Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Hamdulillah: Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, Volume II

The 2015 edition of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music in Fes, Morocco is going on right now, having started last Friday the 22nd and ending this Saturday the 30th.  Established in 1994 by Association Fes Saiss, which is concerned with "artistic preservation, international cooperation, and other humanitarian causes," the festival presents a wide array of music from around the world.  This year's lineup, for example, includes musicians from sub-Saharan Africa, Scotland, Iraq, Portugal, India, China, Azerbaijan, Spain and even the current lineup of The Temptations!

This recording consists of two discs sampling some of the amazing music from the 1997 and 1998 Fes festivals.  Musics included in the set provide a fascinating array of performers.    On disc one, featured performers include The Ahmed Piro Ensemble, representing Arab-Andalusian (medieval Arab Spanish origins) music, was joined by the impressive Amina Alaoui on vocals.  The ensemble Taqtouqa Al Jabaliyya performs Taqtouga music from the Rif Mountains region of Morocco.  Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar brings classical Indian vocals from the Hindustani region.  The remarkable Children of Abraham is a consortium of choirs featuring Christian, Jewish and Muslim youth.  The great Alim Oassimov, from Azerbaijan, demonstrated his remarkable vocalizations from Sufi-inspired chants.  The gorgeous voice of Francoise Atlan, of France, emphasizes Jewish Sephardic song traditions.  Albert Bouhadanna is joined by the Arab-Andalusian Orchestra of Mohammed Briouel for a performancebased on the piyyout, a Jewish music from Morocco.

The second disc includes Central Asian sufi music as performed by Monajat Yulcheva of Uzbekistan; the Iraqi maqam tradition of mystical texts and poetry performed by Hussayn Al Azami and the Al Kindi Ensemble.  The breathtaking sound of Javanese gamelan is represented by the Wacana Budaya Gamelan group.  The amazing vocalist Sharam Nazeri of Iranian Kurdistan (a people who have been much oppressed in Iran, Iraq and Turkey) is backed by the excellent Dastan Ensemble.  Finally, there is the monumental 39-minute rendering of the phenomenon of The Whirling Dervishes of Konya representing the fantastic traditions of the Sufi mystic and poet, Jallaluddin Rumi--a stunning end to a fantastic sampling of music from the two festivals.

The Sounds True label, much like the Ellipsis Arts label, has released a great deal of spiritual material of all kinds, much of which has New Age connotations.  Whatever one makes of some of this, there are some excellent recordings of spiritual musics from around the world released by the label, including a fine album by the late, great Sudanese oud master  Hamza el-Din, as well as some excellent compilations, including this one.

The quality of sound from these live productions is very good and is clear and crisp.  Notably, the hauntingly beautiful Children of Abraham performance was engineered by Steve Van Zandt, presumably the guitarist best known for his work with Bruce Springsteen, while the rest was done by another engineer.  A handsomely-produced booklet details each track with photos and information on the performers.

There is a companion volume, the first, called Bismillah: Highlights from the Fes Festival, sampling from earlier editions of the festival. Hopefully, a copy can be located and highlighted here sometime.  Meantime, anyone interested in music from the Middle East, northern Africa and central Asia would benefit greatly from picking up a copy of this stunning album.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Horace Tapscott: The Giant Is Awakened

It's hard to believe it's been a quarter century since this blogger went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on a Friday evening and, before going to see the exhibits, happened to stop to hear a free jazz concert out in the museum's plaza.  There was the mesmerizing, powerful, brilliant pianist Horace Tapscott, whose The Dark Tree, Volume One was highlighted here previously.

Tapscott forsook what could have been a major career in jazz to stay in Los Angeles, work for his South Central community, raise his family, and create a number of ensembles to play his remarkable music.  While largely unknown to the public, if not to musicians, Tapscott's dedication and devotion to community was amazing.

In 1969, producer Bob Thiele, who had left Impulse Records, where he worked closely with John Coltrane and others on that major label's roster, was developing his own imprint, Flying Dutchman.  When he contacted Tapscott about recording with him, the pianist was suspicious, echoing the general concern black jazz musicians had about record labels and producers and the exploitation that was usually the case in these situations.  Thiele, however, convinced Tapscott to enter the studio and the result was the stunning The Giant Is Awakened.

Tapscott's quintet included stalwarts of his Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra big band, most of whom are all but unknown, including the rhythm section of bassists Walter Savage, Jr. and David Bryant and drummer Everett Brown, Jr., but the trio play beautifully and sensitively (Brown especially) behind the soloists, comprised of Tapscott and "Black Arthur Blythe," the altoist, who later dispensed with the first part of that name, but also went out to become one of the great saxophonists for the 1970s and 1980s, best known as a member of the great World Saxophone Quartet.

