Archive for the ‘avant-garde’ Category

On the Fringe of Consonance: Double Naught Spy Car + Stew (Part 3)

Friday, March 27th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: So the actual sessions for Panorama City took place ten years ago?

Paul Lacques: Actually thirteen; we did these sessions in 2002. Y’know, we feel kinda bad. We did the sessions, and thought, “That was weird.” And then we went our separate ways. Then Marc went into mad scientist mode, and sent some mixes. But we didn’t know what to do with all of this. In a way, the mix that evolved over a decade into something that could be on a CD.

BK: I suppose it’s fair to say that the free-form approach you brought to the sessions was informed by everything you had heard and done before. And so now you’re thirteen years older. How do you think the sessions might have been different had you recorded them in 2015 instead of 2002?

PL: That’s an excellent question. We all would have been in a million bands since, but I’ve go to say that I think it would be fairly similar. Maybe some more advanced concepts. Maybe different effects boxes that the guitar players are using.

But we’re pretty much who we are. The band is made up of some pretty strong personalities. I think it would have been fundamentally the same. Stew came out in the fall [2014], and we did a live show. We didn’t know the songs at all; we just played ‘em. It was kind of live renditions of song he knew but we didn’t! And it went really well. I think our love of the unknown is still intact. So I think the sessions would have turned out just as well if they had been done today, because we’re just as naïve and willing to try new things.

BK: Panorama City is an unusual project, to say the least. Do you think that the American Composers’ Forum got what they bargained for with the end result?

PL: They’re very cool. We lost touch with them over the years; there was a period when we were doing some pretty avant-garde music, and someone heard it and interpreted it as “modern classical!” [laughs] So we’re hanging with the Cal Arts serial, atonal musical academics with their banks of synthesizers. Some of the meetings were crazy. We’d do some song, us being this brash rock band. And I think half of them were offended.

But the people that ran it at the time – the L.A. chapter – were really pushing us and helping us. And they actually suggested that we write the grant. And it was very open-ended; that’s the thing about this forum. It’s made up of people whose main goal is to break the rules of what’s considered music. So I think they had no expectations. If anything, it might have turned out a little more reasonable sounding than they had expected. They might have been expecting white noise or an Ornette Coleman kind of chaos. But oddly enough, it didn’t turn out that way. It turned out far more structured than any of us had guessed. And to me, that’s the most surprising thing about the whole project: it sounds like pop music.

BK: I wonder if that’s because fundamentally, you have a popular music sensibility. So that even when you’re being experimental, the music is grounded in, for lack of a better word, accessibility.

PL: For sure. We all grew up playing Rolling Stones songs, blues, and country music. For Marcus Watkins and myself as guitarists, country and blues is sort of our first vocabulary. Our bass player Marc Doten was raised on more of a jazz band [foundation]. He can play classical piano. Same with Joe [Berardi, drummer]. They went to music school. And Marcus has developed very sophisticated skills over the years. I’m probably the least schooled at this point.

We all came up with a shared taste for what I guess could be called the experimental. But we come out of rock, for sure.

Thank you for appreciating what we’re doing. It’s not for the faint of heart!

Panorama City will be released on April 14, 2015 on 11 Foot Pole.

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On the Fringe of Consonance: Double Naught Spy Car + Stew (Part 2)

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: The press release that accompanies my copy of Panorama City also uses the phrase “group ESP” when describing the interaction among you and your fellow musicians. I chuckled when I read that, because while I understand what was meant – an unspoken communication among the musicians – the avant-garde music also reminded me of the kind of thing that came out on ESP-Disk: The Fugs, Paul Bley, Albert Ayler, and Sun Ra, for example – all what one might term “outsider” music. Do you feel a kinship with those sort of exploratory artists?

Paul Lacques: Oh, definitely. Absolutely. And occasionally, the textures will sound a little…I’m not even sure what the category is. Experimental? The tonalities certainly go out on a limb, and that is how we approach our music. It’s not like, “Oh, we accidentally played a major seventh over a minor sixth chord.” That is how we think as a band. We look for melodies that are kind of on the fringe of consonance. We look for memorable phrases, but they can be quite dissonant.

