Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Eric Dolphy: Out There

Recorded in August 1960 with a stellar band including the unheralded bassist George Duvivier, the great Ron Carter on cello (instead of his usual bass), and the incomparable drummer Roy Haynes, who is still with us and approaching 91, Out There is a standout recording in the short, but exceptional career of the amazing Eric Dolphy.

There are four originals and three covers on this amazing album, the second under his leadership through the New Jazz imprint from the Prestige label, including a work by Dolphy's frequent employer, Charles Mingus, and another by the excellent pianist/composer Randy Weston (whom this blogger saw at a great concert at Cal State Los Angeles back in the early to mid 90s).  Dolphy's pieces include a tribute to his mentor, Mingus, who styled himself as "Baron" (in comparison to "Duke" Ellington, "Count" Basie and other jazz royalty), the stunning title track, the gorgeous "Serene" and the flute-driven "17 West," referencing a place where Dolphy lived in Manhattan.

In addition to the always-stellar work of Haynes behind the kit, the pairing of Duvivier, who was a steady and reliable bassist, with Carter's cello provides a striking use of tonal and timbral diversity that makes this record really stand out.  Of course, Dolphy is just staggering in his inventiveness, variety of approaches, power, speed, and ability to play up-tempo and ballad pieces with great sensitivity and conviction.  It's sad that he was so reviled by critics stuck in the past and not willing to see beyond the tired conventions of bebop and post-bop orthodoxy that was still prevalent as the next, exciting and often chaotic Sixties ensued.

There also has to be something said about the very cool cover art done by Prophet. the moniker of artist Richard Jennings, who also did the Outward Bound cover and who was memorialized in one of Dolphy's greatest compositions, "The Prophet," highlighted on the great Live at the Five Spot album that will be featured here some day.

The original liner notes include a very interesting discussion about a common, but generally badly utilized, habit some people have of readily comparing one musician to another; in this case Dolphy to the great and recently-departed Ornette Coleman.  Rightfully expressing his dislike of this tendency, Dolphy made the point that Beethoven "was supposed to be a terrible person, and the writers of his time only talked about that.  But he created something, and what he created was beauty, and it's still alive today."

Now, whether it matters if the statement that all writers of Beethoven's time focused only on his personality, isn't the point.  What Dolphy was highlighting is the question of dwelling on a musician's persona when it is the music that counts and whether that body of work created will last.

In the case of this immensely talented multi-instrumentalist, recordings like Out There, Outward Bound, and especially the classic Out to Lunch! (the latter covered here before), as well as his contributions as members of the bands of Mingus and John Coltrane, should warrant that his posterity is recognized by being "still alive today."

Monday, December 28, 2015

Georg Friedrich Handel: The Messiah

Of course, this being the Christmas season, it seems natural to focus on Handel's great oratorio, The Messiah, because of its association with the holiday.  And, this is an undeniable masterpiece by one of the giants of the Baroque period.

Filled with gorgeous overtures, including the phenomenal "Pastoral Symphony" and a rich array of solo and ensemble choral works, such as the beautiful "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings" and, of course, the famed "Hallelujah Chorus," the work is a high-water mark of Handel's illustrious career and of Baroque music generally.

Notably, the German-born composer struggled to find an audience and decent financial support in his homeland, but his arrival in England signaled a stunning change in fortune.  In fact, his career there was such that he is today thought of as a British composer.

The liner notes to this 1979 recording as reissued in 2002 suggest that Handel was "known universally for his generosity and charity for those who suffered" even when he was experiencing financial problems.  Moreover, the remarks continued, "he was a relentless optimist whose faith in God sustained him through every difficulty."

An Irish charitable organization commissioned the composer for a piece that they could use at a benefit concern and The Mesiah was the remarkable result.   Not only was the concert a success, raising over 400 pounds used to free almost 150 men from debtor's prison (this exactly a century before such prisons were the focal point of Dickens' A Christmas Carol), but the work became a lasting holiday musical tradition, whether a person is religious or not.

Handel went on to conduct nearly three dozen performances of the work, including some for the benefit of London's Foundling Hospital, and the use of the piece for charitable purposes led Patrick Kavanaugh, a biographer of the composer, to note that it was so used "more than any other single musical production in this [Britain] or any other country."

The version released by Sparrow Records in the late Seventies was specifically orchestrated under the baton of conductor John Alldis with The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir to be more accesible to modern audiences.  It is an excellent recording and the four soloists, soprano Felicity Lott, contralto Alfreda Hodgson, tenor Philip Langridge and bassist Ulrik Cold deserve kudos for their excellent work, as well.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Persian Love Songs & Mystic Chants

Some years ago, this blogger recalls reading a front page article in the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times reviewing a sold-out concert, possibly at the Forum in Inglewood, by Persian singer Shusha.  Among the recollections was the adulation showered upon the singer by the crowd, many of whom were undoubtedly emigres who fled the late 1970s takeover of Iran by Islamic fundamentalists and who were basking in a shared memory and enjoyment of part of the remarkable musical culture that has come from that country over the centuries.

This 1971 recording, issued in the U.S. by Lyrichord, featured Shusha's second album of Persian songs, although she had a long-standing background in France and England of performing material more tied to those places.  Born the same year as this blogger's father-in-law, 1935, in Tehran as Shamsi Assar, she was the daughter of a Shia grand ayatollah who was a philosophy professor at the University of Tehran.

At 17, Shusha, as she became known, was sent to Paris to study and her training as a singer was utilized when she began performing folk music, but also recorded an album of traditional Persian songs in 1957.  In 1961 she married an Englishman, Nicholas Guppy, and moved to London where she had her two sons, but continued to work with music, as well as acting and writing.  In fact, she became quite well known for a memoir of her childhood in Iran, which she wrote in the late 1980s.  This album was made with Tangent Records and featured Duncan Lamont on flute and Behboudi on zarb (a hand drum.)  Lamont has had a long, successful career in the British jazz scene, playing tenor sax and gaining recognition as a composer.

Her voice is gorgeous, rich and full, and she easily negotiates the difficult technical requirements of vocalizing in the Persian manner.  The accompaniment is very good, but this record is all Shusha and her entrancing singing through the sixteen brief tracks (the last is the longest at just under four minutes, but most are around two minutes.)

It is hard to pick out any particular tunes as highlights, because the entirety of this record is excellent and there are times when the focus on her voice is notable, while other songs are welcomed for the fine flute playing as well as the rhythmic accompaniment of the zarb.  At about 35 minutes, the recording moves quickly and is a stellar example of Persian folk music, representing different areas of Iran, as well as sublime vocalizing from the amazing Shusha,

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Massacre: Love Me Tender

After the remarkable guitarist Fred Frith left the British group Henry Cow in the late Seventies, he moved to New York and became acquainted with the rhythm section of Material, featuring drummer Fred Maher and bassist Bill Laswell.

Calling themselves Massacre, the trio released a 1981 studio album, Killing Time, and completed a slate of live performances before Maher quit the short-lived group.  Although Frith and Laswell formed another trio with Golden Palominos drummer Anton Fier and performed some Massacre tunes later in the decade, it was not until 1998 that the band was resurrected, this time with British drummer Charles Hayward of This Heat.

Signed to John Zorn's Tzadik label, the group recorded a studio album and two live recordings, one of which, Lonely Heart, was featured here in 2013, before Frith culled the archives of festival performances in Germany and Switzerland in 1999 and a performance in June 2008 in Italy to assemble Love Me Tender, released in 2012.

Because Massacre's music was improvised, it doesn't, to this listener, much matter whether the edited performances come across as "songs," despite the sequencing and titling, the latter drawn from poet Lyn Hjinian's mid-1970s collection Writing is an Aid to Memory.

What makes this album compelling is the wide array of sounds coaxed by Frith from his electric guitar, parallelled in many ways by Laswell's similarly experimental approach to playing the bass.  Hayward plays a bit of melodica and provides some wobbly vocalizations in addition to his steady and reliable drumming, providing a bedrock for his compatriots to build from.

It is difficult generally to point out highlights in terms of the "songs" listed on this recording, but there is one bright exception, which is the staggering "Shadow When Omitted."  Whatever one makes of Hayward's vocals, the performances on this nearly six-minute masterpiece of improvisation by Frith and Laswell are mindblowing.

Laswell spends the first part of the track playing with color and imbre on his playing, using devices common to his work, but as Frith develops a series of virtuoso solos employing his typical wide range of techniques and sounds, Laswell hits a couple of extended sequences of monstrous grooves that are just spectacular.

This, in turn, amplifies Frith's staggering playing, which, as much as he likes to experiment and use different techniques of picking and strumming, including the use of objects, there are solos that show him to be as fast and blistering, or more so, than any more popularly-known "guitar god." Of course, what sets Frith apart is his continuous spirit of experimentation, which is amply demonstrated on the rest of this album.