In fact, this album is largely an opportunity to hear some of the earliest recorded work of this master and Blythe is just staggering with his phrasing, power, clarity and confidence.  He proves to be a perfect counterpoint to Tapscott, whose command of the piano is no less impressive here than in the later records for which he had some reputation, particularly The Dark Tree live albums and the solo work he did for Nimbus West, of which some examples will be featured here subsequently.

"The Dark Tree" is, in fact, present on this recording, but in a much shorter and less awe-inspiring version than would be found on the 1989 live performances.  Instead, the title track here is the centerpiece, at over seventeen minutes, and it is actually no less impressive than the later versions of "The Dark Tree."  Much of this is due to Tapscott's writing and arranging, in which he brings out the most of tension, space, power and energy to give himself and Blythe all of the opportunities for expression in their solo work that they can give to the piece, with the bottom held firm by the rhythm section.  "The Giant Is Awakened" should have, in a better world, been more than true to its title and given Tapscott more recognition for his talents.

The too-short "For Fats" is a contribution by Blythe with its staccato rhythm and dual melodic statement by the alto and piano providing a memorable structure and then a bit of an avant-garde touch behind Blythe's keening and very impressive soloing, particularly on the second run.

The misnamed "Nyja's Theme," rendered as "Niger's Theme" is a tune Tapscott would revisit a number of times.  Here a dual-note phrase by the bass and piano leads into a statement by Tapscott with a martial drumbeat and then the memorable melodic statement rendered by the piano and Blythe's crystalline alto.  Blythe solos first and pours out a torrential fire of a solo, showing why he would become one of the greats on his instrument.  Tapscott, from the 5 minute mark on, then issues forth some of his signature soloing techniques, including dramatic block chords, the use of the sustain pedal to create atmospheric mood and uniquely angular phrasing.

Tapscott's reticence in working with a major label was such that he requested involvement in the mixing--an entirely reasonable suggestion given the care he put into every aspect of his music.  However, that promise was broken, only reinforcing the mistrust the pianist and composer felt about the music industry.  It would be a full decade before he recorded again and then only for small labels that dealt with Tapscott more fairly.

It's a shame that this arrangement couldn't have worked out better, because The Giant Is Awakened is an amazing record, assured, confident, performed with great skill and comprised of three works by the leader that showed his genius for composition and performance.  By all rights, this man should have been given some of the opportunities afforded other pianists of the time--if Keith Jarrett could have gotten an ECM behind him, why couldn't have Tapscott had something similar?

At least, we have this one masterpiece to show the talent the late, great Horace Tapscott possessed.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Best of B.B. King: The Millenium Collection

The announcement yesterday of the death at 89 of the great B.B. King takes away one of the last of that generation of classic blues performers.  King's piercing, keening and sharp soloing and that slightly husky and emotive singing style are among the most easily recognizable in music over the last fifty plus years.

This greatest hits compilation by MCA is a brief survey of a stellar career that is mostly from material recorded from 1966 to 1976, excepting his mid-80s hit "Into the Night," which was wisely put at the end of the collection as it is obviously different in production values and intent.

You can't find a better example of the pure soulfulness of King's work than the opening track, "The Thrill is Gone," which features his voice more than his guitar.  This 1969 masterpiece is easily one of the great songs of the last fifty years.

By contrast is the upbeat "Ain't Nobody Home," where King's restrained vocals backed by a female trio and including organ, piano, horns in a bigger band, but a thinner sound.  This pleasant piece is then followed by a rollicking live version of "Let The Good Times Roll" with the irrepressible Bobby Bland working with King to take the sound to a higher level.  It's a fantastic version and King gets in some tasty soloing, as well.

The party gives way to one of the sweetest and finest ballads of King's work, introduced by a highly soulful and mournful solo backed by horns and piano in the excellent "Guess Who," from 1972.  Here, though, it's King voice that  takes center stage and his singing is just beautiful.

"I Like to Live the Love" has the horns, basslines, and, especially, the drum tuning that is pretty clearly an attempt to emulate the Al Green sound, since that soul singer was at the top of his game in 1973 when the tune was recorded.  King, though, sings with great effectiveness, even putting in a little Green-like effect on the chorus.  A nice addition, as well, is the percussion (conga drums and so on), though there isn't much guitar at all.