It sounds kind of like…I don’t expect people to believe it, but we did start reading each others’ mind. You’ll hear the band switch on a dime. And hearing it now, I truly don’t know how we decided to change keys or chords, but we did. We weren’t looking at each other and signaling; we just felt it.

One of the things we’ve done is to make all of the raw tracks available. So you can hear it as it was played. We really hope people check that out, because you can hear the changes happening without any cues. It was an interesting experience, for sure.

BK: As we’ve touched upon, Stew recited his more-or-less free-form lyrics live while you played. Did the cadence of his lyrics affect the organic direction that the music took, or did you more or less tune it out while you were playing?

PL: We were very much listening. We could hear each other really well; we were gathered in a fairly tight circle, and Stew was in a vocal booth. (He also played a lot of guitar, keys, and melodica.) He was very much “in the room” with us. We were definitely supporting what he was doing, and responding to it.

Our approach was sort of, “We’ve got this recording date with this singer/songwriter Stew, and we’re pretending like we have charts to play.” Like a good Wrecking Crew or backing band, yeah. You support the lyrics, once they’re in.

BK: The difference being that in your case, it was done on the fly, spontaneously…

PL: A good studio band…you know, there’s that movie about The Wrecking Crew coming out. They played on hundreds of hits, and they were making licks up on the spot, too. They didn’t have two days to work on a song; they were expected to crank out at least one song in a couple of hours. If they were hot, they’d do a couple of songs. They made guitar licks and so forth up on the spot; that’s what they were hired to do.

And that was part of the model for us, too: “First thought, best thought.”

BK: So said Allen Ginsberg

PL: Yeah.

My personal mission is to steer people toward the long versions, so they can hear them as they were played. If they like the CD, they should explore the extended versions. Rather than imitating conventional music, this is what we did.

BK: The album clocks in under an hour, and it’s tightly edited. That is the exact opposite of what you started with once the sessions were over. But the extended tracks version you mention clocks in over four hours. Would you say that the album represents the “best” of the sessions, or is it just one perspective on them?

PL: I’ve got to lean toward the idea that it was just one distillation. If someone else had edited it, it would have come out completely different. And the tracks on their own – the seventeen-minute versions – I find them just as listenable, if slightly more dramatic. We left a lot of good solos out, some amazing bass and drum stuff. It’s just not there, because when you start with seventeen minutes, you’ve got to make some brutal choices.

So rather than a best-of, it’s one angle, one pathway into the swamp. And I think Marc did a fantastic job. Someone else could have carved a completely different path, and it would sound much different.

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On the Fringe of Consonance: Double Naught Spy Car + Stew (Part 1)

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

The members of Double Naught Spy Car don’t seem put off by the genre labels that (cough, cough) certain rock writers tend to apply to musical artists. In fact they’ve offered up a label of their own to describe their sound: “spaghetti/jazz/prog/surf/twang.” Now, if that doesn’t confuse listeners, their music just might. On their latest album Panorama City, the southern California quintet are joined by singer/lyricist Stew, formerly of equally-though-differently-quirky group The Negro Problem.

The project that gave rise to Panorama City started its life more than a decade ago, the product of a grant from the American Composers’ Forum. The resulting tapes languished for years, but now they’re available in both edited album form and in their raw, largely unaltered state.

I spoke with guitarist Paul Lacques about the development of the grant-financed sessions into a finished product that is decidedly avant-garde, yet somehow still accessible. And I’m also pleased to present a Musoscribe World Premiere in advance of Panorama City‘s April 14 release: the track “Bumpin’ Morton Subotnick” (see link below).

