Thursday, May 29, 2014

Black Uhuru: Chill Out

For a few years after the death of Bob Marley and before dancehall turned the music into an electronic shell of its former self, reggae had Black Uhuru as its biggest offering to the wider world.  A trio of great albums on Island Records from Sinsemilla in 1980, to 1981's Red (already featured here) and then 1982's Chill Out, today's selection, put the band, which was first formed in 1972, on the map.

With lead vocalist and chief songwriter Michael Rose providing memorable socially conscious lyrics and melodic ideas, and supported by backing vocalists Sandra "Puma" Jones and founder Duckie Simpson, the band was further strengthened by the amazing "Riddim Twins" of drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare, whose telekinetic synchronicity was mirrored by the production and arrangement skills, and the session band, The Revolutionaries, are also highly impressive.

The great 1982 Island Records release, Chill Out, by Black Uhuru featured the distinctive vocals and songwriting prowess of Michael Rose and harmonies from Puma Jones and Duckie Simpson, the latter writing two and co-writing a third of the album's nine tracks.
Chill Out is a strong album from start-to-finish with its title track, credited to Rose, Simpson, Dunbar and Shakespeare, featuring an off-kilter guitar line, distinctive percussion touches and the deep, smooth bass and steady drumming of the rhythm section keeping a groove going behind Rose's keening vocals.

"Darkness" by Rose is another standout, taking a different tack tempo-wise from the opener and highlighting Rose's strong sense of wordplay and unique vocalizing with Shakespeare's peerless bass playing shining through.  "Eye Market," has a cool backing vocal refrain by Jones and Simpson and some notable synth touches.  "Right Stuff" is another great tune, even if the vocoder element dates the song a bit."  "Mondays" is a bit simplistic lyrically, but Rose's vocals are so unique that it really doesn't matter and the band plays great.  "Fleety Foot" and "Wicked Act," complete a run of six consecutive Rose tracks, all quite strong.

"Moya (Queen of I Jungle)" by Simpson is probably the one track that might be of lesser interest, though Shakespeare hits single bass notes perfectly to make things move along.  But, Simpson followed that with a masterpiece, "Emotional Slaughter," a deep, emotive and moving song that features Rose's singing at its searching best and another great Shakespeare bass performance, while Dunbar keeps the acoustic and electronic drum patterning steady as she goes.

The Revolutionaries' three lead guitarists, rhythm guitar and two percussionists provide a wall of dense, but very enjoyable and diverse sounds along with the supremely confident playing of the rhythm section, who are slyly (get it?) referred to in the credits as "Sly Drumbar" and "Robbie Basspeare.

"Sly Drumbar" and "Robbie Basspeare," the sublime Riddim Twins rhythm section and producers, arrangers and co-mixers of Chill Out, a stellar album when Black Uhuru produced a trio of fine albums between 1980 and 1982.
As great as this album is, the companion dub album, The Dub Factor, proved to be as innovative and forward-thinking of any post-Marley recording and will be given due attention here some day.  This blogger well remembers being at a Bakersfield Red Lion Inn hotel on a weekend work trip and blasting The Dub Factor on a boombox (it was 1984, after all), perplexing and intriguing co-workers in the next room.

Black Uhuru rode fairly high in those days, but it all fell apart after their 1984 album Anthem was released, this record, ironically, winning the first Grammy award for top reggae album.  Rose left the group and Simpson and Jones and then Simpson alone kept the band going for quite a while, but it just never was the same.  After a long hiatus, Rose resumed a solo career, largely steeped in dancehall, but also never reached the heights of prime early 80s Black Uhuru.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Franz Josef Haydn: Symphonies 94. 99 and 101 & Concerto For King Ferdinand, No. 5

This double-disc budget release on the German Pilz label from 1990 features fine performances of three of the great Haydn's later symphonies by the Philharmonia Slavonica, the Süddeutsch Philharmonie and the Camerata Romana--none known in the upper echelons of orchestras or smaller ensembles, but still excellent nonetheless.

