Album Review: The Orange Peels — Begin the Begone

June 17th, 2015

On Begin the Begone, the sixth album from northern California pop group The Orange Peels, the group continues to redefine its stylistic parameters while still crafting that winning ear-candy pop with which it has built a solid reputation.

Begin the Begone rocks a bit harder than earlier albums like the near-perfect 2020, and while part of that is thanks to the guitar work of John Moremen (also of The Paul & John, Flotation Device and who-the-hell-knows how many other fine aggregations), but the increased heaviness is clearly a product of Allen Clapp‘s songwriting and arrangement ideas as well. The indie aesthetic meets a baroque pop sensibility (see also: Pet Sounds, The Polyphonic Spree) but wraps it in a heavier rock feel, anchored by bassist Jill Pries and drummer Gabriel Coan.

In some ways, Begin the Begone moves away from the immediacy and hookiness of earlier tunes like the sunshiny power pop of “We’re Gonna Make It,” weaving a gauzier textured musical tapestry that requires (and rewards) repeated listens. But the group’s uncanny knack for pop confection remains on full display with “Embers,” which sports not only a lovely Allen Clapp lead vocal but finds Moremen channeling early 1970s George Harrison.

The skewed pop-centric approach goes completely off the rails with the brief “Post & Beam,” basically a manic two-minute drum solo in which the sounds are treated with effects, and a bit of bloops (synthesizer or treated guitar) add interest. At first listen, “Post & Beam” seems wholly out of place on Begin the Begone, but once it gives way to the intro of “9,” everything makes some sort of contextual sense.

“9” starts off sounding very much like a sample-happy treat from Japan’s Pizzicato Five, but once it’s joined by Moremen’s chiming guitar, Pries’ rock solid bass, and Clapp’s vocal, it reveals itself as a swell (and slightly transcendent) pop tune. The song’s lyric reflecting amazement at being alive refers to a 2013 car accident that could well have killed both Clapp and wife Pries; happily and amazingly, they were both unhurt.

Clapp’s reverberating piano forms the centerpiece of “Satellite Song,” a soaring melody that seems to lift the band sonically, fading off into the ether (or perhaps the, um, aether tide). It would have served as a fine ending to Begin the Begone. But instead, an acoustic guitar intro (something not found elsewhere on the disc) leads into the real closing track, “Wintergreen.” Here The Orange Peels sound a bit like XTC in their Dukes of Stratosphear guise, yet without the 60s trappings.

For most of The Orange Peels’ career, they’ve allowed four years between album releases. But even though Mystery Lawn Music, the label that Clapp heads, has increased its overall output (and, one would think, Clapp’s workload), they turned out Begin the Begone a mere two years after Sun Moon. That they did so without sacrificing quality is a testament to the group’s deep well of talent, and it bodes well for the future. Now, if they’d just tour widely, all would be right in the world.

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Album Review: Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba — Ba Power

June 16th, 2015

Ask most informed music enthusiasts to cite an example of “world music” from Africa, and one of the first names offered up will likely be Malian guitarist/vocalist Ali Farka Touré. Thanks in large part to Talking Timbuktu, the 1994 album (Touré’s twelfth) released in collaboration with Ry Cooder, the music of the late Touré is the standard by which much world music is measured.

The term itself is more than a bit suspect: in most cases all it really means is music originating from somewhere outside North America and Europe. And that’s a pretty narrow way of looking at things, the same kind of mindset that leads some to refer to certain countries in Africa and elsewhere as “third world.”

The seeds of much that is called American music had their origin in Africa. And that may well be the reason that – labels aside – for Americans, there is often something familiar (on an almost molecular, unconscious level) in music that originates in what was once known as the dark continent.

In any event, when one approaches the music of Malian lute master Bassekou Kouyaté, the sonic touchstones are the preconceived idea of world music, and the international appeal of Ali Farka Touré. Adopting an approach similar to the one used on Talking Timbuktu, the latest album from Kouyaté aims to synthesize a current-day American style (rock) with a homegrown one. The ancient Malian lute known as the ngoni is the “lead” instrument on Ba Power, and Kouyaté’s backing musicians (known as Ngoni Ba) supply more ngoni textures (there are four ngonis played on the album, including one played by son Mamadou Kouyaté that has a bass frequency range) along with percussion, vocals and – on several tracks – drums (Dave Smith from Robert Plant‘s group) and trumpet (Jon Hassel).

In keeping with the rock-leaning aesthetic of Ba Power, the arrangements make use of wah-wah and distortion pedals, effects customarily applied to electric guitar. But they add fascinating textures to the ngoni, and help to root the music in a fashion more accessible to American ears. The bass ngoni – which often doubles the melodic lines of the upper-register instruments – helps lay down a propulsive, solid musical foundation.

When the vocals are present (Koyaté’s wife Amy Sacko), the scales and textures of the voice are clearly rooted in African tradition. Sacko sings [I think] in Bambara, the indigenous language of Mali. (French is the country’s official language, and Ba Power‘s gatefold LP sleeve features English and French lyric translations.) But during the instrumental-only passages, the music is decidedly rock-oriented, albeit interpreted on non-western instruments.