Bill Kopp: The nature of improvisation is that you free yourself from preconceptions as to where you’re going with the music. I understand that’s how a lot of late ’60s and early ’70s Miles Davis sessions were done. But then Teo Macero and Miles would splice, chop, edit, and reassemble the results into something they liked. Frank Zappa did something conceptually related: he’d take tapes of his live guitar solos, extract them from the multitracks and then craft new studio backing around them. To what extent did you engage in post-recording “sculpting” of these tracks?

Paul Lacques: Our bass player Marc Doten did the lion’s share of it. For example, if we had a seventeen-minute song, we needed to trim it down to four and a half minutes or so, maybe six minutes. So eleven minutes vanish right there. I think he moved a few things around, but the general flow is somewhat how we played it, but with big sections chopped out.

I think, as we were doing it, we had in our minds, “Maybe we’ll chop this up someday.” I don’t know; it really was leaping into the unknown when we started doing it. We didn’t really even talk about it. We just wrote this grant [proposal], promising to make songs up on the spot. Those were sort of broad instructions. But we actually did do it; one of us would just start playing, and the others would just fall in. The rule of improv is that you don’t leave your partner hanging.

So we did that. Somebody starts with a crazy drum or guitar lick, and we would literally follow along, thinking, “Oh, that’s how the song goes, okay? Well, then my part should go like this…” And then Stew would come in – sometimes right away, sometimes he’d wait five minutes – with some lyrics he had scrawled that morning or the day before. He’d go looking through his notebook for something that might match the groove. And then when it started sounding like music, he’d start singing. There were literally no second takes.

But to get back to your question about shifting order, it’s about 75% in the order we played it, with sections moved around.

BK: So did you do things like pulling the fader down on one of the guitars, taking things out of the mix?

PL: Oh, yeah. Sure. And you can hear it, where one guitar is very low in the mix. Because we didn’t have isolation, you’ll still hear it a little bit, but we definitely did some post-recording arranging with faders. There was a fair amount of manipulation done to the original tracks.

BK: I couldn’t help but notice that the press release that accompanied Panorama City seemed to go out of its way not to mention Captain Beefheart. Within my musical frame of reference, the music of Beefheart is the closest thing to what you’re doing on this album. Do you consider him an influence, and if so, in what ways?

PL: I agree. “Beefheartian” is the number one adjective that I would use. But the process we used was the opposite of what Beefheart did. I think he basically had a slave shop going, where he’d make his players learn his crazy parts absolutely verbatim. And they’d rehearse them until people were ready to run out of the desert shack and take their chances.

But that was very much the opposite of what we did. Still, it does sound like some Captain Beefheart stuff. Especially the guitars; there’s some really angular guitar playing and tone.

We were heavily influenced by Beefheart when we were growing up; all five of us. So I would embrace that influence, certainly. And I do hear the similarity in sound, sometimes.

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Album Review: The Residents’ Commercial Album

Friday, February 13th, 2015

Ex-Turtles and Mothers vocalists Flo and Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan) used to have a nationally-syndicated radio show. One recurring component of the merry duo’s program involved spinning records by some of their musical peers. The thing is, they wouldn’t play anywhere near the whole song: after they felt like they had given listeners the gist of a song, off it went.

The thinking behind that practice was simple: once you’ve heard a minute or so of a pop song, you’ve pretty well heard everything it has to offer. The rest is repetition. This is true (perhaps to an alarming extent) for most pop, rock, blues, country, soul, funk, and r&b. In fact I apply that thinking whenever I’m doing one of my periodic “smash or trash” exercises to determine which submissions get reviewed. (Because of the complexity and shifting tone that are hallmarks of jazz and progressive rock, music of those genres gets a more thorough once-over).

But I didn’t invent the idea, and as much as I love Flo and Eddie, they didn’t come up with it, either. Neither, perhaps, did The Residents, but they may well have been the first musical artists to explore the idea in depth and then craft an entire album by applying its principles.

That’s the underlying premise/concept of the group’s 1980 album The Residents’ Commercial Album. Certainly not commercial in the most popular definition (as in, accessible and lending itself to mass marketing), the Commercial Album takes its name from the fact that each of its forty tracks are exactly sixty seconds long…like a television commercial.

