Friday, December 23, 2016

Blues by Roosevelt "The Honeydripper" Sykes

Roosevelt Sykes (1906-1983) may not have been one of the big names in blues, but the Arkansas native was a tremendous talent on the piano and had a great vocal style laden with humor and confidence.

This stellar Smithsonian Folkways recording, first issued under the Folkways imprint in 1961, and reissued in 1995, was produced by Memphis Slim, another great blues pianist/singer.  Sykes, however, had been around a long time, having made his first recordings in New York for the "race" label Okeh Records in 1929.

As to his nickname, Sykes stated that, because he was so popular with the girls in school when he played the organ, "the boys said the girls wqas buzzing round me like bees or something, and so I must be dripping honey."  Sykes wrote a well-known tune by that name in 1931 and it was a big hit for Joe Liggins nearly fifteen years later.  The composer even said, "I reckon he made a better job of it than I did!"

A formidable composer who penned hundreds of tunes, Sykes was also in high demand as an accompanist and his superior playing on this record shows why.  "Memphis Slim Rock," which features Slim as the only additional presence on the album, and "R.S. Stomp" are pertinent examples of his remarkable technique and his impromptu rapping about his pal aptly demonstrates his irrepressible humor, as well.  Sykes' vocal technique is amply shown on tunes like "Sweet Old Chicago," "44 Blues," "The Sweet Root Man," and "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone."

Really, though, everything on this album is great and it is consistently entertaining.  There are more famous blues musicians out there, but Roosevelt Sykes deserves to be better known.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Global Celebration: Dancing with the Gods

Ellipsis Arts produced a good deal of new-age material back in the Nineties, but it also issued some very fine world music recordings, including a pair of box sets called Global Meditation and Global Celebration that culled samples of amazing performances from around the globe.  These are returned to on a regular basis and are always entertaining and enjoyable.

The "Dancing with the Gods" disc from Global Celebration is typical in terms of the wide array of songs gathered.  Tunes from Africa, Brazil, the Muslim world, China, Latvia, Bolivia, India, Italy and a rousing American gospel piece are examples.  All have some religious significance to them, though being religious is certainly not a requirement to enjoy the great sounds found on the disc.

Highlights for this listener include "Dance of Kwenyii," from Africa; "The Avatamsaka Assemble" from China; Bachir Attar's "Ceremonies Against Night of the Devil"; "Pollerita" from Bolivia; The Indian "Snake Charmer Melody" excerpt; an Azerbaijani performance "Doyma Chaya"; and the Halima Chedli Ensemble's "Mohammed Rasoul Allal" excerpt.  The minor trade-off with compilations like these are the excerpted material; it would be great to hear the full versions.

The sound quality is excellent, the performances uniformly inspiring, and a portion of the original sales of the recordings were donated to the Rainforest Alliance (click here for more), which works to conserve the world's rapidly diminishing tropical rainforests.

So, yes, the new-age emphasis of much of Ellipsis Arts' output, the dated graphics on the cover, the titles of the series and individual albims aside, these compilations are chock full of some of the best music found throughout this remarkable, endangered planet.  We might do better for our world if more of us took the time to better understand the human diversity on it, including its music.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Archie Shepp: Attica Blues

After delivering some of the greatest jazz records of the middle sixties and then spending some time in Paris at the end of that decade and the beginning of the Seventies, Archie Shepp returned to America and retooled his compelling music for larger ensembles and with a nod to the funk, soul and R&B that had been taking a lot of the younger audiences away from jazz.

It would be easy to "sell out" in that kind of context, but Shepp used his leadership skills, his strong political bent, and his move to large ensemble playing to great effect, especially on a classic album like Attica Blues.

Recorded in late January 1972, just after the ferment that resulted from the riot in Attica State Penitentiary in New York, the album opens with the staggeringly funky title track with some of the most soulful singing you'll ever hear from the amazing Joshie Armstead.

The two-part "Steam" begins with a languid, flowing ballad with strings that is a direct contrast in style to the title track and then takes on a harder, stronger edge in its concluding section, but Joe Lee Wilson, who recorded three albums with Shepp during 1971-72, is highly effective in his soulful vocalizing.

"Blues for Brother George Jackson" was dedicated to the controversial Black Panther figure who was sent to prison for stealing $70 in an armed robbery in 1961 and joined the black nationalist party while incarcerated.  Jackson was killed in August 1971 trying to lead an escape before his trial for the slaying the prior year of a prison guard was slated to begin.  This tune, however, reflects a sophisticated, cool atmosphere, rather than anything that might evoke anger or other harder emotions.  Particularly compelling is the percussion which percolates beneath the horns with great effectiveness.

Another languid and gorgeous tune is "Ballad for a Child," with a great vocal from Armstead riding over a background of strings.  This is followed by another string-laden highlight, "Good-Bye, Sweet Pops," by the fluegelhorn player and composer Cal Massey.  This tribute to Louis Armstrong, who died in 1971, is a great example of ensemble writing and playing.

Massey's "Quiet Dawn" has another great multi-layered sound for a larger ensemble and some listeners would probably be put off by the vocalizing of Massey's young daughter, Waheeda (probably not unlike Ornette Coleman's son Denardo playing drums on 1966's The Empty Foxhole?).  This listener finds the singing beguiling and assumes that using her was a way at getting to an innocence and wonder that the tune looks to bring forward.  Shepp has a nice solo with a great driving accompaniment during the tune, which has tended to grow on this blogger over time.

Attica Blues is a diverse record, showing Archie Shepp's ability to express his musical (and political) ideas across a broad musical spectrum.  There are a number of great musicians on this record, including the leader, Massey, bassist Jimmy Garrison, Marion Brown on alto sax, violinist Leroy Jenkins, pianist Dave Burrell, drummers Billy Higgins and Beaver Harris (who wrote two of the pieces alone and contributed two others with Shepp), and others.

Worth hearing just for the phenomenal title track alone, the record has a lot of other highlights and is well worth a listen.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Johannes Brahms: Hungarian Dances

This series of twenty-one short pieces were published in sets in 1869 and 1880 for four-hand piano, but taking on a soaring richness in orchestral settings like that in this recording for the Lydian imprint of the Naxos label by the Philharmonia Cassovia, based on Kosice, Slovakia.

The liner notes to the album state that Brahms, born in Hamburg, Germany and professionally situated in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was highly impressed by Hungarian music after hearing expatriate musicians in Hamburg who fled Hungary after the 1848 revolutions and then through his years in Austria and in touring Hungary in the early 1850s.  His interest was encapsulated in what became among his most popular works with these dances.  Brahms worked on some of the orchestrations from the duet piano originals in the mid-1880s, while others, including Antonin Dvorak, handled the remainder of the series.

Three of the later pieces (numbers 11,14, and 16) were original Brahms ideas, but the rest drew from Hungarian sources.  Many are familiar even to amateurs like this blogger, such as dance #5, but the sprightly, lively works were actually written specifically for people to play at home, so it is easily understandable that these were popular works based on music gypsies adapted for people to hear on the streets of European cities.

Of course, Brahms' penchant for creating soaring melodies with compelling harmonic relationships within the orchestral setting make the adapted sources the building block for his highly personal and powerful work to shine.

The Philharmonia Cassovia performs, to these untrained ears, with great sensitivity on the quieter pieces, like dance #11, with assured grace on the stately dances #14 and #17, and with vigor and power on any number of the faster works, including the first several pieces or, say, #15.  Andrew Mogrelia, a native of England who specializes in ballet scores, has worked most recently in Australia and was in San Francisco prior to that and his work on this recording shows an excellent command of the full resources of the ensemble.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Lull: Continue

Well, it is Halloween and I've often considered taking this 1996 recording, released on Relapse Records, or others made under the moniker of Lull by Mick Harris and playing it outside when trick or treaters tentatively make their way up to the house.

This is partly because I live in a canyon community, appropriately called Sleepy Hollow, where we have dark, narrow streets, lots of trees, and, in this case, a replica Victorian home that might give an aura of spookiness, particularly when decorated for Halloween.

Then, if Continue is playing in its entirety as an unbroken 62 minute exercise in slow, dark, hypnotic electronic droning, how could a trick or treater not feel a sense of dread, foreboding, unease and even fear?

Any other day in the year, though, at least to this listener, the album actually has a calming, introspective effect, even if it does have a chilling aura to it.  Harris establishes, without overt rhythm, a sense of flow and the rising and falling of electronic sound that captivates and draws the listener in.  He creates a powerful aural soundscape that doesn't get old.

Whether it is music to many people is another question entirely.  As the description of this blog states, courtesy of the great modernist composer Edgard Varése, "music is organized sound."  How that factors into conventional conceptions like melody, harmony, counterpoint or how it might square with orthodox views on beauty is up to the hearer.

For this listener, Continue is a fascinating immersive experience, a sound world that blots out extraneous circumstances when heard on headphones.  It is a aural journey into a world that is dark, but also fluid and open.   In fact, it is no accident that Lull's first recording was titled Journey through Underworlds.

Because, yeah, it is like that.

