Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Durutti Column: The Return of the Durutti Column

It was 1986 and YHB was going to see New Order play at what was then called the Irvine Meadows (now the Verizon Wireless) Amphitheater, an outdoor venue in southern Orange County.  New Order was at its synth-driven pop peak, but the two opening acts were virtually unknown in these parts.  These were The Fall and The Durutti Column and, curious to know what they might sound like on stage, YHB purchased recent releases from the groups, including an album from the former and an EP from the latter.  The second had an immediate impact, including the gorgeous song, "Tomorrow," which became a mainstay of The Durutti Column's discography.

When the concert started, an exceptionally thin and frail looking guitarist, Vini Reilly, ambled on stage and sat down on the floor, which was a strange sight in a place that seated thousands, and there he remained for the entirety of the set.  A viola player, a trumpeter and a drummer, the exceptional Bruce Mitchell playing on a small kit, followed.  In the large open-air environment, the band played songs characterized by exquisite guitar playing with viola and trumpet accompaniment and occasional solos and Mitchell's polyrhythmic touch, often using brushes.  The performance was excellent, though entirely out of place, and this blogger was hooked.  Then, The Fall appeared with its steady backbeat, driving guitar, and sarcastic poetic and political utterances from the irascible and irrepressible Mark E. Smith.  During these unusual opening acts, the mainly young audience generally ignored the proceedings, but roared when New Order took the stage to perform their staggeringly popular danceable anthems like "Blue Monday" and "Bizarre Love Triangle."

There are many great albums by The Durutti Column, the sole mainstay of which is Reilly, though Mitchell has been a part of most recordings.  Classically trained on piano, Reilly turned to guitar in his teens (he was briefly in a punk band with Stephen Morrissey, later known simply and famously as Morrissey from The Smiths and his long solo career) and is an phenomenal player, though hardly given to pyrotechnics, with a few exceptions.  Instead, he plays with extraordinary facility, grace and precision, using gorgeous melodies and phrases rather than power chords or extremely rapid runs to make his mark.

It all started in Manchester, England, when impresario Anthony Wilson created the legendary Factory Records label and made The Durutti Column his first signing, just ahead of famed groups like Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire.  There was actually a band involved, but, before too much studio work could be attempted, two songs appeared on the label's initial release, A Factory Sampler from 1978, the unit disintegrated.  Wilson reconfigured things so that the debut record, recorded in late 1979 and cheekily titled The Return of the Durutti Column (which, internally within Factory, it was, though publicly it was not) was Reilly accompanied on some pieces by a drummer and bass player, but on others by drum machines and synths manipulated by producer Martin Hannett.  Both were notoriously idiosyncratic and uncompromising in their vision, but the combination worked.

The Return of the Durutti Column, which came out in January 1980, is entirely instrumental, with Reilly's lyrical and understated guitar playing taking center stage, but Hannett's production and atmospherics a perfect complement.  The entire album is great and songs move pretty seamlessly from one to the next.  The opening "Sketch for Summer" and its kindred "Sketch for Winter" are excellent embodiments of the Durutti sound, the latter featuring Reilly's gorgeous work alone.  The shorter "Jazz," probably named for the drum machine cymbals utilized in it, and one of the longer pieces, "Conduct," are also very noteworthy.

Wilson and Factory were notable for unusual promotional and marketing ideas and one of them was the printing of the 2,000 copy run of the album on sandpaper, these being assembled by the members of Joy Division, soon to become legendary "post-punk" figures.  These initial vinyl copies included a flexidisk with two electronic pieces by Hannett.  In the 1990s, after Wilson resurrected Factory with a distribution deal through major label London Records, he reissued the back catalog of The Durutti Column in his "Factory once" series.  The Return of the Durutti Column like other band albums features those Hannett pieces and four other songs recorded in 1980, two produced by Hannett.  The cover shown here is from that 1996 reissue.  YHB's initial copy of the album was actually a cassette housed in a burgundy clamshell box with a piece of sandpaper as a liner, one of several such clamshell editions of TDC albums obtained from a Tower Records store in Brea.

The 2002 film 24 Hour Party People a loosely-based biopic about Wilson, Factory and the Manchester music scene has a scene of Reilly playing to an empty house at the famed Hacienda Club owned by Wilson and Factory.  While Wilson worked hard to champion the group and Reilly, The Durutti Column did have a small following in Manchester and a larger one overseas, being particularly popular in Portugal and Japan.  Despite the failure of Factory, versions one and two, Reilly has continued a regular recording schedule of uniformly excellent records, which will be covered here subsequently.  It is amazing that, nearly 35 years along, this criminally underrecognized musician is still steadily working to a small, but loyal, following.

