Tuesday, July 30, 2013

World Saxophone Quartet: Live at Brooklyn Academy of Music

Hailing from St. Louis, where a great many top-notch jazz musicians came up from, the members of the World Saxophone Quartet formed an ensemble that was unparalleled in its unity, intertwined sense of harmony, and able to generate a sound that was almost symphonic in its power and dynamics. 

The Quartet made a series of fine records for Nonesuch in the later 1980s and early 1990s, prior to the death of alto and soprano saxophonist Julius Hemphill and have recorded since with several guest members, but they recorded several albums for the Italian label Black Saint that are also phenomenal.

One of the great recordings by this outfit is the 1986 release Live at Brooklyn Academy of Music, in which the group performed six pieces at an early December 1985 concert with tremendous emotion, tight efficiency, and a startling sense of interplay that made them one of the best, if under-recognized and under-appreciated, jazz ensembles of that, or perhaps any, era.

Hemphill contributed three pieces, the opener "One/Waltz/Time" as well as the two closing pieces "Open Air (For Tommy)" and "Georgia Blue."  He was probably the most adventurous of the contributors and his amazing big band album profiled here recently demonstrates more of what he brought to the jazz scene from the early 1970s until his passing in the mid-90s.

Yet, all the tracks are strong, including David Murray's "Great Peace," Oliver Lake's "Kind'a Up" and Hamiett Bluiett's "Paper Works."  Bluiett, in particular, makes great use of his baritone sax and alto clarinet, to give a rich, gritty tone that really holds down the bottom.  Murray's tenor, augmented by bass clarinet, has a strong, clear tone, showing why he was something of a young phenom when he emerged as a solo performer in the mid-1970s.  Lake's alto and soprano playing complement that of Hemphill as they harmonize extremely well together, as well as with the other two players.

The sound on this live recording is excellent, courtesy of engineer Kazunori Sugiyama, an executive with the Japanese DIW label which recorded the Art Ensemble of Chicago, David Murray, and other great jazz players in the late 1980s and early 1990s and who co-founded John Zorn's Tzadik label, for which Sugiyama is often a co-producer and general administrator.

While it is unusual to have a group of like instruments without an established rhythm section of bass and drums, but the reality is that the WSQ did have a rhythm section and front line blended together in a perfect (OK, near perfect) sense of harmonic interplay that was unrivaled at its peak.  It's too bad that this great ensemble didn't get more attention for what they put together in those glory years of the 1980s and 1990s.  They certainly deserved it with excellent albums like this one.

Monday, July 29, 2013

PainKiller: Execution Ground

John Zorn, Bill Laswell and Mick Harris have all been profiled on this blog before, but their project called PainKiller, which existed primarily from 1991 to 1998 and featured a brief reunion in Paris five years ago, featured a form of musical expression borne largely out of Zorn's late 1980s fascination with "grindcore." 

This genre of metal consisting of extremely fast, intense, short bursts of buzz-saw guitars, guttural grunted and/or high pitched screamed vocalizing, rapid and intense "breakbeat" drumming, and imagery and lyrical content (should one find printed versions, because deciphering the vocals was all but impossible) largely pioneered by Napalm Death, for which Harris was drummer until he left in 1990.  Zorn's grindcore obsession first manifested itself in his Naked City project, launched in 1988, but which included a typical Zornian smorgasbord of sounds from country to cartoon music to lounge jazz to surf music, as well as those blasts of grindcore played by such luminaries as guitarist Bill Frisell, drummer Joey Baron and the mighty Fred Frith on bass (rather than his usual guitar pyrotechnics.)

While Harris spent most of his career forsaking the drum set for projects like the so-called "darkwave" electronic music of Scorn, the glacial and involving ambient sounds of Lull, and a host of other projects including the mind-blowing collaboration of Eyeless in Gaza's Martyn Bates in the phenomenal trilogy of Murder Ballads recordings, he did resume his work with the kit in PainKiller for the golden opportunity of playing with two musical masters in Laswell's stellar bass work and the idiosyncratic alto sax playing of Zorn.

