Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Terry Riley: In C

Terry Riley, born in 1935 in Colfax, in the northern portion of California's Gold Country between Sacramento and Reno, attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a master's degree in composition.  Tellingly, he played ragtime piano at a San Francisco bar to earn money for college and then, after graduation, spent time in Europe, playing piano at a Paris nightclub and traveling through Scandanavia, where he played music and performed in street theater, among other endeavors.  In other words, he and other post-World War II composers were finding interesting paths to "classical" composition, using experiences with other forms of music (including indigenous musics of various parts of the world, jazz, blues and others) and types of entertainment to influence their work.

What became known, typically misleadingly, as "minimalism" has often been described as exemplified by works such as Riley's In C, which was composed in San Francisco in 1964 and is often celebrated as the first work of minimal composition.  The piece is partially operated by chance (an earlier post highlights John Cage and David Tudor's Indeterminacy, a work based on principles of chance occurrences relative to Cage's recitation of stories and anecdotes while Tudor employed electronics in a separate room out of earshot from his compatriot) in that there are 53 short figures covering from a half beat to 32 beats and moving between the notes of C, E, C again and then G.  While these are played in order, performers can vary where they establish their downbeat and how long and for what duration are their rests, so the element of improvisation is central to the performance of the work.  A key underpinning to In C is that there is an element not included in the score, which is a piano used to create a continuous pulse through the percussive playing of the top two Cs of the instrument on precise eighth notes, almost like a tamboura drone on Indian ragas.   Moreover, the size of the ensemble can vary, so that performances can run anywhgere from about forty-five minutes to an 1 1/2 hours.

This album, the first of this composition, was recorded in 1968 for Columbia Records with Riley on saxophone and joined by musicians from Buffalo's New Music Center (a.k.a., Center of the Creative and Performing Arts at the State University of New York at Buffalo), including a trumpet, flute, trombone, clarinet, viola, oboe, vibraphone, marimbaphone, bassoon and the piano.  Among the performers was trumpeter Jon Hassell, who met Riley in San Francisco and who has gone on to receive much praise for his body of work in modern music, and Hassell's then-wife, Margaret, now known as Katrina Krimsky, who played the pulse on piano and has had a long career as a pianist.

The 42-minute version is performed beautifully and was recorded in three segments.  The first included the eleven ensemble members playing around the pulse established by Margaret Hassell.  Two overdubs followed, one using ten musicians and the other seven.  This created an effect of hearing three each of the vibes, sax, trombone, viola, flute, bassoon, oboe and trumpet and two each of the marimba and clarinet.  Since this first recording, there have been many, ranging up to 76 minutes.  One live performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles featured 124 musicians, which must have been, given the noted acoustics in that venue, a powerful and hypnotic experience, which is true enough of this original 1968 recording.

Riley had a great influence on many composers of his time and subsequently, among these being Steve Reich, whose early work will be the focus of a soon-to-be-coming post.  His follow-up Columbia disc, A Rainbow in Curved Air, released in 1969, is another classic that will be discussed here at some point.  The composer soon after began intensive studies in Indian music, which has had a vey prominent influence in his later works. By the mid-1980s, however, his former student, David Harrington of the great Kronos Quartet, convinced him to compose works for the string quartet and a series of excellent collaborations, including the tremendous Cadenza on a Night Plain, resulted.  Anyone interested in modern "minimalist" "classical" music would be well advised to start with, or at least give an early listen, to In C, which stands as one of the great works of the genre.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Wailers: Catch a Fire

The name Bob Marley and the word "reggae" are virtually synonymous to most people familiar with both.  While there are many other great reggae bands and performers, from Burning Spear to Toots and the Maytals to Culture to Black Uhuru to individuals like U-Roy, Prince Far-I, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and I-Roy, Marley was the one musician to emerge from Jamaica and
become the biggest international figure in reggae and remains so to this day, just over 30 years after his death from cancer in 1981 at age 36.

It would also be easy to have the compilation album Legend be the primary record to focus on relative to the work of Bob Marley and the Wailers.  In fact, YHB's first exposure to reggae was when that album was released in 1984 and it is a fantastic compilation that will be covered here eventually.  However, anyone looking to delve further into the amazing career of Marley should probably start with the earlier work of what was called The Wailers.

