Archive for the ‘new release’ Category

Album Review: Stevie Ray Vaughan — The Fire Meets the Fury

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

To a lot of people in the 1980s, Stevie Ray Vaughan was the guitar hero they had been looking for. Seemingly bursting on the scene without warning, the Texas guitarist had in fact been paying his dues for some time, and he was quite well known locally and regionally. His pre-fame activities included a stint in a band called the Nightcrawlers, where he was lead guitarist but not lead singer; that task was ably filled by bassist (and later songwriting collaborator) Doyle Bramhall II. That band recorded an album that remains unreleased to this day.

Vaughan went on to more acclaim, eventually capturing the notice of David Bowie. Vaughan played lead guitar on the blockbuster album Let’s Dance, and was in rehearsals with Bowie and band to play on the subsequent tour (bootlegs of these rehearsals do exist). As one story goes, Bowie forbade band members – especially SRV – to do interviews about their own work while on the tour, and so Vaughan, having just finished recording his debut Texas Flood, quit the band days before the tour was to begin.

Vaughan’s albums were released to greater and greater acclaim (and sales), and he can rightly be credited for ushering in a new era of appreciation for hotshot guitarists. But as his fame grew, so did his problems with drugs and alcohol. By the time I first saw him in concert (November 7, 1985 at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre), he was in the depths of addiction, yet he showed signs of having turned a corner of sorts: throughout the show he was uncharacteristically loquacious, making repeated comments of a positive and uplifting nature. Mere months after this date, SRV returned to Atlanta, this time not for a concert but for a four-week rehab program at Peachford Hospital, mere blocks from my home (no, we never saw him around the neighborhood).

Newly clean and with a markedly improved attitude toward life, Vaughan’s playing only improved, and his stature grew further. By 1989 he was taking part in a co-headlining concert tour with Jeff Beck; the tur was billed as “The Fire Meets the Fury.” The shows consisted of a set by each of the acclaimed guitar slingers, and often ended with them appearing onstage together for an encore.

Near the end of the tour were dates in Albuquerque, New Mexico (November 28) and Denver (November 29); both were recorded for broadcast on the Westwood One radio network. Highlights from those two shows are collected on The Fire Meets the Fury, a new single-disc live concert set. (The error-filled liner notes erroneously refer to these dates as the tour’s final performances when in fact two more dates – Los Angeles and Oakland – followed.)

While none of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s onstage collaborations with Jeff Beck are featured on the set, The Fire Meets the Fury nonetheless represents an excellent live document of SRV’s playing near the end of his life (he’d perish in a tragic helicopter accident nine months after these dates). The compilers have wisely chosen not to duplicate songs from the shows, so the finished disc (six tracks from New Mexico followed by five from Colorado) approximates a full concert set.

Vaughan and band – which by this time included keyboardist Reese Wynans alongside mainstays Chris “Whipper” Layton on drums and bassist Tommy Shannon – are in fine form throughout, and the set list runs the gamut from the hits (a very brief opening run-through of “The House is Rockin’”) to the classic covers (“Superstition,” a song that Stevie Wonder had originally written for Jeff Beck; and Jimi Hendrix‘s “Voodoo Chile”). The Hendrix cover in particular is an extended affair, running in excess of eleven minutes. Another long cut is “Life Without You,” wherein SRV engages in a monologue about his journey to sobriety (the title of his then-current album In Step was a reference to his working through Alcoholics Anonymous’ twelve step program).

While there are other live albums in the man’s catalog (1986′s Live Alive and the 1983 Albert King collaboration In Session, to name two of the most well-known), the well-recorded The Fire Meets the Fury is the only officially released document of late-period Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Note #1: There also exists a promo-only CD issued by Epic and also titled The Fire Meets the Fury; compiling then-current and back-catalog studio tracks from both Vaughan and Jeff Beck, it was intended to promote the then-current tour and should not be confused with this release.

Note #2: This album was also released in the UK as a 2LP (vinyl) set with the same track listing, featuring tracks from the Albuquerque show on one record, and the Denver performance on the other. My review concerns the CD release.

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Album Review: Art Pepper — Neon Art, Vols. 1-3

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

Art Pepper was a white jazz saxophonist who specialized in a West Coast style of jazz popular in the 1950s and 60s. His catalog is vast and varied; his recorded career as bandleader began in the early 1950s on the Savoy label. His work as a sideman found him working with many of the jazz greats including Hoagy Carmichael, Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard and a host of others; in his early days he was part of the Stan Kenton Orchestra.

Pepper died in 1982, leaving behind not only that catalog of sixty-plus albums, but a treasure trove of finished yet unreleased material. His widow Laurie Pepper created an imprint of her own – waggishy dubbed Widow’s Taste Music – to release the best of this previously-unheard music, In 2012 three of these were released on vinyl by Omnivore Recordings as volumes of a series titled Neon Art. Now in 2015, these titles are out on CD. Drawing from live performances in 1981, Neon Art Vols. 1-3 are crystal-clear recordings of Pepper playing onstage with some very talented cats.

