Sunday, June 29, 2014

Archie Shepp: Four for Trane

Tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp's Fire Music was highlighted here before, as the first Shepp recording this blogger heard back in the early Nineties.  The predecessor and the leader's first recording for the Impulse label paid homage to John Coltrane, Shepp's supporter who lobbied hard to have the label sign the young firebrand.  To date, Shepp had played for a period with Cecil Taylor and recorded with Don Cherry, formerly with Ornette Coleman, and others in the New York Contemporary Five.

Four for Trane was not only a tribute to the jazz giant who got him signed to a major jazz label, but a way for Shepp to combine his deep blues feel with a very fine band and the arranging abilities of trombonist Roswell Rudd, who worked frequently with Shepp in the 60s.  The title directly refers to four of Coltrane's pieces covered by the band and this was a smart move by the leader, because it was said to producer Bob Thiele had to really be convinced by Trane to sign and work with Shepp.  This album rewarded Coltrane's persistence.

The opening track "Syeeda's Song Flute" is something else--Rudd's complex and rich arrangement shone through beautifully, as it does on the gorgeous "Naima," one of Trane's greatest compositions.  The way the various horns engage in interplay on both pieces, but especially on the intro to "Naima" is something to behold and it's a shame Rudd didn't get more credit for his arranging work.  Moreover, the other two tunes, "Mr. Syms" and "Cousin Mary" are also solid blues pieces and they provide apt forums for Shepp's earthy and raw playing to their best advantage.

Also a standout throughout this recording is the underappreciated altoist John Tchicai, a half-African, half-Danish player, who performed with Shepp in the New York Contemporary Five and went on to work on Coltrane's free ensemble album, Ascension.  Rudd also plays well and his instrument proved to be an interesting counterpoint to the saxes in the septet.  Trumpeter Alan Shorter, brother of the famed tenor player Wayne Shorter, then just getting his name recognition going with the Miles Davis Quintet, doesn't get that much opportunity to solo.

It's the rhythm section that also gets tremendous credit for holding down the bottom and keeping things truly swinging on this album.  Bassist Reggie Workman had played with Coltrane a number of times and was a very reliable, supple and flexible player behind the band.  Drummer Charles Moffett would go on to achieve his best-known work with Ornette Coleman with the great recordings in Copenhagen in 1966 in the two-disc Golden Circle albums already featured here and others.  His timekeeping is relentlessly sure and confident and he and Workman team up beautifully.

The one Shepp original is the provocatively-titled "Rufus (Swung, his face at last to the wind, then his neck snapped)," a tune that appeared later on a Coltrane/Shepp album recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965.  Tchicai plays fantastically on the opening solo and Shepp comes in with his distinctive earthiness for some excellent interplay and then his own solo, while Workman and Moffett keep things moving with great efficiency and verve.  In a way, "Rufus" was an announcement that, after the fine covers that started the album, Shepp was a fresh, new and exciting voice in the so-called "New Thing" or "Avant-Garde" that was sweeping through jazz in the Sixties.

Shepp followed this record with Fire Music and another excellent album, Mama Too Tight, which will also be featured here in the future.  He spent some time in France recording there at the end of the sixties before returning to America and more Impulse albums.  As jazz continued to decline in popularity, so Shepp's profile dimmed, but he has continued to make excellent music over the years, including a duet album with Dollar Brand that will make an appearance here someday.  He is still with us, as are Workman and Rudd, and Four For Trane is definitely a highlight of his long, interesting and under-recognized career.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Wire: The Ideal Copy

The Ideal Copy was the first Wire album purchased by YHB and was a memorable acquisition in 1987.  The band had recently reunited after several years of inactivity and the change in their sound caused  no small amount of comment (and consternation, in some cases) from fans of their first period from 1977-80 when they issued classic records like Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154.

The truth is that any band that is going to last is going to have to change so that members feel like they're growing and fulfilled and Wire's decision to move into more electronics, while retaining their experimental bent, should, in retrospect, have come as no surprise.

For this listener, there was no predilection to compare this record to those of the earlier era, because there was no previous experience with those great records (that came not long after buying The Ideal Copy led to an exploration of those first discs.)

