Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bill Laswell/Material: Hallucination Engine

Like his frequent collaborator, John Zorn (subject of the last post,) bassist and producer Bill Laswell utterly defies categorization.  Unlike anyone else in modern music (though at least one online commentator calls him, without much specificity, "the worst producer" in music), Laswell engages in consistently inventive "mash-ups" with musicians from all over the world, to the point where the performers generally never know on what album the end product will wind up. 

Consequently, Laswell's projects are fascinating excursions in the ultimate fusions of sounds and styles from hip-hop, rock, jazz, world and electronic influences.  Some of his groups, including Last Exit, Pain Killer, Divination, Method of Defiance and Praxis, are incredible conglomerations that bring together fantastic talent in invariably inspired situations.  In other cases, projects might be collaborations with single musicians, such as with ambient mastermind Pete Namlook of FAX Records in the Outland and Psychonavigation series.  Then, there are the one-offs or nearly so, like the amazing Tabla Beat Science, bringing together Indian tabla playing with electronic sounds, or the stunning SXL, which brought Korean-style drumming with Western instrumentation on the remarkable Into the Outlands recording.  Finally, under the Island-distributed imprint Axiom, started in the late 80s and continuing for several highly-productive years, Laswell spearheaded the release of phenomenal world music recordings that ranged from the traditional to the highly fused (that is, with Western styles and instruments.)  Needless to say, with hundreds of albums over the years, he has applied his playing, production, arranging and recombining in mind-blowingly varied ways.

While Laswell proably garnered his earliest attention to most people through his production work on Herbie Hancock's Future Shock album nearly thirty years ago, which garnered the hit record "Rockit," his first notable project was with the New York collective Material.  Working in the postpunk environment of the late 70s, starting with the album Temporary Music, the band folded rather quickly, but Laswell, working with Nicky Skopelitis on guitars and synthesizer, reconfigured the ensemble into one that moved easily through genres on subsequent recordings.

In 1994, YHB got the first substantive exposure to Laswell's musical mash-up philosophy with Hallucination Engine, one of the last Axiom recordings.  A quick reading of the featured musicians is a marvel:  jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter, reggae drum master Sly Dunbar (a.k.a. Drumbar), oud player and violinist Simon Shaheen, Parliament-Funkadelic stalwarts Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell, tabla players Zakir Hussain and Trilok Gurtu, percussionist Aiyb Dieng, and ney player Ali Jihad Racy are just some of the notables.  Plus, there is a spoken-word appearance by poet and cut-up theorist William S. Burroughs on the track "Words of Advice," that is worth a listen just for the gravelly world-weary expostulating by Burroughs.

Dub, Indian music, Middle Eastern sounds, funk, jazz, ambient electronica and more make for a truly remarkable musical excursion on Hallucination Engine.  It's hard to imagine a recording more eclectic than this one, but with Bill Laswell this smorgasbord of sound is standard operating procedure and his work will be covered extensively in this blog because of the excitement and interest it brings.

Material:  Hallucination Engine (Axiom 314-518 351-2, 1994)

1.  Black Light, 7:33
2.  Mantra, 8:44
3.  Ruins (Submutation Dub), 8:54
4.  Eternal Drift, 7:35
5.  Words of Advice, 3:58
6.  Cucumber Slumber (Fluxus Mix), 7:30
7.  The Hidden Garden/Naima, 13:00
8.  Shadows of Paradise, 9:45

Sunday, January 22, 2012

John Zorn: Kristallnacht

Labeling and classifying music and musicians may or may not be useful or fair, but there are certainly instances where it can be pointless.   This is definitely the case with John Zorn, whose long career has been filled with examples of music that defy easy categorization.

In 1990, when exploring various forms of music became a fascination for YHB, Zorn was notorious for the Torture Garden album released under his Naked City project.  That recording will be covered here eventually and it was an interesting and remarkable introduction to this fascinating artist.

Later, came Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), recorded in 1992, and comprising the first release in Zorn's Radical Jewish Culture series.  Though Jewish, he had not explicitly identified personally with his heritage until about the time of this mind-blowing recording.  Kristallnacht is a searing examination into the Nazi-led attack against the Jewish population of several occupied states in 1938 (and in which my future wife's maternal grandparents and other family were entangled in Vienna and from which some escaped and others perished in concentration camps.  I also have Jewish ancestry--my grandmother, though mostly Hawaiian,  had the maiden name Levy, as her paternal grandfather, the only of his family born outside of what is now Poland, left San Francisco for Honolulu in 1880.)

