Archive for the ‘jazz’ Category

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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Short Cuts: July Mini-reviews, Part Two

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Here’s another entry in my short-review series; these three are instrumental albums.

Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Boy Named Charlie Brown
An entire generation grew up with the music of Vince Guaraldi, becoming familiar with he melodic brand of music even if they (we) might have claimed not to like jazz. As the background music of the enduring and popular Peanuts cartoons, Guaraldi’s piano-based tunes reinforced the onscreen emotional content of the animated characters and action. The most popular entry in the series remains A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Fantasy/Concord reissued the accompanying soundtrack several times, most recently in a cleverly designed die-cut package.

But an earlier program was made, and it too had a soundtrack featuring Guaraldi’s trio (the pianist plus drummer Colin Bailey and bassist Monty Budwig). But for a host of complicated reasons, A Boy Named Charlie Brown never actually aired on television. Yet in an unusual move, Fantasy Records (Guaralidi’s label at the time) did release its soundtrack, originally titled Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown. Subsequent pressings played down the connection to the unaired program and shortened the album’s title.

The music is just how anyone who’s ever heard a note of “Linus and Lucy” remembers it: emotionally expressive without the use of lyrics, varied in tone and style to fit the demands of the program’s scenes. The trio’s music bears close listening, but is effective as (dare I say it) background music as well. The 2014 reissue appends an unreleased alternate take of “Baseball Theme” and Guaraldi’s reading of the standard “Fly Me to the Moon,” though the latter has noting to do with Peanuts. The original edit of the accompanying animated film is lost – presumably forever – but the music remains, and it’s delightful as ever. (A limited edition orange vinyl pressing – with the original Jazz Impressions artwork – is also available.)

Express Rising – Express Rising
Music is filled with the work of outsider artists. Decidedly and determinedly avoiding the mainstream, those following their singular and idiosyncratic paths create and release music wholly free of commercial considerations. Most of these artists are, by definition, underground, neither seeking nor finding mass acceptance. Some of these artists are quite prolific: pop auteur R. Stevie Moore has self-released literally hundred of albums. Others turn out music at a much more measured pace.

One example of the latter is Express Rising. The inscrutable Dante Carfagna is Express Rising, but nobody can tell you much beyond that. What is known is that Carfagna’s earlier release featured breakbeats and sampling, two things you’ll find very little of on Express Rising. Moody, hypnotic, gauzy, impressionistic, melancholy: those are just a few of the adjectives that come to mind while listening to this album of instrumental (with occasional wordless vocalizing) music. Real instruments feature prominently here: Wurlitzer electric piano, acoustic guitar and gentle tapping of a drum kit.

But for something that at first glance seems forbiddingly outré, Express Rising is exceedingly tuneful and accessible. More textured and nuanced than new age, gentler than rock, the album’s eleven tracks are fully-thought-out musical excursion, modest in their approach but memorable. By design, the package provides little information, but the press kit offered this suitably oblique nugget: “Carfagna had this to say about himself and about Express Rising: ‘My last record came out ten years ago. Much has changed and much has not.’” The modest and assuming yet lovely Express Rising is well worth seeking out.

Percy Jones – Cape Catastrophe
Outside jazz/fusion/prog circles, the name Percy Jones isn’t well known. But within that rarefied world, Jones’s reputation looms large. As a key member of pioneering fusion group Brand X, Jones’ rubbery bass lines were an integral component of that group’s sonic attack.

After Brand X ended, the Welsh bassist relocated to New York City, where he would eventually cut a solo album called Cape Catastrophe. The album is a decidedly DIY effort, laid down in 1988-89 in a Harlem studio using drum machines, Casio synthesizers,digital delays and loads of Jones’ signature bass.

On the ten-minute-plus title track, clattering drum beats collide with Jones’ kinetic bass figures; “found” spoken word bits float in and out. The overall effect is a but like slightly funkier, equally arty My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Jones’ fretless work on “Slick” is expressive and entrancing, and overall the album sounds far less “dated” than one might expect. “Hex” feels like what The Police might have produced had they all given in to their suppressed prog-rock backgrounds. And the lengthy “Barrio” (which fills more than a third of Cape Catastrophe‘s run time) feels like an inspired, exploratory in-studio live jam, belying its one-guy-with-overdubs origin.

More “short cuts” to come.