In any case, this is a memorable album, led off by a trio of tremendous songs: "The Point of Collapse," "Ahead," and "Madman's Honey."  It's no surprise that when the band wisely allowed fans and friends to vote for their favorite tracks for The A-List, a compilation of their late 1980s output, these songs were all included.  "The Point of Collapse" and "Madman's Honey" are more melodic and atmospheric, with minimal guitar lines and enhanced use of keyboards than earlier recordings and Colin Newman's singing was, well, more "honeyed" and far removed from the Cockney sneer of days of yore.  "Ahead," which came out #1 in the aforementioned poll, is more aggressive, but still melodic and more ordered than anything found in the earlier work.

The more experimental and off-kilter work comes with the remainder of the work, including decidedly different vocal turns by Graham Lewis on the intriguing "Feed Me," with its washes of guitar bursts and its repetitive five-note "bass" accompanied by a low, rumbling drone.  The catchy "Ambitious" has a bouncy drum beat, processed guitar riff and another "bas" riff which might have been done on keyboards and a string-like riff that runs throughout the piece.  Lewis talks, roars and sometimes sings through the track in his inimitable way and there is a typical obtuse chanting of various acronyms at the end.  The song is definitely about "The Ideal Copy," though, not atypically for a Wire song, the meaning of the lyrics is unclear (Graham Lewis stated in an interview that the concept referred to DNA, but then guitarist and sound manipulator Bruce Gilbert decided to remove references to DNA from the song!)

The short, cheeky "Cheeking Tongues" has a spiky processed guitar riff, sampled voices and a spry bass line, kept together by Robert Gotobed's metronome-like drumming.  Newman either sings in a higher register or the vocals or processed and they are double-tracked.  Again, there are the impressionistic lyrics, but the "soundtrack to your silence insincere" is a cool-sounding phrase.  The atmospheric "Still Shows" has a sweetly-sung vocal, also by Newman and there is something about "cutting a rabbit/dressing the skin/selecting gear/tearing about" as a kind of chorus.  But, the atmospherics are quite interesting, including a repetitive drumming pattern and a reggae-like rhythm guitar pattern and an echoed bass figure.  "Over Theirs" has a very trebly guitar line, propulsive drum pattern, and a sinewy bass line while Newman sings about things that happen "over and over" in a , surprise, repetitive way.  But, the track is instrumentally rich and compelling and holds the listener's interest.

At a little over 34 minutes, the proper album is a bit slight for a compact disc, so the band included the Snakedrill EP from 1986 with the standout opener "A Serious of Snakes," with its notable line, "I'd rather make furniture/than go to Midnight Mass," an oblique (naturally) reference to Christ and religion complemented by "They abandoned the baby/The baby trained/The baby returns/Baby kills Mary and Joseph."  And, there's some reference to ancient Persia.  But another interesting lyrical element comes with the stanza that runs:

Please send your God
My very best wishes
Does he still sing
Does he still fish
Does he still help you
On your days off

Again, who knows what it all means overall, but there's something impressive about the word play and the impressionistic imagery.

The comes "Drill," a piece the band has frequently referred to and revived as a template of sorts for the general sound that was developed over the course of their late 80s and very early 90s work.  Here, repetition is taken to its (perhaps) logical conclusion and an entire album was devoted in 1991 to the "Drill" concept in several reimaginings.

"Advantage in Height" has an electronic riff, more slashing and trebly guitar, that steady drumming and an impressively deep throbbing bass line behind Newman's vocalizing.  The closer on the EP is the strange "Up to the Sun" intoned largely a capella by Lewis and Newman, with a background of atmospheric electronic textures.  Despite an obvious flub by Lewis early on, the tape kept rolling and then the two harmonize in a strangely effecting way before Newman concludes with Lewis humming a backing line.

A further bonus are three tracks recorded in London.  "Ambulance Chasers" has an off-kilter guitar line and the lyric seems to be about money-grabbing lawyers who are "fucking and sliming/[with] no sense of timing" and someone is warned to "watch the front/[and] watch your behind."  Notably, Robert Gotobed actually breaks away from strict timekeeping to hit a few short fills on his drum kit. 

After a live rendition of "Feed Me" with a stronger guitar wash freed from the processing of the studio version and featuring Newman's vocals, which are not as striking though as Lewis's studio version.  "Vivid Riot of Red" is a live version of "Up to the Sun," and is completely a capella.  The track is made more interesting with audience participation, including shouts, whistles, yells, laughter and the strong burst of applause at the end.

