Friday, December 28, 2012

The Major Works of John Coltrane

Admittedly a strange title considering the great tenor saxophonist had so many other "major works," the two-disc The Major Works of John Coltrane was issued by GRP Records in 1992 with a fascinating selection of recordings made between late June and mid October 1965, when Trane pushed beyond the modal framework that yielded such classic records as A Love Supreme and Crescent and took his music into a freer, more experimental direction.

The epitome of this was the mindblowing Ascension, which was recorded in two takes on 28 June with his classic quartet of McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums) and added seven other musicians, including tenor sax players Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders, altoists John Tchicai and Marion Brown, trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Dewey Johnson and bassist Art Davis.  The first, slightly shorter at 38 1/2 minutes, version, called Edition I, was released first, before Coltrane, insisting that the other take, marked as Edition II and lasting two minutes longer, was the master and so a reissue had to be undertaken.

Clearly influenced by Ornette Coleman's 1960 epic, Free Jazz, Coltrane presented his musicians with very little in the form of a head arrangement or instruction, preferring those assembled to work together to develop the piece, although there was a preestablished order of soloists that varied between the two editions.  As Brown expressed it in a quote in the liners: "Spontaneity was the thing.  Trane had obviously thought a lot about what he wanted to do, but he wrote most of it out in the studio."  Shepp commented that "the emphasis was on textures rather than the making of an organizational unity" or, rather, that there was unity, but of the texture and sound, not the structure.

The musicians were an interesting mix, with some like Shepp, Tchicai (an Afro-Dane who was relatively new in America, but had honed his craft in his native Denmark) and Sanders representing the so-called "New Thing" of experimenting musicians working in the "free" realm, while Hubbard and Davis had a more mainstream background.  Brown and Johnson were largely unknown.  And, of course, there were the three stalwarts that had performed with Coltrane for some three years with it being notable that there was not a second drummer brought in because of Jones' remarkable polyrhythmic abilities.

Ascension proved to be an apt title as the music rose in power and intensity throughout the piece, not just for the listener, but also for the musicians, as Brown remarked that "they both [the editions] had that kind of thing in them that makes people scream.  The people who were in the studio were screaming.  I don't know how the engineers kept the screams out of the record."  Now, for some listeners not attuned to freer music, the cacophony is likely enough to send them screaming out of the room or scrambling to hit "stop" on their player.

But, for those who enjoy experimental "free jazz," this can be a profoundly moving record, both in the dense ensemble sound, but the soloing, as well.  Shepp has the coruscating earthy tone, Sanders the screaming upper-register blasting, the leader playing in all manner of sound and texture, Tyner keeping things grounded as much as possible with his somewhat out-of-place piano, Hubbard hitting the high notes with a clear-toned trumpet, and Davis and Garrison using the different bowed and plucked aspects of the double bass, while Jones tries mightily to employ all the rhythmic wizardry he can with the intensity and variety in the room.

As was noted in an earlier post about Albert Ayler's music, the best way to listen to this music may be to follow the sounds and textures Shepp emphasized, rather than to intellectualize the structure.  In this sense, Ascension can be a powerful experience.

Probably the same listening advice can be given to the 29-minute Om, although that recording, done in suburban Seattle on 1 October, and released in 1967, has been accorded far less attention than Ascension.  It is far stranger and denser than the other and was put to tape while Coltrane and his quartet were on the road with two other musicians, including Donald Garrett on the bass clarinet, although on the recording he plays the bass, and Sanders on tenor.  For the recording of Om, flutist Joe Brazil was added. 

There was a more pronounced and experiemental nod to India here than the perhaps superficial use of scalar patterns used in India in the recordings at the Village Vanguard in late 1961.   Then again, Coltrane's music was delving deeper into broad religious contexts from A Love Supreme to Meditations, which was recorded almost two months after Om.  Indeed, a vocalization appears here, as well, as the leader and others (Sanders, perhaps) recite the phrase "Om mani padme hum," a Buddhist mantra with many meanings, although the liners choose, "Om, the jewel, is in the lotus, amen." 

It should be pointed out that the term "Om" has significance to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, so that it is a mystical sound in each and is used before and after reciting Hindu texts.  In the Jain religion, the term refers to the five-fold hierarchy of beings, including teachers, awakened beings, and liberated souls.

Regardless of the esoteric doctrinal applications of the phrase, the music in Om is primal, with animal sounds frequently issuing forth from the instruments, powerful with an even denser, cacophonous and intense wall of sound than that found in Ascension, though some of this is attributable to the studio and engineering, as the latter was recorded in the Rudy Van Gelder studio where the epitome of engineering expertise was to be found as opposed to the more pedestrian Camelot Studio in Lynwood, Washington, where Om was recorded.

Much has also been made of the possible (or likely?) influence of LSD at the Om session and it would certainly be easy to listen to the noises pouring forth from the speaker and conclude that the use of the drug was a guide to its otherwordly sound.  There is likely no way to know whether the stories are true and it may not matter.  Om, even with Ascension as an immediate precedent, has been a source of puzzlement and even derision unlike anything else in Coltrane's catalog, but this listener finds it fascinating.

The same applies to Kulu Se Mama, which was recorded in Los Angeles just about two weeks after Om.  There, while the Coltrane band was playing at the famed It Club, the leader met Juno Lewis, who hailed from New Orleans and who composed this piece which had vocals based on a poem Lewis said was in an Afro-Creole dialect called "Entobes."  Whatever validity there is in Lewis' stated associations, his voice and playing of various African derived percussion instruments, and Garrett's more prominent use of bass clarinet add new dimensions to Coltrane's evolving sound.  Kulu Se Mama has, over its 19 minute length, moments of exoticism that make for an interesting comparison to the earlier example of Africa from Trane's first Impulse! album in 1961.

In contrast to the other recordings on this set, Selflessness has more of the "traditional" compositional elements from Coltrane's earlier work, suffused, though, with the heavier textures brought in by the additional musicians and, most notably, by Sanders' intensely personal explorations of the upper reaches of the tenor's higher register, something he would bring to the fore in Meditations and the Live in Japan recordings later.  The 15-minute piece was released originally with tracks from a 1963 Newport Jazz Festival recording and probably seemed more in-place with that live performance than with the wild, restive recordings of a far more experimental Coltrane in mid-to-late 1965.

In any case, The Major Works of John Coltrane is a title that would raise the hackles of those who can argue, with some reason, that this term applies more to A Love Supreme, Crescent, Giant Steps, Blue Trane or My Favorite Things.  But, with the powerful and transportive Ascension at the helm and some curious, but compelling, works in Om and Kulu Se Mama, it is a very interesting set, using the CD technology to advantage for its long-form works, that has been played often in the twenty years since YHB picked it up.

The Major Works of John Coltrane (Impulse! GRP, 1992)

Disc One:

1.  Ascension (Edition I)  38:37
2.  Om  28:49

Disc Two:

1.  Ascension (Edition II)  40:31
2.  Kulu Se Mama  18:57
3.  Selflessnes  15:09

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Bill Laswell and Pete Namlook: Psychonavigation

The German ambient electronica wizard, Pete Namlook (Kuhlmann), died unexpectedly last month at the very young age of 51.  A prolific creator of space-imbued music and proprietor of the notable FAX label, Namlook also had a number of collaborative projects over the years.  This blogger's exposure to Namlook's music came through his extensive work with the polymath Bill Laswell in two five-part series, Outland and Psychonavigation, with one appearing to refer to the external (space) and other internal (psychology)?

Both projects commenced about the same time in the mid-1990s when the ambient scene, perhaps, had peaked and continued well into the 2000s and YHB has three volumes of Outland and all five of Psychonavigation, with any of the ten albums being somewhat difficult to find.

In any case, they are fascinating excursions into the far reaches of ambient electronica and the first introduction of this listener came with the initial offering in the Psychonavigation series, released in 1995 on the Subharmonic label, which issued a great deal of Laswell's music at the time. 

This edition, unfortunately, came out on a special interactive disc that was probably a forward-thinking idea at the time (the front cover has "IBM" on it!) featuring interactive computer data generated by the Interactive Multimedia Corporation which consisted of "fractints" or visuals which took Laswell's bass lines and created onscreen visual patterns.  Because the technology has long been outdated, those visuals are not able to be opened, at least not on any format this blogger has had since acquiring the disc several years ago.  Of course, with Windows Media Player you could get different accompanying visuals anyway, if anyone decided those would be of interest.

There are three long tracks that span from ten to just under forty minutes that are true evocations of space-minded and experimental ambient electronic music with washes of sound, rumbling bass tones (these best appreciated with speakers that have a good bottom end delivery), trippy samples and so on.  Laswell also has worked on a number of collaborative ambient projects, as well, with Mick Harris, Tetsu Inoue, his multi-volume Divination project, and a two-volume ambient compendium through the fantastic Axiom label he ran through Island Records, but his work with Namlook is very impressive because of the great contributions of his late co-creator.

The longest track is the more enjoyable and diverse, this being the aptly-titled "Psychic and UFO Revelations in the Last Days," and it is probably safe to assume that there is plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor in these bizarre, but fascinating, excursions into the outer limits of sound and music.  This extended 38:47 piece really does call out for a mindset of traveling.

