Archive for the ‘jazz’ Category

Album Review: Wadada Leo Smith et. al. — Red Hill

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Lots of people I know – the ones who like jazz, anyway – tend to prefer Miles Davis‘ music best from the era around Birth of the Cool. Me, as a rock guy, I’m much more fascinated with the work he did around the time of Jack Johnson. And this avant jazz album from trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith sounds to these ears like that exploratory-era Miles, without John McLaughlin (or anyone, for that matter) on guitar. I can’t define this music much more sharply, but if you dig the musical references, you’ll quite likely appreciate the music on Red Hill.

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Album Review: Interstatic — Arise

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Jimmy Smith more or less invented the concept of organ trio. But it’s unlikely he had anything in mind like Interstatic. Imagine a bluesy, jazzy trio with Hammond, guitar and drums, playing unclassifiable instrumental music. The foundation is straight-ahead – not a lot of uncomfortable time signatures here – but the solid bottom end gives plenty of space for some expressive organ and guitar work. That said, “Caerbannog” is nearly as hard to follow as it is to pronounce. Strong ensemble playing means that everybody’s doing their own thing, but it all holds together, just. Challenging, and somehow still accessible.

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Album Review: Antoine Fafard — Ad Perpetuum

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

One doesn’t often think of melding progressive rock elements with jazz fusion; at least not if one wants to break even on an album release. But that’s the approach favored by bassist Antoine Fafard. Combining the best of (dare I say) smooth jazz with rock’s muscularity, Fafard is aided in his efforts by drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Missing Persons) and, on one track, the multifarious Gary Husband (a frequent John McLaughlin collaborator and a jazz star in his own right). If Joe Satriani played keyboards and leaned a bit more in a jazz direction, he might sound like this.

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Album Review: Marbin — The Third Set

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Generally, I avoid reviewing more than one album by relatively unknown artists; even less often – never before, as far as I know – do I review two albums within the space of a year. But Marbin’s the real deal. Jazz-rock is a nearly meaningless term, so instead I might describe them as progressive rock band with jazz technique; they rock, and hard, but their precision is nothing short of stunning. And The Third Set is in fact a live album, combining studio production values with lots of feel and spontaneity. Dani Rabin‘s level of expression on guitar is stunning.

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Album Review: Thom Douvan — Brother Brother

Monday, December 15th, 2014


Thom Douvan – Brother Brother
A (perhaps) surprising number of the Detroit players known as The Funk Brothers were actually white guys. One of ‘em was guitarist Thom Douvan. In this 2014 album Douvan pays tribute to the team of session players in the form of an album full of cover tunes. Mostly done in a smooth (but not too smooth) jazz style, Brother Brother features readings of classic soul (and/or soulful) tunes from the likes of The Isley Brothers, Hall and Oates, Donny Hathaway and other greats. Imagine if Steely Dan played instro jazz covers, and you’ll have an idea of how this sounds.

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

Friday, November 21st, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Album Review: Abelardo Barroso with Orquesta Sensación — Cha Cha Cha

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

Full disclosure, right up front: I know next to nothing about Cuban jazz. I enjoyed Kirsty MacColl‘s ventures into the genre, and I’ve long had a special place in my heart for The BeatlesLet it Be-era outtake, “Besame Mucho.” But that’s about it: beyond being able to say, “Yeah, that sounds like Cuban jazz,” and an appreciation that it influenced American jazz in the 50s and 60s, I don’t know a great deal about the genre.

But like you, dear reader, I do know what I like. And I very much like Cha Cha Cha, the new compilation of recordings featuring famed Cuban sonero mayor (lead singer) Abelardo Barroso, backed by Orquesta Sensación. Fourteen tunes dating from 1950s Havana, the songs on Cha Cha Cha present a delightful sampling of the work that the beloved Barroso did in that period.

