Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ornette Coleman: At the Golden Circle, Volumes One and Two

After two LPs for the small Los Angeles label Contemporary, Ornette Coleman was signed to Atlantic Records and recorded a series of amazing albums that befuddled, bedazzled, enraged and engaged audiences and critics.  Still, the music business was hardly beneficent to the vast majority of jazz musicians and Coleman decided not to sign a new contract with Atlantic in 1961.  Instead, he hoped to be able to create his own destiny through recordings and concerts and the move proved to be one in which for most of the period from 1962 to 1966, hardly any music was performed or recorded by this uniquely innovative and talented artist.

Last night, YHB finished the interesting 1966 A. B. Spellman book, Black Music: Four Lives (a.k.a. Four Lives in the Bebop Business), in which the journalist details the lives and careers of four then-neglected or struggling musicians, these being the protean pianist Cecil Taylor, the almost-unknown pianist Herbie Nichols, alto sax stalwart Jackie McLean and Coleman.  It is often depressing and saddening to hear how these men, despite their remarkable talents and commitment to their music, were mistreated by club owners and label executives and the chapter on Coleman also is a reminder that his way of composing and creating with ensembles was heavily criticized by other musicians, not just jazz reviewers.

Finally, though, in 1965, Coleman was signed to Blue Note Records and a series of recordings made during a two-week engagement at The Golden Circle club in frigid Stockholm, Sweden in early December were released in two volumes the following year known as At the Golden Circle.  Coleman and his trio, including bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett, perform remarkably individually and the interplay between the three is impressive.

Notably, lines notes by Swede Ludvig Rasmussen make the case that Coleman's "emotion range is fairly limited and if it were not for the variety of his music, we would certainly consider it tedious."  This seems like a backhanded compliment at best, but Rasmussen continued that "the content of his music is mostly pure beauty, a glittering, captivating, dizzying, sensual beauty."  According to him, "a couple of years ago, nobody through so, and everyone considered his music grotesque, filled with anguish and chaos."

It seems strange to think that a listener could find that Coleman lacked emotion and yet played with great beauty, but, in a way, Rasmussen's point might be grounded in a perception that unlike John Coltrane, whose powerful and intense soloing indicated great groundswells of emotion, Coleman's "variety" seems more playful and joyful in terms of the exploration of sound and, perhaps, "pure beauty."  Glittering actually seems a particularly apt way to express much of what came forth from that plastic alto sax and it is, indeed, "captivating" and, maybe, "dizzying."

Rasmussen, moreover, highlights the shock of discovering how innovative and impressive the largely-unknown Izenzon, who was a highly-skilled classical player who performed regularly in chamber music groups and orchestras, was and YHB agrees that the bassist stands out for his unusual way of complementing Moffett's drumming and accompanying Coleman.  He compares Izenzon to the late Scott LaFaro, whose virtuosity was very noteworthy.  In fact, in Four Lives, Coleman is quoted at length talking about why he so often used white bassists (Izenzon, LaFaro and the sublime Charlie Haden), while one of the few black players he used was Jimmy Garrison, the longtime member of John Coltrane's classic quartet.

Concerning Izenzon (who died of a heart attack after chasing a man who robbed him in New York), Coleman commented that "he knows that he's Jewish, he knows his conception of that in relation to the human struggle," but also noted that "he has a feeling of superiority about his playing, playing with all those symphony orchestras, but he backed up that feeling of superiorty with an ability to do anything that's possible to be done on the bass."  He followed with a discussion about the difference between "hearing music" and having a technical virtuosity, as well as asserting that a bass is "a more expressive instrument to non-Negro, non-black people" and that this was why he used mostly white bassists.  Whether using a bow, especially on "Dawn" on Volume 1, or plucking, found abundantly throughout, Izenzon's strength, clarity and manner of accompaniment are something to behold.

Moffett, whose son Charnett is a very fine bass player (and was featured on Sonny Sharrock's mind-shattering Ask the Ages album, featured here not long ago) may seem underappreciated in this context, but his use of counterpoint along with that of the bassist, gives Coleman the freedom and space to perform all manner of solos and yet keep a swing and rhythm that hold down the bottom line, especially when Izenzon steps out to try something new and interesting outside of keeping the rhythm.