The other two pieces "Angel Tech" and "Black Dawn" are also interesting pieces and also filled with trademark Namlook touches, as well as the kind of contributions expected from Laswell's many ambient projects in the Nineties. 

The last of the released collaborations between these two amazing artists came out in the mid-2000s and all are worth exploring if this is the kind of explorations of sound that are of interest.  Psychonavigation is a great place to start for those looking to dabble into the music, though Outland 2 is also highly recommended and will be featured here in the future.

Bill Laswell/Pete Namlook: Psychonavigation (Subharmonic, 1995)

1.  Psychic and UFO Revelations in the Last Days  38:47
2.  Angel Tech  10:18
3.  Black Dawn  21:18

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Henry Cowell: Piano Music

This fascinating and utterly individualistic recording of composer Henry Cowell (1897-1965) performing piano pieces was issued originally in 1963 and then in a 1993 CD edition under the Smithsonian/Folkways label and features nineteen works and a 13-minute commentary by the composer.

The pieces are short, ranging from just under a minute to one that is less than four-and-a-half minutes in length.  They feature Cowell's use of "tone clusters," in which the palm, side of the hand, and forearm are used to play tonal groups of from three to twelve adjacent notes for unusual effect, sometimes a cluster is formed and keys pressed and then another key is pressed silently and then the cluster is released, creating a stunning ring-like sound.  He first received attention for this technique on a tour of Europe in 1923, but finished a book on what has been called "dissonant secundal technique" four years before that, when only 22 years old.  This challenged the primacy of intervals in thirds.

Another favored technique is what Cowell called "string piano," in which he strummed, plucked or used objects directly on the soundboard's strings and held down keys silently while strumming and then depressing the key for that ringing sound mentioned above, but with a different tone.

In 1929, Cowell published New Musical Resources, in which he explained his novel theories and his concept of overtones played above the usual pitch in the piano, this being displayed most notably in the aptly-titled "Sinister Resonance" conjoined with "The Aeolian Harp," which employs the ringing from the tone clusters mentioned earlier.  He also explored ways to sustain multiple rhythms simultaneously and it should not be surprising that he worked with Leon Theremin, namesake of that infamous "instrument," on electromechanical sound production.

Cowell also was deeply steeped in modal concepts from Asia and was barely in his teens when he became familiar with religious modal music from an organist in San Francisco.  Raised without any real exposure to "classical" music directly, the composer did have much experience with Irish and American folk music through his parents and the music of Chinese families living around him.  He later studied the music of China, India, Indonesia and Japan, as well as "traditional classical" forms, but only after he had rigorously created his own independent and idiosyncratic approach to composition.

It is especially interesting to hear Cowell, in his unusual patterns of speech, discuss the works on the recording, dating as far back as the first piece, "The Tides of Manaunaun," which he composed at age 14.  Most striking in its daring and dissonance is the self-explanatory "The Banshee," in which the composer stood at the end of the piano and had someone sitting at the keyboard to press the damper pedal while Cowell rubbed lengthwise and then played pizzicato on the strings in two distinct themes.  The wail of the banshee is depicted vividly in his manner of writing and playing the tune.

All the songs on Piano Music date to 1928 or before. but were recorded in the early 1960s.  In the interim, Cowell, who was bisexual, was arrested, convicted and sentenced to a staggering 14 years on a "morals" charge involving a relationship with another man.  He wound up serving 4 years at San Quentin, where he immersed himself in musical activity of all sorts, was released in 1940 and pardoned two years later. 

By all accounts, however, the harrowing experience changed him and his music dramatically and his political and music radicalism essentially ended, though thematically Asian concepts and inspirations still animated his work.  By the time he recorded this album in 1963, though, Cowell had become more experimental in his work again, a reflection of social and musical changes perhaps that encouraged him, though the composer died in 1965 at age 68.

Piano Music is a great opportunity to hear a true original performing, and explaining, his works in a way not often presented and the Smithsonian/Folkways project of the Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies for the Smithsonian Institution (which also produced the important 1959 John Cage/David Tudor recording Indeterminacy) has provided a great service in issuing this great recording.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Live: Ravi Shankar at the Monterey International Pop Festival

Yesterday, while using an Amazon gift card to acquire several CDs, including Ravi Shankar's 1968 album, The Sounds of India, a quick glance at the news found that the 92-year old sitar master had just died.

In the last couple of weeks, an entry for this blog was planned for what may be his most famous record in the U. S., the staggering Live:  Ravi Shankar at the Monterey International Pop Festival.  In truth, it may not be that Shankar and his associates, the great table maestro Alla Rakha, and tamboura player Kamala, necessarily played better at that concert than any other they had performed at, together or singly.

Rather, the most impressive aspect, perhaps, about the performance is the reaction of the crowd.  This was 18 June 1967 and the Monterey Pop Festival featured legendary rock performers like The Mamas and the Papas, The Who, and, in his first electrifying breakthrough in his home country, Jimi Hendrix.  Yet, there was a brief window of time there in the late Sixties in which Indian music, as especially promoted by Shankar, became a fad, to the degree that the master lamented that not enough Americans truly appreciated the artistry involved.

In any case, it is fascinating to hear how the musicians were politely applauded before the first raga, the bhimpalasi, began, after Shankar's brief remarks, including a little droll aside about not being rained out.  When these incredible musicians finished with the nearly-half hour raga, the reaction was palpable, as the crowd was clearly impressed with the energy, intensity, and musicianship of, in particular, Shankar.

Following, though, was the 6-plus minute showcase for Rakha, a table solo "in ektal," in which Shankar explained the usual meter of the style and then noted that Rakha was going to dramatically increase the tempo.  Indeed, this is tour de force of tabla playing that sent the crowd into growing waves of excitement and truly set the stage for the finale.

With "Dhun", which went just under 20 minutes, the performance peaked remarkably.  As it is, ragas uniformly start slowly and take, over a long period, a gradual ascent in tempo, improvisational showmanship, and intensity that can lead to what is almost an ecstatic, trancelike experience for those who allow the music to take them.  From listening to the sustained, thunderous applause that greeted the end of this amazing concert, it would appear that many in the audience, whether chemically enhanced or not and clearly not expecting what they were privy to, were transformed.

Again, it may have been a combination of surprise, awe and the rising tide of idealist that rode the wave of the Summer of Love, but Ravi Shankar and his fellow musicians made their mark at just the right time.

Shankar had a very long career filled with highlights from his earliest recordings, to his long partnership with brother-in-law, sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, to his heyday in the U.S., and his continued excellent work long after the 60s.  May this master of his instrument and his music always be remembered and heard.

Live:  Ravi Shankar at the Monterey International Pop Festival

1.  Raga Bhimpalasi  27:28
2.  Tabla Solo in Ektal  6:20
3.  Dhun (Dadra and Fast Teental)  19:41

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Horace Tapscott: The Dark Tree, Volume One

The amazing pianist Horace Tapscott made a fateful decision about fifty years ago to forsake the grueling life of a traveling musician to maintain a permanent base in south-central Los Angeles, where he labored long to promote both music and community, especially through his organization (first, in 1961, U.G.M.A.--the Underground Musicians' Association and then reconstituted as U.G.M.A.A--Union of God's Musicians and Artists' Ascension).  Far from the spotlight, he worked mainly in obscurity and was little recorded, but he had a significant impact on those he dealt with and for.  Late in life, he finally was receiving some long overdue recognition and more frequent opportunities to record his excellent compositions and document his impressive style on his instruments, before he died too young at age 64 in 1999.

YHB had the opportunity to see Tapscott perform several times.  The first was at a free performance at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, when nothing was known about him.  That changed in moments when the pianist erupted into a beautiful torrential solo peppered with amazing arpeggions and punctuated by precise applications of his sustain pedal.  There was also a fiery series of solos by saxophonist Michael Sessions that stood out, as well.

The next trip to the record store (it was the very early 90s!) yielded a search for Tapscott recordings and there were only two CDs in the bin, volumes one and two of a live recording called The Dark Tree on the foreign HatHut label.  It was pricy, but so worth the expense.

This was true because of the remarkable compositions of the leader, because of his irrepressible playing, and because of the excellent support he had in clarinetist John Carter, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Andrew Cyrille.  While Carter was not particularly well known, his playing was stunning, wide-ranging and compelling on an instrument not often found in jazz (though the young clarinetist Don Byron was getting a lot of attention in those days and the great Eric Dolphy is a great favorite of this blogger.)

With McBee and Cyrille there are two of the giants of jazz drumming and bass playing, musicians whose resumes are filled with stints with some of the finest bandleaders of the last fifty years, including AMERICAcacophony favorites like Sam Rivers and Cecil Taylor.  Tapscott couldn't have asked for a better rhythm section to back up him and Carter.

The title track is generally considered Tapscott's masterpiece and this is a thunderous performance with McBee's repetitive and hypnotic bass and Cyrille's crystal-clear and march-like drumming setting the tone for the others to solo off of.  Carter is especially awesome on this piece, conjuring up all kinds of wonderful sounds and turning in a virtuoso performance.  Tapscott's soloing is majestic, thundering at moments and then releasing the tension a bit before building it up again.  Hearing him on a long solo often reminded this listener of the ocean, stormy seas, puncutated by thick block chords, giving way to placidity as waves of sound emerged from the instrument in ways that really were unique to his playing.

