Archive for the ‘jazz’ Category

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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“How did we get where we are right now?” A Conversation with Todd Cochran (Part 3)

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: We’ve touched on this a bit already: there’s absolutely no guitar on the album. Was that a conscious decision on your part, to arrange the music without the use of guitar? As I mentioned earlier, I come from a rock background, so I’m still learning about jazz. And one thing I’ve learned is that, as often as not, the beat in jazz is implied rather than explicitly laid down. What I find on Worlds Around the Sun is that guitars are almost implied.

Todd Cochran: Yes. And that came from the Clavinet; that’s what I was thinking about. And the Fender Rhodes electric piano allowed me to dictate that rhythmic aspect much more clearly. The colors that the Rhodes gave to the music were pretty new. Some of those records that you were speaking of by Cannonball Adderley – “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and that period – feature Josef Zawinul on keyboards. He was using a Wurlitzer [EP200A]. The Fender Rhodes wasn’t happening yet. The Wurlitzer wasn’t as full and rich as what the Rhodes became. So with that instrument, the music was much more intense. What really changed were the rhythms that the drummers were playing. You’d be immersed in these rhythmic environment. And what the Rhodes and the Clavinet did was provide colors, with a precision that helped define the music more rhythmically.

And you had people who had been used to playing the piano; I had been playing since I was about three years old. So take someone who’s been playing and studying piano most of their life. Then they go into an instrument that’s not an organ, not a Wurlitzer, but something that has almost the full range (the 88-key Rhodes came later). So they’re taking a pianistic approach and applying it to something electric. You had a different kind of sustaining factor, and you might not have the harmonic interaction you’d have on an acoustic piano. But you could adjust volume, phasing, vibrato. And for a pianist, that was a fascinating world to enter.

We’d have these instruments modified – at no small expense – to make them more responsive, to make the attack more precise. And we’d work on the electronics, to make, for lack of a better word, an artist’s instrument.

BK: Sort of like a guitarist changing out his instrument’s stock pickups…

TC: Yeah. And they do things like shave the frets. The same idea. So we were getting into some areas that were pretty exciting. And the drummers were playing much louder to get the sounds that they wanted out of the drums. You would hear the drums on a rock record that you liked, but you would not get drums like that at a jazz club volume; forget it. So when they did play louder, that made it hard for pianists. Club pianos were not that great, so you’d bring in an electric piano, and create your own audio environment. And that had a lot to do with where the music went.

BK: Not that it’s the be-all and end-all of things, but at present there’s not even a Wikipedia entry for Worlds Around the Sun. I suppose that’s because it was unavailable for so long. Used copies of the original LP start at $60. Why do you think it went out of print, after receiving such good critical notices and selling reasonably well?

TC: I think that the company [Prestige], which was owned by Saul Zaentz, was a privately held company. So they had certain assets that they worked on. They could only give certain records a certain level of attention. They were not signing new artists, and I think eventually the company was sold to Concord. And so not only did they get the prestige of having this great jazz catalog, but I don’t think they knew everything that was in the catalog. And I don’t think Prestige was ever in the business of making jazz stars, either.

They weren’t doing tour support or any big promotional campaigns. They worked really well with the press, but they weren’t in the business of out-marketing their competitors. But that’s me speaking with an executive hat on.

The thrust of the company was not that. When you get in that business, you have to have a steady stream of product that represents the brand. They had a great art department, though. It was there in Berkeley, so it had to be hip to a certain level. So that’s a second sort of what-if question.

BK: Worlds Around the Sun is an undiscovered gem that can now be discovered. And it’s great to see Omnivore Recordings doing it; they have quickly developed a reputation for very thoughtful crate-digging, for lack of a better word.

TC: Curating.

BK: Yes, curating: that’s a better word.

TC: And I think that has everything to do with the times. The music that I made at that time, 1972, the music of that time was so different from the expressions that had come before. I don’t think the social commentary and critics of that time fully understood where the music was originating. So it’s really great to be able to revisit it, and talk about it in an expansive way.

