Thursday, February 25, 2016

Takini: Music and Chants of the Lakota Sioux

This is a fascinating recording from the French Le Chante du Monde label of twenty songs recorded at the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Lakota Sioux Indians in 1994 by the Takini Dance Group, an ensemble of  professional dancers from various reservations.  Hearing the chants, flute music and other songs performed by modern Sioux is as close as we can get to a snapshot of the time-honored musical traditions of their ancestors.

It is easy to overly romanticize native peoples and understandable to a significant degree because of the brutality to which they were subjected in the relentless move across the continent by Euro-Americans during the 19th-century and then the poor treatment of them by the government afterward.

Still, listening to these songs representing a variety of aspects of everyday life, from dance music, to the celebration of animals, a victory song, an honor song--some of which are traditional, others modern compositions in the spirit of ancient traditions--there is a strong sense of dignity, respect for the natural environment in which the Sioux have lived, pride, and communal understanding.

Most importantly, perhaps, these songs are a vibrant reminder that, for all that has been done to them, the Sioux have survived by holding fast to the kinds of traditional lifeways and practices emboided in this music, as well as in other ways.

The brief, but informative, liner notes give historical context to the music and then an explanation of what the songs are generally about and that the music is based on the pentatonic scale and the use of higher registers for vocalizing along with percussion for keeping time and reflecting the heartbeat during dances at pow-wows.

Interestingly, the continuing interest in warrior songs from times that are becoming more and more remote is their identification with modern warriors, Lakota Sioux that have and are fighting in the American military.  The social songs are a way for today's Sioux to have a deeper, spiritual connection to their ancestors, the land, and the ways of life which their people have  maintained, even in crisis, for centuries.

A remarkable photo is reproduced in the liners of an Omaha Dance from the summer of 1891, the year after the horrific Wounded Knee Massacre.  It, like this album, is a testament to native resilience and determination in the face of grave threats to a worldview and a way of life.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

PainKiller: The Prophecy

This mindblowing release appears to be something of a cousin to another recent Tzadik (John Zorn's label) release, Massacre's Love Me Tender (2013).

Love Me Tender, featuring Charles Heyward on drums, Bill Laswell on bass and Fred Frith on guitar, was a pastiche of live recordings in Europe edited by Frith and which shows the improvising power trio in a wide variety of aural settings, though dominated by Frith's remarkable fret work.

Similarly, The Prophecy, which came out in 2013, as well, is also a compilation of European live performances by a power trio, with Laswell joined by drummer Yoshida Tatsuya, best known from the Japanese band Ruins, in support of Zorn's wailing, screaming and probing alto sax.  As with Frith on the other recording, Zorn is the primary figure here and for fans, he delivers all of the great playing expected of the master.

But, although he is the front man, as Frith was for Massacre, the value of rhythm section should not be understated.  Laswell is not just a phenomenal bass player who can keep the bottom held down in support of soloists as well as anyone, but he can instantly switch with an array of pedals to a fuzztone, move into heavy and deep dub playing, morph into something like an electric guitarist, and throw in the riff from Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" seamlessly into the mix.

As for Tatusya, he is the third drummer to work with Zorn and Laswell as part of the PainKiller project.  Founding member Mick Harris, formerly of Napalm Death, was the (or one of the) creators of the "blast beat," and his playing was largely limited to the range of percussion he worked with in the grindcore world.  In fact, it has been said his sense of inadequacy when playing with the likes of Zorn and Laswell led him to forego drumming to move into electronics.

The great Hamid Drake, who mainly has played in the jazz realm, turned in an excellent performance in 2003's live recording for Zorn's 50th birthday celebrations.  His training gave a flexibility, variety and fluidity that notably transformed the sound.

With Tatsuya, there is something of a combination.  More or less a rock drummer, but with a wider range than Harris, if not as nimble and elastic as Drake, he turns in a very solid performance and meshes well with Laswell, while providing a solid foundation behind Zorn.  Tatsuya is given several minutes to solo and turns in a fine one.

The brief note on the OBI strip doesn't suggest this, but reviews indicate that The Prophecy might be viewed as a summary statement on the PainKiller project.  It is true that the last gig of the band was in Paris in 2008, when Harris surprisingly turned up to play drums and longtime Zorn collaborator Mike Patton contributed the screaming vocals Harris used to deliver in the early days.