The first two records, Guts of a Virgin and Buried Secrets, both recorded in 1991 and released on the Earache label (Napalm Death's label), were short albums of roughly 25 minutes each featuring generally brief pieces of grindcore-influenced music, albeit with superior musicianship from Laswell and Zorn.  The latter recording actually did feature longer pieces, two of which topped the six-minute mark (which in the early Napalm Death days could  include a half-dozen or more pieces,) but there was only a slight derivation in overall sound.

After a hiatus, however, PainKiller reunited in June 1994 for the third album, the fascinating Execution Ground, which was released initially on the Subharmonic label which released Laswell's frenetic output at the time.  Reflecting Laswell's growing interests in dub, ambient, and world music, this album featured some of the pounding grindcore sound, but more often morphed into strange and compelling excursions into wide-open sonic spaces largely influenced by dub and ambient textures, while the titles reflected the fascination Laswell had with India.  There was an entire disc devoted to ambient reworkings of two of the three tracks on the first CD and reveal a side to the PainKiller project in which ample space proved to be no problem for the trio to revise their sound into something different but highly compelling.

Later in 1994, the trio embarked on a tour of Japan, a place that proved highly receptive to PainKiller's music.  In fact, there were eventually three live recordings generated from Japanese performances over the band's lifespan. 

When, however, Zorn sought to reunite the group for his amazing 50th birthday series of live performances and recordings in 2003, Harris declined to take part, his insecurity in his drumming having grown more prominent over the years.  Hamid Drake, an excellent percussionist, filled in and a great performance was had, though purists might balk at not having Harris present. 

As noted above, a one-time reunion show was played in Paris in 2008 and Harris reluctantly took his place behind the kit.  He seemed, from the videos available on YouTube, to have played well enough, but no recordings have been issued and it appears likely that PainKiller has ceased to exist.

This is certainly difficult music and its intensity, power, disturbing cover art, and more is probably forbidding to most.  But, for those who like adventurous music and can leaven their grindcore with dub and ambient (how many of you are actually out there?), Execution Ground is up your alley and then some.  It is truly a unique and memorable musical excursion, even if it might leave you with disturbed dreams afterward!

The album, with excellent engineering from Oz Fritz on the first disc and Robert Musso, assisted by Layng Martine on the ambient disc, was packaged in 1997 with the first two albums and a live recording in Osaka as the four-disc box set Collected Works and kudos have to be given to Tomoyo T.L. for some of the most evocative and hauntingly beautiful cover art likely to be found anywhere--a trait found with many projects released on Zorn's Tzadik label.

PainKiller:  Execution Ground (Subharmonic, 1994; Tzadik, 1997)

Disc One
1.  Parish of Tama (Ossuary Dub)  16:05
2.  Morning of Balachatudasi  14:45
3.  Pashupatinath  13:47

Disc Two
1.  Pashupatinath (Ambient)  20:00
2.  Parish of Tama (Ambient)  19:19

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Piano Concertos No. 1 and 3

Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto Number 1, composed in 1874-75, is among the most popular pieces of all classical music, much less of his repertoire and it is easy sometimes to put too much emphasis on that gorgeous melody that anchors the piece and forget how intricate and beautiful the 33-minute concerto is throughout its long first movement and shorter second and third ones.  It has also been easy for some critics to dismiss it as showy, superficial and trite.

Obviously, Tchaikovsky's old-fashioned "romanticism" was increasingly at odds with the work of many of his contemporaries and the growing popularity of the concerto aroused increasing disdain among some listeners.  Yet, the work has endured and this 2003 performance by the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra and soloist Konstantin Scherbakov is impressively performed and beautifully recorded.

The third piano concerto was salvaged from a symphony began by the composer in late 1891 before being abandoned.  In July 1893, Tchaikovsky reworked the first movement of the discarded work into a piano concerto, spanning sixteen minutes in a single movement.  The 53-year old maestro's untimely death in November occurred before the concerto's publication the following year. 