The first album heard from most groups and performers tends to be the one that lives longer in the memory.  The Ideal Copy is, of course, a hodge-podge of a short studio album joined to an earlier EP and the bonus live tracks.  But, what holds it all together is Wire's determined effort to move forward in their unusual and impressionistic musical world.  Many fans of early Wire were disappointed by the late 80s direction, but for YHB who started listening to the band with that material, it seemed entirely fresh and exploratory and, so, was also revelatory.

This listener appreciates the brilliance of the 1977-80 version of the band, but also enjoys most of the 1985-1990 output, too, even the much-maligned Manscape.  Then, to see the band reemerge in the 2000s with a new bent that somehow channeled some of the elements of its past while pushing relentlessly forward was fantastic.  Again, no band or performer can maintain a creative, viable long-term career without changing and adapting and Wire has proved more than adept at that.  Despite Bruce Gilbert's retirement, Wire remains a strong, viable and intensely interesting band.  The Ideal Copy has proven to be an ideal way to start listening to the band.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians

This is generally considered a landmark "minimalist" recording and perhaps the most renowned of the works of Steve Reich.  The composer and colleagues first recorded the work for this release on ECM (notable as the label of jazz pianist Keith Jarrett among many others) in 1978 and there are detailed explanatory notes by Reich.

He stated in the notes that the earliest work on the piece took place in Spring 1974 and completion took place a little under two years later.  The organization of the instrumentation was new with a violin, a cello, two clarinets doubling the bass clarinet, four female singers, four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones and a metallophone.

Notably, Reich observed that "there is more harmonic movement in the first 5 minuts of 'Music for 18 Musicians' than in any other complete work of mine to date," though he added that most of this consists of "a re-voicing, inversion or relative minor or major of a previous chord" within a narrowed key signature limit.  Certainly, anyone who has heard his "Early Music" recording (featured here previously) or other works prior to 1976 can identify with his statement on harmony.

Concerning rhythm, always a significant component of Reich's work, he pointed out that there were two simultaneous types in the piece, with the first being "a regular rhythmic pulse in the pianos and mallet instruments," while the other consists of "the rhythm of the human breath in the voices and wind instruments."  These pairings involve playing or singing notes "for as long as their breath will comfortably sustain them."  Reich's discovery that these dual rhythms are akin to "waves against the constant rhythm of the pianos and mallet instruments" and constitute a new sound source that he wished to develop in future work is something the listener can easily pick up on, even amateurs such as YHB.  Even though the strings don't "breathe," Reich wrote that the players can "follow the rise and fall of the breath by following the breath patterns of the bass clarinet.

There are also, he went on, a cycle of eleven chords played at the beginning and end of the nearly hour-long piece, that determine the structure, as "all the instruments and voices play or sing pulsing notes within each chord."  In addition, each "pulsing chord" is held for several minutes, during which a construction is added that changes the following chord and stretches them out.  Moreover, repeated elements will vary by harmony and instrumentation, so that a pulse played by the pianos and marimbas in one section will be followed by marimbas and xylophones in a following one.

Reich also employs interesting relationships between harmony and melody, pointing out that "a melodic pattern may be repeated over and over again, but by introducing a two or four chord cadence underneath it, first beginning on one beat of the pattern and then beginning on a different beat, a sense of changing accent in the melody will be heard."  Again, this is also very discernible and is one of several techniques that reveal how repetition can be given variety to develop a freshness that holds the listener's interest in a long, uninterrupted piece.

Finally, the composer explained that the use of the metallophone is as a cue to guide the musicians from one section to the following one "much as in a Balinese Gamelan a drummer will audibly call for changes of pattern, or as a master drummer will call for changes of pattern in West African music."  Because there isn't a conductor who isn't playing, Reich concluded by stating that "audible cues become part of the music and allow the musicians to keep listening."  This also seems to provide a state of constant interplay that aids in the sense that the music flows smoothly in an organic way, though obviously it is a structural facet of the piece.

