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