Saturday, January 31, 2015

Bill Laswell: Means of Deliverance

For some people, it's problematic enough to have to listen to a bass solo, but to endure an entire album of solo bass playing?

Well, Bill Laswell has made an amazing album, Means of Deliverance (released in 2012 on his Innerhythmic label), that uses a Warwick fretless acoustic bass instrument called the Alien to create a series of textures and tones that are familiar, yet also (yes) alien, when one things of the traditional electric or acoustic bass.

He also finds interesting ways to make the Alien a melodic instrument as well as a rhythmic one and it is his ability to make the bass sing, as well as his exemplary technique and use of atmospheric textures that gives Means of Deliverance its special qualities.

As with other solo albums, most notably the excellent 1999 release Hear No Evil (Meta Records), Laswell draws deeply from the experiences of his upbringing in Kentucky and Illinois and was once quoted about the hard impression made on his musical development by hillbilly music.

Oz Fritz, who has worked frequently as a recording engineer with Laswell, points out on his blog, "The Oz Mix," that Laswell's global travels, physically and musically, are encoded in the title of this album and in its contents.  Fritz refers to Means of Deliverance as "spacecreating," which is an excellent way of putting it.  The songs have their melodies, rhythms and other elements of structure, but there is an expansive sense of space between the notes and around the sound the Alien guitar makes.

In another interesting piece on the Sonic Scoop site, Laswell is quoted as discussing how life experience and the effects this has on the musical vocabulary, languages and improvisation lead to interesting stories that can be told through the music.  This excellent post notes that Laswell and his engineers Robert Musso and James Dellatacoma, longtime collaborators, employed a three-level recording method.  First were the rhythmic elements, the leads built off those rhythms, and finally drones from an e-bow or slide.  Up to six tracks are used on the record, even with its rather spartan feel.

On one piece, Laswell's wife Gigi Shibabaw, an Ethiopian singer with great emotive abilities who also produced the record, provides a plaintive and keening vocal.  A buzzing drone accompanies the warm tones of the Alien to make "Bagana Sub Figura X" a highlight of the recording.

It should also be noted that special consideration was given to equipping Laswell's Orange Music studio with an environment, along with the excellent work done by Musso and Dellatacoma, a gorgeous, full and clear sound, enhancing the listening experience.  Moreover, the mastering by Michael Fossenkemper at TurtleTone expertly works with the low end of the bass that Laswell is so adept at expressing.  As Fritz observes, you can almost feel Laswell's fingers hitting the strings because of the clarity and cleanness of the sound.  For a solo recording like this, there's an immediacy that is really palpable.

Fritz has another valuable observation:  Means of Deliverance has a progressive presence and that is an apt way to describe one of the most interesting of the legions of albums that Bill Laswell has produced.  It is an object lesson in creating a unique personal statement on one's chosen instrument and Laswell is to be saluted for making it and taking us with him on his journey.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Ludwig von Beethoven: String Quartets (Complete) Vol. 1

This excellent 1995 Naxos release features the Kodaly Quartet, a Hungarian ensemble, performing two quartets, one in F major and the other in G major, of the sixteen written by the master and Opus 18, consisting of the two works here, were the first to be developed, coming between 1798 and 1800, when Beethoven was in his late twenties.

The F major has a beautiful first movement full of feeling, melody and drama--in fact, it is said the composer envisioned the classic vault scene from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as he wrote the piece.  To some observers, this quartet and the others of its time were hallmarks of Beethoven's emergence into full maturity as a composer.

Moreover, he was in a class all by himself as he introduced notions in his complex musical structures that took him beyond Haydn and Mozart, his most famed precursors.  The second movement has a particularly restrained but very pretty melodic statement and makes use of space and harmony that are very appealing.

Whereas a typical Beethoven scherzo to date was full of power and aggression, the short scherzo in this quartet is quieter and yet also playful and joyful.  The fourth movement has a strong rhythmic component that is lively and energetic, but not overly fast, and the figures move smoothly and easily.

The G major is often called the "Compliments" quartet and its light, buoyant sound is reminiscent of what Haydn produced in his remarkable quartets decades earlier.  In fact, it is said that Beethoven was directly playing off Haydn's work in this piece, while providing the level of complexity, harmonic richness and dramatic use of counterpoint that made his composing so distinctive.

His use of changes in tempo, key and harmony set him apart from his predecessors, to the point that an alleged Haydn lament that someone was needed to write minuets in a new way was probably countermanded by the amazing work Beethoven did in these and other string quartets in those years from the late 1790s until his death thirty years later.

