Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Eric Dolphy: Out There

Recorded in August 1960 with a stellar band including the unheralded bassist George Duvivier, the great Ron Carter on cello (instead of his usual bass), and the incomparable drummer Roy Haynes, who is still with us and approaching 91, Out There is a standout recording in the short, but exceptional career of the amazing Eric Dolphy.

There are four originals and three covers on this amazing album, the second under his leadership through the New Jazz imprint from the Prestige label, including a work by Dolphy's frequent employer, Charles Mingus, and another by the excellent pianist/composer Randy Weston (whom this blogger saw at a great concert at Cal State Los Angeles back in the early to mid 90s).  Dolphy's pieces include a tribute to his mentor, Mingus, who styled himself as "Baron" (in comparison to "Duke" Ellington, "Count" Basie and other jazz royalty), the stunning title track, the gorgeous "Serene" and the flute-driven "17 West," referencing a place where Dolphy lived in Manhattan.

In addition to the always-stellar work of Haynes behind the kit, the pairing of Duvivier, who was a steady and reliable bassist, with Carter's cello provides a striking use of tonal and timbral diversity that makes this record really stand out.  Of course, Dolphy is just staggering in his inventiveness, variety of approaches, power, speed, and ability to play up-tempo and ballad pieces with great sensitivity and conviction.  It's sad that he was so reviled by critics stuck in the past and not willing to see beyond the tired conventions of bebop and post-bop orthodoxy that was still prevalent as the next, exciting and often chaotic Sixties ensued.

There also has to be something said about the very cool cover art done by Prophet. the moniker of artist Richard Jennings, who also did the Outward Bound cover and who was memorialized in one of Dolphy's greatest compositions, "The Prophet," highlighted on the great Live at the Five Spot album that will be featured here some day.

The original liner notes include a very interesting discussion about a common, but generally badly utilized, habit some people have of readily comparing one musician to another; in this case Dolphy to the great and recently-departed Ornette Coleman.  Rightfully expressing his dislike of this tendency, Dolphy made the point that Beethoven "was supposed to be a terrible person, and the writers of his time only talked about that.  But he created something, and what he created was beauty, and it's still alive today."

Now, whether it matters if the statement that all writers of Beethoven's time focused only on his personality, isn't the point.  What Dolphy was highlighting is the question of dwelling on a musician's persona when it is the music that counts and whether that body of work created will last.

In the case of this immensely talented multi-instrumentalist, recordings like Out There, Outward Bound, and especially the classic Out to Lunch! (the latter covered here before), as well as his contributions as members of the bands of Mingus and John Coltrane, should warrant that his posterity is recognized by being "still alive today."

Monday, December 28, 2015

Georg Friedrich Handel: The Messiah

Of course, this being the Christmas season, it seems natural to focus on Handel's great oratorio, The Messiah, because of its association with the holiday.  And, this is an undeniable masterpiece by one of the giants of the Baroque period.

Filled with gorgeous overtures, including the phenomenal "Pastoral Symphony" and a rich array of solo and ensemble choral works, such as the beautiful "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings" and, of course, the famed "Hallelujah Chorus," the work is a high-water mark of Handel's illustrious career and of Baroque music generally.

Notably, the German-born composer struggled to find an audience and decent financial support in his homeland, but his arrival in England signaled a stunning change in fortune.  In fact, his career there was such that he is today thought of as a British composer.

The liner notes to this 1979 recording as reissued in 2002 suggest that Handel was "known universally for his generosity and charity for those who suffered" even when he was experiencing financial problems.  Moreover, the remarks continued, "he was a relentless optimist whose faith in God sustained him through every difficulty."

An Irish charitable organization commissioned the composer for a piece that they could use at a benefit concern and The Mesiah was the remarkable result.   Not only was the concert a success, raising over 400 pounds used to free almost 150 men from debtor's prison (this exactly a century before such prisons were the focal point of Dickens' A Christmas Carol), but the work became a lasting holiday musical tradition, whether a person is religious or not.

Handel went on to conduct nearly three dozen performances of the work, including some for the benefit of London's Foundling Hospital, and the use of the piece for charitable purposes led Patrick Kavanaugh, a biographer of the composer, to note that it was so used "more than any other single musical production in this [Britain] or any other country."

The version released by Sparrow Records in the late Seventies was specifically orchestrated under the baton of conductor John Alldis with The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir to be more accesible to modern audiences.  It is an excellent recording and the four soloists, soprano Felicity Lott, contralto Alfreda Hodgson, tenor Philip Langridge and bassist Ulrik Cold deserve kudos for their excellent work, as well.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Persian Love Songs & Mystic Chants

Some years ago, this blogger recalls reading a front page article in the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times reviewing a sold-out concert, possibly at the Forum in Inglewood, by Persian singer Shusha.  Among the recollections was the adulation showered upon the singer by the crowd, many of whom were undoubtedly emigres who fled the late 1970s takeover of Iran by Islamic fundamentalists and who were basking in a shared memory and enjoyment of part of the remarkable musical culture that has come from that country over the centuries.