With Volume 2, the track "Snowflakes and Sunshine" is a marvel for many reasons.  First, Moffett's triple time approach to the drums and the leader hauls out a violin, which he took up during his long absence from the scene and debuted only recently at a Village Vanguard engagement in New York, and launches screeching, abrasive sounds that led to much criticism from musicians and critics.  Well, so did Coleman's adoption of another instrument, the trumpet, which also makes its first recorded appearance here and which was so identified with Coleman's early musical soul mate, Don Cherry.  Probably if a listener approaches Coleman's "playing" of these instruments as ways to bring a certain "color" or "texture" to his music, it might go over better?

In any case, Volume 2 is more intense that the first, but the two are excellent recordings that showed that Coleman's mid-sixties work could be quite exciting and compare favorably with the more-heralded Atlantic years of 1959 to 1961.  Those interested in hearing these fine live albums are encouraged to seek out the 24-bit remastered Rudy van Gelder editions issued by Blue Note in 2001. 

Already a legendary engineer known for bringing out superb sounding records at the time, van Gelder's remastering on CD reveals a notable difference from the original masters.  Interestingly, Charles Mingus, a notorious eccentric by about any standard, refused to work with van Gelder because he argued that the engineer manipulated the natural sounds of musicians for his own creative purposes.  On the other hand, van Gelder was sought out by musicians and producers for his advanced studio set-ups and the results of his "secret recipe" at the soundboard.

Coleman, meantime, went on to record two studio albums with Coltrane's classic rhythm section of Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones before leaving for a stint with Columbia Records and then emerging in the 1970s with a more electric sound via his Prime Time ensemble. HIs music will be regularly featured here and the 82-year old master is still active (YHB got to see him at U.C.L.A. a couple of years ago and he sounded great, if a bit fragile.)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King

Deciding what the next favorite King Crimson album is after Red is a real tough one.  1981's Discipline is fantastic and could easily have been here instead of In the Court of the Crimson King, but it is also hard to overstate the brilliance of the signature KC tune, "21st Century Schizoid Man," which opens the 1969 debut with a power, adventuresomeness, tightness and precision of performance, and the spectacle that, for better or for worse, is generally lionized (or criticized) as the touchstone of so-called "Progressive Rock."  And, in "Epitaph" and "The Court of the Crimson King" are two other epic pieces that have been considered highlights of an album that The Who's Pete Townshend called an "uncanny masterpiece."

Actually, when King Crimson's original vocalist and bassist Greg Lake (later of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, vanguards [perhaps] of the ultimate [perhaps] in progressive bombast in the 1970s) pointed out in a recent article about "prog" that earlier British rock bands were animated by American blues and soul, while those of the late 60s were looking to more "European" sources, such as classical, including avant-garde, music, there is a lot that makes sense there.

In Ian McDonald, however, a multi-instrumentalist, whose flute and sax playing were spectacular and whose mellotron was a domainant feature, and the amazing drummer Michael Giles, who plays with great rhythmic surety and touch, there is a heavy debt to jazz, particularly on the faster tempo pieces, the "free jazz" that was raging in the 60s, including in Europe, though they were also highly sensitive and restrained, qualities not often associated with "progressive rock," if King Crimson could even be considered such, in the ballads "I Talk to the Wind" and "Moonchild," which might be a tad too "hippie-ish" to some ears.

Guitarist Robert Fripp gets lots of attention for the crunchy riffs and speedy and difficult technical runs on "Schizoid Man," (the amazing harmonic work in the middle passage developed by Giles is a truly impressive KC moment) but he also deserves much credit for the acoustic and electric playing on the other pieces that are not as showy, but just as essential in the orchestration of these pieces.  Despite statements that McDonald was less than enamored with Fripp's unorthodox performing style, Lake has pointed out that the symbiosis between him and the guitarist were fundamental to the sound of that first incarnation.  Fripp's impeccable technical abilities were still in development, but he was developing a style that set him utterly apart from the pyrotechnical showiness that dominated among the guitar gods of the era.

Usually, rhythm sections (Lake and Giles) and front-line sections (in this case, McDonald and Fripp) would be viewed as natural pairings, but Lake's comments and the fact that McDonald and Giles quit at the end of 1969 after an American tour to support the album, released two months prior, are quite interesting.  It should be added that, while Lake is not generally considered as good on his instrument as his band mates were on theirs, he held down the bottom and supplied the rhythm and accompaniment to the soloists just fine, to this listener.  More importantly, he had a fine singing voice and his vocals, particularly on "Epitaph," are indispensable to the high regard this record has.

