Sunday, December 29, 2013

Japan: Koto Music

This recording of music of the koto, a 13-string instrument about six feet in length played with picks (plectra) on the thumb, index finger and middle finger, demonstrates the phenomenal skill and unerring beauty with which Japanese masters perform on this national instrument.  The delicate high-pitch of the instrument has a highly spiritual quality and the clear and full tones when plucked by these masters are something to behold.

Recorded by Katsumasa Takasago and released on LP for the remarkable Nonesuch Explorer series of "world music" recordings in 1965, this disc was remastered and released in 1998 with a beautiful booklet reprinting Takasago's original notes.  Notably, most of the performers on this album are women, including Master Shogin Hagiwara, who lost her vision at six years of age and earned her degree of "koto master" when seventeen. 

Master Hagiwara takes solo turns on "Rokudan-no-Shirabe," or "Music of Six Steps," a 17th-century piece that has six sections and is a spectacular showcase and on "Shin-Takasago" an 1800s song based on the Takasago drama in the Noh theatrical tradition. This latter is especially beautiful.

She and her student Master Ginsho Mineuchi perform a stunning duet on "Godan-Kinuta," a song for weaving cloth and then a trio performance with Master Kikusui Kofu on the shakuhachi (bamboo flute, of which music there will be discs highlighted here some day) on "Haru-no-Kyoku," or "Music of Spring."  The use of the shakuhachi conveys a mournful, contemplative and highly emotional tone to the piece, as well.

The other two works are "Echigojishi," an 18th-century folk song of a lion dance from an ancient festival in the community of Echigo, performed solo by Master Hatta and the trio piece "Yugao" or "Evening Glory" which includes koto master Yamaguchi with shamisen (three-stringed lute-like instrument) master Kitagawa and Master Kikusui on the shakuhachi.  This song takes its story from the famed The Tale of Genji from the 11th century and a girl named Yugao with whom Genji fell in love, but she died due to a curse from a haunted spirit.  This is a particularly interesting piece and a nice close to a fantastic album of traditional Japanese koto music.

Japan:  Koto Music (Nonesuch Explorer Series, 1965/2008)

1.  Echigojishi  2:02
2.  Godan-kinuta  11:50
3.  Rokudan-no-shirabe  6:03
4.  Haru-no-kyoku  8:57
5.  Shin-takas ago  2:07
6.  Yugao  12:49

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Cecil Taylor: 3 Phasis

It was a beautiful thing to read articles and Web pages and see photos of the great Cecil Taylor receive the Kyoto Prize in Japan in early November and heartening to know he was performing, still active at the age of 84.  The phenomenal pianist, so sadly underappreciated and little recognized for so many years, has gradually received increasing attention for his staggering technique, imagination, and innovation.  So, it was nice to see him receive the kinds of accolades he so well deserves while he was in Japan.  Hopefully, he'll be getting some further measure of this in America before it's too late.

This is because we are losing a lot of great jazz musicians quickly--just a few days ago, Yusef Lateef, who was a major figure in incorporating other sounds from musics around the world into his conception of jazz, passed on.  As mentioned here, the remarkable drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson died not long ago.  In fact, this Taylor album, 3 Phasis, features the talents of Jackson along with trumpeter Raphé Malik, violist Ramsey Ameen, bassist Sirone, and Taylor's longtime sidekick, alto sax player Jimmy Lyons.

In the informative and perceptive notes by Gary Giddins, it was pointed out that the record was "the last of the four evening sessions in April 1978" that included the Cecil Taylor Unit album and that the performance was not titled, but referred to as "the suite."  It was also the final of six takes recorded in a marathon session that stretched into overtime late into the morning hours.  That final effort was so striking that the producer, Sam Perkins, exclaimed that "this was the best yet by far."  Moreover, as the band hit its stride, some forty minutes into the take, Perkins added that, "we've got a record now!" but soon worried about what would happen if the band didn't stop and editing was needed "because I'd hate to cut it."

If anything, Cecil Taylor is always aware, so as the clock got near an hour, he moved into a finale that brought the stunning session to a powerful conclusion.  As excitement reigned in the studio after the last notes died down, the cool-as-ever leader simply remarked, "Well, you know we knew it was good, too."

Giddings included a quote from Duke Ellington about the orchestra as "an accumulation of personalities, tonal devices" and noted that Taylor's band music with its variety of instruments provides just that, an opportunity for a vast array of tonalities.  This is certainly the case with Ameen's violin, Malik's trumpet, Lyons's alto and Cecil providing both free-ranging solo work, but also striking and notable accompaniment, both to other soloists and in group work.  Sirone and Jackson make for a supple and supportive rhythm section.

For those who argue that Taylor is so strong a (tonal) personality, that he can overwhelm the other players on a recording or in a live setting, this is definitely not the case here.  This is a great ensemble work, where the trumpet rises above the din during those dense passages where everyone plays in a carefully calibrated (and, to this listener, beautiful) maelstrom, with the alto and piano punctuating frequently through the sound.

As Giddings carefully notes with reference to times, Taylor proves to be a master at feeding ideas to the other instrumentalists through his use of apt figures.  And, despite his reputation, Taylor comes up with some beautifully melodic figures (this blogger heard his gorgeous short piece "After All" just the other day from 1975's fantastic Silent Tongues, to be covered here someday) and one comes, as Giddins observes, at near 33 minutes, though there are some other moments of delicacy, such as at around 11 minutes that can quickly move into flurries of rapidly played runs interspersed with mournful bowing of the violin.

In a piece this long, running over 57 minutes, and with such a rich variety of instrumental tonalities, there are little nuggets and treasures scattered throughout.  Giddins refers to it as "a masterwork, a testament to the perfectionism and unpredictability that go hand in hand in Taylor's music."  This is definitely the case with 3 Phasis as it is so often with the music of a man who has made some of the most impressive and uncompromising music in any genre over nearly sixty years. 

Cecil Taylor: 3 Phasis (New World Records, 1979)

1.  11:10
2.  9:17
3.  11:52
4.  11:55
5.  13:06

Saturday, December 21, 2013

King Crimson: Discipline

In 1974, disillusioned with the direction of King Crimson, traveling on the road, and dealing with the music business, as well as feeling in a spiritual crisis, Robert Fripp disbanded the group that had just made the revelatory recording Red.  After working on a final statement in the form of the live album U.S.A., released in 1975, Fripp stopped making music and took a ten-month course at the International Academy for Continuous Education, created by John G. Bennett as a means for studying the aim of the spiritual life based largely on the teachings of the Russian-Armenian G.I. Gurdjieff (whose music was performed by pianist Keith Jarrett, profiled in this blog, in a 1980 recording.)

Fripp then did something remarkable for someone who came up in the music world of the late 1960s, he moved to New York and immersed himself in the independent music scene there.  Meantime, he was lured back into performing when Brian Eno, with whom Fripp made the innovative 1973 album No Pussyfooting, asked him to work on some tracks for David Bowie's 1977 album, Heroes, with Fripp's distinctive guitar providing the backbone for the title track.   Fripp went on to produce an Peter Gabriel solo record, one by the folk act, The Roches, and even a solo album by Daryl Hall.  Finally, Fripp created a remarkable album of his own, Exposure, which was released in 1979 and which will be profiled here later.  In 1980, Fripp resurrected the name of his first significant group, The League of Gentlemen, and teamed with XTC keyboardist Barry Andrews (later in Shriekback), Sara Lee, a bassist who later played with Gang of Four and the B-52s among others, and drummer Johnny Toobad, replaced later by Kevin Wilkinson, who subsequently was in China Crisis and Squeeze.)  The band released one album and toured for much of that year before the project was terminated.

Determined not to go back to the past, Fripp then conceived of a group called Discipline.  Bassist Tony Levin, who had worked on the Peter Gabriel solo record (and has been touring with him lately), impressed Fripp greatly, as had an amazing guitarist and singer, Adrian Belew, who was hired by Frank Zappa from obscurity and subsequently worked with Bowie and Talking Heads.  The one link to the King Crimson past was Fripp's offer to drummer Bill Bruford to join the new quartet.  After rehearsing, Discipline began playing shows and developed an immediate rapport.  Soon, however, it became apparent to Fripp and the others that the new group was actually King Crimson and Discipline was jettisoned, though it would, in 1993, be resurrected as part of Fripp's independent label, Discipline Global Mobile.

The 1981 version of King Crimson bore almost no resemblance to the earlier iterations, which was one of the most remarkable aspects of it.  Belew was the first guitarist to work with Fripp and his extensive use of the whammy-bar and other pyrotechnics were stunning, as well as being an excellent counterpoint to Fripp's more subdued, but complex and idiosyncratic sound.  Based on a new-found interest in Balinese gamelan music, the two also developed a highly integrated cross-picking sound that made King Crimson distinctive.  Levin's use of the new Chapman Stick, which is a guitar-like instrument that is able to play bass and melody lines as well as ambient like textures and thick chords, was also highly unusual and he also played the traditional bass.  Finally, Bruford was asked (restricted?) by Fripp to disdain too much use of the cymbal and be more of a rhythmic accompaniment to the group and also used a new technology, an electronic drum kit by Simmons, augmented by some acoustic pieces.

