Monday, September 8, 2014

Lee "Scratch" Perry: Arkology

For several years in reggae's 1970s heyday, there was no producer more eccentric, creative and successful than Lee "Scratch" Perry, who worked his magic in a rudimentary studio known as the Black Ark. 

With space at a premium and with a set-up that was basic, maybe primitive, Perry used his prodigious talent for spotting quality songs and performers with an uncanny ability to coax the strangest sounds from his equipment and a combination of found materials and the voices of musicians and singers he worked with.  The lowing of a cow, the cry of a baby and other sounds were developed in this simple studio environment.

Arkology is a masterful three-disc set of fifty-two tracks from Island Jamaica that has a wealth of famous and lesser-known pieces, many paired with dub versions, that form the core of some of the best of what reggae had to offer during its zenith. 

In addition to the house band, The Upsetters, which variously featured such instrumental heavy-hitters as the great Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, on drum and bass, there were also bassists Boris Gardiner and Winston Wright, drummers Mikey Richards and Benbow Creary, guitarists Chinna Smith, Geoffrey Chung, Willy Lindo and Ernest Ranglin, among others; organist Robbie Lyn; melodica player Augustus Pablo, percussionists Skully Simms and Sticky Thompson, trumpeters Bobby Ellis and David Madden, trombonist Vin Gordon, sax players Richard Hall and Glen DaCosta and flautist Egbert Evans. 

Among the singers are The Heptones, Max Romeo, Junior Murvin, The Meditations, The congos, Mikey Dread and Perry's deep-toned toasting, with some of little-known performers like Errol Waler, Devon Irons, Raphael Green, and Enos Barnes turning in fine performances, as well.

Of the best-known songs, there are a raft of great tracks, including Romeo's "War Inna Babylon;" "One Step Forward;" "Chase the Devil;" and "Norman;" Murvin's "Police and Thieves;" The Meditations' "Much Smarter" and "No Peace;" The Heptones' "Sufferer's Time;" The Congos' "Congoman;" and Perry's own "Roast Fish and Corn Bread;" "Dub Revolution;" and "Party Time."

But, it's often the lesser-known tracks that are the most revealing, including Walker's "In These Times" and "John Public;" "Rasta Train" from Raphael Green and Dr. Alimantado; "Mr. President" from The Heptones and Jah Lion; and Devin Irons' "Vampire."

Finally, all the great dub versions from The Upsetters highlight the deep grooves generated by the musicians and the trippy sound effects concocted by Perry at his best.  It's been easy to play these three discs repeatedly and not tire of the contents, because of the variety in singers, excellent songs, and Perry's amazing dub concoctions.

Sadly, Perry was getting hassled for protection money, dealing with growing competition, and generally feeling greater pressure, which took its toll on his already-eccentric personality and mental state.  Black Ark was already colorfully decorated with record sleeve, 45 rpm records, photos  and all manner of memorabilia, but Perry then covered every inch of the walls with rambling statements and other writings before the studio suddenly burned to the ground in 1979.  There were denials from Perry that he torched the facility deliberately, but later he became more forthcoming.

He left the country and now lives in Switzerland with his Swiss wife and his children and has continued to make music, though mainly as a performer rather than a producer (and all the logistical and business issues that entails.) 

A couple of years ago, ubiquitous producer Bill Laswell, a huge fan of Perry and dub generally, produced "Rise Again," a highly-praised Perry album on Laswell's M.O.D. Technologies label. 

At 78, Perry is still performing and, though, it's been about 40 years since his peak years at Black Ark, this music lives on as a testimony to some of the best reggae ever committed to tape.  Long may Scratch's music be heard!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Philip Glass: Heroes Symphony/The Light

Philip Glass has referred to his music as being about "repetitive structures" than so-called "minimalism" and he certainly found an apt descriptive genre title.  Glass was the son of a Lithuanian-born record store owner and heard much modern music early on and traveled in Paris as a young man before entering Julliard, where a classmate was "minimalist" icon Steve Reich.  He studied briefly with Darius Milhaud and then studied under a fellowship with noted composition teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris during the mid-1960s.  A period of travel in India and Tibet and study in Buddhism and the music of that part of the world had a profound influence in his work.

Simple structures in the emerging "minimalist" scene in New York in the late 1960s characterized Glass' early work and his involvement with Reich was notable, though, by 1970, he began to move into richer sonic territory and broke from his partnership with Reich.  Developing stronger harmonic relationships along with his rhythmic interests, Glass spent much of the 1970s and 1980s working in musical theater, composing some of his best-known works like "Einstein on the Beach" and "Akhnaten" and film scores.  He also created an opera, "Satyagraha," based on such figures as Gandhi, Tolstoy, and King and it marked his first symphonic work in years.