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A Chat with Larry Coryell, Part Three

Friday, June 20th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: In the entry on you in the Music Hound Jazz book,  the reviewer makes the points that your back catalog is in shameful disarray, with many titles out of print, and that you deserve better. Now, that book was written in the 90s. What’s the state of your catalog today?

Larry Coryell: Oh, I don’t know, man. I’ve recorded for so many different record companies. Thanks to Apple and Steve Jobs, and the Germans who figured out how to push music into a little wire, the record business is over. It’s not even down; it’s finished. The Grammys are a joke. Soon CDs will be obsolete. Nobody knows what the next big…I call it the Next Little Thing…will be. Because they’re trivializing music.

That’s why I am glad that I’m working on projects that are not dependent on the typical business model. The way we operated for all those years was: you make a record, and you get the company to promote it, and you sell it, and you stick with the brand…that’s all over now.

BK: All that said, are there any old albums of yours that are currently unavailable that you’d like to see back in print?

LC: I don’t know anything about that. I have no control over that. Those albums belong to the record companies. And I don’t know if they even have the money to revive any of that stuff.
I just played a tour with Ron Carter last week; that’s why I’m jet-lagged. I was in Japan. And Ron happened to play on a couple tracks from my second album for Vanguard, back in 1969 or thereabouts. And he said, “I want to hear those tracks. Send me the whole album.” I don’t know how I’m gonna do it! I mean, I will, even if I eventually end up finding the vinyl disc and transferring it to a CD.

BK: I think – and I’m not sure at the moment – that one is available on Spotify.

LC: Well, the guy who owns Spotify is an arch-millionaire. All these people who have taken advantage of cybertechnology, because people still love music, they’re making money off of us. What we need is an act of Congress to tax the people who are profiting…who are getting too much of the profits. I mean, anything is possible with legislation. We need a way to give that music back to the composers or the performers, somehow, in a fair way. Justice needs to be served.

I’m sure you’ve heard this from other people in my age bracket before. So I’m not telling you anything new. I’m lucky, because I’m established. And I’ve made hundred and hundreds of records, both as a sideman and as a leader. But today, young people who are just as good or better than me have no chance to get ahead through that process.

It’s just a bunch of fiefdoms; there’s no organized radio stations, and there are much fewer radio stations that play really great music. Over the public airwaves, it’s gone. We used to have people who were kind of gatekeepers, who had good taste. You’d listen to their shows, and let’s say they’d play forty tunes over the course of a few days. And at least five or ten would be ones where you’d want to go out and get those records. Because that’s what I heard, and I hadn’t heard that stuff before.

BK: And it wasn’t based on market research; it was the choices of tastemakers. The whole payola issue aside, if you were a good tastemaker, you were successful. And if you were lousy, you weren’t.

LC: Now, someone will walk up to me on the average of ten times a week and hand me a CD. And I never listen to them. Because the few times that I had, it was terrible.  Because they don’t know what they’re doing. In many cases – not all; this is kind of a generalization – it’s all been done before. And better.

The saving grace about jazz is that you can get two thousand people who are very talented jazz improvisers, and get two thousand versions of, say, “All the Things You Are,” or “Autumn Leaves,” or something like that, and they’ll all be good in their own way. Because it’s personal. Jazz is not about the notes on the paper; it’s about the emotions that are expressed.

BK: Once you establish the head, you can go anywhere with it; you go off and make it your own, and then bring it back at the end.

LC: Sometimes not even that! I just wrote liner notes for a CD [released] in Japan, where they did the standard “Love for Sale,” and in the opening chorus, there’s no melody! And it sounded great that way. I gave them big kudos.

BK: For me, the Cannonball Adderley version with Miles Davis is my favorite.

LC: Ron Carter said something – I’m sure he won’t mind me saying this – talking about Adderley. We were listening to “Jive Samba.” It might have been playing on the radio or something. Ron turns to me and he says, “You don’t have melodies being composed these days.  You can’t hum them.” [Hums the melody line to Nat Adderley's classic.] People don’t write melodies that are hummable any more. Jazz is always complicated. And that’s a tragedy.

