Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Musicians of the Nile: From Luxor to Isna

From Luxor to Isna is one of the earliest "world music" recordings heard by YHB back in the very early 1990s.  It remains a favorite as these performers from Upper Egypt, specifically the area around Luxor and the great temple at Karnak showcase their talents on the rababah (a two-stringed fiddle held vertically), the arghul (a clarinet with a strongly reedy tone), the mizmar (oboe) and several percussion instruments.

As noted with the album Taqasim by the great Simon Shaheen and Ali Jihad Racy, featured previously on this blog, the use of taqasim or improvised sections is used on several pieces of this album.

Percussion with the tablah (note the Indian tabla) or derbuka shows both the strength of hand striking and softer forms of drumming. 

The third track features four players of the mizmar, including the leader, whose impressive technique in soloing is dovetailed with passages of harmony between all the players of that oboe-like instrument.

Two tracks have notable vocal contributions, evoking emotional responses as well as telling epic tales, such as that of the love story of Yunes, a black man gone to Tunisia and Azizah, the daughter of the sultan.

Interspersed are recordings by Alain Weber, manager The Musicians of the Nile, of street activity, including a horse-drawn carriage, religious chants, and voices and sounds of people in a crowded urban environment, that give a little flavor of life in Luxor.  Peter Gabriel's Real World Records, which has provided a platform for the introduction of much of the music, traditional and modern, found throughout the world, deserves great credit for issuing this sublime recording.

The recordings were actually made in France and England, but these are performances by musicians deeply steeped in the long and diverse heritage of Egyptian, specifically Upper Egypt, music.  This is a beautiful and diverse record that deserved repeated hearings to discover the manifold sounds and textures emboided in the songs, instrumentation, and the playing of these masterful musicians.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Andrew Hill: Point of Departure

For some inexplicable reason, Andrew Hill remains a largely overlooked pianist and composer, whose 1960s works for Blue Note Records are among the best of that era.  Maybe it's that he wasn't a terribly flashy player, but instead used his keyboard work in the service of the piece and of the remarkable musicians who appear on this record.  It might also be that, as jazz was starting to enter the so-called "free jazz" era, Hill's work was not nearly as adventurous as those of the "avant garde" musicians.  This may be contested by some, but, in a way, Hill's directions remind me a bit of what Miles Davis was starting to do at about the same time with his "second great quintet."  That is, the overall direction wasn't as overtly revolutionary as what Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and others were creating, but there was a quieter transformation of how freedom was being utilized in an ensemble setting.

The common linkage between Davis and Hill was the rhythmic underpinnings and innovations of the very young Tony Williams, the then-18 and 1/2 year old drum wizard whose sense of openness in time-keeping allows everyone to move more freely in their solos. 

The horn section was an interesting combination of Kenny Dorham, Joe Henderson, and Eric Dolphy.  Dorham, a hard bop notable on trumpet, plays with a coolness that pairs well with Hill's understated way of accompanying the soloist.  It might be telling that Dorham, whose experience of playing with Coltrane and Taylor in 1958's Hard Driving Jazz, even when those two hadn't gotten anywhere near the freer expressions that came later, was, by all accounts, a miserable one, does much better here with Hill. 

Tenor sax player Henderson was something of a newcomer, having mustered out of Army service in 1962, but quickly gained a foothold as a leader for Blue Note and a side musician for Dorham, pianist Horace Silver, and trumpeter Lee Morgan.  He also had a hard bop sound generally, but also moved into some freer territory.  Later, he recorded with McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock and on Alice Coltrane's masterpiece Ptah the El-Daoud, soon to be profiled here.

Then, there's the phenomenal Eric Dolphy, featured on his usual mix of alto sax, flute and bass clarinet and whose unusual groupings of notes and angular, visceral playing is a contrast to Dorham.  Dolphy's sound is so distinctive and foreceful that his solos totally stand out, even as Dorham and Henderson perform excellently in the overall context of the band.