People are talking about some of the concept albums that the art rock bands were making; people are very interested in old Genesis records. I went on to work with Peter Gabriel, too. People are interested in Pink Floyd albums, and in these bigger concepts. Those are records that were talking about the emotional and psychological frame of mind of the times. And that’s still interesting to people as we ask ourselves: How did we get where we are right now?

For me, it’s always been about dreaming the life you want to live, and always being curious. When original thoughts are made into something musical, if it’s well done, there’s a reward for the curious.

And I’m excited to the point where I shot a video for one of the tracks from the record. The track “It Ain’t” is basically about the song from Porgy and Bess, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” It ties into the idea of mythologies. It’s a big thing to go against those, because people have a whole lot of views about music, about people’s aspirations. And the revolution that the we attached to music in the early 70s meant that we were all looking at society and allegiances differently. And that’s fodder for some high creativity. And I’m very appreciative to have been a part of that. Because it set the trajectory of my musical ideals.

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“How did we get where we are right now?” A Conversation with Todd Cochran (Part 2)

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Todd Cochran: And I worked with John Handy, who was on Columbia. To digress a bit back to your earlier question, which is still going around in my head…John Handy had done some very interesting music with Ali Akbar Khan, who played with Ravi Shankar. Some very interesting music. So there was jazz being blended with East Indian classical music.

Bill Kopp: I didn’t realize that hybrid had happened! There was an album that came out about five, six years ago called Miles From India. But I had no idea such a thing had been explored that far back.

TC: Yeah. John Handy, who had been in Charlie Mingus‘ band, was really a very special player. He played all over the world, and he taught for a time at San Francisco State University. I played with John for about a year and a half. I worked with Woody Shaw; I played with Joe Henderson briefly. I kind of circled Blue Note, but it never “happened.” I ended up producing Freddie Hubbard for Blue Note many years later; I wrote an album for him called Times are Changing.

I’ll give you one little insight here. That record I wrote for Bobby Hutcherson, Head On, was produced by George Butler; Butler went on to be a very powerful A&R guy at Columbia. He was Miles Davis‘ A&R guy, and he also signed Wynton Marsalis. I did a lot of projects with George Butler with CBS/Sony. And it was really something I learned way down the road that Head On was the first record that he had produced!

But yes, to answer your question, Blue Note would have really changed my trajectory. It had a lot to do with the fact that I was in San Francisco. I learned my art there, and I’m very happy to have grown up in that environment. Again, it was about the balance of cultures. Haight-Ashbury, the free speech movement coming out of Berkeley, City Lights Bookstore, the American Conservatory Theater. It was the beginning of a lot of what we’re experiencing now: gay rights and such. It was all there. It was a place for ideas. And everyone was interacting with each other, because it’s a much smaller city, geographically, than, say, Los Angeles.

BK: I hadn’t really thought about the way that a city’s geography can affect its musical character…

TC: Absolutely. Very much so. In San Francisco, The Grateful Dead were playing. The [Jefferson] Airplane. There was Bill Graham, David Rubinson. So much energy. I would say that it was the centerpiece of the American cultural revolution. Forward-thinking ideas were driven by the intellectual community. And there was money there, too. And the money went into these great academic places, so this place that was rich with ideas meant that everyone could have their curiosities satisfied.

But a lot of people felt completely put off by it; it was too intense. People don’t realize just how much came out of that scene. Cal Tjader was there. Dave Brubeck came out of that.

BK: The whole West coast jazz scene…

TC: Vince Guaraldi came out of that too. And Duke Ellington did his spiritual concerts there, at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Cornel West had a series that he toured with, with Rabbi Lerner; that was a great, powerful dialog. Everything was there for the taking.

BK: Your wah-wah work on the Hohner Clavinet D6 is a highlight of “Free Angela.”