On 1966's "Don't Answer the Door," the first of a trio from blues central in Chicago, there is a deep blues groove with the high trebly guitar intro over an organ drone sounding like it is in another room, but it is a sweet solo to start. King's vocal is outstanding, imploring, shouting and showing the man at his best.  It's quite a contrast to the previous song and shows King at the peak of his classic blues period.

Another great live tune, also from '66, is "Sweet Sixteen," another slow blues groove where King's soloing at the start has a lower range than on "Don't Answer the Door" until he moves higher up in range and lets loose some hot licks, before his impassioned vocals, accompanied by a sax, elicit screams, yells and other loud affirmations from a highly-appreciative crowd.

The short, radio-ready, "Paying the Cost To Be the Boss," shuffles along nicely behind the short opening solo until King hits his soulful stride in his vocal.  With some tasty horns, percolating organ, a sinewy and prominent bassline and a nice steady drum beat, this is another classic King tune from 1967.

1971's "I Got Some Help I Don't Need," has a short intro with a bit of an organ solo before King launches his vocal, mixed in an interesting way, but it's great because his singing his outstanding.  The drums are also mixed in a strange way, though the crystalline cymbals work well.  It may be that the sound came out as it did because the tune was produced by Ed Michel, who did a ton of great jazz records for Impulse! and other labels at the time.

That leaves "Into the Night," which is definitely an artifact of that mid-1980s film soundtrack era.  The synthesizers, at least two of them, and the bass are jarring compared to the other pieces on the record, but there is some good soloing by the guitar master and his singing is given a blues shouter gusto, especially as he bellows out the title, that does offset to a significant degree the instrumental backing.  It's as if King knew that he had to turn up the heat on his singing to take attention away from the rest of the performance!

R.I.P. B.B.
Clearly, B.B. King enthusiasts will point to any number of proper albums or other compilations as more representative of the greatness of this outstanding blues legend.  The Best of B.B. King is, however, a good overview of a decade of some of the master's best work, even if "Into the Night" is a bit out of place.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Arnold Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 2/Die Gluckliche Hand/Wind Quintet

Conductor Robert Craft's series of recordings of the work of the renowned modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg for the Naxos label includes this interesting combination of works showing the range of material produced by Schoenberg over a long, productive career.

The Chamber Symphony No. 2 was begun in 1906 when the composer was in his early thirties and the first of the two movements bore the hallmarks of the romantic approach to lush melodies and fairly standard harmonies of the era, but with a new ending and different instrumentation when Schoenberg completed the work in 1939.

The second and longer movement, however, is reflective of the changes in the composer's approaches in the three decades since his first attempt.  In a rapid allegro tempo, the movement emphasized polyphony, a syncopated rhythm and a complexity that makes the performing far more challenging from the musicians than the simpler first movement.

A "drama with music," the four movement "Hand of Fate" from 1913, just after Schoenberg's famed "Pierrot Lunaire.  It was an impressionistic pantomime for two silent performers, the main being "The Man," or Schoenberg as an artist, who confronts the ego and its desire for fame.  The opening scene finds a Greek-style chorus offstage mocking "The Man" for his blatant desires as he lies outstretched on the stage.

A woman then appears with a goblet for the man who, taking the drink, does not acknowledge the woman, who then leaves with another man, but later returns, before once again departing.  This mirrored Schoenberg's painful experience of having his wife elope with an artist, who then hung himself, and the spouse, at the urging of the composer's student, Anton Webern, returned to her husband.

In a third scene, the man finds a goldsmithng operation in a cave and determines to do the work better than the workers there.  In so doing, he inadvertently creates a jeweled crown of incredible proportions while crushing the anvil in the shop.  As he gives the object to the stunned workers, they attack him.  Suddenly the woman and the third man she'd left with earlier return and the female ascends a high mountain with the artist in pursuit.  From the pinnacle, however, she flings a large rock down and crushes the artist.

In the final scene, there is a return to the beginnings of the pantomime with the chorus again mocking the prostrate man.

The symbolism is also musical with the artist representing Schoenberg's new method of composing (serialist, twelve-tone row) crushing the tonality of tradition (the anvil) and revealing the crown (atonal music), which he attempts to give to the workers (composers trapped in old forms) who, of course, attack him for his impudence.

Speaking of which, the Wind Quintet of 1923-24, finds Schoenberg deep in the early stages of his serial development, composing a symphonic sonata in four movements that stretches for nearly forty minutes.  Between the new sounds expressed in twelve-tone form, the length of the work, and the fact that it is a technically demanding piece for the tempos involved, this work contrasts significantly with the others.

Adjusting for the atonal form of hearing twelve tones, rather than a piece developed around a single note (or tone, expressed as the tonic), ordered in a row called a "basic set," which forms the basis, but is not the entirety, for the piece, as the tones relate to one another without a dominant tonic.

