Thursday, June 29, 2017

Antemasque: Antemasque

After almost a decade of some of the densest, most challenging and generally thrilling rock music as the core of The Mars Volta, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala took advantage of a break from working together to regroup in startingly stripped-down fashion for 2014's self-titled Antemasque.

For those used to the lengthy, complicated pieces on the several MV recordings, it is a bit of a shock to hear the shorter, simpler more direct songs on Antemasque.  Steppiing away and regrouping, though, produced an album that reduces the songwriting qualities that marked the best of their work together over the years.

Long-time friend Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers let Rodriguez and Bixler use his studio and played bass, while Dave Ellitch, who toured with Mars Volta in 2009, provide the steady underpinnings of the rhythm section and play great.  As for Rodriguez, his arranging and production, while stripped down, is always intriguing and full of both homage to his many influences as well as highly individualistic.  Bixler's singing is strong and clear and the biggest surprise, perhaps, on Antemasque is that his lyrics are simple, direct and understandable (well, for the most part.)

Moreover, the songs are shorter, more compact, free of filler and sonically diverse, while retaining this listener's attention and interest.  In fact, every piece is strong, with the most pop-like piece is easily "50,000 Kilowatts," a tribute to radio that, at 2 minutes and 21 seconds, is built be a radio-friendly single and has a chorus clearly intended to be sung by a crowd.even while there are a couple of true standouts.

The first is the phenomenal "Drown All Your Witches," which features a rare example of Rodriguez playing some really tasty acoustic guitar and Bixler provides a great melodic line and fine vocal delivery.

Following that is the mind-blowing "Providence," with a great low-end bass line from Flea and nice slowly dissolving cymbal work from Ellitch.  But, the clincher is Bixler's  powerful delivery of the chorus with a stuttering ending with echo added for a chilling effect.

Then, the next tune is the rousing "People Forget," with Bixler's thrilling vocal underpinned by a simple two-note line by Rodriguez and the tight rhythms of Flea and Ellitch.  The coolest part of this tune to this listener is Flea's playing during the chorus, though the bridge is great, too.

Evidently there is to be a follow-up album, Saddle on the Atom Bomb, with Blink-182's Travis Barker on drums and Rodriguez' brother Marfred on bass, but, while eight songs were previewed in November 2015, nothing else has been put out about the project.

After a strong debut, let's hope the next record comes out soon

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Horace Tapscott: The Tapscott Sessions, Volume 8

This amazing composer, pianist, bandleader, teacher and community-minded activist and mentor, was, as has been pointed out here previously, sadly underappreciated.  As has also been noted, my exposure to the great Horace Tapscott was at a free Friday evening concert at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, circa 1991, and I was astounded at his performance and that of his band.

I'd gotten into jazz in a big way only recently and was able to see Tapscott perform a couple more times at Catalina Bar and Grill in its earlier location in Hollywood.  His phenomental talent continued to amaze both in person and on the one album I was able to find in those years, The Dark Tree, Volume One, recorded at Catalina's in 1989.

It's still not easy to find recordings, but over the years a few have cropped up at prices reasonable enough to shell out.  It's also the case that Tapscott had only rare recording dates until the 1980s, thanks to Tom Albach of Amsterdam, whose Nimbus West label was created because of tapes Albach bought of Tapscott's work and issued a significant cache of albums from the pianist, including band and solo recordings.

Of the latter, one of the more interesting is 1991's Volume 8, in which Tapscott performs three standards and one original.  The opener is the stunning "Fire Waltz," one of many great tunes by the pianist and composer Mal Waldron.  Waldron recorded the piece on an album featuring another little-known genius, multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy.  One of the great versions of this piece is from the amazing Five Spot live recording by Dolphy and Booker Little from the very early 60s.

Tapscott performs "Fire Waltz" alternately with great sensitivity and beauty and then with passion, power and, yes, fire.  He follows with "Little Niles," composed by another underappreciated pianist, Randy Weston (who I saw years ago in a great performance at Cal State Los Angeles) and named for a son, and Tapscott explores the keyboard with his individual sense of gorgeous melodic insight and dynamic power, especially with his signature use of the sustain pedal.

Taking on anything by Thelonious Monk is a challenge, because classics like "Crepuscule With Nellie" are so well-known and so idiosyncratic, that you really have to make the tune your own with something distinctive.  Tapscott plays the tune at a slower, blusier tempo and takes the time to explore the famous melody with his own little flourishes and deviations and then improvises beautifully from that, including some explorations in a bit of dissonance that highlight Tapscott's rare ability to be both unabashed melodicist and determined experimentalist.  It's his explorative, but totally cohsive, improvisation here that stamps a classic tune with a pronounced Tapscott touch.