Sounds of broken glass, white noise, heavy percussion and grinding guitar evoke the horrors of Nazi brutality, while clarinet, trumpet and violin reflect the sadness, grief and contemplation of these actions, and there is plenty else on this amazing recording to show the range of emotions that one cannot get from films, books or other artistic expressions.

The opening track, "Shtetl (Ghetto Life)" intersperses Nazi rally speeches to a gorgeous klezmer or Jewish folk melody in a forceful juxtaposition that lays the groundwork for the evocative work to come.  The next piece, "Never Again," uses extreme white noise to capture one emotional and psychological state of mind concerning the topic and Zorn warned that the piece "contains high frequency extremes at the limits of human hearing & beyond, which may cause nausea, headaches & ringing in the ears.  Prolonged or repeated listenings is not advisable as it may result in temporary or permanent ear damage."  This track lasts nearly 12 minutes and is one manifestation of Zorn's approach to music (and sound) that has made him a controversial figure over his career, but its carefully layered montage of broken glass sounds represents the rioting.

Then, comes to eerie windswept ambience of "Gahelet (Embers)" reflecting the quiet, but not the calm, that followed the violence and destruction with barely audible violin, guitar and radio sounds.  Other tracks use some of Zorn's interesting approaches to composition with abrupt changes in styles, tempos and instrumentation, while "Barzel (Iron Fist)" is what it's title implies, a bludgeoning, pummeling piece of guitar, percussion and blaring sirens and noise representing Nazi militarism and terrorism.  The last piece, "Gariin (Nucleus—The New Settlement) is most notable for William Winant's inventive percussion and guitarist Marc Ribot's stunning soloing.  In fact, Zorn's careful composition and production is enhanced by the masterful playing on this record, including the work of Mark Feldman on violing, Anthony Coleman on keyboards, Mark Dresser on base, David Krakauer on clarinet and bass clarinet, and Frank London on trumpet--all Jewish musicians.  The CD booklet has images of a burning synagogue, a glorified statue symbolizing a "Nazi Ideal", a Nazi soldier, and corpses of Jews at Bergen Belsen and excerpts of writings about the rioting and Jewish identity.

Zorn has been quoted as saying that Kristallnacht represented a passionate response to years of denying his Jewish heritage in dealing with the Holocaust.  It is truly a visceral, emotional and thought-provoking recording that leaves a real impact on the listener and it defies any attempts at "File Under . . ."

John Zorn:  Kristallnacht (Tzadik 7301, 1995)

1.  Shtetl (Ghetto Life): 5:51
2.  Never Again: 11:41
3.  Gahelet (Embers): 3:25
4.  Tikkun (Rectification): 3:02
5.  Tzfia (Looking Ahead): 8:46
6.  Barzel (Iron Fist): 2:01
7.  Gariin (Nucleus—The New Settlement):  7:58

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Miles Davis: Bitches Brew

It's difficult enough for a musician or band can move from one era or style or genre of music to another and still maintain relevance and an audience and extremely rare to have it happen twice or three times.  But, Miles Dewey Davis III (1926-1991) did something of this order of revolutionary change at least four times.  From his 1940s debut in New York playing with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie during the heady days of the bop movement, to Davis' spearheading of the so-called "Birth of the Cool" nonet recordings of the late 40s, to the "hard bop" of his classic first quintet with John Coltrane, Paul Chambers, Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones to the several big band projects with Gil Evans to the second classic quintet with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams and Ron Carter and to the electric period, with all of its permutations--this kind of reinvention several times over is simply unique.

There will be a lot to say in future posts about Davis, whose "mercurial" persona on and off stage was nearly as commented upon as his music, but it is hard to think of anything he did that was as controversial and groundbreaking musically as the 1970 album, Bitches Brew.  The title was somewhat shocking and the beautiful and eye-catching cover art work also drew much attention, but the music . . . well, there would be much arguing among musicians, fans and, naturally, critics about whether Davis was a revolutionary taking jazz to the only logical place it could go after the "New Thing" or free jazz dominance of the music through the 60s  or a sell-out, pandering out to a rock audience to maintain popularity and prosperity.  Or, worse, a destroyer of jazz, whose move into the fusion of jazz with rock via an emphasis on amplified electronic instrumentation encouraged the excesses that followed in the 70s (and, maybe even paved the way for the dreaded smooth jazz of later years.)

