for domestic shipping.

In practical terms, this means that American music buyers can take advantage of the more relaxed licensing/royalty terms that record labels in Europe and the UK enjoy. Licensing a set of eight albums for sale domestically would be an expensive proposition for an American label, and when it comes to jazz – sadly now something of a specialist genre – the costs often outweigh the potential revenue. (How this arrangement affects the original artist and/or their estates is an entirely separate discussion.)

In any event, it’s those modest licensing costs that allow labels to compile and market a set such as Wes Montgomery: The Classic Recordings 1958-1960. (It retails for less than $15!) Jazz guitar pioneer Wes Montgomery burst on the scene at the tail-end of the 1950s, releasing no less than twelve discs for Riverside. (He then left for Verve, and then A&M, before passing away prematurely in 1968 at the age of 45.) Prior to his solo career, he had begun recording as part of The Montgomery Brothers with siblings Buddy and Monk; they would appear on nine LPs between 1955 and 1961. And during that period, Montgomery was also the featured guitarist on albums by The Mastersounds, Jon Hendricks, Cannonball Adderley and other jazz artists.

The Classic Recordings 1958-1960 picks through that vast and varied catalog and compiles eight of those albums onto a 4CD collection. Leaning toward the lesser-known (and harder-to-locate) titles from that era, the set offers a solid survey of the earliest officially-released material in the guitarist’s career. (There are also now some modern-day collections of previously unreleased Montgomery material: Echoes of Indiana Avenue and In the Beginning are essential purchases for the Montgomery fan.)

Here’s a rundown of which albums (originally released on an assortment of labels including Fantasy, World Pacific, Pacific Jazz, and Riverside) are included in the set (all credited to Wes Montgomery unless otherwise noted):

  • The Montgomery Brothers Plus Five Others (1957)
  • The Montgomery Brothers’ Montgomeryland (1958)
  • The Mastersounds’ Kismet (1958)
  • The Wes Montgomery Trio (1959)
  • Jon Hendricks’ A Good Git-Together (1959)
  • The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960)
  • Movin’ Along (1960)
  • The Montgomery Brothers (1961)

Even on his early sessions, Montgomery was a serious player, surrounded by other serious players. The Montgomery Brothers material showcases the talents of Buddy and Monk (on piano and electric bass respectively) while giving plenty of space for Wes to burn up the fretboard with his assured, smooth-as-butter guitar work. On the Mastersounds record, Wes’ presence is so subtle that he’s barely noticeable (which is not to suggest that the music is not good). The Five Others material expands the instrumental focus to include sax, vibes and more, and is solid, upbeat bop.

Montgomery gets to solo often on the vocal-centric Hendricks album – the singer is reminiscent of Louis Prima crossed with Louis Jordan – but he’s far from the central musical focus of those tunes. Once Wes starts fronting his own trio, the guitar becomes the centerpiece of the music. The production style is also a good bit more up-front and live feeling; Montgomery’s crystalline playing benefits from the change. Montgomery originals fit nicely among the guitarist’s reading of standards. Drummer Paul Parker‘s subtle brush work and tasty Hammond organ from Melvin Rhyne make the trio sides even more appealing. The Trio and solo sides alone are more than worth the modest price of this 4CD set.

Listeners should note that the records’ chronological release sequence is not followed on the 4CD set, though the CDs do feature two albums per disc.

A reasonably detailed (but uncredited) liner note essay helps put the recordings into their historical context. There’s no detail or information regarding remastering (if any), and the provenance of the recordings on this set – needle drops? CD? Master tapes? – is also unknown. The last is unlikely, but the sound quality seems to eliminate the first possibility as well (surface noise can be heard on the Kismet material). Simply put, the fidelity will be just fine to most ears.

Note: Those who would enjoy this set should also take note that the same reissue label has released a second set covering the period 1960-62. It’s a 4CD set as well, and features eight albums that – again – were originally released as Montgomery solo records, Montgomery Brothers albums, and discs by other artists but featuring the guitarist.

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Wes Montgomery’s ‘In the Beginning’ from Resonance Records (Part 2)

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

Continued from Part One

At right: Recording rehearsal. David Baker, David Young, Dr. Larry Ridley, Wes Montgomery. Photograph by Duncan Schiedt.