This leaves the rhythm section of the great Richard Davis on bass and Williams.  Davis, whom this blogger had a chance to see lead his own band at Catalina Bar and Grill in Los Angeles some twenty years ago,  was so highly regarded by Hill that the leader called him "the greatest bass player in existence" and a master of tone, technical ability and creativity.  Hill even noted that he wrote piano parts with Davis in mind so that the bassist could "pick out the notes he wants to use."  Davis played on Dolphy's monumental Out to Lunch! recorded for Blue Note less than a month before Point of Departure and on many other great jazz records.  He also, however, appeared on recordings by Van Morrison (the sublime Astral Weeks, also to be covered here), Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon.

As for the leader, he has great lyrical ideas, a masterful command of tempo and beat, and innovative, if not (again) overly grandiose, solo concepts.  And, with such a stellar band on hand and with great pieces like the opened "Refuge," "New Monastery" (obviously referring to the master, Thelonious Monk), and the beautiful and haunting closing ballad, "Dedication," he had the perfect settng in which to create his masterwork.

Already using the state-of-the-art studio and engineering talents of Rudy van Gelder, this album benefitted further from a 1998 remastering by van Gelder for what is known as the RVG Edition.  Extra bonuses include alternate takes of "New Monastery," "Flight 19" and "Dedication."

Hill made other excellent albums for Blue Note in the mid-60s including Compulsion!!!! and Black Fire, but Point of Departure is the pinnacle and easily one of the great albums of the era or any other in jazz.  It's a shame that Hill, who died in 2007, is still  so under-recognized.

Andrew Hill:  Point of Departure (Blue Note, 1964)

1.  Refuge  12:12
2.  New Monastery  7:00
3.  Spectrum  9:42
4.  Flight 19  4:10
5.  Dedication  6:40

1998 remastered edition bonus tracks

6.  New Monastery (alternate take)  6:08
7.  Flight 19 (alternate take)  3:45
8.  Dedication (alternate take)  7:01

Saturday, February 23, 2013

System of a Down: Toxicity

Even a casual glance at this blog should make it clear that easy labels to identify music are not part and parcel of what's on offer here.  So, when it comes to a band like System of a Down, the easy labeling of it as "Nu Metal" has no currency so far as this blogger is concerned.  Endless comparisons to Korn or Limp Bizkit or whether SOAD has any comparable elements to other metal genres don't register.  System of a Down is a great band on its own merits.

And, Toxicity is the embodiment of the disparate elements that make System a great listening experience.  The deliciously crunchy riffs from guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Daron Malakian; the sturdy and deft support of bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan; the unique vocalizations from lead singer Serj Tankian; the interesting and memorable lyrics, melodies and harmonies between Tankian and Malakian; the silliness and the heaviness; the racing tempos and the delicate acoustic moments; and even the Armenian-inflected endtro after the closer "Aerials"—the sheer diversity, precision, politicized commentary, and the power of presentation makes Toxicity a truly great record.

It's not hard to find plenty of information about this Los Angeles-based band of Armenian-Americans, whose 1998 self-titled debut is a pretty great record that was largely overlooked.  Three years later, though, that all changed with this album, which moves seamlessly with well-placed sequencing and has an excellent sound thanks to noted producer Rick Rubin, whose American Recordings label released this album.

Toxicity roars through its first several tunes, including "Prison Song," which critiques the subject with a pretty typical no-holds-barred approach lyrically and musically; "Needles;" "Deer Dance;
 "Jet Pilot;" and the short, but explosive "X."  The song that grabbed most of the attention, "Chop Suey!" employs a lot of the abrupt tempo and rhythmic changes, movements from powerful speedy runs to contemplative interludes, and lyric matter about suicide that still seemed shocking to some people over a decade ago.

It's been suggested that whatever controversies came out regarding "Chop Suey!" were partly dictated by the difficult circumstances surrounding the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on 11 September 2001 and this album was released just a week prior.

If the rest of the album doesn't quite have the seamlessness of the first several tunes, it's more a testament to how great those pieces are rather than a lack of quality for the remainder.  "Bounce" is a silly, but needed, break from the head-pounding (and heart-pounding) intensity and seriousness of what comes before and it is a little surprising that some commentators really think it is about using a pogo stick at a party!