The other tunes, while not as earth-shaking as "The Dark Tree," are all excellent Tapscott compositions, with "Sketches of Drunken Mary" and "Lino's Pad" both in sprightly waltz time and the former having a melody that seems to evoke the intoxicated state of its subject, who was someone the young Tapscott knew well in his native Houston.  "Lino's Pad" is another feature of Tapscott's expressive and impressionistic playing.

Horace Tapscott (1934-1999), a great jazz pianist and community leader and builder.

Something needs to be said about the fact that this awesome disc was recorded at Catalina Bar and Grill in late 1989.  The current Catalina facility is a far larger and less intimate one than the older venue where this show was recorded and where this blogger spent many happy hours in the early to late 90s hearing some incredible jazz, including a few performances by Tapscott, in which this blogger sat at a bistro table directly behind and to the side of the pianist as he worked his magic on the keyboard.

Truth is, you cannot get a better concert experience than that--sitting within inches or a few feet from masters improvising and interacting with their fellow musicians as the crowd (small, but highly appreciative and empathetic) soaks it all in.  It was a great pleasure to witness the great Horace Tapscott perform and it was a sad day when reading about his unexpected death in 1999.

Recently, a combined double-disc package of the two volumes of The Dark Tree has been issued, but the cover art shown here is for the original, very hard-to-find, 1991 edition of the first volume.

One other recommendation:  John Isoardi's 2006 book on Tapscott is also called The Dark Tree and is a fascinating interview/narrative that details his life from his upbringing in Texas, to his military service, to his short career on the road, and then all of amazing work he did in Los Angeles.  YHB read the book just several months ago and raced through it with great interest.

Horace Tapscott:  The Dark Tree (Volume One)  (Hat Hut, 1991)

1.  The Dark Tree  20:56
2.  Sketches of Drunken Mary  11:32
3.  Lino's Pad  16:46
4.  One for Lately  10:24

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cabaret Voltaire: Eight Crespuscule Tracks

In the long, interesting career of Cabaret Voltaire, there have been arguably several phases in the band's history.  The first, from their founding about 1973 until about 1982, has variously been labeled as "industrial," employing harsh, dissonant sounds from electronic equipment, clarinets and saxophones, bass, electric guitar, drum machines (and, occasionally, live drums), and others.  Barked or whispered vocals, often highly processed, vaguely referred to terrorist groups or mind control or authoritarianism or religious hypocrisy.  To those inclined to this claustrophobic (in a good way) presentation of a wide array of sound, these were the glory years of CV, when they were at their most experimental, confrontational, bracing and challenging.

YHB does not disagree, but also does not hold the other phases as inferior—merely different.  And, while many might argue, persuasively, that the 1981 album Red Mecca was the highlight of the era and that the 1982 record 2x45 was another high point that showed the band in transition in sound as well as lineup, as founding member Chris Watson departed, leaving Richard H. Kirk and Stephen Mallinder to carry on as a duo, there is another recording that has struck this blogger as an essential document of the so-called "early" Cabs.

This is Eight Crepuscule Tracks, a compilation released on Giant Records in the U. S. by license with the groundbreaking independent Belgian label, Les Disques du Crépuscule.  Actually, the latter company had released an EP called Three Crepuscule Tracks in 1981 and this later release takes those works and adds five others.

The centerpiece of the record are those first three pieces, known as "Sluggin' Fer Jesus (Parts One, Two and Three)."  The backbone of these recordings are radio broadcasts of evangelical preachers, most notably the late Gene Scott, who did his "work" in Los Angeles and, in later use, had his church in the old United Artists Theatre at the south end of the Broadway Theater District.  Scott's exhortations, laced with crude humor, sarcasm, threats, paranoia, and lots of other interesting psychological touchstones, are interestingly musically corollated by CV's menacing and disturbing, as well as highly appropriate, sounds.  The most memorable of Scott's meanderings might well be: "I don't want gifts tonight, I want sacrifice."

Following is a rendering of a tune that is one of the "early" Cabs' most notable, this being "Yashar."  A club version, remixed by Arthur Baker, became an underground dance hit, but this earlier rendering is pretty cool, if lesser known.

"Your Agent Man" has a simple, but catchy bass line from Mallinder, who chants his vocals as if a robot while Kirk and Watson apply various sound effects from guitar, synthesizer and other devices.

To this listener, the highlight of Eight Crepuscule Tracks is "Gut Level," which is a nine-minute workout with a funky bass line, propulsive percussion, a scratchy guitar line, echoed sax lines and other cool effects, carried along with recorded film dialogue in which one man castigates another for selling drugs to youngsters.  Someone undoubtedly knows the film from which this pinched dialogue emanates and might want to leave a clarifying comment.

"Invocation" has a haunting, repetitive theme with a muted drum machine beat, vague "found sound" voice samples, and a great synthsizer sound, as well.

Then comes the "out of left field" closer, a cover of Isaac Hayes' number one tune, "Theme from 'Shaft'," the classic blaxploitation film from 1971 starring Richard Roundtree that later spawned such sequels as "Shaft in Africa." Hearing two white English electronic artists covering a song with the lyric: "he's a black private dick / who's a sex machine / to all the chicks" and other choice lyrical offerings is hilarious and probably intentionally so, though the Cabs were avowed lovers of funk and soul.

Eight Crepuscule Tracks has been a consistent item on this blogger's CV playlist since the cassette version was acquired on the album's 1988 release and a fond recollection is of playing the "Sluggin' Fer Jesus" trilogy to a friend and coworker who was a religion major in school and did some ministry for his church in New York.  It spawned some interesting discussions in a parked car of a restaurant parking lot in 1988 and the record still resonates with this listener today.

Cabaret Voltaire:  Eight Crespuscule Tracks (Giant Records, 1988)

1.  Sluggin' Fer Jesus (Part One)  4:44
2.  Sluggin' Fer Jesus (Part Two)  3:55
3.  Fools Game—Sluggin' Fer Jesus (Part Three)  6:49
4.  Yashar  5:02
5.  Your Agent Man  2:49
6.  Gut Level  9:08
7.  Invocation  6:04
8.  Theme from "Shaft"  4:02

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The World of Early Music

The amazing Naxos label, having produced so many excellent budget-priced classical recordings, has a line of "Early Music" albums, with an explanatory note for its 2-CD The World of Early Music set stating that "we limit the term Early Music to cover a period ranging from plainchant to the end of the seventeenth century."

This album consists of a first CD dealing with "Medieval and Renaissance Music" and the second with "The Baroque," or, rather, that generalized delineator before Handel, Bach, Vivaldi and the like.  In any case, The World of Early Music is filled with remarkably variable types of music, mostly from rather obscure composers and sources, with representation from better-known figures like Hildegard van Bingen from the plainchant side, Palestrina's sacred music, John Dowland's vocal and lute songs, Monteverde groundbreaking operatic work, Purcell's instrumental pieces, the fugues of Pachebel and Corelli's sonatas and concerto grossos.

While The World of Early Music is an overview, it is questionable whether the 2 hour and 33 minute length, although certainly generous and comprehensive, is suited for those new to the genre.  This listener's first exposure to the music came with a curious late 1990s release from Deutsche Harmonia Mundi's Adventures in Early Music, which, while featuring ensembles that play with period instruments, also has several pieces that extend far beyond the era most people assign for early music and contained, for example, pieces by Mahler and Barber, though beautifully performed.  A couple discs of Gregorian chants followed and an interest in this very specific religious music developed.

Not long after that, a personal connection to early music arose when the brother of a friend, Brian Asawa, recorded duets of lute and vocal music by Dowland and others.  Brian, a countertenor, sent the disc himself and this will be a blog post on its own, as he and his lute-playing partner delivered a fine recording of this little-heard music.

The World of Early Music is a more recent purchase of perhaps a few years back, but, having some grounding and a high degree of appreciation for the genre certainly made it easier to enjoy and digest the extraordinarily generous sample that Naxos produced. 

Though much of the first disc consists of religious works, given that this was the predominant nature of music in the medieval and early renaissance periods, a listener need not be of faith to enjoy the plaintive and simple pieces, many without instrumental accompaniment, that are included.  Other works are that of troubadors from the 12th and 13th centuries, while instrumental music begins to be represented with 15th century early Renaissance performances.  Also of note is a sample of the songs of Sephardic Jews of pre-1492 Spain, consort music which instrumentally took on what previous vocal polyphony provided, and the development of early keyboard music, principally the organ.

The second disc takes the listener, especially those who enjoy the late baroque work of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi and those who like opera, closer to modern forms of classical music.  While religious music, it is five of twenty-three samples, and the development of more complex instrumental music is highlighted.  The harpsichord is prominent through the work of uncle and nephew, Luis and Francois Couperin.  Finally, the larger ensemble work of Corelli points the way to those who would follow in the later baroque.

The set comes a very helpful and detailed set of unattributed notes and a list of dozens of Naxos recordings from the series that show the range and variety of the broad "Early Music" category.  It may not be an ideal introduction, but The World of Early Music is certainly a superlative summary.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Gnawa Music of Marrakesh: Night Spirit Masters

Another essential item from the Axiom Records catalog of world music recordings, courtesy of the production efforts of Bill Laswell and his associate Richard Horowitz, is the mindblowing and otherworldly 1990 album Night Spirit Masters, credited to Gnawa Music of Marrakesh.