Harris has been conspicuously silent for the last couple of years and hopefully has not given up on making music.  With Scorn, Lull, and his many collaborations, his body of distinctive work has been really interesting.  May he reemerge with new music soon, no matter what the moniker.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

King Crimson: Starless and Bible Black

In 2009, fifteen years after last hearing any King Crimson and twenty-five years since hearing this particular record, the opportunity to come across it again, just after relistening to Larks Tongues in Aspic, which rekindled (particularly the awesome "The Talking Drum") an interest in this remarkable band again.

It had actually been Starless and Bible Black that had stuck in my mind all those years, but actually, any memory of why the album had done so was totally unclear.  No particular songs came to mind, it was just some general impression somehow.

At any rate, that first time going back through the recording, what was striking was the effort Robert Fripp put into presenting a mix of live material (with audience reaction removed) and studio tracks as if to present the idea that the band's qualities were essentially the same in both settings.  At the same time, he has characterized the albums as love letters and concerts as hot dates, which might be construed as the idea that it was in performance that the band was best understood and appreciated.

On Starless, the lines between live and in studio work are blurred and improvisation plays a significant role in the proceedings.  The latter is especially highlighted in the remarkable "Trio," in which the band, noted for increasingly intense and powerful concerts, turned in a contemplative, hushed performance in which drummer Bill Bruford, who could be both a powerhouse and a sensitive accompanist, sat out.  Robert Fripp felt that, for making that unselfish move, the drummer deserved a writing credit.

"We'll Let You Know" and "The Mincer" are both largely improvised concert excerpts, although some studio overdubbing was applied to the former.  "Starless and Bible Black" is a powerful piece, with a piercing, probing Fripp solo backed by the duo propulsion of bassist (and vocalist) John Wetton and Bruford.

A word about violinst David Cross, who also played viola, mellotron and electric piano, as well.  Fripp brought him into the group to provide a lighter touch as counterweight to the heaviness of the others.  Over time, he was marginalized and simply overpowered by the intensity of the other musicians.  Yet, he plays beautifully on the violin in many places, esepcially on "The Night Warch", and dutifully did what needed to be done elsewhere.

As for the vocal pieces, there're all fine efforts, including the much-maligned "The Great Deceiver," which has an opening line reference to "health food faggot," which led American critics and fans to condemn lyricist Richard Palmer-James' homophobia.  He and Fripp, however, have stressed that the use of the term was about a vegetarian form of an English meatball in this song about Beelzebub.

"Lament" and "The Night Watch" are both interesting in terms of their introspective views concerning a musician's life on the road, in the case of the former, and the powerful experience of gazing about Rembrandt's famed painting in Amsterdam, in the instance of the latter.  Wetton's dusky vocals are served quite well in the two songs.

The pinnacle of this record and one of the great King Crimson tunes of them all is the staggering "Fracture," which includes the rhythm section providing powerful backing to Fripp's amazing speed, dexterity and control in his phenomenal playing.

As with other signature performances, Fripp didn't rely on pyrotechnics and acrobatics in his playing, so much as precision, power and placement of notes where they needed to be.  "Fracture" is a textbook example of that and it's also a stellar full band performance and a stunning way to end this very interesting and diverse album.

The 2011 release of the 40th Anniversary edition, mainly remastered by Porcupine Tree guitarist Steven Wilson and Fripp, on Fripp's DGM label includes many bonus tracks, as does the accompanying DVD, which offers 5.1 surround, MLP lossless stereo, and PCM stereo versions and more bonuses, too.  The best bonuses, though, are the video performances of "Easy Money" from Larks Tongues and the improvisation "Fragged Dusty Wall Carpet" from a gig at Central Park in June 1973.  Getting this edition is well worth it for those items, excepts from Fripp's 2000 and 2011 diaries, when preparing 30th and 40th anniversary editions and Crimson biographer Sid Smith's always-interesting liners.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Zakir Hussain: Selects

One of the first Indian classical music recordings purchased back in 1990 was the spectacular Venu by flaustist Hariprasad Chaurasia with accompaniment on tabla by Zakir Hussain.  Over time, other recordings featuring both were acquired and, in the case of the incomparable Hussain, his staggering speed, dexterity, precision, power and invention have become increasingly apparent.
This has been true in such recordings as the studio and live releases of Tabla Beat Society, which Hussain formed with the great bassist and producer Bill Laswell, and in others.

Gradual exposure to more Indian classical music over the years, especially through a slew of impressive releases on the British-based Nimbus label, have also increased the desire to attend a concert, but this had proved elusive over the last quarter-century . . . until last night.

My wife and I went to the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts to hear Hussain and sitarist Niladri Kumar.  We got cheap $20 seats on the upper level overlooking the stage at stage left, but the ability to look down somewhat directly over the two master musicians, especially Hussain who was on the right side of the stage, seemed to me to make the siting a superb bargain.

For two and a half hours I sat mesmerized by the incomparable artistry of this incredible players.  Kumar was very impressive, starting out, typically, with slow evocations of themes and gradually building the foundations of his improvisations in the time-honored tradition of Hindustani raga.   When it came to the fast sections, he performed with amazing speed, power and flexibility and was deserving of all the praise heaped upon him by Hussain and the audience.

The ustad (maestro) was humble and humorous, gently introducing the music, his fellow musician, and throwing in charming bits of playful comedic touches that put everyone at ease.  He said, rightly, that the tabla player is there to support the lead instrument (whether this is a sitar, sarod, sarangi, vocalist, etc.) and he was extraordinarily generous in giving Kumar plenty of room to show off his technique and style.

However, Hussain was the undisputed star of the show.  It is hard to describe what a master does in words.  The only reasonable way to express what his astounding playing does is to simply say that pressing my hands against my face or side of my head, grinning or smiling, and shaking my head each time he launched into a dazzling display of virtuosity was the reaction.  It was simply unbelievable.

My wife, who has hardly heard any Indian classical music before and was probably exhausted after getting up at 5:15 a.m., working all day, and then getting our kids fed, was highly engaged and impressed and thanked me for taking her.

Well, thank you, Ustad Zakir Hussain and Niladri Lumar for fulfilling beyond expectation what had been 26 years of unfulfilled wishes to see a performance of Indian classical music.  Now, I want to see more.

Before the show, I purchased Selects, a CD produced by Hussain and his wife Antonia Minnecola for their Moment! Records label from excerpts of live recordings in India from 1994 to 2000.  Notably, there is no sitar here, but there is excellent work on the harmonium by Appa-ji and the sarangi by the phenomenal Ustad Sultan Khan.  Of course, Hussain's unreal tabla work is highlighted in these pieces.

It has to be said that, as great as this disc is, it just cannot, so soon after hearing the mindblowing concert given by Hussain and Kumar, come close to capturing that feeling of the live performance experienced in person.  That might seem obvious, but it becomes glaringly apparent after especially powerful concert experiences, such as last night.  What a thrilling and memorable experience!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Japan: Koto Classics

Hearing this album again brings back memories of almost a quarter century ago first coming into contact with the phenomenal music of Japan's classical period and, specifically, the highly expressive koto, which is one of the oldest musical instruments in the world.

In 1990, discovering this mesmerizing music for the first time was part of the realization that our "western" musics, varied and vast as they are, are just one part of an enormous global reservoir of music available to expanding understanding, perception and appreciation.

Of course, there has to be some acclimatizing to the different tunings, scales and sounds made in other forms of music.  For this listener, hearing the solo koto, shakuhachi, oud, sitarkora or any other number of instruments for other parts of the world, took less of a recalibration than hearing larger ensembles or vocalizations.

The koto, moreover, is a remarkable instrument in that it is both light in tone, but strong in resonance, powerful and heavy on one hand and light and melodic on the other.  It seems to embrace a broad spectrum of sound and perhaps makes it easier to absorb what is heard.

Recorded in 1966 and released as part of the extraordinary Nonesuch Explorer series, the album features the virtuosic playing and emotive singing of Shinichi Yuize, who is still living and is approaching his 93rd birthday.  Yuize has toured around the world and performed with such major figures of Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar and he served as something of a music ambassador for Japan.  When the album was made, Yuize was an artist-in-residence at Columbia University.

The remastering by the great Robert Ludwig, who deserves far more credit for all the amazing work he has done in all musical genres over the decade, further pulls the listener in to the very intimate soundworld created by Yuize's stunning playing and singing.

Koto Classics still has the same impact as twenty-six years ago, which really means that it is a timeless recording.  It will, undoubtedly, feel the same years from now.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Tim Berne/Science Friction: The Sublime And

Again, there is no explanation for waiting so long to highlight another record from the great alto saxophonist Tim Berne, but there is certainly no shortage of great material on which to focus.

This live double disc album was recorded at Winterthur, Switzerland in April 2003 and released that fall on Thirsty Ear Records and features Berne at the peak of his compositional and performing powers with a phenomenal band comprised of drummer Tom Rainey, keyboardist (including laptop) Craig Taborn and guitarist Marc Ducret.

All the hallmarks of Berne's writing style are there:  complexity of melody, harmonizing, shifting of time and rhythm, and lengthy tunes that give the musicians time to develop their interactive processes and soloing.