"Forest" is actually one of the great songs on this record, too, and has another of many great Malakian rhythms and a memorable chorus.  The latter is true for "Atwa," which balances a more ballad-like approach with some head-banging intensity accompanying its lines "You don't care about how I feel/I don't feel it anymore."  "Science" decries the reliance on the title subject and promotes spirituality (which Focus on the Family, believe it or not, pointed out was a contrast [well, hypocritical in their view, if anyone really cares who listens to SOAD, anyway!] to its overt sexual metaphors in "Bounce."

"Toxicity" has strong lyrics from Tankian and starts off with a mellower frame of mind with an excellent instrumental arrangement from Malakian and Odadjian before the pummeling "Psycho" roars through with its references to groupies and "cocaine crazy."  One could only imagine who doesn't know that world!  And, "Aerials" ends the album nicely, especially with that fascinating Armenian folk portion that doesn't have anything in the credits as to instrumentation and who plays what.  As a long-time lover of music from around the world (easily noted in this blog) and, specifically of the late Armenian duduk legend Djivan Gasparayan, I was really impressed by their inclusion of this "hidden" piece at the end of a fantastic album.

System of a Down went on to issue three more albums, including the surprisingly excellent "outtakes" album, Steal This Album! and the complementary Mezmerize and Hypnotize, which both were released in 2005.  A hiatus ensued that has only been interrupted by occasional live performances that include some in Europe this summer.  Whether or not further albums are coming, the group has a short, but impressive, catalog of excellent albums. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème

As with the blues, opera is only a recent, budding (but rapidly so) interest.  Moreover, as an admitted bargain hunter, YHB has mainly been dipping the proverbial toe in the water with budget-label productions.

That said, the Opera D'Oro imprint of the Columbia River Entertainment Group based in Portland, Oregon has released many older recordings of classic operas.  This one, of Giacomo Puccini's masterpiece La Bohème, dates from a performance in July 1969 in Rome by the RAI Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of Rome, conducted by Thomas Schippers.

The star performers on this 4-act, 2-disc set are Modena, Italy natives and childhood compatriots Mirella Freni (1935-    ) and Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007), who play Mimi, a sickly seamstress, and Rodolfo, a struggling poet, who live in the same ramshackle Paris building and whose passionate love affair, brought forth on a cold Christmas Eve, is torn asunder by his jealous nature and the fights that ensue. 

Comedic foils, Musetta and Marcello, whose relationship has also been strained, try to help reconcile the lovers, which is finally accomplished at the end of the third act.  Alas, while the final fourth act has Rodolfo and Marcello jovially musing on the nature of women, Musetta brings a dying Mimi to his garret. 

While Musetta and a friend of Rodolfo's go to pawn possessions to summon a doctor, the lovers tenderly talk about their relationship and Mimi softly goes to sleep.  As Rodolfo covers the windows with blankets to keep out a bitter draft and then returns to check on his lover, he is shocked to learn that she passed away in her sleep.

It is easy with modern digital recording technology and superior playback equipment to be disappointed in the quality of the sound from a performance taped almost 45 years ago.  Not one to get too caught up in the admittedly attractive aspects of advanced sound quality (after all, to hear, as just one example, Louis Armstrong play with the Hot Fives in recordings from the mid-1920s is a thrilling experience no matter how primitive the technology), the orchestra and singers are outstanding.

As a novice, the only recognizable name to this listener was that of the "King of the High Cs," Pavarotti, who is stunning in his power, clarity and evocation of emotion.  Freni is a wonder, as well, and the support provided by Rita Talarico as Musetta and Sesto Bruscantino as Marcello is beautifully rendered.

Puccini, of course, created some of opera's most endearing works in addition to La Bohème, including Madama Butterfly, Turandot and Tosca, all of which have been enjoyed by this listener within the last year or more.  La Bohème, which followed the well-known Manon Lescaut (1893), in its premiere at Turin in 1896 was not particularly highly regarded by critics and audiences.  Over time, though, it has become the most popular of the maestro's impressive catalog of operatic works.  Beautiful, impressionable melodies abound and the power, fullness and range from tragic to comic themes in the orchestration are remarkable.