This was a vocal trio, formed in 1963, with Marley, Peter Tosh and Neville Livingston (a.k.a., Bunny Wailer) joined by three other members.  It was the heyday of ska and the band moved through the end of the decade into rock steady and then reggae working with such legendary producers as Coxsone Dodd and Lee Perry.

The move to international recognition came in 1972, when The Wailers were signed to Chris Blackwell's Island Records.  Island had just lost major star Jimmy Cliff, who was the first Jamaican reggae musician to receive a significant following outside the country, and Blackwell believed Marley was a star in the making.

Albums as such were not part of the Jamaican musical scene, but Blackwell prevailed on The Wailers to deliver one and they had just recorded a series of tracks in Kingston that they self-produced.  Though impressed with the results, Blackwell felt that more was need to appeal to the international market and restructured the sound of these original versions by adding a number of uncredited musicians.   He also withdrew two songs that were in the earlier recordings.

Two American musicians, including Wayne Perkins who guitar is prominent on "Stir It Up" (which is significantly longer in the released version) and keyboardist Rabbit Bundrick, were brought in, as were future Jamaican notables Robbie Shakespeare, now a legendary bassist, who is heard on the opening track "Concrete Jungle and keyboard player Tyrone Downie, who was on that song and "Stir It Up" and later joined Marley's band.  There were additional percussionists and some female backing vocals provided by Marley's wife, Rita, and Marcia Griffiths, already a known figure in Jamaica--these two later became, with Judy Mowatt, the I-Threes backing group for Marley.

In April 1973, Catch a Fire was released and, while it did not sell hugely, it did attract positive critical reviews and garnered attention to a music largely unknown to those outside Jamaica.  Notably, the initial pressing of 20,000 copies listed the band as "The Wailers" and used an unusual lighter package, in which the lid of the paper lighter flipped open to reveal the vinyl record.  The following pressing, however, had a photo of Marley taking a hit off of a massive spliff and the band was referred to as "Bob Marley and the Wailers."  Blackwell was banking on the charisma, songwriting talent, and leadership of Marley over Tosh and Livingston.

The Island release is impressive, with political rockers like "Concrete Jungle," "Slave Driver," and "400 Years" leading off and lighter, but melodically and rhythmically strong tracks like "Stir It Up" and "Kinky Reggae" anchoring the middle part of the album.  The closer was the dynamite "Midnight Ravers" which, as with much of the record, showcased the tight harmonies of Marley, Tosh and Livingston.  It is also notable that Tosh's vocal features are the very strong songs that he penned: "Stop That Train" and "400 Years."

In 2001, Marley's Tuff Gong imprint on Island Records issued a "deluxe edition" that paired the 1973 Island album with the never-released Jamaican originals, which included the two excised songs, "High Tide or Low Tide" and "All Day, All Night."  While Blackwell's editorial decision may have made for a stronger album, these are fine songs and one of the many things to like about the Jamaican versions is the greater emphasis placed on the incredible Barrett brothers, bassist Aston "Family Man" and drummer Carlton "Carlie," whose playing is up front and not as masked by the variety of sounds Blackwell introduced in the reconstituted, official versions.

In any case, Catch a Fire was not as big a seller as Burnin', Natty Dread, or Exodus, other generally proclaimed masterpieces by Marley and the Wailers, but it is every bit as good as anything that followed it.  Those curious about the broader career of The Wailers, with Tosh and Livingston, and that of Marley after those two left the band in 1974 for solo careers that featured some significant successes, might want to start with the surface overview, however, brilliant, of Legend, but then extend their investigations into the individual albums, beginning with this stunning debut.

The Wailers:  Catch a Fire (Island, 1973)

1.  Concrete Jungle  4:13
2.  Slave Driver  2:54
3.  400 Years  2:45
4.  Stop That Train  3:54
5.  Baby We've Got a Date (Rock It Baby)  3:55
6.  Stir It Up  5:32
7.  Kinky Reggae  3:37
8.  No More Trouble  3:58
9.  Midnight Ravers  5:08

2001 Deluxe Edition Jamaican Versions

1.  Concrete Jungle  4:11
2.  Stir It Up  3:37
3.  High Tide or Low Ride  4:40
4.  Stop That Train  3:53
5.  400 Years  2:57
6.  Baby We've Got a Date (Rock It Baby)  4:00
7. Midnight Ravers  5:05
8.  All Day All Night  3:26
9.  Slave Driver  2:52
10.  Kinky Reggae  3:40
11.  No More Trouble  5:13

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Pharoah Sanders: Karma

Born Farrell Sanders in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1940, this explosive and spiritually-minded tenor saxophonist received the name "Pharoah" as a play off of his first name and as a reference to the Egyptian themes that marked the work of one of his first bosses, the otherwordly but highly influential pianist Sun Ra.

