Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Van Morrison: Astral Weeks

When a friend offered an invitation, somewhere around 1985 or so, to go to a Van Morrison concert, this blogger hadn't been all that aware of the Irish musician's work, although you couldn't listen to a rock station without hearing, with regularity, classic songs like Them's "Gloria," or Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" "Domino" or "Moondance."

The concert proved to be an excellent one, with Morrison singing well and working with a fine, tight band.  The big surprise, though, was having Mose Allison as the opening act.  Not having been at all familiar with Allison's work, his performance was fantastic and fun.

To get familiar with what Morrison was doing at the time, his new album, "A Sense of Wonder" was purchased and it proved to be very enjoyable.  But, the next acquisition went far beyond that--1968's "Astral Weeks" was basically revelatory.

Coming on the heels of the major success of "Brown Eyed Girl" and a major spat with the Bang record label, the record, released by Warner Brothers, was a determined move towards something more spiritual and contemplative.  It was also unlike anything being done at the time, in terms of Morrison's lyrical content, his soulful singing, and the remarkable band assembled for the session.

In fact, it has been said that Morrison had almost no interaction with the performers on the record, which include some of the greatest jazz musicians on the planet in the amazing Richard Davis on bass and drummer Connie Kay.  Davis, for example, noted in interviews that Morrison spent most of his time in an open booth to lay down his vocals and guitar and hardly spoke to him.  Then again, Morrison has been known for being mercurial and "difficult," although it may also have been that, because he and the band members had never met and were not at all familiar with each other musically, this had more to do with the way events transpired in the studio.

Whatever happened (or didn't) in the lightning quick sessions in New York--the record was made in under two days--"Astral Weeks" is an album brimming with unusual instrumental touches and flourishes, Morrison's transcendental, mystical lyrics and passionate singing, and a cache of songs that, while not the hits that came before and afterward, are just as memorable in their own, covert fashion.

It's actually hard to call any one a standout, given the consistency of excellence on the album, but the opening title track is truly a great song, establishing a tone for the album with its folk, jazz and other instrumental elements fluidly accompanying Morrison's stream-of-consciousness lyrics--the combination leading to an ecstatic conclusion that is really something to behold.  The beautiful "Beside You," has a gorgeous melancholic opening and Morrison's powerful and affecting singing reaches emotional peaks that are quite amazing.

"Sweet Thing" has a great guitar and bas opening before Morrison comes in with another evocative vocal that harmonizes so well with the instruments, including Kay's deft use of cymbals and a swelling use of strings.  "Cyprus Avenue," reflects on Morrison's youth in his hometown Belfast and has an unusual, but highly effective, harpsichord, with, as always, Davis's gorgeous bass playing standing out.

It may be the shortest track, but "The Way Young Lovers Do" has a thrilling combination of sounds with its insistent use of strings and brass, Kay's perfect timekeeping, Davis's rich bass, and Morrison's fine melodies coming together for a stunning, if too brief, performance.  "Madame George" appears to be something of a complement to "Cyprus Avenue" in terms of its impressionistic lyrics reflecting Morrison's Belfast connotations, as well, perhaps, in terms of tempo and the richness of its instrumentation.

"Ballerina" is another languid ballad with the band playing understated behind Morrison's keening and emotive vocals, highlighted by his drawn-out enunciation of the title.  The closer, "Slim Slow Slider" was evidently something of a late inclusion to the session for timing reasons and it does have that feel, especially as the tune suddenly fades out with John Payne's soprano ranging into higher tones and Kay suddenly tapping out a quiet and fervent conclusion, indicating that there wasn't much idea of what to do with the piece to end it.  Still, it is a very intimate piece with acoustic guitar, a soprano sax and Morrison's singing and it is very effective.

Credit should also be given to producer Lewis Merenstein, who had an extensive jazz background for Warner Brothers, and who evidently was moved to tears by Morrison's demos and then came up with the idea to pair the singer with the great Richard Davis.  Merenstein then brought in Connie Kay, guitarist Jay Berliner, and percussionist and vibraphonist Warren Smith, Jr. 