This 1971 recording, issued in the U.S. by Lyrichord, featured Shusha's second album of Persian songs, although she had a long-standing background in France and England of performing material more tied to those places.  Born the same year as this blogger's father-in-law, 1935, in Tehran as Shamsi Assar, she was the daughter of a Shia grand ayatollah who was a philosophy professor at the University of Tehran.

At 17, Shusha, as she became known, was sent to Paris to study and her training as a singer was utilized when she began performing folk music, but also recorded an album of traditional Persian songs in 1957.  In 1961 she married an Englishman, Nicholas Guppy, and moved to London where she had her two sons, but continued to work with music, as well as acting and writing.  In fact, she became quite well known for a memoir of her childhood in Iran, which she wrote in the late 1980s.  This album was made with Tangent Records and featured Duncan Lamont on flute and Behboudi on zarb (a hand drum.)  Lamont has had a long, successful career in the British jazz scene, playing tenor sax and gaining recognition as a composer.

Her voice is gorgeous, rich and full, and she easily negotiates the difficult technical requirements of vocalizing in the Persian manner.  The accompaniment is very good, but this record is all Shusha and her entrancing singing through the sixteen brief tracks (the last is the longest at just under four minutes, but most are around two minutes.)

It is hard to pick out any particular tunes as highlights, because the entirety of this record is excellent and there are times when the focus on her voice is notable, while other songs are welcomed for the fine flute playing as well as the rhythmic accompaniment of the zarb.  At about 35 minutes, the recording moves quickly and is a stellar example of Persian folk music, representing different areas of Iran, as well as sublime vocalizing from the amazing Shusha,

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Massacre: Love Me Tender

After the remarkable guitarist Fred Frith left the British group Henry Cow in the late Seventies, he moved to New York and became acquainted with the rhythm section of Material, featuring drummer Fred Maher and bassist Bill Laswell.

Calling themselves Massacre, the trio released a 1981 studio album, Killing Time, and completed a slate of live performances before Maher quit the short-lived group.  Although Frith and Laswell formed another trio with Golden Palominos drummer Anton Fier and performed some Massacre tunes later in the decade, it was not until 1998 that the band was resurrected, this time with British drummer Charles Hayward of This Heat.

Signed to John Zorn's Tzadik label, the group recorded a studio album and two live recordings, one of which, Lonely Heart, was featured here in 2013, before Frith culled the archives of festival performances in Germany and Switzerland in 1999 and a performance in June 2008 in Italy to assemble Love Me Tender, released in 2012.

Because Massacre's music was improvised, it doesn't, to this listener, much matter whether the edited performances come across as "songs," despite the sequencing and titling, the latter drawn from poet Lyn Hjinian's mid-1970s collection Writing is an Aid to Memory.

What makes this album compelling is the wide array of sounds coaxed by Frith from his electric guitar, parallelled in many ways by Laswell's similarly experimental approach to playing the bass.  Hayward plays a bit of melodica and provides some wobbly vocalizations in addition to his steady and reliable drumming, providing a bedrock for his compatriots to build from.

It is difficult generally to point out highlights in terms of the "songs" listed on this recording, but there is one bright exception, which is the staggering "Shadow When Omitted."  Whatever one makes of Hayward's vocals, the performances on this nearly six-minute masterpiece of improvisation by Frith and Laswell are mindblowing.

Laswell spends the first part of the track playing with color and imbre on his playing, using devices common to his work, but as Frith develops a series of virtuoso solos employing his typical wide range of techniques and sounds, Laswell hits a couple of extended sequences of monstrous grooves that are just spectacular.

This, in turn, amplifies Frith's staggering playing, which, as much as he likes to experiment and use different techniques of picking and strumming, including the use of objects, there are solos that show him to be as fast and blistering, or more so, than any more popularly-known "guitar god." Of course, what sets Frith apart is his continuous spirit of experimentation, which is amply demonstrated on the rest of this album.

It is fair to characterize this album as a Frith showcase, though perhaps that has always been the case with Massacre's live and studio work.  This is not meant to downplay the work of Laswell, who is a maestro on an instrument not usually associated as a front-line one, or Hayward, who is an excellent drummer.  But, Frith is the centerpiece of this amazing ensemble and Love Me Tender, more than any of the trio's other releases, confirms this.

And, again, "Shadow When Omitted" is a stunning representation of what this great outfit can do and hopefully with continue to.