Monday, February 23, 2015

Alice Coltrane: Transfiguration

From the death of her husband, the great John Coltrane, in 1967 until this riveting and spectacular live performance from Schoenberg Hall at the University of California, Los Angeles in April 1978, pianist, organist and harpist Alice Coltrane created a body of work that was largely under appreciated both for its technical and spiritual aspects.  First for Impulse! and then for Warner Brothers, her albums displayed a total humility and devotion to the energy of music as refracted through her Hindu beliefs.  Having compatriots who displayed every empathy and synchronicity with her concepts made her recordings consistently excellent.

Transfiguration is, perhaps, the culmination of that decade or so of exploration and is a staggering achievement on several levels.  First, it highlights Coltrane's mastery of the organ and piano in service to the music.  Second, she was able to showcase her compositions, six of the seven being originals, with the work of her late husband-- this latter being the epic "Leo," basing the twelve tones used in the piece with the signs of the zodiac.  Finally, she chose accompanists of the highest quality who put themselves fully into the spirit of the music, these being the always dependable bassist Reggie Workman and the sublime drummer Roy Haynes, both of whom had worked with John Coltrane.

Reviews have pointed out that Alice Coltrane's organ work reflects her upbringing and experiences as a church organist in her native Detroit and this would seem to be filtered through her movement through the jazz world and in her Hindu religion in the couple of decades since.  Her playing is fully immersed in the spiritual energy she channeled in her solo work and embellished by the totally sympathetic rhythm work of Haynes and Workman.  The title track was described by the leader as being something that "transforms every musical statement . . . from a mere expression of one's mental prowess and musical capabilities into an offering of love and devotion" to God.

Her work on piano is gorgeous and features much of the shimmering sounds, exquisite fluidity and lightness of touch that marked her work with her husband in 1966-67 and her solo work thereafter.  "One for the Father" is dedicated to John Coltrane and Alice  displays her talent for virtuosity without superfluous display.  Moreover, it displays classic and gospel influences that show how complex her work on the instrument could be.  On "Prema," there is a nine-piece overdubbed string section that could have proven to be distracting or out-of-place in other contexts, but here it blends and melds perfectly with the live performance.

The centerpiece of the album, however, is the 37-minute "Leo," which combines her mind-blowing technique on organ, the remarkable support and soloing of Workman and Haynes, the spiritual complexity of the twelve tone/zodiac structure established by John Coltrane and, it should be mentioned, the involvement of the fourth member of the ensemble, the ecstatic crowd, which shouted, screamed, and rapturously applauded throughout the recording, but especially on this piece.  That reaction showed that Alice Coltrane's emphasis on energy was entirely successful.

A word or two should be said about Workman and Haynes.  Both were known for being the ultimate in sensitive accompanists and this holds entirely true for this performance, though their solos on "Leo" allowed them the opportunity to show their virtuosity.  Workman is great and shows a fullness, roundness, and richness of sound that translated very well in the live setting.

Haynes, who never seems to have received the acclaim of other drum masters of his era (including Max Roach, Elvin Jones, and others), is nothing short of amazing in his long solo.  In a little over two weeks, Haynes turns 90 and, hopefully, there'll be plenty of celebrating this percussion master so that he can get more of the recognition he so deserves.  This album shows his genius in full flower.

The Warner Brothers studio recordings of the mid-seventies were largely Hindu devotional exercises, but Transfiguration brought Coltrane back to a jazz setting, while allowing her to express her spiritual and religious devotion.  Another quarter century passed before she returned to a similar context, after continuing her Hindu teachings, with 2004's excellent Translinear Light, her last album before her death at age 69 in 2007.

Transfiguration is a highlight in her storied career and, if anything would cast her in a light solely on her own as a great artist, not merely as the talented spouse of a master, it would be this amazing album.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Bob Marley & The Wailers: Natty Dread

With Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer having left The Wailers after a decade with Bob Marley, 1974's Natty Dread represented the first of the Bob Marley & The Wailers recordings.  If there was any concern that losing Tosh and Wailer would adversely affect Marley's career, Natty Dread proved definitively and without doubt that Marley was a true superstar, not just in reggae, but in general.