The record the band issued that year, Discipline, was not only light years removed from earlier King Crimson lineups and recordings, but was radically different from anything else of the time.  It is a testament to Fripp's desire and that of his bandmates to be forward thinking in terms of sound, but it was also essential to have the rhythmic flexibility and virtuosity of Levin and Bruford, who made a fantastic team, and to have the rare combination of a staggering guitarist, a fine vocalist and good songwriter in Belew.  Belew, in particular, provided a goofy humor and an engaging warmth to his other talents to make this new version of KC something different and timely.

As has been stated here before, it is hard to look at In the Court of the Crimson King (1969), Red (1974) and Discipline (1981) and choose which one is "best."  They are dramatically varied from one another, but have that unifying spirit of experimentalism and adventure that marks the spirit of King Crimson.  It has to be said, though, that Discipline is more accessible and has a continuity and seamlessness that the others don't possess, although "21st Century Schizoid Man" and "Starless" are epochal recordings that stand head-and-shoulders, in this listener's opinion, above everything else the band did, excepting perhaps "Lark's Tongues in Aspic, Part 2," and a personal favorite, the fascinating "The Talking Drum," both from 1973's Larks Tongues in Aspic.

But, "Indiscpline" is right up there.  Belew's agitated soliloquy based on his wife's reaction to a work of art she created is accompanied by some fabulous instrumental accompaniment, including a guitar solo by Fripp reminiscent of the one found on "A Sailor's Tale" from 1971's Islands, Levin's anchoring bass playing, and Bruford's rare opportunity to rove around his kit, but highlighted by his beautifully tight roll just before Belew tears into his distinctive solo.

"Elephant Talk" has a cool lyrical format, in which Belew spouts out words from each of the letters from A to, you got it, E--he has a knack for clever lyrical conceits that break down some of the heaviness of the KC sound and Fripp's processed "mouse" solo is fascinating.  "Frame by Frame" has a nice soaring vocal by Belew with backing vocals from Levin, something not found in previous versions of the band. 

"Thela Hun Gingeet" is an anagram for "Heat in the Jungle" with another unusual compositional element--during rehearsals, Belew explained his idea to the band about what the song was about, the hardness of an urban street environment, when Fripp suggested he take his portable tape recorded and go out into the street and record what was there.  Belew was then actually set upon by some men who thought he was an undercover cop with the singer/vocalist protesting that he was in a band recording an album and that he was on the street for that reason.  Somehow, the men decided to walk away only to have Belew run into a police officer.  Returning to the studio and visible shaken and upset, Belew retold the incident to his fellow band members, but Fripp had the presence of mind to ask the recording engineer to tape what Belew related.  This was added to the song to give it a disconcerting element of unreality--though, at first listen, it seemed to this blogger to be contrived, though still effective as a vocal device.

Aside from "Indiscipline" the other highlight is the gorgeous "Matte Kudasai," for which Fripp had a previously-existing guitar line, but it is Belew's vocal that stands out.  Later incarnations of the group would come up with such Belew signatures as "One Time" and "Eyes Wide Open."  While fans of the older versions of KC would point to "I Talk to the Wind," "Cadence and Cascade" and others as being emblematic of the balladic aspect of the group, "Matte Kudasai" is both beautiful, but less baroque.

Discipline concludes with two instrumentals, the evocative "The Sheltering Sky" and "Discipline," which features that complex, interwoven, cross-picking playing by Fripp and Belew mentioned above.  In all, this album is a striking, original and daring leap to a modern sound that most 1960s era bands and performers could not conceive of trying.  It is notable that John Wetton, whose powerful and nimble bass playing and smoky vocals on the classic 1972-74 KC lineup, became a pop rock phenomenon with Asia just a year later.  The differences of where he went (albeit leading to great riches, if not longevity) compared to where Fripp headed are telling.

An early CD version of the album, in 1989, as with all of those made at the time, was heralded as "definitive."  Of course, this was not so, and a 30th anniversary disc came out about a decade later in 2001.  Then, with further technological advances, came the 40th anniversary version in various formats (including 5.1 DTS Digital Surround, MLP Lossless and PCM Stereo) and with some bonus material.  Produced and mixed by Fripp and Steven Wilson of The Porcupine Tree who has overseen most of the reissued 40th anniversary material, the sound is excellent.

The Eighties version of Crimson released two more albums, the underrated Beat (1982) and Three of a Perfect Pair (1984) and, after the excellence of Discipline, it was probably unfair to ask the band to come near to reaching that level.  This listener first heard the band in spring 1984 when a friend wanted to see KC play at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles.  After curtly declining in some disdain, visions of prog excess (side-long suites about court jesters, dancing in the sun, and Tarkus, etc.) roiling about in the brain, the friend asked for a listen to a few Crimson records to demonstrate that they were different.  Indeed they were--a run through ITCOTCK, Starless and Bible Black, Red and, most strikingly, Discipline clearly showed this.

The June concert was amazing.  The tall, balding Levin providing a notable presence aside from his unbelievable playing, Bruford expertly laying down electronic and analog rhythms, Belew crooning, elephant talking, and whammy-bar wailing his way into the audience's hearts, and Fripp, as always, calmly seated at the side and playing off the various strengths of his fellow band members and himself.  A month or so later, it was over as Fripp decided to walk away from Crimson once again.

For this listener, the budding interest in the band ended--it was an unexpected detour from the alternative rock that ruled the roost.  In 1994, the VROOOM CD was picked up out of sheer curiosity and, though it was intriguing, nothing further came of it.  Then, in 2009, a nagging question about whether Crimson would still be of interest (Starless and Bible Black, in particular, kept popping into the cranium) led to a hesitant purchase of Larks Tongues in Aspic and it was "The Talking Drum" that did it.  Since then, it has been a near-continuous exploration of all things Crimson and Fripp, though the news that the grand plans for the 40th anniversary year ground to a halt followed by Fripp's "retirement" was disappointing.

Suddenly, with a long-standing dispute over royalties with Universal Music Group and other difficulties resolved, this September Fripp announced another version of Crimson would be "in service" by that time in 2014.  The news was tempered some by the revelation that Belew was not invited and the vocalist would be Jakko Jakszyk, who performed on a recent KC "projekct" with Fripp, Mel Collins from the 1970-72 KC era, Gavin Harrison (of The Porcupine Tree and the short 2008 Crimson mini-tour).  The "projekct" has been defined as a sort of "research and development" aspect of portions of the larger Crim to move to the next phase. 

Now that the five men who worked on A Scarcity of Miracles are in the new lineup along with two other drummers, KC vet Pat Mastelotto and Bill Rieflin, formerly of Ministry and REM and who has worked with Fripp on other projects, including The Humans, the band of Fripp's wife Toyah Willcox, it will be interesting to see what new directions will come of it.  Undoubtedly, much of the attention will be focused on Jakszyk, who will, fairly or not, be compared to Greg Lake, John Wetton and Adrian Belew.

Whatever happens, it is sure to be interesting and unexpected and nothing less can be expected from the iconoclastic, enigmatic, but remarkably and resiliently creative Robert Fripp.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Harry Partch: Delusion of the Fury

Slogging, as a total amateur, through Harry Partch's book Genesis of a Music and trying to grasp as much as possible the complex and highly ordered system of "monophony" he developed with 43 tones in just intonation reflecting precise vibrational ratios in place of the notation system of equal temperament found in "classical" music, what has been most striking and memorable, actually, is the composer's differentiation between corporeal and abstract music. 

Namely, that ancient forms of music, such as that found in Greece, was corporeal, in which music was not separate from other performing arts like theater and poetry/recitation/singing and that the integration of these art forms was represented in a purer expression through the human body in a coordinated theatrical and musical setting.  Vocalizations were not done for their own sake, but to clearly express the text of what was sung, which also related to dance and other visual representations.

Later, however, European "classical" music, in Partch's view, became abstract, removing the music from the integrated bodily expressions of those prior societies and traditions and employing an artifice that prized technical ability over message and virtuosity over direct human emotion.  He criticized operatic singing, for example, as emphasizing drawn-out vocalizations that sacrificed the text and its meaning for showy, self-conscious expressions of the talents of the composer and the singer.  But J.S. Bach's devising of equal temperament for the "well-tempered clavier" seems to have been where the abstraction wrongly pulled music away from its corporeal roots.

Partch's arguments are interesting and compelling and he developed a truly original compositional form with instruments of his own design and construction, while also being heavily influenced by, among others, ancient Greek and Japanese Noh and kabuki theater traditions (his parents were missionaries in China and the family also lived in the American Southwest, where native societies had a great impression on the young Partch.)

Another interesting element to the book is his discussion of the contrast between standardized definitions of consonance and dissonance and it seems that his views are that what one person might view as "noise" through dissonance can seem quite consonant, when heard through the monophonic system Partch developed.  This is fascinating because equal temperament is so well-established and traditional melodic, harmonic and rhythmic forms are so different from Partch's vision that, given how we listen to music, it can be argued, perhaps, that Partch's "dissonance" seems actually "abstract."