Many of Ba Power‘s nine tracks (all under six minutes) feature extended passages built around a single chord, giving the music a hypnotic effect. The dizzying percussion pushes the music forward constantly, and the guest musicians – most notably trumpeter Hassel and an electric organist – add to the texture without ever calling much attention to themselves.

There are bits of electric guitar on Ba Power, but they’re played by guest musicians and are subtly mixed. So it’s Bassekou Kouyaté’s ngoni-through-pedals that you’ll hear blasting out the opening licks of “Aye Sira Bla” (“Make Way”), which the liner notes explain is a reworking of a traditional praise song. With no Malian frame of reference, it sounds to these Western ears like a pretty hot riff-based tune.

And in the end, it’s that Western musical perspective that most listeners outside of Mali will bring to their enjoyment of Ba Power. It’s exotic, yes, but the album is rooted in just the right amount of rock aesthetic to be a genre-bridging exercise that’s fun to hear, and one suspects it’s not any kind of sellout that would betray the music’s indigenous character.

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Album Review: The Weeklings

June 15th, 2015

Beginning in the early 1980s out of their home base in Charlotte NC, The Spongetones offered up what was then a new and unique concept: new and original songs, written in the style of The Beatles. Though they’d later expand upon their sound and develop a style they could call their own, on early records (most notably the album Beat Music and the Torn Apart EP) The Spongetones cleverly wrote and performed songs that sounded like hidden gems from the Lennon/McCartney songwriting team.

These days The Spongetones gather for the occasional live gig, while their songwriting efforts are manifested in the steady output of two members, Jamie Hoover and Steve Stoeckel; they do business as Jamie & Steve.

So who remains to carry the banner taken up by The Spongetones (and, before them – and to varying degrees — The Bee Gees, Badfinger, Electric Light Orchestra, Klaatu, The Rutles, and for a moment, Utopia)? The answer seems to be The Weeklings.

Featuring (unsurprisingly enough) four guys who unashamedly describe their music as “Beatles-inspired power pop,” The Weeklings have released their twelve-track, self-titled debut. And while as a just-plain-listen it’s quite enjoyable, its contents deserve a bit of unpacking.

The disc kicks off with an original tune, “Little Tease,” that is packed to the breaking point with Beatleisms. Keen listeners will spot chord progressions from “I Saw Her Standing There,” as well as guitar licks and tambourine flourishes that call to mind specific moments in other Beatles tunes. But beyond that, “Little Tease” is a song worthy of the term Beatlesque. From the bop-shoo-wop baking vocals to the way that John “Rocky” Merjave slows down the tail-end of his guitar solo (a la George Harrison), it’s a true gem. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve spun this tune in the last few days. And while it’s not the equal of the infectious opener, “Leave Me With My Pride” is a solid number in the 1964-65 Beatles mold.

From here, things get really interesting. What, you might ask yourself, would it sound like if some songs that have previously existed only as Beatles demos (or versions tackled by other artists) were rendered in true Beatles style? The Weeklings are here to help answer that question. George Harrison’s early solo composition “You Know What to Do” is unique as one of the very few demos showcased on the Anthology series that had not leaked to rabid fans before release of the retrospective sets. Harrison’s solo performance of the tune is pleasant enough, but nothing special beyond its historical value. The Weeklings, however, give the song a full Beatles-style arrangement, and the results do indeed sound a lot like what the Beatles probably would have done with it.

“One and One is Two” was a lesser Lennon-McCartney original quickly written and given away to The Strangers with Mike Shannon. Most people will have never heard the song (nor anything by The Strangers, for that matter). The Weekings’ cover version re-imagines the tune with all the power and nuance of a Beatles version. What previously sounded like a throwaway now sounds like – if not a hit single – a very good album track circa The Beatles’ Second Album.

“I’m in Love” was a Lennon composition, though like everything from the Beatles days, it was credited to both him and Paul. The Fourmost did a decent enough version of it, and for their trouble were rewarded with a respectable #17 showing on the UK charts. (The Fourmosts’s first single, another Lennon/McCartney number called “Hello Little Girl,” reached #9 on the charts, but The Weeklings skipped that one, presumably because the fab four cut their own version at their ill-fated Decca audition.) Hardcore Beatles fans know “I’m in Love” from the poorly recorded informal Lennon demo version. (Aside: my own theory is that Lennon’s demo does not represent a 1963-4 recording; I am convinced that it’s a mid 1970s “self-cover” done as part of the work on the planned – but never completed – musical retrospective he was writing, a project called The Ballad of John & Yoko. But it’s just a theory.) The Weeklings’ version of “I’m in Love” does a good job of taking the tune to its logical proper end as a Beatles tune.