It is fair to characterize this album as a Frith showcase, though perhaps that has always been the case with Massacre's live and studio work.  This is not meant to downplay the work of Laswell, who is a maestro on an instrument not usually associated as a front-line one, or Hayward, who is an excellent drummer.  But, Frith is the centerpiece of this amazing ensemble and Love Me Tender, more than any of the trio's other releases, confirms this.

And, again, "Shadow When Omitted" is a stunning representation of what this great outfit can do and hopefully with continue to.

Monday, November 30, 2015

AIR: Air Song

The jazz genre was said to be in decline and decay from the about the late Sixties onward and, in terms of sales and popular attention, there was probably some reason for this assertion, as rock, R&B, funk, soul and other forms of music sapped audiences away from jazz, which had a peak of popularity in the late 50s and early 60s.

Yet, there was phenomenal music being made just as the form was said to be dying on the vine and much of the finest work came out of Chicago, this blogger's hometown, where the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) was blazing trails through the work of Muhal Richard Abrams, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, and many more, including the trio that made up AIR (Artists in Residence.)

Bassist Fred Hopkins, drummer Steve McCall, and multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill made some of the most exciting jazz in the Seventies, starting with Air Song, a 1975 recording, and continuing with a slew of studio and live recordings over the next several years.

The project actually began in 1971 when Threadgill was asked by Chicago's Columbia College to develop a program based on the music of ragtime master Scott Joplin.  While Joplin was known for his piano compositions, the trio was challenged by making music on other instruments that took its inspiration from the keyboard instrument.  In fact, Threadgill has frequently used ragtime as a basis for his music ever since.

The opening track (all four titles were written by Threadgill) of Air Song is simply called "Untitled Song" and opens with McCall's powerful drumming before the trio moves into forms of interplay that aptly demonstrate why this was such a remarkable group.  Later in the piece, Hopkins gets an extended solo that is simply awesome.  Threadgill is typically lyrical, playful, offbeat and challenging on alto, playing that instrument in a way that is totally his own.

Threadgill has a knack for fanciful and, perhaps, nonsensical song titles, maybe because, particularly in freer forms of jazz, descriptive titles are hard to justify.  In any case, "Great Body of the Riddle or Where Were the Dodge Boys When My Clay Started to Slide" is another amazing piece, anchored by Hopkins' rich bass work, McCall's inventive percussion, and a highly earthy and creative solo by Threadgill on the baritone sax, an instrument not generally heard often in jazz and certainly not by Threadgill.

"Dance of the Beast" is another superlative effort by the rhythm section as McCall and Hopkins shapeshift frequently and keep the piece humming along with invention and precision, while Threadgill overblows, honks, sputters and wails his way around the piece--evidently providing much of the impetus for the title, although his compatriots certainly comprise a "beast" of a rhythm section, as well.

Threadgill begins the title track with a somber flute solo, punctuated by a splash of cymbals by McCall and arco bass by Hopkins, who sympathetically and brilliantly accompanies Threadgill's playing, with the occasional cymbal crashing and triangle playing by the drummer.  In addition to Threadgill's staggering soloing, Hopkins's masterful bass and McCall's restraint are key to the success of this low-key, but highly impressive performance.

In fact, this is what made AIR's debut so remarkable--the trio performed as a totally integrated, synchronized unit, putting the collaborative above the showy and the plurality above the individual.  Air Song is a brilliant work by a superlative group of jazz musicians.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Joan Tower: Made in America

This Naxos recording features the remarkable "Made in America," as well as "Tambor" and the two-part "Concerto for Orchestra" by one of America's finest composers.

The title piece was commissioned by the Ford Motor Company Fund and the National Endowment for the Arts and was organized through the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet The Composer.  What Tower did was to develop something of a "fantasy on the theme," as Gail Wein's helpful notes suggest, based on a classic piece of musican Americana.  Tower stated:
When I started composing this piece, the song America the Beautiful kept coming into my consciousness and eventually became the main theme for the work . . . this theme is challenged by other more aggressive and dissonant ideas that keep interrupting, interjecting, unsettling it . .  a musical struggle is heard throughout the work.  Perhaps it was my unconscious reaction to the challenge of how do we keep America beautiful, dignified and free.
Not only is the piece full of richness, powerful dynamics, daring harmonics and dignity, but Tower wrote it to be performed in all fifty states, which took place through 65 smaller American orchestras between October 2005 and June 2007.

"Tambor" is Spanish for "drum" and there is an undeniably powerful rhythmic emphasis in this piece that puts percussion front and center.  Tower noted that the percussion section of the orchestra was "to influence the behavior of the rest of the orchestra to the point that the other instruments began to act more and more like a percussion section themselves."  The work, which premiered in 1998, begins with an explosion of percussive elements during the orchestra introduction and the tremendous performance by various types of percussion is underscored by an intense and colorful performance by the orchestra.

The "Concerto for Orchestra" takes its cue from the masterful 1940s composition by the great Béla Bartók, which was featured here on this blog in February 2014.  As with Bartók, Tower utilized soloists, duettists and and sections to develop a powerful and striking piece that is challenging and virtuosic.  To write a piece that is so directly linked to a modern masterpiece is an indication both of respect for the earlier work and a personal statement by Tower about how the form can be utilized in a highly personal way even while influenced by the other.

This disc won three Grammy Awards in 1998 for Best Classical Album, Best Classical Contemporary Composition, and Best Orchestral Performance.  This last award is testament to the astounding work of the Nashville Symphony and its conductor Leonard Slatkin, the latter of which has won several Grammys and been nominated for dozens and has worked for the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra among others.

This album is a perfect example of great composition enhanced by the highest form of excellence in performance by the orchestra.  Naxos deserves great credit for realizing a project of the highest order.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Sounds of West Africa: The Kora & The Xylophone

This is a beautiful and compelling album of music from the nations of Ghana, Gambia and Senegal featuring the gorgeous, lush sounds of the lute-like kora and the hypnotic and highly rhythmic xylophone or balophon, and released by the Lyrichord label.

The latter is the specialty of the Lobi and Dagarti peoples of northern Ghana, who, as the informative liner notes by Richard Hill indicate, preserved their music despite pressures from Muslim and European influences.

Conversely, the kora is an instrument that came from Islamic sources in north Africa, even if the rhythms generated by it are reflective of sub-Saharan antecedents.

The recording features sixteen mainly short (3 minutes and under) pieces with a few longer works in the 4-5 minute range--the effect is to get a notable variety of musical elements that reflect the rich diversity found in the three countries.

Works performed at festivals, work songs, wedding pieces, and songs reflecting the importance of the griot in preserving oral tradition are found on the album.  For this listener, the xylophone is a fascinating instrument with a strong sense of timbre, as well as rhythm, while the kora pieces impress grearly with the complexity, virtuosity and agility of the performers accompanied by interesting vocalizations.

The tenth track, Nabaya, and the trio of tunes at the end of the record include Foday Musa Suso, whose music has been featured previously on this blog (along with another excellent kora master, Alhaji Bai Konte.)

Someone coming to west African music for the first time will benefit from hearing the range of songs and instrumentation featured on this album, but those who have some experience with this amazing music will enjoy the selections, too, as representative of a remarkable tradition.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Jam: Live Jam

Sentimentally, Dig The New Breed would be the live album to focus on first for this blogger, as it was one of the first The Jam records bought back in 1983, just after the remarkable compilation Snap! (which was profiled here back in early 2012).

Live Jam, however, which was released in 1993, includes much more of this great band at its best onstage.  Whereas Dig has fourteen tracks, albeit great ones, Live Jam packs in twenty-four and, to the great credit of the compiled Dennis Munday, none of the tunes overlap with the earlier album.

Recordings span from December 1979 to the final show in December 1982, showcasing the trio's tight interplay, passion and fire, and the tunesmithing, mainly by leader Paul Weller with a couple of contributions by bassist Bruce Foxton, that made The Jam the top band in England before Weller pulled the plug at their peak.

There're so many great tunes here, it is really asking too much to pick out any highlights.  Munday, however, obviously felt very particular about shows recorded at the legendary Rainbow in London, as he chose eight tracks from one gig on 3 December 1979 and another from the previous evening. Another half-dozen tracks were culled from performances over two evenings in December 1981 at the Palais in London.  Other performances from Brighton in December 1979, Newcastle in December 1980, Galsgow in April 1982 and Wembley, where the band's final shows were performed in December 1982 round out the album--was there something about December that brought out the best in The Jam?

While Munday in his "Researchers Note" indicated that a trio of tracks were remixed, the remainder come out sounding great and the track selection is nicely sequenced among songs from the band's several recordings, as well as the closing cover, a favorite of The Jam, being "Heatwave."

Another nice touch is the inclusion of reminscences from ten fans--this was a lot more fun and enlightening than hearing from critics and the general consensus is that the band and its live shows were nothing short of transformative for the mostly teenage and young adult fans who were a highly-devoted base.

