Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Raices Latinas: Smithsonian Folkways Latino Roots Collection

Problematic as it can be to identify music by genre, it becomes even more so when confronted with an impossibly broad ethnic term like "Latino."  The prevalency of the Spanish language and the often-brutal history of Spanish colonization might be among the few links between countries as widely differentiated as Cuba, Argentina, and Mexico.  Otherwise, the specific local conditions in these and other places in the "Latin" world get obscured by the identification of "Latino."

Still, Raices Latinas is a fantastic release from Smithsonian Folkways, which always seeks to present interesting material with historical and musical context, so whatever misgivings a listener might have with "Latino" music, it would be really hard not to enjoy this impressive collection.

The album gets off to a fine start with the irrepressible "Un Gigante Que Despierta" (An Awakening Giant" from Nicaragua, followed by a pretty flute-based dance called "Ballecitos" or "Little Dances" from the Andes.  The African-infused rhythms of merengue from the Dominican Republic follow in "Apágame la Veia" (Put Out My Candle) and the diversity and variety flow effortlessly from there.

Music from Puerto Rico, Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, the American Southwest, Colombia and Cuba feature great sound and excellent playing.  Lots of fine percussion, passionate and romantic vocals (check the great "Seis Mapeyé" from Puerto Rico and "Los Arrieros", or The Muleteers, a fine mariachi piece from the Mexican state of Jalisco), guitar, flutes and other elements permeate the twenty generous selections.  There's even a nod to California's historical fable involving the possibly apocryphal bandito, Joaquin Murrieta, who was said to have terrorized the state during the peak of the Gold Rush before being captured and executed by a posse in 1853.

For this listener, it is hard to top the Cuban son titled "Yo Canyo en el Llano" (I Sing on the Plain) with its harmonized vocals, fleet-fingered guitar work, and bubbling percussion and the fantastic and plaintive "Las Naranjas" (The Oranges), a beautiful tonada from Chile.  The percussion workout, "Adios, Berejú" sounds like it could have been made in West Africa, from which, of course, much of Latin American music derives.  The "Corrido de Joaquin Murrieta" has a gorgeous melody and is sung beautifully by Luis Méndez.  The album closes with an epic "Las Leyendas de Grecia" or The Legends of Greece, a rumba guaguancó from a live recording in Cuba that makes for a thrilling closer.

As enormous as the so-called Latin world is with all of its varied societies and musics, this survey of twenty pieces is really a great introduction to the sounds of places so vastly different.   The 28-page booklet features two short introductory essays on the Latino Roots collection and on Latin music, followed by song-by-song descriptions that give historical background as well as information on the performers and pieces.  Raices Latinas is a fine way to sample the varied musical heritage of the Spanish-speaking Americas and has great sound to boot.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman: Song X

Pat Metheny has had great success with his Pat Metheny Group, but lesser known are his occasional forays into "outside" music and he has developed quite a portfolio of collaborations as part of his obvious interest in experimental music.  His "Electric Counterpoint" with minimalist composer Steve Reich and a recent album performing some of John Zorn's Book of Angels works are examples that will be covered here eventually.

One of his more notable collaborative efforts, however, is with alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman on the amazing Song X, Metheny's first album for the newly-launched Geffen label and which was released in 1986.  Back in the early 90s, this was among the first jazz albums purchased by this blogger and it made a big impact then (along with "Electric Counterpoint").  Listening to it nearly a quarter century later does not diminish that feeling. 

Song X was an opportunity for Metheny to "stretch out" and for Coleman to "rein in."  By that, the dense and complex electric funk of the sax giant's Prime Time ensembles was stripped back, allowing Coleman and Metheny to employ the kind of harmonic interplay that stretched back to Coleman's work with Don Cherry in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Making the marriage even more harmonious was the fantastic support of bassist Charlie Haden and the dual drumming of Coleman's son Denardo, who has been an excellent ground for his father over the years, and the always-amazing Jack DeJohnette.

Metheny's decision to record the album live over three days in mid-December 1985 allowed the band to maintain a freshness, immediacy and intensity that could be lacking in something more polished and produced.  Moreover, some of Coleman's best writing is found, either on his own or with collaborative works. 

Among the more adventurous pieces are Coleman's title track and the phenomenal collaboration "Endangered Species."  "Video Games" has a cool theme, reminiscent of some of Coleman's earlier work, but with Metheny harmonizing instead of Cherry and the two go off into extended interplay that is striking.  "Trigonometry" has another one of these fine head arrangements, before Coleman launches into an excellent, exploratory solo, reaching high into the upper register of his alto.   It is also something to hear Haden roaming his bass during Coleman's solo.

Meantime, there are some very fine ballads, including Coleman's "Mob Job" and "Kathelin Gray," by him and Metheny--this latter being one of the prettiest pieces either men has likely done.  Actually, all the pieces are strong, providing for a cohesive and smoothly-flowing sequencing.

