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.