Note: at this point, my recorder ran out of space, though our conversation wound on for some twenty minutes more. Coryell discussed his affinity for my hometown of Asheville NC, including tentative plans a few years ago – since abandoned – to relocate here from Florida (the main reason: our airport is too small and remote for the always-on-the-go guitarist). There’s every reason to expect Coryell to follow up The Lift, his recent effort on Wide Hive, with another excellent and endless varying album; at age 71, he shows no signs of slowing down.  – bk

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A Chat with Larry Coryell, Part Two

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: Though you’re certainly grounded at least in part in rock styles, another remarkable quality of your musicianship to me is the way you take more of the jazz player’s approach to arrangement: you’re not stingy about having all the solos. Everybody gets a chance to shine. Is that a conscious goal of yours when arranging songs for recording and/or live performance?

Larry Coryell: Well, if you’re gonna play with other people, you’ve got to let them express themselves. It doesn’t make any sense to me to do otherwise. I know other people have different philosophies.

BK: I mentioned to my friends on Facebook that I would be speaking with you, and a number of my friends and readers commented enthusiastically. One mentioned seeing you in the early 70s on a bill with The Faces and Argent. How was it, playing to rock-festival type crowds? Were they receptive to the fusion-leaning sounds you were turning out?

LC: Yeah. There were really no barriers. During that time, there were no barriers between the definitions of styles so much. Basically, if your group could get out there and ignite excitement in the public, that’s all that mattered.

BK: I think that’s been lost to some degree now; everything’s all about market segmentation.

LC: That’s true. But it’s a reflection of the times. The times in which we were living back then – the late 60s and early 70s – was the sexual revolution. Revolutions were going on. All kinds of weird stuff was going on; go look at the movies that were made at that time. Nothing like the movies that we have now.

BK: Your sons are musicians as well. To what extent did you encourage them to develop musically? It seems like a daunting proposition to pick up the guitar when your dad is Larry Coryell.

LC: For them, it just happened naturally. The youngest one leaned more toward learning jazz harmony early on, and the oldest one took a little bit longer to choose to become a musician. But he wanted to choose a style for himself that was not like either what I do or what his younger brother was doing. So he got into rhythm and blues a lot, and singing.

It was very organic the way they developed; I didn’t really push them at all.

BK: Another one of my readers remarked on the fact that while you can certainly play fast when you want to, you often avoid competing in the “speed demon sweepstakes.” He wants to know if you intentionally made a point of not going there.

LC: Well, when you’re playing a lot of fast stuff, you’ve got to be careful; very often you can end up not playing music. And the goal of all this is to make music. Sometimes the heady technique is required in order to express what you’re trying to do. But you still have to be musical; that’s what really touches the heart.

BK: Another friend mentioned to me that – and I don’t know anything about this – you did a gig in the 70s with Jack Bruce and Mitch Mitchell. Can you tell me about that?

LC: That was a Jack Bruce tour. Jack did a tour in 1971 – I think it was 1971…might have been ’72…some historians can pinpoint the actual year – and we did a big tour of America. We had my keyboard player, who eventually became the keyboard player in Eleventh House, Mike Mandel. So it was Jack on bass, Mitch on drums, Mike on organ, and myself. And we did Jack’s music because it was a Jack Bruce gig. And it was very…interesting.

BK: It would be nice if some live recordings from that tour might turn up…

LC: Well, everybody was so loaded. It was pretty sketchy. Pretty checquered. It all depended on how many sheets to the wind you were. The whole room was loaded. I think Keith Jarrett was the only one who was sober.

BK: We touched on this briefly a few moments ago. Every critical overview of you and your career that I read makes essentially the same point: you are under-appreciated. It’s been suggested that you get bored sticking with one style for very long. And it seems to me that had you decided to stick to one style, you might have enjoyed more commercial success. Because of course record companies – and listeners for that matter – often prefer music they can pigeonhole, that isn’t too demanding of them, that doesn’t challenge their expectations. What do you think about that?

LC: Well, there’s some truth to that. If you jump around styles, market-wise it’s a problem. But you know, I work so much…a lot of the time these days I’ll turn down work because I don’t need the money, and I don’t want to do that particular kind of music.

I had a great year last year. I think that sticking to my guns took awhile, and it was a late-blooming thing. But it’s paid off.

BK: I’ve read that you’ve done transcriptions of Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky for acoustic guitar.

LC: There are recordings of the Rimsky-Korsakov. It came out pretty good. The Stravinsky was checquered; I wasn’t happy with two of those. But the third one – and I can’t even find the record – was a masterpiece. Just by accident, that one worked out.

Last year I was given an assignment to do The Rite of Spring with six guitars, and it didn’t quite work out. It got too crazy, too complicated.

