Archive for the ‘jazz’ Category

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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“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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