Moreover, he had a crack band with the amazing rhythm section of the Barrett brothers, Carlton on drums and Aston on bass, the excellent lead guitar of American Al Anderson, the keyboard work of Bernard "Touter" Harvey (who was a key member of the great Inner Circle) and the sweet female backing combo, the I-Threes, featuring Marley's wife Rita, Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt.  Using female singers instead of the duo of Tosh and Bunny Wailer was a shrewd way of reconfiguring the sound of the band, as well.

This album is brimming with classic tracks that have become masterpieces of reggae, starting with the brilliant "Lively Up Yourself," moving to be beautiful ballad, "No Woman No Cry," then to the sharp social commentary of "Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)" and "Rebel Music (3 O'Clock Roadblock)."

What stands out on the latter two is the synchronicity between the Barrett brothers and the general tightness of the sound--carefully crafted and calibrated to make the most of the music.  "Rebel Music" adds the unusual use of a harmonica, as well, while Marley croons in an upper register with the I-Threes to state the title before launching into his vocal, while the backing singers sound fantastic.   There is also some tasty organ playing on this track.

By contrast the remaining songs are not as strong, though they are all excellent songs--this is a testament to the staggering quartet that opens the album.  "So Jah Seh"is a very fine song, with a nice intro showcasing percussion, horns and a diligent groove before Marley comes in with his vocals.  "Natty Dread" has that memorable chorus and a typically-strong bass line from "Family Man" Barrett.

"Bend Down Low" has a singsong opening theme on two kinds of keyboards and then that great groove and chorus that is about as danceable a tune as can be.  "Talkin' Blues" has a smart acoustic intro, before the insistent beat and rhythm guitar lead the way to Marley's keening vocal and the sweet backing of the I-Threes.  "Revolution" might be most memorable for the excellent backing of the I-Threes and the nyabinghi drumming that rattles through the piece.

Many observers call Natty Dread not only Marley's greatest record, but the finest reggae album ever made.  This blogger hesitates using the term "best" whenever possible, but there is no question that this recording is a landmark for the leader and the genre.

The remarkable thing, probably, is that he was able to follow it with a series of great albums from Rastaman Vibration to Exodus to Kaya to Survival that showed his staying power was solid.  Sadly, cancer cut his life short in 1981 at age 36, but Natty Dread marked the beginning of a remarkable run for this amazingly charismatic performer.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Morton Feldman: String Quartet (1979)

This rerelease by Naxos, as part of its American Classics series, of an early 1990s recording for Koch Records by The Group for Contemporary Music of Morton Feldman's first string quartet from 1979, is a revelation in terms of how modern string quarter music plays within a plasticity of time.

In other words, Feldman's very deliberate slow evolution of sound over nearly eighty minutes without interruption is a reordering of the sense of time.  Repetition, generally thought of as a hallmark of much "modern" classical music, is definitely a key component of the piece, but the playing is so muted and quiet for the most part that the repeated sounds don't really seem that repetitive, given that so much time can elapse in between and that the harmonics are recalibrated.

There is also a strong chromatic element to Feldman's use of harmony in the quartet and Douglas Cohen's liner notes explain how the composer's use of three pitch classes means that, "with each return the material is altered; sometimes this is subtle (such as a cello figure subsequently played by the violin — in the same octave)."

Clearly, this is music to be played at a very slow tempo, scored for 63 to 66 to the quarter note, though some performances have been even slower.  This was true of the premiere in New York in May 1980 in which the Columbia Quartet performed the piece in 100 minutes, twenty-two longer than this recording.  As Cohen noted, "his tempo marks became, as it were, a maximum limit for interpretation."

With very soft dynamics, very gradual evolution of concepts, and the significant use of muting, Feldman's orchestration makes the most of what Cohen meant by observing that "his interest was in creating a gradually unfolding piece where the perception of time becomes distorted."

Given this, it can be readily understood why the music could be very challenging to listen to, given its contrast to most string quartet music, where virtuosic playing, strong dynamism, emphatic rhythms, pronounced melodic statements and other elements are standard fare.

