Friday, August 29, 2014

The Quintet Live at Massey Hall

This is an unbelievable concert by a lineup of great musicians putting on a clinic of stellar ensemble playing and proficient and inventive soloing of the highest order, put on at a performance at the Toronto venue on 15 May 1953.

Unfortunately, a heavyweight title fight between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Wolcott and poor promotion and publicity led to a disappointing turnout to hear Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach and Charles  Mingus display their individual and collective talents on famed "bebop" tunes like "Salt Peanuts." "Hot House," "A Night in Tunisia," and "Perdido."  

The program also consisted of a beautifully-played standard, "All the Things You Are," and a lightning-fast workout in "Wee." These round out an album that doesn't appear to have any real downsides, although Mingus, who released the album on his own Debut, overdubbed bass passages because of under-recording at the concert.  Notably, Mingus and Roach were responsible for the recording, a significant achievement given that live albums were still relatively new.

Parker, characteristically, showed up to the gig without a saxophone, so borrowed a plastic Grafton alto.  Contractual issues also prevented the use of his name, so he went by the alias of Charlie Chan, a combination of his and his girlfriend's first names and a riff on a Chinese detective character from 1930s films.  Parker, whose top-notch playing days were rapidly dwindling (within two years he would be dead at 34 from alcohol and drug abuse and other factors), is a mighty player here, setting the pace for everyone else, as his force-of-nature effect often did. 

Gillespie, performing with his old partner, for the last time, is also in great form, displaying great speed, clarity in the highest notes, and showing that he was one of the few front-line players who could hold his own with the legendary Bird.  It was said, interestingly, that, when not playing, Gillespie constantly disappeared backstage to check on the status of the Marciano-Wolcott fight--the problem with the account is the fight was very short, with Marciano knocking Wolcott out with 2 1/2 minutes left in the first round, unless Gillespie was tuning into pre and post fight commentary or something!

Powell, who was evidently stone drunk from the get-go and would soon slip into mental illness that rapidly diminished his formidable skills, plays with great aplomb and authority, showing why he was considered one of the greatest pianists of his era. 

Mingus, the least-known of the combo at the time and who was a year or so from being a bandleader and crafting some of the greatest compositions in jazz, is a steady presence and performs especially well with Roach.  As for the sublime drummer, what can be said? 

Roach is totally in command of all of his ample resources behind the kit, accompanying each soloist as befitted the situation and then playing fantastic solos.  In some ways, his performance is the best as he had to be the bedrock, along with Mingus, but in a more visceral way, for the trip of legendary frontline soloists.

It is hard to imagine a recording that boasts such a stellar lineup--and one that fully delivered the goods.  The only alleged mark of real tension came when Parker, introducing "Salt Peanuts," referred to Gillespie as his "worthy constituent [rather than 'colleague'?]," which comment supposedly so irritated the trumpeter that Gillespie took to yelling the song title repeatedly during Bird's solo.  Yet, there was considerable laughter as the tune ended, though Gillespie was later quoted as saying he was angered by Parker's antics.

Then, there was the matter of payment.  With low turnout came minimal receipts which meant that there wasn't much money for the musicians.  Only Parker received money with Gillespie observing that he only was paid "years and years" after the gig.  Toronto was hardly a jazz center and the combination of the boxing match and the sad state of marketing the show all combined to lead to a hall that was about a quarter full.

Fortunately, this album has had a long life and several reissues and as long as this music is available it will, hopefully, have listeners.  It is one of the great jazz records this amateur has come across of the hundreds in the growing collection.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Style Council: Internationalists

The years from 1983 to 1989 when The Jam's Paul Weller changed musical directions with The Style Council after referred to by some as his "lost years."  Obviously, the sounds were dramatically different, although the last year or two of the former showed signs of Weller's move towards a poppier, soul and R&B direction.  And, there are those who think that Weller's famous decision to disband The Jam at the height of its popularity was less about a noble effort to not milk the successful formula of the group so much as a canny recognition that the British music scene was changing--away from guitar-based rock to synthesizer-based pop.

