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 for.in 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.