There is the role of lyricist Peter Sinfield, who also developed the lighting for the band's live shows that, at the time, was considered very inventive.  Sinfield's lyrics have been the subject of much heated debate concerning his wordplay, density, impressionistic content, and perceptions of grandiose, obtuse and overblown self-consciousness that many attach to his contributions.  To YHB, Sinfield is far more restrained and direct on this album than with later releases and "Schizoid Man" and "Epitaph" are, to this listener, the best of his contributions as he wrote with interesting metaphors, highly descriptive language and a greater directness  and comprehension than would be found later.  With "The Court of the Crimson King," Sinfield's lyrics have the kind of impressionistic bent that would be greatly elaborated on later, but more simplified and clearer (even with "purple pipers," "black queens," "pattern jugglers" and "yellow jesters" being central characters.)

Much has been said about the almost miraculous and spiritual nature of the rehearsals and early live shows conducted by the newly-formed band in early 1969, leading to the self-produced recordings of the summer in which the band trusted its instincts and group consensus to build a remarkable record.  A generous loan by Lake's uncle and what the band called its "good fairy," that ineffable musical something that guided the group through a tumultuous and turbulent year, were also essential qualities.

Then, there is the cover art, consisting of an unforgettably disturbing painting of a screaming man (a schizoid man, perhaps?) conceived by Barry Godber, a friend of Sinfield's.  It has its own life apart from the music, while also helping to define it.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the remixing done for the 40th Anniversary Edition, released by Fripp's independent Discipline Global Mobile (DGM) label, in 2009 by Steven Wilson of The Porcupine Tree, is superior, as is the case with all of the edition's releases.  Bonus tracks include a full version of "Moonchild," which has a much-discussed lengthy and quiet improvisation featuring Fripp, Giles and Lake that they described as magical when it came upon them in the studio, but which has been dismissed as aimless and boring by others; alternate performances of the ballad "I Talk to the Wind"; the backing track to "Epitaph" and a wind session.

You had to be there in 1969 to fully appreciate the phenomenon that was King Crimson, the album that was "In the Court of the Crimson King", and the heavy, loud and intense live shows the group performed in England and America that year.  As Fripp has said, the album only hinted at the power found live, but it still leaves an indelible impression (good or bad) and "21st Century Schizoid Man" is truly one of the greatest of all rock songs (even Kanye West used it as the basis for his hit song, "Power," though Fripp had to speak directly to him to get permission granted!)  Discipline is right up there, though, and it will be the next Crimson album to be spotlighted here.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Robert Schumann: Carnaval, Scenes from Childhood, Arabesque

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) was one of the foremost composers of the so-called Romantic Age.  He was born at Zwickau, Saxony and showed great musical talent at a young age, as most composers tend to do, but he was also highly educated in literature and wrote two boyhood novels, due to the influence of his bookseller-publisher-author father, who, however, also encouraged his musical talent.  Schumann also pursued legal studies after his father's death and studies in Leipzig and Heidelberg.

After hearing the legendary Italian violinist, Niccolo Paganini, in 1830, however, Schumann decided to forego the law and studied piano with Frederich Wieck, who believed that his pupil would be a top-notch concert pianist.  During a rigorous period of study, though, Schumann permanently damaged his right hand and had to abandon his performance plans.  Instead, he delved deeply into composition.

By 1832, he was creating his earliest important works, but Schumann's highly sensitive nature, however, led to a suicide attempt the following year after he lost his brother and the brother's wife in a cholera epidemic.  Periodic emotional and mental problems, compounded by health issues, plagued the composer for the remaining decade and more of his life.

Engaged for a time to Ernestine von Fricken, the adopted daughter of a nobleman, Schumann began developing feelings, soon reciprocated, for his piano teacher's young daughter, Clara Wieck, who was becoming well known for her piano performances.  When the composer learned that Ernesting was illegitimate, he ended their relationship and then found that Clara's father steadfastly refused to accept his intentions towards Clara.  Waiting until 1840, when she was of legal age and not subject to the consent of her father, the two married and bore eight children.