“It’s For You” was first cut by Cilla Black (UK #7, US #79), but it was also covered by Three Dog Night on their 1968 debut (and again on their 1969 Captured Live at the Forum LP). There’s only so much one could be expected to do with this slight number, and while The Weeklings’ version is more interesting than Black’s or Three Dog Night’s readings, it’s still no great shakes.

At this point in the proceedings (the beginning of the so-called “side two” of The Weeklings), the band shifts back to original compositions. “Mona Lisa” sounds like Beatles twice removed, or A Hard Day’s Night-era Beatles filtered through a Raspberries sensibility. In fact, if I told you that “Mona Lisa” was a Raspberries tune (it’s not), you might even believe me. “Come on come on” indeed. Bonus points for a guitar solo that reminds one of The Bobby Fuller Four‘s classic “I Fought the Law.”

“Breathing Underwater,” “If I Was in Love” and the slyly-titled “Oh! Darla” (get it?) showcase the softer, acoustic-leaning and more contemplative takes on The Weeklings’ Beatlesque songwriting. Taken together as a mini-suite, the tunes have the feel of a Spongetones tribute more than a Beatles pastiche.

The Weeklings wraps up with a pair of songs that The Beatles finished in the studio, but held back until Anthology. It’s fairly easy to understand why The Beatles didn’t see fit to release “If You’ve Got Trouble” and “That Means a Lot.” Neither is awful, but both suffer from some weaknesses, structurally and/or lyric-wise.

To their credit, The Weeklings do what they can with “If You’ve Got Trouble.” Taking note of Ringo Starr‘s frustrated plea in the Beatles’ version (“oh, rock on…anybody!”) The Weeklings try to up the ante musically. They achieve this by adding Revolver-era sonics: a bass line straight out of “Rain,” vocal treatments that recall “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and a fistful of cues from “Paperback Writer.” Moreover, they gamely rewrite the lyrics to dial back some of the original’s inanity. And while the overall result is an improvement, it all serves to highlight that, hey, “If You’ve Got Trouble” is basically some pretty weak stuff, Beatlewise.

Lifting the arrangement of “Till There Was You” straight off of Meet the Beatles, The Weeklings interpret “That Means a Lot” through that filter. And while stripping the semi-rock arrangement of The Beatles’ failed attempt is a good idea, we’re still left with one of the least-interesting tunes in the Beatles catalog.

It would be delightful to report that the clever endeavor that is The Weeklings ends on a strong note – something on the par with the exquisite “Little Tease,” or their reading of “One and One is Two” – but that’s not the case. As a project of originals in the style plus very well-thought-out re-imaginings of obscure Beatles material, The Weeklings is a modest success. One or two more cuts in the mold of “One and One is Two” and they might have had a near-classic. Instead it’s merely very good. Which – until the Spongetones decide to create new music, and that is unlikely – is well and good enough.

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Album Review: Buddy Rich — Birdland

June 12th, 2015

There has lately developed a trend of dubious merit. Some legitimate (that is, for-profit) record labels have begun releasing what can only be called bootlegs. Tapes – often recorded by audience members on inexpensive amateur equipment – of live performances are now finding their way into the commercial marketplace. And I say this as an aficionado of ROIOs (recordings of indeterminate/illegitimate origin), but while these recordings certainly deserve a hearing, many of them are of a quality that simply doesn’t justify full list price.

It’s one thing if you’re a hardcore fan of, say, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera, and you’re willing to trade for or (more likely these days) download a collection of their 1968 appearances on BBC radio. And if you’re a rabid follower of Fountains of Wayne, Liz Phair, or John Fogerty, you might be satisfied with hissy, cassette-sourced, unknown-generation copies of (respectively) Pinnwheel, The Girlysound Tapes, or Hoodoo. But if you’re a more casual (read: well-adjusted) admirer of those artists’ works, you’d feel cheated if you spent full retail on any of those titles (if they were legitimately available; at press time, they aren’t). There’s a good argument to be made for bringing rare juvenilia of acclaimed artists into a wide audience; it just needs to be labeled (and priced) as such. Recent “legit” releases of some Captain Beefheart tapes are especially egregious examples of dumping substandard product onto the (virtual) shelves.

Happily, there are exceptions, examples of quite-good recordings that have never seen previous release. And Birdland is just such an exception, the kind that proves the rule. Renowned big-band jazz drummer and bandleader Buddy Rich had a bad haircut and a temper to match it, but in his long heyday, he and his band really, really swung. They swung hard, man.

Sometime between 1977 and 1980 – the liner notes are oddly cagey about both the date and location – one of Rich’s saxophone players (Alan Gauvin) captured some live performance (or performances) on one of those consumer-grade Sony portable AM/FM/cassette players. Gauvin’s only concessions to professional recording techniques were the use of an external stereo mic, and clever (or serendipitous) choice of mic placement. With the recording device set up right in front of the sax section, Gauvin ended up with some recordings of surprisingly high fidelity, and a balance that couldn’t have been greatly improved upon with a pro setup. As time went on, he upgraded the recording device used, the microphone(s) and the mic placement.