As pointed out by one fan, the most concise way to describe how devotees felt about the group was when Weller's father and the band's manager would amble out on stage to introduce the band thusly:
And now, put your hands together for the best fucking band in the world: The Jam!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Jelly Roll Morton Centennial: His Complete Victor Recordings

Jelly Roll Morton was a supreme self-promoter, claiming he was the inventor of jazz at the age of 14 in 1904 and evincing a unyielding swagger about his piano playing abilities.  This three-disc set of recordings he made from 1926 to 1939, though, affirms the reality that he was one of the great musicians of any stamp of his era.

Whether it was high-flying uptempo blowers or the deeply soulful blues, Morton and his very talented bands created a body of work that may have been second only to Louis Armstrong in 1920s jazz, especially in those peak years in 1926-27 when he and his Red Hot Peppers were on a major roll (pardon the pun.)

With some of Armstrong's sidemen, like banjoist Johnny St. Cyr, trombonist Kid Ory, clarinetist Johnny Dodds and his brother, drummer Baby Dodds, Morton could hardly have anything but success.  There are a lot of lesser names in the Hot Peppers lineups, but they were all excellent musicians who made the most of their opportunity to be in a great band.  But, Morton clearly had a firm hand as leader, because these bands were highly disciplined, tight and possessed great talent.

Then, there was Morton on the piano, playing with great assurance, skill, rhythm, power and passion, but also recognizing that the greatness of his bands meant he didn't have to dominate with his playing, but could use ensemble strength to take the music to a higher level.  When he plays, though, it is a wonder.

There are, for this listener, two real treats beyond the great ensemble work.  One is the recording of two takes of "Wolverine Blues" and one of "Mr. Jelly Lord" in a trio with the Dodds brothers from June 1927.  The other is his late work, after nine years away from the recording studio, with his New Orleans Jazzmen in September 1939, just as the Second World War was beginning.  On these works, he had the amazing Sidney Bechet on soprano sax, his longtime drummer Zutty Singleton, and the fine clarinet player Albert Nicholas along with others.  Morton remained in excellent form, as well, though he was less than two years away from dying.

There are some amusing novelties with comedic spoken introductions like "Sidewalk Blues" and "Dead Man Blues," as well as classics like "Black Bottom Stomp." "Dr. Jazz," "The Chant," "Grandpa's Spells," "Original Jelly Roll Blues," the amazing, "The Pearls," and many more.  The ensemble interplay, short but choice soloing, and Morton's compositional and arranging skills are really something to behold.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Witold Lutoslawski: Concerto for Orchestra/Three Poems/Mi-Parti

This excellent Naxos disc featuring the work of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) comprises his majestic, folk-tinged "Concerto for Orchestra" and the serial-based "Mi-Parti" performed by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Antoni Wit, and "Three Poems," another twelve-tone type work by the Camerata Silesia, directed by Anna Szostak.

It is readily acknowledged that the "Concerto for Orchestra" from 1954 reflects a "neo-classical" bent with leanings towards the work of the great Bela Bartok.  It also has much of the grandeur of Romantic-era symphonic works with modern takes on rhythm and harmony.  The remarkable third movement, over twice as long as the preceding two, is a wonderful ride through a sweeping array of themes and emotional content, admirably perfomed by the orchestra.

There is an interesting and notable contrast with the 22-minute "Three Poems by Henri Michaux," which premiered in 1963, obviously beginning with the use of a chorale.  But, it is also the use of poetry from a French surrealist that marks a shift in Lutoslawski's sonic palette.  The composer is quoted in the liners as stating that Michaux's work allowed the composer "to remain absolutely natural as a musician, while following the form of his poetry, because of its formal and rhythmic variety."  It was also noted in the liners that Lutoslawski "set out to find verses that in some way would be near" the form of the composition he already had in mind.  To the composer, "the word is united with the music, that they form a fusion" and that "music adds to the word."

The poetry is from three works, "Thoughts," which is rooted in doubt and uncertainty (thoughts wonderfully swimming / who glide in us, between us, far from us / far from enlightening us, far from understanding); "The Great Contest," with its visceral language, (He seizes him and throws him down on the ground / He drags him and assaults him / He pracks him and mauls him and makes him squeal / He trashes him and mashes him) and consonant sonic barrage and harshly articulated vocalizing; and "Rest in Misfortune," which looks inward as the poet implores Misfortune to "sit down, rest, let us rest a little, you and I, rest, you find me, you try me, you prove me it.  I am your downfall."

The work of such composers as Stockhausen and Xenakis come to mind when hearing much of "Three Poems" though only in the broadest sense and with "The Great Contest" especially.  "Rest in Misfortune" is calm, contemplative and a world away from its predecessor.

"Mi-Parti" from 1976 is a single movement orchestral piece based on Lutoslawski's finding a definition of the title as "composed of two equal but unlike parts," though the "partition" is not binary, but involves several "threads" in which "each of them develops while interfering one with the other and represent an action."  Each starts slowly and builts to a heightened state of activity, with the composer highlighting "color rather in spite of myself" as he used that ambiguous word to try to depict what happens acoustically in the music with respect to "warm" and "cold" elements that swirl in a polyphony of symphonic sound.  The building of activity, dynamic tempo changes and interesting instrumentation to create those "colors" make this a compelling and exciting work.

The "Overture for Strings" is a short 5-minute piece from 1949 that also has shades of Bartok and the writer of the notes, Andrzej Chlopecki, uses the interesting phrase that "the composer wanted to create a super-complete symphonic aphorism" in which only those elements needed are used and that the aphoristic concept is marked by "extreme economy" but without being "ascetic."  With a trio of themes that are very different in technical approach, this overture says a great deal, but no more than necessary, in a relatively short period of time.

One of the most interesting of "modern" composers, Lutoslawski's work is experimental, but highly accessible and this disc shows a range of pieces that distinctly represents his striking output.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Bosavi: Rainforest Music from Papua New Guinea

This remarkable triple-disc set created from the fieldwork over decades by Steven Feld from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings covers the intersection of traditional and modern musics generated from the Bosavi people, who inhabit a remote region of Papua New Guinea that was largely isolated from the outside world prior to 1970, when oil exploation and evangelical Christian missionary activity entered their insulated world.

The first disc captures the gentle guitar-based music that has enveloped Bosavi since outside contact was established.  The titanic changes to their society from the 1970s onward, but especially during the 1980s, includes connections to education, Christianity, outside employment and other elements, including exposure to other forms of music and instruments.

Consequently, the recordings from 1994 to 1999 capture a sound that had only been in the making for about a decade previously, anchored by a lead singer, usually female, backing vocals from a few males, and the lilting and folksy playing of guitars and, sometimes, ukulele and percussion, also played by men, who mainly compose the pieces.  These expressions of gita gisalo (literally, "guitar songs") are plaintive and captivating.

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The second disc, from recordings made in 1977, covers "Sounds and Songs of Everyday Life," dealing with joint work done within the community, including the building of a bridge, a woman calming a crying baby while making sago (a starch derived from the sago palm tree) or clearing space in the rainforest for a garden.  Other performnces are from people relaxing and enjoying each other's company--a reminder that for most of human history and in many places today, music is not to be distinguished much, if at all, from everyday activities.  The disc ends with a nearly half-hour "composite soundscape" captured in a Bosavi village during a twenty-four hour period in 1982.  Much of these pieces are reminiscent, to this listener, of the music from the Mbuti pygmies in the rainforests of central Africa, covered in this blog not long ago.

While the everyday songs were still being performed regularly at the time these recordings were made, the pieces tied to traditional Bosavi ritual and ceremony were rapidly dying out, due principally to aggressive evangelizing efforts.  Examples here include the mournful and very affecting funerary weeping songs, group ceremonial efforts for seances involving spirits, work songs, general leisure, the ritual killing of pigs and poetic texts paying homage to features of the rich natural world in the Bosavi's land.

The eighty-page booklet is filled with detail on the Bosavi, their history, their music and the individual songs and performances over the three discs.  There is also a gallery of photos depicting the Bosavi and their land.  Particularly noteworthy for this listener was the "Brief History of Bosavi Encounters" which discusses the massive changes affecting the Bosavi in recent decades. much of which has turned the worldview of these people upside down and the consequences of which are still in flux.

That's what makes this set so interesting from a musical and historical perspective--it is a striking document of the conflicts inherent in the exposure of traditional societies to modern forces.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Orchestra Terrestrial: Here and Everywhere

Recorded sporadically over 2000 and the early part of 2001, this ambient release on the small underground German label, Die Stadt, by Richard H. Kirk under his Orchestra Terrestrial guise is a beautiful and beguiling work.  Kirk has stated that inspiration from classical music led him to pursue this project, which includes a 2011 followup called Umladen.

The first track, "Low Definition Alpine Drift," is a haunting tune of multi-layered electronic sound moving rhythmically but without percussion as the piece, indeed, drifts in unsettled, yet beautiful atmospheres.

"Einflug" (German for "entry" in the sense of aircraft entering and leaving an airport or airfield) does, however, have a percussive element, an echoed electronic pulse over a higher-pitched drone and a legato series of tones before a darker, more sinister drone enters in on occasion.