As this listener becomes more familiar with opera, it will be useful to revisit the works that have been explored in these formative stages once more exposure and seasoning has set in as well as to see performances live (having only done so twice and these close to twenty years ago.)  For now, La Bohéme has had a strong impact on this developing neophyte enthusiast.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Classical Tradition of Iran: The Santur

For those, like this blogger's father-in-law, the preferred term is "Persian," to hearken back to the millenia of tradition emanating from Persia and its empire, to disclaim the recent use of the term "Iran" for the homeland, and, since 1979, to distance themselves as far as possible from the regime that has dominated the country.

In any case, whether it is the fine craftsmanship of the Persian rug, the gorgeous Sufi poetry of Rumi and the masterful work of Omar Khayyam and much more, the cultural legacy of Persia is wide and deep.  This is no less true of its music and this disc from the French label Harmonia Mundi, the third in a series on Persian classical music, focuses on the vigorous and rich sounds of the santur.

The immensely helpful liner notes by Nelly Caron give much information on the music and instrument, noting that the santur might well go back to the ancient Assyrians, well over 2,500 years ago, though the most accurate dating goes back to about the 1200s A.D.  The dulcimer-like instrument has 72 metal strings, at four per note, in two segments lying across nine bridges.  It ranges through three octaves and a key tunes the 72 pegs on one side.  A wooden plectrum is used to strike the string and the curvature of its end adds to the particular sound made when the santur is played.

Accompanying, on one of the two songs, the playing of the santur is the percussion instrument known variously as the zarb or tombak or dombak.  The goblet-like drum has a wood body with a head made of sheepskin or goatskin.  The zarb is placed on an angle on the lap and the fingers and palm are used to make tapping, clicking and other percussive sounds, with some players even wearing metal rings to create an unusual timbre.

The two pieces on this recording last just over 20 minutes each and are known as dastgah, a particular melodic type based on a modal system, in which series of modes, or scales, are put together  to create the dastgah.  The selection of melodic sequences is up to the perfromer and, in addition, there is a great deal of room for improvisation in bridges linking the sequences, called gusheh, as well as during the sequences themselves.  For example, the first piece "Dastgah-e Rastpanjgah" has twenty-three named sequences, while the second work, "Dastgah-e Segah" has twenty-one.

The santur is masterfully played by Majid Kiani, born in Tehran in 1941 and trained at the university there in what is known as the radif, or the total range of Persian classical music.  As Caron indicates, Kiani plays with remarkable clarity, as well as great precision and mindboggling skill.  On the second dastgah, the zarb is played by Djamchid Chemirani, who accompanies the soloist with great sensitivity and ability.

The stateliness, grace and emotive power of this music is a living reminder of the immense and time-honored tradition of Persian classical music.  Whatever has occurred politically in Iran in recent decades, the heritage of this beautiful music is a reminder that one should not judge a people solely by its political and religious leadership (nor by the recent so-called reality show, Shahs of Sunset.)  This is music that will long outlive all of the shallow stereotypes of the latter.

The Classical Tradition of Iran, Vol. III: The Santur (Harmonia Mundi, 1993)

1.  Dastgah-e Rastpanjgah  20:20
2.  Dastgah-e Segah  20:49

Monday, February 4, 2013

Peter Brötzmann Octet: Machine Gun

As an expression of pure energy music in what is generally called "free jazz," there is nothing quite like the bracing blasts of Machine Gun, the landmark May 1968 recording by the German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and seven colleagues.

To those who enjoy so-called "free jazz," emanating, perhaps, with the 1960 Ornette Coleman album of that name and the post-1961 work of Cecil Taylor and the 1965 Ascension recording by John Coltrane and just about anything put out by the powerful Albert Ayler between 1964 and 1967, this album seems to have something of a lineage.  Yet, it has its own distinctiveness, coming during the politically and socially-charged world of Europe in that first half of 1968 by musicians who were jettisoning the more imitative work of most European jazz musicians to that point.