For those who want to further revel in the telepathic interplay of the two leaders, "Song X Duo" fits the bill--if anything, at just over three minutes, the piece may be a few minutes too short!  "Long Time No See" is a fine close to a remarkable record and is another piece replete with tight interplay between Metheny and Coleman.  The guitarist even manages some Latin melodic elements in his solo.  Here, as well, the dual drummers do a great job of laying down solid and complex rhythms with nice cymbal work to boot.

Metheny's obvious respect for Coleman is manifested by the fact that, though this was his album and the first for David Geffen's ambitious label, he treated the experience as a true collaboration, giving the saxophonist equal billing and equal time and space.  His guitar work is excellent and understated, not only allowing for Coleman to share plenty of the spotlight, but also for the tremendous support of Haden, Denardo Coleman and DeJohnette to be heard.

Ultimately, Song X is a generous and humble statement of respect by a younger modern musician for one of his musical heroes and it has been viewed as a classic since its release.  A 2004 remastering included six previously unreleased songs.

Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman:  Song X (Geffen, 1986)

1.  Song X  5:36
2.  Mob Job  4:07
3.  Endangered Species  13:16
4.  Video Games  5:17
5.  Kathelin Gray  4:13
6.  Trigonometry  5:08
7.  Song X Duo  3:10
8.  Long Time No See 7:39

Thursday, April 17, 2014


After the tragic death of Minutemen guitarist and vocalist D. Boon in an Arizona car accident in late 1985, that great San Pedro-based band suddenly ended, its remaining members, drummer George Hurley and bassist and vocalist Mike Watt, devastated and unsure what to do next.

What took place then was remarkable, but also typical of the kind of loyalty fans of Minutemen had.  Ed Crawford, an Ohio State University student, was deceived by members of the band Camper van Beethoven that Watt and Hurley were auditioning guitarists for a new band.  Crawford called Watt, after finding his home number, and learned the "news" was false.

Still, Crawford showed up at Watt's apartment unannounced and by good old fashioned persistence got the bassist and Hurley to listen to him play.  The two were so amazed at Crawford's passion and determination that they agreed to form fIREHOSE, named for a scene in Don't Look Back, the documentary on Bob Dylan, in which the troubadour held up a hand-lettered board that had the word "firehose" on it.

While there were certain elements of Minutemen that showed through with fIREHOSE, including Watt's distinctive impressionistic lyrics, the dynamism of the rhythm section, and the overall DIY attitude, Crawford's presence (he was known as Ed fROMOHIO for some time) marked a needed contrast from D. Boon.  Namely, Crawford's guitar playing was more of a standard rock sound and less intense.  His voice was more plaintive and emotive and the overall effect was lighter and more folk-like.  Again, this helped give fIREHOSE an identity distinct from Minutemen and certainly energized Watt and Hurley.

By summer 1986, the band was playing gigs and later recorded its debut record, Ragin', Full On, released at the end of the year on SST Records, which had been the Minutemen label.  After a follow-up in 1987 called If'n, the band released what this blogger considers to be its best record, fROMOHIO, released early in 1989.

The album is packed with excellent songs and its recording in 30 hours over four days in October 1988 in a studio in Painesville, Ohio (a town of 20,000 northeast of Cleveland along Lake Erie) probably gave the impetus for a more laid-back, folksy, and relaxed feel.  The band was also well seasoned and fully integrated.

From the opener, "Riddle of the Eighties," to the excellent "In My Mind," and the funky "What Gets Heard," the first half of the record has some strong points.  But, the second portion is uniformly excellent, from the anthemic "Liberty For Our Friend," to the four top-notch pieces in a row, including, "Time With You," "If'n," "Some Things," and the tremendous "Understanding," and then the closing "The Softest Hammer."  The consistency of the songs is really solid and the band plays so well together that fROMOHIO is, to this listener, the highlight of an eight-year odyssey that culminated in a major label deal with Columbia Records and ended with the breakup of the band in 1994.

Watt went on to an interesting solo career, punctuated by a series of "rock operas" for Columbia, as well as a number of collaborative projects with Hurley, and former wife and ex-Black Flag bassist  Kira Roessler, as well as a long stint with Iggy Pop and The Stooges.  Hurley and Crawford have been not as prominent, but still busy with music over the years.  In 2012, fIREHOSE reunited to play at the Coachella festival and a short tour and there has been talk of possible future work, though nothing has been specified.

As great a shock as it was to hear of Boon's death and the demise of the great Minutemen, it was heartening and gratifying to see the formation and career of fIREHOSE, which included almost 1,000 shows and five studio albums.  fROMHOIO is definitely a highlight to YHB and continues to be a favorite recording, especially that run of four songs towards the end of the album.

fIREHOSE: Fromohio (SST, 1989)

1.  Riddle of the Eighties  2:04
2.  In My Mind  2:19
3.  Whisperin' While Hollerin'  2:05
4.  Vastopol  1:29
5.  Mas Cojones  2:05
6.  What Gets Heard  2:29
7.  Let The Drummer Have Some  1:02
8.  Liberty For Our Friend  2:09
9.  Time With You  3:15
10.  If'n  3:17
11.  Some Things  2:46
12.  Understanding  3:15
13.  'Nuf That Shit, George  :40
14.  The Softest Hammer  3:05

Monday, April 14, 2014

Sergey Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos Nos 1 and 4 & Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

The Naxos label, so well known and regarded for high-quality and modestly-priced classical recordings, has a series of historical works that might be a problem for audiophiles, but present truly classic performances.