Over time, though, in listening to a wide array of his works, this amateur listener has come to admire the dissonant beauty and compelling palette of unusual sounds coaxed from the varied custom instruments this brilliant iconoclast designed and built (and which are only rarely played by acolytes because of their complexity and logistical challenges.)  It has taken time and effort to develop this appreciation and the advise offered, and mentioned here before, by jazz musicians Albert and Donald Ayler concerning the former's idiosyncratic music, comes to mind:  try to follow the sound, not the notes.

As much as it is desirable to want to understand the nuances and complexities of Partch's discussion of monophony and the ratios building from a 1/1 ratio (corresponding roughly to the "G" note in equal temperament) and the utonalities and otonalities (referring to the top or over number and the bottom of under number in the ratios as overtones and undertones) and all other manner of concepts embodied in his system, ultimately for most people, listening to Partch is an attempt to "follow the sound" and be caught up in the wonderful and exotic sounds coaxed from these amazing instruments.

To many fans, Partch's 1965-66 composition, "Delusion of the Fury", is his masterpiece.  First performed in 1969 at UCLA in Los Angeles and, amazingly, released by the mainstream Columbia label, the recording is a 72-minute excursion into the unique world of Partch's monophonic system and his remarkable fusion of ancient Greek, Japanese, and other elements that explore the meaning of ritual.

Partch's statement in the liners: "Words cannot proxy for the experience of knowing—of seeing and hearing" is essential, because his idea of corporeal music is that you can't separate the visual from the auditory and the total experience cannot be captured in a recording that only gives you the latter.  While Partch maligned opera from moving away from the corporeal to the abstract, his larger-scale works can lead to the feeling that they are a unique and personalized form not that far removed from opera.  And, when listening to a recording, as with opera, much is missed in not seeing and experiencing the unified whole.

In any case, it is still a great treat hearing the vast forms of percussion, including the "marimba eroica," and the "quadranglaris reversum," and the "cloud-chamber bowls," and the "spoils of war," and the "harmonic canon II." The plucked strings include the two forms of "kithara," and that "harmonic canon I" as well as a Japanese koto.  And, the list of interestingly-named and played instruments goes on, including the "eucalyptus claves," the "Fiji rhythm boat," the "gubagabi," and the "drone devils" or jewsharps.  The vocalizations are chants and singing done in monosyllables, not the ornate and elongated operatic arias Partch frowned upon.

Partch did offer a synopsis, stating that the setting was "an olden time" and that the lengthy overture, titled the "Exordium" was a "music-theater portrayal of release from the wheel of life and death," giving a distinctly Buddhist-like  connotation concerning the move to enlightenment.  Partch observed that the storyline was based on a fallen warrior's ghost appearing to the killer and the latter's young son and working through a reconciliation to enlightenment from fury from being killed during battle.

Not surprisingly, Partch models the second act on an Ethiopian folk story, noting that the idea was to link life and death as "an accommodation toward a healthy—or at least a possible—existence," rather than as separate elements.  The tale involved a misunderstanding over the muteness of a vagabond (Partch also uses the word "hobo," a theme he often developed in his career, having been a hobo for several years as a younger man) who is mistaken for stealing an old woman's goat and then the couple is forced to appear before a deaf and near-sighted judicial official for a sentence heightened by the earlier misunderstanding as to what the hobo or vagabond had actually done.

Notably, Partch composed the piece to go straight through, without interruption, throughout the hour and ten minute plus length, corresponding to the idea of moving directly from life to death to reconciliation in the first act and the concept of dealing with the interrelationship of meaning, misunderstanding and misapplication of law in the second.

Danlee Mitchell, who conducted the original performance with supervision from the composer and became Partch's heir and executive director of the Harry Partch Foundation, provides an interesting and informative essay about the mounting of the performance and Partch's work generally and there are a few fascinating quotes from Partch to producer John McClure showing his frustration dealing with the long gestation of the work and in dealing with a major label.

Whether or not this appreciation accurate conveys Partch's concepts or understands even on a basic level his tenets relating to corporeal music and theater versus the abstractions of "classical" music, this listener is amazed at the commitment, depth of thought, and remarkable presentation that he was able to generate in highly challenging circumstances through many decades of working virtually "underground."  Even if it not understood conceptually, the adage of the Aylers to "follow the sound" rather than the notes, or, in Partch's case, the 43 monophonic ratios, has opened up new ways of hearing music, dissonant, consonant, or neither.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Simon Shaheen/Vishwa Mohan Bhatt: Saltanah

This summit of two musical masters from traditions that have common roots but also noted differences is aptly subtitled in the very helpful notes by Dr. Habib Hassan Touma of the International Institute for Traditional Music in Berlin as where "The rag and the maqam meet."

In other words, Bhatt comes from the Indian world of the rag, or raga, while Shaheen is from that of the Arabic maqam.  Both forms of music rely on a modal system and are heavily improvisatory after the performing of a melody line from which to develop the improvisation.

The word saltanah essentially refers to the mastery with which the two men play their instruments.  Bhatt, actually, plays something unique--a mohan vina, which a guitar-like instrument of his design which has sixteen strings, four of which play, by strumming, the drone so typical of Indian music and the remaining constituting the melody strings, which are struck with a pick.  Moreover, this instrument is played on the lap much like a steel guitar.  As explained by Dr. Touman, the mohan vina matches the tonal dimensions of the sitar, one of the mainstays of the raga.

As for Shaheen, he has been highlighted in this blog already through his amazing duet album with Ali Jihad Racy called Taqasim and is a virtuoso on the violin and the oud, the lute that is the core of much of Arabic music.  Shaheen has helped to popularize the oud and the maqam in the West.

This remarkable album consists of five pieces that bring together a rag and a maqam with the players alternating in a stunning display of technique, but also of feeling.  They are given simple titles like "Dawn," ""Dusk," and "Mists,"as well as "Saltanah" and "Ghazal."  The leaders are joined by Ronu Majumdar on two tracks playing the bansuri and Sangeeta Shankar on the violin on "Ghazal."

Dr. Touma explained the structure and performance of the pieces, while producer Kavichandran Alexander penned a concise but useful essay on the history of these musics and short biographical sketches of Bhatt and Shaheen.

These kinds of records tend to get labeled as "fusion," which calls to mind electric jazz or really disparate blending of musics, but there is actually a great deal here which is intricately tied to common historical roots, the use of modal system, and a reliance on improvisation. 

To this listener, this isn't so much as "fusion" as it is a melding of complementary musical forms played by two stellar musicians.  Saltanah is a great work and is an interest comparative record to Shaheen and Racy's Taqasim.

Anyone interested in or curious about the music of India and the Arab world would do well to search out this fantastic 1996 release on Water Lily Acoustics, a small Santa Barbara, California label.

Simon Shaheen/Vishwa Mohan Bhatt:  Saltanah (Water Lily Acoustics, 1996)

1.  Dawn (Rag Kirwani/Maqam Nahawand)  15:24
2.  Ghazal (Rag Vasant Mukhari/Maqam Hijaz)  16:05
3.  Saltanah (Rag Bagashri/Maqam 'Ajam Mu'addal)  8:23
4.  Mists (Rag Pahari/Maqam 'Ajam)  12:34
5.  Dusk (Rag Bhairavi/Maqam Kurd)  15:23

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Albert Ayler: Live in Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse Recordings

The first Albert Ayler this blogger purchased back around 1990 was the original single-disc Live in Greenwich Village, released in 1967.  Admittedly, the album proved to be a hard-sell at the time with its freeing of time and rhythm, simple march-like melodies, and powerful intense soloing by the tenorist and others in his band all but overwhelming.

Years passed, though, and the gradual recalibration of listening to other so-called "free jazz," including the great Cecil Taylor (it took some time to get acclimated there, too), the post-1964 work of the sublime John Coltrane, such albums as the remarkable Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, and others finally took root.  Allowing preconceptions to be broken down and new ways of hearing to come to the fore led to a greater appreciation for Ayler's work, especially when the tremendous Spiritual Unity (previously spotlighted here) was heard.

For a while, every Ayler recording that could be obtained was purchased and listened to with eagerness to enjoy his relentless pursuit of the joy of sound.  Eventually, the mammoth 10-disc box set, Holy Ghost, was acquired and it will also be given due attention here (under the occasional, half-humorous moniker of "For Fanatics Only.)

It's amazing, then, that Ayler only recorded for about seven years, with the period from 1964-67 being that in which his most fruitful work was made.  One of the great documents of his live work is the double-disc Live in Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse Recordings, which augments the original live album with other performances.

The opening track, "Holy Ghost", is the sole offering from a March 1965 set at The Village Gate and features a quintet with Ayler's brother Don on trumpet, Lewis Worrrell on bass, cellist Joel Freedman, and the great drummer Sunny Murray, one of those most responsible for the titanic shift away from regular timekeeping and rhythm to a more open conception.  Freedman's cello playing also provides a startling type of color and tone when heard against Ayler's impassioned playing and Donald Ayler's rough, but intense contributions.

The sessions that were used in the original album were recorded in December 1966 at The Village Vanguard and at The Village Theater about two months later.  At the Vanguard, violinist Michel Sampson, bassists Bill Folwell and Henry Grimes, and drummer Beaver Harris joined the Ayler brothers and the presence of two bass players and Sampson's work gave a notably difference in atmosphere and rhythm.  On one track, "Angels," a pianist performed with Ayler and it is assumed it was Call Cobbs, Jr., an older man who played occasionally with Ayler over the years.