"Kristall" ("Crystal") has another complex multi-layered series of grouped tones and simple percussive elements at various pitches.  The piece almost takes the listener on an uncharted journey.  There is a stronger, faster sense of rhythm here for most of the piece, though there is an interlude that mainly features drones.  A flute-like melodic theme gives more buyoancy to this track than others on the recording.

"Abends" ("Evenings") is a very muted and simple piece at the outset with a dreamy six-tone theme that is echoed by a sustained tone in another track, with these repeating until a very quiet series of tones and drones comes in at about 1:30.  At about 2:30 a more direct, louder drone enters, demonstrating Kirk's knack for carefully layering sound to broaden and deepen his pieces.  At around 3:50, there seems to be a processed snippet of a symphonic classical piece that lends an ominous element.  This track is a fine counterpoint to "Kristall."

"Glitzerstrahl" (which appears to mean something like a flittering ray of light) repeats a common thematic element, laid out in a repetitive three-toned manner, with a slow descending series of tones intermingled.  Later, there are a variety of disparate elements, some light percussive sounds, drones, clustered tones and more processed orchestral snippets to break up the repetition.

In "Near Earth Object," there is more of a percussive feel here, with cymbal-like sounds, scratchy paired snare-like "taps" and others to follow drones with varying textures.  There's even a bit of guitar-type sounds in the piece and more of what appears to be those processed recordings of orchestral performances.  A nifty seven-tone thematic element is added to the mix later in the piece.

"Senses and Functions" has a four-tone percussive theme with sharp but quiet cymbal washes and louder percussive components to create a compelling and rhythmical foundation.  A sustained wash of electronic sound comes in at about 1:20 and it rises and falls continuously until another recorded snippet of symphonic music comes in and out.  A two-toned element, followed by a louder single-tone repetition and a louder, sprouting drones enter in with some percussion, another stellar example of Kirk's way of developing complex, multi-layered soundscapes.

The last track, "Uniform Spaces," is mainly an example of the highly-arpeggiated work that he further developed years later on his Richard H. Kirk and the Arpeggio 13 recording, Anonymized, also from 2011.  The various themes, rhythmic and percussive elements, and recorded snippets found elsewhere on the album are processed through that arpeggiated mix.  While it might seem out of place, this track also reminds me of what Kirk did with the experimental Cabaret Voltaire remix "C.O.M.A." in the mid-Eighties, but with different tools.

Here and Everywhere is one of the most interesting, carefully-constructed and fully-developed ambient recordings this listener considers Richard H. Kirk has done in his long and varied career.  It has been a steady favorite for nearly fifteen years.  A word should also be said about the remarkable packaging by The Designers Republic, which includes a half-dozen postcards of digital art works by Naked Art.  In dark gray, with light gray lettering, the paper gatefold sleeve elegantly echoes the music and the cards are distinctive, reflecting the care and consideration put into this remarkable recording.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Thelonious Monk: Brilliant Corners

Recorded in late 1956 and released on the Riverside label early the following year, Brilliant Corners is, indeed, a brilliant album by the great Thelonious Monk.  It has amazing compositions, a fantastic roster of musicians, and the composer/pianist at the peak of his powers.

All five tracks are standouts, with four originals, the closing "Bemsha Swing" was co-written with drummer Denzil Best, and the fantastic solo spotlight for Monk being the stadard "I Surrender Dear."

The title track is memorable for its opening theme statement, the jagged lines from the masterful tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, and the tightness of the band, including altoist Ernie Henry, a little-known player, and the legendary Oscar Peterson on bass and incomparable drummer Max Roach.

"Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are" is, aside from its well-known idiosyncratic title, another classic melody shaped in a relaxed and uplifting blues format.  Rollins really gets the opportunity to show why he was a powerhouse in that mid to late Fifties era.

"Pannonica" opens with Monk playing a celeste, which just happened to be in the studio and it gives a distinctive touch to the tune, which has another remarkable theme statement to set up the soloists.

"I Surrender Dear" features the leader in all of his glory as an utterly unique pianist and working his magic with a maudlin theme before the band, joined by the excellent trumpeter Clark Terry, and Miles Davis' youthful, powerful bassist Paul Chambers replacing Pettiford, puts it all together with the staggering "Bemsha Swing," where Rollins again blows the mind, as does Monk.

There are many great Thelonious Monk recordings from the early Blue Note years on down, but Brilliant Corners might be the peak because all the elements of great songwriting and masterful playing are demonstrated at every turn.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Gustav Mahler: Symphony #8

Titled by the impresario who organized its 1910 premiere, the "Symphony of a Thousand," the eighth and final symphony of Gustav Mahler is a staggering achievement in that, even though there were 1,028 persons involved in its performance, the piece isn't overbearing or chaotic.

Mahler wrote the works in just a couple of months in Summer 1906 with the orchestration finished the next year.  The first movement came by accident, as Mahler wrote to a friend that "an old book fell into my hand and I chanced upon the hymn 'Veni, Creator Spiritus."  With this allure to a composer already imbued with deep spiritual feeling, the composer noted that "at a single stroke I saw the only thing—not only the opening theme, but the whole first movement, and as an answer to it I could imagine nothing more beautiful than Goëthe's text in the scene with the anchorites."

This latter reference was the 53-minute "Final Scene from Faust," including a 19-minute orchestral introduction, a short (especially for the expansive Mahler) eight-and-a-half minute middle section, and the imposing final section, spanning 29-minutes.  Notably, while many composers based pieces on Goëthe's masterwork by focusing on the title character's damnation through the manipulations of Mephistopheles, a.k.a., the Devil, Mahler was drawn instead by the second part's apotheosis of Faust.

Mahler was so enraptured by his conception, feeling that it was the culmination of his life's work and his masterpiece, that he wrote, "just imaging that the universe is beginning to sound and to ring.  It is no longer human voices, but circling planets and suns."  It would be decades before music invoking the cosmos became the order of the day, but here was Mahler ascending into the heavens to make his final musical statement.

This 1991 recording from the Telarc label features the orchestra and chorus of the Atlanta Symphony, conducted by Robert Shaw, with solos by eight principal vocalists, including the well-known soprano Deborah Voigt.  There is also the Atlanta Boy Choir, the Ohio State University Chorale and Symphonic Choir, the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and members of the University of South Florida chorus to round out the huge roster of performers.

To this untrained ear, the performances are excellent, the sound is full and rich, and the conducting brings out the core of the spiritual explorations and ecstacies developed by Mahler in the course of the massive 80-minute work.

Frankly, taking on the task of listening to this opus at one sitting has not been quite the challenge envisioned when the disc was first bought and there have been two full listenings in the last few days.  Mahler's ability to provide a wide range of symphonic sound and the partnering of choral singing with orchestral performance allows the music to move along in such a way that it doesn't really seem like nearly an hour and a half has elapsed before this magesterial work sounds its last lingering note.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Mexico: Fiestas of Chiapas and Oaxaca

Recorded for the amazing Nonesuch Explorer series in 1976 by David Lewiston, who traveled the world to capture the music of indigenous peoples and musical traditions, Mexico: Fiestas of Chiapas and Oaxaca is a great document of those mestizos of the southern part of the country who have been clinging to historic musical styles and performance techniques blending native Indian practices with those emanating from the Spanish conquest and afterward.

Flutes, marimbas, harps, guitars, violins, brass instruments and a variety of percussion instruments are featured on the fourteen brief selections, which provide an overview of the types of musics to be heard in local fiestas in villages and hamlets throughout the two states.  The music tends to be somewhat medium waltz-like tempo, often with a martial beat, and the performances on marimba and flute, in particular, are striking and beautiful.

The remarkable "K'in Sventa Ch'ul Me'Tik Kwadulupe," a ritual in Chamula, a village in the mountains of Chiapas, features chanted and sung prayers, a flowing harp and rhythm guitars, with a concluding set of prayers to the instruments and an invitation for the musicians to rest after the ritual.

A highlight of the disc is the lengthier (five and a half minutes) "Christmas in Oaxaca," in which brass instruments, caroling and percussion capture the festiveness of the holiday season, complete with the joyous shouts of spectators.  As recorded in the streets, the piece can almost transport you to a plaza, or zocalo, and place you in the middle of the celebrations.

Chanta Vielma's guitar and beautiful vocals on "Nuoco" constitute another peak of this fine recording from Pinotepa Nacional, Oaxaca, in which Vielma sings the praises of his hometown.  He is followed by an upbeat rendition of a son alegre in which brass instruments are accompanied by an electric guitar and martial percussion, courtesy of musicians from Pinotepa Nacional.

Another gorgeous guitar-based tune is "Cantares de mi Tierra," from Ismael Salud Gonzalez from Tehuantepec in Oaxaca, as he, too, sings, with great skill, about the beauties of his isthmus land near the Pacific.   On a spit of land along the coast not far from Tehuantepec is the fishing village of San Mateo del Mar and the closing piece is a dance featuring martial drums and violin that represents the indigenous Indians on one hand and the conquistadores on the other, with La Malincha, the native consort of Hernán Cortéz as the titular figure.