The producers and engineers traveled to Morocco and, according to the liners, made the recording in the "Medina of Marrakesh," the historic and cultural core of that ancient city with its component parts dating back to the 11th Century and which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Using a 12-track digital recorder, handled by Billy Youdelman, whose engineering credits date to Bob Dylan's 1978 Street Legal album, as well as recordings for Little Feat, the Eagles, Dionne Warwick, Leonard Cohen, Warren Zevon, and several of Laswell's projects, including the Herbie Hancock record, Future Shock, and others, the team recorded musicians in the public setting.  Youdelman does a truly impressive job of recording and the mixing and mastering are also essential in creating a beautiful sound from beautiful music.

Interestingly, some observers have viewed Night Spirit Masters as a Westernized version of Gnawa, as if some elements of the fusion of the sound was somehow illegitimate.  Yet, the very nature of Gnawa music is fusionist--it came from black slaves from Mali taking their native sounds and then mixing them with the Arabic and Islamic elements found in Morocco.  

Instruments include the sintir (a three-stringed lute functioning as a bass), the darbuka or goblet drum, other percussion instruments, as well as hand claps and chanted and sung vocals comprise a music that is repetitive, highly rhythmic and percussive, and often building in tempo and intensity as a form of religious ritual involving dance as well as music to induce a trance state of ecstacy.

The tightness of these musicians, true masters of their form, and the excellent recording quality make this album, whether overly "Westernized" or not, really enjoyable, captivating and hypnotic.  The first two pieces includes the sintir, drumming and vocals, with the second, "Mimoun Mamrba" featuring that gradual increase in tempo that is a hallmark of the sound.  "Tramin" is a three-minute piece of trio drumming that shows an interesting polyrhythmic approach.

Track four, however, is the highlight of the album and this listener well remembers the powerful effect "Chabako" had way back in 1990 or thereabouts when this six-minute masterpiece evoked a frenzied response from its moderate sintir opening, augmented by hand cymbals, the oud (another stringed lute, but of higher pitches than the sintir), the call-and-response vocals which built slowly and surely from a medium tempo to faster and faster levels until you all but had to jump up and find some way to keep up with the transformation.  It is easy to understand why Gnawa music is trance-inducing from this piece alone.

Another like-minded tour de force is "Baniya," another six-minute transportive exercise in ecstasy with the larger ensemble like that found in "Chabako" and with a catchier melody than the former.  The two sintir and quartet volcals of "Jillala" is another excellent song with a duet drum piece following.  Then comes another breathtaking large group work called "Hamouda" that closes the album in much the same way, as "Chabako" and "Baniya" had.

In all, this is a nice selection of pieces with varied personnel, instrumentation, and tempi.  To an ignorant Westerner, this is a great experience in hearing music from a part of the world that has so much interface between societies in terms of trade, warfare, food, and music, whether it is considered "authentic" or not.  Paul Bowles, an American composer and write who lived for over 50 years in Tangier and authored the famed novel, The Sheltering Sky, provides brief notes about the people and the music that proved helpful to the novice who bought this album twenty plus years back.

Bill Laswell and cohorts (including Chris Blackwell and Island Records, who funded the Axiom catalog) are to be recognized once again for introducing music that broadens the horizons and expands the ear beyond what is exposed to in all-Western forms.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sam Rivers: Trio Live

It was almost a year ago, at the end of 2011, that the underrecognized Sam Rivers died at the age of 88.  A multi-instrumentalist, who played tenor and soprano saxopones, flute and piano, Rivers came up in the jazz ranks in Boston, but remained a little-known figure elsewhere until his former sideman, the teenage drum phenom Tony Williams, recruited him to join the Miles Davis Quintet in 1964, when Rivers was already 40.

While Rivers' tenure with Davis was short, because his playing just was too free for the leader's tastes, it is definitely worth hearing the long-delayed release Miles in Tokyo, which demonstrates just how inventive and distinctive Rivers' sound was.

After that brief period with Davis, though, Rivers was signed to Blue Note Records and delivered some interesting, if not particularly high selling, albums during the mid-1960s.  After another period of obscurity, the Impulse! label signed him in 1973 and a couple of fascinating live albums were released, including Streams, which was this blogger's introduction to this amazing performer some twenty years ago.

However, the Trio Live album, while somewhat similar in structure of the group and arrangement of the pieces, is just a bit better.

The first three pieces, a suite called "Hues of Melanin," present 44 minutes of perfomance at Yale University in November 1973 and teamed Rivers with the supple and creative Cecil McBee on bass and the polyrhythmic and vigorous drumming of Barry Altschul.  McBee was also outstanding on Streams, which also featured future disco-era hit maker Norman Connors on the traps.  While some suggest that Connors was not suited for Rivers' style, and this may be true, Altschul did seems a better fit.

The rhythm section does do a great job creating an accompaniment that holds up to Rivers' prodigious playing.  It's one thing to be a master of a chosen instrument, but Rivers was spectacular on three.  His tenor playing was truly his own, not sounding like any of the masters before him, and his navigation from the lower to the higher ranges is impeccable, though on Trio Live, he only played this instrument on one five-plus minute section of this concert.  

In the 34-minute first section, he plays expansive on both soprano sax and flute and, on the former, he displays a stamina, clarity and expressiveness that would give such better-known masters as Steve Lacy and John Coltrane a run for their money.  His flute playing is also excellent and it is on this instrument that he tended, in these extremely free trio performances (the only type, he said, where he felt he could be truly free) to engage in a stream-of-consciousness series of yelps, screams, and other forms of vocalizing that might turn some listeners off, though it strikes this listener as a joyful reaction to the freedom he and his bandmates were enjoying.

While there is no comparing him to any of the greats, his piano section, comprising just over four minutes, finds him playing quite well, with flowing, graceful lines that cascade and flow easily and attractively.

The last two pieces are called "Suite for Molde" and take in just under 20 minutes of a show at the Molde Jazz Festival in Norway in August 1973 with Arild Anderson playing bass.  Anderson plays well and works smoothly with Rivers and Altschul, with his bowed work on the second part meshing nicely with that of Rivers, though he doesn't have the strength and elasticity of McBee (but, then, few bassists did.)  This work has over half the time, denoted as part two, devoted to Rivers playing tenor and he is simply awesome here, ranging rapidly and mightily on this highly expressive and emotive instrument. 

But, Rivers' work on the first part with the subtitle "Onyx" used for the soprano sax portion and "Topaz" for the flute section.  It would be interesting to know just what the bandleader felt distinguished each by the names of the precious metals, while perhaps the denotation of "Ivory Black" for the piano section of "Hues for Melanin" seems obvious, while the term "Violet" for the tenor portion of that Yale performance might reflect something visceral and striking?

Those terms would aptly describe the entire recording and it is interesting to read Rivers' comments from the original 1978 liner notes:  "You can come out here and be an intuitive musician and be really happening, but your dreams and visions won't last forever.  If you don't get into the books and get this technical thing together while your intuitive things is happening, it's over."

This could be interpreted to mean that the spiritual vibe that animated much free jazz in the 1960s and early 1970s was driven more by the former quality, which has its virtues, but that the technical ability developed through much hard work and practice can take that intuitiveness and give it something more solid and substantial.  Conversely, technical talent alone, with the emotive power of intuitive improvisation, can come across as cold.  This might be an apt way to distinguish craftsmanship (technics) with artistry (intuitiveness), provided that the exceptional artist has both.

That, the great Sam Rivers had in overflowing abundance on these performances.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Lull: Moments

Mick Harris became known as the insanely fast drummer for the notorious 80s grindcore pioneers Napalm Death, but, after leaving the band in 1991, largely put away his drumsticks and took up electronic music. 

Harris formed Scorn with Napalm Death's first bassist, Nic Bullen, and had some success with albums like Evanescence that established a form of electronica that was slower in tempo, heavier in atmospherics and darker in subject matter.  While Scorn continued as a Harris solo project after Bullen departed in 1995 until Harris decided to end the project last year, he has also embarked on many other solo and collaborative projects over the years, many of which will be highlighted here later. 

Other notable projects include the remarkable Painkiller with saxophonist John Zorn and bassist Bill Laswell, both incredibly prolific and diverse performers, with this trio essentially lasting about four years.  Harris played live drums in this outfit, one of the very few instances in whichhe continued to do so after he left Napalm Death, but his departure was largely predicated on his continued dislike of his performance on the kit.  Remarkably, there was a one-off reunion of Painkiller in Paris in 2008, which appears not to have been recorded.  There will be Painkiller music detailed here in the future, as well.

As will another exceptional collaboration involving a trifecta of recordings with former Eyeless in Gaza vocalist Martyn Bates called Murder Ballads.  This 1995-98 project was a modern update of the folk murder ballad, which was popular centuries ago, and Bates' crooning of lyrics dealing with all manner of human crimes outside the pale of polite society are well-matched by eerie, droning, slowly evolving soundscapes crafted by Harris.

Other notable works are efforts with such artists as Eraldo Bernocchi, James Plotkin, Laswell, and Neil Harvey, some of which venture into the so-called "drum-n-bass" territory, while others were more ambient.  In any case, Harris' discography is diverse and broad within the general spectrum of electronic music and has a small, but very devoted fanbase.