For this listener, it came to mind that listening to a good deal of ambient music from the late 1980s onward, mainly in British electronic music (particularly recordings by Richard H. Kirk, Bill Laswell, and, especially, Mick Harris's Lull project) may have proved to be an unintended transition to something like Feldman's first string quartet.

Then again, testing the limits of time became an ultimate expression with the second string quartet, from 1984, which is generally performed at a staggering six hours.  So far, this has been listened to on a DVD which contains its entirety on a single disc (rather than 5 CDs) and has proven to be easier done during an eight-hour workday, albeit with some interruptions.

In any case, this is, for those who can give the attention of nearly 1 1/2 hours, a remarkable music experience with respect to that "gradually unfolding" nature Cohen's helpful notes pinpoint.  It is a sound world unique to this fascinating composer, who is not as well known or performed as other major figures of the postwar period, but whose ideas are remarkable.  Kudos also to The Group for Contemporary Music's Benjamin Hudson, Carol Zeavin, Lois Martin and Joshua Gordon, whose work on a Bridge Records release of Elliott Carter music was covered here about a year ago, for their excellent work on this recording.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Luiz Bonfa: Solo in Rio, 1959

This is a sterling recording of the Brazilian guitarist and vocalist issued by the Smithsonian Folkways label and consisting of thirty-one mostly short pieces, the first seventeen of which constituted the original recording and the rest being unreleased tracks, showcasing Bonfá's technically brilliant playing and his earnest and warm vocals.

There are pieces that use samba, calypso, bolero, bossa nova and other "Latin" styles, but Bonfá was very much influenced by classical and jazz musics, as well, naming one of the pieces on the record after the pianist George Shearing (and the tune definitely swings) and another after Chopin.  Much of what makes this album so enjoyable is that Bonfá had such versatility in his playing and composing.

As Anthony Weller, who wrote the very helpful and informative liners, noted, Bonfá was a virtuoso, but didn't feel the need to overtly display his talents unless it was in the service of the piece and there are so many examples, including the opening "Pernambuco," the cover of the Cole Porter chestnut, "Night and Day," and the strangely-titled "Murder," being just a few examples.

The highlight for this listener, however, is the first of the unreleased pieces, the amazing "A Brazilian in New York."  On this lengthy piece, he starts with a fine classical-like melody and then adds a "Don't Walk-Walk" refrain to refer to the contradictory nature of city life's pacing and his playing is just beautiful.  When it's time to cross the street, he launches into an amazing representation of trying to make his way through the busy thoroughfare.  Uttering the word "homesick," he offers an interpretation of that feeling, with rapid runs and complex rhythms.  What follows are representations of Brazilian dances, a piano and orchestra, a samba, and then a return to the unfamiliar chaos of New York and the "Don't Walk-Walk" refrain.   This is a masterpiece of playing and storytelling.

Another highlight of the unreleased pieces is Bonfá's "Samba de Orfeu," a short (1:16) piece that marks the only time he recorded the work solo, though he made ten other versions with a band during his career.  Otherwise, there are alternate takes of album pieces that show how easily the guitarist could alter a piece by changing tempo, rhythms and feeling.

The music was recorded by Emory Cook for his own label and the remastering and editing provides for a very crystalline sound that doesn't, though, remove any of the warmth and intimacy that is a critical part of the recording's great charm, especially because Bonfá evidently did not record solo very much.

Solo in Rio, 1959 is an album that proves to provide renewed interest with each listen because of its diversity in styles and the fact that Bonfá's virtuosity is such that it meshes so well with the stylistic, melodic and rhythmic components that can be the focal point of repeated listenings.  Just listening tonight after having heard the recording a couple of weeks ago, there are different elements that come through by shifting that focus.  That's the hallmark of a master and a masterpiece.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Cecil Taylor: Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come

This is where it started.  At the Cafe Montmartre in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1962, the pianist Cecil Taylor and his compatriots, altoist Jimmy Lyons (who worked with Taylor for nearly a quarter century) and drummer Sunny Murray found the freedom to pursue a particularly creative, innovative and powerful way to play their music.

It was a revelation that was years ahead of its time and, sadly, kept Taylor from being hired for performances and signed to record deals for most of the rest of the 1960s, excepting a stint with Blue Note Records mid-decade that yielded the great Conquistador! and the remarkable Unit Structures.