Tapscott's beautiful original, "As A Child," is a great close to a fantastic album, rich with melody, played at a ballad tempo that allows the notes to echo into the space of the recording studio.  At about 3 1/2 minutes in, Tapscott switches gear to something faster, more swinging and takes in soloing off the melody that shows his penchant, again, for exploration within the spirit of the theme of the tune.   He then returns to a slow ballad form to conclude with a powerful sustain-heavy finish. This song reappeared later in his final recording, Thoughts of Dar Es Salaam as a shorter, band version recorded in summer 1996.  In this extended solo version, there is more intimacy and also more probing, though the later version is also excellent.

In his short notes, Albach observed that it had been three years since the release of the previous volume in the solo series and gave his reasons for volume eight as "Horace's true stature is finally being recognized (at least in Europe) and I am running out of time."  Why time was running low wasn't explained (probably financial reasons), but Albach went on to say
That art this Promethean could emerged from the commercial virulence of Los Angeles is indeed, further testimony to the wonder of the human spirit . . . I am proud to have played a role in helping this man maintain his dignity and choice during these unsoulful days.  He has given meaning to the twilight of this aging mooch.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Morton Feldman: Durations/Coptic Light

This is a remarkable recording in which Morton Feldman's experiment with time, especially in which he allows the performers to determine the length of given tones, as in the five-part "Durations" from 1960-61.

To this untutored listener, "Durations" is also exceptional because the economy employed in scoring the strings, flute, tuba and violin allow for each instrument to have its own space so that the the dynamics, interactions, and atmosphere created are hypnotic and dream-like.  Interestingly, the one section of "Durations III" marked as "Fast" is, rather, a little less slow than the rest of the piece, but hardly a jaunty allegro!

"Coptic Light," a 1986 piece for a full orchestra from the end of Feldman's life is a very different aural experience.  It is also dream-like, but more on the nightmarish side, though in a captivating and compelling way.  Repetitive washes of strings and brass are accompanied by the light rumbling of percussion and there is a sort of dissonant effective even as the scoring has a strong logic to it.

Feldman was said to have been inspired with this work by his long-standing fascination with textiles of the early Coptic society in an exhibit at the Louvre.  He then thought about the role of the textiles in that society and applied this musically in terms of, as Peter Niklas Wilson states in the liners, "the atmosphere in which they had arisen if one were to hear them two thousand years from now."

Another interesting observation by Wilson had to do with a statement by Jean Sibelius about the distinction between an orchestra and a piano being the latter had pedals to alter the effect of the music.  Feldman, then, "set out to create an orchestral pedal, a pedal changing constantly amid fine nuances" throughout the score of "Coptic Light."

The sound quality of this CPO recording is excellent and the performance by the Ensemble Avantgarde from Leipzig is beautifully rendered.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Percussionists of Guinea

This amazing recording of the National Ensemble of the Percussionists of Guinea was made in a live performance in fall 1988 in France and issued under the Musique du Monde (Music from the World) series by the Buda Records label.

It features nine stellar percussionists demonstrating nine complex, propulsive, compelling and exhilirating pieces and came about after a 1987 meeting between an Afro-French percussionist and the Guinean National Director of Culture and a French cultural advisor in Guinea.

When the ensemble was assembled, it rehearsed and developed its program and was launched on an European tour, during which this album was recorded.  Instruments include:

  • the djembe, which has a goatskin head and laced cording on a redwood body; 
  • the doundoumba, which is a bass drum using 55 gallon metal containers, rather than the older wood models, that are wrapped in skin applied with tension; 
  • the sangbeni, made of smaller metal containers with tensioned skin and generally attached to the doundoumba, for a different bass sound; 
  • the kenkeni, which is a smaller version of the previous two and hit with a stick; 
  • the krin, which is a hollowed portion of a tree trunk with slots and hit with two sticks; 
  • the wassakhoumba, a castanet-like instrument made of calabashes; 
  • the fedoundoun, a water drum made of two calabashes; 
  • and the sikko, which is a five-part instrument has a square wood frame with a goatskin head that can be tuned.

Of the nine pieces, several are played by the entire ensemble, while others have soloists, ranging from  one to seven of the players in the group.  Some reflect tribal dancers, others tell stories based on the traditions of tribal groups, one reflects the use of coded messages used in forests, and another comes from a circumcision ceremony.