The first disc in the series features only two pieces – “Red Car” and “Blues for Blanche,” but both tunes time out at around 17 minutes. The thrilling performances feature Pepper on alto sax, joined by the stunningly expressive piano work of Milcho Leviev, and the rhythm section of bassist David Williams and Carl Burnett on drums. Built around blues figures, both tracks on Neon Art Vol. 1 come from a single performance at a small Seattle venue, Parnell’s.

The second and third volumes in the series feature cuts that are sometimes shorter, sometimes even longer than the ones on the first volume. Neon Art Vol. 3‘s “Make a List (Make a Wish)” clocks in at over 24 minutes. But never does the energy or excitement flag. Pepper’s band on the second and third discs – sourced from four November 1981 performances in Japan – again features drummer Burnett and bassist Williams, but the piano chair is ably filled by George Cables. (Vol. 1‘s liner notes chronicle the defection of Williams after the Seattle dates, but he did return for the tour of Japan.)

The Japan dates, though recorded in concert halls, retain the intimate you-are-there vibe of the Seattle sides. When pianist Cables doubles Pepper’s sax lines, it’s a thing of beauty; when the two diverge, one comping while the other solos, it’s inviting and intriguing. As is standard with jazz, each player takes his turn in the spotlight, the tunes winding and twisting before returning to the head to wrap up. While most of the tracks are quite melodic, Pepper and band are unafraid to set out on music explorations that embody the hard-bop style, sometimes even venturing into free jazz territory. But the bulk of the music on these three volumes stays in a very accessible bag.

The early 1980s was no classic era for jazz; the worst elements of “smooth jazz” had rendered much of what passed for jazz as musical wallpaper, late-night FM musical fodder of the most blandly inoffensive kind. But Pepper’s jazz of that era as represented on the three Neon Art albums is nothing of the sort. Folding in elements of soul jazz (especially on the Seattle dates) and hard bop, Art Pepper’s music is finely textured, subtle and exciting. Fans of classic jazz that leans in a melodic, non-avant garde direction would do well to pick up all three of these new Art Pepper titles.

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Book Review: How to Talk to Rockstars

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

Like most writers, I read a lot. But I rarely read fiction; I think the last work of fiction I read prior to last week was Stieg Larsson‘s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. But when I learned that Alli Marshall – Arts Editor at Asheville’s altweekly Mountain Xpress – had published a new novel with a music journalist as its central character, I was intrigued, and happy to make an exception.

I quickly discovered that How to Talk to Rockstars is not a work of autobiographical fiction; the book’s Bryn Thompson bears only the most superficial resemblance to Marshall. But the author has clearly drawn upon her considerable experience as a music writer/journalist in the development of this story.

There’s not a great deal of what one could term traditional dialogue in the pages of How to Talk to Rockstars. Much of the book is given over to a sort of inner monologue, in which Bryn agonizes over an upcoming major interview. And while there are certainly fundamental differences between the book’s central character and myself, I found myself identifying with many of Bryn’s innermost thoughts.

The story arc – which Marshall unfolds in nonlinear fashion – concerns Bryn’s upcoming interview with a sort of singer/songwriter/rockstar, one with whom’s work Bryn is deeply enamored. The tension rises from the question: How far should I go in connecting with him? But mercifully, How to Talk to Rockstars is not some romance potboiler. It’s about deeper issues than that. The character lists a number of so-called “rules” to which a music journalist should best adhere. These rules are sometimes mere realizations of facts on the ground: you will not become great pals with the rockstar. Don’t try to impress him/her with your knowledge. Ask a penetrating question, then shut up and let them answer. And Bryn/Alli notes a rule that it took me some time to learn: when the interviewee finishes answering the question, let some silence hang in the air. Give them a moment, and as often as not, they’ll pick right up again, giving a deeper, more heartfelt, more thoughtful, more revealing answer than before.

How to Talk to Rockstars subtly points out the added perils of being a female in the male-dominated worlds of music and music journalism. Suffice to say that women interviewers must contend with a whole range of issues when conducting an interview – especially if it’s an in-person one – that are simply not part of the male journalist’s experience. From an ethical point of view, that’s neither right nor wrong; it’s simply how things are. And Bryn’s character never complains about the situation; she merely struggles to find the best ways to deal with it.

All of the characters are the products of Marshall’s imagination, save one. (A vignette involving meeting and chatting with Brian Eno seems likely drawn from actual experience.) And while ever-so-occasionally Bryn seems to be reaching a bit to impress the reader with the eclectic nature of her musical interests (a series of long name-checking lists that include hipster favorites), those lists serve to place her in a context with which readers in their 20s and 30s can best identify.

