Friday, March 29, 2013

Burning Spear: Marcus Garvey/Garvey's Ghost

The great reggae act, Burning Spear, was originally a trio of lead singer Winston Rodney and backing vocalists Delroy Hines and Rupert Willington.  With Rodney's keening, smoky and powerful invocations and his partners' rough but highly effecting backing and the great instrumental support of many top-shelf reggae instrumentalists like bassists Robby Shakespeare and Aston "Family Man" Barrett, the latter of The Wailers; drummer Leroy "Horse" Wallace; lead guitarist Earl "Chinna" Smith; keyboardist Tyrone Downie, also a member of The Wailers later; among others, the group became one of the best-known bands of the genre's golden years in the 1970s.

The epitome of Burning Spear's long and memorable career is undoubtedly the classic Marcus Garvey, which was issued on Island Records' Mango subsidiary in late 1975.  Ten tracks move seamlessly from one to the other with the solid musicianship melding with the vocals and the lyrical concerns about Garvey's heroic status in trying to uplift the status of black people during his 1920s and 1930s heyday and other elements of Rastafarian religious issues, life in Jamaica, the history of its extinct native Arawak peoples and that of black slaves brought to the island later by the British; and other heavy themes.  There are no love songs or party anthems to be found here--this is pure consciousness and political music.  And, there isn't a weak track or filler in the bunch, with the title track, "Slavery Days," "Old Marcus Garvey," and "Tradition" being the highlights to YHB.

The 100th Anniversary CD release, commemorating the centennial of Garvey's birth paired the great record with the awesome dub version, released in April 1976, titled "Garvey's Ghost."  These versions mirror the running times of the original tracks and rate among the greatest dub pieces of all, right up there with the great Augustus Pablo's King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown, also from 1976 and Black Uhuru's mindblowing The Dub Factor (1983), both to be featured here eventually.

The trio recorded another record, Man in the Hills, released in August 1976, before Rodney ended the partnership and took the name Burning Spear as his own, going on to release such well-known albums as Dry and Heavy and Social Living.  He has continued to record and tour over the years since that 1970s peak, but it is hard to argue that Marcus Garvey was the pinnacle and that Garvey's Ghost is one of the great dub records of all time.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Johannes Brahms: Variations (Paganini, Handel, Schumann)

It's hard to go wrong when it comes to great piano music with Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).  For excellent performance, it is hard to go wrong with the Turkish master Idil Biret.  And for a reasonably priced, high quality recording, it is hard to go wrong with the Naxos label.

Recorded in Heidelberg, Germany in November 1989, this disc has three sets of variations from great composers.  The ones from Handel, dating to 1861, are derived from that composer's first harpischord suite, from which fully twenty-five variations issue ending with a fugue.  But, while the baroque melodic theme sets the template, Brahms created the variations in his own style, beautiful and arresting with a measured expression of power and passion.
That from Schumann actually was composed when Brahms was in his early twenties and just after Schumann went insane, tried to kill himself and was put into the asylum where he died in 1856.  Brahms wrote his variations, totaling, as an expression of sympathy for Schumann's wife and master pianist, Clara, for whom Brahms had a strong attachment.  She performed these variations in addition to her own that she had composed earlier.
The Paganini variations were viewed by the composer of studies based on the violin genius's twenty-fourth caprice.  There are, in all, twenty-eight variations, written in 1863 and, unlike most of his other work, these variations had a more grandiose character to it, perhaps because of their nature as explorations in the expression of varied ways of playing the piano from the technical standpoint.  It is said that these variations are quite hard to play, but, then again, Paganini's violin works also are the hallmark of precision and technical mastery.
Idil Biret, a native of Turkey's capital Ankara, graduated from the Paris Conservatory at 15 and began performing in concert halls throughout the world.  Among her work for Naxos are many recordings of the music of the great Chopin and she has recorded large sets of the complete piano works of that composer, of Brahms and of Rachmaninoff and a 19-CD set of works by Beethoven.  A new project by the 71-year old master for Naxos, due later this year, is the recording of the five piano concertos of Paul Hindemith.
Brahms was at artistic odds with such "modern" composers as Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt, whose drama and grandiosity was a strong counterpoint to the more "Romantic" tendencies of Brahms, whose work hearkened back to earlier heroes of his like Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and, of course, Schumann.  Not perhaps unlike Tchaikovky, Brahms, though, was able to infuse his love of classic Romantic melodies with a style that bridged that past with the future of 19th-century music, both in terms of piano compositions and later symphonies.
Johannes Brahms:  Variations (Paganini, Handel, Schumann)  (Naxos, 1991)
1.  Variations on a Theme by Schumann  18:32
2.  Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel  27:02
3.  Variations on a Theme by Paganini
     Book 1:  13:28
     Book 2:  11:05

Friday, March 22, 2013

Hariprasad/Zakir Hussain: Venu

This is a fantastic live performance from 1974 that was remixed and released again fifteen years later on the World 360 subsidiary of Rykodisc that was run by The Grateful Dead's drummer Mickey Hart. 