It is worth pointing out that Reich's studies in drumming in Ghana in 1970 and then study with gamelan in 1973 and 1974 in Bali gave him the underpinning to introduce concepts of these musics in this composition.  Gamelan has influenced a number of composers, including Satie, Cage, Harrison, Bartok and others.

What stands out to this listener on "Music for 18 Musicians" is that there is obvious repetition and order, but the way that the sustained "pulsing chords" evolve harmonically in tune with melody and with varying combinations of instrumentation following from section to section provides a much-needed variation to keep the listener's attention in focus.  Moreover, there is a true warmth to the playing of these acoustic instruments within the evolving framework of the piece.  The result is a richness and beauty that makes for an important benchmark in the development of so-called "minimalism."  Repeated hearing of this fascinating work continues to yield a great deal of enjoyment and it is a testament to Reich's careful and thoughtful approach that this is the case.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Anthology of World Music: China

This is another entry in a stellar series of traditional world music reissued by Rounder Records from originals produced by the International Music Council and the International Institute for Comparative Music Studies and Documentation, edited by the institute's founder Alain Danielou and Ivan Vandor and done as a tribute to Danielou's long work in documenting indigenous music.  Vandor, who succeeded Danielou as director of the institute, continued the work of issuing the recordings, which comprised fifty albums released between 1968 and 1987.

The album consists of seven selections for the pipa (four-string lute--already focused on in this blog with the work of the great Wu Man); the zheng (a 16-string zither); the qin (a 7-string zither) and the xiao (a bamboo flute.)  The recording is bookended by the two lengthier tracks (which this blogger most enjoyed), the Haiqing na tian'e (Haiqing Seizing the Swan) and Guangling San (The Song of Guangling.)  But, all the pieces are excellent and highly enjoyable, reflecting the long tradition of Chinese classical music.

The 29-page booklet includes a general essay on Chinese music, including vocal music, as well as the three stringed instruments heard on the recording, commentary on each piece and biographies of the performers.  These latter include Chen Zeming on pipa; Li Tingsong, also on pipa; Ding Boling on zheng; Guan Pinghu on qin; Zha Yiping on xiao; Fu Xuezhai, also on qin; and Wu Wenguang on qin.  Some of them were born in the 1890s and 1900s and others are from a generation or so later.  The performances are striking and, while the sound quality is not likely to please audiophiles, it is hard to argue with the sheer beauty of the playing.

In addition to this great recording, others in the series will follow on Tibetan Buddhist music, Iranian classical music, and a 4-CD compendium of the music of North India.  Rounder, a label founded by three university students in 1970 and which was bought by the Concord Music Group in 2010, deserves a great deal of credit for reissuing this valuable and amazing music.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Miles Davis Quintet: The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions

After his early development in the bands of the great altoist Charlie Parker followed by his leadership in the so-called "Birth of the Cool" sessions, all in the last half of the 1940s, trumpeter Miles Davis returned from triumph in Europe in 1949 to an indifference in the U.S. that he said fostered his addiction to heroin (after being clean even during his time with the omnivorous Parker).  That descent to hell lasted several years and marked a clear decline in Davis' powers as a player and band leader.

Still, in 1951, as recording technology with the LP was allowing for longer pieces of music and the resulting expanded expression for musicians, Davis signed with the new Prestige label, founded by Bob Weinstock and made a series of recordings that were, generally, hit and miss.

Yet, by 1955, Davis kicked his habit and began making recordings that reflected his healthier status, including works with the great tenor player Sonny Rollins, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, altoist Jackie McLean and others.  He had, however, not had a working band during the first several years of his Prestige era, but that all changed after the trumpeter put on a masterful performance of Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight" at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, which is thought of as marking his true return to prominence in the jazz world.

In fact, his performance at Newport prompted him to pursue a contract at Columbia Records, which would give him better facilities and promotion for his work, but he still had to deliver product to Weinstock for Prestige.  So, Davis worked out a deal in which he could record for Columbia in 1956, but not be able to release anything until he satisfied the terms of his Prestige contract first.  Weinstock was also compensated for his willingness to abide by the terms of the unusual arrangement.

Davis made his initial Columbia recording debut in October 1955 and followed with sessions in June and September 1956.  The resulting album, the classic Round About Midnight (a strange corruption of the Monk composition mentioned above), could not be released until March 1957 in accordance with the Columbia-Prestige deal.