The Village Theater's set had a trombonist, George Steele, on the incomplete tune "Universal Thoughts" and this time both Sampson and Freedman appeared, upping the ante further in terms of what the stringed instruments brought to the larger format of the band.  Folwell was joined on bass by Alan Silva, exclusively using the bow evidently.  Harris did the drumming, except on the tribute "For John Coltrane" that opens disc two.

A couple of pieces are in mono sound and another did not have a master tape version, but those who appreciate the idealism, power, passion and yearning that is evident in Ayler's music will have no problem hearing songs that are low-fi or suddenly trail off.  Ayler was completely sincere in his belief that his music was inspired by divine ideas and his desire to elevate his work into a spiritual plane is obvious.  Ultimately, he tried more commercial work after 1967 and struggled to find an audience before his mysterious and untimely death in September 1970.

Undoubtedly, listening to the work of this remarkable saxophonist is challenging and, as has been stated here before, the advice offered by him and his brother is about the best that can be given for those willing to try.  In other words, try to follow the sound, not the notes.  Being open-minded and then geared towards the sound rather than the structure is the way to go with the work of Albert Ayler.  It took this listener some time to adapt, but the results have been rewarding and uplifting.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Dome 1 & 2

After the breakup of Wire in 1980, infamously, though intriguingly, chronicled on the album Document and Eyewitness, the members of the four-piece embarked on various projects.  Colin Newman released A-Z later that year and it has been said that many of the songs on the record were intended for a Wire album and it can be readily understood why as it has many elements that seemed a progression of where the band had been headed with its recent recordings.

Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis, however, took the opportunity to reenter the studio just a few days after Wire's last concert to develop a project called Dome.  Working quickly, the duo came up with ten pieces that largely took the form of pre-existing material intended for Wire and then added new electronic experiments intertwined with guitar, bass percussion and vocals.  Whereas Newman, who always a bit more of a songwriter's touch, also did some experimenting on his record, while also mainly relying on relatively straightforward song structures, Lewis and Gilbert tended far more to abstraction, albeit in a compelling and mesmerizing way.

The first album did feature several vocal-infused pieces, including the opening "Cancel Your Order," the hypnotic "Cruel When Complete," with haunting vocals by "A.M.C.," that is, Angela Conway, who also received songwriting credit, and the most straight-ahead song on the disc, "Rolling Upon My Day," with its simple, but appealing guitar line. 

Otherwise, there are plenty of weird and wonderful electronic sounds and noises on the rest of the album, which was recorded over three days in mid-March and the first of April 1980.

The duo quickly returned to work in August to record seven tracks that comprised the second album and here abstraction reigned supreme and the material was even stranger, including the two-part centerpiece, "The Red Tent 1 & 2", in which Lewis recorded his vocals while lying down in a tent; "Breathsteps;" "Ritual View" and the remarkable closer, "Keep It."  Unlike the first record, which had its in-development Wire leftovers, this album was built largely on its own sense of sonic (mis)adventure, though "Ritual View" was a reworked Wire track that wasn't released, however, until 1996's Turns and Strokes.

For those more attuned to the song forms found in early Wire, Newman's record is, by far, the easier on the ears, though, again, it has moments of experimental adventure that he would expand upon in subsequent solo efforts like the instrumental-dominated 1981 release Provisionally Entitled The Singing Fish

Those who noticed, however, that there was always some space in Wire's first three albums for electronic textures and rhythms that leaned toward the so-called "avant garde" or "art music," Gilbert and Lewis's work on the first Dome albums showed that they were more than ready to enlarge their interest in texture and sound.  While the first album, in particular, leavened the experiments with some familiar song structures, Dome 2 took the adventures much further.  For those interested in the exploration of sound in a minimalist and low-tech fashion, it can be quite rewarding.

Someday, the Dome 3 & 4 disc will be highlighted as Lewis and Gilbert continued their partnership further into the 1980s and before Wire regrouped to make a very different kind of music in the latter half of that decade.

Dome 1 (1980)
1.  Cancel Your Order
2.  Cruel When Complete
3.  And Then . . .
4.  Here We Go
5.  Rolling Upon My wWay
6.  Say Again
7.  Linasixup
8.  Airmail
9.  Ampnoise
10.  Madmen

Dome 2 (1981)
1.  The Red Tent 1 & 2
2.  Long Lost Life
3.  Breathsteps
4.  Reading Prof. B
5.  Ritual View
6.  Twist Up
7.  Keep It

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata

Now plumbing, to the best of an amateur's limited abilities, the complicated, eccentric but fascinating depths, to the best of an amateur's ability, of Harry Partch's manifesto, Genesis of a Music, it has proven interesting to read the iconoclastic composer's differentiation between "corporeal" and "abstract" music. 

The former, to Partch's world view, is the truer form of music, emanating from ancient Greek performances in which music, singing in speech-like patterns without embellishment, and dance are inextricable and "corporeal" in terms of the fuller expression of the human body in an environment in which the words matter in concert with the music and the dance.

From the time, however, that church music in medieval Europe began to feature elongated vocalizations and, in Partch's mind, the meaning of the text was sublimated under the desire to emphasize vocal gymnastics and histrionics, the value of corporeal music was overrun by "abstract" music.  The abstraction, further embodied in later periods in ostentatious music and vocal puffery, represents to him a regression and a denigration of the ideal in corporeal music.

As explained further by Partch, the nadir of abstraction in music comes with the modern opera, as well as other forms of music, in which, for example, overwrought emotion and the elaboration of syllables via interminable trilling and other trickeries of the human voice, along with the self-consciousness of the score, overwhelm any sense of meaning in the libretto.

It is an interesting argument and there is a good deal of sense to much of what Partch argues, if one were to believe that what is "legitimate" in music can be based on a determinable logical structure.  To this untutored music lover, though, there is as much of value in a work like Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata from the purely musical (and the vocalizing is, in a way, as much instrumental as the performance by the orchestra) standpoint, regardless of whether the lyrics and the story are understood and appreciated.  Abstraction does not have to be seen as a reduction in musical value, if one enjoys the great technical skill employed in the composition, instrumental performance, and vocalizations.

In fact, Partch's monophonic music based on forty-three semitones or ratios, while fascinating and enjoyable for an entire different set of reasons than La Traviata, can give the impression of being highly abstract (defined in another way from how Partch did) and difficult to listen to.  In other words, Partch thought of corporeal music as being truer to folk music as defined by what the Greeks did in ancient times, but his wonderfully strange music has proven to be far removed from a "folk" or, if you like, "popular" arena and has only been appreciated by a small, if highly appreciative, audience.

In any case, puffery or abstract or whatever, La Traviata is one of the greatest operas ever written and Verdi, who was prolific in composing over two-dozen operas, completed his work in 1853 on the heels of the wildly successful Rigoletto and Il Trovatore.  In this 1973 recording from Japan, released on the budget label Allegro under its "Opera D'Oro" series, the great Renata Scotto is paired with José Carreras, who was just beginning to make his mark in the opera world (long before the notorious Three Tenors project.)  Sesto Bruscantini has a notable opportunity to display his great talent in Act 2's "Di Provenzo il Mar, il Suol."  The orchestra plays beautifully, conducted by Nino Verchi.

Verdi's masterful melodic touch, emotional expression, and superb aligning of the score with the libretto and the vocalizing, is consistently brilliant throughout and Scotto is just breathtaking, while Carreras shows his formidable talent coming to the fore and Bruscantini is exceptional in the company of his colleagues' legendary abilities.

While the basis of the opera on a kind-hearted but tubercular prostitute in the Paris of Verdi's day was unconventional and controversial, its adaptation from Alexander Dumas, Jr.'s La Dame aux Camélias ultimately proved to be beyond the temporary shock of the subject matter (in England, there was no translation or summary to avoid dismay by early Victorian-era audiences there) and La Traviata took its place alongside such masterpieces as La Bohéme and Carmen as the acme of opera in the era.  It did take some reconfiguration of writing for the vocals after a subpar opening at Venice in March 1853 to propel the opera to massive public and critical acclaim.

The story of the doomed lovers Violetta and Alfredo comes to the inevitable tragic end as she succumbs to her disease as Alfredo violently laments her demise.  Verdi's integration of music, singing, story and emotion is staggering and this 40-year old performance is exceptional, even if the recording is not the state-of-the-art kind many listeners expect and/or demand now, though the remastering does a good job of trying to get close to that standard.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Africa: Drum, Chant & Instrumental Music

This is another stellar entry in the incredible Nonesuch Explorer series of "world music" recordings, in which Stephen Jay traveled to Niger, Mali and what was then called Upper Volta, now known as Burkina Faso to record musicians in all kinds of social settings.

The nine selections represent a wide array of music from energetic street music by the Hausa people of Niger, a hypnotic Tuareg medicinal chant from Mali and Songhay gulu drummers, also from Niger.  One of the most interesting pieces is by an eight-year old boy from the Djerma tribe in Niger performing a solo on the kountougi, a one-stringed lute-like instrument.