Whatever the case, Weller's formation of The Style Council definitely downplayed the guitar for keyboards, funk bass, a more finely honed sense of melody, and other elements that were closer to the pop world.  It also featured a determinedly fashion-conscious imagery that led some to call it highly self-conscious and pretentious.  But, what differentiated the band from legions of other groups of that often-maligned era of the Eighties, is that Weller's politicized lyrics actually became sharper and more direct than they were in the musically harder-edged The Jam.

Moreover, his forays into other musical styles provided, at least for the first half of the six-year tenure of TSC, a diversity that was not to be found elsewhere.  This changed by 1987 when the group's light dimmed dramatically and, when Weller decided to indulge his interests in the newly-emerging house music scene by the end of the decade, his longtime label, Polydor, rejected his house album, Modernism: A New Decade

Fortunately, Weller had the talent and perseverance to take a break, refocus, retool, and recognize that there was another shift in musical direction back to guitar music in the early 90s, leading to a solo career that, pushing 25 years now, has been remarkably successful.

This listener, as is often the case, got into The Jam just after their breakup.  Actually, seeing the video for "A Town Called Malice" was the first time encountering that remarkable group, but it was just after the September 1983 release of the stellar compilation Snap! when a strong passion for the band's music took root.

Meantime, Weller had moved on, joining forces with keyboardist Mick Talbot and guest musicians.  In March 1983 he released The Style Council's first single, "Speak Like a Child," followed by a couple of other singles and a pair of EPs, including the Introducing The Style Council record that was loaned by a friend. 

That same friend wanted to see TSC when they came to Los Angeles for two shows of four (the others in New York) for a very short (and the only in the band's history) American tour at the end of the year.  Work commitments, though, prevented attending, but the thought was they would return soon enough.  It was another nine years before Weller returned to Los Angeles and seeing three of his solo concerts proved to be great experiences watching a stellar musician at his best.

The Style Council's debut record was called My Ever Changing Moods in the U.S. (Café Bleu--obviously too "European" a title for American tastes?) after the title track, their lone Top 40 hit and one of Weller's best songs.  The record had jazz-drenched tunes, a rap, keyboard romps, and other assorted sounds, with Weller not even singing on several tracks--an indication of this view that the group was actually more of a collective.

That soon changed, though, with the release of the second album, Our Favourite Shop in the U.K. and Internationalists in the States.  By then, there was a set band with drummer Steve White and a phenom still in his teens, backup singer D.C. White (soon to be married to Weller), with bassist Camelle Hinds joining the group slightly later.

Internationalists is certainly a more cohesive and unified album than the debut and the quality of the songs is more consistent, while the diversity of sounds is still present, if not quite as pronounced.  The album began with a somber, but highly effective meditation on joblessness, the uprooting of families, and anger towards the Thatcher government in "Homebreakers."  An uptempo soul-funk workout, the title track declared that the band considered itself citizens of the world, rather than of a provincial nation--Weller was actively supporting Socialist causes at the time. 

Another anthemic piece that was the first single and charted at #6 in England is "Walls Come Tumbling Down," which opens with the growled "You don't have to take this crap / You don't have to sit back and relax," the last part of the couplet apparently referencing the long-forgotten, but then-wildly popular Frankie Goes to Hollywood and their "Relax" hit.  "The Lodgers" features another lyric about social malaise with a great bassline and solid White timekeeping, while D.C. Lee gets some prominent vocalizing on a top-notch track.

Another highlight is "With Everything to Lose" with a Latin rhythm, a nice flute intro and a lyric written by the drummer for a song that Weller had already completed called "Have You Ever Had It Blue?"  Weller rightly noted that White had written a fine lyric and quickly recorded the album version.  "A Stone's Throw Away" appeared with a string quartet and Weller's vocals and feature another excellent lyric about the widening gap between rich and poor in Thatcherite Britain.  The strings provide a nice understated backing to the singing--and it should be said that the change in Weller's singing from his days in The Jam was striking.