Sometimes it's the most simple of musics that are the most affecting, honest and authentic and the closer the pieces are to the activities of daily life, the more that rustic performances can bring out the emotional core of what music is.  Mexico: Fiestas of Chiapas and Oaxaca is a fantastic document of rural music from parts of Mexico that are unknown to most outsiders--this blogger included.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Cocteau Twins: Heaven or Las Vegas

This blogger can remember very clearly the surprise--no, shock--at hearing a song from Cocteau Twins on a pop radio station while in a Target store back in 1988.  Having been a fan of the group for a few years by then, it was surreal to find this "cult" group being played along with whatever ruled the airwaves twenty-seven years ago.

The reason was that the band had signed an American record deal with Capitol, while maintaining their English tie with 4AD, and the song heard on the radio, "Carolyn's Fingers," was from the first release under the new deal, Blue Bell Knoll, a fine record.  Not long after, the band toured the U.S. and seeing them live in Hollywood in 1990 was quite an experience.

The next album, Heaven or Las Vegas, is about a flawless a recording as this great band could have made.  The production values were, certainly, better; Elizabeth Fraser's voice was in top form; he lyrics were actually becoming discernible from time-to-time; and the band's approach to writing 3-4 minute (excepting two longer pieces of 5 minutes or so) gems of atmospheric, lush and compelling songs was at its apex.

It's hard to pick highlights on an album so filled with excellent songs.  The opener, "Cherry Coloured Funk" starts with Fraser singing lines in a lower tone before her double-tracked chorus moves to a gorgeous higher register chorus.  "Pitch the Baby" is a shift in sound--simpler, more direct, and less of the ethereal sound that had been the band's trademark with a funkier bass line by Simon Raymonde than had been offered previously.

"Iceblink Luck" is one of the band's better-known pieces, with a sinewy and fluid bass and Robin Guthrie's understated rhythm guitar undergirding Fraser's crystalline vocal and another double-tracked chorus, which actually offers some clearly-heard vocals ("you're really both sad turns" and "that will burn this whole madhouse down", for example.)

As the band began moving more toward sounds that reflected the electronica that was dominating much of the music scene at the time, "Fifty-Fifty Clown," was an example of the growing interest, but with Fraser's voice (again, more double-tracking here to allow high and low register complemented voicings) adding a human warmth that really harmonizes well with the instrumental.

"Heaven or Las Vegas" is a gorgeous song.  It starts off simply and then builds as Fraser's voice soars in the chorus and Guthrie and Raymonde provide that reliable backing to support and rise up with her.  At just under five minutes, the tune is really a masterpiece of putting all the right pieces together, including a very nice bridge and a rare Guthrie solo that fits perfectly with the movement of the piece.

"I Wear Your Ring" is another primarily electronic piece, but here Raymonde's bass stands out with its fluid, flowing line as the dominant instrumental element.  Fraser sings beautifully here, as she moves into that higher-register chorus (yes, double-tracked!) and then a highly-memorable bridge, which is repeated to close out this excellent song.

To this listener this is where the album starts to hit its heights.  "Fotzepolitic" really soars with Raymonde's bass underpinning one of Fraser's prettiest melodies.  Here, the band perfects the basic instrumental underpinnings allowing for Fraser's singing to take center stage, as it needed to do.

"Wolf in the Breast" is a beautiful ballad, with Guthrie's guitar setting the stage for another memorable vocal performance.  A haunting guitar done drifts over the piece to add a little touch of atmosphere and then there the bridge has a rumbling drum machine and a delicate guitar line to add variety to a standout track.

Raymonde's memorable bass line in "Road, River and Rail" really holds the piece together as Fraser sings with great simplicity and mounfulness.  Notably, there are no dominant multi-tracked vocals (a bit of overlapping, though) here at all and this serves the tune well.  Guthrie provides more drone over his trebly rhythm work and it is executed very nicely.

"Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires" starts off in a very subdued fashion with a piano line supporting Fraser's higher-register singing and then builds, with stronger drum patterns and more pronounced, if light, rhythm guitar from Guthrie to push the song forward to a little heavier territory, with a softer bridge for a change of pace.

After Treasure, this may be Cocteau Twins' finest record, though some who prefer the pre-1987 phase of the band will offer Head over Heels as a better album.  All said, Heaven or Las Vegas is a real gem from a group that was in its own sonic world for a fifteen-year career of memorable music.

Monday, August 31, 2015

World Saxophone Quartet: W.S.Q.

This amazing collective of St. Louis-bred musicians recorded their third album, and second release with the Italian Black Saint label, in March 1980.  The eight pieces, with contributions from all four members, display their dazzling dexterity, strong sense of rhythm, complex harmonic interplay, and daring approaches to composition to great effect.

Over time, altoist and tenorist Julius Hemphill received more attention for his songwriting and it is true that his remarkable gift for creating compelling and complicated pieces were on full display with tracks like "Connections" and "Pillars Latino."  A centerpiece of this recording is the four-part suite, "Suite Music" by Hamiet Bluiett.  Lake's "Sound Light" is also highly effective, as is Murray's closer, "Fast Life."

Really, though, what made this great group so memorable was their mesmerizing way of melding their talents on several instruments, including clarinets, along with the range of saxes, to develop highly original approaches to saxophone-based music that didn't need standard rhythm instruments (piano, bass, drums.)

It took a real sense of synergy, a downshift of ego, and a commitment to truel collaboration that made the World Saxophone Quartet a truly special ensemble.  W.S.Q. is an especially strong release from one of the finest jazz groups of the 70s and 80s.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Ohm+: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music (Special Edition)

While the Ellipsis Arts label was best known for its "new age" and "world music" releases during its 1990s heyday, it did issue, in 2005, an interesting and notable triple-disc, with a bonus DVD, anthology, Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music.  Bad puns aside, this is an impressive collection spanning pre-1980s performances mainly from the so-called "classical" world, though there are contributions from some composers outside of that generalized genre.

There is quite an array of composers represented here, from well-known figures like John Cage, Terry Riley, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, Milton Babbitt, Edgard Varese, Olivier Messiaen to lesser-known, but important, pioneers like Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Lucier, the MEV collective, Morton Subotnick, Pierre Schaeffer, Luc Ferrari, and those outside "classical" and academic circles like Holger Czukay, Kalus Schulze, and Brian Eno.  Even the inclusion of a 1999 version of Reich's "Pendulum Music," in which suspended microphones are swung in pendulum movements to generate sound, by noise-rock legends Sonic Youth is something of a bridge between "serious music" and the pop-rock world.

Obviously, music like this is going to have a polarizing effect on most people, a great many of whom would find this unlistenable noise.  There is, however, a range of material with some pieces moving more towards some form of accessibility than others.  For example, the haunting excerpt from Tchaikovsky's "Valse Sentimentale" pairs piano with the strange and wonderful sounds of the theremin, as played by its greatest exponent, Clara Rockmore.

Messiaen's "Orasion" is also other-worldly, with its "ondes martenot,"a keyboard that provides pitch changes through a ribbon and a ring, and which is also linked to traditional music.  Babbitt's "Philomel" blends the human voice with the electronics in an appealing way.  Oliveros's stunning "Bye Bye Butterfly" skillfully wends excerpts from "Madama Butterfly" into her improvised electronic stew.

Subotnick's "Silver Apples of the Moon" had the distinction of being the first commissioned work by a major label, Nonesuch in this case, for an electronic composition.  Riley's looped piece "Poppy Nogood" [really, "Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band"] is an amazing work using soprano saxophone, inspired by the great John Coltrane, and organ to develop a time-lag effect with a patch cord.

Czukay's mesmerizing "Boat-Woman Song" has medieval choral singing with the over-dubbed samples of simple and haunting folk singing to give it a highly memorable effect.  Paul Lansky's computer-generated "Six Fantasies on a Poem by Thomas Campion" has a warm and enveloping sounds of vocalizations of the poetic works that is quite beautiful.  Another computer-geneated piece, Laurie Spiegel's "Applachian Grove I" has a quiet, ambient approach to creating something that has melodic associations.

Alvin Curran's "Canti Illuminati," one of the longer excerpts, is a fascinating aural experience with a sequencer, a VCS3 (used by some "progressive" rock groups in the early 70s) and the addition of bass tones and the addition of falsetto vocalizations at the end softens the electronics.  Lucier's unplanned excursion "Music on a Long Thin Wire" has a droning, ambient quality that builds off a tuning from an oscillator and seems like a possible precursor to so-called "isolationist" electronic music.

Hassell's "Before and After Charm (La Notte)" has an eerie and compelling repetition of percussive sound accompanying keyboard drones in varying tones and his highly effective in giving an "Eastern" vibe, thanks to the composer's interest in Indian music.  Finally, Eno's "Unfamiliar Wind (Leeks Hills)" is a characteristiclly understated, yet warm, ambient piece that closes out the CD portion nicely.