The Durutti Column: The Return of the Durutti Column (Factory Records, 1980)

1.  Sketch for Summer
2.  Requiem for a Father
3.  Katharine
4.  Conduct
5.  Beginning
6.  Jazz
7.  Sketch for Winter
8.  Collette
9.  In D

1996 CD bonus tracks on Factory once:

10.  Lips That Would Kiss
11.  Madeleine
12.  First Aspect of the Same Thing
13.  Second Aspect of the Same Thing
14.  Sleep Will Come
15.  Experiment in Fifth

Sunday, March 25, 2012

John Cage/David Tudor: Indeterminacy

In the world of modern, so-called "avant garde" or "minimalist", classical music, there is no composer as well-known and, perhaps, infamous as John Cage.  The Los Angeles-born Cage was a student, for a time, of Arnold Schoenberg, famed for his twelve-tone row method of composition, but developed increasingly idiosyncratic and challenging ways to make music. 

Much of Cage's work was done for ballet works choreographed by his long-time partner, Merce Cunningham, but he also composed many other pieces that ran the gamut from the haunting "Four Walls" for piano and voice, his toy piano works, and the notorious "4'33"," a performance that required a pianist to walk out to the instrument and then sit at it without playing a note for the prescribed length in the title. 

For Cage, this was an opportunity to have the audience "play" the piece by its reactions (uncomfortableness, awkwardness?) to the jarring silence.  While the work may have seemed a publicity-seeking novelty not worthy of being called a "composition," it highlighted Cage's increasing concern with environment, in which the audience, the concert hall (or wherever the piece was being performed) and the performer were cohorts.

Increasingly, Cage became fascinated with chance and randomness as crucial elements to his work and he often used the numerology implicit in the classic Chinese philosophical work, the Tao Te Ching (pronounced Dow Duh Jing), as part of his compositional process.  Like many post-World War II composers, he also embraced electronics as a means to further develop his work and found an important partner in David Tudor, whose methods of using electronic sound dovetailed nicely with Cage's concepts.

Perhaps the highlight of the two's collaborative spirit is the remarkable 2-CD set, Indeterminacy, recorded in 1959 and released by the Smithsonian Institution's Folkways imprint.  Here, Cage recites 99 short narratives that seem, by turns, to be random/chance utterances, tales of encounters with fellow composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, aphorisms related to Zen Buddhism (a field of study avidly pursued by the composer), and others, often spiced with humor and ironical observations.  Cage adjusted the speed of his readings, as well as the pitch and cadence of his voice, to lend variety to his contributions.  Meantime, Tudor, sitting in a separate room or space in the studio, manipulated a menagerie of electronic devices using snippets of material used in earlier Cage works, which themselves added a randomness and sense of chance proceedings to Cage's recorded narrations.

Is this music?  This is a question that will often be raised in this blog (though, perhaps, what has been posted so far has been more about the quality of what a given reader or listener might discern rather than a philosophical question about the definition of music.)  In the case of Indeterminacy, the music might be thought of as melodic and rhythmic through Cage's style of reading, while Tudor's contributions are, perhaps, more about coloration. 

This blog defines music at its root as "organized sound."  Certainly, this album was organized and it does contain sound.  The fact that it does not have standard melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and coloration migth mean, to many, that it is not music.  As with the related question, "is it art?" it could be posited that the answer is in (rather than with "the eye of the beholder") the "ear of the beholder."  For this beholder, Indeterminacy is, indeed, music, just an expression and a form that is highly experimental and, yet, entertaining and intriguing. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: The Best Best of Fela Kuti

Born in 1938 in Nigeria to a minister father and a teacher/political activist mother, Fela Kuti turned to music whereas his three siblings studies medicine.  He lived for periods in London and Los Angeles before returning to his home country and creating a blend of funk,soul, jazz, and traditional Nigerian music, which he called "Afro-Beat."  By the early 1970s, Fela hit on a formula in which albums generally consisted of two side-long tracks that had long instrumental introductions with a tight rhythm over which Fela, on saxophone or keyboards, and other musicians in his "Nigeria 70", later "Africa 70" and "Egypt 80" ensemble played extended solos and vamps.  Vocalising usually involved Fela's chanting and singing of highly politicized lyrics while backup singers followed in a call-and-response mode.