Not only are these pieces played with consummate skill, power and intensity, but the recording conditions were excellent and the sound is stunning, adding to the impact the ensemble generates.  Anyone who loves percussion and African drumming in particular will be especially impressed by this fantastic album.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The 21st Century Guide to King Crimson: Volume One, 1969-1974

Recently, two of the crucial members of early incarnations of King Crimson passed away.  Greg Lake, the original bassist and vocalist in 1969-70, died on 7 December, and John Wetton, who also played bass and sang during the 1972-74 incarnation of the band, died on 31 January.  To many fans, the two men represented the finest of the group's many vocalists and, in Wetton's case, the best of the legion of bass players, as well.

This admirer avoids those kinds of rankings, but there is no question that both men were major contributors to the success of the band in what are arguably the two most critically and commercially successful periods in King Crimson's history.

This 2004 compilation, which included a second volume spanning from 1981 to 2003, provides plenty of highlights featuring Lake and Wetton, and is organized to provide a disc of studio and live recordings from 1969 to 1972, much of which includes Lake's tenure in the group, and a similar arrangement for Wetton's years, with his contributions spanning the entirety of the two discs.

Most of the 1969 debut album is included here and, because In the Court of the Crimson King was such a shock when it came out that fall, it is still, nearly a half-century later, easy to hear why.  The album was the feature of a post here in 2012, so that can be referred to in terms of its content.

The five live tracks on the second disc, however, demonstrate the special nature of the band in recordings from San Francisco and New York during the American tour that ended with the dissolution of the group and from Chesterfield in England a couple months prior.  The band is uniformly stellar, working with great material, and Lake performs superbly in his vocalizing, as well as his bass playing, and his singing is less restrained and more powerful.  His work on "21st Century Schizoid Man" is particularly great.

After King Crimson's break-up, guitarist Robert Fripp persuaded drummer Michael Giles and Lake to stay and record a second album, In the Wake of Poseidon, early in 1970.  Widely considered a copy of the first album, though there are some important differences and, perhaps, tighter musicianship, the record has Lake singing only, with bass duties handled by Giles' brother Peter.  Lake's work on the left-field "Cat Food" is excellent, though the tune is dominated by the free jazz pianist Keith Tippett.  Before the album was finished, though, Lake left to form a new group with drummer Carl Palmer and keyboardist Keith Emerson that took him to greater levels of fame and success (as well as no shortage of ridicule).

After moving through short-lived lineups through two years from 1970-1972, Fripp started over again by bringing together drummer Bill Bruford, who'd just left a very successful gig with Yes, percussionist Jamie Muir, violinist David Cross, and Wetton, whose work was not yet very well known.  That quickly changed as the new lineup toured to hone its chops and then made 1973's Larks Tongues in Aspic.  Muir soon departed due to an injury and the resulting quartet toured heavily and recorded Starless in Bible Black, which was released in early 1974.  After more touring, Bruford and Wetton wanted Cross fired, feeling he was not needed, and a dejected Fripp decided to record one last album, the amazing Red, before leaving the group in the summer.

This group got a lot done in a short time and the two discs featuring that lineup well reflect the power, intensity and unpredictability of the 1972-74 version of KC.  Wetton, who co-wrote most of the lyrics with friend Richard Palmer-James, had a smokier, earthier voice than Lake and grew significantly in his confidence as a singer during those two years.  Those only familiar with Wetton's work in the mega-popular Asia in the early 80s might be surprised by just how phenomenal a bass player he was with Crimson, especially in partnership with the remarkable work by Bruford.  Fripp felt overwhelmed by the rhythm section and it's understandable why, but the duo were still exhilarating.

The studio material is well represented and always great to hear, but, again, it's the live material that really shows King Crimson in its element.  Favorites include the stunning improvisation "Asbury Park," which is a Fripp showcase, "The Talking Drum," with a hypnotic Wetton bass line, a hushed and gorgeous "Trio," and several Wetton vocals on "Lament," "Exiles," "Easy Money," and a powerful "21st Century Schizoid Man."

Greg Lake and John Wetton were bass players and vocalists who contributed mightily to very different versions of King Crimson.  A good deal of time, undoubtedly, has been spent comparing and contrasting the two men and the versions of the band they were in, but, to this listener, there isn't any need to try to compare the two to each other or to others who performed those roles in the many lineups of the band over the years.  They did great work for a great band and that seems enough.

May Greg Lake and John Wetton rest in peace!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Max Roach: We Insist! Freedom Now Suite

Nat Hentoff, who died on 7 January at age 91, was many things in his long career as a writer and journalist, though he is known best for his work as a jazz critic for The Village Voice for a half-century as well as for the many liner notes he wrote for jazz albums.

