Friday, December 28, 2012

The Major Works of John Coltrane

Admittedly a strange title considering the great tenor saxophonist had so many other "major works," the two-disc The Major Works of John Coltrane was issued by GRP Records in 1992 with a fascinating selection of recordings made between late June and mid October 1965, when Trane pushed beyond the modal framework that yielded such classic records as A Love Supreme and Crescent and took his music into a freer, more experimental direction.

The epitome of this was the mindblowing Ascension, which was recorded in two takes on 28 June with his classic quartet of McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums) and added seven other musicians, including tenor sax players Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders, altoists John Tchicai and Marion Brown, trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Dewey Johnson and bassist Art Davis.  The first, slightly shorter at 38 1/2 minutes, version, called Edition I, was released first, before Coltrane, insisting that the other take, marked as Edition II and lasting two minutes longer, was the master and so a reissue had to be undertaken.

Clearly influenced by Ornette Coleman's 1960 epic, Free Jazz, Coltrane presented his musicians with very little in the form of a head arrangement or instruction, preferring those assembled to work together to develop the piece, although there was a preestablished order of soloists that varied between the two editions.  As Brown expressed it in a quote in the liners: "Spontaneity was the thing.  Trane had obviously thought a lot about what he wanted to do, but he wrote most of it out in the studio."  Shepp commented that "the emphasis was on textures rather than the making of an organizational unity" or, rather, that there was unity, but of the texture and sound, not the structure.

The musicians were an interesting mix, with some like Shepp, Tchicai (an Afro-Dane who was relatively new in America, but had honed his craft in his native Denmark) and Sanders representing the so-called "New Thing" of experimenting musicians working in the "free" realm, while Hubbard and Davis had a more mainstream background.  Brown and Johnson were largely unknown.  And, of course, there were the three stalwarts that had performed with Coltrane for some three years with it being notable that there was not a second drummer brought in because of Jones' remarkable polyrhythmic abilities.

Ascension proved to be an apt title as the music rose in power and intensity throughout the piece, not just for the listener, but also for the musicians, as Brown remarked that "they both [the editions] had that kind of thing in them that makes people scream.  The people who were in the studio were screaming.  I don't know how the engineers kept the screams out of the record."  Now, for some listeners not attuned to freer music, the cacophony is likely enough to send them screaming out of the room or scrambling to hit "stop" on their player.

But, for those who enjoy experimental "free jazz," this can be a profoundly moving record, both in the dense ensemble sound, but the soloing, as well.  Shepp has the coruscating earthy tone, Sanders the screaming upper-register blasting, the leader playing in all manner of sound and texture, Tyner keeping things grounded as much as possible with his somewhat out-of-place piano, Hubbard hitting the high notes with a clear-toned trumpet, and Davis and Garrison using the different bowed and plucked aspects of the double bass, while Jones tries mightily to employ all the rhythmic wizardry he can with the intensity and variety in the room.

As was noted in an earlier post about Albert Ayler's music, the best way to listen to this music may be to follow the sounds and textures Shepp emphasized, rather than to intellectualize the structure.  In this sense, Ascension can be a powerful experience.

Probably the same listening advice can be given to the 29-minute Om, although that recording, done in suburban Seattle on 1 October, and released in 1967, has been accorded far less attention than Ascension.  It is far stranger and denser than the other and was put to tape while Coltrane and his quartet were on the road with two other musicians, including Donald Garrett on the bass clarinet, although on the recording he plays the bass, and Sanders on tenor.  For the recording of Om, flutist Joe Brazil was added. 

There was a more pronounced and experiemental nod to India here than the perhaps superficial use of scalar patterns used in India in the recordings at the Village Vanguard in late 1961.   Then again, Coltrane's music was delving deeper into broad religious contexts from A Love Supreme to Meditations, which was recorded almost two months after Om.  Indeed, a vocalization appears here, as well, as the leader and others (Sanders, perhaps) recite the phrase "Om mani padme hum," a Buddhist mantra with many meanings, although the liners choose, "Om, the jewel, is in the lotus, amen." 