TC: You must be a keyboard player…

BK: Yes, I am. The vocal chants add a great texture, more musical than lyrical to my ears. I know that there’s a point to what’s being sung, but I hear those vocal lines as a purely musical component. When you composed the track, was the idea of employing the wah-wah pedal – because you’re really pumping it – so prominently part of the original idea, or did it develop in the studio?

TC: I was fascinated by the guitar. I always loved guitar. I’m a pianist, and I come from the classical world. But people were doing such amazing things with that instrument, and then they figured out how to modify the sound electronically. And I’m sure it was some great accident of mis-wiring, but then they created this pedal where you could control the variations in that signal. And it became a complete sound experience. I liked that it gave me the opportunity to get close to what I loved about what guitarists were doing. It’s a bit like what people were doing with brass instruments, using a plunger or other hand mutes. So it became a sort of vernacular expression. You could do it rhythmically, or you could just slowly adjust it. A closed sound would be like the downbeat, and the open sound on two and four would be like the backbeat.

Another thing that I was just learning it that when it was amplified, when you’re in the proximity of the amplifier, you could actually sustain sounds. Feed back sounds. That’s something I explored a bit down the road. But it was a lot of fun.

BK: Worlds Around the Sun is wonderfully difficult to classify. There’s out-there avant jazz, soul, funk, rock texture, pop melodies. There’s something for everyone. You were only 20 when you made the record; what were your thoughts going into the sessions? Did you want to make a record that explored your interests and abilities, to have commercial success, or just to best deliver the set of songs you had written?

TC: All of the above. It was really important to me to be authentic musically. I enjoyed so many musicians, and been inspired by so many great players. I played the Hohner Clavinet with Herbie Hancock on a film called The Spook Who Sat Behind the Door. I was really proud of that; Herbie conducted and I played keyboards on the film score. And the film has gone into the National Film Registry as a representation of the period. I was exploring the D6 a lot on that.

And that’s what the film needed to have, to be fully relevant. I came up at a time when folk music was great, and r&b was moving into these wider expressions where it was not just relegated to subjects of love.

BK: Right; it became much more personal-to-the-universal.

TC: The whole range of expression was opening up, particular for African Americans. And commercial success was important, because that allowed you to be able to go out and play your music. Commercialism was perhaps secondary, as the idea was to make a connection with an audience.

The songs themselves on Worlds Around the Sun had a thematic conceptual approach. Songs like “It Ain’t” were about looking at certain mythologies. The light was shining much more brightly than it had previously; the main commitment was to playing the music as well as it could be played. And the desire to communicate was very, very important. There was music being made at that time that was very technical. It may have been brilliant, but it was not necessarily inclusive; it didn’t invite you in. You might see musicians playing, and you’d be taken in by this mighty relationship they had with their instrument, whereas my interest was to make music or art that was inclusive, that brought them into the melodic and thematic dimensions of the music, where it created a space where maybe we could think about an idea, together. That was what was important to me; not a display of brilliance and technique.

BK: A balance between appeals to the head and the heart…

TC: Absolutely. And I think that’s really important.

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“How did we get where we are right now?” A Conversation with Todd Cochran (Part 1)

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

Earlier this year, I spent a delightful and fascinating afternoon in conversation with Todd Cochran, aka Bayeté. His 1972 album Worlds Around the Sun has just gotten the deluxe reissue treatment from Omnivore Recordings.

Our discussion began informally as we discussed where I was coming from. As a relative newcomer to jazz, I approach most everything new I hear with the ears and sensibility of a rock fan. That has led me to two specific types of jazz: the highly melodic, pop-leaning work of Cannonball Adderley, and the fusion-leaning experimental jazz of the late 60s and early 70s. As it happens, the latter genre is well-represented by an Adderley album, Black Messiah, recently reissued by Real Gone Music. I wrote the liner notes for the reissue, and a brief discussion of that project helped establish some common ground between Cochran and myself. That said, we quickly discovered we had much more than a love of that album in common, but it served as a touchstone to get our interview going.