YHB first heard Bitches Brew about 1984, after dipping a toe into the waters with Davis's current album, Decoy.  That latter album and most of the output after the trumpeter's 1981 comeback won't be covered in this blog, excepting the very interesting album Aura, recorded in 1985 and released a few years after that (and the three Davis concerts attended in the late 80s were good, entertaining gigs.)  But, the riches of Bitches Brew along with the hearing of In a Silent Way, The Birth of the Cool and Kind of Blue in short order laid the groundwork for future explorations of Davis' work, especially in the last few years, a journey that has yielded a great deal of pleasure in following the many permutations of this master's incredible career.

There is so much to get into when it comes to this album, which was recorded in August 1969 and released eight months later.  The solid rhythms laid down by bassists Dave Holland and Harvey Brooks, drummers Lenny White, Don Alias and Jack DeJohnette, and percussionists Alias and Jumma Santos are really essential, as are the grooves by keyboardists Chick Corea, Larry Young and Joe Zawinul, which swirl through and around the music in hypnotic ways.  Wayne Shorter, a stalwart of the tenor, plays exclusively on the soprano sax in this recording and does a marvelous job. 

But, perhaps the most notable sounds, outside of the leader's work, on this recording, because of their rare appearances in jazz generally at the time and the outstanding playing, are the bass clarinet of Bennie Maupin and guitarist John McLaughlin.  Maupin's snaking and curling work are essential to establishing and maintaining the mood of the record and he probably has not received enough credit or attention for that.  McLaughlin simply plays remarkably creative and interesting solos, free of grandstanding and attention seeking, but always displaying the restraint and sensitivity that so many technically adept guitarists lack.

As for Davis, "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" showcases his playing best and, while he was always stereotyped as a middle-register player whose use of emotion and space were more important than his supposed lack of speed and proficiency, he gets plenty of opportunity to show speed, agility, and upper-register playing that belies what many of his critics suggested otherwise.  He is also exceptional on the title track and on Shorter's "Sanctuary."

It is also important to mention Zawinul's contribution as the writer of "Pharoah's Dance", even if, as was usually the case with Davis recordings, the leader could and did dramatically change the composition, and the major contributions of producer Teo Macero.  Macero assumed greater importance in the electric period because of his assiduous and time-consuming work in editing, more than he had done in previous efforts with Davis in the 60s.  The artistry involved was with Macero's ability to take continuously recorded tape from the studio and craft a series of edits in a way to make them appear seemless, or nearly so.  The approach of intensive editing may not have always worked so well in other efforts, according to critics, but on Bitches Brew the editing as well as the use of echo, reverb and looping are remarkable.  In his autobiography, Davis had tellingly little to say about Macero's involvement in production and elsewhere sometimes diminished his longtime associate's work, but the leader's comments on the liner notes to the Tribute to Jack Johnson album, which was released next after Bitches Brew reveals Davis' debt to the devotion Macero had to creating innovative and important work from the hours and hours of tape from the sessions.

Kind of Blue had been Davis' biggest seller previously, but Bitches Brew actually achieved gold record status (500,000 or more copies), which was the first time a jazz album achieved that pinnacle (though, again, to some it was a decline--in qualitative instead of quantitative terms.)  Davis began performing at rock venues, like the Fillmore auditoriums in New York and San Francisco, as well as Carnegie Hall, drew younger white and black crowds and made mindblowing music through his "retirement" in 1975.

This blogger likes music from all eras of Davis' long career--from the Birth of the Cool to Aura and plenty in between and can just as easily listen to Sketches of Spain as Agharta and Milestones as On the Corner and Kind of Blue as Get Up With It.  The personnel, instrumentation, and song structures may change, but the unceasing desire for change and the quality of the performances are almost always rewarding in navigating the journey through several decades of Miles Davis' musical explorations, even if Davis' overt need to maintain an audience and keep the cash coming in were obvious.  If Bitches Brew was a sellout, it was the most experimental, creative and unlikeliest of hit records imaginable.  Kudos to Davis if he could maintain musical integrity and sell albums at the same time--this does not happen all that often.

It's hard to say that Bitches Brew constitutes a favorite album from such a widely varied and extensive career, but it certainly was an important . . . (OK, what is a synonym for milestone?) . . . landmark.  It still sounds fresh and inventive over forty years later.