The value of doing all those classical transcriptions was in getting an education for me. Even though I wasn’t aware of it, I was getting an education, [helping me] to do my own classical music. Or classically-oriented music. One of the things that I want to bring to the world of performance is an opera that I wrote, based on Tolstoy‘s War and Peace. It’s isn’t gonna be a real jazz thing; I haven’t figured out where the jazz is gonna go yet.

When you learn to play – for example – The Rite of Spring, a lot of that rubs off on you in your future approaches to composing and playing. So I’m not so eager to perform Stravinsky as I am to perform what I’ve learned from Stravinsky. It was like an extremely serious music lesson. Stravinsky is absolutely amazing.

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A Chat with Larry Coryell, Part One

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

One might describe Larry Coryell as something of an undiscovered legend. To those in the know – jazz/fusion aficionados and those like me fortunate enough to stumble onto his vast catalog by accident – he’s one of the greats, certainly a peer of names such as John McLaughlin and Pat Metheny. But to the world at large, he’s much lesser-known, despite dozens of highly-acclaimed albums under his own name, not to mention even more brilliant sessions in which he lends his expressive and highly varied playing to the work of others. His first solo album Coryell was released in 1969, and his most recent, The Lift, came out a few months ago. I spoke to a very jet-lagged guitarist mere hours after his return from a tour in Japan with famed bassist Ron Carter. Though clearly exhausted, he took the time to engage with me in a wide-ranging conversation. Here’s Part One of our talk. – bk

Bill Kopp: I’ve been listening to a lot of your music lately – from The Free Spirits to your first couple of solo albums, from the Gary Burton albums in the mid 60s to Eleventh House, from the reunion album with Alphonse Mouzon to the Young Django album with Stephane Grappelli, from Herbie Mann‘s Memphis Underground to your new album The Lift. The thing that amazes me the most about all of it is how nothing sounds like anything else. Unique among all the well-known guitarists I can think of, and I mean this in the best possible way, you don’t seem to have any particular “signature sound.” Is that by design?

Larry Coryell: Yeah. Most jazz guitarists — most instrumentalists, for that matter – have done really well to have the same sound. So it’s recognizable, so they can have a “brand.” So they don’t get lost in the shuffle, because there are so many musicians out there vying for your ear.

I didn’t do that; I don’t know why. I try to do a lot of different things, because for me – and this is just for me – staying in just one place hasn’t interested me that much.

BK: Similar to John McLaughlin but unlike most other guitarists, you work equally effectively with both electric and acoustic guitars. Do you approach them as wholly different instruments, similar to, say, the difference between piano and organ, or do you see them as basically similar?

LC: Oh, they’re different. You have to have a different technique on the acoustic. Because you’re not aided by anything electric. Generally I have to use more power on the acoustic; your hands have to be stronger. But that’s just generally; there are exceptions to every situation.

BK: You’re classically trained, though that training has never manifested itself in your playing in a way that makes you sound stiff and mannered.

LC: I certainly hope not.

BK: What kind of music did you listen to in your formative teenage years?

LC: Well, I grew up in the sticks. So I listened to a very limited amount…not very much classical, not much jazz. But I had a guitar teacher who had a great record collection of jazz people, and those were the core.

Where I grew up was so provincial – how can I describe this – I was more focused on the guitar and different types of guitar playing before I understood the subtleties of jazz playing per se. I didn’t know there was a history of jazz; I didn’t know it had roots going back, maybe, to the 19th century. I just wasn’t aware of that. I was not aware at all that jazz was essentially an African American music. I was just listening to people play it, and I liked what I was hearing. I was totally naïve. The first Wes Montgomery album I got, I thought it was incredible, whatever it was.

BK: I’ve read that you started playing locally and regionally in the Pacific Northwest in the early 60s. Were you a fan of – or perhaps even involved in – the scene that included groups like The Wailers, The Sonics, The Viceroys, Don & the Goodtimes, Paul Revere and the Raiders?

LC: That’s a pretty hip question.

You couldn’t avoid it at my age. It was what we called “youth music.” And it was nice. Rather than playing what my parents wanted to hear, I was motivated to play what I wanted to hear.