We began the more structured part of our conversation discussing the philosophical framework and outlook that Cochran brought to Worlds Around the Sun. — bk


Todd Cochran: The thing that we all come in touch with, once we’re touched by a piece of music, by something that the player wanted us to experience, is that we’re breathing the same air. And the day cycles are the same. We live in parallel existences. I came to a realization, summed up in one sentence: there’s a ring around the world. All of it can be reached at the emotional level. And it’s very exciting when we reach that place.

All creative musical forms are only one generation away from extinction. So they have to be explained and described in a way that people can absorb the important aspects of the forms. Like folk music: to really understand that it’s a fundamental type of creativity. So it’s important that we understand how it came into existence. When we try to represent that experience, we’re really re-creating something. And then it takes on an art form in and of itself. And I feel that’s the foundation of jazz, soul, r&b and rock. They take those folk elements to the next level and interpret them.

Bill Kopp: For a brief period – probably no more than a few years – in the early 1970s, there was a rich cross-fertilization between jazz, rock, and what we now call world music. You were in Automatic Man; Stomu Yamashta did his Go albums with some of the same artists; and people like Cannonball Adderley were enlisting musical help from Mike Deasy, Airto Moriera and so on. What do you think it was about that era that provided the fertile ground for these sorts of hybrids to occur?

TC: I feel that it originated with the intensity of the times. There were many different aspects in the cultural stream, all intersecting at the same time. What we saw with younger people – of which I was one; I was very young at that time – were ideas that were new, and a lot of assertions that were often completely opposed to those of our parents. I think that what we experienced on the outside, the expression of that, was revolutionary. And the rebellious part was us reacting to our parents’ outlooks, and their attitudes about us coming into our own, finding our own ways to express ourselves.

The punk music that came forth in the late 1970s and early 80s was an expression of that rebelliousness very directly, whereas the music of the late 60s and early 70s was actually an expression of revolutionary ideas. We all eventually come into a time in which we want to feel something very deeply, and the massive shift in the social dynamics of this country allowed a lot of people to have that deep feeling. And it was certainly transferred into musical forms. And when you have things that are impacting each other, the operative response is to try to find balance. And there were a number of people who were working to find that balance. And that resulted in a lot of experimentation. And one thing that made it very interesting is that a lot of people were able to follow this change in musical tastes; that wasn’t true with the events leading up to this period, with the avant garde. Because these were not avant garde, margin ideas.

BK: Worlds Around the Sun was initially released on Prestige, and had a relatively low profile in the commercial world. Adderley was on Capitol, Miles Davis was on Columbia. I wonder if your album had been on a more mainstream (as in, less associated with jazz) label, if it might have gotten wider notice.

TC: It probably would have. I was on Prestige at the time, along with Hampton Hawes, and Bill Evans had been there. I was signed by Saul Zaentz, who went on to become and auteur in filmmaking. He had tremendous taste; of course everyone knows him for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The English Patient and Amadeus; he had really very refined and sophisticated tastes. And he’s known for Fantasy Records, and his association there with Creedence Clearwater Revival. Saul was married to Charlie Mingus‘ second wife.

My first recordings were on Blue Note, an album I wrote for Bobby Hutcherson called Head On. That featured a twenty-one piece orchestra. And then I did a record with Duke Pearson on Blue Note. I was never signed with Blue Note, though; I wrote a record for Hadley Caliman on Mainstream Records, where I worked with producer Bob Shad.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 5

Friday, August 15th, 2014

My week-long run of hundred-word reviews wraps up with five new and recently-released jazz albums.


Michael Bellar and The As-is Ensemble – Oh No Oh Wow
Keyboards anchor this varied release that goes in many directions at once: even on the opening (title) track, Bellar alternates between creamy, fusion-y electric piano and Vince Guaraldi-styled acoustic piano runs. Too melodic to be prog, too rocking to be jazz, too adventurous to be labeled rock’n'roll, Oh Now Oh Wow is delightfully all over the map. The ten instrumentals – all Bellar originals save a reading of Jimi Hendrix‘s “Voodoo Chile” and a Bob Marley song – show a dizzying command of instruments, the studio, and arrangement. Your ears might fool you into thinking you hear guitars. (You don’t.)