Haydn was one of the modern developers of the symphony, though the form was still relatively brief at roughly 25 minutes for each four-movement work, even in the composer's later years--nothing like the gargantuan works by Mahler, Bruckner and others who followed a century and more later.  These were also not monumental sonic blockbusters as with those later composers and were, instead, lighter, more melodic and, yet, still quite rich and complex.

Each of the three symphonies featured in this set was composed during Haydn's first stay in London.  The Symphony #94 was written in 1791 and is usually denoted as the "Surprise Symphony" because of a famed little joke the composer inserted in its second movement.  There is a quiet passage with piano when suddenly a quick loud fortissimo burst erupts from the orchestra before the movement resumes its ambient quietude.  A biographer asked the aged composer whether this was done to awaken a sleeping audience member, to which Haydn replied, "No, but I was interested in surprising the public with something new."

The Symphony #99 was written in late 1793 and premiered early the next year on Haydn's second visit to England and is notable for being the first of the composer's symphonic works to feature clarinets.  Coming at around the same time and premiered within a couple of months as the other, the Symphony #101 is usually known as the "Clock Symphony" because of a notable "ticking" rhythm in its second movement.  As with most of the dozen London (or Salomon, after Johann Peter Salomon, a musician, composer, and impresario who brought Haydn to Britain) symphonies, it was very warmly received and, like the others, is frequently performed.

The fifth concerto for King Ferdinand of Naples (later of "The Two Sicilies" in Italy originally featured a pair of that monarch's favorite instrument, an Italian one similar to a hurdy-gurdy.  Modern performances forego that unusual sound and soloists usually feature flutes and oboes.  The second and third movements of the concerto, which was completed in 1786, were recycled the following year in Haydn's Symphony #89.

Haydn is often overshadowed by Mozart, who was a generation younger, but his later works in particular are amazing and the composer became a favorite of this listener from the time his music was first heard a quarter century ago, in 1990.  These symphonies are timeless classics that never get old or timeworn.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Rainforest

Recorded in the late 1950s, this Smithsonian Folkways album became a favorite for this listener when bought on its CD reissue in 1992.  This was because the way in which the album was recorded and edited was immersive.  The ambient sounds of the Ituri rainforest in what is now The Democratic Republic of Congo is an essential part of the simple, but profoundly affecting, music-making of the Mbuti.  Their story is even more poignant given the turmoil and tragedy experienced by these people in the decades since these recordings were made.  The Congo and the situation of the Mbuti can be read about in many places, including this 2005 National Geographic piece here.

Consequently, this album takes on a greater significance because of what it documented before Congo degenerated into its current state.  The vivid sounds of the rainforest are brought forth throughout and a variety of songs relating to hunting elephants, gathering honey, engaging in ritual dance, holding tribal initiations, and so forth open a window into a little-known and threatened society.

Flutes, a hunting bow played like a jawharp with the mouth, and a variety of choral performances and chants are the centerpieces of this album, with the last fifteen minutes devoted to the sacred ritual of molimo, in which the centrality of the rainforest to the worldview of the Mbuti is honored.  A long, hollowed out piece of wood, like a trumpet and also called a molimo, is used as an instrument in which to sing during such festivities as a fire dance.

Western music tends to emphasize an abstract formality, in which the performance of music is presented in contrived settings.  This is not to be seen as a criticism, but merely as an observance of how far "advanced civilizations" have moved from the genesis of music as part and parcel of everyday activities among pre-literate societies. 

Yet, there are still parts of the world, like the remote Ituri rainforest of northeastern Congo, where, with all the threats and destruction, there are some people, like the Mbuti, who are still connected to music in an aboriginal form, as a part of everyday activities celebrating the forest, animals, hunting, food gathering and religious/spiritual ritual.