It should be pointed out that the term "Om" has significance to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, so that it is a mystical sound in each and is used before and after reciting Hindu texts.  In the Jain religion, the term refers to the five-fold hierarchy of beings, including teachers, awakened beings, and liberated souls.

Regardless of the esoteric doctrinal applications of the phrase, the music in Om is primal, with animal sounds frequently issuing forth from the instruments, powerful with an even denser, cacophonous and intense wall of sound than that found in Ascension, though some of this is attributable to the studio and engineering, as the latter was recorded in the Rudy Van Gelder studio where the epitome of engineering expertise was to be found as opposed to the more pedestrian Camelot Studio in Lynwood, Washington, where Om was recorded.

Much has also been made of the possible (or likely?) influence of LSD at the Om session and it would certainly be easy to listen to the noises pouring forth from the speaker and conclude that the use of the drug was a guide to its otherwordly sound.  There is likely no way to know whether the stories are true and it may not matter.  Om, even with Ascension as an immediate precedent, has been a source of puzzlement and even derision unlike anything else in Coltrane's catalog, but this listener finds it fascinating.

The same applies to Kulu Se Mama, which was recorded in Los Angeles just about two weeks after Om.  There, while the Coltrane band was playing at the famed It Club, the leader met Juno Lewis, who hailed from New Orleans and who composed this piece which had vocals based on a poem Lewis said was in an Afro-Creole dialect called "Entobes."  Whatever validity there is in Lewis' stated associations, his voice and playing of various African derived percussion instruments, and Garrett's more prominent use of bass clarinet add new dimensions to Coltrane's evolving sound.  Kulu Se Mama has, over its 19 minute length, moments of exoticism that make for an interesting comparison to the earlier example of Africa from Trane's first Impulse! album in 1961.

In contrast to the other recordings on this set, Selflessness has more of the "traditional" compositional elements from Coltrane's earlier work, suffused, though, with the heavier textures brought in by the additional musicians and, most notably, by Sanders' intensely personal explorations of the upper reaches of the tenor's higher register, something he would bring to the fore in Meditations and the Live in Japan recordings later.  The 15-minute piece was released originally with tracks from a 1963 Newport Jazz Festival recording and probably seemed more in-place with that live performance than with the wild, restive recordings of a far more experimental Coltrane in mid-to-late 1965.

In any case, The Major Works of John Coltrane is a title that would raise the hackles of those who can argue, with some reason, that this term applies more to A Love Supreme, Crescent, Giant Steps, Blue Trane or My Favorite Things.  But, with the powerful and transportive Ascension at the helm and some curious, but compelling, works in Om and Kulu Se Mama, it is a very interesting set, using the CD technology to advantage for its long-form works, that has been played often in the twenty years since YHB picked it up.

The Major Works of John Coltrane (Impulse! GRP, 1992)

Disc One:

1.  Ascension (Edition I)  38:37
2.  Om  28:49

Disc Two:

1.  Ascension (Edition II)  40:31
2.  Kulu Se Mama  18:57
3.  Selflessnes  15:09

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Bill Laswell and Pete Namlook: Psychonavigation

The German ambient electronica wizard, Pete Namlook (Kuhlmann), died unexpectedly last month at the very young age of 51.  A prolific creator of space-imbued music and proprietor of the notable FAX label, Namlook also had a number of collaborative projects over the years.  This blogger's exposure to Namlook's music came through his extensive work with the polymath Bill Laswell in two five-part series, Outland and Psychonavigation, with one appearing to refer to the external (space) and other internal (psychology)?

Both projects commenced about the same time in the mid-1990s when the ambient scene, perhaps, had peaked and continued well into the 2000s and YHB has three volumes of Outland and all five of Psychonavigation, with any of the ten albums being somewhat difficult to find.

In any case, they are fascinating excursions into the far reaches of ambient electronica and the first introduction of this listener came with the initial offering in the Psychonavigation series, released in 1995 on the Subharmonic label, which issued a great deal of Laswell's music at the time. 

This edition, unfortunately, came out on a special interactive disc that was probably a forward-thinking idea at the time (the front cover has "IBM" on it!) featuring interactive computer data generated by the Interactive Multimedia Corporation which consisted of "fractints" or visuals which took Laswell's bass lines and created onscreen visual patterns.  Because the technology has long been outdated, those visuals are not able to be opened, at least not on any format this blogger has had since acquiring the disc several years ago.  Of course, with Windows Media Player you could get different accompanying visuals anyway, if anyone decided those would be of interest.