And still there’s more: shortly before his 2014 passing, famed Indianapolis photojournalist Duncan Schiedt contacted Resonance’s Zev Feldman to share news that he had a 1959 recording of Wes Montgomery with the Eddie Higgins Trio. That recording dates from “just before Wes was signed to Riverside,” Feldman says, clearly excited at the prospect of yet more rare and vintage Montgomery. Plans are in development to release those sessions later this year. “and there’s other stuff out there, too,” beams Feldman. “Resonance Records is turning into ‘the house that Montgomery built,’ and we’re really grateful to the family; they’ve been very kind and supportive. Especially Robert Montgomery, Wes’ son.”

The In the Beginning set features more than just those seventeen tracks. “Based on a tip, we discovered a recording session that was in the Sony music archives; Sony didn’t even know about it.” That 1955 session featured five tracks produced by Quincy Jones, likely for use as a demo.

The Montgomery-Johnson Quintet at The Turf Club, Indianapolis. L to R: Sonny Johnson, Monk Montgomery (hidden), Pookie Johnson, Wes Montgomery, Buddy Montgomery. The Turf Club, Indianapolis, circa mid-1950s. Photograph by Philip Kahl. Courtesy of the Buddy Montgomery estate.

The album offers up even more rarities. A 1957 recording from the C&C Music Lounge in Chicago documents an extended workout of Jerome Kern‘s “All The Things You Are,” and features fiery fretwork from the guitarist. “I communicate with a lot of jazz fans,” Feldman says. “Sometimes those people are tape collectors. I had told this gentleman that I know about the Wes Montgomery project I was working on. And he said to me, ‘Hey, I’ve got a tape. It’s only one track, and it’s from a long time ago.’ He made me swear up and down – and his attorney, too, for that matter! – that I would never reveal his name. And I’ve respect that, because we knew this was an important recording.” Feldman gives great credit to Resonance owner George Klabin for providing the resources for Feldman to go on the hunt for these rare recordings.

“This project started as the Philip Kahl recordings,” observes Feldman.” But it evolved into this early years anthology.” Whenever he thought he’d unearthed all there was to find, he says he’d ask, “What else is there!?”

At left: “King Trotter,” Original 78 RPM Record. Courtesy of Jacques Morgantini.

That approach yielded yet another set of rare Montgomery recordings to round out the 2CD set. Three tracks cut in 1949 at Spire Records in Fresno CA display Montgomery and band seething with musical energy. “King Trotter” may be the earliest recording of Montgomery taking a solo. Another highlight of those tapes is “Smooth Evening,” during which Montgomery duplicates Sonny Parker‘s scat vocal. The original records are so rare that United States Library of Congress doesn’t even have copies.

As important and wonderful as the music is, a big part of what makes In the Beginning such a special package is the treasure trove of images, essays and interviews. Feldman even managed to get Montgomery fan Pete Townshend to pen an essay for the booklet. “I grew up listening to rock music like The Who,” Feldman recalls. “My parents played jazz in the house. It was really about musicianship, and soloing, and the expression of ideas. And I had always been in awe of Pete Townshend’s guitar style; he reminds me of a jazz musician.” Feldman enjoyed a Townshend collection released back in 1983, a 2LP set called Scoop. That record included a jazzy instrumental titled “For Barney Kessel.” “So,” recalls Feldman, “I thought, ‘I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet Pete is a fan of Wes Montgomery, too.” He reached out to Townshend, who was glad to write the essay for In the Beginning in which he relates the story of listening with his dad to an early Montgomery stereo pressing.

Resonance has quite a few upcoming projects of note, including previously unheard recordings featuring organist Larry Young. “Jimmy Smith may have taken the organ out of the church,” Feldman says, “but Larry Young was the one who took it out of this world.” That set of tapes from a French radio archive will be released in late 2015 or early 2016. The label also has plans for release of an series of unheard collaborations between Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto; a set of Thad Jones/Mel Lewis recordings; and some previously-unreleased live recordings of Jaco Pastorius, Sarah Vaughan and others that Feldman isn’t quite ready yet to reveal.