How to Talk to Rockstars breezes by quickly, and it’s a very enjoyable read. For those who have ever wondered what it’s like to interview notable musicians (and you do wonder, don’t you? Please?), How to Talk to Rockstars provides an illuminating window into the sometimes frustrating, occasionally boring, sporadically exciting and always unpredictable work of the music journalist. More importantly, the book also shines light on the human inner dialogue – full of self-doubt, recrimination, trepidation and just-plain-fear – with which anyone breathing can identify.

The national release of How to Talk to Rockstars is June 1, but author Marshall will host a local launch on Friday, May 15 at Asheville’s venerated independent bookstore, Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe. That free event begins at 7pm, and will feature “treats, live music, a reading and Q&A session.”

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Book Review: Geek Rock

Monday, April 13th, 2015

Rock’n'roll and scholarship make strange bedfellows. At first blush, the idea of approaching the work of rock bands from a scholarly point of view is patently absurd; such juxtapositions give rise to the aphorism (of indeterminate origin) “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” But it can be done – and successfully – if the writer has his or her feet metaphorically balanced in the two camps of popular music and academia.

That’s the chosen formula for the intriguing new title, Geek Rock: An Exploration of Music and Subculture, edited by Alex DiBlasi and Victoria Willis. Across a wide swath of scholarly essays, the book endeavors to characterize, examine and dissect what the editors term “geek rock,” a subgenre of rock music that places an emphasis on, well, being self-consciously intelligent.

As such, there are no Geek Rock essays expounding upon the literary antecedents of Ramones lyrics. The artists explored within Geek Rock are, one might observe, many of the usual suspects: Frank Zappa, DEVO, They Might Be Giants. But the collected essays also dig deep into obscure corners of rock/pop subculture, exploring the, um, geekiness of artists whose names will be unfamiliar to even the most inveterate rock fans (Darko Rundek, anyone? Bueller?).

The bulk of the artists covered in the eleven scholarly essays fall into that nebulous “indie” category; neither fish nor fowl, neither rock giant nor obscuro. Discussions of the work of The Mountain Goats, mc chris, Man…or Astroman?, The Magnetic Fields, and even Crash Test Dummies (remember them?) make up the bulk of Geek Rock.

Apparently there’s a rather rigid format to which scholarly essays must adhere (hey, I went to business school, so my experience with such is mercifully limited). I do recall from my high school years the experience of the “five paragraph essay”; an admittedly useful template for creating a brief examination of any given topic. My English teachers drilled the template into my consciousness, and to this day I can crank out a five-paragraph essay on nearly anything. (Once in college, tasked with coming up with one on the spot, I crafted a five-graf essay explaining how to open a door. I got an A-plus).

And though that essay/thesis template may be a useful guide for the crafting of scholarly essays, to casual readers it can come off as more than a little stilted. Such essays fill the pages of Geek Rock, resulting in a sometimes mind-numbing sameness to very disparate subject matter. It’s often a case of, “Now I shall tell you about blank. Here I am telling you about blank. Allow me to summarize my observations about blank.” You get the idea.

But if one can get past that, the essays are illuminating and thought-provoking even at their worst (and/or densest), and provocatively insightful at their best. Happily, most of Geek Rock‘s essays lean toward the latter. Of particular note is DiBlasi’s “Frank Zappa: Godfather of Geek Rock.” DiBlasi is not only a keen observer of Zappa’s massive catalog, he’s an insightful one who understands (as opposed to merely shrugging about) Zappa’s so-called Project-object, the philosophy that all of his output – records, live performances, interviews – are truly components of one single, large, unified work. To those who remain on the fence about Zappa’s importance, DiBlasi’s essay is recommended in the strongest terms.

And Ian Steinberg‘s thoughtful comparison/contrasting dissection of the work of DEVO and that of the early 20th century Italian Futurist art movement makes for irresistibly fascinating reading, even if one doesn’t fully buy into the author’s analysis. (It helps, I should think, if one has viewed Futurist art; certainly no great art scholar myself, I happened upon a Futurist exhibit less than a year ago at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. Absent that background, I would have had to refer to Google or Wikipedia to navigate my way through Steinberg’s essay with any sort of understanding.)

Sometimes, though, the topics wade far too deeply into the woods for the casual reader and/or non-scholar. Willis’ exploration of the Lacanian subtext of They Might Be Giants’ music is the sort of thing that won’t appeal to most readers, TMBG fans though they may be. The titles sometimes tell the story. If “’A Very Subtle Joke’: T.S. Eliot, J.D. Salinger, and the Puer Aeternus in God Shuffled His Feet” doesn’t scare you off by its title alone, then you’re a braver reader than I. (I did read it, but…wow.) Some of the essays bear the fingerprints of a too-earnest college student, shoehorning deep and arcane knowledge of their pet band into a scholarly box. The fit and finish aren’t always factory-smooth.

But what they always are is geeky, which, at the end of the day, in a delightfully meta sort of way, is the point.