The image above is from the longbox edition of The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, which is a 4-CD box that has stirred controversy for the inclusion of pieces recorded later in 1969 and early in 1970 from sessions not part of the album recordings, though it may be argued that the spirit of the record continued on to the later work.  In any event, these boxes are usually for devoted fans or completists

Saturday, January 14, 2012

King Crimson: Red

In 1984, YHB was fully immersed in the "alternative rock" of the day, from the more popular R.E.M. and U2 to the independent DYI sounds of Hüsker Dü and Minutemen and lots in between.  So, when a friend and fellow frequent concertgoer asked about going to see King Crimson do a show at the Greek Theatre in L.A., the answer was an immediate, resounding "NO!"

After all, wasn't King Crimson prog?  How uncool and outdated could that be?  Disturbing visions ensued of massive stage sets, florid light shows, bizarre costumes, murky concept albums with sidelong suites about fairies and dragons, endless noodling on overwrought keyboard and guitar solos, and on and on, ad inifinitum.

Undaunted, said friend unloaded a set of LPs (remember those massive black things) and begged for a considered listen.  And, yes, persistence paid off.  The journey through several albums from 1969 to 1984 was a remarkable one. 

Actually, with each successive lineup of the ever-changing Crimson, the sounds actually were stripped down and refined further away from the stereotypical "progessive" sound to a leaner, tighter one (ones?)  From the legendary debut, In the Court of the Crimson King, and its still-astonishing "21st Century Schizoid Man," to the much-maligned Lizard (1970) and Islands (1971), the riveting power of the 1972-74 lineup and its trio of albums and the surprisingly-successful reconstituted Crimson of the early 1980s, it was obvious that, in its relentless changeability, experimentation, and precision, KC became less of a prog band and operated within its own sphere, separate from anything else in the "rock world."

Guitarist Robert Fripp, who denies being the band's leader, but who has been its sole continuing member and has the patents and copyrights under his own name, has had a clever saying:  King Crimson albums are "love letters" and the concerts are "hot dates."  Another way of saying that, great as the albums can be, the band is best experienced live. That statement was fully validated by YHB at the June '84 gig at the Greek. 

An impressed new fan drove home from LA that night and some albums were quickly acquired and absorbed.  Lo and behold, however, KC, again, ceased to exist a month or so later and, so, was left aside in favor of other musical interests.  One EP, 1994's Vroom was purchased and enjoyed, but, otherwise, a quarter century went by without any exposure to Crimson, though some aspects of the band's music, especially the 1974 album, Starless and Bible Black, resonated.  

So, after 25 years, in Fall 1999, it was decided to give Crimson another go and the focus was the 1972-74 period, a popular one for Crimson fans.  What hooked me was the track "The Talking Drum" from 1973's Larks' Tongues in Aspic.  The African-style percussion by Jamie Muir, David Cross's keening violin playing, the alternating repetitive triads of bassist John Wetton (he of Asia fame in the early 80s), Bill Bruford's building and hypnotic drumming, and Fripp's Middle Eastern-style guitar playing, in particular, drew me in.  It seemed that, while in 1984, my references to Crimson were limited to what I knew of "rock" to that point, the many years since brought exposure to classical, jazz and world music and this helped coalesce my interest in what KC had done over the years.  The Starless and Bible Black album featured the amazing closer, Fracture, with Fripp's control, precision and clean tone leading to a thunderous finish.  But, it was the final album of that period, Red, released in October 1974, that proved to be the most impressive.

The quartet finished extensive touring with a powerful performance at New York's Central Park on 1 July 1974, after which Cross was fired over Fripp's objections.  Already disillusioned with the band's direction and enmeshed in a personal crisis requiring soul searching, the guitarist joined Wetton and Bruford in the studio just a week later to make Red and then informed his colleagues that he was offering no opinions as to the direction of the music. 

While these were hardly ideal conditions, if such exist, to make a studio album, the trio, aided by several musicians who had been in Crimson as members or guests (including original member, reed player Ian McDonald, later of Foreigner), created Red, released in October 1974 and which is one of the three essential albums in the Crimson catalog (along with In the Court of the Crimson King and 1981's Discipline.) 

The title track is one of the several pieces in the "canon" that are generally held out to be paramount and it is a great piece.  Another key song is Providence, a live improvisation with a powerful closing that was edited to a rather abrupt end, and which was recorded in the Rhode Island city of that name, and one of several pieces (a few on Starless and Bible Black) that were included on studio albums, but with audience applause and other concert noise edited out, so that the distinction between studio and live performance was blurred--an interesting effect not often used.  Two other songs, Fallen Angel and One Red Nightmare, tend to be downplayed because of the attention give to the others, but Wetton sings well and the band plays tightly.  Bruford's use of cymbals on the latter piece is also noteworthy.