A fascinating percussion performance by a group of a half-dozen griots or drum masters from Niger is an 11 minute tour-de-force at a public dance in the city of Niamey and another highlight is the kouco (another lute type of instrument, but with five strings consisting of two melody and three drone) performance by Yacouba Bukari from Mali, who shows his skill in plucking melody strings with two fingers while also creating a drone by strumming other strings and tapping on the instrument's body for rhythmic accompaniment.  At about 2:30, Bukari goes into a riff that has a fantastic rapid repetitiveness and almost sounds rock-like in its hypnotic power, but his overall use of themes and variations is continually interesting.

Also very cool is the Songhay Kombi and Ettebel, in which a trio of Songhay perform on the kombi and ettebel drums, while a lead vocalist chants with a metal disk angled near his mouth to change to tone and volume level and the other two perform backing vocals.

Jay's notes are very helpful in understanding the performances and there are some great photos of musicians, performances and instruments by his wife Barbara Bouman Jay.  This 1976 album was one of the first "world music" recordings this listener obtained in 1990 when broadening musical horizons and it continues to be an inspiring and fascinating journey into some of the music performed in western Africa.

Africa:  Drum, Chant & Instrumental Music (Nonesuch, 1976)

1.  Hansa Street Music  3:27
2.  Bounkam Solo  3:49
3.  Kountougi Solo  3:31
4.  Djerma Dundun Drummers  11:12
5.  Tuareg Medicinal Chant  6:57
6.  Lodagaa Wilks and Gulu  3:53
7.  Songhay Kombi and Ettebel  3:22
8.  Kouco Solo  4:37
9.  Songhay Gulu Dimmers  1:49

Monday, October 28, 2013

Last Exit: Headfirst into the Flames, Live in Europe

Ronald Shannon Jackson, a masterful drummer who played with Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and others and who fronted such bands as The Decoding Society, passed away on 19 October at age 73.  Jackson also had a long association with the omnipresent Bill Laswell, including holding down the rhythm section with the bassist in the stunning "free jazz" supergroup, Last Exit.

From their debut in 1986, Last Exit was devoted to completely improvised, live music with as much sonic firepower and as little political correctness as possible.  Jackson and Laswell had a formidable job trying to hold down the bottom while Peter Brötzmann on reeds and the sublime guitarist Sonny Sharrock were a formidable front line of screams, cries and other generally generous forms of musical mayhem.

A particularly interesting recording of the band is Headfirst into the Flames, recorded in 1989 in Munich and Stockholm and featuring the group in all of their wild and woolly glory.  Nine pieces stretching over an hour represent the epitome of Last Exit's fearsome power, masterful playing, sense of humor and perhaps among the purest forms of musical democracy one will find anywhere. 

An extra bonus is the adaptation of quotations by the American poet and novelist Kenneth Patchen from his experimental novel, The Journal of Albion Moonlight.  Titles include "Don't Be a Cry Baby, Whatever You Do;" "A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows;" "Hanged Man Are Always Naked;" "I Must Confess I'm a Cannibal;" and a favorite of this listener, "Jesus!  What Gorgeous Monkeys We Are."  Given Last Exit's free association live work (there was one studio album, the interesting Iron Path, which is utterly tame and almost melodic compared to the five live releases--Brötzmann, in particular, tends to shun the studio for the immediacy and connectivity of the stage), these titles are truly meaningless, but they sure are fun to read.

In any case, listening to any Last Exit album is an experience not to be found anywhere else in the wide panoply of music generally labeled "free jazz" and the chaos is held together by the amazing musicianship and, again, the able work of Laswell and Jackson.  The latter may not be a name many folks recognize, but his body of work from the mid-1960s onward is truly impressive.  His time with Last Exit and his playing on Headfirst into the Flames are an excellent testament to his abilities.  May Ronald Shannon Jackson rest in peace!

Last Exit:  Headfirst into the Flames, Live in Europe (Downtown Music Gallery, 2008/Muworks Records, 1993)

1.  Lizard Eyes  5:30
2.  Don't Be a Cry Baby, Whatever You Do  6:35
3.  So Small, So Weak, This Bloody Sweat of Loving  4:25
4.  Headfirst into the Flames  3:00
5.  A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows  6:25
6.  Jesus!  What Gorgeous Monkeys We Are  11:01
7.  Hanged Man Are Always Naked  10:05
8.  No One Knows Anything  5:15
9.  I Must Confess I'm a Cannibal 10:40

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground

There's not much to be said after news of Lou Reed's death was heard today.  This blogger first became interested in The Velvet Underground in 1984 through the White Light/White Heat album, which was going to be the next VU album covered in this blog.

Today's revelation, though, seems to call for a focus on the self-titled follow-up, which was recorded at the end of 1968 and appeared the following March.  The Velvet Underground is a quieter, more personal, almost claustrophobic record, giving more emphasis on the melodic and contemplative side to the band and, especially, its complex leader, Reed.  There was some controversy involving the recording as Reed insisted on a mix that became known as the "phone booth" mix because it elevated the vocals and put the instrumental parts in the background, but the label insisted on a different (probably more balanced) mix that was released.  In the Velvet Underground box set, however, Reed' mix was included and it is certainly interesting to listen to and compare the two.

The album is a remarkable cohesive group of pieces, from the fragile opener "Candy Says" with the innocent-like vocals of new bassist Doug Yule to the more up-tempo pieces like "What Goes On" and "Beginning to See the Light," to the stunning ballad "Jesus" and the very touching closer "After Hours," with its out-of-tune, but charming, vocalizing by drummer Maureen Tucker.  The kinky and catchy classic, "Some Kinda Love" is a highlight, as well. Perhaps the centerpiece of this exceptional album, though, is the gorgeous "Pale Blue Eyes," a true classic song.

Then there's "The Murder Mystery," an experimental piece with overlapping recitation and counterpoint singing by the four band members that has gotten very extreme reactions from some observers.  This listener finds it intriguing and appreciates that Reed had the audacity to try something that unusual, especially in the midst of an album that was, otherwise, highly melodic, tuneful, and spare.  Would "The Murder Mystery" have been quite as confounding if it had been on White Light/White Heat?

The Velvet Underground is a great album and it just seemed a perfect listen after hearing of Lou Reed's passing.  May he rest in peace.

The Velvet Underground:  The Velvet Underground  (MGM Records, 1969)

1.  Candy Says  4:02
2.  What Goes On  4:52
3.  Some Kinda Love  4:00
4.  Pale Blue Eyes  5:38
5.  Jesus  3:22
6.  Beginning to See the Light  4:38
7.  I'm Set Free  4:01
8.  That's the Story of My Life  1:56
9.  The Murder Mystery  8:53
10.  After Hours  2:07

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

John Cage: In a Landscape

This collection of piano pieces, recorded in 1993 and 1994, by the composer John Cage are mainly from the years 1938-1948, when he was moving away from the twelve-tone method of composing championed by the likes of Arnold Schoenberg and into more esoteric experiments with pitch, tone and altered instruments, often for ballet and dance commissions, but far removed from the electronic, sound environment and chance operations spheres in which he delved into from the 1950s onward.

The intriguing, if often maddening (to many people), thing about Cage was his restless and tireless examination into the fundamental nature of sound, its relation to higher forms of spirituality (he was deep into Hindu philosophy at the time, later delving into Zen Buddhism) and the challenge to conventional musical thinking that animated so much of his work.

So, compared to Indeterminacy, the 1959 work he developed with David Tudor, which to many minds is anti-musical and to others is a daring exploration into music as an expression of chance operations of sound, or to the notorious "4'33"," in which a pianist simply sat quietly at a piano in a concert hall and allowed the uncomfortable murmurings and other sounds from the confused audience become the performance, In a Landscape might seem quaint.  At the time, undoubtedly, it caused its own share of controversy.

To this largely untutored listener, the bookend pieces, 1948's "In a Landscape" and "Dream" are highly complementary pieces and infused with what would later be called "ambient."  One can easily hear how such later pianists as Harold Budd were greatly influenced by what Cage was doing during the Forties.  These simple, repetitive and enchanting pieces don't call for expressive displays of technique, but for sensitivity and restraint and, as such, are quietly beautiful.

In a quiet different and odd way, Cage's "Suite for Toy Piano", one of his better-known works, daring from 1948, uses higher pitches from what is really a child's toy to create its own evocative and expressive music.  Getting past the idea that the instrument is a toy and accepting the intriguing sounds that are evoked from a limited range of notes yields some surprises--again, this is especially true from an amateur with only a rudimentary understanding of the finer points of composition.

Other works, including "Bacchanale" from 1938, "A Valentine Out of Season" (1944), "Music for Marcel Duchamp" (1947) and "Prelude for Meditation" (1944) are also imbued with the intriguing sounds of the prepared piano, rendered such by all manner of material placed in the instrument to evoke a wide variety sounds.  Screws, plastic, wood, rubber, bolts and other materials allowed for a palette of pitches that actually put a fresh emphasis on the piano as a truly percussive instrument.  The reference to Duchamp, an artist who caused a great stir in his peak period with his challenge to convention and use of absurdist humor, is particularly telling.

As performer Stephen Drury, who does an excellent job playing on the album, points out in the helpful notes, Cage was driven to preparing the piano as he did by necessity.  When commissioned to use a piano for a dance piece that called for an "African" sound, the composer turned to a variation on what a former instructor of his, the great Henry Cowell, had done.  But, instead of plucking, scraping, strumming and sliding his hands, forearms and certain objects across the strings, Cage took to developing what he termed "mutes" with those aforementioned materials to change the pitch and otherwise alter the sound to get closer to that "African" sound he was searching for.