Across forty tracks, The inscrutable collective that is The Residents explore the pop landscape from their skewed perspective. But in its own twisted way, Commercial Album is – by Residential standards – fairly accessible stuff. Stripping their compositions down to the most basic elements, The Residents still endeavor to give listeners what (in other contexts) would be considered a verse and chorus. Often the vocals are delivered in the peculiar sung-spoken style that is the group’s trademark, but other times there’s actual singing (sometimes by guest artists including Lene Lovich and Snakefinger, both of whom have more, um, accessible vocal tones).

The instrumentation on Commercial Album‘s tracks varies from exceedingly minimalist (say, one synthesizer and a drum machine) to fully-developed “band” type arrangements that feature multiple musicians (or at least multiple overdubbed instrument parts). Occasionally, the tunes fall into a samey-ness of meter, but then – knowing The Residents – that characteristic may be a way for the group to wordlessly comment on the generic nature of much of what passes for pop music.

There are some catchy tunes here, as well. The first two cuts (“Easter Woman” and “Perfect Love”) are nothing if not pop-leaning in their construction and delivery (note that when it comes to matters of accessibility, The Residents are graded on a curve). It’s worth noting just how far The Residents traveled musically between their debut album Meet the Residents (recorded 1974, but not widely released until 1977) and Commercial Album just a few years later. For pop-attuned ears, Commercial Album is far easier to take than the group’s first disc. But the changes/refinements The Residents made to their music in the interim didn’t dilute their vision a bit: Commercial Album is as weird and wonderful as ever.

It’s also worth pointing out just how difficult it is to create forty distinct songs that are all exactly the same length. Some groups have almost achieved that kind of thing by accident (see The Ramones‘ early catalog for evidence) but doing it on purpose is some sort of accomplishment in and of itself.

That The Residents’ Commercial Album is listenable and entertaining start to finish is a testament to the group’s quality of vision. The 2014 CD reissue of the album by MVD doesn’t offer anything new in the way of bonus tracks (a 1988 reissue had ten) or liner notes(!), but then The Residents’ Commercial Album has always been just fine the way it is.

By the way, four more of my Residents reviews (and an interview!) are HERE.

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Best of 2014: Concerts

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

One of the many pleasures associated with living in the small mountain city of Asheville NC is access to great live music. I grew up in the 70s and 80s in Atlanta, where going to a concert often meant traveling to a sports arena, and watching the tiny performers from the nosebleed seats (where you’d get a “contact high” from the pot smoke).

Here in Asheville, I go to shows that have anywhere from a few dozen to just over a thousand people in the audience, and the bands are up close and personal (especially when I have a photo pass). Because my town is such a go-to destination for touring acts, I get the pleasure of seeing high profile performances in small venues. That just wouldn’t happen in other cities.

I go to a lot of shows here in town. That said, I travel to regional festivals fairly often as well. Looking back on 2014 – an especially eventful year for me all ’round – three of my four favorite concert events were festivals.

Big Ears
Designed as a relatively small-scale festival with a decided emphasis on the edgy, this Knoxville TN festival presented a long list of fascinating acts, few of whom do the festival circuit as a rule. The scale of the event meant that it felt almost like a series of house concerts. Highlights included Marc Ribot, David Greenberger, Steve Reich, Television, Dean Wareham, Rachel Grimes, and Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood.

Moogfest
This one’s a sentimental favorite: it takes place in my hometown; it honors the late, great Robert A. Moog (a man whom I was lucky enough to meet a number of times), and it features some great music. Without a doubt the highlight of 2014′s Moogfest for me was meeting and interviewing Keith Emerson, but the three-day event (all within walking distance of my home) was packed with memorable experiences.

Musical Box
For me, Genesis lost their magic not long after the departures of Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett. This Canadian tribute group recreates said magic in a most authentic fashion, both visually and aurally. It’s a total experience, and from the packed house at The Orange Peel that night, I’d say that classic 70s progressive rock still has a significant following.