Elias Haslanger – Live at the Gallery
This disc features tenor saxophonist Haslanger’s quintet at their weekly haunt, Austin Texas’ Continental Club Gallery; the gig is known as “Church on Monday.” And the group does testify, as they blow their way through a mix heavy on standards (“Watermelon Man,” “In a Sentimental Mood”). Jake Langley‘s electric hollowbody guitar runs are alternately mellow and biting. Dr. James Polk’s B3 adds a soulful foundation to the mix. The inventive yet solid rhythm section (Scott Laningham on drums, bassist Daniel Durham) take their turns in the spotlight as well. The appreciative but unobtrusive audience adds the right amount of texture.


Alessandro Scala Quartet – Viaggio Stellare
I’m still working to be as well-versed in jazz as I’d like to be; I suspect it will be a lifelong process. But the opening strains of “Mood” sound to these ears like a hard-bop reading of something off of Dave Brubeck‘s classic 1959 Time Out LP. It’s more than the 5/4 meter; there’s a vibe that this Italian quartet-plus-two seems to achieve effortlessly. But then that’s the trick, isn’t it: making the difficult seem effortless. Perhaps it was: the entire eleven-track album was cut in a single Summer 2012 session. Fun fact: the album title translates as “Star Trek.”


Yves Léveillé – Essences du Bois
This light, airy and gentle album is full of classical-leaning instrumentation (flute, oboe, Cor Anglais, clarinet and bass clarinet) along with instruments more readily identified with jazz (piano, upright bass, saxophones and drums). The result is pretty, impressionistic and contemplative, but not really adventurous or exciting (the subtle and varied drum work of Alain Bastien is a notable exception). Only on the strutting “Monarque” (with a very nice bass solo and some skittering piano) do things get inventive. Extra points are happily given for the fact that all eight pieces by this French Canadian ensemble are pianist Léveillé’s original works.


Vincent Gagnon – Tome III Errances
This 2013 Québec concert date showcases the compositions of bandleader and pianist Vincent Gagnon (plus one cover). The small band consists only of Gagnon plus two sax players, a double (upright) bassist and drummer. But that quintet makes the most of what they have, and the result feels like refined yet swinging Eurojazz, occasionally leaning in a big band style (if not arrangement). There’s a pleasing groove even when the rhythm section is blowing in something outside the 4/4 format. Plenty of tasty solos abound on this seven-track collection culled from the best of a three-night stand at Palais Montcalm.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 2

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Today’s set of five 100-word capsule reviews looks at recently-reissued, previously-unreleased, and/or compilation albums.


How to Stuff a Wild Bikini: Original Stereo Soundtrack
What we have here, in my estimation, is a fascinating and extremely well-written essay that happens to include a CD. How to Stuff a Wild Bikini is not anyone’s idea of great cinema, but the 1965 American International Pictures release has its period charms. This record – originally released on The Kingsmen‘s Wand label – is the only soundtrack LP from the string of Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello vehicles. Tom Pickles‘ liner notes put the soundtrack into perspective and context, explaining the musical contributions of The Kingsmen, Lu Ann Sims, Harvey Lembeck(!) and Mickey Rooney(!!). Skip the film, dig the soundtrack.


Spanky and Our Gang – The Complete Mercury Singles
Often thought of in the same category as The Mama’s and The Papa’s, this group, fronted by vocalist Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane, had deeper roots in a sort of Tin Pan Alley style. This collection presents 21 songs in their original punchier-than-stereo monaural mixes. The group’s hit “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” – a tune that rivals any single of the era for its transcendent mix of melodrama and shimmering vocal arrangement – is here, but many of the other tunes are nearly as good. Of special note is the group’s cover of The Beatles‘ “And Your Bird Can Sing.”


