Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ravi Shankar/Ali Akbar Khan: Ragas

For a time in the "flower power" years of the 1960s, the music of India achieved a stunning degree of success in America and England, largely propelled by the earnest efforts of George Harrison, guitarist of The Beatles, to study and apply that music in his own work (in such songs as "Norwegian Wood" and "Within You, Without You.")  The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones played the sitar on the hit single, "Paint It, Black" in 1966.  A little later, Miles Davis employed embellishments from Indian instruments like the tabla and tamboura in his early 1970s jazz "fusion" experiments.  And, there was a time in the electronica/techno heyday of the 1990s that Indian music was given some exposure--hip hop label Tommy Boy, for example, put out a compilation album that fused electronica with Indian sounds in interesting ways.  At about the same time, producer/bassist Bill Laswell formed Tabla Beat Science, in which a wide variety of Western sounds were melded with the virtuoso playing of tabla master Zakir Hussain and other Indian musicians.

Still, there is nothing like going directly to the source to discovery the wonder and power of Indian music, although a vast country like India has a great variety of regional sounds and styles.  In southern India, to take one example, songs of the Carnatic tradition are very different than music played elsewhere in the country.  In any case, today's selection is a fantastic introduction to two of the acknowledged masters of Indian ragas: Ravi Shankar (born 1920 and who just recently performed in Los Angeles at age 91!) and Ali Akbar Khan (1922-2009).  Sitarist Shankar is by far better known in the West, because of his association with classical musician and conductor Yehudi Menuhin and with Harrison and because he found a way to tap into the Western market, espeically his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival .  Khan, on the other hand, is hardly known, but his sarod playing is just as formidable and breathtaking.

The 1973 compilation album, simply titled Ragas, by Shankar and Khan is a fantastic introduction to Indian music and the work of these two masters.  The two appear together on the first two tracks "Raga Palas Kafi" and "Raga Bilashkani Todi" along with tabla player Kanall Dutta and Nodu Mullick and Ashish Kuman on tamboura.  These pieces were released in 1964 as The Master Musicians of India, while the third and fourth pieces, "Raga Ramdas Malhar" and "Raga Malika", feature Khan alone as soloist and supported by musicians on table and tamboura who were not credited on the album The Soul of Indian Music, which came out in 1965.  Both albums were issued by the jazz label, Prestige, which was bought later by Fantasy Records, issuer of this compilation.

Ragas represents exceptional performances that bring out the emotion and feeling that the word "raga" represents.  Indeed, there are important philosophical underpinnings to the raga tying into Hindu scriptural teachings, specifically the relation of the notes and tones of raga playing to the development of spiritual consciousness and a "non-manifest sound" that is a universal one, reaching to and from far beyond the confines of this planet alone.  The musicians, in fact, are trained to not only learn the technical aspects of playing their instruments, but the philosophical act of meditating upon the rupa or form of the piece as they play it, so that they can fully develop their playing and spiritual connection to the themes, which evoke particular emotions.

For most listeners, though, enjoying the raga does not necessarily entail the application of any spiritual connection to Hindu philosophical thought.  Instead, the listener can simply enjoy the music, from the slow introduction and statement of the melody to the gradual buildup of the music over the course of, in this case, roughly twenty minutes per piece, to a peak of brilliant improvisations that show the great range of Shankar and Khan in both the technical and emotional realms, while the rhythms of the tabla and the foundational support of the drone created by the tamboura underpin the flights of fancy achieved by the soloists.  Listen to what we might call the embellishments that Shankar and Khan employ, through such techniques as slides, trills and echoes, and the two utilize a wellspring of variations of notes in scales that lead to a hypnotic apex, which then leads to a conclusion through the tamboura's drone.

There are many examples of world musics tied to direct spiritual experiences, such as that of the Sufi and the whirling dervish or the gnawa of Morocco and the gamelan of Bali, to name a few.  The Indian raga is a kindred example and, whether one appreciates and accepts the philosophical premises and underpinnings or not, it is worth the effort to at least reflect upon the range of emotions that the music brings from a religious and philosophical standpoint.  It enriches the experience far beyond the playing of notes, tones, semi-tones and octaves and allows the listener to get some idea of the millenia of tradition embodied in the music.  A person can truly grow through the exposure to and appreciation of music from all over the world, including the sublime raga.  This album is as good an example as any that testifies to the power of this art form.