One of the pieces stands out from the rest in several ways.  "Souvenir" was composed in 1983, four decades or more after the rest, is performed on an organ, and is longer than the other works, but does share many of the same concerns with evocative sounds, irrespective of a quest for virtuosity, which usually animates solo work on keyboards (or any other instrument, for that matter.) 

In a Landscape is an interesting and, relatively speaking, accessible way to hear what the composer was aiming for during, excepting "Souvenir", a period in which his creative impulses were moving rapidly, as were those of many others in the "new" forms of "classical" music evolving in the 1940s and afterward.  A later look at his "Sonatas and Interludes" for prepared piano will be an excellent complement to this very fine album.

John Cage: In a Landscape (Catalyst/BMG Classics, 1994)

1.  In a Landscape  9:42
2.  Music for Marcel Duchamp  6:04
3.  Souvenir  11:53
4.  A Valentine Out of Season  3:48
4.  Suite for Toy Piano  8:10
5.  Bacchanale  9:27
6.  Prelude for Meditation  1:01
7.  Dream  8:42

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Dzintars: Songs of Amber

This is another outstanding example of polyphonic choral singing, along with the more famed Les Mystere des Voix Bulgares, or the Bulgarian female choir variation, and the male Rustavi Choir from the Republic of Georgia.

In the case of the Latvian type, Dzintars, formed in 1947, performs both traditional folk music from a corpus that, according to the helpful liners, includes 1 1/2 million song texts and 30,000 melodies, as well as modern pieces.

Songs of Amber (amber is a symbol of Latvian identity and the word dzintar is the Latvian word for the fossilized pitch from the pine trees that are ubiquitous in that Baltic country) was another outstanding release from Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart's series of world music recordings for the Rykodisc label.  The album was co-produced by the Dead's late guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia and was recorded at the state-of-the-art, for 1990 and beyond, Skywalker Ranch, owned by Star Wars impresario George Lucas.

Traditional pieces include "Blow, Wind, Blow" and "The Sun Moves Quickly," with other tunes like "Breaking Flax" and "Christmas Masquerade" are latter-day interpolations of classic folk works.  Newer songs, described as "avant-garde" in the notes, include "Song of the Wind" and "The Tomtit's Message."  Finally, there is a sprinkling of pieces from Russian and Jewish sources.

Unlike the Bulgarian or Georgian choirs, this one is very large, including 76 singers, as well as 2 conductors, a pair of accompanists on piano and organ, two choir masters and a soloist from the state opera and ballet theatre.

Dzintars had just completed an American tour the prior year when they went to Marin County to record Songs of Amber and there is a photo, reproduced here, that shows the massive ensemble in their colorful and striking costumes at what is presumably the Skywalker complex.  Having had the privilege to see a performance of Les Mystere des Voix Bulgares at U.C.L.A. some years back, this blogger can testify to the palpable effect of both voice and costume on a live audience.  It would certainly be a concert-going highlight to see Dzintars perform if the opportunity were to come up.  One can hope.

This is breathtaking music, filled with gorgeous melodies, stunning arrangements, top-notch vocalizing and fantastic sound.  Nearly a quarter century after first hearing this amazing album, the effect has hardly diminished.  Songs of Amber is a marvel and well worth seeking out for those interested in choral music.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

John Coltrane: Africa/Brass, Volumes 1 & 2

Obviously, Trane's Giant Steps needs to be covered here as his greatest early recording, with Blue Train not far behind, but there was something really eye-opening back in 1990 hearing the incredible tune "Africa" from the saxophonist's first Impulse! album, Africa/Brass.

It was first the amazing opening with the emulation of animal and other sounds by a host of instruments played by some of the leading lights of late 50s and early 60s jazz.  These include Booker Little, whose death of uremia at age 23 took away someone who could have been a true legend and the versatile Freddie Hubbard on trumpets; the trombonists Charles Greenlee and Julian Priester, the latter a member of Sun Ra's underappreciated band; and the man who arranged it all, the alto sax and bass clarinet master Eric Dolphy.

Beyond these excellent players, there was the phenomenal rhythm section of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassists Paul Chambers, who'd worked with Trane in the great Miles Davis Quintet, and Reggie Workman, and, of course, the sublime Elvin Jones, one of the few drummers whose power and flexibility could work so well with such a large ensemble.

Trane's solo work on "Africa" is also pretty spectacular and, along with "India," demonstrated a palpable shift in his moving away from the so-called "sheets of sound" to something more exploratory of the broader potential of sound on his instrument rather than speedy runs on the changes that characterized his work up to about 1960.  The piece was recorded on either 4 June, according to the original album notes, or the 7th, as indicated in the liners for the second volume of recordings from the sessions. 

More importantly, "Africa" and "India" were concerted efforts at delving into sounds that evoked the music of non-Western cultures, reflecting Coltrane's growing interests in African, Indian and Middle Eastern sounds.

After his great success with "My Favorite Things" the year prior, Coltrane tried other popular tunes on which to work his modal magic on soprano sax and the attempt here was with the venerable "Greensleeves."  While the recording is usually regarded as an inferior one to "MFT," this blogger finds the piece not comparable and the ensemble does a fine job with it.  "Blues Minor" is just that and it is well played.  Both were recorded on 23 May 1961, two days before Trane recorded his final album for Atlantic, Olé, which also featured Dolphy.

In 1974, with the supervision of Coltrane's widow, Alice, a second volume of recordings from the original 1961 sessions was released.  Alternate versions of "Africa" and "Greensleeves" were accompanied by another traditional tune, arranged by the leader, this being "Song of the Underground Railroad."  While the latter two were recorded on 23 May with other selections from the first recording, the version of "Africa" was from 7 June and had an expanded orchestra conducted by Dolphy and including trombonist Britt Woodman (instead of Priester); four French horn players; a euphonium; tuba player Bill Barber, who had played with Miles Davis' so-called "Birth of the Cool" project a dozen years before; and Pat Patrick on a variety of reeds.  Instead of Paul Chambers, this session featured another solid bassist, Art Davis.

While the versions of "Africa" and "Greensleeves" may not be superior to the original released versions, it is interesting to hear the difference with the additional instrumentation, while "Song of the Underground Railroad" is another solid rendering.  In all three cases, Dolphy's different approaches to orchestration are indicative of his ability to experiment successfully with unusual instrument groupings and his strong sense of dynamics.

Dolphy's association with Coltrane was highly controversial at the time, for reasons which seem petty and trivial now, but, in light of the massive changes enveloping jazz as it moved from a primarily "hard bop" sound to the freer expressions wrought by Trane, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, among others, there was a genuine fear that the music was being pulled into chaotic waters. 

While Dolphy continued to experiment and extend his ideas further "out," albeit with less visibility than he had with Trane, the latter, in fact, soon moved into a period of recording that seemed calculated to prove that he could play in "traditional" ways, recording with the great Duke Ellington and with smooth as silk vocalist Johnny Hartman, as well as issuing an album of ballads.  Not until 1965 did Coltrane decide to let loose the reins and move into so-called "free jazz."

Perhaps Africa/Brass could be viewed as an early effort by Trane to take the music into a transitional zone, not too far removed from either the "standard" boppish sounds of the fifties or the freer work that was to dominate the sixties.  In "Africa," he and Dolphy created a sound that was eminently successful, while the other pieces on both volumes may not be quite so because they used the orchestration as coloration, rather than as a vital and integral part of the atmosphere of the tune as in "Africa."

In any case, this recording was an unusual way for Coltrane to launch his association with the fledgling Impulse! label, which, however, got a reputation for new, innovative music.  Africa/Brass went a long way towards heightening that feeling and for helping to make the label a standard bearer for newer forms of jazz that were, more or less, defining the new decade.

Monday, September 30, 2013

For Fanatics Only: Mick Harris/Martyn Bates: Murder Ballads, The Complete Collection

There is a tradition of English (and Scandinavian) balladry going back centuries dealing with the "murder ballad," a mournful, if morbid, genre with themes involving the homicide of father by son, sister by brother, the lover by the paramour, and so on.  There are also modern revisions and new pieces, as well, including a well-received 1996 album called Murder Ballads by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

Lesser known, but intensely fascinating, is the trilogy of recordings by Mick Harris, former drummer of grindcore pioneers Napalm Death and the main figure behind the electronic acts Scorn and Lull, which have been featured here, and Martyn Bates, best known as half of the duo, Eyeless in Gaza.  Harris has also engaged in a number of collaborations with such figures as Bill Laswell, Eraldo Bernocchi, Neil Harvey and James Plotkin that run the gamut from high-energy "drum 'n bass" to the glacial pace of so-called "isolationist ambient" music.

The collaboration between Bates and Harris began in 1994 with the album Drift, which established the pattern of creating four lengthy pieces, in this case running from about 14 to some 18 1/2 minutes, in which Harris lays down the chilling, austere and yet compelling backdrop for Bates' slowly-enunciated croon detailing the murder of poor Polly by her lover, or how Jimmy the fowler shot his love "in the guise of a swan," and so forth.