Whether this album is the final word from PainKiller or not, it is another fantastic improvisational journey with Zorn and Laswell, with Tatsuya doing an excellent job.  A word has to be said about the crystalline engineering job by Oz Fritz, who has done a great deal of work with Laswell over the years, and makes the sound as good as can be obtained from a live gig.  Finally, Heung-Heung Chin's gorgeous artwork, a trademark of Zorn's Tazdik label, is worthy of noting, including the use of the photographic subjects of bones, teeth and the like, which are typically PainKiller-like.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

John Coltrane: Giant Steps

This is the album, recorded in May and December 1959 and released on Atlantic Records, that fully established John Coltrane as a masterful player, composer and bandleader, when it was released in January 1960.  On the heels of Miles Davis's Kind oi Blue, on which Coltrane was a stellar contributor, and out the same year as Ornette Coleman's revolutionary Free Jazz, Giant Steps was one of the indicators of where jazz was heading in the new decade.

The paths (there are almost always several) would not be easy to trod, as old-school critics howled in derision and anger about what the so-called "avant garde" was doing, while clinging to the old verities of bop, hard bop and the preexistng styles that were being challenged.

Coltrane, universally known as a kind, gentle, spiritual man not given to contentious arguments about anything, became the object of vitriol and scorn totally unfair to both the man and musician.  More than a half-century later, it seems quaint and laughable to imagine Coltrane's "giant steps" towards a different way of playing jazz being a threat to anyone.

The damnations were enough, evidently, so that a series of albums through 1964 showed Trane moving more frequently into more melodic and traditional territory, through "My Favorite Things", albums with Duke Ellington and Johnny Hartman, the recording of classic standards, and right up to the solemn and gorgeous Crescent.

But, it was first Giant Steps, then elements of the remarkable Africa/Brass, and especially the staggering Live at the Village Vanguard (its complete package gives the fan three additional discs of glorious playing at that December 1961 engagement) that invited the withering scrutiny of critics, most of whom couldn't play an instrument, compose or do anything that gave them the mantle and aura of authority they assumed.

So, the music.  The original seven-track album has classic after classic. The mind-blowing speed, precision and technical mastery of the title track is legendary and it has been a challenge for sax players ever since to take the tune on and do what they can with it.  "Cousin Mary," named for Coltrane's relation and keeper of the flame when it came to his Philadelphia home being a historic site, was long a standard in Trane's repertoire.

"Syeeda's Song Flute," named after Trane's adopted daughter by his first wife, is another joyous piece.  "Mr. P.C.," a tribute to longtime Davis and Coltrane bassist Paul Chambers, is one of the more recognizable melodies in Trane's discography and a live favorite for years.

Finally, there's "Naima," in honor of the composer's first wife, and simply one of the finest ballads, not only of Coltrane's work, but of anyone's.  Like "My Favorite Things," it was a standard piece even when the music went totally free and to hear a version of the song from, say, the second Village Vanguard album in 1966, compared to the earlier one from Giant Steps is an interesting way to hear just how much Coltrane's sound developed over those five years.

Trane was still about a year away from solidifying his band with the "classic quartet" of McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones.  He had Chambers as his anchor at the bass, Art Taylor on drums and Tommy Flanagan at the piano.  For "Naima," drummer Jimmy Cobb and pianist Wynton Kelly, both from the Davis band and Kind of Blue, brought their soft, sensitive touches to the classic.  Then, for "Giant Steps," Lex Humphries was at the kit and Cedar Walton played piano.  All of these musicians were excellent at their instruments, though there has been much said especially about the struggles some had with the speed and complexity of some of the tunes, particularly the title track.

But, Coltrane kept trying other musicians on subsequent records until he first secured Tyner, then Jones and, finally, Garrison and the "classic quartet" went on that momentous four-year run that culminated with A Love Supreme in 1965.  Still, even if Trane's greatest work was in that 1961-65 period with that quartet, Giant Steps, following from the great start of 1957's Blue Train, was the album that put Coltrane in the front ranks of jazz's greatest players, writers and leaders.