He was also the Artists and Repertoire (A&R) director for the Candid label when it was founded in 1960 and signed such creative forces as Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Steve Lacy and others.

Perhaps the most controversial and compelling of the Candid catalogue issues, however, was Max Roach's We Insist: Freedom Now Suite, which assgined co-compositional credit to Oscar Brown, Jr.  Recorded at Nola Penthouse Sound Studio in New York  on 31 August and 6 September 1960 and released that December, it is said that Hentoff was warned not to release the recording as it would stir up racial emotions that would be destructive to him, the label and to Roach.

It's a fortunate situation that Hentoff persevered.  It's even more fortunate that Roach had the foresight, creativity and drive to get this album made and that he assembled a stellar roster of musicians to carry out the vision he developed with Brown.

Roach and Brown were specifically motivated by the sit-ins by black students earlier in 1960--an iconic photo of one of these is conspicuously used as the front cover for the album.  Hentoff wrote in his notes, "jazz musicians, normally apolitical and relatively unmindful of specific of social movements, were also unprecedentedly stimulated" by the events of the year.

Whether his assertions about the lack of political and social awareness among jazz musicians is reasonable, Hentoff went on to say that "one of the jazzmen who had long been strongly involved emotionally in the movements for integration in America and national autonomy in Agrica was Max Roach."

Roach and Brown were already collaborating on a work designed for presentation at the 1963 centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation when Roach took the project in a different direction, apparently without Brown being notified.

What resulted was a carefully crafted set of pieces detailing the black experience in Africa and America.  Side A that reflected the situation of black people in bondage and oppression, through the tune "Driva' Man" with a notable Brown lyric about slave drivers and "Freedom Day", which reflects the sentiments felt by blacks after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

Side B reflected contemporary concerns with "All Africa" and the independence movements sweeping the continent at that time, reflected viscerally with Nigerian percussionist Michael Olatunji's masterful work and vocalist Abbey Lincoln's recitation of African tribal names while Olatunji responds in Yoruba, and "Tears for Johannesburg," referring specifically to the horrors of apartheid in South Africa.

Not only did Roach put together an outstanding program of musical works to make his musical statement ring strong and true, but he brought together some amazing musicians.  Lincoln, who soon became his wife, turns in a series of astonishing vocal performances, bringing strength, dignity and, importantly, a woman's prominent role to the proceedings.  Much was said about her anguished and powerfully emotive screams, cries and moans during the middle section of the staggering "Triptych" as Roach masterfully used the drum kit as an analog to her vocalizations.  But, it sounds totally natural and right in the context.

Roach, who could easily have relied on his own profound skills as a drummer to propel the work, wisely brought in Olatunji to give a different percussive perspective and a directly African one to make this work stronger.  Raymond Mantillo and Tomas du Vall also provide percussive color.

The horns include a trio of masters, including the underappreciated Julian Priester on trombone--his work alone on "Freedom Day" is a revelation.  Booker Little died in 1961 at only 23 of uremia, but he was already a stunning trumpeter and an associate of Roach and Eric Dolphy (the live recordings Dolphy and Little recorded at the Five Spot in July 1961, just a few months before Little's death are classics).  His work is uniformly excellent here.

Then there was the wild card--Coleman Hawkins, who rose to fame in the 1920s and whose recording of "Body and Soul" in 1939 is a landmark of tenor playing, brings his brilliance to full power on "Driva' Man".  Credit should also be given to the relatively unknown Walter Benton and his excellent tenor work on "Freedom Day" and bassist James Schenck, of whom there is almost nothing known, but whose playing with Roach is excellent.

This listener happens to be reading Nelson Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom and today is, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, so the timing of highlighting this remarkable recording seems more than appropriate.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos 2 & 3

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was a rare combination of renowned pianist, conductor and  composer who may have been the last of the major "romantics" in Russia before he fled his homeland after the fall of the czarist regime and the onset of the Soviet Union.

This release by China's Yedang Entertainment Company pairs the amazing second and third piano concertos of Rachmaninov and from recordings decades apart.  The concertos are landmarks in the form that amaze and awe with their impeccable melodies and remarkable harmonic structures.  These performances, at least to this amateur's ear, are excellent and display great sensitivity to the material.

The second concerto came after the young Rachmaninov suffered a terrible psychological trauma when his first sympony, premiered in St. Petersburg in 1897 was a chaotic failure.  Seeking treatment from a neurologist, who used autosuggestion to get the composer to approach his next project with more confidence.  The result was the second piano concerto, which the liner notes, suggest "isa fully integrated work that reveals the composer's authentic idiom."  The dedication to Dr. Nikolai Dahl, the piece, the author of the notes, "was ever so richly merited."