"All Gone Away" has acoustic guitar over a beguiling samba rhythm and Weller's near falsetto talking about the decline of small towns and, if anything, may be too brief at 2:17, but it's a fine song and perhaps an interesting comparison to The Jam's "Man in a Corner Shop."  There were complaints about "Come to Milton Keynes," a slap at faceless modern planned communities, but White's drumming is given a beautiful sound to accompany his always-fine playing, while Weller's melody moves along nicely.  "Boy Who Cried Wolf" is all-electronic and features more of Weller's newly-developed and emotive croon.

Church bells introduce "A Man of Great Promise," with another fine melody and lyrics about Dave Waller, a musical associate of Weller from the early days of The Jam and who died of a drug overdose.  A lilting rhythm of acoustic guitars, keyboards and cymbals underlie the interesting "Down in the Seine," which includes an accordion and Weller's singing of alternate verses in French, reinforcing his continental and, specifically, Parisian obsession.

The oddball tune is "The Stand-Up Comic's Instructions," with a popping bass, bluesy guitar licks and a Weller-sung chorus following the deep intonations of black British comedian Lenny Henry about racism.  It's been considered half-baked by some, but is part of the diversity of sound that makes the album intriguing in its catholic ambitions.

Internationalists marked the peak of The Style Council's tenure, hitting #1 on the British charts, though, predictably, doing poorly in America, which has just never made much of Weller's Anglo-centric approach (though this blogger has never seen his to be an issue.) 

The follow-up was two years later and, by then, Weller's decision to narrow the sound to the "northern soul" genre that was popular in England led to the "Cost of Loving" album to be considered too one-dimensional and lacking in passion and quality songwriting.  This blogger, an eager follower of the band to that point, passed on buying it after a listen of my brother's copy.

"Lost years" is hardly a term to describe the sea change that was The Style Council.  For a few years there, Paul Weller eagerly mixed a variety of sounds and wrote some of his best songs.  After 1985, though, the situation changed significantly, though there were enough moments in 1988's Confessions of a Pop Group that, for this listener, made the album's return to diversity rewarding for the most part.

The purchase a few years back of the 5-disc retrospective The Complete Adventures of The Style Council reflects the dichotomy of those halves of the band's existence.  The first two-and-a-quarters discs are generally brilliant, much of disc four with the Confessions material is quite good, and then there is the infamous Modernism and related pieces on the little-played fifth disc.  Yet, Weller deserves a lot of credit for being willing to try new musical approaches, distance himself from The Jam's iconic sound, and come up with a good deal of very fine music during what was often a dreary decade in the rock scene.  His revival in the early 90s led to the "lost years" tag being hung on The Style Council period, but it unfairly negates the often-superlative work he produced.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Enrique Granados and Isaac Albéniz: Spanish Piano Music, Vol. 1

The English Nimbus label has released many excellent world music (especially Indian) and classical recordings over the decades.  This 4-disc set of the piano music of the eminent Spanish composers Enrique Granados and Issac Albeniz is a top-notch recording that not only presents the works for which both are principally knows, Granados' Goyescas and Albéniz' Iberia, but other pieces representative of the two men.

The composers were contemporaries, who were born and died seven years apart, and they studies from the same musicologist, Felipe Pedrell, who inspired the men to embrace the idea of a particularly Spanish music. 

Albeniz was from a small town in the northeastern part of Spain, not far from the French border, among Basque country.  He was a child prodigy, taught by a sister, who made his concert debut in Barcelona at five years of age.  Though he passed the entrance exam to the conservatory at Paris, he was denied admission because he was considered too young.  Like Mozart, to whom he was compared, he was then shepherded by his father around Spain for performances with his sister.  After studying in Madrid, he went to Leipzig and Brussels and contemplated studying with Franz Liszt, but his plan never materialized.  Later, he lived and worked in London, though his interest in promoting a Spanish national music led him to his masterwork.