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DVD Review: Freak Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Mothers

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

The back catalog of Frank Zappa is massive, and massively intimating. Never the most commercially-minded of artists, the virtuoso Zappa recorded and released more than fifty albums during his lifetime. (His estate has more than doubled his catalog, with all manner of posthumous releases; his so-called “100th album” is due out soon.) With albums that explored everything from doo-wop to fusion, from big band jazz to musique concrète – not to mention a lot of scatological lyrical content – Zappa’s oeurve could easily scare off (or even repel) the casual listener.

None of which seemed to bother him in the least. Zappa was a restless innovator, and what that often meant in practical terms is that he’d make what could seem (especially at the time) as one musical left-turn after another. Just when you’ve gotten used to the early Mothers records, exemplified by We’re Only in it For the Money, Zappa fires the entire band and makes a weird orchestral album (Lumpy Gravy) and then a blues/jazz LP (Hot Rats).

To make dealing with his vast catalog a bit easier, fans, critics and the like have attempted to divide Zappa’s work – his so-called “project/object” – into eras. There’s certainly overlap between some of those era – his work doesn’t lend itself to neat classification – but it’s a worthy endeavor to break Zappa’s music into more easily-digestible pieces.

And the piece that remains most controversial among his fans is what one might call the Flo and Eddie years. From around 1970 until 1971, Zappa’s band was fronted by a pair of vocalists who – for contractual reasons – called themselves The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie. Better known as Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, the duo had come to fame as the front men of The Turtles. The Turtles were always known for their sense of humor and lively stage personae, so on some level, they were a good fit for Zappa. Enlisting top-notch musicians who were able to play the increasingly complicated music that he was composing, Zappa brought Flo and Eddie on board to handle vocals, a task that was not among the strongest qualities of the original Mothers.

Taking a detailed and incisive look at this period requires backing up a bit to provide proper context. And that is why the new documentary Freak Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Mothers covers the period 1969-1973. Beginning with a quick history of the Mothers up to the start of that era, the lengthy (more than two hours) documentary seeks to put the work of the Flo and Eddie period into its proper historical perspective.

Another in the long series of music documentary DVDs from the Sexy Intellectual team, Freak Jazz relies on true experts to weave its narrative. Some of these are faces familiar to those who’ve screened other documentaries from the team: Zappa biographer Billy James and Mojo Magazine‘s Mark Paytress weigh in with their own informed perspectives. And a number of players and Zappa associates from that era provide their own accounts: Ian Underwood, Jeff Simmons, Aynsley Dunbar, and (most notably) the late George Duke all get a good amount of screen time to tell their stories.

Two hours and forty minutes might seem like a long time, but it breezes by when watching Freak Jazz. The knotty twists and turns that Zappa’s music, band and personal life took during this period require a good bit of explaining, and this DVD does just that in an exceedingly expert fashion. The filmmakers rightly hold Zappa’s work to a high standard, and the onscreen commenters are unafraid to criticize what they see as ill-advised (say, “Billy the Mountain”) or just plain lousy musical output.

A good amount of time is spent discussing the film 200 Motels, and while there are very few clips from the actual movie (likely due to licensing issues), some behind-the-scenes footage helps tell the story. And while Howard Kaylan isn’t involved in the documentary, Mark Volman provides the Flo and Eddie perspective. Rarely-seen photos and onstage footage make Freak Jazz essential for the hardcore Zappaphile, but the conversational tone of the DVD makes it recommended viewing for even the most casual Zappa fan.

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Album Review: The Mavericks — Mono

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

There’s much talk these days about the sorry state of country music. The genre – commercially, more popular than ever – is overrun with what its detractors call “bro country.” Hopelessly (some might say defiantly) clichéd songs about yellow beer, Friday nights, pickup trucks, mean ol’/clueless big city types and whatnot are the coin of the realm, and they all sound like one another. “Even non-fans are starting to take notice,” wrote one recent commentator.

It all largely passes me by, as I’ve never been a fan of modern c&w. Though I did briefly find it inescapable late last summer: I live quite near our city’s baseball stadium, home one sweaty afternoon to a concert pairing Florida Georgia Line and rapper Nelly. To call it awful and lowbrow gives it too much credit. And it was louder than most rock concerts (and I’d know) making it even worse.

Those who appreciate things like musicianship and authenticity (of a sort) in their twang seem to prefer music that falls under the Americana label. And while nobody knows exactly what is and is not Americana, there’s general agreement that it’s the better stuff. And on that I’d agree.

One of the best things about Americana today is The Mavericks. They’re widely celebrated among Americana fans, though I’m not convinced that they are country. Their approach is too wide-encompassing for that – or perhaps any other – label. Founded in Miami at the beginning of the 1990s, the group has released eight albums, including two since their 2013 reunion. Mono, their latest, features two founding members – vocalist Raul Malo and drummer Paul Deakin – plus two more recently-added members, keyboardist Jerry Dale McFadden (with them since the mid 90s) and guitarist Eddie Perez (he joined in 2003). And the music on Mono might best be described – if we need a label – as norteAmericana.