Billy Thermal – Billy Thermal
This band, led by Billy Steinberg, cut an LP in 1980 full of uptempo, nominally new-wave tunes. For various reasons, the disc went unreleased at the time, but the tapes served their purposes as songwriter’s demos: Steinberg’s “How Do I Make You” would be a hit for Pat Benatar Linda Ronstadt, and brought the man’s talents to the attention of The Bangles, Cyndi Lauper, Whitney Houston, Madonna, etc., all of whom would score hits with his songs. This collection includes bonus tracks, but the whole package – now rescued from obscurity by Omnivore Recordings – can be thought of as a bonus.


Stick Against Stone – Live: The Oregon Bootleg Tapes
At first hearing, this Pittsburgh group sounds like they’re from a provincial city (perhaps Leeds?) in working class, Thatcher-era England. Truth is, the era is the only detail that’s correct: this 1985 live set – long thought lost but recently discovered – sounds like a cross between Gang of Four, the two-tone ska movement, and Living Colour. Any written description of their complex sound will fall short, but I hear angular funk with plenty of assured polyrhythmic percussion, rubbery bass, and saxophone backing the Lene Lovich-sounding vocals of Sari Morninghawk. A modified lineup of the band (SASO) still performs today.


Buddy Rich – The Solos
The idea of a compilation of live concert drum solos might strike some as a surefire way to a headache, or at least folly. But when the drummer in question is the legendary Buddy Rich, the idea makes some kind of sense. Endlessly inventive and always swinging, the man with a bad haircut and a worse temper may have been sixty years old when these tapes were made, but what you’ll hear sounds like a man half his age. Power, finesse and humor can all be found in Rich’s solos. Background music for a cocktail party? Perhaps not. Essential? Indeed.

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Album Review: Magma — Zühn Wöhl Ünsaï / Live 1974

Monday, August 4th, 2014

To some – okay, to most – the idea of a progressive jazz-rock group performing music in an obscure language of their own making might seem, laughable, pretentious, or…laughably pretentious. But science fiction based concepts weren’t all that unusual for bands of the 1970s, especially European prog outfits. So if one can set aside reservations about the lyrical approach, then the music retains its potential to impress on its own merits.

It’s relatively easy to take this more open-minded approach when it comes to a band such as Magma, because that group – founded in 1969 by Christian Vander – probably would have sung in French, which you probably don’t speak and more than you do Kobaian. So for Anglophones, the music of bands like Grobschnitt (and, to a lesser extent, Gong) and Magma can be judged from a musical standpoint, which makes more sense anyway.

Magma’s convoluted story-songs concern themselves with the story of refugees from the planet Earth, searching the galaxies for a new home in the wake of their old planet’s ecological catastrophe. But to these ears, Magma’s music is instrumental with, let’s say, some odd vocalizations.

In the period 1970-1978, Magma released six or seven studio albums (depending on how one counts), and a pair of live sets. The first of these, Live/Hhaï, documented a 1975 Paris concert that included two of the six movements of their 1973 opus, “Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh.” That extended piece never appeared in a complete version on a live Magma album until this newly-released 2CD set, Zühn Wöhl Ünsaï – Live 1974 (yes, Magma makes things quite difficult for anyone attempting to cite song or album titles in print). The sprawling “MDK” runs in excess of thirty-five minutes, so for fans of the group, this new set represents the first opportunity to hear it in its entirety.

As with many of their European prog forebears, Magma’s music is heave on strident percussion. As the group’s leader, visionary and lyricist and drummer, Vander was in the ideal position to push the group in the direction he sought. The particular lineup that is featured on Zühn Wöhl Ünsaï would never make a studio album; by the time they entered the studio to record a followup to MDK, guitarist Claude Olmos had departed, to be replaced by – of all people – Welsh guitarist Brian Godding, late of Blossom Toes.