For many people, a snippet of either the music or it and the vocals might be more than enough, as this is a type of music that can easily be off-putting unless one appreciates the modern update of a time-honored tradition.  And, for those that do share that appreciation, Harris and Bates promptly went back in the studio and created two more recordings, Passages, recorded in the summer of 1996 and then Incest Songs, laid down over the last half of 1997.  The individual albums were released by the Italian label, Musica Maxima Magnetica.

And, for those who simply have to have all three recordings together in one nice, neat package, as was the case with this listener, who bought the set near a decade ago, there is 1998's compilation, Murder Ballads (The Complete Collection) with all twelve tracks on the three albums showing both original ideas and others updating classic ballads like "Long Lankin," "Lucy Wan," and "The Banks of Fordie," while some are based on real-life incidents like "The Murder of Maria Marten," derived from an 1827 incident in England.

While true enthusiasts can probably run through the three discs in succession and indulge fully in the three hours of extraordinary ambient sounds and soft and otherworldly crooning, it often works well for this blogger to listen to the first album, wait a few days or so and then listed to the next one, followed a similar interval before delving into the last recording.

The compilation, released by Invisible Records, a Chicago-based label founded by Martin Atkins, formerly of Public Image, Limited, and which put out a number of Harris' recordings, including on his own short-lived Possible imprint, features a black booklet with striking gold lettering for the text, including the lyrics to all twelve pieces, and art with a medieval touch.  The box set is not likely easy to find, but it remains a fascinating excursion into musical and lyrical realms that evoke a sense of both macabre history and modern soundcraft.  It's an amazing aural experience that rewards with each subsequent listen.

Mick Harris/Martyn Bates:  Murder Ballads, The Complete Collection (Invisible Records, 1998)

Disc 1:  Drift
1.  The Death of Polly  14:09
2.  The Fowler  18:32
3.  Lucy Wan  14:39
4.  Long Lankin  16:05

Disc 2:  Passages
1.  The Bramble Briar  13:27
2.  The Cruel Mother 11:24
3.  The Banks of Fordie  13:07
4.  The Murder of Maria Marten  17:33

Disc 3:  Incest Songs
1.  The Bonny Hind  12:11
2.  Sheaf and Knife  12:07
3.  The Two Brothers  17:09
4.  Edward  17:41

Friday, September 27, 2013

Igor Stravinsky: Rite of Spring/The Firebird Suite

The premiere of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in late May 1913 has remained one of the most controversial and oft-discussed in the history of so-called "classical music."  This is probably as clear an example of any of a new music being seen, by some, as too radical, especially in a genre as conservative as "classical," but eventually becoming part of the established canon.  With all that is gone on in that classification of music since then, including Varese, Cage, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Reich, Riley and many, many others, modern ears can hardly find anything particularly shocking about The Rite, although listening to the music of the time might give some indication of what a large proportion of the audience that evening found repulsive.

There was another element to the uproar, which was the ballet's choreography by the great Vaslav Nijinsky, who was appointed to the role by Serge Diaghilev, the impresario of the famed Ballets Russes dance company.  The combination of Stravinsky's innovative and challenging music and Nijinsky's bracing and forward-thinking choreography may not, however, been as significant in the general mayhem that resulted in the theater as the demographic forces at work among the crowd itself.  To some observers and chroniclers, the well-heeled concertgoers in the boxes and the so-called "Bohemians" consisting of artists, writers and others who despised the patricians were already manifesting great tension even before the opening strains of the music were played.

In any case, it was very shortly after the piece began and Nijinsky started to dance that the boos, hisses, catcalls and other expressions of disdain rained down, largely, it appears, from the boxes, where the fashionable set expected conventional, beautiful music.  Meantime, the "Bohemians" began to react and the cacophony that resulted all but drowned out the orchestra.  The light were either turned back on or flashed on and off to try to still the crowd, while a few dozen members of the audience were escorted from the theater.  The performance then continued largely quietly and there were curtain calls for all involved by the end.

While some reviews were hostile to the music, others were aimed at the choreography, and some were directed towards the boorish behavior of those in the crowd who raised the biggest fuss.  In any event, though Stravinsky was beginning to become a known entity through his earlier ballets for Diaghilev, including The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911), the Rite of Spring gave him unexpected publicity because of the premiere, though the music, with all of its innovation and daring, proved to be, rightfully, more deserving of posterity.

In the notes to the excellent recording by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (England), the composer is quoted as saying that, "I aw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: wise elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dancing herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring."  Indeed, the plaintive, high-pitched opening bassoon solo leads to a sylvan ambience and there are moments of quietude that are very beautiful.  But, then, the flipside comes with the wild, bacchic, orgiastic frenzy of the virgin's dance and the general savagery of the sacrifice.  Through all of this, Stravinsky's use of tonality, rhythm, dissonance and the unusual sounds and note combinations used throughout the piece.  As an amateur, YHB can't go much further than this, but even the untrained ear can pick up a general sense of power, energy and a "difference" in this piece to other music of the era.

The other piece on this disc, The Firebird Suite, is a reworking of the first ballet Stravinsky created with Diaghilev's company thirty-five years earlier.  It features a smaller orchestra and contains about two-thirds of the music from the original conception, which was based on a Russian folk tale.  There is a more traditional, perhaps Romantic, sound to this work, which, while not having the overt radicalism of The Rite of Spring, contains the same sureness of touch.  It is more melodic, harmonically and rhythmically consistent, and has a richness that shows the composer's debt to his mentor, the great Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, perhaps best known for his Scheherazade, someday to be highlighted here.  While not as lauded as The Rite of Spring, The Firebird Suite is a striking and beautiful work and it proves to be a nice pairing with the other.

The sound is excellent on this 32-bit digital recording and the performance, conducted by Yuri Simonov, by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is outstanding--there are several other recordings in this series that have been and will be featured here.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ramnad Krishnan: Vidwan, Music of South India, Songs of the Carnatic Tradition

This is another of the first "world music" recordings obtained by this blogger back in 1990 and it is a generous sampling of the Carnatic music of southern India.  This was a double album recorded in late 1967 in New York by Krishnan, a masterful singer with a compelling reedy voice and the ability to generate remarkable vocalisms of all kinds.

He is supported by a quartet of excellent musicians, including V. Thyagarajan on violin, whose virtuosic work throughout is a marvel; T. Ranganathan on the mridangam, a two-headed drum; V. Nagarajan, Thyagarajan's brother, who performs on the kanjira, or tambourine; and P. Srinivasan on the droning tampura (also spelled tamboura).

A major highlight is the "Palincu Kamaksi," which features Krishnan's incredible vocal gymnastics and some excellent playing by Thyagarajan, who holds the violin vertically while sitting cross-legged and holding the instrument between his chest and his foot.  This way of firmly holding the violin allows the player to employ a range of oscillating figures, slides and other colorations.

The centerpiece of this recording, though, is the multi-part "Tamarasadala Netri, Tyagarajuni Mitri," which for about forty minutes highlights the leader's vocal prowess, the great ability of the violinst, and the excellent percussion work by Ranganathan and Nagarajan, who are given spotlights in the "Tani Avartam" section that closes the piece and the album.

Krishnan, however, is the vidwan, translated on the album cover as "an authority on his music, a master of his art," and he definitely embodies this definition.  He and his compatriots were visiting artists at Connecticut's Wesleyan University and its World Music Program (this liberal arts college also has had many prominent jazz musicians as lecturers and performers over the years.)  Sadly, Krishnan died in early 1973 of a heart condition.

Played a great deal over twenty years ago when purchased on cassette, this fantastic record has been given several listens on disc and on the iPod since it was acquired recently.  It is truly one of the finest recordings of any kind this blogger has had the opportunity to hear and is well worth searching out whether there is an existing interest in Indian music or a curiosity to find out what Carnatic music is all about.

Ramnad Krishnan: Vidwan, Music of South India: Songs of the Carnatic Tradition (Nonesuch Explorer, 1968, 1988)

1.  Ninnadanela  4:08
2.  Palincu Kamaksi  15:31
3.  Abhimanamennadu  13:08
4.  Tamarasadala Netri, Tyagarajuni Mitri  38:13

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Eric Dolphy: Out to Lunch

Recorded just a few months before his untimely death from uremia in Berlin in 1964, Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch is a phenomenal combination of fine originals by the leader and a stellar band of some of the greatest musicians of the era. 

Joining Dolphy, who, as usual, is featured on several instruments, including alto sax, flute and bass clarinet, are trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes and a tremendous rhythm section of bassist Richard Davis and teenage sensation Tony Williams on drums.  In fact, Davis and Williams take full advantage of the freedom and opportunities given them by Dolphy's excellent compositions and arrangements, for which, as with his playing, he was given so little credit and recognition.

The Thelonious Monk tribute, "Hat and Beard," has a cool, start with Williams' cymbal work setting the rhythmic tone and then Dolphy's circular clarinet lines quietly stating its own rhythm, soon joined by Hutcherson's vibes.  Hubbard and Dolphy have tight harmonics on the interesting, innovative theme before the leader launches into a crazy solo, full of the inventiveness, vigor, unusual note combinations and other dynamics, including human-like cries and moans, that made him controversial then, but still fresh and new just about a half-century later.