What adds further to the compelling sound is the electricity (literally) of Taborn's ambient and atmospheric, as well as rhythmic, sensibilities and Ducret's explorations of his guitar, including a remarkable solo on "The Shell Game."  Rainey, who has worked with Berne for many years, seems to be able to shift his role on a dime to accompany the other players and has some fine solos to boot.

As for Berne, his playing is always full of interest as he explores melody and harmony in so many striking ways and knows how to play in sync with his bandmates, no matter who they are and in what configuration they are in.

That's one of the most admirable things about Berne--that he writes and plays the music he wants, with the people he wants, and has adhered to that way of doing things for over thirty years.  He doesn't get much attention or big album sales. but his commitment to his craft is worthy of support for those who can get into his adventurous explorations in all of the various configurations over the years.

And, yes, this amazing live recording is sublime!

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Frédéric Chopin: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3

Idil Biret, the Turkish pianist who masterfully performs the three piano sonatas by Chopin in this 1991 Naxos release, has recorded prolifically for the label including complete works by Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms and Rachmaninoff, much of which this blogger owns and greatly enjoys,

Her technique and sensitivity to the material is obvious, even to a true amateur listener such as this blogger, though the fact that the emotional expression in her work comes through so that it can be felt by anyone who pays due attention is testament to her remarkable abilities.

Biret, a native of Turkey, studied from a young age and learned under the legendary Nadia Boulanger in Paris, becoming a soloist in major concert halls from the age of 16.  Her work with Chopin led her to receive Poland's highest civilian honor, the Cross of the Order of Merit as well as a Grand Prix du Disque Frédéric Chopin award for her complete recordings of the composer.

The best known of the three sonatas presented here is, of course, the second, known as "The Funeral March" of 1837 with its very familiar dirge theme, but the third sonata from 1844 is excellent. The first, completed in 1828, when Chopin was still in his teens, was not published until after his death and may be seen as a student's experiment, albeit of a student of a genius level.

As stated in the notes and elsewhere, Chopin's music was not the bombastic, concert hall ready type exemplified by his flashy contemporary, Franz Liszt.  It was more nuanced and was very delicate and elegant and, as Ulrich Spratte states in the notes, was "in the more refined ambiance of the fashionable salon" rather than the grand hall.

In the hands of a peerless interpreter like Biret, this gorgeous music is given its fullest expression.  Biret and Naxos proved to have had a remarkable and rare partnership in presenting music like this that is a fantastic experience to hear.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

James Brown: Star Time

Star Time, the four-disc anthology issued in 1991 by Polydor Records, of the music of the amazing James Brown, is a remarkable document.

While it is easy to focus attention on the middle two discs, spanning Brown's greatest period from roughly 1965 to 1975, where he released choice hit after hit and refined the diamond-hard grooves that make him one of America's greatest musical figures, it might be easy to overlook the first and last discs, which show his transformation, in the first example, from a fine R&B performer in the 1950s to the Godfather of Soul, and then the gradual decline as the music world changed dramatically after the mid-Seventies.

Yet, there is much to enjoy in those bookend discs.  From his early, pleading "Please Please Please" to his successful 1984 track "Unity" with pioneering rapper Afrika Bambaataa, there are many examples of comparison and contrast between the two periods, but also with the pinnacle of the always-busy career of The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

It is hard, though, to dispute that discs two and three are consistently mind-blowing, with everything from "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" to "I Feel Good" to "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" to "Mother Popcorn" to "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine" to "Super Bad" and a whole lot more.  By the middle of disc 3, it might be apparent that, once Brown got his funk formula refined, it became stuck in a rut, but what a rut!

A great deal of the genius is undoubtedly due to Brown's vocals, including his trademark screams and grunts, but also his often impeccable sense of timing, but a lot of it is having the discipline, and the hardness, to be an effective bandleader.  That may be Brown's most underrated quality, being able to hone one of the most efficient and effective bands, in various incarnations, to a T.

At the same time, he also had a very impressive group of musicians with which to work, including the great Maceo Parker on sax, Fred Wesley on trombone, bassist Bootsy Collins and his guitarist brother, Catfish (both of whom went to anchor George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic mothership), drummer John Starks, bassist Bernard Odum, drummer Melvin Parker, guitarist Jimmy Nolen, drummer Clyde Stubblefield and his longtime vocal foil and organist Bobby Byrd.  Without these amazing players, even Brown's considerable gifts as a singer, bandleader and all-around entertainer could not have sustained the heights that he attained.

This listener had pretty much a passing exposure to the greatness of James Brown before this box set was purchased, but it really opened up an appreciation for just how incredible he and his bands were in creating some of the best and most exciting music this country has ever produced.  Brown never lacked for confidence and self-appreciation, which can be off-putting, to say the least, but this is a document that convincingly shows that, at this greatest, Brown could back up the boasting, big time.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Mahagita: Harp and Vocal Music of Burma

On first approach, this remarkable release from Smithsonian Folkways of Burmese harp music reminded this listener of the amazing kora music from western Africa.  That is, until the vocals come in and then there is something very different--a gorgeous and haunting way of using the voice as an instrument to complement the harp playing.

Inle Mint Maung is astonishing on the 16-string harp and is beautifully accompanied by vocalist Daw Yi Yi Thant, whose enunciation is precise and singing highly accomplished.  Their performances on the nine pieces, ranging from a little over 6 to 12 minutes in length, are given plenty of room to develop their strengths.

Ward Keeler's excellent introduction in the liners points out that this music has never been popular, "but to those willing to listen, Burma's classical soings are ravishingly beautiful."  He noted that the music was refined over a long period, with the royal Burmese court as major patron, until the British takeover in 1885 of "Mandalay."  Ironically, the brutal regime of "Myanmar"claimed to support the country's heritage, which seemed to bode well for the survival of what is called "thachin gyi."

Keeler described that "saun gau" or arched harp as being held in the lap of the performer who sits cross-legged on the floor.  The player generally uses the thumb and index finger of the right hand on the strings, but Inle Myint Maung did not play this way.  Still, the virtuosity of this master is undisputed, with improvisation forming a significant part of the playing.

The singer, Daw Yi Yi Thant, holds two small bells held together by a string, as well as a bamboo or wood clapper.  The former, the "si," and the latter, the "wa" are used in place of larger percussion instruments, gongs and drums, heard in larger groups.

Biographical information about Maung and Thant adds to the understanding of the precision and skill they brought to this remarkable recording.  Keeler added that, while this music has recently been heard usually on the radio or television, past performance could take place overnight at a home, with a meal in between.  The writer stated that in 1987-88 he was able to hear the two musicians perform some songs at the Maung's home, giving a taste of what these domestic performances entailed.

Detailed notes for each piece explain the poetic meaning of the lyrics, as well as give information on the instrumental performance.  Befitting many Smithsonian Folkways releases, the liner notes really help newcomers to the music understand and enjoy the experience better.

While this album was in production, Inle Myint Maung died at the relatively young age of 64, so the release of the recording was even more important for preserving the work of this master musician, whose harp playing is so spectacular.

Just after this post was completed, a news item was read about a major earthquake in Burma (Myanmar) that took place today.  The 6.8 quake took place more than 50 miles below the earth's surface, so the damage could have been far worse, though some historic pagodas were damaged.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Sonny Sharrock: Guitar

Can't say why it's taken almost four years to post a Sonny Sharrock album here, following his masterpiece Ask the Ages, but, in any case, his pure solo album, Guitar, is not far behind on the list of favorite Sharrock records.

Released on Enemy Records in 1986, not long after Sharrock was tracked down by bassist/producer Bill Laswell and convinced to make a comeback in music, this Sharrock/Laswell production was a perfect way to showcase the unbelievable talent that the guitarist possessed.

This is true with his well-known and well-honed slide guitar technique, in which Sharrock ranged and raged up and down the frets like a madman, but it is also true with his affinity for the blues and his knack for melody.  It is all these facets and more that made him the master that he was.

So, yes, there is plenty of rapid-fire playing with the slide and without, but there are also some very beautiful sections with plaintive melodies, soaring soloing and a playful humor that goes far beyond the pyrotechnics.

"Blind Willie" has a memorable melodic statement with a drone-like background as well as soloing that demonstrates what Sharrock could be inventive not just fast, though there's some of that, too.  "Devil's Doll Baby" has a background howling using that slide, while he solos impressively on top to create a wild effect that maybe explains the the title.

"Broken Toys" starts off in a kind of ambient mode with a pretty theme and then solos over that mellower playing, but in a way that is perfectly complementary even as it has contrasting colors.  "Black Bottom" has an old-school rock rhythm motif with a strange, otherwordly background before the soloing takes on a blues direction and includes some of the finest on the record.  "Kula Mae" has another excellent example of a rhythm that supports the often-breathtaking soloing that Sharrock was known the first 1:15, and then the tune changes gear completely into another rock rhythm and some blistering fret work.