The title Machine Gun was bestowed on Brötzmann by the American trumpeter Don Cherry, who worked with Coleman on those essential early Contemporary and Atlantic recordings in the late 1950s and early 1960s and then went off to Europe, where he made memorable recordings with Ayler and on his own.  Cherry found an apt metaphor for Brötzmann's particularly rough and brutal sound, one clearly informed by Ayler's style of playing, but with its own determined intensity and sound.  Brötzmann had a few hundred copies of the vinyl LP pressed for sale at shows and, some four years later, Gost Jebers released the record with his new and highly-influential Free Music Production label.

Joining with the leader in the horn section was Willem Breuker, who became far better known later for music that was in a very different place than his early free work, and Englishman Evan Parker.  A glorious noise it was that this trio made with melody virtually absent, starting with staccato blasts that sound much like what Ayler and Coltrane (especially in his opening movement on Meditations from 1966) were doing, before launching into sheer blasts of noise including the relentless pounding from Han Bennink and Sven-Ake Johansson.  There is a relatively mellow section featuring bowing from the two bassists Peter Kowald and Buschi Niebergall and it's a wonder that pianist Fred Van Hove could even find a way to play amidst much of the cacophony, but his playing does leaven the frenetic activity to a significant extent.  Finally, towards the end there is a strange R & B like section that the horns play that completely changes the nature of the tune, which concludes with the staccato riff that opened the piece.

For those who just can't get enough of the 15-minute version (and second take) of this magnum opus, the album includes the third take that spans over 17-minutes.  Those entranced, as this blogger was, by the feast of pure noise found in these versions can also seek out the sole recorded live version, which, coming from a March 1968 festival date, predates the studio work, and which was released with the mesmerizing "Fuck de Boere" [a crude politicized statement about the horrors of South African apartheid] in 1970.

With the two takes of Van Hove's "Responsible," there is a greater variety of dynamics, including samba-like rhythms, Carribean-inflected melodies, quiet free interludes and the like that are a nice change of pace from the unyielding intensity of the title tune and a reminder that free jazz players are often perfectly capable of melody and more reflective sounds.

Then, there is Breuker's "Music for Han Bennink," which has a crazy short intro head arrangement before allowing the drummers a little interlude and then back to the wild "melody" which then subsides before launching into another barrage that seems a variation on that opening head.  Bennink follows with a solo that shows his great talent (a much later duet with the great Cecil Taylor in the landmark 1988 series of recordings that pianist did in Germany will be featured here at some point) for a wide variety of dynamics on his apparently basic kit.  After some more thrashing, there is a very mellow and melodic section about half way through lasting a few seconds before more screeching and screaming and general mayhem resumes.  Van Hove gets a chance to end the piece with a solo, sounding a little like Taylor, but without quite the density and the percussiveness of the latter, and it is a memorable performance, only briefly accompanied by some percussion effects.

Machine Gun is probably only slightly less jarring now than it was 45 years ago.  While Brötzmann has continued to be very active and committed to exploring variations of the noisy, atonal pallette of sounds found on this recording, especially in the sublime quartet Last Exit, which will soon be featured here, he has also pursued some less abrasive, rapid and pounding styles of music that still feature his truly iconoclastic sound and determined disinterest in studio recording.

This recording will, however, be his signature—a determined and purposeful clarion call to a turbulent Europe that, in 1968, was consumed with war, riots and other examples of disorder and change.  Anyone interested in "free jazz" and its manifestations in Europe really ought to start with this seminal and bracing record.

Peter Brötzmann Octet:  Machine Gun (Free Music Production, 1968)

1.  Machine Gun (Second Take)  14:57
2.  Machine Gun (Third Take)  17:13
3.  Responsible (For Jan Van de Ven)  (First Take)  10:00
4.  Responsible (For Jan Van de Ven) (Second Take)  8:12
5.  Music for Han Bennink 1  11:22