Another early endeavor was Lull, which has been termed by those who cannot live without labels as isolationist or darkwave, whatever those are supposed to mean.  Actually, the former does, perhaps, hint at a key element in the music, which involves washes of sound, bass-like rumblings which can shake the speakers, eerie background noises and an achingly slow development of pulse that is usually almost entirely absent of a pronounced beat.  From the earliest effort, Dreamt About Dreaming (1992) to the most recent release Like a Slow River (2008), the Lull project has been one that has experimented with the fringes of ambience, but far removed from the new age-like productions that lie on the furthest end of the spectrum from what Harris has concocted.

To those attuned to this music, it can be extraordinarily beautiful and, yet, is also can be disturbing and unsettling to others who might not be prepared for the starkness of the sounds.  For this listener, Lull has been an object of fascination because it is transportive music and creates its own world of truly immersive sound.  It does not lend itself to the background or to systems that lack a decent low-end.  In the case of YHB, the music is best heard on the home system with a nice set of Klipsch bookshelf speakers that deliver excellent performance on that low-end and works pretty well even in the car, which has a decent system.

The epitome of the Lull experience to this enthusiast is the 1998 Relapse Records release, Moments, the fifth album in the project.  This 62-minute work is divided into 99 tracks, but it really is, like its predecessor Continue, a work that is a continuous piece embracing all the hallmarks of the sound Harris had developed with Lull from its beginnings.  Notably, the album is said to have been inspired by the soundtrack to the impenetrable, but highly immersive film Eraserhead and it would be interesting to watch the film with Moments playing along with it (actually, this blogger was so close to playing the album for Halloween for any trick-or-treaters who might come by, but there are so few typically and they're mostly small kids who would likely be too frightened to even approach the house.)

It does not seem particularly meaningful to try and describe the music anymore than what is stated above, other than to say that, if one is prepared to give this album (and the other Lull recordings) a dedicated listen and is open to being taken somewhere that can be dark, foreboding and, yet, also captivating and, yes, starkly beautiful, hearing Moments can be one of those moments that expands the horizons of listening to music in an utterly transformative way.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Elliott Carter: The Minotaur

Still active as a centenarian, the remarkable American composer Elliott Carter died last week at 103.  His work has been characterized as complex and difficult and, to varying degrees, this is true with "modern music" generally, but there is a great breadth and depth to Carter's work over many decades.  For Carter, polyphony, with different sounds emerging from elements of an orchestra, and contrasting and varied rhythms and tonalities working within different sections, became his hallmark.  So, as is the case with so much recent music, it also takes some recalibration of a listener's ears to appreciate what is going on when one is used to hearing music the "traditional" way.

Consequently, it might be easier to start with Carter by delving into his earlier music and this Elektra Nonesuch recording from 1992 offers selections from the composer's 1940s work, when he was starting to be recognized as an emerging new voice.  And, while the music is not as "challenging" as what came later, especially in the 1960s, it is possible to hear where Carter was going.

While his ballet, The Minotaur, was not often performed, it had its roots in 1946 with the famed impresario George Balanchine, who worked with Carter on the thematic conception based on Greek mythology.  Just as the process was undertaken, however, Balanchine was invited to be a guest ballet master with the Paris Opera and the work of choreographing The Minotaur fell to his assistant, John Taras and the work premiered in March 1947.  Even though performances were few, Carter did rework the music into a concert suite, recorded here in 1988.

The stately melodic statement is striking and memorable and the work overall is about as traditional as Carter ever came.  While this might strike some people as an aberration and not essential to the composer's body of work, YHB, with all of his ignorance about the technical niceties of classical composition, enjoys The Minotaur as a balanced blend of so-called neo-classicism with modern elements.

There is a bit of a diversion with two of three short pieces accompanying poems of the great Robert Frost.  They are beautifully rendered by mezzo soprano Jan De Gaetani and pianist Gilbert Kalish and would seem entirely out of place perhaps if not followed by Carter's Piano Sonata.

This is a generally romantic piece in two movements, and yet again, infused with some of the variable rhythms, harmonic elements and coloration that foresaw the composer's later development.  But, it is a nice balance with gorgeous lyricism, stately cadenzas, rapid passages abruptly turning into slow, halting ones, so that the marking of tempo is not at all strictly observed, but that's part of the interest generated by these shifting sounds.  Pianist Paul Jacobs plays beautifully and the recording quality is excellent, as well.

The Piano Sonata is generally considered Carter's major achievement in his earlier period and it is a very fine work, elegantly rendered here.  But, The Minotaur is also very enjoyable, whether heard as accompaniment to modern ballet or on its own terms.  Future posts will concern Carter's work in the 1960s and in more recent years, in which the complexity grew tremendously, but also brought him  acclaim as one of the more versatile and appreciated modern composers.

May the amazing Elliott Carter, creator of so much wonderful music for so many years, rest in peace and may his music be heard for many centuries to come.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party: Intoxicated Spirit

The Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a legend in his native Pakistan and somewhat known in other parts of the world before some of his music appeared in the 1995 film Dead Man Walking and turned him into something of a phenomenon even in the U. S.

Born in 1948, Nusrat was a member of a family steeped deeply for centuries in the tradition of qawwali, a form of music which came out of the mystical traditions of Sufi Islam, and which arose in the Persian Empire and then spread to popularity in South Asia.  The devotional nature of qawwali has often been misunderstood because lyrics appear to refer to earthly love and intoxication from the overuse of wine, but instead are infused with metaphors for spiritual concerns cloaked in secular language.  The lyrics of qawaali can be generally aligned with translations of such Sufi poetry as that of the great master, Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, the Persian poet, jurist, theologian and mystic of the 13th century, when the Arab world was among the most advanced in the world and far beyond the Europe of the so-called Dark Ages.

Musically, the structure of the party is along the lines of having a lead singer (Nusrat), side singers and a harmonium (formerly the sarangi) player in a front row and a group of backup singers and percussionists in a rear row.  While there are portions of pieces that are arranged and predetermined, there is also considerable room for improvisation by everyone, with the singer punctuating the lyrics with vocal effects of a breathtaking variety and Nusrat was the indisputed master in his realm, even as he modernized elements of the performances while firmly rooting his work in tradition.  He leads his background singers in chants and call-and-response sections that are part of the trance-inducing magic of the music.

As befits a mysticallly-oriented recording, the pieces start slowly and quietly with the lead vocals laying the melodic and lyrical groundwork and the remainder of the performers providing their accompaniment.  Over time through generally long pieces (20-30 minutes can be typical on recordings, though not necessarily so in live performance, during which songs can go on much longer, not unlike the Indian raga) the intensity builds as the lead singer uses a volume, power and a variety of vocalizing techniques that are not found in Western musics, and which provide a soaring, penetrating and intense quality of inspiration and expression, while the other musicians increase the volume and speed of the rhythms and harmonic accompaniment to keep the lead singer moving upwards into flights of ecstacy.

With Nusrat and Party, the art of the qawaali is at its peak with his unparallelled voice rising and gliding above and within the steady handclaps, hand percussion, and harmonium played by the other performers.  Generally, there are two commonly-available types of recordings to acquire for those who want to experience the transcendent, uplifting and otherworldly sounds of Nusrat and Party. 

The most popular were those issued by Peter Gabriel's Real World label and, while some of these adhere to the traditional format of Pakistani qawaali, others bring in, if usually very sensitively, Western musicians and instrumentation.  Future posts will include some of these recordings, which are consistently high-quality and excellent vehicles for presenting Nusrat's music to a larger worldwide audience, as befits the Real World philosophy and output.

For those looking to listen to Nusrat and Party in the traditional presentation style, there are harder-to-find releases on the Shanachie label, best known generally for its reggae releases, and which licensed four albums from Pakistani sources and released most of them in the midst of Nusrat's mid-90s popularity.  This listener was fortunate enough to discovery Nusrat in the very early part of that decade, through the first Shanachie album, a studio effort called The Day, The Night, The Dawn, The Dusk (1991.)  In this vein, but because it is a live recording, the 1996 release, Intoxicated Spirit, is a good place to indulge in the more "indigenous" type of qawaali made by the group made in Pakistan before Nusrat acquired the brief fame in the West that ended with his untimely passing at only age 48 in Summer 1997.

Intoxicated Spirit features four tracks, the first two of which are 23 and 24 minutes respectively, while the others are 12 and 14 minutes.    The centerpiece of the album clearly is the first piece, Yeh Jo Halka Halka, in which the lengthy translated lyrics are reprinted and have to, again, be seen metaphorically not as an earthbound love song, but as a mystical paean to the religious ecstacy sought by devotees of Sufism.  The steady and building rhythms, the beautiful harmonium work, and, naturally, Nusrat's amazing singing are on full display on this opening song.

The next track, Ruk Pe Rehmat Ka, is lengthier than the first, but also is more subdued and introspective for a longer period before building into that ecstatic display of finely-honed rhythmic intensity and Nusrat's staggering improvisational vocalisations.

The last piece, Meri Saqi Saqi Yeh, is unusual in the sense that it brings in the more traditional, but displaced, sarangi, a stringed instrument that is played with a bow, but which also has to be retuned between pieces, hence the popularity of the harmonium, which doesn't require the retuning.  There is also the use of a zither or qanun, and the use of these instruments gives a notable difference in sound to the song in comparison to the others.