Glass' next phase, if there was one, included a move further into symphonic territory, including a trilogy of nature-inspired works, led off by "The Light," commissioned in 1987 to celebrate the centenary of an experiment by two scientists to  measure a uniform speed of light.  This late 19th century work paved the way for Einstein's theoretical explanation of the speed of light through his theory of relativity.  "The Light" does, indeed, have much in the way of repetition, but there is also significant development in tempo, volume, instrumentation and motifs that make for a very compelling and satisfying excursion as strings and brass play off one another through striking melodic themes and variations.

Glass was fascinated by the collaboration of Brian Eno and David Bowie in their sequence of German-based albums from the late 1970s.  His first symphony, a three-movement work finished in 1992 and based on three tracks from the album "Low" was followed four years later by The Heroes Symphon0, a roughly 45-minute masterpiece based on the famed 1977 album. 

There are, for those who know the record, familiar melodies and themes, including the well-known title track (it's interesting to compare how the famed guitar riff by King Crimson's Robert Fripp, who hadn't played formally in a few years, is interpolated here) and several other pieces from the highly-regarded album. 

One piece, "Abdulmajid" was an outtake and has a strong Middle Eastern flavor as well as a distinctive castanet opening, while "Sense of Doubt" has its title conveyed in the theme, filled with a motif played by the brass set against a dark upper strings element.  "Sons of the Silent Age" has a slow, stately and affecting theme with a subtle rhythm held by strings.  Another fine melodic statement with a delicate percussive underlayment distinguishes the striking "Neukoln."  The closer, "V2 Schneider" has a lively rhythm and a strong ostinato while the pieces gains speed and intensity, finishing to a strong climax for a fascinating work by a composer at the top of his game.

This recording by Marin Alsop's top-notch Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra from the U.K. was made in May 2006 and was released as part of Naxos' American Classics series.  It is also available as part of a box set called "Of Beauty and Light:  The Music of Philip Glass."

Monday, September 1, 2014

P'ansori: Korea's Epic Vocal Art & Instrumental Music

This was another early favorite when world music was being explored back in the very early 1990s and one of the main reasons was the staggering vocal performance by Kim So-hee (born Kim Sun-Ok in 1917), who began, at seven years old, her studies in the ancient art of p'ansori

This is the theatrical performance of one of five epic tales from Korean folk history that involve using the voice for all elements of the performance, including every character, and without scenery, lights, costumes and other elements of Western theater, with the sole exception of a pook (barrel drum) accompanist. 

The performance of a p'ansori is not only extraordinarily demanding, but can take up to eight hours.  Kim So-hee was able to stage a dazzling one at the age of 19 and eventually was given the appellation of an "intangible national treasure," a status bestowed on two of the three instrumentalists, Kim, Yoon-duk on the pook and kuhmoongo, a large six-string zither similar to the Japanese koto, and Chi, Young-hee, who performs on the p'iri, an oboe-like bamboo reed, the haegeum, a violin with two strings of silk that is viewed as a wind instrument because of its range and timbre, and the changgo, a drum shaped like an hour-glass.

The album is bookended by portions of two p'ansori pieces and these are tour-de-forces for Kim's abilities and intensity in singing, recitation and other vocalizing.  This may sound strange, but, in the early 1990s, this blogger was listening to a lot of hip-hop and marveling at the rhythmic variety and invention of many a rapper, but, in her own way (perhaps!) Kim displays an array of vocal techniques and role-playing that was more astonishing.  Again, maybe the comparisons are totally unfounded, but that's what came to mind listening to this album earlier today.

As for the instrumentals, the two aforementioned players, along with Sung, Keum-yun, on changgo and kayageum, a smaller twelve-string zither, perform several pieces, highlighting the p'iri, kayageum, haegeum, and kuhmoongo with accompaniment on the changgo.  Some of these instruments date back nearly 1,500 years and the performances are dazzling, with a variety of emotive expressiveness, rhythms and technical sophistication that make for highly enjoyable listening.

The recording was made in 1972 for the amazing Nonesuch Explorer series when the quartet toured the United States and, with so many Koreans living in the country forty-plus years later, there must be occasional performances of this traditional music in some areas.  It would be a great treat to be able to see a concert--although Kim So-hee died in 1995.  So, hopefully, there are others carrying on these traditions and offering them to audiences here in the U.S.

Meantime, this is an album to savor over and over again and to enjoy ancient music that should appeal to adventurous modern listeners.