Meantime, some of his earlier piano works form the basis for this album released by the Infinity imprint of Sony Music Entertainment in 1993 and which was purchased new by YHB as his first Schumann CD.  It features the 21-piece Carnaval, composed in 1834-35, and subtitled "Little Scenes on Four Notes."  This refers to the fact that the four notes referred to were musical cryptograms embedded in the music, which deals with masked participants of the festival that falls before Lent and characters associated with the Italian masked theater of commedia dell'arte.

The notes are A, B, C and E-flat, but are represented by the German letters A, C, H and S, with three combinations of these notes forming the musical puzzles.  The A and S symbolize the town of Asch, now in the Czech Republic and which was the hometown of Ernestine von Fricken, while the four letters A-C-S-H represent the German word for "carnival," which is Fasching.  Moreover, "asch" is Ash Wednesday.  And, these letters represent the name Robert Alexander Schumann, with the "A" from his middle name and the others from his surname.  Then, there is the S-C-H-A in his surname, as well.

Schumann's debt to the great Franz Schubert echoes throughout the piece, which are largely variations on themes from the earlier composer.  Carnaval was so demanding technically that it was little played during the composer's lifetime and for years afterward, though Franz Liszt did perform portions in 1840.  There are sections named for one of his inspiration, Paganini, and another for his close friend, Chopin.  Others refer to his then-fiancee Ernestine, another to Clara Wieck, and two divergent sides of Schumann's character, the more emotional and more rational elements.  As performed by Russian pianist and Schumann specialist, Pavel Jegorov (Egerov), the Carnaval is a wonder of emotional and highly inventive performance.

Considered "droll little things" by Schumann, the "Scenes from Childhood" became a major piano work of the composer.  These thirteen pieces (there had been thirty originally) reflect Schumann's reminiscences of his childhood and bear such titles as "From Foreign Lands and Peoples," referring evidently to his voracious reading habits; "Blind Man's Buff," being the time-honored children's game; "Dreaming," an obviously reflective and airy work; "Knight of the Hobbyhorse," another famed piece with a rollicking tempo;  and "Child Falling Asleep."  Of all, though, it is "Dreaming" (or Träumerei) that remains one the landmark Schumann pieces, a slow, hauntingly gorgeous melody that is instantly enjoyable and affecting and "Almost Too Serious" is not far behind in its beauty.  Indeed, his declaration to Clara that the pieces were "peaceful, tender, and happy, like our future" is   Throughout, these pieces are simpler in structure, but they also feature a melodic beauty that has made them favorites of listeners ever since.  They also embody the important, but often ignored, premise the "less is more."

Lastly, there is the sublime Arabesque, which Schumann claimed he wrote in 1839 simply to stir the emotions of the women of Vienna.  Technically, the key of C was considered more delicate and feminine as opposed to the sharper keys.  It has also been said that its emotional weight was derived from the composer's then-unrequited love for Clara and that he poured his soul's torment into these pieces.  The 6-plus minutes of this piece have certainly transcended their ephemeral origins and have been another mainstay of Schumann's repertoire.

As a sampler of some of Schumann's most enduring piano work, this CD is an excellent one and Jegorov/Egorov's playing is beautiful.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Bali: Gamelan and Kecak

Another remarkable entry in the Nonesuch Explorer series of world music recordings is this 1989 release of Balinese gamelan and kecak recordings, supervised by David Lewiston in 1987.  Lewiston, who made many important contributions to the Explorer series, made his first trip to the island of Bali, in the region of Java in the Indonesian archipelago, in 1966 and made recordings that resulted in two albums that were early entries in the series.

Returning to the area two decades later, he remarked in the notes to this album, he found the process of arranging for the recordings to be much more difficult, because the pace of life and the gradual eroding of tradition complicated matters significantly.

Nonetheless, he was able, over a period from May to October, to record performances that showed that the unique music of Bali was still there to be savored and shared.  Some of these were recorded at the Bali Art Festival in the island's capital, Den Pasar.  The first piece is from the opening parade, in which some forty ensembles participated, and the 12-minute excerpt captures the sounds of a marching band called a beleganjer, which features songs, drums, flutes and cymbals; a gamelan with flutes, gongs, drums and a metallophone, a xylophone with tuned bronze bars in different pitches than heard in the Western version; a grumbungan ensemble performing on wood cowbells and slit drums; another gamelan called salunding, which includes tones like a bell; and another sample of beleganjer.

