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.