There have been comments online about the subpar sound on this recording, but the performances ought to outweight any concerns about the 1990 remastering job done by Fantasy.  This is spellbinding music by masters at peak form!

Ravi Shankar/Ali Akbar Khan:  Ragas (Fantasy, 1973)

Raga Palas Kafi  20:11
Raga Bilashkani Todi  19:56
Raga Ramdas Malhar  18:43
Raga Malika  18:59

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Mars Volta: De-Loused in the Comatorium

Rising from the ruins of the "underground" "cult" band At The Drive-In, which will be reuniting for this year's Coachella Festival, the appearance of The Mars Volta brought a sound that was a conglomeration of many obvious influences, from the music of Latin America and Mexico to punk to metal to King Crimson and Led Zeppelin and a whole lot more, but configured in a distinctive and unique way.

Guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez creates the complex, multi-layered sounds that run through varied time signatures and move quickly from slow tempo introspection to piledriving, bonecrushing intensity from measure to measure while vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala crafts dense, impressionistic lyrics that can generally appear to be imcomprehensible, while delivered in a high-pitched soaring vocal style.  While these two are the leaders of The Mars Volta, they have been supported by excellent musicians, including regular members and guests.

Their first full-length record is 2003's De-loused in the Comatorium, which is a concept album, though it would hardly be deciphered by the listener if the concept was not explained in a review or interview.  It has to do with the institutionalization of a late friend of Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler Zavala and the horrors associated with it.  Whether or not the prospect of trying to understand the lyrics, song titles, and the album's concept are worth the effort or not, the instrumental aspects, including Bixler Zavala's vocalising, are well worth a listen on their own.

In addition to the guitarist and vocalist, regular members of the group at the time were drummer Jon Theodore, whose stamina, power and inventiveness are impressive, keyboardist Ikey Isaiah Owens, and percussionist Jeremy Michael Ward (whose brother, Jim, was a member of At The Drive-In with Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler Zavala.)  The two guests are the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, a great bassist who plays throughout the album, and the scintillating guitarist John Frusciante, whose solos on "Cicatriz ESP" are trememdous.

The track that most stands out for YHB is "Drunkship of Lanterns," thogh "Inertiatic ESP," "Cicatriz ESP," "Televators," and "Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt" are also great songs (good luck deciphering the song titles, though.)  As said before, the playing is excellent throughout and the complex rhythms laid down by Flea and Theodore establish a solid base from which everything is built.  Rodriguez-Lopez produced the record with the legendary Rick Rubin and special note should be given to Rich Costey's mix, which really makes the most of the variety of textures and sounds laid down on the album.

There'll be further mention of The Mars Volta on this blog, but De-loused in the Comatorium retains that feeling of great surprise in discovery of something truly new that is rarely duplicated.  It's an ambitious, fascinating, complex, challenging, confounding and powerful album, and, even if the concept, lyrics and song titles might be problematic for some, the music alone is worth the attention of the adventurous listener.

The Mars Volta:  De-loused in the Comatorium

Son Et Lumiere  1:35
Inertiatic ESP  4:24
Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)  9:31
Tira Me a las AraƱas  1:29
Drunkship of Lanterns  6:20
Eriatarka  9:06
Cicatriz ESP  12:29
This Apparatus Must Be Unearthed  4:58
Televators  6:19
Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt  8:42

Friday, February 17, 2012

Cecil Taylor: Conquistador!

How can Cecil Taylor be described?  He is a pianist, but also a percussionist (the piano, including his 96-key [yes, 96!] Bosendorfer, is after all, an inherently percussive instrument), and a poet, as well as a pioneer. 

From his 1956 album Jazz Advance to his famed performances in Europe six years later that were as free an expression in jazz (or any music, for that matter) as there was at the time to his mid-60s records with Blue Note to the string of solo and "unit" albums in the 70s and 80s that cemented his fame/infamy and to recent endeavors, Taylor has been a true original, totally committed to his music.