The North Indian bansuri (bamboo flute) master Hariprasad Chaurasia is joined by the great tabla player, Zakir Hussain, in one long raga, programmed into two tracks because of a change in tempo and style, showcasing the improvisational ability and melodic and rhythmic complexity of these awesome musicians working in a long and distinguished musical tradition.

The album title of Venu is a reference to the ancient name of what is today called the bansuri.  The Rag Ahir Bhairav has a beautiful melody played by the flautist with, on the first portion of the track, a drone provided by the tambura.  The uncredited liner notes observe that the piece was created "for the early morning hours" and has melodic origins with a mountain tribe's music that "evokes the expectant hush of the predawn hours."  Consequently, the piece serves to remind the listener of "a time when romantic thoughts of the night mix with a feeling of reverance [sic] for the daily return of life-giving forces."

It is certainly with a feeling of wonder that the listener hears the complexity of the variations of several themes (gats played by Hariprasad on the flute with such purity of tone and range of phrasing, both subtle and powerful.  During the last thirty-five minute section, Hussain's table performs a seven-beat rhythm but, as is typical with Indian ragas, the tempo and tension build to a point where both performers express extraordinary speed and control in a 16-beat cycle called teental, this form achieving some popularity with Western listeners because of its rapidity and energy.

The performance was recorded in northern California in a house with granite walls and state-of-the-art recording equipment for the mid-1970s.  The remixing fifteen years later utilized fairly new digital technologies for that era and the sound is remarkably clear, well-equalized, and crisp.

This was one of the first Indian recording YHB heard when exploring "world music" back in 1990 and it retains its impact and impressions nearly a quarter-century later and is a true favorite, not just of Indian music, but all music.  It is a spectacular experience!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Anthony Braxton: Six Compositions: Quartet

Back in the early 90s when YHB was exploring jazz and becoming a confirmed admirer of Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and, especially, John Coltrane, efforts were made to tap into more challenging "free jazz" performers such as Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, and Anthony Braxton.  In each case, getting into these masters of modern muisc proved to be much harder than the delving into the others mentioned above.

Having said this, the Braxton album that was purchased, Six Compositions: Quartet, released on the Antilles subsidiary of Island Records in 1982, did start off with a, for Braxton, very accessible and swinging "Composition 40B," written in 1976.  It has, perhaps, Braxton's most melodic head arrangement and the band, composed of bassist Mark Helias, pianist Anthony Davis and drummer extraordinaire Ed Blackwell, are tight, focused and, truly, swinging.  As for the leader, his soloing on the alto saw is typically jagged, innovative, and free-ranging.

What follows is a slower tempo, freer, and more abstract "Composition 69N," but the harmonization between the instruments, even the piano which doesn't use a hard chordal approach to dictate the flow, but is more fluid, is remarkable.  Particularly impressive to this listener is how Braxton, as a composer, juxtaposes the sounds of the quartet, using a soprano sax for a lighter, though still characteristically gritty, sound countered beautifully by Helias' apparently bowed bass.

The sing-song opening of "Composition 34" features a very cool bass riff from Helias, while Blackwell demonstrates his talents on the cymbals, especially when he rolls off "showers" of sound during the course of the piece, and then Braxton tears into rapid runs on his alto, while Davis usually plays in unison or comps in a free manner that follows Braxton's riffing and soloing.  This track is a highlight of the record.

Composition 40A is another slow-tempo and abstract work, with Blackwell's shimmering cymbal work beautifully done and then more excellent harmony between Braxton and Davis, while Helias provides excellent low-end rhythmic support that is plucked and bowed.  When Davis solos, it is with a light touch, but with great complexity and agility.

"Composition 40G" has more precise harmonization between the leader, playing the deep, rich toned contrabass clarinet, and the pianist, while, again, Blackwell uses shimmering cymbal textures and Helias bows his bass for most of the tune.  An abstract moodiness pervades the piece, especially as Braxton works the low end of the tonal range on his instrument and Blackwell makes an economical, but striking (!) use of mallets along with the washes of his cymbals.

The finale is "Composition 52" which goes back to a faster tempo, more tight harmonization between Braxton, again on alto, and Davis and another pretty memorable melodic line, interspersed with Braxton's compellingly jagged riffing.  About a minute in he launnches into a fantastic solo, while the rhythm section gives him excellent support and space to issue his flights of fanciful playing, demonstrating why he is truly one of the great saxophonists in music.  Davis then offers a very satisfying solo and Helias and Blackwell display an excellent interplay behind him.  Braxton comes back in for about the last minute and the band's tightness carries through to the end.  It's a great way to cap a tremendous record, but it's too bad this excellent quartet only worked this one occasion.