There is a richness, nimbleness, and range of fascinating instrumental contrasts in this work that can be very rewarding, even for amateurs who don't fully appreciate the systemic concepts embodied in the serial technique.  There is no question, even for the untrained ear, that the dispensing of traditional tonal and harmonic approaches gives the music a more "open ended" form that, to this listener, finds the "speech patterns" among the various instruments compelling and intriguing.

This disc is an excellent survey of different aspects of Schoenberg's evolution as a composer over a thirty-plus year timespan, carried out by Craft's passion and expertise in developing the project of recording all of Schoenberg's published pieces for Naxos.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Global Meditation: Authentic Music from Meditative Traditions of the World

So, the title sounds very New Age-y and the label, Ellipsis Arts, which issued this four-disc box set in 1992, was devoted to products that emphasized the deeply spiritual in a highly earnest, if dated, manner.

However, the musical content and the sound quality of Global Meditation is top-notch.  The set is divided thematically, with the first disc dealing with "Voices of the Spirit: Songs and Chants."  From Norway, Albania, Australia, Bali, Hawaii, the pygmies of Central Africa, Japan, Tibet, and Russia are a broad array of vocal music that, philosophizing aside, represent a fantastic cross-section of sounds from around the world.

The second disc, "Harmony and Interplay: Ensembles," takes on large group performances from the Gnawa of Morocco, gamelan from Java, African group playing, the amazing Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Pakistani qawwali music, and Indian and Egyptian pieces, as well.  Putting gnawa, gamelan and qawwali on one disc is reason enough to hear this amazing music.

"The Pulse of Life: Rhythm & Percussion" provides a wide range of pieces that should make any percussion lover very happy.  African, Indian, Haitian, and Japanese taiko ensembles predominate here, with a New Age selection by Glen Velez tossed in, though it is a pretty good piece.

Finally, the box ends with "Music of the Heart: Melody," including works Ireland, Turkey, Korea, India, Armenia, China, Egypt and Japan showcasing instruments like the Celtic harp, the Indian bamboo flute, the duduk, and the shakuhachi, among others.  Much of this is solemn, contemplative and very beautiful melodic work.

There is a 32-page booklet giving concise, but very useful, information on the performances, players and traditions from which they developed, as well as some photos of musicians.   Compiler Brooke Wentz and associates did a remarkable job in finding and licensing from many record labels such a diverse range of material and, as explained in the booklet's introductory note, should be congratulated for doing so despite the project representing "a sizable task for our lean staff."

Global Meditation is a great survey of some of the world's most interesting and compelling music.  For those not spiritually oriented, but are interested mainly in the musical quality of the set, there is a bounty of great performances here that are well worth hearing if a copy can be located.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Funkronomicon: Axiom Funk

Courtesy of the prolific and diverse Bill Laswell came this 1995 release on his Island Records-distributed Axiom imprint, highlighting a varied selection of funk-related music comprised of some previously-recorded tracks and material that had not been released.

With its fundamental contributions from keyboardist Bernie Worrell and bassist Bootsy Collins and an appearance on one track by George Clinton, the lineage with Parliament-Funkadelic is clear, but there are also elements representative of new formulations shepherded by Laswell that add to the appeal of this masterpiece.

For example, who else other than Laswell could get reggae rhythm legends Robbie Shakespeare (bass) and Sly Dunbar (drums) to appear with Clinton and Collins, as well as jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and alto master Henry Threadgill, all on one tune, "Under the Influence (Jes Grew)?  How about violinist Lili Haydn and the amazing guitarist Buckethead teamed with Collins and Blackbyrd McKnight (formerly with Hancock's Headhunters, P-Funk, Red Hot Chili Peppers and others)?

In addition, you've got among the last recordings of the phenomenal guitarist Eddie Hazel, the great alto sax player Maceo Parker, the amazing guitarist Gary Shider, a rare appearance from Sly Stone, Abiodun Oyowole and Umar bin Hassan from the legendary Last Poets, organist extraordinaire Amina Claudine Myers, and other fine musicians added to the mix.

Finally, what would an album like this be without the artwork of Pedro Bell, who illustrated so many classic P-Funk covers?   From the front cover image shown here, to a fantastic collage of images on another panel to the hilarious cartoon "Funkcronomixx: Wot Da Hell Is up?!", the use of Bell's work is a perfect capstone to a great album and it is worth noting that, in the credits, after Bell's listing is the phrase, ". . .And may we be forgiven for we know not what we've done."