That tape (or those tapes; again the specific provenance of the eleven cuts on Birdland is unclear) has been subjected to some very minor post-production cleanup – probably the judicious removal of a layer of tape hiss – and the resulting collection is a highly listenable document of Rich’s late 70s band.

Buddy Rich occupied an odd place on the musical landscape. While his chosen genre of big band music had fallen all but completely out of style by the 1960s, he pivoted in a way that – somehow – kept him and his band relevant. Pick up most any Buddy Rich LP from the mid 1960s onward, and you’re likely to recognize many of the song titles. The Doors‘ “Hello, I Love You,” Bobbie Gentry‘s “Ode to Billie Joe,” and a medley of tunes from The Who‘s Tommy are highlights of those records. To say that Rich had a canny pop sensibility is no stretch. While his band’s set lists provided a number of classics loved by an older generation, Buddy Rich was always a pretty hip dude. And his selection of material showed it. The percussionist once known as Traps the Drum Wonder was about sixty years of age when Birdland was recorded; Rich was a pretty tuned-in sixty-year-old.

The title track of this new collection is a case in point. Weather Report were enjoying the crossover success (and Grammy nomination) of “Birdland,” a track off their 1977 Heavy Weather LP. Rich took notice and added the number to his band’s set list. With all the energy and swing-ness of the original intact, Rich and his band tear through the song, allowing showcases by individual soloists.

Other tracks veer between brassy showstoppers like “Moments Notice,” a slower, romantic reading of “God Bless the Child,” and the surprisingly funky “Three Day Sucker.” Assuming – in the absence of tangible evidence to the contrary – that Birdland represents a single concert, Rich and band constantly change up the tempo, with a barnburner followed by a sweet melody. It’s alternately a thrill ride and a lovely listen. But one thing it never is, is dull. While 2014′s Buddy Rich archival release The Solos is by its very nature an item of specialist interest (hey, I love it), Birdland deserves to be heard by anyone who appreciates Buddy Rich’s big band style. And if it’s not your thing, maybe give it a try anyway; you might just be surprised. To quote the title of a song long associated with the man (the tune is included as the closer on this set), Buddy Rich always strove to “Keep the Customer Satisfied.”

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Album Reviews: Four MPS Jazz Reissues

June 11th, 2015

MPS is the highly revered label headed by Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer and several associates. Founded in the mid 1960s, MPS became home for many highly-regarded jazz musicians. Between 1966 and 1983, MPS released more than 400 albums. Many of these are out of print today, and ownership of the MPS catalog has changed hands several times since the label ceased operation. In 2014, German independent entertainment conglomerate Edel obtained the rights to MPS titles, and under the Kultur Spiegel banner, began a program of reissues. I’ve provided brief reviews of two of these already; today I take a look at four more newly-reissued jazz titles from MPS.


Monty Alexander – Rass!
Rass! was the fourth album from this Jamaican pianist who’s often described as a follower of Oscar Peterson‘s style. But on this 1974 disc, Alexander favors the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Joined by two electric guitarists, an electric bassist, and three percussionists, he leads the band on a tuneful outing that’s both low-key and intriguing. Rass! could be considered a forerunner of the dreaded smooth jazz era (think of “Theme from Taxi,” for example), but taken on its own terms, it’s quite good. Ernest Ranglin‘s busy, inventive guitar work is a highlight of the disc. Alexander remains musically active today.


Joe Henderson – Mirror, Mirror
On this 1980 album, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson shares billing with keyboard ace Chick Corea, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Billy Higgins. Though he released nearly three dozen albums as a leader, Mirror, Mirror is his only MPS release. Like all MPS titles, it’s flawlessly recorded, but there’s an especially warm and intimate vibe to this session. It’s an all-acoustic session, which might be an example of backing away from the more aggressive electric fusion sounds of the previous decade. In particular, Corea’s piano positively sparkles, adopting a Bill Evans-like approach to melody. Carter’s “Keystone” is the most uptempo number.


Sun Ra and His Intergalactic Research Orchestra – It’s After the End of the World
There’s no such thing as a truly accessible Sun Ra album; his outsider approach to jazz meant that his releases never fit comfortably into the genre. This 1970 live album does nothing to change that impression; in that year Sun Ra released two other live albums, and three studio records. His musical trademarks – atonal melodies, “snorking” saxophones, bizarrely chanted vocals, electronic distortion – are all present in varying degrees. This set is most assuredly not for the faint-hearted, but it’s recommended to those with an ear for Sun Ra’s otherworldly brand of musical exploration. Don’t say you weren’t warned.


Patrick Williams Orchestra – Come On and Shine
In retrospect, this 1977 disc is something of an all-star affair. Everybody’s favorite bass player Tony Levin joins guitarist Steve Khan, harmonica star Toots Thielemans, and keyboardist Dave Grusin. A crack horn section is on hand as well. But the resulting album isn’t exactly jazz; funky disco might be a more accurate description. And in those moments when it’s not discofied, the tunes on Come on and Shine sounds like TV or movie theme music (there’s even some Shaft-esque guitar work amid the Love Boat-style horn charts and syrupy strings). Jazz purists will be horrified by the unabashedly commercial arrangements.