The centerpiece, however, and perhaps the greatest song in long history of King Crimson is Starless, a piece Wetton introduced in the Starless and Bible Black session earlier in the year and which was promptly rejected, though it became a live staple later.  Persistence paid off, because, when taken up for Red, the song became a stunning display of Wetton's smoky vocals evoking the contemplative and dark lyrics, a long middle section of Fripp's repetitive but hypnotic triad of notes, and a complex and frequently frenetic ending section that, in total, had the band, including McDonald and others, virtually capsulizing the five-year history of Crimson in an exhilirating twelve minute tour de force.

Fripp didn't notify Wetton and Bruford, who both seemed to think that stardom was just around the corner for the band, which was to include McDonald as a permanent member, that he was leaving until later in the year.  But, Starless, intended or not, was the ultimate swan song and Red the consummate send-off for a band that was unfairly defined by stereotypical appraisals of progressive rock

There'll be much more to say here about King Crimson and its long, varied and notable recordings, but Red is about as apt a place to start as any. A 40th Anniversary edition, issued in 2009, has the original album and three bonus tracks (including the full version of Providence) on a CD and a variety of formats and rare 1974 video of the band performing, though in mono, four tracks, including Starless, from a French TV broadcast on a DVD.  The mix by Steven Wilson of the band Porcupine Tree is truly outstanding (as all of the series are) and the edition is well worth seeking out for both the superior sound and the video content.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier

Where can anyone possibly start when it comes to so-called "classical music," or "serious music," or, even just "music" (as if everything else somehow isn't)?  Not only is the chronology extensive, but the arbitrary periods and genres (Early, Baroque, Romantic, Atonal,, Musique Concrete, Minimalist, etc.) are many and vast.

For this fundamentally untutored listener, though, perhaps the earliest experience that had a major impact on my enjoyment of "classical" was Johann Sebastian Bach, first through his violin works, then violcello (cello) pieces, next the organ, and then finally the cembalo or harpsichord.  Bach (1685-1750) was actually best known as an organist in his lifetime and his compositions were not given their due until his musical descendants, principally Mozart and Haydn in the later 1700s and then Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann and others, began to use his contrapuntal (counterpoint being the use of two or more harmonically independent voices--the last point, for example, touched upon the polyphony of the Bulgarian female choir music) methods and Bach's reputation as a composer was forever established.

One of Bach's most important works (and there are many, many of them) from the standpoint of the history of music, as well as study and listening enjoyment is The Well-Tempered Clavier, a series two-dozen preludes and fugues ranging from  2 1/2 to over 8 minutes in length.  The composer issued his first edition of these pioneering works in 1722, stating that they were "for the advantage and use of all studious ad musical youth as well as for those already attending a university, set up for their special diversion . . ."  Though the intent was clearly academic, at least for the publishing of the series, the "special diversion" also falls to untold numbers of listeners, including laypersons like YHB, who simply enjoy the pieces for their beauty, harmonic complexity, and range of styles.

The "well tempered" aspect concerns the tuning of the instrument (harpsichord in Bach's time, the piano in ours) so that the twelve notes contained in an octave are tuned to allow for the playing of all 24 major and minor keys.  This greatly expanded the palette of the keyboard for composers and, though Bach was not the first to investigate "pantonal" ideas, his system became paramount for anyone following him, at least until modern (early 20th century) music brought such developments as atonal composition, where keys were jettisoned completely, from such compsoers as Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky, and twelve-tone serial work by Arnold Schoenberg and others, and the highly esoteric, but fascinating work of Harry Partch, who had his own notation system based on 43 notes played on his own custom instruments--truly amazing stuff!

Those with limited understandings (such as YHB) can, at least, listen to "early music" first and then that of Bach to hear the greater richness, variety and depth that his contrapuntal ideas generated relative to harmony, usually with three or four voicings in the pieces in The Well-Tempered Clavier, without having to be extensively schooled in the finer technical points.