The DVD is a great bonus, especially the filmed footage of performances and interviews, including one with Rockmore talking with her sister, nephew and Robert Moog, inventor of the (in)famous synthesizer, about her work with the theremin and its inventor, as well as a snippet of a performance with her and her sister pianist.  A great, though very short, clip of Paul Lansky being shown how to play the eerie instrument by an aged Leon Theremin in the latter's Moscow apartment in the waning days of teh Soviet Union is remarkable.

Milton Babbitt gives an entertaining and informative 1987 interview about his early associations with experimental electronic music, including the Mark I and II synthesizers.  A lengthy performance on film from Lucier dating to 1965 is of his incredible "Music for Solo Performer."  Here, Lucier is hooked by electrodes to several types of percussion, including a trash can, and uses his brainwaves to send waves in varying speeds and energy to play the percussion instruments.

A 2005 performance of "Bye Bye Butterfly" by Oliveros with visualizartions by Tony Martin is also something to behold--gorgeous musical conception with a visual accompaniment that fully supports the performance.

Finally, there is a six-minute segment from a documentary on Robert Moog, to whom the DVD is dedicated and who died in 2005, just prior to the release of the special edition.  This interview with Moog about his creation is an excellent capstone to a superb anthology (provided that the listener has any inclination towards electronic music to begin with, that is.)

One last word about the package:  Ellipsis Arts outdid itself (and it was at the end of its tether at the time) with a beautiful box for the discs in a clear plastic sleeve, while the 112-page booklet is chock full of commentary by the composers and others about the excepted pieces and a wealth of great photos.  It really is a work of art that fully complements and serves the amazing sounds found on the four discs.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Hugo Masters: An Anthology of Chinese Classical Music, Volume 1

In 1992, the Tucson-based Celestial Harmonies label (yes, it does sound very "new age") issued a 4-disc anthology of Chinese classical music from the Hong Kong HUGO label called "The Hugo Masters."  Each disc focused on a classification of instrumentation, with the first dealing with bowed strings, the second with plucked strings, the third with wind instruments and the last installement concerning percussion.

The first disc is 67 minutes of amazing music from thirteen tracks with top-flight musicianship and virtuosity, as well as remarkable production and sound from the HUGO label, founded by Aik Yew-goh, who was a musician, engineer and producer.  Their release through Celestial Harmonies marked the first time this music had been heard outside of Hong Kong.

By "bowed strings," what is meant for this recording is various forms of lutes accompanied by percussion, plucked strings and others.  Some of it is vigorous and lively, others contemplative and plaintive, with strength and sensitivity often going hand-in-hand or leading from one to the other.

Chinese music often reflects beloved stories and tales from history and one can imagine, even without knowing the details of the narratives, how the music is composed to accompany the tales.  As importantly, the music often features imitative qualities, in which instruments are played to mimic human conversations, the sounds of animals, and natural features like the wind or flowing of water.  Human emotion is put forward in interesting ways, as well, reflecting martial qualities, pensive attitudes, cheerfulness, sadness and others.

As noted above, the playing is very impressive and the recording quality is top-notch.  HUGO and Celestial Harmonies created a memorable and very affecting package that gives a brief glimpse into the rich history of Chinese classical music.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Mars Volta: Frances the Mute

Virtuosic guitar, dexterous drumming, classic organ, high-pitched rock screaming, usually- incomprehensible lyrics, sometimes in Spanish--these and other aspects made The Mars Volta one of the most interesting groups of the 2000s and one of the few rock bands this blogger has listened to over the last twenty-five years.

It is a mash up of instruments, styles, and sounds that could easily be judged as excessive, chaotic, strange and confounding--but that can all be said in a good way.  The ambition of the group's leaders, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and lyricist and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala, is such that, even if some of the pieces are lengthy, the experimental sounds bizarre, and the lyrics strangely impressionistic, their ability to create a fascinating melange of sonic experiences is without question. And, there are times when this band is so tight, powerful, propulsive and precise that their peak moments are sheer exhilaration.

The band's second album Frances the Mute is, in some ways, an expansion of the sonic palette develolped on the debut De-Loused in the Comatorium.  Suites, electronic interludes, abrupt shifts in time signatures, quiet passages exploding into intense and rapid sections, squalling guitar solos, and Bixler-Zavala's keening singing and visceral wordplay are all given greater expression.  Latin rhythms and percussion, mournful trumpet solos, multi-tracking vocal harmony, and other effects broaden and deepen the rich stew of sounds that abound on the album.

The lyrics are printed on the multiple panels of the insert with striking photos that defy explanation, so it may or may not be helpful to be able to sing along with words that aren't really understandable (same for the titles and subtitles), though bits of meaning might be teased out.

It's really the melange of sounds that are something to behold and this is where Rodriguez-Lopez comes off as a Svengali with a pretty rare gift for pulling directly from punk, metal, Latin music and other styles but in a highly-personalized fashion.

The band including drummer Jon Theodore, bassist Juan Alderete de la Peña, keyboardist Isaiah Ikey Owens and percussionist and keyboardist Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez is top-notch and they were joined by a host of guests including John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers tearing off some great guitar solos of "L'Via L'Viaquez", his bandmate Flea performing on his original instrument, the trumpet (rather than the bass that he is known for), and a slew of violinists, trumpeters, horn players and other musicians.

De-Loused was exciting because it was new and heralded the arrival of a duo and band with tremendous talent.  Frances may be excessive, but spectacularly so and the conception seems more assured and tied together.  While the rest of The Mars Volta's catalog features a lot of higlights, this album is, to this listener, the peak.  But, the remainder of the group's output will be covered here, because it was all interesting, if not quite at the level of the amazing (and confounding) Frances the Mute.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette: Inside Out

This trio of master musicians has been playing together so long and with such amazing telepathy through a long series of recordings of standards that have received much acclaim and popularity.  Not so common among their work are totally improvised performances, which is interesting given that they were all young lions in the 1960s when so-called "free jazz" was ascendant.

In the case of Peacock, he was at the apex of that wild era through his work with Albert Ayler on such seminal recordings as Spiritual Unity.  DeJohnette may best be remembered for his youthful exuberance (and proficiency) with Miles Davis in the very late 60s and early 70s--part of this time working in that band with Jarrett.  The leader came up as an astounding prodigy with Charles Lloyd before striking out on his own (excepting his short stint playing electric keyboards for Davis.)

As mature musicians knowing how to use their technical virtuosity in more subtle ways, the trio has justly become famed for their interpretation of pop standards.  With Inside Out, however, which was recorded in London in late July 2000, there was a total reliance on improvisation.  But, instead of speed, dexterity, and power, the music here is filled with Jarrett's lighter touch, Peacock's uncanny way of anchoring the band with his steady pulse, and DeJohnette's understated but complete use of his kit.

There is no screaming, pounding and displays of dazzling technique.  What is present is a trio that has learned over years to listen to each other and then respond in a manner that is inventive, creative, spontaneous, yet still harmonically rich, tonally centered, and able to swing and employ melody while remaining "free."

Well, there is one fantastic exception: an encore rendition of "When I Fall in Love" that is just exquisite.  Performed with great tenderness, aplomb and feeling, this piece is an excellent way to conclude the recording.

It is also notable that this is one of many recordings where the three musicians are named singly as the artists, rather than as the Keith Jarrett Trio.  This seems to be a recognition of equity on Jarrett's part.  He is the bigger name and the record was issued by his label, ECM, but this is a shining example of true group synchronicity.  The trio issued another recording, a double disc set, of live fully improvised pieces in the excellent Always Let Me Go, as well.

Jarrett's liners are very clear: the reason for the title was to take the process of making music and turning it "inside out."  This was done when the pianist suggested to his cohorts that, if their sound check renditions of existing material did not measure up, then they would go completely improvised.  So, the two nights recorded in London turned out to be just that.

Being "attentive" and "in tune" with each other, Jarrett went on, were even more imperative than before and he takes a quick dig at Wynton Marsalis and Ken Burns (whose television series on jazz had just been issued) over what constitutes "free" playing--and it is true that Marsalis, Burns and company gave short shrift to most "free jazz".  Yet, there is plenty of harmony, melody and structure in the improvisation, so it might be seen as a more mature form of free playing.

But, as Jarrett concludes, there is a great deal of blues feeling expressed on this album and he wrote that "sometimes we live the blues even when we're free of the blues."  It might be free, but it's not absent of accessibility, even within a totally improvised format.  Inside Out is a departure from the usual body of work of this great trio, but their approach to working in synthesis is fundamentally unchanged, which makes this album so stellar.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Franz Joseph Haydn: String Quartets, Op. 64, #s4-6

From the late 1980s on the German budget label, Pilz, comes this fine recording of three of Haydn's best-known string quartets, filled with gorgeous melody, rich harmony and excellent playing by the Caspa da Salo Quartet.

Composed in 1790 and often called the Tost quartets after Johann Tost, a Hungarian violinist who assisted the composer in finding a publisher for much of his work and who is given a dedication by Haydn for the Op. 64 works, this trio includes the fifth, called the "Lark Quartet", and which is one of the most famous of his pieces.