In a 2008 interview, Merenstein stated that Davis was the key player on "Astral Weeks," the underpinning that held it all together and this definitely resonates for the listener, who has heard the bassist on a number of jazz records by Eric Dolphy, Oliver Nelson, Elvin Jones, Andrew Hill and others and who saw the great bassist at Catalina Bar and Grill back in the mid-Nineties.  Merenstein also has interesting things to say about Morrison's "innocence" when he went in to make the record and really not knowing what he was doing and also notes that it was his idea to label side one "In the Beginning" and side two "Afterwards," an affectation that Morrison didn't like, but that Merenstein felt reflected something reactive in his thinking about this remarkable album.  To read the interview, click here.

Van Morrison:  Astral Weeks (Warner Brothers, 1968)

1.  Astral Weeks  7:00
2.  Beside You  5:10
3.  Sweet Thing  4:10
4.  Cyprus Avenue  6:50
5.  The Way Young Lovers Do  3:10
6.  Madame George  9:25
7.  Ballerina  7:00
8.  Slim Slow Slider  3:20

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra/The Miraculous Mandarin/Two Pictures

Béla Bartok (1881-1945) and Franz Liszt (1811-1886) are the best-known composers from Hungary, though they came from very different eras, had varied stylistic concerns, and were dissimilar in other ways. 

Bartok came from a town in what is now Romania, but from Hungarian and German parentage, and his father was an amateur musician (working as the head of an agricultural college) while his mother provided him his first piano lessons. 

After his father died when Bartok as a boy, his mother took up teaching at Bratislava in what is now Slovakia, bordering Hungary and Austria.  Though the young man could have studied in Vienna, the great music center, he chose to go to Budapest to continue his musical education. 

In his mid-twenties he began teaching in that city's Academy of Music and soon immersed himself in the folk music of Hungary and nearby areas, including Romania.  Because of the remarkable political, social and cultural history of southeastern Europe, including its many years as part of the Ottoman Empire emanating from Turkey, the cross-breeding of music there with antecedents from the Middle East and from Europe allowed Bartok to develop a composing style that reflected those influences.  His work included such pieces as "Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs" and "Romanian Folk Dances."

This Sony Classics recording under its "Essential Classics" banner was an early purchase, back in the first years of the 90s, for this listener of Bartok's music.  It presents orchestral works from very different eras of the composer's career, ranging from the early "Two Pictures from Orchestra" from 1910 to a suite for a dance and pantomime called "The Miraculous Mandarin" from about a decade later to the masterpiece "Concerto for Orchestra" that proved to be one of his last works, dating from 1943, after Bartok fled war-torn Hungary for the United States.  The performances by the famed conductor Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra date from 1962 and 1963.

The latter work, spanning about 37 minutes, seems like a contradiction in his titling, but the composer observed that, while a concerto typically highlights a solo instrument with an orchestral accompaniment, the virtuosity of both justify the use of the term.  In any case, this five-movement piece has moments of mystery, exoticism, unusual groupings of instruments, vivid emotionalism in the melodies, and compelling tonal colorations and textures. 

"The Miraculous Mandarin" begins with a dramatic swirling of sounds from strings and brass and maintains its frenetic tempo and sounds for the first minute and a half in what was then a controversial tale involving a woman forced into prostitution and the attempt of a mandarin to take her away from her pimps before it moves into a different type of dramatic sound, involving what might be car horns and other reflections of an urban environment, leavened with some quieter passages involving woodwinds and then the return of drama reflecting the conflict between the mandarin and the pimps.  There is a great richness, a superb sense of dramatic timing, and a fascinating grouping of instrumentation on this remarkable piece.

"Two Pieces" has an affinity for the work of French composer Claude Debussy, in that Bartok scores these two parts, "In Full Flower" and "Village Dance" in ways that employ dreamy melodies and lush backgrounds reminiscent of the influential Debussy's invocation of nature and Impressionistic approaches to sound.  With such instruments as harp and celesta, the generous use of tremolo with the stringed instruments and other elements, these works still have a blueprint of Bartok's future use of unusual rhythms, groupings of instruments and sense of dramatic dynamism.