At any rate, Bach's music is always an excellent place to start, as was the case here, with exploring the world of "classical music."  Listening to Bach and other Baroque composers like Antonio Vivaldi, Georg Telemann and Georg Handel and then continuing to later composers like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms and others is an opportunity to see how the early ideas of counterpoint are developed and extended through the 19th century.  Then, the explosive contrasts with "modern" 20th-century music becomes, at least for this listener, more understandable, as earlier notions of tuning, modulation, counterpoint, harmony and other aspects are challenged.  Even with the limited range of listening of YHB, the journey through the varied aspects of "classical music" has been and continues to be exciting and educational and you don't have to be a music snob to enjoy the trip.

The image shows the cover of a two-CD issue of The Well-Tempered Clavier (or, in this case, The Well-Tempered Piano, even though a harpsichord or cembalo is played) by the German budget label Pilz (love those Pilz and Naxos releases!) in 1989.  It's not Glenn Gould or Andras Schiff, but Christiane Jaccottet (1937-1999), a Swiss harpsichordist and professor at the Geneva Conservatory of Music, whose playing is outstanding.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Village Music of Bulgaria

In 1990, a decision to explore an expanded variety of music led YHB to such avenues as jazz, classical and world music.  Each had its many virtues, not the least of which was the opportunity to experience music that broadened the definition of what music was, be it through improvisation, the diversity of instrumentation, a varying approach to scales, rhythms, and time.  Each had its many pleasures in discovery, but there was something fundamentally new and exciting for this listener in discovering music from other parts of the world outside the so-called "western tradition."  Although certainly elements of jazz and classical, typically denoted the "avant-garde", could push, often forcefully, at that tradition, they were still of it.

With the music of other countries and societies, there awaited the journey to different sounds and concepts.  These will be explored often here.   It started, actually, with music released on the incomparable imprint "Nonesuch Explorer," a series devoted to world music that was introduced in the 1960s by Elektra Records's off-shoot, Nonesuch Records.  In 1990, there was a true cultish phenomenon surrounding one of the Explorer series titles: the exotically named Les Mystére des Voix Bulgares (The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices.)  Somehow, the planets aligned or whatever, but there was a groundswell of support from enough of the mainstream for this recording of polyphonal female choral music from Bulgaria, which featured unusual time signatures or meters, backing drones as well as instrumental support, and a clear influence of both Western and Eastern (the Ottoman Turks ruled Bulgaria, for example, for some five centuries) music.

The project was a decade and a half labor of love from French ethnomusicologist Marcel Cellier, who released his recording of the music on his small self-produced label in the mid-1970s.  About a decade later, however, British producer Ivo Watts-Russell, impresario of the famed independent label 4AD (of whom more later with the Cocteau Twins), heard the album courtesy of Peter Murphy, the theatrical lead vocalist of the so-called Goth group, Bauhaus, and obtained licensing rights for it.  While the 4AD label released the album in the U.K., it was Nonesuch that brought out the record in the U.S.

The choir has been known as the Bulgarian State [Radio and] Television Female Vocal Choir, though now officially changed to Les Mystére des Voix Bulgares to capitalize on their late 1980s/early 1990s fame, formed in 1952 when Bulgaria was fully controlled by a Soviet-allied Communist government.  After the release of the first Les Mystére album, others followed, including a second volume that won a Grammy in 1990 for "Best Traditional Folk Recording."  Strong sales, critical acclaim, and the right marketing and promotional approach led to world tours.  This listener saw the choir perform at Royce Hall at UCLA in the early Nineties and it was a definite concert highlight.

The polyphony or diaphonic singing refers to harmonies by two, or sometimes three, parts of the choir simultaneously, though the harmonies appear dissonant and include jubilant cries, shouts and yelps, stunning glissandos, and, sometimes energetic support from several acoustic string, woodwind and percussion instruments, though the singing is often a capella.

Actually, the term "folk music" is misleading when it comes specifically to the Les Mystére organization, which came in the early 1950s with a decided orchestrated and arranged element imposed on the folk origins from rural Bulgaria.  Still, the effects were breathtaking on record (for the most part--much debate issued with the From Bulgaria with Love  recording and its pop-disco renderings, much less its cover with a long-barreled revolver pointed at one of the costumed choir members, in what appeared to be a reference to James Bond [?!]) and in concert.