But it is the "Princess Sonata" in four parts over thirteen minutes that is the centerpiece of this album, taking all those elements of Sharrock's playing mentioned above and crystallizing them into a fully realized piece of music.  The "Princess and the Magician" section shows Sharrock blazing away, while "Like Voices of Sleeping Birds" takes him into some "out there" slide work.  "Flowers Laugh" has a playful backing, while the guitarists works the frets in a short showcase.  "They Enter the Dream" has a pretty backing statement over which the solo soars majestically and shreds in equal measure, providing a great way to end a remarkable album.

Guitar is a perfectly understated title for this showcase of one of the greatest and most underappreciated guitarists in all of music.  While Sharrock is generally thought of as a free jazz guitarist, he developed a style that was all-encompassing, taking in rock, blues and other forms, as well as jazz, to the point where, to this blogger, there is no label that applies.

Instead, Sonny Sharrock blazed his own musical path from the mid-80s until his untimely passing in 1994.  This album is one of the best ways to appreciate Sharrock in his pure, undiluted artistry, though Ask the Ages is, to this listener, his best work.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Stimmung

This remarkable recording of Stockhausen's work for chorus, Stimmung, is one of those albums that should be heard with headphones to really appreciate the particular aural dynamics of how he composed for polyphonic singing.

As performed by Paul Hillier's amazing Theatre of Voices, Stimmung is an especially stimulating experience, one that, for some, might be worth hearing after listening to, say, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, a Latvian female choir album, or the male Rustavi Choir from the republic of Georgia.  There are also sections of overtone singing that are somewhat reminiscent of the Tuva throat singers of Mongolia.

Stockhausen composed Stimmung, which implies tuning voices but can also refer to a calibrating of the soul in a positive way, in early 1968 as his take on madrigals, using text, vocalizations, and his own particular style of composing to create something very different and new. While there is basically a single chord utilized, the use of six pitches and overtones provides a complexity that makes the piece move beyond the idea of that one chord.

Instead of a score, there is a "form scheme" with 51 models that the singers follow with instructions as to who sings, what pitches are employed, and the textual resources (including a selection from 66 "magic names" based on mythological fitures) utilized.  There is a call-and-response element to the work with variations and the use of some improvisation and a new lead singer takes over in each model, though the ensemble decided which model goes where within the general scheme.

Interestingly, Hillier stated that Stockhausen offered to assist with the recording, but schedules did not permit it, so a tape of a performance was sent and the composer returned "a detailed critique—whch we found challenging and extremely helpful."  This sounds very Stockhausenian, actually, as does the closing comment that the various recordings of Stimmung sound quite different from one another, which is probably to be expected given the extraordinary way the piece was worked out and the demands it places on performers to utilize their individual and collective personalities in the performance.

Finally, Hillier offers that, of all of the experimental works of the 1960s, he feels Terry Riley's In C and Stimming are most representative and that he sees these very different works as being related to the conditions of time (the Sixties) and place (the effects of California on the two men)

Stimmung is, especially heard with headphones, a particularly stimulating and compelling work by one of the most provocative and unique composers in recent decades.  The recording quality is also crystalline, which really enhances the effect.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Prasit Thawon Ensemble: Thai Classical Music

This 1994 release on England's Nimbus Records is a beautiful example of the classical music of Thailand, as rendered by The Prasit Thawon Ensemble.

Utilizing horns; percussion including bells, gongs, finger cymbals, and woodblocks; alto and soprano xylophones and vocals, the long tradition of music, whether the pieces are older or new, from the Asian nation is given excellent expression by the ensemble, anchored by the two long centerpieces of the album, the exquisite 23 1/2-minute long "Sumran Dontri Klong" and the nearly 27-minute long "Cherd Chin."

Interestingly, the latter dates from the mid-19th century while the former was newly composed by Prasit Thawon, the leader of the performing ensemble, when this recording was made.

The group was founded in the late 1950s as "The Ensemble of the Dramatic School" at Bangkok and it performed in concerts and for radio and television broadcasts.  After Prasit Thawon retired in the mid-1980s, the ensemble was renamed "Sitti Thawon" and then to The Prasit Thawon Ensemble as a further honor to the founder.

The recording was made as part of an international conference devoted to Thailand at a London studio and is a fine representation of the fascingting music of that country.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Wire: Send

After another lengthy hiatus, beginning in 1992, Wire reemerged a decade later determined to push themselves in an expected direction.  With 2003's Send, which followed from and incorporated some songs from the two Read & Burn EPs, the band blazed, blasted and blew (largely) through a blistering barrage of tunes that showed that they were as delightfully idiosyncratic and creative as ever.

Anyone who saw Wire live during that period, as this blogger did for the first time at a Los Angeles show, it was more than a surprising to be confronted with a level of volume that was as loud as any concert experienced before.

But, the songs worked well in that maelstrom.  "In the Art of Stopping," "Comet," "The Agfers of Kodack," "Spent," and more are just built for speed and noise.  The live album, The Scottish Play: 2004 (a neat little play on The Bard) gives some idea of what Wire's music of that period sounded like in person, though it's obviously not possible to replicate the sonic assault.

But, that's not all that Send and related recordings from those first few years of the 2000s was about.  For one thing, although there are electronic treatments added for color and adornment, especially on "Read and Burn" it was great to be able to hear Robert Grey (Gotobed) playing a real drumkit again and performing with his old metronomic reliability.  Not that the late 80s version of Wire wasn't great--there was much to enjoy there--but the driving intensity of Send would not obviously have been anywhere near possible without Grey's drumming.

And, of course, there's Colin Newman's ironic, Cockney-inflected vocals--often supremely sarcastic, witty and insightful, and sometimes bellowing, as on the staggering "Spent."  Occasionally, Graham Lewis's voice, though definitely cigarette-burnished (or burned), comes out particularly effectively, even if processed, in the raging, biting "The Agfers of Kodack."  Though to hear him sing the tune on The Scottish Play reveals painfully what the years of smoking had done.

Finally, there is the production, which somehow manages to sound raw and polished all at the same time, due to the care and consideration taken by Newman, who has mixed all of Wire's music since at his home studio, Swim.

Some bands maintain remarkable longevity by falling back on past glories; others build upon their history while adding new dimensions by looking forward.  Wire is definitely the latter, even after Bruce Gilbert departed in 2004.  Their subsequent albums have all been great and their latest release, the mini-LP Nocturnal Koreans, shows that they are still very much forward thinking.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy: Cornell 1964

This 2007 release on Blue Note Records is another one of those happy musical discoveries--coming about when Sue Graham Mingus, the widow of the great bassist and composer Charles Mingus found a tape of a concert held at Cornell University in upstate New York on 18 March 1964.

The two sets make up the double disc offering here and the programming is, characteristically for Mingus diverse and different.  The first tune is a solo romp by pianist Jaki Byard, who creates a piece brimming with upbeat feeling based on stunning virtuosity.  Byard then comps quietly behind Mingus, who solos to great effectiveness on a piece by one of his heroes, Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady."

Then comes one of the centerpieces of this record and one of the most politically charged pieces in the leader's impressive catalog of original compositions: "Fables of Faubus."  This jibe at the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, who fought the federally ordered desegregation of schools in 1957.  While the vocals decrying Faubus are important to hear, and certainly had a place in 1964, the piece is also a gem because of the way the remarkable sextet moved through the tune with its shifting tempos, excellent soloing, and remarkable harmonic interplay.  Byars, as just one example, takes a bit of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and builds upon it in his great solo and Mingus quotes "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" in his solo.  But, this is a triumph of a band making the most of its ample and impressive resources and led by a composer at the peak of his powers.

"Orange was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk" is a beautiful ballad, in which we hear the phenomenal Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, employing all of the explosive, technically imposing, and utterly unique elements of his playing, with Mingus clearly encouraging Dolphy on.

The great composer Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train," another piece associated with Ellington, also gets a great workout and Byard's soloing takes in stride playing and other "older" styles in weaving a fascinating history-based performance.  Mingus's phenomenal bass solo, in conjunction with Danny Richmond's remarkable drumming, features the bassist talking, grunting, and otherwise having a hell of a time while the crowd laughs and roars in appreciation.  Dolphy offers another great solo while the band rumbles and roars behind him and the pieces closes to end a spectacular set.

The second set is anchored by another marathon piece, the mind-blowing "Meditations," which runs over 31 minutes.  While it does have its meditative moments, it also has its uptempo sections, where the band, firing on all cylinders, displays all of its stregnths and shows no discernible weaknesses, letdowns, or misfirings.  Hearing Clifford Jordan solo on tenor, while Dolphy backs him on bass clarinet, and the rhythm section churns and burns along with them, is really interesting and exciting, especially as the finish pits the horns against Byard's hard block chords and Richmond's stirring drumming and as Mingus can be heard directing the band where to go next.

"So Long Eric" has been taken by many to be a posthumously-titled homage to Dolphy, who died just three months later in Berlin, but it was actually given that title by Mingus as Dolphy left the band to take the tour to Europe that included his untimely passing.

