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!