A village gamelan using a style developed in the 1910s comprises a ten-minute track with a notable harmony in the metallophone and a rollicking syncopation.  Following is a duet of a Balinese version of the jew's harp called genggong performed by brothers.  A four-minute frog song mimics these reptiles through the enggung, which is a piece of palm bark which is used as a wind instrument creating a very reedy sound. 

An example of the oldest type of gamelan found in Bali follows with the metallophone having iron bars and the result is a gorgeous one, showing its ancient origins of perhaps two thousand years.  Then comes a six-minute gamelan including the metallophone and the rich, sonorous tones of the gong, tempered by the high pitches of the flute. 

There is also a piece that has music accompanying puppet performances of tales that are taken from the ancient Sanskrit epics of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the puppets, made from leather, create shadows on a sacreen, hence the term "shadow play."  Two metallophones set at different octaves are played, but with the twist of the performer having to play with mallets in both hands, each of which plays a separate melody.  In addition, each note is followed by a damper by the heel of the hand and the players have to use syncopation in interlocking fashion.  Imagine the difficulty in learning to play in this way.

The kecak is a form of performing in which a chant of "tjak, tjak, tjak, tjak . . ." is done by a large ensemble of men, in this case 80, that reminds the listener of many of the trance pieces found in other parts of the world, but with this unique Balinese manner.  Coming to creation in the 1930s, the kecak is based on the story of monkeys who aided King Rama in his battle with a foe in the great Ramayana epic.  Finally, a nearly thirteen-minute gamelan based on a dance for warriors concludes this fascinating and varied album.

There is nothing like gamelan and Balinese music and its influence in the West has been shown in such areas as the piano work, Gnossienne, by the iconoclastic French composer Erik Satie, pieces by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, and modern composers like John Cage, Steve Reich, Mike Oldfield and, especially, Lou Harrison, whose work will be touched upon here soon.  Also to be covered here soon is the 1980s work of King Crimson, whose guitarists Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew made frequent use of complex interlocking duets that Fripp dubbed early on in that period as "rock gamelan."

It is striking that music from a relatively small part of the world should have such a major influence on the larger parts of it, but this is testimony to the hypnotic beauty and otherworldliness of Balinese music.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Art Ensemble of Chicago: Bap-Tizum

Emerging in the fertile 1960s free jazz scene in Chicago and members of the remarkable collective called the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM), which included such performers as Henry Threadgill (covered here recently) and Anthony Braxton (who soon will be), three members of the quintet later known as The Art Ensemble of Chicago came together through the recordings of saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, who recorded three albums from 1966 to 1969 that featured trumpeter Lester Bowie and bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut.  Saxophonist Joseph Jarman then became associated with this trio and, by 1969, the Art Ensemble was officially formed.  A year later, the group was augmented by drummer and percussionist (though everyone had an impressive batterie of percussion instruments which distinguished the AECO) Famoudou Don Moye, who was born in Rochester, New York and studied in Detroit before emigrating to Europe when he joined the Ensemble in 1970.

With its members playing an incredible multitude of instruments, some wearing African clothing and face paint, while others wore "Western" garb, and performing music that, by turns, could be fantastically powerful, intense and serious and then joyful, humorous and irreverent, the band combined a striking visual component with a totally catholic approach to sound that set them apart from anyone else in the jazz world.

The Art Ensemble spent most of its earlier years in France, where a series of notable recordings for the BYG/Actuel label were made, some of which will make their appearance here down the road.  In 1972, the group had its first appearance at an American festival, when it performed at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, held at a field named for the famed blues performer Otis Spann, on 9 September 1972.

Introduced by John Sinclair, poet, radical founder of the anti-racist White Panthers, and manager of Detroit's legendary rock band, the MC5, the group performed a 45-minute set that is comprised of unusual titles like "Nfamoudou-Boudougou," "Immm," "Unanka," and "Oouffnoon," and the music is generally as impressionistic as the titles with the first track displaying all the percussion pyrotechnics the group used so effectively over the years.  "Unanka" features an unusual sax/bas duet with Favors and Mitchell, whereas Mitchell's frenetic soloing is underscored by Moye's percussion in "Oouffnoon."  "Ohnedaruth" highlights Bowie's powerful and innovative trumpet playing and the use of Jarman and Mitchell's deep, rich bass saxes creates a memorable piece that is a highlight of the set.  By the time the band settled into the perfect, tight swing of "Odwalla," (proof, if needed, that the Ensemble could play "in the tradition" and not just so-called "free jazz") the audience had gone from enthusiastic to crazed and the roar that rose up after the AECO completed this mind-blowing concert is remarkable and spine-tingling.  It makes you wish you'd been there to experience the aural and visual spectacle and, 40 years later in a few weeks, it sounds fresh and not dated, at all.