He is not an "easy listen" like so many "easy listening" pianists are and his playing is "out there" or "avant garde" or "free."  But, for those who are willing to follow the overall sound, the integrated playing in groups and the staggering range of patterns and scales he uses in solo performance, the effects can be spine-tingling.

The fact is, Taylor's technical expression is virutally unparalleled.  His speed, power, dexterity, stamina, dynamics, and complex lyricism are awesome and staggering.  Yet, even when he accompanies a soloist in a band setting, he draws attention for the inventive ways in which he uses scales and clusters of notes to help clue the soloist to any number of directions.  Taylor can be appreciated in very different ways by listening to his solo work and that with his bands or "units."  While much of the time is playing is so spectacular in its power, there are also those instances where a softer, more contemplative, but always creative, side shows.  There are even moments of sweet melodicism and a yearning lyricism.  Taylor often has stated that he thinks of dancers when he composes and plays, which is an interesting insight into his performance style.

Maybe listening to Taylor can be too much work.  But, a modicum of effort has, in this case, proven to be highly rewarding.  Certainly, the easiest of Taylor's music to listen to are the records before 1962, especially his Jazz Advance album, records like Love for Sale, or the Candid recordings like Air.  But, his commitment to a freer sound afterwards can be breathtaking.

The first album YHB heard of Taylor's some twenty years ago was the Blue Note album, Conquistador!, recorded in Fall 1966.  Here, the pianist brought in two bass players, Alan Silva and Henry Grimes, one to pluck and strum his instrument, while the other primarily used a bow to add a different sense of color and time.  Two horns were included, with longtime associate Jimmy Lyons, an alto sax player who was criminally underrecognized for his ability to work in sync with Taylor and construct solos of invention and power, and trumpeter Bill Dixon, who transcended the upper-register blowing that most players strive for and played with a calm and clarity that is a nice foil for both Taylor and Lyons (Dixon reunited with Taylor in a live trio setting about a decade ago.)  The great Andrew Cyrille on drums provides an elastic sense of rhythm and time for the soloists and he integrates very readily with the bassists.

The title track may have one Taylor's best theme statements, or heads, one that shows that his sense of melody is strong, despite all the attention he gets for his soloing, and which is played so well in harmony by Lyons and Dixon.  And, the way the pianist accompanies the horn players and works with the rhythm section shows the care with which he crafts his compositions and works with his "unit."  The other piece, "With (Exit)", features particularly strong solos from Lyons and Taylor, while the bassists perform beautifully in interplay.  The CD has an alternate take of the latter tune, as well.

There will be many Cecil Taylor albums highlighted on this blog because in the opinion of YHB, Taylor is up there with Coltrane, Coleman and Davis as one of the great masters of jazz from the mid-1950s onward.  Fortunately, I had the opportunity to see him play at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City in 1999, when he was 70, but playing with the energy and focus of someone decades younger.  He has been frequently known to literally collapse from exhaustion, physical and mental, after a performance.

Indeed, a few years ago, when Taylor was 80, he flew from Norway to Germany to perform a concert, arrived early in the morning, rested briefly, went for a very advanced soundcheck and played for four hours, rested briefly again, came back and played for three more hours, even as some of the crowd filed in early for the show, and then played his set of maybe 75-80 minutes.  This in his eighth decade of life!

He is now about 82 or 83 and still performing, while hardly recognized outside of his fans.  He deserves more attention for what he has done and still does, but it does take concentration and focus.  The results, however, are well worth the investment.

Cecil Taylor:  Conquistador!

1.  Conquistador  17:51
2.  With (Exit)  19:17
3.  With (Exit) (alternate take)  17:10

Bill Dixon:  Trumpet
Jimmy Lyons:  Alto Sax
Cecil Taylor:  Piano
Henry Grimes:  Bass
Alan Silva:  Bass
Andrew Cyrille:  Drums

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Jam: Snap!