There are three long tracks that span from ten to just under forty minutes that are true evocations of space-minded and experimental ambient electronic music with washes of sound, rumbling bass tones (these best appreciated with speakers that have a good bottom end delivery), trippy samples and so on.  Laswell also has worked on a number of collaborative ambient projects, as well, with Mick Harris, Tetsu Inoue, his multi-volume Divination project, and a two-volume ambient compendium through the fantastic Axiom label he ran through Island Records, but his work with Namlook is very impressive because of the great contributions of his late co-creator.

The longest track is the more enjoyable and diverse, this being the aptly-titled "Psychic and UFO Revelations in the Last Days," and it is probably safe to assume that there is plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor in these bizarre, but fascinating, excursions into the outer limits of sound and music.  This extended 38:47 piece really does call out for a mindset of traveling.

The other two pieces "Angel Tech" and "Black Dawn" are also interesting pieces and also filled with trademark Namlook touches, as well as the kind of contributions expected from Laswell's many ambient projects in the Nineties. 

The last of the released collaborations between these two amazing artists came out in the mid-2000s and all are worth exploring if this is the kind of explorations of sound that are of interest.  Psychonavigation is a great place to start for those looking to dabble into the music, though Outland 2 is also highly recommended and will be featured here in the future.

Bill Laswell/Pete Namlook: Psychonavigation (Subharmonic, 1995)

1.  Psychic and UFO Revelations in the Last Days  38:47
2.  Angel Tech  10:18
3.  Black Dawn  21:18

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Henry Cowell: Piano Music

This fascinating and utterly individualistic recording of composer Henry Cowell (1897-1965) performing piano pieces was issued originally in 1963 and then in a 1993 CD edition under the Smithsonian/Folkways label and features nineteen works and a 13-minute commentary by the composer.

The pieces are short, ranging from just under a minute to one that is less than four-and-a-half minutes in length.  They feature Cowell's use of "tone clusters," in which the palm, side of the hand, and forearm are used to play tonal groups of from three to twelve adjacent notes for unusual effect, sometimes a cluster is formed and keys pressed and then another key is pressed silently and then the cluster is released, creating a stunning ring-like sound.  He first received attention for this technique on a tour of Europe in 1923, but finished a book on what has been called "dissonant secundal technique" four years before that, when only 22 years old.  This challenged the primacy of intervals in thirds.

Another favored technique is what Cowell called "string piano," in which he strummed, plucked or used objects directly on the soundboard's strings and held down keys silently while strumming and then depressing the key for that ringing sound mentioned above, but with a different tone.

In 1929, Cowell published New Musical Resources, in which he explained his novel theories and his concept of overtones played above the usual pitch in the piano, this being displayed most notably in the aptly-titled "Sinister Resonance" conjoined with "The Aeolian Harp," which employs the ringing from the tone clusters mentioned earlier.  He also explored ways to sustain multiple rhythms simultaneously and it should not be surprising that he worked with Leon Theremin, namesake of that infamous "instrument," on electromechanical sound production.

Cowell also was deeply steeped in modal concepts from Asia and was barely in his teens when he became familiar with religious modal music from an organist in San Francisco.  Raised without any real exposure to "classical" music directly, the composer did have much experience with Irish and American folk music through his parents and the music of Chinese families living around him.  He later studied the music of China, India, Indonesia and Japan, as well as "traditional classical" forms, but only after he had rigorously created his own independent and idiosyncratic approach to composition.

It is especially interesting to hear Cowell, in his unusual patterns of speech, discuss the works on the recording, dating as far back as the first piece, "The Tides of Manaunaun," which he composed at age 14.  Most striking in its daring and dissonance is the self-explanatory "The Banshee," in which the composer stood at the end of the piano and had someone sitting at the keyboard to press the damper pedal while Cowell rubbed lengthwise and then played pizzicato on the strings in two distinct themes.  The wail of the banshee is depicted vividly in his manner of writing and playing the tune.