It being the day after St. Patrick's Day, Mingus tossed in a version of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" and introduced trumpeter "Johnny O'Coles" as the "only Irishman in the band."  The album closes with the Fats Waller gem "Jitterbug Waltz", a fantastic rendering that highlights Dolphy's flute playing and provides more of the leader's great bass work.

It wasn't long after this recording that Mingus' career took a downturn, along with his mental and physical health.   There were later highlights like Let My Children Hear Music from the early 70s and the Changes albums from the same period, but the unit he had the year that the Cornell concert was made was exceptional and perhaps the high point of his long and remarkable career.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Flute Concertos Nos. 1 & 2

Sometimes it's the lesser-known pieces in a master composer's catalog of works that are the most interesting.  This is certainly the case with these little gems, comprising the two concertos for flute and a short andante in C major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart released by the excellent Naxos label in the late 1980s.

The Capella Istropolitana, a chamber orchestra in Bratislava, Slovakia, conducted by Austrian Martin Sieghart, provides a fine accompaniment to flautist Herbert Weissberg, a native of Vienna, who remained in his music-rich hometown to study at the city's music academy and university and then became principal flautist for the symphony orchestra there.

The helpful liner notes state that Mozart wrote these pieces as part of a concerted (ha!) effort to break free of the limitations imposed upon him by his years under the patronage of the Archbishop in his native Salzburg.

In his very early 20s, about 1777, Mozart composed these concertos for a Dutchman named "De Jean," who was an amateur flautist and someone who had the kind of money Mozart craved, being perpetually in financial distress.

Evidently Mozart did not think highly of the flute and may not have put in the kind of passionate intensity in composition that he did many of his other works.  Still, these pieces are melodically solid and harmonically interesting, even if they don't rank among his greatest pieces.  The light, fragile sound of the flute dancing above the excellent orchestral background is pleasant and maintains interest.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Praxis: Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis)

A week ago, while driving through the parched landscape of the high desert from Bishop to San Bernardino, the two-disc Axiom Funk compilation, Funkcronomicon, provided an unusual soundtrack to the bare hills, Joshua Trees, and the endless ribbon of asphalt that rolled on through the hours.

The great keyboardist Bernie Worrell, the "Wizard of Woo," died today at age 72 from lung cancer.  A classical piano prodigy who studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music, Worrell was propelled to fame with this central role in funkmeister George Clinton's masterful ensemble, Parliament/Funkadelic, for many years.

In the early 1990s, Worrell joined forces with fellow P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins; D.J. Af Next Man Flip, formerly Afrika Baby Bam of the great hip-hop group Jungle Brothers; drummer Brain (Bryan Mantia, later with Primus, Guns 'N Roses and others) and the phenomenal guitarist Buckethead in the Bill-Laswell produced collective, Praxis.

1992's debut record by the group, Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis), was mind-blowing and innovative a quarter century ago and is still striking today.  The recording is full of interesting and strangely complementary mixes of metal, hip-hop, funk, electronics and other elements and takes great advantage of the talents of its five disparate, but well-synchronized members.

Worrell's organ, clavinet and synthesizer works particularly well as a foil for Buckethead's amazing pyrotechnics and the steady backing of Collins and Brain.  Laswell's production work is excellent, providing the right level of mixing for each performer and leaving space in the final product to hear the ensemble in all of its remarkable glory.

"Animal Behavior", with Collins' typically humorous vocal, is the closest thing to a standard tune on the album and its relaxed funk groove included some tasty Worrell organ playing.  The end of the tune features some beautiful melodic guitar work from Buckethead.  "Crash Victim/Black Science Navigator" is a crazed conglomeration of shredding guitar, sharp organ, and a strong, steady beat from the rhythm section, before Af Next Man Flip does his thing on the second half.

Worrell gets the spotlight in "Seven Laws of Woo," a play on his nickname, and the tune then heads into a metal-inflected jam that rocks hard and has another great Buckethead solo.  "Dead Man Walking" highlights Buckethead's astounding guitar abilities before the tune hits a solid funk groove punctuated by all kinds of electronic sounds and turntable work.  The "Interworld and the New Innocence" features some more delicate and memorable playing by Buckethead before the band breaks out into a harder-rocking section, where Worrell gets a clavinet workout with his organ accompaniment.  The record's 16-minute epic, "After Shock (Chaos Never Died)" includes some more fine Worrell workouts, including some haunting organ playing.

The whole album is fantastic, showcasing the strengths of the quintet with Laswell's crystalline production serving the proceedings very well.  This is one of many apt testimonials to the amazing talent of Bernie Worrell.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Le Mystére des Voix Bulgares

When this blogger started listening to "world music" in 1990, this was one of the first recordings that was purchased, mainly because the 1986-87 (first on the British label 4AD and then on the American Nonesuch Explorer label) re-release of the 1975 Disques Cellier release by Marcel Cellier became something of a surprise world-wide phenomenon.

Obviously, the quality of an experience can't be repeated and, the more distant in time, the less can be recalled.  But, listening to the opening polyphonic harmonic vocal gymnastics employed by the two dozen singers of the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir, still provokes something of that spine-tingling feeling of just over a quarter century ago.

These are traditional folk songs, from weddings, harvests, dancing, and work, as well as from legend and myth in a part of the world little known to most of us in America, but which has ancient roots and connectivity between east and west that clearly have formed the unique qualities of this remarkable vocal music.

But, there is a distinctively modern "artistic" sheen put on the old folk origins, both in arrangment by Phillip Koutev and Krasimir Kyurkchiyski, and on the recording quality.  Purity is often a word used to describe this work and it is true from multiple standpoints:  the quality of each singer's voice, in the roots of the material, and in the fine sound recording quality.

To this listener, everything about this album is fantastic and it seems almost unfair to pick out highlights.  There are the ensemble passages, solos, and small group harmonizing--all of which have their particular aspects to recommend them.  One of the more notable elements, though, is the use of dissonant harmonies in diaphonic singing, described in the notes as "two voices (solo or choral) [which] track each other in parallel intervals.

Koutev and Kuykchiyski took the traditional pieces and reworked them in a modern way utilizing changes in mode and harmonic intervals, but always with an eye to preservation of the magic and power of the source materials, while recalibrating the works for modern presentation.

There are also occasional uses of instruments, such as the gayda, similar to a bagpipe, the kaval, a flute, and the gadulka, or violin, as well as some percussion.  These are often introduced as breaks in the vocal pieces or as stand-alones, in addition to accompaniment to the choir.

The writer of the liners, composer Ingram Marshall, points out that the use of a-harmonic materials by Eastern European classical composers like Bartók, Ligeti, Stravinsky, and Penderecki is often derived by folk music found in their native countries, like Hungary or Poland.  Marshall concluded his essay by asking "why more Western composers do not work with indigenous singers and instrumentalists as a springboard to creativity."  Of course, there are some who have used Eastern music for this purpose, including Lou Harrison and the inspiration he took from Balinese gamelan music.

In any case, Le Mystére des Voix Bulgares is still a stunning listening experience and there are several follow-ups from the ensemble, renamed after the fall of Communism, a few of which will be highlighted here in the future.  Finally, one of the most memorable concert-going experiences for this listener was seeing the ensemble perform at UCLA's Royce Hall sometime in the early to mid Nineties--where the recordings could only hint at the power and expressiveness to be found in a high-quality concert hall.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Complete Blind Willie Johnson

Blind Willie Johnson's voice is something else--a "false bass" growl that bursts forth from his tenor range and pulls the listener in with powerful lyrics generally of a strong religious nature and makes for an unusual deep dark blues and gospel stew.  On top of this, the remarkable slide and straight picking acoustic guitar playing might get short shrift with all the attention to Johnson's voice, but it is uniformly excellent playing.

With digital remastering, these 1920s recordings sound more immediate and, perhaps to some more listeners, more claustrophobic, but it is also true that just having the man's voice and guitar is all that is needed for a spectacular performance.

There are some tracks here that are well-known to even casual blues listeners (this blogger doesn't pretend to be a connoisseur), such as "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground"; "It's Nobody's Fault But Mine"; "Mother's Children Have a Hard Time"; "Let Your Light Shine on Me," which partly dispenses with that guttural growl; "John the Revelator," which has a female backing vocal from Willie B. Harris present on other tracks, as well, and others.  The first-named piece is a revelation, with the wordless emotional singing and beautiful guitar playing tingling the spine in ways that few others have.

But, there are many pieces, less familiar to amateurs like this blogger, that amply show the immense talent of a man who never received his due.  One standout is "If I Had My Way I'd Tear the Building Down," which has a great rhythmic sense to drive the piece vocally and instrumentally.  Another is "I'm Gonna Run to the City of Refuge," another vocal jewel with the female backing vocal on the chorus.  "God Won't Never Change" is sung completely in Johnson's straightforward tenor and is a gem.  "You'll Need Somebody on Your Bond" is another example of stellar slide guitar and Johnson's "false bass" vocals harmonize nicely (this isn't always true, however--as on "Praise God I'm Satisfied"and others) with his female counterpart.  "God Moves on the Water" has some very tasty slide work and a nice, growl-less vocal.