Also surprising was the fact that this record was released on the major label, Atlantic, which was then making its greatest profits from the likes of Led Zeppelin, though there was an impresive jazz resume with the label, including with John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman recording for it in the late 50s and early 60s.  Michael Cuscuna, who had done a great deal of jazz production, was in the audience and convinced the label to release this album as an unedited whole, capturing the excitement and unpredictability of one of the best of all jazz ensembles.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago:  Bap-Tizum (Atlantic, 1973)

1.  Nfamousdou-Boudougou  4:16
2.  Immm  5:31
3.  Unanka  10:44
4.  Oouffnoon  3:25
5.  Ohnedaruth  15:00
6.  Odwalla  5:42

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Black Uhuru: Red

In 1984 (Jesus, that was almost 30 years ago!), a friend asked if YHB would go to a concert at the Pacific Amphitheater in Orange County featuring two performers that were completely unknown to said blogger.  One was Nigerian juju legend King Sunny Ade and the other was reggae band Black Uhuru.  World music was completely foreign (pardon the pun) and the only reggae heard to date was Bob Marley and the Wailers' masterful compilation, Legend, issued the previous year.  Being almost completely beholden to alternative rock at that time, there was more than a little uncertainty about how this concert was going to go.

Turns out that the show was easily one of the best concerts every experienced.  Black Uhuru took the stage first and, being in the third row, the sensation of having the concrete floor and seats vibrate with the powerful and deep bass of Robbie Shakespeare (a.k.a. Basspeare) and the crisp snare snaps from drummer Sly Dunbar (a.k.a., Dunbar), otherwise known as the Riddim Twins, was a marvel.  Frontman Michael Rose was a natural, singing in his unique keening style with a passion and energy the revved the crowd up.  The spliffs were lit, the bass and drums were booming, a particularly searing guitar solo stands out, and Rose's skanking and singing kept everyone in a good, mellow mood.

The headliner had something like a 28-piece band and that part of the show began with one hand drummer, then another, and another, and yet another, followed by dancers, a bass player, a drummer, a rhythm guitarist, saxophonists, trumpeters and etc.  Finally, as the large ensemble established a tight, rhythmic and danceable groove and stayed on it for several minutes, a tall, thin figure, resplendent in white, ambled onto the stage, plugged in his white guitar and began an agile, nimble, clean and compelling guitar solo before singing a song that included the usual call-and-response elements with his backup singers.  King Sunny led the group through a stellar performance that had the crowd on its feet and dancing the entire time.

What a show from both King Sunny and Black Uhuru, artists whose new albums on Island Records were being somewhat heavily promoted at the time.  In advance of that show, YHB picked up the LPs, which were Aura by King Sunny and Anthem by Black Uhuru.  These were fine recordings, but nothing could match the immediacy, power and intensity of the live shows, especially from that awesome third row seat.

Not long after the concert, other Black Uhuru albums were quickly snapped up, all of which will be featured here, including Sinsemilla, Tear It Up (Live), Red, Chill Out and The Dub Factor.  Of these the 1981 record, Red, is probably the standout.

Formed as Uhuru in 1972 in Kingston's Waterhouse District, the group initially featured Garth Dennis, Don Carlos and Duckie Simpson, with the latter being the sole mainstay throughout the band's long career.  Carlos soon left for a solo career and Dennis joined the well-known Wailing Souls.  Simpson found two other singers, including Errol Nelson and young Michael Rose, and, in 1977, the first album, Love Crisis, was released.  After Nelson departed, South Carolina native Puma Jones joined and lent the first female voice to the group, then known as Black Uhuru.  A second album, Showcase, followed in 1979, but some successful singles and concerts led to a signing with powerhouse Island Records and the debut for that label, Sinsemilla, was issued in July 1980.  More importantly, the trio began working with Sly and Robbie, whose playing and production skills transformed the group, which already had an excellent songwriter in Rose, who used strong political and social commentary in his lyrics.