Sanders became a fixture in the "new thing," or the "avant garde," or the "free jazz" movement that coalesced in New York during the middle 1960s.  He recorded his first album as a leader for the small, but important, label ESP-Disk in 1964 and gained the attention of saxophone titan John Coltrane, who asked him to join his band the following year.  For the remaining two years of Coltrane's life, Sanders was a major part of his evolving sound, which moved into freer and more spiritually intense territory and garnered him, and Sanders, much notoriety, frequently negative.

Like Trane, Sanders was unmoved by the concerns of critics and others that their music was angry noise.  Instead, Sanders continued to develop his dissonant, multiphonic and searching style, while also demonstrating, although this was usually downplayed by critics, that he had a keen ear for lyrical playing.  He also pursued the spiritual side of his music, which played well in the tenor of the times during the latter 1960s.

After Coltrane's death, Sanders entered into a fertile and quite successful period, in which he released several excellent albums on Trane's label, Impulse!  His first album for that label, Tauhid, will be featured on this blog in the future, but the next release was Karma, recorded in mid-February 1969.  Making an explicit link to Trane's 1964 masterpiece, A Love Supreme, Sanders utilized the bass theme from that record to underpin his own best-known work, the nearly 33-minute "The Creator Has a Master Plan." 

Where the Trane record was generally solemn, stately and restrained, Sanders' "Creator" largely starts off that way, but about half way through begins to move in a powerful fashion towards an ecstatic state, featuring his overblowing in the upper register, while pianist Lonnie Liston Smith, later renowned for his funk-influenced workouts, plays beautifully in conjunction with James Spaulding's flute, Julius Watkins' French horn, the double bass work of the excellent Richard Davis and the always impressive Reggie Workman.  Showing Sanders' strong interest in African-derived sounds, drummer William Hart and percussionist Nathaniel Bettis add a great deal of texture and color. 

Also of note, though not perhaps to everyone's taste, is the vocalizing of Leon Thomas, who had been a singer for Count Basie earlier in the sixties, but came to embrace the freer music of Sanders and others.  While Thomas highlighted his lyrics calling for peace and reflection on the creator and his works in the earlier portions of "Creator," he turns to a creative and quite impressive yodeling style as the song builds in intensity after about 18 minutes and he and Sanders yodel and scream together for lengthy passages in what may be one of the most powerful moments on record anywhere.

For those attuned to giving "The Creator as a Master Plan" over a half hour of concentrated listening and attention, the experience can be truly uplifting and transcendent.  The nonet's synchronicity and empathy is remarkable, particularly in that latter half as the work moves closer and closer to a trance-like state. 

The album concludes with a mellow five-and-a-half minute paean to nature and the creator called "Colors."  Again, the lyrics are clearly of the time, as with "Creator," and may seem anachronistic to modern, jaded minds, but, then again, the sincerity and passion with which Thomas vocalizes and the band plays are affecting.  After the yearning intensity of "Creator," the peacefulness of "Colors" seems a totally appropriate way to end a phenomenal record, perhaps the high point of Sanders' long and varied career.

After releasing several great albums with Impulse!, Sanders recorded less frequently and with less notice during the 1970s and 1980s.  His partnership with producer and bassist Bill Laswell, starting around 1990, however, provided a revival of creativity and recognition.  The epitome of their work may well have been the incredible Sonny Sharrock album, Ask the Ages, to be covered here later, as well as an awesome record with gnawa musician, Mahmoud Gania, thorugh Laswell's Axiom imprint in 1994--another album to be highlighted here some day.

YHB had the chance to see Pharoah Sanders play at Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood during his early 1990s renaissance.  He played beautiful ballads as well as some of the spiritually powerful playing that made him famous and left a great impression with his soloing and the solid playing of his band.  His music is definitely worth discovering for those inclined towards adventurous music.