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Album Review: Wes Montgomery — The Classic Recordings 1958-1960

June 10th, 2015

The world’s a much smaller place today than it was a quarter century ago. When I frequented record stores – even once the CD era began – import albums were pricey. They simply weren’t in the budget of the average music consumer in the United States. Things are very different now, thanks in no small part to international retailers like Amazon. American consumers can purchase albums that were heretofore available only in Europe, for example, and have them delivered for retail price plus little more than what they would pay for domestic shipping.

In practical terms, this means that American music buyers can take advantage of the more relaxed licensing/royalty terms that record labels in Europe and the UK enjoy. Licensing a set of eight albums for sale domestically would be an expensive proposition for an American label, and when it comes to jazz – sadly now something of a specialist genre – the costs often outweigh the potential revenue. (How this arrangement affects the original artist and/or their estates is an entirely separate discussion.)

In any event, it’s those modest licensing costs that allow labels to compile and market a set such as Wes Montgomery: The Classic Recordings 1958-1960. (It retails for less than $15!) Jazz guitar pioneer Wes Montgomery burst on the scene at the tail-end of the 1950s, releasing no less than twelve discs for Riverside. (He then left for Verve, and then A&M, before passing away prematurely in 1968 at the age of 45.) Prior to his solo career, he had begun recording as part of The Montgomery Brothers with siblings Buddy and Monk; they would appear on nine LPs between 1955 and 1961. And during that period, Montgomery was also the featured guitarist on albums by The Mastersounds, Jon Hendricks, Cannonball Adderley and other jazz artists.

The Classic Recordings 1958-1960 picks through that vast and varied catalog and compiles eight of those albums onto a 4CD collection. Leaning toward the lesser-known (and harder-to-locate) titles from that era, the set offers a solid survey of the earliest officially-released material in the guitarist’s career. (There are also now some modern-day collections of previously unreleased Montgomery material: Echoes of Indiana Avenue and In the Beginning are essential purchases for the Montgomery fan.)

Here’s a rundown of which albums (originally released on an assortment of labels including Fantasy, World Pacific, Pacific Jazz, and Riverside) are included in the set (all credited to Wes Montgomery unless otherwise noted):

  • The Montgomery Brothers Plus Five Others (1957)
  • The Montgomery Brothers’ Montgomeryland (1958)
  • The Mastersounds’ Kismet (1958)
  • The Wes Montgomery Trio (1959)
  • Jon Hendricks’ A Good Git-Together (1959)
  • The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960)
  • Movin’ Along (1960)
  • The Montgomery Brothers (1961)

Even on his early sessions, Montgomery was a serious player, surrounded by other serious players. The Montgomery Brothers material showcases the talents of Buddy and Monk (on piano and electric bass respectively) while giving plenty of space for Wes to burn up the fretboard with his assured, smooth-as-butter guitar work. On the Mastersounds record, Wes’ presence is so subtle that he’s barely noticeable (which is not to suggest that the music is not good). The Five Others material expands the instrumental focus to include sax, vibes and more, and is solid, upbeat bop.

Montgomery gets to solo often on the vocal-centric Hendricks album – the singer is reminiscent of Louis Prima crossed with Louis Jordan – but he’s far from the central musical focus of those tunes. Once Wes starts fronting his own trio, the guitar becomes the centerpiece of the music. The production style is also a good bit more up-front and live feeling; Montgomery’s crystalline playing benefits from the change. Montgomery originals fit nicely among the guitarist’s reading of standards. Drummer Paul Parker‘s subtle brush work and tasty Hammond organ from Melvin Rhyne make the trio sides even more appealing. The Trio and solo sides alone are more than worth the modest price of this 4CD set.

Listeners should note that the records’ chronological release sequence is not followed on the 4CD set, though the CDs do feature two albums per disc.

A reasonably detailed (but uncredited) liner note essay helps put the recordings into their historical context. There’s no detail or information regarding remastering (if any), and the provenance of the recordings on this set – needle drops? CD? Master tapes? – is also unknown. The last is unlikely, but the sound quality seems to eliminate the first possibility as well (surface noise can be heard on the Kismet material). Simply put, the fidelity will be just fine to most ears.

Note: Those who would enjoy this set should also take note that the same reissue label has released a second set covering the period 1960-62. It’s a 4CD set as well, and features eight albums that – again – were originally released as Montgomery solo records, Montgomery Brothers albums, and discs by other artists but featuring the guitarist.

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Wes Montgomery’s ‘In the Beginning’ from Resonance Records (Part 2)

June 9th, 2015

Continued from Part One

At right: Recording rehearsal. David Baker, David Young, Dr. Larry Ridley, Wes Montgomery. Photograph by Duncan Schiedt.

