Thursday, April 26, 2012

Hamza El Din: Escalay (The Water Wheel)

The great Hamza El Din (1929-2006) was born in a small village along the Upper Nile River in Sudan that was buried underwater during the construction of a dam.  Hamza went to Cairo to study engineering, but wound up also taking an interest in the Arabic classical stringed instrument, the oud, which he studied at several musical institutes.  He also was an adept performer on the tar, a hand-held drum from his homeland.

Notably, the Muslim society of his home country did not allow for professional musicianship, but Hamza became a master of his instrument and also developed a style of composition and performance that made him renowned for the mixture of Nubian music from his home with the rich and broad history of Arabic classical traditions.

After performing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, Hamza was signed to the folk and blues label, Vanguard Records, and issued two albums, including Music of Nubia and The Oud.  But, after he signed with Nonesuch Records, he released his best-known album, Escalay (The Water Wheel), which came out in 1971 on that label's staggering Explorer series.

The title track is an epic 21 1/2 minute piece that depicts aurally a boy who works a water wheel, one of the vital functions of life in the Nubian desert that revolved around the Nile River.  Hamza's hypnotic playing of the oud mimics the functioning of the turning of the wheel and he utilized a drone and harmonic strumming while occasionally singing wordless calls that might be Hamza recreating the boy's vocalizing as he works at the wheel throughout a blistering day in the desert.

The second track, "I Remember," is from the famed Egyptian composer Mohammed Abdul Wahab, whose music will be the focus of a later post on an album by Simon Shaheen on the groundbreaking Axiom label run by Bill Laswell.  Wahab, like Hamza, was focused on creating new music using the tools of tradition with modern ideas and wrote this piece with the electric guitar in mind.  Hamza utilizes the tradition oud and the piece is a fantastic showpiece for his playing.

The album ends with the aptly-named "Song with Tar," in which Hamza shows his facility on the drum, as hand claps embellish his vocals.  It's a great way to end an excellent album in which Hamza reveals his many talents perfectly.

This blogger's first experience hearing Hamza was about 1990 when the album Eclipse, produced by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who issued many excellent world music albums for Rykodisc's 360 series, was purchased.  Not long after that, sometime in the mid-1990s, Hamza played the intimate back room at McCabe's Guitar Shop (Bill Frisell was another phenomenal performer that I saw there--click here for more about McCabe's and its upcoming concert schedule) and it was one of the highlights of my concert-going experiences.  His mastery of the oud, evocative reedy singing, and his gentle humor as he talked about his music made it a special experience. 

Hamza El Din has been dead for five years now, but his music lives on for those who want an unforgettable journey into new variations on ancient Arabic, Egyptian and Nubian musical traditions.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Harry Partch: Revelation in the Courthouse Park

Harry Partch (1901-1974) was from Oakland and of parents who had served as Presbyterian missionaries in China.  His mother was an organist and singer and his father collected instruments so, growing up primarily in Arizona and New Mexico, Partch was exposed to much music. 

As a composer, however, he was self-taught and, going far beyond just that aspect, he developed his own 43-tone music system as well as building a series of instruments of his own design for that system.  In the Great Depression years, after some time studying in England, he wandered the United States essentially living as a "hobo" riding the rails and taking inspiration from so-called "hobo graffiti" for some of his earliest pieces. 

From the late 1920s, he began building instruments adapted from traditional ones.  After years of wandering and experimentation with his system of performing music, he received, in his early 40s, a Guggenheim Fellowship to pursue his ideas with decent funding.  By the late 1940s, he had a position as a research assistant at the University of Wisconsin, during which time he built new instruments and wrote a book based on his musical notation system.  During the 1950s, he continued to receive assistance from the Guggenheim Fellowship program, universities, and other foundations while living and working in California. 

In 1960-61, he wrote the remarkable Revelation in the Courthouse Park.  His later years were spent at La Jolla and San Diego and received somewhat more attention with such landmarks as an exhibit and concert at New York's Whitney Museum and recordings with the major label, Columbia.  He died in San Diego at age 75 and, as an outsider in the "classical music" world, is generally considered a "cult" figure.