This recording is a nice survey of the long career of one of the great composers of the first half of the 20th century.  Sadly, Bartok, who was strongly against the invasion of Hungary by the Nazi regime, fled his native country in October 1940, though his older son by a first wife remained in Hungary and survived the war while the composer, his second wife and their son moved to New York.

He was not particularly appreciated in his new country and he struggled to compose and find work.  In 1944, he was diagnosed with leukemia and the disease moved quickly.  Still, in his last years he managed to not only complete the popular "Concerto for Orchestra" but also an excellent solo violin sonata for the legendary Yehudi Menuhin and a third piano concerto. 

At age 64, in late September 1945, the composer died and only ten persons were present at his funeral.  Although he was buried in New York, Bartok's remains were removed to his native Hungary where he received a state funeral in 1988, just before the fall of the Communist regime there.  Fortunately, his music is better appreciated in this country than it was during his final years and there is a series of piano works on the budget Naxos label by Hungarian pianist Jenó Jandó that will be highlighted here some day.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Jali Kunda: Griots of West Africa and Beyond

This is another excellent release by the Ellipsis Arts label, in which kora master Foday Musa Suso, whose work has been highlighted on this blog previously, worked on selecting, coordinating and arranging the selections on this record.

There are fifteen tracks, most recorded in the west African nations of Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia and Senegal, with three featuring collaborations between Suso and Western musicians, including composer Philip Glass, jazz saxophone titan Pharoah Sanders, and the ubiquitous Bill Laswell, among others.  These three works are well-done and complement the more traditional pieces, although the liners do explain that "this recording was made with both authenticity and an international audience in mind," specifically in that "the length of the pieces has been substantially shortened."

That said, there are some marvelous pieces to savor on this record.  There are a few examples, moreover, of duplicated works, though usually with different instrumentation, vocalizations and in location.  For example, the bookend pieces, consisting of a Muslim invocation to Allah, includes a version from Senegal and another from The Gambia.  What is described in the notes as "the most famous Griot song," called "Sunjata," celebrating the warrior king who established the great Mandinka empire in the 1200s, has a version from Guinea-Bissau and another from Senegal.  And, the excellent "Lambango" has a version that uses the xylophone-like balafon and which was recorded in one community in Guinea-Bissau, while another, employing the harp-like kora is from another part of that country.  Another highlight is "Sorrie," a Mandinka tune from The Gambia that has great balafon playing.  One other piece to point out is "Yata Kaya," a Fulani piece from Senegal, which Suso stated was a favorite tune utilizing the one-string fiddle called the nyanyer and which represents the type of music that is starting to fade from the music scene in that country.
Of the three "fusion" pieces, "Spring Waterfall" is a Suso piece in which he used effects to create what is described in the notes as "cascading layers of the kora" with Glass playing a non-intrusive piano accompaniment.  "Lamnbasy Dub" has been featured in some compilations produced by Laswell and was originally released on an album called New World Power by Suso's The Mandingo Griot Society and released on the late, great Axiom label, in which he plays an electric kora, while Laswell employs the bass and samples, Jeff Bova, known for his ambient electronic music, plays electric keyboards, and frequent Laswell collaborator Nicky Skopelitis and Clive Smith utilize other programming.  Laswell's bass is particularly effective here.  Finally, there is "Samma," another standout on this record, in which Suso on kora is joined by Sanders on tenor sax for a great blending of instruments, expertise and melody and sound.
Ellipsis Arts put together a string of well-chosen, sequenced and produced "world music" recordings in the 1990s and Jali Kunda is an excellent example of the quality of the label's offerings, of which more will be featured here in the future.
Jali Kunda: Griots of West Africa and Beyond (Ellipsis Arts . . . 1997)
1.  Allah l'aake  2:38
2.  Sunjata  5:40
3.  Sinyaro  3:00
4.  Mariama  4:24
5.  Spring Waterfall  7:17
6.  Jula Faso  3:14
7.  Sunjata  3:03
8.  Lamnbasy Dub  8:19
9.  Jula Jekereh  4:42
10.  Lambango  2:42
11.  Samma  8:25
12.  Sorrie  3:32
13.  Yata Kaya  4:54
14.  Lambango  7:51
15.  Allah l'aake  3:30

Friday, February 14, 2014

Keith Jarrett: The Survivors' Suite

This album was a favorite of this listener when it was purchased on cassette in the early 90s.  Featuring Jarrett's "American quartet" of Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, this April 1976 recording employs the multi-instrumental bent that the pianist employed often in the period.