A short essay (statement) on Funkcronomicon (a play on Necronomicon), employing clever wordplay, playful nonsense, a nod to the late Eddie Hazel, and possibly a hint of seriousness about what funk can do to shake up a complacent, overly-ordered and jaded word is attributed to Sir Lleb of Funkadelia!

Considering that the funk embodied by Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic collective had its heyday in the late 1970s, Laswell's embodiment of "collision music," in putting together so many diverse musicians on Funkcronomicon nearly twenty years later is an impressive achievement.  Those expecting a rehash of the prime P-Funk era will be disappointed, but that would be the easy way out.  Channeling the spirit of the collective while moving the music in new and compelling directions is what makes this album so good.

As the label on the packaging calls it, this is music "probing the depths of futuristic funkadelia."  It is a great recording from Laswell and his P-Funk and other partners.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

John Zorn: Voices in the Wilderness

Last night was an event a quarter century in the waiting--the opportunity to see John Zorn and Bill Laswell live.  Saturday was a marathon for Zorn, who had a series of performances at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art during the day and then an evening of concerts at U.C.L.A.'s Royce Hall.  The latter featured Zorn compositions performed by Abraxas, Secret Chiefs 3 and Bladerunner.

The first group was led by bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and included a duo of dueling lead guitarists and a blisteringly fast drummer while Blumenkranz held down the bottom with his bass and the Gnawa instrument, the gimbri, on a couple of pieces.  The band generated huge amounts of fast, loud and virtuosic energy, broken up on occasion by slower, quieter passage, and were well-received.

Secret Chiefs 3 is led by guitarist Trey Spruance, formerly of Mr. Bungle and Faith No More, who led an sextet with a keyboardist, bassist, drummer, second guitarist and violin and, while the volume and speed were usually milder than that of Abraxas, the musicianship was remarkable and there was still plenty of powerful playing.  This group got more of a response, possibly because there were a number of Faith No More and Mr. Bungle fans in the audience.

Then came the headlining Bladerunner, with Zorn on alto, Laswell on bass and former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo.  Given that Zorn and Laswell's Pain Killer is a well-known project, mainly with ex-Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris, comparisons were obvious for those familiar with that earlier group.  Lombardo, however, is a supremely-talented drummer, who could not only provide sheer energy, volume and force, but has the technical facility and agility to give a more complex percussive backing for both Zorn and Laswell.  The bassist employed several types of playing on his instrument using a bank of effects pedals and his techniques were familiar to those who know his work.  Laswell and Lombardo provided a huge bottom that rattled seats and bodies for Zorn to explore the full tonal range of his instrument.

And that he did!  At 61, Zorn shows no sign of slowing down as a composer and performer.  He wailed, screamed, honked and blew with tremendous power and employed his circular breathing techniques to display his staying power.  There were times, however, when the music slowed down, Lombardo relied on complex cymbal work and Laswell simpler bass lines and Zorn played more melodically and showed fantastic control and coloration.

Maybe there'll be a live recording coming from this "Triple Threat," as it was known, because it would be great to have a document of this stunning concert from three amazing ensembles.

Meantime, over the last few days, while working out in the home gym and doing yardwork, this listener had the pleasure to revisit Zorn's masterpiece, Voices in the Wilderness, a 2003 double-disc release on the composer's non-profit label, Tzadik.  This staggering recording features two-dozen pieces from the Masada songbook and represented the second of five releases commemorating the tenth anniversary of the project which marked Zorn's rediscovery of his Jewish heritage.

Each of the pieces was arranged by friends and musicians of the composer and the stylistic range, instrumentation and approaches in arranging are really something to behold.  Moreover, the performances by the many musicians are just remarkable.

Blumenkranz's group, Pharoah's Daughter, pianist Uri Caine's trio, the trio of Medeski, Martin and Wood, altoist Peter Apfelbaum, pianist Anthony Coleman, tenor player Larry Ochs, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, clarinetist Chris Speed, vocalist Jewlia Eisenberg, bass clarinetist Marty Ehrlich, guitarist Eyal Maoz (who was fantastic with Abraxas last night), laptop electronics player Ikue Mori, vocalist Mike Patton, percussionist William Winant, guitarist Nels Cline, keyboardist Jamie Saft and drummer Kenny Wollesen are among the dozens of musicians whose work is represented on this standout album.

Zorn had not played in Los Angeles since 1990, the year this blogger got into his music, and Laswell has not often appeared in this area over the years either, so last night was a "bucket list" type of evening, with the added pleasure of hearing the high caliber of performers in Abraxas and Secret Chiefs 3.