This is a collection of consistently rewarding early recorded blues and gospel from a master of acoustic guitar and deeply personal and stylized vocalizing.  Kudos also go to Samuel Charters for his detailed essay on Johnson and his music.

Particularly affecting is the fact that, as Charters tells so well, Johnson was a preacher in Beaumont, Texas, when, in 1945, his house burned down and he was left to live among the charred ruins, catching a fever that developed into pneumonia.  According to the woman who was married to him, a hospital refused to treat him because he was blind and Johnson died needlessly at 48.  Too many great black musicians of all genres died too young and in shocking circumstances at a time when they were creating some of America's greatest music and not given their due.  The story of Blind Willie Johnson may be one of the most heartbreaking of all.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Sam Rivers: Crystals

The great multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers is remarkably underappreciated, perhaps partly because he created some of his greatest work during the period when jazz was at its lowest point of appreciation in the late 1960s and onward.

Crystals was released in 1974 by Impulse!, the so-called label that John Coltrane built, and it is a towering achievement, compositionally and in terms of performance.

On the first point, Rivers was a master at using melody, rhythm, harmony, instrumental interplay, tempo and chord structures in a way that both recognized jazz tradition with a forward-thinking mentality that seems fresh today.

With regard to the second, this was Rivers' first album using orchestral accompaniment and he made the best possible use of a massive number of instrumentalists.  But, rather than overcrowd the pieces, the leader's marshaling of his orchestral resources is such that there is a perfect balance of fullness, richness and power that makes the most of his excellent writing.

In the lines, Rivers stated that he wrote the six pieces between 1959 and 1972, with one track "Exultation" being the sole piece from emanating from the earlier period, as  "conceived in 1959 and completed in 1964" and he wrote that he often worked on many pieces at a given time, or, rather, spent time on one, put it aside, and then worked on others, before coming back to the first, often many years later.

The rest of the tracks were more recent, from 1967 on, and it is interesting to note that Rivers stated "the compositions on this album were chosen at random.  They could have been any one or sections of more than thirty compositions which have been performed in the New York area, by groups of size ranging from sextet to thirty-five musicians."

In fact, Rivers had recently formed his RivBea Orchestra (the second part of the first word being the name of his wife Bea) and was devoting more of his attention to working with large ensembles at a loft in New York.

Significantly, Rivers' notes refer to the many unusual, fluid and dynamic forces at work in this amazing music.  In "Tranquility", the tune is "atonal in concept, with 120 bars of written music with an improvised introduction and ending". With "Postlude", the music comprises "a dense constantly changing mass, each instrument with forty or more bars in its statement, each ending at a different place, then repeating—endless repetition of parts with different entrances produces the ever-changing sound of the whole."  And, in "Bursts—Orb—Earth Song", there are "other instruments entering at given times, some written, others improvised, creating a continuous acceleration to a peak."

These are some prime examples of the complex and ever-changing nature of the composer working with a large group of musical resources in personnel and instruments, as well as compositional technique, to create a masterpiece.

Among the musicans are multi-instrumentalist Paul Jeffrey, who headed an octet and worked with Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington; trumpeter Ted Daniel, a sideman for Archie Shepp, Sonny Sharrock and Dewey Redman, as well as his own groups; trombonist Charles Greenlee, a frequent player with Shepp; trummpeter Richard Williams, whose background included stints with Oliver Nelson, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, and Jaki Byard; and drummer Warren Smith, who was in the Gil Evans Orchestra and Max Roach's percussion ensenble M'Boom; and others.

Rivers also thanked a roster of musicians who were on this album and performed other of his works, leading some reviewers to think all of them played on Crystals, though only some did.  In any case, it's an impressive list of players.

The 2002 release on disc, in a mimi-LP sleeve, features updated sound to further enhance the experience of a landmark recording.  Some day, hopefully, Sam Rivers will get the attention he is due--as a performer on saxophones, flute and piano and as a composer of the highest abilities.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Györgi Ligeti: Works for Piano, Vol. 3

This amazing recording features the first two books of Ligeti's Etudes for Piano, representing later work from the 1980s and onward, the Musica Ricercata from the early 1950s, and a brief etude from 1995 and the third etude book.

It is an illustration of Ligeti's penchant for building upon a traditional form with a highly personalized modern style, as well as the phenomenal playing of Pierre-Laurent Aimard.  There is a great deal of complexity in tempos, range, expressiveness and power in these works, especially the etudes, and in the hands of Aimard, the pieces are staggering in their conception and execution.  As a Sony Classical production, the sound is also top-notch and heard on headphones, the album is more exceptional from the standpoint of the clarity.

It is also illustrative to read Ligeti's notes about why he composed etudes:
The initial impetus was, above all, my own inadequate piano technique. . .I would love to be a fabulous pianist!  I know a lot about nuances of attack, phrasing, rubato, formal structure.  And I absolutely love to play piano, but only for myself . . . that's what I would like to achieve: the transformation of inadequacy into professionalism.  I lay my ten fingers on the keyboard and imagine music.  My fingers copy this mental image as I press the keys, but this copy is inexact: a feedback emerges between idea and tactile/motor execution . . . the result sounds completely different from my initial conceptions: the anatomical reality of my hands and the configuration of the piano keyboard have transformed my imaginary constructs . . . I call for support upon the four great composers who thought pianistically: Scarlatti, Chopin, Schumann, and Debussy.
Ligeti also highlights the polyphony employed in ensemble playing in Africa, specifically Uganda, Malawi and other nations and the playing of the mbira (highlighted here before) and other similar instruments that bear a relation to the piano.  Colin Nancarrow, another major modern composer, and the jazz pianists Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans are also mentioned as influences when it comes to the uniqueness of the playing and writing of each.

He also briefly discusses the Musica Ricercata as devolving from his devotion to twelve-tone music as well as his appreciation for Bartok and Stravinsky, noting that that the first of the eleven pieces has two tones transposed through octaves and then each adds another tone, so that the final has all twelve.  As Ligeti states, the suite comprises
A severe, almost noble piece, hovering between academic orthodoxy and deep reflection: between gravity and caricature.
To go from the later etudes back to the early twelve-tone work is to see how much a composer can evolve over the course of a long, fruitful career.  For an amateur seeking a greater appreciation for the range of works for the highly expressive piano, this album was a real eye-opener.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Dr. L. Subramaniam: Three Ragas for Solo Violin

This is another stellar release in the "Indian Classical Masters" series from Nimbus Records, issued in 1991, of the beautiful and technically superior work of violinist Dr. L. Subramaniam coming out of the Carnatic music tradition of southern India.

Subramaniam was a child prodigy, giving his first solo violin performance at the age of six, and mastered not only the indigenous music of his homeland, but also received a master's degree in Western classical music.  He has composed music that fuses the Indian and western forms with his hybrid works performed throughout Europe, the United States and in India.

Obviously, the violin, as a western instrument, came late to India, being introduced, according to the informative liner notes in the early 1800s, though its use as a solo instrument has come in the post-World War II era.

The three ragas performed here are ranging from 20 to 25 minutes in length, giving Subramaniam the fullest opportunity to develop the melodic elements of the pieces and then to employ a great variety of improvised variations, accompanied by the tambura (drone) of Narendra Kotiyan.  Throughout, Subramaniam's playing is gorgeous, complex and rich with often thrilling technical displays of virtuosity performed with great precision and control, but also emotionalism.

As explained by Dr. John Marr, Carnatic music (which has been featured here before), has seven degrees in an octave with a variety of talas, or time measures, employed.  There are six dozen scales, or melakartas, in the tradition that are formed from the basis of six patterns that refer to hours and minutes and then  the augmentation of these.  Half come from the "hour and minute" examples and the other half from the augmented melakartas.

Carnatic music revolves around religious pieces called kirtana and kriti and the soloist is known for how they improvise from the basic melodic themes of these songs and it was the vocal work that was the basis for traditional Carnatic music.  This was highlighted in the previous posting on this blog of a great album by Ramnad Krishnan.

For many western listeners, these lengthy pieces can be a challenge, but this listener has found, in twenty-five years of enjoying Indian classical music, that having the drone almost as a meditative "bottom" and then treating the soloist as someone developing the western classical notion of "variations on a theme" while waiting eagerly for those virtuosic displays of rapid runs and technical gymnastics is a good way to approach the music.

Ultimately, there is something very meditative in listening to Indian classical music, whether from the Hindustani or Carnatic traditions--that approaching it as a continuous experience that is less dependent on time as it is on development of the melodic themes by improvisational variation makes the music more emjoyable.  Dr. L. Subramanian is a masterful performer and this recording is another excellent recording from Nimbus, which has a large catalog of Indian classical music.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Durutti Column: LC

This second album from Vini Reilly's The Durutti Column takes its name from Lotta Continua (Continuous Struggle), a far right-wing organization in late 1960s Italy and which is a sort of analog to the band name, which is a misspelling of an anarchist group from 1930s Spain.

Recorded on four-track tape at Reilly's home, the album is a stellar one, featuring Reilly's superb guitar and piano, the first appearance of long-time drummer and manager Bruce Reilly, and a slew of great songs.