In 1983, maybe a year or so after the band broke up, I bought a double LP called Snap! by The Jam.  Other than my first hearing of Led Zeppelin as a 13-year old and that of Prince's 1999, I hadn't, to that date, been so blown away by a band or an album as I was on first listening to the retrospective of the British trio of Paul Weller (guitar, vocals), Bruce Foxton (bass, backing vocals), and Rick Buckler (drums.)

The twenty-eight song album is a remarkable overview of a band that, in just five years, became a profoundly popular group in its native England, while barely making any impact at all in the United States.  Indeed, the only song I'd heard by The Jam (and I listened to radio a lot then and hardly at all since the mid-1980s) was "Town Called Malice," which can occasionally be heard today. 

Otherwise, the trio was "too British", it was supposed, to be accepted in America, which only goes to show how pathetic provincialism can be.  Snap! is a fantastic album by a great band and led to the purchase and exploration of the group's proper albums, singles, and live recordings. 

Many years later, the 5-CD box set, Direction, Reaction, Creation, was purchased and is a great compilation for devoted fans.  For those who are interested in The Jam, but don't have the need or desire for such a massive collection, Snap! is a recommended entre to the band.

The first two albums, In the City and This is the Modern World, came out in 1977 while the punk movement was still strong in England, but the band's music was really based more on the mod influences of The Who, The Small Faces, and other British bands, such as The Kinks and, of course, The Beatles, of the mid and late 60s, as well as of Motown-influenced soul and R & B.  Then, in 1978, the band hit its stride with the remarkable All The Mod Cons, and an incredible string of singles, some hitting #1 on the U.K. charts, and albums like Setting Sons and Sound Affects showed the band at its apex. 

Great songs (all penned by Weller) like "Start;" "That's Entertainment;" "Funeral Pyre;" "A-Bomb in Wardour Street;" "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight;" "The Eton Rifles;" and "Going Underground" were instant classics in England and completely ignored Stateside.  As excellent as these were, there were others that, while not as renowned, were also classic songs, including Foxton's "Smithers-Jones" and Weller's "Dreams of Children;" "When You're Young;" "Tales from the Riverbank;" "Thick as Thieves;" "The Butterfly Collector;"  "Strange Town;" and a personal favorite, the sublime "Man in the Corner Shop."

While the band's final studio effort, The Gift, was an attempt to change the sound and introduce more R & B, soul, and pop elements, it was not as successful as earlier efforts and Weller was starting to be overwhelmed by success and its attendant pressures.  Consequently, in a daring move, he decided to leave the group at its pinnacle and a last tour and the release of the singles "The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had to Swallow)" and "Beat Surrender" marked the end of The Jam. 

Weller went on to form The Style Council, which had a sound that moved firmly into pop territory, albeit with a diverse array of sounds and a continuing interest in politically-informed lyrics and, after a spectacular demise there, went into a solo career in the 90s that brought him greater renown than ever.  How many musicians can lay claim to having three successful phases of a career?  It's a testament to his abilities as a songwriter. 

As to the other members, Buckler and Foxton wrote a bitter book about The Jam, which further widened the existing divide with Weller.  Foxton released a solo album not long after The Jam's breakup and then played for 16 years with Stiff Little Fingers.  Buckler, who was out of music for years, formed The Gift in 2006 with two other musicians to play The Jam songs.  When Foxton joined a year or so later, the group was renamed From The Jam, though Buckler departed in 2009.  Though Weller, true to his nature, adamantly refused to consider any reunion with his old bandmates, he did return to speaking terms with Foxton, who, in recent years, has appeared on stage and in the studio with Weller.  Buckler and Weller, however, have not spoken all these years.  Lately, a project called Foxton has been announced, in which the bassist is working with drummer Mark Brzezicki (from the popular Eighties band Big Country) and vocalist/guitarist Russell Hastings.  The record is being made at Weller's studio and he plays on many tracks along with Ray Davies of The Kinks and Steve Cropper of Sixties band Booker T and the MGs.

In any case, you probably cannot find a better career retrospective anywhere than Snap!, which was first released in a 21-song single CD edition and then, later, in a double CD package and a 3-CD special edition.  Thirty years will have passed at the end of this year since The Jam dissolved, but so much of their music is still fresh and timeless and Snap! captures the best of it.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Kronos Quartet: Howl, U.S.A.