Six Compositions: Quartet was an opportune way to get introduced to the music of Anthony Braxton.  Another good entry point would be his 1987 album of Thelonious Monk pieces with the great Mal Waldron on piano and former Cecil Taylor sideman, Buell Neidlinger, on bass.  That album will be covered here at some point.

This blogger does not pretend to understand the nuances of Braxton's highly complex formulations that actually involve schematic drawings as titles along with the generic "Composition XX" signification.  His philosophy (or the plural) of music is, however, fascinating to read about and then try to follow when listening to his enormous catalog of works.  Having just finished Ronald Radano's book about Braxton, New Music Figurations:  Anthony Braxton's Cultural Critique (which is often as dense, complicated and hard to penetrate as the subject's music), there is no way for YHB to be able to state with much confidence that the intellectual understanding of the music is any clearer.  Soon to be read is Graham Lock's Forces in Motion, which sits in a box waiting to be picked up.

One of the remarkable facets of Braxton's work is that he has both a modernist classical repertoire and one featuring his unique approach to jazz ensemble and solo work.  This is another reason to question why labeling musicians as "jazz" or "classical" or specifically "free jazz" and "modernist" is so important to so many listeners.  Braxton is a polymath in composition types, the use of various reeds (and plays piano, among other instruments), and how he seeks to utilize science, mathematics, and spirituality into his often-complicated, but fascinating pieces.

It takes effort, but hearing Braxton's work, which span decades and many stylistic variations, is a worthwhile exercise in expanding the horizons of music, if the listener is willing to avoid trying to studiously to "understand" intellectually what is being done.  To paraphrase Albert and Donald Ayler's 1960s recommendation, mentioned here before, "try to follow the sounds, not the notes."  This is especially good advice when listening to the great Anthony Braxton!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Massacre: Lonely Heart

In 1981, a trio of somewhat unknown musicians associated with the New York "downtown" scene created a group called Massacre and released the quirky, eclectic and intriguing album, Killing Time.

Bassist Bill Laswell had yet to produce the groundbreaking "Rockit" for Herbie Hancock, which propelled him into a visibility that gave him the notoriety and funds to produce other acts and embark on a remarkable career as a producer of the self-described "collision music," in which musicians from all over the world were brought together in live and studio settings to create sounds no one else had done before or since.

Fred Frith, guitarist and bass player, best known, if at all, for his work in the experimental group Henry Cow, was also someone who would get some attention and acclaim for a wide variety of projects and especially became known for his unusual approach to playing the guitar, including the use of chains, tools, and other devices to coax strange and wonderful sounds from the instrument.

The short-lived 80s version of the band also included the young drummer Fred Maher, who was a member with Laswell in the early lineup of Material, a band that issued some unusual and often-impressive work before the moniker was assumed by Laswell for any number of his "collision music" projects, especially the classic 1994 Hallucination Engine album covered previously in this blog.

Massacre, however, was suddenly revived in  1998 by Frith and Laswell, who recruited drummer (and occasional melodica player) Charles Hayward, whose work with This Heat was known to some more adventurous listeners of English "alternative rock."  A studio album, Funny Valentine, and two live sets, Meltdown, recorded at the festival of that name in 2001, and the staggering Lonely Heart, taped at two European festivals in 2003, have marked the releases thus far, on John Zorn's Tzadik label, from the reconstituted group.

Some observers were troubled by the fact that two-thirds of the original group could bring someone else in and revive the name, as if that has only very rarely happened before.  The reality is:  Massacre is a showcase for the incredible talent and sound of Frith, with the able assistance of whatever quality rhythm section gives him the support and assistance, as well as space, to create his mesmerizing magic.

What distinguishes Lonely Heart from the earlier Meltdown is that Frith largely eschews the use of extraneous materials to ornament his playing—and this is not to denigrate his doing this, as the results on Meltdown are pretty amazing. 

But, Frith's stripped-down approach to playing on Lonely Heart is also combined with the fact that Massacre opened for metal demigods Metallica for some of these performances and it seems as if the trio felt they had to adapt their completely improvised sounds for the type of audience they were playing in front of.  Still, it is a version of Massacre that retains its own identity, if there can be said to be one, and yet works extremely well for the conditions.