It seems that there are quite a few Barroso compilations in the marketplace. His recorded legacy extends back to 1925, and his association with Orquesta Sensación was at the forefront of the “second charanga (Cuban traditional dance music) movement.” The roots of this music are decidedly Afro-cuban, and the mulato (mixed-race) Barroso was at the forefront of the style.

The album’s title might suggest that its contents feature some watered-down, dance-craze LP made by a bunch of gringos (my parents’ LP collection featured just such a record, with a Jane Russell-looking gal on its cover). And the graphical approach used on Cha Cha Cha is pointedly designed to look and feel like an old record: dated fonts, muted pastel colors, etc. But what’s going on in the grooves of Cha Cha Cha is far more substantial than all that: it’s not only historically important music, but it’s a heckuva lot of fun to listen to. Even if – like me – your Español is good enough only to get a drink or a face-slapping (or both).

The dapper Barroso shines on numbers such as “El Manisero,” a much-loved traditional Cuban song about a peanut vendor. The sexual undercurrent is clear in the song’s lyric in which a woman tells us she won’t get to sleep unless she can dine on a, er, peanut cone. The instrumentation on this and the other album tracks includes a good bit of percussion (congas, timbales and such) alongside prominent flute solo fills and silky violins. And the sonic quality of the recordings is superb: if Cha Cha Cha is in stereo (which it may be), there’s a very subtle bit of separation between left and right channels. But the sessions were clearly recorded with a great deal of care; that’s a bit surprising in light of the fact that these recordings were made 1955-57, the height of the Cuban revolution.

The vinyl album – from World Circuit, “the label that brought you Buena Vista Social Club,” the cover copy helpfully explains – is pressed on high 180-gram vinyl, includes a download card (though mine didn’t work online), and a pair of extensive and excellent liner note essays, one of which is an interview with Rolando Valdés, founder and director of Orquesta Sensación. A four-color booklet provides lyrics with English translations and brief background information, as well as lineup information about the orquesta. If one defines “world music” as anything that comes out of anywhere besides the USA, Canada and Great Britain, then Cha Cha Cha should be short-listed as one of 2014′s best world music reissue/compilations.

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November Hundred-word Reviews, Part 4

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

Once again, it’s time for a run of hundred-word reviews. My inbox has been overflowing of late, and even after removing the material that I deem not worth my time (nor yours), I’m left with far too many discs to cover in my customary manner (500-800 word reviews). So herewith are twenty-five –count ‘em, twenty-five – brief, to-the-point reviews. The fourth set of five reviews looks at jazz from the 1950s and ’60s; some of it quite rare and largely unheard until now.


Marty Paich – The Jazz City Workshop
Naxos recently embarked on a reissue campaign, releasing the titles from the small yet acclaimed Bethlehem label. The jazz titles are getting the straight-reissue treatment; they’re noteworthy in that they’re coming out not only on CD, but on vinyl (in their original 10” and 12” formats). This set is led by pianist Paich, but perhaps the real stars here are vibraphonist Larry Bunker and trombonist Herbie Harper. The eight-song album is heavy on covers and standards (“Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” a reading of “Autumn Leaves” that anticipates the exotica craze), but the arrangements are uptempo and inventive.


Various – Four Horns and a Lush Life
Here’s another Naxos reissue of a Bethlehem title, again featuring Marty Paich. But here the ensemble is larger (eight players, featuring the “four horns” of the title plus a conductor). The various reviews and online listings of this album don’t seem to know whom to credit: conductor Russ Garcia? Paich? Trombonist Frank Rosolino? It matters little. This 1955 date (I had to look that up; it’s listed nowhere on the original-reproduction packaging) is fun and varied nonetheless. If you like lots of trombones in your jazz – and perhaps even if you do not – you’ll enjoy this swinging set.