The loss of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to cardiac arrest following kidney and liver failure at a relatively young age was immensely felt among devotees of the music and the Sufi tradition.  While others continue to successfully perform the music, notably including his nephew, Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the visibility of qawaali during that brief period in the mid-90s when Nusrat was a worldwide phenomenon is unlikely to be at that level again.  Fortunately, his recordings can be enjoyed and appreciated and the depth, passion, technique and earnestness of this great artist will live on.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan:  Intoxicated Spirit (Shanachie, 1996)

1.  Yeh Jo Halka Halka  23:00
2.  Ruk Pe Rehmat Ka  24:00
3.  Be Wafa  12:00
4.  Meri SAqi Saqi Yeh  14:00

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Keith Jarrett: The Köln Concert

The recent post on Cecil Taylor's solo masterpiece, Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within), is a nice (!) comparison and contrast to this one on another pianist whose solo work has been acclaimed.  Keith Jarrett has, however, had a far larger audience than Taylor because his music has not been perceived to have been near as adventurous (though, at times, Jarrett has alienated some of his longtime followers by excursions into freer, more atonal material, though nothing near as "out" as Taylor at his most accessible.)

While it might be easy for devotees of one to suggest that their favorite is superior to the other, YHB enjoys the music of both for different reasons, not the least of which is whatever mood happens to suggest listening to one as opposed to the other.  Taylor and Jarrett, different as they may be, are both possessed of protean talents, able to improvise entire solo concerts with prodigious technical abilities, and, as importantly, throw themselves completely into what they do.  It is this latter quality which seems most impressive to this blogger, because there are many excellent pianists who can improvise with imagination and precision, but these two inhabit a plane that is elevated because of their total commitment and immersion in the power of the moment when they dazzle in that solo concert setting.

Jarrett, born in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1946, was a child prodigy on his instrument and made his first splash in the jazz world as a member of the popular Charles Lloyd Quartet in the mid-1960s.  He started his solo career about 1967, though was a member of the electric Miles Davis group in 1970, despite his public dislike of electric pianos and organs, and appeared on such recordings as Live-Evil.  In the earl 1970s, he agreed to record for a brand new German label, ECM, ran by Manfred Eicher, and the partnership has been a 40-year success for both.  Of the dozens of Jarrett released on the label, his solo works and the "standards trio" he has worked with for over 30 years, including bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack deJohnette, have been his most successful endeavors.

Jarrett's 1975 recording, The Köln Concert, is generally acclaimed as perhaps his greatest work.  For an hour and ten minutes, the pianist takes the listener on an exploration of many melodic and rhythmic concepts that, to some, preface the coming of "new age" music, though, to this listener, the recording has no relation to so-called "new age."  All that comes to mind is that the wildly experimental work of Taylor or the heavier and denser, but also highly melodic, work of McCoy Tyner might leave the impression that, comparatively speaking, Jarrett's lighter touch and use of silence and space appear to be a precursor to, say, George Winston.

Really, though, Jarrett's playing is beautiful, hypnotic, inventive and brimming with passion, exemplified by the grunts, groans, shouts and other manifestations of emotion that are highly annoying to some, as are the visual representations in which Jarrett writhes, wriggles and otherwise contorts himself as he channels the spirit of the moment.  It doesn't appear in any way to YHB that any of this is contrived, but these aspects of his performances, as well as some of his interview and liner note statements lead some to conclude that Jarrett falls prey to a form of self-indulgence that detracts from the experience of listening.  Without disputing anyone's right to feel that way, obviously, YHB can only say that these aspects of the musician seem totally honest and deeply-held and do not take away from the enjoyment of this incredible musician's work.

In fact, for all of the exciting playing on The Köln Concert, it may be as equally impressive that Jarrett did this under very difficult conditions.  He had a long, draining drive to the German city after playing a show a few days before in Switzerland.  Jarrett also had a serious back injury that required him to wear a brace, yet the pain was still so intense that he had very little sleep during the trip and he very nearly cancelled the show, which took place on 24 January. 

Moreover, his request for a particular type of Bosendorfer piano was followed by the obtaining of the wrong instrument, which was so poor, that Jarrett had to find ways to make up for deficiencies in the bass range by playing ostinatos and rolling rhythms with the left hand.  He also used vamps of a single chord or two for long periods of time, the repetitiveness of which often draws criticism, but which, to this listener, are part of establishing a deep, solid groove against which the derive his beautiful sweeping melodies.  In fact, his melodies often seem folk-like or have a tinge of country or rock in them and his classical training also appears to take much of the playing away from the syncopated rhythms associated with jazz (in quite a different way, Cecil Taylor's classical training leads him to play in ways that seem removed from most jazz piano, as well.)

This may account for Jarrett's unusual popularity--this recording, the best selling of any solo piano work period, much less that of jazz, has sold nearly 4 million units--in the fact that his playing is more "accessible" than that of other jazz pianists.  Those long repetitive chords in rhythm and his sprightly melodic sense have, some jazz lovers complained, been more pop or rock than jazz should be.  As if jazz has ever had a fixed set of criteria for pianists to follow.  One can run the gamut from Jelly Roll Morton, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner to untold others and then figure out whether there is a standard approach to how to play "jazz piano" and apply that to Jarrett (or, for that matter, to Brad Mehldau, who does just fine working with pop and rock songs in innovative and exciting ways, too.)

There are many other remarkable Keith Jarrett solo recordings out there (Vienna, Sun Bear, Radiance and the recent Sol come to mind), but the Köln is the one that has the biggest impact on fans (and, perhaps, the most resistance from critics.)  To this listener, it is one of the signal jazz recordings of any type and testament to the talent of one of the most imaginative and inspired musicians anywhere.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Orb: The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld

One of the quirkier, ambient, spacier (drug-wise and other-wise), humorous and irreverent of the major electronica acts that burst forth from England in the late 1980s and early 1990s, The Orb found a pretty substantial audience for its debut record, The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, which came out in 1991, but featured several tracks that had long been known as singles on the British house scene.

The Orb was initially a partnership between DJ Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty, of the well-known duo The KLF.  The two split in a disagreement on how to present their music for a first album and Paterson went on to do some work with former Killing Joke member Martin Glover, also known as Youth.  Kris Weston (under the moniker of "Thrash") and Andy Falconer then joined Paterson as a full member of The Orb, with guitarist Steve Hillage, associated with the so-called Canterbury music scene of the early 1970s, but also a record producer and electronica performer, as well, making contributions, as did producer Thomas Fehlmann.

Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld is replete with unusual electronic sounds and samples from a wide range of sources from music, film, and even bible reading recordings.  A thinly-disguised admiration, repeated in various ways over the years, for the music of Pink Floyd is visually demonstrated with an enhanced photo of the Battersea Power Station, which was presented on the album cover of the Floyd album, Animals and in the song title "Back Side of the Moon."

The two-disc release, originally produced for British and European released (the American version was a single-disc version), begins with the memorable "Little Fluffy Clouds," by Paterson and Glover, which uses as its centerpiece a strange interview with singer Rickie Lee Jones and her recollections of the clouds in her childhood home in Arizona.  There are, however, three other samples, including one of harmonica sounds from an Ennio Morricone piece and another from the remarkable composition "Electric Counterpoint," written by the great Steve Reich and played by guitarist Pat Metheny (and which will be the subject of a post at some time.)  Jones' management sued over the use of the sample of her voice, which led to speculation that she was high when she gave the interview (Jones claimed she had a bad cold), while Reich was pleased to be sampled, but also demanded a quarter of any royalties for the piece.

From there, the music consists of washes of electronic sound, generally subdued rhythms as well as more upfront sampled and electronic drum sounds, dub-like effects, occasional guitar treatments and a wide array of samples from the film Flash Gordon (including the delighfully devious intonation of the word "earth" by actor Peter Wyngarde), bible readings, and snippets of such varied musical sources as The Sex Pistols, jazz pianst Bill Evans, dub master Lee "Scratch" Perry, baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi, and most notably, the 1970s soul ballad "Loving You" and the 5 and 1/2 octave range of its singer, Minnie Riperton, who had died years before the release of The Orb's record, but whose management sued to have her vocals removed from the recording, so a copy vocal was used instead on later versions.

One of the distinctive features of the record is that it is continuous and this merging of one piece to another, provided one enjoys the kind of "ambient house" that made this album a seminal one in that "genre", gives it a unified and cohesive structure.  The ambient feeling of the record is best exemplified in the live recording of the oft-heralded "A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld," whic had the Riperton sample (as well as from the Grace Jones hit "Slave to the Rhythm") and is centered on a hypnotic, looping groove.

Ambient music has become a fascination, in varied forms, for this blogger and this record, in the U.S. version purchased in 1991, was one of the earliest exposures to it, aside from some of the essential work done by Cabaret Voltaire years before.  The Orb will be featured again in this blog, but Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld remains high (pardon the pun) on the list of memorable electronic albums among many enjoyed by YHB.