So, this listing highlights a CD pairing of two 1960s LP releases by Nonesuch that gives, perhaps, a more "natural" rendering of Bulgarian folk music.  These albums are A Harvest, a Shepherd, a Bride: Village Music of Bulgaria and In the Shadow of the Mountain: Bulgarian Folk Music, with these denoted on the CD case spine as Village Music of Bulgaria. This 1988 release is a gem--not as modern and splashy as Les Mystére and less overly choral and more focused on solos, duos and trios as well as instrumental pieces, but still having all of the entrancing elements of Bulgarian folk music and singing. 

There are twenty-five titles (12 on the former and 13 the latter) in Bulgarian, so a track listing will be omitted here.  Needless to say, anyone looking for a little adventure in either choral music or folk instrumental playing can hardly go wrong with this magnificent music.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come

If John Coltrane's 1965 album A Love Supreme was the ultimate in spiritual expression in jazz, then The Shape of Jazz to Come, the 1959 recording from Ornette Coleman was perhaps the ultimate in establishing the freedom of expression that many other musicians and listeners followed, while others turned away in disdain and despair.

We're inured much more more than a half-century later to unorthodox sounds, but when Coleman, who initially played a plastic alto sax for financial reasons and found he loved the sound so much that he continued to use it, and his quartet (Don Cherry on cornet, Charlie Haden on bass and drummer Billy Higgins) first made waves in an engagement at the Five Spot club in New York, the reactions were visceral and largely polarized.

The Shape of Jazz to Come was boldly titled and played.  There was nothing like it before and Coleman's music became totally distinctive, both for those who loved and hated it, when the album was unleashed in October 1959.

While detractors made many claims (he couldn't play, was "jiving", etc.), the opening track clearly shows Coleman's true gift for melody and composition.  "Lonely Woman" is simply one of the most beautiful, haunting tracks in music and the harmony between Coleman and Cherry is remarkable as is Haden's incredible strumming on the bass.  In fact, on "Focus on Sanity," which seems an ironic remark, Haden's confident and and supple performance heralds a new way of playing an instrument generally relegated to rhythmic support.  And, Higgins provides the support for the freedom of the others while being able to demonstrate his own plastic sense of time and rhythm.  "Just for You" has another awfully pretty melody for someone that some critics thought was ruining jazz, while "Eventually" shows a supremely-tight (and, yet, loose) ensemble at a frenetic pace with colors and tones that were light years ahead of most (though not all) of what was being done at the time.

Actually, for this basically untutored listener, it seems like there is a lot of tradition in The Shape of Jazz to Come.  There is a pronounced bluesy feel (Coleman was from Fort Worth, Texas and had much exposure to blues and R & B playing his his earlier days) to much of the soloing and the ensemble playing does seem to hearken back (without just reproducing) the feeling of the New Orleans roots of the music. 

The signature "harmolodics" of Coleman's approach relative to jazz's origins and development just doesn't seem to be that much of a stretch (at least not to some of our jaded 21st-century ears), even if, as Cherry once said, what could start as a harmonic device would develop into a melody and vice-versa.  In a way, wasn't what Coleman was doing was taking elements of "the tradition" and establishing a new sense of freedom for the players, who, after all, weren't "jiving," but were genuinely engaging in the time-honored jazz fundamental basis of experimenting with improvisation?

It's probably best to quote Coleman here.  For example, his statement that "you can't intellectualize music" and that "pure emotion" in reaction to the sounds is what matters.  Or, "there is a law in what I'm playing," but, "when you get tired of it you can change it." Finally, the epitome of explaining what he was doing is reflected in his observation that there was Dixieland's ensemble playing, swing's riff-based soloing, and bop's progressive approach to melody and harmony.  Concluded Coleman, "now we are blending all three together to create and give more freedom to the player and more pleasure to the listener."

Freedom for the musician and pleasure for the listener--at least for this listener, The Shape of Jazz to Come is one of the best examples in all of jazz of the two in harmony--or harmolodically!

The Shape of Jazz to Come

1.  Lonely Woman
2.  Eventually
3.  Peace
4.  Focus on Sanity
5.  Congeniality
6.  Chronology

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Cabaret Voltaire: Drinking Gasoline/The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord

Top: the 1985 EP, Drinking Gasoline and, bottom, the album,
The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, also from 1985.

It might seem surprising to follow a post on John Coltrane with one on the electronic group Cabaret Voltaire, but, for this listener, these (and CVs Richard H. Kirk and his solo work) have been the reliable mainstays on his playlist over the last 20 years (and in the Cabs' case, 25 years.) 

The common link is a total commitment to the vision embodied in the music.  This will hold true for all of the great musicians and bands discussed in this blog, whether commercial success came or not.

