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.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Max Roach and Cecil Taylor: Historic Concerts

Lee Jeske's liner notes to this album are titled "Percussive Pianist Meets Melodic Drummer" and it's certainly a notable way to decribe this amazing 2-disc recording from the McMillin Theatre at Columbia University in New York from December 1979 and released on the Italian label Soul Note.

After a strange, halting introduction from an unknown announcer, Max Roach comes right out and shows why he wasn't just a powerful, fast and precise drummer, but one who used all of the resources of his kit to play in unfailingly complex rhythms and, yes, strong melodic strains.  In the nearly 5-minute intro, though, he was really just warming up.

For nearly the same amount of time, just under 5 minutes, Cecil Taylor turned in a solo performance that came out highly melodic and relaxed, as if he intended to show the audience that it wasn't all about the key pounding, astounding fast runs, and complex chords for him.  It is absent of the pounding, manic playing that is so intoxicating for fans--it anticipates, perhaps, the idea that playing with Roach would be a different experience for him and the listener.  This performance, too, sounds like a warm up.

The forty-minute duet that follows is encapsulated by Roach's view that he and Taylor "co-existed" during the concert, finding, in an entirely improvised performance, where they could come to a meeting of the minds (and hands and feet).  What the drummer excelled at, especially, is his uncanny way of working within Taylor's iconoclastic style, playing with and not against the pianist's uncompromising way of performing, which may have been at its peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

A particularly interesting element in Roach's playing comes at about the 30 minute mark when he plays for a couple minutes on a snare tuned to make a strange high-pitched sound, almost like you might hear in some forms of Chinese drumming.  A few minutes later, a "sliding" type of cymbal work distinguishes Roach's way of accompanying Taylor.

The second duet, just a couple of minutes shorter than the first, finds Roach playing a variety of percusion instruments beyond his standard kit as Taylor works on a more melodic, richer sounding, and not quite as rapid a manner.  Here, Roach's use of a wide array of sounds isn't just a novelty, it's another way of working with Taylor's orchestral and percussive approach.  Things are relatively mellow and low-key until about eight minutes in when the playing gets incredibly dense and intense.

After some intense playing for some 25 minutes, Taylor turns things over to Roach for another solo and the drummer goes initially for melodic approaches initially, than to the display of virtuosity and percussive pyrotechnics.  It's a brief interlude and Taylor reenters somewhat quietly and more muted--well, for him--and Roach responds accordingly, executing some excellent rolls and fills along the way.  But, as the piece nears its end, the two go off in the stratosphere again, with thrilling effects.  The crowd's enthusiastic response shows the appreciation they felt for the amazing performance.

No greater contrast, probably, can be found in the way Roach works with Taylor than comparing this concert with the intriguing, but strange, 1977 show Taylor did with Mary Lou Williams and her highly orthodox rhythm section, including drummer Mickey Roker, who later said that the music was confusing, not fun, and that he simply tried to forget even playing that show.

Roach, though, took the challenge of playing with Taylor and made it work, which is just one of any number of reasons why he was one of the great drummers of all time.  He did what Roker wouldn't or couldn't do--found ways to play within and without Taylor's immense power, speed and dazzling technique.  Roach is, in a word, spectacular precisely because he knew what to do to "co-exist."

The last 17 minutes of disc 2 is comprised of a radio show, featuring interviews with the two masters, interspersed with excerpts from the concert.  There is much of interest in these segments as the two discuss how the concern came to be, their admiration for each other, the lack of a need to rehearse for the show because of their mutual understanding, and their place in modern jazz.

Roach, in particular, has some notable things to say about playing with Taylor, noting that it was work, a combination of ego and love, an intense experience that radiates to the audience as they see how the players react to each others.

These interviews are a nice way to end one of the great duet recordings of experimental and explorative music.