The "Beginning" section, stretching over 27 minutes, begins with the quartet utilizing various types of African-like percussion, wind instruments (Jarrett on bass recorder) and stringed instruments (notably Haden's plucking, apparently, of his double bass), establishing a melancholy and contemplative that builds into a stronger rhythmic "ethnic" and tribal groove. 

This is probably why it was so enjoyed at the time and is now, given this blogger's bent for all types of "world music" and it's always good to see musicians established in certain genres (though this is not of their own making usually) employ other instrumentation and ideas to give a freshness, vitality and variety to their work. 

In Jarrett's case, in particular, given that he has become so identified with solo piano and the covering of standards, albeit fantastically done and also not reflective of the fact that he and his associates often do move into freer playing and other excursions, this move into a very different kind of sound was particularly welcomed.

At about six minutes, the band settles into using their traditional instruments, with some overdubbing of the flute, including harmonizing of Jarrett on soprano and Redman's tenor.  This is another interesting aspect of the leader's work at the time, in which he made more use of his playing of other instruments aside from the piano, which he has not done much of in recent years.  His soprano playing is quite good and this ability of his to play well on other instruments than piano is somewhat reminiscent of the late, great Sam Rivers.

The theme is majestic, compelling and memorable and is restated throughout several minutes with Haden's bass being particularly notable for its deep, rich and "spreading" (can't think of another way to say it) sound, especially as Redman begins a very fine tenor solo at about ten minutes.  Motian's drums are also recorded in a way that emphasizes the use of the hi-hat and his shifting patterns throughout his kit, but almost no cymbal work at all, which makes his playing stand out.  Meanwhile, Jarrett's accompaniment aids further in the rhythm section's foundation behind Redman's solo.

Just prior to thirteen minutes, Redman winds down and the mood changes to a light, dream-like one with Jarrett playing a beautiful solo with Haden's accompaniment.  Overdubbed celeste by Jarrett further highlights the airiness of the portion of the piece.  The solo is short, as by sixteen minutes, Redman comes in with a strong assertive expression of another theme along with Motian, who makes active use of his cymbals here, and the tenor player goes off into another excellent solo, well supported by his band mates.

At nineteen minutes, Haden takes an emotive solo, accompanied by the celeste, eschewing flashiness or a demonstration of technical ability, and this is what has made him such a unique and formidable bassist for so long.  Using the celeste and its delicate tones is a nice way to compliment Haden's excursion, as well.

Just past twenty-one minutes, the full band returns, continuing with the slower rhythm from the bass solo and Redman's playing again soars for a period before Jarrett performs another crystalline and gorgeous solo, this time with the remainder of the band along for the ride.  Towards the end of this opening section, Haden goes into another evocative solo with the celeste as the "Beginning" winds down.

The "Conclusion" has an abrupt change in tempo and intensity as the band tears immediately into a frenetic and powerful theme, propelled by Haden's often-chaotic bass work, Jarrett's freer acompaniment and Motian adept use of cymbals and shifting patterns, while Redman launches into another solo (in many ways, Redman gets the best opportunity to showcase his talents than the others in the quartet on this record.)  For a time, Redman blazes away, while Motian tears at his kit and Jarrett employs various percussion instruments for a very stark and powerful accompaniment before he returns to jabs and off-kilter runs on the piano.

From three minutes or so, Motian solos with Jarrett there for a bit before he drops off and leaves the drummer to explore his kit.  About a minute in, someone lets out a few whoops before Jarrett and Haden return and the tempo is slowed and a steady groove comes in for the pianist's next solo, with more tribal percussion for color employed.  The bass recorder also returns in overdubbed form to provide a ghostly background.

At about 7:15, another theme, bright and catchy comes in and Redman takes it up shortly after on his tenor to considerable lighten the mood and provide the all-important variation needed to keep long tracks from becoming redundant and meandering.  Jarrett has another fantastic solo for about four minutes, before Redman comes in and lays down another beautiful solo along with a bright and telepathic accompaniment from the others that makes for a highlight of a record filled with them.