Red, however, followed quickly and established the group as a major player in reggae.  The opening track is the fantastic "Youth of Eglington," which highlights the specific type of melody and harmony that defined the Black Uhuru sound, along with incredibly tight and inventive rhythms from Dunbar and Shakespeare.  Cannily, Rose tied the violence of youths in Kingston, an ongoing reflection of chronic poverty and dislocation, with problems in England, specifically the heavily West Indian populated area of Brixton in London.  This acknowledged the growing popularity of reggae in the UK and broadened the band's audience.

Following is another tremendous Rose track, "Sponji Reggae," which highlights that specialized vocal style of his with some very cool keyboard and percussion effects that used new technology, such as synthesizers and syndrums, and pointed the way, for better or for worse, toward the future movements of dancehall and dubstep.

In truth, all eight of the songs are strong pieces, five by Rose, two by him and Simpson, and the latter contributing the excellent "Journey," which is this blogger's third favorite track as it invokes true Rastafarian beliefs, including the fear of Babylon's "scientifical advancement" corrupting the mind.  "Utterance" praises the rasta's faith and reminding that "it's not what you do but how you do it / it's now what you say but how you say it."  The closer "Carbine" used a synth effect to drive home the point of keeping unity in the face of numbing violence which rocked Jamaica in the late 1970s and into the 1980s.

Red is a triumph of the uneasy merger of country-based roots reggae, spiritual and political concerns, and the emerging technological and production techniques that would eventually overwhelm the other two, to the detriment, IMHO, of reggae. 

Still, for a brief years after the staggering blow of the loss of Bob Marley to cancer in 1981, Black Uhuru seemed the one reggae group that could maintain an international appear and stature anywhere near that of the great Tuff Gong.

The excellent Chill Out followed, along with the incredible dub record, The Dub Factor.  A 1980 recording known as Black Uhuru was repackaged as Gues Who's Coming to Dinner and is another quality album, even featuring a blistering repeated guitar line by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones  By the time Anthem appeared in 1984, however, the cracks were beginning to show, as Rose and Simpson feuded, especially concerning Rose's importance as singer and songwriter.  Rose left and was basically away from the music scene, tending to his country farm, for several years. 

Simpson and Jones continued on with Sly and Robbie, but the recordings weren't as strong and Jones left the group when she developed cancer, from which she died in 1990.  Simpson even reunited with his original comrades, Carlos and Dennis in the mid-90s, though this line up soon disbanded.  Though there hasn't been a studio album released in over a decade, there have been periodic tours, even a reunion in 2004 with Rose that lasted two years.  Simpson has recently brought a new lineup out, though the glory days of the first half of the 1980s are long past.

Monday, August 13, 2012

George Crumb: Ancient Voices of Children/Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III)

This blogger's first encounter with the magical work of composer George Crumb (born in 1929) came through the title track of Kronos Quartet's Black Angels, a 1970 piece of disturbing power featuring electric violins in a thematic tie to the Vietnam War, covered on this blog.  This stirred an interest, though long delayed, of exploring Crumb's work.

This Elektra Nonesuch recording takes two pieces from the composer's body of work that have very different structural components.  "Ancient Voices of Children" is from 1970 and, as Crumb states on his Web site (see here), these six pieces forming a song cycle capped off an eight-year period of absorption with the incredible poetry of Federick Garcia Lorca, whose death at the hands of Spanish fascists during the era of Francisco Franco's ascendance during the civil war that ravaged that country in the 1930s enhanced his legendary status. 

Female and young male soprano vocalizations of Lorca's evocative words are brilliantly supported by a variety of unusual instruments, including a toy piano, a musical saw, an oboe, harmonica, mandolin, harp and a variety of percussion.  Four of the six pieces use Lorca' poetry, while the other two are interludes.  Perhaps the most striking effect is the female soprano's singing into a piano, which creates an unusual vocal effect with the strings.  As Crumb notes, the boy's voice is heard in the background until the last song when he joins the female. 

Also of note is the way the composer has the instrumentalists play with varying pitches, as well as uses a palette of vocalizations such as whispers, singing and shouting, which further support the mystical and dreamlike qualities of the music and soprano singing.  The inventive mixing of instruments, changes in their pitch and tonality, and the unusual vocal elements make "Ancient Voices of Children" an unforgettable experience, especially if you've read Lorca's poetry, which I did some years ago.