And still there’s more: shortly before his 2014 passing, famed Indianapolis photojournalist Duncan Schiedt contacted Resonance’s Zev Feldman to share news that he had a 1959 recording of Wes Montgomery with the Eddie Higgins Trio. That recording dates from “just before Wes was signed to Riverside,” Feldman says, clearly excited at the prospect of yet more rare and vintage Montgomery. Plans are in development to release those sessions later this year. “and there’s other stuff out there, too,” beams Feldman. “Resonance Records is turning into ‘the house that Montgomery built,’ and we’re really grateful to the family; they’ve been very kind and supportive. Especially Robert Montgomery, Wes’ son.”

The In the Beginning set features more than just those seventeen tracks. “Based on a tip, we discovered a recording session that was in the Sony music archives; Sony didn’t even know about it.” That 1955 session featured five tracks produced by Quincy Jones, likely for use as a demo.

The Montgomery-Johnson Quintet at The Turf Club, Indianapolis. L to R: Sonny Johnson, Monk Montgomery (hidden), Pookie Johnson, Wes Montgomery, Buddy Montgomery. The Turf Club, Indianapolis, circa mid-1950s. Photograph by Philip Kahl. Courtesy of the Buddy Montgomery estate.

The album offers up even more rarities. A 1957 recording from the C&C Music Lounge in Chicago documents an extended workout of Jerome Kern‘s “All The Things You Are,” and features fiery fretwork from the guitarist. “I communicate with a lot of jazz fans,” Feldman says. “Sometimes those people are tape collectors. I had told this gentleman that I know about the Wes Montgomery project I was working on. And he said to me, ‘Hey, I’ve got a tape. It’s only one track, and it’s from a long time ago.’ He made me swear up and down – and his attorney, too, for that matter! – that I would never reveal his name. And I’ve respect that, because we knew this was an important recording.” Feldman gives great credit to Resonance owner George Klabin for providing the resources for Feldman to go on the hunt for these rare recordings.

“This project started as the Philip Kahl recordings,” observes Feldman.” But it evolved into this early years anthology.” Whenever he thought he’d unearthed all there was to find, he says he’d ask, “What else is there!?”

At left: “King Trotter,” Original 78 RPM Record. Courtesy of Jacques Morgantini.

That approach yielded yet another set of rare Montgomery recordings to round out the 2CD set. Three tracks cut in 1949 at Spire Records in Fresno CA display Montgomery and band seething with musical energy. “King Trotter” may be the earliest recording of Montgomery taking a solo. Another highlight of those tapes is “Smooth Evening,” during which Montgomery duplicates Sonny Parker‘s scat vocal. The original records are so rare that United States Library of Congress doesn’t even have copies.

As important and wonderful as the music is, a big part of what makes In the Beginning such a special package is the treasure trove of images, essays and interviews. Feldman even managed to get Montgomery fan Pete Townshend to pen an essay for the booklet. “I grew up listening to rock music like The Who,” Feldman recalls. “My parents played jazz in the house. It was really about musicianship, and soloing, and the expression of ideas. And I had always been in awe of Pete Townshend’s guitar style; he reminds me of a jazz musician.” Feldman enjoyed a Townshend collection released back in 1983, a 2LP set called Scoop. That record included a jazzy instrumental titled “For Barney Kessel.” “So,” recalls Feldman, “I thought, ‘I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet Pete is a fan of Wes Montgomery, too.” He reached out to Townshend, who was glad to write the essay for In the Beginning in which he relates the story of listening with his dad to an early Montgomery stereo pressing.

Resonance has quite a few upcoming projects of note, including previously unheard recordings featuring organist Larry Young. “Jimmy Smith may have taken the organ out of the church,” Feldman says, “but Larry Young was the one who took it out of this world.” That set of tapes from a French radio archive will be released in late 2015 or early 2016. The label also has plans for release of an series of unheard collaborations between Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto; a set of Thad Jones/Mel Lewis recordings; and some previously-unreleased live recordings of Jaco Pastorius, Sarah Vaughan and others that Feldman isn’t quite ready yet to reveal.

With projects such as these and In the Beginning, Feldman, Klabin and everyone at Resonance are clearly on a mission. “We’re very lucky,” says Feldman. “At the end of the day, we do the best job possible. But we operate differently: our whole function is trying to preserve this music. And I’ve gotta tell you: I’m having fun doing it.”

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Wes Montgomery’s ‘In the Beginning’ from Resonance Records (Part 1)

June 8th, 2015

Resonance Records is not your typical record label. While they do release a steady stream of solid new music from today’s jazz artists, that’s not what makes them truly special. Their tireless and thorough efforts behind the scenes to bring previously-unheard music to modern-day listeners is their most important mission, and it’s one of historic proportions. And what’s more, they truly do it for the love of the music first, with return on investment put in its place as a lesser priority. In fact, Resonance is part of the Rising Jazz Stars Foundation, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.

One of the label’s earliest releases was 2012′s superb Echoes of Indiana Avenue, a collection of previously unreleased recordings documenting the early years of jazz guitar great Wes Montgomery. Not long after that, they released an equally remarkable Bill Evans Trio live set, and more recently their John Coltrane album, Offering: Live at Temple University, earned liner notes essayist Ashley Kahn a Grammy award.