There’s a strong Latin undercurrent to the songs on Mono, most notably the thrilling “All Night Long,” a musical cousin to Santana‘s “Smooth.” It’s a wholly successful hybrid of Latin rhythms, Cuban arrangement, and modern rock/pop. It has hit-single written all over it, though as of this writing it hasn’t in fact charted.

But “All Night Long” doesn’t sound all that much like the remaining eleven tracks on Mono. What it has in common, however, is quality: this is a strong album that’s enjoyable from start to finish. Rock fans – and those with little musical grounding in country (in other words, listeners like me) – will find many musical touchstones throughout the album. “Summertime (When I’m With You)” sounds a bit like Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns crossed with Louis Prima. “Pardon Me” is Mono‘s only real country tune; it sounds like classic c&w of the late 1960s and early 70s, with Malo’s yearning vocal a highlight. “What Am I Supposed to Do” is a romantic midtempo number with a great singalong chorus. “Stories We Could Tell” feels like early dance-oriented rock’n'roll a la Bill Haley and the Comets, with a Texas swing feel. “What You Do to Me” could almost be termed ska-country; the accordion works quite well, and some Mariachi-flavored horn charts and electric guitar add to the tune’s excitement.

The stylistic variation continues, though in The Mavericks’ hands, it’s all somehow musically unified. “Let it Rain” is a lovely, lump-in-the-throat ballad. “The Only Question Is” is fifties-styled blues; one could easily imagine Stevie Ray Vaughan joining in on the tune. But here we get a honking sax solo with just a bit of electric guitar answering it. “Out the Door” feels a lot like The Sir Douglas Quintet. “(Waiting for) The World to End” is a swinging party number that no doubt goes over great live (I’ve seen The Mavericks live, and they’re fantastic). The song’s outro repeats the title lyric over and over, though eventually Malo sings, “We’re all waiting for this song to end.”

A romantic weeper, “Fascinate Me” sounds like a late-night barroom closer, with Malo’s voice and rickety tack piano out front. Listed as a bonus track, “Nitty Gritty” is a wry midtempo tune with loads of wonderfully cheesy combo organ (sounds like a Farfisa) that will remind sixties garage fans of Augie Meyers, Doug Sahm, Sam “The Sham” Samudio and other greats. The dialogue between accordion and electric guitar is a delight.

The good-timing Mono is a strong contender for my Best of 2015 album list. If any band is poised to “save” modern country and western music, my money’s on The Mavericks.

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Beatles vs. Rolling Stones: Another Round

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

Back when I was a kid, the Beatles-or-Stones question was a real thing: among my childhood peers, one had to pick a side. That one could like both groups was, it seems, not a concept around which we could wrap our minds.

These days I’m much older and slightly wiser, and I enjoy both (Beatles still win by a long shot if I must pick). The folks at Cleopatra Records agree, as do the roster of acts whom they’ve employed to help create a pair of tribute albums (the label’s specialty). Magical Mystery Psych-out: A Tribute to The Beatles and Stoned: A Psych Tribute to The Rollings Stones bring together a cross-section of modern psych (and/or psych influenced) bands.

Of the two, the Beatles tribute disc plays it safer track-wise. Most of the songs on that disc are covers of material The Beatles cut in the Rubber Soul, Revolver and White Album eras. And the one outlier – “And I Love Her” – is given a relatively straight, faithful reading by The Lucid Dream. They keep the jangling guitar largely intact, and give the tune an arrangement somewhat reminiscent of what Best Coast might do. (A note-for-note copy of George Harrison’s guitar solo is a nice reminder that sometimes simplicity is the best approach. Electric Moon‘s reading of “Tomorrow Never Knows” sounds a lot like how one might expect The Brian Jonestown Massacre to cover it (though BJM’s vocals are better than the weedy vox on this version).

While other psych tributes from Cleopatra enlisted the help of a few “name” acts (Allah-Las, for example) Magical Mystery Psych-out features groups who will be familiar only to the hardest of hardcore modern-psych aficionados.

A few of the featured bands on this set are clearly not intimidated by the massive popularity of The Beatles; maybe it’s because they’re young and have less reverence (which is a good thing in this case), but The Vacant Lots‘ “Julia” creates an arrangement that owes nearly nothing to the 1968 original. Kudos to them for thinking outside the box. The same can be said about The Ruby Sun‘s cover of “Martha My Dear,” though in this case they win on originality but lose on musicality; the dirge-like pace of their arrangement might make some listeners grind their teeth. The Underground Youth‘s trip-hop reinvention of “Come Together” is a curio if nothing else. Kikagaku‘s “Helter Skelter” is a eardrum-splitting, punishing noisefest that makes the original sound like ear candy. And Strangers Family Band‘s “Sun Kings” is evocative of nothing so much as the still unattributed not-Beatles bootleg outtake, “Candle Burns.”