As to "Music for a Summer Evenig," this 1974 work features two amplified pianos and a pair of percussionists, a structure employed first by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, who will be featured here someday, in the 1930s.  There is a great variety of percussion instruments used in this piece, including some that are ancient and exotic, qualities that recur frequently through Crumb's work, including Tibetan prayer stones, African log drums and thumb piano, a metal "thunder sheet," and slide-whistles. 

As with the first piece, "Music" employs an influence from poetic quotations and uses all-instrumental interludes betwen them.  The amplified pianos also have some different sounds associated with them, including one movement in which sheets of paper are laid over the strings.  Not surprisingly, given Crumb's fascination with the duende (or passion) of Lorca, one of these is the mystical and spiritual Rainer Maria Rilke, whose work was also read by this blogger back in the early 90s.

Crumb, who has won a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy, among many other awards and achievements, but is shamefully underrecognized and appreciated, is one of the truly unique and masterly composers of modern music.  This excellent recording, issued in 1987, is another stellar release by the Elektra Nonesuch label.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Music of the Whirling Dervishes

Ahmet Ertegun, the guiding force behind the massive success of Atlantic Records, hailed from Turkey and so the release in 1979 of Music of the Whirling Dervishes was a special project of his and no wonder.  This fascinating album contains 79 minutes of remarkable, spiritual, and majestic music recorded during a tour of the previous year that showcases the ecstatic dancing, chanting and instrumental performances embodying the mystical traditions of Sufi religious observances.

Vocalisations are followed by solo improvisatory performances on the ney, a flute-like instrument, and then ensemble pieces with ney, drums, singing and dancing.  Naturally, one who would have had to have been present at the live shows to observe and absorb the full effect of the combination of aural and visual presentations.

The tradition of whirling by the Mevlevi Sufis, drawing origins with Sunni Islam back to the amazing poetry of the great Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, typically known simply as Rumi,  dates back seven hundred years or so and the ritual is an expression of faith augmented by music and vocals.  As the intensity of the music builds, so does the speed of the whirling which transports the participants into a trance state.  There are many parallels to this throughout the world, such as the phenomenal gnawa music of northwest Africa (to be covered soon here, as well,) where drums, handclaps, chanting and singing, and instrumental performances lead to a similar result.

The album begins with a eulogy of twelve and a half minutes, which has a beautiful haunting quality, especially with the advanced quality of the recording.  This atmosphere is enhanced by the ten-minute improvisation that follows, which sets the stage for an instrumental performance called "Pesrev" by the ensemble. 

After a very short ney improvisation of a half minute, the centerpiece comes with the performance of a nearly 33-minute rendition of "Ayin-I Sharif," or the "Blessed Ceremony," including the instrumental and vocal ensembles and the whirling dervishes, dressed in white tunics with skirts that flow gracefully during the continuous turning.  Atop their heads are the distinctive conical hats with flat tops that can be discerned on the cover art shown here. 

As the music builds, the slow movement, with the heads of the participants tilted slightly, grows faster and the individual is both in communal and personal ecstatic connections with their faith.  The individuals move counter-clockwise, with the left hand down toward the earth and the right held aloft as the dervishes reflect the desire for communion, in a uplifting of the soul, with Allah but also balance these aspirations with the spiritual connection to the earth.

Again, the listener can hear the buildup of the music and only imagine the corresponding movement of the dervishes, but to witness the growing speed and grace of the combination must have been a striking and affecting experience and one wonders if the half hour seemed much less.

After another short ney improvisation, a recitation of about three minutes duration from the Koran concludes the ceremony.  A final ney piece of over ten minutes rounds out the record, which is a ritual spiritual journey for the Mevlevi, but a journey of wonder for the observer and listener.  The Music of the Whirling Dervishes is an exciting album that shows that music can be a vehicle for spiritual ascendancy but also an ecumenical appreciation that transcends human differences, especially in this era of politicized religious divisiveness.

The Music of the Whirling Dervishes (Atlantic, 1979, CD version 1987)

1.  Naat-I Mevlana    12:36
2.  Ney Taksimi  10:16
3.  Persev  7:32
4.  Ney Taksimi   :33
     Ayin-I Serif, part 1  9:23
5.  Ayin-I Serif, part 2  23:26
     Ney Taksimi  1:36
6.  Kuran-I Kerim  3:19
7.  Ney Taksimi  10:23