The melancholy ballad "Something Sweet, Something Tender" has a great bowed opening by Davis accompanying Dolphy's clarinet playing and Hubbard does an excellent job harmonizing with the leader on the theme that follows.  There is another great Dolphy solo

"Gazzeloni" is an opportunity for Dolphy to demonstrate his flutistry (if that is a word) and Davis' well-executed walking lines and Williams' signature cymbal work and solid, understated fills are perfect accompaniments for Dolphy's otherworldly theme statement and his wild and staggering solo work that follows.  But, as interesting is the eerie playing of Hutcherson, whose placement of sounds is unusual, but highly compelling.  Hubbard's solo is somewhat conventional, given the setting, pieces and players, but he does a great job trying to extend his playing beyond what he was usually doing at the time, being one of the busiest players in jazz.  Hutcherson gets to solo towards the end of the piece and, while nicely done, it seems less noteworthy than his accompaniment during Dolphy's solo.

The title track is a march set in motion by Williams before the theme comes in with Hutcherson's off-kilter and repetitious playing standing out while Dolphy and Hubbard again play in unison.  Then, there is another mind-numbing solo on the alto by the leader.  Davis is wide-ranging here, plucking in the upper and lower registers of the bass with subtlety and invention, while Williams does his usual excellent job of keeping rhythm with powerful snare hits, rolls and fills and that amazing cymbal playing.  Here, Hubbard seems more assertive and comfortable in his lengthy solo, perhaps because of the stronger rhythmic foundation laid down by Hutcherson, Davis and Williams, who follow Hubbard with what could be described as simultaneous soloing, though avoiding formal steady rhythms permeates the entire record anyway.

"Straight Up and Down" might be an ironic title for the unusual theme that opens the tune and which is played longer than the head arrangements on the other tracks and Dolphy heads into the stratosphere with another careening, speech-like solo on alto that capsulizes all of the interesting colorations and devices that characterized his short, but startling career, then in essentially his fifth year as a bandleader.  Hubbard's solo, again, sounds traditional when following the leader, but it does show that he was earnestly trying to work in the "out there" environment Dolphy was creating and the trumpeter should get more credit for the effort--the solo comes out well.

Speaking of "out there," that was a title on earlier record, another Dolphy classic to be featured here someday, put out by Prestige Records and which, like Out to Lunch with its absurdist photo of a "Will Be Back" sign at a restaurant with hands pointing in all directions, was intended to spotlight Dolphy as a true "avant gardist," working far outside the bounds of "traditional" jazz.  Perhaps, but Dolphy took far too much hostile criticism for what turned out to be adventurous, creative, and well thought-put advances in a music that had been in a pretty stale repetitive doldrums of bop for almost fifteen years by the time he began making his own records.

Out to Lunch proved to be Eric Dolphy's greatest album, though, as in all cases with someone who dies too soon, who knows what he would have done when so-called "free jazz" really took off in subsequent years.  In any case, this is a fabulous recording that shows free playing can be done with great inventiveness, arranging and playing by a fantastic band and one of the great, unsung leaders in jazz history.

Eric Dolphy:  Out to Lunch (Blue Note, 1964)

1.  Hat and Beard  8:24
2.  Something Sweet, Something Tender  6:02
3.  Gazzelloni  7:22
4.  Out to Lunch  12:06
5.  Straight Up and Down  8:19

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Durutti Column: Circuses and Bread

This fifth album by the fantastically underappreciated Vini Reilly and his cohorts Bruce Mitchell on drums, trumpeter Tim Kellet and violist John Metcalfe appeared in 1985 and this listener's first experience hearing The Durutti Column came with an EP highlighting one of the best pieces in all the group's long history, the wonderful "Tomorrow," which is the second track on this great album.

As mentioned before, the reason for buying that shorter vinyl release in summer 1986 was because, in buying tickets for a New Order show at what was then the Irvine Amphitheater, it was learned that the two opening acts were the almost-unknown The Fall and The Durutti Column.  Having the latter walk quietly on stage, with Mitchell's extraordinarily basic kit and Kellet and Metcalfe's unassuming instruments and then, finally, Reilly perched on the floor for much of the performance, the show was totally out of proportion to the environment and would have been far better suited to a small club, as, presumably, was the usual type of venue for this sublime band.  The Fall and New Order were good, but TDC was a revelation, even in the freakishly wrong setting.

In any case, this is a very strong album from start to finish with the gorgeous "Pauline" opening the proceedings beautifully, followed by the aforementioned "Tomorrow."   Even the drum machines are programmed nicely in "Dance II," which highlights Reilly's ability to play rapid, delicate lines overdubbed with another rhythm guitar line. 

"Hilary" is another wrenching ballad, its simplicity highlighted by the deeply echoed trumpet of Kellet.  "Street Fight" is an intriguing context of Reilly's searching piano theme performed along the viola and the sounds of gunfire, perhaps reflecting the violence then ravaging Northern Ireland--this being a rare instance of politics (even, if vaguely and subtly expressed) on a TDC record. 

Reilly seems to easily create memorable and delicate melodies and "Royal Infirmary" has a fine one with excellent guitar and piano playing by the leader.  For those turned off by Reilly's rather tuneless (and, yet, for this leader beguiling and artlessly compelling) vocals, "Black Horses" might be a stumbling block and it does last nearly 9 minutes, but it has more of the finely layered, carefully crafted subtle dynamics that makes this band such a strong one.

"Dance I" has synthesizers, drum programming, and a marimba-like percussion element that almost seems to prefigure the largely-electronic sound highlighted in Obey The Time, which came out about five years later.  Then comes the strong closer, "Blind Elevator Girl—Osaka," which starts with plucked viola, a repeating and light melodic line from the keyboard and Mitchell's rhythmic cymbal work before it moves into a punchier (well, for this band) section that worked well in live settings, including an abbreviated form in the Live at the Bottom Line, New York record and the Domo Arigato album recorded in Japan, and which highlights Kellet's soaring trumpet.

Circuses and Bread is a highlight in a stellar catalog by a performer and a band whose work was so far under the mainstream radar it was a bit surprising.  The Durutti Column and Vini Reilly definitely have operated their own narrowly confined worlds, but that might be part of the attraction for those fortunate few who have been devoted fans--enjoying their music seems like an experience only you and a select number of others can enjoy, though it would be nice to see Reilly get more credit and financial reward for his thirty-five years of consistently excellent music.

Why, though, this is the only TDC album to not get the deluxe remixing and extra tracks reworking in the later 1990s under the Factory Too imprint is a bit of a mystery!

The Durutti Column:  Circuses and Bread (Factory, 1985)

1.  Pauline
2.  Tomorrow
3.  Dance II
4.  Hilary
5.  Street Fight
6.  Royal Infirmary
7.  Black Horses
8.  Dance I
9.  Blind Elevator Girl—Osaka

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Terry Riley: A Rainbow in Curved Air

Released in 1969, a few years after his famous (or infamous) In C was released as an early example of so-called minimalism in classical music, Terry Riley's A Rainbow in Curved Air found the composer using intricate overdubbing to layer keyboards and percussion in fascinating ways.

As expressed in the explanatory note on the back cover, "the spatially separated mirror images were adapted for studio recording by Glen Kolotkin and resemble the sound Terry gets in his all-night concerts."  These live performances were another way for Riley to create an experience that was far removed from the traditional concert hall (after all, it was the hippie era), but the fact that he had a growing interest in Indian classical music and in the improvisation found in it and in jazz is reflected in the wild and wonderful sounds on this amazing recording.

Riley performed on electric organ, electric harpsichord, or what he termed the "rocksichord," as well as the dumbec, or goblet drum (used heavily in music from the Middle East), and tambourine for percussion effects for the title track, which spanned about 18 and a half minutes, while for the comically titled "Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band," he played the soprano saxophone and electric organ.  ON the 21 and a half minute masterpiece, Riley spins out fantastic runs on the soprano, supposedly inspired by the great John Coltrane, and the organ that reveal his masterly instrumental prowess.  With some studio trickery involving tape loops and a patch cord, Riley and the engineer were able to give the track another interesting dimension of sound

The "flower power era" vibe is further reinforced by the inclusion of an untitled poem by the composer included on the cover and which decries war, the killing of animals, urban malaise, and so forth.  To a more cynical era, the sentiments seem hopelessly naïve and idealistic, but, to this listener, it is part of the historical context of the time and the music doesn't seem to be that tied to period.

Notably, this album and its electric keyboard sounds had a major effect on Pete Townshend of The Who and the legendary song "Baba O'Riley," named for Indian guru Meher Baba and Riley features keyboard sounds derived from this album. 

In any case, the originality and freshness of Riley's 1960s work is epitomized by A Rainbow in Curved Air, as well as with In C.  His career went through many changes subsequently, including years of spiritual and musical study in India, and album with former Velvet Underground member John Cale, and some excellent works with The Kronos Quartet, whose David Harrington studied with the composer at Oakland's Mills College.  For those inclined to an interest in so-called "minimalism," this album is a true standout.

Terry Riley:  A Rainbow in Curved Air (CBS, 1969)

1.  A Rainbow in Curved Air  18:39
2.  Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band  21:38