To ears conditioned to listening to "Western" music in just intonation and established scales, Partch's music seems foreign and strange.  Much of this is because of his microtonal system and unusual instrumentation, of which there was essentially an entire orchestra, but a great deal of it also comes from his interest and application of ideas from Asia, Africa and ancient Greece.  If a listener has had any appreciable exposure to music from these parts of the world, Partch's pieces will sound familiar, but also has their own individuality of sound.

Instruments include the "kithara," a large stringed instrument with 72 strings in a dozen groups of six that was modeled after ancient Greek instruments.  Rods are moved to create changing sounds while a pick or a finger are used to pluck the strings.  A zither-like "harmonic canon" is also used with picks or the finger while glass rods are used to change the tuning for either 44 or 88 strings.  The "crychord" has a single string over a box that resonated the string's sound and a handle, rod or arm controlled the string's tension to change pitch; meantime, a beloows was conected to an car's horn and three small organ pipes.  A "chromolodeon" is an adapted pump organ, an instrument Partch's mother played, with the reeds tuned to microtones.  Partch also had adpated violas and guitars.  He also had a variety of marimba instrments made of bamboo or spruce blocks and one, the "bamboo marimba" or "boo" was struck with dowels covered in felt, rather than with mallets.  The "cloud-chamber bowl" consists of Pyrex bowls with the centers removed and which were recovered from a radiation lab at UC Berkeley.  These were played from a rack.  "Cone gongs" were made from airplane gas tanks and put on stems.  Then, there were the "spoils of war," consisting of seven shell casings placed on a stand along with the cloud-chamber bowl and other percussion components, including bamboo peces, a Chinese wood block, and others.  On his instruments, Partch wrote out tunings based on his use of 43 microtones per octave, which he considered more natural that the just intonation or equal tempered scale of twelve notes per octave.

Revelation in the Courthouse Park is a fascinating adaptation of the ancient Greek play The Bacchae by Euripides, in which Dionysus, born in Thebes of the god Zeus with his mother Semele, is denied recognition of his divine status by his father Cadmus and members of that household.  After wandering in Asia and using his charisma and divine power to attract a passionate following of primarily women (the bacchantes) in a cult.  Returning to his hometown for revenge, he is able to gain more followers, including some of his aunts and eventually Cadmus, but the Theban king, Pentheus, Dionysus's cousin, is determined to destroy the cult.  Dionysus, appearing in disguise as an Asian priest, convinced Pentheus to don his own disguise to spy on a bacchanalia, or ritual of his cult with frenzied music, dancing and sex, from a tree.  Dionysus then alerts his entranced followers to the presence of the intruder and the women, including Pentheus' own mother, Agave, attack and kill him.  When it is realized what was done, the house of Cadmus is ruined by the tragedy.

Meantime, Partch introduces a modern corollary built around Dion, a modern rock and film star (likely drawn from the Dion of pop fame in the late 1950s and early 1960s) who is modeled after Dionysus and who has established a nonsensical cult of Ishbu Kubu.  Sonny (Pentheus), a young man based in the "courthouse park" is challenged by the presence of Dion and seeks to expose him as a fraud.  Sonny's mother, Mom (Agave) joins the cult as does the town's mayor (Cadmus.)  The piece is a not-too-subtle damnation of moralistic authority figures trying to tamp down the natural inclination of younger people to enjoy earthy entertainments of all sorts, including music, and its creation in 1960 came right in the middle of the highly conservative, Cold War environment in America.  This is a universal story that could resonate in many places in many eras.

The galaxy of Partch-built instruments provides a wonderful and provocative accompaniment to the chanting and singing of the performance's text and there is also a marching band of traditional elements such as piccolo, trombone, trumpet, bass, tuba and drum during some of the modern scenes.  The main issue was that the recording was made in 1987 for The American Music Theater Festival, but the piece had only been performed once in the composer's lifetime, in 1960 at the University of Illinois.  While a Partch disciple, Danlee Mitchell, would transport the instruments from San Diego to Philadelphia for the performance, musicians were needed and the problem of training some to play the unorthodox instruments seemed insurmountable.  The head of Drexel University's music department, who happened to be a Partch devotee, offered to take on the task and also prepared the singers, none of whom had worked with microtones before.  In addition, the piece was performed at the city's Great Hall and its Greek Revival architecture also provided an apt setting as well as excellent acoustics.