Transfigurations
In celebration of ten years of success, Asheville’s Harvest Records staged a festival that leaned toward the delightfully eclectic. For me the highlights were Quilt (modern psych), The Clean (Antipodean janglepop), Reigning Sound (garage rock), and Lee Fields & the Expressions (soul). Transfigurations featured all of the best things about a festival, and none of the negatives.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t make note of the Zombies show here in Asheville as well. Four decades on, Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (and their bandmates) have still got it.

More 2014 best-ofs to come.

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Honeymoon Hundred-word Reviews, Part 3

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

I’m on my honeymoon this week, so I thought it would be a good time to offer up some backlog-clearing entries in my occasional series of Hundred Word Reviews. And though the musical styles are all over the map, there’s a theme of sorts this time: each of the acts reviewed has been covered previously, either via review or feature/interview.

Today’s four feature music from acts based in Europe or southeast Asia.


Three Minute Tease – Bite the Hand
A few years ago, American expatriate Anton Barbeau relocated to Germany, and then he commandeered Robyn Hitchcock‘s old band mates Andy Metcalfe (bass) and Morris Windsor (drums); the resulting trio serves up some fine dark-hued powerpop. On their latest, Bite the Hand, they’re joined (on vocals) by wonderful husband-and-wife team Khoi Hunyh and Karla Kane from The Corner Laughers, and on one track, the legendary and still-active Keith Allison (Paul Revere and the Raiders) on guitar. But it’s Barbeau’s voice songs at the center of it all, from the anthemic opener of “Bravely Fade Away” right through to the end.


Dewa Budjana – Surya Namaskar
Though Budjana’s Indonesian, listeners won’t hear much in the way of “world music” on this progressive/fusion outing. Featuring former Frank Zappa drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and sought-after session bassist Jimmy Johnson, this is a melodic trip through the instrumental progjazz world. The influence of John McLaughlin is one Budjana wears on his sleeve (and, as the gatefold photo shows, on his chest as well; I have the same t-shirt). The album occasionally sounds like mid 70s Jean-Luc Ponty sans violin. Stinging guitar runs and knotty bass figures atop crackling drums makes this electric outing a delight for fans of the genre.


The Group – The Feed-back
Here’s a very strange – and until now, extremely rare – album: an avant-garde noisefest featuring Ennio Morricone (yeah, the spaghetti western soundtrack composer). But this sounds nothing like the soundtrack from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. This collective of composer/players officially bore the moniker Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza, hence the shortened Il Gruppo (“The Group”). Sounding like a cross between Freak Out! Mothers, Can, and The United States of America, it’s a weird yet wonderful foray into the outer reaches. It’s also not miles away from the kind of thing you’d hear on Bitches Brew.

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Album Review: Magma — Zühn Wöhl Ünsaï / Live 1974

Monday, August 4th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Album Review: Sun Ra — A Space Odyssey

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 3 (Part Two)

Friday, April 4th, 2014

The final set of performances we took in at Big Ears 2014 were all centered around the work of minimalist composer Steve Reich. It was all deeply thrilling, visceral, emotional stuff, the kind of thing that’s quite difficult to put into words. It might sounds like a cop-out to say so, but this is music that must be experienced live. I had never heard most of it in recorded form, so I claim no point of reference. But it was stunning and beautiful in ways I find myself unable to articulate. So instead I offer some photos. They don’t quite get at it either, but they’re cool nonetheless. If you find my writing about music at all resonating with you, just trust me when I tell you that this music was amazing. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead solo, then a couple other Reich pieces by Ensemble Signal.