But, it was Nefertiti that provided the template, the blueprint for the type of relentless emphasis on expression that drove Taylor to make some of the most challenging and technically brilliant music on piano heard anywhere.

This double-disc release on guitarist John Fahey's Revenant Records (also responsible for the fantastic Albert Ayler box, Holy Ghost, someday to be highlighted here) in 2007 provides music from both sets of the Montmartre gig.  With the exception of the standard "What's New?" the pieces are Taylor originals.

By original is meant a new direction for the pianist, who was already pushing at the boundaries of freedom in jazz from his 1956 debut Jazz Advance through the transitional recordings for the Candid label in 1960-61, featuring bassist Buell Neidlinger and budding altoist Archie Shepp.

When Taylor joined forces with Lyons, who immediately knew how to build off the leader's complicated foundations, and Murray, who sense of freedom in keeping time may have been among the greatest inspirations for the new direction, something happened that was profoundly new in jazz.

As many observers have noted, though, it wasn't just jazz that Taylor was working with.  He was classically trained at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and seemed intent on working with the modern structures of Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok and others as well as developing his unique approach to jazz.  Taylor has often commented that his music is attuned to the rhythms of dance.

This recording was made during the course of a seven-week engagement and, though the fidelity is not particularly strong (Revenant's remastering, however, appears to have done as good a job with the source as could be expected), the playing is so exceptional that the deficiencies in sound can be easily overlooked.  It is, however, obvious that the piano in the club, apparently an upright, was not in the best of shape, but, as an exceptional craftsperson, Taylor makes the most of the situation.

He is relentless, probing, and searching in his use of notes, chords, runs and octaves during solos and provides comping behind Lyons that drives the altoist to some spectacular playing--at once, very bop sounding, but also very new and innovative.

The fact that Lyons spent most of his career as a quiet, but essential part of Taylor's Unit, while hardly doing any solo work or collaborations with others, has left him out of most discussions when it comes to the many great alto players since 1960.

As for Sunny Murray, it is tough to qualify the pathbreaking mark he set, not just here, but also in his remarkable work with Albert Ayler, Shepp and on his own.  His constant shifting in time and meter, heavy use of washes of cymbals and his unearthly vocalizing (moaning?) during his playing are hallmarks of a style that was entirely his own.  Murray's expansive approach to the kit and expressions of freedom in time gave Taylor the space to employ the full range of his technique on the piano (even one as badly maintained as that at the Cafe Montmartre.)

In 1962, another great innovator of the era, Ornette Coleman went into a sort of self-imposed exile, frustrated with the machinations of the music business and, perhaps, his flashpoint role in the controversy over where jazz was heading.  Whereas Coleman's silence, lasting until 1965, was largely of choice, Taylor's own period of near-silence was anything but that.  He was just considered to be too out there until Alfred Lion signed Taylor for that two-album deal mentioned above.  After that, the later sixties saw a few recorded live performances, including a great French set with the great Sam Rivers in 1969.

It was not, however, until the 70s that Taylor started to build a small, but loyal audience and some measure of critical acceptance and praise.  By the end of the 1980s, he was finally recognized as the brilliant visionary he had been for more than two decades and, while his output slowed over time, he passion, power and explorations continued undimmed.  This blogger had the pleasure of seeing Taylor and a quartet at Los Angeles' Jazz Bakery in 1999 and has been a big fan ever since buying Conquistador! and then Unit Structures, as well as some of the Candid recordings in the early 90s.

He's still with us--performing less, but still receiving accolades, including the Kyoto Prize (though his $500,000 cash award was embezzled from the 85-year old composer by someone he trusted--the case against the criminal is, apparently, pending.)  Whether Taylor will be playing much in public is unknown, but, after decades of near-neglect, the piano titan has finally been accorded some of the respect he has long deserved.

And, it really started in Copenhagen over a half-century ago with music that plunged forward in a world not ready to accept it and which is still provocative, fresh and brimming with invention.  For the ultimate in adventurous jazz, Cecil Taylor's music can be a breathtaking experience.