Haden solos again at just over 13 minutes and this time ranges further over his instrument for a couple of minutes, before Jarrett returns with a plaintive statement on his soprano and Haden and Motian quietly playing behind him.  Then comes an overdubbed bass recorder and Haden's plucked bass, while Jarrett continues on soprano and the piece returns to that spiritual and tribal element that opened the record way back when and then a dramatic fanfare comes in at about 18 minutes with Redman back on tenor and Jarrett on piano as the band winds down to the conclusion of this masterful recording.

Often, these side-long performances in suite form wind up being alienating to some listeners, particular if the playing meanders, but the changes in instrumentation, tempo, theme and expression make The Survivors' Suite a beautifully-integrated and flowing recording that provides enough change in color, theme and instrumentation to grab and hold the listener's attention throughout.  It also helps having the superb band that made up the "American quintet," because Redman, Motian and Haden were such a great combination to work with Jarrett through some impressive 1970s recordings.

The Survivors' Suite is quite likely that group's peak performance and is certainly at the top of this listener's list of great Jarrett and jazz recordings.

Keith Jarrett:  The Survivors' Suite (ECM Records, 1977)

1.  Beginning  27:21
2.  Conclusion 21:19

Saturday, February 1, 2014

John Lee Hooker: The Definitive Collection

Beware of the word "definitive" in most cases, whether in regard to music or most anything else.  Still, this British anthology of two dozen blues pieces released on the American Vee-Jay label by the great John Lee Hooker is pretty damn good.

Hooker was from near Clarksdale, Missisippi , born there probably in 1917.  While his father, a part-time preacher, wouldn't allow blues in the home, Hooker was exposed to the guitar through his step-father.  At 15, however, the young man left his family to live with relatives in Memphis and Cincinnati.  During World War II, he was in Detroit, where he began to make a name for himself.

After his "Boogie Chillen" became a #1 R&B hit, Hooker, who saw almost no royalties from it, began recording for many labels under a wide array of monikers.  In 1955, he signed to Vee-Jay, one of the big Chicago labels, are re-recorded many of his earlier pieces, with a 1959 album, I'm John Lee Hooker, showcasing Hooker in his prime.

Among the blues masterpieces on this album are his first hit "Boogie Chillen," first recorded in 1948 with this version being done about a decade later; "Crawlin' Kingsnake," and "Boom Boom."  Less well-known, but still amazing are pieces like "I'm In The Mood," "Dimples," "Little Wheel," "Trouble Blues," "Wheel and Deal," "She's Long, She's Tall."

There is also the hilarious, "I'm Mad Again," where Hooker intones in his deep voice how he's going to deal with a homeless friend he's taken into his house only to find the friend fooling around with his wife.

Probably the most surprising track has to be 1964's "Don't Look Back," which finds Hooker crooning with angelic backup singers and accompanied by horns, including the ubiquitous baritone sax found in so much of the R&B of the era.  There is a fine sax solo and Hooker's singing is really great and very different than his usual blues vocalizing.

Hooker's guitar playing was totally distinctive and had a thick and hypnotic rhythmic quality to it.  When he toured England in 1963, his playing and singing had a huge impact on a generation of young guitar players who became rock gods, including Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page (who recorded a late 90s album with his Led Zeppelin partner Robert Plant titled Walking into Clarksdale) Keith Richards and many more.

While Hooker's popularity and influence was greatest in the 1960s, he did enjoy a renaissance in the late 1980s, including a Grammy for The Healer and for a duet of "I'm in the Mood" with Bonnie Raitt and a repeat in 1998 for Don't Look Back, a record that featured another award-winning duet, this time with Van Morrison on the title track.  The bluesman died in 2001 at age 83, with his last recordings coming a few years prior and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award presented to him the year before his death.
This blogger is something of a blues novice, but this is a great album and John Lee Hooker was a phenomenal singer and guitarist, who was as distinctive as some of the other greats in the genre.  Again, this record doesn't really qualify as "definitive," if anything does, but it is a good sampling of a true master of the form.