Obviously, listening to an album like this gives only a glimpse into that world, but it is a fascinating one.  Over twenty years after the first hearing, this blogger still is awestruck by the plain beauty of the rainforest setting and in the way the Mbuti utilize music as part of the view of their unique world.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Anthony Braxton: For Alto

Anthony Braxton, recently honored as a NEA Jazz Master, has had his music stereotyped as cerebral, dense, impenetrable and more.  The difficulty probably stems largely from the fact that he follows his vision for sound in ways that don't easily dovetail into neat categorizations about what separates improvised jazz from notated composition and that he puts such a great deal of thought into what he creates that his music doesn't provide easy benchmarks from which to listen.  Braxton's music does take effort, more than most people would want to (which is obviously just fine), but the rewards, at least for this listener, are palpable and long-lasting.

There are times, however, when his music has more approachability than others and, while it might be thought that a double album of solo saxophone would be the last place to approach approachability, For Alto actually has a lot that can appeal more broadly than Braxton's debut record, 3 Compositions of New Jazz, which was highly complex, ambient and "difficult."

Still, this is Anthony Braxton, so there are plenty of moments of knotty abstraction, but there are also many instances in which he plays quite melodically, soulfully and with a passion that is, to these ears, accessible, if a listener takes that great advice from saxophonist Albert Ayler and his trumpeter brother, Donald, to "follow the sound" rather than the notes.

After a brief and relatively placid forty-five second opener, the altoist tears into the next track, dedicated to composer John Cage.  Though it is nine minutes long, a concentrated listening to the way that Braxton develops his solo, from the very fast and aggressive first third to a quieter, if still quite intricate, following section that then goes into a remarkable section of overblowing at the upper register after about 4:30 and then carrying the piece through to the end, it is easy to get caught up in Braxton's sheer inspired passion for what he was doing. 

By contrast, the third piece, dedicated to artist Murray De Pillars, is, at first, more melodic and drenched with soulfulness, demonstrating that Braxton could play with a simplified emotion, while still tackling complex structures, such as a notable array of trills, in very effective ways.  Then, he turns to some harsher sounds, alternating between mid and upper range blowing and then punctuated with harsh honks that are very interesting.

A smooth segue into a track dedicated to the great pianist Cecil Taylor moves the tempo up, but not as frenetically as the Cage piece.  Again, Braxton is a marvel in terms of his mixture of formidable technique and the sheer joy of expression.  While it would be tempting to try to equate the saxophonist's approach on this piece of Taylor's ways of playing the piano, it is almost certainly more plausible to think of the spirit of exploration to be the linkage.  In fact, towards the end the playing gets quite bluesy.  In any case, it is great to have one intrepid explorer saluting another.

The longest track, at nearly thirteen minutes, is dedicated to Ann and Peter Allen and the piece is very ambient, understated and the silences or near-silences are notable given much of the busy playing that came before.  The beauty of this piece and in much of the ten-minute one that follows, dedicated to Susan Axelrod, is that Braxton provides the opportunity for ample space in terms of varieties of sound that he works with.  The altoist does open up more with the Axelrod work, turning up the volume, increasing the tempo and playing with more blues feeling, while keeping a strong melodic current going.

It makes the album much more interesting and compelling when he sequenced the tracks to give the listener a chance to enjoy a full range of emotion and sound, from hard-charging, complex runs and blasts of intensity to the more introspective and moodier elements, as found in the Allen and Axelrod pieces.

In fact, the ten-minute piece dedicated to friend Kenny McKenny moves into very experimental territory with multiphonics, unusual breathing and fingering technique and other technical displays that are very much contrasting with the two works before.  Again, though, for those willing to go on that journey into new territory, it is fascinating being in "the bubble" with Braxton as he explores ways to play the saxophone that are probably the most innovative after the death of John Coltrane two years before.  Still, it could easily be understood why the McKenny piece could prove difficult to many listeners and play right into the stereotype mentioned at the outset.