But it seems that with all of those projects, Resonance was just warming up. The latest historical album from the label is another Wes Montgomery collection, In the Beginning: Early Recordings from 1948 – 1958. Compiling recordings from a wide array of sources, the 2CD set documents a period of the guitarist’s history that has been largely unheard until now.

The Turf Club, Indianapolis, circa mid-1950s. Photograph by Philip Kahl. Courtesy of the Buddy Montgomery estate.

The Wes Montgomery recordings that make up the first 17 tracks on In the Beginning were originally recorded by a 22-year-old Butler University student named Philip Kahl. The Montgomery family had copies of these, which they first played back for Resonance producer Zev Feldman during the early stages of the Echoes of Indiana Avenue project. Montgomery’s son Robert, who heads the family’s estate, introduced Feldman to pianist Buddy Montgomery‘s widow Ann; she had something she wanted Feldman to hear. “She had tapes from Philip Kahl,” recalls Feldman. He says that many years earlier, “Kahl had apparently circulated copies of his tape among friends, and they had had copies. For years!” Those tapes included audio from three different Indianapolis venues: The Turf Club (a segregated music lounge), The Missile Lounge (“where Cannonball Adderley discovered Wes,” notes Feldman), and a jam session recorded at the home of Montgomery’s sister Ervina.

At left: The Turf Club ad for The Montgomery-Johnson Quintet, circa mid-1950s. Courtesy of Duncan Schiedt.

“We listened to it,” says Feldman. “And I knew right away, and I said, ‘this has got to be the Holy Grail for Wes Montgomery fans!’ Because you could have only dreamed about stuff from that era. Of course we knew he had played during those years, but no one had any documentation.” The family asked if Resonance would want to release it. But to get the best possible sound quality, Feldman really wanted to locate the original tapes, not merely dubs of unknown generation. “It’s detective work,” Feldman observes. “Sometimes, all you have is a name and Google.” Feldman found the family, and learned that Kahl had passed away recently. But they had the tape reels, and an arrangement was made to allow the release of those sessions. “I made a day trip and drove to Arizona, got the reels, and brought them back to L.A. Then we did a 96/24 transfer from the tapes.”

The recordings were in surprisingly good shape. “You can only do so much,” says Feldman. “These were amateur recordings made on Nagra or Wollensak tape machines. What you hear is what you get. And not only did [Kahl] make recordings, but he took photographs!” Several of those are featured in In the Beginning‘s 56-page booklet.

Feldman notes that “When Wes passed in 1968, Creed Taylor put out that [posthumous Montgomery] album on Verve, Willow Weep for Me. And that was all table scraps.” And when Montgomery’s albums were reissued on CD, the vaults were raided for whatever remaining outtakes existed. So the discovery and of these tapes is a significant event. “And here we are in 2015,” Feldman teases, “and we’re working on releasing even more!” As it turns out, Feldman’s detective work has unearthed the source tapes of the Echoes of Indiana Avenue release, and he says that the tapes contain “another two CDs worth of releasable music.”

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McQueen’s Pop Culture Mix of Music, Comedy and Multimedia

June 5th, 2015

“Is it comedy?” asks McQueen rhetorically. “Is it music? Is it the weird hybrid cousin of both who is 32 and still sits at the kids’ table during holidays?” The answer to all of those questions is most likely yes. Live dates in cities across the eastern USA in May and June will give audiences the opportunity to decide for themselves (McQueen played Asheville NC on May 21).

Performances by McQueen (Adams) draw deeply on today’s pop culture, and as a result, his humor resonates best with those who have at least a working knowledge of what’s currently popular; put another way, he probably wouldn’t play well in front of an Amish crowd in Lancaster PA. “When I was in the UK workshopping the show I had some ups and downs the first week,” he admits, with a hint of frustration. “Who doesn’t know who Conan O’Brien is? So you run into things going over someone’s head.” But such incidents are the exception, not the rule. “With the constant information we have access to,” McQueen says, “audiences are well-versed” in the pop culture references at the core of his show.

That show incorporates projected visuals, live music performance, and vocal impressions. In both concept and execution, a McQueen performance is consistent with the ethos of sampling. He takes content from a variety of disparate sources, and reprocesses them through his own sensibility, creating something new and unique yet oddly familiar in the process. McQueen describes what he does as combining “parts of movies, songs, and moments [into] a soundtrack for scenarios that didn’t exist and giving them life. He explains, “This show is a culmination of finding a balance of my love of music and my offbeat humor.” And the friends with whom he collaborates in developing the material are “musicians, not comics,” he points out.

Even though it’s more or less a solo performance (“I have a lot of interaction with the fox,” says McQueen cryptically), the show is interactive, involving the audience. “Trial and error is this show’s best friend,” he admits. “Technology is a testy bitch; sometimes you are going to have mishaps, and sometimes it’s spotless.” Further, he notes that the audience is transfixed on the screen, “so I can definitely hide out during the show” if needed. The show’s elements of the unknown are an asset, not a liability. “I think the ability to improvise and move on the fly is what makes this show what it is,” he says.