Dionysus/Dion is performed by Obba Babatunde, a highly regarded actor, nominated for a Tony for his work in the original production of Dreamgirls and an Emmy nominee, who was a student of Sammy Davis, Jr. with great talent in singing, music performance, dancing and other areas.  Other cast members are excellent, including Christopher Durham as Pentheus/Sonny, Suzanne Costallos as Agave/Mom and Casper Roos, who has a highly distinctive dramatic voice as Cadmus/The Mayor.

It may take time for a new listener to get used to the unusual musical sounds, but Revelation in the Courthouse Park is a revelation into the musical and theatrical talents of the great Harry Partch.  The cover above comes from a 2003 release from the Tomato label, which is a 2-CD set running about 84 minutes.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Eric Dolphy: The Illinois Concert

Sadly underappreciated, Eric Dolphy was a multi-talented flautist, bass clarinetist and alto saxophone player whose career as a leader was only about four years, from 1960 to 1964.  But, what a remarkable body of work he left, whether heading his own combos or working with such legendary performers as Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane.

Born in Los Angeles in 1928, Dolphy was performing music from an early age and supported by his father who built him a studio at their home.  He graduated from Los Angeles City College and made his mark locally by performing in the bands of stalwarts Chico Hamilton and Gerald Wilson, the latter still living at age 93.  Getting wider exposure with Hamilton, Dolphy left his employ and went to New York in 1959, the year that John Coltrane recorded Giant Steps, Miles Davis issued Kind of Blue, and Ornette Coleman made his controversial debut in New York after also having come out from Los Angeles.

Another Los Angeles connection was made in the Big Apple when Dolphy got reacquainted with LA native Charles Mingus and joined his band, working with him for about a year.  Although Dolphy left the Mingus group, he continued to work with the great bassist and composer on and off for the remainder of his life.

It was in Los Angeles that Dolphy met Coltrane who was on tour there with Davis and, in late 1961, the tenor sax giant asked Dolphy to join his band.  Coltrane had just signed with the new Impulse! label and Dolphy was involved in the first two albums cut with the company.  The first was Africa/Brass in whic Dolphy's arranging skills were put to use with the remarkable track Africa, down to the simulation of animal sounds and other interesting uses of a variety of big band elements.  On the next album, Live at the Village Vanguard, Dolphy was given extended opportunities to solo on the track "Spiritual," where his clarinet offered an interesting contrast to the leader's tenor and soprano sax work.

Dolphy was rewarded by stridently harsh criticism offered of him and Coltrane during this period and the two were labeled, infamously, as "anti-jazz."  Strangely, there doesn't seem to have been that much of a concern when Dolphy was part of the ensemble that performed Ornette Coleman's groundbreaking record Free Jazz late in 1960 and which was released just a couple of months before the Village Vanguard recording was made.

Meantime, Dolphy was signed to Prestige Records and, not that atypical for that label, made a wealth of recordings in less than two years during 1960 and 1961, including such classic albums as Out There and Outward Bound, which titles none-too-subtly implied that Dolphy was playing far "out of the mainstream."  Actually, his work always featured ballads and down-tempo pieces that highlighted his ability to play with gorgeous lyricism, though the up-tempo tracks definitely showcased his angular and rapid runs that gave him a distinctive sound.

By 1964, Dolphy had signed with Blue Note Records and made the masterpiece Out to Lunch, a record that blended his ability to play "new" music with clear references to the past, utilized top musical talent like trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, drummer Tony Williams, bassist Richard Davis and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.  He also was a featured sideman in the excellent Point of Departure album by another underappreciated jazz musician, pianist Andrew Hill.

Dolphy then embarked on a tour of Europe with Mingus and decided to remain there, partially because his fiancee was working in Paris.  His plans included working with such free jazz stalwarts as Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor, but in late June he collapsed at a concert (some sources say at his hotel room) and was taken to a hospital.  Evidently, staff there thought that, as a jazz musician, he must have been on overdosed on drugs and he was left in a room unattended.  A diabetic, Dolphy then lapsed into a coma and died.  He had just turned 36 years old and was to be married soon.  The jazz world lost an immense talent and, by all accounts, a kind and gentle man.