With his future with Columbia (which turned out, probably, to be brighter and longer-lasting than anyone could have imagined) assured, Davis took his new band into the studios of Rudy Van Gelder in New Jersey and quickly recorded enough material in three long sessions in May, October and November 1956 to be the basis of four major albums:  Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, and Workin' with the Miles Davis Quintet.  Released between 1957 and 1961, these fine records benefitted from being issues during the years when Davis' Columbia albums, including Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess and others were establishing the trumpeter as a household jazz name.

This 4-disc set of the Prestige recordings from 1955 and 1956 was issued by Prestige's owner, The Concord Music Group, in 2006 and features an excellent 40-page book with background on the quintet and sessions and some great photos of the band members in the studio and at live gigs.

Unlike the Columbia recordings, in which Davis was given more opportunity to rehearse and record, as well as having access to better studio and recording facilities and equipment, the Prestige sessions were marked by the quick, one-take approach that was favored by Weinstock as closer to a live performance, but also done for economic reasons, given that the label was much smaller.  This doesn't mean the Prestige sessions suffer greatly, but there is a discernible difference in hearing the albums from the respective labels.

As for the band, no one in 1955 knew much about the quartet that Davis recruited.  Pianist Edward "Red" Garland had a light, lyrical touch the leader liked from his years with and admiration for Horace Silver.  Young bassist Paul Chambers had a strong, supple sound and remarkable technique, but was still in his teens and not known when he joined the group, though that soon changed.  Drummer "Philly Joe" Jones was better known and, in fact, had served as a sort of talent scout for his boss and was generally thought to be responsible for pointing Davis towards another Philadelphia musician, tenorist John Coltrane.  Davis and Coltrane had met some years before, though the trumpeter did not apparently remember this when he saw Trane again in 1955.

Once the band began working together, including a long stint at the Café Bohemia, it was apparent that something special was happening, though not without problems.  One was the fact that the other members of the band were heroin addicts and, in Coltrane's case, alcoholics and Davis often had a difficult time keeping his sidemen together to make concerts and sessions.  Coltrane appears to have been the most affected by his addiction and was known to show up at concerts in rumpled, dirty clothing, nodding off on the stage, and otherwise being distracted.  Davis fired members of the band on occasion and even punched Trane in the stomach in a rage after finding his tenor player high.

Coltrane, in fact, was a rough talent even at 30 years of age during these early years with Miles because of his addictions.  Davis frequently kept Trane off the mike at recording sessions when ballads were performed, feeling that his sax player was not well enough developed to play on these sensitive tunes and used him for up-tempo pieces.

It was not until 1957, after Davis punched him and Thelonious Monk, who witnessed the incident, encouraged Trane to join his band, that the tenorist's playing improved markedly.  This was not unlike what Davis had done a few years earlier in kicking his habit and when Trane played in the legendary Monk band at a lengthy engagement at the Five Spot during the latter part of that year, he was clearly a changed man.  In fact, Trane was so superior a player once cleaned up that Davis hired him back and the two went on to make the great Kind of Blue not long afterwards.

The Prestige recordings of 1955 and 1956 are full of remarkable performances, including standards, pieces by Davis, Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Ahmad Jamal, Sonny Rollings and Trane's first recorded piece, "Trane's Blues."  In addition to the studio sessions over three discs, there is a fourth that comprises two songs performed on The Tonight Show in November 1955 (including awkward introductions by sincere jazz fan and host Steve Allen), two songs at Philadelphia's Blue Note club in December 1956 and four tracks recorded at the Café Bohemia in New York in May 1958, well after the group left Prestige.  An enhanced section provides transcriptions of five Miles solos from two sessions and three live performances, as well.

The rhythm section of Jones and Chambers, with Garland's consistent comping, are excellent and, on those occasions where Coltrane was really on, glimpses of his future greatness are in evidence.  Meanwhile, Davis had mastered the art of finding the right note for the right time, of using the trumpet's middle range to execute beautiful lyrical emotion, and of adapting and arranging pieces to fit the band's strengths. 

If anything, his skills as a band leader were as important, if not more so, than that of a player from the time this band came together to make these great recordings.  And, it was only going to get better with the Columbia sessions, as will be covered here soon.