With projects such as these and In the Beginning, Feldman, Klabin and everyone at Resonance are clearly on a mission. “We’re very lucky,” says Feldman. “At the end of the day, we do the best job possible. But we operate differently: our whole function is trying to preserve this music. And I’ve gotta tell you: I’m having fun doing it.”

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Wes Montgomery’s ‘In the Beginning’ from Resonance Records (Part 1)

Monday, June 8th, 2015

Resonance Records is not your typical record label. While they do release a steady stream of solid new music from today’s jazz artists, that’s not what makes them truly special. Their tireless and thorough efforts behind the scenes to bring previously-unheard music to modern-day listeners is their most important mission, and it’s one of historic proportions. And what’s more, they truly do it for the love of the music first, with return on investment put in its place as a lesser priority. In fact, Resonance is part of the Rising Jazz Stars Foundation, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.

One of the label’s earliest releases was 2012′s superb Echoes of Indiana Avenue, a collection of previously unreleased recordings documenting the early years of jazz guitar great Wes Montgomery. Not long after that, they released an equally remarkable Bill Evans Trio live set, and more recently their John Coltrane album, Offering: Live at Temple University, earned liner notes essayist Ashley Kahn a Grammy award.

But it seems that with all of those projects, Resonance was just warming up. The latest historical album from the label is another Wes Montgomery collection, In the Beginning: Early Recordings from 1948 – 1958. Compiling recordings from a wide array of sources, the 2CD set documents a period of the guitarist’s history that has been largely unheard until now.

The Turf Club, Indianapolis, circa mid-1950s. Photograph by Philip Kahl. Courtesy of the Buddy Montgomery estate.

The Wes Montgomery recordings that make up the first 17 tracks on In the Beginning were originally recorded by a 22-year-old Butler University student named Philip Kahl. The Montgomery family had copies of these, which they first played back for Resonance producer Zev Feldman during the early stages of the Echoes of Indiana Avenue project. Montgomery’s son Robert, who heads the family’s estate, introduced Feldman to pianist Buddy Montgomery‘s widow Ann; she had something she wanted Feldman to hear. “She had tapes from Philip Kahl,” recalls Feldman. He says that many years earlier, “Kahl had apparently circulated copies of his tape among friends, and they had had copies. For years!” Those tapes included audio from three different Indianapolis venues: The Turf Club (a segregated music lounge), The Missile Lounge (“where Cannonball Adderley discovered Wes,” notes Feldman), and a jam session recorded at the home of Montgomery’s sister Ervina.

At left: The Turf Club ad for The Montgomery-Johnson Quintet, circa mid-1950s. Courtesy of Duncan Schiedt.

“We listened to it,” says Feldman. “And I knew right away, and I said, ‘this has got to be the Holy Grail for Wes Montgomery fans!’ Because you could have only dreamed about stuff from that era. Of course we knew he had played during those years, but no one had any documentation.” The family asked if Resonance would want to release it. But to get the best possible sound quality, Feldman really wanted to locate the original tapes, not merely dubs of unknown generation. “It’s detective work,” Feldman observes. “Sometimes, all you have is a name and Google.” Feldman found the family, and learned that Kahl had passed away recently. But they had the tape reels, and an arrangement was made to allow the release of those sessions. “I made a day trip and drove to Arizona, got the reels, and brought them back to L.A. Then we did a 96/24 transfer from the tapes.”

The recordings were in surprisingly good shape. “You can only do so much,” says Feldman. “These were amateur recordings made on Nagra or Wollensak tape machines. What you hear is what you get. And not only did [Kahl] make recordings, but he took photographs!” Several of those are featured in In the Beginning‘s 56-page booklet.

Feldman notes that “When Wes passed in 1968, Creed Taylor put out that [posthumous Montgomery] album on Verve, Willow Weep for Me. And that was all table scraps.” And when Montgomery’s albums were reissued on CD, the vaults were raided for whatever remaining outtakes existed. So the discovery and of these tapes is a significant event. “And here we are in 2015,” Feldman teases, “and we’re working on releasing even more!” As it turns out, Feldman’s detective work has unearthed the source tapes of the Echoes of Indiana Avenue release, and he says that the tapes contain “another two CDs worth of releasable music.”

Click here to continue…

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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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