Dolphy made superb classic live recordings in 1961 at the Five Spot Cafe in New York with the fanstastic trumpet player Booker Little, who died of uremia at age 23 very shortly after and these will be highlighted here in the future.  But, there is also the remarkable album The Illinois Concert, recorded in March 1963 and basically lost until over a quarter century later when it was issued by Blue Note.  Dolphy was the only jazz figure invited to a festival at the University of Illinois and the event featured a tense panel discussion that basically led classically-trained faculty to look down upon Dolphy for being a jazz player, though he did sometimes play in classical works.

Still, at his performance, Dolphy wowed many of the audience members and music students with several pieces performed with a quartet featuring drummer J. C. Moses, bassist Eddie Khan, and a young Herbie Hancock, soon to join Miles Davis.  The concert opened with a 20-minute rendering of the classic "Softly As In a Morning Sunrise" and the notable aspect to this piece is that the quartet didn't play the melody until the very end of the song, though it was referred to throughout, especially via Dolphy's bass clarinet.

A showcase for the leader on that instrument was his solo work on the great Billie Holiday classic, "God Bless the Child."  How any of the faculty, or suspicious critics, could speak against Dolphy given the inventive, probing and technically stunning playing of this piece is anyone's guess.  Dolphy also played flute on his "South Street Exit" and then switched to alto for another original, "Iron Man," which would be recorded subsequently in the studio for an album of that name.

Then comes the most interesting part of the show:  Dolphy and quartet were joined by students from the university's music program for big-band renderings of two songs.  One is a tune that John Coltrane fans will recognize as "Miles' Mode" from the eponymous album released that same year, but which appears to be a Dolphy original, though credited to Trane on that record.  The melody, based on the twelve-tone row from modern classical music, provides an ideal launching pad for solos and the brass from the larger ensemble, including future jazz notable Cecil Bridgewater, adds greatly to the song.  Then, the enhanced group performed "G.W.," a tribute to Dolphy's Los Angeles mentor, Gerald Wilson, and also his first piece written with a big band in mind, though this was the first recording of it in that format.  On both big band works, Dolphy plays alto sax.

Restored and mastered from the original tapes, this record is a rare opportunity to hear Dolphy in a setting with a big band, highlights his multi-faceted talents on three instruments, and utilizes a solid backing band, including Hancock, who went on to great fame with Davis and on his own.  There's no doubting the greatness of the Five Spot recordings with Little, but this is a top-notch record and a great overview of the amazing Eric Dolphy.

Eric Dolphy:  The Illinois Concert (10 March 1963)

1.  Softly As In a Morning Sunrise  20:17
2.  Something Sweet, Something Tender  1:28
3.  God Bless the Child  8:45
4.  South Street Exit  7:30
5.  Iron Man  10:57
6.  Red Planet  12:26
7.  G.W.  7:40

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Velvet Underground and Nico

The album cover art by Andy Warhol for The Velvet Underground and Nico (1966).
Sometimes it is hard to appreciate the impact or significance of a musician, a band, a song, an album or a concert long after the landmark takes place, especially when there is no context to which to refer.  This is even more true when the importance of said musical aspect is not realized more broadly until much later.

Few bands in rock history have had as much impact on other musicians and on later audiences, while being almost wholly and roundly ignored in its own time as The Velvet Underground.  With a situation like that of VU, it is sometimes hard to sort out the myths from the realities and fiction from fact and sometimes it is more interesting and fun to not entirely be sure which is which.

In any case, this amazing band which emerged from New York as proteges of artist Andy Warhol and began making some waves in the rock underground in 1965 and afterward.  Though their association with Warhol and his coterie of interesting personages was relatively short, the Velvets are still often inextricably linked with that scene.  The band consisted of guitarist and vocalist Lou Reed, electric violist, pianist and bassist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker. 