All the songs on Piano Music date to 1928 or before. but were recorded in the early 1960s.  In the interim, Cowell, who was bisexual, was arrested, convicted and sentenced to a staggering 14 years on a "morals" charge involving a relationship with another man.  He wound up serving 4 years at San Quentin, where he immersed himself in musical activity of all sorts, was released in 1940 and pardoned two years later. 

By all accounts, however, the harrowing experience changed him and his music dramatically and his political and music radicalism essentially ended, though thematically Asian concepts and inspirations still animated his work.  By the time he recorded this album in 1963, though, Cowell had become more experimental in his work again, a reflection of social and musical changes perhaps that encouraged him, though the composer died in 1965 at age 68.

Piano Music is a great opportunity to hear a true original performing, and explaining, his works in a way not often presented and the Smithsonian/Folkways project of the Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies for the Smithsonian Institution (which also produced the important 1959 John Cage/David Tudor recording Indeterminacy) has provided a great service in issuing this great recording.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Live: Ravi Shankar at the Monterey International Pop Festival

Yesterday, while using an Amazon gift card to acquire several CDs, including Ravi Shankar's 1968 album, The Sounds of India, a quick glance at the news found that the 92-year old sitar master had just died.

In the last couple of weeks, an entry for this blog was planned for what may be his most famous record in the U. S., the staggering Live:  Ravi Shankar at the Monterey International Pop Festival.  In truth, it may not be that Shankar and his associates, the great table maestro Alla Rakha, and tamboura player Kamala, necessarily played better at that concert than any other they had performed at, together or singly.

Rather, the most impressive aspect, perhaps, about the performance is the reaction of the crowd.  This was 18 June 1967 and the Monterey Pop Festival featured legendary rock performers like The Mamas and the Papas, The Who, and, in his first electrifying breakthrough in his home country, Jimi Hendrix.  Yet, there was a brief window of time there in the late Sixties in which Indian music, as especially promoted by Shankar, became a fad, to the degree that the master lamented that not enough Americans truly appreciated the artistry involved.

In any case, it is fascinating to hear how the musicians were politely applauded before the first raga, the bhimpalasi, began, after Shankar's brief remarks, including a little droll aside about not being rained out.  When these incredible musicians finished with the nearly-half hour raga, the reaction was palpable, as the crowd was clearly impressed with the energy, intensity, and musicianship of, in particular, Shankar.

Following, though, was the 6-plus minute showcase for Rakha, a table solo "in ektal," in which Shankar explained the usual meter of the style and then noted that Rakha was going to dramatically increase the tempo.  Indeed, this is tour de force of tabla playing that sent the crowd into growing waves of excitement and truly set the stage for the finale.

With "Dhun", which went just under 20 minutes, the performance peaked remarkably.  As it is, ragas uniformly start slowly and take, over a long period, a gradual ascent in tempo, improvisational showmanship, and intensity that can lead to what is almost an ecstatic, trancelike experience for those who allow the music to take them.  From listening to the sustained, thunderous applause that greeted the end of this amazing concert, it would appear that many in the audience, whether chemically enhanced or not and clearly not expecting what they were privy to, were transformed.

Again, it may have been a combination of surprise, awe and the rising tide of idealist that rode the wave of the Summer of Love, but Ravi Shankar and his fellow musicians made their mark at just the right time.

Shankar had a very long career filled with highlights from his earliest recordings, to his long partnership with brother-in-law, sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, to his heyday in the U.S., and his continued excellent work long after the 60s.  May this master of his instrument and his music always be remembered and heard.

Live:  Ravi Shankar at the Monterey International Pop Festival

1.  Raga Bhimpalasi  27:28
2.  Tabla Solo in Ektal  6:20
3.  Dhun (Dadra and Fast Teental)  19:41

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Horace Tapscott: The Dark Tree, Volume One

The amazing pianist Horace Tapscott made a fateful decision about fifty years ago to forsake the grueling life of a traveling musician to maintain a permanent base in south-central Los Angeles, where he labored long to promote both music and community, especially through his organization (first, in 1961, U.G.M.A.--the Underground Musicians' Association and then reconstituted as U.G.M.A.A--Union of God's Musicians and Artists' Ascension).  Far from the spotlight, he worked mainly in obscurity and was little recorded, but he had a significant impact on those he dealt with and for.  Late in life, he finally was receiving some long overdue recognition and more frequent opportunities to record his excellent compositions and document his impressive style on his instruments, before he died too young at age 64 in 1999.

