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.