Moreover, one of his protégés, Sergei Taneyev, was requested by Tchaikovsky's brother, Modest, to take unfinished elements of the symphony and mold them into finished pieces.  In 1897, these were published as "Andante and Finale, Op. 79," and his nearly twenty-minute work is included in this disc, presumably because of the historical interest in linking them with the reworked concerto.  In the 1950s, a Soviet composer, Semyon Bogatyrev, examined Tchaikovsky's notes, incorporated the third piano concerto, and the Taneyev andante and finale, and put together what has been referred to as Tchaikovsky's "seventh symphony."

The concerto does not have the instantly gratifying melody of the first, nor the unity and precision of the second, but there is some breathtaking piano solo portions around the eight minute mark that demonstrate impressive virtuosity.  The andante and finale do not have as much interesting material, which obviously seems why the composer abandoned their initial drafts.  Still, the opening of the andante is hushed, contemplative and pretty and Taneyev did give plenty of room in both movements for expressive and emotive soloing, especially in more energetic and declarative finale.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky:  Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 3 (Naxos, 2004)

1.  Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23
     Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso-Allegro con spirit  19:42
     Andantino semplice-Prestissimo-Tempo I  6:42
     Allegro con fuoco  6:54

2.  Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 75
     Allegro brilliante  16:02

3.  Andante and Finale, Op. 79 (orchestrated by Sergei Taneyev)
     Andante  11:21
     Allegro maestoso  8:31

Friday, July 12, 2013

Linton Kwesi Johnson: Independant Intavenshan: The Island Anthology

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when reggae was at its apex in popularity, the best-known performers were those based in Jamaica, notably Bob Marley and the Wailers, Burning Spear, Black Uhuru, Culture, and others.

In England, however, were many Jamaicans resided, there was a growing and important reggae scene and, by the mid-Eighties, groups like the UB40, Steel Pulse and Aswad were quite popular.  While lesser known, the great Linton Kwesi Johnson was, to this observer, the most important British-based reggae performer of that era.  Born in Jamaica in 1952, LKJ emigrated to England at age 11 to join his mother.  Coming of age in the civil rights era and a transforming British social structure in the late 60s, he used his writing talents to great effect in political contexts.  Encouraged to put his work to music, he did so by the late 1970s and emerged as a major force in English reggae.

From 1978 to 1983, he released a series of excellent albums on the Virgin and Island labels, including Dread Beat 'N Blood (1978), Forces of Victory (1979), Bass Culture (1980), and Making History (1983.)  What distinguished LKJ from other reggae artists was that he was an established poet and he fused that talent with tightly performed and well-produced music by British musicians to create memorable political statements at a time when British society was roiled by race issues, including police mistreatment of West Indian blacks, job discrimination, and others.  Johnson became a leading voice in expressing the frustration and anger felt by young blacks in Thatcherite England.

This observer first bought an LKJ live album that came out in 1985 and it quickly became a favorite for its rousing versions of classics that appear in studio and dub versions on the 1998 compilation Independant Intavenshan issued by Island.

This double disc survey of Johnson's work is filled with great tunes like "Want Fi Go Rave," "It Noh Funny," the phenomenal "Reality Poem," "Bass Culture," "Reggae Fi Peach," the soulful and jazzy masterpiece "Wat About Da Workin' Claas?" and the mind-blowing "Di Great Insohreckshan."  LKJ's strong lyrical content is supported beautifully by his band, which included mainstays like keyboardist, bassist, mixer, engineer and producer Dennis Bovell, guitarist John Kpiaye (who has excellent solos on tracks like "Reality Poem"), bassist Vivian Weathers and drummer Jah Bunny.

By the time, though, that the great live album referred to above came out in 1985, reggae had peaked.  Marley had been dead several years, Black Uhuru lost its vocalist and chief songwriter Michael Rose, and other factors led to a decline in the music, which was supplanted by dancehall or ragga, a digital distillation that took away the live bass, drums and other instrumentation, as well as the social and political lyrical commentary, that marked what became known as "roots reggae."

While LKJ occasionally performed live and released albums, his career was never the same after the mid-80s.  Independant Intavenshan, though, is abundant evidence that Linton Kwesi Johnson was a unique and powerful voice, using his poetry skills and great support from musicians to build a body of work that ranks among the very finest in reggae.