I played in a band that was like The Wailers and The Dynamics. I was interested in all music. And in regard to young people’s music at that time, we were all networking. When I was in college in Seattle, for one year I shared a residence with the lead guitar player of The Wailers. Back then, a lot of us got into playing through rock’n'roll, more simple-oriented stuff. It was more youth-oriented stuff, which is neither bad nor good. And that kind of opened the door to jazz. Because both jazz and rock’n'roll have the blues as a foundation. There’s a living connection that way.

BK: The Lift almost sounds like a sampler of your abilities, a collection that displays your various musical interests. There’s a track that has the sound and feel of early Led Zeppelin; there’s some boogaloo-style stuff with some tasty organ work; there are solo acoustic pieces. When putting together the album, was it specifically your intention to present a cross-section of your stylistic abilities, or is that simply how it turned out?

LC: It’s the way it turned out.

Basically we went in there saying, “okay, if Jimi Hendrix had stayed alive, what are some of the things he might be doing?” Because Hendrix really set the standard for creative, electric, overdriven playing.

BK: And toward the end, he tipped his hand toward a greater interest in jazz…

LC: Toward the end, yeah. But we’ll never know. Charlie Christian died even younger.

BK: From the note on the back of the album, I see that The Lift was recorded in just a couple of days. And the photo suggests that much of it was cut live in the studio. Is that correct, and to what degree did spontaneity play a role in how the album turned out?

LC: That’s what it was; it was all about spontaneity. Learning the stuff right then and there.

I was actually doing a regular gig down the street from Berkeley, in Oakland. I was doing a project at Yoshi’s club. So after I’d do my gig at Yoshi’s, I’d go up to Oakland and play a couple of hours, in the wee hours of the morning. It was fun.

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Album Reviews: Brand X — Is There Anything About? / Missing Period / Live at the Roxy L.A.

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

It’s a popular (and not wholly inaccurate) contention that Phil Collins did his best work with Genesis in the immediate years after Peter Gabriel left, and then – around the release of ABACAB, headed for the ditch creatively. Of course the commercial approach reaped rewards in terms of album sales; once Genesis quite being challenging (and, I’d say, interesting) they shifted a helluva lot more product.

Still, there’s no knocking Collins’ ability as a drummer, and in fact his musical taste in those days was a mite better than he sometimes got credit for. For several years he was deeply involved in a side project, a jazz fusion band called Brand X. As it happened, Collins was an on-again, off-again member of this aggregation, owing largely to his commitment in his other band.

Being that it’s jazz fusion with which we’re concerning ourselves here, it’s safe to assume that Brand X rarely troubled the upper reaches of the album charts. Though in fact four of their eight studio LPs – including 1982′s Is There Anything About? the last to feature Collins – did in fact crack the US Top 200 charts, albeit briefly.

That 1982 album – actually culled from session tapes after Collins had left – has recently been reissued by Gonzo Multimedia, along with two other Brand X titles. Missing Period is a 1997 collection of “lost session tapes,” and 1996′s Live at the Roxy L.A. is a bootleg-quality document of a live Brand X gig from 1979.

Belying its cobbled-together nature, Is There Anything About? features some catchy fusion playing; highlights include the opening track, “Ipanemia” and the synth-based “TMIU-ATGA” (short for “they’re making it up as they go along”). Collins is in fine form, but the real stars here are guitarist John Goodsall and fretless bass virtuoso Percy Jones. Jones’ work on “Swan Song” suggests what The Police might’ve sounded like had they given weight to their own jazz inclinations. The band’s approach is perhaps best summed up on the aptly-titled “Modern, Noisy and Effective” (though the signature melody sounds, er, borrowed).

Missing Period collects session tapes dating from the band’s earliest days. Here they sound a bit like a more hyperactive version of Phil Manzanera‘s Quiet Sun; the various instruments all seem to be soloing at once, yet somehow it all (just) hangs together. “Dead Pretty” might not have impressed Genesis fans of the era, but for anyone who enjoys knotty, precise jazz fusion with equal emphasis on chops and melody, it’s impressive stuff. “Kugelblitz” recalls Frank Zappa‘s work around the same time. Collins and his bandmates are on fire and they play with a mix of reckless abandon and cold precision. Overall, though, the album seems to focus primarily on the work of keyboardist Robin Lumley. And that’s just fine. Comprised of six longish tunes (none clocks in under seven minutes), Missing Period flies by quickly, but deserves repeat plays.

