Archive for the ‘reissue’ Category

“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 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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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 1

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Some familiar names and some true obscurities are highlighted in this, the first of five sets of five capsule reviews. This week I’ll review 25 albums, arbitrarily limiting myself to exactly one hundred words each.


Gene Rains – Far Away Lands: The Exotic Music of Gene Rains
Exotica – that early 60s genre featuring wide-panned stereo, vibes, “jungle” percussion and all manner of whoops, bird calls and such – was a big seller; the genre’s two primary exponents were Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. The lesser-known Gene Rains cut three albums that are in the same league; all are long out of print and rare. This new compilation from Real Gone Music collects the best from those LPs, and adds an excellent new liner note essay from Randy Poe (and a lovely cheesecake cover featuring MeduSirena). This disc should be considered essential for fans of the genre.


Pete Seeger – Sing Out America! The Best of Pete Seeger
There seem to have been at least sixty compilations that have attempted to provide some sort of overview to the musical legacy of folk master and American treasure Pete Seeger. Some are long out of print; other remain available. Well, here’s another one. Sing Out America! features fifty tracks, variously credited to The Almanac Singers (an aggregation that also included Woody Guthrie), The Weavers, and Seeger solo. One can’t assail the quality of the music herein, but lack of liner notes and/or discographical info (recording date?) means that this set is a great listen, but unsatisfying as a historical document.


Peggy Lipton – The Complete Ode Recordings
Those of a certain age remember Peggy Lipton as a star of TV’s The Mod Squad (“One black, one white…one blonde!”). But they may well be surprised to learn Lipton had a recording career. And unlike some artists-turned-singers (see: Clint Eastwood), the recordings Lipton released on her self-titled 1968 LP and a handful of later singles show her to be a commanding vocalist. The nineteen tasteful Lou Adler-produced sides (including four previously-unreleased songs) owe a lot to the Laura Nyro school. Lipton composed a number of the tunes, and they hold up nicely alongside readings of classics like “Stoney End.”


Eric Clapton – Behind the Sun
Some insist that Eric Clapton should have hung up his guitar after 1970′s Layla and Assorted Other Love Songs. Clapton didn’t often rock very hard after that (the brief Cream reunion notwithstanding). This 1985 album – newly reissued on SACD – has its rocking moments, though it more often veers toward breezy, easy listening. Behind the Sun is easily identified as a product of its era: Simmons drum sounds abound; prominent synthesizer sounds are equally dated. In places it’s reminiscent of Roger Waters‘ 1984 The Pro and Cons of Hitchhiking (on which Clapton played). Not bad, but definitely not great.


Various Artists – Chicago Bound: Chess Blues, R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll
England-based Fantastic Voyage has carved an excellent niche in the world of compilation albums. Their thoughtful collections have provided tidy surveys of long-lost music, more often than not from the USA. The legendary Chess label was home to a staggering list of classic artists, and this 3CD set brings together some of the best sides from artists including Sonny Boy Williamson, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters. It also highlights the work of lesser-known acts including J. B. Lenoir (“Eisenhower Blues”) and Bobby Saxton (“Trying to Make a Living”). Chicago Bound is up to Fantastic Voyage’s typical high level of quality.

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Hundred-word Reviews July 2014, Part Five

Friday, July 25th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Album Review: Eric Clapton – Unplugged (CD+DVD)

Friday, July 18th, 2014

Here’s a slightly unusual candidate for reissue: Eric Clapton‘s 1992 Unplugged album. To my knowledge, this massively commercially successful album has never gone out of print, which begs the question: why reissue it? To be fair, this 2014 reissue does include some bonus material. But first, let’s take a look at the original album.

Filmed – as was standard procedure for the cable series MTV Unplugged – in front of a small audience and featuring more-or-less acoustic readings of the artist’s work, Clapton’s Unplugged came pretty far into the whole “unplugged” story arc. The TV series had begin its life as a Jules Shear-hosted show with all manner of musical guests. Artists would render stripped-down, often more subtle versions of their (generally) well-known material. Beginning in late 1989, MTV Unplugged began airing, and by 1991 at least a couple of major stars had not only appeared, but had subsequently released live recordings documenting their performances: Paul McCartney‘s Unplugged (The Official Bootleg) and Mariah Carey‘s single cover of the Jackson 5‘s “I’ll Be there.” So by the time of Clapton’s Unplugged date, the idea was certainly neither new nor groundbreaking.