Pharoah Sanders:  Karms (Impulse! 1969)

1.  The Creator Has a Master Plan  32:45
2.  Colors  5:37

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Minutemen: Double Nickels on the Dime

In the earlier post on Hüsker Dü's mind-blowing Zen Arcade, it was noted that that record was bought along with another phenomenal double album, Double Nickels on the Dime from Minutemen.  Both of these albums signaled a high point for the "do it yourself" atmosphere of American punk (post-punk?  whatever?) rock, epitomized by the underfunded, but overexuberant SST Records label, of the early to mid-1980s.

Whereas Zen Arcade showed a more obvious "hardcore" element, particularly in its paint-peeling speed-fueled side two, Double Nickels on the Dime (a reference to driving 55 mph on Interstate 10, as shown on the album cover below, where band member Mike Watt tools down the freeway at the indicated speed on said highway, while he has a twinkle in his eyes through the rear view mirror and out the windshield is the sign for State Route 11 (now State Route 110) to the band's beloved home base of San Pedro--the title is also evidently a rejoinder to Sammy Hagar's popular tune, "Can't Drive 55," which the Minutemen dudes felt was not much of a protest song.  Jesus, what a long diversion that was!) is a stylistically diverse tour-de-force of political pieces, strange abstractions, covers of Steely Dan, Van Halen, and Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, and tons else.

In fact, the album was intended to be a single disc release with recording commencing in November 1983, until D. Boon (guitar, vocals), Watt (bass, vocals), and George Hurley (drums) found out that their bandmates were releasing a double album.  Joking "take that, Hüskers!" on the liners, Minutemen went back into the studio in April 1984 with quickly-written pieces and hammered out the material for their own double album.  The record was made for only $1,100!  SST responded by delaying the Zen Arcade release, so that the two albums could come out together in July 1984.  This was perfect for some buyers, who took the opportunity to buy both and enjoy a singular experience of enjoying two landmark albums of the day.

The vinyl release included 45 (yup, 45) songs over the four sides, three sequenced by individual band members picking songs by straws and the fourth deemed "chaff," literally leftovers.  Boon's trebly guitar featuring some arresting soloing, Watt's fluid bass, and Hurley's muscular drumming are excellent throughout with the guitarist singing all but two of the pieces, which were performed by Watt.  Political anthems like "Viet Nam," "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing [what a great title!]," "The Big Foist," "West Germany," and "Untitled Song for Latin America," are paced with the covers, like Creedence's "Don't Look Now," which was recorded live, Van Halen's "Ain't Talking 'Bout Love," and Steely Dan's "Dr. Wu," and a variety of off-the-wall pieces like "#1 Hit Song," ""Maybe Partying Will Help," "Toadies," "Take 5, D," which deals with leaking showers and perhaps other topics, "The Road of the Masses Could Be Farts," and "Jesus and Tequila." 

"Viet Nam" is a highlight with its funk-like guitar, buoyant bass, and rock solid drumming providing a solid basis for Boon's political diatribe about the war.  That song is followed by Boon's beautiful and contemplative acoustic piece, "Cohesion."  The powerful "Shit from an Old Notebook," featuring a Boon rant against commercialism has a great Hurley backbeat and Watt's signature bass anchoring the sound perfectly.  The trio's tight interplay also shines on "Nature Without Man," "One Reporter's Opinion," which has a cool lyric about Watt as a mechanistic human being, "The Big Foist," "Nothing Indeed," "This Ain't No Picnic," "Storm in My House," and a host of other pieces.  There is also the great "Corona," written by Boon and which has an extremely catchy twangy guitar riff and a thumping polka beat.  Hurley gets to showcase his drumming best, perhaps, on the under a minute "Martin's Story."  After an intense "The World According to Nouns," the album closes nicely with a relaxed, funky jam called "Love Dance."  There are also little interludes playing up the car theme found in the title and art work by having audio of the band members' cars starting up.

"The Glory of Man," with an awesome bass line from its writer, Watt, and the bassist's sublime (and perhaps the band's overall signature song), "History Lesson—Part II" are probably the two most memorable tracks to YHB, although it's hard to take these pieces out of the context of a uniformly excellent album that moves quickly from song to song in its 80+ minute vinyl and 78-minute CD versions.