Judging by their prowess in the recording studio, it’s intriguing to wonder how Brand X would have sounded in a live onstage setting. Billed in the liner notes as capturing Brand X “at the peak of the band’s career,” Live at the Roxy L.A. is little more than an authorized bootleg. That said, it’s not at all unlistenable if one accepts it for what t is, and appreciates the rarity of its contents. The band runs through numbers from its various albums, and though the perfomrance is intially a bit on the subdued side, once the players warm up (around the thirds track, “Don’t Make Waves”) they firing on all cylinders. The presence of Collins’ lead vocals on some cuts plants the music more in a pop vein than would otherwise be the case, but it’s still arguably superior to most of Duke (Genesis’ 1980 release).

It’s good to have these three generally overlooked releases back in print. The Gonzo reissues don’t add new liner notes or bonus tracks, but the original albums all have enough winning qualities to justify straight, no-frills reissues.

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Album Review: Sun Ra — A Space Odyssey

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

As Kris Needs notes in his excellent and detailed liner notes for A Space Odyssey: From Birmingham to the Big Apple – The Quest Begins, Sun Ra was a practitioner of “garage jazz.”

Today (May 22 2014) would have been the 100th birthday of the man born Herman Blount, though once he rechristened himself Sun Ra he also claimed to be a visitor from outer space. And when he began releasing music under his own name (beginning with 1956′s “Saturn,” credited to Le Sun Ra & His Arkistra), many listeners would be inclined to agree. Sun Ra’s closest antecedent wold have been Thelonious Monk; both men shared a love of dissonance and odd meters. But where Monk worked on (acoustic) piano and generally within a small combo, Sun Ra often worked with large ensembles and – in later years – made full use of electronics. A staggeringly prolific artist, he released more than 100 albums, many of which are quite rare today. His influence is wide: Parliament/Funkadelic owe much to him both musically and in their visual approach, and in my interviews, some surprising artists – XTC‘s Andy Partridge and New Jersey powerpoppers The Grip Weeds – have expressed their deep admiration for his work.

The new 3CD set from Fantastic Voyage focuses on the earliest part of Sun Ra’s recorded career. The first disc (subtitled “Pre-flight”) kicks off with the aforementioned “Saturn” and then quickly moves on to a survey of the session work Blount/Sun Ra did for other artists (plus some early solo/Arkistra sides). The earliest track dates from 1933, with the pianist as part of Clarence Williams & His Orchestra on the Sun Ra original “Chocolate Avenue.”

Most r&b fans will be surprised to learn that Sun Ra played on a number of tracks by well-known artists of that era: Wynonie Harris and Red Saunders’ Orchestra are just two of these. The “Pre-flight disc is packed with 28 tracks overall, about a third of which are Arkistra tracks from the tail-end of the 1950s.

Disc Two (“Lift-off”) features seventeen tracks, all Sun Ra originals, and all credited to various aggregations of his. He changes the spelling of Arkistra to Arkestra, sometimes appending the prefix “His” or “The” and other times adding “Solar” before “Arkestra.” But it’s the music that matters. Whacked-out big band music that surely seemed bizarre then (these tracks are assorted randomly from the period 1956-1968), and while they feel a bit more melodic in the context of the 21st century, they’re still pretty out-there. “Sunology” from 1957′s Super Sonic Jazz is a relatively straightforward number, but some electric piano takes it outside the safe zone. The electric piano runs on “Springtime in Chicago” seem processed somehow, perhaps through a ring modulator. But that’s a nonsensical observation: ring modulators weren’t available in 1956. Nonetheless, Sun Ra did some sort of processing – however primitive – to alter the tone of the instrument. “Sun Song” from 1957 features some otherworldly percussion, slightly off-kilter piano glissandi and weird, gurgling Hammond organ, all (perversely) applied to a relatively accessible melody. The brief solo piece “Advice to the Medics” is built around Sun Ra’s electric piano work, again with a strange, likely intentionally overdriven tone.

All of which leads to an important point. Long before the phrase DIY became a watchword in music, Sun Ra was doing it himself. Most of his recordings are relatively low-budget affairs, many released on his own El Saturn label. It’s unlikely that a relatively straight label such as Riverside or Blue Note would have wanted to release the seemingly unending stream of weirdo jazz that Sun Ra & His Arkestra churned out. And long before the era of the “merch table,” El Saturn releases were normally pressed in exceedingly small quantities (often less than a hundred copies) and sold at live Arkestra shows.