And by this point in Clapton’s career, his style had calmed considerably from the days of Derek and the DominosLayla and Other Assorted Love Songs (not to mention Cream), so the mellow approach was no significant stylistic departure for him.

Still, Clapton – joined by longtime musical associates including percussionist Ray Cooper, keyboardist Chuck Leavell and guitarist Andy Fairweather-Low – used the format to explore his love of the more acoustic-leaning “country blues” sounds that had long been a major influence on his playing. The result was a set heavy on covers (some might call them standards), with a few contemporary originals tossed into the mix. For his trouble, Clapton’s Unplugged LP scored him more than 10 million units sold, plus six Grammy awards.

The album’s most memorable cuts are a version of “Tears in Heaven,” the song about the tragic loss of Clapton’s son Conor, and a reinvention of “Layla” that bizarrely denudes the tune of its passion (and its classic extended instrumental coda), though it remains popular in many corners.

The new set expands the original album and offers three discs total. The first is an exact duplicate of the original 1992 CD, featuring fourteen songs form the television performance. The second disc features material recorded but not aired as part of the TV program, including three numbers (“Circus” and “Worried Life Blues” plus two takes of the unaired “My Father’s Eyes”) not broadcast, and four alternate takes/breakdowns of songs that did appear. A third disc (DVD) features the entire program as broadcast, plus an hour of previously unseen footage. None of the previously-unseen/unheard material is especially revelatory; they’re all very much of a piece. The booklet that accompanies the digipak is short on details; the opportunity to feature a contemporary essay on the performance has been passed up. And the cover art again features the grainy, “screen capture”-looking photo that graced the original release.

Verdict: good for Clapton fans who somehow don’t already have the lion’s share of this material on CD and DVD (or perhaps VHS); worthy of interest for most others, but not an essential purchase.

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Short Cuts: July Mini-reviews, Part Two

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More “short cuts” to come.

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Short Cuts: July Mini-reviews, Part One

Monday, July 14th, 2014

The in-box here at Musoscribe World Headquarters is overflowing once again, thanks in no small part to my focusing on other matters (including my recent move and impending nuptials) in addition to keeping up my reviewing schedule. So here’s the first in another series of shorter-than-usual reviews. All of these albums were worth my time; they may well be worth yours as well. Dig.

Cowboy – Reach for the Sky
I’ve been meaning to cover this one for awhile. A reissue of a 1971 album originally released on Capricorn Records, Reach for the Sky rates notice as one of the label’s first signings; Cowboy got their deal with Phil Walden‘s label on the strength of a strong recommendation from one Duane Allman. The album is mellow, tuneful country rock, but (thankfully) you’re not likely to mistake this north Florida group for The Eagles. Allman associate Johnny Sandlin produced the album in a clean, unadorned, intimate style, and that approach perfectly suits the warm and friendly tunes.

Scott Schinder‘s liner notes tell the story of this modest group, and (unusually for a Real Gone Music release) the lyrics are printed in the booklet. Most of the gentle, harmony-laden tunes are written by (guitarists) Scott Boyer or Tommy Talton, but a couple are composed or co-written by piano/multi-instrumentalist Bill Pillmore, who today happens to live here in Asheville. He’s also my piano tuner; the world certainly is a small place. I saw a vinyl copy of this in a local record store just a couple of weeks ago; I might go snag it and ask for an autograph next time the apartment grand gets a tuning.

Tommy Bolin – Whirlwind
Though he lived until just past his twenty-fifth birthday, Tommy Bolin left behind an impressive body of work. Most notable as the guitarist who (a) took Joe Walsh‘s place in The James Gang and (b) replaced Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple, Bolin left behind a recorded legacy shows that his style and ability transcended the hard rock of those bands. He released two solo albums in the 70s, and a long list of posthumous live and compilation discs have been released, mostly since the turn of the 21st century.

His catalog, then, bears some similarities to that of Jimi Hendrix: seemingly there’s a push to release every note the man every committed to tape. That said, the quality of the new 2CD set Whirlwind is impressive and consistent. The eighteen tracks on this collection run the gamut from unfinished demo recordings to polished, why-wasn’t-this-released quality. The sequencing is seemingly haphazard, jumping around the various phases of Bolin’s career., but that won’t diminish the enjoyment of the set. Some of the music is meat’n'potatoes rock; some of it is much more ambitious. What most all tracks share is lead guitar work that manages to be both tasteful and flashy. The styles run from fusion to hard rock to gentle acoustic work, with some exploratory jamming tossed in for good measure. Every track here is either a Bolin composition or a Bolin co-write; the man clearly had ideas and energy to burn. An embryonic version of what would become “Marching Powder” on Bolin’s 1975 Teaser LP takes up a big chunk of the second disc; the 26-minute version on Whirlwind (titled “Marching Bag”) is a highlight, and will likely please fans of Hendrix’s later work, which it (in places) recalls. Keen listeners might hear shades of Jeff Beck in there, too, but in the end Bolin was a true original.