In this case, you can't get much more notable than two of the concertos (though not the notoriously difficult and renowed third) of the great Sergey Rachmaninov, performed by the maestro, with the renowned Philadelphia Orchestra under two of the greatest conductors of the 20th century in Eugene Ormandy and Leopold Stokowski.

Recorded between 1939 and 1941, these performances make up for lack of stereo sound what they possess in boundless amounts:  sheer technical and emotional brilliance.  Even though the composer was within a few years of his 1943 passing and his best-known concert days were from the World War I era, it is truly a treat to hear him playing with such precision and passion some of his best-known concertos. 

Amazingly, the liners indicate, Rachmaninov's hands were so large that he could span a chord of a thirteenth (this is twelve keys apart) on his left hand and could do so on a tenth on his right by using the first finger on the lower note and then hitting the upper by thumb crossing.  This kind of technique obviously required enormous amounts of practice as well as physical gift. 

Rachmaninov left his native Russia in the wake of the revolution of 1917 and resided in America for some years before moving to Europe.  With the outbreak of World War II, however, he found himself back in the U.S., where he spent his remaining years touring with a regularity not found since his performing heyday of a quarter-century or so before.

While the composer and pianist is in great form, so is the famed Philadelphia Orchestra under its legendary conductors.  Stokowski, of Irish and Polish extraction, was born in London in 1882 and came to New York in his early 20s as an organist of note.  His first conducting spot was in Paris in 1908 and, within a few years, held the baton in Philadelphia, where he was conductor for a quarter-century.  Stokowski continued to conduct, however, until his death at age 95.

During the last two years of Stokowski's tenure, Eugene Ormandy joined the orchestra.  Born in Hungary in 1899, he was a violinist and arrived in America in the early 1920s.  He worked in an orchestra accompanying silent movies and conducted serious music before becoming conductor with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, where he was well-known for his recordings.  After Stokowski passed the baton on to him, Ormandy led the Philadelphia Orchestra for 35 highly productive and well-known years, retiring in 1973.  He died a dozen years later.

Rachmaninov's first piano concerto was completed in 1891, when still in his teens, and revised it in 1917.  The fourth concerto was finished in 1926 and debuted under Stokowski's baton in Philadelphia in the spring of the next year.  The work, however, was revised in 1941 and recorded under Ormandy's conducting.

The "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" was completed in 1934 and debuted that year with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra.  It involves variations on the theme of the 24th and final caprice of the famed 19th-century violinist Niccoló Paganini and runs about 25 minutes long, about the same length of the each of the piano concertos.

It is one thing to hear great music performed by a fine orchestra, but quite another to have the composer as the featured soloist.  This fantastic historical recording is a remarkable document of a top-flight ensemble, conductors of the first order, and a superlative composer and performer.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

King Sunny Ade: Live Live Juju

As stated here before, a true concert highlight, among hundreds, experienced by YHB was a 1984 pairing of reggae giants Black Uhuru and the Nigerian juju artist King Sunny Ade.  This was basically the first time hearing music outside of American and English sources and it was a powerful performance with King Sunny's ensemble featuring some twenty musicians and dancers and putting on an uplifting show, combining traditional African drumming and singing with Western instrumentation and grooves, including some spacey keyboard flourishes.

It is also hard to imagine more of a contrast than between the lighter, more playful sounds of King Sunny and the denser, funkier, angrier and more controversial work of Fela Kuti, whose work has been highlighted before.  The question isn't: who's better?  Rather, it is acknowledging (perhaps not unlike comparing Cecil Taylor and Keith Jarrett in the jazz world) the differences and appreciating the varied forms of artistry.

King Sunny had his heyday in America in 1983-84, when he toured to support releases on Island Records, but, by the time Live Live Juju was released in 1988 by Rykodisc from a Seattle show the prior year, his "fifteen minutes" had passed him by.  You wouldn't know it from this excellent album, though, as it features Ade and his band moving through a number of fine pieces, including "Ase," "Maajo," "Moti Mo" and a medley of "E Ba Dupe/F'Oluwa and Sunny Loni Ariya."

As noted in the liners, what this album (and the Live at the Hollywood Palace recording from a few years later) provides is the lengthier, funkier workouts found on Ade's Nigerian albums but edited and repackaged in ways more accessible, presumably, to Western listeners on his Island albums.  Particularly enjoyable in this sense, especially for those who love African percussion, are the longer drum workouts that resound with the intensity, volume and power that is well recalled from the concert that took place a full three decades ago.

By 1987, when this was recorded, King Sunny may have been dropped by Island and the wave that carried him to some notoriety had long receded back to sea, but his sound was still top-notch and Live Live Juju provides ample documentation of the greatness that he and his band possessed.  Long live the King!