So there’s at least two reasons for any fan of Magma to want this album: the rare set list and the rare lineup. But what about the rest of us: why would we be interested? The answer is pretty straightforward, if one is a fan of that challenging nexus wherein rock, jazz and experimental music all convene. Intricate meter changes, hypnotic and dexterous electric piano lines, and unpredictable shifts in tone and volume: all of the characteristics that make up the best (and, true, the worst) of progressive rock are all here in copious amounts. After a few minutes of listening to the music, the obscure vocals – though quite prominent in the mix – take on the role of just-another-instrument. Vander does introduce each piece in Kobaian, his voice treated through what sounds like a ring modulator. It’s odd stuff to be sure, but also oddly alluring.

The second disc features two more extended tracks: “Kourusz II” is a lengthy drum solo that would not appear on record in any form until a 2000 CD of the same name collected two and half hours of Vander solos. The space-rock-meets-space-classical a la Holst piece “Theusz Hamtaahk” is even longer; it, too would remain unreleased in any form until the early 1980s.

The 2CD set was originally recorded for and broadcast by Radio Bremen (Germany), and that should tell most listeners all they need to know about the recording quality of this set: it’s excellent.

Put simply, Zühn Wöhl Ünsaï is some crazy stuff, but for the adventurous, it’s well worth the trip. And for those already familiar with the weird and wonderful world of Magma, it’s an indispensable addition to the shelf.

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Hundred-word Reviews July 2014, Part Five

Friday, July 25th, 2014

All this week, I’ve been working to reduce the contents of my in-box to manageable levels; these are the last five of 25 albums in that effort, each review adhering to a 100-word limit. Don’t mistake brevity for a negative review; these are all worthwhile releases.

Today’s five – all reissues – are all over the map stylewise.

Mike Keneally & Beer for Dolphins – Sluggo!
Mike Keneally shares a rather unique quality with fellow Frank Zappa alum with Adrian Belew: the ability to straddle two camps: angular, progressive rock and catchy, hook-filled rock. Nowhere is that ability more on display than on Keneally’s 1997 album Sluggo! Reissued after being out of print for more than a decade, Sluggo! is perhaps the one album that prog fans can play for their ostensibly prog-hating friends. This reissue offers an improved, Keneally-approved remix, plus a second (DVD) disc featuring the album in all sorts of hi-res formats, plus yet another DVD with a bunch of related audiovisual goodies.

The Bats – Volume 1
There was a time when (cough) some people thought that Kiwi rock was going to be the Next big Thing™. Despite the fact that few New Zealand bands wormed their way into global pop consciousness, they left behind some lovely music that drew from the tuneful end of rock’s spectrum. And one of the most enduring of all the acts in that category is Christchurch-based quintet The Bats. Their 1987 debut Daddy’s Highway has been compiled with 1990′s The Law of Things and Compiletely Bats (itself a compilation of the band’s first three EPs), yielding this splendid tidy 3CD set.

Gary Windo – Steam Radio Tapes
I had seen Windo’s name on albums by The Psychedelic Furs and Todd Rundgren, but I had never heard any of the music released under his own name. Playing tenor sax, alto sax and bass clarinet, Windo’s solo material bears a passing resemblance to the sole album made by one of his associates, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. On the posthumous compilation, he’s joined by a long list of heavy friends including Julie Tippets (neé Driscoll), Soft Machine‘s Hugh Hopper, 801‘s Bill MacCormick, and Mason himself. Those artists are a good signpost indicating what this delightfully eclectic set sounds like.

Gary Windo – Dogface
Along with the above title, a reissue of this 1982 album has been part of Gonzo Multimedia’s campaign of interesting, previously-overlooked releases. This is an (instrumental) concept album: each track features a different lineup with its own fanciful moniker (Gary and the Woofs, Gary and the K9s…you get the idea) playing primarily instrumental tunes with related titles (“Guard Duty,” “The Husky”). The guys from the then-current lineup of NRBQ back up Windo on three tunes. Some tracks are one-chord workouts laying the groundwork for Windo’s impressive soloing (“Puppy Kisses”). The trebly, lo-fi production values detract from an otherwise splendid album.