With excellent reviews, a heavy touring schedule to support the album, and decent sales, considering its lack of "commerciality," the band was at a creative peak.  After the follow-up, 3-Way Tie (For Last), came out in 1985, D. Boon was tragically killed in a traffic accident in Arizona just before Christmas.  Devastated, Watt and Hurley ended the band, but later formed the excellent fIREHOSE, a very different, but impressive trio with guitarist/vocalist Ed Crawford, that lasted from 1986 to 1994.  Watt has continued with a solo career that has included three "operas," including 2011's brilliant Hyphenated-Man, based on figures found in Hieronymus Bosch's allegorical paintings from the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

It's hard to believe that it is almost thirty years since the landmark Double Nickels on the Dime emerged in tandem with Zen Arcade, marking a high-water point for independent music in the U.S.  and Minutemen remain one of the great bands of its day.

Monday, May 14, 2012

WOMAD Volume 4: An Introduction to Asia

In 1982, British musician Peter Gabriel co-founded WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) to take traditional and new music from around the world to a broad audience.  With a popular annual festival and recordings, among other projects, WOMAD has been a success in its aims.  For this blogger, one of the first "world music" recordings encountered back in 1990 was the cassette edition of the company's fourth volume of introductory music, this on Asia.

One could quibble about assigning a unifying identity of "Asia" on places as differed as Israel, Pakistan, Iran, and Sri Lanka (presumably, the "Far East" being China, Japan, and what is commonly referred to as "Southeast Asia"), but it is hard to argue against the very high quality of traditional and modern sounds on this excellent album.

The first track featured traditional music from the desert region of Rajasthan in India, followed by a "roots" turn coupled with club dance rhythms by Israeli-Yemeni pop star Ofra Haza.  Iranian classical music with the lute-like tar is just ahead of a political work by a Kurdish singer, Sivan Perwer.  The rhythms of men beating their chests with their hands while women engage in a trance-like chant on a piece from Pakistan called "Mersiyet," commemorating the massacre of Shi'ite Muslims at Kerbalain 680 A.D. comes right before a pop track from the Indo-British collective Alaap.  Four pretty traditional works from Sri Lanka (an awesome ad hoc field recording at a temple), Uzbekistan (a plaintive male vocal accompanied by a lute called the doutar, the gijak or fiddle, and a large drum called a dora), Iraq (a stunning track with a 79-tone zither called the kanun), and India (an impressive tabla solo) lead up to the finale, a stunning rendering of the song Yun Na Thi by the legendary Indian singer Asha Bhosle.

This is a wide-ranging record of a variety of musical sounds from the Middle East to the Indian subcontinent and gives about equal time to women as to men and to modern as to traditional works.  Peter Gabriel, along with other musicians like Bill Laswell and Mickey Hart, is to be given credit for presenting a balanced and compelling approach to bringing music of other cultures to the Western world.  WOMAD's An Introduction to Asia had a major impact on this blogger's budding appreciation for "world music" and is well worth the effort if the rare recording can be located.

WOMAD, Volume 4: An Introduction to Asia (1987)

1.  Desert Musicians of Rajasthan:  Raga Sindhi Bhairavi
2.  Ofra Haza:  Im Nin 'Alu
3.  Daryoush Tala'i & Djamchid Chemirani:  Tar and Zarb
4.  Sivan Perwer:  Daye Ez Xelim
5.  Pakistani Womwn Singers:  Mersiyet
6.  Alaap:  Chunni Ud Ud 'Jae
7.  Temple Musicians of Sri Lanka:  Ritual of Siva-Linga
8.  G.Iakobov:  Assalom
9.  Ali Kamel:  Kanun Solo
10.  Pandit Sharda Sahai:  Tabla Solo
11.  Asha Bhosle:  Yun Na Thi

Friday, May 11, 2012

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphonies 35 and 38 and the Salzburg Symphonies

In 1990, when classical music was first being discovered by this blogger, one of the first recordings obtained was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Linz (or 36th) symphony and, within moments of listening to the theme of the first movement, it was extremely easy, as it has for many millions of people, to appreciate and enjoy the true genius of the composer.

Mozart (1756-1791), a child prodigy as a performer and composer, composed voluminously and with amazing creativity and was immensely popular.  Over 600 works were produced in about a quarter century and he was only 35 when he died--who knows how many more compositions, including masterpieces, he would have produced if he had lived as long as one of his mentors, Franz Josef Haydn?