The Dramatics – Greatest Slow Jams
Best remembered for their hits “In the Rain,” Hey you, Get Off My Mountain” and “Whatcha See is Whatcha Get” (the first two of which are included on this new compilation), The Stax-Volt soul group’s main stock in trade was what we now (and for awhile now, really) call slow jams. This thematic collection was put together by late-night radio host Kevin “Slow Jammin” James – but of course it was – and may well serve as the soundtrack to your next 70s-themed evening of makin’ love.

The production and arranging on these twelve tracks are smooth and stellar; the Detroit band’s tight harmony is expertly backed by top-notch instrumentation. The band’s arrangers had a keen sense of the value of quiet; on numbers like the supremely melodramatic “In the Rain,” the audio shade and light take a relatively straightforward tune and make it into one for the ages.

Those looking for detailed information about the group and their music are advised to look elsewhere; the compiler of Greatest Slow Jams figures that (unlike me) you probably won’t be sitting around scanning the booklet while these tunes are spinning. Get busy, and enjoy. Greatest Slow Jams may only showcase one side of the Dramatics’ abilities, but it’s a damn fine side.

More “short cuts” to come.

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Legends Do Stuff: A Dad-Rock Roundup

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

From a demographics perspective, I suppose I am the target market for releases such as these. How else to explain compilations that have no thematic or time-period cohesiveness? Legends Get it On and Legends Crank it Up have one common thread: they attempt to distill the salad days of the boomer generation into CD-sized chunks.

And, on some level, they succeed. These discs play like someone’s idea of a classic rock station “rock block” without the car dealership commercials or annoying morning jocks prattling on about whatever. So that’s good. But it’s difficult to imagine who would actually buy these: what self-respecting fan of 70s AOR doesn’t already have “Smoke on the Water,” “Slow Ride,” “Free Bird” and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band‘s definitive reading of Bruce Springsteen‘s “Blinded by the Light” in their collection?

There are a few nods toward the softer side of album-rock: Elton John‘s wistful “Daniel,” Ace‘s “How Long” with a then-unknown Paul Carrack on lead vocals, and The Moody Blues‘ classic “Nights in White Satin.” And there are a few 60s gems tossed here and there: The Doors‘ “Light My Fire,” The Troggs‘ “Wild Thing, The Zombies‘ “Time of the Season.” And there a few clunkers, ersatz rockers that illustrated the more vapid, airball side of FM radio: Fleetwood Mac‘s “Go Your Own Way,” and Jackson Browne‘s “Running on Empty.” But mostly these two discs are heaping helpings of Dad Rock. Each features brief liner notes by an esteemed rock journo – Gene Sculatti and Dave Marsh, respectively – but one wonders if the consumers of these products will even read those pieces. (Neither is an exemplar of the writers’ best work.)

In an age of downloads and MP3, a hybrid SACD version of high-charting radio rock seems a dubious commercial prospect. But since these albums were originally released in 2003 on the Time-Life label, we can safely assume the record company people crunched the numbers and decided a reissue was at least a break-even proposition.

Phil Collins‘ “In the Air Tonight” is here, which is funny, because I assume that if anyone actually wants to hear that song, they need only tune to their local classic rock FM station. It’s playing there right now, I assure you. But for those who want the music without the deejays, these CDs just might be the ticket. Over-40 white males who haven’t given over to download culture might just enjoy getting Legends Crank it Up and/or Legends Get it On (the latter’s title a nod to T. Rex‘s “Bang a Gong,” included therein) as a gift. We missed Father’s Day 2014, so maybe birthday or Christmas. But if you give one of these CDs to the middle-aged man in your life, don’t be surprised to find him cranking up his car stereo and fist pumping while he should be driving, all to the thumping strains of Foreigner‘s “Feels Like the First Time” or Eric Burdon and War‘s “Spill the Wine.”

Verdict: slapdash, seemingly pointless collections of music – some great, some good, some lousy, all overplayed – rendered in excellent fidelity. But undeniably, they’re a lot of fun.

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