The piece is full of soaring, majestic and stately melodies that are achingly beautiful and affirming, redolent of the composer's hero, Tchaikovsky, especially in the first two movements, while the final movement brings in some powerful and intense dymanics with the orchestra amidst moments of introspection.  Recorded in earely 1959 by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Kurt Sanderline, and featuring the amazing playing of soloist Sviatoslav Richter, the performance is spellbinding.

The third concerto appeared in late 1909 with the pianist debuting the work in New York with a repeat performance a couple months later at Carnegie Hall under the direction of the great Gustav Mahler, whose rigorous rehearsing and attention to detail highly impressed Rachmaninov.  The composer worked frantically to prepare the work before his American concert tour and it was said that, after the ink dried and he heade by boat for New York, he was "practicing the solo part during the sea voyage on a silent keyboard for fear of disturbing his fellow passengers."

There were some issues, however.  As scored, the piece was long for the form (even though conductor Mahler was known for massive, impossibly long symphonies at the time) and Rachmaninov shaved off some ten minutes, or about a quarter of the work, to fit the programming mandates of the era.  Critics were also put off by the complexity of the piece, which quickly became known as a technically daunting work for pianists to take on.

In the February 1991 performance, on the heels of perestroika and glasnost and as the USSR neared collapse,Viktoria Postnikova plays with great sensitivity, handling the work with great power and aplomb, and the support of the doncuting of the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra by her husband Gennady Rozhdestvensky, is also stunning.

Even the untrained can hear how demanding playing the piano parts must have been, but it is also the orchestration that can be very challenging with shifting rhythms and remarkable uses of counterpoint.  There is, too, a stunning balance between softer, quieter passages and the more volatile and emotive elements that make this work stand out.  Restored to its full length, it is a powerful, rich and uplifting experience that shows Rachmaninov at his full power as a composer.

Would this have been possible without the turmoil of the first symphony and the valuable work done by Dr. Dahl?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Korea: The Folkloric Instrumental Traditions II

Given the many issues that continue to define the tense relationships between Japan, a colonizer which used incredibly repressive and brutal measures, and South Korea, the colony that is now one of the world's economic powers,  it is remarkable to note the power of music to bridge some of the political, social and economic gaps that exist.

Japan Victor Corporation (JVC) has released its World Soubds catalog, which it defines as "featuring the traditional music unique to many countries, music which people all over the world enjoy listening to and performing" and then states "this collection featuring musical voices from every corner of the globe is now being offered by Japan to the world."

Whether this is an intent to bring people from different societies and countries together is not explicitly stated but the general offer at the end of the last phrase could be interpreted as that.  Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the first such trip by a Japanese head of state, might be thought of as a goodwill gesture in the political arena.

But, a recent unveiling of a statue in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan, South Korea, commemorating the plight of the "comfort woman," Korean women used as sex slaves, led Japan to pull out of upcoming economic talks with Korea and to threaten to not only remove its consul in Busan, but its ambassador from Seoul, as well.  This comes after a 2015 arrangement between the two countries included a Japanese apology for the treatment of comfort women and a fund to support about four dozen survivors.  Where this latest problem goes remains to be seen.

As to the music on this remarkable disc, recorded in late June 1988 in Tokyo, it emphasizes the sounds of high-pitched reed wind instruments with percussion accompaniment in three long performances.

"Sinawi for Samul and Hojok" includes the powerful and orchestral sounds of the samul, an ensemble of gongs and double-headed drums, that have been the focus of an entry on this blog in the past, with the hojok, a conically shaped reed instrument that is played in a very stately and emotive manner by Park Jong Sun.  To this listener, this piece is the most intriguing, primarily because of the impressiveness of the percussion.

"Piri Sanjo" refers to a four-movement suite in the sanjo form, in which the piri wind instrument is backed by light percussion and the track gives full expression to the virtuosity of the soloist, Han Se Hyon.

The performance of "Taepungnyu" is also exceptional, with the changgo (the two-headed drum) played very sparsely to support the ensemble of wind instruments, including two piri, a haegum (or a fiddle-like piece), and the taegum (flute).  To this listener, having the flute provides a variety and a contrast in tone and register that makes the piece, performed in the same stately tempo as the others, highly distinctive.

This is a very impressive recording of traditional Korean music, obviously issued by a Japanese record label in the hope of showing Japan's desire for bringing people together in at least a general way.  Given continuing problems in the diplomatic relations between the two nations, it seems particularly relevant.