The content of Fela's songs were direct satires on the follies of decades of African colonialism and, while they frequently targeted the colonizers, especially religions like Christianity and Islam, they also attacked Nigeria's military and civilan despots and Westernized Africans, including women who asserted rights that were not traditional in Nigeria or Africa generally.  The relentless funky grooves of the music and the incendiary lyrics became Fela's famed calling card. 

Unfortunately, political and military authorities were enraged by songs like "Zombie," "Sorrow, Tears and Blood," "Coffin for Head of State," and "Army Arrangement," and threw Fela in jail several times and destroyed his self-proclaimed "Kalakuta Republic" commune.  In one instance, his aged mother was tossed through a window and later died from her injuries.  Unbowed, Fela continued to issue his pointed musical jeremiads well into the 1990s.  Developing complications from AIDS, however, the musician died in 1997.  As is so often the case, Fela remained relatively unknown in this country until a musical celebrating his life and music, simple called "Fela" was produced in 2008 and just recently ended a run at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles.

This blogger first heard Fela's music in 1990 with the recently-released recording "ODOO" on Shanachie Records.  Like most of his recordings, there were the two side-long tracks.  The title track, spelled out as "Overtake Don Overtake Overtake" and the other piece "CBB (Confusion Break Bones)" follow the time-honored formula referred to above and the album quickly became a favorite, though Fela's last few years featured very little recording or live performance.  While the running times are 31 and 29 minutes, respectively, the hypnotic rhythms and beats, as well as the exciting extensive soloing are highly effective in mitigating the length.  If a listener has spent time with Indian ragas, classical symphonies, or longer jazz performances, then there should be little problem with Fela's awesome extended Afro-beat pieces.

While devotees would champion the individual albums with their unedited tracks, the two-disc "Best Best of Fela Kuti," issues by Universal in 2000 provides a valuable overview of his career from 1972 to 1989, albeit with edited versions in most cases.  The set is crammed full at 158 minutes and has the virtue of a tracklisting picked by Fela's son Femi, who has had his own notable career.  From "Lady" to "ODOO", the album covers some of the greatest songs in Fela's career. 

Highlights for this listener are "Roforofo Fight," "Zombie," "ITT," "No Agreement," and "Shuffering and Shmiling," though, truthfully, all of the thirteen selections are great and, with two essays and annotations to the pieces in the booklet, "Best Best" provides a solid overview of the career of one of the world's greatest performers. 

Fela Kuti:  The Best Best of Fela Kuti


1.  Lady
2.  Shakara
3.  Gentleman (Edit)
4.  Water No Get Zombie (Edit)
5.  Zombie
6.  Sorrow, Tears and Blood
7.  No Agreement (Part 2)


1.  Roforofo Fight
2.  Shuffering and Shmiling (Part 2)
3.  Coffin for Head of State (Part 2)
4.  ITT (Part 2)
5.  Army Arrangement (Part 2)
6.  ODOO (Edit)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Hüsker Dü: Zen Arcade

That was a great record-buying day way back when, going to the record store (remember those?) and picking up two double-LPs from the standouts of the local independent "punk" (well, mostly) label SST.  One, to be covered here soon, was Minutemen's awesome Double Nickels on the Dime and the other was Hüsker Dü's staggering Zen Arcade

The record is a concept album about a young man from a troubled home life trying to make sense of a confusing world as he ventures out on his own and some of its most intense songs directly reference the struggles at home, with titles like "Broken Home, Broken Heart," "Indecision Time," "Beyond the Threshold," "Pride," "I'll Never Forget You,"The Biggest Lie," and "What's Going On."  Side Two of the LP is the most powerful with some of the above songs blasting through in roughly two-minute bursts of rage punctuated by guitarist Bob Mould's anguished, tortured vocals and blistering solos.  Drummer Grant Hart provided a milder touch with such songs as "Never Talking to You Again," which has acoustic guitar from Mould rather than his trademark electric work, "Standing by the Sea" which juxtaposes ocean sounds with lyrics of alienation and isolation, and "The Tooth Fairy and the Princess," which has to be the most unlikeliest title of a song from a "punk" band.

That's part of the great success of Hüsker Dü, though, in that the songwriting differences between Mould and Hart provided a balance and widened the band's appeal.  While eventually those differences led to acrimony and a bitter breakup, the yin and yang aspect of their relationship proved to be really effective on Zen Arcade and the few albums that followed.