These start with the relatively up-tempo "Sketch for Dawn (I)," which has a driving drum beat from Mitchell and rhythm guitar from Reilly to anchor this excellent song.  There are many who don't like Reilly's monotonal vocalizations, but this listener finds it better to have the creator sing his own songs, even if his abilities are, technically speaking, lacking.

"Portrait for Frazer" highlights Reilly's uncanny way with achingly beautiful melodies and atmospheric playing, while Mitchell, who is a master at this, plays with great sensitivity and understatement.

"Jacqueline" has one of Reilly's most memorable melodic lines and is another fine example of his playing exactly what needs to be played without overdoing it or relying on flashy solos to show that his gift for simple, spare, but compelling composition is balanced by his talent with the guitar.  Again, Mitchell provides the right time of percussive accompaniment.

"Messidor" has a more aggressive percussive element and Reilly multi-tracks guitars to great effect, with another one of his recognizable melodies.  While it has a stronger rhythmic element and a faster tempo, it contains a contemplative feeling that is typical of so much of what makes The Durutti Column's music compelling.

"Sketch for Dawn (II)" is a darker and more somber affair.  Part of this is Reilly's vocal, but there is a rare bass line, played by him, and a particular percussive feel that contribute to the feeling.  Reilly's piano sounds like it is played on an old, beat-up upright, but it may be the 4-track recording process that is much of the reason why.

"Never Known" uses drum machine percussion, a ghostly atmospheric electronic effect, and one of Reilly's most heart-breaking melodies to create another downcast, but achingly beautiful pieces.  That peculiar flat vocal, which sounds like he recorded it in an echo chamber, again seems perfectly suited to the emotional content of the piece.  That melodic line on the guitar is something else.

"The Act Committed" is brighter and more upbeat, backed by Mitchell's low-key drumming and by a drum machine, with Reilly's bass and more fine multi-tracked guitar, with another excellent set of melodic shapes generated.

"Detail for Paul" has more multi-tracked guitar that utilizes echoed effects and a rising main guitar line almost like a continuous solo, backed by drum programming, that is another absorbing tune, though it ends rather abruptly.

The original album ends with what is undoubtedly Reilly's masterpiece.  The astounding "The Missing Boy" has another excellent melodic guitar line, with accompaniment utilizing Reilly's bass and piano, as well as Mitchell's exemplay drumming and propulsive guitar and piano rhythmic accenting.  The lyric is said to be about the recent death of Ian Curtis, the troubled and tormented singer from Joy Division, the great band that was, like The Durutti Column, one of the early groups to record for Factory Records.  Again, that odd flat, nasally vocal recorded low in the mix seems perfectly suited for the song, which closes out a remarkable record.

Under the Factory Once imprint of remixed and expanded releases from the catalog, the 1996 reissue has several bonus tracks, including the brooding piano piece, "The Sweet Cheat Gone"; the whimsical and strangely affecting "For Mimi" with an angular guitar and Mitchell's simple drumming used to fine effect; "Belgian Friends" which has another strong melody on guitar and piano in a very lo-fi setting, which is only amplified by Mitchell's basic, but perfect, drumming and Reilly's bass, but which makes for a great song; and "Danny," which has another of those great guitar melodic lines that seemed endless in Reilly's long catalog of recordings--this being another exceptional piece.

Rather than throw-aways, the eight additional pieces seem truly more like the "Related Works" that they are described as in the liner notes, with all but one being from the period (1980-81)--the other is "One Christmas for Your Thoughts" from 1988, which is more of the era of The Guitar and Other Machines, which was highlighted here before.

Vini Reilly is truly a remarkable talent and one who doesn't fit the "alternative" "post-punk" environment that surrounded the other groups signed to Factory in 1978.  Label owner Anthony Wilson was a devoted champion of Reilly's music, even as he worked in obscurity for so many years, and remained so even when Factory and its successor labels shut down.

For this blogger, discovering The Durutti Column in 1986, wanting to know who one of New Order's opening acts was, remains one of the most memorable discoveries of an unsung musician of them all.  Reilly, who was always of delicate health, has been inactive in recent years, but his music over thirty-five years remains inspiring and affecting.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Henry Threadgill: Rag, Bush and All

The great Henry Threadgill has just been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for music for his recent album In for a Penny, In for a Pound.  Because this blogger doesn't yet have that album, recognition of Threadgill's achievement is commemorated with the remarkable early 1989 release, Rag, Bush and All.  This album was purchased not long after the masterful

The record is filled with Threadgill's typically complex, multi-layered harmonic sense, shifting time and compelling melodies. It also features combinations of instruments that are fascinating contrasts in their sonic pallettes, including the leader's alto in contrast with the trumpet and fluegelhorn of Ted Daniels and then the leader's bass flute played off of Bill Lowe's bass trombone.  Bassist Fred Hopkins, a longtime member with Threadgill in the amazing trio AIR, has a cellist counterpart in Deidre Murray.   Finally, there are two drummers, Newman Baker and Reggie Nicholson.

"Off the Rag" is a wild ride, with its theme stated at the beginning, as expected, but then restated in various ways with differing groupings of instrumentation throughout the nearly 13-minute piece.  The cello and bass combination, the various horns, and the dual percussion always provides interesting excursions into sound.  This track is definitely one of the more notable in Threadgill's long career.

"The Devil is on the Loose and Dancin' With a Monkey" has a fine solo by Hopkins, as well as a short and bright one by Daniels on trumpet.  The rhythm is kept moving by the two drummers and Hopkins and Murray.  Threadgill's playful melody is nicely accented by the other horns.

"Gift" starts off quietly with cymbals played as if windchimes softly moved by a breeze.  The horns come in with a mounful and contemplative theme with Daniels taking a lead role in generating high-pitched and plaintive sounds above the others with a minimal percussive accompaniment.  Threadgill's ghostly bass flute then takes over for a time before the ensemble quietly takes the tune to a conclusion.

"Sweet Holy Rag" has another playful opening melodic statement, almost like something from early 20th century popular music, led by Murray's cello and the horns accompanying.  Hopkins plays a catchy bass figure with the drummers rumbling along in sync.  Then, the horns generate a separate theme, swirling and climbing until Threadgill's flute is developed with a kind of lumbering rhythm.  Again, complexity in time, offbeat instrumental linkages and characteristically unusual melodic themes mark this tune.  Threadgill's solo from about three minutes is the centerpiece of the song and is very soulful with his bandmates in counterpoint.  Daniels takes an excellent solo about eight minutes or so in and is followed brilliantly by Hopkins and Baker.

Rag, Bush and All is a stunning recording among many in the long, fruitful career of one of jazz's great composers and bandleaders, who always surprises with his use of unusual instrumental combinations, eclectic harmonic devices, and melodies and themes that are simply Threadgillian.  His receiving the Pulitzer Prize this year is recognition of Threadgill's singular talent.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Tomaso Albinoni: Oboe Concerti

This disc was stumbled upon nearly a quarter century ago when music was still being bought at stores--in this case, the Tower Records in West Covina.  It's not clear why this was bought--Albinoni is hardly a known name.  Maybe it was the idea that these concerti were featuring the oboe, hardly a spotlight instrument.  But, the fact that Albinoni was a baroque composer might have been the allure, given that the style/genre is a favorite of this blogger.

In any case, this Naxos release quickly became a much played disc because of the many beautiful and graceful melodies, smooth and integrated harmonies, and the lilting, gentle and soothing playing of the featured instrument.

With soloists Julia Girdwood and Anthony Camden and the fine ensemble The London Virtuosi, founded by Camden, famed flaustist James Galway and director and violinist John Georgiadis, this is a stunning album and great to rediscover after some years since it was last heard.  It brings back memories of the many pleasant surprises when it was bought so long ago.

Albinoni was born in Venice in 1671 and was a singer and violinist, but he didn't belong to the musician's guild, so had to compose and he was known for his operas in his lifetime.  But, his sonatas and concertos took up much of his efforts.  He was well-provided for by his father's will and could devote himself without worry (no small issue for a composer) to his work.

He was prolific, consequently, having produced some 80 operas, most lost, and about double that many of instrumental works.  Though at the time he was viewed in about the same light as Corelli and Vivaldi, these latter are far better known now.  He was, as this recording demonstrates, very attached to the oboe, it being then a new instrument in Italy.  German baroque masters like Georg Philipp Telemann and Georg Friedrich Handel, though, had already written noted works for the instrument, which arose in France.

Albinoni's most fruitful period was in the first quarter of the 18th century and he seems to have composed little after about 1725.  Sadly, most of his published work did not survive the horrors of World War II, especially the devastating bombing of Dresden, where much of his material was housed.

There is, however, an amazing story of a musicologist from Milan who was in the ravaged German city and found a fragment in the ruins of the state library, which was what was left of an adagio by Albinoni.  Remo Giazatto reconstructed the movement from the remains and it has become the piece most identified with this nearly-forgotten baroque master.