The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld: Double Album (Island Records, 1991)

Orbit Compact Disc

Earth Orbit One:  Little Fluffy Clouds  4:27
Earth Orbit Two:  Earth (Gaia)  9:48
Earth Orbit Three:  Super Nova at the End of the Universe  11:56
Lunar Orbit Four:  Back Side of the Moon  14:15
Lunar Orbit Five:  Spanish Castles in Space:  15:06

Ultraworld Compact Disc

Ultraworld Probe Six:  Perpetual Dawn  9:32
Ultraworld Probe Seven:  Into the Fourth Dimension  9:15
Ultraworld Probe Eight:  Outlands  8:23
Ultraworld Nine:  Star 6 & 7 8 9  8:10
Ultraworld Ten:  A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld: Live Mix MK 10  18:49

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Iannis Xenakis: Works for Piano

Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), who fought in the resistance against the Axis powers during World War II, during which he lost an eye, and then moved to France, where he remained for the duration of his life was a trained architect and engineer, an enthusiast of mathematics and computers, and a composer.  This remarkable combination of skills and interests marked him as one of the most formidale and controversial of postwar music.

Born to Greek parents in Romania, Xenakis entered a boarding school in Greece at ten and was just preparing his college work in architecture and engineering, while also expressing an interest in music, when the war broke out and Greece was occupied by German forces until 1944.  Xenakis actually lost his left eye from a shell when the British occupation of Greece took place and he was protesting against their presence, despite England's role in ousting the Axis powers, because the British favored restoring the Greek monarchy while Xenakis and others preferred another path (he was then a Communist.)

Xenakis was able to continue his university studies, completing his engineering degree in 1947, but the Greek government's program to round up former members of the resistance, led him to flee the country and settle in France.  In the militaristic Greek postwar period, Xenakis was sentenced to death, then to a long prison term (of course, in absentia) before being pardoned when civilian government returned in the 1970s.

In Paris, Xenakis found work with the famed architect Le Courbusier and worked on some major architectural projects, while simultaneously studying harmony, counterpoint and composition.  After such major figures as Nadia Boulanger, Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud rejected his unusual approaches to music, a sympathetic soul was found in Olivier Messiaen, who encouraged his student to apply his architectural and mathematical skills to the serialism that was embraced by Xenakis.

By the mid-1950s, Xenakis was becoming recognized for his work, including Metastaseis (1953-54.)  He also began working with electronic sound, in what was generally called musique concrete.  He also became a noted teacher as well as a composer and was deeply interested in the use of computer programming and complicated mathematical formulas to develop scores.  Even though this mechanical approach might appear to have the makings of producing music absent of human feeling, Xenakis' ability to program mathematical formulas did not leave that impression, unless modern music leaves the listener cold, regardless of how the composition is created.

Although most of his work was done in France, Xenakis did have a several-years stint teaching at Indiana University in the late 1960s and early 1970s and for three years in the later 70s in England.  He also wrote several treatises on musical concepts.

Xenakis referred to his complex, densely rhythmic, heavily timbral music as "stochastic," meaning that there was a major element of indeterminacy, perhaps in open scoring or alternate systems of notation as well as the complex mathematical equations used, often fed into computers, within an overall structure.  So, unlike John Cage's sense of indeterminacy, where randomness completely rules the roost, Xenakis has a logical ordering of a piece based on mathematical and other scientific models but with a measure of chance operations. 

At the same time, Xenakis considered himself an ancient Greek soul in a modern body and was heavily influenced by Greek and Byzantine music, the latter coming from his youthful exposure to the Greek Orthodox Church, as well as ancient Greek mathematical concepts from the great Pythagoras, who related music and numbers in his work.

Later in his career, Xenakis, who used logical concepts involving game theory, algebraic ideas, vector analysis, and other methods previously, began to use visual imagery, called "arborescences" in his compositions and the images of sound were shown as roots, branches and other tree-like components that found a way to tie in his unusual ideas in a form distinct from traditional scores and also paved the way for a composition technique called UPIC, in which an electromagnetic pen was used on a specialized table for creating shapes that were computer manipulated into sounds immediately.  He also composed using light and lasers in some works.

For this rank amateur, the finer points of Xenakis' many techniques is almost always elusive, but the reaction to the music is still one of wonder, surprise, awe and, occasionally, exasperation in trying to read about the technical aspects while trying to listen and appreciate the powerful mind of the composer.

One way, perhaps, to best fuse the challenging music of Xenakis with an emotional reach is through his works for piano, an instrument that seems to best connect intellectually and emotionallly for the listener.  Part of a fine series of the composer's work from the Mode label is the Works for Piano compilation, rleased in 1999.  Featuring the work of a longtime student and friend, Aki Takahashi, this recording presents six pieces, most from the 1970s and 1980s, excepting the solo "Herma" from the early 1960s.  Four of the works are solos for Takahashi, while one pairs her with violinist Jane Peters and the other, "Palimpsest," finds her with percussion, strings and wind instruments.

For this listener, the first three pieces are the best with "Herma" and "Evryali" allowing Takahashi to use her formidable talents bringing these complicated works to life in a way that taps into the emotional expressiveness of the piano, even with highly complex, modern compositions.  Similarly, the duet of piano and the emotive violin of Peters on "Dikhthas" is notable and the nearly 15-minute piece moves so well that it seems far shorter, at least to these ears, than that.  Truthfully, the other works are also fine, with the combination of varied instruments on "Palimpsest" providing a needed break and contrast to the solo and duet work found elsewhere.  And, the closer, the short "A.R. (Hommage a Ravel)," gives Takahashi the environment for virtuoso work in chains of extremely rapid notes with breaks of long extended chords and then finishing with more fast runs ending with a jarring low cluster of notes at the end.

Iannis Xenakis was a prolific composer with a varied portfolio employing a wide range of techniques and applications--his work will be featured here again several times.  If there is a way to get "introduced" to his music to new listeners, this piano-centric release might be the best avenue, although, truthfully, its very modern approach might be forbidding regardless.  If a listener is up for the challenge, though, the music can be very rewarding and enlightening.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Foday Musa Suso: Hand Power

The music of the kora, a 21-string bridge harp made from half of a large calabash covered by a cow skin for resonance and then strung on a long neck, is one of the most beautiful in the world.  Emanating from the jali or griots, that is, master musicians, from west Africa, the music of the kora is immediately identifiable by anyone who knows the western harp.

One of the better-known griots to worldwide audiences is Foday Musa Suso from Gambia, who is also an oral historian, singer, and composer, heralded for his maintenance of Mandingo traditions, while also incorporating western influences that complement the traditional instruments he plays.  It is said that his direct ancestor Madi Wlen Suso invented the kora over 400 years ago. 

Although Suso's father was also a master kora player, it is not traditional for fathers to instruct their sons, so Suso was sent to another teacher and remained in study until he was 18.  For three years, he taught kora performance at a university in neighboring Ghana.  In 1977, he became the first jali to migrate to the United States, settling in Chicago, which happens to be the home of Flying Fish Records.  He formed the Mandingo Griot Society as part of his efforts to fuse west African and western music and also became an associate of the ubiquitous Bill Laswell, already featured in many posts of this blog.  Through Laswell, Suso recorded with Herbie Hancock, Ginger Baker and Pharoah Sanders and he also has worked with Paul Simon, the Kronos Quartet and many others.  His compositions were performed at the Olympic Summer Games in 1984 at Los Angeles and in Athens in 2004.

On 1984's Hand Power, Suso's fourth album and released in the U.S. on Flying Fish Records, the kora master plays a dozen instruments with overdubbing of from three to six of them on any one track.  In addition to the kora, Suso handles various percussion instruments and the western instruments of electric guitar and harmonica.  The six pieces are very close in length to one another, ranging generally around seven minutes and featuring Suso's lead vocals with support on two tracks from a backing vocalist.

Part of the griot tradition is what is called "praise singing" and all the tracks fall under this category, with the first giving credit to the founding president of independent Gambia, Sir Dawda Jawara.  The second "Tesito" invokes the title word as a call to his fellow Gambians to "redouble effort" in building up their country.  "Fatoto Camara Kunda" is about the family named Fataoto Camara.  "Julla Fasso" is a praise song for Suso's home village in Foday Kunda, Wali district.  The track "Tramakang" reaches back into ancient history to sing the praises of a great warrior from the Mali Empire in the 13th century.  Finally, "Ye Goni" refers to the music of dousongoni, as played in the village of Bambugu.

Traditional instruments do form the core of the album, with the electric guitar only used on "Tesito"  and the harmonica on "Ye Goni."  They blend in perfectly with the native instrumentation and provide a support and complementarity that provide the best in what fusion can be.  Indeed, his many collaborations with western musicians demonstrate this.  Now based in Seattle, Suso continues to actively promote his unique fusion of music and Hand Power is a great way to get introduced to this fantastic artist, who will be profiled here again in conjunction with other projects with Laswell.

Foday Musa Suso:  Hand Power (Flying Fish Records, 1984)

1.  Sir Dawda Jawara  6:39
2.  Tesito  6:53
3.  Fatoto Camara Kunda  7:06
4.  Julla Fasso  6:59
5.  Tramakang  6:54
6.  Ye Goni  7:07

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Cecil Taylor: Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within)

The title is for the entirety of this astonishing 76-minute solo performance by Cecil Taylor, on what seems to be the 92-key (yes, 92) Bösendorfer piano that had the extra keys for Taylor to get in more of the wide-ranging orchestral sound for which he is (in)famous, appears to refer to the setting.