At least musicwise, The Rolling Stones’ psychedelic period lasted for all of one album, Their Satanic Majesties Request. But on the psych tribute to the band, tunes from all through the Stones’ catalog are given the treatment. A highlight of the set is The KVB‘s cover of “Sympathy for the Devil.” Instead of building an arrangement around a familiar riff, they strip the tune down to its basic parts, rebuilding it in a hazy, gaudy manner that recalls The Psychedleic Furs or any number of 90s shoegaze bands. Well done.

Shiny Darkly‘s “Under My Thumb” is close to the original (if the original was recorded in an airplane hangar with squalls of echo and feedback). Yeti Lane‘s “Sway” is appealing in a zonked-out way. Clinic‘s drum-machine-led reading of “It’s Only Rock & Roll (But I Like It)” sounds like Trio (“Da Da Da”), and doesn’t really work, but like some of the acts mentioned on the Beatles tribute, they score for originality if nothing else.

Sons of Hippies play it straight on “Gimme Shelter,” which raises an interesting question: on a tribute album, is it better to copy the original or reinvent it? Their reading of the classic Stones tune is just about the best thing on the pair of albums.

Surprisingly, The Allah-Las‘ version of “Stoned” is perfunctory; the certainly can do better. Pink Velvet‘s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is a slavish copy of the original, albeit one with the lead vocal bumped up an octave. But Pure X‘s reading of “Beast of Burden” is interesting and nicely textured, a sort of cross between indie rock and Martin Denny‘s bachelor pad tropicalia.

Like most albums of their ilk, this pair of releases aren’t likely to end up in most listeners’ heavy rotation, but they’re both reasonably well done. Thanks to somewhat more adventurous song selection, in this Beatles-vs.-Stones round, the decision goes to The Rolling Stones.

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Back to School with Les McCann (Part 3)

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Continued from Part Two

I make the (not at all original) observation that many American musical forms seem to get more respect in Europe than at home. “That’s all right,” says Les McCann. “Ninety percent of the stations are playing the same thing every day. It’s about playing that number-one. And it’s songs, not really music. People talk about ‘rap music.’ I say, ‘Where’s the music?’ People have been talkin‘ on records ever since they were first recorded. You ever heard The Ink Spots? Early Eddie Harris? Ever heard of Les McCann? I’m talkin’ on my records. I’ve even got a record called Talk to the People. But every rapper I meet tells me they’re the greatest, they started all this. ‘I got the beat. These are my beats.’”

When I point out that his work has been sampled by quite a few hip-hop artists, McCann bristles. “Those guys who sample, they don’t know what they do. They’re not musicians; they’re technicians. It takes it to another place. I’m not calling it right or wrong, because it goes where it’s got to go.”

I mention to McCann that a yard sale purchase of Cannonball Adderley‘s Somethin’ Else LP changed my life. “That’s how it works,” he observes. “Some people say, ‘I just like what I heard when I was in high school.’ They hear something new that they enjoy, and it’s like, ‘What’s that?’ ‘It’s jazz.’ ‘Oh, I don’t like jazz.’ I say, don’t call it jazz. Just like it, and take it home with you.”

Something unclassifiable that many listeners liked and took home with them was the 1966 LP Freak Out, the debut record from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Inside the gatefold of the 2LP set, there’s a photo of – of all people – Les McCann with blues singer and harmonica player Paul Butterfield. The caption says the pair are “freaking out,” but there’s no further explanation. McCann laughs heartily at the mention of this. “Nobody ever believes me when I tell them about that!”

“It was a moment that happened,” McCann recalls. “I didn’t really know [Zappa] but I knew there was something he was looking for. As we talk about Invitation to Openness, it’s exactly the kind of thing that Frank Zappa did. He handed an instrument to everyone that walked into the room that day. There were more than three hundred people there, and he recorded it.” I note that the instruments assigned had nothing to do with a person’s ability to actually play them. “Half of ‘em weren’t even musicians!” McCann laughs. “And that was the beauty of it all; it was great. And I am sure that stuck in my mind as a great way to approach my music from a different angle, too. We’re all connected to each other. When something beautiful comes, expand on it. Take it to another place.”

Returning to his favored concept of life-as-school, McCann makes this observation: “The curriculum in this school is complete. There’s nothing that needs to be taught; nothing new that’s going to come around. We are all in school. And everything you think of is what you can have. Everything you think of – good or bad; I don’t care what you judge it as – it is happening. Period.”

Les McCann is a vocalist, a keyboard player, a painter, a photographer. He tends to view these various sides of himself as dimensions of the same creative and artistic impulse. “There’s one thing that’s same [in all of them], and that’s me. What mode we come out of and how we do it is a choice we make, maybe. Music is part of what I asked God to give me when I chose to be human and to have a great earthly experience: ‘Let me know what I need to do; take me to where I need to go.’”