YHB had the opportunity to see Tapscott perform several times.  The first was at a free performance at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, when nothing was known about him.  That changed in moments when the pianist erupted into a beautiful torrential solo peppered with amazing arpeggions and punctuated by precise applications of his sustain pedal.  There was also a fiery series of solos by saxophonist Michael Sessions that stood out, as well.

The next trip to the record store (it was the very early 90s!) yielded a search for Tapscott recordings and there were only two CDs in the bin, volumes one and two of a live recording called The Dark Tree on the foreign HatHut label.  It was pricy, but so worth the expense.

This was true because of the remarkable compositions of the leader, because of his irrepressible playing, and because of the excellent support he had in clarinetist John Carter, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Andrew Cyrille.  While Carter was not particularly well known, his playing was stunning, wide-ranging and compelling on an instrument not often found in jazz (though the young clarinetist Don Byron was getting a lot of attention in those days and the great Eric Dolphy is a great favorite of this blogger.)

With McBee and Cyrille there are two of the giants of jazz drumming and bass playing, musicians whose resumes are filled with stints with some of the finest bandleaders of the last fifty years, including AMERICAcacophony favorites like Sam Rivers and Cecil Taylor.  Tapscott couldn't have asked for a better rhythm section to back up him and Carter.

The title track is generally considered Tapscott's masterpiece and this is a thunderous performance with McBee's repetitive and hypnotic bass and Cyrille's crystal-clear and march-like drumming setting the tone for the others to solo off of.  Carter is especially awesome on this piece, conjuring up all kinds of wonderful sounds and turning in a virtuoso performance.  Tapscott's soloing is majestic, thundering at moments and then releasing the tension a bit before building it up again.  Hearing him on a long solo often reminded this listener of the ocean, stormy seas, puncutated by thick block chords, giving way to placidity as waves of sound emerged from the instrument in ways that really were unique to his playing.

The other tunes, while not as earth-shaking as "The Dark Tree," are all excellent Tapscott compositions, with "Sketches of Drunken Mary" and "Lino's Pad" both in sprightly waltz time and the former having a melody that seems to evoke the intoxicated state of its subject, who was someone the young Tapscott knew well in his native Houston.  "Lino's Pad" is another feature of Tapscott's expressive and impressionistic playing.

Horace Tapscott (1934-1999), a great jazz pianist and community leader and builder.

Something needs to be said about the fact that this awesome disc was recorded at Catalina Bar and Grill in late 1989.  The current Catalina facility is a far larger and less intimate one than the older venue where this show was recorded and where this blogger spent many happy hours in the early to late 90s hearing some incredible jazz, including a few performances by Tapscott, in which this blogger sat at a bistro table directly behind and to the side of the pianist as he worked his magic on the keyboard.

Truth is, you cannot get a better concert experience than that--sitting within inches or a few feet from masters improvising and interacting with their fellow musicians as the crowd (small, but highly appreciative and empathetic) soaks it all in.  It was a great pleasure to witness the great Horace Tapscott perform and it was a sad day when reading about his unexpected death in 1999.

Recently, a combined double-disc package of the two volumes of The Dark Tree has been issued, but the cover art shown here is for the original, very hard-to-find, 1991 edition of the first volume.

One other recommendation:  John Isoardi's 2006 book on Tapscott is also called The Dark Tree and is a fascinating interview/narrative that details his life from his upbringing in Texas, to his military service, to his short career on the road, and then all of amazing work he did in Los Angeles.  YHB read the book just several months ago and raced through it with great interest.