The personnel was an interesting mix.  Reed had a troubled upbringing including a forced stay at a mental home because, allegedly, of homosexual "tendencies" that led to shock treatment, but was also a poet and budding songwriter who later worked in a songwriting house in New York churning out pop tunes for small record labels.  Cale was a classically trained musician, although early on he became a devotee of the avant garde, associated with important composers and musicians in that world.  He took on the bass guitar on joining the Velvets, which had a previous bassist.  Morrison was a quiet and studious man whose solid rhythm and laser-sharp soloing was a true anchor for the band and he also did backing vocals and played bass.  This was also true of Maureen Tucker, a rare woman in a major rock band, and even though she may not have been technically proficient (having to play the bass drum with a stick rather than a foot pedal), she kept a solid and reliable beat and was a steady and universally loved presence in the band.

Among the many distinguishing characteristics of this groundbreaking group was Reed's songwriting, which featured a direct and obvious reference of subjects generally considered taboo even in rock music unless they were reduced to puns, obscure references and other "covers", such as drug use, unconventional sexual situations, stories of drag queens and more.  However, Reed also used his pop songwriting skills to create memorable melodies and could craft beautiful pieces as well as experimental and experiential songs.  In a way, Reed was an interesting comparison to Bob Dylan and his famed lyrics and the fact that the two had singing styles that were wholly their own, but which also generated much derision.  And, as with Dylan, there truly was no one like Reed at the time, though many would be influenced by him afterward.  Cale's use of viola also added a very modern European and classical color to the group and his association with the classical avant garde suited the Velvets music and image quite well, even as his relationship with Reed became volatile.

This is the front cover image for disc 2 of the Peel Slowly and See box set with a facsimile of the tape box from the sessions for the album.  The set is an outstanding overview of The Velvet Underground's short, but spectacular, career.
Signed to Verve Records and its A & R man Tom Wilson, who made his mark in the 1950s as a jazz producer, the VU were produced on their first recording by Warhol who insisted that a German-born artist, Christa Paffgen, otherwise known as Nico, be included in the project.  This didn't sit too well with the band and a compromise of sorts was effected when the album was titled The Velvet Underground and Nico and which featured an iconic Warhol image of a banana on the front cover.  While Nico sang in a tuneless monotone, there is something about her icy vocals that blends in well with the songs she was given on this remarkable album.

Reed's ability to mix the tender and tough is amply demonstrated right away on the record, where the gorgeous and plaintive "Sunday Morning" is followed by the famed "I'm Waiting for the Man," in which protagonist relates the humiliation of going to score drugs.  Another ballad-like classic comes with "Femme Fatale," featuring Nico on vocals, followed by the S & M homage, "Venus in Furs."  A plaintive "All Tomorrow's Parties,"also with Nico, is followed by the mindblowing "Heroin," which seeks to mimic the drug's effects in a powerfully sonic way.  Then comes another awesome ballad, "I'll Be Your Mirror," also sung by Nico, before the album closes with more experimental, mind-bending pieces, "The Black Angel's Death Song," highlighting Cale's striking viola playing, and "European Son," a tribute to Reed's poetic mentor, Delmore Schwartz, and a good old freak out sonically.

Sadly, The Velvet Underground and Nico was recorded in Spring 1966 and then sat for a year while the execs at Verve decided what to do with the album, especially as the label had another "outside" band, the Frank Zappa-led Mothers of Invention.  While some believe the record would have had a better commercial showing had it been released in the Summer or Fall of 1966 as it should have, rather than March 1967, the subject matter of many of these songs were almost certainly not going to fly on mainstream rock radio or make much of a dent on the Billboard charts.

More important for posterity, if not for contemporary concerns for the band like recognition and financial rewards, was that the album and those that followed inspired a generation of musicians who would come of age in the 1970s and afterward.  Brian Eno is said to have remarked that the VU only sold a handful of albums, but everyone who bought a record went out and formed a rock band.  While not strictly the case, there is enough truth in the statement borne out by the many descendants of the Velvets whose music demonstrates the importance of this truly essential band.