Albéniz composed, between 1905 and 1909, his Iberia suite of four books reflecting his impressions of the Spanish peninsula, with most of the focus on the Andalucía region.  A fishing village, a town overlooking a famed gorge and a suburb of Seville are impressionistic subjects in the first book.  The second reflects concepts derived from observing gypsies in Granada, an Andalucian dance, people in a tavern near Seville, architectural splendor in the Andalucía region and, in the only instance of a non-Andalucian subject matter, a neighborhood in Madrid.  Just after finishing the work, Albeniz, who had Bright's disease, succumbed to liver disease a few days prior to this 49th birthday.

In addition to Iberia, this set contains his Suite Española, the España "souvenirs", a tango, and other works, including two unfinished pieces, Navarra (intended for Iberia) and Azulejos, which were completed by pianist Martin Jones for this recording.

Granados, a Catalonian who was raised in Barcelona, was best known initially as a pianist with highly-regarded improvisational skills, though his first published work, the Danzas Españolas brought him attention as did an opera, María del Carmen.

The composer based his Goyescas on the work of the famed painter Francisco de Goya and was completed in the early 1910s.  Notably, the composer was asked to adapt the music for an opera, which was completed in 1914, just as World War I erupted.  Finally, two years later a performance was held in New York and it was well received to the extent that President Woodrow Wilson invited Granados to a White House reception.  Delaying his return to Europe for the honor, Granados and his wife were on the ferry, the S.S. Sussex in the English Channel when the ship was hit by a German torpedo and partially destroyed.  Granados, who was 48, made it on to a lifeboat, but his wife Amparo struggled in the ocean and the composer dove in the water to save his wife, but both drowned.

Other works by Granados included in the set are a reverie, transcribed by Jones from a piano roll recording of the composer that was made the year he died; a set of Escenas Románticas (romantic scenes), and an Allegro de concierto.

There is a great deal of romantic feeling and emotion in these beautiful pieces, along with a high degree of technical precision, and Jones, who recorded the works over several sessions between late 1995 and Spring 1998, is excellent throughout.  He has recorded many, many albums for Nimbus, including the complete works of such composers as Mendelssohn, Debussy (part of which was featured here), Brahms, and Stravinsky.  The recording quality is clear, crisp and rich and the set is a real treat, especially for an amateur who knew little of Granados and Albéniz and their work.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Masters of Turkish Music

Since we're on a bit of a roll with music recorded in the 78 rpm era, coming off the great Art Tatum, here's an offering from 1990 on Rounder Records of Turkish music that was produced between 1906 and 1949, in tandem with the University of Maryland-Baltimore County Center for Turkish Music.

Gorgeous male and female singing abounds on this album, full of keening, elongated melodies characteristic of the music of so much of the Middle East, but also with wonderful instrumental work, coming from the court of the failing Ottoman Empire, which collapsed after World War I in 1918, folk music, and urban music often performed by gypsies and other sources.  Improvisation, moreover, plays an essential part of this fantastic music.

As observed in the brief, but informative, liners, record labels from Germany, England and a local label in Istanbul owned by Jews, produced recordings from as early 1903 and records from Turkey began to be available in the U.S. from about 1912 thanks to migrants from the Middle East and Near East.  An overview of several styles of music, one of which, taqsim, has been covered here through the great album called Taqasim featuring Ali Jihad Racy and Simon Shaheen.

The first half of the disc features classical vocal music, including the gazel of the Ottoman court tradition which emphasizes the often staggering improvisations of a highly-skilled vocalist, while the second half highlights instrumentals, including, at the end, several excellent taqsim.

If one listens to flamenco singing or that of Bulgarian choral music, the clear connection to this vocal music is obvious.  Moreover, the use of stringed instruments on this album also had ramifications throughout the Arab world and parts of Europe that were either controlled by Islamic regimes, as in Spain for seven centuries, or in the Balkans.