The Kodaly Quartet plays remarkably and its quarter century together by the time this recording was made reflects the synchronicity and unifying sense of purpose that a superior group of musicians can achieve.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Asante Kete Drumming: Music of Ghana

This 2007 release on Lyrichord Records is comprised of field recordings by musicologist Joseph S. Kaminski at a funeral in Kumase, Ghana in October 2001.  The ancient form of Asante kete drumming has unknown roots, but has flourished among the Asante political division of the broader Akan peoples.  The very informative liner notes includes good historical information about the Asante and Akan.

Kete drumming, which is said to have the power to attract good spirits, was used to accompany warriors to battle, as well as court ceremonies for state visits, funerals, and executions, among others, as well as rituals honoring ancestors.  These days, the form is used for funerals, at which dancing is encouraged to assist in the soul of the deceased as it goes to an ancestor heaven.  Gestures made by the dancers invoke symbolically proverbs among the Asante.

Of a large repertoire of fifteen kete pieces, this disc presents five, varying in length from just over 9 to about 14 minutes.  Percussion instruments include the petia, or small pegged drum which is struck with sticks; the kwadum or main drum, also hit with sticks and which is played to mimic speech; the apentema, or a pegged drum hit with the hands; the abrukua, another pegged drum struck with sticks; the donno or hour-glass shaped talking drum (this instrument, however, is not featured on the recording); the ntorowa, a gourd rattle; and the dawuro, a iron bell in the shape of a boat and which keeps strict time.  The five pieces vary in tempo, with some able to played slow or fast depending on the circumstances.

The ensemble performing on the recording is the Nsuase Kete Group, which performs in the Kumase area and consists of six members led by Isaac Nketia, who is also a professional dancer and plays the petia here.  Other identified musicians are Gabriel Ololai Martey on the kwadum; Yaw Damso on the apentena; and Richard Dwoomoh on the abrukua.  Performers on the dawuro and ntorowa were unknown.

The exciting polyrhythms of this drumming is something to behold, especially if the listener is particularly into percussion music.  For those not much into drumming or African music, a full hour or so is almost certainly too much, but, for this listener, the album is a fantastic example of the power of African drumming, particularly the rich history and tradition found in west African percussion.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

John Coltrane: Crescent

It's hard to argue with the oft-stated view that the pinnacle of the amazing John Coltrane's recorded work came with two classic albums recorded in 1964.  At the end of the year was the masterpiece A Love Supreme, covered here previously.  Earlier was the majestic Crescent, recorded on 27 April and 1 June, and reflecting the telepathic relationship of the leader with his remarkable band members, including pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Jimmy Garrison.

The record is built around three pieces showing a highly reflecting, ruminative and meditative side to Coltrane that had been heard before but reached its apex on this album.  Trane's solos are phenomenal, as are those of Tyner, and the rhythm section of Garrison and Jones hold everything together for the soloists to build from.

The title piece is driven by the leader's keening and emotive statement of the gorgeous melody with Tyner accompanying simply but beautifully, while Jones employs long rolls and uses splashes of cymbals to great effect.  After about a minute and a half, a steady rhythm ensues and Coltrane soloes with economy and emotion, though there are moments where he employs overtones and cycles of repetitive notes that hint at the freer forms he moved into the next year.

"Wise One" starts with a gorgeous opening by Tyner before Coltrane comes in with a mournful and memorable melody accompanied by Jones' exclusive and excellent use of cymbal patterns.  At about three minutes in, a Latin-like rhythmic pattern comes in and Tyner soloes sensationally by keeping things simple and subdued.  At 4:45 or so, Coltrane comes in with perfect timing and keeps the mood Tyner had established--for a while.  He builds up gradually and increases the speed and intensity over his solo, while Jones focuses mainly on the cymbals for his rhythm, rather than the bass drum or snare.  Garrison, all the while, holds down the bottom end solidly and basically.

"Bessie's Blues" can be heard as an aberration, being a playful midtempo blues with a sparkling Tyner solo being the highlight and Coltrane using some overtones on his solo while Tyner lays out, but it might also be thought of as a nice break between the subdued, but substantial and sublime tracks that form the core of the album.

The third piece of that core is the lengthier and pretty "Lonnie's Lament," where Coltrane states the theme to Tyner's impressive filigreed backing and more of Jones' fine cymbal touches before the band comes in to a steady rhythm, highlighted by Garrison's stronger presence here than on portions of the album.