Ned Doheny – Separate Oceans
Numero Group has a well-deserved reputation for digging deeper than your average cratedigger in search of material for release. Ned Doheny isn’t a name you’re likely to recognize, despite the fact that he recorded and released a half dozen albums between 1973 and 1993. Part of the California singer/songwriter mafia (The Eagles, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt et. al.), Doheny never achieved success on a par with any of his mega-famous pals. This new collection draws from his catalog, imbued with a sort of discofied cocaine cowboy vibe that calls to mind a hybrid of Stephen Bishop and “Lowdown”-era Boz Scaggs.

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Hundred-word Reviews July 2014, Part Two

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

I’m bound and determined to reduce the contents of my in-box to manageable levels, so this week I’ll be covering 25 albums, each adhering to a 100-word limit. Don’t mistake brevity for a negative review; these are all worthwhile releases.

Today’s five – all new music – are all within the (very loosely defined) jazz idiom.

The New Mastersounds – Therapy
At every turn, this Leeds-based group finds new and exciting ways to expand upon their original brief: soul-infused boogaloo music. Pleasing jazz fans, the noodle-dancing jam band crowd and general-purpose festival crowds all at once is a tall order, but The New Mastersounds deftly achieve that goal. On Therapy, the group delivers a dozen original tunes heavy on soul and groove; fans of their earlier material will recognize the signature style, but they’ll also find some surprises. The heavy yet downtempo soul stew of “Old Man Noises” owes as much to Jimi Hendrix or Brian Auger as to modern trip-hop.

B11 – B11
This (nominally) jazz trio plays pop-jazz and originals in a style that feels more post-rock or even metal in places. A reading of Henry Mancini‘s “Peter Gunn Theme” is rendered in slowed-down super-heavy style. B11 covers Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme” even slower. And the heavily reverbed “Moon River” sounds like Chris Isaak played at 16 RPM. ( Lou Donaldson‘s “Alligator Boogaloo” gets similar treatment. But the original tunes cover a wider palette, from spaghetti-western instros to excursions into bolero, waltz and such. The no-lyrics, downtempo vibe makes B11 suitable as groovy background music, but it’s a fun intentional listen too.

Machine Mass – Inti
It’s fascinating to observe players constantly on the lookout for new direction in which to push the jazz idiom. Machine Mass features electric (and often heavily processed) guitar from Michael Deville, plus drums (and loops) from Tony Bianco. Together they make a sort of avant-garde kind of sound. But acclaimed saxophonist Dave Liebman adds his innovation to the mix, making Inti more of a jazz/post-rock hybrid. In the liner notes, Bianco describes the trio’s approach as “improvising over structures.” In practice this means that there’s a cohesive foundation for all nine tracks, but what happens within each piece is unpredictable.

Bex Ferris Goubert – Now or Never
This trio is so French that the liner notes aren’t even in English. But music is indeed the universal language, so these musicians on Hammond B3 organ, trombone and batterie (that drums to you and me) get their point across in a way that most everyone can understand and appreciate. Deconstructions of “Take Five” and Thelonious Monk‘s “Bluehawk” stay true to the jazz aesthetic of not saying true to the original arrangement, and the live recording (captured by a mobile unit in an intimate crowd in Paris’ Sunset Club) captures the group’s winning yet uncompromisingly idiosyncratic approach to good effect.

Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein, Bill Stewart – Ramshackle Serenade
With a more conventional lineup (Hammond, guitar and drums, respectively), this trio plays snaky, subtle tunes – six originals plus three covers – all of which are understated yet expressive. At times, the trio seems ready to take off into a heavier, faster tempo, but they keep it mostly in a head-nodding, pensive manner throughout the disc. In particular, Bill Stewart’s loping drums hold the emergency brake on the other two, reining in any tendency they might have to cut loose. Those looking for excitement are advised to keep moving; nothing to hear here. Still worth a listen.

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