A special note of praise should go to the sound restoration work of Jack Towers in transferring these old recordings from discs supplied by two collectors and creating as clean and clear a sound as possible (and the pops, clicks and hisses were wisely left in).  Truly, great music still comes through regardless of the technology.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here

It's one thing to hear a pianist with absolute control, staggering technique, superlative soulfulness and unparalleled swing.  It's quite another when that player was completely blind in the left eye and had almost no vision in the right.  Somehow, the masterful Art Tatum not only overcame that handicap, but actually transcended it in being one of the greatest practitioners of his instrument, not just in jazz, but in any form of music.  Notably, the great Vladimir Horowitz, one of the piano's legendary players in the classical world, and George Gershwin, the famed composer, were enthusiastic admirers--in a time when classical musicians looked down upon jazz players and, of course, white audiences did not, as a rule, accept black entertainers like Tatum in the way they would a white musician.

Piano Starts Here, first issued by Columbia in the 1968, when jazz was losing audiences and you'd think the last thing that would be accepted was music from thirty-five years prior, presents Tatum's earliest recordings, a quartet of sides from March 1933, including the mind-blowing "Tiger Rag" as well as a spellbinding version of "St. Louis Blues," a tune identified with another great jazz pianist of the time, Earl "Fatha" Hines, as well as the standards "Tea for Two" and "Sophisticated Lady."

The other nine pieces came from a Spring 1949 concert called "Just Jazz", held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and are filled with Tatum's trademark rapid runs in sixteenth notes, crystalline touch, boogie-woogie or stride playing and others.  He also had the remarkable ability to rapidly and radically shift the time by halving the tempo or, alternatively, doubling it, while adding little flourishes that brought a playful humor to his playing.

In some ways, Tatum is an interesting comparison to Cecil Taylor, whose jaw-dropping technique is exhibited in entirely different ways, apropos of very distinct eras.  Both seemed to be incapable of fluffing notes and were just unparalleled in their abilities to master the piano.  Whereas Taylor, afer 1961 especially, moved further away from song structures with strong melodies and mined the percussive and harmonic potential of the keyboard, Tatum always worked within established structures and, it's important to note, the limitations of the 78 rpm record and its length limits.

Tatum died in 1956 and was only in his mid-Forties.  He was never accorded the recognition he deserved, but he is still listened to and admired today and for very good reason.  Maybe he was more of a dazzling technician than an artist like a Duke Ellington or Bill Evans or any number of other great pianists, but with his superlative abilities and crowd-pleasing technique, it would have been hard to envision him being any other way.

In any case, Piano Starts Here and a 1940 Decca album of solos, to be featured here someday, are among the greatest examples of the piano solo you'll hear anywhere, in jazz and beyond.  Let's hope the great Art Tatum always has an audience and that it'll grow.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Buddy Guy: Buddy's Blues

This is another exceptional entry in the Chess Records 50th anniversary series from the late Nineties and features fifteen tracks from Guy's tenure at the legendary Chicago blues label from 1960-1967.  Guy was truly a triple threat--a fine songwriter, an excellent soulful singer, and a staggering guitarist-and these selections are a great cross-section to his years with the label.  Notably, he was not as well regarded in those years as some of the other Chess greats like Muddy Waters, B.B. King and so forth, but his time would come years later with his 1991 album Damn Right, I Got The Blues, which sold loads of copies and got tons of acclaim.

Still, there's no denying the stunning quality of Buddy's Blues from his singing and playing to the beautiful remastering that opens up the sound of these Sixties recordings to the stellar bands he performed with, including pianist Otis Spann, bassist Jack Meyers, drummer Fred Below and horn players Jarrett Gibson, Bob Neely, Donald Hankins, Gene Berge and more.

Guy originals like "Worried Mind;" "I Found a True Love;" "Stone Crazy;" "Ten Years Ago;" and "My Love is Real" are complemented by a raft of tunes by the great Willie Dixon, including his "I Cry and Sing the Blues;" "Let Me Love You Baby;" "Pretty Baby;" and "When My Left Eye Jumps."  There is also a standout cover of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Keep It To Yourself," retitled here as "Keep It to Myself."  Throughout, Guy sings with great power and intensity, while his guitar burns with a fantastically clean clear tone.

Guy just celebrated his 78th birthday on 30 July and it was intended to get this post together for that day, but here's a belated birthday wish to one of the great musical figures in American history, not just in the blues.  Long may Buddy Guy live and play live and otherwise!