The Velvet Underground and Nico (1966/67)

1.  Sunday Morning  2:54
2.  I'm Waiting for the Man  4:38
3.  Femme Fatale  2:37
4.  Venus in Furs  5:10
5.  Run Run Run  4:19
6.  All Tomorrow's Parties  5:58
7.  Heroin  7:10
8.  There She Goes Again  2:39
9.  I'll Be Your Mirror  2:12
10.  The Black Angel's Death Song  3:12
11.  European Son  7:47

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Geza Music from the Kabuki

This is another recording from the fantastic Nonesuch Explorer series encompassing music from the kabuki, a popular and earthy form of Japanese theater that brings in drama and music for what were plainly sexual themes in its earliest incarnations, though political pressure led to later changes in thematic content.  These performances, which usually go on for several hours in contrast to shorter Western theatrical offerings, utilize music that is purely instrumental, that which has vocals, miming, dancing and drama with colorful costumes and makeup.   The term geza refers to music performed off-stage in a room that was blocked from view by a black bamboo curtain and which usually consisted of percussion to accompany the performers and provide sound affects, while other musicians playing stringed instruments and flutes were on stage and visible.  The album's selections are from the Kabuki theater, but include some pieces that were adapted from Noh or No, which was a puppet theater favored by the aristocratic classes of Japan.

Geza music is determined by the scene or situation found in the kabuki performance and pieces are identified with street scenes, festivals, spoken narratives, fight scenes, religious shrines and particular sound effects, sujch as falling water, a ghost, the wind and others.  Instruments include the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument similar to a guitar, lute or banjo, the shakuhachi or bamboo flute, percussion instruments like drums, bells, gongs, and cymbals and vocals.  The music can range from soft, pastoral and contemplative to fast, martial and comical.

These 1966 performances are outstanding for variety of instrumentation, composition and their relation to what is acted out on the kabuki stage.  The 2002 CD version features beautifully remastered sound by the famed sound engineer Robert C. Ludwig and the liner notes, written at the time of the recording, are very helpful in understanding the history, structure, and method of kabuki performance.  Someday, perhaps, attendance at a kabuki presentation will add to the experience that can only be hinted at by listening to this extraordinary album.

Geza Music from the Kabuki

1.  Music of Downtown  7:46
2.  Festival Music  6:09
3.  Aikata  7:36
4.  Dance Music  4:23
5.  Sound Effects 3:59
6.  Shrine Music  3:00
7.  Interludes  4:41
8.  Voice  5:54
9.  Aikata 7:40

Monday, April 9, 2012

Franz Josef Haydn: Symphonies 94 and 100

Born in 1732 to a wheelwright and a cook in a small hamlet in Austria near the Hungary border, Franz Josef Haydn grew to be a towering figure in 18th-century music, known as a key developer of both the modern symphony and string quartet.  He also was highly influential in the popularity of piano trees and the sonata form of composition.

Haydn struggled to establish himself as an independent musician and then found work as a music director (or Kapellmeister) for a nobleman before taking the same type of position for the Esterhazy family.  For three decades, until about 1790, he worked for the family, who were avid music lovers who gave Haydn access to the material and personnel he needed to being a prolific and varied composing career.

Trips to London in the first half of the 1790s brought Haydn fame and money.  Two of the most famous of his 104 symphonies (though, at about 20-25 minutes each, they were far shorter than the gargantuan efforts of later symphonic composers like Bruckner or Mahler, which could go on for 80 minutes or so) were written in England and are featured in an excellently-recorded and packaged CD from The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded in 1994 and released six years later.

Haydn's remaining fifteen years were spent in Vienna and, though he retained his music director position with the Esterhazy's, though on a part-time basis, he continued to work independently, composing some well-regarded oratorios, a trumpet concerto, and his final string quartets.  By 1802, however, his health was failing and he had to give up composition.  He died in May 1809, just as Napoleon was invading Vienna, at age 77, and he stands with his good friend Mozart as a giant of his era and a major influence on his student, Beethoven.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performances of the two symphonies, commonly referred to as the "Surprise" (94) and "Military" (100) are very nicely done and melodies known the world over abound in these two works.  In the "Surprise," composed and presented in 1792 during his first London sojourn, there is not only the famed melodic statement in the first movement, but the name comes from a point in the second movement in which a quietly-played series of variations on a melodic theme with piano is suddenly interrupted by a powerful blast by the orchestra before returning to its placid variations.  While it is said that Haydn did this to stir sleeping noble audiences during a quiet passage, he claimed otherwise, saying he was looking for something unusual to mark his British debut.  In any event, the novelty became renowned, even though the melodic beauty and rhythmic variations of the piece are exceptional.