Despite its subtitle, disc three (“Future Shock”) isn’t all that weird, at least not in its first half. Fifteen tracks focusing tightly in on the period 1958-1961 (a time during which he released eleven albums!), these actually represent a sampling of the most accessible music Sun Ra produced. In some ways, Sun Ra’s music here has hints of exotica practitioners Esquivel and Martin Denny, albeit filtered through a jazz/r&b sensibility neither of those men possessed to any great degree. Even a straightforward blues arrangement on “Great Balls of Fire” (decidedly not the Jerry Lee Lewis standard from a year earlier) has atonal horn bursts peppered throughout its run time. “Velvet” is a big band number led by Sun Ra’s Monk-like piano runs; it swings hard and gives solo time to members of the Arkestra. Many of the tracks here are built upon a blues foundation, and seem designed for dancing. “Blues at Midnight” does engage in some thrilling bass and saxophone runs that lean toward hard bop, and “Ancient Aiethopia” is cinematic in its scope. “Space Loneliness” (a single from 1960) is evocative of its title, and features some excellent, dissonant piano soloing from Sun Ra. The disc tosses in a doo-wop oddity: “Teenager’s Letter of Promises” from 1959 by Juanita Rogers & Lynn Hollings backed by Sun Ra’s Arkestra masquerading as Mr. V’s Five Joys. It’s otherworldly and banal all at once, and has to be heard to be believed.

“Bassism” is just what its title suggests: a tune built around upright bass. But fluttering flutes and skittering piano take it in an uncharted direction. The Arkestra continues on its trajectory spaceward with 1961′s “Where is Tomorrow” and follows with three more tasty, edgy cuts from that year’s album The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra. The percussion-centric “The Beginning” feels like what Edgard Varèse might have done had he been backed with the Arkestra. The set wraps with 1961′s “Message to Earthman,” on which the Arkestra is led by a speaking (and shouting! And wailing!) Sun Ra, declaiming his intergalactic message.

Since the subtitle of this 3CD’s set includes the phrase “The Quest Begins,” one can only hope that Fantastic Voyage will grace modern music listeners with another Kris Needs-curated collection of Sun Ra music in the near future.

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Album Review: The Butterfield Blues Band — East-West

Monday, May 19th, 2014

Some people — musicians, listeners, you name it — get their nose out of joint when writers apply labels to music. How dare we, the thinking goes. The music shouldn’t be shoehorned into some reviewer’s preconceived notion of stylistic categories.

I’m guilty as charged of said pigeonholing, and I make no apologies. I see part of my responsibility (to anyone who reads my reviews) as being a sort of consumer guide. You, gentle reader, are too busy to sift through the endless stream of new music that is created daily. (Hell, so am I.) By providing a signpost or two, I can (if I’m successful) help you decide if a given release is worth your further investigation. The application of a label — folk-rock. prog-metal, Christian rap (okay, you won’t find me writing about the last of those) — is a quick and handy device, if not overused.

Way, way back in 1966, there weren’t as many labels. But by virtue of their stylistic complexity, some bands forced the creation of new labels. So while The Butterfield Blues Band’s name might have suggested one very straightforward thing to potential listeners, the music on East-West telegraphed something much more finely nuanced. The album title was the first clue.

There’s plenty of straight-ahead electric blues and blues-rock here, and the approach that the BBB used on East-West paved the way for countless bands who’d come later (The Allman Brothers Band comes to mind). “All these Blues” and “Get out Of My Life, Woman” are exemplars of an electrically-charged Chicago style of the blues. This was a mixed-race band, still a rarity in ‘66: Sly & the Family Stone and Love were two of the small handful of mixed bands of that era. And that quality probably added to the musical breadth that the band was able to display.

East-West would merely be an excellent album were it not for the inclusion of the title track, the last on the album (newly reissued on hybrid SACD in numbered editions). “East-West” is the reason the writers had to sharpen their pencils and try and come up with a new label. Raga-jazz-blues-rock? Who the hell knows? All that’s certain is that “East-West” is thirteen-plus of the most exciting minutes in 1960s music, full of guitar interplay that draws as much from modal and “Eastern” styles as it does from the blues. This album transcends, redefines the blues. East-West is an essential part of any comprehensive music collection. If you don’t already have it, pick this one up.