But, to this listener, the key to the band was just as often the very solid, effective and grounding bass of Greg Norton.  He didn't write many songs, do many vocals, or solo, but Norton's steady anchoring was essential to Hüsker Dü's impressive run through some of the best music of the Eighties.  Now, a restaurant owner and part-time musician, Norton's presence only grew as subsequent albums were produced, engineered, and mixed in a way that presented his work better.  Mould and Hart were justifiably lionized for their songwriting, but Norton was just as essential in making it all come together.

Zen Arcade garnered so much attention and interest that SST struggled to produce enough records to keep up with the demand, an issue that eventually led the band to sign with major Warner Brothers.  Complaints were uttered about the production quality and sound, but it is worth noting that the band proudly proclaimed on the liners that "everything on the record is first take," excepting two songs.  Moreover, "the whole thing took 85 hours, the last 40 hours straight for mixing."

The "punk" ethos is there in the lightning fast production of this low-budget album on a small label operating on a shoestring, but that explains a lot of what makes this record so great.  The Hüskers were coming into their own, churning out powerful songs (with a little piano and acoustic guitar along with the heavier, faster pieces) that showed the growth of Mould and Hart's songwriting, as well as Norton's important contributions, and they were on a roll that lasted a few more great years. 

They had been an underground hardcore band from Minneapolis, but this album made by the shore at Redondo Beach turned them into nationally and internationally-known figures in short order.  More than a quarter century later, it doesn't sound dated and its power and passion remain undimmed.  Zen Arcade is an essential document from the mid-1980s.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Albert Ayler: Spiritual Unity

In the so-called world of "avant-garde" or "free" jazz, there was probably no one freer than tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler.  Born in Cleveland in 1936, Ayler first developed professionally in Europe, where he had served, as so many jazz musicians did, in the military.  His earliest recordings came out of Denmark and, in 1964, he returned to New York and formed a trio with bassist Gary Peacock (best known for his work in the Keith Jarrett trio, specializing in standards, with the renowned pianist and the remarkable drummer Jack DeJohnette) and drummer Sunny Murray, who may have been the freest drummer in jazz, coming first to attention with Cecil Taylor.  Ayler was hailed for his innovations by John Coltrane, who was clearly influenced by the former in his work, especially from the 1965 album Meditations onward, and by the sadly underappreciated Eric Dolphy, who said Ayler was the best sax player he knew.

Their 1964 album, Spiritual Unity, the first release of the iconoclastic ESP-Disk label, is a fantastic document of Ayler's self-described "energy music."  Freed of dependence on chord changes and standard timekeeping, the trio was an example of how absolute freedom (well, outside of the basic head or melody statement offered in a given piece) can work when the players are sympathetic to each other as well as independently playing whatever moves them on their instrument.

Peacock manages to provide a foundation without a steady rhythm or pulse, but his playing does keep the sound anchored, even as explores a wide tonal range on the bass.  Murray, eerily humming or moaning throughout, which adds an air of mystery, foreboding, or a strange feeling of joy (depending on the listener's take) also employs a great variety of percussive elements, none of it involving rolls, hard cracks of the snare, or aggressive ride cymbal playing.  Instead, he plays impressionistically and uses seemingly all parts of his kit, especially a spreading cymbal sound, to create with Peacock lots of space for the leader's playing.  For something this "free" the rhythm section is amazingly grounded without being restricted to a defined sense of time.

Ayler, as he nearly always did, dominates the proceedings, largely because of his massive, powerful sound on the saxophone, assisted by the hardest plastic reed he could get.  This not only allowed him tremendous volume, but an expansive vibrato that made his playing instantly recognizable (not that this was considered a good thing by many.)  Known as an intensely charismatic, spiritual and eccentric person, Ayler was convinced that he was on a God-given mission to change the world through music.  This might not have seemed that "far out" in the "far out" Sixties, but the sheer conviction he possessed is palpably heard in his music, especially on Spiritual Unity, where he finds the right compatriots to craft his message.

Ayler's most  well-known composition, "Ghosts," is given two variations here, the second twice as long as the first (and Ayler soloing for much longer than on the first version), and it is the best example of his approach of using simple melodies, seemingly drawing from spirituals, pre-1930 New Orleans-style jazz, marches, and rural folk, to open a piece before launching into the totally free soloing that ran the gamut of expressive honking, screaming, wailing, squealing and, occasionally, a beautiful clear-toned phrase that could remind listeners that Ayler was perfectly capable of playing "in the tradition" if he chose to.