I don’t consider the word “commercial” a pejorative term, but neither do I consider it an essential component of worthwhile music. Big Ears 2014 was for the most part far, far, far from commercial, but I sincerely hope that the organizers made their earnings goals. Because as festivals go, Big Ears 2014 was well-run, incredibly thoughtful in terms of artist selection, and user-friendly in the extreme. An unqualified success. I truly hope they schedule another one soon, and if they do, I’ll make every effort to cover it.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 2 (Part 1)

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Marc Ribot (Again)
The second day of Big Ears 2014 kicked off with a most unusual event: Marc Ribot seated in total darkness, armed with only a classical acoustic guitar. Above him on the Bijou stage was a projection screen, upon which was shown Charlie Chaplin‘s 1921 silent film, The Kid. Ribot’s charge was to create a real-time audio accompaniment for the film. This he did with amazing skill.

In fact, while this was ostensibly a Ribot solo gig, in fact the guitarist’s presence meshed so seamlessly with the film that it seemed almost not to exist on its own. His highly expressive guitar lines fit so perfectly with the onscreen images – alternately conveying, joy, menace, whimsy, pathos and the other sensations that encompass the human experience – that one could easily forget about them and simply enjoy the movie.

Which is exactly what the packed house did. Fro the entire film’s run time (approximately an hour), the audience, laughed, gasped and otherwise sat enthralled with the antics portrayed by Chaplin and his seven-year old sidekick Jackie Coogan (known best to my generation as The Addams Family‘s Uncle Fester). Ribot’s real-time score was so perfectly integrated that one could have been forgiven for thinking it has been pre-recorded. As it was, the solo performance was a tour de force, one not likely to be bettered.

David Greenberger
Greenberger and I have been Facebook friends for years, but as a byproduct of his status postings there, I know of him primarily as a writer and visual artist. So when I learned that he’d be doing a sort of spoken-word piece at Big Ears, I knew I’d have to catch the performance.

It was a thrill. In the intimate setting of the Square Room, Greenberger took the stage accompanied by a lively and expressive upright bassist (Evan Lipson), nimble and nuanced drummer/percussionist Bob Stagner, and Amanda Rose Cagle, a multi- instrumentalist who played piano, melodica, accordion, electric guitar, percussion and Theremin (and that’s only a partial list).

The premise was rather straightforward, on paper at least: Greenberger read a number of shortish pieces (“a dozen and a half or so,” he told us), all monologues by characters based on conversations he’s had with residents of nursing homes. These raged from barely-lucid ramblings to bitter tirades to bizarre, Dada-ish rants that made little or no sense in any context. And they were unfailingly entertaining.

The musical backing was as varied as Cagle’s instrumental arsenal. Always well-suited for the monologue at hand, the trio provided deep tone color backdrops to Greenberger’s monologues. Initially I thought the trio was improvising; it quickly became apparent that they were instead working from a highly structured – although often seemingly abstract – plan. The only pop-culture equivalent I can think of to describe Greenberger’s performance (with the trio dubbed And Prime Lens — an anagram of their mutual friend, collaborator and guiding light, the recently-deceased Dennis Palmer) is the word-jazz work of Ken Nordine. While Greenberger’s delivery is less stylized than Nordine’s, it’s every bit as enthralling.

Dawn of MIDI
The festival guide’s preview of this trio painted an intriguing picture: a lineup that essentially follows the classic jazz trio format (piano, bass, drums) plays a highly repetitive, minimalistic totally acoustic kind of music that evokes the sound and feel of early synthesizer music ad/or motorik. The truth was, I suppose, quite close to that description, but my reaction to it was unexpected.

As my sweetheart and I arrived at the darkened confines of the Bijou, we could barely see our hands in front of our faces as we crawled around looking for seats. Once we found those seats, we sat down and I snapped a few photos. The next thing I recall took place approximately thirty minutes later, when I was awoken by my sweetie’s whispered words: “I have two words for you: water torture.” While the insistently repetitive music had almost immediately lulled me to slumber, it had given my partner a headache. Looking around into the darkness, I saw that several nearby fellow concertgoers were also splayed out in their seats, fast asleep. One guy, however, was physically gyrating his torso and head in (attempted) time with the music. Go figure.

My coverage of the second day of Big Ears 2014 will continue.

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