The Military, so named because of the second movement's use of trumpet fanfares and percussive power, was an even greater success when it premiered in England two years after the "Surprise."  A gorgeous melody marks the first movement, even though the war-like bombast of the second garnered much attention. A folk-like theme in the finale has also been a major mainstay of the classical recordings and concert performances before more military-style percussion brings the piece to a powerful, unforgettable end.  This symphony also marked an early use of timpani (or kettle drums) as a solo device, in both the second movement and the finale.

Haydn may not be as famous or highly-regarded as his compatriot, Mozart, but he had a long, brilliant, and highly productive career, including many concertos, masses, operas, piano trios, string quartets and solo piano pieces.  Funnily enough, this CD was purchased at a Pic 'n Save along with others in the same series that will be highlighted here, but the performances are excellent and the sound quality is high.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Archie Shepp: Fire Music

Archie Shepp is a tenor sax player, a playwright, actor, poet, and a teacher.  His name first became known in the jazz world when he joined the band of trailblazing pianist Cecil Taylor (whose Conquistador! album has been covered here) at the beginning of the 1960s and participated in some of Taylor's recordings for Nat Hentoff's Candid label.

Shepp became a friend of John Coltrane (also to have a prominent place here) and, through Trane's influence, was signed to Impulse! Records.  His debut for the label, Four for Trane, will get a posting here some day, but it was Shepp's sophomore record, Fire Music, that gets first dibs.  For the album, as he did with the first, the leader assembled a sextet that provided a big band sounds because of the use of four brass instruments (Shepp's tenor, Ted Curson on trumpet, Joseph Orange on trombone, and Marion Brown on alto sax) and Reggie Johnson's bass and Joe Chambers on drums.

The dominant piece is the opening "Hambone," with a driving supporting riff by the other brass instruments behind Shepp's keening soloing.  Dramatic changes of pace come with covers of Duke Ellington's classic, "Prelude to a Kiss," which showcases Shepp's flair for the romantic ballad, and the smash bossa nova hit, "The Girl from Ipanema," which takes on a more experimental flavor with Shepp's arrangement.

More than perhaps any other "avant-garde" jazz artist of the 1960s, Shepp was intensely committed to African-American issues and was outspoken in his support of civil rights and other questions.  Most of the songs on the album were recorded in 16 February 1965, including "Los Olvidados," (The Forgotten), referring to a Luis Buñuel film but also coming from Shepp's experiences with youth mobilization in New York.

Five days later, though, Malcolm X, just entering into a new phase of his spiritual and political life, was assassinated and a shaken Shepp took drummer J. C. Moses and bassist David Izenzon into the studio to perform a piece written in response.  "Malcolm, Malcolm—Semper Malcolm" is a powerful combination of Shepp's anguished poetry and excellent support from the rhythm section, especially Izenzon's bowing, which lends a particular emotional component to the song.

A bonus track on the CD version is a live performance of "Hambone", with only Johnson and Brown remaining from the studio band, from the Village Gate club in New York in March 1965, from which engagement the live album, "On This Night" derived.  The studio version of the song is exciting and varied, but the live rendering is even better, which, in jazz, is almost to be expected.  In fact, Shepp's next release on Impulse! was a shared album with Coltrane at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival--which will also someday comprise a post here.

Shepp continued to fuse political activism with experimental jazz arrangements through the later Sixties and into the early Seventies.  Though his music became more accesible and less political later, he has continued to work and is now nearing 75 years old.  Fire Music is one of the best of his early works and is an essential document from the ferment of 1960s "avant-garde" jazz.

Archie Shepp:  Fire Music (Impulse! 1965)

1.  Hambone  12:28
2.  Los Olvidados  8:53
3.  Malcolm, Malcolm—Semper Malcom  4:48
4.  Prelude to a Kiss  4:49
5.  The Girl from Ipanema  8:33
6.  Hambone (Live bonus track)  11:50