This mounumental performance took place on 20 August 1976 at an open-air festival at Moosham Castle in Austria (click here to see the official Web site with photos), which must have been a phenomenal setting and inspiration for the pianist.

Almost any of Taylor's music is challenging and really requires concentrated focus in listening.  For this reason, a lot of people who try listening to him are easily turned off.  His playing is complex, sometimes called atonal (though it doesn't appear that way to this listener), staggering in its technical abilities, and highly percussive and, as noted above, orchestral.  It is not a music providing obvious melodic and harmonic enjoyment.  The pleasure is in being drawn in and held captive to the all-encompassing world that is a Taylor performance, especially in these solo piano concerts.

In Taylor's somewhat cryptic poetry as liner notes, there are hints as to what is he about, or at least so it appears to YHB.  For example, he notes that "technique is weapon to do whatever / must be done/is self-determined / reflective of application / of ancient ritual within family."  It has been said that a Taylor concert or recording is a ritualistic experience. 

Elsewhere, he writes about the "ability to relate instantly, & build concomitant / sound structures: improvisation" and that the music is the "co-ordination of physique (muscles, the mind) / existing as one reasoned act thru erasure / of written note."  Taylor's phenomenal improvisational excursions are definitely the melding of the incredible responsiveness of mind and body in a "reasoned" way, not chaotic or anarchic, but built from years of practice and application.

When the pianist writes further of "Creating Music as sound within / the whole body; which must be brought / to level of total depersonalized realization . . .," it can be understood that Taylor totally devotes himself to playing in a way that has, it has often been reported, leaves him totally exhausted after an all-consuming performance.

The ritual as spiritual seems explained by his remark that "To Play what one hears is our objective Downward & inward are the forces bent to live as recognition of the invisible: spirit" as well as the idea that "sound as a language: communication / the total event being larger than the / combination of individual parts."  And, there is the matter of "trance is the unreasoning / reflection being possible / thru multi-layered / rhythmical complexes . . .

The experience of making music is "recognition of nuance, instinctive / ability relearned released, unchained / to then become forces moving as part of the Universe."  Finally, in the conclusion of these interesting liner notes-as-poetry, Taylor offers that "Improvisation is a tool of refinement / an attempt to capture 'dark' instinct / cultivation of the acculturated / to learn one's nature in response to / group (society) first hearing 'beat' / as it exists in each living organism."

If all this seems strange, abstractly mystical, and pretentious, it is, at least, Taylor's expression of feeling about this music and there is no reason to doubt his total commitment to its statements.  Knowing what Taylor has stated, whether in liner notes or interviews, and the commentary is almost never straightforward and simple, it might help to listen to the music while reading what the composer/performer writes.

One thing is for certain:  Cecil Taylor's world is a totally immersive one, both from the standpoint of his performances and what a listeners should probably be willing (maybe there's no choice?) to bring to the listening.  Branford Marsalis was once quoted as being profanely contemptible of Taylor's notion that a listener needed to prepare and practice before listening to one of the pianist's performances or recordings. 

Why would it be unreasonable for Taylor, who throws everything he has at a project, to expect a listener to come ready and able, through a concentrated effort, to be part of that experience?  At least you know his expectations and, if you're willing to accept the gauntlet, the results could be amazingly powerful.  Well, this blogger thinks so, but knows this is not music for everyone, which is not inherently bad, good or indifferent.

After hearing some thirty of Taylor's records over the years, this listeners feels that anything else than a great appreciaton or utter contempt is probably not realistic.  Can there be a middle ground with someone like Cecil Taylor?  Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within) is a tremendous record, if you are of a mind to take the all-consuming journey.  Otherwise, it would take just moments to decide not to.  This blogger is glad that, twenty or so years ago, the leap of faith was made.  It took a while, but the benefits have been manifold and welcomed.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Naked City: Torture Garden

When, in 1990, the effort by YHB to explore a wide variety of music (or, at least organized, sound) was launched, one of the earliest explorations into some of the more extreme forms of music/sound came with the Torture Garden album by Naked City.  And, at the time, it didn't get too much more extreme than this, though newer forms of music/sound make this stuff seem pretty quaint nowadays!

This project was spearheaded by the fantastically iconoclastic and polymusical (is that an actual word?) figures in modern music, alto saxophonist John Zorn, who had become infatuated with grindcore and other extreme forms of music/sound as exemplified by such groups as Godflesh and Napalm Death (whose original drummer, Mick Harris, will be featured here later, including in the remarkable trio PainKiller with Zorn and uber-bassist/producer Bill Laswell.)

Whereas many could argue that the musicianship in hardcore/grindcore/whatever-you-want-to-call-it-core may not be technically proficient (as if that matters,) the lineup that Zorn pulled together in Naked City is phenomenal.  Guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Fred Frith, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz and drummer Joey Baron are all masters of their respective instruments, though never heard in a context like this.  Joining the esteemed ensemble is vocalist Yamatsuka (Yamantaka) Eye of the legendary Japanese punk collective, The Boredoms.

In under 26 minutes, Naked City blasts, rips, tears, wails, careens, caterwauls, screams, and plows through forty-two "hardcore miniatures" that run the gamut of sounds that use or mirror music boxes, cartoon soundtracks, dub, jazz, country (yes, country), metal, and many other types/genres/varieties, often in the same forty-two second or eight-second tune.  Tempos abruptly shift, Eye's screams come and go, the tinkling of the piano's ivories give way to Frisell's wailing guitar, Baron's pounding drums segue into a dub beat, Frith's bass goes from fuzzy to jazzy to something more guttural and menacing, and Horvitz goes from that piano to an organ in seconds.  If anything, the only constants are Eye's "vocal" gesticulations and Zorn's wailing sax (though, on occasion, he peels off a calmer riff or two.)

As to the tunes, there are many notable examples of the Naked City aesthetic to bring up.  "Speedfreaks", in all of 52 seconds, is a cut-up mish-mash of every conceivable style Zorn can cram into it, but it's also fascinating, which can be said for the 48-second "The Prestidigitator" as well.  "NY. Flat Top Box" has a country shuffle feel for much of the piece, before some hardcore blasts interrupt, and then comes a sweet finale back to the earlier feel. "Hammerhead" is a 12-second blast of unalloyed noise.  The last several seconds of "The Blade" is Eye bellowing the most hair-raising scream perhaps on record (and, hence, gives the tune its title?] 

"Igneous Ejaculation" [yes, you have to accept some of these titles as part of the gallows humor that drives much of this music; if not, you're merely disgusted, but, then you'd have to see the cover art, too] is a prime example of Baron's spectacular drumming, which actually is well displayed throughout the album, such as in "Ujaku."  "Fuck the Facts" and "Blooduster" are more powerful bursts of propulsive and unforgiving hardcore. 

"Jazz Snob Eat Shit" along with "Perfume of a Critic's Burning Flesh" and "New Jersey Scum Swamp" [which might have foretold a certain reality show now entering its last season?] give some idea of the "crude humor" that informs much of the record.  "Shangkuan Ling-Feng" starts with a snippet of a martial-arts film before launching into a killer riff, some sax/vocal screaming, a brief organ interlude, and then that riff followed by more sax/vocal bellowing and Eye's guttural grunt to conclude.  Finally, there is the fitting album closer, "Gob of Spit," which is to be taken literally, courtesy of Eye's true-to-life vocalization.

As to some of the more hardcore elements of this record, having heard Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade six or so years before probably helped calibrate the ears somewhat for Torture Garden, although there is nothing that can really prepare anyone for the experience of hearing this record.  There are other Naked City albums that move into more darkly ambient (Absinthe), slowly grinding (Leng T'che) and schizophrenic (Radio and the first, eponymous album) territory, as well as a pretty impressive live album that skillfully recreates the abrupt stylistic and tempo changes on most of the records.

Torture Garden, though, has a strange, special place all its own.  For all of its musical mayhem, a listener would have to bring a particularly twisted (yet, healthy) sense of humor to the experience.  Otherwise, it might only take a minute, or thirty-eight seconds past that, or forty-five seconds further, to become completely disgusted and turned off by the spectacle.

And, this doesn't even deal with the cover art, consisting of one very colorful cartoonish artwork that is too graphic to even describe adequately in words, and a half-dozen or so photographs of intricate bondage scenes involving Japanese women.  The art work led Zorn's then-label, the respected Nonesuch, to balk at using the images, upon which Zorn left the label for the smaller Shimmy Disc. 

There's a recollection that Asian-American activists raised objections at the appearance of the cover (YHB had an early cassette version of the album), which led to its revamping.  Ironically, the album cover design, illustration, and photographs were done by Japanese and Japan has a particularly notable subculture of hyper-violent cartoon art and sexually-themed photography, such as bondage, that has been going on for years. 

It might be worth noting that this was not that long after the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit dustup in Cincinnati and Tipper Gore and the PMRC's "crusade" against filth and depravity in the music industry, so the shock value and absurdist humor of some forms of music, including the determinedly downtown version found in Torture Garden, don't translate well to lots and lots of people.  Even if the musicians on this record are all masterful and came up with a record that is fun, fascinating, rocking, trippy, bewildering, and, yeah, kooky.

Then again, that seems to describe much of John Zorn's oeuvre over a long and unpredictable career.  Which is why he's so cool.