Fittingly, the album concludes with a nearly twenty minute work dedicated to Leroy Jenkins, who worked with Braxton on the 3 Compositions of New Jazz record and subsequent albums recorded for the Actuel label in France and others.  The piece starts off quietly and slowly, with repetitive patterns dominating and then punctuated with more honks and odd blasts of sound to contrast.

Braxton was only 24 when this album was recorded, but it sounds the summation of years of careful accumulation of sounds developed in live and recorded situations by someone much further along in years.  It also bears remembering that this was 1969 when jazz was largely dominated by psychedelic and spiritual music, much of it fantastic, by such major figures as Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders and with Miles Davis's electric revolution just around the corner (yes, not quite "On the Corner".)

Whereas the work of Mrs. Coltrane or Sanders or Davis definitely sounds "of the time," For Alto has a timeless quality to it.  Obviously, being a solo album makes it easier (without harps or electric keyboards or the blissed-out vocals common to the period).  But, it's also that listening to this album makes the listener feel that it's just you and the alto player as he bares his soul through a dizzying palette of sounds that probably was not thought possible at the time. 

For Alto was audacious then and now, over 70 minutes of solo alto saxophone playing by a young man already determined to rewrite the rules of not just playing his instrument, but of composing and of working with sound.  Forty-five years later, the album still sounds ground-breaking, hugely ambitious, fully immersive and impressively realized.

If the NEA Jazz Master program had existed 45 years ago, it seems plausible that Braxton could have been given the award just on the basis of this fantastic and essential document.  In any case, it was great to see him get the honor this late in his life and finally receive some belated recognition for his immense, if somewhat challenging, body of work.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Method of Defiance: Inamorata

Bassist and producer Bill Laswell's career has been a long and varied one, but few of his many recordings feature as many intersections of musicians as his Method of Defiance project's 2007 album, Inamorata

This album has a slew of renowned jazz performers from the 1960s onward like tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, keyboardist Herbie Hancock, tenor player and flautist Byard Lancaster, sax player Dave Liebman and guitarist Pete Cosey. 

Younger jazz performers like trumpeters/cornetists Graham Haynes (son of the great drummer Roy Haynes), Toshinori Kondo, and Nils Petter Molvaer,  and keyboardist Craig Taborn are also on board. 

Frequent Laswell collaborators John Zorn, along with his Masada String Trio, guitar wizard Buckethead, former Parliament and Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell and table player and drummer Karsh Kale. 

Finally, as Method of Defiance, in its early incarnations, was heavily driven by the electronic bass 'n drum sound, a plethora of performers from that genre were matched up with the aforementioned musicians, including Paradox, Black Sun Empire, D Star, SPL, Fanu, Outrage, Corrupt Souls, Amit, Evol [misspelled "Evil" on the sleeve] Intent, Fanu and Submerged, the latter being Laswell's partner on the first M.O.D. album and who released this album on his Ohm Resistance label.

These recordings are uniformly interesting and entertaining and some of the performances are just outstanding, including the impassioned playing of Sanders, Liebman and Zorn (and the Masada String Trio's jittery strings with a mournful and brief interlude in the middle of the piece) on their tracks, "Ta' Wil", "Aibi Virus" and "Pattern Engine."  The cooler sounds of the several trumpeters provide a nice counterbalance, while Hancock, Worrell and Taborn use their keyboards to nice effect in providing another palette of sounds to contrast with the horns.  Notably, Cosey and Buckethead, both incredibly inventive and fast players, are somewhat muted here, using their guitars for color and ambience more than for blazing solos or heavy riffs.

The many electronic performers here work well with the other instruments, providing a diverse array of drum machine patterns, electronic percussion and processed sounds that make this more than a typical drum 'n bass record, introducing diversity in its mixings of "live" instruments in the horns, keyboards and guitars categories.  Karsh Kale's excellent table playing on "Aether" is also a highlight, especially as it dovetails with Molvaer's cool keyboards and Laswell's loping bass.  "Remains," featuring Corrupt Souls has several cool and varied electronic "riffs", a sampled voice intoning something about science and technology, and another solid Laswell groove on bass.  "Black Water" has a solid flow to it and Haynes' ultra-smooth cornet work is countered by Lancaster's hard blowing, while Laswell holds it all together with more great playing.