In 1990, while beginning an immersion with "traditional" classical music, such as that of J. S. Bach, the subject of an earlier post, a dabbling also commenced with the "avant garde" strain, such as that of John Cage and Steve Reich (both of whom will figure subsequently.)  The first exposure, though, to "modern" classical was through the remarkable work of Kronos Quartet and their fantastic 1990 album Black Angels.  In fact, given the very limited exposure of newer compositions in the concert hall as well as the recording studio compared to that of "traditional" classical, the success of Kronos in building a highly-successful career playing "modern" classical, including many original commissioned works is stunning.  Two opportunities to see the quartet live, one at an Orange County junior college and the other at U.C.L.A., are concert-going highlights.

My favorite album from Kronos is Howl, U.S.A., released in 1996.  Here the quartet of David Harrington and John Sherba (violins), Joan Jeanrenaud (cello) and Hank Dutt (viola) work with four brilliant works.  The first is Michael Dougherty's "Sing Sing:  J. Edgar Hoover," which might be good to listen to after watching the recent biopic of the notorious F. B. I. chief.  Dougherty used snippets of Hoover speeches over three decades that highlight his obssession with Communism, as directed through such techniques as wiretapping.  The title comes from the composer's use of the string quartet as a "singing" complement to the digitally sampled speeches, while the sounds of sirens, machine guns, and patriotic singing add palpably to the piece.

Following is a section of the great Harry Partch's work "Barstow: Eight Hitchhikers' Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California."  Partch, also to be covered in this blog later, developed a new system of notation and built his own instruments to create a music that often drew heavily from sounds and themes of the ancient Greek world.  Yet, he spent some of his earlier years roaming the country as, essentially, a hobo, riding trains and then using those experiences in pieces like "Barstow."  There, he literally used inscriptions from the roadside railing to demonstrate the loneliness, pathos, ironic and dark humor and, even pathetic attempts at finding soulmates that could be found among life's weary travelers, both figuratively and metaphorically.  The voice of Ben Johnston is strangely perfect in voicing these all-too-human messages.

Scott Johnson's "Cold War Suite" from How It Happens (The Voice of I. F. Stone) is an apt counterpoint to Daugherty's Hoover piece.  Johnson uses a Stone speech, from a 1983 radio address, and a wiretapped voice section, to show the journalist and political philosopher's keen sense of observation, outrage, perspective on history and other qualities in a voice that is ideally suited for Johnson's manipulations with echo and rhythmic repetition.  Two of Stone's quotations stand out:  the first, that American movies have had more influence on the world than any Marxist/Communist propaganda and, second, that America's military prowess, capped by the acme of the atomic bomb, was unable to prevent the debacle in Vietnam (or Russia's misadventures in Afghanistan (naturally, our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are interesting to examine in this light now.)

Finally, there is "Howl," with music by Lee Hyla and the reading of the famed and notorious "beat" poem rendered by none other than its creator, Allen Ginsberg.  As explained by the poet, the work was essentially built upon his feelings concerning America's Cold War-era military buildup and what he saw as a "repressive police bureaucracy."  He also, however, added that he hoped "Howl" would bring "a clean Saxon four-letter word" to high school audiences in spite of authoritarian attempts to block such language!  Notably, Hyla remarked that the work initially has Kronos performing in a complementary manner to the cadences of Ginsberg's recitation, but then moving independently towards the latter part of the nearly 26-minute piece, as if the two were "telling similar stories in separate ways."

The rendering of "Howl" alone is spectacular, but to have three other impressive pieces that tie-in thematically, while presenting varied musical approaches, makes this album a real masterpiece in "modern" music.  Kronos has made many great albums of widely ranging styles, but Howl, U.S.A. stands out as a particularly brilliant concept and presentation.

1.  Sing Sing:  J. Edgar Hoover     10:40
2.  Barstow" Eight Hitchhikers Inscriptions . . .  9:49
3.  Cold War Suite from How It Happens . . .  10:35
4.  Howl  25:41