As said above and elsewhere, this is Frith's showcase and he makes the most of it throughout, especially on the mammoth opener, "Send," which extends for twenty minutes, but goes by so quickly, because Laswell and Hayward provide such a varied and supple support to Frith's staggering display of chops.  "Step" displays Laswell's longtime penchant for reggae and dub rhythms and Frith's spare playing is almost like a breather before the trio launches into "In," a 7:40 tour-de-force for the guitarist, whose quirky inventiveness appears to have no limits.  Frith is simply all over the frets with a variety of picking and strumming techniques with rapid runs, jagged tones and all manner of wild and woolly playing while the rhythm section ably gives him the space and foundational support to do whatever strikes his fancy.

Then comes another massive display of dynamics and power, "Gracias a La Vida," which is over eighteen minutes, and it starts off with almost dueling guitars, as Laswell, like no other bassist, plays chords like a rhythm guitarist and Frith plays slide guitar in an atmospheric and bluesy fashion.  Then, all bets are off in the last few minutes of the piece, as Frith shoots for the stratosphere with some incredibly fierce fireworks.

"Return" gives the appearance of an encore and it's a downtempo and almost ambient performance.  Hayward plays some of his melodica, while Frith fiddles with effects to create a yearning sound, while Laswell quietly adds his sense of elastic rhythm to the proceedings.  It's moody end to a fiery record of masterful performances by three musicians who know how to improvise without letting the freedom get the best of them.  There's order to the mayhem and discipline to the joy of being able to create whatever comes to these excellent players in the moment.

Fred Frith is one of the most exciting and creative guitarists around and Lonely Heart and the supportiveness of Laswell, who excels at this in his many other projects with great musicians (Foday Musa Suso, Tony Williams, Sonny Sharrock, Pharoah Sanders, Buckethead, Peter Brötzmann, etc.), and Hayward, whose drumming always seems to where it needs to be, no easy task in this kind of setting and these types of fellow musicians.

Beautifully and clearly recorded by Oz Fritz, this album is a preeminent example of live improvisatory music that does need labels to adhere to it--it stands on its own as a great example of what three excellent players can do in an inspired setting.

Monday, March 4, 2013

John Adams: On the Transmigration of Souls

Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic a very short time after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, On the Transmigration of Souls is a transcendent musical experience and a remarkable achievement given how recent the horrific event was and how difficult the task likely was for the composer, John Adams.. 

But Adams, whose work includes operas like Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer (the latter highly controversial in that Adams was perceived by some as pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli) as well as pieces like Shaker Loops and Short Ride in a Fast Machine, emerged with a work that was somber and beautiful, reflective but hopeful, and emotive without being overwrought.  Nor did it take on any overt tinge of political opinions and references like the Klinghoffer opera. 

Given all that was entailed in a difficult subject fresh in the minds of so many people, the success of this work is all the more stunning.  Adams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music for it and the recording, released in 2004 by the Nonesuch label, received a Grammy--both of which were eminently well-deserved.

On the Transmigration of Souls begins with tape of sounds from New York and the adds the reading by family members and friends of the names of some of those who died on that day.  A children's chorus (Brooklyn Youth Chorus) adds another layer of sound and meaning to that of an adult chorus (New York Choral Artists) and Lorin Maazel's orchestra, which performs the slowly building score from its minimal and simple start to its stately and tension building and releasing elements, bursting out with sound that evokes emotion in response to the recitations and singing.  At the end, a woman's voice repeats a phrase heard earlier, "I see water and buildings" as the music and vocalizations fade and then the everyday noises return to end the 25-minute work, which seems to have progressed far faster than that.

Notably, Adams defined this piece as being about "memory spaces" (collective memory with significant historical events is a fascinating and multi-layered subject) and noted that "transmigration" is about the movement of souls from one place to another--this being a very Eastern philosophical concept not generally associated with thinking here in America.  His mixing of pre-recorded with live sounds is done with great skill and effect.  The chorales and the orchestra perform their parts with perfect sensitivity and import. 

As a rank amateur in the understanding of the technical and historical complexities of classical concert music, this blogger benefitted from reading the interesting liners by composer and teacher David Schiff, who observes a close connection between Adams and the work of the early American modernist composer Charles Ives, soon to be featured here.  Adams, in fact, has written a piece called "My Father Knew Charles Ives," which explicitly makes a musical linkage between himself and Ives, whose works dated from the early to mid (roughly) 1900s.  Schiff also observes that Adams, with his skillful blending of recorded voices and symphonic sound blurred the distinctions between the concert hall and the everyday lives outside it.

By any measure, John Adams produced a masterpiece with On the Transmigration of Souls and for this listener, who does not easily watch footage of the horrors of the 9/11 attacks, there is something in this work that is easier to take.  The blending of real-life sounds with the transcendant power of orchestral music provides an accessible avenue to revisiting that awful day, probably because the qualities inherent in the music allow for a reflectiveness that watching video footage and commentary cannot provide.  An occasional hearing of this great work seems necessary, particularly as time distances the direct connection the listener has with the events of that day, eleven and a half years ago.