All six of the set are remarkable works.  The quality of these pieces reflect Haydn's full development, by his sixties, of both the string quartet and the symphony genres.

They were also written just as the maestro was ending a decades-long employment at the Esterhazy court and soon to be sent to London, where he reached new levels of fame with some of his late symphonies.

When it comes to bargain-basement budget classical labels, Pilz is probably the most notable of all.  This blogger has hundreds and hundreds of classical recordings, many on high-end labels, and quite a few on Naxos, Pilz and other budget ones, and does not have any pretension as to knowledge or deep understanding of the technical underpinnings of the music.  But, this recording and the few dozen others from Pilz are enjoyable.

Click here an interesting take on what the Pilz series has to offer for the "frugal" classical music consumer--this was definitely relatable!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Alhaji Bai Konte: Kora Melodies from The Gambia

This was another memorable purchase in the early Nineties as explorations in "world music" were beginning and it was the first introduction, outside of an abridged piece on a JVC sampler CD, to the amazing and rich sound of the kora.

The 21-stringed gourd-like instrument has so much range and complexity and, in the hands of a master griot like Bai Konte, it takes on an otherworldly quality to it.  Beautiful melodies, deft arpeggios, and an assured technique mark this 1973 recording, released to coincide with Bai Konte's first tour of the United States and released by Rounder Records.

Then a three-year old company, Rounder was becoming well-known for its releases of folk, bluegrass and other American forms of music, but the beauty of this music inspired the label to issue the album because it seemed to relate in spirit to the rest of Rounder's expanding catalog.

The 1990s purchase of the album was on cassette, so the great thing about the CD version is the presence of four extra tracks, three of them recorded at a college concert in Pennsylvania.  The remainder of the album was recorded in The Gambia, including one of the bonus tracks which was taped at a performance in the town of Sinanor.

Most of the insert is about the sights and sounds encountered when the producers spent time with Bai Konte in The Gambia and give some idea of the important of Islam, Gambian traditions, and family in the musical world of the kora master.

After this first foray into world music, Rounder later released over fifty volumes of the remarkable "Anthology of World Music" series.  More selections from that series to come soon!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Durutti Column: The Guitar and Other Machines

This was an album bought new on cassette when issued in 1987 and it was striking how different much of the sound was compared to earlier records.

For one thing, even though drum machines had been used on the first Durutti Column record, The Return of the Durutti Column (1979), there was an increasing use of electronics for The Guitar and Other Machines, as discussed in the liner notes of the expanded album version released under the Factory Once iteration of Anthony Wilson's Factory Records label.

In his typically breezy and idiosyncratic style of writing, Wilson observed that "Vini had some new technology thrust upon him" in the form of a Yamaha sequencer and a DMX drum machine.  With these new tools, the guitarist created a recording that featured much of his gorgeous guitar, as well as keyboards (he was first a pianist) and which was augmented with drums, xylophone and the drum machine by longtime compatriot and manager Bruce Mitchell, violist John Metcalfe and guests Stephen Street, who played bass on one track as well as produced the album, Rob Gray, provider of mouth organ on two tracks, and vocalists Stanton Miranda and Pol.  Tim Kellet, who had been in the band but left to join Simply Red, contributes a good trumpet solo on "When the World."

The other major change was that, while there was plenty of the precise and atmospheric guitar playing that has distinguised Reilly from anyone else emerging from the postpunk era, The Guitar and Other Machines features some examples of performance that are more "rock" like.  The most amazing result was the absolutely scorching guitar solo from "When the World."  There are similar sounds on "Arpeggiator," as well.

Finally, there is Stephen Street's production.  He had produced Morrissey's Viva Hate, which Reilly, who had been in a short-lived punk band with Morrissey in the late 1970s, performed on, so the partnership here appears to have meant a more direct and, perhaps, accessible sound.  This is a good thing, actually, as the opening up of the sound takes Reilly out of a more confined environment without sacrificing any of his aesthetic.

What is rather typical, though fantastically so, is the way that Reilly and his collaborators blend instrumentation, creates evocative emotional sounds, and makes his work so personalized.  A beautiful piece like "Jongleur Gray" with Reilly's guitar and piano juxtaposed with Gray's harmonica is then followed by :When the World" which begins with drum machines, Reilly's rhythm guitar, and a distant harmonica before the vocals from Miranda come in.  Suddenly, the uncharacteristically searing guitar blasts through the piece, changing the atmosphere substantially and in a thrilling way.

After that is the sublime "U.S.P." which is a feature for Reilly's fantastic acoustic guitar playing--something that hasn't been heard often enough for this admirer.  Then, on the excellent "Bordeaux Sequence" more drum machines and electronic keyboards lead into some plucked viola from Metcalfe before Pol's beguiling vocals take the piece somewhere else.

Following is the beautiful "Pol in B," following a long tradition of Reilly's in naming pieces for those close to him.  The extraordinary lead is echoed by pretty acoustic flourishes and keyboard touches--yet another example of his unique penchant for creating some of the most striking mood music.

These examples show how the diversity and the sequencing of the pieces make The Guitar and Other Machines a highlight in the long and extraordinary career of one of the most interesting musicians around.

There are four bonus pieces known as "Related Works" in the Factory Once reissue series, including "Don't Think Your Funny" which provides Vini's oft-maligned vocals with a backing vocal layered behind and is another simple and effective little piece at under two minutes.  The unusual use of bongos and sampled audio make "Dream Topping" and "You Won't Feel Out of Place" distinctive for the DC discography.  "28 Oldham Street" has a rhythmic keyboard pattern under Reilly's trebly work on his guitar, while drum machines come a bit in to the piece, making for a nice piece.

On the CD insert, there is reference to four other pieces from a performance at Peter Gabriel's WOMAD festival in 1989, but this must've been for a UK version, because the one discussed here lacks these tracks.  These can be heard elsewhere, notably on the 1989 album Vini Reilly, as well as 1991's Dry collection, and include the incredible "Otis," a sampling of soul singer Otis Redding's voice with one of Reilly's most memorable guitar lines.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Miles Davis: In a Silent Way

Saxophonist Bob Belden died a few weeks back and, while he was a well-known and respected musician, he also was a contributor to some of the remarkable box sets issued by Sony/Columbia Records regarding the music of the great Miles Davis.

One of the sets in which Belden made a significant contribution concerns one of the great Davis recordings, 1969's In a Silent Way.  This album marked Davis's first extensive use of electric instrumentation, but it also represented a shift in composing style and recording techniques employed by the trumpeter and his long-time producer, Teo Macero.

What is striking about this album compared to recent Davis releases with his great quintet (Hancock, Carter, Williams and Shorter) and anything else from the period is not so much that he used electric instruments, but that he created a type of sound that was more atmospheric and groove-oriented.

Bassist Dave Holland, whose dexterity, speed and power have been amply demonstrated elsewhere, plays highly repetitive lines here, but it's perfectly in service to the music Davis orchestrated.  Tony Williams, whose mastery of the cymbals was exceptional, largely plays that part of his kit for the recording, excepting towards the end of the recording.  Keyboardists Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, all brilliant players, are primarily concerned with laying down the ambiance that anchors the album.

The soloists are Davis, Wayne Shorter and, getting his first major exposure in the music world, the incredible John McLaughlin on guitar.  The interplay between Shorter and Davis, honed over just beyond four years of working together, is clear and precise.  Hearing the two, though, with the five-man rhythm section playing the way they did, is fresh and new compared to the quintet music that preceded this record.

McLaughlin is really, however, the linchpin of this record.  His guitar work is at times subtle, at other times direct, and usually inventive and unique.  He expanded his sonic palette on the phenomenal Bitches Brew, along with an augmented and beefed up ensemble that Davis employed.  On In a Silent Way, though, Laughlin gets more of the spotlight because of the way the sound was constructed.

Another key player is producer Teo Macero, whose uncanny way of working with Davis's methods of recording and concepts behind the music often generated some remarkable results.  Macero's edits are sometimes very jarring, as is the case with side two's In a Silent Way/It's About That Time, but his work deserves praise for the creative way in which he stitched the recordings together.  This process became more marked with subsequent records and it has been hotly debated whether there was merit in much of this.  Clearly, though, Davis wanted Macero to work in this way and, on this record, the results are excellent.

This may not be an apt corollary, but, to this listener, there is something about this record that is akin to the Birth of the Cool recordings.  It is probably more in the general sound and tempo--in which the ambiance and mid-tempo stylings are effected.  Yet, the album is anything but a reference to the past, at least not directly.  Instead, it is an emphatic nod (and it is subtle, like a nod--whereas Bitches Brew was a direct shake of the yead) toward the future.

Miles did what he needed to do after several years with the quintet to move his music in a different direction, but, in doing so, he incorporated the spirit of (and, often, direct connections to) rock, soul, pop and modern classical music.

