Thursday, October 30, 2014

Henry Threadgill: You Know the Number

This 1986 release on RCA's Novus imprint displays some impressive composing by the great Henry Threadgill, excellent playing by his diverse sextet, and fine production making for a beautifully-sounding record.

"Bermuda Blues" features great bass and cello work by Fred Hopkins and Deidre Murray, respectively, and a nice blend of brass with the leader, trumpeter Rasul Sadik and trombonist Frank Lacy performing with a highly-developed sense of interplay as well as solid soloing.

Hopkins starts off with a contemplative bass solo on "Silver and Gold Baby, Silver and Gold," before the others join in on this complex ballad.  Also notable throughout the album is how the percussion is recorded with Pheeroan Aklaff on the left channel and Reggie Nicholson on the right.  On this tune, Threadgill's piercing, keening solo stands out--very much in his style of playing and always affecting.

The opening of "Theme for Thomas Cole" has that peculiar attribute of Threadgill's arrangement of instrumentation, with the trombone, muted trumpet and alto marking out a complex and unusual theme statement, before Lacy solos with a cymbal and bass accompaniment.  Then, the ensemble comes back in with a striking way of various brass soloing.

"Good Times" is as catchy and accessible a tune as can be found in Threadgill's discography, a truly uplifting tune with all of that remarkable harmonic interplay that is endemic to the work.  The leader's gritty alto work stands out once again amidst all of the sonic expression that is also characteristic of his music.  There is also some good drum soloing and a crazy trombone solo from the remarkable Lacy, giving some spotlight to an instrument not heard much in modern jazz.

"To Be Announced" has a cool percussive opening, bass line, and a captivating brass harmony to open the piece.  Complex, yet highly listenable as that rhythm keeps things hopping while Lacy bursts into another fine solo--he proves to be the biggest surprise on this album, though Sadik's playing is also of note.

"Paille Street" sounds like it could have come from a classic movie soundtrack when it opens, perhaps because of Murray's beautiful cello playing and the muted brass accompaniment behind her.  Hopkins also plays a beautiful, rich bass to hold down the bottom, while the percussion mainly utilizes brush for a light touch.  This piece is really pretty--one of the nicer ballads in Threadgill's catalog.

Threadgill is known for peculiar titling, perhaps because naming instrumental pieces is an exercise in futility, especially when the music is this complex, dense and striking.  So, "For Those Who Eat Cookies" may not signify much, but check out that amazing interplay among the brass while the rhythm section lays it down nicely behind them.  Threadgill, who gave a lot of space to his fellow musicians to create uniformly excellent solos, staggers again with his amazing alto work, while that interplay continues to be essential to the quality of this piece and the record as a whole.

The follow-up to this record, 1989's Rag, Bush and All and the 1993 album, Too Much Sugar for a Dime may be Threadgill's high-water marks in his long, estimable discography, but You Know the Number is right up there and, if the number was 3 in ranking of his many superb recordings, that's fine company to be in.  This is a great album.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

King Crimson: Larks' Tongues in Aspic

As pointed out before, thirty years ago this blogger was invited to go to a King Crimson performance and promptly and flatly turned it down because of a disgust about the perceived nature of "prog."  A sampling of borrowed albums from the patient friend revealed that the band had evolved considerably from its early days and was worth giving a shot.  And, what a show that was, though Crimson broke up about a month or so later.

When a rediscovery of KC happened five years ago (a whole quarter century later), it was just after a planned 40th anniversary itinerary was scratched due to a misunderstanding over schedules between Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew.  A couple of years later, Fripp announced his retirement from public performance and a resurgence of King Crimson seemed to be more and more unlikely.

However, once Fripp won a settlement over royalties with Universal Music Group and completed a long-developing book project, as well as other significant changes in his working life, a surprise announcement was made a year ago:  King Crimson was returning to "active service" via a tour of the U.S. this fall.

Last night, this blogger attended the second of two shows at the beautiful historic Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles and what an experience it was.  It took about a third of the show to get fully acclimated to the three-drummer front line and the sheer mass, density and intensity of the sound generated by the stellar crew of Pat Mastelotto, Bill Rieflin and Gavin Harrison.  It also took that time to be able to recalibrate listening so that the amazing reed work of Mel Collins could be truly appreciated, as well as Fripp's always impressive guitar work.

A friend who had little exposure (pardon the unintended pun for those of you who know RF's solo career) to Crimson was thunderstruck by the drummers and the sound, but felt that the vocals were not measuring up to the immense power of the instrumental performances.  This listener felt that Jakko Jakszyk did a very good job of playing with his cool screaming schizoid man decorated guitar (and even a little flute in a duet with Collins) and his singing was good overall.

All-in-all, a powerful, involving and memorable show from a band that always strives for something different, unusual and affecting to its audience.

Which leads to the featured album . . .  The plan was to focus next on 1995's Thrak, an album with a double trio (guitars, basses and drums) that took KC into a new era of power, innovation and excellent songcraft.