“Sometimes,” McCann concludes, “we come in with different colors, different height, different sizes. We eat different food, we’re born in different places. That all accommodates the goal we’re looking for, and leads us to that. So you can’t go wrong. You can fight it, but it’s already in your DNA. My only message to the world is this: at all times, choose love above fear.” After I thank him for his insight, he laughs and says, “Now I’m gonna go smoke a joint and see if I can take it up a notch.”

Omnivore Recordings’ deluxe reissue of Les McCann’s classic album Invitation to Openness is available now. And McCann’s book documenting his lifetime of photography, Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann 1960-1980, will be released officially on April 19. McCann made an in-store appearance last weekend (March 28, 2015) in Los Angeles, showing slides from his book and telling stories about the old days.

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Back to School with Les McCann (Part 2)

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Continued from Part One

Among the most celebrated releases in Les McCann‘s extensive catalog, Swiss Movement is his 1969 live collaboration with saxophonist Eddie Harris. The album was controversial on its release thanks to its inclusion of “Compared to What,” a tune with lyrics that remain as provocative today as they were thirty-five years ago. In fact, a special “radio edit” LP of Swiss Movement clumsily bleeped out the offending lyrics.

The song’s lyrics might have hurt its chances for chart success, but McCann never worried himself about such matters. “It’s art. It sells, or it doesn’t sell. The word ‘abortion’ was not permitted to be played on the radio. And the station [that did initially play it] was fined $25,000 for playing the song.” Controversy or no, the single “Compared to What” ended up a million seller, as did Swiss Movement.

“I’ll tell you a shocking story,” McCann offers. “Six years before that record was made, when I first heard the song from Gene McDaniels (who wrote it) – he was a dear friend of mine, and he was in my band – I recorded it. But I knew that [recording] wasn’t it, but I wanted to keep that song. Whether I recorded it right or wrong, I know that at some point it’s going to come to me. So six or seven years later, it came to me. Onstage, at that very moment.”

So “Compared to What” wasn’t even on the set list for McCann’s Montreux Jazz Festival performance? “The band never made it to rehearsal!” McCann laughs. “Everything was spontaneous! Even the melodies for a couple of the songs: I’m telling a couple of the guys – trumpet players – and they’re scared to death! ‘Cause they didn’t know any of the songs. ‘Just do who you are,’ I told ‘em. And I trusted ‘em.”

He continues. “A great lesson for me was when guys came in and were writing everything down, and saying, ‘This is the way I want everything played.’ And we’d get to a big moment, times in my career when people wouldn’t show up for rehearsal, couldn’t make it to rehearsal. I’d get mad, and I’d say, ‘Let’s just play.’” Being in front of an appreciative audience no doubt helped. “In France and Switzerland, they loved me. I don’t know what it is, but from the very first moment I ever played there, they said, ‘you belong to us.’ Maybe,” he chuckles,” it’s because my name is Les.”

And his name is closely linked with what is known as soul-jazz. “I’m told that I was one of the first people the record companies put that title to,” McCann says. “The first album I did, on Pacific Jazz [in 1960], was called Plays the Truth. ‘Soul’ is just another word for feeling, and love. It’s all good. Soul is becoming aware of what’s inside of us. When you get passionate about something, you discover yourself.”

Cannonball Adderley is another figure closely associated with the soul jazz genre. One of Adderley’s basic beliefs was that jazz is the people’s music, that it can be boundary-pushing and innovative, but that it should be accessible, too. And that kind of philosophy is felt in much of McCann’s music. In fact, in Leonard Feather‘s liner notes for his 1961 LP In San Francisco, McCann is quoted as saying, “I want my music to hit the emotion of human beings.” He goes on to say, “If jazz is played so it can be accepted, it will be accepted.” Since that quote comes from near the beginning of his recording career, I ask him if he’d like to expand on his comment. His terse reply: “No.”

“That was then. I don’t go back, no,” he adds. “That’s what I said then; I’m not going to try and go back and figure out what I meant.” I press the subject a bit and ask if he agrees that music should be accessible. Again: “No. Don’t make no rules! Everything is already accessible. People say, ‘This is hard to play. This is hard to listen to.’ They have all these fuckin’ excuses. Shit. Give me a break! Just go do it. Find your heart, your passion. That’s the word. That’s soul, that’s love: everything that is the opposite of fear. We’ve all heard it a thousand, a million times. But we take a long time to heed the message.”

Not surprisingly, McCann has strong opinions regarding the current state of jazz. “Everything must change. And they’re trying to keep it the same. It won’t go nowhere; it died.” He observes, “Once you make a recording, it’s recorded that way: that’s how it is. And that’s the way that people who buy the records want to hear it.” That runs counter to the jazz aesthetic of never-the-same-way-twice. “Musicians understand that, but record companies are sayin’, ‘Fuck that. Make me some money!’”

“Jazz is dead,” McCann repeats. “We have to make it because we like it. I tell all the young people now, ‘If you’re really into it, it’s got to be a matter of life and death. If not, go find your passion.’”