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Album Review: Lalo Schifrin — ‘Bullitt’ Soundtrack

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

Here’s a look at another Record Store Day release, available on limited-edition 200-gram vinyl.

If, like me, you grew up in the late 60s and early 70s, this music will feel warmly familiar. This is true even if you’ve never heard it before, or if you have but didn’t know it. Schifrin was a veteran of the jazz scene by the time he got into scoring for TV and motion pictures, and his scores were usually a mix of swinging, soul jazz with punchy horns, the kind of stuff that set the tone for countless crime- and spy- thrillers of the 70s. He’s the staggeringly prolific guy who gave us the earworm “Theme from Mission: Impossible” and many others, and he’s earned critical (four Grammys) and commercial (loads of sales) success for his efforts.

The Bullitt score is very much in line with what you might expect. Those swinging horns and edge-of-mayhem percussion bits lay down the foundation. Depending on the demands of the scene, Schifrin’s score adds vibraphones, and other instruments into the mix. Stinging string sections abound, and – let’s thank Herbie Mann for paving the way – lots of jazzy flute leads. There’s not a load of guitar here, but when it does appear, it’s very much in a mellow, octave-style Wes Montgomery bag. A bit of gurgling soulful organ pops up now and then, and some bright drumming adds splashes of excitement where it’s needed. Hand percussion (shades of Mission: Impossible) is added here and there to good effect. Some avant-garde strumming of the inside of a piano recalls Emerson Lake and Palmer‘s “Take a Pebble,” but only a little. (And the Bullitt soundtrack predates ELP’s debut by a year, so there.

If you’re wondering, “Shifting Gears” (track #2) is the backdrop for the introduction to the famous San Francisco car chase scene, perhaps the most famous of its kind in all cinematic history. But what’s interesting – and more than a little gutsy – is that most of that scene features no music at all. No dialogue, either: just the roar of engines, the squeal of tires and related sounds.

Bullitt didn’t have a lot of romantic scenes, so you won’t find much in the way of mellow mood music here. No, it’s mostly tension building, tension released. Exactly what you’d want from a soundtrack of this ilk, Bullitt delivers on all fronts. A lot of fun, and more consistent in its own way than Isaac Hayes‘ landmark Shaft soundtrack from three years later.

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Album Review: Jaco Pastorius – Modern American Music…Period! The Criteria Sessions

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

This week, I’m quite busy attending Moogfest 2014 here in Asheville NC, the adopted of hometown of both myself and the late Dr. R.A. Moog, for whom the five day event is named. I hope and plan to bring extensive coverage to this blog very soon. In the meantime, here are some shorter-than-usual reviews. Please note that the relative brevity is in and of itself no comment on the quality of the (uniformly excellent) music.

Last Saturday was Earth Day. It was also Record Store Day. As RSD has grown in popularity – I read multiple reports of long waiting lines outside independent record shops across the country – there has been an associated increase in RSD special releases. Most notably (though not always) on vinyl and in exceedingly limited quantities, these releases are also often noted for the quality of the music they contain. Today and tomorrow I’ll review my favorite.

Jaco Pastorius – Modern American Music…Period! The Criteria Sessions
The young wonder that was Jaco seemed to burst onto the scene fully formed. A revolutionary bassist, Pastorius went on to gain great fame as a member of Weather Report, and then – not too many years later – suffer a fatal flame-out, a story that included mental illness, homelessness and deteriorating health. But while he lived, his muse shone brightly, and even before he became so well known, he had created enduring works. This collection of material brings together a great deal of previously-unreleased material, most of it dating from 1975 when he cut demos at Criteria Studios in Miami. A mix of original and cover material (including some by Charlie Parker, an oft-cited influence on the bassist), the set previews material that would surface on Pastorius’ proper debut, his self-titled 1975 LP. By definition less “produced” than the trackso n that set, these demo recordings nonetheless feel full put together. Other than percussion support and Alex Darqui‘s piano and Fender Rhodes, it’s all Jaco all the time here, on electric and upright basses and some more Rhodes. The sound feels a bit muffled throughout – this is a demo, and it is bass, after all – but it’s an eminently listenable set. Pastorius’ lightning runs up and down the fretboard are the highlights here. If you don’t like “busy” bass playing and think bass players should stick to the root note, stay far away from Modern American Music…Period! But if you’re unfamiliar with Jaco yet dig Frank Zappa‘s 70s fusion forays, you’ll find a lot to discover here.

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