He also composed extremely rapidly and completed his final trio of symphonies in only a month and a half.  His greatest work came in the final decade of his life, during which time, not coincidentally, he worked closely with the great Haydn, who, in turn, learned much from his much younger compatriot.

There is so much to discover and appreciate in the mountains of music, most of it of extremely high quality and so memorable, produced by the remarkable Mozart.  A nice collection of two of his most famous symphonies, the 35th (Haffner, from 1782) and the 38th (Prague, from 1786), as well as the so-called Salzburg symphonies, which are divertimenti or lighter music that run about half the length of the "mature" symphonies, can be found on a release by the German budget label, Pilz.

As a rank amateur, this blogger lacks the discernment to distinguish between good, excellent or superior playing in the way that a professional musician or a well-schooled aficionado can, so the Pilz disc may or may not meet the criteria called for by the latter, but for moi it works just fine.

The two symphonies on the first disc are performed by the Mozart Festival Orchestra, while, on disc 2, the Salzburg pieces are by a German orchestra called the Süddeutsche Philharmonie along with a thirteen minute Serenata Notturna by the Münchner Symphoniker that functioned more like a suite than a symphony and was "light music" that was performed in the evenings in outdoor settings, hence the name. 

Yet, even though the Salzburg "symphonies" and the serenades were usually thought of as ephemeral and not as important as "major" works like symphonies, concertos, sonatas and other more formally performed works, Mozart's skills with memorable melodies and unusual orchestration have made these pieces as timeless as the others.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

In January 1963, bassist and composer Charles Mingus took an eleven-piece ensemble into a studio and recorded music intended for a ballet and the resulting Impulse! Records album, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, is a staggering recording rich with textures, colors, rhythms and solos that make it a unique and involving experience.

It is also an album that can't be appreciated as background music, played while you're doing something else.  It calls for a concentrated listen, following Mingus' solid bass playing, the interplay of the horns (trumpet, trombone, saxes, flute, tuba), Jaki Byard's sympathetic piano and Dannie Richmond's excellent drumming, as well as Jay Berliner's occasional, but spectacular, flamenco guitar playing.

This blogger first heard the album in the early 1990s on the first CD release by MCA, but a new release on an Impulse! two-fer with Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus (another trememdous record) has greatly improved sound--a bonus with music as compelling as this.

Mingus, a native of Nogales, Arizona, who grew up in Los Angeles, was clearly affected the by the big band music of his youth, especially that of Duke Ellington.  Like so many young jazz musicians, however, his world was turned upside down by the titanic developments of be-bop, especially the legendary combo of alto sax player Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.  Bop was a small group form, but Mingus found a way throughout his career to skillfully take the big band sound and arrangement and meld it with the small combo component. 

Mingus also had a masterful composition and arranging style that was heavily influenced by Ellington and Parker, but was his own, weaving the variety of instruments at hand in fascinating and varied ways.  He could play it slow and sweet, sounding very "traditional", but also turn it up and move it quickly, bringing a power and intensity unrivaled at the time.

The peak was almost certainly Black Saint where uptempo, intense passages are leavened by slower, more melodic interludes, the latter often featuring Byard's beautiful touch, while the former highlighted the telepathic interplay between Mingus and Richmond.  Coloring from the baritone sax and tuba especially are noteworthy.  In the passages featuring Berliner, the flamenco touches are thrilling, as is the consistently excellent playing of alto sax player Charlie Mariano, an underappreciated player who also shone on the Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus album.

In many ways, Black Saint is the ultimate ensemble record, in which for all the great soloing, the cumulative effect of the diverse array of instrumentation, working with a richly layered score by a master, make this record a highlight for anyone interested in the best jazz has to offer.

Charles Mingus may have been volatile, argumentative, difficult, unpredictable, mentally unstable at times, but he was also highly respected by his peers for his excellent bass playing and his unsurpassed compositional and arranging skills.  When he was at his best, as with The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, he was as good as anyone in the jazz world. 

Sadly, within a few years of this momentous achievement, Mingus was hardly working, evicted from his New York apartment and struggled to keep his career going, though he had moments of excellence in the face of difficulty before his death of ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) in 1979. 

And, years after his death, the work that he considered his masterpiece, but which had a failed attempt at mounting in a live recording not long before Black Saint, was lovingly resurrected and completed by a team of musicians and composers.  This was the great Epitaph, which will be covered here in the future.