While all of the works on this disc are uniformly excellent and it is hard to pinpoint favorites, this adagio, only two minutes long in a short 8 1/2 minute concerto in C, is achingly gorgeous and justly renowned, even if might be somewhat different than what Albinoni actually wrote.

The liners by Michael Talbott noted that, whereas someone like Vivaldi would use the oboe almost as a substitute for the violin and that such works were "for" the oboe. Albinoni consciously identified his pieces as "with" the instrument.  Moreover, Talbott observed that, as an operatic composer of fame in his era, Albinoni wrote for the oboe as evocative of the operatic voice in an aria.  This remark proved to be very helpful in listening to this excellent recording again this evening--the instrument does come across as voice-like.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Mali Lolo! Stars of Mali

This stellar 2003 release on Smithsonian Folkways provides a wide array of traditional modern sounds from the west African nation of Mali, where the ages-old tradition of Mandingo griots has been fused with all kinds of external influences.

The kora, balafon, ngoni, talking drums and many other traditional Malian instruments are joined by guitars, drums, basses and other modern instruments with soulful and passionate vocals underpinning the 16 songs, all excellent.

Some names may be familiar, including the great guitarist Ali Farka Toure and the kora master Toumani Diabate, but the other musicians and bands on this compilation show just how musically rich Mali has been over the years, including the Bambara Blues genre that Toure has been known for.

It really is hard to pinpoint particular songs, because they are all so good and have their various notable elements, whether it is the rhythmic intensity, the fine melodies and harmonies in the vocals, with lyrics often hearkening to stories and legends from the country's history, the excellent kora work, skilled use of electric Western instrumentation, and so on.

Habib Koite and Bamada's "Nimato" is very impressive--percolating percussion, an insistent rhythm added to with guitar and bass, and a precise and well-produced sound by seasoned musicians playing in tune with one another.  It is a great blend of traditional and modern elements.

Yoro Sidibe's "Noumou Koulouba" is all traditional and is sensational.  Fine vocalizing by the leader and the great sound of the ngoni, or lute-like stringed instrument, propels this song with light percussion.

"Ya La" by Oumou Sangare is more pop-driven, but is totally infectious in its driving rhythms, horns, percussion, and title refrain, while the leader is an excellent singer.

The comes the gorgeous "Cheikhna Demba" by Toumani Diabate and Ballake Sissoko and its traditional evocation of one of the most engrossing of all instruments: the staggering kora.

These four songs, comprising only a quarter of this amazing album, showcase the varied elements of Malian music from purely traditional to a mixture of that with modern sounds, but all brought about in a way that is so well done.

There is so much more, though, including Abdoulaye Diabate's masterful vocals on "Fakoli", the guitar work and plantive singing on "Tessalit" by the duo Tinariwen, the call-and-response chanting and percussion on "Iya Heniya" by Tartit, and so on.  The rapping on "Pirates" is complemented by traditional stringed instruments and has a topical lyric blasting pirated music to boot.

The liner notes are full of great information about Malian music, the features performers, and the songs.  There is a good grounding here for understanding just how vital and alive this music really is.

Thanks to compiler Jon Kertzer, Banning Eyre for his notes,the great Smithsonian Folkways label and, of course, these superior musicians for a memorable recording!

Monday, April 11, 2016

Cabaret Voltaire: The Crackdown

Once Cabaret Voltaire became a duo of Stephen Mallinder and Richard H. Kirk, after Chris Watson's 1981 departure, a notable change in the group's sound was undertaken.  While still experimental, the music also became more accessible, a development first highlighted on the half of the 1982 release, 2x45, highlighted here before.

Then, when CV, which was under contract to Some Bizarre Records, signed a distribution deal with Virgin Records, and the group headed into the studio with noted producer and engineer Flood, who became qiuckly known in the late 1970s and early 1980s for his engineering talents, working on the debut records of New Order and Ministry, for example.  Later, he became well-known for his work with U2, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, The Smashing Pumpkins, PJ Harvey, The Killers and many others.

The result was 1983's The Crackdown, a great record, recorded at the end of the previous year, that retained that edge while moving a little closer to the mainstream (but, fortunately, just a little.)  To this listener, it isn't just that the sound is cleaner, but that the layering of sounds is better put together and Mallinder's whispered vocals are largely left unprocessed and more immediately compelling.  Kirk's use of guitar, horns, and a wide array of electronic instrumentation is also more effective with Flood's obvious input--yet, the distinctiveness of CV not just remains, but is greatly enhanced.

"24-24" opens the album very effectively, with its electronic hand-claps, washes of keyboards, steady electronic drum beat, sampled voices, and other layered synthesized sounds very cleverly combined with Mallinder's menacing vocalizations.

"In the Shadows" opens with something akin to a fog horn (via Kirk's use of the Japanese shakuhachi) to establish an ambiance, but the big twist is the ethnic percussive touches, and a compelling two-note element to complement the percussion.  Mallinder's simple and repetitive three-note bassline, embellished with some variations, holds down the tune nicely.  This song is one of several that amply shows the growth in the band.

"Talking Time" opens with an echoed voice calling out "5 minutes" and there is another great mix of sounds and a steady drum pattern to keep things moving smoothly while Mallinder delivers an impressionistic lyric quite effectively, with the mantra "It's just a dream to hold you down" almost meaning something specific, but not quite.

"Animation" moves into dance territory, though in CV's own idiosyncratic way and thanks to an assist from Soft Cell's Dave Ball.  Kirk's guitar establishes a simple melodic pattern along with keyboards and that steady drum beat, while Mallinder offers another well-delivered chanted vocal and another simple, but solid, bassline.

"Over and Over" had previously been released, but this reworking is leaner, cleaner and more efficient.  Mallinder's vocal is far clearer and comes out better, as well.  That background of Kirk's distinctive melodic element on guitar is enhanced by some nice percussive touches, as well.

"Just Fascination" was the first single and it has an interesting ambiance coming out of the gate, with a kind of "spreading" synth line and a four-note repetitive keyboard pattern to define the tune.  Mallinder's lyrics are interesting and deals with closed door sexual fantasizing in a detached, clinical way--with a bit of a startling line in "If they knew, you'd shoot yourself" to highlight the shame that results in being found out.  Not the kind of lyric to indicate a hit single necessarily!

Then follows a satirical, cynical and off-beat "Why Kill Time (When You Can Kill Yourself)?", though, again, it's hard to discern a literal meaning in Mallinder's chanted lyrics.  Musically, Kirk has another strong melodic line and there is a dominant repetituve drum pattern, as well.

Ambiance takes over on the compelling "Haiti," which also appears to include more of the found voices found on 2x45.  Discordant horns, echoed keyboards, splashes of piano, and a background wash of electronic sounds create a mood that makes this piece stand out from the others on the album.

The title piece is one of the more effective on the record, with another simple bass line working well with the array of percussion elements, dub like rhythm guitar, and keyboard effects (Ball is on this song, as well) to accompany Mallinder's low-key, but menacing vocals.  Towards the end, the tension building through the piece to the distinctive melodic line on the keyboard and then rises up to an intense finish and abrasive keyboard washes ending a remarkable album.

It should be noted that Alan Fish, who toured and recorded with Cabaret Voltaire a good deal in this period, had a hand in much of the percussive effectiveness of the album.

From the first CD release back in the early days of the medium in 1984 onward, The Crackdown was augmented by four pieces that were released in other formats and all of which show the hallmarks of the earlier Cabaret Voltaire sound.

"Diskono" has a strong percussive beat, almost foreshadowing, perhaps, the coming techno and house movement, but with its strange echoed effects, Kirk's simple melodic guitar line doubled by Mallinder's bass and the latter's very processed vocals like that found in previous work.  This is a very effective tune, pre-Flood.

"Theme from Doublevision" is a haunting statement, made for the group's own video and record label, Doublevision, which was one of the first such entities for a "rock" group--the cover photo of Kirk and Mallinder with early and bulky video equipment reflects their interest in mixing their distinctive music with video presentations in a "cut up" aesthetic influenced by William S. Burroughs and others.

"Moscow" is another ambient excursion--very dark and unnerving, especially heard through headphones.  A variety of processed and found sounds, distant percussive elements, disembodied voices, cymbal washes and other effects are strangely appealing.  The influence of avant-garde music is especially obvious in tracks like these last few add-ons.

Which leads to "Badge of Evil"--this last piece sounds like it might have come out of some of the earliest Cabaret Voltaire experiments from the mid-to-late 70s.  Kirk's eerie horn lines, another basic Mallinder bass lines, a subtle five-note rhythmic line, what sounds like struck bells from time to time, and a remarkable Mallinder vocal which sounds like it was recorded in a deep, dry well, make for one of the darker ambient tunes in the band's catalog.  But, for this listener, it is a highly compelling piece.

The next album, 1984's Micro-Phonies would prove to be the "most popular" album in the lengthy and diverse CV catalog, but The Crackdown might be more complex, varied and diverse, if not as accessible and danceable.  In any case, Kirk and Mallinder's controversial (to fans of the Rough Trade era) decision to recalibrate their sound was artistically as well as (somewhat) commercially successful--something that would be much harder to try to do in the EMI years later in the 80s.