The Cabs started as a true DIY trio (Kirk on guitar and wind instruments, vocalist and bassist Stephen Mallinder, and Chris Watson on a variety of electronics) in 1973 concocting dense layered processed sound, "found sound" from television, radio and other audio and video sources and barked, shouted and whispered vocals with topical references to religion, authoritarian organizations, and other modern concerns from a primitive loft studio in the decaying British steel town of Sheffield that led to a Rough Trade Records contract and several intriguing albums after 1978.  After Watson's 1981 departure, Kirk and Mallinder stripped down and cleaned up the sound into a more accessible, even danceable, one, albeit with the edge intact through a trio of albums and an EP on Virgin Records to 1985.  A brief, largely unhappy stint with a major label (EMI) in the late 1980s (though 1987s Code was played almost non-stop by YHB) was followed by a return to the earlier aesthetic, though updated in approach during the early 1990s "golden age" of IDM (so-called Intelligent Dance Music) and other forms of electronic music.

After 1994's impressive The Conversation, the group went into hiatus, while Kirk continued a staggeringly productive solo career, under his own name and an inexhaustible supply of aliases and nom-de-plumes.  Watson is a sound recordist for television and has made fascinating field recordings for Touch Records, while Mallinder occasionally made music in Australia before returning to England for a PhD and an academic career in popular culture while also continuing involvement in recording.  In the last few years, Kirk has revived Cabaret Voltaire by working, so far, with remix projects (for the New Zealand band Kora and England's The Tivoli), though he intends to do some original work, as well.

A concert review from late 1985 stirred an interest in exploring CV and led to the purchase of the 33-minute EP, Drinking Gasoline, recorded in late 1984  It took several weeks and listenings to finally "get" what the Cabs were doing, but the emphasis on the dynamics of sound over song did finally get through.  The subsequent album, The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, from 1985, deepened the interest in the work of this influential group and its long, diverse catalog of releases, including longform videos that were among the first of their kind when they appeared in the early and mid-Eighties.

From there, CV became a clear favorite and has remained such for a quarter century.  More will be included in this blog about the Cabs and Richard H. Kirk's work.  Here is a site that probably has the most online information on CV.  The Wikipedia entry can be found here.

Drinking Gasoline

1.  Kino
2.  Sleepwalking
3.  Big Funk
4.  Ghostalk

The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord

1.  L21st
2.  I Want You
3.  Hells Home
4.  Kickback
5.  The Arm of the Lord
6.  Warm
7.  Golden Halos
8.  Motion Rotation
9.  Whip Blow
10. The Web
11. Sleepwalking (Bonus track, CD version)
12. Big Funk (Bonus track, CD version)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

John Coltrane: A Love Supreme

There are many good sources of information about John Coltrane and plenty of criticism, to boot. 

Suffice it to say that, immediately upon first hearing Trane in 1990 with the 1961 Atlantic Records album, My Favorite Things, he became a perpetual fixture in the playlist of this listener and struck a chord (!) with a passion, intensity and emotional and spiritual expression unmatched by just about any other musician. 

There is much to enjoy in any of Trane's incredibly prolific career, mostly within the decade of 1957-1967, from the Prestige years to the Atlantic era and to the Impulse! period, and so much diversity with ballads, introspective mid-tempo pieces, high-energy compositions, blues tracks and everything and anything in between.

The pinnacle of this great saxophonist's work may well be 1965's A Love Supreme.  The four-part suite is a little less than 33 minutes, but every moment is beautifully expressed and expertly played by Trane and his colleagues: McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass), and Elvin Jones (drums.)

Accepting that perfection may be impossible, it is hard to imagine any recording coming closer than this.  There are moments of blinding intensity, thoughtful introspection, and quiet beauty.  All players show off their considerable talents and there is not, to these layperson's ears, a wasted note at any point.  This album is simply breathtaking, inspiring and uplifting.

A 2002 deluxe edition features a second disc with the only complete live rendering, at the Antibes festival in France from July 1965, and alternate takes of two parts, including versions of the opening movement with a sextet featuring Art Davis on bass and Archie Shepp on tenor sax.  There is also a 32-page booklet with the original liner notes, essays, analysis and great photos.   For those desiring to know more, Ashley Kahn's book, A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album, was published around the time of the reissue from Viking Press.

There will be much more about John Coltrane on this blog, but this seemed like the most fitting place to start.