Charles Mingus:  The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse! 1963)

1.  Track A—Solo Dancer  6:37
2.  Track B—Duet Solo Dancers 6:43
3.  Track C—Group Dancers  7:20
4.  Mode D—Trio and Group Dancers
     Mode E—Single Solos and Group Dance
     Mode F—Group and Solo Dance  18:39 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cocteau Twins: Treasure

In late 1985, the same day the Cabaret Voltaire record, Drinking Gasoline, was purchased at a Music Plus store in Brea, the compilation album (and first U.S. domestic release) The Pink Opaque by Cocteau Twins was added to the acquisition, making it one of those great record buying days, comparable to getting Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime at one visit or King Sunny Ade's Aura along with Black Uhuru's Anthem or Coltrane's My Favorite Things with Ornette Coleman's The Art of the Improvisers.

What a difference between the industrial sounds of the Cabs and the ethereal, shimmering textures of Cocteau Twins, focusing on the otherwordly vocalizing by Elizabeth Fraser!  Although in one important sense, there may be a major common thread--both created bodies of work that resonated with fans because it was far less about technical mastery of instruments than in setting a mood or an atmosphere that was, in its own way, a form of virtuosity.

Cocteau Twins fans tend to be pretty intense about the band's music and, probably, detractors are equally so about their dislike of it.  Fraser's trilling, swooping chirps, vibrato, and other mannerisms, coupled with evidently nonsensical lyrics, at least until later albums, probably rub many people the wrong way as pretentious and self-conscious.  Robin Guthrie's arrangements could be dismissed as simplistic and overtly romantic.

Yet, admirers could argue that Fraser's vocals are a thrilling combination of otherworldly intonations and soaring beauty, while Guthrie orchestrated a backing sound that perfectly matched her singing, provided you were willing to be drawn in to a sound that really was unusual and unique.

Perhaps none of their records captures the blend of exquisitely mannered vocalizing and an empathetic and complementary instrumental backing as the 1984 album Treasure (though others might argue, persuasively, that 1991's Heaven or Las Vegas is just as skillfully executed.)  After a Gothic debut album, Garlands (1982) that hinted at what was to come and a sophomore effort, Head Over Heels (1983) that was a significant improvement, Treasure was a huge leap forward in the band's development.  The album was recorded in August and September and released very quickly on 1 November 1984.

From the first track, "Ivo", named for the owner of the band's groundbreaking label, 4AD, the lushness of Guthrie's arrangement and the sweeping vocals of Fraser are totally in sync.  What distinguishes the instrumentation from the earlier records was its greater diversity.  While critics and even Guthrie himself often downplayed his guitar skills, "Ivo" reveals him to be quite capable of executing a solid solo.  Excellent as this song is, the followup, "Lorelei", provides a grand scale of power through both Guthrie's playing and Fraser's singing that is a highlight of the record.  There are jazz-like, choral, medieval (something reminiscent of Dead Can Dance--perhaps), ambient and other sounds that make each track stand out from the others and breathe more life into the pieces.  The closer, "Donimo," does what a final track should--it leaves a memorable impression ending on powerful instrumental flourishes while Fraser's vocals soar to the heights after being understated for much of the song.

But, the biggest difference between Treasure and its predecessors is the presence of bassist Simon Raymonde.  He keeps the unearthly flights of fancy grounded and establishes rhythm without showiness, playing just the notes that are needed.  In any band, the guitarist and vocalist get the lion's share of the attention and, while the band was aided here by drum machines, drummers are often right behind.  The odd man or woman out, inevitably, is the bassist, but an excellent one is a steady anchor and Raymonde fits the bill perfectly.

Treasure is generally acclaimed as the Cocteau Twins' best record and it is hard to argue against that sentiment.  The band did go on to make many fine records up until their disbanding in the late 1990s.  Though there was a reunion planned for the Coachella music festival a few years back, Fraser opted out not long after the announcement is made and there is no reason to assume a reunion is possible.  More recordings by this amazing band will be featured here in the future.

Cocteau Twins:  Treasure (4AD, 1984)

1.  Ivo
2.  Lorelei
3.  Beatrix
4.  Persephone
5.  Pandora (for Cindy)
6.  Amelia
7.  Aloysius
8.  Cicely
9.  Otterley
10.  Donimo