But, given that last night's show featured a decided focus on the band's earlier output and that this blogger's return to the fold started with this album, this post looks at 1973's Larks' Tongues in Aspic (a title which might appear ponderously pompous in the prog tradition, especially given where bands like Yes and ELP were going in that era--yet, the title was an off-the-cuff joke from percussionist Jamie Muir that the band found funny enough to adopt.)

The band had been together only a few months after the Islands-era band of 1971-72 finished a tour of America and disbanded.  Fripp first made contact with Muir, a veteran of England's free jazz scene who quickly became a character known for his bearskin clothing and habit of biting into capsules of red food coloring to simulate blood while he prowled the stage, making strange grimaces and bashing out percussion on a standard drum kit and and what was referred to in the liners of LTIA as "allsorts," meaning bongos, metal sheets, bells, whistles and other assorted items.

He then met with Bill Bruford, who was ready to leave Yes, just as that band finished its most popular and acclaimed album, Close to the Edge, and before that group embarked on what became the oft-maligned double album, Tales from Topographic Oceans.  Bruford had admired Crimson's experimental, improvisational and innovative approaches and was looking for a new venue for his interests and talents.

Violinist David Cross was observed playing a gig and, attracted to the idea of providing a "light" counterweight to the heaviness embodied in electric instruments and the Crimson way of playing, Fripp invited the unknown Cross to join the group.

Finally, there was John Wetton, an acquaintance of long standing with Fripp, who was quickly gaining recognition for his strong sound and nimble, inventive playing on the bass, but who also sang and wrote his own material in concert with former Supertramp member Richard Palmer-James.  Wetton was ready to leave Family, a band that had achieved some success in the U.K., but with which Wetton was increasingly feeling out of place.

The quintet came together in the summer of 1972 and quickly found improvisation to be a driving force for the group, while also trying out several songs, most of which later appeared on the trio of releases issued in the next two years.

King Crimson also performed mostly-improvised concerts in Europe and the U.K. through the fall and then, on New Year's Day 1973, convened in a London studio (which lacked some of the necessities for good recording, like an experienced engineer) and made this remarkable record.  Whatever was problematic in sound quality and editing was made up for in terms of the amazing mix of sounds, instrumentation, and performance that resulted.

It's hard to imagine any other major (or minor) rock group in 1973 having the audacity to begin the album with the Africans-style percussion and avant garde sounds that opened "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One," though the mighty crunching riffs that developed during the long track certainly pushed things into very heavy territory, while alternating with Cross's delicate, but well-played violin work.

Following a tradition of delicate ballads came "Book of Saturday," which is a fine tune that could be considered kin to "Cadence and Cascade" and "I Talk to the Wind" from earlier albums.  "Exiles" has a little connection probably to "Epitaph" in the sense that it is a lament of sorts--this one about the trials of being in a rock band--and the next album actually has a song titled "Lament."  It also has a similar quality of a sweeping, majestic instrumental sound with a fine vocal by Wetton.

"Easy Money" has heavy bells, sampled voices and laughter, some undefinable scraping songs and other unusual touches, but it is also (excepting "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part 2") the most popular of the songs on this record and the one most likely to have been "radio friendly," if such a term could be applied to Crimson.

But, to this listener, the real gem of this record is "The Talking Drum," which starts off with soft percussion by Muir and then gradually and slowly leads into an extended violin solo by Cross with a menacing (perhaps) drone established by Fripp, while Wetton's performs a hypnotic repetitive bass line and Bruford comes in with a drum beat that holds everything down.  As the tension builds, it is finally resoundingly released as Wetton fattens the bassline with a huge fuzzy sound and Bruford pounds more insistently on the drums.  Then, Fripp unleashes a long guitar solo that emphasizes sound in a way that seems vaguely Middle Eastern with lots of tremolo and sustain that is unlike anything heard with rock guitar.

It was "The Talking Drum" that, when heard in Fall 2009, sparked this blogger's reevaluation of Crimson and what became a determined effort to hear as much of this amazing band's music as possible in subsequent months and years.

After a frenzied finish that seems to mimic wailing, the segue to "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part 2" which has become one of the centerpieces of the KC catalog, mixing intensity and softness, prototypical Frippian riffs and a dizzyingly fast, sensationally loud and cathartic conclusion to an album that may not be unified enough for some, but provides a variety, experimentalism, and juxtaposition of heavy and soft sounds that mark this as a really unusual rock record for its time--in fact, it doesn't really sound dated, because it doesn't play like an album of that era.  It almost is of its own era.

As for King Crimson's next steps, some were promoting this tour as a farewell, though its subtitle is "past, present and future," so, presumably, there may be more life in the band yet.  Let's hope so, because, based on last night's electrifying performance, there could be many more interesting musical places this band could go and there are enough who are ready and willing to go along for the ride.