Horace Tapscott:  The Dark Tree (Volume One)  (Hat Hut, 1991)

1.  The Dark Tree  20:56
2.  Sketches of Drunken Mary  11:32
3.  Lino's Pad  16:46
4.  One for Lately  10:24

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cabaret Voltaire: Eight Crespuscule Tracks

In the long, interesting career of Cabaret Voltaire, there have been arguably several phases in the band's history.  The first, from their founding about 1973 until about 1982, has variously been labeled as "industrial," employing harsh, dissonant sounds from electronic equipment, clarinets and saxophones, bass, electric guitar, drum machines (and, occasionally, live drums), and others.  Barked or whispered vocals, often highly processed, vaguely referred to terrorist groups or mind control or authoritarianism or religious hypocrisy.  To those inclined to this claustrophobic (in a good way) presentation of a wide array of sound, these were the glory years of CV, when they were at their most experimental, confrontational, bracing and challenging.

YHB does not disagree, but also does not hold the other phases as inferior—merely different.  And, while many might argue, persuasively, that the 1981 album Red Mecca was the highlight of the era and that the 1982 record 2x45 was another high point that showed the band in transition in sound as well as lineup, as founding member Chris Watson departed, leaving Richard H. Kirk and Stephen Mallinder to carry on as a duo, there is another recording that has struck this blogger as an essential document of the so-called "early" Cabs.

This is Eight Crepuscule Tracks, a compilation released on Giant Records in the U. S. by license with the groundbreaking independent Belgian label, Les Disques du Crépuscule.  Actually, the latter company had released an EP called Three Crepuscule Tracks in 1981 and this later release takes those works and adds five others.

The centerpiece of the record are those first three pieces, known as "Sluggin' Fer Jesus (Parts One, Two and Three)."  The backbone of these recordings are radio broadcasts of evangelical preachers, most notably the late Gene Scott, who did his "work" in Los Angeles and, in later use, had his church in the old United Artists Theatre at the south end of the Broadway Theater District.  Scott's exhortations, laced with crude humor, sarcasm, threats, paranoia, and lots of other interesting psychological touchstones, are interestingly musically corollated by CV's menacing and disturbing, as well as highly appropriate, sounds.  The most memorable of Scott's meanderings might well be: "I don't want gifts tonight, I want sacrifice."

Following is a rendering of a tune that is one of the "early" Cabs' most notable, this being "Yashar."  A club version, remixed by Arthur Baker, became an underground dance hit, but this earlier rendering is pretty cool, if lesser known.

"Your Agent Man" has a simple, but catchy bass line from Mallinder, who chants his vocals as if a robot while Kirk and Watson apply various sound effects from guitar, synthesizer and other devices.

To this listener, the highlight of Eight Crepuscule Tracks is "Gut Level," which is a nine-minute workout with a funky bass line, propulsive percussion, a scratchy guitar line, echoed sax lines and other cool effects, carried along with recorded film dialogue in which one man castigates another for selling drugs to youngsters.  Someone undoubtedly knows the film from which this pinched dialogue emanates and might want to leave a clarifying comment.

"Invocation" has a haunting, repetitive theme with a muted drum machine beat, vague "found sound" voice samples, and a great synthsizer sound, as well.

Then comes the "out of left field" closer, a cover of Isaac Hayes' number one tune, "Theme from 'Shaft'," the classic blaxploitation film from 1971 starring Richard Roundtree that later spawned such sequels as "Shaft in Africa." Hearing two white English electronic artists covering a song with the lyric: "he's a black private dick / who's a sex machine / to all the chicks" and other choice lyrical offerings is hilarious and probably intentionally so, though the Cabs were avowed lovers of funk and soul.

Eight Crepuscule Tracks has been a consistent item on this blogger's CV playlist since the cassette version was acquired on the album's 1988 release and a fond recollection is of playing the "Sluggin' Fer Jesus" trilogy to a friend and coworker who was a religion major in school and did some ministry for his church in New York.  It spawned some interesting discussions in a parked car of a restaurant parking lot in 1988 and the record still resonates with this listener today.

Cabaret Voltaire:  Eight Crespuscule Tracks (Giant Records, 1988)

1.  Sluggin' Fer Jesus (Part One)  4:44
2.  Sluggin' Fer Jesus (Part Two)  3:55
3.  Fools Game—Sluggin' Fer Jesus (Part Three)  6:49
4.  Yashar  5:02
5.  Your Agent Man  2:49
6.  Gut Level  9:08
7.  Invocation  6:04
8.  Theme from "Shaft"  4:02