Tony Scott – Lost Tapes: Germany 1957 / Asia 1962
Benny Goodman
is the most well-known clarinetist in jazz, but Tony Scott gained some level of fame and acclaim as well. He may be as well known for employing a young pianist named Bill Evans as for his own work. This set from Jazzhaus compiles four sessions: two 1957 German dates (one live, one studio) plus a rare clutch of live sessions from Hong Kong and Singapore dating from 1962 and featuring Italian musicians backing Scott. The tracks show Scott (and band) possessing a firm command of a variety of jazz styles, from soft and melancholy balladeering to frenetic bop.


Francy Boland – Playing with the Trio
Jazz pianist Francy Boland first came to fame through his musical association with Chet Baker. He’s primarily known as a big band leader; the core of that group (together 1962-1970 or thereabouts) consisted of him on piano plus upright bassist Jimmy Woode Jr. and drummer Kenny Clarke. This recording studio from 1967, however, presents only that trio. The power and excitement of the big band is distilled into the intimate confines of a trio; here, often big band arrangements are implied (and felt but not heard) in the trio arrangements. Half of the tunes are Boland originals; all are delightful.


Sun Ra – Supersonic Jazz plus Fate in a Pleasant Mood
Most listeners – even ardent fans of the man – would agree that the work of Sun Ra is not the ideal entry point through which to discover jazz. And Sun Ra’s forbiddingly deep catalog makes it tough to know where to begin. So what the heck: start here, with these two seemingly-randomly-chosen titles combined on a single disc. Supersonic Jazz dates from 1956; Fate was recorded and released circa 1961 (pinning these details down with Sun Ra’s work is often difficult). Exotic percussion and innovative, lyrical electric piano are the centerpieces of these titles. Supersonic‘s “Sunology” is a highlight.

5 more capsule reviews to come.

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Back to Bassics: A Chat with Tony Levin

Friday, October 24th, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Honeymoon Hundred-word Reviews, Part 3

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

I’m on my honeymoon this week, so I thought it would be a good time to offer up some backlog-clearing entries in my occasional series of Hundred Word Reviews. And though the musical styles are all over the map, there’s a theme of sorts this time: each of the acts reviewed has been covered previously, either via review or feature/interview.

Today’s four feature music from acts based in Europe or southeast Asia.


Three Minute Tease – Bite the Hand
A few years ago, American expatriate Anton Barbeau relocated to Germany, and then he commandeered Robyn Hitchcock‘s old band mates Andy Metcalfe (bass) and Morris Windsor (drums); the resulting trio serves up some fine dark-hued powerpop. On their latest, Bite the Hand, they’re joined (on vocals) by wonderful husband-and-wife team Khoi Hunyh and Karla Kane from The Corner Laughers, and on one track, the legendary and still-active Keith Allison (Paul Revere and the Raiders) on guitar. But it’s Barbeau’s voice songs at the center of it all, from the anthemic opener of “Bravely Fade Away” right through to the end.


Dewa Budjana – Surya Namaskar
Though Budjana’s Indonesian, listeners won’t hear much in the way of “world music” on this progressive/fusion outing. Featuring former Frank Zappa drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and sought-after session bassist Jimmy Johnson, this is a melodic trip through the instrumental progjazz world. The influence of John McLaughlin is one Budjana wears on his sleeve (and, as the gatefold photo shows, on his chest as well; I have the same t-shirt). The album occasionally sounds like mid 70s Jean-Luc Ponty sans violin. Stinging guitar runs and knotty bass figures atop crackling drums makes this electric outing a delight for fans of the genre.


The Group – The Feed-back
Here’s a very strange – and until now, extremely rare – album: an avant-garde noisefest featuring Ennio Morricone (yeah, the spaghetti western soundtrack composer). But this sounds nothing like the soundtrack from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. This collective of composer/players officially bore the moniker Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza, hence the shortened Il Gruppo (“The Group”). Sounding like a cross between Freak Out! Mothers, Can, and The United States of America, it’s a weird yet wonderful foray into the outer reaches. It’s also not miles away from the kind of thing you’d hear on Bitches Brew.

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