Tyner soloes first and is wonderfully restrained with his notes cascading sometimes like raindrops (you can almost imagine a scene in which it is raining while the song is playing) and other times his trademark block chords drive his work.  It is really a spectacular piece of work from one of the great pianists in jazz and who was truly coming into his own at age 26 as a leader as well as Coltrane's sideman.

A little after six minutes, Garrison comes in for his only solo of the record.  It's become commonplace for people to groan whenever a jazz bassist soloes, which is really a shame, because Garrison was one of the best.  His playing is always of interest in terms of dynamics, tone, strength and melodic statement.  This performance is a reminder of his immense talent.

Towards the end, Trane comes in to restate the theme and take the piece out--a generous display by the leader to allow two of his compatriots the opportunity to show the best of their art.

Which leads to the showcase for the third of his band members:  the closer is a Jones highlight called, naturally, "The Drum Thing,"  Notably, though, this track isn't just a centerpiece of the speed and power for which Jones was justly famed, but because his polyrhythmic skills are displayed fully here.

Jones starts off with a muted rumble of his drums and Garrison playing a simple twice-repeated riff of the same note while Trane plays a simple melody that is attractive on its own terms.  Then, the masterful drummer launches into his staggering solo, thundering, rumbling, pounding with total discipline and yet sounding like several percussionists at the same time.  It's not that there aren't plenty of other masterful solos in Jones' recorded catalog, but this one has a sense of restraint even amongst the power, speed and intensity that sets it apart.  This is a great close to a fantastic album.

Amazingly, the Coltrane quartet came back at the end of 1964 with something even better.  The fact that A Love Supreme was released not long after Crescent has, perhaps, overshadowed the latter.  However, Crescent is a landmark album and was something of an encapsulation and summation of what made the Quartet such a special band.  This was perfected on A Love Supreme but that shouldn't diminish the achievement of its predecessor.

The photo of Coltrane is from the 8-disc The Classic Quartet—Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings set issued in 1998.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Big Bill Broonzy: Trouble in Mind

This release on Smithsonian Folkways Records highlights the acoustic "country blues" of the great Big Bill Broonzy, from sessions in 1956 and 1957 as well as two performances from a concert at Northwestern University near Chicago.  Despite the musician's struggles with throat cancer, from which he died in 1958, his playing and singing are fantastic.

Moses Asch, the owner of Folkways Records, was determined to record Broonzy solo and to emphasize his singing and lyrics, which, in Asch's view, were often not as well-recorded in his earlier years.  A bonus is the opportunity to hear Broonzy introduce or add commentary to some of the pieces, including on "Joe Turner Blues No. 2 (Blues of 1890," "Black, Brown and White," and in his live performances of "This Train," and "In the Evening."

As remastered for compact disc, there is a clarity of sound that might be too clean for listeners who like the grittier recordings of the era as represented on the original vinyl releases.  This is certainly understandable, especially when it comes to classic blues material, but, on the other hand, the acoustic guitar and vocals do shine nicely on this release.

Among the many gems, in addition to those mentioned here, are the standard blues and folk tune "Frankie and Johnny," in which the jilted Frankie takes out her anger on her roaming lover Johnny; the hilarious "Mule-Ridin' Blues," an excellent example of the talking blues genre; the emotive "Poor Bill Blues," a personal adaptation of a tune called "Worried Life Blues"; the double-entendre loaded "Digging My Potatoes"; the plaintive "When Things Go Wrong (It Hurts Me Too)," best known in a version by Tampa Red from 1940 and best known in a rendition by electrical guitarist Elmore James; the famed standard "C.C. Rider"; and the fantastic "Southbound Train."

In truth, though, all of the nearly two-dozen songs are great, showcasing the variety of Broonzy's repertoire and use of varying styles in the blues genre.  There is a great quote from Studs Terkel, who did interviews with the musician and was a major figure in oral histories of Americans for many years.  Turkel stated that "Big Bill Broonzy was not only the greatest country blues singer I ever heard, he was one of the wisest of men. He knew the human heart as well as anyone."

As to Broonzy, his introduction to the live performance of "This Train," which had the audience singing along in a true interaction that only great performers can bring about, is hilarious and telling.  In it, he said "Well, they say that everything I sing whether it's a spiritual or folk song  . . . it's still the blues . . . Well, I'm a blues singer, what else am I gonna do with it . . . Some people call these folk songs . . . I never heard horses sing none of 'em."

True enough, but most folk wouldn't be able to sing these songs with the flair, passion and exquisite blues phrasing and guitar accompaniment of the amazing Big Bill Broonzy.