Holding much of this together is Laswell's bass playing--consistently in touch and integrated with the other sounds and highlighting his talent for holding down the bottom of a piece with little wasted effort and flashes of dub and jazz elements.  His work in bringing in a staggering array of jazz-based talent, mixed with Submerged's recruiting of electronic artists makes Inamorata an entirely successful foray into expanding drum 'n bass out of electronics and into a fruitful collaborative partnership with other instruments.

Method of Defiance:  Inamorata (Ohm Recordings, 2007)

1,  Ta' Wil
2.  Humanoid
3.  Hidden Killer
4.  Amenta
5.  Panepha
6.  Babylon Decoder
7.  Aibi Virus
8.  Anti-Jazz Glitch
9.  Black Water
10.  Pattern Engine
11. Aether
12.  Remains

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Claude Debussy: Complete Piano Works, Vol. 3: Preludes, Books 1 and 2

This recording, the third of a series of five discs issued by the British Nimbus label in 1998, features the two books of preludes, totaling two dozen pieces, created by the great French composer in 1909-10 and 1912-13.

Although inspired generally, it is said, by the exceptional series of 24 preludes by Frederic Chopin, these works don't bear much resemblance structurally to those classic piano works, which were progressions in key signatures.  Rather, Debussy was motivated by a variety of source material, from a statue in the Louvre museum to a line from poet Charles Baudelaire to a label from a bottle of Italian wine to a reminiscence of days spent by Debussy in Eastbourne, England.

The composer did not take kindly to being labeled "impressionistic" in his style of writing, with the liners by Roy Howat noting that Debussy was interesting in "'something different'—in a sense, realities" though these could be seen as part of a mystery, a natural splendor, a spiritual grandeur that reflects in the emotive, dynamic and shifting elements of his music, in which it is easy to see why "imbeciles" (as he called them) would apply the label "impressionistic" rather than "realistic."

Notably, the composer wrote in 1911, between the production of the two prelude books, that "the noise of the dea, the curve of the horizon, the wind in the leaves, the cry of a bird; all leave impressions [bold added for emphasis] on us."  Howat suggests that Debussy's fascination with musically reflecting environmental aspects was a reality for him, because of an alienation from "an everyday world with which he never quite came to terms."  This, in fact, is not a surprising judgment, given the position of artists of all types, who often develop a "reality" that seems fantastic to others.

In any case, these two dozen pieces do show a range of atmospheres and stylistic variation that show that Debussy was both reflecting tradition while working with a modern palette of sounds and concepts, with unusual scales and the use of chromatic, rather than tonal, elements employing new chordal approaches in his music.  The preludes bring out contemplation, excitement, mystery, playfulness, experimentation, and many other feelings and ideas in a way that is simply unique to the composer.

During the time he was working on the first book of preludes, Debussy learned he had rectal cancer and, as his condition worsened, he underwent an early form of colostomy surgery.  The disease progressed, though, and the composer died of it in Spring 1918.  He was buried in Paris amidst a furious round of bombing by the Germans as the First World War ground to a close.  This aspect lends, perhaps, a further interesting meaning to the debate about musical "reality" as opposed to "impressionism."  Whatever labels are applied to Debussy's music, his unerring instinct for new ways of creative expression and experimentalism are noteworthy throughout his career and the preludes exemplify this.

Martin Jones, a celebrated British pianist whose work for Nimbus includes recordings of all the Felix Mendelssohn piano pieces and those of Spanish composers like Enrique Granados and Isaac Albeniz, as well as Johannes Brahms, Percy Grainger and Carl Czerny, among others, plays beautifully and sensitively.