Actually, Albert Ayler was more "in the tradition" than people gave him credit for, if we allow for the fact that "in the tradition" can mean taking earlier aspects of the music, applying new ideas, and then creating a hybrid that celebrates the best of what jazz can be.  Far more than merely high-volume screaming, Ayler crafted a totally unique sound that took "free" jazz to the limits.

At under 30 minutes and because of the empathy among the musicians that was fully realized in the title, Spiritual Unity is probably the best place for the uninitiated to start with Ayler.  While his music is invariably described as "difficult," the best piece of advice on how to listen to it was offered by him and his trumpeter brother, Donald:  try to listen to the sound and not the notes.  In other words, don't get caught up in intellectualizing the music from a structural point of view.  Instead, focus on the emotion embodied in the playing and let it carry you as far as you are willing to go.

For those willing to go along for the ride, the music of Albert Ayler, especially up through 1967 and the album Love Cry, can be a powerful and affecting experience.  Disappointed that his message of music as the harbinger of a new, peaceful age was not reaching larger audiences, Ayler redirected his efforts towards a more commercial sound driven by funk, electric guitar, and "hippie" lyrics and vocals by his girlfriend Mary Parks (known as Mary Maria.)  That proved to be unsuccessful also and, just as Ayler was starting to move back toward the free jazz sound that made his name (if not his fame), he disappeared in November 1970 and was found floating in the East River, a death usually attributed to suicide, though some believe he was murdered or perhaps fell in the river accidentally.

An early death often drives a mystique that can overshadow the work the person did, but in Ayler's case, the work speaks for itself.  A better introduction to that work cannot be found than Spiritual Unity.

Albert Ayler Trio:  Spiritual Unity (ESP-Disk)

1.  Ghosts: First Variation  5:14
2.  The Wizard  7:23
3.  Spirits  6:48
4.  Ghosts: Second Variation  10:02

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Franz Schubert: Die Grossen Symphonien

In 1990, when explorations into various types and forms of music were made by YHB, the world of "classical" was one of those investigated.  Immediately, one of the favored composers emerged:  Franz Schubert (1797-1828), a native of Vienna, who, in a remarkably short period, put forth an enormous amount of great music that was underappreciated in his lifetime, though now he is recognized as truly one of the great composers in history.

Schubert worked in a dizzying array of musical forms in short order:  in about a decade between roughly 1820 and 1830 he wrote nine symphonies, over 600 lieder or songs with vocals, operas, religious works, solo piano, and chamber music.  In fact, Schubert's work with lieder and the fact that his melodic gifts were so pronounced led many critics and others to conclude that he lacked the weight and gravity of such masters as Beethoven or Bach.  Notably, though, Schubert's work might actually be favorably viewed as heir to the work of Mozart, who also had a preternatural gift for melodic invention.

While he is probably best known for his chamber music, including such renowned works as the "Trout Quintet" and "Death and the Maiden," as well as for the lieder, Schubert also created masterpieces in the realm of symphonies, including his "The Great" Symphony in C-Major, or his Ninth, and the Unfinished Symphony, or the Eighth (these and the Seventh were not numbered until decades after the composer's death.)

Today's entry focuses on a somewhat obscure recording of Schubert's Fifth, Eighth and Ninth symphonies along with a few shorter pieces, including the famous devotional chamber work, "Ave Maria."  The 2-CD package was recorded by the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and the Slovak Chamber Orchestra, produced by a company in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, and reissued by a German firm. 

As is with the case with so much of classical recordings, the fact that the orchestras are not considered "top tier" does not at all mean that the playing or recording quality are inferior (at least not to amateur ears such as those belonging to YHB.)  This is great music by a master composer rendered in a beautiful way by high quality orchestras. 

Notably, this package was purchased, along with several others in the series, at, of all places, the Tuesday Morning store several years ago and many hours have been spent thoroughly enjoyed listening to the CDs.  There are certainly dozens, maybe hundreds, of recordings of these major works of Schubert available on a variety of major and so-called "discount" labels.   Most of us, though, would hardly know the difference relative to the performance quality.

In any case, Franz Schubert is among the greatest of composers and certainly at the highest level of what is often referred to as the "early Romantic" period, on par with such luminaries as Mendelssohn, Rossini and Paganini, among others.  While to some, Schubert might not seem as powerful, deep or profound as Beethoven, but for remarkable quality in a sheer variety of a prolific nature, he is one of the most remarkable composers the "classical" world has ever known.