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Back to School with Les McCann (Part 1)

Monday, March 30th, 2015

Invitation to Openness is not only the title of one of jazz great Les McCann‘s most celebrated albums (newly reissued; more on that later); it’s also the title of his new book of photography and essays. Throughout his storied career as a touring and recording jazz musician, McCann came face to face – in personal, intimate settings – with legends in music, film and public life. An accomplished amateur (though he’d effectively “go pro,” as well see), McCann shot countless photos in crisp black-and-white, capturing his subjects in a knowing manner that (for example) publicity photos often fail to convey.

And one of the book’s most striking qualities is its variety. McCann’s lens captures onstage photos, backstage photos. He includes posed shots, candids. His subjects are famous musicians and unidentified people. Comics like Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx are featured, as are photos taken at pro basketball games. Yet somehow, with all this diverse imagery, there’s a unifying aesthetic within the pages of Invitation to Openness. “Every artist, every creative project has a sequence,” McCann says. That gives the finished work flow and rhythm, he says. A project like his book, then, is “based on something you haven’t seen before. So you’re looking at [the raw material], assessing it: now what do I do with it? And maybe you can’t do it, so you get somebody whose eye you can trust.” And in this case, McCann had a pair of collaborators that he describes as his “corps of angels”: his longtime manager and confidante Alan Abrahams, and Pat Thomas, author of the book Listen Whitey: The Sounds of Black Power. “I took all of the pictures,” McCann says, “but then I put it in their hands.”

There was some healthy back-and-forth involved in the book’s creation. “I gave them all my pictures,” McCann recalls. “And they came up with about 700, I think. And then we narrowed it down to about 300 or so: ‘What do you think of these?’ ‘Yeah, I like that.’ ‘No, I don’t want that.’” McCann notes that initially, the project was to focus only on his photos of jazz musicians. “But my photographs are not just one thing, like my music is not just one thing. So they got the message.”

Some of the photos in Invitation to Openness are left to speak for themselves; others include McCann’s annotation. McCann writes that the book’s early 1970s photos of jazz great Julian “Cannonball” Adderley are some of his favorites. “There’s a little story that goes with that in the book,” he says. “It was the first time somebody picked one of my photographs, saying, ‘We’d like to use this.’ And they paid me for it.” But the Japanese magazine made an amusing error. “They put my name in there as ‘Les McCann Keyboard!’ I liked that, y’know? I’ve been all over the world, and people have called me everything.” Reflecting on fellow soul-jazz giant Adderley, McCann says, “I have nothing but fond memories of his joyful life, his joyful music, and his zest to be great. And [seeing him] was the first time that I went to a club and was totally blown away with everything I heard the band play.”

Asked if there’s a subject he missed the opportunity to photograph, McCann answers quickly: “God.” Pausing a beat, he wryly adds, “The day I met Jesus, he was in a hurry to get someplace.” After the laughter subsides, he continues. “I can’t think of anyone, no. ‘Cause I met everybody. I’m not talking about me being onstage and all that; I was put in a position to just be everywhere. Everything I ever wanted to do, I ended up doing ten times as much…stuff I didn’t even plan on. I came into this life with the beautiful understanding that I was ‘in school.’ I’m here to learn what this Earthly adventure is about. I might mumble and stumble, but the goal is to love myself. And then by loving myself, I’ll know how I want to love and treat everyone else. Because I truly love people, and everything that’s on this Earth.” He adds, “I’m not confused about it; not anymore.”

McCann’s 1971 album Invitation to Openness is a landmark release, as evidenced by the fact that it’s been kept in print and/or reissued so many times since its original release. The latest CD reissue, on Omnivore Recordings, is produced by Pat Thomas, and features a bonus track, a live reading of McCann’s signature tune, “Compared to What.” When I suggest that it’s one of his best releases, McCann is quick to correct me. “You can never say that; I don’t think you say that about any music. Because for me, it’s kind of personal. When I came to do [Invitation to Openness], I went into New York City and within one day I had told the producer what I wanted to do. And then organizing the people who’d be on the record – over fifteen people – and having them all in New York at once, it was a magic moment. The whole project was. So my special feelings and memories about it are about the session and the people.” He also notes that the album “was extremely well recorded. They captured the essence and ambience of what people were doing.”

McCann recalls his reaction at the Invitation to Openness session: “Oh my God: it really worked!” He says, “What you have to do is experiment. I’m creating 24 hours a day, and that’s the message I try to share with people. We came from creation; therefore, we are creation. It drives me crazy when people say [about themselves], ‘Oh, I wish I had a talent; I can’t do nuthin’.’ I say, ‘Shut the hell up. Get quiet, and look deeper into yourself. Not outside; look inside, and you’ll find everything you’re looking for.’”

“A song may live awhile, but as far as style, you can’t keep doing the same thing. That’s another reason I’m so happy about the idea I had for Invitation to Openness. I gave very few – if any – instructions. No rules; just play. Swiss Movement broke the door open for me: don’t lock everything into a set pattern. And that was very enlightening for me.

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