The limited amount of traditional storyboarding and choreography means that there is plenty of space in a McQueen show for spontaneity. “It’s a constant evolution,” he says. “It’s a lot like songwriting. I work on a piece and I always want to add to it.” He admits that while parts of the show are loosely scripted, it’s “also is heavy on improvisation.” He laughs, “Like a guitar solo that goes ten minutes too long.”

For those who still wonder what a McQueen show is like – it’s definitely not traditional brick wall and bar stool stand-up, and it’s not exactly a concert – he offers a pop culture point of reference. “It’s been compared to watching Adult Swim Live.” He says that reviews of his shows in England sometimes likened him to The Mighty Boosh, “but I think that was out of how different the show is.” McQueen has an ace in the hole for making sure that his audiences don’t get too lost among the media culture references. “That’s why I have a cat in my show: everyone knows what a cat is.”

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Album Review: The Complete Stax Soul Singles Vol 3: 1972-1975

June 4th, 2015

Nearly a quarter century ago (April 30, 1991 to be exact), a lavish, 9CD set called The Complete Stax/Volt Singles: 1959-1968 was released. Housed in a large box and featuring liner notes in book form, the set provided a handy (and nearly exhaustive) chronicle of the Memphis label’s output from its beginnings up through the end of its association with Atlantic Records. Nearly 250 tracks showcased some of the best-loved (and important) sides from a long list of names familiar to any self-respecting pop music fan: Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Sam & Dave, Booker T & the MGs, and so on. Many lesser names were featured as well, of course, and the overall quality standard of music was impressive.

Nearly two and a half years later (September 1993), a follow-up set appeared. The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles: 1968-1971 focused on the beginning of Stax’s post-Atlantic era, a period during which Stax was still in its ascendancy. Originally housed in a large box and featuring an LP-sleeve sized booklet (again with liner notes from Stax chronicler Rob Bowman), the set was reissued in 2014 in a smaller format. The 2014 edition housed the CDs in slim cardboard sleeves instead of jewel boxes, and reduced the booklet (and its set type) to CD dimensions as well.

In 1994 the project was completed, with the release of The Complete Stax-Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 3: 1972-1975. Covering the final years of the original Stax label, this third volume showcases music from the period when Stax declined, faltered, and finally succumbed. Bowman’s liner notes provide the concurrent narratives of the music and the label’s demise.

Like the second volume, Vol. 3 has now been reissued in a smaller format. And while it’s undeniable that the material on this third entry (spanning ten discs) is not the equal of the earlier sets, that’s an unreasonable standard. By 1972, Stax was already beginning to suffer business problems, most specifically with regard to distribution. Bowman’s liner notes detail the label’s arrangement with CBS, one that – at least on the Memphis end – gave reasons for optimism. But it was not to be. And in the wake of Stax’s blossoming difficulties, many of its star acts would leave.

As a result, the music on Vol. 3 features quite a few names that will be unfamiliar to all but the most ardent southern soul aficionados. But that doesn’t mean the music’s not good; on the contrary, in one sense listeners might find that The Complete Stax-Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 3: 1972-1975 features some of the best soul music they’ve never heard before.

Edited down to single-length, Isaac HayesShaft Soundtrack cut “Do Your Thing” is a scorcher. The Dramatics‘ sweeping classic “In the Rain” is a thing of beauty. And there are a number of such well-known sides found on Vol. 3. In addition to late-period classic sides from Rufus Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, and the Bar-Kays, Vol. 3 serves up a number of lesser-known treasures from The Soul Children, The Mad Lads, David Porter, Mel & Tim, and countless others. It’s not unreasonable to assume that if Stax hadn’t suffered its distribution woes, several of the relatively obscure singles collected on Vol. 3 might have stormed the charts.

But that didn’t happen. While there are quite a few charting hits among the hundreds of tunes in this box (213 songs, to be exact), most died a quiet death in the marketplace. And as Bowman’s liner notes explain, several album projects initiated while Stax was in its death throes never got completed; there’s some question as to whether some of the late-late period material (from discs 9 and 10) ever saw official release. It’s likely that even if those songs were officially released, boxes of records languished in a CBS warehouse somewhere.

One exceedingly small quibble I’ve encountered with regard to all three Stax/Volt box sets is that they’re not – strictly speaking – “complete.” The b-sides are almost never included. And by limiting the set to soul, music from other genres (rock, gospel, and so on) from Stax and its associated labels (Volt, Enterprise, Respect, We Produce, and Truth) is not included. I’ll concede those arguments and argue that even without the other material, Vol. 3 remains a stone cold classic. Forget that the lion’s share of this music didn’t chart; forget that a lot of it was made by supposedly second-tier artists. Forget all that, take the music for what it is, and you’re all but guaranteed countless hours of listening pleasure.

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