In a Silent Way was an almost ambient way to chart new directions, where Bitches Brew was a powerful pathbreaking effort.  They are perfect companions to show where, 20 years in as a leader, Miles was going to go next.  He was called a sellout for using electric instruments and making references to popular and other forms of music.  But, how can you sell out, when you're making album long sides of 20 minutes or more?

Miles wasn't selling out, he was moving on.  The fact that he could do so, once again changing his style, personnel, composing, production and editing, and image and create another chapter in his career, when most of his contemporaries were still playing the same way they had done in the Forties, Fifties or early Sixties is testament to his greatness.  In a Silent Way is an amazing record, somewhat overshadowed by Bitches Brew, when, perhaps, it should be seen as a precursor and direct linkage.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Luciano Berio: Sequenzas I-XIV

This is a spellbinding and utterly absorbing three-disc set of performances, released by the Naxos label in 2006, on an array of solo instruments written by the Italian composer over a forty-four year period from 1958 until just a year prior to his death in 2003.

The lengths of the sequences run from just over five minutes for the first of the lot for flute to sequence ten on trumpet with piano resonance at just over seventeen minutes.  Other instruments featured are harp, piano, trombone, viola, oboe, violin, clarinet, guitar, bassoon, accordion, cello, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, and the female voice.

The recordings were made between 1998 and 2004 and are uniformly stunning in the composing, beautiful in the playing, and especially crystalline in the recording.  In fact, the use of St. John Chrysostom Church in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada provided a very particular environment in which the sounds emanating from the instrument filled the structure and almost makes the venue another instrument with the rich timbres and sustained echo adding so much to each performance.

Of particular note is Berio's extensive use of extended techniques beyond traditional methods of performance on any given instruments.  These can be done any number of ways in terms of tapping rhythms on the body of an instrument, overblowing through a mouthpiece to create multiphonic sounds, bowing or plucking strings on a different part of a fret or rethinking how an instrument is generally used (such as a harp being played more aggressively through tapping on the body as well as varied strumming.)

Perhaps the most interesting of the extended techniques comes in the aforementioned sequence ten, in which the trumpeter blows into an open piano to generate the resonance referred  to in the title.  Also amazing is the sequence for bassoon (twelve), in which it appears that the player is utilizing circular breathing to continue the performance all the way through--this is truly amazing to hear.

It is probably too much to attempt to listen to all three discs and fourteen sequences at one time, but with each disc running at approximately an hour, taking them individually makes for an easier digesting of the rich content of the compositions and a fuller appreciation for the playing and, again, for that venue.

This listener, very new to Berio, having only heard his vocal masterwork Coro, approached the box that way, taking each disc on its own and absorbing what was heard before moving on to the next. Also very helpful are Richard Whitehouse's liner notes, pointing out that the complexity of the composing and technical virtuosity are matched by the emotive expressiveness brought to the performances by the musicians.

Perhaps the most impressive achievement in this series, though, is the way in which Berio wrote in a modern fashion while making reference to tradition.  This is not an extraordinarily difficult set of recordings to listen to--at least, not in three doses as noted above.

Someone who doesn't have a particular interest in so-called avant garde classical music, but may be willing to venture beyond traditional expressions on a variety of largely tried and true instruments, might find that taking the sequenzas in one disc at a time can be highly rewarding.  This listener has even listened to these recordings in two consecutive home gym workouts, which might (or might not) mean something in terms of the power and complexity of the sounds developing a strong sense of highly creative energy.

As is so often the case, Naxos is to be commended for putting together such a gorgeously-recorded, stunningly-performed and very affordable set of this remarkable music.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Flamenco Live!

This 4-disc box set, issued by the British Nimbus label in 2000, is a collection of four previously-released live albums from the label.  Three of the four feature singers and guitarists performing cante with the traditional-style vocals of María la Burra, María Soleá, José de la Tomasa, Chano Lobato, Manuel de Paula, Gaspar de Utrera, Miguel Funi, El Cabrero, Tina Pavón, Emilia Jandra, Rafael Calderón, Manuel Márquez, and Monica Dominguez--all of whom deserve mention because they are all excellent in conveying the passion and intensity of the form.

On two of the cante discs, the guitarists, who play with great dexterity, emotion and the use of variations are Paco del Gastor and his brother Juan.  They provide a perfect accompaniment to the vocalists in the environments of flamenco clubs, with a few in larger concert settings.  The fourth disc, another cante, features guitarist Manolo Dominguez, whose daughter Monica is one of the five vocalists, with the material also recorded in clubs.

The third disc is a spotlight for Paco del Gastor, whose talents took him from his native Morón de la Frontera, where much of this music was recorded and where the del Gastor dynasty of excellent guitarists were from, to the Spanish capital Madrid.  After hearing three recordings of cante, in which the singers are justly at the fore, demonstrating their various talents and abilities to the fullest, it is a bit jarring to hear a solo guitar performance--at least at the beginning.  But, Paco del Gastor is such an amazing performer that any sense of disconnect melts away quickly as the listener is absorbed in the work of this master.

That said, the highlight of this box, at least for this listener, are the two performances at the end of the second disc, Cante Flamenco, in which the del Gastor brothers take a back seat to the remarkable talents of El Cabrero (José Dominguez Muñoz), who had a twelve-year partnership with Paco del Gastor.

That synergy definitely shows on these pieces, recorded at a larger festival, but El Cabrero is the main attraction, with his vocals featuring a distinctive ululating at the end of certain phrases, a very strong elongating of the syllables that characterize the cante, but in a way that appears more like a plaintive and anguished cry, and politicized lyrical content.

There is a lot of material in this set, four-and-half hours worth, but most of it consists of rare instances of traditional pieces recorded in small flamenco clubs in Andalucia, the cradle of the form, and this is a paramount reason to shell out for the whole set, though the individual discs are available from Nimbus.  Those who favor the guitar work over the vocals would be advised to search out the Flamenco de la Frontera disc from Paco del Gastor, or the several albums on Nimbus from Paco Peña, another giant of the flamenco guitar.

For this listener, relatively new to the music, though, the vocals seem essential in conveying the passion and intensity as reflected in the cante that is ultimately the heart and soul of flamenco.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Black Uhuru: The Dub Factor

It was probably Fall 1984, not long after this blogger saw Black Uhuru open a wondrous double bill with the phenomenal King Sunny Ade, when I bought this album on vinyl.  From the first listen, the recording made a huge impression because it was the first of many excursions into the heart of dub, that amazing offshoot of reggae featuring a wide palette of processed sounds injected into the instrumental mix of a song, with occasional samples of the vocals by lead singer Michael Rose and backing vocalists Puma Jones and founder Duckie Simpson.
When reggae shifted gears into dancehall and other genres after the mid-80s, it was years before I went and bought a CD version of this album and all of the great memories of the sonic experience flooded back.  Recently, several albums of choice dub from the likes Augustus Pablo, King Tubby, Lee "Scratch" Perry and the Trojan Records label have rekindled that interest in the outer limits of reggae that dub embodies.

Black Uhuru's The Dub Factor is a reworking of tracks, largely from the great Chill Out album from 1982, which immediately preceded this dub masterpiece.  A few songs, principally "Youth" and "Puffed Out" from Red's "Youth of Eglington" and "Puff She Puff" come from other sources.  The 2003 remastered version adds three tracks, including takes on "Carbine" and "Journey", also from Red, a take on the title track from Chill Out called "Destination Unknown."

As great as the dubs are with the echo, reverb and other effects rendered to the instrumental backbone of these songs, as well as the disembodied vocal samples, the greatness of Black Uhuru, in addition to the excellent musicians and the preeminent Riddim Twins of Robbie Shakespeare (Basspeare) and Sly Dunbar (Drumbar), was the top-notch songwriting of Rose.  He wrote so many memorable songs for the band in that first half of the 80s, when classic reggae was gradually giving way to a digital movement and Black Uhuru reigned as the supreme band in the genre after the untimely demise of Bob Marley.

In addition to the production skills of Dunbar and Shakespeare, who embraced the technological movement to electronics through syndrums and other devices, this album is testament to the skill of Paul "Groucho" Smykle, an Island Records producer, who remixed the record.  Even though The Dub Factor has a crystalline sound benefiting from the latest in studio wizardry, the album delves deeply into the dub aesthetic, combining the studio sheen with a sense of audio adventure.

Following this recording, Black Uhuru issued one more album, 1985's Anthem, which won the first Grammy for a reggae album.  Yet, there was a lack of passion, energy and urgency to that ultra-sleek sounding record that was a precursor to Rose leaving the group.  Though there were several versions of the band over the years, Black Uhuru never again approached anywhere near the heights of its early 80s heyday.  Rose was away from the scene for a time and then returned with dancehall-infused solo albums that sold decently, but were a far cry from his peak as a socially-conscious crusader.  For a brief period a decade ago, Rose rejoined Black Uhuru, but it was a very brief reunion.

It's hard to believe that it has been over 30 years since that record was first heard by this blogger, but its qualities as a landmark in reggae and dub are as obvious as ever.